I Was a Girl Guide for the Reds (Part IV) W-I-P

This is the beginning of a draft…

Premier Khrushchev certainly took a long time getting here! We first had to stand and watch a grand parade of soldiers and sailors in their uniforms, and factory workers wearing Soviet overalls, followed by some clowns and circus acrobats, tumbling over each other and turning cartwheels in the street, while Soviet jet planes roared overhead.

Then some musicians: an army band, then a few violinists from the Bolshoi Ballet, with dancers leaping behind. And then a long line of negroes in bright red bandmaster tunics and shakos, playing accordions and glockenspiels and many banjos. They would play “Oh Dem Golden Slippers” and spin around in the street, just like the Mummers in Philadelphia do, only of course they were actual negroes, not just Pennsylvania Dutch people in blackface.

“Where did they get so many musicians of color?” asked one of my schoolmates.

“They bring them in from around world,” Comrade Teacher answered. “Give big scholarships to Moscow University so world sees Soviet Union loves people of black skin and fat lips. No race prejudice in Communist lands, unlike fascist Federal Republic of America!”

In Bulgaria, America was always referred to as “fascist Federal Republic.”

Strangle enough, the negro musicians now were playing and singing a religious song. It was about how saints would come marching into Heaven, and the musicians would be playing for them when that happened. The negroes played and sang in single file, breaking into a snake dance that wove this way and that as they paraded up the street.

Khrushchev arrives on float, waving to the crowds. Principal of school leads him into the drill hall and we follow

inside head… ‘back in Kursk Oblast, we have expression when one is ashamed, ‘I want to climb inside myself. And here am I, ha ha! And I am not ashamed!’

Jokes about holy chrism. “I see atheism is not yet perfect in this school. Ha ha, no matter. It is same back in Kursk Oblast. Old babushkas, they always cross themselves when I come to town”

But teacher is mad and I hide beneath the wooden bleacher seats in the drill hall because the police are coming to get me to introduce me to Khrushchev. “Ha ha, maybe little Amerikanski pupil, she is ashamed!”

I slip out the doorway when no one is looking and decide to try the American Embassy. “We knew you’d come back,” they’d say. “They always do.” While I was thinking of this,


| Published in Uncategorized

I Was a Girl Guide for the Reds (Part III)

I was very proud of our Nikita Khrushchev head. When we ran out of papier-mâché and had to scrounge around for extra rubbish to close the hole in Khrushchev’s cranium, I was fortunate to find many scraps of things I had written in my desk at school. I kept the scraps there because there was a paper shortage and we were supposed to use any blank side of our writing paper.

I climbed inside the head next day to admire my handiwork. I noticed you could still read some of my scribbles in the papier-mâché at the top of the inside of Khrushchev’s cranium. For example, there was my essay that was supposed to be about the importance of atheism, though it was really just something I remembered from catechism class at St-Eustache. The people at school wouldn’t have known that because they couldn’t read English, and anyway my handwriting was bad:

Holy chrism is a mixture of olive oil and balm, blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. Confirmation is the sacrament in which the Holy Ghost comes to us in a special way, to make us strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ.

You could only make out a few words from the papier-mâché: “Holy chrism…olive oil…bishop…Holy Ghost…Christians and soldiers…Christ.” But still, this could get me in trouble if anyone found it and translated it. It could be enough to send me off to a labor camp, like my family.

So I decided to cover it up with some more scrap paper and glue, if I could find them. The tub of papier-mâché was dried out and nearly empty, so I couldn’t use that. But while I was still inside Khrushchev’s head the bell rang out, meaning it was time to gather in the courtyard of the old barracks we used as a schoolhouse.

Comrade Teacher was there, banging the pavement with the handles of a sickle and pitchfork, one in each hand.

“Today is school holiday!” she shouted. “Today we we have a little fun! Today we ride hay wagons into the countryside, and help comrade peasants with the spring harvest! You will each of you grab a spade or hoe and climb the wagons!”

There weren’t nearly enough spades or hoes to go around, so I didn’t get one, but I dutifully climbed into the back of the last hay wagon and looked forward to enjoying the countryside.

There were many sights to see. First we had miles and miles of yellow grain, blowing softly in the wind. Then we came across small villages of tumbledown huts. In one a man had been crucified to the side of a stable, for some crime against the State. He had been nailed up a long time ago, and there was little left now but some bones and hair and rags.

Finally we arrived at a grand collective farm about twenty miles out of the city. There were tractors and harvesting machines everywhere. Sad-looking peasants, in crushed-in hats and babushkas, watched us balefully as our wagons drove up. We learned that they were sad because they could not drive their machines. There was no fuel, or sometimes the machines were broken. Anyway, this is why we were there.

It was time for the great springtime harvest of swedes. We had a hundred hectares of swedes to spade and hoe and collect into burlap bags. Swedes are sometimes called rutabagas. They are a strange hybrid of cabbage and turnip, and are grown as fodder for animals. But people can eat them too, if they’re boiled and mashed up. Often enough we were served mashed swedes for lunch. They tasted okay, with salt.

Since the farm equipment was broken down and there was no fuel, we schoolgirls of the Junior Pioneers were volunteering to harvest all the swedes for the poor peasants. I carried a burlap bag and filled it with the round, purple, root vegetables as another girl dug them up. It was hard work, but we were rewarded at lunch with a fine repast of borscht and boiled-and-mashed swedes.

In the afternoon we were all very tired and just wanted to lie down in the field and die. But we were aroused by the mighty sound of a hundred airplanes, some of them jets, flying overhead, and firing rockets that exploded in brilliant colors.

“It is Comrade Khrushchev!” yelled Comrade Teacher. “He come to Sofia tonight and greet our celebration tomorrow!”

I remembered I needed to get back to the drill hall and cover up my writing inside of our papier-mâché Khrushchev head. But there was no way I could walk all the way back to Sofia this evening, so I filled another few burlap sacks with rutabagas and waited for the hay wagons to take us back to town. I fell asleep on the hay, and my clothes were filled with vermin when I arrived.

I wanted to sleep in my family’s house again, but this time I found the police had boarded up and locked all the windows, so I had no entry. I slept in the green by the market square and waited for morning to arrive.

In the morning I was surprised to discover that the drill hall, too, was all locked up! I could not get inside to destroy my incriminating writing. I sat outside and waited for hours, drinking a bottle of powdered milk that fell off a farmer’s dairy cart.

I fell asleep again and was awakened by Comrade Teacher, who pulled my hair and kicked my legs. “Too eager are you!” she said. “Cannot wait for Comrade Khrushchev to arrive! You look like you sleep in hay wagon and park! But I have good news for you, Comrade Student! Premier Khrushchev is arrived!”

| Published in History, Obituaries and memoirs, Uncategorized

How Great-Uncle Harry Rediscovered the Lost Wax Process

Great-Uncle Harry Bonforth was a missionary in the jungles of Peru, where the Amazon rainforests begin. Originally Harry was a Franciscan monk. In those days people joined the Franciscans so they could become missionaries and get free travel and lodging in exotic places, and I believe that was Harry’s deal. It was like being paid to work for National Geographic, except you didn’t just give cigarettes to naked savages, you baptized them too. And you fed the savages a little bit, generally a bowl of tapioca which they’d eat with their fingers, plus a glass of powdered milk and maybe “a piece of bread the size of a cracker,” as an old nun who’d been a friend of Great-Uncle Harry told us once.

Us kids were smartypants and couldn’t refrain from teasing her whenever she said that. “How BIG a cracker, Mother Morgan?” we’d say. “Like a little tiny Wheat Thin, or one of those humongous Zesta crackers [which are like four little saltines attached by a perforation so you could separate them, though they never really separated neatly on those dotted lines, and anyway they were a poor substitute for genuine Nabisco Saltines]?”

Mother Morgan would smile sweetly and chirp a little laugh, but I don’t think she really got the joke.

Many years later we figured that these savages, or their ancestors, had been baptized and converted to Christianity over and over and over again for four hundred years. They’d come and get baptized so they could get free grub, and maybe abduct a missionary, but they were no more susceptible to Christian Doctrine than a giant python. So centuries rolled on and the mission magazines kept telling us about the good work being done in leper colonies and among the jungle cannibals, and there was this endless supply of eager-beaver boys and girls who became Catholic friars and Protestant divines and starry-eyed nuns and stodgy, teetotaling Baptist missionary ladies … ready to convert the heathen over and over and over again, and get an all-expenses-paid exotic trip out of it as well!

Now you’d think these Protestant missionaries, and Catholic clergy and religious, would have figured this out by now: if you can’t save a jungle savage in 400 years, maybe you’d better turn your sights elsewhere. Maybe go after intelligent people, like Japanese or Greeks (yes, I know there are Christian Greeks; I mean the Godless ones). But the temptation was too fierce, all those free trips and exotic locales. Anyway no one was offering missionaries free trips to Kyoto or Mykonos.

But as to Harry. Gradually he went native, and began to believe whatever magic juju the savages believed. Missionaries will do that if they don’t keep strict boundaries between themselves and their wards. They’ll end up mating with the native wenches and having half-breed children who are twice as evil as the average savage, as they have a white man’s brain plus a savage’s cunning.

We don’t know how Harry went down the slippery slope, but I personally believe that what fascinated him at first were the shrunken heads. Most shrunken heads are strictly tourist stuff, made from monkey heads, or maybe other savages that looked like monkeys, as so many of them do. But the good stuff, the stuff that brought in the big money, were made from wayward tourists and National Geographic photographers. If they’d had Peace Corps volunteers in those days I suppose they’d have turned them into shrunken heads too, and I must say I wouldn’t blame them.

Harry was fascinated by primitive technology, which was often highly advanced within its narrow fields. He followed the whole process of head-shrinking with a gimlet eye, and rumor hath it he became quite the journeyman headshrinker himself. He sent my uncle and aunt a shrunken head adorned in bow tie and tiny straw hat, back around 1933, and while they were scared out of their wits, it appears Harry had become a master craftsman. That head now resides, sans tie and boater, in a drawer in a Peabody Museum someplace.

In Kon-Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl told a story about how a friend of a friend disappeared in the jungle. Later on his expedition party came across a savage selling a row of shrunken heads. And in amongst them was the head of their friend Tom, or Bill, or whatever his name was. It was perfectly recognizable, a miniature version of the fellow they’d known. After a fair amount of haggling, they bought the little head from the savage (it was expensive, as white people’s shrunken heads are scarce in those parts). Not knowing what else to do with it, they sent it to the guy’s wife as soon as they got back to civilization. So she’d have something to remember him by. Or maybe she could give him a Christian burial. It all sounds frighteningly tactless to me, but it’s the thought that counts, maybe. I’m sorry Heyerdahl didn’t follow up on the outcome of that tale.

After Harry had lived among the savages for a while, he learned that the raw material for shrunken heads was getting scarcer and scarcer. The government of Peru had banned their manufacture and sale, so if you were a savage and got caught with one, you might end up in a dank mountainside prison for ten years. The government posted these notices all over, so white explorers were less and less likely to penetrate the farthest reaches of the jungle because headhunters were everywhere. The immediate reaction of the savages was to create fake ones out of monkey heads. They’d dye the monkeys’ hair blond or red sometimes, but they still looked like monkeys. And the tourists wouldn’t buy them because they were a) ghastly looking and b) supposedly illegal.

But the savages had an alternative “technology,” if that is the word, and that was to manufacture shrunken heads that were completely fake. They mixed up a special kind of waxy clay, using cacao beans and wild-boar tallow, and sculpted their own “shrunken heads.” They often modeled these from pictures torn from old movie magazines. So some heads looked like Donald Barthelmess or a young Clark Gable. They may even have made Clara Bow and Jean Harlow shrunken heads, but generally they didn’t choose female subjects because these were a harder sell in the tourist bazaars of Lima, Peru.

The Peruvian federal police tried to raid these shrunken-head booths and arrest the proprietors. However, it was easily demonstrated that the heads weren’t made from actual human flesh. In fact, if you stuck a greased wick in the top of their skulls, you could use these heads as slow-burning candles. Soon all the artificial heads were made that way, with a strip of twine protruding from the top, so you could either hang up the head as a decorative novelty, or use it to provide subtle light for a romantic candlelit dinner.

A big problem with these sculpted heads is that they took a long time to make, one at a time. A savage sculptor might spend two days carving his creation, then gluing on hair and eyelashes and eyebrows and painting them with native dyes; and after all this he could expect to be paid no more than about fifty cents. Clearly there must be a more efficient way to do this, thought Uncle Harry. And so in a very small way he brought mass-production to the headwaters of the Amazon.

Using plaster-of-paris (or a reasonable substitute) he made molds of the most popular shrunken-head souvenirs. The biggest sellers proved to be likenesses of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, who were known the world over, even in the Amazon jungle. Harry and the savages would press heated, softened clay into the molds, let them harden for a day or two, then remove the two castings (front and back of head) and glue them together, clamshell-style, with the all-important wick growing out of the middle of the scalp. With this method, a single workman could mold and paint 20 or 30 heads a week, and earn as much as $25 each.

The savages were totally in awe of Harry for his ingenuity, both because they could now produce a multitude of heads, but also because they believed he had rediscovered a legendary process known to the Incas 400 years before. When the Spanish Conquistadores invaded Peru and drove the Incas to extinction, a few Inca craftsmen escaped to the distant rainforests and tried to dwell among the savages. There they taught them their secret “wax process,” by which it was possible to make the most intricate type of gold and silver jewelry. I believe they even wrote down instructions for them to follow, but since the savages couldn’t read Inca writing (or anything else) the secret process was soon forgotten, except as a dim memory in the mists of savage legend.

So Harry had apparently rediscovered the secret Inca process of reproducing items through clay and wax, long thought lost. The savages briefly believed him to be a god, or a reincarnation of the noble Inca craftsmen. They gave him the finest hut to live in, and adorned him with palm fronds and preserved python skins.

Relations soon grew sour, however, as the savages discovered that Harry was keeping most of the profits for himself. One night they resolved to kill him. But Harry sensed the unrest. Before dawn, he broke all the molds, packaged up the available inventory, and fled in a bark canoe to the Peruvian lowlands, where he caught a ride into Lima.

As luck would have it, the driver and passenger in the car were Franciscans, missionaries he had known slightly when he first came to Peru.

“Goodness, I do believe it’s Father Harry,” said the driver, looking him over. “Where have you been, Harry? Going native on us?”

“Deep research, boys!” Harry replied. “I have rediscovered the Lost Wax Process. But it is lost no more. Are you Laurel and Hardy fans, perchance?”

When he got to Lima, Harry unloaded the six dozen or so souvenir heads in his sack, and bought a steamship ticket to America. He soon settled in a seaside village in Maine, where for many years he taught summer arts & crafts classes, specializing in the manufacture of novelty items through the Lost Wax Process.




| Published in Obituaries and memoirs, weird people

I Was a Girl Guide for the Reds (Part II)

Our celebrations were to be held in the old drill hall and grain depot near the main railway station in Sofia. Comrade Leader ordered us Junior Pioneers to repaint the wood trim in the doorways and the mighty rafters that held up the roof. We had to stand atop a high wooden platform to reach the rafters, and as the platform was not sturdy, two girls soon fell to their deaths, one landing head-first in the giant vat of red enamel paint, which was the only color available at the Grand Socialist Department Store off the market square. We observed a moment of silence to commemorate their passing, and then got on with our work.

Far more enjoyable was building the main decoration in the hall. This was a papiermâché bust of Premier Khrushchev, over eight feet high, and it took us a week to build. It was so large, it could accommodate as many as a dozen of us inside. You entered through the mouth, which was open in a big smile, and inside was a stepladder on which you could climb to a loft and look out through his eyes.

“Do not idle, Comrade girls!” shouted Comrade Leader when she learned we were lolling about inside Khrushchev’s head. “We must finish head today or there will be no supper!”

There was a paper shortage in Bulgaria just then, and we were barely able to find enough to paper to make the sculpture. We were forced to sacrifice all our schoolbooks, all our Girl Guide and Junior Pioneers handbooks and even archival copies of the Young Bulgar journal, for the good of this cause. Fatigued and famished, we were just completing the massive dome of the Premier’s lofty cranium when we looked into the wastepaper receptacle and found it was empty. After that, it was hurry-hurry to our lavatories and schooldesks, in a mad, furtive search for a last few scraps of paper or cardboard, anything that could be soaked in our tremendous tub of flour-and-water paste mixed with plaster-of-Paris.

And then, voilà, as we say in French, it was done! Comrade Khrushchev’s pate was now healed! All we needed to do was let it dry. Comrade Leader ordered some dinner brought in, and it was delicious: crusty, deep-fried doughnuts and tiny meat pies served up with heaping bowls of borscht.

Afterwards, satiated and refreshed, we repaired to the town square, where as ever the ancient bald peasant woman in a babushka was selling her painted trinkets and tchotchkes. This evening she had an extra cart beside her, full of small cakes and biscuits painted with colored sugar in the Bulgarian manner. “Try my sweetmeats,” she cackled, madly.

“That I cannot do, little grandmother,” I said, haltingly, in Bulgarian. “For the last time I buy sweets in the square and become very ill and the neighbor’s dog she is now dead.”

“Oh you buy sweetbreads, foolish girl!” cackled the crone. “Sweetbreads, fried and aged in Bulgarian manner, will kill even horse. Big draft horse. Sweetmeats here, oh something different!”

But I did not succumb to her enticements, as my parents warned me never to bring home food again from the town square.

When I reached my family’s home that evening I was met with a shock. The door was chained with a big padlock and a sign in Bulgarian, something about “Enemies of the Soviet and Bulgarian States.”

“They take them away,” shouted a little girl riding a homemade wooden scooter in the twilight. “To prison or camp, I know not which.”

My eyes filled with tears, and then I remembered there was a window ajar in the pantry. I worked it open with a broad stick, and in the darkness was able to find my way to my little bed, where I slept soundly, in all my clothes.

Next morning I decided to discover the American Embassy and find what had happened to my parents. A secretary there, it was actually a man, suggested that I take the next flight out of Sofia because the Bulgarians were rounding up Western foreigners. Then he made a joke about how I was very small, and maybe could be shipped out in a diplomatic pouch.

But I could not leave Sofia just now. Premier Khrushchev was coming, and I wanted him to see the papier-mâché head that we built.

| Published in children, school days

Sleepwalking with Destiny

A true-life story of somnambulism is on offer here from Caroline Meeber of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin!

One night I had this terrible nightmare where I was invited to this fabulous party at the Waldorf-Astoria, and everybody was dressed up, and they all stared at me when I came in because I was in my underwear!

To make it worse, I’m a sleepwalker, and while this dream was going on, I went out walking the streets in my flannel Lanz of Salzburg nightgown, and wandered into a grand charity ball that was finishing up on the 24th floor of the Savoy-Plaza Hotel. Suddenly I awoke and there I was, and everyone was staring at me, particularly the waiters.

At least I wasn’t standing there in my underwear. But still, was my face red!

| Published in children

Please Hire Me, Mister Twee!

Dear Mr Twee,

I just saw your request for a Research Assistant. I believe this arrived via someone affiliated with the Manhattan Institute.

I gather you’re looking for a young, feisty, driven person. I do not pass the first qualification. Any academic transcript I’d provide would be from 30+ years ago. So no transcript for now, just acres of experience.

What I bring you is an experienced, indefatigable researcher and pretty decent copy editor, if a rather reluctant writer. I’ll do anything to put off writing a first draft. (I’ve never acquired your knack of the one-paragraph lede to hook the reader.) Fortunately you are looking for background research and memos, not ghost writing.

I’ve written for and/or edited a vast array of publications, including some you have heard of: Punch, The Oldie, The Spectator, The American Bystander, San Diego Reader…San Diego Home Garden & Lifestyles…Travel+Leisure…Food & Wine…Chronicles…Euro-Synergies…The Unz Review (have a piece in there right now).

My professional, as opposed to freelance, experience has generally been on the technical side; the last ten years include stints as front-end web developer for Time Inc. Digital and Penguin Random House.

More pertinent to your needs: Years ago I managed travel and appointments for some top executives, including one who was CEO of a comms company in San Diego, and another who had just become President of American Express TRS, UK & Europe.

I can also book conferences and dinners.

I live a few blocks from the FoxNews/NewsCorp building, if that makes any difference.

We are quite familiar with your work in our household. We not only have hard copies of a couple of your books (in a stack on the floor at my feet, even as I type), but I own at least one on Audible. My husband is a great fan of your writing and online/TV commentary. Myself, I have more of that editor’s technical interest: how does he avoid ambiguity and evasiveness without sounding too strident?

A few years back I was asked to write a review of a Heather Mac Donald book. (Heather Mac and I were in college together, but have little more than a nodding acquaintance now.) My review was most difficult to write, because it was clear that Heather had had to hew to a certain PR message or political stance, yet I nevertheless felt obliged to give a glowing review. My difficult piece went back and forth a couple of times, with intense edits and queries, until finally I just abandoned it. (And the review copy of the book is still nearby on the bookshelf, ever a source of guilt pangs, or an object lesson in being too persnickety.) This has nothing to do with you, it’s merely an illustration of me.

Kind regards,

Penny Pringlebury

| Published in Uncategorized

Elements of Cringe

On the cringe scale, about a 1.2 out of 10.

When I began this site many years ago, I thought it would be a cinch to fill it up with pure cringe. Surely, embarrassing incidents are all over the place, lying on the ground waiting to be picked up?

In theory that might be true. However, embarrassment is usually a private emotion, and very few horrifying memories can be articulated in a way comprehensible to the reader. I suppose it’s terrible to discover as a child that your parents are adulterers, just as it may be a deep-dark secret within your family that your mother has been in and out of the booby bin. But when told years later, these traumas don’t impress adults of any sophistication.

For a really embarrassing anecdote, an incident has to have been risky and humiliating at the time, and still unnerving years later, yet capable of being told clearly and succinctly. Few stories pass that test.

I can think of only two real-life incidents here that score the bullseye. One is my friend Eric’s story, herein entitled “The Manhasset Babysitter.” The other one is the old Jeffrey Bernard anecdote about the boy who got drunk, shat in his drawers, and by mistake bought a V-neck pullover instead of trousers (“Sans-culottes in Sevenoaks”). Even these rattle on a bit, like shaggy-dog stories.

My imaginary staff and I have tried making up other ones, but they’re mainly silly and absurdist.

Alas, the lameness of the genuine anecdotes one picks up off the ground is usually on a par with these pointless old contributions from Calling All Girls.

| Published in Administrative

The Kitty Martyrs


Jocelyn Randolph of Rappahannock, Virginia offers this embarrassing tale of her summer vacation!

Last summer I went to visit my aunt and uncle, who live in an old sugar warehouse in Keesburg. Because there are lots of rats around, my aunt and uncle keep a lot of cats, as well as a sack of rat poison. One day I accidentally put rat poison into the cats’ food dish and they all died. So I took some dead rats and placed one under each dead cat’s head so it looked as though the cats died from eating poisoned rats. My uncle didn’t believe it at all. “We’ll have to find a lighter brand of rat poison,” he laughed good-naturedly, before handing me a spade and telling me to bury the cats. Was my face red!

| Published in animals

The Wayward Stepfather

Norma Logue of Exton, PA submits this whimsical memory of another time, another country.

I was visiting my cousins at their summer house when I noticed that their stepfather kept bringing a colored girl into the bedroom with him.

“Does your father have a colored girlfriend?” I asked.

“Oh don’t be silly,” my cousin said. “That’s just the cleaning woman!”

Was my face red!

| Published in children, weird people

Hey Frenchy! I Need Some Cartoons!

A short while ago I wrote a stately, eye-glazing memoir about knowing Colin Flaherty for thirty years. Colin had died on January 11, 2022.

Now I keep remembering the good parts I left out, either out of genuine forgetfulness, or because I didn’t wish to talk about myself too much.

Colin and I first met at a newspaper picnic in Mission Bay Park, San Diego, around July 1991. He had big black sunglasses, a big cigar and was lying back in some kind of beach chair or chaise longue.

I don’t know how we were introduced or got to chatting, but I think I said I was probably going to have a terrific headache soon because I’d been drinking (what?—wine? beer? tequila shooters?) out in the bright afternoon sunlight.

Colin told me he didn’t drink at all, because he once got a DUI when going through Colorado. That wouldn’t spook most people, but maybe it was a problem for him because he was riding a motorcycle, which rather eliminates a designated-driver option.

I just don’t know, and probably never will. I don’t like to inquire after people’s clean-and-sober sagas anyway, it’s too much like an AA meeting.

A more interesting revelation was that we’d grown up near each other. He at one end of Brandywine Creek (its mouth, actually, in Wilmington, Delaware), and I at the other, about 15 miles to the north. In between there was Chadds Ford, PA, famous for Andrew Wyeth and the Battle of Brandywine, one of the many routs and massacres the Continental Army suffered in 1777.

Colin always liked to announce me as “San Diego’s Funniest Cartoonist.” For a brief shining moment, maybe I was, when I was doing editorial cartoons and illustrations for local papers. I had a cunning, old-school, brush-and-ink style that worked very well when I had to do strips of Mayor Maureen O’Connor claiming the broken sewage pipe in the bay was just an act of God, “a natural disaster.”

Rare quickie, 2003, in crowquill-type pen and india ink. Here the vested-interest enemies are anti-horse people, not even bothering to pose as environmentalists.

But—to answer your next question—I didn’t have sufficient mainstream perspective or malleability of imagination to pursue a career as a political cartoonist.

Nevertheless Colin continued to flog my talents for the next fifteen years, whether I was California or New York or London or Paris. He included cartoons as part of his public-relations packages, even though most of the work I did for him was limp and tawdry, in my humble opinion.

Mainly they were simple, absurdist, derogatory cartoons about some minor voting initiative in small-town SoCal. But he paid me very well. And it was all tax free, old man!

Because I never declared my earnings from freelance clients. Payment in personal checks and cash meant that the thousands I might make from these and other freelance work each year were pretty much untraceable. I had a steady job in the graphics department of a major banking corporation, so the IRS wasn’t going to investigate my middling income too closely.

Another reason I was happy to do them was that I liked to explore different techniques. Drawing with a Wacom tablet, for example, vs my traditional brush-and-ink. Unfortunately this meant that I became more focused on technology and effective online presentation, and less on the delight of cartooning.

From 2005. TV’s Zelda from Dobie Gillis grasps at straws to halt development in semi-rural Santee.

As I suggested before, I was usually living far, far away. For a while I spent a month or two every year in England and France, training for marathons and imagining that I was writing a novel. But a good deal of the time was spent drawing cartoons for Colin.

I’d be sitting in some Paris café with my laptop, and my Vodafone would suddenly go off. It was Colin. “Hey Frenchy! I need some cartoons!”

So I’d bottle myself up in my hotel room or flat for a couple of days, doing nothing but ha-ha drawings about minuscule matters 6000 miles away.

September 2004. Something about Carlsbad or Encinitas.

Anyway, as a result of this, I had a very good idea of what was happening in Colin’s career, what pissant town or county politics he was being paid to influence. Santee, Bolsa Chica, Perris, Del Mar…

Politics dovetailed with business, often as not. For ten years the major client was a housebuilder named Barratt American Homes, originally a subsidiary of the Barratt Group in Great Britain. It was led by a very fine fellow from Bedford, England named Mick Pattinson.

I say very fine because I stayed in Mick’s house in Olivenhain, east of Carlsbad, for a day or two in February 2004 when Colin’s daughter was getting married nearby. I had been camping at Colin’s rented condo in Murrieta, but then Colin’s father, brother, and sister arrived for the wedding, and there was no room at the inn.

So Mick put me up in his ginormous mansion. As I did work for Colin, and Colin was Mick’s PR boffin, I was practically a blood relative.

*   *   *

The wedding itself happened at a vast catering hall in Fallbrook, an area known for its rolling estates, wineries and catering halls. I hadn’t seen Colin’s daughter in ten years, and she had no recollection of me. When Colin introduced us, I might as well have been Cousin Kate from Budapest.

Bride and groom were both very young and strikingly good-looking (as I note in my diary of the time). The wedding service itself, however, was something of a farce.

It was held outside, as though it were June rather than a cold wet day in February. The minister was a woman, more or less, with short, spiky grey hair. The sort of figure you might have seen officiating at a lesbian “holy union” at Metropolitan Community Church. She and the happy couple got some shelter by standing under the floral bridal arch. The rest of us sat on wet folding chairs and put up with the cold drizzle.

(People would ask Colin, discreetly or otherwise, why his daughter wasn’t having a Catholic wedding, where you got a great gothic church with a choir and a proper prelate. Colin’s answer: “I’m not Catholic.” He was once, apparently . . . but didn’t have the money to be one when he landed in La Jolla.)

Before the service began, we wet ones in the mosh pit looked around and took in the surroundings. There was a brick-lined man-made lagoon nearby, quite extensive, surrounding us on three sides.

“This body of water is shaped like a heart!” a young woman sitting near me said to her husband.

“More like another internal organ—liver, maybe,” came the reply.

All dialogue verbatim. I wrote it down.

Now the drizzle turned into rain. Things were hurried along, and we all ran inside to  music and cake.

After the party, Mick and I drove back in the rain to Olivenhain, first stopping off at a stripmall for some Chinese lettuce-wraps and Starbucks tea, for dinner. Then Mick sat down and worked on business while I watched TV and wandered the house.

Mick had made a big donation to the Arnold Schwarzenegger gubernatorial campaign, and in the living room of his big, near-empty Olivenhain house there stood an autographed photo of Mick and Arnold together, shaking hands. I did a spindly sketch of it. (See cut.)

Not much else in that house: a TV, a little furniture, a couple books, a basalt bust of Winston Churchill! I believe Mick had just gone through a divorce the past year.

He’d also recently bought controlling interest in Barratt American Homes, with a big loan from Bank of America. He’d completed, or planned, several developments in Olivenhain, Carlsbad, Temecula, Perris…and finally Winchester, CA, a “census-designated” tract in Riverside County, not far from Murrieta.

Winchester acquired some substance and population when Barratt built a slew of McMansions there, in a hillside development called Sagecrest or Sagewood. One of the new residents was going to be Colin Flaherty. Mick was giving Colin a big new house, I expect as payment in kind.

Right now, however, it was just a concrete shell in the ground. A day or two after the wedding, Colin took some of us on a tour of the muddy tract. We walked in the rain with our sweatshirt hoods up, stepped around puddles, walked on boards, and headed for the model houses that were already open for viewing. The decor was a mixture of colonial-rattan and Marriott-tacky. Rooms set up for TV watching, rooms with computer-terminal props, rooms with exercise treadmills . . . no room set up for books and reading, although some prop volumes were scattered here and there. I noted a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume, and Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis.

Mick lavished a lot on Colin. A few months earlier, Mick had taken Colin on a business trip to England, to meet with the parent company. During their travels they stayed at the Royal Midland Hotel in Manchester. “Where Mister Rolls met Mister Royce,” as Colin liked to repeat. That sticks in memory because I was twice in Manchester over the next few months, and once stopped at the Royal Midland, just out of curiosity. A lovely old caravanserai, though it seemed to be in the middle of renovation for years to come. But the Midland had an excellent gym in its basement, including two Concept 2 rowers.

At the time I didn’t ponder the subtext of the many cartoons I did for Colin during his Barratt period. But now I reflect that Mick Pattinson was continually struggling to put up his elegant developments, while local pols and rival property interests were continually fighting to prevent them. Mick’s opponents depicted him as a rapacious developer, always mucking up the countryside. But when I talked with him it was clear he saw himself as a humanitarian, putting up essential housing in tracts of habitable wasteland.

“We might have 200 people wanting to buy houses, but we have to turn 180 away with tears in their eyes!” Mick told me, his own eyes welling up.

On February 23, 2004, a couple days after wedding, Colin and I went to a lunch meeting in a sad café at the Murrieta golf course. (In my diary I whine that the salad with my hamburger was “just some chopped iceberg & tomato”.) Colin was seeing a colleague named Nancy, someone I’d met a couple of times during the wedding weekend. Nancy had her “mute” son with her, I note in the diary.

Nancy said she was starting a “newspaper” called Santee Life, “the purpose of which was to create phony grassroots support for Mick’s upcoming housing project” (diary). Santee Life hadn’t launched yet. Nancy said she planned to start it with a “web presence.” I gather this is where I would come in, though I heard no more of the project.

Nancy had formerly lived in Rancho Bernardo (an upscale “master planned community” built ex nihilo in the 1970 and 80s), but she flipped that home and moved to Las Vegas. Now she owned one house there and was trying to buy another. But the builder wouldn’t let her, because he had a waiting list. Sounds like Mick Pattinson. Here was the 2004 housing bubble in microcosm.

In one of these locales Nancy had encountered a pet skunk. She wrote a poem about it. She suggested maybe I could do drawings for it.

Nancy reminded me of another lady colleague Colin introduced me to at the Del Mar racetrack in 1997. She was a publicist named Lisa, and she too used a sort of “newspaper” as a PR mouthpiece. Except this local journal focused on Del Mar, and it actually published a number of print issues. No “web presence” nonsense. That would have been futile and propeller-head in 1997.

Fake newspapers, astroturfed public support, press releases, cartoons…it all sounds like nine-tenths of a scam, and for the pure of heart, perhaps it was. But this was politics, and the other side was doing the same thing. The difference was, the other side liked to dress up their agenda as some high-minded, environmental initiative. Using that as a front, they’d then seek private and governmental support from all over, using special interests and slush funds to promote their pet projects.

And they had another weapon. They knew it was Colin who was masterminding the political message in favor of the Barratt developments. So they persuaded a Sacramento outfit called the Fair Political Practices Commission to claim that Colin had made illegal (or rather, unreported) donations to political activities.

Pete Wilson

California FPPC put out the word that Colin had broken campaign finance rules thirty-eight (38) times in 1997-98 and was therefore being fined $76,000. (LA Times, Sept 12, 2003.) One of these purportedly illegal donations was $4000 for a birthday cake and balloons for Governor Pete Wilson. Anyway Colin never paid that “fine,” nor did the FPPC boondoggle ever make any serious effort to collect it. As recently as October 29, 2021 the FPPC sent him a letter, limply threatening to garnish the $76,000 if Colin won the California Lottery!

(Full letter here.)

FPPC never made any serious effort to collect their “fine” because that would have triggered a legal response, and most likely their claim would have been vacated by the court. The FPPC allegations were harassment and vendetta, pure and simple. Significantly, after the LA Times ran that one story (basically an FPPC press release), there was no follow-up or resolution.

I am still personally exercised by this because I myself was put through interrogations via phone, by one Dennis Pellon at FPPC in Sacramento. I was identified as one of a number of people who made a token donation to Colin’s 1997 political campaign in Perris, California. I gave $50, or maybe $25. I was happy to make that little contribution, you betcha. Colin had paid me many times that for graphic and web work in the past year. Not surprisingly, Pellon couldn’t frame my little bagatelle as “money laundering” (to use FPPC’s odd choice of words). After two or three phone calls he gave up.

Were all donors flagged and harassed by FPPC? I don’t know. I may have been because I mailed it from a home address in Seattle, where I lived briefly. A tiny donation from 1100 miles away should always look suspicious, because political fundraisers like to pretend they’re getting their money and moral support from a broad base of locals.

But of course they almost never do.

February 2005

Postscript. On my way back to the San Diego airport next day—I mean, February 24, 2004—I stopped in at Ocean Beach, on the the ocean side of Point Loma. Both Colin and I had lived there at various times in the 80s and 90s. It had always been a raffish place, but right now it seemed more rundown than ever. Dirty, desolate, mostly abandoned. Or maybe it was just that I was there on a chilly, wet, dark day in February.

A few weeks later I flew to Paris, then entrained for London, and en-bused to see friends in Oxford; then on to Manchester and Leeds, where I took dismal pictures of myself on dark, drizzly days; and then down to Torquay, also very dark and drizzly; and back to wet London, and Paris of the slate-grey skies (there was no sun anywhere that season); finally via Air France to New York…because it was time to get back to work. This all seems so crazy today. I worked on my novel and did a couple of cartoons for Colin.

Whom I saw again a few weeks later, May 2004. Colin’s new home was barely finished, vast and empty, but with that new-house smell. I left a minivan-load of my belongings in his garage.

Years before I had stored belongings in a Public Storage space near the Seattle airport. The time came to close this down and cart my stuff someplace else. It seemed silly to drive it to Southern California. In 1997 I’d moved it to Seattle from a storage space on Morena Boulevard in San Diego. But that’s what I did.

I sorted out a few books, and some drawings, and my old Prat™ portfolio, and flew them back with me to New York. Everything else in Colin’s garage and basement went up the spout around 2008. The economy crashed, Barratt American went bankrupt, Colin moved the basement contents to his son’s house near San Diego, the son had personal problems and lost his house with all my valuables and memorabilia. Colin went on a hitchhiking trip and wrote a memoir about it, and then a few more books that were far more popular and notorious.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” An expression I first heard from Colin, sometime around October or November 1997. Seriously, I’d never heard it before. “Clichés for every occasion,” he added.

It was a motto he could follow, I never could. “If it’s not perfect, I don’t want to bother,” is more along my habit of thinking. Makes life very hard.




| Published in Obituaries and memoirs