We weren’t out of Maryland when it began.
“Are we there yet?” Suzie called plaintively from the back seat.
That would be repeated an aggravating number of times by the poor bored souls enduring the torturous ordeal of the back seat. If you were in the front you knew better not say it because you were in arms reach of a hard WAP on the back of your head. I don’t know how we all fit into that car. It was a black and white finned 1960 Plymouth station wagon. Each of us took turns sitting in the front seat between my mom and dad. My mom held little baby John occasionally on her lap or we wedged him between us when he slept, which was most of the time. We were crammed five across in the back seat. Luckily we were all skinny.
It wasn’t easy to sit there with nothing to do. You could read a passed around comic only so many times. We learned to control your body functions for excruciating lengths of time or until you threatened to crap your pants, and that was ignored after a while. Looking at the passing scenery didn’t offer much relief until you passed through a few states and the landscape changed noticeably or we passed by an interesting city or a landmark like the Mississippi or spotted something worth seeing like an armadillo. We’d tally the state license plates on passing cars and get excited to no end to spot a car from Alaska, Florida, Maine, or pretend we saw the Holy Grail — Hawaii.
“No you didn’t.”
“Yeah I did! It was that blue car we just passed. The guy looks like Don Ho.”
“Dad, could you slow down, that last car….”
There was lively chatter the first hour or two of each day. But the babble would be strangled in the grip of monotony as we faded into a zombie-like stupor. My dad did all the driving and kept one elbow out the window, consequently that arm was about ten shades darker than the rest of him. He was truly an endurance driver and we’d do at least 600 miles a day. This wasn’t a leisurely sightseeing cruise it; was a test of endurance, both of distance and company. We’d drive from morning to night, stopping only to eat, do our business or to get gas, usually in the same stop. The tedium would occasionally be broken when my dad blew his top or the horn and curse out a driver who was going too slow, too fast or cut us off. At least that was entertaining.
He was in control of the radio and we’d be forced to listen to a hellish string of songs such as Roger Miller’s hit “Dang Me” followed by “Walk like a Man” sung by Frankie Valli, “…talk like a man?” in that ironic un-manly falsetto? It was never ending… Perry Como, Streisand, Al Hurt or Bobby Goldsboro singing that sappy ditty, “See The Funny Little Clown.” If I had it handy, I’d have pulled out a rosary and prayed for deafness. I thanked God when a Beatles song came on. We knew the lyrics by heart and sung together like merry munchkins in the back seat.
“Are we there yet?”
It was dangerous in the back seat as territorial disputes, shoving matches and random senseless violence broke out. There was a lot of crying. My sister Karen was tough and didn’t take crap from anyone. She’d pummeled you with her elbow or pulled your hair if you happened to annoy her or get on her nerves. I was relentlessly good at that and made teasing her one of my specialties for many years to come.
“Look, a reindeer!”
“There’s no reindeer in Oklahoma.”
“Uh huh, I just saw one, next to an Armadillo.”
“No you didn’t — ”
“ — Yes I did! OW!”
“Don’t make me pull over.”
“Are we there yet?”
San Diego was beautiful in its own way. Not anything like North East but just as interesting for a young explorer. We lived in temporary housing briefly before we moved into our first real home. Our house on Lake Badin Avenue was the only house my dad was able to purchase along the way. It was a joy to have our own home instead of living in government housing. It was on the lower end of a sloping hill of terraced houses in a brand new development called San Carlos. Our house was a soft green split-level with four bedrooms, a garage and a cement patio out back, covered by a rippled orange fiberglass roof. A tall wood fence enclosed the tiered backyard with two small slopes covered in patches of yellow marigolds.
Across the street was a large scrubby open area of undeveloped land, overrun with sagebrush and ground squirrels. Above that was a baseball field where I would soon play left field three times a week. On the other side of the field, you could see the elementary school we would attend. We could walk to school, that meant an extra half an hour of sleep each morning. Looming above us was a large mountain I couldn’t wait to climb.
For desert country, it wasn’t that hot in San Carlos. Because we were ten miles from the ocean, it was relatively pleasant year round. It could get hot in the summer months when the Santa Ana winds blew in some heat from the deserts to the east but it was in the mid 70’s on average and dipped into the upper 50’s in the winter months. We quickly became acclimated to the drastic consistency of climate. No winter, no spring or the vibrant colors of fall; it felt like summer time all year round.
The contrast of environment was startling. Not a tall tree anywhere, at least not around us. In San Diego proper I saw tall palm trees but in the new suburbs the indigenous oaks were puny. The big trees were maybe twenty feet high but that was the exception. Occasional clusters grew here and there but the land was barren of forest. That’s not to say the desert was barren of life because it was absolutely crawling with it. Bugs, lizards, roadrunners, spiders and snakes were everywhere and quite at home there. Unfortunately for them so were the new suburbs.
San Carlos is a typical middle-class tract-home subdivision cut into the hilly countryside below Cowles Mountain. Cowles Mountain anchors one part of Mission Trails Park and is the largest urban park in the U.S. at over 6,000 acres… seven times larger than Central Park in New York City. It was the only mountain and the biggest natural feature within the city limits of San Diego, if you don’t include the beaches. From its summit of 1,591 feet you can see the vast panorama of the Pacific Ocean to the west. Looking south you can see Lake Murray and all of San Diego County and into Mexico.
We settled into the lifestyle of the mid sixties and suburban living. Joe and I played on the local baseball league and joined the Cub Scouts. Paula and Suzie were in the Brownies and Karen in the Camp Fire Girls. We attended the local Catholic Church faithfully every Sunday and attended Catechism lessons. Everything seemed hunky-dory in San Carlos, but behind closed doors, burning whispers scorched like the Santa Ana winds.
California was much more stylish than the East coast. The Beach Boys and the surfer mentality made a big wave of its own; not like a tsunami, but a big splash nonetheless up and down the coast. Throughout the early sixties Woodies had been back in style, this time sporting a surfboard hanging out the back or tied to the roof. Hot rods soon left them in their dust. Surfing the waves became a phenomena, but that was for teenagers with cars and a lot of free time. Kids our age were the first generation of skateboarders. We surfed the sidewalks and streets.