In January of 1971 I turned eleven. Still have the L.A. Times’ zodiac from that morning. My year ahead would be “tempestuous.” Had to look that one up. Rooted in Latin meaning “storm.” Great. Never figured out what a sun or moon sign meant. Rising, descending. Didn’t care, really. I’d managed to grow relatively accustomed to the tremors of approaching adolescence; certainly, and apt analogy from the Southland.
Before it happened, the best part of the school day was cinnamon rolls sweetening the air at Millikan. Snack bell rang. Like that Pavlov guy we studied about in Science class—the one with his salivating dogs—we lined up four by four to drool over the trays of sugary treats. Sat down with the guys. Played that game where you applied Geometry knowhow to twist notebook paper into a triangle football. You’d kick a field goal and nail your opponent in the face.
Or, dig this (I couldn’t resist): There was the groovy Horticulture teacher who channeled Brian Wilson. First semester, I took his class as an elective. In growing radishes, carrots and tomatoes, I discovered the simple joys of the moment. My classmate horticulturists and I were digging furrows, and planting seeds, while far away in Asian jungles on the six-o’clock news, while eating a balanced dinner, we watched young American boys being gunned down by the VC.
In GI Bill Sherman Oaks, below and adjacent to the sagebrush-covered canyons, we inhabited a picture-postcard ranch style house in one of the many tranquil suburbs of Los Angeles. Its tree-lined streets were shaded in soft pastels like the front page of my Pee Chee folder.
During recesses and lunch, the student council played songs on the school’s speaker system. On the radio, Melanie’s “Brand New Key” was rolling up the charts though to me it made little sense.
However, cute girls dug it. Best if I did, too. I was lame at roller skating, ice skating, but who cared? Most everything was novel at that age, therefore any reason (excuse?) for boys and girls to get frisky together at the local rink was greeted with hyperactive sweat glands, awkward semi-stalking and maneuvering. Having been an avid fan of the L.A. Thunderbirds Roller Derby, at least I could fall back (literally) on that for tips on how not to make a complete ass of myself. The lucky boys got to hold a girl’s hand for a few revolutions around the rink.
At nearly nine minutes long, somehow radio stations played it: Don McLean’s masterpiece, “American Pie”. Great for the rink if you were holding a girl’s hand, not sitting on a bench with a group of the terrified and zit-faced. Instantly, a classic, instantly, an anthem, you could hear something new each time it played. You’d memorize its ten-thousand verses. Knowing states, capitals, presidents and all of the countries in Africa didn’t hold a candle to Chevy, levee, widowed bride, and can music save your mortal soul. Jesters, James Dean, Lenin, Marx, dirges in the dark. We’d been studying Homer and his odyssey; McLean’s epic tribute to Buddy Holly contained the essence of so many works of art I’d encounter over my years and of which I was fondest: that ability to express through music and lyrics both the bittersweet taste of loss and the eastern seaboard morning of life moving on.
I’d heard there was a large downtown over the canyon. They called it Los Angeles—though I might as well have been moving to another state. You’ll love it, really. It has everything, they’d told me before I’d seen it—everything except what kids my age needed most: other kids. Lindacrest, they’d dubbed it. Located just off Coldwater Canyon, it was north of Sunset in Beverly Hills, though technically in the L.A. city limits. For them: their American Dream. When I finally gazed upon the behemoth, if nothing else, it aroused curiosity. Situated on the vortex of two intersecting streets, with the property at an upward angle, the three-story stone and wood structure rose like an architectural sunset. Scattered fruit trees in front, a spindly and nearly parallel white tree, perhaps an oak, on a manicured lawn with skittering quail families, a relic of a white mailbox adjacent to a vintage 1930s two-car garage. From a young age I read Lovecraft, Poe and Hawthorne. I know; bookworm, kiss-up, teacher’s pet—I’d heard it all. Checking out the interior, The Pit and the Pendulum was alive and well in my favorite place: a creepy storage area in the basement, and next to it through a small rectangular opening I could see an eerie crawlspace extending under the house in every direction. A rat’s haven. Didn’t scare me. Would eventually convert the storage area into a darkroom for photography. More mystery: How about a secret panel half-way up the central stairway; perfect for hiding valuables? The rear of the property featured blooming roses of various colors beneath the half-shade of a majestic five-hundred-year-old oak. In the lot’s far corner stood a rather large and daunting, white-slatted ancient gardener’s shed, with tools, spiders, and sharp rusted items dangling from nails I didn’t dare imagine their use. An asphalt paddle tennis court ideal for basketball and badminton spread out under a canopy of two enormous avocado trees that would provide us with unlimited guacamole.
Life had been played out in the canyons above. Literally. Carnivals. Bike shows. Hiking up Spencer’s Mountain. Exploring the sewers where we could peer out though the grates and feel like James Bond. But because of their “news,” life would be shaken and stirred. Like the February morning to come.
Though it was the last week of a brisk January, once I knew they’d “caught the last train to the coast” so to speak, though very much alive, not unlike Wilder’s Emily Webb at Grover’s Corners, as June approached for me it would be: Goodbye, school community. Goodbye to lockers and smelly gym socks. Goodbye, Brian Wilson, and the taste of fresh vegetables from the garden. Goodbye to the social circles I cruised around like a compass bisecting in Math. I’d hesitantly begin saying goodbye to friends, we’ll get together, and all that. But they’d just be empty words. At the very least, I had my black Lab, Lucy, who would’ve been around three-years-old. She’d already been hit by cars twice. Obedience was not her strong suit. One was a cop who wrote us a ticket while she squirmed in pain in the middle of the street as I comforted her. Broke both hind legs. Vet applied the casts. Took Lucy home. Took eyes off her for just a few minutes. She proceeded to chew off each one and hobbled around as if nothing happened. Went through several more casts.
Was Led Zeppelin on the roof? Lucy barks at the windows, as if intruders are entering.
To add to the helplessness of being a kid, I expected the June Swoon, with its marine layer of wet, depressing foggy gloom and doom to embellish (I know, fancy word) how lousy I was bound to feel.
I dodge the lamp as it nervously jitterbugs onto my Snoopy pillow. I spring up.
I didn’t think those final months would zip by like one of my little league fastballs.
February 9, 1971, the morning at six, my bed is rocking and rolling furiously. Books topple over. I’d have an excuse about my homework being late. Lucy and I both dash to the living room. Our swimming pool roils like an angry sea.
They informed me I’d be transferring to Emerson Junior High near Westwood. I wouldn’t know a soul.
Twelve seconds, the scientists said. Unreal. When it subsides, we’d later hear that its force was Extreme at the measurement XI on what scientists called the Mercalli intensity scale. Its epicenter was in the north end of the San Fernando Valley near the equestrian community of lily white Sylmar. As many as two-hundred aftershocks followed. At least four were 5.0 or greater.
An end-of-year pool party was given—I suppose, thrown in my honor. Alice Cooper’s rock anthem made a big splash and was the soundtrack for the gathering. Cranked up on the radio, we floated on rafts, played “Marco Polo” and flirted in a way only those our age dared. As I left, Julie and Kat cried softly. We boys thought it must’ve been tough being a girl; they were always rattled about something. Give me a basketball. Problem forgotten.
As the dog days of summer howled on, our family traveled to ‘Frisco, staying downtown in an old Victorian, scarfing down way too many white chocolate bars from Ghirardelli Square. The Munich Olympics on TV: Mark Spitz breaks swimming records; Frank Shorter wins the Marathon (even as an impostor beat him into the stadium), the U.S.A. Basketball team loses gold to the Soviets when the referees completely botch the last few seconds: The highlight? A tiny, yet mighty gymnast, Olga Korbut, who makes unparalleled strides for sport, unity, and troubling times.
It had been Germany’s first very public showing to the world that Hitler’s Third Reich was a distant memory—that the country had arrived into the community of nations. But then came a very Black September. Eleven Israeli athletes and team members were murdered. We remained glued to the TV for two terrifying days and the aftermath. The IOC debated whether to continue with the Games as scheduled or shut them down to honor the victims, and Israel. In the end, the Games went on. We returned to L.A. Was that the tempest? And with most storms, was there another front just off the coast?
Eight-grade: the kids targeted the teachers. Soft-spoken Mr. Pitts, with the most unfortunate name, and the even more unfortunate appearance of being cross-eyed nailed troublemakers by looking directly at those who were not causing trouble. It was actually quite confusing, as he often stared me down when I did nothing wrong. Spanish teacher, Mrs. Diaz, wore hearing aids. Evil students passed notes every day with a time written on it. At that exact moment, the entire class began making a low humming sound. She reacted by adjusting the devices to no avail. I took French so don’t look at me. One was safe from our tactics: English teacher, Miss Reade, explained stream of consciousness, thematic elements, the arc of a character, refining your voice. Didn’t hurt that I had a mad crush on her. Bummer though; I had competition: nearly every Emerson male student.
One morning, at the bus stop, I finally made that elusive friend. Though it was quite a trek hiking up and down the steep Readcrest hill, dodging Porsches and BMW’s thinking the winding canyon was Monte Carlo, in curly haired, upbeat Anatoli, I had a partner in crime. That is, a kid to talk to about girls. He had an older sister. Maybe he could make some sense of the opposite sex. Even Lucy had made a pal; she’d taken to a large neighbor dog named Pepper.
By ninth grade, lots of kids were already going “all the way.” Meanwhile, I was going nowhere. But I was becoming the boy that girls liked to talk to. They’d tell me about their boyfriend drama. They liked to run their hands through my long hair. They told me I was a good listener. They hugged me. What a sweetie, they’d say. Maura was a down-to-earth girl with long sandy blonde hair, intelligent eyes, always in denim overalls, and somewhat of an outsider—which appealed to me. I stumbled, nearly called, enlisted Anatoli, but in the end, the unrequited prevailed. By late May, when I rallied and found some pluck, Yes, she said, she’d sign my yearbook, and quizzically wondered aloud Why was it we never got together? Ouch.
One late afternoon, I was heading back from Anatoli’s, singing “Teacher I Need You” in my head. Got home. Opened the side door, fished out some Mallomars, and called out for Lucy. No chain jingling. No barking. No nothing. We searched for hours. Darkness lingered. Pepper sauntered by, heading up the street back home. No answers from him. Just that feeling.
We found her gently set off from Coldwater, prone on the sidewalk, unmoving. I was inconsolable. Cried for days. Can’t listen to the song to this day.
But these days when I hear “Brand New Key” or “American Pie,” I find myself right back there with geometric paper footballs, a teacher who was a rock star radish man, cinnamon rolls, rollicking through sewers, mowing down batters with my pitching and munching down the warmest, most chocolatey cookies you’ll ever taste. I’d gained more unassigned, ungraded education not found in those voluminous and boring textbooks: Change. Loss. Girls. Discomfort.
Life? It finally got messy.
So, I got over it. And, into it.
Tempestuous? Really? What could the stars possibly know?
Like Sylmar rising, it would be my own inner tectonics that would go on to reconstitute and shape the contours of my life.