Country Rogue

Mendocino publisher Bruce Anderson is smart, sophisticated, and savage

As Anderson tells it, he comes from a large, struggling working-class family in Marin County. After a rocky adolescence, Bruce was shipped off to the Marine Corps in 1957, then as now the preferred destination for a hard case. "The experience caused me to veer sharply toward the left," he says.

Honorably discharged in 1959, Anderson parlayed his skill at basketball and baseball into an athletic scholarship to the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. But more interested in history and literature, he transferred to San Francisco State, earning a B.A. in English.

In 1963, Anderson joined the Peace Corps. He wasn't trying to beat the draft -- he had already performed his national service. Mainly he saw it as an opportunity to travel overseas. It was during a stint in Sarawak, Malaysia, that he met and married Ling, and there they had their first child. Anderson liked Malaysia so much he signed up for another term.

Anderson might have loved Malaysia, but the authorities were hardly enamored of him. For one thing, he was organizing protests against the Vietnam War. For another, he had hooked up with a group of armed Maoist revolutionaries (he said he met them at a pickup basketball game) and had agreed to edit their newspaper, the Sarawak Vanguard. It was his first job in journalism, and already he was in trouble.

Authorities confiscated Anderson's passport and gave him three days to leave Malaysia. Under U.S. immigration rules "I couldn't send for my wife and kid until I had a job," he says. He was soon driving a hack in the city.

In San Francisco, Bruce and Ling embarked on a professional career of raising foster children. Before it would end, they would take on more than 80 foster kids, many troubled black teens from the inner city. A few children put in their care had already been damaged beyond any repair. David Mason, a multiple murderer recently executed on San Quentin's death row, had been one of Bruce's foster children. So was Randy Alana, an enforcer for the Black Guerrilla Party, who not long ago strangled another inmate through the bars of his Oakland jail cell. When asked if he ever had any successes, Anderson laughs and says there were a few.

By 1970, Bruce and Ling were looking for larger quarters to house their brood. They thought about buying a big, cheap house in the country. One day, Bruce and his brother, Rob, found themselves stopping for gas at a small crossroads called Boonville in the heart of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

The town, with a population of only 1,000, lay in a beautiful valley of apple orchards, rolling hills clustered with California live oak, and ridgelines dense with redwood groves. Old-time residents spoke a secret language (more of a vocabulary, really) called Boontling. It had evolved from local teen-age slang invented a hundred years before, by kids who wanted to confound their elders. Even today one of the chief pleasures of "harpin boont" is to break into the funny dialect in front of bewildered strangers. The limited vocabulary of Boontling was taken from various midland American dialects and community names, familiar sounds, and the corruption of foreign languages, mainly Spanish and the local Pomo Indian. Pie was called "Charley Brown" after a farmer who ate it with every meal; a phone was called a "Walter" after Walter Levi, the first person to have one installed in the valley; because Boonville's original constable had a clubfoot and wore a corrective shoe, to be arrested was to be "high-heeled." Today Boontling survives in the Anderson Valley as a kind of annoying tourist attraction.

Although no relation to Walter Anderson, the pioneer who settled the valley in 1851, Bruce Anderson felt at home in this eccentric corner of California. For $1,000 down on a $20,000 mortgage, Bruce and Ling bought a half-acre near Boonville and began expanding the spread that would become their home (and later the newspaper office).

As Anderson was to discover, the valley's bucolic air masked a rough character. Slim Pickens, the Hollywood character actor, once called Boonville the toughest little town he had ever visited. In the '50s, Boonville was renowned for its Saturday night fistfights. Scarier still, during the '60s, the Manson family spent some time here. And Jim Jones, the soon-to-be cult figure who would eventually lead a mass suicide in Guyana, was teaching sixth grade in the Anderson Elementary School.

"We discovered immediately," Anderson says, "that delinquents under redwood trees were no different than delinquents under lampposts." Making it tougher were the hippies in the valley, who thought it might be cool to turn on Bruce's inner-city foster kids with dope.

Bruce and Ling found themselves in the middle of a "back to the land" migration of longhairs who had fled San Francisco in the wake of the Haight-Ashbury binge of the '60s. Drawn to the idea of a simple, country life, the hippies desired nothing more than to fold harmonically into the landscape. As David Harris, author of The Last Stand, a chronicle of the timber wars, once described this Northern California redwood country: "Half the people look like they just got out of the Marine Corps and the other half out of a Grateful Dead concert."

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