Coming of Age, 1972: Episode #4

Thursday, September 29, 2022

After two days of walking the streets of London, I was ready to leave for Ireland. I figured I could do a quick loop, take a look around, return to Earl’s Court to pick up any mail, and then proceed to France to settle in. The London Underground rises above ground after it gets outside the central city, and took less than two hours to reach Oxford. I have a friend who is spending a week in Oxford at the moment, and I’m sure it will be productive time, but my goal was to reach Stratford-upon-Avon by nightfall. My one memory of Oxford is a wide grassy stretch beside the highway as I walked.

I realize that Oxford has one of the world’s fine universities, the oldest in the English-speaking world. (My youngest son would study his junior year abroad there). Oxford got its big boost in AD 1167, when my ancestor, Henry II, banned his subjects from attending the University of Paris. Of course Oxford had turned up often in biographies. Growing up in the Methodist Church, I knew about the ‘Holy Club,’ founded by Charles Wesley, led by his brother John, and including America’s first great evangelist, George Whitefield. Yet, by my late teens, I had left behind my Methodist upbringing, and could no longer claim the Wesleys as my own. Perhaps, as well, I was still burned out after my last year at UCLA. I had no strong desire to walk around another university.

I doubt that I walked the whole 39 miles from Oxford to Stratford, but I don’t recall hitching any rides. The town of Woodstock stands out, a medieval settlement that has guarded its historic appearance. I did not realize how close I was passing to Blenheim Palace—just a hundred yards off the highway—where Winston Churchill was born and where Queen Mary locked her half sister Elizabeth away. When I visited England in 2019, my main objective was time with kids and grandkids, but Blenheim was the next thing on the list of things I didn’t get to.

In Stratford, I found the Youth Hostel and checked in. Across Europe, I was to discover that the rural YHs were more attractive and less expensive than the city versions. They were mostly stately mansions that had been donated when a younger generation could not afford to pay the inheritance taxes. I seem to recall that a bed with mattress at most of the rural Hostels cost me about the equivalent of 80 cents U.S., and I was carrying my own sleeping bag. The bedrooms would have three or four sets of bunkbeds, and guests could use the kitchen, though no meals were provided. In the morning, I found the Royal Shakespeare Theater and bought a ticket for a play the following night.

After pushing for several days, Stratford allowed me to rest. I’m a sucker for the Tudor-style, black and white or black and tan, half-timbered buildings. In my mind’s eye, I have intended to build one for myself, though it gets ever-smaller as I age and my ambitions shrink. It fascinated me how buildings dating from the 1500s could now have indoor plumbing and neon lights.

I took some time for a peaceful hike, through fog, along the River Avon. I had much on my mind. The previous three months had raised the possibility that I had found my life partner. I met Vicki during my first quarter at UCLA. We had one class together, ‘Education of the Mexican-American Child.’ It would be the only education class I took there. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a teacher, but with a History Major and English Minor, that could be a possibility. During my two years at UCLA, I tutored English to 4th grade immigrant kids in L.A. Chinatown. A year earlier, after deciding my years of competitive running were over, I went back to my high school coach, and he gave me the tenth-grade cross country team to try my hand with. We made it that year to the city finals. I’d enjoyed both of those teaching experiences.

At UCLA, though, I took a series of creative writing classes. A writing career interested me, but not if I needed to be ready to support a family. I knew too many starving writers. For a short time, I pondered studying for the pastorate. That would have been for all the wrong reasons, as much to figure out what I believed about God—if He existed—as to serve the God who might be there.

Then, on a lark, I took a Movement Behavior class, partly to better be able to describe my characters in fiction. The professor, Dr. Hunt, was teaching Kinesiology in the Dance Department, but as a physical therapist she had lived among and treated Bedouins, Inuit, and a variety of other cultures. She introduced a remarkable amount of anthropology. I was so blown away by what I learned that the following quarters I took every class she offered. In the process, I didn’t quite finish my minor in English, but I did complete one in Kinesiology. I began to ponder a career in Physical Therapy, until I realized I would need two years of math and science prerequisites before PT school. As I walked along the River Avon, I leaned toward teaching. Vicki was studying to be a teacher. Two teachers would have the same vacations.

At Thanksgiving of my first (junior) UCLA year, I mistook a reply from a young lady and incorrectly jumped to the conclusion that I was engaged. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I was checking my dorm mailbox multiple times each day, always to find it empty, but sometimes to see the student who was sorting the mail on the other side. I knew her slightly from my ‘Education of the Mexican-American Child’ class. On the first day of that class I did what all unattached students do, I glanced unobtrusively around the room, and thought to myself, “Nothing here.” She remembers whispering to Bonnie, her roommate, “Nothing here.”

They lived two floors above me and we often left for class at about the same time, so I occasionally walked them to the main campus, or saw them in the dorm cafeteria. At the end of the quarter, Tuesday of finals week was my 21st birthday, and I went home to celebrate with my parents and siblings. Back on campus, the next evening, a coed was stabbed to death in the parking structure not far from our dorm. The crime has been connected to the Zodiac Killer, and left the whole campus on edge. When the final exam for the education class got out after dark on Saturday evening, I finished early, but stuck around outside to walk the girls back to the dorm. I was still thinking about the girl from Thanksgiving, but I remember thinking that I hoped there was someone available to walk my future wife safely home. Little could I have imagined.

We had to move out of the dorm for the Christmas holidays. My parents came to help me transport my things, and while Dad and I made several trips up and down the elevator, my mother—who could strike up a conversation with anyone—chatted with the nice young woman who worked behind the desk, who seemed to know me.

I do not remember what play I saw at the Royal Shakespeare Theater that night. What fascinated me most was the way the set could be staged with almost no scenery. Instead, sections of the stage itself would rise or fall, high to become the bow of a ship, or less to become a bench. However, I could leave and say that I had seen a Shakespeare play at Stratford-upon-Avon. I walked back to the Youth Hostel ready to leave in the morning for Ireland. Admittedly, that was in the opposite direction from France.

Once, for a session of the Movement Behavior class, Dr. Hunt took the students to a large, walled-in, grassy area behind the Women’s Gym. Our assignment was to move. Just move. After a while, she called us in and she reported what she had seen. The class was heavily dance majors, and she’d observed the way many of the students had picked a spot and waved arms and legs or done a variety of artistic contortions. Then she got to me, and chuckled. “Brian, you explored every inch of grass and every corner.” I didn’t realize it yet, but that would describe my trip to Europe.

Coming of Age, 1972: Episode #3

Friday, September 23, 2022

I found a free map of London and walked the city for two days. I soon learned that the three things I needed in order to learn a new city were a map, a couple of days, and walking.

Travel teaches us much about a foreign place. By comparing and contrasting, we also get fresh eyes to better understand what we consider home. In 2022, looking back 50 years, I am struck by how much my travels have taught me about myself, as well. The passage of time has a similar effect. I’ve been thinking as I write this about my cousin Lance, who would have celebrated his 23rd birthday on the day I flew from Los Angeles to London, if only had he not drowned in a scuba accident when we were both 17. At 17, Lance never got a chance to learn just who he was. I am also comparing my trip 50 years ago with the current trip of a friend who is posting each day from Greece. I am learning a great deal about Greece, but more-so, although I have considered her as family and admired her for 40 years, I am also gaining new insights into who she is, and comparing her meticulously planned trip with my trip, which had almost no planning at all.

My plan was to go over there and have a look around.

I wouldn’t be traveling in total ignorance, because I had been visiting England vicariously since meeting Benjamin Franklin in a children’s book at the age of eight. Franklin first visited London to study the art of printing. He lived there again, 1757-1762 and 1764-1775, as the representative of the Pennsylvania colony. Increasingly during those years he also became the primary representative for all the British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard. I could imagine myself arriving in London much as Franklin had arrived in Philadelphia, a run-away, walking the city with bread stuffed in his pockets.

I did walk past the house marked as Franklin’s home. It’s a mere ten-minute walk from the Parliament building. He rented rooms in that building for almost 16 years. In Franklin (along with Jefferson, who much preferred France) I’d had my first hero, my first tastes of travel, and—I realize now—not an imaginary friend, but a friend from another era, and a soul mate. I could not have told you for another 25 years anything about Myers-Briggs personality typology, but somehow, my shared characteristics with Franklin (ENTP and the often-concurrent ADHD) grabbed me, and in the process hooked me on history, biography, geography, and a layman’s fascination with anthropology, zoology, botany, linguistics, meteorology, and all the other interests that Franklin (and INTP Jefferson) found to interest them.

By the time I landed in London, I had read biographies of Churchill, Gladstone, Henry VIII, Victoria, Elizabeth I, Drake, Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Admiral Nelson, Newton, Faraday, Cromwell, Richard the Lion Hearted, and Raleigh; and read works by Shakespeare, Austin, Dickens, Tolkien, Lewis, and Orwell. I had also studied my English genealogy, including the Rev. Stephen Bachilor, a Puritan divine who brought four grandsons and my mother’s line to Boston, in 1632. After some scandal (there is evidence that his fourth wife formed the model for Hester Prynnes, in Hawthorne’s ‘The Scarlet Letter’), Bachilor returned to London for his final years. On a later trip I would do a search for his grave.

From Earl’s Court to Buckingham Palace is a three-mile walk, or slightly farther if one takes a route along the Themes. I looked in on whatever I could enter without a fee, which included several hours in the Victoria and Albert Museum and an hour-or-so in the balcony listening to a debate in the House of Lords over a bill to install culverts beside roads somewhere. Several walks through the Hyde and St. James Parks gave me a baseline to judge change in the city during my four return trips. (On a Sunday in 2000, it seemed like most of the women in Hyde Park were dressed in black hijabs and niqabs.) I remember crossing a Themes bridge one evening after lights were on, and coming upon the statue of a young woman, and thinking very much about Vicki. On future trips to London, I have ventured farther upriver and down, but on this trip, there was plenty to see in the center of the city.

My London walk included locating offices of the Youth Hostel Association, where £20 bought me membership, a guide book, and a map of all the Youth Hostels in Europe. I was on my way.

Coming of Age, 1972: Episode #2

Saturday, September 17, 2022

After watching the sun come up over the English countryside, I landed at Luton International Airport before 7:00 AM, and committed my first rookie error within minutes. I carried no British pounds, but had $600 in US Traveler’s Checks. (Note to those who grew up in the age of ATMs: These used to be a thing, allowing traveling Neanderthals to go to a bank and obtain cash.) I supposed a better exchange rate at banks farther from the airport, and as it was still too early for banking, I decided to walk as far as I could before banks opened. It skipped my mind that banks observe no hours at all on Sundays.

After watching the sun come up over the English countryside, I landed at Luton International Airport before 7:00 AM, and committed my first rookie error within minutes. I carried no British pounds, but had $600 in US Traveler’s Checks. (Note to those who grew up in the age of ATMs: These used to be a thing, allowing traveling Neanderthals to go to a bank and obtain cash.) I supposed a better exchange rate at banks farther from the airport, and as it was still too early for banking, I decided to walk as far as I could before banks opened. It skipped my mind that banks observe no hours at all on Sundays.

After watching the sun come up over the English countryside, I landed at Luton International Airport before 7:00 AM, and committed my first rookie error within minutes. I carried no British pounds, but had $600 in US Traveler’s Checks. (Note to those who grew up in the age of ATMs: These used to be a thing, allowing traveling Neanderthals to go to a bank and obtain cash.) I supposed a better exchange rate at banks farther from the airport, and as it was still too early for banking, I decided to walk as far as I could before banks opened. It skipped my mind that banks observe no hours at all on Sundays.

After watching the sun come up over the English countryside, I landed at Luton International Airport before 7:00 AM, and committed my first rookie error within minutes. I carried no British pounds, but had $600 in US Traveler’s Checks. (Note to those who grew up in the age of ATMs: These used to be a thing, allowing traveling Neanderthals to go to a bank and obtain cash.) I supposed a better exchange rate at banks farther from the airport, and as it was still too early for banking, I decided to walk as far as I could before banks opened. It skipped my mind that banks observe no hours at all on Sundays.

I had an address for a bed and breakfast in Earl’s Court, a mere 32 miles away. I had walked that far in a day previously so even after I realized my mistake, I was not concerned. I had hiked the high Sierras. I ran run cross country in high school and my first year of college. I’d run a marathon in Mexico. I once got my high school class to challenge the class just ahead of us to a contest to see which class could rack up the most total laps on a Saturday, and personally tallied 33 miles, so I set out on a beautiful sunny morning to walk to Earl’s Court. I probably walked past dozens of bed and breakfasts that would have served me well, but a friend had given me the address of the place he’d stayed in Earl’s Court.

First time travelers may be struck by the fact that a foreign country appears in the same colors as at home, but somehow looks different. I was pondering that when a car stopped and a young man offered me a ride. I gladly accepted, and obeyed his instructions to stow my rucksack in the boot. Do you know that the British drive on the wrong side of the road? They also seat the driver on the wrong side of the car. I had read about it, but now I saw this peculiarity verified.

When my benefactor learned that this was my first day in England, he decided to divert and show me some local Roman ruins. We had a most congenial time, and then he let me out to continue on my way. The countryside gradually gave way to industrial areas, and then brownstone residential areas, and then I was in Earl’s Court. I had successfully flown across an ocean, walked most of 32 miles, gotten some exercise (though not much to eat), met a native, seen some Roman ruins, and located a target address. I decided I ought to recount my safety and my successes in letters to Vicki and my parents.

Of course, I had no return address to offer them other than the bed and breakfast in Earl’s Court, and it would be two weeks for my letters to get to California and receive answers back (Note to those who grew up in the age of email and texting: Letters were a thing that allowed Neanderthals to communicate over long distances, albeit very slowly). On the plus side, those two weeks would allow me time to visit Ireland before continuing to France, where I would hunker down with my novel and the French language. I still entertained that objective.

A few thoughts from 50 years later:

After yesterday’s episode, I messaged with a high school friend who did her travel with the army, as a nurse, and though she did not go to Vietnam, the topic came up in our discussion. For my generation, it often will. For my cohort, our post-high-school years were either spent in Vietnam or trying to stay out of Vietnam, or maybe protesting in the streets over Vietnam.

Like many of my peers, I was conflicted about Vietnam. I loved my country and wanted to defend it, but questions nagged me about whether in Vietnam we were the good guys or the bad guys. I started college three days after high school, not because I wanted to avoid the draft (Note to those who grew up in the era of an all-volunteer army: It used to be that when the letter from the draft board arrived, you reported for military duty). In 1968, the best way to stay free of the draft was to stay in school. Although I did want to avoid the draft, my primary motivation for college was excitement about college. However, those first weeks, I buddied around with a friend who really wasn’t that excited about school. Toby dropped out, got drafted, and died standing in the boot camp breakfast line. A recruit standing behind him dropped his rifle.

After watching the sun come up over the English countryside, I landed at Luton International Airport before 7:00 AM, and committed my first rookie error within minutes. I carried no British pounds, but had $600 in US Traveler’s Checks. (Note to those who grew up in the age of ATMs: These used to be a thing, allowing traveling Neanderthals to go to a bank and obtain cash.) I supposed a better exchange rate at banks farther from the airport, and as it was still too early for banking, I decided to walk as far as I could before banks opened. It skipped my mind that banks observe no hours at all on Sundays.

The spring I was finishing up at community college and getting ready to transfer to UCLA, the employment office connected me with a middle aged veteran who needed a man Friday. Pat suffered from emphysema, due to an accident in the Air Force. He knew he was dying, and wanted to do so in Europe. My job would be to carry his oxygen tank, and then accompany his body home at the end. He would pay all of my expenses and a nice salary. Most importantly for me, it would be my longed-for trip overseas. I look back on that episode as the supreme test of my transition to adulthood. Going with Pat would mean I would have to cancel my plans for UCLA. Pat told me Sen. Cranston owed him some favors and could fix me up with the draft board. Although I didn’t want to go to Vietnam, I also didn’t want some politician pulling strings for me. I drove Pat to Cranston’s office, but the Senator had been called away that day. Pat was expecting a big check from the government, but I began to wonder if it was actually coming. Pat liked to brag about the friends he looked forward to seeing, but from his description, some of them impressed me as a little shady. He also talked about the girls he would be able to get me, and how they could move in with us. That wasn’t the kind of girlfriend I wanted. After investing five or six months in Pat’s dream, and as much as I wanted to see Europe, I realized that I wanted to be my own boss when I traveled. I told Pat I was going to UCLA. To have gone with Pat then would have traded away everything of value that I have today.

I remained timid and indecisive about the war. I took part in a few demonstrations, and wavered over the question of what to do if drafted. I could not imagine killing another human being. Maybe I would go in as a medic. Maybe I would go to Canada. Dying for my country was one thing, but what if our side was actually the bad guys? That would be worse than dying in the boot camp breakfast line.

One more friendship stands out: I had written a 500 page—typed, double spaced—murder mystery (Note to those who learned word processing at a computer key board: Word-working was once done at a manual instrument that left one’s fingers raw and swollen at the end of the writing day). I had alternated 12-hour writing days with days carting Pat around. UCLA had a novel writing contest that first quarter and my 500 pages lost to a Vietnam vet’s 30-page opening chapter. Brian Jones took his $5,000 prize, went home and beat up his wife. The prize went for her hospital costs and the divorce. Over the next two years that I had to get to know him, I watched the Man Who Had Everything slowly fall apart.

We did not understand PTSD in those days, nor PITS (Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress), a concept first described by Psychologist and Sociologist Rachel MacNair. As I heard MacNair present at a conference in 2019, and then driving the carpool back to our shared AirB&B, she put into words exactly what I sensed had happened to Brian Jones. Brian had been the All-American everything: football quarterback, Student Body President, going steady with the head cheer-leader. Then he had done the All-American thing to do in 1966; he joined the Marines. When I asked about his experience in Vietnam, he could only shrug and say, “I killed a lot of Gooks.” There is PTSD trauma that soldiers experience when bullets are flying and friends all around them are dying, but PITS kicks in when someone raised with high moral values must face that they have become a murderer. Within a few months of my return from Europe, Brian Jones drove a van full of marijuana over a cliff, while running from police.

I believe I have seen PITS twice more. For a while I was visiting and corresponding with an inmate on Death Row in San Quentin Prison. He had been convicted as a serial killer. Independent research brought me an account of a childhood murder-dismemberment (of his mother) in which he had been forced to participate. Every one of his murders had been a reenactment of that event.

And then, in helping a friend clean up after a tenant, I found the letter-to-herself of a woman whose life had spiraled down after an abortion. Her agony came out in one haunting line, “This is not who I am!”

In 1972, as I left for Europe, the United States was struggling with a similar disconnect. “This is not who we are!”

Coming of Age, 1972: Episode #1

Friday, September 16, 2022

Fifty years ago, today, I boarded a flight in Los Angeles and flew to Luton, just north of London, UK. Thus began the great coming-of-age adventure of my life. My mother and my then girlfriend (Vicki, who has now been my wife for 49 years) saw me off at the airport. In flight, I remember the Rocky Mountains covered with a layer of golden-yellow Aspen trees, ice chunks floating in Hudson Bay, an hour in a duty-free shop beside a snow-cleared runway in Iceland, and the first rays of daylight as we took off from Edinburgh. I was 22, and—unlike today—I had been able to work my way through UCLA with no debts, and graduate with $1,000 in the bank.

I did not walk in the graduation ceremonies. Skipping those expenses gave me another hundred dollars for my voyage. Instead, I walked from my last final exam to a student travel agency and bought my one-way ticket to Europe. The other choice had been Japan, which interested me more, but five years of French would serve me better than my three quarters of Japanese. It was my plan to sojourn for a year in Paris. I would work on making my French useful, and write on the novel from which I had already shown Vicki portions over a year earlier. My last quarter at UCLA had been exhausting. During registration, a counselor pointed out that I had accrued 207 units, and once I went over 208 without graduating, I would not be allowed to register for another quarter. I had transferred in from community college with more than the usual totals, and then decided to add a kinesiology minor and creative writing classes to my history major. I also, wanting to explore what eventually became my career, took the ‘Education of the Mexican-American Child’ class in which I met Vicki. The gist of it was, to complete all my graduation requirements, I needed to take and pass 28 units my final quarter. I may have set the all-time UCLA record for most units to earn a BA. As I returned to campus after buying my ticket, I looked out on the sea of peers who were practicing for the ceremony. Was there even one person I needed to say 'goodbye' to? Vicki came to mind. Our almost-two-year relationship had been friendly, but not romantic, and I did not see much chance that I could find her in the crowd. I did see her roommate, who promised she would pass along my goodbye. My main activity for the summer would be two volunteer sessions as a camp counselor, one with teen diabetics and the second for kids who came largely from Los Angeles Chinatown, where I had been tutoring English during my time at UCLA. One preparatory task for that was interviewing the families for each camper. One of those families spoke only Spanish. I had not yet begun the Spanish which would later serve as my almost-competent second language, so I called Vicki and asked if she would translate for me. On a Saturday morning I picked her up and we drove to Chinatown, but the family was not at home. I knew there was an Asian-American culture fair going on that weekend at nearby Echo Park, so we went there to kill some time. The family still wasn’t home, so we drove to USC, where Vicki would be taking classes for a teaching credential. We did a lot of talking. By the time I got her home in the late afternoon (unbeknownst to me, she had a date she needed to get ready for), I had begun to rethink our relationship. We had a wild summer. By the time Vicki and my Mom dropped me off at LAX, I was much less sure that I wanted to be gone for the full year. As we parted, I whispered, “I’ll be home for Christmas.”