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.
I will never forget sitting in the hard wooden chair in that office, arms crossed, face red and crying, then looking out the window and seeing my mom tearing into the parking lot in the ‘60 Chevy, hearing the car door slam hard, watching her in her nurse’s uniform marching double-time towards the office with…that look on her face.
Although I never escaped punishment either at school or home for my transgressions, the sentences were often reduced.
My awareness of the world increased almost exponentially as I grew and learned; although I wasn’t a particularly good student, I was a voracious reader and readily absorbed what I read in the San Diego Union, the Sentinel and Newsweek, the publications available in our household. Through reading, I came to understand how the world outside the womb of my home and neighborhood worked. I understood the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and why my dad was across the ocean keeping the jets ready for battle at Yankee Station; I saw the horrors of the Manson Family unfold before me every morning for weeks on page one, I learned what a bribe was as then-mayor Frank Curran was caught taking money from the Yellow Cab Company in return for certain favors. In Newsweek, I learned of a young man named Robert Kennedy and his fallen older brother who was the President before I was old enough to know, and I grieved after he too had fallen to an assassin’s bullet.
But my knowledge of the world by the age of ten, as dark as it often was beyond my streets wasn’t without its advantages. There was a girl in my life, briefly; an older woman. She was in high school, a freshman at Madison; a classic beauty of the time. Tanned, blonde, always smartly dressed in the day’s fashion and with a face that could have launched a thousand ships. Sometimes she walked up my street on her way to school, and every morning, I watched…waiting to see if she was going to turn the corner. When she did, I carefully timed it so I was leaving the house for school myself as she walked by.
Not only was she pretty, she was approachable and friendly. When it first started, to initiate conversation I would ask her about things I’d read, and she’d explain the parts that I didn’t understand and share her own opinions. She explained to me what the military-industrial complex was. What Woodstock and the Summer of Love was all about. Blushing, she explained the double-entendre. As it turned out, our backgrounds and emerging worldviews were similar; her father was a career navy man, too. In the aftermath of the Mai Lai Massacre we were shocked into believing that war and being in Vietnam was wrong and we tried to reconcile that with the love and the high pedestal we held for our fathers; good men of character that were a part of the war machine. As the weeks went by, she walked my street to school more often and our conversations became more personal; music, favorite foods, favorite T.V. shows, how funny the last episode of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was; what we wanted to become in the future. She had a clear vision; I had no clue. I did want to get a motorcycle someday and I promised her that when I did I’d take her for a ride. She liked that. She always looked and smelled so good to me that it was dizzying. Sometimes she held my hand until we reached the end of the block and had to part ways. I often thought of stealing a kiss from her, but was too afraid. She consumed my thoughts and struck me to the core. A secret girlfriend; no one really knew.
But I never got to keep my promise of taking her on that motorcycle ride.
As was my habit, I opened the paper one morning before school, and as I saw the front page, I froze. It contained her photograph and a story. Right there, right on the front page.
The headline: Girl, 15, Slain in Apartment Here.
I shook as I read. Home alone. Raped, murdered. Stabbed repeatedly. Fatal neck wounds. Nightgown pulled up over her head. Just a few hours earlier, she had been laughing and joking with friends, watching T.V.
That night, I stood in my front yard, tears streaming, looking over to where she had lived. I felt a hurt that was beyond words, beyond reason. In the ensuing days, denial; I waited every morning, waiting for her to turn the corner. But she never walked up my street again.
I kept it largely to myself. For a time following her murder, Clairemont was full of chatter and gossip; I endured what was said with damp eyes and a broken spirit. I stayed away from the newspapers for awhile. I wished I could have told Mrs. Hollister everything, but by then she had moved away; a navy wife in addition to Kindergarten teacher.
As they say, time heals all wounds. In truth, never completely, and they shape your personality; they change you. But my father returned from his last deployment at Yankee Station as a Senior Master Chief with wonderful and exotic gifts from the orient and he transferred down the tarmac at Miramar to VF-124, the Top Gun squadron. He would spend the rest of his naval career in San Diego, coming home to his family every night, Vietnam be damned. By then I had a little sister, who by anyone’s account was the cutest kid anywhere, and with a personality to match--a real pistol by the time she was three. She was a tiny, sweet little girl whose magnetism was inescapable--you couldn’t buy tickets for the kind of entertainment she provided us. My brother nicknamed her “Dink.” My Dad got a ski boat and there were seemingly endless, carefree summer days spent on Mission Bay. We fished, sunned ourselves, water skied and barbequed at Crown Point. In school, I managed to stay out of the principal’s office. Well, most of the time, anyway. In the classroom, I discovered poetry, the short story and John Steinbeck; in the neighborhood, my best friend Albert and Little League Baseball.
The summer after I finished elementary school my father retired from the navy and took a job with the City of Escondido. He moved us there into a new house, into a new neighborhood, and though only thirty miles away from San Diego, it was a different world. I felt uprooted and off-balance for the longest time, but I eventually adjusted. I found a mentor in the form of an eigth-grade science teacher, suffered the suicide-death of a best friend, barely graduated high school, dropped out of college, then found the mountains, wandering the San Jacintos and climbing in Yosemite. I fell in love again and married, barely survived the divorce, made and squandered large sums of money, then found a new love in the form of drugs and alcohol. I flirted with homelessness and death, and then navigated the sometimes inane ways of the mental-health system. Slowly, over years, in fits and starts, I eventually recovered.
Last year due to the economy, I, like so many others, came face-to face with a financial little shop of horrors. Although a resident of Carlsbad, I lived in a reasonably modest way. Nonetheless, my economic state quickly became untenable. One month, after paying my bills, and with a newfound humility, I went to a food bank for the first time. Not one to burn bridges, (the important ones, anyway), and in desperation, I called a former boss that now manages a company in the San Diego area and he hired me over the phone. An internal debate was held as to where I would live; serendipitously, I found a beautiful apartment that allowed pets and with wonderful neighbors right here in Clairemont. A mile and a half from my old house. My enormous Great Dane, the Magnificent Bruno, is very happy here. His favorite haunt, Fiesta Island, is only minutes away. He loves to go for long walks and meet people, so we walk the neighborhood daily, enjoying the people we meet. That, combined with all the richness that is contained in my memories, makes every walk a pleasant one. Sometimes, we go by the apartment my girl lived in and I re-trace the walks we took together on our way to the schools. It still hurts, but it’s manageable now. The pain is overshadowed by her living memory. I’ve met the family that now lives in my old house; they like Bruno, they are really nice people and are always a delight to chat with. The house is in good hands.
I have a secure job that has little stress; I live simply, yet I have a comfortable and inviting home. Bruno and I eat well, and we live in a peaceful, quiet neighborhood. Clairemont fits me like a glove.
Sometimes, you can go home again.