I have spent several posts building up an image of a small child set upon from every direction, with no refuge, no place to go for respite or succor. Well, of course there was my aunt Marie, but I didn't have at-will access to her, so what could that small child do to get away?
Dream. Awake, asleep, it made no difference. I lived in a dream world of action and danger in which I was a heroic protector of those weaker than myself, a shield of the helpless that feared no man nor monster. I found my solace in solitude, and kept my sanity by learning how to make those alternate worlds real.
I was aided greatly in those efforts by books. One might expect a child of the '50s to say television, but our family came late to that medium, and anyway, television isn't for dreamers. Doubtless, it played its part, and when out for a play day with the neighborhood kids, I strapped on my cap-guns and laid claim to the character of Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok (always famous lawmen, you'll note) just like everyone else, but a television show gave me individual people fully realized as the characters; that wasn't me on the screen, that was Guy Madison, and it showed me actions fully formed. I was reduced to a passive spectator engaging no faculty beyond my eyes.
But books gave my dreams wings! I've noted previously how Great-grandma had me reading at the age of three, and books became my hideout of choice. If a book presented me with a car, it might be red or blue, large or small, but that car was constructed inside my imagination, and it looked like what I decided it looked like. Same with the passengers and the destination. They were all me. During the pre-school age, I read a lot of the Little Golden Books (fellow oldsters will remember those as a shared experience of American kids everywhere), and the titles that leap to mind are Little Toot, The Taxi that Hurried, and The Little Engine that Could. It is instructive to note that these, and many more I fancied, share a theme of a small, insignificant anthropomorphized machine that endures ridicule and scorn, then steps up in a crisis to become a hero. Coincidence, I'm sure. Another favorite was Uncle Wiggily's Travels (Howard R. Garis, 1913), one of a series about an engaging elderly rabbit-gentleman who teaches life-lessons to his nephew and niece, Sammie and Susie Littletail, as they walk through the woods.
When I arrived at Sunset View Elementary School in the fall of 1955, I found that they had a modest library that filled a converted office. The bookshelves were stocked with books that the librarian felt were grade-appropriate, and although I was in third grade, I went directly to the sixth-grade shelf; talking rabbits and reckless taxi-drivers had lost their appeal by then, and I wanted science books about dinosaurs and microbes, and documentaries about fire-fighters. One Friday afternoon, one of the volunteers decided that, being a third grader, I wasn't allowed to check out sixth-grade books, so I walked out. When I came to class Monday without my customary library book, my teacher, Mrs. Booth, asked if I had forgotten it. I explained what happened, and she reacted sympathetically and carried on with her day's duties. Next time I went to the library, that volunteer apologized to me, and I never had another problem. I didn't realize that a teacher would say anything to another adult on behalf of a child, but I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during that conversation!
It was somewhere in here that I discovered the "Boys' Own Grand Adventure Story." I've mentioned that my family shopped at Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Value Village, and so forth. In thrift stores of that time, whatever toys came in were piled in a bin to be picked through. That was usually where I was while the grandmas were shopping, but one time the toys were lame, and I went in search of games or jigsaw puzzles, I don't remember which. Anyway, what I found was a wall of books, Sunset View's library on steroids, and the book I pulled out was The Seagoing Tank (Roy J. Snell, 1924). The fourth book in the Radio-Phone Boys series, this was a sci-fi adventure of the first order that involved a vehicle the size of a suburban house driving on tracks across the ocean floor to one adventure after another. It starred a couple of teenagers who were constantly saving the adults' bacon as well as their own, and I was hooked. This was what I was looking for, rip-snorting adventure stories that didn't fuss too much over getting every niggling detail of physics exactly right, and not allowing romance and bouts of depression to get in the way of the action. I'm still looking for those stories, and when I can't find them, I write them. I'm still hooked!
At the age of 13, I discovered my second refuge, and one that would carry me well into adulthood: Games. Not just any games, but games in what was for a brief, golden age, a niche market that exploded beyond all reason to become a major hobby of many young gents of the era. These were wargames, table-top recreations of battles and wars, most historical, some outright fantasy. Instead of a stylized map of Atlantic City, you played on a highly accurate map of the land surrounding the village of Gettysburg (for example). Instead of a ship, a dog, or an old shoe, your playing pieces represented the actual formations that clashed outside that little crossroads in the summer of 1863. The rules were to regularize the movement of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery over the various types of terrain, and when the formations came to grips, dice rolls recreated the Fog of War. There were literally hundreds of titles recreating every battle known to man, and for thirty years I threw myself into leading military units on the great campaigns of history. My collection peaked at about 80 titles, and I may have played twice that many in the course of playing other peoples' games.
But my preferred method was always solitaire. Whenever two gamers got together, the battle on the board always seemed to spread to include the participants, as it was inevitable that a dispute over the often imperfect rules of the simulation would arise: "It takes three movement factors to cross that stream!" "Uh-uh! It's only two millimeters wide in that space, so it only takes two!" Something like this could lead to pistols in the front yard, and while it was refreshing to engage another mind in the maneuver of armies, I always preferred solitaire, moving first one army, then moving to the other side of the board and moving the other. My personal friends became Robert E. Lee, U. S. Grant, George Patton, Erwin Rommel, "Bull" Halsey, and Isoroku Yamamoto, among hundreds of lesser lights. I've lead the Afrika Korps through the desert, and the mighty 7th Fleet across the Pacific, and by trying alternate strategies, learned things about history that books can't teach. But in the early days, I was hiding. Be it the Libyan desert, the beaches of Normandy, or a stinking green flyspeck on a tropical sea, that's what I was doing, by any other name.
So what does all this talk of refuge, hiding, and solace have to do with heroism? Well, it all came with a need to prove myself to myself. That led to a four-year engagement with the navy during a vicious, nasty, no-quarter war with an insidious and implacable enemy. I took my turn in that arena and emerged unscathed. I served on a wooden minesweeper not much bigger than a tuna clipper, and rode her through two hurricanes. I've ridden an oil tanker through a Pacific typhoon as well, but compared to the 'sweep, that was child's play. I learned the craft of being a sailor as well as a demanding technical trade in naval communications. I've been subordinate, and been in charge, and done well in both roles.
I speak ill of the navy on occasion, but it isn't their fault. There are people you can't pound into a square hole, and I learned that I am one of them, but those four years taught me that I can do anything, and that golden thread of belief in self has been woven into my life ever since. Couple that with the loyalty I express toward anyone who demonstrates that they have my back, and I flatter myself that I'm a pretty good person to have on your side; but you'll have to ask my wife to get the final answer to that question.
But to the grandkids, and any young person who may be reading this, the message here is Dare to Dream. Look, all kids are put upon. They're all buffeted by the whims of often unreasonable adults against whom they have no protection. Get inside your own head, find out who you are, and develop the person that you find into the best person he or she can be. My religion offers this proverb:
"He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened."
Truer words were never spoken! Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
The journey I refer to here is the daily trek to and from school. The adventures... well, we've all been children, right?
For a few brief years that had constituted 100% of my life to that point, I had had this existence that amounted to "eat, sleep, play." Oh, I was misunderstood and subjected to mild forms of abuse, but let's be clear here, I was never in the sort of extremis that children of the Third World considered normal. So it constituted a bit of culture shock when my days of leisure were interrupted by a torrent of cold water called Compulsory Education.
First, my birthday was in October. As American public schools begin their school year in September, the decision was made that I should start each grade a year younger than the conventional numerical age, and I would catch up a month later. This was compounded by a decision made when my grandma took me to sign up. They sat me at a desk, and handed me a pencil and an S.A.T.-style sheet for me to read the questions and fill in a bubble corresponding to the correct answer. I realized years later that the whole point of that test was simply to determine whether I could read at all. As I could read very well for a four-year old, it was decided that I would skip kindergarten altogether, and start first grade at the age of four, and thus I was denied that whole process of gradual acclimatization to the school environment. It was akin to being taught to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool, and a side effect was that I was almost invariably the youngest member of my class... And that led to all sorts of other effects, social and academic, that I'll get to in other posts.
The upshot here is that at the age of four, almost five mind you, I was handed a brown paper bag with a sandwich in it, pointed in the direction of Alexander Hamilton Elementary School in the North Park community of San Diego, wished the best of luck, and pushed out the door. I didn't even know where it was, and I have a vivid recollection of asking an older girl, who must have been in 5th or 6th grade, for directions, and her walking me to the school grounds. After a semester there, we moved down the street, and I transferred to Thomas Jefferson elementary which was easier to find, and the process continued. I have described in a previous post my friends, Johnny Wallace and Paula Nellie, and as they both lived within a stone's throw of my house, we always walked together to and from.
Then came the move to Point Loma, a much more affluent community of San Diego, and my folks somehow determined that I was to start third grade at Sunset View Elementary School, a new facility built on a steep hill (the very name was Hill Street, and they weren't kidding!) on the ocean side of the craggy peninsula. I was, in fact, out of district, and should have attended either Silvergate or Cabrillo, both older facilities like Hamilton and Jefferson, and in the case of Cabrillo, populated by the tough children of the Portuguese fishing community down in Roseville. It was a happy error that was caused by the confusion involved with opening a new school, and the district allowed it to stand for the whole four years I attended.
I once again walked to Sunset View. The distance was maybe a mile, and once again on the first day, I had to ask one of the kids waiting for the bus to Junior High or High School how to get there, but once I arrived, I found an open, airy campus with a lush square surrounded by three wings of the main building, and classrooms that opened directly onto the playgrounds. There were hallways, but the only time I spent in them was when I was put out there for a time out. The playgrounds were on two levels, the combination cafeteria and auditorium was a separate building with outdoor tables for the nice weather, which was pretty much always, and we could watch the spouts of the Gray Whale migrations as we ate our lunch. The schools I had attended before were prisons by comparison, and I definitely felt privileged to be in the environment.
But this is about the to-and-fro, and this is where the defiance began I think. See, the Grandmas had always expected the sort of Little Lord Fauntleroy behavior that may have been common in children during the Victorian era. It is certainly portrayed as the norm in films and literature, the little boy who is dressed in a suit upon rising in the morning, who spends his day discussing politics and world affairs with the adults in the drawing room, and whose suit is still clean and pressed at bedtime.
Yeah, I ain't that kid. None of my friends were, either, and we're talking about some upscale families here. The thing is, living out-of-district, almost none of the kids I was in school with lived anywhere near me. So naturally, when the last bell rang and I headed up the hill with a group of friends, when someone invited me over for an after-school play session, I was always up for it.
Bobby Eggert had a little brother who looked just like him. His dad designed space products for Convair, and he had that gene. He designed things to do with trash that would boggle your mind. One thing in particular was when he got hold of a number of discarded refrigerator boxes, opened them up, and laid them in a ramp configuration down the hill that was his front yard. He then laid another open box at the top, two of you would hold hands and run, and flop down on this second box, which zoomed, almost free of friction, down the ramp to the street , at which point you had a rather tricky landing to engineer on the fly. Came home with more than one rip in a piece of clothing they could ill-afford to replace.
Then there was David Mandich, who lived in a house that used to be the main part of a mansion; had no-longer-used maid's quarters underneath, which was headquarters or space ship when the game was Flash Gordon or Commando Cody. More usually, though, David's group wound up wrestling on the lawn, which sent me home covered in grass stains, grass cuttings in my hair and pockets, and an occasional bruise or friction rash.
Greg Adams had a big back yard and a cute little sister who as an only child I was fascinated by, and would give piggy-back rides around the yard. We role-played WWII. A decade before, our parents, men and women both, had rolled up their sleeves and defeated the two most powerful evil empires the world had ever seen, simultaneously. We stacked picnic tables and benches into various configurations as we refought the war in tanks, planes, and submarines. I didn't come home dirty or injured from Greg's, but I came home late, and they didn't like that. Fairly early on, they established the unbreakable rule that I had twenty minutes from the last bell to be standing in the living room.
I suppose they were worried about me, but I couldn't see from my child's perspective what harm I was doing, and suspected that they were worried that I might fit a little fun into my life. This was before the days when schools piled hours of homework on every kid from the first grade on, and I didn't have anything in particular to do after I got home, so I just assumed, you know? It was a rule I never obeyed once. I got spankings, I got grounded, I lost TV privileges, and I didn't care a jot. That was the price I paid for acting like a kid with my friends, and every punishment was a price worth paying, even when I broke the two floating ribs on my right side in a collision with Craig Burke as we ran along some razorback ridges that had been cut by a rare downpour in a vacant lot. I was confined to quarters when I limped home in pain two hours late, and when I took my navy physical a decade later, the examining physician asked how I'd gotten the broken ribs. That was the first time my suspicion was confirmed, but it was all worth everything I went through to get them. They are my badge of honor. The recipient of a Purple Heart or a Silver Star can point to those awards and say, "I was a hero!" I can point to these broken ribs, and say, "I was a kid!"
Richard Henry Dana Junior High was about a mile-and-a-half away. Within the first couple of days there, I met Chip Hanika, who had gone to Cabrillo, and though we didn't realize it at first, we were going to be inseparable throughout the rest of school. I continued to walk to and from, and I continued to accompany him home after school, flaunting the 20 minute rule, which had been extended to 30 to accommodate the longer distance. As junior high was when homework started to make its appearance back in the day, this was when my schoolwork began to suffer because of my antics. I basically never did homework. I'd carry the books home, toss them on the table in my room, and pick them up the next day to carry back to school. Chip's parents never intervened to put a stop to this, as he managed to have his social life and get his schoolwork done, too. The only reason I can think of that I didn't was that it was boring; I mean, come on, I'd been looking at this crap all day! Now you want me to look at it at home, too?
But Chip was a philosopher, even at that early age (he went on to get his Ph.D. in philosophy), and the things we would talk about as we sat in his magnificent family room overlooking the broad sweep of San Diego Bay were far more interesting than anything that school had to talk about. With the exception of the semester I spent at Monterey Union High School (which I talked about here), this continued through my time at Point Loma High School until I quit after 11th grade to join the navy.
So now it's time to summarize this post, to attach some meaning to all this rambling. I guess it would be that, building on that foundation has brought my life to this point, and made me the person I am. One of my cyberfriends, Rachel, recently did a blog post about making time for the things that matter to you, and I just realized that she may have inspired this post. What I know is that from my earliest childhood, I have always made time for the things that I enjoy, and I don't regret a minute of it! It's possible that, had I chosen another path, I might have turned out wealthy, or powerful (in the political/industrial sense), or had a long and illustrious military career. Maybe in the next life, I'll do those things, but in this one, it has been far more important to me to play video games with my young children, to create fantastic worlds in my head and share them on paper with other like-minded dreamers, than to spend a 12-hour day at a $12,000.00 desk trying to come up with some way to improve my company's sales by another billionth of a percent, and I don't have any doubt that I'm a better person for it. I'd rather give than take, and I'd rather play than work, and at the end of the road, all of those riches that you've taken or worked for won't fit in that coffin, but I have to believe that if there is an afterlife, the memories you make are your treasures.
Okay, my work here is done. Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
This is for the grandkids, the family, close friends, and anyone else who can keep a civil tongue in their heads! It amounts to an interactive book of memoirs, but only if you interact... so get to it!
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California has been my home since 1965. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm home to stay!
What is there to say about a ten-year old turning 65, besides, what the hell happened?!??