The Third of June, 1953
was another dusty, dirty Delta day, and Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, according to the hit song by a dark haired Southern singer named Roberta, who like my mother, Roberta, a dark haired Southern singer, was born on the 208th day of the year. The headlines celebrated a new queen of England and a beekeeper named Hillary who had just climbed a mountain.

I was born in an old hospital on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Old? Eighty-four years earlier, it had hosted the world’s first artificial insemination. The standard at the time for a new mother and her infant was a week in a decrepit hospital with assorted sick people, and a day later our little family left for North Carolina in search of fame and fortune. My eight days in The City fascinated all the Jewish girls I later met, who’d read a great deal about the Lower East Side (why it was capitalized I don’t know), but by the time I was old enough to notice girls, was no more. “Urban renewal” in the 1960s leveled the hospital, replacing it with boxy buildings, manicured trees and the shining twin towers which fell in 2001.
At three weeks old, I was onstage. My first and most successful production was the outdoor drama, “Horn in the West”. It had begun in 1952, in response to the success of “The Lost Colony”, starring Andy Griffith. While Andy was in the Outer Banks of the Tar Heel State portraying Sir Walter Raleigh, my father Ned Austin was in the Blue Ridge portraying Daniel Boone. He’d dated the lead actress until he was smitten with the music director, Bobbie Jones–not by her beauty, but by her willingness to tote off a huge prop anvil carelessly left onstage. That weekend, on their first date, he proposed. She refused, until he sobered up. They were both seasoned performers, and after the first season of “The Horn” they moved to New York, where they starred in such Broadway shows as “Kiss Me Kate”, “Pal Joey” and “The Crucible”. But not on Broadway. The theatre troupe they belonged to, “The Pickwick Players”, operated out of a barn upstate.
I have a good memory, and when I was six recalled all my birthday cakes, including a green “un-birthday” cake from when I’d read Alice in Wonderland–but there was one cake I couldn’t place; it had white frosting with a scattering of candy red-hots. My mother, amazed, told me it was my first birthday cake, and so my first memory was my first birthday. Some years later I tried a technique similar to the one used in the movie “Somewhere in Time”.  By FEELING the details–shorter arms, less weight–I remembered how it was to BE there, then tried to remember even earlier.
A flash! Windows to my left, kitchen table to my right; mason jars, plates, spice tins. I was in a high chair. My father, on the far side of the kitchen, was leaning back and looking at something. I followed his gaze and saw my mother, looking at ME!
SURPRISE! Someone LOOKING at me! I slapped my high-chair tray, sending a few pieces of rice flying. My mother wore a distinctive yellow T-shirt with wide brown stripes, and my father had a beard. I must have been four months old. That was all: bright light streams through the window, SURPRISE! Rice flies, sparkles in the sun, the end.
My parents moved back to New York in the autumn of 1953, living in an open loft “studio” in Brooklyn for three months, but when winter came they returned to the Austin family farm.

Bozo’s Boy
Ned shaved off his beard after the 1954 season; Charlie Elledge portrayed Daniel Boone for the next 41 years. The following spring we packed everything into a shiny green 1949 Chevy with a trailer painted to match and drove to Denver, Colorado. They found a cool, quiet basement, rented from an old woman named Nettie, but in the winter it was too cold and we moved. My father and mother shared the car, she dropping him off in the early morning to unload freight cars. She’d sleep a few hours, then bundle me up and we’d stroll to a day-care at the end of the block, Humpty Dumpty Preschool. I’d stay there while she worked as a receptionist at the hospital. My father then walked from his job to the barber college for classes, where mother would later pick him up. She had a stillborn baby when I was very young, the brother I wouldn’t have, but soon enough I did have a younger brother, and one day in the early spring the four of us looked at a brick house in a field of mud. It was cold, the house unfinished, but my father got a veteran’s loan and bought 320 South 40th Street in Boulder.

The neighborhood was new, full of families with little kids. Its sparkling white sidewalks had curbs which angled into the gutters at 60º. We’d take the Chevy on a ride to the Busley’s with the neon bunny sign and buy groceries, except for dairy items which a milkman left in a white box on the porch every other day. Karl’s Dairy used brown milk bottles, which was very unusual. Orange Crush came in brown bottles for awhile, but those were long gone when I was still young.
My father got a job in television, and drove each morning on the Boulder Turnpike in a 1938 Studebaker, to KBTV in Denver where he portrayed a variety of kiddie show characters. Occasionally I’d be in these shows, when they needed an extra kid in the peanut gallery. All the broadcasts were live. In the mornings he’d be Dandy the Clown on the Candy and Dandy show, at noon the puppet Jerry the Giraffe, and afternoons the local Bozo the Clown, barbering after work. Bozo was a franchise; every TV station had its own Bozo showing whatever cartoons were trucked in. Sometimes on Saturdays he’d be Commander Jet, or the fellow on the Hootenanny with the nail through his hat, or the interviewer for whatever celebrity happened to pass through. Once he brought home original Walter Lantz drawings of Woody Woodpecker, torn from the weatherman’s giant roll of paper. Weathermen in the 50s sketched with grease pencils, making little cartoons out of clouds and rain and wind. The Woody Woodpecker drawings became my favorite Show & Tell item.
Davy Crockett was my hero when I was 2. He had my name, and I’m sure I had some residual awareness that my father had been Daniel Boone onstage; it was easy enough for a 2-year-old to mix up two Western heroes of the 1800’s whose names began with “D”. I had a leather cap with fur-trimmed earflaps that I wore everywhere, the way a 2-year-old does with a favorite hat. I imagined Davy Crockett wore one like that, though he probably didn’t. Westerns were the big thing then, and I was a Western kid. I wore my brown cap and rode my red-and-white trike down the leaf-covered sidewalks in the Denver autumn, and I was a frontiersman.

When I was an infant my astrological chart was drawn and interpreted by Laurel Keyes, an astrologer of renown who wrote esoteric books about colors, sounds and vibrations in the cosmos. She said I was an “old soul” and that I’d change the world, or the universe, or something. It was never coherently explained to me, and I never figured out what the hell she meant. It became a huge pain in the butt, as I didn’t want to be Saivyer of the Wurld. Still, from a very young age I carried my astrological chart in my wallet, hoping to find someone to interpret it. It stayed there until I was 16, at which time I decided that if I wanted to know anything I’d have to learn it myself. With the first paycheck of my first “real” job I ran to the esoteric bookstore and purchased the biggest, thickest astrology book they had.

Kid Stuff
Our first Halloween in Boulder, my brother and I went trick-or-treating and brought home huge bags of candy, but what awaited us when we returned was unexpected. At the University of Colorado, the college students all went trick-or-treating! Thousands of vampires and ghosts and cowboys and fairies and Martians trekked continuously to our door. My parents had a few bags of candy, but soon made popcorn balls and ran out of those too. They raided our booty to satisfy the wolves, promising to buy more later. They did, but it was still a letdown as the variety of our sweets reduced by a factor of ten. The next year they bought candy by the bushel basket!
My second brother arrived that December, and now there were three blonde-haired, bluish-eyed boys, though in the style of the time my father kept us in haircuts short enough that it was hard to see hair at all.
When winter came the cold wind blew hard and fierce off the Rocky Mountains, and I’d be well bundled walking to kindergarten. One morning I was on the icy sidewalk leaning back into the wind. A sudden gust caught me, 49 pounds of kindergartner, and I was airborne. I flew through the air for a few yards, then was set lightly back on my feet. I didn’t even stumble.
Cars were works of art in the 50s. The two-tone, peach-and-white ’56 Mercury next door belonged to a couple who moved in shortly after we did. Elliott and Eleanor Goldstein’s son, Seth, became my best friend. My mother was concerned with what Seth could eat, until one day he asked for “more ham”. Elliott was Jewish, but Eleanor was Catholic, and neither was kosher. Seth and I often watched TV together. It had a well-defined schedule; kid shows on Saturday morning and after school, news at noon and 6, family shows afterwards. One Saturday he and I were watching cartoons and the signal, never very strong, was fading in and out. I discovered that if I moved a little to one side the reception would get better, or worse. For the next hour as we’d watch I’d move imperceptibly to the left, the signal would deteriorate and I’d wave my hands around, telling Seth I had “magic”. I’d stand, point, give a hand-clap or a stomp, move a little to the right and the reception would be fine. My mother got a call from Eleanor later that night asking just what I’d taught her son to do, because he was standing in front of the TV waving and stomping and clapping and practicing his “magic”.
We spent a lot of time doing kid stuff together. We’d chase birds with a salt shaker and try to pour salt on their tails. We wore towels around our shoulders and jumped off the sidewalk, practicing to leap tall buildings. We’d swing and slide with a girl my age named Becky Irwin and her little brother Bo, and ride tricycles up the hill to where a teenager named George had 1940s cars in his driveway–Oldsmobiles, Henry Js–then coast back. We all had cookie-cutter houses of three or four styles with postage-stamp front yards that seemed huge to a 4-or-5-year-old, but the backyards were much bigger. Ours had a cherry tree and a small garden, with a rhubarb bush in the corner that our dog regularly peed on. Rusty was a Great Dane/Boxer mix who looked like a huge Boxer. He was very protective of me and my little brother, and not much bothered by anything but Volkswagens. The Volkswagen was an unusual little car at the time, it looked and sounded different from anything else on the road. A Volkswagen would drive by, and Rusty would attack. The Volkswagen would run off with its tail between its legs and Rusty would march home in triumph.
Cocoa was another family dog, a Dalmatian and not very smart. One day she ran away and for three days we didn’t see her. We finally drove around the neighborhood and a mile or two away, when we passed by a house which looked like ours, she ran out and greeted us. It appeared the owners were out of town and she’d been waiting without food or water for us to return. Didn’t stop her from running away, though. One day she ran away and didn’t come back.
We had a homemade electric lawn mower, invented by my father. He didn’t want to spend money, and had a big fan he wasn’t using. He made a frame of 2x4s and plywood, put casters on the bottom, sharpened the fan blades and had the oddest-looking lawn mower imaginable. He actually invented several things over time; mother had been in a fender-bender on the way from North Carolina to Colorado when the trailer, full of a year’s worth of provisions from the garden, overtaxed the brakes on the Chevy, so he designed a two-part trailer tongue which hooked up to a master cylinder. When the driver hit the brakes, the trailer mechanically pushed the tongue and it stopped the trailer. Worked like a charm.

The $25 Rule
For a long time my father had a rule–never pay more than $25 for anything. If it broke, he’d fix it–or make his own, or buy another for $25. It’s what he paid for the Studebaker he drove to work (he didn’t want my mother to drive it, and she didn’t want to!), which he sold for $10 when the kingpins wore out and would have cost $75 to replace. This was when $100 was a week’s pay, of course. It’s a good rule still–buy as cheap as you can, fix what you can, buy tools instead of paying someone to do it and make a good trade. I’d add something my father never got the hang of–get a good price for what you sell and don’t be over-eager to sell it.
There were few outlets, and appliances had long woven cords. One day when I was quite young I tripped over the coffeepot cord and was doused with boiling coffee. We took a trip to the doctor, or the hospital, or whatever. I was in the front seat of the Chevy in my underwear, my leg hanging out the open window. I was badly scalded, but remember how cool the air felt on my blotchy pink leg, driving in the Colorado springtime.
Kindergarten was in a large low room with big bright windows facing west. The sun would stream through in the afternoon and after nap time we’d roll off our mats and color in pictures of numbers walking, swimming, singing, jumping–It was after nap time one day and I was lounging around on my nap mat coloring in a caricature of the number 10, a long skinny “1” in a top hat marching and playing a zero for a drum. I remarked to my companion what hard work it was–lounging on a mat in the afternoon sun, coloring in a book–
My kindergarten teacher was named Mrs. Panabaker. A couple years later my brother’s was named Miss Philpott. Two unusual names, both of which belonged in the kitchen! One day the first graders filed into our room for a presentation. I was amazed and intimidated–we’d been INVADED by GIANTS! They were “big kids”, a category which included everyone not yet old enough to drive a car. I was sooner than I anticipated to be surrounded by “big kids”.
That summer was our last in Boulder. I spent it playing with Seth and Becky and Bo and did experiments which came through the mail from Mr. Wizard, who had a show on afternoon TV. I’d put celery in colored water and watch it turn red, watch salt crystals form on string, watch a penny change color as it corroded in a peanut butter jar, see a growing bean plant reverse direction when its jar was turned upside down. By late July we’d traded our little brick one-story house in Boulder for a larger frame house in Denver. A friend knew someone who lived in Denver but worked in Boulder, and since we worked in Denver but lived in Boulder we decided to switch. We worked out the details and both families moved on the same weekend.

Rosemary Street
The new house, at 1171 Rosemary Street, had a full-size basement and a large unfinished attic, which eventually became my room on one side and my brothers’ shared room on the other. A sister came along late in August. My mother’s parents came from South Carolina to visit when the baby was due, but she came late; they left on the morning of August 21st and Frances was born that night.We three brothers had a sister now, a tiny little red-faced thing with brown hair and brown eyes.
There was a new product on the market that year–popcorn sealed in a pan with an expandable aluminum-foil cover, named Jiffy-Pop. My father made their commercials and got paid when they ran, so we ate a lot of Jiffy-Pop. He called our little sister his Jiffy-Pop girl, because the commercials paid for her upkeep.
It was about this time my father’s TV station had a contest–how many guppies would one pair produce in a month? We started with two in a fishbowl in the kitchen. At the end of the month we had gallon jugs, quart jars, pitchers and glasses full of guppies on every windowsill, shelf and counter. The contest–for a bunch of camping supplies–was won by a woman in Wyoming who had sent in hundreds of postcards. At 3¢ a card, it proved a good investment.
My father had an actor friend, Ric, whom he’d known for years. Ric was the one who lured him first to New York and then to Ric’s hometown, Denver. He and his new wife Liz lived in our basement for awhile, then they moved to Hollywood when Ric wanted to get into “real” showbiz. I’d grown fond of a plaster frog they’d used as a doorstop, and Ric gave it to me when they left, on the condition that if the frog broke open and I found diamonds inside, he’d get half. I’d been sleeping with a large stuffed horse which was getting ragged; mother made a little horsey bed in the corner of my room and the horse was replaced by the frog. It’s lost some plaster here and there but I still have it. I’ve never seen any diamonds.
Ric and Liz went to Hollywood about the same time my father quit the TV station, in a rage, as was his way. They’d promised him a raise if he got high ratings for his Jerry the Giraffe show. He did, but they hemmed and hawed and he told them to shove Jerry up their ass. This left the station in a crappy place; they had the puppet but not the puppet master. They put someone else behind the plaster giraffe but the show quickly went from most-watched at noon to least-watched, and was cancelled. This, however, also left my father in a crappy place. Much of the reason he’d moved to Denver was to be closer to his work, and because he’d cussed out the Channel 9 management, none of the other TV stations in town would hire him. He was suddenly a full-time barber.
There were two bedrooms downstairs, one for my parents, the other for my sister–and soon, sisters. We put in drywall and covered the rafters of our steeply angled ceiling. Our rooms were eight feet tall in the middle, which angled down to short, four-foot walls in our bedrooms with six-foot closets in the hallway between us. The floors were rough-cut boards with 1/8” gaps between them and knotholes here and there, which would swallow pocket change and toy soldiers. We had rugs covering much of it, but by no means all.
When we’d first moved, a two-storey house was new to us. Our gabled bedrooms each had a large window, from which we observed the neighborhood below. One day, in the first month, our neighbor ran over in a panic and banged on our front door. When my mother answered, she was stuttering, pointing and not getting a word out. My mother hadn’t known that she stuttered–but it was clear something was happening in the side yard. They ran around and I was waiting in the yard while my brother prepared to make a parachute jump. We’d tied some string to the four corners of a sheet and he was ready to jump out my bedroom window. My mother talked him out of it, and I never got to take my turn!

Montclair
I went to school in a big red building about a half-mile from our house. It’d been built around 1890 and closed, briefly, when a new school was built about a half-mile further on. There’d been a “baby boom”, however, and the old school had reopened for kindergarten. The kindergartners remained as first-graders, then second-graders. By the time I began in “Montclair Annex”, as it was now called (the new school was now “Montclair”) it held first and second graders, but the plan was to close it again the next year.
A word about the “baby boom”–the first time I saw the phrase, it referred to an increase in births which started after the soldiers of World War II returned home and ended five years later, in 1952. As a 1953 birth, I wasn’t part of it–but soon the “baby boom” referred to a different demographic. It gradually expanded to include 1953, 1955, 1958, 1961. The “baby boom generation” eventually referred to 1946-1964, which I found a useful and distinct definition. It fit the boundaries of “my generation”. We lived through Vietnam, Nixon and the moon landing; we all grew up with TV and rock music. A “generation” is of necessity amorphous and uncertain, but is still defined by recognizable characteristics–those who came before the baby boom listened to radio shows and wore hairstyles which never touched the shoulders; those born after Kennedy was shot took classes on computers and rode belted into bucket seats. Everyone in between was “my generation, baby!” as The Who put it, and had a great deal more in common with each other than with those who came before or after. All of us remember our first color TV, and were fascinated with the computer game Pong.
So, back to the first grade–I went to the Annex for just a few months, from September ’til Christmas break. I was a smart kid and my parents had taught me to read by the age of 3; I remember long sessions of ”this is a cat, this is a hat, this is a bat, this is a rat”–so that by first grade I was thoroughly bored with the pace at which our reading group was going. We’d sit in a circle, I’d read my two lines and mark my place with my thumb while reading the next four or five pages, then flip back and try to find the place the previous reader had left off when my turn came around again, which made me appear very disorganized to Miss McInerny, my first-grade teacher–until one day she introduced a new, very long word on the blackboard and asked if anyone knew what it was. I wiggled and squirmed and waved my hand wildly while several other kids tried it and failed; she finally called on me and I told her the word was “GENERAL”, and the reason the “G” was pronounced like a “J”. From that day onward I spent most of my time at a little desk in the storage closet, reading through all the green books and into the red ones, coming out for lunch and playground break and doing my own set of arithmetic problems in my closet through the afternoon. After the Christmas break the second-graders moved over to the “big school”, and I went with them.

The Big Kids
I loved the idea that I was in the new school with the big kids. In a strange twist, all the boys in my neighborhood were in second grade, not first, and I was joining them!
I didn’t like the second grade as much. Mrs. Buzetti wasn’t as fun as Miss McInerny. It was clear Miss McInerny really liked me; I must have said some cute things. I asked her a question when she was talking with a visitor–maybe if he was her husband, I don’t know–but she shoveled me back in the room with a big smile on her face while the guy snorted and tried hard not to crack up. When the door closed I heard them behind it laughing, hard, for a long time.
The Annex had been like a big old house. It had three or four storeys with 2 or 3 rooms on each level, narrow twisting staircases, high ceilings, acorn-style hanging lights, ceiling fans. There were tall windows, with dozens of panes, which would open not only from the bottom but also from the top, by using long, ornate hooks which hung at their sides. The bathrooms were in the basement at the bottom of a crooked staircase, and above it all was a many-gabled attic rumored to be full of bats. Down one side of the building snaked a black, wrought iron, cage-like fire escape. Its smell was distinctly old, but not unpleasant; the breezes blew through in the afternoons, rustling through the leaves of the great tall cottonwoods surrounding us. I was glad when the windows were opened; there was a kid who’d joined us from the hospital who had a strong, unpleasant mediciney smell. It faded, but never went away, which was another, if self-centered, reason I was happy to leave.

Montclair Elementary was a long, low, boxlike bunker of the style favored in the architecture of the mid-1950s. It had two long wings of three storeys each, two classrooms on each level, twelve in all–two classes apiece of the grades 1-6. The “command center” was in the middle, the office on the first floor, clinic on the second, teacher’s lounge on the third. The cafeteria and gym were in a separate box-like wing out back. There were two playgrounds, a fenced-in area for the first and second grades and a much larger one for the rest of the school. A large asphalt area to the east had places painted for hopscotch, four-square, dodge-ball or as we called it “elimination” or “limo”, plus a few tether-ball poles and a couple circles for marbles and what-not. Marbles never worked on asphalt, and I didn’t understand the appeal of the game until I tried it on dirt, though there wasn’t a designated area in the dirt. Those were softball fields and the playgrounds, where a couple of kids a year would break an arm falling off swings or monkey bars. It was an accepted part of growing up.
The first day I went to the new school my mother spiffed me up in a new pair of trousers, only to console me when I ran home crying, and explain to me that no, I was not a Catholic. The other kids had called me Catholic for not wearing blue jeans. I had no idea what a Catholic was, but it sounded bad. Montclair was a block down the street from the St. James parochial school, and because kids who went to St. James weren’t allowed to wear blue jeans, the boys in public school wore nothing else. St. James had a uniform for girls too, but I don’t recall it. Not that there was a lot of importance placed on the dress code. In 1960, schools were very much “in loco parentis”, and if a teacher or principal decided a dress was too short or hair too long, that was all.
If I’d been more socially sophisticated I mightn’t have corrected my classmates on my first day. At the bathroom break we all peed into a communal trough.There were two of them, end-to-end. If you really had some force you could stand at the end of one and pee to the far end of the other, which many of us did. Afterwards we washed hands. There were dispensers of powdered soap above the sinks, and a warning to “WET HANDS BEFORE USING”. Everyone told everyone to “wet hands before uSSing, wet hands before uSSing”; it was a mantra.  I thereupon informed the lot of them that the proper pronunciation was “wet hands before U-Zing”. It was true, correct, and didn’t make me any friends. I was younger, smaller, smarter and destined to stay that way.

The Neighborhood
Our house was in a typical suburban neighborhood which was still growing. To the other side of 12th Avenue the houses were a few years older, built mostly in the 1920s and ‘30s in a variety of styles; to our side they were all two-storey frame structures covered in asbestos shingles–hey, it seemed a good idea at the time–built in the 1940s, except for two houses which had been there longer. The paved street ended a little ways past our house, where a dirt path angled off towards the next block as the dirt road continued uphill to a large vacant lot. The hill was an excellent place to ride bikes, and we’d all barrel down it after school and skid sideways into a huge cloud of dust laid down by the previous kid. On weekends we’d go up the hill, dig out forts and have dirt clod wars or, if the weather was right, fly kites.
Lowry Air Force Base was to the far side of the vacant lot. It wasn’t busy, but planes occasionally flew in. Once in awhile there’d be an air show we could watch from the vacant lot and for awhile jets regularly screamed by, breaking the sound barrier. I always enjoyed the sonic booms, but the grownups got tired of the boom and roar (a sonic boom is followed by a long rumbling roar),. Windows rattled, dishes fell and the Air Force cut it out, though planes still came through. One day I was cutting across the dirt path and a bomber came in, very low, with its bomb bay doors open. I didn’t know what the bomb bay was. It looked like a big black hole in the bottom of a monstrous plane, close enough that I could have thrown a baseball in it. A few years later, I saw the movie “Dr. Strangelove”, realized what it was and got severely creeped out.
I had a 16-inch bike when we moved to Rosemary Street; at the time it was the smallest one sold. It had solid rubber tires and a metal-plate brake which pushed against the rear wheel. My first Christmas in the house, Santa Claus brought me a 20-inch bike with pump-up tires and a coaster brake! It was used, but the elves had repainted it rather well in red and white. I was thrilled! I took it outside–it was a balmy day with very little snow on the ground–and the front fender immediately flipped over the top of the wheel; it looked like the bike had a rear fender coming and going! My father pulled out a couple of tools and soon had it right.
My allowance was a quarter a week, which I kept in a jar. When I was about six, we went to Mile High Savings and Loan and opened a savings account with the money from my jar–sixteen dollars. It was a teeny little bank on the corner of 14th and Krameria St., sandwiched between a bar and a dress shop. Colorado did not allow branch banking, which my banker uncle always said was a great law, but eventually the law changed, Mile High got much bigger and took the name Silverado, which was at the center of a huge financial scandal in the 1990s. I had a little brown savings book with green pages that had $16.ºº written in it, though, and all that was in the future. I kept the money in there, but didn’t much see the point. I preferred to ride my bike up to the gas station on the far left corner of the vacant lot and spend my quarter on peanuts , candy and pop from the vending machines. A soda pop was a dime, peanuts or candy a nickel and gum balls a penny. Sometimes my father would send me to the corner with 35¢ and have me buy him cigarettes from the vending machine at a quarter a pack. I got to keep the change. One day my neighbor Harold and I rode up together and one of the customers told me I couldn’t buy cigarettes. He pointed to a sign on the machine which said sales to “minors” were prohibited–but I had no idea what “minors” were and bought the Camels. The customer grabbed me, I threw the pack to Harold, someone grabbed him, he threw them back to me and we both scooted out. It wasn’t such a big deal. Everyone knew I was buying them for my father. He smoked three or four packs a day, which wasn’t unusual, but my mother didn’t smoke, which WAS unusual. She’d quit when she was pregnant, before I was born. My father’d drink a few beers a day, too, but not near so many as he would a few years later.

Politics
Nixon and Kennedy were smacking each other around that fall of 1960, and my family was firmly in Kennedy’s camp–I sported a Kennedy button in my school picture that year–except for one dissenter. My youngest brother, not yet 3, thought it not nice for everyone to be picking on poor Mr. Nixon! It was the middle of the Cold War, and much on everyone’s mind, especially in Colorado, was The Bomb. The Russians had sent up a satellite; I vaguely remember bundling up on a cool autumn night in 1957 with my father and little brother and seeing something flashing in the sky, but it might as well have been Santa as Sputnik.
The Sunday supplements in newspapers featured tours of local bomb shelters. Movies, TV dramas and science fiction all had The Bomb in the plot. I received a steel identification bracelet at school,  for which it was crassly, unnecessarily and terrifyingly pointed out that if my little 6-year-old butt was vaporized in the blast, my bracelet would withstand the 3000º heat and identify which pile of ashes was me, to whoever was sweeping up. Several ludicrous measures were publicized by authorities–the “duck and cover” drill appeared designed to ensure that every student body would be found in the kiss-your-ass-goodbye position on the day after. My parents came up with the notion that if separated in the post-bomb chaos we should all meet up in a little town in the mountains called Nederland–it seemed uncomfortably close to Neverland–and we all took a trip that I chiefly remember for the blinding snowstorm we drove through on the way back. Obviously, the biggest threat that day was driving off a mountain! All these preparations and drills were spitting in the wind, of course–if the bomb had actually come none of us would’ve had much chance, ducking and covering, holed up in a shelter or meeting in a little mountain town. Anyone young enough knew this. It was the true, defining characteristic of the baby-boom generation–none of us expected to grow up. I was convinced that I’d never see my 14th birthday–old enough to drive a scooter, according to the laws of the time, and my measure of maturity.
When we weren’t ducking and covering or filing out for fire drills or contemplating the steel bracelets on our wrists reminding us of our likely death by incineration, we had schoolwork. It wasn’t taxing in the second grade, and I did well at everything except penmanship. There wasn’t much homework, and we had a little playground for first and second grade. I got along with my classmates by now, and with most of the kids in the neighborhood. A girl named Valerie was my age. She’d show me “hers” if my brother and I would show her “ours”. Another neighbor named Dave we called  “Griff” (there were so many Daves that we were nicknamed in self-defense!), Carl Boucher and a kid we called Jimmy Goon were also in the 2nd grade, as was Dave Steinbrugge who lived on the next block. Kevin Stance was 2 years older and lived across the street with two or three older sisters and a younger sister Kristen (all of them with the initials KS), Carl had a younger sister Shelley, and Griff a younger sister Lisa. Valerie lived in the one older house in the block set back from the road. She soon moved away and someone with no kids moved in. I don’t think I was ever inside that house. The other old house, at the end of the pavement, was soon occupied by Lonnie and David Martinez and their family. Lonnie was my age–the first boy in the neighborhood my age–but when I was in second grade he was in first, and the first graders all went to the Annex. David was two years younger, the same age as my brother, and we became good friends. David was the most popular name in the western world, due to the great advantage that it doesn’t change from one language to another; Michael will be Michel and Miguel and Mykal, John will be Juan and Jean and Johann, but David is David. There were always two to four Daves in my classes at school, and I once worked in a store where there were eight. It became really popular when Dwight David Eisenhower was president. It’s surpassed by Kim in the east, but in the east Kim is what we’d call the last name, which they use first, and is as popular as Smith and Jones put together.
Lonnie and David’s house was one storey, with a long wrap-around porch. It was surrounded by tall trees and bushes, and a small sometime creek passed next to it; all features missing from the newer houses. There were a few strange rocks lying around which suggested it may have been an Indian encampment. One rock in particular had a circular dimple on top and when struck would spark, suggesting it was a fire-stone. They gave me that rock when we moved out of the neighborhood, one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received. We spent many summer afternoons playing in the rocks and bushes, pretending to be Indians, building forts, swinging from trees. It was one of the most private places around, not only because there were more places to hide but because there was a white picket fence around the yard and no houses to the front, back or far side. There was no traffic either, the road being dirt that far down the block, and the bushes and vacant hillside were excellent places to ambush imaginary cattle rustlers. They had a small treehouse just a few feet off the ground, overlooking the creek.
The neighbor between our house and Lonnie’s soon moved out, and for a short while an English boy named Michael moved in. He had a funny accent but was a nice kid, two years older, and we generally got along. I traded him a few American stamps and coins for his European ones. He had a way of coloring in a coloring book which ignored most of the lines and filled in areas with soft pastels. It hadn’t occurred to me, until then, that there was another way to color a picture. One day we fought and he said he never wanted to be my friend again, for the rest of my life. I was hurt and a bit mystified. I couldn’t imagine such a thing, especially as we lived right next door, but accepted it literally and assumed he’d never be my friend again. Later that afternoon he came to the fence while I was playing and made up. I was again mystified–how could someone change their mind about the whole rest of their life in just a couple of hours? But it was okay; we remained friends.
He had a hard time when school started–he was in the third grade when I was in the second, and played in the big playground. I saw him tussling, over basically nothing–he called himself Michael, not Mike, he wore poofy English pants instead of blue jeans and combed his hair. He was pretty good at soccer but clueless at baseball, and knew the rules to several obscure games that nobody else played. After a few months he went back to England. We wrote a few letters, but soon lost touch.
We Meet the Hungarians
When Michael left, in moved a very strange and different family–Bela and Mary Reiner, their kids Peter and Susie, and Bela’s mother. They’d fled Hungary during the 1956 revolution, and all spoke Hungarian. Peter and Susie spoke very good English, Bela and Mary spoke it with a thick accent and Bela’s mother knew none. Bela was an engineer and Mary also had a job; when they were gone Bela’s mother would mind Peter and Susie. The kids would be playing and laughing in English, their grandmother would call them in Hungarian. Peter and Susie would argue in English so their grandmother couldn’t follow along, Bela and Mary would argue in Hungarian so the neighbors wouldn’t know their business, and granny watched television in the basement for hours at a time. She eventually learned a bit of English, though she was shy about using it.
I found Bela especially interesting. He had a great number of stamps from all over Europe and a particularly complete collection from Germany and eastern Europe. I’d been collecting stamps since I’d found a Gold Coast stamp in my shoe, our first Easter morning at Rosemary. My parents swore they hadn’t put it there, so maybe the Easter bunny had something to do with it. I soon had large quantities of stamps that I’d buy in bags from the hobby shop. Most of them would still be attached to torn envelope corners; I’d have to soak them off and dry them on towels. It was a large collection but not of very good quality; Bela and I would trade stamps on a Saturday afternoon and he’d point out all the variations in different runs of stamps and denominations–these were lithographed, these were engraved, how the stamps changed when Hitler came to power, or the communists. When the currency crashed the 10 d, or s, or p stamps would go to 1000 or 1,000,000 d, or s, or p. Some countries varied their stamps very little. They’d have the same portrait in six different colors for the various denominations, and the only changes you’d see might be the perforation patterns. Others would change a lot. Every year or two there’d be a dozen different miniature multicolor artworks and denominations, from 1/2 to 100,000. The communist countries were big on muscular guys swinging hammers and blocky women carrying banners, while other countries featured flowers and birds and mountains. Germany featured a heroic Hitler on stamps in every color of the rainbow in the 30s.
Bela had a photography darkroom on one side of his basement. It was a small room packed with enlargers, chemical baths, papers, clotheslines and equipment. He brought me and a few kids from my 4-H group down there while he demonstrated, in dim red light, how to take a negative an inch square and make an 8”x10” glossy print. With his Hungarian accent he said we were dipping the photos into divvy-loping fluid and for some time after I thought photos were divvy-loped. At one point a couple of the chemicals reacted. We got a whiff of chlorine gas; he turned on a little exhaust fan and cleared it out.
His wife Mary had been a teacher; she was as well-educated as Bela but had a thicker accent. She was very friendly and made Hungarian desserts for us–one she called Bird’s Milk was sweetened milk, spices whipped in, with beaten egg whites floating on top. At Christmas they had a tree with real candles in little tin reflective holders; they kept a bucket of water nearby and only lit the candles for a few minutes at a time. We’d socialize over beer and wine as Bela and Mary talked about life in Hungary, before and during the revolution. They threw rocks at the tanks rolling through, and Bela once shot a pistol over a wall without aiming. Mary, Bela and his mother escaped with very little, when Mary was pregnant with Peter. They’d discuss politics with my parents, and my mother became very active in the Democratic party. Our neighborhood would caucus at our house, and on a sunny Saturday afternoon we’d have a covered dish dinner, called a pot-luck in Colorado; a roomful of people would drop by and everyone would decide over chips and dip who’d go to the state convention and who they’d vote for. Bela and Mary had strong feelings about the communists, of course, but also favored authoritarian government, which my father found intriguing. When commentators on TV would criticize the government, the Reiners didn’t understand why the police couldn’t march into the studio and haul them off. When a communist system is what you know, your ways of thinking develop very differently.
Bela and Mary had some different ideas about family life, too. They could be gentle and patient with their children, at least sometimes, but had knock-down drag-out fights with each other, conducted in Hungarian. It seemed particularly difficult for Mary. Because she wasn’t completely fluent in English, she couldn’t teach in America. She worked, but made nowhere near as much as Bela. When they’d fight Bela’s mother would try to stay out of it but would generally support her son. Mary would try to talk things over with my mother, but couldn’t express the subtleties in English. Many years later, they divorced.
My  mother was a teacher too, between babies. She taught music in several different schools–here on Monday morning, there on Monday afternoon, two more places on Tuesday, back to the initial schools on Wednesday. She needed a reliable car and the ’49 Chevy was showing its miles. The green paint had worn through in places to a pink primer coat. We sold it and my mother got a shiny pink-and-white 1956 DeSoto. It was beautiful, distinctive in its mid-50s way; bent-over tailfins framed two vertically placed round taillights with back-up lights between them. Lots of chrome, whitewall tires, very shiny, with a distinctly different smell than the Chevy. The Desoto was a hardtop, with long wide doors and seats which folded forward to access the rear. It was a solid, heavy, powerful car, and the first car titled in my mother’s name. She was just under 30. The tailfins weren’t as pronounced as those on the Stances’ 1957 Plymouth station wagon across the street–no car ever beat out the 1957 Plymouth’s fins–but their car was a muddy metallic brown and hers was a bright two-tone pink and white. The Chrysler gas gauge worked well when the tank was almost full but jumped around like a flea on a griddle until the gas was almost gone, but it was otherwise reliable and comfortable and had a loud pushbutton AM radio with one big speaker in the top middle of the dashboard, which would fill the car with sound.

Babysitters
Mother was now teaching school, and we needed a babysitter. We had several, most of whom lasted a year or more. At first Kevin and Kristen’s older sisters, Kathy and Karen, came in the afternoons, but soon a black girl named Donna came and stayed all day. We all liked Donna, but one day we told our parents about a ride we’d taken down Colfax Avenue in her boyfriend’s flashy new Mercury, and Donna was replaced by Peggy, a middle-aged Irish woman with dark red curly hair. Peggy was likable and a chatterer; she was comfortable around kids but flustered among adults. We really liked her, too, but her husband got a job out of town. A much older woman, Mrs. Wilson, was next. She lived in a tiny house around the corner with Miss Smoot, a crotchety woman taller, skinnier and older than Mrs. Wilson. They had a picket fence around a small lot filled with every kind of flowering bush imaginable; there wasn’t really a lawn so much as a congeries of knee-high flowers and shrubbery. Miss Smoot was particularly insistent on being called Miss and not Mrs., and Mrs. Wilson’s husband had disappeared from the scene many years before. The circumstances weren’t discussed, but it was clear the two old ladies preferred the company of each other to anything men had to offer. Mrs. Wilson was nice, and had interesting stories; she described when she first saw a car–and how magical it seemed to a child of ten who’d never seen a conveyance without a horse in front. A few years later she heard a racket outside, went out and looked around but saw nothing. Eventually a large odd looking bird caught her eye, and she realized it was an airplane. Mrs. Wilson was a loyal, loving companion to my younger sisters, who within a few years numbered three, but she had her quirks. Instead of toilet paper she would constantly use wet washcloths on their little butts, to my mother’s eternal annoyance. Her brief marriage to Mr. Wilson had also persuaded her that men were all bad, which included any male over 14. Still, she was conscientious, reliable, lived within walking distance, and was with us for many years.

Clubs
I joined the Cub Scouts in the 2nd grade, and shortly afterwards the 4-H Club. Cub Scouts took place in a house a few blocks away where a kid named Danny lived. His mother was the den mother, and we’d meet at Danny’s house to make log cabins out of popsicle sticks, present reports, earn arrow points and badges, have cookies and go home. I made it as far as Bear Cub, but Danny moved away and Pack 40 folded up.
Griff was in the Cub Scouts with me. He lived two doors down. Like most of our fathers, his was a veteran, but Harvey was a big red-faced fellow, disabled in some way, who was usually sitting around the house in his robe and slippers. Griff’s mother brought home most of the money. He got a government check each month, but according to rumor spent much on liquor; I never knew if this was true. The family was Catholic, but Griff went to public school. He had a younger sister Lisa, blonde and cute. The next door down lived Carl Boucher and his little sister Shelley, and next to them, on the corner, Jimmy Goon. Jimmy had an older sister and a younger. One day Jimmy and a couple older kids took me for a ride  in someone’s van and I found out afterwards I was expected to pitch in for gas. Jimmy knew I had a silver dollar, and I gave it to them, most unwillingly. My parents asked me what had transpired, which led to a huge fight between my mother and Jimmy’s. I was never again friends with him, though I knew him through high school.
Across from Jimmy’s house lived a family named Cooper, They had a small dormer in the middle of their roof; the Goons built a bigger one. The Coopers put in a larger one on the backside of their roof, and the Goons built the biggest of all on the backside of theirs. It seemed very competitive. The Goons always wanted bigger and better.

The Wicked Witch
After second grade came third; one of the worst years of my life. My teacher, whom my parents later assessed as a “psycho”, was Mrs. Carr, a woman around sixty, who wore clothes that would’ve looked frumpy and out of date on a woman of seventy. She never shaved her legs, and though her skirts were long, they weren’t long enough. Her teaching methods were more old-fashioned than her wardrobe, and she played favorites. Diane Tozier never had to think about homework, because her brother Toby and her older sister Marie had already been in Mrs. Carr’s class. She polished up her brother and sister’s reports and handed them in as her own. If Toby had chosen to report on the meadowlark, so had Marie, and so did Diane. Cathy Smith had it tougher. Several times a week she’d get a paddling. Mrs. Carr would march her to the front of the class, bend her over her knees, pull down Cathy’s panties and paddle her half a dozen times with a wooden board. Cathy would sit down, as angry as ever.
After the paddling, the class would get to work, until they got exuberant. When things got animated, Mrs. Carr had a bell on her desk which she’d ring five or six times, at which everyone had to instantly cross their arms over their desks, put their heads down and close their eyes. She appointed roving monitors to stroll around the class checking that everyone had their eyes closed. Some of them would sneak up and peek beneath your armpits; others would grab you by the hair and jerk your head up to see if your eyes were closed. Some would slam your head back down, and it hurt.
We moved around a lot in that class. Our seating in the classroom was based on Mrs. Carr’s personal formula. The better you were, in her twisted estimation, the better your seat. We had table-type desks which sat two kids apiece, and our table-mates also had quirks. One kid I sat by for a couple weeks drew a line down the middle and pushed everything off his half. If my elbow touched the line he’d nudge it; if a corner of my paper wandered over during arithmetic he’d complain. Some kids stayed in the same seats all year. Several, like me, wandered all over. When the parents came to their first PTA meeting and sat in their kids’ chairs, Mrs. Carr told them of her system. The parents looked at each other, mystified and dumbfounded, as they saw the relative positions of their kids in Mrs. Carr’s world. My parents came away certain she was a nut case, but didn’t think it would serve me well to force the issue. It would have involved going up against The Authorities, which was Not Done, and Mrs. Carr was nearing retirement age–it may have been her last year. Still, the result was that I spent the entire year miserable, and never enjoyed school again.
There was a black (Negro, colored) girl in our class, briefly, named Deborah Coffey. There weren’t many black kids in our neighborhood, and she looked black, black, black. Black as tar, black as coal. I’d never been in class with a black girl, and was unaccustomed to the dark skin. She left after a few weeks and some years later I met her again, when we were both going to a school which had lots of black kids. She was a light coffee and cream color, hardly dark at all. Context is everything; in the next few years there were more, though never a lot, and though several were darker than Debbie, they didn’t seem so overwhelmingly black anymore.
The one time of day I enjoyed third grade was after lunch. Mrs. Carr believed in teaching us Spanish, and she turned off the lights and turned on a portable TV to the afternoon Spanish lesson four days a week. It was fifth-grade Spanish on Mondays and Wednesdays, sixth-grade Spanish on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but we watched it all. We didn’t take tests, but learned a lot.

School lunches were a quarter at that time; you could either pay a quarter in the lunch line or buy tickets at the first of the week. Sometimes I’d bring a quarter, sometimes I’d have a ticket. One day late in the year a kid found a quarter, and Mrs. Carr asked the class who had lost it. A dozen or so kids jokingly said it was theirs, but I felt in my pocket and there was nothing there, so it eventually came down to me and one other kid. I stuck my hand in my back pocket again, and there, smooth against the fabric, was my lunch ticket. I announced to the class that I had found my ticket, showed it to the class and told everyone the quarter belonged to the other kid.
If I had a time machine, I’d return to five seconds later, pick up the paddle and break every bone in that wicked witch’s torso, for what happened next. I’d reduce her hands to quivering balls of jelly. I’d knock out her teeth and break her jaw. She‘d never accuse a 7-year-old kid again. Then I’d do the same to my father.
She said I tried to steal the quarter. If I’d tried to steal it, why did I announce I’d found my ticket, show it to the class, and tell everyone the quarter belonged to the other kid? I got a paddling. When I got home my father had heard Mrs. Carr’s insane accusation and whipped me, long and hard. He’d done it occasionally when I was smaller but by now had started in at any provocation, or non-provocation. It was mean, sick, brutal, disgusting, and meant that I would never, ever love my father. He had my fear, but lost my love.
Some say you should love your father because it’s the right thing to do, it’s what the Bible says, a dozen other obligatory reasons. It’s easy to say, it’s a platitude that others understand and don’t question, but I say, don’t lie. Be true to your heart. Don’t say you love someone when you don’t. It’s not an obligation. Say words you don’t feel and your soul will be empty and dry. Don’t mistreat people, especially children. They don’t forget. Try to forgive and you may feel better, but don’t lie about that either, and don’t mistake it for love. My father had his demons, most people do. This I understand.

Love? I’m not gonna lie. I know other people loved my father–he could be funny, generous, loyal. Not to me. To me he was mean, petty, jealous, brutal. He expected great things, but never praised me, never even seemed to like me. He intercepted and slapped down all and sundry praise directed my way, tore down, sabotaged, undermined my work, stole away and destroyed whatever he could that I held dear, bruised me, ripped my soul. I tried to love him. It didn’t work. I’ll love my children, my mother, my wife. Not him.

Mesa Verde

Eventually the third grade ended, and that summer we went to visit a place I’d learned about that year–Mesa Verde, an ancient Indian village set into the sides of sheer rock cliffs in southern Colorado. It was exceptionally interesting. There weren’t many safety railings and such, and the six of us made quite a show climbing the long wooden ladders from some of the cliff dwellings up to the main road. Me, my two brothers and my little sister, not quite 2 and barely walking, trailed along after our parents, Frannie being carried  up the ladders in a papoose-style backpack. We were at the top of one ladder, 40 feet up, when my little sister dropped her doll–not the 3-inch plastic doll she’d named Fosha, but the 3/4 inch baby doll named Firecracker that Fosha carried on her back. The doll landed at the foot of the ladder, but since the ladder was one-way, with dozens of people on it and dozens more waiting, the folks at the bottom passed the baby doll up to my hysterical 2-year-old sister, and she was mollified. We looked at the buildings, the mummies, the cave houses, the history exhibits and saw a real live rattlesnake under a bush. We camped out and made 8mm silent movies, almost always barely visible and under- or over-exposed. A couple times before we left I was sure my third-grade teacher was further back in line, or across the gully. I wanted to say hello; it might have felt good, but my parents didn’t want to embarrass her, or something. My father was often terrified that his kids might embarrass someone, though he had no compunctions about doing it himself.
We got home after our vacation, and waiting for us was a chatty postcard from Mrs. Carr, telling us about her vacation to Mesa Verde in her severe Palmer cursive script. It seemed even wicked witches might occasionally take a stab at being human.
That summer was a good one. I was out of the witch’s den and well adjusted to the neighborhood. We had lots of adventures in the semi-rural setting. There weren’t farms or ranches but there was a lot of open land, and two blocks over was a large area that used to be a neighborhood, with curving streets and cul-de-sacs very unlike the predictably alphabetic grids of our own. I say “used to be” because the land had been taken over by the air force and all the houses knocked down. The streets still had driveways and trees, but the sidewalks led to cement porches bordering square cement holes in the ground which were once basements. It was a fun but probably dangerous place to play, and we’d go over there in twos and threes and ride bikes or hide in the basements and throw dirt clods at each other until the MPs chased us off. I eventually got a go-cart which was especially fun to drive over there. I could drive on streets which weren’t public and never think about traffic or “real” cops, and if MPs showed up I’d scoot back home before they’d catch me. They never did anything but tell me to go home anyway, then I wouldn’t go back for a few days.

Snakes, Frogs, Birds
My brother and I had a pet snake, an interesting character named Sylvester, maybe a foot long. He had an unusual habit of curling up like a coil spring and whipping around when he wanted to get somewhere, leaving a trail of “S” marks in the dust. He was our pet. We carried him around in our pockets, he crawled up our arms and inside our shirts. After a couple months he disappeared, as wild pet animals will do. Later we learned he was a juvenile sidewinder rattlesnake, too young to have rattles, but old enough to have fangs and venom!
We had quite a few pets through the years, some conventional, some not. One fall day we found a nest in the juniper tree in the front yard, and by the time we’d finished looking at it the mother had abandoned her eggs. We brought them inside where the eggs hatched and we raised the baby birds. There were originally five, but I was carrying one around in my shirt pocket; it wiggled out as I was walking and I accidentally stepped on it. It died in my hands.
After the funeral and the burial, in a matchbox, with a match stick cross marking the spot, we had four little birds, which soon grew up and flew away. The next year, three came back. We knew them because they recognized us, and flew down to land in our hands. They spent the season in the yard and left again; the next year two came back, the next year none.
Besides the dogs, snakes, wild birds, frogs and guppies we had turtles–baby turtles were very popular for a time, and I also had a box turtle named Max. I had a lot of pets named Max–a hamster, a mouse, a parakeet–and one day I brought home a pigeon with a broken wing and named her Madge. Madge rode with me on the handlebars of my bike, on my shoulders, my head, my glasses; I could go anywhere with her, because she wouldn’t fly away. She enjoyed the bike rides; she’d flap her one good wing and one ruined wing as we sped down the street. One time I tried to fix her wing with cardboard and tape, but it didn’t work. I had Madge for a couple years before I learned that SHE–was a HE! I tried to rename him Max, but it didn’t take and I gave up. Outside of Max, or Madge, my pet names often relied on physical features. When Trixie had puppies, I named one Triangle and one Diamond because of the markings on their forehead.
The air force base was across 9th Avenue (we lived at 1171 Rosemary St., but 10th and 11th Avenues had yet to be extended, so 9th Avenue was at the top of the hill). For all the paranoia of the Cold War, its security was remarkably lax. We could crawl under the fence whenever we wanted. My brother and I once took our little red wagon under the fence and filled it full of pond water and frog eggs. Pretty soon we had frogs everywhere. There were frogs in the bushes, frogs in the basement, frogs in the bathroom, frogs in the kitchen sink. It was the Summer of the Frogs. We gave names to the bigger ones. The biggest I named Fred. The next biggest, my brother’s, he named Figure 8, due to a mark on its back. My brother thought if he could teach Figure 8 tricks, he could be a magician, and tried to teach Figure 8 how to squeeze through a barbecue grate. Figure 8 proved to have little talent at this, and died instead. My brother held a private, impromptu funeral for his recently deceased pet, but when asked he had to explain what happened. The truth wasn’t flattering, so he elaborated, stating that Griff and Jimmy Goon had forced him to push Figure 8 through the grate. This bullying incited outrage, and we were ready to march to the corner and confront the perpetrators–until my little brother confessed!

Ch-ch-Changes!
I was to enter Miss Denny’s fourth grade class that fall, and was excited! I knew kids who’d been in her class and really liked her. September came–and her name was Ursula Boatwright! Miss Denny had married over the summer and was already pregnant–maybe more pregnant than she should have been had she just been married a few months before–but she was still a fun teacher. She was soon replaced by Mrs. Sherrie Hite, who lasted until the semester break. Sherrie left for Indiana with her husband, a military man, and for the rest of the year we were taught by Mrs. Mary Weir.

Pam Grismore and Lynne Sears were both in my class that year. Lynne was a dark-haired girl with widely spaced eyes, very pretty, while Pam was a blonde, blue-eyed, horsey-faced girl with glasses; in time she would be a beauty, but not in the fourth grade. Pam was taller than me, which wasn’t unusual as all the boys and most of the girls were, too. A couple girls were stronger than me, too, which was embarrassing. Mary King once bested me in a shoving match over an armrest in the auditorium.
All through elementary school either Pam or Lynne would be in my class; this year they both were. They were the smartest girls in whatever class they were in, and my direct rivals in the spelling bee, which was usually boys against girls. We’d line up on opposite sides of the classroom for a spell-down, and after 20 minutes or so I’d be alone against Lynne or Pam.  We all won a few. Once we had a different sort of spell-down; the class was split in half, and whoever missed a word went to the other side when it was spelled correctly. This went fine for awhile,  but a particularly difficult word went down both rows until the kid opposite me spelled it. Since I was last in line, the rest of the class went to the other side and it was me against all. I spelled and spelled and spelled and got back a line of five or six kids, then another word sent them back. It was lunchtime, so Mrs. Weir called it off–and we never tried it again!
I signed up for music class, and my parents rented a cello. I didn’t want a cello–I was enamored of the string bass. My little brother had monopolized the piano–I’d taken lessons, but when I’d try to play I’d plink about three keys, he’d come running and take over. My parents encouraged him in this, which was completely unfair. I came to hate the piano. I loved the string bass, a stand-up instrument plunked in folksy popular songs and jazz. There was nothing cooler to me than the bass, except maybe accordion. Unfortunately, the string bass had to be bought, while the cello could be rented. The cello was a sit-down instrument played with a bow, and was exceptionally uncool–I knew within twelve seconds that I’d rather have had a violin, but the cello had been rented and the cello it was. Music classes had an odd schedule; on certain days and times violins and violas would have a lesson,  trumpets and bugles another teacher on another day, clarinets and oboes another, and 3 to 5 kids would file out for an hour on Monday or 45 minutes on Wednesday afternoon. Cello and bass had a schedule, but as the only cello (or bass) player in my class I had to keep up with it by myself. One day I lost my schedule. The teacher didn’t have one, only my music teacher, who showed up at odd times. I missed three or four lessons, and that was that. Mr. Fredrickson’s note, tucked into my report card, stated simply, “David has not been attending classes”, and music class, for me, was over.
Science was great, though. We studied mechanics, and a fellow named Dan Spillman and I had a project together. We got together several times and put together a board with cranks and gears made of bottlecaps, pieces of wire, tin cans and such. It was at Dan’s house, and he was going to add an old pocketwatch to illustrate how gears work in the real world. On Monday, he forgot the project. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday he forgot it again. On Thursday night I put together some pulleys, strings, weights and made my own project. When Dan forgot our project on Friday, I got credit and he didn’t.
These scientific investigations weren’t always encouraged. One day I’d set a metal panel from an old ironing board on my bedroom floor and filled a glass with water, which seemed a proper precaution, and was investigating the combustion capabilities of various materials with my brother. We’d just lit a crumpled sheet of newspaper when my father appeared, red and screaming. He didn’t notice the water, the metal plate or anything else. With belt in hand he whipped both of us at random dozens of times. We were covered with welts–shoulders, back, legs, neck, arms, me more than my brother. It hurt for days. I started becoming a quiet, sullen, resentful, fearful child. I’d call out at night for our dog Trixie, my favorite, but our other dog, George, would come. Trixie wasn’t happy in a houseful of kids. Once we brothers picked up her doghouse and shook it, which in our unconscious childhood perception seemed amusing–but she never went in it again. George was a true sweetheart, a sad-eyed beagle who came to a sad end. Our dogs had been wearing choke collars since our huge boxer/Great Dane mix Rusty had needed to be restrained–hardly a problem for a 25-pound beagle, but the collars remained. One day our neighbor from down the street found George hanging from a low fence. He’d jumped, his collar had caught and he’d strangled. Once he was gone I missed him severely, and cried myself to sleep for a long time.
I got glasses in the fourth grade. I was nearsighted, which I firmly believe was due to my hellish year in third grade. A fellow named Bates wrote a book called Better Eyesight Without Glasses which I later read; though many “scientists” pooh-poohed his “Bates Method”, he had a point. He said vision problems in childhood begin with a difficult situation. Children are unhappy and traumatized, but can’t escape. Their response to the psychological conundrum, the need for escape, is literally to not be able to see. Put glasses on a kid who doesn’t want to see and you’ve solved the symptom, but not the problem. Pretty soon the kid “needs” stronger, then stronger lenses, and soon can’t see without them. That was me. In third grade I was smaller, younger, miserable, stressed, but couldn’t escape the wicked witch, ogress, dragon lady. With every fiber of my soul I hated that class,  that room, the green blackboard, the yellow chalk. I learned the ridiculous Palmer cursive script with its ugly and idiotic broken backed “D”, which I practiced all day because my name was David, while “Carl” and “Alice” got a pass. When I was in class I “wasn’t living up to my potential”; when home I was bullied and whipped for unintentional and imaginary transgressions. It was a horrible time. I didn’t want to be there, to see any of it, and my vision worsened. By the next year I was wearing glasses.

Sports
We had field day that spring, and for the first time I won a ribbon. Competitions combined the first and second grade, the third and fourth, and the fifth and sixth. Age didn’t matter, so I always competed with kids who were one, two or sometimes three years older–but there were dozens of categories, and some events had forty competitors, others six. I managed to place second in the egg-and-spoon race. Other than my red ribbon, I’d earned a mimeographed “Rafter Club” tag in gym when I climbed the rope all the way to the rafters, but had no other athletic achievements. I wasn’t weak or klutzy, I simply never competed against anyone my age.
We played touch-football games in the yard with three- or four-man teams, and for awhile Kevin from across the street played a version with me and my younger brother. Since he was two years older, his one-kid “team” was considered equal to our two-kid team, but Kevin always won. When we’d pull off a good play he’d call on his supposed knowledge of football and, as referee, would take it back, assess a penalty or delay the game while he explained the rules. We’d ask him to tell us all the rules, but he’d say there were so many that we wouldn’t have time to play. Eventually we told him we’d wait while he explained them all, as adapted to our one and two-man teams, and we’d thereafter play by those rules and no others.
We’d called his bluff. He rattled off five or six, then lost steam. I asked him if there were more. He named two or three. I asked again. He named off one or two more. When he’d finished, my brother and I agreed with the rules and we commenced play. Inside of a minute he announced that one of us had broken a rule, but it was one he hadn’t named. Too tough for him. A couple plays later, it happened again. He quit the game, we won by forfeit and never played again.

My First Christmas Tree
When my father bought the family Christmas tree that year–for $6ºº–I bought a little one for my room, with my money, for $1.25. I decorated it and put it on my bookshelf, where it emanated Christmas cheer until well after St. Patrick’s Day.
Among my presents I got a chemistry set and an Operation Orbit, a toy which had been heavily advertised. I loved the chemistry set, but Operation Orbit was a noisy, jerky, cheap little imitation solar system made from tin and wire with a magnet for a “satellite”, which appeared to be a football left over from another game. The magnet would go wherever it wanted; you could supposedly control it by varying the speed and spin of the “planets”, but I certainly couldn’t. Quite a letdown. I tried every experiment in the instruction book with the chemistry set, however, and many variations which mostly produced sludge.
If I wasn’t doing well with athletics, at least I was doing well academically. At the end of the year I managed to pull a B in phys ed and one other subject, a C in penmanship, and seven As. It was the best I’d ever done, or as it turned out, ever would. When my father saw the report card, his only comment was, “we’ve got to see what we can do about that C”. Nevertheless, he owed me $7.50, as his incentive to us, opposed by my mother, was a dollar for each A and a quarter for each B. My little brother got $1.50 or so for his first grade report card; the rest weren’t yet in school. Everyone then went to Elitch’s, an amusement park where I was awarded several tickets for my As. We invited the kids from my old neighborhood in Boulder and all had a marvelous time, riding the little train and all the rides, then having pizza and a picnic in the park. It was a wonderful day, full of running and sunning and rollercoasters and carousels and bumper cars, all sugared over with endless pink and blue candies and popsicles and ice cream and cake and bright orange or green or purple drinks. Sugar wasn’t such a boogeyman then; sugar beets were a large part of the Colorado economy and you could have Sugar Smacks or Sugar Pops or Frosted Wheat for breakfast, with a couple extra spoonfuls of sugar and whole milk; later a “wholesome” cafeteria lunch had pudding or a brownie for dessert. Extra desserts were 10¢ each at a table in the cafeteria staffed by older students. One girl in particular would give two dimes and a nickel change when I bought a dessert for a quarter. For some months I brought a quarter to school specifically to buy a dime dessert on the couple days a week when this girl was cashier; she didn’t catch on and I never brought it up. I don’t think anyone else noticed; most kids would have a dime or two nickels or ten pennies anyway, or couldn’t do the math, or would buy two desserts with their quarter, for which they received the proper nickel change. Towards the end of the year, someone told her they’d received an extra dime, and that was the end of my bonus.
I’ve been surprised by some who contend that I shouldn’t have taken these freely offered dimes, though many are in possession of $1.29 pens and 79¢ sticky note pads they’ve lifted from work. In any case I remembered very well what had happened to a kid who’d been wrongly accused of attempting to steal a quarter, and kept my mouth shut.
My parents bought a brand-new, cream colored Volkswagen in 1961. VW for years had an advertisement featuring pictures of every year’s model, and I got to be good at picking out the changes. Ours had a large, squarish rear window, standard since 1958, lever-type door handles which were replaced by push-buttons the following year, small oval taillights and skinny, teardrop-shaped turn signals with clear lenses atop the front fenders. This was our first new car. It was very basic–no radio, no back-up lights, not even a gas gauge. There was a reserve tank which you opened when you ran out of gas, which gave you an extra few miles to find a gas station. If you’d forgotten to close the reserve valve you were out of luck, which was not good in Colorado.  There may have been 50 miles between gas stations, or even 100. You had a long walk, and there may or may not have been a car driving that same road that same day, who would maybe or maybe not pick you up.

Another Sister
My second sister was born in January, blonde and brown-eyed. There were five kids in the family now, all under eight years old–a lot to pack in a Volkswagen. An infant chair and two kids would fit in the back seat, and two more could squeeze into the luggage area over the engine, but nobody was comfortable. As a second car, though, it worked well. The ’56 DeSoto carried the family in comfort, plus extra kids if needed. The infant chair was a rudimentary little pouch and kids piled into any available space, including the floor. No safety belts, headrests, air bags, or for that matter disc brakes or pollution controls. The ’49 Chevy was sold, probably for $25.
I was in the 4-H Club (Head, Heart, Hands, Health). It was less structured than Cub Scouts. No uniforms, badges, salutes–though T-shirts were available, a green 4-leaf clover on the front, each leaf sporting an “H”. We’d meet at the houses of each kid in turn and all participate in an activity. When it was my turn we visited my Hungarian neighbor Bela’s basement darkroom, another kid had a backyard garden, another kid’s father showed us how to sharpen a knife and whittle. Once a kid named James made a huge pot of cocoa–his mother had a huge cookpot that held several gallons. He made it the old-fashioned way, stirring and cooking and skimming the mixture for the better part of an hour. When it was finished  James dipped out one last taste with a tablespoon. One of the kids made a funny comment, and James SPIT the cocoa back! Nobody would touch it, and James had four or five gallons to drink by himself.
Tom Michalowski was in 4-H. He lived a mile away and went to a different school, but soon enough we’d be neighbors. His mother had a nondescript station wagon and would sometimes drive the kids. One day she was stopped by the police. She didn’t get a ticket, but it was the first time she’d ever been pulled–in twenty years of driving.
One morning late that summer, a beautiful clear day, we had a fan pushing cool air from the basement.  Some of us were at the kitchen table, and I was in the doorway. A bolt of lightning suddenly climbed the basement stairs, twisted around the corner and hit the faucet. The basement windows were framed with steel and the pipes exposed, but the lightning passed through the basement window, up the stairs, into the kitchen, corkscrewed back and found the dripping faucet, leaving a small discolored pit!

Church
On Sundays everyone went to church. We’d been Presbyterians–my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister–but now we were Lutherans and my father had become a deacon in the modernist, pointy, tent-looking church on the edge of town with a mouthful of a name. Augustana Lutheran. I have a record of the choir among my LPs–the black and white album cover says “Augustana Sings” and my mother’s voice is somewhere in the mix. It hasn’t been listened to in over 50 years.  I may pull it out, someday…

Church never caught my fancy. I’d put on starchy clothes and sit quietly enough with large numbers of people in rows, but never understood the appeal. It was uncomfortable enough, but didn’t seem holy. What I did like was that once we’d slogged through our Sunday ritual we’d have ice cream. There was a round-topped fridge in our kitchen with a tiny freezer compartment; it’d hold two aluminum ice cube trays with lever pulls, a few juice cans and half a gallon of ice cream. Go to church, sit and fidget, come home, eat ice cream. Most Sundays we had Sunday school, and I’d color in lambs and lilies and long-haired men dressed in skirts,  but I’d rather have gone straight for the ice cream.
We were Lutherans for a few years, went back to the Presbyterians, attended Quaker meetings for awhile but eventually hung out and shared the Sunday paper over coffee. I was an avid reader. We had subscriptions to Boy’s Life, Newsweek, Life, Look, Reader’s Digest and every day the Denver Post. I read ‘em all, except for some of the denser parts of the newspaper, and stayed up nights reading by the night-light at the top of the stairs. At this I proved incorrigible–I couldn’t get to sleep, had nightmares–and so my parents replaced the 25w bulb at the top of the stairs with a 75w so I could read from the sliver of light showing through the door and not wreck my eyesight, which was already bad enough.

The Space Race

Harold Dunn was my first male teacher, outside of gym. He was a strong, tall fellow who wore his dark hair in the flat-topped buzz cut popular in 1962. His classroom had a very different atmosphere from those of women teachers, and I really liked him for several months, until one day some of us were standing along the back wall for some purpose. I was a bit distracted, and he slammed my head against the wall and yelled at me. It didn’t hurt, much, but I didn’t enjoy his class as much anymore.
I loved science, except when it was cruel to animals. There wasn’t a lot of biology in the 5th grade, it was more electricity and chemicals, but we saw several instructional films; some interesting, many boring, some disgusting and some unintentionally hilarious. One filmstrip began explaining the nervous system by showing a teenager driving a car. He had one of those wild-on-top and skinned-in-the-back haircuts which had been out of style since the Stone Age, and the car was a Model A convertible. As he drove, white lines representing nerves shot like lightning from his shoulder through his arm, elbow and hand while he signaled a right turn, and the class erupted with hilarity. Nobody used hand signals anymore; it started us giggling and we couldn’t stop. After about five minutes Mr. Dunn turned off the film, to our universal disappointment. It was far more fun than the common fare, featuring playful dogs and cats who ten minutes later would be dead and cut to pieces for “research”. I found these horrible and was permanently turned off to biology, though like every nine-year-old in 1962, I wanted to be an astronaut.
The Russians had sent up Yuri Gagarin the year before, for a full orbit of the earth–an actual man, not a dog or chimp, all the way around the earth–which the Americans had not done. Alan Shepard had ridden a capsule from Cape Canaveral into the ocean 300 miles away, as had Gus Grissom, and then the Russians had sent Titov around the earth 17 times. Finally, in February of that year, John Glenn made 3 orbits and an American had circled the earth. I was keeping up with it in various magazines and on TV. My parents got quite a lot of books by subscription through the mail, as weekly premiums for shopping at certain grocery stores or bought from door-to-door vendors–The Encyclopedia for Children, The Young People’s Science Encyclopedia, The World Book Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Brittanica, Metropolitan Seminars in Art and various other shiny, photo-illustrated volumes in science or art or history or mathematics–I loved them all. I had an erector set and a microscope and a telescope and a chemistry set and would spend my time in my room reading over experiments or scientific observations, and doing my own. Making ink was easy and fun–I’d mix together a few chemicals and have blue, or black, or blue-black, or green, or violet, or red, or yellow, or invisible ink and write with dip pens or suck the ink up into a fountain pen equipped with a rubber bladder and a built-in lever, or take a used cartridge out of a cartridge pen and refill it with my own ink. A popular pen at the time used plastic cartridges which one would drop into a hollow body, then screw on a fountain-pen type nib which was equipped with a hypodermic-style piercing point on the back side. Screw in the nib, it’d pierce the cartridge and the ink would flow. Once the cartridge was empty you could put in a new cartridge, or if you were a chemistry obsessed nine-year-old, dip the punctured end into a cup of home-made ink, squeeze it and fill the cartridge halfway full. If you were a chemistry-obsessed nine-year-old who was not particularly kempt, you could take the half-full cartridge, upend it, squeeze it again and repeat the process, staining your hands and probably your shirt and jeans and hair and cheeks and eyelids as well–or you could forget all about the cartridges and fill the body of the pen with ink, which would work pretty well if the ink didn’t get warm, expand and force its way out the threaded part of the body–which would only happen if, for example, you put the pen in your pants pocket, or shirt pocket, or left your notebook with the pen in it on the warm asphalt on the playground, or on a bench in the sun, or next to a heater, or anywhere which happened to be warmer than the ink was when it went into the pen–and as the ink was usually made with cold water, straight from the tap–
It was a good thing my father was the youngest of a big family, because most of my clothes came in packages sent from North Carolina by various uncles and aunts, who had several somewhat older boys between them. By the time I was finished my clothes, second-hand to begin with, were rags. My father was the same way; he’d tear apart a broken refrigerator or replace a lawnmower blade whether he was dressed for it or not.

The Old Home Place
We’d left North Carolina when I was a toddler, and I only vaguely recalled my father’s parents. My grandfather, a bushy-browed elder with wild white hair and a wheezy voice, had died at 87 shortly after my youngest brother was born; none of my brothers or sisters had met him. My grandmother was now 84. My mother’s parents had visited Colorado some years before, but my brothers and sisters hardly knew them either. It was time for a vacation.
My grandfather, Samuel Monroe Austin Jr., of Winkler’s Creek, had built a house in 1904 as a gift for his new bride Minnie Payne, of Payne Branch, a mile down the road. She insisted he build the bedroom from timbers from the cabin where she’d been born, in 1879 (Sam had been born in 1872). The timbers bore marks of the hand-adzes which had fashioned them a century before, the approximate span Austins had lived in the valley outside Boone. Nobody’s determined exactly when that was; the courthouse burned in the 1880s and the early records were lost. This happened a lot in the 1800s. A wooden courthouse packed with papers, and someone knocked over a lamp.
My mother’s family was far more diverse, from colonial Massachusetts and backwoods Indiana, northern Georgia and rural Florida. Her parents and some of her family now lived in South Carolina, a half-day’s ride from the North Carolina mountains.
The 1961 Volkswagen was too small for seven on a cross-country trip, and we traded it for a 1960 Volkswagen microbus. It was roomier, but low on power. The Volkswagen had been cream-colored and shiny, with a gray vinyl interior. The microbus was two tones of olive and not shiny. Its upholstery was cream colored and dinged up. The center seat was truncated and removable, and spent most of its time removed.
My father wanted to drive without stopping. He modified the interior of the bus with a sheet of plywood and a mattress. This covered up the seats, so that all five kids either lounged on the mattress or sat in the rear, a noisy and sauna-hot area above the tiny, underpowered, air-cooled engine, which with a full load wouldn’t push the bus over 60 miles per hour.  A pull-out shelf under the makeshift bed held a week’s worth of groceries and stowed gear, and we set out to reach North Carolina as quickly and uncomfortably as possible. The trip succeeded on both counts. Mother and father took turns driving while the kids took turns complaining. Occasionally one or two could share the blessed relief of the front seat while mother or father slept in back, and the rest of the time we’d lounge in the summer heat with our faces as near the the wimpy fold-out windows as possible. This was before Interstate highways, so there was a lot of fumbling with fold-out giveaway maps from gas stations and an Automobile Association of America Trip-Tik (a spiral-bound flip book with a suggested route marked in magic marker), trying to figure out if Triple-A had really marked the best route to get through Kansas City at rush hour or the construction around Indianapolis, all in the gritty, grimy summer heat of our overstuffed, overheated, slow, noisy microbus hell.
It wasn’t bad for the first few miles–eastern Colorado and Kansas–though flat as a board and boring, boring, boring. I took to buying local newspapers.  The national and international news was the same, as were most of the comics, but there were interesting local tidbits and suggestions for places to go, which my father ignored. He wanted to drive without stopping. “Let’s get there, so we can get back”, he’d say, as if the point of any trip was to finish it. It was his mantra. We’d drive there as fast as possible, then return as fast as possible. Grand Canyon five miles thataway? Forget it. Yellowstone straight ahead? We might see Old Faithful out the window. Disneyland! Bye-bye, Mickey! Maybe we can picnic at the scenic overlook? We’ll stop in the gas station parking lot.
We drove through the Kansas night and into the sunrise approacheing Missouri. A morning fog covered the valley, and the sun glowed a deep red with purple striations as it rose in dim majesty; the few stratus clouds painted spectacularly orange and yellow against a turquoise sky. A favorite tune of the time had the refrain, “the mornin’ sun is shinin’ like a Red-Rubber-Ball”, and for the first time I knew what it meant. Sunrises in Denver don’t have much color, the air is dry over the Great Plains and doesn’t break the sun’s rays into any colors but a little yellow and orange; the sunsets, behind the Rocky Mountains, are even less chromatic. There are lovely colors in Colorful Colorado, but not when the sun breaks the horizon.

At 6 am the Missouri weather was lovely, but by the time we reached St. Louis it was 104º, and muggy. The microbus was hotter yet. None of we kids had any idea what humidity was, especially combined with tropical temperatures. My baby sister had diaper rash and the rest of us had heat rash. Everyone was miserable. Wet bandannas on our heads didn’t help. Our T-shirts were soaked, but when we took them off we were still sticky and raw even with our arms held straight, a pose which couldn’t be sustained anyway. My mother had told us about summer school in Florida, where sweat would drip off her elbows and pool by her feet, and I’d read of it “glistening” on men’s arms and soaking through shirts, but I vaguely suspected that all such references were literary devices; in Colorado it didn’t happen. Except for little spots under the armpits, sweat didn’t soak through anything, and certainly never rolled off arms–that was rain. It didn’t glisten, either–that was suntan oil. I saw one instance, one only, when Scott Ericson came in after an exuberant game of “limo”, and sweat had soaked through his shirt in a small, inch-wide diamond at the center of his chest.  I couldn’t conceive of more sweat than that–until St. Louis. It was gritty, smelly, stuffy, muggy, steamy, broiling, frying, tire-popping hot, the most wretched inferno on the skin of the earth. We crawled through traffic for the next couple hours and I was never, ever so thankful, a few miles further, to be moving at something over 20 miles per hour, my face squashed against the 4” crack which passed for an open microbus window, getting a whiff of not-so-clean, not-at-all-cool air smelling of diesel smoke and manure. We drove through Illinois and Indiana and Kentucky that night and the next morning found the gentle rolling hills of Tennessee, which after the day before was as close to heaven as I thought possible.
We had a lovely week in Boone. I didn’t know my dozens of relatives, but they knew me. They talked funny, a slow Appalachian drawl, and we’d crowd around the dinner table at one house or another and eat buttered biscuits, fresh grown corn, string beans, mashed taters, stewed termaters, squash, sweet taters, melons, blackberries, watermelon and an occasional mango, washed down with gallons of sweet iced tea.
My father had five older brothers and sisters, the eldest 21 years older than him and the youngest, nine. They all lived within a few miles of the home place, though the 2nd oldest brother was often gone to faraway parts of the world as an engineer. All of them farmed, some more than others. We had many preachers and teachers in the family, and one banker. The old home property in my great-grandfather’s time had stretched for miles. He didn’t keep money in the bank, he bought land, which sometimes sold at auction for as little as 25¢ an acre. The land was steep, rocky, thickly wooded and the roads–well, trails–were nearly nonexistent, so it wasn’t such a prize when a man was expected to drive a team of mules 8 miles before sunrise to a job, work til sunset and drive them home, 6 days a week, for a 50¢ a day.
My great-grandfather wasn’t an educated man; he’d gone to school briefly, got as far as “Baker” in his spelling book and didn’t go back. He knew how to raise a crop and feed a family, though. He and his wife Mariah had 5 girls before she died in childbirth, just after the Civil War.
After the war, there was a scarcity of seed corn in Caldwell County, down the mountain, and a young war widow in the community heard of a man living near Boone who had some. She rode her horse up, followed the path by Winkler’s Creek, and as she approached saw five little girls in the yard playing. She asked them where she might find their pa. He was out in the “new ground” grubbing, so she tied up her horse, walked to the new ground, introduced herself and told why she’d come. He told her he was sorry, he was out of seed corn, but still had some “nubbins” (short, leftover ears of corn fed to animals) that they could pick through and see what they could find. They went to the house, picked through the nubbins, talked, and found enough kernels to make one peck. As he helped her back onto her horse, he told her she should let her neighbors have the corn, that she wouldn’t need any for her own planting, and a few days later he got someone to stay with his daughters and left to see Mary Rich. He told her he couldn’t be long and had to talk business. He said if she’d take her little girl and come live with his five they’d make a family. She told him she’d consider it for two weeks, and two weeks later he hitched up his wagon and went back to Caldwell. He loaded up her, her daughter and their belongings and brought them to Winkler’s Creek, where they unpacked as the six girls played around them. They had nine more children, one of which was my grandfather, and there spent the rest of their days.
Before the Civil War, my great-grandfather owned one slave, a rarity in those parts. The slave’s house was out back, and he ran the still. After the war he was a free man, but still lived in the house out back and still ran the still. That’s all I know. Slavery was part of daily life for all peoples of all countries for thousands of years, universal until the 18th century. Everyone, absolutely everyone, has both slaves and slaveholders in their family tree. The word itself comes from Slav, the blonde-haired, blue eyed eastern Europeans, who were captured and sold by Mongols. Arguing over who was worst or had it worst is pissing in the wind. Africans sold Africans, Europeans sold Europeans, Asians sold Asians. Races mixed. A few generations back every family springs from a half-black Portuguese pirate or a Frenchman visiting an Indian maid. It may not be talked about, but it’s so.

Ancestry and Heritage
My ancestry by DNA is about two-thirds English, Scottish and Welsh, one-sixth Iberian peninsula (Spanish, Portuguese, northern Africa),  one-twelfth Irish, one-sixteenth Scandinavian, a sprinkling of French, German, eastern European, and one percent from India. Caucasian? Less than one percent. Caucasian, I’m not.
Does that constitute all of my heritage? No. As is common with DNA, the aboriginal American in my bloodline flows through some of my brothers’ and sisters’ veins, but not mine. Zero percent. All of my grandparents claimed American Indian blood, and all were born in the Americas, which makes me in several ways Native American, but not by DNA. The further distinction that 1/2 or 1/8 or 1/512th of my direct ancestors arrived on the continent before others, or belonged to one tribe or another, or was bought or sold by one race or another, is petty and irrelevant.
It wasn’t talked about much in my family. My parents left the social and racial stratification of the South and East by moving to Colorado, where class and race were less important.
That’s most of what I know about my great-grandfather, my great-grandmother, their romance and their life. The farm was extensive in his time, but after being split between 15 kids, and my grandfather’s share between 6 kids, and my father’s share 6 ways more, there’s not as much left as you might think. There’s certainly more to know about my great-grandfather, but it’d take some digging and the interesting stuff would probably come from outside the family, because my relatives don’t talk much about whiskey-making and such. I don’t know much more about my grandfather. Sam grew up in the valley, and he and his brother George built homes there. Sam’s house was finished in 1904, and his new wife Minnie moved in with their infant son. He was 31, she 24. They had 5 children in the next 12 years, then 9 years later along came my father Ned. Sam made whiskey for awhile, before Ned was born, but only mentioned it to my father once, at which time Minnie shooed him off the subject. Most of the details of their early family life are unknown to me, as his brothers and sisters had moved out when Ned was still small and I grew up far away. My aunts and uncles only seemed to speak of family in glowing, angelic terms; according to them I’m from a long line of benevolent, wise teachers, preachers and assorted saints, but I heard whispers that Sam was a tyrant. My father’s brother Lewis in his 20’s was just as stubborn as Sam. Once they were in the rain fighting over how to drain a flooding pond. Sam didn’t want Lewis to hook up the mule, and when Lewis did it anyway, Minnie saw the look on Sam’s face. She called five-year-old Neddy, and in a great rush, pushed him into the attic with the shotgun. He hid, trembling, while his father bellowed and stormed below. Sam finally left to heave sticks and rocks at Lewis, but Lewis drained the pond.

Sam could be cruel, too. My father said that when he was seven, he’d been invited to ride along while the mules hauled a load of lumber, something exciting he’d never done before. The load was heavy, the mules balked, and Sam pushed him roughly off the wagon; he didn’t know why. My father was supposed to get his skinny little 50-pound butt off the wagon and tell the 1000-pound mules what to do, but he didn’t know. Sam whipped him and the mules both, and said to Ned he “wasn’t worth the powder and shot it would take to blow your brains out”.

Sam had a sawmill, and my father from hanging around with the sawmill hands had developed a salty tongue by age 5 or 6. In the 2nd grade he was considered the toughest kid in school until he challenged a new kid one day. New kid hit him, he hit the dirt. No more toughest kid.
My grandparents weren’t educated. Neither could read a newspaper, but they lived through the Great Depression, grew their own food, took whatever money they had and bought more land. They sent several kids to college, then my father went off to World War II, was captured by Germans, came back, went to college on the GI Bill, took up acting, married, moved to Colorado and came back on vacation in a Volkswagen microbus. My grandfather was gone now–I only vaguely remember an old guy who’d send reel-to-reel tapes and say in his quavery voice that there was always room on the farm if Ned and his family came back–come back, son, come on back–he’d say, wistfully. By that time he was blind and quite frail–he’d developed a strange condition previously unheard of outside of Sicilian fishing villages where the membranes of his body grew together, including his eyelids. By the time I was 5 years old, he was gone.
My grandmother and the rest were there, though. I had a new stopwatch and my grandmother would sit on the porch peeling apples while I raced around the house. She had half a thumb on her stopwatch hand and either couldn’t or didn’t know how to work it, but I’d run around, she’d tell me an odd number of seconds had passed and I’d be satisfied.
There was an old fellow from down the creek everyone called Uncle Pink who made chairs, and as a gift the family had bought us 6 chairs at a dollar each and a rocking chair at $4. Everyone had a chair. At the end of the week we tied them on top of the microbus and drove to South Carolina.

South Carolina
We drove straight from Boone to a beach cottage my mother’s parents had rented at Cherry Grove, which was then a tiny town considerably north of Myrtle Beach. My grandfather Ted had recently retired, partly to watch over my grandmother, who was having some physical problems. She’d been in a car wreck as a teenager, and had damaged her pituitary gland.
It was 1925. Her sister had been away to college and, home for the holidays, was taking everyone for a drive.  They were coming down a hill, the road was wet and as she turned to approach a bridge, the car’s rear end skidded and slammed into the abutment, injuring everyone and killing the youngest sister Roberta, for whom my mother was later  named. I never learned much about this young girl who died before my mother was born, but according to family lore when she was seven she and the family had gone on a mountain hike in Montreat, NC. There was a spring halfway up the trail and Roberta had raced ahead; by the time everyone else arrived she’d been splashing in the spring and had stirred it up. They arrived hot, tired and thirsty, but the spring was full of mud. She was scolded, and with her best second-grade spelling had looked up meekly and whimpered, “J-O-A-K”. This became a family saying and later spread, eventually even appearing in a movie, “The Buddy Holly Story”.
My grandmother from the day of the wreck onwards was left with diabetes and had to inject insulin. By the time she was 60 she’d lost feeling in her hands and feet; one day she burned herself badly on the stove and didn’t know. She wore very thick glasses by now, and had limited peripheral vision; if you walked up beside her and she turned your way she’d jump in bemused surprise. She was very pleasant, though; always had a sense of humor and didn’t complain about her infirmities.
The salt air was wonderful. I hadn’t remembered the beach, and none of my siblings had ever been there. The water was warm and gentle and we soon discovered a sandbar a ways out, shallow enough for a kid to sit and dig sand dollars and nicely preserved shells. One day I stepped on something sharp and saw, digging itself in, a lightning whelk. I pulled it out. It was about six inches long–but when I saw it in the seashell book mine was left-handed. Quite a bit later I learned that the same shells curve one way in warm waters and the other way in cold. I spent whole afternoons on the sandbar, hundreds of feet from shore but not more than knee deep. I could sit in the water, wade, float on my back, dig for shells in peace and relative privacy; it was far enough from shore to see everything but hear very little. In the evenings one of the mothers–my mother had a sister and a brother, each with two girls–would fix one of her specialties. We ate Mexican dishes several times a week in Colorado, but It proved nearly impossible for my mother to prepare one in South Carolina in 1963. A full day’s searching yielded a few canned tortillas packed in water. They were small, grey and tasteless, so she tried to make her own out of the locally available coarse yellow corn meal, ending up with giant, unsalted Fritos. The hot sauce was a bust, too–no spicier than ketchup mixed with water, and the chili peppers were little but undistinguished, mushy, superannuated pickles. It didn’t matter, we would’ve been satisfied with a steady diet of french fries and cold lemonade. We were at the beach! Life was grand! I had two blonde cousins, already toasted a nut brown from my uncle’s posting as a civilian engineer on the Pacific atoll Kwajalein, where they had lived for three years, and two fair-skinned and dark-haired cousins who had always lived in Clinton, SC, a few score miles down the road. All four girls were three or four years younger than I. It bothered Ted that his only son had had only girls; there’d be no great-grandchildren bearing his surname. He took a special interest in me in the next several years; alone among the cousins, my middle name is my mother’s maiden name–Jones. There was also the simple fact that I was his oldest grandchild, and the oldest boy in the only family with any boys in it.
He began to write me frequently, and I learned a lot about his youth. He’d been born in 1899, in the red clay hills of northern Georgia, the youngest of 8. By the time he came along all the family names had been taken, and he was christened Ted. Not Theodore, no middle name, just Ted. By the time he was 5 or so, he decided he wanted a middle name like his brothers, and this being rural Georgia at the dawn of the twentieth century there wasn’t anything complicated about it. His family asked him what name he wanted, and he thought maybe Otis–but then his brothers asked if it’d be his first name, with the initials OTJ, or his middle name, which would produce TOJ. He didn’t like either, and decided on a “W”. He had a brother Walter, and a brother William had drowned years before, so he decided on Wallace. Wallace Ted Jones was still called Ted, which was fine until he started filling out cards which asked for first name, middle initial and last name. After getting mail addressed to Wallace T. Jones he instead wrote in W. Ted Jones, and that’s how it stayed.
Ted was 18 when the United States entered World War I. He was in school but figured he’d be drafted after graduation and decided to take a motorcycle trip to see Georgia before that happened. He and a friend packed their saddlebags in the spring of 1918.
Georgia had no real highways and precious few paved roads in 1918. He and his friend carried along a substantial tool kit, with extra inner tubes and patches. They made many miles per day when the weather was good, but when rain came had to find any available shelter. A few days into their trip they pulled up to a farm house to wait out a storm. The farmer and his wife told them they should spend the night on the porch, but when the rain stopped there were still a couple hours of daylight and they wanted to get on their way. The farmer said, suit yourselves, but you won’t get anywhere. Back on their bikes, they discovered the farmer was right. They weren’t going anywhere on the slick wet clay of Georgia after a rain. They stayed on the porch.
Some days later they’d been riding. It was hot and they stopped for a break under a cherry tree. While they were picking cherries and relaxing they saw, on the horizon, a sheriff’s car coming. They hopped on their bikes and headed down the road a mile or two, then went down a cow path and behind a hill, where they hid out. A couple minutes behind them came the sheriff, who revealed to them his tracking method–”All I did, boys, was follow your dust!”
He and his friend spent the summer exploring Georgia, working here and there, then riding to the next town, but eventually the call came. Ted headed home to prepare for war. He was ready to hop on the train to boot camp when the news came through–the Armistice had been signed. Nobody was going anywhere.
Ted had no particular life plans and spent the next few years riding his cycle. The next year he rode to Florida, where he rode the first vehicle over a new bridge to the development which became Miami Beach. He spent a fair amount of time hanging out in pool halls and smoking cigars, but one day from the clear blue heard a calling–to preach! He didn’t, couldn’t, believe it, and spent six months telling himself it never happened, but eventually gave in, went to school and became a Presbyterian minister. As part of his training he decided he couldn’t very well preach against the evils of alcohol if he’d never tried it, and deliberately got roaring drunk one night under the watchful eye of his brother.
Some years later, Ted met Eloise Knight. They married and spent several years traveling a circuit of churches around the South, raising a family. They mostly lived in central Florida, where Eloise’s family had business interests, but when my mother was eight or so he took a position near the army base in Fayetteville, NC. One day it snowed, and the road in front of his house was jammed; every soldier knew the kids from Florida had never seen snow, and slowly drove by the preacher’s house to watch my mother and her siblings throw snowballs.
About this time the family had to drive to Florida. It had sleeted, and Ted saw a sign by the road advising travelers to use chains. He pulled into the nearest gas station, where they happily fitted him with chains–on all four wheels! The sleet soon disappeared, but he went crunching down the flat, dry pavement mile after mile. Eventually one, another, another link broke and slapped into the fenders, making a terrible racket, but Ted had no idea how to remove chains and thwacked down the highway several more miles before finding a place to take off the brand-new, ruined chains.
The family moved back to Florida the following year, where my mother grew up, played clarinet in the band and worked as a lifeguard in the summertime, but she never forgot the mountains of North Carolina. She decided to go there to a summer music camp, heard about an outdoor drama starting in Boone, got into the cast, met my father, moved to Denver, had 5 kids and was now pregnant with a 6th, at the beach in South Carolina. After a week we putt-putted home again, the microbus with the chairs on top rarely reaching 60 miles per hour, and that fall I entered 6th grade.
Not So Smart, Finally–
I began my last year at Montclair Elementary,  which also became our last year in the Rosemary Street neighborhood. Mrs. Rupert was my teacher, a kindly middle-aged woman with reddish-brown hair, graying at the temples. I was again one of the smartest and smallest kids in the class, at four-foot-eight. There was one boy my size, another egghead with glasses named Jay Steinberg, and one or two girls. Pam Grismore towered over me now, so much so that I seemed to look straight up into her nostrils.

It was a good year. My teacher thought me middling intelligent but less than extraordinary, and I was overjoyed to be living up to her non-expectations. Occasionally I’d be frustrated, as when Jay and I marked a poorly worded test question “false”, because it was mostly true but contained one false element. To a couple scientifically-minded kids the answer was therefore “false”. We argued with Mrs. Rupert and she finally admitted that the statement was indeed partially false, but didn’t change our scores.
Sixth grade was easy. I walked or rode my bike to school, and had lots of time in the afternoon. There was a grass-topped reservoir between the school and my home next to one of the busier streets, Quebec Street. I crossed it going to school and when I was young I’d go into Quebec St. and leave just enough space for the cars, then tap their side-view mirrors or door handles as they passed. It seems insanely dangerous now, but it was my ritual.
The reservoir was a city block in size, elevated ten or fifteen feet, flat on top, covered with sod. There were rows of bushes around the sides and a kid could scramble to the top in a few seconds. There were mechanical-looking pumps on either end painted silver, but unlike other green expanses in the neighborhood there were no backstops, fences, sports markings or anything else. It was simply a square green grassy field, elevated and surrounded by rows of bushes, a reasonably private place in the middle of a residential area, a peaceful place where the traffic sounded like a distant ocean. The paths between the bushes were good places to hide or to race with friends. Both could start in a corner, run in individual rows and not see each other until emerging at the far end. There was a fair amount of trash behind the bushes nearest Quebec St. and occasionally items left by picnickers, or forgotten, in the field–sweaters, tennis balls, baseball mitts. Sometimes we’d find bird’s nests or unusual rocks, and one time I found a clay ball full of arrowheads. I brought it home, washed away the clay and there were fifteen or so. I thought it an ancient Indian artifact but my father thought it more likely left by a prankster.
In the years since I’d begun at Montclair, Denver had grown and the Annex had filled up again. When I’d left the Annex there’d been only first graders remaining. Our neighbor Kristen started first grade the next year, but those first graders stayed in the annex for second and third grade, so though we were only a year apart, she went one way down the street and I went the other until she was in fourth grade, and I in the sixth. I met her at the reservoir on the way home one day and was amazed by how she’d grown. She was with a couple friends, and showed me a certain goofy look; she’d cross one eye but not the other. I’ve used that goofy look ever since.
My brother Robin was a few months younger than Kristen, but a year behind her, and also went to the Annex for first, second, and third grade. As it worked out, we never once went to school together. My youngest brother Sam was a year and eleven months younger than Rob, but was old enough, by twenty-two days, to be only one year behind him. The end result was that I never went to school with any of my five brothers and sisters, while they nearly always went to school together and were even sometimes in the same classes. This led to a weird disconnect between me and the rest of my family. I hung out with a totally separate crowd. I didn’t know any of my siblings’ friends or take part in any of their activities. Some of this was simple chance, but some was due to the inordinately grand expectations of my father, who was sure that since I was smarter than everyone else, I should also work ten times harder, and never believed that I’d finished my homework. They’d play in the yard or on the piano, but I’d be doing hours of homework. Every year the rest of the family did theatre productions together, but I couldn’t be in any of them. Homework.

Denver schools had just begun giving standardized tests at the end of the sixth grade. There were about a dozen categories, and when the scores came back I’d scored 12.9–high school graduate level, the best score possible–in about five of them, 12+ in a couple more, an 11.7 and a couple 10.6s or 10.4s. My worst scores were 9.9 and 9.4, in mathematics. It was the best any sixth-grader had ever done in Colorado, and as I was also a year younger it meant I was perennially to be shoveled into advanced classes, whether I was interested or not. Mrs. Rupert lived close to my father’s barber shop and they’d often meet in the grocery store, or she’d drop by. She’d always apologize for not recognizing my potential, and crap like that, but for me that was THE reason that the year I spent in her class was one of the happiest of my life. Ever after, I’d end up in algebra when I wanted wood shop, or physics instead of art. The Russians were ahead of us. America needed scientists. Me. It was my duty, not my desire.
A couple months into the 6th grade, my youngest sister was born and we were six–three blonde, curly haired, blue-eyed boys, Dave, Rob, and Sam, and then three sisters, Fran, Genny, and Laura, all brown eyed and straight-haired. Fran was brunette and Genny blonde, but Laura’s hair was fiery red. Before I’d seen her, my father’d told us she had red hair like Margaret in Dennis the Menace, and I at first thought her name was Margaret. My mother’s obstetrician was Dr, Bradley. He believed in the unusual idea of natural childbirth, and his “Bradley method” soon was quite popular.
Kennedy. Gone.

And then Kennedy was shot.

Each generation experiences a moment which seems to suck all the oxygen out of the world. We were on the playground when the rumors trickled in; I was playing four-square. Kennedy’s been shot. He’s in the hospital. He’s dead. No he isn’t. After lunch, everyone was herded into the auditorium and a tiny TV was rolled out on the stage. Six hundred of us watched a luminescent glob for the rest of the day. For the next few days, the news played nonstop on every channel all day long. We didn’t go to school.  Our mothers cried. Our little sisters, who had no idea what was happening, cried. Our Hungarian neighbors were terrified–“What’s going to happen now? Is the army going to seize power?”. For a week nobody wanted to play. Nobody wanted to watch TV either, but we did. Johnson was sworn in. Oswald was shot. We all saw it happen. Jack Ruby did it. Our dead president was carried down the street behind a bunch of horses. Buried under an eternal flame.

And then we all went back to school.

I had a den in the basement that fall, with our old green Arvin TV propped on a desk.  It was our original television, but the picture was weak and it was easier to see in the dim light of the basement. It was cooler down there too. In the World Series that year the New York Yankees faced the Los Angeles Dodgers. My mother was sitting on the porch while I watched the final game, and heard a whoop simultaneously coming from me in the basement and Kevin across the street, who’d been listening on his radio. The Dodgers had won the World Series! Sandy Koufax had taken out the Yankees and Los Angeles had beaten New York, four in a row! I may have been born in New York, but I was a Western kid.  I liked the Yankees, individually; Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford, but I was tired of the Yankees always winning. Sandy Koufax had been born just a few miles from me. He was my hero.

The Beatles came to America. More astronauts went up. The Ford Mustang made its debut. Johnson ran against Goldwater. Life was normal.

The Mayfair

My father had worked at Harold’s Barber Shop since the barber in the second chair developed persistent hiccups and had to quit. He began to hiccup one day, and couldn’t stop. Every twenty minutes or so he’d have a hiccuping fit, and couldn’t cut hair anymore. He eventually set a world record, after hiccuping almost continuously for years. The barber in the third chair moved to the second and my father was hired for the third. Harold later sold the shop to my father, who re-named it the Mayfair (the name of the shopping center) and moved into the first chair. That spring we remodeled it, and that fall he fired the shoeshine man.

I liked Curtis Mitchell. He was an old black fellow who’d been shining shoes and cleaning up at night all his life. He was an artist with the shoeshine rag, popping it, twirling it around, producing a brilliant shine in just a couple minutes. On a Sunday or a Monday, when the barbershop was closed, he’d take me fishing. We’d talk a little, but he was pretty quiet, so as not to scare the fish. He’d catch a fish or two, but I never did. I never saw him drink, and he wouldn’t for weeks at a time, but once in awhile he wouldn’t show up on Tuesday, and everyone knew he was hung over. On Wednesday he’d doze off, but he’d be back on his game by Thursday and do well for several weeks. After awhile, though, he got worse; he’d miss Wednesday and show up on Thursday shaking with delirium tremens. He’d take a broom and chase nonexistent snakes from under the chairs. After awhile, he wouldn’t be at home when he didn’t show up, he’d be in the hospital. My father carried him for a long time, but one day I had to razor off  “by Mitchell” from the big painted “Shine by Mitchell” sign on the window, and I was the shoeshine boy.

There were better shoeshine boys. When a customer would come in I’d walk up nervously and blurt, “Shine, sir?”, then boogey back to my chair to read  MAD Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Time, CRACKED, Life, US News & World Report, Newsweek, LOOK, The Saturday Evening Post, CARtoons, True, Argosy, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, CycleToons, Mechanix Illustrated, the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver POST. We had ‘em all and I read ‘em all. I spent a lot more time reading than shining shoes or talking. The barbers kept up with sports–barbers keep up with anything which can start a conversation–so I did too.

I got $2 for sweeping up at night, but a fair amount I won playing poker. On Saturdays particularly, the barbers would put away all their things, my father would buy a six-pack, lock the door and everyone would play penny-ante poker. I was good at poker, and would often make five or six dollars shining shoes but win or lose seven or eight. I kept track, though, and won far more than I lost.

There were six kids now in the house on Rosemary Street, and it was getting cramped. We looked around, and once again found a house which was older but bigger. Late that summer we moved in.

Spruce Street

The new house was almost twice as big as the old, and my parents bought it with a VA loan for $16,500. The price included a 4-car garage and a cottage out back where a middle-aged widow already lived with her elderly mother. We kept the Rosemary Street house and rented it out, and the rent from the two houses paid the mortgage. It wasn’t difficult to move what furniture we needed the 7 blocks from one house to the other, especially as we left a lot of things for the new tenants, and the new house came partially furnished. It had been split into two apartments, upstairs and down, and so had two living rooms, two bathrooms, two kitchens and four bedrooms, plus a huge unfinished basement wherein dwelt a many-tentacled monster of a furnace, originally coal-fired but converted to natural gas, circulating heat through the house by gravity. My father would have many adventures servicing that furnace.

My parents took the big bedroom downstairs while the smallest bedroom, behind them, was used for storage and study. I moved into a small bedroom upstairs, my two brothers into a larger one and my three sisters into the largest, which had formerly been the upstairs living room. The upstairs kitchen became a laundry room, but there was still a small fridge in it which I used to keep snacks cold. Again I was in a room by myself, and set to go to a different school. It was a pattern.

One of the first big purchases I made was a TV. I saw a television for sale for $35 which I could have afforded, a “portable” 1948 model. It was a cube about 2 feet by 2, with a squashed oval picture tube about 9×12″ peeking out the front. It had a certain charm, but I settled on a newer model with a bigger picture and a $20 price tag. The cherry on top, for me, was an  electro-mechanical innovation. I had remote control!

There were two lever-type buttons on top, one for power, the other driving an electric motor which kachunked loudly through the channels. On the back were screws on either side to hook up wires for remote buttons, which I promptly did. I was the first person I knew who could sit in a chair or lie in bed and, from across the room, push a button to change the channel or turn the set on or off. Couldn’t set the volume or adjust the tuning, though.

We were in the new house, at 1690 Spruce St., for only a couple of weeks before school started. Everyone I knew from my old neighborhood, six blocks away, was going to a junior high named Hill, but I went to Smiley, in a far different neighborhood, and never saw most of my Montclair classmates again. At Montclair there’d been at least 90% white kids, with a few Latino and Jewish and only a handful of black kids sprinkled in. Denver had never been segregated, one of its attractions for my liberal Democratic parents, but it had different neighborhoods. Smiley was about 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 others when I began, but over the next three years became almost 90% black. It was a tougher school, and as the youngest kid out of a couple thousand, and at four foot nine one of the shortest and least-developed physically, I was a timid, fearful, half-blind mole who hid in the corners as much as I could. It was a huge change–instead of one teacher and twenty-some classmates whom I’d known for years, I now had eight teachers a day and hundreds of classmates, all strangers, plus a “counselor” whose sole purpose seemed to be to shuffle through my test scores for ten seconds and inform me that whatever classes I’d chosen were wrong. Instead of art appreciation, I needed advanced algebra, and composition was a much better choice than wood shop. I wanted to get into a good college, didn’t I?–his statement, not mine–and I’d be shoveled into four classes I didn’t want. I wouldn’t see the counselor until the next semester, when he’d blink, stumble over my name and inside of seventy seconds enroll me in four more classes I didn’t want. I was the smartest kid in the school, my achievement tests proved it; I was small, bespectacled, an eggheaded child genius. America needed rocket scientists to beat the Russians, and what I wanted was irrelevant.

I did worse in school–a relative term, I mostly made Bs–and had pounds of homework to struggle through every night. I wasn’t meeting the stratospheric expectations of my teachers, my parents (particularly my father), or anyone else in the academic community who’d heard about me. Nobody’d thought yet how many nuclear warheads we needed, the answer was more! more!–and my classmates’ parents were building! building! them a few miles down the road. To launch them we needed rocket scientists–study! study!–and any kid who knocked the top off the achievement tests was destined! destined!–or doomed! doomed!–to be one.

I wasn’t alone, though. The first day of school in my new neighborhood I got off the bus and into a conversation with a kid who was walking my way. His name was Mike, or Monk to his family, and we walked first to his house, then to mine around the corner. He became a life-long friend.

Monk was also the oldest of six–three brothers and three sisters, like me. He was a year and four months older, but we were in the same grade. We had endless conversations, on three topics–science, religion, and coins. I had a good coin collection, but within a few weeks he’d been given a coin collection by a much older relative. Better than mine, but not by much. I’d take coins over to his basement bedroom and we’d look them over, compare, trade duplicates and occasionally make a transaction, but for all the talk only a few coins a month ever changed hands.

The middle-aged widow who lived in the cottage behind our new house was Mrs. Baumer, and her mother was Mrs. Bullard. Mrs. Bullard had an extensive coin collection, and I visited her often, attempting to trade some of mine for some of hers, but she never traded many, though she gave me a lot for doing odd jobs around the property. At 11 I didn’t understand that it meant little to her to trade a few quality coins for a large number of my seconds, even if their value was in her favor, but at 80 she was happy to see my enthusiasm. I was the landlord’s son, and I’d pound a few nails into loose pickets or clean out gutters in exchange for coins which were actually a good bit more valuable than my services, and soon my collection was equal to Monk’s.

I’d learned something about wiring when I was in 4-H, and one day came home to find my father puzzling over how to install a 3-post switch for a light which could be turned on from the garage and turned off at the cottage. I took a stick and drew him a picture in the sand, and in future years he frequently talked about it. If I would’ve known the effect my sand drawing would later have on my life, I’d have never drawn it. He was proud of me, but suddenly, intensely  jealous. That jealousy never went away.

The Treehouse

Monk and I soon decided to build a treehouse. I bought a sturdy hammer for $6, which I still have. We had a massive elm tree in the back yard, taller than our house. I’d thought we’d have a treehouse a few feet off the ground like the Martinez boys, but Monk wanted it high. He always wanted to get high; a theme which would define his life. From the treehouse we could look down into what were essentially third-storey windows–our house, two storeys high, was built on a rise and was much taller at its back. We nailed boards into the trunk for a ladder and hung a long, sturdy, knotted nylon rope to climb on. The treehouse was essentially a platform; we tried putting in walls, but it was high enough to assure privacy without them, and we didn’t have much of an idea how to construct walls anyway. There were a couple shelves, a wooden trunk for comics and a desk lamp with a long cord that plugged into a tap hanging from the back porch light.

At eleven, my tastes in comic books ran towards DC’s superheroes–Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, the Justice League of America. Loop Drug, run by a Chinese family, was three blocks away, and as kids we’d pick through comics and buy a few at 12¢ each under the watchful, silent eye of Granny, who only spoke Chinese. As soon as we’d reach for Playboy, though, Granny would disappear and one of the parents would shoo us off. I had a big collection of DC comics and a few others, some Archies, with Betty and Veronica and Jughead, plus a few Classics Illustrated and off-brand Charlton comics  about fighting soldiers, knights or cowboys. Soon, though, I discovered Spider-Man, issue #14. The Green Goblin.

I was hooked. Peter Parker was ever so much more interesting than Clark Kent and Jimmy Olsen; here was a high-school kid with actual human issues in his life–an elderly aunt, girlfriend trouble–but one day had been bitten by a radioactive spider. Too cool! I eagerly awaited each new Spider-Man comic and read the other Marvel comics in the meantime–Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Dr. Strange. I joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society by sending off 69¢ in pocket change taped into an envelope, for which I received some weeks later a variety of buttons and trinkets and stickers and such which I plastered on my notebooks and book covers. I forgot about Superman. I’d still pick up the Flash once in awhile, particularly after Kid Flash got a new snazzy yellow-and-red getup, and sometimes Batman, but DC comics started losing their appeal. One day in particular I bought a comic that said on the cover, in big letters, “Batman is DEAD!”, took it home and discovered the story was about a writer who penned “another Batman yarn” and then went to his “what-if” room to think about “what-if” the rubber gun had actually fired and “what-if” Batman had died–”what if? What If?? WHAT IF??!!” the next panels said–and only then the story about WHAT IF Batman died. I felt snookered out of 12¢ and don’t think I ever bought another DC comic again. A few months later I saw the “letters” comments in a friend’s Batman about what a great idea the “what-if” room was. I imagined thousands of letters in protest, with three cherry-picked and published. It was truly traumatic–if I couldn’t trust BATMAN, then who? Then WHO?? THEN WHO??!!

The Theatre

My parents, especially my father, loved the stage. He’d be in several productions a year, and my family would be in one or two together, except for me. As the resident genius, I had “too much homework”.

Oh, well–stage productions with me in them seemed uniformly disastrous anyway. At ten I was a Roman guard in a bible school play; I had no lines, but when the time came for the production I learned my costume was a shiny white pair of underwear, and NOTHING ELSE! I didn’t mind the stage, but at age 10 was petrified of appearing IN UNDERWEAR and couldn’t be persuaded that it was really a skimpy little silk bathing suit. That was WORSE, because it looked even more like a GIRL’S BIKINI BOTTOM. When it came time for the performance, one of the shepherds wore a large T-shirt while I guarded the door in his robe.

A few years later, my 6th grade Spanish class was producing Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in Spanish, and I was Baby Bear. We rehearsed for several weeks, but on the day of the play Goldilocks was sick. It was rescheduled, but the next day she was still sick. She was still out on the third day, and as she had no understudy, our play was cancelled.

Not long afterwards,  Bonfils Theatre produced Gideon, my first professional production since I’d earned accolades portraying “Three-Week-Old-Baby” in The Horn in the West. I was Jether, the shepherd boy.  Although it took a lot of my time it didn’t engage much of my brain, as I had no lines. Jether did, however, have black hair, which was sprayed in each night and later washed out as rivulets of black muck, coursing down my face and shoulders and remaining in the bathwater during my now-obligatory nightly bath, settling into every wrinkle of my body, giving me a weird, old-man Goth freak appearance the following day. My hair was always nasty, and more of the black goo would wash out in the showers in gym class, where it would pool in my eyebrows, under my eyes and around my nose. After that play everyone in the family decided that henceforth they would DYE their hair when necessary, with the result that everyone had red hair for Life With Father the following year–except me, because I wasn’t in it, having survived that spring an absolutely traumatic school play, the worst-ever production in the history of the world of West Side Story. A neighborhood improvement organization with a government grant put it on. The director was a community organizer who obviously had no theatre experience whatsoever.

I was encouraged to audition, and got a small part. Within a week, though, several of the major characters had quit. Through attrition and poor casting decisions I landed as Officer Krupke. Other portrayals were worse. The gang members were muscular and fifteen, but their supposed leader Tony was another undersized eleven-year-old. Tony and I wore glasses and had high, squeaky voices. Tony’s girl Maria was a fully matured, top heavy black girl, several inches taller than Tony, and she had a deeper voice. For months we rehearsed it from the beginning, running out of time halfway through the second act. A week or so before the premiere, our director realized we didn’t yet have a full play, and started rehearsing the final scene. A quick scene was improvised a day or two before the performance to tie everything together, and then the search for props began. An A-frame ladder was quickly put into service as a balcony, a refrigerator box became a building and a door laid on its side was a fence. Since none of us had even tried to sing, a tape of the Broadway production was cued up in an old reel-to-reel tape player, with a microphone backstage hooked to the public address speakers in the auditorium–a system which had not yet been tested when the doors opened for the first matinee.

The end result was incomprehensible. The first few minutes went all right, but then everything fell apart. Preadolescent, pasty-white, bespectacled gang leader Tony squeaked across the stage falling in love with a much taller and older black girl ,who appeared to be one of the cafeteria ladies, while she perched on a ladder for no particular reason. Once Tony had professed his love, in his high soprano, and Maria had responded, in her contralto, the singing began. The tape was set at the wrong speed, and chipmunks shrieked out the first few words of “Tonight, Tonight” at five times the volume of the dialog on stage. Tony and Maria then waited, blinking, arms limp by their sides, for twenty minutes while the sound technician fumbled and mumbled, the speakers popping and rumbling, mangled tape sounds squawking occasionally from the superannuated tape player as it tediously, fitfully groaned to life–halfway through the wrong song.

Another ten minutes. “MMMuuuhh——–rrr—rr————rr———rrrria, I’ve just met a girl named Maria!” finally boomed forth in an operatic tenor several dozen decibels louder and lower than Tony had seemed capable of, while he and Maria waved their hands and lip-synched badly, Maria perched like a house painter above. Catcalls came from the audience and a couple cold drinks flew from the balcony. The audience below screamed at the jokesters above, the curtains closed, the lights came on and the assistant principal strolled onstage to make several choice threats before the play continued. When the curtain rose, there was a refrigerator crate next to the ladder, with a door leaning sideways on its lower half. A gang member stepped from the crate and told another Jet what had happened offstage, explaining all the missing scenes–the dance, the war council, the rumble, the two gang members stabbed–the Reader’s Digest version of the middle two-thirds of the play, and then I, Officer Krupke, blew my whistle and shouted the two lines my role had been reduced to. About this time a fight broke out in the hallway and the audience poured out to watch. We played the final scene, with screeching overwhelming the dialog, to about a dozen stragglers.

That was our only performance. The remaining three were cancelled, and our months of rehearsals were over. It was the last time I took on what was supposed to be a major role. I was in a few plays later, but never took a large part. This proved wise, as all further theatrical productions I was involved in came to similar ends. Once I contributed money, then wasn’t notified that the first two performances were relocated and the third cancelled. I missed the play AND the cast party. The rest of the cast drank up my money.

It was different for the rest of my family. They were in several plays, sometimes separately but often together; some of them were clinkers, but several were notable successes. One of them, A Christmas Carol, was put on at Christmastime for several years. All of my family was in it. Except for me.

The Great Treehouse Fire

When we’d finished the treehouse it had a couple shelves and a storage box where I kept my comics. I kept the lamp under the shelf, out of the weather. It was October now, so before the first big snow, I stowed my comics and turned off the back porch light from inside the house, which also turned off the power to the treehouse. Later that night my father, whom we’ve already established didn’t understand wiring very well, decided to make sure the power to the treehouse was off. From inside the house he turned the porch light on, then went outside and pulled the chain coming from the tap into which the treehouse cord was plugged. This had the opposite effect from what he’d intended, turning OFF the porch light but turning ON the power to the treehouse. The lamp got wet, shorted out the switch and and turned itself on. The comics burned to a crisp, the fire burned through the shelf, then the snow put out the fire. All my comics were carbon, though the treehouse itself only had one little dark spot on the floor where the wood had been scorched. That was the Great Treehouse Fire of 1964. Afterwards I ran the wire from the window of my room.

Once in awhile Monk or I would be in the treehouse and need to pee. Instead of going back to the house, it was more convenient to pee off the porch, so to speak. One day Monk was below, saw a pause in the action, took hold of the rope and with a Tarzan yell AIEEEEE swung through the pee-stream area. He claimed I couldn’t hit him–I was over two storeys above–so I tried. He took off again, AIEEEEE, and swung through before the pee-stream got there. I paused about half-a-second and he yelled AIEEEEE again, but this time I’d resumed early, and he swung right into it!

After the success of our treehouse, I thought it’d be nice to have another in a smaller tree across the yard. I pulled a pallet into the other tree, maybe eight feet up. I’d found a place to attach it and was putting in the second nail when it gave way. I grabbed at the nearest branch, slipped and fell hard into the branch below, then down onto a picket fence. Fortunately I landed between the pickets and far enough to the left to avoid squashing my nuts, but from that day I’ve had a couple distinguishing physical features. I hit the branch hard enough to separate the cartilage in my ribcage from the bottom left two ribs, leaving it lopsided, and I developed an extra nut or “water ball” from the glancing blow to that sensitive area. I wasn’t injured enough to take any other action than hobbling the rest of the day and going to bed early, but later that evening, wearing nothing but socks and an oversize T-shirt, I met a visitor who came to recruit me into the Boy Scouts. I’d enjoyed the Cub Scouts and thought it would be fun, so I talked Monk into it as well.

It was a mixed bag. The activities in Boy Scouts are largely dependent on the initiative of the scoutmaster, and we had a lazy scoutmaster. Monk and I went to the church basement on Mondays for scout meetings, but about all the scouts did was play basketball, which I sucked at, or wrestled, which could have been OK except we weren’t divided by age or height but by weight. At 11 years old and 95 pounds I was in the same weight class as the scoutmaster’s 16-year-old son, a foot taller and about 10 pounds heavier. The scoutmaster’s 11-year-old son was the same height as me and almost the same weight, but because the official governing body of whatever bogus organization decided these things said my weight class was 95 and up, and his was 94 and down, I was stuck. If basketball was unpleasant, wrestling was torture.

There was one reason, above all others, I wanted to be a Boy Scout. My family did a lot of camping, and I wanted to camp with the scouts. A certain weekend was chosen in the springtime, and I eagerly anticipated the trip. I bought the sleeping bag, the pup tent, the canteen, the Sterno stove, the permanent match, the hatchet , the Swiss knife with the can opener and corkscrew and saw, the collapsible cup, the magnifying glass, the fork-spoon-knife set and a bottle of chlorine pills to treat the water, and then the camping trip was cancelled. More weeks went by, another weekend chosen, again cancelled. It was late summer when we FINALLY got ready. I eagerly packed all my stuff, probably 50 pounds more than necessary, and arrived at the church at 7:30 in the morning.

And waited. And waited. Two hours. Three hours. In the sun. No water. No snacks, we were told not to bring any. I didn’t want to tote the pack up to the store two blocks away so I could get a drink, it was heavy–and I didn’t want to leave it, all my stuff was in it. It was nearly noon, Thirsty and hungry, I put on my pack and trudged home. My mother called every phone number we had. Nobody there. We checked the schedule–the time was correct. Several hours later, we got hold of Monk’s mother. Monk had gone camping. The scoutmaster had called up everyone in the troop–everyone, that was, except me–and delayed the trip yet again. They’d left at noon. I’d missed them by ten or fifteen minutes.

I was overjoyed to learn, after the weekend, that the camping trip had been a disaster. They’d gotten to the campsite in the mountains way late, set up tents in the dark, gathered wood and just when it was time to start a campfire, down came a gully-washer, the kind of summer storm in the Rocky Mountains that you run from and seek whatever possible shelter while thunder and lightning flashes and hail comes down the size of peas, then marbles. Several of the tents were flooded and wrecked. In the morning Monk got into a fight with the scoutmaster’s son–the one who’d tossed me around for months–and thrashed him good. Monk was 13 now, but sturdy; he’d always been in the next higher weight class and was more than capable of thrashing a skinny 16-year-old with thin arms and a big mouth. By Sunday night everyone was home, and Monk and I had both quit the Boy Scouts. I had nothing but choice words for scouting for years afterwards.

I’d been assembling plastic models for a couple years now; I had dozens. I’d go to the hobby shop and buy one for 49¢ and a tube of glue for a dime, then assemble a Model A, a Spad, a Mustang. Monk had some monster models–Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein; also Superman, Batman and the like. I also had monster models, but mine were odd creatures driving “funny cars”, a popular series. One day we decided to have monster wars–throw monsters at each other, break them and glue them back together any which way. Pretty soon Batman had the Creature’s head, Frankenstein was wrapped in bandages and driving a funny car, etc. It was great fun. By the end all our models were masses of plastic and globs of glue.

The “Sixties”

I’ve always felt “the Sixties” started in 1965. There was a lot happening in the first half of the decade, but there was a way of thinking, acting, dressing, living and loving, universally accepted in 1960, which was not much different from 1950. By 1970 everything had changed, much of it starting in 1965, and the “sixties” feeling, the zeitgeist, persisted through the early ‘70s; a flame ignited by Vietnam, extinguished when Nixon resigned.

In 1965 I was helping my father renovate the barbershop. We’d repainted the walls and windows, replaced old benches with comfy chairs, installed indirect lighting and acres of mirrors, a vacuum system (which didn’t work) and a brand-new color TV, recessed into the wall in an absolutely cutting-edge fashion. We didn’t have color TV at home, and wouldn’t for a couple more years, but 1965 was the first year color broadcasts were truly widespread. NBC would go all-color in 1966; the other networks the following year. My father thought color TV would be good for business, and it was. While we were cleaning and renovating that afternoon–the third Sunday in January, 1965–a local channel presented a debate between two men about a little country a long way away called Vietnam. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of it, but this time I paid attention, mostly because the fellow arguing against the war was my old best friend’s father–Elliott Goldstein. I listened to him. He was well-organized and his points were thoroughly researched, while the other fellow spouted platitudes about what the government “surely” knew, that they “had their reasons”. Trust the government, he said, they have smart people who know best, and we need to stop communism. It’s evil, and if we don’t do it there, they’ll take over South America–but Elliott Goldstein was sharp, passionate, and persuasive. I left the shop that evening opposed to the Vietnam war. It was the first time I’d held a political view that was distinctly different from those of my parents. They didn’t yet have strong views about Vietnam, it just wasn’t on their radar. It’s the only political viewpoint I can state with certainty the date on which I decided where I stood–January 17, 1965.

Vietnam came to rule the headlines that year, and for many more. It led to the Generation Gap, which happens between any two generations but until then had not been so stark, so clear. That summer the phrase, “Never trust anyone over 30!” was shouted on a California campus, and it came to symbolize a turning point. It was easy for me to see how true–how obvious–it was. Anyone under 30 was from a different world, and knew it. From 100 yards away, you could see short hair, shiny shoes and dress slacks on a man, or a pouffy hairdo and knee-length skirts on a woman, and know not only that they were over 30, but that they believed in the war, supported the draft, and thought anyone sporting facial hair or short skirts should be expelled from school or imprisoned. As a “tween” I could refine it even further–I knew anyone under 25 could be trusted almost automatically and up to 27 or 28, probably; from 28 to 30 was doubtful but over 30, not at all. It seems ludicrous and extreme, but the line was sharp. The year I entered junior high, the valedictorian was also the class president. He was expelled. The dress code stated that, for males, hair at no point could touch ears, collars or eyebrows, and sideburns were to be trimmed at mid-ear level. His were half-an-inch too long. A great many rules were adopted, by schools, organizations and even businesses, to enforce style. Disneyland even refused entrance to any man with facial hair. Similar rules governed the length and style of girls’ skirts, whether they could wear pants and what type. All these penny-ante rules, when there was a war going on and nobody knew who’d be drafted and shot dead six months later. There were important things happening–nuclear disarmament rallies. DDT was killing birds,. Detergents weren’t breaking down and were forever foaming up rivers. Race riots. The over-30 crowd plowed on. THEY weren’t going to Vietnam. THEY trusted the government. The Peace-Pot-Protest bums were “dirty hippies” who needed a haircut, a shower.

For years you could mentally calculate how old someone was in 1965, add the intervening years and still say, never trust anyone over 35, or 45. This sharp divide eventually faded, but I’ll still sometimes see an older woman in the supermarket, daydreaming while Elvis plays in the background, and know SHE was over 30, back when–

My Sister’s Ride

My brother had decided to become a businessman when we’d moved to Spruce Street. He’d thought it’d be interesting and profitable to raise and sell rabbits, so we built hutches in the downhill corner of the yard, in front of the garage. We soon had bunnies escaping regularly, annoying the neighborhood dogs in the early morning. After several months he sold the bunnies and demolished the hutches. By the time he subtracted expenses from profits, he was 25¢ richer and owned a huge, valuable pile of fertilizer, heaped in front of the garage.

We had a long, thick rope tied in the elm, a wonderful swing. We’d ride it onto the picnic table just past the tree, where we’d perch like trapeze artists, but there was a further, tantalizing possibility just out of reach. There was a long outside stairway leading up to our second floor, and the rope was just long enough to reach it. From a couple stairs up we’d jump and swing, but there was a flat spot in the slope of the hill halfway to the tree, which forced any fair-sized kid to scrape his butt on the ground and lose momentum; we couldn’t get past the picnic table. It seemed theoretically possible, though, that if a kid were small enough, we could climb the first few stairs, boost the kid up to the second or third rope-knot, pull on the rope and they’d swing past the flat spot, high enough to reach the garage roof like Batman. We decided to give our plan a try, with my youngest sister as pilot. As a test, a test only, we boosted her up to the knot and told her to hang on tight, as I took an observation post on the other side of the backyard. My brothers leaped off the stairs, tugging the rope and launching her at great speed across the yard. An astonished yelp arose from my beloved sister’s throat, developing into a full-fledged scream as she tore past the flat spot, past the picnic table and rose to a magnificent height in front of the garage. The experiment was a resounding success, and would have remained so had my sister followed the plan, and held on.

If Batman had been the pilot, he’d have let go of the rope at exactly the right moment. The parabola of his ride would’ve landed him lightly on the garage roof. Not my little sister. She held on just a little too long, then let go. The glorious arc of her ride continued, a truncated parabola, and down, down she came. She landed with a SPLUSH in the former location of my brother’s rabbit hutches, where now there was a huge–pile–of—-stuff—

My sister was unhurt, but it proved difficult to comfort the small greenish abomination which emerged, as comforting “it” would have involved touching “it”. After a rinsing off and a couple baths she was all right, but we never again launched her off the steps.

That fall I started eighth grade, and one of my favorites was Spanish. I’d enjoyed our daily half-hour in third grade, had some books and records, had done well in 5th and 6th grade though I hadn’t taken it in 7th. Spanish was a consistently bright spot on my report card, usually an A, never below a B, though the rest of my marks were slipping. I tried very hard to make the Honor Roll, for those whose grade point average was over 3.6. I nearly made it, every time, in the 7th grade. In eighth grade I stayed over 3.0 but never came close to 3.6, and the same in ninth. The next year, after I left, they established a 3.0 honor roll. I’d have been on it at least ten times.

Being a teenager was big in 1965. Newsweek, Look, Life and just about every news magazine had special reports, investigations, long stories on what teenagers were like, what they wanted, how they lived, how much money they spent on clothes, records, cars. There was a lot of hand-wringing, books and articles about the “generation gap”. A very popular book by Pat Boone called Twixt Twelve and Twenty seems pretty silly now, but at the age of 12 it filled me with visions for the future. The present wasn’t that great. All my schoolmates were teenagers already. I was still the smallest and most physically immature, which meant a lot in the communal naked showers of gym class. I wanted to be a teenager more than anything, ever. On the third of June, 1966, I got my wish.

It was a bit of a letdown, of course. I didn’t suddenly sprout a mustache, or grow sideburns past my earlobes. I was a late bloomer, besides being a year behind, and was still well under five feet tall. I’d open the little fridge next to my bedroom and my eyes were even with the shelf where I kept juice and drinks.

Another Vacation

We went East again in 1966. My father had decided the microbus was underpowered and his mechanic suggested he put in a Porsche engine, which he did. Because the Porsche engine was far more powerful, it generated more heat, and as it was air-cooled, the engine compartment became something of a cookstove. My father got a couple sheets of shiny galvanized tin, formed them into scoops and bolted them on the sides of the bus over the tiny little gills which were the standard, inventing an accessory which later became nearly universal. This alleviated the heat somewhat, and with a couple minor changes we set out. There was not going to be a lot that was “normal” about our vacation that year, though.

We went earlier in the year, just after school had ended. The platform had been abandoned, as had the copious supplies of groceries under it. The center seat was bolted back in, and we planned to do much more driving at night, shopping in air-conditioned grocery stores in the heat of the day and stopping for picnics at the rest stops which were beginning to sprout around the country. We had a pleasant night drive through the flat plains of Kansas and St. Louis wasn’t nearly so hot. We rolled through Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, stopping to picnic, avoiding the rush hour. We were in the twisty roads and lush greenery of Tennessee just before sunrise, about a hundred miles from our destination and having a wonderful trip, when F-F-F-WAP!!–something weird happened in the chronically overheated engine compartment and a strange loud whine awoke the sleeping, letting us know the bus was not going much further. My father opened up the engine compartment and peered in with a flashlight. He saw nothing unusual at first, but then noticed, way in the back, wires sticking out of the generator. The armature had failed, and had flailed around like a medieval mace, exploding inside the generator and tearing out all the brushes and fields.

My father got out his vise grips, a screwdriver and a pair of pliers–all the tools he had–and took the engine apart. The generator was all the way in the back, so he had to disassemble everything in front to get to it. After some hours he was covered from eyeballs to ankles in grease. He hitched a ride with the first person to come along; they covered the passenger seat with newspapers and he promptly fell asleep. The driver took him to the nearest Volkswagen repair, some 50 miles away, and the counter man was amazed. Any time they’d worked on a generator, they’d pulled the engine.  They didn’t know it could be done on the side of the road, with a Vise-grips. They didn’t have a Porsche generator, but figured how to make a VW generator fit.

All the while, we picked blackberries.

My mother made it an adventure. We’d never seen blackberries growing wild, and these were fat and juicy. We picked ‘em and ate ‘em and ate ‘em and picked ‘em until we all had a tummy ache and then went down to the cold, crisp creek running nearby and soaked our heads, our shirts, our socks. We had a ball. Late that afternoon father came back, put the engine together and mother drove the last 100 miles, while he snored in the rear.

Two of my aunts had adjoining property outside of Boone,. They lived within sight of each other almost their whole lives. An older sister lived a few miles away, and both brothers lived within sight of the old home place, though one was in Libya exploring for oil. All three sisters lived into their nineties; the eldest was 2 months shy of 100 when she died, the second lived two weeks past her 100th birthday and the third lived to be 97. The brothers lived into their 80s, except for the eldest, who smoked a lot and lived to be 71. My aunts had very nice houses and my cousins were grown and gone, so we stayed with them and spent the week running in the fields, riding ponies and jumping in my uncle’s antique cars for rides up and down the path. I came in one day with a badly cut finger, and my mother scolded me and told me not to get blood on the beautiful beige carpet, before she realized how she sounded and helped me bandage it. We had our dog along, God knows why, and one day he scooted his butt across that same carpet, leaving a brown stripe in the middle of the living room.

One of my cousins had a .357 pistol. It had quite a kick. It was the first time I’d ever fired a real gun. It nearly flew out of my hands, but I surprised both of us by shooting several cans off a log; I was a much better shot than I’d anticipated. One day everyone went to Grandfather Mountain and crossed the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. On the other side, I found a rock outcropping and was sitting peacefully and securely in a sort of little rock chair, leaning over and looking down into the valley hundreds of feet below. I was fine, until my father saw me and screamed “DAVE!!”–then I nearly fell over. We went to all the attractions. Tweetsie Railroad was a stretch of narrow-gauge track left over from the Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina line. The flood of 1940 had washed out most of the tracks and in 1950 the ET&WNC, known locally as Tweetsie, stopped serving the area. In 1957 the only remaining coal-fired locomotive was refurbished and put into service on a 3-mile loop through the mountains, where on July 4th it commenced life as a tourist attraction, one of the first theme parks in America. A business called Mystery Hill had been established nearby; one day a couple of high-school buddies of my father had stolen the hillbilly dolls from its roof, put whiskey bottles in their hands and perched them on the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge overlooking the highway.

We spent a lovely week in North Carolina, but the adventure wasn’t over. We drove through the mountain mists to the flat sandy plains of South Carolina, and had gotten about fifty miles from Columbia when BAM!, and the bus once again coasted to a stop. It was hot this time and there weren’t any blackberries by the road, but we weren’t far from a town, and before long we’d been towed to the nearest gas station, where they gave us the news that the distributor shaft had sheared off, damaged a couple gears and miscellaneous parts and no, they didn’t have any in town for a microbus with a Porsche engine. My mother’s sister’s husband Uncle Pete drove over from Columbia while my father arranged to rent a hitch and towbar. We hooked it up, and piled into his car. All my uncles, aunts and cousins were already there, but my mother’s family was much smaller–a brother, a sister, their spouses and two girls each. We parked the microbus in the front yard, and my father spent most of the next week underneath it.

My grandparents, like most middle-class families in the South, had an old black maid, Delia, who’d been with them for many years. She lived a mile away on her own side of town, with her own life and family. The civil rights movement had started a few years before and my grandparents, progressive Southerners, eagerly supported it in their own way. My grandfather, a minister, had more than once gotten up at night and talked a lynch mob into going home, and all my relatives firmly believed in integration. Delia seemed to me to do very little work during our stay. She watched out for my grandmother, who couldn’t see very well, cleaned up a little, made a few sandwiches and went home early. One day we all went out to eat, including Delia. There was a restaurant a few miles away which would accommodate our party; we were served in a private room which could’ve seated 100. I thought it a lot of fuss. I’d gone to school and eaten lunch with black kids all along. There hadn’t been many in our neighborhood, but they weren’t prohibited by law.

It was different where segregation had been a big deal for generations. There were 3 restrooms in all the businesses–by 1966 the signs on the third restroom had been painted over, but it was clear they’d said “men”, “women”, and “colored”. There were still separate water fountains, now unmarked, and windows on the sides of sit-down restaurants. Our parents hadn’t wanted us to grow up segregated, and we didn’t–but we also had fewer interactions with black people than Southerners did.

Delia and the rest of us had a nice private dinner, and grandfather got us back on schedule. My grandfather always had a plan, an outline, a list. He organized his sermons with bullet points–and everything else. After a week in Columbia, we went to the cottage at Cherry Grove beach again, for three days. It was my youngest sister’s first visit to the beach, and the second for everyone else. I looked for the sandbar which had been there before; it was still there, but not so shallow. It was still fun to stand hundreds of feet from shore, but I couldn’t sit down and sift through the shells. My mother had brought along the important elements of a Mexican dinner this time, and everyone ate tacos by the South Carolina beach.

My father’d managed to cobble together something resembling an engine from parts available in Columbia, but a couple pieces couldn’t be had at any price. We putt-putted home again, slower than the first time, leaking a quart of oil every 50 miles.

The Basement

Our Spruce Street house had a full basement under its center, and three large crawl spaces on its perimeter. I had a workshop, where I’d often take apart old radios pulled from the trash at a nearby appliance repair. Sometimes I could fix them, but more often I’d simply save the vacuum tubes and make toys from the magnets and pulleys. There was a lot of stuff hidden in nooks and crannies of the crawl spaces. The kid who’d lived there before had used one as a play space; the other two held pieces of lumber and junk. I found several interesting items, some pewter cars, trucks and toys from the 1920s, old receipts and some strips of newspaper from 1927 wrapped around the pipes which I pulled off and taped together. There was a comics section I found fascinating for the changes which had taken place in Gasoline Alley and Blondie in the intervening years, and a Sunday section which featured a British scientist’s predictions that by 1951–why 1951, I don’t know–we’d have purple oceans, wind power and egg babies. I found some seals from the offices of the fellow who’d owned the house, for mining companies and one which said “Rowe R. Rudolph, Notary Public and Lawyer, Portland, Oregon” which I used occasionally for my own purposes. There were a couple of liquor bottles, and as a joke I peed in them and left them in an inconspicuous corner for someone to discover, years in the future, when they’d open the bottle, be disgusted and pour it out.

A week or two later, discovered they were. My brother and his friend from across the alley had been poking around in the crawl space and found the spot among the junk where I’d hidden the bottles. Cliff wanted to try the liquor, my brother Rob wasn’t so sure. Cliff opened a bottle, took an enormous swig, gave a strange look, his eyes and cheeks bulged out and he pointed and gestured wildly at Rob, who finally figured out that Cliff wanted a place to spit. Rob pointed to the corner, Cliff exploded, spit several times and shouted, “IT’S PEE!!!” They took the bottles to the kitchen and asked my mother for verification; she seconded the identification and poured both bottles in the toilet. Cliff borrowed a toothbrush and brushed his teeth, tongue, the roof of his mouth, his lips, cheeks and chin for a long time, then washed his hands, arms, face, hair, washed his chest and borrowed a T-shirt to wear home. I didn’t mention that I knew about the bottles–for twenty or thirty years.

That summer, Froot Loops had a promotion. Send in a certain number of box tops and a dollar and they’d send a giant blow-up banana. This was a big deal to my sisters. For weeks they ate Froot Loops and saved their nickels. They mailed the box tops, waited some more weeks and finally it came. I was on the porch roof–the windows in my sisters’ room opened onto the roof over our front porch, and it was a wonderful place to hang out. Sunny, quiet, secluded, but you could still hear what was going on. They brought me the banana, I blew it up, and they went off to play with it, delightedly screaming and carrying on with this prize they had scrimped and saved and waited all summer for. After about twenty minutes, from the roof, I heard a POP!!, and a lot of crying. One of the neighbor girls had tried to ride it like a horsey, and now it was nothing but a giant plastic banana peel.

Overcrowding

The fall of 1966 was a difficult time for the schools in Denver. Baby boomers were now cramming into Smiley Junior High, and it was far too small. Their solution was double sessions. I went to school from 7 am until 12:30, and another group started at 1 pm and stayed until 6:30. To eat breakfast and catch the bus, I was up at 5:30; earlier than I’d ever arisen. I started drinking coffee, at first with milk and sugar, but soon straight black. We had first-period science with Mr. Meek, whose name suited him. He was small, slight of build and in his appearance and mannerisms resembled a mouse. It was hard to stay awake in his class, which wasn’t his fault. Fortunately the next period was study hall, and many days I’d sleep through it. The teachers were supposed to wake you, but didn’t. The next semester’s schedule wasn’t any better, but at least the sun rose earlier, and we got to school at sunrise instead of before it.

It was a relatively good year for me. I’d finally started to grow a bit, and was at least occasionally chosen to catch a pass or swing a bat. I learned typing, and did well. I had a 1920s L.C. Smith typewriter, the precursor to Smith-Corona, with a carriage return lever on the RIGHT, when every other typewriter had it on the LEFT. It was dilapidated, and I’d regularly repair it with a bit of string, a paper clip or a chunk of wood before I practiced. I couldn’t get up much speed on my anvil of a typewriter, but eventually managed 50 or 60 words per minute on the school machines. All the school typewriters were mechanical except for one electric, used for demonstration, and one superannuated contraption with a double keyboard–a complete set of capital letters above, small ones below, and no shift key. It was parked in the wood shop, for no particular reason.

Six weeks each of wood shop, plastic shop and mechanical drawing were required that year, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved mechanical things, learning to use tools, constructing gadgets and repairing equipment, though I was still being “counseled” into algebra. I’d pick up antique mechanical items at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store–cameras, typewriters, radios, sewing machines, electric fans and such–then bring them home for repair, renovation or disassembly.

Mexico

At Easter break I took a trip to Mexico with a busload of kids from Spanish classes around Denver. There were 30 or 40 teenagers, a couple Mexican exchange students, 3 or 4 chaperones and a bus driver. The bus had strangely tinted windows, dark green on top fading to a barely perceptible at the bottom. For some reason they made me nauseous. When we stopped for dinner I started feeling better but after dinner it started again. After an hour I tried to get to the bathroom, but puked before I made it. Fortunately, we were pulling into the motel for the night; some of the kids went to the pool but I went right to sleep.

In the morning I felt better. We ate breakfast and visited Carlsbad Caverns, where we spent the day exploring. At lunchtime made phone calls, from a mile underground.

I spent more time talking about Mexico over the next several years than the actual time I’d spent in the country. We’d cross into Juarez in the morning and return to El Paso at night. The first evening we had a barbecue with molé sauce on everything and steaks grilled with beer. It was all new to me, and none of it was “hot”–or as our exchange student Jesus insisted, it was indeed “hot”, just not “spicy”. “Caliente”, not “picante”. When it got dark, a couple of men were attempting to light a Coleman lantern and didn’t know how to pump the tank. I explained, in what Spanish I had, how to put a thumb over the hole in the middle of the plunger on the downstroke and remove it on the upstroke. It worked! After four or five years of learning Spanish, I’d finally explained something to someone who spoke only Spanish, and he’d understood!

The following day we went to two glass factories. The first did production work. It was hot, busy, and interesting. I bought a pair of thick brown goblets with clear bases. In the afternoon we went to another, which made artistic pieces. They were beautiful, but much too expensive for my limited funds, except for a rack of “seconds”. I bought a slightly lopsided fish vase and a hobbit looking little fellow missing an eye, which I later remedied with a grain of sand stuck on with blue paint. It was fascinating to watch pieces come together, a bird wing here, a horse tail there, all done with spinning, swirling, orange-hot molten glass!

We visited a Mexican school, naturally. The classrooms weren’t much different except for the presence of every corporate logo imaginable on the blackboards, walls and furnishings. In fact, corporate logos were all over Juarez–on the backs of stop signs, on power poles, on public buildings–Pepsi, Camel, Pet, Crush; dozens of local brands of soda, candy, cigarettes, gum. Later we walked around the park, and Jesus left with a couple of his classmates. When they returned, Jesus was driving a car! He wasn’t old enough to drive in Colorado, but he was in Mexico!

When we all piled onto the bus that afternoon, a kid of about 7 years old came up to the windows selling gum. I bought a 4-pack of rectangular tablets wrapped in cellophane, which I’d never seen packaged that way. The price for them in the gum machines at home was 2 for a penny, but as many things in Mexico were cheaper I thought they were 4 for a penny south of the border, but no, they were 2 pennies a pack. I coughed up another cent.

We went to the market the next day, and had a great time. Bargaining, and the aggressive style of selling in the warehouse-type flea market was new to me. I loved it. I went to one fellow’s stand, looked at a couple of items, started to walk away and he called me back, twice, producing several items and finally a whip which yes, I wanted! I soon became quite good with it. By the end of the day I had a carved wooden cup, some onyx shot glasses and a carved onyx bear, a trumpet made from a bull’s born with “Ciudad Juarez 1967” painted on it, a cup-and-ball game and a barrel-and-stick game, both elaborately painted and carved, and several items to give away when I got home. I nearly bought a crudely made, brightly painted violin, but the fellow who made it quoted a price and didn’t want to bargain, which seemed strange in that environ. I walked away, returned some minutes later and it had been sold.

The rest of the group was strolling around buying things as well. From time to time we’d see each other in twos and threes, wandering about, bargaining with vendors, sometimes comically. I remember one black girl walking briskly away and almost shouting “no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” as a vendor offered her one geegaw after another.

The trip home was uneventful. Everyone had baskets full of trinkets and was wearing fancy sombreros while practicing their ball-and-cup or barrel-and-stick games. I attempted to learn some simple tunes on my bull’s horn and thoroughly aggravated several of my companions. We stopped at a couple shops on the way back and I picked up a little shot glass/paperweight in New Mexico with a landscape inside, drawn with colored sands.

At the end of the 9th grade we took achievement tests again, BEFORE school, at 5:30 am. It was insanity; I wasn’t even remotely awake. I didn’t do nearly as well as I had in the 6th grade, but was still above grade level. We also took IQ tests. Mine was off 50 points from my best, which I was never supposed to know, but always found out; it was on the side in the teacher’s grade book. Mine was 138! I was overjoyed! I wasn’t a genius; I wasn’t even Mensa material! It never did me any good to have a high IQ, anyway.

In the second semester, I assisted in the school library. I wasn’t actually IN the library, I was a “door guard” issuing passes for kids who had to come in early. I had a purple stamp, a list to check and a pile of passes in a shoebox. There wasn’t much to do in the hallway, it was quiet and pleasant but boring. One day the kid from the period before me started writing on the box. I responded, and so did someone else. I added an alias or two, as did whoever else had the box, and soon there were a dozen different aliases for 3 or 4 kids writing comments to each other. Part of the fun was trying to figure out who made what comment. We never met, and never knew for sure.

I wrote things sometimes with the purple stamp by blocking out letters I didn’t need. One day I stamped a huge pile of the passes “Denver Pubic Schools”. All the door guards used them, all week long. Nobody noticed that “PubLic” was missing an L. I continued stamping them “Pubic” for the rest of the year, and wrote it that way every time, even in my schoolwork. Nobody noticed. I was on the student council that year, and made up posters with Denver Pubic Schools written in big black letters. Nobody noticed. Just before school was out, I told a friend to look at one of the posters. He looked carefully, read it. “PUBLIC”. I told him to spell it. He spelled “P-U-B-L-I-C”! I guess we don’t notice the unexpected, if it’s mundane enough.

Continuation

At school’s end we had a “continuation” ceremony, in which all the 9th graders from both the morning and afternoon packed into the auditorium to receive certificates rolled into scrolls and tied with blue ribbons (blue and white were the school colors, as far as we knew, though apparently they were “officially” blue and silver), and we were out of the old maroon-and-cream colored brickwork building with the bronze bust of the head of some guy out front. Nine-tenths of the class was going to high school in a similar building a few miles west of us named East High School; the remaining 150 would go to a newer school some miles south recently christened George Washington High. I spent that summer playing tennis or four-man baseball, and riding and repairing bikes. I’d wanted a scooter, but the law had recently changed and nobody under 16 could get any kind of license in Colorado, though in several nearby states you could drive cars at 14.

I finally, physically, confronted my father, late that summer. He’d come at me with the belt, like thousands of times before, but this time I was in the little study room at the back of the house; I lay back on the convertible bed and kicked at him any time he’d come near. He couldn’t whip me without getting kicked, and I wasn’t standing up. That was the last time he physically came at me, but his comments got much meaner. When I was younger he’d drink a few beers when he got home; later he’d drink a couple beers after work and a few more after dinner. By now he was drinking a six-pack before coming home and three or four more at the kitchen table. He was smoking a lot, too: he’d switched from unfiltered Camels to filtered menthol Newports, but he’d smoke two, three, four packs a day, and I’ve found the more people smoke the more cynical they become. My father became joyless, sarcastic, difficult after dinner and impossible for me to be around. At the barbershop and among friends he could be gracious and generous, with a great sense of the humorous and absurd, and at the barbershop we always got along. At home, with me, he was sullen, angry, insulting. I was singled out. I don’t know why.

My situation was not far different from many kids my age; it was certainly similar to that of my best friend Monk. He was now the oldest of seven; he had another baby brother. His father had been in the second world war, like mine, and was also brutal towards him, though not at all to me. I thought it normal for boys to be screamed at, bullied and whipped until they were big enough to fight back. There were plenty of us around. At 19 I worked for a fellow who bullied his kids. I told the oldest, who idolized me the way 12-year-olds idolize 19-year-olds who speak to them like people and not twerps, that for now he was getting punched and slapped around, but that soon he’d be bigger and stronger. His dad would be older and fatter, and he’d beat the crap out of him. He looked back at me with such gratitude that I knew I’d touched his soul. His whole life had changed.

This kind of parenting wasn’t unusual. A kid who’d done something wrong at school might be paddled by the teacher and/or principal, then whipped at home. It made for furious, resentful baby boomers and was much of the reason for the turmoil of the 1960s. To label these bullies “the Greatest Generation” turns my stomach.

In any case, I avoided being in the house when my father was home. I’d eat something after school and run out, usually to Monk’s house, not to return until 9:30 or 10, when I knew he’d be in bed.

Wine

Sometimes my parents were in a play together, and at fourteen I’d babysit my younger siblings. My parents kept a few bottles of various kinds of alcohol in the pantry, and one night I got into the wine, as teenagers will do. The taste of alcohol doesn’t appeal to younger kids; they wrinkle their noses and stick out their tongues. Sometime around puberty, though, tastes change. I tried a little sweet wine one night and–hmmm– it wasn’t bad. A few nights later, a little more. A couple nights later, a full glass and–whoa! What’s this? I felt a bit dizzy! I had another glass, a little more and a little more. Joey Bishop was exceptionally funny that night, and by the time the test pattern came on the television was waving and rolling, and I was too.  I stumbled to bed. It was a good thing there was a trash can beside my bed, because a little later I hurled, and hurled again. My parents came home late, and the next morning I told them I was sick, which was true. I took a couple aspirins and slept in. I stumbled out of bed later that afternoon. Nobody was the wiser.

It was lucky for me that an old friend of my father visited that weekend. Harry had real problems with alcohol, and was fated to die in his mid-40s of cirrhosis. We hadn’t seen him for awhile, but now he’d just gotten out of rehab and came to visit with his old friend. His wife and son had left him years before, though as Catholics they hadn’t divorced. He talked with us for some hours.It was a pleasant, sober visit.

A few days later, my father noticed that most of the wine was missing. Circumstances pointed to Harry, though he couldn’t figure out how or when Harry could have sneaked a drink. He and my mother discussed this for some time, but I said nothing. I skated through, and didn’t pick up a bottle of anything alcoholic for a couple more years.

Bicycles

My sisters had tricycles, and we brothers had bikes, lots of them. There was my superannuated 16” bike with the solid rubber wheels and a couple twenty-inchers, one with the banana seat just becoming popular. My youngest brother had an odd looking bike, adjustable from kid-size up to adult, with small wheels, a huge sprocket and a single low, straight brace between the front and rear wheels which left ambiguous whether it was for boys or girls. A couple of American full-size bikes in bad repair leaned against the fence alongside my father’s violet English three-speed, which he’d ridden to work a few times years before and hadn’t touched since. I had a blue 3-speed which I’d received shiny and new for my birthday that year, which had been stolen a month or two later. The police recovered the bike; it’d been boogered up, with a different seat and handlebars, and no fenders. I suspected a local ne’er-do-well named Melvin Mestas; he may or may not have been guilty, but eventually spent a lot of time in prison for various  crimes and, I heard eventually, went to prison for life, for murder.

I maintained them all. I liked repairing anything electrical or mechanical; I brought home old typewriters and fixed them, using wire, string, toothpicks and BBs. I tore apart and rewired old radios, fiddled with box cameras I picked up for 25¢ at the Goodwill. Bikes always had something loose or bent or out of adjustment. I’d tighten chains, fix flats and switch out a bent wheel for a sound one. I had one bike that had no fenders, a skinny wheel in front and a fat one in back. I’d ride it a lot in good weather; in bad weather or at night I’d ride a much heavier bike that had fenders, a book rack, headlight, taillight and all the fancy trim. I fixed them up for my five brothers and sisters, too. One day I looked around and calculated that I had enough spare parts to make a whole extra bike.

I took a  frame from an old 26” bicycle, removed the pedals and sprocket, put the front wheel from a 20” bike in the back, turned the front fork backwards and put a tricycle wheel with pedals on the front. I took the bicycle seat apart, flipped the seat support around and reattached the seat so that it rested on the frame a foot in front of its usual position. I scrounged around and found an old piece of pipe to use as handlebars. It was rideable, just barely. It was a good thing the pipe was a foot wider than standard handlebars, because furiously pedaling the tiny front wheel from an almost horizontal angle, rather than from the nearly vertical position of a tricycle, produced a huge amount of torque. This was compensated for by holding to the pipe for dear life, pulling it first one way then the other. Because the pipe was wide and the progress wobbly, it needed a wide berth when riding down the street. Since the pedals were directly connected to the front wheel, one also had to pedal full-time when underway. It was possible to coast downhill by resting one’s feet on the front fork, but that wasn’t easy to manage either, as the pedals flapped furiously and made it difficult to steer. As there were no brakes either, the only way to slow down was to plant one’s feet on the pavement to either side, which was also a problem for a somewhat subtle reason–the frame of the bike sat lower to the ground than a standard bike because of the smaller wheels, so the foot-to pavement angle to force it to a stop and still avoid the flailing front pedals was out of whack. Neither could one stand up to get the angle without the bike flipping out from underneath. The only way was to drag one’s toes way behind or plant one’s feet way off to the side. Neither was very effective. Fortunately, it was nearly impossible to build up a lot of speed anyway. The bike was as fun as all get-out, but wildly impractical. It would have worked well in a circus act.

My sister auditioned and was selected for a commercial that spring, and needed to ride a bicycle. At seven, she’d never ridden, so I taught her how. In one weekend.

I put Franny on the bike and ran beside her holding the seat. All day Saturday. All day Sunday. On Monday they commenced filming. Her dismount was awkward but charming; shown during the Miss Wool pageant, the commercial won a Clio, an international award!

GW

I started high school in 1967, with only a handful of friends from Smiley. “Busing to achieve integration” was a political football and the student body was more diverse than ever, but it came at a price. Some students rode a bus for over two hours a day. There was a difference in the atmosphere, as well. George Washington had been mostly middle class and white, but in 1967 about a third of the students were bussed in. In three years at Smiley I saw fights breaking out several times a week. There’d be a commotion on one side of the playground, and I’d hang out on the other.  It nearly always involved two or three of the same fifteen or twenty kids; they’d be hauled into the assistant principal’s office, whacked on the butt with a board and suspended for a few days. Some of this same group was in the hundred-fifty or so who came from Smiley, and some were from other tough schools. These kids didn’t change their ways at the high school door, they again started fighting, some white, some black, some hispanic as always. Nothing new.

What a response, though! There were suddenly ”racial troubles” at George Washington! Editorials, opinions filled the paper, and letters to the editor! Committees were formed, church groups aroused, dialog forums organized, PTA meetings, god knows what-all!

I suppose integration accomplished a good deal, though nobody sang “Kumbayah” at day’s end. The black kids hung out in one corner, the Latinos another, the Jewish kids had an area, the Asians a corner, et cetera, but there was some intermingling. The kids from the air force base, and those of us from schools like Smiley, led the way. We had friends from all over.

Computers!

A new class started that fall, and instead of 30 of us in the room with one teacher, there were 50+, with two teachers on a team. It was an interesting concept. I liked it. The course dealt with living in the future, and we talked a lot about what the world would be like in the 70s, the 80s, the 21st century. We took something called the Kuder Preference Test. I did NOT score high on rocket science, but among other professions it suggested  “tomato peeler”. As if!! Maybe standardized tests were–full of crap?

Computer programming was big. Big. The future held lots of computers, and programmers would be needed. Lots. We were going to learn. On field trips, we saw several types. All filled a room. Some used huge reels of punched paper tape, others four-inch-wide magnetic tape. Wells beside the pickup heads, with powerful fans beneath, assured several feet of slack so the tape wouldn’t bind. Some were rats’ nests of cables and jacks and vacuum tubes with blinking orange displays. Some rattled, some hummed, some flashed. The ones we’d most likely use sorted through giant stacks of punch cards, so we got punch cards and learned to program these marvels. Armed with razor blades, we attacked the 3×7” cards and laboriously hacked out rectangles to enter the letters of our names, addresses, dates of birth and so forth, then ran them through a little demo card reader, since we didn’t have a real computer. It took a long time, and in the end about half the cards didn’t work.

Most people, looking back on their school years, will claim that they’ve “never” used a particular skill–algebra, or French–but in fact they have, infrequently. I can state unequivocally, without reservation or the slightest doubt, that I have never, ever programmed, tried to program, watched anyone program or shown anyone how to program, a punch-card computer. In 1967, anyone at any desk, anywhere at any time, could reach over and grab a punch card, stuffed into an envelope or magazine, without leaving their chair. A few years later they were gone, gone, gone.

Ped-Pad

I’d signed up for Junior Achievement that fall, and my company was sponsored by Gates Rubber. At our first meeting our sponsors introduced the concept,  and a product we might like to make, a die-cut piece of carpet, from old carpet samples, that fit under the accelerator pedal of a car. Twenty or so of us brainstormed for a name. Car-Pet. Comfy Pad. When Ped-Pad hit me, out of the blue, we instantly became, by unanimous vote,  the Ped-Pad Company. We beat the bushes and sold stock–a dollar a share–and by the next week had a thriving business. We set up shop on Mondays and cut and package Ped-Pads in various colors and textures. For the rest of the week, we’d walk around town in the evenings knocking on doors.

It was a welcome relief to me to escape the house and my father’s drunken, judgmental ramblings. I didn’t make much–20¢ apiece, plus bonuses of $5 or so for sales incentives–but I loved doing it, and almost always made the bonus. I went to one neighborhood one night, another the next, usually alone, sometimes with a friend. One night I knocked on a door several miles from home and who answered but Pam Grismore, whom I knew from elementary school! She was most definitely not the tall horsey-faced girl in those horrible aluminum-framed glasses I’d known in 1963. Pam was a vision; the cutest, prettiest girl I could imagine! No glasses! I was taller than her! Her parents weren’t home, nor her brother, but I met her sister, whom I hadn’t known existed, a very sweet but mentally challenged girl a couple years younger than us. We had a long conversation about everything that had happened since elementary school, and I was enchanted by the truly gracious, beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful girl I hadn’t dreamed existed until that day. Her house was miles away from mine, and I couldn’t soon return, but some months later I dropped by.

She’d moved. I never found out where to, and never saw her again.

We were profitable, which was unusual for Junior Achievement, and had a few pizza parties to celebrate. I was growing fast. I’d usually eat more pizza than anyone else, and once ate more than the other three kids at the table combined. When first we moved to Spruce Street I could look straight into the freezer compartment of my little fridge; five years later I was looking into the shelf of the cupboard above it, over a foot higher. I went from 95 pounds to 160.

In the Ped-Pad company we gravitated into two teams. One of my colleagues was Dave Tiffany, one of the few guys I’d talk with outside of our Monday night meetings. He lived on the other side of town, but we talked on the phone and he played recordings of himself playing drums in a band. He was a senior, and some years older than me, but we were in business, not school. The social strictures didn’t apply. He was in ROTC, and though I didn’t believe in ROTC or Vietnam, it wasn’t that high on my list as yet. He moved back to California later that year. I was there the following summer, but couldn’t get in touch with him because he’d joined the Army. I knew that was his plan; it wasn’t a surprise. He did surprise me later, though–or at least his photo did. I was thumbing through the Memorial Day, 1969 issue of Life magazine, which featured “One Week’s Toll of the Dead in Vietnam”. There he was, or at least the bottom right half of his face was, obscured by a helmet. David L. Tiffany, Riverside, California. He was 19. Over 40 years later, I found his name on the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC. I had to jump up to touch it.

I took the company seriously–after all, I named it–and went to every meeting and every function, save one. I couldn’t make it to an exhibition in the cafeteria at Gates Rubber, and missed out on a buttload of sales. Gates Rubber employees were happy to buy Ped-Pads on their lunch hour, and the four or five kids who manned the display made out like bandits. While the rest of us had sold 15 or 20 each  (I’d sold about 25), the kids who’d been at the cafeteria suddenly had 35 or 40 to their credit, or in one case 59. I was determined to get back in the game, went out every night and talked one of my younger friends into joining the company. I didn’t want to stay home anyway, and most of my friends were older, and into cars and nothing else.

The fellow who’d sold 59 never showed up again, I don’t know why, and after a few weeks there was only one serious contender for best salesman, a black kid we called “Snag”. Snag had sold forty or so by the time the cafeteria exhibition was over, and a few weeks later he’d doubled my sales. I resolved it wouldn’t happen again. Snag sold a few each week, but I’d sell more, and by year’s end he’d stagnated in the 90s, while I’d sold about 83. By the next-to-last week I’d almost caught him, and by the final week I’d sold 97–then bought three for myself. Snag had seen my sales rising, though, and in the final week made it up to 105.  I didn’t mind. At the closing ceremony we were both awarded “$100 sales” pins, and I got an additional pin for perfect Monday night attendance, which made me the only person to receive two pins. We were the most profitable of all of the two dozen companies, and returned $1.70 to each stockholder who’d invested a dollar. It was a wonderful experience, and I’ve been involved in sales ever since.

While at the celebratory luncheon I saw the fellow across from me surreptitiously sketching the girl at my side. I showed him how to draw the eyes (especially what NOT to draw), how to shade for contrast and soften details. It looked much better. I hadn’t drawn much, and hadn’t been encouraged to do so, but I’ve always figured anyone can do anything if they figure out how. Even the very young, very old or physically challenged can do almost anything, with enough patience, direction and persistence.

One of the important lessons in art and in life is that nothing is perfect. Imperfection is constant and inevitable, but attitude isn’t. There’s a thousand-year-old tradition in stained glass that any work is left imperfect, because perfection belongs only to God. I don’t think it’s God’s alone, I think perfection doesn’t exist, period, but the thought is a good one. Doing an acceptable job, let’s say it’s 90% perfect, takes half as long as one which is 99% perfect. Twice the time produces a 9% improvement. To get to 99.9%, double the time again. Some things are worth the extra effort, but most things aren’t. Some things aren’t even worth 50%. It’s important to know which 1%, or 10%, or 70%, to let slide. The foundation for a house must be square and level, the support beams plumb and the angles precise. The seams in the plasterboard can be filled with spackling. Some things can be covered up, some can’t.

The Unification of Everything

The future has always fascinated, but in the late ’60s its wonders seemed particularly close at hand. I was discovering science fiction. Sometimes I’d read a book a day, and soon had over 400 stacked up on and over the bookshelf in the corner. Robert Heinlein had a “future history” series. there was Ursula LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. One book, “The Long Result” by John Brunner, I found particularly intriguing. Earth is colonizing the galaxy and meets several species in the process. One in particular is exceptionally adaptable; they can breathe in several atmospheres and speak different languages, but seem not to have any colonial ambitions–until the last chapter, when it’s revealed they’ve been colonizing for millions of years, but haven’t revealed this to the humans–for their own protection.

It was a theme which resonated with me. I’d been reading Eastern philosophy, including Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda, when I was ten. I revisited it now, at fourteen. I’d do yoga, and investigate karma, prana, reincarnation and the like, but it wasn’t easy to find people to discuss it with in suburban east Denver, in 1967. Some would passionately attack all of it, for religious or cultural reasons; others were simply mystified. Most people, even if interested, knew nothing, and I’d be compelled to explain, rather than discuss. I liked teaching it all, but none of my acquaintances knew enough to offer a contrasting or insightful point of view.

One can’t truly match another’s beliefs, but mine weren’t even close. I’m still not inclined to “believe in” anything–I know it, or I don’t. If it ain’t so, my belief is irrelevant, but if what I know works, then it’s also irrelevant whether it’s “true”. My great-grandfather, an intelligent but uneducated man, heard one day that the earth was round. He went to the top of the mountain and saw for himself. It wasn’t, and that was that. The world he knew wasn’t round. For the long result, he spent his life in the valley, and it didn’t matter.

I also think much which passes for “proof” in science is speculation dressed up in fancy clothes. A “scientist” gets an idea, cobbles up an experiment or a survey which does or doesn’t support a theory, adds fudge factors to “achieve” the desired result, then states with a bigoted, pompous authority that this is so and that is not, denigrating anyone who believes in a different fudge factor.

The Hindu maintains that whirling bundles  of energy called “prana” are the life energy pervading all things–one can look in the sky and see the prana–but a “scientist” will state these whirling bundles are artefacts produced by the neurons firing in one’s brain, and that the Hindu is wrong, wrong, wrong. Maybe he is, maybe not. Neither is “proven”.

I don’t “believe in” reincarnation, as a soul migrating whole and undisturbed from one body into another, but energy exists in nature. Before I came to be, my life or spirit was in the water my mother drank, the air she breathed. After my death, plants and creatures are nourished by my body, and those who knew me are comforted by their memories, which is my spirit. In between, “my” energy is focused into a being–me. Before, and after, “me”, it’s dispersed in the earth, the sky, the animal, vegetable and mineral, and space. The television broadcasts with me in the peanut gallery, whisking into the next galaxy at light speed, are also “me”. Whether a spirit comes back, reincarnated into a repeat “me”, is irrelevant.

There’s a further distinction to be made in regards to the spirit. An infinite spirit exists in an infinite universe. An infinite universe can’t contain finite things; either everything is finite. or everything is infinite. If the universe were all finite grains of sand, then put it together and it’s a huge, finite sandpile. Add more sand and it’s bigger, but still finite. If the universe is infinite, each grain of sand is infinite, and the sandpile is infinite.

Same goes for time. Either time begins and ends, or it’s infinite. If time is infinite (and if it has a beginning and end, what came before and after?), then every month, day, minute and second is infinite.

And now–a drum roll would be appropriate–for the Unification of Everything.

If space and time are infinite, then there’s nothing “wrong” with any belief or creed–except insofar as they state that others are “wrong”. Given enough time–not hundreds of years, thousands, millions, quadrillions, or any measure but “enough”–absolutely everything happens. As to reincarnation, whether my “soul” migrates, my physical atoms are dispersed into millions of places. A certain amount becomes food for worms. Some melts into the earth to later become leaves and flowers. Bees take the nectar and pollen, producing fruits; some atoms end up in quartz crystals a mile underground, some fly into the atmosphere, are absorbed into clouds, ionize into lightning, transform into photons and travel to distant galaxies. From there, given enough time–quadrillions, quintillions of years, it doesn’t matter–all these atoms–yes, the same ones, all of them–will recombine in exactly the same way and I’ll be here again, doing exactly what I’m doing now. That’s the true nature of infinity. It doesn’t matter if “my” atoms are dispersed into the recesses of the earth or the black holes of distant galaxies; given enough time and random chance they’ll come back–all of them–to the same place, the same time. The clock on the wall will once again read 3:05 pm. If, a billion quadrillion years from now all the atoms come back except one; if my coffee is stronger, if there’s an extra speck of dirt under my thumbnail, if the clock reads 3:04, it hasn’t happened. Another hundred billion trillion billion trillion years will pass–but that doesn’t matter. Infinity doesn’t care.

So, life can be a retread, a hundred times, a thousand–but when it comes around again, it’ll be different. What I do at 3:06 is different whether it’s been done once, or never, or a hundred billion times. This is reincarnation, in an infinite universe. Be careful how you treat animals, vegetables, minerals, plants, planets. You are them, they are you. All things are alive. Minerals too–rocks and crystals grow and flourish and decay in a much longer time frame than humans, but what does that matter to infinity?

I became a vegetarian, to my mind, in the fall of 1967. I’d read Autobiography of a Yogi, again, and a book which had been assigned in class, Death Be Not Proud. I found the latter depressing and pointless. Depressing because the kid dies of cancer, but pointless because, of all the medical interventions he goes through, the single one which actually works–a raw food vegan diet, which shrinks his brain tumor–is abandoned, on the advice of his doctors. He eats meat, his tumor returns and kills him. I decided I wasn’t going to eat meat anymore, which wasn’t the lesson I was supposed to learn.

It wasn’t easy.  I ate cheese sandwiches in the cafeteria. I made peanut butter crackers after school, then ran out the door. I came home after dinnertime and claimed I wasn’t hungry, but one day my mother set down in front of me Fritos, salad, a glass of milk and chili–with meat.

I ate the Fritos. I finished the salad. I drank the milk. I said I was full. It didn’t work.

My mother had seen it coming. “Dave,” she announced with true concern, “I hope you’re not becoming a–vegetarian”.

She paused before that awful word. It was common knowledge that vegetarians soon withered away from pneumonia or pleurisy or plague. For a growing boy of 14, it probably meant a quick death. I had little choice. I knew, personally, not one vegetarian, and the only ones I knew of were, indeed, little withered men from India. I occasionally ate a bit of fish or chicken for the next couple of years to keep the peace. This also made it easier for me not to reveal my choice of diet and thus never discuss it, since every discussion was confrontational and pointless. I never ate red meat again, though–except once. I took a flight to New York three years later, not considering that dinner would be served on the plane. Curious, I ate a bite of meat. Big mistake. For the next week, I felt like grease oozed from my pores. I was heavy, fatigued, sick. I soon quit eating fish and fowl as well, and haven’t since.

A Surprise Visit

A friend from my old neighborhood appeared at our door. Paul was almost my age, and like me had turned vegetarian–sort of. Conventional wisdom claimed everyone needed meat, especially a growing boy. I ate a bit of fish and fowl, and he ate meat on Fridays (to show contempt for Catholic dogma). I’d actually grown plenty in junior high. One can be a vegetarian on Twinkies and Coke, but not me. I’d grown a foot.

Paul was not quite a year younger than me and had also been promoted, so he was a year behind me. He’d been the only other kid promoted in my elementary school; the practice pretty much vanished afterwards. Paul was another whiz kid, also shoehorned into classes he hated but, like me, very interested in scientific experimentation. When we’d moved across town, his family had moved to Boulder. I hadn’t seen him in a couple years, when he showed up one Thursday with a made-up story. We went to school on Friday and he hung around the playground, then spent the weekend before my mother ferreted out what had actually happened–he’d disappeared from school and hitchhiked down to Denver. His mother picked him up on Monday, and his parents put him in a military school, which didn’t change him much.

I discovered one day that if I had my hand on the handle of the fridge and touched the faucet I’d get a sustained and nasty shock, but if I was touching the sink first the shock would be small and momentary. I told everyone and of course they had to try it, it was fun and scientifically interesting. If you grabbed one and touched the other your muscles would contract automatically, you couldn’t help it. Paul wanted to try it, but he grabbed them both, and when the current contracted his muscles he couldn’t let go. He gave out a weird, strangled AAAAGGGGHHHH, shook violently for several seconds, then shot across the room as if propelled from a slingshot. He crashed into a pile of laundry, I helped him up and we had a strange, disjointed conversation, wandering the house and finally ending up on the landing outside. We’d been talking for about five minutes when he snapped his head around, looked at me and asked, “where are we?” He’d completely lost a half-hour, didn’t remember a thing.

One of the first things I did when I got a car a year and a half later was to drive up and see Paul. I got there on a day he’d rented a metal detector. He’d been exploring, had found a few pennies, a lot of bottlecaps and junk. I tried it. On his front sidewalk two steps away I found a 1910-S dime hiding in the grass. I tried to give it to him, the only valuable thing found all day, but he wouldn’t let me.

Ricstory

My father’s friend Ric had been in and out of our lives for years. He was an interesting character. He and my father had met in a summer-stock theatre company in Surrey, Maine a couple years after World War II, and Ric had persuaded Ned to visit Denver, his hometown. Ned then enrolled in the University of Denver. A foursome hung together–Ned, Ric, Chet and Harry. By the time we moved to Denver, all four were married. Chet married Leila, Harry married Marcy and had a son Dion about my age; Ric and Liz had a son Michael Sam and a daughter Lizzie. We camped out in the mountains together when we were small, and later Ric moved to Hollywood and found work as Ric Jury. He was a successful character actor in various sitcoms–McHale’s Navy, Andy Griffith–and made a lot of commercials, the best known being the original “bull” series for Schlitz Malt Liquor. A bull chased him through a china shop, he ran from one in a bull ring and in one commercial drove around town with a bull in his back seat. That bit of driving was broadcast for years and earned him a small residual check each time, eventually totaling around $20,000.

In the spring of 1968 Ric came back to Denver wearing love beads and an Eastern shirt, with longer hair and long, thin sideburns. He talked about Zen and Hindu beliefs, and contrasted them with Catholicism. Like many lapsed Catholics, he investigated other religions deeply and seriously, including a number of “societies” and “fellowships”. I was curious, and asked a lot of questions. When the time came for Ric and family to move back to Hollywood he suggested that I go along. The five of us crowded into his Land Cruiser, which he’d bought from the TV show Rat Patrol. It was tall, crude, noisy, a boxy Jeep-like vehicle recently repainted light green. We drove to Four Corners, put a foot in four states at once and continued to California, discussing meditation, self-realization, the nature of psychic power etc. I sat in the passenger seat while Liz rode in back with the kids and Michael Sam’s pet snake.

Ric said that given the proper frame of mind, concentration, and circumstance, one could control the weather. I neither believed nor disbelieved, but I’d never seen it. I’d read about it, he’d talked about it. I reserved judgement.

By the afternoon of the next day we’d reached the Death Valley region. It was cloudless and the sun was relentless, ruthless. Broiling hot. Frying-pan hot. The Land Cruiser had no air conditioning and not much to keep the engine heat out of the passenger compartment. We wore wet towels on our heads, which didn’t help much. It was exceptionally, excessively, brutally hot in our tin box, and it didn’t help to roll the windows down; the wind was a blast furnace. We rolled up the windows and sweltered. It was at this point, when the temperature in the car was 120º or more, that I remarked to Ric that if there were a time to control the weather, this was it. “I’ll see what I can do”, he said, and we drove on.

I hadn’t intended it as a challenge, but he took it. A couple minutes later, a few small clouds appeared on the horizon. A few more miles and we were under them. Inside of twenty minutes, it rained. On the car only, in a space no wider or longer than a football field. It followed us down the highway for fifteen or twenty miles, at 60 miles per hour. Some will be skeptical. They weren’t there.

It was late in the afternoon now, and we drove on into the sunset . We were a couple hundred miles from Los Angeles, but already in the city.

Sunsets over the Pacific are like sunsets nowhere else. The endless unbroken miles of ocean water split the sun’s rays into every color of the rainbow, and the horizon ranges from deep red, through orange, yellow, a small band of light green, blue, finally deep indigo and violet, as the sky fades into night, the colors punctuated by cumulus and cirrus and stratonimbus clouds in pink and orange. There was an additional element to the sky that summer, something I’d never seen. In the center, a huge, brownish-orange cloud. I didn’t know what it could be. It was much too large to be from a missile test, and a different color from a distant forest fire.

It was smog.

As we drove the road widened, the traffic thickened. I’d been in city traffic, but this was different. Well past rush hour, cars and more cars. They filled six lanes, then eight, on the “freeway”–a new word I’d heard, but never understood. At nine at night.

We arrived in Hollywood around 10 pm. The city was still alive, with 24-hour supermarkets and family restaurants. I’d seen 24-hour gas stations, but this was different! Even the television stations stayed on all night.

The sky was aglow with the lights from businesses a block away–but almost no stars. In a cloudless sky, the moon–and not much else. On the steps of the  Colorado State Capitol one could see a hundred miles; on a clear day sometimes three hundred. In Hollywood the nearby mountains were light blue and indistinct; anything over ten miles away was invisible.

Ric’s house in Hollywood was nearly identical to his house in Denver. He’d thought a contractor from Denver had moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, but later I found they were probably built from a Sears & Roebuck kit.

It was the middle of the presidential campaign. Nixon vs. Humphrey vs. McCarthy vs. Wallace. Humphrey was winning delegates. I preferred him to Nixon, but not enthusiastically. I couldn’t vote anyway. There was Vietnam in the air, race riots, lots of depressing stuff. Even though there were more TV stations than I’d ever seen, running all night long, I didn’t care to watch much, but did vividly recall commercials for Ralph Williams Ford in Encino, California. A crass, loudmouthed bald guy. He sold a lot of cars.

Religion

Ric had interesting visitors and a weekly class in Zen Buddhism, which he taught from his living room while nursing glasses of Dr. Pepper spiked with vodka. Among the students were several recognizable actors and mid-level celebrities. Geoffrey Deuel was often there; he starred as Billy the Kid in John Wayne’s movie Chisum and his brother Pete was in the TV shows “Love on a Rooftop” and later “Alias Smith and Jones”. Ric’s classes weren’t limited to Zen alone, they were all over the map. He was widely read and familiar with every religion I’d ever heard of, every Eastern philosopher and religious leader, every Western disciple. He knew about Krishnamurti, Yogananda, Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, Sartre, Freud and Vitvan. He knew about Margaret Mead, Aimee Semple McPherson, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi. He knew the Kaballah, the Apocrypha, the Bhagavad Gita, the Koran. He knew the formula for Holy Water and made bathtubs of it (of course he had to bless it himself, but that seemed a minor detail). He’d been raised Catholic and had taken religion very seriously when young.

Catholicism is absolutely certain that there’s one right answer to any question, already written down, tabulated, solved. I never understood this until I worked with a fellow who showed me his catechism books. Textbook answers to every moral dilemma, remedies for every sin. An exact punishment and penance. Three Hail Marys, absolution granted, go live your life. The Catholic universe has a precise structure. It’s like tin cans stacked in a pyramid, an inverse pyramid below. In a spotless, shining, glossy white tin can on top sits God. The second layer of three satin-finish white cans contain Jesus, Mary and the Pope. These are supported by several layers of cardinals, saints, priests and what not in cans of eggshell, cream, beige, and at the base of the pyramid a vast layer of cans in battleship grey, souls lost in purgatory or limbo or simply clueless. Under this level are more. A mirror-image of the pyramid in grey, taupe, charcoal, holds third grade teachers, cable guys, politicians, and mafiosi on down to Hitler and Stalin and Shaka. Underneath all, in a boiling, bubbling, sooty can spewing sulfur and smoke, is Satan. Between the top and the bottom levels are escalators, elevators, stone staircases and rope ladders. To navigate up, down and around there’s a system of tokens using scapulae, crucifixes, relics, rosaries, etc. There are gates and portcullises manned by demons and angels, each with a list. If denied passage, one performs a prescribed action, is awarded a saint’s fingerbone or a chunk of True Cross and passes through. The ritual solves everything; no pondering, reflecting, wondering necessary.

It’s easy to tell Catholics or former Catholics who are investigating religious philosophies; they ask all the questions. For Catholics, the priests have the answers. There are things taken on faith, but no question can’t be answered. Perplexed, lapsed Catholics can become very deep thinkers.

Ric was such a person. He’d been to the Pacific in the second World War and came back with his religious beliefs in tatters. He was married, but it didn’t last, and as a divorced person he was not only inclined but compelled to leave the church. He spent several years investigating mysticism, and by the mid-1960s could explain the difference between the Zen buddhist satori, Hindu samadhi and the self-realization of the Self-Realization Fellowship, as indistinct to me as beige vs. ecru. Different means, same truth. Satori is sudden and often violent, samadhi more gradual, self-realization either, or both. In all cases, one still lives one’s life. Only attitude and perspective change. The answer has been found, from within, and there’s no more searching.

Ric often told a Zen tale. A monk followed his master; a good, obedient monk. His master treated him terribly. The monk asked the meaning of life and his master would whack him with a stick, say he wasn’t ready and make him fetch slippers, fix tea, massage hthe master’s feet. He slept on the floor next to the master’s comfy bed. After years of harsh treatment the monk finally, finally snaps. He calls the master a stupid old man who has nothing to teach him. He won’t serve him anymore, fetch him slippers, fix him tea–and the master bursts out laughing and says this was the lesson he’d been trying to teach! The disciple couldn’t find an answer, because he was looking outside, for an answer which came from within.

This is the secret. It takes many forms, but it’s the same. If one is self-realized, has found samadhi, satori, sees God, feels Jesus, talks to Buddha or casts out demons, one has found something within. Once this is understood, one can use one’s abilities, whatever they are. What’s possible becomes achievable–by the self. If Edison or Einstein or Jesus did it, so can anyone. It doesn’t make it easy, but it’s possible. There’s no such thing as “he can do it, but I can’t”. One can say “he can do it. I could too, but I don’t want to”, for whatever reason–it’s too much trouble, tiring, silly or one doesn’t feel like dying yet. No excuse is necessary. One does something, or doesn’t.

Ritual also doesn’t matter. The Catholic church makes and eats Jesus. Why? If transubstantiation is genuine, a miracle–why? One still has to eat real food, drink, sleep, find shelter, live, die, pee, and so did Jesus. The same was happening millions of years before man walked the earth and will be millions of years after the Catholic church joins Ra the Sun God in the shadows.

Many Catholic characteristics also apply to Judaism, which is why so many Jews marry Catholics. Jews don’t have a pope, so they’re not certain about simple, final answers, but they both have plenty of questions, and both groups see themselves as the Chosen Ones. This leads to persecution–undeserved sometimes, certainly, but to be expected when one group claims superiority and separates itself from another. As with any such claim, it works until it doesn’t. The Egyptians run things, then the Romans, then the British; the Aztecs are conquered by the Spanish; the Broncos win the Super Bowl and the Cubs the World Series.

So Ric had studied it all, new and old. He taught his classes and I learned a lot I didn’t know before. Some of it was simple attitude adjustment; Ric never liked anyone using reverent tones towards “the masters”; they were people, and they farted and burped and peed like anyone else. He appreciated their teachings and mispronounced their names.

This applied to all “masters”. Ric had an original Picasso on his wall, a scribble entitled “A Cucumber Unaccountably Cucumbering”. It was a lumpy curved line with another lumpy curved line growing out of it, and neither Ric nor certainly Picasso placed a great value on it. Picasso’s habit was to offer such “artworks” in payment for coffee and a bagel. It was insured for thousands, but Ric couldn’t sell it because it was a “minor work”, of which there were thousands–it took Picasso as long to sign his name as to scribble it. Besides, Picasso was alive and showed no signs of dying, so anyone who wanted an original Picasso could go to Picasso. Ric hung it in the bathroom. It somehow got knocked into the toilet, and the insurance company paid the loss.

After a few weeks in Hollywood, Ric and Liz packed up their things for a move to Walnut Creek, outside San Francisco. I took a plane from LA–my first plane ride. It was a California-only airline, and the ride felt like a ball bounce on the sidewalk; up and then down. We spent a few days in Walnut Creek and one afternoon explored the hippie neighborhoods of San Francisco, then it was time for me to go. I took a much longer plane ride across the Rocky Mountains to Stapleton Field and was home in Denver.

Eventful Years

It was the sixties. As in many cities, Denver had riots. My father bought a shotgun and stayed in the barber shop watching TV, but nothing happened in our sleepy, suburban, half-Jewish neighborhood. My mother, especially, was involved in local and national politics. Hubert Humphrey came through town, and we met him at the airport. He was shaking hands, and I stuck mine nearly in his face when he almost passed me by. He shook it, said a couple words. He seemed a harried, bald, red-faced fellow, shaking hands with a fifteen-year-old kid because it was his job. but more interested in finding a hotel, taking a dump and relaxing in a nice comfy chair. I didn’t think his heart was in it. He looked sunburned and worn out. I didn’t like that Nixon won, but I don’t think it was bad for Humphrey. Based on my three seconds of interaction with the man, I think he’d have been competent, earnest and dedicated, but frumpy and above all fatigued.

I met other political figures. My mother was a precinct committeewoman and sometime delegate to the state convention. Democrats caucused in our house. A fellow named Gary often came by; he later became a senator and presidential contender, but lost it all when he was photographed with a girl named Donna Rice on a boat named Monkey Business. Richard Lamm, later the governor, also visited, and Tom Currigan, the mayor. One of my best friends in high school was Steve McNichols, namesake of the governor and son of Denver’s longtime mayor Bill McNichols.

I was busy as well. In the second semester of my junior year, on the first day of my first class, I struck up a conversation with the girl sitting in front of me. I saw Wendy all the rest of that day; we shared seven of our eight classes. On the same day, in the class we didn’t share, she met Monk’s sister, and they became best friends. Carole was a few months older than me, but a sophomore. I didn’t have any luck with Wendy, but she met Carole’s younger brother, and soon they moved in together, when Wendy was seventeen and he, fourteen. Three years later, they married.

Most of my friends had driver’s licenses by now, and cars so dominated their lives that we had little in common. Every conversation involved carburetors, camshafts, timing, how fast Monk’s or Bill’s or Tom’s car was, how many gears they could lay rubber in. I found a new circle of friends. We had a foursome at lunch–Steve McNichols, a tall black kid named Shelton, a red-haired kid named Rick, and me. Steve and I had been to southern California. We’d seen the commercials for Ralph Williams Ford, in Encino, and he appreciated my loud, crass Ralph Williams imitation but the rest of our friends scratched their heads, mystified. He wrote scripts for me to read at lunchtime and the two of us would laugh uproariously at our commercials for Fred Ferd Ford. Steve added characters and I added voices– Sam Sly, choking through news from the chemical plant, Henry House broadcasting the weather while a tornado hit the studio and what-not, until they were 20 or 30 minute sketches which filled our lunch break. It was fun for us and, sometimes, for our friends–

Steve sent a batch of these scripts to Laugh-In, and two weeks later they featured the Farkle Family, a clear and obvious rip-off of Fred Ferd which was never acknowledged. I have no sympathy when entertainment companies complain about “piracy”. They steal whatever they can.

I spent lots of time at Steve’s. He was only six months older, and also couldn’t drive: most of our friends had no time anymore for a couple kids on bicycles. His house was near the barber shop. During the week I’d drop by for a couple hours, then sweep up the shop and catch a ride home. I’d go straight to the shop on Fridays, because Fridays and Saturdays were far and away the best days to make money shining shoes.

My father and I never fought at work; it was pleasant with the other barbers there and something of a politics-free zone, or more precisely a politics-all-over-the-map zone. Barbers agree with the guy in the chair, and only make humorous remarks. Candidate A’s overalls were the cleanest at the fair, and candidate B should get a better haircut. The customer laughs, the discussion moves to baseball, and everyone talks about who’s gonna win the pennant.

Barbers

All the barbers had interesting stories. When my father bought the shop, he took over the first chair. The second belonged to a quiet fellow named Joe Maldonado. Joe was Hispanic, but his family had lived in the area before it was Colorado, before it was Texas, before it was Mexico, before the Spaniards rode in. He and his six kids spoke Spanish at home, the same language their Colorado-born ancestors had spoken for three centuries. His father was a miner in Walsenburg, and there’d been some labor troubles. One day someone walked into the bar where Joe’s father was minding his own business and shot him dead. Mistaken identity. Joe’s mother, brothers and sisters all moved to Denver and Joe got a barber’s license to support them all. For twenty years he drove to work, reliably and conscientiously, but one morning we got a call. Joe was in jail. He’d been stopped by the cops, and didn’t have a driver’s license. Never had.

Joe wouldn’t bet against the Broncos. Denver’s football team was never good–for about fifteen years it held the worst team record in any major-league sport–but Joe always bet on them. He’d bet the point spread, but they’d usually lose by even more. Due to Joe’s influence, I didn’t bet against the Broncos either—but I just didn’t bet on them at all. Many years later, the Broncos went to the Super Bowl. For the first time, I bet a dollar–and lost. Nine years later, they went again. I bet again. They lost again, by more points. Twice more they lost, each time by even more points. 1990 produced the worst loss in Super Bowl history–49ers 55, Denver 10. Four dollars, gone.

Eight years later, the Broncos again went to the Super Bowl. They took the field in their new navy-blue and bright-orange uniforms–technically they were the “visiting” team, but they’d never lost in their new “home” uniforms. Green Bay was heavily favored; the NFC hadn’t lost in 13 years. I wanted to bet a dollar again, but my friend wanted to go five, so I did. Martina Navratilova predicted a 31-24 win, and the Broncos produced it. I won that five-dollar bet, and became the only guy in history, that I knew of, to win money betting on the Broncos. They won the Super Bowl the next year, too. For the first time in my life, I had trouble finding anyone to bet against the Broncos.

Joe didn’t see it. He’d had heart surgery a couple years before, and died on the operating table.

For awhile, the barber in the third chair was Felix Garcia. He had a son, Little Felix, who absolutely loved the Frito Bandito, but there was such a fuss the commercials were taken off the air, and Little Felix was heartbroken. In the last chair was a grumpy old bachelor named Roland, who only came in on Fridays and Saturdays and after a year retired. Felix decided to go back to school, and only come in afternoons and Saturdays. This left an open chair. My father interviewed several barbers, finally deciding to take the next guy no matter what.

Harvey had recently been released from prison. He had a bullet wound through one elbow and several old scars from knife fights, but was now in his mid-30s and trying to turn his life around. The afternoon after my father hired Harvey, another fellow showed up who’d have been perfect, but he’d already promised Harvey, who took the 3rd chair while Felix moved to the 4th.

Harvey had lots of stories, and some strange friends. He knew many talented, unbalanced people. Prisoners have lots of time on their hands, and some are quite creative. One of his prison buddies made pictures with a typewriter–landscapes, portraits, a Mona Lisa–that were exceptionally well done, and if you looked closely you’d see strikeovers of letters, commas, dashes, numbers and symbols, shaded into beautiful scenes in black, white, grey and sometimes red or pink.

Another of his buddies paid anyone a premium to buy him bottles of cough syrup. He was a codeine fiend. The pharmacies knew him, and wouldn’t let him buy. A new law passed making codeine a prescription drug, and that same evening someone broke into a drug store. A cop saw a station wagon with several cases of cough syrup in the back, and Harvey’s pal was arrested.

Harvey taught me card games; we’d play spades or hearts in the afternoons or, especially, gin rummy. Gin rummy is a gambling game, but no money sits on the table. We’d play for a half-penny a point and settle at closing time. After closing we’d lock the front door, and on Friday or Saturday get a couple six-packs and play poker. I was good at poker and usually made more money playing cards at night than I’d made shining shoes in the day. When my father had finished a six-pack we’d lock things up, he’d buy another and head home. He never drank more than a six-pack at the shop, but he’d usually finish off six while the other barbers had two. After awhile a few favored friends would come by for poker. One night my father entrusted Ric with the key. Harvey thought Ric had cheated, went for a razor and my father’s 500-pound friend Jack sat on Harvey’s leg. Harvey had a cast for the next few months and my father never gave the key out again.

We had a weekly baseball pool, too. Usually we’d put a dollar on a number from one to ten, and whoever had the combined score–a 3-2 game equaled 5–won the $10. Sometimes it’d be a hundred dollar pool, with a more elaborate payout formula, and one year for the World Series we had a thousand dollar pool. My father didn’t want a thousand dollars lying around the shop over the weekend, and brought it home in a cigar box. An hour later our little neighbor the Ortiz girl knocked on the door and gave our father a $20 bill. My father looked out the side window and saw money flying all over the yard. My youngest sister had found the stash and and brought it to the picnic table, where she and her friends had played “store”, then abandoned the game. Everyone chased after the money, and we recovered all but about $40.

I did well in that pool. A blank grid of 100 spaces was filled in, then the teams and scores were chosen out of a hat. My space represented a 4-1 win by the Tigers, which happened twice; they won the sixth game 4-1 and the seventh 13-1, which by the rules of the pool was also 4-1. I didn’t win the big, final pot, but I won the smaller pot twice.

That summer I rode my bike, played tennis with Steve and read comics in the treehouse, but come fall I was miserable. School wasn’t going well; I was still younger than the majority of the students. Athletic success was out of the question, and so was romance; even if there’d been girls my age in my classes, which there weren’t, I had no confidence. Still, I tried to become popular. I read books–notably “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie–and went about trying to make friends in a planned, methodical way. It helped at school, but not at home, where my father still spewed venom. I didn’t become most popular, but did make more friends.

Sociology

That summer, I decided I to become ambidextrous. I’d noticed that my left hand was larger, my left eye was better and heard better with my left ear. I’d seen friends break their arms, and struggle for months. Griff broke his right arm when he was eight, and he same had happened to others. They were danged near helpless. I resolved to do everything, with either hand or foot. For the next several months I practiced writing, kicking, throwing, even tying shoelaces with my left hand, and putting my left thumb on top when I interlaced my fingers.  I didn’t feel exceptionally capable with my right hand anyway–my penmanship had always been poor–and my left-side coordination was worse than most. A girl I knew who was left-handed could write her name quite legibly with either hand, and I wanted to do the same. I took to writing everything with my left hand. It wasn’t very legible, but was only marginally worse than with my right, and it got better.

I found a teacher I really liked that year. Judy Lopata was young, pretty and sexy, and almost exactly nine years older than I–her birthday was June 6, 1944, now known as D-Day. She said she couldn’t read my writing, so I came in after school and read to her, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was my one really bright spot in high school, ever. She’d talk with me about her high-school years, which weren’t so long ago, and I’d tell her about my trips to Mexico and California and the philosophies I’d become interested in. For the first time, I felt a teacher, a beautiful female, was genuinely interested in ME, not the rocket scientist I could be molded into.

I also found her interesting in her own right. Her class dealt with how people lived now, not through history or in theories from books. We read a novel which had just come out, “In Cold Blood”, as part of the curriculum, and she passed out her own mimeographed story of a long weekend she’d tried living like a bum on Denver’s skid row, called “Live-in on Larimer Street”.

It was well-written. Some professional people had taken a seminar, then reported to the soup kitchen in scruffy clothes, day-old beards, no makeup; they’d been given a work history as unskilled laborers and were told to find work. For three days they were waitresses or janitors, reporting to the mission at night. Her conversations with the men and women she met were really touching. It was only 3 days, and then she was back to being a professional, but I started thinking, after I’d read it, about life after school–and not in the way one might expect. A life of meaningless drudge work sounded appealing, to me. It was a choice I could actually make for myself. Instead of being a scientist straitjacketed into a lab coat, reviewing calculations on a clipboard, I could push a broom and sleep on a cot! I didn’t need to do what all the teachers and “counselors” and parents of the world told me I should do, I could be a bum!

I didn’t care about school anymore. I wanted creative writing and woodworking, not composition and algebra. I’d never been big enough in gym, I’d been “counseled” out of shop. My little brother regularly chased me away from the piano. One of our little friends had died a couple of years before, and death had started to look good to me. Then, suddenly, there was being a bum! I was liberated!

I didn’t know much about the bum lifestyle; it wasn’t taught in school. My family had always lived in cozy neighborhoods toward the edge of town, and I didn’t know a lot of street kids or downtown toughs. There were rough kids at school, but they’d hang out on the other side of the playground.  I’d read plenty of books, though. As a career, intergalactic space pilot was probably out, and anything involving college looked like misery and pain–but then there was picking apples.

I’d been flailing since I was two, not living up to expectations. Since my potential had long ago escaped gravity, it mattered not that I’d been above average in most things while everyone around me was bigger, stronger, older and more mature; I hadn’t grown feathers on my arms and flown. I’d half-heartedly gone along with the universal assessment of my future, and had a hazy notion that I’d grow up to wear pocket protectors and give incomprehensible speeches to men in gray suits and military uniforms; they’d sit and scratch their heads. The prospect was drab, horrid. I wanted ANYTHING else. Drive a truck. Peel tomatoes. Sell balloons. I liked painting, and thought I’d done well in art until one day I saw one of my creations being painted over so the teacher could re-use the masonite. It completely crushed me. I’d thought it was pretty good. A fellow in false color straddling a chair, seen from an ant’s eye view; purple with a bright orange sky. Two days later I saw a kid painting thick white paint over it with a broad brush. The teacher had picked out two or three and, without telling us, banished the rest. Walking home that day I found a secluded pine tree, sat under the boughs and sobbed, for a long time.

Sociology was an “A”, but my grades were going down. I got lots of Cs and Ds; occasionally Fs. I flunked Spanish, which had suddenly turned from conversations into long tables of grammar. I often slept through Algebra, where I came in exhausted after gym class, especially after swimming, at which I was never very good. The gym teacher invented a category for me. He’d set up four levels–A,B,C and non-swimmer. I could swim, but only half as fast as the Cs, so he made me a level D.

My home life was thoroughly depressing. I’d run in, grab something to eat and run out. If I came to supper, it was hopeless; he was drunk, ugly and mean, and nothing I could do or say wouldn’t provoke him. He was buying cheap beer now, drinking a six-pack before coming homeand another afterwards. He’d sit at the kitchen table, smoke cigarette after cigarette, pontificate for hours, analyze whoever was at the table, berate them, discuss their psychological problems and, especially, failings. Around 9:30 he’d eat something and go to bed; if I stayed away late enough I didn’t have to deal with it.

Times change, and perceptions change, and in the reckoning of the time my father wasn’t a “drunk”. He drank, but wouldn’t exceed the 0.15 drunk driving standard of the time, and drank nothing but beer, except occasionally on weekends. Neither was he violent, anymore. He was, however, ugly and mean. Snide. Derogatory. Malevolent–but calm.

He loved to discuss psychology; as an actor, it helped him understand character and motivation, but he could be exceptionally cruel. He’d light into a blameless waitress, telling her it must be terrible to live life as such an ugly woman, and keep it up through the meal,  just to see her react.

I couldn’t pass through the kitchen without being roped into a long discussion of my motivations, or more precisely my lack thereof. I’d try to be reasonable, agreeable, pleasant. He’d pick at my desires, dreams, opinions, aspirations, wearing me down. Eventually I’d explode, which gave him a big kick. He’d smirk and leave, as if by tearing me down, he’d saved the planet.

My own analysis of him, far more competent than his analysis of me, is that as the baby of the family by many years he was accustomed to attention, but felt inadequate. His father was a rough man, his brothers much older., and they fought with the old man regularly. Little Neddy couldn’t fight, but he attracted attention from his sisters, who were in their teens when he was small. They were well-educated when he wasn’t. He was very much a hillbilly, and as such regularly ridiculed in the cartoons of the day.

His exaggerated feeling of inadequacy produced a jealousy in him, and a need to disparage the achievements and desires of others, particularly his eldest son. Thus, when I’d accomplish something his reaction was to tear it down, to tear ME down. He wanted to be superior, but if he tried to beat me I was big enough to fight back, so he wrecked what he could. He pulled my strings, pulled again, pulled some more, yanked at them until he proved HE was the puppet master. It was infantile and disgusting. Pointless. Sick.

Driving

In October of 1968 I bought a $25 car, a two-tone 1956 Pontiac. My father’s friend needed money, so I bought his car. Had I been in driver’s ed I could’ve had a permit at 15 years and 6 months, but the class was full. I got one at 15 years and 9 months, instead. The Pontiac sat for six months and on the first rainy day of spring I passed my permit test, but my father never let me drive my own car, making excuses and finding me another car, a 1962 Falcon station wagon. I bought it for $175 from Barry, the guy who owned the Jewish deli near the barbershop. Barry also owned a 3.2 beer joint named the Skunk Kreek Inn. The car had a skunk on a barstool painted on the driver’s door. It had problems; I had to replace the transmission with a rebuilt one, but third gear didn’t work in THAT one either. We took it back to the tranny shop, they took off the top plate and there was a fork out of place. They wrote “Mike’s Mistake” on it in big red letters and gave us another. I drove the Falcon until my 16th birthday. Time for my driver’s test. I was itching for my license. I was ready to drive my Falcon to the DMV, but my father made me drive the family station wagon, a much larger car I was less familiar with but which had an automatic transmission.

It doesn’t rain often in Colorado, and hadn’t rained since the day I received my permit, but just as I pulled upfor the test it started to pour. My father rolled up all the windows, though I pleaded with him not to, and while I was driving the car fogged up completely.

It was hopeless. I couldn’t see to the sides or behind, and not much in front. I parked six feet from the curb. I wandered all over the road. I stopped for a green light. I flunked.

Two weeks later, I tried again. I insisted on driving my Falcon. As I pulled up for the test, it started raining, again; the first time since my first test. My father rolled up the windows, again. I pleaded for him to stop, again. The car fogged up, again. We argued in front of the inspector. I got out of the car, rolled the windows down, again, and took the test, again, in the rain, again. I passed! I had my license!

I got my first “real job” a week later. I’d read the paper by the entrance to the huge tent where actors and actresses changed costumes for Shakespeare in the Park, and keep out strangers. A summer job, it lasted three months. Six weeks into it, Apollo 11 landed on the moon!

It was hard for me to believe that ANYONE wouldn’t stay home to watch the moon landing, but there was a fair crowd that night. Someone had stuck a portable TV into a tree backstage, and I snuck away from the tent for a couple minutes at a time to watch the astronauts.

That’s how I saw a lot of history being made. Someone would bring a rinky-dink TV to a place where dozens or hundreds would watch the inauguration, space shot, assassination, moon landing on a tiny black-and-white screen ten, twenty, thirty feet away.

In 1969, Denver was a fair sized city; the metro area approached a million people, but most still thought it a cultural backwater, a cowtown. It was the capital as well as being the largest city around, not only in Colorado but in all seven bordering states, the largest city within a thousand miles–but still a hick town, a hinterland. Denver’s only major-league team, the Broncos, languished at the bottom of the low-class American Football League and had been there for many years. While this had its effect on the municipal mood, it was far from the only cause.

To the west, the Rocky Mountains were a formidable barrier before Interstate 70 punched through. The half-a-dozen passes through the mountains were snowed shut for six months a year; even open they were twisty, terrifying two-lane roads bereft of guardrails. One tight corner had a pile of twisted cars at the bottom, half shiny, half rusty, half a mile down. Anyone who’d gone off the edge was clearly dead, and to even run a cable down and pull out the wrecks would be dangerous. To the north and south were few travelers, as Wyoming and New Mexico were sparsely populated, and for those driving east or west it was necessary from November to May to bypass Colorado altogether. Celebrities and newsmakers from Hollywood or New York were far more likely to pass through Kansas City or Albuquerque than Denver, so fashionable trends usually appeared there three three to five years late. Denver had once been a happening place, but by the 1960s the action had moved to California, and “the sixties” didn’t really hit Denver until the seventies.

I had a few hippie accoutrements–wire-rimmed “granny” glasses (the new, photosensitive kind, perpetually grey), a couple pairs of pants which would accommodate a wide belt, a colorful shirt or two. I went to war protests, but they were small things, presented in the local conservative press as even smaller; their long, wide-angle lenses showed vast expanses of grass surrounding a clump of tiny people in the distance, obscured by trees and waving postage-stamp signs and estimated at two or three hundred people when the actual numbers were closer to a thousand. Denver had a strong military presence and no desire to stir the pot. Nevertheless, the times were a-changin’.

Sixteen is Sweet?

Sixteen wasn’t sweet. I was STILL the youngest kid in class, and for some reason wasn’t catching up! I was desperately unhappy in the fall of 1969; the only bright spot was that this was my last year of school. I was certain. No matter what. If I didn’t graduate, I was dropping out. Adults glanced at my achievement scores, not at me, and saw a shining star. They’d always planned for me to go straight to college, where I’d graduate at  graduate at 18 or 19. I felt otherwise.

I was too petrified to talk to girls even when I knew sthey liked me, and there weren’t many who did, though they liked my younger brothers. My car wasn’t cool or even reliable, which wasn’t its fault. I didn’t know anything about cars. I’d start it in the winter and leave the hand choke pulled out, not realizing I had to push it back in. I was late to first-period English a dozen times; showed up dirty and smelled of gasoline. Half a dozen times I missed it entirely.

I was definitely flunking English. My first two reports were “D” and “F” due to tardies and absences, and my final grade was sure to be an “F”.

I have to hand it to Mrs. McGregor. She gave me a break, all because of one report.

We’d studied English literature, and each row of our class had been assigned a report based on some aspect of English life in the sixteenth century. One row did politics, one home life, etc. My row did art, a subject I loved. I was the very last in the class to give my report–but I’d come prepared.

Among the hundreds of books, encyclopedias, etc. that my parents had collected was a series called “Metropolitan Seminars in Art”. It was arranged somewhat chronologically by country, and I picked out several examples of art in England, in not only the sixteenth century but centuries before and after, and examples from other countries and times. I explained how the concept of perspective had developed from the tenth century on, then went to principles of composition, how the central focus of the picture was usually constructed from a series of convergent triangles with an angel, saint or other item of interest at the apex. I explained how the representation of faces and bodies improved through the study of anatomy, and explained diffusion of light and the use of shadows. To top it off I pulled out a group portrait, done in Italy in the eighteenth century. The contrast was striking and by now obvious to everyone. The pictures were passed around, and I answered a butt-load of questions. I talked for the whole period, and would have gone longer had the bell not rung. Mrs. McGregor gazed at me, absolutely awestruck. I’d been her personal pain in the ass the whole semester; now she gave me an A+ on the report and a C for my final grade, which I most certainly didn’t deserve.

Glist-N-Brite

I’d sworn off alcohol after my encounter with sweet red wine at fourteen, but at sixteen I was again interested. Oddly, it was easier for me to get liquor than beer. The law in Colorado permitted 3.2% beer for 18-year-olds, which could be sold in the grocery store, but anything stronger had to be sold in a liquor store. I didn’t look anywhere near 18, but if we wanted a drink my friends and I could find a bum to buy it for us. If we went to that much trouble, we didn’t just want beer, we bought cheap whiskey, or sloe gin. We’d drive to Picadilly Road, a dirt road outside town, and whoever seemed the most sober would drive back. We always made it, though sometimes we’d have to change a tire or push the car out of a ditch.

There was another option. Brewing beer was completely illegal in 1969, but malt syrup with hops was freely sold in stores, as were 5 lb. bags of sugar. My first attempt wasn’t malt syrup. I’d read a book that said “bathtub gin” was sugar, yeast, water, and nothing else. I filled a large coke bottle with sugar water. The recipe suggested introducing the sugar water to its “friend” the yeast on a piece of toast. I used a toasted chunk of onion roll, sprinkled yeast on it, shoved it in the bottle, stretched a balloon over the top. The balloon filled up way too fast, so I put a small pinprick towards the bottom of the neck, which let the pressure out gradually. It worked well.

A few days later I had a bottle of some of the nastiest crap I’d ever tasted. The onion in the roll had taken over and transmogrified a concoction which could have been tolerable into rank putridity. I drank it anyway, but didn’t use onion roll again.

Monk and I then bought malt extract and sugar, and filled five or six plastic gallon jugs that his father had stenciled with the name of a furniture polish he’d invented, Glist-N-Brite. Monk’s room was in the basement next to the furnace, an octopus armed model like ours, and we put the jugs among its tentacles. One or two had balloons; Monk loosely capped the rest. One exploded on the second night, but Monk had the presence of mind to spirit away the remaining four and told his mother there’d only been one. She didn’t mind, though–she’d grown up in 1930s Chicago–and the other four reappeared with balloons on their necks. That Friday we bottled 32 sixteen-ounce bottles of Glist-N-Brite Furniture Polish brand beer. By Sunday, Monk and I had finished them off, and brewed more. We established a regular schedule–start a batch on Sunday, bottle it on Saturday, start more–but eventually we bottled on Friday or Thursday and the quality of the beer, nonexistent to begin with, totally tanked. We still drank it. The taste didn’t bother us–much.

We continued drinking Glist-N-Brite. In December our friend Wayne was rolling his own cigarettes, which I thought were joints. I’d heard of them, but never seen one. Wayne handed me one; I took a couple puffs, coughed, and he told me what it was. I liked the tingly feeling; it was kind of pleasant, but a bit nasty. I didn’t take up smoking tobacco just then, but tried it occasionally.

A few weeks later–January 28th, 1970, to be exact, my younger brother, who had just turned 14, showed me something special. He pulled from his pocket a tiny Italian matchbook–and inside were four hand rolled, straw-colored cigarettes. They were joints. We lit one up.
Oh, my god! How incredibly cool was this? Everything turned bright, colorful. The world was transformed. Charming, fun. I’d heard that the first time someone smoked weed, they didn’t feel much. Not for us. It was immediate, definite, unmistakable. My brother said it was Acapulco Gold, but I didn’t really believe him, because Acapulco Gold was an urban legend that most people never encountered. We had three more joints. They didn’t last long.
In the next fifteen years I smoked a lot of weed, in 49 states and 3 countries. Some was good, some wasn’t. Panama Red, Thai stick, Oaxacan (which we pronounced “Meshmacon”) and a hundred others. Never did I feel the same effects, until the mid-1980s. I’d smoked what was supposed to be Acapulco Gold a couple more times in the intervening years. It clearly wasn’t the same, so when I heard “Acapulco Gold” again I thought, yeah, right…but the first toke told me it was indeed what we’d had that January afternoon in 1970–light, powerful, and fun!

It seemed everyone between fourteen and twenty-four discovered drugs that year. A few older hippies had been in the loop longer, but a few years later if you struck up a conversation, you’d find almost everyone had started within a year of 1970, whether they’d been fourteen or seventeen or nineteen or twenty-two. An older sister had turned them on, or a younger brother, a school friend, an acquaintance from church had first pulled out the stash, in ’69, ’70 or ’71.

Outsiders talked about “gateway drugs”. I started with wine, then went to beer, tobacco and weed. Not everyone did. A friend we called Humpherill started by shooting speed. Not drinking, smoking, snorting or swallowing powders or pills. Injecting speed, directly into his virgin vein.

The idea of “gateway drugs” misses the mark. People don’t get sucked into doing drugs, they search drugs out. Folks who feel fine don’t want them. Anguish is a gateway to drugs. Depression is a gateway. Fear, pain–these are the gateways to the desire for drugs. Kids who grew up thinking they’d be roasted by the bomb before they were twenty–that was a huge gateway.

In the next couple weeks Monk and Wayne met a guy we called Charlie the Duck. I never knew his full name, we just called him Duck. They all brought something new to my house on February 19th–a little pill named Orange Sunshine, wrapped in aluminum foil. I was uncertain about swallowing it, so they passed around a joint and left it with me. I didn’t touch it for a couple days. I once put it in my mouth and sucked on it, but didn’t actually swallow any until the following Tuesday. I had an appointment which gave me the afternoon off, and I took half the tab at 1:30. I didn’t notice anything for half an hour, but as I was in the elevator leaving my appointment I noticed the floor was moving. So what? I was in an elevator, it’s supposed to move–but the little specks in the linoleum were moving, too, and the elevator was not only moving, but breathing. When I got out of the elevator the whole building was breathing–and outside, the sun was not only shining but sparkling! I walked home. The trees had faces, and were smiling at me. The clouds were playing games; the squirrels talking to the birds.
I moseyed along–it was pleasant for February, clear and not cold–and picked up some snacks on the way home. The fudgesicle was tasty, the peanuts were chalky, the 7-Up was AMAZING! I strolled along, stopping here and there to look at feathers or clumps of clay, until I noticed words in the patterns of the sidewalk cement–“Hey Dave,” a paver spelled out, “don’t you think,” on the next paver, then “it’s about time,” “to be getting home?” I realized that the Universe was texting me. This had been planned when the cement for the sidewalk was poured, twenty years before. I strolled home along the undulating sidewalk, ate a snack, told everyone I was a little tired and went to my room. I turned on the radio, and the flowers on the wallpaper danced. Colors trailed off my fingertips. Wayne and Monk came over, and I told them I’d taken half a hit. We drove to Duck’s basement for a few hours. A beer or two didn’t affect me much. We played a little pool–then Duck pulled out a joint.
I’d been coming down, but suddenly I was shooting up faster than I could’ve imagined. My god, I was flying! Duck had Moody Blues on the stereo. I sat on the floor, leaned back against the leg of the pool table and my spirit’s connection to my body shrank to a rectangle the size of a postage stamp on the crown of my head. I was the universe, and that little thing down there, of which my connection was no thicker than the string on a helium balloon, was my body. Wayne and Monk eventually took me home. When I awoke the next day, my world was forever changed.
People who’ve never taken psychedelics will never really understand those who have. Plenty of people have no need, desire or curiosity about psychoactive drugs, and that’s fine. In fact, people who like drugs do have a problem, but the drug doesn’t cause the problem. They’re in physical or mental pain, and drugs alleviate the pain. Some people take too much and make their problem worse, but most people figure it out, and quit while they’re ahead. I had a desire and, yes, a need, for drugs when I was 16. I’d been set apart by circumstance, by choices made so routinely by others that I had no idea who I was, or what I wanted. I’d hidden my true desires so deeply that I didn’t know what they were. I wasn’t just a geek, I was an uber-geek, a geek in the world of geekdom, Suicide had looked good to me. Drugs changed that.
After that first half-a-tab, I re-evaluated my life. I’d explored Eastern religions since I was ten, but now I wanted more. I began to feel that Hindu and other insights–particularly in the search for bliss–could be found in an approach to life which included a judicious, disciplined use of psychedelics. I took another quarter-tab two days afterwards, and my last quarter-tab the day after that. I split another tab with Monk that Saturday. I got a little higher than I liked and turned the radio to a gospel station until I settled down, then didn’t take any more for a couple months.
I’d started working after school at the King Soopers grocery near the barber shop. Several pretty girls worked there; I was particularly enamored of a checker named Melanie. That didn’t go anywhere, but work was radically different from school. I loved it. I’d hated school with a white-hot passion, but didn’t mind work at all. I still didn’t have a girlfriend, but started to relax a bit, and found I was a very fast bagger. A good bagger could handle two checkout counters on a busy day. A very good one could handle three, but I could handle four. It helped to have big hands–I could pick up two and three cans at once.
I worked afternoons and weekends until I graduated that June.  I truly hated every minute of school in my last semester; I didn’t have sociology any more, fought with my father every time I saw him, was taking a load of classes I hated, and not doing well. I flunked out of one too many classes and was one credit shy of graduation, so I signed up for a television course. I completed all the work with flying colors, except for a final, required report which I forgot about completely. Instead of an “A” I received a “D”. It was still good enough for the school to mail me my diploma, printed and on as record as June 2, 1970, the day before my 17th birthday.
That little glitch blew the tiny mind of the punch-card computer, though. At the end of the summer I received another schedule of classes. I called the school office, told them my diploma was in my hand, and that was that.

Mahonchak

I was exceptionally happy to have received my diploma when I saw my schedule, because one of my classes was with a teacher named Mahonchak, a strutting, pompous, petty dictator who had for years enforced every possible infraction in humorless, severe ways. Because he was such a teapot tyrant, students made his life hell any way they could. All the pranks were played on Mahonchak. A full glass of milk was placed upside-down on his desk so that it couldn’t be moved without milk spilling everywhere; a few members of the football team picked up his Volkswagen and set it lengthwise between two trees. The greatest trick of all, however, was perpetrated by my friend Steve and me, in the final few weeks of our senior year.

George Washington High had two wings. From the cafeteria one angled left, the other right. Between them was a patio, and a large green area where we’d eat lunch. Patio duties revolved weekly among the teachers, and ten minutes before lunch was over, whichever students were in detention policed the area, picking up trash. This was usually a relaxed affair, but nothing was ever relaxed about Mahonchak. He was a swaggering field officer; a martinet barking orders. On this lovely spring day, Mahonchak had patio patrol.

Steve and I had a plan. We hid behind a bush at the end of lunch period and Steve pulled out an M-80, a giant firecracker. I had a cigarette. We punched a hole close to the filter, stuck the fuse through, lit the cigarette, then put it in a paper bag. I threw it in the trash eleven or twelve minutes before the end of lunch period. I’d seen a war movie where a cigarette stuffed into a matchbook lit up a railcar full of hay seven minutes later, so Steve and I were expecting a 7-minute delay.

In the next few minutes everyone threw their trash on top of our time bomb. Mahonchak gathered his troops, and in ten minutes the patio was spotless. Steve and I were sure we had a dud. The bell rang, ending lunch, and before the last peal faded away, KA-POW!!! Our delayed fuse FINALLY found its mark, and the top two-thirds of the trash in the 60-gallon galvanized bucket flew ten feet in the air! Mahonchak turned purple and completely lost it, screaming and grabbing the collars of random students to force them into lunch duty, but everyone knew the bell had rung, lunch was over, everyone needed to get to class, end of story.

What Steve and I hadn’t calculated was that the cigarette I’d brought was of the new, 100 millimeter size, which lasted over ten minutes. The result was far better than we’d anticipated, and Mahonchak’s purple, impotent rage an awesome, wonderful bonus!

Work

I had some conflicts with the night manager, and within about three months I was fired, rehired, quit, rehired and, in the third week of January 1970, transferred to a store in the hippie part of town.

I loved it! I didn’t see many folks from the old neighborhood, but met lots of freaky and interesting people. One checker, Kenny, could’ve been born in 1901 instead of 1951. He was 18, but carried a pocket watch, wore thin wire-frame glasses, high-waisted slacks, parted his hair in the middle and smoked short, unfiltered Lucky Strikes.

This store was new, and was open 24 hours, which was also new in Denver. A few gas stations and restaurants were open around-the-clock in 1970, but a full-size, full-service grocery, with bakery, deli and pharmacy? No. Not even television broadcast around the clock. The national anthem played at midnight, and the station shut down.

I’ve always hated the national anthem, by the way. I prefer “America the Beautiful”, and not just because “purple mountains’ majesty” refers to Colorado. Anyway, as the “Star Spangled Banner” played, flags flapped, jets roared, half a dozen military guys saluted.  A test pattern appeared, followed shortly by a shrill, steady whine which drove you bananas if you didn’t hop up and flip off the TV, this still being the Age of No Remote Control, outside of my bedroom.

After graduation I worked the night shift, 10pm to 6:30am, but King Soopers didn’t mind paying overtime and I’d work an extra hour or two every morning. We figured our own time cards, and counted overtime after 8 hours a day and over 40 hours a week. If I’d worked ten hours for each of four days, that would be 32 hours regular time and 8 hours overtime, and the fifth day was pure overtime. After some months, the Retail Clerks Union issued a “clarification”, which ended our little bonus.

My night clumped into 3 distinct periods. From 10 pm til midnight, the store was crowded with shoppers stocking up; average people, out late, doing an everyday thing. From midnight until 5 am the night shift stocked the shelves while hippies tripped and stumbled through the laundry aisle, gazing intently at the brilliant, fluorescent soap boxes. At around 5 am, morning people appeared, bright-eyed and cheery. Everyone in the night crew would get a lift just before quitting time, through contact with these chirpy, bushy-tailed birds.

I soon adopted a schedule–absolutely insane for anyone not seventeen years old–of staying up every other day and sleeping alternate days and weekends. My schedule was 36 hours awake and 12 asleep for most of the week. I figured this gave me more time for socializing, but in truth I was sleepwalking.

Which may have been the point. I was happier, when I was too tired to think.

I’d never smoked very much, but I quit smoking tobacco that New Years’ Day. It wouldn’t be the last time. I could count on one hand the folks I knew who didn’t smoke. Some smoked a little, some a lot, but very few didn’t smoke at all. The heaviest smokers were the butchers. They seemed to live their lives with a cigarette in one hand and a coffee in the other. The one fellow that I knew didn’t smoke, the produce guy, was also the only vegetarian I’d ever met. I’d have liked to have socialized with him, but our schedules conflicted.

Eight Daves

There were Daves everywhere in the ’60s; there were two or three in each of my classes; I was never the only one. There were eight of us in the store: me, Dave Block, Dave Blackwell, Dave Coons, Dave Haynes, Dave McCandless, Dave Sonneberg and Dave Wilson. I told everyone to call me DJ. I’ve used it ever since.
Because I worked nights, downtown, I became a legend in my neighborhood without knowing it. Gone before the parties started, I was a mystery guy who knew all the cool people and could procure drugs at will. Everyone had heard my name, but hadn’t met me. Many months later, when I wasn’t working nights, they’d exclaim, “so YOU’RE DJ? I’ve heard SO much about you…!!”

I wasn’t aware that anyone would think of me as popular, but one day I went out and my car had been egged. Someone had thrown two or three dozen eggs at it, and covered every square inch. I suspected a couple guys, Harold and Gene, but Gene said it was Harold alone; that Harold was jealous of me.

It seemed ridiculous. I wasn’t even a checker. I’d achieved a couple of dubious distinctions–I was the fastest bagger, and also held the record for packing pop bottles into a grocery buggy, over 200. That bit of silliness then inspired a couple guys to stack a buggyful 7 or 8 feet high. It fell over in the aisle with a tremendous crash. Glass flew everywhere, the competition was banned, and I held the all-time record!

Our back room was particularly small, which led to a lot of precarious stacking of merchandise pallets, all the way to the ceiling: cans on the bottom, toilet paper on top. This made for dancing forklifts; one fellow would lift the top few pallets and another would come with a hand-pumped “mule” to pull out the bottom ones. These mules made handy scooters. We’d put a foot on one of the forks and push off, steering with the handle. One day a caddy named Tim was riding a mule in the back room; another named Jim had just finished mopping. I was a ways back from both. I took a run and jumped on the mule with one foot, putting all my weight on the unused fork and springing back again. Tim went shooting off at great speed into a pair of aluminum doors, clanging loudly. He stormed back into the room. I pointed to Jim, who was the closer of us, and said “He did it!” Jim had been innocently leaning on his mop, but standing in the most likely spot! He protested and pointed at me, but I was a long way from the action, and Tim didn’t believe it for a second! I totally got away with it!

One day there was a new display in the kitchen aisle, a product called “Corelle”. A stocker told me it was practically unbreakable; that you could drop it and it’d clang but not break. He invited me to try. I took a cup, tossed it about 6 feet high, it hit the floor and rang like a bell but didn’t break. I thought this really cool, and wrote on the cup  in felt-tip pen that it had been dropped from six feet without breaking. About an hour later there was a cleanup on the kitchen aisle. A customer had tried the cup, dropped it from about 4 feet and it’d shattered into a hundred pieces!

I stayed at the downtown store until fall, then transferred back to Mayfair. Shortly afterwards I was promoted to checker, a position which normally wasn’t offered until one was 18. It was technically illegal for me to sell beer. I was supposed to call on an older checker to ring up beer, but I didn’t.

Wendy, whom I knew from when we’d shared six classes, had joined the orbit of my friends in a tertiary way. She was now Monk’s sister Carole’s best friend, and girlfriend to their younger brother. When school was out, Wendy, Dick and Carole moved into an apartment together. Wendy and Dick lived together for three years and married when she was twenty and he, seventeen. They were quite resourceful. There’d been a push in the early ecological movement to reuse grocery bags. They’d walk in on a busy day, fill their used bags full of groceries and walk out. One day they came to my store, palmed a couple small things and came through my checkout. The manager had spotted them and called me out, since he saw that I knew them. I didn’t know about it and didn’t get in trouble, but they were banned from the store.

Checking groceries was a more physical job than it later came to be. Shoppers rolled up buggies and checkers unloaded them, rang up the prices by hand and put the items on a conveyor belt, where caddies would bag the groceries and load them in another buggy. The cash registers at the downtown (Downing street) store had a ten-key pad, but those at the Mayfair were older and had columns of keys; a row of ones across the bottom, twos above them, etc. and column of category keys on the right. A fellow with big hands could set five fingers, slam five keys and ring up $1.69 taxable produce at one whack, while a ten-key pad took 5 strokes. The Mayfair machines were much faster for a guy like me–whack, whack, whack and three items were done, while the flying fingers at Downing street would click-click-click-click-click-cachunk, click-click-click-cachunk, click-click-click-click-cachunk. I could also pick up three cans with my monster hands, whack-whack-whack; three more, whack-whack-whack, then three more, nine cans in five or six seconds. The motor whirred, the tabs sprung up; there was a rhythm to it. On a busy day it was  almost like meditation. I’d bang the register flat-out and toss cans and boxes faster than the conveyor belt could carry them. If I was really flying, two baggers would work my counter. The registers ran at top speed, and the managers kept me away from certain ones–number 8 had a problem–because their motors overheated, their keys froze, their price tabs stuck. Usually a checker would stay on one register. On a busy day I’d float me between two or three, so none burned out.

This proved a personal advantage. The other checkers were mostly girls. The guys were primarily stockers, but stocking was a break for me. When there came a rush it was “Austin up front, please!”. A dozen or so customers would be gone in a couple minutes, but I’d hang out and talk with the girls. I became much more relaxed around women.

A Model A

I bought a Model A Ford in the early months of 1970. I’d always wanted an old car, and bought this one for $600–a 1930 four-door, Briggs body, olive green with black fenders. It looked good on the outside, but mechanically it needed help. I was happy to do it, though, and fixed the wiring, brakes, front end, interior. I’d drive it occasionally, but it spent more time parked in front of the house.

I’d acquired the $600 through the stock market. My father had gleaned a few tips from customers and first suggested to me that I buy into a trucking company, Fruehauf, which made semi-trailers. I bought a couple shares for around $30 apiece when I was eleven or twelve and watched them hover around the same price for the next few years. A year or two later I also bought five shares of a company called Permian Oil, at $18 per share. Within the week, Permian was the most active stock on the exchange and went from $18 to $24 in a single day. This continued, and the company was soon bought by Occidental Petroleum, who gave me three shares of Occidental for my five shares of Permian, plus about $60. With the dividends my stock had earned, $40 or thereabouts, my $90 had been recouped and I now had 3 shares of Occidental, for free. The stock continued upwards, then split 3-for-1. I had nine shares of Occidental, which announced a new project in Libya and sent me a first-day-cover of a stamp with an oil well on it, covered in Arabic writing. These shares continued going up, and by the time I was sixteen were worth over $600.

I’d been watching the stock market myself these years, and decided to buy stock in six companies–Zion Foods, Continental Can, Chrysler and three more. I went to my father with $300 and told him what I wanted to do, but he talked me out of it. A week later, I told him I still wanted the stock, but he flat-out refused. As I was underage, couldn’t buy them myself. I watched these stocks over the next two years. All of them made money, some just a few cents, others a few dollars. Chrysler went from $46 to $64, but one little company went from 1-1/4 to 18-1/2, split 2-for-1, then continued upwards. I’d planned to buy 50 shares. Had I been left to my own devices, I’d have made over $3000.

I still did pretty well. My Freuhauf shares slumped, but came back, and the Occidental continued doing well. One day in late 1968 I decided the stocks looked about as good as they were going to get, and told my father I wanted to sell. He again talked me out of it. A week later the market fell. A year afterwards, I insisted–threw a tantrum, really–and got my money out, with what proved to be very good timing. With the proceeds, I bought the Model A.

My brother had also been in the market. He bought $100 worth of a company called Frontier Airlines, and a couple years later it was worthless (though the name was eventually revived).

So I had my Model A. I’d work on it, drive, work on it more, drive a little more. One day my brother and I set up a date with Monk’s two sisters. Luanne very much wanted to go out with Robin; Carole very much didn’t want to go with me. Her father insisted, and we had a date.

First Date

My brother, the sisters and I packed into the Model A and headed for the Third Eye Theatre in downtown Denver to see “The Fantasticks”, a hilarious comedy wherein the fathers play matchmaker by forbidding their children to see each other, calculating correctly that this will make them want each other the more. I’d seen it with my family, and the absolute pinnacle for any comedy, anywhere, was set by Budge Threlkeld, who later toured with Rickie Lee Jones. Budge as Mortimer had a dying scene in which one of the lines was “they’d always shout die again, Mortimer, die again!!”, at which point my father, from the audience, stood up and shouted “DIE AGAIN!!!”. Budge looked out, smiling, and with a finger wag said, slowly, “I never did!”.

But that was a different night. Our foursome saw a wonderful production, with Joe Horvath superb as Mortimer. Later the fathers danced and sang about how predictable a garden was in comparison to raising children. One father loudly flubbed the line “plant a radish, get a radish” as “plant a radish, get a carrot”. At the next kick-step. the other father booted him in the butt.

We enjoyed the play, had something to eat, started home–and the car quit. The lights dimmed, and it died. We were nearly hit as we pushed it off the road. I stuck in the crank, fiddled with the choke, spark advance and fuel mix; finally got her started, climbed into the driver’s seat, turned on the headlights and she died. I cranked her a couple more times with the same result. We drove the last few miles on back roads, in the dark, lights off.

The next day I went to the Model A parts store (yes, there was one) and bought a new cut-out switch, an earlier version of a voltage regulator which kept the battery from overcharging. When the battery was fully charged, an electromagnetic switch would “cut out” the generator, but the switch had a nasty habit of sticking. It’d drained the battery when we were parked.

That was my first and only “date” for about ten years. For hippie types “dates” were rather of out of fashion, but I was far too terrified to ask a girl out anyway. Guys and gals would meet at parties and go home together, or whatever, but formally planning a “date” seemed quaint, and “square”.

The following spring, a wheel on my Falcon fell off. The front passenger-side wheel had been squeaking for a few days, but I was clueless what that meant. One day, a few blocks from home, the squeaking became a squealing, then a grinding. Suddenly, the brakes didn’t work. I had to go around a corner on two wheels. When the car came down, its front wheel bounced into the bushes while the front end crunched to a halt, dug into the pavement. I called Monk and said he could have it if he hauled it off, and he dragged it home, leaving a half-mile gouge in the pavement.

I bought a  blue 1964 Falcon Futura a few days later. On one of our jaunts to Picadilly Road, Wayne lost a cigarette in the back seat. The night was windy and I’d left the windows down. By the morning the entire back seat had smoldered into a black char. The fire truck came and they pulled out the back seat. When they threw it in the street, it burst into flames, but the car was undamaged except for a couple scorch marks on the headliner. I washed it thoroughly and got a back seat from a 1965 Futura; the pattern didn’t match but the color did. I had to leave the windows open for 3 months to air out the stink.

Readying to Move, Again

My father went to Hollywood that summer to visit his friend Ric, who was now an established actor. He schmoozed with a lot of people, got a lot of smoke blown up his butt, and decided it was our time. Over the next months we sold two of the rental houses to their long-time tenants. Joe bought the barbershop, but we had two more houses, ours at 17th & Spruce and an old house which had been split up into apartments at 9th & Downing. The Downing Street house had been a problem.
There were three rooms upstairs, two occupied by ladies in their 90’s and the other by a fellow I’d known from high school. One side of the downstairs had been rented by a couple in their thirties, but the other by a young couple who’d taken in friends and then moved out. It became a “crash pad”, and the rent paid by passing a hat.

Dealing with the crash pad got old, quick. No one living there had signed the rental contract; indeed, none of them knew who we were. My father and I evicted a guy and a girl who’d overslept, changed the locks and left the key with the couple in the other apartment The next day, they smelled gas. Someone had loosened all the gas connections in the basement, which could’ve blown up the house and everyone in it. We reported it to the police, who kept an eye on the place for a few weeks.

I did a lot of cleanup and repair on the house when I wasn’t at work. There was a long, flimsy outside staircase to the second floor. The little old ladies were afraid to use it and, before the eviction, had been afraid to go to the front door , so had spent most of their time in their rooms. There was junk in the basement and a garage out back, which had been converted from a stable. It couldn’t be used due to an accumulation of garbage, but when cleaned out it revealed, obscured for many years, an excavation under the right parking space which could be used to work beneath a car. The downstairs tenants, John and Mary, helped. John had the same birthday as me, and was about twelve years older. He smoked cigars and claimed to be an “Archie Bunker bigot”, though I saw little evidence of that.

John and Mary stayed in the house when we sold it. A couple years later most of the houses on that block were bought for a huge amount and torn down. Now it’s a Ramada Inn.

I’d sworn off LSD six or eight months before. I’d taken a little, never a full tab,   twenty-four times in about six months, but started feeling spacey and quit at the end of the summer. Late in November, though, Monk and his brother talked me into doing it again “for old times’ sake”. I took three-quarters of a tab of one variety and half-a-tab of another, and we sat in Monk’s basement for awhile. I got higher than I liked, and nervous. Monk’s brother tried to quiet me, saying if I didn’t cool it the old man would come down and kill us. It hit me the wrong way. For some reason I thought I was going to die. I ran through the snow in my socks, back to my house, then a few minutes later back to Monk’s. I kicked in the door, ran around and screamed until the cops took me to the hospital. They pumped me full of Thorazine. When I awoke the world looked strangely two-dimensional and cartoonish, but I was all right. I slept in Juvenile Hall that night, got out the next evening, and didn’t do acid for five years.

I’m Eighteen

My 18th birthday came; a big deal because I could legally drink 3.2% beer. There were 3.2 clubs all over town, and it was sold in grocery stores. Stronger stuff was sold to 21-year-olds, in liquor stores and bars, but there were few reasons for an 18-year-old to buy it. We’d have to drink a lot of beer to get a buzz, but didn’t have to drive around town looking for a bum to buy it for us.

For my 18th birthday, my brother Robin bought me a ticket to my first rock concert. I’d been to classical music concerts; every year the public schools sponsored the symphony orchestra in the local coliseum. Thousands of kids piled in, from all over the state. It was a terrible venue. The kids were loud, the acoustics were horrible, the musicians uninspired and distracted. I hated classical music until I was thirteen, when my mother took me to the opening of a new music hall for the Denver symphony orchestra. The music was grand, spectacular in the new hall, with its comfy seats, sparkly lights and velvet-draped walls! At the end of the concert I felt as if I were being lifted from my chair, involuntarily! It was the first time I’d felt a real connection to music. I was to have strong feelings about the rock concert, too, but for different reasons.

Jethro Tull was at Red Rocks Park that weekend; a much-anticipated event. Red Rocks is a natural amphitheatre in the mountains near Denver. There’s a half-moon shaped rock thirty or forty feet across and twenty or thirty feet tall sticking out of the ground at about a 60* angle, and the stage is built beneath and in front of it. The hillside in front of the stage is covered with long benches. To the left is a behemoth of red sandstone, angled outwards.

The seating was restricted to a few thousand, and all the tickets had long been sold out. Rob and I, and a couple of his friends, drove down in my Futura. Rob had lost his ticket, but hoped to buy one from a scalper when we arrived.

As we approached Red Rocks, the roads were unusually busy. We arrived early but still had to park over a mile away. This was one of the first big rock concerts in our part of the country; Woodstock had been less than two years before, and that summer every hippie within a thousand miles wanted to be at Red Rocks.

It was mid-afternoon when we got to the entrance, and trouble was already brewing. Thousands were hiking into the hills. Security guys on bullhorns yelled that they couldn’t get through, but they hiked anyway. There were a few cops by the gate fas well, one of whom I recognized from King Soopers. He was a short fellow with a pug nose and full cheeks who looked quite like a pig, though I knew he was an okay guy. As I said a few words to him, a very large hippie started an argument with the several other cops. I scooted up the entrance stairway with my brother’s friends–my brother was still wandering around trying to buy a ticket–as the big guy was yelling out, “WE’RE the PEOPLE’S ARMY, and we’re going IN!!” and “Are you WITH US?! ARE YOU WITH US!?!”. The three of us found seats before the pushing and shoving began.

I knew several folks who were there, from work, from school or from the neighborhood. While we talked, helicopters began flying over and we heard bullhorns from over the hill. Livingston Taylor was trying mightily to proceed, but was clearly rattled. A few People’s Army conscripts straggled over the hill and told stories of a riot going on.

Before the concert I’d scored a hundred-lot of little blue mescaline pills, which I’d split halfsies with Monk. I had sewn a secret pocket inside the seam of my bell-bottoms and pulled them out when we were seated, selling a few for a couple dollars each. I chewed up a tab and drank Gatorade with it, advising the same to the others, and within 20 minutes we were flying. My brother, meanwhile, had given up and walked back to the car.

After the opening act, there was a delay while the helicopters continued to fly and bullhorns echoed from the valley. Jethro Tull took the stage at sunset, and played a couple songs. While they played, more and more people stumbled over the hill, and with them, TEAR GAS!! People started choking and screaming and running from one side to the other, up and down, to and fro, and the band quit briefly as they choked, too. Many hid out in the bathrooms or left entirely, but meanwhile hundreds more came over the hill, then thousands. They were climbing on the rocks, and starting to throw things. The tear gas dissipated after about twenty minutes, and the band started up again. Thousands scaled the rocks to the sides, and over the stage itself. It was a free concert now; the fences had been torn down and everyone packed in–everyone except my brother. Unfortunately I’d locked the car and he didn’t have a key, so he climbed on the hood, shivered and waited, listening to the music echo through the hills.

After everything settled down, it was good concert. Jethro Tull had just released Aqualung, and Ian Anderson’s flute, always incredible, was immeasurably enhanced by the surroundings. There were hippies all over the rocks as well as packed into the stands; a few folks were sitting on the tip-top of the rock above stage, looking out on the action from twenty feet up, while on the huge rock to the side there were dozens of people dancing and carrying on, from little cave-like nooks even higher in the air. One fellow in a little niche very close to the top was dancing like crazy; I was afraid he’d fall, but he didn’t. I met him a couple years later in California. I’ve met half-a-dozen people who’ve said they were at that concert, in states as distant as California, Illinois and Hawaii.

When the concert was over, so was my time in Colorado. My youngest brother Sam had made a movie in Telluride the year before, which was to be shown on Disney the following January. A week or so after the concert, my brother Rob and I packed to move to West Hollywood, where my father had bought a rental equipment yard. He had three or four friends doing well in California and a longtime correspondence with Pearl Bailey, to whom he’d sent a funny fan letter (a “complaint” that he was losing money in his nightly poker games because her show was so good she was distracting him) and received a charming reply. They sent letters every few months for the next several years.

It was time for Hollywood.

Poverty Pete’s

Pete’s Rental, once known as Poverty Pete’s, was located on Santa Monica Boulevard within Los Angeles County, but outside the LA city limits, in an area known as “the Strip”. Sunset Strip ran along the top of the hill above. It was called West Hollywood, but wasn’t incorporated, and thus law enforcement was provided by the sheriff, njot the police. Think Andy Taylor of Mayberry, instead of Joe Friday of Dragnet.

We packed the yellow 1965 Ford station wagon full. Towing the old green trailer behind us, we three set out for California. We drove straight through (we always drove straight through), me and my father splitting the driving. One slept while the other drove. My brother, though he’d been sixteen for months, had never bothered to get a license, which mystified me.

There were no speed limits in Nevada, and I briefly took the car over 100 miles per hour because I could. At the California border the speed limit went to 65, and 55 for cars with trailers, which were limited to the right lane. I’d never seen a speed limit on the open highway ending in “5”; towns had speed limits of 25, 35, 45, but on the open road it’d be 50, 60, 70; in Kansas or Nebraska even 80 or 90. This was desert. It was deserted, and nobody followed the speed limit, including us. We drove at 70+, in whichever lane was convenient, passing cars as needed.

The need for speed isn’t properly understood by those who live in the East. For years the national limit of fifty-five was fast enough in Massachusetts or even Virginia, where someone’s house or barn or street light is almost continuously in view. In the deserts or mountains of the West, though, there may be nobody for fifty or a hundred miles. No houses, barns, street lights. No fences, dogs, cows. No cars passing by for hours at a time; on the backroads, sometimes days. Where there are no cars, a clear  flat road, no trees to hit and the temperature is 110ºF,  it makes little difference to one’s safety if a car is moving 55 or 85 mph, but an hour or two in such dangerous heat is a really big deal.

When we got to the metropolitan Los Angeles area–we were over a hundred miles from the LA city limits, but it was already urban–my father took his turn driving. Inside of 15 minutes, he was pulled over by one of the snotty, arrogant cops common to LA. Two freeways had merged, and thus he had good reason to be outside the trailer lane, but the cop asked in a condescending way just what he was doing in California. This ticked him off, and he replied that they had a really good welfare system in California, so he was moving with his wife and six kids so they could sponge off the state. He finished by saying “just write up the ticket, you son of a bitch”, which wasn’t the best way to plead his case.

At sunset we arrived at 8601 Barr Lane, Garden Grove, in Orange County. It was a small house with a tiny front yard and a big pool in back, owned by Burt Douglas, an actor friend of my father’s who had a long-running role in a soap opera, which as it meant a steady paycheck, was Hollywood gold. Theatrical, cinematic or television shows are generally temp work, but soap operas plugged along for years. The Screen Actors’ Guild, and the American Federation of Television and Radio Actors, are the two unions with the highest percentage of members unemployed at any given time. With the Guild the figure is 95%. Actors are paid well when they work, and receive residual checks when shows or commercials are broadcast, but it’s an uncertain life.  It’s hard to come by steady work in Hollywood. The few available well-paid jobs don’t last.

Lots of people who’d like to get into movies don’t understand or appreciate the Screen Actor’s Guild. It’s hard to get in, expensive to stay in, and once you’re in, you can’t drop out. If you join the Guild, you join for life. You pay your dues and maintain your membership. It does offer, however, unique advantages.

I’m a member of the Retail Clerks’ Union. I haven’t worked as a retail clerk in a union store, nor paid dues to the union, since I was a teenager. They don’t care. There may be a dozen guys with my name in the Retail Clerks’ Union, They don’t care. If I want another union job as a retail clerk, I’ll re-up with the union, sign the paper and pay the twenty bucks.

If I make a SAG movie as a teenager, I join the Screen Actors’ Guild. I’m paid for my work, and paid well–I make as much in a day as a retail clerk makes in a month. When the film wraps I’m paid again, then again each time it shows in the theatre, on TV, when the DVDs or action figures come out, when my picture is used in promotion. The name on the check is mine and mine only. Nobody else in the Guild can use my name, even if they’re born with it. If the film is shown anywhere in the world, Screen Actors Guild will track me down and send me a check–for decades. The amounts on the checks decrease, but a few bucks is better than none.

In return, I belong to the Screen Actors’ Guild, for life. If I get out of the business for ten years, twenty years, and don’t pay my dues, they still hold my checks and see that nobody else uses my name. I still get paid. If I decide to return to the business, however, I have to pay up. Those ten years’, twenty years’ back dues–pay up. It might be thousands of dollars. Pay up. Your membership is active. Your name is registered, your earnings on file. Pay up.

Of course, you’ll probably make it back in a couple days.

By the time we moved to California, my father had been in the Screen Actors’ Guild for two years. My sister had been in a national commercial and had won a Clio, the commercial equivalent of an Oscar, and my brother had starred in a movie for Disney. When my brother didn’t like movie’s theme song, he wrote a new one. They used it, so he also joined ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers–in fact he was its youngest member.

Our business was in a funny little shack on a major thoroughfare. Santa Monica Boulevard ran for miles through the center of town, but in our little two-or-three block spot there was an old set of rusty tracks for a trolley-car line, and the land belonged to the railroad. Pete’s Rental, originally Poverty Pete’s Used Cars, had been there for 25 years–on a 30-day lease. Since the railroad could terminate the lease at any time, building anything substantial would have been pointless The fellow who had started the business put up a long, ramshackle shack and, making a necessity into an asset, advertised as “Poverty Pete”.

“Poverty Pete”, whose name was really Norbert, had a hobo doll mascot in the corner, and the clock on the wall ran backwards. His business cards carried pithy, smart-ass sayings alluding to his lack of money and hobo lifestyle. He dressed in ragged clothes, but did well. One day a fellow came by and asked Pete if he could park his cement mixer on the lot and rent it out. Pete said OK, and pretty soon the cement mixer was rented out several days a week. Pete bought a few for himself and soon decided renting equipment was a lot more profitable and far less hassle than selling used cars. Buy a used car, tune it up, change the oil, shampoo the upholstery, replace the tires, touch up the paint, check the brakes, and you’ll make money, when it sells–maybe days, weeks, months later. Sharpen up a chainsaw, you’ll make twenty dollars a few times a week. Rent out a hatchet and pick to go with it, a trailer to haul the wood, a trailer hitch, you’ll make fifty, or a hundred.

When Pete started renting equipment he chained the various trailers, trucks, jackhammer compressors, cement mixers, together at night and put the rest of the tools in the shack and and in a narrow, fenced-in lot patrolled by a big, dangerous-looking German shepherd who had the run of the place at night. Our “rest room” was a spot behind the shack where we could pee. For “number two” we went to the gas station next door, where we bought all the gas for our trucks. The manager didn’t mind.

One thing making rentals different from sales is the return of equipment. With used cars, the customer drives away and likely won’t be back. Rental equipment must be returned. We copied the driver’s license number, the make, model, color, and tag number of their car, compared their signature and picture to their license. If there was important information about using the equipment we’d circle the relevant parts of the contract or hand-write a short statement for the customer to sign, then take a substantial deposit, returned when the equipment came back. If the equipment wasn’t returned Pete always filed charges with the sheriff, for conversion–the legal term, different from outright theft. Once every month or two Pete spent a day or two in court futzing around with lawyers. The insurance company required it. Insurance costs, lawyer’s fees, and time spent in court were large draws on the finances.

My father had a different idea. Surveillance cameras were in the future, but he got a gadget which took a simultaneous picture of each person, their signed contract and their ID. This one simple step changed everything. Losses through conversion went down to nearly nothing when everyone had to smile for the camera; the psychological impact was immense.

We also got a lot of cheap tools to add to the professional, expensive tools carried by Pete. A high-quality jigsaw cost about $75 in 1972, and could be rented at $2 per day. We had about half-a-dozen, jigsaws being a popular item, and it took a long time, a lot of rentals, an occasional trip to court and a lot of insurance to make that kind of money back on six jigsaws. There’d be one or two of them torn apart waiting for parts at any given time; bearings and brushes were more expense and more time.

About this time Black & Decker brought out a cheap jigsaw. It was the first tool in a long line of cheap tools and eventually small appliances which transmogrified Black and Decker; from premium professional toolmakers they became vendors of can openers. We bought a couple $7 jigsaws out of curiosity, and found we could rent them out 40 or 50 or 80 times before they died. There was no repairing the bushings or brushes in these burned-out lumps, but they’d made us $80 to $160 on a $7 investment. We bought eight or ten. We kept the quality jig saws for contractors who knew the difference, but we stocked up on cheap tools for the general public.

Movie Stars

And the stars. Lots of stars rent tools. As mentioned, the unemployment rate for Screen Actors Guild members is 95%. Many big-name stars drive rusty trucks and do their own household work; some to save money, others for enjoyment. Darren McGavin rented sanders, saws, drills or paint guns several times a month. Richard Chamberlain occasionally rented trucks and such, and once kissed my mother’s hand (she didn’t wash it for a week!). Jayne Mansfield had an account when she and her husband built their “Pink Palace”. She’d passed on by 1972, but her husband Mickey Hargitay, and especially his brother Eddy, still came in regularly. It was always an adventure with Eddy; he’d only recently come from Hungary and his command of English was questionable. The nearest rental yard to us was a couple miles down the street, and one day they had some tool that we didn’t. I started telling Eddy the address, “4969”, and he wrote down “3868” before I stopped him and wrote the address myself–then thought about it, and wrote down the name of the tool!

My father was in his element. He loved talking shop with actors, hobnobbing, making connections. He got a part in a movie; he and a tall black fellow were hired as extras in a crowd scene and he immediately told the black guy he’d get them into the movie. Through numerous takes, he did outrageous things; knocking over barriers, walking into people, waving his hands excitedly as he talked with his new buddy, and in each take the director would call forward this person, that one and that one. My father is now, and for all time, the fellow directly behind Woody Allen as Woody walks with the tall, loopy Shelley Duvall in the classic Annie Hall. Later, Woody and Diane Keaton lunch in a restaurant, three blocks from Pete’s Rental. At the exact moment when Woody asks Diane if they should get married, a truck drives by, towing a jackhammer compressor. I hitched that compressor to that truck; my claim to cinematic immortality.

When we moved to California, at first it was me, my brother and my father. We mostly got along; he drank more than when mother was around, but enjoyed his life more. We occasionally had disputes–one time when he was out, we stacked his empty beer cans inside the front door in a giant pyramid, which he knocked over coming in. We were a long way from Colorado, but also a long way from work, and many arguments involved the best route to take. My father thought the straightest route the best. It was 40 miles, but involved a long stretch on the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5), which was, and is, a parking lot. I preferred a more roundabout route, which clocked in at about 45 miles My father, who never doubted that he was correct in all things, insisted my route would take at least an hour and fifteen minutes and wouldn’t bother to try it, instead betting me $10 one morning that I couldn’t make it to work in less than an hour. He lost that bet when I answered the phone, at precisely 7:30 am.

After a month my father went back to Colorado to tie up loose ends, and for a couple months it was just me, at 18, and my brother, at 16, alone in California.

I became someone entirely different. Instead of hanging out with the neighbor girls I’d just begun to meet, I now worked full-time at the rental yard; initially 70 hours a week (with about another 14 hours travel time) until the family arrived and the summer was over. My brother met some of the neighbors, but I arrived home late, got up early and did all the driving.

When it was just two of us, I didn’t do much else but work. I left the house at 6:30 am and maybe got back around 7 pm, unless I shopped for groceries or did anything else at all. I worked every day including Sunday, though on Sunday it was 8 to 5 instead of 7:30 to 5:30. For the first month or so, the previous owner’s son Hans showed us the ropes. After that we hired a fellow, Les, who’d worked there before, 9 to 5 most weekdays. I put in ten hours every day, and couldn’t take off because my brother had no driver’s license.

I never understood why a license meant so little to him, except that I’d been a year younger than my classmates and had been chomping at the bit for a year longer than most. I found it inconceivable that anyone who turned sixteen would NOT want to get a license at warp speed. I understand why one wouldn’t use it often in crowded Eastern cities with train lines and subways, but not to even desire one seems to me strange.

It didn’t bother my brother, though. He happily walked, hitchhiked or rode a bike. He’d pull the trucks up for rental, drive them next door to fill up and park them when they came back, but that was all.

Because he didn’t have a driver’s license, if anything needed doing I left him home once or twice a week and he’d wash the clothes, chlorinate the pool, take out the trash, mow the lawn and so forth. One day I went to work, came home and HE WASN’T THERE!

I checked all over. He wasn’t next door or at any of the neighbors. I drove around the nearby streets and alleys, finally called my parents in Colorado. They hadn’t heard from him. He was MISSING!

What had happened, as it turned out, was one of those idiotic and deplorable stunts which gave California cops their foul reputation.

My brother had walked less than a mile to the pool supply store that July day but, foolishly, without shoes. He’d purchased the chemicals and was walking home, but his feet were hot and he stopped in the shade of a tree. A couple cops saw the long-haired hippie kid and decided to hassle him, making the ridiculous, false, lying, totally illegitimate and illegal assertion that “someone” had called and reported he was drunk, at eleven in the morning.

My brother had been going through a phase in which he crammed his pockets full of stuff, and was wearing a special pocket vest which was also crammed full of stuff. They had him pull out all his stuff, and one of the things he pulled out was a small canister of tear gas. Totally legal in Colorado, and every other state of the union. In California it was a felony.

He told the cops he’d acquired it when he’d been robbed by a couple of black kids in junior high. They were sympathetic, but by this time they’d drawn a crowd, and were pretty well stuck. After an hour piddling around, they took him in.

Well, this was just the start. He was at the juvenile facility, and allowed to use the phone, but I was in West Hollywood, which was a long-distance phone call–as was a call home, half-a-mile away. Juvenile hall was covered by AT&T, but our neighborhood by a little company called General Telephone, which operated in pockets here and there–and a call from one system to the other was long-distance.

Because whatever call he would have made from a half-a-mile away, to anyone he knew, would’ve been long-distance, it was not allowed, so seven hours later, when I came home at 6 pm, nobody knew where he was.

Not even the cops. I called them. They didn’t have a record of an arrest. My parents called, from Colorado, and were told the same. At three or four in the morning a cop finally knocked on my door, woke me up, and told me what was going on–but because I was 18, not 21, I couldn’t pick him up. My parents had to call a friend from Colorado, Jack Dorn, who now lived about fifty miles from us. He pretended he was an uncle, and signed Rob out.

And that was that. None of us heard back, from anyone. Perhaps the case was mis-filed, perhaps thrown away. Perhaps the cops decided to forget all about it . My parents were ready to sue someone, but that was the end of it.

The rest of the summer passed uneventfully. We both went to work every day, except when my brother took off. I had no time off and was becoming more and more unhappy. With no social skills to begin with, I was in a very big city surrounded by unfamiliar faces and places. I was learning a great deal, building physical strength and confidence about my abilities, but romantically I was lost in a desert. I knew no one in the neighborhood, and didn’t have time to relax with them if I did. I didn’t know my way around town, didn’t know the people they knew, the places they went. Anyway I was too tired do anything but come home, take a shower, eat, drop into bed. I’d have loved to get to know the two cute girls next door Julie and Lauren, but I was so nervous and hopeless I couldn’t do more than stare at my feet.

The one thing I sometimes enjoyed in the evening was the pool. We had a tall fence around the backyard, and when no one was around (which was most of the time) I’d swim or sunbathe nude. One day I’d been dozing and the girls next door woke me–they’d been peeking over the fence and giggling. Julie and Lauren were sixteen and fourteen; both cute as could be, but Lauren, the younger, suited my tastes and liked me, too. If we’d have stayed in the neighborhood I’d have tried to romance her.

After a couple more months, the rest of the family came to California. I finally had a little time off, forty hours weekly instead of seventy (or 84 including travel time), and my schedule settled into Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday while my father’s was Wednesday, Thursday Friday and Saturday, with my mother and brother showing up occasionally. Usually everyone worked Saturdays, and my brother and I on Sundays.

My blue Falcon wasn’t driven to California. It was towed on the back of the station wagon when the family came out, also driving a U-Haul van stuffed to the gills, towing my Model A. My father had driven back to Colorado in the yellow Ford station wagon. He’d put an interesting gadget under the hood, a huge oil filter filled with wadded cotton and string. It kept the oil very clean, so he never changed it. This worked well for many years–he drove it daily in Colorado for two years, to California and back twice, two more years of hard driving in California, back to North Carolina and a couple more years in North Carolina, adding a little oil occasionally but never changing it–until one day the engine seized up, encased in a very clean, very shiny shellac-like coating. The oil filter had done its job for 60 or 80 thousand miles; the engine was immaculate, but the oil had hardened into varnish.

That’s how I felt too. I was strong, knowledgeable,  capable, but my engine was seized. I was eighteen, a tanned and healthy California kid, but felt I was going nowhere–no girlfriend, no prospects, no life.
Still, I’d made it past fourteen. I wasn’t a pile of ashes, I was out of the Sixties, and I was Alive!

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