Road Trip, chapter 6: The Old Neighborhood

The sun was going down by the time we finally left behind LA’s endless sprawl. Probably just as well: if we’d been able to see the beaches and seaside towns along the way to San Diego, it might have taken us much longer to get there.

I was born in San Diego sometime late in the Bronze Age, and now eagerly anticipated bringing my family to the old stomping grounds. The area has changed immensely since we left around 1960, but I was still able to get to our destination without consulting a map – and in the dark, too, thank you very much.

We were staying in the old neighborhood; long-time family friends had offered their home to us, even though they were all out of town. The illuminated fountain in the driveway was the kids’ first hint that our accommodations would be fit for royalty. The house is elegant – beautiful – and comfortable, obviously a place where enormous amounts of love and laughter and hospitality are enjoyed by many. It curves around a big swimming pool in the back yard, sitting on the edge of a canyon. The kids claimed a little suite nearest the pool for themselves, and Susan and I settled into a guest room. Ahhhhh…

We slept in on Monday – so nice not to have to be anywhere. Lauren and Zack wanted to hang around the house and swim. That left Susan to read magazines, one of her favorite vacation things, while I joined the kids in the pool (after a short morning nap). Later in the day we did a little sightseeing in the neighborhood. To my astonishment, it looked almost exactly as I remembered it from the late 50s. Even the same big sign with pink neon lettering still hangs across the main street. Showed the kids how we used to ride our bikes on sidewalks for miles without ever crossing a street. I rang the doorbell at my family’s old house, but no one was home. Rats. Walked back along the driveway to see if my hand prints might still be preserved in cement. There they were, dated August 1959 in my Dad’s writing.

“Susan! You guys! Check this out!” Zack thought that the hand prints looked like fossils. Hmmm – hadn’t occurred to me that my childhood home might be regarded as an archaeological site. While we studied the fossils, a car pulled into the driveway. “May I help you?” I explained that I had lived here ages ago, that those were my hand prints, and I provided a couple of obscure details about the house to prove that we weren’t just casing the joint. The owner invited us in and very graciously gave us a complete tour.

Walking through the spaces was like stepping into a time machine. I vividly recalled light switches, train tables, tuna casserole, dark gray wallpaper with giant roses, the smell of Butch Wax, and climbing the walls of a narrow hallway with other neighborhood kids. A number of the house’s original features remained: the yellow ceramic tile walls and ceiling in the kitchen were still there, as were the lime green and black tiles in the master bath, and the intricate black and white tile floor in the main bath. Our old playhouse/fort (and the 40′ avocado tree that supplied all the ammo we needed), sandbox, climbing rope, and an orange tree were gone; but a crystal chandelier, the front door, arched openings between rooms, and the floor plan were all as I remembered.

Going by my old elementary school evoked another “flood” of memories. That’s the cafeteria where I was laughed at by sixth graders when I asked where to take a big bowl of butter our first-grade class had churned. And there’s the playground where I couldn’t remember my bike lock combination and peed in my pants. And that’s the classroom where my first-grade teacher told me I could wait a few more minutes until the bell rang. She was wrong. I had gripped my chair for all I was worth until it was suddenly too late. Urine cascaded for hours over the edges of my seat in an endless, giant, splashy waterfall. At least that was how it had seemed. Well – fun to relive those moments. It’s a wonder I didn’t drop out of school in first grade.

The next day we went to Sea World and enjoyed most of the exhibits/shows until we saw Believe, featuring “killer” whales. The show claims to “transport your heart to the edge of wonder,” but we ended up at the edge of disgust. Having spotted Orca whales in their native habitat (I commuted daily by ferry in Puget Sound for seven years), it was hard to see them here performing tricks. I found myself wishing that ‘Shamu’ would skarf down a couple of trainers instead of settling for a lousy handful of mackerel. And what the heck do captive whales have to do with “believing,” anyway? I’d be surprised if it was the dream of any whale to spend its life swimming around in a big tank. We ended our visit to Sea World with a short ride on the roller coaster. Went high enough to get an overview of the park, had a couple of mildly stomach-churning turns and drops, and got nice and wet.

From the park we drove beside San Diego Bay toward downtown. We passed Lindbergh Field, which must be one of the scariest airports on which to try and land a plane. Here’s one guy’s description: “Flying into Lindbergh Field in San Diego is much like I imagine strapping yourself onto a Tomahawk cruise missile would be. In both cases, you find yourself zooming through the city 50 feet off the deck, while stunned office workers look down at your aircraft…”

Over the hill behind downtown lies Balboa Park, site of two World’s Fairs, home to the San Diego Zoo and 15 major museums, and the place where my parents were married. We saw what we could from the car but didn’t get out; we’d had enough of being butt-to-belly with crowds that day. Shucks – guess we’ll have to get back to our home-away-from-home. Back in the pool, I decided to work on my back flip (must have gotten too much sun). The best I can say about that effort is that I was not injured or killed.

Our hosts came home later that evening. Though they had been flying for hours, they wanted to hear about our family and our trip, and they briefed us on their family. She (The Nubile Maiden of the South) and my Mom (The Nubile Maiden of the North) have enjoyed many years of friendship, beginning when their daughter and I were 4. Though decades years have passed since those days, she exudes the same warmth, humor, and gracious charm that always made me feel like I was a member of their family. He remains a sea of calm amid the bustle of the household, quiet but quick to laugh, and dispensing kind words when one is called for. We were very glad for a chance to visit, as our plan called for an early-ish departure the next morning.

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