Where I Lived: 4

I Am My Own Stalker

Night. The Wolf Hour. I wake from a nightmare—stabbed in the heart from behind by an invisible assailant. Is it me? Am I murdering myself? Is it my shadow—my own bag of darkness?

I sit up straight in bed. Sweating. Breathing hard. I don’t think I screamed when the knife entered my heart. Wailing and shrieking can halt abruptly in dreamland. Now wide awake, I begin the return passage from my nocturnal descent into Hades.

I resume self-analysis each time this katabasis occurs. I’m being stalked by archetypes—nothing personal— simply more communications from the subterranean places in my psyche. My own myths are mashed up with the ancient stories. I can’t tell the difference, not when I’m asleep. The similarity is ambiguous, outlandish, unnerving. I’m not meant to be Odysseus every goddamned night. No one is waiting for me to come home from endless war. No minor goddess has turned my friends into pigs—my friends are better behaved than Odysseus’s minions. Perhaps somewhere, someone is weaving my funeral shroud, but I doubt it.

The balcony door is open. The light from the quadrangle below my second-floor room of De LaSalle Hall illumes the slender, sheer curtains hanging over the threshold. The only sound is my roommate breathing as he sleeps in his own bed. I remain as quiet as I can. He is a premed student. He has a biology exam scheduled tomorrow morning. I don’t want to disturb him. He was kind enough to snooze elsewhere a couple of nights ago when a friend slept with me. I owe him the favor of silence.

You could be my cavalier servente, Donna whispers during the hushed hours of that recent evening. My Italian studies from my freshman year have worn off, yet I knew what she meant—lover, suitor. The remembrance lingers. Light from the quadrangle also passes gently through the drapes that night. I know in my heart that she will never be my Penelope, but my mind gives credence to the prospect from time to time.

My brain wants to believe in a lot of things that never come true—that are not factual—legends, fables, and fairytales. Even objective events are comprised of fantasy elements, so it seems, and I think—is there really any difference?

I realize I’m talking to myself again, the thoughts bursting artlessly from the volatile neurons in my cerebral cortex. Random words tumble in my head like sinister mantras as I discard my nightmare and leave it behind. The alarm clock face glowers: 3 AM. I remain awake. I pull the covers over my head and read by flashlight. Maybe there will be a rosy fingered dawn, but I really don’t give a shit.

The last days of my senior year are floating around my face like gnats. There are not many hours left to me at my nurturing mother of studies, my alma mater—St. Mary’s College. Four years gone by. I have no idea what to do next. At this moment what I know is this: Donna, my friends, and my beloved mentors and teachers, will be far removed for many months, perhaps years, maybe forever, and like that fucking Ithacan I’ll be trying to find my way home. He was delayed because of his own hubris. I’m not sure where home is anymore. He also had assistance, but Athena isn’t my type, nor the other way round, so I’m on my own.

My four years of undergraduate lotus eating start and end with Pink Floyd. Bookend performances bordering either side of that chapter in my book of days.

October 1971, Winterland Ballroom, Post and Steiner, San Francisco

The music changes again—we slip deeper into the submarine sea. While the keyboards create a backdrop of soft whispers and moans, the guitar mimics the sound of crying seagulls gliding on a canvas of air. The cries cease, and for a few moments we are suspended, as if we are in a roller coaster that has climbed to the top of a peak, anticipating the proper moment to race down the other side. The music keeps us in suspense at that moment of hesitation as a chromatic chord pattern begins a repetitive loop, not resolving, holding the ride in stasis. Then the guitar rings out with a flourish, and we slide down the steep side of where we had been poised. At the bottom we rest and a solemn guitar solo guides the music to a lingering, slow fade.

The audience is silent. We are unable to immediately break the enchantment that has been cast upon us. Within moments loud cheers and applause break out. “That was ‘Echoes’ which is on our new album, Meddle. Thank you and goodnight.” The house lights come on and I blink in the incandescence of what seems like unexpected daylight. The audience cheers and demands an encore—I amble closer to the center of the stage.

A few minutes pass. Pink Floyd comes out on stage again and the house lights dim. Vibrant noises erupt—an opening section of wild, senseless sounds. No melody, no rhythm, no harmony, only extravagant squeals, squawks and thumps. I hear voices yelling within all the commotion. The effect is frightening and uncomfortable. It grows to a climax. There is no music to hang onto and I am lost until a drum pattern emerges and begins to loop. It’s a rational sequence of rhythm that I can grasp, but the noises continue over the insistent percussion.

Roger Waters stands on the edge of the stage directly in front of me and beats on a pair of cymbals mounted on stands, one on either side of him, his face filled with fury as if he is losing his mind. I close my eyes. I can’t stand looking at him. Someone is beating the huge orchestral gong next to the drum kit. My mind is urging me to head out of the crowd, but instead I keep my eyes closed and concentrate on the drum loop.

Before the end of that final semester, Donna and I travel to Daly City for another Pink Floyd show. We drive over the Bay Bridge in her yellow Triumph TR4. I fill the gas tank after she picks me up at the campus, paying for the fuel with Dad’s credit card, which I have never used. “Only for difficulties,” he had said. I consider last minute tickets and an opportunity to see Pink Floyd as a necessity resembling an emergency, so I use the card. I check the oil in Donna’s wheezing beater of an English sportscar. I add a quart. The engine stops clattering like a sewing machine.

This is my third experience of a Pink Floyd live show—The Wish You Were Here Tour. The album won’t be released until the following September 1975, four months after I graduate, when I’m living at home making desperate plans to return to the Bay Area. Thus, on April 12, as we walk through the livestock-fragranced halls of the Cow Palace to our nosebleed seats, far from the stage, I don’t appreciate the synchronicity of the LP’s title, or the magnificence of the universally treasured song it becomes. There’s also another irony—the first two songs in the set, “Raving and Drooling” and “You Gotta be Crazy,” are later retitled “Sheep” and “Dogs.” The absurdity cycle is completed when those two songs are released in 1977 on an underwhelming album—Animals. Tonight, the audience is teeming with human beasts, and I don’t need those elongated, strident tracks to alert me to that circumstance.

The experience is totally unlike the Winterland presentation. Back then only a few hundred people sat on the floor of an aging ice-skating venue. Tonight, it’s a sold-out show for 16,500 space cadets, presented in a cement hulk designed for rodeos and auctions. The gentle glow of hashish and mystical entheogenic hallucinogens dispersed through a rapt throng of attentive listeners in 1971 has been replaced by a raucous mob of alcohol fueled nitwits tossing fireworks into the air haphazardly during the music. The band of serious English musicians, then virtually unknown in America before the release of Dark Side of the Moon, has evolved into a harried group of famous infighting individuals fronting an enormous stage and special effects spectacle. This is the third concert in a tour that consists of 29 shows, and I sense they are already exhausted and weary of their unexpected success—as well as making gobs of money for cocaine-addled record executives.  

That show at Winterland is my first rock concert. I know nothing about the band. After Pink Floyd play “A Saucerful of Secrets” I think that there is nothing but possibilities of enlightenment for me during the next four years, despite Roger Water’s menacing face hanging above me like a demon as I belly up to the stage. There’s no doubt that I was forever altered during “Echoes.”

In 1975 the Cow Palace performance is a vacuous spectacle. At the end of “On the Run” a fake airplane suspended from a wire directly above us, discharges pyrotechnics from its tail, flies rapidly above the audience, over the stage, and vanishes in an explosion of light and madness backstage behind the band. It’s symbolic of the grief I am feeling about finishing my four-year trip through higher education, and the end of the transitory installment of erotic ecstasy that transpired in my life that final Spring. The crowd roars its approval of the special effect, but I’m not sure they would understand my metaphor.

Forty-six years later my brain still has faith in all that happened to me then, awake or asleep, even though the encounters of that young man have become personal folklore—the rootstocks and rhizomes of a seasoned amateur mystic, or at least a youngish-looking retired geezer. I remember so many elements of those days: that dream, one of many metaphorical stabs of the knife—Donna’s supple voice speaking to me in my own bed as we held one another—the fresh journal I began after graduation, written in green ink bewailing my loneliness—my father excoriating me for putting a tank of non-emergency gas on his credit card—and the eerie absence of my cherished friends.

“Oh, how I wish you were here.” When I finally comprehend the song it practically kills me.

In 2018 while I prepare to depart California in an attempt to control the continual spontaneous appearances of the reverse-memory telescope and the unexpected recall of recollections, I drive to a financial appointment near College Avenue in Berkeley. On Tunnel Road the timeline demands my attention—and I remember: that night on the way to Winterland, near the Claremont Hotel, the friend who sells me the ticket and gives me a lift, picks up a date at an apartment building not far from where I’m going now. I recollect shopping in the Elmwood district at Sweet Dreams with my wife, buying stocking stuffers for the kids just before Christmas—and further back—arguing with her vehemently about the merit of Bergman’s film Cries and Whispers after viewing it at the Elmwood Theatre. (He’s a hack! she says, just to piss me off. Yes, she knew how to pull my chain.)

On and on—the telescope reveals everything in the underworld deep-time passageway while sneaking up behind me—murdering me with the power of remembrance. It demands that I live in my past. I don’t want to stay there.

I left the college utopia in 1975. I left the Oxnard home in 1976. I leave my Bay Area home, and California, in 2018 for the Pacific Northwest.

Now I exist in a cerebral river slowly drifting downstream. A lazy river like the Ohio in Pittsburgh, formed by the Monongahela and Allegheny. Rivers of gentle power like the Columbia, not far from this house where I write. My memories are like those rivers—my childhood and adulthood have merged into one moving stream. There is no tension of memory anymore. No more sudden dream-death. I move from shore to shore and crest to crest and tide to tide, sampling my life from pools of water, and examining the specimens with poetic license. Through the impulsive ascendence of gratitude and the willing descent of grace, bonds are reforged with the living and the deceased.

Grief for the good times as well as the bad—that’s the price I pay for my travels on this waterway, my coin to Charon. It’s an equitable fee, all things considered, though I still sleep warily, and like the Ithacan, I return safe and sound each morning. One day I will hand over the last change that remains in my pocket. In the meantime—River. Water. Spirit. Written words, then and now, are my testimony.

Allow the art you make of your life to beguile the Moon to wander to your bedside and start to talk.

Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree

Notes on the text:

Where I Lived: 3

Dental Health, Mental Health

College Boy

I’m standing in the parking lot outside Justin Hall, my assigned dormitory at St. Mary’s College, and watching the people I love most recede in the distance. My parents and brothers are driving back down Highway 101—364 miles ahead of them. Dad will remain behind the wheel the whole way back down to Oxnard. As they enter the car another freshman student is instructed by his mother in a strident, wailing voice: “Don’t forget to brush your teeth!” I can see the poor sod cringing. The phrase becomes a sotto voce running comedy gag for my dad and mother each year I leave for college at the end of the summer.

Homesickness arises instantly, mixed with liberty—of a sort. The weather is warm, verging on hot. I’m not used to heat like this—not at all like the climate two miles from the sea in Oxnard. It’s Saturday of the Labor Day weekend 1971. It will remain hot for days, until Tuesday when I start attending classes. There are three whole days to fill up in the meantime and I don’t know anyone. I return to my room and my roommate appears with his folks. I dig into my pockets for loose change to call my Southern California friends because I’m lonely. I start a new journal. The weather cools. My college years begin.

I’m in another safe zone, for a while anyway. Love and death eventually intrude into this Catholic utopia. Meanwhile there is study and books, guitars and music, marijuana, beer, wine—and hallucinogens. Also, questions: will I be drafted? Will I find a girlfriend? What will I do with my life four years from now?

I’ve told parts of that story elsewhere. No need to repeat the plot—but here I allude to the ambiences: the weather outside me and the weather inside me, the owls resting and nesting behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin above the entrance to the chapel, the endless classroom conversations and my inability to participate in them for the first two years, the burning passions and ambitious silliness, the foundation of lifelong friendships—all of that active in the confines of a cramped campus populated by less than six hundred students, all developing into men and women simultaneously.   

I move from a life as a Pacific shoreline boy with a three-speed bike that takes me to the Oxnard library once a week to an inland weekend hiker who lives for hours each weekday in the campus archive of books and reference materials. From cool air and beaches to hot, dry hills and oak trees—weeks of rain and fog in the winter leading to glorious, blossoming springs. Classes during the day, interspersed with reading and writing, then late-night parties.

St. Mary’s College – 1971-1972

It is not the place my father assumed it would be. When St. Mary’s College began admitting coeds in 1970 they went all in with the decision—not much in the way of monitoring. No sign outs and sign ins. The only separation is by dormitory floor, one of men, one of women. I have no idea what’s going on. There’s no nightstand next to my bed let alone a one-night stand in it. Hormones are seething all around me. In high school the girls wore staid uniforms. Here they sun themselves in shorts and bikini tops.

When I’m not thinking about women, sex, and love, my imagination and soul are fed with a steady stream of learning the lesson of how to learn, not only books but the bibliography of daily life—not only becoming acutely aware of my credulousness, but also my anxiety of saying anything in classroom participation. St. Mary’s is a seminar school. No lectures—instead there is reading, writing, talking. Teacher after teacher says to me “you say nothing in class and then you can’t shut up in my office—why not say something to your peers?”

I want to be brilliant, but I’m lazy and easily distracted. I want to write well, but I have no discipline, so I churn out run-of-the-mill papers about poetry and make a damn fool of myself in my creative writing class without even being aware of it. Chester Aaron, the creative writing professor, encourages me, despite my cluelessness and my inept prose. By the time I’m a senior I’m more serious—I write a science fiction novel during an independent study as he mentors me. The truth is, he has much better things to do. He’s about to go on a well-deserved sabbatical on a sheep ranch in Marin County and wants me to hurry up and finish so he can leave a few days early and get his next book started. I don’t know that for years, not until I read Garlic Is Life.

Five decades later a copy of the St. Mary’s alumni magazine arrives in my Oregon mailbox bundled with a sales flyer from Costco, the gas bill, and a book about Mary Magdalene. I flip through the color periodical and read the latest updates: a new library in the planning stages, a science professor’s reception of a grant to unlock the benefits of algae, the announcement of a fellow classmate’s induction as an honored affiliate of the brothers of the Christian Lasallian schools. All good news of note decorated by photos of the campus.

The reverse memory telescope materializes again, and the tension of memory tugs the years together, squeezing out the unimportant flotsam and jetsam of half a century as I turn the pages of the periodical and recall the essential juice of my four years as an undergraduate. I lived there, I say to myself. That was my youth.

I can’t resist the final page of obituaries—I’m at that age where I peruse the list of in memoriam announcements—some folks younger, some older than me, listed in tiny typeface. This time no one from my class, no one I know, until I spy a listing for “Chester Aaron former faculty” and the memory comes back—

—that warm spring afternoon when he speaks of his time in the 70th Armored Infantry Battalion and the liberation of Dachau—his unit is one of the first to arrive. The silence in the classroom weaves itself around his spoken words as he tells the tale. We barely breathe as he describes the shocking and inhuman sights—his personal newsreel images—piles of corpses, his description of the stench—

“The flatcars and the boxcars were filled with bodies—pieces of bodies, chunks of bodies…they were wearing pajamas and so forth. Hundreds and hundreds lying dead or dying on the floor of the barracks…a little girl…came out of the barracks looked at me and said essen, essen…I had a can of C-Rations in my backpack. And I opened it up, and I picked her up, and I sat down, and I fed her with my fingers…She took about three or four swallows and died in my arms…”

The classroom windows are open—there are birds singing. I hear the call of voices in the tennis courts, smell the lush scents of spring grass and blossoming lilac gliding in the breeze as Chester’s tenor- baritone voice emerges from his round, bald head, the border of white unruly hair around his pate like a wild tonsure, the steady gleam in his eyes hot with anger.

All that instantly. A flashback. Unexpected. Intense. Humbling. Then and now.

A few years after my wife dies I suddenly recall Chester. Something I read on the Internet about garlic brings him to mind. He has retired to a farm in Occidental, California where he grows exotic varietals of garlic: Yugoslavian Red, Brown Tempest, Spanish Roja—stinking cloves with civilized names—Creole Red, Romanian Red, Incelium Red. I think of looking him up before I migrate to Oregon but can’t find the time. I discover a YouTube video filmed at his house. I remember his voice and his countenance. I really should thank him, I say to myself. It’s only about eighty miles up 101. Go!

But I don’t. I miss my chance.

At St. Mary’s while in his fifties, Chester looks exactly like a guy named Chester—the same way my Uncle Max was a ringer for a man named Max. But Chester is not soft and fat, waving a cigar around held loosely in his stubby fingers like Uncle Max. Chester doesn’t smoke. He is substantial. He is genuine. Maybe it’s his nose that makes him larger than life—after all it’s the first thing everyone notices about him. The cowboy boots and denim work shirts add to the masculine impression. More so it’s his smile, the firm voice, and the manner in which every spoken word is like a phrase from a story he is constantly writing aloud that makes him authentic.

The words of encouragement and the laughter and his endless patience with me—even after I make a clown of myself by writing an ill-conceived satire about him as a final assignment that first year—those elements fashioned a generous teacher and storyteller. He is an outsider—the only Jew on the faculty of a Catholic liberal arts college. Chester projects the auras of a boxer, a carpenter, or a farmer. In fact, he is all of those at various times in his ninety-six-year life.

After I read the notice in the alumni magazine I look for an obituary on the web. “Chester deeply touched the lives of many through his writing, teaching and mentoring, love of garlic and animals and his friendships. He will be greatly missed.” Modest words. Simple truth.

I realize I’ve not read much of what he wrote and published after I left St. Mary’s. I spend time catching up and read his first book, About Us, long out of print and now self-published. The story of a Jewish family in Pennsylvania between the two world wars—his family. Also: Symptoms of Terminal Passion, Black and Blue Jew, and his books about garlic that mix memoir and recipes, Garlic Kisses and Tasty Hugs and Garlic is Life. None of these published by what one would consider a major publisher.

I find a short story, The Female of the Species, in which a much-loved wife dies unexpectedly from a heart attack. A pair of mated hawks also die in the story, and I think of my own wife and her love for hawks—how she collected feathers from the side of the trail when she went horseback riding. I think, Chester, how the hell did you know? How did you know?

I want to kick myself for not seeing him before I left California. That’s a phrase he used often, “you need to kick yourself in your ass and get the work done.”

In Garlic Is Life I find this passage about his St. Mary’s experience: “My colleagues, residents of the academic world since they were teenagers, considered me an interesting but somewhat eccentric mutant.”

I read elsewhere that he considered most of his students lazy, sloppy, and unimaginative—and I think that he is writing about me—one of those students who hopefully concludes I think I have a book in me—someone who assumes that urging words out of the imagination is an easy line of work—effortless validation leading to notable adulation. Wrong. Chester makes that clear. It’s all “process and craft” and “damned hard work.” Just like farming and building furniture. Or knocking the daylights out of someone with a determined left hook.

What do I know about work when I am a student? Not much. I haven’t experienced anything profound. It’s been five decades since then. After loss and a move from California, a new life, plenty of time, a hundred or so books read every year, piles of poems written and stored safely where no one will ever see them, an intermittent journal, one single self-published memoir about rock and roll—and two daughters, a 35-year marriage and subsequent widower-hood—I remember his lessons, his laughter, and now it’s too late to say thank you and know that he can hear me say it.

I find this statement in an interview with him conducted when Female of the Species is published in Symptoms of Terminal Passion:

“More and more, as I grow older and older, I have somehow gained the strength and courage to tell the literary establishment (meaning publishers, editors, agents, established and therefore powerful writers) in San Francisco and New York to kiss my ass.”

Chester Aaron – Writer and Human

As we used to say in the Seventies: “Right on, man.” He’s in his eighties when he tells the late-stage capitalist publishing industry to worship his gluteus maximus. By that time, he’s written and published—one way or another—twenty-five or so books. With no agent.

He never told me to “write about what you know” specifically. But that’s what he did, spinning his personal experience into fiction— sincere fiction that reads like memoir. That’s the lesson. Learn how to learn and then write about it. Turn life into literature. If the established minions of the publishing industry don’t want it, tell them to kiss your ass.

I almost fail that freshman year. Not so much grade-wise—I manage B’s and C’s, though I get a D in Epic Poetry because I forget to set my alarm and sleep though the final exam, then run around the campus looking for the professor so I can set a time to retake it. That doesn’t happen because he has already left for the summer. My failure is all about my lack of confidence, my anxiety, and my existential confusion.

When I get home for the summer and my grades arrive, Dad expresses his disappointment by telling me that if I don’t get a haircut he’ll stop paying my tuition. I acquiesce unwillingly. It’s unfair. After all, I did manage to brush my teeth.

Notes on the text:

  • My reference to “I’ve told parts of that story elsewhere” is to my recently published memoir Winterland Nights. More information is available here.
  • On January 10, 2013 Chester was interviewed by Celeste Brasuell for inclusion in the Veterans History Project of the U.S. Library of Congress. The entire interview is printed as the Afterword in his short story collection Wars and Peaces. The text in this post of his memories of Dachau is taken from that interview. I think Chester would have appreciated the use of poetic license. I also wanted to be sure I quoted him accurately.
  • An article on the St. Mary’s website entitled Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron Remembers Horrors of Holocaust states: “It was only six years ago that Saint Mary’s College Professor Emeritus Chester Aaron allowed himself to remember the day he witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.” However, my memory of Chester speaking of his experience on that day in 1971 or 1972 is quite clear, and I have verified it with another former student who was there.
  • A link to Chester’s obituary on legacy.com


Where I Lived: 2

Westward through Hell

Faithful Ugly Car – 1963 Dodge 330

Summer of 1966, somewhere on Interstate 8 between Gila Bend and Yuma. I’m in the back seat of my father’s black Dodge 330 4-door sedan. The faithful, ugly car has carried us west across the country on the burgeoning Interstate Highway System four times, but there’s no return trip planned today. The destination is not a vacation. We are cruising to a new home, my father at the wheel, as always, piloting us to a concrete destination that he dreamed up in his imagination, with my mother’s agreement.

The air conditioning is failing. There’s a trace of frigid air emanating from the front vents, but not much. It’s 104 degrees outside. I touch the warm glass of the window. Mom wants to stop and give us water. Dad says no. Maybe he thinks the car will heat up too much and that we will all be baked alive before we get to Araz Junction and the bridge into California that crosses what’s left of the Colorado. The river is dammed six times south of Hoover. I’m cooked already and feel damned as well.

There’s water in the trunk of the car, but instead of fighting with Dad over a short halt, Mom hands out cans of unrefrigerated orange soda to us—the only liquid she has in the car at the moment. Lukewarm, sugared, vile—I drink it down like a parched sailor in a lifeboat on a salty sea. Immediately I want to throw up, but I don’t. I’d rather die. Dad would be sympathetic, but then I’d hear it as a tale told to his friends to embarrass me for years. No way will I let that happen.

As we speed down the brand-new interstate the road passes through a cattle ranch stretching to the horizon on either side of the road and into the distance ahead of us—a brownish ocean of undulating livestock. The reek of cow shit and my own fear enters my nose. I am breathing thickness and sickness. My head is spinning.

“Oh my God,” my mother says. “What a stench. Stinking old cows.” She waves her hand in front of her face as if shooing away a cloud of invisible flies. My mother never uses the name of the Lord in vain, something my father monitors in his children’s speech—something I am careful to avoid. Dad remains silent.

I am fed up with all this travel, weary of being cooped up in the back of the car—three days now. We are in a hurry and not stopping to see the sights. I already miss my Pittsburgh pals. I’ll never see them again. I hate everything.

Then my father turns around and leers. His wayward eyebrows bristle. He’s going to say something he thinks is funny, I can tell.

“This is what hell is like!” he says, and turns back to watching the road. All that’s missing is the “bwa-ha-ha.”

One Year in San Diego

Smart Assed Kid

Sun and Mexican food. Bicycles at last. Long road trips to watch the sun rise over the Anza Borrego desert. No more snow. Shorts in the winter. Picnics. More Catholic school—School of the Madeleine on Illion Street. Brown uniforms for the boys: short sleeves for First through Seventh grade, long sleeves and black ties for eighth graders. Plain plaid skirts for the girls. We arrive in late summer of 1966, and the local stores are all sold out of long-sleeved shirts. I receive a dispensation for my bare forearms, yet still wear the tie, which creates a rumor that I am really a Seventh grader who has advanced because of his academic qualifications. This marks me as an outsider. I am treated as such by my peers. I flunk math, but not intentionally.

The church is on the side of a mesa—a view of Mission Bay, the vista like something from the utopian science-fiction novels I love. Years later I look at it again through the reverse memory telescope—so tiny, so ordinary. But the Pacific Ocean and the edge of the continent is right there before me, and the desert and my father’s Edward Abbey dreams are not far from home. Daytime road trips on the weekend. Burgers on the grill. Family times.

A rental house on Cowley Way where I can hear the neighbors drinking and fighting at night. My closest friends are outcasts like me—now nameless, I cherish them. There are guitars in the house. My father is unhappy, beleaguered by his boss, a stupid man named Carl, whose girlfriend is English and sweet. Carl owns a yacht. On random Sundays we steam around Mission Bay in a cloud of diesel exhaust, a brief excitement. A day trip to Ensenada, Mexico, before the borders became impregnable without passports. Another to Tecate, where my guitars originate.

Our roots never take hold in that cultural soil, save for cuisine. Tacos and tostadas, not just from taquerias—a recipe from Sunset magazine that my brother still occasionally rustles up in my kitchen. Food that always leads to the redemptive chant today: “Thanks Dad and Mom…” Can they hear us on the other side? After a year we scurry north. To Oxnard.

Oxnard. A name right out of the Firesign Theatre’s “Funny Names Club of America,” christened by the town’s founder, Henry, who built a sugar beet processing plant there in 1897. Frustrated because bureaucrats couldn’t determine why Henry wanted to name the town after the Greek word for sugar, zachari, he named it after his family. Civic debates over changing the name ensue repeatedly.

Field of Beans

Reading Road and Track

A brand-new tract house in the middle of lima bean fields—the local ranch family is selling off the family agricultural estate to developers. I can see over the back fence and watch the harvesting—bulky, rumbling machines running all day and night that keep me awake. Another steampunk sci-fi vision.

As months and years pass more homes are excreted onto the rich soil that have been fertilized for decades with chicken shit. Advantageous for gardening. My parents plant citrus trees, cacti, and succulents. I can still hear neighbors fighting—it seems that California is filled with unhappiness. I keep to myself. My brothers play ball in the suburban streets.

My dad never wears tennis shoes—in their place leather Oxfords tied with thin shoestrings, black socks that fall down around his thin ankles, revealing his pallid skin. Thankfully he never wears shorts. My mother, patiently silent, puts up with my father’s crazy schemes.

“If you don’t have anything good to say about someone don’t say anything,” she teaches me. It seems wise then. I know it is now.

Smart Assed Father of Kid

In August 1967 there is a day when Dad registers me at the local Catholic high school, not long after we move into the new house. We sit in the principal’s office. Behind the desk a priest, Monsignor Joseph Pekarcik, ex-Marine. Wire-rimmed glasses. Stern gaze. No grin. Curled grey hair like soap-scour pads. Next to me my father, a patriarchal smirk on his face. As they engage in autocratic small talk, I sit in a chair feeling unimportant and diminutive, as if I am being reduced in size due to the power of the invisible super-vision shrink ray transmitting from the priest’s totalitarian eyes. I think that if he smiles his cheeks will crack and his face might fall off. Wisely, I keep my mouth shut, rebelling internally.

He says to my father, “Mister Gill, how do you supervise your family?”

“It’s a benevolent dictatorship.” My father responds as if they are old friends sharing a secret handshake and winking at one another. I wonder what Mom would say if she heard that—she’d laugh in his face and require that he make his own dinner.

Monsignor Pekarcik nods approvingly and scrutinizes me again. He knows he’ll have no problem with me. I spend four years avoiding him while he catches genuine miscreants, sneaking up behind them while wearing thick-soled silent shoes, curtailing their felonies—violations of the dress code. “The heels on those boots are too high, Mister, and those pants are too tight. Go home and change them. Now.” 

Once again I don’t know anyone on the first day of my freshman year. Two parishes feed eighth graders into the high school. Everyone is confused—I seem to have come from some other country or planet. Yet in a few days I realize my family will remain here in this agricultural town for an extended time as it transforms to a Los Angeles bedroom community. The outlandishly named city becomes my first hometown, despite the crop dusters buzzing around the neighborhood. Here I make lifelong friends—not nameless and forgotten, still with me fifty years later: John, Tony, Marie.

No Sense of Fashion

I become a high school scholar, the pampered eldest Catholic boy—both my siblings are enrolled in public schools. My parents never speak to me about money. They never give me much of it either, but once again we seem flush. My dad finds a job in a camera store, builds a business selling high-end stereo gear and classical audiophile LP’s. Eventually my mother works as a secretary. I find baby-sitting jobs in the neighborhood for paperback book money.

Riding my bike to the public library is unalloyed joy. Freedom in the stacks as I search out science-fiction, dreams of future cities in my head—domed or doomed. Asimov, Clark, Bradbury—Heinlein not so much. Mystery and detective novels. World War 2 naval history. My father subscribes to Road and Track. I devour every issue, following Formula One in Europe, while helping him rebuild Alfa Romeo sports cars in the garage.

On weekends, road trips to Pine Mountain and Reyes Peak in the Los Padres National Forest. Racing down the long straightaway of Gonzales Road, my father behind the wheel. “Don’t you dare ever drive like this,” he says—while driving like that.

At the end of Gonzales Road, the Pacific Ocean and the edge of the continent. The smell of the sea. Occasional fog. On clear nights, stars. Sometimes, sporadic explosions of aborted rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base 100 miles up the coast—the vapor from the blasts hanging like florescent blossoms, unfurling smoke and fire across the setting sun. C-5 Super Galaxy cargo jets rumble and roll over the house on final approach to Oxnard Air Force Base.

In 1969 men land on the moon. My father scoffs, I’m not sure why. I have nothing good to say to him about his cynicism, so I ignore him. One year earlier America burns. Martin Luther King is assassinated. In June I listen to Robert Kennedy speak after winning the California Democratic primary. Then another shot from a gun while the harvesters churn more lima beans from the ground and houses grow in the fields overnight.

In the background of all of it my transistor radio and radio station KBBY—Beatles, Beach Boys, The Who, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin. All surreptitiously received through a small earpiece. I am in a safe zone—protected, loved, nurtured—even though the country is falling apart, and thousands of soldiers are dying in a pointless war in Southeast Asia.

My father tells me I’m going to college. Sounds good to me. Has to be a Catholic College though. I apply to Loyola in Los Angeles, Santa Clara in Santa Clara, and a small liberal arts college in Moraga—Saint Mary’s College of California. I am accepted at all three. Dad and Mom arrange for tuition, and I help out with a small scholarship from the State of California.

January 1971. Dad and I travel north to Moraga to see the campus. A rainy, foggy day. The place seems like something out of my own moist, murky, romantic dreams—redwood trees, owls, rain, and…coeds. I adore it, and it’s as far away from my dad as I can get.

The imagination should be allowed a certain freedom to browse around.

Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action

Where I Lived: 1

Deep in the white heart of Pennsylvania, a little town that had no dreams. Houses crushed by snow in winter, eroded by the lack of creative fire. To no other place on earth have I given greater joy on leaving.

Of course, I didn’t know that when I was a child. The memories are clear: my father’s Pontiac Star Chief convertible, the bats in the attic above my bedroom, the first day I had to climb onto a school bus and attend first grade in a brick building across the street from Saint Patrick Catholic Church. A boy was accidentally hanged in the school yard while playing Cowboys and Indians, though it didn’t happen while school was in session. I had no idea of mortality then. The tragedy didn’t register.

A day in second grade watching Al Shepherd’s lift-off, broadcast on a tiny black and white TV set. The Space Age rising while I was growing up in a region that never changed and is now the ailing heartland of an America that never got back to the moon. Today my brother and I chant aloud: “Thanks, Dad for moving us away from there…” We were still a few years from migrating to California, but the first stage of leaving that rural slough behind by a shift to Pittsburgh was a day of liberation, at least in hindsight.

The city on three rivers had cleaned up its act. No more darkness at lunchtime—when the opaque sun was trapped behind an impenetrable cloud of smoke produced by steel manufacturing. I’ve seen those pictures in books, but by the time we moved the mills were cleaner. Perhaps the toxicity was simply hidden. Both of my parents died young, my mother from cancer, my dad from a bizarre nervous disease that was never successfully diagnosed. I’m convinced their health was permanently impacted by the paper mills in the small towns where they grew up. We moved before my health was ruined.

Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Mom.

Baptist Road – Pittsburg

To my adolescent eyes Pittsburgh was elegant, our home on Baptist Road a noble castle made of stone. If I returned today it would be revealed as modest. That is the circumstance of memory—the old past is vast when it is new, and diminutive when it is visited in the future present—like looking through a telescope in reverse.

Yet in Pittsburgh there was little sense of natural geography—no mountains, no coastline, no sense of immensity. Three summer trips across the continent from 1963-1965 gave us all a taste. Mom and Dad sensed the radiance on the coast—Ansel Adams’s Range of Light illuminated the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion—and called to my parents.

We were rich, though not monetarily. My parents agonized over the mortgage, always paying on time. When Dad lost his electronics store downtown after the block was condemned for the construction of the US Steel building, we wandered to California and left Pennsylvania behind—aunts, uncles, cousins, my father’s mother, and family friends. We took my mother’s photo scrapbook with us. I was uncertain about that move. I had buddies and did not want to leave, but today I am still gratefully living under a Pacific sky.

When we are children our passages are not the results of our own decisions but those of our caretakers. As adults we live with the consequences of our own decisions but more often those choices are again the result of unforeseen events and losses that become opportunities. We are never in charge.

Art, in its broadest sense, is about connections, not distance.

Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree