All my life I have been attracted to stories of the steppes of Asia, and the nomad peoples who roamed them. Scythians and Sarmatians, Parthians and Hiung-nu, Visigoths and Magyars. As an adolescent I heard some echo of their lives in the music of Rimsky Kosakof. I did not care if it was romanticized. I tried to visualize stepping outside my yurt to behold seas of endless grass, or long trains of horses and camels and packed wagon carts, or the horse battles between archers with tattoos and braided hair, or the great trading centers at the edge of the deserts. As drums found their rhythm and violins rose, I imagined horses at a gallop, and even fantasized centaurs, half woman, half horse with streaming long hair and tails, who galloped in fierce dignity next to our car as my parents drove. I imagined these creatures even somehow creating the Russian symphonies that enfolded them. They confounded the US military with their power and beauty and broke through attempts to encircle them in massed charges. On long trips I maintained this fantasy for hours.
Maybe this yearning comes from some lost past life. Maybe only from this one, for most of my childhood, we moved every year. At least, after my parent’s divorce when I was four, I moved. I looked forward to it. At first they lived only blocks apart, and I trudged between them, pajamas in a pillow slip. As their divorce took hold, the distances grew longer. I lived with one or the other in places too many to mention, Westwood and Fullerton and Manhattan Beach with my mother, Menlo Park and San Francisco with my father. When I lived with my mother, my father would come, as often as he could, to take me away on weekend adventures, to climb cliffs next to the sea, or ride horses in the mountain pastures of Arrowhead. He taught me to stop chattering and be still, as we listened to the conversations between trees in the in a mountain forest. He showed me how to climb down sandstone cliffs above breaking waves and helped me notice the tapestry of jewels slowly forming as we looked down on the city of Los Angeles in the twilight from the hills of Palos Verde.
But as my parents began to settle into their adult patterns more solidly, our moves at last became rarer. In my high school days I moved with my mother into the first of three Malibu houses and stayed with her for several years. Living over twenty miles from my high school, I rose each morning before the sun, hating the cold and the shock of it, and went out to take the bus that ferried us an hour along the coast to Santa Monica High School. In the late afternoons I roamed the long beaches and dry hills of Malibu. With my brother Chris, then six and seven, we went out to lean into the Santa Ana winds that came each fall from the hills east of us, turning the sea flat and indigo blue and pushing against us so strongly that we could lean diagonally into it, our arms held out like airplane wings. Three more moves were made with my mother, but these came, not from any urge to adventure, but as my mother’s new husband, Charlie Farrell mounted the ladder of Hughes Aircraft promotions and invested in better houses. We remained in the same familiar area.
In the first one, on Malibu Canyon Road, I learned to play beach volleyball, babysat 10-year-old neighbor Christie Brinkley, and wore bikinis. At 15, I gathered the admiring glances of older men like talismans, bits of secret strength I planned to use only when needed one day when I really wanted a man’s love, as if the power endowed by youthful beauty were ever something one could store. For the time being, I remained as virginal as ever, an outsider to the coy games of young people. The sea and sky and dun hills were still my balance pole, my refuge.
High school itself therefore came as a shock to me at 14, a cultural dissonance so jarring it almost shattered me that first year. I had always liked school. I liked carrying books and notebooks. I loved reading and new knowledge. I had had good teachers, and was even jumped by my elementary school teacher to fourth grade half way through my third grade class. One English teacher in 6th grade was so inspiring, I went home and manually copied our entire textbook of grammar rules into my own notebook, just to see the pages fill. She taught us English with real devotion, from diagramming sentences to punctuation to writing short stories. Every detail mattered to her. The foundation she gave me was so strong it gave me almost everything I needed years later when I in turn began to teach English to immigrants and try my own hand at writing.
A teacher in junior high invited me to come after school for lessons on the philosophy of Plato. For the first time my mind examined philosophy and understood there are questions to be asked, a bigger picture to stand back and see. How are two differently shaped tables still a table? How should a leader of men be trained? When I was 13, my algebra teacher turned out to be a survivor of Auschwitz. She told us she had maintained her sanity as a 16-year-old there by working out theorems in her head. With her stories and emotionally charged understanding of math, she made every formula feel important and elegant. They had saved her life after all.
But my first memory of Santa Monica High School is sitting in some risers with a hundred other freshmen, being trained to follow the school cheers for the football team by a male cheerleader. All around me other novice students roared with faux enthusiasm, on cue, for a school we had all just entered a few days before. Their bodies swayed in unison, their hands clapped on command. The young man in front of us howled and spelled out words and strode back and forth, orchestrating our responses with total self confidence. I sat stunned. Every fiber of me was discomfited by this elaborate charade of emotion, fake passion for a team I had never seen, a belonging I did not feel. I seemed to be alone in my alienation. Young people swayed and followed the choreographed hand gestures and chatted all around me. When we were released, I went to the ladies room and took two aspirin for a headache.
In the halls, as bells rang and students surged between classes, I felt buffeted in the current. I remember lockers banging shut all along the walls as I stopped to retrieve the books for the next class, struggling with my first combination lock. In “home room,” speakers blared with announcements and more false camaraderie. Listening to the hectoring urgent voices, I came to understand I was now a tribal member of Santa Monica High School. Samohi. Meant to be dedicated to screeching encouragement as our “warriors” overcame our enemies on the field of play, triumphing in debate clubs and spelling bees, obeying my roster of teachers, following the dress code like a supplicant.
My headaches became daily occurrences and in the third week something broke. If found myself walking outside of class, when all around me were rushing the other way. I came to the school’s edge - there were not yet walls around Santa Monica High School - and I kept walking. An odd hazy state had invaded my mind. I did not know why I was walking and did not want to think about it. I went a mile and then another, and found myself at last in Palisades Park, the mile long strip of green lawn and palm trees that runs along the top of the cliffs above the sea in Santa Monica. I found a phone and fished a dime out of my pocket. I came to understand how desperate I was only when I burst into tears and found I could barely get the words out. “Hamp, come and get me, please.”
What my father did next, I will always be grateful for, and even more for what he did not do. He did not take me right back to school. He did not read any riot acts. He did not even frown at my truancy. Instead he arrived to rescue me in his latest dilapidated Cadillac, leaving his much needed job to take care of his daughter who needed him even more that day. He gave me a giant hug, and then took me to a most remarkable place. The Fellowship Temple on Sunset Blvd is a vast parkland with a quiet lake in the middle. Speakers hung from the trees and played soft classical music. A charmingly overwrought Hindu temple graced the far end. The discrete boxes placed here and there on the trail contained little cards with helpful quotations. It was in fact my first exposure to eastern thought in any form and it soothed me back to sanity that day.
I dutifully let myself be bused back to Samohi the next day and found I could bear it a little better. My English class in particular offered a place that came to seem like refuge. This teacher did not dither over grammer, but rather enthused over Thoreau and Emerson. I was asked to ponder the Oversoul. And marvel at the simple crystalline life of Thoreau on Walden Pond. He planted beans. He fished. He sat in the sun for hours, simply present to the world. His life was a Buddhist meditation, though neither he, nor I, nor even perhaps my teacher knew it at the time. Still, it healed me to hear about him.
I had other good English teachers as the years progressed. One in particular introduced me to William Faulkner. I was assigned The Sound and the Fury and went on to read almost all his other works on my own. I moved in a Faulknerian trance for months as I did so, transported by his fierce clarion stories of indomitable southerners, the diamond hard core of courage and dedication to memory found in the shabbiest of his human characters. And the language! The words just so, resplendent or plain, as the stories needed. I tried to emulate him in torrents of purple prose and even gained an honorable mention for a story of a southern boy in a shack - a world as far from my own experience as it would be possible to imagine. I do wish now my teachers had been a bit more exacting of those novice errors, but it was a beginning.
When the second year of school rolled around I hadn’t yet made the lifelong friends I would soon find, but I had begun to take an interest in school activities. We had frequent schoolwide “assemblies” in which we all waited, pleased to be out of class, for whatever our earnest young principal had planned for us. The first one was an account of his own adventures as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. I have not forgotten the highlight of his talk even today, five decades later, for he told us about his tapeworm. When it was last removed, departing from his corpus inch by inch, it was over a yard long, an image that brought shrieks of horrified delight from even the most stoically cool teen among us.
But the following assembly, in November of 1963, was even harder to forget. It began as simply odd. An over-weight middle-aged man had been invited to demonstrate his skills as a typist, typing away on an old Underwood in front of a thousand restless sophomores, a microphone set next to the keys as he kept time to a Beethoven symphony. Whether he had more than that to dazzle us with I do not know for he had barely gotten through a few bars when the principals’s assistant came to the mic and stopped him. “Our President, John F. Kennedy,” she announced in a shaky voice, “has been shot in Dallas. We are waiting for news but….” I am sure she had not intended us to leave. But we knew who Kennedy was. We were teenagers, but we had experienced his dramatic election. We had shuddered through the Cuban missle crisis with him, understanding, for the first time in our sheltered lives, that the danger of a nuclear war was real and not just a mockery-worthy exercise in squeezing under our desks once a month. Defying his own advisors, John Kennedy had steered us through this darkest passage. He had spoken in Germany and challenged us to ask ourselves what we, the young people, could do for our country. Most of us idolized him. Against the protests of teachers who tried to stop us, we simply rose as one body and began to exit, most weeping in shock, blindly headed out, away from this bearer of terrible news. Many of the boys in that class were soon to become the first casualities of the Vietnam war, then just starting, but on that day almost none of us knew anything of death. It was our first bereavement. And like everything else emotional at 16, it hit us like a grenade to the heart.
Like the others, I walked out of the auditorium and kept going, and wept, and stayed at home in the days that followed as the whole nation joined in an immense spasm of sorrow. I think there were none who did not stop what they were doing to watch the slow procession of horse soldiers escort his casket up Pennsylvania Avenue to his funeral. Something more than a great president was passing. We could all feel it.
My life grew larger when I found my first real friend in high school, Kathy Epling. She was new to everything at first, even more than I had been, for her first years of puberty had been lived in Japan with her military family. She was a pretty girl with a slight build and flipped blonde hair, courtesy of her adamantly conformist parents, still wedded to the fifties. But she was enthusiastically friendly, so very glad to find someone to talk to, someone who loved nature and books as she did. She invited me to her home and showed me all her pictures and told her stories. She read aloud to me her outstanding poetry. And she shared her enhusiasm for the books she read, constantly and widely, more than me. It was later revealed (by a counselor driving outside the lines) that Kathy Epling had the highest IQ in our high school of 3000 students. Our friendship, though we did not know it yet, was to become one of those rare sisterhoods of spirit that last a lifetime. We did not always live so close by as we did in those days, but she became the sister I did not have and stayed that way until her death in 2016.
Together we began to change, as the world around us entered a time now known as “the Sixties” though it was already near the middle of that decade. It began, for me, with a song that came one afternoon on the radio, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles. Aside from learning how to do the “Twist,” I had barely noticed the dawning of rock and roll before that song. I knew nothing of the rise of this still obscure English rock group. But their song seized my mind like a visitation. Today I listen to the same song and wonder at the karma of its effect on my generation because little of its power is left for me now. But in 1964 I found it simply riveting. I wanted to listen to nothing else for days, playing it over and over. There was another herald of change in those weeks. A boy appeared in the central plaza of the high school with his hair to his shoulders - a style that for us simply meant “hair like a girl’s.” It was such a startling thing to see, we gathered around him a hundred strong, wanting to know what on earth he was thinking. I cannot remember his answers, but soon others were following.
Girls, including myself, began to role up our skirts at the waist, and to ask why we were never allowed to come to school in pants. I remember the school’s first reactions. A group of girls known as the “girls’ council” was delegated to examine miscreants like myself and decide on punishment. I remember kneeling on the floor in front of their line of chairs, as they checked to see whether or not my skirt touched the floor. It failed the test and I frowned at their authority over me, though the punishment was only an hour of after school “detention.” But the dam did not hold long. Soon there were special days in which girls were allowed to come in pants. Hair was growing over shoulders everywhere and was back combed into buffants above. Make up was reaching levels of application that Cleopatra would have envied, and even I explored the magical powers of false eyelashes.
The main event in high school is, of course, falling in love. Solitary child of nature that I was in those days, I was still no stranger to this emotion. I had fallen in love with someone every year since the second grade, where my heart was first broken by seven-year-old Steven, who invited me to be his partner in the circle dance, “Pickin up Paw-paws, Put em in the Basket.” The very next week, however, Steven fell under the Jezebel spell of my best friend Debbie. I was left to take my chances as he heroically shielded Debbie with his own body in our daily dodgeball games. Though I did develop a certain agility she lacked.
In the spring of my second year of high school, I was taken aback when a handsome senior named Bob Hensley began to flirt in the biology class we shared. He was blonde and tall and athletic, naturally graceful. I ran around the track in PE, my head pivoting to keep Bob in view as he worked on pole vaulting. Though I was still a sophomore, he invited me to his prom and held my hand as we, and several thousand seniors from throughout the LA basin, were given the keys to Disneyland for “senior night”. It was thrilling to walk by his side in that shining place, something new to me to stay up all night and be “a girl on a date with a senior.” But somehow, I was simply too immature to go even the smallest step further. I found myself unable to kiss Bob good-night, or let myself be kissed. I was nervous about it to such a degree that, after a few more puzzled efforts, he gave up at last. Oddly, the next boy that asked me out got that first kiss without a fuss. Strange karma. The last I saw of Bob was after his graduation that June. He declared he was going to go by a new name, Chad. He was going into military service, excited to be flying the next week to an exotic place called Vietnam. I never learned if he survived it.
The next year a remarkable young man named Eric Thiermann sat next to me in Mr. Freed’s Spanish class, and returned my smiles. The sangfroid of the current generation was not much part of ours, or at least it was not a remotest quality of mine. When the Spanish teacher gently teased me about my apparently obvious infatuation one day, I was so mortified, I buried my head in my arms and would not look up until the bell rang to release us from the class. Eric was made of sterner stuff though. After class, he invited me to that year’s prom. I accepted before I even noticed the words coming out of my mouth.
Eric came from a large and uniquely active and creative family. His father was a leader in the Quaker movement, his mother an artist. They lived in a large rambling house with at least an acre of trees and brush in Topanga Canyon. Here Eric had perfected his skills as a magician, with the cooperation of a long suffering dove. Indeed demonstrating those skills made up the bulk of his speech when he ran later that year for Student Vice President and the dove lifted from a top hat to fly about the auditorium. His opponent’s campaign promise to push for a pickle in our cafeteria hamburgers did not hold a candle. Everyone began to adore Eric, both that year and even more the next when he became class president.
That first step into stardom had not yet come for him when he invited me out, however. Though he didn’t show it, I think he was as nervous as I was, for he revealed the fact that he and his father had rehearsed the procedure of the whole evening to come, even making reservations at an elegant Mexican restaurant in downtown LA where I was to be treated to a post prom dinner. As for me, in the days before, my mother took me off to a salon for evening gowns. I don’t remember ever truly dressing up before that, and I had no opinions on style yet. My mother purchased an alarming gold extravaganza, so stiff and voluminous it pretty much stood up by itself if you set it on the floor. Living in Malibu, we had several near neighbors who were well-known actors and even more who were Hollywood support professionals. A make-up artist who had given Joan Crawford her thick eyebrows was invited in to do my make up. My long red brown hair was coiffed and sprayed for the first time in my life. My eyebrows soon rivalled Joan’s. Red lipstick was liberally applied . My beach adapted feet were coffined in shiny black three inch high heels. I was still staring at myself in shock in the bedroom mirror when Erik rang the doorbell, orchid corsage held up in mute offering. As I came to stand before him, he looked in dismay at my gold satin bosom, where he was meant to pin it, but my mother and a cousin stepped in to help. Then it was a great relief to leave all the fluttering adults behind and get into his old car. We drove south on Highway 1 in stunned silence for a time and then, as I myself had rehearsed, not wanting to appear shallow, I opened the conversation by asking him his thoughts on death.
The evening did improve however. When we got to the venue, I made a beeline for the ladies room. I pulled my hair down and let it hang down my back to my waist. I washed my face free of most of the congealing make-up. I put my high heels in a corner and went out to dance. My dress still quivered like a giant bowl of golden jello, but we did have fun. Then it was time to go to the restaurant. Here the manager informed us, to Eric’s mortification, that in the evening the restaurant was also a bar and underage persons could not be admitted. But it didn’t matter. Neither of us was hungry. We drove instead to the grass hills of UCLA and ran under the moonlight in our finery, laughing. A night to remember. Unfortunately when the next school dance came around, a “girl ask boy” dance, my chronic shyness again hobbled me. I struggled for two weeks to gather my courage to ask him to go with me but could not. Another girl asked him, and he accepted. Linda Deutsch, who played the violin beautifully and had soulful dark eyes and bobbed black hair, became his girlfriend for the rest of our time in high school.
My mind shifts through the long forgotten photo cards of memory for more of those days and finds only flashes. Pairs volleyball on the beach, and my ace serve that knocked men back on their heels, if they stopped it at all, silent punishment for the condescension they so often showed women athletes in those days. “Good girl, you got it!” For a time, in Malibu, and later in college, I was indeed an athlete, playing serious volleyball 20+ hours a week. Outplaying the casual male players who showed up, certain that no woman at any level of skill could out-do them at anything, was my recompense. I remember trying out for the lead in the school play, Sound of Music. For days I had practiced alone the soaring lyrics of “The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Music.” I was ever more confident my mezzo soprano voice would impress them. I had, after all, sung musicals alone, playing all parts, for years, when no adults were home. When I stood up to sing before others in an auditorium, however, things went awry. The directors indeed seemed impressed with my first lines. But they noticed what I had not, that in learning the song directly from a record, I had learned it with Julie Andrew’s British accent. When they asked me to sing with an American accent, I was so undone, only a squawk came out, and no amount of sympathetic urging could unfreeze my vocal cords.
Odd how these roads not taken come back to me now, as I enter the last chapters of my life. At 17 almost every day is a crossroads, though you do not recognize it until later. So much that happened then shaped my life. But so much more that was to form me was still to come. College and the full sea change of “The Sixties” lay straight ahead. And life offers no re-dos.