Another Last Word



I spent the best part of my 1960s childhood in a beach town outside L.A. We lived in a platted neighborhood that sloped down to the water, but it wasn’t fully developed. The road to the freeway remained unpaved for years. About a third of the land around us consisted of empty sand lots ideal for crashing our bikes into.

There was a group of us grade school kids, boys and girls both, mostly white but some Latinos, a couple Black kids, and a few girls of Japanese descent who kindly suffered through my succeeding crushes.

We ran into the ocean fully clothed for the fun of it, played a lot of seaweed baseball, flew kites until they blew apart, rode bikes until our legs were spaghetti, and thought nothing of knocking on a stranger’s door to ask for water when we were thirsty.

Most remarkable to me now was how that place attracted so many different kinds of people. There were young couples with or without children, single parents raising kids alone, older adults by themselves, and shared homes full of hippies and their most excellent dogs, who ran wild with us on the beach and whom we loved as our own.

My best friend was this kid from India who moved in across the street. He was a great baseball player, meaning he could throw, catch and hit, but he was a terrible runner. He also refused to drop the bat after he got a hit, a holdover from playing cricket. He’d drill a ball into the outfield and then go loping up the baseline gripping his precious bat until he got thrown out at first base or tagged on his way to second. It was infuriating.

Somehow I was allowed to become his pinch runner because I was fast and not much good at anything else. He would slam a ball into the clouds and if he made it to first, I would take over and run, slide or steal my way home. It was beautiful.

Life was good, or at least a potent illusion of good.

His mom was driving us home one day from something, probably baseball. I loved his mom. I’d never seen anyone like her before; she had a bright, open face, long black hair and startling green eyes that shone like crystals, and she was always exceedingly kind to me. There were two younger siblings, who were also in the car with us that day.

We pulled up in front of the house to unload everything; I can’t remember what, probably sports gear and book bags. The mom went ahead to open the front door, but then just stood there.

The door was nothing special, your standard paneled thing. Right in the middle of it, about eye level for an adult, someone had carved a large swastika.

The vandal had taken his time. There were long, curled wood shavings scattered on the welcome mat.

My friend and I were furious. We were going to kick some ass. We had baseball bats.

His mom coldly told us to shut our mouths, get the kids inside, and stay there. She called the police and her husband.

She spoke with the officer alone outside. My friend and I of course came out to listen, but she abruptly ordered us away. The dad arrived after the officer had left and talked with the mom outside. Then he went into the garage to find a piece of plywood or some such and unceremoniously nailed it onto the door to cover the swastika.

My friend had had enough. “What is going on?”

His dad said the police officer told them they could file a report but advised against it. It would get on the police blotter, and then into the newspapers, and then whoever did this would feel emboldened by the attention, and it would inspire others to do the same.

“So, what are we going to do?”

“We’re going to buy a new door.”

My friend’s mother recovered some of her usual self and implored us not to say anything to anyone at school. I remember her shining green eyes looking into mine. We didn’t understand it then, but her rage had melted into fear, and the same thing happened to us.

Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.