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On Writing

Filtering by Tag: book

Book reminded me why I admire the "Father of Christian Rock"

Stephen H. Provost

I met Larry Norman once, backstage after a concert at a church called Bethel Temple in Fresno, California. It was sometime around 1980, and the encounter was brief, but it stuck in my memory.

Others were gathered around, wanting to greet him, and when my turn came, I asked him a question I’ve long since forgotten. What I do remember was his response – not to the question, but to me personally. He stepped forward, and I must have either taken a step or leaned back. He said something to the effect of, “You value your personal space.”

I was maybe 17 years old at the time, and I’d never even thought about that concept before, but I immediately knew he was right. What I later learned about Larry – and seems apparent, as I look back on it – was that he took pride in being “invasive.” In challenging the status quo. It was one of the things I liked so much about his music.

It’s not an exaggeration to put Larry Norman up there with Dylan, Paul Simon and Lennon as a songwriter. In fact, I consider him the most gifted of the lot. The Great American Novel may be the most literate protest song ever written, all the more so because it straddled two worlds, critiquing secular society and Christian culture with equal candor. That’s something Larry did throughout his career.

Reintroduced in print

After that single meeting, I never got another chance to talk to Larry or to know him beyond what he revealed in his lyrics. He died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 60. But recently, I got the chance to know him better via Gregory Alan Thornbury’s superb biography, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?: Larry Norman and the Perils of Christian Rock (Convergent Books, 2018).

Thornbury’s evenhanded approach to Larry’s life stands in contrast with a documentary called Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman, released the same year as the musician’s death. One writer described the video as a piece of “postmortem character assassination,” which doesn’t seem far wrong, considering it contains a number of vicious rumors that range from unsubstantiated to provably false. I won’t repeat those here. The video included interviews with an assortment people who had axes to grind against Larry and took the opportunity to do so; after all, the target of their criticisms was no longer around to answer them.  

Thornbury, by contrast, didn’t rely on recollections that might have been colored by the passage of time and the deepening of grudges. Instead, he was granted access to Larry’s personal archives – a collection of letters, notes, recordings, news clips, etc. – which contain accounts of events as they happened. The result is a sober picture of a man who was at once blunt and enigmatic, who fought a war for awareness on two fronts, challenging both secular seekers and the Christian establishment to look at themselves in a new light.

Two-front wars are hard to win, as reflected in songs such as Shot Down, his response to “rumors and gossip” from the church establishment that he was “sinful,” “backslidden” and had “left to follow fame.” “They say they don’t understand me, but I’m not surprised, because you can’t see nothin’ when you close your eyes.”

But the secular establishment was no more friendly. They didn’t want to hear songs about Jesus unless they were one-off fluff pieces like Jesus is Just Alright. Larry didn’t write fluff pieces.

An intentional enigma

On some level, Larry made himself hard to understand on purpose. But was that such a bad thing? It forced people to think for themselves rather than just accepting someone else’s easy answers. Jesus had done the same: In Larry’s words, “he spoke in many parables that few could understand, yet people sat for hours just to listen to this man.” Larry’s provocative lyrics and concert monologues had much the same effect.

That’s one big reason I related to him – and still do. In my own writing, I strive for originality. Repeating “the same old story” holds no appeal. If all I’m doing is reinforcing others’ biases, that’s neither loving nor illuminating. “I am only a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal.” I don’t know whether Larry ever quoted that verse from 1 Corinthians in this context, but he might as well have. He refused to write songs filled with popular Christian catch phrases, and Thornbury relates that he once said, “I believe that clichés are a sin. Maybe not to God, but to the muse of art.”

Larry wrote in one of the letters Thornbury quotes: “Music is powerful language, but most Christian music is not art. It is merely propaganda. It never relies on – in fact it seems to be ignorant of – allegory, symbolism, metaphor, inner-rhyme, play-on-word, surrealism, and many of the other poetry born elements of music that have made it the highly celebrated art form it has become. Propaganda and pamphleteering is (sic) boring and even offensive you already subscribe to the message being pushed ... which is why Christian records only sell to Christians.”

The second album in Larry’s trilogy of albums was pure allegory, focusing on man’s past in the Garden of Eden. It didn’t mention Jesus by name at all, so the Christian audience assumed he’d “gone secular,” finding further “proof” in the album cover, which featured a naked Larry playing the part of Adam. Never mind that he was only shown in a silhouette that was overlain by the image of a lion: You couldn’t even see his skin. What mattered was the self-righteous Christian establishment didn’t want allegory; it didn’t want to think. It wanted its spirituality spoon-fed in black and white, which was something Larry refused to do.

Outsider looking in

Larry lived his life as a perpetual outsider who once said, “I don’t feel like belonging to anything or anyone.” The cover of his most acclaimed album shows him scratching his head in bewilderment, and its title proclaimed he was Only Visiting This Planet. Lost behind the obvious Christian message was the sense that he must have felt that way on a personal level, too. Indeed, he once said he felt “like an orphan with a small, isolated voice crying out in a cultural wilderness.”

The cover to Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book.

The cover to Gregory Alan Thornbury’s book.

Perhaps Larry’s childhood helps explain why he apparently felt so out of place. Thornbury writes that Larry grew up in a Christian household, but that he found church boring and street preachers joyless. His conversion at age 5 was personal, “without benefit of clergy.” It wasn’t to please his father, with whom he had a strained relationship, but to fill a void left by the man’s absence during a childhood where bullies outnumbered friends. Jesus became his best friend, and he “didn’t feel so alone after that.”

From then on, Larry knew Jesus was the answer, but he still felt he had to ask the questions, and this is what set him at odds with a church establishment that wanted people to accept its proclamations on faith. But Larry’s faith was in Jesus, not doctrines. Never was this more apparent than in the early ’80s, when his Phydeaux record label issued a T-shirt with the slogan “Curb Your Dogma!” (With Phydeaux being a faux-French spelling of Fido, the dog’s name. More wordplay.)

Larry even questioned “sacred cows” like the church’s knee-jerk condemnation of homosexuality. “Is homosexuality a real issue?” he asked. “Well, (in the church) you can’t talk about it on the grounds that the gay (community) wants to discuss it. They say, ‘We were born this way.’ But we ‘know’ that it’s not natural, that they’re not born that way. But do we know that? Have you thought about it?”

The implicit answer was no, they hadn’t. Congregations were merely parroting the judgments they had been thought, rather than thinking for themselves.

Larry didn’t fit in with either the secular questioners who didn’t like his answer or the religious establishment, which didn’t like his questions.

A time of hope

For a while, though, his approach appeared to be working. In the heady aftermath of the 1960s, there was a degree of synchronicity between American culture and the type of Christianity that Larry was espousing. He shared the egalitarian goals of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and listeners were at least open to songs about spirituality by mainstream artists such as George Harrison (My Sweet Lord), Blind Faith (Presence of the Lord), Norman Greenbaum (Spirit in the Sky) and Ocean (Put Your Hand in the Hand). The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar made Jesus “cool” and helped open the door to a certain degree of cultural commonality between Christians and non-Christians.

Grassroots movements such as The Vineyard, which started as a Norman-led Bible study, helped make Christianity more accessible to those who didn’t care for the formality or hierarchy of a traditional church. This wasn’t really anything new: The concept of the priesthood of all believers (translated in modern language as “a personal relationship with Jesus”) dated back to Martin Luther’s insurgent campaign against the Catholic Church. The 1970s were the same thing happening all over again.

The upstarts weren’t entirely innocent. There was even some ugly, even vicious anti-Catholic propaganda created by, among others, Keith Green, an incredibly gifted but often very judgmental musician whom Larry had steered toward Christianity. There was plenty of animosity to go around. And just as the Catholic Church had struck back against Protestantism in the Middle Ages, the mainstream church struck back against Larry Norman and others like him, branding them wolves in sheep’s clothing who were willing to “compromise with the world.”

Scapegoat and change

It didn’t help that egalitarians like Larry had no idea how to take their movement to the next level. They started out as critics of structure and organization, but when they tried to adapt this model to business, it created a series of misunderstandings and bad feelings. As a result, Larry’s vision of a record label built on a community of artists came quickly crashing down.

When one band signed to Larry’s label wanted to jump ship for a secular record deal, Larry was, by Thornbury’s account, willing to eat his own investment. But he said the band would have to keep its agreement to release an already-recorded album because he’d made a commitment to his label’s distributor. This wasn’t good enough for the band, which led Larry to dig in his heels on other points, as well, and although he wound up with nearly everything he fought for, he was subsequently blamed for much of the acrimony that ensued. This happened in part because of a failed business model and in part because the establishment was just itching to blame Larry for everything that went wrong.

Case in point: Thornbury relates that Larry fought to save his first marriage despite his wife’s drug use, visits to the Playboy mansion, multiple alleged affairs and admission that she had cashed thousands of dollars in checks made out to him. Larry was never accused of being unfaithful himself, but when he slept with a woman as a single man after his second marriage collapsed, he was castigated for it. Years later, the woman claimed he had fathered her child. That claim was never definitively proven (or disproven), but just the possibility it might be true confirmed everything the established church wanted to believe about the old thorn in its side – and provided the ammunition it craved to discredit him.

This all happened even as it embraced such “leaders” as Jim Bakker and Tony Alamo, both later convicted of major crimes, and Jimmy Swaggart, who was forced to admit his own infidelity. But however egregious their actions might have been, none of these people committed the ultimate transgression against the Christian establishment: asking too many questions. This was Larry’s cardinal sin, and even though he arrived at the same answer as they did (Jesus), they cared far more about how he got there. And because it was different than the way they’d gotten there, they condemned it.

At the end of the 1970s, Larry Norman appeared at the White House to play for one of his fans. President Jimmy Carter was a socially conscious Christian who shared many of Larry’s views. But when the ’70s ended, a different kind of Christianity rose up on the wings of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. This more judgmental, less inclusive movement ushered in a new establishment that slammed the door shut on egalitarian brand of Christianity that Larry espoused.

No room at the inn

There was no room for questioners like Larry Norman in the new world of black-and-white Christianity, and he never again attained the level of popularity or acceptance he had achieved during the 1970s. In the end, he died young and relatively unknown to many, despite being recognized as the “Father of Christian Rock” and the man behind the most critically acclaimed Christian album of all time.

Larry may have engaged in a degree of self-pity at times, but that’s a natural human response to the kind of attacks he faced. Given his immense talent, he could have probably made a fortune as a musician catering to either secular or Christian tastes. But he refused to cater to anyone, and that brought both scorn and frustration from both sides of the fence.

As an artist myself, I can relate. I’ve always insisted on asking the hard questions, refusing to settle for clichés in place of real answers. When it became clear the church didn’t want to listen, I stopped going. Unlike Larry, I didn’t start out with the ultimate answer. When I became a Christian, it was a trial run rather than a leap of faith. I recall saying to myself, “I’ll give this thing a chance. If it works, great. If not, at least I’ll know why.” Ultimately, it didn’t work for me, and what drove me away is the same narrow-minded intransigence Larry encountered all of his life.

The same evidence led us to different conclusions. Larry chose to continued the battle, while I stepped away from the war zone. I couldn’t understand why people who followed a prince of peace felt the need to remain continually at war with those they said they loved – even those who shared their core beliefs. I still can’t. And in the years since I left the church, those wars have only intensified. The conformist Christianity that marginalized Larry’s message during the 1980s has, if anything, gained a firmer foothold. The same people who excused men of dubious character like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart now place their hope in a similarly corrupt president, sacrificing their principles for the sake of a worldly kingdom no god would ever claim.

Larry Norman, prophet

Larry’s lyrics from The Great American Novel turned out to be prophetic": “The politicians all make speeches, while the newsmen all take notes. And they exaggerate the issues as they shove them down our throats.” Such are the times we live in, and we need voices like Larry’s today more than ever – voices that challenge us to be a better version of ourselves. Articulating that challenge was Larry’s greatest gift, and it’s why I still listen to his music today, long after I stopped going to church.

Consider this lyric from the same song: “You kill a black man at midnight just for talking with your daughter. Then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water. And the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on. And with every meal, you say a prayer you don’t believe, but still you keep on.”

Few others had the insight, integrity and guts to write lyrics like that, even at the height of the protest era. I can only imagine how many evangelicals would react to them today, in an era when most congregants admire a president who also enjoys the ardent support of the KKK.

My affinity with Larry stems in part from the fact that I, too, feel like I’m fighting a war on two fronts, with two things at stake: my personal integrity and my artistic vision. I have no desire to be either a religious robot or an embittered existentialist. Like Larry, I feel like a voice in the wilderness fighting an uphill battle. I refuse to conform for the sake of conformity or stop asking questions for the sake of “peace” – not when that peace is really a thinly veiled form of oppression.

I like to think, in some ways, that I’m following in Larry’s footsteps. Whether that’s the case or not, there’s no arguing that he inspired me.

I’m sorry I didn’t get another chance to talk to Larry Norman after that night in 1980, but I’m grateful to Gregory Thornbury for letting him speak to me again.

A prophet has no honor in his own country.
— John 4:44
The church doesn’t think I’m a Christian.
— Larry Norman



 

Highway 99, the Lost Chapter: Trucks and Truck Stops

Stephen H. Provost

Sometimes, you can't squeeze everything in. You've done your research and you've found a lot of interesting stuff - too much, in fact, to fit in the pages of the book you're writing. So, something has to go. 

Highway 99: The History of California's Main Street originally included a few sections that ultimately failed to make the cut. I had to leave out an entire chapter on big rigs and truck stops that I'd intended to include, but which wound up being sacrificed when the manuscript wound up being longer than I'd intended. So here it is, the "lost" chapter, presented here for the first time with the photos I originally chose to illustrate it. Enjoy!

(If you like what you read here, Highway 99 is available for purchase on Amazon or through the publisher at quilldriverbooks.com)

A big rig passes an old motel sign at Desert Shores along the former U.S. 99, now State Route 86, at the western edge of the Salton Sea.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

A big rig passes an old motel sign at Desert Shores along the former U.S. 99, now State Route 86, at the western edge of the Salton Sea. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

More Than Four Wheels

You can’t get too far on the highway before seeing a “Divided Highway” sign. In some places, 99 is divided by a center median, often landscaped with oleanders or other shrubs. But there’s one kind of division you’ll find on the highway no matter which stretch you’re traveling: the division between vehicles with four wheels and those with 18 (give or take a few).

It’s hard to miss the big rigs, buses, tractor-trailers and the like that are so common on the highway. For years, 99 has served as the economic backbone of the state, passing through fertile farmland and industrial centers alike. Warehouses, grain silos and distribution centers line the highway. In the days of the federal highway system, it didn’t matter whether you were transporting raisins from Selma or dates from Indio: U.S. 99 was the way to go.

Still, even today, if you’re behind the wheel of a Mercedes or a Mazda, you might not pay much attention to the infrastructure built around the trucking industry. The average motorist might cross the Tehachapis without taking much notice of signs with messages such as “6% grade 2½ miles ahead” and “Trucks use low gears.” Trucks are supposed to observe a lower speed limit and keep to the right, so swifter automobiles can pass. Runaway truck ramps, with their heavy gravel to slow down out-of-control big rigs, are visible on the downslope from Lebec heading north toward Grapevine. You’ll see the first one on your right, a little more than three miles north of Tejon Summit, and the second on your left less than a half-mile later.

In the highway’s early days, without such precautions, accidents were far too common and, often, tragic. The original Ridge Route had more than its share of hairpin turns hugging steep cliff walls; a single mistake, even at 15 miles per hour, could be catastrophic, and the white picket fences that served as guardrails around dangerous turns were hardly sturdy enough to keep heavy truck from lurching over the edge. The 180-degree hairpin called Deadman’s Curve between Lebec and Grapevine was particularly treacherous.

Once the Ridge Route Alternate was built, the straighter highway reduced the danger of missing a turn but raised a new threat: The straighter road meant trucks could build up a head of speed going downhill that made them even more dangerous if their brakes started smoking and failed unexpectedly.

In 1946, The Bakersfield Californian detailed a truck’s “mad plunge” just before midnight one July evening. It went out of control and sideswiped a passenger car, sending it off the highway and leaving the driver shaken but uninjured. The truck careened on toward Grapevine, where it slammed into the rear of a van, propelling it into a row of gasoline pumps and three other cars at the Richfield filling station. The truck, meanwhile, kept going, plowing into yet another car and shoving it to the edge of the embankment, where both vehicles burst into flames. A passenger in the truck was burned to death, its driver suffered a broken leg, and the driver of the final car to be hit was hospitalized with severe burns.

Other news reports told similar stories. Out-of-control trucks became, as one writer put it, “juggernauts of death” on a stretch of highway that was fast becoming known as Bloody 99: the steep grade just south of Grapevine. During one 10-day stretch in 1943, that single section of road bore witness to nine runaway truck accidents.

Engineers added a concrete barrier to keep trucks from swerving into oncoming traffic, and other proposals surfaced as well. One involved requiring trucks to stop at the summit and switch into low gear before descending, though critics argued that this would merely back up traffic and create a new hazard.

The café, garage and 76 station at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade bore witness to numerous crashes, as trucks came barreling down the incline and careened off the roadway. Photo courtesy Ridge Route Communities Historical Society.

The café, garage and 76 station at the bottom of the Grapevine Grade bore witness to numerous crashes, as trucks came barreling down the incline and careened off the roadway. Photo courtesy Ridge Route Communities Historical Society.

The Grapevine Grade wasn’t the only trouble spot. The Five Mile Grade, heading the opposite direction near Castaic, was also the scene of numerous brake failures and truck crashes. A runaway truck ramp, like those above Grapevine, was built in the 1950s to reduce the number of accidents, but it only remained in use until 1970. It was then that a freeway upgrade created a novel alignment: New southbound lanes were added, following a gentler downward slope to the east, while the old southbound route was converted to carry northbound traffic. As a result, drivers traveling over the five-mile stretch between Castaic and Violin Summit progress British-style, on the left of oncoming traffic. (A significant gap separates the two segments of roadway).

The emergency ramps came in handy, not only for truckers, but also for law enforcement. On at least one occasion, one of the ramps Grapevine Grade halted more than a runaway trucker: They stopped an accused runaway kidnapper. In January of 2008, Highway Patrol officers and Los Angeles responded to a report that a man had assaulted his estranged wife and abducted their child, making his escape in a stolen truck. The officers pursued the suspect northbound over more than 70 miles from Highway 101 onto Interstate 5 before the chase finally ended just north of Grapevine. It seems the man mistook one of the runaway truck ramps there for a highway exit and found his vehicle immobilized by the coarse gravel.

He was arrested immediately.

One reason the trucks can be so dangerous on a steep downhill slope is their weight. Big rigs can weigh up to 40 tons, compared to the typical car at only 2½ tons. Once they get going at highway speeds, they can require two-thirds more pavement to stop once the brakes are applied – if the brakes are working. That’s part of the reason California requires trucks rated above a certain weight (currently 11,500 pounds) to stop at scales cleverly designated as “weigh stations.” And it’s no accident that two of the eight or so weigh stations along the historic U.S. 99 route can be found at either side of the Tehachapis, just south of Castaic and slightly north of Grapevine.

The state recognized the need for scales early. In 1938, officials set up a 24-hour truck-checking station at Fort Tejon, near the point where the 99 began the steepest portion of its descent into the San Joaquin Valley. Highway Patrol officers were on hand to make sure loads were within limits defined under state law. “This station,” the California Highways publication declared, “will not only guard against overweight loads, but will also enable the traffic officers to insure that trucks using this mountain route are in good running order, and that all their braking equipment is working properly.”

A small truck scale business operates at the northbound entrance to Highway 99 off Herndon Avenue, north of Fresno.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

A small truck scale business operates at the northbound entrance to Highway 99 off Herndon Avenue, north of Fresno. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Private scales operated by companies such as CAT also opened up and down the highway, with nearly two dozen along the old 99 route between Los Angeles and the Oregon border as of 2014. Such private operations help ensure truckers’ loads are below the legal weight limit. CAT, for instance, offered this guarantee on its website: “If a driver receives an overweight fine after weighing legal on a CAT brand scale, CAT Scale Company will either pay the fine or appear in court with the driver as an expert witness in order to get the fine dismissed.”

Scales are far from the only highway business to have emerged in support of the trucking industry. As the nation shifted from the railroad to the highway as its primary means of transporting goods, a new industry sprang up to support the drivers who spent days away from home, driving long hours cross-country. They needed places to spend the night, to clean up, to grab some coffee and get a bite to eat. They also needed a place to buy the kind of fuel their semis ran on, diesel, which wasn’t always available at traditional gas stations.

Truck stops sprang up to fill these needs. Some establishments that catered to travelers and tourists, such as Sandberg’s, refused to serve truck drivers. But other stops along the old Ridge Route and elsewhere offered various combinations of a garage, cheap accommodations and a diner or coffee shop that suited truckers pretty well. As time passed, some roadside establishments started catering specifically to truckers, seating them first at the lunch counter or offering them a place to shower in the back.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, truckers had to make do. During the early years, some stayed at roadside auto camps, and many roughed it by sleeping in their vehicles, whose wooden seats were anything but the epitome of comfort. Anything more elaborate was usually improvised, and not necessarily any more comfortable. One San Joaquin Valley-based company rigged up a couple of ’22 Packards with wooden boxes over the cabs where the relief driver could sleep. The casual observer might have feared an appearance by Dracula at any moment.

By the mid-1930s, however, a few manufacturers had started offering sleepers as part of the package. The wooden boxes gave way to so-called “coffin sleepers,” cramped quarters usually placed directly behind the cab. These compartments might have been 2 feet wide by 3 feet tall, giving the occupant barely enough room to turn over. Drivers with claustrophobic tendencies need not apply.

In the early 1950s, Kenworth offered a CBE model, which stood for “Cab-Beside-Engine.” The CBE design included a sleeping space for the relief driver between the cab and the engine, a configuration that earned it the nickname “suicide sleeper”: Few occupants could expect to survive a crash while they slept right next to the engine.

As trucks gained horsepower and gained load capacity, there was often no longer room for them at the inn. Many early motor courts included carports alongside their cabins, but they were called CARports for a reason: They didn’t provide enough clearance for trucks. Drivers ran into the same problem at some service stations, where canopies built to shield pumps from the elements were often too low to allow larger trucks access.

A mural outside Clark’s Truck Stop in Indio celebrates the history of U.S. 99.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2015.

A mural outside Clark’s Truck Stop in Indio celebrates the history of U.S. 99. © Stephen H. Provost, 2015.

Truck stops offered an array of services that establishments catering to the auto traveler did not.

Many of the earliest among them, like the earliest motels and gas stations, were independent operations, but larger companies soon entered the fray once they realized they were missing a large segment of the market. Flying A’s flat-top station in Fresno, with its 110-foot “GAS” tower on the west side of 99, was a prime example of an early truck stop. The canopy was 70 feet high, providing ample room for trucks – which got their own separate entrance. Diesel fuel was available; there was a “completely equipped” truck lube pit, a public scale capable of weighing the largest truck on the road, and free shower rooms for all truckers. The expansive parking lot provided room for truckers to park their rigs and get a few hours’ worth of shuteye.

The station was still there until recently (having been removed to make way for the new high-speed rail line), although it sold Valero gasoline at the end, as does another venerable establishment, Clark’s Travel Center in Indio, offering “everything for the traveler, whether you are an RV’er, trucker, river rat or desert rat.” Amenities include a truck wash, long-term parking, self-service laundry, 24-hour restaurant and car-truck wash. Clark’s, which opened in the 1940s, advertises itself as “the oldest operating truck stop on historic Route 99 from Canada to Mexico.”

Klein’s Truck Stop at Herndon Avenue north of Fresno had a reputation among locals as serving some of the best breakfasts in town. But truckers were the most valued clientele: They were always served first.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

Klein’s Truck Stop at Herndon Avenue north of Fresno had a reputation among locals as serving some of the best breakfasts in town. But truckers were the most valued clientele: They were always served first. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The restaurant at Klein’s Truck Stop in the hamlet of Herndon, just north of Fresno, earned a reputation for serving among the best breakfasts around. The restaurant stayed open into the new millennium before finally closing its doors, yielding to a Taco Bell and an am/pm minimart while maintaining a huge parking lot as a place for truckers. One traveler from Los Angeles endorsed it by stating that, no matter how hungry he might be, he always held his appetite in check if he were within 50 miles of Klein’s.

Despite its popularity among the locals, there was no mistaking its target audience: the truck driver traveling the Main Street of California. When a truck driver came in, the hostess would usher him to the head of the line. The waitresses wore beehive hairdos, and each table had its own jukebox, offering up (of course) country music. The cooks made the kind of all-American fare that kept the belly feeling full for hours: hearty portions of chili, barbecue dishes, chicken-fried steak, their famous biscuits and gravy, and “pancakes as big and flat as Fresno.”

As time passed, places like Klein’s were eclipsed by truck palaces called travel plazas or travel centers, giant complexes along 99, I-5 and other major highways that were affiliated with big chains. And as the complexes grew bigger, a funny thing happened: Suddenly, they weren’t just for truckers anymore. Convenience stores served as many travelers as truckers, selling touristy T-shirts and CDs alongside motor oil and citizens band radio accessories.

Flying J, with four locations along the old 99 route, offered such amenities as Subway and Denny’s restaurants, 14 showers, a CAT scale, public laundry, video game arcade and ATMs at its site north of Bakersfield. Pilot, which bought out Flying J and had six locations along the old highway route as of 2014, offered another option, as did Petro Centers (four), Love’s Travel Shops (four) and TA Travel Centers (five).

The Flying J Travel Center at the Frazier Park exit from Interstate 5 is a convenient and popular midway point to gas up and get refreshments between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley.  ©  Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The Flying J Travel Center at the Frazier Park exit from Interstate 5 is a convenient and popular midway point to gas up and get refreshments between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley. © Stephen H. Provost, 2014.

The Story Behind "Fresno Growing Up"

Stephen H. Provost

"Fresno Growing Up" was, like most books we authors write, a proverbial labor of love, and all the more so than most because of its subject matter. It's about the place where I grew up, a city that happened to be growing up itself at the same time (hence the title). The postwar Baby Boom era defined the Fresno for tens of thousands - even hundreds of thousands - of residents. It was what many consider the city's golden age, when it was growing not only up but also out, stretching its wings northward and learning to fly along new freeways and buy at new shopping malls.

As I write this, Fresno may well be entering a new golden age, with downtown redevelopment proceeding at a pace not seen in decades and the city reclaiming some of the vibrancy that marked the era covered in my book, roughly from 1945 to 1985. 

I no longer live in Fresno, and in fact, it was my departure from the city that planted the idea for this book in my head. In 2011, I found myself without a job due to downsizing within print journalism: For the first time in more than 25 years (all in the San Joaquin Valley and 14 of them at The Fresno Bee), I wasn't working at a newspaper. Ironically, I'd chosen journalism so I could write for a steady paycheck - something a career as an author couldn't promise - and I had spent the majority of my career in newspapers as an editor rather than a writer.

After a year as a substitute teacher at Fresno Unified, an opportunity arose to get back into journalism with The Tribune in San Luis Obispo, so I left the Valley for the first time since age 15. It was then that I started to write books. My wife, Samaire, can take a good deal of credit for this: She'd always wanted to be an author herself and had what seemed like a hundred stories swimming around in her very creative brain. I said to myself, "If she can do this, why can't I take a stab at it?" I'd gotten into journalism to be a writer, so why not write?

My primary job at The Tribune was as a copy editor, but I also started producing an occasional column on language and communication. Meanwhile, I was self-publishing a series of books under the name Stifyn Emrys (see the Works section of this website). I wrote about ancient history, mythology and philosophy; I produced a children's story, a dystopian novel and a companion novella. Then there was a book called "Undefeated," a series of stories about individuals who had overcome prejudice and bullying. 

This last project served to whet my appetite for delving into recent history, and Fresno seemed to be the ideal topic. Despite having moved to an area (California's Central Coast) that's pretty close to paradise, I was, in some ways, homesick for Fresno - not necessarily the city that it had become, but rather, the place where I grew up. According to the old saw, you can't go home again, but I decided to try anyway, and I chose writing as my means of transportation.

I'd read a few works on the early history of Fresno, but I hadn't seen a book dedicated primarily to the postwar years - the years I remembered from my youth - so I decided to write one.

Writing nonfiction is, for me, a process of exploration and discovery. I'm not the sort of author who sets up an outline, accumulates folders full of notes and gets "everything in order" before I start on the actual text. I research and write as I go, because it keeps things interesting. Each new revelation leads to another line of inquiry, pulling me along like the passenger on a scenic tour of some wondrous land who never quite knows what's around the next bend. As the journey continues, an outline takes shape on its own.

In the case of "Fresno Growing Up," the work evolved into a three-part project: the first part dealing with Fresno's postwar growth, the second revisiting the city's pop culture during the period, and the third focusing on sports and recreation. Plenty had been written on local government and civic leaders, so I turned my attention instead to the people who built Fresno's movie theaters and shopping malls, who scored the goals for the Fresno Falcons or the touchdowns for Jim Sweeney's Bulldogs, who made and played the records we all heard on KYNO and KKDJ.

Starting with my own experience as a base, I consulted books on Fresno and books the Baby Boom era, looked up hundreds of newspaper articles and conducted phone interviews with some of the folks who helped shape that era - people like Dean Opperman (who graciously agreed to write the foreword for the book), Roger Rocka and Dick Carr. Some of those I tried to contact didn't return my calls, and in a sense, I couldn't blame them: I hadn't written any books under my own name at that point, and my newspaper writing for the previous decade and a half had consisted largely of headlines and photo captions. Bylines? They were practically nonexistent. 

Besides, I didn't have a publisher. I didn't even considered looking for one until the book was finished, assuming that I'd just publish it myself through CreateSpace (Amazon's self-publishing platform), as I had done my previous works. But then, this project had something those earlier books hadn't: a large number of historical images, along with a collection of photos I'd taken myself. I'm a writer by profession, but I've always enjoyed photography, and to be honest, I got as big a kick out of taking pictures for "Fresno Growing Up" as I did writing the text.

Bottom line: I knew I couldn't create the kind of presentation I wanted for these images within the constraints of CreateSpace's platform, so I decided to test the waters with traditional publishing by contacting Linden. The Fresno-based publisher had a great track record (nearly four decades in the business) and had published just the sort of regional history book I was producing. Among its titles: Catherine Morison Rehart's series on "The Valley's Legends & Legacies," illustrated books by Pat Hunter and Janice Stevens, and volumes showcasing Pop Laval's vintage photos of Fresno.

I had heard one horror story after another about authors papering their walls with rejection notices and unagented authors not even being considered for publication, so I was ecstatic when I heard back from the folks at Linden that they were interested in publishing my book on their Craven Street label. Now, with the book scheduled to hit the shelves in just over two weeks, I'm just as excited as I was then - if not more so. The quality of the book's presentation not only met my high expectations, it exceeded them, and I believe provides a fitting tribute to Fresno during the era covered in the work. It's my hope that those who grew up in Fresno during the postwar period will agree with me, and will join me in the concluding that, contrary to that nettlesome old saying, sometimes you can go home again.