The Glendoran – May/June 1992
Every Town Needs a Castle
Part II – By Dwayne Hunn
Glen Speer and Skipper Landon – two characters foolish enough to hang around building castles when they could have been doing something totally rational.
In 1959 he asked Michael if he could "live in the box factory." The box factory had open parking stalls for farm trucks on the ground level. On its second floor Al Bourne, owner of the farm and Singer Sewing Machine Company, stored boxes in which his citrus was packed.
"But Glen, there's no water, no electricity. It's just a sheet metal building with a room filled with boxes."
"Well, I'd like to fix it up and live in it."
Glen and Michael had been friends since high school. Glen's request wasn't so outlandish or foolish, when stacked against all the foolish things Michael had done and still dreamed of doing. So, of course, Michael said, "Okay."
It wasn't long before Glen's box factory had electricity, running water, a drawing table, hand-made floor to ceiling bookcases made from scrap 3"x8"'s stuffed with books, and a little gas heater. Soon thereafter he laminated and varnished old pieces of wood into stunning kitchen and bathroom sinks with flywheel knobs and wooden water flow culverts, installed recessed floor and ceiling lighting, and cut in sky lights. Although his bedroom design never advanced much beyond a large mattress on the floor, one of his bedroom walls became a majestically designed maze of exposed brass and copper piping, which on command filled his gigantic sunken wooden bathtub.
Sure, some nights it was cold in that uninsulated sheet metal building. Insulating was one of Glen's upcoming chores. But somehow standing around talking about the books stacked on his bookcases or about ideas, work, life -- while periodically moving next to the 16" gas fire block heater, warming your back, rubbing your hands, curling you hot cup of tea -- seemed to make the cold freshen and enliven the talk.
Glen never finished the insulating. Those brisk California mornings, chilly nights and few cold days never amounted to enough discomfort to pull Glen from his other chores.
Chores? Like in work? Michael didn't make him do anything but pay a very low rent. He only worked 20 very low wage hours a week as a box boy at Bock's Variety store. Getting to work on his Honda 350 or his rebuilt and refinished MG took less than five minutes.
The words "chores and work" weren't the correct words. Glen just always had something to do and whatever it was, it always came out as some kind of artwork. He had his box factory to fix, steel spiral staircase to build, the Pharm's main kitchen to design and build, workshop to create, barbecue pit to build, jewelry to make, paintings and drawings to do, books to read, motorbike and car to tinker with...
Then he also had those he always helped. Glen's mind and body and the designs and ideas it generated had always been there for Michael's beck and call.
It's a good thing Glen was shy. Had more people known how talented, caring and giving he was, his old-time friends and those of us who stumbled upon his friendship later, might have been deprived of some of his special time.
In 1969 I began renting the Pharm's night watchman house. Twenty yards away, across the railroad tied driveway, was Glen's box factory.
Unlike his long-time friends, his new neighbor knew less than zero about building. This neighbor's first Pharm building project, imitating the design of an orange crate with a center shelf piece and calling it a bookcase, was completed with bowed sides. With the base cut to its outside dimensions and its top cut to its inside dimensions, the nailed-on sidewalls had no choice but to bow. Texturing its stain with different colored rubbed-in finger paints only added to its kindergarten-like finished quality. I always wondered what gentle inner maturity and patience made Michael and Glen stop from laughing upon examined my first piece of construction. Yep! I was blessed to have stumbled into the life of the Glen, the talented and gentle teacher.
Glen opened his self-built wood shop and all its valuable tools to his klutzy neighbor whose zilch knowledge of tools qualified him as tool room scary. When Michael said the staircase to the second story tree house was becoming dangerous because it was rotted and full of termites, Glen said to me, "Why don't you tear it down and build a new one. I'll help you."
So with the 6"x8" and 2"x6" lumber which we and an old Pharm truck regularly recycled from the San Gabriel Mountain mine shafts, through which Feather River Project water was to flow, we built Glen's designed stair case. Glen would show me what needed to be done, do some of it and leave his new neighbor to struggle hours into the night and on weekends getting it assembled.
Of course, such training from good teachers always produced much more than anticipated. The old termited, crumbling stairs became a gracious and wide staircase that wound around the majestic oak tree and opened onto a deck with sunken barbecue pit. The deck was about twice as big as the 400 square foot tree house which it embraced. Soon that deck sprouted another deck that encircled the Pharm swimming/fish pool. This fashionable Los Angeles pool was designed from a farmer's tin water reservoir which about 40 Pharm expedition friends moved from San Dimas.
Everyone who knew Glen knew he could build anything. Some of us knew he knew how to "gently" teach others how to build almost anything. All of us who knew him well knew he was also humble about all the things this Berkeley Architecture School drop-out knew so well.
Part of Glen's character was capsulized for me one day in 1970. Glen had been talking about leaving the Pharm, about trying "to make it in the real world." Most of his friends were making their mark in the world. In Woody Allen's most sensitive manner, Glen was defining himself as a stock boy at Bock's. The real Glen wasn't a stock boy at Bock's. Glen loved every minute of every day on every thing he ever did at the Pharm. In the real world outside of the Pharm, however, Glen was starting to believe he was a stock boy at Bock's.
When the world gives only miserly rewards to a shy, sensitive artist, the world can sometimes sap that wonderful and creative artistic spirit. Glen was thinking that maybe he would have to leave the pharm "at least for a while" and make some money in the outside world. Maybe he would accept the offer of the general contractor who had visited the pharm and offered Glen a chance to be a framer for him on his construction crew in St. John, Virgin Islands.
On this day in 1970, Glen had returned from work on his Honda motorcycle with his backpack filled with a half dozen library books. Michael, Glen and I looked at the books as Glen talked about them. All the books were about building. One even dealt with how to frame windows, showing diagrams and pictures.
Looking at that window framing book, I asked, "Glen, what do you need this for?"
"Well, window framing is a lot more complicated then it looks... I figured I had better understand how it is done."
I just looked at Michael, thinking to myself, "Glen can build anything, what is he doing with these books?" Michael looked at me with that old Pharmer's hat that was punctured with holes, tarred with grease and stain spots, and reeking with the odors of soils and sweat; lifted his eye brows, puckered, opened his mouth as if to speak and then froze it shut before any words spilled out. The little leprechaun who survived in Michael's hat often shuttered Michael's mouth like that just before he uttered.
Instead of hearing Michael speak his thoughts, my mind replayed words Michael had once said, "Glen has a gift few people have. He can look at an empty spot and visualize what could and should be there. Then he can do what even fewer people can do -- he can make what should be there. When it's finished it's always beautiful. I can build things, but I can never visualize it before hand. I can make things work, but they seldom look pretty working. Glen could always see it, build it, make it beautiful. And it would work. He is truly gifted."
A few days after that incident, Glen was sitting in the tree house and said that the tree house could be a much nicer living pace if we knocked the walls down and redesigned it. When I asked Michael if I could do that he said "No!"
"If Glen were doing it with me, would that be all right?"
"Well, if Glen were doing it, it would be all right."
Over the last 20 years of knowing Michael, I have never seen him not at least say "Hello" on meeting. Seldom have I seem his face go pale. The next day, upon hearing banging in the tree house, Michael climbed the stairs, opened the door to see what he believed was the tree house's bearing wall with its plaster and framing piled a foot deep on the floor, blankly stared at me, the sledge hammers, crow bars and Glen; turned pale and marched back down the stairs. Only two days later, when we had a 6"x8" beam supporting the middle of the room and Glen's supervised redesign was underway, did Michael have something to say.
As we sat around in one of the pharm's traditional talk-a-thons over one of Michael's cheap gallons of jug wine, Michael said, "You know, the tree house was the only normal place we had on the pharm. It had normal plaster, shower, sink, toilet and kitchen. It was built to code for a night watchman to live in. Then, one day after I said 'No, you couldn't mess it up,' you had it trashed on the floor. I thought the whole roof was going to cave in when I saw the bearing wall on the floor."
Everyone in that room who knew the hours I spent redoing the tree house knew that in the end nothing would go wrong. The tree house could only be better because of the quiet guy across from me who shared wine and anything else that you needed in order to be.
Glen left the pharm that year to be a "window framer" on St. John. He was terribly lonely. He wrote and sent tapes to his friends in the hopes that they would respond. His friends’ responses were his social contact with the world and a tenuous rudder on the new life he was sailing. Glen had few friends on the island. One of those was his boss's high school daughter. In time, their friendship became a deeper attraction. It became one of Glen's few but meaningful romances, the kind that he and Margaret Baird of Glendora, grew, learned from and treasure the memories of to this day.
It wasn't very long before Glen moved from window framer to foreman. It was during that job progression, which in Glen's work ethic made his work day 16 hours long and usually seven days a week, that he realized, although he never said it, that he knew more about building than anyone on the island. So Glen, along with a hip partner possessed of a much more casual work ethic who lived in the middle of the island in a large well-stocked tent, formed their own company, Lollop Construction.
Glen built the most beautiful homes on St. John for the richest people, but business was always a struggle. He paid his mostly native crews the highest wages on the island and paid them first and himself last. His rich clients always seemed to nickel and dime him. After a few years, and going through two different partners, Glen had lots of equipment, beautifully done projects, many more headaches, but little money in the bank.
He missed his friends and missed the pharm. He had decided it was time to sell his tools, trucks and jeeps, go back to the Pharm with a little money and do things and be with people he liked.
As he was preparing to leave, the retired Chairman of the Board of Dow Chemical Corning Ware, whose St. John home Glen had built, introduced him to Dow's then Chairman of the Board. The chairman wanted Glen to build him a home. Glen, however, had decided that he could live with being a failure in some people's eyes as long as he was back around some friends and not here. Glen informed the chairman that he was quitting the construction business. The chairman persisted. After being pressed, Glen politely explained how trying it was to build when clients would make late payments, bicker over the amounts and demand late design changes.
In writing Glen a check that night the chairman said, "Just tell me when and for how much you want the next checks, and I will send them. Design and build me a house something like this one and tell me when it is done. That's all I'll ask of you."
Glen decided to do one more, with the hope that it would provide a few dollars for returning to the Pharm. For once, Glen had a hassle free, on-time paying client. That success led to a piece of St. John land, which led to Glen doing his own project.
So while Michael was building castles out of left over junk and river bed rock in California, Glen built Mongoose Junction, St.John's most beautiful shoppers oasis, out of fine Caribbean woods and native stones.
If you haven't been to St. John, you may not believe that Mongoose Junction is the finest shopping castle in the Virgin Islands. If you have been to the Caribbean, you probably noticed that every native dancer who has ever danced to the rhythms of a 55 gallon drum struts his best stuff first when trying to close a sale on a pretty stateside girl. Now the Governor of the Virgin Island, like Bo, knows these tenets of VI dancing. He also knows a little about marketing to tourists. That's why he moved the St. John's international cruise ships docking ramps from a mile away to front Mongoose Junction.
Most of Glendora, California knows Michael Rubel as the landmark castle builder. Heck, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Harry Reasoner, Barbara Walters, Michael Landon, Alfred Hitchcock, That's Incredible, You Asked for it -- all had hands or footage in memorializing Rubelia.
What the memorializers don't capture is the impact Glen has had on the funny Castle. When you know the Pharm's history you know Glen's physical imprint -- from the workshops, to the wooden sinks, to the winding staircases, to the community kitchen, to the fireplaces, to the central Castle shop, to the creatively designed tunnel and secretive but inspiring underground 4th level boy’s room. Underneath that physical imprint, is something outsiders won't see or feel -- as the years pile decay on the staircases, ash and rust on the shops and fireplaces and cracks on the sinks' epoxy, embellish the rumors and confuse the truth. You won't even find it in the innards of that magical bottle cemented 9 rows up, 12 bottles north on the east wall of the central tunnel.
By the time Glen left the Pharm in the late 60's, he had parked his impeccably restored 1948 flatbed truck, which he found rotting in a farmer's field, in the Tin Palace. Amidst the Tin Palace's priceless antiques, while giving another Tin Palace tour, some of us would casually refer to it as "Just a table." In the late 60's 50-60 family flags, with coats of arms blazing in bright colors, hung from the rafters above that mint black and yellow truck. The flags were remains of one of those Pharm parties, where your price of admission was a family coat of arms and five bottles to cast into the Castle walls.
Glen didn't present a coat of arms to get into that party. It wasn't his style.
Over the years, however, the Castle seemed to evolve a Code of Honor which a Coat of Arms might symbolize. It was a code which like all strong traits was partially inherited... It was a code refined and built upon through the ever present mistakes of pharm hands growing up in a make-believe castled world surrounded by the onslaught of suburbia, overcast smog and the politics of living… Like all good guides to life, it didn't come easily. The code muscled itself by living a belief that was grounded on sweating through long hours of hard work as one of the means to worthiness... Part of its inherited philosophical foundation Grandpa Duell gifted to Michael and his childhood friends with constant reminders that, "If you think about yourself, you are not working hard enough." It was a code whose foundation was built upon some footings of integrity that everyone who partook in life behind those walls seemed to have brought from their families. It was a code that evolved through interaction with lots of good people. It's a Castle Code of Honor that still evolves.
Glen's most significant impact probably lies within that unintended but Castle built Code of Honor. If an unpermitted, unallowed 20th century American Castle made of recycled bottles, rail road ties, collapsed freeways and junk needs a Coat of Arms, then a bunch of pharm hands can take a long trip to dungeon the guy who ought to design it.
If in this interim between Henry VII and Star Trek's 23rd century, even Rubelian Phunny Castles are to have Codes of Honor and Coats of Arms, then this guy personifies the work ethic, insight, knowledge and vision that those of us growing at the Castle were trying to take into the real world.
Sometimes the deeds of Rubelia's phunny pharmers seemed to turn them into errant throwbacks jousting with contemporary windmills. If the Pharm's main kitchen designed by Glen with discarded railroad ties to house his 10' in diameter scrap lumber table and tree trunk chairs served as the Rubelian Knights Round Table, then the mix of life that gave Glen this culinary design vision qualifies him to design the Castle's Coat of Arms. Even if Michael colors it creosote.
Post Script: The fingerprints of Glen's handiwork are found on all the best homes that dot St. John. His Mongoose Junction Shopping Center has more tourist footprints weaving thorough it than any other establishment on the island. Mongoose Junction is such a delight that the well-to-do Easterner who owns the adjacent parcel has had Glen build Mongoose Junction II for him. The Rockefeller owners of the posh Caneel Bay vacation site have been known to empty a room of 50 people in order to solicit Glen's private advice... Not too shabby for a shy box boy from Bock's, wouldn't you say?
True wisdom lies in gathering the precious things out of each day as it goes by. —E. S. Bouton
Rubel turned over the place to the Glendora Historical Society last spring after he took ill.