The Elliotts, 1968
I hope life, treats you kind
And I hope that you have all
That you ever dreamed of…
(Dolly Parton, I Will Always Love You, 1973)
The experiences that form my early childhood memories are like a collection of 35mm slides stored in the carousel of my mind. Through the whirring of the fan and the light and the dust come the Santa Ana winds and the Los Angeles smog. The lady in the candy truck with carrot-colored hair and the holdover hippies in the sketchy vans.
My reality is revealed with each clack of the projector. I played on hills that caught on fire and in drainage ditches that I fancied as empty swimming pools. I crossed footbridges as night fell and rode my banana-seat bike alone through the suburban jungle. They should have found my body burned or drowned, but they didn’t.
I’m glad they didn’t. I would have missed Puddingstone, the manmade lake, and beach in San Dimas County. My mom took my older siblings, Linda, Becky, and Billy, and me, at least twice. What I wouldn’t give to see a picture of myself as I was then. Five years old and washed in the splendor of a California summer.
Puddingstone vs. Polyester Pants
My dad was never interested in Puddingstone or any similar family adventure. During my entire childhood, he only took off his polyester pants twice. Both times were when he put on a bathing suit to go swimming at a motel pool. That swimming suit was so old. Black with white starbursts, like the Route 66 days he pined for.
I wonder what happen
Everywhere we went, Dad stayed home to work on sermons in a tiny shack he built in the garage. He preached those sermons on Sunday afternoons to the dead and dying at nursing homes. The blind, and pee-soaked slumped over in wheelchairs. He was rarely assigned a church where members paid their tithes or preachers earned a living wage. He took a vow of poverty when he became ordained and for most of my childhood and youth we were destitute.
I hated going with him to convalescent centers but the pressure he put on me, on all of us, was unbearable. From California to Colorado to Texas to Arkansas to Kansas and finally, Oklahoma, I attended nursing home services with my dad for 10 years. I sang solos a capella until boom boxes and accompaniment soundtracks became a thing. The elderly people drooled down their chins and stared off into space while I sang Softly and Tenderly and my dad screamed about John the Baptist eating locust and honey.
Nothing made my father happier than having a pulpit to pound. He preached on and on like a circuit rider in a 1920s revival and it didn’t matter if the people were mentally incapacitated or deaf. In the early 1970s, he landed a good job with his Korean-era veteran preference points. He went to work for the U.S. Department of Fish and Game making $27,000 a year. That was great money back then and could have paroled our family from poverty but he lost that job because he would not stop proselytizing his coworkers. Claiming freedom of religion, he insisted on preaching hellfire and damnation aboard the vessel on hunting trips they took out to sea.
Puddingstone, Like Jellystone
Puddingstone was right up there with Christmas, Disneyland, and the Tooth Fairy. What a glorious name, Puddiiing-Stone. It sounded like Jellystone, the home of beloved Yogi Bear who I watched every Saturday morning on our 13-inch color Panasonic TV. It was the dawn of the 1970s, and there were only two things in the world that tasted better than butterscotch pudding in a can: root beer floats and donuts.
I had two root beer floats before the age of 14. Oh, how I loved the frosty mugs with creamy, icy root beer cascading down the sides of the glass. I licked them clean. Second, donuts from the Donut Hole in Covina. That place was more thrilling than the coin slot ponies at Alpha Beta grocery store. The drive-thru was cave-like with massive donuts bookending it. I loved the jelly and coconut ones the best.
My dad often bought donuts for the family on Sunday mornings. It was the happiest day of the week because he was not prone to anger and violence on the Lord’s Day.
At Puddingstone, I had the run of the place even though I didn’t know how to swim. Running around unsupervised for hours on end was total bliss. I was living my best Gen-X life ever playing alone in the sand along the shoreline. Anytime I wanted to get in the water and swim I had my bubble.
The 1970s Bubble Flotation Device!
Oh, my bubble! I loved it so much. It was a bright orange polystyrene foam buoy that fit flat against my back and attached at my waist with a belt. It served as a flotation device for a lot of first-wave Gen-Xers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I strapped it around my belly and bobbed in the water all day long, totally adult-free. It worked quite well until someone dared me to jump off the diving board. I was terrified but once you’ve walked the plank the quickest journey back to shore is via jumping versus climbing back down. So, I jumped and when I hit the water my bubble came off. I thought I was going to drown but from out of nowhere my mother appeared and carried me safely to the shore. She had been keeping an eye on me the entire time.
According to some, Puddingstone is a total sh*t hole today. It’s rundown with signs up and down the shore warning residents not to eat the fish that’s in the reservoir. But, maybe that isn’t true.
The occasional trip to nearby Huntington Beach rivaled those rare trips to Puddingstone. One summer day in 1973, my oldest sister Linda borrowed the family car and drove the 40-mile journey to the ocean. My cousin Cindy, who was Linda’s age, tagged along. Cindy surfed so far out into the ocean in her yellow bikini that from the shore, she was only an inch tall.
I never understood why my father, a former sailor who wrote long poems and love letters to the sea, never wanted to go to the beach.
What I cherish most about that trip to Huntington Beach was not the beautiful jellyfish I saw washed up on the shore or the clams I dug for or the seashells I collected, but my memories of my older sister Becky, young and beautiful under the firelight of Taco Bell‘s gas-powered lanterns and firepit.
We stopped there on our way back down Beach Boulevard toward home. Still wearing our bathing suits and wrapped in damp towels, we gathered on the patio around a stone table. We devoured the best meal of summer, red and green burritos and bell burgers. It was like a Mexican hacienda with arches and walls constructed from large bricks. There in the dark, with sand still stuck between my toes, I had the happiest meal of my short life.
Young, Beautiful, and Peculiar
We were all so young and beautiful, then, but we didn’t know it. Maybe we would never know it. When I look back on pictures of my sisters with their tanned skin, voluptuous bodies, and broad smiles, I realize how peculiar and even dangerous the station in life was that they possessed. They were in equal measure poor and beautiful. In striving hard to rise above the former, they were blinded to the latter, for poverty and beauty have a way of canceling each other out.