Our Only Summer
Uncle Sal was in the favor business, whatever that meant.
1963, a nice sunny day in Long Beach, California. Uncle Tony (Tony Knobs as he’s known by his crew) has persuaded me to help him steal a pistol from a department store on the boulevard. The store, an old wooden behemoth, was a four alarm fire waiting to happen. I’m up on the second floor in the sporting goods department, pretending to be interested in fishing gear in an isle next to the gun display. The clerk is showing Tony different pistols from the long L shaped glass counter. After looking at three or four pistols Tony asks the clerk to show him the correct holster from a rack across the isle. That’s my signal, grab any pistol that is within reach, put it in my pocket, walk to the fire escape three isles down and climb out. We are to meet at his car parked around the corner.
Worked exactly as he said it would, no one chased me, no yells to stop or I’ll shoot. We pulled off the perfect job, almost. I had grabbed a .22 caliber revolver. Uncle Tony was clearly disgusted. “You took the smallest one they had, I can't use this.” I didn’t know what to say. I’d gone from feeling like one of his crew to a mutt who’d soiled the carpet. Uncle Tony swore me to secrecy, then roared off in his red Corvette, leaving me with a handful of change as payment. Not so bad. Now I had money for the penny arcades down at The Pike, enough to last the rest of the day.
I was twelve years old, never in one place long enough to get comfortable, bounced between aunts-uncles and grandma, and all of them were in various stages of crazy. I really missed my mom.
In the sixteen years that I knew my mother, we had only lived together a few times, for a few years. Never long enough for me, always to long for her. A child just didn’t fit into her plans. She was nearly six feet tall, and perfectly proportioned. A foot shorter and she could have easily doubled as a young Elizabeth Taylor. You couldn’t help but notice how people stared at her, a kind of magic that was effortless for her. To keep her figure trim, she only ate one meal a day, the rest of her diet consisted entirely of liquids, Vodka mostly. She was high strung and fast. A good match to her beloved horses at Santa Anita.
On my thirteenth birthday, mom announced to the family that she was moving me into her duplex in Redondo, her bachelor pad. I think grandma had put her foot down, dealing with her own four boys and their crew was plenty trouble enough. To celebrate, (everything was justified by the word celebrate) mom took me to her favorite watering hole in Hollywood. Whenever I accompanied her on these trips I stayed in the lounge, reading or playing Solitaire with my favorite drink at hand, a Roy Rodger with two cherries.
On this occasion mom led me into the bar and announced that it was The Wardens thirteenth birthday. I hated the nickname, and what it meant, but the name stuck. The Hollywood types she ran with were a mixed lot, I never felt they were anything but hunters, only liked her because she was beautiful. I loved her, loved her as so many other children have loved an abusive parent. I tried hard to protect her whenever I could, but fate goes where it wants, and destroys anyone it cares to.
I tell you about these incidents so you can understand who I was, and so you understand how it could all happen.
Redondo Beach, my first time at an upscale location. We were on Uncle James' (Jimmy Ocean) turf here, mom's big brother, head of the family. A quiet man who liked to tell me war stories. He owned liquor stores and a vending machine company. Redondo was so much better than Long Beach ever was, like being given a $100 bill after a life of pocket change. Real waves for body surfing, hot rods, beach bunnies and music everywhere. This place was so cool, they even had a little Bakery truck that went through the neighborhood in the mornings selling cake, donuts, anything you could get at a pastry shop. That truck wouldn't have lasted one day in my old neighborhood. I had my own running tab that was taken care of by Uncle James. The beach was so close I could hold my breath and make it to the sand from our duplex. Any further south and we would be in Palos Verdes Estates, Riche Rich land. I had free run of the entire three mile stretch of beach, from Malaga Cove to the Redondo Beach Pier, and there was always something happening on the beach or pier.
The first two months went pretty smooth. Mom was rarely home and when she was, it was to catch up on sleep. She would leave instructions on what not to do on the kitchen table with a couple of ones or a five dollar bill depending on how long she’d be gone. During those eight weeks I'd managed to infiltrate most of the neighbors garages looking for goodies. You learn a lot about people from what they store in their garages. The six connecting garages of the duplexes contained mostly boring junk. But the guy who had the unit under ours, his was a treasure trove of ammo, scopes, binoculars, and Playboy magazines. I spent hours, days, reading the stories and looking at the women. I learned a lot of things, all of them probably wrong.
I suppose I began to understand why my mother was the way she was. Drinking, smoking, and being sexy was what cool people did, she was part of the jet set. I knew she dated some big names in television, I never saw them, but Uncle Tony would tell me, he loved anything Hollywood.
There was only one unbreakable rule in my world, don’t get caught. Nothing can ever be traced back to mom or the family. Always run. Fake name, wrong address, anything so they don’t know who I am or where I live. I had a handful of hiding places. I even had a cave, ten feet above the beach, carved into the soft cliffs where the sand beach ended and turned to a rock peninsula, it was big enough for me to sit in and not be seen from the beach.
Whenever there was a problem mom couldn’t handle (there weren’t many), she would call one of her brothers, usually Uncle Sal. Uncle Sal was like a big brother, we were like twins separated by some freak time travel accident. Sal was huge, 6’6″ 400lbs, nobody messed with him. He had the practiced look of an enforcer, a hard, dead look. If the plane he was in was crashing, he would probably get up out of his seat to find a better view.
Sal always called me Baby Huey, after the goony cartoon character, I hadn’t grown into my height gracefully. I was clumsy, and always stubbing my toe or hitting my head on something. People assumed we were father and son. He was the only one who understood what it was like to not fit in. He once told me he’d rather be a fisherman, but the family needed him to do what he did best, persuade. We got along great, but his word was law, if he said don’t, you didn’t. One of his favorite jokes was, “I like kids, I just don’t think I can eat a whole one.” Whenever I saw him, I would get that gut knot, waiting for the initial eye contact that would signal good or evil tidings. You didn’t want to disappoint him, and you couldn’t fool him. He gave mom the new ’63 Chevy Impala convertible that she drove, a car dealer owed him a favor. Uncle Sal was in the favor business, whatever that meant.