Monthly Archives: March 2017

327. The Lone Hero

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                         A note before we start  ——

     Yesterday, someone searched on the sub-title of this blog (be not ashamed . . .) but my software doesn’t tell me who. For your information, unknown and curious person, I explained my relationship to this poem on the last day of 2015, and included a copy of the poem the same day.

     And now to our regularly scheduled business ——

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In my youth, before Star Trek and Star Wars and computer generated effects, the typical movie hero was a cowboy, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

Even the word “beholden” seems old fashioned. Ancient. Outmoded — like the western hero himself. And to be fair, he never really existed. If you spend any time at all reading histories of the old west, you’ll find out that things were done by groups, not by lone heroes. When the Dalton gang tried to hold up two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kansas, it wasn’t a John Wayne figure standing tall in the street that stopped them. It was a dozen or so armed citizens that blew them out of the saddle from windows and doorways. Same story in Northfield, Minnesota when the James gang bit the dust.

I called them armed citizens. That sounds pretty good. Put them up on horses with Winchesters and send them as a posse after the bad guys. It still works — unless you are the one they are after. Call them vigilantes, and some people will start to feel uncomfortable, but not everyone. Call them a gang and people will start thinking about locking their doors.

Put them in white hoods. What do you think of them now?

It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

The lone, self-sufficient individual or small family did exist. There were soddies on the Kansas prairie miles from the next settler. Or log cabins in the deep woods of Ohio and Indiana — back when Ohio and Indiana had deep woods. And there were the mountain men. You can’t get more independent than that — except that they moved across the prairie in companies, and only dispersed once they were in the mountains.

One thing is certain. The idea of the loner was always there.

I wrote my first book, a young adult novel called Spirit Deer, with the idea of the loner front and center. The young man Tim — he didn’t need a last name — got lost in the Sierras while deer hunting and found his way out without help despite innumerable trials and tribulations. You can still sell that kind of book (see Two Hands and a Knife), but they are becoming rare. Today’s YA novels seem to be about how to get along in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It better fits the world today’s youth live in. The — ask a friend, seek companionship, don’t rock the boat, politically correct, do no harm, love yourself, make no judgments, everything is morally right as long as you don’t hurt someone’s feelings — world.

Granted, there is much good in these “civilized” changes, but whatever happened to standing up on your hind feet and saying, “I don’t agree. That’s not for me.” There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion different from the crowd.

No wonder Trump won.

He’s as fake as Rooster Cogburn, but he represents something Americans have come to miss. The cowboy hero, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

There is one thing to remember though. When the smoke cleared and the sound of six guns faded at the end of that movie, half the town was dead in the street. That may work when you can leave the theatre and drive home to your secure suburban house. It doesn’t work so well when you have to pick up a shovel and go bury your dead.

The self-certain loner and the soft spoken conformer. As Kirk said to Spock, “The truth probably lies somewhere in between.”

Raven’s Run 121

I had to proceed three quarters of a mile up the dry ravine and then go over the right bank. I did that. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t crossing the Rhine, either. When I left the ravine, not much light remained. Two hundred yards on my belly put me in sight of the house. Shack, really. There was light; not the cold light of electricity, but the rich amber of a kerosene lantern. It showed one window clearly in the dark mass of the house, and the crack of a half open door. Nothing moved in the yard. I glassed the place as thoroughly as I could while some light remained; then I waited. Several times, someone walked between the light and the window. Once I heard what sounded like a whine. It was a sound I had been listening for.

Twenty minutes later, a gaunt figure came to the door and set something on the porch. From two places in the yard, heavy shadows lifted themselves up and glided over to eat. I couldn’t tell the breed, but they were dogs, and they were big.

I didn’t need much from this place. I wasn’t gathering evidence for a grand jury. This was Skinny Alan’s property; if they were growing a significant amount of pot here, then I was on the right track. What I didn’t want was to wander around in the dark running into booby traps. Most of the stories about trip wires and shotguns in the California north woods were probably not true. Probably not. But I didn’t want to test the assumption, so I stayed where I was and prepared to wait out the night.

Mosquitoes moved in. They tried their best, but compared to the kind I knew as a child, they were a joke. A Wisconsin mosquito would have eaten them alive. I put on my jacket, ate a No-doze and waited. And waited. The moon came up late and thin and mostly hidden by trees. The dogs down below ate and went back to sleep. Occasionally one of them would snarl low and quick out of reflex. About two AM the inhabitant of the shack came out with a flashlight, stirred them up and cussed them out as she walked to a small building behind the shack. I saw that it was a woman and the building was an outhouse. Five minutes later she went back inside, and that was the high point of the night.

The sky began to lighten about five. By six there was color in the sky and she had a light on inside. About that time I smelled bacon, so I ate another candy bar. At seven fifteen, she came out, lean and hard, dressed in ragged denim and plaid flannel. She was about forty-five, with skin like leather and a graying hair that she had cut short. She gathered up a hose and a bucket, called the dogs, and set off uphill toward the ravine.

I gave her a good start, then followed. Once I had established that she was following a trail, I cut out into the woods so I wouldn’t leave a scent on the ground. The buck brush and manzanita were more than head high, but I could catch a glimpse of her from time to time. It was an easy stalk. more tomorrow

326. Dogwood Spring

The California dogwoods are in bloom. Today (March 20) my wife and I took a drive along our favorite semi-secret road to see them. The road isn’t really secret, nor even secluded, but it is off the beaten track. People who don’t live on it, rarely use it. We wound through twists and turns, admiring the green fields and placid cattle, down a steep trail to a hairpin curve at the bottom where a vernal creek rushes through a culvert.

In summer, this is a pool and a trickle, but it has been an exceptionally wet spring and the steep hill behind the pool now provides a double waterfall. We stopped. I admired the bounty of water while my wife took pictures of the dogwoods.

Just at the point where the pool empties into the culvert, there was a clump of grass, rooted in a crack in the rock, partially submerged in the rushing stream. You could see that it had only been growing a few weeks, and shortly the water will fall. When that happens, there will not be soil enough to support the clump, and it will die. But for now, the clump of grass was wiggling and tossing in the water, happy as a hummingbird.

This quatrain occurred to me as I watched.

Though the bee did not come,
And the fruit did not form,
            It does not follow
That the blossom lived in vain.

Like any natural poem, you could apply it to a number of situations. Any un- or under-published author will know what I mean.

Raven’s Run 120

The Chamber of Commerce had an information booth in one of the hardware stores. Between hip boots and manure scoops, I picked up a city map, and bought topographic maps of the surrounding countryside.

This was the valley of the Eel River, and topography dictated the crescent shape of the town. The river itself was across the valley, on the other side of the freeway, and the town filled the remaining space between the ranges of low brown hills. No one was adventurous enough to build houses up where they could overlook the valley, probably because there wasn’t that much to see. I had driven through some pretty country to get here, but Garberville itself was nothing to brag about.

The Thunderbird Motel was just seedy enough for my needs. It looked like a place where fishermen would stay when the steelhead were running. That definitely wasn’t now. By one o’clock the sun was blistering. The motel room air conditioner was tired and noisy; I turned it on high and spread my maps on the bed. Comparing topographic maps to the plat descriptions was no easy task. They operated out of different ways of thinking. I finally found a description of the intersection of two roads on one of the plat descriptions that I could match up with the topo; after that I could locate myself and find some of the properties I had come to see.

Then I used the phone book to check addresses. Only William Johnson was listed. I checked out the location of his house, and of Jim Davis’. Skinny Alan lived in Redway, and I didn’t have a map for it.

I found food, ate, showered, set the alarm, and slept. At six that evening, I was dressed and driving. I figured I had about two hours of useable light left.

Ninety minutes later, I was afoot with the shotgun hanging across my back and the .44 on my belt, hiking up a ravine toward the nearest piece of suspicious property.

The Pinto was stashed out of sight up a dirt road. If anyone saw it, and cared enough to notice, it looked pretty much like an abandoned car. If I left it there long enough, someone would steal the tires. Otherwise, I wasn’t worried about it giving me away.

Remember, this was 1989. There were no Google maps. No Google, in fact, and barely anything resembling the internet. Just topographic maps.

I had studied the topo map with great care. The ravine I was hiking in ran up through the scrub oak and manzanita in the general direction of the only building that showed. Of course, the topo had last been revised fifteen years earlier. There could have been a small town up ahead, and I wouldn’t know it. At least the contours of the land would be the same, barring bulldozers. I had to proceed three quarters of a mile up the dry ravine and then go over the right bank. 750 double steps of a Roman legionnaire. The way I was weaving about to avoid the brush, I would call it a thousand. If I went too far, the ravine cut sharply to the left, and I could backtrack a couple of dozen yards. more tomorrow

325. Exploring Challenger Deep

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HMS Challenger 1874 and bathyschaphe Trieste 1960

Challenger Deep is located in the western Pacific about 2000 kilometers east of the Philippines. It is the deepest part of the Mariana’s Trench, which makes it the deepest part of any ocean.

March 23, 1875, the British research ship H.M.S. Challenger rolled out a line with a weight on the end to measure the oceans depth, something it had been doing throughout its four year journey. It was quite a line. When the weight hit bottom, Challenger’s crew had paid out five miles of hemp — a depth of 4475 fathoms in the measurements of the day.

Although cruises like the Beagle and the Endeavour had set the stage for such exploration, the Challenger expedition was rigged out specifically to study the world’s oceans beneath their surface. It essentially initiated of the science of oceanography. Our space shuttle Challenger was named after H.M.S. Challenger, as was the ship H.M.S. Challenger II which returned to the spot in 1951 and remeasured the depth using an echo-sounder. This time the figure was seven miles, not five.

Reaching the bottom of Challenger Deep remained impossible until two world wars, submarines, frogmen, sonar, and the invention of the Aqualung wedded modern technology to oceanographic exploration. A new invention by Auguste Piccard, the bathyscaphe, finally made very deep dives possible.

In its essential function, a bathyscaphe is more like a dirigible than a submarine. The crew is suspended beneath the vessel in a steel sphere designed to withstand great pressure. The skin of this pressure sphere is so thick, five inches in the case of the Trieste, that it would sink immediately. To prevent this, it is suspended beneath a large, thin skinned, self-propelled float filled with gasoline. This provides buoyancy and, since gasoline is a liquid, is not affected by pressure. Air tanks allow the bathyscaphe to float on the surface as it is being prepared for use. Once the air tanks are emptied, the negatively buoyant bathyscaphe sinks to the bottom — seven miles down in the case of Challenger Deep. The pressures there are so great that it is impossible to refill the air tanks, so the bathyscaphe also carries several tons of steel shot in open bottom containers, held in place by powerful electromagnets. When it is time to return to the surface, the electromagnets are shut off, the steel shot is released, and the now positively buoyant craft returns to the surface. In case of a power failure, the shot would automatically fall away.

The bathyscaphe Trieste was built in Italy to a modification of a Belgian design by Swiss inventor Piccard for the French navy, who subsequently sold it to the American Navy, who rebuilt it with a new and stronger pressure sphere made in Germany. Globalization, anyone?

On the twenty-third of January, 1960, the Trieste was ready to plumb Challenger Deep. The crew consisted of Jacques Piccard, son of the designer, and Navy Lt. Don Walsh. They boarded the vessel, moved down to the seven foot diameter pressure sphere and sealed the hatch. The air tanks were allowed to fill with water and the descent began. It took nearly five hours to sink to the bottom of the Deep. Three quarters of the way down, one of the plexiglas windows cracked, but not enough to cause disaster.

As they cruised above the deep ocean floor, Piccard and Walsh reported a bottom of smooth ooze and saw bottom fish swimming, proving that vertebrate life could survive such high pressure and eternal darkness. They spent only twenty minutes at the bottom, in part because of the cracked viewport, and hours more returning to the surface.

No one would return to those depths for another half century.

Trivia for the faithful: Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: TNG seems to have been named after the Jacques Piccard, or after his father Auguste Piccard and his twin brother Jean Felix Piccard. Different sources credit different family members with the name origin. Also, in TNG episode “11001001” a small, slow starship named Trieste is mentioned.

Raven’s Run 119

If I wanted to be a big pot grower today, I would have lots of little plots of land scattered all over the area . . .”

“Like the seventeen plots owned by the Davises.”

“Yeah, only maybe more so. You know of seventeen. How many are there you don’t know about? Anyway, I wouldn’t want to have too much direct contact with the farming. I’d be management. I’d supply the means, pay salaries, and skim my take off the top.”

Rusty stopped in mid-sentence, then looked at me sharply and said, “Mostly, Gunn, I’d enforce discipline. If your man could do that, he could make millions. But he would have to be ruthless. A guy like that couldn’t hesitate at a few killings.”

Rusty wiped up the last of his eggs with a piece of toast and asked, “How are you armed?”

I told him about the Bulldog. He just shook his head and said, “Wait.” He headed off downstairs to his shop and five minutes later came back with an ancient double-barreled shotgun. It was a basket case. Apparently someone had let it rust and then had sanded the rust off. Instead of having it reblued, they had covered the metal, and half the stock, with black spray paint. The stock was wrapped with duct tape.

Rusty was polishing it with a rag. Not to make it look good; he was removing his fingerprints. He handed it to me along with a couple of boxes of shells.

“I took this in trade, thinking I’d rebuild it in my spare time. It’s old, and it’s never been registered. It’s sound, despite what it looks like. I’d like to give you something better, but you need something that ballistics can’t trace. I’m giving you double-ought buck and in case things get real serious, slugs. They aren’t accurate past twenty yards, but they’ll stop a grizzly in his tracks.”

Chapter Thirty-three

I headed north across the Golden Gate and took Highway 101 through the oak and gold clarity of a Marin County morning. Choosing a speed was a delicate task. The last thing I needed was to be pulled over while I was carrying a pair of unregistered weapons. Cars were slamming past me in true California fashion, going eighty and ninety. Fifty-five miles per hour was the law then, but it would have been suicidal, so I kept pace with the slowest traffic at just under seventy.

I was heading into country that I knew only by hearsay. During all my years in San Francisco, I had not had the leisure or the money to explore the state. I had been to Sacramento a number of times, on business for Joe Dias or doing research for my thesis, but I had only gone as far north as Mendicino once, on a fishing trip. Garberville was about fifty miles inland from there, and further north.

I came off the freeway about noon and rolled through the town from end to end to get a feel for the place. There wasn’t a lot to see. One main street ran north and south, a second dead ended into it and carried traffic back toward the freeway. Restaurants, gas stations, a lumberyard, two hardware stores, a movie theater, two grocery stores, an antediluvian five and dime still hanging on long after the main chain had died, and four or five video rental stores. Since it was California, there were also two health food stores, a new age bookstore, and a palm reader. more tomorrow

324. Scientific Entrepreneurs

ksc-20160408-ph_kls0001_0005_25704320894In Heinlein’s original stories, a visionary entrepreneur named D. D. Harriman put the first man on the moon. In our world, NASA did it.

Recently, NASA has been in one of its periodic slow periods and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have been taking center stage. Just this week (I’m writing this on March second) both groups were in the news. Musk announced that two unnamed underwriters had put down sizable deposits for a trip around the moon in the near future, riding in a Dragon spacecraft on top of one of his Falcon rockets. And NASA has announced that the first launch of its Space Launch System booster might carry astronauts around the moon again, for the first time since 1972.

Both are big news, if they happen. Of course, if you follow the space program, you know that there are always more big stories of upcoming events than there are actual events. We’ll have to wait and see.

There are many space enthusiasts who feel that private enterprise should lead in the exploration of space. “Boy genius builds rocket in basement and travels to Alpha Centauri” has a long history in science fiction. I don’t see it.

American industry built all the components of the Apollo missions, and the government paid the bill. Elon Musk has built the Falcon rocket (see photo) on his own, but a NASA contract to supply the ISS pays at least part of the bill. Different, yes, but how different? Privately owned trucks carry goods to your town every day, but on government built roads. Private enterprise is always entangled with government support.

Perhaps it all comes down to a case of, “Who do you trust?” Do you trust private enterprise? Or do you trust the government? Personally, I don’t trust either one of them, so I don’t care who carries the torch for space exploration, as long as it happens.

All this brings us to the anniversary of the day.

Since innumerable interesting things have happened throughout history, and there are only 365 days in a year, you can find something worth celebrating almost any day.

On March 26 (yesterday) or March 25 — depending on which side of the international date line you’re sitting on as you read this — in 2012, James Cameron made a solo descent to the deepest point in the ocean.

The Challenger Deep, in the Marianas Trench, had not been visited by humans since 1960. That expedition was sponsored by the government, specifically the U. S. Navy. Cameron’s visit was self-financed.

Rich men spending their money on their passions, without regard for profit, is not just a twenty-first century phenomenon. Rockefeller made his money in oil, then set up the Rockefeller Foundation. Alfred Nobel made his fortune in armaments, then set up a Peace Prize. Andrew Carnegie made his money in railroads, then set up a chain of libraries across America, including one which illuminated my youth.

Cameron became rich through such films as Titanic and Avatar. His passion for undersea exploration is of long standing. Like Musk with manned space flight, Cameron is continuing an exploration that the government began, then partially abandoned.

Tomorrow we will look at earlier explorers of Challenger Deep.

Raven’s Run 118

“I don’t mean everybody. There are a lot of pacifists up there in the hills. People who still stand by what they stood for twenty years ago – who would rather be robbed than shoot someone. But there are a lot of people squirreled away up there, and if even a small percent is armed, that’s a lot of firepower.

“That’s the little guys. The big growers went Nazi. At harvest time, those counties started looking like Army maneuvers. Everyone wearing camouflage gear and carrying rifles. Outside the town, they were carrying machine guns. Seventeen year old kids dropping out of school to sit out in the forest all dressed up to play soldier with a real Uzi in their hands.

I said, “It sounds like Viet Nam.”

Rusty snarled, “You weren’t there, man, so don’t tell me what Nam was like.”

I just shrugged and hoped I hadn’t set him off. Then he nodded, and said, “Yeah, I guess. No discipline; kids with guns; most of them with no real sense of why they’re there. A little like Nam, but only like a pale shade of it. Way, way watered down.

“Bad enough to make me leave, though,” he added. “I grew up in that area and knew it when you could be free there. When the paranoia set in, I left. It got so I couldn’t walk into the woods to take a pee without worrying if someone was going to shoot me. ‘Course, the chances were nothing would ever have happened. Like living here. Man, people get killed in San Francisco every week, but nobody has taken a shot a me yet. Still, it spoiled things. I used to hunt and fish all over that area when I was a kid and all I ever had to worry about was bigfoot. Now kids the age I was then are driving big cars, carrying AK-47s, and snorting coke bought with their earnings. I just didn’t like living there any more.”

Rusty slammed his chair back from the table and went to the refrigerator. He took out bacon and eggs, and started cooking. I didn’t say anything. He was worked up, and he had to do something with his hands before he could go on. I understood that, and you don’t push Rusty if you want his help.

There was a lot of slamming of frying pans and low voiced cussing. Eventually, he tossed a plate of eggs and bacon in front of me and sat down to eat his. It was edible. Just. I choked it down and waited.

Finally, Rusty said, “About your problem. The man you want would be a big grower, but things have changed in the last few years. About the time things got too weird, a bunch of drug control agencies started working together and put a lot of big growers out of business. They started using helicopters and concentrating on the biggest growers. Some of those guys would clear an acre of timber in a national forest, sell the logs, then plant a whole field of pot. That only worked until they started air surveillance. A lot of big guys went down.

“This was after I left. I only know the details by hearsay. If I wanted to be a big pot grower today, I would find some way to spread the risk around. I would have lots of little plots of land scattered all over the area . . .” more tomorrow

323. Five by Heinlein

Most of the reviews of science fiction novels are primarily plot summaries, with personal comments. When they are good, it is usually as much from the voice of the reviewer as for the novel in question. A case in point is Schlock Value, my inevitable Sunday night guilty pleasure, which cracks me up weekly with reviews of novels you couldn’t pay me to read.

I don’t write that kind of review myself. I only review favorite books, so I am usually saying, “Here is something great you may have missed. You should consider finding a copy, because it’s worth reading.” That being the case, I prefer giving an appreciation with a bare minimum of summary.

All this makes for short reviews, so I am able to offer you five of Heinlein’s pre-Stranger, non-juvenile, short and polished novels in one post. They are in order of book publication, although two were serialized in magazines years before they were published independently.

Beyond This Horizon, 1948, original serial 1942, is interesting in part because it doesn’t exactly sound like Heinlein. Future society is gun-toting and very polite, rather slow moving and just a little bit prissy. Beyond This Horizon’s tone reminded me a little of Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which I read because it was mentioned as an early influence on Heinlein.

Hamilton Felix (everybody’s name reads like an alphabetical list with the commas dropped, which is actually a pretty neat bit) is looking for the meaning of life, and finds it, more or less. If you’ve read a dozen Heinleins and are curious about what he sounded like before he was fully formed, I recommend this one.

The Puppet Masters, 1951, is probably familiar to everybody, if only from movie versions. This is not one of my favorites. It’s too much of an alien possession horror story for my taste, although, to be fair, it’s a pretty good alien possession horror story. There is one thing about the novel I don’t understand. Heinlein always complained about Star Trek’s tribbles being a rip-off of his flat cats (from The Rolling Stones), so why didn’t he complain about the Star Trek episode Operation: Annihilate!, which is a full blown rip-off of The Puppet Masters?

Double Star, Hugo winner, 1956, has as a main character an out of work actor who is hired to stand in for a prominent politician who has gone missing. He starts out very much unlike a typical Heinlein hero, but grows into one as the story progresses. Heinlein had several of what he called “the man who learned better” stories, and this is probably the best of them.

Door Into Summer, 1957, is my favorite of the early, short, polished Heinlein novels. Daniel Davis, inventor, is duped out of his work and exiled, only to return for revenge and more. He is a bit of a sap at the beginning, but gets over it. The opening page alone, which sets up the title, it worth the price of admission.

Methuselah’s Children, 1958, original serial 1941, is the first appearance of Lazarus Long who later appeared prominently in just about everything Heinlein wrote during the last third of his career. That alone is reason enough to read the book, but if Heinlein had stopped writing after completing this novel, Methuselah’s Children would still rank as a classic of science fiction.

For those who remember the seventies – or lived through them and therefore don’t remember them – this is the novel that launched the Jefferson Starship album Blows Against the Empire.

(No, not that empire! The Viet Nam bashing American empire.)

Raven’s Run 117

“They wanted to live off the land and be independent. Man, you just can’t do that. It’s fucking impossible. You can make a living in farming – if you’re lucky – if you have a half a million dollar investment in farm machinery and two hundred acres of good, black Kansas land. Not in the hills up north. They starved. And they all grew pot. And they sold a little to get by, just like they had in the cities, only now they were growing their own. Sort of cut out the middle man, see. That started it.”

I said, “This doesn’t sound like what I’m looking for.”

“It isn’t. It’s how most of the pot farmers do business, and why. It isn’t how most of the pot gets grown. You follow the distinction?”

I nodded.

“Most of the growers are small time. They think and act like overage hippies. Or like kids who grew up with hippie parents. Most of them are pretty decent people, really, although their thinking is too damned sappy for me.

“The thing that came later and turned the whole business around was sinsemilla. That’s an improved strain of marijuana and an improved way of growing it. You separate the male and female plants and frustrate the reproduction urge. The plant responds with more of the chemicals that make it good to smoke. It gets real potent.

“Pot was already bringing some money into the back country and keeping the homesteaders afloat, but sinsemilla would sell for real money. That’s when some guys started farming it on a mass basis, with plantations of pot cared for by hired workers. It started to be a real crazy scene. Guys would bring workers out into the back country, especially around harvest time, and leave them stranded miles from nowhere. The workers would make good money, by local standards, but sometimes they got stiffed, and sometimes they were treated no better than slaves. The guys running the show, the plantation bosses and their lieutenants, weren’t your top-of-the-line folks. They had new money and lots of it, and most of them used it to spend their time smashed, sometimes on their own product or booze, but more often on coke.

“It was the money that changed everything. It was still hard work, but now you could hire people to do it, and get rich as ‘management’. It was easier still to wait until someone else had raised a crop, then swoop down at harvest time and throw five thousand dollars worth of plants in the back of your pickup. Or wait until the plants were processed and carry away fifty thousand dollars worth at gun point. So the growers started arming themselves. The big guys were first, but even some of the small time growers started to carry guns. You’d see people who went through the peace movement – who used to shove flowers down the barrels of National Guard rifles – sitting out all night among their plants with a rifle across their knees.” more tomorrow