by Ian Whitcomb

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
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When there's no work about -- no book commissions, no cabaret dates, no talk show appearances, no nothing -- I cloister at the world-famous Huntington Art Gallery, Library & Botanical Gardens, San Marino, near Los Angeles, California. Actually, they let me in the library.

The authorities, sharp-eyed matrons, have assigned me a corner in the basement where, at a green metal desk, I can sit in quietness to write in longhand with a throwaway Japanese rolling-writer pen. No word processors for yours truly, not even a typewriter -- until it's fair copy time. The floor is cool marble; in front and behind are military drab metal bookshelves erect with stern volumes full of no-nonsense knowledge. "Bibliofilia," "The National Library of Ireland (1894-1903)," "Bibliography of Prohibited Books." How safe, snug and secure it is in this dungeon of culture. Take a volume at random, say "The Book Collector" (August 1974, just post-hectic '60s, round about Watergate time):

"A Short Note on Alfred William Forman (1840-1925)" -- "One might suppose that Alfred is interesting mainly as the brother of Harry." Perfect. Just the stuff to make one forget the barbaric storm troopers of today, baying outside, poisoning the corpuscles of Los Angeles County. On my way over this very morning I saw that all the freeway signs -- great green and white hoardings hanging over the river of lanes -- have now been multi-colored in Latino gang graffiti (LOZ BOYZ IZZ HEEER, YOU THAAAR!). At breakfast in the coffee shop I clearly asked for a runny omelette but out it came rock hard. The problem was the waitress being Korean and me English. The Thai manageress smiled when I said "runny" and that got me even more upset. After all, it's my language.

Above the basement, in the reading rooms, sit scholars from all over the world, peering into computers, worshiping at the green shrine, tick-tocking facts and figures from curly crackling manuscripts and grim old tomes into their clean machines for some project or other: "Synchronicity & the Frontier," "Emotional History of the Nineteenth Century," "Black Africans in Medieval Times."

Close by, in the Art Gallery, hang "Pinkie" and "The Blue Boy" together with a garden of Turners and Constables and Richard Wilson. So, you see, one can be quite comfortable and comforted at the Huntington. All these treasures plus the scholars and the volumes and the quiet, they keep out the chaos. I know how the Venerable Bede must have felt, scribbling away behind stone walls up North while outside was the vile racket of randy barbarians raping and pillaging and so forth.

The question always is: what to write about? Old Joyce and old Proust really only wrote about themselves but publishers won't let me get away with this anymore.

I left my green metal chair and took a stroll down the basement aisles, stopping off as usual at Southern California, Aisles 19-20. Here I was attracted by a book I'd not seen before, a beautifully bound little thing called "California Coast Trails -- A Horseback Adventure," the cover print indented deeply in orange and gold, the overall smell of saddle soap. On the back was ingrained a picture of the author, J. Smeaton Chase. I was immediately captivated for he was just my type: an ancient graybeard in a Chief Scout hat, with stiff white collar and knitted tie, and long cardigan, britches and sensible shoes. He was standing firm, one foot in front of the other, in -- it said -- the Palm Springs desert of 1921. With eagle eye through wire glasses he was closely inspecting a revolting and priapic cactus. Badmen and Indians may well have been lurking about but in J. Smeaton Chase's company you'd be safe and sound.

"Up to no good, I'll be bound," he'd bark. "Go away!" I hoped J. Smeaton would turn out to be English. He looked so like the ideal prep school master.

Further research, down other dark aisles, revealed he was born in London in 1864 and had arrived in Southern California in 1890 (Why California, and where did he go to school?). First he lived on a Mountainside, possibly under canvas; later he wangled a job tutoring a rich rancher's children in the San Gabriel Valley (near this Huntington). He also turns up working in an L.A. camera shop and as a downtown social worker. But flora and fauna and Native Americans seem to have been his first love. In 1911 he took a trip on a horse called Chino, accompanied by local painter Carl Eytel (on Billy), from Los Angeles, then his home, to Laguna and thence down to San Diego. He called the trip a "paseo," which he explained as "a walk, a ride, an excursion, a picnic, in fact, a going anywhere and anyhow, so long as it is leisurely, pleasurable and un-businesslike." Splendid.

My test of a book is the first sentence. I broke open "California Coast Trails" and, after being greeted by a bouquet of vintage eucalyptus leaves, I read, "'Hello!' said a little girl in a sunbonnet, in shy response to my own salutation. (I did not know her, but I like shy little girls in sunbonnets.)" Delightful. And this in El Monte, a city I knew only as resting place for white killer rednecks and also as the HQ of the local branch of the American Nazi Party. But in 1911 El Monte, a few miles from the Huntington, was but a farming village. "A rather pretty little place," says Smeaton, "not too much modernized, with plenty of big poplar and eucalyptus trees swaying above the modest cottages." (I've always liked the smell of eucalyptus -- reminds me of Matron and the Sickroom and no games today.) Smeaton adds, "I seriously think that humble things ought to please us best."

As they slowly wend their way toward the coast, Smeaton describes such humble things -- chatting up local Mexicans at the Sanchez Ranch under a shady pepper tree as he smokes a post-prandial pipe -- meeting the old Latino woman who, "learning that I was from Los Angeles, grew eloquent in a gentle way over the advantages of living in this quiet spot rather than in the city, where, beyond noisy cars and much people, there was 'nothing, nothing."' But, notes Smeaton, the buxom daughters lolling and pouting by the cottage door didn't appear to agree with mother. Antsy for hot action, no doubt -- a bit of bunny-hugging and turkey-trotting down in some L.A. cabaret.

Smeaton and Eytel (sketching away) jog off, straight into the midday sun, through the little Quaker town of Whittier (where later Richard Nixon would be educated), across the Rio Hondo (nothing but sand and rock), and into the town of Downey (named for a governor who married a Spaniard) where they tent in a vacant lot next to a new church and pass the night "embittered by mosquitoes." Next day brings nothing but "long straight roads, inexpressible dust, leagues of sugar-beets, and farms." But suddenly Smeaton has a vision of the paradise which water and the right type of farmer could bring to this desert, a vision of when "the prairie-like landscape...would be checkered into hundreds of trim little farms occupied by Farmers of the New Style, who, scientifically blending water and soil under the most generous climate in the world, would cover the great expanse with the choicest fruits of the earth."

Smeaton is irritated to be interrupted whilst crossing the Santa Ana road by a "meteoric procession" of whizzing autos "bearing back Los Angeles holiday-makers from the seaside to their homes." He has seen the future and it's noisy. But soon calm is restored when the party descends into Laguna Canyon (Did Smeaton know the English song "Lily of Laguna"? He never says so). Now all is "highly picturesque," with a "touch of mystery" and even "impressive gloom" -- for a sea-fog has "poured over the mountain" and Smeaton is suddenly "translated to Scotland."

At Laguna Beach he lies on his blanket midst wild oats, surrounded by brush and cactus, "listening for an hour to the surf growling like a friendly watch-dog," and waking "to feel the sea-fog brushing our faces with its cool soft fingers, a kind of infinitesimal needle-bath." I couldn't wait to start out on such a paseo!

And who says I shouldn't make and write up such a journey? If Theroux and Raban can conjure up hardbacks from, respectably, a hike and a sail round Britain, then why shouldn't I, a reformed rocker and recent Southland booster, sing of new adventures following in the hoofbeats of Smeaton Chase? I noted Smeaton's intent to enjoy "the thousand and one things that make up the silent conversation of the trail." Silence might be tricky -- I love to talk, I love to gossip. And of course I'd be traveling by car; horses simply aren't allowed on the roads. Flora abounds on the side of the freeways and the occasional stray fauna get killed. I'm no naturalist but I do like people, especially audiences or when I can eavesdrop.

So I would paseo to Laguna. A purpose at last. I uttered a "Eureka!" in the basement but nothing stirred. The books stood silent sentry......

"Where hove thou?" demanded Smart Ed in his usual spiky manner as I hurried out of the Huntington. The old devil was lounging in the shadow of a statue of David, hanging onto a tasseled banner announcing an exhibit on the making of the Bill O' Rights. He was clad in his normal costume, that of a medieval page boy, floppy red velvet turban, tight bodice, short stick-out skirt. But no traditional tights for septuagenarian Ed. It being summer, he was showing off his spindly fish-grey legs and also, unfortunately, his famous prune-winkle buttocks, drooping sadly from the skirt to halfway down his thighs. "My, boy," he once explained to me, "I remember the evening these two checks fell -- I was walking down the aisle at the L.A. opening of 'Oklahoma' and pooofff!"

Let me explain Smart Ed of Baldwin Park.

He is allowed to roam around the rare books because he's studying early printing processes with a special emphasis on stressed paper. Satyr-faced, he strides and glares at any scholar he thinks is challenging his right to exist. I like him for this outsider quality. They say he's a millionaire, making his fortune from inventing a curved pipe, a crucial element in the environment-friendly sewage systems of Southern California. Something about stressed plastic. He lives in an old Buick parked in the garden of his long-dead mother's house in Baldwin Park. Developers with condominium plans are trying to evict him, but so far they haven't succeeded. A stranger once dared to ask why, as a senior citizen, he chose to wear medieval page boy clothes. "Comfort!" he snapped, so sniper-like that several readers looked up startled, as if quake-time was imminent.

The history of stressed paper doesn't interest me, but Ed's other pursuit does: "Crush Art." The first time he said the words he lobbed them at me like Scuds and cocked his head archly. So I had to follow with, "And what exactly is Crush Art?" Striking a Praxitelian pose he replied, "It's when the artist has a crush on his subject, silly billy." And forced me into the Art Gallery right up close to "The Blue Boy" and said, "Gainsborough had a crush on the boy, see? Only a greengrocer's son -- but you know how rough trade works." I protested mildly and Ed ploughed on: "I go a step further than the regular crush art collectors..." He neatly picked some lint front that day's tutu so as to make for a dramatic pause..... "Yes, I go much further -- I have present-day versions of Blue Boy painted, and do they sell!" Where are the models from? "Prithee hold thy horses! Why, I have talent scouts combing the mean streets from Temple City to El Monte, and they convey the lads to Baldwin Park, to my garden."

So much for Smart Ed's background. "Where hove thou?" had been his question when we left him next the statue of David......I said I was hoving to El Monte and he rolled his eyes, ending up like a Greuze maiden, heavenwards: "You'll find plenty of Mexican lads there. But too many burritos and refried beans have spoiled them for Crush Art." Then I told of my imminent odyssey. "Sounds pointless to me. But we all have our little ways and means. Isn't that what this country is all about, eh?" and he jerked the tasseled banner advertising the Bill O' Rights.

As I drove home in the Honda I did have my doubts. Why, for example, leave the Huntington when there were great characters like Smart Ed lurking in the aisles? Not forgetting dear old Edwin Brackenbury, keeper of rare manuscripts and an expert on the history of de-bagging at British prep schools.

* * *

Next morning, August 3, 1991, I was up with the lark in my Altadena bungalow home and getting equipment ready for the paseo. Smeaton and Eytel in 1911 took a whole heap of equipment such as horses, saddles, saddlebags, mess kit and cooking tackle, hatchet and guns and ammo, plus sketchbooks, notebooks, and "a volume or two." I was traveling much lighter: some maps, my Access card, a pad of lined legal paper plus lots of rolling-writer pens, and my ukelele (you never know when a song is necessary).

I carefully selected a wardrobe that would serve for various situations. E.g.: (A) Comfort in the car; (B) Being inconspicuous so as to be able to observe the natives at work and play; © Correct casual wear for dinner that evening (I had arranged to end up at the cliff-top mansion of a Laguna couple, my dentist and his lovely wife).

Here is the final selection: a T-shirt advertising the radio station for which I currently disc-jockeyed; loose-fitting khaki trousers made by the Levi's blue jean people and trademarked as "Dockers" (these bags were brand new, still with the picture card attached showing a sketch of a tall elegant 1930s liner in port and a smart couple dashing from the ship, only the woman is ogling the canvas-trousered bottom of a square-jawed docker leaning, surly, against a post. The caption says the bags are "inspired by the comfortable well-worn clothes of the working man"). For my feet I chose standard high-tops, the Reeboks I wear every day, all-purpose in Southern California.

I also packed an extra pair of clean underpants. You never know what's going to happen to you on the road, so I'm told -- and anyway clean underpants are a family tradition dating back at least to my grandfather, "Uncle Jack," whose wife always reminded him to take a clean pair wherever he went, especially to Old Merchant Tailor dinners or Masonic functions.

Finally, around 10 a.m. on this typically bright day, I whistled for Inspector, the half-breed dog. With one bound he was into the back seat of the Honda, ears pricking for action. I'm very fond of Inspector because he adores me and because he's a link to the start of crooning. Inspector was the late Rudy Vallée's last dog; the mongrel was there at his side the night that the crooner died of a coronary caused by his getting too elated at a TV appearance by his friend President Reagan. The loyal dog was discovered licking his dead master's face as the latter lay slumped but happy high on a hill in his Hollywood mansion. Whenever I sing "I'm Just a Vagabond Lover," a Vallée hit, the dog goes all peculiar.

On the road! Tingling with anticipation of grand adventures lying ahead. Into a journey -- even though these first roads were ones I knew so well: turning the corner at the dry cleaners and animal hospital, and up Lake Avenue to the post office box, same as every day. But this morning everything was fresh and new and I felt like a child again; the walk through the cool post office had purpose, for it was being recorded and viewed anew. There was nothing in my mail box.

On the road again! Down Lake Avenue heading toward the 210 freeway, past the mini-malls, on sites of newly-dead gas stations, with their Nail Shoppes, Blockbuster Videos, Tropical Fish, past the tarot centers and palm reader houses, past the abandoned black and Latino bookstore still with the sign saying "Jewelry" in the window. Coated over much is the glazing of graffiti: "Oiler" is making his mark on Lake Avenue in that characteristic Aztec script (probably dictated by the spray paint gun); but "Chuccooburro" is catching up fast. Now passing the Latino leaf blowers back-packed with spluttering machines, and now their younger compatriots hanging around on the corner of Lake and Villa kicking their heels and the dust, waiting for day work in the land where anything's possible.

Onto the 210, plunging into the swift flow below, vehicles fiercely going somewhere. Is their journey really necessary? Is it life and death? Using this rhetoric eases my anger. A battered Mazda rattled past me at ridiculous speed in the fifth of the six lanes; suddenly it butted rudely right in front of me, making me brake. "Easy Does It" said the bumper sticker in black Gothic lettering, soon lost as the Mazda lane-changed again and was lost in the dazzling broth. I slipped on a cassette of early '20s dance bands, a brisk choppy foxtrot, and I sneaked a view of the San Gabriel Mountains. Very old, very crumbly and barren, very mysterious when wrapped in grey soup. This, I suppose, is the smog that strangers jeer at. Can it all be filthy chemicals? Books at the Huntington say there has never been clear air here, they tell of 19th-century British travelers speaking of "Scotch mist," they say that back in redskin days the L.A. basin was known as "The Bay of Smokes." That settles that.

Freeway signs moving swiftly said we were over Arcadia -- next was announced the famous Arboretum where Tarzan once swung from vines and John Wayne sailed a few yards in "Wake of the Red Witch." Here in shady corners have I sometimes found peace, even quietism......

Off the 210 at the Santa Anita exit and down a straight, wide and well-dressed avenue, sprinkled with Anglo-Saxons mowing their lawns, tending their cars, jogging in shiny black skin-tight costumes. Later a huge windmill approaches but turns out to be a 24-hour-a-day Denny's Coffee Shop. Near here, says the map, is El Monte, where Smeaton Chase met the girl in the sunbonnet. By now she'd be into her 90s -- and may well be a listener to the old songs I play on my nightly radio show, possibly a ukulele fan.

We crossed a concrete river, the Rio Hondo, with no water to speak of. Then a plaque sponsored by Kiwis and Kiwanis and other business fraternities welcomed us to El Monte. On every dustbin was an emblem, sort of shaped like a Mercedes Benz bonnet ornament. I stopped to read, "EL MONTE: WHERE THE FUTURE MEETS THE PAST." One side of the emblem showed a wagon train, on the other was a '50s-style rocket. I drove down a busy street, Valley, searching for a friendly breakfast place while Inspector barked at the Mexicans. In El Monte the automotive business appeared to be boss -- auto salvage, brake relining, wheel alignment, mufflers, and also a tortilleria and the Hub Trailer Court. You have to be into such industrial landscaping, and I was on this bright summer's morning.

I stopped outside a shack called "Illusions Night Club -- Party Animal Headquarters." I wanted to see what Smeaton had written on this area: "........ the land about El Monte is damp and low-lying: green meadows and fields of alfalfa stretched on either hand, and the road was triple-bordered, first with vivid ribbons of grass starred with dandelions, next with rustling bulrushes or arrowy evening-primroses, and then with a fifteen-foot thicket of bushes over which rolled a flood tide of wild grapevines, their tendrils reaching far up into the air in the determination of grasping their fill of summer." Oh, Smeaton -- don't spoil it, just as I was beginning to enjoy industrialization and the modern world!

Besides, I know, from my Huntington research, the history of El Monte. How the town was named in the 1850s not after the grand mountain behind but after the pastures of its bottom lands along the San Gabriel rivers; how fortune hunters and outlaws had flocked into this, the first English-speaking town in Southern California, and wrought havoc, spoiling the lush landscape created by earlier Anglo settlers who'd wagon-trained in along the Santa Fe Trail, some all the way from Missouri. You see, underneath El Monte flowed a great wide slow-moving river and so the soil above was most fertile, ready to explode with life; just a few drops of water and phuuuuuuttt! up shot grass and trees and a regular greengrocery if so desired. Even the houses were rooted in this soil and so grew to great heights with much tangling and aromaticism. The farmers had constructed their homes out of rushes, reeds and tule. Every now and then they'd trim down the furniture with some axehacking. But the badmen fleeing the law of Mexico and Northern California soon discovered a safe haven in El Monte; in the 1850s there was at least one murder every day, nobody would be marshal even though the salary went to $40,000 a year. The main street became an evil wobbly line of gambling dens, drinking hells and sporting houses. A traveler describing one such amusement center wrote of writhing Indian women "with disheveled hair, foaming mouths and disordered clothing." All at once they raised "discordant voices in some Indian song which grates the air while their menfolk hold knife and cock fights." Finally the locals took matters in hand by forming a vigilante group known as "The El Monte Boys." These lads, tough and heavily-armed, chased the Mexicans into the mountains and out again with much whooping and shooting and hanging along the way. After the mess was cleared away, trainloads of upright Midwesterners -- hard workers, churchgoers -- arrived in the area, settling down to farm and bake pies and spin yarn and raise children. So when the Smeaton Chase party arrived, everything in the little village of El Monte was charming.

My eyes fixed on "The Illusions Night Club." The stucco shack seemed familiar. Could it be the spot where back in the early 1970s the local branch of the American Nazi Party held meetings of song and story? I sensed so -- and recalled that summer evening when Witham, an old Marlburian, and I had attended a meeting, how the Austrian guard at the door had made me open up my ukulele case to make sure it wasn't a machine gun, how Witham and I had sung the Horst Wessel song with our fingers crossed firmly behind our backs; how Commander Joe Tomasi had delivered an emotional speech wishing the Fuhrer many happy returns. "Now don't go dining out on this story," warned Witham. But I did and lost several friends. A few years later Commander Tomasi was shot dead on the steps of the HQ. Now it was a Party Animal HQ.

High time for breakfast. Inspector had lifted his leg and done his biggies. I scanned the street for a friendly coffee shop. A tall plastic hanging sign many streets away but high in the sky said, "Cousins -- Home-Style Cooking Family Restaurant." In the Witham days we were loth to enter such places. "We're not family," Witham would say grimly. "We're just bachelors." But now, recently married, I could claim membership to normality.

There's nothing to beat breakfast, the finest meal night or day. You can usually trust a tuna melt sandwich in a family restaurant. "Cousins" was full of the friendliness of the '30s, with brown vinyl booths, fruit design wallpaper, a Regulator grandfather clock. Photos on the wall showed merry picnics in old El Monte. Customers were both brown and white, the service was all brown. Most folks were constantly sliding eyes up to a silent TV baseball game being fought out high in a corner. Here, I thought, is where I'll find my people, my local color -- the equivalent of Smeaton's botany. I ordered a tuna melt sandwich, opened the San Gabriel Tribune, and pricked up my ears. It was damned quiet in "Cousins." Surprisingly there was no muzak, not even "Yesterday." Still, this quiet was a nice change from the shrieking, and clatter of trendy Westside L.A. eateries where the media rich and the lawyers chew sushi and such as they deal and boast and hold monologues, sitting in windows so that the street can see them, on stone floors by brick walls so that the racket is so dinning that most communication is made by gross gesticulation; where the servers, would-be actors or screenwriters or directors, have the cheek to sit down with your party and this is encouraged by your party! "Hi, my name is Darwin and I am your server and let me tell you about the time I was raped and how the story would make a concept movie to die for!"

Local color, how to find it? See the local news section of the San Gabriel Tribune: "San Dimas OKs Plan To Fill Ravine.".."Case Of Stolen Gold Teeth Could Be Dropped."..... No, back to tried and true world news. 80 dead Croats...and a new detail in the Milwaukee serial killer case, tile white man who murdered black men and then ate them: police found no normal food in the killer's fridge -- only condiments and some frozen heads, a heart and a liver.

Just as my tuna melt arrived I at last picked up on some table talk -- from a booth way across the room, but the men were stentorian, big white bruisers, not to be trifled with, dressed in plaid cowboy shirts and flashing belt buckles, and dipping their toast into hamburger blood, and hammering the A1 sauce onto the steak, shrimp and gravy. Announcing in big country Dixie bass tones: "Goin' to Haversu, meet ya at the London bridge...RV's bin givin' hellacious oil trouble but the off-road bikes are jim dandy... Give an arm an' a leg fer suspension like that...A noo door alone'll cost ya a grand ...Walll thank ya Clarence, I'll leave the tip...Whaddya make o' them Dodgers?....A four wheel drive with a choke-down chassis ought do it...Let's burn some rubber!"

The biggest brouser got up, cleared phlegm from his throat in a mighty roar, and struck a spread-eagle stance of triumph rather like Richard Nixon on the steps of his plane just before he flew off in disgrace. The others, plus a woman in a beehive hairdo, followed the big man as, with belly leading, he staggered in a John Wayne manner out of the coffee shop and into the shrill brightness of high noon. These, I felt, were the new El Monte Boys. But how many were left in this day and age?

Inspector had been guarding the Honda and guarding it well. Soon we were off exploring more of El Monte. Traffic roared and rattled around us, we saw a factory that crushed cards flat as pancakes, there were more tortillerias and quite a few dentistas, mariachi music blazed from another auto court where I'd stopped to find out how the cast-iron public telephones had been torn out. "Hum of bees, murmur of summer wind, twinkle of river shallows..." Where on earth had been Smeaton when he saw this idyll? On a whim I turned off the broad avenue and headed down a road posted: "No Outlet." And here, at the end, I found a lake where I felt sure El Monte had started, and Smeaton had visited.

In the distance, at the back of the yellow haze, was a cloaked horseman, hunting dog at his side, splashing across a fork in the lake, dancing over the water almost. The scene was framed by bulrush clumps and tall reeds, ducks scattered into the sky, poplars swayed in a sort of unconcerned rhythm. Then, from a shady dell on the banks of the lake below me, I heard deep vibrato voices raised in macho Spanish song. It was all too good to be true and I ran back to the car to fetch my ukulele. But Inspector decided to pull me off course and down into the dell. Something furry was racing ahead of him.

Down by the lakeside I noticed the torn-up plastic container, the rusty supermarket cart, the crumpled Budweiser cans. I raised my head to see again the cloaked horseman and his hunting dog. But he was gone from the picture and now I was aware that the horizon was a freeway with trucks and cars and white stretch limousine streaming across. I turned around and saw another freeway similarly vehicled. We were hemmed in! I retreated to the bridle path above where I first had my vision of old El Monte.

"Used to be real purty here you better believe it, like a real oil painting," said the middle-aged man behind the metal fence. He had a pleasing weathered pumpkin face. He nodded towards the dell below where now the macho singing had grown louder and more strident, even angry.

I introduced myself to the pumpkin man and he said his name was Gilbert. After a bit of prompting, and a little chit-chatting about World War II and England as it used to be, Gilbert told me about himself, how his dad had brought him here in 1938, how he was in the construction business but things were bad on account of the wetbacks, the illegals from over the border. He stopped in mid-sentence and Stared past me reflectively. His fence seemed pretty daunting; even Inspector couldn't have penetrated such a fence. Old Glory fluttered from a flagpole next to his beige stucco bungalow.

I asked Gilbert whether the lake had always been this way. A stream of tobacco juice hit the dust. "Hell no! I jest got done telling you it was purty once -- clean water, plenty o' good fishin'. Used to catch me pails o' blue gill an' catfish an' you name it. Used to pick fruit clean off of the trees..." What happened? "Why, the wetbacks. They come in here from Mexico and they don't care. No stake in the country. They git drunk and fight, like those critturs down in the dell. They go to the bathroom right in the open, right in front o' the childreren. Don't care, you see...... We're raisin' our last daughter far from here, in Arizony, down by the Colorado River, a clean river."

Our meeting was interrupted by the boisterous arrival of two elderly Mexicans on horseback, grizzled varmints in full bandit kit -- wide sombreros, festive pantaloons, and bright blankets round their shoulders. They reared their horses dramatically for us and waved Budweiser cans like freshly-won Victor Ludorum cups. I was surprised when one of the varmints, sporting a fierce waxed moustache, leaned down from his mount and grabbed at Gilbert's hand. "Son-of-a-beeech, Gilbert! How ya doin'?" "Not so dusty, Pancho," replied the householder, grasping the Mexican between elbow and wrist and then sliding his hand up and down swiftly in a most familiar manner. "Hey, Gilbert -- you like a Bud?" "I'll take a rain check, pardner. How about a song fer the stranger?" As if on cue the two Mexicans reared up their mounts and burst into a deep-throated number full of bravado. Then, with a "yippee!" or two and much waving of their beers they rode off towards the freeway horizon. I asked Gilbert the name of the song they had rendered so well. "Hell, they was jest makin' it up. Somethin' about being drunken vaqueros without any teeth."

Full of thought I was led by Inspector back to the car. He hadn't barked at the two old vaqueros. He knew something I didn't. For a while I just sat in the car and pondered on Mexicans in general and then life. It became much too hot so I turned the ignition key. There was silence.

The Honda was dead and I was helpless. Gone in a flash was all my snooty historicism. Here I was stranded, impotent, a member of the dominant culture, sharing the same blood as those who'd invented carburetors and spark plugs, men like Smart Ed, butt of my jokes. And I hadn't a clue how such items combined to make an engine splutter into life. I knew nothing about life. A squall of depression slapped me in the face. What was I but a drone?

I trudged back with Inspector to Gilbert's fence. He was heavily involved in a card game with the two vaqueros. But when I explained my problem he slapped down his cards and said, "No sweat." He spoke quickly in Spanish to his partners. Soon Pancho, stripped to the waist, was wielding jumper cables under my Honda bonnet like a skilled surgeon in the bowels of a beautiful woman. How he loved the engine! The muscles of his arms seemed to flow like a great river under the brown canvas skin. His friend touched my elbow and I looked up to receive a toothless grin and a wink. How I loved them! And Gilbert too, revving up his old Cadillac to provide the Honda with the necessary juice.

With a flourish of his fingers Pancho finished the job, cast down the jumper cables and wiped his moustache. "Finito, senor. Battery corroded. Better fix it soon. Arriba, arriba!" and he waved me on my way. "Git on that there freeway and run that mother fer at least thirty minutes, you hear!" shouted Gilbert by way of farewell. I would run my engine for hours if he so wished, I felt so happy to be back on the rails again, thanks to men who understood how the present world works.

With the smooth freeway running it wasn't long before I was musing again. Of old El Monte on a close thick afternoon when all is deathly still except for the circling buzzards, and bold bad Vasquez, fully-armed and itchy, squinting along the row of cathouses and saloons, fingering his gun and fingering his crotch, waiting for action......

We passed over another concrete river and next we were welcomed by a sign saying "City of Industry." But to right and left was nothing but unnaturally-green rolling hills, a most gentle undulation as we sped by, not a soul around and no litter either. A few moments later another sign explained that we were now in Rose Hills Memorial Park. Instead of tombstones we were greeted by stone slabs set neatly into the billiard table baize of gentle slopes. The graveyard ran on forever.

I switched on my station, KPCC of Pasadena. The disc jockey was spinning "Harbor Lights," a 1937 hit, perfect for Gilbert -- and for me: "I longed to hold you near and kiss you just once more/But you were on the ship and I was on the shore." Lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy, a fellow graduate of Trinity College Dublin. Connections on a hot afternoon in the semi-desert! Oh, to live in the past! Almost possible here inside the sealed auto with the right station or the right cassette. Now I chose a tape of an obscure Irving Berlin song called "An Orange Grove in California," for the sign said we were entering Orange County. Once the land of gentle groves planted and tended by gentleman farmers with roots in the East, in the old America.

So I dreamed of orange trees and orange smells and lazy, hazy widespread days of those orange crate labels whose pudding-rich colors depicted a typical panorama: azure ocean across yellow, gold and green grove plains to pink mountains topped with icing. And as the century turned, oil fields were discovered and soon oil well machines bird-pecked in and around the groves while on the crest of the barren clay-colored hills there appeared big black oil storage drums.

The Black Gold suburbs followed, sprouting not, as of old, next to the place of work, but away in the freshlands, in Brea and La Habra and Fullerton. At this moment I was rolling through these cities in apple pie order, while the tape deck played Ukelele Ike's version of "Halfway to Heaven" (1927), and the passing parade of neat Spanish-style look-alike bungalows showed that oil workers were not blue collar but white collar -- middle class and proud not to have come home dirty.

Meanwhile the Spanish, like the Indians, had vanished and the Mexicans had moved to metropolitan L.A., later to be joined by the Negroes. Orange County thus became soil for the impregnation of solid white Midwest middle class values and folkways. A chicken in the pot, a dark suit on Sundays...... Now the City of Yorba Linda was welcoming me, a still-charming place nestled in the foothills. I saw a real working ranch -- specializing in Christmas trees -- up on the slopes, with white picket fence and oil wells pumping turned but consistent among the little firs. I knew I was close to a sanctuary, better than an arboretum or a botanical garden, better than a Valium or a Prozac. I knew I was approaching The Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace, 18001 Yorba Linda Boulevard, smack dab in the middle of horse property, corrugated iron sheds, and flower-patterned tea rooms serving hot fruit pies with ice cream and a cheese slice. Yes, I had been here many times before and shall continue to visit.

The great thing about Nixon is he's an outsider, he's never been a team player. And, unlike those slippery, slickster Kennedys, he's not sexy and he's always out of step with trends, with fashion and style. He's a sort of M. Hulot. You know, his favorite film is "The Sting" and I'm sure it's because of the beautiful Scott Joplin music. Indeed, echoing over the marble floors of The Library is nothing but Scott Joplin. Nixon, I'm happy to learn, played the accordion (as well as violin, piano, and saxophone). On one of the many TV screens in The Library you can watch him play "Happy Birthday To You" on the White House piano to a beaming Duke Ellington.

Another great thing about Nixon is that even at twilight he continues to infuriate wet limousine liberals, the kind who loudly support ethnic minorities from behind closed doors and would loathe to have to eyeball them as neighbors. Like Hitler and the Germans, you'll rarely find an American who admits to having voted for Nixon. I love The Birthplace. I have a wooden model of it, complete with wooden flag, which sits on a stone by my pond. Today I hastened first to take in the house, standing a few yards from The Library, but so different, so unpretentious, a humble abode of white-painted wood and redwood tiles and trellised windows. His father built it from a do-it-yourself kit advertised in a Sears-Roebuck catalogue, in 1911 -- the same year that Smeaton Chase made his paseo. Two years later Richard Milhous was born -- the same year as my mother.

I walked Inspector through the near-empty parking lot towards the Library. Says the brochure with bitter pride: "America's Newest Presidential Museum -- the first to be built and operated entirely without federal funds." There's a photo of Nixon in a pin-striped suit, face bathed in California sunshine and backdropped with luscious tropical greenery, giving his famous nil desperandum thumbs-up. I always keep a copy of this brochure in the glove compartment of my car.

Inspector started tugging for a proper walkie. He led me round the bridle path which surrounds the museum and park. I was just standing in front of the grand stone entrance marker when Inspector decided to drop a series of turds. I watched the steam rise ominously, cloaking the lapidary words "Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace," like mists in one of Leni Reifenstahl's mountain films. Inspector must wait in the car while I make my usual pilgrimage......

Across the cool and clean marble, past the few visitors, I hastened to my attraction of the day. Down still halls, booming to the sound of Nixon, past the authentic 1949 campaign station wagon with the cardboard Nixon orating through a hand-mike, past the tinted blow-up of Richard and Pat on bicycles (with baby Tricia in the basket) in front of the White House on the eve of Richard's entry into the "field of subversive control" (the hunting down of spies and communists), past the foreign policy rooms (the Vietnamese pavilion, the model Kremlin, the Chinese tea house), past the collection of Pat's gowns, and the pistol that Elvis presented to Richard. Past even the well-appointed theater where runs over and over the inspirational documentary of his presidency and resignation, but I know the lines by heart: "We must take risks" and "As Sophocles said, 'It isn't until the sun goes down that you can appreciate the splendor of the day'" and "Live for a greater cause than yourself." Past all this history as-it-ought-to-have-been, guarded by pristine women in smart blue blazers and ties and hair in tidy buns. "Can I be of help to you, sir? SIR!!" Yes -- I need the place where you can ask him questions and he answers. "That would be the Presidential Forum. Six paces ahead and then to your right. Take your time and ENJOY!"

From the menu board in the foyer of the auditorium you choose your question by touching a video panel. This is the new world of interactive television, except that you can't follow up as they do at normal press conferences. After menu-selection I chose a seat and faced the TV screen where a larger-than-life Nixon was answering some earlier question. But there was no one in the auditorium. I had him to myself.

"You ask about my earliest memory......Being driven in a horse and buggy by my mother at top speed. Somehow -- you know how these things happen -- I fell out. And I remember running, running -- to catch up with her because I thought, well, she's left me, she's forgotten me...Of course, I was wrong." He snapped a smile and delivered a laugh. Then my question flashed across the display board above the screen. "What is your opinion of Elvis Presley?"

The President turned in his chair and addressed me: "He was a very fine entertainer and very concerned about youth and drugs. And you know, it's a funny thing, but Elvis was actually a shy person, very shy. Let's not forget, too, that all these drugs they say he took were medically prescribed." He smiled at me and slowly faded.

At the souvenir shop I bought a T-shirt with his name and museum and a big American eagle on the chest. In the empty parking lot I slipped it on. Now I was ready for Laguna and the end of the trail.

* * * When the 1911 adventurers descended into Laguna Canyon they held their horses to observe "the broad simplicity of line and color." They admired: "Yellow bays of stubble washed far up into the folds of the hills, and on their wide expanses solitary oaks or islands of brush were stamped in spots of solid umber.

But when I drove into the canyon I saw on either side newly-sculpted slopes of brilliant green grass sod stuck with endless lines of lollypop trees and, on top of sliced-off hills, vanilla walls adorned with triangular flags waving gaily and a large sign informing that this was Leisure World, a gated community with 24-hour security. Behind these walls, so well-protected, throve condo after condo of senior citizens. Recently I'd been allowed inside to perform the old songs. I'd met old folk almost obscenely radiating sun and a sense of fun, I'd met crones in slacks and octogenarians in Scotch plaid shorts. A tan parchment-faced sport with a cockney accent had agreed he was originally from Barnet and had been in the fur trade but "You wouldn't catch me over there these days, squire!" I wished him a good day. "It's always a good day in Leisure World," he replied and shot off in his electric golf cart.

"We rode our horses down to the beach," wrote Smeaton of their entry into the village of Laguna. His horse Chino was "deeply interested, and gazed snorting and breathing quickly at the phenomenon of the surf." My dog Inspector yelped and cried with anticipation of seagull-chasing as we saw the beach laid out in front of us at the end of Laguna Canyon Road. But Inspector would not be allowed to run free -- lifeguards were atop their beach command posts, their yellow vehicles were patrolling the sands. In fact, a couple of the trucks were tearing along now with lights flashing and sirens walling. I stopped to investigate and found out that "Baywatch," the TV action series so popular in Britain and Germany, was shooting: a fight between the hero, Mitch, and a drug-crazed beach bum. Nobody was paying much attention to the movie people, this is everyday stuff in Southern California. The civilian boys and girls were every bit as muscular and busty as the movie actors. "Atmosphere!" shouted a fat man through a bullhorn. "Let's have some reaction when Mitch starts punchin'!" I parked the car and joined the extras, deciding to play the part of a conservative tourist caught up in the meleé.

On movie sets they're very keen on meal breaks. Most of the "Baywatch" trucks seemed to be devoted to catering and it wasn't long before snack-time was announced. Inspector and I Joined the queue; as I munched on a corn-dog I eavesdropped on the movie people's talk, jokes about the Milwaukee killer the one who chops up his victims, and freezes parts for future meals -- were all the rage: "Apartment For Rent -- complete with roommates. Some assembly required." Pee-wee Herman was a hot subject since he'd recently been arrested for masturbating in an adult movie theater. "Someone should buy him a VCR and a decent porno library." Then: "Didja see that crazy new German porn flick? Where two sleazeballs kidnap a girl, tie her up and run mice through a plastic pipe up her ass? Well, they fall out, have a fight and the winner butt-fucks the loser. Weird, I'm tellin' ya!" "Quiet!" shouted the voice from the bullhorn. "We're ready for the wild bikini contest scene!"

I consulted my watch. Time flies when you're deep in research. Almost 6 p.m. -- and I'd promised to be with my Laguna friends just about that time. Cocktail time, the most delicious time of day, the pause between work and play.

Traffic was heavy on Pacific Coast Highway in the middle of Laguna proper. We came to a halt. People were threading their way through the cars. I selected an older man, in long trousers and carrying an inflatable cushion, and I asked what was happening. "What's happening, man? Why, the Pageant of the Masters!!" Oh, that. Never been interested, never seen the thing. Locals dressed up as famous Old Master paintings, holding the pose when the curtain rises. Each year, I'm told, the piece de resistance is a tableau vivant of "The Last Supper" with the table tilted towards the audience and Christ sometimes played by a woman. Of course, Laguna is famous for its art colony, always has been. On their arrival in the village Smeaton and Eytel had joined a group of local artists: "Then was there a great comparison of sketchbooks, and expositions upon line, balance and mass; not even the spectrum was out of range. With Bohemian hospitality and a notable combustion of tobacco the hours sped away, until, soon after midday, we saddled up to move a short distance father down the coast." In fact, to exactly where I was now trying to get. To Aliso Canyon and Table Rock Drive -- only we were at present stopped by Sleepy Hollow, a road crowded with new houses and plots being developed. Once, years ago, Sleepy Hollow Road ran lazily and empty down to the sea. I thought of characters from my recent Huntington basement reading, characters not found in Smeaton Chase......

Frank Cuprien, the painter of al fresco scenes, bent at his easel on this curvy dusty road in 1916 or so, daubing the crest of a wave; a real Frenchman, much admired by children for his snow white beard and smock and leggins, and mistaken by them for Santa Claus, especially when he doled out candy; never needing a car because all he had to do was step out into the road waving a paint brush and a motorist would stop and pick up ol' Frank and convey him to his home in Bluebird Canyon where there would be grog and yarns, the artist ruling from a wicker throne, fat cat in his lap, artfully back-lit by a kerosene lamp.

Then there were Laguna's famous "Greeters," usually hirsute ornery varmints -- like Old Joe with his Neptune trident, who met every stagecoach and shouted "goodbye" as it left, a Portugoose with a walk of consequence and a full vocabulary of obscenities for hurling at children; and Eiler Larsen, a Dane, who carried on the Greeter tradition into the '50s but who, like the era, was harmless and correct, hailing tourists with a "Helloooooo, how are you!" and playing Judas in "The Last Supper."

I thought of these characters until we inched past Barry's Health Spa, Fitness Center & Fruit Bar. Now I thought of Charles Sprawson, the swimming writer and fine arts dealer, an Old Tonbridgian who visits me in Altadena when he's over on a foray offering 18th-century nautical paintings to Beverly Hills and Malibu, and studying swimming pools. Chas craves the bizarre, which is understandable as he shares a fine Cotswold house with a beautiful wife and beautiful children. Last year he had enticed me into Barry's Health Spa, Fitness Center & Fruit Bar by saying, "Don't be so wet."

We'd stood in the gloaming watching a row of aging men in bright beachwear sitting on stools up at the health bar nursing fruit cups and ogling young men who were hip-gyrating and back-arching and grunting to disco music in an aerobics class. It was an odd scene and after a while I grew uncomfortable and I asked Chas why he was so intrigued. "Makes a change from Minchinhampton," he said. Fair enough, I replied, but I have to live here.

At last the road is clearing! And cocktails are calling! Hopefully, there'll be champagne as usual at the home of my host and hostess, Dr. and Mrs. Grant Foster. They're a healthy and glamorous couple exuding all that was best in Southern California circa 1962 when surfing was king and Dick Dale's Fender guitar rode the local disc charts on those splashy chords and brine-dripping notes. Both the doctor and his wife are blondes, wear eye-catching sports clothes and have dazzling teeth (Grant is a dentist). They live in a wood-and-glass mansion that they had built on the cliff top of Table Rock, next to Aliso Canyon.

Aliso Canyon -- where Smeaton and Eytel, moving down from Laguna, made camp "under a rank of fragrant blue-gums populous with argumentative kingbirds and cheerful orioles." Poor Smeaton couldn't sleep that night -- "probably the virtue of our Laguna friends' home-grown tobacco" -- and I like to think that he may have been slipped some hashish by his proto-hippie friends, you never know Out West. Anyway, Smeaton lies in his blanket content to "watch the quiet play of the foliage, the only sounds the gentle clatter of leaf on leaf, the industrious mastication of the horses, the occasional challenges of distant owls, and the monotonous voice of the surf lulling the earth with its unceasing narrative."

Nothing like that today. Instead of leaves and owls one is aware of people, some of them eccentric, some most annoying. Driving past Aliso beach I caught a view of the usual scene: the Mexicans on the pier fishing, the homeless on the beach with their jam-packed shopping carts and self-assuredness. Some of the homeless had bedded down among the colony of gays, a little further down the beach. The Yang of the homeless, like those Greeter varmints of yore, mixes with the Yin of the gays, an interesting brew.

Squeaky-clean of body, short-clipped of hair, and brief of swim trunk, the gays have tacitly and bloodlessly claimed squatter rights to this part of the beach, between Aliso and Table Rock (where the Fosters live). Every weekend the younger gays parade their physiques, displaying the tackle in front and the bubbles behind, for an audience which ties under parasols on a bank of sand. When the lads reach Table Rock they ritually touch stone with a light tap and then smartly about turn. From the house on the cliff above, the doctor and his friends have been known to observe and to have uttered a "Grrrrrrh."

* * * "Guess what! The Krackendorfers have invited us over for an authentic Chinese dinner!" cried Debbie Foster as she handed me a frosted goblet of California champagne. "Karl claims he has the biggest wok in the world!" She tinkled with laughter and spun round with an ex-model's skill so that her blonde hair lifted, like chairs on a whirligig.

Meanwhile Inspector was masticating at a bowl in their gracious and fully equipped kitchen, while Dr. Foster was observing the last rays of Pacific Rim sun through his telescope. I said, "Terrific!"

Once again the feeling of excitement generated by anticipation of repeated pleasure from past times. For Karl Krackendorfer, assisted by his silent and be-wigged wife Sutra, was definitely a character. While J. Smeaton Chase loved nature I loved people, even if I did make fun of them sometimes. Trees and animals can't talk, can't gossip. And what is life without gossip? Karl Krackendorfer always provided lots to gossip about.

Charles Sprawson has described Karl as "That little round man," a succinct description. He also has scary eyes like Arab daggers, and once you let him into your life you'll never get rid of him, like those exotic Amazonian parasites with tiny hooks which cling forever to your insides. Of course, he's excellent value at parties, dominating by interruption, telling of the wonders he has achieved. "Single-handed, single-minded," he'll repeat in his hard acoustic gramophone record voice. "Never worked for anybody in my life, never will." Sutra agrees with a bobbing of her wig. During a tough New Jersey childhood, competitiveness was instilled into Karl. If he didn't win against his bigger brothers, whether at ball games or cards, honey was poured over him, etc. So he learned to win by wiles and cleverness of word.

Karl has, he'll tell you, been involved in many a business -- timber, electric trains, investment banking, piano-manufacturing. In fact, anything his friends were involved in when first he met them. In a trice he can wind down a thriving business. But his real skill has been revealed in his latest work, the manipulation of insurance companies. "Done very nicely indeed out of insurance, though I say so myself." At the slightest hint Karl will launch into his successes in this area, stretching out on Dr. Foster's reclining couch so that all one can see is the mountain of stomach delineated by the golf shirt he invariably wears, and, between statements, snatching with tiny banana hands into a can of roasted peanuts and then dropping kernels from on high into his rubber tire mouth.

"Let me explain........ And you'll hear tales of woe told brightly. About how their new house burned down mysteriously with everything in it, except the Krackendorfers; about how, when they were on shore, their new motor boat mysteriously sank with all the new stuff (and some of the old, mysteriously); about the new 30-foot motor home catching fire just as he was taking a stroll and she was out with her parents and everything they'd recently purchased burned in that vehicle, over $100,000 worth at least. "A gold mine of a claim," says Karl, and Sutra likes to pat the side of her wig in the manner of Mae West.

Money flowed out from insurance company after insurance company. New homes, new boats, new recreational vehicles were purchased. One day recently Dr. Foster dropped in on Karl at his latest home, a ranch-style spread, and surprised him in the act of smashing Spanish tiles. "Earthquake," explained Karl. "Oh," said Dr. Foster, and wisely didn't enquire further.

One evening, after finishing the peanuts at the Foster home, Karl suddenly shot up from the couch and said harshly, "I get 'em every time. Call it enterprise. Call it the American Way." He squealed with delight and Sutra copied him. He turned to me and the Fosters: little shards of yellow light shot out of his dagger eyes, adding relief to the poached-egg-pretty sun as it collapsed once more behind the Pacific Rim. The shards pierced us, I knew. Dr. Foster slipped me a wink -- and I remembered another Krackendorfer story: Dr. Foster, a skilled card player, taught a new game called "Boo-Ray" to the Krackendorfers and their friends the Walter J. Derricks, and next weekend Karl invited the Derricks over for dinner but Walter declined, explaining that they'd invited friends over too -- to teach them "Boo-Ray"; Karl was so jealous he lashed a batch of firecrackers together and, using a long fuse, tossed his bomb over the Derricks' fence; the explosion caused their German shepherd to crash through the plate glass French window, ruining the "BooRay" party; both the dog and Mrs. Derrick had to undergo psychiatric counseling for several months.

But, as I was saying earlier, Karl is a tremendous character. One time he saved me from some angry surf. I relished the idea of an evening at the Krackendorfers' -- I'd never been inside their latest home and I always like to see people's shoes when they're not in them. Something pathetic, something human.

* * *

The whole shebang was a bust. Karl simply wasn't on form. He'd been banned from the Fosters' for almost six months (he'd gone too far one night apparently) and nobody knew he'd been on a starvation diet ever since. Hundreds of pounds had been shed and now his neck hung with wattles, his arms were flaps and pouches, and his once-massive torso had been reduced to a spider-like blob. He stood swaying in the half-light of his ranch-style doorway and whispered thinly: "I've changed."

We were forced to congratulate him as we sat by his pool and drank diet sodas. But we knew his old spirit of adventure had gone, lost with the poundage. His heart was no longer in the insurance business, there was no talk of suits and claims. "Fact is," he said quietly, gazing deep into his pool, "I've run out of insurance companies." Sutra bowed her head as if in church. She was wearing a jet black wig, a change from her normal jaunty red. Darkness soon fell but there were few lights at the Krackendorfer home. Gloom was everywhere. I never got a chance to spy in their bedroom or closets.

Instead Karl led us to his "consolation shed" where we were taken on a tour of his brand new tropical fish tanks, vast affairs full of livid killer fish. "I'm very deep into fish these days," said Karl.

We got no Chinese food, no wok appeared. Karl turned on the jets of an enormous barbecue and ordered Sutra to throw on steaks. We ate a desultory dinner. Around 9 p.m. Karl fell asleep in his pool chair. In a rare moment Sutra spoke. "It's the diet. And the fish. They worry him."

No, the evening was a bust. Karl was no longer a source of rich material, he was no longer a character. When we returned to Table Rock we all had a stiff drink. After a while I grew philosophical. I said I'd take Inspector for a walk on the beach. "Nice thought," said Dr. Foster.

It was a beautiful moonlit night. The surf pounded with a gratifying regularity. As I trudged along the sand, with Inspector barking at the flotsam and jetsam, I ruminated on the day, trying to make some point of it all, to build a pyramid out of a hill of beans. Fortunately I was diverted by the sight of bright lights streaming from over the rock ahead, and a bull-horned voice shouting, "Action!" I guessed that "Baywatch" was night shooting. I hurried towards the set.

Inspector got there first. There was a hell of a row. The lights went off. Moonlight and silence. Then the lights came on and the noise started up again. A dumpy figure in a jumpsuit was waddling in my direction. Up closer I recognized Geoffrey Spence, a ghastly fellow I was at school with and who's now a BBC documentary director. He stood fatly in the sand, hands on hips, bloody petulant, looking me up and down.

"Just like you, Whitcomb! Typical. Always at the back of the chaos. Your fucking dog has ruined our shot........" I told him not to be so rude. "Oh, come on. Don't be so sensitive. Can't you take a joke?" So I told him breathlessly about my project, about the paseo. I cracked a joke about Laguna......

"Wait a sec. There's to be no joking about Laguna. We're making a documentary about the place and the whole situation's fucking tragic." What was he talking about? "Are you blind? I'm talking AIDS, my friend -- AIDS. Laguna's the AIDS capital of America, don't you know?" No, I didn't. "Typical. Always were lost in the clouds, in comic book land. I suppose you're still into surfing and Jan & Dean and all that crap. A little reality -- a confrontation with oblivion -- might do you some good." He turned around, switched on his bullhorn and yelled, "Ready for another take!" I wanted to ask what AIDS had to do with a beautiful moonlit beach. But Spence was already walking away, squelching seaweed noisily with his desert boots.

Then I thought of the friends I'd lost and how I could never find the right words for them. I had wanted to tell Spence, to explain, to have it all out. Maybe I should go on his set.

But I put Inspector on the lead and headed back to the Honda. Tomorrow was another day and we might try going South.

-- 1991

Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here,
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