Random Recollections of Caliente Characters
Caliente has had more than a few memorable characters whose job was “Island Caretaker,” a term in use before “Harbormaster.” This was back when the club had a clubhouse on Caliente Isle in the middle of Taylor Slough with a very cool (and shaky) footbridge linking it to Bethel Island (see the pictures and story in the back of the 2017 Directory.) Caliente had many Caretakers who, because they weren’t Harbormasters as such, didn’t really have many skills. Sam was always eager to get Caretakers because they worked for room (upstairs) and probably not board. And because they were often drifters of one sort or another, they didn’t last long. Among the numerous office holders was one Caretaker who was maybe 18 years old who lived in the apartment over the clubhouse with his pregnant girlfriend. That was in the late 1970s. Some of us have seen this guy, Cliff something or other, around the Delta since and looking about like what you might expect of one whose start in life was a bit rough and whose first job was Caretaker of Caliente. Another guy was apparently recently out of prison. Another probably should have been in prison. You get the idea. Founder Sam Martini knew how to run the place on a shoestring.
The specific Caretaker who has come to mind here was a retired Navy lifer. His last name has been lost to history but we knew him as Chuck and we knew he had been a Navy Bosunmate for something like 30 years. He was huge, his tattoos were pure Navy and his nose was quite red, suggesting a lifetime of bad booze. Now, if you were in the Navy or knew someone who was in the Navy, you’ve heard about Bosunmates. As opposed to say Quartermasters, who help run the ship, Bosunmates are responsible for keeping the ship shipshape which has a lot to do with chipping rust and painting. You could say they were in a less than highly skilled position aboard ship. In fact, back in the day, the Bosunmate's toughest job was often just rounding up the crewmen who were said by an officer to be need of an “attitude adjustment” and put them to work making the ship shape, polishing endless items of brass, cleaning the bilge, working on overflowing heads, you get the idea.
Instructions to these attitude adjustees were, of course, given in English but unless you were in the Navy you wouldn’t necessarily understand a Bosunmate’s speech -- mostly because every third word started with F. And this particular Bosunmate had three decades of experience with that word and others of that ilk before he came to Caliente. You could say that his speech was colorful. Well, Chuck comes to Caliente Isle directly from Navy retirement—30 years of that life. You’ve got the picture.
Chuck’s job is Caretaker and his duties were basically to keep the clubhouse, docks and other places nice, you could say “shipshape.” But this guy has arrived before there was a footbridge to the island. So his job -- his primary job -- is to ferry people from Bethel Island to Caliente Isle across Taylor Slough. Some of you know how the system worked. Those arriving on the BI side took their gear in old, rusty shopping carts down the ramp to the little ferry dock on the levee side to ring a loud bell. When the caretaker heard the bell, he would come from where ever he was on the island making things shipshape to fire up the ferry boat (calling it a ferry would be to give the vessel a bit too much glamour; it was actually an outboard-powered platform.) The ferry would make its way across the slough, often taking on drenching spray, to load up the folks wanting to make their way back across to the clubhouse and its docks.
When coming to the island, most people were giddy and eager to get across and start their weekend of fun. When leaving the island, they were grumpy and not eager to get back into their routine. Now, these two emotions—giddy and grumpy-- are not well-suited for a former Bosunmate. And this particular Bosunmate wasn’t shy about letting people know what he thought of their giddiness and grumpiness. But there was one thing that would make the guy’s salty language even saltier-- dog crossings “on demand.” For these occasions, the F word would be connected to all kinds of other words not found in your Funk and Wagnels -- strings of words known to most sailors but not necessarily to classy yacht club types.
Yours truly and his wife kept a small sailboat on the Caliente dock one summer, well before the footbridge was built. Said dock was at the ferry slip on the clubhouse side so we got the full show on more than one occasion. We could actually tell if Chuck’s oaths were longer or more strident by the nature of the interruption of the bell ringing on the other side. A truly unique string of cusses came when the guy was sitting on the head in the upstairs bathroom when the bell clanged. The longest and most interesting blast was when the bell rang requiring him to come down, fire up the often balky outboard and plow the platform across the drenching slough not to pick up club members but to pick up their dog to be delivered to the other side for some reason.
When he saw what was in store -- a dog run on demand -- he was beside himself, red and blue and spewing. I talked to him a bit and remember one thing he said -- “I think that g** d***f****** bell is wired up to my toilet seat! I’m pretty sure it was the last time we saw him at CIYC. If I remember right the guy that followed him was a preacher of some sort -- a welcome relief. But there wasn’t a one of these Caretakers that wasn’t a Caliente Character.