Category Archives: Memoir

Changes At The Hop

 

Though not included in any dictionary at the time, the word “hop”, during the late 1950s, was a term used by young people to describe a place to gather and begin the pre sexual revolution, innocent pubescent introduction to intimate contact called dancing.

Danny and the Juniors

 

At this stage, you are immediately cast into another teeny-bopper comparison.  Even while on the floor, I would question my

dance skills.  Was I good or just average?  I looked around and surmised that I didn’t have the graceful swagger of Stephen, but was better than the kid with flaying arms who missed every other beat. I had just enough confidence to ask someone to dance, knowing I could never be as bad as that guy.

Danny and the Juniors with their one and only hit, “At The Hop,” helped cement the term into our middle school vocabularies with their somewhat racy lyrics:

 

“Well, you can swing it you can groove it

You can really start to move it at the hop

Where the jockey is the smoothest

And the music is the coolest at the hop

All the cats and chicks can get their kicks at the hop

Let’s go!”

I was more than ready to go. When I would hear my parents complain that they couldn’t understand the words to our modern music, I thought that was the plan.

By high school in 1962, “the hop” began to lose its luster.  It didn’t sound like this new decade.  Unable to settle on a name, our weekly summer dance night in the high school multi-purpose room became the What’s It club.

By twelfth grade, I was still small.  Six foot would come two years later, after a fairly rapid growth spurt. My legs were so skinny that after sitting in a hot bath with my new jeans on, they still didn’t fit tight. My hair had turned from straight to wavy to coarse and curly in a span of three years, leaving me with fewer options than I preferred.

In the end, I could handle my myself socially.  I was less shy about interacting with girls than many of my friends.  Something about not being seen as serious gives you limited access and I had all the dancing I could handle.  To use a baseball metaphor for intimate progression, I was a prime candidate to slide safely into second base.

She said, “Hey, Lyle, you wanna dance? 

Yes, at times they came to me.  Whether on the dance floor or in a phone booth, a girl making the first move was usually better than my plan, no move at all.   

The What’s It was mostly about hanging out and dancing to records, but twice a month we had a live band that immediately turned the atmosphere from teen club to nightclub. 

By 1962, Elvis Presley had already made twelve films and his days of producing good rock ’n roll were behind him.  The music of many of the black musicians who inspired Elvis surfaced and, thanks in some part to Barry Gordy’s Motown Records in Detroit,

James Brown

became mainstream.  One of those performers who appealed to young people was James Brown, the King of Soul. His sparkling costumes, wavy processed hair and rapid footwork in his dance moves appealed to crowds from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the Hollywood Bowl.  The  rhythms were relentless and the lyrics insignificant, all that was needed was an intermittent, “I feel good,” followed in the next riff by, “I knew that I would.” 

Brown’s music inspired local bands to cover his style and they were presented throughout the summer at  What’s It. The Jaguars with Richie Jackson performed twice, adding a small brass section for the danceable beginning numbers before introducing Jackson, who entertained with his voice and his soft feet. Another soul band, The Young Starlighters with Mitch and Cherie, delivered much of the same with harmonized vocals and some knock-off James Brown choreography. 

On records-only nights, we danced to Brown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and later to the Supremes and Smokey Robinson.  These were innocent, soulful times that we thought would last forever.

In 1964, the Beatles, a new group from Liverpool, England began to dominate AM radio airplay with the juvenile phase of their music.  For many of us, their songs were short and silly, nothing that signaled legendary. However, the album, “Rubber Soul,” released in December 1965, began their ascent into creative brilliance that has not been matched since.

By the end of 1964, the California-sound of the Beach Boys, could no longer compete with the Beatles invasion in the annual Battle of the Bands call-in survey sponsored by KLIV-1590 AM Radio in San Jose.

We were raised on the music of Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Motown, but now listening to bands called The Rolling Stones and the Kinks. 

The British had taken our black music, respectfully filtered it through their culture and voice, and fed it back to us. To say that we

The Chocolate Watchband

hailed it as groundbreaking is an understatement. How many potentially great live Beatles albums were ruined by the screamers? 

   The Jaguars and the Young Starlighters were gone from Thursday nights at the What’s It, replaced by bands like The Chocolate Watchband, mostly covered Rolling Stones tunes. Another band, Stained Glass, whose recording of the Beatle’s “If I Needed Someone” was number one on the 1965 Buffalo, New York top hit list, were always idiosyncratic and our high school classmate Dennis was the drummer. Then there was the Gollywogs who, a few years later, changed the band’s name to Credence Clearwater Revival and went global.   

For a time, I missed Little Richie Jackson and hoped he would catch on with a new band, even if it meant performing on Friday nights in the lounge of a local bowling alley. 

We danced nostalgically to Johnny B.  Goode by Chuck Berry or Marvin Gayes’s “I Be Doggone,” but most of the new stuff was British.  In 1965, “(I Can’t Get No)Satisfaction” became number one as we stepped our way to commencement.  Soon, we were off to college and what happened over the next five years will be discussed by historians and sociologists for centuries.

Stained Glass

As I look back, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, early beginnings of the women’s movement, the protests, the whole damn cultural revolution, happened in the face of the previous generation who had saved and protected our way of life.

I wish I could re-do some of those tense conversations and get my point across in a more sensitive way.  I regret that courtesy and understanding were, at times, overshadowed by the cause, or what was perceived as such. 

Songwriter Jackson Browne in a musical analogy, wrote, “Make room for my 45s along beside your 78s, nothing survives but the way we live our lives.” 

We stopped dancing and started listening.  The role of dance as an introduction to intimate contact became obsolete. With the dawn of birth control and a new open-mindedness, such encounters resulted from nothing more than a simple twist of fate. 

American black music inspired the first British invasion which, in turn, inspired a new generation of British and American bands like Cream, Jefferson Airplane and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as singer songwriters like Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

In 1969, using a firmly planted, powerful position in student politics, the Black Student Union at my university secured comedian/activist Dick Gregory as a Scholar-in-Residence and brought in a series of jazz artists like Charles Lloyd, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Bobby Hutcherson to celebrate the black experience.

My musical horizons exploded.  I once heard Reverend Jesse Jackson introduce the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago, referring to the role of music in the black movement.  

He said, “The musician often tries to capture the new thing that gives us melody and rhythm as we do our thing.”

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at Operation Breadbasket

I became a sponge for the rhythms and the messages of the time. As Jackson urged those in the audience to stand up straight, the Quintet launched into their new inspiring anthem, “Walk Tall.”

There it was, the identical rhythms of James Brown, The Jaguars with Richie Jackson, and The Young Starlighters, disguised in a new package with a new meaning.  As it all evolved musically and spiritually, I have never forgotten, not for one minute that, for me, it all started at the hop.

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A Sense of Galapagos

 

 

In 2010, as we lifted off the runway in Guayaquil, Ecuador and banked toward Baltra in the Galápagos Islands, some six hundred miles away, I still didn’t know what to expect.  I had dreamt of this moment for decades, but wondered if reality would match presumption.

Karen patted my knee.

“This is your “leg” of the journey,” she said.

She was referencing a promise made to ourselves forty years earlier, when the relationship was new.  We had spent the last eight days in the Peruvian Andes fulfilling her dream of walking in Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

“What’s on your mind?” she asked.

“Sally Lightfoot crabs,” I said.

“What?”

“That’s what was on my mind. They only exist here and I’m hoping to see some.”

“Well, good luck, honey, I’m sure you’ll manage to find one or two.”

To my surprise, the first natural vegetation we encountered, after stepping onto Galápagos soil, looked like a large grove of Saguaro

Prickly Pear

cacti.

Proceeding through customs with no lines in a building without walls and a thatch roof was a near stress-free beginning. On the bus for the two-mile trek to the ferry, I got my first glimpse of the prickly pear tree, with large, flat “prickly” pads that resemble the shape of a Saguaro cactus.  An abundant and vital part of the Galápagos landscape, the flowers of the prickly pear feed the giant saddle tortoises,

and the pads, after falling to the ground are devoured by the large land iguanas.

The first ferry ride was less than one mile, the distance between Baltra and Santa Rosa Islands.  The initial arid landscape quickly became a translucent turquoise blue bay inlet with visible sea life, surrounded by coal-black volcanic rocks.

Stepping off the second ferry to Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest in the archipelago, I watched a Sally Lightfoot crab scurry across the rocks.  We hoped to see a few of these colorful, animated creatures, but estimated that more than one hundred thousand crossed our paths.  They  were everywhere, their vibrant color pigments contrasting with the black background.  The infant Sally Lightfoot crabs are black for natural camouflage, the adolescents go through a

Sally Lightfoot Crab

red period before assuming, as adults, gleaming red legs and a dazzling yellow shell with piercing sky blue trim.

Santa Cruz Island was more tropical than the others.  It is also home to the giant domed tortoise that thrives inland from the water that bears its name.  Baie Tortuga is along the route to Puerto Isidro Ayora, where “Carmina,” our nautical home for the next five days, was “anchor down,” awaiting our arrival. An opportunity to observe these gentle giants was enough to delay the rendezvous.

A short hike off the road into a large, lush meadow led to our earliest glimpse of a huge  tortoise.  Everyone’s eyes locked on the first creature, but within seconds we were watching fifteen or so quietly grazing on the grasses.  A few withdrew into their shells as we passed by, but most continued their normal routine of ingesting without chewing, beginning a three-month digestive process.  They often measure six feet in length and their shells reach the height of a tall human adult’s waist.  It’s hard to comprehend these

Giant Domed Tortoise

stupendous creatures once being slaughtered for fresh meat on pirate ships.

The giant tortoises were mesmerizing. We could have watched all day but needed to be in port soon.  As the bus was departing down a dirt road, it suddenly stopped as Pauli, our naturalist, stood up.

“Well, my friends. It seems that one of the tortoises has decided to rest in the middle of the road,” she said.

“What happens next?” John asked.

“We wait.”

Any physical contact with the tortoises is strictly forbidden and closely observed.  We waited for fifteen minutes before Pauli stood once again.

“I need volunteers,” she said.

With limited visitations closely monitored by the Conservancy, she understood the need to remain on schedule.

“I’ll do it,” I said, my arm already raised like a fifth grader who knows the right answer.

Seconds later, six of us carefully surrounded and, with near perfect precision, lifted the giant domed tortoise and moved it several feet off the muddy road. It remained quiet and still during the process but, once on the ground, became the fastest slow-mover of the day.

Other islands are home to the saddle tortoise whose shell is arched to provide more neck reach to the prickly pear flower, food that hangs three to four feet above the ground.

Carmina

Puerto Isidro Ayora, Galapagos’s largest town with a population of thirty-thousand, is the main port for all cruise vessels. As our group of fifteen boarded two rubber Zodiacs for the half-mile journey to the small cruise ship, a discussion ensued regarding people’s diverse expectations.  Some were fulfilling lifelong dreams, others were being dragged along by their partners.  I tuned out, put aside any perceptions and immersed myself in the moment. I was sitting in a rubber raft with a motor attached, in the sea of the archipelago, at the confluence of the three oceanic currents that created this ecosystem.

Settled in on Carmina, we enjoyed a welcome toast with pina coladas and a wonderful dinner prepared by chef Raoul, our new favorite crew member.  We all went to bed early, hoping to sleep through our first night of sailing. The last sound I heard was the anchor lifting through the water as we departed for Bartolome’ Island, a volcanic rock with minimal plant or animal life.

On the Zodiacs by early morning, we left for the island and a challenging hike up four hundred steps through lava rock to the highest

Bartolome Island, Sullivan Bay, Pinnacle Rock

peak, later snorkeling a small cove in Sullivan Bay, directly below the majestic, wind-carved Pinnacle Rock.  Views from the top of the island and below the ocean’s surface were equally stunning, the latter courtesy of a huge school of yellowtail surgeonfish. We

Galapagos penguin

would see many more fish along with sea lions, marine iguanas, eels, rays and sea turtles during our daily snorkeling adventures.

After lunch on the boat, we were back on the Zodiacs, patrolling the volcanic cliffs in search of the shy Galápagos penguins, hiding among the fluorescent Sally Lightfoot crabs and a few Blue-footed Boobies.  Measuring twenty-four inches high, these rare docile penguins are the second smallest of the species that, once in the water, become quick and agile.

Day Two began with a dry landing on Puerto Egas, a lava beach on Santiago Island, and a hike where we encountered large colonies of sea lions, marine iguanas and, of course, more Sally Lightfoot crabs.  The volcanic cliffs led us to a flat plateau filled with tide pools and ledges near the surf, providing protected water access for various species.

With marine iguanas on Puerto Egas Beach

Hundreds of prehistoric looking marine iguanas appeared as we reached the ledge, lying side-by-side and on top of each other, oblivious  to our invasion.  Aside from the occasional snort, ejecting the salt acquired on their latest ocean sojourn to eat red and green algae and cool their bodies, they seemed lifeless.  Over the next hour, we observed the lethargic creatures sunning themselves until the necessity to repeat the cycle drove them to the sea.

I’ve watched the California sea lion, the Galapagos variety’s closest relative, for most of my life, but never studied their daily activities or parenting habits as well as the chauvinistic attitudes of the alpha male.  Pauli consistently identified red-billed tropic birds, brown pelicans, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks, lava lemons, and many of

Marine iguana

the fourteen species of finches found on the islands.

After snorkeling in a small bay abundant with sea turtles and rays, we returned to the boat for lunch as it navigated toward Rabida Island for our first deep-water snorkeling off the Zodiac.  The timing for this jaunt was perfect for observing the last lunch call for hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies, innocent-looking, lumbering birds with iridescent turquoise duck-feet that, once in the air, became missiles, diving into the surf with the force and synchronization of the Blue Angels air acrobatic team. Gathering and hovering high above for several minutes, there was a “caw” to action from the leader and suddenly they released, hitting the water like bullets from a semi-automatic rifle.  None of them went back to the cliffs hungry.

Using a backflip off the Zodiac like a scuba diver, Rod was the first in the water.  Before I entered, he reappeared, emphatically pointing to a specific location.

“Look down now,” he said.

Off the boat, after adjusting my mask, I put my face in the water in time to see two marine iguanas feeding on algae.  Watching them smoothly sway back and forth through the water as they swam to the surface was hypnotic, the spell broken only by a large sea turtle passing within arm’s reach.

The five of us who chose to join the first deep water snorkeling were rewarded well beyond our expectations.  Back to the boat to remove our wetsuits, we quickly re-boarded the Zodiac dinghies and crossed the inlet for a wet landing on Rabida Island that promised red sand beaches and large colonies of sea lions.

Beach on Rabida Island

With uniquely gorgeous beaches, the small Rabida Island revealed a landscape of low to medium shrubs and prickly pear trees that vibrantly contrasted with the red sand and soil.  It was there that we first observed the dictatorial alpha male sea lions rule their harems with an iron flipper, lashing out against other interested males or females with a wandering eye.  Thrusting out one’s chest and yelling stridently is, apparently, required to maintain their power or overcome the fear of losing it. I have heard recent rumors that the females have initiated a  #MeToo! movement that is wreaking havoc on the entire eco-system.

On the return trip to Carmina, the drivers meticulously maneuvered the Zodiacs close to the rocks of the minute Nameless Island for close observation of calmer Blue-Footed Boobies.  The docile nesting birds did not seem to match the air-acrobatic profile on

Blue-footed Boobie

display when they were hunting fish.

After dinner on the boat, we set sail to South Plaza Island, a small patch of land, that unlike Bartolome Island, promised distinctive terrain and wildlife.

The early morning rumpling of a dropping anchor signaled that we were close to land.  South Plaza Island required a wet landing because the minuscule strips of sand immediately ascended to steep rocks that were carefully crossed to reach the effervescent scarlet and yellow Sesuvium, a succulent ground cover that surrounded a dirt trail.  A short walk led us to steep, vivid cliffs that afforded close-up views of fierce blue-green surf and Elliot’s storm petrel, a long-legged bird that flies close to the rocks with uncomprehending speed and agility.

The male land iguana that resides on South Plaza Island is also unique, displaying lurid colors to attract females during  mating season. The ones we encountered were two to three feet long with bright yellow scales that resembled an ear of corn.

Quality time for land iguanas

Karen carefully photographed them from all angles and was rewarded when a female arrived for some companionship.

“Give them a minute, Karen,” said Ginny, smiling, “they probably don’t get enough quality time together.”

“They’re iguanas, Karen said,“They have nothing but time.”

Aware of this rare opportunity, she continued to shoot, mindful of the purity and dignity of the moment.

A lasting memory from this small island, thriving with  life, was watching the birth of a baby sea lion and what followed.  A large sea lion was lying on the rocks a few yards away.  Pauli pointed skyward to a large flock of frigate birds that hovered above like hawks over their prey.

“That sea lion is about to give birth,” she said, “and those frigates know it.”

Baby sea lion

Minutes later, the pup was born.  The mother immediately nudged it away from the afterbirth toward the sea, anticipating that the frigates would soon dive in numbers for the unusual meal.

The dynamics of the scene were astonishing.  The acrobatic, hungry frigates, the protective sea lion mother and the pup, trying to comprehend “womb to water,” was mind-boggling to watch.

Something else mind-boggling happened that evening on the boat during dinner.  We sat with another couple, Tom and Carol who, although we had snorkeled together in the group, we had not spoken to.

As a conversation ensued, Tom asked the question, “Where did you guys grow up?”

“I was born in Santa Monica, but I grew up in Sunnyvale,” said Karen.

Tom said, “You’re kidding, so did I.  What high school did you attend?”

On the Zodiacs

“Homestead.”

“Oh my god, so did I.  What year did you graduate?”

“1966.”

“Me too.”  “What was your maiden name?”

“Raven.”

“You’re Karen Raven, my god, I remember you as far back as junior high.  Your brother Kerry was on the high school basketball team.”

Once again, I slipped into the moment.  What were the odds?  We were sitting in the galley of a small cruising ship, somewhere in the Galápagos Islands, and Karen was talking to a new friend who happened to be very old friend.

Months later, Tom and Carol traveled down from Oregon and we attended a Homestead High School reunion together, days after the death of its most famous alumni, Steve Jobs.

Karen at Darwin’s Bay

As the sun rose, we found ourselves near unfamiliar land.  Our time on Santa Fe Island, one of the oldest, began as the Zodiacs entered

the pellucid waters of Darwin’s Bay. A wet landing was required on a beach alive with sea lion activity, which nearly caught one of our group in a compromising position between an angry alpha male and an unwelcome intruder. Amid some loud barking and a few aggressive gestures, the situation was soon peaceably resolved. It seems that the alpha male will defend his harem against outsiders of any species.

The snorkeling group

The other memories of Santa Fe Island came from below the  ocean’s surface.  After a deep-water entry off the Zodiac, we snorkeled the bay, identifying three rays—spotted eagle, diamond and sting—more sea lions, eels, multitudes of fish and graceful sea turtles methodically swimming by. Plants and sea life created a striking visual underwater panorama that has remained a vivid memory.

Chef Raoul outdid himself with a sublime farewell dinner.  Afterwards, we all enjoyed an aperitif and talked about our experiences and our expectations.  Most were met, some not. The few people that chose not to get into the water or the Zodiacs would have enjoyed a luxury cruise more.

Atypically, I mostly remained silent during our discussion, choosing to maintain the purity of my personal insights.  Although I detest the term “bucket list,” exploring the Galápagos Islands was something that I always planned to do during my lifetime and I had a sense of fulfillment.

We toasted Pauli, thanking her for carefully curating the excursion.  We joked that leading small groups through the islands for a living

Pauli leads the landing

was a dream job.  Truly, we all appreciated how hard she worked.  Her patience and knowledge enhanced the adventure more than we could have imagined.

There was a light storm during the final sail to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.  Needing the help of the guide rails to get our clothes from the dresser to the suitcase, choppy waters made us wish that we had completed packing before dinner. Our bags managed to get outside the door by the 6 am deadline and soon we were on the Zodiacs for our final ride to enjoy the village before departing for the Ecuadorian coast.

At the dock, we observed several locals waiting for a water  taxi, standing while two small sea lions slept on the provided

siesta time for sea lions

benches.  It was a metaphor for the way of life on the islands where an “everything matters” viewpoint is engrained into the culture.

Few have had the opportunity to experience Galápagos and fewer are capable of grasping it the way Charles Darwin did. My resolve to stay in the moment helped me immerse myself into it and take what it was giving.  The memories, and the way it enhanced my perspective of the world, will last forever.

 

 

 


Riding The Flying Red Horse

 

The word got around the neighborhood quickly.  Balloons and banners were going up at the new local service station and, in 1955, that was all the advertising needed.  The Grand Opening was Saturday and everyone who was anyone would show up.  Copious amounts of food, drinks, rides and other free stuff would be at hand.  The fathers, wearing wingtips and work boots, would mingle with the new manager, eating hot dogs and listening to his subtle pitch of reliable service and proximity.  In those days, no one wanted to travel too far from home.

The mothers, dressed in petal-pushers and scarves to protect their hair from the wind, would talk among themselves. The adults would have their discussions and make decisions, but, for us kids, it was a young baby-boomers dream, fun in the sun on a Saturday afternoon at another gas station opening in post-WWII Santa Clara Valley.

This new station was a Mobilgas, so the flying red horse  ride would be there.  The deep red-winged stallion in full motion mimicked the large neon ones that hung above each station.  Today, it was a perfect fit for both my frame and imagination.

What is the attraction to a seven-year-old boy of sitting on some tiny molded horse that moved two inches forward, then backward to simulate galloping?  It certainly wasn’t my first rodeo but the red flying horse was different, an upgrade from the scratched up old mechanical mare outside of the grocery store.  This was a flying red horse, permanently posed, head down, wings spread as if in flight. It would be totally cool to ride a real red flying horse, although I would have to replace my cuffed blue jeans and homemade shirt with a super hero costume.  For now, I’ll use my mind’s eye and settle for riding this one, which comes with a free photo.

In addition to the rides and hot dogs, there was cotton candy and stacks of wooden crates holding glass Coca-Cola bottles.  This opening even had a guest appearance from local country radio disc jockey, Cottonseed Clark, a who broadcast a few hours of his radio program from the event. Another souvenir photo, autographed.  Mobilgas was pulling out all the stops for this one.  In the 1950s, these events were common because gas and service stations played an integral role in our daily lives.

Filling the car up with gas was only one reason for our weekly trek at the service station.  It began when we drove over the black hose that made a chime sound to alert the mechanic.  In 1955, there were enough cars to keep each station busy, but the pace was such that the operator could perform maintenance  work and still handle the pump demand.  The fact that our parents were having children in record numbers would change that dynamic and contribute to the slow death of the full-service experience.

“Hi George,” my dad said, “fill it up with Ethel.”

Before he said a word, George Osaka would open the hood, then walk to the rear of the car and insert the gas hose. Because he had to hold the hose the entire time, he had a few moments for friendly conversation before he completed his checklist.

George said, “How’s she running?”

“So far, so good,” said my dad, “that whine is gone since you replaced the belt.”

“Guess that was it.”

George would always acknowledge me in the backseat.

“You staying busy, Butch?”

“Yeah.”

My father thought that we could afford premium Ethel gas even though, at twenty-three cents per gallon, it was two cents higher than regular.  I would always roll down my back seat window during this process to experience the sweet smell of gasoline.  There are many people in today’s world that are addicted to intoxicative inhalants and, there but for fortune go I.  I loved the smell of fresh gasoline, possibly associating it with freedom.  I dreamt of driving my own car one day and, if I could ever save fifteen hundred dollars, buy that new Ford convertible shown on the local car commercial and take it on a long road trip.  There was not a faint glimpse of a thought that, years later, I would find the odor of gas toxic and obnoxious, connecting it to congestion and dirty air.  In the 1950s, cars and gasoline were the wave of the future, just listen to Walt Disney talk of his Autopia.

Tank full, George would focus his attention under the hood, checking the oil and radiator water levels then shaking the hoses to assure none were loose.  After checking the tire pressure, he would spray and clean all the car windows to complete the service, all for the price of the gas that, somehow flowed plentifully from a magical underground  reservoir.

“Everything looks good. That will be four fourteen,” said George.

My dad handed him a five dollar bill and he returned with the change, green stamps and wishes for everyone to have a good week.  Mr. Osaka was our go-to service station guy because my dad thought he was a good and trustworthy mechanic and had this belief that the Japanese were honest business people. I found this somewhat conflicting because he was slightly more than a decade removed from a foxhole in Tawara, but I witnessed him, on numerous occasions, do and say things that expressed his respect for the local Japanese community.  He would say that government leaders, not people, start wars.

After the car was serviced and when there wasn’t a station opening that I could persuade my parents to go to, our Saturday morning routine took us to the local donut shop for a late breakfast of donuts, coffee and chocolate milk, which set us back another dollar fifty, including tip. Then, on some days, it was off to the local car wash.

My father normally washed our car himself, but once a month we went to the new modern carwash because they vacuumed the interior and cleaned the cigarette smoke residue that would form inside of the windshield.  Carwashes represented new, state-of-the-art technology and it seemed like magic as I peered through soap-film-stained windows to watch our car go through.   Occasionally, in lieu of a gas station opening, we would go to Bounceland USA so I could jump on the trampoline.  For this enterprise, someone leased a vacant lot, dug twelve pits, covered the top with springs and rubber straps and charged fifty cents for kids to jump up and down for twenty minutes.  Life in those days would allow such a venture.  No liability waivers, no spotters, people did things at their own risk.  These, and similar endeavors, would soon fall prey to the mating calls of lawyers in love.

I stayed on the lookout for new Mobilgas stations during the next few months, but the arrival of a new Hopalong Cassidy bike, named after the television serial cowboy, and a pogo stick vastly escalated my mobility and I moved on from the flying red horse.

In my mind, that old icon has become a metaphor for innocent, simpler times when we had one phone, attached to the wall, one small television displaying three channels in a large ugly cabinet, one car and one bathroom. I am also reminded that, in 1955, I had seven normal years left before it all fell apart. As my family crashed and burned, there were times when I wished I had a red flying horse to take me away from it all.


Edvins and Florencio

 

I remember simpler times when a face was just a face, another friend on the playground.  Post World War II Santa Clara Valley was rapidly expanding and most of the faces moving into the new houses were various shades of Europe. We were all different to some degree and, beyond a little curiosity, it was quietly accepted or irrelevant within the serious business of childhood.

Most of our fathers fought in the war, mine in Tarawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The common paradigm for returning GI’s was to get married, have kids and live happily and peaceably ever after.  The textbooks called it “Return to Normalcy,” a panacea for the scars of battle.

My parents had little money, but I had everything I needed and some things I didn’t, like freckled cheeks and a “cowlick” on the back of my head resembling the Alfalfa character on the “Little Rascals” television show.  Another social challenge, surprisingly, came from re-runs of The Honeymooners on the CBS channel.  In each episode, Bronx bus driver Ralph Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason, bullied and yelled at his sewer-worker neighbor named Ed Norton.  For an entire year, I was known only as “N-A-W-W-T-O-N,” usually from voices at maximum volume. Aside from that, things were quite normal.

During the 1958-59 school year, in Ms. Joan Davis’ fifth grade class, I met two young boys who were as different as any two people could be.  Although our friendships were short-lived and we have had no contact in sixty years, they both remain in my memory because their stories are still pertinent today.

Both Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez were immigrants, one seasonal and the other fleeing communism with his parents after the Soviet Union invaded his homeland.  Neither of them had television sets and both called me by my first name.  They focused on what they had, never on what they didn’t.

I asked, “Hey Edvins, where are you from again?”

“Latvia,” he answered.

“Latvia.  I’ve never heard of it.”

“Oh, that’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”

He often spoke of his homeland but didn’t dwell on it.  He told us that his father was an engineer in Latvia, but they had to leave and now he was managing an orchard across from the school until something better came along.  We never discussed it, but I strangely became empathetic to his quiet struggle and understood that life was a little harder for him. Feeling empathy was a new experience for me.

Edvins was outgoing, verbose and smart.  These factors offset his non-athletic, somewhat flabby body and the thick crew cut that fully covered his head like a completely grown “chia pet” gnome.   He had no reservations in assuming the role as the smartest kid in class and his strong opinions convinced us that he hated the “commies” more than we did.  His personal stories, many handed down from his father, reassured us all that Kruschev was the devil and the Soviet Union was indeed the “Evil Empire.”

Edvins was the first kid that I met who was an artist.  He could draw anything and often spent his day sketching portraits of other classmates and not concentrating on the subject at hand.  For the most part, we all saw his art as an asset, one that we relied on to make our class projects better.

One day, years later, in seventh grade homeroom, Edvins quietly passed me a dollar bill.

I whispered, “What’s this for?”

Gesturing with his finger, he said, “Look at it.”

Edvins had drawn a near perfect one dollar bill, both sides. At first glance, I easily mistook it for the real thing.

“I want to try it out at lunch,” he muttered.

I knew what he meant and still allowed my curiosity to make me complicit in his plan.  We ate lunch together in the cafeteria, then set out for the room where students took turns selling ice cream to other students.  The money raised went to the end of the year picnic.

Edvins said, “Two Fudgesicles,” holding up his fingers in the shape of a “V”.

The innocent student clerk took the phony bill, handed him the two bars and seventy cents change. Barely able to contain our emotions, we took the contraband and slithered out to a remote area to eat it.  Edvins was beside himself, celebrating the fact that he had pulled off his little scheme.

On our way back to class, we stopped by the ice cream room as Edvins turned over a real dollar bill and asked for his forgery back.  We all laughed, knowing it was typical Edvins, mischievous but honest, curbing his boredom in ways the rest of us could not imagine.

Florencio Lopez had dark skin.  His slim  but strong physique and the deep cheekbones in his face looked like an old, sepia photograph of a Native American warrior. His wardrobe consisted of jeans and a few different flannel shirts that he always wore with the top button fastened. His hard-soled  shoes looked like they had survived generations.

Florencio was shy, quiet and stoic, remaining a mystery to most of us.  He stood out as the sole Hispanic kid in class.  Because English was not his first language, he was often slow to comprehend lessons, making this strong kid self-conscientious and vulnerable.

When Ms. Davis called on him, he often answered, “I don’t know.” She was very patient and set an all-inclusive tone in the classroom,  yet  he remained aloof and preferred to be by himself.  There was still this mysterious aura that made us unsure and cautious about approaching him.

Florencio’s moment came not in the classroom, but on the playground.  In those days, every fifteen minute recess and the half hour remaining after lunch was ample time for many of the boys to divide into teams for a day long progressive touch football game.

He started showing up on the sidelines and watching us play.  One day, someone asked him if he wanted to join in. He nodded quickly, then as the football hurled toward him as an impromptu try-out, he raised his large hands up and stopped it in its tracks. After an instant of stunned silence, an argument ensued.

“Okay, we’ll take him.”

“No, no, we’re a man down, we’ll take him.”

With minutes of recess left, the dispute was quickly resolved and, before the bell rang, we all learned that Florencio Lopez could run like the wind.  From that point, he was known to everyone as Flo and he embraced it.  His athletic abilities became his wristband to inclusion.

He could outrun anyone else backwards in hard soled shoes and the team he was on typically called only one play, “Throw to Flo,” hoping that he would not out run the arm strength of the passer.  For weeks afterward, Flo became the playground star and far less mysterious to us all.

On the first Saturday of December, there was a district-wide football jamboree where all the elementary schools would gather for one day of competition.  Permission slips and a small lunch fee were required.  We all expected Flo to be our secret weapon, but he quietly told us that he couldn’t go.  We pressed the issue until it became uncomfortable for everyone.  Things that most of us took for granted were beyond the reach of others.

The last time that I remember seeing Florencio Lopez was a chance meeting when I was visiting his neighbor, Edvins Augusts. Next to Edvins’ modest, green, 1940s ranch house was a large, old bungalow in disrepair and in need of paint.  Florencio lived there with his parents and five younger siblings. Ironically, the only two dwellings in the large orchard were side by side and the homes of my two new friends.  Outside of class, it was the first and last time the three of us hung out together.  The afternoon did not include art or football, just the three of us talking about whatever ten-year- old boys talk about.

Florencio did not return for the sixth grade, but Edvins stayed for a few years.  The orchard was being sold off and by 1961 became a neighborhood with its own expressway, no longer in need of a manager or a foreman.

Recent research revealed an Edvins Augusts of my age who married twice, once in California and once in Nevada to a woman with a Russian surname.  The search results for Florencio Lopez ranged from a Professor of Finance at a major university to a notorious Mexican drug lord apprehended in the late nineties.

Their fates remain unknown, but for me, getting to know Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez in the late fifties widened my young perspective and began to cement the understanding that, with our differences, we are all, deep down, the same.


Precious and Fragile

 

October 7, 2017 was not an ordinary Saturday. We joined friends on a fancy tour bus for the ninety minute ride from Santa Rosa to Middletown, then up the mountain to the hydro-thermal power compound known as “The Geysers.”   Returning in the afternoon from Calistoga, the bus drove through the pass that became Mark Springs Road because it was the fastest and most accessible route.

Passing by the entrance to Safari West, an African animal preserve prompted discussion on who had been there

“We were there last month,” I said

Weeks before, in late August, out-of-town guests enthusiastically requested Safari West, a four-hundred-acre African preserve and breeding center, as a top priority during their short visit.  I either never knew or had forgotten that such a place existed northeast of Santa Rosa.  However, I was game and loved being around it.

On a warm morning, we arrived and soon met our guide and jeep driver, Cindy.  With dusty Levi’s, a khaki workshirt and the baked skin of someone who spends their days in our local Serengeti Plain, she was surely a seasoned veteran, comforting to our group.

Cindy explained that we would soon board what looked like a worn World War II surplus jeep retrofitted with a second level of seating for four people above the cab and a long gear shift protruding from the floor to the right of the driver. She  referred to the old jeep as her partner and I had full confidence in both.

First on our day’s agenda, before boarding the jeep, was some intense bird-watching, then viewing primates and predator cats that, for obvious reasons are prohibited from roaming freely among the appreciative prey on the preserve.

I have seen flamingos before, but never heard them make a sound.  We came upon a crowded colony of various shades of pink that, at times, sounded like an entire section of Type-A violinists who played and argued with each other simultaneously.  The crescendo came in waves.  One flamingo would annoy another, others, who I called shamers, would join in to escalate the volume and ferocity of the screeches, lowering their heads and projecting their necks forward like a weapon.  The colony moved from tranquil fluidity to chaotic dysfunction and back again within seconds. Watching their behavior made me think of the parallels between us and them.

After carefully cleaning the bottoms of our shoes, we entered the large aviary.  In trees and on the ground, we were surrounded by scarlet ibis, Argus pheasants, crown cranes,  Stanley cranes and a unique demoiselle crane named Kovu, who literally had no clue that she was a bird.  Some abandoned crane eggs were hatched in an incubator, producing Kovu,

Kovu

who was then hand feed by humans.  During both her formation and formative years, Kovu bonded with people, not cranes or birds at all.

She soon joined our group and participated in the walking tour. She stopped and started walking with us and seemed to enjoy observing these engaging winged creatures that surrounded us.  Cindy pointed out that she has, in the past, taken a particular liking to a specific person, prompting her to raise and spread her wings, strutting around ceremoniously in circles.

Moments later, I stepped back and accidentally nudged Kovu. I apologized.  She stared at me for a instant and then the “love dance” began. I became the one.   She pulled her wings back and, in full display, began to dance in circles just for me. I was embarrassed and flattered at the same time. At my age, it’s nice to have appeal, even by a demoiselle crane who thinks more like a girlfriend than being a bird.

Kovu

“Stand back Kovu.” Cindy delivered the disappointing news to our young friend, who had expectations of leaving the aviary and joining us for the rest of the tour.

After viewing the caged cats and before boarding the jeep, we observed several Black and White Colobus monkeys swinging from branches and moving quickly on the ground. Each one of these gorgeous creatures had a distinct black body with a white cape-like streak down it’s back and a ring of white fur that surrounded their entire face.

Colobus is the Greek word for “mutilate” and unlike any  other primates, these beautiful creatures, genetically, have no thumbs. They are also herbivores with a digestive system that enables the consumption of a variety of leaves, flowers and twigs.  Their sloppy eating habits and digestive systems are said to be vital to seed distribution.  It’s difficult to be neat without thumbs.

“Who wants to sit up top first?” asked Cindy as we boarded the jeep.  A young family of four jumped at the chance and were doubly pleased when we offered them our turn.

Buckled in, we started up the bumpy road.  Entering each section of the preserve required that Cindy stop and exit the jeep, unlock and open a gate, re-enter, start up the vehicle and move a few feet forward, stop and exit once again to lock the gate behind us.  She did this several times during the tour.  After all, this is old school Safari West, not Jurassic Park.

The first series of corrals belonged to five or six large giraffes with enough acreage to roam freely.

Cindy spoke.  “Thirty-six giraffes have been born here and we believe that Jamala, who is celebrating her twentieth birthday today, may be pregnant.”   She definitely was. When she turned, we were all surprised to see parts of two hoofed legs protruding from her.

Cindy quickly grabbed her radio.  “This is Cindy. Are you aware that Jamala is giving birth.”

A voice was transmitted.  “Yes, we’ve been monitoring her the last hour.”

“Does she need help?”

“We’re going to give her some time.”

“I knew that young Rico was up to no good.” Cindy smiled.

“Yeah, he was pretty active in the short time he was here.”

Rico was a nine-year-old male giraffe that was brought into the preserve to stimulate some growth to the herd.  Apparently, his activity level was so high that his stay was shortened.

Not knowing how long the birth process would take, Cindy suggested that we proceed with our tour but quickly return after any updates.

In the next minutes we encountered ostriches, water buffalo, varieties of antelopes and an interesting zebra dynamic.  We came upon three female zebras, standing side by side, intently observing a young male eating.

Admiring giraffes

“They shunned and were downright  mean to him when he first arrived,” said Cindy, “but after awhile, they all warmed up.”

The expressions of the tirelessly observant females seemed to say, “Isn’t he handsome when he eats?”

“Oh yes, such confidence!”

After listening to a scratchy voice over the radio, Cindy said, “It’s time to get back to Jamala.”

Handsome guy

We returned to the sight of two young women pulling on rope lines that had been secured around the calf’s hoofs, now below a dangling head and neck. This tug-of-war continued for several minutes before reinforcement arrived in the form of two more young women.

The giraffe corrals looked like one large square corral, divided into four equal parts. Although Jamala was separated, a six-foot fence could not keep the others giraffes from surrounding her with comfort and support.  They did not interfere, they were just there for her. One last tug by the young quartet and the new miracle of  life slid from the mother

Helping Jamala

and fell six feet to the ground.

The calf looked dazed for a moment and then began, in vain, to stand up.  Due to predators, standing is a top priority for baby giraffes.  After many wobbly, futile attempts, the twenty-minute-old calf finally stood up and a minute later was nursing.

Jamala tended to her new offspring, cleaned her up and, within  the forty minutes, we observed a new six-foot-tall baby giraffe walking steadily, looking a month, not an hour old.

She shared her wonderful birthday present with a small, fortunate group of people and supportive giraffes. The four interns were exhausted, but running high on

Jamala’s Birthday Gift

adrenaline.  We all shared a moment and a lifelong memory together, but theirs were up close and personal.

My story was convincing.  All on the bus agreed that we would go soon, together.

In the late hours of Sunday October 8, the Tubbs Fire ravaged through the same pass that we had traveled a day before and burned parts of Safari West.  After directing the staff to evacuate, owner Peter Lang, stayed behind and strung together ten garden hoses to hold it at bay. N one of the living creatures at the preserve were harmed.  The same could not be said for Lang’s home and a fleet of old, worn surplus jeeps with special seating above the cab.

Heroically, Peter Lang not only saved these beautiful creatures, but future

Mother and calf

opportunities for us to observe all facets of their complex lives, including the miracle of birth.

Safari West can be life changing.  At a minimum, it reminds us of what we have known all along and may have forgotten. We are part of a balance that is both precious and fragile. Although humans have benefitted from being able to walk and use our hands simultaneously, we still share an eco-system and a an obligation to nourish and protect it.

On October 19, our family welcomed Drew Sofia Norton, into the world. Her parents

Drew Sofia Norton

and Jamala experienced the miracle of birth months apart. I hope that this beautiful baby, precious forever and fragile for the short-term, will embrace and celebrate all living things in our world. Visiting Safari West in a few years may give her a head start.


Face of Five

 

“Damnit!,”

“What did you forget this time,” said Karen, responding to a familiar tone in my voice.

“My phone,”  I answered, tightening my grip on the steering wheel.

“Well, I’ve got mine, she said, reassuring us both that we would not be completely off the grid of modern life during the next few days.

It was 2009 and having celebrated our recent retirements with season ski passes to Mammoth Mountain Resort, we relished the concept of mid-week skiing and the availability of a nearby cabin, courtesy of friends, Cindy and Ross.  For us, the season passes were a metaphor for our new-found freedom and the ability to be spontaneous, to load the car on a whim and, within hours, be on a sparsely populated mountain.  Cautiously dipping our toes in the sea of invincibility that once dominated our early lives, we were happy, healthy and wanted to remain as young as we could for as long as we could.

Our plan was to ski Wednesday through Friday noon, have a quick lunch, then get out of Dodge before the weekenders arrived.  Today, there would be no standing in line to buy a lift ticket.  They were already around our necks, with photos, encased in plastic.  Season passes make you feel élite and special.

It had been awhile since Karen skied Mammoth and I was anxious to show her some new runs that I had discovered in a recent trip with some colleagues from work.

“Ross recommended a great warm-up run for me.  It’s called Mambo,” I said as we put on our ski’s at the bottom of Stump Alley.

Karen answered, “Sounds good, as long as they have already groomed it.”  To find her “ski legs,” she preferred that the first few runs of the day be free of moguls, chunky snow or ice.  Mambo is a series of plateaus, creating alternating degrees of steepness from the top to the bottom before merging with Escape, a chute that allowed us to build up enough speed to make it back to the Stump Alley Express Chair.  From there, we did it again, and once more until we realized we were falling into our comfort zones.  A very nice, cozy comfort zone where the challenge of the slope fluidly matched the skill level of the skier.   Feeling more confident, we were ready to push ourselves.

“Let’s go higher,”  Karen said.

So we did.  We ascended the mountain, Stump Alley to Chair #3 to a higher ridge line.

“This chute feeds into St Anton, follow me,” I pointed down the slope. From the back side, we could ski the St. Anton run which provided access to numerous opportunities on the northern side of the mountain.  There we were, me in my helmet and goggles and Karen, sporting a cute beret and designer shades, embracing the sense of freedom and euphoria that the mountain gave us.

On Thursday, I suggested we explore it’s back side.  The old two-person Chair #9  had been replaced with the new six-person Cloud Nine Express Chair which made many more skiers aware of these once-remote runs.  Off the chair to the right, Goldhill could be intimidating, but soon merged with great runs like  Haven’t The Foggiest and Quicksilver.  The calmness of this area, with the muted sun, struggling to penetrated the thick, grey-rust sky, painted a very heavenly portrait.  Nearly Nirvana but for the packs of helter-skelter snowboarders, passing through the silence like some Mad Max movie.

“Karen, do you remember Face of Five? I inquired. “We’ve skied it several times together.”

“Tell me about it,” she asked, signaling that her memory of it was, at best, foggy.

“The face is steep, right off the chair, sometimes chunky in the morning,” I said, “but it soon becomes Solitude, which you loved.”

“Where is it?”  expressing due diligence on my recommendation.

“Actually, it’s just around this ridge, follow me,” I responded.  And she did.

We skied Face of Five many times, benefitting by another new express chair until our legs began to tire.  On our last run, we would stay on Solitude, past the express chair, to connect with lower trails that would eventually bring us back to Stump Alley, where a beverage of our choice was waiting.   During this last run, it was important that we stay together.  My intelligent, educated wife is severely directionally challenged and I would like to think that she needs me to get down the hill.  Honestly, if we got separated, she would probably flag down a skier and ask directions.

We decided to spend our last morning on the back side, continuing to relish the challenge.  Skiing better than we had on our first day, we wanted more, but the early weekenders were arriving and clearly visible against the backdrop of the white snow.

“Let’s do one more, then go in,” Karen said, as noon was approaching.

Pointing to a narrow trail, I said, “This will take us back to Face Of Five and we can go down from there.”

“Great.”  There was an enthusiast tone to her voice.  She was feeling good and we would probably boast to each other throughout the drive home.

The trail merged directly into the traffic on Face of Five.  We pulled up to get our bearings and discuss a plan for the last descent.  Suggesting our usual route, I said, “Ski down to the sign, we can meet up there and then go down the rest of the way together.”

The sign is a large billboard-sized ski trail map that is located at the apex of the lower and upper slopes.  All the primary chair lifts coming from the various lodges dump skiers nearby and it is highly recognizable and helpful to those without pocket maps.

“You go first and I’ll meet you at the sign,” said Karen.

So I did.  I set the edges of my ski’s into the snow and stopped at the base of the gigantic trail map, listening to what my thighs were telling me.  I kept close watch for my partner for the next several minutes.  She didn’t come.  After another fifteen minutes, I became worried.   At the least, she had taken a wrong turn, descended to another area and, without my phone, it could take hours for us to connect.   This was the option that I was hoping for.

Polling slowly, I made my way back to the chair lift and rode to the top of Face of Five, looking off for signs of her.  I skied back down and still saw none. Beginning to feel helpless, I decided to ski down to Stump Alley, near where our car was parked.   Again, I waited and paced.  My mind was running out of good scenario’s and I decided to check the places that I was avoiding.

Neither of the two emergency first aids stations reported an accident involving a woman.  They recommended I check back later.  Thinking that Karen may have called the cabin land-line, I drove there and found Ross, an early weekender,  just arriving.  He is part of the volunteer ski patrol and has contacts and can ski areas most people can’t. Before immediately leaving for the mountain, Ross gave me his phone.  I called Karen’s phone and, for the first time in hours, heard her voice.

“Hi, you’ve reached Karen’s cell.  Your call is important to me, at the beep….”

Another hour passed and I found myself driving back to the places where she might be, including both first aid stations.  At 3:30 PM, the phone rang.

“Hello, Ross James please,” the voice on the line said.

“This is Ross’ phone, but my name is Lyle Norton,” I answered.

“Oh, Mr. Norton,  the voice answered back, “you’re the person I am trying to contact.  This is Dr. Siena at Mammoth Community Hospital.”

The scratches along the right side of her face and the broken clavicle would heal soon, but they were mostly concerned about the concussion.  Karen was resting, not so comfortably.  Dr. Siena explained that she had arrived in an ambulance sometime after 12:30 PM in a semi-conscious state.  She later regained full consciousness and he had spoken to her.  She recalled from an instant glimpse before the collision that it was a skier wearing a helmet.  She remembered parts of a bumpy, headfirst basket ride down the slope, briefly worrying about throwing up, then actually doing so as she was being placed in the ambulance.

Within seconds after I started down the slope, she was hit.  I was probably no more than fifty yards away and heard nothing.   Ironically, although it was a tragic event in our lives, neither of us have any recollection of what really happened or witnessed it. The resort accident report that I requested revealed nothing:  “woman found unconscious on Face of Five, evacuated at 12:18 PM and transported to Community Hospital.  No witnesses.”  The other skier apparently fled the scene and she was discovered, lying alone in the snow.  You really do ski at your own risk and radio communication between those on the mountain and the first aid centers is not always reliable.

Karen continued to rest.  After a few weeks, the facial scratches were gone and the fog in her brain was beginning to lift.  In April, two months from the accident, she was much better and, feeling the need to “get back on the horse,” we returned to Mammoth to finish the run on Face Of Five.  We skied for two days, mostly the back side (a reprise on Haven’t The Foggiest).  We were back, both skiing with helmets, one a bit worn and the other, new and shiny, still living the dream, day-by-day, acutely aware of our mortality.


Walt and My Autopian World

 

In 1955 suburbia, our quiet street was typically filled with young baby boomers seeking to play in the remaining after-school sun.  In the late afternoon, we would hear the recognizable unique sounds each parent used to call their kids to come home.  They ranged from whistles to something between a scream and a yodel.  Mine was simply a shout out of my name and these days, I had my parental alarm clock set at 4:00 pm, the time that the new Mickey Mouse Club television show began.

Walt Disney’s first major achievement in 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club had many diverse features that were presented in a very regimented way.   Firstly, it was anyone’s

The Original Mouseketeers

The Original Mouseketeers

guess on the outcome of cartoon Donald Duck’s daily ringing of the gong to introduce the show.  Sometimes the gong remained rigid, like a stone, leaving Donald to vibrate off the screen and other times it had the consistency of watermelon, surprisingly exploding on contact.  Then, there was clubhouse time with the original Mouseketeers including Cubby, Annette, Jimmy, the adult leader and one of my early crushes, Cheryl. The Mouseketeer activities changed daily, always woven within a fabric of wholesomeness.  They were the envy of every seven-year old that I knew.

Twenty minutes a day was devoted to special family serial dramas like “Spin and Marty” and “The Applegate Mysteries.”  “Spin and Marty” was about two boys who grew up on a cattle ranch, always finding themselves with strange conundrums to resolve, usually before their parents discovered them.   Disney always revealed his latest cartoons on the Mickey Mouse Club featuring Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy or Pluto, two mice, a couple of mutt dogs and an irritable, ill-tempered duck.  One of his most famous cartoons starred Goofy as a mild-

Disneyland (NBC, ABC, CBS) [1954-1990] aka The Wonderful World of Disney Shown: Tinkerbell

The Wonderful World of Disney Shown: Tinkerbell

mannered man-dog who became a crazed maniac when he got behind the steering wheel of a car.  This cartoon not only foreshadowed current life in the fast lane, but serves as a segue to the rest of my story.

Walt Disney used his new television show to market and promote a uniquely innovative and awesome new theme park, his second major achievement of 1955.  There would be nothing like Disneyland anywhere in the world and ample time on the Mickey Mouse Club and Sunday evening “The Wonderful World of Disney” television programs featured Walt himself, with models and drawings, looking like everyone’s grandfather, explaining new aspects that were well beyond people’s imaginative comprehension.  Anticipation throughout the country was so high that the grand opening was nationally televised, something unheard of in

Spin and Marty

Spin and Marty

1955.  Television personalities Art Linkletter, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan hosted the show, guiding the nation down Main Street and eventually into a jungle boat, a delta riverboat, a castle, then to Autopia in Tomorrowland, the attraction that I most coveted.

It seems ironic today that the opportunity to drive a car on a scale model freeway usurped my fascination with visiting far away tropical forests or the Wild West.  Like Walt, I saw freeways as alluring conduits that would enhance our freedoms and connect our communities.  Sustained with cheap, plentiful gas and enough

Ronald Reagan, Bob Cummings and Art Linkleter co-host Disneyland's Grand Opening

Ronald Reagan, Bob Cummings and Art Linkletter co-host Disneyland’s Grand Opening

rubber plants in the world’s jungles, the new freeways would be filled with families passing in shiny convertibles, waving to each other on the way to the beach or a picnic.  The obsession with driving clouded my memory of the Goofy’s “road rage” cartoon, Walt’s prophetic warning of the dark side of his mobile utopia.

While watching the grand opening show, I said, “Mom…”   Without letting me finish my thought, she said, “I’ve already talked to Aunt Naomi and we plan to visit her next spring and all go to Disneyland.”   My parents were in their twenties and probably wanted to go as much as I did.  This would be a dream for most kids in my neighborhood, but as a somewhat spoiled, only child, I complained to myself that our visit was almost a year away.  Maybe I would be too old for Disneyland by then.  Turns out I wasn’t too old, just too short.

The drive from Aunt Naomi’s house in Encino to Anaheim seemed to take forever.  Once we passed downtown Los Angeles on the 101 Freeway, their was nothing but orange groves and blue skies.  Most people had never heard of Anaheim, dtour02California before Disney selected the rural area for his ability to secretly buy up several large parcels under separate, newly created real estate companies, a feat he would repeat in assembling vast contiguous acreage for his Disney World theme park in Florida.   An enormous sign announced that we had arrived at the Magic Kingdom.  After entering the property,  traveling along a half-mile entryway to access the colossal parking lot, waiting for a tram to pick up and deliver us to the entrance, we were about to experience the dream.

Originally, Disneyland offered five categories of attractions ranging from A tickets for the more common rides to the E-ticket for those most popular and exciting.  To this day, the term “E-ticket” is a commonly used metaphor for describing something thrilling like “Surfing the pipeline was an E-ticket ride.”  My parents purchased the largest fifteen-ride book for

Original Disneyland ticket coupons

Original Disneyland ticket coupons

$5.95 Adult ($12.35 value) and $4.95 Child ($9.50 value) that included the following tickets:  one A ($.10), two B’s ($.25), three C’s ($.40), four D’s ($.70) and five E-tickets ($.85).  By comparison, in 2007, I treated my son’s family to a day at Disneyland, who now sells simplified general all-day passes.   Responding to my request for two child and four adult passes, the attendant responded, “That will be five hundred and thirty-six dollars, please.”   In 1956, the attendant would have requested the hefty sum of twenty-nine dollars and seventy cents for the same entry passes.

Since it was on the way, we went directly to the jungle boat ride in Adventureland, an awesome experience for my generation and a true E-ticket ride.  Surprisingly, the Autopia ride was only a C-ticket, but I wanted to drive those cars around that beautiful miniature freeway, and begged to go there next.

After rushing everyone through Fantasyland, by the Madhatter’s Cup and Saucer ride, we were soon standing at the

Autopia

Autopia

Autopia entrance.  Moments later, my lingering anticipation and excitement would crash like a lead balloon falling from the sky.  With a red arrow pointing to the bottom, the sign said “You must be this tall to drive the cars.”   I walked under the sign several times in disbelief.  I was two inches too short.  My only option was to ride as a passenger, arms crossed, bottom lip protruding and silent while my father drove the car, boring for him and humiliating for me.  C’mon, I  experienced this on the drive down from my aunt’s house.  The consolation that “there’s always next time” was not consoling at this moment.  An otherwise tremendous day was marred by this episode.  I had a bone to

The sign

The sign

pick with Mr. Walt Disney.

In 1959, we returned and I finally drove the small cars on the Autopian freeway, though at age eleven, some of the original excitement had waned.  Besides, other attractions like Tom Sawyer’s Island and The Matterhorn had been added, enough new imagination for any young mind to feast on.  Later in the day, we were walking in Fantasyland when my mother, grabbing my shoulder, pointed and said, “Look, over there.”  It took a few moments, but I soon realized it was Walt Disney, strolling through his masterpiece, holding the hands of his two grandchildren.   There was no crowd or entourage following him around.  We asked for a photo and he said, “Sure,” adding, “are you having a good time?”  “This is the greatest place ever,” I responded, deciding to put the Autopia incident behind me. He was forgiven. Few people had more influence on the my generation than Walt Disney and this small, barely focused photo, is a constant reminder of the wonderment that he created in me.

Walt and I, 1959

Walt and I, 1959

Epilogue:  It’s always nice to get through these childhood disappointments and laugh about them later.  But, really, two fricken inches!