(This is the first of a four part series)

Ken Meade searched his pockets for a cigarette, bummed a Marlboro and a light from a stranger. He was one of a hundred people hunkered over gaming forms in the clubhouse at Golden Gate Fields, a racetrack anchored on the eastern lip of the San Francisco Bay.

A virtual United Nations of gamblers gazed upward, mesmerized by a dozen strobbing television sets bolted to the ceiling. They bit their fingernails, pounded down hard liquor, chain-smoked, and issued solemn pledges to deities and dead ancestors, one bloated woman cursing a steed and the mother of the man who rode it.

Amid the growing pandemonium Meade managed to maintain a polite conversation though he was distracted, having wagered eighteen dollars on Thunder Echo to win.

Outside in the glinting sunlight a dozen horses leaned into the second turn of the track, coats gleaming, nostrils flaring, the earth erupting beneath them. Jockeys humped the magnificent creatures, shouted words of encouragement, and with a snap of their wrists gave them a taste of a whip as they hurtled around the track.

The pounding grew nearer, three horses neck-and-neck as they approached the finish line. The roar of the crowd reached a crescendo, rafters and girders vibrating. Then it stopped, sound sucked into a wormhole with a zap, steel cables quivering like a tuning fork.

Thunder Echo finished second. Meade could not hide his disappointment, eighteen dollars no small amount to lose for a man living in a retirement home, surviving on a monthly social security check and little more. Yet it was not the first time Meade lost a wager: For years he gambled with fate and nearly lost everything. At the low point of his life he thought he might even lose his mind…

Thirty years before Ken Meade raced down Interstate 80 at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour, his driver a California Highway Patrolman under orders to get him to the State Capitol for a key legislative vote.

The California State Assembly was locked down by order of Speaker Bob Moretti. Republicans and Democrats held caucuses and all-night meetings, food and drinks delivered from the outside as they haggled and made deals in an effort to meet a June deadline to approve a state budget.

Serving the second of three terms in the Assembly representing the 16th District (Albany, Berkeley and Oakland), Meade made a personal plea to Moretti: “I told Bobby, ‘My marriage is coming apart and I can’t just sit around here, I’ve got to go home.’” Meade recollected. “Bobby said, ‘All right but on the condition that you be by the phone at all times. If anything comes up, I’m going to have the CHP pick you up and bring you here. Your vote on the budget is crucial.’

“My wife, Sharon, her major complaint—and it was a legitimate one—was that I was never there. So I’m down there with Sharon, we’re talking about the nuts-and-bolts of us staying together. We had two beautiful children and a beautiful home in the Oakland hills. Sharon was a wonderful, supportive wife. Then the phone rings. It’s Moretti. ‘You’ve got to come up here, I’ve got the CHP on the way.’ I looked at Sharon, she looks at me and at that instant the highway patrol was outside. So we sort of both knew, right there, that that was it…”

“AT AN EARLY AGE my father instilled in me a belief that American democracy was being highjacked by the growing power of the corporate state,” Meade said, pausing to snuff a Marlboro out on a saucer piled high with cigarette butts, thick with ashes and nicotine. “I think my father was a socialist, possibly a communist, though he didn’t belong to any organizations or get politically involved. But he felt that the concentrations of wealth and power in America were lording it over the people.”

KENNETH JACK MEADE, the future assemblyman’s father, migrated to Canada from England on the eve of the First World War. An “illegal alien,” he worked the steam-powered ore boats of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, then “stepped off one day on the U.S. side of the border and never looked back.”

A successful salesman in Chicago until the Depression nearly bankrupted him, Kenneth Jack sought adventure and a new start in San Francisco. There he met Madeline Arnold, a modest young woman who would soon become his bride.

 “My mother Madeline – her mom disappeared mysteriously when she was just a teen,” Meade said, his expression revealing a profound sadness as if he had been there and witnessed his mother’s pain. “Soon thereafter her father – my grandfather – married again, his second wife the classic evil stepmother, a woman who constantly berated my mom and her siblings.”

Madeline escaped, boarding a bus with her siblings in tow when she was 16 years old. She, too, headed for the Promised Land in the West, soon settling into a job at a dreary dress factory where she labored away all day then rushed home in the evening to cook and clean and care for her brother and sister. The responsibilities were great, the rewards few. Her sacrifice would later come back to haunt her.

Madeline Arnold and Kenneth Jack Meade married, and on September 27, 1938, gave birth to a boy named after the father.

Ken Meade was raised in Sausalito, a quaint little town northeast of the Golden Gate where the rich, the poor, artists and other Bohemians battled, later estblishing a truce that, with a few exceptions, lasts to this day. 

During World War II, both Madeline and Kenneth Jack worked in the Bechtel shipyards. Madeline became a welder and, much like “Rosie the Riveter,” built Liberty Ships. Meade’s father performed a more specialized job: He sailed a skiff into the waters around the shipyards and fished out keel blocks and shores – large wedge-shaped blocks of wood used to secure ships before launch.

There was plenty of work during the war, and together the couple saved enough money to purchase a home in Marin County. They were young and living the American Dream. But Meade’s father was not satisfied and wanted a business of his own…

“They were sort of living a middle class life when my dad decided to sell the house and invest all the money they had in zippers,” Meade said. “So we moved to this little shack over the water in Sausalito. I can remember the zippers that he dyed hanging from the rafters. We had big pots of dye cooking on the stove, and this was a little place—an ark on stilts over the water, really old and ramshackled. And when we weren’t dying those zippers my dad would be up on the roof putting tar paper on it, literally building up the place around us.”

The move and failed business venture took its toll on Madeline, who suffered one of many “nervous breakdowns” as bouts of depression were known back then.

Kenneth Jack faced an enormous challenge paying for his wife’s care and supporting their young son. Unable to get out on the road frequently enough to sell zippers “the whole thing fell apart. We were on the equivalent of welfare. I can remember strangers coming by, interviewing me, my dad, and bringing us supplies. I didn’t like it at all.”

The young Meade did have some good times as a child: Father and son built a small centerboard boat together, one they often sailed to Angel Island and other local ports of call. Once his father taught him the ropes, Meade would often venture out on his own and explore the islands, tidal marshes, creeks and ports of the Bay estuary.

One afternoon when Meade was just twelve years old he braved the treacherous currents and winds of the Golden Gate and sailed to San Francisco. His goal? The San Francisco Yacht Club. As he neared the Marina, Meade noticed dark clouds gathering at the Golden Gate Bridge like an invading army awaiting orders. Yet the young Meade ignored the warning and sailed right into the heart of the Yacht Club.

There he triumphantly climbed atop the club’s landing dock, tied down his skiff and set about exploring docks and piers, amazed by the grandeur of the big boats, mesmerized by the carefree lifestyle of the men who owned them, so curiously casual – and confident – as they sipped martinis on the afterdecks, beautiful women clinging to their arms.

Meade took it all in, oblivious to storm clouds now in advance, slowly flooding the Bay. He stood in wonder and admired a polished brass winch glinting in the sun, the slope of the ship’s bow, the nonchalant attitude of its captain. Now that’s the life, Meade thought…

A gust of wind snapped flags and sails, a linen napkin darted overboard, and the skipper of the yacht grabbed the bill of his cap just in time. In a panic Meade made a dash for his boat. As he sailed into the Bay, the sky grew dark and the wind began to howl. Then it hit him – his life was in grave danger. 

Night fell and waves surged in ten foot swells lifting the skiff skyward, long fingers of foam slapping sails and drenching the young sailor. Meade gripped the tiller with white knuckles, anchoring the sheet of the main sail in his right hand, tightening and releasing it with his left, constantly making adjustments, struggling to avoid being capsized by the blustering winds and surging waves. The journey seemed endless and there were moments when Meade thought he was a goner. But he fought on through the night, using all the skills his father taught him, even as the salty waves of the advancing sea blinded him.

He battled the storm for hours… Then the sky suddenly cleared as the young Meade sailed his boat through Hurricane Gulch, an area just south of Sausalito where the ocean currents and winds that race through the Golden Gate are blocked by the headlands of Marin. In the light of the moon the twelve-year-old glided his little craft into the calm waters of Sausalito’s harbor where he docked beneath the shack where he lived.

Though soaking wet, cold and exhausted, Meade had a smile on his face: There was no lesson to be learned that day. If anything the perilous journey gave him confidence, perhaps giving birth to an inclination to take audacious risks. After tying his boat down the young Meade made his way home, staggering through the front door, anxious to tell the tale of his amazing voyage.

No one was there.