I’m fifteen or sixteen. I’ve got a spiral bound notebook and a ball point pen. I fill a page with a large square. At the bottom is a straight country road. I plant trees and shrubs along the road. Like Gretta Garbo in Grand Hotel I want to be alone.
I draw a long, curving drive from the road to a small house. The house is surrounded by more trees. There is room inside for me and the mystery woman who will accompany me in life. I don’t draw it but there is a room with guitars, drums, a keyboard and a four track reel to reel tape recorder. I have vague plans for a one man band that will use cheap amps and instruments to produce low fidelity sound. Out back is a small wooden structure with a roof that rolls off onto raised wooden tracks. Inside that shed is a large telescope bolted to a concrete pier. I draw rows of garden crops. We are self sufficient. I put a gate on the access road. We are safe. But while the goal is a sort of protected solitude, I’m frightened enough of the country and the pickups that hurtle past on that dark road that I draw outlying cottages for close friends and family. I give each its own gravel road. The only rent is to protect me.
Though I don’t yet know it, I have designed my very own Berry Park.
Early on I developed the ability to draw a line between myself and the unhappiness that surrounded me. I still have it, though with age and responsibility the line has deteriorated. I’m no longer able to insulate myself so thoroughly—especially when it’s something that involves my children or my granddaughter. But as a kid I learned to protect myself even if it meant losing myself in an estate imagined on 8 ½ by 11 inch lined paper.
I recall at age 12 training some classmate to do my paper route. He was going to be my substitute. I’m not sure how or why he got the job—he wasn’t my friend. We didn’t hang out together. We hardly spoke. He was a chubby, pushy guy, with an awful mom, who wound up taking almost all my profits for one day of work each week. I remember his sour faced mother pushing him to my front door at the end of the month and forcing me to hand over just about every penny I’d collected. (My problem was that customers didn’t pay me. I paid my substitute and my distributor, delivered the papers, and at the end of the month the customers hid, sipping desperate gin behind shut doors.) Anyway, one morning at 5 am this unpleasant kid and I were on the front porch folding papers. It was still dark. We were going to strap canvas bags of newspapers to our bikes and ride around the neighborhood and deliver them as gifts to evil deadbeats. Suddenly the front door opened, and there was my dad, in sagging underpants and a t-shirt, swaying, bleary, still drunk enough from the night before to burp and slur his words.
“Wha tchou doing?”
I saw the kid look, bewildered, but with growing understanding, at my dad, drunk at 5 am. His eyes swelled with enlightenment. “O’Neil’s dad is a drunk!” I knew instantly that he’d share this vignette at school with whoever it was that he hung with.
There weren’t many such instances. I made sure of it. Once I asked a friend named Kevin to spend the night. I’d never done such a thing. It was night and we were in my room when I began to hear howling and craziness migrate through the house. Kevin was Irish and probably had a life similar to mine. He became very excited. His eyes lit up. He became hyper. He wanted to see what was happening. I knew all too well what was happening: my kindly old dad was drunk and berserk. I could hear the house erupt in a battle to get him back into his room. Kevin became diabolical. “What’s going on?” he asked, again and again, with a manic grin. He was ready to pop like a party favor. My mom and sister came to my door and told Kevin and me to stay put. I remember my mom’s worried face. I suspect my own expression was the same. My father bellowed and howled. There was banging and thunder all over the big house.
That was my last sleepover.
I didn’t bring people home unless they were very good friends— a pattern that stuck even after I’d grown. I’ve never had much use for acquaintances. I don’t ask coworkers to lunch. I rarely go drinking with the boys. I don’t even know the boys. I’m quite satisfied with family and a few close friends, even if the friends are far away.
Even my hobbies and interests are solitary.
I’m writing, for example. I like to read, write, and listen to music. I jog long distances, alone. I hit golf balls at the range, and might enjoy golf, but hate foursomes. I even make music alone, playing two or three guitar parts, and adding drums, bass, keyboards and a droning vocal.
It was the same as a kid. One of my hobbies was stargazing. It still is. You can’t get more alone than to sit under the night sky with a companion that is a hundred million light years away. That is being alone. As a young teenager, I’d lay outside nights with a tiny telescope and a star map. The skies were still dark in those days, and my little scope, purchased for $10 at a big discount shop, could show me the rings of Saturn, the Orion Nebula, and the cratered surface of the moon. I even found Uranus once—a tiny, cold blur that I marked in my atlas of the stars. The Milky Way still glimmered faintly in our sky then, and the immensity of it all thrilled me.
I inherited my interest in telescopes from my seventh grade friend Peter F., one of the rare kids I really allowed into my life. He knew my secrets and I knew his—(chiefly that we stole half a dozen packs of his dad’s Tareytons and smoked them in a “fort” that we dug behind his house.) We could laugh at our problems, even my dad and his drinking. We could make the skeleton in my closet dance a bit for our amusement.
Peter was a natural engineer. We built mock spacecraft together. He taught me about Estes model rockets. He showed me catalogs from a company called Edmunds Scientific, filled with telescopes, telescope kits, and parts. Edmunds sold a three inch reflector for about $30, and a six inch mirror kit for about $13. I chose the latter and spent several months gamely trying to grind a telescope mirror using instructions from The Standard Handbook for Telescope Making, by Howard Neale, and Star Gazing with Telescope and Camera, by George T. Keene. The unfinished mirror is still in my closet. But in middle age I found the $30 reflector in mint condition at a flea market for $15, and just recently I purchased and built an Estes model rocket with my six year old, Rafferty. Thank you, Peter.
I played drums. After I’d learned some basics on Stevo’s set, my former brother in law, Rich, gave me a set of sparkling red Kents. Later I bought a set of used Ludwigs painted black. I wasn’t Stevo, but I could keep a few beats and do some simple fills. Although I participated in a band, of sorts, most of my drumming was done solo, to records.
I stopped playing when I went away to college but I kept the Ludwigs and resurrected them recently. The drums are now “vintage” and somewhat valuable.
My mom loaned me her old Argus 35 millimeter camera and I roamed our property shooting pictures. I still have the negatives. When she saw I was using her camera she bought me a darkroom kit that I set up in my closet. I made prints of our goat, our house, and bits and pieces of my room. A sign that said “Income Tax.” Hand puppets that my sister Ann had made. A pair of overalls blowing in the wind. A tiny bottle of some product called “Death to Moles.” For a time I bought photography magazines and studied not only the artistically nude women and the Ansel Adams photographs, but also the black and white ads in the back crammed with deals for cameras from Germany and Japan sold in shops on 42nd Street in New York City. I sent for a $33 German Exa IIA single reflex that I could focus and adjust. (I still have a postcard from 42nd Street informing me that my camera had been shipped.) My pictures improved just slightly. Eventually the camera broke and the enlarger was retired, but I still have both, and the pictures, too. I hang on to important things.
I hung out in the non-fiction part of the library and scoured shelves for anything that interested me. I liked science and practical things. For a few days or weeks I read all about pigeons and dreamed of building a coop. I read books on astronomy. I’d become interested in some weird topic like horse-shoeing, or rabbits, or gold-panning, and try to learn how to do it. (I suspect you can’t actually learn horse-shoeing from a book.) I read Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life” about a New England couple who built their own home, and “Living on the Earth,” by Alicia Bay Laurel, about imaginary hippy skills—how to live in flimsy shelter without clothing. It seemed appealing, in part because there were pen drawings of pretty naked women, arms outstretched beneath the sun. I wanted to live among them. I see now that much of the knowledge I sought focused on self-sufficiency and freedom. I loved “Summerhill,” a book about a free school in Leeds, England, where the children had an equal vote. I wanted to go there, but instead I got Peach Tree, a school just as good, maybe better, run by an African American woman who wanted a decent school for her own children during turbulent times. It was no “free school.” Mrs. Brunberg was strict but loving. She let you argue. She didn’t let you win, but she allowed you to. Our teachers were young and smart. The kids were a collection of delinquents and misfits who quickly became family. We did cool things. In one class we built a big raft of plywood, two by fours and styrofoam and floated it overnight down the Sacramento river. We made movies. We protested at Dow Chemical. We saw Ralph Nader when he was still a hero.
Our art teacher once assigned us the project of writing our “philosophy of life.” I wrote about what I called “Some necessities”:
“a Steinway piano, or any spinet or grand piano; a record player of extremely high quality; three or more acres of land; a four track tape recorder; my drums, my Silvertone to be; my Teisco to be; my gorilla; a typewriter; interesting books with pictures; an eight inch telescope; a small basketball court; four cars of varying prices ($62-$22,000); and of course, the girl or woman of my dreams (depending on how long it takes to get my wishes).”
It’s funny how close it is to what I now have. I have my drums. I have several guitars. (They are not Silvertones or Teiscos, but they are equally unique.) I own a four track recorder but don’t use it. Technology has changed. I use a computer. But I have a good telescope, plenty of books, a $20,000 car (they ain’t what they used to be), and the woman of my dreams. All that’s missing is the acreage, which I still covet.
The desire for rural privacy stems from the place we lived when I was a teenager. When my father’s drinking got too crazy my mother, my sister Ann and I moved to the outskirts of Sacramento, a part of town that almost qualified as country. There were trucks and cowboy hats and threats of violence. Low rolling hills climbed past Folsom Prison towards the Gold Country. There were a couple of small sad shopping centers and drive-ins between empty lots of wild oat grass and powdery brown dirt. People there talked like “Okies,” and after a while, so did I.
Our house was magic—a yellow Victorian on two and a half acres divided into small pastures. There was a lot to explore and photograph. We had a dark tool shed, painted brick red, and a small red barn where we kept two goats. Everything was old and a bit funky and exactly what I wanted after five years in a posh, suburban home where the vacuum system was built into the walls and floor, a sprinkler system was built into the lawn and terror seemed to bleed from the woodwork. I needed old paint and country. A Singer automobile rusted on blocks on the western side of the property, and to the east there was a forest of bamboo. Huge trees hung over us, including a cork oak, a magnolia, and lots of elms and maples. There were olive trees, too— enough that a neighbor gave us a gallon jar of them in exchange for the rest of the harvest; and grapes that crept up the side of the house from an old fashioned arbor. (Once my mother and I used them to make wine, but my brother drank it and replaced it with colored water.) The yard was lush and grassy, with beds of violets around the edges. Out front, a long gravel driveway led to the main road and the back end of a great Mexican restaurant. Our white goat would sometimes wander back from the restaurant with an orange face after getting into the garbage cans.
So there I was open, curious, living a little out of the mainstream, increasingly fatherless, insulating myself more and more from what ailed me, and I found this wandering rocker with slicked back hair and a red guitar, a man who could do incredible splits and dance moves and who made me laugh.
Some part of his appeal was probably genetic or accidental—a predilection for certain sounds, rhythms and rhyme. Maybe, deep in my bones, I needed the vibration of an old Gibson guitar cranked hard through the tubes and speakers of a huge Fender amplifier, or songs about “Milo Venus” and “Nadine.” But that can’t be all of it.
Maybe it was just timing— that simple twist of fate leading me to the exactly right thing on the right day. There’s a moment in life when we are ready to be swept away by whatever we really see or hear, and it behooves us that day to find something real. I got lucky.
Maybe it was the recognition of some real aspects of his personality. It didn’t escape me that he was described, in his private life, as something of a “loner” who shut out people and amused and insulated himself with a large piece of property. It didn’t escape me that he was self sufficient and managed his own businesses. Nor did it escape me that he was fit and sober, unlikely to die at an early age.
And maybe there was some real connection that runs deeper than my small mind can imagine.
In 1973, I learn from an old snapshot on the inside cover of a record called “Bio” that Chuck Berry used a darkroom as a kid. In the picture he is standing, leaning against a counter where we see trays of developer and stopper. He’s probably 12. His head is bowed as he studies something in his hands. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln, out of focus, gazes upon him. Because I have a darkroom of my own I can practically smell the chemicals. I know the magic of watching an image that I created appear in the dark bath of developing solution.
Then, when I am much older, I see another photograph of the pre-teen Chuck, this time using a telescope. It thrills me beyond imagination. It’s my hobby! The snapshot is probably taken the same year as the darkroom picture, but this time Chuck is full of energy and dressed to the hilt in coat, tie, and two-toned leather shoes. He’s got a cap on—either a beanie, or a baseball cap, backwards. The telescope’s spindly wooden tripod is on gravel, and behind Chuck are four or five parallel lines or lanes. At first I think he is at a running track. It takes a while for me to decipher that he is on a rooftop, and that the lines are created by sheets of tar paper tacked to a sloping roof.
The photograph is taken in broad daylight, and I first assume he’s just posing with a new toy. But I notice the shadows are all behind little Chuck. This means he’s pointing his telescope at the sun. I realize that front lens of his telescope—which I had thought was some tiny, prehistoric lens— is covered by a solar filter to protect his eyes from the blinding rays of magnified sunlight! Chuck Berry is using his telescope to observe the Sun— an act that probably puts him in the top five percent of telescope owners. I wonder if, perhaps, he is observing an eclipse. I e-mail Peter K., the Chuck Berry fan in Sweden who sent me the picture and who, I have learned, is good at internet sleuthing. Peter K. shares my obsession with Chuck Berry and also my interest in astronomy. I offer my theory. Within minutes Peter K. sends me details of two solar eclipses that passed through St. Louis when Chuck was a youngster—one when he was 12.
So I am reasonably confident that Chuck Berry once shared my geeky interest in stargazing, and did it at a level that raised him above the typical department store telescope owner.
In that moment I feel an almost magical connection.
Maybe if 12 year old me had met 12 year old Charles on that rooftop, in a world untouched by reality, or by Jim Crow, my imaginary friend could have been my real friend!
Ah but that’s imagination again.