That summer was fleeting, more so because it would be our last one in San Diego. In a few months, when the orders came down, my dad was to be transferred to Philadelphia. We weren’t happy about it because we loved San Carlos. But we weren’t Californians, Yugoslavians or Marylanders; we were Navy brats, seasick for a final port we could call home.
My Cub Scout troop would be camping out for three days in the Anza Borrego Desert along with another local troop. I knew for months this adventure was on the horizon and could barely contain my anticipation. I was a true aficionado of the Hardy Boys; having read most of their books my father had saved from his childhood. My mind was filled with thoughts of mystery, undiscovered silver mines, bandits and legends of lost loot. I planned to scour the landscape for clues. Glints of silver and hidden caves would beckon.
The Anza Borrego is the largest state park in California, second biggest park behind the Adirondack State Park in NY. It was a two-hour drive from San Diego. It was an incredible wilderness of desert framed by large stony mountains. Once we left the main road we drove into the open valley and set up camp in a clearing surrounded by sage scrub and occasional cacti. We were in the basin, but I’d describe it as a frying pan because it was broiling hot. Our quarters were definitely old school- canvas two-pole tents pegged into the ground on. After the tents were set up and our gear stored, we dug out the communal latrine. It was essentially a 3 ft trench, the dug up dirt piled along the rim. You shoveled it in over your business when you were done. A small tarp hung from a strung rope to give you privacy. Most importantly, it was downwind from the campsite.
I didn’t get much of an opportunity to explore that day, but found a dehydrated carcass of a huge lizard, called the chuckwalla, in the rocks as I searched for firewood for the campfire. I brought with me a canteen that I emptied within a few hours. It must be horrible to be in a desert without water. In a few days, you’d be beef jerky, same as the Chuckwalla. The troop brought along plenty of provisions and gallons of water, so we would survive. I heard there was an oasis nearby and could picture an encampment of baggy-panted Bedouins with curved daggers and drooling camels sitting around a pool of aqua-colored water, in the shade of lush coconut filled palm trees. Behind them, the shapes of their sexy concubines danced behind silk-walled tents. Maybe they all looked like Barbara Eden of “I Dream of Jeannie.” She was pretty hot.
Before dinner, I rested in the shade of my tent and read a comic book of my favorite superhero- “The Flash.” I liked The Flash because I was a fast runner too. He had super sonic speed and was also friends with the Green Lantern. And like most super heroes, one minute he was the public’s hero, the next, a public menace. It was a co-incidence that the Flash was also my dad’s favorite superhero in the 1940’s.
My wise-ass scout leader sent me to the other camp to borrow a left-handed spatula. The laugh was on gullible me as I slunk back into camp red-faced and furious. If I only had a dagger! We had the usual manly fare cooked up in the campfire… hot dogs, burgers, beans, beef stew, etc. I drank a stowed away warm bottle of Crush that made me think of a bigger lizard and a pretty genie with red hair and freckles.
The next day, real early, while it was still fairly cool, we went on a ten-mile hike. I kept my eye open for caves, arrowheads and evidence of lost miners, but no such luck. I captured an albino looking lizard when I turned over a rock and surprised it. It ran right into my hand. We passed a desert tortoise chewing on a cactus and a saw a roadrunner flash across our trail. We examined coyote tracks. You’d never see one, they were wile, you know, but we heard their high-pitched wailing during the night. On a distant outcrop, we briefly spotted some bighorn sheep who disappeared into the rocks. The hike was beautiful, but exhausting. I brought back with me a nasty blister on my heel and was rewarded later with a colorful patch for my uniform.
The last night we stared into the clear sky and located the North Star, which was in the vicinity of the big dipper. I don’t think I ever saw so many stars; they were thick, stirred together in milky clouds that spread across the sky.
I took on a number of challenges I had been putting off. I wouldn’t be skateboarding in Philadelphia, made a solo climb of “S” mountain just to see if I could do it. I got into my first fight, one of those quick schoolyard brawls. Starting off with a taunt and an “Oh, yeah,” then “-Yeah,” shoves, followed by a few wild swings and grappling in a heap of dust. In the fracas, I managed to squirm free and get the other kid in a headlock. The kid bucked and punched me, but I squeezed until he was in tears and said, “OK, I GIVE”. I got cocky after that and lost the very next fight, unable to secure a headlock, which was my only good move.
Dad took Joe and I fishing to Lake Murray, a mile from where we lived. While Joe and I pulled in a few Sunfish, Dad hooked into something big. His pole curved into an inverted U, on the verge of snapping as he reeled in what had to be a behemoth. The line would surely break any second as the reel creaked under the tension. As the beast was dragged from the depths we pulled in our line to watch the epic battle.
Slowly but surely Dad managed to get the thing closer to shore as the water swirled angrily above it. The dark shape of a large catfish emerged briefly, then disappeared as it rolled violently in an attempt to shake the hook. Finally, the catfish tired and was pulled within reach. Hooking his finger it under the gill, Dad lifted his fish — fishes. The big fish was tangled in the line that trailed back into the lake. At the end of the trailing line was another fish, a nice sized trout, flapping at the bank’s edge. That was the first and last time I went fishing with my dad. In fact, it was the last time I did something special with him, just us, for the rest of my childhood.