Gin & Tonic

My first taste was at age twenty-one when I was a driver for an old salesman of agriculture-industrial belts in the inland valleys of California between the coast and the Great Central Valley.

Mr. Brett couldn’t see or hear too well, but he loved his life-long job. He hired me as his eyes and ears and for my driving capabilities (I was good, having learned at age fifteen).

I was between the US Navy and San Francisco City College, needing something remunerative to do before classes started.

Mr. Brett paid me $1.50 per hour, plus lodging and food along the way. At the end of each day, we would register at a hotel in Salinas, or San Luis Obispo, or a smaller town, and go to the hotel bar for a gin and tonic.

As Ernest Hemingway would undoubtedly have said under the same circumstance, “it was good.”

As a native San Franciscan and a city boy (the family lived five years in Brooklyn before repatriating), I was fascinated by the atmosphere of rural California, where all its real wealth then was, perhaps still is.

The rhythms were slower, but more purposeful; perhaps the purpose was clearer, and certainly more fundamental. We’re talking about food here: garlic and onions in Gilroy, broccoli in Greenfield, salad vegetables in Gonzales (now grapes), more towns and crops than I can remember, now fifty-six years ago.

I’m currently sipping on my second G&T, and these memories are flooding back.

I was twenty-one, I had served as well as this geek could in the US Navy as an electronics tech, and I was now entrusted with the safety of this kind and loquacious man who lived in Marin County, near San Rafael. His family accepted me graciously; I realize now they wanted to assess my ability to care for their paterfamilias.

Ah, sweet memories. Ah, gin and tonic.

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Ronnie, is it really you?

Artemis Helen Pavellas, née Pagonis 1917—2007

Artemis Helen Pavellas,
née Pagonis

“Ronnie,  is it really you?”

“Yes, Mom, it’s me.”

I took her soft hand, skin smoothly worn but still intact through decades of household toil.

We were on her couch in the living room. The sun filtered warmly through the thin curtains.

We sat silently together for a period of no-time.

She’s gone now, peacefully, smiling to the end, according to my sister. Diane’s gone now, too.

I wonder, still, some thirty years later, if Mom believed me.

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Ronald Alexander Pavellas Berkeley High School Class of June 1953

Ronald Alexander Pavellas
Berkeley High School
Class of June 1953

He was everything I wasn’t: big, strong, athletic, blonde, popular, wealthy, and stupid.

We were both seniors at Berkeley High, but I was 15 and he was 17. He drove a new convertible; I rode a bicycle to school.

Why he chose me as the object of his dis-affection was not fully clear to me, but my refusal to pay obeisance to him probably figured in the equation.

He had a twin brother who joined the action once in a while. At the coffee shop one of them tipped my coffee over, flooding the counter and my lap, saying: “I’m Mormon and we don’t believe in drinking coffee.” As punishment for my loud and profane objection to this, he and his cronies pantsed me during one of the most humiliating days of my life, in full view of all those full-bodied, angora-sweatered girls who never otherwise noticed me.

I wondered what caused these brothers to focus their attention on me. Perhaps I did, or didn’t, fit a stereotype for them. Perhaps I engendered cognitive dissonance in them which they couldn’t resolve except by violence. I’ll accept that as the reason.

Nothing to forgive at this point. While being queried about attending the 60th reunion, set a few years early because 25% of us were already dead, I learned that one of the brothers was in the 25%.

I didn’t make the trek from Stockholm to Berkeley for the reunion.

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California Accent

When our family of four moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco on New Year’s day, 1946, we had been living in public housing built during WWII. My dad had worked in the shipyards helping to build Liberty Ships. The neighborhood was called Sunnydale, in Visitacion Valley near the Cow Palace.

My best friend at the time was Mike M_. We were in the same grade, belonged to the stamp club, and were often considered the smartest kids in the class. Some teachers thought us, or at least me, a smartass and I caught some punishment for this.

After moving to the third, top floor of a tenement in a neighborhood of dock workers, I enrolled in Mrs. Jokiel’s upper-3rd-grade class at nearby P.S. 2 (the implication is that it was the second public school built in New York City). It was a very old, three-story brick building.

Dad and Mike’s father had remained in touch, so when Mr. M_ and Mike passed through New York on a trip to Europe, they stayed with us for a few days. Mike attended class with me. This coincided with a spelling bee Mrs. Jokiel organized each semester.

By random selection the class was divided in two, then lined up on opposite sides of the room to face the other half. Mike and I stood side-by-side. I knew Mike and I could beat everyone in the ‘bee’, so in my mind I was competing with Mike.

When it became Mike’s turn, Mrs. Jokiel gave him his word. It sounded, to a California ear like “CAH-ving,” which Mike parroted with a question mark in his voice. The exchange was repeated. In exasperation Mrs. Jokiel said, “CAHving, like you CAHVE with a knife,” and she made cutting motions with her hands.

Mike responded, “Oh, you mean CARRR-ving!” The class erupted in laughter, and his California accent was mimicked the rest of the day.

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Easter, Jelly Beans

I was born old and rational. I can’t remember when, or if, I ever believed in the tooth fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus (who sometimes posed as Kris Kringle for obscure reasons). I think my parents were aware of my being on to the ruse, but I acted out my expected role for the sake of maintaining family solidarity and for my younger sister who was deep into fairies. My reward was a chance at all the goodies.

I love jelly beans in all their wonderful varieties, especially the big ones with shells that crumble deliciously on my tongue. Chocolate was good, but not a top favorite. Soft, chewy sugar bunnies and chicks with a slight glaze on their surface were right up there, almost at jelly bean level. The same for sugar foam bananas.

I tried to get excited about coloring Easter eggs, but one was enough for me to eat. They took up too much room in my stomach, which room could otherwise be available for the sugary treats.

I thought searching for eggs and candies in backyard bushes or obscure places in the house was pretty stupid and a waste of time, but I went along with this too.

I was greedy with the jelly beans. I attempted to hoard them for later enjoyment, but I am addicted and just don’t have the discipline to keep them longer than 24 hours.

I liked having the relatives and other adults focused on me and my sister during the time the fairies were real for her.

It all faded when my sister had reached age nine and the family couldn’t maintain the fictions anymore.

I still look forward to those jelly beans at Easter time.

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Best Day

I was eight years old, visiting, for the first time, the home of Mom’s oldest sister, my Aunt Bee, and her husband, Uncle Tommy. Mom had taken me and my sister Diane, age three, on the train from San Francisco south to Newport Beach for a summer vacation before the three of us were to move with Dad to Brooklyn at the end of the year, 1945.

Newport Beach was then a typical California beach town, except it had an important business: the fish cannery which Uncle Tommy managed. He and Aunt Bee lived in a house on the large lagoon, about a mile from the ocean beach.

Soon after we arrived Aunt Bee took Mom, Diane and me to the beach on a sunny day. I had been to the beach at San Francisco, but it is cold and uninviting, other than to run along the surf line almost fully clothed. Newport’s beach was different. It was warm, with lots of people sitting or playing, relaxed and happy in the sunlight.

I was wearing only a pair of swim trunks as I meandered away from the blanket where the rest of the family lay, at around 11 in the morning. I was fascinated with the play of the surf against the beach and walked in it toward the big pier some distance from where we were.

I was aware only of the warmth and brightness of the sun, the play of water against my ankles, the feel of fine sand shifting under my bare feet, and the pleasant sounds of people as I passed by them.

I met a boy, a few years older. We walked together toward the pier. I don’t remember what we talked about, but whatever was said, or not said, it fit completely with everything else.

We found a dead fish bouncing in the surf near the pier. It seemed fresh enough to eat, and I thought I’d bring it back with me as I said goodbye to the boy and turned back toward the place where I had left the family.

I wasn’t in a hurry as I strolled, again in the surf, feeling larger than I had ever felt before. I had never been so free and happy.

“Where have you been?”

This was Aunt Bee shouting at me. She was angry, but I wasn’t afraid. I showed her the fish, but she grabbed it and threw it in the surf. She took my arm and would have dragged me, if I hadn’t run to keep up with her.

There was Mom, tearful and looking worried. She grabbed me and hugged so tight I couldn’t breathe.

Aunt Bee angrily warned me about letting someone know where I was at all times. Mom just let me know she was worried about me. That was more important than anything to me.

It was the best day of my life.

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Remembrances and Impressions of an Ancestor I Never Met

Asbury Harpending, Jr.
Born: 14 September 1839, Hopkinsville, Christian County, Kentucky
Died: 1923, Manhattan, New York

Asbury’s Father: Asbury Harpending, Sr.
Born: 10 October 1790, New York State
Died: 7 October 1873, Princeton, Caldwell County, Kentucky

Asbury’s Mother: born 1808 as Nancy Wright Clark. Later, she was known as Nancy Jones; a prior marriage is speculated. She was Asbury’s second wife, of three. Asbury Senior remarried in 1843, so Asbury Junior’s mother died (not divorced) when he was quite young. He was the youngest of three from his mother. He had seven half-siblings from Asbury’s first wife, Mary Prickett Ogden who died in 1833. There were no children from Asbury’s third marriage to Sarah. We don’t know the relationship Asbury had with his step-mother Sarah.

Asbury’s Wife: Ira Anna Thompson
Died: April 26, 1917

Asbury’s Children:

(Gertrude died in infancy)

Asbury Harpending, Jr. was my father’s maternal grandfather. Dad remembered being with him in New York when Asbury died. Dad was then nine years old. My memories of Asbury are those of my father and Asbury’s daughter Genevieve, Dad’s aunt, transmuted by time and the nervous systems of the three of us.

Asbury’s official life is well chronicled in his autobiography, The Great Diamond Hoax and Other Stirring Incidents in the Life of Asbury Harpending, in many books and periodicals during and after his days, and in the archives of the Online Archive of California.

In addition I have written a brief biography, Notes for a Memoir: Asbury Harpending, Jr.

What I record in the following is the picture I have of the man and his relationships with his children and their spouses.

He was full of himself, irascible, explosive and difficult to live with. He was driven by ambition and achieved most of what he yearned for as a youth: wealth, influence and some degree of respectability. He fancied himself as a southern gentleman, but he was not.

His memoirs barely mention his wife, about whom my father and Great Aunt knew little; I know next to nothing. Both of his sons left home never to return. He doted on his two daughters, and indulged them to the point of supporting them and their husbands until he died.

He left home in Kentucky at age 16 to the promise of California during and after the Gold Rush, and returned slightly before or after his father’s death in 1874 to present himself to his former community and family as a successful and wealthy man. Another motive was that he suffered public humiliation by his still murky role in the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872 and he wanted to start afresh. This was not to be. Although he had built a marvelous house in his home county, after the child Gertrude died (within two years of her birth) he moved to New York City. I speculate he found Kentucky slow and boring and that he was not accepted socially.

It’s not clear to me how he raised a family in Marin County (Mill Valley) and Alameda County (Oakland) while living in New York, but I have heard many stories from Dad about his life in Mill Valley and the “Fruitvale House” (now gone) in Oakland. It seems apparent Asbury relied on his two sons-in-law to manage family affairs. They were business partners with each other, as well as connected through the sisters.

Asbury was a promoter and plunger and, in the end, died with his fortune almost depleted. His sons-in-law spent 12 years after his death trying to recover Asbury’s assets in New York, California, London, and Mexico.

(More Text Follows the Three Images) 

“Old Harpending House”, Princeton, Kentucky


Fruitvale House, Oakland

Lucille Harpending Pavellas at the Mill Valley house.

Harpending’s son-in-law George D. Papageorge-Palladius was also a promoter and in him I believe Asbury saw a natural son. Papageorge died in his fifties from complications of diabetes and other diseases, having depleted all the Harpending assets in the middle of The Great Depression. Papageorge’s son, Nestor Palladius, was also a promoter/salesman but was not successful and, in the long run, died in poverty at age 83 with no natural children.

Harpending’s other son-in-law, Alexander Konstantin Pavellas, was the respectable and professionally educated “son” (lawyer and diplomat) who married the oldest, peculiar, and theretofore unmarriageable daughter, Lucille, several years older than Alexander. He died similarly to his brother-in-law, the same year, 1935.

These two sons were good husbands and did their duties, thereby cementing their access to the Harpending assets (tangible and intangible) which they used to advance their various enterprises together, including especially newspapers and other publications and activities aimed at the Greek-American community and Philhellenes of the West Coast.

Asbury was imperious and prone to impulsive betting on the future.He was a Californian of the 1800s, but his way was not profitable in the 1900s. He died a disappointed man, as did his sons-in-law who were inextricably in his orbit. His daughter Lucille was a mystical and  unhappy soul who died within months of her husband and brother-in-law. His daughter Genevieve was altogether different. She enjoyed life, in whatever manner it presented itself, to the fullest until her death at age 90, then living with a rather punchy ex-boxer, Frank.

Asbury’s legacy is memories, a few mementos, and a great number of descendants, amazingly, through only one grandson, my father.

After publishing this article I heard from Eric Baker, a relative of a man who was also associated with “The Great Diamond Hoax,” James B. Cooper. In his historical researches Mr. Baker found where Asbury Harpending, Jr. is buried, without headstone:

Calvary Cemetery
Woodside, Queens County, New York
Plot: Section 48, Plot 99, Grave 11


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