I’d never seen so many green trees in my life. It was
like an alien planet, with an alien culture living in structures of alien
architecture. After having spent my entire 8 years of life in that desert
environment, moving to the California Bay Area was an extreme shock to my
My whole life, and the lives of my parents, had been
completely changed by a bearing.
The business Dad ran in Tucson had been very successful. He designed
and manufactured revolutionary, portable conveyer systems for mining
operations. From what I understand, another company had approached him with
their own “revolutionary” bearings that never needed to be oiled, and
which would further revolutionize Dad’s conveyer designs. Unfortunately these bearings,
which never needed oiling, really could have used some oil after all.
There followed catastrophic breakdowns. Lawsuits flew in
all directions. My dad ducked and ran, carrying us with him. We were torn from
my happy home in the desert and landed on this alien planet called Los Altos, California,
just months before the historic first moon landing. Dad had gotten a design job
with a company that manufactured automation equipment for beer companies, and
started working hard to rebuild his life.
Through some wonderful business contact (or perhaps a
sheer stroke of luck) he managed to find a two story, 4000+ square foot rental
house for only $50 a month. Even back in the late 60’s this was an incredible
deal. He got this deal because the house, which was a beautiful Victorian over
a hundred years old, was slated to be torn down to make room for an apartment
complex parking lot. We weren’t really tenants as much as caretakers, watching
over the doomed house until it was leveled.
The house sat on four acres of land, in the bay area,
right next to a major freeway. There were trees all over the yard, including
several large pine trees, one of which grew right next to my bedroom window and
made a perfect ladder for me to climb out and down to the ground. Another pine
tree – the big one – allowed me to climb up higher than the roof of the house
and gave me a great view of the entire neighborhood. I had never really been a
tree climber before, but I adjusted quickly. It’s a wonder I never fell and
broke my neck.
I made one friend who lived a few houses down, and we got
along okay until we went to a hobby store to buy balsa wood gliders. I was
incredibly bored most of the time, because there were no lizards or snakes to
catch (this was in the middle of a city) and I missed my huge group of friends
But I did persuade this one friend to go with me down the block to this hobby
store that had 10¢, 15¢, and 35¢ gliders. I loved these gliders, they were
something to do, and I wanted to share this fun with my friend. I don’t
remember his name, so let’s just call him Bob.
Bob didn’t have any money, though, at least none he was
supposed to spend. But I had done such a good job in selling him on the fun
we’d have with these gliders, that he dipped into the money he wasn’t supposed
to spend. I didn’t know anything about this, I just wanted to buy some gliders.
So we’re at this hobby shop, and we’ve chosen our
gliders, and when Bob pays for his he uses some rare old coins that was in a
collection his parents had started for him. The hobby store guy stopped,
holding the coins in his hand, and said, “Are you sure you want to use
these coins?” He said yes, and we bought the gliders, and we went home and
built them and played with them until they were utterly destroyed (this was
part of the fun with gliders). Bob’s older brother saw us playing with these
little airplanes and wanted to know where we got them. Bob confessed what he’d
done and his brother’s jaw dropped. “You did what?” He went to
tell his parents, and the game was over. Bob was grounded for weeks, and was
never allowed to play with me again.
Oddly I’d somehow became the evil one who’d coaxed Bob to
do this. In his parent’s minds there was no way Bob would have thought of this
on his own, therefore the new kid was to blame for it. That wasn’t the worst of
it, either, because the mother was the president of the PTA or something and
all the neighborhood kid’s mothers were warned of this evil new boy in town,
and within a few days nobody was allowed to play with me. I didn’t
understand what was happening at the time, but in retrospect it is the cruelest
thing that I’ve ever experienced as a child.
Back in Arizona
I had been a very social kid. Here I found myself not only in an alien
environment, void of all things dear and familiar, but also shunned by my
fellow children for no good reason. School became a complete Hell on Earth.
Spending time alone despite being surrounded by others was a hard thing for me
to deal with. As time wore on, though, an odd thing began to happen … I
started getting used to it.
A vivid memory of this time has me riding around on my
bicycle with nothing to do, and at one point I just let the bicycle fall over
and I didn’t get up. It was at a corner, in some long grass, and I was just
sprawled there and staring up into the sky. For months the loneliness had been
like an oppressive weight, but as I stared into the endless blue above me I
embraced that feeling, sought the center of it and let it consume me, and then
I conquered it. I incorporated it into myself.
A station wagon drove up and stopped, and a lady was
looking at me in alarm, and she made her kid roll down his window. “Do you
need help?” she had her kid ask me. I shook my head and said,
“No.” The woman looked angry, mad that I wasn’t hurt. She drove
quickly away, and for a moment I felt a bit of shame for scaring her, but then
again, I remember thinking that it was her problem, not mine.
Another thing I remember vividly was my dad letting me
stay up all night watching NASA space reports, and staying home from school so
I could see Neil Armstrong hopping around on the moon. It was all in black and
white and the pictures were fuzzy. The moment Armstrong stepped into that
freezing dust I saw my first computer graphics; ugly block letters spelling out
“MAN ON MOON.” My dad, a science fiction reader and space fanatic,
was ecstatic. As his son I was ecstatic by proxy. I knew it was a big deal, but
not really how big. I tried to share the experience with other kids at school,
but continued getting the cold shoulder.
There was a big art project we were all working on, each
of us having chosen a bird and was expected to draw it as lifelike as possible.
I really dove into it, because I’d chosen a bird that represented my old home:
A roadrunner. I worked on that thing night and day, in class and at home. When
I turned it in the teacher gave me an A+ and it was hung on the classroom door
for all to see. This didn’t help my standing with the other kids — it
made it somehow worse.
I started doing a lot more creative things, drawing
pictures and writing little stories. I invented my own paper airplane designs.
I discovered there were new types of creatures to catch and study, as I had
started finding tree frogs and salamanders. The loneliness was still there but
I was dealing with it, and discovering more about myself. Had I not gone though this lonely time, I’d
be a completely different person right now. I think this is where the seeds
were planted that eventually turned me into a writer.
It wasn’t quite a year before we moved out of that big
old house. Dad moved to another division of the company over in Stockton, the heart of California’s central valley, and when we
moved it was into a new duplex on the edge of town. There were lizards and snakes
to be caught, and lots of friends to be made. Life was much better. I was happy
Years later, though, when I think back to the “good
old days” of childhood, it’s not California
that comes to mind. It’s the deserts of Arizona.
I guess in my heart I’ll always be a desert rat.