I moved to Clairemont in October, 1959. Technically. My mother was five months pregnant with a creature that was to eventually become myself, third in line below a sister and first-born brother; a relocation from Albuquerque, New Mexico. My father was in the Navy, an Airedale; an aircraft mechanic with an elite squadron of the day that was stationed at the Sandia Missile Range. They were assigned to facilitate a research and development project with the objective of being able to deliver a small tactical nuclear weapon to the Russians. The team worked on the problems of dropping a nuclear bomb from a carrier-launched fighter jet at low altitude and on target without the aircraft itself being obliterated by the resulting blast. My dad sometimes flew as a back-seater on the simulated missions, testing the bomb controls and radars that he and his crew had installed, while my mom fought her own war of housekeeping and sanity against the relentless winds and dust of the New Mexico desert. The project came and went, being trumped by technical problems, the Air Force with its B-52’s, missile silos and the Government’s doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. My father’s next duty station was with the VF-51 fighter squadron at Miramar.
So it was that we all landed in San Diego. In true native fashion, I was born the following February at Balboa Naval Hospital. The Clairemont development was in its fledgling years and a revolutionary concept; it was the first planned community in the nation. Curving, meandering avenues, shopping centers within a short distance and strategically placed schools were all part of the master plan. Developers Lou Burgener and Carlos Tavares teamed with Pardee construction, the R.E. Hazard company and numerous other contractors to create from what were the desolate, windswept canyons and mesas north-northeast of downtown into a new community they coined “The Village in the City”. My father bought our newly built house on Sagasti Avenue for a princely sum of twelve thousand dollars.
Clairemont in the sixties was as close as you could get to living in the world of Leave it To Beaver. My neighborhood was a warm, secure place that allowed a kid to be a kid. For myself as well as the other boys in the neighborhood, it was often grand adventures in the canyon; in the eyes of a child, the canyon was an expansive wilderness just down the street that allowed us to explore the limits of our imaginations--forts were built, Indians were fought, imagined hardships were overcome; war games were played out and the Germans always lost. Years before puberty, my own imagination saved dozens of lost Damsels in Distress and they always fell in love with me; as I walked home after being the imaginary hero to one of them everything was right in my world. After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the fifth grade, the drainage creek through the canyon became my Mississippi River and I played hooky for the first time.
School days were bittersweet and often wrought with struggle; although scared, I reluctantly started afternoon Kindergarten in room K-1 at Sequoia Elementary and immediately fell in love with my teacher, Mrs. Hollister. She was just out of college and incredibly beautiful; one day she complimented me on the shirt I was wearing and I would wear no other to school after that. Sometimes before going to my afternoon class I would pick geraniums for her from the neighbor’s flowerbeds. I was too young to know what love was all about, but I sure knew what it felt like.
In first grade I learned to write, graduating from crayon to the Big Blue Pencil. I remember the day that Mrs. Harrington, old, prim and proper, paced the rows of desks, silently watching as we struggled to write the alphabet properly with crayon on oversized paper. Clutched in her fist was the prize--a bundle of fat blue pencils, sized for a child’s hand, freshly sharpened. If she deemed you worthy, you would be touched on the shoulder, and as you gave her your crayon she would reciprocate with a pencil--the prize was yours. Halfway through the hour, I felt her hand on my shoulder. For the longest time that pencil was a treasured possession.
I learned something else from Mrs. Harrington. One day after recess, as I stood in line with my classmates outside the schoolroom waiting to be allowed back in, I spit on the ground. Mrs. Harrington saw that and made me wait outside while she and everyone else went in. A few minutes later she returned with a manila paper towel, a look of both anger and disgust on her face. She made me clean it up as she stood over me, hands on hips. The incident left me humiliated and disgusted with myself. That was the last time I ever spit in public. And to this day, whenever I see someone spit I get that same look of anger and disgust on my face and I remember her.
The ensuing years of elementary school were often tumultuous; mind and imagination became much larger than was allowed for my age and I was often at odds not only with my parents, but with school authorities as well. I exasperated teachers; I was usually bored, and without a creative outlet for my energies I became a frequent flyer to the principal’s office. At a tender age, I was constantly challenging authority and willing to go down in flames over a principle or technicality; twice I violently refused a paddling and was therefore suspended. My mother was an unwilling advocate; usually by the time she arrived after being called to the school, the Conflict of the Week had reached the limits of the principal’s patience and invariably he would utter a disparaging comment in her presence about my character, her parenting skills or the lack of a father figure due to my dad’s deployment in the era of Vietnam. At that point the tables would usually turn in my favor; her face would redden as she gave him the look of death, and graciously, with great restraint, she would listen to my side. Although it was usually clear that I had indeed broken a rule or two, or three, I had an inherent talent of rational argument. Putting myself in the light of the persecuted, I would argue my case before Mom. Coupled with my genius of remembering something off-color the teacher or principal said before she arrived and the snide remarks he had for her afterwards usually caused her to defend me and admonish him.