Murder of a City, Tacoma: Introduction and Preface

My Plan to Chronicle Murder of a City, Tacoma

I’ve been trying to figure the best way to cover Murder of a City, Tacoma. The book is long out of print. As of this moment, I can’t find any copies for sale online. Thus, it appears I was highly fortunate to snap a copy of this weird slice of Tacoma history, and I want to share its contents with the public in the best manner possible.

Covering the book is no easy task, however. This wild little tale is packed full of information.

I fear that too broad an overview will be too shallow. Likewise, I fear that too detailed of a reading will bore readers back to their television screens. I’m a fan of “long form reading” (which I used to just call “reading”), but I’m a realist, and I understand that most readers these days want things in small chunks.

So, in that spirit, I’ll be covering one chapter of Murder of a City at a time, keeping each post under 1,500 words. This first post is slightly different, as the Introduction and Preface are short enough to cram into one story.

Disclaimer

I intend to write about Murder of a City, Tacoma, as it stands on its own two feet. Later I will dig into other historical accounts and test the veracity of Crisman’s story, but here, I’m just sharing what’s inside this rare book.

Murder of a City, Tacoma, is about a political war that took place in the late 1960s. It was written by one of the information soldiers in that war. As such, it’s full of mud-slinging and accusation.

Most, if not all, of the central characters are dead now. I’m not concerned about law suits. However, I want to make clear out of respect for the dead and out of the desire to preserve my own credibility, that I do not endorse any of Crisman’s claims (nor do I disavow them).

I’ll research and present what I find later. For now, I’m just covering what’s inside this book.

So, with no further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Murder of a City, Tacoma.

Murder of a City, Tacoma: Introduction

Dedication in Murder of a City, Tacoma. It reads "To Fred Crisman, Jr., who gave up his summer for "The Murder of a City." JGMurder of a City, Tacoma opens with Crisman’s dedication to his son. Here, you can see it signed “JG,” which refers to the author-name on the book’s cover: Jon Gold.

Jon Gold was a pseudonym used by Crisman, not only for this book but during the time written of in the took. The reason why he chose to go this pseudonymous route is explained in the Preface section below.

The book’s Introduction is one page written by Virginia Shackelford in August 1970. I’m not exactly sure who Shackelford was, but I did find someone with her name as a 1983 recipient of a Governor’s Arts and Heritage Award. If this is the same woman, I can’t be sure. I’ll dig more into this later.

Shackelford’s description of Gold/Crisman can only be described as “epic,” in the truest sense of the word.

“He burst like a bombshell upon the political scene,” Shackelford wrote. “Fast talking, abrasive, highly opinionated, aggressive…JON GOLD! He was a new radio commentator with an evening talk show, and he stirred immediate interest and aroused even more immediate support and opposition.”

She describes Gold’s talk show as having “fire and a drive that fascinated all who listened, whether they disagreed or agreed with his political stance.”

Shackelford then contrasts this description of a larger-than-life Gold against a much more pedestrian one of Crisman.

“Then…there is the man Fred L. Crisman. Quiet, soft-spoken, diffident by nature, he is totally different from his alter-ego, but, it is as Jon Gold that he will be remembered in Tacoma.”

Shackelford finishes her introduction by saying that Crisman gave her and the city of Tacoma hope.

“For those of us who had long fought to bring a more representative form of government to our torn city, and who had waged an almost impossible battle against a monopoly in the news media, Jon Gold became a fulcrum which helped us upset the balance of power and to give us some hope that we might triumph at long last.”

(To put these statements into context, one has to understand that Tacoma was to the 60s–90s what Detroit, Michigan, is to 2018…a corrupt, violent, economically depressed wasteland.)

Into this scene of ruin and despair charged one Fred L. Crisman, riding under an alter ego, as any good superhero should.

Dramatic stuff.

Trust me, though, the book only gets wilder.

Preface

The preface is written by Crisman himself, under the name Jon Gold. It’s his condemnation not only of the corruption of Tacoma specifically, but also about the inherent corruption of any form of “City Management.”

I don’t know exactly what, if any, classification Crisman would give his political belief system, but he’s clearly and unambiguously suspicious of government power. I suspect he’d call himself a Libertarian today, but I can’t be sure about that. His hatred for government seems so deep that for all I know he would have called himself a full-blown anarchist.

Crisman explains that the story told in Murder of a City happened between 1967 and 1970. He wastes little time before going on the attack.

“I have stated on radio, television, and in print that City Manager government is the most wasteful, inefficient, bumbling, and dishonest form of government ever devised by men for the grabbing of a dishonest dollar,” Crisman wrote.

“It is a pure dictatorship, and it is based on corruption,” he went on. “That may seem to be a strong statement, however, for a City Manager form of government to operate at all, it must have a compatibility between the controlling majority of the city council and the man picked as Manager of the city. Any city manager, worth his title, is aware that he must please that Majority to keep his job, and there is usually one thing in their mind that pleases them most of all and that is money!”

(To me, Crisman has an endearing habit of using exclamation marks quite profusely. Others may be put off by the style.)

The rest of the Preface continues much like the quoted portion above. Many, I think, would call it a rant. Far as I can tell, though, one man’s “rant” is another man’s righteous monologue against injustice, and until I know more about the veracity of his claims I won’t label it one way or the other.

Crisman explains an aspect of Tacoma corruption that will figure importantly into the story: “One of the best weapons that City Management has is the ‘false charge’ and that usually takes the form of making an all out attack upon its critics by branding them as criminals. That was a favorite tactic of the Tacoma City Management and it has a record of character assassination that is a horrible thing to examine.”

It is because of that City Management track record for criminal accusation, I presume, that Crisman changed his name to Gold.

Crisman’s Fight Was Personal

Crisman was born in Tacoma, but he’d been gone for a long time before returning to live out the events described in this book. He’d left for the east coast after serving as a fighter pilot in WWII (this is the claim, anyway, and again I haven’t verified his military record…just going by the book and general mythology).

In the Preface for Murder of a City, Tacoma, Crisman explains that he came home to find “what had happened to my home town in the many years I had been gone. It turned out to be a mounting story of terror tactics, graft, dishonest and political police, blackmail, and crimes for almost every description committed in the name of ‘clean government.'”

Crisman concludes, “There was little doubt that Tacoma had fallen into the hands of the Far Left and it was to be a well kept secret for many years and it is a matter that is being argued at this very hour…It turns out to be a close and political life of the city. It turns out to be a close knit small band of conspirators against he common good! All of them in the far, far Left of Liberal politics.”

Crisman gives a respectful account of Tacoma’s first City Manager, one Fred Backstrom. Crisman describes him as a man “who seems to have made a sincere effort to make the city manager form of government work.”

According to Crisman, Backstrom was unfairly criticized for his “conservative views on public finance and the attitude towards large federal grants of tax money for the city!”

After Backstrom left, Crisman says, David Rowlands of Eur Claire, Wisconsin, moved in. This is where we meet our primary villain.

“Rowlands is a cruel, vain man with an icy coldness that freezes one’s ability to speak directly to him,” Crsiman writes. “Fond of referring to himself in the third person, his ego and his temperament were not suited to the needs of the city or to those who had been at work in Tacoma to make it a better town.”

The above description is consistent with the remainder of Crsiman’s presentation of Rowlands—a man the author gives no quarter.

Tacoma News-Tribune

Crisman then fingers the Tacoma News-Tribune as the propaganda arm of Rowlands’ establishment.

“Directly from the handbook of the International City Managers Association comes the direct planning of Rowlands. It directs all city manager thinking. Part of that thinking is to supply the local press with advantages that will lead them into total support. The Tribune was given every tax-break possible, it was given a direct re-zoning in the middle of a proper residential district to erect a 200 foot steel tower of the instillation of a TV station and radio broadcast area…The Tribune prospered and Rowlands was painted to the citizens as a White Knight on a White Horse.”

Crisman, it’s safe to say, disagrees with the Tribune‘s presentation of Rowlands (to put it euphemistically).

This is the historical backdrop Crisman paints for us: Tacoma, a city dying in the clutches of a corrupt political machine as blindly and unremittingly evil as a fantasy novel monster.

“All of this leads up to late 1966 and my return to my home town, a broken, beaten, desert of rubble that resembled a bombed out area in Eastern Europe.”

Crisman came home to find his city in shambles, and he decided to do something about that. That “something” is accounted for in the remainder of Murder of a City.

Crisman’s Sign-Off

In regards to the final paragraph in the Preface, I can’t resist from adding a little commentary for those unfamiliar with Tacoma history.

I live in Tacoma right now (2018), at a time when we’re experiencing a continual renewal that’s been going for over a decade.

Sunset Magazine declared Tacoma the best place to move to in the Pacific Northwest in 2018. Our art scene is thriving. Our job market is strengthening. It’s a good place. I love living here.

But, back there in 1970, Crisman ended his Preface with the statement:

“I have called this story: The Murder of a City, and I am sure that you will agree that if the city ever recovers from the heavy damages that wounded it, it will be so close a call, so narrow a margin of escape, that it will not change the title. For the Tacoma that I knew died under the crushing heel of a 13 year dictatorship every bit as cruel, heartless, and bitter as any that has ever existed!”

And with that, I’ll close this first post. Chapter 1 is here.

Ruston Waterfront: The Nightmare Continues

I have written in the past about the terrible, mysterious suspended bike of the Ruston Waterfront. I write now to let you know the horror is multiplying, and the nightmare has deepened.

I was out walking the Ruston waterfront on this beautiful April day of sunshine, seals, and the Sound, when I discovered to my great dismay that a new suspended bike has appeared.

This one’s red—spawned, undoubtedly, from the same nether regions as the last bike, which has haunted my dreams from the I first set eyes upon it—monstrous, unnatural thing that it is.

When the tide is out, as it was when I got there today, you can get rather close to the new bike. It was a just a couple feet off the shore, screwed to a pole in shallow water.

In researching this phenomenon, I found that my friends over at Grit City have already located this bike, and are less irrationally horrified by it as I am.

Grit City‘s excellent detective work puts forth the hypothesis that this and the other bike are related to Burning Man in some way.  I’m not going to plagiarize or steal their thunder here, so I’ll just say that it’s erudite detective work on their part, and you should follow that Grit City link up above to see what they’ve to say.

Let no one say that the Northwest Nomad is less than noble in his content creation…and let no one say, either, that the Nomad is anything less than paranoid about cool art sculptures that add so much wonder to our fair city of Tacoma.

Thanks, suspended bike guys…gals…demons…whatever thou be.

Thanks, too, to Grit City for the fine gumshoeing.

If you’re mad enough seek this bike out, I can tell you that it’s near Cummings Park, which I’m going to pin to a map below. Good luck, seeker, but remember the old adage: be careful what you wish for. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Attack of the Giant Banana Slug!

There are few things in Washington state more majestic than the glorious banana slug. And yet…and yet…there are also few things more terrifying than that very same gigantic banana slug bearing down on you very, very, VERY slowly! Such is life, I suppose, a study in contrasts. A paradox, if you will. The very same slugs that inspire us to greater heights in life can also paralyze us with terror. It all depends on the context.

It’s kind of a Jacob’s Ladder deal. The angels are demons and the demons are angels all depending on how you view life. If you’re still reading, then truly I applaud your tolerance for weirdness.

Close up picture of the Pacific banana slug.
It’s coming to get you, Martha.

The Washington banana slug is more properly called the Pacific banana slug, which is more scientifically known as the Ariolimax columbianus. 

You can see these marvelously slimy creatures in many places in Washington state, but the majority of my sightings have come at various spots around the Olympic Peninsula, particularly in the Lake Quinault and the Hoh Rain Forest. Yes, those areas are veritable slime beds of these wondrous creatures.

The spot where I saw the monster you see in these photos, though, was on the trail to Point Robinson on Maury Island, just off Vashon Island.

A slug with a 3.5 inch long knife beside it. The slug is twice the length of the knife.
The knife next to this slug is 3.5 inches long.

It’s hard to capture the true scale of these animals on camera, but I’ve taken a picture with one stretched out next to my 3.5-inch-long (when folded) pocket knife. The specimen in the photo is actually not the biggest one I’ve seen (that’s what she said…sorry can’t resist).

Banana slugs aren’t always bright  yellow (as you can see here). Sometimes they are brown/green, and sometimes they even have black specks that can be pretty thick.

Obviously I’ve had a little fun with the giant slug thing here, but truthfully, these things are quite a sight if you happen upon one in the outdoors. They are HUGE. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated that such slow, harmless creatures can be so successful in an evolutionary sense. These things seem to be doing just fine in the Olympic rain forests.

Incredibly, there have actually been people who have eaten these things. The Yurok Indians and 19th/20th century German immigrants dined on them. While I have a fondness for the banana slug, you won’t catch me trying to find out how they taste. This much I can promise you.

Dreaming about the Lions, the Mountain and the Sea

Come join me by the fire, friends. I’d like to talk, if you’ve got the time. I’ve been dreaming about the lions. Maybe you have been, too.

Do you know what I’m referring to? Yes? No? Let me explain.

From the first time I read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” the book’s final line has stuck with me. “The old man was dreaming about the lions,” that line goes.

That sentence refers back to an earlier part of the book in which the story’s main character, the “old man” Santiago, is said to have found that in his old age he’s been thinking less and less about his own exploits and accomplishments. What’s stuck with him the most in his twilight years are the wonders he’s seen. One of those wonders is a beach full of lions.

Much has been made about these lions and about Santiago’s dreaming of them, and most of that much-ado is interesting and worthy of meditation. What resonates so much with me, however, and what has me feeling so sentimental today, is something different.

For me, Santiago’s dreaming about the lions is ultimately a hopeful thing. The most hopeful thing in this life of rust and despair, in fact.

For me, the dream of lions comes to Santiago because old age has softened his ego, and the softening of that ego has made him wise. Santiago in his final years has found the simple love of life for the mere sake of life, rather than life as a stage upon which to assert his own being.

To my view, Santiago has achieved enlightenment. This doesn’t mean he isn’t still a proud, strong, defiant man–indeed a “strange man,” as he so desperately wishes to prove himself. But, in that strangeness, he has learned to step outside of himself and appreciate the grandeur of life as it was and will be when he is gone.

I find that notion very beautiful, and very hopeful.

I’m not an old man yet, but I’m old enough that that line from the book has been resonating powerfully with me. As I find myself ruminating upon the things I’ve seen, the mountains and seas and rivers, I find myself thinking about Santiago.

And as I think about Santiago, I think about all my friends, too, and about all of their own inevitable endings.

I thank God for the mountains, seas, and rivers I’ve seen. Beyond all the hardships and the tears of this life, I’m grateful to have smelled and touched and heard nature’s music. I don’t ever want to lose that gratitude, and I hope that no matter how hard things get in the future, I find myself dreaming about the lions.

And to you, my friends, on your own hard, splendid roads, I fare thee well with gratitude. Through all the suffering life will inevitably bring, through all the loss and sadness, may you dream about the lions.

And when your present seems pale and twisted, your future dark and broken, may you dream about the lions.

And, most of all, when that good long night of forever comes to sweep us up into the canopy of mysteries, I hope you’re dreaming about the lions, my friends.

And I hope I am, too.

And that’s all I have to say, I guess, tonight around the fire. Thank you for sitting a while.

The First Time I Laid My Eyes upon Mount Rainier

I’ll never forget the moment I stepped outside the Fort Lewis barracks door and saw Mount Rainier on the horizon for the very first time.

I’d been brought into the base the night before, fresh off the Ranger Indoctrination Program. It was first time ever in Washington,Northwest Nomad sitting on a rock with Mount Rainier in background. but I’d been dreaming of going there for years. Being an outdoorsman, and also being a product of the 90s grunge generation, the state was almost a mythic place to me. There was no way, however, to be prepared for the awe-inspiring sight that is Mount Rainier.
I’m not alone in this. I’ve talked to many people who told me that the first time they saw Mount Rainier was practically a religious experience.

From that moment on, I knew the Pacific Northwest was my home. One could even say the Northwest Nomad was born that day.

Nearly 15 years later, and still there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look at the mountain in awe and gratitude. This excludes the many days when it’s not visible at all (which as we Northwesterners know is pretty damn common), but when it’s out, I’m as in love with it now as ever before.

So, here’s just a little letter of appreciation to the mountain. I’ll never forget ye, nor the day I first laid eyes upon you.

Anybody else out there in the ether remember the first time they saw Rainier? Got a story to tell? Please do.