Thursday, September 15, 2005
3.45 p.m. NZ time
After Johnnie Bunch
I was thirteen years old when Johnnie died. Then one day I overheard my mom talking with the family and it seemed Johnnie had left us with some very large gambling debts. So we temporarily moved in with my aunt Dolly and her husband, Eddie Siroonian. Uncle Eddie, as I’ve called him all my life, became my Main Man; he was my father, my brother, my uncle and my best friend. No matter what happened in my life my uncle Eddie was always there when I needed him, always. To support the two of us and start to dig her way out of Johnnie’s gambling debts, my mom went back to work. She worked two and three jobs at the same time, ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. I hardly ever saw her, so there was never enough time left over at the end of her day to handle my teenage energy.
The following summer was the summer of 1949. Because of my mom’s work load, I went to stay with her brother, Eddie Warren and his wife Willa May. They had three sons, all older than me. Gene and Charles had already moved out to live on their own, but Phillip, just a year older than I was, still lived at home with his folks. That summer was one of the best summers I ever had. We did nothing, but we did everything. Eddie and Willa May lived way out in the country so for me every day was a great new adventure. There were acres of farmland, with large wooded areas. we found rivers and swimming holes where we went almost every day. Phil and I played and we fought. We made up games, daring each other to do the most stupid and dangerous things we could imagine. We rode our bicycles miles and miles just to see the latest cowboy movie. And as many young boys do, we discovered and experimented with our own sexuality. About mid-summer a Seventh Day Adventist preacher man started coming by to give my aunt and uncle Bible lessons. And of course they made us come in, sit down and listen to the whole thing. All the charts and pictures and stories were pretty good, so we kinda’ looked forward to the days when the preacher man would come by.
That Fall, the preacher, my mom, and my grandmother, along with all my aunts and uncles had a meeting and they all decided the best thing for me would be for my mom to enroll me in this brand new Seventh Day Adventist boarding school called Newbury Park Academy.
Well, except for Johnnie’s funeral, I had never been to church before. I didn’t even know anybody who went to church. All I knew about the Bible, and the Ten Commandments, or the “Seventh Day Sabbath” were the things I’d learned from the Bible studies. I soon discovered that Seventh Day Adventists were really into those Old Testament laws and diets and stuff. Actually, I got quite excited about the possibility of going to a boarding school and learning more about all those wonderful, mysterious, spiritual realities.
Because we were so broke, I wound up working in three or four different school departments to help my mom pay the school’s tuition. My room mate and I were up every morning at 5A.M. to milk about twenty cows. I used to skim the cream off of the top of the big, ten gallon milk cans, and take a quart jar of it up to breakfast every morning. There’s just nothing like fresh cream on your cornflakes or your oatmeal to get your day started right. After the dairy, a quick shower and breakfast, I was off to my classes for the next six hours. I hated English, I loved auto shop.
Then after school I worked on the farm until quitting time. The farm boss taught me how to drive everything, the WW2 jeep, all the farm trucks and tractors, as well as all the different pieces of farm equipment that went along with them. If it had wheels or tracks on it, I learned how to operate it. And we did it all, plowed, disked, harrowed, furrowed, irrigated, transplanted, dusted, and then harvested and shipped it to market. How I loved working the farm.
Each evening after dinner my friend Kelsey Hodge and I worked in the kitchen washing pots and pans. What a loud, laughing time we had. We took turns, one night I would wash and Kelsey would dry, the next night Kelsey would wash and I would dry. It didn’t matter who did what, it always ended up the same way, a huge water fight. We were constantly being told to stop splashing everyone and stop making so much noise. One of the girls told us they wanted to fire us, but because we scrubbed the pots and pans cleaner and faster than anyone they’d ever had working there, they couldn’t let us go.
One of my more memorable experiences was when Donald McAleer and I were out for a Saturday afternoon hike. About three miles north of the school we discovered a deep canyon with a waterfall and a deep swimming hole. We tore off our clothes and in we went. Leaping off the big rocks, swimming under the falls, exploring the cliffs and the caves, it was an afternoon like you read about in books. Along about 5 o’clock we figured it was time for us to be heading on back to the school.
We had stayed longer than we had intended, and we knew we would be late and we would be in trouble. So instead of going all the way back around the top end of the canyon, we decided to climb straight up the canyon wall and save at least thirty to forty minutes getting home. It was very, very steep. Some of the climb was straight up. But we took our time, being as careful as we could. I was going up first and Don was right behind me. I was spread out like a spider on a rock trying real hard not to fall off, and just as I was easing my way over the rim of the canyon, I was encouraging Don, telling him to be sure not to put all of his weight on any one point, and that we had made it, we were at the top. That’s when I heard a yelp and a rattle of stones, I turned to look and I saw Donald tumbling and bouncing his way down the face of the cliff.
I felt so totally helpless, there was just nothing I could do except stand there and watch as Don disappeared into the rocks and trees so far below. I knew there was no way I could climb back down the way I had come up, so I ran as fast as I could, all the way back to the first steep gully that cut down into the canyon. I went crashing down through the trees and the bushes, running and leaping from stone to stone, over the fallen trees and tangled brush until I had worked my way down to where Don was lying in the rocks on the canyon floor. I was calling his name, Don, Don, are you all right? I didn’t know if he was dead or alive. Then as I got closer I heard his broken whimpering voice, “Oh I’m hurt, I’m hurt, help me, help me”.
When I reached him I could hardly believe my eyes, his face looked like raw hamburger meat. His body was torn and bleeding. I didn’t know what to do. I guess I should have told him not to move, and ran to get help, but I just couldn’t leave him there by himself. So I helped him get slowly to his feet, miraculously he didn’t have any broken arms or legs, although his jaw and a few ribs were broken but he could still walk. So I helped him as best as I could, half carrying him up and out of the canyon, constantly assuring him that he was going to make it all the way back to school, and we did, we made it. Off he went to the hospital while I got in trouble and had to explain to all the faculty members why we were late and what had happened. Later Don and my buddies treated me like some kind of a hero. But I always thought that Don was the hero; he was the one who fell off the cliff. He was the one who climbed up out of the canyon with two broken ribs and his jaw broken in three places. He was the one who went stumbling and bleeding the three miles back to school. I just happened to be there when it happened; I really had no choice in the matter.
After a year or so at the Academy I had pretty well settled into the routine of things. My grades were good, I loved the different jobs I got to do, I had made some really great friends and all was going along quite well, until one fateful Friday afternoon when a new girl enrolled in school. She was a knockout. Tall and thin, with legs that went all the way from her ankles to her arm pits. I had never seen anyone like her. She had dark brown eyes and cascading sable hair that gave her a smoldering, mysterious look. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her. Like a moth to a flame, I was captured.
Saturday evenings were the big play nights for the student body, with volley ball and roller skating, stuff like that. And of course there she was, the new girl, right in the middle of it all, and she was all that I could see. I don’t know how it happened, I don’t know what I said or how I did it, but somehow, at the end of the evening, I wound up walking her back to the girls’ dorm. She was eating an ice cream. And on the way we stepped into a shaded alcove to talk. We kissed. Her lips were freezing cold, wet and slippery sweet from the ice cream. What a kiss. Every cell in my body responded, expanding and bursting with the pure, all consuming pleasure of that kiss. I was totally addicted. I had never experienced anything like it in my life. I only knew I had to have more of that wonderful stuff. So I told her my room mate, Dave Totten, had a car and later on that evening he, his girl friend and I were going to sneak out and drive down to Santa Monica to visit some of their friends; I asked her if she would like to come along with us. To my great surprise and delight she said yes, she would love to come with us.
Well I gotta tell you, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because a lot of teenage hugging and kissing went on in the back seat of Dave’s car that night.
We got back to our dorms in the wee hours of the morning. Climbing back into our room through the window, we checked on the piece of string we’d left stuck between the door and the jam. It was still there, so we knew our night out had gone undetected. We were safe. Or at least we thought we were. Dave and I had just enough time left to get changed into our working clothes and get our butts on down to the dairy.
Because of our early morning milking schedule, Dave and I were always the last ones to arrive at the cafeteria for breakfast. And that morning as we walked in, we knew something was amiss. All the girls were giggling and staring at us. All, that is, except Dave’s girl friend and my date from the night before, because they weren’t at breakfast. Obviously something had gone horribly wrong because as soon as we sat down at our table, Mr. Will, the boys’ Dean, hurried over and informed us that our presence was immediately required in Mr. Rice’s office. Mr. Rice was the Principal, the President, the King of the school. There was no doubt about it, trouble had found us out. The girls had been caught sneaking back into their dorm, and they’d told their inquisitors what they had done, and who they’d done it with. Our goose was cooked, big time.
As we walked into Mr. Rice’s office that Sunday morning, it seemed like the entire faculty was waiting there for us. They told me to go back out into the hall and wait there because they wanted to talk to David first. So I waited in the hall. I waited, and I waited and I waited. After what seemed like at least a week, or maybe even longer, they called me back into the office. Dave must have left by some other door because I never saw him again. They sat me down and told me how disappointed they were in me. They read me the riot act from cover to cover. They said I was nothing but a trouble maker and I had never followed the rules of the school.
One of them said he had even seen me ‘chewing gum yesterday in church’. I knew that wasn’t true, because I hadn’t even gone to church the day before. I’d ditched church and stayed in my room all morning listening to a rhythm and blues station on my secret little radio, that I wasn’t supposed to have. But I couldn’t defend myself by telling them that, because the school rules said all the students were supposed to be in church on Saturday morning, and no one was allowed to have a radio in their room. So yes, I had to admit to myself that by not going to church and listening to my illegal radio, I had broken the rules, but I hadn’t chewed any gum like they were accusing me of, because I wasn’t even there. I thought to myself, ‘this phony, self- righteous, so called man of God, has just lied about me, and I can’t say anything to prove he was lying, because I would just further incriminate myself.’ But I knew in my heart ‘this guy has just broken his own rules, he’s just as big a rule breaker as I am.’
Then they went on to say, if I would promise to never ever break any more rules, they would give me one more chance, and I could stay in school, but I would be on probation. So I told them I would do my very best, to never again break any more school rules, but I just couldn’t promise them that I wouldn’t, because I just might, I mean, I would do my absolute very best not to break them, but I just couldn’t make a promise to them that I might not be able to keep. I felt that was the best, the most honest answer I could possibly give them, but it wasn’t good enough for them, so they expelled me right on the spot, right then and there I was done for.
I don’t know whatever happened to Dave or the girls, I never saw them again. The school called my mom that morning and told her to come and get her son. I wasn’t welcome there any longer because I was just a trouble maker and there was no room for trouble makers in their school. That was it; there was nothing more they could do for me, she would have to come that day, and take me away.
That afternoon as my mom and I drove down the long driveway from Newbury Park Academy, I never looked back. More than ten years would pass before I would go into another church. My take on Christianity was, they’re all just a bunch of rule breaking, self righteous hypocrites who were demanding that I live by laws they don’t live by themselves. Who needs people like that with all those rules that nobody can keep anyway?
That’s all for now.