San Carlos in 1960 was a series of tract homes out in the boonies. There were plenty of hills, trails, and wilderness for a young boy to run wild. My family lived on Lake Aral Drive, a neatly arranged street with brand new lawns and trees. I was five years old and beginning to make friends with the other kids my age. It seemed like every house had a couple of sons and daughters right around the same age group. It was a ready-made gang.
You might recognize the names of some of the kids in San Carlos at that time. Danny Alsadt, David Allen Lucas, Brenda Spencer. In 1975, Eagle Scout and straight-A student Alsadt hacked his mother, father, and sister to death with an axe and set fire to the family home to cover the crime. Lucas is now on death row for the mutilation murders of three women and a child in the late '70s and early '80s. Brenda Spencer took her new rifle one Monday morning in 1979 and killed two men and wounded eight children ad a policeman on the grounds of Cleveland Elementary school, for which she is now in prison. Besides those more infamous San Carlos kids of my era, there were others less well known but equally self-destructive.
What was the reason so many people in such a small area of suburban America shared the same destiny, a destiny of violence? Among the common denominators in their lives were drugs, turbulent family situations, most were average to below average students, and most had no spiritual background. Many of them were friends with one another. But few people would assume that middle-class, suburban San Carlos would be a breeding ground for so much violence. But as I grew up there, I was involved in my share of it.
I recall that life at Cleveland Elementary School was fun, for the most part. There were some extremely sad times at home, though, with my mother's manic depression. She attempted suicide many times when I was growing up. Her doctors gave her Valiums on request, but they didn't calm her down.
My father was the solid rock in the family, but as we grew older, we seemed to be losing touch. Pop worked hard all his life, fought in two wars, and had a second career when he got out of the service. He just wanted a happy family. I think my mother did too, but she couldn't control what was going on inside. We seemed to become enemies; she gave up on me. I gave up on her. I saw her as a roadblock to growing up, a barrier to freedom and identity.
In the process, I discarded anything my mother had to say. The problem was, I threw away any rational counsel at the same time. I was going to make my own rules. The result was anarchy. The only breath of fresh air was hanging out with my friends, studying in my room, or the summer vacations my dad would take with me and my sister. Without my mom— at her request.
One of my older memories is of my friend Bruce. When we were just three years old, he showed me how to make a fire with matches. He and his brothers also once made a launcher out of two-by-fours and shot large rocks at people from their front yard. They were a rowdy bunch. And Bruce was the first person to knock the wind out of me. I was five and wanted to join the big kids in a street football game. Bruce's older brother told him to punch me, and he did. For years after, I had fantasies about blowing up their house.
Bruce and I started smoking cigarettes together in sixth grade, and in seventh grade he gave me my first drug—speed. I was up all night with my heart racing. I was in love with chemicals from that day until I stopped for good at 24.
Bruce was with me when I set on fire the trash can in the boys' bathroom at Cleveland Elementary School. We got busted for that, and my sixth grade teacher said he was disappointed in me, an A student who seemed to be going amiss. He said, “You are really becoming a bad egg.”
I got my butt whipped when my dad got home that night. The fire department even visited my house. Bruce got in trouble too. He never even told the authorities that I was the one who set it. He had some loyalty to him. Less than ten years later, Bruce would be sentenced in Texas for murder.
My friend Stan was a seventh grader with a vision. He planned to run away to Haight-Ashbury in the summer of 1968, when we were 13, and I was going to go with him. It seemed like that's all we talked and dreamed about. We were very interested in not living at home with our parents. Stan hated his dad, though I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. His family took me on boat trips on Mission Bay, and Stan seemed to have a lot of freedom. But he also had this self-constructed wall inside that caused problems. He could be very malicious, and he did senseless vandalism, and of course I joined him in it.
We smoked cigarettes like they were going out of style. I remember sticking our hands under cigarette machines and pulling down packs of Marlboros or Camel nonfilters. Stan loved to steal things. I wasn't into stealing, but when I was with him, it was a way of life. Being accepted was more important than any values, I thought.
Needless to say, our trip to Haight-Ashbury never happened. Eventually, we drifted apart, but in the eight grade, on my way to the local 7-Eleven I was amazed when Stan came up to me and said he wanted to fight me. He had two chains with heavy lead weights attached to them. I stupidly said I'd fight him with my fists. In the end, my head my was bleeding badly, but so was Stan's face. When I finally got to school, no one questioned why my head was smashed in.
The last time I saw Stan was when I was about 20. He said he'd just gotten married, was getting along well with his family, and had quit using drugs, except for a little “harmless” coke once in a while. A few months later, he would be stabbed to death behind a disco not far from the 7-Eleven where we had fought. Rumor was he was killed over a cocaine deal gone bad.
In the eight grade, I moved on to Pershing Junior High. I had made a friend the year before, Steve, and he and I got along well and had a mutual acceptance of one another. Then the “too cool” monster consumed him. All of a sudden, friendship turn to animosity. Steve said I looked like a raisin. This hurt. I did possess a kind of hook nose. I remember the year before, another one of my friends and I were after the same girl. In order to impress her, he would start putting down my nose while the three of us would walk home from school. I remember lying awake at night trying to push my nose into a straight position.
For whatever reason, one day in Mrs. Knee's algebra class, animosity reached a peak for Steve and me. He starting shoving me around and challenging me to a fight after school. “Come on, punk. I'll beat your face in!” Steve blurted out so the class could hear. I accepted. I had no choice. “No problem, you big puss. I'll kick your ass,” I answered with a gulp and a bit of disbelief in my voice.
All day long, friends tried to convince me to back down. Bill, the animal, as he was called, came up to me like a big brother and said, “Clifton, I think you might get your butt kicked.” Still, pride is sometimes bigger than common sense.
My concentration was shot. My stomach felt like there were a thousand butterflies trying to escape through my throat. When 2:10 finally came, I made my way to my locker. The throngs were gathering. I couldn't hear a word anyone was saying. I dumped my books in my locker and walked toward the field. I saw Steve at a distance with a Cheshire cat grin on his face. His buddies were laughing and snickering.
Adrenaline caused my heart to beat like the kettle drum I could hear from the band room in the distance. The crowd seemed to designate our boxing ring, and they circled around us like a mob of gamblers at a cockfight. Not too many people cared who won, but just the excitement of a good fight drew a crowd.
I put my firsts up and so did Steve. Smack! The first punch connected my face and knocked me to the ground. I bounded back up as if I were on a trampoline. Smack! I hit Steve with a right to the chin. He swung wildly at me with the same sidearm he used as a pitcher. He missed, so I seized the chance to clobber him with a right and a left, knocking him off balance. I don't remember much else about the right, except he didn't connect a punch again, and my fist was sore from nailing him many, many times.
The next thing I remember was two large arms grabbing me around the shoulders. I looked around into the face of Coach Halverson. I was ready for him to start yelling at me, but instead he pulled me off to the side and said, “I think you got the best of him. ”No suspension, no laps, no push-ups, no nothing. He must have known a little more about what was going on than I thought.
The next day I could hardly wait to get to school. I was a hero—for a while, anyway. Steve was very quiet the next few days. I was lauded as a great fighter. I really didn't think so, but who's to dispute the masses? Instant fame was nothing to argue with.
Within days of our fight, a Sea World helicopter crash in Steve's back yard. Both pilots were killed, one decapitated. On the point system of adolescent popularity, Steve gained twice as many points as he had lost in our fight. I couldn't compete with a guy who had bodies strewn all over his back yard.
That was okay, though. The Animal came up to me after the fight and expressed his satisfaction with my kicking Steve's butt. Having approval from him was good enough for me.
Bill the Animal had grown up on Cowles Mountain Boulevard with his parents, younger brother, and two younger sisters. His father was a policeman and a tough disciplinarian. Hardly a perfect nest for the outlaw biker that Bill would become.
When we knew him in school he had gone through different phases, like the rest of us. But in junior high school, he seemed to be going through a lot of personal problems. In the 11th grade, he overdosed on Seconals in school and was taken to juvenile hall, where he stayed the summer. Another time, a few of us were outside his including one kid's sister who was in the 11th grade and very pregnant. Bill was joking around and ended up throwing the girl down on the street. I was shocked; she was in a panic. Bill apologized. He said he didn't know what came over him. Bill was being molded into the Animal the newspapers would eventually write about. I lost track of him around this time, but he would reappear in my life in just a few years.
When I was 15, during the fall of 1970, some friends and I were looking a place to roll up some pot. It was rainy outside, so we decided to go to the San Carlos golf course and roll some in the bathroom. Brad and another friend were standing by to warn us, while Terry and I each went into a different stall.
Suddenly Brad said the code words, “We've got to go, my bike is busted!” I tried to flush the pot down the toilets when I heard an older man's voice yelling, “Hey, what are you guys doing?”
Terry was in the next stall, acting like he was throwing up. When I looked behind me, I saw a man's face looking under the stall door. “Open this damn door I'll break it down.”
As the pot was trying to escape down the toilet, I made a run for the outside door. Another golfer grabbed me and bounced my head against the bathroom wall about ten times. They only got a little pot from my side of the toilet. Terry managed to get his flushed down. Brad and our friend got away.
My head was bleeding and full of bumps. As the police drove me home, I told them I had been assaulted, but they laughed and said, “So what? You are a criminal in the act of committing a crime.” That wouldn't have been so bad, but when the police got me to my house, my dad dragged me out for the ultimate punishment in those days—a haircut. Not just a trim, a buzz job. Complete humiliation. The barber had a tough time keeping the razor even with all the bumps.
The police and later the judge said that if I would sign a statement against my three friends, I would get off easier. I didn't have to think for more than five seconds. No way would I do it. I felt such a sense of oneness with my friends, the underground, and any other group that took a stand against the “establishment.” On the other hand, I had never before felt such a separation from my parents, particularly my dad, who had always been a support to me.
It seemed that around that time, all of our childhood friends were choosing up which side of the fence they wanted to hang out on. At one time, part of our gang became plugged into what was called the Jesus Movement. Things were looking bleak for our idols; Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin all died within months of each other. The first time I saw Hendrix, I had just turned 14. He came up to the Sports Arena, and tickets $2.75 each. The second time I saw him at the arena, I was 15. I don't remember much about the concert except breaking open Seconals and digesting the putrid white powder straight. I also saw the Doors that summer and remember Jim Morrison lying on the stage on his back, smoking a joint. It was a boring concert.
Our local heroes were also dropping like flies. For many, many of our childhood friends in San Carlos, the drug culture was consuming them too.
After high school, I lived with five other guys from San Carlos in a large house in Allied Gardens, overlooking highway 8. We had a large pot plantation that the cops eventually busted. Two of the guys who had just moved in took the rap just because they were home at the time. There again was the strange honor among our friends. I finally moved to a flunky two-bedroom duplex on Short Street in Lakeside. It was a dirt road with a series of duplexes and other styles of farm ghetto architecture. Everyone had dogs, pigs, horses—anything that produced one form of manure or the other. It wasn't long before Bill the Animal, his brother, and another San Carlos friend moved in too.
About this time, I got my second drunk-driving offense that cost me my license. My life seemed to be going down the tubes quickly now. From the pot, LSD, and speed of my school years, I had started using the needle more than ever—from cocaine to heroin. We were so hard up, Bill and I used brand new pig needles, about five times the size of a normal human needle, to shoot cocaine.
And Bill was always, without fail, engaged in some mini-war with someone. As a typical example, one time were driving to a keg party and some guy and his girlfriend cut us off, then flipped us off. Bill was furious. We caught up with them and signaled for them to pull over. The guy was huge. He piled out with two hammers in his hands. Bill said, “Put down those hammers and fight like a man.” The guy handed his girlfriend the hammers, and she turned to me. “Don't you even try to jump in, or I'll smash your skull!” I couldn't believe that this pretty blond was so tough.
The big guy was getting some punches in, as was Bill. But when he pulled Bill's hair, he was transformed into the Animal. Bill had a tough time growing his hair long, and messing with what he did have was a good way to detonate the dynamite that was ready to go off in him at any time. Bill started the tar out of the guy.
Finally, the big dude succumbed. The chick picked up my sunglasses that were lying on the hood of a car and walked off with them and her wounded boyfriend. I felt kind of important, but Animal seemed to have everything under control. Many more times over the years, I'd see this same kind of violence from Bill.
At the little house on Short Street, something big was happening to my San Carlos friends. Many of them rode Harley-Davidsons and looked like typical bikers. One friend we grew up with, “Honk,” was hanging out with the Hell's Angels and also with what was a fairly new outlaw motorcycle group at the time, the Mongols. The Hell's Angels rule the methamphetamine market and were premier outlaws in the West. The Mongols were the upstarts moving in on them, riding with their colors flying, in total defiance.
The Angels and Mongols engaged in a bloody turf battle that cost many lives on both sides. It was a real live war that divided San Diego into one large battle zone for territory and pride. A lot of my San Carlos buddies would be wearing the Mongols' colors, and the battle gear was a Harley-Davidson, a gram of crank, and a .38. In just a few years, Bill would be president of the Mongols.
The beginning of the end for Bill came in January of 1982, when he and three of his Mongol buddies met at a house in Santee. Bill waived a silver-colored .38 revolver and said, “Let's go kill an H.A.” A fourth Mongol had joined them by the time they arrived at the Horseshoe Tavern around 1:00 a.m. Raymond Piltz, a member of the Hell's Angels, was in the tavern by himself. The five Mongols attacked him. Bill hit him with a table, and Piltz was shot. Then the Mongols split.
Bill the Animal fled the city and changed his identity until, for whatever reason, he turned himself in. Perhaps it had something to do with his wife, a pretty blonde who didn't seem to fit into the Animal's lifestyle. She was a country girl who enjoyed riding horses. Once, when she had left Bill briefly, I had never seen him so melancholy. Now, in 1982, they had a son.
At the trial, many letters went to the judge presiding in the case. One was from his parents, who blamed the Mongols' influence for their son's behavior. They were “convinced that he would become a useful and productive member of society when he [was] no longer a member of the group.” His parents pleaded for mercy for Bill's children's sake, and they offered to help him when he got out.
Bill also wrote a letter to the judge. He did blame his association with the Mongols for many of his problems. But he did admit to being partly responsible for Piltz's murder. His letter begins:
Being a citizen of one of the few countries in the world that allows you the opportunity to choose the path of your destiny, I cannot find in my heart any excuses for the crime of which I have pleaded guilty to, but only to express reflections of my thoughts on this tragic event that has marred not only my life, but as well the lives of my family and loved ones, along with the lives of people I will never know.
Bill ended the letter with “I feel that I owe it to my family and myself to change my life for the better and to make myself a useful and respected part of society, with determination, and God's help I know that I will.”
Time will tell how much sincerity there is in that letter. Bill has since been released from prison after serving time for conspiracy to commit murder, and I talked to his brother last year. He said that Bill was still in trouble with the law, but they were seeking medical help for him because they felt there was something organically wrong with him that caused his violent temper. The story of Bill the Animal was one more black cloud that hung over Cowles Mountain.
At about the same time Animal was fighting his war with the Hell's Angels, more of my San Carlos friends were waging their own personal battles. Three died of drug overdoses. One of them was my grade school girlfriend, who would one day inject too much heroin.
Five more friends would commit suicide, by suffocation or by gunshot. Greg may have been the first known nerd, even before the term gained popularity. In junior high, he was always getting kicked and generally beat on. He was extremely skinny, and his pants were always too short to cover his white socks. In high school he had developed a crush on a girl and seemed to mature and stop being a goofy kid. He and his girlfriend were always together. He stopped being hassled by the guys who used to give him a bad time. But after high school graduation and after his girlfriend left him, something made him give up on life.
Dave lived a few blocks from me and was one of the Catholic school kids who were always picked on in grade school. We became friends in junior high and used to smoke pot together. He always seemed to have confidence in himself, enjoyed joking around, and didn't seem to take life too seriously. Dave didn't live to be 21.
Neil was an outgoing but sensitive kid from a wealthy family. But he got pulled into the world of LSD, not the kind of drug for someone like him. Whatever the cause, he suffocated himself with a plastic bag while he was still in his teens.
Chuck, a biker friend who always had beautiful girlfriends, had dreamed of being a roadie for a rock band. Eventually his dream was beginning to come true. A big promoter promised him work with some famous groups but then went back on that promise. One day this tough, quiet, nice guy apparently had enough and he was gone too.
Jon, a grade school friend of David Allen Lucas and a one-time roommate of mine, was always a solid guy. He seemed to be able to bounce back from anything. No one knew what prompted him to shoot himself after his marriage broke up.
Is it a coincidence that five people, all of whom lived close together in San Carlos and some of whom knew each other well, would themselves? So much despair seemed to dark the hearts of these friends.
For every story with a sad ending, there is probably also one of success. Some of my friends in San Carlos did manage to break out the constraints of peer pressure or whatever pressure was inflicting these tragedies on the community. Actress Annette Bening is one San Carlos success from this era; she had her acting dream to follow. And one other story is particularly hopeful.
It was 1971, and Bill the Animal, my friend Kirk, and a Volkswagen full of other stoners left for Laguna Beach to pick up some of Timothy Leary's Orange Sunshine LSD. There was a Taco Bell up there where hundreds of hippies used to congregate, uninterrupted by police, to buy and sell drugs.
While the guys were finding the acid, a young Hispanic man in a suit and tie came through the crowd, walked up to Kirk, and asked him if he wanted to know Jesus, then grabbed Kirk's hands and prayed over him.
That night everyone ate some of the Laguna Beach acid. The tablets were four-man hits; four people would get stoned out of their minds on one hit. Kirk had consumed two of them; enough for eight people. Everyone else was stoned, but Kirk never got high at all.
Within a few weeks, Kirk and a bunch of the gang found a group of bikers that had been on drugs and in jail and had become born-again Christians. They were renting a small house on El Cajon Boulevard and held Bible studies on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The average age was 17, and the house would fill to overflowing with converted hippies. The Animal, his brother, and I went a few times, but Kirk was the only one who lasted. The rest of us made a rapid retreat to our old ways. But Kirk never looked back. He married and moved to Oklahoma, where he founded Harvest International Ministries.
As for me, I spent many years with my biker and hippie friends in Ocean Beach, many of them childhood friends from San Carlos, consuming my life in drugs, alcohol, and the violence that seemed to hang over us. Why I survived and others did not, I don't know. Finally, in 1979, when I was recovering from hepatitis, I got a new job and moved away from everyone—from my buddies in San Carlos, my “Business associates” in O.B.—and rented a small, quiet cottage with a huge yard in Pacific Beach.
It was here that I came to grips with my life. My friend Kirk called me from time to time to ask if I was thinking about Jesus at all. In fact, I was thirsty for the peace and comfort of knowing that my life was heading in the right direction.
My mother and I healed the past, and the last nine months of her life were the best we ever shared. She died of cancer in 1982. My father stayed by her side day and night as the disease grew worse and the radiation proved futile. My sister gave her a grandson two months before she died. We all learned that love does heal a multitude of deep scars.
Now, ten years later, my wife and I are one day climbing to the top of Cowles Mountain along the Mission Trail. The view is very different than it was when my dad, my sister, and I made the climb. I can still see the ocean in the west, the Laguna Mountains in the east, the field of what used to be Cleveland Elementary School, and a golf course that used to be trails. The landscape has grown up with the city. Large eucalyptus trees divide the neighborhoods.
San Carlos had spread over many more miles, with nice two-story homes crowded into the area where I used to ride my mini-bike and shoot at birds and rocks with my BB-gun. I can see the street my dad still lives on, but it's hard to pick out the house because of the trees. Besides my wife, this 72-year-old man has become my best friend.
Most of the people down there never knew the insanity that once ruled their streets. The ones that did know carefully tucked it away in their memories. They say we never forget anything, but some things are stored more carefully than others. It must be a survival instinct.
As we look off toward the cross on Mt. Helix, there is not a cloud in the sky. Not a hint of a wispy cirrus or puffy cumulus anywhere. And there is no hint of the dark, ominous thunderheads that once hung over the San Carlos I used to know.