I had just arrived at my father’s home in Half Moon Bay, California. My flight down from Portland was fine, smooth, and quick. I was twenty-two years old, visiting my father, stepmother, and half-brother Nathan. It was the middle of July 1982. I looked around the house to see if anything had changed. The home sat perched along the range overlooking the coastline. The phone rang; my father walked into the kitchen and answered it.
“Hey Glen, it’s Bob!”
“Hey Bob!” my father replied
My uncle Bob was my father’s closest friend through most of his life, through thick and thin. Bob at that time lived in Atherton, California, about an hour from my father’s house. Uncle Bob was a bit of a rogue in a way and lived life to the fullest, belied by his job in management at AT&T. He had been married four times; he loved his family, cars, and his beloved boat the “Anna Mae.” He was a character for sure. A bit weathered with age, he had suffered a heart attack a few years earlier and was still weak from the surgery. ‘Ol Bob was a great friend of mine. Ever since my parents divorced back in 1962, my father’s brother was a true confidant. I always knew that I was loved by Bob.
My father hung up the phone and smiled at me.
“Your uncle will be here in an hour. He wants to see you,” he said.
I winked at my Pop, walked out to the back deck off the family room and looked out over the hillsides and down toward the ocean. A bit of fog was looping down through the mountains that ran along the coast line. About an hour later, a car rumbled out in front of the house. I could tell it was Bob in his Firebird. The front door swung open and there he stood, smiling at me. I gave him a long hug and patted him on the back. He had a cut on his face and said he’d nicked himself shaving earlier that morning. He laughed and shook my hand. We walked into the kitchen and sat down at the counter.
Uncle Bob was deaf in one ear, his right. He wore a hearing aid attached to his thick black plastic glasses, and if you got too close to him the darn hearing aid would start to whistle, a sharp beep that got pretty loud. Bob’s hearing aid started to beep when I gave him a hug. His eyes got big and he grabbed his right ear in pain. According to my uncle, when he was around four years old a group of kids had thrown sand at him while he was swimming along a river. Some of the sand went in his ear, causing hearing loss. Bob needed the hearing aid from when he was little. He could hear you fine at times, but once in a while you had to repeat yourself, and sometimes he put his hand to his ear and said “Wha?”
I knew that I usually had to repeat myself when I talked with Bob. It wasn’t uncommon to have to retell a story, what with his temperamental hearing aid.
My father and my uncle Bob were inseparable. They seemed to understand each other without speaking a word. Bob normally wore jeans and a sports shirt. When he had to dress up for business, he usually wore a dark rain coat, black wing tipped shoes, a white dress shirt and a thin tie. He almost looked like he could have worked for the F.B.I. in this outfit. He got kidded a lot about his wardrobe. He reminded me of the actor Robert Duvall: a bit of a cowboy, part sailor, and a good businessman. He worked up in San Francisco, commuting every day on the CalTrain out of Atherton. After work he liked to hang out at the Royal Exchange Bar and Grill in the Financial District. Bob had a quirky sense of humor. Strong listening skills were a virtue for him despite his bad ear. He loved the U.S.A. and usually bought only American-made products. He cherished his freedom and reminded me that he had fought for it several times. Bob confided in me, and we would often talk for hours deep into the early morning. I felt like the son he never had.
Bob looked at me and smiled.
“Do you want to go up to the Delta? We can drive from here and get to the Anna Mae by 4:00 p.m. It’s up in the marina near Clarksburg, south of Sacramento. I’ll leave my car there in the parking lot and head back up with Caroline in her car in a few days and pick up the Firebird.”
He tilted his head one way and then the other and made a funny face at me.
“Grab your things, we’ll drive up there and float the Anna Mae down to Coyote Point.”
My dad looked at me and shook his head in agreement with my uncle. Coyote Point is near San Mateo, California, tucked down the southwestern side of the San Francisco Bay past Treasure Island. In late summer my uncle would steer his boat down through the Sacramento Delta, a fairly mild cruise to the San Francisco Bay. The trip would normally take one or two days, maybe three if we took our time. He normally plotted stops along the way, trying to find marinas where we could hole up for the night. My uncle had maps of the bay and the delta that showed almost every moorage available. I had joined him for the journey once before, a few years earlier, so I knew it would be fun. Bob kept his boat in the bay during the winter months.
The Anna Mae was a great boat, about thirty six feet. She was built in 1962 by the Chris Craft Corporation, billed as a cabin cruiser. She could hold four people in the bunks in the front of the boat. She had a little toilet and sink and a tiny kitchen. The cabin upstairs included the steering wheel, a throttle and all the electrical instruments needed for navigation. A large compass was attached to the middle of the dashboard to help find the way down the river. Off the back was a small deck area about ten feet by eight feet. Bob had a few chairs, a few storage bins and bench space on the deck. Fishing poles were usually close at hand, along with three or four life preservers. The deck had areas to fish off of on the back, and pole holders were attached to both sides of the boat. My uncle hung an American flag and had the name “Anna Mae” painted on the back of the boat. The bottom half of the boat was made of dark-brown wood, with the upper part trimmed in white.
“Do you want to go with your uncle?” asked my father.
I thought it over and looked at Bob. “Sure I’ll go! Let me go pack some things.”
“It may take three or four days with the ride,” said Bob.
I walked down the tile hallway that led to the family guest bedroom. I packed swimming shorts, t-shirts, socks, a jacket, shoes, spare underwear, a pair of blue jeans, a book that I was reading, and a toilet kit. I threw the pack together and met my father in the family room. He looked at me and said “Now calm down and make sure your uncle gets safely to Coyote Point.”
“Don’t worry, we will be back by the weekend,” I replied.
My uncle always liked nice cars, specifically American muscle cars. He once had a 1968 Mustang, metallic gold with black leather interior. It had a hemi and was one of the fastest cars I’ve ever been in. His latest car in those days was a 1980 fire-engine red Pontiac Firebird. He loved that car; he unlocked the passenger door and I jumped into the Firebird and threw my stuff in the back seat. Bob started the car up and the engine rumbled as my father waved at us pulling out of the driveway. I was excited to be going on another fun adventure with Bob. Through the years he had taken me on trips to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, through the San Joaquin valley up through Fresno, Modesto, Salinas, and Santa Cruz. He had taken me on a few trout fishing trips when I was younger. I always liked hanging out with him; Bob was a bit of a loner in a way, and I liked that about him. If he could get away from a crowd at a family gathering, Bob would usually find an excuse by escaping to the outdoors. I always sensed he was more at ease with himself when he was in the outback.
We headed east over Highway 92, winding our way through hills and farmland, weaving through the countryside. The road led for miles and miles east up to Skyline Boulevard, then down towards San Mateo and over the never-ending San Mateo Bridge, then up Highway 680 and over to Highway 580, leading through Hayward, Dublin, and Tracy as we meandered our way up the San Joaquin valley and I-5.
Bob had aged through the years; his face was worn and he looked older and more fragile since the last time I’d seen him. He was losing some of his hair on top. The radio was playing some Merle Haggard song. He had fair skin and red hair, a funny smile, and a dry wit. By that time Bob was close to fifty-five years old and with his fourth wife, Caroline. Caroline had been with him a few years at that point. Bob loved driving through California, with its spectacular scenery and its vast, endless miles of golden fields.
We continued up north on I-5 towards the Delta. The farmland stretches for miles on the river in this part of the state. I swear that I have never seen such vivid yellow, orange, or purple shades of color as I did on those days and nights on the Delta. Bob and I talked about the Giants and A’s, about politics and Ronald Reagan. We stopped at a tiny local grocery store and got bread, cold cuts, potato chips, cereal, milk, beer, and fruit. The dusty country roads were dotted with migrant workers working the fields, wearing hats to protect from the hot sun. It was a beautiful day for our adventure. We took I-5 to Hood Franklin Road, cut west to River Road and over to the Clarksburg Marina. We reached the marina right around 4:30 P.M. An old hound dog started barking and jumping around to greet us, howling at my uncle and his car. We found a parking spot close to the Anna Mae. Locals wearing baseball hats and drinking coffee and beer and smoking cigarettes hung out on the docks, staring at my uncle’s car as we pulled in. Big boats floated in their slips.
My uncle kept his boat up on the Delta from early summer until late fall. He liked to keep the Anna Mae at Coyote Point, about a half-hour drive from his home in Atherton, during the winter months. From there he could take her out into the bay or into the Pacific to fish through the potato patch for salmon. My uncle loved to play golf on the Poplar Creek golf course near Coyote Point; he’d play eighteen holes and then walk over to the boat. Sometimes after playing a round he’d take the Anna Mae around Alcatraz or maybe out to Treasure Island. My grandfather–Bob’s father–had served in the Navy and was stationed at Treasure Island back in 1918. He’d cruise around the bay, cod fishing. He loved the sea.
Uncle Bob was a well-read man, having served in the Air Force. Going through Air Force intelligence training he served in the Black Ops division. Once out of the Air Force he started working for AT&T in management starting in the early 1960s.
Lying on the floor of the Firebird was a book; Uncle Bob always had books by his side. He suggested that I start to read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck when I was in eighth grade. I used to sit in his Atherton home and read; I remember enjoying “The Sun Also Rises” at his place. He loved American authors, and gave me a copy of George Plimpton’s “Paper Lion” when I was twelve. I remember him reading Mario Puzo’s popular “The Godfather.”
Bob was a bit cantankerous at times; he liked a beer or two and liked his cigarettes. When he smoked his cigarettes he would hold them in his fingers and twist them in a way in which it looked like he was almost painting words with his hands.
Once we’d parked, Bob pointed down the boat ramp to the Anna Mae. She rocked a bit, glistening in the sun. I hadn’t seen her in a few years, but she hadn’t changed. She was clean as could be. I smiled at Bob; this would be a fun trip. He locked up his car and made sure he had everything he needed.
“She looks great, Bob!” I exclaimed.
We walked around the hound dog barking at us and strolled down the ramp, our hands full with supplies. We reached the boat, crawled over the side, unzipped the canvas protecting the cabin, and went down inside. We stored some of the supplies in the fridge in the tiny kitchen and put everything else away, making sure the cabinets were battened down. I threw my things in the bottom bunk. The sun was starting to set. We checked the pumps, fuel, and fluids, emptied the toilet, and started her up and let her run for a few minutes. Everything was set for our float down the Delta. We’d start out the next morning around 8:00 a.m. or so.
Bob was out on the back of the boat, sitting in the sun. The cooler was full of pop, juice, and beer. He was talking to somebody standing on the dock. He had grabbed a Coors and was tweaking at a smoke. He put on his lucky San Francisco Giants hat; Bob loved the Giants.
“Have a seat, Grant,” he said.
I sat down and looked over the marina; it was small, weathered and a bit worn with age. I waved to a few people standing on the docks. Eight or nine boats rocked in the water. I soaked in the view of the countryside, consisting mostly of corn fields that stretched on both sides of the river for what seemed like endless miles. Crows squawked in the air. The Delta looked inviting, blue with color, glimmering, and shining, reflecting the golden-yellow colors of the endless farmlands. The golden dark brown hillsides to the west seemed to be further away than I remembered.
What a whirlwind! I had started the day with my mother dropping me off at the Portland International that morning; the flight was quick, and I got to San Francisco International airport by 10:00 a.m. on a beautiful, sunny California day. By 5:00 p.m.. I was on the Delta, floating on the Anna Mae.
I grabbed a soft drink and started to talk with Bob. Clouds started to roll in from the east as a gentle summer breeze picked up. The clouds, big cumulus clouds, cast long shadows on the land. It was warm and beautiful. Bob pulled out the latest book that he had been reading, “Winds of War,” by Herman Wouk. He loved history books about war.
I looked at him and laughed. “I love this boat, Bob.”
Bob looked at me, laughed and gave me a nod. He beamed at me, reminding me of a pirate. He was content on the boat. The wind rustled his red hair.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
I thought it over and decided I was. I went to the kitchen, made a chicken sandwich, grabbed some chips, and came back to sit with my uncle. We didn’t say much to each other. We were caught up in the tranquil setting. An hour or so drifted by, and Bob decided to make some soup. He banged around, knocking pots and pans, and rustling through drawers trying to find forks and knives. A few minutes later he returned with a cup of soup and sat down. It looked like half of his soup was on his shirt. The sun started to go down over the countryside, long stems of purple, red, and orange light illuminating the sky. We lit a couple of lamps that my uncle had tucked away in one of the storage bins. The water twirled and formed oblong shapes as the night set in. A couple of small bats darted by in the flicker of the lanterns, the light twinkling in my uncle’s glasses. He looked at me and smiled. He was happy on the water. He reminded me of an old sailor, a salty dog, maybe an aged sea captain.
“Everything’s set for the morning. This should be fun, Grant!”
“Yep, it should be just great Bob!”
The sun set by 9:00 p.m. and the darkness of the night surrounded us. Bob put on a jacket and started to look at his reflection in the lantern, the light casting shadows. I remember his profile and how he looked; he almost appeared ghostly in a way. It was a bit eerie.
“Bob, can I ask you a question?” I said.
He looked at me and blinked slowly.
“Sure Grant, ask away.”
I stuttered a little and finally asked him a question that had been gnawing and gnawing at me for years.
“Bob, you served in the Air Force. What was that like?”
He looked at me and laughed, then rolled his eyes and gave out a hoot. He scratched his chin and rubbed his hands together, trying to stay warm. I looked at him. His whiskers stood up and made his face look scruffy.
“Well Grant, I went into the Air Force in 1946. Before that I had spent my first two years after graduating from Gresham High School studying and going to school at the University of Oregon in Eugene. I studied business, but due to lack of money I enlisted in the Air Force. They recruited me pretty heavily so I signed up, went in and was placed in Black Operations. Do you know what Black Ops is?”
I had heard of it, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it stood for. The lanterns glowed as the night settled in, and the darkness seemed to make things much quieter. A couple of dogs barked in the distance, their voices carrying down through the corn fields and bouncing off the water. My uncle’s face was bright orange from the lanterns.
“Back in 1946 I was stationed in Germany, in Berlin to be exact. I was working for the Air Force, basically a spy working for the U.S. government. I was given assignments, tasks that involved finding and locating foreign agents and enemies of the United States that were living and working in the city.
He stopped and stared at me. He cleared his throat and swallowed slowly. I blinked. He started to shake a tiny bit. He looked out towards the corn fields, and then looked back at me. His eyes had a look of pain I’ll never forget.
“I killed people when I was in Germany, Grant. People that were dangerous.”
He took a drag from one of his trusty smokes. I looked at him as seriously as I could.
“How many people did you kill, Bob?”
He thought a bit, looking to the heavens and trying to remember. He looked back at me and stayed quiet.
“I figure I killed about ten or eleven spies. They were out to steal documents and information. Some of them were out to kill us!”
I stayed quiet for a minute and let him continue with his train of thought.
“I was ordered to help find these people. Many had been working for the Nazis near the end of the war. Several former Nazis were in Berlin after the fighting stopped.”
There was a moment of silence.
“How did you kill them, Bob?” I asked.
“I was ordered to go out in the field and hunt and locate these people down,” he replied. “Along with counter intelligence, we would locate and try to help capture and hold them captive so we could try them for the war crimes they’d committed. At times we’d have to chase them down dark alleys, or track them down in old bombed-out buildings, or maybe follow them into East Berlin. Sometimes I was forced to kill them. We had them cornered and we had no choice; they’d try to shoot their way out after we’d tracked them down. They would try to resist.”
He looked at me and started to shake.
“I was forced to shoot people, Grant. I usually carried a .45 caliber revolver.”
It seemed to get darker and quieter as we spoke, almost as if others were listening to our conversation as it got more intense. Bob looked at me and excused himself for a moment.
“I need to go squeeze the lemon,” he said.
I was fascinated by the things my uncle told me that night. He came back a few minutes later, passed some gas and laughed at the sound it made.
“Buck snort!” he joked.
“I was stationed in Berlin,” he went on. “It’s where I met my first wife, Rita. She was German. I was twenty three at the time. I loved her very much, although I was too young to fall in love then and didn’t realize it. Rita was born in the city. She was young, around eighteen. She fell for me. I married her and we got a small flat. At the end of my hitch we decided that we would come back to Oregon so I could finish school in Eugene and we could settle down and raise a family.”
He looked at me and smiled.
“Things changed when we came back to Oregon, back to Gresham,” he continued. “I bought a small home but within a couple months I found her in bed one night with another man. The next day she was gone. She ran away with him and I never saw her again. She hadn’t been in the States for more than a month. I figured she’d used me to get here. My dreams and plans changed after that.”
I stared at him, not knowing what to say.
“Yes, I killed men who tried to kill me and my fellow soldiers working in Berlin at the time, men we’d cornered like drowned rats. We’d chase ‘em down, shoot them if they fired at us first! I had no choice! What was I supposed to do?” he asked.
Bob stared out into the night. He started to sob. I felt sorry for him.
“You were only doing your job, Uncle Bob. Don’t cry,” I consoled him with a pat on his shoulder.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he responded “I hate knowing that I killed people. It’s something I’ll always have to live with.”
A sudden hush settled in. I heard a pheasant dart off out of the brush. The moon was big and bright, and it was getting late. I started to rub my eyes from tiredness.
“Bob, can we continue this talk tomorrow? I’m a bit tired,” I asked.
“Sure Grant, get to bed. The bunks are ready to go. Have a good night’s sleep.”
I crawled down to the cabin, down the stairs that led to the friendly, inviting beds. I changed into my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and crawled into the lower bunk. The covers felt nice and warm. I looked up the stairs and could see Bob’s face as he stared out in the night. He was rubbing his eyes, trying to dry his tears. He was talking to himself, mumbling a bit, dealing with his demons from Berlin. I watched him for a while, then fell asleep listening to the sounds of the night. Sometime later I heard Bob bumping around, trying to find his bunk. He fell into his bed with a thud and snoozed through the night. He fell asleep with his Giants cap on.
When I woke up the next morning, the sun was shining bright as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. At first I couldn’t remember where I was. Oh yeah, I was on the Delta. I threw on my clothes, found a Cheerios cereal box and poured some milk into a bowl. I poured some orange juice into a cup and pulled a cinnamon roll out from a sack lying on the kitchen counter. Bob rolled over and stayed asleep.
I went out on the back of the boat and looked at the river. It was calm and dark. The wind had picked up a little bit, and the morning sun felt wonderful. Shades of purple and lavender mixed in with the green meadows that radiated, glowing in the early-morning light. The fields were full of butterflies and bees. A few cottontails bounced around eating bits of grass.
I ate my cereal and turned on the small transistor radio that my uncle kept in the cabin. I found KNBR 680-AM on the radio. I listened to the news and surfed through a few other radio stations trying to find some music. A few minutes later, Bob poked his head out and ducked back to the kitchen. I could hear him fumbling his way, slamming cabinets, opening coffee cans, pouring water, and filling an old warm coffee pot full of water. He soon joined me out on the deck.
“How did you sleep?” he asked.
“I slept pretty well, pretty quiet,” I answered.
He rubbed his head and belly, and looked at me.
“Are you ready to shove off!” he asked as he tried to clear his throat.
“Give me a minute or two, Bob; I need to finish my cereal.” I said.
“I said give me a minute or two, Bob. I need to finish my cereal!”
He went back down into the galley and started to shave. When he was finished he came out on deck and cleaned off his face with a towel. He poured himself some coffee, put some cereal in his bowl and stood there and ate while looking at his maps. He planned on drifting down to the Rio Vista Delta Marina the first day, covering around forty miles or so. He got on his short-wave radio to make reservations to stay at the tiny marina that night. The next day we would put in near Oakland and dock the Anna Mae there for the night. The following, final day we would head over to Coyote Point. Bob was talking with the harbormaster in Oakland, arranging for us to get a berth to park his boat at one of the local marinas he liked.
“You’re confirmed for the night, Mr. Keltner,” barked the voice at the other end.
My uncle fired up the engines and started to hum a tune as he checked the gauges. I released the tie lines, my uncle pulled up the anchor and soon we were backing out of the moorage and drifting in the middle of the Delta. He waved to a few people on the docks and blew his horn. We headed south, floating along as we passed the brown banks of the river, drifting by dark green lagoons that had big willow trees with long branches of green moss attached to them. We drifted past offshoots of the river, some that stretched for miles, going by old farms with cattle grazing. Some of the cows would stop and stare, and occasionally a car would buzz along the side road that followed the river. The landscape reminded me of a Thomas Hart Benton painting.
The Anna Mae chugged along as my uncle settled in his seat, commandeering the vessel. He looked proud and excited at the same time, like a kid opening his first Christmas present. I laughed at him. He watched the river, looking at drifts and paying attention to the water, watching how it swayed and moved. He was good at gauging water depth. We passed small docks that had been carved out during the early 1900s. Many of them were falling apart, old decrepit wood piers lining the river as we made our way south. Orchards ripe with apples, walnuts, pears, and oranges sprawled out along the river banks.
The morning sun kept us warm. I walked alongside the stern and made my way to the front of the boat, waving at Bob as he looked at me through the cabin window. He sounded his horn, and it loudly blasted down the river. We passed two or three boats, one pulling a water skier; they waved as we passed them. Down the Delta we went. Acres and acres of land, for corn, for wheat, for grazing, for planting, lots, and lots of land. The skies rambled on for miles. The hills to the east were off in the distance, golden brown with color. Bob waved at me and pointed at the steering wheel.
“Do you want to drive?” he asked.
“Sure!” I said.
I worked my way back to the cabin and he had me sit in his swivel chair to steer the boat. He reminded me of where the port, starboard, stern, and bow were located. The Anna Mae was a fine boat with a sturdy, strong engine. Bob started to tie fishing lines, long three-foot leaders with wiggle warts attached to the end of each leader. He put some smelly jelly on the wiggle warts and threw a line out as we bobbed in the drift down the river. Bob loved to fish. He’d fish for salmon, rock cod, white fish, you name it. He loved it all. He left his line out for an hour or so.
Soon a bright yellow biplane showed up in the sky above one of the corn fields that we were passing by. The plane started spraying a certain area of the field, and then maneuvered around in a circle and started spraying another area of the field, continuing this pattern while we passed until the plane became a small dot in the distance.
Bob noticed the end of his fishing pole was bending down toward the river, bouncing with activity.
“Fish on!” he yelled.
He grabbed his fishing pole, lifting it up to set the sharp shiny hook as quickly as he could.
“It’s a salmon!” cried my uncle.
You could see the excitement on his face. Sure enough, he had hooked a big fish; it looked to weigh more than ten pounds. It put up a great fight, jumping in the air a few times and tossing his head back and forth.
“You got him Bob, ya’ got him!” I cried with excitement.
“Yeah, yahoo, yippee!” yelled Bob.
Bob reeled in the salmon. It kept fighting until it was too tired to fight, and soon was next to the side of the Anna Mae flapping its tail and fins against the boat.
“Grab the net!” Bob shouted.
I ran over to the side of the boat and found the fishing net. I dipped it in the water and tried to scoop the fish’s tail into the large green net; it wiggled and tossed around and finally fell right into place. I pulled it up and put the net on the deck while it flicked its tail.
“It’s a buck and he’s clipped. He’s a keeper!” cried my uncle.
I grabbed the salmon and whacked him on top of his head with the wooden mallet that my uncle had handed me. After a few whacks, the fish became still, a small amount of blood coming from his mouth. It was a fine fish and would make a fine meal. It was only lunchtime, but we had caught our dinner for the next few nights. My uncle was in his own little world when he fished. He taught me how to tie knots, about fishing line weight, about corkies and yarn, and about spinners. He loved every minute he got to be on the Anna Mae.
I cleaned the fish, and soon had it covered with olive oil, garnished with chopped onions and garlic. I added a bit of lemon and wrapped it in aluminum foil, placing it carefully in the fridge. We were sure to have a fine feast! I threw the remains of the fish in the water for the seagulls.
A few hours later we reached the small, weathered marina, our berth for the second night. The first part of the excursion took about seven hours. We’d hole up at Rio Vista. The docks were pretty small, up along a beat-up bank along the river where it was deep and opened up to a wide area for the moorage–a perfect place to rest. A large brown meadow ran along one side of the marina; I saw what looked like pheasant fly out from a patch of long tall weeds. A few wild cats ran around the docks, eating scraps of fish that had been discarded.
I threw one-half of our fresh salmon in the oven, made a small salad and toasted some French bread. Within an hour the salmon was ready, and we ate like kings. I grabbed a couple of beers from the cooler. The fish tasted wonderful, flaky, and light to the taste. I love salmon.
After we ate I cleaned up as Bob sat back on the porch. I handed him a beer and picked up our conversation from the previous night.
“Bob, so after your first wife left you, what happened then?” I asked.
“Well, well I was in Gresham,” he said. “Rita bolted and I was left in the cold. It hurt. I had started working with AT&T in their local sales department, and I asked for a transfer down to Scottsdale, Arizona. (GRANT–WHY DID HE ASK TO MOVE TO SCOTTSDALE?) That would have been back in 1960 or so. That’s where I met June, my second wife.”
As a kid I loved his wife June. I remember her being in my life at an early age, and she was always very kind to me. She listened to Johnny Cash back then, and later on was a big fan of Creedence Clearwater Revival. She took me on my first horseback ride when I visited Bob and June in Arizona as a kid, and she always looked out for me. She couldn’t have been nicer to me if she tried.
“Well, June and I moved up to the Bay Area in 1966 or so from Scottsdale, up to San Jose, California,” Bob continued. “We got a place up near Saratoga Avenue and lived there for about three years or so before we bought a daylight ranch out east of San Jose. It was a great home on a huge lot next to golden fields that rambled on for miles. It was beautiful up in those mountains back then. Wildlife was abundant, and I’d go hunting for cluckers and pheasants up in the hills looking east to Fremont.”
“I remember that house Bob; it was a great home!” I said.
“Yes it was. You visited there a few times, didn’t you?” he asked. “Didn’t you like the yard and the view of the bay?”
“I sure did,” I answered. “It was a fine yard. I can remember the view looking north over the bay.”
Bob and June stayed married for ten years or so, but the marriage fell apart around 1974. I was saddened by the news. It seemed like the times had taken a toll on their relationship. June had been married before meeting Bob and had a daughter named Belinda. She was very kind to me, and she was one of the first kids I knew who liked The Doors. She had posters of Jim Morrison in her room. Bob and June adopted Sheri, their second daughter, in 1964. She was a beautiful girl and they treated her like one of their own. I know the divorce hurt her. I always enjoyed our time together.
“I liked June a lot, Bob,” I mentioned
He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders.
“Shit happens, Grant,” he said. “I blew my relationship with her. I should have been more patient, shouldn’t have been so insensitive about things. I grated on her like fingernails on a chalkboard at the end of our relationship.”
I nodded my head in understanding.
“After you divorced June, you were single for a year or so before you met Lucille back, right?” I asked.
He started to laugh and looked towards the heavens.
“You have a good memory, don’t you Grant?” he went on. “Yes, Lucille and I met back in 1975. She worked for the phone company, and we soon got married and bought the home up near Los Gatos, near the golf course. Do you remember that place?” he asked.
“I sure do, Bob.” I replied. “It was a huge home, built right on the sixteenth hole of the Los Gatos Country club. It was about an acre or so, wasn’t it? If I remember correctly, Lucille had two daughters who lived there with you.”
Bob looked at me and gave another shrug.
“We didn’t get along too well,” he remembered. “The marriage lasted two years at the most. We split, sold the home and that’s when I bought the condo in Los Gatos.”
I looked at Bob. “Maybe you should have married Elizabeth Taylor,” I joked.
He laughed and just about fell off his chair. I loved making Bob laugh.
“Yep, Lucille was pretty tough,” he said. “She wore on me and I’m sure I wore on her. I know I did. I guess I never should have married her.”
I laughed in response, then looked at my watch and decided to head to bed. Bob looked at me and smirked as I shuffled down towards the bunks.
“It was a great day, Bob!” I said.
“I said it was a great day, Bob!”
I changed my clothes and crawled into bed. Bob stayed out on the back of the boat. I could hear him talking to himself. He mumbled and looked at the moon as I fell off to sleep. The next morning I looked over at the other bunk and there was Bob, his back turned to me snoring. He had a blanket wrapped around his body and his feet were sticking out.
I got out of bed, grabbed my cereal, made some strong coffee, and went out on the boat. It was a clear morning, bright with no sign of a cloud in the sky. The stars and stripes flapped in the air as I fumbled for my cereal bowl. Blue Jays and sparrows flew through the air, swerving in all kinds of directions. The tiny marina only had three or four boats floating in the slips. There was a gravel parking lot off the docks and a small old rickety grocery store up the ramp. I jumped onto the dock and walked through the parking lot over to the grocery store. I went in and a little bell started to ring as I opened the door. I grabbed a San Francisco Chronicle, paid the quarter for the paper, and went back to the boat. I opened the Sporting Green, the Chronicle’s sports section printed on green-tinted paper, and glanced at the baseball standings while I finished off my cereal and had another cup of coffee.
Bob soon appeared, looking worn with his hair messed up. His glasses sat slanted on his face.
“Morning, Bob,” I said.
“Morning there, Grant!” he replied.
“The Giants won last night!” I said.
“The Giants won last night!”
Bob fixed himself some cereal, poured a cup of coffee and grabbed a cinnamon roll. He snatched the business section and glanced at some stocks he was working with. Bob was a smart investor. He had worked himself up through the ranks at the telephone company; by 1982, he had been there for twenty-some years. He was good with management, even though it was a stressful job. After his tour of duty, he finished up his Business degree from the University of Oregon. He moved up the ladder into management, transferring to the Bay Area in 1967. I think he moved to the south bay so he could be closer to my father. They were such great friends. Bob started the engines and looked at me.
“Let’s get going, Sonny!” he exclaimed.
I jumped on the dock and pulled in the lines while Bob got the anchor up. He steered us out into the main drift, and we started to head south towards Collinsville. The countryside started to show more signs of homes, warehouses, and development as we headed down the Delta. It got stifling, warmer than usual; by late morning it was already over ninety degrees. I looked at Bob and could see that he was getting hot around the collar.
“Bob, why don’t you stop the boat? I want to jump out in the river and cool off,” I asked.
Bob looked at me and turned the engines off. He threw out the anchor and we came to a stop in a wide section of the river. I put on a life preserver and perched on the back of the boat. I looked at Bob, waved and jumped in. I could hear him laugh as my head bobbed up out of the water. The water temperature was just right. I could feel a current down about six feet from the top of the water; the current was cooler than the rest of the water and felt cool on my feet.
“The water is great, Bob!” I shouted to make sure he heard me.
I started to float down the river, treading water while lying on my back. I floated into a drift and went by the Anna Mae, then swam back up the river towards Bob.
“It’s perfect,” I said.
I loved the Sacramento Delta. It’s such a smooth river, with cool drifts that feel great in the hot summer. Bob picked up the Sporting Green; he loved sports, especially the Giants and Athletics, the two Bay Area baseball teams. He had taken me to an A’s game back in 1970.
Bob liked to grin at me once in a while, making funny faces. His arms and cheeks were getting red. He started to put suntan lotion on his arms, then his forehead and cheeks, leaving a little of the soothing white lotion on the rest of his face. Fifteen minutes later I crawled back onto the Anna Mae, and he handed me a towel and started to pull in the anchor.
“That felt great! The water was perfect.” I said.
Bob started up the engines and we floated down towards Collinsville. By the late afternoon, the sun started to cast long shadows and painted the hills towards the east a golden brown. I could see the lights of the bay off in the distance. As we got closer to the Bay we started to see warehouses and large docks, massive barges and long ships carrying cars past us along the river. It reminded me of rush-hour traffic. Oil refineries belched smoke in the air; the river had become very active. Ships filled with wheat and barges piled with gravel were tied to the docks that stretched for miles. We passed under the Martinez Bridge, which rattled with rush-hour traffic.
We came to one of my favorite spots on the river, Benicia, where the U.S. Navy had at least one hundred ships tied up. Located under the north side of the George Miller bridge, where it gets big, dark, and wide, these massive, gray boats are tied up and stretch out along the river for what seems like forever, stretching east along the delta. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere, scores of mothballed military vessels. We motored past the boats, some aged battleships, some transport carriers, some out-of-commission destroyers. Each one must have had its own story to tell; some were missing parts and several had rusted hulls. It was such an amazing sight, drifting by these old ghosts in the Anna Mae.
The fog started to roll in over some of the hills as we approached Pittsburg and Suisun Bay. Shortly thereafter, the San Francisco Bay came into full view. We headed west out into the bay. It seemed to open up like a popup book, big and blue with the sun bouncing off the water. We cut through the small waves, bouncing in the rhythm of the currents. We started out around the north side of Alcatraz Island, and soon approached the historic mass and gazed at its monolithic prison in wide wonder. Looking southwest towards San Francisco there sat the Golden Gate Bridge, beaming proudly as we spun past her. I could see Sausalito in Marin County off in the distance to the north, and I could just make out the Presidio and Crissy Field on the northern tip of The City. We cruised around the west side of Alcatraz and headed down towards the Bay Bridge, towards Oakland. San Francisco’s hills were big, tall, and wide. It’s such a beautiful city. The skyline was beautiful. The pyramid-shaped Transamerica Tower and the Financial District’s office buildings stretched up to the sky. The Bay Bridge to Oakland sprawled out to the south, with Treasure Island’s green foliage wrapped around its north side. I love Treasure Island’s naval yards and gigantic eucalyptus trees.
“We’ll stay in Oakland tonight, Grant,” said Bob. “We’ll tie up at the Alameda Marina.”
“That sounds good to me, Bob,” I replied.
I grabbed one of his maps and tried to see where we were, to see if I could find the location where we were going to spend the night. Within an hour we were headed down through a long narrow slough towards the marina on the west side of Oakland. I could see the lights of San Francisco to the west and Treasure Island to the north. We passed along a few docks, pulled down a row of boats and Bob parked the Anna Mae in a vacant slip. He turned off the engine and winked at me as we drifted perfectly into place.
“Smooth as silk,” laughed Bob.
Bob was always proud of his navigational skills, ramblin’ and tamblin’ down the river like in the Creedence song. He had been traveling the waters of the Delta for almost ten years by then and felt like a true veteran of the river. He liked to hang out in Oakland; he knew where to go and knew people with boats there. He loved Jack London Square, in part because he loved to read London’s beloved stories of adventure and the outdoors. We tied the Anna Mae up and walked down the ramp that led to a nearby bar and grill. We wandered around the restaurant until we found a table tucked away in a dark corner with a view looking out to the west towards the bay.
Bob ordered cheeseburger and fries and a beer; I ordered a club sandwich and a coke. We talked about heading back towards Coyote Point. He figured we’d be there in the middle of the afternoon. We ate our meals and watched an A’s game before heading back to the boat. He grabbed his smokes and sat down when we got there. I sat next to him; it was dark, and the lights of Oakland lit up the sky.
“So Bob, after you divorced Lucille; you married Caroline?” I asked, picking up his life story where we’d left off the night before.
“Yep, I met Caroline back around 1977. I’ve been with her for five years now,” he answered
By that point Bob and Caroline were living in Atherton, a wealthy suburb on the peninsula. Both were working for AT&T. Caroline was good to Bob. She was born in Oregon and moved to California when she was young. She watched after him and made sure he was well fed. I don’t think my uncle could live without a woman in his life; he just wasn’t raised that way. Caroline could be stern with him, but she was always caring and loving. They were a cute couple. She had been married and divorced when she was younger, before they met. She had a daughter from her first marriage named Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Bob were great friends. He looked after her and helped her through her schooling. She was like a daughter to him.
The night surrounded us. Bob peered out at the bay, twirling his cigarettes.
“So Bob. you’re on your fourth wife now. Do you think this will be the last?” I asked. He rubbed his head and laughed.
“Who knows? I love her and she’s kind to me. I hope this one sticks,” he said.
I shook my head in agreement. I went to bed, looking forward to seeing Coyote Point the next day. During my sleep, some of the big ships passing by in the night blasted their horns, which woke me up. The sea breeze swept through the boat, rustling up the newspapers left on one of the bunks. I quickly fell back to sleep. I slept like a log that night. I was woken up early in the morning around dawn to see Bob darting up to the cabin. His trusty short-wave radio was blaring, a voice at the other end. It was my father, talking loud enough to wake up the entire marina.
“When are you guys going to be at Coyote Point?” he barked.
“Hey Glen, we’ll be there around late afternoon, say around 3:00 p.m. or so,” Bob answered. “Why don’t you bring your sticks and we’ll play nine holes at Poplar?”
“OK,” my father said. “See you then. Over and out, Roger that Captain Hook!”
I looked at Bob and he was laughing; I could tell he was hungry. He headed to the kitchen, found some brown eggs in the fridge, poured some oil in a pan, and cooked them sunny-side up. He also made toast and poured a bowl of cereal. We ate and listened to the radio. The skies were clear. The water was a bit choppy from the wind as seagulls darted by. The gulls seemed as though they were frozen in air as they watched us eat. There was a lot of activity as the docks came to life. People talkin’, squawkin’, shoutin’, drinkin’ coffee, and startin’ their big boat engines. I could smell the mixture of fish and exhaust in the air; it was around 7:30 A.M. Horns blared around us and soon we were heading out of the marina.
The water stretched out towards the bottom of the bay, down south towards San Jose. We floated toward the west side of the bay, following the peninsula. Soon enough, we saw Coyote Point a few miles in the distance. It looked inviting, surrounded by large trees. I looked at Bob and he smiled; we were almost there! There were a few boats circling around us in the water, sail boats and a few catamarans. It was a spectacular morning to be out on the bay.
“Hand me the binoculars, would you?” asked Bob.
I fumbled around inside the cabin and found his binoculars. The U.S. Air Force emblem was affixed to one side; he grabbed them from me and started to look out towards Coyote Point.
“Looks excellent,” he yelled. “I can see the marina. Looks like everything should be good to go, Grant!”
I was excited as we wound down our trip. It had been a great ride. I started to clean the galley, make the bunks, clean off the deck, round up the garbage, and sack everything up. Bob sat behind the wheel of the Anna Mae, smiling as we headed into the marina.
“Don’t go swimming with no bow-legged woman,” Uncle Bob sang as we made our way to Coyote Point.
We saw my dad standing by his 1965 Mustang, laughing, and waving at us as he waited in the parking lot. The top was down and he was dressed in his golf duds.
Bob waved and started to slow the Anna Mae down to a crawl. We headed towards the marina, down towards the slip that my uncle had moored his boat at many times through the years. We came to a stop, and my father walked down the boat ramp and climbed on board.
“Well, you guys made it! How was the trip!” he asked.
“Fine, just fine,” I grinned.
“Grant was a big help. We caught a salmon and he was a keeper!” Bob said.
My father beamed when he heard the news. He sat for a bit. talking with this brother while I grabbed my belongings and put them in the back of his car. I went back to the boat. It was decided that they would go play nine holes of golf while I would hang out there. My uncle went down in the cabin and came back with his golf clubs. They both walked up the ramp and headed over to the golf course.
I sat on the Anna Mae and listened to the radio, read a book, and took in the beauty of Coyote Point. A few hours later my father and uncle were back at the boat, looking tired.
“How was your golf game?” I asked Bob.
“Your father beat me as usual. He always beats me at golf!” he laughed.
We made sure everything was locked up tight on the Anna Mae. I zipped up the leather covering that surrounded the cabin, checked the lines, and made sure everything was turned off. We jumped in the car and drove over to Atherton, where Bob grabbed his things. I gave him a big hug and thanked him for the great time as Caroline stood in the doorway waving at us. I waved back and in no time my father and I were headed back over the hills to Half Moon Bay.
My father died in 1996 of complications from a stroke. Uncle Bob died shortly thereafter, about two years later. They’re both buried at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in South San Francisco, next to their parents, my grandmother and grandfather, not far away from Coyote Point. My Uncle Bob was really close to my father. I think that when my dad died, part of my uncle died as well. That can happen sometimes.
Bob died in the late summer in 1998. He died early in the morning, at 4:00 a.m. His body had been shutting down on him his last couple of years. I was in Portland, Oregon when he passed, fast asleep in my bed. I’ll never forget that morning. I woke up in the middle of the night and heard my uncle’s voice as clear as a bell. I was startled when I awoke, exactly at 4:00 a.m. It was frightening in a way. Believe it or not, I heard him say good-bye to me. You might think I’m crazy, but I swear I heard him. I got the call from my aunt later that morning telling me he had passed on.
“What time did Bob die, Caroline?” I asked through my tears.
“He died around 4:00 a.m., Grant. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I was just wondering.”
Bob and Caroline stayed married right up until he died. They had a few ups and downs in their marriage, a few rocky roads, and a few mishaps along the way. I was happy they stuck together through the years. He had some rough seas with the women in his life, a few heartaches here and there. I was happy they found a way to make things work in their marriage.
I miss Bob. I miss his love, his friendship, his stories, and his laughter. He was a great friend, faithful to his country and loyal to the people he loved. Whenever I’m around water I think of him. I like to imagine he’s still at sea in some heavenly Delta, floating along in his beloved Anna Mae.