Chapter 6 - Escape from California
In the early 60’s I was working at a newspaper in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia selling advertising and doing the odd bit of reporting. I was under the illusion that I would find adventure and satisfaction in journalism. That was soon dispelled when I was given a number of assignments covering the town council where they droned on endlessly about property by-laws and dog restrictions. Two friends of mine had drifted to California and invited me to join them. I packed it in and headed for the west coast, stopping first in Connecticut to gather a little money.
Fairfield County Connecticut, adjacent to the NY state line and forty five minutes from Grand Central in Manhattan is one of the most prosperous areas in the U.S. It is a place where you could leave a job at 10.00 am and be confident of having another by 2 that afternoon, which I did on several occasions. My mother and four sisters lived in Stamford and I had been living there on and off for a number of years. I was well acquainted with the area and had lots of connections. I had worked at one place, Manson Laboratories as an electronic technician six times. I would only ever stay for three months. Surprisingly they always welcomed me back. On this occasion I worked for a month or so with a brother-in-law in the drywall business. In early November I grabbed a night flight for L.A. with stops in Chicago and Vegas (where I had enough time to run into the terminal and try a slot machine). Crossing the last mountain range we encountered turbulent weather. We lost one of the four engines on the Constellation. That was a bit disconcerting, but when we broke through the cloud cover over L.A. it was clear and the city lay below like a million twinkling diamonds.
My friends Lawrence and Harden were at the terminal to greet me. After grabbing a gallon of wine at an all night liquor store we drove to their place near Disneyland. They had rented a three bedroom ranch surrounded by a zillion others. Each morning when the neighbor’s landscaping truck left the driveway Lawrence would stroll across the yard, drink in hand, still in his robe and crawl in bed with the neighbor’s wife who we affectionately labeled Alice-in-Wonderland. I had worked with Lawrence at the Concord Hotel in Monticello NY (in the Catskills) where we had a lot of adventures and misadventures. I knew Harden and Lawrence quite well. We had all grown up in the same village back in Nova Scotia. They told me they were painting houses. I did see some ladders lying around but while I was there I never saw them work. Harden had a wife, nine kids and a Volkswagen micro bus. They had made the run from the east coast on the meat refund scam…….you go to a supermarket and claim the roast you bought last Sunday was bad and demand a refund. Most of the time it worked….but from time to time there was a backfire and you had to be fast on your feet ready for a quick exit. I noticed all nine kids had new bicycles, and I suspected when the rent was due there’d be a move. I was traveling with my typewriter trying to do creative writing and this wasn’t the spot to do it. They treated me well but Anaheim was not a place that appealed to me. I shifted over to Long Beach. I liked being near the ocean. California is the last place you want to be without a car. At least at Long Beach you could ride a tram to downtown LA. I rented a room by the week and took my meals in cafes.
I went to a newspaper called the Long Beach News. They offered me an advertising job but I quit after a few days. Without a car it was mission impossible and I was never keen on sales. I settled into a routine of writing each day………. short stories and a few poems but nothing significant came of this. In the evening I would read, play chess in the park or walk the beach. It was well into December and the beaches were abandoned by all but the brave. Being from Nova Scotia I found the water warm and the empty beaches delightful. I remember meeting a veteran who was enchanted with the Japanese culture. He took me to a district where we would spend time drinking saki and learning Japanese phrases to help us become better acquainted with the Japanese barmaids. Because I was ex RCAF we got along pretty good. We did the Hollywood & Vine scene, some tourist spots and I managed to get down to Huntington Beach one time. I kept my eye out for a girlfriend but nothing clicked. Who knows if it had I might still be there.
By late December I had pretty well had my fill of the place and more ominously my money was just about depleted. I spied an ad in classified offering to share expenses and driving to New York City. I gave the guy a call. He was a paranoid Jew from Brooklyn who had just lost his job and was heading home for the holidays. I hitch hiked up to Hawthorne to meet him. That took all day. I had fifty dollars and he agreed to take me for thirty five leaving me fifteen for food. In those days you could buy a hot sandwich for seventy five cents and a coffee for a dime. The plan was to drive through nonstop in three days.
The next morning he showed up at my door with a full size black Chevy. He revealed he was apprehensive about the two other passengers…that was his paranoia kicking in... I told him to pretend we were tight friends ….it would be unlikely they would turn on two of us. They proved to be harmless. When we entered the first guy’s apartment you couldn’t find any furniture aside from a pile of blankets on the floor but I never in my life saw so many discarded liquor bottles. An alcoholic, he was a real small guy, very chatty, a court reporter heading for Philadelphia. I got along well with him from the beginning…….he was good company. Then we made a stop for the last guy. He was the short silent type and had a caste in his eye I should have recognized but didn’t at the time. He was going to Cincinnati. L.A. is a big city and by the time we had collected everybody the day was shot.
We left California stopping only for gas and food. Chatty didn’t drive but the rest of us rotated at the wheel. We roared across famous Route 66 celebrated in song and movie passing through Kingman and Flagstaff Arizona, Gallop, Albuquerque and Tucumcari, New Mexico and on to Amarillo Texas where I remember we stopped to eat. Half the time you were dozing or it was dark so you missed a lot. Through Okalahoma it was clear and cold…..but as we crossed Missouri the weather deteriorated. By the time we were in Illinois the snow was piling up and the roads icy. The owner was driving and lost control. The car completely spun around a few times striking the snow banks and bouncing from one side of the road to the other. Fortunately there was no traffic. When the car came to a halt we all inspected it. The fenders were all beat in but we couldn’t find anything mechanically wrong. We realized we could continue. Paranoia was quite worked-up. He turned the driving over to the short silent type and without speaking gloomily settled down in the passenger seat. I was behind the driver and Chatty next to me. As we drove along he talked of one court case after another that he had documented regaling me with stories of lawsuits, counter suits and financial ruin. Paranoia was taking all this in and I’m sure building up a case in his head that he was about to get his ass sued.
We passed into Indiana. It was night and the snow let up but it was cold as a witch. Because of the road conditions we had been moving rather slow. Without warning the driver took a seizure at the wheel, became incoherent and jammed on the gas! For a couple of seconds we all stared at him as one would a madman. …..and it struck me immediately what was happening; I had a good friend back in Halifax and I had been with him a few times when he was seized by an epileptic attack. He once fell down an elevator shaft and broke a leg, and years later drown when he capsized a canoe up in Lake Anslie, Cape Breton. He had taught me what to look for when it happened and how to treat him. He had the same medicated look in his eye as Short & Silent. Knowing this and having a long reach probable saved my life. I immediately reached pass his head and took over the steering from the back seat, all the while telling the Jew to turn off the ignition. He didn’t move. With one hand on the wheel I reach for the key with the other and shut her down, coasting to a stop by the side of the road. No sooner had the motion stopped when the owner grabbed the keys and bolted from the car. This was out in flat farm country. I could see the light from a farmhouse way up the road. With the help of Chatty I pulled the epileptic into the back seat to stretch him out and calm him down. The temperature was dropping fast so I left the two of them in the car and tore off after the keys, realizing we needed heat. We wouldn’t last too long in this cold.
I came to the farm house. When the door opened I could see the Jew sitting in the kitchen. He refused to turn over his keys. I asked the farmer if he would call the police which he agreed to do. I was not back at the car five minutes when the highway patrol showed up. They gathered us together and told us to follow them into town. I insisted on driving with the police.
We rolled into a little Indiana town and at the station we were put in separate rooms. After shinning a light in your eye to test for drugs they took our statements. I told them the car owner had brought me two thirds of the way…I wanted a refund of a third of what I had paid. I figured this was enough to get a bus ticket to New York. The Jew agreed to the refund. The police drove me to a little depot where a few hours later a bus took me to Indianapolis. Here I picked up the express to NY. When I got to 34thSt I change for Connecticut. When I disembarked in Stamford I was informed that my luggage was on the wrong bus…it had gone to Kansas City and it would be some days before it caught up with me (it eventually did).
I arrived at my mother’s door on Dec23rd, broke, without a change of underwear…………only the clothes on my back, a shaving kit and my portable typewriter. Of course Mom, who was a sweetheart fed me, advanced money and welcomed me home for Xmas. Within a week I had a job, bought a car and was back in business. I never did see or hear of any of those three characters again and I hope it stays that way.