by Sanderson Beck
Even before I started school, I remember the most boring part of the day was when my playmates had to take their afternoon naps because I stopped day-time sleeping before them. I never attended any nursery school or child care. Since Mom was a full-time homemaker and I had older brothers, I can’t recall ever even having a baby-sitter.
I started kindergarten one month before my fifth birthday. Kindergartners weren’t allowed on the school bus; so most parents had to drive their children to school and then pick them up afterwards. However, Mom just showed me the way the first day, and I walked. It was a little over a mile. I would go out through our back gate and through the empty lot down a path, where my brothers used to sled down over the leaves on boards, to Brooktree Rd. I followed that street over the creek and then went through or around Rustic Canyon Park. To go through I had to climb over a cyclone fence. A few times Bob Stump menacingly stopped me there, threatening and laughing at me. Once when I had my Cub Scout uniform on he threw a rock at me, but I turned sideways and dodged it as it flew past my chest. From the park Latimer Rd. took me to Upper and Lower Mesa. We could take the long way down Lower Mesa and back through the alley or climb up Upper Mesa and walk down 125 stairs and then through another lot down to Channel Rd. and Canyon School at the bottom of the canyon between Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. My friends and I would dawdle along these places and sometimes take all afternoon to get home.
I don’t remember kindergarten much except that I had Miss Winston, but I remember the name of every elementary school teacher I had from the first grade on. I won’t bore you with that, but they were all women. I remember when starting first grade, Alan Newman and some other kids were reciting the alphabet. I wondered how they learned that, but I wasn’t worried and did well in school without a head start.
In first grade I had a traumatic experience when Craig Arness talked me into going to the Coke machine at the gas station outside the school gate during recess. The teacher made us stand up in front of the class and tell them we were sorry for what we had done. I felt humiliated and cried. I believe it was uncalled for to put a six-year-old through that ordeal.
Once when I was playing in the sandbox at Craig’s, his next-door neighbor Barbara Daniels whispered in my ear, did I want to do something or other which I could not understand. I thought to myself that nothing could be more boring than what we were doing; so I said okay. She led me into the basement with her little brother, and standing about ten feet away they both suddenly pulled down their pants including their underwear. She said I had agreed to do it, so I pulled down my pants also. It was at Barbara Daniels’ house where I was first introduced to brown bread. Naturally I didn’t think it was as good as white, but they said it was better. I was too programmed to believe them.
I went with Craig and his mother one day to see the filming of the movie Them starring his father James Arness. It was out in the desert. The scene we saw was when he was saving the heroine from a giant ant by shooting at it from behind a fake rock. They put green liquid in the ant’s eyes and turned on a wind machine. We saw trucks carrying the parts of giant ants.
Craig was a bad influence on me. Each day as we walked to school he said we had to do one bad deed, like break a bottle in someone’s front yard or disrupt a fence. I didn’t like it, but I went along. He used to “sniggle” things which was his word for stealing. He took packages of Jello and powdered pudding from his kitchen, and we would eat them in the basement. I even took Jello from our own kitchen, and once Mom asked me why my mouth was all red. I was silent. She asked, “Have you been eating wild berries? I don’t want you eating wild berries.” I said okay, glad for the excuse.
Craig started “sniggling” from the stores and selling candy. Of course this was all just a game because his parents would buy him whatever he wanted; he had the fanciest toys in the neighborhood. His mother would make a commercial, and they would buy a new television set. She wasn’t happy though; I heard that she had attempted suicide. When she asked him about the candy, he told her he was buying them. She couldn’t see how he would make any money and what the point was; so he decided to take larger quantities and sell them individually. Soon after that he told me to watch for the store manager, but he got caught. The manager just warned us and told us to get out of there. After that I wouldn’t have any part of it. Not long after this his father found his niche as Marshal Dillon in the TV show Gunsmoke; but by then Craig had dropped behind me in school, and I no longer saw him.
About the second grade our school was overcrowded, and we were put on half-day sessions, which meant that we either attended in the morning or the afternoon. Sometimes Mom would take me over to a friend’s house to play in the morning and after lunch I would take the school bus with him to school. One such person was Steve Daniels who was probably the smartest in the class. I liked to compete with him, and once I looked on his paper during a spelling test to see if the word “bite” had an “e” on the end. He complained to the teacher. She asked me to spell the word on the board, which I did. When I returned to my seat, I said to him, “I remembered.” I didn’t usually cheat, but I didn’t feel guilty about this. What was wrong about learning how to spell a word during a test? Would it have been better not to learn it?
I found out that Steve liked a quiet girl with dark bangs named Corinne Leslie. I think it must have been only out of competition with him that I decided I liked her too. Anyway I began thinking I loved her and wondered how I would tell her. Finally my chance came when we were alone kneeling next to a garden plot, and I said quietly to her, “I love you.” Nothing came of it though. I soon realized that I didn’t really like her. When someone kidded me about her, I said, “I don’t like her; she’s ugly.” As I found better companionship with boys, I joked about starting an “I hate girls” club. When we had square-dancing in elementary school, I would squeeze their knuckles together to show my strength. I suppose there was a little violence and meanness in that. I very much regret this and have completely changed my attitude toward the fair sex. I once lost the chance for a more intimate friendship with someone because I told her about this incident which only happened when I was in the fourth grade.
In about the third grade I came home from school one day, and Mom said I had received a letter. We opened it to discover that I had won third prize in a contest to name Jingles Ranch in the Wild Bill Hickok television show; I had sent in the name “Bang, Bang Jingles.” The prize was a black-and-white television, which meant that us kids got to have our own TV. About that time we put all three of our desks in one bedroom and spread out the three beds in the other room with the TV so that we all could watch it. I got to pick the two nights I wanted my choice of programs, and Dan and Tom each got two nights. The result was that if I could stay awake in bed, I could watch TV as late as my older brothers. We were never allowed to watch TV during the daytime except sports on the weekend or the World Series.
For a while we kept a few chickens in the backyard. One day Mom handed me a hatchet and told me to chop off the head while she held one down. I did so; but Mom let go, and the chicken began running around the yard without its head. We both chased after the bird as blood gushed out of its skinny neck. That was a little traumatic for me, and I’ve never cooked chicken, although I’ll eat it if someone else has cooked it.
When I was seven, I walked over to the new house in the neighborhood to meet Mike Thompson who became my best friend for many years,. As the door , I could hear the “Blue Danube Waltz” being played on the piano by Mike. Later I learned that the movie “Tales of the Vienna Woods” about the musical Strauss family had been filmed in the woods in our neighborhood. Mike was both smart and a good athlete, like myself. From this time on through high school, my best friends would have these two attributes.
Soon I wanted to play the piano too; so my parents bought one, and I took lessons once a week. Pop had played the trumpet in his high school and college bands, and Mom had tried piano for a while but then quit. She had always regretted that she hadn’t stuck with it; and she wasn’t about to let me quit, especially after they had bought a piano. I took lessons from an old lady in the Palisades for a while, and then I was transferred to a more professional classical teacher in West Los Angeles, Mr. Turner. He had two grand pianos in his living room. I had to practice every day, and once in a while I would play in a recital for all his students’ parents. Classical pieces became tedious to me, and I didn’t want to practice. However, Mom made me go on. “Have you run your fingers over the ivories today?” she would ask. Most of Mr. Turner’s students were older and apparently wanted to be serious musicians; but I decided I didn’t, and I resented being forced to do something against my will. Once Mr. Turner asked me what grade I got in mathematics. When I replied “A,” he was very surprised. I always got “A”s easily in math, but this wasn’t a question of ability but of motivation. Finally I broke down and cried under his pressure. Then my parents and I agreed that I would take one more year but with a teacher of popular music, like my mother was taking, and after that year I could quit. I learned a swing base with the left hand and how to play both octaves and fill in the chord notes with the right hand from a Mr. Hancock who told me morbid stories about a man who lost both his arms and legs and then died in a car crash. Anyway I got so that I could play songs like “The Birth of the Blues” and “Dark Town Strutters’ Ball” fairly well. Yet when the year was over, I was glad to be liberated from the one great resentment of my childhood; and I never took lessons again. It had been five years, but I knew after a few months that I wasn’t a Mozart. I never got to hear much music until my parents bought a nice stereo after I had quit.
Later I came to love music, especially singing along with records or in the shower. The first record I ever bought was Elvis Presley’s 45 “Love Me Tender.” For a while in the late fifties Tom had a bunch of 45s. That was a fluke though, because I didn’t buy rock-and-roll records until I got into marijuana at Berkeley. For years I followed my parents’ conservative tastes for singers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Mitch Miller, and Broadway shows. My favorites were the Mills Brothers, Kingston Trio, Limelighters, Harry Belafonte, Nat “King” Cole, and musicals. I got a portable record player in my room and would sing along with a stack of LPs for hours while I played an APBA baseball game. I loved to go with Mom to Sachs Discount Records in Beverly Hills and buy three or four new albums. I think I had about nine Mills Brothers albums and as many musical shows.
Another new friend up the street, Robert Gottesman, introduced Mike and I to butterfly catching; he showed us his neatly mounted collection in glass cases. Mike and I were more interested in catching them than mounting them. We both got nets, and we would squeeze their heads in our nets to kill them. We loved to roam around the empty lots, forest glades and down by the creek behind his house looking for the beautiful flying creatures. Fortunately our neighborhood still had more wild places than houses then. White cabbages fluttered everywhere, and “stupid” dark purple and yellow-trimmed morning cloaks might land right on you. The open field behind my house we called monarch lot and next to that was question-mark lane and red-admiral pass; red admirals were fast flyers and rare, thus the hardest to catch and most prized. Brown buckeyes had their dark round “eyes” on them, and fritillaries were bright orange and silver underneath. Down by Brooktree across the street from Mike’s was swallow-tail lot, the large yellow ones and the slightly smaller and darker black swallow-tails. Down by the creek we would see the bent-wing flight of the lorquin’s admiral. Once in a while we might see a yellow sulfur, but on a trip in the desert there were scads of them piling into the radiator.
If I really wanted to go somewhere, I would risk a spanking. I got one once going out butterfly hunting without permission, and Mike could hear my screams of pain as he left for home. Another time we found a fenced-off yard with a garden that attracted the best butterflies. I wanted to climb the fence, but Mike said I better not. I couldn’t resist; but on the top of the fence I caught my left bicep on the jagged wire. We ran home with it bleeding, and I had to go to the hospital emergency room for two stitches. It is the only noticeable scar on my body.
Soon after I met him, Mike got a coonskin cap of fur with a tail down the back. These were popularized for kids by the hit TV show on Davy Crockett. We would wear our coonskin caps and memorized all twenty verses of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” but all I can remember now is:
Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free ...
Killed him a b’ar when he was only three.
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.
I think maybe the first book I read was a biography of Davy Crockett. I remember some Landmark books for young people. I read about pioneering and western heroes like Jim Bowie and Wild Bill Hickok. I remember reading that a guy named Jack McCall thought he would become famous by shooting Hickok in the back of the head during a poker game when he was holding the aces and eights dead man’s hand. Of course hardly anyone remembers Jack McCall’s name, but everyone has heard of Will Bill Hickok.
Somehow I got the idea that someday I would be so great and famous that someone would want to gain notoriety by killing me. If a car was coming while I was walking down the street, I would think I’d better step up on the curb so as not to tempt them. I think this was the beginning of my messiah martyrdom complex in this life. In high school I read a 400-page LIFE OF LINCOLN by J. G. Holland and confirmed the same pattern with the great Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. In 1967 one day I went to U. C. Berkeley’s administration building Sproul Hall to look up in the directory Mike Thompson’s current address. I heard a voice outside speaking. Walking over to the window I looked down from the second floor and saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving a speech on the steps. From that angle I couldn’t help thinking to myself how easy it would be for someone to kill him. Later I learned that the FBI really wanted King out of the way and thus must have made little effort to protect him from the numerous threats he faced.
About the fourth grade I was selected with about four other students to go on a day-time television program in Los Angeles live. They showed a short film about native American pottery or some subject not too interesting for youngsters, at least not to me, and then we discussed it on television. I didn’t have much to say about it. I must have been really conceited then, because I remember when our bus got back to the school, I said, “Don’t applaud, just throw money.” Mike told me the whole school had watched it, but he brought me back to reality when he complained that I didn’t say hardly anything.
One of my teachers had a cute little stuffed-cloth doll, which she would give to a different student who had been good half way through each day. I felt especially good when that little doll was sitting on my desk. These were also the days in which we would have “drop drills.” Completely out of the blue the teacher would suddenly shout, “Drop!” and we would have to scurry under our desks and cover our heads with our arms. I think we only vaguely understood what the purpose of this was. We were living in the nuclear age. I remember once Mom was reflecting on nuclear weapons, and she said, “Sometimes I wonder why we bring children into such a world.” About this time the Russians surprised everyone by putting Sputnik in orbit around the Earth. Education became very serious business, and my learning started accelerating.
This was dramatically noticeable my last two years in elementary school. In November 1956 Miss Miller decided that she had some smart students in her class who could advance more rapidly. She already had a split class of A4 and B4, but in the last ten weeks about half of each group were to be “double-promoted” if they wished. Since I had started in mid-year, it would put me on the normal academic year. Mike chose not to skip ahead and thus was now a year behind me. Robert Gottesman did advance, but it put him on the odd semester until he dropped back again in high school. Thus in ten weeks I had to learn the second half of A4 and all of B5. School became a challenge for the first time. Somehow Miss Miller managed to work with four different groups, and we all achieved the goals we sought.
When I went into A5 in the spring semester, I found myself with the best teacher I ever had in school—Miss Lucille Morton. I was a whiz at arithmetic, and I scratched out the problems as fast I could write. Miss Morton’s students from B5 looked at my paper with horror and disgust—what a mess! All of their numbers were neatly in rows and columns, and every line was drawn with a ruler. Everything in this class was to be done well.
My health has always been good. The only two days I can remember missing school for illness were in the A5. I had all the childhood diseases when I was young because of my brothers—chicken pox, measles, mumps, etc. In Junior High I had one absence when Mom took me to a World Series baseball game in 1959. She had sent me to school with a note asking that I be excused at 11 so that we could attend the World Series. However, the attendance office decided that that was not a legitimate excuse; so in typical bureaucratic folly they suggested I go home before school even started. I thought it was silly that I should miss two or three periods because of their little rule. In high school I don’t think I missed a day, and in college I sometimes cut classes but never for illness. Anyway one Wednesday in A5 I wasn’t feeling too well when an odd woman came in to give us some posture training—you know, shoulders back, chest out, and all that. In one exercise she told us to tighten up our whole body like a knot, and I threw up all over my desk. This didn’t endear me to my neighboring students. I missed that day but was fine until the next Wednesday, which I also missed. I remember this because of my confusion the next Wednesday when we took out our art projects. We only did art on Wednesdays, and I was way behind everyone. This was a new experience for me, but fortunately it was not repeated.
Miss Morton was a beautiful young woman with wavy blond hair and a figure like Aphrodite. I remember when we sang chorus outside standing on the bleachers, she would bend down to hit a xylophone to give us the pitch, and I could see most of her ample breasts inside her dress. We all performed our best for Miss Morton. She stimulated us all to achieve our potential. Even the slow students she would question until they began to think. The smart students were encouraged to go way beyond the normal level. Fortunately she was also my teacher for all of the sixth grade.
For example, in spelling on Monday we would take a pre-test of the 15 words we were supposed to know by the end of the week. In her class we would take the words we missed on Monday and then had to add new words to our list we didn’t yet know how to spell to make 15 words we had to learn by Friday. So instead of learning two or three new words each week I was learning fifteen. I learned how to spell the South American capitals and words I never knew existed. Since we all had our own personal lists, we had to pair off to give each other tests on Friday. I remember pronouncing a word fat-i-gooy for Rod Edmunds. He looked perplexed, and then he laughed and said, “Oh, you mean ‘fatigue.’” I guess I made spelling that word easy; I had never heard of it before. I think I was in high school before I could diagram sentences any better than we did in the B6.
Miss Morton covered all the basics and the arts. Each semester we would put on a play. In A5 we made rifles out of wood for a play about pioneers, and I called the Virginia reel. At Christmas we did “The Night Before Christmas.” Each week we had to write out a poem from a book or write our own, illustrate it with colored pencils, memorize it, and recite it before the class. Another good friend, David Moody, had moved in across the street from Mike, and he joined me in the 6th grade. One week David memorized all of “The Highway Man,” which has several pages, and with his neck and face red from nervousness and activity he recited the whole thing before an amazed class.
Miss Morton had a temper though, and she would give us a piece of her mind if she thought we needed it. She was especially a terror out on the playground, because she would wear dark glasses, and we weren’t sure who she was looking at or yelling at. She really cared about us and once even came to one of my little league games because she knew how much I loved baseball and wanted to see me play. She said she was amazed how well we could throw that little ball around and catch it. She told my parents that maybe I would get married someday if I could find a girl who could play first-base! The next year Mike Thompson and Mark Holmes got to have Miss Morton and be her “teacher’s pets.” The last I heard of her I think Mark told me she was teaching teachers. I still love her and thank her for the priceless experiences she gave me.
I have to quarrel with Shaw’s superficial witticism that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach, and the addendum that those who can’t teach, teach teachers. To me teaching is the most important art and skill in life. There are many people who have the ability to do something but are very poor at teaching it to others. It is also true that older people may lose abilities, as in athletics, but still be able to coach others, or never even have a talent but still be good at teaching others who have more talent. But generally the person who is most masterful at doing something is also the best teacher. Ultimately if we are not able to teach others to equal or surpass our achievements, then our ability dies with our body; but if we can pass on our wisdom through teaching, then humanity progresses, and our contribution to life never ends.
Walking to the bus-stop at Sunset Blvd. for Junior High I would knock on Robert Gottesman’s door on the way. Once in a while he would tell me he wasn’t going, because it was a Jewish holiday or his grandmother had died. I liked Robert and his family; they were tolerant and generous. His father had a mustache and was a psychiatrist, and his mother was the daughter of the famous psychoanalyst, Dr. Karl Menninger, a kind old man I shook hands with once. Robert would jokingly call his mother Julia. Whenever I came over there, I became a part of the family. For some reason I don’t know, Robert rarely came over to my house, almost never. That was all right, because I liked to walk up the street and was able to choose when I wanted to play with him.
During summers, vacations and weekends we would try to think of interesting things to do. Near the end of the summer we would get more bored. Once we were floating little boats in Carter Harrington’s swimming pool; Robert shouted that I shouldn’t let the bow hit the edge, so I dashed around the pool, reached down, and tumbled in with my clothes on. Sometimes we would play at boxing in his room; it was friendly, not hostile at all. We would put on boxing gloves and agreed only to hit between the shoulders and the waist. Whenever one person wanted to end the round he would say, “Ding.” I think I pounded on him more than he on me, but he seemed to like it. Maybe it was like a good massage. We played cards, especially “I Doubt It.” We had a memory game where each of us would say a word, usually an object, and then the other person would have to repeat all the previous words and then add one more. We could remember thirty or more.
The couple across the street from me didn’t have children; so they hired me to take out their trash for them. On the side of a hill they had some steep steps made out of cut rocks. It was dangerous carrying heavy trash cans down those steps; so they had a shed built by the driveway just for their trash cans. His name was Mahlon Merrick, and he was the musical director for the Jack Benny TV show and composer of the “Feel Sharp March,” which Gillette used for their razor commercials. In that shed I would rummage through old magazines and save the old Jack Benny scripts he had thrown away. Then Robert and I would read them aloud. Once Mr. Merrick gave my family complimentary tickets for the filming of a show he thought we would find particularly interesting to see live. Jack Benny had as his guest Dick Van Dyke. The gag was that Jack Benny was so cheap he expected Van Dyke to play every role except the Detective Benny was playing. Without stopping the cameras we watched as Van Dyke would come on stage in one costume and role after another. He was the butler, walked daintily in a dress as the maid, had a mustache as the inspector, etc. In between each scene Benny would say a few lines to himself, such as “Ah, an unused stamp;” he put it in his coat pocket. Later reviewing the case he said, “And someone stole a stamp—that was me.” Meanwhile Van Dyke’s exits and entrances came faster and faster as Benny wanted to question each witness. Finally Van Dyke became confused and was walking like the butler in a dress with the mustache. He took off the mustache, threw it down, and complained to Benny. That was the only show we got to see in person, but it was a good one.
Occasionally Robert’s family would invite me to go with them on a camping trip to Lake Arrowhead. One time Robert’s pretty older sister Ann brought a pretty friend too. While we were driving on the freeway in a long station-wagon with three rows of seats, they were changing into their swimsuits behind us, and we were instructed not to turn our heads that way. Robert pointed at a bulge in my pants, accidentally touching it. “It’s hard,” he said in surprise. I replied, “What do you expect when there are naked girls right behind us?”
When I was about twelve, Pop tried shyly to tell me about the birds and the bees. He beat around the bush saying that at night certain parts of my body might feel different sometimes and that I shouldn’t worry about it. Then he asked me if I had any questions. I thought of asking to confirm my intuition that the man puts his organ inside the woman’s, but decided not to. Relieved, he went and got a book to give me called The Stork Didn’t Bring You. “It didn’t,” I joked, and both my brothers laughed.
David Moody’s father once took Mike and I on a camping trip. The three of us were playing cards in the car; and I must have been winning the game of hearts, because David and Mike started teaming up against me. I complained that that wasn’t fair, and Mr. Moody while driving said in mock pity, “Aw, are they picking on you?” which didn’t help. Another time the three of us were playing miniature golf, and David wrote the names on the scorecard: Mike, David, and Big Dick. I got mad and ripped up the scorecard. I guess they were just envious. Sometimes we would sneak off and look at Playboy magazines, but I was not a sexually active teenager (except in my imagination with movie stars); I was too busy with sports. David turned out to be the stud. In 1968 he told Mike and me that he had had a sexual affair with an adult woman in the neighborhood, but after a while he was too scared he would get caught and stopped going to her bedroom. Sometimes I wondered if it was true or whether he was trying to see if he could get us to believe it.
Once when the Gottesmans went on a vacation, they asked me to feed their cat. Shortly after she had her kittens, the mother was run over by a car. I put the cat’s body in a trash can, and Mom gave me a carton of milk for the kittens. I poured the milk in a bowl, but the poor little kittens didn’t know what to do. So I pushed their noses into the milk so that they would have to lick them. Then they began to drink, and they all lived. Several days later I opened the trash can, and huge maggots larger than bumble bees flew out. I put the lid back down. I called the sanitation department, and they took care of it. I had forgotten the dead body but had done all right with the living.
Junior high school brought many changes in life style. When the new school opened in West Los Angeles named after Paul Revere, both my brothers transferred there. It was too far to walk, and I took the bus that followed the curves of Sunset Blvd. My homeroom was in the print shop where I discovered I had been put together with others interested in sports. Ours was the biggest class thus far---about 500 students. We were the post-war baby boom. I was assigned a locker with a combination lock to store books and things. Each semester I went to six different classrooms with six different teachers plus homeroom. I always had math, English, social studies, gym, usually a shop, and an elective. In gym we were given another locker and had to wear a T-shirt with white on one side and green on the other, green shorts, a jock strap, white socks and tennis shoes. Every day at the end of gym we got to take a shower before putting our school clothes back on. My first semester I took Glee Club and satisfied my music requirement by singing. We were assigned text books for which we had to buy book-covers at the student store. We were given homework assignments, but everything seemed easy to me after having Miss Morton. I got straight As the first two semesters. In the A7 my last period English teacher Mrs. Jordan accidentally wrote D U S on my report card, and I had to take new cards back to all my other teachers who had given me A E E. The latter two letters were for work habits and cooperation, and they could be Excellent, Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory. They each noticed I had all “A”s with one class to go, but Mrs. Jordan gave me an S for satisfactory instead of an E for excellent in work habits; so I had all “A”s, but my record wasn’t perfect. In A7 my homeroom elected me to student council; thus I took this instead of wood and metal shops, which were standard for boys.
In B8 I had a very hard teacher for social studies and barely managed to get a B, but all the rest were still As. I soon found myself with the smarter kids in special classes they called A. E. for “academically enriched.” In the eighth grade I liked print shop. I found a quote I liked by Benjamin Franklin in a science magazine, typeset it by hand, and printed it on cards for bookmarks. Here is the quote.
The rapid progress true science now makes
occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon.
It is impossible to imagine the height
to which may be carried in a thousand years
by the power of man over matter.
The print shop teacher was so impressed he suggested I work on a small book. I selected the poem “Casey at the Bat.” I was so naive about machinery though that when I told him I needed to cut the paper he assumed that I could handle the large paper-cutting machine; but I tried to use the little hand paper cutter and ruined a stack of paper.
In science Mr. Swingler assigned us the project of researching in detail any animal of our choosing. I selected the symbol of our country, the bald eagle. I discovered that eagles live high up in the cliffs or in tall trees and prey upon rodents on the ground. They are not vultures and do not eat corpses but attack living creatures, which they can spot while flying high above with their excellent vision. I learned, of course, that the bald eagle is not really bald but has white feathers on its head. In my false pride I looked askance at students who selected bats, beavers, and dolphins, which really are more interesting. I agree now with Franklin that the eagle was a poor symbol for our country, but to think of changing it nowadays to the turkey wouldn’t raise much more than laughter. Eagles could easily become extinct, and the United States with its nuclear weaponry seems to be following the same cruel path.
In the ninth grade I was defeated in the election for a second semester in student council by Mike Pehlke, who was also elected student body president. Mike had come from South Dakota. People were often coming to California. After one Christmas vacation, a girl joined us from Minnesota; I speculated that her family must have come for the Rose Bowl that year and just decided to stay. I know I wouldn’t want to leave California to go back to Minnesota in January. Mike was the son of a doctor, an outstanding athlete, and a genius student. I pointed out though that he was more than a year older than I was. Every semester I had made the scholarship organization Marksmen (Sexism wasn’t even a word then.), and in the ninth grade I was elected its president. I don’t think I did anything except preside at a meeting or two.
One teacher just let our A. E. class do whatever we wanted, and the class was in chaos as everybody talked. Well, she didn’t allow everything, because she stopped David Moody and I from re-creating the Roy Patterson - Ingmar Johannson heavyweight fight for current events. When I saw on my midterm report card that she had given me an A, I just laughed in her face. That was a mistake because she gave me a B at the end. It was ironic, because in the second half I did detailed research on the life of Charles Darwin. We were to give oral presentations; I was too shy to volunteer, and I never got to give the report. I learned about how Darwin had suffered illness for many years and worked in spite of it, how he had studied animals at the Galapagos Islands and carefully supported his theories, only publishing his masterpiece, The Origin of Species, in 1859 when he learned that Alfred Russell Wallace had developed the same theory. I noted that Darwin was born on the same day of the same year as Abraham Lincoln—February 12, 1809. Later when I discovered astrology I remembered this and observed how they became prominent at about the same time. The loss wasn’t that I hadn’t learned, but that I hadn’t shared it then.
In the A9 I had Mrs. Jordan again for A. E. English. She would say, “I’m a bear about grammar.” She gave us a project to do over Easter vacation; we had to write a research paper on mythology and also create a myth of our own. I didn’t want to spend my vacation reading; so on the last day I went to the library and found a Latin textbook which on one page explained how each day of the week was named after a different deity---Sunday sun, Monday moon, Tuesday Mars, Wednesday Mercury, Thursday Jupiter, Friday Venus, and Saturday Saturn. She told the class how one student’s research consisted of only one page and consequently deserved a D. The girl behind me asked if I had really got five units of D. I said, “No, only three; I got an A on my myth.” My myth was that long ago there was a great fire in North America. Hercules went to Africa for a vine that wouldn’t burn which he tied around the ball of fire, pulling it up and twirling it around his head until it got farther and farther away and eventually became the sun. That was why people thought the sun went around the earth, but as it expanded the roles were reversed. The hole where the fire was is the Grand Canyon, and this also explains why the natives of this land are red---because of the fire.
Another time, without realizing it was a pun which my friend Bob Dedon had laughed at during nutrition, I used the word “granite” as in someone taking it for granite. It made sense to me, granite being solid rock. Mrs. Jordan was going to read this sentence to the class, but she looked at me and thought better of it. I was grateful she hadn’t embarrassed me a second time.
Before graduation there was a senior talent show. Some of the girls dressed as flappers from the twenties and did the Charleston. My friends and I sat in the first row and hoped they would kick their legs high. My new friend Alan Bellanca won the American Legion award. I talked him into making a pact that we should both try to win awards in high school.
It was while walking to Mrs. Jordan’s class that I asked Pam Deats to go to grad night with me. She smiled and said yes. I guess it was my first and only big date for many years. About this time I was being invited with David Moody to parties put on by some of the smart girls, most of whom I did not find attractive. But Pam had a beautiful face, dark blond hair, and a good figure; she was shy and not too well known. I got her a gardenia corsage for her wrist so that I wouldn’t have to worry about pinning it to her dress. At her house in my neighborhood she took it in to show her mother who was in a wheel chair; I heard a voice praising it and me come from the other room. Being too young to drive, my brother Tom chauffeured us to the fancy hotel and picked us up afterward. He commented that we didn’t talk much. I was so enamored of her beauty that I was tongue-tied. She wore a light white dress; her makeup was subtle and perfect. All I could do was stare at her and try to think of something to say. I had tried to get myself perfect also, but not wanting to do it too early I had forgotten to shave! The next morning at 10 I was scheduled to pitch against John Fischer of the Orioles for the first half playoffs in Pony League since we had tied. Fischer was there too with the class “doll,” blonde Konnie Pedersen. I promised myself I wouldn’t mention baseball to Pam. To say that our conversation lagged would have been a gross understatement. I wanted to kiss her, but I was too shy to even touch her except when we danced. I would suggest we walk outside, and then I would get cold feet. Finally at her door with Tom waiting in the car she put out her hand, and we said goodnight by shaking hands.
Shortly after that I was invited to a luau party at her house, which I went to after one of my Pony League games. In high school she avoided me. The bus-stop was near her house, but she would stand away from me. Then she started going to the bus-stop on the other side of her house. I remember seeing her once when we were freshmen at Berkeley; she had joined the sorority that Tom’s wife Martha had been in. She looked more beautiful than ever and seemed to be going with a tall upper classman. We didn’t converse. I vaguely remember seeing her one more time in front of her house as I drove by; she was pregnant. She was my first love. For years I think I was far too choosy in regard to girls; I could never find the perfect woman for me. Maybe it was because none of them were ever as beautiful as Pamela. At our 50-year class reunion I talked with her and asked if I could kiss her. She was married but said yes, and that finally fulfilled my lost desire. About this time my mother had told me that my father did not kiss her on a date until he asked permission, and she said yes.
Occasionally my friends and I, usually Mike, Robert, or David, would walk up to the Palisades to go shopping or see a matinee at the Bay Theatre. Two houses away from me lived Mr. Griffith who was an old man with rabbit hutches in the backyard; our family bought rabbit meat from him sometimes. In his backyard was a narrow cement stairway up the hill through his orchard. We would walk up the stairs and through a hole in the fence to Sunset Blvd. which saved us a considerable distance and most of the dangerous part of Sunset where there was no sidewalk.
I usually carried plenty of change in my pocket, and often my friends would borrow money from me. I can remember Ron Seranella at school begging, “Can I borrow thirty-five cents? Please; I’ll pay you back tomorrow.” Most of them must have paid me back, or I would have stopped loaning to them. I liked being generous with money. I think it was Bob Dedon who gave me the name Security First Beck. Mike used to call me Heck, which he and Dedon turned into Hector the Protector, after Mike read Homer’s Iliad.
One day we were roaming around the Palisades and went to see the new high school that was being built. My brothers had gone to University High School near UCLA which had some ethnic diversity with a few Japanese-Americans and some Mexican-Americans; but Pali High was all white middle class, thus limiting the range of my social experience. It opened when I started high school. We started without a gym or showers, but the area attracted some reasonably good teachers. The first year we didn’t have a senior class; so our varsity sports teams were pretty bad. We had tremendous school spirit though. The crowd would cheer as one of our players carried the ball even though he didn’t gain a yard. When the team finally scored a touchdown, the bleachers went crazy. Boys Vice Principal Mercer had told us that some new schools never even score their first year. Vocal people seemed to think that our new school was so beautiful; but the architecture was modern dull, and there wasn’t any landscaping yet. Forgetting my pact with Alan Bellanca I decided not to join the tenth-grade service organization; I wasn’t about to spend my lunch periods stationed in a hallway. I did join the Ensigns in the eleventh grade and my senior year made the Commodores, the honor service group; Mr. Mercer made us feel like we were the elite.
In the tenth grade I took a second year of Latin to satisfy the language requirement. Mrs. Zeisl had an Austrian accent and was very easy going. During a test we could walk up to her desk and ask her a question, and she would actually help us. After a while I got bored with it and started copying Barry Sears’ homework during geometry. I remember having a very maudlin teacher for English, Mrs. Stiles. Once she clapped her hands and danced around saying, “R-h-y t-h-m, r-h-y t-h-m; I may be making a fool of myself, but you’ll remember how to spell rhythm.” For God’s sake, I thought, Miss Morton taught us how to spell a lot better than this, and she didn’t have to make a fool of herself. Another teacher kindly thanked me for her cat, which I had saved that time at the Gottesman’s.
The first day of Life Science we saw Mr. Small sitting behind the demonstration counter; at least we all assumed he was sitting down until he walked around, and we realized that he was less than five feet tall! We couldn’t help but laugh later that Mr. Small was so, well, small. In 1961 he taught us an excellent experimental curriculum which integrated biology by using the perspectives of ecology and evolution. However, with my laziness about studying and my math ability I did better in chemistry and physics the next two years.
When I was fifteen and a half I got a learner’s permit, and Pop taught me how to drive in his light blue Ford Falcon. At first, moving an automobile seemed scary. It was automatic, and he just told me to push down on the gas. Of course it was easy to learn to use the brake and steer. After my birthday Mom took me to take the driving test in Culver City after school. It was during the rush hour, and cars were honking at me as I tried to change lanes. I needed 70 to pass but got only 65. The next time I went to Santa Monica at ten in the morning and got a 90.
That summer I made what could have been the worst mistake of my life. I drove Kevin Springer to the movies. He was 15 and on my Colt League baseball team. His father accompanied us to some of the games, and he was often telling Kevin what a good driver I was. After we saw the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” we got in the Falcon parked on a side street. The windshield was fogged up; so I turned on the windshield wipers. It was still very difficult to see through, but not knowing what else to do I started driving slowly. A lot of people were walking from the theatre, and some of them must have been in the street. I don’t recall whether I saw something or Kevin warned me or someone yelled, but I stopped the car suddenly. I do remember someone shouting at me, “Is this your night to kill?!” I felt horrible but was relieved that no one was hurt. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. I wiped the window off with my hand; the fog had been on the inside.
I liked to go to movies with a friend. David Wallace (He changed his name later to the ancestral Wallechinsky.) and I often went to see a major studio preview, because we could see a brand new film plus a good feature; I liked double features. His father was the famous novelist Irving Wallace; at this time he had a bookcase full of books on black history because he was working on THE MAN about a black man who becomes President. David’s parents would look in the trade papers to see what the preview was going to be. The one I remember best was “A Shot in the Dark” with Peter Sellers and Elke Sommers. David was a year behind me in the same class with Mike Thompson and Mark Holmes. David and Mike Medved later wrote a book called Whatever Happened to the Class of ’65? I was about the same age as this group of friends I called the clan, and I often joined them at the beach, in softball games, or card games such as poker, hearts, or bridge. Sometimes they would drink (I didn’t.) and try to convince the drunkest one that he had done embarrassing things which he really hadn’t.
Mike Medved made our excellent school debating team as a junior. I didn’t debate; it seemed too competitive and professional for me. I went with them to the speech contests and entered in oral interpretation (Lincoln’s second inaugural address) or humor (Richard Armour on World War II), or my favorite which was the impromptu speech. I rarely won, but it was a good experience meeting kids from other schools. I met a nice girl from a Catholic school and thought of going out with her, but it never worked out. One Saturday Nancy Neice’s mother drove us, and I got along with her very well; she worked for the documentary filmmaker David Wolper. Nancy was Miss Perfect, but she always seemed cool and unapproachable. I dated her once, but there was no chemistry; I guess she was inert.
My record with girls was a disaster. My senior year I tried to date a little but without success. I invited Claire Woodson to a Dodger game because she was a real baseball fan, reasonably smart, and good-looking. That day I was proud of myself because I had pitched and won a complete game without walking anyone. My parents at that time would not allow me to drive on the freeway; so instead of the easy drive down the Santa Monica Freeway we had to wind our way for many miles on Sunset Blvd. By the time I found her street off the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu, and we finally found a place to park at Dodger Stadium, the game had started and was sold out. I suggested miniature golf, but it was a poor substitute. When it came to girls, if it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have had any luck at all.
My first employment was part-time with a food stand at Santa Monica beach for $1.12 an hour when I was 16. After work the first day some of the men asked me to play poker for small change. They didn’t know I was an experienced card player. As I waited for Mom to pick me up I had extra change jingling in my pocket. One guy taught me a neat card trick by sliding back the bottom card with the little finger and pulling off the next-to-the-bottom card.
At school Alan Bellanca would often sit right behind me, because we would be seated in alphabetical order. We became best friends and often did things together---playing sports or cards, or going to the beach or movies. He was a good athlete also, especially sensational his junior year in Junior Varsity basketball scoring all kinds of points.
His older brother Jim, who was one year ahead of us, became student body president and went to Harvard. The last I heard of Jim he was studying to pass the California bar exam after having failed. I had visited Alan and Jim at their apartment by USC in 1969. Alan was studying accounting I think, and Jim was in law school. I did a Tarot reading for Jim and apparently it had brought out his self-doubts because about three years or so later I had a dream that Jim had a splinter in his back. I called him up to see how he was doing, not having seen either of them in those years. He told me that he had failed the bar exam as I had predicted and warned me to be careful with my powers! I counseled with him suggesting that he forgive himself and me to release the cause and the reason for the cause of his problem. I sent him the Light and told him about it.
Having been invited to dinner once with the Bellanca family I learned why they tended to suffer heart burn. They said they ate rather quickly but that I shouldn’t feel hurried. Then about five minutes later all their food was gone. Also in spite of athletics they seemed to carry extra weight around the middle. I believe that if people would chew well and enjoy their food, they wouldn’t want so much and would be far more healthy.
Both Alan and I were in the A. E. math and science classes but not in other subjects. Our scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) showed the discrepancies in our abilities. Out of a possible 800 I remember that Alan got 793 on math but only 508 on verbal. My junior year I scored 567 on verbal and 707 on math; my senior year I improved these to 660 on verbal and 770 on math. Four years later I got precisely the same scores on the Graduate Record Exam, 660 and 770. Yet in spite of our abilities both Alan and I began to believe that feelings and emotions were more important than abstract mentality. Our last semester we both signed up for English Literature with Mr. Smith, because we had liked our introduction to Shakespeare. We each had to pick five books to read. As usual I looked for short easy ones and read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Mom had a copy of Green Mansion; so I asked her about it, but she said it was a book for girls. When I found out Alan was reading it, I told him what my mother had said. He relayed this information to his parents who asked him what I was reading. When he told them Alice in Wonderland, I think they must have had a good laugh.
Our algebra classes in analytic geometry were not only A. E. but A. P. (Advanced Placement) which meant that we were going to learn calculus our last semester. I was so bored with it that in the fall semester of my senior year I never even bothered to take the textbook home, and for the first time in my life I didn’t get an A in math. I dropped it my last semester and took drama and journalism in addition to English literature. A counselor called me in and said I couldn’t be a math major without taking it every semester but suggested that my major could be liberal arts-math which sounded better to me. The direction of my life was clearly changing.
As long as I played in sports last period and after school I couldn’t take drama or be in the school play, but my last semester they offered another drama class. We did short scenes in class. I played Henry Higgins from “Pygmalion” and the Clarence Darrow character from “Inherit the Wind.” Alan’s shy girlfriend Susan Goerke and I did a mime scene we devised in which a couple quarrel, throw their wedding rings at each other, cry in remorse, and then move to embrace. Each time we rehearsed I would stop just before the embrace and say, “Then we’ll hug.” But when we did it before the class, I stopped again at the same point and said, “That’s it.” I could hear the teacher groan in disappointment. I don’t think I was inhibited because she was my best friend’s girlfriend but rather because I was too shy to hold a girl.
In journalism I covered the baseball teams for the school paper. Fortunately both the Varsity and J. V. baseball coaches had their conference time second period. I started out interviewing them and for several weeks during second period I would sit in their office conversing with them. Much of the time I was trying to convince Mr. Marvin to let me pitch more often. Finally Mr. North asked me to spend my second periods somewhere else, and I had to go back to the journalism room. Influenced by conservative ideology I wrote a satire of Medicare called Gradicare in which good grades would be lowered a little so that the lowest grades could be brought up to passing and so that no one would fail. One teacher told me it was a clever article but that there is a big difference between medical care and grades. I think I must have been influenced by Mr. Smith’s reading aloud of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” during which he laughed so hard his face turned red.
As a junior I had taken a speech class from Mr. Shaver. I gave a speech called “Americans Arise” modeled on Lincoln’s house-divided speech suggesting that the world will not be able to remain half Communist and half free. I remember Mr. Shaver drawing a stick figure on the board with a line to the word “opinion” before he told the class, “This is just one man’s opinion, but in my opinion the United States is in greater danger of becoming fascist than Communist.” However, he encouraged me to enter the speech in the Lions Club speech contest and said he was very impressed with my performance even though I didn’t win.
We had team teaching on contemporary American problems with one teacher for government, one for sociology, and one for economics. In government we formed a state assembly, and having been elected speaker I presided over debate. Each person had to write a bill for legislation. I proposed a constitutional amendment to put the Governor and Lieutenant Governor on the same electoral ticket so that they wouldn’t be from different parties as they have been in the 1980s in California. One day at the end of the class we were debating a bill to abolish capital punishment. Since I was against the bill I adjourned the session. Mr. Jordan said that was smart given my position on the issue, because it meant that the bill was not carried over for a vote. Bellanca, who was raised Catholic, was for the bill. Of course now I am very much opposed to capital punishment or any form of murder whether legalized or not, but then I had no religion and only a superficial ethics.
I also took drafting and one semester of architecture in which I designed the floor plan for a house of 1800 square feet. It was very much like our house except that the den was larger, and the front bathroom was between two bedrooms. At the corner where the den and living room met at the hall I designed three sliding doors so that either room or both could be closed off, or it could be completely open.
In the fall of my senior year I had been elected Commissioner of Boys Athletics and was thus in student council. Pehlke was President. I organized and had published an 8-page program for the football games and even advertised it over the school public address system. The football coach Mr. North suggested I run for President in the spring. In junior high I had run and lost for Lower Division Vice President and for Boys Vice President. The LDVP candidate who beat me had been considered very cute by the girls. I had thought I would have a better chance for an office for which only boys voted. I remember asking young Steve Seeley to help me get the votes of younger students; he had been on my playground football team. I think maybe he resented it and sabotaged me, because I remember walking into a lower division classroom and seeing a tally on the board that Fischer had gotten every vote and I had none.
So in high school I thought I should consider the lower division vote. I noticed that there was no one in student council representing the interests of tenth graders. Therefore I proposed reforming the system by establishing a student assembly with representatives from every grade. My chief opponent for President was Kent Richland. I had known Kent since he joined our class in elementary school after having been in the movie “The Ten Commandments.” He was intelligent and a good actor who starred in school plays. He was too small for sports, and girls thought he was “very cute.” In his campaign speech at the student assemblies he told a joke that probably won him the election. He said, “A good speech should be like a girl’s skirt—short enough to keep your interest and long enough to cover the subject.” My brother Dan had told me about a guy at his school who had pulled out a piece of paper and seeing it was blank said that he guessed he had forgotten his speech. I tried that at one assembly but gave it up at the other.
I cut colored paper into little squares and with a grease pencil wrote “Beck 4 Pres.” on about eighteen hundred of them. A tenth grader helped me slip them into every locker on campus one weekend. My friend Mike Silverberg commented, “You invaded the privacy of my locker.”
Kent Richland won the election, at least everyone thought he had until Gene Goldenfeld started raising questions in student council. Kent was the Commissioner of Elections at the time, and Gene thought he found some improprieties in the vote counting. A small committee was formed to look into the matter with Gene and me and someone else. We interviewed the student council teacher Mr. Jordan. He commended us for our objectivity and professionalism, The elections advising teacher was an older woman who broke down crying and said, “Why are you doing this to him?” We really couldn’t get much information from her. In student council we reported back that there were unanswered questions which should be checked, and we recommended voting for a full investigation. I argued that if the election was fair, then they should vote for the investigation so that it could me made clear to everyone. The girls looked at Kent asking in effect if they should vote that way, and he shook his head. The proposal was voted down, and that was the end of it. I don’t think Kent was the type of a person who would fix an election. I suspect that he had won but had been careless in his duties, and he didn’t want his negligence exposed.
In the spring of 1964 some of us got to attend the graduation at UCLA and hear President Lyndon Johnson give the commencement address. Afterward I stood about forty feet away as he walked past in a black robe. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated only a few months before, and everyone seemed nervous as LBJ walked down the campus street next to the athletic fields. I could feel how the psychic energy focused on this man who held such power. I had first heard that Kennedy was shot from a girl who came out of the hallways into our math class. Then at home we watched on TV how Jack Ruby shot Oswald. But we still went to the Rams football game on Sunday, although they dispensed with player introductions and after a solemn moment returned to the normality of a football game.
I did win some awards in high school. In Los Angeles one out of forty students in each graduating class is elected into the Ephebian society. Thirteen of us got little pins. I also was given the Boosters Club scholarship for outstanding contributions to extra-curricular activities; they gave me a plaque and $100.
I didn’t attend either the senior prom or grad night. My parents said they would pay all the expenses of grad night which traditionally lasted until the next morning. I tried to get a date but failed. Calling a girl on the phone was very hard for me. Our only telephone was in the den. I had to wait until my parents were watching TV, and even then it wasn’t very private. Sometimes I would wait an hour or two trying to get up my nerve; of course the longer I put it off the harder it got. I was very choosy, but I had written about 16 girls’ names in my little phone book. Finally I started calling them; but it must have been too late because none of them could go with me. In some ways I was a great success, but in other ways I was a miserable failure.