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pulling a trailer and ski boat. Drifting through the windows from the AM radio was the Beach Boy's angelic harmonies on their new single, Surfer Girl, the B-side of Little Deuce Coupe. That image and musical memory has stuck with me my whole life, and it portrays a time in the sun-kissed summer days of Southern California in 1963, when life was truly idyllic and free. I was 5 years old and my days were long and full of adventure, building forts and playing hide-n-seek, and playing softball in the street. Exploring our neighborhood and each other, my partner-in-crime Mark and I played "dirty doctor" with a girl who lived up the street, undressing and innocently exploring each other's bodies in an empty garage. I doubt this event is all that uncommon, but it foretells a certain hedonism that was to evolve into the decadence of years to come. I learned to ride my brother's old Huffy bicycle, before getting my own "Banana Peeler" Schwinn Stingray a few years later. Mark and I were peas in a pod, butch-cut blond hair and blue eyes and full of the energy and fearlessness that comes from youth and innocence. All the families in our neighborhood knew each other, and there were block parties held in front of our house at the dead end, the white road block with its Caution - Dead End sign festooned with crepe paper and balloons. Hamburgers and hotdogs sizzled on grills and the mothers shooed both flies and kids away from the watermelon and we ran and laughed and shouted. We had a 2 story play house that my dad, Royce, had built by himself in the yard, the envy and frequent meeting place of many of the neighborhood kids. Girls on the bottom floor, boys on the upper floor. This was the scene of many fantasies that we played out; from playing house to holding down the fort while enemy troops approached, one day we would be army men, the next cowboys, the day after Indians. We even had a pony in a small corral in a corner of the large yard. Occasionally dad would set us up on the pony's back and lead us around the yard. Most of our contact with the aptly named Nipper was limited to feeding him bits of hay tossed over the fence as attempting to hand feed him would have likely resulted in lost fingers. Chatsworth, California was tucked away in the far northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley, where the furthest reaches of the ever expanding suburban development of that era met with the farmhouses, horse ranches, orange groves and the sandstone and tumbleweeds of the Santa Susana Mountains. Still to this day, if you asked me where I'd have chosen to grow up, I'd pick this very spot. We were the last house on a dead end street in a large, brand-spanking-new housing tract, built in large part by my hard-working father, making his bid at the California dream. Our home was beautiful and modern for the time, a split-level ranch-style home with 2 fireplaces, 3 bedrooms, a bonus room, attached garage, large patio, and something I was fascinated with but not allowed to touch: a coffee maker built into the kitchen wall.
This coffee maker seemed a beacon of high adventure and Mark and I of course "forgot" our parent's warnings and decided we needed to experiment with it. We were rewarded with scalding water splashing us and making a mess on the floor. My mother, Hope, scolded us gently. Apparently we learned nothing from this, because we soon found many more things to get into. I don't know now which one of us came up with the idea, but somehow we thought it would be really neat to crawl under the house and experiment with some matches and bits of wood and paper. Fortunately my parents saw and smelled the smoke and Dad was able to get the fire out before we burnt the house down. As is so often the case in Southern California, it so happened that there were wildfires burning out of control in the nearby Santa Susana Mountains and Mark and I were treated to several hours of watching news footage of the firefighters bravely battling the blaze. Mark and I seemed to have a distinct knack for memory lapses because before many days had passed we were again playing with matches, this time out in the field adjacent to our houses, a field of brush and tumbleweeds and scattered oak trees. This one we managed to put out ourselves, frantically throwing dirt and stomping on the small flame. I'm not sure if this propensity to ignore rules and common sense were indicative of anything besides being mischievous boys, but I do know that ignoring rules and common sense became something of a theme in my young life. There was a fascinating family that lived next door, the Marvins. Lenny and Ricky were New York Jews who welcomed us into their home. I loved going to the Marvins. Lenny collected and rented antiques to the movie studios, specializing in rare musical instruments. He was a fantastic piano player and would sometimes play for us on a harpsichord or Baby Grand piano. He also had incredible old player pianos which fascinated us to no end as the music scrolled through the strange machinery and the keys moved magically by their selves. My favorites were the Nickelodeons which were kept out in the garage. I could have spent entire days watching and listening to their hodge-podge of instruments playing carnival tunes. The Marvin's had two kids, Keith and Lesley. Keith was Janet's age, small for his age, freckled; Lesley a year younger, with rather limp brown hair usually in 2 crooked barrettes, and rather thick glasses, which perpetually slipped down her nose. Lesley was mentally handicapped but social and good natured. Janet seemed especially fond of her, but Mark and I could be cruel. Behind her back, we would call her "retard" and "spaz" (short for spastic) a demeaning term somewhat popular at the time. One day, Mark and I came up with a rather evil plan: We invited Janet and Lesley to join us for "tea" - serving it from an old cast iron kettle that was part of the playhouse furnishings. I don't remember whether we coerced Janet to go along with the prank, or whether we prevented her from drinking it, but Mark and I had peed into the kettle and poured it with great ceremony into the play teacups. Lesley dutifully drank her share and went home saying she didn't feel good. A short while later, Ricky came over, quite upset and angry; demanding to know if we had "piddled in the teapot". We denied doing any such thing, and I still feel bad about
that particular prank. How Ricky knew I can't be sure, although in hindsight, Lesley may have overheard us talking and laughing about what we'd done. There were the Halls’ who lived next to Mark’s family, and whose 6 kids kept the septic tank overflowing through the uncut grass of the front yard. Their house was a disaster, clothes and laundry everywhere, and all manner of junk lying around. Their youngest, Dougie, was constantly eating the dry dog food, and I admit I tried a bit and it wasn’t bad. One of the older boys, Scott was an overweight kid with a round face and the beginnings of a red beard who played records on the turntable much to our delight: Novelty records such as Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, by Australian musician Rolf Harris, "'Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" by Alan Sherman, Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater”, and “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini by Brian Hyland. I remember being rather enamored of 2 of the girls, Sally and Julie. Sally was Janet’s age, with white blonde hair and a cute smile, but Julie who was probably 11 or so had begun to get a couple bumps on her chest and those fascinated me to no end. On one occasion, I saw her coming out of the shower, wrapping a towel about her and I got a pretty good look at those marvelous bumps. I tried to maneuver myself into strategic positions on other evenings around bath time but had no luck. On another long summer evening, with some expertise provided by Mark's older brother, Scott, who at 10 was a battle-scarred veteran of many adventures, we pried open several .22 caliber bullets pilfered from Mark and Scott's dad and poured a trail of gunpowder up to the now only half full shell and lit them. Sssssssshhhhh - bang! The shells would rocket off in a carefully planned trajectory out into the field. This was high adventure indeed, and it is only my good fortune that it was Mark, and not I, who in a similar experiment, attempted to pry the cap off of a Co2 capsule, somehow causing a spark which exploded shrapnel, 2 of Mark's fingers, and blood and flesh all over his bedroom. This tragedy occurred several years later and I was not present, but it was a harsh lesson for Mark, and I have had a healthy respect for such explosives ever since. A lesson learned. There were many lessons in later days but few had the desired effect of educating me as this one did. To this day, I have a healthy fear of firecrackers, and anything that goes boom. On my 6th birthday I received a bright red, narrow, steel-wheeled skateboard. Not knowing how to stand up and skate, I would lay down on it on my belly, and “swim” across our large, smooth patio. Smooth but for that one tiny pebble, which when I hit it, stopped me flat; my mouth hit the concrete, chipping my tooth. I carried that reminder until well into adulthood, having recently gotten in my primary teeth. On another occasion I was pitching a softball and one of the bigger kids hit a line drive directly into my nose, breaking it for the first time. It took on a crooked appearance, going along nicely with the chipped tooth grin.
In typical kid-fashion, I was oblivious to my parent's struggle to provide this seemingly ideal lifestyle. They of course had their own adventures, trials, and tribulations and had early on decided it was not anything children needed to know about. Any discussions or arguments they might have had were carried on behind closed doors. My younger sister, Janet, a brief 18 months my junior, a period of time I judged to be very significant until we were both much older, were happily living the life of the well-cared for, well-loved children we were. Janet, by all accounts, exhibited more sense than I did, and her streak of rebellion was reserved for a time when we were both older and I was oblivious in quite different ways. By this time, my brother Randy had moved out, being 11 years older; mature and capable of managing his own life. He was and remains an enigmatic, wise, and slightly eccentric person, whose influence in my life, while rather hit and miss, was substantial. A born teacher, he among many other things, taught me to play guitar. It became probably the singularly most permanent and gratifying facet to my life. I took to it pretty quickly and he patiently facilitated a lifelong love with the instrument and with music in general. There came a time when this blissful existence took an abrupt and surprising turn. Nearly overnight, we were suddenly living in a much smaller house, in an older neighborhood, just a few miles from where my earliest memories began. Of course I was told little about the reasons for this, and understood less. When I was 7, my parents were forced to declare bankruptcy. Due to the over-building of the San Fernando Valley, the real estate market slowed drastically and only the largest developers could afford to sit on their investments until buyers showed up. My dad's small general contracting company could not stay afloat. There began to be cracks in the foundation of our perfect lives. Still I was largely oblivious, and while this was somewhat unsettling, my sister and I adapted quickly, and met new friends and our daily lives resumed. There was still much of the freedom, but being further down into the Valley's sprawling suburbia, there was more traffic, more people, and more rules for me to test. My father took a construction job in Viet Nam, as part of a plan to recoup my folk's losses and get a nest egg built, and therefore was gone several months. This was very difficult for my mother, but I knew nothing of that. Another abrupt shift: Dad came back from Viet Nam, bringing with him some Vietnamese currency for us to look at and a few gifts. I remember a beautiful doll about a foot tall, in full geisha regalia, and a dragon-carved cane or walking stick that is still in the family. My father took a rather prestigious job with Gulf Oil Company, necessitating a move to San Rafael, CA, adjacent to San Francisco. Again we found ourselves in a modest tract home, in an older neighborhood, whose main feature seemed to be a "slough" at the end of the street. A poorly fenced mud bog of some sort who’s cracked and partially dried surface disguised the almostquicksand-like mud beneath. This was a tempting challenge for an adventurous kid. Warned repeatedly to stay away from the slough, the gauntlet had been thrown down. I was several steps out onto the surface with my little sister worriedly
shouting from solid ground to come back, when suddenly I sank up to my knees in this gluey muck. The rumors we'd heard of little kids sinking and never resurfacing, and the very real animal bones we could see protruding from the muck now seemed very ominous. I was sure my young life was over. Somehow I managed to scramble out and crawl back to safety, losing both shoes in the process, and of course covering myself with the foul muck. To be perfectly honest, I don't recall my parent's reaction, but while they were no doubt concerned and angry, I probably was sentenced to a brief stay in my room or a similar punishment. Frequently an older kid named Greg, a friend of the family, and I would ride our bikes around our neighborhood. The paved streets featured very rounded curbs that provided excellent places to jump our bikes while racing down the hilly carlined streets. Pedaling fast, downhill, I turned my bike between two parked cars and expecting to do a spectacular, Evel Knievel type jump onto the sidewalk, I found probably the only 90 degree curb within miles. It was like hitting a brick wall. I flew over the handlebars, somersaulted once, and landed face-first into a rock garden. Dozens of manicured lawns lined both side of the streets and this guy has a rock garden. Broke my nose and split it open, the gash continuing beneath my left eye. Somehow Greg got me home and Mom took me to get stitched up. Face bandaged, both eyes blackened, I was very proud of the 28 stitches I had in my face. Not long after the bandages came off, Greg threw a football to me, and an awkward catch resulted in dislocating my thumb, giving me a cast I was equally proud of, and the neighborhood kids all signed. Up until this point, school had been a relatively fun experience. My stay-athome mom, a former English major, had began teaching me to read and gave me a lifelong love of books. This served me well early on in school, and my grades, while not outstanding, were good. After our 2nd move, however, my grades and motivation began to slip. Teachers began to complain that I was talking, doodling, reading, or daydreaming in class. Only one significant memory from this school: For show-and-tell, I brought my guitar to class and played and sang the then-popular L'il Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. This novelty song was a bit scandalous for a seven-year-old to sing, with its suggestive lyrics and wolf howls. I think I might have actually been less naive than my parents about the "hidden" meaning in this song. The teachers however were not amused and called my parents in to admonish them. In the manner of how days seem endless to a child, I have many memories of this time spent in San Rafael, and it seemed we lived there a long time. It was actually only about 6 months. Dad got transferred to Phoenix, AZ and so once again, we moved. In recalling Phoenix now, there are a few stand-out recollections. From my parent's perspective, these were very difficult times. My mom in particular found all this disruption unsettling and was fighting her own inner demons. My dad, a WWII
vet and a tough and competitive man was fighting to stay afloat in a corporate environment he'd had little experience in. He had been promoted to some type of regional manager and put in very long hours and made frequent trips out of town. Mom was left at home to deal with her 2 charges. Janet was finally getting old enough to tag along with me more often, which at that time I think I tolerated and even welcomed as I was having a harder time making friends here. We lived in another rented smallish ranch style home a block off the highway not far from Phoenix, and there weren't many kids our ages real close by. We were now bussed to school, having always been driven, or walked in California. This was a new and not entirely enjoyable experience. There was a hierarchy in who-sat-where, and as "the new kids" we were relegated to the back of the bus. We met a kid named H.J. McCassland, (cool name, I thought) who was a skinny, bespectacled, rather quiet kid, but who was friendly enough and seemed a bit exotic with his initials for a name and status as a native Phoenician and veteran of our new school system. Larkspur Elementary was grades 1-8, which put us in contact with much older kids than in our other schools which only went up to 6th grade. They were an intimidating bunch, looming over us younger kids and demanding right of way through the halls and playground. Our teachers seemed different and tougher too: My phys ed. teacher handed out swats on cold mornings to "warm us up". I also managed to enrage Mrs. Kropf who had a large paddle with holes drilled in it and she administered some pretty good whacks to my backside. I don't recall what I had done, probably “talked back” to her, and the swats didn't have any lasting effect, because I received quite a few more during my years in public schools. My dad surprised us one day by ordering us into his pickup and driving us out into the vast empty desert, small houses and trailers the only dwellings sometimes for miles. We eventually arrived at a small run-down farmhouse and in a nearby corral stood a rather shaggy black pony. A mix of Shetland and Welsh, he was slightly larger than a Shetland and seemed intimidating and huge as we got closer. Pancho had never been ridden, and I had never ridden a pony, except for Nipper. To my father, this seemed like the perfect learning opportunity, who with much fighting and cussing managed to get a saddle on him, and perched me on Pancho's back. Pancho bucked a bit and tried to pull away, but simply was overpowered by my father. I only fell once, and was told if I didn't get back on, I never would, so back on I climbed. In subsequent trips, my dad would lead Pancho and I out into the desert, then instructing me to ride a little further, circle back and ride back to the corral. This was definitely a learning experience, Pancho and I learning to trust one another, and me having to occasionally show the upper hand by wrenching his head around when we had different ideas about what direction to go. I was a pretty good rider within a short time, and then Pancho and I were allowed to ride off by ourselves for an hour or so. Sometimes my dad would accompany me on a horse, and a few times we were joined by a man my dad knew named Jody who was a little person and loved to ride his pony, Dolly. My sister, Janet, still too young for her own horse would ride up in front of my dad, clutching the saddle horn. A day came when
we would join several other horses and their riders on a 20 mile ride into the desert. 10 miles out and 10 miles back. We were to meet up with others who would drive their vehicles ahead and prepare breakfast, and then we'd ride back. Pancho was a different pony when around other horses. He had to be out in front. He pranced and tossed his head and tugged at his bit, not happy until he was leading the herd. He was the fastest-walking pony I've ever seen, and could easily outdistance full-sized horses. I was feeling pretty confident and relaxed at this point, reins limp against Pancho’s neck, until a tumbleweed blew in front of us and Pancho bolted off so fast that he ran right out from under me. All but my left foot and sneaker which hung in the stirrup and I was dragged 50 feet or so until I managed to free myself. I had a badly sprained wrist, but aside from that and a few bumps and bruises I was ok. I was tempted to ride in one of the vehicles on the way back, and let my dad lead Pancho, but with one meaningful glare from Dad, I knew what I had to do. Back on I climbed and one-handed, rode Pancho home. Two more lessons well learned: you fall off; you get right back on, no matter what. And now I understood why cowboy boots have big heels. Dad, to his credit, promptly bought me my first pair. A day or two before Halloween that year, mom allowed Janet and I to help carve the pumpkins. After cutting off the top and cleaning out the seeds and mush, my hands covered with the stuff, I took my first artistic stab at carving a jack-olantern. I promptly sliced the little finger on my right hand down to the bone. Blood spurting, my mother looking faint, we wrapped it up and off to the E.R. again. The doctor stitched and bandaged it up, saying I was lucky I didn't cut any tendons. This proved to be incorrect because the last segment of that finger has never moved under its own power again. Fortunately, this actually improved my guitar playing, giving me a very stable bridge to help position my right hand for finger-picking. This was to be put into practice just a short 2 months later, when I received an incredible Christmas gift. A friend of the family's had bought a beautiful guitar, with the intention of learning to play. A Gibson ES-350 T. It was a electric hollow-body, intended mainly for jazz players, though Chuck Berry and many others played similar instruments in rock n' roll. This man, probably my father's closest friend, sold it to my brother for $120, much less than it was worth at the time. It would be worth 5K now. Anyway, my brother, needing some cash, sold it to my father, who gave it to me. I was stunned. It played like a dream. I loved that guitar. The ease in which it could be played helped develop my skills greatly, I believe. There were some other gifts under the tree that year. Among these were 2 identical small white boxes, each with a red ribbon tied around it. These 2 boxes were the first to show up under the tree, and I was obsessed with knowing what was inside. Convincing Jan we could unwrap and rewrap the boxes without anyone catching us, we opened them, hiding in a bedroom. Inside each was a western belt, complete with a big cowboy "rodeo buckle". We were pretty pleased with these, and carefully wrapped them up and placed them back under the tree. Christmas morning finally arrived, and Santa had been quite generous. At some point my mom suggested we each open the small white boxes. Jan and I snuck each other guilty looks and pasting smiles on our
faces, opened them, ready to exclaim "Wow, look! Cowboy belts!" We lifted the lids. Inside each was a plain, brown potato. We couldn't hide the looks of shock and disappointment. My parents tried to keep straight faces, but were shaking with suppressed laughter. We were busted. I'm not sure that lesson had the desired affect either, but that is not my parent's fault. I just had a natural talent for trouble. Meanwhile, my parents were having trouble of their own. My mother was really struggling. None of the causes or reasons for her eventual breakdown and hospitalization was confided to me nor should it have been at that age. All we knew is that during that summer, we were going to spend a few weeks with our Aunt Bette and Uncle Don. This was unprecedented, but after all, they were our aunt and uncle and we would see our 4 cousins, Donnie, Dennie, DeeDee, and the only boy, Butch. So we were put on a plane and under the watchful eye of the stewardesses flew to Salt Lake City, UT. Our stay in Salt Lake was interesting. Butch was youngest and therefore was most often chosen to be our de facto guardian. The girls, ranging in ages of 13 - 16 were out and about and we did not see much of them. Janet and I, at 6 and 8, were largely an annoyance to Butch who was 11. Butch was at times funny and sardonic, and I was impressed with his mini bike, BB gun, and seemingly vast wisdom and experience. He cut a rather imposing figure; tall and dark, with a charming lop-sided smirk. Butch, (a nickname, he was named after his grandfather, Norman) also had a cruel streak, which I surmise may have come from a rather domineering but legally deaf and blind mother, and having 3 older sisters. Uncle Don was gone all day at the family hat store and when home was a rather silent and taciturn man who occasionally displayed the sardonic humor Butch inherited. Butch made games of chasing and scaring us, and while he was cruel to both of us, it was especially frightening to Janet. We were shot at with the BB gun, from a distance, so it didn't hurt much, but still stung. He'd count to 3 and start shooting. He held me down and stuck straws up my nose. I was a little more used to the sort of abuse boys heap on each other, and I didn't think I carried a lasting resentment towards him but as I write this my guts are churning and the hair is standing up on the back of my neck. Jan had it worse. Younger, the lone girl with 2 boys, Butch burned both of us with the metal casing on his Zippo lighter repeatedly, (he smoked when he could get away with it) and his constant teasing and grabbing and bullying terrified her. I felt afraid to confront him. At one point he forced us to lie on an old folding bed, which he promptly folded us up in, rolled us into a closet and shut the door. I don't know how long we were in there, but it seemed like hours. Finally he released us, laughing like crazy. Why we didn't go to our aunt or uncle, I'm not sure. They were a bit intimidating also, both with hearing aids, my aunt staring blankly in our general direction, unable to see more than vague shapes. Jan and I were both very happy when we learned we were going back home. Home turned out to be a jumble of suitcases and moving boxes. We were promptly bundled into the car and with Mom in the driver's seat, set out across the vast Mohave Desert, just the three of us. This too was unprecedented, but any
questions we might have had were explained away as nothing to worry about. Somewhere in a tiny town by the name of Blythe we stopped. Mom was exhausted and needed to rest. Jan and I didn't understand why we were stopping, but we checked into a roadside motel consisting of one bed, a nightstand, dresser, TV and a bathroom. We were there several hours until another family friend by the name of Earl Wright - known affectionately by all as Pappy - rescued us and got us back to Chatsworth. Chatsworth was coming home. We were enrolled back in Chatsworth Elementary School and reconnected with our old friends and made many new ones in our new location on Canoga Ave. Mark and I still hung out occasionally but the apartment complex across the street provided an abundance of new friends. Once again we were in the unique position of being able to look south and see the sprawling, endless grid of houses and streets of the San Fernando Valley suburbs in one direction and the almost completely undeveloped Santa Susana Mountains to the north. Our street was paved only about 200 feet beyond our house, and dirt roads led directly into the mountains. Figuring prominently in the foreground was Stony Point, a massive jumble of sandstone boulders, site of many adventures and fantasies. There were dozens of crannies, caves and boulders and peaks to climb, centuries-old petro glyphs, and an endless supply of adventure. From its peak Stony Point overlooks the entire Valley; where on one of annual 300+ sunny days bestowed upon this area you could view the coastal mountains to the south, and see the lights of LA to the southeast. My folks had rented an old farmhouse, which sat on about an acre of the sandy soil particular to that part of southern California. There was a huge pepper tree, perfect for climbing and hiding in with its long bushy branches and dangling leaves and small red berries. A fruitless mulberry, smooth and symmetrical, also provided excellent climbing. There were several corrals, an arena, a 2 stall barn with attached hay stable and tack room, and an old shed that stood by itself in the furthest corner from the house. The front yard featured oak trees and a circular dirt driveway that became an awesome circle track for the bicycles, go-carts, and minibikes that we and other neighborhood kids would later be found riding. Behind the property was Bell Creek, a large wash or creek that began in the mountains as a small arroyo and widened and became a concrete storm drain with interconnecting tunnels running beneath the streets of Chatsworth. Dry most of the year; during the rainy season it would become a raging brown river. For an 8 ½ year old, all of this was a near paradise. The Valley, as we had always called it, as though it was the only valley anywhere, was a conglomeration of all sorts of people. Though in those days The Valley was predominantly white, there were pockets of Mexican families, and a very few black families. In elementary school, the only black person I remember seeing was Los Angeles Laker Elgin Baylor, who came to visit our school and talk about the importance of sports. In junior high I got to know a few other blacks and there were
several Chinese, Japanese and Korean students. Many Valley residents worked for the movie studio industry and its counterparts. Rocketdyne, a rocket engine design company employed a great many also. One thing that many people don’t realize about California is that everyone is from somewhere else. As a native Californian, my sister and brother and I may have actually been in a minority. My father was born in Texas, my mother Illinois, both migrating west as fairly young children when their parents went in search of the California dream. Mom’s dad, James died of tuberculosis when mom was 17, and her mother Ruth remarried a few years later. Ruth, known by us as Gram was an alcoholic, given to long binges interspersed with various periods of sobriety and temperance. She was, when sober, a very sweet, shy woman with a charming sense of humor. When drinking, which was the case during much of my childhood and teen years, she was reclusive and bitter. She would figure heavily in my life in later years. My dad’s parents, Alvin and Era, known to us as Papa and Mamaw were Texans through and through. Mamaw cooked fantastic suppers (we and practically everyone else we knew back then called this lunch) of fried chicken, okra, blackeyed peas, cornbread and sweet tea. There were always mouth-watering pies and cakes to be had, and in absence of those, root beer and ice cream floats. Toast with honey and cereal in the morning along with “coffee” (mostly milk with a splash of coffee for color) were a special treat for us kids on the occasion we would spend the night with them. This happened, while not frequently, occasionally and here was another AdventureLand. Papa was the hardest working man I ever knew. Born in 1896, he was well into his 60’s when Jan and I would come to visit. He had built extensively on the narrow lot that began at street level with a small 2 bedroom house, built in the 1930’s, and continued down a hillside that he had hand-dug into steppes or plateaus with a meandering stairway, hand-built of stone into the side of the hills. This led to a series of concrete, rock, or brick walkways at the ends which could be found hidden grottos with a stone bench to sit on and reflect. Down another, a sundial, it’s numbers carved into the cement. On closer inspection, a curious child would find marbles, pennies, small ceramic figurines embedded in the cement along low walled planters, hiding beneath ferns. There was one fishpond, built entirely of rock and cement that was raised above the ground like a huge bathtub on massive stone legs. My grandfather had embedded a thick piece of glass into the side of this tub so you could watch the koi underwater. They were quite large, maybe 18 – 20” long, their bright patterns of orange and white undulating behind the glass. Papa would feed them oatmeal, and we could pet the fish as they swam to the surface, quite tame and unafraid of us. There was a large, mean, rather shabby looking cat named Jinx, who would stalk back and forth, tail twitching, staring at the fish. An old and ugly English Bulldog named Mack laid lazily beside us as we also watched the fish.
Down “under the hill” as the lowest section of the property was referred to, were vegetable gardens, and then finally pigeon lofts. Papa raised and flew racing or homing pigeons and there were several individual lofts with dozens of birds each. Cleverly built “traps” allowed the birds to push inside after a long flight, the bands on their legs removed and put into a timer which clocked the time of their arrival back home. To train them, Papa would often drive 75 or 100 miles up highway 99, the birds in homemade carriers built onto the back of his pickup. He would then release them and drive back home to wait for their return. I made several of these trips with Papa, he silently driving, me fidgeting beside him, waiting for the magical moment when the birds would be released, 20 or more bursting out of the cages, circling, before lining out and heading towards home. Beyond the lofts was the immense dry riverbed where Papa quarried all the stone and sand he used to build this magnificent wonderland. Beyond that, a ¼ mile drag strip, where hot rods and dragsters could be heard on Saturdays roaring down the strip. On a long chain near the pigeon lofts was an extremely large and ferocious German Shepherd named Rusty. Papa was the only person who could get near him. We were warned repeatedly to stay away from him, that Papa had gotten him from the dog pound where Rusty, too mean to live, was to be put down. Papa somehow brought him home and made him the pigeons watch dog. A person, dog, or cat would have been instantly attacked if they strayed to close. This was one temptation I never succumbed to, that dog was terrifying. Papa hated cats, because of them stalking and killing his pigeons, except for Jinx, and he set animal traps along the fences. (How Jinx avoided those traps, I don’t know) My grandfather illustrated their danger by poking one with a thick stick which the trap promptly snapped in half with a startling snap of its steel jaws. This was another temptation I’d like to say I avoided, but in later years I would mimic Papa’s stick breaking trick, which got me into some trouble as I was afraid to try to reset the trap, and Papa seemed to know it was me who had sprung it. Mamaw was always threatening to make us “go cut her a switch”, which meant we would have to go out in the yard and find an appropriate stick for her to beat us with. I don’t recall her ever following through with this threat however. She would set us up in her lap in the rocking chair and read us John 3:16 from the bible, one of our few experiences with any type of religion. “For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten son; that whosoever shall believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life”. This seemed like a fair enough deal to me and I suppose I accepted the notion outright. Then Mamaw would set on the couch, plucking whiskers out of her chin, using a hand mirror and tweezers while simultaneously yelling at the Roller Derby girls on TV, or cheering on her favorite professional wrestler.
Meanwhile, back on Canoga Ave, my father, forced to go back into construction work as a plumber, renewed his interest in horses, and in short order we had several. Dad bought and sold horses and ponies, rented out corrals and stalls for boarding horses, and even got into raising cattle up the street in a pasture he leased. We had chickens too. My sister even had a pet chicken named Peepers she had raised from a chick. All of this made for many interesting adventures and learning experiences. Pancho the pony had made the move from Phoenix with us, and Janet was given a pretty little palomino pony she named Sugarplum. Having a lot of animals and essentially living on a ranch at the edge of the suburbs provided the best of both worlds. We could ride horses up into the mountains, spending entire days exploring the wilderness, visiting the old movie sets that littered the mountains in those days. Some were still used, and I recall watching episodes of Bonanza being filmed. The director and crew tolerated us, allowing us to tie our ponies nearby, perching on a rock and watch the proceedings. To the south, the Valley provided malls and arcades and skating rinks and bowling alleys, all the amenities of modern life in the mid 60’s. An hour’s drive would have us at the coast, and over the years we spent many days on the beach and in the surf. And in the 500-unit apartment complex across the street, a conglomeration of colorful characters and many kids of all ages. Our young lives were sometimes interrupted by rather dark and tragic events, some due to the nature of life and death on an animal farm, some due to the nature of life and death on suburban streets. Horses would sicken and die or be injured, cattle would sicken and die or be attacked by feral dogs, horses would fight and breed and have stillborn babies and there was always something happening. One morning before school, Janet and I were preparing to turn left out of our driveway and walk the mile or so to school, when we noticed a commotion down the street in front of the apartment buildings. There were several police cars, and since we knew a great many people in the complex, we went over to check it out. Lying on the grass was a man we’d never seen, a dark hole in the center of his forehead. Coagulated blood pooled beneath his head in the grass. In hindsight, I wonder why the police didn’t run us off, but we stood there, transfixed, as the coroner felt around in the blood. Janet looked away, and tugged at my arm to go, but I was fascinated. Not wanting to be late to school, I reluctantly allowed her to pull me away. We later learned that he had been a security guard who was dropping the night’s earnings from the Heads and Tails Gentleman’s Club, a nearby strip joint, to the establishment’s manager. It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt - sickened, probably, and awed. But I also felt proud. I considered this to be a badge of toughness, increasing my cool factor considerably. And indeed, my friends seemed mightily impressed when I told them about it as soon as I got to school. On the ranch, I remember Janet and I were thrilled as we spotted a mother hen and her new brood of chicks pecking at the manure in one of the corrals. One of my dad’s horses stood switching its tail at the ever-present flies. Stamping it’s hoof
in annoyance, we saw the danger immediately. The chicks were straying too close to the horse. Before we could do more than look shocked, that same hoof came down on one of the fuzzy little yellow chicks, and when, finally, Janet and I yelling and waving our arms, the startled horse lifted its foot back up, the chick was nearly undistinguishable from the dirt and manure it had now become part of. One of the perks of being a 6th grader was that you were now allowed to ride your bike to school. Man we lived on those bikes. There was so much freedom then, we would literally be gone all day on our bikes, and as long as we were in by curfew, no questions were asked. About that time, a kid named Bobby Hoebel and I struck up a friendship. I remembered him from Chatsworth Elementary before our moves, mainly because of an incident I witnessed in front of the school. Mothers in cars were lined up to drop kids off one morning, and Bobby jumped out of the back seat of his mom’s station wagon. As soon as she heard the door close, she took off. Unfortunately, Bobby had dropped a book or something, and somehow his arm was run over by the car, breaking it. He was back at school in a day or two, sporting a cast and looking as proud as I had with mine. After we returned from San Rafael and Phoenix, Bobby and I became fast friends. He was small and wiry, dark skinned and perpetually in need of a wash. He was quick to laugh and always had a smile on his face. One day at his house, we met his considerably older brother, who made Bobby show him where his prescription for Ritalin was kept. Bobby gave it to him, and he pocketed a few and left. A seed was planted. His brother had told us he was going to get high with his girlfriend, and we thought this sounded pretty cool. We decided to wait until school the next day to decide when and how many to take. We ended up taking 2 each, at school, and the main thing I remember about that is that we laughed a lot, felt a bit dizzy and were sent to the principal’s office. The principal had no idea what to do with us. He assumed we were just being goofy, as 11 year olds taking drugs at that time was simply unheard of. Never even entered his mind. We were gently reprimanded and sent into the nurses office to lay down. On another day, Bobby and I decided to ride our Schwinn’s up Old Santa Susana Pass Rd. This was an exciting prospect because it was a narrow old 2 lane highway, which led over the mountains to Simi, and we’d never ridden so far before. We took back roads and crossed over Topanga Cyn using a dirt trail which led to Santa Susana Pass. After about a mile of steady pedaling, we came upon a group of rundown buildings, that appeared to have been intended as a movie set in better years. They were the false fronted buildings common to Western movie sets: A Sheriff’s Office, Saloon, Bank... Off to one side there were a few old cars, a couple run down Airstream trailers, a Harley Davidson parked near one of them. In a pile of debris, (clothes, broken furniture, broken kids toys) was a guitar. There were no strings on it, and it was probably of no value whatsoever, but I wanted it. Clearly these people, whoever they were, didn’t want it. I went and knocked on the door of the nearest trailer. The door swung open and a small, wiry, dark-eyed man with wild hair and beard and a rather ferocious look, said “Whaddya want, kid”? I stammered
something about wanting the guitar, but he just said “Get out of here”. We got. Any adult would have had the same effect, but this dude looked scary. We pedaled double-time until we were well away. I told my mom about it that night, and she insisted we promise to stay away from there. No argument there. About 2 weeks later, I saw the man again, this time during the news on TV. “Look mom, It’s that man I told you chased me and Bobby out of Spahn’s Ranch” My mother nearly fainted. “THAT IS CHARLES MANSON!” she wailed. “Who is Charles Manson?” I replied, mystified. “OH MY GOD, YOU COULD HAVE BEEN MURDERED!” Given the effect the Tate/La Bianca murders had on Southern California’s collective conscious, I can now easily understand my mother’s terror, but at the time, these details just made the story more exciting to tell. School had ceased to have much interest for me. In earlier years as I was motivated to please my teachers and was an excellent reader, surpassing many of my classmates and given 6th grade reading assignments in the 1st grade. This is due to my English-major mother teaching us the joys of reading before even kindergarten. We would read Dr. Seuss and other children’s books together, and before long I had developed what would become a life-long love of books. Mrs. Overlin encouraged me to take on more and more difficult books, and sung my praises to other teachers and to my parents. But something had happened to make me lose that motivation. Perhaps it was the 3 moves in rapid succession, or a few lousy teachers, or a combination of both, but I was rather bored with it all and stubborn and rebellious when confronted about it. I managed to pass my classes in the 6th grade and was soon to enter into the new world of Junior High School. In the summer between 6th and 7th grades, I was still very much the adventurous good-natured kid, same butch haircut, same crooked nose and chipped-tooth smile. People seemed to like me, and I liked people. But I was now soon to be 12 years old, and that awful physiological event know as puberty was setting in. Maybe some of the free love philosophy and loose sexual mores of the young adults of the Summer of ‘69 was somehow transmitted to me and my friends, or maybe the things we did were common to kids of any era, I don’t know. I only know that I began experimenting with girls at about the age of 10 and it was pretty quickly an obsession. The innocent kisses and hand-holding evolved into heavy petting and a lot of voyeurism on my part. Any chance I got to manipulate or maneuver myself into seeing a girl’s body or better yet, touching it, I went for it. Also during this summer, I made friends with a few older boys in my neighborhood. One of them, Paul Lawrence, and I were exploring the wash behind our house, eventually ending up in the tunnels that went beneath Devonshire St. In the cool shade of the tunnel, Paul brought out cigarettes and we lit up. This was not my first experience with smoking; I had actually had my first cigarette in Phoenix with an older kid there. Nonetheless it was a heady experience, and I tried to look nonchalant as I inhaled and tried not to cough. Paul informed me, “I’ve got
something else to smoke here”. I said, “What are you talking about?” “Check this out”, he replied. From out of his pocket he pulls a plastic sandwich bag with some greenish-brown leafy substance in it. “What’s that”? “It’s weed.” “It’s what?” I asked, having never heard of a weed you’d want to smoke. “It’s marijuana, dummy”. “Oh, yeah”. I had vaguely heard of marijuana, the older kids talking about it like it was the best thing since chocolate milk in a bottle. “So you want to smoke some?” says Paul, and I nodded eagerly. He painstakingly took out rolling papers and fashioned a lumpy cigarette. “Here’s what you do”, instructed Paul. Take a big drag, and then hold it as long as you can”. Demonstrating, he took an impressive hit and handed it to me. I too, took a long drag, immediately spewing out the smoke and coughing violently. “Jesus, Paul!” I exclaimed when I could talk again. This was my first taste of marijuana, and while the experience was quite painful, though otherwise uneventful, my immediate thought was “Cool! Let’s do it again”! Paul took another hit and passed it back. This time I managed to hold it, and I felt a bit dizzy as I held my breath. “What’s going to happen” ? I asked Paul. “We’re gonna get high” he answered. “Cool”! Though I had not the slightest idea what “high” was supposed to feel like. We finished the joint (as I learned it was called) and I waited to feel high. Aside from a sore throat and a mild headache I felt nothing. But I was sure this was the coolest thing I’d ever done. I felt vastly superior to my other friends and couldn’t wait to tell them. Sure enough, they were visibly impressed. As it turned out, school was in session again before I had another chance to “get high”. The early musical memories of The Beach Boys and The Beatles had evolved into Psychedelic Rock. I remember insisting my mother allow me to buy the Woodstock album, as I had heard fantastic things about this enormous crowd of young people, all getting stoned and rocking out. It stoked the fires of my imagination, my one experience with getting high being memorable in spite of its relatively minimal effect on me while doing it. Another older friend, Jeff Fritch, had the soundtrack to the musical “Hair” on vinyl and we played it over and over, particularly the song “Sodomy” with its graphic lyrics: Sodomy, Fellatio, Cunnilingus, Pederasty... Father, why do these words sound so nasty? Masturbation, Can be fun, Join the holy orgy, Kama Sutra, Everyone! Jeff inexpertly explained the meaning of some of these words and I was left to imagine the meaning of the rest. My mother would have been mortified at these lyrics, and my father would have had to pretend to be mortified. I was mightily impressed by my friends Jeff Fritch, Paul Lawrence, and Brian Kloss. They were all older by a couple years, had been growing their hair out, talked about girls and sex with authority, smoked cigarettes and occasionally, pot. Jeff and I were particularly close. He had a Nehru jacket and a large collection of LP’s and
turned me on to stuff by Cream, Traffic, Jimi Hendrix, and more obscure stuff like Moby Grape and Procul Harum. When I started 7th grade that September, now 12 years old, I found them and several others standing in a circle in a field next to the school. They were smoking cigarettes and passing a joint around. I came up and stood in the circle next to Jeff, who nodded to me, which seemed to qualify me to remain standing there. Jeff took a hit off the joint, and handed it to me. I took a deep drag and held it, not allowing myself to cough, and I could have sworn I saw a new measure of respect in the older kid’s eyes. In any event, I was now part of the “cool crowd”. I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to get to my 1st period class and tell the boy in the neighboring chair, Brian Story, what I’d done. He was concerned. “You smoked marijuana?” “What does it do to you?” “I don’t know, but you better keep an eye on me, just in case I start acting weird”. Nothing much happened outwardly, but everything seemed to sparkle as if I was seeing everything through a special lens. A girl in front of me was absentmindedly combing her fingers through her long, glistening blond hair, and I felt I would never tire of watching her. I was having an epiphany: I wanted life to always be like this; shiny and with depths and mystery I’d never imagined. And everything was funny. The teacher, who I’d always thought to be boring, was now quite entertaining. He made a small joke and I laughed out loud. I was the only one. I had the good sense to cut my laugh short and pretend Brian and I had shared a personal joke, me poking him in the ribs with my elbow. “Cool it man” he whispered, “You’ll get us in trouble!” I cooled it and sat back dreamily, hoping that tomorrow the guys would circle up before school again. The guys did circle up and this became a familiar ritual before school. My grades, already slipping, now began sliding dangerously. Teachers complained to my parents, who tried reasoning, admonishing, punishing and everything they could think of, to little avail. My mother told me in later years that I seemed happy, that I scoffed at their concerns and worries, and basically charmed my way into being allowed to continue my behavior. If all else failed, I would rage at them. They were a combination of naive and forgiving, and I learned early on that I could manipulate them and others to get what I wanted. There were many colorful characters coming and going at our ranch. OneEyed Joe, a horse trader my dad did business with, had a wad of cotton where his left eye had been, a source of fascination to us kids. JL Mitchell, another horse trader, was short, with very heavily muscled shoulders and arms. Grey haired, illfitting dentures, a perpetual wad of tobacco in his cheek, he was a deadly aim with his tobacco juice and could drown a horsefly with one shot. Jerry Stines, a lifelong friend of my parent’s was a fixture on weekends. An optician by trade, he traded in his business attire on weekends for jeans, cowboy boots and cowboy hat. Jerry never drank at work, and never drew a sober breath outside of work. Perpetually with a beer or drink in his hand, he and my father had scores of their own adventures over the years. One day they came pulling in the driveway in Dad’s Chevy truck, a large full grown sheep on the seat between them. Sheep droppings
all over the floor of the truck. Dad and Jerry had won her in some kind of bet at a bar and had named her Matilda. She too, became a fixture at the ranch. Janet loved all the animals and was forever bringing home stray dogs and cats or nurturing an abandoned baby bird or chicken. One chick she raised from an egg she named Peepers, and for years it followed her around like she was a mother hen, even following her into the house occasionally, much to my mother’s chagrin. So, at the age of 12, from outward appearances, life was once again pretty idyllic. My parents were generous and indulgent and popular with friends and neighbors alike. Between horses, bicycles, a go-cart, and a host of the types of toys and distractions common to those times – hula hoops, skateboards, Frisbees, dart boards – and the wide outdoors where we were free to roam and explore to our heart’s content. There was a family who lived a short distance from us and Janet became friends with one of the girls, Rosalind Penny. Janet and Rosalind, while riding their ponies along a nearby dirt road, met a family, the Del Webbs who happened to be circus performers. They had tall structures with several trapezes and underneath were slung huge nets to fall on. They taught Penny and Janet some basic trapeze moves and my father surprised Janet that Christmas with a trapeze at the house. Days earlier, in preparation, he had dug holes, laid out the 3” galvanized pipe and had arranged with the circus family to purchase an older swing and ropes. The pipes, laying out in the dirt near the driveway, meant nothing to us kids, it was usual for Dad to have several stockpiles of lumber and plumbing materials about the place. He was always building or repairing something on the barn, corrals, fencing and outbuildings. I guess we didn’t notice the holes he had dug. On Christmas Eve, after we were asleep he went outside, mixed concrete, put the piping together, hung the trapeze and set it upright in the ground. We were both too old to still believe in Santa Claus, but there was some magic the following morning when we went out in our pajamas to see “what Santa had brought”. This was the same Christmas I received the afore-mentioned bright yellow Schwinn bicycle, complete with 5-speed gear shift and sissy bar. We were the envy of many of our friends that year. I’m sure we had no idea how hard my parents worked to provide us with all this cool stuff on a lower-middle-class income. The kids who lived in small apartments across the street, found our place to be a pleasant escape, and my parents welcomed all comers. Brother Randy and his gorgeous and lively now-wife Cathy had moved a mile or so away, and were expecting their first baby. They were again, for a time, a regular part of our family life. Janet and I spent quite a bit of time at their place, where they had a pet raccoon, “Rocky”, obviously named after the song on the Beatles White Album, which had been recently released. As Rocky grew into an
adult he became rather fierce and intimidating and had to be sold to someone who could care for him. Cathy would sometimes load as many kids as she could fit into her Volkswagen Beetle and we would make trips to the beach, traveling down Topanga Canyon Blvd, to where it wound through the mountains. Passing through the tunnel, we were instructed to raise our feet off the floor and hold our breath, Cathy honking the horn and revving the engine loudly as we passed through the mountain. On one of these trips to Zuma Beach, or actually what was called “Free Zuma”, the smaller beach adjacent to the public beach, named “Free” due to the lack of paid parking, Terry McBrien and I began hiking toward a distant outcropping of rocks that led out into the water and effectively divided the beach. Curious as to what was on the other side of the rocks, we clambered up and were greeted with another small beach with maybe 20 or so people laying in the sun or playing in the surf. It took a moment to note that none of these people had clothes on. In later years, when we could drive, or hitchhike, Terry and I and other friends made many trips to what we then learned was called Pirate’s Cove, to take in the sights. Sometimes we would join the nudists, other times, remaining dressed, we would pretend to be serious rock climbers who just happened to want to climb rocks near naked women. My first girlfriend, Linda Martin lived directly across the street on the upper floor of the with her divorced Mother, and older brothers Scott (usually called Scotty) and eldest Larry. Linda boarded her horse, Patrick at our place. Patrick was 17 years old when he came to stay with us, at that point quite elderly for a horse, and was extremely gentle and patient. Linda could climb over, under, even between his legs, and he would never budge or even look annoyed. Linda rode on tall Patrick, Janet on little Sugarplum, and me leading the way on the fast-walking Pancho. I was quite smitten with Linda. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and golden skin, and had a similar chipped tooth to mine. She really was, and is, quite beautiful. I remember Somehow, intermixed with all of this seemingly blissful home life, a darker, frightening change was taking place. It was happening inside my head, and it was happening to my body. I was eating too much of the wrong things, at the wrong times. I had never been a skinny kid, but not fat either. However, puberty was not kind to me. I had to get braces, my mouth overcrowded with teeth. I had already had several extractions and now the time had come to straighten the teeth out. So it seemed like overnight I had transformed into a blond, buzz cut, chubby kid with braces, or at least that was how I viewed myself. I learned something else: As long as I stayed high, I didn’t have to think about the things that haunted me in the night. That I wasn’t liked, wasn’t attractive. I had developed a disturbing amount of fat in my chest area. I tried to hide these horrifying boy-boobs with loose clothing, often wearing a button-down shirt open over my t-shirt. Having had some luck with girls early on, by 13 or so, I became awkward and shy around girls, especially at school. Among friends and family I was fine, but school became more and more a struggle. I managed to pass most of my classes in the 7th grade, but beginning my
8th grade year, I began cutting school, and when present was withdrawn and disinterested. I couldn’t wait to get out of school and pursue my hobby of getting high. I was smoking cigarettes, filched from my parents or my friend’s parents, or bought from the “cool guy” down at the Peterson Dairy, a combination dairy/convenience store/gas station on the corner of Canoga Ave and Devonshire St. I had an allowance, and was good at convincing my parents I needed “lunch money” or “comics” or something. The allowance was largely spent on weed, candy, and 16 oz. RC Colas. I remember making a decision which would become something of a landmark in my life. I felt that I didn’t fit in with most of the kids at school; I was not a jock, or a preppy, or a “nerd” (what we called good students). I felt I fit in with a group that were called stoners. This bunch was largely made up of average or below-average students, the misfits and troubled kids, whose main interest in life was smoking weed, cutting classes, smart-mouthing teachers and challenging rules. This decision informed the rest of my life. I
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