Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

“Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

-Albert Einstein


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hawaii Revisited

      After literally hundreds of articles as a weekly newspaper columnist and also on this blog, I’m at a point now where I really don’t know if I’ve written about something more than once.  I apologize in advance if you find stuff on my blog that you’ve read before. Warning – it’s probably going to get worse.  

            With more road behind than lies ahead, I tend to look in the rear view mirror for material to toss at you in a post.  Here I go again.

            I have friends who live part of the year in Hawaii.  That seems idyllic to me.   I’ve been to many tropical islands and thought that I could live happily on several of them, but it’s the beautiful turquoise water in places like Polynesia that seems to overwhelm me. 

            I’ve only visited Hawaii once and that was when I was young, single, and stupid.  “Vacations” for me were always about adventure and exploration.

            During my one and only trip to Hawaii, I wanted to learn to hang glide and spent a day looking for a particular cliff where hang gliders plied their skills.  I figured that someone would give me a shot at it.  Fortunately, I didn’t find the location.  I came back to town to learn that three guys were killed that day at that very cliff.  There was something about wind or down drafts.

            But I was able to fly in Maui with an instructor on a two-man glider.  As you know, that’s a big “wing” that you hang from while using a bar to control your flight. The instructor was concerned that I would overpower him if I panicked and we could crash, but I was perfectly calm, enjoying the flight and following instructions. 

            With no rope or any connection to the earth, we were free to glide over the island and the water.  It was the closest to being a bird that I’ve ever experienced.

            Unfortunately, not long after my flight, the instructor took another “student” up and they crashed.  Both were killed. Evidently I was one of his last students.  Very sad.

            On that same trip, a Canadian friend and I “borrowed” a plane from the Maui airport, where he worked, and flew to the Island of Lanai, where there was nothing but pineapple plantations. Neither one of us was licensed to fly a plane, but we made it successfully, bringing back a ton of pineapples.

            A more humorous event comes to mind when I wanted to try to body surf.  I rented a car and drove around Oahu, looking for a place where the waves were said to be huge.  I came around a turn in the road and spotted the largest waves I had ever seen.  This beach was known for the size of the waves.

            I parked, got into my trunks, and bolted for the beach. I charged the next mountain of water, but when the wave hit me, I thought I was hit by a train. I have never felt that kind of force.  The wave pummeled me, finally driving me far up the beach as the water monster retreated in victory, leaving me high and dry and seriously stunned.

            I looked down to see my trunks around my ankles as an audience of natives laughed at the naked “haole,” who sat disoriented in the sand.  I didn’t want it to end that way, so I pulled up my trunks and sprinted toward the waves again.  And again, the huge mountain of water won.  I ended up in the same spot with my head spinning.  This time my trunks hung precariously on the big toe of my right foot.  I appreciate that toe to this day.  It saved me from a long, naked sprint to my car, past a laughing audience.

            Again, I couldn’t let the locals down, so I tried once more.  This time I dove straight through the monster and somehow ended up beyond the wave.  Victory at last.  They say it’s best to leave your audience wanting more, so I rode a wave to shore, ran past a disappointed audience with my trunks on, jumped in the car and wrestled with questions of my sanity during the drive back to town. 

            Even now, when Gayle and I travel, I don’t want to sit on a beach soaking up the sun.  I can do that at home.  I’d rather rent a motorcycle and explore an island or try scuba diving, which I did in Bora Bora.  To be honest, that scared the daylights out of me.  Human beings aren’t supposed to breathe underwater.

            I’ve been lost in the jungle in Costa Rica and almost lost in a crowded market place in Tunisia, where dark female eyes peered out at me from inside black garbage bags.  There were many other “mini-adventures,” but somehow I still want a vacation to be one of exploration and adventure.

            Exploring the buffet on a cruise ship, with a bunch of round guys with skinny white legs and Hawaiian shirts isn’t really an adventure.  But if that’s all that’s left, I’ll go for the prime rib. 


Friday, March 21, 2014

The Elusive Nipple

      As a culture, we do have our share of irrational idiosyncrasies.  Why do men wear ties?  Why do women wear high heels?  The list is endless, but I want to talk about sex.

            Sex is used to sell everything from hamburgers to hearing aids.  Sex seems to have replaced self-actualization at the top spot on Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivation, even surpassing the survival instinct. 

            How many times have you watched a movie where the hero and heroine are under heavy enemy gunfire, yet their hormones seem to overwhelm the instinct for survival and they are overcome by the urge to lock lips, as bombs explode all around them. Talk about misplaced priorities…Their optimism in the face of annihilation is expressed lovingly with the statement, “When this is over we’ll take that vacation we’ve always talked about.”

            But I don’t think our society is unique in its obsession with sex.  A glance at ancient history will confirm that we are certainly not alone.  If you have ever walked through the ruins of Pompeii, as I have, you will see a culture more decadent than ours.  It’s always been that way, yet we have our limits even if they seem irrational.

            One thing that seems somewhat strange is our attitude toward the female nipple. Naked breasts are always readily available for view, but the nipple is normally hidden from view.  I think “hide the nipple” could be turned into a game like “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”

            I remember reading about a primitive culture – perhaps in New Guinea – where the natives were completely naked, but the young women wore anklets of bamboo pieces to cover their ankles.  The young men of the tribe would hide down by the creek, waiting for the girls to walk across the stream, which caused the bamboo to float, exposing the girl’s ankles.  To see a woman’s ankle was a “turn on.”  Not much different than boys today always on the look-out for the elusive nipple.  It’s a cultural thing. 

            But why are men curious over something that everyone has?  Why do women hide them?  Viewing a nipple won’t cause blindness or memory loss.  It makes you wonder if it has something to do with breast-feeding and weaning maybe too early or too late.  If a kid wasn’t weaned by the eighth grade, you would expect a problem.   

            Think of the offspring of the “Octomom” where eight little critters had to fight over two faucets.  I guess situations like these might create an unquenchable quest for a nipple.

            I always get a kick out of shots of topless women with the nipples blocked out.  It’s almost like blacking out all but the last four digits of your social security number or redacted copy on a secret government document. The breasts themselves aren’t the danger.  It’s the fear that a glance at a nipple might set a child back two years in school. 

            You could probably take a lump of fat anywhere on a female body and it would have no appeal, but if you stuck a nipple on top, teenage boys would go nuts.

            Strippers back in the fifties used “pasties” to cover the offending mini appendage.  Some women would put tassels on the pasties and many learned to swing them in different directions to the delight of the audience. 

            Today when a performer suffers a “wardrobe malfunction” and an illusive nipple peeks out from its hiding place, the country goes wild.  Face Book posts close-ups, kids print out copies to show their friends, and CNN runs a series dealing with the impact of nipples on international relations.

            I don’t get it.  I would tell a guy who wants to see a nipple, “Take your shirt off, stand in front of a mirror, and prepare to be amazed.”  Most of us have two of the darn things, so what’s the big deal?  Hey, I like nipples as much as the next guy, but let’s be realistic.

            The Vikings painted large eyes on the bow of their vessels, assuming that the eyes could peer straight through the ocean fog and guide the boat safely to its destination.  Nipples on the chest of young people are like those eyes on the Viking ships, staring proudly at the horizon.

            Sadly, time passes and the waves of life take their toll.  Soon gravity joins the fun and the enthusiasm in those eyes wanes. Instead of staring at the horizon, they begin to move south, eventually staring hopelessly at the ground.  Sadly, this malady affects both men and women. That could be why many Viking vessels went aground.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


           You may have read some of this stuff in a previous blog and may have seen the two photos I included too, but it may not be redundant for newer readers.  And this article is a little different slant on the Triumph brand.
     As a teenager, I was fascinated by Triumph motorcycles.  I remember reading catalogues from Triumph Ltd in England and staring at the beauty of those classic motorcycles. 

            In the Fifties and Sixties the Triumph motorcycle was the ultimate symbol of cool, outshining even Harley-Davidson as the postwar epitome of style, freedom and rebellion. 

            Triumph has had a recent resurgence, thanks in part to Tom Cruise riding one in “Mission Impossible” and Evel Knievel flying his Triumph Bonneville over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace.  

            I was at the tail end of my twenties in 1969 when I bought my first Triumph motorcycle. I bought it in Denmark

            I had just sold West Coast Publications, a publishing company I owned in my twenties, and I had a few bucks.  The guy who handled the printing for my company and I decided to travel Europe on motorcycles.   A meeting place, date, and time were set.   

            I flew into Frankfurt and took trains and ferries up to Denmark.  There was a method to my madness.  I chose Denmark because their sales tax was 100% at that time, but it didn’t apply to exports.  Consequently, I bought a new1969 Triumph 650 in Copenhagen for half price - the sales tax of 100% was deducted since I planned to export the bike to the states.  Bad deal for the Danes, but great for an “exporter.”

            After a quick trip to Sweden, I headed down to southern Germany, where I was scheduled to meet up with my friend at the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich.  

            I waited and drank good German beer for hours at the Hofbrauhaus, but, alas, my friend didn’t show up.  Months later I learned that he had discovered a warm bed, heated by an German girl.  He chose his ride. Who could blame him?  All I knew was that he didn't show up in Munich, so I hit the road alone.

            I traveled through nine countries on that great Triumph 650 experiencing a variety of interesting cultures as well as a variety of adversities. Week after endless week, rain or shine, I rode over cobble stone roads, through the beauty of the Alps, along the rugged coast of the former Yugoslavia, and through the beautiful green hills of Salzburg in Austria where the "Sound of Music" was filmed. But the ugly contrast of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany was shocking and one of the most depressing things I have ever seen.  But back to bikes...

            Steve McQueen actually made the Triumph name.  He owned dozens of them.  He raced a TR6 and did his own stunts in the movie, “The Great Escape.”  Who can forget the scene where he jumps the fence on that bike?

            Triumph marketed a line of clothing highlighting their association with celebrities strongly connected with the Triumph marque such as Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, James Dean, Elvis Presley and particularly, Steve McQueen,
           Here are a few of the famous people who rode Triumphs:  Marlon Brando rode a Triumph Thunderbird 650 in his movie, “The Wild One.”  James Dean rode a Triumph TR5 Trophy. You may not believe this, but Buddy Holly and his band, The Crickets, all owned Triumphs. Clint Eastwood rode a Triumph Bonneville.  Of all people, Bob Dylan rode a Triumph Tiger and crashed it ending up in the hospital.  Even Elvis was a Triumph guy, riding a Bonneville T120. 

            Many others either rode Triumphs or at least posed for photographs on Triumphs.  The long list includes Ann-Margret,  Anthony Quinn,  Henry Winkler (The Fonz),  Warren Beatty,  Jean Claude Van Damme,  Tom Cruise,  Carrie Anne Moss in “The Matrix,”  George Clooney,  Sonny Bono,  Ewan McGregor (an avid rider),  Paul McCartney,  Prince Harry,  Hugh Laurie, star of “House” on TV,  Jay Leno,  Antonio Banderas.   Even Rita Heyworth was photographed perched on a Triumph, but I can’t picture her leaning into a curve on two wheels.

            It’s been roughly 45 years since my first Triumph and I still have two in my garage, including my old classic 1969 Triumph 650 and a 2005 Triumph Speedmaster.  I’m probably too old to be riding around on two wheels, but until I need training wheels, I’m going to smell the pine trees, feel the wind, and absorb the scenery of the Sierra Nevada range from the back of a Triumph motorcycle.  I’ll wait until tomorrow to grow up. What's the rush...?

 Triumph photos I'm sure you have seen before.

Some time in 1969 and somewhere in Yugoslavia on the 650

Over 4 decades later with my new Speedmaster

Monday, March 3, 2014

This Old Horn

     It’s just an old piece of twisted brass, with tubes going here and there, finally ending in a flourish called the bell.  It is designed to make music and it’s called a trumpet.  But this particular horn appears to have been through a war.  The battle scars and blemishes are obvious and a close look will reveal the wear made by the hands that held it through many years of work and play.

            That old trumpet could tell a lot of stories.  Some of the early scratches may have resulted from being tossed on a sofa when the smell of spring grass and the crack of a bat hitting a ball were too much for a kid to stay in the house and practice his trumpet.

            The old horn learned to adjust to the shaking hands of a terrified eight-year-old kid playing solos in a large church, a “required” task that he hated. And the same kid at thirteen playing in a local symphony orchestra for the first time . . . and actually being paid.

          Then, a year later, nervously warming up backstage for the first concert with the San Jose Symphony Orchestra - back when the horn began to earn its keep.   

                Unfortunately symphony orchestras have gone the way of the Brontosaurus in a culture where untalented rock stars are paid millions to play three chords on a guitar, scream, jump around, foam at the mouth, and look stupid while classically trained musicians take day jobs to buy food.

            The old horn could tell stories of a wide variety of venues and musical styles.  The horn found itself passing musical gas in big bands, recording studios, circus bands, pit orchestras, symphony orchestras, bugle calls in the military, country club combos, and just plain fun with rowdy audiences at places like Big Al’s Gashouse or the Red Garter in San Francisco.   
Back in the Day
       Country club combos and jazz groups became a staple and a welcome change from tuxedos and the formality of various classical venues.  And they paid more.
      The old horn was good at paying college costs and opening doors to people and places otherwise inaccessible to the “non-elite.”  But soon the old horn learned to be content in its supporting role when teaching school, business, and real estate projects took precedence over music as the major source of income.

            In recent years the old horn has retired, along with the kid who played its first note. Now it rests in its case until called upon to say a few musical words now and then. 

            When it hears the click of its case being opened, it’s usually for another jam session and some fun.  Although its recreation now is limited, the old horn knows that when music is in the soul, to not play music is like holding ones breath.