by Bruce Patterson, October 18, 2017
I dropped out of high school when I turned 16. Now having a union job, a ’59 Chevy, cruising buddies, girlfriends and plenty of gas money, I never did return.
It was 1965 and, when it came to Lover’s Lanes, you couldn’t beat Mulholland Drive up atop the 2,000-foot-tall Santa Monica Mountains. Very steep terrain, a shag carpet of chaparral, the city lights winking awake, ocean breezes feathering through your open car windows, your eyes wandering through the darkening twilight shadows. Below, in the flats of the San Fernando Valley, the faint whines of sirens added a hint of danger to the two of us teenaged doo wop adventurers sitting side-by-side and all alone. Wolf Man Jack broadcasting out of Baja. El Monte Legion Stadium. Dick Biondi, Little Latin Lupe-Lu, a French kiss, hands for feeling.
When it comes to gigantic overviews of big city lights, LA’s Mt. Wilson (5,710 ft.) is tough to beat. With the lights of Santa Catalina Island twinkling in the spilled black ink background, virtually the entire coastal plain is spread at your feet. Further east, beyond Box (Cajon) Pass, running the crest of the San Bernardino Mts., stretches Rim of the World Highway. That tag being one bald-faced bit of hyperbole only a real estate booster could love.
Still, the views from up there on the rim are very impressive. Gazing southeast across Banning Pass to the cluster of 10,000-footers capping the San Jacintos (13 named peaks whose total area above 10,000 ft equals roughly 1.5 sq. miles or 960 acres). Zeroed in on that polished granite, sharp-elbowed crest, you might wonder if anybody has ever gotten a horse up into there. How many wild-assed vaqueros and yahoos had gawked from the tippy-top of the tallest peak (10,834 ft)? Thinking back to ancient times, how did the Original People regard that apex? How many different ways did the ancient ones see it over the 14+ millennia they’d been living down in its shadow? Or was the “Top of the World” always, and everywhere, seen in essentially the same terms?
Human life ends with questions and not answers. Life’s meaning is in the mystery of all that is. Reality, by opening our eyes, chops us down to size.
In the late spring of 1968, I spent most of 60 days in a ward or a convalescence barracks (my own “Dock of the Bay”) at Letterman Army Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. One fine after midnight, a couple buddies and I got up to what the hippies called “Itchy Koo (?) Park.” Situated at the southernmost tip of Marin County above the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, the view from up there is mighty pretty, and mighty famous, what with Alcatraz and Angel island, Frisco’s version of The Miracle Mile, the glittering, low-riding East Bay Hills, the waters of the bay dancing with the city lights reflecting off its swells and wakes, and the ships and boats coming in and out of the Golden Gate.
Were the jets coming in off the Pacific from Southeast Asia? Yes, sir, some of them, sir. C-141 Starlifter troop ships and hospital ships were in and out of Travis AFB every single day. All of us bush bunnies at Letterman had come from Travis; of those that could, most had kissed the tarmac out there in fair Fairfield. You know, hoping it’d bring luck the way kissing the Blarney Stone brings luck.
What was different was how the ring of bayside cities was in the background. In the first four places I mentioned, civilization was down at your feet. Felt like you could fling a bowling ball and then watch as it bounces past the foot of the mountains then bounces and rolls across the flats before finally coming to rest as all things must. But here it was like Urban Civilization was a lingerie model posing for a photographer. The muscular Golden Gate Bridge a monumental testament to Yankee Ingenuity and the Will to Conquer. Tall skinny Sutro Tower a high-tech phallic symbol or a Space Age take on an ancient North Country totem pole. The Miracle Mile of Emerald City crowning the Land of Oz below the mothballed concrete WW2 gun emplacements reminding us of the imaginary monsters we’d so recently taken as mortal threats, and the mortal threats we’d so recently dismissed as no such thing.
Of course, the nighttime panorama seen from atop Frisco’s Twin Peaks truly is a 5-star Urban Viewscape. The first time I soaked it in, it was daytime and I was maybe ten years old. My parents, big sister and I were following the city’s famed 49 Mile Scenic Drive. Created by Land Boosters in 1938, the route was loop after loop, stops and goes. Invented in part to make a tiny urban area seem spacious, The Scenic Route was like the passages inside a house of mirrors; like a Big Screen, macho gunslinger sporting a toupee, padded shoulders, a girdle and elevator boots.
Not that there weren’t multiple Points of Interest along the way. Seeing how I’d stood transfixed, and remembering how my dad had accidentally convinced me that the white stuff on Seal Rocks is snow, I must have been much younger when, for the one and only time, I laid eyes on a life-sized statue of Tom Thumb (the original was the thumb-sized protagonist of an early 17th Century English fairytale). This here Tom Thumb was out at what was left of the Sutro Baths above the Cliff House at Land’s End. I think the giant airplane hangar-like building was an old ice skating rink, and it may have been converted into a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, or maybe was just another “internationally famous” private collection of Curios, Oddities, Artifacts, Sacred Relics, Scientific Vexations, freaks, geeks, radioactive mutants, magicians and soft drinks. . .
Though the statue of Tom was up on a pedestal and behind glass, I was still taller, though we did see eye-to-eye. The plaque on the wall said that Charles Sherwood Stanton was born in Connecticut in 1838. Although proportioned like an average child, he stopped growing after six months. Over the next four and a half years, poor Charles he grew but an inch, making him 26” tall. Soon discovered by P. T. Barnum, he was renamed Tom Thumb and taught how to sing and dance, tell jokes and play the straight man (I wonder why P.T. never made Tom into a ventriloquist since it would have made a hilarious sight gag and back then there was no Liddle People’s Lobby, Inc., to come and harass you).
An International Celebrity by the age of eight—he played for Queen Victoria twice—the boy became known as General Tom Thumb. I suppose he now got treated like a general, too, seeing how he was escorted in public by two massive bodyguards expertly trained in the fine arts of saloon and whorehouse bouncing and body-guarding. Anyway, they say Tom’s impersonation of the Emperor Napoleon was leg-slapping hilarious and the crown of his show business career. When he died at age 45, he was 3’4” tall and, I assume, he had demanded, and received, a steep discount on his coffin. He now rests peacefully in the Mt. Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Conn.
Back then it seemed natural that any red-blooded American boy should want to join the circus. He should want to climb a mountain or hop a freight train. Just plain healthy for us American boys to confirm with our own eyes that there is indeed a great big world out there beyond our hometown horizons, schedules, duties, chores and routines and rituals. General Tom Thumb he toured the USA and Western Europe and right then and there I resolved that so will I some day. I’d see the world as a traveler out to see the world. In that, I’d be like my dad. My mom and sister, they could take or leave it: seemed to me I had no choice.
Soon we’d be back in our car, across the Golden Gate Bridge and on our way to visit Muir Redwoods. My dad was curious about whether or not the Coast Redwoods really were more spectacular than Yosemite’s Sequoias (more beautiful, yes, but less spectacular). Three or four days into a two week vacation, we’d be camping our way north to Florence, Oregon. From our camping trips to Pismo Beach, everybody knew how much I loved playing in sand dunes. Up there in the Florence Dunes I could shake, rattle and roll all I wanted while my dad surf fished, my mom read romances and soaked in rays while my big sister (six years my senior) acted as my Bwana during our grueling safaris into the maze-like desert wastelands with savage, camel-riding Bedouins closing in all around us. My big sister, you see, was a good sport. . .
Been at least 40 years since I’ve felt the same appreciation for city lights. Too many decades living away from them for me to see them in the same way. In my old age, I like my night skies lit by the moon and stars. Or, if the moon’s invisible, lit by the bold white zagged edge of the Milky Way Galaxy spanning the horizons. I like being in open country under full moons so bright I can stretch out my arm and fingers and count their shadows lying on the dirt some ten feet away. I like being able to hike at night without having to use a flashlight and being surrounded by black horizons. The smaller I am within my surroundings, the better I like it. Now it’s more than just how I was brought up. Now it’s who I am.