Monday, September 20, 2010
I was born on January first, in a Washington, DC hospital, in the year of 1942. I was not the first child of the year but I was the first child of my parents, Worden Calhoun McDonald and Florence Plotnick. I was to learn many decades later that they were not legally married, a fact confirmed by the records kept by the FBI on my parents’ lives. My mother once growled at me, “We planned every child,” and I assumed that was the case, but my father confessed one day after I was grown that his mother had come to visit and see the new one-and-a-half-year-old grandbaby and so they “got married then.”
All that aside, I was loved and my parents stayed married and were together almost every day for the rest of their lives. My mother lived into her seventies and my father into his eighties, and they died a year apart, both from cancer.
Less than three years after my birth, my sister Nancy Victoria was born. These were troubled times for Eastern European emigrants and socialists, and my parents followed my mother’s parents’ lead and moved to Los Angeles County where my grandfather Harry Plotnick had a dry cleaning and tailor shop. My dad put in for a transfer from his Bell Telephone Company job and got work in the L.A. office. We settled in Culver City where I went to kindergarten and got my first guitar lessons.
The family took the train across the country and my dad proudly told the story of how I would order breakfast of “sausage and eggs” in the train dining car. He was probably remembering when he “rode the rails” during the Great Depression as a hobo either on the top of the cars or in a box car with many, many other hungry unemployed hobos. After our stay of not quite two years in Culver City, my folks found a house to buy in the sleepy little San Gabriel Valley town of El Monte, where I remained until I enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17, after graduation from Arroyo High School.
As a full-grown man after my father’s death, I went with my cousin Bob McDonald to the little Oklahoma town of Sallisaw, where my father had grown up. I realized how similar El Monte and Sallisaw were. Little wonder that my father had chosen to settle in that place on a quarter-acre lot with a two-story house and immediately planted fruit trees and a vegetable garden and acquired chickens, rabbits, and even several horses. He was reliving some aspect of his childhood on McDonald Hill in Sallisaw, growing up on Old McDonald’s Farm.
In El Monte, when I was ten, my brother Billy, William Patton McDonald, was born, and it was the three children and Mom and Dad for the rest of our lives. At the age of ten I was taken to a music store and asked to blow into several instruments, and it was decided I should play the trombone in the elementary school orchestra. Thus began my musical career. We often saw my grandparents, my mother’s parents Harry and Bessie, and Bessie’s sister Aunt Rose and Uncle Louie Zelman. The two sisters had come over together from Russia, got married on the East Coast, and moved to the West Coast at about the same time. My mother said they always wanted to be together. My grandfather Harry, I am told, was a Zionist and my grandmother Bessie a Communist. They fought over politics their whole life. Bessie had red hair and the conservative Plotnicks of Richmond, Virginia called her “Bessie the Red.”
A family story was that sometimes customers would ask Harry if he had a wife and he would reply, “Oye, do I have a wife?!” in typical Jewish joke style with his Russian accent. Bessie took my mother to Communist Party meetings in Washington, DC from a very early age, and both women seemed to love meetings and socialism their whole lives. My mother late in her life became a political driving force in our hometown of Berkeley, California. She was the most elected politician ever, they say, holding office of Rent Control Board, City Council, and City Auditor. My father hated meetings.
On the other side of the family, my grandmother Emma had happily married a Presbyterian minister, James Angus McDonald, who had four children from a previous marriage. She was young, and a friend said at the time “Poor Emma has had her last peaceful day.” She went on to have five children with my grandfather, two of whom died. She played the piano in the church and held the farm and the family together for decades with a smile and loving attitude. She always lived a life of Christian grace.
After the Depression and early death of my grandfather, Emma moved to Fullerton, California and lived with my Aunt Beatrice, my father’s older sister, and her husband Ralph. She passed away at 93. She always stayed on the sunny side of life and my father was the youngest and her baby. Both grandmothers, besides being very different politically and socially, were a strong positive force.
But that was the end of family in my life for some reason I have never understood. Probably it was politics. But even my father’s brother Angus told my cousin Henry to “go around Oklahoma, it is not worth seeing.” I don’t know about the estrangement of the Plotnicks but my mom always said, “We don’t believe blood is thicker than water.”
It is a fact that there were terrible wars in Oklahoma over communism. It’s something we don’t hear about in books and school. But people shot each other over politics. And of course my mother married a non-Jewish person, which was reason to disown someone in an Orthodox family.
Although we were loved and well taken care of as children, ours was not a very affectionate home. The Great Depression, the Russian and German pogroms, the Holocaust, World War II, the struggle for equal rights for African Americans, the struggle for the right to have unions for working people, and later the Un-American Communist witch hunts of the 50s took their toll on Mom and Dad. There was little to none of hugging and kissing and open affection and a kind of starkness and spareness to our lives as far as the home life was concerned.
My father turned our yard into a beautiful place of greenery. He planted fruit trees that bloomed and bore fruit and corn and other vegetables and we had dogs and rabbits and chickens and a horse and a donkey once and goats and pigs. He taught me how to be a farmer on our little piece of property there in L.A. County, and we even broke a horse together – that is, to teach a horse how to be comfortable with a rider on it and obey commands of turn left, turn right, and stop and go and stuff.
Our town had a mostly dry river bed running through it. Perhaps it was the San Gabriel River? I would ride Rebel, the horse my dad and I had broken, in the river bed, bareback at times (without a saddle). I was so small that if I fell off I would have to find a rock or something to climb up on to get back on him. He was a gelding, “cut proud” as my father used to say. A gelding is a male horse that has been castrated. “Cut proud”: I guess meant that he still had spirit. He was a pinto, brown and white. I have an old family shot of Rebel with his front feet up on a wooden platform, doing a kind of trick, with my sister on his back. I would gallop him through the dry river bed with my BB gun. It was a Red Ryder BB rifle model. My dad had taught me that if you whistled, a running rabbit would stop and listen and then you could get a “bead,” or take aim at it and shoot. That is what I did. I don’t remember ever hitting one.
There were lots of adventures there in that river bed. It was large. It had a rock crusher in it – a big bunch of machinery that crushed up rocks into gravel. It also had a “skeet shoot.” A place that fired clay Frisbee-like things up into the air and people shot them with rifles out of the air to practice shooting. Funny thing is, I have no memory of ever seeing anyone using the rock crusher of the “skeet shoot.” But I would pick up the broken skeets as souvenirs. I don’t remember anyone else riding with me in the river bed. I would pretend to be a cowboy and go up and down grades of sand with that Southern California landscape of brush and stuff. Dad used to sometimes take Rebel, or other horses we sometimes had, and make them run in the sand. It wore them out, he said, so that they were less inclined to misbehave. A horse that has too much energy or wants to misbehave can be a problem. It can throw you off by bucking or shying, moving suddenly to the side or even bite you or kick you. My dad said that a hand-fed colt that is treated like a pet can be a real pest later in life as it will just come into the house like a dog or cat. I like that image.
After Dad and I broke Rebel to the saddle he was very gentle but he was young and full of energy. One day as I was riding around the backyard bareback, he took off in a canter in that small space and I slid off his back and fell in front of him lying on my back. I remember looking up into those big round intelligent eyes and seeing that enormous hoof coming down on my face. Our eyes made contact and he lifted his hoof and I was not even scratched. Horses are amazing animals.
Dad was good at understanding the boundaries of animals with people but I don’t think he understood the boundaries of normal relationships between people. He said he always go along better with animals than people. My dad always said whenever I was thrown off a horse, “You have to get back on the horse if it throws you, otherwise the horse will think you are afraid of it and you will think you are afraid.”
In his autobiography An Old Guy Who Feels Good, he said he discovered early on when he was a traveling cowboy that if he could back a horse into a corner and get a good look into its eyes, he and the horse could come to an agreement and could work together. I think that his advice about getting back on the horse is good in moderation. Both he and I seemed to be a bit obsessive-compulsive about this. I remember in the 60s Barry Melton and I would take LSD together and sit with the Timothy Leary Tibetan Book of the Dead and light candles and read and read and read, trying to understand the bardo thing. First bardo, second bardo, and lining up your chakras and all that. We would start laughing because we just could not get what the heck he was talking about. Maybe he was talking about nothing, I don’t know, but we did that many times. Too many times. It started to be nonsense.
I got into reading the I Ching, Chinese Book of Changes, in the 60s and the Tarot Cards. I did the same thing with them. I would read the cards many times in a row and toss the coins over and over until the oracle, like a good sponsor, would get sick of my behavior and tell me to go do something else and stop thinking about myself and my future. I remember that when the rains would come to El Monte, the river bed would fill with water and we would take inner tubes and float down the river. It was great fun, one of the few things I did with other children. Us guys would start somewhere and float as long as we could without having to hike back too far. I also remember having BB gun pretend-war fights in the river bed with other kids.
Things changed when I was twelve years old. That was the year that the California Un- American Activities Committee served my father with a subpoena to appear before it and testify as to his knowledge of communist activities. He was working for the Los Angeles Bell Telephone Company and no longer a member of the Communist Party. My parents were in the Progressive Party then. They tried to serve my mother with papers but never did. My sister Nancy tells me that Mom sent her to the door to tell the FBI guys that she was not home.
But my father testified. He took the Fifth Amendment. He refused to tell them anything on grounds that it might incriminate him. He was then given the choice of getting fired from his job or quitting. He quit. He was very close to having a vested pension plan. He had worked nineteen years for the telephone company. He got nothing. It makes sense that my father would quit. He was proud. He was a strong, silent, farm-boy type – an easy type to take advantage of. He would not argue and defend himself with a lawyer and stuff like a city person might have done. It was hard after that. He said one day that he remembered that when he would go into a store as an employee of the telephone company the ladies “would treat you with such respect.” Well, they sure did not treat him as a suspected communist enemy of the country with respect. And we began a downward social and financial decline.