Graduation Day, Part II

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.


Graduation Day, Part I

June 10, 1966 dawned warm in San Diego.  This was something of a rarity, as the hated “June gloom” condition of fog in the morning with a few hours of sun in the afternoon was the more usual pattern for the weather in that city which is celebrated for its climate. True summer usually returned to the neighborhoods, parks and beaches of San Diego much later in the season, or so it felt to us.  This was a very special day for me however; me and almost one thousand other seventeen and eighteen year olds who attended Herbert Hoover High School.  This day was graduation day.

The approaching end of my public school years had been a muted affair up to this point.  I was aware of a great many events which made up the Senior experience; the prom, something called a Baccalaureate, the rehearsal for the actual graduation ceremony and perhaps a few other activities which I have now forgotten.  None of these appealed to me, and the prom was never so much as a possibility as there were two unattainable requirements for attending, being 1. an ability to dance, and 2. a date.

Dancing was for those who had some sense of rhythm, and of that I had little.  I was threatened with dance lessons by my father as a young boy, but I think he mostly used that as a club to get me to agree to taking piano lessons, which he wanted all along.  Dad was pretty crafty like that.  If I really wanted to learn to dance I could also have learned a move or two by sitting in front of the television and watching American Bandstand.  Every week the newest dance, and there was a new one every single week, was premiered on that program, and a roomful of kids bobbed and weaved and gyrated in manners which resembled epileptic fits as much as anything that I would call a dance.  They all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely however and that was attractive, but they were also dancing like they had done those dances all of their lives.  There was no “beginners’ section”, and no intermediate.  They just danced their hearts out.  With my imperfect mental filters and underdeveloped neural processors I assumed that any performance that was less than I was seeing on TV would open me to ridicule, and in the sometimes harsh and challenging culture of the pre-teen and teenager in America there is a very good chance that some of that would happen.  And after ridicule comes humiliation, and then there is a fight which I would most likely lose.  No, it just wasn’t worth the pain.

And then there was the problem of a date.  I had very little experience at securing one of those, as this usually required talking to girls, something which I eventually got pretty good at.   But then, rising to the next level of expressing interest in some sort of relationship required facing the possibility of rejection.  That possibility I had little stomach for.  Over the years I had watched as Hollywood hunks Cary Grant, Clark Gable and others won the hearts of the fair lady with witty conversation delivered with impeccable timing to gorgeous leading ladies, who became putty in their hands in no time.  Complicated putty perhaps, but putty none the less.  I tried a few of those lines, and even thought up a few of my own, but my timing was no better than my rhythm on the dance floor, and the responses to my witty lines were never what Vivien Leigh said to Clark or what Eva Marie Saint said to Cary.  On those times when I tried it their looks were like “I’m sure that you’re normal on your home planet,” or so it felt.  With that background, asking a girl to accompany me to a dance at which I wouldn’t be able to dance in the first place was as likely as a herd of pigs flying in formation through the bell tower in the front of Hoover High, so after one short and superficial romantic relationship in my junior year with a lovely young woman a grade behind me I let the whole thing go for quite a few more years.

When the Senior Prom came around I saw it as an opportunity to hang out with some of my slacker friends.  I told my parents that I was taking a girl whom I had known since elementary school to the dance.  I don’t remember now who I said I was taking because the odds against such an event actually happening were so remote that the cover story never really stuck in my head.  I actually owned a suit which I wore to the piano recitals which I was periodically coerced into performing at, and it was in that suit that I strode out the front door, acting like a man in charge of his world.  I climbed into the family car and drove off for my evening of teen revelry but instead of meeting up with my “date” I stopped at the neighborhood park and picked up Gene and Benny and Roy.  I changed out of the suit and got into some more comfortable street cloths I had stowed in the trunk.  From there we drove to a supermarket where we shoplifted half pints of whiskey and then headed to a dark canyon which led to the base of the dam that held back the city reservoir.  We spent the evening putting on a good buzz, and when I returned home well after midnight with more than a little wobble nobody was up to bust me, and nobody would have bothered me much anyway.  It WAS the Senior Prom, after all.

The baccalaureate was another event that I passed on.  I had no idea what a baccalaureate was then and I still don’t know to this day.  Oe thing that I did know was that I had no interest in spending time at school when I didn’t have to be there.  My neighborhood was my community and nearly all of the relationships outside of my family that meant anything to me were centered there.  As the baccalaureate approached I had to choose between spending time at school with people I hardly knew, doing I had not a clue what, or hanging out at the Park with all of my favorite people, including the lovely Elizabeth Wentley and her even lovelier older sister Margaret, to whom I would of course never even dream of hinting of my attraction to them.

The rehearsal for the graduation exercise I could not avoid, and especially not the main event itself, so as one O’clock rolled around on that June Friday I sat on a metal folding chair among the thousand other students who covered the track and part of the football field.  The sun was now hanging right over the top of us and more than a little bit of sweat began to trickle down the back of my neck.  The flat mortar board graduation hat sat comfortably on my head while the speakers droned on, but I noticed that some of the surfers in my class were not having such an easy time with theirs.

“Surfer” in San Diego in 1966 meant more than just guys who road on fiberglass boards in the waves off of San Diego beaches.  Some guys who identified with the surf scene never touched a surfboard, but wore the long (for then) hair, sometimes bleached a weird yellowish orange version of blond, a Madras shirt with colors suitably blended by many washings, and shorts with huarache sandals.  But they never once got up on a surfboard.  We who actually touched surfboards, even if ever so little, called those guys “Hodads” or “Grimmies” which was short for “Gremlins”.  I have no idea why we called them that or where the names came from.  The joke was that their surfboards, if they had any, were bolted to the racks on their cars.  Anyway, the surfers real and imagined who were seated in the metal chairs had their mortar boards perched on their big, poofy heads of hair and those aerodynamically unstable hats wobbled first one way or the other on their owners’ big hair, which offered me some amusement while I waited in youthful agony for the whole thing to be over.

“As we therefore go forth into a bright future—.”  A person called a valedictorian was giving a speech, but my mind was elsewhere.  First I thought about the past, and how I really did not like school at all.  I could remember sitting in Mrs. Stanton’s first grade class at Hamilton Elementary.  I was gazing through the high windows in the back of the room which opened out onto the playground and the canyon which I knew lay just beyond the high fence that enclosed the school yard.  I remember thinking “I have eleven years more of this to go” instead of paying attention to Mrs. Stanton’s instruction.  Probably that was the day when she was covering “how to dance” or “how to talk like Cary Grant or Clark Gable”.  At least this episode demonstrated that at the end of the first grade I could successfully subtract one from twelve, unless you include kindergarten which blows that theory out of the water.

“And now, as (at this point fill in the name of the forgotten valedictorian.  Any name will do) so beautifully just spoke, we will begin to send you graduates into your bright futures.  I will begin to call the names of the graduates, who will then come up onto the stage and receive their diplomas from the Principal, Mr. Marcus Ahern.  Abaados, Theodore—.”  I knew Teddy and I knew that he hated the name “Theodore” more than he hated anything in the world.  I laughed out loud at the thought of Teddy grinding his teeth, and one of the teachers looked my way with a frown.

“Screw you” I thought.  “You can’t touch me anymore.”  And that was true I suppose. I broke eye contact and looked away however, over the football field where during my incoming sophomore year I had attempted to make the hight school football team.  A place on the team meant a letterman’s jacket of the school’s colors, and a sure ticket to popularity.  Kids wearing a letterman’s jacket didn’t have to know how to dance to be interesting to the opposite sex, but kids weighing 110 pounds didn’t do very well on the offensive line either, and after a two week course in pain and humiliation I threw in the towel on that absurd notion.

For the next two years my athletic efforts at Hoover were next to nil.  I had wanted to work some little job somewhere and make a bit of money but my father insisted that only after I brought home a report card with “straight A’s” would I demonstrate to his satisfaction that I had extra time enough to to hold a part-time job.  Even if I somehow managed to overcome the barriers of algebra, geometry, and chemistry, gym class would certainly be the wooden stake in the heart of any dreams I might have held of straight A’s.  I had quickly learned that grading in gym was based on output rather than effort, and I was never, ever, going to be an athlete.

As a consequence I found myself in my junior year placed in the “cull” class.  The kids were divided into the “A”, “B”, and “C” groups, according to their abilities, and then there were the culls.  I happened to know what culls were because I read dime paperback western novels.  When the cowboys completed a cattle drive to the railhead, the cows were sold to buyers who waited there.  The cows were sorted as they went through the chutes according to the shape that they were in.  The most miserable ones, the ones worth only their hides and their hooves which could be turned into soap or glue or some such product, were the culls.

This designation was, of course, meant to denigrate us, but that is not how we took it.  We were not jocks and had either lost, or never had in the first place, any interest in being jocks.  The deal was “you’ll get your “C” grade if you just keep busy and stay out of everyone else’s way, and that is exactly what we did.  We would play basketball or lift weights or loaf around the track untroubled by coaches with their stupid whistles shouting instructions or barbs, but my favorite exercise was “doing the bleachers.”

A real bleachers workout was a strenuous mix of sit ups and push ups and running up and down the stairs.  We mostly walked up the stairs or sat in the press box and yakked and daydreamed.  Sometimes we made paper helicopters and floated them off of the top of the bleachers to see who’s the wind would carry the furthest.  One cull, Tim Elspeth, talked about how grass was made of cellulose which was a complex sugar, and since his parents were making him mow the lawn he was trying to figure out a way that he could break down the sugars in the grass clippings and then ferment them into a grass wine.  I never heard that Tim ever succeeded in that quest but I used to love listening to him as he described how he tried.  It was certain that such conversations never occurred in the “A” groups and it was damned certain that Tim had a better grasp of chemistry than I ever did!

My one last-gasp attempt at jockery came in my senior year when I joined the diving team.  I was always a better than average diver and could do a number of flips and gainers and so forth off of the diving board.  I have written elsewhere of doing a perfect one-and-a-quarter flip off of a high board (this maneuver is also known as a belly flop) when I was  trying to impress a girl.  Also, my father and I took a vacation once and went to the town swimming pools whenever we would stop at the small towns and sub-cities where we would take our evening rest.  I would always go straight to the diving board and frequently would soon be in competition with the local talent.  I could always hold my own, and many times won the contest, which usually led to my inclusion into the local pack and a fun evening.  My father took vicarious pleasure in seeing his son stand up with the small town kids; I think because he came from a small town himself and could identify with both me and them.

So we would meet at a country club on the eastern fringe of the city and there practice our dives.  We didn’t have a diving coach; all of the coaching was directed towards the swimmers, so we mostly horsed around and tried new dives that one of the other divers knew.  One time I was trying to keep a backward flip “tight”, or close to the diving board. I was too tight as it turned out, and almost did a face-plant into the recoiling fiberglass board.  A very quick adjustment on my part just averted a potential disaster, and ever after I landed a good distance away from the board, giving up points on my dives and considering myself the winner of the bargain.  Ultimately, I only made junior varsity on a diving team which only sported half dozen members total, and my understanding of my non-jock status was now carved in stone.

“Carleston, Jennifer.  Carpenter, Edith.  Carpenter, Franklin—.”  Argh!  I was dying for this to be over so that I could spring into my “bright future”.  On the short term that future would be a trip to the beach, and I was more ready for that than appeared at the moment.  Under my gown I was dressed in shorts covering a swimsuit, and a tee shirt.  On my feet were two old black leather shoes that were too small for me and an old black pair of socks.  Those black beasts were past their prime by a long shot and today was their last hurrah.  My feet felt like sausages stuffed into two hard leather skins, and those leather vises would be exiting my life as soon as this annoying exercise in torture was concluded.

“Davis, Alfred.  Davis, Lisa —.”  Another vision of my bright future flitted around the edges of my consciousness.  For the last twelve years we had been involved to one degree or another in a conflict that was simmering in what had been known as French Indochina, but was now divided up into the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam.  For the last two years that simmering conflict had evolved into a first class war.  Many of the older kids in my neighborhood had already volunteered or been drafted into one branch of the service or the other, and the probability that I would soon be in the military was always lurking in my sense of the future.

I was OK with that.  My father had fought in a war and I was ready to prove my mettle and go fight in one too.  Of course, I knew that people died in wars, but it seemed like they always died well.  In the movies there was little blood and no pain.  Well, at least I didn’t feel any pain while I was sitting in a soft theater seat munching popcorn.  And it was always very heroic too!  So I knew that my path out of the aimless humdrum of my teen years led through one of the services, and since I wouldn’t go Navy because my father had been a sailor (my little rebellion) and I wouldn’t go Marines because I had watched “The D.I.” staring Jack Webb and it looked like Marine boot camp sucked, and the waiting list to get into the Air Force was so long that you got drafted into the Army before your name was called for that (unless you were rich or the offspring of a politician), I just figured that it would be the Army for me.

“Dupree, Martin.  Duquesne, Cecilia —.”  I’m next!  At last I’ll get up and walk to the stage, and when I come back to my seat I will still be a few days shy of eighteen years old but I will be finished with school, and the scowling teacher can kiss my ass.  Maybe I’ll laugh out loud and flip him off when he looks my way!  No, that won’t do.  Mom and Dad are in the stands and Dad is a teacher at my high school, so anything I do will reflect on him, and he is still an overwhelming presence in my life, which is another way of saying that this salty old ex-sailor can still kick my ass.  I will, therefore, remain silent.   It’s done though.  The end that I dreamed about in Mrs. Stanton’s first grade class is here.  What comes next I don’t know and, to be honest, I don’t really care.  What I do know is that it’s coming, and whatever it is, it’s coming soon.

“Durden, Glenn—.”


Friday Night Lights

The year was 1963 and I was graduating from junior high school.  The childhood years of elementary school were three years in my past and the almost adult years of high school were stretching forward into my future.  Coming into junior high school I sought to establish myself in a hybrid identity, part “Rebel Without A Cause” and part beatnik, but by the time that I completed the ninth grade I had completely jettisoned the juvenile delinquent model and placed the beatnik on hold, opting instead to fancy myself as a potential athlete.  Everybody knew that an athlete was automatically COOL, and a letterman’s jacket was a passport to popularity in general and was particularly attractive to the more gentle sex.  In short, being an athlete was the path to everything I wanted and previously had no clue how to get.

At that time I was especially fond of football.  My friend Walt and I had invented a game which we called ‘lawn football,’ which we would play on my postage stamp-sized front lawn.  Walt lived with his mother in an apartment, so my front lawn was all that we had.  We would play on our knees, and would have four tries to go the width of my lawn, or about twenty feet.

Walt and I put body and soul into our games.  The person on offense would pick up the ball, or bag of rags, or whatever we used on any given day, and plunge right, left, or straight ahead.  The defender did whatever he could to prevent an advance from occurring.  Occasionally one would be backed up against the concrete walkway which led from the sidewalk to the front porch, or would be just in front of a root from a pine tree which protruded several inches above the ground near the middle of the lawn.  In these cases the one with walkway or root at their back would dig in with their toes and spring forward, sometimes resulting in significant collisions which resulted in bruised bodies, bloodied lips and loose teeth.  And we laughed hysterically after each such collision.

At other times we would be involved in flag football games at school or at the neighborhood park.  I was fairly adept at catching the ball and was also very good at hiking the ball from the center position in a nice, tight spiral back to a quarterback in a shotgun formation.  The major problem however was that I was incredibly thin, and quite unable to block anybody unless I allowed myself to get knocked over and then tripped the defender as he went by.  This strategy works well on the playground, but unfortunately draws a penalty once one graduates to organized football.

As graduation from the ninth grade approached and I began to make plans for my high school experience, and as my desire to be popular with the cool kids and attractive to the pretty cheerleading set of girls struggled against my hesitant and self-doubting personality, I decided that my love of football was my path to the promised land.  Walt was of the same mind, although the reasons impelling him in that direction may have been a little bit different than my own, and we made a pact before the last day of school that we would try out for the football team at Hoover High School in September, on the other side of summer.


My hurdles were great as I took my first steps on this journey.  To begin with, I was skinny as a rail.  At five feet eight or nine inches I weighed about 110 pounds.  I was a terrible eater, and since I had won the food war which marked my early relationship with my father he no longer interfered with my eating or lack thereof, and I hardly ate enough to keep a bird alive.

I understood that this would have to change and I tried to eat liver and some other things that I would not normally touch, but it was of no use.  I hardly ate more that summer than I did at any other time, and my weight barely climbed at all.  I did try protein powder, hoping for a magic bullet that would change me from being a fence rail into a linebacker without having to eat onions, but like most miracle cures it was a complete bust.

I also recognize the need for improved strength, and Walt and I purchased memberships at a seedy gym in downtown San Diego.  We paid the minimum, of course, because that was what we had, and we got what we paid for.  The owner put most of his attention and energy into an African American body builder who was always doing sit-ups with cellophane wrapped around his abdomen, for some unknown reason, and poking with an oddly delicate finger at some muscle or other as he did curls and other exercises, the names of which now escape me.  Walt and I would do an hour or two of bench presses and curls and pulling up weights on pulleys, or sitting on benches and lifting weights with our legs, but there was no real direction forthcoming from the trainer, and at the end of that hour or two I would board the number 7 bus and return to East San Diego not really any stronger that I was when I had left.

A further complication on my journey to popularity and Friday night stardom was my demon of self doubt.  As I wrote earlier, I was pretty good at catching a football.  A wide receiver, however, is a star, and I was not really able to see myself as a star of anything.  Wide receivers are heroes.  Wide receivers make clutch catches and win games.  I never looked at myself in the mirror and saw a star, and it was for that reason that I decided to try out for the seemingly faceless position of offensive guard.

As I wrote earlier, my capabilities of hiking a perfect spiral were negated by the fact that I was too thin and light to block anybody.  Any rational person would instantly recognize that the same limitation would pertain to the any person who would presume to play the position on the offensive line right next to the center.  Unfortunately, that body of rational thinkers did not include Yours Truly.  I saw the position of guard as one in which I would mostly stand in the way of rushing defenders, become just one body in a crowd, and get tangled up in the feet of the opponent in front of me.  The position of guard was, to me, the easiest road to a letterman’s jacket, omitting the difficult work of actually being a star.  I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assessment!

By the end of summer I had gained four or five pounds and had purchased my boots, my mouthpiece, and had been cleared for football by my neighborhood physician, who should probably have been relieved of his license to practice medicine as a result.  The day arrived when we were to begin practice, and I showed up with Walt and a host of other hopefuls of all sizes and shapes who wished to ride the football express to stardom and popularity exactly as I did.

The formalities were quickly dispensed with.  Offense and defense were separated, and the linemen and “skill positions” further separated.  Pads and uniforms were issued, and as I strapped on my shoulder pads and pulled my jersey over them, and then pulled up my pants and laced my boots up tight, I imagined that my artificially broadened shoulders signified muscles which would presently assert themselves on the practice field and then, soon enough, under the Friday night lights.

Practice began with running and pushups and sit-ups, and in that I was fairly comfortable, but soon we graduated to such basic skills as blocking and tackling, and that is where my dreams of glory ran into the grim wall of reality.  Tackling my friend Walt on my front lawn when we were already on our knees was a far cry from grasping a boy larger than myself (nearly all of them were), lifting him up and driving him into the ground.  Most of my efforts proved to be futile, and I could clearly hear what were at first snickers but which grew to be open laughter.  This fueled an anger that had been growing within me much of my young life, and I began to attack with increased vigor, but with no considerable increase in success. My slight frame and my generally reticent nature overruled my shame and anger and sense of exasperation at my futility, and each day the mountain which I would have to climb to even reach the junior varsity squad seemed to grow higher and higher.

The end of my football hopes came one day about two weeks after the beginning of practice.  We were running what the coach called a “28 power sweep”, in which I was to pull out of my position on the left side of the center and cross over to the right side to block for the running back.  I performed this task with my usual absence of technical perfection and was involved in a tangle of bodies where the offense and defense came together at the center point of the play.

The defensive player whom I was called upon to block was easily twice my weight, and as I did so often on the playground field I slowed him up and then flopped in front of him.  Instead of getting tangled up in my feet however, he instead got jostled from another side and rolled over my body like a steamroller from groin to helmet.  The pressure on my abdomen and chest was bad enough, but when he rolled over my helmet I thought that my head would explode like a teenager popping a zit.  My vision dimmed and my thought processes got scrambled, and I lay there for a short while after the play was over as I tried to get a clear idea of what had just run over me.

I managed to pull myself upright and the coach told me to sit on the bench where I could recover my balance.  What I recovered was what little sense I had before I began this foolishness.  As soon as something approaching clarity returned to my thought processes I walked away from the sideline and straight into the gym.  The equipment manager was surprised to see me so early before the end of practice and I didn’t bother to explain my premature presence to him.  I removed my pads and jersey and handed them back to him, threw my new and expensive boots into the trash, got dressed and left the gym without a shower and without a glance over my shoulder.

Following my shot at football glory I returned to the only successful identity that I had ever managed in my life.  The black turtleneck shirt was retrieved from the closet and jazz and poetry were reintroduced into my lifestyle.  Being a beatnik did little to make me a Big Man On Campus and impress the opposite sex, but it came a lot closer to expressing who I felt myself to be and was a good deal more healthy in the bargain.

To Serve and Protect, Part I

All to often we read of bad and even tragic encounters between police officers and the people who those officers have sworn to protect and serve.  No doubt there are instances in which the police officers overreact to a situation, and perhaps even do so with malice.  Police officers are, after all, human, and come with the full compliment of frailties and personality failures that all of the rest of us come with.  I am not apologizing for bad cops any more than I would apologize for bad ultrasound techs, bad politicians, bad parents or bad writers.  All should, and with some compassion (with the possible exception of bad writers) be shown the error of their ways and in circumstances where it is merited, punishment meted out.

Police officers do have a rather unique occupation however.  Except when they are addressing a class of kindergartners at a public school on how to safely interact with strangers or, well, I don’t know of any other such scenarios, tend to be dealing with the rest of us when we are at our worse.  When a police officer responds to a call concerning some sort of trouble, sees something in a neighborhood which looks amiss, or pulls a car over on a street, road, or highway for one reason or another, the result may be that a split-second decision will determine whether that officer and the object of his attention goes home to his or her family that night or departs the scene in a body bag.

It is for that reason that I tend to be slow to jump to judgement when I read or hear about another alleged case of police brutality.  I repeat, police officers can be brutal just like I can, and have, been brutal.  I am not making excuses for bad behavior.  Nevertheless, I will never know what happened moment by moment in the mind of the police officer or in the mind of the object of his attention when I hear of a reported incident of police brutality.  The best that I can do is to support a thorough investigation of any incident by as neutral a third party as is possible and then be satisfied with the conclusion drawn by that party.

All that being said, I do have personal experiences with being the ‘object of the police officer’s attention,’ and now propose to tell three tales which I hope will give a little insight on how this relationship between server and served sometimes looks at ground level.

In the fall of 1964 I was fifteen years old and found myself sitting in science class next to an extraordinarily pretty girl.  One day this extraordinarily pretty girl invited me to go see a guy named Billy Graham who was throwing some sort of shindig at the football stadium where the San Diego Chargers played.  The girl could have asked me to peel the skin off of my feet and stick them into a bucket of salt and I would have agreed instantly, so the next evening I found myself at the Billy Graham crusade and before the night was over, to my considerable surprise, I was a Christian.  As best as I remember I did sincerely responded to the message presented by Mr. Graham that night, but the most important thing to me at the moment was that I now was able to attend church with the extraordinarily attractive girl.

Nothing came of this mutual attendance at church.  The girl already had a handsome, athletic, studly boyfriend away at college, none of which adjectives described me in any imaginable way.   I did however meet Roy Maxwell at that church, and he and his step brother Marty Corbin and I became an inseparable trio, even though Roy and Marty attended a different high school than I did ( a thing which meant much in those days).  We hung out together and did all of the teenage boy things until Roy got a girlfriend.  I was initially annoyed by that since it interrupted our horsing around and also probably because it highlighted the fact that I couldn’t win a girlfriend if I had a hand with four aces.  Even worse, she was a student of Hoover High, which was my school.  Quelle horreur!  The traitor!

As it turned out, Carole Jenkins was a very nice girl and I came to like her as a friend very much.  In fact, our friendship lasted for several years until I fell off of the end of the universe after returning home from Vietnam, but that is a different story.  In addition to being very nice, Carole had the additional advantage of belonging to a family that was very rich.  I have no idea what Carole’s father did for a living, but the Jenkins family lived in a gigantic house situated atop Del Cerro, a hill on the eastern edge of San Diego.  I don’t suppose that you could call the Jenkins residence a mansion, but to a kid living in a stucco cube in a working class neighborhood of East San Diego it looked pretty much like a mansion to me.

I was used to other kids having advantages that I did not, but in one area I did have a leg up.  I had a driver’s license and my father was very liberal about allowing me to use the car.  At least once each week I would drive to the Maxwell residence and pick up Roy and Marty and drive up the winding road which climbed past rank after rank of large homes which got bigger and nicer as we neared the top of the hill.  After a few weeks of this we began to feel like we actually belonged up there.  We were soon to find out how wrong we were about that.

Not too long after we began to drive to Carole’s house a series of break-ins occurred on Del Cerro hill.  First cars and then houses were hit by people who knew that Del Cerro is where one was most likely to find treasure worth the risk, in their minds at least, of burglarizing cars and homes.  The good citizens of the Del Cerro neighborhood took predictable umbrage at such nefarious doings and demanded, and received, a heightened police presence in the affected area.

As a result of this elevated police vigilance Roy and Marty and I began to attract attention as we drove up the hill in my Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor through a forest of Cadillacs and Lincolns and the occasional BMW and Porsche.  Three young men – old men did not usually adopt the occupation of burglar – in a cheap car (relatively speaking) was going to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and we began to grow accustomed to being stopped by the police nearly every time that we went to visit Carole, and having our identification checked before being granted permission to proceed.   The whole thing took on the air of a routine until one evening when that routine came to a sudden, screeching halt.

On that night we were climbing the hill on our way to Carole’s house when the predictable red and blue lights snapped on behind us.  We were very used to this by now and so I pulled over and rolled to a stop next to the curb.  Having done this drill several times before I decided that this time I would make myself super helpful and maybe speed things up a little bit.  With not the slightest idea that my actions could end very badly I slipped my hand down to the handle on the Mercury’s door, pulled it up, pushed the door open and emerged and began walking back to where the police car was just parking behind me.  To make matters worse, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I reached around into my back pocket to extract the wallet containing the identification which I knew that they would momentarily be asking for.  That’s me: Mister Helpful.  Always looking for a way to make a bad situation better.


This was probably my first lesson in the importance of perspective.  The police officers did not see a citizen emerging from a car to save them a walk and reaching for his wallet to save them the trouble of asking for identification.  Instead, they saw a car that was out of pace, inhabited by three youngish males, with one of the emerging from the car and advancing towards them while reaching for, what?  A gun?

“Get your hands up” came the shouted command.  I was stupefied by this response to my good intentions and took another step forward while still pulling at my wallet.  Both of the officers pulled out their revolvers, with one going down to his knee and the other remaining standing.  Both barrels were pointed squarely at your’s truly.  “Stop moving and drop your weapon”  shouted the officer who was standing.  I had no idea what they meant by ‘weapon’, but I figured out what ‘stop’ meant right away and did.  “Drop the weapon!  Drop it!”  repeated the policeman.  I didn’t have a weapon, but I did have my wallet in my hand and reasoned that if I dropped it I might somehow keep from getting shot.

“Turn towards the car and put your hands on the trunk” came the next command, and by now I was getting into the spirit of the moment and moved just as fast as I thought would look non-threatening.  The kneeling policeman rose up and the two of them began to walk towards where I stood with hands on the trunk of the Mercury and within an inch of peeing my pants.

One of the officers patted me down, searching for any sort of weapon, and when none was found the other bent over and picked up my wallet.  The first policeman turned me towards him and asked “What the hell do you think you are doing here?  You just about got yourself into some serious trouble boy.”  “I was just trying to be helpful” I replied.  “We’re driving to my friend’s girl friend’s house and we’ve been stopped a bunch of times.  I just thought that I would speed things up a little.

At this point the officers knew that they were dealing with an idiot, not a criminal.  They holstered their weapons and breathed a big, long sigh of relief.  “Son, don’t ever do that again.  We don’t have any idea what you intend to do when you get out of your car.  When a police officer pulls you over just stop your car, turn off the engine, put your hands on the steering wheel where he can see them and let him do his job.  Everybody is going to have a much easier time of it if you will just do those things.”

The officers returned my wallet to me and let me get back into my car.  Roy and Marty were pale as ghosts and began to babble incoherently as I fired the little Mercury up and drove the rest of the way to Carole’s house.  That night I enjoyed the spotlight, a position that I was not accustomed to, as we told the tale to Carole, who was not used to being involved with people who were held at gunpoint and nearly shot by the police.

Roy and Carole would in fact end their relationship soon after this incident but, as I stated earlier, Carole and I continued our friendship several years more, long after I lost contact with Roy.  I hope that I might run into Carole someday, although that is extremely unlikely.  Maybe I will see her at my high school’s fiftieth year reunion.  “Hi.  Remember me?  The guy who was almost shot by the cops in 1965?  How’ve you been?”


     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 A Tiny World

Almost anyone can tell you a ‘small world’ story.  Perhaps it is something that they experienced themselves or something that they heard from someone else.  Either way, a telling or retelling of the tale will inevitably draw an amazed comment:  “well, it’s a small world”.  The funny thing about it is that it is not at all a small world.  The diameter of Earth is 7,926.28 miles at the equator.  The circumference at same is 24, 901.55 miles.  We share this globe with 7.2 billion other souls, so when I see a letter to former French leader Charles De Gaulle in a museum devoted to him among other things, which was written by somebody in the town of Ridgefield not 15 miles from where I live, or run into an elderly gent who served on the same ship as my father in WW II some seventy years ago, it stands out as something unusual.  Sometimes it is not just unusual but almost unbelievable, and for that reason this story is titled “It’s A Tiny World.”.

Many years ago I began to attend a community college near San Diego, California.  While I was there I met and became friends with some people who were liberal activists, as I was.  We decided to form a PIRG, or Public Interest Research Group.  These groups were inspired and cheered on by Ralph Nader, who was very big in reformist circles a generation ago.  I don’t recall that we accomplished much for we didn’t really have a grip on what needed to be reformed or how to go about reforming it.  We had fun trying to figure it out however, and that’s not a bad thing.

The next semester came along and a new batch of bright eyed reformers came on the scene who didn’t like the way that we were running things, so they decided that a coup was in order.  The coup was successful and, frankly, we were too stoned to care all that much.  Still, the ouster from the helm of the organization that you gave birth to leaves a bitter taste, and for that reason I did not much like Tony, the leader of the young bloods.  As soon as my connection to that PIRG was broken however I forgot about Tony and went my merry way making plans to save the world in other ways and venues.

Two years pass, and now I’m hanging out at the Southern California Exposition (which used to be called the San Diego County Fair) with my first-wife-to-be and in the middle of the place we ran into Tony.  I had long since gotten over my hard feelings concerning the PIRG thing and greeted Tony warmly enough.  After introducing my lovely bride-to-be-for-a-while I asked the usual question that is asked at such occasions;  “What’cha been doing?”

“I’ve been in Colombia for the last year”.

“Colombia, I used to write to a girl who lived in Colombia when I was in high school.  I was taking Spanish and she was taking English”.

This was true.  In my eleventh grade Spanish class our teacher, Mrs. Geiger, arranged pen pall relationships between those of her students who cared to engage in such a thing with students in Spanish speaking countries.  My pen pal was a young woman named Amparo J. Moreno Martinez who lived in the Colombian state of Narino, in the city of Pasto.  We sent a few letters to each other, but as I was a slacker born and bred I did not follow through with any faithfulness at all.  Eventually, hanging out with friends at the neighborhood park, graduation, and the Vietnam War captured most of my attention and Ms. Martinez was pretty much forgotten.  Until that night at the Exposition, that is.

“… I used to write to a girl in Colombia”.

“Really?  Where did she live?” asked Tony.

“She Lived in the state of Narino.”

“Where in Narino?”

“A city called Pasto.”

Tony had acquired the look of a bird dog on a hunt in a marsh full of ducks.  “What was her name?”.  I had picked up the sense of amazement that was growing in Tony and wondered what escalation of that amazement my next answer might bring.  “Amparo Moreno Martinez” I replied.

Tony simply stood in front of us with his jaw hanging open.  I knew that something incredibly improbable was happening but still was not at all sure just what.  I waited while Tony regained his faculty of speech.  Finally Tony shared this with us:

“I grew up in Colombia.  Where my family lived in the city of Pasto the family next door included a teenage girl named Amparo.  We hung out together and she told me that she was writing to a boy in San Diego who was learning Spanish.”

We just stood there and looked at each other dumbfounded by the improbability of what had just happened.  My girlfriend knew that something extraordinary was going on, but as a second party to it had no real sense of just how extraordinary it was.  Tony and I laughed and gibbered about nonsense and acted like old friends for several minutes more before we separated, feeling much better about each other than we had only a short while before.

I have thought about Amparo J. Moreno Martinez many times since then.  My wife – not the same person as in the story – had a pen pal in France with whom she reconnected after we visited that country many years ago.  I was jealous of that reconnection and attempted the same through the internet.  No Luck.  I tried writing to the Mayor of Pasto, going through the Catholic Church, and every other avenue that came to mind, but to no avail.  I suspect that I will never communicate with Ms. Martinez again but it is, after all, a tiny world, so who can say?

A Few Short Tales of High School Days

It seems like an eternity since I was in high school and there is a very good reason for that;  it HAS been an eternity since I was in high school.  A little more than forty seven years, to be more or less exact, and with that passing of time a weird thing is beginning to happen in my head.  Rather than fading with time as one would expect for the mental images of those long ago days, my memories seem to be getting sharper as I savour the promise of reuniting with a small number of those friends and acquaintances who shared all or most of those crazy teen-age years that I spent at Herbert Hoover High School.

I have no experience with high school life today, but I feel comfortable in assuming that it is far different from the high school environment of 1966.  School was much more regimented in the middle 1960’s.  Dress codes forbade shorts or sandals on boys and dresses with thin “spaghetti straps” on the shoulders or skirts above the knee of girls.  Proper hair length for boys was determined  and enforced by the school administration, and boys with hair to the collar or facial hair of any kind was not to be accepted.  All disruptive behavior would receive immediate and unwanted attention from a vice-principal and repeat offenses led to expulsion from Hoover and a transfer to one of the two continuation schools in the city, or “Hard Guy High’s” as we called them.

In such a regime one might suspect that every trace of individuality would have been snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane, but this was not the case at all.  Those of us who felt disinclined to conform found no end of ways to express our individual personalities.  My purpose for writing this memoir is to share a few of my brighter (or dimmer) moments as I navigated the uncharted teenage sea that was my young life during three years of Herbert Hoover High School.

I was acquainted with a surprising number of my fellow students at Hoover.  People tended to not move much in those days and a group of us knew each other from the earliest grades of elementary school.  My junior high school, or grades seven, eight and nine, was the distant point of a triangle made by my three K-12 schools, so I picked up another set of acquaintances there.  Even with this large peer group it was easy to get lost among the nearly three thousand students that attended Hoover every year.  Therefore I naturally gravitated towards a smaller group with whom I could enjoy a closer relationship.  Or three subgoups really, which consisted of kids from my neighborhood, kids who were considered nerds, and oddly enough, quite a few really pretty girls.

The kids from my neighborhood were of course my natural allies, and this group gave me entry into a variety of subgoups at school.  Matt Robinson, for instance, was a Popular Kid and was my best friend.  We got into a fight on the schoolyard in the fourth grade and were inseparable ever after.  Matt had everything I did not have, or so it seemed to me.  Matt was handsome and I had freckles.  Matt had muscles and I was so skinny that if I stood sideways and stuck my tongue out I looked like a zipper.  Matt could grow his hair to the limits allowed by the high school administration but my military father kept mine unacceptably short.

Matt and I went on our first date in the ninth grade.  Somehow we managed to get two girls to go to a movie with us, and the movie we chose was “The Longest Day”.  Matt and I were both very shy then and both of us, after multiple soft drinks, had bladders the size of the Hindenberg but were too embarrassed to get up and say that we were going to the bathroom.  I know, it sounds ridiculous today.  Back then however bodily functions were much more of a source of embarrassment, especially if you were fourteen years old and with a girl for the first time in your life.  That movie seemed to stretch on for as long as the actual D-Day in Normandy that it depicted.

After the movie the parents of one or both of the girls, I can’t remember if they were sisters or not, picked us all up to drive us home.  When we were within walking distance of our homes both of us told the father that we were close enough and would walk the rest of the way.  The dad complied and let us out of the car.  Matt and I waved as they drove off and then we ran like the wind to a neighborhood gas station one block away and spent a blessed few minutes relieving the pressure of what could have developed into two major and embarrassing accidents.  For some reason which I don’t recall we never saw those girls again.  Matt later on became much more comfortable with girls, and in fact married his sweetheart by the time I returned from the Army, but that is another story.

Matt and I also had dreams of being football stars.  We knew that the girls were crazy about football players so it was straight to the fall tryouts we went just before the beginning of our sophomore year.  I knew I lacked the skills to pass, catch, or run with the ball, so I determined that I would play on the offensive line.  All 120 pounds of me.  I felt very much like an athlete as I bought my high-top boots, my mouthpiece, and got my physical exam and subsequent certification to participate.  I lifted weights and ran laps and ate a little more than my usual microscopic portions of food and when the first day of practice arrived I was ready for action.

Or so I thought.  I quickly learned that it is exceedingly difficult for a guy who weighs 120 to block or tackle a guy who weighs twice as much.  I also learned that in football people do not hit you because they are mad at you or because you have had a disagreement; rather, they hit you just because they CAN hit you, and they are SUPPOSED to hit you, and the harder that they hit you the more the coaches like it.  I was never a particularly aggressive kid so this was extremely difficult for me. I stuck it out however for about one and a half weeks until one day a prospective defensive tackle rolled over my head, and even with my helmet on I thought my head would pop like a zit.  As quickly as I could get my shit together I walked off of that field, turned in my gear, chucked the boots and mouthpiece in the trash and walked home, forever cured of any aspirations to play football at any organized level.

From that lofty point my athletic ambitions quickly receded to a much more manageable level.  In gym class, a class in which anything more than a ‘C’ for me was a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea, the boys were divided up into three groups.  The ‘A’ Class was made up of the boys who were not quite good enough to be on a varsity or junior varsity teams but were still quite sports minded.  They would hustle, grunt, sweat, and act for all the world like the olympic athletes that they thought they should be.  Then there was the ‘B’ Class.  These guys knew that they were not physically gifted enough to play with the big boys but they gave it all that they had for what it was worth.  For my money, these were the kids who should have received grades of ‘A’, as they pushed themselves more than anyone else in that class.  And then there were the Culls.

I was a Cull.  We were the guys who just didn’t care about gym one way or another.  We knew that we were not athletic, we were not impressed by the kids who were athletic, and the coaches sensed our antipathy towards the whole macho circus that was gym class, so they labeled us Culls and gave us a ‘C’ grade if we would do anything at all and not get in anybody else’s way.  I suppose that I should explain what a cull is.  In the days of the western cattle drives when a herd got to Dodge or Kansas City or wherever, the herd would pass through a chute one by one before the buyers.  The prime cattle would be sold at a certain price, but the sick, lame, lazy, crippled and crazy cows would be ‘culled’ from the herd and sold for practically nothing, which was what they were worth.  The funny thing is that we had a very positive sense of identity and took proudly to the label.  If ‘Cull’ meant somebody unwilling to march to a tune that was totally unfit for them then Culls we were.

It was in this class that I hung out particularly with two guys, one from my neighborhood and one possibly from Mars, but most likely a more distant planet.  David Triplet was a classic nerd.  David was a little taller than me and weighed a good fifty pounds more.  Most of David’s weight was around his middle, and he seemed to spread out from smallish shoulders to large, round hips.  If I looked like a zipper, David looked like an avocado or a pear.  David also had poor eyesight and therefore already had rather thick glasses.  To top it off, on those occasions when David had to run he did so in an odd, flat-footed stumping sort of manner.  David would stump around the track rather than run, fat giggling around his waist and his moobs, or man-boobs, giggling on his chest.  Sometimes the coaches would make David run just for a laugh for themselves and the A and B Classes.  David would run cheerfully, laughing at them far more than they were laughing at him.

What they didn’t know is that David knew how to make wine.  That’s one of the things that nerds know but popular kids don’t.  David would somehow manage to make wine out of different fruits a long time before making alcohol at home was legal.  Perhaps he lived in an attached house or maybe his parents allowed his unusual hobby.  Perhaps they shared it.  Either way, David would occasionally bring a flask of his wine to school and we would toast each other’s health out behind the bleachers.  I remember one day when we were at the top of the bleachers making and flying paper helicopters.  We would see whose creation would whirl and flutter and sail the farthest distance.  David told me how grass is made of a complex sugar which he should be able to break down somehow and ferment into an alcoholic beverage, and since his parents made him mow the lawn it seemed only right that he should take his payment for that labor in the form of grass wine.  I do not know if he ever succeeded in his endeavor.   I was acquainted with several of the popular kids through my neighbornood connections like Matt and others.  All of them could sport the latest clothing styles and do the dances that they saw on American Bandstand and Soul Train, but not one of them ever talked about making grass wine, at least not in my hearing.  I found David a lot more fun to be with than anyone in the A Class.

Another of my Cull friends was Leonard Chinn.  Leonard lived near the edge of my neighborhood and we hung together at the local park, so it was natural that we hung together at school too.  What was a little unusual for the time however was the fact that leonard was what was then called ‘Colored.’  It is funny that we came to be friends at all.  My parents were both Southern and there were few good feelings in my family towards a group that would come to be called African Americans (although my father later supported Colin Powell for president, except that he declined to run).  Yet Leonard and I hit it off at once and we spent many long hours together talking and goofing off as boys of any color will do.

One time my relationship with leonard paid off in a big way.  The mid 1960’s were a time of considerable racial turmoil, and added to that was the tendency of people even from the same neighborhood to form smaller groups which viewed people from other groups with suspicion and hostility.  I don’t know if it is still that way, but it certainly was then.  I was walking home from a friend’s house one evening and took a route a couple of blocks south of the one that I usually did; why, I don’t know.

As I turned a corner and headed in the direction of my street I saw a group of three colored kids on the corner a half a block away.  We actually saw each other at just about the same time and I was fixed upon the horns of dilemma.  I could continue to walk forward and face certain humiliation and probably a beating, or I could turn and run which would still probably result in a beating since I was not very fast, and the shame of running would haunt me forever.

My choice was reluctant but immediate and I walked forward with as much courage and appearance of unconcern as I could manage to project.  When I arrived within a dozen feet of the group I recognized Leonard’s brother Richard at the same time that he recognized me.  “Oh, that’s Leonard’s friend.  He’s cool” Richard said, and I said “What’s up?”,  and we slapped hands and I continued on home a little quicker than before so that I could change my underwear.

Anyway, Leonard and I hung together at school just as we did in the neighborhood and one of our favorite times was when we ate lunch together.  We would bring sandwiches or buy hamburgers in the cafeteria and eat them with a host of other students next to the gym building.  leonard and I however would eat standing up in the three or four foot deep recesses in the building where the doors were placed.  That would give us cover while we tore pieces of bread off of our sandwiches and threw them out of our covered doorways onto the pavement where hordes of seagulls were attracted to the promise of a free lunch.

Anyone who has any experience with seagulls knows that these debased yet egalitarian creatures will cheerfully crap on anybody at any time, and we lurked in our stucco bunker and laughed until we were sick as the circling seagulls bombed the unwary diners with raucous glee.  To this day I can’t tell you why Leonard and I weren’t pounded to a bloody pulp by the white-painted victims of our demented prank, but nobody ever put two and two together.

Another fond memory that I have of high school is the very good relations that I had with a number of very pretty and popular girls.  One must not however assume that I was a Casanova; in fact I was quite the opposite and that was the key to my success.  I was terribly shy all of my early days and found it nearly impossible to communicate a romantic intent to a girl for fear of what I considered the inevitable rejection, and that with laughter.  I surprisingly did have a girlfriend in high school and we were together romantically for a few months.  Terry was a very pretty girl and very nice and I wanted to continue our relationship, but as with so many first relationships it drifted inexorably apart.  For the rest of my high school years I was destined for a life without romance and I knew it.  The funny thing is that I found this reality in some weird way liberating.

It turned out that I could very easily talk and make friends with some of the most popular and pretty girls at Hoover because I projected no romantic intent whatsoever, and they could easily sense that I was not pursuing them for anything other than conversation.  I have always liked to talk.  Claudia Ramsey, Rebecca Crum, Denise Sherman, Elizabeth Shoup, all were girls with whom I chatted in classrooms and in the hallways, and even sometimes on the phone.  Many times the jocks and other Popular Dudes would see me yakking it up with some angel in white and later ask me if I was having any luck.  To make an empty claim would be the end of the whole thing so I truthfully replied “Nah, we’re just friends.”  Just that alone was enough to buy me some cred and gave me access to the popular group which afforded a bit of protection to me and the more interesting nerd friends who’s company I preferred, and I accepted that bonus with grace.

One time I was playing poker with the homecoming queen in a Spanish class.  I had brought a deck of cards and had been playing some hands with the other culls earlier.  When I got to Spanish class on this day I was early for a change, and pulled out my cards to play a few hands with Roxanne Taylor whom  had known since kindergarten.  Right when she was asking for two cards a stern looking adult entered the classroom and Roxie took on the look of a bird caught in a trap.  The stern adult faced me and said “I have a meeting after school.  You want to drive home?”  My father taught ‘Bonehead English’ at Hoover because his Navy career and natural pugnaciousness prepared him uniquely to deal with the academic and social misfits of Hoover.  “Sure” I answered, and dealt two cards to the homecoming queen.

It would be easy to continue telling stories of my three years at Hoover, but that is enough for now.  I don’t look back on those years with nostalgia, but I don’t regret them either.  I correspond with Matt every once in a blue moon, and the girl with whom I learned to kiss lives far away but communicates occasionally on Facebook.  Unhappily, three of my friends were dead by the time I came home from Vietnam.  I wondered at the time where I was more safe.  When I attended my twenty-fifth year reunion I saw a cluster of the popular kids.  They were clustering just like they clustered twenty five years ago.  Pathetically it looked like they hadn’t changed a bit over the years; they had hit their Elvis year at seventeen and nothing better seemed to be offered.  I wonder if it will be the same for fifty years?

To be honest, there are only a few people whom I would like very much to see;  Matt, Leonard, Terry and a few others who’s stories will be told at a later date.  Perhaps I will be more interested in seeing who’s still alive than simply who’s at the reunion, and since it is a little less than three years away perhaps I shouldn’t get too cocky about my own chances.  Still, it was a distinct and formative period of my life and I enjoyed it at least as much as I did not, so i look forward to the reunion with more than a little positive anticipation.