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Friday, May 31, 2013


The Big Sur Circa 1970


The further north we got, the weirder things became. It was like Easy Rider. Guys in pickup trucks threw us hard looks.  Waitresses refused us service, saying they were out of anything we attempted to order. Cops pulled us over just to mess with us and my press passes got a thorough workout.

But we survived in style and eventually things started to smooth out as we neared the sanctuary of Big Sur. The Sur has always attracted artists and bohemians and just plain old cranky people who don’t want to be fooled with by outside society.

I’d recently read Jack Kerouac’s magical book about his battle with alcoholism and his personal demons in a small cabin in The Sur and I had this fabulous mental picture of vaulted cliffs, sweet smelling trees and meadows and Kerouac in the mist listening to the hissing seas as if they were a magical orchestra playing just for him.

Back home in Venice, we’d met people down from The Sur and everyone spoke about their experiences there in hushed tones, as if describing the splendors of a grand cathedral. We’d been told that there were several successful communes up in the hills and down in the canyons, where the people enjoyed lives full of pure food and damned good dope. Jay and Jack were also keen on the stories of lightly clothed, gamboling hippie chicks who were supposed to inhabit The Sur like pretty little wood sprites longing for male company.

Imagine us in our red and silver school bus rumbling along the highway, the Pacific on our left, the forested mountains of California on our right, rock and roll on the radio, the sweet smell of marijuana floating through the cabin, exotic visions of The Sur washing through our brains.

The very atmosphere began to shift even before we reached our goal. The air became cooler, sweeter, with just a tang of tannin, like freshly brewed tea. The closer we got, moist forest smells swirled up – fallen leaves and branches turning into mulch, new foliage and blossoms entreating passing insects and birds to come and party hearty. Swap some pollen with me baby?

With the change of atmosphere came a transformation – we were stoked, primed and ready for an adventure of the soul. It might have been a single moment, or several moments, but suddenly we all realized that we had entered The Sur. The bright sunlight turned to forest shadows and we could hear the sea through the trees and canyons, making a lovely, spooky whooooooosshhh - just like Kerouac described in the long poem that closed his book.

I remember clearly that Jack was driving, leaning back with a wide smile gleaming through his beard, taking occasional hits off a joint. He was wearing his favorite white leather cowboy jacket with its long fringes hanging down. And in one single moment Jack went from being your basic science nerd into being a really cool guy. In short, dear reader, Jack was making himself the perfect Guide for the scene that would be our next “happening.”

As we wended our way through The Sur we saw people our age – young people – walking along the  roadside. The guys were bare-chested and wearing jeans; the girls wore colorful dresses, their long hair decorated with summer flowers. They turned and looked at us – marveling at the red and silver bus with the varnished sundeck gracing the roof.

Jack slowed down and stopped beside them. He grasped the handle and opened the doors, your friendly hippie dippy schoolbus driver, with a joint tucked in his bewhiskered lips. Not a word was spoken, but finally one of the girls clambered onto the first step. She looked down the aisle, seeing me, Carol, little Jason, and Jay, who smiled and hoisted his beer.

The girl looked at Jack, incredulous. “We even have our own bus service, now?” she said.

Jack said, “For today, only, Ma’m. Step aboard our Magical Mystery Tour.”

The four young people came aboard and Jack worked the lever that shut the doors and as they found seats for themselves, marveling at our little home on wheels, Jack took off. Our new friends rolled joints and passed them around. Nobody asked any questions, they just sat back and gazed out the windows at the wonders of The Sur – seen from a brand new perspective.

One of the girls finally spoke up: “Far fucking out.”


We drove on. Picking up more people, dropping people off. Then Jack spotted a girl dressed like one of those South American Indians, a black bowler hat perched on her head, a fabulously colorful serape over a long skirt. She had a baby slung over her back papoose style and she was carrying a sack of groceries in one hand and a slender ebony flute in the other. She must’ve walked for miles, because we had yet to have encountered a grocery store.

When she saw us she raised an imperious hand – Stop. Jack obeyed, pulling up beside her and opening the door. She climbed aboard, her face expressionless as she found a seat. She sat the baby beside her and the groceries on the floor. Long, black braided hair flowed from under the bowler hat and the girl’s features were such that she may well have been a real South American Indian.

Jack drove off. Our eyes met in the mirror. We both smiled.

After a few minutes the girl lifted the flute to her lips and started to play.

I was astounded. The notes were so pure, the music so perfect. She played this floaty song that flowed through the bus, gathered at the windshield and flowed back again. To this day I have never heard a more beautiful melody. It was as if our school bus had taken on magical sails and we were blowing down the highway, tacking this way and that, Jack’s gentle hand at the wheel, his grin getting broader and broader until it blazed through his beard… smiling at me in the mirror… nodding… his eyes saying, This, my brother, is a moment to keep close… a sweet memory that we can call up many years from now to make life less bitter.

Then we came upon this spot – a broad, inviting green place leading off the road and Jack took it; gently bending the wheel, bumping off the main road onto a little gravel path that curved this way and that, and became dirt instead of gravel, and bumpy ruts that would have confounded many vehicles, but not our old bus, which was so high off the ground it just jounced over them. Maybe she was still looking out for the kids, high up in some promontory, that she had once been trusted to deliver to school in far off Oneida.

Then the old darling broke out of the trees and we found ourselves at the edge of a wide meadow filled with sweet grass and hundreds of tiny yellow and blue flowers. Beyond the meadow stretched the broad Pacific, sparkling blue under a bright sun. 

The meadow carpeted a craggy peak which rose two hundred feet or more from the sea. Huge waves rolled in from the distant horizon, became frothy, white-bearded giants when they neared the cliff face, where they broke, thundering like enormous kettle drums.

We clambered out of the bus and ran across the meadow, Jason scrambling along on a long tether we’d fixed to a harness, so he couldn’t suddenly decide to play superman and leap off the cliff.

Everyone rolled in the grass and crushed the flowers to their faces, snurfing the perfume as if it was the most exotic dope. Everyone – that is - but our Indian piper queen, who found a comfortable grass hummock for a throne, her solemn silent child perched beside her. She lifted her flute, paused a moment before applying it to her lips, then began to play once more.

It was a marvelous song – the song of our brief stay there. Her flute voice tripped here and there, lighting on the meadow, the flowers, the butterflies and bees sipping at the nectar. As she played, her flute swept this way and that, pointing at the things that inspired her – following the flight of a dragonfly across the meadow.

Then the wind grew stronger and the sound of the breaking waves louder and she stopped playing, smiling as she tapped out the mouthpiece. Then she lifted up her child, pressing him close as she raised her poncho, exposing a shapely breast – the nipple stiff and and moist with beads of sweet milk – and then she gave it to the child and he suckled as she rocked back and forth, smiling a fabulous Giocanda smile, humming a tune beneath her breath.

The booming waves and the sharp drop-offs enticed us to the edge of the cliffs and I remember so clearly leaning far out and looking down and down and down to see huge waves coursing through a deep channel cut over a millennium or more. I was astonished at the violence of the motion. Waves, composed of rushing water weighing thousands of tons, poured through the ancient gap -  all boiling and foaming; whooshing and crashing then making a sound like a great vacuum as the massive seas raced out again.

In our pixilated state, Jack stepped forward and said, “Watch.”

He pulled up a thick handful of grass, leaned over the cliff edge so far that we feared for him. With his beard he looked like grand wizard as he waited, and waited, and then just at the right moment… as the seas broke, then raced out again… our wizardly Jack dropped the grass. 

The leaves stayed clumped together, falling and falling – a hundred feet or more. Then the waves came crashing back, smashing against the rocks. And the force of air rushing away to escape the water lifted the grass high, then higher still until the clump broke apart thirty or forty feet above our head. The leaves floated down again, but before they could settle the waves came charging back, hurling them high into the air.

The effect lasted for many minutes and no one said a word for a long, long time, so enchanted were we with watching this miniature perpetual motion machine, the piper’s magical tunes still fresh in our memories. All of us were stupefied by the sheer power of the Pacific. We were witnessing great seas rolling in from shores thousands of miles away. Waves that began all the way in China and came speeding to us, unchecked, to break against the rocky cliffs of The Sur. 

It was a magical place and a magical moment, and if you do not believe me, go there yourself, my brothers and my sisters. Partake of the herb and see what the Pacific brings.

Jack tried the grass thing again and it was just as marvelous as before. We were all quiet for a long time.

Then the same girl said, “Far fucking out.”

Everybody laughed and Jack was the hero of the hour – the grand wizard in white buckskin. And he disappeared with the girl for awhile and when it was time to go he returned, grinning more broadly than before, the girl laughing and tickling his beard.

We spent the night at a small campground, partying with a group of our passengers. There was a nymph for Jay and another for Jack and I had my sweet Irish lass, undisturbed by young Jason, who thankfully slept the whole night through.

The following day, hung over but happy, we set out for Salinas, home of my hero, Nobel laureate John Steinbeck – whose last book, “Travels With Charlie, sat beside me. Salinas was mostly farming country and we were more interested in the fish factories and dock area known as Cannery Row, made famous by Steinbeck in a book with that title, along with its sequel, “Sweet Thursday,” and an unrelated book, set in the same area, titled “Tortilla Flats.”

In the early 70’s Cannery Row hadn’t become the tourist trap it is today and looked much like it did during the time of Steinbeck’s writings – just before and after World War Two. Most of the canneries were idle and there were huge boilers upturned in weed-choked fields, many with people living in them, just as in Steinbeck’s books. There was even a marine biologist (the main character in “Row” and “Thursday” was a biologist named, “Doc”) with a lab at the water’s edge, but nobody was home the day we knocked. Jack and Jay took artsy pictures of the dock area and we had a fish lunch at a diner perched on a rickety dock. Then we put the bus in the gear and headed for San Francisco.

In my youth, I thought Beirut and San Francisco were the two most beautiful cities in the world. Beirut, alas, has been torn apart by years of strife, but San Francisco just seems to get better. She shakes off earthquakes, fires and hard times like the great survivor she is.

We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, our tires thundering over the iron grates. Looking down you could see the tops of rusty old freighters steaming into the Bay. There was a picnic pause at Golden State Park, where we lunched on things we picked up at food stands along the highway. There were several concerts being staged in different parts of the park – young people dancing and singing, whirling around with flowers in their hair and their heads wreathed with marijuana smoke.

Somebody said we’d just missed a free concert by Joan Baez, who was everybody’s heroine in those days – everybody our age, that is. I had this poster at home, showing Baez standing on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, a whole sea of war protesters at her back while she confronted a phalanx of big-bellied cops with drawn batons and guns at their hips. She had an enigmatic smile on her lips that made you smile in return.

Jack and Jay wanted to try their photographic luck from Coit Tower – a two hundred-foot tower, shaped like a fireman’s nozzle – that sits atop Telegraph Hill. The tower was built during the Depression, both to give people work and to commemorate the bravery of the firemen who fought the enormous blazes that threatened San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The interior of the tower, we’d read, was decorated with fabulous murals painted by Depression-era artists as part of FDR’s WPA program. And the view from both the parapets of Telegraph Hills and the tower were said to be magnificent. Since we had arrived on one of San Francisco’s few sunny days, it would be a sin not to take in the view.

But sins past present and future were what we were suddenly contemplating when we turned onto the road leading up Telegraph Hill and Christ was it steep.

Jay was driving and when he saw the hill he said, “Holy shit,” or something equally descriptive. The narrow road climbed at a crazy angle, kind of like the super steep “death hill” at the old wooden roller coaster at Long Beach Pike amusement park. We were all filled with sudden doubt that our trusty bus could make this climb.

Carol said, “Jay, don’t.”

But then some son of a bitch behind us laid down on his horn and then other motorists took up the clarion complaint, honk, honk and fucking honk. I peered out the back and saw a taxi behind us containing a driver with an unpleasant look on his face and several tourists. As I looked he gave me the finger and honked again.

Jay said, “Shit, there’s no place to turn around.” After a brief pause, he said, “Fuck it.” And he downshifted and stomped on the accelerator. It proved to be a mistake of the first order.

We started to climb, but very slowly. The traffic was extremely heavy and frequently everything came to a halt. Each time we stopped the son of a bitch cab driver would lead a blaring chorus of honking horns, as if to hoist the bus through sheer noise power. What’s worse, the hill kept getting steeper and each time we started up again it got harder for the bus to pull its great weight, which included not only its 32-passenger bus self, but the five of us, all our gear and the big sundeck, which was made of solid, stained and varnished wood.

The trick was you had to take your foot off the clutch, move it to the accelerator, and hope you could do it fast enough to move forward, instead of drifting back. This is easily done in a regular, stick shift car. Not so easily done in a very heavy 1940’s era school bus, whose reactions could sometimes be maddeningly slow.

Carol and Jack were screaming at Jay. Jason, being a little kid, was laughing his head off, shouting, “Go, Uncle Jay. Go. Go.”

I moved up behind Jay and I said, very low, “Remember, we have compound low.”

Now, for anyone who drives big vehicles, compound low is a tremendous thing. You go from first, then to compound low. You shift over to these very large gears with enormous sprockets and you use your engine power to drive yourself up over one hopefully very strong sprocket to the next. It isn’t fast and it isn’t pretty, but if the gear teeth don’t break off you can do maybe a quarter mile of an hour up a really, really steep incline.

Jay nodded and took a deep breath. He worked the gear shift – a slender black rod that rose out of the floor in a graceful arc and was topped by a worn black knob.

“Pull up on the emergency brake,” he said.

I pulled up on the emergency – a thick, short lever coming up just beside the driver’s seat. Jay gradually let up on the brake. The bus settled back a few inches, causing more horns to blare, but Jay shook it off.

“It’ll hold,” he said, with forced confidence.

I took a firm grip on the emergency brake and said, “Say when.”

“Give me a second,” Jay said. He did more deep breathing exercises. “Okay, let’s go,” he said, tromping on the accelerator and easing off the foot brake. “Now, you,” he said.

I started letting the emergency brake down. The bus engine howled like a banshee. She strained so hard that she shuddered and shook, but no matter how much gas Jay gave her, she slipped back and back.

Carol and Jack screamed something, I don’t know what, but I pulled up on the emergency brake, stopping the bus’s slow decline. Jay flat-footed the brake and we were holding on with double strength.

“See how I’m doing,” Jay said.

Okay, this was fairly unnecessary. He was doing like shit. But there were so many horns blaring around us, who could think straight? I walked to the back of the bus, ignoring Carol and Jack, who were pretty much in the third stages of panic.

Jason said, “I wanna see, dad.”

Brave lad. I hoisted him up and leaned down to look out the back window.


The rear end of the bus had engulfed the entire front end of the taxi. I was looking straight down through the windshield at this frightened asshole, who was honking his horn and his passengers were screaming and it was pretty much a mess, except the bus was so high off the ground that nobody had been hurt and nothing had been damaged. Not yet, at any rate.

The cabbie couldn’t back up because there was a sea of cars behind him, all bumper to bumper. In my professional opinion we were in a very deep shitter.

Cradling Jason I went back up to Jay and knelt down beside him.

I said, “You are almost against the cab’s window, Jay.”

He said, “Shit.”

Jason shouted, “Uncle Jay said shit… Uncle Jay said shit.”

Jay felt compelled to add, “Fuck.”

I shushed Jason before he could comment.

I said, “You almost had it last time. Just give it the gun, we’ll let off the brakes and we’ll go.”

Jay said, “I’m worried about the brakes.” Meaning, he was thinking about how they’d failed when I was driving back in Santa Barbara.

I said, “We’re using them now. They are holding just fine. But if you’re worried that they’re going let go, man, let’s get the hell out of here. We’re either going to be heroes or goats, Jay. Heroes or goats.”

Jay nodded. He settled back in his seat. I stuffed Jason between a front seat and the padded divider and told him to hold onto something. He held.

I got a grip on the emergency brake.

“Ready?” I said.

“Fucking go,” Jay croaked.

And we went through the same routine. Jay mashing the accelerator to the floor, while letting up on the foot brake, while I eased down on the emergency brake. Once again the bus engine let out a lion’s roar and the old body shook and shuddered, but this time, instead of sliding back, she crept forward.

“God damn,” Jay said. “God damn.”

Slowly, sprocket by sprocket, the bus climbed the hill.

Carol shouted, “You’re off the cab.”

Jack said, “Fuck you, too buddy.” He’d apparently seen the guy give him the finger in the mirror.

Jason yelled, “Hooray, Uncle Jay.”

Hooray, indeed.

Eventually, we made it to the top and parked. The cab driver let his fares out about twenty feet away and started toward the bus just as a shaken Jay was climbing off. I think the cabbie was thinking of making something of it, but Jay – who is the world’s nicest guy – was a rather large young man with a very full black beard recently returned from the harbor at Da Nang and right now he wasn’t feeling very nice, but more like Bluto, Popeye’s cranky sailor friend – and showed it. The cabbie did an about face and got the hell off the hill.

I don’t remember if we toured the tower, or not. We certainly didn’t take any pictures. What I do remember is helping my friends swallow many, many beers and smoke several joints as we gathered the courage to drive back down that damned hill.

Obviously we made it, but my memory skips a big beat here and the next thing I remember we were setting up camp in the redwood forests above San Francisco.

*     *     *

It’s true what they say about the redwoods – you feel as if you are a member of a pygmy tribal group gaping at a race of peaceful giants whose heads are so high above the Earth that no matter how far back you crane your neck, you can’t see the top. There’s also a cathedral quality about the forest, with the slanting rays of the sun becoming so defused that the forest floor is cast in a magical golden light.

At night the trees are so thick with foliage that no light can get through, no matter how starry the skies, or bright the moon. You literally cannot see your hand before your face. And if you switch on a Coleman lantern you only see things quite close to you. It’s as if the darkness is so thick that it can swallow light. You might see your friend’s face – but just the outline, with everything disappearing from the ears back. If you stretch out a walking stick into the dark, the ends of the stick will vanish.

The first evening we were there it was Pagan’s Night Out – all the WICCA groups from far and wide had gathered for some sort of witchy celebration and there were campfires and dancing young people everywhere. Jack and Jay wandered off and found some willing witches to pass the night with. Geesh, these guys were having way better luck than when they were back in LA.

After the redwoods, we made it as far as Gold’s Beach, where there was an abundance of fabulous driftwood that our artist friends back in Venice would have loved to get their hands on. We struggled with a few large pieces, but eventually gave it up, remembering how overloaded the bus was when we had attempted Coit Hill. No sense loading her down more.

We headed home, not stopping as often, because we had stretched our vacation time to the limits. Even so, we were feeling pretty relaxed – our minds stuffed with lovely images and new ideas and a damned good feeling about our g-g-generation – when we passed over the Ventura County line into Los Angeles County.

I was heading for the Venice Exit and smoking a joint when there was a loud “thunk.” Accompanying that “thunk” was a sudden loss of all forward power. The bus was drifting, slowing, slowing, but no matter how much gas I gave her, the engine revved but the bus did not respond. Cars honked and screeched around us, barely avoiding rear end collisions. Good thing for them, because we wouldn’t have felt it, but they certainly would.

Finally, I coaxed the bus over and thanked the gods above the brakes were still working. I drifted to a stop on the shoulder of the freeway – cars and big damned trucks were speeding by us at a tremendous rate.

We exchanged curses with the Fates and Jack and Jay crawled under the bus to see what was up. They quickly found the problem. One of the front brackets that held the drive train in place had broken. The part of the transmission that met the engine had come loose and was now drooping almost to the road.

The drive train is a very large and very important part of any motor vehicle. It is even bigger, and no less important, on a large vehicle like a school bus. It took the three of us at least an hour and a half of greasy heavy lifting to get it set back in place. We were covered with oil and our hands and knuckles were bleeding. We had no welding equipment to fix the bracket – nor money to call for help of that sort – so we tied the drive train to the undercarriage with several old coat hangars.

We set off – praying. But neither the prayers or coat hangars helped because after about a mile it happened again. I found some old yellow, plastic boat rope. We used that. Fortunately, I had yards of the stuff because the rope tended to get caught up and spin itself into oblivion.

We were on our last five feet of yellow plastic rope when we reached home. I coasted into a parking spot in front of our apartment. Tasha jumped up at the living room window and barked glad greetings. Roger, who had been taking care of the place in our absence, opened the door and came out. He had a six pack of beer in one hand and was waving a fat joint at us with another.

It had been a wondrous trip, but damn I was glad to be back in Venice.




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During the Vietnam war, GIs who managed to survive their tour of duty were flown home in chartered airliners, which they called “Freedom Birds.” This is the story of three young men – from  wildly different backgrounds – who meet on such a plane and make a pact to spend three days together in San Francisco. Their goal: to spend every cent of  their mustering out money in a party of  a lifetime. And they’ll get more than they bargained for: because when they land, it is July 1967 – in a time that would come to be known as “The Summer Of Love.” A place and time where each young man will have to confront the ghosts who followed them home from the jungles of Vietnam and contemplate a future none of them had imagined. 


The entire 8-novel landmark science fiction series is now being presented in three three giant omnibus editions from Orbit Books.  The First - BATTLECRY - features the first three books in the series: Sten #1; Sten #2 -The Wolf Worlds; and Sten #3, The Court Of A Thousand Suns. Next: JUGGERNAUT, which features Sten #4, Fleet Of The Damned; Sten #5, Revenge Of The Damned; and Sten #6, The Return Of The Emperor. Finally, there's DEATHMATCH, which contains Sten #6, Vortex; and Sten #7, End Of Empire. Click on the highlighted titles to buy the books. Plus, if you are a resident of The United Kingdom, you can download Kindle versions of the Omnibus editions. Which is one clot of a deal!

Here's the Kindle link for BATTLECRY
Here's the Kindle link for JUGGERNAUT
Here's the Kindle link for DEATHMATCH




Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.  




Venice Boardwalk Circa 1969
In the depths of the Sixties and The Days Of Rage, a young newsman, accompanied by his pregnant wife and orphaned teenage brother, creates a Paradise of sorts in a sprawling Venice Beach community of apartments, populated by students, artists, budding scientists and engineers lifeguards, poets, bikers with  a few junkies thrown in for good measure. The inhabitants come to call the place “Pepperland,” after the Beatles movie, “Yellow Submarine.” Threatening this paradise is  "The Blue Meanie,"  a crazy giant of a man so frightening that he eventually even scares himself. Here's where to buy the book. 


Diaspar Magazine - the best SF magazine in South America - is publishing the first novel in the Sten series in four 
episodes. Part One and Part Two appeared in back-to-back issues. And now Part Three has hit the virtual book stands.  Stay tuned, for the grand conclusion. Meanwhile, here are the links to the first three parts. Remember, it's free!

Coming soon: Part Four,
The Grand Finale 

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