From Guemes to Berkeley – A Reflection on Father’s Day

Daniel House

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When my father announced in 1976—rather abruptly—that we were going to be moving away from Guemes Island, and back to the Bay Area, it was as if an anvil had been dropped on my teenage head. I had just finished 10th grade, and was indeed the happiest I’d been in years.

Since first living with my father in San Francisco at the age of eight, we had moved a total of five times over the course of under seven years. Guemes was the sixth place we’d lived, the third in Washington State. It was also the first place in all these years where my life  finally had some stability and where I had  managed to establish several genuine and meaningful friendships.  At the core were my best friends, Tom and Ben. The three of us were a weird sort of nexus to a close-knit group of us who lived on Guemes Island, a quick five minute ferry boat ride from the Anacortes mainland.  We were largely inseparable, and eventually, it would be because of that friendship that I was drawn to Seattle where I lived from 1981 to 2003.

Tom, Daniel, Grama Leota and Ben

On Guemes, I had gotten bit by the acting bug, and—only weeks before— had been offered the roll of Nick Burns in the local Anacortes ACT production of the Herb Gardner play, A Thousand Clowns. It was—and still is today—among my favorite films. At that time, I had not been aware that it had originally been a play. This was to be the beginning of an entirely new chapter in my life, one that would have doubtlessly taken my life in an entirely different direction had we stayed on Guemes. We moved before the play even started rehearsals, and I never pursued acting again.

So we moved away and I was crushed and crestfallen. More so, I was furious with my alcoholic father, who was once again uprooting me, but this time had been the first time I had known close friendship and stability in my life since living under his charge, so being a young teen, this was particularly difficult. And so in moving, I drew a firm boundary that I was done living with him. Instead, I would move back in with my mother in Berkeley, a decision that proved considerably less stable and structured than my life had been during those previous seven years with him.

My mother was living in a one-bedroom mother-in-law in West Berkeley with a boyfriend who she met through the methadone clinic they both frequented. Both were receiving some sort of Federal assistance, and neither was particularly capable of functioning in the normal social context of an urban environment. They spent the majority of their time parked side-by-side on their bed, watching TV and smoking cigarettes. My mom’s boyfriend would frequently fall asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand. I was always imagining them engulfed in flame some evening after he fell asleep and caught the bed on fire, and me crawling through a window just barely escaping alive. Nice flair for drama in my imaginary world. Eventually, he did manage to ignite the mattress, but it was a slow smolder, and the mattress was dragged out to the sidewalk where it burned for the next two days.

My “bedroom” was intended as a pass-through living room. You had to walk from my mom’s bedroom through my room to get to the kitchen, and you had to pass through the kitchen to get to the bathroom.  Those four rooms and a large utility closet was the entirety of the place.  The time I spent there was minimal, as I’d go to Berkeley High in the morning and then to my job at the U.C. Berkeley bookstore directly afterwards.  At the end of my shift, I would invariably hit one of several record stores and dig through their used bins, buying records twice a week on average. Occasionally, I’d take the bus home, but the bulk of the time, I walked the two and a half miles back to the emotionally depressing haze of my new environs. There I would read, listen to records on headphones, watch occasional TV and work on my homework until I went to bed. The next day was a repeat of the day before, and on weekends, outside of homework, I would get out as much as I could so as to minimize my time at my mom’s place.

Next to my mom’s mother-in law was a garage piled high with precariously balanced boxes full of clothes, books, old dishes, newspapers and magazines.  One box however was filled with a bunch of old records. I asked my mom if I could go through them and take any of the ones that interested me. She said it was fine. Many of the records were too thrashed to even consider, and most of them were by bands or artists that I was not familiar with or whose names I knew, but whose music I did not. There were classics from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Marvin Gaye, Lighting Hopkins, Horace Silver and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. One record however jumped out, and that was Sir Douglas Quintet + 2 = Honkey Blues, the first official studio recordings by Sir Douglas. The artwork pulled me in, and upon slapping it on the turntable, what I discovered an AMAZING record that slipped effortlessly between straight-up rock, tex-mex, jazz and even noisy passages that would seem out of place anywhere else. It is still a long standing favorite of mine, almost four decades later. These records—in addition to the ones I was buying regularly on my own—were my solace and a place where my mind and thoughts could soar. They were indeed the one place where I could ground myself in what felt like a safe refuge, stuck in a house with a couple of methadone zombies.

It took close to two years before I was finally able to save enough to get out and into my own apartment. I was still in high school in my senior year, and it was still several months before graduation, but I found a simple one-bedroom in a fourplex on Derby Street, just below Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a quick walk to and from Berkeley High.

It was a couple of years more before I moved to Seattle to re-unite with Tom and Ben, but had my father never moved, I imagine that my life might have ended up very differently. Theater would have undoubtedly forged a different path in my life, and I wonder if I ever would have gotten into music the way that I did. It’s near impossible to consider my life without the history I’ve had in Seattle during the music scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. My nine years of playing in bands—the most notable of which was as a co-founder, bass-player and song-writer for Skin Yard—and my fifteen or so years releasing music by other bands via C/Z Records. It is such a critical piece of my identity, one that I am genuinely grateful for.

I am not really much of a believer of destiny, however I am acutely aware how radically one decision at a fork in our life can completely transform the direction that we end up taking. The curious thing is that none of us have any way of gauging how things might have been different; we just know that they would have been – for better or for worse. I have no qualms about the way things turned out. I experienced more than my share of chaos and adversity under the barely-watchful eyes of my parents, but these were the experiences that helped to make me who I am today and that gave me the abnormal perseverance that have helped me to achieve the things I have thus far.

My father and I don’t have any communication anymore, but on this Father’s Day, I am reflecting on the seven short years that we spent together.  Sadly, he is slowing down in his life with a cognitive decline due to white matter disease, a disease I had not heard of before. I hope he is still able to reflect on his early days and on all the meaningful contributions and accomplishments that he’s made in his life.

Shooting guns at Salmon Creek - photo by Chuck Gould

My father has written and had published a book or two and has created a life in Petrolia, CA. that is a template for living self-sufficiently that I still find extraordinary. His time in the Diggers in the late 60’s has always given me a sense of pride, and his unrelenting commitment to finding better ways of living as part of our world have helped to inform my Pantheist notions of our place on this planet. His commitment to the things that he felt were important in his life is perhaps the most important thing that I am indebted to him for, and is certainly part of why I always try to live my life guided by my principles and driven by my passions.

Father and Son

5 thoughts on “From Guemes to Berkeley – A Reflection on Father’s Day”

  1. Very nice flow to your writing, would love to read more,you have a great talent. Iam privileged to know you ,my friend in music and life.

  2. Daniel, enjoyed reading this very much …so great to learn more about you and see which influences have impactetd your life. I guess all of us wonder what would have been if, but in any case we are where we are, we’re alive and that is good.

  3. It’s like I knew the outline of the shape of your childhood, and this has provided the color. And you know what detail stands out, haunting, the most of all? The uncertainty if the nodded out boyfriend’s cigarette was going to cause a fire that would put you in imminent harm. In having to wonder, and wait unsurely, you were immediately cast in the role that no child should ever have to experience (yet so many do) – you had to silently and internally become the caretaker of the household, to watch your own back and that of your mom and the four walls that should’ve signified home. I know the last thing you want is pity, so I’m aiming for empathy here, but you were just a kid, alone. As an only child of divorced parents myself, and the mother of an only child of divorced parents, i know how much this can be to bear on the best of days. The act of wondering about a lit cigarette starting a fire as you go to sleep is like a microcosm of the whole backwards situation.
    What else? I didn’t know your father was in the Diggers, but I wondered how you knew Peter Coyote when i saw him post on your page. And I was impressed, but not surprised, you knew Herb Gardner wrote A Thousand Clowns. As someone who was a theater geek long before a rock nerd, I am not used to my friends even referencing Herb Gardner, much less correctly. You would’ve made a good theatre geek, but as you point out, half of the unknown can’t equal the musician you became. Either way, you’re still a geek – and I wouldn’t want you, my dear friend, any other way, or else I’d be lonely in geekland by myself. And yes, self-sufficiency is admirable, but the distinction so finely tuned here between yourself as a child and your father as an adult demonstrate that being alone is a world away from being lonely.

  4. Hi Daniel, I’m a friend of Sharon Heath’s and have met you at her house several times.You write beautifully. Please do more and soon. In that photo of the two of you, your father has a Leonard Cohen’ish thing about him sans the nose! I see the resemblance between the two of you, complexions not withstanding…Oh these Hallmark holidaaaze…Where are the celebratory cards honoring the plight of those left behind by absentee fathers?
    Thank you for your entry. It was moving, brave and extraordinarily well written.Fondly. Judie Harte

  5. Daniel, your dad didn’t give you his heart, but he did give you a piece of his mind. Your writing styles kind of rhyme, though yours has a wised-up, stripped-down voice, anger on a taut leash, maybe Hemingway to his sozzled Faulkner — late Faulkner, too loosely profuse. But distinctive: all turbulence curlicues, luftmensch squalls of poetical description. It’s like he’s not talking to anybody but himself. Seattle music scene was theater with 3,000 clowns. So you did tread the stage. Your dad’s book reminds me of your band and label: “If my feelings could be reduced to a chemical formula, the experience would be a clear solution made up of equal parts of dumb wonder and clean exhilaration, colored through with a sense of abiding dread. I could write a book about it.” Or a tune. What’s grunge but dumb wonder, clean exhilaration colored through with a sense of abiding dread? This phrase is also fun: “silence like a dozen monks pausing too long between the strophes of a chant as the creature arcs through the dangerous air.”

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