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I’m sitting alone in the Chula Vista library, reading a book about Jimi Hendrix, when an old man approaches me and begins to stare.

He’s one of the library’s morning regulars. Most of them are older, retired gentlemen with no place better to go. They still get their news the old fashioned way – through morning newspapers and weekly magazines like Newsweek. They often gather together in the periodicals area and exchange reading material. Sometimes they argue loudly about the big issues of the day, like the Middle East conflict and Sarah Palin’s fitness for the Presidency.

The old man has a cadaverous body and a hollowed-out face. His brown clothes are plaid and oversized, like the outfit of a homeless circus clown. What saves his dignity are his eyes. They’re blue and curious and razor sharp.

And they’re also staring hard at my Jimi Hendrix book.

For those of you who don’t know, Jimi Hendrix was the greatest electric guitarist in the history of rock music. He had one of those insanely short, powerful careers that are the stuff of legend. Over a five year span, he released three classic albums, and played a series of mind-blowing concerts and festivals. His career ended tragically, when he overdosed on barbiturates, then literally drowned in his own vomit. He died at twenty-seven, the same age as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain.

The book I’m reading on Hendrix is a recent biography. On its cover is a rather brassy photo of the musician’s face and upper chest. He’s dressed like a gypsy, in a rainbow of exotic silks. Around his neck you can see at least ten different necklaces. He’s smoking some unknown substance, and blowing a puff of it at the camera. It’s a fantastic picture that makes Hendrix look exciting and dangerous.

For a longest time the old man stares at the photograph, saying nothing. Then he finally looks up at me.

“You know something?” he says casually. “I once saw that guy Hendrix perform. I saw him at Woodstock.”

My first instinct is to laugh in the man’s face.

Give me a break, I think. This guy’s way too old too attend Woodstock.

But then I realized how wrong I am. Woodstock, after all, was over forty years ago. Back in 1969, this old man wasn’t the least bit old. Instead he was probably a kid in his twenties. Young and crazy enough to make love, smoke pot, and run around naked in the New York mud.

Then I think wistfully: Old people are different now.

Over the years, I’ve taken increasing comfort in the memories of my childhood. I’m not quite forty, but even today the past seems like a safer place. Back then the lines of my life seemed clearer and its foundation stronger. Whenever I think about earlier times, a feeling of security seems to wrap itself around my soul, like a thick, comfortable bedspread.

I grew up in the Chula Vista of the nineteen seventies and eighties. In a recent article, Forbes magazine called my home town one of the nation’s ten most boring cities. Thirty years ago that was even truer. Chula Vista had no beach, no nightlife, no university, and no real tourist attractions. It was a nice place to live, but it wasn’t the least bit sexy.

Back then, the old men weren’t sexy either. They were tough, tight-lipped guys who grew up in the America of the thirties and forties. They worked in an economy with a twenty percent unemployment rate. They fought in a world war that killed sixty million people. They lived childhoods without television, computers and rock music. They lived a kind of life that most of us today would find inconceivable.

My father was one of those men. He was a dirt-poor farm kid who grew up in Kansas during the depression. He married at seventeen and had four children in quick succession. He first made a name for himself as a boxer, winning over fifty professional fights. Then he worked at a wide variety of jobs to make ends meet – boxing promoter, reformatory guard, restaurant manager. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted with the marines. They assigned him to a brand-new military base named Camp Pendleton. Immediately he fell in love with Southern California. After the war ended, he joined the civil service and relocated his family to San Diego. For the next twenty years he worked as a civilian firefighter at Naval air stations like Miramar and Brown Field. During all that time, he never took a sick day, which allowed him to retire over a year early.

All of this happened before I was born. I arrived at the twilight of my dad’s life, shortly before his retirement. I was his fifth and final child, the product of his second marriage to a much younger woman. He was fifty-eight at the time – old enough to be my grandfather, even my great-grandfather. By the time I reached the second grade, he was officially a senior citizen. As a child, I used to brag about my father’s age, just to see my friends’ shocked reactions.

So my old man was literally an old man. But in the end, I count myself as lucky. Not too many people my age were raised a member of the Greatest Generation. And in many ways my father fit the romantic stereotype. He was a stoic man, practical to the core. His vocabulary didn’t contain words like self-pity and narcissism. He didn’t need someone like Dr. Phil to give his life meaning. To him, life was about meeting your duties and obligations. He was like a rock, the foundation upon which my entire youth rested. He gave me the gift of a stable, happy childhood – for which I’ll be forever grateful.

My father died over a decade ago, at the age of eighty-four. In my mind, he’s Chula Vista’s quintessential old man. And I know my Dad would have despised something like Woodstock. He would have hated the drugs, the long-haired men, and the anti-establishment tone of the whole thing. To him, good music was Andy Williams and Lawrence Welk reruns on PBS.

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Comments

nan shartel May 1, 2010 @ 7:41 p.m.

what the hell r u talking about...i'm 70 and people older then me went to Woodstock man!

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nan shartel May 1, 2010 @ 7:45 p.m.

and please tell us some of the stories that the old fellow told u would ya guy

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donbreese May 2, 2010 @ 10:28 a.m.

Ha ha, Nan!

Of course you're absolutely right, but I'm stuck in a time warp of sorts, as you can probably tell. I yearn for the older people of my youth.

As for the Bob Dylan stories, I'll think of the best one and post it in a later entry.

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SurfPuppy619 May 2, 2010 @ 11:11 a.m.

As for the Bob Dylan stories, I'll think of the best one and post it in a later entry.

STOP being a tease and POST it up!

I need to hear dat story, ASAP please.

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SurfPuppy619 May 2, 2010 @ 11:19 a.m.

You know another funny thing, since we're talking the south bay back 30-40 years ago, is that it was all WHITE back then. The demographics have changed so much.......

I used to work at National City Middle School (yes NCMS has hardbound yearbooks going back to the 60's) and a number of CV HS's, and would look at the yearbooks from the 60's, and the schools back then were almost 100% white.

It is fun to look back at those old yearbooks and compare the changes...........

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nan shartel May 2, 2010 @ 11:46 a.m.

thx donbreese..i await with bated breath!!!

Chula Vista isn't a city i know much about...but i hear when it was establish it was very important ...more so then SD

i raised my kids in IB for a few years...i can't believe the changes there...i taught my kids to swim in what is now a bird estuary ...we clammed there and had picnics of steamed clams and corn when clams were in season

loved IB in the day!!!

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nan shartel May 2, 2010 @ 11:48 a.m.

surfpuppy

i went to highschool at Hoover when it was still a ivy covered monolith...i hate the way it looks now

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donbreese May 2, 2010 @ 12:10 p.m.

surfpuppy

Back when I went to school in Chula Vista in the late 1970s and 1980s, the schools were still pretty white, but there was a significant Hispanic minority. I'm Eurasian myself. The nice thing was that we all got along back then, I don't remember race being an issue at all.

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David Dodd May 5, 2010 @ 12:22 a.m.

I really liked reading this. I'm glad they have a blogging contest here, because sometimes I miss some of the better entries (I missed this initially), and yours is awesome, and the blue ribbon is well deserved! A wonderful story, and very well told, Mr. Breese. I hope you feel encouraged to write more, this is great stuff.

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Donald May 5, 2010 @ 7:08 a.m.

Thanks refriedgringo!

I'm thrilled to win, and I'm thrilled to read the positive comments about my work. I'm currently a struggling writer, and every bit of encouragement helps.

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MsGrant May 5, 2010 @ 8:06 a.m.

Yes, hat's off to you, Breese! This was a really well written story, and I loved the contrast between this old man and your old man. Contratulations and keep writing.

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bohemianopus May 5, 2010 @ 8:15 a.m.

Great story! I REALLY enjoyed reading this. Congrats on the win!

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nan shartel May 5, 2010 @ 10:08 a.m.

congratulations Breese on 1st place for April!!!

oh please write the stories soon

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bv2468 May 10, 2010 @ 11:03 a.m.

About 8 years ago when I was a junior high teacher, I chaperoned a school snowboard trip. As I was taking a lunch break at the lodge, a Hendrix tune came over the speakers--maybe Foxey Lady. For some reason I thought to ask one of the junior high girls her opinion of the music.

"What does this music make you think of?" I ask. I'm thinking she'll say something like "revolution" or at least "rock'n'roll".

"Old people music," she replies matter of factly. I don't think she understands why I start choking and laughing.

Similarly, I have a piano student in her mid 60s. Her husband who is about her same age really hates it when she plays Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, because as he says, "It's soooo boring!"

In the words of Mr. Dylan, "Oh, the times they are a-changing."

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gbera Sept. 30, 2010 @ 7:43 p.m.

Hey, I dug this...I think about stuff like this a lot, the differences between my generation and my parent's generation and my grandparent's generation...sometimes I get resentful of my grandparent's generation because they got to fight World War II and be the Good Guys in the White Hats and liberate the world for democracy...in other words, they got to live in the days when it was actually a GOOD THING to be an American...but then I guess they were also the ones who got us into Vietnam. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is, you mention how your father was "rock-like" and lived with a sense of duty and obligation...I hear my generation get criticized a lot for not having that...and I wonder if it really is the best way to be? Your dad seems to have been a pretty happy guy, but my grandparents weren't...

anyway, sorry for the long comment...great blog, I really enjoyed it.

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