I was standing in a line of graduates who’s last name began with “Do through Dz” and walked forward to receive my diploma from Mr. Ahearn. That worthy gentleman was standing in full graduation regalia and extended to me a diploma, a handshake, and a plastic smile. I wondered if he really wanted to be there any more than I did, and later decided that in fact he did. It was his job; he didn’t know any better. I did notice that Mr. Ahearn didn’t have so much as one bead of sweat running down his face or a splotch of moisture on his collar. “Does this guy ever sweat?” I asked myself as I walked back to my seat to await the completion of the other twenty-two letters of the alphabet.
My part in the whole thing had only taken a moment, but since our class was one third of a student population of three thousand at Hoover, that meant that this business would require a thousand other moments besides my own, give or take a few. As I sat back in my chair I checked to see if I felt any different. After all, I was a high school graduate, and I was told that many doors would open to me once that celebrated slip of paper was in my possession. “No”, I decided. I didn’t really feel any different than I had before I did that graduation walk. I was still uncomfortably warm under the cap and gown, still seventeen, which meant that I could not buy cigarettes or get drafted yet, and still seemingly stuck to that chair by forces I didn’t fully understand yet fully trusted would bear down on me if I made a premature move to walk away from it all. Oddly, I have continued to feel those forces, one way or another, ever since.
With nothing else to do my mind slipped into daydreaming, which was common for me then as it continues to be now in situations such as this. This happened a lot in algebra class too. Looking out the open south end of the football field I could see the complex of school buildings with the bell tower poking up into the sky over them all. You remember the bell tower? It’s the one through which a herd of pigs would fly before I would invite a girl to come and watch me wobble through a dance. As I sat there I remembered a time when there was something other than flying pigs that sat in the top chamber of that tower: My brother Brad, another kid in the neighborhood named Larry, and me, to be exact.
Brad is four years older than me and was always up for an adventure. Almost every night Brad would be out with his older friends doing who-knows-what while I would usually be at home, although I was probably allowed to accompany him on more occasions that a lot of other younger brothers could boast. For the most part on those occasions we would hang out in Brad’s 1949 Mercury, or the “Taco Wagon” as we called it, or in Calvin’s car of similar vintage. ’49 Merc’s were popular with the teenagers after James Dean rolled out of one while it was headed for a cliff in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause.” Or was it the other kid, the one who couldn’t get out of his car before it did a grill-plant at the bottom of the cliff, who was in the Merc? Anyway, they were popular with the teens who drove at all and we would pile into Brad’s, listen to the AM radio, smoke cigarettes and maybe nip a little vodka when we could get Hank, the twenty-one year old guy with cerebral palsy, to buy it for us. Hank was an amazing character and deserves a story all by himself.
On other nights we would just walk through the neighborhood, smoking and talking about whatever it was that teens and their little brothers talked about. It was on one of those evening rambles, probably when our parents were out for dinner and dancing with friends, that we found ourselves at Hoover High. “Come on, let’s climb to the tower” my brother said. “Can we do that?” I asked, awed by such a preposterous proposition. “We won’t know until we try” replied Brad. At this point Larry chimed in with “Have you ever done this before?” “No, but I’ve climbed onto the roof at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park, and how could this be any harder than that?” The Museum of Man was a soaring structure and I could no more imagine successfully climbing onto that roof then than I can now. But if Brad could climb onto that roof, and I always accepted Brad’s pronouncements as gospel truth, then this act of madness must be possible too.
We all agreed to give it a shot and Brad led us straight to a place near the cafeteria where a tangle of pipes and supports for the covered walkway gave easy access to the fist level of roofs. On reflection it seems odd that Brad knew exactly where to start our assent, since he did not attend Hoover. The rigidly structured education program and tight control of students’ activities at Hoover did not suit Brad, and he got himself purposefully ejected from Hoover so as to attend E. R. Snyder Continuation High School, or “Hard Guy High” as some of us called it. That school was set up more on a college model, where greater or lesser class loads could be taken by the students and, as long as they didn’t cause any outright trouble, experienced far fewer restrictions placed on them in terms of class attendance and performance. There was no football team at E.R. Snyder, nor a Thespian Society or Key Club, but a person could apply themselves and graduate early with a perfectly good education, and that is what Brad did. He then joined the Army and began another adventure, which I envied and followed four years later.
From the first roof we climbed up onto another one and crossed the flat expanse to our third barrier. This one looked like the Green Monster behind left field at Fenway Park in Boston. Brad had an answer for this wall too. “I’ll boost you up to where you can reach the top. Then you pull yourself up and hook your elbows over the edge and we’ll climb up over you. Then we’ll pull you up.” I was not at all sure about this, but I was definitely not going to be the reason why we failed, so up I went and, somehow, up and over me they climbed. In a remarkably short amount of time we were on the third level of roofs.
This is where it got ticklish. We climbed two more low walls and gained the roof of the third floor. Now we had to traverse to the left over a flat roof to the eastern edge of the square building complex. That eastern edge had a sloping roof covered with the red, curved ceramic tiles that are popular in Mediterranean architecture. Those tiles were pretty well set, but were not designed to be walked over by teenagers at night. Any misstep could lead to a short ride over the slope of the roof and a drop of three stories to the asphalt surface below. Such activities are difficult to survive and even harder to explain to parents and police.
Once we succeeded in our transit of the sloping roof the rest was easy. We walked on a flat surface to the southwest corner of the complex and Brad boosted me up and into one of the four openings in the relatively small, square bell tower. I reached out and pulled Brad up and we both hauled Larry in with ease.
Once in the bell tower it was all anticlimax. There was no bell there, and apart from a great view of El Cajon Boulevard, and that blocked by a palm tree on the right hand side, there was little to be gained for our efforts. I thought of scratching my name in the wall with my pocket knife but Brad pointed out that leaving tangible proof that I had done this silly act was probably not the smartest thing to do, so after only a few minutes of savoring our achievement we began to backtrack, and in only a couple of minutes had survived the sloping roof once again and finally lowered ourselves to the ground in the patio by the cafeteria.
“Hanley, Matthew.” Matt Hanley was one of my best friends. We met inauspiciously on the playground at Hamilton Elementary where, after a few testy exchanges, we got into a full-fledged fight. Well, as much of a fight as usually happens in whatever early grade we were in. A little wrestling on the hard, sandy dirt surface of the outer playground, no real punches thrown or landed, and ultimately a draw, after which we left each other alone for a while. Gradually our relationship grew from détente to acceptance to full-grown friendship. Within a month of graduation Matt and I would be attempting to ride freight trains from Yuma, Arizona to Florida, where his girlfriend’s parents had relocated. Matt was slightly better at procuring girlfriends than I was, but still such a rare thing was not to be let get away without a fight, so a trip across country with virtually no money in his pocket in order to reconnect with the love of his young life seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Accompanying my friend on such a hopeless adventure, and with only a little money in my own pockets, seemed like a reasonable thing for me to do too, so after purchasing two tickets on a Greyhound bus from San Diego to Yuma Arizona, where there was a large train yard with tracks going in the direction that we wanted, we set out to find Florida sunshine and sweet Janelle Tompkins.
What we found was a well-guarded train yard with no schedule telling us which freight trains were headed to Tallahassee and which to Tacoma, unimaginable heat, considerable humidity due to the proximity of the Colorado River, and mosquitos which would make Count Dracula look like a vegan. We considered asking some rather rough looking characters whom we spotted close to one corner of the yard how the process works but in one of those rare times that good sense broke into my young life – or perhaps it was Divine protection – I told Matt that I didn’t think that would be a good idea. Later conversations with folks who were, and may still be, homeless, have confirmed that we might easily have ended up bleeding and stripped of everything we owned, or worse.
So now what to do? We had left San Diego telling our friends of our plan. To show up the next day back at the neighborhood park with nothing to show for our efforts would result in a major loss of face. We had to stay away for a couple of days at least, and so with part of our stash of money we rented a motel room and prepared to sit a few days by the pool and concoct the story that we would tell upon our return.
It was our good fortune that one of the other units at that motel contained three young women from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, who were on a summer cruise of discovery in the American Southwest. We struck up a friendship, as young people can often so easily do, and learned that their plan included going to Tijuana, Mexico. “Oh, I’m not sure that’s a good idea” Matt said. “Three women alone in Tijuana can take a bad turn in no time at all.” We went on to paint a lurid picture of the possible dangers which existed for three women unaccompanied by male escorts in Tijuana, most of which were true. Sadly, much of it was and continues to be true to this day in any American city. “What should we do?” they asked. “We really want to see Mexico.” “We’ll go with you to Tijuana and then you can drop us off in San Diego” I suggested, and the suggestion was snapped up immediately.
The next morning we packed up our stuff, which was minimal in the case of Matt and I, climbed into the Canadians’ car, and set off for Mexico. Tijuana was not as frightening as we had made it out to be and we had a good time poking into shops and eating street food (never a good idea but we dodged a bullet on that one) and having one drink at the Chicago Club. Later that evening a car with Canadian plates, three pretty girls and me and Matt rolled up to the the curb in front of the Park, where we introduced the ladies to our friends who almost always could be found hanging out there, and then later that evening sent the Canadians on their way back home. The three days of our absence and the manner of our return provided Matt and me with enough fodder to dazzle our friends with one bullshit story after another for weeks, until within a month of that day we had taken a bus downtown and joined the Army together, but that leads to another story.
“Zabicki, Tadeusz.” At last! It’s over! The last graduating senior made the walk and returned to his seat, diploma in hand. We had to endure one more short speech and then we would be free to pursue the rest of our lives. “I will now say this for the last time in your public school lives: Class Dismissed!” I jumped out of my seat and walked to where my parents were sitting in the bleachers, accepting their congratulations as I handed them my mortar board hat and diploma. Meanwhile, Matt and Frank and Teddy and a couple of other guys were doing the same thing.
Are you going to be home for dinner?” my mother asked. “I’m not sure. If not I’ll call and then get something on the way home.” Dinner had been a sacred time at our home, and Dad expected everyone to be there when the food landed on the table. This had led to more than one unpleasant scene over the last eighteen years. I was a graduate now, and roles were changing. We all had felt it by now and I was testing just how far the change had gone. “You’re going to the beach?” asked my father. “Yes. I’m riding with Matt and Frank.” “Here,” he said. “Take the car. Your mother and I can walk home.”
Change declared and changed acknowledged! I took the keys and went to turn in my gown. At the first trash can that I found I pitched in the old black leather shoes and socks. The soles of my feet were already beginning to put on their summer layer of calluses. Wearing shoes was the last thing any of us wanted to do and the end of summer would find us ambling carelessly across wide asphalt streets either feeling no discomfort, or refusing to show it if we did. I returned my gown and told the guys that I had wheels for the day, and with a lightness of heart that I had rarely felt in my short life I stepped out of childhood and began to make my uncertain way in the wide world.