Behind the Taj Mahal

Mortier Jaj Mahal

Until 1919 Santa Fe Springs, California, was all farm crops and orchards. But then oil was discovered and within ten years the formerly tranquil agrarian community was producing more petroleum than any other town in the state. A forest of oil derricks sprang up, many on the sprawling Hathaway Ranch, and members of the Hathaway family formed the Hathaway Oil Company.

The family’s cluster of ranch houses on sites across the street from each other on Florence Avenue morphed into Mediterranean style villas. By 1968 when I began working nearby, those stately, high walled and tree shrouded residences were a little puzzling to look upon, surrounded as they were by dreary oil field desolation.

One of the children of the Hathaway oil barons, Julian Terrell, or Terry as he preferred to be called, was my boss. To the best of my knowledge, Terry had little or no interest in the oil business. Though I worked closely with him for almost two years I cannot recall him ever mentioning his family, or that they owned the oil derricks that dominated the view out the back door of the warehouse where Terry was the proprietor of a somewhat unusual business enterprise.

The warehouse included a huge workshop where my colorful mates and I punched our timecards each morning then set about repairing and restoring mechanical musical instruments. This arcane field was Terry’s area of expertise. The machines he had restored himself were magnificent. His understanding of all the arcane aspects of the field was encyclopedic.

It was great fun to watch Terry noodle over a restoration challenge. His eyes would narrow, and after a moment or two of consideration, he would explain the whole thing and give me direction. Every day was a tremendous learning experience. And it was also a marvelous opportunity to work with unusual materials. Fine woods . Exotic leathers. Kangaroo leather was my personal favorite. Shiny black on one side, soft greenish yellow on the other, and extraordinarily pliable. Great for gussets in the bellows of the pumps that pushed air through the tubing that animated the lovely old mechanisms.

The machines themselves were usually very big and very heavy. Most were constructed in Germany and Belgium between 1880 and 1920. Some were band organs, intended to produce raucous music loud enough to be heard over the din of crowds and machinery at amusement parks. Others were orchestrions intended for use in dance halls and salons, subtlety engineered to simulate an orchestra. Occasionally a simple player piano would find its way into the shop, but they were of little interest to Terry. For him if there was not at least a little mystery, or some sort of puzzle to solve, it just wasn’t fun.

Most of the time he exercised his wits figuring out how some strange mechanism was supposed to work, but on one memorable occasion the challenge was to figure out how to get an especially big machine that had been delivered in pieces put back together again within the limited vertical space available.

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Boyo and the Psychic’s Gift of a Wise Man

Boyo At The Door

I have a confession to make. If it happens to be my good fortune to become a cat’s favored pal, something I like to do very much is bite my feline friend. Specifically, I will clamp my choppers firmly…but not too firmly…on the loose flesh of the back of the cat’s neck, then slowly shake my head from side to side. If I have not misread the signs, and the cat is indeed favorably disposed towards me, the delicate beast’s eyes narrow happily and he or she gives forth with thunderous purrs.

I mention this because my sister, Nanno, lives with a cat named Boyo. They have shared a lovely apartment in San Francisco for a number of years. Like most of us, Boyo has issues. But from the beginning, Nanno has been determined to make their relationship work. Her efforts have included engaging, from time to time, the assistance of a cat psychic who lives in Seattle. The way it works is that Nanno calls the psychic who, for a modest fee, acts as a mediator between Nanno and Boyo.

One holiday season Nanno came home to find that Boyo had taken liberties with the Nativity set. The small wooden figures where no longer grouped around the tiny Christ Child. Instead, Mary, Joseph and the wise men were scattered to the four corners of the living room, and one of the wise men was nowhere to be found. So the next time Nanno called the cat psychic to discuss relationship stuff she also asked the psychic to enquire whether Boyo could remember what he had done with the missing wise man.

The psychic asked, “Is there a heating vent in the floor of the hall just outside the door to the living room?” Nanno said there was. The psychic said, “Boyo knocked the wise man down into the heating vent but it did not fall very far. It’s on a ledge just a few inches under the vent grill.” Nanno got a flashlight, looked through the vent, and sure enough, there was the wise man lying on his side on a narrow ledge.

Another time when Nanno and the psychic were talking long distance the psychic asked out of the blue, “Who is the big blond guy?” Now in human terms, I’m not very big, but to a cat of Boyo’s scale I probably seem rather large. And though there is now considerable gray in my hair, the DMV still categorizes me “BLN.” Nanno suggested, “It might be my brother.” The psychic was silent for a moment then asked, “Does your brother bite Boyo?” Nanno acknowledge that I do indeed bite her small friend, and she asked the psychic, “Does Boyo mind?” “Oh no!” the psychic assured her, “He loves it.”

I’d like to think there is a moral in here somewhere. But maybe not. I have nothing more to add except to report that as cats go, Boyo is most savory. Cheers!