A wayward daughter's La Jolla summers

Where the surf was roughest

I took the bus to the Naval Recruitment Center. On the way, I imagined myself driving a convertible along the coast at sunset with the top down.
  • I took the bus to the Naval Recruitment Center. On the way, I imagined myself driving a convertible along the coast at sunset with the top down.

The first time I went to La Jolla was the summer of 1957. I was 15. Mama had remarried that spring to a man we all thought was beneath her. My brother Jimmy had left home shortly afterward, calling her an adulteress for remarrying. He had become a holy roller not long before that out of sexual guilt and fear of burning in hell. After he left home he became a circuit revival speaker and traveled all over he country. Mama put Grandma in the Masonic home for the aged because Hank wouldn’t marry her otherwise. And there I was, a wayward daughter — as Mama’s minister said to the congregation — and Mama didn’t know what to do with me for the summer — if I were left at home alone while they were at work, no telling the trouble I might get into.

He stood outside my bedroom window and asked me to go to the beach with him. I climbed out the window, and we drove down to Mission Bay.

He stood outside my bedroom window and asked me to go to the beach with him. I climbed out the window, and we drove down to Mission Bay.

I think someone had told her I was fucking with Art, the boy down the street, the summer before (actually it was Lloyd). She came knocking on Art’s door while we were watching TV and dragged me down the street hitting me and calling me a whore. She didn’t say who had told her what, but I thought Jimmy might have told her and she got the facts mixed up. So she asked her youngest brother Hugh to put me up for the summer — promising that I would help Aunt Jane with the kids (Walt, Anne, Gini, May, Val, and Andre) and the housework. La Jolla was a magical place by my other uncle’s account, where everyone had lots of money and everything was “fabulous.” The thought of escaping Oklahoma’s oppressive heat and the incessant noise of locusts was enough to make me want to go. The thought of the beach was perfectly enticing.

On a warm day in early summer, Mama took me to the bus station to see me off. We stood on the pavement outside of the bus terminal where the buses were lined up like elephants in a circus. Some were silent, some roared. Clouds of vapor escaped their tail pipes. Mama seemed emotional. I was grateful for the noise and the excuse to say nothing. I tried to be cool. I had recently transformed from a gawky, geeky tomboy to a reasonably pretty girl, and I wasn’t used to it. I was slender and tall for a girl, with blonde hair, blue eyes, good skin, beautiful teeth, and unusually fine facial bones. Adults sometimes commented on my looks — not always in a way that pleased me. My best friend Karen’s grandmother said I had changed “from an ugly duckling into a swan.” I was mortified.

As I settled into my seat on the bus, I looked down at Mama, who was waving me goodbye. She seemed anxious to get my attention, anxious for me to wave to her. I felt embarrassed because I wanted to be sophisticated. I wanted to have everyone think that I was used to traveling. She waved a little more frantically. I felt distant from her as if the window of the bus had separated us forever. I thought, Now you need me. Where were you when I needed you? I gave her only a little smile, no wave goodbye. Then I turned my head and looked around the bus as it pulled away from the station. I felt a sense of power, but a loss too — a loss of innocence.

The bus trip was long and dirty; it was 30 hours to San Diego from OKC. A young man caught my eye then came over and sat next to me (I must have smiled a little). I was flattered. He talked a lot, about himself. I was bored. He put his arm around me. I pulled myself in, wishing he would go away. I looked out the window at flat farmland, mountains, mesas, vast blue skies, and fluffy white clouds. Finally he got off at a small station in New Mexico. Departures and arrivals were announced by the hollow sounds of strong male voices: “Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Kingman, Needles, Los Angeles.” I ate dry sandwiches and drank Cokes. My behind was sore. I was alone but not unhappy.

Uncle Hugh was at the station to meet me. He was getting a little bald and his eyes looked tired, but his smile was still as sweet and his gentle voice familiar. We drove a long time in their old station wagon. He talked about the project he was working on at Convair — about the wind tunnel, strain gauges, and other things I’d never heard of. Occasionally he paused to name a place of interest — the Marine Corps Depot, Mission Bay, Pacific Beach — in his soft, slow voice. I made an effort to pay attention, but mostly I looked out the window at palm trees glittering green in the sun, blue sky, occasional glimpses of the ocean, and orderly rows of houses with plain, treeless yards.

For the first time since I left home, I felt lonely and anxious.

When we arrived in La Jolla, lawns and plantings become lush and architecture varied as if the atmosphere allowed a freer growth of flora and imagination.

We turned onto Bonair Street. Theirs was a plain stucco house. The lawn grass bare in places and littered with toys. The planting beds were a jungle of banana trees and birds of paradise. Jane and the kids greeted us at the door. She was holding Andre, the youngest boy. His hair and eyes were light brown like Hugh’s. The oldest boy, Walt, was six. He was the spit and image of Hugh. The girls and Val were very blonde and blue-eyed. All were tan. Jane still looked youthful, full-breasted, and pretty. The sun-streaks in her tousled strawberry-blonde hair and her many freckles were the only indications of change I could see.

With only a hint of reproach in her voice, she joked lightly that theirs was the oldest and poorest house in La Jolla. Then they took me on a “cook’s tour.” Two ducks in the back yard were there to entertain the kids and eat snails. Jane declared that walking barefoot out there was dangerous because of all the duck poop. Overhead lathe covered the back part of the small yard. Uncle Hugh pointed out plants I’d never seen nor heard of: passion vine, tree fern, bougainvillea. An aviary housed tiny pretty finches that cheeped constantly.

The house smelled like soured milk, toast, coffee, and faintly of dirty diapers. They showed me my room, the sunroom just off the living room.

Always there was the smell of the ocean in the background.

Piles of clean laundry waited to be folded and ironed. Days were filled with fixing meals, cleaning up after meals, changing diapers, doing laundry, ironing, and endless talk.

Jane told me, in her high nasal voice, about her courtship with Hugh, back at Oklahoma University. She told me that she’d told him he was the first man she’d ever made out with. Then later she’d told him about making out with another guy and he got really mad. He told her to never lie to him again.

She said that Hugh was a virgin when they married. I told her I didn’t believe that any man who’d reached the age of 30 could be a virgin. She said that the Ladies Home Journal recently had an article that said often men were virgins when they married. I laughed and said, “Do you really believe what they say in the Ladies Home Journal?”

“Yes, I do!” she yelled. I laughed again, said she was falling for propaganda. Then she threw the carton of milk she was taking from the refrigerator to the floor, and as milk sprayed across the room, she cried that I wasn’t to question the Ladies Home Journal to her again. I didn’t.

During their courtship, Hugh and Jane got the idea that they would have a dozen children after they saw Cheaper by the Dozen (a movie about a man who was an efficiency expert, and his wife, who had a dozen children, all of whom turned out to be geniuses because their father was so efficient). So there were up to six and joking about it. I thought they were crazy.

She talked about how it didn’t seem quite right that her parents were wealthy, and there they were struggling to get by. Her father had been a rather mediocre engineer, and they lived hand to mouth for years before he finally realized he would have to get off his butt and do something independent of the company if there were to get ahead. He started his own business and succeeded. She knew that if Hugh would just try harder, he could do the same.

At night, after the kids were in bed, the three of us sat in the breakfast nook talking about ideas for a business, about what it would be like to be wealthy.

Hugh laughed about the size of their family. He said, “People at work ask me how many children we have. I tell them six. Then they ask me if we’re Catholic. I tell them no. Then they ask if we’re Mormon. And I tell them, ‘No, we’re just morons.’” We all thought that was pretty funny, especially Hugh.

One night Uncle Hugh told a story about an experience he had while he was an MP in the Army, stationed in China. “I was in a train station. I went to the restroom and found a bunch of guys raping a girl. I pulled them off her, helped her up, and led her out of the restroom.” He smiled as if pleased with himself. And for some reason I felt betrayed

Two weeks after I arrived, Jane announced that we would go to the beach. We fixed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, lemonade, bananas and oranges, then walked barefoot on warm pavement carrying blankets, towels, and lunch down Bonair Street to the beach.

The children skipped ahead singing, “This Old Man.” We passed rental courts surrounded by Hollywood junipers and small white stuccoed houses with red-tiled roofs and flower beds filled with hibiscus, roses, petunias, geraniums, and ivy. We could see the ocean from the street. At the street’s end, we stopped and looked down at the beach.

Huge, flat rocks lay slightly above the sand the length of the beach. Green and blue water swirled, heaved, and rolled into waves then transformed into heavy white surf crashing against the rocks. Teenage boys with surfboards dominated the north end where the surf was roughest.

The sky was a pale blue. The sun bathed everything with clear light. The breeze was cool and smelled like the ocean. Everything and everyone had a transparent, timeless quality as in a dream. I could not have imagined a happier place to be.

We walked to the southern end, where the surf was less violent, and laid our bright bedspread, towels, and lunch on the sand between the massive rocks. The children draped their bodies with kelp and danced around each other while we lay on our towels, warmed by the sun, hypnotized into a state of bliss by the ocean’s rhythmic shush and thump. Occasionally we turned, applied fresh tanning lotion to our pale bodies, and looked around for the children. We went into the water briefly to cool off. I wanted to go out farther and swim but was afraid of the water’s powerful movement. When eventually I worked up the nerve, wading and paddling through the surf to the calm swells, I floated in the midst of sunlight, sparkling water, sky, cries of gulls, and exulted in the wonder of it all.

Several days later we were in the living room. I was ironing. Jane was looking for a casserole recipe to fix for dinner. Gini, May, and Anne burst in the front door carrying bouquets of flowers. They were dancing with excitement.

“Mommy, look! Look what we brought you!” May cried.

“Where did you get those flowers?” Jane frowned.

May answered, “We picked them at the neighbor’s.”

“Did she give them to you?”

No one spoke. Suddenly Jane’s concern turned to rage.

“Don’t you ever do that again,” she screamed. “How many times do I have to tell you not to take things that aren’t yours?”

She hit them all several times as they screamed and cried. I stood there, mouth agape, feeling guilty. In mid-August, I returned to Oklahoma the way I had come, to start school the day after Labor Day.

The next spring, Mama once more made plans with Uncle Hugh and Aunt Jane for me to spend the summer in La Jolla. No doubt it relieved her considerably the year before. I didn’t mind.

The weekend after school was out, Mama and Aunt Clara took me to the train station to take the “milk train” to La Jolla. Mama said it was called the milk train because it used to stop at every small town to pick up milk. It took three days to go from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles, She thought it was funny it was called that and funny it took so long. I think Mama especially liked to think of herself as above the “hicks” in Oklahoma; to her, milk trains were hicky.

As we waited on the platform for the train to stop, amidst the other departing passengers, the luggage carts, and the porters, Aunt Clara said, “Be sure, when you wipe, to wipe front to back — so you don’t get a bladder infection.” I thought it was an odd thing for her to say.

After arranging my things under my seat and in the overhead rack, I went to the club car and played poker for matches with men, the window at the plains and mountains, drank 7-Ups, and let my mind drift with the clouds.

By the second day, I knew something was wrong. I kept going to the toilet to pee. Very little came out. Then I peed blood and felt weak and feverish. I stayed in the toilet all the last day on the train.

The train finally arrived in San Diego on Saturday. While standing on the brick platform, I told Hugh and Jane I was sick. They took me home and put me to bed, then took me to the doctor on Monday. They did tests, put chalky fluid in my veins using a huge syringe and needle, and X-rayed my body. The doctor told Jane I had a bad kidney and nephritis, which was very serious, and that I should be in the hospital. However, the local hospital was full and I could stay at home as long as they took me to the doctor each day for penicillin shots. I lay and slept, had chills, a fever, and very entertaining hallucinations. In one, I was God. I hovered over the United States and checked out the cities. They were dirty and dingy. I didn’t like that, so I played with the architecture and made colorful tiled walls on the tall buildings, put in lots of large glass windows, ’50s style. All this with eyes open.

The children came in frequently and asked me why I was still in bed. Jane got me up daily, loaded me in the car, and took me to the doctor for my penicillin shot.

In a few weeks, the infection was gone, and Mama came out to take me home for my operation.

Two years later, I called Uncle Hugh and Aunt Jane collect from a phone booth in Albuquerque. They responded with a bus ticket to La Jolla and a Western Union moneygram for 20 bucks. I had been bouncing around New Mexico and drinking a lot, after birthing my first child without benefit of marriage.

On the bus, with every mile that passed, the landscape and sky drew me in, and I felt a growing sense of relief.

Jane had given birth again — six months before — to a boy with red hair and green eyes, like her own. He was unlike any of the other children. His name was John.

She told me of her difficult delivery and that the doctor said she couldn’t have any more. Then she told me how she had suffered from homicidal urges and fantasies after his birth, terrified of bring around knives, afraid she would stab someone because that was the bent of her fantasies.

She said that when that awful period of hormonal adjustment had passed, she played a trick on Hugh.

“When he was out in the garage one night, I smeared catsup all over myself and the kitchen floor, making an artful mess,” she giggled. “I lay down in the catsup with a knife in my hand and arranged myself very carefully. Then I screamed — as dramatically as I could — ‘Hugh! Hugh!’ He came running in, saw me, and cried, ‘Oh my God! Honey! What have you done to yourself?’ I laughed and laughed. He was very upset with me for scaring him like that.” She still seemed pleased with her trick, with his horror.

During our afternoon coffee klatches, while the children were napping, Jane, her sister Faye, and Elsie, the neighbor up the street, discussed my future. Everyone seemed intent on making sure that I got a job and “found my niche.” I felt pressured. I resented the intrusion into my privacy, did not want to have my fate decided by committee, but I couldn’t come p with an alternative. So, the plan was for me to find a job — and soon.

A few days after arriving, I went looking for a job. I walked around downtown La Jolla, looking at everything, smelling fresh pastries, flowers, and sea air, feeling the sun and breeze soft against my skin. A German watch repairman sat working at his bench in his tiny shop. A French restaurant stated its presence with a small brass plaque, set in a white stuccoed wall next to a gate. Pink bougainvillea spilled over the wall.

On a side street, I visited a bicycle shop specializing in ten-speed racers — the first I’d seen — and entertained the idea of asking to apprentice as a bike repairman. But the silent stares of lean young men in shorts let me know I was not welcome as a customer, much less a worker.

I passed Anthony’s Fish Grotto, a fish restaurant with an aquarium set in the front stone wall. La Valencia Hotel loomed — the huge pink stucco hotel with a gold dome, green awnings, and geraniums in planters — on a cliff overlooking the Cove.

On Girard Avenue, shops with elegant clothing in display windows tastefully announced high price tags. I felt good just being there.

At Sanderson’s, an expensive women’s clothing store, I applied for a job as a model. Mr. Sanderson, a distinguished, middle-aged man, said he liked my style and that I didn’t wear makeup. He gave me a job — starting the next day.

Jane helped me get ready for work the next morning. She applied her foundation, liner, mascara, and lipstick with skill and made sure that I was girdled, brassiered, pantyhosed, and coiffed. I only faintly protested. She seemed so sure of herself and the propriety of it all.

At the store, I changed outfits many times. The sales ladies helped me put together outfits, accessories, and shoes. I greeted customers, showed them what I was wearing, and moved on — embarrassed in a way. One older lady told me, “You will never be spoiled.” I wondered if my embarrassment was so obvious.

Mr. Sanderson called me into his office the next day; he seemed uncomfortable. He told me he had found makeup on some of the clothes. I was surprised, because I had taken care when I pulled the dresses over my head. He asked me not to wear makeup anymore.

The next day, I told Jane I wasn’t supposed to wear makeup. But she insisted that a lady always wore makeup when she dressed up. I gave in and she put on less makeup that time. And I was extra careful not to get makeup on the clothes. But it didn’t work. Mr. Sanderson called me into his office once again and told me that he couldn’t keep me because I had gotten makeup on more clothes. I felt bad but strangely relieved. No more having to pretend that I was a model, a pretty girl, a girl to be admired.

Later that week, during one of our coffee breaks, I told Aunt Jane that I was “gay.” (I didn’t know that it wasn’t a good idea to announce one’s homosexuality if one wanted to live with one’s relatives.) She stopped in the middle of chewing her coffeecake. After swallowing roughly, she said, “It must be a phase you’re going through.” I protested. It’s not — really. I’ve always felt this way. I just faked liking boys.”

She said in her quavery voice, “You need to spend more time with men. When women spend too much time with women, they become attracted to each other.”

I wondered if she knew that from her own experience.

According to her, I would do well to start dating — men, that is. I argued with her that being “gay” was as good as being “straight” — it just wasn’t conventional — and that it was an excellent form of birth control. She didn’t think that was as funny as I did.

A few days later, I got a job at a cleaning establishment. The first few days I sorted laundry, then they moved me to the sweater tables, and I used a little brush to remove pilled wool from clean sweaters. Then they had me move cleaned clothes from the second floor by way of a rack, to the first floor, in the loading area. I was in a stupor. The voices of Jane and Faye and Elsie were in my cars, like bees droning – “Get a job, fit in, find your niche.” I didn’t hook the pulley to the rack right, and the whole mess tilted and the clothes slid down the pole. I was again out of a job. And again relieved.

Uncle Hugh had started a business with two friends from the plant, Frank and Geoffrey. They were brothers — engineers who had come here from England with their parents. They made high-quality modern furniture in Uncle Hugh’s garage in the evenings and on weekends. My other uncle, Uncle Oscar, was designing the furniture. Uncle Hugh had a knack for making things, very precise and very pretty. Uncle Oscar had a knack for designing just about anything. They hoped to make a go of it. After dinner Uncle Hugh and Frank and Geoffrey would go to the garage to make furniture. Then, about 11 or 12 o’clock, they would come in for a beer and talk about the future. Sometimes I went out to the garage to see if they would let me help. Once Hugh gave me some hardware to deburr. Because I felt awkward with the deburring tool and the meal (I really wanted to do some woodworking), I said that I was just playing. Frank said that’s how one learned. I thought it was an unusual thing to say.

One day Frank asked me to go to a party with him. He took me to an apartment near the beach. Everyone there was either from England or Europe. I felt very out of place — not quite old enough, or good enough. At some point in the evening, I heard one of the women saying something that sounded immature, and I remarked to Frank that she needed to grow up. He said that could apply to me too. I was certain then that he didn’t like me, and I was ashamed I’d made the faux pas.

On the way home, he talked about one of the women there. He said that she hadn’t decided yet which way to fly. I asked him what he meant. He said she seemed to like girls as much as boys. Then I felt a twinge of fear and a remoteness. I wondered how I could meet the woman he spoke of.

He asked me to go to the desert with him and a couple of his friends that I’d met at the party. We drove together in his van. We would meet his friends later. Using aircraft hardware, he had outfitted his van with fold-down beds and a port in the floor for a toilet. I felt intimidated by him — his beard and longish hair and quiet demeanor. I wondered why he asked me to do things with him. He didn’t seem interested in rushing me off to bed. I thought he might have been nice to me because of his friendship with Hugh. We poked around an abandoned mining camp — old trucks, Model A’s, aprons on racks and boots on the floor beneath them, crusher boxes intact. We met his friends and hiked through a scrub forest of what looked like burned rosewood and a lot of decomposing granite boulders. We stayed one night in the desert, he in his bunk and me in mine.

I spent a little more time with him. We went to his house and I met his parents, who were having a lunch of boiled potatoes. I thought it was an odd way to eat, but they were British and that probably explained it.

I felt remote through all of this — as I weren’t really there, as if I were an observer, with no real volition and could no more reveal myself to him or anyone else than I could fly.

I was out “looking for a job” one day when I met a young man who introduced himself as Mitch. Mitch was an actor. He said he had grown up in Chicago and started life as a bookie and street hustler. Then the took some classes in acting and ended up in California doing little theater up and down the coast, hoping for a break. He asked me to go someplace with him. He stopped and got some wine. We ended up at the beach that night, loaded, trying to have sex on the sand. After a few attempts and more than a little abrasion, we dressed and walked up the stairs to the cliff. A policeman came by and asked us what we were doing there. Mitch said he was “getting a little pussy on the beach.” I was embarrassed and later asked him why he’d said that. He said it was the kind of answer “they” expected. I assumed he knew what he was doing. I certainly didn’t.

He came by the house one night around 12:30, after everyone was in bed. He stood outside my bedroom window and asked me to go to the beach with him. I climbed out the window, and we drove down to Mission Bay. We drank wine and talked, then undressed in the weeds and swam in the bay. We tried to have sex in the water — like in a movie — but it didn’t work too well.

A few nights later, he took me to a party. He explained that it was a sex party, but I didn’t have to participate if I didn’t want to. It was a bunch of actors and actresses — friends of his. I got pretty loaded and followed the crowd. I had sex with two or three guys — Mitch included. I wondered if that was there was to it. It didn’t seem like much to me.

One night there was a familiar rap at he window — I thought it was Mitch, but it wasn’t. It was two guys I’d never met before. They said they were at the party the other night and wanted to know if I’d like to go to a party with them. I put on my clothes and climbed out the window. By the time we got there, I was pretty loaded. No one was there. One of them put on some music (Errol Gardner), and the other made some drinks (rum and Coke). I danced a little, and then they asked me to take off my clothes. I did, and danced some more. Then one of them told me to lie down and spread my legs. I didn’t like what he said or the tone of his voice, so I said no. He said, “Yes,” and grabbed my shoulders. I slapped him. He hit me and I saw stars. I hit him back, this time with my fist. We exchanged more blows, and I ended up on the floor with one of them on top of me. I locked my legs together. One of them said, “Cut off her air.” The other one choked me. I refused to give in. Finally one of them said, “Let’s take her home.” And they did.

The next morning I was a mess, hung over, both eyes black, bruises here and there. Uncle Hugh asked me what happened. We sat in the living room, and I told him a couple of guys had tried to rape me. He talked to them. He told them the story, and he came back and told me they were justified because I got drunk and took off my clothes; I got myself into the situation. He said that I shouldn’t expect sympathy. I didn’t especially, but I was pleased that I’d defended myself and blackened their eyes.

Mitch was pretty upset. He went and got in a fight with them. They beat him up. Then they told him everything. When he returned he told me he thought I couldn’t’ be true to anyone. I never saw him again.

Nothing much that happened in my life to that point had really made any sense to me. I didn’t expect to have control over my life. Being humiliated wasn’t new to me; this was just another dose of it. I hoped the kids hadn’t noticed anything. I pretended nothing had happened and I made plans. I thought I needed to be in a place where I would be controlled 24 hours a day — a safe place where I would get an education and get prepared for life. So I decided to join WAVES. At least there would be lots of other “gay women” there (we called lesbians “gay women” in those days).

I took the bus to the Naval Recruitment Center in San Diego. On the way, I imagined myself driving a convertible along the coast at sunset with the top down, a beautiful woman on the seat next to me, the radio playing jazz sax — real movie stuff.

They gave me aptitude tests and told me I scored high. Then they said that because I was underage, my mother would have to sign the papers. I called and told her my plan. She came out two weeks later.

The recruiter told Mama that I was smart (I glowed) but that I was (that hurt — it was the sort of thing that Mama used to love to say to me). Then he started asking me questions about my health.

“Have you had any major operations?”

I’d had my kidney removed.

He closed my folder and aid, “That settles it, the Navy can’t use you because you’re damaged goods.” He seemed pleased.

After he left, Mama asked me if I wanted to move home and finish high school. She said she’d cleared it with Hank. She said it would help me get a decent job. I agreed. I couldn’t think of a better plan.

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