In my high school yearbook the graduating
teenagers are striking debonair poses. Every strand of hair
seems to have been ritualistically trained into place. Make-up
has been duly applied to the no-nonsense faces of the girls
decked-out in identical evening-dress tops revealing lots of
shoulder and sternum. The pearl necklaces about their throats
promise womanly zest and grandeur in the days ahead.
As I flip through the glossy pages, the guys look pretty dandy too, doing their best not to come on as stuck-up. With their chins up, they look the camera lens square in the eye like strong-jawed defensive linemen on the varsity football squad awaiting the snap. Everybody’s lined up as straight as pins in the Park Bowl, sporting bow-ties and black tuxedo jackets with satin lapels. And then there’s me, the lone pin left standing, cheerless and glum. What gives? Why the long face in a sea of otherwise chipper ones?
Let me tell you straight off, I was no Steve Reeves playing a chain-busting Hercules at the Haight Show, the neighborhood movie house. More to the point, x-rays of my battered soul would have revealed a disgruntled lad all tied-up in knots like Colin Smith in the paperback we were assigned to read,
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by the English author Alan Sillitoe. All told, I was frankly in the dark about the things
in life that really mattered. I was a teenager coming of age in America – San Francisco, California, and I had not yet learned to recognize and value the things that count in life. Just another callow seventeen-year-old you might say. “Hey, what else is new?” you might think; but like the Irish-born writer and lifelong vegetarian George Bernard Shaw nearly a century before my time:
I suffered agonies that no one suspected… my heart used to beat as painfully as a recruit’s, going under fire for the first time. I was in it yet appallingly out of it at the same time; a belly-full of disquietude was my teenage lot. I was waiting in the wings to be worked
into a love and imitation of what is excellent and praiseworthy, to borrow the phraseology of John Locke.
If Mr. Diamond the art teacher held up a picture of abstract art, a Mondrian, say, and asked the class for an opinion, I itched to have my say but held my tongue. I would inwardly scoff at it, secretly mumbling to myself, ornery-like -
C’mon! Any kid could that. Mr. Diamond lived in affluent Marin County, Sausalito, and wore Ernst neckties, the talk of the town at the time, but I couldn’t appreciate his taste in fashionable attire. Compared to Mr. Diamond’s, my station in life was plebian. I was a chip of cut glass at best, a green chunk of a curbside 7-Up bottle a car had backed-over on.
Such was the Heart of Darkness I was in, which happened to be the title of the book by Joseph Conrad we were reading in Miss Eleanor Holland’s honors English class. This plucky Polish storyteller had learned English as a second language while plying the seven seas as an itinerant sailor man tramping around the world to the point of becoming an international master of it. I was also
The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu, the World War II spy story about a dead man washed up on the shores of wartime Spain. Its intriguing dust jacket I saw pinned high above the molding on the classroom wall, along with a whole slew of other attention-getting dust jackets for spaced-out school kids to wonder about. Who was that headless British officer in uniform bobbing in the open sea, created by the English war effort? Major Martin was his name, as per the attaché case strapped to his person, German intelligence would soon learn.
Back then I never knew that Albert Einstein could play the violin. Sure, I knew he had something to do with the theory of relativity and
E=MC2, but it wasn’t until light-years later, while working as a page in the Park
Branch Library, putting myself through City College, that I discovered Einstein had also been a powerful essayist about the same time the Nazis confiscated his savings account in a German bank, in keeping with their wholesale pogrom against people of the Jewish faith. The wild-haired physicist and amateur violinist was also a staunch advocate for world peace. Had he known that his mathematical formulas would lead to the creation of the atomic bomb, the super-nova scientist and thinker said he would have become a watchmaker instead.
In the same high-school graduation yearbook, bound with the school colors – scarlet and black – you can find Frank Heintz. Look at Frank’s picture. He’s smiling. Clad in a tuxedo jacket or school-time casual Pendleton 100% Virgin wool shirt hanging out, Frank is Frank. Suave young gentleman and home boy all in one, not to mention unassuming scholastic whiz kid to boot. Things are clearly looking up for him, the look of assurance on his earnest face says.
At Polytechnic High School on Frederick Street, across the street from Kezar Stadium, brainy Frank and I were in Mr. John Summerfield’s afternoon trigonometry class overlooking the schoolyard and the shady pillared alcove that served as an echo-chamber for a doo-wop trio carrying on in flawless Gene Chandler
Duke of Earl harmony.
Up and down staircases between bells and periods, Frank and I exchanged respectful glances though we didn’t really know each other from Adam. Frank played bassoon for the school orchestra and had set his
sights – according to the yearbook - on attending the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which I had thought a big mistake and total waste of brain power. When the teacher had singled Frank out, heralding how he was going places in front of the rest of the class, I rolled my eyes and felt the full force of an uncouth groan welling up inside. My crudity matched that of Polyphemus the Cyclops belching up the terrified Greek mariners trapped in his cave, chomping them down one by one like a handful of Planter’s peanuts.
Like the pushed-out-of-shape narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, who had it in for Fortunato, chaining him alive to a wine cellar wall, poor little un-together me just couldn’t stand not having it together like paragon Frank. As a result, I had serious doubts about my rightful place in the great scheme of things. Frank had me feeling so inadequate and out of it that I didn’t know where I stood. Poor Fortunato! He knew he was being entombed alive brick by brick but there was nothing he could about it except emit his last shrieks and squeaks until the finished masonry job silenced him once and for all.
At the same time, I was not about to take any of this lying down. I had my pride and was not to be trifled with. I fought back and tried to wrestle Frank down a notch or two. How could anybody give his whole life over to music? I just didn’t get it. It was like studying to become a priest or nun, renouncing the world, and amounting to a hill of beans, as far as I could see. Good God, almighty, if Frank was going places, well so was I! But what was my heart’s desire? I hadn’t a clue.
In hindsight, I was out of touch with the spiritual side of life. I pined for a play-it-safe realism, risk-free, uncreative, and boringly unadventurous. Pragmatism was the ticket, doing something practical- not that ethereal stuff Frank was pursuing. I suppose I envied Frank his wherewithal. I looked askance at his passion to follow his dream. His reach and his grasp melded. He had set attainable goals for himself, while I was floundering; wondering where on earth life would lead me. Scarfing up on an occasional ice-cream sandwich fished out of the freezer of the corner-store quelled my existential brooding; the chewy brown wafer, sugar and cream in my mouth tasted sweet, imparting a much needed sweetness albeit lip-smacking imitation-vanilla flavor to my life.
Though they perplexed me to no end, and there were many times when my mind blanked out and I just couldn’t get it, scientific and mathematical goals were the only ones worth pursuing, I rationalized, my
imagination stifled, my unwillingness to embrace life’s irrationality, a thorn in my side. Yep! Majoring in math and becoming an engineer, that was “where it’s at,” I told myself. Was I cut out for it, really wanted it? Frankly I never paid it much mind. My heart and soul were held in abeyance. My own immigrant dad was an ace in math and science. And if my own dad had math down, chemistry and algebra, too, why couldn’t I? Besides, at the time, it seemed like the manly and proper thing to do. I was dutiful; still the dogs of exasperation nipped away at me insatiably.
Looking back, it took very little imagination to follow in someone else’s footsteps, even if he was your own flesh and blood. (Much later when I had chosen teaching as my calling in life, my father’s old-country lady friend, Maria, made a funny face: “Teaching? Your son? Why, that’s women’s work!” and burst out laughing in his face - according to my father).
Ever so mechanically, I had labored and struggled with math, setting up the artificial problems in some obscure land of numbers and symbols. Where was the relevance of all these mysterious computations to my everyday life? What a zombie I was! It was sheer drudgery all the way - where to? I hadn’t the foggiest. I cracked open the book, studied and studied, but to what end? The best I could come up with were gentlemen C’s. I’d study for hours and hours next to a burning desk-lamp, my book open on top of the Formica kitchen table, torturing myself, forcing myself to concentrate; High Level Mathematics was a tough nut to crack.
Crime and Punishment – another dust jacket pinned to the English classroom walls. What my crime? Why all the punishment? Sonny and Cher’s
I Got You Babe was getting lots of airplay on the twist-knob AM
radio. The song had hit number One on the charts and the DJ Tom Donahue was praising it to the skies. Cher, of Armenian heritage, had soul and fire. This American pop song Cleopatra’s delivery of the simple lines was right on:
“I got you, babe to hold me tight,” Cher belted out. While Sonny Bono was destined to become the Mayor of Las Vegas on a plain-folks platform.
Sure, something had me alright, but I didn’t know who or what, though. I looked under the table, over my shoulder, checked out my mug again and again in the mirror. I checked all the closets and came up empty-handed.
I kept on trucking, faithfully doing the time-consuming homework and taking the required tests. I pulled C’s when classmates in the back seats racked up A’s and B’s without so much as ever cracking open a book, or so it seemed. I swear, one girl in my Calculus class was reading
Exodus, a paperback novel by Leon Uris the whole time the teacher was lecturing and writing examples and formulas on the board. Yet, when we got back our tests, she got 10 out of 10 while I was lucky to get 5 correct - this paltry score after dutifully taking notes, hanging on the teacher’s every word. Guess I had been just going through the motions without deep comprehension. Something was not right.
I was beating my proverbial head against a hard high wall. Impossibly high and thick like Kezar Stadium across the street, where the Forty-Niners professional football team battled the LA Rams or Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers on autumn Sunday afternoons, rain or shine. And where the defenders of the east goal had the late afternoon sun in their eyes. The same stadium where the Poly Parrots football squad coached by legendary Milt Axt took on the SI Wildcats, a tough rivalry during which dedicated gusty Parrot running back Hiroshi Shimizu saved the day with minutes left in the game, straight-arming the opposition on his way to the end-zone, busting his leg in the process, and earning a standing ovation as he was assisted off the field in his mud-smeared uniform, his face-masked helmet slumped forward in an arc of agony. The valiant Shimizu, propped up, helped off the field, flashed a true-life picture of hard-fought success and victories won the hard way. Unlike Shimizu, the spunky high school football hero, I was getting nowhere. No first downs. No touchdowns. No spirited pom-pom girls cheering you on:
Give’em the axe, the axe, the axe!
I managed to bury my disappointment for a while by getting into electronics. Our school boasted a reputable state-of-the-art electronics facility called Lux Lab, which attracted high school kids and the night-time adult community from all over The City. Bow-tied Mr. Allan Maxwell, who also taught at Cogswell Technical College on Nob Hill (the site of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel today), was the teacher in charge, and I used to smell the cigarette smoke on his breath and saw his nicotine-stained fingers and teeth as he held a piece of chalk, scribbling formulas and diagrams on the blackboard.
But it was the other teacher in program, Air Force veteran Mr. Paul Kitagaki, who took me under his wing when I came on like a shot-out-of-cannon Thomas Edison in my eagerness to master the invisible world of protons, neutrons, and electrons, going so far as to even do an RCA correspondence course at home, to the point of using a plug-in soldering gun to assemble volt-meters and tube-tester kits I picked up at a huge
electronics store at the corner of Market and Van Ness Avenue. I was gung-ho for the electrical arts, and Mr. Kitagaki sensed it. It really brightened my day when Mr. Kitagaki recruited me to help out at the Lux Lab at night. His wife called me at home and sounded happy about my helping her husband out, working the supply room and handing out parts when the Lab was open to the community at large. It was nice to be wanted and appreciated. “My husband is expecting you to come in and help out tonight. He hopes you can make it.” Of course. They were sweet people and like family to me. (The Kitagakis, like so many Japanese-Americans during World War II, had been stripped of house and home and ordered at gunpoint to do time in American internment camps jerry-rigged in remote outposts across the land. Their crime? The color of their skin and their Japanese ancestry, however distant. Never mind that these Japanese-Americans were full-fledged citizens of the United States. Jettisoning all thoughts of liberty and justice for all, the military arm of the Anglo-Saxon race would brook no offspring of wartime enemies in their midst, full-blooded Americans or not. Armed guards perched in lookout towers and coils of barbed wire affixed to high fences saw to that.
I thrived for a time under Mr. Kitagaki’s sympathetic and humorous teachings. Smack in the middle of an animated lecture on electronics, Mr. Kitagaki launched into another one of his heart-to-hearts, which he was prone to do. He put the curriculum on hold when he felt student interest flagging, especially towards the mid-afternoon dismissal time. He dropped what he was doing and looked us straight in the eye. Pointing to an imaginary spoon he was holding, he sat down on the corner of the desk proclaiming: “All it takes is a teaspoon of sperm for life to begin.” Huh? We just sat there, open-mouthed. Mr. Kitagaki had rekindled class attention.
My initial electrical charge, though, was running low. And I wasn’t coming on like gangbusters anymore. I had been working on a very ambitious class project, assembling an awesome power supply on a metal chassis complete with transistors, capacitors, and intricate circuit boards, but got tired of monkeying around with it and abandoned the project, much to my steadfast teacher’s dismay, and mine too. Hence, the slightly pushed out of shape look in my graduation yearbook. No Ideal Senior; instead I was the Kid Who Had Thrown In The Towel.
But my nemesis, Frank, was another story, He had a delicate and reserved temperament. He was cautious, took a measure of things, and made a point of looking before leaping. Prudence personified, Frank had the innate wisdom to see the right path to travel down. I admired and envied his
sangfroid. He had the air of someone who knew what he was all about - which I knew I was sorely lacking. Frank held his head high, with a Rothschild-like aristocratic bearing that seemed to come so easily his feet barely touched the ground.
You didn’t see Frank Heintz skipping class, hanging around and munching greasy french-fries in Johnson’s den of fast-food iniquity, the greasy spoon next to the boy’s gym where the Pickle Family Circus holds court today. Johnson’s is now the Ganges Indian vegetarian restaurant where kids get free mango juice with dinner, and where the sign in the window reads:
If Animals Could Speak, We Would all be Vegetarians.
No, sir! Not Sir Frank. Over his dead body. Fast food he wasn’t buying. He didn’t have that smart look on his face for nothing. He had the good sense to follow his star straight to the pot of gold at the end of rainbow’s arc. In a pre-calculator/home computer age, endowed with old-fashioned God-given brains, Frank worked wonders with his nifty slide-rule. Almost effortlessly, it seemed, Frank aced all his AP courses - Trig, Chemistry, Calculus, Physics, while making beautiful classical music with other orchestra members conducted by Mr. Stanley Shaff, the Instrumental Music teacher. I could have died for the impressive upbringing that had taken Frank his far. But then again, I had neither any inkling of the family squabbles, nor disappointments, or even personal tragedies that may have colored Frank’s upbringing; life’s bramble bushes that we all go through at one time or another. I saw only the end product and that was enough.
Frankly speaking, I still had a long way to go. I had some catching up to do, so I joined the cross-country team for much needed stamina-reviving exercise out in the open air with the wind and the fog blowing all about me. I needed to run off all the pent-up frustration. I needed put a big distance between myself and all the crummy thoughts bringing me down. I was looking for a way out, a chance to ditch all my oppressors, and shed the nagging chip on my shoulder.
Long distance runners had to report for after-school practice. Wearing our red sweats with P O L Y stenciled on them in black, we trained at the Big Rec in Golden Gate Park, along Lincoln Way and Seventh Avenue. Clip-board in hand, Coach Walter Lester had us doing figure-8s around the two baseball diamonds, with the hand-ball court up the hill. Under his watchful eye, we jogged around and around, as Coach Lester checked off our laps.
On a race day, we gathered in Lindley Meadow and lined up at the
“Goddess of The Forest” totem pole carved with a single axe by Dudley C. Carter at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island. (Today, all that’s left of the totem pole, is the concrete base it had once sat on. And what was salvaged of Carter’s sculpture is now housed in the Diego Rivera Theater at City College.)
A band of scrawny kids huddling together at the starting line, we were antsy to take off, a little like the stabled horses biding their time in the Polo Fields just over the grassy knoll. On a gray, wintry afternoon, with Spreckels Lake over the bluff, at the sound of the starter’s shrill whistle, we were off and running, huffing and puffing. I ran bare-footed from start to finish over the dewy grass, side-stepping sporadic gopher holes the length of Old Speedway Meadow, and adroitly swerved around the fresh road-apples along the trail. Past the shrubbery, the hedges, and the towering Eucalyptus trees, runners were outmaneuvering runners, sprinting ahead, falling behind. Going at it side by side, there were short-lived duals during which you tried to best your opponent. You exerted yourself with all your might to get the upper hand by coming up to runner from behind, and then overtaking him, and holding on to the lead.
At one point, the runner in front of me was Frank, and I was closing in on him, trying to snatch him and catch him off-guard. The thought of overtaking Frank gave me a boost, a second wind. I ran hard, got alongside and
SMOKED him. So long, Frank. He was panting with this tongue sticking out, and the steady thud, thud of his weakening stride was fading. When I looked up, the front runners had already made their moves a long time ago and were crossing the finish line. And the mirage of Frank had vanished as I kicked past the blackberry bushes and their thorny vines, the picnic tables and barbecue pits in the home stretch, all the way to the massively-limbed cypress tree finish line, where under an enormous overhanging limb, I sprawled out on the grass, too pooped to budge. Severely winded, I’d given my all, and the coach was telling me to get up and walk it off. Gradually recovering my strength, I took a slow, meditative stroll back to school through the park and called it a day with a hot shower down in the dungeon of the boy’s gym, twirled my combination-lock open and changed into my street clothes in the steamy locker room.
At the end of the day, the strenuous work-out had left me calm and steady on my feet. Coming in third or fourth place out of a field of twenty or so runners had felt sweet, too, giving me a little something to glory in, raising my adolescent pride and self-respect a notch or two. I had put out both mentally and physically to the best of my ability, and in my heart of hearts, I was savoring my hard-fought success. I rewarded myself with a big bran muffin at Metz’s “Superior” Doughnuts next to the Haight Show on the corner of Haight and
Cole Streets and washed it down with a bottle of
Squirt on my way home to our Waller Street apartment next to Hamilton Methodist Church, a neighborhood soup-kitchen and Family Center today. And at Walter’s corner-store at Clayton and Waller, I got me a bag of Valencia oranges which I dutifully peeled, sucked on and ate for their refreshing succulence.
Recalling that cross-country season ages ago, who would have ever guessed I’d run the zillions of miles all the way to the grown-man putting this story on paper? Take it from Frank. He gave me this story to tell. He had also given me the selfsame uplift and skin-crawling inspiration I got from listening to
The Righteous Brothers at their very best. With Frank behind me, I was on my way, crossing a finish line of sorts.