What’s In A Name?

For most of my life I never really cared all that much about where my family came from.  Oh, I knew that my mother grew up in Kentucky and my father in Georgia, but beyond that I neither knew nor cared from whence descended the family line.  Maybe one branch on my family tree contained an English duke, who rode with Henry V at the battle of Agincourt and singlehandedly struck down the flower of French chivalry.  Or maybe there was a German philosopher, a Spanish explorer or an Italian theologian hiding in our family woodpile.  I would probably have found such knowledge interesting when I was younger, but not interesting enough to tempt me to do the heavy digging that would have been required to uncover those long-mouldering bones.

My extended family, you wee, was not long on harmony.  My father joined the Navy in 1936 to escape from his father’s farm during the Great Depression.  He met my mother near his first duty station in Virginia and after they were married the Navy decided that my Dad’s presence would best serve the Navy’s interests on the West Coast and in the Pacific Ocean area.  That is how I came to be born and grow up in San Diego, California, about 2,000 miles from either of my parents’ families.  San Diego in the 1950’s and 60’s was as close to being heaven for a kid as it was possible to be, and any trips back to Mom and Dad’s homes and families tore me away from the friends, beaches, perfect weather, absence of gnats, ticks, chiggers, water moccasins and a few dozen other noisome creatures, and threw me into the company of relatives whom I did not know and could not care less to get to know.  Returning home after a summer month spent between Georgia and Kentucky with parents who bickered about each others’ families was a lot like getting released from prison.

So family origins meant little to me in the early 1980’s when one evening after returning home from work I opened the newspaper (that was one of the primary ways that people got news in those days) and read that a young man bearing my last name had bicycled from Maryland to San Diego.  The article stated that this young man had found work at a nursery in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego, not far from where I lived, and I resolved that I would try to make contact with him the next morning.

Accordingly, the next morning I arose and after breakfast and getting the children settled into diversionary activities I searched the Yellow Pages (that was how people found business phone numbers in those days) and located five nurseries in Lemon Grove.  On try number four I hit paydirt and spent the next several minutes talking with a young relative whom I still have never laid eyes upon to this day.  We compared notes and confirmed that we were indeed related.  My last name is very uncommon outside of the South so it would have been  extraordinary if we had not been related.  In the course of our conversation this young man, Todd was his name, asked if I knew the story of the origin of my father’s family’s name.  I told him that I did not, and Todd proceeded to tell me what he knew.

Durden, he said, was a French name, or began that way at any rate.  The original Durden was a product of a union between a very minor aristocrat, a man who probably owned an acre or two of land outside of a town, and a young lady who lived with her parents in that town.  A boy was produced from that union in the usual way and immediately became something of a problem.  The boy’s father had no intention of letting little Jacques into the line of inheritance of his postage stamp domain, and would not confer upon his offspring the blessing of his name.  The girl’s parents were similarly inclined, as to the name at least, since they had nothing in particular for anyone to inherit, and refused to give him their name as well.  The young lady gave up the baby to the local church, which accepted our little cherub and then gave him back to the mother to raise for them.  The parents were in no position to argue with the church and so little Jacques had a home, if not a name.

The town in which this drama transpired was in the northeast of France, near the Ardennes Forest on the border with Germany.  Jacques began to look for a name as soon as he realized that, unlike everyone around him, he didn’t have one.  He considered using his mother’s name anyway, whether her family liked it or not.  Grandpa was a very large and very stern man however, and so there appeared to be little to be gained by using that name except for a beating every time he tried it.  Next he considered the name of the town itself, but he had never received very much kindness in that town and did not wish to confer dignity upon it by adopting its name.

Finally it occurred to Jacques to adopt the name of the great forest to the east.  The forest was a frightening and mysterious place, dark in many thickly wooded areas even in the height of the daytime.  It was filled with wild animals which would not hesitate to make a meal of an incautious woodsman alone in its fastness, and bandits and gypsies were rumored to make their camps in there away from the prying eyes of the officials of church and crown.  Yes, the forest would do very nicely for a name, and somewhere around his twelfth or thirteenth birthday Jacques D’Ardennes announced his existence to the world.

What the world’s reaction was to that announcement is not known.  What is known however is that Jacques had no intention to fulfill any obligations to the church which had assumed a sort of official parent authority over him from birth.  In fact, Jacques felt no sense of obligation toward his mother’s family or that town or anyone in it.  A short lifetime of putting up with the taunts of the other village children and the blows of an unhappy grandfather, plus the eventual marriage of his mother to the town blacksmith, a hard man many years older than she who was willing to overlook her past for a pretty young woman to cook and clean and keep a warm bed for him, convinced Jacques that it was time to take his leave of everything he had known and try his luck in the world.

It’s at this point where Jacques’ history gets a little fuzzy.  Nobody knows where Jacques spent his next five or so years.  Some thought that he decided to take his chances in the forest which had provided him with a name.  Once there he fell in with a band of gypsies or perhaps bandits; nobody really knows.  All that is truly known is that at the stated age of nineteen Jacque D’Ardennes showed up in England, one step ahead of the police in France.

It seems as if Jacques learned the skills of petty thievery wherever he passed those lost years.  A pickpocket, a thief of small items which could be sold in the next town down a dusty road, and other acts which would get you thrown into prison for a very long time in France apparently occupied Jacques’ time far more than did gainful employment, but he must have learned somewhere how to be useful on a farm because once in England he drifted from farm to farm, working mostly for room and board but occasionally being paid in hard money, because a couple of times his name appeared on the lists of one local constabulary or another, charged with ‘drunk and disorderly’.

Jacques’ inability or unwillingness to find steady work led to periodic arrests for vagrancy. Petty theft such as he had allegedly engaged in back in France would have gotten him hung in England, so I must assume that he either resisted the urge to fall back on old habits or was successful on such occasions when he plied his craft.  There was also written the word “rogue” on some of his court documents, and one gets the sense from the the manner in which that word was employed that Jacques was not afraid to shower attention upon young English ladies, and one also gets the sense that his attentions were not entirely unappreciated by the objects of his interest.

Apparently Jacques pushed enough of the wrong buttons because in 1731 his name appears on a list of inmates in a debtor’s prison a few miles south of the City of London.  Two years later James Oglethorpe was given permission by the Crown to take as many English debtors as wished to go and found a colony between South Carolina and the Spanish territory of Florida.  Always a brown noser, Oglethorpe named his new colony ‘Georgia’ after the king, George II.  Jacques D’Ardennes, his name now anglicized to ‘Jack Durden’, was among the first to sign up, and later lists and documents show that by 1736 he was the owner of a farm a few miles outside of Savannah.  Jack operated a blacksmith operation in one of the rough outbuildings of his farm which served the needs of the many farms which surrounded that of Jack Durden.

Jack Durden married a Creek Indian woman and fathered several children by her.  Five girls and three boys grew up and the family farm and blacksmith business prospered.  Three of the girls married well and began families of their own, one died of a fever at the age of fourteen, and one remained single and was the de facto head of the family business whenever Jack was absent.  The eldest boy was the titular head of the business but was essentially useless and drank himself to death before reaching the age of twenty five.  The other two boys began farms of their own with generous help from the sister who was soon to be the matriarch of the growing clan.

Of Jack nothing is known after 1753.  He and his wife simply disappear.  There is speculation that they returned to the tribe from which she had come, but there is no real evidence of that.  Others believed that they had been waylaid by bandits, robbed and killed, and their bodies fed to the gators.  My thought is that Jack had learned enough in his old wild days to not be caught in that trap.

Ultimately, I don’t know if any of this is true or not.  I only know that this is the story that Todd told me in a conversation over the telephone.  I’ve seen no documents or had any other opportunity to verify this tale.  And why should I bother?  A story like that is a thing to be retold and left alone.  Sometimes a too-critical historical bent is definitely not a virtue.

The Problem With ISIS

The President of the United States has addressed the nation regarding his intention to respond militarily and diplomatically to the threat represented by a group known, among other names, as ISIS. ISIS is an armed faction in the Middle East fighting in both Syria and Iraq which has amassed a record for brutality which stands out sharply in an area where brutality is a commonplace. They have slaughtered Christians, Yazidis and Shi’a Muslims, men, women and children. They have raped and enslaved women and girls. They have imposed a harsh, joyless rule in whatever unfortunate area that has fallen under their control. And as a final straw, they have mercilessly beheaded two American journalists who posed no threat of any kind to them and released videos of the acts to the world. The American people and the President had seen enough, and now an action plan has been announced.

The President says that he is going to hit ISIS from the air wherever they are, whether in Iraq or in Syria. Air power will be used in concert with ground actions and also when targets of opportunity present themselves. Fundraising activities for ISIS will be sought out and interrupted and efforts will increase to prevent would-be jihadis from reaching the Middle East or returning home after having once having gotten there. There are other parts of the plan I’m sure, but that is the broad outline and I am generally supportive of it. If there is one thing that we have learned in the past decade or two however, it’s that we should take a hard look at any proposal of foreign military activity in order to be as certain as possible that we will not be caught off guard by real time developments as that policy is being implemented. This post is my view of the dangers lurking behind the President’s stated policy.

One of the biggest obstacles to victory will be the need for a ground army for our air power to support. The Kurds have shown themselves to be capable and courageous fighters and with U.S. air support and shipments of weapons have pushed back the ISIS advance in the areas near Kurdistan. But there lies the problem; the Kurds have little incentive to leave their homes to go fight ISIS for an Iraqi government that has never been all that supportive of Kurdish ambitions for autonomy. Outside of some contested territory such as the city and environs of Kirkuk, there is small likelihood of Kurdish military projection much further afield. Why would a Kurd be willing to fight and possibly die to liberate Tikrit, Fallujah, or Ramadi when the people of those cities and areas have certainly shown no great love for the Kurds and their dreams? Short of a promise by the new Iraqi government of real Kurdish autonomy and retention of Kirkuk in exchange for Kurdish military cooperation far from Kurdish lands, I see little likelihood of significant ground military help against ISIS in the West and North of Iraq from that quarter.

Iraq does have an army, but it is an army that dissolved in the face of rag-tag ISIS fighters who were on foot and in a few pick up trucks, and left tanks, military vehicles, artillery and the like and fled in disarray. Any reorganizing and training of this force will take time and a new leadership will have to rise up which will command the respect of their troops, which is essential for success on the battlefield. Americans are leery of open-ended military operations which take a long time, so something more cohesive than the Iraqi army as it is currently constituted will be needed in order to begin effective ground operations for U.S. air power to support.

The most efficient auxiliaries to the Iraqi army are the Shi’ite militias. These armed groups remain after the sectarian violence of the middle of the last decade, and many Shi’ite men are under arms and with decent leadership. Also, Qassem Suleimani of the Iranian Quds Force has been in Iraq training and advising Shi’ite militias, and it is rumored that some Iranian soldiers may be within their ranks as well. These militias present a more effective military force than the army but they will be useless in Anbar Province or much of Northern Iraq because the Sunni tribal leaders in those areas are not at all likely to welcome a Shi’ite military force into their lands. Such a scenario is far more certain to drive the Sunni’s further into alliance with ISIS than wean them away. A truly integrated Sunni/Shi’ite force with sufficient air and logistical support could possibly accomplish such a feat, but no purely Shi’ite military force can be used for such a purpose.

An option for initiating quick military pressure against ISIS lies in convincing Jordan, Saudi Arabia, possibly Egypt and Turkey that they have an interest in participating in the destruction of ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with regional leaders in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as I am writing this post, to try to wring assistance and support from those countries in the struggle against ISIS. Sunni combat troops would be the ideal commitment by these leaders, but I see very little likelihood of that. Use of their airspace or provision of military and humanitarian supplies is more like what Sec. Kerry will leave Jeddah with, but we can always hope for more. I would love to be surprised by Arab and Turkish military action. Sunni combat troops from Arab countries would be the most likely to receive acceptance from the Sunni tribal leaders in the areas currently under ISIS control, and the most likely to treat people there with respect and, most important, most likely to go home when the job is done and leave the people there alone.

The final fly in the ointment, and it is a big fly, comes from Syria. The political center of ISIS’s phony “caliphate” lies in Syria, and to effectively strike at the heart of ISIS requires that we strike them there. Striking ISIS in Syria will not necessarily be an easy task however. Syria sort of has a government, led by a man only slightly less ruthless than ISIS. This man, Bashar al-Assad, has an army and potent allies in Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran and, more important to the issue at hand, a fairly effective air force. Mr. Assad, through the brutality which he has displayed against his own people, has forfeited any claim to the leadership of Syria. Assad therefore thirsts for the U.S. to treat with him in hopes that such an action would confer upon him at least an aura of legitimacy. President Obama thankfully will not do that, but that in turn sets the stage for the Syrian Air force to engage American jet fighters over Syrian territory.

The implications of such an engagement are troubling. American pilots are no doubt more than a match for their potential Syrian opponents, but as one very wet and disgruntled Japanese naval officer once said after he was pulled out of the water following a successful B-17 attack on his destroyer, “Even a B-17 will get lucky sometimes.” Even a Syrian pilot might get lucky sometimes too, and the repercussions of that would complicate matters to no good end. In an effort to insure the safety of other U.S. and perhaps allied pilots we would now have to render the Syrian Air Force and anti aircraft facilities impotent, and that would represent a huge escalation of the President’s announced plan.

And then there’s Russia. Syria is and has for forty years been a client of first the Soviet Union and now Russia. The connection between the Syrians and the Soviets/Russians runs deep, even to the point that the U.S. and Soviet Union nearly stumbled into a nuclear war in 1973. The Syrian and Egyptian armies had been pushed out back by the Israelis in the Yom Kippur war and were being soundly thrashed and in danger of total collapse. The Soviets intended to intervene to prevent the destruction of those armies and only decided against it after President Nixon, in the midst of his Watergate nightmare, told Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that to go forward with that project would lead to war between the superpowers. Nixon meant it and Brezhnev figured it out, and war was averted.

The Russians today are still wedded to the Assad regime, and have stated that any violation of Syrian air space or attacks upon Syrian soil without the consent of the Assad regime would be illigitimate unless sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, a body in which the Russians have a veto. American incursions into Syrian air space, bombing of Syrian targets, downing of Syrian jets or disabling of the Syrian Air Force and air defense systems would give Russia cover to gobble up more of Eastern Europe and then be able to say “what’s the difference?” Further complicating things is the statement by the main Western-backed coalition of anti-Assad forces that they would be happy to coordinate with American power against ISIS, but only if the campaign is extended to include strikes against Assad’s forces, and on and on it goes.

In the long run this is going to be a nasty and dangerous business. ISIS will fight to retain what it has and the ground combat forces needed to engage them are currently weak and unconnected. The military, diplomatic and law enforcement assets needed to successfully engage our enemy will have to be deft, persistent, and daring in equal parts, and willing to pursue this policy to a successful end however long it takes. That could get messy, friends might prove to be fleeting, and politics domestic and foreign could (and probably will) rear their ugly heads. No matter. It’s a dirty job that has to be done, and the sooner we start the better.

Boom Goes London, Boom Paree (with respect to Randy Newman)

     Recent news from Eastern Europe is very worrisome to say the least.  Russia is openly intervening in the rebellion in eastern Ukraine and is seeking to add to the Crimean land grab that in engineered not too many months before.  Eastern European countries which were formerly occupied by the Soviet Union and it’s puppets now fear that Russia wishes to reestablish that occupation.  Under the guise of defending the Russian speaking populations in neighboring countries, a move reminiscent of a certain German leader who claimed that his aggression against countries to the east of him was to protect ethnic Germans in those unfortunate countries, Russia is snatching away Ukrainian territory while threatening many other nations as well.  The West is reacting, imposing economic sanctions which at this point are not having any obvious effect on Russia’s behavior, and stirring the NATO apparatus to begin demonstrating a possible military response if Russia follows through on the even more aggressive actions that some in the Russian government are advocating.  We seem to be witnessing a resumption of the cold war between the old Soviet Union and the West with unpredictable new Russian rulers with their fingers on a lot of very nasty buttons.

     I lived through most of the cold war and can remember many points at which that war could have gone very hot indeed.  The Hungarian revolution, the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis were moments when it could have erupted into a nuclear nightmare whose destructive capability we can scarcely calculate.  Those events played out in front of us in the newspapers, on the evening news and in special radio and television broadcasts of presidential addresses, and in the case of the missile crisis we could watch as the Soviet ships bearing missiles for Cuba steamed towards the point at which we had said “this far and no further”.  Everyone in the world watched to see if the two giants were going to go at each other with nuclear teeth, and most of the world heaved a sigh of relief when the superpowers were eyeball to eyeball and somebody, thankfully, blinked.

     There was another close call however that few people know about.  If it has been mentioned in a book I am unaware of it.  In fact, the story is so wild that I did not entirely believe it the first time I heard it, but hearing it a second time certainly made me a believer.  It is widely known that this event damaged Soviet/U.S. relations for a number of years but few seem to know what a close call it really was.  The story is as follows.

     In October of 1973 Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel that was initially very successful.  Both Arab countries were heavily backed by the Soviet Union and flush with military hardware provided in abundance by the Soviets.  Caught by surprise, the Israelis were pushed back and seriously threatened with defeat and annihilation until a massive influx of advanced American weapons and the direction of Israel’s defense by extremely competent leadership turned the tide and pushed both of Israel’s adversaries back.  The two Arab armies were now threatened with total and humiliating defeat.  The Soviets intended to prevent this from happening and prepared to intervene on the Arab armies’ side.

     At this particular moment Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States, was in a heap of political trouble.  The Watergate scandal had been brewing for over a year and had shortly before October of 1973 been picking up steam.  It seemed as if every day some new piece of testimony or some new revelation was turning up the fire that was slowly cooking the political career and legacy of President Nixon.  His presidency was dying daily a death by a thousand cuts, and an opportunity to step up as leader of a nation under attack would seem to him like a political godsend.  I was therefore completely unconvinced when on October 25, 1973, President Nixon put the armed forces of the United States, including our nuclear forces, on full alert.

     Sure, I thought, rally around the flag.  Circle the wagons.  Suppress the investigation of presidential wrongdoing in order to focus on the threat of the Hun at the gate.  The problem was that there was no visible Hun.  The gate looked pretty clear and safe.  To our skeptical eyes the Israelis appeared to have things comfortably in hand and were chasing the Arab armies back across the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights.  Most of us didn’t give the alert a second thought, and continued to call for the Presidential scalp without missing a beat.

     That is how things stood with me for ten years.  Nixon was gone less than a year after the alert was called; a victim of his own paranoia and his attempt to cover up for his loyalists.  I had almost forgotten about the incident and had to plumb the depths of my memory when my friend Jeff Blaine brought it up while we were grilling burgers in my back yard one day.  Jeff had been one of my closest friends for many years but I had not seem him for quite a while.  Jeff was in the Army Security Agency and frequently was posted far from San Diego.  He was on leave and visiting family when we made contact, and after several years of separation we were once again standing together nursing a couple of beers and grilling our dinner.

     How the conversation arrived at the 1973 event I cannot remember, but my comments on the issue I remember well.  “That crook Nixon was just trying to get a little sympathy.  I never bought his phony alert for one minute.  He was Tricky Dick from the beginning and Tricky Dick until the end.  He must’ve thought that we were all idiots to try to feed us that line.”  Jeff stood next to the grill, picking at the label on his Budweiser while slowly turning the bottle in his hands.  Finally he took a pull on the squat brown bottle and cleared his throat.  “Well” he began, “there was more to it than that.  We nearly got into a nuclear war at that time.”  “You’re shittin’ me” I replied.  How do you know a thing like that?”

     Jeff proceeded to tell me how he was in Germany in October of 1973 and in addition to coordinating signals for U.S. forces there the agency of which he was part was also privy to a great deal of Soviet signals information as well.  The Soviets, according to Jeff, were more deeply committed to their Arab clients than we first believed and were dismayed at seeing their friends’ armies routed and the Egyptian army in particular cut off from its support bases and in danger of collapse.  To prevent this the Soviet leaders decided to insert Red Army soldiers into the fight.

     Israel was an ally of the U.S. in the same manner as Egypt and Syria were of the U.S.S.R.  Nixon was not inlined to allow Soviet soldiers enter the fight, and Nixon let the Soviets know this through the usual back channels.  Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his military leaders did not care what Richard Nixon thought at that moment and orders were issued to proceed with the operation.  Pursuant to those orders, soldiers of the Red Army were gathered and taken to military airfields from where they would be flown to the war zone.

     As news of this reached Nixon he acted by putting the American military on full alert.  In Germany that meant that the totality of America’s, and presumably NATO’s, military was given orders to prepare to deflect an imminent Russian attack, by offensive tactics if necessary.  Tanks were lined up, engines idling, barrels pointed east.  In the U.S.S.R. the soldiers boarded their planes and engines were turning; pilots awaiting awaiting orders to taxi and take off.  Nixon sent one last message:  “Don’t do it.  You know I mean what I say.”  

     The Soviets did indeed know that Richard Nixon meant what he said.  There had been dealings between the Soviets and Richard Nixon for many years and they knew well Nixon’s mettle as a cold warrior.  The earlier Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev at one point said that he had hoped for a Kennedy victory in the 1960 election because he preferred not to have to deal with Richard Nixon.  After sober reflection, the Soviets decided to cut their losses and stand down.

     I found Jeff’s story hard to believe.  Why wasn’t a story this big featured prominently in the newspapers and television news, in a book or a movie?  I followed the news media of the day avidly but had heard nothing of this story.  Still, Jeff had no reason to make this story up, so I filed it away in my mind as something mildly interesting and never thought of it again.

     Until one day in 1994.  It was after the collapse of the Soviet Union and I was chatting with a colleague about some of the memorable events of our cold war face-off with the vanquished adversary.  I thought that I would surprise Rod with my knowledge of this little-covered confrontation but it turned out that I didn’t surprise him at all; he knew all about this event.  Rod, it turned out, had once been in the Navy and in fact had intended to make it a career.  That plan was altered irrevocably by the events of October 1973.

     Rod was a submariner.  He was stationed on a nuclear missile submarine, called a “boomer”, and as the crisis broke out his submarine was ordered to proceed to the Barents Sea, a shallow sea to the north of Russia.  It was not uncommon for a boomer to be stationed in that area in a readiness status just in case anything bad ever happened, so Rod thought nothing of it.  After spending a couple of days on the bottom, all hands were called to battle stations, which was also not uncommon.  This time however the gyroscopes in the nuclear-armed missiles were spinning, indicating that they had active targets, and the hatches to the missile bays were opened.

     This was definitely not routine, and although Rod never told me what position he held on that sub, he was a department manager who spoke multiple languages and moved on to a higher position at another hospital shortly after we had our conversation, so I suspect that he wasn’t turning wrenches in the engineering spaces.  I am certain that he occupied a position high enough to know exactly what was going on.  “I was never so scared in my life” he told me.  “I was certain that the order to fire would come and when we returned to the surface there would be nothing there but glowing rubble.  I intended to make the Navy a career” Rod continued, “but after that I couldn’t take being a part of it any more.  If we were going to blow each other into glowing molecules I wanted it to come as a surprise.”

     I was completely stunned by Rod’s revelation  I had not any good reason to doubt Jeff’s story, but it was so fantastic that I just filed it away without analyzing it all that much.  Now, having heard a guy from a different branch of the American military, ten years later, telling me the same tale, my mind boggled at how close the world had come to the unthinkable.  Now, with an expansionist Russia pursuing what appears to be the reestablishment of the old Soviet Empire, it gives me and uncomfortable chill that we might, just might, have to do this thing all over again.

Cars

     Sociologists and historians have written at length about the impact that widespread access to automobiles has had on American society.  In the time of prosperity following World War II the access to automobiles now enjoyed by millions of average Americans changed completely the patterns of life of men and women in countless ways, too many to record here and it is not the purpose of this author to record them anyway.  I am writing not a history but a story and this story revolves around the influence that the automobile had on one group of American society and that group is teenage children, and within group one child in particular:  Me.

     It is not an overstatement to write that ownership of a car of one’s own was the holy grail of teenage boys in the 1950’s and first half of the 1960s.  Actual ownership of a car by a kid was still something of a novelty then, but the movies in the 50s and the music of the 60s set that ownership as the apex of desire for any American teen.  “Rebel Without A Cause” was a movie which was released in 1955, and James Dean driving a stolen 1949 Mercury towards a cliff in a game of ‘chicken’ made every kid who watched it long for a ride of his own to go with his leather jacket, his comb for that hair held perfectly in place by some brand of pomade, and Old Spice after shave that would make him irresistibly cool. 

     Brad, my brother, is four years older than me and was deeply influenced by “Rebel”.  The first car which Brad owned was a 49 Merc, the car that James Dean was driving in the movie.  Brad was somewhat boisterous in his youth and he and the car fit into the rebel picture very nicely.  Brad’s Merc was not nice and new and shiny like James Dean’s was however.  The car, which was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Taco Wagon’, had a lot of hard miles on it and needed a good deal of maintenance to keep it running.  Brad was up to the task.  I frequently found Brad in the old wooden garage behind our house with parts of that car spread out all over the concrete floor.  I was amazed then that Brad could keep track of all of those parts, knew how they worked and where they went, and could put them there.

     Not only could Brad manage that feat of auto mechanics magic but so could nearly all of Brad’s friends.  It was expected of a teenage boy that he should be able to maintain a car, even if he didn’t personally own one since many didn’t, and the road to any kind of status ran through a greasy pair of hands.  I was twelve years old the summer that Brad had that car, and technically was not yet a teen.  That was small comfort however since my friends Wes and Larry and Hank were my age and already doing tune-ups and oil changes and stuff like that for their brothers or fathers or other older kids in the neighborhood.  I had neither the ability to screw with cars nor interest in learning how to do so, but I could feel the pressure to conform even then.

     That pressure ratcheted up one day when Brad and four or five of his friends had the Taco Wagon torn apart and were planning to grill some hot dogs or something when they were finished.  The price for a dinner of whatever they were going to cook was a pair of greasy hands, and just grabbing ahold of a crankshaft or sticking one’s hands into the oil pan was not what the older guys had in mind.  I stood by the front fender and looked over it into the yawning cavity that was the engine compartment, then looked at the collection of metal parts and wires and hoses which littered the concrete floor, and knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do that would add in any way to the project at hand.  Brad was not all that keen on a little brother getting under foot anyway, so I made a lame excuse and then quit the building, trying not to hear the chuckles and snickers as I left, and climbed into the tall pine tree in our front yard.  That tree was a place where I hid from the unpleasantness of the world on many occasions in my young life, and it was to that refuge I fled on that day.

     A few years passed and the status of the car in teen life changed but became on weaker.  Music was now the medium by which youth culture expressed and defined itself and that culture was filled with cars.  “Little Deuce Coupe”, “I’ve got a thirty Ford wagon and they call it a woody—“,”She’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’till her daddy takes the T Bird away—“.  Even some little old lade from Pasadena had a muscle car of her own, but what could I do?  Not much.  I loved beach sound music but the Beach Boys sang of their car which had a flat head mill and was ported and relieved and stroked and bored and had a competition clutch with four on the floor and even had lake pipes.  Out of all that stuff I knew what ‘four on the floor’ meant, but to this day I don’t know what all of that other crap was.

     But most of the other guys did.  Peter had a Chevy Malibu with a lot of that high performance stuff.  Gabby had a 55 Chevy and Bruce, of all things, had a slightly beat up but still extremely impressive Corvette.  This gave Peter and Gabby a considerable leg up with the ladies at school and in our neighborhood, and also their closer friends who knew what all of those contraptions were and what they did.  Bruce was such a worm and a loser that he could have had a Ferrari and it would have done him no good.

     There was one thing in life that I could count on, and that was that I would never own a car as a teen.  My father would not let me work to earn the money for a car unless I received straight ‘A’s in the academic classes at my high school, and that was going to happen, like, never.  My consolation prize was that I had a fair amount of access to Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor.  That Meteor did not have a competition clutch or any of that other stuff but the little car with the little engine and the automatic transmission gave me mobility, and that was worth gold.  But status, real status, depended upon one’s ability to race, to burn rubber in all four gears, and all of that.  That was not going to happen in Dad’s Meteor.  I did get a microscopic amount of rubber one time however.  I put the shifter into neutral and revved up the engine, and then dropped the shifter into drive.  The little bit of sound which the tires made as they broke traction with the pavement was only slightly more audible than the sound of pain coming out of the transmission.  To this day I wonder why I didn’t leave a trail of broken tranny parts behind us as I rolled down the street, away from the scene of my dubious triumph.

     Many of my friends had no wheels at all, and when I could get the car keys they would all climb in, somewhere away from where Dad could see them, and we would act like we were as cool as the guys with hot cars.  One night we wanted to see a movie at a drive-in theater but most of the guys didn’t have the money to buy a ticket.  I finally arrived at a solution to the problem.  At that time guys with serious muscle cars had the front end lowered while gigantic engines which were stroked and bored and blah blah blah would hiss as they sucked in oxygen that would complete the combustion somewhere in its metal innards and make the car go like a bat out of hell.  I had three or four of the guys climb into the trunk of the car, which lowered the rear end instead of the front, and removed the air cleaner which made the car hiss like Gollum cursing hobbitses as he searched for his precious.  The guy at the ticket booth either didn’t notice or couldn’t believe the idiocy of this obvious bit of subterfuge, but we got into the movie and had a good laugh about the whole thing.

     The teenage love affair with cars had changed by the time I returned home from the Army.  The 60s were bleeding, literally, into the 70s and music was pretty much all about peace, love, revolution and getting high.  Cars were not even on the list of accessories needed to achieve coolness.  In fact, the older and more beat up your car, the more pizzaz it had with the trend-setting counter culture bunch that I identified with.  In those days I drove my old gray 1961 Dodge Lancer with the push button transmission and the evil hiss from a leaking hose somewhere under the hood and felt like I had finally, at long last, come into my own.

     

     

It’s Only Rock and Roll

     I love rock and roll, and while I understand that it is really only rock and roll, nevertheless I like it.  The truth is that I like most music and if possible never miss a chance to hear it live, or as close to live as I can get.  In my twenties, which occurred during the bulk of the seventies, I saw a great many concerts, most of which I remember.  Sort of.  Growing up in the fifties and sixties in San Diego however afforded me and other music lovers a lot fewer opportunities to hear live music but we did the best we could.  This is a tale of my love of music and pursuit of exposing myself to it as much as possible.

     In the 1950s I had two avenues for the above mentioned exposure to music; the AM radio and my father’s record collection.  Dad had big, thick 78s with a variety of classical pieces on them and 45s of mostly Country and Western, singles from movies, and big band stuff.  It’s all I knew then and I loved it.  I can still hear Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind”, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” and all of that Rachmaninoff stuff that came on the thick, black records that were kept in the heavy pressboard boxes.  I mostly listened to what Dad listened to until a guy named Buddy Holly came along.

     The second phase in my life of music appreciation arrived with Buddy and the big Bopper and Bill Haley, et. al., and lasted through the great rivalry between the West Coast Beach Sound and Motown.  Most of the white guys in my neighborhood were solid Beach Sound, but the Latinos and Filipinos and the few black guys preferred Motown.  I came down squarely in both camps.  I loved Smokey and David Ruffin and especially the Four Tops, but I loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and others just as much.  Every night when I wasn’t hanging out with friends at the local recreation center which we just called ‘The Park’ I would be home listening to KCBQ, hearing my favorite two and three minute songs being spun by the legendary disc jockey Happy Hare.

     Then one day I got to see Jan and Dean live.  Concerts were rare in those days, in San Diego at least, and when my friend Ellen Marie and I heard that there was going to be the filming of a television show which would be emceed by Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the TV show ‘Bewitched’, featuring the surf singing duo, and that they needed members for the audience, we signed up as quickly as we could.  Ellen was one of my best friends in the neighborhood and we could often be seen hanging out together.  We both had braces on our teeth and the other kids joked that if we should get together as a couple we would be the “clash of steel”.  We never did have that kind of relationship, but our friendship was more solid and of longer duration than most of the romantic liaisons in my life.

     On the big day Ellen and I walked up to University Avenue and boarded the Number Five bus that took us directly to downtown.  From the old Horton Plaza it was only a walk of a few blocks to the Spreckles Theater where the show would be filmed.  Ellen and I showed out tickets, bought some popcorn and candy for a buck or two, and found our seats in the auditorium.  We were not too far from the stage and could see everything very clearly.  Ellen and I yammered away with each other until Ms. Montgomery mounted the stage and gave us all instructions on when we were to cheer, when to clap, when to laugh, and so on.  Ellen and I sort of paid attention, but we were too excited about seeing Jan and Dean to care very much about the details.  Finally all of the instructions were delivered and the crew began to film.

     The whole thing seemed a little bit odd to us but we played ball as best we could, clapping and cheering and laughing on cue.  Of course, Ellen and I would frequently laugh at the wrong time because the whole thing seemed silly, and to a couple of kids in their mid teens it was truly silly indeed.  But at last we came to the payoff.  During a break for technical reasons Jan and Dean came out on the stage and the cheering then was genuine.  The stars of the show, as far as we were concerned anyway, waved to the crowd and said a few words to the people in the front row.  

    After a few minutes they disappeared again and it was back to business.  The crowd settled down, Ms. Montgomery began her introduction, and Jan and Dean reentered the stage as their cue was given.  The “cheer” sign went up, but we were already providing that prop, and this time in earnest.  Ms. Montgomery said a bunch of words that nobody paid attention to and then Jan and Dean stepped up to sing.  The “cheer” sign was not up, but as the duo broke into “Surf City” a few of the girls screamed and some of us began to sing along with them.  That was not in the script however and the “cut” sign was given.

     “Please don’t make any noise while the boys are singing” admonished Ms. Montgomery.  “The producers want to hear the singers, not the audience.

     We settled down again as best we could and the introduction was made again, complete with canned and less-than-spontaneous cheering this time.  Jan and Dean burst once more into “Surf City” and this time the audience maintained its cool until the end of the song, at which time we anticipated the “cheer” sign and burst into wild applause.  Jan and Dean’s time was precious, and so their closing act of “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” came right after that.  Same format, same admonition when our youthful enthusiasm got the best of us, and same sense of awe as the singers produced, right there in front of us, the songs that we heard at least twice per day on the radio.

     After a few more laughs, cheers, and rounds of applause, all delivered on cue, we were excused and filed out of the Spreckles and onto the sidewalk running along Broadway under the brilliant San Diego sun.  As we walked back to Horton Plaza where we would wait with the sailors, the derelicts sleeping on the grass, and the pigeons which flocked around the domed fountain which was a fixture in downtown San Diego as long as I lived there, Ellen and I dissected every word, every movement, and every glance that had undoubtedly been aimed directly at us.  The Number Five finally arrived and we climbed on board, thumbed our dimes into the box by the driver, and rode that bus back to East San Diego and to the park where we could brag about our adventure to all of our friends, who were jealous as could be but insisted that they really preferred James Brown anyway.  And indeed, some of them did.

     All of the Motown and Beach stuff came to a screeching halt in January of 1964 when the American release of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” exploded onto the charts and the English Invasion was under way.  My Navy father wouldn’t let me grow a “mop top” but a lot of my friends did, and we listened faithfully to the radio as sometimes two or three new groups with a totally new sound emerged each week to make a splash.  The Beatles were nearly everybody’s favorites at first, with the Rolling Stones a very close second.  My one and only girlfriend, Rhonda, was much taken with the Stones and I have to admit that I was more than a little jealous of that, so I had to claim some favorite other than them. I chose the Kinks, partly because I really liked their music and partly because they were even uglier than the stones, at least to judge by the bands’ pictures on their album covers.  I don’t know why that mattered, but it did.  

     My relationship with Rhonda ended amicably – no point in being a sore loser – and I was soon in the market for a new girl friend.  That mission was a lot like Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.  I was terribly shy and after my first relationship ended I couldn’t muster the courage to try again.  This was a pitiable condition because Teresa Beal, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood by my standards, was unattached.  I was on good terms with Teresa and I dropped more than subtle hints of my interest, but never received any indication of interest in return.  The thought of just coming out and expressing my interest made me nauseous, so I dithered and plotted how i would eventually make my move.

     My opportunity came in May of 1965 when it was announced that the Beatles would perform in Balboa Stadium.  The Beatles were an irresistible draw and I was certain that an invitation to go see them would be irrefutable proof of my ardent and undying love, and Teresa would fall into my arms like Snow White into Prince Charming’s, or something like that.  Tickets were $3.50, $4.50 and $5.50, and all I could afford were the $3.50 variety.  Two tickets added up to $7.00, and that was a lot of scratch for a sixteen year old kid living in East San Diego in 1965.  The tickets were procured and rested in my dresser drawer for days and weeks as I struggled to find the right time and right words to ask Teresa to go with me to see the Beatles.

     The upshot of this tale is that I didn’t have the cojones to pull the trigger.  Beatles or no Beatles, you don’t get a date unless you ask.  I tried as best I could but Teresa and I lived in the same neighborhood; if she turned me down I would be faced with that fact every time I saw here and everybody would know.  That wasn’t going to happen and so I asked my brother if he wanted to go instead, which he did.

     Brad is also an interesting musical tale.  My brother spent two years at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and had recently returned from the Army.  In Texas Brad learned to like old school Country and Western.  Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and Marty Robbins were his sort of acts.  A few weeks after returning home Brad walked into our bedroom while I was watching either Shindig or Hullabaloo, which were television shows that featured rock and roll acts playing their music.  It was sort of like early videos, only live.  Anyway, that night the Rolling Stones were singing “Satisfaction” when my brother walked into the room and my old fifteen inch black and white television screen was filled with Mick Jaggers’ lips, teeth and tongue.  “What in the hell is that?” asked Brad in stunned amazement.  “Give it a few months” I replied.  “You’ll be borrowing my records.”  And indeed he was, so when I mentioned the concert Brad leapt to the occasion.

     We found our seats and almost had to pay for oxygen, they were so high up.  I had never been to a real concert before and had no idea what to expect.  The opening acts were all pretty good; Cannibal and the Headhunters was my favorite of that bunch, but soon we got to the main event.  Out they came; four tiny figures on a stage down on the fifty yard line who wasted no time in starting the show.  The audience wasted no time either in breaking out in pandemonium.  Girls were screaming and kicking the sheet metal which surrounded the stadium lights.  Guys raced out onto the field only to be tackled by burly security men.  It turned out that Ronald Angulo, a kid from my neighborhood, was one of the first idiots to pull that stunt.  The Beatles sang twelve songs and that was it.  It actually seemed like less than that, but I am assured that we got twelve.  And then it was over and I went home again to crow at the park, although it was hollow because I had wanted to be there with Teresa.

     My love of music grew over the next decade as music became the medium by which  disillusioned youth expressed their feelings to one another and the world.  Music had become a complicated business and revolution filled the air along with the sounds of Hendrix, Cream, The Starship and a million others.  But I’ll never forget the simple love that I had for the music, just the music, of my youth.  No great causes or movements, no subliminal messages, just innocent music.  Yeah, it was only rock and roll, but I liked it then.  I still do.

 

Sand Trap

     1967 was a very good year for me.  I had a girlfriend in that year and this was not something which came along often in my young life.  In fact, this was the one and only girlfriend I had during the first twenty one years of my life.  Rhonda was the friend of one of my neighborhood pals and we used to all eat lunch together at school.  I was quite taken by the extraordinarily pretty Rhonda and hesitated for the longest time to ask her out on a date because of the curse of painful shyness which I endured in those years.  When I finally found the courage to ask Rhonda out she accepted, much to my surprise, and we began a relationship which lasted a short but very pleasant while.

     As I wrote earlier I was very shy, and the thought of trying to kiss a girl made my head spin; the prospect of rejection was almost too great to bear.  On the other hand I had an easy knack for talking with anyone, and with Rhonda it was even easier than with others.  We would talk about our likes and dislikes, plans and dreams, our lives before we met, music, in fact just about anything and everything.  I eventually worked up the nerve to try a kiss, which never led to more than a bit of innocent teenage necking.  Of course all of this very personal conversation and extracurricular activities required a quiet place of solitude, and that solitude was frequently found parked at the top of Del Cerro hill on what was then the edge of San Diego.  A street had been paved over the top of the hill in anticipation of houses that would be built later, but at the time the street is all that there was, and we spent a few evenings there talking about life and plans and sharing a kiss or two.

     I have always enjoyed variety however, and so one evening I decided to see if we could find a place to get away from the maddening crowd by going to the beach.  I selected Mission Beach to be our hideaway for that evening, which proves that logic was not yet my strong suit.  The beach, in a large beach city, is never a place to get away from people.  In this case however, those people would save my bacon later that evening.  We drove down Mission Blvd., past a closed and darkened Belmont Park amusement center.  It seemed like Belmont Park was always closed back then, or the wooden roller coaster out of commission by fire or things like that.  Anyway, it was dark that evening and as we drove south on Mission Blvd. it got even darker, but still there were people popping up on sidewalks or paths which led to and from the beach itself.  Eventually we came to a dead end at a jetty built out of large, jagged boulders.  A dirt road led to the left, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen in that direction, so I pulled in and drove a hundred yards or so down that road in search of the solitude which we desired.

     There was, however, no solitude to be found.  It wasn’t exactly a parade, but it was summer at the beach in San Diego and any solitude found there would be rare and of short duration.  I analyzed the  situation and decided that the heights of Del Cerro was going to have to do, and began to make what was called a ‘Y’ turn in the dirt road rather than return to Mission Blvd. in reverse.  That was where I made my big mistake.

     The road was narrow but I was sure that I had room to make the maneuver of inching forward and backward, slowly turning the car to the right and eventually making a 180 degree turn.  Perhaps I did have the room, but the night was dark, my mind was on other things, and my hand was completely out of aces.  At ninety degrees in the road I backed up a foot too far and settled gently into the soft sand of that dark bit of beachfront San Diego.  Thinking of myself as a resourceful male I got out of the car certain that I could make everything work out just fine.  I walked around to the back of the car and sure enough, the tire was buried in sand up to the hub.

     I reentered the car and assured Rhonda that I could get us out of this.  I began to try to rock the car gently by accelerating in drive and then backing off of the gas pedal, hoping that my parent’s Mercury would sort of walk its way out of the trap.  This plan was a complete bust; if anything at all the tire sat lower in the sand than before.  For the first time since I felt that depressing sink of the rear of the car I registered a twinge of fear.  The car was not going anywhere, and I had no idea how to change that fact.

     “How are we going to get out of here?” was Rhonda’s reasonable question.  I concealed my annoyance because I really liked Rhonda a lot.  Besides, I wasn’t annoyed by her question; I was annoyed because I didn’t have a good answer.

     “I don’t know.  I’m going to have to think about this”.

     We got out of the car and stood disconsolately next to the sunken tire.  I had never been in this position before, and had no interest in walking a great distance back to the lighted area where I could find a pay phone and call my father.  Dad went to bed early and would be unimpressed with his son stuck in the sand off of a dirt road in a darkened section of Mission Beach with his girlfriend.  The thought of explaining myself to Rhonda’s parents gave me little cause for cheer as well.

     “Do you need some help?”

     I was jolted out of my thoughts by an older guy, maybe in his twenties, and his lady friend, who had approached as I was lost in my reverie.  I explained the problem, which was pretty obvious to see, and he stood and thought a minute.

     “Let’s get the girls in the back seat and you drive while I push” was his suggestion, and it seemed a pretty good one to me.  The ladies piled in and I fired up the Merc once again while my new best friend pushed, but the result was the same.  Before we threw in the towel another couple arrived and soon I had two guys pushing while I drove, but still the Mercury squatted obstinately in the sand.  I exited the car and walked back to where my two new best friends stood discussing the problem.

     “How about if we jack the car up and then push it forward?” i proposed.  “We only need a foot or two to be on the solid part of the road.

     “You’d probably put that jack through your gas tank” came a voice from behind us.  The owner of that voice was a single guy of undetermined age who was carrying a paper bag.  ‘Let’s see what we’ve got here” he said.  Our new rescuer placed his bag on the sand and studied the problem for a minute, and then said “I think we can use that jack after all”

     I raised the trunk lid and extracted my bumper jack, which was the old kind of jack which stood vertically on a square metal plate and attached beneath the car’s bumper.  This newest member of my rescue party placed the jack under the bumper and began to lift the car up.  “Go and get some rocks to put under the tire he said, and we scattered to find stones of the right size, which was not as easy in the sandy area as I would have liked.  We all came back with what we had found and put them as close to underneath the tire as we could get them.  He lowered the jack and I tried once again to advance the car out of the sand.  The attempt failed and some of the rocks flew out from under the tire, but some of them stayed in place. 

     “Get more” said the new quarterback of this operation.  We scattered to comb the area for rocks, preferably flat ones of just the right size.  Several more people out enjoying the evening pitched into the effort and soon we had a nice pile of rocks under the drive tire and I was ready to try to move the car once again.

     “Wait a minute” came a voice from the crowd.  “Let’s get some people on the trunk.”  Guys lifted their ladies onto the truck while as many as would fit positioned themselves behind the car to push.  In a moment I shouted “Ready!” and the throng responded “Go!”  I did just that.  The tire bit into the rocks while the guys pushed, and with the agility of a deer the Mercury surged forward onto the solid dirt path.

     A cheer went up as I stopped the car, now safe and sound on solid ground.  People were talking and laughing; the men shaking hands.  This was 1967;  nobody hugged back in those days.  The quarterback with the paper bag retrieved his cargo and pulled a beer out of it and popped it open, toasting to the success of our operation.  I thanked everyone profusely and assisted my lady into the passenger seat.  With a last round of thanks I climbed into the driver’s seat, fired up the Merc, and rolled out accompanied by the waves and cheers of our rescuers.  You’d have thought that it was a wedding.

     Rhonda and I knew that little in the way of kisses would be enjoyed that night, but there was no shortage of things to talk about.  We drove directly to Oscar’s, a drive-in hamburger place on El Cajon Blvd., and soon the drama of the early part of the evening faded as we returned to our role of two teenagers infatuated with each other.  Rhonda got home on time, we shared a good night kiss on the front porch, and I got home just before my curfew.  The next morning I was up early vacuuming sand out of the inside of the car and checking it over for scratches or dents.  There was no physical evidence that anything untoward had happened with Dad’s car the night before and I chose not to share that tale with him.  In fact, Dad died almost forty years later without ever hearing that tale.  I hope that it’s possible he’s getting a chuckle out of it now.

    

Camping in Wonderland, Part IV

     There were many camping trips in which I engaged following my release from the Army.  I have already written of one of those trips; the trip to Minaret Lake with my oldest friend Wes.  That trip came early in my new civilian life and was among the best of my life.  One year later Wes and I decided to hike out of Yosemite, up the north wall of that amazing canyon and onto the more or less level high ground which our hiking guide book said that we would find up there.  We attacked the trail in mid-morning but by noon we seemed to be nowhere near reaching the top of that twisting, tortured, switch-backed trail.  Wes and I decided that life is too short to waste on such energetic endeavors, so we returned to the valley floor.  

     Resting in the shade by my car, Wes and I scanned the book in search of another place to camp.  We didn’t want to stay in the valley with the million-plus other tourists and vacationers, but we didn’t want to drive somewhere else either.  Wes noticed that there was a trail which extended up the east end of the canyon, beyond the general tourist area, where it began to climb up into the Sierra Nevada mountains.  That path followed the Merced River to the string of falls and small lakes that could be found up there.  That path appeared to be a road commonly taken and we were interested in a road less travelled.  Looking at our map we noticed that if we veered north from where the shuttle bus ended it’s route into the eastern end of the canyon, around the misnamed pond of Mirror Lake, there began a sort of path which followed a creek the name of which I forget which flowed out of a smaller canyon which climbed back up into the mountains too..

     This was no formal trail, but others had been this way and a sort of path could be seen among the rocks and trees which lined the creek.  I don’t know how long we walked; it didn’t seem like a very long time but these things become cloudy when a person is disconnected from their clock and enjoying nature.  It couldn’t have been more than an hour or two because we reached a good place to camp with a good deal of the day left before us.  Our camp was by a pool at the base of a ten or fifteen foot waterfall, beneath a tree which had dropped a thick bed of leaves over the years, which gave us a soft place to pitch our tents.

     This spot was enchanting.  The falls was beautiful and the valley secluded.  Few other hikers came by that day or the next.  Water birds called ‘dippers’, or ‘water ouzels’, would fly into the creek and walk along the bottom eating insect larvae, tadpoles or small fish if they could find them.  We marveled at those birds.  The only negatives to this campsite were the squirrels which quickly gnawed through Wes’ pack to get at the food items within before he could hang the pack by a rope from a tree limb, and the white noise from the waterfall.

     The white noise was an interesting phenomenon.  I paid little attention to it during the daytime but at night, after we had sipped a bit of our backpacking staple of cheap bourbon whiskey, and smoked a joint or two, the strangest sounds could be heard emanating from the noise made by the constant splash of water falling ten to fifteen feet into a pool.  As I lay in my tent I could hear everything from people talking to ten speed bicycles clicking to police sirens, and all of this several miles from any possible police sirens or ten speed bikes.Like everything else in life one gets used to it, but it did detract from a good night’s sleep.  Wes and I hung around that camp another day fishing (with better luck than we experienced at Minaret Lake), reading and relaxing, and then returned to my car and from there to San Diego.

     That was not my last foray into that part of Yosemite however.  One year later my best traveling partner, Joe Medina, and I were driving around Northern California visiting friends and camping out here and there and I mentioned the place where Wes and I had camped earlier.  That sounded good to Joe and so we pointed his Volkswagon bus towards Yosemite National Park.  We parked the bus near the visitor’s center and stocked up on food at the little store that is maintained there.  A short shuttle ride later we were standing in front of Mirror Lake and ready to walk eastward into the wild canyon at the rear of the park.

     The trail was a little busier than it had been when Wes and I had camped there the year before, but it was still very quiet  as we walked further from the tourist area.  We reached the waterfall where Wes and I had pitched our tents before but the day was still young, so we decided to push on.  Climbing the steep bank over which the creek was falling was not too difficult a project and upon reaching the small plateau which gradually narrowed and rose as one walked further east we recognized instantly a perfect campsite.  Two logs lay perfectly situated on the ground to provide seats in front of a fire.  We brought stones together to make a fire pit in front of those logs and pitched our tents on the soft soil nearby.  The bank over which the creek fell was just enough of a barrier to traffic that only a few hardy hikers passed by our camp, and they mostly just waved and walked on.

     Our area seemed to have hardly been camped in at all and so there was no shortage of dry firewood littering the floor of the forest.  We had small gas stoves to cook on, but a fire in the morning to brew coffee over and a fire at night before going to bed is something which makes a camp a camp.  We were as comfortable as could be, and even being twenty two year olds and restless as that breed tends to be, we were very content to explore around our camp a little but mostly sit on those logs and talk about things that I couldn’t possibly remember today and probably wouldn’t interest me now anyway.  They were interesting and speaking was effortless then however, and we spent the rest of that day and most of the next doing just that.

     There were however three occurrences which added a little spice to the trip.  Early the next morning I was forced out of my tent by the need to take care of some urgent business.  Even in such an idyllic setting of nature one still must answer when nature calls.  Taking the toilet paper and a collapsable shovel I looked around until I found a small log lying on the ground which looked as if it would serve for latrine duty.  I dropped my drawers and positioned myself comfortably on the log, and proceeded to add another log to the forest floor.  About midway through this process I heard a ‘snap’, and my attention went into high alert.

     My first thought was that Joe might be sneaking up on me with his camera.  We were young males and that kind of humor was (and remains) common to that set.  My second thought was a bit more dire.  Bears frequent the vicinity of Yosemite, usually on the valley floor where there are trash cans, picnic baskets and coolers to pillage in search of the crap that we humans usually like to eat.  But the bears have to come from somewhere, and eventually return there when the garbage is gone, so I wondered if I had chosen to take my ease on some sort of bear highway.

     That is a thought that will pinch things off in a hurry but I knew that it would be foolish to move an inch, so I just sat there bare to the world, waiting to see if a bear would come along to ruin my day.  In a minute or two I heard soft rustlings in the leafy carpet of the forest floor and a large brown shape loomed from behind a boulder.  “This is it”, I thought, “Smokey’s revenge”.  The shape did not have the rounded bulk of a bear however, and as my panicked vision cleared I could see that my visitor was a deer.  I don’t remember if there were antlers, so I couldn’t say if it was a buck or a doe.  All I cared about was the fact that it didn’t have claws and teeth and a very bad attitude.  The deer and I stood and sat motionless for a moment, staring into each other’s eyes at very close range.  Slowly the deer ambled off towards the remote east end of the canyon.  I quickly finished the business at hand and returned to the safety of our camp where Joe and his camera were still snuggled comfortably in his tent.

     Later that morning a couple of parties of hikers came past our camp.  The first was a middle aged man and woman who simply waved and walked on.  That is usually how I liked it when I camped in the wilderness; I didn’t go to the woods to hang out with people.  The second party was different though.  Two guys, roughly our age, with German flags sewn onto their backpacks.  This told us clearly that these were two guys who would bring interesting stories into our camp.

     Pius and Rene were indeed from Germany; from Munich, or “Muenchen” to be exact, and with the customary German fondness for precision they insisted on being exact.  We offered them coffee and rolled a couple of joints, and within an hour’s time we were fast friends.  Pius and Rene were students traveling abroad during the summer, and this was a time in America when more people would still hitchhike from coast to coast with little fear.  It was far from a perfect time, but two white guys with short hair and no beards had a good chance of traveling in America by the seat of their pants in relative safety.  We spent a couple of hours with our two new friends, learning about them and their home as they learned about us and ours.  The time came for Pius and Rene to move on, and we exchanged addresses.  Oddly enough we were visited by Pius and Rene later that month at the house I shared with three other friends.  I have not made it to Germany yet to repay that visit.

     My last outstanding remembrance of that camping trip came later in the afternoon.  It was a warm day but not uncomfortably so, and there was a nice breeze blowing which cooled things down to a very acceptable level.  I had a can of deviled ham and some crackers and prepared to enjoy them while sitting on the bank over which flowed the creek into the falls.  From that vantage point the view was stunning.  Not a single evidence of human activity could be seen from that spot, and the whole of the Yosemite Valley opened up before me.  The sheer walls of naked rock stood in their frozen permanence while the carpet of tree tops in the valley below swayed and rippled like tall grass in the wind. 

     Like every other stoned slacker of my age in those days I had read Carlos Castaneda’s books about a Yaqui sorcerer in Mexico with whom he allegedly spent time doing a research project.  The first of the books which emerged from this project was entitled “A Separate Reality”.  Many are doubtful of the academic seriousness of his books or even the existence of the focus of those books, Don Juan.  Nevertheless those books were read voraciously by those of us who were comfortable living in our own separate realities, and I sat there trying to see the entire valley as a living, breathing organism.  That effort failed miserably but the beauty of the simple, three dimensional here-and-now valley was deeply impressed into my memory.  I finally picked my stoned self up and retreated to our camp, where our campfire coffee and reconstituted freeze dried food and another snort or two of whiskey completed our evening.

     We broke camp the next morning and retraced our path to Mirror Lake in time to catch the shuttle to the visitor center and have a late breakfast there.  We left Yosemite to continue our rounds of visiting friends in the north and I have never returned to Yosemite since.  In a way I don’t have to.  The diving birds, the waterfall, the deer, the breathtaking views of the valley, Pius and Rene; all remain in my mind as if it was yesterday instead of forty years ago.  Part of the pleasure of retelling this story lies in the fact that I get to relive it  That is a blessing indeed.