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.

Newspaper Boy

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.

S” Mountain

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.