By Charles Redfern
My longest childhood journey threaded me between iceberg tips and hurricane eyes and volcanoes holding their breath. I was there, at a pivotal scene in a pivotal year. The ship was crashing; the wind was howling; the mountains trembled; the fire roared. And I saw none it. I may have smelled the burning embers – and maybe that’s what compelled me to walk and walk – but I didn’t see the flames. I was too focused on Sweet Tarts, candy apples, and chocolate-covered caramel wrapped in wax paper.
But I can’t be too rough on myself. The events of 1968 stunned almost all adults, let alone a barefoot twelve-year-old dressed as a tramp on Halloween. The national shock shrouded most to the year’s significance. Americans longed to forget Nixon, Humphrey and Wallace as well as Saigon, the assassinations, and the Chicago riots. Move over, Grace Slick. Put June Cleaver in charge one last time.
So I still savor how I broke out of the usual timidity of my youth and meandered through several neighborhoods in our Los Angeles suburb. I kept walking, walking, and walking. I didn’t see that I was strolling through an epoch, an era, an age – nor did I know that this was my last West Coast Halloween (we would move East in the spring). Bobby Kennedy had been killed a few months before about twenty miles from here – and the co-ed next door was entranced by her marine boyfriend, who had just returned from Vietnam. He actually talked about the war. He told us about Hue, the country’s ancient capital and the scene of brutal Tet Offensive combat early in the year. We learned about booby traps, blown-off legs, and house-to-house fire fights in simmering heat. We learned how 19-year-old Americans pushed out 19-year-old Vietcong captives from helicopters. We did not know the Battle of Hue would be studied for decades – nor did we know that the Tet Offensive, while scoring a significant military victory, would sour us and spur on the anti-war movement. Nor did we know that the story-telling, handsome, 19-year-old Marine was effectually pleading guilty to a war crime. He never went to jail.
Four-year-old ghosts and six-year-old goblins swarmed the early evening along with five-year-old princesses and fairies with their magic wands. Homeowners faked fear before doling their treats and the young children gave blank stares. They did not know they were supposed to be scary. They just wanted their candy. And I didn’t know I was walking through a sociological event. This was Post World War 2 baby-boom California, where Easterners and Midwesterners converged with others and filled the semi-arid San Gabriel Valley with their pill-box homes, lush lawns, and swimming pools: the American dream mowed down the orange groves and smothered us in smog. I couldn’t grasp the area’s distinctiveness: Early twentieth-century structures were “old,” and no one came from here. I spent my first four years in Minnesota, where my mother grew up. My father was from New Jersey. Joe Melendez – the thin, funny guy whom all the kids loved – was born and raised in Mexico. His wife, Dorothy, was another Minnesotan. Valarie, our next door neighbor, trembled in air raid shelters in Manchester, England, during “the war.” Toni, our other next door neighbor, was also from England. No one was from California itself.
I had no idea my journey hinged on draining aquifers. I only knew of my longing to keep walking: walk, walk, and walk. I was twelve, not five. I was now almost as tall as my mother. I could do this. I bet I could even bicycle into the San Gabriel Mountains, which didn’t seem so far away after all. I’d invite Cindy, that pretty girl who now monopolized much of my thought life, except I couldn’t talk to her. I felt like the stupidest person on the face of the Earth and an embarrassment to the human species whenever I uttered a single syllable. I did not know my thoughts about Cindy were the first trickle of that roaring emotional-hormonal deluge called adolescence. I just knew I didn’t want to go home. Not yet.
I filled my sack in alien neighborhoods. The baby boom thinned. The ghosts, goblins, princesses, and fairies were gone. We were left with 10-year-old witches. And warlocks. And vampires. And bums like me. I met a few school friends (“What are you doing all the way over here?”) and walked with them, then found others in other neighborhoods and others in still other neighborhoods. Turn left on Roland Avenue; turn right here; double-back on Roland and turn right, then left. I’m now on Workman Avenue. Turn left on Lark Ellen.
The ten-year-old witches and warlocks and vampires were almost gone and egg-throwing teens now ruled the streets. One almost got me. The night now felt menacing. I heard shattering glass and intimidating laughter. I was in a look-the-other way world; an it’s-not-my-problem world; a world of gunning Harleys and stone-cold, pock-marked faces and slicked-back hair and cigarette packs rolled in T-shirt sleeves; a world of neither harm nor help. I now wonder if I stumbled into the adult 1968, a world of murdered leaders, riots, doomed wars, faded dreams, and cultural divides, where the World War 2 generation could barely understand the boomers they sired. Or maybe I had just met my not-so-distant future: Full-blown adolescence. It seemed dark.
I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure.
In any case, it was time to go home.
I dumped my sack on our living room floor. My parents hid their worries if they were concerned at all and asked me where I’d gone. I told them everything I saw – which I now realize wasn’t much. But my father was near-sighted as well. My mounds of candy prompted only this: “Look at all those cavities!” History was unfolding and he only saw dental bills.
Of course I say that with compassion and in a spirit of fun. My parents were more alert than many. They had been Eisenhower Republicans but switched parties with the 1964 Goldwater takeover. They always watched the news and, because of them, so did I. I knew the map of Vietnam and I was all-too familiar with place names like Da Nang, Khe Sanh, and the Mekong Delta. I had seen the Kennedy-McCarthy debates before California’s June primary and Kennedy’s razor-thin victory on the night of his death. I agreed with Kennedy when he said we should not immediately de-escalate our troops (I was a little more hawkish than Dad, come to think of it, but not by much). I can certainly forgive my father and any twelve-year-old for failing to grasp how we were on a cultural cusp at a crucial place in a decisive year – a year whose boom still echoes.
But still, I’m forced to ask: What epoch unfolds before me now? I don’t want to be blind this time. I want to see it. I want to touch it – whatever “it” is. I want to participate.
So what am I missing?