1. There’s a Place: Angeleno
2. In The Days of My Youth
3. The Road
There’s a Place (Angeleno)
John Sausedo 2001
“There’s a place, where I can go, when I feel low, when I feel blue… ” The Beatles
There was nothing particularly noteworthy or wondrous about the 200 block of north Angeleno Ave, nothing to distinguish it from any other residential street in any number of small towns across America. Angeleno was just another stretch of asphalt situated between Second and Third Street, in the small foothill community of Azusa California, nothing more, nothing less.
Like most neighborhood streets Angeleno was lined by average, single story, middle class American homes, inhabited by average, middle class American families. Angeleno produced no presidents, astronauts, writers, professional athletes, or TV personalities nor anyone of notoriety. Actually not many famous people had their beginnings in the Canyon City, only two come to mind, my uncle, major league pitcher Hank Aguirre who in a career that spanned 15 years, pitched for the Indians, Tigers, Dodgers and Cubs, and more recently motivational life coach Tony Robbins.
As a kid I remember hearing many stories about my uncle Hank, the local boy who made good. My favorite was when he was in his rookie year with the Indians in 1956 and faced baseball legend Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox for the fist time and struck him out! After the game he asked Williams to autograph the ball. A few weeks later he faced Williams again but this time Williams swung at the first pitch and put it out of the park. While circling the bases, Williams yelled out to my uncle,“Get that ball and I”ll sign it too!”
I only got to see him play once in 1968 when he was traded to the Dodgers. It was a great game. L.A. was holding on to a slim 3-2 lead against the Giants. With two out and two on in the seventh, he was brought in to relieve Don Sutton who was struggling badly. Hank managed to strike out Bobby Bonds and got them out of the inning. The Dodgers went on to win the game 4-2. Uncle Hank had a great year with L.A. allowing only 3 runs in 39-1/3 innings with an ERA of 0.69, but for reasons unknown, at least by me, he was released after only one season.
In those quiet moments when I think about Angeleno I’m transported back in time and my mind is filled with cherished memories like the one above. Angeleno has a way of doing that to me. It will forever remain one of the favorite places of my youth.
Why Angeleno Ave? I can’t give you a definitive answer as to why we enjoyed hanging out on Angeleno like we did, we just did. It was a wide street and very close to Memorial Park and the baseball fields. Besides, three of our school friends lived there. Jeff Smith and his cousins Pete Smith and Paul McCully all lived on the west side of the street within a few houses of one another. They were in my class at St. Frances of Rome from fifth through eighth grade. Funny, I had friends who lived on Orange Ave, San Gabriel Blvd and Nob Hill Drive to name a few, but their streets never had the charm or appeal of Angeleno, we never wanted to just ‘hang out” on those streets. It was always Angeleno. It was the cool place to be. “If you weren’t there, you weren’t anywhere.
After school we would all walk or ride our bikes home together and wind up kickin’ it in front of Pete’s house, admiring Jeff and Pete’s older brothers “cool cars” as they tooled up and down the street. Both came from large families so believe me, there were plenty of cars! Sometimes some of their friends would show up and there would be ten or more
hot rods on the street. Once in a while my cousin Charles would cruise down in his 56 Chevy 2 door hardtop. It was hot and had a super loud exhaust system! Way cool!
You can’t imagine how exciting it was for a twelve year old to be in the proximity of the cool guys. An even bigger thrill was to be acknowledged by them. When that happened you knew you’d made the big time. I can still remember the first time it happened to me. I was leaving Pete’s, heading home when his older brother Bob cruised by slowly in his black 39 Ford. I remember him looking over at me and giving me the ‘nod’ which was the cool way of saying hello. I, of course, pulled my head back in a slow, snapping motion and nodded back. It was awesome! And as if that wasn’t cool enough, a few minutes later Jeff’s brother Ron drove by in his primer grey 34 sedan, gave me the nod, then pulled over and offered me a ride home, which I readily accepted. That was one of the best days of my young life.
As we grew older and our interest turned to girls and our own cars (in that order) We began hanging out more and more on Angeleno Street. By then we had befriended several more Angeleno’s who were within a year or two of our age. Among them were Jeff’s younger sister Cathy, two of Pete’s younger brother’s Jerry and Joe, Cheryl Hahn from across the street, Jeff’s neighbor George Harvey, Stoy Hughes and The Robertson girls Paula, Shelly and Debbie who lived a few doors down from Cheryl. The outsiders who hung out on Angeleno on a regular basis included myself, Art Vasquez, Bob Pacheco, Dave Morales, and Mike “Nosey” Narez. Other, “occasionals” included Brian and Mike Muldrow, Ernie Breceda, Ron Nava, Everette Thompson and Larry Carlos. There were other occasionals, but their names escape me.
It wasn’t unusual to find us there most late afternoons or evenings just hanging around shooting the shit. Many an adventure was born on Angeleno, some incredible, others incredibly stupid! Like the night we decided to play car chase, definitely one of our dumber ideas. A group of us had been sitting on the lawn in front of Pete’s house talking. As darkness fell and boredom set in someone got the crazy idea to play chase. I remember jumping into my VW with Art, Dave and Eddie and taking off down the street. Bob and Rabbit right behind in Bob’s Bug. We raced down Angeleno to Second Street, turned right on Second to Orange Ave, right on Orange to Third Street, right on Third, then right again on Angeleno . We were having a blast! Each time we passed Pete’s house we honked our horns and flashed our lights, yelling and flipping off those who were still sitting in Pete’s front yard. It was awesome!
We made two passes without incident and were coming around for the third time. This time however as we approached Pete’s house I decided to slow down and pull over to the curb. Unfortunately, Bob was too busy flipping the guys off through his sunroof and didn’t see my brake lights. A moment later he crashed into the back of my car. I was nearly stopped, he was going about twenty. The impact was intense! It rocked us! Fortunately no one in my car was injured. In Bob’s car, Rabbit, who was in the passenger seat, was thrown forward and whacked his head on the windshield, hard enough to shatter the glass and pop it out. Fortunately he was okay, but it wasn’t to be his last incident with Bob’s windshield. A few years later he would have the misfortune of being with Bob on New Year’s Eve and again make contact with the windshield.
Both cars were damaged but driveable. Before the police arrived we got together and concocted a story about a small black dog running into the street causing me to brake fast in front of Bob. Not the greatest story but it was all we had. When the police unit arrived the two officers began by questioning Bob and I about the accident, they then spoke to our passengers.
Everything seemed to be going well until, as the policeman was recapping our story, little Timmy Smith blurted out that the dog had been a big black dog, caught his error and changed it to a small dog. Well it was pretty obvious that the police were a little suspicious. It didn’t take a genius to know there was more going on there than what they’d been told, but they were cool. They finished up their report and after a little lecture about driving carefully they went on their way.
After they’d left we all razed Timmy for awhile then headed home. Just another night on Angeleno. Unbelievably Bob’s insurance company contacted me the very next morning and by late afternoon I had a check in my hand for the repairs! Yeah, those certainly were the days!
Then there was the time some of the guys came up with the bright idea of making a life like dummy. Man we had a blast with that thing! We had this cool mask that we called “Ralph” that we put on it. The rubber mask was sort of a wild eyed caveman with long black hair. We’d go out to the Foothill Shopping Center and scare the crap out of people by tossing it out of a moving car. It was awesome! We tied him to the back of the Paul’s panel truck and pulled him through the streets, we tossed him off of the bridge up near the Canyon Inn, we laid him on the side of busy streets and waited in hiding for passing motorists to drive up and come to his aid. Yeah, we really put him to good use. We even filmed some of the Angeleno antics with the dummy and a lot more. I came across them a few years back and transferred them to DVD. It was so cool watching us living it up and having a ball on Angeleno! Good times!
One of the greatest times I had on Angeleno was when I actually stayed there at my friend Paul’s house for almost a week. His parents had gone on vacation leaving him home alone. They had said it was okay for me and a couple of other friends to stay over and keep Paul company. It didn’t take long for word to spread and soon there were six of us living there 24/7 and many more who would drop by to visit. We called it the McCully Commune.
It was wild! We spent our time drinking and listening to music, playing guitar, watching TV and drinking! When we got hungry someone would make a food run or we’d all go to the Roadrunner. We had fun, but we all respected Paul’s house and caused no damage. Our undoing was the party Paul had on the final night. He was lamenting the loss of his girlfriend and just wanted to have a big blow out bash. Well needless to say, there were way too many people there, mostly people we knew, but there were several strangers as well. Dave and I spent most of the night keeping an eye on things as Paul in his melancholy condition was no help.
Everything seemed to go okay, and after cleaning up the house, it seemed fine, but the next day when his parents got home, his mom discovered some jewelry missing from her room. Some one had gone in and ripped it off! Later that afternoon Paul called me and told me what had happened and said his mom wanted to speak to me. I really didn’t want to go over, but I did. I’ll never forget the sad look on Mrs. McCully’s face when I arrived. She wasn’t angry, and didn’t mind at all that some of us had stayed there, but she was extremely disappointed in our lack of judgement for having such a large party and allowing strangers in the house. I’ll never forget how let down she sounded. I offered no excuses and simply apologized. I was so ashamed. In time things returned to normal, but I will never forget the look on her face and the disappointment in her voice for as long as I live.
Angeleno was ours! Our meeting place, common ground where we all felt welcomed, our sanctuary. It was the first place I wanted to drive to when I got my license, the place I’d always go to after taking my girlfriend home for the night. We were always there! We couldn’t get enough of the place.
When Nosey began dating Jeff’s sister Cathy he was really there all the time. His Blue 55 Chevy two door appeared to be anchored in front of her house. Later the 55 was replaced by a beautiful, yellow, 64 Malibu Super Sport. Later still, Nosey and Cathy married. Most summer nights our cars lined the street, Nosey’s Malibu, Art’s 57 Chevy wagon, affectionately and forever known as the ‘Burnt Tortilla’, because of its white color with various dark grey primer spots, Bob’s Blue 67 VW, Pete’s 54 Chevy, Paul’s 58 Ford panel, Dave’s old Plymouth, and my 61 root beer brown V Dub. Classic. Angeleno was our “American Graffiti” Azusa style.
The summer of 1969 was probably the last, best summer we spent together on Angeleno. Fresh from high school graduation we were free to hang out together with reckless abandon. We did some crazy shit that summer and had a hell of a time! Parties, concerts, Disneyland, Huntington Beach and countless days and nights on Angeleno! It was almost as though we knew that this was to be our last hurrah before dreaded adulthood finally took control of our lives. We enjoyed that summer like no other, basking in the warmth of friendship and camaraderie, going for it all, staying together until the early AM, night after night, digging our time together. Then, just like that, summer was over.
The summer of 69 was also memorable for another reason. That was the summer that my cousin Dave tried to run me down. If it hadn’t been for the quick action of Art V, I could have been seriously injured or even killed! And what, you might ask, would make my very best friend and relative attack me? A girl of course! Yep, it was classic. Since grade school we both shared the same taste in girls. We were always falling for the same girl.
The previous summer Dave had caught me making out with Cheryl, his “girlfriend” at Memorial Park! They weren’t going steady or anything, it was just kinda of an understood thing. Now, don’t get the wrong idea, I wasn’t scheming on her or anything, it just kind of happened. One minute Cheryl and I were sitting together in my 59 Ford wagon, talking and listening to music, and the next thing you know, we were lip locked! We were so into it that we never saw Dave walking across the park right towards us. Had we been paying attention we would have seen him approaching from over a block away!
Suddenly there was a knock on the passenger window, I opened my eyes and there was Dave looking mad as hell staring in at me. He didn’t say a single word to me, he simply asked Cheryl to come out so they could talk. The moment she was out of the car I started the engine and got the hell out of there. Dave remained pissed for awhile, but he got over it, eventually.
The summer of 69 found Dave falling head over heels for a girl a year older than him. Her name was Janice and she was Art’s girlfriend, Geri’s best friend. Dave was with Art when he met her and it was love at first sight. For days all we heard on Angeleno was Janice this and Janice that, it was sickening. Then on Thursday evening Art and Geri came by my house and dropped a bomb. Apparantly Janice had no interest in Dave, but liked me! They wanted to know if I wanted to go out with her on Friday. God I couldn’t believe it. Janice was a cutie and if it wasn’t for Dave I would have said yes immediately, but I remembered the Cheryl incident and told them no.
The following night a few of us got together for an after hours party at a restaurant in Glendora. There were about nine of us, Art & Geri, Janice, Paul, Bob, myself, and a few others. Dave had to work but was coming by as soon as he got off. Long story short, when Dave walked in I was sitting on a high counter top drinking a beer and talking to Janice. She was standing next to me and had her hand on my knee. Dave glared death daggers at me and stormed out of the restaurant. I couldn’t believe it. They say timing is everything and in this case they were right…
Yes, a perfectly innocent situation had just turned ugly. Hell, I’d made it a point to stay clear of Janice because of Dave and his damn feelings, I hadn’t really spoken to her all evening, but the second time she walked by me I got a whiff of her incredible perfume and had to ask her what it was called. She stopped and we talked for like two minutes about the perfume and maybe buying some for my girlfriend. (although we were broken up at the time) Janice told me it was called Tabu, the forbidden fragrance. She made some off handed comment about relationships and patted my knee. Boom! In walks Dave at just the wrong moment, thinks he sees something going on, shoots glaring death daggers at me, and hauls ass out the door. I went outside to try and explain but he was already driving away I called out to him but he just flipped me off and kept on going.
Later we all ended up back on Angeleno, everyone except Dave. We had no idea where he had split to. We were standing out in front of the Robertson’s house talking to Paula and Shelley when I spotted Dave’s plymouth headed down the street. I immediately walked out into the street to greet him and explain what had happened at the restaurant. As he approached I realized he was headed right for me and wasn’t stopping! That’s when Art made a mad dash towards me and shoved me out of the way. Believe me, it was close. Too close.
When I got up off the lawn I could see that Dave had finally stopped and Art had the drivers door open and was reading Dave the riot act. Dave was shouting and saying crap about wanting to kick the crap out of me and just wouldn’t calm down. Art finally got in the car and drove him home which was only about a block away.
Well if Dave was pissed, I was even more pissed! The asshole had tried to run me down! Over a girl no less! I made up my mind that moment to go after Janice. Screw Dave! Screw his feelings! I have feelings too! It took awhile for this incident to pass, particularly since I was with Janice the rest of the evening and went out with her again the following night. Yeah it was pretty ugly for awhile. Sometimes I would see Dave on Angeleno but we we never got into it, either he would get up and leave when I arrived or we would just ignore each other. I tell you, there was never a dull moment on Angeleno.
Fall and winter passed quickly but quietly. Although most of us continued our Angeleno antics, things were slowly changing. It was becoming harder and harder for all of us to get together like before. We had other obligations, responsibilities, college and work were taking up more and more of our lives. The times they were a changing and like it or not, we were changing with them…
The summer of 70 found us still loosely banded together. Some of us were busy with work and others were dearly devoted to their girlfriends, but several times a week we seemed to make our way back to our favorite stretch of asphalt.
On the afternoon of July 1st the day of the draft lottery several of us came together on Angeleno and solemnly gathered in Paul’s front yard to await our fate together. Some of us had gotten together the previous July to celebrate Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It was a great moment in history, but actually more of an excuse to party and party we did! “One small step for man, One giant party for Angeleno!
This time was very different. Our future was in the hands of Uncle Sam and we were about to find out which of us might soon be Viet Nam bound. It was definitely a nerve racking afternoon, even the cold Buds we shared did little to ease our anxiety.
In the mid afternoon Selective Service Officials began spinning two large drums, one filled with 365 plastic capsules containing slips of paper imprinted with every birthday of the year and the other filled with capsules containing the numbers 1 – 365. One hour later they began drawing, first a birth date then a number. It was a tediously slow process. I was one of the lucky ones, there was no Viet Nam in my future. My birthday drew number 295, my friend Steve was 294. We were officially out of the draft. Some of the other guys were less fortunate, Art, Nosey, Pete and Ernie all had low numbers and were drafted. Of the four Pete was the only one who went to Nam. Thank God he survived his ordeal.
Once the guys were drafted, things around Angeleno really quieted down, it just wasn’t the same without them. We still hung around now and then and on some occasions it almost felt like it had back in the day, but truth be told, it was never like it used to be and never would be again.
Even after over forty years, I sometimes cruise Angeleno just for old times sake. Funny, both Smith families still live there and the street and houses pretty much looks the same, but Angeleno has changed. You can feel it. The spirit, magic and laughter that made Angeleno our special place for so long is gone and now lives on only in our memories.
When I drive down Angeleno it all comes back to me in a blinding blur and seems as real as life itself! The sights, sounds and adventures that were Angeleno. Bob’s VW tooling down the road with that sweet sounding, tuned, Empi exhaust, we could always tell when Bob was coming. Jerry Smith pulling a wheelie on his bike and riding damn near all the way down the street on one wheel. Paul’s white Ford panel truck parked up on the lawn, every door open, his stereo blaring, a little Hendrix or Quicksilver Messanger Service. All of our cars parked on either side of the street all clean and polished ready to roll! All of us there together, an extended family, our band of brothers.
I thank God that I got to be a part of it all. Angeleno and all that happened there are a vital part of me, a part of who I am. Angeleno was about kinship and relationships, the place where friendship endured.
Whenever I drive down that particular stretch of asphalt I can’t help but remember the good time we had having good times. I will never forget Angeleno, never. She will always be a part of me.
Moments etched upon my soul…
IN THE DAYS OF MY YOUTH
John Sausedo March 2003
Reflections of the life I left behind, Those memories everlasting on my mind… J S
There are places I remember, All my life… though some have changed… Lennon/ McCartney
Last Saturday afternoon, caught up in a state of nostalgic melancholia, I found myself driving aimlessly through the streets of my old hometown, trying desperately to forget my present fifty-one year old condition and recapture the glory days of my youth. Up and down I drove reminiscing about the good old days, realizing that although much of the town remained unchanged, most of the familiar places I grew up with had long since vanished.
I found myself driving north on Azusa Ave at First Street. It looked so different now. Dick’s Auto Parts on the southwest corner was the lone survivor of the passage of time. Gone were Fry Brothers Market and Gregory’s Drug Store. Gone too were the Mexican Bakery, the cleaners, and the old self serve Flagg Gas Station up the street where I held my first job. I made $1.65 an hour to sit there and collect cash. When it wasn’t busy, I worked on my VW while listening to the Beatles and downing Yahoo’s. Gas was only 26.9 cents a gallon Yeah, life was definitely good.
A little further on Benny’s Liquor Store, our favorite place to score beer, was still open and still called Benny’s! Rosales Market/Upholstery Shop was long gone. At Third Street Ozzie’s Burgers and Ortuno’s Market were still open for business, but had new names, and further up the street Bert’s and Joe’s Bike Shops were history. Zesto’s our preferred ice cream stand was still there, but was now a Mexican food place. It was comforting to see that some of the originals, La Tolteca, Centrals Market, Azusa Sales, Carmen’s and Marchand’s Rentals had survived the passage of time and were still in business, a small, sweet taste of yesterday.
Soon I was approaching what was left of downtown. As I crossed Sixth Street the memories of old town Azusa overwhelmed me, flooding my senses with images of what had once been. In my mind’s eye I could see the downtown of my youth, the thriving business district that had existed before Cal Trans engineers destroyed our fair city by turning Azusa Ave into a three lane, one-way monstrosity. On the corner was the barber shop, next door was the Village Theater. Across the street were J.C. Penney’s, Karl’s Shoes, LaDue’s Cafe, Albonour’s Market, Nick’s Levi’s, and the five and dime, all vintage Azusa, all long gone.
I caught the signal at Foothill Blvd and sat looking at the Wells Fargo Bank Building on the corner. It still looked as strong and stately as it had nearly fifty years ago. Then it was called the First National Bank. I remember once when I was around 12 my mom took me there to deposit some money in my savings account. Afterwards we walked across the street to Foothill Drug Store with its “Happy Days” soda counter, for some ice cream. (Immediately images of cherry phosphates and root beer floats filled my head.) At my urging, before heading home, we walked up the street to the Hobby Shop. What a great store! They had everything! games, erector sets, rocket kits, science and electronic do-it-yourself projects, power boats, slot cars and the best selection of plastic model kits around, custom cars, hot rods, trucks, planes, ships, and all the latest Revell Big Daddy Roth monster car creations like the Rat Fink, Mother’s Worry, Drag Nut, and Big Daddy’s Mr. Gasser, which I bought that day.
Glancing to my right I could almost see the old, legless veteran sitting on his four wheeled, wooden plank, selling pencils in front of Colby Realty. He was a familiar sight in Azusa, scurrying about from place to place, using his arms to propel himself along the sidewalk. Truth be told, he scared me a little. I even remember having a nightmare in which he was chased me down the alley by my grandma’s house. Of course, my fears were unfounded. He was actually a pretty nice guy as I eventually found out.
I remember one day on my way home from school I stopped at Woody and Lena’s Music Store to check out the guitars in the display window. I was standing there admiring an old Gibson when he rolled up beside me. He sat there a few minutes looking at the instruments then asked, “You play?”
His voice surprised me, it was soft, gentle, not at all like I imagined. I had expected it to be gruff and hoarse like a pirate.
“You play guitar?” he asked again.
“No,” I answered nervously, “but I’d like to learn.”
“Well then what’s stopping you? ” he said with a laugh, “All it takes is practice, lots of practice. Who knows, in time you might be the next Les Paul.”
I stood there looking at him, nodding like an idiot. I had no idea who the hell Les Paul was.
“I Don’t have a guitar to practice on.” I finally managed to say.
“Well now that does create a problem.” he said with a grin, “got to have the tools to do the job, but don’t you worry none, I imagine you’ll get that guitar soon enough.”
I stood there looking down at where his legs would have been and wanted so much to ask him how he’d lost them, but when I started to, what came out of my mouth instead was “Wh – where do you get all those pencils?”
God, how dumb! Where had that come from? He looked up at me like he was reading my mind. I was certain that he knew exactly what I had really wanted to ask, and would have told me if I hadn’t chickened out. Instead he simply smiled and said,
“Oh I get them from a private pencil supply store in Los Angeles.” Then with a twinkle in his eye he added, “They make them special for legless gents like myself.”
Again I was speechless and just stood there nodding dumbly. After a few moments of awkward silence he smiled, handed me a couple of pencils and rolled off towards the B of A.
“See you around son, hope you enjoy that guitar,” he called back to me, “and remember practice makes perfect.”
That summer I got my guitar and practiced every day until I could play it. Eventually I even found out who Les Paul was, but I never did find out how the vet lost his legs.
The sound of a car horn brought me back to the present. The light had changed and I proceeded north on Azusa towards the canyon. As I slowed to cross over the railroad tracks I flashed on the Feed and Grain Store from back in the day. It was an old wooden warehouse size building that looked more like an old barn than a store. I don’t really remember much about it except that it burned down in spectacular fashion back in the early sixties and caused quite a commotion. It burned all afternoon and created a circus-like atmosphere on the streets. It seemed like the whole city turned out to watch it burn. It was never rebuilt.
On I drove, past Community Garage, Johnny’s Towing, A to Z liquor and on towards the mountains. Near thirteenth St. I saw a couple of boys with fishing poles headed toward the river and was reminded of “Huck Finn Days” and the Rainbow Angling Club. Every summer kids of all ages would meet at Parks and schools across Azusa, and under the supervision Recreation Department, walk up to the angling club, complete with straw hats, bare feet and bamboo fishing poles for a day of fishing and fun.
A day or two before my cousin Dave and I would jump old Mrs. Simmon’s back fence and cut bamboo from her yard which was so dense with bamboo that you couldn’t see her house from the street. From there we’d go to my house and make our poles. We took nails from my dad’s work bench and use the vise and hammer to bend them into fishing hooks so we could catch the really big ones, but we never caught a thing, the nails kept falling off. What did we know about fishing.
As I crossed Sierra Madre Ave I flashed on Happy Jack’s Trout Farm, the old Ghost Town, the stables, roller coaster road, and Foothill Dairy, where we downed what must have amounted to hundreds of gallons of fruit punch each summer, after all of those canyon trips and Seven Pines hikes. Foothill Dairy, now only a memory, a victim of condo madness.
I drove up as far as the El Encanto Restaurant and pulled into the lot behind the Canyon Inn. I turned off the engine and sat there awhile listening to the roar of the San Gabriel River down below, remembering the times we rode down the river on inner tubes. God those were fun times. On one occasion I almost drowned. That particular adventure began one hot summer afternoon, about a half mile down river from the Morris Dam Spillway at what we fondly called the swimming hole. There the river made a sweeping left turn, then spread out to more than four times it’s previous width. Because of the depth in this section, the current slowed considerably, and created the perfect pool.
There were eight of us there that day, Art Vasquez, Dave Morales, Steve Gallegos, John Montgomery, Jack Fitch, Bob Lloyd, Steve “Cannonball” Luevanos, and myself, all eager to ride the river. We took turns using the single bicycle pump to fill our tubes then hit the water. We floated lazily downstream for about a mile or so, hooting and hollering and having a ball! Everything was going great, but when we rounded the bend just below the El Encanto, the current grew stronger and we began picking up speed.
As we passed under the Highway 39 bridge we were really moving! I drifted wide, away from the others, got caught in the swirling current and was thrown from my tube. I was immediately sucked under and swept downstream. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stop myself. If it wasn’t for Cannonball I probably would have drowned. Somehow he managed to grab hold of me and drag me to shore. I was bruised and my ribs ached, but otherwise okay. We sat on the bank until I regained my strength, then jumped back on our tubes and continued down river without further incident. In spite of my fall it was a real blast!
I sat listening to the river for several more minutes, then headed back down the mountain. I turned left on Azusa-San Gabriel Canyon Road and headed south towards the ranch. The one acre ranch, owned by Art’s dad, was part of a much larger avocado grove, and one of our favorite places to hang out back in the day. We spent a lot of time there, kicking back and drinking beer, a lot of beer. It was also a great night spot to spend some time with our girlfriends, which we often did. Yeah, we had some good times at the ranch, some really great times.
I drove by slowly and couldn’t believe how different the ranch looked. It was nothing at all like the lush, green, little piece of paradise that I remembered. There were far fewer trees and most of those were small and sparsely covered with foliage. Could this have really been the site of all those good times? It sure didn’t appear to be. So much for memories.
I headed back down San Gabriel and hit the signal at Sierra Madre. I could see my mom’s old restaurant Angela’s. in the small strip mall across the street. My mom really loved that place and always seemed so happy there. I could almost she her inside throwing together one of her famous pizzas or grinders. I wish they’d never sold it. I know they had their reasons, but maybe things would have turned out differently if they hadn’t, maybe she’d still be alive. Way too many maybe’s. God I miss her…
I pulled over and stopped in front of the apartments at 1212 N. San Gabriel. Raylene and I had lived in apartment B for about a year when we were first married. Our apartment still looked exactly like it had when we lived there. I shook my head remembering our time there. Could it have really been thirty years ago? It didn’t seem possible. Where did all the time go?
I drove down to Foothill Blvd and headed east, continuing on my little trip down memory lane. Driving past the city hall I couldn’t believe how little it had changed. It still looked exactly as it had in the sixties. When we were kids there had been an enormous evergreen on the front lawn. It must have been fifty feet tall! Every winter it was transformed into a giant Christmas tree complete with lights, ornaments and a large gold star on top and a live manger scene in front of it. It was incredible! The tree blew down in the big wind storm of 68 and though it was replaced, it was never quite the same.
I continued east past Baker’s (now called California Burger), Whites Funeral Home, St Frances of Rome Church, and the Foothill Drive-In. The drive in had closed several years ago and was purchased by Azusa Pacific University. As teens we use to go to the swap meet at the drive-in nearly every Sunday. My parents thought I was going to the 10:15 mass to sing with the school choir and were more than happy to let me go. I’d usually meet my cousin Dave, Pete Smith or some of the other guys in front of the church, then we’d go in and stand near the glass doors in the back until just after the sermon, grab a bulletin, then make a quick exit and head for the swap meet. The quicky church stop was just in case we got the third degree from our parents, we could, give them a bulletin, tell them about the sermon, who the priest was and what color vestments he was wearing. It was a perfect plan. We never once got caught.
After the swap meet we’d usually stop at McDonald’s for a burger and fries or go across the street to A&W for a root beer. Sometimes we’d go up to Azusa Lanes, which was next to the drive in and buy cigarettes from the vending machine. Like the drive in, McDonalds, A&W and the bowling alley were now only memories.
I made a right turn on Rockvale, made my way back to Cerritos Ave and drove by Azusa High School, my alma matre. Actually I had attended Bishop Amat until the middle of my junior year then transferred out, but that’s another story.
My one and only year at Azusa High was a strange but memorable one. My apathy nearly cost me graduation. Two weeks before the ceremony my mom received a letter from Mr. Jackson, my counselor, informing her that I had failed a class and would not be graduating. She was irate. When I got home that day she was laying in wait. While in the bathroom I heard my car start up, so I cut things short and quickly headed outside. I found that my mom had pulled my car into the garage and was padlocking the door. “What’s wrong? What did I do ?” I shouted. She wouldn’t answer me. She was on a mission.
Next she went into my room and began gathering up my clothes and carrying them into the garage. She tossed them into the small storage room that would serve as my new bedroom. Dave and I had cleaned out the room a few summers before to serve as our private little sanctuary. She had moved in a folding cot and taken out the few remaining tools my dad still kept in there and replaced them with me! I kept asking her why, but she wouldn’t responded.
After several trips all my stuff was in the garage. She then went back in the house and returned a few minutes later with the letter she’d received. She proceeded to lay out the terms of my new restricted life. Since I was not graduating, I was grounded indefinitely, I would no longer have a room in the house, I could not eat with the family, my car was gone, and last but not least, I would have to move out as soon as I turned 18. I tried to explain to my mom that I could go to summer school and still get my diploma, but she wouldn’t listen to me and walked away. It was bizarre. For the next two weeks I was like a ghost, going into the house after everyone else had eaten, scavenging the left-overs, showering, then disappearing back into my little dungeon in the garage. It was horrible. My mom was not speaking to me at all, and my dad, well my dad, was the same as always, a hard nose.
If not for the kindness of one of my teacher’s just three hours before graduation, I wouldn’t have walked. On graduation day, I went to see the teacher who had failed me. The class I failed was a zero period data processing class. the only class available at that time. I arrived at Mr. Harbo’s classroom around 3:15. There were two other seniors at his door waiting to see him. We could hear Harbo inside chewing on someone pretty harshly. A moment later a girl came out crying. Seeing that, the other students simply walked away and suddenly I was next. “Sausedo, what do you want?” Harbo yelled, “Get in here.”
Reluctantly I went in and asked if there was anything I could do to pass his class and graduate. I half expected him to burst out laughing, instead he glared at me, picked up his grade book, and went into a loud, lengthy, lecture that addressed my poor attendance, lack of interest, and low test scores. I can still hear his booming voice “What do you expect, you were absent twenty times, late a dozen times, and when you were here, all you did was sleep or fool around in the back of the room with Lloyd and Mill.” “As for test and assignments, your highest test score was a 63% and you’re missing most of your assignments. You earned your F young man.” By the time he finished I was convinced that he was right, I truly deserved to fail and my hopes of convincing him otherwise were simply ridiculous. None the less I tried to explain that the only reason I took the class was because I needed the credits to graduate and that I had no real interest in computers, and had no intention of becoming involved with them in the future. He shook his head and told me that there was nothing he could do, so I got up and left.
On my way out I muttered under my breath, “you just don’t understand.” Harbo heard me, called me back in and asked what it was that he didn’t understand. I proceeded to tell him about my situation at home and all my mom had done. When I finished he looked at me kind of funny and said, “You’re kidding right?” I shook my head no. He sighed and motioned me to sit back down. “I’ll be right back,” he said and left the room. I found out years later that he had called my mom to verify my story. He was gone about fifteen minutes, came back and gave me a passing grade. I couldn’t thank him enough, and promised him that I would stay away from computers, not realizing that twenty five years later nearly everything would be computer related and that my job would involve working on a computers everyday. Talk about irony! Three hours before graduation I had been given a reprieve and was able to graduate with my class and receive my diploma. Thanks Harbo! Like I said before, it was a strange year. Stranger still, is the fact that I am now a guidance counselor at Azusa High. Who would have ever thought…
I made my way south to Gladstone then west to Orange Ave where I grew up. Along the way I passed the Edgewood Shopping Center. Once upon a time The Roadrunner Coffee Shop had been there right where Pep Boys now stands. They had the best coffee in town. We use to spent a lot of time there, mostly sobering up. We got to know the waitresses really well and they got to know us. Suddenly I thought about Marge. I hadn’t thought about her in thirty years. Marge was by far our most favorite waitress. She always took great care of us. She was like a mom to us. I wondered if she ever thought about us. I wondered if she were even alive.
- East Fork Bridge San Gabriel Mtns above Azusa
Orange Ave hadn’t changed much. Most of the houses on the block looked like they had when I was growing up. I slowed down as I approached my old house. The front still looked the same, but visible above the roof line was a huge room addition that had been added over the garage. It looked enormous! I thought about my little 8×8 garage room. My mother had originally banished me to the garage as a punishment for letting her down, but as it turned out, life in the garage was good. After graduation I could have moved back into the house, but chose to stay in the garage.
The room, though small, afforded me one luxury I never had in the house, privacy. There was just enough room for the cot, an old arm chair, my stereo, TV and a deformed floor lamp that had been attacked by my buddy Art one summer night for reasons we won’t go into here. Again, that’s a story for another time. The room had been a real sweat box in the summer and cold as hell in the winter, but the seclusion it provided made it all worthwhile and definitely allowed for some really good times.
Driving up Angelino Street was like entering a time warp. Everything still looked like it had back in the day. All that was missing was us! I half expected to see Cheryl Hahn or Cathy Smith walking down the street, Paul McCully sitting in his Ford panel with the stereo blaring, Art’s 57 wagon, affectionately known as the “burnt tortilla”, Bob Pacheco’s blue VW and my red 63 parked at the curb in front of Pete’s or Paul’s house. Angelino had been like a second home to all of us. We spent a lot of time there, made a lot of memories there. If we weren’t at the ranch you’d usually find us on Angelino, just hanging out.
Up the street, Memorial Park hadn’t seen much change, a few improvements here and there, but basically the same park we grew up with. The rec center at the west end of the park was where we spent most of our time playing basketball, volleyball, table tennis or just hanging out. As we got older and began driving, we gravitated away from the park and began spending more and more time at the ranch or on Angelino St. Still, we didn’t give up the rec completely and would drop in from time to time to see what was going on.
It was getting late and time to head home. I drove east on Fifth Street and considered driving home on old Foothill through Glendora. I turned left on Pasadena Ave and was preparing to turn onto Foothill, but at the last minute decided to continue north on Pasadena and take Sierra Madre home. I can’t explain why, but as I passed St Frances Church I got the overwhelming urge to turn into the parking lot and did so. I drove around the auditorium, (home of some great CYO dances and a mother’s day show I will never forget), and pulled into the schoolyard. It too was like driving into the past. Everything looked the same. The buildings color had changed, but otherwise the school was much the same.
While I sat there taking it all in, I was reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode where this guy goes back to his old hometown of Willowsby after thirty years and finds that it hasn’t changed a bit. St. Frances was my Willowsby. Just then one of the doors opened. Three girls of about eleven stepped outside, followed moments later by a group of eight or nine boys and girls and a nun. They began walking toward the church. As I watched them I realized two things. The first was that they were probably public school students here for a Saturday religious education class, and the second was that they had come out of my old eighth grade classroom! I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Here was a chance to actually visit my old classroom, a room I hadn’t seen in nearly forty years. I got out of my Explorer and eagerly walked towards the classroom.
Unlike the outside of the school, My old, eighth grade classroom had undergone major change. I was a little disappointed to find that the blackboards and wooden desks that I remembered were gone, and had been replaced by whiteboards and aluminum legged, plastic molded tables. Gone too were the odd spiral shaped light assemblies that had hung precariously over our heads. In there place was a white dropped ceiling and eight rows of recessed lights that turned what I remembered as a drab dimly lit room, into a bright and cheerful classroom. It was all so different, yet oddly the same.
- Azusa Police Department
As I entered the room, the memories of all that had taken place in this room all those years ago came alive. Names, faces, voices and events flooded my senses, so real, so detailed, as if they’d happened yesterday instead of all those years ago. There, at the front of the room stood Sister Simplicia, squinting and blinking, rolling back her shoulders, calling us “Jellyfish,” and telling us we had “no backbone.” In the back Cathy Vargas and Theresa Rodriguez passing notes. Pete Smith sucking on a full sheet of loose-leaf paper, the ultimate spit wad. Paul McCully catching flies, pulling off their wings, then putting the flies inside his cartridge pen. Just another day at the office. It all seemed so real, so fresh, could it really have been that long ago.
I stood there completely lost in the memories. I could clearly see Simplicia walking back and forth between the rows of desks, going on about something or other, spitwads clinging to the back of her habit. Paul McCully silently mimicking her. Across the room Larry Coleman, red hair and freckles, mouthing the words to some Stones song with his fountain pen microphone, doing his best Mick Jagger. If Paul was our class clown, then Larry was the village idiot. He was the butt of all jokes and pranks. He may as well have been wearing a target on his ass. Most of us felt sorry for Larry and all the abuse he received, but were secretly thankful that it was happening to him and not to us. I wondered about Larry. I had heard that the abuse continued throughout high school. Had he survived? I could only conclude that he was either dead or locked away in some high tech mental facility. Or perhaps all those years of abuse had toughened him up and he was now the CEO of some large corporation. I didn’t really think so.
It was then that I noticed two young boys seated quietly near the back of the room. I hadn’t noticed them at first, because they were bent over the table working intently on a project. I watched the closer of the two working quietly for a minute or so, then walked over and sat down next to him. He was working on a drawing of a crucifix. After a minute or so he finally looked up from his work and said hello. I asked him about his drawing and he explained that they were drawing the crucifixion and began telling me about it.
As we talked, I saw the monsignor with two altar boys in the parking lot near the church. I asked the young boy if he were an altar boy. “No way,” he said, “ I ain’t no altar baby.” Surprised I asked him why and he just shrugged. “I was an altar boy,” I told him, “ one of the best.” Suddenly images of altar boy drollery filled my mind. We were an irreverent bunch, and oh what a time we had! feasting on unblessed hosts and altar wine, locking each other in the cassock closets, leaving large, candle smoke stains on the low, white, acoustic ceiling, then blaming poor Larry Coleman, yeah being an altar boy was one good time!
I remember on mornings when there was to be a funeral we would sit in class anxiously waiting for Father Rodin to come in, hoping to be among the seven boys he would select to serve in the funeral ceremony, so that we could get out of class. At the funerals it was all fun and games, we had a total lack of respect for the dead or their survivors. While in the procession we would try to blow out each others candles or make each other laugh. I can still see some of those crazy Paul McCully faces, what a crack up. We were always trying to trip each other by stepping on the back of the cassocks, It was all we could do to keep from busting up. Yeah, those were the good old days.
Suddenly it was all too much. Memory overload. I was desperately fighting to hold back tears. “Hey mister, are you going to cry?” I looked down and found the boy looking at me. He looked concerned. I shook my head no. “I’m okay,” I lied. “You sure?” He asked uncertainly. “Yeah I’m sure.” He watched me for a few moments longer, smiled and went back to work on his drawing. I just sat there watching him.
In those moments all the memories, the joy, the pain, the unforgettable, had come alive. I looked down at the two young boys and saw myself, my friends, the innocence of our youth. The boy turned towards me again. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked again. “You look kind of strange, like you saw a ghost or something.” I gave him a sort of half smile and told him that I was fine. I rubbed the top of his head, turned and walked out the door. It was time to go home. Funny, but the young boy didn’t know how close to the truth he had come. My entire day had lent itself to this end.
Truly I had seen a ghost.
The ghost of my life past.
The ghost of childhood lost…
Funny I never noticed the road before. I’ve driven Sierra Madre Avenue at least twice a week for the last forty plus years and don’t remember it ever being there. At first I thought it might be a new access road leading to a soon to be developed housing tract tucked away in the foothills or maybe a private driveway, but it didn’t look new, in fact the road looked like it could have been there forever.
Puzzled, I pulled over and stopped. The road was clearly visible in my rear view mirror. It had an appealing, aesthetic quality about it, as it wound its way eastward around a small hill. Although I was certain that the road had not been there until today, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it before, but that just wasn’t possible, or was it?For just a moment I began to doubt myself and felt a tinge of fear. I began to worry that there might be something wrong with me, mind melt down, stroke or God knows what, but that was unlikely, I felt fine, better, in fact, than I had in years. I then wondered if perhaps I was in the grips of a major senior moment, God knows I’ve had my share, but again after a few moments I found that idea highly improbable. There had to be a reasonable explanation.
The longer I stared at the image in the mirror the more deja vu I felt. After several minutes I began to realize that it wasn’t so much the road that seemed familiar, but the tree. An enormous California Pepper Tree stood near the entrance to the road. It was old and well established, the branches strong, thick and twisted. I knew I’d seen the tree before but I just couldn’t remember where. I decided it was time for a closer look.
I pulled the car forward about a hundred feet into an old circular driveway so as to be completely off the highway. Not that it really mattered, I’d been there for several minutes and not a single car had passed in either direction. The big quake of 09, had caused extensive damage to Sierra Madre Ave and most of the homes between Lorraine and Valley Center, many of which still lay in ruin nearly two years later. East bound traffic had been diverted south at Live Oak Ave, then east again at Route 66. It took nearly eight months before Sierra Madre was finally repaired but by then most drivers preferred using the alternate route. Although it had never been officially re-opened, a few die-hards like myself chose to drive around the barricades and navigate this stretch of roadway, nostalgia I guess. Although by definition we were trespassing, local authorities tended to look the other way. In the months following its repair Sierra Madre became quite popular with the weekend warriors who enjoyed using it for biking, walking, skating and other forms of exercise. After several minutes I finally got out of the car, set the alarm, and started walking towards the road.
What an incredible morning! Never in my life had I seen such a gorgeous sky and the San Gabriel’s were sheer perfection. Even the best of Santa Ana days couldn’t compare. Everything felt so intense! Electric! The chirping birds, the roar of the rushing water in the nearby creek, the soft, wind blowing down through the canyon, the rustle of the leaves, it was truly nature at her finest!
As I approached the road the air was thick with deja vu. I couldn’t take my eyes off the pepper tree. I kept trying to remember where I’d seen it before. Damn! I knew that tree, but why? A minute later I was standing on the mystery road in the shade of the pepper tree, hoping there might be something that would give me a clue about the road, but there was no street sign or marker of any kind.
The road itself was like any other. The asphalt worn, and covered with a network of small cracks and crevices. Definitely not new, but if not new, what then? Where had it come from? Why hadn’t I seen it before? I was almost certain that until today, the ruins of a sprawling ranch style home had occupied the area where the road and tree now stood. I was completely baffled. The whole thing was surreal, my own personal Twilight Zone. I half expected to see Rod Sterling come walking down the road at any moment. I wanted so much to dismiss the entire experience as just some crazy dream, but couldn’t. I knew it wasn’t a dream, it was definitely real, I could feel it.
In that moment I became acutely aware of just how alone I was standing there on the road. A series of shivers coursed through my body as I stared out at Sierra Madre Avenue. On this perfect Saturday it should have been crawling with weekenders but there wasn’t a soul. Something else that struck me as odd was the empty sky above me. A beautiful morning like this should have seen the sky buzzing with small aircraft, particularly with Brackett Field so close by. I was alone and afraid. The only vehicle I could see was my own, parked about a hundred yards up the highway and partially obscured by a fallen tree. Funny, but as I looked at my car in the distance, a mirage like shimmer seemed to obscure the vehicle, and for just an instant, it didn’t look like my car at all, for just the briefest of moments it resembled an old Volkswagen Beetle. I blinked in surprise, and just as quickly my silver Nissan Maxima had returned.
Things were getting stranger by the minute. I decided that I’d had enough. I didn’t want to wait around to see what might happen next. I turned and took one last look at the road and the pepper tree, then quickly headed back to my car. I was definitely spooked. I wanted to go home and see my wife, my kids, my friends, anyone who might be able to help me understand what the hell was going on. I reached my car and jumped in. It felt good to sit behind the wheel, safe in my little cocoon. I sat there for several minutes staring at the road in the mirror. A part of me wanted to get as far away from there as possible, but another part wanted to walk back to the road and investigate further, that in itself was scary. I looked away from the mirror, started the engine and sped away. I didn’t look back…
By the time I reached the intersection of Foothill and Lone Hill there were several other cars on the street. It felt good to know I was no longer alone. As I sat there waiting for the light to change, it suddenly hit me! I remembered where I had seen the tree before! I was overcome with a sense of urgency and though I didn’t have a clue as to what was happening, I knew I must return to the road at once. I no longer wanted to go home. Somehow I sensed that the truth that awaited me there would be far more shocking than anything the road had to offer. I turned the car around and started back to Sierra Madre and the road.
I decided on an alternate route back to the mystery road. I took old Foothill to Lorraine, then north to Sierra Madre so as to approach the road from the west. This route took me through the heart of Glendora. The streets were a whirlwind of activity, people walking their dogs, bicycling, mowing lawns, washing cars, a typical So Cal Saturday morning. As I watched the activity around me, I began to feel a renewed sense of security and doubted the reality of my earlier experience. I was nearly convinced that the entire episode had been the product of an overactive imagination, a daydream of some sort gone wild, but that feeling was short lived, for the further north I drove, the fewer people I saw, and by the time I reached the stop sign at Sierra Madre the streets were again, completely deserted.
Slowly I made a right onto Sierra Madre and made my way around the barrier. The mystery road (if it truly existed) would be coming into view shortly. I began to feel extremely apprehensive. A cold sweat covered the back of my neck and my hands trembled against the steering wheel. I so wanted to turn around and get the hell out of there, but my need for understanding outweighed my fear, and I knew the road, as mysterious as it was, could provide the answers I sought.
I was beyond nervous. A massive shiver coursed through my body like an electric shock, a real bone rattler. I’m not sure why, apprehension perhaps. As I approached the bend at Valley Center I slammed on my brakes! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, or more to the point, what I wasn’t seeing. There, dead ahead, where the road had been less than twenty minutes before, stood the ruins of a ranch style home. The road and tree were gone! They had simply vanished. I was stunned, certain that I was indeed losing my mind. I couldn’t begin to understand what had happened. Before I had a chance to really dwell on my predicament, I noticed a car in my rear view mirror, the first and only other car I’d seen on Sierra Madre. It was maneuvering around the barricade, but the car never cleared it. In the next few moments the world again changed. As I watched, the scene in front of me took on the same mirage shimmer I’d seen earlier, and right before my eyes the ruined home faded away and the tree and road returned, and as I glanced at the rear view mirror, the car at the barricade did a slow fade and was gone.
For several minutes I sat there confused and disbelieving, this could not be happening. I kept thinking that I must be going mad. I shook my head trying to gather my thoughts, then proceeded slowly towards the road. Everything looked exactly as it had when I’d been there earlier. I pulled across the highway and parked my car in the same spot as before except that I was facing east towards the road, instead of away from it. I sat there for the longest time just staring at the pepper tree. I’d been right, I had seen it before, many, many times. I got out of the car and walked towards it.
As I grew closer I could smell its familiar fragrance. A smell, that as a child, I had come to love. This was the tree of my youth. The first tree I ever climbed, the first tree I’d fallen out of, the same pepper tree that stood in the front yard between my house and that of our neighbors when I was a child, same size, same shape, same tree, no doubt about it. How could it possibly be here? How had it been transported from California St. in the Baldwin Park of my past, to the foothills of Glendora? and why?
I closed my eyes and could see the pepper tree in all its glory as it was back in the summer of 61, just a few months before our new home was finished and we left California Street forever. I could see the thick, knotted rope my dad had given us hanging from the upper branches. We used it to swing from our side of the tree to a small, wooden landing built between two large branches, just beyond the fire hydrant on the neighbors side. The landing was actually the floor of a club house my friends and I never got around to finishing. There had been five of us, Bobbie Holmes, Michael North, Larry and Tommy Anderson, and myself. We were all about the same age and had grown up together on the one lane, dead end street. We were the best of friends, inseparable pals. There were others, of course, Ruben Romero, Bobby Winston and the Magdalinez brothers, Danny and Bobby, who often played with us, but we were the originals, the five musketeers, one for all, and all for one, and the pepper tree had been one of our favorite places to play. I remember all those hot summer days when we’d open up the fire hydrant, and take turns swinging through the stream of water, hooting and hollering and having fun until inevitably our next door neighbor Mr. Day would come storming out wrench in hand, and shut it all down. Most times he would rant and rave and curse at us for opening the hydrant and wasting water, but every once in awhile he would actually allow each of us a few more passes through the water before turning it off, and on one extremely rare occasion, he actually joined us.
I’ll never forget that hot, August afternoon when Mr. Day dressed in his usual Hawaiian shirt, baggy shorts and jap slaps, came calling. With a can of Coors in one hand and the wrench in the other, he came strolling down his driveway towards us. Anticipating the scolding we were sure he would give us, we immediately began climbing down from the tree, but much to our surprise, instead of yelling and shutting us down, he stripped off his shirt and shoes, polished off his beer, then climbed into the tree. He stood on the landing a moment looking down at our shocked faces, then grabbed the rope and swung himself through the stream of water. We all cheered wildly. He must have played with us for nearly an hour before finally shutting down the hydrant. It was incredible! Mr. Day was definitely the coolest!
I slowly opened my eyes and stood there looking at the tree in disbelief. It was the same tree, but how? It was then that I noticed the frayed end of a knotted rope hanging from the upper branches. I took a few steps forward and could see the rope and the outline of what looked like a fire hydrant in the shadows on the far side of the tree. But that just wasn’t possible. I had stood beneath the tree less than a half hour before and hadn’t seen the rope or the hydrant. Had they been there? Had I simply missed them? I didn’t think so, but I wasn’t sure.
Just then I thought I saw something move near the base of the pepper tree. I stared into the shadows looking for the source of the movement and saw nothing, then suddenly I saw it again, and realized that it was a reflection, light reflecting off metal. I approached the tree cautiously, and there near its base lay a large silver Crescent wrench. It looked a lot like the wrench we had used to open the hydrant when we were kids. I went over and picked it up. It was real, I could feel the weight of the cold metal in my hand. I looked at the wrench. It was indeed the same wrench, the same one I use to take out of my dad’s toolbox each time we opened the hydrant. On the handle was the familiar painted stripe that my dad put on all his tools to identify them as his, but how was it possible? I dropped the wrench and stood there staring at it on the ground and began to cry.
I closed my eyes tightly and tried to fight off the tears. I needed to calm down, get a hold of myself. I was a bundle of nerves. I hadn’t smoked in over twenty five years, but at that moment I wanted a cigarette in the worst way. Unreal. What was happening to me? I stood there in the shade of the pepper tree trying to get it together, trying desperately to convince myself that there must be a logical explanation for everything that had happened that morning, but it all defied logic. The ordinary had become the extraordinary. Everything had changed….
I was terrified, trying to comprehend the largeness of my situation. I turned in every direction looking for something, anything that made sense. I looked back up Sierra Madre and could see my car in the distance. As I watched, my Maxima seemed to shimmer for a moment, and right before my eyes, my car, at least the one I’d arrived in, vanished and the Volkswagen Beetle I’d seen earlier had taken its place. I don’t know how or why, but it was quite evident that it was my old 61, root beer brown VW! My very first car! I closed my eyes, certain that when I opened them again my Maxima would be back, but that wasn’t the case, when I opened my eyes my old Bug was still there.
I’m not sure how long it took me to regain my composure and muster up the courage to make my way back to the car. It felt like an eternity. Slowly I approached the VW and walked around it a few times in disbelieve. It was indeed my Bug, lowered front end, cragar mags and custom exhaust, just as she was all those years ago, Beautiful! I reached out to touch the hood, certain that my hand would pass right through it, but it was solid, it was real. I stood there for several moments and finally reached over and opened the drivers door. The wave of memories that assaulted me was overwhelming! In flash format I went from the day I purchased the car, to the day I was forced to sell it. What a rush!
The experience filled me with apprehension. Shivers again coursed through my body, then passed. What was going on? Although fearful, my curiosity got the best of me and I couldn’t resist sitting in my old Bug. I opened the door and climbed in. It felt so right. The same little eight inch Covico steering wheel, coco mats and custom gear shift, even the small, rubber Snoopy dog I’d received as a Christmas gift from a young leukemia patient when I worked at City of Hope, sat atop the rear view mirror. It was my car, no doubt about it. I glanced down and saw the key in the ignition.
No matter how real it all felt, I began to believe that it was only a dream, a wonderful dream, or perhaps a hallucination, a flashback from some pharmaceutical I’d ingested in the late sixties. No matter, I reached down and turned the key, my car fired right up. The sound of the tuned exhaust was music to my ears. My head swam in sweet memories. Instinctively I reached over and turned on the radio. An old Ritchie Valens tune was playing, “We Belong Together.” It had been one of my mom’s favorites. Without thinking, I pulled out of the driveway, drove forward towards the road, and parked in the shade of the tree. The words to the song running through my head.
“You’re mine and we belong together Yes, we belong together… for all eternity…..”.
I sat there for quite some time staring up the road, trying without success to understand what was happening to me. As I sat there a scene from an old Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life” played out in my head. In it the Grim Reaper, complete with hooded robe, scythe and hourglass, descends on a small farm house to take several couples to meet their maker. One character tells Death that they’re not ready to go because they’ve just poured drinks and boldly asks Death if they might be allowed to take their drinks with them. Death thinks it over then allows it. Drinks in hand, they follow Death out the door to their fate. Outside they pass their parked cars and the same character asks Death if they may also take their cars? Again, after a lengthy debate, Death reluctantly permits it. In the next scene they are moving across the cosmos, following the Grim Reaper in their automobiles! I’m not quite sure why this particular thought popped into my head, but it really disturbed me.
I slowly got out of the car and walked around it once more, still not believing that it was really there. It just wasn’t possible. I made my way to the front of the car and looked up the road. I stood there for some time thinking about the tree and the road and what it all meant, but mostly I was wondering what lay around the bend. I was nervously fumbling with something in my left hand and glanced down to find that I was holding the snoopy dog. I didn’t remember taking it off the mirror. When had I grabbed it? I was definitely spooked. I turned my head to look back at the car and much to my surprise, my VW was no longer there! It had vanished and my silver Maxima had returned.
Dumbfounded, I took a few steps back, telling myself again and again that my VW had never really been there, that it had all been in my head, but I just couldn’t quite sell myself on it, particularly since I was still holding the rubber snoopy dog. It just didn’t make any sense. The road and the tree, okay maybe I could come up with some sort of half-ass logic to explain them, but what about the rope and wrench, and the car! How could I explain them? I couldn’t…. Slowly I walked back towards the road…….
I’m not certain how long I stood in the shade of the pepper tree, it felt like forever. Deep in thought, I’d lost all track of time. I glanced down at my watch, 4:38, but I knew that couldn’t be right. I looked at my watch again more closely and realized it had stopped. Suddenly I felt a chill pass through me, I was shivering again, the same deep bone rattlers that I’d already experienced three times that morning. Maybe I was coming down with something. I moved out of the shadows and back into the bright sunlight. The effect was immediate. I felt the sun’s heat cover me like a warm blanket. It felt glorious. In a few moments my shivering stopped.
I looked back at the tree. The ground beneath was littered with the remnants of the tiny yellowish summer flowers the California Pepper produces. In the fall and winter the tree would be covered with little rose colored berries that would also find there way to the ground. My mom had never cared for the old tree, she found it much too messy. She had hated the way the driveway and front porch seemed to always be covered with droppings from the tree. It was at that very moment, as thoughts of my mom filled my head, that I heard it. The unmistakable sound of singing. A single voice carried on the wind from some place up the road. I stood there frozen with fear. Although faint, I thought I knew that voice…..
Again I was transported to the California Street of my memories. There I was, 9 years old, sitting with Bobby Holmes in the pepper tree, flinging red pepper berries at Mr. Day’s Basset Hound, Cleo. Cleo made no attempt at retreat, he simply stood by the fence, taking the barrage of berries we rained down on him, barking crazily up at us. In my house my mom was just about to do a little dusting.
Tired of assaulting Cleo, Bobby and I were busy looking for a new target, when all at once my mom began her cleaning, and as she cleaned, she sang. She loved to sing. The front door was open and we could easily hear her. It was the first time Bobby had ever heard her singing. He was in awe. We sat there quietly for several minutes listening. It was beautiful. She had an incredible voice. I remember Bobby turned and looked at me and said, “Wow, Is your mom an opera singer?” before I could answer, he continued, “She must be. She sounds so pretty.” I hadn’t thought of that day in years. She had sounded pretty, so very pretty….
I stood in the bright sunshine, eyes closed, listening, lost in the moment. Although I couldn’t quite make out the words, the voice was hers, I was sure of it, but that was impossible! Mom had died nearly twenty years ago in 1991, massive heart attack. How could she possibly be here now? I scrambled for answers. I tried telling myself that her voice was only in my head, a vivid memory replaying itself again and again. That would definitely make more sense, but it just didn’t ring true. The voice was real, I could feel it! I was so confused, I had no idea what was going on, or maybe I did, and just wasn’t ready to admit it.
The singing continued. It seemed to go on forever. I gazed up the road. It looked so inviting, so peaceful. I couldn’t help wondering if my mom was really up there somewhere, or if my mind was just screwing with me. Maybe I was home in bed lost in dreams, or worse, laid up in a hospital ER deep in coma. It was all so confusing. I walked back under the shade of the pepper tree and sat down, resting against its trunk. The rough bark felt good against my back. I continued listening for what felt like hours but was surely only a matter of minutes. I began to feel so at ease. Her song soothing me and somehow making me feel complete. Sitting there I realized that I was no longer questioning the reality of what was happening to me, but was more focused on why it was happening. I was no longer afraid and felt an overpowering urge to follow the road. Without hesitation I got up, took one last look out at Sierra Madre, then began walking up the road…
I found myself growing unusually tired as I made my way up the road. The grade was much steeper than it had first appeared, and the hot sun wasn’t helping matters any. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath and wipe the sweat from my face. I eyed the road ahead. The bend, which was still a ways off, had looked much closer from the pepper tree. Suddenly the singing stopped. I strained to hear the song but there was only silence. After a few minutes I was nearly convinced that the song had all been in my head and was considering turning back, when the singing began again. I rested awhile longer, then continued on my way.
Soon I rounded the bend and was surprised to find that the paved road abruptly ended. A narrow, but well worn foot path took its place and continued southeast about 50 yards, then disappeared into a grove of oak trees. The song was more audible now, and coming from somewhere within the trees. I recognized the familiar lyrics at once. It was an old Doris Day number called ‘Secret Love’. I’d heard my mother sing it many times, but never had it sounded so haunting, so enchanting. I took a deep breath and followed the path into the trees, anxious to see what lie ahead.
The grove was much larger than it had appeared from the outside. The trees were old and gnarled, their branches intertwined, and dense with foliage that blocked out the sun. I followed the shaded path for what seemed like hours before seeing light ahead in the distance. I picked up my pace and headed towards the light. As I got closer I could hear not only ‘Secret Love” but other familiar sounds as well, the tinkling of glass and silver, laughter and the soft murmurs of people engaged in conversation. What I saw when I came out on the other side completely blew me away! I found myself standing on the south edge of a grassy glade perhaps half the size of a football field, completely encircled by giant oaks. Near the north end of the clearing stood an enormous white pavilion, like those used for garden weddings or other festivities. Beneath it sat scores of people, talking, laughing and carrying on. It was astonishing! I thought that maybe I’d stumbled onto someone’s private wedding reception.
At the center of the pavilion stood a magnificently ornate marble fountain, perhaps fifteen feet tall! Crystal, blue water spilled freely from the vases of three winged cherubs that seemed to be floating near the crown of the fountain. Amazingly, water cascaded soundlessly from tier to tier into a large pool at the base. A few feet to the right of the fountain was an enormous sculpture of a stately lion. Though its pose was a peaceful one, it looked as though it were there as protector or guardian. Its face solemn and thoughtful, its mane wild and unkept. I was immediately reminded of the noble lion Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” I couldn’t pull my eyes away it was all so beautiful.
The spell was soon broken, when “Secret Love” ended and the guests began to applaud. A few moments later a new song began. “We Belong Together,” the same song I’d heard on the VW’s radio earlier. Coincidence? I think not. I began searching for the singer and found her standing near a large floral arrangement, not far from the lion. I stood there transfixed. She wore a white, full length gown and had a tiara in her hair. She was radiant! I couldn’t believe my eyes, for as impossible as it was, the singer was indeed my mother!
I was stunned! I stood there unable to move, watching her as she moved gracefully among the guests delivering her song. She looked so beautiful. Overcome by emotion, I began to cry. I was confused and for just a moment considered leaving, but when I turned around there was no longer a path behind me, there were only trees. I realized there was no turning back….
I looked back at my mom. So much had passed between us. I stood there dazed by memory overload, the good, the not so good, and the ugly. I closed my eyes and listened to her voice in song, trying desperately to regain my composure, trying to forget all the pain I had ever caused her, I was so sorry. When I reopened my eyes a minute or so later, I felt a little better, and realized that my mom had seen me. She was looking directly at me and was waving, beckoning me to come to her, and behind her the guests were rising from their chairs and they too began to wave. I began walking slowly towards her, and she towards me, the guest joining in behind her.
As I moved across the glade, I felt the unmistakable sensation of deja vu. I had done this before, not in real life, but in a dream I’d had nearly two year after my mom had passed away. In the dream we had met in the middle of a large park and she had held me and told me that she loved me. She instructed me to just let things go, that everything was okay. When I awoke the following morning things were better, much of the guilt I’d been carrying since her death had been lifted. I always believed that she’d come to me then to ease my pain. Now she’d returned to set me free.
We were perhaps twenty feet apart still moving towards each other when I took my first real look at the crowd behind her. I had been so enraptured by the sight of my mother that until now I had paid little attention to the others. I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the group was filled with familiar faces. I knew them all! A few steps behind my mom were my uncle Peter, Grandma Pepita, my cousins Janene and Sandra, Aunt Lucy and my grandpa Angel, who I had never met, standing beside her. Not far from them were my grandpa Leo and grandma Lula, my in-laws Shelby and Arlene, Uncle Barney, his boys and Tom walked beside them! Incredible! I continued scanning the crowd and saw my nino John Barrios, Chema, Al Pacheco and Frankie! Uncle Manuel, Phil Davis, Kathy and Brian. Beneath the soft shader of a mighty oak were my Aunt Natalie, Uncle Lupe and Phil Gomez. A few feet behind them was my uncle Lino standing tall and forever free of his wheel chair, even Bob and Mary Lloyd were there as were so many others. They were all there to greet me and they all seemed so happy to see me!
I was in tears as I fell into my mother’s arms. She held me tight, and comforted me, and told me everything was okay, just like in the dream. I tried to tell her how sorry I was, but she put a finger to my lips and told me to let it all go, that it didn’t matter any longer. It felt so right to feel her close to me, to know that she was there, to feel her love. I’d almost forgotten what a mother’s love felt like, it felt like heaven.
Moments later I was surrounded by family and friends, all crowding in around me, like some gigantic group hug, all eager to greet and welcome me. It was an incredible feeling, I was on fire inside! Never in my life had I experienced such heartfelt love and warmth, such joy and happiness. Only after I’d been greeted and hugged by everyone, did we begin walking back to the pavilion.
Hand in hand, my mother and I led the way. I felt so good, like a lost child who at long last is reunited with his family.
By the time we arrived back at the pavilion things were becoming clear. It was all beginning to make perfect sense. I watched as people made their way back to their tables, talking and laughing, so pleased that I had arrived. I realized then that I had not happened upon the road or the reception by chance, none of it was accidental. Everything I’d experienced thus far had been part of the plan, just part of the trip.
I was there because I’d been invited. It was my time, and this was my reception, I was the guest of honor. Everyone here, including my mom, were here because of the impact they’d had on my life. They were here for me, to make my transition easier. I knew then that my life long journey was complete, and at long last I was Home. Home to stay……
Ray awoke around 4AM, roused from her sleep by a disturbing dream. She lay in the dark for several minutes trying to make sense of it, when she suddenly realized how utterly quiet it was. She glanced over at her husband and found it strange that he wasn’t snoring. They’d gone out the night before and John had several glasses of wine, he always snored after he’d been drinking.
She reached over and laid her hand on his chest. She couldn’t feel his heart beat and he didn’t feel as warm as he usually did. She quickly turned on the light and moved closer to check him. He wasn’t breathing. She grabbed the phone and dialed 911.
When the paramedics arrived a short time later they found Ray in the bedroom. She had rolled John onto the floor and was administering CPR. One tech relieved her and continued CPR, while the other tech worked on John. He found no vitals, and John wasn’t breathing. He was in full cardiac arrest. The Techs quickly brought out the AED. (automatic external defibrillator) Four times they hit him with the electric charge and each time his body arched upward and seemed to shake for several moments. Yet there was no response. He was pronounced dead at 4:38…