So much of what I’ve been able to witness and/or be a part of throughout my life are, frankly, the product of Happy Circumstance. Seemingly random occurrences which placed me in the right place and time, with the right people.
Start with the very fact of my existence. It would seem that my old man enjoyed a bit of good fortune himself. As World War II got into full swing, just about every able-bodied young man was expected to play some role in service to the war effort.
Lou elected to volunteer for the Coast Guard, which had been placed under the command of the Department of the Navy “for the duration.” After completing basic training, he was assigned to a ship, and traveled to San Francisco to assume his duties.
The ship was anchored in San Francisco Bay, off Treasure Island, with orders to depart for the South Pacific sometime in the next 48 hours when the hand of fate, as manifested through the military bureaucracy declared him an official Lucky Bastard.
Prior to the war, Lou had some experience working in a teller’s cage for a bank in Des Moines (it was the Depression—you took work where you found it). As a result of that background on his résumé, he’d been declared, in Navy parlance, a Storekeeper, which essentially meant he could drive a typewriter and add a column of figures.
Thus, when some gold-braided officer ashore determined that another half dozen or so enlisted men who were at least semi-literate were needed for clerical work, he was one of those who plucked from the rolls and ordered off his ship.
Thus, instead of spending the war (or as much of it as he survived) engaged in the ongoing floating hell that was the Pacific Theater, Lou’s war was fought in San Francisco Bay on Alameda and Treasure Islands, and he spent most of his off duty time in the City.
So the fact that I exist at all can really be tagged as a happy accident. The odds of him surviving four years in the South Pacific and finding his way home physically and mentally intact enough to father me (given how emotionally damaged he was already) have to be pretty slim.
San Francisco was a hell of a place to be in those years, especially for a guy dressed in Navy blues. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for a twenty-something kid from the Midwest who’d never been out of Iowa.
But I know this much. When he was mustered out after the war, he made a beeline back home, told his honey “we are NOT spending another winter in this, you won’t believe what I found” and started packing stuff into the old Chevy.
After a leisurely cross country trip along the Southern Route (US 66), the young couple landed in the Bay Area, initially renting an apartment in Burlingame before buying a brand spanky new tract house in Santa Clara and moving just in time for me to be born just after the New Year in San Jose Hospital.
So, once again: Lucky Me. Instead of growing up in the summer heat and humidity and winter ice and snow of Iowa, I’m a Native Californian. Actually, better than that, I’m a Bay Area native (there are many Californias; each with its own unique personality).
It would be hard to overstate how fortunate I feel having had the chance to come of age in California in the latter half of the 20th Century. Visitors from places around the world come away impressed with one thing or another, depending on their tastes and priorities. Almost all seem to find something to carry away with them they see as memorable and exceptional.
There’s a lot to love. And it’s remarkable for its diversity as much as the special flavor of any particular piece. Whether it’s snow crowned mountains, sun kissed beaches, or stark desert; urban or wilderness, you can find it within our borders, often just a couple hours drive away.
Growing up in The Golden State, and spending the bulk of my life here has infused me with a depth of appreciation born of decades of intimate familiarity. I imagine a first time visitor may be, in some respects, more “wowed” by aspects that have long since become commonplace for me. But the other side of the coin is that living here for so long has built within me a rich sense of love for this corner of the planet. There may have been a time in my youth I didn’t fully appreciate what a privilege it is to be here; if so that time is long past.
It’s difficult for me to find the words to describe my love for this place, and my sense of connection to it. I spent my childhood within a few miles of San Francisco, and once I left home the bulk of my youth and young adulthood found me in the City, at the center of a cultural and artistic moment unparalleled in my lifetime.
So, that I love. I also love spending time under the cool, quiet canopy of groves of redwoods that were already old when the Roman Empire was spreading across the “known world.” I love the subtle but insistent beauty of our deserts.
I am nourished by the soul healing, ever shifting waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether those waters wash the sands of sun kissed beaches or crash dramatically against rock cliffs in the endless dance of dominance along those hard shores. Driving through the grass covered rolling hills of California live oak country infuses my heart with a lyrical gratitude that, after a lifetime of absorbing it, I still don’t understand.
And this barely scratches the surface. I’ve not even talked about the remarkable character of the birds, beasts, and fish that still find space for themselves in our ever more populated state. Haven’t begun to explore the wonders of our climate, and its perfect pairing to the needs of the human body.
Nor have I really done any unpacking of the story of humans on this land, from the earliest first peoples who lived quite comfortably, if simply, in the bounty nature provided for untold centuries on into the stories of successive waves of newcomers to the state (with all the good, and terribly bad those stories encompass); or spoken of the fascinating structures and other artifacts those generations left behind for us to explore and try to understand. And still today, there are parts we get right, and parts we get wrong.
Lucky me. I’ve had the privilege to call myself a California native for almost seven decades, now.
Turning once again to the specific fact of growing up in the Bay Area in the 1950s and ’60s, it’s important to note just how deeply I perceived myself a misfit, pretty much as far back as I can remember.
Some of that, no doubt, was the result of environmental factors, be it a childhood in an alcoholic home or the fact I was a poorly coordinated, unathletic, glasses-wearing kid who was an easy target for schoolyard bullies. Some a function of my own internal dialog. I never really felt a comfortable and confident sense of mastery; that I truly belonged anywhere, really.
And, as I commenced my fitful slide toward adolescence, and beyond, that sense that I didn’t fit grew increasingly to dominate my narrative. That was when the indescribable good fortune of being located a few miles from San Francisco, just as the City was becoming the center of the counter-cultural universe, really made itself apparent.
More on that is ahead in Part 2 of this narrative. For tonight, I’m wrung dry.