“My father built these swings,” I said to the little audience that was following along as I reminisced.”He was in the Navy and was a machinist. That means he was really good at building things.” And Dad was good at building things. The swings that we were sitting on were the first major improvement that I remember him making to the property that we bought in 1952. Dad had acquired a quantity of three inch diameter steel pipe and used it to build the first swing in 1958, and after building a frame with those sturdy steel pipes he anchored it in a slab of concrete. Later he would add the second swing, in which I was seated at that moment, and still later a small table between the two swings, with their metal feet encased in concrete.
“My initials and footprints are in the corner of the slab, over there.” I pointed to a place in the concrete slab where there were two squares which had been etched into the surface when it was wet, which contained tiny footprints and a few other scratchings as well. We got up out of the swings and walked over to the corner to which I had pointed. Both squares indeed contained the footprints that I had spoken of earlier, and in my square it also said G D + L L. My brother Brad’s box had a ‘+’ too, but I don’t remember what initials were attached to it. I had no trouble remembering the person behind the initials in my box however: LaDonna Lanning.
LaDonna was, as far as I was concerned, the most beautiful girl at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, and I was head over heals in love with her and thought about her all of the time. Well, at least as head over heals in love as a ten year old boy could be, and only when I wasn’t climbing trees or swimming at the beach or one of the pools around the city or catching crawdads in the misnamed San Diego River (‘Creek’ would have been more like it) or playing ‘chicken’ on my bicycle with Wes and Brad and Craig and, well, you get the picture. I was thinking about the lovely LaDonna when I wasn’t diverted by all of that other stuff.
LaDonna, of course, knew nothing about this. Every morning she would glide onto the schoolyard a few inches off of the ground on a cloud supported by angels. There is no way, I thought, that a creature so perfect as LaDonna could be polluted by contact with the corruption that was the earth which we mere mortals existed upon. LaDonna was beautiful. LaDonna was smart. LaDonna was kind. After all, she would respond with a ‘hello’ on those rare occasions when I would forget that mortals had no business invading the divine spaces of the gods and would croak out an awkward and confused ‘good morning’ every now and then.
Best of all, LaDonna did not have a boyfriend. Of course, neither did any other girl in this class have a boyfriend. We were ten and eleven years old and in the fifth grade, for crying out loud! None of that mattered however. In the space of an instant I went from ‘girls are yuckie’ to ‘there’s the girl of my dreams.’ For the first time in my life, and not the last by any stretch, I was infatuated with a girl but hobbled by the uncertainty of what a person actually did with anything like that, and shackled by the fear that any professions of my feelings would be met with rejection at best and laughter at worst.
It was during this time that I scratched LaDonna’s initials into the concrete next to mine in the hope that there would be mystic power in impressing such a sentiment into something as solid and permanent as concrete. My brother’s box expressed a similar sentiment, but being four years my senior and considerably more self assured than I was it is very likely that there was at least a modicum of reciprocity in their relationship. Mine was entirely wish without a hint of promise.
I did however muster the courage to ask LaDonna out on a date of sorts a few years later. Her family had moved into our neighborhood no more than a block away from our house, and I actually began to go to her home and talk with her on her porch. I was never invited into the apartment and she was almost never allowed off of her porch. One day however I asked if she would like to go to the Navy swimming pool with a group of other kids and I. My father would sometimes take a carload of us to the big pool on the Navy base where we would swim for hours. To my shock and delight LaDonna obtained permission, and in no time we were all together at the pool.
I was a fair diver and was no stranger to the high board, so when we arrived at the pool I quickly changed into my swimming trunks and positioned myself close to the high board so that I could make an impression when LaDonna emerged from the women’s locker room. The wait seemed eternal, but at last I saw the blue swimming suit which enfolded the heavenly frame of LaDonna emerge, and at that moment I launched myself into what I imagined would be a perfect one-and-a-half flip.
The idea was that I would come out of my flip and make a splashless entry into the pool, impressing LaDonna with the fact that I was talented beyond belief and utterly devoid of fear. What ensued however was indisputable proof that I was a complete stranger to talent and utterly devoid of common sense. My one-and-a-half pièce de résistance ended up being a one-and-a-quarter mother of all belly flops.
“WHOP!” I made contact with every square ventral inch of my fully extended body hitting the water at the same instant. “WHOP!” “Whop!” “whop.” The echoes of my debacle rang across the pool, bouncing off of walls, roof and the surface of the water. My universe at that moment was one of pain; the physical pain of half of my surface area on fire and the mental pain of LaDonna witnessing my total failure. I stayed under water as long as my lungs would hold breath, wishing that I had gills and could stay at the bottom of the pool until, well, whenever. Eventually the threat of drowning forced me to the surface, where I drew a huge breath and looked for the fingers which I knew would be pointing at me in front of laughing faces. To my amazement there was nothing of the sort.
In fact, LaDonna had not even noticed the belly flop, and nobody else in the pool seemed to care either. I reveled in this good fortune, but it had no lasting effect. I never asked LaDonna to go anywhere again, I do not remember just why that should be, and her family moved shortly afterward. Later, in high school, I heard that LaDonna had married a college student. Really, I have no idea if that was true or not. LaDonna simply faded into memory.
As I reflect back on LaDonna I believe that she was lonely. I don’t know why and I could be miles away from the truth, but some sense, some memory that cannot quite make it to the surface of my mind, inclines me to the possibility that, for whatever reason and by whatever infliction, internal or external, LaDonna was sad and lonely. I wonder if she really had a childhood. I never saw LaDonna after the sixth grade however, so I really know absolutely nothing about how her life really was or how it turned out. Standing on that concrete pad, however, I could remember the unrequited longing that I had felt for a girl who was unaware of it and who would never return it. It was a feeling that I would learn to get used to.
“Are those really your footprints?” the young girl asked. “They most certainly are” I responded. The three current residents of my old home were just beginning to travel with me down memory lane, and they were clearly excited by my living history lesson of their home. I told them a story about the old garage which we had torn down: “I felt like Santa Claus got all of the goodies so I bought a bale of hay with my allowance one Christmas and put in on the roof of that garage for the reindeer.” “And did they eat it?” asked the little boy with eyes the size of saucepans.”They sure did” I responded, the lie sticking in my teeth.
The truth is that it was on that Christmas morning, when I ascended the garage roof to find the bale of hay completely unmolested, that I finally confirmed the suspicion, or perhaps it was more like the fear, that had lately been growing in me that it all was a fraud. I threw the hay bale down to the ground in disgust and then jumped off of the roof and landed on it, and never believed in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy (I always had trouble with that one anyway), or the Easter Bunny or any other feckless sugar daddy pipe dream again. I sometimes wonder if I have been damaged by that experience. I hope I didn’t damage that little guy by participating in the scam.
“And I’ll bet that you can still see some scars in the bark of that Torrey Pine” I said, pointing at a tree growing by the fence with the neighbors to the south. We had a lower but nevertheless substantial Torrey pine growing in our back yard, and I was as likely to be climbing in it as I was to be climbing the higher tree in the front. We had built a treehouse among the thick branches of the Torrey and would play in it for hours upon end all year long. I had nailed short lengths of 2X4″ boards into the tree to make a ladder that we did not need at all, and while the boards had been removed long ago the scars from the hammering and climbing remained. I showed those scars to the kids and told them about the games that we played in the tree and on the bare ground underneath it. One thing that I did not tell them about is the spiders. Some things a person needs to learn for themselves, I think.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, I climbed both trees a lot, usually for recreation, sometimes finding refuge when I was afraid and other times separation from the troubles that formed parts of my life down on ground level. I cannot count how many hours I spent in those two trees. In my teen years, when I climbed them less anyway, I obtained a hammock which I strung between a large branch of the Torrey pine and a steel pipe support of one of the swings, and there I idled away many an hour and slept on many a hot summer night. I had been ignoring my hammock for a while when, one day, I decided to stretch out in it once again. I could see a single spider web extending from a tree branch to the hammock but there was no sign of its owner, and so without a thought I climbed into the hammock and began to gently swing from side to side.
I was lost in a daydream, perhaps thinking about whoever currently occupied the place in my heart once owned by LaDonna, when all of a sudden I felt a thud on my chest. Looking down I saw the orange and brown spider that was at least the size of a half dollar, legs extended, that had been connected to the web. Upon being dislodged from its home in the tree the scabrous abomination had fallen down to make my acquaintance.
I damn near suffered a cardiac arrest. I am not overly fond of spiders. In fact, I have a theory about the origin of spiders. Lucifer was once Yahweh’s favorite angel, and he came to Yahweh in the beginning and said “Please, please let me create something! Oh, come on. Please! I’m your favorite angel. You know me! What could go wrong? Please, please let me create something! Huh? Huh? Will You? Will You?” Yahweh didn’t feel good about the idea, but Lucifer WAS his favorite angel. “All right, Lu, but don’t do anything stupid.” The moment that Lucifer could feel that he had the power BAM! He created ticks. BAM! He created mosquitos. BAM! He created spiders. “That’s it!” cried Yahweh. “You’re grounded big time!” And down went Lucifer to a place where he languishes to this day, not yet having atoned for the creation of those infernal critters.
At any rate, I flew out of the hammock with a sound like the screech of a strangling banshee and brushed the startled spider several yards away. Once my cardiac rhythm stabilized and I determined that I had not messed my underwear I inspected the scrabbling horror and found that it had recovered its own balance and was already beginning to crawl back to the safety of its arboreal home. The spider, as I have already said, was orange and brown; perfect camouflage for a creature living in a pine tree. It didn’t take but a moment for me to deduce that if this nasty little son or daughter of Shelob was calling my Torrey pine its home, there that there were no doubt several of its friends doing the same. Later observation confirmed this knowledge, and in fact there were many, many more spiders just like this guy up in my tree. With this observation, the days of my tree climbing came to an abrupt end. I pondered briefly whether or not to share my story of the spider with the kids, but I decided that they should find out about these things the same way that I did. Why, I asked myself, should I ruin many good years of tree climbing on this day?
I led the little party around the back yard, pointing to where the fig tree had once stood. That tree produced delicious fruit that my parents would pick and then process into fig preserves that would be spread on our peanut butter and fig sandwiches and other delicacies for the rest of the year. I told them about making the circular frames into which my father and I poured cement to make the rings which still surrounded two nectarine trees. I spoke of the neighbors on both sides, who were pains in the tush then and apparently continued to be pains in the tush to that day. I also showed them how the old picket fence which was still standing could be pushed in just a certain way so that it would move and give an enterprising kid access to Mr. Robertson’s boysenberry bushes. Mom put the stink eye on her daughter, but the girl’s eyes were sparkling with the promise of ill-gotten berries.
At last I felt that I had spent enough time in the old childhood home, and would be able to put that bothersome itch to rest. “I had better go now” I said. “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness in letting me visit back here.” “Oh, but you have not come into your house” said the mother. “Yes! Yes!” cried the two children. “You haven’t been in your house!” “But I never thought about coming into your house” I protested. “You have already been too kind to me.”
Mom and the kids wouldn’t hear of it. “No, but you must come in and see your house!” I noticed that they kept saying “your house”, and it occurred to me that they may have had a better grip on the idea of bonds not easily broken than did I. After a few feeble attempts to decline the invitation I yielded to the temptation to go inside and look at the place which for decades I had called ‘home’. “Come inside, please” said the woman, holding open the back door and clearly not intending to take ‘no’ for an answer. With feelings I can’t even begin to describe, I stepped up and into the back porch of what was once, and perhaps in some strange way still might be, my home.