Child of Zorro
Life in my father’s house was life in a pirate’s lair, or the hideout of Zorro. Everywhere there were riches, the kind that fill a child’s heart and mind. There was a real shrunken head from the Amazon, with three inch black hair and a face like a walnut. From China, there was a wooden carving of stern-faced Kwan Yin standing within a tiny wooden house whose doors latched with brass. There were crabs, sealed in amber. There was a large picture of a serene topless woman emerging from a base of jade with a crown topped by a basket of fruit and flowers. Bookcases were everywhere, cobbled of giant grey bricks and golden cedar boards, bursting with books of art and stories and history. Mexican ranchero music or classical symphonies filled the rooms - Swann Lake by Tschiakovsky, rolling waves of basso piano by Rachmaninof and the heart rending violins of Sheherezade. To go along with them, , were stories of princes and princesses,courtesy of my father’s imagination, Peter and the Wolf, or the classic tale of the Sheik’s new wife who saved her own life by her ability to tell endlessly fascinating stories. One day when i was only seven, he told me all about Noche Triste, when the Spaniards fled the Aztec army by night and died in the canals of Tenochtitlan, for my father was mesmerized by Mexico. At last, at bed time, “Hamp” would sit by my bed and make up another installment of the adventures of Cesca and her friend, Oscar the Octopus and engage in mock battles with me, our hands arranged with four fingers down for horses’ feet and the middle finger raised as a horse head, galloping across the folds of the blankets.
In the back yard were Hamp’s projects. One month it was all the objects he had gathered to try and seal those tiny crabs into wax made to look like amber. This was a gruesome but, to me at three, fascinating failure, as the tiny crabs died in their bucket and disintegrated. Months of stone pounding followed, as Hamp conceived the notion to gouge holes in basalt rocks and sell them as bohemian candle holders. One day, with hoots of triumph, he invented the submarine sandwich (though, alas, he never marketed his eureka moment). On Saturdays, he washed down our car with a hose in the hot sun, and I stomped through the puddles and shrieked with joy when he turned the hose toward the sky and let it rain down on me. When real storms came, he would take my mother and me onto the breakwater, to hunker down as the waves crashed and sprayed us. He taught me to leap confidently between slanted rock faces almost as soon as I could run.
I did not know it then, but I was living with a man who had created himself in opposition to almost all he had grown up with. The life first handed him as a boy was anything but Bohemian and free, for my father was a child of the original Mormons. His great grandfather, Jonathan Hampton, was a carpenter with Brigham Young when they were both converted, and was among his original circle in their first migrations. He died of exposure guarding Joseph Smith. Hamp’s great-grandmother, Julia Foster, after Jonathan’s death and many travails, became one of Brigham Young’s wives. For a time, she was in charge of the “Lion House” where most of his 50 spouses lived. Her son by Jonathan was named after Brigham Young and served as the sheriff of Salt Lake City through the years of turmoil when the federal government pushed hard into their polygamous haven. This Brigham Young Hampton himself had three wives and many children by them. He served time in his own jail more than once, courtesy of the feds. His last wife, a 19 year-old English girl who ran away to follow Mormon preachers, eventually served as warden of the city jail, after losing four children in two months to diptheria. In pictures of her in middle age, her mouth is hard as iron. They all seemed to have mouths like that, men and women both. It was not a time for free spirits or easy living.
My father’s first memories were of Salt Lake. He showed me pictures of a house on a hill down which he slid his homemade toboggan in winter and watched in summer as ice was delivered in cut blocks to his mother’s ice box, wrapped in hay and carried in wagons down from the high lakes. The first black box telephones hung on kitchen walls. His father was a cattleman, a broker, who traveled the western states buying beefstock to send by train to the hungry cities of the west. His mother, a distant descendent of Scottish royalty, was a school teacher. And when the two argued on how best to raise him, it was she who won, giving him his first ecstatic taste of good books and classical music in the weekly radio broadcasts of the Mormon symphonic choir. His father, he told me, withdrew from the field and rarely taught him anything. This left him as an adult bereft of the handy skills most men of his generation regarded as normal. He could barely wield a hammer. I remember one of the earliest pictures of his childhood, a baby looking up round-eyed into the face of his other grandfather, David Crockett Stuart, a rebel calvalryman who had also converted to Mormonism after the Civil War. There is another, years later, of a gangly boy of 10 in overalls with a thatch of black hair and ears that stick out, standing in a field, the one which, in winter, he so proudly used for his toboggan.
There were no snowy fields where he raised me, only sunny beaches. And both of those stern great-grandfathers were gone, as well as my paternal grandparents. There was no formality in our house, nor church on the weekends. As early as four I was alllowed to roam with great freedom. My friends and I chalked hop scotch grids onto the hot cement of the Manhattan Beach strand, a wide sidewalk with a low wall that marked the line between the beach towns and the wide white sand beach that fronts Los Angeles for miles. We swung on the baby swings on the sand near my house, my friends and I, or hiked off to what seemed then a formidable distance to the “big swings” two blocks away. On these we swung for an hour at a time, pumping upward into the blue sky and sliding back to earth hanging upside down, our blonde hair tickling the sand as we reached the nadir of each arc. To explore In the other direction was to come to the mysterious fogged windows of the Hilton Hotel “plunge,” a large indoor pool. We climbed up into the indented windowsills and tried to make out the misted figures of people unfathomably swimming indoors when the shining Pacific beckoned only yards away.
One day I went a bit further. Another half block to a children’s bookstore. Here I found a giant book called The Grasshopper and the Ants and settled down happily to read. When the owner realized how young I was, and unaccompanied, he called the police. When the officer urged me into his car, I hung onto this book and somehow it came with me, a kindness, I now realize, from the owner. I was only a few blocks from home, and not lost, but the officer drove me back and saw me home safe.
That night, my father and I poured over the giant pages and the vivid drawings, all about the grasshoppers and the ants. We laughed together about how we both would rather be the live-gloriously-for-today grasshopper than one of the dull industrious ants who had to take him in when winter came. In every way this was how we were living. When Hamp went off each day to university and then to work, in those days selling encyclopedias door to door, or insurance, it was as if the human ants of the real world were determined to try and shape him into someone he wanted with all his heart not to be.
It was on the weekends that my father recovered himself. Friends from college came over for raucous joyful parties, animatedly sharing talk of Picasso or Chagall or giggling over Sigmund Freud’s pronouncements on sex. They listened to jazz and endlessly flirted. In the summertimes, there was volleyball and beer and red wine on the beach and for me, long culinary experiments with stirring sand soup at the water’s edge, or dripping it into castle battlements. In the winters, as the big swells thundered onto the shore in front of us, Hamp, would take me out to the seawalls to duck as the waves shattered against the breakwater and spray drenched us from above. He began to bring home the first of hundreds of children’s books from the library for me to devour, a half dozen every week. I was four when he and my mother began to bicker over money and his flirtations with other women. Their marriage ended eventually and they began to live a few blocks apart. But I moved back and forth between them almost weekly and, loved so well, remember no suffering from their parting.
It was when he was 11 years old, that my father’s Salt Lake City childhood had begun to darken. His beloved mother, Stella, developed a headache that would not abate, and took to her bed. She was never to rise from it healthy again, though her invalidism lasted two years before she died. It was determined at her autopsy that her tumor could indeed have been excised safely if they had taken the chance, but they did not. The loss of his safe world and the loving, educated woman at the heart of it affected my father profoundly. He became withdrawn, and barely spoke. He also suffered horribly from migraines caused by allergies to both chocolate and safflower oil, though it was years til he realized the connection. These migraines left him sick and stunned many days each month, and cut him off from other boys his age. The medicines doctors gave him put him into a mental fog, unable to perform at school. His classmates, ironic in their cruelty, nicknamed him “Speed.” His widowed father at last left Salt Lake City behind, taking Hamp and his younger sister Bernice to Long Beach California to start a new life. With cattle train cars to monitor, he took his children to live with his sisters on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles as he himself found an apartment on the mainland.
In spite of all these traumatic changes, Catalina was the making of my father. The island was wild then, a windswept landscape of scrub-covered hills and ravines, eucapyptus and vivid blue bays below tall cliffs. Giant wild goats roamed the hills, and in the south, there were the surviving remnants of the buffalo, brought there to recover their numbers. The Wrigley family owned the island then. They and everyone else who lived on Catalina were all in Avalon. True wilderness waited beyond the ridges which circled the town.
Hamp’s aunts doted on him and his sister Bernice. He found friends and began to roam the hills, growing stronger by the month, and wilder. The migraines receded and as a teen, he found himself tall and wryly good-looking, with a sharp intelligence and a physical prowess that startled the boys who had once called him “Speed.” He kept the nickname, but now they meant it. With these friends, he would earn money when the tourists on the big ferry threw sparkling coins into the crystalline waters of Avalon Harbor and clapped their hands in delight as the lithe island boys dived for them. With his best friend Paul Shonafelt, Hamp took his love of the sea further and began to dive for abalone. They rented a large open boat that came with a primitive dive suit topped by a metal head piece that filled with air pumped from above. (So risky that its owner later died while using it). When that palled, they hunted goats with rifles and cooked them over open fires. When they were home, these handsome beach boys of wild Catalina also drew the attention of young women coming over on the yachts. Sixteen now, with the worldwide tumult the 1930’s seeming far away, my someday father regularly took girls from the yachts to the weekend dances in the great round of the Avalon ballroom that still overlooks the point. By the end of those last two years on the island, he told me, he had made out with a girl in every alcove of the upper balcony.
This self-reliance and love of nature gained on Catalina became part of the heritage my father passed on to me. As I grew towards adolescence, I remember no rules about where I could go when I left my front door. The untamable Pacific held my riveted attention from the very beginning, a refuge from all the tangles of human life at my back. When I was about ten, my mother fell in love with a man named Charlie Farrell and became pregnant by him. He was a Catholic and neither his family nor the church would approve their union without a formal papal dispensation. Amidst the years of painful dramas that followed, I moved in with my father full time in Manhattan Beach.
We lived at first in a sandy lot in a round-roofed quonset hut, a left over from WWII. I remember at age ten washing the dishes, looking out of its windows at the beach far below, marveling to consider I was now the “lady of the house.” I had never willingly washed a dish before. Now the act seemed cloaked in new dignity. I went mad and even made my bed and then his. Each afternoon after school, while my father was still at work, I turned on our record player to play musicals like The King and I and Kismet and learned every role and every song. These I sang at the top of my lungs doing the dishes. Sometimes I enacted whole plays by myself. I felt myself a free woman, not a child. I was mistress of our house.
As I grew older still, I roamed for miles along the enormous sweep of beach below, riding my bike with my best friend Susan West and her brother Peter. Some days, I ran with a pack of dogs who came together to explore the shore in the mornings. In the summers, I swam with my friends at least five hours a day with no parent in attendance for any of us. My father made a stab at getting me sitters sometimes, as he very often went out to parties in the evenings, but to me their presence was only puzzling. I remember one night, bored with lying in my bed, I peeked out of my room about 10pm to find my unwanted sitter asleep. I stole out of the house and went happily down to the long abandoned beach, gleaming in moonlight. I walked along its shore a mile north to where an oil tanker pier reached out from the city of El Segundo. It was not made for pedestrians, and certainly not for the public. To walk on it meant holding onto water pipes as I ducked under a roof that held rail cars and placed my feet carefully along the top of the great rounded pipe that held the oil. I made my way out to where the waves broke just below the oil pipe, spraying my feet in their charge through the pier’s stanchions, exploding in foam at one set of pillars after another. When I had had enough, I climbed back under the pier and then back along the empty mile of shoreline. By midnight I had slipped back into my bed, the sitter still unaware. I was eleven years old.
My father left Catalina when he was 18, but the seeds planted there had already defined his life to come. One was a fierce yearning to be more than the cattlemen and ranchers and country sheriffs he came from. He wanted no part of the missionaries sent time and again by the church in Salt Lake to woo him back. He studied the lives of the islands’ visitors, and what moved him most was their education, the sense of a wider world they brought to the island. He yearned to go to college, to study history and art and know more of what they knew. And from them he learned about beauty and about love. Indeed, he fell in love over and over as the young women came and left. In the great symphonies of the time, the music of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky Korsakov and Glazunov, he heard his own secret heart. Finally, with talk of a possible war in Europe finally reaching even the island, he learned to admire military strength. One afternoon in 1936 he was riveted by a submarine that rose for a day of R and R in Avalon harbor, and only months later he left the island as the navy’s newest recruit.
For three years he sailed with them, feeling the thrill of loading the big guns of the destroyer West Virginia and learning morse code so well in the radio room he could decode incoming messages as easily as words being spoken. He also learned the sting of humiliation as, in port after port, middle class girls scorned his status as a lowly navy private in favor of officers with college educations. It only reinforced his determination to pull himself up by his bootstraps. When his tour was over, he was demobilized from the West Virginia in New York and made his way back to Long Beach, burning with the need to start college. He worked for his father from time to time, riding rail cars full of lowing cows back to the distribution centers of LA. He learned how to fly a small plane and got his pilot’s license. And at last, he attended Long Beach City college and then got accepted into The University of California at Los Angeles. His first major there was Latin American studies, for he had conceived a dream to own a plantation in Brazil.
Hitler and Tojo, however, had other ideas of course, ideas that derailed the dreams of half his generation. My father never made it to Brazil. It was war on two continents that instead dominated his youth. Their impact on him, however, was not the story you may be expecting. Though he was already a trained veteran and an eager soldier, and was to follow the doings of soldiers all his life, my father was handed a startlingly different fate for the times. By the end of seven years of military service, he had never served a day overseas, even all through WWII, nor fired a gun in anger. When the attack on Pearl Harbor came, his destroyer, the West Virginia, was the first boat sunk (with very first Japanese bomb actually blowing through the radio room where he had once worked), but Ralph Hampton was not sitting in it. He had already been demobilized. Attending college, in the weeks following Pearl Harbor, he assumed he would be called up again. Having just got out of the military, however, and so very hungry for learning, he kept on at his classes, intensely following the news, and waited to be called. Months went by and no call up came. Still it was only a matter of time.
At last in 1944, wanting to serve but also to avoid the infantry, he applied to the Air Force, keeping to himself the affliction of his migraines - now down to one every month or two. When they loaded his system with the shots given to new recruits, however, he fell ill with the worst one of his life and only confessed what it was after three days when his doctor began to speculate that brain surgery might be called for. Thus was the door to a pilot’s life closed. The infantry it was. And yet the army, for some reason known only to its overworked clerks, overlooked his previous training and started him off from scratch again. He went to several training locations until at last, in 1944, he was sent to Fresno California. And here his life took another unexpected turn.
At 26, my father was already a romantic to the most intense degree. He had already been in love several times, each time rocked to his adolescent socks. Yet still, he once confided to me, even in his mid twenties, he was a gentleman and a technical virgin, yearning, as he was to yearn all his life, after the image of a perfect woman. When he was posted to Fresno, for a time at least, he found her. In the library of Fresno State College, he and his friend, on a day leave from their base, came upon my mother, Lenore Patricia Joint, working on her homework. Here was a red haired blue-eyed beauty, a smart girl going to college, a lively funny charming girl who totally swept him into euphoria, for she returned his instant ardor. Every day he could get away he came to see her, taking her for long bike rides and sodas at the Five and Dime. The fact that she had a beau already serving in the military did not faze him. “All’s fair in love and war,” he wrote her. “I’m going to keep heckling you.” He was in love. On weekends, when he could manage, he also went down to see his father in Long Beach. He would travel back in his father’s most recently disgarded old Lincoln, the poetry of Omar Khayyam perched on the wheel spokes as he drove north, memorizing the verses with the wind in his hair and my future mother in his heart. “Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse - and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness - And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
He was driving home from such a trip, pushing his luck by being AWOL a few hours, when the call came for his unit to ship out. Now. The buddy who was supposed to call him to come back in time should this happen wasn’t even able to get to a phone. When my father arrived back at the base, still starry-eyed from his journey, all the friends he had trained with for months were gone, on their way to the bloody forests of the Ardenne to try and hold the embattled front line at the Battle of the Bulge. Novice soldiers thrown against veterans, most of them died there. Back in Fresno, my father sat stunned in the empty barracks, hoping to be sent after them but, after a reprimand and brief punishment, he learned he had simply become a man without a unit. After weeks of consternation, his final assignment for the duration of the war became a lonely telegraph station in the desert near Tucumcari New Mexico. Here he worked at night under a sky brilliant with stars, passing messages between ships at sea and military units in combat - feeling the terrible hum of war all over the globe and yet utterly apart from it. It was a frustration that stung him all his life. Had his life NOT gone this way, however, I would never have been born. Had he not had the unique childhood and youth that he had, I would not have had mine.
Child psychologists in America today tell us a stable home life is essential for children’s mental health, a house number that remains ever the same, routine in all things, standardized “consequences” and layers of security. They would wrap children in a comfort blanket of familiarity and boundaries and have parents follow neat algorithms for punishment and rewards and endless planned activities. I cannot imagine a childhood more different from my own and I am deeply grateful these ideas were not even close to what my Hamp or my mother Lenore followed. They just loved me. They trusted my honesty and my abilities and let me know it every day. They listened. My father’s parenting was simply the passionate wish to share all that had come to hold beauty and meaning for him as soon as I could grasp it. We shared it together. Zorro became my very best friend and stayed that way all his life.