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….”

No answer.

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 Carlos

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.