This is being written amid days in a row of May Gray. It may be a safe bet that you are reading it in the early part of June Gloom. Possibly not, but it doesn’t matter. These rhyming phrases are kinds of passwords or shibboleths that suggest their user has been in town for a while, though even tourists may pick up on them. At any rate, I like these overcast periods in what are mostly unrelieved months (rainy winters, such as they are, aside) of unnaturally fair weather. Without them, we San Diegans have little in the way of built-in reality checks. If I say this is an unreal place, I mean it in the best sense.
Warm, yet cloudy, spring days are among the increasing number, with age, of phenomena that trigger bouts of nostalgia. For me, possibly yourself, these might include staring out a classroom window at the end of the school year, the start of baseball season, and the early-morning rounding up of preadolescent teammates — in my case — in a west-side neighborhood of Chicago. And for me, also pleasant recollections, pregnant with hope, of setting up Sears Silvertone amplifiers on makeshift bandstands on school or church grounds, public parks, maybe fairgrounds just before a performance of our band, the Swordsmen.
They also trigger memories of my early sorties into San Diego, before I officially moved here. In particular, September of 1976. Neither May nor June, but that September I recall was as gray as any San Diego May, as gloomy as any June. I was 25 years old, and it was the last year of my life I would not be a parent. I have forgotten what reason it was that time for my wife and me to escape from Manhattan, but it is something we did for its own sake roughly every year. The previous year it was to Hawaii.
We lived with her parents at 438 B Avenue in Coronado, behind a colonial-style house that is no longer there. We stayed that month in the cottage behind the main building, with an entrance onto the alley. Both buildings were roughly 100 years old, and the cottage was the former residence of a Methodist (I think) missionary who had spent much of the 1930s in China. He had left diaries behind, parts of which I read with astonishment that the man could make such an adventure sound so stupefyingly dull.
What was not at all dull was the discovery of the Coronado library. This was before its renovation, but it was a fine library even then. As it was discouraging beach weather and I was undermotivated to find a job out here, it was with great excitement I found books on that library’s shelves that I had not run across in New York. I remember finding Voyage to a Beginning and Adrift in Soho, autobiographical works by Colin Wilson, the British working-class philosopher and novelist. Wilson shared my enthusiasm for gray skies, doom-laden gothic fiction, and dark German philosophy. And if the missionary father’s Asian adventures proved dull, there was more than enough in the library to compensate.
I found a series of novels by Duncan MacNeil, probably intended for young-adult boys, about the adventures of Captain (or Lieutenant — he was promoted throughout the series) James Ogilvie. The hero found himself posted to every major spot of historical interest in the British Empire in the 19th Century, from Lucknow and Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1857, to the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, and Sebastopol and the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War in, I think, 1853. I learned more about the British military in the 19th Century, as well as India’s culture and Afghanistan’s geography, during that cloudy Coronado month than I did in all the previous years at school.
Also waiting for me on those library shelves was a delightfully fat tome by H. Warner Munn titled The Lost Legion. The book concerned the historical Ninth Legion of Imperial Rome, which had gone missing from Roman Britain just before the Dark Ages had set in. Munn’s book postulated that by some fantastical means the legion had found its way across the Atlantic to the Mayan peninsula of Yucatán. It was in that adventure book that I learned the word Yucatán meant “I can’t understand you.”
We had no television in the cottage, though we did have a cheap and vintage hi-fi on which we listened to the late reverend father’s 78 LPs of nearly scratchless classical music and the occasional spin of Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park. And so it was to the tunes of the E Street Band and Richard Strauss, under San Diego’s uncustomary leaden skies, that I traveled to the Crimea and Kabul, Chichen Itza, and a newly-brought-to-life Soho in London, though I’d been there five years earlier with the same woman. It was the last real year of my childhood at maybe an embarrassing age, and I think on it fondly. It’s available to me anytime a cloud passes in front of the sun in this part of the world.