In the age of innocence
1964 was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. It’s a year the Boomer Generation will remember well. But for those who arrived later I hope it provides a glimpse into an America of incredible idealism and social turmoil on a collision course. It’s history. Speaking for myself, it’s what shaped the world I live in today.
This is a memoir about the summer of 1964 (not the turbulent emerging 1967) as seen and experienced through the lenses of two naïve idealistic college kids who grew up comfortably in the Midwest and spent the summer touring and working in suburbs of the South and West. It is a very thin personal slice of the larger America that evaded us.
Des Moines, Iowa. May, 1964.
“The times they are a-changin”
~ Bob Dylan, 1963
“When the truth is found
To be lies
And all the joy
Within you dies”
~ Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody to Love,” 1966.
Grace wailed this anthem that ushered in the turbulent late sixties several years later but the anger was simmering that summer. Many youth felt they’d been betrayed and lied to by the adults who ran the “system.” They had no voice. They felt powerless.
As Mark Thompson and I embarked on our bold adventure in suburban America in 1964 we were only remotely aware of the rumblings. We were intoxicated by the prospect of a just and prosperous future. (John Lennon’s “Imagine”). Our insulated comfortable Midwestern upbringing pointed to a life of unlimited possibilities. We were naïve liberal activists, optimists buoyed by folk music and the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. What I’d now give to again be swept up by the euphoria of that era, if only for a fleeting moment, to be able to recapture and savor the fervent spirit of idealism pointing to a utopian world.
Unbeknownst to us a social and political tsunami was welling up and poised to strike. There were several giant divergent waves looming on the horizon and they were surging in radically different directions. We were vaguely aware of them but they seemed distant and removed. Some held great promise and some were ominous, but the bad ones could be conquered.
For thirteen days hair-raising days in October, 1962, Cold War tension between the United States and its superpower arch enemy the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of a full scale nuclear war. The Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba, prompting President Kennedy to set up a naval blockade against a Soviet fleet steaming toward Cuba. Both Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev realized the crisis had to be resolved to avert a catastrophic world war and negotiated a last-minute deal: Kennedy agreed to remove missiles the United States had previously deployed in Turkey and promised not to invade Cuba, and Khrushchev in turn agreed to remove the Soviet missiles from Cuba. The fleet turned back.
President Kennedy had been assassinated in 1963 and with his murder the chalice of Camelot had been smashed. But because this was the first presidential assassination since William McKinley in 1901 it was seen as an isolated tragedy in the eyes of most.
The civil rights movement had just exploded onto the national scene. In August of 1963 The Great March on Washington was held in Washington, D.C., with over a quarter of a million marchers advocating for civil and economic rights for black Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964 Congress narrowly passed the Civil Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation of the twentieth century. It ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. It was ferociously opposed by conservative Republicans and southern states, but President Johnson masterfully pushed it through.
South Vietnam, an obscure country in Southeast Asia, was hardly on the public’s radar and had yet to rear its cobra head, but that all changed in the summer of 1964 when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, authorizing President Johnson to “take all necessary measures, including the use of armed force” against any aggressor in the conflict. The United States was concerned that South Vietnam would fall to communist North Vietnam and become a Russian and Chinese satellite, causing a “domino effect” that would engulf all of Southeast Asia. By 1965 able-bodied males were being drafted and a college uprising was ignited by what many considered an immoral war.
The Free Speech Movement began at the University of California Berkley in 1964 as a protest against the university ban on on-campus political activities. It sparked an unprecedented wave of student activism and involvement. Authorities responded violently, unleashing the police and military to quell the protests. Six years later four students were shot and killed at Kent State University by a National Guard regiment during a peaceful protest.
Rachael Carson’s1962 book Silent Spring, pointing out the dangers of applying chemicals to the environment, was a blip until 1964 when it hit mainstream media. The pesticide industry went after her with a vengeance but the environmental movement’s fire had been lit.
The African American inner cities were a powder keg ready to explode. White America nervously sensed it but chose to turn a blind eye to the “ghetto/negro problem.” Several years hence the Black Power Movement and urban riots sent white America reeling in paranoid convulsions.
Republican Barry Goldwater ran against Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and was clobbered because he was labeled an “extremist.” By today’s measure he would be called a moderate.
Despite our unbridled optimism we would soon come to realize how oblivious and out of sync suburban America was to these gathering changes. 1964 was a watershed year, a turning point from which the nation could never turn back.
Times have changed. Really changed. In 1964 I embarked on an adventure that would today result in a trip to the hospital if not the morgue. This is a true tale of my escape from despair into a meandering saga that played out beyond my wildest dreams.
Bracing for the summer of 1964 I’d hit bottom. I’d finished the second semester of my sophomore college year in a slump funk: jilted in love, too much partying, a precipitous slide in grades and the looming prospect of another year with a summer job straight from a frozen Dante’s Inferno. There did not appear to be any viable escape route, so I resigned myself to enduring the inevitable grim reality.
The previous summer I’d worked as an ice cream stacker for Beatrice Foods under the brand name Meadow Gold. My job was to take ice cream cartons off a chattering conveyer belt in The Box, a -20 degree Fahrenheit gloomy cavernous room. I would stack the cartons on racks where they would harden from slush to granite.
After parking my car and walking through the sultry summer air I’d punch a clock and enter the dressing room where I’d change into insulated boots and layered thermal underclothing encased in a parka. The Box was brutally unforgiving: Dark and forbidding with eerie mists wafting and drifting about as if in a polar medieval dungeon.
The onslaught of cartons marching off the assembly line was as relentless as the brooms carrying endless buckets of water to Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice in Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Occasionally I would fall behind and hear the dreaded splat of ice cream hitting the floor. Then Dutch, the most irascible tormenting boss on the planet, would appear on the scene. Dutch was hard-fisted blue collar to the core and held a seething grudge against west-side college kids. He would launch into a screaming profanity-laced tirade and order the line shut down while I scraped the goo off the floor. He was borderline legally blind, and I took some consolation in grinning as I flipped him the bird through a veil of fog.
There were other mortifying aspects to the job. While my friends sported sun tans, my face, being exposed to the bitter cold eight hours a day, was ruddy with frostbite. My nose glowed red, leading to my adopted nickname “Rudolph.” And twice a day I had to slide the frozen racks on a manual forklift and haul them out to the semi-trucks. The trucks pulled into the loading docks from Ingersoll Avenue, one of the busiest streets in Des Moines and were clearly visible from the street. It was a traffic stopper for people who drove by to see me wearing a parka in scorching July heat. Once a carload of greasers – sixties duck-tailed hoodlums from the other side of town – slammed on the brakes and stared at me incredulously. One of the guys pointed and yelled, “Look, it’s Sergeant Preston!” (Sergeant Preston of the Yukon was a popular TV series of the late fifties starring Dick Simmons as an intrepid Canadian Mountie who, accompanied by his horse Rex and faithful dog Yukon King, battled the harsh arctic elements to bring criminals to justice.)
All this for $1.65 an hour.
Mark Thompson listened with feigned sympathy as I lamented my fate over a beer at Peggy’s, the local pub near the Drake University campus. Empathy was not one of his strong suits. We were in the same fraternity but only casual friends, and meeting that evening was happenstance.
Mark possessed some quirks that would irritate a Labrador retriever. While a great guy at heart he was stubborn as a mule and had this annoying habit of constantly telling jokes, staring at the listener and, if there was any hesitated reaction, lapsing into animated laughter. He would always precede his jokes with a patented Cheshire cat grin which, for those who knew him, set the stage for a pokerfaced reaction. But this never seemed to faze him; he reveled in telling the joke. He was a swashbuckling entrepreneur in the purest sense, a guy who could never take orders and always had a better way of doing things. But to his credit he always had a scheme for making money and landing on his feet. And he had a driving work ethic. The previous summer he bought an old school bus and recruited four friends to ramble their way out to California where they picked fruit alongside migrant workers. Despite frequent bickering there were no altercations, and they returned intact as friends.
After I’d bemoaned my fate Mark squinted, cocked his head, and stroked his forefinger on his chin. “Did you hear about Bob Peterson’s older brother”? “No,” I said. “Well, he’s a member of the Rockford, Illinois Jaycees. Bob told me that as a fundraiser they made a load of money painting house numbers on curbs and collecting donations.” I perked up.
Mark went on. “I’m thinking … why couldn’t we do the same thing? We could do this in Des Moines and collect donations as enterprising college students trying to pay for our education. People would love it.” And so the idea was hatched.
I had reservations about launching into any joint endeavor with Mark but considered giving it a gander. He was not one to be deterred by obstacles or, for that matter, reality and was willing to take the plunge if I agreed to join him. Being by nature cautious I began to think about the downside of such a venture, bottom line being, what if we failed? Like most fervent entrepreneurs, he wouldn’t entertain a negative side of any idea and predictably threw caution to the wind. He asked me the ultimate question: “What have we got to lose?”
A fleeting image of Dutch slinked across my mind. I was in.
Mark called Peterson’s brother who laid out the details of the Rockford project. The Jaycees put articles in the Rockford Register Star touting the laurels of their fundraiser and followed up with fliers in neighborhoods listing a phone number to call for a donation. There was no set price but most people donated fifty cents and a few a dollar – a hefty return back in ’64.
We were off and running.
Stubbornness spawns all invention
Plato wrote that necessity is the mother of all invention. Mark wouldn’t quarrel with that maxim but would carry it one step further. Bullheadedness and perseverance had always propelled him through life. I think he always regretted that Henry Ford beat him to the punch.
The mechanics of painting curbs was still vague, and I argued that we should research how previous entrepreneurs pulled it off. Why reinvent the wheel? Mark wouldn’t hear of that. I held my ground and did a little research at the library but couldn’t find much; apparently curb painting was an undefined profession. So I begrudgingly handed him the reins.
The first challenge was how to apply the paint. We heard from Bob that the Rockford Jaycees used aerosol cans to spray white paint over a rectangle followed by black paint over the interlocking metal stencils. Marv argued that we’d save considerable money if we used a compressor to apply the white paint. So we invested in a paint compressor and mounted it on a Red Ryder wagon powered by a small Briggs and Stratton engine. His contraption was a sight to behold. It would shimmy, lurch, and hiss so we dubbed it Stanley Steamer.
We also had to come up with a way to carry our supplies and access the interlocking number 1-10 stencils. Our solution was the curoborator, a large wicker basket with a Styrofoam slab that covered the top of the basket. We positioned and inserted tongue depressors to align and hold the respective interlocking stencil numbers. Supplies were stored inside the basket, including gloves to protect our hands while painting, water bottles, snacks and a transistor radio.
The lead person used Stanley to spray fast-drying matted white paint on the curb over an 8-inch by 18-inch rectangle cut out of a larger piece of cardboard. The trailing person then sprayed glossy black paint over the stencils.
We did a dry run on Mark’s block in Des Moines to test how our procedure worked. Stanley was a comical traffic stopper. Drivers would slow down and cock their bemused heads, and before long a crowd of little kids gathered around jumping and pointing in convulsive laughter.
Predictably, there were some bugs to work out. The biggest problem was that about every half hour the nozzle hole would clog up, and we’d have to insert a skinny screwdriver to free it up. Also, as the black paint accumulated it initially turned from sticky goo to a hard thick shell that was almost impossible to remove. Again, Mark’s ingenuity to the rescue. He experimented with black lacquer gloss paint, and to our great relief we discovered we could easily peel the paint off after it dried. The cardboard wasn’t a problem because when the white paint accumulated it could easily be replaced. We wore cheap cotton work gloves to protect our hands. They would quickly become gummed up, so we purchased replacement gloves in bulk.
Down but not out
Step one was to gain permission from the Des Moines City Council. How could they turn down such a heartwarming beneficial service from enterprising college boys? We reserved a spot on the docket, donned our suits, and made our appeal.
The council’s initial reaction was one of patronizing praise. But after a few minutes some members squinted and cast sideline glances at one another. As the discussion progressed doubts began to surface. Some people might not be happy having college kids solicit them for donations. Were there liability issues? Was such a project legal under city ordinances? They queried the public works director, who stammered and said he’d have to look into it. The mayor picked up on the vibes and tabled the discussion. The council patted us on our heads and kindly showed us the door.
Lesson number one learned: Never go to an elected political body and expect a timely decisive answer.
We didn’t tuck our tails for long. There were suburban pastures in the metropolitan area to be tapped, and from now on we wouldn’t make the mistake of asking permission from city government.
We designed and printed a flier promoting our enterprise that would be slipped in the front screen door of every house. We planned to revisit those households the next evening and jot down the addresses of those who wanted to have their curbs painted and accept donations. The flier read:
As a service to you and your community
You Have an Opportunity to Have Your House Number
Newly Painted on Your Curb
Besides Being Clearly Visible During the Daytime
If at Night …
The Doctor or Ambulance
A Delivery boy or Taxicab
The Firemen or Police
Seek your home, they will find your house number
QUICKLY AND EASILY WITH NO MISTAKE
This service is being sponsored throughout the community by college students who help earn their school expenses this way. There is no charge for this service. However, contributions will be accepted.
We think this project is a benefit to everyone – don’t you? Please save a donation or smile for the college student who will be stopping by in the next few days to ask if you are interested in participating in this community safety program.
THE COLLEGE STUDENTS
While we struck out asking permission in the City of Des Moines we decided to give it another shot in Windsor Heights, my west-side suburban hometown. At the time Windsor Heights was the most well-healed suburb in the metro area, graced with late 1950s/early ‘60s brick ranch homes that conjured up visions of Hollywood with streets like Sunset Terrace, Bryn Mawr Drive, Bellaire Avenue, El Rancho Drive and Marilyn Circle. I was a known quantity there, and the mayor and several council members knew and liked me. So again we dressed up and gave our pitch to the city council. They embraced us warmly and gave their stamp of approval. We gained credibility with an article in the weekly newspaper, the Windsor Heights Times. We left the council chambers in a euphoric state ready to excavate a veritable gold mine in waiting.
The day of reckoning was now upon us. Early the first afternoon we jogged across lawns in a six-block area leaving slips in screen doors. This was 1964 and most women were homemakers tending their children during the day. If they saw us and opened the door we would hand them a flier and explain our project. Most were intrigued and supportive but not ready to give a donation until they could consult their husbands when they returned home from work. A few, however, offered to donate on the spot. We thanked them and jotted down their addresses in our notebook, explaining that we would be returning within several days to paint their curbs. After completing our rounds we retired to Peggy’s for beer and pizza.
We anticipated the possibility of encountering mean dogs and filled our pockets with dog biscuits as a gesture of friendship and appeasement. This worked about half the time, but if there was a standoff the first rule was to stand our ground and stay cool, facing Fido as we slowly backed off into neutral territory. Toy poodles were a major headache. They were the most popular breed of the day, and their incessant yapping would set off every other dog on the block, and sometimes the din would spread throughout the neighborhood. While this was an annoyance, the ones that really scared us were larger dogs that didn’t bark, at least much, but glowered at us with piercing eyes and a murmuring growl. Doberman Pinschers were the most hair-raising of all.
The following evening we returned to the area, knocking on the doors of every household. We started at 6 p.m. when we could count on Ozzie Nelson to have pulled up the driveway and eased into his recliner. Hearing evening news on TV was a sure signal that someone would almost always come to the door.
After calling on a few houses we realized that this approach was going to be a long slog. Many people are by nature curious hagglers. First we had to explain what the painted curb would look like since no curbs on their block had yet to be painted. Our explanation was vague and tedious, and we realized that a photograph would say a thousand words. We took immediate action and always carried a Polaroid print after that first day.
The first two questions most asked were “What do you recommend as a donation?” or “What are most people giving?” Being our first evening we didn’t have a precedent and replied, “Whatever you’d like to give.” One guy reeking of booze told us it was a good idea and to go ahead and paint his curb. We asked what he would like to donate. He swayed and slurred, answering, “Your flier didn’t name a price. It’s a good deal, so I’ll take it for free.” A good number of people wanted to bargain. Our lowest donation was a dime, but most offered fifty cents and a few a dollar.
We finished our first block at twilight, counted the change, and split $21.50. I told Marv I got a better rate of return on my paper route when I was twelve.
Back to the drawing board
We both agreed that our little scheme was indeed little. I told Mark, “I could hear you giving your hard core sales pitch at the houses across the street, and you might just as well have been arguing with the door knob. We can waste a lot of time trying to close a deal on pride that might give us another fifteen cents. You can bleed ‘em out of another dime and win the battle, but at the end of the night you’ve lost the war. I earned $11.80 of our whopping $21.50.”
Mark wasn’t one to give ground graciously, but I had just jabbed his stubborn pride. He countered, “So what now Willy Loman?” (of Death of a Salesman fame.)
I replied, “I don’t know. What do you think?” Mark may have been stubborn, but he was also inventive; whatever the solution it had to be his. “Well … maybe we need to paint first and collect second. We could blitz a neighborhood, leaving our fliers and then come back smiling and look all charming and innocent as the college students. They’d have read the fliers and looked at their curbs so we wouldn’t have to explain.” Eureka!
So the next morning we headed out to Ankeny, a suburb lined with Pete Seeger’s post-war little boxes, and started our blitz. We hired a couple of grade school boys for a penny a house to run up and down the blocks putting fliers in the screen doors. Things were going well until the local cop cruised by and asked us what we were doing. We handed him a flier, which he scrutinized and said, “Looks like a good idea to me. I have a helluva time finding some houses, ‘specially at night. But some guys on the council have been on my case and I don’t need more trouble. I gotta ask you to stop.” We nodded agreeably and sauntered back to our car. “Damn!” I said, “This will never work.” Brazen Marv didn’t see it that way. “Hey, he asked us to quit painting. He didn’t say anything about collecting.” Hmm.
That night we started calling on doors, smiling as clean-cut enterprising college students. The neighborhood was not all that prosperous even by post WWII standards, but most who greeted us were warm salt of the earth folks. Many worked at the John Deere assembly plant there.
By evening’s end we’d collected a whopping $78.50, and my split was more than I cleared in a week at Meadow Gold. Fat City, we’d arrived!
But there was a small problem. We couldn’t continue to paint in Ankeny since we’d been ordered to stop.
Mark had an immediate solution: Move on to another suburb, blitz, collect and move on. But never ever ask for permission from the city in advance.
From that day on we became the Viet Cong of curbdom. Strike, fade away and return when the enemy’s guard is down. That became the first and guiding rule of curb painting.
As with any entrepreneurial business venture, you don’t get it totally right the first time. Mistakes and missteps are the best teachers, and by the end of the summer we had graduated cum laude in efficiency, business management, psychology and salesmanship.
As we moved down the street painting we were constantly scanning houses for citizen watchdogs, ever vigilant for peeping heads and fluttering curtains. When a person walked out of the house and approached we would typically be greeted with the question, “What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” To which we would reply, “This is a project throughout your community sponsored by college students to help us earn our school expenses. There’s no charge for this service, but we do accept donations. It will help police, fire, ambulance, friends and out-of-town guests find your house.”
Some folks would offer to pay right then. Others would say, “I didn’t ask you to paint my curb,” and we would say, “We sure don’t expect you to give a donation if you don’t like it.”
If the exchange escalated to red alert the citizen watchdog would say, “I’m calling (called) the police,” and make a huffy retreat to the house. As we picked up our paint gear and faded away we would call out, “We respect your opinion, and we’re sorry you’re unhappy.” Once safely out of view we would jump in the car and make a quick exit to a safely distant area.
Here comes the law
By today’s standards local policing in suburbia back then was a haphazard affair that mostly involved meandering cruising akin to the Good Humor ice cream guy, the main difference being that the town cop wasn’t flocked by kids. Sunglasses disguised boredom, and police radio chatter projected vigilance and authority. This was the mid-sixties and the suburbs were safely barricaded from the simmering cauldron of the core city. Speeding teens, stray dogs and reports of vandalism, fueled by cigarettes and caffeine, helped brunt the monotony. So a couple of peripatetic curb-painting college kids were often as close as the local cops would get to Al Capone.
Unavoidably we would sometimes encounter a police cruiser, usually by happenstance but sometimes because of a complaint. The car usually approached stealthily from the rear: A couple of tanned young guys hunched over curbs were inherently suspicious. When available, we’d buy a T-shirt sporting the local high school logo.
Although the police chiefs almost always told us to stop painting, they usually didn’t think to tell us to stop collecting. And of course, we never brought it up or showed them our flyer, so we figured we were good for one more warning. We didn’t start collecting until early evening, and by that time most chiefs and the office day shift were home, so if a citizen called the desk to inquire, the person answering was usually in the dark and would radio an officer to check us out. When we saw a police car pull up we’d allay suspicion by strolling up and initiating a friendly conversation.
“What are you boys up to?”
“Oh, we’re accepting donations from people for addresses we painted on their curbs. Maybe you noticed them when you drove up the block.”
More often than not, after we explained what we were doing, the police officer would be agreeable, sometimes even friendly. But it was very rare for him to give us a green light. We were always deferential and learned to never argue; instead we would act mildly surprised that there was a problem, since other cities liked it, and ask if we could visit with the chief. This offer was crucial to erasing any suspicion of a scam.
Nevertheless on occasion the officer insisted that we check in with the police chief. If we did meet with the chief he would tell us we needed approval from the city council. We would respond, “Okay, thanks. When does your city council next meet? … Oh, okay, we’ll check with the clerk to see if we can get on the agenda.”
“By the way, I wish you boys luck. It’s a great idea. I like your T-shirt. You boys from round here?”
However, we soon learned that calling on the chief did not bear fruit, and we would not follow up. But the gesture erased any doubt of our legitimacy and good intentions.
However, if the officer was aware that we’d been told to stop, the conversation would go more like this:
“I got a complaint that you boys visited with the chief, and he told you to stop”.
“Yes, sir. The chief told us to stop painting, so we’re just accepting donations from houses we’ve already painted.”
“Well, go ahead and finish the houses you’ve already painted.”
“Thank you, officer. We definitely won’t paint any more curbs in (community).” (Whew!)
“Well, I’m telling you to quit collecting.”
“Yes, sir.” (Damn! End of the line.)
Imagine this. Back in the mid-sixties most families actually had dinner together at home. Kids’ diversions were minimal. TV was the main family magnet, and the main distraction was siblings feuding over access to the phone. Furthermore, think of this: There was no cellphone, no voice mail and no caller I.D. Mom was bustling in the kitchen while Dad kicked back in his easy chair with a cigarette and beverage of choice.
So starting at 6 o’clock we would launch our foray into suburbia. Our goal was to each collect 100 houses an evening, so we had to move briskly. We kept a notebook of houses where nobody was home so we could return to collect later.
We would casually amble up to the door and knock lightly. This usually set off the dog alarm, and it was a challenge to talk above the yapping din.
Dad would usually be the first to hear the knock and would call out to Mom or one of the kids to answer the door. “Harriet, there’s some guy at the door. See what he wants.” So most often Harriet answered the door donning an apron and a smile.
Whoever greeted us, we would turn on the charm. As the door opened we’d just happen to be looking down the block with a wad of one-dollar bills in our left hand, forcing the greeter to glance down at the bills as we pivoted our head front and center with a nod and a smile. This tactic was crucial because back then most people would otherwise give us a couple of quarters. But seeing those bills in hand sent a message: Don’t be a cheapskate; look what your neighbors are giving.
“Hello, we’re the college students who painted your house number on your curb.”
“Ozzie, this is one of the college students who painted our house number on our curb. There’s no charge, but he’ll accept donations.”
“Oh. Well, you take care of it.”
Harriet would then ask. “What are they giving?”
“Well, most of your neighbors are giving a dollar, but some give more.”
“Oh. I think it’s a good idea. Ozzie, do you have a dollar bill.”
As we took the donation in hand we would say, “Thank you very much for your donation. It will help people find your house, especially at night.” Then we would jog across their lawn to the next house.
Occasionally a person—almost always a man—would say, “I don’t want it on my curb. Take it off!” This was problematic, and our response was, “Well, your neighbors really like it, but sure, we’ll do that tomorrow.” We’d jot down the address in our notebook with an asterisk and make sure we returned to honor our pledge, lest the crank call the police.
True to our word, we’d return the next day and apply industrial paint remover that steamed and fizzled as we poured it on the paint, following up with a stiff wire brush. My eyes would water and I’d go into sneezing convulsions. Agent Orange was probably its main ingredient.
Move over James Dean
Banned by Des Moines and weary of dodging the law in outlying suburbs, it was time to move on to greener pastures. Fueled by the visions of Kerouac and the TV smash series Route 66 we decided it was time to hitch our wagon. It was still early June and summer was ahead of us: two young studs heading down the open road, as Chuck Berry put it, “with no particular place to go.” Sunglasses perched above a cocky smirk, elbows draped out the car window, flicking cigarettes at stoplights as we winked at prospective babes. The ultimate cool. How could we lose?
But, truth be known, we were at one huge disadvantage. Todd and Buzz cruised in a Corvette while we sported a 1952 Dynaflow Buick (nicknamed “Dynaflush” because when pressed over 60 mph the flow would turn into a lavatory flush), a miniature Sherman tank that got four miles to the gallon and could take on a semi-truck. Add to that our ramshackle two-wheeled wooden trailer, the Albatross, and we looked more like the Beverly Hillbillies than Smooth Dogs. We knew we’d be hard pressed to get a second look from even the most desperate of girls.
Hitting the road
We were infected with the unbridled optimism and fever that only youth can feel as we looked ahead to hitting the open road. Looking back I don’t recall what I was thinking—if I was thinking at all. Now 75, the prospect of such escapade would only occur under delirium. I understand what was going through my parents’ minds back then. Where we saw adventure and limitless opportunity, they saw risk and uncertainty.
As we were loading our paint supplies and camping gear into the Albatross, our neighbor Clyde Anderson strolled over to ask what in the world we were doing. We enthusiastically explained the drama that lay ahead. He asked where we were going, and we said anywhere and everywhere. He gave us a puzzled look and tilted his head as he surveyed our funky trailer, then stared at both us with a look of utter disbelief. He didn’t say anything. He just walked away.
A half hour later Mom came out and said, “Norman, Clyde just called. He thinks you boys need to see a psychiatrist. Something about a hare-brained fantasy.” Then Dad came out pensively puffing on his pipe and scratching his bald head, which he was prone to do when perplexed. As an astronomy professor he could more easily contemplate the cosmos than us embarking on such an adventure. His only comment was, “I hope you boys have liability insurance on that trailer. It’s pretty rickety, and the wheels look like they could disengage at any minute.”
The next morning I said goodbye to my folks. They just stood in the driveway with a look of sad bewilderment and timidly waved as I drove away. When I pulled into Mark’s driveway his parents and several neighbors were milling around in the yard. His father, a Protestant preacher, rolled his eyes and shook his head as he looked skyward and mumbled something about the lord delivering us from evil and flanking our sides on our journey. His mother muttered something about watching out for loose girls. Mark assured her that we would keep our pants zipped.
Kansas City here we come
“I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come …
They got some crazy lil’ women there and I’m gonna get me one.”
~ Wilbert Harrison, 1959.
Mark and I had sparred a bit about where to head. He favored going east … Chicago … Detroit … Cleveland … New York … Philly … D.C. I argued for South to Southwest … bounce our way to Houston and then meander west to the Golden State … then back east through Colorado. For once I prevailed. Being a weather geek I argued that we’d have too much idle time sitting out rainy days if we went east. So off we headed down Highway 69 to Kansas City.
Tooling down the highway in the confines of an old Buick can turn a couple of college guys into Siamese fighting fish. What starts out with a little pin pricks can soon escalate to poison ivy. It took about an hour for this to happen. I had to admit that Mark had a sweet melodic voice and some talent. He had played a major role in a number of musical productions in high school and most recently at Drake in South Pacific. What started as a hum soon became song. By the third time I’d heard “I’m gonna wash that girl right out of my hair” I was pulling my own hair. Mark was Rogers and Hammerstein; I was The Rolling Stones. This portended a long hot summer together.
“Hey Mark, could you tone it down a little?”
“Why? At least I can sing. You have a voice like a frog.”
I retaliated by launching into the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.” “Well a’ everybody’s heard about the bird … the bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word. Well the bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word. Well a’ don’t you know about the bird? Everybody knows that the bird is the word! A pappa moomamowwow, moomamawow”
“Stop! You’re driving me crazy!”
This went on for about five minutes before we paused, stared at each other, and lapsed into convulsive laughter. Like two boxers bloodied and knocked semi-conscious, we declared a truce and settled on the radio.
The askie monster
We arrived in Kansas City late morning and began driving around suburban neighborhoods scouting for fertile curbs. To our dismay we discovered that only a few scattered curbs had been painted. This was our first encounter with whom we dubbed the Askie Monster, a curb painter who had asked permission first, soliciting donations or charging a set fee.
Askie became our nemesis for the rest of the summer. If we followed his footsteps and blitzed a neighborhood we would incur the wrath of those who had declined his pitch. We would be greeted like the Fuller Brush Man.
It was now late in the afternoon and we’d worked up a sweat so we decided to shower at the downtown YMCA. We couldn’t find a parking spot to save our souls. Mark spotted a yellow curb loading zone and said, “What the hell, we can be back in 20 minutes.” It felt good to spruce up, but when we returned the car was being hitched up to a tow truck and there was a $20 ticket on the windshield. $20 tickets were unheard of back then except apparently in Kansas City during rush hour. The driver looked to be half gorilla and didn’t take kindly to us. Mark started to argue but I stepped in and handed him a ten spot. He mumbled something about damn kids but unhitched the chain. We decided KC was going to be a bust and that we needed to move on.
Rebuffed in Kansas City we headed west across the Wide Missouri to Kansas. As would play out throughout the duration of the summer our approach to finding fertile ground was random meandering, pure happenstance. We strayed into the tiny suburb of Countryside, a satellite of Mission, Kansas. The curbs were ripe for painting and the homes classic late fifties ranch.
It was midafternoon by the time we unloaded and prepped Stanley to begin painting, and things weren’t boding well. Apparently Stanley didn’t like bumping along in a trailer, and we wrestled for more than a half hour trying to start him up. He would chug and sputter but successfully rebelled despite our coaxing.
A gaunt gray-haired elderly woman with a menacing scowl wandered up to us. She looked like she’d just choked on a pickle. “What on earth are you boys doing?!”
“Oh, hi ma’am. We’re going to be painting house numbers on curbs as a service to Countryside.”
“What is that monstrosity?!” She glared at us suspiciously and said, “We here in Countryside don’t like our curbs painted. I’m calling the police.” We knew we had to git while the gittin’ was good. As she walked back into her house we made a snap decision: Leave Stanley in her driveway and hightail it to Wichita.
We’d blown another day, and I was starting to have second thoughts about venturing farther down the road, but Mark was undeterred. We had a couple hundred bucks, and he argued that it would last us a week. I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to be destitute in Dallas and have to wire my folks for gas money to get home.”
As we drove toward Wichita in the late afternoon, the Flint Hills unfolded in lush June splendor, an emerald waving sea of big bluestem and switchgrass. The waning sun cast an orange glow on the prairie, and as nightfall approached sleepy fireflies awoke to illuminate the land. Probably a hundred miles to the south giant anvil thunderheads put on a dizzying light show. Some enchanted evening.
As we neared Wichita we pulled off a side road, unrolled our sleeping bags and sacked out on a grassy patch. We awoke at the crack of dawn and gorged ourselves with a ranch-hand’s breakfast at Maude’s Café. We were psyched to hit the curbs
Our plan for the summer was to scope out the local college nearest the suburb we would be painting for showering and lodging. Our first choice was a SAE fraternity house, if one existed. Fraternities were always our first option because we could usually anticipate some shared social revelry. If no fraternity was on campus we’d check at the local college men’s dormitory and offer to pay for each night of our stay. There were always beds available, and the dorm superintendent almost always gave us a room for free. A local campground was our third option and—try fathoming this in today’s world—if none of these options panned out we’d find a backroad and flop down in our sleeping bags near the car.
Our buckets of white paint were useless without Stanley, so we needed to invest in quick-drying white spray paint. We found a paint store and bought a 24-pack of spray cans to accompany our black paint.
Wichita was our turning point. We lucked out to find that the fraternity house at Wichita State University was open for the summer with plenty of available beds. The “brothers” extended us a warm welcome… into the night.
We hit the curbs the next morning after hiring a couple of 10-year-old kids to place fliers in every front screen door for two cents a house. This was our first full day since hitting the road, and we had yet to hit our full stride but were getting the hang of it.
We managed to paint about 150 curbs, and after showering at the fraternity we put on our casual best togs, grabbed a burger and fries, and started knocking on doors. Things went smoothly and most people greeted us warmly. Surprisingly, there were no hassles. And another thing that is hard to fathom in today’s world is that we would be jogging across lawns and calling on houses at twilight with nary any suspicion.
At the end of the evening we nabbed about $97. We wrote down the addresses of houses where nobody was home in our pocket notebook so we could check back in the future. As we became more proficient at painting we discovered that if we could finish painting by early afternoon we could clean up and follow up on the “not-homes” address list from previous days before making our nightly rounds. The not-homes list was also a crucial fallback if we got rained out from painting on a particular day.
After several days in Wichita wanderlust pulled us southward. We stopped in Ardmore, Oklahoma, and stayed with Gray Richards, a fraternity brother, for several days. Ardmore was a small city but had a subdivision with several hundred nice ranch homes. Gray’s dad was the local banker and city king-maker: What he said went. He called the mayor who in turn called the police chief, and we were granted immediate permission to paint and collect. It was in Ardmore that for the first time something became glaringly apparent: We were Yankees. At just about every house people would ask, “Where y’all from? to which we would reply, “Drake University.”
“Oh, Duke! Isn’t that an Ivy League School? They play pretty good basketball there.” We didn’t bother to clarify.
Most people were friendly albeit a bit suspicious of our northern accent. Whenever we could, we would say we were staying at Gray Richard’s house, and the bills would flow.
It only took two days to exhaust our curbs in Ardmore, and we were off to Dallas. Mark and I were constantly scheming to out-prank each other. Bars were the most obliging venue, but any place or situation was fair game. When meeting a new acquaintance the trick was to get the jump on the other guy. I could always tell with Mark: His eyes would get a mischievous glint and he couldn’t hide a subtle smirk. And he had an uncanny knack for sizing up a ripe opportunity and beating me to the punch.
Walking into Wrong Daddy’s Saloon, extending his hand to the most obvious redneck bruiser sitting at the bar: “Hi, I’m Mark Thompson. My friend Norm and I are just passing through on our way to Dallas. Can I buy you a beer? Norm is a civil rights activist and pacifist.”
I had about ten seconds to defuse such an encounter or be flattened, grinning, “Nah, Mark’s putting you on. I’m a George Wallace supporter. Got no use for those agitators.”
Or, “Hi, I’m Mark Thompson and this is my friend Norm Riggs. We’re just passing through. Can I buy you a beer?” After some casual conversation Mark would out of the blue bring up, “Norm’s a butterfly collector and plays the piccolo.” This always triggered a wary stare and backpedaling, but at least it didn’t provoke a violent response.
Mark was a good-looking guy and well aware of it. He was proud of his deep olive tan and comported himself with cool self-assurance. If I got out in front of him my line would be, “Hi, I’m Norm Riggs and this is my friend Whitey Thompson. We’re just passing through. Can I buy you a beer?”
“‘Whitey,’ how the hell did you get that name? You look more like a Mexican to me.”
This always knocked Mark off balance, but before he could respond I’d break in, “Sorry Mark,” then turn to the redneck, “I’m kinda absent-minded. I’m good friends with Mark’s older brother who has premature white hair…”
“Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back
Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban eyes.”
~ The Beatles, 1967
After painting curbs in the Metro Des Moines suburbs and now heading for Texas, Mark and I had become windshield sociologists of sorts. We could make some safe generalizations about suburban America in 1964 when it was at its unvarying pinnacle.
At the risk of oversimplifying, America could be broken down into three big pieces: urban, rural and suburban. Urban and rural could further be broken down into a rich complex amalgam of pieces; suburbia was basically one big homogeneous chunk. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, and Father Knows Best weren’t all fiction. They personified the American Dream. We saw it every evening when we knocked on doors.
Here were some things we observed:
We literally did not see one African American, Latino or Asian person heading a household. We saw plenty of minorities during the day mowing lawns, house cleaning, child sitting, roofing and doing carpentry work, but they vanished at the end of the workday. Redlining effectively erected the wall of segregation.
Houses pretty much looked the same. Most were ranch or split level, and a few sported pillars to project the illusion of a southern mansion. A two-car garage was an imperative, as was a picture window in front. The front porch was modest because outdoor activity revolved around the back deck or patio.
Two cars were now the rule instead of the exception.
Above ground swimming pools flaunted success.
Most mothers were still stay-at-home during the day watching their kids.
Grill smoke permeated the air at dusk.
Adults were not commonly seen in the front yard unless mowing the yard or washing the car; the backyard was where the action was.
Kids were highly visible in the front yards with boys playing catch or shooting baskets on portable hoops astride the driveway or racing down the street popping wheelies with their Schwinn Jaguars or Corvettes, some with candy cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. Girls would be playing jacks, hopscotch, and clustering and giggling.
Fertilizers and pesticides along with sprinklers ensured a lush green lawn.
Most houses had dogs, and most dogs were small and yappy.
Life, at least on the surface, was good. People felt safe, drugs were nonexistent, and occasional alcohol consumption by teens was more of a mischievous caper than common indulgence.
Looking back, there was an innocence that seems idyllic today. I lived it as a suburban kid, basically free from fear and excessive academic pressure, with plenty of time to hang out with the neighborhood gang, get into mischief and not be shuttled around to endless activities. Perhaps I’m romanticizing things a bit, but sterile as it was, on balance I’m glad I grew up in suburban America when I did.
“Carefree highway, let me slip away
Slip away on you.”
~ Gordon Lightfoot, 1974
The thing about Mark and me was that we were more like lost puppies than migrating birds: We frolicked our way south and then west to California on whimsical impulse with no particular destination in mind beyond the next day or two. Should we head west through Austin and San Anton or south towards Houston? The coin flipped heads, so Houston it was.
As we rambled south in search of virgin curbs we made a one-day stop in Waco, perhaps the most unremarkable city in Texas. We were 10 days into of our adventure and hadn’t phoned home for a week. Back then cell phones were nonexistent and navigating a pay phone was a clumsy affair. Encumbered by a handful of change we’d have to feed them into the phone box to get connected, then feed more coins every few minutes – prompted by the operator – if we wanted to continue to talk.
Today’s helicopter parents would totally freak out at how we traveled incommunicado for days on end, but that was the way it was back then. Communication was sporadic. We’d mail a postcard every three or four days and call about every two weeks. If an emergency should arise our parents would begin by contacting the police in the last city they were aware of. If that didn’t pan out they would need to call the state highway patrol.
We decided to make Mondays our accounting and banking day when we’d count and split our week’s haul and send a cashier check to our parents to be deposited in our bank saving account. I relished sending my share home, but Mark’s accounting tutorials were an excruciating ordeal. He had just finished a class on small business accounting and set up an elaborate labyrinth of boxes in columns and rows that meant nothing to me. His weekly summation would drone on for half an hour and was best suited to an insomniac ward. Nevertheless I endured his ritual for the duration of the summer. He said we needed it for tax purposes, but I reminded him that he was adamant about not leaving a traceable paper trail because we didn’t want to pay taxes to the IRS. Didn’t matter. He loved caressing and stacking money and bracketing it as tangible proof of our haul.
We kept a heavy metal cash box hidden under the spare tire wheel well in our trunk, but it could not accommodate the mountains of coins we’d accumulate, so we dumped them in a gym bag. It caused quite a stir when we’d stroll into a bank and hand the teller a 40-pound bag of loose change.
My 10-day share was over $700. When I next talked to Dad he said he’d stopped at our tiny branch bank and was greeted by its emperor and sole employee, James D. Boddagard III, aka Mr. Whipple to us kids. Boddagard always conducted himself with erect aplomb. Dad told me he carefully studied the check and shook his head with a sputtering cluck, saying, “My word, Norman is a very enterprising young man. How does he earn all that money?” I could just imagine my dad, an astronomy professor, trying to explain the art of curb painting to a financial mannequin.
It was in Waco that I had my first close encounter of many that would follow. We were blithely painting along when I noticed a couple of bare chested hulks in shorts pumping iron inside an open garage door wearing University of Texas football shorts. They took a bead on me, strolled up, and asked, “What the hell are you doin’?”
I gave them the same spiel I used with the cops. It didn’t go over well.
“You a Yankee?”
“Yeah, but I’ve always wanted to see Texas.”
Meanwhile Mark, trailing me and sensing imminent danger, wisely went into a freeze frame a half block downwind. Better one guy in the hospital than two.
Sandwiched between them, they started pushing me back and forth. Now I’m not a meek guy, but I value my life. The one bruiser put his thumb under my chin, lifted it up and glared down at me. “What college you goin’ to?” “Drake.” “Drake? Never heard of it. Sounds like a school for wimps. Whaddaya studying?”
The next five seconds probably spared me that trip to the hospital.
“I’m majoring in religion.”
“Huh. What religion?”
“All religions, but I’m Baptist.”
“Baptist … hey, alright! Jamie and me are Baptist. I didn’t know there were Baptists up north.”
Suddenly the conversation turned congenial. They told me they played football for the University of Texas. I couldn’t stand the University of Texas football program, but I knew a little about it. They had won the national championship the year before. I dropped the names of Coach Darrell Royal and Tommy Nobis, first team All-American linebacker and college football player of the year.
Mark sensed the change of weather and walked up. “Mark,” I said, “Meet Jamie and Bobby Lee. They play football for the Texas Longhorns. I was just telling them that I’m majoring in religion at Drake.” Mark couldn’t hold back a slight smirk but got the message. He extended his hand and affirmed his respect for Longhorn football. He added that he hated their arch enemy, the University of Oklahoma Boomer Sooners.
Jamie and Bobby Lee told us to hold on, and Bobby Lee went inside to fetch four Cokes. We chatted like fast friends for about ten minutes, shook hands, and continued painting up the street, calling back “Hook ‘em Horns!”
Lesson learned. Always know and be a fan of the local sports scene. And when in the South always be a believer.
“Dear old southland with his dreamy songs
Takes me back there where I belong
How I’d love to be in my mammy’s arms
When it’s sleepy time way down south.”
~ “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South,” Louis Armstrong, 1931
As we neared Houston and the Gulf we could feel the onslaught of stifling heat, the kind of suffocating heat that clogs your pores and brings on wilt: a veritable steam bath with temperatures and humidity both in the high 90s with nary a breeze. I’d never ventured south of Arkansas but could now relate to Louie’s lyrics. No wonder people move ‘possum slow come summer down South. Even sitting couldn’t spell relief without a fan.
Metropolitan Houston was unlike any other American city we would see that summer in that it wasn’t ringed by suburbs. The City of Houston had annexed all of Harris County, and while there were distinct suburban neighborhoods the police were all under the jurisdiction of the city. As we scouted the area we found scattered areas that had been peppered by the Askie Monster and others that were virgin. It was getting late so instead of painting we decided to check out lodging around the University of Houston and rang the bell of a stately white antebellum sorority house, pillars, magnolias and all. A svelte southern belle answered and scanned us cautiously. She was a tall brunette with alabaster skin, green eyes and an air of southern aristocracy, legitimately beautiful. She eyed us cautiously and minced no words: “We’re not buying anything.”
She started to close the door when we pleaded, “We’re just looking for the SAE house.” A complete one-eighty. “Oh, you guys SAE’s? Hi, my name’s Harper. Follow me. You sure aren’t from around here. Where’s home?”
We explained and she ushered us into an entertainment room where about a dozen girls were watching TV. “Hey, y’all, meet Mark and Norm. They’re visiting from Iowa and looking for the SAE house.” One of the girls asked us what we were doing in Houston, and we gave a brief rundown.
Afterwards another girl – regrettably not the pick of the litter – winked and said, “You guys are kinda cute. Iowa … is that where they have good skiing and grow lots of potatoes?”
Idaho, Iowa, Ohio, they’re all one geographic blur in a lot of people’s minds. I replied, “Skiing, mountains, potatoes—you must be thinking of Ohio?”
The SAE house turned out to be only a few blocks away. We checked in, and there was no housemother and only a few guys hanging around for the summer. They were under 21 and received us warmly when we offered to buy a few six-packs.
The next morning we awoke early and toiled in the Amazonian heat, managing to paint 250 curbs. Thankfully no beady-eyed watchdogs or cops hassled us, and we anticipated a bountiful evening. The police were nonchalant and some would pass and wave. We even had friendly chats with a few, and one sergeant offered to take us fishing. We concluded that they liked the idea of metallic addresses, and patrolling a huge city they had bigger fish to fry.
Collecting that evening our optimism was shattered on the third block where we were politely informed that, “Oh, your two other college friends already collected from us.”
“Huh? What did they look like?” “Well, they looked younger. More like high school kids.”
It took a nanosecond to put things together. Punk imposters! My immediate reaction was borderline homicidal, with confrontation the only option.
We started cruising the neighborhood and before long spotted two kids standing on a porch conversing with a lady. We waited till they were moving to the next house and summoned them over.
“Hey, what gives!?”
“Whaddaya mean, ‘what gives’?”
“You punks know what we mean. You’ve been collecting our curb painting donations.”
“So get your butts out of our neighborhood and hand over what you’ve collected!”
At that point our best option was to get tough and shake ‘em down. They were starting to look like scared rabbits and could bolt at any second. If they ran it would involve a tackle and a tussle. And they had one buddy we didn’t want to mess with: a lip-curling Dalmatian starting to drool.
Mark looked at me, frowned, and shook his head. He asked them, “How many blocks you punks collected?” “Guess, big man.”
Just then providence cruised by in the form of a police cruiser. Never in our wildest curb painting dreams could we ever imagine flagging down a cop. But we did. The officer rolled down his window, exhaled blue smoke, and asked, “What’s the problem?”
We explained our laudable neighborhood service project and handed him a flier. To our great relief he told us he’d noticed the addresses and liked the idea. He then glared at the boys and said, “You boys are thieves. I could take you down to the station, but instead I want to talk to your parents.”
They began to quake and shuffle. “We’re really sorry officer! We’ll give them back the money. Just don’t tell our dads.”
They handed over their collection bounty and, Dalmatian astride, walked away tucking their collective tails. We heard the cop call out “And put that dog on a leash!”
Justice had prevailed.
After painting four days in Houston we started California dreamin’. We were totally drained by Houston’s relentless heat and humidity, and The Beach Boys were echoing in our ears. We decided to make a 750-mile beeline for El Paso.
The landscape gradually changed from lush Dixie to moonscape West. Jack pines, live oak and Spanish moss gave way to prairie and eventually to cacti and tumbleweeds; playful dust devils danced across the vast desert floor; turkey vultures glided effortlessly on thermal updrafts. Peering down the ribbon of highway we could see a shimmering mirage of water in the distance, just beyond the reflection of the blinding desert sun.
The sun gave way to nightfall. There’s something enchanting and mystical about driving across the desert at night: a beautiful and profound sense of emptiness and loneliness, of finiteness. A serene silence worthy of drawing an atheist to God.
We had the highway virtually to ourselves. The night sky loomed like a brilliant planetarium, crystalline air devoid of human light; distant purple mountains silhouetted against a limitless horizon. Our only companions were a few skittish antelopes and occasional coyotes nonchalantly standing in the road, their eyes glowing amber as we approached, then loping off casting a casual backward glance.
We arrived in El Paso at dawn and checked out housing at Texas Western University (now The University of Texas at El Paso), finding a modern dormitory near campus. A graduate student was the summer manager and told us there were plenty of vacant rooms and to just take one for free.
El Paso’s climate was a welcome reprieve from Houston’s dripping humidity. The temperature topped 100 degrees every day, but it was a dry heat and we hardly broke a sweat. And nights were pleasant. After five days of painting we decided it was time to pull up stakes and keep heading west toward California.
It was early July when we left El Paso and headed for Phoenix and into the headwinds of a record heat wave, with temperatures approaching 120. It was so hot at Sky Harbor International Airport that airplanes were grounded, but that didn’t stop us from painting. We wore skimpy shorts and didn’t even bother with sun lotion. The heat was so desiccating that we were each drinking a gallon of water every hour but with the absence of humidity didn’t even break a sweat. We were perfect candidates for a heat stroke.
Mark had brown hair, brown eyes and olive skin that turned copper luster. Being of northern European blood, I wasn’t so lucky. My complexion was a hybrid brown, red and lizard since I had ongoing peeling and flaking. As a result I’ve been a dermatologist’s dream. Much like smoking, I can’t believe how oblivious I was to the warnings that were starting to come out about sun protection against skin cancer. But at 21 time was on my side, or so I thought.
Phoenix was the cornucopia of curbdom, being ringed by mostly virgin suburbs: Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Glendale. It was fertile ground for guerrilla curbfare because, with this many cities, we could strike, fade away until any tempest blew over and return several days later to collect. The law hounds were trying to sniff us out, but we were always one step ahead of them since, thankfully, watchdogs didn’t just call the police; first they told us they were going to call the police. Adios.
We encountered a disproportionate number of disagreeable people. I think in part it was largely the weather that was causing tempers to flare. And Barry Goldwater, their native son running for president, had the suburbs in a partisan lather. Seemed like every other yard had a Goldwater sign. This was tough on Mark and me, being diehard Democrats. We tried not to engage in political discussions because it was distasteful and slowed us down dramatically. I developed a line whenever I ran into an argumentative proselytizer, responding,
“Yes, I like Larry Goldwater.”
“That’s Barry Goldwater!”
“Oh, I get confused. I’m not much into politics. Anyway, nice chatting. I need to move on.”
We were hauling in a lot of dough, and Mark was starting to strut his stuff. But our traveling hillbilly roadshow didn’t enhance his image: a 1952 Buick emitting blue smoke with the Albatross in tow, rattling and swaying like a drunk. Definitely not cool.
Lo and behold what should jump out at him in the middle of a lawn but a 1952 MG-TD. It was a deep chestnut brown with matching leather interior, his for $900. It was love at first sight, and I knew what he was thinking: “Let Norm clunk along as he will; I will always be a length behind looking like I just drove over from Beverly Hills.” Maps weren’t his thing, and I had to be in front because he never knew where he was going.
He was fairly gloating over his shrewd purchase and took me on a jaunty tour. We pulled into an A&W drive-in featuring speaker phones and girls on roller skates and placed an order for chili dogs, onion rings, and 24-ounce frosted mugs of root beer. A spritely teenage blond whizzed up with our lunch and commented, “What a cute little Triumph.”
Mark hunched his shoulders and grimaced. He didn’t take kindly to her misidentification. “Triumph! That’s an insult. Would you know the difference between a Cadillac and a Nash Rambler?” He proceeded to give her a spirited lecture on the distinctive history and merits of his hallowed new prize.
I winked at her and said, “He thinks he just bought a Rolls Royce.” Mark didn’t see the humor, and I made a quick note of his sensitivity. From that point on whenever we met a new acquaintance I’d point to his MG and say, Check out my friend Mark’s cool Triumph” and watch his pained reaction with glee. Actually, I think he rather enjoyed the confusion because it gave him an opportunity to extol the virtues of his ego on wheels.
Famed and Framed
We were really cruisin’. We’d been in Phoenix for almost a week and each pulling down close to $100 a day, big money for a couple of vagabond college boys.
It was in Glendale on the fifth day that the lure of flattery trumped our better judgment. I knocked on the door and was greeted by this genial 40-something man in shorts and a T-shirt. I gave him my spiel, and he perked up and invited me in to tell him more about our summer adventure. He told me he was a feature writer for the Phoenix Sun and this would make a good story. Mark was across the street and I whistled him over.
We retraced our footsteps for him from the idea’s inception to his house. He took fastidious notes and after an hour asked if we would be willing to pose for some photos. Our egos were pulsating so of course we consented. His article came out in the Sunday Sun, and we beamed when we saw our mugs prominently displayed on the front page of the features section along with a flattering tribute to our entrepreneurial saga.
The bad news was that we were no longer phantoms. We were two identified college guys from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, on the lam.
The day after the Sunday article the paper ran a response from the Metropolitan Police Association warning people that what we were doing was illegal defacing of public property, and if spotted the police should be notified immediately.
It was time to get out of Dodge so we headed for Las Vegas, still a small town of 120,000 but with a glamorous pull like Los Angeles or Miami. Today it has swelled to over two million. We found virgin curbs but there was an eerie shadow cast over the total absence of even one painted curb. Apparently this town aggressively pursued the faintest whiff of shysterism, and we were fringe shysters. (I looked up the German origin of shyster—“scheiss”—and found it meant defecator. Now I know what my rancher grandfather meant when he’d mutter “shyster” after a business transaction. None of his neighbors had clean boots.)
California here we come.
Now that we were a two-car team we needed a plan to reunite if we got separated. We had an agreement that when that happened we would reconnect at the local city hall. We had some time to kill in Las Vegas, since it was mid-July and we wanted to hold off until nightfall before crossing the scorching Mojave Desert to reach our next destination: Santa Barbara, California.
I parked the Buick and Albatross at a shopping center and hopped in the MG for a tour of The Strip. After taking in a burlesque show and doing a little penny ante gambling we were ready to hit the road. I envied Mark driving a sports car with the top down and the breeze in his face while I rumbled along encased in the Buick.
The drive to Santa Barbara was almost 400 miles of sparsely traveled meandering highways, disconnected ribbons fading into the nightscape. At one stretch we drove for almost two hours without seeing a headlight. The Mojave is the driest and most inhospitable desert in North America, and when driving across it at night its harshness can cast an eerie spell. As we drove into its heart we noticed an army of Joshua trees silhouetted against the intense light of a full moon. Joshua trees are the most humanoid tree in the plant world. Actually not trees, they are a member of the yucca family that can reach a height of 40 feet. They were so named by Mormon settlers who likened their twisted animated shapes to the prophet Joshua raising his hands to the lord.
The infinite blackness was starting to take its toll. About two in the morning I was seeing double. I pulled over and told Mark I was seeing apparitions loom on the highway and needed to catch some shuteye. Mark wanted to barrel ahead to Santa Barbara, so I told him to go ahead, that I’d meet him at the post office the next morning. He called me a short-hitter but reluctantly decided to join me. We pulled off a dusty side road and stretched out our sleeping bags in a sandy open patch. Much to our delight we were serenaded by an encircling band of coyotes who seemed to resent our encroachment. Sweet music to doze off by.
Our dozing never materialized: I was laying on my back mesmerized by a cosmic display of the heavens, air so clear that stars on the horizon winked boldly, when I heard a faint rustling several yards from my sleeping bag. I grabbed my flashlight and took a bead. A snake was slithering in my direction. Not a small snake but a big mutha, looked to be a good five-feet long. His eyes reflected as embers in the beam. I shrieked, “Snake!” and hurled a rock, which he obviously didn’t appreciate—he coiled and rattled like a swarm of locusts. I floundered out of my sleeping bag and made a beeline for the Buick. Mark was sound asleep but jolted into high gear when he heard the word “snake.” He had a phobia about snakes, and as I glanced back I became a believer in levitation.
He joined me in the Buick, and when we regained our bearings we decided it best to wait till dawn before safely retrieving our sleeping bags. Mark said he’d heard in cowboy lore that snakes sometimes sought out the warm cozy comfort of a sleeping bag and added that the Mojave rattlesnake delivered more toxic venom than any of his cousins. I dismissed this as an old wives’ tale.
Dawn arrived and we circled our bags, seeing no evidence of a snake other than some furrows in the sand. We gingerly massaged the bags and detected no suspicious lumps. Feeling none, we cautiously unzipped them and shook furiously. Good thing: A scorpion tumbled out of Mark’s bag and scurried into the sagebrush.
Mark cast me a piercing look. “Holy crap,” he said. “Never ever ever again will you catch me sleeping in the desert without a tent. In fact, not even in a tent. Creepy crawly things can always slither inside. From now on I make the call on where we sleep.”
The Mojave gradually gave way to the arid Central California Valley and then the San Joaquin Forest as we approached the San Ynez Mountains to the west, the last barrier to the hospitable Mediterranean city of Santa Barbara. As part of the California Coast Range they pose as a shield that in summer separates an oven from a refrigerator, with temperature differences that can exceed 40 degrees.
As we drove up toward the summit, chaparral and grasslands surrendered to live oak, bay laurel and coulter pines. When we reached the crest we parked our cars, scanned the vast horizon of the azure Pacific Ocean and breathed deep. The arid desert air was pushed back by a wave of cool, moist saline air, accompanied by the aromatic delight of pine tar and eucalyptus. After over a month of unremitting heat we were intoxicated.
It was mid-July when we arrived in Santa Cruz, a city of only 25,000, early in the morning after an all-night drive from Santa Barbara. Although dog-tired, we were immediately invigorated by its beauty. The city lies on the northern edge of Monterey Bay and is known for its moderate climate, redwoods, beaches, world-class boardwalk, alternative community lifestyles and socially liberal leanings. And to our glee, there was only scant evidence of Askie in the suburbs. We rubbed our palms in anticipation.
Our first task was to stake out lodging at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The campus, which is on a peninsula in the bay, is renowned for its Spanish architecture buildings and is a lush arboretum of coastal and subtropical trees. We were warmly greeted at the SAE house and told there were some available beds on a second floor dormer. The brothers were impressed by Mark’s MG-TD but asked that I park the Buick and Albatross in the back lot. The unspoken word was that my entourage would repel potential coeds.
We immediately set about painting and found the residents to be exceptionally generous, and surprisingly we got no grief from the police. We figured to spend at least a week there before moving on.
A skirmish with terror
On the fourth day we found virgin curbs in a fertile neighborhood and set about finding two young kids to leave slips in doors for two cents a house. (There were no child labor laws that covered the enterprise of curb painting.) We could almost always readily find kids in the age range of nine to 13 riding their bikes or playing in the front yard. But on this day nary a kid was to be found; it was Saturday morning, cartoon time in America.
After cruising up and down several blocks we spotted two little towheaded boys riding bikes and popping wheelies. We liked their spunk. We sized them up and figured they were only six or seven, way too young. But as we were ready to drive on one of the boy’s mother appeared at the front door. When she spotted the Buick and Albatross she walked up to inquire what we were up to. The little boys pedaled up to join in the conversation. After we explained, they excitedly waved their hands and pleaded to hire on. We told them we’d like to, but they were just too young and asked the mother if she knew of any other kids in the neighborhood who might be interested. She said offhand she didn’t but thought her son, Robbie, was up to the task and wanted him to develop a work ethic. We hesitated, but she assured us he could do the job and that she’d check with the other boy’s mother to see if it was okay for him to join the team. Robbie’s pal got the green light, and both mothers told the boys to stay with us and not run ahead. We were off and painting.
Things were going well the first three blocks when suddenly we heard a blood-curdling scream coming from around the corner. We looked up and noticed Robbie was nowhere in sight.
A chill of terror came over us, and we sprinted to the source. Robbie was lying limp on the ground while a diminutive man was frantically pulling a lunging, frothing Rottweiler, trying to drag the beast into his house. Robbie was no longer screaming and had gone into shock, twitching like a wounded sparrow.
It was immediately apparent that he had been mauled by the dog and had deep wounds and lacerations over his torso and one arm. Mark ran back to notify Robbie’s mother while I knelt over him, pulling off my T-shirt to staunch the bleeding. A wave of helplessness and suppressed panic swept over me as I yelled for help.
A woman immediately rushed out of a house across the street and gently brushed me aside and took over, explaining that she was a nurse. Within minutes several other neighbor women appeared, and one was carrying gauze and said she’d called an ambulance.
Robbie’s mother rushed to the scene and began gently caressing him while the nurse applied more gauze and cleansed the wounds, applying antiseptic. I was deeply touched to see what a mother’s touch can do to a terrified little child: he was still sporadically sobbing but was able to explain that the dog had torn its chain out of the ground.
The dog’s owner came out of the house and began sputtering in what sounded like Spanish but turned out to be Portuguese. He managed to convey that he was off work that day and he’d called his wife, who worked at a bank.
The ambulance arrived and Robbie’s mother accompanied him to the hospital. The police arrived shortly thereafter, and several neighbors told them they had been living in mortal fear of the dog and that this was an accident waiting to happen. The police assured them the dog would be euthanized.
Mark and I sped to the hospital emergency room and were told Robbie was in surgery with his mother at his side. Over an hour passed as we paced the ER awaiting word on his condition when his mother appeared. We quaked at the prospect of a tongue-lashing and possible law suit, but her demeanor was calm and reassuring. She said that it wasn’t our fault, that she had granted permission and emphasized to Robbie that he was to stay with us. She said he had some deep wounds but that his face and head had been spared, and the doctor’s prognosis was that he would only have minimal scars. The wounds were being stitched, and antibiotics should prevent infection. She was an amazingly composed and warm woman and looked us each in the eye before giving us a reassuring hug. My eyes welled up, and it was all I could do to hold my composure.
Robbie spent that night and part of the next day at the hospital before going home. We stopped to see him at the hospital, and despite being bandaged up to the hilt the little warrior was in good spirits and relishing the attention and sympathy. He was wearing his bandages as a badge of honor.
We checked back at his house several times over the next few days and gave him a police badge as a tribute to his valor. He beamed with pride.
While Robbie recovered quickly we didn’t do as well—we were haunted by what we had witnessed. The horror of the mauling scene was a recurring nightmare that I couldn’t shed or atone for. We had narrowly averted disaster, and my sense of security was shaken. To this point I had lived a charmed unscathed life in terms of avoiding tragedy, and I suddenly felt and understood vulnerability. It was a dark cloud that hovered over me. My only previous encounter with shock and intense grief was when I was eight years old and found my best friend, Pancho the pup, run over by a car.
After a while my anxiety began to ease, but the memory would never be erased. Caution was now in my veins, and I’d become an overnight adult. I realized that when we hired children we assumed a parental responsibility for their safety and welfare.
Mark and I painted for several more days, but the lingering memory of Robbie’s close call continued to haunt us. We had worked seven days a week all summer, piling up money, painting and collecting every day except when driving to a new destination. The entrepreneurial spirit and first-ever joy of tallying cash at the end of the day kept us on an adrenaline high. But we looked back and agreed we’d myopically driven down the fast lane without sampling roadside attractions or the wonders of our country along the way. In a sense we’d been pounding the pavement like cross-country truckers.
We decided to take a few days off and explore the Pacific Coast and settled on Sunset Beach State Park near Santa Cruz. Back then campers and hikers had free reign of the park with minimal restrictions. A great place for two college kids to roam randomly and spiritually before driving to our next destination.
It was the last week in July when I rumbled up to the SAE house at San Jose State University with Mark’s classic MG-TD bringing up the rear, an odd couple indeed. A band of about ten brothers gravitated to Mark while casting suspicious sideways glances my way.
One of the guys blurted out, “Whoa! Very cool car. You from Arizona?”
“No, I bought it in Phoenix.”
“Looks like Gomer Pyle is in that old Buick with the funky trailer. Is he with you?”
Mark sheepishly replied “Yeah” as I got out of the car and wandered over. We briefly explained our summer saga and they were impressed and invited us in. As usual, Mark’s MG remained in front while I was asked to park my motley duo in back.
We asked if there were any beds available, and they said yes, that it was the summer dead season. We were escorted to a dormer with six bunk beds, two of which were unoccupied. I called dibs on the remaining bottom bunk, which left Mark with the top one.
Several of the brothers were from San Jose and gave us some helpful hints on neighborhoods. We asked about the police and were told there was no love lost between them and college students. We explained that the law sometimes hassled us over painting curbs. Tim, one of the brothers, offered a brilliant suggestion. His dad was the director of the city’s transportation department, and he said he’d make an appointment for the three of us to stop in his office and request permission to paint. We told him that if he could pull that off it would be worth a case of beer.
He reserved a meeting time that afternoon and escorted us to his dad’s office. We got immediate good vibes—his father was a friendly self-assured man who was all ears. Of course, we painted a rosy picture of our enterprise and how much previous cities appreciated it. We could tell that he was a man who prided his authority.
We asked him if he had the clout to grant us permission, which we think he took as a challenge. “Sure,” he said. “We’ve had some organizations, including the Boy Scouts, raise money painting house numbers, and as your slip says, it’s a great service with no obligation to pay and really helps the police and fire departments. I’ll write you each a signed authorizing note on department stationary.” We were euphoric and thanked him profusely, afterwards taking Tim out for pizza.
Back then San Jose was a mainly suburban city of less than 200,000. Today the metropolitan area is over two million and it is a world-renowned technology hub.
After dropping Tim off we spent the rest of the afternoon scouting the suburbs. Some neighborhoods had been hit by the Askie Monster but others were virgin. The next day we began painting, and sure enough some neighborhood watchdogs and police cruisers asked what we were doing. The authorizing notes might just as well have been from President Lyndon Johnson. The cops responded with deferential respect and wished us luck, saying it was a great help to them, and the skeptics and complainers were kept at bay. After three days of painting we figured we could work San Jose for several weeks.
The fourth night I walked up the driveway of an anally manicured lawn and spotted a man on his knees picking at his flowerbed with tweezers. Hmmm. Mites? Bug eggs? Maybe dead flies?
“Good evening sir.” He reeled and looked at me like I was Butch Cassidy. He was a small bony man with a puckered face and horned-rim glasses. “Come with me” he said, as he escorted me to the door, bowing and sweeping his right hand. “You’re under arrest!”
“Under arrest?” I said with a puzzled smirk.
This was a new one for me, and I thought about just walking out the door, but he braced himself against it facing me.
“Oh no you don’t! You’re not leaving. I’ve called the police and an officer will be arriving shortly. I called the city clerk’s office and she said they didn’t have a record of you boys getting permission. You are defacing public property and will be sorry you ever tangled with me.”
A police cruiser pulled up shortly and tall surly officer rang the doorbell.
“I’ve got him right here, officer,” he said with a self-satisfied smug smile. He looked like he’d just captured Clyde Barrow.
He told the officer that what we were doing was an illegal scam and I should pay the full price under the penalty of the law. The officer looked a bit annoyed, and I explained I had permission from the transportation department. He asked to see the authorizing note, and I said I’d fetch it but would have to go to my car. As I jogged to the Buick, Mark saw me and asked what was up. I broke into teary-eyed laughter explaining the situation and picturing this grim imposing cop trapped in the front hall with this beady-eyed little shrimp. I took my sweet time returning to the weasel’s house.
When I returned I handed the officer my authorizing note. He read it and peered down at the little man. “You called me to your house over this! Guess how I found your address?” He shook his head and then gave me a soft punch on the shoulder. “Good luck. You’ve got a helluva good service going. Just last week I got a break-in call, and it took me five extra minutes to find the house with a flashlight.”
As we walked down the driveway he said he liked being in law enforcement but what he really dreamed about was making it in the big leagues, that he was a high school All-America first baseman in California, but when he tried out in the pros he couldn’t conquer the curve ball. I told him I was a big San Francisco Giants fan, and we bantered back and forth about Willy Mays, Willy McCovey, Juan Marichal and company.
We finished our fourth day in San Jose and were hauling in the dough. After collecting we fetched our cash box out of the Buick wheel well and laid out the bills and change on the dining room table to count and sort for our weekly trip to the bank, where we would convert it to cashier’s checks to send home. Mark had this ritual of rubbing his hands together with a Midas smile as he fondled the bills.
Six fraternity brothers were in the TV solarium, in a semi-comatose state, watching Gilligan’s Island when one guy wandered by and glanced at the stash.
“Whoa! Where did you get all that?” Mark answered, “Just a day’s work. Actually a week’s. This also includes what we collected in Santa Cruz the last three days there.” His eyes turned to saucers. He yelled to the solarium crowd, “Hey, come here! You guys won’t believe this.”
The solarium crowd wandered up, and when they saw the money they hunched around the table with muted awe. When the money was totaled it added up to slightly less than $900. One said, “Let’s see, that means you guys each cleared over $400 in a week. I work half time as a cashier at Seven Eleven and bring home $60 a week. And you don’t have to pay taxes.”
“Oh no,” Mark said, smiling. “Even though the government can’t keep track we have a patriotic duty to donate our fair share.”
After witnessing their gaping stares Mark let them know that the money would be tucked at the foot of his sleeping bag when we cashed in for the night.
They all wanted to hear about our summer adventure, and we gave them a brief account. Three SAEs from the University of South Carolina who were on a summer lark touring California stuck around, listening with rapt attention as we shared the secrets of our trade. They were genial charming southern boys with thick drawls who loved to tell bawdy and racist jokes.
The next morning I was shaving in the upstairs bathroom when Marv walked up to the window facing the back parking lot. “Look,” he said. I looked out. “So? … What?” “Look again.” I did and still didn’t see anything. “Is there something missing?” he said. Kapow! It hit me: The Albatross was gone. We had chained and locked it to a small tree. The trunk had been sawed off, and all that remained was a foot-high stub.
We walked out to the parking lot and noticed the Chevy with South Carolina plates was gone. We cursed up a storm; they seemed like honorable guys.
Everything we owned that wasn’t on our backs was in the Albatross: our camping gear, clothes, my fishing poles and tackle box and all the painting equipment. We reported the theft to the police, but the thieves were long gone.
In a strange perverse way this was freeing for me. I’d grown used to stares, but now I could drive the Buick like a regular guy and didn’t have to put up with all that swaying and rattling.
We spent the entire day shopping to resurrect the curaborator, buy paint, have new slips printed and buy new clothes and sleeping bags. We were livid about having to waste a precious day spending a lot of money instead of earning it, but we recouped some of our loss collecting that evening from houses we’d missed the first time around.
She’ll pull you in
And play with you awhile
But there ain’t no way to win
I know, she’s a lot like Reno
Couldn’t roll me a seven
If you gave me loaded dice
~ Doug Supernaw, “Reno,” 1993
It was now early August, and gravity was pulling us east. School was starting in a month. Reno, Nevada, was a six-hour drive over the mighty Sierra Nevada and our next logical stop.
We drove Interstate 80 over Donner Pass and down Truckee Canyon to the bright lights of Reno. The Buick belched and steamed its way to the summit with the temperature needle dancing on red. Towing the Albatross would have been its demise.
I-80 was a sleek breeze compared to the last time I had seen it as a boy when my dad drove our family to the summit on its predecessor, the old Lincoln Highway, in December of 1957. Back then almost everybody had chains on their tires, an imperative for locals because snow was up to the eaves in cabins with no visible window, the only access being shoveled tunnels to the front door.
In junior high I wrote a paper about the Donner-Reed pioneer party being stranded there by an early November snowstorm in 1846. Of the 87 members of the party, 48 survived to reach California in the spring. The deceased were eaten for survival.
We secured two bunks in a dormitory at the University of Nevada at Reno. The next morning we scouted the city. There was only scant faded evidence of the Askie Monster, and it looked like he hadn’t struck for several years. We went into high gear and painted 200 curbs with no hassles. When finished we decided to take the night off and check out the Strip. I got into slots and blew my allocated purse, but Mark closed a little ahead playing black jack. We found the glitz, noise, smoke, body odor and general mood of desperation to be suffocating and returned to the dorm early.
The next day we started painting at mid-morning, and by early afternoon we’d added another 100 curbs. Things were going smoothly until mid-day when a cruiser pulled up next to us.
“Get in the back seat. Do you know that what you’re doing is illegal?” “No sir,” Mark said, and started his humble spiel, but the officer was unimpressed. He drove straight ahead, eyes riveted to the yellow median; some robots could have passed for more human. “Not my problem and I don’t want to hear about it. Chief Elmer Briscoe will deal with you.”
Mark and I gave each other stealthy side glances and raised our eyebrows. This guy couldn’t be too tough a guy with a name like Elmer. I knew of only two Elmers: Elmer Fudd of cartoon fame and Elmer Keeney, my next door neighbor as a kid. Elmer and his wife, Thelma, would have dinner with our family once in a while, and droll was an understatement for Elmer. He was the consummate Thurber man, and when Thelma got on his case he’d turn into a possum.
We were escorted to the Chief’ office and the sergeant knocked on the door and said, “Sir, I’ve got your boys.”
The chief happened to be adjusting blinds, and when we saw him we were taken aback. He was about six four and looked like he just came out of a Marlboro commercial, sinewy with a tan chiseled face and steely blue eyes. His name should have been Rocky, Clint or Duke.
“Sit,” he said as he slowly eased into the leather chair behind his desk. He didn’t extend himself—just alternated his gaze between us for over a minute.
Mark got edgy and opened with our typical pitch but was interrupted after a few sentences. “I get the picture. I’ve read your slip so let’s not waste time. Let me cut to the chase: You couldn’t have picked a worse time to come to town. Harrah’s is embroiled in a lawsuit with the other Strip casinos. Harrah’s put a carpet in front of their casino and there was no ordinance on altering public sidewalks and curbs, so they claim they’re grandfathered in even though the city has since passed an ordinance prohibiting such. Guess who’s in the middle of this?”
As he talked his eyes shifted between us with laser intensity. He had obviously had a lot of experience with police lineups.
“I read your slips, and as of this moment you guys are done in Reno. Our hearts sank when he next said, “And that means collecting too.”
This hit us in the solar plexus and I asked, “What’s the penalty for violating the ordinance?” “Simple. You’ll be arrested, booked and fined. And it will go on your record as a misdemeanor.”
We wanted to know the amount of the fine but didn’t ask for fear of arousing suspicion.
I noticed a Harvard Law diploma framed on the wall and asked how he ended up in Reno. “Crime,” he said stoically. “I cut my teeth prosecuting criminals. Reno is the biggest little crime city in America, and we’re gaining on Las Vegas. I was hired to clean things up.”
He stood up behind the desk but didn’t extend his hand. The sergeant escorted us out the door.
We were browbeaten by his intimidating demeanor and felt like we’d just had a meeting with General George Patton. But later we agreed that beneath that demeanor we could sense a glimmer of warmth.
The sergeant dropped us off without saying a word or turning his head. “Out,” was all he said. We noticed some kids had had a field day with our spray paint, luckily just on lawns.
Predictably, Mark and I disagreed about what to do now that we had 300 curb homes in waiting. I said I had an unblemished police record and wanted to keep it that way. Mark said a blemish showed guts and would give me an edge getting a job because it showed an enterprising spirit. Easy for him to say since he’d spent a night in a Kearney, Nebraska, jail for trying to syphon gas from a station that was closed. Claimed he and his buddy had to do it because the gauge read empty and they had to get to Denver the next morning. Sheepishly he admitted that their dads had to drive to Kearney from Des Moines to post their bail.
He argued that we were almost stone broke because we’d just sent our earnings home and had no choice but to collect. I could see his point. Our next stop was Denver, over a thousand mile haul, and we needed an infusion of cash.
We stopped at a family restaurant and had a home cooked meal washed down with a couple of beers for fortification. Things went smoothly the first couple of hours, and we’d collected enough to sustain us awhile. As twilight was giving way to darkness I walked up to house at the top of a cul de sac. I rang the doorbell, and who should appear but none other than Chief Briscoe. I stood there immobilized as he peered down at me sternly, shook his head, and said, “You wait right here. I’ll be back.”
I was waiting to be escorted to jail, and when he returned he just stared down at me for about 30 seconds, eternity. I began to squirm. Then a slight smile came across his face and he handed me a $10 bill. “You boys have guts. Now scram and don’t get caught.”
I sprinted up to Mark and told him the story. We both agreed that we’d better take our earnings and blow town. We’d dodged a bullet.
“Momma said there’ll be days like this
There’ll be days like this momma said.”
~ The Shirelles, 1960
Our two choices were either to head straight for Denver or make one more stab in Nevada to pad our pockets for the long trek. The Nevada option was Sparks, a nondescript suburb of 17,000 just east of Reno. It was teeming with totally virgin curbs, which normally would have warded us off as it had in Las Vegas, but we only had one day’s profit under our belts, so Sparks, here we come.
We painted 200 curbs and figured we’d collect and then head to Denver. The afternoon and evening went alarming well—after Reno we had become skittish in the Nevada air.
It was getting dark and we were ready to call it a night when two police cars pulled up alongside us and beamed their flashlights. “Halt! Don’t move! Put your hands in the air.”
Mark was on one side of the block and I on the other. Two officers jumped out of their respective cars and one keyed on me and the other on Mark, hands on their holsters as they cautiously approached us. The officer who confronted me looked to be in his early fifties and had the confidence and demeanor of a seasoned cop. He called out to the junior officer to escort Mark across the street so the four of us could meet together. The younger officer asked if we should be handcuffed and he said no, that he wanted to ask us some questions before deciding if that was necessary.
“What are you two doing jogging across lawns and knocking on doors when it’s almost dark?
We explained about our summer enterprise and neither of them knew anything about it. Obviously they were looking into something much more serious. The senior officer ordered us to get in the back seat of his cruiser and told his assistant to follow us to the police station. We were petrified and sat mute: this was a glaring and scary departure from any previous encounters we’d had with the law.
Finally, I ventured to ask him, “Sir, could you tell us why we’re in such serious trouble?” “No. I’m not at liberty to discuss that. First we need to interrogate you.”
We arrived at headquarters and were promptly ushered into a stark bare room where we were greeted by a detective and the police chief, who both glared menacingly at us before beginning to ask questions. What were we doing in Sparks, and how long had we been in the community? When we explained and asked why we were under suspicion the chief gave a curt answer. “Painting house numbers on curbs is prohibited by city ordinance, so that’s strike one, but that’s stealing gum compared to the second strike. We need to talk more.”
We didn’t have a clue what they were talking about and were frozen in fear. Just when they were ready to launch into intense grilling the woman who worked behind the police desk rapped on the door and stepped in.
“We just got a call from the coroner, and he ruled the death a suicide.” Suicide! Whew!
Still, we were detained for several hours, squirming as we waited for the coroner’s findings to be clarified and confirmed. Apparently the suicide was in the vicinity of where we were collecting, but they would not reveal the barest of details. How did this person commit suicide: a bullet, hanging, overdosing?
When we were released the chief took off his Dick Tracy mask and showed a sympathetic face to our ordeal. “I know you boys must have wondered if we were going to ship you to Alcatraz, but my read on you two was that you didn’t look like the killing types. Nevertheless, you were in the neighborhood and damn lucky this death was solved so quickly.”
No explanation was offered of the details, nothing, and we weren’t about to stick around and find out in tomorrow’s paper. The reticent junior officer drove us back to our cars and told us we should get out of Sparks while the gettin’ was good. Curb painting was such a trivial offense that on this night it wasn’t on the police’s radar, and to our great relief he didn’t ask to hand over our evening’s haul.
We were hyper-spooked and decided to make a quick exit back to Reno, grab a burger and fries and drive straight through to Denver. We didn’t want strike three.
By now it was approaching midnight but we were so shaken that sleep was the last thing on our minds. Mark wanted to sport his way at a faster pace, but we both agreed that we needed to keep track of each other in case one of us ran into a problem. Our solution was for each of us to pull over at the first filling station on or beyond the 100-mile mark and wait for a connection.
We looked at a map and decided to take U.S. 50 east across Nevada to Delta, Utah, and then connect to Interstate 80 at Salt Lake City. This would get us half way to Denver.
The dash to Denver
Driving far from home
On a midnight radio
Reckless and alone
On a long black road
So far from the morning light
~ Big Head Tod and the Monsters 1994
It was midnight when we each hit the long lonely black road, 500 miles of barren beautiful desolation crossing the Great Basin Desert, a high sagebrush and chaparral basin dotted with peaks over 9,000 feet high. Walled in by the Sierra Nevada to the west and the Rocky Mountains to the east, it is shielded from the moist air of the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico and averages between two and four inches of precipitation a year. Towns were few and far between, and none were of consequence.
Normally I would be fading this time of night but was so revved up that adrenaline and gasoline would fuel me through the night. I lost track of Mark and reveled in the solitude.
We pulled in for breakfast at a café in Delta, Utah, and while waiting to be seated several young Mormon missionaries walked in behind us. They were immaculately clean cut, with black shined shoes, dark slacks, starched white shirts and skinny black ties. They couldn’t have been a day over 20. I made the mistake of making eye contact and smiling as I gave them a nod. They smiled back with a dreamy look that said, “We’d like to talk with you.”
The taller one looked at me and said, “We’d like to visit with you. We have some good news.”
Before I could respond Mark turned around to them and said, “Would you like to join us for breakfast? Young Miss, start us off with four cups of stiff coffee. I’ve been driving all night from Reno and need a jolt of caffeine.” I could have smacked him.
The shorter missionary’s eyes glanced nervously up to his companion and then to us. “Thank you, but we don’t drink caffeine. But we would like to share our good news.”
Mark said, “You look like missionaries. You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but so am I. I’m a Seventh Day Adventist, and I have a message of good news for you.”
They were taken aback and cautiously eyed each other for a few seconds before the tall one responded, “That’s nice, but we’re on a tight schedule. Maybe another time.”
I was ready to lapse into convulsive laughter and had to stage a coughing attack. After we sat down I looked at Mark and said, “You’re a genius! Where did you come up with that one?”
“It’s been a long drive, and I got to thinking that we would be passing through Salt Lake City, the home of the Mormon Church. I’ve been approached by missionaries and got to thinking about how I’d respond if approached. Wish I could say I was thinking on my feet.”
We agreed to follow US 6 into Salt Lake City and meet at the city hall, where I’d leave the Buick and hop into the MG for a quick tour of the city. We were running on three cylinders and found a park where we could stretch out on the grass and snooze for a couple of hours.
By mid-afternoon we decided to make the 500-mile trek to Denver, where we’d meet at the city’s main post office in the morning. Mark was in his Sterling Moss mode and couldn’t wait to blaze over the Rockies. I pointed out that he’d arrive in the wee hours of the morning and that I was excited to go over Berthoud Pass and catch a few hours shuteye in my sleeping bag, arriving around seven in the morning. The 11,000 foot pass is one of the most notoriously difficult passes in Colorado for motorists, based not only on its altitude but its steep grades and large number of switchbacks.
We were both flickering at the end of our candles, and our nerves were frazzled. Up to this point on the trip we’d kept a watchful supportive eye on one another, but this was the last straw for Mark. “Okay, but that hulk will run into problems. Maybe when it breaks down you can get towed over the summit and coast down to Denver. But you’re on your own—just give me my half of what’s left in the cash box.”
I smirked, walked over to the Buick and handed him a small sack of paint cans, a stack of flyers and one of our curoborator baskets. “Here, the sack will fit in your dinky trunk, and the basket can be your front seat buddy. This should be enough to last you a day.”
He peeled off in a huff as the Buick groaned from behind. As he raced out of view it occurred to me there was no way to get in touch except coordinating through calls to our parents. We’d had our occasional spats and sometimes sniped at one another, but that was just part of the bargain for traveling cross country with somebody all summer on a harebrained adventure. But this was different.
The Buick chugged its way over the Continental Divide, and I decided to let her recuperate at a pullover. She must have felt like an old mare traversing Khyber Pass. I spread out my sleeping bag on a bed of spruce needles and looked skyward. The frigid night air was heavy with the sweet scent of conifer needles and sap, and I gazed in wonder at the heavens. The stars had a different look: From the desert they scintillated in dazzling splendor. At ten thousand feet they lasered in like diamonds against a black velvet backdrop. I fell off to sleep quickly and woke up refreshed after three hours, stopping at a log cabin café for breakfast with a crackling fireplace radiating cheer. I was back from the dead.
“The bright lights of Denver
Were shining like diamonds
Like Ten Thousand Jewels in the Sky”
~ Willie Nelson, “Denver,” 1975
I descended into Denver at sunrise and drove around the periphery of the post office until I saw Mark’s MG. I parked behind it and spotted his crumpled form twisted in his sleeping bag under a large bush just off the sidewalk. I approached gingerly and tapped his shoulder. He was lying on his side and moaned as he opened one magnified bloodshot eye. But within seconds he was wide awake and sprung into fury.
“You SOB! Where the hell (too profane?) have you been? “I’ve been under this bush since three o’clock in the morning.”
I reminded him of our exchange in Salt Lake City, but that just added fuel to the fire. We were both at the boiling point and within inches of fisticuffs, huffing and glowering as we postured in our most menacing stances. At the last minute we were rescued by a security guard who told us emphatically to move on with haste.
And so began the last leg of our journey in Denver. It was mid-August and we needed to be home for school in 10 days.
Our brush fire was doused, and as we walked away we simultaneously offered each other the peace pipe. We agreed to reunite for breakfast at a nearby café and spread out a map to chart our strategy, settling on our base camp at Golden Gate Canyon State Park near Golden and a stone’s throw from Denver’s western suburbs. This was camping at its best, with showers and firewood. And happily the Coors Brewery in Golden offered tours that included a free sampling. Every day after painting we’d stop by for a refresher before returning to the campground to clean up. The guides got to know us and loved our tales of the summer. We’d arrive late in the afternoon, and they’d let us bypass the tour groups and take the fast lane to the bar.
Denver was much like Phoenix, a western boom town encased by suburbs like Arvada, Lakewood, Englewood and Littleton. Perfect for hit-and-run guerilla paintfare. We saw evidence of Askie everywhere, but 90 percent of the curbs were virgins.
We raked in the money the first six days and only had to play hide-and-seek with the law twice, skipping to another suburb when we encountered a watchdog who threatened to call the police. We’d strike again two days later but avoid the watchdog’s block.
As is true today, the world back then was awash with fruitcakes, and suburban America had its fair share. While the vast majority of the thousands of people we called on over the summer were warm and gracious, here were a few memorable fruitcakes:
In Santa Barbara a mother said she’d contribute two dollars if I’d dance with her four-year-old son to Sam the Sham and the Pharos’ “Wooly Bully.” I was a big fan of Sam the Sham, one of the wackiest roll ‘n rollers on the planet, known for his camp robe and turban and hauling his equipment in a 1952 Packard Hearse with maroon velvet curtains. She put the record on the turntable and away we went, swaying and boogying to the beat. When it was over I thanked her for the memorable opportunity and headed for the door. The boy started wailing that he wanted to do it again. She offered me another dollar for a second time and I obliged. She said she had a few more bucks if I could keep him entertained for a while, but I drew the line and declined. I could still hear him crying two houses up the street and wondered if he was missing a dad.
In El Paso a portly woman with a flushed complexion, bulbous nose, squinty eyes, and curlers greeted me sporting a semi-transparent frayed robe and puffing on a cigarette. I quivered. She was clearly inebriated, and I couldn’t seem to explain our project to her. “Whatever it is, I don’t like it. Get off my property!” She was accompanied by a yapping Chihuahua, and when I turned to walk away he starting buzzing me like a crazed hornet while she chanted, “Git ‘em, Chico!” I did a back-pedaling jig until safely in the street.
But one of the strangest encounters was in Lakewood, Colorado where a man with fiery eyes accused me of being a communist. I couldn’t grasp the connection and asked him to explain.
“You encroached on and defaced my property without permission. That’s what communists do, and once they get their foot in the door the next thing is confiscation.”
“Sir, I’ll gladly remove the paint, but the curb is owned by the city.”
“See. That’s my point. I paid taxes for that curb, and recently the city assessed me to repair the sidewalk. Next thing they’ll take my house. All governments are communists.”
I replied, “Gee, you make a good point. I never thought of it that way.”
This pleased him immensely, and he told me to wait right there. He returned and handed me a John Birch Society pamphlet along with quarter and told me I didn’t need to remove the paint.
“Mrs. Robinson you’re trying to seduce me.”
~ Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) to Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), The Graduate, 1967
I laugh now picturing myself jogging from house-to-house pitching the virtues of house numbers painted on curbs to housewives. (Yes, back then it was usually the woman of the house who answered the door.) To say I was naïve would be an understatement. Here I was at the stamen of manhood talking face to face with hundreds of women in their 20s and 30s, some who looked like their sideline was modeling.
From the time I was able to distinguish between the sexes Dad conveyed to me that women were virtuous damsels and I should squash any wavering or brutish inclinations. The women who greeted me at the door were blissfully married, and I was a mere purveyor of reflective house numbers. This was confirmed by the fact that growing up in Windsor Heights, Iowa, none of the families in my neighborhood, my friends’ parents or kids I knew in high school had a severed family. Perhaps a few, but if so it was a hushed secret.
On our fourth night we collected in an upscale neighborhood in the suburb of Arvada. Many of the homes were sprawling classic mission ranch, with tile roofs and underground lawn sprinklers to ensure a lush carpet with Colorado flora. Such was hers.
I walked by a silver Porsche in the driveway and rang the doorbell, but no one answered. I started to head to the next house and was in the neighbor’s yard when I heard a “Yoo hoo. Hey, come back.”
I turned around and did a double-take. It was Kim Novak in the flesh, blonde with a perfectly proportioned radiant face, button nose, aquamarine eyes, and a figure that distracted eye contact.
“You must be one of the college boys. Hi, I’m Katherine … come in. I apologize for looking like this but I’ve been weeding out back. Do come in.” The garden attire just added to her appeal.
She was flanked by a greyhound who serenely eyed me. She assured me that he was friendly but very shy, since he was a rescue dog.
“Tell me about this curb painting. I majored in sociology. Make yourself comfortable. Would you like something to drink?”
I said that would be nice, and she returned with two cokes and asked me to take a chair across from her in the living room
We made casual conversation for about 15 minutes. I briefed her on our summer and she listened intently, wanting to know how we hatched the idea, what cities we’d visited and our most interesting experiences. She told me our summer experience was one of the most intriguing stories she’d ever heard. I wasn’t used to this.
I knew I should be going but was in her grip. I asked her to tell me a little about herself, and she said she’d grown up in San Diego and majored in sociology at San Diego State. She played a lot of tennis and liked to hike and camp.
I was transfixed. She radiated warmth and intelligence, and my mind began to swirl between unease and infatuation, complicated by testosterone. I noticed a framed picture of her and her husband on the fireplace mantel, a couple right out of Hollywood.
I asked about the Porsche and she said it was her husband’s toy and he was always reluctant to give her the keys, but that he was out of town for several days and she loved revving it up in the Rockies.
I asked about her husband and her demeanor changed from enthusiastic to somber.
“My husband and I have been married for seven years. He’s a doctor and I just found out last week that he’s having an affair with one of the nurses. He’s a neurologist and is at conference in Chicago … with her. So I’ve been married him for all this time. I put him through medical school at U.C.L.A. with the promise that he’d send me to graduate school afterwards and we’d have children.”
Her eyes welled up and my mind began to spin, with my body not far behind. I’d never had a grown woman confide in me and felt a surge of pity that I tried to awkwardly express. “Gee, that must really hurt.”
“It does, terribly. I’m not ready to tell anybody I know about it, but it feels good to share it with you.”
She said she knew I needed to go but asked if I could I sit and talk for just a little while longer. I said sure. I was a captive under her spell; Mark and money be damned. But I was also aware that when Mark finished his end of the street he’s hook back towards me since we always finished a block together before moving to the next one. My only hope was that he’d get a read on the situation.
Sure enough, just then the doorbell chimed. It was Mark. He looked at me and then her, bug-eyed, and said, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt anything. Norm, I just wondered what happened to you.” If he’d interrupted anything he didn’t seem in a hurry to leave.
I stood up and said I needed to get going. As I was going out the front door she said, “Wait. I need to give you a donation. I’ll be right back.” Mark was walking away when she reappeared and ever so gently slipped a twenty dollar bill in my palm and gave me a peck on the cheek. “You missed some houses talking with me so this should help. If you’re in the neighborhood in the next two days feel free to stop by.”
I don’t remember a lot about the rest of that night. My heart was pounding, and I was feeling a new and radically different kind of intoxication. I spent the next two days debating a return visit but in the end chickened out. I haven’t had that same intoxication since.
It was late August and time to look homeward. We each pulled out of the cool, dry conifer-saturated mountain air of Estes Park in early morning braced for the grueling 700-mile drive to Des Moines. We were on our own.
As is true all along the Rocky Mountain Front Range, the passage to the High Plains is joltingly abrupt. As the mountains quickly faded in my rearview mirror I entered the land historically renowned for the buffalo and the Sioux, now barren of those long ago visages.
The eastern horizon stretched endlessly, graced by vistas with sweeping tall grass prairie dotted by prickly pear cacti, yucca and scrub. The High Plains have the second-lowest population density in the country after Alaska. Ranch shacks of generations past had crumbled into oblivion. Abandoned windmills, twisted and leaning, harkened back to the pre-Dustbowl era when sodbusters eked out a living in an unforgiving, unpredictable climate. In January of 1916 the world’s record for the greatest temperature change in 24 hours, 100 degrees, occurred in Browning, Montana, when the thermometer dropped from 44 degrees to -56 degrees.
On this day it wasn’t chill but heat I must endure traversing Nebraska, windows down with a blast furnace buffeting my face. The late August sky had an amber haze, and the air shimmied in waves as it wafted off the pavement. Turkey vultures glided unflappingly on air currents, scanning for carrion. The only sign of relief was a towering line of anvil cumulus nimbus thunderheads with purple bases flaring lightning 50 miles to the north. I’d spent the last six weeks of the summer in the mountainous West, and the uninterrupted flat horizon felt alien.
When I reached Interstate 80 in Nebraska the monotony gave me plenty of time to think back on our summer. While I was anxious to return to Iowa and the predictably comfortable, festive college life, I felt like Edmund Hillary must have after reaching the pinnacle of Mount Everest and then taking the slow descent. My last two months were an epic life-changing experience that had bolstered my confidence.
At the onset of our adventure I was apprehensive, having never assumed risk of this proportion. Succeeding as an entrepreneur was a new exhilarating high.
Calling on individual households was an ongoing knock into the unknown; there was no predictability. At first this was unsettling but after a week I began to relish that unpredictability. Instead of apprehension I began to foretaste the endlessly enticing array of people answering the door—warm, curious, cantankerous, generous, miserly, goofy—the whole spectrum. Only a small fraction were threatening and I viewed them as a challenge to defuse. Never during the summer did I fear their anger escalating to physical assault.
Before, I had a tendency to shift away from looking people in the eye. Calling on people demanded that I maintain constant eye contact. This was a transformational adjustment that would stick for life.
As I drove eastward the elevation dropped and the temperature rose. When the interstate began to parallel the Platte River, the Great Plains gave way to irrigated corn and soybean fields and cottonwoods lining the river. It was a hot day, and as I was skirting Lincoln the air became heavy and ragweed pollen tickled my nose. Welcome to the Midwest and hay fever. I pulled into a rest stop and the din of locusts and swarming grasshoppers reminded me that Des Moines was just down the road.
As I approached our house I felt a tinge of guilt that I hadn’t kept in better contact with my folks. I’d drop them a postcard now and then, and when I’d send a cashier’s check home I’d enclose a note updating them on where we were and our less predictable plans for tomorrow. Long-distance phone calls were cumbersome so they only heard my voice about every three weeks. To an extent I’d been a merry sprite on a summer caper, oblivious to my parents’ love and concern.
When I pulled into the driveway I embraced them. They were watery-eyed and told me they couldn’t help but worry since they had no way of contacting me and lived in daily suspense of my welfare.
Several neighbors wandered over brimming with questions and were all ears about my summer adventure. I felt like I’d just returned from the Korean War and reveled telling them about my meanderings out West. Mr. Anderson, the skeptical neighbor who told my mom that I needed to see a psychiatrist when we started our journey slapped me on the shoulder and said he’d have eaten his hat if he had known we could have pulled off such a pipe dream. I said it wasn’t too late and handed him my St. Louis Cardinals cap, but he declined, saying he was a Cubs’ fan.
Dad was a cerebral, taciturn man short or silent on good words. He was a kind and supportive father but issued compliments sparingly if at all. As an astronomer his mind was more on the cosmos than on his son. He wasn’t aware that I was active in school sports, and when I had my picture in paper sports section for setting a school record in the long jump my senior year he looked across the breakfast table and said, “Norman, I didn’t know you were out for track.” So it meant a lot to me when he pulled me aside and said he was very proud of me for taking such a risk and succeeding; that he would never would have considered such a gamble.
As I pulled out of the driveway to meet up with Mark, I smiled and waved. Seeing them standing there together, Mom with her apron and Dad drawing on his pipe, sent a surge of emotion over me. They married very late and looked old, stooped and tired, with eyes beginning to show the haze of age. My mind flashed back a mere decade ago: I was in grade school, and they were pillars of comfort and strength for me, still robust with taught faces and only early streaks of gray. My throat constricted; I had sprouted wings and was leaving them behind.
Back to school
There was little time to catch my breath with classes starting in 10 days, which probably was just as well because the lull would have been unsettling. So I plunged into the social scene while steeling myself for the upcoming semester. I was motivated to redeem myself after my dismal academic showing that spring semester.
Resuming classes as a junior had a very different feel. I didn’t feel like an aimless fun-seeking college student anymore. I felt like a young man with a purpose, a self-sufficient adult. I was motivated to get my money’s worth out of school, viewing lectures as a privilege to learn and expand my mind instead of an obstacle course to good grades. I pretty much divorced myself from the brotherhood of my fraternity and moved into a rented house with four friends. I answered to the adopted name “Mother Riggs” and did the cooking while honchoing others to keep the house clean and orderly.
The first day of class Mark and I each received a call from the dean of students, Dr. Arthur Casebeer, an incongruous name for a man whose main mission was to put a lid on beer-drinking minors. Dean Casebeer was a well-liked but no-nonsense guy. A call to report to his office had an ominous ring.
As Mark and I walked into his office he told us to take a seat in front of his desk and looked us sternly in the eye.
“So I understand you two have had quite an eventful summer.”
We were surprised he knew anything about our curb painting, but then I remembered that he and Dad were friends who frequented the faculty lounge. He spread out five different letters on the desk with the city police departments on the masthead and gave us a dour look.
“It’s not every day that I have to answer to police departments in Mesa, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe and Paradise Valley. Every city’s letter enclosed an article in the Phoenix Sun extolling your entrepreneurial feats, with pictures of your grinning mugs and your names and Drake University below. They all have ordinances against defacing city property and enforce the Green River Ordinance, which prohibits door-to-door solicitation without express prior permission from the household. You guys were apparently skipping all over the Valley like Jesse James. How the heck did you pull this off?
“Dean Casebeer,” I replied, “We weren’t soliciting, we were just accepting donations.”
He cast a perplexed look and shook his head. “So who’s gonna pay the fine, you two or Drake University. You know this doesn’t reflect favorably on Drake.”
“How much are the fines?” Mark asked. “Scottsdale is $100. The others are all $75. We looked at each other and then at him. I said, “Well, I guess we have to pony up and pay.” Mark gave me a side kick under the desk.
Then he winked and smiled and shook his head again. “You know, I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but you guys put Drake on the map. The police may not be thrilled, but I suspect your enterprising spirit impressed most people. Just don’t agree to any newspaper articles when you’re on the lam.”
As we walked out of his office we signed with relief. We were ready to dive into the fall semester with enough money in the bank to live it up until next summer. We high-fived and did a little dance strut as we walked down the hall.
James D. Boddagard, IIIJ
James D. Boddagard III had been branch manager of the small Windsor Heights branch of First Federated Bank since I was a kid. James D. was known by the kids in the neighborhood as TP because of his uncanny resemblance to the eagle-eyed Charmin toilet paper guy, Mr. Whipple. He was slightly pudgy with a manicured mustache and ring of gray hair encircling his bald head, and he massaged bills instead of toilet paper with aroused glee. He carried himself with dignified aplomb and had a placard on his desk boldly proclaiming his status as James D. Boddagard III.
I’d been depositing my paper route and lawn mowing earnings in the bank saving account since a kid of eight, and he always greeted me like a proud grandfather.
“My, my, what have we here?” “Last week’s money from my paper route, Mr. Boddagard.” “Splendid!” he would say, as he fastidiously shuffled and counted the bills. He would always give the same compliment: “You are a most enterprising lad! Someday you may get to manage a bank like me.”
His previously supportive demeanor did an about-face in October when I came in to ask for a car loan to buy a 1962 Mercury Monterey. I’d been advised that it would be wise to take out a loan to establish a credit rating even though I had enough in the bank to buy it outright. He’d seen my deposits roll in during the summer, and when I sat down facing him at his desk he frowned and glared at me. “Norman, you will need to have your father cosign for this loan.”
This hit my hot button. I wasn’t accustomed to lashing back at an older adult. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Look at my balance. I’m twenty-one. My Dad told me I made more this summer than he did all last year. He told me taking out a bank loan by myself was important to start my own credit rating.” I wanted to ask him what he made in a year but bit my tongue.
“Well yes, you made a tidy sum with your scheme this past summer, but I don’t have confidence that you keep that income stream.”
I looked him straight in the eye and said “You don’t have confidence that I can repay the loan. Guess I’ll have to go shopping for another bank.”
I was seething as I drove to Citizen’s National Bank near Drake University and sat down with a young loan officer. He looked over my savings account and asked, “Did your parents help you with this?”
“No,” I said. I briefly explained my curb painting saga. He was mightily impressed with my business acumen and said, “Wow! I wish I’d a thought of that.” He processed and signed the loan in less than an hour, issued me a temporary checkbook and wished me well as we shook hands. When I left the bank I immediately drove to the dealer, traded in my old Buick, and picked up my 1962 spit-shined maroon Mercury Monterey.
I had cooled off, but as I drove out of the lot I decided to have some fun with Boddagard. I drove up to his bank and parked my Merc along the front bank entrance instead of abiding by one of the designated parking lots. It cast a blinding reflection against the east bank window.
I played it cool and amiably strolled up to the counter. He was on the phone eyeing me. I did my best Clint Eastwood imitation, helping myself to a Junior Mint, slowly unwrapping it and revolving it around my mouth.
When he hung up he approached me brusquely and said, “Yes?”
“I’d like to close my checking and savings accounts. I’m moving them to Citizen’s National Bank.”
His initial response was annoyance. “Well, I think you’re making a big mistake. You live just up the block, and we’ve served you since you were just a boy.”
“That’s true. But I was really impressed with how they treated me at Citizen’s.”
My saving account had swollen to over $7,000 at the close of the summer, a hefty sum back then. He was well aware of this.
“Well, all right,” he said huffily. “But I still think you’re making a big mistake.”
As he was closing the accounts I offered up some small talk. “Have I ever told you that I used to date Mr. Allen’s daughter, Kate? She asked me to the Spinsters Spree at Roosevelt High when I was a junior, and we dated for a while. We’re still good friends.”
Mr. William Allen was senior vice president of First Federated Bank, the number-two man in the largest bank in Iowa. Boddagard reeled and stared at me with an ashen look. He started to speak, but his lips began to quiver and his voice cracked. “Norman, I … I … I’m so sorry about all this. It’s just a misunderstanding. Is there anything I can do to make things right and have you back?”
Boddagard was a self-inflated stuffed shirt but he wasn’t a mean man at heart. He was an older adult projecting an air of self-assurance while stuck in a demeaning job with little prospect of advancement. A wave of sympathy swept over me and I said, “That’s alright. No hard feelings. I don’t think Kate needs to hear about this.”
“Thank you,” he said, with a look of profound relief.
Never before had I stood up to an older adult of superior rank and authority and prevailed. I’d arrived; I felt like a man.
While we reveled in adventure and success, many Americans were not so privileged or lucky. Looking back and speaking only for myself, here are some differences between how I experienced and perceived that summer as opposed to how I suspect I would as a young man today.
Trust: Trust was the foundation block. We had a basic trust in people. Sure, there were some bad apples, but we saw most people as good and honest and gave them the benefit of the doubt.
Optimism: Because we trusted the vast majority of people and believed their motives were honorable the trajectory for a better world was a steady upward curve.
Lack of fear: Guided by trust and optimism, fear was not lurking in the shadows. We could knock on doors and jog across lawns anticipating that in most instances we wouldn’t be hassled or looked on suspiciously. Being white and middle class, even the police were not usually seen as threatening.
Freedom: Trust, optimism and lack of fear gave us the freedom to do our own thing. The rules were looser then and as long as we stayed inbounds we felt the sky was the limit.
These building blocks propelled us forward with unbridled enthusiasm. It was that simple.
Norm Riggs retired from Iowa State University in 2006 as a rural community development specialist and now lives in North Ferrisburgh with his wife, Sandy, and three dogs. This is his first piece of published writing. Norm and Mark’s subsequent travels took them to Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada and Colorado. When Norm completes the full story, we’ll publish it in its entirety on The Charlotte News website.