I wasn’t a news hound but caught whiffs of the mayhem flashing across the television. Fires- both literal and symbolic were sparked by demonstrators seemingly everywhere. Race riots flared up in city after city as ghettos burned. The US draft calls for the war in Vietnam were increased tenfold and college students protested loudly from campuses throughout the country.
At a rally in Manhattan, a Catholic pacifist and college ballplayer, David Miller, burned his draft card and was promptly arrested, tried and convicted under a new law aimed to suppress the “beatniks” against the war. At the US consulate in South Vietnam, another Buddhist monk torched himself in protest of the war. It made me think of that shocking photo I saw in Life a few years before of Thich Quang Duc, the first Buddhist monk to immolate himself. The priest sat in a traditional lotus position of meditation, not moving a muscle as his body was consumed to a blacked stump.
I knew about martyrs.
Another image burned into the public consciousness was the mug shot of a pock-faced blank-eyed seaman named Richard Speck. Speck brutally slaughtered eight nurses in their south Chicago dormitory. The lone survivor identified the killer as a man with a tattooed arm that read “Born to Raise Hell.” Bonfires of Beatles merchandise burned in the South after John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. I never heard any Jesus albums, so the Beatles were still number one in my book.
I don’t know if it was my age or because I was totally rude, but outside of the home, I wasn’t into hanging out with my sisters, the same went for my brother John. The stuff I did wasn’t something you couldn’t drag little girls or four year-olds to. They could be killed or severely injured in my world. I climbed mountains, road skateboards down dangerous steep hills and wrangled lizards and scorpions. At the time, I thought all Paula and Laura did was play house, have tea parties on the patio and dressed their Barbies and Kens in fashionable ensembles. John became a hapless participant in their girly games. Joe and I were too pre-occupied and weren’t there to protect him. Fortunately, there wasn’t any long-lasting damage from this early corruption because he grew up to be a manly man.
The contrast between my way of life and my younger sisters was as different as pastel-pink is to dirt-brown. I talked with my sister Paula, who visited the other day, and we reminisced about San Carlos. I was stunned when she admitted to a deed that to this day had been a long-forgotten San Carlos mystery.
At the bottom of the hill on Lake Badin Ave. was a cemented gully and drainpipe that went under it. The drainpipe was huge, five feet around, a hundred feet long and a frequent hangout for kids in the neighborhood and an occasional snake. We’d go there to cough on stale cigarettes, blow off firecrackers and try to throw rocks all the way through. “The Tunnel,” as we called it, was a cool refuge from the heat, and except for a couple times a year, was dry as a bone. Everything was dry as a bone.
Paula and Laura ventured into the tunnel one afternoon with a pack of matches snatched from a kitchen drawer. Paula just turned eight and was a recent Girl Scout recruit. She had been to a Brownie’s campout and been exposed to campfire craft. All they needed was a little kindling to get it started and add on sticks and such. Dry grass and dead wood were readily available for a hundred miles around. They gathered handfuls of grass that draped into the gully on both sides and piled the tinder into a neat heap in the gully at the opening of the tunnel. The first match was snuffed out by the wind blowing through the tunnel. The second attempt was successful and the pile flared up into a hungry and glorious pyre of hypnotic yellow and gold. Sticks were fed to satisfy the ravenous beast as it blew tendrils of smoke through the tunnel like an exhaled pipe and drifted into the field on the other side.
All of San Diego was kindling; and as luck had it, the winds were fickle that afternoon. The tunnel suddenly inhaled, sucking the fire on to the parched grass along the top of the gully. Paula and Laura beat the flames frantically with sticks, then pulled-off sneakers to no avail as the fire spread away in a tide of smoke and flame. The pyromaniacs panicked and fled through the tunnel. They came out into the field on the other side of Lake Badin Ave. and hightailed unseen it to safety and watched in horror from a block away. White smoke billowed as the fire churned, leaving a widening carpet of black scorched earth behind as it steadily devoured the hill and raced toward the houses above. A crowd clustered along the Cayuga Lake Drive below and on Beaver Lake Drive above and watched helplessly at the approaching disaster.
The beautiful cry of distant sirens became louder as the fire engines approached and sped by in a blur of red as dazzling as the fire. One stopped to set up at the bottom of the hill, the other at the top of the hill someplace out of view. The fire reached a fence above and roared into a wall of crackling flame. The fence was kicked down by fireman as two others wrestled with a fire hose and doused the fire at the edge of the yards above, stopping it in its tracks. In a half an hour the blaze was contained.
I was up at Kevin’s a block away on Beaver Lake Drive and we ran outside when the sirens called us out. It happened so fast. Some self-important fat guy blocked the way and stopped us from getting close to the action. We ran down the hill and caught the tail end of the firefight from below. It was exciting, but it could have been a disaster. I spotted Paula and Laura in the crowd at the corner of Cayuga.
“Geeze, did you see what happened?” I asked.
Laura and Paula faces were ashen and looked quite upset. They were speechless, but nodded yes.