Tuesday, March 8, 2011

James Dean Not Killed By Oak Tree

Back in college or shortly thereafter, I decided to hold my own personal James Dean film festival.  I watched all of his movies in one day.  The most enduring image of that day is the scene in East of Eden when he's flat on his stomache in a field watching bean plants grow.  I remember hearing someone - the director? - once say that Dean came up with that scene idea on his own.  The excitement and expectancy with with Dean watches the tiny plants reminds me of me watching oaks grow in my tree tubes, with two differences:  My oaks grow faster, and I look exactly like James Dean... after some horribly disfiguring industrial accident.

Please excuse the unintentially tasteless segue, but today I drove past the Jack Ranch Cafe on CA route 46/41... better known as the James Dean Memorial.  My work often takes me to this part of the world - between Bakersfield and Paso Robles - and I have driven by the site numerous times but never stopped.  There is a big stainless steel memorial encircling a trees.  For years I have naively assumed that a) the tree was an oak, and b) Dean must have wrapped is Posche Spyder around it.  (By the way, I'm not a "car guy" but I have to admit I'd give a week's pay to take that Porsche for a spin sometime!)  Wrong on both counts.  Dean and his passenger collided head on with a Cal Poly student. At that time the junction of 46 and 41 was located at that site (today it is a mile or two to further east); the young driver was heading east and took the fork to head NW toward Fresno on 41.  He never saw Dean coming from the west.  Dean assumed the other driver did see him, and didn't take evasive action until too late.  The young man survived, as did Dean's passenger in friend (not-so-ironically dying in a car wreck in Germany after several failed suicide attempts).  Dean died perhaps 10 minutes after the crash.

Since the hillsides are covered with gorgeous oaks the nourished the Chumash and other indigenous people for eons, I never looked closely enough at the memorial site tree:  It is an Ailanthus altissima, Tree of Heaven, not an oak.

Fittingly the crash site is, quite literally, East of Eden - for the Indians must have viewed the oaks of Paso Robles (crossing full of oak trees) as Eden in the same way that J. Russell Smith thought of Eden, a place of natural bounty, where nature provides nourishment without labor and toil.  I have linked to this Smith article about a bajillion times, but if you have never read it, please do.

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