The Wishing Well

by Bruce Patterson, July 28, 2010

My parents grew up in the slums of Chicago during the Great Depression. When I was a little boy and we jumped into our 1951 Kaiser V-8 sedan and drove the Mother Road (Route 66) to our new home in the City of Angels, my dad proudly proclaimed us “bats out of hell.” Instead of a grid of steel, bricks, slush, grime and com­motion, we had mountains, desert and the sea. We had towering pine forests frosted with pure white snow. We had Mojave panoramas that stretched from here to yes­terday. We had so many warm water, sandy beaches it’d take us years to visit them all. There were orchards and vineyards, grazing cattle and horses, citrus groves, vegetable and melon patches, walnuts, pecans, olives and avocados.

When we took the newly opened Santa Ana Freeway to the newly opened Disneyland and spent the whole day exploring, I was mightily impressed. Mr. Walt Disney himself was working as a greeter and, by golly, he reached down and he shook my hand. Postcard perfect Main Street, USA, with its gleaming, spotless gift shops and ice cream parlors, soda saloons, singing sidewalk barbers, merchant philanthropists, Santa Claus street cops and rosy-cheeked Pollyannas made me feel like Dorothy in the Land of Oz. And there was Fantasyland and what blue-blooded American boy could resist that? How about Adventureland where I went on a safari through Darkest Africa? How about Tomorrowland with its sculpted, paved and landscaped utopia for automo­biles whittled down in size so I could drive? Yet, hands down, Frontierland was my favorite. Here were puffing steam locomotives pulling ore cars heaped with rubber­neckers through dry gulches rimmed with teetering sand­stone boulders and leering mountain lions. Here were stagecoaches and riverboats, cowboys and Indians, Tom Sawyer’s Island, Injun Joe’s Cave, coonskin caps and shooting galleries.

The Magic Kingdom? The Happiest Place on Earth? You could have fooled me. Yet, at the end of the day, brain-drained, leg weary and hiking across the dry lake of a parking lot, the slanting smoggy sun the color of blood mixed with milk, the traffic on the next door free­way rumbling, honking and groaning, I knew it had all been just a bit of high-priced entertainment. For what is adventure without danger? Mental adventures are slabs of taffy for the mind — chewy, stretchable, colorful, tasty and fattening. Adventures of the mind — call it the joys of learning the ways of the world — are food for the evolving soul. But learning how to ride a bike up and down Figueroa boulevard, or how to slalom down a hill­side street on a skateboard, throw grass bombs or catch line drives, fistfight or survive a game of slaughter ball on the school playground — those were the sorts of adventures a boy could really sink his teeth into.

Going downtown to Chinatown — now there was a real adventure. I’ll never forget the first time. We started off across the street at Little Joe’s Restaurant. A bustling sawdust joint specializing in homemade spaghetti, ravi­oli, sausages and meatballs — no pizza — veal and Chi­anti, Little Joe’s reminded my parents of our old neigh­borhood in Chicago and eating there always put them in a jolly mood. When after a three or four course meal we finally left Little Joe’s, the leftovers in our doggie bags weren’t meant for our doggie.

If Disneyland had been designed by Imagineers to make us feel comfortably nestled within the Technicolor icons of our TV culture, Chinatown was downright exotic. The place was filled with sing-songing Chinese, for one thing. They were dressed liked Chinese, too. They lived and worked in gaudy Chinese buildings framed with scaled, winged roofs, and wood pillars carved with coiling dragons and fat-faced, fanged demons. Chinatown was a night place festooned with carnival lights, floating lanterns, stolen glances and shadowy alleyways. Little boys held hands with their dads in Chinatown.

Inside the maze of shops stacked floor to ceiling were so many strange and wonderful things offered up for sale it made my head swim. So many ways to spend my ration of money. My dad liked mind-teasers, tricks, nov­elties and, most of all, commodities that paid for them­selves through use. After they’d paid for themselves then all the rest of the use you got out of them amounted to pure profit. So if my dad so much as bought a hammer, you could bet he’d get his money out of it. When my dad laid down a nickel to buy a Chinese finger puzzle and then he tricked me into getting my index fingers stuck inside it, he laughed heartily, not the least because already that particular nickel had been money well spent.

My dad thought that one of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century was a long-handled, hand-carved, Chi­nese bamboo backscratcher. After high school and before he joined the army after Pearl Harbor, my dad shoveled coal into a furnace in a foundry in Calumet City. It was hotter than hell, he worked shirtless, the coal dust stuck to his sweat and it made him as itchy as a porcupine with psoriasis. After his shift was done and he was washing off in the company shower room, working his Chinese backscratcher up and down his back was almost as good as…well, it was one of life’s great pleasures.

Another of the 20th Century’s greatest inventions was the church key. So long as there were bottles and cans, you’d always have a use for a church key. Buy a six pack of beer in most any corner market and you’d get one for free if there was a price war going on. If not, it’d cost you a nickel. And, so long as you didn’t lose it, melt it in the oven or smash it flat under the ice box, you’d get a lifetime of use out of it. You could even will your church key to one of your kids if you wanted to.

Catching sight of Chinatown’s centerpiece, I ran ahead of my parents. A crowd of people was gawking at this towering, multi-leveled mountain-fountain splashing water into a pool. When I arrived, curled my fingers over its lip, stood up on tiptoes and gazed into the depths of the fountain’s shimmering phosphorescent waters and saw a zillion coins — pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, 50 cent pieces and, like stingrays lying half buried in sand, glistening silver dollars — I was dumbstruck. I searched the sheets of cascading water to see if that was where the treasure was coming from.

My dad caught up and, seeing how I was tongue-tied with wonder, he grinned and explained to me about wishing wells. If I made a wish and I threw a coin into a wishing well, folks believed, I’d get my wish. Did I want to try? My dad reached into his pants pocket, produced a palm full of coins and offered me one. I picked up a nickel, closed my eyes, made my wish — I wanted the coonskin cap my dad had refused to buy me in Disney­land — and tossed my coin.

My dad laughed at me. “Gee, son. If you want to get your wish you’re going to have to throw in a bit more money than that.” Again he offered his pile of coins. I went for the 50 cent piece but, before I could reach it, my dad shut his hand and dropped his coins back into his pocket. Then he eased down to a knee, wrapped his arm around my shoulder, squeezed me close and whispered conspiratorially into my ear, “Look around, son. There’s no such thing as wishing wells.”

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