In San Carlos, everybody had a ride. You weren’t a cowboy without a horse, or cool without a bike. To remedy that, Joe and I decided we would get a job. We became newspaper delivery boys. At first, Ma woke us and escorted us to the newspaper truck rendezvous where we sat, rolled up papers and slipped on rubber bands. Our sacks filled, we walked either side of each street like dueling gunfighters. Fast on the draw, we turned and shot well-aimed newspapers with deadly accuracy. We ruled the dark morning streets until the sun came up and every delivery was made. We collected our payments and handed out stamp-like cardboard receipts as we carefully counted the take. We didn’t earn a great deal and split the loot.
It took months of personal deprivation, not to mention, miles of walking, but I saved most of my money. Joe wrangled up a few dollars, but spent his money elsewhere, like a drunken gambler. Pa, in the end, pitched in a ten spot to help out because I worked my britches off or he got sick of me whining about it. A brand new Schwinn Stingray was a hefty $66.95. With banana seats, 20” tires and other hotrod-like amenities, I can only describe in loving detail, was worth every penny. The bike corral was a few miles away and I had moseyed inside numerous times to check out the herd. Rows of untamed Stingrays stood in line like proud multi-colored steeds of coppertone, purple, sky blue and lime. Each biting at the bit to be let loose on the freshly paved trails of the suburban frontier.
I stopped for a moment to watch as a meteor shower streaked across the cool starry sky. Brilliant flashes sparkled then disappeared beyond the edge of the ocean. That was just for me that night and it was beautiful. It was 5:00 in the morning and I had all of San Carlos Village to myself, and thirty more papers to deliver. I pushed off and peddled down the curving streets and flung my newspaper in high meteoric arches onto lawns of polished pebbles and skateboard-scuffed driveways.
I rode my pride and joy, a dazzling iridescent purple Schwinn Sting-Ray with a banana seat, back racing slick and hi-rise handlebars. It was cool, and when I was on it, so was I. My papers were saddled behind me over the seat and within easy reach. I had a pretty good arm for a skinny little runt and my aim was true. I knew to stay clear of the cactus and saw-toothed palms and never once missed. I did a Yeoman’s job, I was told. That’s Navy talk that meant I did a good job.
The east trail to the top of “S” mountain, as we called it, was a mile and a half long. A huge bright white S emblazoned a rocky outcrop three quarter’s the way up the mountain on the south side. You could see it from miles away. San Diego State students originally painted it in 1931. Except for the war years in the forties, when it was covered up for the sake of national security, the giant “S” was ritually re-painted every year until the mid 70’s and briefly in the 80’s. Protests by environmentalists finally put an end to the practice and the San Diego State moniker has since faded away, as has the nickname for the mountain. Today, the locals call it by its proper name, Cowles Mountain.
The mountain beckoned me in the same way the deep woods of the North East did. I didn’t climb it right away, but made forays slowly up the hill, but not too far and out of sight of where my bike lay hidden 40 yards off the trail. I’d ride it up the hill until my legs gave out, then go off trail to find a rock or bush to hide it behind. I brushed away any bike tracks leading from the trail with a snapped off branch. It was a cunning Apache trick I picked up watching a Geronimo movie with Chuck Connors. I found out later that Geronimo wasn’t ruggedly handsome, have spooky blue eyes or was 6´5” tall, quite the contrary.
The trail up “S” Mountain was a light sandy-brown, mostly smooth and foot-worn. Occasionally rain-washed gullies cut deep fissures along the path or across it as they meandered down the rocky terrain. Patches of dark yellow grass, dry brush and scrub clustered stubbornly here and there between jutting boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles and sand. At first glance the land seemed uninhabitable. But if you looked, and I looked all the time, you’d glimpse a flash of shadow darting between rocks, beneath a ledge or from under a bush. Lizards— tons of ’em! As I climbed, I spooked them from their resting places along the trail. They skedaddled across the dry stony ground in a blur of beige or gray, their tails whipping up pebbles as they rocketed to another shady spot under the nearest large rock or shrub. I carefully turned over many a rock and more often than not, something was under it.
Strange and wonderful creatures were there to discover… and capture.
My neighbor, Mike Harper, our intrepid leader and sage, shared with us a remarkable trapping skill we put to use soon after. It was genius.
“All you gotta do is bury some cans and put some rocks on top; you’ll catch loads of shit.”
We buried coffee cans to the top of the rim and placed a large flat stone or a stack of stones over them, careful to leave openings beneath. When a critter ran from rock to rock for protection or shade, it would fall into the bottom of the can, unable to climb up the slick metal sides. And we did catch a shit-load of amazing creatures.
Harper had been a Boy Scout the year before but quit because, “there were too many freakin’ rules and half the crap they made me do was — pussy.” But, he picked up a few useful skills and proudly owned a pair of leather hiking boots to show for it. My brother Joe and I had been in Cub Scouts for a few years and had a much better opinion of the organization; we loved scouting. But we couldn’t help but be envious of Mike’s hiking boots because we didn’t have any. Along with the boots, Mike wore these baggy surfer trunks, called jams. They were bright Pacific-blue with a yellow stripe down the sides, or a loud Hawaiian floral pattern that hung to his knees. He assured us, “lizards are color blind so it don’t matter.” Mike’s legs were almost as hairy as my sister Karen’s. I wanted to wear shorts too. It was a heck of a lot cooler, but if you had hairless toothpick legs like mine, you’d keep them covered, no question about it.
Every couple days, we’d follow Mike up the hill and check our traps. He was our Svengali, the big game hunter and safari leader. Weary of the dangers ahead, he spoke with whispered foreboding as we neared the unknown prey. We were warned to be careful not to step on a dry stick or kick up a stone or rub against a brittle bush as we went. If we did, he’d say we jinxed it and would refuse to look under the stones. Mike had this spell over us, filling us with dread as we faced the likely terrors under the rocks. When we got close he’d suddenly freeze, snap his head around and give us “The Eye.” Holding his gloved hand up, he waved us down into a crouch as we approached the traps.
“There’s something poisonous in this one, better stay back.”
We knew nothing about lizards except the big ones could be quite vicious and hissed and snapped if you tried to pick one up. Mike said most of them were poisonous just to scare us. Skinks and Alligator lizards were fearsome and latched onto Mike’s leather glove when he reached into the can. More than once they left behind part of their tail in the can, still wiggling. With all the Roadrunners around, you saw plenty with a half-grown tails. They could shed their tails as a clever distraction during a life or death encounter with another creature higher up on the food chain.
My favorite catch was definitely the formidable Horny Toad lizard, properly called the “Coast Horned Lizard.” It’s a fat little prehistoric-looking beast with a lot of attitude and protective devices akin to 007’s Austin Martin. When agitated, it blows itself up with air, making it difficult to swallow if you happen to be a snake. A large crown of sharp spines project from its head and rows of pointed scales stick out along its trunk. If the spines didn’t deter you, it wouldn’t hesitate to bite you. The coup de grâce is its ability to shoot blood from the corners of its eyes to disorient an intruder.
We caught small lizards mostly, but there were plenty of unexpected surprises in store. Kangaroo rats are cute, but could scare the bejesus out of you. The moment the rock was lifted off, they’d shoot out of the can like a jack-in-the-box and land on you, send you sprawling, shrieking in terror because it happened so fast you didn’t know what hit you. On the other hand, the Little Pocket Mouse was so gentle it allowed you to hold it in your palm. If there was a small rattlesnake inside you could hear the rattle when it picked up your vibrations a few feet from the hole. Mike was crazy and sometimes would kick the stone off and we’d run for it as the thing slid out into the daylight. I was scared of snakes, still am, and my first reaction was to get the hell out of there. There were a dozen varieties of rattlesnakes in the area, just didn’t want them in my cans. We once found a small Rosy Boa that curled itself into one of our cans. Mike was nuts and proved it by picking it up barehanded and held the snake near his face, both of them flicking their tongues out at us. The boa was as docile as the Little Pocket Mouse but I had no interest in holding it.
Snakes and dogs can smell your fear and I knew I must have stunk. I can tell you from experience it is an intense primal terror to get bitten by an animal or a snake. Let’s include insects on the list while we’re at it. Even a tiny wasp is enough to send you into a frenzied fit of flaying arms and contorted body convulsions. You can outrun a snake but not a dog or a wasp. I’ve tried. In addition to the reptiles and rodents, we also captured lots of scorpions and once or twice, humongous hairy brown Tarantulas, so big they covered the entire bottom of the can. I passed on holding those also. Mike had the leather glove, I didn’t.
“Look, a Potato Bug!” Mike called excitedly after turning up a stone.
It was the biggest, ugliest bug I had ever seen. It gave you the creeps when it looked up and checked you out. It had a huge amber-colored humanoid head, tiny black eyes, and a fat bulbous orange and black ringed body. It was 2” in length and could scuttle fairly quickly as it ran, a blur of ochre in the bottom of the can. Mike claimed it was as poisonous as a rattler. But it wasn’t. It didn’t eat potatoes, technically wasn’t a bug, nor was it poisonous. In case you happen to come across one, it’s called the Jerusalem Cricket.