Doc Ricketts Boys
Ed "Doc" Ricketts' Cannery Row Lab holds memories of wild days.
Thursday, May 8, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Keeper Of The Flame: Frank Wright is the last member of the men''s club to remember Ed Ricketts personally.
Doesn''t look like much from the outside, the squat building at 800 Cannery Row squashed between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the myriad gift shops and restaurants. Functionally square, the weather-beaten wood building with drawn shades blanking the second floor window is slashed to the halfway mark with a simple wooden staircase leading to a nondescript door. Could be a warehouse, or a flophouse. It''s completely forgettable, even if a person noticed it in the first place.
But if a person goes up those stairs and through that door, they''ll find magic. Not the twinkly kind of enchantment that was imbued by some designer gussying up an old workspace, but the rich kind of magic that accumulates in some buildings after years of use. It''s still not much to look at, though.
The furniture--a few chairs and a couch--are thrift-shop quality and worn. The walls of the main room, where they aren''t covered with snapshots, pages torn from magazines, and random...stuff...are dark-stained pine. The postage-stamp kitchen has modern appliances, but aging counters and cabinets. The bar is more spacious, and reveals an impressive collection of empty bottles. But walk out the back door and, just beyond the broken pilings and detritus remaining from the Row''s heyday as the sardine capital of the world, the Pacific Ocean glistens to the horizon.
This is the celebrated Doc Ricketts'' Lab, once the place where a young Ed Ricketts operated the Pacific Biological Laboratories from the late 1920s until his death in 1948. It''s also where he hosted raucous parties and held court over what amounted to the social hub for the Bohemian cultural crowd of Monterey. And even after Ricketts'' death, the building continued to host heady--and, the empty bottles would suggest, sometimes rowdy--gatherings of the Pacific Biological Laboratory, a private men''s group who kept Ricketts'' legacy alive.
On a recent afternoon, seated comfortably in one of those tattered couches, Frank Wright shared memories of Ricketts and the Row. As the sole remaining member of the men''s club who knew Ricketts, Wright has a certain prestige and unique vantage point.
Wright first met Ricketts in late 1942, when they were both stationed at the Presidio in Monterey, then serving as a reception center for enlisted men. Wright was assigned to the Detached Enlisted Men''s List, doing clerical and office work, and Ricketts was assigned to medical duties, including testing inductees'' urine for diseases. Wright notes that Ricketts'' thoroughness might have saved many lives. "Sometimes there would be as many as 3,000 urine samples at a time," recalls Wright. "He caught I don''t know how many cases of diabetes."
Although their meetings at the Presidio were brief and casual, one of Wright''s friends, Boyd Huff, had a more direct connection to Ricketts and took Wright along with him to Ricketts'' Cannery Row lab one night. "He was sort of the center of everything that was going on, culturally," says Wright. "This place was headquarters for every writer and artist in the area."
It was nothing formal or stuffy, of course. It was the kind of place where people just dropped in and things happened. Wright remembers one fall night, "beautiful, and with a hint of warmth in the air, where you just want to do something." He and Huff picked up some Burgie beer at Wing Chong''s and headed across the street to Ricketts'' place, where they were made welcome. Then came a knock on the door, and another. And by the time the knocking stopped, there were about 25 people crowded into Ricketts'' small living quarters.
"They were primarily Carmel people," Wright recalls. "It was an interesting evening, a lot of good feelings." Today, some 60 years later, Wright recalls four people that stand out in his memory. Not famous names, but representative, perhaps, of the avant garde nature of the gathering. "There were two young couples who had exchanged wives," remembers Wright. "And they were having children with each others'' wives." Wright pauses and chuckles. "In those days this was considered very Bohemian."
Of course, the circle of habitues of the lab included Ricketts'' most celebrated buddy, John Steinbeck."They used to spend hours here talking about characters, discussing what kind of person that person was," says Wright. "They synergized each other with the things they talked about."
About eight years after Ricketts'' death, the Lab was purchased by Harlan Watkins, another of Wright''s circle of friends. Wright recalls that various of the friends would meet for meals almost every day--and from these casual gatherings sprang the idea for a club. "One day, Harlan says, ''You know we are a group. Let''s do a little club thing and come down and listen to jazz.'' We always had some beer and we listened to records."
Now, Wright is one of only eight remaining members of the group. And he''s the one who takes the most time to open the lab to visitors, entertaining school groups and scholars with his memories and insights into what happened in this magical locale.
The annual Ed Ricketts Birthday Party happens May 14 beginning at 7pm at La Ida Cafe, 851 Cannery Row, Monterey. Hourly docent-led tours of Ed Ricketts'' lab will be held Saturday, May 17 from 10am-4pm; $15. Call 644-9316 for reservations.