MEET GENE PALENO: LAKE COUNTY’S BUSIEST NONAGENARIAN

Gene has a presence about him. Even though his voice rasps and he walks with a hunch, it’s impossible to miss the width of his reach as he spreads his arms wide while telling a story or the size of his biceps as he shakes your hand. But it’s his eyes that tell the story of Gene. They’re sharp like tacks and filled with life, energy, and compassion. He’s not the kind of man to dismiss, to watch slowly fade away as age advances. No, Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he’s dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He’s been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He’s an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He’s written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

I first met Gene not long after he agreed to publish Lake County History in The Bloom serially. A few weeks later I swung by his house, a bright yellow rancher that he and his wife designed, sitting on a hill in Bachelor Valley. He invited me into the sitting area of the living room, where built-in bookshelves sat in the corner between the entry and fireplace, filled with books ranging from popular fiction to metaphysics.

“Sit down,” Gene told me. “Make yourself comfortable.” After we exchanged pleasantries, he began to tell me a bit about his life. “I built that fireplace myself,” he told me, pointing to the massive brick fireplace that filled one wall of the living room. “The stonemason I had hired came out, looked at it, and said, ‘I can’t do it, because of my authoritis,’ Just like that. His ‘authoritis.’ I had a deadline to meet before they put in the rafters, and I worked all weekend on it. My hands were burned and red from the lime, but I got it done.”

“That’s a huge fireplace,” I exclaimed. “I’m impressed,” As I looked more closely, I noticed a bright yellow ceramic convertible sitting on the mantle. “Did you make that?” I asked.

A ceramic car Gene made on a mantlepiece he built.

“Yes, I did,” Gene replied, and described to me the process of ceramic molding. Then he showed me several other cars he had made, many with lids.

“Are those cookie jars?” I asked as I pulled the lid off of a blue and white Mercury.

“Yes, they are,” Gene again responded, and told me of his business selling ceramic statues and automobiles through mail order. I curiously poked at all the beautiful vehicles and looked at the old advertisements that he had placed in magazines. Then my eyes veered left, down the hallway. Paintings filled the walls. “Did you paint these?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes, I did. I specialize in oil landscapes, but you can see I did a few portraits and a couple of abstracts.”

Is there nothing this man has not accomplished? I thought to myself as I looked at one tasteful, well-done landscape after another. I was particularly struck by the farm scenes and the quiet, empty feel of the prairies that his paintings evoked.

Courtesy Gene Paleno

Gene’s eyes moved toward a portrait leaning against a box full of his books. “That’s Jeanette,” he said. “I brought it out to work on it a bit more.” He looked at the painting again. “She was so beautiful.” His eyes saddened and darkened as his mind swam back through his memories. She stood in the painting, a trumpet in one hand, her black hair black against her black dress. “That’s how she looked when I met her,” he said quietly and paused for a half minute. “Just like that. We were married fifty years. She died in my arms three years ago.” He paused again, enveloped in thought.

It’s undeniable. Jeannette was gorgeous. Widow to the famous Dixieland Jazz musician Bob Scobey and a musician herself, she played the trumpet in her own band, and from the stories Gene tells, a kind, determined woman. Looking at the painting, I could imagine her in front of the stage, blowing bright, happy tunes, and see why Gene fell so deeply in love with her.

“May I take a picture of it?” I asked, breaking the silence.

“No.” Gene paused again. “I’m not done with her right eye yet. It doesn’t look quite right. I need to touch that up.” He sat a little longer, absorbed in memory, then turned back to me. “She would have wanted me to keep moving. She wouldn’t put up with me moping around. I joined a support group with other people who have lost a loved one. It helps to be able to talk about it, and get up and do something to help others.” He smiled, a smile that showed both his grief and gratitude for the fifty years he had spent with Jeannette. “Let me tell you about how I met her.”

“Uh, Gene?” I interrupted him, “I’ve got to turn on the recorder so I can get some of this. Do you mind if we start the interview now?”

“Not at all,” he replied, and I clicked on the ‘record’ button.

BLOOM: What year were you born?

GENE: 1926.

BLOOM: That was right before the Great Depression. So most of your memories are from a much different time than now.

GENE: The Depression happened in 1929 when the stock market crashed. I was too young to know that, but before I was five or six or seven, all the papers had headlines of the hoodlums in Chicago or New York shooting each other down with Tommy guns. By the time I was eight or nine we were living on a three-acre farm. My father planted everything he could on the farm to support us because by that time the Depression had hit hard, and we lived off the food. My mother canned. I remember seeing all these hundreds of jars of food in the fruit cellar, which was a little basement underneath the house where she put all her canned goods.

In fall, when the grapes were ripe, all the relatives would come out because we had six rows of concord grapes. We would pick those and crush all the grapes in a big crusher and put the grape juice in jars so that they would be ready for wine in a year or so. That went into the basement as well.

BLOOM: This was in Michigan. There were some bitterly cold winters then, right?

GENE: Oh yeah! Wintertime was fun for children. When we were under ten, we would take empty boxes like a mattress box, and use it as a sail. We would attach it as best we could to a sled, and the roads outside our house were always skim ice. The wind had blown the snow off, and it was very slippery. We would get on the sled, catch the wind and go down the road until we landed in the ditch. And they were deep ditches!

BLOOM: Did your father have work through the Depression?

GENE: He worked the whole time. He was an Italian immigrant and came over when he was fourteen years old. He was a hard worker, and smart. He went into the old Detroit Packard automobile factory and became a model maker making models of things to add to a car. He did fine, except there was a fire and he had to jump out of a window. He hurt his leg so badly he limped thereafter. He kept us fed, all six of us. We never starved and had enough money to get by. We had all our canned food. Summertime when school was out or even during school we had to hoe the corn and pick potato bugs off the potatoes, all of that sort of work. My mother would catch us when we would try to take strawberries off her strawberry patch. Laughs.

BLOOM: Those are great childhood memories. After that, you were of age in World War II. Did you get drafted?

GENE: No. I enlisted right out of high school. I went to boot camp, and because I had some small education, they decided to make me an officer. I served in the Pacific and saw no action; it was the tail end of the war. I remember the first cruise we went out. All the officers and enlisted men were hanging out over the fantail tossing our cookies. We were so seasick. The heavy waves were knocking the boat around. I’ll never forget that. It left me with a memory—the smell of the fuel they use on those ships.

BLOOM: Did you ever get over being seasick?

GENE: I did. I got over it. Even the claustrophobia I had. I just got over all of those little things on the ship.

BLOOM: What did you do after the war?

GENE: After the war, I went to school in Michigan on the G.I. Bill. But before that, I drove a taxicab.

BLOOM: What’s it like driving a taxicab?

GENE: We worked twelve-hour shifts. Six PM to six AM. A lot of my customers were ladies of the night, and they always tipped big! No one ever held me up, but they would like to talk, and I would listen to their stories. Some guy wasn’t happy with his wife, and he’d tell me the story, some woman was unhappy with her husband and she would talk. In those days there wasn’t any wall between the driver, and it was a smaller town. We all knew each other.

BLOOM: So it was a bit like taxicab therapy, then.

GENE: Laughs. Yes, it was. Then I did sign painting on some buildings in town. I always liked to do that.

BLOOM: How did you end up in California, after being in Michigan for so long?

GENE: In my first marriage I had four children, three girls, and one boy. Then we decided to go to California, and it must have been a good idea because all of my family followed me out. After living in Sherman Oaks for sixteen years, I got a divorce and was on my own for about eight years. Then I met Jeanette, and we were married for fifty years. She was beautiful and led her own band.

BLOOM: Tell me how you met her.

GENE: I had an employee in Chicago that I was training. He called me and said, “Do you want to go hear some Dixieland Music?” I didn’t know anything about Dixieland. So he took me to the O’Hare Airport lounge to hear this band that was playing. At the doorway to the lounge was this cardboard stand-up cutout of Jeanette with a trumpet. I was interested in seeing who she was. So I went in, sat down and had a drink. It was a few minutes before the set ended. At the break, she went around to all the tables and asked them what tunes they would like her band to play. She came around to my table, and I told her, “Sit down. Tell me how a pretty girl ever took up a trumpet and is leading a band.” She sat down at our table and was rubbing her neck. “What’s the matter?” I asked her. “Is your neck sore?” “The trumpet is heavy,” she told me, “and it gets me in the neck sometimes when I play it.” So, I jumped up, massaged her neck, and six weeks later we were married.

BLOOM: You must give good massages, Gene.

GENE: She must have thought so. Laughs. She loved Dixieland jazz, and even though I brought her up here, she still performed several times with bands. She had a business when I met her, besides the band. Her late husband Dick Scobey had performed with Bing Crosby, Harry James, and she had all his recordings, each one with six or seven songs with them. Jeannette was selling them. When she moved out here, she kept the business going selling through the mail. We went to festivals all over the county, and she would sell the records. Then when she got sick, I didn’t sell them. I had to take care of her, so we stopped doing that. That was the last business we worked together.

Anyway, we came back out to California, and rented a house in Burbank, then bought a great big house in San Fernando Valley with a big yard. We were happy there, and then after we had been there a few years, we decided to come north and take a look. We had taken one of my daughters up to school in Eureka. On the way back, I said to Jeannette, “Let’s cut across Hwy 20 to I-5, and then we’ll get back home from there. We did and stopped at the intersection in Upper Lake. There was a little two-by-four Realtor shack there. None of this stuff was at the corner like it is now. I asked the Realtor, “What do you have up here that’s for sale? I was raised in land like this.” So he started driving us around and took us over here in Bachelor Valley. None of these houses were there. It was 27 acres, and I liked it, so I bought it. She wanted to build a house on the big hill, but I thought it was a high hill. “It’s going to ruin the transmission of the automobile,” I told her. “Let’s try the smaller hill. It’s pretty here. We’ve got a good view of everything.” So then she and I together designed the plans for the house. We had a subcontractor build it. When it was built, after a while I got so interested in Lake County, I started writing about it.

BLOOM: How did you start writing?

GENE: I always was writing. I told my kids stories every night. They remember that. And at Douglas Aircraft, my supervisor and I would go out together. I had written a story about some little creatures. My supervisor liked it and thought maybe I could make it into a movie, cartoon, or something. Then I started to write more just shortly after I met Jeannette. While we were at these festivals that she would go to, at night I would go to a Denny’s and start writing stories. That’s where it all began. I’ve been writing for about 35 years now.

BLOOM: You’ve written quite a bit since then.

GENE: I’ve written fifteen books. Nine have been published. I’ve written six children’s stories.

BLOOM: How did you get interested in the history of Lake County?

GENE: I started asking questions and got to know people in the museums. There were some good things written about it, but nobody had put them together. So I started doing research and started talking to some of the ecology fellas about the history of the alluvial deposits on the lake. I talked with the Native Chief Jim Brown about the Pomo Indians and some of their beliefs, and how they lived at the time. I took all of this stuff together: interviews, interesting information, and stories from older people, then started putting together a book. I got all the pictures in the book, and it came out as Lake County History. It’s pretty complete. It’s written in a way that people seem to like, because it’s light, and humorous sometimes, and accurate.

BLOOM: You live in Bachelor Valley, which has some great stories. How did it get its name?

GENE: Three bachelors came in and built their houses. They all got married later on. One of them, a rough guy named Orr, took an Indian woman as a wife. She ran away from him in the middle of winter in the snow. He tracked her to her village, and she refused to come back. So he gave up, tossed her some gold, and left her and her child there.

BLOOM: He’s not the only tough bad guy in bachelor Valley, though.

GENE: Oh gosh, no. There were two or three highwaymen. One fella, he would leave poems every time he robbed the stage. They called him a laundry mark, because of his shirt. He was dressed like a gentleman, not some regular thief. Toward the end, before they could catch him, Wells Fargo offered him a lifetime annuity if he would stop robbing them, but he didn’t take it because he enjoyed the excitement. He’d always go in his bare feet because he didn’t want footprints. One time he hid sticks in the brush on the side of the road that looked like rifles. When the Wells Fargo men stopped, he said, “I’ve got all these guys in the bushes pointing rifles at you,” then robbed them. He was a very bright man.

BLOOM: Al Capone was also up here, right?

GENE: He stayed up at the Witter Springs Hotel. He had a guy stand at the intersection of Witter Springs Road and Bachelor Valley road with a Tommy gun to ward out anybody who was riffraff because he had a celebration going on. Other movie stars did come up. Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jimmy Durante. Charlie Chaplin lived here for a while. They’ve got some pictures of him at the museum.

BLOOM: Do you have any other interesting stories about Lake County?

GENE: Our volcano, Konocti, has all kinds of unique things. There’s an underground river that comes out faster than you can row a boat. And Every time silt builds up on the bottom of Clear Lake it settles the same distance down, so the lake stays the same depth. We’re not very far above the tectonic plate; it’s not as far down as it is other places. Because we’re so close to the plates, the sheer weight of the sediment in the lake lowers the rock underneath.

BLOOM: What do you see for the future of Lake County?

GENE: It’s one of the few places in California that will be getting Dark Skies recognition. That is, you can stand outside and see the Milky Way. Artificial lighting is stopping you from seeing it in the city. The county even got PG & E to change the frequency of the lights they use, so they don’t interfere with seeing the sky.

It’s really an island separated from other counties and has so much to offer, especially this beautiful lake. I see more people rushing to come here. It’s a special place.

BLOOM: If you could impart one piece of advice to others, what would that be?

GENE: The only thing that people will remember you or me for is what we have done for other people. Of course, you have to love yourself. Take care of yourself with the right thoughts and being healthy. Otherwise, how can you love anyone else? Take care of yourself and think about other people.

BLOOM: Thank you, Gene, for your time. I really appreciate it.

And then I leaned over, turned off the recorder, and spent some time chatting. Gene has a wealth of knowledge and a plethora of stories to share. I knew it was time to go but had a hard time leaving. I shook his hand twice when I left because I had nothing other than words to thank him with.

If you want to read some of Gene’s writings, you can always check out Lake County History, currently being serially published on The Bloom. To read some of his other books, which span the genres from history to science fiction, take a look at his website: Genepaleno.com

This article first appeared in The Bloom on January 10, 2019.

David Wakefield

David and Trudy Wakefield started The Bloom in 2018 to showcase the best parts of Lake County and to provide a local outlet for community events, arts, music, and writing.

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