Tag Archives: Teenage Days

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.

 

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To Serve and Protect, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cars

     Sociologists and historians have written at length about the impact that widespread access to automobiles has had on American society.  In the time of prosperity following World War II the access to automobiles now enjoyed by millions of average Americans changed completely the patterns of life of men and women in countless ways, too many to record here and it is not the purpose of this author to record them anyway.  I am writing not a history but a story and this story revolves around the influence that the automobile had on one group of American society and that group is teenage children, and within group one child in particular:  Me.

     It is not an overstatement to write that ownership of a car of one’s own was the holy grail of teenage boys in the 1950’s and first half of the 1960s.  Actual ownership of a car by a kid was still something of a novelty then, but the movies in the 50s and the music of the 60s set that ownership as the apex of desire for any American teen.  “Rebel Without A Cause” was a movie which was released in 1955, and James Dean driving a stolen 1949 Mercury towards a cliff in a game of ‘chicken’ made every kid who watched it long for a ride of his own to go with his leather jacket, his comb for that hair held perfectly in place by some brand of pomade, and Old Spice after shave that would make him irresistibly cool. 

     Brad, my brother, is four years older than me and was deeply influenced by “Rebel”.  The first car which Brad owned was a 49 Merc, the car that James Dean was driving in the movie.  Brad was somewhat boisterous in his youth and he and the car fit into the rebel picture very nicely.  Brad’s Merc was not nice and new and shiny like James Dean’s was however.  The car, which was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Taco Wagon’, had a lot of hard miles on it and needed a good deal of maintenance to keep it running.  Brad was up to the task.  I frequently found Brad in the old wooden garage behind our house with parts of that car spread out all over the concrete floor.  I was amazed then that Brad could keep track of all of those parts, knew how they worked and where they went, and could put them there.

     Not only could Brad manage that feat of auto mechanics magic but so could nearly all of Brad’s friends.  It was expected of a teenage boy that he should be able to maintain a car, even if he didn’t personally own one since many didn’t, and the road to any kind of status ran through a greasy pair of hands.  I was twelve years old the summer that Brad had that car, and technically was not yet a teen.  That was small comfort however since my friends Wes and Larry and Hank were my age and already doing tune-ups and oil changes and stuff like that for their brothers or fathers or other older kids in the neighborhood.  I had neither the ability to screw with cars nor interest in learning how to do so, but I could feel the pressure to conform even then.

     That pressure ratcheted up one day when Brad and four or five of his friends had the Taco Wagon torn apart and were planning to grill some hot dogs or something when they were finished.  The price for a dinner of whatever they were going to cook was a pair of greasy hands, and just grabbing ahold of a crankshaft or sticking one’s hands into the oil pan was not what the older guys had in mind.  I stood by the front fender and looked over it into the yawning cavity that was the engine compartment, then looked at the collection of metal parts and wires and hoses which littered the concrete floor, and knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do that would add in any way to the project at hand.  Brad was not all that keen on a little brother getting under foot anyway, so I made a lame excuse and then quit the building, trying not to hear the chuckles and snickers as I left, and climbed into the tall pine tree in our front yard.  That tree was a place where I hid from the unpleasantness of the world on many occasions in my young life, and it was to that refuge I fled on that day.

     A few years passed and the status of the car in teen life changed but became on weaker.  Music was now the medium by which youth culture expressed and defined itself and that culture was filled with cars.  “Little Deuce Coupe”, “I’ve got a thirty Ford wagon and they call it a woody—“,”She’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’till her daddy takes the T Bird away—“.  Even some little old lade from Pasadena had a muscle car of her own, but what could I do?  Not much.  I loved beach sound music but the Beach Boys sang of their car which had a flat head mill and was ported and relieved and stroked and bored and had a competition clutch with four on the floor and even had lake pipes.  Out of all that stuff I knew what ‘four on the floor’ meant, but to this day I don’t know what all of that other crap was.

     But most of the other guys did.  Peter had a Chevy Malibu with a lot of that high performance stuff.  Gabby had a 55 Chevy and Bruce, of all things, had a slightly beat up but still extremely impressive Corvette.  This gave Peter and Gabby a considerable leg up with the ladies at school and in our neighborhood, and also their closer friends who knew what all of those contraptions were and what they did.  Bruce was such a worm and a loser that he could have had a Ferrari and it would have done him no good.

     There was one thing in life that I could count on, and that was that I would never own a car as a teen.  My father would not let me work to earn the money for a car unless I received straight ‘A’s in the academic classes at my high school, and that was going to happen, like, never.  My consolation prize was that I had a fair amount of access to Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor.  That Meteor did not have a competition clutch or any of that other stuff but the little car with the little engine and the automatic transmission gave me mobility, and that was worth gold.  But status, real status, depended upon one’s ability to race, to burn rubber in all four gears, and all of that.  That was not going to happen in Dad’s Meteor.  I did get a microscopic amount of rubber one time however.  I put the shifter into neutral and revved up the engine, and then dropped the shifter into drive.  The little bit of sound which the tires made as they broke traction with the pavement was only slightly more audible than the sound of pain coming out of the transmission.  To this day I wonder why I didn’t leave a trail of broken tranny parts behind us as I rolled down the street, away from the scene of my dubious triumph.

     Many of my friends had no wheels at all, and when I could get the car keys they would all climb in, somewhere away from where Dad could see them, and we would act like we were as cool as the guys with hot cars.  One night we wanted to see a movie at a drive-in theater but most of the guys didn’t have the money to buy a ticket.  I finally arrived at a solution to the problem.  At that time guys with serious muscle cars had the front end lowered while gigantic engines which were stroked and bored and blah blah blah would hiss as they sucked in oxygen that would complete the combustion somewhere in its metal innards and make the car go like a bat out of hell.  I had three or four of the guys climb into the trunk of the car, which lowered the rear end instead of the front, and removed the air cleaner which made the car hiss like Gollum cursing hobbitses as he searched for his precious.  The guy at the ticket booth either didn’t notice or couldn’t believe the idiocy of this obvious bit of subterfuge, but we got into the movie and had a good laugh about the whole thing.

     The teenage love affair with cars had changed by the time I returned home from the Army.  The 60s were bleeding, literally, into the 70s and music was pretty much all about peace, love, revolution and getting high.  Cars were not even on the list of accessories needed to achieve coolness.  In fact, the older and more beat up your car, the more pizzaz it had with the trend-setting counter culture bunch that I identified with.  In those days I drove my old gray 1961 Dodge Lancer with the push button transmission and the evil hiss from a leaking hose somewhere under the hood and felt like I had finally, at long last, come into my own.

     

     

It’s 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.

 

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.

Larry the Human Torch

When I was a young boy I was generally more cautions than most of my friends, but I still loved taking my chances from time to time. For instance, my brother and I once acquired a device called a ‘flexi’. This thing was basically a sled with wheels, which was useful since San Diego was not big on snow. The flexi came with two large springs which connected the front axel to handles that would allow steering but which tended to keep the flexi pointed straight ahead, more or less. The first thing that my brother and I did once we got our hands on a flexi of our own was to remove those springs. The second thing that we did was head straight to the Dwight Street hill.

The Dwight Street hill was short, only half a block long.  t’s virtue therefore did not lie in its length. Instead, the Dwight Street hill was valued for its steepness. Brad (my brother) and I would take turns standing at the bottom of the hill and signaling when no cars were approaching the intersection of Dwight St. and Chamoune Ave. When the hand came down we would shove off and fly down that hill with the speed of Mercury on a mission for the gods.

I do not know what advantage we believed that removing the springs conferred, but on our flights down the hill their absence frequently proved to be quite painful. Sitting on the boards of the flexi and steering with our feet we had to keep perfectly straight, or the turning of the wheels at speed would result in us being pitched off of the flexi to bump and roll and skid the rest of the way down the hill on elbows and knees and faces and rear ends. The amount of skin that was left on that asphalt surface was impressive, when you consider that every kid in the neighborhood wanted his turn on the flexi. I can’t begin to count the bottles of iodine, mercurichrome, and other antiseptic liquids that were splashed over raw body parts which were missing skin because of that stupid flexi.

Another daredevil attraction that we boys could’t pass up was messing around with heights. Anything which got us up off of the ground made us feel untethered, like birds, and able to throw off the shackles of gravity which sought to limit us to a boring, terrestrial existence. There was a big pine tree in our front yard that was probably fifty feet high. From the top one could see for many miles in all directions, even to the Coronado Islands which lie south of San Diego and actually belong to Mexico. We boys would spend hours in that tree, frequently crawling out and balancing on the larger branches as far out as would hold our weight, and then swaying up and down and back and forth in the wind. This practice lasted for several years until I discovered that a huge species of spider which was colored much like the bark of that tree lived there. Heights were exhilarating but spiders are terrifying, so that pretty well ended my tree climbing days.

Probably the most dangerous stunt which any of us ever pulled off however involved becoming a human flame thrower. We enjoyed aiming a stream of hairspray through a flame which created an exciting blowtorch effect, but that was not enough of a thrill for one of the more adventurous of us. Something with a little bit more ‘flare’, if you will, was needed and Larry Stang was the first to find out what that something would be. Larry was an older teen and a smoker who had his own Zippo lighter, and one day while refilling his lighter with the highly flammable lighter fluid Larry had his epiphany. Unknown to everyone else, Larry tried his new trick and it worked. He could hardly wait for the big moment when he would stun and amaze the crowd with his new-found capability.

That big moment came a few weeks after Larry’s epiphany. We were all hanging out at the recreation center which was the nucleus of our neighborhood, talking and joking and pretty much doing what teenagers do everywhere where there is a little spare time in the day. Nobody took any notice when Larry pulled a can of lighter fluid from his back pocket and dug his Zippo out of a pocket in front. Straightening the plastic nipple of the can into the ‘open’ position Larry proceeded to squirt a sizable amount of the fluid into his mouth. We all stopped talking in mid sentence and stood looking at Larry with our jaws hanging agape. Assured of a good and appreciative audience, Larry flicked the striker on his lighter and produced the pilot light through which he blew a blast of the fluid.

The results were instantaneous and electric. The fluid ignited just as it flew through the flame, producing the staggeringly impressive human torch effect that Larry had practiced successfully for weeks. There was one little glitch however. One variable that Larry hadn’t taken into consideration. Bob Dylan once famously sang “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”  Well, apparently Larry Stang DID need the aforementioned weatherman. The flame which spewed forth from his mouth was quickly blown by a malicious breeze right back into his face, lighting his hair and the collar of his shirt, turning the human blowtorch into just the human torch.

“Holy crap!” “Shit!””‘ta madre!”  These and other expressions greeted this new development. One of the older, more quick-thinking boys tore his shirt off and with its help the flames were extinguished in no time.  Larry was moaning as the skin began to blister up on his face and on his  hands which he had used to beat at the flames. The burns were not especially severe, but that meant that they were more quickly painful. A couple of the guys half carried Larry to the recreation center office to get help from the park leader, who took one look at Larry and called for an ambulance.

A couple of days later we went to call on Larry. There were four of us, including Bill Samuels who was one of the biggest, meanest guys in the neighborhood. When we were admitted into Larry’s room we were assaulted by the hospital smell and the vision of Larry’s blistered, bandaged head and hands with some sort of glistening ointment that looked for all the world like serous fluid oozing from Larry’s sores. The sight and smell together had an instant effect on Bill, who passed out cold as a fish and split his head clean open on the metal foot of Larry’s bed.  That earned Bill a night’s stay at the hospital in a room not too far down the hall from Larry.

That pretty much signaled the end of the ‘human blowtorch’ routine in our neighborhood. Many spoke of it, a few tried it with mixed success, but it soon died a natural death. We were forced to limit ourselves to playing chicken on our bicycles and walking across canyons on elevated pipelines which carried water or gas or who knows what in order to get a little adrenalin rush going.  I sometimes wonder how any of us stayed alive.