One day near the end of the sixth grade, I was home from school, sick, when my father came into my room and said, “Get up. I want you to come and help me today.” Even though I didn’t feel well, I was excited about going with my dad to do something out of the ordinary.
While in the car, I learned that we were going to move again, and we were going to fix up our new home. We drove out into the countryside outside Sacramento to a street called Jackson Road. We pulled into the driveway of a four-acre property with a small house up front and a pasture, barn, chicken coop and other structures out back. The lawn area was overgrown with weeds higher than my knees. We walked up to the front door, and my dad removed the notice taped to it by the health department, condemning the house. I believe that the reason the health department condemned the house was that the kitchen sink drained directly into the yard on the other side of the driveway, which was never fixed while we lived there. My job that day was to cut down all the weeds and grass using a sickle while my dad repaired things inside the house.
That day was the beginning of many adventures. I loved living out in the country. My life’s ambition at that point was to become an explorer. I had mapped out my life to be full of escalating adventures from climbing the face of Yosemite’s Half Dome to sailing down the Amazon and trekking up to the North Pole, culminating with climbing Mount Everest before I turned thirty years old. Of course, life ends at thirty, so I had no plans after that, nor did I accomplish any of these childhood dreams.
My older brother and I had a great time exploring our own property and building things. There were piles of wood, pipes, and other materials that provided the resources to build a backstop for a baseball field and a sled, like the dog sleds used in the arctic, only ours slid over the long, dry grass in the pasture as if it were snow. We had a great time trying to catch the pheasants that frequented the thistle patch out at the back of the property and later riding the Shetland pony we received for Christmas.
It was an exciting place for a boy. Even our chores were unusual and exciting, like taking two-by-fours and smashing spiders around our home every evening when they came out to spin their webs. My brother and I had a contest to see who could kill more spiders. “I got thirty,” I would say. “Not enough. I killed forty-five,” my brother would say. He always won. We lived next to a driving range, so golf balls were constantly being hit onto our property, occasionally hitting our house. My older brother and I turned it into a business by collecting the golf balls and selling them back to the driving range for a nickel apiece. It was awesome to have some spending money.
The outdoors was not the only thing I explored that summer. I discovered the joy of learning. We did not own a TV, but we had a set of Encyclopedia Britannia. In the evening and when it was too hot to play outside, I systematically went through the whole set that summer. My siblings say I read the whole encyclopedia, but all I did was read the captions under every picture and the first paragraph of each entry and then more if it was something that caught my interest. Regardless, it sparked a lifelong interest in learning.
I don’t want to give the false impression that I was a boring bookworm. I always had a zest for life and found it difficult to turn down opportunities for harmless fun. In the first grade, I earned the nickname Daredevil. Our Jackson Road house was very small and had only one bathroom for our large family with six kids. One morning, I needed to brush my teeth before school, but my dad was taking a bath. He said to come in anyway. While holding the glass of cold water to rinse my mouth after brushing my teeth, I glanced over at my father in the tub of hot water and grinned. He said, “Don’t you dare.” I couldn’t resist. I darted out the door, across the kitchen, and out into the back yard with my father in hot pursuit. He finally caught up with me after we nearly circled the whole house. He carried me back into the bathroom, stuck my head in the toilet, and flushed it. Mom was horrified, but I didn’t care because seeing the shocked look on my father’s face when the cold water reached its mark was well worth it.
This little incident was all done in fun, but other times, my father could not control his temper. One morning while we lived at this house, we drove over to the nearby town of Elk Grove to watch their Fourth of July parade. After the festivities, we noticed that a car had pulled up right behind our El Camino truck. There was no way to pull out, so my dad told us to stand back. He got into the truck, put it into reverse and gunned the engine. He kept ramming the truck into the car behind him, pushing it back a few inches each time until he had room to exit. We all stood silent and mortified as hordes of people passed by, staring at the madman bashing in the front of the vehicle behind him with his steel bumper and trailer hitch.
We were isolated out there in the country, so my older brother became my playmate. Our little brother was four years younger than me, which made it difficult for him to participate in our adventures. So, I was excited when one of my friends from our prior neighborhood was able to spend a day with me and my brother for my twelfth birthday. I had my own friend to play with and did not have to be stuck doing things with just my boring brother. We had a great day planned. My father dropped us off at a bridge over a river in the morning so the three of us could swim and fish all day as we made our way downstream to the next bridge a few miles away where he would pick us up at four o’clock in the afternoon for cake and ice cream at our house before we took my younger brother to the church to be baptized.
We had a wonderful time. We didn’t have any luck fishing, even though we saw plenty of fish while we swam. I was shocked and scared to see a catfish swim by that was as big as I was. My responsible older brother kept urging us to move along so we wouldn’t be late. I didn’t listen because I was having too much fun playing with my friend, jumping off logs into the water, chasing fish, and splashing each other. Eventually, my brother went ahead so he wouldn’t be late. I didn’t care. The thrill of this adventure was all that mattered. I lost complete track of time. Hours later, I was pulled back to reality when I heard my father calling from a trail high above the bank of the river. We were very late. We scrambled up the steep bank to my dad and my reprimand above. He had traversed that trail between the two bridges several times, calling down to the river below, and was sure we had drowned. I rushed ahead of my dad on that trail covered with thorns that punctured my bare feet because every time I slowed down to bush off the thorns, my dad would swat me on my behind. But that punishment paled into insignificance when I realized that because of my tardiness, my younger brother had missed his own baptism that day. This was one of the most painful lessons of my life. Ever since, I have striven to be responsible and punctual.