The Rock of Gibraltar
Synchronicity: an apparently meaningful coincidence in time of two or more events that are causally unrelated……
The top ridge of the Rock of Gibraltar looks from afar like a knife edge, but it is wider than one might think. It made a good place to hide out from the law when I was thrown off “The Rock” in 1969 by the bug-eyed chief of police. In fact it is wide enough to have built several battle-hardened pillboxes, hanging here and there, between the south, Mediterranean Sea facing cliffs and the steep, north precipice over La Linea de la Conception. There are little fireplaces in each of them, and, aside from the scat of Barbary Apes, pretty clean.
As in so much of life, this sojourn was part of a series of “synchronicity” events that ended up with Lou Branson and me having a few bit parts in the major movies Patton, A Man Called Sledge, and several other spaghetti westerns, plus living in Spain for 7 months.
I had hitched a ride out of Marrakech in late January, with a pack & sleeping bag, a dollar’s worth of dirhams and pesetas, no boots, and some desert sandals. The mission to pick up some hashish abandoned, I was headed back through the European winter to Firenze. There I meant to meet up with Meg and Peter, sell my Suzuki 250cc cycle, and buy a ticket home to Menlo Park. As I hitch’d and walked the last few miles into Ceuta, I was persuaded that walking barefoot on the warm North African road was preferable to the dull bite of the nails of the cheap sandals, pebbles or not. There were, I knew, 2 ferries a day crossing the straits from this port town on the northwest tip of Africa to Algeciras in Spain.
Ceuta is a special enclave in Africa, owned by Spain; a political thorn thrust into Morocco’s side since the 15th Century. It is also one of the Pillars of Hercules – where the massive statue, one of the mythical 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, standing astride the Straits of Gibraltar, it’s right foot planted on the Rock and Europe, planted his left foot across the straits onto the Ceuta headlands and Africa. Its history goes back to the 5th Century BC; it’s a picturesque and useful place and a way to avoid the craziness of Tangiers when crossing into Maroc. It’s also a great place to get your pack stolen.
In a vacant lot on the edge of the boat harbor, I had pulled out my old army, goose down, sleeping bag and slept. I was in a deep snooze, in the warmth of the North African morning sun, when I was pulled out of dreamworld by the distant boom of the ferry horn as it pulled away from the dock. I immediately realized I was missing the morning ferry to Europe. But no worries; the afternoon ferry would leave later and it was a nice day for a walk. I had slept in a rubble strewn lot and in the center of it was a big pile of concrete, wood, wire, and metal flotsam and jetsam. I found a little cave, stuffed the old, army issue, down bag and pack in it, covered it with some plywood scraps and took off for Mount Hacho, the fabled left footrest of Hercules.
It was a lovely, spring like day. I had been in Morocco for about 3 weeks and the January sun was gorgeous as it played through the palms and trees around the parklike headland. I walked for 3 hours or more, looking out over the sparkling Mediterranean and the sloping hills on the North Africa coast. I stopped along the waterfront and had a cafe-con-leche for 5 pesetas. Of course when I got back to the concrete jumble the pack was gone and, more importantly, the sleeping bag too.
Now I had a problem. I had less than a dollar in my pocket and would spend all but about 20 cents on the ferry to Spain. It was the dead of winter in Europe and I had to go well over 1000 miles with only sandals and an old herringbone blazer from Patrick James. I couldn’t sleep out; and I knew it had taken me 4 days to hitchhike down from Pisa to the straits; and I had been damned lucky in scoring fabulous rides. As I rode the afternoon ferry across the glistening, afternoon sea I had no idea what I was going to do. There was no way I was going to try and call home – the folks would have helped out but I would have failed at the “big idea”. That had been the source of heated arguments since way back in junior year at Santa Clara, when Pete and I wanted to drop out and ride motorcycles to Tierra Del Fuego. After getting back from Vietnam, Dad had not argued with my decisions but I certainly knew how he felt. No way was I going to place that long expected “collect call”.
The ferry between Spain and North Africa runs from Algeciras to either Ceuta (east end of straits) or Tangiers (west end). In 1969 England and Spain were in one of their occasional, recurring arguments about returning The Rock to Spain. At that time this never-ending argument was fueled by Gibraltar’s allowing Basque political refugees safe haven . So Spain had blockaded the road across the thin isthmus of La Linea and all travel to Gibraltar had to go through this small and ancient port – Algeciras. There was no other way to get there. As my ferry approached the harbor, the costal mountains beyond bathed in the late afternoon light, I gazed across Gibraltar Bay at the tumbling, mountain village of Europe’s most famous naval base. I still had no workable plan to get across frozen Europe to link up with Pete and some money. But then I realized I was looking at my salvation…Gibraltar! They spoke english there, I could see ranks of yachts tied up, lots of port activity…maybe I could get a job and either wait out the winter or, well, who knew what might happen? I was now excited and my stomach tightened up in anticipation.
I got off the Moroccan ferry, went across the small pier to the Gibbo boat, took out my last dirhams and pesetas, and bought a ticket – I was now, officially, flat broke. The ride took all of ten minutes; clearing customs took another five. Zip! I was out of the exotic, dreamlike world of Morocco, where I had been for the better part of a month, and now plopped down in a small english village. I walked a ways down the wharf to the entrance to the private yacht harbor. At the third boat I asked about work, the skipper said “Well, yes, I think we could give you some work”. Just like that I had a nice little berth in the forecastle of a luxurious, 150 foot long, glistening, white yacht.
The next month or so I spent on The Rock, moving from job to job, checking out of the boat and into the youth hostel, hanging out in the bars in the evening, walking the warren of narrow cobblestone lanes, climbing up the steep, slanted slope and long step-streets stretching upward for blocks, through whitewashed, stucco villas and apartments and geranium widow boxes and english signboards hanging in front of tea shops, grocers, pubs. After finishing up on the yacht, I cooked fish and chips for 2 days until I was fired – the owner had the thickest Yorkshire accent I’d ever run into; I couldn’t understand a word he said – he’d tell me to “put in da chips” and I’d “put in da fish” … then I hooked up with 2 Brits whitewash painting apartment blocks – we were part of the paint crew which consisted mainly of the Basque refugees. They were tough guys! Once over lunch 2 of them got into a screaming match that was about to lead, I was sure, to knife fight – blood spilling..as they calmed down I asked another one who spoke english
(me) “What are they fighting about?”
(him) “Whether it is going to rain this afternoon!”
Gibraltar was another cross roads like Rome. Young, english speaking guys and gals from all over the empire. English, Irish, Aussies, Kiwi’s, Canadians. The flow was driven by the lack of jobs in the UK – starting pay there was 1 pound a week – about $3.50. So they were all headed overland to South Africa and Rhodesia. It must have been quite a trip. One of the guys who showed up at the Toc H youth hostel was a thick-necked Australian. He had traveled through a dozen countries with a kilo of Black Afghani strapped to his back. To make some side money I sold grams for a dollar to the soldiers and sailors in the bars. Do the math – $25 an ounce…! All the british girls were working as barmaids. Gibraltar was then the claimant for the “most bars per capita” record; I could believe it, considering the ceaseless parade of naval ships. The bars closed at 10 pm and sometimes, as we waited for the girls to get free, we’d explore the deep caves dug into the massive limestone monolith – fashioning torches out of the scrub. We were having a lot of fun.
But it was the hash that got me in trouble.
Five of us, tiring of hostel life had put together our meager earnings and rented a 3 bedroom apartment on the narrow road towards the south point. There was a 19 year old irish lad who dressed in striped bell bottoms and shirts from Carnaby Street – I called him the Pop Idol, which was a new term, and it made him smile. The hash smugger had moved on but there was another Aussie and 2 of the girls and me. We had no sofas or chairs or mattresses. The apartment had come with a dining room table and chairs, several thick oriental rugs, and all the kitchen stuff – we were happy living on rugs and pillows. We moved in on Tuesday and by Friday there was excitement in the air – this was our mob’s first apartment and we were going to have a hell of a house warming.
As Friday evening went on we made the rounds of the usual pubs, inviting the people we knew and some we didn’t. By 11:30 the festivities were well underway; 2 in the morning the flat was a mad-house. There was beer spilled all over the floor; the White Album was rocking the pad; folks were sitting in my bedroom sucking on the Afghani pipe…probably the same as in a hundreds of thousands of places around the world that Friday night. Somewhere along the line one of the English soldiers, I think he was from the “Queens Own Lancers” or some such regiment, had joined up with a crew from one of the bars. I remember the picture of him, passed out cold, being dragged by his feet around the terra cotta kitchen floor in a nutty chariot race. As the night grew later though things quieted down and people left or crashed in the various bedrooms…the house warming had been a success.
I first heard a rough and tough banging on the heavy wooden door of the apartment, then loud voices, and one of the girl roomies rushed into my room.
“The police, they’re here, and they are looking for the blond american guy”
Holy Crap – that would be me!
I immediately threw the small amount of hash I had out the open window.
It was only 7 am – what the heck was the matter?
A second later two Gibraltarian police came into the bedroom. They were not the helmet’d constable types…these guys were different. They asked me who I was, did a cursory look around the room, took my passport, and told me to be at the police headquarters at 10 am to see the “Chief”. I asked what was the problem. They said that an english soldier, who had been at our place at a party, had, around 5 am, tried to break into the penthouse on the top of our building and accosted the woman who lived there. She happened to be the sister of the Chief of Police and he was pissed.
This was all during the dictatorship of Generalisimo Francisco Franco and his bully boys the Guardia Civil. There were more than an isolated story or two about young hipster types being locked up for ever in Spanish jails; or shot in the back on Costa del Sol beaches. True, this was British territory but Spain was a five minute walk across the small spit of beach and The Rock was still Spanish in much of its emotional soul.
So at 10 am sharp I was, with some fear and trembling, waiting in the lobby of police headquarters. They took me in to the Chief’s office. He sat behind a big wooden desk and definitely looked the part. His eyes bugged out like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. He was about 40 something and had a grouchy attitude. Well, we talked for about 30 minutes. It turned out that the soldier had claimed that I had given him LSD and that was why he acted so crazy. Thinks were looking up.
I felt confident in calling out that lie. I told him we’d been smoking some hash, drinking hard, and that the soldier had passed out about 2 o’clock. He said the guy had broken down the door and tried to rape his sister; that he was in a cell and in major trouble. I told him I was an army officer, a recent Vietnam vet. I told him that until last night I had never seen this guy. I gave him the short form of the stolen sleeping bag tale of woe that had landed me here. He believed me but still,
“ I want you off The Rock and out of town by 5 o’clock – get on the ferry and get out of here!”
It was Saturday noon when I got the boot and my passport back. With the passport I had some flexibility. I had sent a postcard a few weeks before to my sister Meg in Florence. I asked her to get what she could for the motorcycle and send me some money asap. I made up my mind that I was going to go to the knife edge top of The Rock and hide out up in the pillboxes until Monday morning. When the AMEX office opened day after tomorrow I was going to go there and hoped I would get some money – and not get seen doing it. I cleared out the apartment of the few possessions I had including a light cotton sleeping bag from one of the mates in the Toc H hostel. I climbed up through the back alleys, narrow lanes, and scub and settled in. Sometime Sunday the “Pop Idol” and our mates brought me some canned food. I cooked it in the fireplace. As night set in I dreamed of Greek islands and Nazi’s.
From the east gun-port of the pillbox on the top of The Rock I watched the sun rising from somewhere between Algiers and Oran. In the evening I watched through the west port as it sank into the Azores. I read The Magus by John Fowles…that was a particularly appropriate work for the spot I was in. The pillbox was a unique place in all the world. You couldn’t pay money to stay there yet it had the view of a lifetime. The east face of The Rock drops virtually straight into the sea – that’s where the winds come from and where the birds soar. The west is a gentler slope with shrubs and gnarled trees – that’s where the Rock Apes live. Fowles’ book has been described as being about a young guy “bored, depressed, disillusioned, and overwhelmed by the Mediterranean Island”. I wasn’t anywhere close to there yet but I did wonder whether Meg had sold the Suzuki motor cycle; and if there would be a nice $200 money order at the American Express post restante window on Monday.
When Monday morning came I figured it was time to try and make it off the island without getting thrown in jail. There was no doubt in my mind that I was a fugitive from the law … even in a little place like this it would be a rough time if I got caught. Slinking thru the back alleys was what I did alright. I was pretty tense – especially hoping that the expected letter from my sister with the money was there. Without money it would be a long, cold hitchhike back through Spain, France, and Northern Italy. While I had saved a couple of bucks, the payment for the apartment had taken me back to busted.
I got to the AMEX office right at 10 am. I went to the counter, looking around for the plainclothes detectives or a sharp eye’d constable. I asked the clerk if there was anything for Gerry Greeve.
She said, “Yes I think there is something”.
“YEH!” I thought waiting in gleeful anticipation.
It had to be the money from Meg. Life was good and I was going to be moving on in style headed back to Menlo Park, California and the “world”. She handed me a hand written envelope with just my name on it.
“What was this?” It was clearly not a letter from Italy.
I was dumbfounded when I opened it and read it. In a handwritten blue ballpoint, on a local hotel’s letterhead, was the following note:
“Just got into town. Am staying at this hotel. If you are still here come on over”
It was signed by my old friend and roommate
Lou Branson, or Louie to all of his many friends at the University of Santa Clara, was famous in many circles at school. He was best remembered for banging out great songs on any handy piano – preferably near a bar with plenty of Vodka Gimlets. He could do a romantic version of Johnny Mercer’s beautiful ballad “Laura” or a raucous, spontaneously personalized to the audience, 15 verses of “Howdayaliketoeatmyshorts”. He was a fixture at The Louvre cocktail lounge on the El Camino and at the late night “Dew Drop Inn”, home of the famous saying: “Don’t Mope and Grope, Go Ape with the Grape”.
I first saw his large, pink frame heavily weighing down the back of a Honda 50 motorbike hanging on to his best friend Dan Pisano…the picture of an small burro drooping under the combined heft of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza comes to mind.
Lou loved to talk. He was forever trying to get over a broken heart from a gal named Nina. His Uncle was one of the Jesuit Professors at SCU, his dad was a well known Superior Court judge in San Mateo, his mom a Director of a major west coast industrial company, and he had dozens of brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and pals. On our frequent weekend trips up the 40 miles north to San Francisco’s North Beach hangouts, we always had to stop by his folks’ for a free drink and fatherly wisdom from “the judge”, served in the library of their Burlingame home. Lou had 3 middle names and was “the Third”.
He had a serious side and boundless energy.
He had singlehandedly recreated the SCU radio station – he loved music. He hired me as the “late night jazz” disc jockey but then fired me because I played John Coltrane, (“That’s not music greeve”!) In late 1967 he managed to “flunk out” of SCU for a semester so he could come live with us in the city where the summer of love had driven, to the beat of Jefferson Airplane, right into fall and winter. We shared an apartment out in “the avenues” and went to the rock shows every weekend. During that “heyday” of the Haight Ashbury he became a DJ with the legendary KMPX – the radio station that redefined how R&R was played and invented “freeform rock radio” (no jingles, no talkovers, no time and temp, no pop singles) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KMPX_(defunct).
You could fill several wine soaked evenings with tales of Lou and his bigger than life personality.
And what the hell was he doing here on the Rock of Gibraltar? and today of all days?
I continued the slink up into the center of the village and knocked on the door that was written on the note. And there he was – The Ginger Man – red hair and pale face with a beatific smile and electric eyes.
Well this is about the end of the story…we compared notes kind of like this:
“- What are you doing here (me)
– I just landed in Paris a week ago and I came down by train (Lou)
– How’d you find out I was here?
– Your mom got a postcard a few weeks ago saying you were on The Rock
– Did you finish school?
– yep just graduated”
“– What’s going on with you (Lou)
– Well, you’ll never believe this but I’m on the lam. I got expelled from here on Saturday by the Chief of Police and if they find me here I’ll go to jail (me)
– Well shit man – what are you going to do? where do you want to go?
– Well, they say they are making a World War Two movie about General Patton a hundred miles up the coast, in a town called Almeria, and they need extras that look like American soldiers.
– Do you think we should go check it out?
– I don’t see why not.
– Ok then why don’t we grab a train up to Granada, see the Alhambra, then go on over there?
– But I don’t have any money to travel.
– Heck I’ve got money!
- I can’t find the type of hash I want in Marrakesh
- I oversleep in Ceuta
- My sleeping bag gets stolen so I can’t get over to Italy in dead winter
- I am near english speaking Gibraltar and get a job within 30 minutes
- I hang here “on idle” for weeks, then
- We have a party and I get thrown off The Rock
- I hide out 2 days awaiting a never delivered check from Meg
- Lou shows up at the exact moment, looking for adventure and whatever comes your way
- George C Scott is filming the Best Picture Oscar winning film “Patton” up the Costa del Sol.
So Lou and I got a number of bit parts in Almeria as English bag pipe players and wounded American soldiers in “Patton”, cowboy prisoners with James Garner, and members of George Peppard’s raiders, and end up living the best part of a year in the Spain of James Michener’s novel The Drifters.
I was thinking about Louie this morning, as I sometimes do. About 2 years after this series of incidences, I was driving to work at Stanford Research Institute, going underneath the University Avenue overpass on the ElCamino when I heard the morning news say “the son of a prominent San Mateo County judge was found dead this morning in a house in South San Francisco.” When Dan and Mike and BC and I went to his funeral and talked to his mother we were numb. How could we have not known his pain? How many ways had we failed him? Bernice, his mom, said he had stuck his head in a gas oven. Months later I found a small scrap of paper in my old friend and benefactor’s unmistakable hand, stuck in a book in my bedroom. It said “I am sorry. I have lost all my self respect”. He had written it, I believe, on that last Sunday afternoon, weeks before his suicide when he was down in Palo Alto, hanging with Mike and BC and me in Barron Park.
Almost 20 years later I told an OD counselor at Intel that I was still horribly sad and guilty about Louie’s death and that a lot of it was because I was, in those days, such a big fan of pot and encouraged his use as well, and that I felt it must have helped bring him to his last legs.
She laughed at me. Well, that didn’t help.
well…someday I hope to lift a gimlet in his memory at the Bar Louie, Branson www.bransonnightlife.com/bar-louie.php I’m sure Dan, Pete, Mike and BC and a lot of others would love to join.