A mussel shell descends through water, shimmering with iridescence as it wobbles toward the bottom 7 feet below. Two eyes follow its path. Then, with the exuberance of a puppy, a small boy dives in to retrieve the shell. No mask, no fins, just exuberance. After a couple of tries success. He emerges with his trophy. His father nods approval. This was the perfect place to become acquainted with the ocean – the outflow of warm water from a power plant in Seal Beach, California.
It was 1948, I was 6 years old, and my dad had driven us here so he could body surf and so I could learn to love rather than fear the ocean. Those days were happy. My mother had quit her job as a bank teller to be a housewife and take care of me. My father “settled down” as a truck driver after traveling the world working as a seaman on ships and eventually becoming a “hard hat” diver blowing up coral reefs to make passages for ships to enter harbors in the South Pacific before WWII. His adventures provided endless stories that captivated the imagination of my friends and me.
Today I would certainly be labeled as hyperactive. Fortunately, in the late 1940s, I was just a little kid full of energy doing what kids did. In the late afternoon when my father’s car pulled up I knew that it was time for us to go to the beach. I rushed out to greet him and then to release pent up excitement and energy I would run around the house two or three full cycles just to calm down. Panting and much calmer I collected towels and sandals for the beach.
We were off in the green hornet – a 1948 green, slope backed Nash. At Seal Beach the waves are bigger than in Long Beach so the destination was perfect for us both. My dad was an avid waterman and loved to bodysurf. While he was in the water I explored a rock jetty for creatures. A world of discoveries lay at my feet. Green animal flowers, called sea anemones, decorated the rocks. Sticky tentacles would withdraw when touched, particularly when I dropped a crab onto the anemone. I was enthralled to watch it struggle and slowly, very slowly, disappear as the anemone engulfed and consumed it. A treasure chest of debris waited among the rocks. Owl limpets, turban snails, pieces of scallop shells, moon snails, and crab molts were wonderful discoveries. I was most enamoured with the iridescence of mussel shells. The deep blue, green, silver and black intermingled, a magic interplay of color depending on the angle of the sunlight. How could something change color just by moving it? Six year old minds are quick to find mystery and magic in the most common of things, things that older minds are likely to ignore. Blase was years away and I happily collected my treasures for my little museum of nature’s wonders at home.
Back in the car I had a responsibility. I was in charge of “chasers.” While my dad reminisced about faraway places and a more simple life, I was to have a bottle of Squirt open and ready to “chase” his snort of 4 Roses whiskey. His bottle was kept in the “whisky locker” which I never knew was also called a glove compartment until some years later. Once, when we had company, I was asked to get a flashlight from the car and after returning I announced, to my mother’s horror, that I had found it in the whisky locker. She had to explain to the others that I meant the glove compartment.
As my father drank and I chased, I was captivated by stories of sharks, coral reefs, life aboard ship, jungles, native peoples, exotic cities, and strange foods. He swam the Golden Gate channel and body surfed Ocean Beach, long before wet suits were invented. He worked and dived on islands in the Pacific (Midway, Wake, Guam), traveled with botanists in the Panamanian jungle, and in Shanghai was attacked by a rickshaw driver who tried to rob him. We both escaped our daily lives and shared in the exploration of the planet. Reality to him and fantasy to me. His was of the past and mine was a dream of the future. I was filled with a thirst for adventure, fearless of the unknown, and oblivious to discomfort as I wanted to taste the world in its fullest. I wanted to be just like my dad – at least in the beginning. His stories were often punctuated with messages: “Never turn your back on the sea; Remember when you travel you are in someone else’s back yard. It not your country, you are a visitor, and you had better respect the rules of the culture. Pay attention, listen, and keep your mouth shut. That’s the way to get along in someone else’s country!”
Back home dinner was waiting. After dinner my mom, dad, and I would walk to the local fishing pier and look at the harbor and whatever fish had been caught. More stories of far off adventures. After the walk I would play with toys or read a book while my parents would sit and listen to classical music. My favorite was the William Tell Overture. Our house was filled with love – my parents were affectionate, I was adored, everything was perfect.
My dad loved sea food and we went fishing on weekends. As he fished I would snorkel in tidepools, harassing crabs, sticking my finger in sea anemones, and collecting shells. When he was cleaning the fish I always wanted to see what they had eaten so opening the stomach was a high point for me. I also liked the lens of the fish’s eyes, a perfectly spherical, transparent jewel. I would hold it and see how it focused light – very cool. The best was going for abalone. In those days, one could get a limit of green abalones at low tide without even diving. My dad taught me how to slice, pound, and fry these delicacies. The perpetual teacher, he said if you catch it you clean it. So I soon became good at slicing abalone or filleting fish. Through some of his frineds I eventually got a job as a deck hand on a sportfishing boat. The job was nothing special but the big wow was looking over the bow at night when we were in transit to the Channel Islands. It was one of the most mind blowing experiences of my life in those days. Greenish blue streaks of light xx from the boat. Some were thin, some large, sometimes a round blobish thing would burst into light. There was amazing diversity and never could I really see what was making the light. I knew most of this light was caused by fish, scared by the boat, racing through the water and causing bioluminescent plankton to glow. But the shapes and streaks and sheer beauty of this underwater fireworks blew my mind. Instead of sleeping I would watch this spectacle and then end up totally exhausted by the next afternoon when we got back to port. Based on that I would go to the beach when we had a red tide, fill a couple of bottles of water, put them in my closet, and wait till dark. I would then have friends over to watch the fireworks as I shook the bottle, causing the plankton to give off their light.
My mom was not as much of an outdoor person as my dad but she was super patient and encouraged me to follow whatever seemed interesting to me. Together we created a shell collection through the local library. We would go into the local bay and along the coast at low tide and collect shells. Most were alive so we would boil them and then with a pin pull the animal out of the shell. Our kitchen reeked of dead mollusks and it was not a pleasant smell at all. The collection was a sort of competition and she helped me name and label each shell in my box. We got books and looked up information about the animals. I was also fascinated with fish and she got books that I could use to make my notebook of fish. The colors, shapes, and diversity of fishes was astonishing. I still have those notebooks full of my little kid drawings. I was quite busy!
The ocean was my life, my dad was my companion and teacher, and my mom was loving and nurturing. To this day I have never felt as secure and happy as I did in those early days.
I calmly walk into the bathroom where my dad is in a drunken rage, yelling at my mother. I yell at the top of my lungs, “I hate your guts.” The response is predictable and my plan is working. He abandons my mom and goes after me. I run and slam a door behind me. He runs into it, giving me a bit of distance. I run to my bedroom, slam the door, and jump out of the window, where I had removed the screen. He is now further behind and is unlikely in his state, to make it out the window. He is out the front door yelling that he won’t take any crap from a snot nosed kid and that he is going to whip my ass. I’m laughing and challenging him to catch me if he can. My mother is at the door, horrified, pleading with us to calm down.. think of the neighbors.
One day my mother picked me up from school and said there had been an accident. While measuring the level of oil in a large petroleum tank, the ladder my dad was perched on slipped and he fell. It was probably a story or two high and he shattered his leg. A few days later he was released from the hospital and came home to be strung up in a hospital bed with a trapeze like system that elevated his leg. Recovery was slow and my mom had to go to work to support the family as we had no insurance of any kind. The best option was to be an Avon Lady so she could have flexible hours to take care of us. Eventually my dad recovered but had a limp he called his “flat wheel.” He returned to driving a truck in construction but things had changed.
After my dad had mobility we returned to the after work beach ritual . But now, after a few weeks of no income while he was recovering he was different. The hospital bills, payments on the new car, and an obvious limp seemed to turn this omnipotent and charismatic adventurer into a damaged man leading a mundane life and hating it. Adventures of somewhere else dissolved into the pitiful reality of a man ill-suited for the relatively sedentary life of a truck driver and construction worker. Rationalizing his plight as a victim of forces beyond his control he became a fallen hero humiliated by his own inability to adapt and succeed in an artificial world called civilization. He had been able to survive and succeed in the natural world, the real world as he called it, and in other cultures where people lived close to nature. He was a good survivor, hunting, fishing, and working with local people. But city life where one needed an “education” was not something he had prepared himself for.
Drink offered escape into the past where he was a hero who had met challenges and thrived. He was smart and tough. He took advantage of those qualities to explore the ocean and far off lands. Now in a city, his skills and experiences were not marketable. Here his options were limited and he would be reduced to reliving past adventures. The first few times I heard a story I was captivated but after many reiterations, I grew sick of what seemed to be excuses for the present life.
In those days we still went to the beach to body surf but now as we returned home from the beach the atmosphere was dark and one had to be extremely careful. The smallest misstatement was likely to set off an onslaught of abuse. This was a time for caution. My mother could see it in his eyes and we both knew that a difficult night was about to begin.
He had a “short temper” and was explosive in his reaction to just about anything that did not meet his approval. Yelling, insults, slammed doors, and exaggeration became almost common. In later years I remember coming home from school, seeing his car, and getting the feeling in my stomach one has when one goes into a final knowing one is going to fail. I felt sick. The next morning after one of his vitriolic outbursts he was cheerful and apparently apologetic, even though he never apologized. If it was a weekend he would be happy to drive my buddies and me to a surf spot from Huntington Beach all the way down to Tressles at Camp Pendleton. He would bring his bottle of hard cider and a fishing pole. If eyebrows were raised by my buddies, he calmed their fears by saying, “Its ok this is only hard cider.” They thought this was very funny. By the time we finished surfing he was happily intoxicated and entertained us, at least them, with stories of his past. For me, they were the same old stories I had heard far too many times before.
In spite of the negative side of his drinking, there was a funny and creative side. He loved words, as did my mom, and he always had something to contribute. If it was taking another swig, he might make a toast but instead of salut, to your health, or here’s mud in your eye, it was “Salud a patuse, a viva la pupula fache. Atostu gotsa.” I once asked him what does this really mean and he said he did not know. Another interesting one liner was, “Bosco, the dog faced boy, eats ‘em alive.” I asked who was Bosco and what did he eat. He did not know. One of his favorite poems was, “The boy stood on the burning deck, his feet were full of blisters. He climbed aloft, his pants fell off and now he wears his sisters.” Another was, “Captain Fadink of the Horse Marines, fed his wife on pork and beans. She pooped all night. She pooped all day. And she finally pooped herself away.”
All of this was fun in the beginning then sort of fun with my friends but by the end I hated all of this BS. But he was the only parent willing to drive us surfing so it was all tolerable and I took advantage of his generosity. In fact, he loved me and he loved being there to take us off to enjoy the ocean. My friends were polite and appreciative and they were a good audience. At least during those times, we all were winners.
Back home it was a totally unpredictable roller coaster. Would this be a happy evening or a war zone? We never knew. When I was young my mother was a Cub Scout den mother, she helped me work on my Scout merit badges, and took our den to local industries for an educational experience. She never complained and many times explained to me that my father was stressed and that he did not mean the hurtful things he said. That was certainly logical but totally irrelevant to a little kid who has had a big bully of a father go off on him.
Often in his fits of rage he would start yelling at me and make me cry. That would escalate things and he would tell me to quit my sniveling or he would really give me something to cry about. At other times he would say that if I kept crying he would dress me up in girls’ clothes with a slip, dress, and pink ribbons. As a little kid, before the teenage years, I really thought he might do this, which, of course, made me cry more. After a particularly mean and hurtful session, the next day he was happy and nice, apparently as an apology or to get me back as his ‘chum.” But after a few years of this, I had enough. I remember saying to my mother that I would not let him back in as my pal. The roller coaster was too much – I just switched off. I could not trust him to stay nice and his gestures of driving us surfing and such were totally inadequate to compensate for the hurt. After that I hated him and vowed never to give in to his post outrage offers of friendship. My decision was final – it was over!
Financially things were not good. I still don’t know why two people with jobs could not manage their finances. They took out loans, and then loans to consolidate the other loans. The worst was one evening when the doorbell rang and a guy from some collection company asked if Mr. Murphy was home. My dad said yes and asked what was up. The guy said the loans were long past due and as a result he had been hired to take away our furniture. This really freaked me out, to think that our furniture was going away, and we were to live in a house with no furniture. An unthinkable future played out in my mind – I couldn’t have friends over, I would have to sleep on the floor, I wouldn’t have a desk to do my homework on, no dinners at a table.. and on and on. Although this dramatic scenario never took place, the event shook my foundation and made me think very hard about who these people were and what I needed to do to avoid being like them. I thought they were stupid and vowed never to let myself fall into such a situation. I still can feel the fear, insecurity, and anger. I made a decision, a decision in concrete, – I was going to get an education, earn a good living, and have economic security. I wanted to have adventures but after I had taken care of my future. I would never allow myself to fall into the economic pit my parents descended into.
As I got older his going off on me had less of an impact because I had a life outside of home. By the age of 11 I had a paper route and earned enough money over a few years to buy a boat. This was my exit strategy to get out on the ocean to water ski, dive for fish, and just hang out with others my age who also had boats. Since I could not look to my parents for spending money, I realized that the more I could earn the more freedom I had. This was a major motivation to work, particularly as things got worse at home. I ended up having to get a lock on my paper route collection box because my dad would steal my money to buy booze. I could not believe that a father would steal from his son. What a jerk!
By the time I was in my mid-teens, my dad had quit working. He went fishing every day and drank a lot. This really pissed me off because it meant my mom was working to support us all. What kind of a lazy bastard was he, to do absolutely nothing while my mother worked her ass off to support us? When I was 16 and got a car, I got other jobs and ended up supporting myself except for a place to live and eat. I paid for all of my clothes, gas, insurance, and other stuff. Things were getting worse and worse.
His abuse continued to escalate and one night when he was on a tirade, yelling at my mom, I had enough. I was still intimated by him physically so trying to take him down was not an option I considered. But I felt the need to get him to stop yelling at my mom. I made a plan. First I drove my car a block away and parked it. Then I took the screen off my bedroom window. Then I went in to the room where he was having a melt down and yelled at the top of my lungs that I hated his guts. Predictably this diverted his anger from my mom to me. Perfect, I succeeded! As he went to grab me and “whip my ass” I ran to another room slamming the door behind me. He, being drunk, ran into the door. Once open, he followed me into my bedroom with that door slammed in his face. He opened that but by then I was out the window. Chasing me out the window was a real challenge for a drunk so he ran out the front door to catch me. By then I was running down the street yelling to him to “come get me if you can get your ass in motion.” My mother was at the front door pleading with us both to be quiet, think of the neighbors. What a pitiful circus. I slept in my car and the next evening everything was calm. Neither my dad nor I gave a shit about the neighbors but my poor mom was totally humiliated. She did not deserve this crap particularly since she was the one who earned the money he spent to buy booze and keep a roof over our heads.
I watched my mom become more and more stressed both from real work and from the situation at home. She was the nicest and most generous person I have ever met. She never complained, she had compassion for my poor alcoholic father, she loved him, and she did what was necessary for us all to survive. On the other hand, by that time I had zero compassion, infinite anger and resentment, and did everything I could to make my dad as miserable as my mother and I were. I shunned him and made critical comments whenever the occasion arose. As he would launch into one of his stories, that I had heard far too many times, I would point out a flaw in his logic or explain that he was incorrect on some fact about the ocean. He did not like being corrected and often retaliated, yelling, “Listen, smart ass, I have forgotten more about the ocean than you will ever know!” I made no verbal response but my face and body language clearly communicated disdain and contempt. I was generally as obnoxious as a teenager could be (which can be pretty obnoxious).
After a few more dramatic episodes I made a decision. I told my mother that either he was out or I was out BUT I would not live in this sick environment. I said, “He is killing you but I will not let him kill me. I won’t live like this! Either divorce him and kick him out of the house, or I’ll move out and live on my own. I have a job and will survive just fine.” Predictably, my mother was horrified and hurt. But she could see I was very very serious. What a terrible position I put her in – to have to choose between your son or the husband you still love. I did not want to hurt her but I felt I was doing this as much for her as me. I had a life outside of home, she did not. She was trapped with no alternatives that I could see. I was certain I was doing the right thing for her. I’ll never forget the day she told him. He was devastated and so was she. I felt sick – sick with empathy for them both because they did love each other and sick that he was such a pitiful vestige of the real man he used to be. There were no winners, we all lost.
I saw him once after that. I came home from college and found him in my mother’s apartment. I had a complete melt down and told him to get the hell out and never come back. By then I was physically comfortable taking him on so my anger had no limits. He raised some objection and I got in his face and said, “leave now or get your alcoholic ass kicked all the way down the stairs. Do it now!” As he moved toward the door, I grabbed a carving knife and followed. Part way down he stopped to give me some more of the old shit I had heard all my life and I put the knife to his face. Very very calmly I said, “I’m a college boy and you are an old drunk. I’m just about ready to stick this in your gut. As you get carted off to the hospital who do you think the police will believe caused this you or me? Now get your drunken ass out of here and never come back!” I felt not one iota of remorse! That was the last time I spoke to my father but not the last time I thought about him.
I am at the end of a 150’ ski line behind a boat that is going 30 mph. Next to me on both sides are 7 other boats all capable of going 75 – 80 mph. The flag goes down and all 8 boats are top speed within seconds. I hear the sound of dragster engines, my face is stinging from the boat’s spray, and I know I’m going 70 mph plus by the flapping of my cheeks. All this along with the acceleration was beyond any experience of my life, then or even now. This was my life! It was beyond exhilarating and I was addicted. Let me back up.
In junior high water skiing and skin diving were my passions. My 12 ‘ boat was perfect as it could take me the breakwater of Long Beach where I could always spear enough fish for dinner. Or it could take me to the marine stadium and connecting channels to water ski. I had a few buddies who also skied and they had boats faster than mine. I discovered that I loved speed, the faster the better! I was a good skier and eventually would walk along the shore of the marine stadium, where adults with really fast boats came, and I would “bum rides.” I had a state of the art ski and I got a school buddy who was an artist to create a wonderful creation on it – a hand sporting a spider web between the digits with claws instead of finger nails that dripped blood. I would walk along the shore and ask some guy with a hot boat how fast it would go. He would brag about it going 60, 65, or 70 and I would say I’ll bet I can take it wide open or full throttle. Sometimes, on a good day, the guy would say to his buddies, “Hey this kid thinks he can take all this boat has to give. Let’s go out and dump his ass.” This was great. Sometimes the guy would look at me and give me a flat no. And one time a guy said, “You have the gall of a government mule.” Obviously I did not get a ride from him. Rejection did not bother me because the good times were really great. After a really good ride these men thought I was a cool kid and sometimes we would plan to meet and ski again. I did this for a few years and eventually got connected to people with fast boats who were into racing. This was a dream come true. My first race was the Catalina race that went from the Long Beach harbor to Catalina and back. It was open ocean, rough, and long – 52 miles if one went in a straight line, which was seldom the case. I got 12th place out of 42 skiers, so for my first race and I felt pretty good. For the next two years I lived and breathed skiing, improving with every race.
Back to being in a race. The best part of the race was the first straight away. The water was calm and it was really a boat race. We skiers could easily handle speed on flat water. The fastest boats took the lead. Then we came to the first turn. This was scary as we, the skiers, had to stay on the inside part of the wake of the boat because there was likely another boat or even a skier very close on the outside of the turn. If I failed to keep the turn tight I could go outside and be in front of the boat or skier to my right. If I were to fall, it could be the end. I remember the time a boat on the inside of the turn was between my boat and me. The ski line between my boat and me is a straight line even though I have to take an arc around the turn. I realized my line might hit the exhaust “stacks” of the boat on the inside and if that happened it would melt my line and I would be detached from my boat. In addition to really paying attention to making this critical first turn I had to hold up my handles to make sure the line was not going to get melted by the other boat. In another race I remember the line of another skier, whose boat was on the outside, rubbing across my side I thought if I fall that skier is certain to run over me. All of this is taking place while we were going above 50 mph. After that first lap the water would get rough and then it was a race based on skiers abilities not the speed of the boat. The ski, thanks to friction of the water, wants to slow down, pulling one’s lower body back. The ski line, attached to the boat, wants to pull the upper body forward. Thus, one is constantly fighting these opposing forces by having knees bent and body leaning back with most of the tension on the lower back. The crew member in the boat is always watching the skier and how he is doing. His job was to tell driver to speed up or slow down. Thumbs up means faster, thumbs down means slower but the reality is when you are at your limit of not falling it is almost impossible to communicate such directions. So, for the observer, knowing the skier well, is really critical. By the end of my 2nd year of racing I was improving and ready to be a serious competitor for placing in races. At that point I had accumulated 16 trophys. During those first two years I skied at a number of places: Salton Sea, Lake Havasu on the Colorado River, Clear Lake, and a 75 mile race in Lake Mead, among others.
The first race of my 3d year was in Mission Bay in San Diego. My driver had done a lot of work on his boat so we were positioned to do well. As always I was super nervous just before the race…major butterflies to the point of almost barfing. I was confident though and ready. All the boats were off, the skiers up, and the flag went down. After the first turn I was maybe in 2nd or 3d place and then the engine blew. The boat was dead in the water and I was just floating there behind the boat, full of adrenalin, and sooo frustrated. We eventually got towed to shore and the race ended. I needed to ski. I had so much energy that just had to be released. So back to the ski bum days. I walked the beach and found a drag boat, not really set up to pull skiers, but obviously fast. I explained to the owner that I really needed to get out on the water and experience some speed. He agreed to pull me between other races taking place that day. Wonderful at least the day would not be a complete waste.
We went out into the bay, I dropped in the water, got up, and we were off. At about 50 mph I gave him thumbs up and up and up. I just wanted speed. As the boat accelerated it was leaping out of the water. The only problem for me was that each time it landed it created a divot or depression in the surface. I just bent my knees more and took the shocks. But as we went faster and faster I lost it. The jerking of the line and the holes in the water started pulling me forward. I was tough and not ready to give in. I should have let go but I did not. I fell, at what the people in the boat, said was 80 + mph. What I experienced was just tumbling, like being in a washing machine. Then nothing, absolutely nothing. I thought well this is interesting. I see nothing, I feel nothing, I hear nothing. I must be dead. Ok I guess that’s ok as I feel no discomfort. Then vision came back and I thought wow I’m alive, this is good too. Then I saw my arm in the water and freaked out. OMG my arm has been cut off. I reached over and pulled on it and realized it was attached. I thought, great, everything was fine. By then the boat came to pick me up and the driver and his observer were gushing about how long I bounced over the water and they worried if I was ok. I said I’m fine but a bit dazed. We went back to shore and I thanked them and apologized for falling. In an hour or so I began to feel really weird. No words to describe the feeling but just not right. I lay down and my left arm began to tingle. By the end of the day I was disoriented and feeling really strange. Pain was minimal but the weirdness was such that I did not feel comfortable driving.
Fortunately, I had friends there and got someone to drive me home in my car. By the time I got home I was feeling that something was seriously wrong and I got my mom to take me to the hospital. Emergency room doctors could not find anything wrong. But the next morning when I awoke I could not speak a full sentence. Words came out garbled. My mom was at work and I got a friend of the family to take me back to the hospital to be admitted. For the first 2 days I could not talk nor keep a meal down. By day 3 I had lost all sensation in my arm and it was totally paralyzed. After a number of tests, it was determined that I had damaged the nerves coming out of my neck and going down my arm. After a week or so I could see that my arm was starting to wither, to atrophy! Here I was a teen ager at the peak of fitness, full of testosterone, and all that goes with it, particularly an appreciation for the opposite sex, with a gimp arm. A floppy, withered limb was not a real girl getter. I was majoring in biology and knew enough to understand that paralysis and atrophy could be permanent. This was starting to get serious and I was not happy at all.
Three weeks after being admitted the neurologist said there was nothing more that could be done. When I asked about a prognosis, he said, “Nerves are a lot like women, you never know what they are going to do.” By that time, I had just begun to get mobility in a couple of fingers so I felt there was hope and my spirits lifted a bit. I then asked the doctor about when he thought I could get back to skiing. He responded with an emphatic NEVER! He explained that the nerve canal in my spine was abnormally small and thus I was prone to spinal damage and paralysis. He said this time I was lucky, I only paralyzed an arm. He said next time it could be my legs or torso or entire body. This was a bomb shell. I asked what about surfing, he said I could hit the bottom or have my board hit me. No deal. What about snow skiing. He said I could take a hard fall or hit a tree. That was out. My life was my sports. All of my friends were pals through my sports. My identity was water skier, surfer, and snow skier. That was who I was. I was devastated. Who would I be, who would I have as friends, and what girl would ever want to hang out with a floppy armed guy like me? I was definitely suicidal. I could only think, what good was living if I could not enjoy life. This was definitely the worst day of my life.
I was to be released the next day. The following morning as I was getting ready to go home, I discovered I could not move my fingers. I could move them yesterday and the next day I could not. In one way this was a catastrophe but in another way it showed me how much one’s psychology and attitude affects one’s physical situation. I thought if my depression and self-pity could make me regress in my healing then a positive attitude could facilitate my healing. This helped a bit but self-pity and suicidal thoughts were still dominating my consciousness.
At home I began my therapy. I wrapped a towel around my dead wrist, draped the towel over the shower curtain and held on with my good hand. I then pulled the towel down, which pulled the bad arm up. I was young and healthy and began to see progress within a few weeks. Obviously I had to rethink who I was and who I was going to be as my life, totally consumed with sports, was over.
In many ways this was the best thing that could have happened to me. There was not much of a future in water skiing. Now that all of my favorite sports had been downgraded, I realized I had better take academics and a real career a lot more seriously. Marine biology was my first choice, which ended up being a good choice.
First Travel Adventure
Its midnight in Cartago, Costa Rica and my buddy, Steve, and I are being led to jail. There are no guns and there is no resistance. The cell door is opened, we each get a bunk, and the door is locked. We have been drinking so we had no problem getting to sleep. An hour or so later a really drunk local joins us in our cell. He was objecting and making quite a fuss. But in no time the three of us are all sleeping. The next morning a girl I had been dancing with the night before comes to say hello. I am so surprised and she is so cute. She gives me her picture, it says Liliana on the back. She goes off to school and that is the last I see of her. A bit later the mayor comes and releases us. We pick up our packs, thank him, walk out to the Pan-American Highway, and continue our adventure hitchhiking south.
This adventure began thanks to pivotal events. First was my water ski accident. My mother’s brother, Uncle Walter, was in the oil business in Long Beach. He was very successful and had two boys, older than I, who also were snow skiers, surfed a bit, and water skied. So, he understood how important such sports were to us all. He also understood how valuable a good education was. At the time of my water skiing crash, I was going to a local junior college with plans to go to a state college and get a degree in marine biology. My grades were ok but finances were an issue so living at home was the best option.
Once out of the hospital my uncle said, “I want you to get a good education from a good university not some local college.” He offered to pay for my college tuition and books if I went to UCLA. Wow! I had never even considered a university like UCLA as the cost was far beyond my means. With good grades getting accepted was not a problem. By the time I got this news and applied, all dorm rooms were filled so my only option, at a school where I knew no one, was to go through rush and join a fraternity. I became a “frat boy” and was launched into academia. I loved science and enjoyed most of my classes. Others learned faster but I retained what I learned very well so I survived.
I had sold my car because college parking was too expensive and moving my car every day or so to avoid getting a ticket was far too complicated in Westwood. I bought a used Honda 250 Scrambler and that was both transportation and therapy. The latter involved my having an outlet for those times when I was ready to explode from sitting for hours studying. I would hop on the bike and race through the beautiful winding roads of Bel Aire. There was one vacant lot with a view of the entire city below and terraced land that was perfect for jumping. My excursions kept me sane or as close to it as I could get during those days.
By the end of my first year, I had figured out how to survive without my generous uncle’s help. As a “hasher” I served meals in a sorority and eventually lived in a basement room, intended for the cook who lived off campus. So, I ended up living in a sorority with free room and board, not to mention fringe benefits of female proximity.
Life in a sorority was quite different from living in a fraternity. Much of our fraternity fees went to beer busts on Fridays and more elaborate parties on Saturdays. Sororities were dry and their fees went to good food, far better than frat food. Being dry was a problem for some of the girls but with two guys living downstairs there were alternatives. From time to time I would hear a tapping on my door. It was a can opener, hung on a string from one of the girl’s windows above. I would look out and see a happy face asking if I had beer. I would say yes and then tie a tennis shoe to the string. Down would come money and up would go beer. The profits from this little enterprise kept us in beer so everyone won. Of course, from time to time there would be pranks and one scenario became quite involved. It began with my roommate and me discovering that our tooth paste tubes had been punctured with lots of pin holes. A couple of nights later the cook prepared spaghetti. For the girls who most likely sabotaged us we put band aids on the plate and then heaped spaghetti on top. Watching their faces when they discovered what was beneath their dinner was wonderful. But that was not the end. Some days later there was a tap tap on our door. I looked up to find a shower of liquid descending toward my head. I was not quick enough to avoid being doused with perfume. Apparently the girls pooled their perfume into one full glass and then emptied it on me. The mixture of many aromas was beyond horrible. Our front door reeked for days. There is so much to experience at college.
Now for the 2nd pivotal event. One day back at the fraternity house an agent came asking if anyone was a good motorcycle rider. The word got to me since I was the most experienced rider of the group. I responded to the agent and got hired to be a model for new small Honda motorcycles. In the mid 1960s Honda was trying to change the image of motorcycle riders from that of leather clad Hells Angels to middle class Americans. An ad agent determined that in addition to being able to ride a motorcycle and I had the “right look.” I was elated because in addition to getting easy money I had just learned that I had the “right look.”
We met in Griffith Park near the center of Los Angeles the following week and I spent an afternoon riding back and forth for the camera. It was uneventful except for the fact that to my astonishment, I received $300 for the session! This was a gigantic sum of money, more than ten times that amount in today’s economy. In fact, it was large enough to alter the course of my life.
Prior to this “modeling session” my life experience had given me the impression that I was not a hunk but obviously I had missed something. As we all know looks have considerable impact on one’s social life and with above average levels of testosterone my “look” could have significant implications on my personal life. So, feeling extremely good about myself, I inquired what exactly was this “right look” with which I had been blessed. The response was matter of fact and short, “Oh the look we were seeking was something that anyone could identify with and you look very average.” So, I happily took the money, put my deflated ego aside, and went back to class. I did eventually get one additional perk, the photo of our Honda ride was on the inside back cover of both Time and Life magazines. My career in modeling was short.
The $300 could cover all of my next year’s survival needs at UCLA, thanks to living in a sorority. This meant I did not have to work that summer. This was the first summer I did not work since Jr. High – what a gift!
My childhood pal, Steve Richardson, and I had dreamed of going to San Blas, Mexico since Jr High. According to the article in the Sunset Guide to Mexico, it was the most northern place on Mexico’s west coast where there were coconut palms on the beach. He agreed to take the summer off and we made a plan to hitch hike to San Blas and then on to the Yucatan Peninsula to explore the Mayan ruins.
Steve and I had been friends since grade school, first playing baseball and then as surfers. We also discovered that we both had a passion for knowledge, the ocean, physics, literature, and more. This became clear to us when we would walk from our home to the Friday night “canteen” (teen center) where there was dancing. Our evening would begin with each of us, separately, entering a local market where they put champagne just above the ice cream freezer. With our large Pendleton shirts and baggy pants, we put a bottle of champagne in our pants, got an ice cream cone, paid for the ice cream and exited. Then we had about a mile of walking through alleys to the canteen, enjoying our bubbly treat. It was during these long walks that we discussed Darwin and evolution, Einstein’s E=mc2, how Shakespeare could know and write his plays, and on and on. Our bible was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. We could identify with both Mack and the boys who had stepped outside of their materialistic culture and Doc the marine biologist who loved women and beer.
Obviously ours was not the typical teen discussion and each of us felt lucky to have a kindred spirit with whom to ponder such things. Of course, by the time we got to the dance we were back to being typical teens with unlimited energy and enthusiasm for dancing and girls. A full bottle of champagne was far too much for our young bodies so we stashed what was left in the bushes. It’s great that champagne has a cork that can be reinserted to keep out bugs and leaves. Then when the dance was over our party continued. We walked to the local golf course where we finished off the bottle and then at the top of the hill where golfers would tee off, we ran downhill as fast as we could. Between the night dew on the grass and the steepness of the hill we slipped, tumbled, and laughed all the way down. Walking home through the park and neighborhoods our bodies often rejected all of that alcohol so we barfed what had not been metabolized. This was not particularly unpleasant partly because we knew such purging would reduce the hang over as we generally went surfing on Saturday mornings. The result was lifetime bonding that continues today, particularly after the hitchhiking adventure that I’ll describe next.
Mid-June 1965, my mom dropped Steve and me off on Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Beach. We each had $300, passport, mask/snorkel/fins, sleeping bag, and some clothes. We made it to San Blas but on the way to Yucatan we met two guys in two pickups who were on their way to Nicaragua and needed some help driving. We thought why not and the adventure took on a new dimension. In Nicaragua we realized we were relatively close to Panama. We figured that in Panama we could catch a banana boat, as described by Harry Belafonte in the Banana Boat Song, and island hop up to Florida. Then we could easily hitch hike back to California.
Hitchhiking offered amazing insights to another culture that one could never get at a higher level of tourism. Getting rides was not difficult and the conversations, even in our limited Spanish, were always illuminating. Sometimes people would stop and ask if we were alright. When we explained we were happily hitch hiking to San Blas or Panama, they could not understand. Americans were rich so why didn’t we have a car? We said we were students and we were poor but wanted to see their country. They were still incredulous.
As we waited for a ride we had time to explore the local vegetation on the side of the road for cool bugs or to test each other’s knowledge of Cannery Row. One of us would open the book at random and start reading. The challenge was to see how long it took for the other to identify the story unfolding in that section. We were also a curiosity to local kids who clustered around us trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing. Our cultural contribution to those kids was teaching them the technique of flipping bottle caps, which in those days all California surfers had mastered. We hoped that in some future date another Californian would pass through one of these areas and be astonished to see kids flipping bottle caps. Our vehicle of choice was being picked up by an empty flat-bed truck. Standing behind the cab of one of these trucks offered built in air conditioning and a fantastic view of the landscape. The only danger we considered was, not falling off the truck, but instead it was flying scarab beetles. At 50 mph being hit by one of these beautiful iridescent figeater beetles could be serious.
A few times people invited us into their houses to spend the night. One time a farmer saw us standing on the side of the road and offered us a place to sleep, along with dinner. Since there was no town nearby this was great news. We slept on the ground in his barn. The dogs running around and goats making noise were tolerable but the roosters crowing before dawn were obnoxious. Of course, they were everywhere in Latin America and we never got used to them. Next morning, our host walked with us to the road where we were to wait for a ride. There were few cars and after a bit a taxi came by and our host hailed him down. We explained that we did not have money for taxis and that was why we were hitchhiking. We preferred to wait. The host went into his house, went up to the taxi driver, and handed him some money, and he said we could proceed on our way. Here this poor farmer gave his limited cash to help total strangers continue their adventure. We hastily said we would pay the taxi and the farmer got his money back. As soon as we were over a hill, where the farmer could not see us, we got out, paid the taxi, and went back to our preferred means of transportation. Things like that happened often. In fact, the less money people had the more generous they seemed to be. In addition, country people were far nicer that city people. We quickly resolved to do everything possible to avoid spending any time in cities.
Cartago, Costa Rica was an exception. Each night around dinner time we had a big decision to make. Would we go to a restaurant for “la comida,” which meant whatever they were serving as the cheap special of the day. Or would we go to a bar for a beer, schmooze the bartender, and dine on whatever munchies they had to offer. This night we decided to hit the bar. We always explained to the bartender that we had been hitch hiking for over a month, coming from California and going to Panama. This always got a great response and soon we were the subject of interest in the bar. Politely we commented on how good the munchies were and of course were offered more. This night someone said there was to be a dance in town and a nice gentleman asked if we would like to go. With a good foundation of beer and munchies we were ready for anything, particularly if there were girls involved. As it turned out he was the Mayor. He offered to put our bags in a closet and ushered us into the dance. It was a typical teen age dance and we felt quite comfortable. Eventually we were noticed and then challenged as males of many species do when newcomers invade their territory. We were surrounded and we either had to leave or find a way to establish ourselves. A real fight was out of the question, partly because the mayor invited us and he had our bags. Plus, we are not fighters anyway. Steve suggested a contest. His choice was where competitors stand with one foot against the opponents and then each tries to push the other off balance. I offered to arm wrestle my opponent. We each engaged in our respective contests and won. This was great as we were then accepted and free to enjoy dancing with girls, which as was our priority anyway. Eventually the dance ended and the mayor asked where we were staying. We said we would just walk out of town and find somewhere to sleep. He asked if we would like to sleep in jail and of course we said yes. So, we ended up with a free and safe place to stay and next morning I ended up with a photo of Liliana.
Beyond Cartago the Pan-American Highway was not yet paved but at least it was passable. At the edge of town, we were picked up by two guys, maybe in their 50s. They seemed friendly enough and we were off. They offered us a swig of rum and we happily accepted. Maybe an hour later we were up in the mountains bathed in mist – it was magical. Then one of the guys said we needed to pay them and he pulled out a pistol. We were amazed as Costa Rica was the most friendly of all the countries we had passed through. In other potentially scary places, we never had a problem but here we were facing a guy with a gun demanding money. We calmly explained that if we had money we would have taken a bus or taxi. We had no money. We were hitchhiking which means we get a ride for free. Again, the guy waved his gun and said we needed to give him money. We repeated that we had no money and if they did not want to give us a ride then we would get out but we had no money. They guy and the driver seemed exasperated. Abruptly the car pulled over and we were told to get out. We were more than happy to get out and found ourselves standing on the side of a dirt highway, with no traffic, late in the afternoon, with not a clue as to where the next town might be. So, we walked till we found a bridge, went under, and had a good night’s sleep. No beer, no munchies, no water, but happy to be alone in a beautiful rainforest under a bridge.
The next day was even more bizarre. After a couple of rides, we were standing on the side of the road and a large Cadillac passed, then screeched to a stop, and backed up. The car was almost full of people but the driver told his passengers/family to make room for us. We were off and he asked, in good English, if we are Americans. He seemed pleased and when we told him what we were doing he was beyond pleased. It turned out he was a wealthy businessman, living in Panama City, and one of his sons was in Michigan going to college. He almost demanded that we come to his home and stay as long as we liked. After 2 months of living on the road this was a dream come true. When we got to his home it was paradise – our own room and bath, a maid to do our laundry who cooked whatever we wanted for breakfast, and a wife, son, daughter happy to show us around the city…. all at their expense. At dinner we were the celebrity guests and he even threw a party with lots of friends so he could show us off. Eventually this was too cushy and we needed to get back to our adventure. We thanked all for such a wonderful taste of culture and generosity and were off.
After taking a train, parallel to the Panama Canal, we arrived in Colon. We got a room in the local YMCA and were off to Chiquita Banana. At their corporate offices we explained that we wanted to book space on one of their banana boats going north. They thought we were joking and said they had no such banana boats and asked where we got the idea. We explained that Harry Belafonte had sung about banana boats, which gave them quite a laugh. We needed to do some serious rethinking about how to get home. Hitchhiking all the way back up through Central America to California was almost unthinkable. Too far, too slow, and not enough money for such an extended period of time.
A look at a map made the solution obvious. Panama is really not very far from Florida so maybe we could get a cheap flight to Miami. This was not only possible but a wonderful alternative because we learned that we could make a short stay on Grand Cayman Island at no extra cost. For $45.00 this was a perfect solution. Next day we were off and as we walked out of the airport on Grand Cayman we were assaulted by a barrage of taxi drivers. They asked where we were staying. We said we would sleep on the beach – which way was it? They responded that was impossible. We asked was it illegal. They said no one sleeps on the beach. After at least 5 cycles of this conversation with no good information, we just started walking. Later we learned this was a high end destination for Canadians and everyone who came stayed in nice hotels. As we walked out of the airport one taxi driver said get in, “I think I can get a place for you.” We explained we had hitchhiked from California to Panama and could not afford fancy hotel rooms. He understood and took us to a house with a small dormitory where Christian students and missionaries where housed. The owner was happy to offer us each a bed in the dorm and our normal budget of $2-3/night was below his rate he said we could do work on the property to make up the difference. Again, local people had been incredibly generous and taken care of us. Every morning we found our host and asked what we could do. His response was, “Boys you haven’t had a chance to see our island, go off and have some fun. See me tomorrow.” This went on for almost 2 weeks. We rented bikes and pedaled around the island, snorkeling in crystal clear water, exploring healthy coral reefs, raiding mango and coconut trees for our lunch, getting lots of mosquito bites, and frying our skin in the sun. Finally, we were given some work, to clean out bat droppings from the attic. It was terrible but certainly fair and we were happy to have had such a great stay.
Getting from Miami to Long Beach was far more difficult than traveling in Central America. We got kicked out of Lafayette, Louisiana. As we stood on the side of the road, barefoot because of the infections in our feet from mosquito bites on Grand Cayman, a police car drove up to us and stopped. He asked what we were doing there. It seemed obvious to us since we had our thumbs out. But we said we were hitch hiking. He said we were not welcome there. We said that was fine and asked if he had been called about us since he drove directly to us and stopped. He said, “we don’t like outsiders here and if you don’t get out of here I will put you in jail.” I asked on what charges, he said vagrancy. I said I am not a vagrant because I have money. He said get in the car. He then drove us about ½ mile off the main road and said, “Get out. When you get to the main road go west away from town.” We were happy to get out of town and made sure to wear our shoes from then on.
Freeways were difficult and people just did not see us as savory. Eventually we arrived home. I had $0.50 and Steve had $5.00!
College was certainly educational and we, of course, benefitted from a real education. But that trip was equally valuable as it taught us things one can never learn in from books or lectures. We learned the world is a generous place as long one is polite and respectful. We observed that “poor people” living on simple farms outside of cities had a relatively good quality of life and that these people were often far more generous than city people. Of course, our host in Panama was an exception. This trip was a transformative experience – it gave us confidence in our ability to adapt and survive in otherwise difficult and unpredictable circumstances.
After this adventure, I returned to school, graduated, and the following summer got a job working with the California Department of Fish and Game. I was offered an interesting proposition. If I would pursue a masters degree at Cal State Long Beach, the Fish and Game would pay me to go to school on the condition that I do my research on a special part of the brain of tuna. I had intended to pursue a PhD but this was a fascinating proposition because the project would involve the electron microscope, which was new and interesting, and one of the most sophisticated of all fast swimming fish – bluefin tuna. It, and all fish of the tuna family, have a really weird anatomical feature – a translucent “window” on the head of the fish directly above the brain. One would assume this allowed light to penetrate into the brain but there was no real evidence for this. My challenge was to look at the cells and the interior of those cells to see what might be going on. That first summer I would go to the local fish cannery, pick up a 20 to 40 lb. tuna, and use it to practice identifying and dissecting out the section of the brain of interest. The brain was a couple of inches long and after dissecting it out I was then left with a perfectly edible tuna. I would get the tuna on a Friday, take out and preserve the brain, then put the carcass in my trunk, and call ahead to my friends that a tuna was on the way. We would first enjoy sashimi (ginger, garlic, lemon juice, soy sauce), then have a great BBQ, and end up with a lot of tuna to put in my smoker. Those were major fringe bennies of studying tuna brains.
Some months later, when I was ready to stop practicing on dead tuna, I went out on a tuna boat to get healthy living bluefin tuna for fresh tissue. I spent 2 weeks on the boat, was sea sick the entire time, and then spent 2 years in a dark room looking at a little screen with images of tuna brain tissue. I was very happy to discover that tissue connecting the brain to that translucent window had retinal-like cells and other characteristics that gave insight to how real eyes in higher organisms functioned. Intellectually this was quite satisfying but at the same time the process of living in a dark room was about as far from what I enjoyed as anything could be. I finished my research, published a paper that was well received, and was ready to move on. I knew exactly what I did not want to do. I did not want to be involved with electron microscopy in a lab studying anything even if was a wonderfully edible subject like a bluefin tuna. But what I did want to do was a complete mystery.