Monday, July 28, 2008

Free Frank Sinatra Jr.!

Here's another installment of the memoirs I'm writing -- growing up in the 60s in the San Fernando Valley. It's a look at a turbulent decade from the perspective of a normal kid with a warped view of the world. Hopefully it will bring back memories or make you glad you grew up in a different time.

My typical day in March, 1964.

Got up at 6:30, showered and put on my clothes. There was a strict dress code. Collared shirts, tucked in, long pants – no jeans. Girls were required to wear skirts. My usual outfit was a white shirt, dark pants, and sweater buttoned up the front. No pocket protector because gee, I would look like a nerd then.

There were two gangs (in the loosest form of the word) at Parkman Jr. High – the Surfers and the Greasers. Surfers tended to wear flannel Pendleton shirts and Greasers (car enthusiasts) wore leather. On rare occasions they would fight under the freeway bridge (over what I don’t know. Waves are better than drag strips? Who gives a shit?) I was in neither gang. I associated with no one in either gang. Wearing sweaters usually signified guys who spent a lot of time in their rooms.

At 7:00 I would wolf down a bowl of Special K then pour myself a heaping glass of Carnation Instant Breakfast. The more wasted calories the better! Summer was coming and I wanted to be up to 131 pounds, maybe even 132. After all, I was 6' 2".

Time permitting I would glance at the sports section. LA had two major newspapers – the Times and the less popular Examiner. Since the Times wouldn’t hire my late grandfather to be a type-setter in the early 40s our family refused to give those bastards a dime. We always subscribed to the Examiner. That was fine with me. Better sports section with a great cartoonist, Karl Hubenthal. The Times had a better news bureau but so what? What kid reads the news?

We now had Grandpappy in the White House. Lyndon Johnson might become a great president but he wasn’t JFK. There were reports that we were sending more “advisors” to somewhere called Viet Nam but that was still pretty much under the radar.

The only story I was really following was the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping case. Imagine someone trying to get back at the Corleone family so they abduct Fredo. The three nimrods who pulled off this harebrain caper were found guilty by a federal jury and sentenced to life plus 75 years (for stupidity), which is still getting off easier than if Frank had doled out justice "his way". My interest was really sparked because the buffoons’ hideout was just a few blocks from my house. It’s not often that our little berg got national attention. But I’m sure if Frank Jr. were forced to come to Woodland Hills, he’d still prefer to be tied up in a house than to play the lounge at the Woodlake Bowling Alley.

At 7:20 I walked down to the corner of Burbank and Shoup and waited for my ride to school. My best friend at the time was Gary. His older sister Gail went to Taft High and had her own car. I think it was a ’49 Ford. I dunno, it looked like something out of Toon Town. Parkman was on the way to Taft so she graciously gave us a lift every morning. I’m certain Gary’s mother made her. To get home I was supposed to take the bus down Ventura Blvd. but saved money by hitch-hiking. I never feared for my safety. It was either safer times or I’m lucky I’m not all hacked up and stored in mason jars in some nut’s basement.

Parkman Jr. High was a typical sprawling complex, with single story classroom buildings, a gym, cafeteria, library, auditorium, and just enough trees to differentiate it from a prison. If you’ve seen THE KARATE KID, it’s like that school.

First I had to report to Homeroom. That’s where we heard announcements about school dances no one would be caught dead at, and reminders that the school nurse would be in Thursday from 10 till noon so get sick accordingly.

Off to English with Mr. Lucey. It was here I first wrote my book report for “The Great Escape” that I would continue to submit all the way through college. It averaged a C+ at Taft High and an A- at UCLA.

History followed with Mr. Sima. He was one of the best teachers I ever had. I don’t remember a lot of what he taught but that’s my fault. To force us to follow current events he gave a weekly multiple choice quiz provided by those bastards at the L.A. Times. In preparation I would watch the George Putnam newscast on KTTV, Channel 11 the night before. George (pictured left) was an L.A. institution, and the inspiration for the blowhard Ted Baxter character on the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. One night I tuned in, George looked straight into the camera, and bellowed in a booming voice, “Alan Ladd is DEAD!!!!”

“AAAAAAA!” I screamed and almost fell off the couch. George scared the shit out of me. And I didn’t even really know who Alan Ladd was.

I will say this for George Putnam. He could read the teleprompter and never make a mistake, never even stumble. It was amazing. Long names that looked like eye charts, tongue-twister sentences – it made no difference. He was flawless. Always. Unfortunately, unless a test question was “Alan Ladd is… A) Alive B) DEAD!!!!!!!!!” I retained practically nothing.

Next was “Nutrition” for our mid-morning sugar fix, then on to Science with Mr. Rude. Another good teacher. There was a certain relevance to this course. America was in the space race and nearby in the Santa Susana Mountains they were building the rockets. When we’d start hearing loud rumblings that almost felt like earthquakes we knew we were only a month or two away from another NASA launch.

One thing our sleepy little bedroom communities had that others didn’t was armed Nike and Hercules missiles vigilantly guarding our lawns and gardens. This was still the Cold War and the defense plants that designed and built the new space age equipment (often in secrecy) were deemed potential targets. Bel Air had rent-a-cop patrol cars to keep it safe, Woodland Hills had thermo nuclear rockets.

4th period I had Typing. It was as close to a “shop” class as I would take. Wood Shop and Metal Shop were for the Surfers and Greasers. Typing was for the people who hired handymen.

At lunch I sat with my best friend, Gary. Daily topics would include the Dodgers, our mutual love for Laurel & Hardy, Laura Petrie, the KFWB playlist, and charting the daily progress of every girls’ breast development. I think Gary still has the chart.

Gary was half a year ahead of me and that lucky bastard was graduating in June. I wasn’t sprung until January. Depending on your birthday you were enrolled in either the Fall or Winter class. I drew the Winter. Jr. High was for babies. Sr. High was so much more “adult”. You were associating with people who could drive!

It was never a great idea to eat a big lunch because (a) the Parkman cuisine was not holding to its usual excellent standards (even in the hash line), and (b) my next class was gym.

God, did I detest gym. It’s the only class I ever got a “D” in, which takes some real effort I’m proud to say. If you can do five jumping jacks you’re an honor student. And then there were…the showers. Nothing promotes homophobia and insecurity in a pre-teen like daily showers with your classmates.

But the very worst was saved for last. Math. Not because I hated the subject or the teacher, Miss Harris. It’s because every time I walked into that classroom…

…there was Dana.

To be continued tomorrow.


D. McEwan said...

"Hopefully it will bring back memories or make you glad you grew up in a different time."

Since we're precise contemporaries, I have to go with memories, and 8th grade isn't a year I look back on with fondness.

Mother disapproved of George Putnam, so I almost never watched that bombastic, right wing blowhard. His early broadcast was just before something I watched on that station, KTTV (I don't remember what. Huckleberry Hound?), so I would hit his last 30 seconds every night. Thus my primary memory of George is his bellowing "I'll see you at ten. See you then." He's in his 90s and still alive. Isn't he still on the air somewhere, or is it just that the echos haven't ended yet? I look forward to tuning in to one of our local newsies someday soon and hearing "George Putnam --- is DEAD!"

I remember little of that year. We'd just moved from Palos Verdes (Beautiful, green, hills, cliffs, woods, a view of the sea) to Westminster in Orange County (Flat, hot, drab, Republican, but I was now a bike ride away from Disneyland, and we could watch the Disneyland fireworks from our upstairs windows) so I was still recovering emotionally from moving 40 miles away from every friend I had in the world.

We did at least take the LA Times, with the best entertainment coverage. And had Paul Conrad, the best editorial cartoonist in the world. I think he used his Pulitzers for bookends. His Nixon IS Nixon.

Mostly I remember reading I AM LEGEND, sexually experimenting with certain of my male friends (My best memories of 1964 are X-rated, and constitute kiddie-gay-porn), and smoking my first cigarette.

But at least I graduated in June, and started up at Westminster High School that fall.

If they kidnapped Frank Sinatra Jr. today, how long would it be before anyone noticed?

Hank Hollyweird said...

Ahhhh...high school memories. Don't have any...

Well, not entirely true. Dropped out of public high school to become--gasp--a monk. Didn't work out very well, so I dropped out of monk school (yes, they really cal it that), went in the Army (where all the drop out monks usually go), got broken up in a nasty helo crash of which I was (Oh, lucky me) only one to survive. Eighteen months of rehab later, I'm back home in NoHo and looking for an honest job. Instead, I end up working for Roger Corman, and the rest, like they say in the movies, is history.

And here I am a gazillion years later, still wondering if I made the right choices in life.

JSWN said...

Ken. I was born in 1963.

I am looking forward to the

Any chance you'll marry me? While I'm no Laura Petrie, I'm pretty darn close.


Dave said...

Putnam was something, wasn't he? "Tonight the flag flies proudly over Bellflower!" He was biased and loud, but there was no doubt that what he was telling you was important -- or what he thought was important. There was no one like him in those days; Jerry Dunphy and Jack Latham were a little bland (and the opening to "The Big News" always made me nervous -- and who today would name the newscast "The Big News?"). Hal Fishman was efficient but not as colorful. I always welcomed Ralph Story, though, since he was funny and knew it was all nonsense, anyway. (I loved "Ralph Story's LA"). It wasn't until Tom Snyder -- and his hair-trigger -- came along that LA newscasts got lively. (Anyone else remember a segment called "Tommy Visits" that got screwed up on air and royally pissed Snyder off?)

We subscribed to both the Times and the Examiner, but I much preferred the latter. It was just more fun, with columnists like Furillo and Durslag and Bill Kennedy, was it? (He had the "Mr. LA" column; the Examiner's equivalent to Jack Smith.) I remember we got taken on day camp tours to the paper and got to go to the newsroom and the printing plant; we each got our own copy of the paper. (Much as we'd get a tiny loaf of bread at the Helms Bakery.) I especially enjoyed the Examiner in later years, when they had the best reviewers in the city -- Jack Viertel on theatre and Elvis Mitchell on film -- and the closer they got to closing down, the wackier they got.

Ah, good times.

Paul Duca said...

Your typical day in March 1964 was STILL more interesting than mine, mainly involving the soiling of diapers (I was a month old at the time). And the Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapping is one of the fascinating oddities of pop culture. One of the miscreants went for financial backing to his childhood friend, Dean Torrance (of Jan & Dean). Torrance testified at their trial. Also, their original timetable had been shaken up--they had planned to snatch the Chairboy of the Board the day before the annual USC-UCLA football game and take advantage of the distraction it would cause. The game was scheduled for Saturday, November 23rd...but by that time there was another distraction and the job was put on hold.

Tom Quigley said...

"America was in the space race and nearby in the Santa Susana Mountains they were building the rockets. When we’d start hearing loud rumblings that almost felt like earthquakes we knew we were only a month or two away from another NASA launch...."

As a short footnote: I lived in Canoga Park, just off of Topanga Canyon Blvd. and just north of Roscoe, and when I first moved to LA in 1989, I would remember every now and then hearing these massively loud low rumbling noises that seemed to vibrate and shake my apartment building right to its foundations (not to mention the fillings in my teeth), coming from not too far way, and thought to myself "Holy shit! What the hell is THAT?" After about four or five of those episodes, I found out it was Rocketdyne's engine testing facility in Box Canyon, near the old Roy Rogers film ranch. They were testing out engines for the space shuttle and other rockets they were building. I'm sure that every time they tested something it scared the wildlife out there half to death (it did me). I think it was destroyed in the Northridge earthquake and never rebuilt, but no one told me that when I moved out to LA the sounds of the city would also include something that caused me to feel like I was hanging on for dear life to the escape tower of Apollo 11 as it left the launch pad....

JeffH said...

Like you, I have less than fond memories of gym class. There was the stinky kid at Venice High who never showered after class. I'd make excuses when he asked if I could give him a ride home; I didn't want him smelling up my VW bug. What kind of sadistic PE teacher thought rope climbing was a good idea? Oh...and don't forget the dreaded gymnastics pummel horse. I would have had Barry White's voice had I not misjudged my approaches to the horse.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I'm buyin' the book...

...young girls, sweaty, nervous guys, pimples and the quadratic equation = Hell Jr. High.

...great stories! I look forward to reading more.

webbie said...

I was not elligble for the National Honor Society in HS because of my PE grades. A kindred spirit!

tb said...

And don't forget the air raid siren test, last Friday of the month, 10AM. For YEARS, into the seventies, they did it. Duck & Cover!

Joey H said...

While we wait for Ken's book, may I suggest "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" by Bill Bryson. Bryson is one of my favorite authors anyway and this particular memoir of growing up in the 60s in Des Moines the fake movie trailer critics would say..."laugh-out-loud funny."

JSWN, if Ken says no, I'm interested.

Anonymous said...

Joey H: I second your recomendation for THUNDERBOLT KID. Superior to the superiorly named LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LAST KID PICKED.

D Mcewan: You only got half of George's standard signoff. You forgot "Here's to a better, stronger America (sweeping gesture to flag behind him). See you at 10, see you then."

Editorial suggestion: your memoir might work even better with a little dialogue, not just pure narrative.
Also, the Examiner had the great Melvin Durslag--the anti-TJ Simer--and better comics than the Times

JSWN said...

dear d. mcewan:



Dr. Leo Marvin said...

A while back, This American Life interviewed one of Frank, Jr's kidnappers. Funny piece. What a putz. I'm sure you can download the episode. I'd try, and if they don't have it, then ThisAmericanLife dot something.

Did you keep a diary, or are you re-constructing this from newspapers and the like? (Sorry if you already explained that and I missed it.) It's really good, no surprise.

BTW, it's thermo, not thermal.

D. McEwan said...

"dear d. mcewan:

Hadn't even heard of it, but after readng your question, I looked it up on Amazon and read the excerpt posted, and I can now safely say I never will read it. The Palos Verdes she describes is hardly the one I lived in decades earlier. She says houses must be half an acre apart. Nonsense. Our neighbers were less than 15 feet away. It says kids have to wear uniforms to school. Only at the Catholic private school. I never worre a uniform to school in my life. (Unless she considers the Pendleton shirts we all wore in 1960 a uniform. You expressed your individuality in your choice of colors and plaids.) It says all the roofs had to be red tile. That is half-right. You had a choice between red tile or wooden shingles, and ours was the latter. The book cover calls Palos Verdes a "Beach community." It has no beaches. Only rocky shores, full of tide pools, but no sand. For beaches, you had to go north to Redondo Beach or east to Long Beach.

But mostly, I would not read it because I was never a teenage girl locked into surf culture. I moved away from PV at exactly the age the authoress arrives, and decades earlier. I had friends who were just starting to surf. My older sister was a PV teenage girl, but this book in no way describes her experiences either.

To me, the real PV story is the quiet desperation of the adults. My Dad and his best friend faced the same challenge: maintianing a Palos Verdes lifestyle the cost of which was rising faster than their incomes.

My dad's solution was to move us to Orange County, where have could have as large a house, but much cheaper.

His friend's "Solution" was to embezzle from his firm. He was caught, and paid them back. Four years later, he was caught a second time, still embezzling. This time, he killed himself, leaving his wife to somehow pay back the money and raise their sons alone. She lied to her sons about why their father killed himself for 20 years. When they finally found out the truth, it created a rift with their mother over that lie that persists to this day.

One last irony from this Palos Verdes story, the one I treasure the most: This man was the superintendant of the Sunday School my parents forced me to attend very much against my will every week growing up. This habitual embezzler who left his family in the lurch, with emotional scars still not healed 40 years later was teaching me MORALITY!

Sadly, I didn't learn this until after my parents had both died, so I never had the pleasure of rubbing it in their faces. I'd always said told them church was a sham.

Anonymous, you are so right about my forgetting the first part of Putnam's sigature sign-off. I'd blocked it from my memory, but you unlocked it. Uh - thanks?

JSWN said...

dear d. mcewan~

the book is very much re:the quiet desperation of the adults as told thru the eyes of a teenage girl and her brother....and family....
but your story`particularly about the embezzlement and suicide is eerily parallel on some levels and anywho....
i very much enjoy reading you here.
thank you for sharing.