Smokey & the Firefighters

Smokey at the Los Angeles County Fire Museum

This morning, Martine and I trekked all the way to the southeastern City of Bellflower to visit the Los Angeles County Fire Museum. This is one of three firefighters’ museums in the L.A. area. (The others are the L.A. City Fire Museum on Cahuenga in Hollywood and the African-American Firefighters’ Museum on Central downtown.)

Martine brought along her 50th Anniversary Smokey Bear to show the museum staff. Smokey was a big hit to the retired firefighters who served as docents. Martine collects Smokey memorabilia, has a Smokey zipper pull on her jacket, and regularly receives a catalog from Woodland Enterprises in Moscow, Idaho of Smokey Bear goodies.

Many of the fire engines and other equipment on display were used in the television series Emergency! which aired on NBC from 1972 to 1979. That accounts for the Number 51 on many of the vehicles, as they belonged to fictional Squad 51 on the series.

The docents were all retired firefighters themselves who knew a great deal not only about the series, but how the firefighting equipment was used. Our guide was Javier Torres who patiently walked us through the exhibits.

Our Guide, Javier Torres

The Los Angeles County Fire Department covers fires outside of Los Angeles City, especially the sparsely populated areas to the north of the county where most of the wildfires happen.

I have always admired firefighters, as it is one of the few careers which create heroes. When a visitor to the museum asked me if I was a retired fireman, I quickly answered, “No, I’m not quite good enough for the job.”

The Last Mexican Governor of Alta California

Pio Pico and His Wife Ignacia

Pio Pico lived in California under three flags: Spanish, Mexican, and the Stars and Stripes of the United States. One would think that he would not have fared well under the last of these. Actually, he had many friends among the American settlers who had moved to California earlier and adopted Mexican citizenship.

That did not prevent Pio Pico from being swindled. But then it seems that swindles were more the rule than the exception in early Southern Cal. Even his friends, the Workmans and Temples lurched from prosperity to disaster and back again. It seems everyone was in court suing one another. And justice did not always come out ahead.

As one who has lost his pituitary gland to a tumor, I feel for Pico, who also had a pituitary disorder: in his case, acromegaly. In the picture above, note the fleshy lips and the enlarged ears and nose. Acromegaly results when the pituitary gland produces too much human growth hormone during the adult years. Exactly the opposite of what I had.

When Pico died in 1894 at the age of 93, he was buried at Calvary Cemetery in the Elysian Hills. When several years later, the tomb of him and his wife was vandalized, Walter Temple, the grandson of William Workman, obtained permission from Pico’s family to re-inter the remains in a mausoleum he built on the grounds of the Workman-Temple Family Homestead Museum in the City of Industry. If you are interested in learning more on the subject, consult Museum Director Paul R. Spitzzeri’s blog on the ties between the Workmans, Temples, and Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alta California.

A Pioneer Family

Fountain Incorporating Two Millstones from the Family Mill

For the first time since the Covid-19 outbreak, Martine and I paid a visit to one of the historic Los Angeles area homesteads, the Workman & Temple Family Homestead Museum in the City of Industry. The museum includes two houses in their original location:

  • The Workman House, originally built in 1842 by William Workman while California was still a part of Mexico
  • La Casa Nueva, built by the related Temple family between 1922 and 1927

Below is a picture of the Temple family:

Unfortunately, the mother in the above picture did not live to see the completion of La Casa Nueva. As is not unusual in the story of many of the pioneer families of Southern California, there were alternating periods of boom and bust, which included two bank failures, droughts, and other misfortunes. Not long after it was finished, La Casa Nueva was turned into a boarding school and later became a nursing home. It has been a museum only since May 1981.

Also part of the museum is a family mausoleum, in which Pio Pico and his wife Ygnacia Alvarado were buried. William Workman and his family had become Mexican citizens and were friends of the Pico family.

The museum is open for free guided tours on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays only. For more information, consult the museum’s website.

L.A.’s Police Museum

Yesterday, Martine and I drove to the L.A. Police Department Museum in Highland Park. When we were in Vancouver some years back, we visited the local police museum and were enthralled with what it said about the differences in Canadian vs. U.S. culture (or lack of same).

The 2½ floors of exhibits covered a wide range of subjects, but the best exhibits were all on the second floor:

  • The 1997 robbery of a Bank of America branch and the ensuing gunfight with the two well-armed burglars
  • The Patty Hearst kidnapping and the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) terrorists (1973-1976)
  • The kidnapping of two LAPD police officers and the killing of one of them in a Kern County onion field (1963)

In the garage of the museum were two cars with multiple bullet holes that were part of the 1997 shootout. Also there was a police helicopter which Martine sat in:

The museum was only a few blocks east of one of our favorite stores: The Galco Soda Pop Stop, which deserves a post of its own. Stay tuned.

If Pure Gold Were Liquid …

The State Flower of California

The quote is from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden:

And mixed with these were splashes of California poppies. These too are of a burning color—not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of poppies.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my favorite flowers are tulips and California poppies.

Some people say that it is illegal to pick a California poppy. The truth is actually a little more complicated. According to the CBS News site for San Francisco:

Now here is the interesting part: as a native Californian, I grew up believing it is illegal to PICK a California Poppy. As that turns out, it’s not entirely true! You can pick, bend, eat or smoke a Poppy as long it is not on state property. However, if a Poppy or any other flower is on School, Park, a median or even outside a courthouse, DO NOT pick or hurt the flower. Harming the flower or plant life could be considered a misdemeanor offense, and you can be fined up to $1000 and as many as six months in jail. That’s real Flower Power!

I wouldn’t pick a California poppy for different reasons: They are so beautiful that they should be left alone so that they can continue to bring joy to passers-by.

Across Twenty Years of L.A. Life

Charles Manson Under Arrest

I am currently reading Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion entitled The Last Love Song. Halfway through the book, I feel as if I had relived the 1960s and the 1970s. I had never realized what a key literary figure that Joan Didion (as well as her friend Eve Babitz) were in my life. While Eve represented to me the world of L.A. celebrities, Joan’s wide screen writings took in the whole local and even international picture.

If one lives in the West L.A. area over a number of years, one finds oneself on the fringes of history. On June 5, 2004, for instance, Martine and I were turned away from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the Simi Valley because the ex-president had just died. The funeral home that handled his body was within walking distance of my apartment, at 26th Street and Arizona in Santa Monica.

The scene of the crime when O. J. Simpson killed his wife and Ron Goldman was only five blocks north of me on Bundy Drive. (It building got so many visitors that they demolished the building.)

On June 25, 2009, I had difficulty getting home from work because thousands of people had showed up at the UCLA Hospital when they heard that Michael Jackson had died.

One of our clients at the accounting firm where I worked was the actor Richard Anderson, who lived at 10130 Cielo Drive, right next door to the house in which Sharon Tate and her friends were slaughtered by the Manson Family.

Joan Didion

While I never met Joan Didion, I always felt a curious parallelism between her works and my life. Not because I was a successful writer or filmmaker, but because she tracked life in Southern California the way I did. For the most part, what interested her interested me. I suspect that if I had met her, she and I would not have seen eye to eye: I am not interested in the kind of active social life she lived, or in heavy drinking, or raising a child (at which she self-admittedly failed).

The fact remains that, in following her works, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, I feel as if I am reliving my life during the formative years of my early adulthood. So much so that it is almost eerie at times.

Is and Is Not

Scene from Sesshu Toyo’s Long Scroll

The following is from Sam Hammill’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching written some 2,500 years ago:

Beauty and ugliness have one origin.
Name beauty, and ugliness is.
Recognizing virtue recognizes evil.

Is and is not produce one another.
The difficult is born in the easy,
long is defined by short, the high by the low.
Instrument and voice achieve one harmony.
Before and after have places.

That is why the sage can act without effort
and teach without words,
nurture things without possessing them,
and accomplish things without expecting merit:

only one who makes no attempt to possess it
cannot lose it.

On Desert Time

I had a good time visiting my brother in the desert. When the weather is just right, as it was this weekend, there is no better place to be. Conversely, during the scorching days of summer, it is best to seek water, shade, and air conditioning as fast as possible. Touch a metal surface on your car, and you can hear your skin burn.

It is difficult to imagine ponds in the desert, yet they exist, as the above image shows. It’s mostly because they are near the San Andreas fault, where subterranean water sometimes pools at the surface.

The only palm tree native to California is the Washingtonia filifera, or California Fan Palm. On a hot day, they not only provide excellent shade, but somehow seem to lower the shade temperature by several degrees. The best place to see this in the Coachella Valley is at the Thousand Palms Oasis off Ramon Road.

Stretching at times all the way to the ground, the dead fronds provide a safe habitat for various critters.

Cholla cactus look so inviting, so huggable even. But beware, the spines are barbed and difficult to remove. Many dogs have chased critters into a cholla and find themselves in great pain. An Arizona hiking site gives instructions for removing cholla cactus spines:

  1. Do not touch your face or put the injured area into your mouth. The cactus needles can easily transfer, so putting it near or face and/or mouth will only make the problem worse.
  2. Carry a plastic hair comb or a multi tool in your pack. It’s been said that if you get stuck with a cholla, you can use the comb to go underneath and pluck it out of your skin. Just make sure your aiming the cholla pod away from everyone else around.
  3. Use tweezers to remove the left over needles. They will likely be small and hard to see so make sure you get to good lighting to see better.
  4. Place duct tape over the area and then quickly pull it off like a band aid. This will hopefully remove the needles, and not your skin!
  5. Use gauze and white glue. Wrap the area up in gauze and then soak it in white glue. Once the glue dries, peel off the gauze which should take the needles with it.

They Have It In For us

Let’s face it: New York City has it in for us. They have a strange vision of the city that includes only the crescent-shaped area linking downtown, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and Santa Monica. That’s only a tiny slice of LA. The whole country has a population just over ten million people, most of whom do not surf, eat granola, work in the film industry, or belong to a cult.

Over the years, we’ve taken quite a beating. It was William Faulkner who said:

Everything in Los Angeles is too large, too loud and usually banal in concept… The plastic asshole of the world.

Of course, that didn’t stop him from writing screenplays over a period of two decades. In the Wikipedia article on him, it says:

As Stefan Solomon observes, Faulkner was highly critical of what he found in Hollywood, and he wrote letters that were “scathing in tone, painting a miserable portrait of a literary artist imprisoned in a cultural Babylon.” Many scholars have brought attention to the dilemma he experienced and that the predicament had caused him serious unhappiness. In Hollywood he worked with director Howard Hawks, with whom he quickly developed a friendship, as they both enjoyed drinking and hunting. Howard Hawks’ brother, William Hawkes, became Faulkner’s Hollywood agent. Faulkner would continue to find reliable work as a screenwriter from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Although Faulkner did not particularly like Hollywood, he participated in the production of some great films which bear his screen writing credit: Air Force (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Big Sleep (1946). Not coincidentally, they were all directed by Howard Hawks.

If you see Los Angeles as essentially Hollywood, you will be unhappy here. I was for many years until I saw beyond all the la-la-land rubbish. This is a particularly difficult city for New Yorkers to wrap their heads around. Perhaps it’s because they cannot find egg creams here, whatever those are.

The Geography of Los Angeles

One thing about Los Angeles is its distinctive geography, much celebrated in literature and film. You can always tell when some New Yorker just deplaned at LAX and started spouting inanities that displayed an ignorance of this geography. That’s what happened when I read Megan Abbott’s neo-noir thriller Die a Little. There were a few names like “Pico Boulevard” (which everyone here just calls Pico), the giant doughnut at Randy’s in Inglewood, even several restaurant names like the Apple Pan and Ciro’s—but they just didn’t hold together. It’s as if she was using a map and a guidebook and just pasting the places together.

Take Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall (1977) with its tone-deaf attacks on L.A.

After all, it’s been more than 35 years since Alvy Singer hilariously dissed the city in “Annie Hall,” saying that people here “don’t throw their garbage away, they make it into television shows” and that “the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.”

I can only hope he enjoyed the mashed yeast he ordered on the Sunset Strip.

When you read Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald, you get a feeling for the crumbling sandstone of the coastal mountains, the transverse mountain ranges running west to east, the vast distances going from one point to another, as well as the odd architectural vibe of the place. When I first came out here in 1966, I was confused by all the stucco and chicken wire architecture, until I experienced my first real earthquake in 1971.

You can always tell when an east coast writer is slumming in Southern California. It doesn’t come across as real.