Ozzie & Harriet Hit The Beach
by Steve Heilig, March 30, 2016
Anyone who knocks rock 'n' roll either doesn't understand it, or is prejudiced against it, or is just plain square. — Ricky Nelson, 1958
* * *
My first real job might have been the best I ever had. Armed with a brand-new first driver's license, I delivered groceries and booze to the stars. Or, at least, a couple of them. Besides John Wayne, for example, there was Ozzie and Harriett Nelson.
"Ozzie and Harriett" was one of the most popular and durable television shows in history. The show ran from 1952-1966, the years of American cold-war economic boom and innocence, before "the sixties" set in for real with the assassination of JFK, escalation of the Vietnam war, various movements on-and-off campus, advent of the Pill and LSD, British invasion by the Beatles, Stones, et al, and certainly before any so-called Summer of Love.
The Nelsons became known and revered as America's ideal fantasy family. White, of course, wholesome good looks all around, and affluent even without dad
Ward Ozzie seeming to have to work much. Stay-at-home apron-wearing lovely mom Harriet always in the kitchen, sons David and Ricky happily growing up for fourteen years on the screen. It was all so idealized, and of course, as books and a documentary have revealed, less than wholly real if one took a more realistic look at who they were in real life — a dictatorial dad, frustrated former nightclub-haunting singing mom, and of course the biggest star of all, teen idol the "irrepressible" Ricky Nelson, a talented pop star who had more hits than Elvis for a time in the late 1950s but also a shotgun wedding to his pregnant adolescent girlfriend (his folks used their influence to hide that), and who peaked and vanished when his Disney-like sound and image was vanquished by sixties psychedelia.
In the mid-1970s when the Nelson were retired from the TV limelight (other than in re-runs) but still revered as America's cleanest family unit, they seemed to have, or at least have access to, a little beach cottage at Crystal Cove, an hour or so south of Hollywood on the Orange County coast, midway between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar. This small semi-private enclave of a couple dozen structures looked right out of Cape Cod, but with friendlier climate year-round. It had long been used as a movie set when tropical scenes were being shot. In the open hills behind one could still find rusted cowboy paraphernalia — spurs, utensils, etc — from the the cattle-ranching days that were fast ending on the sprawling and contested Irvine Ranch. The coast highway was a fairly quiet four-lane four miles where local kids could test out how fast their parents' cars might go (115 MPH, in at least one case). There were great July 4th parties and decent surf in some spots and many types of virginities surrendered along that open stretch of beach, but Crystal Cove was, or seemed, timeless, frozen in idyllic perfection, even if, or because, you had to walk in on the beach from either direction if you did not live there.
I got to drive in and park there at least once a week, delivering groceries and booze after school for the local family-owned Coast Super Market — "super" not in size, but in friendliness. In fact I got out of school early, at lunch, and bee-lined to the market where they had packed up the twenty-odd orders in boxes, and I loaded those into the worn baby-blue Dodge van and took off. As a new driver and this was fun, and sure beat afternoon classes — the varying route usually took 2-3 hours and I would be done not long after school was out anyway, but with a wad of cash from my minimum wage plus tips, and maybe even some alcohol that had been surreptitiously ordered and delivered to a friend's house for later partying (this made me unduly popular for a time). The local cops knew the van and let me break just about any laws I wished — speeding, parking, wrong way down one-way alleys, and such. I delivered to everybody from little old ladies hidden in tiny over-garage apartments to vast clifftop or bayfront estates, where servants let me in and tipped me in the kitchen, or young beautiful bored trophy housewives made me nervous by trying to engage me in conversation.
Ozzie and Harriet were among our clients. They did sometimes stop in the store itself and were perfectly nice of course, but seemed to prefer to have their food and alcohol delivered to the beach pad. As it turned out, by the time I was delivering Ozzie was ill with the cancer that eventually killed him and did not go out much. But if I saw their name — or anybody from the Crystal Cove, for that matter — on the daily delivery list I would plan it so that was my last stop, and I could make the delivery to them, then take a swim and hang at the beach a bit before taking the van back.
One hot afternoon I knocked on the Nelson's worn wood door, Harriett answered, said hello with a big smile and let me in. I unloaded the box in their small kitchen and she tipped me, and I headed back out into the sun, went to the van, got in, changed into my trunks, and grabbed my little silver metal military match-holder. This clever item was a gift from my dad, but he probably didn't know I used it to hold a reefer and a few blue-tip matches, which could be struck on the rough edge of the cylinder. I put that into my trunks pocket and walked back out to the beach. There was only a small swell and this zone was not really the spot for waves anyway, and I just waded out a bit, jumped in through one small wave, feeling the immediate welcome coolness, and swam quickly about 30 yards out to where a small wooden platform was anchored just outside the surf zone. Up onto that, and there I was, in a semi-isolated paradise of gently rolling motion and warm sun. I pulled out the match cylinder, unscrewed it, and yes, everything inside was dry. A couple minutes later I had puffed up half of the joint, put it out and back into the container, and laid down on my back on the gently rocking platform. The next couple hours or so — time itself was no longer a concern or countable — was just a nirvanic blur of mellow bliss. Songs drifted in and out of my head, memories, mild anxieties about school or a tall dark girl I had a crush on but would never get to kiss, thoughts of friends and whatnot drifted in an out, briefly and harmlessly. Perhaps I even thought about schoolwork, but probably not. Mostly I just felt great. I turned over once or twice to avoid getting too sunfried on one side, but that was it.
Eventually some sort of internal timer, or perhaps the angle of the sunlight, told me it was time to go. So I just stretched, rolled over and splashed right into the water, instantly shocked awake, and leisurely swam back in. When I got to the beach it was deserted but for one figure walking towards me from the cabins. I realized I was extremely thirsty, and hungry too; all that sun, not to mention smoke. As I shook my shoulder-length hair drier and wiped the salt water from my face, I looked up and there stood Harriet Nelson, smiling and holding a tray with a glass of lemonade and some cookies on it. I don't recall if she was wearing an apron.
"I saw you out there after the delivery and figured you must be thirsty and maybe hungry too by now," she smiled. Tongue-tied, I looked at her, thinking, Oh, you have no idea, but even more, Wow, this is surreal — Harriet Nelson is offering me cookies on the beach. Finally I croaked out, "Why, um, er, oh, yes, thank you Mrs. Nelson!" and took the glass and almost gulped it down in one swig. Then I wordlessly took a cookie and tried not to gulp that in one bite too. "Gee these are great, Mrs. Nelson! Thanks!" I said, all too aware that I sounded like I was in their TV world, or maybe on "Leave it to Beaver", the closest other such family show — in fact, for a moment I feared I had said "Mrs. Cleaver" in a confused Tourette's-like mixup. But she just smiled some more, said "You're so welcome," held the try out so I could take another cookie, said, "Just bring the glass up when you come back up," and walked back up the beach. I just stood there stunned for a minute or two, thinking, Whoa, ahhh, well, weird, uh, wow; Harriett Nelson, what's next, the Irrepressible Ricky? That dumb thought made me laugh out loud, and then I followed her prints in the sand up to the cabins. At the Nelson house an older guy — like, in his 30s at least — sat on the little porch, holding a bottle of Carta Blanca — the Mexican beer with the genius innovation of including a bottle opener on the bottom of each bottle, so you'd never be in need as long as you had two bottles. He had a shag-type haircut and looked a bit worse for wear, like a veteran surfer — although even then I figured that Ricky don't surf. He looked at me wearily and warily, it seemed, saying nothing, so I just held out the glass and said "Your mom asked me to bring this back." Ricky Nelson, child pop and movie idol, just nodded silently, so I just set the glass next to him, nodded again, said "Uh, tell her thanks again!" and walked up to the delivery van.
Ricky had staged a bit of a comeback out of embarrassment a few years before, when he was booed off the stage at an oldies revival show for being neither retro nor hip enough, a has-been caught in the middle. This was sad as he was known to be a genuinely nice fellow, whatever other problems he might have. He wrote a poignant and catchy song about the experience titled "Garden Party" and thus had his last hit, a big one indeed. "No one heard my music — I didn't look the same," he lamented therein. As he died in a private plane crash — with much speculation about drug-fueled debauchery onboard as the cause, but the real culprit being more mundane mechanical failure — Ricky had less than a decade to live after that day I "met" him, and his life included some nasty trials such as a hard-fought divorce. Like many other child stars, he appeared to be both blessed and cursed by it all. And somewhat ironically, his twin sons later recorded as "The Nelsons" and had a #1 hit themselves, also toured as "Ricky Nelson Remembered" in tribute to their dad. But by then he was long gone. The chorus of his last hit song went like this:
"But it's all right now,
I learned my lesson well
You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself."
Solid, hard-won advice, that. Not as easy to take as to give, though.