Sunday, June 7, 2009

Chapter I The Author talks about his Childhood

I was born at St. John's Hospital, Santa Monica on December 29, 1952.

I'm pretty sure my father was not present for the birth of sons 2 and 3. He had wanted to name us Chester and Lester but as a separated spouse he had little negotiating room. My father's sister, Lois, had driven my very immobile mother to the hospital and waited out the natural birth. I appeared first, identified by a small birthmark on my lower back, then 2 minutes later came Randy. I was named obliquely in remembrance of my maternal Grandfather, taking Shannon as a middle name for Schmuel, with a tip of the hat to my father's Irish roots.

This first noteworthy event in my life took place just weeks before the action of the film noir L.A. Confidential. Of course, growing up, I had no inkling of that darker side of Los Angeles. My father as a bar-keep knew of every sort of racket and vice but made it a point never to discuss that side of Los Angeles. Ironically, as an adult, I must have known more people involved one way or other in nefarious dealings but never felt at risk nor was threatened by organized crime elements. Yes, there was some brick-throwing (in both the figurative and literal sense) by one or two of the groups I worked with in the early 80's.

I grew up in a household of four children tended by a Mexican American housekeeper called Socorro Hernandez. Ostensibly, my mother Nancy lived in the same house but as she had a full time career as an educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I saw little of her, growing up. My father, Gordon, later a well to do restaurateur in one of Los Angeles' business districts, had moved out of the marital house some months before our birth. My older siblings, the eldest, Kathy (Kathleen) four years older and Buster (Gordon Jr., later dubbed by me in the 60's Gif, for his initials) just 18 months senior, must have had some awareness of the break-up of the family. But for Robbie and Randy, the father who came visiting every Saturday, fragrantly reeking of the finest cigars, clean-shaven but with a rough beard that begged to be wet kissed, seemingly always laden with gifts was the idolized hero-father; and heroine-like, too, was our mother slashing her way through academe, first a bachelor's at the newly opened junior branch of the University of California, U.C.L.A., bearing four children before picking up a master's at the prestigious University of Southern California.

The mother was now preparing for her doctorate in Education. The boys, all three of them had to share a room in their California days; the first home for the twins was an absurdly modest tract house in Pacoima (Mom was not much of a cleaner and liked new things rather than fixing the old - she gave up on a slightly older house in the soon to be fashionable Sherman Oaks for something new and "cute") that was never a choice location and soon became one of the worst gang ridden neighborhoods in The City of the Angels.

A few years later, in 1956, Mom re-married to Arthur Gayer, a strange man who desperately wanted to be paterfamilias but who never quite fathomed that there was a perfectly good one already in the children's life. When, a few years later, we left Art behind for distant shores, there was no missing him, perhaps, only those Sunday morning pancakes which he had a real talent for tossing. I was a toddler in Pacoima so my memories are few and mainly horrific. Socorro was living next door with her sister Armida and her German American husband Leroy and their two all-American boys (the younger one was to come back 25 years later from Vietnam utterly demoralized). At this time, Socorro was still a habitual drinker and she shared babysitting the Fields children with a succession of other housekeepers, some of whom physically resembled the fictional character Corrina Washington in the film Corrina, Corrina but neither possessed Whoopi Goldberg's charisma nor her character's good naturedness. There was one particular lady who made us eat faeces as some sort of punishment. Physical abuse was the rule rather than the exception, so much so that we came to love Soakie as a surrogate mother even though she routinely swatted us about the head.

My most vivid memory from this time was from playing in our front yard, the grassy area between house and street curb. I must have heard something as I looked up towards the sky and saw an object unknown to a toddler, an airplane, falling straight down in the distance. The plane, belonging to the military, crashed into a school playground not far from our house; the disaster was significant enough for that era to make it a generation later into the opening of the film La Bamba, as some sort of leitmotif or portent of impending doom for another Pacoima resident, the very young Richard Valenzuela (Richie Valens), just entering his teen years. The Pacoima years came mercifully to an end in 1957, just as the Santa Ana Freeway was extended into the heart of Orange County, California. As the Freeway went, new housing tracts sprouted like ordered dandelions, shaded by the few remaining orange trees, remnants of the groves that gave the county its sobriquet.

The month we moved, the Freeway had been built as far as Anaheim and so that was where the newlywed, Nancy and Arthur Gayer set up home with her four children. This time, ours was a slightly larger house; now there was a room for Socorro who made the move with us. Kathy had her own room, decked out like any other pre-adolescent girl in those late Eisenhower years. Her idols were baseball players like Don Drysdale of the L.A. Dodgers (almost 40 years later my daughter would attend the same school in Rancho Mirage, California as his youngest 2 sons), young teen hearthrobs like Fabian and, perhaps, our cousin by marriage, the actor Tim Considine. We grew up watching American Bandstand and Friday nights, it was always My Three Sons with cousin Tim appearing as Mike Douglas. Kathy has reminded me that our Aunt Lois arranged for Kathy's visit to the studio to catch a taping of the #1 rated show and meet the original Shaggy Dog. And how did the boys fare? We were consigned to share the last bedroom, to fight for the meager spoils of attention and the few unbroken toys.

Despite the number of children present, we had one of the few houses without a swimming pool in the back yard. Our father was not about to build a pool for the Gayers but he saw to it that we were enrolled at the nearby Sammy Lee swimming and diving center where we learned to swim at a suitably young age. I used to walk to my first school, Clara Barton on Nutwood Avenue. As the father of a school age daughter now, it hardly seems possible that young children did not need to be chauffeured to school just a generation ago. It must have been a walk of some 600 yards that involved crossing at least one street with cross traffic. Buster was already a couple of grades ahead. Randy and I were separated into different classes.

One of my first memories from kindergarten or first grade was making sure I lined up behind one particular girl as we awaited our turn on the metal slide, her torn underwear revealing a mystery that I was not to understand fully for some years. I did not have a problem with school work; in fact, most of the time I was bored in class. Robert had to have been a very popular name in 1952; by the time those male children reached the classroom, there were something like 5 Roberts just in my class. The first of many attempts was made to convert me to a "Bob" or "Bobby" but I successfully resisted. Only my grandmother Dorothy's use of Robert was tolerated. My most vivid memories from those early school years was not actually of the classroom but of the field trips we used to take. There was the dairy farm, probably located in modern day Artesia, since relocated to the Chino area. Alfalfa, that was the word and smell I learnt that day. More significant was the visit to the nearby trumpet workshop. There we watched craftsmen construct from molten brass the dozens of parts that came to be a fine musical instrument, fine in its sheen and tone. Coupled with the notion that the trumpet player always seemed to have "fun" in the movies, I knew which instrument was for me when I had the opportunity a few years later to choose an instrument to learn.

Later in life, when I came to work with many young men from Orange County, I sensed that they never quite understood that I knew something of their experience growing up there; I was always to be seen as an outsider. Only much later, after his own bout with booze and drugs, did my good friend Indrek "Paul" Kostabi from nearby Whittier understand that it was possible for someone like me to have grown up amidst the orange trees and backyard swimming pools; but then he and his brother Mark, the infamous art polemicist had moved to New York and made their names there. And in a quirk of fate, it was Paul and Mark’s father, Kaljo Kostabi, an Estonian master craftsman that I had witnessed forming a bell of a trumpet in that Anaheim workshop 30 years before; now I was able to greet Mr. Kostabi "tere", hello, in his native tongue.

By the time I was eight I had started to read the Los Angeles Times on a daily basis. I must have picked up heady ideas from that august journal as I started to act up in class in earnest. Soon after school recommenced after the 1961 summer vacation, things reached a flash point with my trying to run a new, young female teacher's classroom for her. The mental, argumentative tussle gave way to a physical one with an allegation that the child had assaulted the teacher. My mother was soon on the scene, charming everyone but settling for the uncomfortable solution of having to ask my absent father to pay private school fees for his gifted but wayward child. I lasted a day, I think at some school housed in a sprawling old Victorian. The older children loved throwing over-ripe avocadoes on the new children's feet and could not understand if one or two felt the appropriate response was fisticuffs. My mother accepted the generous offer of her brother Sol and his wife Dorothy to have me live with them in Richmond, California across the bay from San Francisco. The first problem to be dealt with, prior to my actually going to school, was my chronic bed-wetting, a trait shared by Randy. Oh, how they tried to cure me of my right to go swimming right in my own (or their) bed!

My behavior was so ingrained by this time and so tolerated at home, my brain was not about to change its way of dealing with diurnal stress by relishing nocturnal incontinence. My uncle Sol was a nice guy and I think, the complete opposite, of his elder sister, my mother, Nancy. As a Jew, growing up in an impoverished family in the Los Angeles ghetto of Boyle Heights, he sought always to blend into mainstream American society and never to stick out like a sore thumb. He attended Notre Dame, obtained a doctorate as a chemist and went to work for one of the big oil companies, spending the latter part of his life in Houston. He was an observant Jew unlike my mother who rarely if ever mentioned her background and heritage to us.

My uncle and aunt had two sons, Scott and Mark who were older than I and whose instilled self confidence struck me as arrogance. Later they would disappoint the aspirations of their parents by further blending into American society by marrying outside the faith. My mother had a strange habit of deriding her younger brother to us, her children. There was the matter in the early 50's, during the McCarthy witchhunts when an older sister's, Lita's, involvement with a communist husband was thought to have been potentially damaging to Sol's career. Somehow Sol had not acted up to my mother's yardstick for mensch-like behavior. That this business was so far above our heads did not stop my mother from harping on about it. At least my visit to Richmond gave me knowledge that I had cousins. Unfortunately, my father's sole sibling, my beloved Aunt Lois died childless so it was up to my mother's side to provide the cousins, which it did by the basketful. But these cousins were almost entirely strangers, indeed, unknown to us for the most part. It was only when I was 18 that I met for the first time my impoverished Aunt Ruthie's family; there was the distant Aunt Lita but with a daughter in California. Two uncles with psychiatric problems were hospitalized at the state's expense; before he was committed for good to the state hospital at Camarillo, Jimmy lived in the bohemian atmosphere that was Venice, California of the 50's before the gentrification of the 70's. Philip was already too far gone in his psychosis, interned for life at the Norwalk hospital.

Now that these siblings of my mother's generation are nudging 80, they (the non-committed ones) have found the will to scurry about and be a family again. Perhaps, armed with our knowledge of the poverty of living without family contact, I and my siblings have made it very much a point to keep our generation of cousins in touch and very much in mind, despite living on different continents. I must have been in the Richmond area a month or so; attending school there was largely uneventful. But I must have sought a speedy return, preferring the mayhem of the Anaheim house over the ordered nature of the Davison household.

My mother, ever resourceful, had prevailed on the Anaheim schools to transfer me to the one 3rd. grade class in the district taught by a male teacher. Fortunately his classroom was not far away at James Madison, further down Nutwood Avenue, just before Ball Road. It was possible to bicycle there in relative safety. Entering Mr. Grant's classroom was as a biblical deliverance for me. Bill Grant believed in teaching by ability so he had divided his class into different reading groups, each child proceeding at their own ability level. I was crestfallen to be placed into the #2 group. "If you can handle the work, you'll be moved up." How I studied and paid attention in class. I counted myself lucky that I was to remain 6 months in that class and acquire a very good measure of academic self-confidence that was to be invaluable later in life.

Years later, in the early 70's I found Mr. Grant at home with his family in Costa Mesa, a bedroom community nestled between the better known cities of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.

There I was, a mature male of 18, speaking in a plummy English accent and not only did Bill Grant recognize me but he remembered more details about my family than I did myself. I had come to thank him for that stay in his classroom. I left humbled by the experience. In 1971, I also looked up my first sweetheart, Linda W., a fellow pupil at Madison. I used to visit at her home and 9 years after we had bid goodbye, I could still locate the family residence. But it was an awkward, nay, embarrassing reunion. She could not for the life of her remember ever knowing a Robbie Fields and she certainly couldn't reconcile this English dandy with someone she might have gone to school with. She soon begged off, explaining she had to get ready that day for her job in food service at nearby Disneyland. In those days, the summers were endless. The long summer breaks from school were largely monotonous.

My tenth summer, that of 1962, was to prove different. Somehow I heard that the key to going to sought after summer camp was through selling boy scout cookies. I took to door to door selling with the gung ho enthusiasm I would show throughout my adolescence. I sold far more than enough boxes of whatever I was selling to ensure I could go to camp all summer long. In fact, I traded up from going to plain vanilla day camp with just one overnight camp-out, to spending one of my weeks that summer at Camp Osceola in the San Bernardino Mountains. It was a picture straight out of The Parent Trap: a bunch of boys sharing a wooden cabin and eating hearty food in a mess hall. Somehow I got away with wetting the bed; I don't remember getting teased for it; for all I know the whole cabin woke up wet. My most poignant memory is of my first trip to the swimming pool and I found myself staring at a slightly overweight boy who seemed to be having a hard time of it, playing by himself. Then I realized : the boy reminded me of Randy and for the first time in my life I really missed my twin brother. Yet throw us together anywhere else and we'd be fighting!

Throughout my childhood we had an unusual family life as we never went on vacation together as a family. During adolescence we went on plenty of holidays but almost never with other members of the family and certainly not as a family. The only occasion when we actually went somewhere as a family was an overnight trip that summer of 1962 that we took to Tempe, Arizona. My mother needed to do something at the university located there so she decided to pile us all into the car and drive. And I mean drive. This was before the interstate highway system and more significantly it was in the middle of the Arizona summer when temperatures are almost always in excess of 115 degrees fahrenheit (47 degrees celsius). When we arrived at our very first motel, we felt we had fallen into the lap of luxury such was the impression that clean bedding had on us. And the pool! Glistening blue at midnight with the air temperature still over 100 degrees. Perhaps, the trip to Tempe was a dry run for my mother to see how she would cope on a much longer voyage.

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