DATE August 8, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Thomas Von Essen discusses the New York Fire Department
response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
My guest is former New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. He led
the Fire Department in its response to the terrorist attacks on the World
Trade Center on September 11th and oversaw the department's rescue and
recovery efforts at ground zero. In the process of helping to save more than
25,000 lives, 343 firefighters died. While the firefighters have been
celebrated as heroes since that day, the New York City Fire Department has
been criticized for its communication and coordination problems on 9/11.
After 31 years as a firefighter, including three years as president of the
Firefighters Union, Thomas Von Essen retired from his post as commissioner in
December. He's written a memoir of his time with the fire department. It's
called "Strong of Heart." We spoke yesterday about his experience of
Where were you when the first tower collapsed?
Mr. THOMAS VON ESSEN (Author, "Strong of Heart"): I had just left the command
post across the street where everybody had set up and was walking up Church
Street. And I thought part of the building collapsed. The amount of dust and
debris that just blew over us was like being in a earthquake or a volcano or
something. It just really got dark. I just ducked into a building, let that
wave of dirt and dust and concrete blow over us. And when we came out I
thought for sure that part of it had fallen. I still didn't believe that the
whole building would fall.
BOGAEV: You know, firefighters put out fires. I mean, that's always the end
in sight. But after the second tower fell was there a point in which you
knew this is not going to happen, we're not going to put this--this is no
longer just a fire? And what did the new objective become?
Mr. VON ESSEN: Well, we knew way before either tower fell that we weren't
going to put the fire out, that our mission was strictly to get up as fast and
as far as we could, get as many people out. And we did. We got out more than
20,000 people, I mean, from different levels, from seven floors underground to
70 floors above ground. We really did assist thousands and thousands of
people, which is something that everybody has to remember, that those lives
weren't in vain, that they helped rescue and save thousands of people.
BOGAEV: How did September 11th end for you, that day? Where were you at the
end of the day? When did your day end?
Mr. VON ESSEN: Well, it didn't end, I guess, maybe till about 3:00 the next
morning. We had meetings all day. We had gone back down to the site in
between the meetings. I had been down there two or three times. And then
after the last meeting, late at night, I went down there and I was walking
around. And, you know, it was just horrible.
BOGAEV: What did you see? What did it look like?
Mr. VON ESSEN: It was, you know, a mass of humanity trying in ways that they
just couldn't do what they wanted to do. The firefighters and the volunteers
just tried to do superhuman things and lift things and lift pieces of debris
and steel and crawl into areas where they thought maybe somebody might be
trapped, crawling into deep dark caverns and tunnels, taking enormous risks.
And we were trying to get enough lights. And the overpass had fallen. We
couldn't really get heavy equipment in. Welders and steelworkers coming from
everywhere and just offering to help, and no questions asked. The support
from everybody was really something to see, and it just kept coming.
BOGAEV: During the day, did you get confirmation by name of individuals that
you knew that had died?
Mr. VON ESSEN: Yes. We started to get confirmation about individual names
and, you know, confirmed that they were dead early in the afternoon.
BOGAEV: And who close to you?
Mr. VON ESSEN: The first one we got was Father Judge, who was one of our
chaplains, who was just a great guy. And we had become very close. He
baptized my granddaughter. He was set to baptize my second granddaughter. My
first grandson, my son named after him, Mason Judge. He was just a wonderful
guy, and everybody loved him, and he was the first person that they carried
out. He was in the north tower actually. And it just began the process of
name after name after name after name, and it just kept coming, you know, for
days. And, you know, just horrible.
BOGAEV: At that first press conference that was held after September 11th,
you were standing next to the mayor and you were asked the question, `Can you
talk about the loss to the department?' and you gave a really very eloquent
and heartfelt answer. Can you give us an idea what was going through your
Mr. VON ESSEN: Well, I guess I was three-quarters numb at that point just
thinking about how many people were going to be lost, you know. Just the idea
that we had no real confirmation of the total number, so we were estimating
it. We said over 200, and I thought it would be closer to 400, thinking about
how many people were in there. But I was really hoping that a lot of people
would be found alive that day and the next day and, you know, for a couple of
days as we went forward.
But then we had meetings with collapse experts that night and the next night,
and they told us, `You're not going to find anybody alive because of that
weight going from 1,340 feet to 80 feet of rubble. They said the weight and
the pressure would be just too much and that nobody would survive. And they
were right. They were wrong about us finding, you know, full bodies. We did.
We found reasonably complete torsos way into it, probably because of bunker
gear, but not with the civilians that didn't have that protection and not that
But that afternoon all I could think of was, you know, normally when we lose
one firefighter, or two or three, it's like a worst nightmare. We had just
had Father's Day, which is our worst nightmare, three guys dying, you know.
And I thought, like, `Wow, how could God do this to us?' you know. Only a
couple of months to go in the administration and I thought, `Wow, he really
gave us a good smack on the way out,' and not having any conception of what
was going to happen in September and that the losses would be really too many
to even comprehend.
BOGAEV: Father's Day was a devastating fire in which you lost three of your
Mr. VON ESSEN: Yes. I'm sorry. Yeah. I should have explained that. There
was an explosion in a hardware store, and we lost three firefighters.
BOGAEV: Now one of your jobs as commissioner, in the best of times and the
worst, is to console the families of the fallen. And in the case of September
11th you were also consoling the firefighters who survived and were looking
for their men. Was that something that always came naturally to you, or was
it the part of the job that you felt was the hardest or perhaps you never
Mr. VON ESSEN: I don't know if anybody ever masters it. If they do, well, I
salute them. I found that to be the hardest part, the most painful part and
the part you just hoped never happened. But this tragedy was overwhelming in
that respect because you couldn't do what you normally did. That Father's Day
I had gotten close to those three ladies. I had gone to lunch with them and
spent the whole day with them and gone to all the wakes a couple of nights and
gone to the funerals and had conversations with them and just tried, in a
small way, to make their life just a--you know, give them a little less pain,
you know, a little more help to them. So that was what we did, myself and I
had a team of people who were very compassionate and really cared about the
families. And we did...
BOGAEV: Among them, I imagine, Father Mychal Judge.
Mr. VON ESSEN: Well, the Judge was the leader of that team. He was just
phenomenal as far as giving people a minute of--he seemed to suck their pain
in, you know, to take it away from them and to take it himself. And he was
much better at that than I was. I would always be standing there. I would
never, you know, not do it, but I always didn't think I was good at it because
it was very emotional for me. I always felt as if these guys were my kids or
my brothers, and I always felt that it was a personal loss for me. And
dealing with their mothers or wives or their kids was just horrible. So that
was always the worst absolute, no question about it, part of the job.
But when September 11th hit, we weren't able to do that. In addition to the
fact that it happened and that you wanted to do that, you couldn't. There was
just too many.
BOGAEV: Thomas Von Essen is my guest. He's the former fire commissioner of
New York City. He headed the department during the terrorist attack on the
World Trade Center and the months afterwards. His memoir of his experiences
with the New York Fire Department is "Strong of Heart." We'll continue our
conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is former New York City Fire
Commissioner Thomas Von Essen. He led the department throughout the World
Trade Center attack and much of the rescue and recovery efforts. He has a new
memoir about that time and his life as a firefighter. It's called "Strong of
I'd like to talk about the recovery effort. The firefighters and the police
and everyone involved evidenced amazing courage and morale at the site, but
I'm sure it's inevitable that that morale must have had lapses or flagged at
different points. What conflicts did the firefighters face during the
recovery? What did you find challenging about that phase of the operation?
Mr. VON ESSEN: Immediately they were upset because we were holding them back,
the chiefs, that--those first five, six hours--first of all, we lost our
senior command, so now we had--some chiefs came in from home and took charge.
They had to get a sense of what was necessary. And we had some excellent
chiefs that stepped up at that time and did that, Chief Caruthers(ph) and
Chief Felini, people who had been at home who came in and fortunately had
their heads on straight and were able to function. So it was difficult, but
they did it.
But a lot of firefighters, not understanding the whole picture, would be upset
because, you know, `We've got to get in there. The brothers are trapped.
We've got to get in there.' Well, the chiefs at the scene would say that `We
have to get control. This building right there is still burning. It's going
to collapse.' So we had to wait until that collapse and other buildings fell
so we could estimate, ascertain the danger to putting additional people, live
people, in harm's way in an area that chances were slim we were going to
rescue people. But we wanted to make those efforts. So that you have your
And then, that night and the second day enormous numbers of people came from
everywhere: people that meant well, volunteers that went from 16 to 80. And
you weren't sure of their ability. You weren't sure if they had any clue what
they were doing. You weren't sure if they had any skills, if they were going
to get hurt, so you had to worry about that.
USAR teams started coming in, Urban Search and Rescue teams. They were
phenomenal. The skill level, the ability to just give them a job and not
worry about them anymore was something that the chiefs in charge really
appreciated, so that was a good thing.
Then you had people come from other departments--Chicago, Boston,
Phoenix--people who really knew their stuff so you could give them
assignments. Now you'd give them a job and then you'd have some of our guys
upset because, `Why would you give a job to the USAR team when such and such a
truck from Staten Island could do it?' Well, the chiefs had reasons for doing
So there were all of those morale issues and issues of then people being
tired. People want to work. They don't want to go home. But people only can
work so long, and they become a hazard. You have to worry about them hurting
themselves. You have to worry about them hurting somebody else. You have to
worry about them not being effective because they are so tired and they've
lost their strength.
So they had all those issues, logistical issues, that--we were outside of the
area trying to figure out solutions, getting people there, feeding them,
getting them equipment. We lost all of our equipment in the tragedy. Every
piece of equipment that was on the trucks was all destroyed. So we had to get
all new equipment. We needed tools: hand tools, power tools. They needed
cutting tools. The welders came in. The steelworkers came in; the
ironworkers, concrete people, heavy equipment, bulldoze. It just went on and
on and on. It was a monumental project, and everybody did a great job. They
really did. No matter what area you talked to, everybody put--any problems
they had, they put them aside and just went to work.
But morale, you know, and issues and stress started to hit after a couple of
days. Now you realize, `Well, I'm not going to rescue my friend. He's going
to be dead when I find him.' And a few more days go by and now you're
thinking you might not even find your friend. Then you pull out a body that's
totally destroyed and you say, `If I find my friend, I might not be able to
even recognize him.' And then you start dealing with the families. And the
families are concerned that, `If you find my husband or my son, what did you
find?' So that's very stressful. And that took a lot out of people, and that
made people very edgy. And then, you know, how should we work? Twenty-four
hours on, 12 hours on, 24 hours off? It just was a lot of stuff.
BOGAEV: The fire department has come under scrutiny and, at times, attack,
since September 11th for alleged failures in the department's response. A
draft report by an independent consultant has targeted a number of problems
in the fire department's response on that day, and perhaps first among them
were radio communication problems. Could you help us understand that by--I
read in the report that the fire department was using 10- or 15-year-old
radios and that the department suffered a collapse of communications far
exceeding any other agency on that day.
Mr. VON ESSEN: Well, the radio is pretty complicated, but we'll start off by
saying there were no breakdowns in the fire department's response that day,
and the report is what I guess most management reports do: find things to
select and criticize. They criticize the discipline of the firefighters. And
I say to you that if we listened to their report, we would be giving people
disciplinary charges for running up 40 flights of stairs and saving somebody's
mother. So these were heroic acts, and if the department thinks they should
change policies, that's OK. Change the policies. But they should absolutely
stay away from criticizing heroism of people that were on the scene that day.
The radios are a different issue. The radios are--it has not been honestly
reported since day one. We had issues with new radios. They're right. Those
radios in place are 10 years old, which isn't unusual. There's probably
radios 15 and 20 years old being used throughout the country. What you don't
hear anybody say is--no one stands up in front of a camera and says, `I have a
better radio. I have a radio that works in high-rise sub-basements. I have a
radio that will transmit from the first floor of the Trade Center to the 50th
floor of the Trade Center.' No radios work without repeaters. It's obvious
now that the repeater was working that day, that there was communication, that
many people did have radio contact.
There is a question, I think, and I think it's valid, that many people weren't
able to communicate, why some people weren't on that channel that was going
through the repeater, which is like a booster. It takes a signal and it
increases it so it allows you to get up to the 50th or 60th floor. And the
normal radio is probably going to work 10, 20 floors, depending on where and
the amount of steel and everything else. So there's, you know--if people want
to really look at the radios, they should look at it. They should bring
people in. They should sit down and they should really investigate the radio
situation. There's an awful lot of misinformation and dishonesty going on
with it, I think.
BOGAEV: Do you have recommendations for how better to train fire department
firefighters for this kind of multiple-phase emergency situation?
Mr. VON ESSEN: Well, I don't know what else we could have done. We've been
training more than FDNY has in the last 20 years; we've trained more in the
last five years. Training is important. Got to keep it up. There's new
things to learn. They should be thinking about anthrax and biological
terrorism. But they did a great job in that building that day. They know
what to do when they get into these buildings. They know how to handle it.
There was breakdowns in the staging and breakdowns in some of the coordination
amongst the troops themselves. That happens. This was the worst tragedy that
ever hit our nation.
I mean, do you think--to sit down now and criticize some breakdowns in that
effort without always constantly reinforcing the unbelievable heroism of
people running up 50 flights of stairs, totally exhausted, to help people who
might be trapped in a stairwell--I think it's kind of sad. And people should
be ashamed of themselves with some of the criticism.
The radio stuff, fine. Have an investigation and put people under oath and
find out what happened. I asked for an investigation, an independent
investigation, 'cause I didn't think that the fire department could really
honestly evaluate itself. They don't have accountability at the highest
levels of the uniformed management. I asked for an independent investigation
last October while I was there. I think it's important to investigate, not to
even find fault and find blame, but to find out what happened so you can
prevent it from happening again.
BOGAEV: Thomas Von Essen, I want to thank you so much for talking with us
Mr. VON ESSEN: Thank you.
BOGAEV: Thomas Von Essen is New York City's former fire commissioner. His
new memoir is "Strong of Heart." I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Dennis McNally discusses the history of The Grateful
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
The music of The Grateful Dead was the soundtrack for the psychedelic scene in
San Francisco in the '60s. The band's experimental, spontaneous music and
philosophy became a lifestyle for thousands of fans throughout the '70s, '80s
and into the '90s. In 1995, Jerry Garcia, the lead guitarist, vocalist and
spiritual heart of the band, died, and with him, The Grateful Dead ceased to
exist. But the remaining members have formed their own bands. Last weekend
in Wisconsin, they all reunited to play a concert under the name the Other
Ones, and now they're planning a fall tour.
The band's longtime publicist, Dennis McNally, has just published a history of
The Dead called "A Long, Strange Trip." McNally, a historian, is also the
author of a best-selling biography of Jack Kerouac. One of the things McNally
explores in the book is the enduring and prolific songwriting partnership
between Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. According to McNally, by the late
'70s, the two men had become so in tune with each other they'd be struck with
moments of mutual inspiration, which happened when they wrote this song from
(Soundbite of music)
THE GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Let my inspiration flow in token lines
suggesting rhythm that will not forsake me till my tale is told and done.
While the firelight's aglow, strange shadows from the flames will grow till
things we've never seen will seem familiar. Shadows of a sailor forming,
winds both foul and fair all swarm down in Carlisle he loved a lady many years
Mr. DENNIS McNALLY: There's a Grateful Dead song that's very beloved called
"Terrapin Station", and Jerry got the idea for it driving across the bridge to
Marin County from the East Bay, you know, felt the notes in his head and went,
`Oh, wow, this is a good one, this is a keeper,' immediately, you know, ran
out of the car when he got home, ran to a tape recorder, picked up a guitar
and laid down the notes so he wouldn't forget. Simultaneously--it was a
stormy day--simultaneously, Hunter, like three miles away, looking at the
bridge--this is a little spooky, but I mean, it's a true story--looking at the
bridge, got inspired, wrote what was about 10 pages of lyrics. The next day,
Garcia went over to Hunter's and said, `I've got this great new song,' and
Hunter said, `So do I.' Jerry took page one, two and 10, lyrics--you know,
there's a limit to how many lyrics you can put to a song--and, bingo, they had
BOGAEV: It seems as if The Dead discovered electricity and LSD at the same
time, and one of the stories I enjoyed in the book was about how The Dead were
introduced to LSD by the CIA. Now help me wrap my head around that one,
Mr. McNALLY: It's a great concept, isn't it? The CIA, in a program called
MK-Ultra, experimented quite frequently really horribly with unsuspecting
people, but also with people who knew they were getting a psychedelic drug
throughout the late '50s and early '60s and they did it, among other places,
at VA hospitals. And the first person in The Grateful Dead scene to receive
LSD as well as other psychedelic drugs was Robert Hunter; so did Ken Kesey,
for example, participate in this program at the Menlo Park VA Hospital in the
Palo Alto area. Jerry and the other members of that scene got it more
casually and more informally.
And it's interesting, because it was in early 1965 in the wake of The Rolling
Stones they had started to play electric instruments late in 1964 and created
this band called The Warlocks, and they'd been rehearsing for a little while.
And then it's a nice synchronous event, because it's very close in time.
There is some kind of primal connection between LSD and electricity. LSD
electrifies your life, one might say. And in April of 1965, just before The
Warlocks played in public for the first time, someone turned on Jerry to LSD
and he and his wife took it and had a marvelous day. And as Jerry said, you
know, `Gee, I didn't know it before, but this is what I've been looking for
all along.' And there was no turning back at that point.
BOGAEV: The Dead's first incarnation as a rock band was The Warlocks. Let's
play a cut from a 1965 Warlock demo for Autumn Records. The song is
"Mindbender" and this is from The Grateful Dead box set the "Golden Road."
(Soundbite of "Mindbender")
THE WARLOCKS: (Singing) If only I could be less blind. If only I knew what
to find. Everywhere and all of the time it's bending my mind. Confusion's
prince is at my door. The crown I wear is the one he wore. He's here to
bring me down some more and bend my mind.
BOGAEV: And that was the first incarnation of The Grateful Dead, The
Warlocks. My guest is Dennis McNally, author of a new history of The Grateful
We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: My guest is Dennis McNally. Since 1984 he's worked as The Grateful
Dead's head publicist. He has a new book about the history of The Grateful
Dead called "A Long Strange Trip."
Can we talk about Space now? Could you perhaps put Space to rest for us?
Some people hate it; some people love it. And for the few people who don't
know what I'm talking about, that's a long improvisational period and that
always comes up in every Grateful Dead concert, during which some people
choose to use the rest rooms.
Mr. McNALLY: Think Cecil Taylor's wild--you know, or Ornette Coleman or
Archie Shepp's most creative outbursts, but louder, much, much louder. The
time called Space, which usually was done without drums, frequently done at
least at the beginning without drums so that you just got guitars and
keyboards perhaps, was John Cage, but loud. It was music that had necessarily
no beat, not necessarily conventional notes. It was absolutely new each time.
And it was sort of the heir to the acid test because it was trying to create
something that literally would be never heard again. For me, it's some of the
finest and most interesting stuff they ever did.
BOGAEV: So you loved it as a listener.
Mr. McNALLY: Every time...
Mr. McNALLY: ...however strange, because there were no limits. Even when it
was boring, and I'm not saying it wasn't at times, the very fact that they
tried is, you know, the essential fact. The Grateful Dead, when they play
Space, they are doing, you know, what's at their core; what's at their heart.
And, you're right, a lot of people, and certainly almost everybody who isn't a
hard-core Deadhead, don't like it, but, as I say, that's almost the point.
BOGAEV: Well, that's really the thing. I mean, you could say of most music
you either get it or you don't, but it seems so much more true of The Grateful
Mr. McNALLY: The challenges were more extreme because it demanded an active
participation. Jon Pareles wrote that in The Times, and I was, you know, very
pleased because Jon's a very good and sober and intelligent critic and I felt,
you know, `Yeah, well, he gets it.' And he also, I might add, got Grateful
Dead music. But the point was you're not being entertained. You are a
partner in this. And if you aren't willing to be a partner, if you're just
sitting there passively saying, `Amuse me,' you won't get it.
BOGAEV: You've been following The Dead now for--What?--more than 20 years,
and your original idea was to trace the line from the Beat generation to The
Dead. What do you feel that you've come up with at the end of 20 years?
Mr. McNALLY: Outside of a consistency of the social approach, which is to say
anti-materialism, kind of environmental attitude that almost all the band
members have contributed to, the basic idea relates to the idea of
improvisation, Kerouac, what Allen Ginsberg called `spontaneous bop prosody.'
It wasn't quite literally 100 percent improvisational, but remarkably close to
it. And what Kerouac did with writing, The Grateful Dead did with music,
because although they used the elements of rock 'n' roll, the instruments and
electricity and a backbeat, they introduced into this mix elements of jazz,
intellectually and improvisationally, that I've never--I mean, there are other
bands that jam, but nobody ever quite fused the two together for my money the
way The Grateful Dead did.
BOGAEV: Can you think of a song from a live performance that most exemplifies
Mr. McNALLY: Well, ultimately "Dark Star" is the song that--it was a vehicle
and it was simply--it was post, you know, markings in which you went from
place to place, but in between you could go anywhere.
BOGAEV: Well, let's listen to "Dark Star." This is "Dark Star" from the
(Soundbite of "Dark Star")
BOGAEV: "Dark Star" by The Grateful Dead. Dennis McNally's new history of
The Dead is called "A Long Strange Trip."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Joelle Fraser discusses growing up in the mid-'60s
San Francisco the daughter of a flower child and a surfer
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
Joelle Fraser was born in San Francisco in 1966. Her parents were young
Bohemians who had dreams of being writers, but the drink, drugs and parties of
the era got in the way of their ambitions. Fraser's parents split a couple
years after she was born. While her mother worked, two-year-old Joelle was
left with her Aunt Kathy(ph), a free spirit who lived on a houseboat in
Sausalito. Joelle Fraser has written a memoir of her hippie childhood called
"The Territory of Men." Fraser's mother ended up living with several men, one
who abused Joelle. Now her mother is a therapist and the two women are very
Joelle Fraser begins her book with an oft-told story in their family, the trip
to the hospital for her birth.
Ms. JOELLE FRASER (Author): (Reading) Mother's Day 1966. Watch us as we
barrel across that bright bridge toward San Francisco, the gray waves of the
ocean seething and crashing below. It's a warm May day, the windows are wide
open and my mother's black hair flies wildly around her sweating face. We're
late for the hospital. The traffic is light and this is a party, after all,
one that began in the morning and lasted all night and hasn't stopped for
years. In the backseat, my fathers sits between two friends, smoking a
cigarette, lips stained dark from gin and grape juice. He grins at my mother
in front, tells her to hold on. He says, `Wouldn't it be a great story if
they had a baby on the Golden Gate Bridge?'
The Mamas & The Papas' "California Dreamin'" comes on the radio and everyone
sings, the words swept up by scarves of fog and spread over the sea. They're
drunk, all of them, all but my mother, who leans back to ease the pain, belly
swollen, legs braced because it's almost time and I'm pushing to get out.
BOGAEV: That's Joelle Fraser reading from her memoir, "The Territory of Men."
Joelle, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. FRASER: Thank you. It's good to be here.
BOGAEV: You know, it's so perfect that "California Dreamin'" was playing on
the radio. Obviously, this is not one of your memories. Was this a story
your mother always told you?
Ms. FRASER: Yes. It's a notorious story in the family that I was almost born
on the Golden Gate Bridge. They had left a party. And they said, `Oh, it's
time. It's time. She's going to have the baby. Let's go.' And everyone
wanted to pile into the car and, you know, the party just kept going wherever
you were, so. And this was a wonderful thing to celebrate, of course.
BOGAEV: Your Mom lived in Sausalito, in California, after she left your dad
and worked at a TV station. And you write that she used to leave you with
your aunt, that your aunt, her sister, very young sister, was her baby sitter.
And you have this image of your mother lowering you down in a basket to your
sister who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito.
Ms. FRASER: Yes. Yeah, it's a very famous houseboat area; it's called Gate
Five, and they were just these broken ships just, you know, missing planks and
no railings, and it was just this wild place, and that's where Kathy lived.
She lived on a houseboat. You know, it was called The Love(ph). And it was
hard to get there. You know, there was a map. You had to climb over ferries
and over roofs to get there. And that's where I spent my days when I was two,
three, four years old.
BOGAEV: So what was life like with your aunt on The Love?
Ms. FRASER: On The Love. It was a party. That was where people played
music. The musicians would hang out with Kathy there and people would get
stoned and play guitars. And sometimes I would get an instrument, like a
tambourine or something like that, and I would play along. And it was just
full of music and rock 'n' roll and lots of pot. And sometimes if the
musicians weren't playing they would play records. So music was the event.
That was sort of a concert atmosphere, so that was why people gathered.
BOGAEV: So this is '68, '69. Did she go to the Fillmore.
Ms. FRASER: Oh, yeah.
BOGAEV: Was she attending the acid tests, the Ken Kesey, the Merry
Ms. FRASER: Yeah, she went to all that stuff. She was always backstage. She
was very beautiful. And she was kind of--I wouldn't call her a groupie, but
that's the closest term that comes to mind. She had a lot of boyfriends, you
know, Quicksilver and Santana and people like that. And so I was usually part
of that as a child.
BOGAEV: How'd they treat you as a kid? Did they give you, you know, little
hits from their reefer or treat you like a little adult or what?
Ms. FRASER: Oh, yeah. Yes, I was treated like a mini adult, all the kids
were. In fact, I think it was considered rude to tell us what to do, to tell
us to go to bed. I also think that--you know, they were in their early 20s
and for many of them having grown up in the '50s as kids where they were told
what to do all the time, this was a time when they could relive their
childhood. And so to have me around as a four-year-old was a way to be
childlike again, so it was almost as if we were all children together, even as
they were treating me like an adult. That's kind of a paradox, but we were
children and we were adults all at the same time and there was no distinction
between me and them. I smoked pot just like they did. My aunt was very proud
of the way I could take a hit with a roach just like the adults at three.
BOGAEV: You know, another scene from your book that really got me was that
when you were just a toddler, I think you were maybe three years old, your Mom
would send you off to the 7-Eleven with a list of groceries--milk or bread,
Marlboros. She literally sent you around the corner for a pack of cigs alone.
Ms. FRASER: Yes, across the street.
BOGAEV: How did you even know what was on the list? You couldn't read.
Ms. FRASER: I couldn't read, but she would point, you know, over there. I
knew 7-Eleven was across the street and down the little way. And the clerk
knew me. And I would just hand her the list and she would gather the
groceries for me and I would haul them back across the street. And it wasn't
because my mother was lazy. I think she just wanted me to think for myself
and be enterprising. And as I said, I was treated like a little adult. So I
would waddle across the street with the cigarettes and the peanut butter, and
it's a funny story.
BOGAEV: She also let you sell your paintings on the street by yourself. Were
Ms. FRASER: No. When I did that, I was six years old. I sold those
watercolor paintings for 50 cents apiece. And on Bridgeway in Sausalito, this
was like Woodstock every day. I mean, it was nuts. And I loved it. I was
part of this scene. I was one of the folks and carrying my little rolled-up
paintings. But then one day a man pulled me aside and it became a very sad
memory for me. In fact, that's one of the most vivid memories I have of my
childhood was being pulled aside by that man into that stairwell that I wrote
about. And that's a sad thing, but in writing about it, it transformed it for
me and it's not just a painful memory anymore. It's something else now.
BOGAEV: He pulled you aside and molested you.
Ms. FRASER: Yes. So that summer was beautiful, though. I mean, up until
that happened, I loved it. And after that happened, I never went back and I
never painted again. So it's sad. It's bittersweet, because I had the two
months of selling my paintings and walking around. You know, my mother was up
at home somewhere. But then that happened.
BOGAEV: You know, that's my impression of a lot of the stories in your book,
they have both sides. You could appreciate the freedom you were given or just
this amazing experience of going along on your parents', your mother's
spiritual journey or journey through the '60s, but it also had a scary
Ms. FRASER: It had its price. There was the freedom and there was the price.
BOGAEV: What contact did you have with your biological father?
Ms. FRASER: I used to see him every year. He lived in Hawaii most of the
time and I used to visit him once a year, and that was always just this great
respite and sanctuary to go over there. And I would just play on the beach
all day, and that's how I saw him.
BOGAEV: And what was he by trade?
Ms. FRASER: Oh, he was a writer. That's what he wanted to be. But my Dad
did all kinds of jobs. He could never keep a job for more than a year. I
can't even tell you what he did. He just worked whatever. He'd work at a
golf shop; he'd do insurance; he'd bar tend, just whatever he could to make
some money; he drove a taxi.
BOGAEV: And he drank.
Ms. FRASER: And he drank and he drank and he drank and he drank himself to
BOGAEV: Did you ever live with him?
Ms. FRASER: Yes. I lived with him for one year in Washington and that was a
hard year. He drank a lot that year. There was something about the writing.
He was trying to write a novel. And the writing kept him drinking because it
was so hard for him to write, I think. Even though he was good, it was hard,
and so he drank. And we eventually got evicted--I got pulled out of
school--because he couldn't pay the rent.
BOGAEV: Did he ever finish his novel?
Ms. FRASER: He did. It's called "Gone to Maui," published in '83, and it's a
cult classic in Hawaii now. My brother teaches it in the high school there.
And the locals like it because it's a local book and has pidgin English in it.
And so it's amazing that it still lives on and his book lives on.
BOGAEV: Joelle Fraser's new memoir is "The Territory of Men."
We'll continue our conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: We're back with writer Joelle Fraser. Her new memoir is "The
Territory of Men."
Both your parents drank at one time or another. I think your mother was in AA
and she became sober and she's been sober...
Ms. FRASER: Yes, when I was 14.
Ms. FRASER: When I was 14, so a very long time. I am so grateful to AA. I
can't say enough about it. It saved all of our lives, really.
BOGAEV: So did you drink?
Ms. FRASER: I did. I drank a lot in my 20s. I used to go to dive bars and
that sort of thing. And it was where I felt close to my father because I met
my father in bars; that's where we met. I would meet him for lunch in some
bar and he would have, you know, six beers and a piece of pie and a bite of
something I ate. So I was drawn to drinking. It was where I felt close to my
father. And now I don't do that anymore.
BOGAEV: Did you also do AA, or was it never that serious for you?
Ms. FRASER: No. Oh, no, I drink occasionally. I go to a program called
Al-Anon, which is for friends and families of alcoholics and that's where I
make my peace with it. And I'll never be over the issues of my parents'
drinking, even though my mother's sober. You know, it's formed a part of who
I am. To grow up the child of an alcoholic I don't think you ever are done
BOGAEV: I have to ask, where is your Aunt Kathy now?
Ms. FRASER: Well, she lives in Napa. And she's a nurse and she has a son.
And she counts hawks. She's a volunteer for the hawk society there and counts
them in order to watch their migration patterns. It's a great volunteer
society. They do a lot of--to watch global warming and that kind of thing.
And she's got feathers and rocks all over her house. And she camps and she
listens to the '60s. And you should just see her when the music comes on.
Sometimes just tears come down her face, you know, because she lives in this
tract neighborhood. It's a very straight, conservative town. And it's just
not where her heart is, but she's there to give her son some stability.
BOGAEV: Did you interview Kathy for the book in your research?
Ms. FRASER: Yes. Oh, yeah, I interviewed her. That's how I got some of
those details. You know, at three years old how would I remember some of
these things, so I had both of...
BOGAEV: I'm sure, your birth, I mean.
Ms. FRASER: Yeah, how would I remember being in my mother's womb? Yeah, I
interviewed both my mom and my Aunt Kathy. And my mom gave me her journal.
She had written journals. My mother was a writer, too, a wonderful writer.
And she gave me her journals from her 20s and I actually put some of them
verbatim into the book.
BOGAEV: Yeah. I was thinking that must have been a very strange experience
to read your mother's journals about what she was feeling and thinking when
you were just a baby. You know the end of your story, so it's like watching
your own personal train wreck, I would think.
Ms. FRASER: It is. It was very sad because she's talking about the breakup
and saying, you know, if my father, her husband, you know, if my father didn't
keep writing, if he couldn't do it, that she knew that they were going to have
to break up because their lives were falling apart. He was drinking too much.
And I'm watching her each day, because they're chronicled by date like a
diary, and watching it get worse and worse and worse. And I just wanted to go
back and rewrite it and say, you know, `Keep trying. Don't break up. You
know, I'm only one or two years old. Please, don't break this family up.'
BOGAEV: Well, I really appreciated talking with you today. Thank you.
Ms. FRASER: Thank you for having me.
BOGAEV: Joelle Fraser's new memoir is "The Territory of Men."
(Soundbite of "California Dreamin'")
THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS: (Singing) All the leaves are brown are brown, and the
sky is gray. I've been for a walk on a winter's day.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
(Soundbite of "California Dreamin'")
THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS: (Singing) California dreamin' on such a winter's day.
Stopped into a church I passed along the way. Well, I got down on my knees...
Backup Singers: Got down on my knees.
THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS: ...and I began to pray.
Backup Singers: I began to pray.
THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS: You know the preacher likes the cold.
Backup Singers: Preacher likes the cold.
THE MAMAS & THE PAPAS: He knows I'm going to stay.
Backup Singers: Knows I'm going to stay. California dreamin' on such a
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