DescriptionCurtis Krofft (63) talks with StoryCorps facilitator Courtney Gilbert (28) about the period of his childhood that he spent in Joshua Tree and the annual turtle races that went on there, and later the politics and current events that led his family to move to Oregon.
Subject Log / Time Code
- Curtis Krofft
- Courtney Gilbert
Recording LocationsYuma Art Center
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00:03 My name is Curtis Krofft. I am 63 years of age. Today is Saturday December 14th, 2019 and I'm currently in Yuma Arizona. The person interviewing me to do will be Courtney Gilbert. Thank you Curtis. My name is Courtney Gilbert. I'm 28 years old today is Saturday December 14th. 2019. I am with Curtis in Yuma, Arizona. I'm going to be talking with Curtis interview in Curtis. We're going to be new friends after this. I feel like so you have such a unique kind of perspective and narrative. Let's get right into it. Can you tell me where you started your life? And where you began your journey, I was born on July 21st. 1956 12 days after the birth of Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks was born in Southern California and I was born in Northern California in the city of Eureka, which is right on the nose.
01:03 The goal Humboldt County my father owned a liquor business there that wasn't very successful and it wasn't very conducive to raising a family of three children. So his sister who is living in San Bernardino County Probation to come down and take advantage of the housing boom that was going on in the Palm Springs in the other desert areas. So he packed up his family and mood to to San Bernardino and got a position as a plumber the thing to remember about San Bernardino's at San Bernardino County is the largest county in the United States West Virginia can comfortably fit on the inside of it or 15 Rhode Island's of the largest Marine Corps Base in United States 29 Palms Marine base, and it's also the center of the universe.
01:58 The center of the universe has a specific kind of influence in your life unpack that influenced a lot of people the list of musicians that I gave you all have a connection to Joshua Tree. There are a lot of the center of the universe aspects about Joshua Tree, but for me as a five-year-old child, it was the intersection of two roads and at that road was the center of the universe. My father had rented a ranch now when you think of a ranch you think of horses and cows, but it wasn't that kind of a ranch the best word that describes. It is a Hollywood cowboy dude ranch in the 1950s Gene Autry shows to go to a place above Yucca Valley in San Bernardino County informed a place called pioneertown.
02:58 Okay, and so what he did is said I can build this set for cowboy movies to be made for the theater and television because television was that brand new Enterprise that was happening. So Gene Autry called his friend Roy Rogers. Roy Rogers also lives in San Bernardino County in the area called Apple Valley Palm Springs is not in San Bernardino County so they came there and they filmed these movies. Well, Roy Rogers blue-backed Apple Valley Gene Autry flew down to Palm Springs. But what about the people in charge of the horses the people who built the sets the people who ran the camera absolutely where do they go? They don't have a plane? That's a pretty rugged ride from Yucca Valley down the Palm Springs. So they had to go to someplace. It is my belief and I have no paper trail. No work here in a couple of speculations that the ranch that I lived on from the age of five to twelve was a former place where the people who were
03:58 Spyro Rogers and Gene Autry the croon this rash had four buildings on it had an original adobe house made out of adobe brick and it was plastered with plaster and it was very old the kitchen in the bathroom or added on to it later because the Adobe House was built up in the kitchen the bathroom around the around the ground level. It had to bunk house has one Bunkhouse had a musical stage in a dance floor on the bottom of my goodness. And on the top was the bunk beds to worry if you could just sleep for the diet or just hang out and yeah.
04:37 The other Bunkhouse was like a Atrium or here in your mother called Arizona room. It was all windows and he was up high so you can have a good view of all the area around you underneath it was a basement that was made out of Flagstone Rock and it went in really deep is a child remember being very cold it held my dad's Abalone diving outfit from Northern California, and it was useless at the desert child. I was fascinated by my parents loved to can corn salsa peaches and then this weird thing called mincemeat. They just loved Miss meetings and then had the can and then there was a restaurant.
05:28 The restaurant had a bar that was made out of mahogany and had a surround around the bar this massive bamboo. This far is bigger than most people's front rooms that they have today on the kickboard part of the bar or four panels that were hand-painted of a forest the first panel of showed all these trees in the second panel showed this guy fishing out into this big lake with snow cap mountains behind it the third panel show to dock with a boat and a cabin and the fourth panel showed waterfalls coming down because of a child in the middle of the desert where does this place exists? I would spend a lot of time looking looking at that. It seems so magical and I I'm in agreeance with your your conjecture that this was obviously a place for it.
06:28 Production and creation is so fantastic stronger. Let's go. There was a movie film called. It's a mad mad mad world. It was Spencer Tracy's next-to-last movie Mom's favorites as being the only actor to win two consecutive Oscars the other actor being Tom Hanks.
06:58 In the movie is Ethel Merman and Milton burrow and a whole wide oven Samba love comedian does a really fun movie amazing movie and Milton Berle. Methyl Ethel Ethel Merman is the Mother-in-law would not allow Milton burrow to put his hand down the cleavage of Ethel Merman to get the keys because in the movie she had gotten mad and put the keys down her dress. So the sensor said was Turner upside down and shake the keys out.
07:35 Ethel Merman is a very famous actress. You don't turn her upside down you need a stunt double for Ethel Merman was the owner of the ranch that I lived on my goodness. She was filming her husband came out and visited us and told us about the movie and this particular scene was being shot in Yucca Valley in front of the bowling alley one watches the movie you can just barely see the bowling alley that still stand and the back of Ethel Merman my landlord the unshaken upside down in there, but her husband was a stand-in on Gunsmoke good parts on Gunsmoke, and he was also the stand-in for for the bartender. So our landlords had some kind of connection to Hollywood. I had some way of getting ahold of this Ranch. So that is that is my evidence that it that it was one time was a Hollywood
08:34 Something something something at least for those folks in those characters and those crew members to be and to have space. It's also very functional when you talk about the bunk area. You know, how many houses are incorporating stages, you know, as a part of their design and living spaces. So I think that's just a very unique. So did you have any specific influence with movies and music Niche Pursuits theater and creating as you got older Parts in the school plays at the Joshua Tree Elementary School in The Narrative of the story of so it was it was no problem to it when I was in high school. I was in one play and then when I went to college, my girlfriend's sister was a drama major and she was like
09:34 For actors to be in her traveling children's play which was The Wizard of Oz so much does a kid and there was just so much to explore around the ranch that I oh I just never got into acting what other kind of memory stand out for you in this space in the center of the universe for you. So the center of the universe was two roads that went nowhere one went North and to the southern boundaries of the Marine base and they went South to the Joshua Tree National Park weather park dead-ended into Copper Mountain Community College, but when I was a kid who just a mass of dry lake bed that when it rained a lot of water and then the other side of the road and it into the northern boundaries of the Joshua tree, so the roads went nowhere.
10:31 But I'm not intersection. I could see everywhere and in the month of May I would go out and look for tortoises tortoises to cross the road.
10:43 Cuz in my memory I could be wrong about the days but I think it was the first weekend in May at the Village of Joshua Tree had tortoise races. That was the furthest races took place at the Sportsman Hall, which I served as a community kind of hub for activities. They used to do a Christmas pageant on the hillside right below our elementary school where we hear the story of Jesus during Christmas and we would park in the parking lot and I dab loudspeakers and they would narrate the story than those people went up the hill they would turn the flood lights on so it start with Mary and Gabriel go to the Romans go to the manger and you can use her the story and so this is where they develop the Joshua Tree a turtle races right above our elementary school. So in the first week of May during recess and during lunch recess all of his kids are go running out to the chain chain link fence them down the hill.
11:43 Get ready for this Carnival. They would bring in food booths and pretty games in the new bring in for rides. They bring in the Tilt-A-Whirl FYI, the Scrambler Ferris wheel a little tiny helicopter ride, and then the octopus the scariest ride of all but double dog dare you kind of ride. I just dare you to get on it. It looks really scary wasn't something that I really wanted to do and imagining lots of like arms obviously and then some kind of like vertical and horizontal twisting. Okay, and at the end of those arms were little pods finally got the nerve to get into got into it. I have no idea who is sitting next to me was my classmate of mine is probably somebody from Twentynine Palms or Yucca Valley.
12:36 And the ride would kind of go ground level to get everybody seated and then up you go and I would slowly tilting the are two or one paw to be high on the arch around and around and it stopped with me at the highest point of the arch. Then they're looking at the sky wondering how soon it was before. I was going to die as an 8 year old child. That was very disturbing to this day prevents me from going on the scary rides at state fairs and the whole purpose of the race was to REI store.
13:26 So at the center of the universe, I would find these tortoises cross in the dirt roads, and I would run down and I would pick them up. Okay? No bait just do the moving so slow you pick him up, but there was a problem with picking up a tortoise. Okay, if you held it, if you're like 8 9 years old and you got to hold a big tortoise next to your body. They relieve her bladder. Wow, no extensive fear their bladder and dehydrate themselves.
14:03 And they would eliminate most of the fluid out of their body or old and my parents. They ecology the word ecology hadn't even been invented in the 60s that they had no idea what we were doing. So at the start of septic get back to the ranch now, we had a wedding pool to where the Cowboys can take your boots off and put their feet in either to feed so we put the tortoises in that into my dad to put a piece of plywood over its for shade some water and then my mom would give them a non nutritionist iceberg lettuce there in third distress and trying to get out and they're burning up their body fat and are putting themselves in amount of distress. I was not the only child or adult doing this. Everyone was was doing this in the 60s your the distinction between tortoises and turtles write the turtle was just a name that everybody was familiar with
15:02 Tortoises that we are racing a turtle races.
15:14 So my dad allow me to pick out the best tortoise that I had been training and watching to see how fast they would go and I take that tortoise and like every other child and adult would go down to the Sportsman Hall complex need for the number on the back of that tortoise. And then you would pay a fee which in today's monetary value was probably in the 5 to $7 range that was in the middle of left field. So between the pictures bass and left field outside is large chalk Circle in the middle of it and you put your tortoise inside that cage and then they would pull the lever on the cage and the Tortoise the cage would move into the air in the tortoises would take off.
16:09 Whatever was a tortoises concept of what to do that. I'm right around the circle and then they would imagine cheering and trying to coax the tortoises to move probably. I don't remember that. I just remember trying to look for my Tortoise and the men would signal first second and third tortoise because only three charges is paid out monetary rewards and so that was the beauty of living in in Joshua Tree was these is the tortoise tortoise races. It sounds like a distinctly kind of unique to the place where it's at kind of activity. Yeah, but after doing that for years and years and years it begin I known to anyone begin to make have a consequence on the tortoise tortoise pop.
17:09 Oh, yeah, because for 2 weeks to tortoises word distress, they weren't drinking they weren't they weren't eating and then after the race.
17:20 And I'm only using this on my experience and talking with older men and understand ecology that they probably loaded all the tortoises to a back of a wagon or back of pickup truck drove out to the middle of desert on one spot.
17:35 Tortoises news about 3 acres to itself when they're highly the Harley territorial animals and then we had germs and diseases on her hand. Yeah tortoises do not respond well to those so as a result as of this 2019 I can no longer go back to that intersection in Spring and have any hope of ever seen a tortoise cross the road rise in the 1960s. That was a really great place. You would just see how I would just I would just see them.
18:17 The other things that I did as a child cuz I had to walk home a mile a day was saying I had to do that to over train tracks and I was 8 years old. Were you by yourself by myself on a dirt road walking through a creosote Bush for also known as Chaparral or as Greasewood and all I saw that mile home down that dusty road was just these trees for a month. So I had to mentally Pace myself every day to walk down that road when the school bus, let me off by myself I take that walk is the reason why I am the person I am today. They gave me a mental strength it gave me an Interpol.
19:19 Creosote bush is the oldest living one of the oldest living plants in the universe. There are several plants. The oldest one. They found 11,000 years old and it's in San Bernardino County. Oh, wow. It's just north of Landers California of the universe talk about it. There was a gentleman by the name of
19:48 George Van Tassel who thought that that would be a great place to contact UFOs to find the extra-terrestrials clue that they may have the spot.
20:05 Before 2006 or eight there was a boulder next to Landers. That was the largest free-standing Boulder in the world other words. It wasn't attached to any mountain, which is his Boulder.
20:24 So George fastest man by name of Frank kritzer to live there and start developing that UFO contact. So he built a home underneath this giant voting and that's how they begin to have their contact with aliens and UFOs. Is there any kind of idea that maybe the aliens put that Boulder there because the Native Americans believe that that was specifically put there for a reason there is history of Native Americans in the area. I've actually going to that place to worship.
21:00 Cuz if you think about was called the upper High Desert, it's a real Serene place. There's no noise. There's no civilization out in the middle of nowhere. I just pulled her out in the middle of nowhere. How did it get there have the oldest living plant out in the middle of nowhere.
21:22 So they built these equipments and these Concepts to see if they could get in contact with the UFO. And if one is to go to Landers that could read about the the UFO history. Is this kind of any inspiration for close encounters with the Third Kind. Yeah. This rock is out in the middle of nowhere was the largest free-standing Boulder until part of it fell off.
21:57 And immediately spiritualist from all around the world claim to some difficult to that rock having Cavanaugh breaking to that. So the alien culture is being propelled as a myth in Joshua Tree. Kids are very susceptible for my parents to tell them for example of my mom when she went to HighSchool. I had a significant knee injury and she lived in Mount Shasta California and there wasn't hardly any medical facilities. So when they work on her knee they gave her a massive scar that looks like a centipede. So every time we ask my mom where she got that scar sheets it wasn't that a centipede bite a centipede gave me all that bite do it scared us from not picking up centipedes not picking up trantula wasp. It was a scariest in
22:56 In the center of the universe. Did you ever see any of that on your walk home know we had this massive shea tree in the middle of the ranch right next to the cactus garden that can still be seen from space as a big huge Rock ring around it that it one time was full of all types of cactus. When you Google Earth the ranch. All you can see left is the round ring a rock's the big massive tree is gone. But when they pollinated it would bring an every flying insect including the trash in the one that you're familiar with Costa Rica frogs. They have really bizarre colors. Do you know why they have those colors are other predators that you can't eat on boys. Yeah. So the tarantula wasp has a bright orange wings the color of your T-shirt to everybody danger Will Robinson Danger.
23:56 I'm voice. So when they would fly around and we have our mason jar jar a little itch trying to catch these insects. Of course, I've been watching you on all these a little science movies in class about collecting insects without wasps. Can we put the jar we would run away so you don't get out of here. Well, it was a myth the grapefruit that I gave you something for my trees. They fly around it all the time and they do not bother me. They have no reason to attack me. They just fly around looking for food like everybody else, but they just tell us don't touch me. Don't pick me up because my sting is going to respond to really hurt and getting you a favor.
24:41 Wow, do you want to talk a little bit more about how you ended up growing up and growing out of the center of the universe?
24:53 In the 1960s. The Vietnam War was was going on everyday young men training to fight died in Vietnam for flying over our Ranch in large squadrons of helicopters, the new flying over our Ranch because our Ranch was in direct path between 29 Palms in Camp Pendleton twice a day. If we got onto the major highway for 29 Palms Palm Springs would be convoyed Marine trucks 10225 Vehicles long
25:25 A my father began to feel sorry for these young men. He would meet their parents like in the taverns and Joshua Tree maybe some of them had lost their sons in the war. There was no bus system from 29 Palms to Palm Springs. There was no Greyhound bus system. So as a marine either caught a ride or you had a buddy or you hitchhike so my dad to pick up hitchhikers the ranch could feed them give a place to sleep and then tell him the next day that he would go down to Palm Springs and give him a ride. The reason that my father had the ability to do that is that that he was injured in a plumbing accident. He was the code at that time. We were a cast-iron Plumbing trees underneath houses and he went to move that and he slipped 3-disc.
26:14 So he was no longer able to work and he was basically a stay-at-home dad while my mom went to work. And that's the reason I had to walk home every day from the school bus stop at my dad couldn't get in the vehicle to drive to pick me up and my mom was my mama's work.
26:35 And so people have told my dad that maybe you need to go to Social Security and see if they'll give you a disability.
26:44 So you had a surgery and in the sixties back surgery was real primitive and it didn't work. He still was intense pain. He still couldn't work. No way. No one would hire him. So he begin to take Social Security to court because in the 60s, you really disabled if you're missing a limb find who will share or if you had Polio you were not disabled.
27:11 Do my father became really frustrated with the government with the Vietnam war with a court case that that was going on in particular the year 1968 essay that right. Now our nation isn't a great turmoil that people are ready to burst. I don't see that that as a young child. I saw that on TV in 1968. We had College riots. We have the Vietnam War but I can specifically remember the assassination of Robert Kennedy Jr. My parents were really depending upon him to help them cuz my parents didn't have food stamps. They didn't have any assistance all they were on their own as I had to cat person and they were thinking as the nation as a whole that Robert Kennedy was going to bring our nation. Hope again during the California primaries and we were all sleeping in.
28:11 My mom got up to go make coffee to turn the TV off.
28:15 It's about a really horrid scream you remember bizarre behavior that your parents do she come run screaming then they shot him. They shot him shot him. They were so dependent upon Him of helping them out really frustrated my father and my father is a purist definition of a redneck.
28:40 He has no political bands. No liberal that he has he has nothing but to be a pure redneck, but at that one point in his life he decided he was going to change and then came to a television show called the Smothers Brothers.
28:57 The Smothers Brothers are the reason that we are able to have the comedy that we have today. They were always pushing the envelope and what they could do on TV and it was the election and it was the war and it was a college students protesting that the 1969. We actually had soldiers kill college students. So the nation was just boiling up really getting angry and my father died realize this yesterday was there a research stopped watching Bonanza. He stopped watching The cartwrights Who Had It Made Who do hard work and diligence provided for their family. My father is my father couldn't do that. He couldn't provide for his family. So he watched the Smothers Brothers 1968 became the year of the Absurd candidates Disney put Winnie the Pooh up for president.
29:57 Charles Schulz peanuts Snoopy up for president Mad Magazine Alfred Neuman for president Walt Kelly Pogo up for president for them for the Smothers Brothers put up Pat Paulsen for president and Pat Paulsen would go on there and give this speech and they would talk in person about that.
30:21 My dad and his anger against the government and against the system and this is the only time he did it this entire life took a railing from out of the house that look like peace symbols attached to each other like a red can of spray painted spray paint in spray painted on the passenger side of these multiple symbols. And on the other side spray painted Pat Paulsen for president. So he drove around in Joshua Tree in Yucca Valley with this sign will one of the ways that he could earn money was to go to Riverside California and pick up produce at the wholesale produce lot. There was a store in town that would take orders for people who wanted tomatoes for canning or peaches for canning and so he would drive down and pick that stuff. That produce delivery and then delivered to the store and they would delivered got to go with him one time.
31:17 And what I remember is driving through that people were standing up and clapping as he slowly drove through they were cheering and clapping to hear put Pat Paulsen for president on the side of his truck because the nation was so at rest so mad that the relief they had for president. They were standing up the clapping and giving him the thumbs-up and I remember that to this day and they're just like wow. My dad is causing these people to do that Smothers Brothers is causing the nation to come together and to Rally around something in a very specific there so many other kind of agents and actors in that time to that also connect back to the center of the universe for you. Do you want to talk a little bit more about them and those folks different musicians different actors there with a list of musicians.
32:16 Arrived after I did Frank Lloyd Wright had built a complex that was his largest collection of buildings in in the world was called the metaphysics Center.
32:30 My father visited that metaphysics Center cuz he had heard it was part of the inner healing system. So he went he went out there to try to use his internal energy to to heal his pain and then to gain strength and everyone that drives to Joshua Tree passes this method metaphysics Center. So Frank Lloyd Wright and built that metaphysics Center as the portal to your interview with his son. And so the struggle die father had is to know what do I do? Well on July 1st, my dad got notice that we needed to move off the ranch.
33:11 It's all of a sudden this Ranch that gave us goat's milk pork eggs, so we had to move to little tiny subdivision and wait for the court. Yeah on January 1969.
33:28 The judge said this man is disabled and you will pay him the day he walked off the job back.
33:40 Payback. Okay. Yeah back pay for the disability or normal amount of money that you bought a pick up bought a travel Queen camper, which was the top-of-the-line campers and a large utility trailer.
33:51 And in April of 1969 he packed us all up and headed us towards Oregon was a place that could Cilla Cilla Tate or he could provide for his family three days later. The Smothers Brothers were cancelled.
34:09 CBS said you can no longer be on TV.
34:14 So they took CBS to court.
34:18 And they got a huge settlement on the particular show.
34:25 So we arrived in, Oregon.
34:28 And on July 20th.
34:31 1969 I'm hoping that something happens to the space drop cuz I'd really like for them to land on my birthday special occasions or Tom Hanks ever made it to the moon. Wow. I mean Curtis that's really special really really unique.
35:01 Can you talk a little bit more? How are you able to connect to Oregon and then you're kind of friends indents into adulthood and what the center of the universe memes for you. Now, we're going to 100% different children work in the fields. You pick green beans you pick strawberries at Field's character idea that you can provide for yourself. So my two sisters and myself we have the character to work hard and repair for a family. They get robbed your childhood in the 60s and 70s. There was no childhood in Oregon to Summertime. You worked all summer and then you went to school the laws of change now children are allowed to to work in the fields. So I feel that was my background was what I did in desert in Oregon. It's able to allow me to build into a better person into a better character in
36:01 And to understand what it takes to provide for your family would it takes to be a citizen of the others nation is not as a static country like like like the desert. It's just real static. Nothing nothing really happens because there isn't a whole lot of opportunity to to do a lot of activities environmental factors that contribute to that as well. Yeah. It's definitely hard to make a living or like you said. It's very open and very or like they had say about Arizona to dry heat. One of the things we talked to adults in Oregon is it say that we are endangering our Civilization by not allowing children to work because they're not out there participating. Well, that's true or not. For example, the Mojave tortoise is on the endangered species list with a lot of reasons to to why that is to the disease.
37:01 Run over by Vehicles scientist have discovered that it's actually the encroachment of civilization upon the desert that is causing Ravens to live Raven or unnatural to the desert and they love to eat hatchling tortoise has the same manner we see on TV of the sea tortoises Ravens are due into that. So when our childhoods or disappearing of the people who are senior citizens, we see it as another of an encroachment that really there's only one significant reason to why things are going the way they ours because we we've taken away childhood we've taken away the ability for kids to to grow and mature into adults and they're no longer having that that responsibility.
37:55 I see.
37:57 Curtis where we're closing in on our time here together anything else that you would like to share or how you would like to be remembered to go ahead and put out there?
38:09 I'd like to be remembered as a person with a child who use the desert as a playground and and understood the resources that were available and I saw the nation try to get to rebirth Itself by being out there and then seeing it to know every day and
38:33 That the walking a mile by yourself through a Barren land a healthy thing to do it if gives you strength that when I talk to young adults don't walk. They don't have to put themselves through a difficult situation with this without their choice our grandson. He's 23 years old. He's had a different jobs cuz he doesn't like the time I Was Eighteen to Thirty. I only had two jobs for you just stick with it. And then you do it because that's what the road I had to walk on on everyday you just stick with it to put one foot in front of the other whether it's comfortable or comfortable, you know, you do it
39:18 Thank you so much Curtis. Thank you for lying to me to speak with you today. You will.