San Diego, 1976-1980…and The Catalina…

Yesterday I was having a conversation with my son, who is a pretty cool guy. We were talking about my recent avocation as a writer for my blog. This week’s Finish the Sentence Friday post was written in response to the prompt, “When I was 19…” which naturally started me thinking about the events in my life from 1976-1980, when I lived in Southern California – actually in a suburb of San Diego called Spring Valley. The summer after I graduated high school, I worked as an intern in the office of U.S. Senator Mike Gravel, D-Alaska. I had no particular political affiliation – it was a job and I wanted one, so there I was. I had only just graduated high school as a proud member of the Class of ’76 and found myself at loose ends. After the summer, I was sans job, sans any real job skills and completely adrift. I had no money to go to college and nowhere to live, because my parents were planning to move to San Diego after my dad retired from the Alaska Railroad. The retirement process took longer than anticipated and it wound up that my mom moved to San Diego with my younger sister Lisa and me. My older sister Michele was a Catholic nun in Chardon, Ohio and my brother Bud was at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. So we moved, the three of us, with our cat Elmer and a whole lot of nothing else except household goods. No money. No jobs. San Diego, like the rest of the country, was wallowing in the recession and employment was hard to find. and list the following events which occurred in 1976:
  • Space Shuttle Enterprise is unveiled.
  • The Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz, terrorizes New York City.
  • Sylvester Stallone’s Rockypremieres.
  • Zhou Enlai dies.
  • The Concorde SST takes off on its maiden flight.
  • Chairman Mao dies.
  • Soviet Air Force Lt. Viktor Belenko takes his MIG-25 out of Soviet airspace and lands it at a Japanese airfield at Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido. He subsequently requests asylum in the United States.
  • Pol Pot is in power in Cambodia and renames the country Democratic Kampuchea. 
  • Billionaire recluse Howard Hughes dies.
  • Explorer Viking 1 lands on Mars.
  • Paul Robeson dies (don’t know who he was? Look at this scene in Showboat where the black dock worker is singing “Old Man River.” THAT’S Robeson.
  • The first women are inducted as midshipmen into the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
  • Israeli commandos rescue passengers and crew from an Air France flight that was hijacked by four Palestinian and West German terrorists. This took place in Entebbe, Uganda. 
  • McNeil-Lehrer Report premieres on PBS.
  • UN Security Council votes 11-1 to seat Palestine Liberation Organization.
  • Super Bowl X: Pittsburgh Steelers beat Dallas Cowboys, 21-17 in Miami Super Bowl MVP: Lynn Swann, Pittsburgh, WR (This one’s for my father in law, who was a staunch Steelers fan.)
  • Taxi Driver is released, starring Robert DeNiro and Jodie Foster.
  • Dorothy Hamill wins the gold medal for the United States in Women’s Olympic Figure Skating, in Innsbruck, Austria. (and millions of young girls had their hair bobbed like Hamill’s)
  • The first female cadets are accepted at West Point Military Academy.
  • Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst is convicted of armed robbery.
  • Argentine President Isabel Peron is deposed by a military coup.
  • Queen Elizabeth II sent out the first royal email, from the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. 
  • The Washington, D.C. Metro opens. 
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wins the Academy Award for Best Picture. 
  • Stephen Wozniak and Steve Jobs found Apple Computer.
  • Angel Cordero, Jr. on Bold Forbes wins the 102nd Kentucky Derby.
  • Lowell Thomas ends 46 years as a radio network reporter. 
  • The Montreal Canadiens sweep the Philadelphia Flyers in 4 straight games to win the Stanley Cup.
  • The first woman is admitted to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
  • Nadia Comăneci became the first person in Olympic Games history to score a perfect 10 in gymnastics at the 1976 Summer Olympics.
  • First outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease kills 29 in Philadelphia.
  • Toronto Maple Leaf Lanny McDonald scores two hat tricks.
  • Jimmy Carter is elected President of the United States.
  • Network premieres in Los Angeles and New York.

These are just a few of the highlights of the year that I graduated high school. On top of that, there was a recession, terrorism was on the rise, hijackings were commonplace, and it seemed like the world was a very fragile planet on which to attempt to build a life. 
As I was talking with my son today, I recalled the time that I almost met Tom Hayden. My son had never heard of Hayden…well, he’s only 23 and his interest in that era of time is somewhat limited at this stage of his life, as is normal. This started me thinking about who the Yippies were and then I remembered, oh yeah! Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, the Chicago 10, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and my political awakening, watching the Chicago Police Department beat the living shit out of the protestors. They were brutal and they were backed by City Hall and Mayor Richard J. Daley. Here’s a link to the documentary about the Chicago 10. or not one agrees with the Yippies is by the by. This was part of history and a big part of my childhood. In 1968 I was ten years old and watching that coverage on television was an eye opening experience.
Anyway. I was attending Grossmont College, majoring in ceramics and enjoying life. One day in the Quad, Tom Hayden was to give a speech. While I was waiting for the speech, I decided that I wanted to get a soda and so I went to the Student Government Office, which at the time had a soda machine that dispensed your drinks in cheesy little wax paper cups…it was the 1970s. I walked into the office and looked around, and asked someone standing there if this Hayden guy was ever going to show up…and there he stood. Yep. I wanted to crawl under the floor and slink out of there, I was that embarrassed. I don’t even remember if I got my drink.
Before I went to Grossmont, I did a six month course at a business college in Mission Valley. It was called Eaton College and most likely doesn’t exist anymore. I thought I wanted to be a medical assistant. I really don’t know why, because I sucked at science and math and I didn’t particularly like being around sick people, nor did I have any burning desire to be Florence Nightingale. I did learn to give shots, draw blood and do basic first aid, but other than that it was not particularly appealing to me. I wound up switching to medical transcription, which I was pretty good at doing. Eaton College was just a prelude to Grossmont. At Grossmont I enrolled in a beginning wheelthrown ceramics class with Les Lawrence and fell in love with clay. I learned to silkscreen on clay. I learned how to make my own molds, although as a mold maker I was a much better potter. Oh well. I just loved clay. I loved slip casting. I had a workstudy job as an assistant in the Ceramics Department, so I was able to be around a great deal more than most of the other students. At the end of each semester, we would clear out the ware shelves that were just outside the kiln room. One semester a student had gone to all the trouble of making a castle out of clay – really did a bangup job on it too – and then went off and left the thing on the ware shelves. My supervisor said to take if I wanted it, so for a time we had a castle among the cacti and succulents in our front yard on Banock Street in Spring Valley.
Grossmont offered an interesting curriculum. One of the English classes I took there was Fantasy and Science Fiction, taught by an eccentric fella named Frank Vittor. Man smoked like a chimney, but he loved his material and the class was terrific. Another English class that I enjoyed was Bible as Literature…I think the teacher’s name was Moore. He looked like an Old Testament prophet, with a long white beard. He was great. I got an A in his class. The woman who taught my Sociology class was rather elderly and had glaucoma…and the only two things I remember from that class were two words in German: Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society). I remember that one of my first classes at Grossmont was an English Lit class. I still have the textbook. That was a wonderful class…must’ve been, because I still read the book every now and then. Grossmont was a good school.
As a starving college student, I was always broke. I lived at home in my parent’s house. When we moved to San Diego, we rented a house on Lamar Street in Spring Valley. After my dad retired from the railroad and moved down to be with us, we bought a house on Banock Street. Both houses were zoned for horses, which was important because my younger sister had purchased my Aunt Kathy’s horse Lux and we had to have a place for Lux to stay. We had a paddock in the backyard at both houses. It must have been a giant pain in the ass to move that, because it was made of pipe and was huge. It’s funny that I don’t remember how we did that…or maybe we just left the paddock where it was and the second house had one. Who knows…
My cat, Jessica James – and the Catalina
Me and Miki Sagayama – and the Catalina – at Shelter Island. If you look carefully, you can see that there is no trunk…

Me and Jessica James – and the Catalina – at 9237 Lamar Street

The Catalina, parked across the street from our house at 821 Banock Street. This was apparently before the painting was used to replace the ragtop…

Back to the broke and starving college student thing. In the FTSF post “When I was 19…” I mentioned the 1962 Pontiac Catalina convertible that my Great Uncle Matt Lagier gave me to mark the momentous occasion of my graduation from high school. Uncle Matt was what the Scots would call canny w’the brass, meaning that he could squeeze more than the full value out of a dollar. His favorite entertainment was to go to Vegas or Reno and eat at the buffet restaurants at the casinos. For about $2.50 it was all you can eat. Uncle Matt also invested in real estate; he had a good deal of real estate holdings in Reno and for all I know in Vegas as well. He lived in a small house in Susanville, which was fairly close to both Reno and Vegas. Knowing Uncle Matt, the house was probably free and clear of any mortgage. He used to buy cars at police auctions and I think that was where he got the Catalina. My dad flew up to Susanville and drove the Catalina down to San Diego…this was when we lived in the Lamar Street house. So there I was, single, 19 years old, with a convertible. Well. I shall have to dig up a photo of my Catalina…because beautiful she was most definitely not. At one point in her life, she must have had a beautiful paint job of an icy blue. However, someone had removed the trunk lid and the back of her was wide open. This was actually advantageous when it came to going to the feed store for Lux’s hay and horse nuggets. I could haul two bales of hay in the back of that thing. The only *disadvantage* to hauling hay in this way was that as you were speeding down the Spring Valley roads, you were spewing a cloud of stray pieces of hay out the back of the car. This was also problematic for me as I was trying to adjust to contact lenses for the first time in my life, and hay and chaff flying around your head in a cloud tends to get in your hair, your mouth, ears, clothes…and under your contact lenses. Not fun.

Then there was the top on the Catalina. Ah, the ragtop. The puir wee ragtop. That was as old as the car itself, which incidentally was built sometime in the late 1960s. This is a picture of a ’67 Catalina…
Just picture it with no trunk lid, a really ratty ragtop, and a paint job that looked like it had been sandblasted off. It either didn’t have a radio or the radio was broken…can’t remember. My solution to the lack of a radio was to take my little transistor radio with me in the car and play it as loud as I could. It was the 1970s.  At first I could put the top up and take it down, although this had to be accomplished manually, because any motor that might have once been there to drive the top up and down had long since ceased to function. And then It Happened: a hole developed in the ragtop. The hole, in a stroke of supreme irony, was located precisely above the driver’s head. My head. My poor wet head. Yes. One night, I’m driving home from Grossmont in the Catalina and It. Commenced. To. RAIN. It is not true that if you drive very fast, the water won’t pour down all over your face, head, neck, shoulders…and other parts. It was about a 20 minute drive from Grossmont to Spring Valley, but the first time I experienced the Deluge, the drive lasted an eternity. I tried sticking an umbrella up through the hole and driving with one hand holding the umbrella and the other on the steering wheel. That lasted a few blocks, until the force of the wind and the speed at which I was driving just forced the umbrella inside out and that was that.
Okay, so you get the picture, right? Art student. Broke. Workstudy. BROKE. No money to pay for a new ragtop. In the beginning pottery studio, there was a gigantic painting that a student had done and then just left there, where it sat atop the shelves for years, until The Hole developed in the Catalina and desperation developed in me. My boss said, ah hell, just take the thing. So I did…and we turned it inside out so the painted side was toward me and the unpainted side to the sky. Ugly painting, by the way…My dad stretched the painting over the ragtop frame and epoxied it in place. He’s pretty handy like that. Unfortunately, however, this meant that the Catalina was a convertible no longer. Just a Ible…but a Ible that was now waterproof! That was the solve for the ragtop. Now to the tires…
Ah, the tires for the Catalina. I. Was. A. Broke. And. Starving. College. Student. So…this meant that all I could afford for tires were retreads. Let me tell you, friends – Do. NOT. Buy. Retread. Tires. They have a short life. They are dangerous. They tend to blow out at the most inopportune times and sometimes that can be, well…not so good. One day as I was driving up to Grossmont, the right front tire on the Catalina decided it had Had Enough of living and blew. Spectacularly. My hubcap (yes, this was back in the days when cars HAD hubcaps) took flight. Now, I was on Jackson Boulevard in La Mesa…and there was a parking lot that was on a slight elevation from the roadway. At the edge of the parking lot there were those cement doodads that people put in place so that cars don’t roll into the street or on the lawn or whatever. Those cement doodads are usually painted bright yellow…and that day there were men kneeling, painting them. So. My right front tire blows – with a glorious BANG! – and my hubcap sails clear into the parking lot. Right. Over. Their. Heads. Missed ‘em by a few scant inches. I don’t remember how I managed to get to school…but I do remember the thought that I might have decapitated somebody, however unintentionally. Ah…the Catalina…such memories!
None of us had money. It was the 1970s and the economy was worse than in the toilet…it was in the sewer and things did not look to improve anytime soon. Starving college students don’t have many options for inexpensive recreation. Thankfully, though, San Diego has some of the most beautiful beaches in the country, and it has Shelter Island, and all of the beaches were free. Shelter Island was created by dredging San Diego Harbor, something that my friend Anne O’Leary’s dad was involved with. The result was that there was a beach of sorts, and a quiet channel in which one could swim, provided you weren’t too fussy about seaweed and a rather slimy sandy bottom. The best part was there was no surf, which suited me down to the ground…I wasn’t much of a swimmer. We could drive down to Shelter Island from Spring Valley and the temperature would drop a good 10-15 degrees. I’d throw food and drinks in a cheap styrofoam cooler and collect Anne and my sister Lisa and whoever else wanted to come along, and we’d set off in the Catalina in our bikinis and shorts. Some of the worse sunburns I’ve ever had were earned at Shelter Island…although sometimes we’d go to Mission Beach. I still miss the beach.
In the end, the Catalina died around the same time that I graduated with my Associate of Art from Grossmont in 1980. I sold her to a junkyard for $100. She gave me a good run for not a lot of money, and a great many memories of the finest sort. By that time, I was 21 years old and the only thing I wanted was to move back to Alaska. My parents were moving to Wisconsin to be near my Grandma Rachel, who was living in Necedah at that time. After I graduated from Grossmont, they moved, I moved and my sister Lisa moved. And that is all for now!

2 thoughts on “San Diego, 1976-1980…and The Catalina…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s