Author: Martin, George

Four Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Carquinez Valley Boys was my very first band. It happened in the little town of Crockett, where the mighty Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers join at the Carquinez Strait to flow into San Francisco Bay.

When I was a youngster, Interstate 80 was just a gleam in some civil engineer’s eye. Crockett was fairly isolated. To get to Oakland, for instance, one had to drive the two-lane “highway” past the hamlet of Tormey, the towns of Rodeo, Pinole, San Pablo, Richmond, El Cerrito and then onto the Bayshore Highway which led to Oakland or the Bay Bridge.

This meant that the town was a much more vibrant place than it is now. When I was a lad there were TWO (no, really) movie theaters in town. An actual department store, a furniture store, a bank, and maybe a dozen bars.

The band was made up of me, playing rhythm guitar, lead guitar Howard Walters (he was about two years older than I and could actually play), Ron Shuler on piano (or accordion if there was no piano available) and Ed Dorsch on snare drum. We played a few times in the little store/cafe across from the American Smelting lead refinery in Selby, where my father drove heavy equipment, until it came to someone’s attention that minors were playing in a place that sold beer.

That first gig was a life-changer for me because the beer drinkers tossed a lot of change into our tip jar and for the first time I realized you could do the thing you loved most (play music) and people would give you money for it! This has proved to be true -- occasionally -- throughout my life.

After we got booted from the cafe we played a Cub Scout carnival, I remember. This was the first and I think only occasion I sang in public with that band, and only because three cute girls came by our booth and wanted to hear “Purple People Eater,” which was a big hit on the Top 40 stations that year.

It was about that time I got the idea we should have band uniforms. About a year earlier the Levis company had come out with near-fluorescent pegger slacks, in various day-glo colors: chartreuse and orange being the two I remember. The pants didn’t become a trend and quickly disappeared from the Valona Emporium display window. No one I knew ever bought a pair. (This was in contrast to the day-glo sox that had appeared about three years before, when I was still in grammar school. They were BRIGHT, nylon, and you could not wear them out. Everybody wore them until the cool factor faded and they were tossed in the garbage with the hula hoops.)

I went down to the Emporium and asked the salesman if he could get some orange pants. He opined that there had to be a warehouse full of them somewhere, and in a week or two we each had a pair. But that wasn’t enough for me: I thought we had to look even showier, so I convinced each band member’s mother to sew a row of black sequins down the side of each pantleg. Ah, now we were ready. We all wore white shirts and looked like we could be in Buddy Holly’s band, except for the odd instruments.

By that time I had acquired, at a pawn shop in Vallejo, an Epiphone arch-top rather like the one David Rawlings plays with Gillian Welch, except it had a pickup mounted near the neck, and a small Fender Harvard amp. Howard was playing a really beautiful Vega arch-top acoustic jazz guitar with a DeArmond pickup attached, which he later traded off for a Danelectro solid body, and soon after that the Danelectro for a 1958 Stratocaster. I hope Howard still owns that guitar because it’s worth $20,000 or so now. Ronnie had a nice accordion about which I knew (and know) nothing. Ed’s drum was a drum. It kept the beat and did occasional fills, which was just what we needed.

This was all happening about 1957-58. We did play a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll but I think mostly we did country tunes and pop stuff like “Dear Hearts and Gentle People.” Everybody in the band was too shy to sing, so we were an instrumental-only group.

As I said, Crockett was a small, fairly isolated town, so there were church events, Scout events, service clubs, etc. to play for, sometimes even for a bit of money. Then one day the Red Cross called.

Somehow the Crockett Red Cross chapter had gotten involved with helping out the Napa State Mental Hospital in various ways. The nice lady on the phone asked if we would be interested in playing some dances at the hospital. We had all driven past the large campus of the “crazy house,” as it was frequently referred to in those pre-PC days. We loved to play anyway and a chance to get inside the fence for a look-see was frosting on the cake. Sure, we said. And that is how we became for several months the “house band” for the mental hospital.

My parents were always very supportive of the band. Somehow we got the four of us plus Mom and Dad and the instruments into our car and off we went to Napa. It was evening when we got there and drove up the long driveway, under trees that cast perfectly innocuous (but to us, maybe a bit menacing) shadows.

We found the proper building and were met by some staff people who led us down long, dimly lit and drably painted corridors. This was all a long time ago but I remember thinking the staff looked a bit odd, too.

In the “ballroom” we set up and began to play. The dance floor never did get what you would call crowded, but the staff people were effusive in praising our music and our presence. “It means so much to the patients when people come in to entertain,” one nurse said. “We have dances here all the time with records and hardly anyone gets up; people are dancing tonight who haven’t danced for months.”

When the evening was done we made our way back to the car. My mother lagged behind a bit and eventually had to convince an orderly that she was with the band and not a patient. We ragged her about that for years.

Although we played at the hospital probably five or six times in the next year that first night sticks in my memory for what happened later. As we drove over the Carquinez Bridge from Vallejo, the sky over Crockett was lit up like a bonfire. Something was burning, big-time.

At home I stripped off my band pants, put on jeans and ran down the hill to the fire, which I quickly discovered was a burning tanker truck resting on the stairs of the high school auditorium. Flames were shooting 20 feet in the air despite streams of water pouring from the hoses of several fire trucks parked on the roadway above.

Pomona Avenue, the main drag of Crockett, is built up on a sort of causeway across a valley. In the valley on the north is John Swett High School and on the south side was Carquinez Elementary (now Middle) School. Crockett Boulevard T-sections into Pomona right next to the grammar school. The road goes up the hill about two miles to Cummings Skyway.

People standing around told me the tanker had lost its brakes and the driver had somehow ridden it down the hill, but had been unable to make the turn onto Pomona, sailed off the embankment and crashed into the high school stairs.

I was told that witnesses to the crash had clambered down and were trying to open the jammed door of the tractor cab when a finger of flame ignited and with the smell of kerosene everywhere the would-be rescuers just made it out of range of the blast when the fireball went clear up the front of the high school.

It took hours for the tanker’s load of jet fuel to burn out and longer than that to cool the wreckage enough to approach. About 2 a.m. tools were brought forth to pry open the cab door, and inside, still clutching the steering wheel, was the brown/black corpse of the unfortunate driver. The poor man was roasted beyond recognition. I particularly remember white bits of his skull visible where the hair and scalp had burned away. I was horrified, repulsed, and yet I couldn’t turn my eyes away. Never before had I seen a dead body, except in a funeral parlor.

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Posted:  2/14/2008

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