During the blossoming optimism of the early 1960s the president of the United States of America came to my home town, San Diego. On that great day my best friend’s name was Johnny Kennedy, I found myself enraptured by my second grade teacher’s clavicle, and someone stole my bicycle.
It was a wondrously innocent and free time that I, and maybe even my country, may never see again.
John F. Kennedy brought the Camelot Tour to San Diego in June 1963, just before summer break. There was no doubt he was coming to see us, even though the history books tell us he was officially invited to give two great address elsewhere in the city. Why else would he slowly motorcade down El Cajon Boulevard, our main street? And why else would he bring along Bob Denver, our favorite TV star from our favorite Show “Dobie Gillis”? He had to be coming for us.
After sharing time with us he was officially scheduled to give the commencement speech to the graduating class at San Diego State, and address the nation on the deck of the USS Kittyhawk, the nation’s newest aircraft carrier.
At the commencement he was quoted as touting “Free education. Sound and secure.” Well, my free education was both sound and secure at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School on Copeland Avenue. It was as secure as Principal Faulkner greeting me every morning with a joyful swing and toss in the air, and as secure as the old school’s red brick facades, asphalt playgrounds, and kid-high inner play ground fences. There was also Miss Olson.
My brother had been in her class the year before, and I knew he was as enamored with her as I was. Tall and slim, with shoulder length hair, she was Jackie in our eyes. Miss Olson dressed conservatively, in mid length skirt and crisp blouse, very Whitehouse, but there was something more. Her clavicle was an ever present lure to my eyes, ever fascinating me. Every collar she wore accented that horizontal bone, with the gentle dip in the center, at the base of her neck, . It was an elegant line that wonderfully distracted me during math, spelling, and geography lessons. I wonder today if she knew its power. I could never look her in the eyes, but I’d do anything for her.
I could safely bet that every boy in class was in love with Miss Olson. Was she a good teacher? I really don’t know, but she held my attention quite well.
There was also my best friend, Johnny Kennedy. He was ready and as excited as the rest of us about seeing the president, his namesake. He and I were a lot alike, small in size, from poor working class families, but rich in imagination. My father worked on the assembly line at Ryan Aircraft and my mother was a teacher. I’m not sure what Johnny’s parents did, but his house was much like mine. Each modest dwelling bordered Hoover High, and each was rather old, ragged, and homey.
Johnny Kennedy and I discovered El Cajon’s open cement flood channels together, climbed the fences that couldn’t keep us out, and splashed through the trickle of water barely moving through the stark mostly dry canals. We played explorer in the wash’s cement caves where we shared our 8 year old theories about school, science, and the rest of life in the dank darkness . I thought we couldn’t have been better friends
My bicycle was the third wonder of the world to me, right behind chocolate ice cream and going rock hunting in the desert with my dad. It was used but sturdy, light and small. It was not the treasured “Schwinn,” but it was fast. I told everyone it was a “racing bike.” It could have once run the great courses of Europe, or the oval speedways of Great Britain. Somehow it made its way to America, and into my father’s hands. Now it was mine.
Together my brother and I flew like darting hawks on our bikes down the sidewalks of El Cajon, and blew through and across the streets of San Diego. Sometimes we dipped down in to the canyons and worked our way back up the hills to our home on 46th Street. Other days we crossed town to the San Diego Zoo, parked our bikes outside the gate, and spent the entire day enjoying our zoo. Admission to the zoo was free to all children then, and we felt like owners.
Then one day my bicycle disappeared. I checked Seiberling Brothers Tires across the street from our house, even searched in and round 10 and 20 feet high stacks of tires in their storage yard. Nothing. I checked with the attendant at the Mobile service station on the corner of 46th and El Cajon. He hadn’t seen it. I also retraced my daily path to school, up and back, several times. It wasn’t on the Hoover High School grounds, and didn’t seem to be anywhere along the way. It hurt. My bike was my stallion, my ride to freedom, and I just couldn’t find it.
Still, I had my city, and my friends, my family, and my school. This was San Diego at its best, I thought. Even better, we were going to meet the President of the United States on our own main street. Life could go on after the theft.
June 3 began as a typical summer San Diego morning, bright, warm, and beautiful. We came to school dressed like the President was going to see us. Nothing fancy, we were poor kids, but we were sharply presentable. Miss Olson marched us away from the school, down the Copeland sidewalks to our spot among the crowds on El Cajon Boulevard. I pushed my way up to the curb, eager to see and be seen. I thought my friend Johnny Kennedy was right behind me.
We didn’t have to wait long. First came Bob Denver in his own convertible limo. He was much cooler as “Maynard G. Krebbs,” the airhead beatnik, than he would ever be as dumb old “Gilligan.” later in his career. We kids had practiced our cheer, or jeer, for weeks. On “Dobie Gillis,” Maynard G. Krebs’ kick word was “Work!” Anytime anyone said it to him on TV he gave a funny flinch and a spasm. So we were ready. Apparently we weren’t the only ones. “Work!” echoed up the street toward us as the Denver’s car came closer. The actor was driven by us, but no matter how hard we cried “Work!” he didn’t give a flinch or twitch. Still, we carried the passionate war cry for our moment, then passed the chant on. Bob Denver rode it like a wave, until he was out of our site.
Cheers rose as the crowds caught sight of the President’s limo, and another tide of glorious worship swept toward us. The crowd of adults and children surged forward in to the street, and I had to fight with all I had not to be pushed from my place. I was pushing back and stretching my neck to see when I heard crying behind me. I quickly turned to see my best friend, Johnny Kennedy, sitting on the ground weeping, his face buried in his bent knees. I didn’t have time to ask him why he was crying. The rushing tide of glory surrounded me briefly and then passed me by, just as quickly. When I turned back to the parade route the motorcade was gone. I had missed it.
My sister told me later that she saw the president while she stood with her class a little further down the street in front of Woodrow Wilson Junior High School. He was a looker, she said. Her teacher, who just happened to a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe, got so excited, my sister says, that the woman bolted from the crowd, ran to the president’s limousine and planted a big kiss right on his face. Security was much looser in those days. And why not? What was there to worry about?
Back on my side of the street, Johnny stood up, smeared his tears and runny nose on his sleeve, and began walking home. He never told me why he was crying, and that was the last day we could of talked about it. Just a few days later, with out a goodbye, Johnny and his family moved away.
San Diego will always be beautiful, but after that day things were never the same. A bubble broke that year, and the 60s roared on to its turbulent destiny. Camelot fell in November, and even our beloved Mother Goose Parade was postponed while San Diego mourned.
That fall I was handed over to the meanest teacher in school, an older woman with out beauty and with a fondness for tormenting her students. The following summer my father lost his job at Ryan, and we moved to a suburb outside of Los Angeles, where our free education was neither sound nor secure. Before we left , however, I did find my bicycle, in a pile of trash behind by best friend Johnny’s empty house.
I have been moved, and moved myself to many places since 1964, but San Diego will always be my real home town. I root for the Chargers and the Padres season after season, and still consider San Diego Zoo my own. Always will.
I return as often as I can, always making it a point to drive by where my old house used to stand on 46th Street. The property is now part of Hoover High. Of course Franklin Elementary is still there. How many of us played on its asphalt playgrounds? How many little boys and girls were warmed by and then had to overcome teacher love there?
I also look for the spot where I was standing on El Cajon Boulevard when I didn’t see the president of the United States.
Floods of memories return upon a trip home, and they cause me to think about it all. Camelot, San Diego, Miss Olson, Johnny Kennedy, and my home town and nation. May optimism grow and blossom again for us all one day.
ohman, I was going to simply read 'Duets', but my eyes caught hold of San Diego on another story below it.
El Cajon. Know it well. Where in LA did your family move to? My youngest years were in LA, then Orange County, then San Diego, specifically Bonita/Chula Vista.
Love the zoo. Have a favorite spot you ALWAYS had to go to there?
Oh...and the Mother Goose parades.
How about the Parade of Lights at the beach? We were tight finacially too, but we'd grab up all the heavy blankets and go early enough to back up the pick-up truck to face the coastline. Drown ourselves with the lethal combination of hot chocolate and the first-fruits of candy canes.
This brought back so many memories...including a stolen bike, and Kennedy's leadership promises through youthful innocence eyes.
Great fun and deep read!