Catalina, 26 Miles, The Four Preps and Earworms

by Bob Sparrow

    My most recent ‘road trip’ took me off the road and on the water, to Santa Catalina Island.  It is a very interesting island, to say the least.

  • It has a casino where gambling is banned
  • It has a herd of Bison left behind after a film was shot
  • The main town, Avalon has a 3rd Street, but no 1st or 2nd  Street
  • The local post office doesn’t deliver the mail
  • But the local cabs deliver pizzas

      You may know the island from the song ’26 Miles’, made famous by the Four Preps in 1958.  I’m warning you right now, if you remember the song and you go to Catalina, that song will be playing in your head – THE WHOLE TIME YOU’RE THERE!  I believe that’s called an ‘earworm’ – it felt more like ringworm.  Like most people my age, I remember some of the lyrics to the song, but not all of them, so I ended up humming the words I didn’t know.  Out of frustration of this song being on ‘replay’ in my head for three days, I decided to look up the real lyrics.  It is said that the cure for earworm is to finish the song and I couldn’t finish the song until I looked up the actual lyrics.  So I did.  I was not surprised to find that these 1950 classically banal lyrics were . . . well, classically banal as well as factually inaccurate, starting with the title.

Catalina Island is 22 miles from Los Angeles, 33 miles from Long Beach and 34 miles from Newport Beach – it is not 26 miles from any port.

Water all around it everywhere’ – Isn’t this a little superfluous?  Isn’t an island, by definition, a land mass that has water all around it – everywhere?

‘I’d swim with just some water wings and my guitar’ – The song was written by Four Prep members, Bruce Belland and Glen Larson, two mature Southern California young men.  I think we get a clue to their desperation when they suggest that they’ll swim 26 miles (or whatever) to find romance and that they’ll use water wings to do so.  Two men swimming to Catalina with water wings really doesn’t call up an image of the kind of men women would be looking to hook up with, even in the 50s.  But if for some reason they were not able to navigate the 26 miles in water wings . . .

I can leave the wings but I’ll need the guitar for romance.  This seems to suggest that if their little sister had borrowed their water wings for the weekend, they could leave them and use a guitar to get over to the island.  Acoustical guitars are made of wood and can be fairly buoyant, and perhaps even act as a floatation device, but the guitar would have been rendered unplayable after upwards of 8-10 hours in salt water.  So these ‘Preps’, who apparently were striking out with women at home, were probably not going to have much better luck on Catalina.

I’d work for anyone even the Navy, who would float me to my island dream . . .   This plan seems a bit half-baked and completely irrational, but that really doesn’t surprise us at this point, does it?  Joining the navy would probably mean a four-year commitment and training who knows where.  After basic training their chances of getting deployed to Catalina would have been non-existent.

Forty kilometers in a leaky old boat, any old thing that will stay afloat   Finally the boys have the right idea here by looking into a boat; the fact that they’d settle for one that is old and leaky speaks volumes about their nautical acumen.  Why they’ve switched to the metric system for measurement here I’m not sure, but forty kilometers is equal to a little more than 24 miles, still leaving them far short of their chosen destination.

While looking at the logic of the lyrics was a bit unsettling, finishing the song did indeed rid me of my earworm.  How was Catalina?  Very enjoyable, so enjoyable in fact that I’m headed back there to spend the New Year’s weekend – at that time I’ll try to give you more of a flavor for the island itself, assuming I can get that damn song out of my head.

 PS: I actually like the song and The Four Preps


By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

We’ve been hearing a lot the past few weeks about the “undecided” voter in the presidential election. At this point it seems that most people have made up their minds about which candidate will screw up the country for the next four years. But there remains a significant percentage of people who are unable to make a decision, even though there are pretty big differences between the two candidates. The other night a major broadcaster was skeptical that anyone could still be undecided. He obviously does not work with the public.

Nine years ago, after retiring as a bank executive, I decided to take a job one day a week doing something fun. So I signed on at the local yarn shop. I hadn’t worked with actual customers since college and, for the most part, it’s been fun. The average client walks in, chooses a pattern and some yarn, and walks out happy. Sometimes a person asks for help and after a few basic questions the right project is selected.  It’s all done within 30 minutes.

But then we have the “undecideds”. They typically walk in and say “I have no idea what I want to make.” Okay, I’ll say, let’s narrow that down – a sweater, hat, golf club cover? Perhaps some steel wool so you can knit yourself a washing machine, I joke. But I am speaking to the wall. No pattern is quite right, no texture is appropriate, no color just the right shade. The quandary over a skein of yarn is beyond comprehension. A long time ago my brother, Jack, taught me this: the important thing about a decision is to MAKE one.

My favorite example of an “undecided” was when a tourist came in one day, completely befuddled. She asked me if I had a yarn that would match her brown coat. She somehow assumed that I would know exactly what her brown coat looked like. I wanted to say, “Lady, I don’t even know you, much less your brown coat”. But after an hour of searching for yarn, gnashing of teeth (me) and tentative murmurings (her), she made a selection. I’ve often wondered if the brown coat was happy.

I really worry about these people once they leave the store. If they have this much trouble picking out yarn, how in the heck to they make more critical decisions? I shudder to think of these people picking out something more permanent, like carpeting. The texture selection alone must give them the vapors.  Colleges for their kids?  They must have to start when they’re in kindergarten to reach a decision in time.

But you don’t have to work in a yarn store to experience these people. They are the ones in the front of the line at Starbucks, completely undone by the choices. Tall or grande? Foam or whip? The choice between bold or mild is enough to send them into an apoplectic state. These unsure souls are the reason that the wait is usually interminable.

So, back to the election.  Apparently in some states there are so many “undecideds” that the whole darn state is considered to be a “swing” factor in this election. As far as I’m concerned these people are getting what they deserve: a barrage of negative, mean-spirited campaign ads. But I have news for the campaign managers. If an “undecided” can’t choose between red or blue yarn, choosing a President of the United States is a reach beyond their grasp.


by Suzanne Sparrow Watson

     Every time I pick up a newspaper or a magazine lately it seems there’s an article about someone working on their “bucket list”.  Boomers everywhere are compiling lists of things to do before they die: climb Mt. Everest, sail around the world or buy a red Corvette.  My brother has done an admirable job of checking off his “to do” list; most of his feats require a lot of conditioning and some derring-do.  Except seeing the General Patton Museum – that just took a high tolerance for boredom.

     I used to have a bucket list.  Actually, it wasn’t so much a list as an item.  I only had one thing I wanted to do – hang glide.  For thirty years I’ve watched hang-gliders with admiration. I was in awe of their fearlessness and their obvious gold standard medical plan.  But in the last year or so I’ve finally come to the realization that I won’t be jumping off a cliff anytime soon.  For a while I thought I might take a page from George H.W. Bush’s skydiving book and go tandem.  Now I’ve decided that unless I get that same cute Army Ranger to hang on to, it’s just not going to happen.

     So earlier this year I decided to flip things around.  Instead of a bucket list, I started to compile a list of the 10 best events that I have already experienced.  In other words, I started an Upside Down Bucket List.  My only rule was that nothing on the list could be “obvious” – like a wedding day.  Given that I have a hard time remembering what I had for dinner last night, it has taken me months to recall 10 events worthy of the list.

     I started off with five items that were major moments.  Those were easy.  The next five took more thought and retrospection.  I was surprised when something as mundane as a movie or listening to someone else’s adventures would spark a memory of something I’d long forgotten.  I would jot down events as I thought of them and then mull over whether they were worthy of the final five slots.  It was lost on me that no one else was ever going to see this list – my obsessive/compulsive nature took over and I needed it to be perfect.  Perhaps one of my activities should have been to visit a good shrink.

     Of course, dredging up memories causes some not so great days to be recalled too.  Like the time I fell down an entire flight of escalators at a BART station (everything in tact except my dignity) or when I walked in late to a wedding and realized after 10 minutes that it wasn’t my friends’ wedding (ever tried to skulk out of church quietly?).  Those days definitely did not make the list but for a moment I did think about compiling a list of my 10 most embarrassing days.

     After months of thinking and reminiscing, I have finalized my Upside Down Bucket List.  Final for now anyway; I’ve reserved the right to add and delete as my memory allows.  It’s interesting to take a step back and review it.  I’m not sure exactly what it says about me, but my list divides into three categories:  Adventure, Family, and Personal Achievements. I won’t bore you with the list but I can assure you that each item brings back great memories – whether it was challenging myself physically, a great conversation with my dad, or an unexpected success.

     It’s been a fun experience.  It was harder than I thought it would be but it also more rewarding.  Each time I look at the list it brings a smile to my face or a boost to my confidence.  So I’d encourage you to do it – it’s a great way to remember the good times.  And a lot safer than leaping into thin air with some flimsy wings strapped on your back.

Death Valley – Why?

by Bob Sparrow

    When I told people that I wanted to go to Death Valley, they asked why?   I wasn’t really sure.  I had heard that it had recently reclaimed the honor of the hottest place IN THE WORLD, wresting the title from Libya – 134 degrees!  As I prepared to make the trip I knew from watching the temperatures that it wasn’t going to be that hot, but I wondered what life in Death Valley under such extreme temperatures was like.  I thought it would be interesting to write about the extreme heat and how the flora, fauna and humans survived it.  I thought I’d be using the term ‘buzzard hot’ many times.  I was even going to bring an egg along to fry on a sidewalk.  To be honest, I thought I would mostly make fun, or at least make a number of ‘hot jokes’ about this seemingly god-forsaken place.  Those who have been there know the reality I was about to learn.

     I hit the road at 5:00 a.m. and got into Baker at 7:30.  I used to think that Baker was in the middle of nowhere, until I turned onto Highway 127 and headed north – Baker became a thriving metropolis.  After driving less than an hour, I thought I was in that giant warehouse in New Mexico where they filmed the ‘fake moon landing’.  There was nothing in the distance but Mojave Desert for as far as the eyes could see – no other cars, no road signs, not even a shoulder on the road, just a narrow two-lane road winding through the desert.  It’s a place where you really have to trust your car not to break down.

     I soon came upon Dumont Dunes (left) – real live sand dunes, just like you see in the movies, but without the camels.  My car is not an All-Terrain Vehicle, but I pretended that it was and drove off the road to get a better look at the dunes. (photo below, yes that little speck is my car).  At the junction of Highway 127 and Highway 190, I arrive at the bustling burg of Shoshone, population 31, I didn’t see one of them.  I was hoping to get gas here, but as you can see from the picture below, the car in front of me was taking quite a while to fill up, so I moved on .

     As I got closer to Death Valley the names of the towns and points of interest reminded me of just how hot it was getting outside – Furnace Creek, Hell’s Gate, Dante’s View, Stovepipe Wells, Charcoal Kilns, Burning Wagon Point.  I arrive at the Death Valley Visitor Center to get recommendations for what I should see and do.  At the top of the list was Scotty’s Castle (top photo) – another 50 miles to the north.  I got back in the car and got back on the road – it was 11:00 and the temperature just broke 100.

     The story surrounding the building of Scotty’s Castle in the middle of nowhere is a fascinating one.  Built in the 1920s, this architectural wonder featured a one million gallon swimming pool, an elaborate heating and air conditioning system which was way ahead of its time, an innovative hydro-electric power system driven by a desert spring that still delivers 300 gallons of water per minute, AND a solar panel, yes a solar panel built in the 20s!  Just as interesting as the house itself is the story of the two key characters responsible for its construction – Albert Johnson, the wealthy, Cornell educated engineer who longed to be a ‘cowboy’ and Walter Scott (Scotty), a con man who left home at the age of 11, moved to the desert as a teenager and eventually started selling shares of bogus gold mines to wealthy easterners, Johnson being one of them.  How they formed a life-long friendship is something you’ll have to read on your own.

      After Scotty’s Castle I had to get to Badwater; it’s just a field of encrusted salt, but it’s the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere – 282 feet below sea level.  Part of the reason I wanted to get to this historical location was just to breathe the air; I thought if high altitude creates thin air which is hard to breathe, then low altitudes must create ‘thick’ air – which logically would be easier to breathe.  I’m here to tell you I couldn’t tell the difference between sea level air and below sea level air.

     My most memorable drive was coming back from Badwater; a loop off the main road appropriately called Artists Palette, it is a narrow, one-way drive cut through the mountain that shows colors you’ve never seen before – it is surreal.  It underscored to me the most surprising part of my desert experience – the sheer beauty of the place, and I was told that the springtime is really beautiful.  Everywhere I drove there were beautifully colored mountains on each side of me – chocolate brown to cream-colored, cobalt blue, sage green, every shade of red and orange.  And they all changed hues from sunrise to sunset.

      I then drove out to Zabriskie Point just before sundown and my photos just don’t capture what one feels when taking in everything that nature has done to this terrain.

     Death Valley – why?  The shapes, the textures, the colors can be seen nowhere else on the planet; it should be renamed the Painted Desert – it is truly magnificent.