I’ve mentioned the passing of my friend Mark Alpen, also known as SSMark, BarbequeSlayer, and the Chief FirstOrderOutLiar. To help myself deal with the grief I collected some of the stories about Mark that others have posted. Some I knew and some were new to me. With Ln’s permission I’ve decided to share them.
Mark was a skilled motorcyclist, a craftsman with woodwork, a sailor, a Viet Nam veteran. He was, perhaps, in the running for the Most Interesting Man In The World.
SSMark appears several times in previous pages in this site. See
ZS. Wetleather pt 2, the Gather
ZM. WetLeather pt. 3B, the BB100 Race
ZF. A Ride in the Desert
In this collection I’ve changed some names, or used nicknames, or first names only, since I haven’t asked permission to use full names on this Website. If you didn’t know Mark you may find this page uninteresting, but I think some of these stories stand on their own whether you knew Mark or not. There are some gems here, and many contributions that show how much he was loved by so many people. They also show what type of man he was. Bear in mind this is just a subset of stories people posted.
When my late wife was diagnosed with cancer, Mark and Ln were among the first to offer their support. They also offered their hospitality, letting us know we were welcome anytime at their place in Escondido. We weren’t ever able to make that visit work, but it was always an open invitation.
Mark sent several supportive notes to me over the next few years. Just quiet words of affirmation, checking in to see how I was holding up. I told him, whenever I saw him, just how much those notes meant to me, as they always seemed to arrive at dark moments.
After she passed away…the next WetLeather event I attended…Mark came and sat next to me. Put his arm on the back of the chair I was sitting in, and just sat there with me for a while.
For me, the most powerful story Mark ever told was the time he was absolutely silent.
I’m not good at saying “I love you,” most times not even to family and pretty much never to friends. I’m also not good at saying the right thing at a social gathering; not to people I don’t know, and maybe especially to people I know and care about.
A while back, at a WetLeather gathering – it might have been Martin and Carol’s anniversary, it might have been something else – I was doing my wall fade thing, hiding behind a glass of something strong and smiling a watery grin to cover up that I can’t remember names, when someone put a hand on my shoulder and said, “I think you and I are the only ones here who have one of those.”
I looked around to see Mark, smiling…but not grinning. He pointed at the badge on the back of my old jacket. “It’s not really a CIB [Combat Infantryman Badge],” I demurred.
“Same damn thing,” he said. “I’m around if you want to talk.”
We never did talk, much. But Mark made a friend that day, effortlessly, the way he knew how to do. He made a place for me with the cool kids. I could sit on the edge of the circle and hear the stories go around.
My whole life, I never trusted the cool kids, but you all have been excellent to me. You’ve made space for my crashing around, and I love you for it. There, you made me say it.
Or Mark did. Effortlessly, the way he knew how to do.
“I don’t often ride my motorcycle through a family picnic…
but when I do I kill the barbeque.”
From SSMark 2013:
How I became the Barbeque Slayer
A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was an internet list [of motorcyclists] known as the Denizens of Doom. An off-shoot of that group was the Joust List, mostly people west of the Rockies. Each year, people from the list in the northern-ish parts of the west would ride south, and those southern-ish would ride north. Meeting in the middle, camping out, eating and drinking (OK, mostly drinking), then riding home at the end of a weekend.
So, there I was. 1996. Riding north to the INTERCOASTAL IRONHORSE JOUST, this year at a campground near Yosemite N.P. Dan Wang, another rider from the south, is riding with me on his Suzuki hot rod, I’m on my Honda Ascot. Southern Sierra back roads, a beautiful afternoon, spirited riding. WE WERE NOT RACING!
Tollhouse Road near Huntington Lake, Dan is leading. I decide I want to up the pace a bit, so I pass Dan on a short straight, then jam on the binders for the tight corner coming up. Into the turn, I’m going too fast. Sliding now, I think to myself “Self, you’re a racer, you can save this.” Forest along side the road, big trees. As I leave the road about 10 feet above the forest floor I can see a clearing ahead. First trees, then grass, a picnic table goes by on the left, then a large black thing. Then a driveway [up to the street]. Up the driveway, where Dan is waiting at the top. I stop at the top and Dan asks “There were people down there, you want to stop?”
“F**k no, let’s get out of here,” I reply, so off we go.
We get to the Joust, dinner happens, much beer happens. After dinner, by the campfire, the awards ceremony gets going. People are nominating friends for Best Performance in a Corner, several nominations happen. Dan is smiling, I tell him “no.” In front of about a hundred people Dan blurts out “Mark hit a barbeque;” the group goes silent.
“He rode through a party and blasted their barbeque.” Lots of calls for the complete story. I tell my tale of woe and am awarded Best Performance in a Corner and the official title BarbequeSlayer.
Riding home the next day we retraced our route. Going by the Event Location, we stopped and had a look around. There was a large charred spot in the lawn and a bent up Weber grill. We didn’t hang around.
A song for SSMark from Derek:
Jim provided the lyrics if you aren’t able to play the music:
COMPANY OF FRIENDS
When I die, let them judge me by my company of friends
Let them know me as the footprints that I left upon the sand
Let them laugh for all the laughter
Let them cry for laughter’s end
But when I die, let them judge me by my company of friends
When I die, let them toast to all the things that I believe
Let them raise a glass to consciousness
And not spill a drop for grief
Let the bubbles rise at midnight
Let their tongues get light as thieves
And when I die, let them toast to all the things that I believe
I believe in restless hunger
I believe in red balloons
I believe in private thunder
In the end I do believe
I believe in inspiration
I believe in lightning bugs
I believe in slow creation
In the end I do believe
I believe in ink on paper
I believe in lips on ears
I believe what’s shared is savored
In the end I do believe
I believe in work on Sundays
I believe in raising barns
I believe in wasting Mondays
In the end I do believe
I believe in intuition
I believe in being wrong
I believe in contradiction
In the end I do believe
I believe in living smitten
I believe all hearts will mend
I believe our book is written
By our company of friends
Copyright 2007. Words and music by Danny Schmidt.
Mark Alpen at the 1998 Gather. The poodle is Toots, with her custom made goggles and conspicuity vest. She travelled from Escondito CA to Crescent Lake OR, a distance of nearly 900 miles, in the tankbag of Mark’s VFR750. Photo by SwtP
“I don’t often crash into the side of an aircraft carrier….
but when I do I am invited to lunch by the Captain.”
No shit, there I was. October 31, 1970. Near midnight. Sailing up San Francisco Bay from a sales/service office in Redwood City to a sales only office on the Oakland Estuary. I’m sailing a brand new Ericson32 to be delivered to its first owner tomorrow morning. I’m alone, it’s late, it’s cold, and it’s crystal clear. With hardly any wind I’m making about 2 knots; I’m out of gas.
Now, dear reader, keep in mind that my perspective is that of the pirates, down low on the water. I look to my right and I see all the lights of the East Bay, to my left is SFO and the Peninsula, all lit up as well. Up ahead fairly close aboard I can see the lights of the Bay Bridge spanning the dark waters below. Under the bridge lights I see the darkness that is Marin County. As I make my way toward the channel entrance I have to go around the Oakland Navy Supply Terminal and the end of Alameda Naval Air Station. No big deal, if I just stay in the channel I’ll be alright.
I see rivets. WTF? Rivets? I rub my tired eyes just as I ram the USS Bon Homme Richard, CV31. Broadside. Big noise, much confusion, a HUGE light comes on from above. Lots of fumbling around on my part as I get the boat away from the side of the ship. Collecting myself, I manage to sail around the stern where I met several tugs with lots of lights and more searchlights playing over me. The carrier is heading for a berth at Alameda Naval Air Station and is going to tie up on the side I hit her on, so all the lights and tugs and action is on the other side of the ship. My side is quite dark and had just blended into what I expected to see, Marin County and the north bay, mostly dark.
Terribly slowly, I manage to sail away into the darkness. I get to the channel entrance and down the channel to our docks where I tie up and roll myself up in a sleeping bag to try and get some sleep.
Next morning, somewhere near 0’dark:30, there is much pounding on the deck. I open the hatch to see two Navy Shore Patrol with an envelope. “You out sailing last night near the channel entrance?” How could I deny this? With the brand new boat’s rub rail all covered with black US Navy bottom paint and the bow pulpit all stove in, there was not much hope of getting away with “no, not me, must have been some other beat up new boat.” I said yes, the handed me the envelope, saluted, and left. In the envelope was an invitation to lunch with the captain aboard the carrier.
I cleaned up as best I could, moved the boat to a local boatyard to get the pulpit replaced, borrowed the company truck and headed for Alameda. At the gate I was given a VIP pass (Ha! me a government VIP!) and an escort that led me to the ship’s berth and gangway. Walking aboard, the Officer Of the Deck escorted me to the officer’s mess, where I met the captain and his executive officer. We had a nice lunch, much laughing. He commented that I was the only sailor to ever ram a U.S. warship and live to tell about it.
Spring 2014. SSMark and I helped ferry a 124′ sailboat from San Diego harbor to Cabo San Jose on the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico. We’ve taken several trips together, most on motorcycles — this was the first ocean adventure I was lucky enough to share with Mark.
Mark knows how to catch a fish for dinner. Photo by SSHMarc
My two strongest memories of him are both at my house in Eugene. On one occasion he brought a desk from Shannon. We walked out to the tarped load and he lifted the edge and stepped under it, and I gasped when I saw the gorgeous wood (mahogany, my favorite). He chuckled and when I looked up he had that look that someone has when they love someone and have just watched them discover something glorious. It’s the look fathers have on Christmas morning when kids get bicycles, or that lovers have when they introduce their beloved to a new food, or that best friends have when their bestie just met someone extra special. But Mark seemed to look at everyone that way.
The other occasion is more personal. I wasn’t going to share it, but your post changed my mind. Shortly after Jack and I made public that we were dating, Mark found some excuse to stop by the house on his way north. I can’t remember the excuse. I just remember him spending at least three hours in my kitchen talking about his return from Vietnam, his first marriage’s ending, and the things Ln did differently. Mark was in my kitchen because finding Ln changed his life, and he hoped to pass along some insights so that perhaps another vet would find his person too. I don’t know if I ever really thanked him, so I’ll do it now.
Ln, I know how hard loving a veteran can be over the long run. I know how much doubt and fear it can foster, and how lonely it can sometimes feel, and sometimes be. So I wanted you to know that Mark made it absolutely clear to me on that day how transformative you were in his life, how much he valued you, and how much he hoped every veteran might ‘find their Ln’.
By John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
When I was injured and in the hospital in Denver (broken back, spinal cord injury, permanent paralysis, torn aorta, no big deal) Mark and Ln came all the way from Escondido to see me. Their visit overlapped with my son’s visit. Steven was eight and, like kids do, he just accepted the situation. During some procedure or other, Mark took Steven and taught him Elevator Jumping. That’s when you try to time your jump to correspond with the elevator starting down, making your jump appear much higher. It’s a tricky skill that requires delicate timing.
Steven loved it and, I believe, so did Mark. He had a special connection to kids, partially because he never lost the kid within, in spite of some of the stuff he had to endure.
I heard this story from one of Mark’s Viet Nam infanty unit at the hotel after the Celebration of Life event in October this year. I didn’t record it word-for-word but this is how I heard it.
“We had some problems with troops being injured by friendly fire because one group would schedule a night ambush at the same time another group would schedule a night patrol in the same area. The brass didn’t coordinate enough.
“Mark was a sergeant and his lieutenant asked him to organize a night ambush. Mark refused, knowing what bad stuff might happen. The lieutenant says, “Well, I’ve got this order from above, and I’m giving it to you. If you don’t follow orders I’ll have to bust you.” Mark still refused.
“He was busted to corporal and reassigned to pilot the boats that ferried troops up and down the river. It happened to be an assignment Mark loved! He was on the water, driving boats around, and he worked with the maintenance crew to tinker with the motors to try to get more power.
“That’s the type of man Mark was. He would rather get busted than put his troops in harms way.”
Crazy Charles (who isn’t really crazy, that’s just a nickname) told me this story. He was riding with Mark, maybe to the 1998 Gather. When they got to some twisty road Mark slowly but steadily disappeared into the distance. Damn! Charles thought, I can’t keep up with this guy and he’s got a DOG in his tank bag!