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, she 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 just 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, and to my surprise and delight I met with success.  None of this ever led to more than a bit of innocent teenage necking, but it was heaven to me. 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 closed more than open 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 for some additional weight and you drive while I push” was his suggestion, and it seemed a pretty good one to me.  The ladies, who were not impressed by the ‘extra weight’ comment, nevertheless 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 an arthritic rhino the Mercury lumbered 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, put the Merc in gear, 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 somewhere right now.

If Only There Was Somewhere To Hide

In our diverse and crowded world it seems like we are all destined to be separated by geography, culture, gender, economic and educational attainments, and so on.  The list of things that separate us and set us apart is a long one that seems to be growing longer and more rigid day by day.  This would make it seem like reconciling ourselves to living together would be an insurmountable task but I do not believe that to be the case.  As I look at the people around me I see as many things that we share in common as things that we do not.  We all have loves and hurts, we all need to eat, to have shelter, and to have a purpose in life.  And that list could go on for a long time as well.  But lest I begin to get too lofty in all of this let me share with you all one other thing that we all hold in common.  We all, at one time or another, do something embarrassing.

A president will throw up into the lap of a prime minister, a congressman will send sketchy photos to an assumed girlfriend.  A radiologist wiil point to some shadows on a piece of film and ask “And what is this?’, and the harassed technologist will reply “I don’t know doc, you took that picture”.  A young boy will ask a girl to the dance but call her by another girl’s name, and the girl who does get to go to the dance will see that three other girls, including her sworn enemy, are wearing the same dress that she is and look better in it.  This is just the way of the world.  There’s no way to avoid it unless you hole up in a cabin somewhere and avoid all human contact, and that is a pretty high price to pay to avoid a little thing like embarrassment.

I have certainly enjoyed my fair share of embarrassment.  I am by nature extremely outgoing while my major secondary personality trait is that I am shy and easily embarrassed.  That is a poisonous combination.  I have already written about my prodigious three-meter belly flop which was committed while trying to impress a young lady at a swimming pool in my story “Age of Aquarius”.  Then there was the straw that got thrust into my nostril when I went to take a sip while sitting with several friends in a junior high cafeteria, and when I was giving an oral report and my mind went so blank that I could hardly remember my name.  I’ve had others and you, dear reader have had them too.  And most of us can remember The One, the worst embarrassment of all time, unless you are so fortunate that your mind has completely repressed the memory and there is no scar on your psyche to show where that particular land mine blew up.  My mind has not been that lucky.  I still remember my worst time, and now I will share it with the world.

I grew up in San Diego, California, and like many kids in that time I had a paper route.  I hated getting up early in the morning then just as I still do now, so I chose to take a route with the afternoon paper, the Evening Tribune, which I could deliver after returning home from school.  Upon returning to my house I would find one or more bundles of newspapers, depending upon the paper’s size on any given day, which I would begin to fold in half and then secure with rubber bands that I would purchase from the newspaper company.  Porch delivery was the desired model then and broken screens and upended potted plants were things to be discouraged, so we folded the papers as tightly as possible in order to make them as aerodynamically functional as possible.

We would load those papers into a saddlebag-looking canvas contraption that we would then sling over a steel frame attached over the back tire of our heavy-framed bicycles.  The smarter paperboys would affix a basket on the front of the bicycle which would hold a ready supply of papers for delivery, but the basket looked really weenie and so most of us rejected the notion out of hand.  We would instead withdraw a few of the folded papers from our canvas bag and hold them between the left thumb and handlebars so that we could launch individual papers with our right hand.  This is where it got tricky.  On the porch roof or through a screen was just a bad deal.  Into a shrub or a potted plant was only a little less bad.  We were forbidden to ride across our customers’ lawns so we had to launch our papers, at speed and like a Frisbee, from the sidewalk and across the lawn to land neatly with a satisfying ‘plop’ on the mostly concrete porches in the front of the customer’s house.  The surprising thing is how often we were successful at doing this.

One other thing you need to know in order for this tale to make sense is that San Diego in the early and mid 1960’s was a city that lived very much outside.  The weather in that city was nice most of the year and could be quite warm from summer through fall.  There were not a lot of residential air conditioners in those days and people would open up all of their windows and doors to allow any breeze to flow through the house, and in the afternoon and evening they would sit outside on the shady side of the house.  On any given day there was a line of people stretching down the street sitting in the shade of their front porches, running the sprinklers for the kids to play in and chatting with neighbors, or just watching the world go by.  And this sets the table for my moment of ultimate misery.

Thursday was always a day for big, fat papers because of all of its advertising inserts and announcements of weekend sales within the paper itself.  Only Sunday papers were bigger, and they required larger rubber bands to contain them.  I had flattened the papers as well as I could and double banded them in the hope that they would fly with more grace and accuracy than a drunken goose and that the bands would not snap and the paper explode into a million separate pages floating across the customer’s lawn and those of their neighbors.  I stuffed as many folded papers as would fit into the canvas saddlebags and tied it to my bike.  It was now time to deliver my cargo.

I encountered no misadventures that I can recall as I waddled down the sidewalk on my overloaded bike.  The papers were so thick that I could only hold two with my left thumb while I launched the third with my right hand.  This caused me to be looking backwards often as I sought to fish out three more of my paper projectiles without having to stop the bike.  Time is money!  I safely negotiated my first block and the action of the bicycle became smoother as I ejected my load missile by missile towards porches that, on that day, looked to be as big as a basketball court.  The first load got me two blocks north and then three blocks south on the opposite side of the street.  Upon emptying my bags I returned to my house to ram the rest of my papers into the bag and return down the street to where I left off.  One of the rules of the job was that we were not to ride on sidewalks unless we were actively delivering papers, so I was wobbling down the street with my unwieldy load attempting to regain my place where I had run out of papers.

About a half block from where I had left off a downhill grade presented itself.  It was not a steep hill by any means but it did permit the bike to pick up speed, especially under a heavy load, and braking became difficult and something that needed to be planned.  That being the case, I have no idea why I would choose that moment to allow my mind to go somewhere else.  Maybe I was thinking about one more girl that I wouldn’t ask out on a date because I was too shy, or maybe about a big wave that I would catch the next time that I got to the beach, or the sports team that I wanted to try out for – – -, naw, it was probably the girl.  Anyway, my bike was picking up speed and my brain was AWOL when I planted the front tire of that bike into the driver’s side portion of the grill of a 1956 Buick Roadmaster.

In terms of physics, I am going to lose that one every time.  The Buick didn’t budge an inch.  The bike stopped on less than a dime however and my mind came back to Earth as my body sailed over the left front wheel well of that square steel beast.  My body now took its turn of coming back to Earth and I landed with as much grace as I could, which was virtually none, and bumped and rolled a short way down the asphalt surface of Highland Avenue.  I finally came to a stop and popped immediately to my feet.  You never want it to look like it got to you.  Retreating back up the hill I righted my bike and examined the front end to ensure that it was still usable.  Bicycles were built like tanks back then and indeed it was unspoiled and ready to resume duty.  It was only after I had ascertained that the bike was serviceable that it occurred to me that somebody may have seen my humiliating brain cramp.  I turned slowly to my right and looked across the street to where the front porches sat in the shade on that very warm afternoon, and my worst fears were confirmed.

Arrayed across the lawns and front porches of that side of the street were no fewer than eight families; mothers, some fathers, and a host of children.  I stood there silently, blood beginning to drip from multiple road rashes, feeling like a bug stuck to a pin under a scientist’s microscope.  After a moment that actually felt like an eternity one of the older kids, a boy of about 14 or 15, began to slowly clap.  Several others took up that unwanted applause and my mind raced to find a way to get out of this gracefully.  There was of course no way to do that so I opted for Plan B; I propped the bike up against the front of that evil Buick and faced my tormentors.  I delivered the best formal bow that my several years of delivering recitals for my piano teacher had taught me.

The crowd appreciated my recovery and gave me a good natured laugh and a wave that said “It’s all right, we’ve all done something like that or worse.”  A mom called out and asked “are you OK?”  I would have denied a fractured skull.  I replied “Nothing hurt but my dignity.”  I had read a lot of Mark Twain and I thought that he would have said something like that.  Pulling my bicycle upright I mounted it once again and within a moment my bruised, bleeding, mortified self was coasting back down the hill to where I could resume delivering my papers and put this miserable day behind me.

It took me a couple of weeks to recover from the patches of skin that were shredded off by the pavement of that street and fifty years later I can still feel the burn of standing bleeding and stupefied in front of an audience of my neighbors.  At least now I can laugh about it.

A Shaky Ride With Wes

When I was young I was famous for my motion sickness, especially when riding in a car. On our frequent trips east to the mountains, and across those mountains to the desert, my father and his friends would often place bets on how far I would make it before I would be emptying my stomach on the side of the road. I was usually good for about twenty or thirty minutes, but anything beyond that was borrowed time. On rare occasions I would make it all the way to where we were planning to picnic or camp, and in that case everyone who was betting would have to pay me.  I never made much money that way.

Possibly my shining hour came one day when I was six or seven years old.  My mother, her best friend Francis and I were driving in downtown San Diego, looking for a store or something. Mom was lost and driving up one block and then turning left, going another block and turning right, starting, stopping, and then starting again. The effect was predictable.  In this case however Mom’s erratic driving attracted the attention of a policeman who put on the lights and pulled her over. Our car was a four door Studebaker Commander and I had already lowered the window and was gasping for air. As the policeman approached our car the nervousness which his authoritarian presence produced in me plus the impending gastric eruption combined to produce projectile vomiting which painted the front of the police officer’s uniform with the emulsified remnants of my breakfast.

I was almost certain that I would be dragged out of the car and shot on the spot, or at the very least removed from my family and placed in “The Home.” The officer however stopped dead still, looked down at his ruined uniform which was just beginning to stink of bile and Raisin Bran, and proceeded to calmly write my mother a ticket as if nothing had happened.  I can easily guess what the officer did next. My mother, mortified by the event and I believe a little bit miffed by thinking  that she could have avoided the ticket had I not puked all over the policeman, aborted her mission downtown and returned home by the fastest route that she could find. My father, upon learning of this episode, laughed so hard that I think he might have peed his pants.

As impressive as that story is, to me at least, it does not hold a candle to that of my friend Wes. Wes’ stomach had been even more sensitive than my own, and the wrong food or wrong smell or one turn too many in the backseat of a car was certain to produce an unpleasant reaction. In fact, when Wes accompanied us on those trips when I was being timed for my wagered-on eruptions it was frequently Wes who was the trigger; he would pop and then I would soon follow. You would think that, with our history, we would be careful not to tempt fate. Such however was not the case. Being young and being boys we left the act of thinking to those better suited for the task and blundered blissfully through life. This clueless wandering led us one evening to the climax of my story.

Wes and I went to the San Diego County Fair one summer when we were both sixteen. We had grown out of the worst of our delicate stomachs and did not think about them much anymore. My parents dropped us off at the fair a few hours before sundown and after giving us twenty dollars each they instructed us to meet them at the front gate at 10 o’clock when they returned to pick us up. Twenty dollars was a lot of money in 1964 and we set aside half for rides and the other half for fair food.

And did we pound that fair food down!  Hot dogs, french fries, cotton candy and snow cones, and anything else that we could find was joined together in the roiling cauldrons that our stomachs were becoming. All of this was washed down with Coca Colas spiked with the half-pint of Southern Comfort that I had smuggled in with us. We ended up doing more eating than riding because that, and looking at all of the cute young girls and trying to strike up conversations (with very modest success) was far more entertaining. We did indulge in a few rides however, and well into the evening we found ourselves standing at the front of a line and preparing to enter the cage of a Roll-O-Plane.

For those of you not familiar with fair rides fifty years ago, the Roll-O-Plane is very much like a ferris wheel. The difference lies in the fact that the passenger is seated in an oblong steel cage which will spin on it’s axis if you pull forcefully back on a lever that sits conveniently in front of you.  The resulting motion is one of the cage spinning while the larger wheel to which the cage is affixed rotates in its large, lazy circle. If I was writing a recipe for disaster I couldn’t possibly think of a better one than Wes, fair food, Southern Comfort and a Roll-O-Plane. We were strapped into our seats, the cage door was secured, and the great wheel lurched slowly forward by stages as more passengers were strapped into more cages.  Finally the cages were full. The gangly, slightly sketchy – OK, really sketchy – ride operator threw the big wooden lever and the Roll-O-Plane surged into motion and the ride was underway.

As the big steel wheel picked up speed Wes and I pulled back on the lever in front of us. The cage tipped back but stopped when we were a little less than horizontal.  We let go of the lever and the cage swung forward. At it’s furthermost point on the forward swing we jerked back on the lever again and this time we went all the way over. Holding the lever back towards us the cage soon began to spin like a propellor as the great wheel made it’s increasingly rapid rotation.  I was having a ball and didn’t notice that anything was wrong until Wes grabbed my arm.

“Man, I gotta get outta this cage or I’m going to get sick” he said. I was at the point of making a logical argument as to how one cannot simply exit the spinning cage of a Roll-O-Plane when it is in mid-ride but my sage advice was cut of by Wes, who looked forward (thankfully) and cut loose with everything that was in his stomach. Hot dogs, french fries, cotton candy and everything else that we had chucked down the tunnel that evening exploded out of Wes and formed a rooster tail of vomit that sprayed out of the cage and sprinkled onto the crowd below. I was clinging desperately to the wall of the cage, as far from Wes as I could get, unmindful of the possibility that if the door swung open I would fall a good distance down to the asphalt pavement below.

The ride operator, as soon as he discerned the nature of the shower that he was taking, cursed loudly and slammed the big wooden lever back to end the ride. One by one he let riders out of their cages, some of whom were unaware of what had just happened and were annoyed by the shortness of the ride. When he finally got to our cage I flew out of that vomit-sprayed chariot as quickly as I could and stood by to help my ash-white friend gain his feet and move away from the scene of the disaster. The operator said a few choice words to us as we were leaving but we paid him no attention.  We only wanted to get away from the glares of the others who had hung around to see who the perpetrators were.

The crowd quickly swallowed us up and we made a beeline to the restrooms where Wes could clean up. I had somehow escaped that unsavory bath completely. Wes was remarkably free of residual chunks, the majority of which had been slung out over the crowd or was now dripping from the steel cage onto the seat and floor where we so recently sat. By the time Wes exited the bathroom he had regained his composure and, like my father a decade before, we both laughed so hard that we almost cried. I stopped to get one more hot dog as we made our way back to the main gate, content to wait for my parents while seated on some benches there and thoroughly finished with the fair for that year.