Chapter 3: Rumbles in the Valley
As I hinted at the end of Chapter 2, I started having a lot of troubles at my school. Life on the out-skirts of Los Angeles was a bit rougher than what I had been used to in quiet San Luis Obispo. The early '70s were a turbulent time in America, and LA seemed to be the focus of a lot of angst. The Manson Family trials were going on. The Watts riots were still fresh in the collective memory. There were still tensions between races. On the micro-scale of my suburban grade school, there seemed to be a lot of bullying by roving gangs of meanies, but it wasn't really along racial lines. Any easily-victimized kid was fair game, and I fit the bill nicely.
In one incident I was surrounded by a large group of mostly large kids lead, incongruously, by a really short kid. Comparisons to Napoleon were easy to make. My options were either kiss the asphalt of the playground, or take a beat down. Not being a fighter or a fan of pain, I chose to pucker up. As it was, once I had satisfied their sadistic demands and was allowed to go free, I received a swift kick in the ass as I fled (no doubt tearfully).
One day, soon after the ground-kissing incident, I was walking about near the school with Edward and another friend when we ran into the short kid, alone, without his posse. Being bigger than he, and boasting superior numbers, now it was my turn to be the bully. I ended up giving him a kind of karate chop on the upper lip, which must have hurt like crazy. He ran off – I want to recall that he did so tearfully, but that's probably too good to be true.
This “victory” emboldened me. The three of us managed to round up a couple of other kids who had been victims of Shorty and his gang, and we headed off for his street. I guess the idea was that we were going to mete out some more frontier justice while we seemingly had the upper hand. As we rounded a corner, there was Shorty coming towards us, followed by his entire gang, with perhaps a few fresh recruits. They were marching abreast, and stretched right across the entire width of the street. It was just like a scene from a Wild West movie.
They couldn't have known we were coming, so they must have been heading toward my street to even the score. As it was, my little “gang” was easily outnumbered two to one. We wisely did an about-face and beat feet back to our several homes and swore off the vigilante lifestyle.
Of course, that was not the end of tensions between myself and Shorty and his ilk. I spent every day in fear of being beaten. The principal, teachers and other administrative types tried to reassure me that if any of these ruffians dared to lay a hand on me, they would be suspended. This wasn't very reassuring. I didn't think the threat of suspension was enough of a deterrent. I'd be injured, and they'd get a vacation from school as a consequence.
So, life in southern California was shaping up to be no picnic. In addition to the daily threat of violence, occasionally the dreaded Santa Anna winds would blow, which just seemed to make people edgier. There had been nothing like this in my earlier life on the Central Coast.
Then, at 6:01 on the morning of February 9th, 1971, mother nature decided to ramp up the misery.