Random Recollections of Caliente Characters
I’ve only met one person in my 70+ years who found a way to use the word “rutabaga” in common conversation. This alone makes this man a character. We called him “Rocky,” no doubt a name he answered to throughout his life since his last name was Rockwood. Clifton, his real first name, just didn’t have the same panache as “Rocky.” It’s a nickname sort of like “Buster,” but now we have a baseball celebrity named Buster whose name appears all the time, but I digress…
Rocky was the third Commodore in the photo list of 52 Commodores found in your 2017 club directory. This means that he was there at the start, the mid-to-late 60s. He was a key part of the work effort put out by Sam, his brother Red and club members as they built our clubhouse, all the berthing and eventually the footbridge connecting the little island to the levee on Bethel Island. You can also see that story in the back of the club directory.
Rocky was a very competent boater. He honed his skills in over-the-bottom and predicted log racing, once mainstream boating activities, but now relegated to a select few who enjoy piloting around the Delta with sharp eyes squinting at paper charts, speed indicators and clocks making sure that time, course and distance are to the judges' liking. You could say that this arcane part of the boating hobby is today nearly a lost art. Today’s boaters are more interested in piloting around with their screen-destroyed, bloodshot eyes trying to read their GPS that tells them everything they need to know about speed and distance--far easier than struggling with charts, pencils and the thing that resides between one’s ears. But Rocky was one of the best at this stuff along with Sam Martini, CIYC’s founder and a few other club members in those early days. More recently, our Mike and Jo Daniels were CIYC’s standouts in these contests. We have boxes of trophies stored somewhere filled with the trophies won by these true mariners.
Rocky’s first significant boat was an older, wooden Hunter, about 33’ or so. Of course, nearly all the boats in the 60’s were made of wood and generally much smaller than today’s behemoths. Hunters were prominent as were Chris Crafts, Owens, Fairliners and a host of other wood boat builders. Being built of wood, most of these boats are long gone, victims of rot (if not termites.) He eventually moved up to a nice 36’ Taiwan trawler named Delfin and as this boat was built of fiberglass, it needed comparatively minimal maintenance. The bonus was that Rocky had much more time to sport around the Delta looking at his charts, instruments and clock while remembering to keep his pencil sharp.
Being technical in this way came naturally to Rocky because he was truly one of the pioneers of Silicon Valley (in this way he was different than his good buddy Sam Martini who owned a sketchy auto body shop in East Oakland.) You might recognize the company name “Varian,” an early tech company along with the likes of Intel, Hewlett Packard and Xerox. In the late 60s and into the 70s (when I was starting out in Silicon Valley and studying high tech) Rocky was involved in one Varian product in particular, the klystron tube. This thing was invented by his bosses, brothers Sig and Russell Varian some years before. I don’t know anything about klystron tubes but Rocky told me that they were the devices that powered microwave communications gear and eventually particle accelerators. They probably weighed hundreds of pounds, now no doubt replaced by a chip weighing ounces, if anything at all. In those days, Rocky knew his high tech and he transferred his knowledge into his boating hobby.
Where do “rutabagas” come into this picture you ask? Rocky was a true raconteur-- an especially renowned story teller--so the answer is that rutabagas appeared in just about every story Rocky would ever tell--and he told a bunch. He would often be found on the docks at Caliente Isle harbor with a crowd of people around listening to him spin what were known as shaggy dog stories—very long tales, with twists and turns and a drop dead punch line. Most of these attentive listeners, well schooled in such stories, were far more interested in the part of the story where “rutabagas” would figure in and they almost always did. The stories would wander around, gather steam then slow, with bits and pieces of very dry humor tucked in here and there. Then just when he had his audience putty in his hands, all leaning in so as to not miss the moment, he would spring the rutabaga bit. Whether it was funny or not, the mere use of the unusual word had people howling and Rocky would go off with a powerful twinkle in his eye.
Rocky passed away a number of years ago but some of us stay in touch with Rocky’s son, Jack. Now, being Rocky’s son, Jack is no slouch in the two worlds his father no doubt taught him, serious boating and entrepreneurial high tech. He owns several boats and jets around the high tech world in the course of his business. I had a nice visit with Jack two 4th of Julys ago while anchored at Mandeville Tip. He saw our boat and paddled over in his kayak to say hi. We laughed about various Rocky stories but when reminded of his father’s rutabaga stories he positively cracked up. Jack came to CIYC’s 50th anniversary party and we chatted for some time. Once again, with the mention of rutabagas, he cracked up. With that same, unmistakable twinkle in his eye, he launched into his own stories. Like father, like son— there can be no doubt that both of these men are true Caliente Characters.