My Splendid, Carefree Summer
September 29, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
The summer of ’66. A splendid, carefree season of my life, a time for me to remember when thing’s are not going my way. The summers that followed were good, but not quite splendid, and certainly not carefree.
A summer internship at the City of Berkeley awaited me. My Pittsburgh Plate Glass Fellowship would cover my living expenses as well as books and tuition for my next and last year of graduate school. The stipend was so generous that I banked part of the living allowance for the first year. For the first time in my life, I could spend my entire paycheck from Berkeley.
I did not arrive in San Francisco without friends. Bernie Storc, a grade school classmate, settled there following his Navy hitch. My OSU buddies,Tony Cordiano, Donald Poole, and Anthoney Anastasi, who let me and my traveling companions stay with them for a few days the previous summer, now held professional positions. Don Dennison, a graduate of OSU’s planning school who arranged my internship, promised to take me backpacking in the Sierra.
The draft and the war in Vietnam appeared as small, ugly clouds on the horizon, but I heard no thunder and saw no lightning then. I joined protestors at ROTC’s May Day marches in prior years and was strongly opposed to the war on principle. Flight to Canada to avoid military service was a frequently discussed topic at the Student Union and campus bars. Many vowed solemnly to go to Montreal or Toronto to avoid participating in the war we considered immoral when their student deferments expired. A few did, but most joined the reserves, usually the Navy or Air Force, citing the uniforms or claiming a family tradition for not selecting the Army reserves. I heard other special deferments were available, and pursuing another degree at a leisurely pace was always an option in those days before the draft lottery. I was not yet worried about slogging through rice paddies, holding an M-1 in my hand. My optimism was buoyed by the bright sunny present and undaunted by the dark clouds in the long range forecast.
A return letter from Cordiano assured me that I could crash with them until I found a room or an apartment in Berkeley. They now lived near the ocean on Geary Boulevard. Hertz was offering a car and a gas card for delivery of a vehicle to San Francisco to replenish their inventory, so with a Rand-McNally Road Atlas on the front seat, a single suit case in the trunk, I drove west on Broad Street, U. S. 40, in Columbus through Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri before stopping at a motel in Kansas.
I was on the road early with the rising sun in my mirror. Kansas seemed limitless. After crossing into Colorado, mountains rose from the plains, but hours passed before I reached Denver and the Rockies. In Salt Lake City, I could not resist a dip in the famed lake with enough salinity to make me buoyant, but also frigid at the end of May. Finally I entered the Bay Area, stayed on U.S. 40, drove down University Avenue in Berkeley to the San Francisco Bay. I first saw the large sculptures in the mud next to the bay, fashioned by anonymous artists from flotsam every weekend. Over the Bay Bridge and through the city, I looked for the return address on Cordiano’s envelope. I arrived after supper, but Anthony warmed some spaghetti for me while he, Tony and Donald opened cans of beer, and gathered around the table. I was hungry and even more starved for company.
Two days later, I enjoyed dinner with Bernie and his wife, Sue. We caught up on people in Ohio and reminisced about adventures in our younger days. I could tell Sue had never heard some of them before. Bernie offered me an extra car he owned. I didn’t plan to buy a car for the summer, but Bernie said “Just borrow it.” I drove the ’54 Olds Rocket 88 back to Cordiano’s that night. I wrestled with the large steering wheel to guide the big, heavy car without power steering. It’s early automatic transmission called a “Hydra-Matic” shifted slowly while the engine raced until the gears engaged and the Olds leapt forward. I resolved to drive it as little as possible.
On Fridays, Donald picked me up in front of City Hall after work, and we went to the Broker’s Club, a dark, narrow bar in downtown San Francisco with cheap drinks. Tony and Anthony already occupied a booth. Later we strolled around the corner to the Carrousel. The stated objective was to meet girls, but we had more success obtaining hors d’oeuvres in lieu of dinner. Waitresses circulated through the standing crowd with cubes of cheese and meat on toothpicks. I soon learned to position myself near the swinging door from the kitchen and became adept at casually snatching two, three or even four upright toothpicks with my fingertips as the trays passed. We moved on to two or three similar establishments during the evening. Occasionally we met girls from Colorado or Iowa or somewhere else “back east,” got phone numbers, and arranged dates, but not often. If we got separated, we rendezvoused after closing time at a diner on Grand Highway across from the dark, rumbling ocean for a hearty breakfast and tales of dubious veracity about girls met that evening.
The apartment was quiet on Saturday morning. I feigned sleep on the couch until Anthony padded into the kitchen, made coffee, and got the Examiner. He spread out the sports page and softly damned the Cincinnati Reds, his team, for trading Frank Robinson to the Orioles where he hit 49 home runs and was MVP when the Orioles won the World Series. “Too old at 30? Not a young 30? Over the hill? Dumb bastards!”
Tony came in, saw Anthony hunched over the paper, and asked, “How’d Robinson do? Is he an old 30? Best days behind him?” Anthony fumed and stammered until he was totally exasperated. Anthony’s laments and our taunts were repeated often that summer.
By ten or eleven, everyone was up, partially revived with coffee, and Tony said, “Ready to go to Sausalito?” Brunch there was evidently routine.
“I need an eye opener,” Donald said. “Some hair of the dog.”
Soon we were crossing the Golden Gate Bridge beneath the massive cables that soared to the red towers. I squinted to see the Berkeley waterfront across the bay. By noon we were seated on a deck high above the bay surrounded by young people with “umbrella drinks” as Tony derisively called them. Donald ordered Cutty Sark on the rocks, Tony and Anthony had screwdrivers. and I said, “I need caffeine, bring me an Irish coffee.”
Tony said, “Anthony and I are getting our vitamin C.” Donald smirked and shook his head. We ordered rolls and a cheese plate with our second round. We sat back and took in the beauty of the bay, as blue as the sky, with forested Angel Island and the Tiburon peninsula clearly visible, Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge in the haze.
I grew up listening to weathermen’s warnings to drivers about dangerous fog. Here the fog alternately shrouded and unveiled the Golden Gate Bridge and tumbled over the city’s hills and buildings. Fog could be beautiful. A revelation!
“Why don’t you stay just with us for the summer, Michael? If you don’t mind the couch, what the hell?’ said Tony. Donald and Anthony voiced their agreement.
“Wait!” said Donald, “If I bring a honey home some night, you disappear, right?” I said I would bed down in the long, narrow closet off the hallway.
“Don’t worry, Michael, you won’t spend many nights in the closet. Look how ugly he is,” said Anthony. Tony chuckled as Donald frowned elaborately. We all laughed. I had a home for the summer.
At the apartment, everyone lounged and watched football. Donald retired to his bedroom for a nap, and the other guys fell asleep in front of the TV. I dozed for a while, but I didn’t come to California to sleep.
I climbed into the Olds and ventured to a bayside park in the Marina District with the early edition of the Sunday Examiner. I mostly read the paper while women and men in various stages of undress worked on sun tans. I pointed the Olds toward the apartment, and started up a steep hill, so steep the sidewalk had steps. Halfway to the top, the transmission whirred and thumped, the engine roared, the arrow pointed to D, but the car was stationery. Drivers behind me leaned on their horns. The only choice was to back the hulking car down to a cross street and follow the shore road until I found a street with a more gradual incline. I quickly became knowledgeable about the topography of San Francisco.
That evening, Anthony made lasagna and a big salad for dinner. I mentioned that I had a list of things to see and do over the summer. I had just 11 weekends left.
“First on my list is the panoramic view from Twin Peaks. Chicago planner Daniel Burnham lived in a cottage built for him to prepare a master plan for San Francisco in 1905. His grandiose plans were destroyed in the earthquake the following year and his plan was never implemented, but the view’s still there.”
“They say you can see the entire bay and the Farallon Islands way out in the ocean from Twin Peaks,” said Donald.
“I want to ride a cable car, eat at Fisherman’s Wharf, have chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, climb to the top of Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, visit the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street, walk the length of Golden Gate Park, and see Oakland’s redeveloped waterfront, Jack London Square. You’ve probably seen all these places during the last year, so I don’t want to drag you to them again. I’ll sally forth in my trusty Oldsmobile and find them.”
“I hate to tell you this, but we’ve not gotten around to most of those places,” said Anthony. “We’ve talked about it and plan to see all of them sooner or later. What can I say? I live with procrastinators.”
“At least, I had lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf once,” said Tony. “Tell you what, Michael, you come up with a schedule, and we’ll go with you every weekend this summer. But I’m not riding in that car of yours.”
“Oh, I forgot about Haight-Ashbury. Maybe it’s no longer the center of LSD, free love, and hippies, but I’d like to see it. And I’d like to walk across the Golden Gate. Have you seen the giant redwoods at Muir Woods? It’s only an hour away in Marin County.”
“I didn’t say I’d go just anywhere with you. Count me out on Haight-Ashbury. Too weird for me,” said Donald.
“I’ll pick you up on the other side of the Golden Gate, but it’s a long damn walk across the bridge, and I don’t want everyone driving past me to think I’m a jumper,” Anthony said.
I wrote all the destinations with my “must see” spots at the top and taped it to the refrigerator where the beer and wine were. At the bottom, I added, “Sign up if you’re not a pathetic procrastinator. Your Summer Tour Director, Michael.”
Before September, we visited most of the locations on my list. I also heard Boston’s Arthur Fiedler conduct a pops concert at Stern Grove, and the Olds took me and a date to my first Shakespeare production, As You Like It, at an outdoor amphitheater in Stanford.
The Saturday we saw the redwoods, I walked across the bridge alone. I avoided eye contact with people watching me closely from cars. I wanted to tell them I was not going to jump. Swirling currents visible far below were menacing. I imagined that desperate people found them alluring, calling them to a cold, watery relief from the demons that afflicted them.
I was shivering in the sunshine and forced myself to look up. There was Alcatraz, and my thoughts returned to the treacherous water and prisoners swimming in the strong cross currents to escape on dark nights. Officially no one made it, but many are missing and may have made it to the mainland. I was relieved to reach the other side of the bridge and rejoin the guys. The redwoods impressed them, and I was able to negotiate a detour past the Marin County Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on the way home.
On the Friday of Labor Day weekend, we made the usual round of bars and had breakfast at the diner. Saturday morning was brunch at Sausalito and a cocktail party in a high rise with stunning views of both bridges, the bay and the city. A fitting vista for the end of a great summer. This is the scene I envision when I hear Tony Bennet sing his bittersweet love song to the city by the bay,
Where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars
The morning fog may chill the air, I don’t care.
Above the blue and windy sea
When I come home to you, San Francisco
Your golden sun will shine for me.
I was sure I would return to this lovely city after finishing graduate school. A year later, however,I was no longer carefree. The war in Vietnam raged on, but I had a deferment. I was married, about to be a father, and working in Baltimore, not unhappy, but the summer of ’66 was a memory—a splendid memory.