Point Sur – The Worst Possible Place for a Shipwreck

Laurie S. Harmon was born in Machais, on the northern coast of Maine, in 1840. After the death of her first husband, Francis Longfellow, she traveled to San Francisco to visit her brother. In the days before the opening of the transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal, there were only two ways to get from Maine to San Francisco (3,000 miles, as the crow flies), and both were extremely strenuous and required months of travel. One could endure a lengthy and bumpy stagecoach crossing, or a take a ship around the horn – a long and dangerous journey through one of the most treacherous maritime passages in the world. Laurie Harmon’s granddaughter, Mildred E. Millington of Monterey, described Harmon (who lived to be 93 years-old) as “a fire of a little woman, about as big as a minute, who was busy all the time.” In San Francisco, Laurie met a Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

Repaying My Debt to the Industry

Forty years ago, just out of my teenage years, I moved to Los Angeles to break into the motion picture industry. Through sheer coincidence, my aunt’s husband happened to know Allen Daviau, a  professional cinematographer. Shortly after my arrival in Southern California, Allen Daviau, told me something that I’ll never forget. Emphasizing the importance of punctuality in the motion picture profession, he told me: “If you’re fifteen minutes early for call time – you’re twenty minutes late.” In an industry where the milk of human kindness is in short supply, Allen Daviau (rhymes with Flavio) displayed a generosity of spirit that has never been equaled. At first, I believed that this was because he thought I was special. But as the years went by, I spoke to many others in the trade and discovered it was just his way of handling people. Everybody had their own story about the unprecedented Continue Reading

Categories: Uncategorized.

The Folklore of Big Sur

When I visited Big Sur in the 1990s, a lifelong resident of the community told me a story about a woman who, for many years, lived in one of those Big Sur homes set high upon the edge of a bluff, hundreds of feet above the sea, with the breakers crashing on the rocks below. Day after day, she backed the same automobile out of the same carport, without incident – week after week, decade after decade. Until one fateful day, perhaps diverting her eyes from the rear-view mirror for a mere fraction of a second, she backed out of the carport just a wee bit too far, and went right off the cliff, to her death. At the time of my visit, this tragedy had recently occurred, and neighbors were still talking about it. In a few decades, this historical incident will be relegated to the annals of folklore. Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

Gabriel of Carmel – The Oldest Catholic in the World

In 1835, circus magnate and sideshow pioneer P.T. Barnum began exhibiting a blind, elderly, and nearly paralyzed African American woman named Joice Heth. Barnum advertised that Heth was 161 years old, and that she had been the nurse of the infant George Washington. Historian May V. Thompson wrote: “Joice Heth came on the scene just three years after the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s birth and nine years after the deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams,” “Americans were feeling the Revolutionary War generation slipping away, at a time when sectional differences leading up to the Civil War, were escalating. They were desperate to hold on to that earlier, ‘purer’ time, and thus were willing to suspend rational thought to believe that an elderly African American woman could actually be over 150 years old and the former nursemaid of an infant George Washington.” Barnum profited handsomely from his exploitation of Heth. Continue Reading

Categories: California History.

The Criminal Mind

Before moving to the Monterey Peninsula, my parents lived on Citrus Avenue in Los Angeles. Wilshire-Crest Elementary Public School was three city blocks from our house, and I attended kindergarten there when as a five-year old. My mother would give me a dime to buy a six-ounce waxed paper container of orange juice, or a nickel for a half-pint of milk. My teacher was named Mrs. Savage. I was scared of her. I think some of the other kids were, too – she was pretty confrontational for a kindergarten teacher. One day, Mrs. Savage was banging rhythmically on a drum while all of us kids sat in a circle watching and keeping time by silently tapping our extended index fingers together. For some reason, Mrs. Savage had to leave the room for a few minutes. When she returned, she yelled angrily at the room full of five-year olds, “Why didn’t Continue Reading

Categories: Uncategorized.

The Little Flowers of St. Francis

1 As a small child, I loved a children’s story by Margaret Wise Brown called Never Worked and Never Will. I found it in a library book called Storytime Tales – A Treasury of Favorite Stories. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the illustration in the book: a group of children gathered in front of a shop counter festooned with various hand -carved and realistically painted duck decoys. The kids are all looking up at a white-haired, grandfatherly gentleman, who’s happily working behind the counter, a knife in one hand and a block of wood in the other, carving wild birds. The children asked about the sign that hung over the woodcarver’s door. It said Never Worked and Never Will. The old man explained, “It means that I never worked a day in my life and I never will. And you wouldn’t have to work either, if you knew Continue Reading

Categories: Performing.

The Monkeys’ Day Off

In my misspent boyhood, I was always so distracted with my own peculiar interests, urges, and compulsions, that I never really had a plan. I learned that sometimes it’s better to follow the path of least resistance, like the river, even if it makes you crooked. Destiny is affected by the accidental, the random, and the insignificant, as well as the intentional. When I was a kid living on First Street in Pacific Grove, California, our next-door neighbor was an organ grinder. For more than four decades, Phil could be found at the entrance to Monterey’s historic Fisherman’s Wharf, turning his hand-cranked barrel organ while his monkeys collected coins from delighted tourists. It was one of the big kicks of my boyhood to walk down the railroad tracks to the wharf, beckoned by the distant music of the barrel organ, and await my turn to hold out a nickel. The Continue Reading

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Mythology and the Oral Tradition

The British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley said, “We need not try to make history out of legend, but we ought to assume that beneath much that is artificial or incredible there lurks something of fact.” In an oral tradition, a story or song is modified in the process of its transmission from one person to another and from one generation to the next. This transformation is known as the “folk process.” Somehow myths endure the inevitable evolution of the folk process better than the actual historical events they chronicle. Harvard Folklore Professor Albert Lord believed that story patterns had to be “supra-historical” to have such significance outside the historical process. “Their matrix is myth and not history; for when history does have an influence on stories, it is, at first, at least, history is changed, not the stories.” That is to say: story pattern is ultimately more important than getting the Continue Reading

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In a Better Place

My 44-concert, 15,000-mile, eight-week tour of the eastern United States ended on June 1. As one who ostensibly drives for a living, I have come to appreciate the sheer size of this country. It’s huge. Really. And it’s difficult to grasp the scale from the window of an airplane. One cannot fully comprehend the enormity of North America until one drives across the vast expanse of the continent. On a typical day on the road, after six or seven hours barreling 70 miles per hour down the turnpike, I arrive in the town where I’m performing that night. After a long day immobilized behind the wheel of a rental car, I am stupefied. I struggle to transition out of my interstate-induced trance into the countenance of one who is fully prepared to entertain an auditorium full of appreciative strangers. So, in the hour or so before I load into the Continue Reading

Categories: Uncategorized.

The Turning of the Tides

  Great stories share in common a surprising but nevertheless inevitable conclusion. Long before its shores were lined with minarets and mansions, the Bosporus Strait in present-day Istanbul, Turkey, was little more than a narrow spillway through which fresh water from the ancient inland Black Sea flowed south into the Aegean Sea and on to the Mediterranean. Then, about 7,600 years ago, rising sea levels worldwide brought about a cataclysmic reversal – a natural disaster of biblical proportions. Suddenly, seawater cascaded in the opposite direction, north through the Bosporus Strait and into the Black Sea, with a force two hundred times stronger than that of Niagara Falls. The thunderous roar could be heard for sixty miles away. The waters rose rapidly, as fast as six inches per day, flooding shorelines for thousands of miles. The flood forced farmers to relocate, spreading advanced agricultural techniques westward into what is now central Continue Reading

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