Before moving to the Monterey Peninsula, my parents lived on Citrus Avenue in Los Angeles. Wilshire-Crest Elementary Public School was three city blocks from our house, and I attended kindergarten there when as a five-year old. My mother would give me a dime to buy a six-ounce waxed paper container of orange juice, or a nickel for a half-pint of milk.
My teacher was named Mrs. Savage. I was scared of her. I think some of the other kids were, too – she was pretty confrontational for a kindergarten teacher. One day, Mrs. Savage was banging rhythmically on a drum while all of us kids sat in a circle watching and keeping time by silently tapping our extended index fingers together. For some reason, Mrs. Savage had to leave the room for a few minutes. When she returned, she yelled angrily at the room full of five-year olds, “Why didn’t none of you kids keep banging on that drum while I was out!?”
I doubt any of us had even considered this possibility. Any kid who touched that drum while she was gone, would likely have assumed that they were taking their life in their hands. I was so frightened by her outbursts – she was scary!
I learned to read at an early age, while I was still attending Mr. Fine’s nursery school. When I was in Mrs. Savage’s kindergarten class, she taught us the ABCs. I told her that I already knew how to read. She told me that I couldn’t possibly know how to read because I was only in kindergarten. I didn’t know what to say. I had a hard-enough time arguing about reality with my own mother; let alone my scary teacher.
That winter, my father attended an open house at Wilshire-Crest School of Mrs. Savage’s kindergarten class. Meeting Mrs. Savage in person confirmed my father’s belief that she was (as he put it) “an illiterate,” and I was promptly removed from her class.
My father’s own father had escaped the horrors of Russia at a time when Russians weren’t welcome in the United States. As a teenager, Grandpa had traveled from Russia to Argentina, where he purchased a dead man’s passport that allowed him to illegally enter the United States. In New York City, he worked as a carpenter, got married, and raised children. Three decades later, when his son graduated from law school, he finally became a naturalized citizen.
His son, my father, was born in New York City, in 1927. He grew up in a ghetto of in Brooklyn, during the Great Depression. He was a product of the New York City Public School system. He had risen above the gangs, and tenements, and the poverty, and the blue-collar jobs – and graduated from Brooklyn Law School. He was going make damn sure his kids got a better education than he had. He was an irreligious man. The only God he – or anyone else in my family – worshiped was Education.
I entered first grade in 1966. My brother Matthew, fourteen months younger than me, and I were enrolled in an expensive Christian-oriented, private academy in Los Angeles called The Buckley School, which was mostly attended by the children of movie stars, wealthy businessmen, and other sorts of social “climbers”. My classmates included the children of Eartha Kitt, Blake Edwards, Nat King Cole, Clark Gable, and Dick York, and the nephew of Telly Savalas.
For any first grader, the Buckley School’s dress code was a wardrobe challenge: a dark blue wool tailored blazer, and gray wool dress trousers with the crease, purchased from Harris and Frank, a pricey men’s clothier on nearby Wilshire Boulevard. We had to wear pointy black leather dress shoes made by Bally in Switzerland, an ironed white cotton, button-down shirt, and a necktie with alternating red and gray stripes – the school colors.
Being six years old, I involuntarily outgrew the whole uniform, shoes and all, before Valentine’s Day, and had to be re-outfitted. My parents must have spent a fortune, just on the clothes.
Buckley School was on the east side of Doheney Drive in Beverly Hills, half a block south of the Sunset Strip. Here I was, six years old, in a suit and tie and leather shoes, playing dodge ball on the playground at recess with my elementary school contemporaries, while hippies and flower children were parading up and down the street on the other side of the chain-link fence, protesting the war in Vietnam.
I liked my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Reading, but the homework was a challenge. I remember my mother telling me that one of my classmates, a brainy kid named Bryan Winter, would read the encyclopedia after school in his spare time. At that age, reading the encyclopedia for me was boring – who had “spare time” for that? In Mrs. Reading’s class I sat in front of a girl named Kelly Moran, who was an extremely bright six-year old. When Mrs. Reading asked a question, Kelly Moran always raised her hand, immediately, confident that she knew the answer. I was aware, even at the time, that I was out of my league.
In preparation for the school open house, a night when all of the parents would come and visit the classroom, Mrs. Reading had each student make a three-foot long, two-dimensional, full body, paper self-portrait, which we colored with crayons. I had a difficult time with this project: it was very intimidating. Somehow, I expect perfection in my art, but I only had the coordination of a first grader. I remember my frustration trying to find a crayon that matched color of my skin – I settled for one called “Flesh” which was sort of a peach color. I was so dissatisfied and ashamed of the paper doppelgänger of me that sat at my desk on the night of the open house.
My parents were unfamiliar with the concept of “monkey see, monkey do.” They enjoyed tobacco and alcohol, while in the midst of smoking and drinking, would sternly advise me, without irony, never to smoke or drink. I was a fast learner.
My father, a career labor lawyer, once spoke to me about the concept of justice. “Don’t drive faster than the speed limit,” he explained, “if you can’t afford to pay the fine.” It was an interesting double-standard, which I quickly incorporated into my worldview.
My parents had arbitrary rules which were strictly enforced. The only way I could live unrestricted by these rules, was by learning to lie very convincingly. In an effort to gain my liberty, like the Slave tricking his Master, I became a very accomplished liar. I had a lot of God-given acting skills which I willfully exploited to this end. My Criminal Mind had been activated.
In their efforts to get me to confess to some infraction of their rules, my parents (like detectives in an episode of Dragnet) would intone, “Nobody ever got in trouble for telling the truth.” When I took the risk to test this hypothesis, I discovered immediately that punishment and restriction of liberty could be a severe and sudden consequence for telling the truth. So, I refrained from doing so at every subsequent opportunity.
By the time I entered the third grade, the Buckley School had moved to a newly constructed campus in Encino, way out in the San Fernando Valley, far, far away. My brother Matthew and I were picked up on the curb in front of our home each morning by a yellow school bus. The bus ride took forever. We rode the bus with the children of the late Nat King Cole.
My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Spurr was an older woman who was a widow. Once, she gave me an old brass hole punch which she said had belonged to her late husband. Though I kept it and used it for many decades; it’s now lost and gone.
Each morning, Mrs. Spurr would collect our completed homework from the previous evening. While we sat at our desks and studied our textbooks, she would grade the homework papers we brought back to school that morning. After lunch, she placed the graded homework into a wire basket which was passed up and down the aisles of desks, throughout the class. Each student would remove their own graded homework page from the basket.
My Criminal Mind was so well-developed by this time, I quickly discerned that Mrs. Spurr had no system for keeping track of whether a given student had (or had not) turned in their homework. She merely collected a bunch of pages, graded each page in the stack, and then allowed the students to claim their own work from the basket. When the basket was empty, she was done.
Once I figured this out, I stopped doing homework at all – I never turned in another paper – and she never even noticed. Not once!
This went on for the remainder of third grade. I felt terribly guilty because my parents were paying a boatload of money for my education at one of the most expensive private schools in all of Southern California. Since I received the same amount of praise, whether I completed the homework or not, I simply had no incentive to actually do it. If we had been studying criminology, I would have certainly gotten an “A+.”
I suspect the Criminal Mind develops in bright children who are bored with their schoolwork or chores. I would try to invent games that would make the mandatory less mundane. The Criminal Mind manifested in other ways, as well. I had my emotional needs invalidated so many times as a child, I learned to lie and exaggerate in an attempt to get my story inflated enough to gain the desired recognition. This trait has followed me all my life, well into adulthood. I still find that, if I am not being mindful, I may exaggerate the facts, when I fear that my unembellished statement won’t have sufficient weight. It’s a hard habit to break.
Tall tales are a storytelling staple: everybody has a story about a fish they caught – and the fish gets bigger and bigger every time they tell the story. As kids, we liked a Dr. Seuss book about a boy who liked to exaggerate called, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street. I could relate.
After I completed third grade at Buckley School, my parents separated and my mother, my two younger brothers, and I, move to Pacific Grove, California, on the Monterey Peninsula.
I don’t recall how it transpired, but my mother became aware of how bored I was about my fourth-grade class and my teacher, Mrs. Smith at Robert H. Down Elementary School, in Pacific Grove. After three years at the Buckley school, Mrs. Smith’s class at Robert Down was dreadfully dull.
Within a month, I was transferred to another campus, Forest Grove Elementary School that was twice as far from our house and uphill all the way. But it was a better fit for me.
I was now labeled a “gifted” student and labels made me feel uncomfortable. My new teacher was a Bohemian fellow named Bruce Hayes, who taught fourth-grade in classroom B-4. My new classmates were also designated “gifted” students – that is to say, what we all had in common was that we hadn’t really thrived in the conventional public school classrooms of 1969. The students in other classrooms (who were not “gifted”) thought that those of us in Mr. Hayes’ class were weird. And, to a certain extent, they were right.
Using a city map, I plotted a course to ride my bike right up Eardly Drive, which was very steep, that led right to the new school. My parents were splitting up. My mom was pretty angry. Life at home was a drag.
Consequently, I would awaken at 4:30 am, and leave the house before anyone else was up. Riding my bicycle along upper Lighthouse Avenue, which at that hour, was only illuminated by the moon and the occasional corner streetlights. I would stop at the Scotch Bakery – the only business open in downtown Pacific Grove at 5:00 am. For a quarter, I would purchase one glazed raised donut. The lovely woman who worked the counter (and likely made the donuts) would always sneak six glazed donut holes into my bag, free of charge, arming me with enough sugar to feed a colony of bees. Then, I would pedal up Congress Avenue to the Forest Grove School campus. Before sunrise, Mr. Hayes was the only person on campus expect for the custodian.
One day I got in trouble for some perceived violation of my mother’s rules. My punishment was that I wasn’t allowed to go to school the following day. But just the same, I arose early while everyone was sleeping, slipped silently out of the house, and rode my bike to school anyway
Mr. Hayes was an alcoholic. Perhaps he was too drunk to grade papers in the evening (or too busy warming his favorite bar stool). He would arrive on campus every day at 5:00 am to grade the previous days classwork and prepare his study plan for the day ahead. So, it was just me and him, in the classroom, every morning, for several hours before the other kids would arrive. Just the two of us. He never asked about my home life; I imagine he didn’t have to. Perhaps I wasn’t the only student who had ever done this. It wasn’t his first rodeo, even if it was mine.
I was a capable student and learned quickly, in spite of my lack of confidence and the feeling of intimidation my classmates invoked.
I quickly made friends with my classmate David McCornack, who was an outlier, like me, and our friendship has lasted a lifetime. He was the youngest of four children. His brothers and sisters were each very accomplished and David’s goal was to be more accomplished than his siblings in something they hadn’t already mastered. At first, it seemed his objective was to be the most neurotic child in the family. Later in life, he became an accomplished fine artist and sculptor. His parents were teachers in the Pacific Grove school system. His mother, Pat, taught a class just a few rooms from Mr. Hayes. His dad taught at the junior high. I guess it is safe to say that David and I were both were nerds.
Mr. Hayes was a real character. Though only in his thirties, he had the weathered face of a fifty-year old sea captain. His unkempt hair, mustache, lapels, and shoulders were always well dusted with a layer of fresh dandruff. He was partial to tweed blazers with leather elbow patches. He smoked cherry flavored tobacco in a pipe. He drove a brown VW Micro-bus with the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima painted on the door. He was really great with the students and I liked him. No matter how much of a weirdo I thought I was, Mr. Hayes was clearly weirder. He was a bachelor and lived way out on Camp Steffani Road, in the Carmel Valley, a rural and rustic area on the banks of the Carmel River.
I heard a rumor from a classmate that there had once been a Mrs. Hayes. If there was, Mr. Hayes never mentioned it and neither did I.
Pacific Grove is the autumn home of the Monarch butterfly. The town had a law that levied a $500 fine for even touching a Monarch butterfly. The millions of migrating butterflies generated huge tourist trade. For as long as anybody I knew could remember, on a Saturday morning in October, the town staged a big Butterfly Parade. Each classroom in the entire school system selected a different costumed theme and marched in this parade. It was a local right-of-passage.
In 1969, Mr. Hayes selected his Butterfly Parade theme from Charles Schultz’s popular newspaper comic strip, Peanuts, which appeared daily in the Monterey Peninsula Herald. The children in the B-4 classroom would appear in the Butterfly Parade as Snoopy and Woodstock, all his little bird friends. This entailed each student fabricating and decorating a three-dimensional paper mâché chicken head to wear over their own, in the parade. I had perfectionist nightmare flashbacks to the full-body self-portraits from first grade.
Many of the kids, especially Steve Fremgen, made very realistic looking chicken heads out of chicken wire and paper-maché. I felt that mine looked pretty crude. When we marched in the parade, I felt ashamed of the crappy chicken head I was wearing. Mr. Hayes dressed as the farmer (a character who never appeared in the comic strip) wearing nothing but farm boots, blue coveralls, and a straw hat. As he marched in the parade, I observed that Mr. Hayes had the arms and legs and torso of a much younger man. His face seemed a generation older than his body. They say that you only live once, but apparently, if you do it right, once is enough.
At Forest Grove Elementary School, I did my best to make friends. I would purchase big bags of candy and pass them out to classmates, hoping they’d want to be my friend. Collecting and playing marbles was all the rage at that time. I had bags and bags of “cat-eyes,” “buttes” and “steelies.” I was small for my age and the bigger kids sometimes picked on me. After school one day, a few of the bigger kids picked me up by my feet and hands and tossed me down the hill from the football field. I skinned my knees on the ice plant that grew on the steep slopes. Well, at least, now I was getting some attention.
In 1970, Forest Grove Elementary School was surrounded by expansive stands of cypress and pine forest. I enjoyed walking in these woods after school. A number of my classmates lived in Pebble Beach, which was accessible through these woods. One morning, on my way to school, I found the decapitated head of a mature wild boar lying in a drainage ditch, likely discarded by hunters. A few years later, when I first saw the movie The Lord of Flies, my encounter with that severed boars head took on new dimensions of meaning.
Mr. Hayes ran what he called a “micro-society” in his classroom. Every morning, Mr. Hayes started his class with “Current Events.” Colored tickets, like the kind used on the carnival midway, represented various denominations of money and were distributed among the students. Unfortunately, in reality, this just increased the already competitive nature of fourth-grade existence. So, I started clipping out the weather forecast each day and reading it before the class. Eventually Mr. Hayes started slipping me 35 tickets a day for this.
As strange as it may sound, I moved my desk and chair into a small closet at the back of the B-4 classroom. I rigged a bare light bulb so that it hung over my desk and I could work in the tiny cupboard, with the door closed. And somehow, Mr. Hayes permitted this. I remember the experience when I stuck my finger into the bare light socket, part pleasure and part pain.
One time, Mr. Hayes took a class photo and wrote a descriptive word beneath each student’s picture. Beneath mine he wrote the word, “ludicrous.”
It was during this school year that some individual was widely quoted in the newspapers, predicting that California would to fall off into the ocean at 3:30 pm on a specific date. So, on that proscribed date, Mr. Hayes had all his students come to class wearing their life jackets. We waited in the classroom after school, but curiously, the state of California didn’t fall off into the ocean and, as of this writing, is still firmly attached to the North American continent. Shortly before dinnertime, we all went quietly to our respective homes. We’d all watched the moon landing on TV and we knew the difference between real news and fake news.
In fourth grade, Mr. Hayes introduced the class to Ray Bradbury’s book, The Martian Chronicles, which I read several times, introducing me to realm science fiction literature, which actually changed my life.
One weekend Mr. Hayes invited a few of his students to go sailing on the Monterey Bay in his tiny sailboat. I remember Chris Gidair and a couple of other boys came along, as well as Mr. Hayes’ dogs, Hubert and Humphrey. All of us kids donned life jackets. Mr. Hayes’ micro-sailboat was moored at Fisherman’s Wharf Marina, between the Coast Guard Pier and Fisherman Wharf #2.
It was incredible being out on the bay in a small boat. I felt both excited and a little frightened. At some point we sailed close to the breakwater at the end of the coast guard pier. On this breakwater resided about a hundred huge wild California sea lions. I had read in a library book that this marine mammal could hold its breath under water for ten minutes and could swim 25-miles per hour.
I don’t know how it happened, but the keel of the boat hit a submerged rock protruding from the breakwater and snapped right off. The boat foundered. In sort of a panic, Mr. Hayes commanded his juvenile passengers to climb into the frigid water and dog-paddle the short distance to the breakwater, while he attempted to pilot the unstable vessel to a safe mooring.
I remembered being wet and cold, soaked to the skin in my clothing, dog paddling in the water with the dogs, Hubert and Humphrey. The breakwater was constructed of Volkswagen microbus-sized boulders that were covered with the slickest, wettest, slipperiest moss imaginable. Being in the frigid ocean so far from shore was scary – but not as scary as having to negotiate a path around (and sometimes between) dozens of 700 lb. furiously barking sea lions, who inhabited the length of the breakwater that extended several hundred-foot long until it connected to the end of the Coast Guard Pier. As I slipped and stumbled over the mossy boulders, inhaling the fetid odor of rotten sea lion breath, I solemnly concluded that this would be my first and last small craft excursion on the Monterey Bay.
My late father was a labor lawyer. In the late 1970s, he represented local unions and union members in Monterey County. My dad told me that one day, my fourth-grade teacher, Bruce Hayes came to his office for a consultation. Mr. Hayes’ alcoholism had resulted in several DUI violations. My father told Mr. Hayes that if he got one more DUI, he would lose his job at the school. I have no idea what happened to him – I imagine that he got another ticket and was fired.
The Purity grocery store was two blocks from our house in Pacific Grove. They closed at 9:00 pm. After they closed, my brother and I would climb the fence in the parking lot and steal glass deposit soda bottles and carry the home. The next day we would carry them back to the Purity grocery store return them for the deposit, heading back to the house with a pocket full of nickels and dimes.
The summer before my six-grade year, a man named Bob Beck, who at that time owned the Tassajara Hot Springs, launched an Alternative Elementary school program at Del Rey Woods School, about five miles from our home. One of the teachers was Joyce Vandevere. Her husband Judd, was perhaps, the foremost authorities on the California Sea Otter, which had been considered extinct for a century and its population was then in recovery. The Vandeevere’s had a son named Keith, who was my age, and a daughter, Gwen who was a few years younger. They were among my classmates when I began attending the Alternative School.
I liked hanging out with Judd Vandevere. He would take Keith and me into interesting situations involving his work. When Phillipe Cousteau moored the Calypso II at Coast Guard Pier, Judd was invited aboard, and he took Keith and me with him.
When a marine mammal was in trouble, they usually called Judd. Once we visited a baby gray whale who’d gotten herself stuck between the piers at Fisherman’s Wharf. Another time we hand fed pounds and pounds of whole squid to a sea otter, whom we named Smashnose, who couldn’t dive for his own food because he couldn’t hold his breath – a boat propeller had mutilated his nose. Sea otters are pretty large, and it was an incredible experience holding him in my arms while feeding him his lunch, which consisted of several pounds of whole squid. Smashnose died and it was heartbreaking. I’ve never forgotten the time we spent with him. I wrote a remembrance of this experience at the time. Eleven-year old Keith Vandevere, who has been writing interesting non-fiction for half a century, wrote a short article about it and it was published in The Otter Raft, the Friends of the Sea Otter newsletter in the December 1970 issue.
The Vandeveres lived in a house overlooking a canyon in Monterey. I loved visiting their home. They kept ducks in a chicken-wire cage and I remember the raccoons and coyotes would break in and kill the ducks. I enjoyed hiking through the canyons with Keith among blackberry vines beneath the laurel trees and live oaks. I can close my eyes and summon that wonderfully unique smell of the canyon.
My two brothers and I were living on Central Avenue, in Pacific Grove, with my mother. She was taking an astronomy class at the Monterey Peninsula College. Her instructor was a man Homer Bosserman who had a dog named Dogma. Homer and his students would go on overnight astronomy field trips to Chews Ridge in the Los Padres National Forest. There, my mother became involved with a nineteen-year old astronomy student and soon he and my mother became lovers and roommates. It was now finally apparent that my parents were no longer a couple.
The Alternative School was too far away from home to walk or ride a bike. One of the parents, Sarah Pease drove a small van that served as a school bus. Every morning, she picked up my brother Matthew and I, in our driveway and drove us to school. Her son Douglas and her daughter Robin were also students at the Alternative School. Martin Skerritt, who lived six blocks from my house, was transported to school in the Pease’s van, as well. In sixth grade, Sarah Pease loaned me a copy of Tom Lehrer’s first recording; an old ten-inch Lp, which pretty much changed my life.
The Alternative School existed on a public school campus, in Del Rey Oaks. I was a child then, and in my memory the campus was large, and the school rooms were sunny and spacious. But when I returned to the campus a few years ago, I could hardly believe how tiny the classrooms were, how narrow the walkways, and what an elfin campus, it is, indeed.
At the Alternative School, there was a basket of magazines. In the basket one day I found a magazine containing a non-fiction article about Joseph Merrick, the Englishman who is known today as “The Elephant Man.” This was before Merrick’s story was widely known. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever heard of the guy.
I was deeply intrigued by this fascinating true story. It contained references to the original source material, a rare 19th century book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, written by the English surgeon Sir Frederick Treves, who befriended Merrick in the last years of his life and published the first story about him. The following year, I found a first edition of Sir Frederick’s book in the Santa Monica Public Library and read each story carefully. This was my introduction to historical nonfiction literature, which has been my passion for much of my adult life.
The teachers at the Alternative School were Ron Slayen, Bob Beck, Paul Beard, and Keith and Gwen’s mom, Joyce Vandevere. When the kids got too rowdy, Bob Beck who was ex-military and had the bedside manner of a drill sergeant, would holler “Pipe down!” – an expression with which Martin Skerritt and I were unfamiliar, and caused us to laugh uncontrollably, every time he said it. The school had a therapist on staff named Jan Hurley and I attended compulsory sessions with her. I found her untrustworthy, manipulative, and insensitive, and my experiences with her turned me off to psychotherapy for decades.
I only remember a few other students by name, Mathew Weston, Paige Levitt, Keith Beard (son of one of the schoolteachers), Yolanda Downey, Ann, Laura, and Richard Boynton, Jimmy and David Hauer, Joel Leker, and a kid named Leander. A Jewish man named Bernie Angel had a number of very attractive daughters and one or two of them were students at the Alternative School. Although I came from an irreligious family, three years later, as an eighth grader attending Pacific Grove Junior High School, I skipped a day of school on the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, in order to attend the religious services at the local synagogue, so I could check out all of Bernie Angel’s daughters, who were now a little older – there were four or five of them and they were quite lovely.
Bruce and Jimmy Hauer’s dad, Herb, was a quadriplegic and he got around in a wheelchair. Herb’s wife worked all day, so Herb was often at the Alternative School during the day, as he lived walking distance from the school (he had a care giver who brought him to the school. Herb hired me to work for him, pushing him back to his house in his wheelchair after school, where I would steam a zucchini for his lunch. I don’t remember what disability put Herb in that wheelchair – some manner of degenerative disease – maybe it was muscular dystrophy.
What I do remember is this story, but I can’t recall where I heard it. Herb’s goal was to die of something other than MD that put him in that wheelchair. When he passed away from some other ailment years later, he felt victorious, because the MD hadn’t won. I have no idea if this story is actually true. However, I have frequently cited this tale as an excellent example of someone who really understood the concept of achievable goals.
The famous photographer Edward Weston had four sons. The three oldest boys grew up to be gifted and successful photographers, like their father. So, in his will, Edward Weston left his priceless original negatives to his least talented kid, Cole, to ensure that his youngest son would never want for money.
Matthew Weston, the son of Cole Weston, was one of my classmates at the Alternative School. Matthew’s mother, an Englishwoman named Maggie (Cole’s ex-wife) directed an abridged version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, at the Alternative School. A teenage Richard Boynton, who would go on to spent much of his life acting in local community theater, gave an astounding performance as Renfield, the vampire’s mad assistant. Matthew Weston played the bat. For the life of me, I can’t remember who played Count Dracula. I think I must have played Dr. Van Helsing.
In the classroom there were a number of antique wheelchairs made of wood, the kind that you only see in museums and old black-and-white movies, today – the kind Mr. Potter rides around in, in the film, It’s a Wonderful Life. There were also antique manual foot-pedaled sewing machines, from the days before electricity, made of wood and cast iron. I shall never forget the day when Leander drove the sewing machine needle all the way through his index finger until it was sticking out the other side.
We were given toys called Batacas – large, long, entirely padded encounter bats – which were designed to allow children to work out their aggressions without sending anyone to the hospital. We beat each other mercilessly with these “educational” weapons.
In the classroom, gopher snakes and rats were kept as pets. Each day a few of the rats were killed and fed to the gophers. Many of the students at the Alternative School fell in love with the rats and adopted one or two and took them home. I wound up with so many dozens of pet rats in my mother’s home that they actually had their own bedroom for several years. I remember building a lot of cages for rats in our garage, many of which I gave to my fellow students, so they could also bring home a pet rat.
My parents were soon divorced. I only saw my father occasionally. When I would see him, he would ask me about school.
“What are you learning in school?” he would ask in a fatherly tone.
“We play cribbage all day.” I would respond, quite literally.
Cribbage is a card game that involves a lot of quick arithmetic calculations, in order to keep score. My maternal great-grandfather was a mathematician, and I inherited some of his gifts for rapid calculation. At the Alternative School, we played cribbage for hours and hours – so much that soon, the students were making their own cribbage boards out of chunks of Manzanita wood that were provided by one of the teachers. The Manzanita was cut into slabs for cribbage boards, which we would then sand smooth, by hand, with increasingly finer grades of sandpaper. I became literate in every grade of sandpaper – from the very coarse #36 to the super fine #600, and regularly visited the local hardware store, where I could put into practice my considerable knowledge of the subject.
One of the teachers would take the sanded cribbage board home and use a drill press to drill the holes in the wood. The cribbage pegs were cut from aluminum and brass rods and then sanded furiously, by hand, until they were perfectly smooth. One of the cribbage boards I made at the Alternative School remained in my possession for many decades. I have moved some 22 times since I lived in my mother’s house in Pacific Grove, and the cribbage board is long lost.
Alex Taurke, who was my classmate in eighth grade, grew up to be a mathematics professor. Although I had forgotten it myself, a few years ago, Alex reminded me of how, as a kid, I had devised a method that allowed me to rapidly add long columns of numbers in my head. Maybe all those games of cribbage had helped. Or maybe I was just channeling my great-grandfather.
Martin Skerritt, who lived six blocks from my house, and was my classmate at the Alternative School, became a close friend, and has remained so, for half a century. We have shared our memories of the Alternative School. Once, over lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Alvarado Street, in Monterey, I told him how I remembered a card table, at the Alternative School, that was draped with a king size bed sheet, beneath which two children could completely hide. I told him how I vividly remember going under that draped table with a certain female classmate, where I watched, in breathless anticipation, as she removed each item of her clothing and allowed me to admire her stunning nakedness. I was much relieved when Martin told me she had done exactly the same thing with him.
One of the teachers was a man named Paul Beard. His son Keith was my classmate at the Alternative School. Paul was clean-shaven soft-spoken man with a sort of “Fred Rogers-like” countenance. Paul enjoyed having the young female students sit on his lap, hug him and hold him, give him back rubs, and otherwise have a physical relationship beyond what is customary in the classroom. How I envied him for all the attention he received from the most beautiful girls in my class. He was clearly fondling the prepubescent girls, and they seemed to enjoy his attention, immensely.
When this behavior was observed by certain parents, meetings were called. During the meetings, Paul Beard was confronted with the inappropriate nature of his conduct, while simultaneously, 11-year-old girls, moved by feelings of sympathy and protectiveness, rubbed his shoulders and comforted him. Jan Hurley, the school therapist, moderated the meetings.
I remind the reader that this was the early 1970s. It was customary for older children to be left at home to make dinner for their little brothers and sisters, while their parents went down to Asilomar to watch the sunset, smoke a joint, and make love in the back of the van. Young parents today don’t believe me. But it was true, 50 years ago on the California coast. A number of my contemporaries have shared similar stories from that time in history.
The summer after I attended the Alternative School, my parents made a decision that my brother Matthew and I would move to the beach community of Venice, California, and live with our father, while my youngest brother Gregory, who was three years old, remained with my mother in Pacific Grove. My father was determined to enroll us in the best school he could find in Santa Monica, California – one where he would be assured his children would not spend all day playing cribbage.
He chose Saint Augustine By-the-Sea, a pricey private Episcopal day school, on Fourth Street in Santa Monica, run by a progressive school master. Once again, my classmates would be the children of movie stars, the privileged, and the climbers.
I clearly remember sitting in the office of the headmaster, Paul Cummins, with my father, as the two men discussed my possible enrollment in the school. I just had completed the sixth grade at the Alternative School in Del Rey Oaks. I was excited about starting seventh grade at the new school in a new town. I was a very bright student already reading at a college level and my biggest problem with school was being bored because it wasn’t sufficiently stimulating.
My father persuaded the headmaster that my sixth-grade education at the Alternative School had been inadequate. I was blindsided when he told Paul Cummins that, in his opinion, I was not ready to enter the seventh grade. Right then and there, the two of them decided that I would repeat the sixth grade.
I was overwhelmed by their collective lack of confidence in my abilities. I was too stunned to say anything on my own behalf. The revelation that my father didn’t think I was as smart as the other kids was simply debilitating. I could hardly breathe. At that moment, something inside me died.
This was right about the time of my 13th birthday. My interests included sex and marijuana, (both of which I had not had the opportunity to try yet) but spent a great deal of my time thinking about. As the school year began, I found my sixth-grade classmates, all of whom were at least a year younger than me, to be rather immature.
Thus, began my disinterest and disenchantment with school. In January 1976, I dropped out of ninth grade, never to return. I never finished high school. I never attended college. I entered adult life convinced that everyone around me had received a better education than I had. In an effort to compensate for this deficiency, I committed myself to a program of self-education.
Consequently, in my professional life, I find that I am frequently better educated in my chosen subjects, than my college educated Ph.D. constituents.