It had been a long time since I lived in California; almost thirty years working overseas.The place has changed. Skylines, costs of living, with political and social divisions much larger than I had ever thought. But the people who changed my life were still here somewhere. I’ve been making the effort to reconnect with them since I moved back and to see if they changed too.Soon after I moved to California in 1978 I met Wiley Kaywood. He was a hired carpenter fixing up a house that I hired to paint. I was doing handyman jobs to pay the rent while I was taking classes at SF State not sure what I really wanted to study. Wiley could make anything out of wood, metal and plastic. He had a knack for making houses look brand new without spending much money. In his own large house and workshop he had every tool imaginable. He designed furniture and other pieces of art. I learned some skills from Wiley. Over lunch Wiley suggested we buy a house together, fix it up and sell it to make the good money the guy that hired us was making. We found an old house for sale for 60k. With a student loan and some savings I put up half and Wiley put up the other half for the 10% downpayment. We tore out the carpets, painted it inside and out and sold it for 100k in one month. This was surely an easier way to make money than studying at SF State without a specific goal. Over the next two years we bought over 10 houses together. When interest rates went up over 21% we lost all except two of them. One was an old gas station with an apartment and garage attached that cost 120K situated in the middle of Brisbane, a small town just south of San Francisco. After some “Wiley wizardry” fix-up, I moved into the apartment and we contemplated how we could use this old commercial property in the centre of town. While at my brother’s wedding in Palm Springs I met a girl who showed me a book about pizza. The Filling Station Pizzeria was an immediate success in Brisbane. Wiley’s designs made it an attractive place and my focus on the food with the cookbook in hand helped us get off to a good start. After a year and a half I sold my half interest in the building and business to Wiley. That money paid the bills to go back to SF State to finish my studies. Wiley managed the Filling Station for the next 10 years while working on his various art designs in the garage. The last I heard about Wiley was that he sold the Filling Station property to the City of Brisbane for 250K and bought a small hotel on the Oregon coast.
Jack Curtin was a professor at SF State who steered me through my last two years of studies and got me into Law School. He was one of the few teachers I had that was passionate about teaching his subject and his students. His lectures were often packed with people who were not enrolled in his class but Jack let them stand by the walls or sit on the floor. He was well known in the Bay Area. As a young assistant professor he helped orchestrate the student protests on campus that led to SFSU being shut down for over two years during the Vietnam War. He started the first university level curriculum for prisoners in California at San Quentin. He knew all the cops and most of the professors in the Bay Area, and they knew him. Jack pulled some strings to help me get into Law School which I won’t describe here. He taught Criminal Justice but gave assignments about evolution, geology and paleontology. He stressed, you can’t understand crime and human nature if you don’t have some understanding of these subjects. Whenever I visited the Bay Area in the years since I left to work overseas, I would make a point to meet Jack and talk about the politics and conflicts I experienced. I was always surprised how much he knew about the place I had been. His view was always “follow the money”. I did reconnect with Jack and we had a couple of more breakfasts and lunches before he passed away last year. In hospice care, he was angry at the world as it was and just about everyone in it. He was convinced that man was too stupid to save the planet from extinction. He died a miserable man in his late 80s.
I met Reinhard during the Bosnia conflict where he was the medical evacuation coordinator for the UN. He often talked about the plight of the Native Americans. He wanted to visit the West and learn more about them and how they lived. Over the years we discussed life in Europe compared to the USA. Thirty years later he finally made it here to experience it himself. I tagged along for the first part of his trip up through the Gold Country over the Sierras down to Death Valley and north of Vegas to Zion and Bryce Canyon before returning via Phoenix.
While working the Brisbane Pizza place, I met a guy who now lives in the town of Burson in the Sierra foothills. Dave Peters pulled up on his BMW motorcycle and rode right through the opened garage door of the Pizza place. He took off his helmet and pulled a stetson hat from his saddlebag. He swaggered around with boots, bolo tie, chewing tobacco. Dave was more of a cowboy than your typical motorcycle rider. He kept several horses in back of the Cow Palace, home to a yearly rodeo not far from Candlestick Park. He introduced me to BMWs which became a part of my life. If I remember my BMWs and odometers correctly over the past 35 years, I must of travelled 100k miles in the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. But only those who ride BMWs would understand the significance. When we pulled up to Dave’s large old family house he was out back with his brother, a guy introduced as John who was skinny, missing a few teeth and completely bald and a very heavyweight man who was under the hood of one of the fourteen vehicles surrounding the house. Dave and his brother were walking around with sticks turning over various boards, tires, bricks, pots and car parts looking for rattlesnakes. They found one small and one quite large. Then there was a discussion on what they should do with them. Dave said they should take them to the lake and set them free, reasoning that would please his part Apache girlfriend. The big guy came out from under a car hood and insisted on cutting off their heads and skinning them. Skinny John was chuckling having fun poking them now in a barrel with a tool designed for grabbing snakes. In the end there was some compromise and the big one was killed and the small one Dave would take to the lake, more in line with Apache tradition. Dave was a hospitable man and we ended up staying the night and eating at a Korean BBQ listening to Dave’s stories about riding the Calaveras leg of the yearly Pony Express Memorial Ride, rescuing a horse that fell out of a tailer on the interstate HWY and the debate about growing marijuana in Calaveres County. Dave was for the measure. After some research he pointed out in the County Council hearing that each of the members of the Council against the measure all had criminal records for growing and selling pot. He exposed them and the measure got passed. The next morning over coffee naive Reinhard picked up the AMMO magazine on the kitchen table and asked about the fascination Americans have with guns. “Where else in the world is there such a problem with so many people being killed? Maybe El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico without much law and order?” Dave set the record straight. “We need to protect ourselves. I respect the cops but you can’t expect them to show up on time.” I still wonder who Dave and so many others would be afraid of. The 2nd Amendment was also sited as a Right not to be infringed. The fear of a tyrannical government and the need to form a militia is still important here. Before we got back on the road, Dave’s older brother Walt showed up and entertained us over breakfast. He pulled up on his 1975 BMW loaded up from camping at the Mariposa County BMW Rally. He showed us pictures of his arm torn up by one of his five wolf-dogs a few months ago while he was breaking up a fight between them. He told a long story about City folk coming to camp in the Sierras. As a prank, late at night he climbed up the mountain top over the valley they were camped and played recordings of howling wolves and lighted up a flag pole with the Red White and Blue he had carried up there. The climax to the story was – not one person moved from their tent all night. Before we departed Dave asked if I had any news about some old friends in Brisbane and about my old partner Wiley. After crossing the Sierras and on the road through Death Valley I did some internet searching for Wiley. Apart from an address in Oregon I found an address in Pahrump Arizona connected to a woman named Lucy who also had the same address as Wiley in Oregon. Reinhard agreed, why not check out Pahrump on the way?
Reinhard was excited to be headed into parts where Indians lived. I was too but from my previous travels in the region, I didn’t think we would find out much about Native American culture during a few days visit. Not that California did not have significant Native tribes, but their extermination particularly in the Gold Country was so extensive, there are not many of their cultural sites to visit now. Not planned but an important stop, Las Vegas was out there. With a giant Walmart with everything one could want and with that chance of leaving with more than when you arrived, we had to stop. Reinhard had been searching for a cheap smart phone to connect to the US phone system. We were perplexed that a European phone could not. But a phone of four years is a long time for US technology to linger. Buy a new one or you’re offline! After four phone stores, we were advised to head to that big 24hr Walmart in Vegas for the best deal. Memories from thirty years ago at the Hotel Tropicana, winning a super jackpot with a royal straight flush – bells, whistles and free room and board for a night came rushing back. We got a cheap Days Inn room behind the Tropicana but had dinner at a restaurant inside it. The next day I read in the news that the Tropicana was sold to developers planning to knock it down and build a stadium. Would Bugsy Segal agree?
As we approached Pahrump in search of Wiley I was amazed at the number of mobile homes, trailers and shacks that people lived in. As we got more into the city I did not see any planned housing and infrastructure. The trailer parks multiplied, one as run down as the other. I began to think our stop a waste of time as Wiley would never be in a place like this. But maybe the lady named Lucy could give me some info about his whereabouts. Russel Lane did not have one tree to protect the car from the blazing sun. I parked the car across from Lucy’s address on an abandoned trailer lot with an overhang that provided some shade where Reinhard said he would wait. A dog barked when I knocked on the door but no sound of its owner. I thought to write a note and started back to the car for a pen and paper. Then I heard a voice quieting the dog and the door opened. The lady looked as if she just got out of bed dressed in her pajamas. I immediately said, “My name is Peter an old friend of Wiley Kaywood. Would you know where he is?” Immediately she said, “Oh, my dear, Wiley is dead. He shot himself in the backyard in March. Do you want to come in?.”
Lucy walked slowly back into the house tripping over the barking dog but ignoring it at the same time. We sat on the sofa with the small dog sitting on her feet. She said, “Wiley talked about you, he said you were partners.” She explained how Wiley lost all his money in “that damn hotel he bought in Oregon” and they ended up in Pahrump as it was cheap and he liked hot weather and blackjack. “I told him he should not have sold his house and put all his money into that hotel. I did all the cleaning and managing of it while Wiley was out back doing his art work. After we moved here, from all his years of smoking he could hardly breath. The doctor put him on oxygen but he never was right after that. He was so depressed from not having the strength to work in the garage making things as he always did. Oh how I miss him. Ever since we moved here, I got a rash on my back and he would rub cream on it.” She paused for a full minute but then started talking again, “I knew something was not right that day and almost got out of the car to check on him. When I returned from the store about an hour later there was a note on the kitchen table. It only said, ‘I’m dead in the backyard. Goodbye Lucy’. “Not even a sorry or I love you.”Exhausted, Lucy cried and the dog barked.
On the walls and all the furniture, there were Wiley’s creations. After a while, I asked her if I could buy a piece of art of Wiley’s as a memory. She said there’s lots of it in the garage, take whatever you want. Sifting through the many carvings I found several old sharks I’m sure I saw before. I took one, gave her a hug goodbye and left her my address and number with 100 bucks on the kitchen table.
For the next fews days, traveling in the glorious Zion and Bryce national parks and the many depressing surrounding places but with American flags flying, I could not get Wiley’s demise off of my mind. If he had just kept the money he got for the pizza place in Brisbane and his house in San Bruno he’d have at least 1.5 million.
From the coast of California to Phoenix I felt I was passing through different countries that were far apart. There was a blur of so many huge pick up trucks towing homes, cars, boats and furniture. Reinhard questioned if more people live in trailers than homes with a foundation. It’s a legitimate question along the route we travelled. Not much Native American culture either. We didn’t pass one cafe or shop run by a local “Indian”. In Cameron Az at a large rest stop with everything you need, even a casino, Native Americans worked there and a few were dressed in a native outfit banging on a tambourine. The rest we saw were in derelict prefab houses and mobile homes with old trucks and cars scattered around them. The only Indians we interacted with were those from India who ran some of the cheap motels we stayed in.
Reinhard continued on headed toward the incredible nature of the Grand Canyon through the maze of motels, camps, mobile homes and reservations filled with trailers and I took a shuttle bus to Phoenix for a flight back home. I thought about Jack and what would he say about this part of rural America?There is a ray of sunshine in all searches. Brenda was wet all over with her hair stuck to her white bikini as she climbed out of the hotel pool cooling off from the desert heat in Palm Springs. I was the best man in my brother’s wedding, staying at that same hotel. She stole my heart and I stole the Complete Book of Pizza from her kitchen table that was the inspiration for the Filling Station Pizza place. Thirty-eight years later, while stacking books in my newly built shelf in my new home, a photo of Brenda fell on the floor. With the help of my friend Pat, who threw pizzas at the Filling Station (never mind his basketball coaching career), after some time on the internet he found an address in LA. I made a copy of the photo and sent it with my telephone number. Two weeks later I got a call. The voice said, “If this is Peter Francis Deck, I’ve been waiting over 35 years for that letter and where is my book?”. Within 8 months Brenda moved in sharing the same bookshelf and more. I tell her, after so many years it took my dog Coco to teach me how to have a relationship.