End of an era; ocean voyagers and the Panama Canal

By Michael Raffety


Thursday Joy Haessler died. She was a feature writer for the Mountain Democrat for more than 20 years, about the same number of years that the late Rosemary Moore spent as features editor, which we then called Foothill Life editor.

Joy had a personality that matched her name. Here at our Broadway office she sat on the other side of my office partition right next to Rosemary. Joy was a productive writer. She edited special sections and she brightened the newsroom with her upbeat personality.

She also had some joke erasers in her drawer that Pat Lakey and I used to build a little shrine for a writer who was leaving. We did that because he had misspelled Chapel of the Pines in an obituary, transposing the two vowels in Pines (We caught it in time!). Since this is not a late night comedy show I’ll leave it to your imagination what we named our little chapel of novelty erasers for the writer. The writer, by the way, last wrote to me from Beijing where he was a freelance correspondent and was writing a book.

Our news staff came from a wide geographic area of the county. Joy, former Sports Editor Pete Webster and former Editor Ursula Smith all lived in El Dorado Hills. After retiring Ralph and Joy moved to Roseville.

Joy was famous for her devotion to Pepé Le Pew. She had a whole room in her El Dorado Hills home devoted to her skunk collection, including a real stuffed skunk.

Joy, I am informed, took a fall three days before Christmas, broke her knee replacement and severed an artery. She had been in a rehab center until Friday when circulation problems and subsequent infections affected her legs. She declined double amputation and dialysis and later died. She was 76 and leaves her husband Ralph, daughters Heidi and Vicki and son Peter.

I will miss her. Joy Haessler was one of a kind. Her passing marks the end of an era for the Mountain Democrat.

• • •

I am informed that the El Dorado County buddies who set sail from France across the Atlantic have passed through the Panama Canal. The four sailors are winery owner Brian Fitzpatrick, aircraft broker Mark Pilkington, rafting company owner Nate Rangel and Somerset resident Andrew Starr.

Here are a few quotes from Brian Fitzpatrick’s blog from March 17:

“The water a wee bit warm at 90 degrees, a few poisonous yellow-bellied sea snakes, a croc if you linger near the shore, dolphins playing round the INNcredible while we make way to Costa Rica’s first port of entry – Golfito.

“But yesterday – the Islas Secas ( the northern extent of the Galapagos hot spot chain) is idyllic and only one other boat amidst the whole chain of islands except for the folks who pay $1,000 per night to stay in these fancy white tents perched on the hill. Seeking to find this underwater wall where Mantas swim circles around you we set out in the dinghy with our new neighbor, Laud ( a drop-out Med student from UNM) and motored around to the outside of the island and two of us dove with tanks in search. The 89 degree surface water quickly drops 20 degrees below 35 feet and at 65 feet we were sliding along a sloping sandy bottom searching for a drop off wall. Not to be found we swam toward the volcanic steep sides of the island and rode the powerful surge along its bouldered-reef. Tons of fish, giant snappers (Pargo), Groupers, Puffers, etc. At times the surge sucked us backwards then shot us forward like a circus act out of a cannon. This was an athletic dive and could be very dangerous to anyone unfamiliar with the power of waves.”

• • •

While packing up my credenza into boxes for the move to our new digs I ran across something one of our readers brought me about 10 years ago. Couldn’t figure out what to do with it until now. Since the El Dorado County sailors just recently transited the Panama Canal I can refer to it somewhat.

The 48-mile canal was completed in 1914. The first three locks lift ships 85 feet to an artificial lake that was created by damming the Chagres River. The lake is 164 square miles. Another set of locks lowers ships from the lake to the Pacific Ocean.

The slim volume that was given to me by Elsie Skutt of Camino was obviously a commemorative edition in English and Spanish. It includes colorized photogravures of U.S. battleships transiting the canal shortly after it was opened, by the looks of the ships, the tiny lizzies and the horse and buggy in some of the scenes around the towns and canal administration.

The battleships were all named after states: New Mexico, Texas, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Mississippi, Vermont, Wyoming, New York and Arkansas. Now there are no battleships. We have aircraft carriers named after presidents and admirals.

I was fascinated by the battleships from about 1915. I’m even more fascinated by the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Built on 635 acres that essentially created what is now the Marina District, the only thing that remains of it is the Palace of Fine Arts. But somewhere stashed away in a city warehouse are murals and artwork from the many exhibit halls. My mission is to convince someone at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to ferret those out and mount an exhibit.

Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat and is the same age as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a cinematically much better movie, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Director (William Wyler).


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