Monthly Archives: October 2018

Richard Kirschman: Changing the World, One Idea at a Time, Part VI

I started this series wanting to describe only one thing about Richard Kirschman because it fascinates so many — that is, his role as creator of the now-legendary $3 Coin Project in West Marin.

The $3 Coin: Strength in Community

The “gold” coin (actually made of brass) is a beautiful $3 souvenir that has generated more than $50,000 for good causes without anybody spending a dime. (I explained how it works in Part I and still can’t believe it.)

But that was only a gate opener. The ingenious projects that Kirschman has launched over the years have been the subject of constant delight and surprise, especially in West Marin. Many account for all Parts II through V, yet they offer only a glimpse of an imagination so fresh and original that it’s been percolatin’ well into Richard’s 80s.

Hark the Herald

So now in this final post let’s turn to Richard Kirschman not as inventor or activist but as a modern-day harbinger. Very often, he’s the guy who notices some key thing the rest of us don’t see. He questions, he investigates, he provokes. He suggests, he teases, he inspires.

Sometimes he passes out buttons he’s made himself to stimulate public consciousness. People laugh, but they get the point, and on to lapels and jackets they go.

And many times he sends out an alert.

In the 1980s, when it seemed smart and liberating to switch to decaf coffee, Richard was among the critically thinking few who warned consumers (in Medical Self-Care magazine) to be on the lookout for carcinogenic solvents used in most decaf processes.

In the 1990s, when fears of acid rain hit the news but experts had little to report to West Marin residents, Richard tested the water at his Dogtown property and found the pH rating to be “much more acidic than toxin rain should be,” according to experts called in by the Point Reyes Light.

The consumer as Everyman

And in 2011 as state biologists assured beekeepers it was safe to use antibiotics in bee colonies, Richard, who’d been keeping bees for years, sent out an alert that antibiotics not only showed up in the honey people bought at the store (this is still true) but also masked symptoms of other diseases that then spread without detection.

Hoofing the Wild Boar

One has to say, too, that when there’s a chance to slip in a laugh or two during otherwise serious events, Richard-the-spoofer takes a little gambol.

Those monster hooves

Look at the time feral pigs began to overpopulate Mount Tamalpais. Although the park service began hunting and trapping to bring the numbers down, rumors spread that the creatures weren’t the small and harmless kind at all. Rather, hikers believed, big hairy wild boars with huge tusks and ugly snouts were actually seen terrorizing the trails.

Well. How could Richard resist enlisting fellow conspirators? How could he not carve a wooden facsimile of giant boar hooves, which he attached to regular (size 11 men’s) shoes? What could stop him from taking his fellow pranksters to hike along the trails, where boars had reportedly been seen?  And how could this merry team keep from stomping around in the mud until it was apparent the abominable snowpig surely ravaged the countryside?

It’s not recorded how many laughs were shared around Point Reyes when people discovered the phony wooden hoof prints. But years passed before boogie monsters would terrify the populace again.

Noosing the Eucalyptus

The reverse seemed to happen when the State Park announced that many of the tall, stately and beloved eucalyptus trees in West Marin were soon to be cut down.

A Eucalyptus grove

Perhaps people had been numbed by protests and counter protests over perceived dangers of the eucalyptus tree — as a fire hazard, a non-indigenous exotic, a shallow-rooted (about to fall down) danger, etc. Few of these problems were true, but even when residents didn’t believe them, they seemed to be apathetic about warnings of a massive cut-down.

Until: One morning in the wee hours, Richard and Doris drove to an area on Highway 1 where eucalyptus trees were not only visible but close enough to cars passing by that each driver could see the white dotted lines they had stenciled on the trees’ trunks, along with the message, “CUT HERE.”

Just enough trees bore those markings and just enough people saw them that soon a public outcry demanded new hearings with park supervisors and county commissioners before a single tree could be felled.

The Weakly Denial

Perhaps it was Richard’s lifelong exasperation with bureaucracy in business; or his horror at the way modern corporations monetize chunks of Mother Nature; or his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor: Whatever the case, in the 1970s he began writing a playful yet blistering column called The Weakly Denial that would continue for years in the Point Reyes Light and Anderson Valley Advertiser.

Tomales Bay — perfect for “Apocalypse Now” sequel?

Most readers recognized that little bit of fibbing (“usually reliable industry sources”) combined with that little bit of fawning (celebrity names; sensational scandals) that we see quoted and gushed over in news stories all the time. Today there’s a name for bogus reporting — “alternate facts” — but at the time, the Weakly Denial delivered a satirical warning of what might be, in different forms, soon to come.

In one of Richard’s reports, we learned from those ever-popular “informed sources” that film director Francis Ford Coppola had denied leasing a private ranch in Tomales Bay to film a “partially animated musical sequel to his smash-hit Apocalypse Now.” Who could not chuckle at the thought of a cartoon Marlon Brando singing “The Horror, The Horror” in the movie’s opening scene?

In another denied item, according to “whispers of progress,” a downtown block in Point Reyes would soon be transformed as a “Ghirardelli Square North” for tourists disembarking from giant Pacific Orient Line cruise ships. On their way to a shopping spree, the visitors would be greeted “Hawaiian style” by local residents dressed as Miwok Indians.

No wonder the Weakly Denial column ran for years — Richard’s images of kitschy money-makers invading Point Reyes was too funny and, to some, too promising to ignore.

Pt. Reyes: soon-to-be cruise ship destination?

Other items — unconfirmed “classified plans” to pave over the legendary Bolinas Lagoon for an RV parking lot; a four-lane highway connecting Point Reyes National Seashore to San Francisco — were always so “weakly denied” in Kirschman’s column that a few outraged readers believed every word.

When they wrote to decry Kirschman for his “sloppy reporting,” the Light‘s editors asked Richard to deny the factual basis of his own alternate facts. It was all to the benefit of readers’ funny bones, of course, and happily, it made his modern-day alert all the more urgent.

Publishers Clearing House

Today the sweepstakes competition Publishers Clearing House has a relatively quiet website on the Internet, but in B.C. (Before Computer) times, this million-dollar lottery was all the rage. TV commercials and full-page print ads showed joyful PCH agents driving up to the homes of unsuspecting winners and ringing the doorbell with gifts of champagne, flowers and of course, the big check.

True, people who entered the sweepstakes had a one-in-2.5 billion chance of winning, but to a prankster like Richard, when April Fool’s Day rolled around, why spoil the fun?

With sidekick Doris (she carrying an official-looking clipboard), he outfitted both sides of his white SUV with an official-looking sign that said PUBLISHERS CLEARING HOUSE: PRIZE PATROL. Then the two took off to see what would happen.

I think Richard believed that because it was April 1, everybody would spot these two Dogtown dudes in a not-all-that-official vehicle and get the joke. But no. Wherever the SUV went, fans drove up right next to it, yelling and gesturing and nearly crashing alongside. In one gated community, a man ran out in his pajamas trying to flag them down.

“We were abashed at the reactions of people who hoped against hope that we were there for them,” Doris remembers. “Mostly it was funny, people waving and laughing and saying It’s me! You’re looking for me! But sometimes it was painful to see — like the guy who chased us down.”

A lot of people in West Marin still chuckle at the memory of that prank “because it was so well done!” says one resident, “and we all fell for it!” Although many wish Richard had rigged the SUV with Publishers Clearing House signs every April Fool’s Day, the fact is that for the driver and his Beautiful Assistant, one crowd-swarming incident was enough. “We never did it again,” says Doris.

The Seder Surprise

I don’t know if this is a prank, a protest, a blasphemy or a terrible secret exposed, but imagine how you would react as a guest sitting down at Richard and Doris’ next Passover seder, and you find a homemade facsimile of something holy.

Ordinarily the seder is the ceremonial dinner that celebrates a biblical story, that of God freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt by visiting the cruelest of plagues upon their oppressors.

The Kirschman Haggadah

That’s the part of the Haggadah — the seder ritual — that Richard found untenable since he was a kid. He even did the math: “In Egypt, one of the plagues — killing the first born in every family — would result in the death of about 20 million human beings. That’s the awful story behind Exodus.” But few wanted to know it. “Even suggesting such a thing is considered shocking, probably a crime.”

Yet every year at seders around the world, the Haggadah is read aloud with the plagues alluded to in a manner deemed acceptable. “This legend has now been told so often and for so long that it no longer strikes us as the atrocity it is,” he wrote in the Point Reyes Light.

“Have we been desensitized to atrocity? Just as most people today no longer pay attention to biblical passages mandating death by stoning for rebellious children and adulterers … shouldn’t we be judicious with our telling of the Exodus?”

Well, so be it, as you would see at a Kirschman seder: There on the table sits a DIY version of the Torah, that ancient scroll so revered that it’s usually stored in the sacred ark of synagogues and taken out only as part of services.

The Exodus retold in Richard’s Haggadah

But Richard has always thought that “the story of Exodus is included in the Torah and could be retold” through “a new improved Haggadah.” There’s nothing new with re-interpreting the text (for vegetarians, Harry Potter fans, feminists, etc., as some 4,000 Haggadot demonstrate). But Richard wanted his to include some acknowledgment and discussion of God’s perpetuation of the horrors told in the story.

So he and his editorial expert Doris set about creating a Torah for the people. It’s entirely handmade with napkin rings, copper pipe, wooden dowels and Tyvec paper (the kind used in priority-mail envelopes that can’t be torn or damaged).

Dowel, napkin ring and Tyvec paper

With a reverence of his own, Richard has added other facts not known to many seder participants. Few know, for example, that as a child, Moses was raised in Pharoah’s household (some scholars believe that Moses and Aknaton, the son of the pharoah who ruled during this time, were the same person); or that on God’s instruction, Jewish women “borrowed” gold and jewelry from Egyptian neighbors and walked away with it to the promised land.

So the Kirschman torah is not a prank, not a protest, not a blasphemy; it’s a cultural lesson that helps us understand truths in the Bible that are rarely spoken out loud and, at Doris and Richard’s seder, give us a new perspective.

Here Comes the Colonel

Richard long ago agreed with fellow citizens that fast-food and chain-store outlets don’t belong in downtown Point Reyes. This manner of protecting the independent retail scene was never controversial in West Marin.

Entrance-wide KFC sign: The Colonel is coming

So when a big building on Main Street stood empty for many years, who could blame Richard for recognizing a climate ripe for poking fun? One day people walking down Main Street stopped in their tracks: Some anonymous soul had posted a big 6’x3′ sign on the unrented building that displayed the familiar KFC founder’s face.

The caption read only, “The Colonel says: Hi, Point Reyes!

Perhaps because Richard hired a copy shop to create the sign — no banners, no formal proclamation — most people kept on walking with a chuckle or two. But many took it seriously and with some alarm before they realized that Point Reyes may be an idyllic coastal town, but you had to watch out for the prankster in the shadows.

Chemical Consciousness Quiz

Richard’s knack for poking fun has as much appeal as his talent for combining education with entertainment.

Back in 1979, when few people understood the role of additives in everything from Hershey’s Syrup to d-Con rat poison, Richard sensed that a serious essay about Bad Things in Home Products would probably bore readers to death.

How much more fun it was, then, to invite readers to test their knowledge in Mother Jones magazine, “If you think you know the difference between Cool Whip and Preparation H, here’s your chance to prove it.”

Richard’s ‘Chemical Consciousness Quiz’

This was the “Chemical Consciousness Quiz,” a classic match-up game in which readers were asked to mate 20 products on one side of the page with 20 lists of product ingredients on the other.

Some lists were so long you’d never guess the product. Gaines Burger, a popular dog food, was composed of 25 ingredients, many of them unrecognizable, such as the Ammoniated Glycrrhizin, Calcium Pantothenate and Ethylene-diamine Dihydriodide.

Even the short lists baffled, like Preparation H, made only of Live Yeast Cell Derivative, Shark Liver Oil and Phenylmercuric Nitrate. (I paused on that one for a while: The one ingredient that seemed powerful enough to do the job was … oil from the liver of a shark?)

With its bent whimsy, the Quiz did what Richard had hoped — it entertained, it informed, and it probably scared the wits out of every consumer who read it.

Test the Test

This kind of let’s-see-what-we-think-we-know inquiry came up 40 years later when Richard learned that West Marin parents objected to a lengthy test, that public school students were required to take, called STAR (Standardized Test and Reporting Program).

The STAR sample test

The results of this week-long exam did not affect students’ records or their ability to attend college. Rather, STAR measured the AYP (“Adequate Yearly Progress”) of public schools themselves.

This meant teachers were pressured to “teach the test” rather than the students. Questions were arcane (example for 9th graders: “What is the factored form of 3a²-24ab+48b²?”). Multiple choice formats favored some students (white, affluent) over others.

So Richard decided it might be instructive and fun to test the test. He and his teaching assistant Doris invited a group of adults to take a sample STAR test of 146 questions, ranging from science to English and from 5th to 11th-grade levels.

Perhaps predictably, the results were “right on the brink of not demonstrating AYP,” wrote a San Francisco Chronicle columnist who had joined the group. All but one participant failed the test, and among the gripes about trick questions and obscure language, you could tell this was a home-based forerunner of the TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” That is, a revealing demonstration that adults don’t remember much from school.

Adults having a tough time with STAR

But Richard’s experiment with the STAR sample had its own educational value. On the one hand, it helped parents appreciate what was expected of students, so they might be less hard on their kids because of it. On the other, it offered adults an occasion to ponder the value of tests to begin with, to understand how unseen biases can make tests harder for some students, and to challenge the institutions that govern our kids so that everyone can learn something new.

STAR was discontinued in 1994 because of “controversy over portions of the test.”

Wild Turkeys

Then there was that sudden and “bizarre response” by West Marin residents to sightings of what seemed to be an overabundance of wild turkeys in 2003. “Myths about the turkeys’ so-called bad habits [ruining people’s gardens, eating quail] and danger to the environment are circulating like wildfire,” Richard observed in the Point Reyes Light.

To forestall what he suspected would be the next response — mass extermination — Richard explained that of course wild turkeys were more visible: it was mating season, after all. He himself had counted 29 on his property that morning.

Wild turkeys: an “absolute delight”

Rather than becoming a threat to the environment, he wrote, “these surprisingly intelligent birds are an absolute delight to watch and listen to.” They did not pose a threat to plants or quail, as some people thought. However, happily for gardeners, snails were another matter. “Wild turkeys seem to love eating snails.”

Then he offered this calm and beautifully composed reminder:

“The natural world is awash with misinformation: Bats get into your hair, lemmings rush to sea to commit suicide, and nothing grows under eucalyptus trees … So before we go off half-cocked and start killing these extraordinary birds, let’s learn to distinguish between those ‘undocumented’ life forms that are truly harmful to the environment and those that are just latecomers to which nature will gently adapt and accommodate, as it has to our roses, apple trees, honey bees, and English sparrows.”

The National Park Service did eliminate many wild turkeys from Park land, but they are still a common sight in West Marin and beyond.

Save the White Deer

Few controversies hit a more exposed nerve with Richard than the National Park Service‘s (NPS) campaign to eliminate the non-native Axis and Fallow deer — sometimes called the “White Deer” — from Point Reyes National Seashore in 2005.

NPS authorities said these deer — introduced by a hunter on his land half-a-century before — had now increased in such number that they “ran roughshod” over native Black Tail deer and Tule elk. They also spread disease, fouled the land and overpopulated the Park.

Fallow Deer, also called ‘White Deer’

Wildlife activists like Richard (along with, by the way, anthropologist Jane Goodall, politicos Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, groups like In Defense of Animals and Earth Island Institute) vehemently protested.

They believed the Axis and Fallow deer did not pose the kind of threat that the Park described. Quite the contrary: their existence had become a valuable contribution to the eco-diversity that made Point Reyes National Seashore legendary.

As Richard wrote in a guest editorial for the Coastal Post,

The axis and fallow deer are already here — and have been for more than 50 years — long an integral part of the park — along with the cattle, the roads, 2,500,000 annual visitors, horses, and thousands of local residents … There is no way to restore this area to some pre-Columbian Garden of Eden.

This last reference pointed to what Richard and others have long considered a naive but fashionable movement to wipe out all non-native plants and animals from government land, even when little or no threat exists. Attempts to turn back the clocks by a half or full century were inexcusably short-sighted, he suggested:

By one estimate 40 percent of all species in the Point Reyes National Seashore are exotics. That’s the way it is. Some are invasive and should be resisted — scotch broom, for example. Others are so integrated into their new environment that removal efforts would probably be harmful — the European honey bee, for example.

The magnificent Axis Deer

Soon the controversy grew into a nightmare. Richard and others wrote about established methods of contraception as a humane way to control overpopulation. The Park Service nixed that method as too expensive and slow, then hired an “ungulate (hoofed mammal) extermination firm” that specialized in the “discretion and efficiency” of what surely would become a controlled massacre.

That did it. Suddenly rhetoric was inflamed in articles about “Bambi vs. Bambi” in the “killing fields” of Point Reyes. The NPS countered with numbing statistics and per-square-foot extrapolations and bureaucratic formulas.

Richard’s voice of reason and compassion brought much needed balance to the conversation:

“This isn’t a college debate or lawsuit. There are life and death consequences at stake here — as well as issues of morality. For example, ask yourself how comfortable it would be to explain the extermination of these animals to your children.” (Bold type added.)

Yes, exactly. Using contraception darts instead of guns would have required patience and skill, an understanding of the life these deer were leading (having had no choice in the matter, it goes without saying) and a respect for peaceful outcomes.

Instead the Park Service, having none of the above, brought in the guns and hunters; they lured the deer to areas under trees where nets could be dropped to trap them. And in the end, they slaughtered all 1,200 of them.

His Legacy

I find it intriguing that Richard, who considers himself a skeptic, atheist, scientist, critic and objective reasoner, always argues for the sake of compassion, humane treatment of animals, and the legacy we leave for children.

Richard, 2017

In one controversy after another, Richard is the one who cautions against the “mindless and brutal” treatments — the gassing of bees, for example; routine castration and dehorning of cattle without anesthetics; expansion of the town dump without posting a surety bond; and as we have seen, killing wild turkeys because of fear-based rumors, and slaughtering rather than managing non-native deer.

Richard is not a father and never wanted to be, yet I’m touched by his fatherly way of keeping an eye out for all of us, and for the goings-on of West Marin. It’s this kindly, curious, receptive and open-hearted manner that has certainly made him, among many other things, a generous donor to good causes so numerous I’ve listed them below. These include:

Giving through Youth, Sound Orchard, Dance Palace, Bolinas Community Center, West Marin Community Services, Stinson Beach Preschool, CLAM (Community Land Trust Association), KWMR Radio, West Marin Senior Services, Marin Humane Society, West Marin School, Bolinas-Stinson Summer Camp, Papermill Creek Children’s Center, West Marin Fund, Gallery Route One, San Geronimo Valley Community Center, West Marin Chamber of Commerce, West Marin Review, Tomales Bay Youth Center, Coastal Health Alliance, Point Reyes Disaster Council, Tomales Bay Library Association

And let’s not forget the daily donation provided by the Richard Kirschman who’s certainly a prince among dogs. Up and down Main Street in downtown Point Reyes Station, every canine head lifts as this human treat machine ambles along, pretending not to notice dog adoration everywhere. And they (the dogs) realize that when Richard reaches into his pocket, it ain’t for the bits of dull kibble you can buy in bulk at Toby’s Feed Barn. Rather, Richard is the guy who can be counted on for the oh, so delicious duck breast jerky strip, time and time again.

Rehearsing ‘For My Doris,’ 2016

And if you sat at breakfast with Richard munching cereal inside his house, you’d be privileged to learn from him the names, habits, songs and origins of the many wild birds who fly onto his deck for equally premium birdseed. Remaining a bit longer, you’d hear about and maybe even see the raccoons, foxes, skunks, bobcats and other animals who seem to have adopted Richard and Doris as well.

By the way, at age 75, Richard decided to learn how to play the flute. He took lessons and practiced devotedly until age 80, when he was fluent enough to play in hospitals and senior residences around West Marin. At 83 he produced his first CD of beautifully interpreted standards with guitarist Tim Weed called For My Doris (with thanks to his wife for putting up with all the missed notes).

His second CD, Wonderful Standards of the 1920s-1930s, has just been released. It’s being used by the Alzheimer’s Association and UC Davis School of Nursing to help elderly people with memory loss.

Richard displays the gold coin at Point Reyes’ fabled Western Weekend parade.

For everyone in West Marin, a fun way to acknowledge The Richard Kirschman Model of Active Citizenry (my term) is to keep exchanging the gorgeous gold coins that he introduced years ago, and that, all by themselves (I can’t say it enough!) have raised over $50,000 for good causes.

For a sweet man with an incredibly creative mind and generous nature, Richard has pursued a fulfilled life while benefiting so many —  and it’s not just the dogs awaiting him on Main Street who appreciate this.

Richard Kirschman, Changing the World – One Idea at a Time: Part V

Part of the fun of writing about Richard Kirschman lies in discovering an entrepreneur of a half a century ago who might be unrecognizable today.

The young Richard Kirschman was a clean-shaven, sharp-dressin’, up-and-coming entrerpreneur, considered so cool in the 1960s he might have walked out of the pages of Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine. As the society writer for the San Francisco Examiner realized in 1967, he was quite a catch with the ladies:

Richard in the ’60s (standing, second from right) with local movers and shakers, including restaurateur Enrico Banducci (in beret, right) and visitor Woody Allen (left)

“At 34, real estate developer Kirschman is hardly up to his ankles in the San Francisco financial waters, and he finds them very inviting. Socially a debonair, sought-after bachelor, he’s a fast-thinking, clear-eyed entrepreneur … the young executive who sails, skis, flies, glides, sculpts, bags and cooks his own ducks.”

Yes, a man who couldn’t have been more romantic for his time, was Richard K. Did he know the 180-degree turn his life would take soon afterward? As it happened, he was right on the edge of “the good life” all along.

The Question Always Out There

Richard grew up on Long Island in the post-World War II era, when it was possible to have liberal Republicans for parents. In 1946, his mother noticed a fledgling organization called the United Nations moving into a former weapons factory near their home. Peace was in the air, so she walked over to the nearly securityless building and offered to help as a volunteer. Soon the UN depended on her to run tours as one of its first official docents.

Gromyko’s desk plaque from early United Nations

The arrangement worked out so well that 13-year-old Richard got to visit the historic premises, too. He would drop by after school and find his mother having tea with Eleanor Roosevelt. He would walk by the desk of Soviet ambassador Andrei Gromyko and stare at the official USSR plaque. It looked so unofficial and homemade that Richard was  tantalized. He couldn’t resist nabbing it as a souvenir and has kept it for 70+ years.

On a break from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, Richard followed his mother’s bent for volunteerism and worked in the pediatrics unit at Bellevue Hospital in New York. His job was simple — to sit and “kibbitz” with patients — while all around him raged the horrors that Bellevue is still famous for: people having breakdowns, drug-addicted children, babies who had been stuffed into drawers or forgotten in closets now convulsed by screaming breakdowns he would never forget.

“What can you do for a baby who’s in withdrawal and has never been held in anyone’s arms?” he remembers asking, and still asks. That wasn’t his job, of course — “I was there to bring a little warmth and humanity to the children” — but the question stayed permanently in his mind.

In fact it was the first of several that would become a driving force in Richard’s life. Was it possible to contribute to society in a meaningful way while succeeding on your own terms? Could you keep  bureaucracy from clogging up the works when you’re trying to treat people humanely?  Whether it was a wheel gear for Indian rickshaws, a tube of first-aid cream for dogs, a device that turned fog into water or the easiest possible language guide ever, these were the kind of big questions behind every invention Richard created.

The Greatest Bureaucracy

Briefly a Marine. The one thing he agreed with: no standing up at rifle practice

But then, what could be more bureaucratic in terms of Doing It Our Way than the United States military, which required Richard to join after college since the draft was still on.

It’s telling that this high achiever signed up for the Marines but couldn’t wait to transfer out after boot camp. His body could take the harsh physical training, but the idea of breaking recruits down and building them back up as a “few good men”? Not something he wanted.

A better choice for Richard Kirschman was the Navy’s Officer Candidate School and assignment to the South Pacific, where postwar regulations weren’t so rigidly enforced. There a little authority-spoofing could be enjoyed up and down the ranks.

Navy Lieutenant Kirschman (at right) in the South Pacific, 1950s

Once on the Navy base, for example, he noticed that vehicles of high-ranking officers were outfitted with a plaque displaying the number of stars the admiral or general possessed. This gave personnel lower on the hierarchy enough warning to come to attention and salute.

Richard fixed up his car with a similar plaque, but as he drove toward a guard station and MPs drew to attention, what came into view for them was not three or four stars but a single silver bar, designating the lowly Lieutenant Junior Grade within. It was the kind of military joke that cracked ’em up in the military.

Whimsical pranks made life easier for Richard at a time when his job was pretty bleak. Night after night he flew out with a Navy crew to secretly patrol the coastlines of Taiwan and China — “endlessly practicing for World War III,” he would later say with a grimace. Anticipating war, spending money for war, deploying troops and officers to “practice”  war: that would also be a something he’d question for the rest of his life.

Turning Radical

Back in New York, Richard worked in real estate with some success but found the business world stifling. Then an offer came asking him to manage construction of the all new, controversial Fox Plaza building in San Francisco (controversial because it meant tearing down the revered Fox Theater.)  Richard took the job, grateful for a chance to travel West.

Fox Movie Palace, opened 1929, demolished 1963

Fox Plaza building, 29 stories, built 1966

That he found himself plunged into a vortex of business, art and city politics made life by committee all the more complicated and exhausting. Fox Plaza was both an acclaimed and maligned building after completion in 1966. Perhaps because of it, Richard began to strike out on his own.

He used press credentials from counterculture publications in the ’60s (Ramparts, Urban News West), and traveled widely, sometimes into the thick of revolutionary hot spots. At the very beginning of the “Troubles” in Ireland, he photographed Catholic residents tossing Molotov cocktails at Protestant police, who retaliated with tear gas.

Police at the barricades, Ireland 1969

Richard with his cameras and notepad looked every bit like an untested American reporter and could have been ordered out at any time. But his likeability and genuine curiosity held sway. “Wouldn’t you want your side of the story told?” he asked combatants on either side, and the barriers came down. “Hold it, boys!” they would shout in the middle of a barrage, “Let him cross!”

He sent dispatches home, traveled through France, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and took a high-pressured job on Spain’s famous Costa del Sol. There a Swiss conglomerate struggled to finish construction on a vast thousand-unit apartment complex. It was work he knew how to do — taking diverse interests through a tangle of red tape and conflicting opinions to get the job done — but endless placating over deadlines and bureaucracies was not his cup of tea.

By the time he resettled in the Bay Area, Richard had become more than a questioner and a doubter; he had turned radical. Gone were the three-piece suits, the power luncheons and the Pacific Union (wealthy white men’s club) future.

Richard in France, c. 1970

In their place came that sense of outrage that overtook many during the Vietnam war, and a compulsion to do something to change a violent world.

For some years he had been a director at Delancey Street, the now-famous residential program for ex-inmates and drug addicts in San Francisco. Many programs with similar promise emerged in that era (Synanon, est, Rajneeshpuram), but Delancey Street was the only one that would last through the decades — and is still going strong.

He also joined the Bay Area movement to humanize conditions in California’s prison system, and somewhere along the line, Richard Kirschman went solo. While helping Delancey Street develop legitimate business and real estate holdings, he launched his own brand of prison activism in a big way.

A Two-Man Prison Cell on Wheels

Today we know that the prison system in America has become overcrowded and brutal, especially for African Americans and other people of color. But in the 1960s, as members of Delancey Street confided to Richard, conditions were  worse. The Black Panther Party, the Marin Courthouse Shootout and the killing of Soledad inmate George Jackson all pointed to cruel and inhumane treatment throughout the California penal system. But nobody at any level was doing anything about it.

Richard had an idea. He built an exact replica of the claustrophobic two-man cell in Folsom and San Quentin prisons, loaded it onto a flatbed and towed it around the streets to courthouses, shopping malls and police stations.

The postcard’s sketch of a two-man prison cell; beginning of letter to the governor

With each stop, as people crowded around, he invited them to walk into the cell and sit down on its hard bunk beds. That way they could experience for a few minutes that horrible feeling  of the bars closing in, of hopelessness spreading out for years and years to come. And then they would understand, and  were more open to learn, Richard thought, about the atrocities inmates had to endure.

As visitors departed, Richard handed out postcards they could mail to then-Governor Ronald Reagan to protest the bizarre storage and torture system that state prisons had become.

In an era of “indeterminate sentencing” that effectively buried politically active inmates, Richard’s exhibit proved stirring, tough-minded and urgent. As he had hoped, it inspired people to get off the fence and do something, even if it meant just putting a stamp on a postcard, scribbling a few thoughts, and dropping it in the mail.

I still find it touching that Richard, in a gesture people viewed as endearingly Californian, asked passers-by to write down their feelings when they experienced the prison cell. That way the Governor would know, and be guided by, how deeply emotions ran with voters.

You never know if a demonstration like that will make a difference. Maybe Reagan never saw the postcards, or if he did — well, emotions of the masses never carried much significance to his celebrity mind. I think the prison movement was strengthened by it, because more humane practices were instituted. But for Richard, putting the truth so dramatically in front of people and letting them decide what to do about it was his version of democracy in action.

Life in Dogtown, Pop. 30

Richard would later be characterized as a guy who must have made a bundle in real estate because he retired from business while still in his 30s. The truth is, he had a modest income when he left San Francisco and wanted that nest egg to be enough, if he used it wisely, to pursue his own adventures off the grid for the rest of his life.

Dogtown during growth spurt

Upon finding a deliciously reclusive spot on the coast of West Marin that appealed to his love of wildlife and personal independence, he researched its history, including the long-lost name of Dogtown. Later on, his partner Doris would explain it this way:

Richard liked to point out that there had been five owners of the Dogtown property between himself and the king of Spain. When he decided to build his house in the country in 1974, he sat down with county maps to identify lands that abutted the newly formed national park. He wrote or called 15 owners of such parcels, inquiring if they would be interested in selling. The owner of Richard’s then-undeveloped acres lived in Tacoma, Washington, had inherited the land, had never seen it, didn’t really want it, and was receptive to the idea of selling it.

Richard in Dogtown

In fact, the property was so remote and seemingly forgotten that he had to petition the local Board of Supervisors to resurrect its name and make sure an official road sign (Dogtown, Pop 30, Elev. 180) would appear on Pacific Highway 1.

In that thick, lush pocket of 10 acres in West Marin, Richard settled in to build what would become his eccentric and somewhat stupefying home. Colleagues at Delancey Street tipped him off to the sale of first-growth redwood lumber that had been stripped off the recently demolished Pier 41 in San Francisco. He jumped at the chance to haul it across the Bay to Dogtown.

Mr. Kirschman Builds His Dream House

This is the romantic side of Richard that has touched many a heart in West Marin. “He thought the wood might have been milled in Dogtown when it was a lumber town after the Gold Rush” a century before, Doris wrote. To Richard, there was a certain rightness in bringing that redwood home.

He designed the house himself with “unexpected angles and slanted roofs,” Doris recalled, and using a small local crew to assist, he built it by himself, too. It resided on a footprint of only 700 square feet but shot up five stories on nine separate levels. Inside, the staircases intersected like a painting by Escher. It was easy to get lost or turn the wrong way, but that was part of its charm. High ceilings and an abundance of windows and nooks made the place feel like every kid’s dream of living in a tree house.

The finished dream home, covered in passion flowers

Richard joined the Bolinas Fire Department, an all-volunteer brigade that seemed to be everywhere at once — on the beach with heart victims, at a burning farmhouse, with a fallen hiker in the woods. Living in Dogtown, about three miles north of Bolinas FD, Richard was often the first to arrive at grisly car accidents on Highway 1.

He learned CPR from the Bolinas Fire Chief who ironically became his first patient. After collapsing from a heart attack while the two were talking in the station house, the veteran EMT didn’t make it, and that was Lesson #1 during Richard’s 20 years of service. Life would not be easy that far out in the boondocks, as people used to say.

Many residents treasured their privacy so much that they removed every road sign directing travelers to Bolinas. Richard decided they had a point. Tourists were so hungry for authentic keepsakes that for years they tore down and kept every Dogtown sign Richard put up.

Prototype Man II: Romania

Perhaps it was his experience with addicted babies at Bellevue Hospital that compelled Richard to undertake a trip to Romania in 1990 at the request of Starcross, a monastic community in nearby Sonoma County.

Brother Toby of Starcross Monastic Community

Brother Toby, a former labor lawyer, and two Catholic nuns, Sister Marti and Sister Julie, had been caring for abandoned and abused children at Starcross for years when they learned of nightmarish conditions in Romania. After the fall of Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, an unbelievable number (130,000) of orphaned children had been locked away in dilapidated state-run institutions. Separated and neglected even further, nearly 2,000 children and babies with AIDS were considered too expensive to treat. Since they’d soon be dead anyway, they were “stored away in Auschwitz-like conditions,” Richard noted.

Richard in Romania: front page news

Brother Toby visited one of those hospitals in Constanta, Romania, and at one point an ABC-TV crew asked to go with him. He suggested that children locked in cots and cribs needed to be taken out of the hospital and treated as family members — loved and held and played with — rather than as dying patients.

As was true at Starcross, Brother Toby did not think special medicines or medical care were as important as a family setting, so he sought a space unlike a hospital that could be transformed into small apartments of five children each, where women trained as “mamas” would provide parenting and caregiving skills.

Starcross architect’s model

When Brother Toby asked Richard, his longtime friend in Dogtown, to develop the possibility of such a project, Richard contacted an architect friend in San Francisco who drew up the plans for a prototype.

Richard took the plans with him for his own three-month stay. It was perfect, all agreed, and it was doomed.  Working with a nearly worthless Romanian currency, a government in chaos and a dearth of doctors (who were paid the equivalent of $28 a month) became so difficult that many humanitarian agencies, like Doctors without Borders, had to leave.

Starcross might have foundered, too, if Richard hadn’t spent much of his time there simply “developing a path for money” from U.S. donors, and finding workers in a private sector that hadn’t existed before Ceausescu. Eventually the prototype led to Casa Speranta (House of Hope) in Constanta, Romania, where children routinely lived long past “the predictions of everyone,” according to one doctor, Rodica Matusa, “including all the specialists.”

Matusa later wrote in a book about what happened when the space away from the hospital began to look like a place for families inside: “… Even if the children were still using a bottle, they were put at the table to eat. They were not left to eat in their beds as we at the hospital had done. Their beds were cribs, but made of wood, not the old iron beds from the hospital … Even if their food was prepared in a central kitchen, when they sat at their table, every family appeared different. The apartments had been arranged according to the needs of the individual family and the taste of the mamas. It was like looking at real families. And the children, regardless of how small they were, began to feel that they had come home.”

In 1996 this same prototype led to a separate nonprofit group in Uganda called Starcross Kin Worldwide, where the House of Hope has cared for over 100 children.

Richard after return from Romania

Richard did not know how much of this was possible back in 1990. He sensed that other hospitals might one day adopt similar family units, and he donated the prototype plans to the Romanian government.

“It was “a good start,” he told the Pt. Reyes Light after his time in Romania had run out. “It was a model we hope will be replicated.” What an understatement, but that’s the good part of Richard being a stubborn SOB. Seeing a Great Idea through is always worth it, to his mind. The spirit of the thing does the rest.

Life in a ‘Salad Bowl’

As we follow Richard’s story, it becomes apparent that the more his life took root in West Marin, the more his creative side began to — oh, might as well say it — blossom.

Which brings us to that fateful day his lush and splendiferous 10 acres in Dogtown gave him a Great Idea: Why allow all this natural opulence — grasslands, berry bushes, fruit trees, giant oaks, towering eucalyptus, passionflower vines and giant redwoods — to be enjoyed only by humans?

Why not help the world by adopting rare species of farm animals in danger of extinction? Richard had been reading about the plight of Aracuana chickens, Scottish highland steers, San Clemente goats and Jacob sheep. Think of it, he said to Doris: these threatened creatures could launch new generations in safety and munch their way to old age in this magnificent “salad bowl” they could provide in West Marin.

Lloyd, the first llama

Of course, predators of those very species — raccoons, foxes, coyotes and mountain lions  — also lived on the property and were ready to welcome farm animals in their own way.

So the next Great Idea was to acquire a perfect combination of sweetie pie and murderous bodyguard called a llama.

Lloyd with the two ll’s, as they naturally called this first herd-protecting llama, looked to humans like a small unhumped camel with doll-face eyelashes and cuddly soft fur. To predators, however, he was an advancing monster with a ferocious glare, slasher teeth and a unique ability to spit.

That’s what they discovered after months of planning and trips to small farms to acquire tiny herds of goats and sheep and chickens (the giant Scottish Highland steers didn’t work out): Doris and Richard realized that gates and cages and fences and barn doors would never be enough.

Lloyd, then, proved an excellent shepherd and “a very funny guy,” Doris wrote later. With his camel-like body and brown-and-white coat, “he looked sometimes like a dancing mop … sweet and goofy and always smiling” — thanks ironically to those killer teeth.

Juanita and Zipper on a tree limb. Zipper was killed by a mountain lion a week later.

Llamas are known for their distinct personalities. Quentin, one of Lloyd’s (there would be two) successors, was not only tolerant of Juanita, one of the goats, playfully hopping onto his gentle-giant’s back, he would carry her under oak trees so that she could better reach and nibble the leaves.

Doris’s book, The Dogtown Chronicles, recalls the couple’s 20 years raising these animals, so I’ll direct readers to that eye-opener of a story to meet the family and see what really happened. Doris is an astute chronicler of the way Richard’s “salad bowl” turned out to be both heavenly and savage.

Richard speaking to Sheba on shearing day

For along with this bucolic scene, another, darker truth emerged: When you dig that deep into nature, unseen threats are everywhere, not only from animal diseases and complicated births, or poisonous plants and unexpected injuries; but also from the smart raccoon who hides for a whole day in the hen house and kills the girls in their sleep at night; or the puma who tears into a goat the one moment Quentin isn’t looking; or the unknown decapitator of geese who leaves half a ravaged head for the couple to find on their way to the mailbox.

Balancing the realities of nature with the idealism of good intentions had now become a way of life for Richard and Doris. After leaving San Francisco in the 1960s as that “debonair entrepreneur” climbing the ladder of acceptance and power, Richard learned how to carve out a vision of life entirely his own for the next 50 years.

And so it was in Dogtown and later in Point Reyes Station, where they moved up the coast about 10 miles, in 2010, that Richard became that walking contradiction of idealist, realist and passionate dissenter. And this, when you see him act it out in pranks, stunts, alerts and pop quizzes, you gotta believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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