Chapter 11: Working with the Fishes
(Jobs 9 and 10)
Anything involving the legal system seems to take forever. Even though I was prepared to plead guilty and throw myself upon the mercy of the court, there was still a long series of meetings with lawyers, appearances before judges, etc. I was assigned a public defender, who seemed like a decent fellow, if a bit lazy. When I met with him, at one point he was in a telephone conversation with a colleague about my case. He said something about the nature of my crime (spritzing a teacher with dog repellent), and then he said that in his opinion I ought to be given a medal. This surprised me a bit. Up until then, everyone involved in the legal system had seemed so deadly serious and devoid of any sense of humor. A little levity was refreshing. His joke also made me feel like not everyone hated me for what I had done. As a little side note to this erstwhile public servant, much later I ended up mowing the grass at his suburban ranchlet as part of job number 47. It was memorable because he had a donkey, and I love donkeys. No! Not like that!
In true prosecutorial fashion, the district attorney wanted to punish me to the maximum extent possible, in order to make an example of me. Apparently my case was the first time in Butt County history that a teacher had been attacked in such a brazen and bizarre fashion. In addition to assault, they were also charging me with interfering with a public official in the course of his duties. Even though this was my first crime, together the two charges could have added up to something like a year or two in jail, the prospect of which frightened me very much.
Then there was almost an 11th hour miracle. My lawyer missed it, but the judge noticed the fact that I had confessed before being officially charged. This presented a legal technicality, and the judge was prepared to dismiss the whole case, which made me like that judge very much. However, the district attorney talked him into a compromise, to which my lackadaisical public defender acquiesced. It seems that I just had to receive some sort of punishment for my dastardly deed, which I suppose is fair. In the end, I was given a year of formal probation and a few weeks of community service. Pretty light, when you think about it, although a criminal record is not a great thing to have, especially when looking for work. Fortunately, things were easier in the late 1970s than they are now. Back then, not as many employers ran background checks. If I didn't want to reveal my felonious ways, I just didn't.
While all these legalities were grinding along, I was in a bit of a bind at home. I couldn't really look for work until I knew what my fate would be (or maybe that was just a handy excuse), so my parents decided for me. If I didn't go to jail, then I was going to enroll at Sacramento City College. The plan was that I would spend my weekdays staying with my dad in the travel trailer on the truck yard in West Sacramento, and getting to come home to O-Town on the weekends. Apparently I wasn't to be trusted to attend O-Town's own Butt College without parental supervision. Needless to say, I was thrilled at the prospect. Is there a typeface more sarcastic than italics? Hmm, apparently there is.
Job #9: Working with Dad
In the meanwhile, most of my time between court appearances was spent performing job number 9, the one mentioned previously as involuntary and indirectly related to my legal imbroglio. I was working for my dad at the truck yard. It was involuntary in that I didn't really have a choice, but it was voluntary in the sense that volunteers work for free. It was just what I had to do to earn my keep.
My dad was head mechanic for the trucking company, and he decided to use the free labor to clean out some junk from around the shop and yard. I made countless trips with the company owner's pickup truck full of metal objects to a scrap yard across town. It was rather fun to watch the crane operator carefully lower the huge electric magnet into the bed of the pickup. He had to be especially cautious because the pickup had those silly rails along the tops of the walls of the bed for tying down loads. Even though there were a scant few inches of clearance between the magnet and the rails, so consummate was his skill that the operator never once bumped them. Even more fun than that was when I had to go up to the window for the payment for the scrap, because the girl who worked the window was gorgeous. On the last day I performed that job, I summoned up the courage to tell her I thought she was very beautiful. She didn't seem impressed.
The work itself wasn't bad, it was just having to spend so much time in the presence of my father which was no picnic. My oldest brother Dick lived in Sacramento, and he would visit from time to time, so I had a sane person to talk to. One night he and a buddy came around to take me out. Despite the fact that I was awaiting judgment for a crime, somehow it was decided to try to get my under-aged self into a bar. I must still have looked older than my years, because it worked, and a splendid time was had by all.
Job #10: Community Service (Fish Hatchery)
When my legal fate had been decided, I undertook job number 10: community service. This was also involuntary and unpaid – unless you count the fact that I was working off my debt to society. I met with a very rotund man whose job it was to assign miscreants like myself their tasks. I lucked into a gig at the local fish hatchery, a part of the State Water Project, of which O-Town Dam was the keystone.
The people who operated the fish hatchery were used to having small-time criminals working off their community service obligations, which were mostly for traffic violations and other minor crimes. It was a little unusual for a violent madman like myself to be assigned there, but fortunately the hatchery men weren't privy to the nature of my charges. They treated me like I was any other mild-mannered misdemeanor-maker, which is to say with respect and kindness. It was quite a tonic for my psyche after months of having prosecutors, my father and even myself telling me I was a bad person.
The bulk of the work consisted of cleaning the long, shallow concrete tanks where the tiny hatchlings matured until they were big enough to be transplanted to lakes all around the state. The tanks had a constant current flowing through them. The fish spent most of their days just swimming in place against the current. I put on a pair of hip waders, lowered myself into a tank and then just walked up and down its length with a wide squeegee on a long handle. All I had to do was loosen the gunk that collected on the bottoms of the tanks so that it could flow out with the water at the downstream end. I had to shuffle along without lifting my feet so as not to crush the little fishies, especially in the tanks with the youngest hatchlings.
The bigger fish were in less danger of being stepped upon, but they were a little harder to walk amongst because they took up more room, and were big enough to bump your feet about when they got riled up – which the appearance of a bipedal giant in their realm tended to do. Under normal circumstances, they tended to stay away from me, but the thing that really got them excited was feeding time. Periodically throughout the day, one of the hatchery workers would drive up and down between the tanks in a strange vehicle which blew tiny food pellets into the tanks. If I was in the water at that moment, I had to turn away and shield my eyes. It was quite a sight to see the moving spray of pellets breaking the surface of the water, followed immediately by a furious boiling caused by thousands of hungry fish in a feeding frenzy. The big fish temporarily forgot their fear of me in their rush to gorge themselves. I sometimes felt like I might be swept off my feet. I dreaded to think what might happen if my delicious flesh should happen to land in the water with the ravenous hoards.
After a few weeks, the physical portion of my debt to society was paid in full, and I rather reluctantly said goodbye to the friendly fish wranglers. That wouldn't have been a bad job to have for money. I then settled into a dull routine of having to report monthly to a probation officer. For the first couple of months I had to appear in her office in person, then just a phone call was sufficient until the year was up. And that was about it for my life of crime. Unfortunately, now that my community service was completed, I had to face the grim prospect of attending college and staying with my father in West Sac.
I went through the motions of enrolling for classes, and I even attended a few. I had only skipped a class once when I was in high school, and I got a fair amount of grief for it, but it became a regular habit in community college, because they don't call your parents. I found a lonesome spot at the top of a fire staircase in a corner of some campus building. I never saw anyone else up there, but I knew some unknown number of scrutiny-avoiders were using it, because I often found “roaches” on the stairs, and not the kind that scurry about on six legs – which is good, because I would gather them up and assemble them into a new tobacco alternative stick. Reduce, reuse, recycle, you know.
One week, my father left me alone in the trailer. He was accompanying my mom on one of her group trips with other aspiring artists (read: bored, middle-aged women with disposable income), usually lead by Richard Yip, a reasonably famous artist of the day. My parents had apparently decided I could be trusted to fulfill my obligations. Oh, poor, deluded fools.
I continued to make a stab at being a college student, but I was becoming more and more depressed. One day, after I rode my bike back “home”, I lay down upon my bed in the trailer and turned on the TV, when I should have been studying. I didn't even eat – I just stared at the television with unseeing eyes until late that night, when I fell asleep. The next day I didn't bother to go to school. I had decided to face my parents' wrath and tell them of my decision that college just wasn't for me.
Surprisingly, my dad didn't seem particularly disturbed, but my mother threw up her hands and yelled, “I guess I'm never going to have a child who's going to be a doctor or a lawyer!” I was surprised – I didn't know my mother was Jewish! Badum-tish. Seriously, though, I hadn't been aware that my mom had held these hopes for her children. I was a little sorry to be the last in a four-part line of disappointments, but at least I could take some comfort in not being the only disappointment.
Once again, I was back in my parents' home in O-Town and in need of work. This just wouldn't do. The chances of finding employment seemed good. After all, I hadn't yet come close to exhausting my opportunities, even in an economically depressed area like Butt County. This time, I was uncharacteristically motivated by the strong desire to get out of my ancestral home. I embarked upon an unorthodox method of job search, but that's a story for another chapter.