Monday, July 13, 2009

California dreamin' on such a summer's day

When I was a kid, I was hopelessly smitten with the Little Rascals. I loved their adventures, their ingenuity, their perseverance. I loved that the good guys won, even if they got shamed on occasion, and friends stayed friends even after misunderstandings, quarrels and outright betrayal. I loved that adults were usually buffoons. One thing I didn't notice as a kid, because it seemed normal to me in the era in which I grew up, was that Our Gang was an integrated group; white kids and Black kids played together and thought nothing of it.

The Little Rascals made me feel connected to my parents. They grew up in the '20s, '30s and '40s. I imagined my mom building firetruck go-karts out of junk she found after scrapping around in dirt lots. I imagined my dad camping in a cave with his brothers and buddies, literally scaring them shitless with his graphic and spirited storytelling and particular flair for practical jokes. I imagined my parents happy and engaged and busy with the joys of childhood during a time when people were hungry, when men left their families in search of work, any work, anywhere; when penicillin, had it been available, would have knocked out my dad's scarlet fever, which forever damaged his heart, and my mom's strep, which took her out of all but two weeks of third grade and took nearly all the body fat and muscle her little body had.

Those kids – Spanky, Afalfa, Darla, Butch, Scott, Stymie, Buckwheat, Jackie, Chubby – were so real to me. One night I dreamed about them. We were friends, and I knew all their last names, which was a big deal to me, I remember. It was awfully disappointing to wake up and realize I didn't know those incredible children, that we weren't going to have one exciting adventure after another, that we never had, and I still didn't know their last names.

At one point I asked my mom where movies and TV shows were made, and she told me California. Hollywood. Well, I had to go there.

I talked about California all the time. I looked at pictures of California. I imagined standing atop the Hollywood sign. I pictured myself hobnobbing with Mike Douglas, my favorite talk show host. Every time my mom and I sat in the car waiting for my dad to run into some store, I climbed into the driver's seat and pretended we were driving. My mother would ask where we were going, and I would say, "California!" and she would laugh at my youthful obsession.

When I was 16, I had a layover at LAX. It was my first California experience. By then, I had given up my California dreamin' for the most part. I still hoped to move to San Diego, establish residency and go to college there. But I knew it was pretty unlikely. Still, a little part of me was glad I finally made it out there.

My next trip to CA was one where, two months before we were married, I tagged along with Eric on a week-long business trip to Apple in Cupertino. We arranged to get out there early and leave late so we'd have time for fun stuff, and we had the most fabulous hotel room, only because they hosed our reservation and didn't have any other rooms. It was bigger than our apartment! Loved it. The plan was, he'd go to Apple all day and I'd bum around all day and we'd do whatever at night. We had a rental car, so I could head to San Francisco or meet up with my friend Brian who was living with his parents in Los Gatos while working for Mac Week magazine for the summer. Brian had friends up at Berkeley who would love to hang and do martial arts, and it all sounded perfectly perfect to me.

I stayed a day.

My dad had dropped us off at the airport (It was Eric's first time being driven by my dad. I warned him, but his knuckles were pretty white by the time we arrived.) then picked up my mom for a little country drive before the NBA finals came on TV. They got out to the micropolis of Token Creek, which consists of a bar and a ball field, when my dad said, "Honey, I don't feel well." Then he fucking died.

Never fear, fair reader. He was approaching a stop sign in front of the aforementioned bar and ball field when he went into defib, so the car wasn't going very fast. My mom reached over and tried to cut the ignition, but her arthritis was too painful, and she couldn't do it. As they sailed through the stop sign, she knocked his leg off the accelerator and steered their jaunty little Ford away from a parked car.

Someone at the ball field noticed and yelled for others. He ran alongside the car, opened the door, and got his foot on the brake. After he turned the car off, he dragged my breathless, pulseless, lifeless father, whose skin was already peeling away from his fingernails, out of the car and onto the ground and started CPR. A young woman approached and offered to do the breathing. A man came up and said he was a doctor.

My mother stood by and cried. She had never believed in CPR. She thought people should just be left to die and stay dead. She worked in a hospital and saw a lot of people resuscitated only to live a brain-damaged, burdensome life. She didn't want that. But she didn't stop anyone trying to save her husband. Nor did she believe it was going to work. But it did.

"I have a pulse," the doctor shouted. The pulse came and went, and these strangers pressed my father's chest and breathed their air into his lungs until an ambulance arrived. It had been rerouted from a nearby fire and arrived quickly, no small miracle given their rural location.

They cut his shirt off him, got paddles on him and a board under him and sped away to Madison. Someone helped my mother to the hospital and returned my parents' car its rightful driveway. My mother hasn't driven since, probably, 1939.

So, anyway, there I was in sunny California, plotting my adventures. My mother had a helluva time finding us. We hadn't thought about telling anyone our specific whereabouts. Duh. And cell phones were known as car phones and were the size of a brick. They came complete with lots of cords and a Monte Carlo-sized magnetic antenna to adhere to the car's roof, and we obviously did not have one with us. But we had a message at the front desk: Emergency at Amy's house.

We arranged for my return trip, spent a day wandering Muir Woods, miserably, and that was it for me in California.

My dad came through pretty well. He was weak and confused for a couple days, and couldn't remember what happened. He had an automatic internal defibrillator put in when he was strong enough, which went off 13 times before he finally died three and a half years later.

Eric's been back to CA for lots of business trips, but I haven't accompanied him.

This week, though, I am going. The girls and I are heading to LA on Thursday, my mother's 84th (or 85th, depending who's asking) birthday. Yes, LA is a smog-laden traffic nightmare. I don't care. I'm going to sink my toes into the sand. I'm going to watch the sun set over the Pacific. I'm going to eat too much. I'm going to take a picture of the Hollywood sign. And I'm going to look for Spanky's star on the Walk of Fame.

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