My Penngrove Pivot

I want to thank John Craven for his YouTube drone footage from which I captured the image above and below. In this image we are looking south at the California coast, just south of Jenner. You can see the road going down to the short peninsula and parking lot at the eastern base of Goat Rock. It remains, even today, an amazing place where life changing memories were made.

I dug my fingers and sneaker toe tips into the rock face and hoped that no wind would kick up to threaten my grip on this wet rocky wall. I paused just long enough to wonder what I was thinking when I slipped over the edge and began a free climb down this cliff.

Goat Rock

Below me was the path-less climb and the ocean waves crashing against the small level area that I hoped to soon be standing on. I had no climbing gear, mostly because this climb was a spur of the moment idea, and I wasn’t remotely prepared. Below, you can see the non-path we’d climbed up to begin our adventure.

goat rock 2

I glanced up, hoping and confirming that everyone else was okay. Yea… I was not only doing this myself, but I had led a group of new friends into this predicament. Again, what was I thinking?

In grammar school, we had a youth council and one year I decided to try being president. I was drawn to being the leader. I could make hard decisions and solve tough problems. The only problem was, I had no idea how to earn the right to even run for the position or how to lead anyone. All I had was desire so my campaign never got off the ground.

Afterwards, I still had the desire but not enough to really seek out advice or even wise steps I should take to prepare for a later attempt. I just went back to my ad-hoc life.

Years later, the chance to lead found me and even then I didn’t earn it. It was more like I didn’t dodge it. It was literally handed to me. So, with that said, I regret that I did not recognize the significance of the life pivot brought to me by good friend Judy Hansen (now Lee), early in my career at Petaluma High School in 1970. She was the alpha-gal of our group of good friends.

Her mom had become friends with the new pastor of a small church in a nearby Penngrove which was only a few miles away but culturally, might as well been the outback of Oklahoma.

At the prompting of her mom, Judy invited us to check out this church with her. I was not much of a church-goer but had no objections. As it turned out, I was the only one who took her up on the offer so the deal was set. I’d be at her front door each Sunday morning with my ’58 Chevy Biscayne, known as The Biscuit, and we’d go to church together. Did I just hear the first of many dominoes falling over?

This one event proved to become a key pivot point in my life. We were warmly greeted by the small congregation and Pastor Bissot indeed proved to be one of the most wonderful men I’d ever met. He welcomed us and chatted with us before introducing us to the other teenage members. One of them, and I’m pretty sure it was Denise Hutton (now Hulculak), invited us to join the youth group. I thought this was very cordial, but little did I know that a plot had already been formed. At the first evening youth group meeting they saw me as their new Youth Group President, because no one there wanted to do it.

I was soon presented with the chance to take the reins of leadership and this was okay by me, because it meant that mostly I got to do all the things I wanted to do with friends; like hikes and beach trips. It didn’t take long before all organization was abandoned and what we did any given week was literally whatever popped into my head only days before. I recall making it a point to take them to strange places and do strange things because that’s what appealed to me. One day I piled them all into the Biscuit and hauled them all back to my house where my mom caught us squirming into dad’s collection of coveralls and grabbing a few flashlights.

“Do I want to know what you’re up to?” Mom asked.

“I’m taking the group to explore the storm drains.” I answered with a big smile, thinking that surely the fun would be obvious.

The look on her face did not exactly say, “What a great idea”, but then she didn’t object either. “Come on guys – it’s time for some real fun.”

There was about 7 or 8 of us. I know because the Biscuit (our affectionate name for my first car, a 1957 chevy biscayne) was only about half full of teenagers and one dog. I decided that I needed Dad’s dog, Skip, for this adventure so our 85 pound wad of canine enthusiasm was squirming around in the back seat getting to know all his new friends.

58 Chevy Biscayne

The storm drain was cement and about four feet in diameter, so we all had to bend over to walk through the pipe. It had rained a few days earlier so there was an eight-inch-wide trail of water at the bottom. Perfect! I thought.

This was going to be great fun but a couple of them looked more than a bit dubious of this whole idea.

We got about a half mile in, and well between street drains, when I stopped the trail of kids and told them to sit down with their backs to one side and their feet against the other side – no one ended up sitting in that trail of water. We had good mix of girls and guys (all good friends by now) but only a few flashlights, so there was a healthy clumping of bodies huddled together when I finally told them, “Okay, flashlights off,” and the tunnel went completely, cave-quality dark – so dark we couldn’t see the person sitting next to us.

There was plenty of echoing smart remarks, laughing and giggling (someone was tickling Cathy I think), but just beneath their carrying-on, I could hear a distant; splash, splash – splash, splash. It was Skip goofing off far behind us.

“Guys, I don’t want Skip getting lost, so I’m going to call him.” They all went silent and now all we could hear was his rhythmic splashing. “SKIP – come here!” We heard him stop, then start again as he made his way to us. Ah – it was time for a laugh. I was at the lead with all the other kids – yes – between me and this wonderful loving, energetic dog with VERY WET PAWS. I knew he would not stop until he found me because he never outgrew that manic puppy-like affection. It only took a few moments for the paw splashes to get closer and closer and then I heard several muffled “oof’s” and “ugh”s as Skip crashed into and crawled over everyone in the pipe until he found my lap. Dog tongue and dog breath and flaying paws were everywhere as he pretty much beat us up with loving affection. “Good dog – good boy.”

When I turned my flashlight back on – the devastation was complete. In seconds, he had reduced their carefully laid out balance of staying clean and dry by straddling that trail of water to a rubble of bodies smashed all over the pipe and what I remember most fondly were the trails of wet paw prints up the middle of both Cathy and Denise and how disarranged they both looked. I should have brought my Kodak Instamatic camera. That one shot would have been priceless.

So, this wonderful group of friends followed me all over the county on various adventures and helped me put together parties and gags like one night when I walked into the fellowship hall for our youth group meeting and Denise told me that it was Pastor Bissot’s birthday then asked what we could do, I thought and answered, “let’s just sing to him. Stay here for a moment, I’ll be right back.”  I poked my head into his office and asked him, “Hi Pastor, it’s one of our birthdays today. Can you come play Happy Birthday on the piano for him?” Of course, he smiled and immediately followed me then sat down to play the music for us. We enthusiastically belted out the song and loudly sang out his name which caused him to stop and blush when he realized that I’d tricked him into playing his own birthday music. When I spoke to him many years later – he still recalled that to be one of his favorite memories of his time at our church. This man was much loved and I’m sure he loved us every bit as much as we loved him.

Once, we were at a camp retreat and running down a steep hill, following a trail and I noticed that there was a long steeper slope that I could see led to a dry creek bed and that we could slide down and shortcut our travel to the camp for a better spot in the lunch line. I yelled for everyone to follow me, grabbed a low hanging branch and swung through the soft leaves and landed on that slope and began a great ride down. The only problem was that it got much steeper where I hadn’t been able to see, but now I was committed and gaining speed fast with nothing to grab to slow my descent. I almost fell the last six feet into the creek bed and only then realized that I had knocked lots of rock rubble loose and now it was catching up with me. I yelled out for the others not to follow but my warning was too late for Denise. She was already well in route down the new path I’d just cut.

“Damn,” I thought, “she’s going to get hurt,” so I scrambled up the wall back out of the creek bed and met her as she began to accelerate into that final steep portion. I managed to slow her descent and together we slid down the last few yards where I quickly pulled her to the far side and pushed her against the far wall then stood behind her while the fresh wave of rocks pounded my backside. When the rock shower was over, she danced away happy saying she knew I would not let her get hurt.

Well, okay -that was true enough, but it troubled me that I had put her at risk in the first place.

So then, how do I explain the fact that about a year later, history puts us on the west side – the WRONG side of Goat Rock, clinging to the cliff with no safety gear or real plan on how we were going to get down safely. There I was, below them, regretting another ill-thought-out idea.

We did get down, but just barely. I decided we were not going back the same way which meant a hard trail around the base of Goat Rock, where I knew there still was no easy trail, but if someone fell, it would only be into a very rough surf and large rocks to bounce between. Okay, I know how that sounded but it seemed the wiser of the two options. Denise still likes to remind me of the wave that surprised me down there and almost washed me off the path. If you visit there today, Goat Rock is now carefully fenced off – preventing idiots from repeating our stunt.

This youth group provided me with lots of fun memories, parties, beach trips and hikes. That one event at Goat Rock left me resolved to never put my group at risk ever again. I was not perfect in working it out, but finally, I was on a path that would make me a much better leader. There was still lots of wisdom and guided experience to collect.

Later as an adult, parent, business owner, hiring manager and scout group leader, I’ve led several teams in a variety of efforts. That they are all still alive and successful, is due in part to those great friends I had in Penngrove.

We camped, traveled, worshiped, learned about love, did snipe hunts, turned the church pancake breakfast into what is now the church’s Aebleskiver breakfast, grew up, had our crushes, never missed an opportunity to embarrass each other, started our careers, adult lives and families, made more friends, mistakes and history, gossiped about people and ourselves, looked for lost contact lens that we’d knocked out wrestling, discussed great questions at length, and laughed. We matured our opinions, habits and influence. We left our marks and collected some scars from Goat Rock, the hills of Berkeley, Fremont and loads of places as far south as Asilomar and Pacific Grove.

Somehow, we always managed to find things to laugh about.

Denise, Mark, and Duane (all now RIP-ing) Lisa; Jim, Cathy, and Karen; Judy, Becky, Mike, Freddy, and Greg.Thank you, guys.  Our high school years romping around were some of the best of my life. I’m so thankful that we survived them together.

Because you were all there, my time at Penngrove church made me a healthier and happier person.

GW bio card 4

26 thoughts on “My Penngrove Pivot

    1. Oh the fun! I got a ride through those tunnels on the back of an ATV driven by Peter Vitali. That was the first and last time believe it or not. We rode all the way from G St. to the river. We turned around when we got to the watery art of the tunnel. thrilling and a bit scary for me. I dislike the dark and all that. But I am still a daredevil at times. Thanks for the memories Gary


  1. Truely some of the best years of my life. What I remember best is that I lost the seat of my pants careening down that mountain. Still have those pants, I embroidered all our adventures on those jeans! The Saturday night pillow fights, Ohms Law, Swenson’s Ice Cream. What we did to the poor Biscuit on Gary’s birthday, mud fights at Berryessa and what we could do to folks who may have annoyed us with just a little spider string!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah yes, good times! And don’t forget the snipe hunt, when Denise and I actually brought back several live snipes and left them in a bag on your doorstep…..


    1. Hi Lisa.

      It’s been way too long since we spoke and I’ve missed you.

      I could have dropped you into the story several places but don’t do that without permission.

      Hope life is treating you well and that you’re still as rowdy as I remember.

      Warmest regards.


      1. Hi Gary, Very fun to run into you again via your post, which brought back so many good memories.
        Me? Rowdy? You must have me confused with one of the other Lisas….. 😉


      2. You rowdy was a strong YEA!
        It was just another of your numerous endearing charms.

        We made some great memories on that hill too. For a good laugh you might check out the giant inner tube story. It’s been a long time favorite.
        Capturing some of these great memories has become something of a project & passion. I limit each to 2000 words for a 10 min average read & if they’re not funny – I keep working them.

        You would also recognize the T-swing adventure but I’ve only started on my memories from Penngrove.
        I want to do the hymnal zipper laugh, but Denise thought it wise to hold off asking Cathy for permission. I think her life turned out harder than we would have wished for her.

        What would we give to go back to 1971 for few hours….?


  3. Ah yes, still remember catching them at your house hiking and climbing over several fences and artfully positioning the bags of birds to be reclaimed and put into burlap bags……still remember that Donnie S would never play with us again!


  4. Wandering down memory lane can be a lot of fun. Your adventures reminded me of fun times I had with my friends way back in my youth. Thanks for dropping by my blog.


  5. You dodged a bullet at Goat Rock! So many have perished there over the years (before the fence you now mention is there).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Irene – this story still sends chills down my spine every time I think about it. It sure got my attention even at the time and I’ve been a better man for the scare it gave me. It is such a compliment to have you reading and responding about it. Blessings


    1. Ah but Nancy, you know that life in the city is no cover for not having a bunch of adventures growing up. I’d bet that a simple look at your young life would reveal any number of “adventures”. They’d be different than mine of course, but since most great adventures really are in our minds as we live out life wherever – they will be there. Thanks for reading another one of mine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No surprises here. Your writing reveals that a’plenty.
        By the way, don’t miss me new reprised story for today. It is a should not be missed gem well known in my family. It might leave you laughing through the rest of the day.


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