Michael James : Kidnapped to the Highlands, 1964

Fishing boat on Monterey Bay. Photos by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
Kidnapped to the Highlands: 
Gibson Beach and Monterey Bay, 1964

This morning on Monterey Bay is blessedly calm. Joe, smoking a Camel, steers the boat west as the morning sun emerges over the Santa Cruz Mountains.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | October 17, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

A few weeks before getting busted — along with 732 others — for sitting in at Sproul Hall during the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, I was smoothly kidnapped. It was November 1964. I was taken away and introduced to life in the Carmel Highlands. Nick Aliotti, a football player pal from Lake Forest College, was back in his hometown of Monterey. He invited me to come down for Thanksgiving.

At Berkeley I am meeting people, many of them grad students like myself. One of them is John Williams; he lives south of Monterey and offers to give me a ride to Nick’s.

We leave Berkeley on Wednesday afternoon, November 25, heading south. We’re in his green VW bug. (VW bugs: an identical one took me from Connecticut to DC for the March on Washington in 1963; in the not too distant future I’ll drive my own black VW bug through Indian Territory in the Dakotas; and in the 1970’s in yet another green VW bug, David Meggyesy and I will ride from Berkeley to Durango.)

Rolling down Highway 101 south of San Jose, I take in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains to the east. This is the same highway I’d wrecked on en route to a cannery job in the summer of 1960; my very lucky self was pulled unconscious from my burning 1940 Ford hot rod by a passing truck driver.

But this is a fun ride. Windows open and California soaking in: the land, the California smells of garlic and eucalyptus, new views, and new towns. At Gilroy, the nation’s garlic capital, we cut over toward the coast on Highway 156, through Watsonville, and then hit Castroville, the nation’s artichoke capital. At sunset, continuing south on California Highway 1, we pass the sand dunes and coastal rifle range of Fort Ord.

It’s dark when I turn to John and say: “Hey, didn’t we just pass Monterey? That’s where Nick lives.” John mumbles, “I’ll take you over there tomorrow.” To which I reply, “Ok, I’m kidnapped.”

John on Gibson Beach.

We drive past exits to Seventeen Mile Drive and Carmel Valley, and then by Point Lobos State Reserve, where years later I’ll take an early morning run among the bountiful deer. Near the little Highland’s gas station, we turn right off the highway and onto a dirt driveway lined with trees.

Even in the darkness I sense this place to be special, somewhat magical. There are small buildings that over time will reveal themselves to be an art studio and library, a guesthouse with a great outdoor shower, a yurt, a workshop, and a chicken coup. Barking dogs run to the VW as we park in an open space surrounded by Eucalyptus trees with their wonderful smell. To the east are trees, Highway 1, and hills. There are more trees to the north and south. And to the west is the open night sky and stars above the vast Pacific Ocean.

The homestead itself looks south and west, and is made of stone, wood, and glass, a single story with a patio. We enter a room that is living room, dining area, and kitchen. Warmth exudes from the fire, the room and the people — John’s sister Honey, Gregson Davis, and the family matriarch Cynthia. Cynthia, who over decades will gently influence me with her many stories and thoughts, is the daughter of a painter; her grandfather owned the Lexington Hotel in Chicago.

Pillows cover the elevated hearth and a bench that surrounds a round table covered with magazines, newspapers, and books. Both the hearth and kitchen have beautiful painted tiles, the work of one Ephraim Doner. “Doner” lives across Route 1 and up the hill.

Gibson Beach, looking north.

On this visit I meet him and his wife Rosa, founder of the Highland’s Little Red School House cooperative nursery school. And I meet their daughter Natasha, who’s mentioned in the opening pages of Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (1957). She goes to Cal and we become friends. She tells me that a young Bob Dylan spent time at the family’s home pouring over books on the shelves. Natasha will work with the United Farm Workers for many years.

Across the road and up the hill I’ll also meet a former radical merchant seaman named Harold Price, his Eurasian earth-mother-wife Lana, and their children. By the time I meet him he’s a commercial artist and more cynical.

In their home I will attend a smorgasbord with many food offerings, including a raw egg yolk sitting in the center of raw ground beef. That particular meal will be prepared and presented by a Scandinavian girlfriend of Cal grad student Gregson Davis. Davis, the 1960 Harvard valedictorian, is from Antigua and has a great laugh.

And also across the road and up the hill, a few years later at Christmas time, I will meet and talk with another neighbor, the legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, who wrote Reveille for Radicals, the early bible on organizing skills and tactics.

On this first night of my first visit, I sit by the fire. There is brief introductory sharing of information. We consume wine and food. That hearth becomes a dear spot. John takes me down the hall to an unheated and chilly room with a bed heaped with covers and walls lined with books. I lie under the heavy covers and look out the big glass window. It is very dark save for a slice of starry sky above a silhouette of trees. I like this place.

In the pre-dawn morning I’m in a sleep-awake state. I notice a little girl, maybe ten, looking through books on a shelf. I say “Good morning” and “How are you?” in my best talking-to-little-kids-talk. She responds with an adult “Fine. And you are…?” Her name is Molly. She is the youngest of the Williams kids, and plans to be a veterinarian.

Now up, I venture into this landed, arty bohemian enclave. I join Cynthia, drinking tea, reading, and talking. Then John and I take a walk on a path of botanical wonders. We pass another home — a cousin’s — nestled into the land, and then start down a stretch of steep steps.

At the bottom is Gibson Beach, between the mountains and the ocean. For years to come I will descend these steps, often taking a very brief plunge into the huge, cold, turbulent Pacific waves that leave seaweed and long kelp tubes on the coarse sand. Cormorants take off and land on a rock island to the northwest, before and after beak-bomb dives into the surf.

By afternoon I leave the Williams compound and join Nick’s family in Monterey for Thanksgiving dinner. His people are fisherman and movie projectionists. Italians. Dinner includes artichokes, a big salad, rice stuffing with ground beef, rigatoni, cheeses, lots of garlic, prawns, veal, yams with maple syrup, turkey, and more pasta and seafood. Then coffee, and cannoli for dessert. Oh, and plenty of California red wine.

Monterey Bay: Sun rising over the Santa Cruz Mountains to the east.

I spend the night at Nick’s, falling out with my annual overfilled holiday tummy.

We are up early. We head down to the harbor and onto a fishing boat, out into Monterey Bay. Our captain is Nick’s uncle Joe Aliotti, the fisherman. Joe grew up in Italy, became a fisherman, and immigrated to California after serving in the Italian submarine corps during WWII.

I have memory flashes of earlier fishing expeditions with my dad. Me, age 10 in Boca Grande, Florida, watching the men fish for Tarpon, then hanging out in the boat’s galley with the Captain while he cooks beans. My dad and his pals, who called themselves the Society of Mizzable Bastards, were inside drinking at the Pink Elephant, a dockside bar. Another time I am very seasick in the turbulent tide-changing seas off Block Island.

This morning on Monterey Bay is blessedly calm. Joe, smoking a Camel, steers the boat west as the morning sun emerges over the Santa Cruz Mountains. We’re after a large shrimp, the Monterey Bay Spot Prawn. Joe is a pioneer in the commercial fishing of this species. We find Joe’s buoy and the long chain that drops 600 fathoms into an underwater canyon where the prawns hang out. They pull up the chain and the handmade wicker and rope traps called pots that are connected to the chain by rope. Joe cuts chum for the pots, an older fisherman baits them, and both lower them back into the canyon.

Emptying the traps.

After a few hours we have caught many prawns, plus a few junk fish. And we catch the enemy of the prawn fisherman, a small octopus. There are no prawns in the trap with the octopus. Uncle Joe picks up the octopus and bites its head in just the right place, sending it straight to octopus heaven. By late morning we’re dockside and leave containers with the catch at a dockside commercial fish-house. Joe tosses the octopus up on the dock; it’s part of the catch.

Over the years I make many runs, in many vehicles, with many people between Berkeley and the Highlands. I’m the cameraman on a wild pig hunt in the Carmel Valley with John and a guy named Reaford Shay. We find no wild pigs but do return with a young buck that Reaford dresses and we eat.

I talk with Cynthia’s brother Dick Criley, a longtime progressive activist who ran the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights. I meet Florence, Dick’s wife, the feisty union organizer with the United Electrical Workers. Honey Williams introduces me to Joan Baez on a Christmas Eve on the streets of Carmel, and I dance with her sister Pauline and others during parties at the Williams house.

For a few years I derive great pleasure driving a red 1947 International pickup truck on rough dirt roads off Hwy 1 to a place called Rocky Creek. We shoot a home movie scene: the International pulls up by a small herd of cattle and stops abruptly, me in the pickup bed leaning on the cab, brandishing a rifle. Later that and other home movies are stolen — I believe by the notorious “Red Squad” — from my storefront crib at Armitage and Kedzie in Chicago, where we lay out the first issues of Rising Up Angry in 1969.

Visiting the Highlands in the winter of 1965, I hang out with “Muffy” Rebecca Katia North, the daughter of author Joseph North, a Communist Party activist and journalist. I get a nighttime call from my Oakland roommate Davy Wellman, also a red diaper baby. He is freaked out. History grad student and Free Speech Movement comrade Bob Novick has been busted for pot. Back in those days this was cause for panic: Is this a crackdown on activists or what? Davy is refusing to go into our apartment at 5006 Telegraph until I get rid of my small bag of weed within its walls.

Uncle Joe Aliotti.

In the morning Muffy and I drive north to Oakland. We arrive and approach the house with considerable trepidation, at least on my part. We climb the now spooky-stairs and enter my home, once warm and comforting. Thinking the cops are about to jump me, I quickly grab the bag of weed, dump it into the toilet, and flush. Immediately I feel stupid, take a deep breath and say to myself: “You asshole…”

Being kidnapped and taken to John’s home ended up being a gift. I will always be grateful to Cynthia Williams for the generous spirit with which she welcomed me and so many others into the nurturing, stimulating, life-altering world of the Highlands.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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1 Response to Michael James : Kidnapped to the Highlands, 1964

  1. a teriffic ride thru a time and place- that still simulates. bravo michael, for taking the time to remember: “twas sweet in that dawn to be alive.”

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