In California, 1965
July 9, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
Surf. It was surf I heard from my sleeping bag. It took a moment to remember that we camped near the Pacific Ocean. After making camp at Jedediah Smith State Park, we followed a path between the dunes and watch the sun set over the hazy blue horizon. We dipped a foot in the foamy water, sat on the sand, and passed a bottle of peach brandy back and forth to celebrate our arrival at the California coast before we staggered back to our tents and slept.
* * *
The shadows of leaves danced on the tent walls. My head felt heavy and thick. I dared not move it. Mike was breathing steadily. I lay still for a while. Finally I heard Pete open the Coleman and pour water for coffee. I sat up and propped myself on one arm. My head ached and I slumped back onto the bedroll. In a little while, Mike stirred and crawled out of the tent. I followed him in hopes that the coffee might help.
“Rise and shine in California,” said Pete, irritatingly chipper. He had scrambled eggs ready for the stove and bread and jelly on the table. Coffee and breakfast helped, but I still felt fragile.
“Surf’s up,” said Pete in what seemed too loud voice. “Last night we said we were going to swim in the Pacific. You guys coming?“ he added.
Mike and I struggled into our trunks and trudged through the sand behind Pete. The waves rolled in, slapped the sand, boiled up the sloping beach, and retreated until another wave brought reinforcements. Pete ran into the water and dove into a cresting wave. Mike was holding his arms and shivering in the morning breeze. We took a few steps into the water and braced for the waves to rudely initiate us. We were soon treading water in the troughs between the low whitecaps and riding the water up to meet the waves. My body was not adjust to the cold ocean water. My headache returned with intense ferocity. I staggered out of the water, sat on a smooth log, and hung my head. Mike soon joined me. Pete made us wait while he cavorted in the surf.
After packing up, we headed south on Highway 101. Soon after passing the Park Service’s rustic signs at Redwoods National Park, we gasped and gawked at the giant tree trunks. We stopped, climbed out, and craned our necks to see the upmost branches that were shrouded in mist. When our necks tired, we noticed the sea of verdant ferns on the forest floor.
“Some of these giants were alive when Christ walked the earth,” said Pete as we drove on. “And they don’t rot in the moist coastal air and they don’t even burn in forest fires.” Mike and I nodded, marveling at the girth of the tree trunks on both sides of the road. At a visitor center, we read about an extensive redwood forest that was mowed down by glaciers in the last Ice Age leaving the precious remnant along the California coast. Photos were displayed of the largest of the trees, cars in tunnels carved through trees, loggers sawing a redwood before the park was established. Thankfully conservationists and the government intervened before loggers could destroy them.
We followed the rugged coast south on U. S. 101 to Eureka, a town presumably named by explorers echoing Archimedes when they found the site for a settlement. It was fun to exclaim “Eureka” for a few days when we found anything.
At a roadside diner, a waitress told us to be sure to see the fabulous Carson House built by an early lumber baron. Following her directions, “Eureka,” we shouted. The house was a find, three stories of exuberant Victorian excess—not the usual California tan adobe structure with a red tile roof, but worth a detour and a picture.
The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco were our next destinations. Pete said, “I hate to tell you guys, but the Golden Gate Bridge is not golden. It’s red.”
“OK, why is it called the Golden Gate Bridge?” I asked, resigned to yet another lesson.
“The mouth of the bay was called the ‘golden gate’ long before the bridge was built because of the brown hills on either side of the entrance to the bay,” said Pete unable to hide a smirk.
The bridge towers loomed into view. Massive cables of woven steel rose from concrete moorings and gracefully curved up to the towers. Our roadway was suspended from these cables by what looked like the strings on a giant harp. As we entered the bridge, we were quietly awed by the arcs of the cables, the evident strength of the upright towers, and the closely spaced, vertical cables. An engineering marvel and a great beauty. Eureka, indeed.
On our right were freighters and sailboats far below. To the left were the white buildings of San Francisco covering the hills beyond the bay. A rocky island with walls, turrets, and a lighthouse rose jutted from the currents visible from the bridge.
“The City by the Bay!” said Mike. “Is that Alcatraz?”
“Yep. The rock. No prisoner ever swam away and lived,” said Pete.
“Some might have made it, but the wardens said they were presumed drowned,” I said.
We drove off the bridge into the Presidio, an army base that looked like a country club, complete with tennis courts and a golf course. I scanned the map in our atlas for the Mission District where our friends Tony Cordiano, Bill Poole, and Anthony Anastasi lived. They graduated in Business Administration from Ohio State. We parked in front of an old building with their address painted on the transom window and several mailboxes and doorbells beside the door. A limping, older man approached us asking for a dollar as we got out of the car. We declined and stepped around him.
Upstairs Tony welcomed us and said, “It ain’t the Ritz, but you can sleep on our floor.”
“That’ll be an improvement,” said Mike, “We’ve been sleeping on the ground.”
Anthony emerged from a bedroom, rubbing his eyes. After greetings and handshakes, he said, “This is a dump, but we’re getting out of this neighborhood next month. Tony starts in accounting at Kaiser Health next week and I’m now a loan officer at Wells Fargo. Bill will get something soon.”
“This looks like a tough neighborhood,” said Pete.
“You’re right. Anthony got robbed and beat up right out front last month. So we got some protection,” said Tony as he picked up a thick book, a Merriam Webster Dictionary from the coffee table. He paused before opening the cover to reveal a black pistol. The pages had been cut to make space for the gun. “We take it with us every time we go outside.” He returned the book to the coffee table.
The next day Tony took us to the top of Twin Peaks for a panoramic view of the city, the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito beyond, and Alcatraz in the bay. He pointed out the Bay Bridge, Oakland, and Berkeley across the bay. He took us down Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world, to Fisherman’s Wharf for a freshly caught amberjack lunch, and to Ghirardelli Square for a chocolate dessert. Tony reluctantly drove us through Haight-Asbury, the neighborhood of flower children and acid heads. Mike declared, “We’re not stopping here.”
At 8 pm, Bernie Storc, a friend from grade school who served on the USS Enterprise based in San Francisco, picked us up for a trip to North Beach. We knew it wasn’t a real beach, but Bernie just told us it would be a night to remember. We parked on a street with flashing neon signs and marquees outlined with light bulbs. Pete insisted that we step into City Lights, a famous Beatnik bookstore. Black and white photos of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and store owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti were on the wall. Pete wanted to wander the aisles, but Mike and I dragged him out.
After a beefy guy with a bandana on his head, checked our IDs, we entered the dark Condor Club. At first, we could only see the brightly lit stage where a woman was caressing a brass pole. We squinted and saw that she was nearly naked. By the time we were seated, we could see several stages each with pole dancers. Bernie enjoyed watching us gape at the go-go dancers.
“We’re not in Ohio, anymore,” I said to Mike and Pete. Bernie laughed. We were speechless as we turned from one dancer to another. In a few minutes, Bernie said, “What do you want to drink?” and pointed across the table. I turned and was inches from a topless waitress leaning toward me with a pad and pencil in her hand. After several vocalized pauses, I stammered an order for a beer. When she wrote down our order, Bernie was convulsed in laughter.
We gawked at the passing waitresses as well as the stages. Each time we called for another round, we were rewarded with an eye level show. We had several rounds. Bernie got us back to Tony’s apartment. After Bernie banged on the apartment door at the top of the stairs, I remembered the gun in the dictionary. Tony opened the door and was amused when Bernie explained that we had been to the Condor Club.
Late the next morning, we thanked our hosts and found US 101 South. We saw Candlestick Park where Willie Mays was hitting home runs into the bay while the fans shivered. We made our way to the coast at Half Moon Bay. Highway 1 followed the blue Pacific, climbing high above the rocky coast and dropping down to sea level as the terrain dictated. We followed the shoreline around coves and bays. Pete and I snapped pictures for a while, but the postcard vistas kept coming. We stopped to conserve film.
At lunch in Carmel, not far from the Pebble Beach golf course with fairways bordering the ocean, hazy blue mountains dominated the view to the east. “God’s country!” exclaimed Mike. “Why not live here instead of the flat cornfields of Ohio?”
The cliffs of Big Sur rose abruptly from the sea. I reported that the atlas said Big Sur was the highest mountain near an ocean in the country. We drove through thick pine forests to our campground. Pete suggested we detour to Hearst Castle, but admission was $12 and Mike and I nixed it. Mike preferred nature, and I was low on cash. Pete then told us Ferlinghetti had a cabin at Big Sur and Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter Thompson spent time writing there. I nodded respectfully. Mike said, “If they were Beatniks, I couldn’t care less.”
The traffic picked up as we approached Los Angeles. Every interchange was a cloverleaf and some had flyover lanes. Smog hovered above the city. We drove for over an hour in the city. With the map in my lap, I directed Pete to the Harbor Freeway and the exit near Mike’s bachelor Uncle Jerry’s home. He came out of his bungalow as we pulled up, greeted us warmly, and helped us get our duffel bags into his finished basement with two couches and a cot.
After lunch, Jerry shared a map with all the sights highlighted in yellow. Sea World, Universal Studios, Sunset Strip, the Hollywood sign, LaBrea Tar Pits, Venice Beach, and the Queen Mary. We decided that we could find the Queen Mary in Long Beach and maybe stop at Venice Beach. After our tour of the ocean liner, we found ourselves stopping and starting in traffic on a freeway with a speed limit of 70. We returned to Uncle Jerry’s in time for a dinner of pizza, beer, and wine on the patio. Palm trees towered over the one-story houses.
“You boys want to have some fun downtown? You’re all 21 or older?” said Mike’s uncle rubbing his hands. We piled into his Pontiac convertible. He tossed the keys to the valet in front of the Silver Dollar Club. We followed him into the dark club hoping for more pole dancers, but finding one large, curtained stage. We were seated at a long table near center stage. The waitresses wore fishnet stockings, but were covered much more than those at the Condor Club.
A tuxedoed announcer emerged from the folds of the red velvet curtain and said the “Show of Shows” was about to begin, advised us to order another drink now and enjoy the best review in Los Angeles. When the curtain rose, lively music filled the air, and a chorus line of dancers kicked their legs high, waved their arms, and smiled broadly. They kept our attention, but we had been to the Condor Club. After a couple of numbers, the dancers slipped off the top of their costumes to reveal bikini tops. More interesting. Not long after that, the bikini tops came off leaving only strategically positioned gold stars with tassels. Not topless, but almost. The tall blonde in the center of the line stepped forward to the edge of the stage, began to sway to the music and twirl her tassels. Soon the entire chorus line was a blur of twirling tassels. Then they reversed direction. Quite a show. Pete, Mike, and I were agape. Uncle Jerry was clapping and smiling broadly at the rubes from the Midwest.
The next day we saw an old west facade at Universal Studios, drove down an unimpressive Sunset Strip, glanced at the Hollywood sign on the mountain side, visited the tar pits, and strolled along Venice Beach. The bikinis were not quite as alluring to us as they would have been a week earlier.
We thanked Mike’s uncle for his hospitality and headed home. We had all watched the “Route 66” TV show and knew the words to the theme song. Our Corvair was not George Maharis’ red Corvette and we were not “winding from Chicago to LA,” but we got our kicks by singing the theme of “Route 66.”
Now you go through Saint Looey
And Oklahoma City is mighty pretty.
You see Amarillo,
Gallup, New Mexico,
Don’t forget Winona,
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino.
We sang these words many times, sometimes softly while others were sleeping and other times all three of us belted out the chorus:
Get your kicks on Route sixty-six.