“Her name is Empress Kitty Robin!”
I was living in a suburban ranch house in Palo Alto my junior year at Stanford with my friends Brad, Rob, Jenny, Julie and my partner Rachel. The house was on Wilton Avenue in south Palo Alto and we called it “The Wilton Hilton”, though as a one story, white stucco ranch style house it was far from grand. The backyard was carpeted with dried grass that was about 3’ high. Our young black neighbor kids would climb the side yard fence and shout out offers to cut it for us, warning us that it was a “Fire Hazard” and that it could easily ignite and burn our house down. It was unclear if they were offering to help us or threatening us. The parents of the kids were fostering 2 Navajo children, John and Louise, who were seriously developmentally delayed and suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
They would often randomly appear in our house and backyard, climbing in through open windows after scaling the fence. Lousie took a liking to my partner Rachel, and if she couldn’t find her, she would endlessly loudly repeat “Where Da Girl? Where Da Girl? Where Da Girl?” We often fed them peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples as they told us that their foster parents did not feed them enough.
Empress Kitty Robin was a tiny fledgling robin that we found on the sidewalk under a tree in front of our house, saving her from a neighborhood cat. We brought her in and fed her warm milk and Cream of Wheat cereal several times a day with a medicine dropper for a few weeks. She gradually grew into a full sized, very tame and friendly Robin. Her home roost was a hanging Wandering Jew houseplant where she would perch, sing and sleep. She would sit on my shoulder as I walked around the house and sat at my desk working on drawings and paintings. We often took her for drives in my car, once driving from Freedom to Holy city on a gravel road in the Santa Cruz mountains as Rob and Rachel sat cross legged on the roof rack of my VW bug, while Empress Kitty Robin perched on my shoulder, singing loudly into my ear as I drove through the canyons and redwood forests.
After several months of living the indoor life, she disappeared when an overnight guest left the front door open and she flew off into morning mists, never to roost again inside the shabby-chic splendor of the Wilton Hilton.
“He murdered my grand daughter and threw her overboard to the sharks.”
I was eating lunch in a small Thai restaurant in Berkeley with my aunt Nancy Waller and her childhood friend from China, the religious scholar and author Houston Smith, when he recounted the murder of his grand daughter, Serena Karlan. Huston was one of the world’s most influential figures in religious studies. He had authored thirteen books on world religions and philosophy, and his book “The World’s Religions” sold over three million copies and remains a popular introduction to comparative religion. He was a friend of Ram Dass and Timothy Leary in the early 1960’s and was interested in what he called ”empirical metaphysics,” using LSD, peyote and psychedelic mushrooms back when they were still a legal means towards spiritual understanding and transcendence.
My aunt had known him in high school in China, where both of their parents were missionaries. At the time of their reunion and our lunch date, Houston was in his early 90s and was very hard of hearing. As a result, his speaking voice was like an over amplified megaphone. As we nibbled spring rolls, he loudly recounted that his granddaughter had fallen in love with a professional American basketball player, Bison Dele, and had sailed from New Zealand to Tahiti with him and his brother Miles on Bison’s yacht. Somewhere near Tahiti, for unknown reasons, Miles killed Bison, Serena and the skipper of the boat and threw them overboard. The sailboat was abandoned and was later found with ID plates removed and several bullet holes crudely patched. The suspect overdosed on insulin while in custody and died, never divulging what had transpired on board.
Huston, in his slow, booming, stentorian voice, enthralled all of the diners in the tiny restaurant with his sad and tragic tale. When we dropped him off at his home he gave me a book he had written on Zen Buddhism with the admonition to be sure to pick my friends very carefully.
“Jethro has the true Prankster spirit!”
Jethro was my friend Art’s hyper animated dog and impressed Ken Kesey, an American novelist, essayist, and counter cultural figure, with his canine intelligence and boundless, unparalleled energy. Kesey was an early psychedelic evangelist, being given his first doses in government studies involving hallucinogenic drugs (including mescaline and LSD) to supplement his income when he was a creative writing student at Stanford University. After completing the graduate writing program, he and his friends, collectively known as the Merry Pranksters, gave many parties, known as Acid Tests, which integrated the consumption of LSD with multimedia performances. The Grateful Dead was the house band for most of those events.
Jethro was a large, powerful and singularly determined animal, a cross between an Airedale and a German Shepherd. He and Art lived on a 300 acre ranch known as “The Land,” high in the hills above Palo Alto where Kesey met Jethro. Once when Art was driving through downtown Palo Alto, Jethro jumped out of the window of Art’s car and ran off into the suburbs, finally reappearing three days later at Art’s house, 12 miles up a mountain from where he had first set off on his adventure.
Several months later, Art, Brad and I were walking on one of the fairways of the Stanford golf course under the full moon late at night when Jethro saw, chased and attacked a skunk and was sprayed directly in the face. He slithered like a rocket propelled snake with his nose plowing the grass at high speed for a hundred yards, trying to scrub the toxic poison off of his nose and face. We walked back several miles to Brad’s and my home, not wanting to put him back in Art’s car and on the way stopped at a 7-11 store and bought several large cans of tomato juice and gave Jethro a vegetable juice bath in our back yard when we returned to try to reduce the skunk stench, though it was several weeks before the sour smell in Jethro’s Prankster fur was gone.
“Let’s go see the boxing kangaroos!”
In downtown New York, In the 1950’s during the Holiday Season, anything was possible. My mother led me by the hand to Rockefeller Center where we watched people ice dance beneath a golden statue of Prometheus. Nearby, in the large storefront window at the high end toy store, FAO Schwartz, a kangaroo was boxing with a man in colorful holiday attire, much to my amazement and delight. I was familiar with inter species friendships, as we had cats, Java Temple Birds, guppies and a waterless aquarium full of mice in our Manhattan apartment, but I had never before seen inter species combat in a festive, Christmas decorated toy store window.
“ You gave me the entire beaver! ”
This was my response on Facebook to a comment made by my Godmother, Janice Newman, when she mentioned that she and her husband Murray had given me a beaver hide to tan when I was 11 years old. They had not given me just a beaver hide, but had given me an enormous 60 lb. bloated beaver carcass that Murray had just shot and killed. They gave me the entire beaver. I had posted a photo of a sculpture I had made when I was 17, inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead and Salvador Dali. The sculpture was made of pine boards, skunk skulls, leather, Indian jewelry, sequins and two beaver teeth, used as horns on the topmost skull, that I had gotten from Murray.
My Godparents had a vacation home in North Heath, Massachusetts, just a stone’s throw from the Vermont border. They had purchased a 100 acre former dairy farm in the early 1960’s with century old barns and out buildings, and spent summers there with their family, far from Alexandria, Virginia where he was an Old Testament Theology professor. The property had a large stream running through it which a large colony of beavers liked to dam up, flooding his low lying fields and fouling the spring fed water supply for his house. He tried tearing the dams down, but the busy beavers quickly rebuilt them while he was sleeping. After the Massachusetts Fish and Game Department was unsuccessful in trapping and controlling the rodents, he was given permission to shoot them to contain the ongoing damage to his water supply, land and infrastructure. He borrowed a shotgun from his farmer neighbor Fred Lively, and slayed several of them, one of which he gave to me.
In the 1950’s, the back pages of comic books often had advertisements for mail order courses of taxidermy from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy in Omaha, Nebraska, (actually in the Midwest rather than the Northwest.) The Museum of Natural history in New York City with its globe spanning exhibits of stuffed animals featured in front of realistically painted dioramas was one of my favorite places to spend Saturday afternoons in my childhood, transporting me out of the grim and grimy city to wild and wonderful distant corners of the world where, lions, elephants, tigers and polar bears roamed freely, stuck in one dusty pose of impending action for all of eternity.
I was intrigued with the possibility of learning the art and craft of taxidermy. However, at the time Murray arrived at our house with a huge dead beaver in the back of his VW Micro bus, I had not yet enrolled in any taxidermy courses and no idea on how to proceed, so I went to the Arms Library in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, and checked out a book on tanning hides written for fur trappers, which laid out a set of basic instructions. I was much assisted in the unpleasant task of slicing the beaver open and gutting it by my fearless neighbor and lifelong friend, Ned Wolf, who was four years older than me. The beaver’s bloated, gaseous stomach was filled with at least five pounds of putrid, rotting wood chips and tree bark, producing the worst stench I had ever had the misfortune of smelling when we sliced his chest and opened him up. After several days of work, I was able to separate the hide from the carcass and after scraping the fat, gristle and tissue off of the hide, I pinned it to a large piece of plywood with dozens of small brass nails. The fur trapper’s guide book suggested tanning the hide with a Native American formula combining the beaver’s brains with ashes from our fireplace. I made a brain ash slurry and spread it over the pelt and left it overnight to begin the tanning procedure.
When I went to check on the tanning process the next morning, I saw an enormous white Great Pyrenees dog chewing on the hide, most of which he had already ripped and torn apart into small pieces, scattering them all over our lawn.
This dog belonged to our neighbor Carol Malone, who lived a few hundred yards down the hill through the woods from us where she had a horse farm. Her dog’s name was Monsieur and I was already afraid of him because he had been the second dog to ever attack and bite me as I was walking into Heath Center to pick up our mail from the post office. The first dog to attack me and knock me over had been Carol’s Great Dane, traumatizing me at a young age and making me afraid of dogs for some of my early life.
While some of the farmers in Heath had huge Clydesdale and Belgian draft horses which they used for logging, field stone removal, and for carrying huge tubs of maple sap to their sugar houses, Carol raised thoroughbred Arabian horses, fine sleek animals known for speed, refinement, endurance, and strong bones that would have looked more at home in Saudi Arabia than in rural New England. Her husband Dana’s father had been the Attorney General of Massachusetts. Dana had become a dairy farmer and a small town lawyer. In the early 1960’s his car sported a pro-African colonialism bumpersticker proclaiming “Support White Rhodesia.” His gravestone has dual engravings of the scales of justice and the heads of milk cows side by side.
Carol’s boys, Roger and Jeff, were always barefoot and usually clad in torn denim rag overalls, looking like urchin waifs from the pages of a Dicken’s novel. They said they were being treated as slaves and one of them ran away from home when he was 10 years old. Much of the town turned out to search for him and they found him living in a hollowed out old Apple tree and various people left food there for him each day. He eventually returned home. Her daughters were often dressed in velvet jackets, knee high patent leather boots, jodhpurs and horse riding helmets, looking like they were ready to go fox hunting with Queen Elizabeth.
Having Monsieur make a meal and a mockery of my taxidermy dreams did not stop me from trying to resurrect the dead and bring them back to life. I still have a squirrel pelt that I skinned and tanned after collecting it as road kill near our house in California. Our summer house renters in California once told my mother that they were surprised to find a large, dead, frozen hawk that I had not yet taxidermed, in the refrigerator’s freezer, nestled next to the ice cubes, frozen spinach and ice cream.
“I’d rather have two birds in the bush than to have this bird in my hand.”
I was sitting on my back porch, enjoying a sunny April day with my cat James Brown purring contentedly on my lap when he suddenly hammered out at the air and struck a humming bird as it was flying by. I caught it in my hand as it fell down where it died of a broken neck moments later, nestled between my palms. It was incredibly warm and seemed unbelievably small and fragile for such a quick, vibrant, flying creature. Much of the visual volume of a hummingbird is in its frenetic, whirring, whirling wings.
Both my brother Peter and my friend Rob were able to catch hummingbirds in their hands that came in through open doors and couldn’t find their way out of the house without a helping hand. Both birds were successfully returned to outdoor life unharmed, unlike the unfortunate fly-by victim of James Brown, the feline avian assassin.
“ I’m going to order a monkey.”
When I was 11 years old it was possible to order a monkey from the pet section of the Sears catalog. For only $35 Sears would send you a Squirrel Monkey in a box via the U.S. mail. Of course I wanted one, as I had always loved the Curious George books and I was old enough to be done with pretend friends, but sadly my mother said “Absolutely not!”
We soon moved from Manhattan to California and got a cat named Saucy and a Samoyed dog named Frigidie. My sister Alison had a string of pet white rats given to her by our psychology professor neighbor from his laboratory and my brother Tom had a free range parakeet that flew around his room, a succession of snakes and a tarantula. Tom once sent me a 30” long Gopher Snake in the mail from Massachusetts to California when he was moving to France for a year which I released in the Stanford Hills where he had originally captured it. It was seemingly none the worse for wear after being in a dark cardboard box for a week crossing the United States and it quickly slithered away into the tall grasses after I opened the box and released it. My brother Peter had an aquarium full of Neon Tetras and Siamese Fighting Fish, so we did not lack animal friends, though I never got my monkey.
When we were on the east coast for 2 months every summer our house was rented out to visiting professors and their families. Saucy the cat had to feed himself by catching gophers and songbirds in the neighborhood as he never travelled east with us. He was always much thinner at the end of the summer when we returned and for several months one autumn had a hole in his throat the diameter of a pencil which whistled strangely whenever he breathed.
“ The Flying Dutchman’s on the Reef. ”
This was my friend David’s wry, ironic comment concerning a newspaper article regarding a 45’ long, dead beached sperm whale that had floated to shore in Florence, Oregon in November of 1970. It was decided by the state’s highway department, which somehow had jurisdiction over beached whales, that it would be best to explode the whale with dynamite, hoping to scatter the carcass into small pieces to be eaten by seagulls and shore birds. The engineer in charge of the operation was unsure how much dynamite to use as his superior was off hunting for the day. He packed the carcass with 20 cases of dynamite. A military explosives-expert cautioned him that he was using far too much dynamite, but his concerns were not heeded. The explosion caused large pieces of blubber to land near buildings, in parking lots some distance away from the beach and on newsmen covering the event. Only some of the whale was disintegrated; most of it remained on the beach. The explosives-expert veteran’s brand-new automobile, purchased during a “Get a Whale of a Deal” promotion in a nearby city, was flattened by a chunk of falling blubber.
The video of the event has been viewed 350 million times on various websites. In 2020, residents of Florence voted to name a new recreational area “Exploding Whale Memorial Park” in honor of the incident.
“ He’s a python and his name is Julius Squeezer. You can hold him but just don’t let him get wrapped around your neck. ”
I was at a party at my friend Alan’s house which somehow was featuring exotic animals that night. There was “Julius Squeezer,” an 8’ long python that was slithering around the living room and there was a cub mountain lion named “Mountie,” sitting on the lap of someone I had just met. He was an employee of the California Department of Fish and Game and had taken over the care of the cub when its mother had been shot. I had petted an ocelot on a golden chain when I was a child at Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterrey, but I had never before stroked a mountain lion. It was gentle but a little frightening with its enormous claws and four canine tooth fangs the size of my thumbs.
Alan was a ceramics artist and a large man who had been in the Navy for several years before discovering art. He still walked around with an incredibly wide stance as if he was out on the deck of a warship on the rolling seas. His favorite band was The Ramones and as we became more comfortable with our new inter-species friendship that evening he blasted one of their songs over and over as he danced with the python entwined around his arms and torso, singing along with the lyrics;
” Twenty twenty four hours to go
I wanna be sedated!
” Nowhere to go, nothing to do
I wanna be sedated!”
“ We need to send away for the ants. ”
My brother Peter and I got an ant farm as a Christmas present from our grandfather. This was a common nature toy for kids in the 1950’s – several of my friends had ant farms in their bedrooms at the time. The farm was a clear Plexiglas rectangle, about 12” x 12” and 1/2” thick, with a green plastic frame and a removable top and was filled with sand and dirt. There were no ants in it. We had to send away for the ants.
A couple of weeks later the ants arrived in the mail in a tube and after we released them they got busy right away, tunneling in the dirt mixture and making nests and laying eggs in their thin, clear ant kingdom. The ants came with special ant food which they feasted on, storing some of it away for future ant lunches and dinners.
The ants weren’t as soft and cuddly as our cat, or as fun to watch as our guppies or mice, but they were quite industrious and never seemed to rest. Perhaps our grandfather, a scientist, was trying to show us their innate division of labour, cogent communication skills between individuals, and their ability to solve complex problems, such as living in a thin Plexiglas square in a shared bedroom with bunk beds in an apartment in New York City. If they escaped from the Ant Farm, they would have had no trouble adapting to a world that was more than 1/2” thick. They could have easily moved into our kitchen and lived on spilled sugar and toast crumbs.
“There’s a petrified deer hanging in the tree!”
I was hunting in the very rural, emerald green springtime Gabalin mountains east of King City, California when my friend Seth told me that there was a petrified deer hanging from a tree nearby. Seth’s father was a doctor who taught at Stanford and worked at the Stanford Hospital. Seth and his father often went hunting together for ducks, doves, quail, wild boars and deer all over California. Seth had invited me to go gun hunting with them, something I had never done before. I had gotten a single shot .22 rifle the previous summer in Massachusetts, but the only things I had ever shot at previously were paper targets, tin cans and a woodchuck silhouette that I cut from a flat pine board which I attached to an intricate system of ropes and pulleys to create a fast moving target that my friend Steve pulled to animate it.
Steve and I had shot squirrels and chipmunks with our bows and arrows and had tried to roast them over an open fire when we camped atop Mount Pocumptuck, attempting to emulate the American Indians we so admired. Steve’s father was a bow hunter and encouraged our hunting efforts while my mother told us in no uncertain terms that we should only shoot at paper targets on hay bales in a live-and-let-live teachable moment.
Seth’s father Daniel had befriended the ranch owner, Grady Lafferty, when he had treated him at the Stanford Hospital. Daniel had hunting privileges over thousands of acres of Grady’s Edenic hills and grasslands, teeming with mourning doves, quail, deer and rabbits. Another doctor who was hunting with us asked Seth and me to try to shoot some rabbits that he could bring home and make into a rabbit pie, reminding me of the Beatrice Potter story of Peter Rabbit and his nemesis Mr. McGreggor, from my childhood.
We drove up a dirt ranch road past Grady’s ranch home, parked and got our weapons and started to walk into a valley. Seth said to me “Come here – “There’s a petrified deer hanging in the tree!” We walked up to the enormous domed canopy of a California Valley oak tree, its branches and leaves touching the sky above and reaching down to the grasses below. We found a parting of the branches and walked into the cool umbrella shade of the huge canopy.
There in front of us, dangling from two huge limbs, was the translucent mummified body of a large buck deer. He had been trying to eat acorns from the tree and had jumped up quite high to harvest some and when he was falling back down to the ground, got his large rack of antlers wedged between two thick branches,trapping him in mid air. He was suspended with his back legs a foot above the ground, so that he had no way to push back up to disentangle his antlers. His organs had dried up and his skin was translucent and tight as a drum. Grady said he had been hanging there for a couple of years.
Later Seth and I were able to bag some rabbits for his father’s friend and the two doctors shot many doves and quail for their wild game larders. The Arcadian hills echoed with our gunfire until dusk. The back of the station wagon was a bloody ambulatory morgue on the three hour drive back to Stanford – It looked like Noah’s ark had run aground, but the rabbit pie we ate later was delicious.
“I’ve been shot at, stabbed, bit by dogs, but I’ve never been attacked by a sheep before.”
A California Highway Patrol officer investigating a burglary at Rob and Michael’s house in East Palo Alto said this after being knocked to the ground from behind by Baby Bob, Rob’s viscous and unpredictable ram who lived and roamed freely in his 2 acre backyard. The officer grabbed for his pistol when he hit the ground but did not fire after he saw that it was a sheep and not a criminal that was assaulting him. I always carried a 6 foot long 2″ x 4″ or a baseball bat whenever I walked in that area to be able to subdue Baby Bob if he decided to charge me.