Back in 1970 I was renting a room from my
old pal who
had just gotten back from Vietnam. Drafted into the Army at the end
of the sixties, Fred was determined to catch up on the fun he’d
missed, as you’ll see.
The Boardwalk was a wooden walkway of old
with a dock for each one. It extended a few blocks out into the tidal
marsh, right across the channel from San Quentin State Prison.
Whenever we puttered out the channel into the Bay the guards would
wave and we’d respond with the finger. Just seemed like the
right thing to do.
So Fred, my brother Pat, and I are sitting
the late afternoon, knowing it’s about to be Saturday Night,
and we need to do something, when Fred, who always
has a good
idea on the back burner, (he said it was the Agent Orange), pops up
with “why don’t we all get some Panther Piss and go for a
ride in the boat?”
The boat was a 22’ dory, which Fred claimed
became more stable the more it tipped. Up to a point, I guessed; till
it sunk I guessed. I can’t swim and neither could my brother.
We grew up in a time when our parents kept us away from swimming
pools where you could catch Polio. But what the hell, “if ya
fall in I’ll throw ya a life preserver, ha ha.” That
Fred. Always kidding.
So we all went down to the Co-op and got
and within the hour were on this little wooden boat with a half-cabin
and a cast iron motor that had no starter, but a hand crank you had
to jam into a socket on the front and spin and grunt, spin and grunt
for maybe a half minute till it caught. Pocketa- pocketa.
I admit, it was a nice feeling to be
the channel into the Bay at sunset. We each had our grits, a fart
sack, a sixpack of Green Death, or Panther Piss, and a quart of
Ripple. I also had a quarter tab of acid that I’d been carrying
around waiting for an occasion. It was “cut with speed”
or “speedy acid”, meaning it was botched, but in
commitment to our voyage, down the hatch it went. My hatch, that is.
We get out into the Bay and start on the
and Fred goes, “hey, let’s go see the Indians on
Alcatraz”! “Yeah!” By now we’re on can number
two, (these are half-quarts), and getting warmed up. So we motor out
toward Alcatraz which the poor Indians are occupying, audaciously
making a claim for it against the U.S. Government. They’re
holding on in the face of a Coast Guard blockade. We all feel for the
Indians, like their courage, but also lack their courage. We don’t
want trouble, just wanna drive by and wave, maybe throw a power fist
into the air.
But just then that old cast iron donkey of
mumbles once and dies. Nothing. Dead quiet. We look at each other. I
don’t have any better idea of what to do than a dog would. My
brother looks like he’s thinking. Fred grins. He’s
holding a lump in his hand which turns out to be a spare magneto.
Same old Fred, he expected this, all part of the adventure. So we
each take our turn below, bailing, so Fred can grab a flashlight and
the magneto and save the day. Which he does. Then we take turns
trying to start the damn thing. Like I said, it’s a chunky four
cylinder marine engine, and spinning its iron flywheel with the crank
is no joke. I still have a scar from the crank slipping off and
whacking me in the mouth. Fred repositions the timing, it fires up
and we have no more trouble with it.
We celebrate with another strong ale each,
leaky old glorified rowboat gets us out to Alcatraz where, sure as
hell, real Indians are making a stand against The Man, speaking
of whom, is present in the form of a U.S. Coastguard boat. It’s
off to our left a ways, two or three blocks, by my landlubber guess.
About three times as long as us, white with a slash of red. Being a
longhaired draft dodger, I don’t take it too seriously. But it
has a machine gun with big plates for the gunner to shelter behind.
Quick as hell it comes about, pulls toward us, wheels sideways, gun
swiveled to point. Laughing, Fred throws up both hands at them in
surrender, opens the throttle and we craftily slink away from the
Coasties around to the other side of the island. But we see, like a
cartoon rabbit chased around a tree by a dog, they’ve gone
around the other way, and are now heading right towards us. I hear
orders on their P.A. Fred, just out of the military, says, “They’re
not frickin’ jokin’.” So we split.
We head away and make for the gasoline dock
Francisco, where we can gas up then walk through Ghirardelli Square.
Walking through Ghirardelli has never been so much fun. We’ve
got our sea legs and we lurch along like pirates, alive like none of
the sorry tourists.
Back on the water awhile, maybe 3 A.M. we
drop anchor near a pier at Angel Island and camp on the boat. We’d
finished off the beer and most of the Ripple. I vaguely remember a
complicated three way coin toss which I won, meaning Pat and Fred had
to bed down on deck while I could sleep below, past the stinking
engine, on a ledge under the bow. Which wasn’t really sleep,
more like drunk and passed out, but good enough.
I had a murky dream where Pat and Fred were
at me, and I tried to roll over and get comfortable, but became aware
of a Thump, Thud, Crack and more shouts. They were
In the night the tide had come in and we had dragged anchor and wound
up underneath the pier. We’d drifted right in
two pilings, neat as you’d pull into a parking space at the
drive-in, and we could have just as well noodled a bit farther in,
turned sideways and been trapped. It was bad enough: the swell was
smashing the roof of the cabin up into the bottom of the pier. Bang!
I realized we could be crushed from the top down and life preservers
sure as hell wouldn’t be any good then! It was a panicky ten
minutes, clawing and pushing, but using bare hands, we got out. The
running lights and handrail on top of the cabin were gone, and the
cabin would leak in the rain afterward.
We decided to go home. In the frizzy light
before dawn as we labored back, we choked down the last bottle of
warm Ripple. My brother Pat took the empty bottle, turned aside and
pissed in it. He capped it and threw it in the bay, meaning it to
sink to the bottom with all the other garbage there.
Instead, as we all watched, the bit of
inside made it bob on the bay in our wake.
We finally pulled into the channel and tied
the dock. The sun was up. Laughing, we realized we never did get to
wave to the Indians.
spent 17 years driving what was called the "Dead Truck" in
Marin County about 22 miles north of San Francisco. I gained
experience for this job by previously working in San Francisco for
ten years as an animal control officer. I have stories.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
story by Mike
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher