Category Archives: San Diego

The Fire Next Time, Part II

In Part I of “The Fire Next Time” I wrote of one instance involving fire that was warm and fuzzy and two that could have ended badly.  In Part II I will share three more stories; one which ended badly, one which could have ended badly but did not, and one that left me scratching my head.  My first story, the one that ended badly, is the story of Hank Snell.

All of us kids loved to play with fire when I was young, and some of us were more inquisitive and adventurous than others.  I don’t know who it was that first learned about holding a lit cigarette lighter in front of a can of hairspray to create a serviceable blowtorch, but it wasn’t long before everyone was doing it.  In no time at all spider webs and model towns made out of popsicle sticks and plastic model airplanes and automobiles belonging to siblings were being incinerated by a horde of little fire starters who were imitating Carrie White decades before Steven King wrote a novel with that incendiary young lady’s first name for a title.

Anywhere, at any time of the day or night in my neighborhood of East San Diego, one might see a jet of flame piercing the air, making an alley or the Park or somebody’s back yard when their parents were away at work look like flares erupting from a Saudi refinery.  When I look back on the kids that I hung out with in my neighborhood, it’s a wonder that nobody ever got torched by an errant eruption on the part of a careless associate.  Hank was the one exception to that history however, and it was Hank himself who turned out to be his own worst enemy.

In the course of time we all grew tired of the buzz that we achieved by lighting up our San Diego neighborhood with Spray Net and Aqua Net blowtorches.  Something had to be thought up to take that trick to the next level and, sure enough, somebody did.

I don’t really know who that somebody was.  Maybe that person saw a circus act on television – I’m not aware of a real circus, other than my neighborhood of course – coming to San Diego.  Maybe they saw a sideshow at the County Fair featuring a human flamethrower.  I know that I saw a sword swallower and a fire eater there, so a flamethrower is possible.  In any case an evolution of the hairspray trick was needed and a cadre of intrepid teens in our neighborhood, which included Hank Snell, stepped up to the plate.

The new trick went like this.  A person would get a mouthful of rubbing alcohol, light their Zippo cigarette lighter, and blow the flammable liquid through the pilot light to create a human blowtorch.  The trick was sometimes successful but oftentimes it was not, so an improvement was made right away.  That improvement came in the form of taking in a mouthful of lighter fluid and then repeating the established steps.

The result was electric!  On every attempt, the highly flammable lighter fluid would blaze into an impressive bloom of flame as it was ejected forcefully through the lit Zippo.  Several kids found the courage to do this trick, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that several kids simply lost what few marbles that they had left.  Either way, it was an awesome display and none had a more spectacular delivery than did Hank.

Maybe he was just full of more hot air than were the rest of us, or maybe he tricked us and employed gasoline in his act.  I don’t know, but Hank could create a fireball that looked a lot like “The Gadget” which was exploded at Trinity in New Mexico in 1945, just before it’s two siblings were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But all good plans have a fatal flaw.  Hank’s fatal flaw was that he failed to take into account the wind.  Therefore, one fine day he was demonstrating his oral pyrotechnic prowess to a group of friends and blew his blowtorch straight into the wind.  The wind returned the favor and blew the flames right back into Hank’s face.

Hank got cooked like a deep fried turkey, or at least he looked that way.  Eyebrows and eyelashes were gone, but luckily the skin of his face did not burn into the dermal layers.  He looked plenty well done however, so his friends helped Hank to get home and then bailed out as soon as his parents took him off of their hands.  They had no interest in waiting around and having to answer embarrassing questions.  Hank was transported to a small hospital on El Cajon Boulevard; Hillside Hospital, I think it was, but I’m not sure about that one.  There he was treated with state of the art aid and, on the next day, received visitors.

I wasn’t with that group, but a friend of mine was.  He told me that Hank looked like the Mummy with all of his dressings, and that patches of red and blistered skin, all slathered in some sort of shiny salve, was visible.  Maybe a blister or two was dozing something for good measure.  I can’t testify to the truth of this account, but the story went on to tell of Bill Killman, one of the biggest, meanest and craziest kids in the neighborhood, passing out at his first sight of Hank’s face, and cracking his head open on the foot of Hank’s hospital bed.  I have heard that story from enough sources to believe that it is probably true.

On another occasion I experienced an episode that could have gone bad but somehow didn’t.  Jeff Brained and I were fooling around with matches close to the wall of the garage behind his house.  Jeff lived in the middle house of the three that were tucked in between the church on the corner of 44th and Wightman and the Park.  When they build the Park, or the Highland and Landis Recreational Center as official types preferred to call it, they took out most of the houses on that block, and Jeff lived in one of the few that remained.

I don’t remember what we were burning; it could have been just about anything.  The problem was that we didn’t find a place to burn that was sufficiently far from the weeds which had grown up after the scanty rain of spring and summer, and were now a foot or more tall and dry as a bone.  Predictably, the fire got into the weeds and was soon spreading towards the garage and the alley behind it.

Jeff and I were not very different from most of the other kids that we knew; that is, a couple of tacos short of a combo plate.  But soon even we could see that the situation was getting entirely our of hand.  We began to try to stamp out the flames, but with zero success.  Then we tried to kick an area free of weeds between the fire and the garage and weed-choked alley (which did not run the entire length of the block, and was therefore little used and thick with weeds), but that too was a futile endeavor.

At this time something happened to me for the first, but not the last, time.  On occasions of extreme stress I would sometimes sort of lose touch with reality.  I would go onto some sort of auto pilot, and while I still functioned in a normal manner at those times I would simply lose the memory of what had transpired.  This happened once or twice again in my teens, a few times in Vietnam and a few times in the first years after I returned to San Diego and civilian life.  It’s weird, and it hasn’t happened again for a long time now, but it happened the first time in Jeff’s back yard.

I think that Jeff ran and got the garden hose while I continued to thrash away at the flames, but I don’t really know that for sure.  One moment I was imagining the garage and perhaps more than that going up in flames, and the next I was standing in a patch of blackened soil, the fire thoroughly out.  I know that I had kept stamping at the fire because my tennis shoes were sort of melted and my jeans were blackened and singed.  Beyond that I didn’t then and still don’t know what happened.  If I ever run into Jeff I’ll have to ask him.

The final story of this round of tales took place in my own back yard.  I was probably twelve years old and, as I often did, I had a small fire burning in the middle of our back yard.  Now, I may not have been the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I knew how to keep a safe fire.  Well, my own back yard at least.  Anyway, I had a small fire going and I was sitting on a big chunk of wood and tending my blaze while I daydreamed of pleasant things.  I still do that, by the way.

At some point the sound of sirens from a fire engine broke into my consciousness, and I began to think of putting out my little fire and riding my bicycle to what certainly must be a bigger show.  I scanned the horizon for smoke but saw none, so I resumed paying attention to my fire and my daydreams.

The siren grew louder and at last I decided that something seriously exciting was happening nearby.  Once again I looked all around for smoke, and once again I found none.  Getting back to my fire and my daydreams however was now out of the question.  The sound of the siren grew until it seemed like it was very nearly on top of me.  There was a good reason for that; it very nearly WAS on top of me.

The siren was turned off and moments later three gigantic firemen in full uniforms, with boots and thick clothes and those big, wide-brimmed fireman helmets on top of huge heads with scowling faces, came thundering around the corner of the house, burst into my back yard, came to a dead stop, and then looked around for the fire.

The only fire was my little affair, hardly big enough to cook a hot dog over it.  I stood by the fire, stunned and stupefied, looking for all the world like I had no idea what was happening.  This, no doubt, was because in fact I had no idea what was happening.

“Where’s the fire” one of the firemen asked me.  I looked around, hoping that a neighbor’s house was burning.  Alas, all that I could see, besides every kid that I knew running from the Park and lining my back fence, pointing at me and beginning to laugh, was my little Boy Scout blaze.

Pointing at my weak flames, I told him “I guess that’s all the fire that there is around here.”

Fifty seven years after the fact I can still remember the look of disgust on the fireman’s face.  “Well” he said.  “We got called to put out a fire, so let’s put out a fire.”

They brought a hose into the yard; not one of those big canvas affairs, but rather a smaller rubber hose which nevertheless had a good deal of pressure.  The fireman pointed the brass nozzle at my fire, pulled a lever, and blasted my little blaze out of existence.

Later, when my mother got home from work, she quickly figured out that our next door neighbor was the party who ratted me out.  She was a little bit odd under the best of circumstances, and she virtually never operated under the best of circumstances.  She was certain that I would eventually burn the neighborhood down.  I suppose that I might have gotten a little ash on her laundry once or twice, so that didn’t help things much.  My brother was in the house at the time, and he said that she was looking out from a bedroom window as the firemen ran up our driveway.  He said that she had a smirk on her face.

Which brings me to the end of Part II of this account of my early love affair with fire.  In Part III I will share two or three more stories that revolved around fire, and then put the topic to rest.

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The Fire Next Time

I have been attracted to fire for as long as I can remember.  Like a moth to a flame, or a mosquito to a bug zapper on my parents’ back porch in the Southwest desert, I have always been pulled inexorably to fire as if by some sort of unnatural gravity.  Fire may be the devil’s only friend, as Don McLean assured us many years ago in the song “American Pie,” but the devil isn’t fire’s only friend.  It pains me to think that we have even that much in common, but I must face the truth of it;  I love a good fire.

From my earliest days, fire was usually associated with good, or at least not so bad, things.  My father was a welder and metalsmith in the Navy, and he made for us what he called a charcoal broiler, possibly out of scrap metal from his ship or else from somewhere in the Navy yard.  The squarish steel box, probably a foot across and about eight inches deep, stood atop a three foot pole fixed to two steel crosspieces at the bottom.  A grate rested on small ledges in the middle of each side of the box along the top.

Many, many burgers and hot dogs and steaks were cooked on that device, some in our back yard or at the beach or at camps and picnic areas in the Laguna Mountains and the desert, and it was always my duty to get the fire started and produce the bed of coals that was to get the meal cooked.  I was a terrible eater in my youth, so the payoff for me was more in the fire than in the food.

I remember having a bright idea one day; a way to save money on all of the charcoal that we were using.  I had read of Native Americans heating rocks and then dropping the glowing stones into pots of food that they wanted to boil.  “I’ll just throw some rocks in the broiler and heat them up.  It’ll save money”  I told Dad, and he knew of no reason why I shouldn’t try.

My plan worked great on the first try.  The stones heated up to a cheery glow and flawlessly cooked our dogs or burgers or whatever we put on the grate that day.  Basking in my father’s accolades, I looked forward to my first opportunity to repeat my performance.  That opportunity came quickly enough, and with it the flaw in my plan was exposed.

It turns out that there are fracture planes in many rocks, and that those planes are weakened when the rocks are heated and expanded, and then cool and contract.  They are then ready to snap apart the next time that they are heated.  The Native Americans knew about this and how to choose the right stones that could handle repeated heating and cooling.  They neglected to share that information with me.

I had no idea of what was coming until the first stone popped like a gun going off.  The chip flew off of the rock, bounced off of the side of the metal box and disappeared – – – somewhere.  I was mystified as to what had just happened and leaned over the broiler in order to assess what was going on in my fire.  At that moment another stone exploded, sending chunks of burning wood up into the air and several chips whizzing a couple inches past my right ear.

“*&%%#!” I yelled in this unguarded moment as I jumped back away from the infernal device which now promised pain and worse than pain instead of burgers and dogs and praise.

“Glenn!” came the stentorian voice of my father, calling me in, I knew, to have me account for the salty language that had just erupted from my mouth.  “Come in here.”

Dad’s bedroom window was not twelve feet from where I then stood, and his desk where he studied for his post-military college classes was situated directly in front of that window.  I knew that there was nowhere to hide.  The fear of exploding rocks and fire in my face was now replaced by my fear of the wrath of my father.

As I trudged into the house through the back door and then down the hall towards Dad’s room I pondered which of the two threats was the worse.  By the time that I walked through the door into his room I was still not sure of the answer to that question, but the fact that I had survived the first and had not yet seen a resolution to the second inclined me to consider the latter most likely to lead to definite discomfort.

To my surprise and relief, Dad was sufficiently impressed by the gravity of the situation to allow me to wriggle off the hook with no more than a mild admonishment to clean up my mouth.  I believe that he felt responsible for allowing a dangerous situation to develop on his watch, and although I couldn’t imagine how he should know any more about the lore of Native Americans on the subject of cooking with hot rocks than I did, I clutched my free pass with eager hands.  I felt like I had navigated between the Scylla of an exploding fire and the Charybdis of Pop’s judgement and emerged unscathed.  That was luck enough for me for one day!

Most of my experiences with fire were more benevolent that that however.  Dad and I played a game of sorts.   Whenever a fire was needed in order to cook outside it was my duty to produce that fire by the use of only a single match.  Whether it was at the beach or in the backyard during the summer, with an abundance of dry wood, good kindling, and no wind, or in the mountains in the dead of winter, surrounded by fields of snow and with a one-inch coat of ice over the grate of the stone and steel camp stoves provided at Green Valley Falls, my job was to get that fire going with the greatest economy possible short of rubbing two sticks together.

At first, Dad allowed the use of big strike-anywhere matches; the kind that you could light by scratching them on the zipper or the pant leg of your jeans.  Later, as I honed my skills, the challenge was made greater by limiting me to one PAPER match.  And no paper was allowed in the process, other than the paper of the match.  Paper was only needed by pansies.  Real Men, and Real Boys who wanted to think that they are men, took their knife and hatchet and produced a pile of shavings, then splinters, then sticks, until at last they had a pile ready to do the master’s bidding.

I never failed.  It never took more than fifteen minutes for me to have a roaring fire even on the coldest and frostiest and wettest days, days when I could hardly feel my fingers for the cold.  And the payoff was enormous.  Mom’s fried potatoes and bacon, eggs and biscuits, and the coffee that I loved to smell but did not yet prefer to drink were a prize beyond gold.

But even more than Mom’s breakfast I would enjoy Pop’s inspection of the blaze, nod of approval, and declaration that I had the makings of a man who could live off of the land, and that was heady stuff for a kid who was born and raised in the city, yet knew that there was a world closer to the way that things should really be out there in the fields and the forests.

Not all fires that I was engaged in were made by me nor under control however.  San Diego is a dry place, and in the 1950’s and 60’s the neighborhoods were laced with brush-filled canyons which led to dry creek beds that ran with water only when it rained.  And I mean rained a lot!

During the summers kids would play in those canyons, and while for some unknown reason I never started a fire in one, others were less cautious.  Many times we would hear the fire engines going down Fairmont Avenue, or Highland or Chamoune, or any of the numbered streets around us, headed to a canyon to put out a fire.

We might be throwing a football in an alley, or playing baseball at the diamond at Hamilton Elementary School, or just hanging out at the recreation center.  We would stop what we were doing, scan the horizon for smoke, and then upon sighting our quarry, mount our bicycles and pedal there as quickly as was possible.

The excitement which we experienced was palpable.  Residents on the fringe of the burning canyon would be out with their garden hoses, wetting down house and yard as much as possible in an attempt to protect their property in the event that the wind pushed the flames in their direction.  Firemen would already be on the scene, unlimbering hoses, connecting them to nearby hydrants, and plunging heroically into the heart of the inferno.

We boys would jump off of our bikes and find the first hose that looked like it needed an extra hand to drag its heavy self in the direction of the firemen, and we would then haul it into the canyon, allowing the firemen to worry only about fighting the fire.  For some reason which eludes me to this day, none of us got cooked for our efforts.  The firemen never let us get too close to imminent danger, of course, but they really did appreciate our help.  In retrospect I find it hard to believe that this was allowed at all.  In our current insanely litigious society, no fireman in his right mind would allow anyone, much less eleven and twelve year old kids,  to jump into such a dangerous situation.

And it truly was dangerous!  Many years later, while working on a construction job on Mira Mesa, a nearby canyon fire was my siren song once again, and I responded like the ten year old boy did over a decade earlier.  This time, thick smoke reduced my vision and I got turned around, and soon I was running like a jackrabbit only a step or two in front of Santa Anna Wind – driven flames.  It was the last time that I ever stepped up to help fight a canyon fire, or any other, fire.

An Odd Day At The Beach

It was a gray day in San Diego, which means that it was somewhere between January and June.  The year was 1970 and I had been home from the Army for about seven months, which was long enough for my hair to increase from sub-military length (they threatened to not let me leave Vietnam unless my hair was short enough.  I made certain that it was) to somewhere around my collar.  My beard, which I had dreamed of for years, was a sparse and raggedy affair hanging miserably off of my chin, but by God, at last I had one.

Benson “Benny” Beck and I were posted up at the south end of the La Jolla Shores beach, by the end of the street which ran in front of the 7-11 store.  We had gathered driftwood from all along the beach and had a nice little fire going in a hole that we had dug in the sand where a concrete pad made a ninety degree angle from a wall.  The 7-11 was close enough to provide sunflower seeds and donuts and six packs of Budweiser, and we were doing our part to make sure that their business was successful.

Benny and I hung around together a lot during that first year back from the War.  He had arrived home about two weeks before I did, and I went to his parent’s house on my first evening back in San Diego.  We did nearly everything together that first year, with everything consisting mostly of drinking beer, smoking weed, eating pizza from Nicolosi’s, Pernicano’s, and Sorrento’s, all of which were located on El Cajon Boulevard.  Occasionally we would diversify and eat hot dogs from Der Weinerschnitzel on College Avenue (or ‘Der Tumorschnitzel,’ as we called it) or burritos from some nasty little joint on El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and 54th.  Strangely, Benny never gained a pound.  I, on the other hand, ballooned to over 200 pounds from my svelte post-Army 132.

We went to the mountains.  We went to the desert.  We went to the bar owned by Dave “Monk” Callabretta’s dad, and on that day we went to the beach in La Jolla.

There was no thought in either of our heads about going into the water.  I guess one could say that there was rarely any thought in either of our heads one way or the other, but that’s a different story.  Anyway, in lieu of bathing in the frigid waters off of the Shores – yes, in the winter they are just plain frigid – we sat back, opened packages of snacks and bottles of beer, and maintained the warm fire while we talked about – – – everything.  And nothing in particular.  And it was while I was pontificating about nothing important that Benny pointed out to sea and said “What is that?”

I looked to where he was pointing and saw nothing at first.  “Ain’t nothing there” I said.  “You’re tripping.”

“What’s the matter?  Ain’t you got eyes?” he asked.  “Look over there.”

Benny pointed to an object about one hundred meters off of the beach.  I squinted at the waves and at last perceived a dark object just barely protruding above the water  “Looks like a piece of wood” I said.  “Or a seal.”

The object was moving toward us and soon was joined by another similar object, and then another.  We watched, speculating on the nature of what we were seeing, until the objects came close enough for us to see that they were the heads of divers in wet suits.

As they approached the shore they rose up out of the water and we could see that they were carrying one of their number, or at least helping him to struggle out of the water.  In no time the divers spotted us and, more important, our fire, and made a beeline to where we were seated.

“What’s wrong?” Benny called out to them as they approached.  “Can we help?”

“Our friend here got cold” one of them replied.  “His suit failed and he’s got some hypothermia going on.  Can we sit by your fire for a while?”

“Sure” I said.  “Help yourself.  We’ll go dig up some more wood for you.”

The divers sat their friend in the sand in front of the fire, propped up against the concrete pad.  Benny and I didn’t take long to find more wood and we built the fire up a little more to help the cold diver recover.  We chatted with those guys for a while until the diver in distress claimed that he was warming up.  One of his friends volunteered to stay with him while the others resumed their dive and returned to wherever their cars were parked.  They would then return to pick them up.

Benny and I shared our beer with them and kept the fire going until a car appeared at the end of the street that runs by the 7-11 store, right where we were waiting.  They climbed into that car and disappeared.

After a few more beers we walked along the beach back to the La Jolla Shores parking area, which was almost empty on that gray, murky day.  Probably, we were going to grab some pizza, or a hot dog.  Who the divers were and where they went to I haven’t a clue.

Stepping Out

Private First Class Joseph Sommers tried to squat down as he waited for the helicopters that would shuttle him and the rest of his company into action.  He could have taken his pack off and sat on it, but he didn’t want to take a chance on delaying the process when the choppers finally arrived.  This was Joe’s first mission since arriving in Vietnam and he knew that he was going to screw something up; all of the veterans had made certain that he knew that.  Joe just didn’t want it to happen first thing.  Since he couldn’t squat without the risk of the weight of the pack pulling him over onto his backside, Joe just stood silently and smoked while he waited.

Joe tried to take his mind off of the action that lay before him by remembering his home in San Diego.  Home hadn’t been kind to Joe.  For reasons that he could never understand he had been picked out by the other kids in the neighborhood to be bullied.  Hardly a month would go by without him being beaten up at school or at the neighborhood park or just walking back from violin lessons,

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers,” someone would yell and soon his violin case would be in the bushes, his sheet music scattered to the wind, and Joe lying on the sidewalk with his mouth or nose bleeding.

This situation persisted throughout Joe’s school years, and in his heart and mind visions of revenge had wrestled with the message of forgiveness that he heard preached and taught at the East San Diego Christian Church every Sunday.  Joe’s head would pray for the strength to forgive the kids who made his life hell, while his heart prayed that God would send lightening or plague or any other catastrophe to blast his tormentors to a hell of their own.

In time Joe began to believe that for some reason that he would never know he deserved what he was given.  He would try to fight back, but it was as if he knew that he would be beaten once again before he even started and it would be better to get it over with quickly rather than prolong – and maybe worsen – the inevitable.

At last Joe graduated from high school.   “The world is open to you all” some speaker was saying.  “You only have to step out and take your place in it.”  “Take my place in it” Joe thought as he sat listening under the gray June sky.  “What the hell is my place in it?  A punching bag?  Maybe it IS a punching bag.  I never had the balls to really stand up and fight back, and I’m just as big as most of those kids are who slapped and hit and spit on me.  Maybe the world really is open to me, and then again maybe that speaker is full of shit and I have this coming to me and nothing’s going to change.”

Joe mulled these thoughts for two weeks after graduation.  He stayed at home, not wishing to face the kids that he might run into at the park or the beach or, well, just about anywhere.  All that time his mind seethed over the import of what he had heard at graduation.  Was the world truly open to Joe, or was he just a punching bag.  It couldn’t be both.

At last Joe’s eighteenth birthday came.  Joe’s parents asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday and the answer to that question came to Joe like an epiphany.  “I want to join the Army.  Today.”

Joe’s mother stood in stunned silence.  “Are you crazy?” she blurted out at last.  “Have you noticed that there’s a war going on?”

“Yes Mom” Joe replied.  “Dad fought in a war and now it’s my turn to go too.”

“You’re darned right your father fought in a war, and I waited every day to see if two officers were going to walk up onto the porch and ring the doorbell and tell me that my husband was dead.  Now you want me to do it again with you.  What in the hell is the matter with you men?”

Joe’s mother sat down and began to cry.  His father tried to comfort her, but she seemed to be as mad at him as she was at Joe.  Joe was sorry to have hurt his mother.  She had been his greatest comfort during the awful times of his childhood and he felt the sting of having caused her this pain.  She would have been especially grieved if she knew that her outburst had confirmed Joe in his decision, and convinced him that it was the right thing to do.

“What in the hell is the matter with you men?” she had asked.  “Men.”  She had used the word “Men” and included him in that group.  Here was what he sought.  He would not be “Miss Sommers” or the human punching bag for one more day.  Joe would be a man, even if he got himself killed trying.

After Joe’s mother accepted that she could do nothing to prevent Joe’s departure his father asked if they could drive him to the recruiter’s office downtown.  “No Dad.  I want to take the bus.  I want to do this myself, from the beginning to the end.”  Joe remembered his father telling him of taking a train from a town in Missouri to a naval training center somewhere on the Great Lakes in the 1930’s.  Joe would only take the Number Seven bus down University Avenue and then down Park Boulevard into downtown San Diego, but he was going to do it on his own.

The Park lay in the direction opposite University Avenue, but Joe chose to walk through that park on the beginning of his journey.  Matt and Chad and Reuben and a couple of girls who would have never thought of letting Joe know their names were sitting on a picnic bench underneath a scruffy pine tree as he walked by.

“Hey, here comes Miss Sommers” Joe heard for the thousandth time.  Among the catcalls and insults Joe heard the question “Where you going to, Missy?”

Joe stopped directly in front of them and said “I’m going to join the Army.  If any of you ladies want to go with me, step up.”

“They don’t let sissies join the Army” Matt replied with his usual idiotic sneer.

“Then why don’t you get up off of your ugly ass and come down with me and see for yourself?  Maybe you could even join too.  I’m sure that they have room in boot camp for two more.  Hell, all of you can come.  Come on!  Let’s see how brave you are when people are shooting at you.”

The laughter stopped for a minute.  “Perhaps that thought is sinking into their microscopic brains” Joe thought.  Before they could begin their derision again Joe continued speaking.  “I have more important things to do than piss away a morning with you.  Anyone with a set of balls on them can come and get on a bus with me.”  Joe then slowly, as impudently as he could manage, turned his back on them and walked away, leaving several very confused ex-tormentors sitting on their bench.

Joe thought about that day as he stood at the edge of the LZ (Landing Zone), but his daydream abruptly ended when he heard the Wop Wop Wop of the approaching helicopters.  “Saddle up, gentlemen” Corporal Zincker said with a calm voice.

Joe was anything but calm.  He had been assigned to his unit four months after finishing Advanced Infantry Training at a fort in Texas.  When he arrived at Camp Charlie, somewhere near Pleiku in central Vietnam, he was given the usual treatment dished out to FNG’s (pronounced F’nG’s, and meaning Fucking New Guys).  “Don’t get me killed, FNG.  I’m rotating home in two months.”  “Oh shit.  Are we getting another FNG?” and so on.

Joe knew that new guys were replacing buddies who had rotated home, been wounded or killed.  A veteran who had befriended him in Texas had told him what to expect and advised him to “not get yourself killed, and the guys will come around in time.”  That was a better deal than he had at home.  The guys never came around there.

“OK Men!  Let’s Go!  Let’s Go!”

The chopper had touched down and Joe’s squad moved quickly to take their places behind the door gunner who sat behind his M60 machine gun.  All kidding and FNG stuff was over now.  Soon this helicopter and a lot of others would come to within a foot or two of the ground and men would jump out into a world where bullets and bombs and other gadgets of war would define their lives for as long as they could hang onto them.

“I don’t have to be here” Joe thought as the helicopter lifted off and another took its place.  Joe remembered that when he first arrived in-country the previous company clerk had just been wounded by a sniper and had been shipped, or ‘medivaced’, to a hospital in Japan.  Joe knew how to type, so he was assigned to replace the clerk.

“But sir” Joe had argued with his Commanding Officer.  “I didn’t sign up to be a clerk.  Why do I have to do this?”

“Because you’re government property, Sommers, and you will do what the government tells you to do’ was the CO’s reply.  “I’m the government, and I’m telling you to put your ass in front of that typewriter and start clerking, and if you give me any more shit I can add latrine duty to your chores.”

Joe didn’t savor the idea of latrine duty,  and so he ground his teeth day after day as the men went out on missions while he stayed behind and typed morning reports.  At last, a replacement Admin Specialist arrived and Joe Sommers found his name on a list of men going out on the next mission.

Sitting in a row on that chopper, Joe was both exhilarated and terrified.  This journey was very nearly over.  For almost nineteen years, life had tried to beat him into submission and had failed.  Joe Sommers was not willing to be a punching bag.  He was not willing to be a company clerk.  Joe Sommers would be a man, even if it killed him.

They were below treetop level now and Joe knew that the call to “un-ass” would come in a moment.  “This is a hot LZ gentlemen.  We don’t want to linger” a chopper crewman hollered over the roar of the engines and blades.  The gunner cut loose with a burst from the 60, spraying the tall grass and brush in front of him with hot death for anyone who dared to poke their heads up.

Joe had been placed so that he would be the third person out of the chopper.  That way the squad leader and one veteran would lead him, and the ten guys behind him would kick him in the ass if he screwed anything up.  Joe knew that’s just the way that they did it, and he was glad that it was that way.  He would either survive this and then deal with the “World that is open to you all,” or he would die on his feet facing his enemy.  Either way was fine with him.

“OK Men!  “Let’s Go!”

A Market Tale, Part II

By the early 1960’s the era of the small neighborhood market had come to an end.  All of the neighborhood kids would gather on the east side of Fairmont Avenue and watch as great vehicles came in and picked up and moved the best houses, while others tore down the rest and hauled what had once been kitchens where wonderful dinners had been cooked, living rooms where Bret Maverick and Marshall Dillon had been watched while eating those dinners on TV trays, and bedrooms where couples made love and then placed the sleeping results of their efforts in cradles and cribs, to an inglorious dump somewhere beyond the edge of town.  New machines cleared and leveled the ground, dug ditches for pipes, poured a foundation that looked like a concrete football field to us, and then began erecting walls.  In a few months a gigantic (for then) Safeway store occupied half of the block between Fairmont and 43rd Street, Landis and Wightman.

“I’ll never stop going to Jim’s” my mother stated, and she was as good as her word.  We had been shopping at Jim’s Market Spot, which occupied the opposite corner of Landis and Fairmont, since we moved into our house in 1952, and Mom liked Jim and liked Jim’s store.  The problem was that Mom did most of her grocery shopping on the naval base and paid prices not even Safeway could compete with, and she only resorted to Jim’s when some item was used up between monthly shopping trips.

Other residents of the area who did not have access to the Navy base were content to stretch their dollars further at the Safeway, and Jim noticed a trickle at first and finally a flood of his customers crossing the street, stepping on the big rubber mats which activated the automatic doors, and disappearing into the air-conditioned vastness that was the Safeway supermarket.  At length Jim heard the bell tolling and closed his market.  I was told that he was crying when he locked the big double front door for the last time but I don’t know if that is true; I wasn’t there to see it.

As I recall, the building remained vacant from then until I entered the Army in 1966.  Many businesses rose and fell along Fairmont; burger joints, pool halls, auto repair operations and plumbers and the like, but Jim’s old building was either too big or too small for whoever came along trying to start a business, so it sat shuttered, quiet, and lonely for my remaining years of childhood.

When I returned home from the Army however things had changed.  Jim’s Market Spot was now a lounge called “Granny’s”, and the place was doing a brisk business indeed.  I never went in there at first, since one of my old neighborhood friend’s father owned a bar a mile or two up El Cajon Boulevard, and my hours of sitting on my butt on a bar stool and piddling away my time and a large percentage of my Army severance pay were largely spent there.  A couple of years later however I had occasion to venture into Granny’s and found, to my surprise, a place very much to my liking.

Granny had an L shaped bar with the short segment angling to the left as you entered the front door; the same front door that Jim had locked a decade earlier, and the long segment continuing straight toward the back of the building, where the beer cooler from which I had tried to purchase a beer for my father once stood.  To the right were tables in a murky darkness where couples or small groups would be lost in their own conversation or listening to the juke box when live entertainment was not to be had.  But live entertainment was almost always there to be had.  Just behind the short segment of the L, the one which stretched off to the left, was a piano, and behind the piano on any given night was Freddy.

Freddy was a piano player and a singer, but equally important she was an entertainer.  I have seen many acts and have come to place musical performers into two categories: musicians and entertainers.  The Beatles were musicians.  Fabulously gifted, they wrote and played wonderful music.  When they got on a stage however they would mostly just stand there (or sit, in Ringo’s case), shake their moppy hair every once in a while to make the girls scream, and do their songs.  The Rolling Stones on the other hand were entertainers.  Oh, they were (and still are) musicians, to be sure, but in addition they, and primarily front man Mick Jagger, were amazing entertainers.  Mick would strut, gyrate, twirl the mic stand like a baton, and pout and point and leer at the people in the crowd and utterly hypnotize the audience.

Freddy was no Mick Jagger.  I never saw her do a handstand or sling her microphone like Roger Daltry of The Who.  What Freddy did however was play popular songs from multiple genres, most if not all of which we were familiar with, and some that we even knew the lyrics to, and draw the audience into the performance.  Being a person of an ebullient nature I would even sometimes sing along, as would some of my friends depending on how many pitchers of Granny’s suds we had already sent down the hatch.  Freddy’s venue was small, but she played it to perfection and Granny’s became a favorite watering hole for me and a good many of my friends.

On one particular evening five of us were perched on our bar stools along the short segment of the L where Freddy sat before her piano.  My brother Brad was to my right and long time friend Was to my left.  To the left of Wes were two friends from the construction crew of which we were all a part.  Charlie Pietermeeder sat next to Wes and Monkey star next to him.  Monkey’s real name was Andy Bandrill, and as every drywall hanger in our crew knew, Bandrill sounds like mandrill, a monkey of the Family Cercopithecidae, Genus Mandrillus, Species Mandrillus sphinx.  At least they knew it once I figured it out and shared it with them.  Anyway, all of that quickly boiled down to Monkey, and so there sat Monkey on the end of our chorus line.

It was a good night.  Freddy was on her game, the beer was flowing, we were all laughing and joking with each other, and Wes was flirting with Freddy.  Freddy was a good deal older than any of us but certainly not ready to be put in the rest home and, in an odd way, attractive.  How to describe her?  Well, plain I guess.  But plain taken to its best potential.  Her hair was well done, and although her figure was a bit more full than the willowy sweetheart whom I had waiting for my dissipated ass back at our house, she was not at all unattractive, and Wes was a man who was not afraid to make an advance to an attractive lady.  Freddy was on duty however, and while she obviously enjoyed the attention she did not materially abet Wes in his efforts.

Eventually the effects of several glasses of beer drove Brad to make his way to the men’s restroom in the back of the establishment.  Brad posted up in front of the urinal in the usual manner and was routinely taking care of his business when the door to the men’s room opened behind him and he heard the rustle of skirts.  Addled somewhat by the beer he had consumed, it took Brad a moment or two longer than it normally would have to register that skirts in a men’s room is not a combination that one comes to expect.  A quick look over his right shoulder confirmed that the rustle was indeed that of a skirt and that the skirt was being worn by Freddy, the piano player, who was at that moment disappearing into a stall in the men’s room.

This discovery produced an initial pucker, and Brad shook off the last few drops and hurried back to his stool after coming uncomfortably close to catching something in his zipper in his haste.  As soon as Brad had reclaimed his perch he leaned over and whispered to me “Freddy’s a guy.  Don’t tell Wes.”  I was initially stunned, but recovered quickly and guarded Brad’s secret.  Soon after that Freddy returned to her post and Wes took his turn in the restroom, which gave Brad and me the opportunity we were looking for to share this intelligence with Charlie and Monkey.

Those two worthy gentlemen were also surprised to learn this fact, but oddly enough nobody was put out by it, even though this was 1973 and attitudes toward this sort of thing still trended toward a hard line of opposition.  We all tended to be interested in our own business however and were not inclined to interfere into that of others, and so as long as Freddy could play a good piano and sing a good song we couldn’t care less whether her chromosomes were xx or xy.  We all agreed to keep the secret from Wes however.  We were a bunch who loved a joke, as I have written elsewhere, and the possibilities here were delicious to contemplate.

At length Wes returned and reclaimed his perch right in the middle of our line and right in front of Freddy.  Wes’ flirtation was not aggressive, in fact it was more like a fun way to play for an evening than a strong pitch to make it more than that, although one never knew where such things could lead and Wes was always up for the game.  Wes flirted with the girls in the same manner that fish swim, birds fly, and spiders are ugly; it was just his nature.  On this night however Wes’ advances generated increasingly ill-concealed chuckles from the rest of us, who were trying with all of our might to talk about the Padres’ baseball season or the war that lingered in Vietnam or the degree to which Harvey Black, the crew foreman for Earl Thurston Drywall and Finishing, was shorting our paychecks; any mundane thing to try to keep us from cracking up right there at the bar.

Wes was only a casual Casanova and his attention was far from being directed only at Freddy.  He too was interested in the Padres, the war, and getting cheated, and he joined into our general conversation.  But when his bent returned towards amorous attention to Freddy the thinly suppressed giggles became more and more obvious and impossible for him to ignore.  Wes could clearly see that it had something to do with his flirting but he knew that we had never behaved this way before, and this was far from the first that Wes, or any of us for that matter, had flirted in a bar.  Not willing to make a stink in front of the object of his attention he waited until Freddy exited her stage to go and take a break.

“OK you shitbirds, what’s so damned funny?” Wes asked as soon as the coast was clear.  At this our suppressed laughter erupted from where we had tried to cage it for the last hour.  “Man, Freddy’s a guy!” Charlie blurted out, and we all laughed harder.  Wes looked at Monkey, Brad and me, and we all nodded our affirmation.  “Yeah man, it’s true” I said.  “Freddy came in to use the crapper when Brad was taking a leak.  He saw the skirt hit the floor in the stall.”  At this point Charlie chimed in “It’s OK man.  We ain’t judging” he said and slapped Wes on the back.  “To each his own.”

Wes got red as a beet and just sat on his stool, unsure of whether he should hit somebody or just get up and walk out of the joint.  Ultimately he did neither.  Wes knew he had to face us on the job site the next morning and there was nowhere to hide.  Also, Wes could play a joke as well as the next guy, and it slowly sunk in that it was just his turn to be the butt of one.  I extended the pitcher and refilled Wes’ glass and we all had one more laugh, including Wes, and went back to enjoying our evening.

Her break concluded, Freddy returned to resume her work for the evening.  Wes’ attentions were now dramatically muted and Freddy figured out quickly that the jig was up.  We all genuinely enjoyed her music however and had no inclination to leave.  This became apparent to Freddy who discerned that nobody was going to get weird on her this night, and we all enjoyed ourselves greatly until we went home far later than we should have.

That old building continued as a lounge for a few more years, and then changed hands and became something much more unsavory, and I will go no further in describing that sad history.  At last, the old building was torn down sometime in the last thirty years, along with a couple of the adjacent houses, and now a Mexican seafood restaurant occupies the space.  In my mind’s eye however I can sometimes see the place in a vision.  It’s after closing time and when the traffic has settled down.  The neighborhood rests in the dead of the night, gathering strength for the next day’s frenetic activity at parks, schools, and businesses that have transformed the place where I grew up.  A thin, ethereal outline of an elderly woman pulling a wire shopping cart on two wheels walks arthritically through the big doors of Jim’s Market Spot, past five idiots sitting at a bar when they should be home with their wives and sweethearts.  She selects her weekly groceries as a little boy pulls a quart of beer out of a cooler.  The vision brings a smile to my face, and sometimes maybe a small tear in my eye.