IN MY UPCOMING NOVEL, “L.A. GHOST STORY,” I BORROWED FROM THE FASCINATION OF 1959 ALONG WITH MY CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES…
On January 22, 1959 the Los Angeles Herald reported that George Reeves—Superman—had had his one-eyed dog stolen in Hollywood. At about this time I sat in fifth grade class at Walteria Elementary, about twenty-five miles south of Hollywood. The class listened to our teacher Mrs. Shoulder read Silver Chief, Dog of the North, while it rained cats and dogs outside.
The loss of Superman’s one-eyed dog was not significant although it should be noted that George Reeves committed suicide six months later, under odd circumstances. Since my world revolved around my dog Sargent, it didn’t surprise me that Superman was heartbroken over the loss of his one-eyed dog.
A few days later my older brother announced at the dinner table, with tears in his eyes, that Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson perished in a small-plane crash in Iowa. My classmate, Leo Kamaka, sketched a drawing of the incident, but the class was more interested in the fact that Tina Kohler showed up to class without shoes on and was sent to the principal’s office.
On a Friday, Mrs. Shoulder read from the Weekly Reader that twenty-two college kids had stuffed themselves in a phone booth. Later that cold and rainy night mom and dad announced they were going to the Fox Theater to see “Some Like it Hot,” with Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. The baby-sitter Carla from across the street talked to boys on our phone half the night.
That weekend I snuck up on the Chinese man at the upstairs apartment behind the Acosta’s who lived across the street. Instead of chasing me away the Chinese man waved me in. The odd odor of what he called incense mesmerized me. Strange jars labeled, “herbs,” were lined atop wall shelves. He showed me his sword collection and told the story of the brave adversary Dalai Lama who lived in a place called Tibet. It was located on top of the world. I had never heard the word adversary but it must have meant that the Dalai Lama was a special guy.
On Monday, Mrs. Shoulder began to read Lost Horizons to us at school. I thought the Dalai Lama would fit right in at Shangri-La.
The highlight of 1959 was when they introduced America’s first astronauts on T.V. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Alan Shepard would replace Superman as my heroes. None of them owned a one-eyed dog, as far as I knew. However, the CBS newsman, Walter Cronkite, said that the astronauts owed a lot to a brave chimpanzee named Gordo.
Just before Halloween I heard dad tell mom that a teenager and his girlfriend had driven their car off a cliff above Portuguese Bend. I assumed that they didn’t do it for the fun of it… that they didn’t survive. Later, I would learn more about the so-called Palos Verdes suicides.
Years later as an adult I look back on my childhood and the year of 1959 when I first visited Portuguese Bend. It had been a unique period of American life. I chose Portuguese Bend as the main scene for my novel, L.A. Ghost Story, because its cliff-side suicides and ghost inhabited lighthouses held mystery. Also, the fact that Portuguese Bend is slowing falling into the sea serves as a constant reminder of the impermanence of life.
Next post: My high school buddies and I discover a mysterious egg on the grounds of the Vanderlip estate at Portuguese Bend.