Tag Archives: San Diego

The Fire Next Time, Part III

Fire played a large part in my early life, and I was never far from one.  Sometimes my experiences with fire were frightening, as I have mentioned in the previous parts of this story, and sometimes they were humorous.  In Part III I am going to describe three instances in which fire was exactly what fire should be, and that is simply warm.  These stories were times when fire warmed the soul as much as the body, so much so that the glow of those fires continues to burn low even today.

The first story took place at Silver Strand, a beach on the narrow strip of land that connects the town of Imperial Beach, on the Mexican/U.S. border, with Coronado Island.  I have no idea why my father preferred to take us to Silver Strand, which was much farther away from our home than were the more popular Ocean, Mission and Pacific Beaches.  Perhaps it was the ubiquitous Navy presence in that South Bay area that drew my very Navy dad to choose that spot.  Ultimately it didn’t matter much.  He was driving and Silver Strand was his preferred beach.  Sand and water and waves were the only things necessary to me, and I spent many a wonderful, sunny San Diego day at Silver Strand.

One of the things that I liked most about the Strand is that it had concrete fire rings.  These circular pits were about four feet in diameter if my memory serves me correctly, and were raised about eight or ten inches above the surface of the sand.  The logic behind those rings was that if people’s beach fires were contained within visible and enclosed areas there would be fewer people stepping onto a smoldering beach fire left covered only by a thin layer of sand.  This happened often at other beaches and could result in painfully burned feet.  I never had the dubious pleasure of stepping in any such unintended booby trap, but I can’t believe that it was anything like a pleasant experience.

As I have written before, starting the fires was always my job.  On our visits to the beach I did so as speedily as possible so that I could get into the water as soon as possible.  My brother Fred, who had no such pyrotechnic contract with our father, was always in the water first, and so I poured my heart into plying Prometheus’ gift in order to join Fred as quickly as I could.  Once the fire was securely established I would turn it over to Dad and fly straight as an arrow into the waves.

At this point it is necessary to explain something about the water off the beaches of San Diego, and also about my juvenile physique, and how the two came together to shape this story.  Although San Diego has a warm, mediterranean climate, with palm trees and stucco houses hidden behind hedges of hibiscus and bougainvillea, the water flowing south past those beaches did not originate anywhere near the Mediterranean Sea.  The North Pacific Gyre draws water from the chilly northern reaches of that ocean and then impels them past the Washington and Oregon and Northern Californian beaches, until they finally arrive off the coast of San Diego.

In addition to the continuous flow of chilly northern Pacific water past our beaches, a phenomenon called the Ekman Spiral conspires with the Coriolis Effect to draw the warmer surface waters westward.  This, in turn, causes colder deep waters to well up from their abyssal depths to replace the surface layer, ensuring that nobody without a wetsuit of some kind will spend extended periods of time in the water without getting thoroughly chilled.

Now add to that picture my physical stature at that time.  To say that I was thinly built is like saying that Kim Jong Un has a really bad haircut.  I ate very little when I was young, and that fact was demonstrated by my spindly  frame.  Compared to my childhood form, Richard Scarry’s Busytown character Lowly Worm looked like the Incredible Hulk, all of which is to say that I had very little spare tissue to protect me from the usually cold water of Silver Strand.

I would persist, however, and stay in the water, getting the stuffing knocked out of me by waves and generally having a ball.  When I could no longer stand the cold I would emerge, blue and with teeth chattering, and return to our picnic site next to the blazing fire.  Mom threw a blanked around my shivering shoulders while Dad would scoop a trench in sand that had been warmed by the sun.  I would then forsake fire and blanket to lie down in the trench.  Pop would cover me with the warm sand and I would lie there like a corn dog, warming up from without and within.

Fred would usually come in about this time because my retreat from the water to my sand bed would normally signal the beginning of our meal.  Hot dogs were skewered on long steel forks that Dad must have fabricated in the metal shop at the Navy base.  They were then held over the glowing coals of our fire and quickly cooked.  Bell Brand potato chips and ears of corn and cold sodas and beer were brought out to make the feast complete.  Then, my body heated by sand, sun and fire, and my belly filled with all of the goodies mentioned above, and my ears ringing with Mom’s admonitions against going out too soon lest I get the cramps, or fall to rip tides, stingrays, Godzilla, and a hundred other threats and terrors that the deep had to throw against a ten year old boy (Mom was a bit of a pessimist), Fred and I would race down the beach and plunge into the frigid water, eager to do the whole thing over again.

My second remembrance of this trilogy took place somewhere around 1964 or 65 at Highland and Landis Recreation Center in East San Diego.  The Rec Leader, Mrs. Shumway, had decided to stage a week long summer camp for the younger children of our neighborhood.   She devised a plan to use the older teenage kids who made “The Park” their hangout as her assistants.  Those with intimate knowledge of what a gaggle of misfits most of that group was would have declared Mrs. Shumway to be out of her mind to even consider it.  Events proved instead that she was a genius.  But that’s another story.

For one week us teenagers arrived, helping with paper constructions or officiating games and the myriad other duties necessary to keep a hoard of young children busy and happy for several hours each day.  At the end of that week the parents, children, and helpers were to be treated to a feast.  A business run by Pacific Islanders was contracted to come in and cook a pig in a pit.

I had never heard of anything like this before, and I had serious doubts that any such thing could be done.  On the evening before the feast however, a bunch of really big guys showed up and dug a pit right where we would high jump.  The next morning they were there early with a pig; yes, a real, whole, dead pig, wrapped in banana leaves.

I don’t recall all of the details of the process.  Perhaps a fire was made, the pig laid on the coals and then covered with dirt and a second fire lit over it.  Maybe some other means was used to cook the now-interred pig.  I couldn’t tell you.  I was leery of the whole deal though.  I mean, bacon and chops and ham came out of plastic wrappers that Mom bought at the commissary on the Navy base.  I didn’t eat dead things buried in a burning pit where, by all that was right, we should be high-jumping.

The funny thing is that my attraction to fire overrode my antipathy to buried and burning pigs, and as the time approached to remove the pig from the pit I was sucked into the excitement which everyone else was feeling about the event.  In short order the pig was produced and, in spite of everything that my offended sense of propriety told me about this abomination, the meat which the cooks began to slice off and serve looked and smelled irresistibly good.

At last, with the pig looking accusingly at me through sockets from which the eyes had melted out, I accepted a plate of the pork and soon sat with Terry and Dennis and Eugene and Mack and Emilio and a dozen other boys and girls and ate a meal that tourists now pay hundreds of dollars to enjoy when they visit Hawai’i.

My final tale involving fire took place primarily at Green Valley Falls campground in the Laguna Mountains.  I loved camping there as much as I loved anything else when I was growing up in San Diego, and on this occasion Dad took my friend Mike and I for a weekend in the great outdoors.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about camping at Green Valley Falls was the weekend campfires that the rangers would organize for interested campers.  A fire pit was constructed in a safe area and logs were placed in a concentric semicircle, providing seating for the campers.  In the evening, as daylight faded into dusk, the fire was lit and a large, cheerful blaze hissed and popped while the ranger gave a talk on the fauna or flora or geology or other related topics concerning the natural history of that corner of southern California.

During this particular trip Mike and I discovered, to our delight, that the campsite adjacent to our own housed a family which consisted of a father, a mother, a young boy, and Clarice and Marcia.  I never knew the names of the father or the mother or the boy while we were camping.  All of my attention was on Clarice and Marcia.

The girls were roughly our age.  Marcia was the younger and they both seemed to be as interested in the two boys next door as those boys were interested in them.  We spent as much of the days together as we could, and on Saturday evening we managed to sit close to each other during the rangers’ campfire discussion.  I confess that I learned little that evening about the Black-headed Grosbeak, the incense cedar, and rocks such as the Julian Schist.

As we walked back to our camps after the ranger’s presentation, Mr. and Mrs. Madsen – that was their last name – allowed their girls to walk home with Mike and I, with my father trailing at a respectable distance.  We sat on an outcrop of boulders that separated our campsites and talked about anything and everything until the girls’ parents called them into their camp to prepare for the night’s sleep.

Sleep is something that I didn’t do much of that night.  I was very shy as a youth, and although I knew and counted as friends many girls from my neighborhood and from school, I had never before experienced a spontaneous and mutual attraction such as this, and it left my head spinning with possibilities.

But there was one complication; they lived in Norwalk, which is somewhere around one hundred miles north of San Diego.  Still, true love conquers all, so the next day as we were all packing to go to our respective homes, I procured Clarise’s address and promised to write, a promise that I fulfilled with great excitement and hope.

To my chagrin however, Clarice’s family was in the process of moving.  Now, instead of one hundred miles north, they were going to be more than five hundred miles away.  True love might conquer all, but my puppy love was crushed by this development.  I groaned at my bad luck and then turned my mind to resuming my normal activities of hanging out with my friends in the neighborhood, but now without even the semblance of a girlfriend.

As a postscript, I visited with the Madsens a few years later.  My Army basic training took place less than two hundred miles from Petaluma, where they now lived.  When I was able to secure a weekend pass I bought a bus ticket to that town, and upon arrival found their phone number and gave them a call.

I was treated very royally by that family, although Clarice and Marcia had their own lives and friends and were not overly excited about my visit.  I have concluded that my welcome was more likely the result of Mr. Madsen’s experiences during World War II and his understanding of where I would be going and what I would be doing in the very near future.

This concludes my reminiscences of fire in my life as a youth.  More stories abound, heaven knows, and I could write for a year and not exhaust them all.  I hope that you have enjoyed reading them, and I hope that you will take the opportunity to (safely) light a nice fire and create some new memories of your own.  These have come to be among the fondest that I have.

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The Joke’s On You, Part III

I have always had a unique love of practical jokes.  From the time that I learned what a practical joke was I have been drawn to playing them on other people and having them played on me in my turn.  Of course it was important to choose as my victims people who could take a joke, as some people just do not take them well.  I tended to avoid playing tricks on prickly people, even anonymously, since somebody was bound to run off at the mouth and there’d be a fight in no time at all.  I was never really interested in that.

Not all people were like me however.  Some of the guys in my neighborhood would pull off a  joke on just about anybody, and some of those jokes were not at all just in good fun.  Willie Starnes was such a guy.  Willie was bigger than most of the other kids and not at all afraid to cross the lines of propriety when it came to having fun at other people’s expense.

Willie’s jokes ran the gamut from simple fun to intimidation to outright sabotage.  For example, there were two slender trees growing at one end of our neighborhood park.  Willie one day took two lengths of surgical rubber tubing and tied one end of each to holes punched in opposite sides of a metal funnel.  He then tied the two rubber tubes to the trees and had in effect made a huge slingshot.  Willie then took a bag full of water balloons and began to rain them down on kids playing on the playground about 100 yards away.  Getting smacked in the head with a water balloon launched from half a block away was not a fatal event, but it was far from fun.  Willie liked it however, and that is all that mattered.

The boys in our neighborhood also had a little game that we called “Bam”.  In this game one could punch somebody in the shoulder, throw a basketball into their lap or hit them with a white bean shot through a pea shooter and be safe from retaliation if one would only say “Bam” out loud when the hit was delivered.  The effect was usually startling or embarrassing but rarely painful, at least the way that most of us played it, but Willie could be counted on to take it to extremes.  A punch in the chest, a football thrown at the head or groin, or a painful flick on the ear delivered by Willie to the accompaniment of a shouted “Bam” took all of the fun out of the game for the rest of us.

When Willie wasn’t annoying us he was sure to be somewhere stuffing a potato up somebody’s exhaust pipe or letting the air out of somebody else’s auto or bicycle tires or, as he once did, running a kid’s bicycle up the flagpole at the park and tying the ropes up high on the pole so that the little guy couldn’t reach it.  Willie was not the roughest guy in our neighborhood by a long shot, but he certainly had his own rough edge and was far from my favorite person to hang around with.

All of us guys looked for a chance to get back at Willie without taking a thumping on the head as part of the bargain.  Willie had a bicycle but nobody dared to mess with it for fear of being caught.  We would play the “Bam” game with him but always be sure to tap him lightly or telegraph the throwing of any object his way.  It was critical that we extend to him a sense of inclusion since he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon that we knew of, yet not make our actions aggressive enough to be interpreted as a challenge.  Walking that tightrope came to be a big pain in everybody’s necks.

The solution to the problem came to us unexpectedly when the older brother of Frank Cortner, one of the smaller kids in our group, got a summer job working at a movie theater in the suburb of La Mesa, which sprawls just next to San Diego.  This theater ran all of the old cheesy black and white “B” science fiction and horror movies; the ones we all loved and watched at the movie house in our own neighborhood.  Most of the movie companies produced posters to be displayed in the windows outside of the movie houses and wanted those posters back when the movie’s run there was completed.  Sometimes, however, when a poster got torn or soiled or in some other way defaced the company let go of it and printed up new ones to accompany their crappy movies to their next showing.  When this would happen anyone who wanted them could take these posters home, and that is how a poster from a monster movie came to find its way into the garage of Frank Cortner.

I do not at this time remember which movie that poster with a torn corner and a smudge of ketchup across the title came from.  I was certain that it was from “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” starring Michael Landon of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, but my friend Wes is equally certain that the poster was of “It! The Creature From Beyond Space”.  To add to the confusion another of my co-conspirators who still lives in San Diego, Ron Larimer, believes that it was the “Creature From the Black Lagoon”.  I guess it really doesn’t matter.  What is relevant to this tale is that we had at our disposal a nearly life-sized poster of a very frightening creature, and one fine day while we were all lounging in and around Frank’s garage a bright idea occurred to one of us concerning how we could use that poster to gain a small measure of revenge on Willie Starnes.

We carefully cut out the figure of the monster from the poster and glued it to a large piece of cardboard which had remained in the garage since Frank’s parents had bought a new refrigerator the year before.  We then cut away the excess cardboard so that we had a fairly sturdy, nearly life-sized image of a monster; trust me, it was the Teenage Werewolf.  The other guys don’t know what they are talking about.  Next we went to the hardware store a few blocks from my house and bought two eight foot 2 X 4 building studs.  We used a couple of strips of plywood as joiners and nailed the two studs together, and then tested it for height.  It was too big, so we took about four feet off of one end and now it was just right.

Willie Starnes lived in an upstairs apartment with his parents on the corner of Polk and 43rd Street, about five blocks from my house.  Willie always had his window open, wanting to see what was going on outside and liking being seen in return.  There was a streetlight on the corner opposite Willie’s window across the intersection, and a row of palm trees between that light and the window.  Those trees let a lot of light through but softened it so that things would not be seen outside in the sharpest clarity from inside Willie’s room.  We all knew that Willie had to be home on Thursday nights because his father insisted on family time, and Willie hated the thought of not being able to hang out at the park or prowl the streets with the rest of us so he would retire to his room as soon as he possibly could.

Darkness came early on the day that we got our revenge on Willie.  By 5:30 PM there was little more than a glow on the western horizon.  Willie was finishing his dinner and crafting his best effort at a credible excuse as to why he had to retire to his bedroom.  We were waiting in the shadows across the street when we saw Willie’s figure walk past his window, and at that moment we knew that our time had come.  Using a hammer that we had smuggled out of Frank’s father’s garage we pounded a couple of carpet tacks through the image of the monster, fixing it to the end of what had become a twelve foot pole.  We crossed the street, which was not a particularly busy one, and crowded behind a hedge which ran the full length of the apartment building in which the Starnes family lived.  Frank hoisted the pole with the image of whichever movie monster it really was and placed it squarely in the middle of Willie’s bedroom window.

We were probably not there for a very long time, but it seemed to us like we were there forever holding a long wooden pole with a silhouette affixed to it on a well lit corner in a big city.  We were worried that some curious neighbor would call the cops on us before we hit pay dirt, but all of those fears came to an end abruptly when we heard a terrified shriek come out through the open portion of Willie’s window.  Frank bobbed the pole up and down and Willie shrieked again, then we hauled down the pole and took off running, trying to stay out of the light as best we could.  We ducked into an alley, disconnected the cardboard monster, chucked the pole into somebody’s back yard, and trotted back to Frank’s garage where the monster was fixed in a place of honor on one of the walls.

Willie never did mention this event when he came to hang out with us at the park.  Frank or Ron or I would sometimes mention monsters that we had seen on the big screen at the Crest Theater on University Avenue and comment on how scared we would be if one of those creatures ever jumped out at us from the dark, but Willie would never take our bait.  I think that he suspected us, but that may just be the product of a guilty mind.  We never told any of the other kids about our prank, but all of the other kids went to the weekend matinees just like we did, and all of them would talk about this monster or that one, so Willie could never really be sure who had got the best of him.  That just made it that much better.

Frank and Wes and I are still in contact and we still laugh about that prank on rare occasions when we get together.  Nobody knows what happened to Willie however.  We have one clue only.  One day, many years later, Wes ran into Willie at Pacific Beach in San Diego.  Willie was living on the margins of society, probably what we would now call ‘homeless’.  Drugs had obviously wrought havoc on his life already and he seemed to be walking blindly into an alternate universe of delusion, paranoia, separation and eventually violent or drug-induced death.  I have no confidence at all that Willie still lives.  Nevertheless, Willie Starnes occupies the exalted position of recipient of the number one, all time best prank that I was ever a part of, and if for no other reason than that I wish him happiness if he yet lives and peace if he has gone to meet his Maker.

It’s Only Rock and Roll

     I love rock and roll, and while I understand that it is really only rock and roll, nevertheless I like it.  The truth is that I like most music and if possible never miss a chance to hear it live, or as close to live as I can get.  In my twenties, which occurred during the bulk of the seventies, I saw a great many concerts, most of which I remember.  Sort of.  Growing up in the fifties and sixties in San Diego however afforded me and other music lovers a lot fewer opportunities to hear live music but we did the best we could.  This is a tale of my love of music and pursuit of exposing myself to it as much as possible.

     In the 1950s I had two avenues for the above mentioned exposure to music; the AM radio and my father’s record collection.  Dad had big, thick 78s with a variety of classical pieces on them and 45s of mostly Country and Western, singles from movies, and big band stuff.  It’s all I knew then and I loved it.  I can still hear Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind”, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” and all of that Rachmaninoff stuff that came on the thick, black records that were kept in the heavy pressboard boxes.  I mostly listened to what Dad listened to until a guy named Buddy Holly came along.

     The second phase in my life of music appreciation arrived with Buddy and the big Bopper and Bill Haley, et. al., and lasted through the great rivalry between the West Coast Beach Sound and Motown.  Most of the white guys in my neighborhood were solid Beach Sound, but the Latinos and Filipinos and the few black guys preferred Motown.  I came down squarely in both camps.  I loved Smokey and David Ruffin and especially the Four Tops, but I loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and others just as much.  Every night when I wasn’t hanging out with friends at the local recreation center which we just called ‘The Park’ I would be home listening to KCBQ, hearing my favorite two and three minute songs being spun by the legendary disc jockey Happy Hare.

     Then one day I got to see Jan and Dean live.  Concerts were rare in those days, in San Diego at least, and when my friend Ellen Marie and I heard that there was going to be the filming of a television show which would be emceed by Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the TV show ‘Bewitched’, featuring the surf singing duo, and that they needed members for the audience, we signed up as quickly as we could.  Ellen was one of my best friends in the neighborhood and we could often be seen hanging out together.  We both had braces on our teeth and the other kids joked that if we should get together as a couple we would be the “clash of steel”.  We never did have that kind of relationship, but our friendship was more solid and of longer duration than most of the romantic liaisons in my life.

     On the big day Ellen and I walked up to University Avenue and boarded the Number Five bus that took us directly to downtown.  From the old Horton Plaza it was only a walk of a few blocks to the Spreckles Theater where the show would be filmed.  Ellen and I showed out tickets, bought some popcorn and candy for a buck or two, and found our seats in the auditorium.  We were not too far from the stage and could see everything very clearly.  Ellen and I yammered away with each other until Ms. Montgomery mounted the stage and gave us all instructions on when we were to cheer, when to clap, when to laugh, and so on.  Ellen and I sort of paid attention, but we were too excited about seeing Jan and Dean to care very much about the details.  Finally all of the instructions were delivered and the crew began to film.

     The whole thing seemed a little bit odd to us but we played ball as best we could, clapping and cheering and laughing on cue.  Of course, Ellen and I would frequently laugh at the wrong time because the whole thing seemed silly, and to a couple of kids in their mid teens it was truly silly indeed.  But at last we came to the payoff.  During a break for technical reasons Jan and Dean came out on the stage and the cheering then was genuine.  The stars of the show, as far as we were concerned anyway, waved to the crowd and said a few words to the people in the front row.  

    After a few minutes they disappeared again and it was back to business.  The crowd settled down, Ms. Montgomery began her introduction, and Jan and Dean reentered the stage as their cue was given.  The “cheer” sign went up, but we were already providing that prop, and this time in earnest.  Ms. Montgomery said a bunch of words that nobody paid attention to and then Jan and Dean stepped up to sing.  The “cheer” sign was not up, but as the duo broke into “Surf City” a few of the girls screamed and some of us began to sing along with them.  That was not in the script however and the “cut” sign was given.

     “Please don’t make any noise while the boys are singing” admonished Ms. Montgomery.  “The producers want to hear the singers, not the audience.

     We settled down again as best we could and the introduction was made again, complete with canned and less-than-spontaneous cheering this time.  Jan and Dean burst once more into “Surf City” and this time the audience maintained its cool until the end of the song, at which time we anticipated the “cheer” sign and burst into wild applause.  Jan and Dean’s time was precious, and so their closing act of “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” came right after that.  Same format, same admonition when our youthful enthusiasm got the best of us, and same sense of awe as the singers produced, right there in front of us, the songs that we heard at least twice per day on the radio.

     After a few more laughs, cheers, and rounds of applause, all delivered on cue, we were excused and filed out of the Spreckles and onto the sidewalk running along Broadway under the brilliant San Diego sun.  As we walked back to Horton Plaza where we would wait with the sailors, the derelicts sleeping on the grass, and the pigeons which flocked around the domed fountain which was a fixture in downtown San Diego as long as I lived there, Ellen and I dissected every word, every movement, and every glance that had undoubtedly been aimed directly at us.  The Number Five finally arrived and we climbed on board, thumbed our dimes into the box by the driver, and rode that bus back to East San Diego and to the park where we could brag about our adventure to all of our friends, who were jealous as could be but insisted that they really preferred James Brown anyway.  And indeed, some of them did.

     All of the Motown and Beach stuff came to a screeching halt in January of 1964 when the American release of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” exploded onto the charts and the English Invasion was under way.  My Navy father wouldn’t let me grow a “mop top” but a lot of my friends did, and we listened faithfully to the radio as sometimes two or three new groups with a totally new sound emerged each week to make a splash.  The Beatles were nearly everybody’s favorites at first, with the Rolling Stones a very close second.  My one and only girlfriend, Rhonda, was much taken with the Stones and I have to admit that I was more than a little jealous of that, so I had to claim some favorite other than them. I chose the Kinks, partly because I really liked their music and partly because they were even uglier than the stones, at least to judge by the bands’ pictures on their album covers.  I don’t know why that mattered, but it did.  

     My relationship with Rhonda ended amicably – no point in being a sore loser – and I was soon in the market for a new girl friend.  That mission was a lot like Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.  I was terribly shy and after my first relationship ended I couldn’t muster the courage to try again.  This was a pitiable condition because Teresa Beal, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood by my standards, was unattached.  I was on good terms with Teresa and I dropped more than subtle hints of my interest, but never received any indication of interest in return.  The thought of just coming out and expressing my interest made me nauseous, so I dithered and plotted how i would eventually make my move.

     My opportunity came in May of 1965 when it was announced that the Beatles would perform in Balboa Stadium.  The Beatles were an irresistible draw and I was certain that an invitation to go see them would be irrefutable proof of my ardent and undying love, and Teresa would fall into my arms like Snow White into Prince Charming’s, or something like that.  Tickets were $3.50, $4.50 and $5.50, and all I could afford were the $3.50 variety.  Two tickets added up to $7.00, and that was a lot of scratch for a sixteen year old kid living in East San Diego in 1965.  The tickets were procured and rested in my dresser drawer for days and weeks as I struggled to find the right time and right words to ask Teresa to go with me to see the Beatles.

     The upshot of this tale is that I didn’t have the cojones to pull the trigger.  Beatles or no Beatles, you don’t get a date unless you ask.  I tried as best I could but Teresa and I lived in the same neighborhood; if she turned me down I would be faced with that fact every time I saw here and everybody would know.  That wasn’t going to happen and so I asked my brother if he wanted to go instead, which he did.

     Brad is also an interesting musical tale.  My brother spent two years at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and had recently returned from the Army.  In Texas Brad learned to like old school Country and Western.  Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and Marty Robbins were his sort of acts.  A few weeks after returning home Brad walked into our bedroom while I was watching either Shindig or Hullabaloo, which were television shows that featured rock and roll acts playing their music.  It was sort of like early videos, only live.  Anyway, that night the Rolling Stones were singing “Satisfaction” when my brother walked into the room and my old fifteen inch black and white television screen was filled with Mick Jaggers’ lips, teeth and tongue.  “What in the hell is that?” asked Brad in stunned amazement.  “Give it a few months” I replied.  “You’ll be borrowing my records.”  And indeed he was, so when I mentioned the concert Brad leapt to the occasion.

     We found our seats and almost had to pay for oxygen, they were so high up.  I had never been to a real concert before and had no idea what to expect.  The opening acts were all pretty good; Cannibal and the Headhunters was my favorite of that bunch, but soon we got to the main event.  Out they came; four tiny figures on a stage down on the fifty yard line who wasted no time in starting the show.  The audience wasted no time either in breaking out in pandemonium.  Girls were screaming and kicking the sheet metal which surrounded the stadium lights.  Guys raced out onto the field only to be tackled by burly security men.  It turned out that Ronald Angulo, a kid from my neighborhood, was one of the first idiots to pull that stunt.  The Beatles sang twelve songs and that was it.  It actually seemed like less than that, but I am assured that we got twelve.  And then it was over and I went home again to crow at the park, although it was hollow because I had wanted to be there with Teresa.

     My love of music grew over the next decade as music became the medium by which  disillusioned youth expressed their feelings to one another and the world.  Music had become a complicated business and revolution filled the air along with the sounds of Hendrix, Cream, The Starship and a million others.  But I’ll never forget the simple love that I had for the music, just the music, of my youth.  No great causes or movements, no subliminal messages, just innocent music.  Yeah, it was only rock and roll, but I liked it then.  I still do.

 

Shoes

I am not entirely sure why, but I feel led to write a story about shoes.  It really isn’t because I am an avatar for Imelda Marcos; I don’t have two hundred pairs of shoes in my closet.  In fact, I have one pair to work in, one pair to run around in one pair for weddings and funerals, and some sandals.  Shoes have had some interesting impacts on my life however, so I suppose that they deserve their fifteen minutes of fame, or at least a moment in the sun.

And a moment is the most that I can give them, at least as regards my early years, exactly because of the sun.  I was born and raised in San Diego where, unlike my current home in Washington State, the sun tends to come out.  Because of this happy phenomenon my neighborhood friends and I rarely wore shoes.  School, church, and the occasional piano recital or some such event were the only times we allowed the noisome things to imprison our leathery dogs which barked to be free.

This fact, of course, led to a predictable slew of inconvenient and painful events.  Glass was always lurking in vacant lots or city streets looking to see who’s foot might be sliced open, and the dreaded stubbed toe was frequently the payoff for running or bicycling or even inattentive walking.  Buried fires at the beach would get your attention in a hurry and grounded bees and doggie doodoo in the grass at the neighborhood park were always a real crowd pleaser.  Still, the risk was worth the reward.  Cuts could be stitched up, stubs could be babied, burns salved and bandaged and doodoo washed off.  We lived for the feel of our bare feet on the grass and sand and asphalt that made up the surface of our corner of the world.

There were however times when the shoes had to go on, and in order to cover both formal and informal occasions we had leather and athletic shoes to cover our feet.  Buying these shoes was always an adventure.  My mother would take my brother and I to the Buster Brown shoe store whenever old shoes simply could no longer contain our growing feet.  We were not a rich family and purchases of clothing and shoes had to wait until there was no wiggle room left.  I consequently looked part of the time like an overstuffed sausage.  When it was no longer to be endured, away we would go to Sears or Penny’s to buy our clothing and to Buster Brown to get our shoes.

I was always excited to get new shoes because I hate having my feet cramped and confined.  This is why to this day I kick my shoes off when I travel in a car and used to when I traveled in an airplane.  The latter has produced some awkward moments in the aftermath of the ‘shoe bomber’.  I once had a passenger point me out to a flight attendant who asked me the point of shedding my footwear.  I explained my comfort-driven action and pointed out that the Shoe Bomber attempted to light his Converses while they were still on his feet.  This answer satisfied the flight attendant, but I have made it a habit to travel in sandals ever since.

The salesman at Buster Brown was a true professional, and he fussed and fluttered and carried on over my feet to get just the right match.  He would pull out his tape measure and check the circumference of my feet at their midpoint.  Then he would break out something that looked like the deck of an aircraft carrier that I would stand on one foot at a time.  This device had moving parts which would slide up and down and side to side to measure the length and width and every angle of my feet.  The salesman would then disappear behind a curtain and then reappear like the Wizard of Oz with a half-dozen boxes under his arms.  We would try them all on until the right pair in all the store were resting comfortably on my feet.

This was not the end of the process however.  The final test came when I would walk to a machine that resembled one of the old upright scales which, for a penny, would give you your weight and tell your fortune.  This device, however, had a slot at the base into which I would stick my feet, and a screen on the top of it into which I would look while I turned on the X-rays.  Yes, X-rays.  On the screen, which glowed an eerie green, would appear the bones of my feet and the outline of the toes resting within the outline of the shoes.  Of course we could feel how much more comfortable our new shoes were than the old models, but it was so much fun to ram our feet into that machine and expose them to more radiation than was received by Hiroshima!  People simply didn’t know about the dangers of such things in that early part of the nuclear era, which would explain the radium dials on our bedside clocks that enabled us to read the time in the dead of night.  It’s a wonder that everyone my age doesn’t glow in the dark.

One of the times that I had to wear the leather dress shoes was at Sunday School.  My family went to church only in my ninth or tenth year, and the summer of that year was pure misery.  We would have to sit on hard chairs in the unventilated Sunday School room for an hour while our teachers told us Bible stories, illustrated by the ubiquitous flannel figures which seemed magically to cling to a board covered with some sort of fabric, and led us in the usual familiar songs.  I hardly remember a bit of it.  That summer was one in which I was outgrowing my shoes, and nearly all I can remember is the agony of feet stuffed so tightly into my shoes that I couldn’t even wiggle my toes.  I sat in that chair and changed the position of my feet, untied the shoe laces, stared at the clock and tried to hold my breath for a full minute (I never was able to do that), in short I did anything and everything that I could get away with to distract my attention from the unrelenting torture that my feet were undergoing.  Unfortunately, nothing succeeded in granting succor to my aching pups except exiting that building and peeling those shoes off as fast as I could.  We would all walk home together; me with my little grey jacket and pants, my tie, and my shoes with the socks stuffed in them tied together and dangling from my hand.

As I grew older shoes began to take a new place in my life.  The schools of San Diego were like any other in that social and cultural divisions existed.  Before the advent of surfing as a cultural distinguisher the dominant social divisions, in my schools at least, was between the “Soashes” and the “S.A.’s”.  I really don’t know if ‘soash’ has ever been properly spelled; heaven knows I just made this spelling up out of thin air.  The best way to communicate the proper sound is to take the word ‘social’ and leave the ‘al’ off.  The name came from a description of the members of that group as socialites, or preppy, sort of, or into climbing up the social ladder.  These were the kids who were usually better off economically and wanted to play sports and date a cheerleader or even the homecoming queen.  One very obvious identifier of that group was their white tennis shoes, or ‘tennies’ as they were then called.

The opposing group was the S.A.’s.  I have no idea where that name came from either, but it may be something that Spanish speakers started:  “Hey, Ese” some would say to others as a greeting, and ‘Ese’ in Spanish sounds like S.A.  I really don’t know if that was the origin or if it was something else.  What I do know is that S.A.’s were thought by Soashes to be hoodlums, and they they were not wrong by much.  The S.A.’s usually wore khaki pants and white button-down shirts with the tails out and James Dean hair styles, but they always wore hard, pointed black leather shoes which they called ‘knobs.  The reason for that name was because if you got into a fight and had a clean shot you would try to plant that hard, sharp pointed shoe in your opponent’s, well, knobs.

I grew up in an S.A. neighborhood but secretly hated knobs, and although I owned a pair for use when necessity dictated, I preferred to wear a pair of dark canvass tennis shoes if I wore shoes at all.  Keds, I think they were.  I would hang out at the park or my friends’ houses, or even at the houses of my brother’s friends, and be safe because my tennies were dark and I was ‘Freddie’s Little Brother’.  My brother had a very good pair of knobs and was experienced in using them.  It is a valuable thing to have a pugnacious and respected older brother.  When called upon I could produce the required khakies and white shirt and knobs and do my best hard guy imitation to acceptable neighborhood standards, whether I liked it or not.

It could be a very bad thing to be walking in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong style of shoes.  Far better that you be wearing no shoes at all.  Whole neighborhoods were set apart by social division just as schoolyards were.  North of El Cajon Blvd. was solidly Soash, and south of University Ave. was S.A.  It was unhealthy to show up at a park or recreational center inappropriately attired as to footwear.  In fact, I rarely ventured into other nearby neighborhoods on foot; shod or not, since somebody could recognize me from school as an outsider.  It was better to stay on home turf and mingle with others at the beach or in more distant neighborhoods where a sort of truce existed.

A huge break in this constipated social fabric came when the surfing craze hit in about 1960 or 61.  The new group, the ‘Surfers’, were initially drawn mostly from the Soashes, and therefore the battle lines were between S.A.’s and Soash/Surfers.  Before too much time passed however the new class of Surfers grew to such proportions that most other groups were simply overwhelmed by the size of the Surfers as a group.  It became bad judgement to pick a fight with a group which consisted of most of the young people in the entire city.  The S.A.’s and many others found themselves driven to the margins of society and this gave me the chance that I had been waiting for for years; the knobs went into the trash and it was tennies and sometimes normal leather shoes from then on.

One of my final acts as a child also involved shoes in a slightly unusual way.  On my graduation day from high school I lined up with my graduating senior friends to take the final walk and get my diploma.  I was completely uninterested in the whole thing.  I did not go to the Senior Prom because I did not know how to dance and was too shy to ask a girl anyway.  I did not attend any of the social and ceremonial functions common to such an event, and I only attended the graduation exercise because my parents said that I had to.  When the moment arrived, there I stood with cap and gown and some old, beat up shoes.  Nobody looks at your shoes, anyway.

The school officials finally began to call our names and, since there were nearly a thousand of us, it took some while to get through the list.  At last they did however, and we took our diplomas and returned to parents and friends for handshakes, backslaps and so on, and then my friends and I gave our caps to our parents, returned our gowns to the school, peeled off those old shoes and chucked them into the trash, and headed to the beach in the shorts and T-shirts that we wore under our gowns.  School was over.  Childhood was over.  We were headed to whatever our futures would bring, but we would do so after one more summer barefoot in the sun.

I still have no great love of wearing shoes, and do so only as a matter of extreme necessity.  I am always amazed when somebody says that they have more than two or three pairs of shoes.  I suppose that I shouldn’t be however.  To some extent many people still do define themselves by shoes and clothing and other material articles, and I guess that I do so in my own countercultural sort of way.  I can’t really think of a deep or philosophical point to use to sum up this story.  It was just a story about me and shoes, so I’ll leave it there.