One summer day (July 19th, 1961 to be exact, I’ve seen the receipt) Hal Fick was walking down Sendlinger Strode in Munich when he saw a bewitching blue Cinelli Speciale Corsa 10 speed bicycle fitted with glittering Campagnolo gear in the window of a Munich bike shop. He still recalls the event with great clarity. Hal walked into the shop and rode the bike out the door. He’s still riding this bike.
Hal Fick is a local in the deepest sense. His ancestors were early settlers in San Mateo County and his family tree includes five generations in each of which there is a girl named Grace. Hal married his college sweetheart, Nancy, and they continue to be a vigorous part of the community.
In 1980 Hal cofounded Borel Bank in San Mateo. Borel was a great success from the beginning as Hal steered the enterprise through interest rate spikes and financial downturns. All the while his trusty steed was his Cinelli.
I’ve known Hal since I banked at Borel in the very beginning but it was a dozen years ago that I saw him on his bike one day. I knew right away it was a classic but I was amazed to hear that it was not just vintage but the only bike he has ridden. The bike has the same paint and decals and is in uncommonly good shape considering the 100,000 some miles Hal has ridden it. Like any cyclist with four trips around the Earth Hal has gone over the handlebars a few times. The most serious incident was when he hit the deck smashing his helmet and several bones. And this was at the foot of his own driveway in Hillsborough.
Hal has had some epic rides including an annual spin to Carmel he did for 28 years. When Hal started riding on the Peninsula bicycles were fairly rare. There was a single bike shop and nothing resembling a cycling community. Back then bikes were ridden by Europeans and children.
I remember my first 10 speed, the aptly named Huffy, which seemed to be made out of iron water pipe and changed gears with a flick of the handle and a solid kick to the derailleur. Back then there were no bike lanes, helmets hadn’t been invented and if you got run down you took the blame.
Almost everyone upgrades their bikes when the new lighter, more precise models come out but Hal never considered it. Hal paid (what his father considered at the time) the outrageous sum of $95 for his Cenelli so Hal intended to get his money’s worth. So far this works out to about 1/100 of a cent per mile and dropping.
In time Hal came to realize that the bike was much like a 61 Ferrari: old and less of a competitor, but only getting better with age. In 1982 this model was voted the best bicycle in the world.
Speaking of cars Hal has one of course. It’s a 1939 Plymouth Woody his grandfather bought new in Burlingame.You might be getting the impression that Hal is old fashioned. He’s hardly that. He does have these artifacts, though, that connect him with his past.
I wanted to do a story about Hal and his bike years ago but Hal isn’t one to shine a light on himself and, according to him. “It’s a bike.” Nancy, his children and many grandchildren are the main focus today but still you will see Hal on his trusty Cinelli four or five days a week.
Hey, make him an offer. Maybe he’ll sell it to you. Somehow I doubt it.
THE SOUTH SKYLINE STORY
Margaret and I live in the South Skyline area three miles west of the main road in an area with no water, sewer or power service. People sometimes tell us that we live in the middle of nowhere but we just laugh because we feel we live in the center of the action.
Now there is a book about our neighborhood. Janet Schwind and her team of a dozen local folks researched this fine work on the history of Skyline from the Corners at the top of the hill where Alice’s Restaurant is to Bear Creek Road in the south. Could there really be that much to say about such a small region? There is.
We think of this area as being the historic center of redwood logging in the 1850s and it was that for sure but it was also a farming community. In the flats the farming was good, in fact the best in the world, but up in the hills the farms struggled. All sorts of crops were tried but nothing worked very well. At times there were apple, peach and plum orchards. There was wheat, oats and rye as well as cattle and hogs. Today it’s mainly wine grapes and clay pigeons.
The soil on the ridge tops isn’t the fine loam of the valley and the weather can be capricious. There was also the fact that though it seems close to the valley it was toilsome bringing crops to market. You would think that if they could transport redwood logs down the mountain and eventually all the way to New England in the 1880s that it would be easy enough to bring a few peaches down the hill but the mountain crops always had to compete with those grown below.
A few farmers looked with eager anticipation to the 7,214 foot aerial tram line built in 1894 that ran from Portola School to the top of the hill at the junction of Old La Honda Road and Skyline as a possible solution to help ship their goods. The system featured towers 125 feet tall and a massive steam engine to drive the cables. This all seems a bit nuts but it did get built and ran for five years.
This was privately financed and was billed as a tourist attraction and a bulk goods conveyor. In fact it was a demonstration project for Andrew Hallidie’s ore bucket mining system. Hallidie invented the wire rope that was used in suspension bridges and mining operations and he supplied it to projects all over the world. Hallidie was the real deal as it was he who developed San Francisco’s Cable Car system.
Before automobiles a trip from Skyline to the flats and back was an all day affair. There were quite a few farm families on the hill and it wasn’t possible to get children to the schools in the flats so half a dozen one room school houses dotted the road. There they taught the 3Rs, a term out of time like the schools themselves.
There was another school on the hill and this from the 1960s and 70s. Pacific High School. This was a counter culture operation near Route 9 and Skyline. It was a hippy school where old domes went to die. I mean this literally. We once helped dismantle a dome and moved it there as Pacific became sort of a dome magnet. At one point there were at least 10 domes in various states of decline. These tragic buildings were a short lived phenomenon much like concrete sailboats and about as practical because they both leaked like crazy.
You think I’m kidding about concrete boats, yes? I’m not. They were called ferrocement boats.
There was a widespread do it yourself cement boat movement in the 1970s whereby you would shape a hull with rebar and cover it with chicken wire, then stucco it. The effect was to tool around in the water in an inverted garage. The best ones, though, were actually fairly seaworthy. I met a family at a harbor near Palermo with a 50 footer who had sailed from Ventura and they hadn’t drowned…yet. But the typical ones were destined to become apartments for undersea creatures. A good many ferrocement projects commenced with terrific exuberance but were never launched. Hundreds, maybe thousands of hulls, populated boatyards for decades, half finished, their embarrassed keels pointing skyward yearning for a open ocean they would never experience.
Skyline today is heavily protected by a number of entities from The Committee For Green Foothills to Peninsula Open Space Trust. This was not always the case and the region could have turned out very differently. There was potent thrust in the 1960s to punch a freeway from 280 to the coast through Portola Valley. It seems impossible now but limiting development wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. After all, there is an apartment house on Skyline. There were other roads and real estate developments planned for did happen, like Skywood Acres and Portola Valley Ranch. But most were turned aside. This was often accomplished with restrictive zoning. In my neighborhood the minimum lot size is 40 acres just a half hour from Buck’s. Our community was originally subdivided to be a backwoods motorcycle park.
Some unusual amenities did get built on Skyline like the Los Altos Rod and Gun Club. I don’t see a lot of rod in this fishless park but there is a good deal of gun. When the wind is blowing in our direction we can hear the pop pop of the ammunition giving hell to those poor clay pigeons. Me, I think you should eat what you shoot.
Recipe for clay pigeon quiche
Take three clay pigeons well shot – chop finely
Stir in a few eggs – reserve the shells
Throw in some Gruyere cheese, it doesn’t matter how much
Break up the shells and use as a crunchy topping
Salt and pepper to taste
Bake for several years at 350
When is the new book coming out?
It will be out in late winter or early spring or maybe summer or just before the publisher beats me with a pipe in an alley. It’s called California From 500 Feet, a story of the coastline and is a seriousish book about the history of the California coastline as witnessed from my friends’ Zeppelin which we used to cruise around in. There are so many compelling stories of characters throughout history from this singular stretch of shore and I can’t wait to tell you about them. The gondola of a Zeppelin is the obvious perch from which to survey this fractal shore. The book caroms around a good bit from Ancient Greece to war torn Mexico City and ever back to the shore. There are hair-raising moments too like the time we lost control of the airship in a violent updraft and the incident where I discovered they forgot the pickles on my egg salad sandwich.
I chronicle the role California played in six wars. Here in the west we knew how to do war right because almost no one died. All the people killed in combat in all the wars in California could fit into Buck’s with plenty of room left over. More people were killed in Santa Barbara in the Otter War than in the Civil War, WWI and II combined.
In one chapter I talk about the press coverage during WWII. Back then newspapers had a tacit agreement that they wouldn’t print certain news like Franklin Roosevelt having a girlfriend or being in a wheelchair or the fact that in 1945 an American B25 bomber crashed right into the Empire State Building. “Waaaaaht?” you say.
An airplane was lost in the fog and hit the 79th floor on a Saturday morning. Fourteen people were killed. One of the plane’s engines went all the way through the building, out the other side and sailed for a block before crashing through the roof of a penthouse incinerating the joint.
One of the elevator operators, Betty Lou Oliver, was badly burned so they hustled her into an elevator by herself and hit ‘G.’ The rescuers stayed behind to help others. The cables turned out to have been damaged by the impact and immediately snapped, the safety gear failed and Betty Lou plunged earthward, the car picking up speed as it whizzed past each floor. Betty Lou floated, weightless, in the car for a few seconds, not looking forward to her appointment in the basement. But as she approached the bottom a strange thing happened. The elevator car started to slow down as the cables piled up underneath it creating a shock absorbing spring effect which broke her fall as well as her back, neck and pelvis.
On arrival – the doors burst open and Betty Lou was found tangled in a confusion of cables and chunks of the car with burns, snapped bones and a record for surviving the longest free fall in an elevator. She lived another 54 years. Most folks have never heard about this incident because even if the news wasn’t exactly suppressed it was certainly downplayed.
Many people have heard, though, that airships, in fact the biggest dirigibles in the 1930s, were expected to tether to the Empire State Building’s mast. The passengers would disembark using some sort of chute 75 feet through the air to the 103rd floor with their mink coats and steamer trunks. They’d be in New York City in two days instead of the ten it would take in an ocean going ship. This was a great idea even if it wasn’t true. I was on the 103 floor in 2014. (I happen to be acquainted with the man whose grandfather built the building so we got to go to this normally off limits area). The 103rd has a 25 foot in diameter walkway accessed by a ladder, through an equipment room just under the spire. The walkway is about 30 inches wide and the rail is just over waist high. There is no way to get from the gondola of a 900 foot airship swinging in the wind. It makes a memorable anecdote though.
The real story is a little murkier. Then as now a decorative or a radio mast isn’t counted as structure height but a mooring mast would be. So add a 200 foot mast to a 1,200 foot building and it becomes amazingly taller. No one cared to admit this in the 30s but the Empire State Building is officially 1454 feet tall. And the mast does make a handy place for King What’s-his-name to grab hold of.
How does a long winded story about a building in New York make it into a book about the California coast? Hummm, good question. It’s just that I’m a big fan of the building. If you have never been there or think that going there is sort of corny, consider that the Empire State Building typifies much of what is great about America. Of course it was the tallest but it was also the largest building in the world until the Pentagon was built. Visitors to the lobbies positively jump for joy at the grand sweeps of Art Deco polished stone and metal detailing that still looks brand new. And here’s an amazing fact: it was built in 13 1/2 months! I’ve see bathroom remodels that take that long. This building is one of the city’s, the country’s and the world’s great examples of art, craft and society.