Reminiscences on Childhood in the Valley of the Moon: High School Years (Part 2)

When I look back on those years, growing up in the Valley of the Moon, I remember an undeniable sense of freedom. Our youthful explorations and adventures—as each of us reached out to discover ourselves within the context of our neighborhood, our school, and interpersonally within the society of our schoolmates—always seemed to be undergirded by a culture of acceptance. So that we were always safe, or it at least felt that way, as we expressed ourselves, and encountered one another. And our teachers and parents formed a benevolent backdrop that gave us quiet assurance that all would be okay, even when we faced our inevitable challenges and difficulties.  

Those were years of unfeigned generosity, as I remember them. Goodness was practiced with less self-consciousness than it is today, and ‘doing the right thing’ towards one another was simply woven into the fabric of our lives, and not something added later as an afterthought, or forgotten altogether. And differences of opinion back then might be met merely with a shrug of exasperation, a shaking of the head, and maybe a chuckle or two.

I think back to that time and wonder at the motives each of us had, and I also marvel at the wide range of purposes and desires, as we began to formulate our adult personalities. One of my friends from that time, Heidi Moore, had a deep sense of empathy for others and believed the best way to address the wrongs in our world was through the ballot box. For me, as a senior high student, the deepest I thought to wade into politics was running for office in student government, but this was done mainly for fun, for vanity, and for getting out of class. And even when I ventured out into the greater world beyond my school life, it was still for the same reasons. I travelled to South Africa in 1986, when the news about apartheid was at a fever-pitch around the world. And while I did genuinely care about the plight of the people there, and did honestly want to learn more about it first-hand, still, my main reasons for going there were for fun (adventure), for vanity (to be admired), and for getting out of class (I missed the first week of school).

Heidi introduced me to Doug Bosco one afternoon. It was in the foyer of the high-school auditorium during a large gathering. Doug was our local Congressman at the time and I believe he was running for re-election. I was blown away that she actually knew a Congressman, and I was completely gobsmacked that she was on a first name basis with him. How does a high-school student become close friends with a Congressman? I had no idea, but I was amazed at her. She actually was involved in something real and I admired that.

Later, she took me along to a celebration party at the Veteran’s Memorial to cheer Barbara Boxer, who had just been elected, or re-elected to Congress. I knew nothing about her, but liked the signs everyone was holding, which had the ‘x’ of her last name placed inside a box, as if it was a vote cast in her name—very clever I thought to myself. Even if I couldn’t get behind her politics and policies, I could at least cheer on her good sense in political marketing. So I cheered and had a good time, along with Heidi and the crowd that gathered to hear Barbara speak. But inside, I felt like a fish out of water. I truly admired Heidi and enjoyed sharing this with her, but I learned that I wasn’t made the same way. I discovered that for me, politics was fine as a way of getting out of class, but beyond that purpose, it was beyond me, and not really very interesting.

So while my friend Heidi was taking her first steps into the wider adult world, I plotted my next high-school prank. It was a good one. It wouldn’t get me out of class, since it would have to be done at night, but it was filled with adventure, and would be audacious enough to pleasantly feed my ego. It involved scaling the high school with ladders, avoiding the police while hiding on the school roof, then hanging an enormous banner over the central entrance to the school, tied off with our shoelaces (this detail wasn’t planned), and announcing to the world the eternal and solemn friendship of my closest friends. Here is how it all went down:

The idea was conceived as a tribute to friendship, to my closest friends, many of whom I had known since grade-school, as early as Kindergarten is some cases. I envisioned making a large banner (it turned out to be about 8′ high x 26′ long) by sewing bedsheets together, which I did one evening under the tutelage of my mother, and then painting boldly the name that we had dubbed our little clan (The Dreamers); and around this name I painted the nicknames of everyone in our group (although unfortunately I think I left a few out, some friend I turned out to be). Anticipating that the wind might blow the banner around once it was installed from the roof, I weighted the bottom of the banner by filling the fold in the sheets with rocks and sand.

But it was clear I couldn’t do this project alone; getting the banner up to the roof would be a difficult task. So I enlisted the help of Rob Coombs, one of The Dreamers; but our hope was to surprise the rest of the group when they came to school the following Monday morning, so for the moment it was a little secret between the two of us. Fortunately, my mother recognized that we might break our necks doing this alone, so she asked Gary to help us, and watch over us. Gary rented a room in our house while he attended the Junior College in town. He was also an avid and experienced mountain climber. He reconnoitered the buildings and developed the best plan to get us up on top.

Our high school is a beautiful structure built in the Collegiate Gothic style; with a prominent and grand entrance that I estimate is around 40 feet high, more or less. The night of our assault on the building, I felt a great deal of excitement and anticipation. Would we be able to pull it off? Could we get all the way up there, with the banner, then hang it, and get back down again? And if so, would it stay in place and surprise our friends, and the entire student body the next morning?

We pulled up at about 11pm and Gary parked his truck in a nearby parking lot, under the cover of massive Eucalyptus trees. We pulled a long extension ladder off the roof, and Gary put on a large backpack with the banner stuffed into it. Rob had the twine and rope (supposedly), or did I? Who knows, we didn’t think to ask each other.

At the northern end of the main building there is a covered breezeway that connects to the gymnasium. From the ground this little roof is only about 15′ high. We leaned the ladder against the side and quickly scaled up to our first perch. Gary pulled the ladder up behind us and we extended it as far as it could go. We then lifted it up against the main building towering above us, and realized we were in trouble. The top rung was easily 4′-5′ below the top edge of the building.

Keystone cops. That’s what we felt like. Or clowns in a circus. What could we do now? Gary decided the answer was to climb the ladder to its uppermost rung, and then slide his body up the brick façade. His plan was to hold onto the upper edge of the building with his arms, and stabilize the top of the ladder with his feet, then Rob and I could climb up the ladder, and scurry up his back, and over his shoulders and onto the roof. We all agreed this seemed like a great plan. In hindsight it now seems like a foolish plan; however, it worked!

I remember thinking to myself how crazy this was as I grabbed at Gary’s jacket and pulled myself up and over his shoulders and landed safely on the roof. Rob came up and over his shoulders next, and finally Gary let go of the ladder with his feet and pulled himself onto the roof. This was the moment of breathlessness, for as he pushed off from the ladder the force lifted it away from the wall, and for a second which seemed like an hour, we watched as the ladder hovered undecidedly in mid-air; shall it fall away to the ground, or return to the wall where we needed it? To our relief it came back and landed safely against the wall and stayed put. This was cause for celebration, and we congratulated one another as we made our way to the center of the building where we planned to install the banner.  

We made a pretty good team. We had made it onto the roof without too much trouble, we were now unfurling the banner and had it laid out in position, ready to tie to the building and then drape over the side. Everything was going well, until we were ready for the twine and rope. Didn’t you bring it?! I thought you did! I didn’t bring it, you were supposed to! I don’t have it, don’t you?! No! Crap!

Before we could think of a solution we heard cars coming down the circular driveway leading to the front of the school. I wonder who that is? We peered over the edge of the roof and saw two police cars stop in front of the main steps. Several officers got out and walked across the front of the building, shining flashlights into the shrubs. One made his way up to the north breezeway and shined his light through the colonnade, but not up onto the roof. We watched from above and breathed a sigh of relief when he returned to his car, having not seen our ladder further up the side of the building. They drove off and we congratulated one another yet again!

We agreed not to go back to the truck for the twine, so we decided to pull our shoelaces out and use those instead. Between us, we had six long laces, just enough to tie off the ends of the banner around the column ends that protruded up from the building façade beyond the roofline. Fortunately I had attached some twine to the banner at increments across its top when I had constructed it back at home, so these we also were able to use in some places. Once this was done we dropped the banner over the side and it unfurled perfectly. It was a beautiful sight to behold! The Dreamers now had a proper tribute and a great Monday morning surprise in store for them.

Before descending I discovered two large steel covers that were hatches leading down into the building. In order to delay any meddling custodian, who might ruin our surprise by coming up early and taking the banner down, I slid several nails through the clasps of these hatch covers, to lock them from above. This done, we returned to our ladder. I must say that going down is more difficult than coming up. Gary was able to drop himself over the side and we watched his feet, and helped navigate him safely to the top of the ladder. But once this was done, neither Rob nor I were overly eager to climb out over Gary and down his back to the ladder below. But it had to be done, so we did it.

We made it down without another incident, and returned home gleefully. Mission accomplished! And the next morning didn’t disappoint. Our glorious banner declared the existence of The Dreamers to the world, and was a fitting tribute to the friends who I admired and loved.

~FS

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