Ed. Note: This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, most likely in the spring of 1989. If anyone knows more precisely when it was published, I’d appreciate your letting me know. If you’ve been reading Spy Rock Memories, you might get a bit more out of the local references it contains.
There’s this story, probably apocryphal, as most good stories are, about this guy who wandered across the American West in the latter part of the 19th century, always staying just a step ahead of the encroaching frontier.
When asked how he decided when it was time to stop and settle for a spell, and when it was time to pack up and head out for the territories, he’s supposed to have said, “Well, when I’m fixing to stay put, I look for a spot with plenty of water, a pleasant view, and no more than a day’s easy ride from a good saloon. And the way I know that it’s time to move on is when I see the first church steeple poking up over the horizon.”
Now up here in Laytonville, we haven’t got much in the way of church steeples, being that no one has yet figured out how to build anything that high, but the folks down at Yahoos For Jesus, Inc. on the south end of town have done the next best thing by throwing up an electric cross just like the kind they have down at the rescue mission in the big city, only this one doesn’t have a flashing neon “Jesus Saves” in the middle of it.
The Community Cretin Church, as some of us less charitable folks are likely to slip up and call it when we’ve been standing out in the brutal north county sun a little too long, sits alongside beautiful Highway 101, and along with the Gourmet Hot Dog stand and its proudly waving Confederate flag is one of the first indications to approaching motorists that they’re about to enter the quaint little hamlet of Laytonville.
Now Laytonville and I have this weird love-hate relationship, or more to the point, I love Laytonville and Laytonville hates me. But having been raised a good Catholic, I was taught to believe that suffering is good for the soul, and having grown up in Detroit, I was led to believe that nothing is more important than soul. So it was that my cosmic destiny led me to Laytonville, possibly the only place in California with weather as bad as Michigan, and certainly the only place with a culture that seldom surpasses that of my 10th grade phys ed class.
Among the amenities which Laytonville most sorely lacks is a sense of humor, unless you count the drollery implicit in the annual cow plop contest. Not that there aren’t folks always trying to liven things up a bit; it’s just that for one reason or another, nobody ever seems to get the joke.
For example, just a couple weeks ago I read in the Anderson Valley Advertiser about Laytonville’s famous standup comedian, Bill Bailey. Now would you believe it, but if I didn’t subscribe to this out-of-town newspaper (and that’s not something I like to get around, being as how it gets tiresome having people come up to me saying, “What’s the matter, your own hometown paper ain’t good enough for you?”), I wouldn’t even know that Bill had achieved such fame in the world at large, because you sure don’t ever see anybody laughing at him around here.
But then Bill’s got a tough row to hoe in this town, what with old Art Harwood trying to horn on his act. I mean after you’ve seen Bill run through his repertoire of chainsaw tricks and warn us that the communists over in Willits might come swooping down over the hill any day now, you’re liable to say so what, I could hear the same load of codswallop down at Boomer’s Bar any night of the week and twice on Tuesdays, so long as I’m willing to set up a couple rounds of drinks for the boys. Now Art’s a newcomer to the comedy game, but he uncorked a real doozy to launch his career, some story about how we needed to fight back against the greenhouse effect by cutting down all the old growth forests.
It’s true that Art pretty much stole that whole story right out of the official Ronald Reagan joke book and government manual (see the chapter about trees causing more pollution than cars, right after the one about the welfare mothers in their Cadillacs jamming up traffic so bad on check day the decent folks couldn’t even get to work or the five and dime), but that book is one of a number that most Laytonvillians haven’t gotten around to reading just yet.
Anyway, in addition to trying to break into the comedy circuit, Art has gotten together with brother Bud to form the Hardwood Extermination Corporation, which plans to build some sort of incinerator on the site currently occupied by the city of Willits, and a lot of locals were pretty peeved about it when they found out that Laytonville was going to miss out on the prestige of having the highest smokestack north of Petaluma. Art has consoled them a little bit by promising to consider using Laytonville as a disposal site for the toxic wastes generated down at the Biomess Plant.
Folks are a little miffed, too, about this new feller who bought up the Laytonville Ledger, and set out to turn it in to a real newspaper. Now it’s true the old Ledger didn’t ever have much news in it, but that saved people having to waste a lot of time reading it. Now we’ve got ourselves a paper that’s practically as big as the Ukiah Daily Urinal after you take out the supermarket supplements, and what does this feller do but go and change the name of it to the Mendocino County Observer? He says the reason for that is that the paper is now a county-wide paper, which I guess it is if you figure the county to only go from Willits to Leggett, and if that’s what we have to do to get rid of Ukiah, it’s fine with me. But some of us figure this editor is just plain ashamed to have the name Laytonville on the front page of his fancy new rag.
But hell, Laytonville ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. The way I figure, it’s like having a chronic illness, or maybe like being one of those special children they have the Olympics for. You learn to make the best of it, and besides, it builds character.
Anyway, this new editor must be one lucky guy, because after about ten years of nothing much happening in Laytonville, all hell has broken loose . It’s got so he doesn’t even have to do much writing himself; every week he just prints a few pages of letters from our town’s leading citizens calling each other names. Hooo-eeee, the fur that’s been flying, you’d never guess that these were the same people you saw a year or two back hobnobbing at the rodeo or taking up a collection for the ambulance or figuring which field to pave over next. You have to wonder if they’ll ever be able to talk to each other again, or if they’ll have to spend the rest of their lives writing letters to the editor when they want to communicate. On the other hand, seeing how the Republicans and Democrats always seem to kiss and make up (and lately they haven’t even been waiting till after the election), I suppose things will get back to normal some day.
What all this fuss is about might not seem too important to you folks living in more sophisticated places. If your local version of Donald Trump sends a bulldozer through your living room wall one morning because he’s decided it’s time for you to go condo, or the neighborhood crack dealer has started using your kids for target practice, I can understand you thinking, hmmph, those Laytonville hicks sure know how to get all het up over nothing. But what we’re trying to decide here, and what has turned neighbor against neighbor, husband against wife, you know, all that miniseries stuff, is the question of where we’re going to build our new high school.
Not everybody is even sure exactly why we’re building a new high school, but I guess that part’s already been settled. The way I hear it happened, well, it’s like this… You ever go down to the car dealer to get some minor repair done, oh I don’t know, maybe an oil leak or a cracked tail light, and this fast talking salesman starts in about gee, I don’t know if this old heap is worth fixing up, I mean it looks like the other tail light’s about to go too, and that turn signal looks a little shaky, and before you know it, you’ve traded in your car for fifty bucks and you’re driving away in a brand new Detroit luxury smogmobile and wondering whether you really should have taken out a second mortgage on the house and wiped out the kids’ college savings account? Well no, you’re probably too smart for that to happen, but you probably know someone, right?
Well apparently the school district was a little worried about the condition of the high school gym, namely that it might fall down, so they got this architect to come out and have a look-see. And lo and behold, the next thing we know, he’s saying the whole school is beyond repair, but not to worry, because he can put together a whole new one for us for only three or four million bucks, of which he’ll only take ten percent. And what’s more, he’ll even help us fill out all those papers so we can get free money from the state to pay for it.
The idea of free money, especially from the government, always has a certain appeal, and when you consider that no one in Laytonville has ever been known to pay taxes of any kind, it’s not surprising that people said, hell yes, why not have those pointy head bureaucrats in Sacramento send up a couple boxcars full of loot that they stole from all those suckers who work for a living? What with the marijuana trade all but wiped out, the logging business disappearing on a fast boat to Japan, and crank labs the only growth industry around, a few million bucks couldn’t help but do some good for what’s left of an economy hereabouts.
Money is like fertilizer, my Uncle Will used to always say, though he used a more vernacular term. It don’t do any good unless you spread it around. And most people here in Laytonville share that philosophy; they’re just having a bit of difficulty figuring out which field this particular load of manure should get dumped on.
You may remember a while back me mentioning something about the Community Cretin Church, which I realize is kind of a mean name to call someone’s religion, even if that religion seems like a holy roller version of old Ayatollah Whathisface. My mother told me to always be respectful of other people’s beliefs, no matter how stupid they are. But the line between religion and high finance often gets so blurry that you don’t know which one you’re talking about, so when in doubt I follow my dad’s advice, which was that the more money a person has, or tries to have, the greater the likelihood of that person being a crook.
Some of the movers and shakers at this particular church appear to be graduates of the James Watt school of divinity, which holds that on the eighth day God created twelve square miles of tract homes and a 7-11. One of them, a Mr. Arreola, is the nominal owner of the Circle 101 Ranch (the real owner is a southern California mortgage company), of which the church occupies a small corner. Mr. Arreola has been trying for years to get the Circle 101 rezoned from ag land to residential so he could put up a subdivision before either the Lord or the finance company returned.
Only trouble was, there were no sewers, no utilities, and no streets on the property, and Mr. Arreola, figuring as how he was doing Laytonville the great favor of helping it grow, didn’t think he should have to pay to put them in. Besides, thanks to all those damn hippie environmentalist terrorists that have taken over our county government, it’s pretty hard to get land taken out of ag preserve status.
I don’t know if it was the Lord, or possibly someone operating from a warmer location, who came up with the plan to get around all this, but it was a doozy. It seems that school districts have the power to overturn zoning regulations without even having to explain why. So if, for example, the Laytonville schools were to buy twenty acres of swampland on one corner of the ranch, put in a quarter million dollar dewatering system, and build the new high school there, chances were that Arreola Acres would finally get off the ground after all.
This is where most of us came in. Now maybe we were not living up to our civic responsibility to be informed about such things, but you’ve got to admit that attending site selection meetings is not the most exciting way of passing your time. So I didn’t start giving the issue any serious thought until Mr. Bill Evans wrote a letter to the paper claiming that to move the high school over to the south side of town would change the whole ecological balance and future growth pattern of Laytonville. Mr. Buckley, the superintendent of schools, replied that Mr. Evans just didn’t want kids taking short cuts across his property on their way to the new school, and the discussion has been headed downhill ever since.
Along about this same time, a bunch of folks from the north side of town got in the act, claiming that the high school should be over there. Now I don’t suppose there’s any sort of coincidence, but it so happens that the Weavers, who are a big part of the opposition, are building their own subdivision, which leads me to wonder just who is going to live in all these new houses. Leastways I haven’t noticed any long lines forming outside the real estate offices.
Then there’s Sheila Larson, who some of you may remember is the lady who wanted to put Margie Handley’s asphalt batch plant next door to the old high school a couple years back. Well, Sheila seems to have been inspired by the example of our new president, and decided to get into the education thing. So now she’s saying that instead of a batch plant, maybe she’d rather have a new high school. And though she doesn’t really want to sell the land, for the good of the kids she might be willing to let it go for, say, $250,000.
I won’t be either the first or last to observe that you’d be lucky to get that kind of money for all of downtown Laytonville, unless maybe you threw in Bill Bailey’s fancy house and Jaguar sports car, but the handful of folks who seem to be deciding this thing for us hardly batted an eye. A quarter million to dewater the swamp, a quarter million to buy Boomer’s back yard (Boomer’s is Sheila’s bar, for you real foreigners), hell, it’s only money.
There are also a few individuals, slow learners I suppose, who still haven’t grasped that the point of this game is to spend as much of the government’s money as possible, and are suggesting, hey, why don’t we just fix up the school we’ve got, where we already own the land, already have an athletic field, and which is within three minutes walking distance of all the beautiful shops, boutiques, and fine dining establishments of downtown Laytonville?
Mr. Buckley claims that it would cost three million bucks to do that, in other words just about what it would to build a whole new school. How does he know that? Well, the architect told him so, though you kind of have to wonder about how unbiased his judgment is, since architects tend to make their money building new things, not repairing old ones. He also says that the current location isn’t big enough for the kind of high school our students deserve, which I imagine is the kind of sprawling suburban split-level ranch model campus you see the brats hanging around down there in the wrong end of the state.
On the other hand, you could try something really radical, like building two or even three floors, one on top of another. You know, with stairs and everything. Probably a crazy idea, but hell, it worked for my high school; we managed to get 750 students into a building that took up less than half of a city block. And while they were building it, we moved across the street into the elementary school. Yeah, it was a little crowded, and we hated having to rub shoulders with the little kids, but we got ourselves a well-constructed school in less time than folks have spent arguing about this one here in Laytonville, and the last I looked, it’s still doing fine, 35 years later.
Of course we were Catholics, and you couldn’t expect normal children to put up with that kind of inconvenience. But it might be worth mentioning that despite cramped conditions, class sizes twice the size of the public schools, and even having to share textbooks, every single member of my graduating class was admitted to college (I of course distinguished myself by being the first to get kicked out). Sure, a number of us suffered permanent emotional damage, but what system is perfect?
At any rate, it was psychotic nuns, not our surroundings that impinged on our enjoyment of the educational experience. Which brings me to the latest argument in favor of building a new high school: a number of amateur psychologists, and even a professional one, have written in to say that our kids are suffering from low self-esteem from having to attend such a dilapidated school. This in fact is supposed to explain why the kids got some pretty low test scores.
While I don’t put too much stock in test scores, they did look pretty dismal, especially the one in “direct writing,” whatever that is, which ranked the kids in the 6th percentile. Given the literacy level of the average American, that would appear to put them somewhere between my dog and a banana slug. Mr. Buckley had to take up a whole column of his “District Dialogue” column (which, if I wanted to be a nitpicker, I could point out is not a dialogue at all, but a monologue) to explain why the scores weren’t as bad as they might look. He managed to put my fears to rest a bit, though I’d say maybe he could use a little of that “direct writing” himself, because it took me three tries before I could get all the way through it.
Well, that’s where it stands now. Bill Bailey, who used to be on the school board, got mad and quit one day, and another member died, so they appointed a couple new members who were going to vote to go through with the 101 site, and then everyone was going to sue everybody and have special elections, and the rate things are going, they might as well move classes into the empty rooms above Boomer’s Bar, except I think Sheila just rented them out to a new computer place. Well, school’ll be out for the summer soon, anyhow. I guess we can worry about it again next fall.
That’s about all from Laytonville, unless you want to mention the new “conservative” columnist the Observer has added to its staff. You’d think the Reaganoid crackpots would be content to turn “liberal” into a dirty word, but they seem determined to do the same thing to “conservative.” At least the way I see it, a conservative should want to conserve something, but to this fellow, a Mr. Don Wilson, “conservative” is apparently shorthand for, “Let’s send in the marines. And nuke everyone too, to be on the safe side.”
His latest candidates for military action are Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega (in addition to the marines, he suggests going after those two “with a baseball bat”) and the ever popular pot growers, if indeed any can still be found in the north county. In a recent brainstorm, he urged the sheriff to station deputies at the bottom of roads like Spy Rock and write down the license numbers of people carrying loads of dirt or gardening supplies up into the hills. We are expecting him to any day now call for martial law to be established at the Laytonville Middle School and firing squads brought in to eliminate the vicious crew of eighth grade pot dealers who have been hooking their schoolmates on the seductive devil weed. Curious about whether Mr. Wilson was planning to become personally involved in any of these endeavors, I did check with the US Marine recruiting office down in Ukiah, but they said that he hadn’t yet been in to volunteer.
And one last bit of local color: a couple weeks ago a girl accepted a ride home from some no-goodniks who attempted to rape her. This was up in one of those remote locations where even the sheriff doesn’t generally go unless he’s got a CAMP copter and an armored personnel carrier or two backing him up. Well, some of the local residents came to her rescue and in the process administered a little frontier justice to the perpetrators. When they were safely down in the county jail, one of the offenders complained to a deputy, “Boy, that was the meanest bunch of rednecks I ever did see.” The deputy laughed and said, “Rednecks! Man, those were just peace-loving hippies. You’ll know it if you ever meet up with any of our rednecks.”