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  • I'd say I qualify as an outsider. I was a Navy brat, moved around a lot, never had a sense of home or being anchored to a particular place. And since I was always the new kid, I never quite belonged. After a while, I quit trying to fit in and just decided to be me. Whoever that was.

    My first continuous memories (I have several fragments of when I was 3 or 4) are of 'Flintstone Village' in Great Lakes, Illinois. Forrestal Village, the base housing for enlisted dependents, was a converted World War Two training area consisting of cinder block buildings that had once been two-story barracks and had been converted to quadplexes for housing. These units were arranged in a huge horseshoe area with a large field in the center, the drill area for former recruits. In various locations were huge, Quonset hut style buildings that served as reserve training areas and were once the inclement weather drill halls. The elementary school for the base was located in one wing of a huge Administration building converted to several uses, including the base NCO and Chief's club. We lived there five years. Five summers of little to do except play baseball on one of the diamonds provided, ride my bicycle, and get into fights with other kids. Five winters of snow as deep as I was tall, snowball fights, and Christmas lights decorating grey concrete buildings. Win some, lose some. My parents were fairly social people, so occasionally we would go to another area of the housing to have a cookout with another family. When I was old enough, I was allowed to ride the base shuttle from housing to the main base to go to a movie or the bowling alley. And since my parents were both from the Peoria area, we would travel down every couple of months to my grandmother's house.

    Then came Norfolk, Virginia, where my parents decided to live off base. School and everything else was still segregated (I remember the 'whites only' signs on drinking fountains and other areas), so to those folks I was a "nigger lovin' Yankee". Definitely an outsider. I got a good taste of what it felt like to be segregated. But I also got a feel for the rich history of the area. What Norfolk lacked in hospitality, it made up for in parks and museums, and a marine base with one hell of a confidence course my brother and I could use. They still called it an obstacle course back then. By either name, it was a place where you could run, climb and swing without having to deal with the locals.

    I became a patron of the local 'Bookmobile', reading books the librarian thought were too mature for me (To Kill a Mockingbird, almost everything by Alexandre Dumas and Ian Fleming), and began to write as well. Fledgling writer stuff, nothing to get excited about. Upon reading a story I had written after she discovered it on one of her many trips of my room, my mother's only comment was, "Don't show that to your friends (she hadn't caught on I had none), they'll make fun of you." Not a lot of encouragement for writers in my family. I convinced my parents to allow me to take up the trumpet (didn't have to convince my dad much, he was a former trumpet player), which I played for a year, then switched over to Sousaphone so I could play in the marching and performing bands instead of being in 'second' band.

    Between music and reading, I managed to avoid most confrontations, but one boy in particular, Larry Cornell, just would not let me be. Almost every day after school, he and several of his friends were looking for me. After getting tired of finding alternative exits from the school grounds (Larry had been held back a grade and was at least 5 inches taller and about 40 pounds heavier), I finally decided to stand my ground. In a manner of speaking, that is. I hid a baseball bat just around the corner from where I knew he would be that day. Words were exchanged, his friends were goading him on, and when he went after me, I ran to where the bat was. As he came round the corner, I swung and broke his left arm. I still remember the sound, the way the bat felt as it connected. His parents threatened to sue, the school wanted to expel me, but my dad listened to my side of the story and decided I was acting in self defense, so he went to the JAG office on base to talk to the Navy attorneys. They, in turn, made a couple of phone calls to the parents and to the school. I attended the rest of the school year without incident. That summer, we moved to California.

    Hawaiian Gardens was one of the nicer, older areas of Los Angeles at the time. Dad was stationed on the U.S.S. Enterprise, and I attended M. T. Killingsworth Junior High School. In Virginia, we lived in a small but nice house. Here, we lived in a second floor apartment. There was a swimming pool, where I practically lived in the summer, and school was only six blocks away (the high school I would attend next year was only down the block). But I had just figured out how to deal with southern rednecks. Now, I had to deal with hippies. Dope smoking, war protesting hippies. Long haired pseudo intellectuals who spouted theories on how all military people were simply pawns of the government killing innocent civilians and how we all needed to smoke dope, chill out, and solve the problems of the world with flowers and love. Once again, definitely an outsider. I was wearing J.C. Penny clothes, they were running around in tie dyed t-shirts and bell bottom jeans with embroidery. I finally convinced my mom that bell bottoms were in style, so my brother and I both got Seafarers from the base exchange and a few t-shirts. We didn't exactly blend in, but we didn't stand out as much. Except for the hair. Long hair did not go over on a military installation, and my father only knew one style of haircut for boys: short. Thank God my mother talked him out of crew cuts.

    I did learn that California kids were more talk than action. Well, the boys anyway. Fighting consisted of yelling insults back and forth, throwing a few punches, and hoping your friends would pull you off before you or the other guy got their asses kicked. Sometimes, if you were losing, one of your bigger friends would get involved. Then one of the other guy's friends would get involved. Pretty soon, you had a lot of pushing and shoving and yelling without much hitting until a parent or a school employee would notice and get involved. When that happened, there was usually a lot of running. The girls were another story. Girl fights consisted of efforts at scratching, punching, hair pulling, and clothes tearing. Usually down to bras and panties, occasionally down to just the panties. Needless to say, the boys did nothing to dissuade these events and often spurred them on. But you had to be careful. One boy got found out by the two girls and ended up getting his ass beaten by a couple of girls. Pretty embarrassing.

    The next year, I started High School and found out there really wasn't much difference. Well, actually, there was. My algebra instructor was an older man getting close to retirement who began the first day of class with a diatribe on how it was his class and he would run it the way he damn well pleased and he didn't care who our parents were or how popular you were, or if you played football or any other sport, and if you didn't do the work you would not pass the class. The diatribe lasted the entire period. My English teacher was almost totally the opposite. We did a 'getting to know you' session for the 50 minutes of class time and never touched on syllabus or content until the last 3 minutes, when he handed out the required reading list. I did my homework, managed to avoid most confrontations, and when I did eventually get into a fight, played by my rules. No, not a baseball bat, but when I approached the other guy, I didn't yell or start into their little game. I punched and kept punching, and when his friends tried to step in, I kicked one in the groin and went back to punching. I eventually did get pulled off the kid (it took four of them to do it) and got punched a few times, but after that, I was left alone.

    Back to Great Lakes and base housing, but this time we were in the nicer duplexes that had been built while we were traipsing all over the country. Since we were on base, the only time I had to deal with other kids was at North Chicago High School, which reflected the makeup of the area. Sixty percent low income black, twenty five percent transient military, and fifteen percent other, which is to say Hispanic and mostly first and second generation immigrants from countries like Armenia, Slovakia, and other nations where the Soviets had taken control. There weren't many fights, since the school was policed like a minimum security prison. There was a lot of racial tension and occasionally a small group of black students would try to start a protest rally, but the principal, who was also black, would quickly put an end to it. Once he had the police come in and take two black boys out in handcuffs for tossing a football through one of the trophy cases. Pretty much the extent of the serious happenings at the school. The only other significant events that year were the appearance of a CITGO dinosaur atop the building one sunny Monday morning, a rather remarkable performance by yours truly as Professor Harold Hill in our version of The Music Man, and the unexplained appearance of several pairs of panties just beneath the American flag on the flagpole in front of the school after a particularly rowdy football game. To my knowledge, the perpetrators of the first and last stunts were never found out. I only mention them for their probative value and deny any involvement.

    Dad retired from the Navy that summer and we were off to California again. My father took a job as a security guard while he looked for something that would benefit from his years of experience as a technician and eventually landed a job as a repair technician with the County of Los Angeles. He and my mom purchased a nice three bedroom home in Norwalk, a suburb just across the San Gabriel river from Bellflower, which is a hop-step-jump from Compton. My brother and I attended Excelsior High School, which no longer exists and at the time was just across the street from the Norwalk barrio. So in North Chicago I had to deal with black students getting all riled about equal rights and MLK Jr. and other things they knew absolutely nothing about (teenage passion is often confused with teenage knowledge, which is ridiculous), and in Norwalk I had to deal with La Raza, college age agitators coming on campus to start unrest and violence. Unlike the schools in the north which were usually contained in single large building to keep heating costs to a minimum, Excelsior was spread out over several buildings and had no fences to keep out unwanted persons. So during my junior and senior year, I had the advantage of being able to leave campus for lunch (which was cool, since there was a Tastee Freeze across Excelsior Boulevard with great taquitos) and the disadvantage of having to deal with a bunch of pumped up Chicanos intent on taking their anger out on any white faces they could find.

    My junior year I managed to avoid those rallies and the misplaced anger. My senior year, my brother started as a freshman, and since we had the same lunch hour, we often went to lunch together. One mild October day, while we were walking back to class, a group of five Mexican American boys were gathered together near the path we had to cross to get back to class. They started yelling insults and we were doing our best to keep walking when one of them threw a notebook and hit my brother in the back. I dropped everything I was carrying except my history book, which was about two inches thick and heavy, and went after my brother, who had already reached the first boy and was punching him in the face. While the other four were trying to pull my brother off their friend, I used the book to knock one of the out, and pushed two more away. When it was over, there were five Hispanic youth with badly bruised faces. In their macho world, that was the worst thing we could have done to them. I had found out the year before that Mexican women would not have anything to do with a Mexican boy who got into a fight and was marked. About three weeks later, another agitator got a bunch of Mexican students all riled up, but when some of them approached my brother, one of the five tapped the leader on the shoulder and they walked away. Like they say, it's all fun and games until someone loses an eye, or the ability to date.

    I graduated from Excelsior High School in June of 1970, and to this day I can only remember a handful of names and faces. I know other people who can tell you all their teacher's names, their schoolmates, and even remember every little rally and event that happened in the school that year. Some of them still have their high school yearbooks. Me? I'm lucky if I remember the names of the places I lived, cause growing up, they weren't all that important.

    Like I said, I'm fairly certain I qualify as an outsider.

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