What were we looking for when we returned to Crescent City, the place where our family broke up? Mom was living a hundred miles south of there in Ferndale, a Northern California town known for its picturesque Victorian buildings and the annual Humboldt County Fair’s livestock and horse racing. Though also surrounded by rain forests and some of the world’s tallest redwoods, the old fishing and logging village of Crescent City is as drear as Ferndale is picturesque. The dominant smells there are fish, salt, smoke and gasoline, not necessarily in that order. The town was ugly before the tsunami hit on Good Friday, March 28th, 1964, and has remained so despite its best efforts to rebrand itself into resurrection (“Comeback Town, USA!”). A roadside attraction called Sea Wonders Alive lost power, and even after the owner of Shipwreck, a similar attraction in Eureka, replaced their dead seals and octopus, we called it “Sea Wonders Dead.” (A friend of our father’s said, “We learned quickly not to talk to the Elder children like children.”)
The old wooden house, where we lived for three years, stood on the corner of 4th and A streets, a block from the beach where we chased seagulls. We were just a few blocks from the Seaside Hospital, which would later prove fortuitous, and a block away from the home of a Mormon family even larger than ours. Their parents thought we were savages. The entire town was laid out on a grid bearing numbers and letters, as if coming up with names for the streets on which they would raise their children had been too much bother for the town’s founders.
I was 21 that summer, ten years after my parents divorced, and was already divorced myself. I had gotten married in San Francisco right after I turned 20, and my wife was 27. We had met in another small town, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, to which we returned once I finished school. There we rented a cabin with water but no electricity; it was light late in the summer and we cooked on a wood-burning stove and read by kerosene lamp when it got dark. The cabin was meant to be a stopgap measure: Her mother was in the process of buying a big house in the middle of town, where we would all live as an extended family once she closed. But after spending countless evenings throwing coins and reading the I Ching, seeking answers to an unhappiness I knew nothing about, Terry declared our marriage over. There went our union, along with my dream of a family to replace the one I’d lost.
Moving back to the Foothills had been a game-changer for Terry. Her country-hippie schtick had been largely unappreciated in SF. The city was gay and glittery in the mid-seventies, and her turquoise jewelry and cowboy boots were generally looked on as retro. Back on her native soil, she was sought after again. Her new boss seemed interested in her (no matter that he was married), and someone she’d gone to high school with had tracked her down at a party to say how much he’d always liked her. Whatever commitment she’d made to our marriage vanished under the gaze of these new admirers. Plus, she informed me, I drank too much. She’d been in the car when I got busted for having an open container, driving back from seeing a friend’s band perform at a bar in the country, and had been there back in SF when I was released from the drunk tank after a one-man bender. I suppose she’d seen enough.
“Being divorced might be good for you,” she said at the end of our one-sided talk. “It will make you more interesting to other women.” She was practically doing me a favor.
I don’t remember what, if anything, I said in my defense. I probably felt I deserved rejection, and since my father left when I was 11, was doomed to be eternally discarded. With nowhere else to go, I headed for Mom’s.
My younger sister, April, was there, too; she’d moved to San Francisco herself and was visiting that summer. Maybe she suggested visiting Crescent City. Mom wouldn’t have wanted to go back there on her own.
This was made plain when we rolled up on our old house and found it abandoned. The two-story, white wooden building wasn’t that much worse than any of its neighbors, but it had been neglected since we left ten years earlier, not that my parents took such great care of it. I don’t remember Dad mowing the lawn; I don’t remember a lawn, actually, just a pockmarked field of dirt and crab grass, perfect for toy tanks and rubber soldiers.
“Let’s go check it out,” I said when Mom parked her Chevy van at the curb. She just smiled and shook her head as April and I got out and walked to the house. Maybe looking at the front door she thought of the time she had to waken her children to help her get Dad, senseless from drink, through the narrow opening. Or the times she had locked him out, when she knew he was out cheating on her. It wasn’t locked now, and without much discussion April and I opened the door and crossed the threshold. There was no furniture, no sign of who might have lived there after us and what things they’d possessed. The floors were bare, but not filthy.
As soon as we were inside, April pulled out a joint. I’d been the pothead in high school, but she and my younger brother Ethan had caught up quickly. Walking up the creaky stairs to the second floor where our bedrooms had been, I remembered the family photos taken on those steps, five kids stacked in order of arrival: Brian and Pat, the oldest, at the top, me in the middle, and April and Ethan, the baby of the bunch, sleepy in their PJs on the bottom step. We would hover on those stairs some nights when our folks entertained; Dad taught English at the local high school and the friends he made were cultured, at least by local standards. They listened to folk records (the Kingston Trio, the Brothers Four), Irish music (mostly Clancy Brothers), and cast albums of Broadway shows (South Pacific, My Fair Lady). And sometimes, after their friends left, we would listen to our parents fighting.
Whoever lived here in the ten years since our family left had not painted—I could still make out faint pencil lines on the kitchen door jamb where our mother marked our height over the years—though they covered up the old wallpaper in the upstairs room where I’d slept. Picking at the generic wallpaper someone had slapped over the old I could glimpse the pattern I’d fallen asleep to every night, a kind of yellow braid on a dull blue background that remined me of a lasso or a hangman’s noose as a boy. Now it looked more like DNA strands, or would have if I’d known much about heredity.
Why had our family moved to Crescent City from the San Francisco Bay Area in the first place? Dad said it was because of the hunting and fishing the land around there would provide; he had hunted and fished as a boy in Western Pennsylvania, having been schooled in those manly arts by his own father, I suppose. But he never took me hunting or fishing, in Crescent City or anywhere else. Maybe he just needed his alone time; after all, he went fishing the day Ethan was born so he had his priorities. Maybe he was afraid he would shoot one of us if given the chance. Maybe he was afraid he would shoot us all. He once told me he never wanted more than two kids, meaning me and my younger brother and sister didn’t make the list. Years later he wrote a novel about three fishing buddies from a small town who knock off a casino in Reno; the narrator, a teacher like him, had lost his wife and five kids in a plane crash. Providing him with all the alone time he could ever want.
Only later, as an adult, was I struck by the contrast between the ugly town and its surrounding beauty. Nearby were redwood forests where we imagined ourselves hunting Nazi soldiers, and beaches filled with tide pools where we’d float tiny boats. The colors were rich and varied, from the grey and white of the sky and fog, to the blue of the ocean and the green and red of the woods, dripping wet even on the rare dry day. And then there was the town, bleached out and rusting, as blank as an untouched coloring book.
I was vacationing in Amsterdam, many years after that visit with April, when I stumbled on a photography show that included work by someone I knew. Richard Rothman had been a neighbor in Brooklyn and was renowned for his large format black-and-white photos, taken with a 4×5 view camera, of both cities and nature in various states of decay and rebirth. As part of a cultural exchange program, he and three other New York photographers had been commissioned to capture the Dutch capital on film. There were pictures of canals, of course, but they were unromantic images, messy and forlorn. Reading about the program and its participants, I was stunned to see that Richard’s latest project, collected in the book Redwood Saw, was made up of photos taken in and around Crescent City. He lived in the woods there for five years, painstakingly photographing the moldering logs and massive ferns of the old-growth forests, as well as the clear-cut areas the loggers had left, when he became obsessed with the town.
“I thought that Crescent City was interesting in and of itself, but I also recognized that it was emblematic of larger issues that we face as a nation, and as a global community,” he said in an interview. “The town has had a boom-and-bust extraction economy that has swung from mining to lumber and then to fishing, all of which have been depleted.”
Redwood Saw contrasted mighty sequoias (and their mighty stumps) with falling down houses and yards filled with car parts and kitchen appliances. Richard took the time to gain the confidence of townspeople, some whom he photographed naked and tattooed. Judging by his photos, Crescent City had fallen even further off the map since we lived there: a sun-faded American flag painted on the side of one home, its stars all but invisible; a mini-church the size of a bodega. The only new business of note was the nearby Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermax facility opened in 1989.
I got in touch with Richard when we returned to NY and he invited my wife and me to a private showing of the Redwood Saw prints he was hosting at his workspace. There was another couple there, serious photography collectors, and Richard was hoping to make a sale. Wearing surgical gloves, he flipped through the large prints in the same order they appear in the book. We started in the forest primeval, layers of grey mimicking the multi-hued green of the woods, and then came destruction. Trunks the size of trucks, wrenched from the ground, led like a trail of signposts into the blighted town. Citizens appeared randomly—a young man with a mohawk sprouted like a weed by the side of the road, his head as bristly as a foxtail—and the prospective buyers were making all the right noises, sipping the wine Richard had provided. We were gathered around him in his darkroom, where we looked at each photograph for what felt like a full minute, and one of these pictures just hit me: a one-story house, dwarfed by a Monterey Cyprus and nestled in fog. There were no people visible, and it bore no resemblance to our family’s home but it evoked a sense of desolation that made me want to run out of the room.
I stayed. He moved on. Richard hadn’t told his other guests that I’d lived there as a child, and I certainly wasn’t going to volunteer that information. Though no one said “white trash,” and I know Richard doesn’t feel that way, I felt as exposed as his subjects, but I’d be damned if I would let strangers see me naked.
Looking at the blank walls of our former living room I could etch with my mind’s eye the outline of the one real piece of art my parents had. It was a cubist painting by Tio Giambruni, a California artist who had befriended my father at Berkeley. The only other art I remember was a print of a Modigliani woman; her long face and seemingly sightless eyes freaked us out when we were kids. One day Dad came home from work to find that someone had sketched, ever so lightly, a moustache above her lip.
Shouting ensued, and within moments of his return we were lined up, five in a row, against the living room wall. Who did this? We were all stoic in our denial, though I was burning with curiosity. I knew I hadn’t drawn the moustache, but which of my siblings had? Surely, they knew there would be hell to pay. No one cracked, and I’m not sure we had supper that night.
I think Dad saw his books and artwork as a sort of barrier against the encroaching ugliness of the town, a sea wall to hold back the flood of rusting car parts and wet wood without. Dad was proud of his big brain; he joined Mensa, an organization for people who score at or above the 98th percentile on standardized IQ tests, and put the organization’s bumper sticker on his car, proof that he was smarter than other people on the road. He’d been a big reader from an early age; as a child he would read the ingredients on animal medicine and the fine print on feed bags at his grandparents’ farm, then drive them nuts with questions. As a Marine in the Second World War, Dad served as a gunner on a torpedo bomber while stationed in the Solomon Islands. On long flights he brought books from the USMC library and immersed himself in everything from Pamela to the Bhaghavad Gita. He studied languages for fun (including Russian, which he practiced with the help of some vinyl LPs), taught chess to high school students in his spare time, and seldom missed an opportunity to demonstrate his superior intellect.
Once he took me and a friend to the local cinema to see a cheap Italian picture about three heroes fighting a sea monster. Such sword-and-sandal movies were a staple of our junk culture diet, along with Mad Magazine and Rocky & Bullwinkle (in which the moose played a character named “Mr. Know-It-All”). The girl selling tickets had been a student of his, and perhaps he just wanted to let her know that he was above this kind of schlock.
“Three tickets for Hercules, Samson and Ulysses,” he said, and then added, “They’re not even from the same era!”
I don’t remember the movie, just the embarrassment I felt at wanting to see a historically inaccurate sea monster movie. And for the record, Dad, I don’t think Hercules ever lived at all.
But he wasn’t just a frustrated intellectual, one of those vets who, thanks to the GI Bill, was able to expand his knowledge at a world-class university. He’d boxed in the Marine Corps and would occasionally smack his kids around, usually for mouthing off. Later he wrote, “Like most of my generation, I came from people who didn’t hesitate to hit children,” which was probably why we stood there silently when he wanted to know who had drawn a moustache on his Modigliani. He could lash out if he felt we were talking back to him, or couldn’t understand his mumbling.
I wish I could say April confessed as we stood there that day; that would make for a dramatic moment, a good scene. But she’d already spilled the beans a few years earlier. She kept saying how small everything looked, but she’d been littler than me when we left. Plus, we were pretty stoned.
She couldn’t have been more than six or seven when she did it, and couldn’t remember how she got up there. Mom was already working part time and April must have done it after school, before there were any grownups on the scene. She didn’t remember much about it, the planning or execution. She just knew that lady creeped her out.
Why had it taken her so long to come clean? Neither of saw the old man anymore. “I guess I’m still afraid of him,” she’d said.
The books that had been on the shelf in the living room were mostly Dad’s, a representative collection for a post grad English major of his day: a lot of Modern Library books, and other titles deemed worthy of hard covers. His copy of Wuthering Heights was one of those books that had illustrations to obsess over. On the cover was a wood engraving by the German-American illustrator Fritz Eichenberg that depicted Heathcliff, standing beneath a crooked tree in a howling storm, his face raised to the tortured sky.
“What’s his problem?” we asked each other, before turning to the mysteries of some other Eichenberg woodcuts, these used to illustrate The Tales of Edgar Allen Poe. There was a gorilla with a razor, a body buried beneath the floor boards, and a house splitting apart in the rain. I’d have to become a better reader to know what was happening in those stories.
It was another illustrated book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, that had made me a reader in the first place. When I was very young, Mom read them to me repeatedly, until she finally said, “You’re going to need to learn to read these yourself!”
That prompt worked. While I soon became one of those kids hated by his classmates for always having his nose in a book, my relationship to literature probably saved my life, one I associate with Mom instead of Mr. Know-It-All. Mom had never been to college but she loved and respected books and writers. In Chicago, where she was born, she’d attended a free lecture, probably sponsored by the WPA, from a college professor who assured his listeners that poetry could be found in popular song (“As Time Goes By” got his blessing), and that capitol-P Poetry need not be intimidating. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” she would say, years later, quoting the professor quoting “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” After my father left, Mom stayed in bed for what seemed like months, reading mysteries by the dozen.
I had driven to Ferndale in a used Chevy station wagon that Terry and I had bought for $700. That was money her grandfather had given us, and the selection of used cars had been slim. “This is good automotive transportation,” was the best the salesman could come up with when making the sale, and after she sent me packing, Terry agreed that I could hang on to it until I got my act together. I’d driven north with all my worldly possessions in the back, mostly crates filled with records and books.
I had called her the day that I arrived in Ferndale, force of habit, I guess. We’d never taken the car on that long a trip and perhaps she was worried. The first thing I did when I got to Ferndale was to get a library card, which Terry found very amusing. I didn’t tell her that my second stop had been a liquor store, where I bought a six-pack of Colt 45 which I drank as I stayed up all night reading Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. As the sun rose, I got to a passage where the narrator realizes he has gone the whole day without once thinking of the woman he lost, and I burst into tears, wondering if I would ever be able to say the same about her.
I brought the car back to her a few months later, somewhat the worse for wear. “It looks like a car with a broken heart,” she said.
And what was our mother doing all that time April and I were in our abandoned home? Was she listening to the radio, reading? It shames me to realize that I never thought of how unpleasant returning to Crescent City might be for her. Were scenes from her life whirling about her, like cows in the twister that carried Dorothy away in The Wizard of Oz? Dad had gone on to marry again, blending Brian and Pat into his new family, while Ethan, April and I moved with our mother to another small town in the Foothills. She never remarried, and seemed to have no close friends. Only later did I realize how depressed she must have been, and how much of her energy went to raising us three.
There is no moral to our story. Morals were largely missing from our family plot: We never went to church (Dad was raised Protestant, Mom had been a Catholic and neither had any use for the faith they grew up with), though they never preached atheism, either. The gaps in my religious knowledge became conspicuous: In high school, I couldn’t pronounce the names of Old Testament books (Deuteronomy, Leviticus) when reciting a dramatic speech from Inherit the Wind, and the first time I read Jesus’s whole saga was in juvenile hall, where I was sent after being arrested for possession of marijuana at age 15. The only book they’d allow me was the Bible, though my mother had tried to smuggle in another Lewis Carroll book, The Hunting of the Snark.
I’m not sure Sunday school would have made any difference. When a grammar school classmate named Gaylord convinced me to come to an afterschool Jesus club for kids called Good News, I went along for the cookie he promised. I later learned that Gaylord, an Okie from a family poorer than ours, got two cookies for each kid he brought. I recall a picture taped to a window inside the yellow bus. Two small children standing at a crossroads, with Jesus on one fork, light emanating from behind His head, and Satan on the other holding candy, money, alcohol and drugs. I thought the choice was obvious.
I started to wonder if I’d been born bad in some way. Listening to the Camelot cast album, I became obsessed with a song the Knights of the Round Table sing called “Fie on Goodness.” The boys had had enough of King Arthur and his virtues; they longed to pillage and rape again. “Ah, but to spend a tortured evening staring at the floor,” sings one, “guilty and alive once more.”
Guilty and alive. The mystery of those words stayed with me.
I don’t remember the content of The Talk our parents had with us to announce Dad’s departure. I’m pretty sure it was billed as a separation, and filled with the usual homilies (“This doesn’t mean your father doesn’t love you”). Time has muted the sound, and I went even further inside my own head after that. Years later, after our mother died, I found a photo of my fifth-grade class at Crescent Elk. I did not recognize a single child in the picture, nor their names, which my mother had carefully written on the back. Even I looked like a stranger.
For a while he lived outside of town in a trailer where he entertained his girlfriends. “I didn’t know what a barfly was until then,” Pat told me later. Being a small town, word of his exploits got around. One day a kid on the playground told me that my Dad was wearing dark glasses at the high school that day because someone had punched his lights out in a local tavern. I had nowhere to put that information.
He would still come by, unannounced, usually to do his laundry or make himself something to eat if Mom wasn’t around. She was working fulltime then, and his school schedule ended at three.
One afternoon I was fighting with Pat, trying to get inside the back door that she was holding closed. I pushed too hard and arm went through the door window, laying open a big gash on my forearm.
I screamed, and miraculously, my father appeared. In my mind my cries had brought him to rescue me, though he was probably just looking for a snack. Quickly assessing the damage, he told me to hold a towel against my wound while he drove me to the Seaside Hospital.
I lay on a gurney while the ER doctor shot my arm with a local anesthetic and told me to look the other way. I stared at the white tiled wall while he and Dad chatted about fishing. At one point, I turned to see what he was doing. The doctor has pulled a piece of flesh, as loosed as taffy, from my arm and was cutting it with scissors. What shocked me wasn’t the skin being cut away but that I couldn’t feel anything.
Later we heard that Dad was going to get another job to add to his growing list of side hustles: He was going to be the voice of Paul Bunyan. A wooden statue of the lumberjack giant, carved from a redwood tree, stood in the parking lot of Trees of Mystery, a tourist attraction, 16 miles south of Crescent City. We had never been further than the parking lot, our parents having told us that the Trees of Mystery was “a big rip-off.” (My mother said that about nearly everything we wanted and couldn’t afford, meaning most everything. The world, it seemed, was one big rip-off.)
I fantasized going to visit him in the parking lot, standing in front of Paul Bunyan and his ox, Blue, until the giant was forced to recognize me. How I planned on getting there is another story. Only later did I learn that he never got the job. Why would they hire someone who mumbled?
We got lucky with the tsunami. The water that swamped downtown Crescent City in the early morning hours of Good Friday missed our house by a block, while 289 homes and businesses were damaged, some irreparably. “The House of Beauty was no longer beautiful,” a local beautician reported, while the owners of the Ben Franklin five-and-dime store had been inside the building trying to keep the seawater out. When the water outside was as high as his head, owner Ernie Pyke ordered everyone to the stockroom upstairs.
“Get up on the desks!” he ordered.
“I can’t,” said his wife, “they’re floating!”
A 9.2 magnitude earthquake had struck the northern shore of Prince William Sound in Alaska earlier in the day. The resulting tsunami that struck Crescent City was the deadliest of four surges (11 people died), and an engineer from the California Department of Water Resources was on site to observe the run up.
“During the surges the beach seemed to empty like a wash basin and the harbor entrance was seen as an outgoing river, then the tables would turn and the basin would fill up and gush over, leveling buildings, moving others, and tossing cars and trucks around like so many matchsticks,” wrote Robert Foley. “Waves reached eight to ten feet in depth on the city streets in the affected areas and the resulting damage is estimated in the millions.”
At Burtshcell’s Paint on 2nd Street, half of their stock was destroyed when water rushed through the building. When the owners were allowed to enter their store and assess the damage, they found a counter, lifted by the rising water, had landed on a can of white spray paint, which was still spraying when they arrived, literally whitewashing the scene of the disaster. The owner of a coin shop on the same street returned to find thousands of dollars’ worth of rare coins missing (suspicion fell on the National Guard), and the bayside Thunderbird Motel, the newest and nicest building in town at the time, was destroyed. The owners’ son had just bought a new car, which ended up with another car on top of it. “That’s my car’s horn blowing down there,” he told his mom, after they were evacuated. “I’m just glad I’m not in it.”
A man named McGuire had come down to the docks to see if his boat was still there but he couldn’t get anywhere near it. He stopped at the Longbranch saloon to buy a pack of cigarettes; the first wave had knocked out the cash register and the woman behind the bar was trying to make change out of her purse when the second surge hit. McGuire looked outside to see his flatbed truck carried away by water, and then the water crossed the street and hit the bar. “It looked like we were in a submarine going down,” he recalled. And then the big one came, water rushed inside and he jumped on top of the shuffle board. The water knocked down one wall, exposing them to the clear, moonlit night. Water began to rise through the floor boards and McGuire and another patron helped people get up on the roof of the saloon.
McGuire was an alcoholic, six months sober that night, and the disaster tested his resolve. “I really wanted a drink and fought having one every five minutes for the next 24 hours,” he wrote. “I didn’t need a drink after that.” He later learned that of the eight people in the bar that night, only three survived.
When I first heard McGuire’s story, I imagined him trapped inside, bottles labeled “Drink Me” floating past him as he fought to escape. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I recall that sense of peril in the early days of not drinking. All can be lost at any moment, and when it seems like all is lost already, why not go down with a drink in your hand?
Dad and his new family left Crescent City not long after we did. Disaster seemed to swamp his life; he and his wife bought a bar in Idaho which went bust after an earthquake. He tried to teach again but was too depressed, and after several suicide attempts, he stopped doing much of anything. We never talked much after he left; not long after his second wife died, he took his own life in 2006, with no note explaining why. You want reasons? They’re written on the water.
The last time I visited Crescent City, our old house was gone. It looked like the earth had swallowed the building and nothing had been built in its place. I can visit the site now on Google Earth, floating above the vacant lot like a ghost.
The final photos in Redwood Saw are of the beaches north of town, and it’s a relief for the reader to escape the sordidness of Crescent City. As kids we used to hike out to the lighthouse at Point St. George, three-plus miles that seemed epic then. There was a secluded beach along the way where we stopped to spy on high school kids making out; near the lighthouse were sand dunes where we took off our clothes off and rolled down the hill.
The last person seen in Richard’s book might be naked, too. The photo is taken from such a distance that you can’t really make out their gender, let alone what clothes they are or aren’t wearing. They are dwarfed by the sea and the sky, standing at the water’s edge with their arms spread wide, as if measuring the horizon.