It’s just a phone call. But it changes your life. Re-jigs the whole thing. Other vague long-term plans you had suddenly evaporate. We’re in Cornwall Gardens, London, June 1983. One of those Kensington Victorian bedsit paradises surrounding private gardens nobody seems to have the key to. It’s six o’clock on a sunny morning. The daffodils are shining up from the dank green grass beneath the elms and the plane trees. The frost makes everything shine.
“Mrs. Manson? This is Deputy Sheriff _, in Chula Vista, California, United States. It’s about your son.”
My wife, Lita, puts down the phone. This is a moment somehow not entirely unexpected. Here we were in London, knowing her son Frankie had not been quite well when he left Ireland and his band, Van Winkle. Knowing there was family friction going on back home. Knowing something had to blow. But this is way worse than anything we could have imagined. “He’s in the sheriff’s lockup, Mrs. Manson. Arrested in a big sweep. Drugs. He’s been in jail two weeks. He’s filthy. They’ve shaved his head because his hair is so matted. Not speaking. Not making any sense. He’s been living on the beach…”
Lita bursts into tears. Frankie’s her beloved eldest son by her first marriage. The one she dedicated to God the day he was born, throwing all her marbles into her Roman Catholic faith. The one most hurt by her breakup with his dad, the USAID worker. The one who somehow took the heat for the breakup. He was his mother’s son.
Frank had left California in 1976 to join us and then to attend a music school in Europe. After an audition with Essex Music on Poland Street, he was accepted at the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin and began taking courses in composition, music history, and other subjects. He wrote enthusiastic letters from Bewleys, the arty Dublin coffee shop. He talked of engagement to Karen McCaffrey, niece of science-fiction writer Anne McCaffrey, with a wedding projected for Dragonhold, McCaffrey’s estate. He wrote of lively evenings in the company of sci-fi writer Harry Harrison and others. And with his Stratocaster guitar in hand (the same kind Jimi Hendrix played), he joined a band named Van Winkle, jammed with the nucleus of U2, and started recording his own compositions.
But I remember him earlier, in Bangkok, when he was a plump little kid with an acoustic guitar and a stack of records. I got to know him through his mom, a safe-haven wife I was working with on Thai radio. I was a 27-year-old deejay on an English-Thai bilingual radio program, desperately trying not to fall in love with Lita and desperately in need of Western music records to keep up my side of the program. Frank lent his whole library to me. Not only that, but he could play half the tunes on his guitar. I have the picture in my mind, Frank one warm night, with his mom holding a stack of much-needed records, hauling out his acoustic guitar and ripping through a few withering bars of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” I feel I have known Frankie all his life. Now he’s nearly 27 and in trouble.
We call back to Chula Vista. This time it’s Frankie’s court-appointed lawyer on the line. “I wouldn’t bother coming,” he says. “He’s a grown man. It’s a drug sweep. There’s a lot of that around here. Nothing much you can do.”
We go out, walking silently through the old pathways to Kensington High Street and on down to the Olde Muffin Shoppe. It’s a little cutesy and upper-crusty, but its scones have always been our comfort food. We order tea and scones. Sit there nibbling in silence.
“What are we going to do?” she says. We’re two years married. This is our home. She’s a social anthropologist, I’m a journalist. She is in love with London as much as she is with me.
“We have to go.”
“So, farewell London.”
June 30, 1983: The Glorietta Bay Inn’s lights look cozy and sort of luxuriant in their California way as we pull up in a cab from Lindbergh Field. Everything is lush rather than London-prim. It’s my first view of Coronado, the “island” Lita had always been so proud of. This was where her Spanish grandee antecedents had run cattle. They owned the whole damned isthmus until around 1857, when a tidal wave, so family lore runs, shimmied all the cattle into San Diego Bay, and the family sold out to the encroaching Anglos.
Yet, too, this was the land of Lita’s entrapment, where circumstances held the young girl who saw herself as a pioneer of the Beat Generation a prisoner to child-rearing and middle-class tyranny, hard times for a nat’ral-born rebel tied to the Navy as a SEAL’s wife. Like Frankie, at 18 she had been bound for a European school as a promising young painter. But ailing parents and economics, and then a Navy husband, kept her home.
So the feelings are mixed as we pull into the tree-lined parking lot of the Glorietta Bay Inn. For me (an English-born New Zealander) there’s an excitement of being in the Lush Land. The swimming pool glints seductively in the warm night air. We settle into a room and wait for word to get to Frankie that we’re here. No point in going to him. He’ll know.
We telephone ’round to Frank’s brothers and sisters. Nobody’s seen him. His sister Martita says she went down to the beach to tell him we were coming. We fall asleep wondering if he’ll turn up in the middle of the night.
Knock-knock. I look at my watch: 2:30. Oh, God. That’s London time. Subtract eight hours. Morning, 6:30. I turn over. But Lita’s up in a flash. She’s at the door. It swings open. Filling the doorway is the tall frame I know so well. But so skeletal. I’m up and hauling on my trousers. Lita has her arms around him. He sort of stands there. Filthy jeans muddied and ripped where they’ve unrolled at their cuffs. Dirty basketball shirt. Scuzzy white T-shirt wrapped around his head like a turban. Silent. Lord, how silent he is.