Monthly Archives: June 2019

Piano Dad

He was given no choice. My grandparents forced him to take piano lessons. And my dad hated it.

But then something clicked. His spirit and soul connected with the spirit and soul of that giant stringed instrument. His fingers figured out how to tickle the ivories, and his ears learned how steal any tune he heard, and send it through his heart and onto the keyboard. And he went from piano pouter to piano child prodigy.

My dad had a happy-go-lucky, jocular personality. And he could charm anyone. His motto all his life was, “Make someone smile at least once a day.”

And he could do that with a piano. Whenever he would spot a lonely old upright or grand, sitting dusty and forgotten in some corner, whether it be in a bar, a restaurant, or somebody’s home, he’d meander over inconspicuously, casually wipe the dust off with his hands, then sit down and start tapping out a slow, hesitant tune.

And then gradually, as his fingers found their rhythm, and as his soul resonated with the great musical beast before him, that tune would build. Before long he’d be in full form, pounding out old standbys, with improvised riffs and harmonies lifting the atmosphere.

A crowd would draw near, and he’d take requests. If he couldn’t remember the tune, he’d ask the requester to hum or sing a few lines. Then his ear would catch it and transform it to the ivories, and you’d swear he’d been playing that song all his life.

A few years before I was born, he was laid off from his job as a machinist. He had kids to clothe, mouths to feed, and bills to pay. So he walked into a bar in Los Angeles and asked what they’d pay him to play their piano.

They allowed him to play for tips.

Night after night the tip jar overflowed, as large crowds were drawn to the bar. He became so popular, it seemed perhaps my dad had discovered a new profession.

But one wassailing evening, after he’d finished burning up the keys, a couple of goons paid him a visit. They asked to see his union card. But he didn’t belong to the local musician’s union. So they gave him the unmistakable message that if he did not join quickly, his fingers would be fixed so that he’d never play a piano again.

Dad said, “to hell with it.” Aerojet was hiring machinists, and they wanted him. He refused to join that damned musician’s union. Instead his fingers returned to metal, and let the ivories be.

My mom and dad divorced when I was two. So when I grew up, he was that charming, funny guy who showed up once-in-awhile and took me to fun places like Disneyland. I loved him, and always felt glad to see him come, and sad to see him go.

When I was eleven years old I attended Cottonwood Elementary school. It was way out in the sticks, and was the last one-room school in Riverside County, California. This old schoolhouse, built in 1897, had a lonely, dusty old piano languishing in the corner. Our schoolteacher didn’t know how to play it, so our music lessons consisted of singing songs A Cappella.

Cottonwood Elementary, where I attended Sixth Grade.

Every morning our 27 little lungs, from first to sixth grade, belted out tunes from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, such as The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, and Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.

One day I stepped inside the schoolhouse while on recess, and there was my dad, paying me a surprise visit. And with him were my brother and sisters, whom he’d pulled out of classes at their high school. He had to do this on the sly, as a surprise visit, because he was behind in child support. My mother had no idea he was in town.

After a few minutes of hugs and jokes, Dad spotted the piano. And true to form, he quietly gravitated toward it, casually wiped the dust with his hands, and started to play, sitting all alone at the keyboard. And his smile quota for the whole year must have been satisfied in that moment, with the beaming look that appeared on my schoolteacher’s face.

Before long my entire class, and my brother and sisters, were all singing songs from Oklahoma!, as Dad hammered out the tunes on the keyboard. He didn’t know all the songs, but we’d just start singing and he’d catch on quick. His fingers danced. The harmonies were lively and full. And our glee at finally being able to sing with that old piano, gave our faces ear-to-ear smiles.

The walls of that old schoolhouse were in danger of being shaken down, with the music we made that day, and I had never felt more proud of my dad than at that moment.

When Dad got into his late sixties, he realized that arthritis was robbing him of his ability to play. And he knew how much his kids loved to hear his music.

So he paid a professional studio to record him, playing his favorite tunes on their grand piano. He was only allowed one long take, from first tune to last. If his arthritic fingers caused him to screw up, too bad. He had to improvise a riff to cover for the error, and move on.

Fortunately, he could still force his stiff old digits to manipulate the keyboard for the duration. And soon, each of us kids got a CD of 30 piano tunes, courtesy of our maestro father.

My dad has been gone for seven years now. But sometimes when I miss him I play that CD. Thanks Dad, for such a wonderful gift.

And now I have a gift for him, on this Father’s Day. I want to help him fill his daily quota of making at least one person smile.

So for your listening pleasure (on the chance that you may like it), here is my dad’s rendition of Home on the Range:

The Mission to End All Missions

Mission San Francisco Solano (aka Mission Sonoma, aka Mission Solano)

Mission San Francisco Solano has one damned confusing name. Don’t confuse it with Mission San Francisco de Asis. The latter is in the city of San Francisco, and is more commonly known as Mission Dolores. But you know that, because I posted about it a few weeks ago. Remember? Probably not. I hardly remember, myself.

The former is in Sonoma, California. So you can also call it Mission Sonoma. And many call it Mission Solano. Fuck!

It seems the Catholics were good at building missions, but confusing as hell at naming them.

Solano is the Spanish word for Sonoma. And Sonoma is a Native American Miwok word that means, “Valley of the Moon”. Miwok legend has it that the moon rose from Sonoma valley. But I suspect those Miwoks just sampled a little too much Pinot Noir one evening.

Sonoma, California is a quiet, wine country town, with a current population of about 11,000 winos. Well it’s quiet now, but at one time it was the place to go if you were looking for trouble. Yee-haw! That’s because it was once the site of Catholic in-fighting. And the Mexicans and Russians rattled their sabres here. And not to be left out, the Native Americans got in on the action, and raised some holy hell in these parts. And most famously, this is the site of the Bear Flag Revolt.

This prickly pear cactus outside the mission might symbolize the prickly situations often encountered during the early days of Sonoma. Or perhaps it symbolizes the prick who founded the mission.

Finally the citizens had enough of all the tumult going on in their town. They turned their troubled waters into wine, and mellowed out. Hic. The world-renowned California wine industry was born in Sonoma in 1857, with the establishment of the state’s first commercial winery. Hic. And California has continued to grow mellower and mellower ever since. Hic.

But that’s boring. Let’s go back to this town’s exciting and controversial beginning.

Mission Sonoma was the mission to end all missions. It was the last to be established, of California’s 21 centers for brainwashing Native Americans. And it’s the only mission to be established under Mexican rule. It came to be on July 4th, 1823, our Independence Day holiday, and nearly two years after Mexico achieved its own independence from Spain.

This bell in front of the mission is rang annoyingly and incessantly during the Christmas season, by someone from the Salvation Army.

It was kind of a red-headed stepchild. The Catholic Church didn’t want this mission. But Father Jose Altamira did. The rule was that if you wanted to establish a new mission, you must ask permission from the Padre-Presidente. At the time, this was Father Sarria, the founder of nearby Mission San Rafael Arcangel (which I posted boringly about, a week ago).

But Father Altamira must have guessed that Father Sarria would say no. So he said to hell with him, broke this rule, and instead asked permission from Luis Antonio Arguello. Who? Why, he was California’s first governor, under Mexican rule.

And the governor liked the idea. He wanted to close Mission San Francisco de Asis and Mission San Rafael Arcangel, and have a new mission further north for countering the Russians at Fort Ross.

Yep, the Russians.

Fort Ross had been established by the Ruskies in 1812, on Bodega Bay, just 50 miles north of San Francisco Bay. Those greedy bastards were trying to take over California. Yes, even before Donald Trump, those dirty commies were meddling with us.

The governor hated communists, and so gave his permission. And soon construction began.

But when Father Sarria found out about this, his face turned florid, his eyes bulged out, and he nearly leapt out of his frock. He ordered an immediate halt to the construction. A big argument broke out. And it was a tough argument to win for the enraged Father, because he was going up against the governor himself. But it wasn’t easy for the governor either, as he was going up against a highly respected leader of the Catholic Church.

Finally a compromise was reached. The new mission would go forward, which pleased the governor. And all other missions would remain open, including the missions in San Francisco and San Rafael. And that pleased Father Sarria.

But the Catholic establishment never got over it. They were still fuckin’ pissed. Bad feelings lingered, and the other missions did not give this new mission much support.

The interior of the mission church is the most simple and basic we’ve seen. By the way, the children at the front of the church are not missionary Indians. They were on a field trip from a nearby school. Poor kids. Imagine the disappointment of getting out of school, only to have to go to church.

Mission Sonoma was established about 46 miles southeast from Fort Ross. And it was effective for the governor’s purpose, because after all, Californians these days do not speak Russian. On the other hand, we have been accused of being communists, so I’m really not sure if the governor succeeded.

It was far enough from San Francisco Bay that the climate was warm and sunny. And it was quickly discovered that vineyards did well at this mission. And Father Altimira had no problem attracting Native Americans to help out. Like typical Californians, they knew how to appreciate a mild climate.

But what they didn’t appreciate was Father Altimira himself, who was not so mild. He exacted cruel punishments, and treated the natives harshly. He was a real prick. Conditions got so bad that in 1826, the natives grew restless and revolted. They looted and burned the buildings and supplies, and sent Father Altimira running for his life.

Now this outcast needed a new place to work. But he’d already burned all his bridges with the church, so none of the other missions would take him in. And so the cruel son-of-a-bitch had to return to Spain, never to bother Native Americans, or his fellow missionaries, again.

Father Buenaventura Fortuni, from Mission San Jose, took over the helm. He was a kind and loving man, and was able to regain the confidence of the natives. They soon rebuilt the mission and made it a prosperous success. At its peak, it encompassed 10,000 acres of vineyards, other crops, sheep, and cattle.

The altar at the front of the church contains a pornographic image of a partially disrobed man. I wonder if he’s a priest?

In 1834, all of the California missions were secularized. The stated goal of secularization was to distribute the mission lands to the Native Americans who had worked so hard to make them successful. Yeah, right. That goal was good for PR, but in practice most of the missions were confiscated by rich and powerful Mexicans, and the natives were left to fend for themselves.

Some of that happened at Mission Sonoma. In 1834, General Mariano Vallejo took the lands of this mission for himself, and made them part of his huge rancho. It was a raunchy thing to do, but at least he promised the natives protection, provided room and board, and put them to work on his raunchy rancho.

The general built an imposing home very close to the mission church, and named it La Casa Grande. And he was blessed by the Lord’s bounty, as he scavenged the roof tiles from the church, to use for his home.

Without a roof, the adobe chapel quickly deteriorated, then collapsed from neglect. But Vallejo wasn’t the only vulturine builder. Other settlers descended upon the site, and scavenged supplies from the remaining buildings. Thus, by the 1880s, the entire mission had been picked apart, and had fallen into ruins.

An outdoor pastry shop. Here, early missionaries baked holy foods, such as communion crackers and donuts.

In 1903, the California Landmarks League purchased the ruins of the original adobe mission. They used state funds to restore the chapel, and in 1926 they sold it to William Randolph Hearst. He then generously deeded it over to the state. Sounds sort of like a tax write-off scheme, to me.

Now it’s known as the Sonoma Mission State Historic Park, and is one of three missions that are part of California’s state park system.

Today you can visit the restored mission. And you can visit the restored presidio that housed soldiers, across the street from the mission. You know, those guys who kept the red tide of Russians away. A museum displays artifacts from the early mission, soldiering, and ranching days.

The museum is the long building to the right, which adjoins the mission at the far end. It costs three bucks per adult, to get in and gawk at all the goods. It’s two bucks per child, aged 6-17. And it’s free for those wee little ones who don’t give a damn.

At this museum you can also learn about the Bear Flag Revolt. It happened here in 1846, and led to California’s independence from Mexico. Which is another reason why Mission Sonoma was the mission to end all missions. It was here that Spanish and Mexican expansion came to an end, in North America, and they had to pack up and move south.

I’ll be boring you with some posts about the Bear Flag Revolt, soon.

Monument to the Bear Flag Revolt, that launched California’s independence movement from Mexico. Stay tuned for a series of posts, where I will tear down this overglorified monument, and give this revolt a reality check.

The Obliterated Mission

This restoration of the original Mission San Rafael Arcangel church was constructed in 1949.

The most obliterated of all California’s historic missions is Mission San Rafael Arcangel. It was established in 1817 as a medical asistencia, or sub-mission, of Mission Dolores in San Francisco. It achieved full mission status in 1822. And it’s located across the Golden Gate, about 15 miles north of Mission Dolores, in a sunnier, drier, and healthier climate.

It’s named after the archangel Saint Raphael, who is venerated by Roman Catholics as an angel responsible for miraculous healing.

Saint Raphael, the Archangel. Often associated with the unnamed angel in the Gospel of John 5:4, who stirs the water at the healing pool of Bethesda. Raphael is also mentioned in the Book of Tobit, from the Catholic scriptures. And besides the Catholic religion, Raphael is venerated by the Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran faiths.

Mission San Rafael Arcangel was California’s first sanitarium. The warmer climate at this mission helped the Native Americans at Mission Dolores recover from European diseases, such as measles. As word spread of its success, other missions also began sending their sick to this sanitarium.

Father Vicente Francisco de Sarria established the mission. He was very dedicated and benevolent toward the welfare of the natives, especially their physical health. And he knew his stuff when it came to medicine. He’s credited with the first original contribution by a resident of California in the field of medicine, for an 1830 paper on the use of the caesarian section as a method of childbirth.

But Father Sarria was fighting an uphill battle. The new Mexican government was determined to secularize all the California missions. And in 1833, Mission San Rafael became one of the first missions to fall into secular hands.

Mission San Rafael keeps odd hours, and was closed when my wife and I arrived. We were unable to enter the large, restored church and take photos, so I did what any non-God-fearing atheist would do, and ripped this photo off from Wikipedia.

By 1844, the mission was completely abandoned, and in 1846 the empty buildings were sold for $8,000.

It briefly came back to life in June, 1846, when Captain John C. Fremont occupied the mission during California’s Bear Flag Revolt.

On June 28, 1846, an event began here that would affect the course of American history. Fremont ordered his scout, Kit Carson, and two others, to kill three prominent Californios who were passing through San Rafael.

This triple-murder was used against Fremont when he ran as the Republican party’s first nominee for president, in 1856. It helped turned public sentiment against him, and he lost the election to James Buchanan.

In 1861, the old mission church was razed, and a new church was built beside the ruins of the old church. Unfortunately, no one had ever sketched or painted the old church, so to this day nobody knows how it looked. All that was left of the original mission was one lone pear tree. For this reason, San Rafael is considered the most obliterated of all the California missions.

The building to the right is the parish church that was built in 1861, beside the demolished ruins of the original church.

Nonetheless, in 1949, the old church was rebuilt. It was restored on the site of the original hospital, by Monsignor Thomas Kennedy. Kennedy had to rely mainly upon his imagination for the design, because of course, he had never seen the original.

These three ding-a-lings hang out in front of the parish church that was built in 1861.

The parish church built in 1861 remains beside the 1949 restoration.

Mission San Rafael Arcangel keeps unpredictable hours. If you want to visit, take my advise and call ahead to see if it will be open. We didn’t do that, and found ourselves locked out of the restored old mission church. However, the church that was built in 1861 was open, and we were able to enter and snap a few photos.

Interior of the parish church, built in 1861.

We also got some great photos of the exterior of the restored church. We loved the architecture and pink color, and enjoyed admiring this restoration from the imaginative mind of Monsignor Kennedy.

We felt impressed with the beauty and architectural design of the restored church, even if it might not resemble the original.