Recollections — San Francesco

Photo by Amogh Manjunath on Unsplash

I often do not know how my feeble brain works. I just permit it to wander through fields of recall, until it is brought back to current moment. That was the sketchy process that prompted memories from 46 years ago.

Out of nowhere — as an organist and orgel enthusiast — came the memories of watching an organist at The Committee Improv Theatre, on Montgomery Street, in San Francesco, during October 1972. Although I certainly cannot recall his name, and the performance program was likely lost forever, shortly thereafter, his ‘pre-show’, intermission and finale work was superb. His fingers and feet glided easily along a triple-manual set of keys and full set of base pedals, as if he had grown up on an organ bench.

Okay. That was the trigger of the recollection, but as I was to discover, that recollection was the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Having received orders to an aircraft carrier then in the Pacific Fleet, I bid farewell to South Dade county, Florida; spent some time at home on leave; then again flew to Chicago for a memorable flight to San Francesco. That flight, a one-of-a-kind experience, was never and will never present itself to the flying public. It was an American Airlines direct flight from Chicago to San Francesco on a Boeing 747. In the intervening years, I know that millions and millions of travelers have flown on that aircraft, but not since the early 1970s has anyone flown in the style I experienced. The cabin contained spacious walkways between seating sections in coach, and there was a piano bar in the tail, with oversized windows and perimeter seating as well as honest-to-goodness, sit-down tables rounding out the décor.

In the market today, aircraft seating is ‘intimate’ shall we say (c.f. “sardines”). There is certainly no space available for amenities or comfort, unless one springs for first class.

As I donned headphones for music and settled back, the 747 lifted into the air above Chicago. I have never before or since experienced a smoother flight. Shortly after takeoff, I recall the flight crew warning passengers that there would be a slight shudder, as 22,000 pounds of landing gear retracted and the gear doors closed. On command, there was a soft ‘clunk’ as the gear seated and a ripple was felt as it could be seen in the slight wiggle at the main wingtips.

I cannot recall whether I met LTJG Paul (I regret I cannot remember his first name) somewhere in the piano bar, or whether his seating was close enough to say, “Hello” but I somehow connected with another sailor, heading west to a duty station. As I recall, we exchanged pleasantries, talked of our respective orders and settled into the comfort of the flight. We arrived at San Francesco near dusk, and decided to find a hotel, as Mr. Paul had traveled to San Francisco many times. I later gathered that his family in Boston was well heeled and that he had traveled extensively before his U.S. Navy years.

We found a hotel downtown in the Financial District, not far from the Transamerica Pyramid. I had at the time no foretaste for the tourist adventures we would share. We did the tourist things, including dinner in Chinatown; a ‘prepared-at-the-table’ dinner at [then-operated by a cousin of the mayor] Alioto’s on the Wharf and caught one of the final performances of The Committee Improv at its theatre on Montgomery Street. The theatre would close its doors during the next year. Between times, we also managed to walk our way through the Cannery, Ghirardelli Square and hit the high spots of the city offerings. Yes, I remember seeing Alcatraz and the Marin hills beyond the Bay Bridge. We rode cable cars, mostly, but also took trolleys for outlying locations beyond the reach of the cable-car routes.

One such ‘outlier’ was the trolley to Golden Gate Park and art museum. I shall never forget the hours spent in seeing exquisite Ming vases, carved jade of every color by the ton, carved ivory and exotic woods, silk art and all the rest. But the finest recollection was my companion’s command of Mandarin Chinese, which permitted Mr. Paul to quietly chat with the museum docents and get the first-hand scoop on particular objets d’art. While I had from childhood been taken with Asian culture and Asian art, I had never before been provided a comparable opportunity to see, study and understand their workings.

All-too-soon, Mr. Paul and I left the city, on a bus to Travis Air Force Base, for the flights which would ultimately connect us to our respective duty stations. Mine would be on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. America (CV-66) then on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin; and his to a destroyer, headed to roughly the same destination. Mr. Paul and I bid farewell at Travis and I never heard from him again. In the days before the internet and social media platforms, letter writing, ship-to-ship was a cumbersome and lengthy process. We somehow just never got around to corresponding, as we were both solidly occupied with the Vietnam War.

I want to return briefly to the theatre recollection which prompted this piece. Although the heyday of that style of ‘extremely-political’ improv was waning in 1972, it should be remembered that San Francesco (and L.A.) improv was the forum that created the careers of then-well-known entertainers, Howard Hesseman (whose Committee performance I caught live), David Ogden Stiers, Peter Bonerz, Carl Gotleb, Steven Bochco, Rob Reiner and a host of others.

Gratitude for this short piece of recollection goes to Mr. Paul and the synaptic misfire (?) which prompted it. Thank you both.

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