I want to thank John Craven for his YouTube drone footage from which I captured the image above. 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 / parking lot at the eastern base of Goat Rock. It remains, even today, an amazing place.
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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.
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.
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?
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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 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 enthusiasm and energy was squirming around in the back seat getting to know all his new friends.
The storm drain pipe was round and about 4 feet in diameter so we all had to bend over to walk through the pipe. It had rained in the past few days so there was a small trail of water at the bottom. This was going to be great fun. A couple of them were somewhat 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 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 affectionation. 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 was 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 in to the youth group and Denise told me that it was Pastor’s Bissot’s birthday and asked what could we 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, one of our group has a birthday. Can you come play the birthday song for him?” Of course he smiled and immediately followed me back to piano out the music for us. He almost finished the song when we loudly sang out his name and he blushed with our having 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.
Once, we were running down a trail at a camp retreat and I noticed that there was a long slope down into a dry creek bed that we could slide down and short cut back to the camp for lunch. 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 6 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 me, but 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, a business owner, manager and parent, 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.
Thank you; Denise, Mark and Lisa; Jim, Cathy, Karen and Duane; Judy, Becky, Mike, Freddy, and Greg. Our years together were some of the best of my life.