The Story of Lame Tom: Finding Gifts Among Tragedy

The true “pioneers” of Alpine County were the native Washoe. But little was written about them in the early days. So it was a real treat to stumble across a 1927 Record-Courier article detailing the life of Markleeville resident “Lame Tom.”

In the early 1900s, Lame Tom (his real name was Assu) lived in a wickiup just below the old wooden schoolhouse on Schoolhouse Hill. By then, he was an elderly gentleman. He shared his humble abode with a friend with the euphonious name of Zon-ha-gen-mal-anay, popularly known as “Squealing Aleck.”

“Lame Tom” (Assu), about 1900 (courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society).

Lame Tom was a son of Chief Possic (or Possuk), a Washoe captain living near the Hot Springs who was said to have been a guide in the early days for John Fremont’s party. Noted basketmaker Dat-So-La-Lee married into their family.

In his youth, Lame Tom was acclaimed as a hunter. But tragedy struck one night while he camped out alone. A large, heavy log rolled off his campfire and onto his leg while he slept, and the burning wood pinned him “like a vise.”

The log pinned his leg like a vise.

The brave young man did the unthinkable: he amputated his own leg with a hunting knife to free himself, and “crawled many miles home” to his camp.

Amazingly, he survived. But Lame Tom could no longer hunt. Instead took up the art of arrowhead-making — soon becoming one of the “most proficient of all the arrowhead makers.” He would shape a flake of obsidian by cradling it in his palm with buckskin, then striking the edge of the stone with a piece of buckhorn (antler) lashed to a length of greasewood. The only person who could equal him was noted arrowhead-maker Poker Charlie (Tillebow Behang), another son of Chief Possic. (A little family rivalry, perhaps!)

Lame Tom, possibly outside his home on Montgomery Street in Markleeville. (courtesy of Alpine County Historical Society)

Lame Tom also crafted bows made of cedar and sinew, and would sell a bow and arrow set to local lads for “two bits” (25 cents). He also taught them how to weave snowshoes.

Due to his injury, Lame Tom was permitted to marry two wives, an important form of social support. Both wives were employed in or near Markleeville: Maley worked for the Musser family, while Susie was employed by Harriet Grover. Interestingly enough, Squealing Aleck (Lame Tom’s friend) had three wives, and an astonishing ten daughters.

Lame Tom passed away in 1910. So it’s a delight to be able to connect this photograph from the Alpine County Museum with his story, thanks to the old Record-Courier article from 1927.

Local arrowheads and display in the Washoe Exhibit at Alpine County Museum.

Stop in at the Museum next time you visit Markleeville: there’s more great information here about the local Washoe heritage, including this stunning collection of local arrowheads. Who knows, perhaps some of these might even have been crafted by Lame Tom (Assu) or his talented brother, Poker Charlie.

More unique history and undiscovered tales! Get your copy at http://www.Clairitage.com

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Special thanks to the Alpine County Museum for permission to share the photo of Lame Tom. Visit the Museum at the top of Schoolhouse Hill in Markleeville Thursday through Sunday from late May through October, summer hours 10-4.

How a Fire Saved the Fiske Hotel

Just how often do you get to walk inside a piece of history? Built in 1863, this hotel is a slice of life from Alpine County’s version of the Comstock days. And the building still exists — thanks to a fire.

Yes, a fire is what saved this historic building. Two fires, actually. Here’s how it happened:

By 1882, only a few inhabitants were still left in the once-booming mining town of Silver Mountain City. Gone were the hordes of eager miners, the hopping hotels, and the noise from its dirt streets. Although many of its homes and commercial establishments were still standing, much of the population had moved on to Bodie, where the diggings were fresh — and far more promising.

The Fiske family, owners of Silver Mountain’s prominent Fiske Hotel, had long since picked up stakes and moved over the mountain to Murphys. Their solid three-story hotel — one of the first structures built in Silver Mountain’s early days —  stood empty at its once-prime corner of First and Main.

Then, on the fateful winter day of February 18, 1882, a fire swept through the nearly-abandoned town of Silver Mountain City.

Advertisement for Fiske’s Hotel at Silver Mountain in December, 1865.

So what caused the 1882 conflagration? They say it was a simple chimney fire. By then, of course, few residents were left to battle the flames. Within hours, much of Silver Mountain’s Main Street was in ashes.

That did it; the few remaining die-hards holding out at Silver Mountain packed up whatever they could salvage and trudged off in search of happier climes.

One building that hadn’t burned, however, was the Fiske Hotel. And in 1885, when a different devastating fire swept through Markleeville, Alvin Grover took note.

Grover was the owner of Grover’s Hot Springs resort, and he suddenly arrived at a grand and practical solution: move the old Fiske Hotel from Silver Mountain to fire-stricken Markleeville. It not only would help draw visitors back to the fire-stricken town but also serve as lodging for his guests at the Hot Springs!

The Fiske Hotel aka Grover’s Hot Springs Hotel in Markleeville around the 1920s, looking much as it still does today. Owner John Ellis had renamed it the “Alpine House.” Old-time locals still call it the Alpine.

Leave it to Grover — he accomplished the feat with just a team and wagon, old-fashioned sweat, and lots of heavy lifting. The stately Fiske Hotel was dismantled, board by board, hauled off to Markleeville, and re-erected — at the spot where it still stands today.

Not only can you still walk inside this amazing bit of history, you can still eat lunch here. What fun to imagine miners’ boots stomping the restaurant’s creaking floorboards back in 1863.

The hallway upstairs on the second floor (not open to the public), with a row of doors to the original guest rooms. Bedrooms were tiny — about 10 x 10. (Photo courtesy of Ed Rogers).
Inside one of the former guest rooms upstairs, now used for storage. These wide boards (left) were likely milled at Silver Mountain City when the hotel was built in 1863.
There’s lots more exciting history about Silver Mountain City in this book, including amazing rare photos. Click to grab your own copy before they’re gone! (Just ask for an autographed copy!)

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Special thanks to our friend Ed Rogers, who shared the amazing photos in this article.

Curtz Lake Mystery

Next time you’re up for a fun hike, try the short loop trail at Curtz Lake. Just over a mile long, it’s currently well-maintained (thanks to a recent joint effort between BLM and the Alpine Trails Association). There are plenty of scenic backcountry views along the trail, and interpretive signs make for interesting reading. For a longer hike, you can also access Summit Lake from this same trail.

The trail takes off from the parking area.

The lake itself is a natural (not man-made) lake, fed by snowmelt. Old-timers say it used to be a great place for duck hunting. There’s no fishing here, however, because there are no fish; in dry years the water dries up completely (not so good for aquatic life!)

Curtz Lake is said to be named after early Alpiner Peter Curtz. But exactly what Peter had to do with this lake remains a mystery!

Born in Canada about 1835, Peter Curtz came west in 1859 via the Panama route, and a few years later became one of the pioneering miners in (future) Alpine County. He evidently knew town founder Jacob Marklee, as both Marklee and Curtz were among the locators of two mining claims in 1863 near the new townsite of Markleeville.

Dapper Peter Curtz himself, circa 1910.

By December that year, however, Curtz had moved on to Silver King, where he became a principal in a lumbering operation and sawmill. In later years he owned a sawmill at Boiler Flat, between Markleeville and Woodfords.

Curtz was a well-known early citizen, holding a variety of important public posts. He was a county supervisor; the County Coroner; District Attorney; and a Justice of the Peace; and he also sat on the local Board of Education.

But Curtz’s real love, it seems, was mining. In 1884 he worked enough rock at his arrastra on the Carson River to produce a bar of silver weighing more than 15 pounds. Over the years, he was said to have “made several fortunes” (suggesting he not only made but also lost them). As late as 1915, his Curtz Consolidated Mining Co. owned an astonishing 22 mining claims in the Monitor area, including the famous Morning Star — assets Curtz grandly asserted were worth $23 million. Curtz lived to be 88 years old, finally passing away after a car in which he was riding plummeted over the embankment beside the river, not far from his mill. (As an aside, there’s a ghost story that just might be related to this spot!)

As for exactly how Curtz Lake got its name, the record remains unclear. The Lake isn’t close to Curtz’s early mining activities, and it doesn’t appear that Curtz ever lived nearby. There’s plenty of timber in the vicinity, however, and one old-time local has speculated that Curtz might once have had a timber claim here.

For now at least, that’s pure speculation. But given Curtz’s interest in lumber and sawmills, it’s as good a guess as we’ve been able to come up with. If anyone out there has more information that would help to solve this naming mystery, we’d love to hear!

Directions:  Located between Woodfords and Markleeville, the trailhead is not far off Hwy 89. Take Airport Road heading east 1.1 miles, then look to your left for the entrance road.

Map:  Like to see an aerial map showing both Curtz Lake and the trail? Here’s a great one, from a blog by Tim Messick:  http://tinyurl.com/y9bwkdh9

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Was Jacob Marklee Buried Here?

Alas, poor Jacob Marklee! His name lives on in his namesake town of “Markleeville.” But aside from that one honor, this first pioneer has largely been forgotten.

Jacob Marklee, as he looked about 1862.

We know Marklee was a Canadian, born about 1821. And we know he had a fine eye for real estate, picking out the beautiful 160-acre parcel (which now includes his townsite) on September 12, 1861. Just a year and a half later, however, Marklee lay dead in front of his cabin from a pistol ball — the victim, in part, of his own hot temper, buckling on a pistol during a dispute with erstwhile partner Henry Tuttle. (Tuttle was later acquitted.)

But what happened to Marklee’s body? Where was he buried? When Jacob breathed his last on May 14, 1863, the town was still in its embryonic stages. There likely was no cemetery before this sudden need arose.

We’ll probably never know for certain where Marklee is buried. But two important clues have surfaced in a newspaper report from just three months later — so soon afterwards that the writer describes Marklee’s remains as lying “under a still freshly heaped mound of earth.”

This spot overlooks town, with the creek below.

Clue Number One:  After noting a “fine stream” running through the townsite, the writer reports Marklee’s grave is “overlooking it” (the stream).

And Clue Number Two: Marklee’s burial site is also described as being “on a little eminence” above town.

Every time we visit the Markleeville Cemetery, I am drawn to the isolated point of land that overlooks the town. Two towering pines grace its edges, and the creek flows peacefully below. Could this be the spot where Jacob Marklee was buried?

It certainly fits the description. And on a recent visit to the cemetery, we discovered what appears to be the outline of a grave: rocks laid in a roughly rectangular pattern, with a depression in the middle. The view is serene. And it’s exactly where Marklee should be buried: on a little eminence (high point), overlooking the town that he founded.

Could this be Marklee’s grave? A line of rocks outline an area with a depression in the middle.
The spot in the photo just above is located near the left tree.

We hope you’ll pay a visit to this quiet and peaceful cemetery soon, and decide for yourself!

To get to the Markleeville Cemetery, cross the bridge and turn right on Laramie Street. Park at the pullout and walk up Cemetery Hill (it’s a long, steep walk, so wear good shoes!)

Like to read more of the history of Markleeville’s very own “Unsung Founder,” Jacob Marklee? Additional details of Jacob’s story can be found here: http://wp.me/p8oQ7A-Z

Happy history hunting!!

Found: A Markleeville Pioneer!

The old wooden headstones that once graced Markleeville Cemetery have long since turned to dust. Time, neglect and a bit of vandalism have wreaked havoc here; sadly, most of those who rest in this historic cemetery now lie in unmarked graves.

But this week, at least one of the cemetery’s mysteries was solved! Thanks to a devoted great-grandson and his 96-year-old mother, the final resting place of Alpine pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Koenig finally bears a gravestone. It’s been a long time coming; this November will mark 135 years from Koenig’s death.

F.W. Koenig circa 1870.

Born in Prussia about 1840, Friedrich Wilhelm Koenig (or William F. as he was also known) was one of the earliest settlers in soon-to-be Alpine, arriving with his wife, Lena, in 1862. Koenig and a partner opened a store in 1864 at the corner of Main and Montgomery Streets in Markleeville — property they purchased from the estate of Jacob Marklee himself. Evidently a cautious businessman, Koenig’s ads warned sternly against asking for credit: “None need come for goods without the cash.” Even so, by 1866 Koenig himself was out of funds and filing for bankruptcy.

Koenig switched professions from storekeeper to butcher, and in 1873 listed his occupation as “shoemaker.” These apparently were more profitable undertakings; in 1873, Koenig was able to purchase the former Bagley Ranch and moved his family to Silver King Valley. There he not only ran cattle and operated a hotel but also began hauling freight over the mountain to Bridgeport and Bodie, via Rodriguez Pass.

Koenig and Lena had a total of five children, but sadly Lena died in childbirth sometime between 1872 and 1879. William soon remarried — to a widow named Anna Heppe who was working as a dressmaker in San Francisco, with two children of her own. Together, William and Anna would have two additional children.

But wedded bliss was not to be William’s fate. On November 6, 1882, he was killed in a freighting accident on his way home from Bridgeport. His wagon was found overturned, and his body was discovered beside the road, with his neck broken. His second wife, Anna, was again a grieving widow — and a pregnant one, at that. William and Anna’s last child together, George, was born in December, just a few weeks after his father’s death.

If William Koenig ever had a headstone, it disappeared for decades. But his 96-year-old granddaughter could recall visiting his grave, and luckily was able to describe the spot precisely to her son. A team of grave-detection dogs also visited the cemetery. The granddaughter’s site description exactly matched one “unknown” grave the dog team had found.

Headstone for William Koenig. Note the round silver marker where the dog-detection team earlier found a burial.
Placing Koenig’s headstone 8-18-17.

On August 18, 2017, Koenig’s great-grandson laid a headstone to honor him. One mystery grave: solved!

Grave of Maria Mayo. Koenig’s grave is located behind this plot, near a bench.

But several additional mysteries about Koenig still remain. Was his death truly just a tragic accident? Koenig was an experienced teamster, and there were whispers that perhaps foul play had been involved. A coroner’s inquest was convened, which concluded the death was accidental. To this day, however, the family has its suspicions. Koenig apparently had been in an altercation with a suitor sweet on Koenig’s oldest daughter. And according to a story handed down from generation to generation, the team’s outside lead horse had been shot.

And one more mystery:  Where is Lena, Koenig’s first wife? It’s possible she was buried in Silver King, near the ranch. But at least one family member believes she, too, is interred in Markleeville Cemetery, next to William.

Want to visit the Cemetery for yourself? After crossing the Markleeville bridge,  turn right at Laramie. Park at the turnout and take the (long!) walk up the steep hill to the cemetery at the top.

And if you look closely, there is, indeed, a second silver marker on an “unknown” grave not far away from William’s.

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Watch for our next blog — we may just have found the spot where Jacob Marklee himself is buried!

 

Walt Monroe Exhibit

 

Alpine County artist Walt Monroe was born in the tiny mining town of Monitor in 1881. His artistic talent became evident quite early when he began sketching murals in chalk on the schoolhouse walls at the old Webster School.

Monroe home in Markleeville. Walt was born in Monitor, the first of 8 children, and the family later moved to Markleeville.

At the age of 17, Walt had his first exhibit of wooden carvings. “In Markleeville, Alpine County, California lives a boy by the name of Walter Monroe. He is a genius in his way,” reported the Nevada Appeal in 1898. “There is on exhibition at the Briggs House some very superior hand carvings of horses and dogs done by this young life. His perfect work is done with a jack knife.”

Monroe paintings.

As an adult Walt lived a bit of a nomad’s life, roaming the mountains on foot or astride  his motorcycle, with painting gear tucked in a specially-equipped sidecar.  He traveled and painted from Bishop to Mount Hood, Oregon and as far east as the Great Lakes, sometimes trading his art work for gas or lodging. Perpetually low on funds, his canvas could be a scrap of cardboard, the back of a metal sign, or a wooden box lid.

But Alpine County was always Walt’s home base, and he returned here frequently. His paintings include many scenes of Alpine life including the old homestead at Grover’s Hot Springs and the peaceful vista at Blue Lake. Walt died July 13, 1945 of Hodgkin’s Disease, and is buried at the Merrill Cemetery.

Today, Walt is finally being recognized as the fine artist he was, and his paintings are becoming more and more sought-after by collectors. One of his works was recently discovered in a local antique store and snapped up for just $40 from a seller who didn’t recognize Monroe’s name.

Interest to see Walt’s paintings for yourself? A very special exhibit of Walt Monroe paintings has been assembled by the Alpine County Historical Society, and is on display at the Alpine County Museum through August 31, 2017. Although some works are part of the Historical Society’s permanent collection, other paintings were kindly lent by local owners just for this special event.

For more information, contact the Alpine County Museum at (530) 694-2317.

 

 

Markleeville: Ghost in the Admin Building?

There’ve been a few ghostly rumors about the county Administration building in Markleeville. Today’s parking lot once was the site of an old house, built by Alvin Grover around 1899. Even back then Grover’s house wasn’t exactly new; it was constructed from lumber from an old schoolhouse that used to sit in the abandoned mining town of Monitor.

Although Grover’s house is long gone, according to several folks who’ve worked in the new Admin building, something never quite left. Some employees claim a mysterious “cold chill” occasionally swept through their offices. Others say they’ve heard footsteps late in the evening when the building should be empty, or saw doors close all by themselves. Most eyebrow-raising of all:  after one long weekend, workers returned to find the date on the postage machine had somehow managed to reset itself — back to 1929.

If there is a ghost, it apparently resided in the old Grover home long before demolition made way for today’s modern structure in the 1970s. One Markleeville native who remembers visiting the old Grover house as a child recalled seeing the ghostly image of a woman sitting on an upstairs bed, hair tied up in a bun, and wearing an old-fashioned high-collared blouse and long skirt.

Some speculate that the County’s ghostly resident was a lady known as Mary Gray, a diligent public servant for many years. Born in 1874, Mary served as the county’s Clerk/Auditor/Recorder, and owned and lived in the old Grover home in the 1920s. Although she sold the house to another Markleeville family long before it was demolished, it still belonged to Gray in that magical year of 1929.

 

#Markleeville #ghoststory

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Markleeville’s Mercury Hill

There’s a peculiar red streak in the cliff just south of Hangman’s bridge. Blink and you’ll miss it; today, most people drive by without a glance. But to Markleeville old-timers, this was where a valuable mineral resource was mined.

Look for the distinct red stain in the cliff. Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire

Back in the day, homes were roofed with simple wooden shingles. Jacob Marklee himself is said to have covered his entire cabin using shakes hewn from the local sugar pine. Wooden shingles were cheap, they were practical, and the material was readily available. But wooden shakes have an unfortunate tendency to shrink and to rot.

And that’s where this unusual deposit of red soil came in handy. The color at this site comes from cinnabar — a type of mineral earth laced with mercury. Old-time residents recall Markleeville homeowners mixing this red clay with linseed oil and painting the thick mixture on their roofs every year. It not only helped the shingles to shed water but also helped deter rot. The colorful result: all of the houses in Markleeville once had pink roofs.

Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire.

The Native Americans, too, knew about this lode of red pigment. The local Washo used it to make ceremonial paint to adorn their faces and bodies. Washo chief Captain Jim was said to have painted his face and body with red and black paint when he defended the sacred cave just up the old road from this site. It is quite likely he mined the red pigment right here.

Interested in exploring more Markleeville lore? Check out our Self-Guided Walking Tour of Markleeville, available at www.clairitage.com.

Markleeville Cave

The year was 1864. William A. Johnson, road superintendent for Carr & Co., was building a new toll road from Markleeville to the booming mining camp of Silver Mountain. There was just one obstacle in his way: Captain Jim, a Washo Chief. The new toll road, it seems, was passing too close for comfort to a cave long used by the tribe as a shelter in winter, and as a ceremonial spot for their medicine man.

Superintendent Johnson was impatient to finish his wagon road, but the Washo chief knew the value of the location and demanded a stiff price for the site: fifty dollars. And on that point he was adamant: “No pay, no road.”

According to the local newspaper, Captain Jim laid in an abundant supply of pine nuts, acorns, and grasshoppers, and took up residence at the cave. He painted his face and chest with red and black paint, kept his bow at the ready, and slug a fox-skin bag filled with arrows across his back.

Finally, the road superintendent brokered a meeting, and a pipe of peace was smoked. The agreed-upon purchase price was handed over, and a large plug of tobacco thrown in to sweeten the deal. Capt. Jim would permit the new road to be built.

Johnson departed for Markleeville to write up their agreement. But as it turned out, he wasn’t going to acquire such an important right-of-way quite so cheaply. As a contemporary news account explained:  “During his absence, Captain Jim distrained and disappeared — and so did Johnson’s overcoat valued at $25.”

Traces of the old wagon road are still visible beside the cave.

This historic Washo Cave is still visible today, along with traces of Johnson’s original old wagon road. To reach it, follow Highway 89 about 1.3 miles beyond the bridge at Markleeville and park at the pull-off before Hangman’s Bridge. The trail to your right leads the short distance to the cave.

According to one long-time local, this cave also saw more recent use: located out of sight and a convenient distance from town, it housed a temporary bar during Prohibition days. The cave also briefly sheltered at least one run-away prisoner from the Markleeville jail. The fast-thinking inmate had engineered his escape by pulling the door of his cell closed and the jailor simply forgot to lock it.

Large enough to stand up in, the cave shows evidence of many fires — and many bats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Julian Maisterrena

He was a big man with a large moustache and outsized energy.

Born in 1874 in Villa de Maya, Spain, Julian Maisterrena was a Spanish Basque who came to this country at the age of 19 with his pockets empty. Julian worked in sawmills and as a sheepherder, and tucked his meager salary away. Before long he was the proud owner of a band of sheep of his own. Then two bands. Then nine.

Markleeville isn’t usually thought of as “sheep country.” But it was to Julian. He bought the Mayo Ranch southeast of town, and also grazed flocks on the lush meadows of the old Monroe Ranch across the creek. In all, Julian owned over 1,000 acres in Alpine and held thousands more through grazing rights. And he brought a veritable circus to Markleeville every spring, courtesy of the V&T Railroad.

Julian’s home ranch east of Bellota stretched some 4,900 acres. Every year when it was time to move the sheep up to summer pastures in Alpine, the flocks would be driven on the long trip beginning at Clements, up Pipi Valley, over Echo Summit and then down through Hope Valley to their pasture at Markleeville. But Maisterrena wasn’t about to leave the rest of his ranch behind. Instead, he arranged for his entire stockyard to be shipped along each year as well: 100 head of cattle, an equal number of pigs, goats, and horses, and flocks and flocks of chickens and geese were all loaded on rail cars to make the journey.

Just think of the logistics:  ranch hands had to travel with the animals aboard the train to feed the livestock and milk the cows. Sacks of feed and barrels of water were needed to sustain the animals for the trip. A summer “kitchen” and all its equipment and supplies had to be packed up and loaded aboard as well. And the journey wasn’t over once the V&T engine chugged into Minden; everything then had to be ferried another 25 miles to the summer camp at Markleeville. Once they arrived, there was all the work of tending so many animals: horses to be shod, harness to be mended, hay to be cut, and hungry help to be fed.

Camp fare for Maisterrena’s sheep hands included (of course) abundant ham, bacon, and sausage. There was homemade bread, baked at the camp in dutch ovens. And everything would be washed down with homemade wine. It was no easy task for the hard-working cook, who also was tasked with gathering and chopping all the firewood, hauling the water, and tending a camp garden.

Julian was a ranch man — he didn’t drive a car. Instead his transportation consisted of a pair of fine white horses hitched to a black buckboard wagon. He favored crisp new Levis and dapper Stetson hats, and puffed on Optimo cigars (which were “the best,” he said). He carried a black valise at all times for important paperwork, and carried his money in a drawstring leather bag. While in Markleeville, his “office” was the bar at the Alpine Hotel, and he could be found there most mornings, doing business and playing cards, with a glass at his elbow.

Julian suffered a stroke at his Markleeville camp during the summer of 1943, and by December, he was dead. His estate included over $200,000 in assets — the equivalent of millions today. It took several years, but the estate was finally probated. Julian had no children of his own, but with assistance from the Spanish embassy, his hard-earned fortune was distributed to his relatives in Spain.

Even today, people who grew up in Markleeville still remember those summers when Julian and his sheep came to town. “In the evenings, you could hear the Basques singing over across the river,” remembers one local lad. “Everybody in town could hear it. It was like drawing a moth to a flame, we kids just migrated up there. They’d hand you a big water glass, and pour it with wine.”