|The only member of Contents not pictured was (Dancin’) Dan (the Man) Schlafer; he had joined us in early 1971, and by the time this was snappedin the autumn of 1974he was well on his way to being a responsible citizen, unlike the three of us pictured here. The backdrop for this picture was the 40-acre farm in Wear’s Valley that I shared with Mike Copas and Stephen Kling, two Opryland caricature artists that I had worked with the previous summer. The truck actually belonged to Copas, but I loved it and the way it made me feel when I rode in it. The picture was taken by my sister, Jann; she had ridden down from Nashville with Paul Dunlapthat’s him with the leather jacket and red mod cap. Filmore (actually, Millard Filmore Strunk, Jr.) is the one with the flannel shirt and Tom Mix 10-gallon hat. I’m also wearing a flannel shirt, along with a pair of bell bottom jeans that my grandmother patched (this was before holes in jeans were cool). BoatRamp, the farmdog, was trying to imitate my stance and smile for the camera. He was a very talented dog.
I can’t remember what all we did that weekend, but I do know that it involved at least two thingsplaying music late into the night (early into the morning) and talking about the California Trip. The California Trip had its genesis a few months earlier as a group of us sat around an off-campus apartment trying to figure out what we were going to do with our lives once our impending graduation had come and gone. Copas and Kling had driven down from Nashville. “Let’s go to California, or maybe even Gatlinburg,” they said.
We could be in Gatlinburg in an hour or so, we decided, but Californianow that was a genuine state of mind. “Yeah, but we could draw caricatures in Gatlinburg,” Copas said.
“Why California?” someone asked.
“Because you can’t go any further west,” someone else said.
“Can’t go no furtherthis here’s injun territory.” Copas said, quoting the California stream-of-consciousness comedy troupe, Firesign Theater.
All of us were fed up with our particular circumstances. Kling and Copas were bored with Nashville, and those of us finishing up our college careers were anxious to trade all the hassles of collegiate life for a big adventure. I was finishing up my tenure as editor of the college newspaper and had managed to get myself in hot water with the administration through a series of activities and articles. Some people just have no sense of humor.
A week or so after the initial California Trip discussion, I received a note from Bill Dockery, a former staff member of the college’s newspaper who had graduated a few years earlier and had gone on to have a real job at a real newspaper in the Gatlinburg area. He said that he liked what I had done with the college paper, and if I was interested, he would introduce me to his publisher. It’s not close to California, I thought, but it is close to Gatlinburg.
Graduation came and went, and we all scattered back to our hometowns, taking our individual pieces of the Big Adventure dream with us. But, we promised each other that, at some point, we would meet back up and bring our respective pieces to assemble the big puzzle that would be the California Trip. In the meantime, Copas and I decided to try our luck in Gatlinburg, and we found an old farmhouse to rent in nearby Wear’s Valley. By day, we drew caricatures in Gatlinburg, and at night, we played bluegrass in the town’s bars, along with Michael Thornburgh, a fiddle player we had met on the porch of his family’s hillside cabin. Because we didn’t have a name, a table of intelligent and articulate drunks at The Shed (a main street watering hole at the time) named us PigFish BoatRamp. We liked the name, so we kept it and even used a piece of it to tag the stray we brought out to the valley to be our farmdog. In the meantime, Kling had not forgotten the dream. He had packed up his car and was on his way to California. He stopped off at the farm on his way to say goodbye, and got sucked into the East Tennessee beauty.
However, before the interview with Dockery’s publisher could be arranged, Kling and I got job offers from his newspaper’s rival, the weekly Sevier County Times (in addition to being a crackerjack caricature artist, Kling was an incredible photographer). We’re not giving up the dream, we rationalized, we’re just going to be able to save up some money to fuel it. Besides, one by one, everyone else from that initial dream planning session had found some sort of distractiongraduate school, fulltime jobs and even marriage.
The Sevier County Times turned out to be an interesting job. Because the paper was a young upstart, we could be more daring with our stories and coverage than Dockery’s more established paper. Dockery usually beat me to every scoop, anyway, including the scene of the county’s first ax murder.
Working at the Times gave me the chance to write sports copy, handle local stories, and offer editorials; it also allowed me to contribute illustrations and editorial cartoons. Kling and I would also deliver the stacks of papers to some of the various convenience stores in outlying areas of the county, and pick up the papers that hadn’t sold from the previous week’s issue.
At some point, Kling and I (along with production guru Kerry Brown) came up with the idea of featuring regular original comic strips. My comic was Tales of Space Helen, a strip about a time-traveling superhero whose secret identity was Anita Ficks, a salesgirl in a local Chinese bakery/laundromat. The first episode featured a customer coming into the shop and ordering a birthday cake“...and, Anita, dear,” she said, “go easy on the starch.” Anita and her teenaged sidekick, Rod, traveled through time in The HelenMobile, a craft that eerily resembled a modern-day PT Cruiser, only without tires.
That winter was extremely cold. The farmhouse didn’t have running water or electric heat; it only had the living room fireplace and a woodstove in the kitchen. At first, we cut firewood on the weekends, then we resorted to burning the unsold papers that we had picked up over the past months. Eventually, we would just drive around until it was late enough to go home and jump into bed. It kept me dreaming about California. The dream of the California Trip however, began to flicker. It was much too comfortable to have a weekly paycheck.
Spring came and went, and the warm temperatures turned the winter hardships into a distant memory. When summer rolled around, the dream started gnawing at me again, and I started thinking about leaving the Times and heading west. During the Fourth of July weekend, I met up with some of my college friends at a Middle Tennessee bluegrass festival and tried to resurrect the old passion for the great adventure.
“It was a nice dream,” someone said after one banjo breakdown.
“I’ve got commitments and responsibilities,” one of my friends said.
“My wife says ‘no’,” said another.
“Do you even know anyone in California?” another one demanded.
“I’ve got relatives in Iowa,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got relatives in New Jersey, but that doesn’t mean I’m headed to Canada,” my friend said.
“It’s just a crazy itch,” I said.
“Don’t they make medicine for that?” he asked.
As I drove back to East Tennessee, I felt defeated. Is this how life is going to play out, I wondered, dreaming up big adventures and making plans and then abandoning them?
That Sunday afternoon as I drove up the long dirt driveway to the farmhouse, I noticed a stranger sitting on the front porch steps.
“Are you the Space Helen dude?” she asked me as I got out of my car.
“Guilty,” I said.
“That’s some bizarre stuff there,” she said. She explained that she had been backpacking in the Smokies and had gotten a serious case of poison ivybad enough to take her off the trail and into Gatlinburg. A man who ran a shop on the main drag took pity on her, and he and his girlfriend took her to their home so she could recover. While there, she came across his collection of “Tales of Space Helen” that he had clipped out of the Sevier County Times.
“I know the guy that draws those,” he told her.
“I have a friend back home who is an underground comic book publisher, and he would love these,” she told him, so he dropped her off at the farmhouse.
“Where’s back home?” I asked.
“California,” she said, “My comic-publisher friend is back in San Francisco.”
A few weeks later, she was back on the west coast. It took me about a month to wind things down at the paper, but toward the end of August, I got on an Amtrak in Nashville, and took it to Chicago. After a four- or five-hour wait, I boarded a west-bound train to Seattle, and then down to Portland, where she was getting ready to start school.
The plan was to hitch down to San Francisco and meet up with the comics publisher. We got a ride from a crusty old Cadillac cowboy just south of Portland, but when he found out I was from Nashville, he suddenly became friendly. He was playing country music on his AM radio, and every time I started talking about Nashville, he nearly teared up. “I’ve always dreamed about going there,” he said. Just then, Moe Bandy’s voice twanged out of the box.
“Doodle Owens wrote that!” I told him. Doodle was my friend, Lee’s dad. When I was at their house a few months earlier, Doodle had played the song for Lee and me on his old Gibson. When I relayed the story to our driver, he told us he’d take us all the way to Salem.
“It’s out of my way,” he said, “but it’s worth it just to hear about Nashville.” As soon as we exited the Cadillac in Salem, a kid in a Corvair screeched over to the side of the road and threw open the passenger door.
“Bay Area?” he asked.
And so, the California Trip began. We ended up hitching all through California, from the Bay Area to L.A., up to Fresno, over to Santa Cruz, and back up to San Francisco. The comics publisher was as interesting as you might imagine; he lived a few blocks from Height and Ashbury, not too far from Golden Gate Park. He was amused by Space Helen, but said that it needed nudity. I didn’t think we could pull that off in East Tennessee. Maybe Space Helen should move to California, he said.
I called up the kid in the Corvair, and he came and picked me up in the city and took me out to meet his parents in the Bay Area. They initially invited me to stay a few days. Then, his father (who was from the South) asked if I could stay with them indefinitely; he said he wanted a southern influence on his kids.
And so, I moved in. Their house was in the suburbs, a few miles from the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), so during the day, I’d hitch over to the station and take the train into Berkeley or San Francisco. It didn’t feel dangerous, but there seemed to be tension in the air every day. When I had been down in L.A., there was an assassination attempt on President Ford in Sacramento by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. And, the historic events just kept on coming. One day I went over to Berkeley to see if I could find the apartment complex where Patty Hearst had been kidnapped. When I stopped at a Berkeley newsstand to ask directions, the owner shushed me and pointed to his radio, which was screaming some sort of news story.
“Patty Hearst!” he said, “The feds just captured her, over in the Mission District!”
Like I said, there was tension in the air. Less than a week later, I thought I’d take in the San Francisco Museum of Art (now called the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). In 1975 the museum was located more in the center of town, a few blocks off of Market Street. That Monday morning, I hitched to the Concord BART station, took the train into the city, then took a bus to the museum. However, to my surprise, the museum’s front door was locked. I then noticed the “Museum’s Hours” sign that chirped, “MUSEUM CLOSED ON MONDAYS.”
I was incredulous. It had taken me over two hours to get there, only to find it closed. To try and salvage the day, I decided to treat myself to a late Chinese lunch. Keep in mind, in 1975, there were not a lot of Chinese restaurants in Tennessee. In fact, the only time I had eaten Chinese food was when Kling took me to visit New York City. I didn’t have a map of San Francisco, but I knew that Chinatown was northeast of the museum, so I guessed that if I went one block north, then one block east, then one block north, I’d eventually reach that part of town. Plus, I figured I’d get to see some parts of San Francisco that were not included in the tourist guides.
As I got closer to Union Square, which was between the museum and Chinatown, I noticed more people on the streets and sidewalks. I thought I must be approaching some sort of major bus stop. But as I got closer to the square, I saw that it wasn’t a bus stop, it seemed more like a mob of people waiting for a parade. Then, I noticed policemen with rifles on the roofs of several of the buildings. It’s a riot, I thought. But the mood was festive...maybe it was a happy riot. Trolley stop? Happy riot? Parade? Making my way up the sidewalk by the St. Francis Hotel, I noticed that every 20 feet or so, there was a San Francisco police officer standing guard. I ambled up to one of the police guards.
“Excuse me, officer?” I said.
“Yes?” he said, not really rudely, but not exactly politely.
“What’s going on here?”
“The President,” he said with a pitying look, as if I had crawled out of a cave and wandered into town, “President’s here.”
“The President of the United States?” I asked.
“That would be affirmative,” he said, with a hint of condescension.
“Wow,” I said.
“Excuse me?” he said, this time actually looking at me as if I could be some sort of threat.
“Oh...I was just kinda lost, on my way to Chinatown,” I said, trying not to look suspicious, “and here, I wander into the President of the United States. I’ve never seen a President in person.”
“Okay,” he said, “move along.”
“Thanks, Officer,” I said, tipping my thrift store Stetson.
I pushed my way through the crowd to the front of the hotel. It was wall-to-wall people, so I crossed the street and stood beside a street light, about a half-block away from where President Ford would exit the hotel. His limo was idling in front of the entrance, surrounded by black cars and police motorcycles.
I can’t remember how long I waited; I just remember the electric charge that surged through the crowd, along with a cheer when the doors opened and President Ford emerged into the California afternoon. That brief moment of excitement, however, was short-circuited by a gunshot from across the street from where President Ford stood, and the crowd’s cheers turned into screams. It was almost as if someone had dropped a large stone into the crowdright where Sara Jane Moore, the woman with the gun, was being wrestled to the ground. The crowd erupted into frantic ripples, running in panic from the shooter in all directions. I fought back my initial reaction to runI had a half-block head startand I instinctively jumped up onto the concrete base of the streetlight where I had been standing. My second impulse (after the first one to run) was to protect myself from the stampeding crowd. I saw people being knocked down, and all I could think about was how cowboys knocked off their horses during cattle stampedes managed to not get trampled. They usually used trees; all I had was a streetlight.
As I looked over the heads of the frightened crowd I saw that a group of police, bystanders, and plainclothes cops had picked up Sara Jane Moore like she was a roll of dining room carpet. Then the crowd, not hearing any more shots, reversed itself and tried to close in on the shooter. In the meantime, the President’s motorcade, sirens blaring, screamed out of Union Square. It was controlled bedlam. I ducked into a five-and-dime and bought a notepad and a pen, and went back out onto the street and tried to talk to some of the police officers who were scurrying around the St. Francis like fireants out of a lawn-mowered anthill.
I continued on my journey to Chinatown, where I bought myself a late lunch and proceeded to write up the story in the dim light of the restaurant. “Take that, Bill Dockery!” I said to myself and a bemused Chinese waiter. I found a phone booth and placed a collect call to the Sevier County Times. I knew it was coming up on the weekly’s deadline, but I figured they’d make room.
“Have I got a story for you,” I said when the publisher, Tim Pollitt got on the phone.
“Wait a minute, let me get my recorder plugged in,” he said.
“First of all,” I said, “I want the byline to say: ‘by David Skinner, San Francisco correspondent to the Sevier County Times.’” I then proceeded to dictate my story. After I finished, Tim asked me, “What’s California like?”
“Don’t get me started,” I said, but I must have gone on for ten minutes before hanging up.
That following weekend when I called home, my father sounded irritated. I told him about moving in with a Bay Area family, about the comic book publisher, about Patty Hearst, and about the almost-assassination of the President.
“I didn’t know you talked ugly,” he said, and handed the phone to my stepmother.
That was certainly perplexing, I thought as I hung up the phone after the call. Talking ugly?
A few months later, I was back in Nashville, writing songs with Lee Owens. I was going through a stack of Sevier County Times papers, looking for a particular Space Helen strip. My dad had a subscription to the paper and had carefully saved all the back issues. I came across the issue with my assassination attempt story, just as I had dictated from that Chinatown phone booth. It was then that I realized that Tim had kept the tape recorder rolling, because, on the jump page, below the continuation of the story was yet another story. The headline read: “Reporter Calls California Crazy as H***” The story consisted of my rantings about the, well, intensity, of the California scene.
The following week, Lee and I went into a Nashville recording studio to demo some of our songs. I had just finished a new one (about a Tennessee boy having this weird obsession to travel west) called “California Itch,” (click here to hear California Itch), and Lee demo’d a beautiful song of his called “Finding Annie Gone" (click here to hear Finding Annie Gone).
Sowhat happened to all the characters in the story? President Ford finished out his term. Sara Jane Moore served a 32-year prison sentence and was released in 2007. I lost touch with some of them, but as for the ones I’ve kept up with, Stephen Kling moved back home to New York and went on to do ads on Madison Avenue; Michael Copas became the woodcarver to the stars, teaching Jane Fonda how to carve and creating pieces for Hollywood notables; Paul Dunlap became a music teacher and he, my sister Jann, Michael Thornburgh, Kerry Brown and I still play music in a band called Dog & Pony; Filmore Strunk is now an Anglican priest in Charlotte; Dan Schlafer became a Tennessee Coach of the Year and is now a Federal Programs Director; Tim Pollitt got out of the newspaper business and into something that was actually profitable; and as for Bill Dockery, Lee Owens, Jann, and mewe’re all busy writing pieces for and working on this issue of SouthernReader. Hope you enjoy it!
David Ray Skinner