Robert Sperry

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Robert Sperry

Saturday, October 5, 1974 9:53 am Black Mountain

Drifting up slowly from the ocean of sleep in the treehouse loft I hear people walking by on the path.
The treehouse, as it's called is within hailing distance of the track that snakes its way down from Hale's house near the water tank, through the shady oak grove, past the clear dome and across the little creek beside it, then up onto the grassy clearing and finally down the heavy wooden stairs to the main house. Within hailing distance, but thank God they're not hailing me. Such things have happened. Always some damn crisis. A while back the water stopped flowing to the main house and Space Cadet Gordon in his green jumpsuit had to spike my beer with guarana.... but no, that's over.

I try to make out what the voices are saying but the sound is muffled and they go by too fast. Okay. Time to get up anyway. It's Saturday so I don't have to make the trek down to the flatlands to remodel houses in the Almaden Valley, so sure, let's see what's shakin' up here on the commune.

Saturday July 14, 1973 Black Mountain

No water. Tzippy turns on the faucet at the permanent makeshift sink in the main house and nothing comes out. The water system on Black Mountain consists of a 12,000 gallon tank poised in the clearing way up at the top of property near Skyline. So far up in fact, that you can clamber up through the oak thicket and onto the shoulder of the highway from the water tank clearing. And risk death. Cars, trucks and motorcycles roar past at sixty or so, bound for glory somewhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

A hundred yards below, down in the main house, the whining of the motorcycles and trucks is audible as Tzippy and her friend sit quietly on the dusty over-sized sofa encrusted with a decade of dust. Tzippy's visitor is Gordon. He is wearing a green jumpsuit. I have seen him half a dozen times and he is always wearing the jumpsuit. He is in fact a soldier stationed at Fort Ord near Monterrey and Tzippy drove him up here in her International Travel-All. He's on leave and he wants to take in a heaping helping of mother nature up here on the commune.

I find them rolling up some mother nature when I come clump, clumping down the thick wooden stairs and swing open the side door of the main house. Spare will know what to do. So, what do we do, Spare? Hey Spare, have some Oaxacan, that'll help, right?


I check the spigot up on the first clearing. Dry. I walk the line of the two-inch pipe up the hill -- it parallels the path -- looking for a break in the pipe, but mainly hotfooting it to the tank, running to try and do something with the energy that's balled up in my gut as my mind's eye paints a picture of an empty 12,000 gallon cylinder.

At the tank now I bang the side of it. Sounds hollow. Up the iron rungs I climb, slowly, not wanting to see what I'm about to see. There's a hinged metal door on the low slope of the riveted round roof and I sigh with resignation and open it. Dark inside. Eyes have to get used to it.

"Oh, shit." The bottom of the tank is wet but the rest of the space is nothing but air.

Normally, the tank is filled by a spring. Emerging from the ground somewhere between the tank and Skyline Boulevard another two-inch pipe runs just above the ground over to the base of the tank, elbows up and at the top elbows again, opening inside the riveted metal cylinder. I never knew where the actual spring box is, but simply marveled at its power to fill the two-inch pipe with sufficient pressure to boost the precious fluid up, up and in. Never knew, but I got a feeling, a sinking feeling, that I'm going to find out.

Slowly back down the iron rungs. Sadly down the dirt path. Looking, as I walk, for the pick and shovel that Black Mountain has or at least used to have, knowing that the tools could be anywhere around here, dragged over near a dome or shanty to dig a shitter then dropped without a care. I make a detour toward the garden before going to the main house. Ah, they're there.

Pick and shovel in hand I enter the front door of the main house. Tzippy and Gordon are still there. "Really, Spare, have a toke, you're too serious."

I explain the water tank situation. Tzippy is silent as if awed by mother nature. Gordon is a little more down to earth, "How can we fix it?"

"Well, the inlet from the spring must be plugged. If I just knew where that inlet is, I could probably dig it up and unclog it."

Tzippy's voice makes a pronouncment, as if from a great distance. "I know where the spring box is." The rest of Tzippy seems somehow very far away.

After ten or fifteen minutes I am able to cajole them to get up from the sofa and show me the spot. We walk up onto the clearing, then up onto Skyline. Tzippy is leading the way. She takes us to a spot on the shoulder of Skyline Boulevard and points to a steel marker sticking out of the ground. "That's the place," Tzippy's voice pronounces. "Before he left Howard walked me up here and pointed this out. He said, 'if you ever have to dig up the spring box, this is the place'."

"Shit, this ground is hard as a rock." I make them stand back, then I swing the pick with a monster blow. "P-i-i-i-n-g!" It bounces back at me. "Jesus Christ, you better be right about the spot. I sure as hell don't want to dig this for nothing."

I'm skeptical about Tzippy's information but she convinces me. Gordon's contribution is the guarana idea. "Do you like beer, Spare?"

"Hell yes, and I'm gonna need some before this job is done."

"Okay," Gordon pipes in with his strange raspy falsetto voice, "we're gonna drive to the corners and get you some beer." Then to Tzippy, "I've got some guarana in my backpack. We'll put a bunch of it in his beer."

Five hours later I have unearthed the spring box and located the obstruction. Tzippy and Gordon have stood by to keep me company, and other people show up later in the day, taking shifts. With vehicles whizzing by at sixty their main job has been directing traffic to slow down and steer clear.

At this point Flewellyn is one of the traffic guards. She mentions that the Highway Department is doing some serious reconnaissance. So it's no big surprise when a Cal-Trans truck pulls up near our excavation site and a uniformed supervisor climbs out. He is not happy.

"What in hell are you doing?"

I was testy even before I started digging. After hammering my way through packed gravel I was getting aggravated. By now, whamming through stone zinging along for hours on a massive dose of guarana and several quarts of beer, I am beyond pissed.

"What the hell's it look like we're doing? We're blowing up the Bay Bridge!!"

It's good that Flewellyn laughs because no one else does.

The Cal-Trans guy takes a look. My friends explain things. He just wants this traffic hazard removed and he can see we're on the home stretch. He calls on his truck radio and puts up some barricades. Then he climbs down into the hole with me, and helps me fit the cleaned-out filter back onto the pipe.

Despite sore arms and back and an awful lot of guarana, I sleep well that night. The next morning I go to the water tank and hear water cascading from the pipe and splashing inside the tank. I promised the man I'd fill in the hole first thing in the morning so off I go. Tzippy and Gordon haven't appeared yet, which is okay with me. Backfilling is easy; I don't need any guarana for that.