The Wild West, My Family Gold Mine, a Bordello Holiday, and Big Alma
Around the start of the last century, my grandfather and his cousin found gold on a slope an hour west of Mount Shasta, as the crow flies. They lost no time homesteading a hundred forested acres around their mining claim.
Not much gold emerged after that initial strike on Scott Mountain. No matter: each summer several families of Smiths and Van Nesses trekked some three hundred miles from San Francisco and Oakland to camp out while they worked the mine and fished the high lakes of Trinity and Siskiyou counties. Eventually they built cabins. According to my father, the boys used serial pints of firewater to induce “Indian John,” to do most of the heavy work.
My grandmother Anne and Grace Van Ness were best friends, small, sharp-tongued matriarchs dressed in no-nonsense jeans and gingham shirts, who kept their children, grandchildren and–to a lesser degree their husbands–in some kind of order. They went together to provision the camps in the little valley towns of Callahan and Etna. Most mornings there were sourdough pancakes on the wood stove, and most nights there was a lot of drinking and a campfire with marshmallows and tallish tales.
The families eventually ramified into two camps, separated only by a few hundred yards of creek and boulders. In time, notably after one Van Ness girl jilted one Smith boy, the families began to pull apart. The Van Nesses, although they generally had more money at hand than the Smiths, decided to sell off part of their half to lumber interests.
After the death of Granna Anne, the Smiths had their own problems. One cousin took over the mountain camp and let it be known that she had no use for professors like my husband, who had also been known to go fishing with a Van Ness elder.
After some ten years of summer exile, our enterprising son (also a professor, notably of Californian & Peruvian Indians ) decided to rent a small hotel in the Scott Valley, where our branch of the family could gather and make forays to the familiar lakes and swimming holes. The Collier Hotel in the town of Etna, with six bedrooms and several common rooms, served our needs perfectly.
We all assumed that our gracious inn was the former home of the late Randolph Collier, a California state senator known as the Silver Fox of the Siskiyous. A strapping fellow with a thatch of white hair, he had been able to secure regular servings from the pork barrel for his home county. He never saw a local bridge that didn’t need re-building, and the Collier-Burns Act of 1947 financed a surge of highway building that made California’s freeways famous for a time. (Note: my father, seeing the main chance to support his family after the war, became a highway engineer, although he had always disliked cars and driving.)
Just now, in the course of my usual desultory research, I learned that the Collier Hotel, with its gracious southern-style verandah, had been purpose-built in 1897 as a brothel. I’m supposing that the rest of the family may think this is rather jolly. Some of us grew up with Westerns where the heroine was Miss Kitty, the local madam with a heart of gold, or someone very like her.
The Collier Hotel’s latest hosts are a lovely woman, born a Karuk Indian, and her amiable husband, a Desert Storm vet. The Karuk, Klamath, and Shasta tribes are survivors. Countless Indians died in the western takeover of the Scott Valley. Though there were no Catholic missions in the north, perhaps the number who died of disease and preventive scalpings equaled those who died under the Christian fathers in the south of the state. (Children in California public schools still study the missions, but they do have more information than we did in the 1950s.)
Etna, an old ranch town in the Scott River valley, pop. 737 (down 50 from last census) has a barbershop, an excellent hardware store and a small supermarket. You might see a cow or more likely a deer wandering down Main Street. For a while there was a fine little Vietnamese restaurant in town, but the locals never warmed to it, and the family moved on. I didn’t need to ask: Trump is undoubtedly the local choice. Etna has no newspaper now, but in 1900 there were two, feuding of course. One editor called the other “a pin-headed cur”.
Some weeks later, back in the Bay Area, a journalist friend recommended a show on the American West at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, our prettiest and certainly our most pretentious local museum, sited dramatically near the Golden Gate bridge. Built at the whim of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the museum is a copy of the French pavilion in the 1915 Panama-Pacific exposition, which was itself (tmi) a scaled-down copy of the Legion of Honor in Paris.
About the same time that gold was being discovered on Scott Mountain, “Big Alma,” the daughter of Danish (!) immigrants, was a popular San Francisco artists’ model. After sugar tycoon Adolph Spreckels made so to speak an honest woman of her, she went to Paris to consort with Rodin, Loie Fuller, and other arty types, and to buy bushels of art for her collection.
At another San Francisco museum, the De Young, you can view Ed Ruscha with his dependably wry perspective on the American West. Let’s leave it there, for now.
From Tania’s Assault Rifle to Assad’s Instagrams
On February 4, 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment. The following months of hysteria led eventually to today’s saturation broadcasting, live and worldwide, of breaking news of terror and violence. Mini-cameras in front of a Los Angeles bungalow relayed the shootout and incineration of Hearst’s captors to millions of American living rooms.
In the earlier 1970s there was no shortage of bombings and terrorist attacks at home and abroad. But only with the advent of live television coverage in real time did audiences gain immediate access to crime scenes, the victims, the grievers, the shooters and their agonized parents, teachers, and therapists. Then there was international renown on social media, inspiring homegrown psychopaths and jihadists alike. Campaigns such as “Zero Minutes of Fame” and “No Notoriety” ask news outlets to minimize shooters’ names and images.
Patty Hearst’s Berkeley apartment was one street over from our house, although we were living in Italy during that cold winter of her kidnapping, the oil embargo and Nixon’s impeachment. My husband was teaching a seminar at the University of Perugia, on the American presidency–far outside his field of Italian art and cultural history, but of great interest to the local leftists.
While Italy’s Red Brigade revolutionaries were better organized than the Symbionese Liberation Army, they were just beginning to wreak the havoc that culminated in the kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978, and the Bologna railroad station bombing in 1980.
The Watergate scandal fascinated Italian friends. Their alarm at political corruption was not triggered by the low-level shenanigans of Nixon and his “plumbers”. Having succumbed to nine years of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister, Italians know the power of a mouthy, narcissistic, misogynist demagogue. Not until the January 6 attack on the Capitol did Italy–and the world, see the present dangers.
At the time of Watergate, Hearst, a 19 year-old transfer student at Berkeley when she was kidnapped and recruited by the S.L.A., had declared an art history major.
Sadly, it was her attachment to an Olmec carving given her by a slain S.L.A. comrade that helped to convict her as voluntary accessory to murder.
SLA chief Donald DeFreeze was enrolled in a U.C. extension course on world history, for which I happened to be the reader. DeFreeze, taking the course from Vacaville Prison, had seemed barely literate, but did write a few labored lines on a number of assignments. He didn’t finish, presumably because he was transferred to Soledad, where he soon escaped. I was vaguely uneasy while DeFreeze was still at large, and student revenge has indeed motivated the murder of more than one professor. DeFreeze died in the Los Angeles police raid.
Another student in that “postal” survey of world history was Edna Ann from Ketchikan. At the end of her carefully completed assignments, Edna Ann always appended some personal news…the spring thaw, the salmon fishing, her garden. I sent her an occasional postcard from Italy. At that point Alaska had been a state for fifteen years. What did she make of Sarah Palin–and now of Donald Trump?
Every news magazine cover in those years showed Patty Hearst, as the revolutionary “Tania,” with her pale cheekbones and dark combat gear, her jubilation at presidential clemency, her wedding to her [check] and finally, her pardon.
Newspapers and television were supplanted by social media and the internet from the very start of the Syrian civil war, now in its tenth year. In March of 2011, the initial protests and crackdowns in Dar’aa were spread by amateur phone videos and quickly inflamed the entire country. Not all of the videos were authentic: one purported to show freshly-dug mass graves outside Dar’aa, and not until it had gone viral did someone notice that the license plate on a truck in the video was Iraqi, and perhaps the gravesite as well.
The ensuing violence was such that journalists, officially banned from the country, were being killed right and left. Correspondents from the major news sources began to send dispatches from Lebanon and even further afield. Meanwhile the smartphone and the internet became the instruments of both the rebels and the regime. Each has maintained a staff and budget for serious propaganda creation. Funds for rebel efforts are estimated to be in the millions of dollars from internet organizers in the Persian gulf states alone.
Bashar al-Assad’s Instagram site today has more than 60,000 followers. His winsome wife, Asma, was the subject of a puff piece in Vogue Magazine published in the first weeks of the war in Syria and then hastily killed. I read the interview before it was pulled, and it depicted her believably as an attractive, socially responsible young mother with extremely expensive shoes. These days, the Instagram photos show her meeting with wounded soldiers or playing with orphaned children. The subtext is clearly to show that her husband, the mild-mannered ophthalmologist, is unlikely to be the perpetrator of chemical and barrel bomb attacks on his own people.
On Instagram, we could also view Bashar al-Assad shaking hands with Putin, and indeed Russia remains his most important supporter in the efforts to end the long and disastrous war.