Page 4 of 8
I am inclined toward these natural elements, toward them as a foundation for culture, because they saved my life as a child. It is not nostalgia I feel for them but respect.
ON DECEMBER 23, 1955, MY MOTHER MARRIED HER THIRD husband, a businessman from New York who offered us financial security, elevated social status and private schools. At the least, this marriage represented for her the realization of what she had been seeking in the Valley for years -- dependably stable, even generous economic circumstances, a more graciously appointed home and a measure of privilege; but this life would now unfold for us in Manhattan, not in working-class Reseda.
The relief I felt at the news that we would be leaving California was the kind of relief an animal might feel if that animal had been electrocuted to unconsciousness every few days by an indifferent owner, and then had awakened one morning to find the owner dead, the cage door standing open. Along with three other boys at the time (whom I've never met, and only learned about years later from two detectives in the Los Angeles Police Department), I had been sodomized repeatedly in the mid-'50s by an older man who ran a drying-out clinic for alcoholics on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. He preyed, I would now speculate, largely on the sons of single mothers who brought a friend or relative in for treatment. He posed as a compassionate M.D. but was neither. In the way of a true sociopath, a pathological narcissist, he insinuated himself into a family with timely gifts on birthdays, extra cash for groceries and school clothes, and the offer of an evening off for a parent when he would volunteer to take a son "to the movies."
According to the detectives, Harry Shier fled L.A. in 1959, one step ahead of a grand-jury indictment, and not his first. He had fled earlier indictments in Canada and Colorado. He was murdered, the police told me, in South America in 1961.
Like tens of thousands of sexually brutalized children, I lived in silent compliance. My patient hope was somehow to walk away, to no longer have to endure his compulsions in the small, nasty apartment he kept on the roof of his sanitarium. But when my dreamed-of escape became reality, when I was rid of him, I missed California to the point of grief. The sound of mourning doves at first light; the unpopulated middle stretches of Topanga and Laurel canyons, with their bolting jackrabbits; the long beaches at Zuma and Leo Carrillo, where it seemed to me the biggest waves in the world came to their crashing ends -- these sounds and places were my refuge from the threat of ruin in that room. Without them, without the surgical sharpness and (on another day) the smoky nature of the sun's light as it spilled into the Valley; without the astringent smells of fresh eucalyptus buttons and pepper-tree leaves clinging to the skin of my fingers -- without these things I believe I would have perished. Left like a wet rag doll in the bed of a beast, I might have gone through some other door.
In a dry, fault-block basin in the transverse ranges of Southern California, where the Gabrielino once lived well on 60 different kinds of plants and a hundred types of seed, another group of people built a world of well-watered fields. However they may have reasoned the water was theirs, they made an arid land bloom. And so I understood as a boy I could do the same. I could address the thing in me that threatened to become a vast and spreading desert. I had only to discover the water to make it happen.
The water, it turned out, was ordinary life. The water was the braceros, working every day in the fields, making a curiously knowing nod to a young white boy passing on his bike. The water was the ordinary determination of everyday people to contain something deep in their lives. It was a detachment from distraction, which led many of them to eschew both nostalgia and the pages of Sunset in a search for what they hoped for from life in the Valley.
My pigeons, in all the rise and fall of their aerial scripture, were the water. (In one of the ironic twists that give life its signal, curious spine, these were the gift of Harry Shier.) As I understood them, lining the ridge of their coop in the morning, waiting for the air to warm, they were happy for the light. It did not seem that they would later return home disappointed because the ground they found beneath their wings had changed in the night. Whatever they might encounter, it would take neither energy nor beauty from their flight.