[Excerpt from a work in progress.]
My earliest memories are California memories. But by 1967 California is a place I have lived away from for years. I was eight years old when our family left Los Angeles for the suburbs of Chicago. At age 14, it has been three years since our last family visit to San Francisco, the place of my birth and where my grandparents still live nearby. But it might as well be a lifetime away. Whenever we return, it is always a momentous occasion, a pilgrimage home courtesy of a Boeing 707 or a long drive in a Chevy station wagon.
This is a year of big plans for my father. His promotion to national sales manager for the container corporation he works for had been the reason for our move to Illinois. Now he is job hunting again. His discontent at working for someone else gnaws at him. He has concluded he has gone as far as he can with his current employer. Some recent executive promotions passed him by and he has had enough. He is almost 40 years old. If he wants to someday open his own business, he can’t wait much longer.
As Dustin Hoffman’s character will learn in The Graduate, in the late ’60s the future for my father is all about one word—plastic. This will mean a future manufacturing plastic bottles for the dairy industry. But before Dad can open his own business, he will first set his sights on employment elsewhere in the industry. This means with a firm that makes the machines that make the plastic bottles—the blow-molding industry. Dad wants to learn the business from the inside out. In the summer of 1967 the gears are thus set in motion for our family’s move to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and my father’s new job. With change on the way and five children in the house, my parents decide to send the three oldest children to spend part of the summer with our grandparents in the Bay Area. It will be the first time we have traveled west without our parents.
Grandma and Grandpa Harris live in a comfortable ranch home in suburban Millbrae, high in the hills of the peninsula overlooking San Francisco Bay. As a little boy, lying in the back of the family station wagon, I found the experience of ascending Millbrae Avenue to their hilltop home a woozy, slightly thrilling experience. The panoramic San Francisco Bay would gradually emerge into view, rearing up like a brilliant morning sunrise as we made our upward climb. Instinctively, I would grip the top of the seat in front of me, as if I might somehow otherwise fall off the side of the hill. But at age 14 whatever queasiness I have is now mostly reserved for my grandmother’s overly enthusiastic hugs and kisses. Fortunately, the latter are generally limited to our arrival and departure.
On this trip Grandpa’s colorful stories of his early Utah years are one of our chief entertainments. The old man likes to tell us how as a boy he used to entertain tourists for money by diving off a rocky perch head first into the Great Salt Lake. This was apparently a feat because the lake was so salty you could never sink, Grandpa explained, even if you were the world’s worst swimmer. He claimed he once knew a man who fell asleep while floating in the Great Salt Lake, not waking up until he was so far out to sea he couldn’t see the shoreline. There are other stories.
Grandpa takes us on trips in the car to downtown Millbrae, or out to Coyote Point at the bay shore. Around town he introduces us to people he knows. He always seems to know someone. One afternoon he points out the Millbrae barbershop where he is a regular customer. Did we know Bing Crosby came into the shop last year while he was getting a hair cut? He had been bragging to the barber about how well-known he was in town when Crosby walked in. He laughs as he recalls the moment.
Grandpa still runs his small business from the downstairs room, and every morning he will shower, shave, and put on a suit and tie before walking downstairs to the office. He doesn’t feel like he is working until he puts on his suit and tie, he will say. But if his home office is in the basement, my grandfather’s heart is usually somewhere in the clouds. He is a man who has spent his life dreaming of the “big breakthrough,” that eureka moment in his life when some new business opportunity or ingenious new gadget will make him a millionaire. In his work as a product representative there is always some Next Big Thing that catches his imagination. He once had an exclusive regional contract to represent a manufacturer of one of the early six-pack packaging rings, made from paper and metal. He also promoted jewel-cased aluminum tumblers to dairies as cottage cheese containers. The pitch was that once the cottage cheese was gone, the customer had a tumbler. But none of the companies he represents will ever make him rich.
My grandfather’s hopes in life take shape against the influential backdrop of his emigrant Welsh forebears, determined men and women who had followed the Mormon leader Brigham Young to Utah’s stark valleys. In fact, he is not an unsuccessful man. But whatever larger dreams of success capture his imagination have mostly eluded him. In a sense, he is like a more upbeat version of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman character from Death of a Salesman. But he gives to us less Loman’s bitterness or disappointment than an old man’s gentle wisdom, kindness, and humor. He also gives to us our father, who in the end perhaps proves to be my grandfather’s greatest invention.
Everything feels new on our 1967 trip. At the home of one of Dad’s cousins, I listen on stereo headphones for the first time to The Beatles’ new Sgt. Pepper album. A pool party at this same house turns lively when a group of neighborhood teenage girls join my younger sister and brother and myself for the afternoon. The girls are flirtatious and some of them chase me trying to push me into the pool. We enjoy cookies and lemonade while luxuriating on chaise lounges in the sunshine.
One of our older cousins takes us to Playland-at-the-Beach, the old 1920s amusement park near Ocean Beach with its fun house mirrors, Big Dipper roller coaster, and It’s It ice cream bars. A college-age cousin plays in a rock band and invites me along for a Friday night gig at a local high school. We drive up in the hills along Highway 280 in his van and I help the group set up their equipment. I have never seen a live rock and roll show before. The next day I play golf with Grandpa on a course up in the hills near the big mountain lake that serves as the local reservoir. I have played a par-three course a few times back in Illinois, but this is my first outing on a regulation golf course. I surprise myself by how far I can hit a ball with a seven iron. I also surprise the man at the green ahead of us when the ball smacks with line drive precision solidly into his arm. Grandpa comes to my rescue and apologizes, explaining to the man that I am only 14 and just learning golf. The man studies me closely for a moment, as if trying to decide how angry to be. But he just shrugs it off. Be more careful next time, he says before returning to his game. On the phone with my parents, Dad seems more impressed with how far I can hit the ball than the fact that I almost sent someone to the hospital.
One Saturday morning my grandparents take us for a drive into San Francisco. We cruise along Junipero Serra Boulevard into the West Portal neighborhood to see the house Dad and his little sister lived in when they were growing up. Then it is on to Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco neighborhood gaining national attention as America’s hippie epicenter—Haight Ashbury. From behind the rolled-up windows and locked doors of their white 1962 Cadillac, we stare curiously at the boisterous Haight Street scene. It is a busy weekend afternoon and the street is a long-haired menagerie of free spirits, lost souls, runaways, and other refugees from mainstream America. My grandparents are old-fashioned Mormons and their shocked, slightly appalled reaction only enhances my sense of wonder about the hippie scene.
At one intersection, as our car sits waiting for the light to change, I see a young girl with long blonde hair, dressed in a loose sweater and long skirt, leaning on a garage door as she stands quietly back from the street. She cannot be more than 17 or 18 years old and I stare at her in fascination. In my naiveté I wonder what her story is? Is she an “official hippie”? I catch her eye for a moment and she looks at me with a slightly weary curiosity. In my eyes she must be worldly and hip while I am just some suburban kid in a giant Cadillac with his face pressed to the window. As the light changes and our car begins to move, the girl smiles at me and gives a slight wave. In the end Haight Ashbury offers the plain realization that it is possible to live differently from life in our stodgy old Chicago suburb.
Our summer trip is two weeks of doting grandparents, homemade milk shakes, and vistas unlike anything in the Midwest. I love the dramatic view that greets us through the living room picture window when we enter our grandparents’ hillside home. It is as if the entire feeling of California magnifies whatever possibility and promise exist in my young life. Everywhere is the scent of the California air, from the smell of the eucalyptus to the salt breezes of the nearby ocean. Everywhere is the soft, dusking light of the evening sky, the peaks and valleys of fog rolling over the San Bruno mountains from the sea, and the bay’s blue expanse. Everywhere is the sense of connection to my family’s roots. It is just different from the Midwest. Wilder. Freer. More inspired. I love everything about California. My young heart is full with the beauty of the place. All of it whispers of the life to come.
The future, waiting.