In a recent Sue Grafton novel, a character ruminating about her bittersweet high school days says “There’s only so much room at the top of the heap. The rest of us are fill dirt”. I suppose I was part of that fill dirt, though comfortably ensconced at that angle of repose that judiciously kept me from sliding to the very bottom of the heap. I had my close friends but we were all dwellers on the fringe, observing the campus dynamic and using it as fodder for our cynical humor. I was the kid in the back of the room who was making comic books deriding the social order. So I find it strange, fifty years after the fact, that I now feel such an affinity for the people I went to high school with.
I have alluded to this phenomenon before, I know, but the older I get the more I feel in tune with these people who went on to become doctors, lawyers, mushroom farmers, graphic designers, contractors, alpaca ranchers, wildlife biologists, IT specialists, and more. Liberal or conservative it doesn’t matter, because we all survived the 60s. We were all in shock the day JFK died. We were all in awe the day a man landed on the moon. And I suspect most of us were glued to the television set when the Beatles made their American debut. But there is more to it than those high profile events. There was the setting itself.
Los Altos was a safe and sunny place that nurtured us as it did the surrounding apricot and walnut orchards. It was an affluent “village” with a quaint and busy downtown with mid-century modern facades and a large, remnant live oak lording over the junction of Main and State Streets. It had Hal’s Record Den where we could absorb the latest vinyl releases at listening stations. It had Clint’s Ice Cream Parlor with the giant concrete cone on the roof. And a movie theatre with a deco marquee out front, the smell of stale popcorn within, and kiddee matinees every Saturday. It was a bastion of sanity and security for several sweet years.
By the time we all graduated in 1965, the Los Altos Knights were tilting at the windmills of change both nationally and locally. There was Vietnam, of course….the elephant in the room. And rumors that beatniks were getting high in the hills near La Honda. The old Vasona railroad line, whose weathered ties we would walk on to the outskirts of town, was replaced by a four-lane expressway. The apricot orchards were being turned under at a furious rate. The Whitecliff Market burned down. The old Main Street oak tree finally died. And most of us moved on along with the bucolic ambience that had made our hometown such a sanctuary for flowering youth.
In recent years I have made it a mission to get to know the people I ignored or who ignored me way back when. And I never fail to be rewarded by their stories of extraordinary accomplishments, dreams fulfilled, sorrow endured, love lost, and adventures lived. We all bear the burdens and the joys of where and when we grew up. And we are all stronger because of that. We can all hearken back to those halcyon days when emotions ran high and possibilities seemed endless. And nearly 70 years later, I can still feel the rusty iron rails under my feet and smell the scent of warm eucalyptus leaves on the edge of town.