Long ago, kids had a lot less to worry about. For the most part, real danger never entered into our early childhoods in beautiful Toluca Lake. World War II surrounded us every day and touched our lives in many ways, but we were just too young to fully grasp the meaning of it. After a while, even the ever-present blackouts, when the entire city’s lights were turned off lest the dreaded enemy bomb us, became just another way to frolic in the dark. Even playing war or cowboys was always just for fun — although I usually had to be the bad guy to get in the game. At least, with my pre-war, junk-shop six-shooter strapped to my nonexistent hips, I thought I had style. I was fast on the draw, and as we all did in those days, I had a cool nickname: I was the Crossdraw Kid!
All in all, there was little to fear. Our folks trusted us, and that was a very important part of our Code of the West. For me and for most of my friends, folks consisted of our moms and perhaps our grandparents, as our dads were off fighting in the war. My dad came home in early 1946, resplendent in his Navy uniform, walked in the front door, handed me 50 cents and told me to go to the movies. My sister was born nine months and 37 minutes later!
My pals and I were always up to something, and most times, we were just kids at play. But there were many events in my life that I never told my mom about.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE …
As I grew up, I began to notice that the older guys down the block and around the corner on Talofa Avenue seemed to be having more fun than I was. They went out of the neighborhood, often up into the hills across from Universal Studios, and came back telling exciting stories about coyotes, mountain lions and caves.
Through trial and rebuff, I soon discovered the only way to be able to at least hang around with them was to always say, “I’ll do it!” — whatever “it” was. And boy, did I!
“I wonder what it would look like to have somebody’s neck in this neat noose we just made?” one of the guys said, looking at me as I hovered in the background, deep in the walnut trees at the bottom of Toluca Estates Drive. “I’ll do it,” I shouted, running forward and trying to shove my scrawny neck into the realistic hangman’s loop made of old clothesline tied to the limb of a tree.
“You’re too short,” one of the other guys said. “Why don’t you stand on this log, and then try?” Stupid me, ever eager to please, did as I was told — and promptly lost my balance.
“Erk” was the last word I said as the noose swiftly cut off my breathing, my toes dangling inches from the ground. The guys, too frightened or too stupid to know what to do, did the obvious — they ran away. The only one who had the courage to come back found me on the ground, rope tight around my neck, out cold. The old rope had broken on the rough bark of the tree, but I was still choking. My newfound savior quickly undid the knot, and as I returned to the living, he promptly ran away again. To this day, I just can’t remember who it was.
Now the problem became how to explain a rope burn the size of a bull’s tail around my neck. I buttoned the collar of my blue St. Charles School short-sleeved shirt as high as possible, washed my face in the birdbath in a neighbor’s yard and walked home, hoping for a miracle — like my entire family becoming temporarily blind.
No one was blind, but no one noticed, even after several days and the rope burn turning an interesting color of dark purple. After a while, I walked around in just my undershirt … still no comment. Could it be that I had such a perpetually dirty neck that my bruise looked just like yesterday’s grime?
UP, UP AND AWAY
“I am Superman!” I yelled to the older guys several weeks after the rope caper, as I ran around the dirt front yard of a house being built on Ponca Avenue. Around my neck, I had an old towel with a big red S drawn in Crayola on the back, flapping in the wind, just like my superhero. “Well, if you’re Superman, why don’t we tie you up and see if you can escape?” said one of the gang. With that, they tied me to a nearby telephone pole. These guys must have spent fifth grade in the Navy; they knew knots that would defy Houdini. Once I was tied hand and foot to the sticky pole, the guys promptly left me to my own devices. They were probably glad to be rid of me!
Still thinking I was playing the game, with a bit of a struggle, I was able to slip the bonds that tied me. There I stood, triumphant, the back of my shirt, cape and pants soaked in phone-pole pitch. But, there was no one to share my feat of strength, not even Duke II, my wonder dog.
The guys, either curious or bored, soon wandered back to the front yard. By then, I had gone into the almost finished two-story house, and I yelled down from a second-story hole in the wall that would become a window, “Hey, I did it, I escaped — I am Superman!”
“Can you fly?” someone yelled back.
“Of course I can; I’m Superman!” With these words ringing in my ears, I dove out the window and fell into a drainage ditch running along the side of the house. My little chest hit the edge of the ditch, knocking the wind out of me. Those close enough to hear caught my painful whisper: “Erk!”
One sunny day in May, we were notified at school that the next Monday was class photo day. I went home and told my mom, who scurried around and ironed my go-to-church white shirt and made sure there was a proper crease in my good pants. At exactly 7:15 a.m. on the fateful day, I dressed and found one of my dad’s really wide, really long, least loud ties — no easy task, as this was in the late ’40s. I took it downstairs for my mom to tie it for me, as I was a long way off from knowing how to do it myself. My dad was on location in Lone Pine, sorting out problems on one of Republic Pictures’ “Wild Bill” Elliott Westerns, so he could be of no help. Well, my mom tried, but she finally confessed she had never tied a man’s tie. In a panic, I ran out the front door and across the street to the Sinatras’ house and rang the bell. My mom’s friend, Mrs. Nancy Sinatra, answered the door, and I explained that I really needed her help. In a flash, she expertly tied my tie as I stood there and sent me on my way with a “Good luck, Patrick, and don’t forget to smile!”
Although I never mentioned why I needed help with my tie to Mrs. Sinatra, and she never asked, had I told my mom who actually did the tying, she would have been so embarrassed that we would have moved out of the neighborhood that afternoon. So, I never told her.
Later that same year, probably because my mom made bologna sandwiches for everyone, I was begrudgingly allowed to go hunting with the guys in the hills above Ventura Boulevard, an area called the Lankershim Estates. Most were armed with an assortment of BB guns and slingshots, and someone’s much older brother had a .22 single-shot rifle. I was armed with a paring knife I had taken from my mom’s kitchen. With all this heavy firepower, I was the only one to actually get any big game. The group saw a small lizard sunning itself on a tree, several yards away, and in one fluid motion, I drew the small knife from my Roy Rogers belt and threw it at the giant beast, pinning it to the tree, just like I knew what the heck I was doing.
For years after that, whenever I saw my mom using that very same knife to prepare the evening meal, I gave a shudder of remembrance and wondered what was for dinner at any of my friends’ houses, and could I get a quick invitation?
As our ragtag group finally found the old cave in a deep gorge, the guy with the .22 said, “I bet I can hit that sort-of-green rock across the way.” With that, he shouldered the rifle, cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. Kerpow! The bullet hit the green rock, ricocheted off, hit another rock, ricocheted off and hit me right in the fleshy part of my spindly arm above my right elbow. “Erk!”
Thankfully, by the time the bullet reached me, it had lost most of its velocity, so it only penetrated to the base of the projectile. Just about ready to faint, I mustered up the only really bad word I probably knew and let fly, “You booger!” With that, I hit the ground like a dead crow. One of the guys dumped his canteen on my head and, as I awoke, another held up the bullet for me to see. Evidently, they just squeezed it right out. Heck, it hardly bled, but it did leave a scar that’s still there to this day.
No fool, I borrowed a Band-Aid from someone’s first aid kit, gingerly applied it to my trophy wound, pulled down the sleeve of my always-too-large Roy Rogers T-shirt and never said another word about it to anyone, even if the guy with the .22 really was a booger!
A few years later, during the height of the “Fastest Gun in the West” era in the early ’50s, I was right in the middle of a serious, well-organized and supervised quick-draw competition. My compadres and I had outgrown cap guns and were now permitted to use real shootin’ irons. Hey, it was the ’50s. I was allowed to compete with my dad’s Colt Bisley .45 using my very own Arvo Ojala crossdraw holster, made for me by Ojala himself in his North Hollywood shop. My good friend, Fast Eddie Rio, was my main competitor. Now, Fast Eddie was the coolest guy at Notre Dame High School. Surprisingly, I regularly beat Fast Eddie to the draw. One day at Eddie’s house, his 12-year-old cousin challenged me to try to outdraw him. Heck, he was 12, easy pickings. Unbeknownst to me — and, in retrospect, probably the cousin, too — Fast Eddie had taken some .22 shells, pried out the bullets, stuck the casings into a blue wax candle and put them in his cousin’s (borrowed, I might add, from Fast Eddie) Ruger Single-Six .22 revolver.
The cousin and I faced each other across the width of Fast Eddie’s swimming pool. On the word “Draw,” six-guns were blazing — only, instead of the “click” from my unloaded smoke pole, the cousin’s gun went “blam, blam, blam,” and I got hit in the gut with three slugs. My thin shirt didn’t do much to cushion the pain. I thought I was dead for sure, not knowing it was only wax. A quick look down at my newly wax-stained shirt eased my mind, and I immediately started to chase the brat cousin around the pool with vengeance on my mind. There is no real ending to this story, except to say that the brat, knowing he was in deep trouble, outran me and disappeared into history. (Kids, don’t try this at home!)
SINK OR SWIM
The next summer found me as a lifeguard at Lakeside Golf Club. How I got this position, I’m not sure; my dad probably secured it for me over a poker game at the club’s locker room to keep me out of trouble. One hot Sunday afternoon, I was doing my lifeguard duties as I had been taught by my predecessor, Terry Green. As usual, the Sunday brunch crowd of grown-ups were enjoying the day by the pool. One neighbor of ours — dressed, as was the custom in those days, in a multi-petticoat summer frock — got too close to the deep end of the pool and fell in, martini held high. I dove in after her and instantly became engulfed in petticoat after petticoat as she flopped around, screaming. Did I mention that she outweighed me by a lot? Try as I might, I couldn’t get hold of her as she kept flailing and slowly sinking. Skinny, intrepid lifeguard that I was, I did the only thing I could think of: I dove under her, came up beneath the petticoats and with both thumbs and forefingers, pinched her on the bottom, hard! She gurgled, screamed and, instantly, like a porpoise, hit the edge of the pool and was indignantly lifted out by three or four sturdy gentlemen, one of whom happened to be her husband. A bit later, as the hubbub died down, he slipped me $20, followed by a very stern look that told me, in no uncertain terms, “Don’t mention this to anyone!” I didn’t, especially my mom …
At around this same time, my dad bought my mom a beautiful new 1952 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 hard-top convertible, complete with sun shade. This black beauty was a real rocket, and my mom had a lead foot for sure. One night, when my dad was again on location somewhere and my mom was asleep, I “borrowed” the Olds and headed to the drive-in at Bob’s Big Boy, about a mile away, using back streets: Valley Spring Lane to Forman, right to Moorpark, left on Clybourn, right on Rose and left into Bob’s. Not a cop in sight! What a clever fellow I must have thought I was. As I parked in the drive-in area, a cute carhop skated up, gave me a funny look and took my order.
This V-8-powered rocket came equipped with power windows, power seats and a power antenna, all very unusual for that time. It was also the last year equipped with an anemic 6-volt battery before switching to 12 volts. As I entertained the folks in the cars around me with the windows, seats and antenna going up and down, I was also rapidly depleting the underpowered battery, which I promptly ran down to nothing. I was 14 — what did I know about batteries? After paying the check for my chocolate milkshake and order of fries with a side of Thousand Island dressing, I locked the car, took the keys, walked home and replaced the keys on the hook by the garage door.
The next morning, all hell must have broken loose when Mom discovered her new car was missing, right after my older pal picked me up for school. By the time I returned home, the car was in the garage and nothing was said about it — very, very strange. Of course, now I realize that Mom knew exactly what happened but decided to not say anything at all to me. I did notice that her keys were no longer on the hook by the garage door. Heck, even the hook was gone … foiled again. And I’m sure she never mentioned this caper to my dad. I’m so sure of this because I’m still alive! Hey, I may have never, ever told my mom, but in her own way, she told me.