The Picnic, First Revision

  Phil lay in the dust by the side of a trail which ran up to Lookout Mountain.  The day was warm, but a soft breeze kept Phil cool as he lay in the shade cast by a canopy of chaparral.  To his left the mountain sloped downward, toward the east.  Phil could see the Laguna Mountains rising to 6,000 feet in that direction, but he couldn’t see them well.  His vision was blurry, as was his state of consciousness.  “Where am I”  he asked himself.  “Oh, yeah.  I’m on a hike.  Why am I laying here?”  Phil struggled to get his thoughts together and at last, with some effort, he recalled how the day began.

It was 9 o’clock in the morning when Phil and Sandy rolled to a stop at the Arroyo Seco picnic area seventy miles east of San Diego.  The parking lot was already filling up with cars as city dwellers fled the heat and humidity, spawned by a tropical storm somewhere off to the southwest.  The lowlands of southern California was trapped in that storm’s hot and sticky embrace, but the picnic area lay at 4,000 feet.  The air tended to cool as it rose up the sides of the mountains, bringing the blessing of that coolness to any who would make the tortuous drive on the serpentine two lane road that led there from the city.  Phil was apprehensive as he stopped the car, set the handbrake, and turned off the engine.

“Here we are.  The hike to where I planned our picnic is about two hours away, so we had better get started.”

Phil tried to sound cheerful, but he was almost certain that his falseness was showing through like a searchlight on a clear night.  He and Sandy had only been together for seven months after meeting in their eleventh grade science class at Grant High School.  Phil was painfully shy and nervous as hell when he asked Sandy to accompany him to a dance, and was surprised and relieved when she agreed to go with him.

“One thing I should tell you”  Phil told her.  “I don’t know how to dance.”

Sandy’s laugh was soft and musical, and projected reassurance rather than condemnation.  “Don’t worry about that.  I don’t know how to dance either.”

Over the next few months the relationship grew from two kids struggling to learn a few dance steps to a more-or-less committed thing.  Sandy didn’t go out with any other boy and Phil prayed that it would stay that way.  Phil was a complete novice at this boy friend/girl friend thing, and his lack of self confidence when it came to girls made him feel ill-suited to compete with other boys if any such competition should arise.

The couple were able to get together at school every day, and at least one and sometimes both weekend nights for dinner at a drive-in burger joint, followed by talking and necking on a dark and uninhabited road wherever such a road could be found.  Sometimes they would pay to park in a drive-in theater, where kissing in the back seat was more likely to take up the bulk of their time than paying attention to whatever Burt Lancaster or Tab Hunter was doing on the screen.

After five months of this routine Sandy became a little less eager to participate, and a remoteness crept into her response to Phil.  He thought he noticed it first at a party where Sandy talked more to his best friend, Matt, than she did with him.  Soon after the party Phil spoke with Matt about this.

“Hey Matt.  I gotta ask you something.  Are you interested in Sandy?  I’m not jumping on you or anything like that, but it just seemed like something went on at that party at Pat’s house.  I won’t get mad.  Really.  And if you two are interested in each other I’ll be okay.  I just gotta know.”

“No” Matt responded, and the surprised look on his face made Phil believe that his denial was sincere.  “I’m not interested in Sandy at all.  I mean, she’s pretty and all of that, but I’m busy with school working out for football practice that’s gonna start in two weeks, and I think that Darlene and I might start going out together soon.  I’ll tell you something though.  If you’re worried about Sandy looking at other guys, maybe you should think about whether you want to continue this or not.”

Phil was anything but a veteran at this sort of thing, but he instinctively knew that Matt was right about that.  Still, Sandy was his first girl friend.  Phil found that he really liked being in a relationship with a girl, especially this girl, and he was prepared to venture into some unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory if there was any way that this relationship could be saved.  That is, if there really was anything amiss with the relationship.  Maybe Phil was imagining all of this; with his inexperience, how would he know?  Without asking, that is.  That is what today’s picnic was going to be all about.

Phil’s daydreaming slowly faded and he once again became aware that he was lying in the dirt on the side of the trail.  Above him small, grayish brown birds twittered and flitted from branch to branch in the chaparral that rose up over him.  He was thirsty but his right arm didn’t seem to want to move so that he could grasp the canteen of water by his side.  His left arm seemed to be working, but he didn’t care enough to expend the energy that would be required to reach across his body.  Hmm.  Sandy started this day with him.  Where was she now?  Oh, yes.  She walked – – -, no, she ran down the path back towards the parking lot.  Why?  What did we forget”  Phil’s confused brain tried to sort this all out, and the process took him back to the parking lot at the picnic area.

Phil and Sandy exited the 1962 Mercury sedan and Phil lifted the trunk lid.  Inside were two packs of unequal size.  The larger one carried a sheet, food, two quart bottles of water and a fancy Swedish gas stove no bigger than the palm of your hand.  With the stove Phil planned to heat some water to make coffee.  Neither Sandy nor Phil drank coffee much but Phil was just beginning to like doing so more with his older brother.  He reasoned somehow that it would make him look more like an adult, and perhaps make a good impression.  The smaller pack contained more sandwiches, the coffee, sun protection and other such gear.  Swinging their packs onto their shoulders, the two began their walk to where, a couple of hours later, they were to have their lunch and a long conversation.

The two young people were not far along the trail when Sandy asked “Where exactly are we going to eat this lunch.  Have you really ever been up here?”

Phil chuckled, a little nervously he thought, and replied “We’ll go an hour or so up this trail.  When we get to a valley up there we’ll cross the valley and then climb part way up another mountainside.  There’s no trail up the side of that mountain but it is pretty clear of undergrowth and isn’t too difficult of a climb.  There’s a level place among some boulders.  I found this place hiking with my Dad a couple of years ago.  It’s one of my favorite places in these hills.”

“How hard is the climb?”  Sandy asked.

“It’s not all that hard” Phil replied.  “The hike we took coming up the east side of the mountains from the desert was a lot harder.  It’s not much of a challenge for either of us.  Let me know if you get tired though.”

“I’m tired now” Sandy laughed, but she was a very athletic young woman and Phil suspected that she could keep up with him wherever they went.

They reached the top of the first climb in an hour, as predicted.  The trail had been bounded on one side by chaparral, a mix of twisted, thorny, drought-resistant plants that had grown tall and in some place had arched all the way over their heads because of a series of rainy years.  It now opened up as they reached and passed along the western edge of a mountain valley.

“We’ll climb part-way up there” Phil said, pointing to a peak which rose from the east side of the valley and poked a little higher into the cloud-dotted blue sky that did its neighbors.  “If you look about a third of the way up the hill, just above that tree that was split by a lightening strike, you can see where we’re going to eat.”

“I don’t see where you’re talking about” Sandy complained.

“In that cluster of rocks” Phil answered, pointing the rocks out.  He stood close to Sandy, putting one hand on her waist and pointing at the rocks so that she could sight along his arm and extended second finger.  Sandy’s nearness; the smell of her hair and the ease with which he could be near her were exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.  “This is what I want” he thought one moment, and “this is what I may be losing” was the thought that quickly followed.

Phil regrouped.  “Like I said, there’s not a trail from here, but the terrain is pretty easy.  There’s not much chaparral on the side of that hill but the valley can be pretty marshy because the Cuyapaipe River begins up here.  We’ll stay in the upper part of the valley where it is the driest, and then cut back so that we can reach the rocks.

“You’re the leader” Sandy said.  Was there a strain in her voice?  Did she intend to let Phil lead anything for long?  The questions sat like something bitter in the pit of his stomach.  “Lead on.”

They stepped off of the trail and onto the grassy floor of the valley near the north end, and indeed it was fairly dry there.  The warm sun and dry air, the valley floor strewn with wildflowers, and the beauty of the mountain should have been a thing to make one’s heart glad.  Instead, Phil was not feeling good at all.  He knew that a very difficult conversation needed to take place and he struggled over when and how to begin it.  He had planned to broach the topic at some time during their lunch but he simply couldn’t carry the weight of this thing any longer.

“There’s something that I’ve been wanting to talk about.” Phil began.  He could see Sandy’s body tense out of the side of his eye as he stepped carefully over clumps of grass, avoiding scattered marshy patches.  Phil was trying to collect his thoughts but they stubbornly refused to stay collected, so he pressed on.

“I’ve begun to get the feeling that you don’t like me as much now as you did a couple of months ago.  Is that how it is?”  Sandy seemed to be surprised by the directness of the question, and in fact Phil was too.

I don’t know” Sandy replied.  “I don’t think that I do, but I still like you a lot.”

Phil kept a poker face while that arrow tore through his heart.  He had been right, and now it was in the open and there could be no going back.

“Is it because you’re attracted to Matt?” Phil asked.

“No, not at all” Sandy said, but Phil did not see the same surprise that he had seen in Matt’s face when he asked his friend the same question.  Phil still had his doubts after her answer to that last question but he pressed on.

“Maybe it’s your Dad.  I know that he doesn’t approve of me, or at least not very much.”  Phil remember how he had been given the third degree like a petty hoodlum when he showed up at Sandy’s house on their first date.

“So, young man.  You want to take my daughter to a dance.  Will there be adults at this dance or will it just be kids at a house somewhere?” the father had asked.

     “It’s at a recreation center, sir.”  Phil replied.  “There will be Parks and Recreation leaders there the whole time.”

     “Hmm.  All right.  So what about you, son.  What are your plans?  College?  Career?”

     “Uhh, I’m not sure sir” Phil stammered.  “I’ve always wanted to fly, and my brother told me that my grades are good enough to get into helicopter training in the Army.  I might do that.”

     “I don’t see how that will happen” Sandy’s father said.  “You have to be an officer to be a pilot and your have to have a college degree to be an officer.  

     “Well sir, my brother told me – – oh, I’m sorry.  My brother just got out of the Army last month.  Anyway, he told me that helicopter pilots can be  warrant officers, which is something like less than an officer but more than a sergeant or whatever those guys are called.  Anyway, with my grades I could qualify and go to Alabama for nine months and come out flying.”

     “Helicopter pilots are in a pretty dangerous position, aren’t they?  The Viet Cong like to shot them down as quickly as they can.”  Sandy’s father seemed to like that idea.

     At that point Sandy swept into the room looking like an angel from heaven and rescued Phil from the hot seat.  Sandy kissed her father on the cheek and said “Good night Dad.  We’ll be back by 10:00.”

     “See that you do” he growled, looking directly at Phil.  

Back on the valley floor Sandy shook her head, more convincingly this time than the last, and said “No, it has nothing to do with my father.  He’s usually either at work in his office at the shipbuilding company or in his office at home.  He’s all worried when I stray from the house but otherwise hardly knows that I’m there at all.  He told me that warrant officer was good enough for him and I haven’t heard anything more about it.

Phil processed that answer as they walked along.  Warrant officer was good enough for Sandy’s father, but was it good enough for Sandy?  The two walked in silence for a short distance as each tried to organize their thoughts.  At last, Phil could not wait any longer.

“So what is going on?  I want to know if something’s wrong that I am able to change or fix.”

Sandy remained silent for several more steps and then began to speak in slow, measured words.  “There’s nobody else that I’m really interested in.  Really.  And I don’t care if my dad likes you or not.  I honestly do still like you, but I’m just not sure about where we are or where we’re going.  And I don’t really know how you feel about me either.”

Sandy returned to silence as they walked, and now neither of them were nearly so careful about avoiding the marshy spots on the valley floor.  Phil stepped into one and growled ‘Shit!” at which Sandy laughed a little.  Phil felt his face flushing and knew that he was turning red.  He had never sworn in front of Sandy before but he was feeling the strain and losing his control just a little.

“You see, that’s what I’m getting at” Sandy continued.  “You are always the same person.  There’s never a change.  You pick me up.  We eat at the drive-in. We make out somewhere.  We go home.  Always the same.  Always controlled.  I like all of that stuff but I want something else.  I know that there’s more to you than just that stuff but you don’t share it with me.  At least I think that there’s more to you, but how would I know?  At last, you finally stepped into some water and said ‘shit’.  Guess what.  If I stepped into water I would probably say ‘shit’ too!  Or maybe more than that.  I have said it before, you know.  I’ll bet that you have too.  I’ve lived for 16 years where everything is proper and runs according to a schedule and rules and guidelines, and I don’t want to do that with you.”

They returned to walking in silence again.  Phil was more careful about where he stepped now and Sandy was wondering if she had just stepped into something a great deal different than water.  Phil was glad that he was not competing with Matt or anybody else and Sandy was glad that this conversation had at last begun.  They were approaching the eastern edge of the valley when Phil picked up the thread again.

“Well, I do like to make out with you.  You’re a beautiful girl, and sometimes I can hardly believe that it’s me kissing you.  It just becomes the only thing that I want to do.  Maybe I have a lack of imagination about what to do with you because I’m so happy just to be with you at all.”

Sandy stopped in mid stride.  She turned to Phil, put her hands on her hips and said “Why is it that this is the first time that I’ve heard that?  I’ve wanted to hear you say something like that to me for the last half year.  Was it so hard to say that?”

Phil knew that Sandy was right, but how could he know that he should say such things?  Phil’s father and mother lived a sort of cold war, sharing a house but inhabiting separate worlds; separate bedrooms, separate budgets, separate vacations, and separateness in every other aspect of their lives.  They went dancing and to dinner with friends, but that façade came off as soon as they got home.  If Sandy would have known Phil’s parents better she would have had a much more clear view of his confusion in the matter of expressing affection.

Sandy began to walk again, a little faster than before as her own confusion and anger was beginning to creep toward the light.  Phil caught up quickly but Sandy began to speak again before Phil could get out a word.

“And then there’s another thing.  When we were eating lunch at school that guy, Paul What’s-His-Name, was fresh with me and you didn’t seem to mind.  It looked to me like you were afraid and he could just say anything to me that he wanted to.  I’m sorry, but that bothered me.  I don’t want to pick your fights for you, but I felt insulted and alone when that happened.  I would like to know that you would defend me.”

Phil felt the pain of that accusation tear through his heart and mind.  Paul Duggar was a big oafish kid and a bully, and he had made advances towards Sandy right in Phil’s face.  Phil had laughed a little and then walked away with Sandy towards where some other kids that he knew were standing, and the number of those friends persuaded Paul to leave after another grating remark or two.

The memory of that day stung, but the worse part was that Phil had not the least fear of Paul Duggar.  Phil had been bullied in the sixth grade and had persuaded his father to pay for karate lessons.  By good fortune Phil had ended up with an instructor who trained him well.  His teacher also advised Phil to keep his training a secret from his friends.  “When the upstart defeats the old gunfighter, the new gunfighters all want to pick a fight with him to earn their reputation.  Train hard.  Stay quiet.  Use what you know only when you have to, or you’ll have to be using it all the time.

Phil had lived by that teaching, but now he knew that a page had to be turned and a new strategy was called for.  He thought back on that day and knew that he could have laid Paul out with three or maybe four blows.  Perhaps it was time to share this side of himself with Sandy.

“I’m sorry that I wasn’t more assertive that day” Phil said lamely.  “I wasn’t afraid of Paul; I just didn’t want to get into a fight then and there.  If I thought that you were in any danger I would have done whatever was necessary to protect you.  I will never let anything hurt you.  Never.”

They walked along in silence again for a while.  Phil was making a list of things that he wanted to tell Sandy, and what Sandy was thinking Phil couldn’t tell.  Her jaw seemed tight, as if the Paul episode still was eating at her, but Phil wasn’t sure.  They arrived at the eastern edge of the valley and began their climb towards the boulders.  They were picking their way through the rocks and chaparral that was scattered about when Phil spoke again.

“So I haven’t told you how I feel about you.  Okay.  You’re right.  I’m new at all of this and honestly, I don’t know what I’m doing or should be doing most of the time.  So, let me tell you now.  I look forward to every minute that I can be with you, and I feel sick when I think that I’m losing you.  If you don’t want me to kiss you so much, then I won’t.  If you want me to stand on my head instead, I will.  Just being near you will be enough for me as long as I know that you are happy being near me.  But if that won’t work, then we should break up now so that I won’t bother you or look like a fool, which is how I’ve been feeling.  That is not what I want to do, but if it is what you want, we should do it.”

There.  Phil had said it.  He couldn’t believe that he had got it out without his voice cracking, and he hoped that Sandy wouldn’t take him up on it, but there it was, right out on the table.  They would have to deal with it now, for better or for worse.  Sandy looked like she was glad to have the issue laid bare too.  The tightness around her jaws softened and Phil even thought he saw a little moisture fill the eye closest to him.

“This is what I’ve been missing” said Sandy.  “We’ve been acting so much like my parents.  Pick me up.  Eat.  Make out.  Go home.  It’s like a broken record.  I don’t want you to be my knight in shining armor but I would like to feel safe when I’m with you, and I don’t want to just follow the same old script.  Surprise me sometimes.  Take me out to a nice restaurant, or just grill me some hot dogs in your back yard and tell me that I’m special to you while we sit on that big bench swing that your dad built and eat them.  And the next time that we’re making out while some stupid movie is playing, try to get into my pants or something.  “I’m not looking for ‘out of control’, but I’m tired of everything being so tame and predictable.”

Sandy was a little out of breath after such a long speech, and was more than a little surprised at what had just come out of her mouth.  Phil had stopped dead in his tracks with his mouth hanging open, frozen by both his elation and the shock that he felt from what he had just heard.

“You would let me get into your pants?”  he asked in amazement.

“No.  Of course not.  Don’t be silly.  But I wouldn’t hate you for trying, as long as you weren’t being a jerk about it.  At least I’d know that you want to get in them.  We can then talk about anything more than that later.”

Phil put out his hand, acting as if he was reaching for Sandy’s belt.  She laughed as she slapped his hand away.  “I said later.  A whole lot later.”

Phil laughed too, just beginning to believe that this was going to end a lot better than he had dared to hope that it would.  They had reached the place where the picnic was to be had and Sandy’s laughter was singing a love song in Phil’s ears as they climbed up over the first layer of rocks.  That was when Phil saw the rattlesnake that was warming itself in the sun.  Sandy was unaware of the snake and her head was not two feet away from it when it coiled in preparation to strike.  There was nothing that Phil could do other than thrust his arm between Sandy’s neck and the snake, and he did that without thinking.

The serpent struck in less than the blink of an eye and buried its fangs deep into Phil’s bicep.  He shook his arm furiously until the snake let go and wriggled swiftly into the small stand of chaparral that was nearby, leaving a shaken Sandy and a bitten Phil in its wake.

“Oh God!  Oh God!  You’re bitten” Sandy kept repeating.  Phil stared numbly at the twin punctures on his arm that were oozing blood, frozen with fear.  Sandy’s cries became louder and more hysterical, and the sound brought phil back to something like his senses.

Phil’s father had grown up in Oklahoma and knew a lot about rattlesnakes, including how to hike in the mountains without getting crosswise with one.  One lesson his dad had omitted from Phil’s education was how to remain watchful for snakes while negotiating with a beautiful girl about getting into her pants, even if only in jest.  Phil had forgotten to tap the rock with the head of the steel hatchet that he wore in its canvas cover on his belt.  The sound would alert any snake in the rocks that Phil was coming, and the snake would return the favor.  “The snake will let you know that he’s there if you will let him know first” his father had said.  “And that will work out best for the both of you.”

Sandy was losing it pretty badly, and Phil went to her, wrapped his arms around her and held her close.  “It’s okay.  It’s okay Baby” Phil kept repeating, although he could not for the life of him figure out how it could possibly be okay.  “Calm down now.  We’re going to be all right.  We have to think about this now.”  Sandy’s sobbing diminished, and soon she looked up at the snakebitten boy who was comforting her, and began to control her fear.

“You really were bitten, weren’t you?” she asked.  Phil stared at the damaged arm that was just then beginning to throb.  “Yes” he replied with a calmness born of shock.  “I believe that I was.”

Sandy’s tears began to flow again but Phil just held her close to keep her from falling apart.  Her jaw worked, but few words came out.  “Are you going to die?” she finally croaked in barely a whisper.

Phil didn’t answer right away because he didn’t know the answer.  His father had told him that tourniquets and sucking out the poison were mostly Hollywood horseshit.  “The best thing to do is get to a doctor fast” he had told him.  Phil knew that such a plan was not going to happen, and the first shiver of panic crawled down his spine.  Bile crept up into his throat and he almost threw up from the fear.  The look on Sandy’s face however, and seeing the concern and compassion that she felt for him, settled him down.  He remembered more of his father’s teaching and one possibility rose to the top.

“My father told me that sometimes rattlers will give you a dry bite, where they don’t inject venom.  All we can do now is start back to the parking lot and hope that this snake was in a good mood today.”

  Oh, yeah.  the snake.  Phil looked down at his right arm as he lay in the shaded dirt of the trail.  The arm was already puffy, bruised, and numb.  And it also hurt like hell.  “How can an arm be numb and hurt at the same time?” Phil asked himself.  He moved the arm an inch or two and dug his fingers into the dirt.  Sure enough, he couldn’t feel the ground underneath arm or fingers, but he could certainly feel the fiery pain that enveloped the entire appendage.

     Phil’s head was resting on a pillow.  “Odd” he thought.  “A pillow out here.”  Then he remembered that Sandy had taken off her pack and used it to cushion his head.  Phil smiled at the thought of using a pack full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some socks and a scarf as a pillow.  His vision had been blurry for a long time and now his breath was getting a little harder to come by.  Phil looked down the trail where Sandy had disappeared – – – how long ago?  Phil hadn’t the least idea.  Maybe she’d be back in five minutes with help, or maybe she only left five minutes ago.  There wasn’t one damned thing that Phil could do about it one way or the other, so he lay his head back down on his makeshift pillow and drifted off into memory again.

Sandy began to cry again and Phil was not doing so well himself.  He hugged her once again, being careful not to bleed on her clothes.  Sandy controlled her own fear and stepped back from Phil’s embrace.  “Come on.  We have to get you to a doctor.  You leave your pack here.  I’ll take mine and let’s get going.  I don’t think that we’re going to have a picnic here today after all.”

They set off down the hillside, towards the valley.  By the time they got to the margin of the valley a purple blotch had grown around the bites on Phil’s arm, and the pain was becoming fierce.  “It looks like the snake was not in a good mood” Phil told Sandy.  “I don’t know how long I’m going to stay standing.  We’ll go straight across the valley.  I want to get you to the trail and I’m not going to worry much about getting my shoes wet doing it.

They walked quickly side by side across the grassy valley floor.  Phil wondered how far he would get before the effects of the venom would lead to weakness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and possibly death.  He wanted desperately to make it to the trail on the west side of the valley.  Once there, Sandy could follow it straight to the parking lot and safety.

Phil thought about dying and once again panic began to rise in his throat.  Half-way across the valley he bent forward and threw up the remains of his breakfast.  “Was that fear?” he wondered, “or the effects of the venom.”  Phil had not thought about death and dying any more than any other seventeen year old kid had, but now it was a distinct possibility.  In some odd way the fear did not immobilize him.  The bite was a fact; Phil couldn’t change that.  He had to get Sandy to the trail, and anything else would be extra credit.  Life, death, heaven and hell were not in his hands, so all he could do was put one foot in front of the other for as long as that was possible.  The rest would have to take care of itself.

Sandy tried at first to keep up idle chatter as they walked, whether to distract Phil from their desperate situation or distract herself wasn’t clear to Phil.  Eventually however, when Phil began to stumble more as they passed through the soggy clumps of marsh grass and shallow pools of clear water, Sandy focused all of her attention on supporting Phil.

“Come on.  We can do this” she told Phil as the trail finally came into view.  “We’re almost there.  Let’s just keep this going.  And by the way, I want you to know that I believe that you weren’t afraid of Paul.  If you weren’t afraid of a goddam snake I guess you can handle Paul.  I apologize for that.”  Phil smiled weakly, but didn’t speak.  It was becoming clear to him that he was not going to make it down the side of the mountain.  They stumbled onto the trail and Sandy gave a little whoop, but Phil simply plodded forward.

Phil didn’t know how far they had walked on that trail before it finally became clear that he had gone as far as he could.  “I can’t go on any more” he said.  Sandy tried to urge him on but he held up his left hand.  “No Babe.  I’m sorry.  I can’t do it.  This is it.  This is as far as I can go.  I’m going to have to lay down right here and let you go on the rest of the way.  Here.  Help me to lay down.”

“No” Sandy quavered.  “Don’t give up.  You can do this.”

“I’m sorry Babe.  I can’t.  And I’m not giving up on you or anything else.  You can travel faster without me.  You run the rest of the way and get help.  Ill stay here, resting, and wait for you to come back.  This is the only plan that I can see that has a ghost of a chance.  Now help me to lay down and go.  Quickly!”

Sandy looked like she wanted to argue, but it was obvious that this really was the best plan.  “Okay.  You can use my pack for a pillow and lay here in the shade.”  Sandy helped Phil to stretch out in the dirt.  She lifted his head and put her pack under it, and then leaned over and kissed Phil twice and said “I love you, Phillip Coltrane.  You wait for me because I’m coming back, and I’ll be really pissed off at you if you don’t.”

Sandy then rose up and shot down the trail at a full sprint.  She quickly disappeared around a curve, and Phil wondered if he would ever see her again.

  “It must have been a while since Sandy left” Phil thought.  “The shadow from the chaparral is nearly half way across the path now.  How long does it take for the sun to move that far in the sky?  Hell, I don’t know.  It’s still midday though, and that’s good.  In the evening the tarantulas come out to hunt.  I know.  I’ve seen then on this trail in the evening.  God, I hate spiders.  Especially big, hairy ones.  Ah, no sweat.  I won’t be alive this evening.  The ants will already be cleaning up my mess.  Spiders are worse than snakes.  Screw snakes anyway.  Maybe a big, fat spider will eat that bastard who bit me.  Maybe – – – huh!  I’ll be damned.  That looks like two men in some kind of uniforms standing over me.  Sandy.

 

 

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—.”

 

Sand Trap

1967 was a very good year for me. I had a girlfriend in that year and this was not something which came along often in my young life. In fact, she was the one and only girlfriend I had during the first twenty one years of my life. Rhonda was the friend of one of my neighborhood pals and we used to all eat lunch together at school. I was quite taken by the extraordinarily pretty Rhonda and hesitated for the longest time to ask her out on a date because of the curse of painful shyness which I endured in those years. When I finally found the courage to ask Rhonda out she accepted, much to my surprise, and we began a relationship which lasted a short but very pleasant while.

As I wrote earlier I was very shy, and just the thought of trying to kiss a girl made my head spin; the prospect of rejection was almost too great to bear. On the other hand I had an easy knack for talking with anyone, and with Rhonda it was even easier than with others. We would talk about our likes and dislikes, plans and dreams, our lives before we met, music, in fact just about anything and everything. I eventually worked up the nerve to try a kiss, and to my surprise and delight I met with success.  None of this ever led to more than a bit of innocent teenage necking, but it was heaven to me. Of course all of this very personal conversation and extracurricular activities required a quiet place of solitude, and that solitude was frequently found parked at the top of Del Cerro hill on what was then the edge of San Diego. A street had been paved over the top of the hill in anticipation of houses that would be built later, but at the time the street is all that there was, and we spent a few evenings there talking about life and plans and sharing a kiss or two.

I have always enjoyed variety however, and so one evening I decided to see if we could find a place to get away from the maddening crowd by going to the beach. I selected Mission Beach to be our hideaway for that evening, which proves that logic was not yet my strong suit. The beach, in a large beach city, is never a place to get away from people. In this case however, those people would save my bacon later that evening. We drove down Mission Blvd., past a closed and darkened Belmont Park amusement center. It seemed like Belmont Park was closed more than open back then, or the wooden roller coaster out of commission by fire or things like that.  Anyway, it was dark that evening and as we drove south on Mission Blvd. it got even darker, but still there were people popping up on sidewalks or paths which led to and from the beach itself. Eventually we came to a dead end at a jetty built out of large, jagged boulders. A dirt road led to the left, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen in that direction, so I pulled in and drove a hundred yards or so down that road in search of the solitude which we desired.

There was, however, no solitude to be found. It wasn’t exactly a parade, but it was summer at the beach in San Diego and any solitude found there would be rare and of short duration. I analyzed the  situation and decided that the heights of Del Cerro was going to have to do, and began to make what was called a ‘Y’ turn in the dirt road rather than return to Mission Blvd. in reverse. That was where I made my big mistake.

The road was narrow but I was sure that I had room to make the maneuver of inching forward and backward, slowly turning the car to the right and eventually making a 180 degree turn. Perhaps I did have the room, but the night was dark, my mind was on other things, and my hand was completely out of aces. At ninety degrees in the road I backed up a foot too far and settled gently into the soft sand of that dark bit of beachfront San Diego. Thinking of myself as a resourceful male I got out of the car certain that I could make everything work out just fine. I walked around to the back of the car and sure enough, the tire was buried in sand up to the hub.

I reentered the car and assured Rhonda that I could get us out of this.  I began to try to rock the car gently by accelerating in drive and then backing off of the gas pedal, hoping that my parent’s Mercury would sort of walk its way out of the trap. This plan was a complete bust; if anything at all the tire sat lower in the sand than before. For the first time since I felt that depressing sink of the rear of the car I registered a twinge of fear.  The car was not going anywhere, and I had no idea how to change that fact.

“How are we going to get out of here?” was Rhonda’s reasonable question.  I concealed my annoyance because I really liked Rhonda a lot.  Besides, I wasn’t annoyed by her question; I was annoyed because I didn’t have a good answer.

“I don’t know.  I’m going to have to think about this”.

We got out of the car and stood disconsolately next to the sunken tire. I had never been in this position before, and had no interest in walking a great distance back to the lighted area where I could find a pay phone and call my father. Dad went to bed early and would be unimpressed with his son stuck in the sand off of a dirt road in a darkened section of Mission Beach with his girlfriend. The thought of explaining myself to Rhonda’s parents gave me little cause for cheer as well.

“Do you need some help?”

I was jolted out of my thoughts by an older guy, maybe in his twenties, and his lady friend, who had approached as I was lost in my reverie. I explained the problem, which was pretty obvious to see, and he stood and thought a minute.

“Let’s get the girls in the back seat for some additional weight and you drive while I push” was his suggestion, and it seemed a pretty good one to me.  The ladies, who were not impressed by the ‘extra weight’ comment, nevertheless piled in and I fired up the Merc once again while my new best friend pushed, but the result was the same.  Before we threw in the towel another couple arrived and soon I had two guys pushing while I drove, but still the Mercury squatted obstinately in the sand.  I exited the car and walked back to where my two new best friends stood discussing the problem.

“How about if we jack the car up and then push it forward?” I proposed.  “We only need a foot or two to be on the solid part of the road.

“You’d probably put that jack through your gas tank” came a voice from behind us. The owner of that voice was a single guy of undetermined age who was carrying a paper bag. “Let’s see what we’ve got here” he said.  Our new rescuer placed his bag on the sand and studied the problem for a minute, and then said “I think we can use that jack after all.”

I raised the trunk lid and extracted my bumper jack, which was the old kind of jack which stood vertically on a square metal plate and attached beneath the car’s bumper.  This newest member of my rescue party placed the jack under the bumper and began to lift the car up.  “Go and get some rocks to put under the tire he said, and we scattered to find stones of the right size, which was not as easy in the sandy area as I would have liked.  We all came back with what we had found and put them as close to underneath the tire as we could get them. He lowered the jack and I tried once again to advance the car out of the sand. The attempt failed and some of the rocks flew out from under the tire, but some of them stayed in place.

“Get more” said the new quarterback of this operation. We scattered to comb the area for rocks, preferably flat ones of just the right size. Several more people out enjoying the evening pitched into the effort and soon we had a nice pile of rocks under the drive tire and I was ready to try to move the car once again.

“Wait a minute” came a voice from the crowd.  “Let’s get some people on the trunk.”  Guys lifted their ladies onto the truck while as many as would fit positioned themselves behind the car to push.  In a moment I shouted “Ready!” and the throng responded “Go!”  I did just that. The tire bit into the rocks while the guys pushed, and with the agility of an arthritic rhino the Mercury lumbered forward onto the solid dirt path.

A cheer went up as I stopped the car, now safe and sound on solid ground.  People were talking and laughing; the men shaking hands. This was 1967;  nobody hugged back in those days. The quarterback with the paper bag retrieved his cargo and pulled a beer out of it and popped it open, toasting to the success of our operation. I thanked everyone profusely and assisted my lady into the passenger seat. With a last round of thanks I climbed into the driver’s seat, put the Merc in gear, and rolled out accompanied by the waves and cheers of our rescuers.  You’d have thought that it was a wedding.

Rhonda and I knew that little in the way of kisses would be enjoyed that night, but there was no shortage of things to talk about. We drove directly to Oscar’s, a drive-in hamburger place on El Cajon Blvd., and soon the drama of the early part of the evening faded as we returned to our role of two teenagers infatuated with each other. Rhonda got home on time, we shared a good night kiss on the front porch, and I got home just before my curfew. The next morning I was up early vacuuming sand out of the inside of the car and checking it over for scratches or dents. There was no physical evidence that anything untoward had happened with Dad’s car the night before and I chose not to share that tale with him. In fact, Dad died almost forty years later without ever hearing that tale. I hope that it’s possible he’s getting a chuckle out of it somewhere right now.