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February 14-21, 2007

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VD Memories

VD Memories

From a Watsonville house of ill repute to free weddings at the Santa Cruz County Building, the good, bad and occasionally ugly history of Valentine's Day here and beyond

By Paul Wagner

'One huge fallacy propagated by a dark cabal of media and business moguls who worship some winged, arrow-stringing demon-child."

That's how the Worsted Witch, a chattering netizen who just happens to have earned herself degrees in animal biology and biomedical journalism, describes her experience of Valentine's Day.

A lot of other Americans agree with her. No less than 99 percent of respondents at meet-market site, a fast-growing online dating site, say that it's "not important to have a date," and 57 percent say that Valentine's Day is "just a Hallmark holiday."

And yet, among those same naysaying daters, one-sixth admit that they "probably lower their standards" for achieving some degree of nestling with a V-date, over a third of the men carry an "expectation" of evening intimacy, and nearly half of women are more willing to be intimate in return for "extra special" treatment.

Maybe that libidinal anticipation is why, when Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin began offering free Valentine's Day marriage ceremonies in 2005--right in the County Building--to any licensed couple with a witness (and up to 20 guests), the line stretched around the corridor. Reservations for this decoration-, flower- and cake-strewn ritual have blossomed to the point where this year, phoning the clerk's office (831.454,2060) will at best get you a place on the waiting list. They're all filled up. From noon to midnight.

So despite the bah-heartbug sentiments of witches and cybercupids, there does appear to be something unique about Valentine's Day. And history proves it.

It was on V-day, after all, that both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, back in 1876, first filed patents for that great carrier of sweet nothings to be whispered in the ear--the telephone. And it was V-Day of 1918 that saw the release of Tarzan, the first mass-market movie that made it OK for Americans to ogle nearly-naked oiled bodies swinging on ropes. And on which, in 1946, ENIAC--the first general-purpose electronic computer, the eventual core of all modern home enflirtainment centers--was unveiled. And 'twas also the day in 1993 that Nirvana began recording In Utero.

The muse of history, in short, has seen to it that method, motive, opportunity and soundtrack all arose on that very day.

Yet history has not always been so encouraging to Eros, especially locally. "Spanish Mary" Rodriquez, the hot-blooded main draw at Madame Pauline's corner hothouse on Watsonville's Bridge and Main Streets, was first busted (later to be tried and run out of town) on V-day of 1884.

Things went more pleasantly on Valentine's Day of 1900 for Warren Roberts Porter and his friend Arthur R. Wilson, nephew of Romualdo Pacheco, California's only grizzly bear lasso-ing--and only Latino--governor. Warren and Art had bought a local quarry and started to work it, and work had gone well enough that on that day they incorporated the Graniterock Company. A full 107 years later, it's still pulling in awards as one of the Top 20 American workplaces, and the chopping, groaning and heaving go on uninterrupted.

Fans of tunneling trains will be please to know that on V-day of 1985, community railroader Norm Clark announced a deal with Southern Pacific Railroad: his company would take over its Roaring Camp mountain train tracks, and he and his wife would get passenger service from the old whiskey distillery to the beach running again for the first time in a quarter century. The moonshine to sunshine runs began the next year. Come the end of the 1980s, however, the local V-Day tone seemed to sour.

It began, perhaps, in 1989, when Mo Reich, accountant and newly elected member of the city council, sent a valentine to Steve Hartman, frequent critic of progressives. The card in question included the loving touch of an illustrated upraised middle finger. Hartman, himself a former council candidate who'd not been chosen by voters, strenuously objected, and served recall papers to not only Reich but to three other progressives, Don Lane, Mardi Wormhoudt and Jane Yokoyama.

Why those four? Because they had, the previous late spring, voted against sending the Navy the city's longstanding annual letter inviting one of its vessels to dock in Santa Cruz on July Fourth, which Hartman (like many military veterans) took as a personal insult.

This not-inviting was soon transformed, courtesy of nascent right-wing talk radio, into a "Navy ship ban" (as though any city could implement any such "ban"), much of the public went ballistic, and Hartman rode that wave with his recall petition.

Said wave petered out fairly quickly. When, however, Mo Reich sent out another card, unsigned but with similar sentiments, to the subsequently Navy-ship-inviting mayor of Scotts Valley, the hounding increased, progressives banded together in closed-door session, and by its end, Mo Reich had apologized--and resigned.

Soon after came the quake of October '89, destruction prevailed, the economy sagged, and on Feb. 14, 1993. the Charles Ford & Co. store in Watsonville--better known simply as Ford's--shut down for good. Being the oldest department store chain in California, and one of South County's economic and imagistic mainstays, the closing was quite a post-quake blow.

The quake also destroyed much of the lower-end housing stock, local officials failed to loosen rules to allow much of it to be rebuilt and local homelessness visibly worsened. On Valentine's Day of 1993, two street activists, Robert Flory and Dave Jacobs, set up a cardboard "Shantyhouse" on the sidewalk of Pacific Avenue, started two weeks of protests and initiated a public debate that ended in the adoption of the first round of downtown ordinances. In return, organizers boycotted the Bookshop Santa Cruz and ID Building. The ordinances passed regardless.

Things appeared to pick up a bit for Valentine's Day after the century turned. On Feb. 14 of 2001, we learned that the Library of Congress had chosen local resident Barbara Bair, of the Community Action Board and New Horizons School for homeless children, to be one of its nine manuscript historians. A specialist in African-American history (she has taught doctorate-level courses in the subject), she had an immediate task to do for the Library: working on the purchase of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s papers.

On V-Day of 2003, Santa Cruzans learned that the former Dream Inn, already once sold and renamed the West Coast Santa Cruz Hotel, had changed hands yet again and become the Coast Hotel Santa Cruz, opening the way for an expansion long-awaited by some, including job-hungry union workers. And on Valentine's Day of 2005, one of the nation's most awarded scholars in engineering--and a specialist in opening technical fields to women and minorities--took the reigns as chancellor at UCSC.

What happened with both--the proposed expansion of the Coast Hotel and the brief tenure of Denice Denton--involved varying levels of aggression, self-interest and truthfulness (or lack thereof) that may well redefine the local political landscape for years to come.

But it was Valentine's Day 2000 that brought us what is perhaps the most saintly local story of all. A 7-year-old boy, playing in the racing storm-runoff waters underneath Park Way in Santa Cruz, got caught on a moving underwater tree branch. Swept along with the current, he had already been sucked halfway into a drain pipe, headed for the sea, when one adult noticed, and she and four others rushed into the swift waters to pull him out. Which they did. Just in time.

One of the rescuers, local resident Jessica Patenaude, commented, "That boy has a guardian angel."

Sure does. A winged, arrow-stringing demon-child.

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