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


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fractured Foundation


With too much travel, visits with friends and family, and local activities, I’ve been remiss in writing for my blog.  Being the lazy old guy that I am, I’m going to cheat and give you a post I wrote back in January of 2013.  Since it has application to today’s events and since most of you haven’t read it, I decided to post it again.  It’s worth some thought.  

*     *     *
            "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.”   This is a quote from John Adams’ address to the military in 1798.
            We’ve all seen pictures of men standing in soup lines during the Great Depression.   People were lined up for rations to feed their families.  Some tried to get menial work.  Anything to provide for their families.  My dad told me his family made soup out of chicken feet.

            What can we expect to happen in our cities if we had a depression today?  Would people sell an apple, line up for rations, or would the “uncivilized” element go on a looting rampage?  Remember the rioting in Los Angeles in 1992 and the post Katrina riots and looting in New Orleans? What has changed since the Great Depression?  

            Japan went through a tsunami with devastation beyond belief and there wasn’t a single report of looting, killing, riots…nothing.  Why?

            A brief glance at countries around the world provide a blatant picture of atrocities beyond belief, but here in the U.S., where our country was founded on Judeo/Christian principles, we expect more.  But do we still hold to those values?

            Do we have such a thin veneer of civilization in this country that a brief loss of electricity, a flood, or a trial verdict, for example, can provide a catalyst for the savages among us to plunder, rape, and kill? What does Japan have that we no longer have?  

            Are we as civilized as we pretend to be?  Are white collar crimes or government malfeasance different than looting from a moral perspective?  Could this relate to the lack of a commonly agreed upon moral code?  Japan has its problems, but evidently they agree on a moral standard of some kind.

            I’ve come to believe that the basis of every problem in our modern culture is based on moral ambiguity.  That belief is reinforced daily by what I see happening in this country. 

            The concept of moral relativism and the rejection of any authority higher than man could result in nothing less than confusion and a “disconnect” from a moral standard based on something outside of one’s own personal design.  By definition, morals are standards outside of ourselves that we believe in and strive to live by.  Personal opinions don’t count.

            Back when I was a kid in the ‘50s we knew what was right and what was wrong.  The fact that we chose “wrong” didn’t make it “right” and we knew it.  That moral gyroscope might have failed to inhibit us on many occasions, but it functioned as an essential guide and still does for many of us, despite our personal fallibility.

            If you take every aspect of our culture, from economics and social issues to politics and the media, at the root of any problem you will find a missing or compromised moral imperative.  Something has changed. 

            Now that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of “that old time religion,” God, and any accountability to a higher authority, we are free to set our own rules; free to establish our own personal “morality.”   Fyoder Dostoevsky said, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” 

            Law has replaced our former moral underpinnings.  If it’s legal, it must be moral. Legality equals morality to many.  Abortion may be legal, but is it moral?  And laws can always be changed to be more accommodating. 

            Morality restrains us from inside.  The law restrains us from outside.  In other words, if there is no internal moral restraint, the law will apply controls externally. 

            We have a culture that has filled our vacuous morality with flexible legality.

            In short, we have managed to destroy America’s primary moral construct. As John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”  In my opinion, that’s why we are where we are.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Death Stalk - Chuck Montgomery, Editor

     This is a follow-up on my previous post that compared starting and running a business today to a restaurant I built roughly forty years ago called the Relay Station.  I mentioned that movie crews would eat at my steak house when they happened to be filming in the Sonora area.  I received an interesting phone call from a good friend immediately after the blog was published.

            Chuck Montgomery has been a buddy of mine since kindergarten.  That may be hard to believe, but many of my friends today go back to the elementary school years.  My friendship with Chuck actually started at about 5 years of age.  Our mothers were best friends.
Life-long buddies.  Chuck Montgomery,
the ape man (me), John Chaffin and 

Jeff  Rochin, behind the camera.

            I want to feature Chuck in this article.  Chuck and I have had some good times through the years. There is a large group of us who have been friends since childhood.

Chuck receiving Eddie Award with wife Linda
            Chuck retired as a film editor in Hollywood and received the prestigious Eddie Award for his film editing.  Recently he was the editor for the COPS TV series, along with other movie and TV credits.  Chuck doesn’t talk about his achievements, but I watched him make his acceptance speech on TV (see photo).  He told me his tux didn’t fit right and I think he said he was concerned about his pants falling down, or that they were too long or something like that.  Fortunately there were no  "wardrobe malfunctions" and he made a good speech.

            Anyway, he called me after reading my post to tell me that one of the movie crews that ate at my restaurant was the crew from a 1975 film called, “Death Stalk.”  You may remember the movie.  Much of the action took place on the Tuolumne River, which was close to my restaurant. 

            He mentioned that he was the film editor on that movie, which surprised me.  He mentioned a number of the stars in the film, but I was only familiar with a few.  I had no idea that he was editing the film.  And that’s not the only major film he has edited.  As I said, he doesn’t talk about his accomplishments.

            Two of the main stars in that movie were Vince Edwards, who also played Dr. Ben Casey on TV, and Neville Brand, who has made over 40 movies and numerous TV shows, including the Laredo series in the ‘60s. 

Neville Brand
Neville Brand
            Brand is particularly interesting to me, because he was said to be the fourth most decorated WWII soldier, close behind Audie Murphy, who was the most decorated.  You would recognize Brand’s gravely voice as the tough guy he normally played in movies.  

Vince Edwards 
as Dr. Ben Casey
            Both men were among the movie crew from “Death Stalk,” who ate at our place.  I remember my partner in the restaurant business telling me that Vince Edwards was an arrogant jerk, who wanted to buck the line and be seated ahead others.  Our hostess angered him by refusing him special privileges.  He would always order a baked potato with the skin hollowed out and filled with butter.  Very weird.  That could be why he died in his sixties.

            Brand, on the other hand, was a very nice guy, who was always pleasant, very down-to-earth and modest, yet he had reason to be proud as the war hero he actually was.  It’s interesting to see how differently people react to fame. 

            I only visited my Sonora restaurant once a month or so, due to teaching and writing projects back in San Jose, so I missed most of the action at the restaurant.  It was interesting to me that Chuck confirmed my restaurant staff’s description of the difference between Edwards and Brand.

           Interestingly, I didn’t know that Chuck was the editor on the film even though he and I sat together at the Relay Station bar roughly 40 years ago, around the time the filming took place.  He didn't mention it then and only told me this week.  I'm proud of the little kid who sat in the circle with me as our kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Smith, read us stories.  I think that's what they did in kindergarten back then.  Now that kid is involved in the telling of stories.

            Chuck has always been very modest, a great guy, and a good friend.  He’s more like Neville Brand than Vince Edwards.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Business Then and Now

     Retirement has its advantages, but it can also been boring at times; especially if you’ve had an active life, full of challenges and adventures.  Lately I’ve been thinking of starting another business.  I’ve started several in the past, but that idea runs into a wall when I consider the regulations and government rules designed to discourage entrepreneurial endeavors.  I guess I’m too old to put up with it all.

            The last business I owned was a gas station, mini mart, car wash, and deli operation that I bought to give me something to do in retirement.  The financial books looked good and the previous owner told me that the “business runs itself.” The books were accurate, but no business runs itself.

            I hired managers and too many employees, so in addition to overhead costs, I spent the five years of ownership dealing with the ABC, the Dept. of Weights and Measures, the EPA, the Health Department, the ATF, the IRS, and a few other governmental agencies that don’t come to mind at the moment. 

            I remember that in the early ‘70s, when I was teaching high school, writing books, and playing in night clubs to support my family of seven, I decided to build a restaurant in Sonora, California.  I called it the “Relay Station” playing on the Pony Express theme.

            I leased a building that was once a feed store and later a strip joint and took a summer to convert it into a rustic restaurant, reminiscent of the old west.  A year or so later a liquor license became available at a reasonable price, so we added a full bar. I took an option on the real estate, which I exercised after one year.  I had a partner, who ran a restaurant in Santa Cruz, and with a few friends, we converted the building into a very cool steak house. 

            We scoured the hills for barn wood and antiques for an “old west” feel.  We used an ocean buoy as a pressure tank to pump water up the hill from a well to the building and dug a trench by hand in 100 degree-plus heat for the pipe. 

            We made our own tables out of hatch covers and built the facade of old western buildings along the inside walls with authentic antique porcelain doorknobs. Customers could feel like they were eating on the front porch of an old western building.  We even had the traditional swinging doors leading into the bar.

The name designed to be "eye-catching."  (Prior to the fire) 

            I painted the name at an angle in huge letters on the side of the building, purposely leaving off part of the last letter as a way of drawing attention.  It was so hot that I almost passed out standing on the ladder and the paint dried as soon as it hit the wall.  I remember a drunk running up to me trying to warn me that I didn’t have room for that last letter of “Relay Station.”    

            We slept on the saw-dust covered floor, tossed pieces of wood at rats for fun, bathed in the river, and lived on Cool-Aid and bologna sandwiches.   We bought chairs, ovens, stoves, refrigerators, ice machines, dishes, and all the equipment needed for a restaurant operation from restaurant supply stores in San Francisco.  Amazingly, in six weeks time we opened for our first meal. 

Sitting in front of a western facade with my mother.
            I have to admit that I had some pretty creative marketing ideas that resulted in a packed house on opening night.  None of us knew what we were doing as we stumbled over each other trading off as waiters, cooks, or dishwashers. 

            Waiters crashed into each other through the swinging door of the kitchen.  But it was a huge success.  Once we got our balance the restaurant became known as the best place for steaks in the entire county and when film crews made movies in the vicinity, the crew and stars always ate at the “Relay Station.”

            At the end of that very tough summer, I turned the operation of the business over to my partner and went back for the start of the school year as a teacher and band director.

Talking to a vendor with my mother.  Note barn wood walls
           My restaurant concept was to have a 
string of these “Relay Stations” throughout the “Mother Lode,” primarily at the small former mining towns along Highway 49.  

            Unfortunately a fire destroyed the building sometime during the height of our success. We immediately rebuilt and expanded our menu to include lobster and other more expensive items.  This was a mistake. Food costs and labor costs buried us after previous successful years.  In addition, I was hired to write music books for a major New York publisher and lost focus on the restaurant.

View from across the highway.  Note 40 cent gas price.
            But the clincher was that I heard about drug dealing out of the bar.  I put a lock on the business that same day.  We sold the building and equipment and I spent the next two years paying off creditors.  But it was a great adventure and that’s what I like about life – the adventure.

            I got carried away with this story.  The purpose of the article was to demonstrate how easy it was, even in the early ‘70s, to get through all the permits and requirements to build and open a full restaurant operation in six weeks time.  We had room to improvise, like the water pressure tank, and we had building permit latitude.  You sure can’t do something like that today. Our benevolent government shuts down children’s lemonade stands due to permit requirements. 

            The more I think about it, in today’s business environment, retirement may actually make sense.