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.