The Boys From El Cerrity (Part 2)
by Jake Rohrer, January 8, 2014
Road Trip: The City of Punks
During my junior year, one of the boys, Dan Heikka, moved to Stockton in California's central valley, where he lived with his mom and step-dad. We missed our good friend and, together with “Balls” (a designation we'll leave to the imagination), the “Jayhawk” (whose family roots were in Kansas), and “Louie Young-Kid” ( my brother, Robbin), we planned a road trip to Stockton to visit. I had a nickname, too, “JR,” just my initials. Boring. It was a part of the plan that Dan would return with us to the Bay Area for a visit of his own.
We arrived in Stockton in my car of the moment, a '58 Plymouth Fury, a cool car in its day, a sporty two-door hardtop with outsized Cadillac-style rear fins. It had two big 4-barrel carburetors sitting opposite each other on a ram-induction fuel system feeding a huge “hemi” V-8 engine and a speedometer that registered up to 160 miles per hour. I'll mention it again: gas was only thirty cents a gallon. It had a 3-speed automatic transmission that could be manually controlled with push-buttons located on the dash, left of the steering wheel. The front suspension was lowered, giving the car a stylish “rake,” and it had dual exhausts with glass-pack mufflers that announced our presence with a bad-ass rumble. Dan climbed aboard, bringing with him a chrome metal shaft about two feet in length with an 8-ball on one end, once a floor-mounted gearshift lever from some hot-rod, a talisman that might also serve as a weapon.
We went in search of Dan's pal, the “Beaver,” who he wanted us to meet and who would hang with us that evening. We soon caught up with the Beaver (whose front teeth explained his name), and he climbed into the back seat, making 6 of us in the car. A car like the Fury with a “floor-box” manual transmission would have been considered the very pinnacle of cool.
The ruse wasn't planned, seeming to happen on its own. The 8-ball gearshift lever was sticking up between Dan and me in the front and as we pulled into the street, I grabbed the 8-ball and went through motions of shifting through the gears, letting up on the accelerator between gear changes as though I had a clutch, each gear change enhanced by the glass-pack mufflers and exaggerated by the powerful torque of the engine. I was at the same time manipulating the gear changes in the automatic transmission with the control buttons, out of sight.
The Beaver's bulging eyes did little to conceal his envy and approval as he exclaimed, “...oh, man! I really pin to your punk!” Sheldon and I exchanged uncomprehending glances. This was a new language for us. To our amusement, we learned that to “pin” was to dig or covet, while “punk” was Stockton teen vernacular for a car. We kept the floor-box scam going for a while, then I took off from a stop light and handed the 8-ball and shaft to the Beaver in the back seat, telling him it was his turn to go through the gears. We all had a good laugh on the Beaver, whose pinning of my punk was diminished only slightly.
We were to find that nightlife among the teen hoodlums of Stockton included a lot of stupid and reckless delinquent stuff that held little appeal for the boys from El Cerrito. Evening activities included stealing spinner hubcaps and Appleton spot-lights (actually, they weren't lights at all, just dummies that would mount on either side of a car hood near the windshield and thought to look cool). Then, to keep the evening interesting, it was proposed that it might be a good thing to roll a couple of skid-row drunks, not for money, just to beat them up. If we were really lucky, maybe we could stir up a gang fight with the “beans,” a derisive term for Mexicans, many of whom inhabited Stockton and California's Central Valley. The beans occupied a lower rung on the social ladder, similar to the blacks in our city.
Dan returned from a foray into the street where he tried to rip a dummy spot from a parked car, but got only a handful of razor blades, stuck under the bottom rim of the spot as a theft deterrent. Blood poured from the fleshy slices on his filleted fingertips, followed by a stream of foul curses directed at the owner of the spot. Few were clear on the concept of karma in those days.
Downtown, a lot of kids were out on the streets. One fellow, who I guess was designated a “bean counter,” was busy counting the Mexicans on the next block, then tallying the white boys in our immediate area, declaring it about even, “...20, maybe 21, beans, and 20 of us.” The idea was to spur some sort of gang fight, not particularly our idea of a good time. We suggested to Dan that we were ready to head back home, where we might undertake to rehabilitate him from behavior we had come to consider unbecoming of a Saxon. For us, Stockton would forever become “Punkton,” inhabited by punks of the nonautomotive sort.
When we got back to Dan's house, we learned that his step-dad, Morton, had decided that Dan wouldn't be allowed to accompany us back to El Cerrito, in our minds an unfair withholding of what had already been agreed to. Morton, a cold and stiff man with the soul of an insurance executive, was exercising his authority over his step-son, claiming he hadn't finished his chores or some such shit. Dan's gangster friends would instead be allowed to spend the night at his house.
Morton had recently acquired a new Ford Falcon and he kept close track of his fuel consumption, wanting to be certain that he was getting his share of promised miles for each gallon of gas. We went out and bought a couple of cases of beer, using a phony ID to make the purchase. We managed to drink all of it in the next several hours, each of us going outside to empty our bladders into the gas tank of Morton's Falcon throughout the evening.
The following morning Morton drove to Sacramento, returning in the early afternoon to report with a great deal of satisfaction and pride that he had just documented his best mileage result ever. He was so happy about this he relented, allowing Dan to come back to El Cerrito with us. Go figure. I imagined he would have serious car troubles as a result of all that piss in his gas tank. Our urine must have been octane-rated. Other than alcohol, drugs and psychoactive herb were unknown to us during the high school years.
* * *
It was on our way back to El Cerrito that we encountered “Reggie Van,” a character we elevated to a status of folklore. We were traveling the back roads rather than highways, and we came across Reggie and his date on a country road in his MG roadster, out of gas. It was as though he had stepped out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel, hi-caste, blue-blooded and privileged. And he spoke to us in what seemed at the time an almost foreign language: “...eternally grateful to you good chaps for your heaven sent assistance. How shall I reward you?”
Reggie looked to be in his early twenties and he dressed like he talked—ivy league, Yale or Harvard: a sporty cap, slacks and a turtle-neck sweater. A pipe jutted from the side of his clean-shaven face. His date was the epitome of a lovely, prim and proper home-coming queen. Insisting that he do something for us, we told Reggie he could buy us some beer.
“You may be certain of it!” he beamed. “Voice your pleasure good lads! What might I provide for you?” We told Reggie he could get us some “Country Club,” a cheap and bitter-but-potent malt liquor.
“Country-Club!” exclaimed Reggie, incredulous. “Do you fellows actually drink that vile stuff? An uncivilized brew if ever there was!” Reggie the sophisticate, playing to his audience of rag-tag teens. We found a gas station a couple of miles down the road and brought him back a gallon or two in a can we'd left a deposit on. Reggie went back to the station, filled his tank, and returned our deposit. Then he insisted we follow him home to meet “mums.” He would stop on the way and get us our brew. “It's quite nearby, “ he chimed.
We followed Reggie's MG several miles to a grand and handsome California split-level, ranch-style home on the backside of Mount Diablo, somewhere near the town of Clayton. Well placed lighting illuminated towering oaks and a fountain centered in a pool alongside a winding driveway that lead to the front of the house, replete with plantation-style pillars. Mums was an elegant and graceful woman with a warm smile. She greeted the delinquent rogues Reggie had dragged to her door with charm and poise, overjoyed to make our acquaintance. Reggie's date was greeted warmly, then reduced to a piece of furniture while Reggie and mums exchanged elegant banter.
We drank our Country Club while they entertained us, engaging us in conversation that exposed our lack of cosmopolitan polish, the fact of which was graciously overlooked. Dan named Reggie for the Jackie Gleason character of privilege, Reggie Van Gleason. If we ever knew his real name, it's been lost to me, “Reggie Van” too fitting for it to be anything else.
“Cheerio, you bully chaps!” called Reggie as we pulled out. Then he dared us to “...keep a clean body and a clean mind,” which he punctuated with a hearty, “Hah!” — a wink to our gender as though clean thoughts were something beyond all of us, Reggie himself included.
* * *
My first glimpse of the Blue Velvets came in my senior year at a school assembly held in the gymnasium—John Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford, introducing themselves to the student body with a program of rock & roll. I'd heard rumor of their musical prowess and I was keenly interested. John was playing his forty-nine dollar Silvertone electric guitar from Sears, Doug handling the drums on a limited set, and Stu playing an acoustic piano. They were an all-instrumental trio, no one yet a singer, but even then I thought they possessed an expertise and feel that far out-shined the other high school bands of the day. On later occasions John's older brother, Tom, would join them as vocalist. “Tommy Fogerty & the Blue Velvets” could make the girls squirm and scream, Bobby Freeman's Do You Wanna Dance? an anthem that fit Tom's voice perfectly.
At the assembly the Blue Velvets came out with a bicycle tire pump and pretended to shoot themselves up with it, facetiously playing on the widely held opinion among white adults that all musicians were drug addicts. They started out with an original they called Train Time, John bending the high strings on his guitar for a train whistle effect over lower registers that emulated driving wheels. Their music didn't rely on any electronic gadgetry; simple, pure and unadorned, it relied instead on the ability of the musicians to play it well...with a joyful feeling, of course. They interspersed their original songs with rock & roll standards of the era. John was smooth and fluid on his guitar, even while playing with the urgency required by good rock & roll. Doug's drumming was energetic and precise, and Stu played the Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles numbers that had always captured my ear. I was immediately drawn to Stu's grasp and ability on the piano. I wanted to meet him, this sophomore who could play circles around me. I wanted to meet all of them.
In later years John would never agree with my praise of the Blue Velvets. He is quoted as saying, “...the reason it took us ten years to make it is because when we started out we were terrible.” I never heard it that way, my envy and desire to play on their level all consuming and, I imagine, forgiving. Over the course of the next few months, I became acquainted with all of them, Stu and I establishing a bond early on. The lean and muscular Doug, not yet “Cosmo,” was athletic and outgoing, always with a ready smile and a corny joke. John was the quiet one who seemed to know where he was headed, studying electronics for its applications to what would become his trade.
Around this time I was asked by the “Commissioner of Entertainment,” a student-body designation, to play a piano number at an all-student talent assembly. I figured I would play my standard boogie-woogie stuff, but one day I heard John, adept on piano as well as guitar, play Fats Domino's The Fat Man, a powerful and moving New Orleans-style piano-featured rock & roll number originally released in 1949. It was Fats' first big hit and, in my book, one of the first great rock & roll records ever. John showed me how the song was put together, the licks and trills, and I worked on it for about a week, figuring I was as ready as I'd ever be.
On the eve of the assembly I was playing in a week-night basketball league with the Saxon team when I caught a hard elbow, right in the mouth. The blow shattered a porcelain cap that had been installed on a front tooth. My lip was bloodied and the tooth reactive, but worse, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a gap-toothed hillbilly with a fat lip looking back at me. No way could I present myself at school, let alone at an assembly, looking like that. I called John and convinced him to take my place at the assembly. He could play The Fat Man while I sat in the dental chair. He did and I did, and all turned out well, although Stu told me that John struggled with the song, unrehearsed and swearing under his breath during the performance, but laughing his way through it anyway.
At a beer and beach party on the Marin County coast, John showed me my first guitar chords and taught me to play a song he'd written, Rockin' Devil, an A-minor, E-7, D-minor chord arrangement wrapped around a snaky, single-note run that sounded like a Latino offshoot from Link Wray's Rumble. I thought it was way cool. Still do. Stu was learning guitar, too, and we took our guitars on a school-sponsored snow-trip to Tahoe, eschewing the snow for a bottle of brandy and new guitar licks. Throughout my final year of high school the Blue Velvets enchanted me with their joyful music, bonding as my friends and musical mavens. The bond would continue throughout the years following high school, culminating in my employment with them in 1969 to 1972, and continuing with John into 1977.
* * *
The neighboring University of California at Berkeley was a citadel we were always aware of, and we would sometimes visit just to get the feel of the campus. “Big Game” week, when the Cal Golden Bears played their annual football game against their arch rivals, the (then) Stanford Indians, was always a time of spirited hijinks and celebrations at both campuses. Rallies, bonfires, parties and celebrations were taking place every night leading up to the Big Game. The Stanford ax, a symbol of the university with a history dating to the 19th century, had become the perpetual Big Game trophy, the winning side each year getting to possess the ax until winning it back on the gridiron. Over the years there were many clandestine cloak and dagger episodes of one side stealing the ax from the other, spirited gamesmanship and intrigue that would earn headlines in the local papers. Spurred by example, and not wanting to be left out of the fun, we set out to develop a caper of our own.
El Cerrito's arch rival was Richmond High School. We were the Gauchos, so named for the Spanish heritage reflected in the name of our city, and they were the Oilers, so called for the nearby presence of the Standard Oil refinery. The symbol of our high school spirit was the “pep jug.” When the head cheerleader removed the cork from the jug, great clouds of school spirit were said to flow forth, enveloping the cheering crowd. The Oilers' symbol was, of course, an oil can, which I guess was used to grease up the crowd, allowing school spirit to rub in all over. The idea of breaking into the school to steal the oil can was discussed but ruled out as too heinous a crime to undertake in the name of school spirit. There was, however, an alternative target.
Out in front of Richmond high was the “Richmond Rock,” a good sized boulder that, I guess, might have represented their steadfastness. Out in front of our school was a sundial on a stone pedestal that might have represented the timelessness of our institution, again guessing. Both represented the schools themselves, symbols of pride and spirit. A few days before the Big Game against Richmond, under the cloak of night, we painted the Richmond Rock with our school colors.
John Peralta, one of the boys who was sometimes by the cruel nickname “Acid Face,” and I were in the front seat of his '55 Chevy, Balls and Louie Young-Kid in the back. We had two cans of house paint, one green, one white. John pulled up in front of Richmond High School, and he and I bolted up the walkway to the rock and dashed it on either side with our school colors. Take that, heathen Oilers! We could have done a neater job with brushes, but we were out in the open and didn't want to stick around any longer than necessary. Two days later, of course, we arrived at classes to find our beloved sundial bathed in blue and red, the Richmond school colors. We had started a war and school officials were not at all happy about it.
At a school assembly before the Big Game the principal and dean condemned the acts, promising to find out and punish those responsible. The student body, giddy and supportive, cheered their approval of the destructive hooliganism. John and I were nearly pushed to the fore as heroes, many knowing we were the responsible parties. I knew right away the jig was up. We'd been careless. Too many people had knowledge of who did it. Thinking about this, I told John we might earn some brownie points if we turned ourselves in. There was no way we wouldn't be found out. He agreed, and that afternoon we visited the dean and confessed to the crime. Balls and Louie Young Kid were never mentioned. We each served a 3-day suspension from classes and paid fifty dollars each for the cost of sandblasting, the mild sentence representing our cooperation for informing on ourselves.
* * *
My 17th year was much too fleeting. Carefree, adventurous days, romantic interlude and freedom from adult responsibility passed me by and crashed to a halt like a meteor caught in gravity's grasp, replaced by real life duties and social obligation. If there is one emotion that expresses what I felt at seventeen, then it would be joy. Radiant, dumb-ass teenage joy, unhampered by a worldly view, social and civic responsibility or the dark times that would soon be coming. Mine had been a blissful ignorance, sheltering me from the realities I would soon be handed.
Together with my old and dear pal, Balls, we attended our 50th Class reunion. A lot of the boys were there, still and always “the boys,” even as we approach our 70th birthdays. Others seemed adult by contrast, formally dressed and groomed, graduates of El Cerrito High School, class of 1961. I remembered most of them fondly. Sheldon and I visited the haunts of our youth, took a look at the new high school, and toured the Berkeley campus, stopping nearby for a “top dog.” Then we visited the “Castle,” the scene of so many debaucheries and headquarters for our outlaw commerce during the drug years. Sheldon had the balls (of course he did—isn't that what we called him?) to simply knock on the door and make our introduction. The resident greeted us graciously.
At the reunion I was reminded of the joy I once knew, now tempered by knowledge and a lingering sorrow I felt for those who didn't make it this far, the many memories of them always a part of me. Recollections flooded my thoughts, the joyfulness of that special time… before the fortunate son and the America of his youth both lost their innocence.