Leaving Norman, OK
…John and I began planning our move to LA in early August of ’66 and departed for the coast two weeks later. I traded my ‘61 Chevy for the “Green Hornet”, that ’59 Ford station wagon (with air) of which I previously spoke…yeah boy! We had a few hundred dollars between us including the loose change located behind the front bench seat. John procured maps of Route 66; we wrote letters to our respective families; said our goodbyes and expressed thanks to all with whom we enjoyed the past year while in Norman. On the evening prior to setting out on our adventure, we were invited to dinner at Lucy’s apartment (not her real name to protect the innocent) which was directly overhead from ours…a very surprising invitation given that we ogled this girl regularly but never spoke. We feared rejection. Lucy was a ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Native American graduate student studying sociology whom we believed did not know we existed and now, she was having us up for dinner! We assumed all of the guys in the complex tried to date her but our guess was none were successful. Lucy was a tall, slender sexy beast with a great hard body and striking long, black, thick, shiny hair that settled just above her waist and it glistened. You just wanted to nap in it. Prior to that evening, we had not exchanged two words although I definitely knew who she was…but, clearly out of my league.
We made our way to her apartment at the designated time and wondered just what this evening was all about. She apparently had no interest in either of us as evidenced by her aloofness throughout the year. But, when Lucy opened the door we were greeted with a big, warm smile and we were welcomed as though we were long lost friends. John and I quickly glanced at each other with that “wtf” look. We believed there could be something else going on here but were clueless as to what. Remember where we are from and the mantra was and still is… “don’t ever let anyone get over on you.” The dinner she prepared was great and the conversation between the three of us was light and fun and energetic. She seemed to know all about our impending trip and more about each of us than we knew about her…until that night. I learned that Lucy was a full blooded Choctaw Indian who was born and raised on a reservation in Oklahoma. She was planning to return after completing her degree so as to become a positive force to those who remained. Lucy was soft and reserved in her manner which was inconsistent with her look. We just missed it. What we believed to be a distant personality in a beautiful woman was nothing more than a shy demeanor.
As the evening drew to a close, we stood up and prepared to leave while expressing our thanks to Lucy for a great meal and visit. As we exited, John leaned over first and gave her a respectful departing peck on the cheek and I followed suite. Except…when I pecked, she turned her head back toward center so that we were face to face and we kissed a long, wet, deep passionate kiss while she kicked the door closed. John left! Who new? The next morning when I returned to our apartment, I suggested to my good buddy that maybe we should postpone our trip for a few days…or weeks. He wasn’t amused.…what a sensitive guy!
We packed all we owned which consisted of books, clothes, records, four university diplomas and our only piece of furniture…a portable bookcase which consisted of six cinder blocks and three pieces of plywood. We were off. Leaving Norman was exciting because of the unknown ahead while it was saddening because of what we would leave behind…especially for me given the prior evening. We planned on sharing the driving duties and would shop at local markets for food rather than blowin’ our dough in restaurants. We did some of each but the restaurants were definitely a better option when compared with John’s culinary skills…which sucked! He however, would argue.
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
The drive through Oklahoma and west Texas seemed to take forever and the air conditioning was already non functional. When we crossed into New Mexico, somehow, we knew this adventure was more than just a couple of college kids on a road trip. It was our entrance into ‘brave new world’ (with due respect to Aldous Huxley). Our first of many ‘unusual’ incidents occurred somewhere between Tucumcari and Santa Rosa. We had a tire blow out. It was fairly late in the evening. John was driving and we were hoping to find a gas station still open. We had no such luck while riding slowly on a shredded tire and a wheel rim…then there it was…a closed gas station with an old, small house in the back of the property. John and I approached and knocked several times on the door each time knocking harder. Finally, an older man yelled in a cantankerous voice through the door, “CLOSED.” We engaged in ‘conversation’ through that door explaining our problem and pleaded with this guy to come out and have a look. He did so unwillingly and in a nasty tone said, “Alright, I’ll sell ya’ll a used tire and fit it on the rim and the car for…$50. This was clearly an arbitrary and brutally inflated number which is a polite way of saying we were about to be seriously ‘gouged’! John and I were pissed about his unreasonable offer and we tried, in vain, to negotiate a fair price for this product, service and ‘proprietor inconvenience’. In 1965, fair market value for a used tire was less than $5.00 and the mounting of that tire was worth about $2.00. The inconvenience factor is more difficult to assess but we assumed it was worth about $3.00.
Now …enter our moral dilemma. We knew this guy had us by the wallet and we were being squeezed for all he thought he might get. We agreed to his terms, full well knowing, we would not fulfill our part of the bargain. Moral dilemma resolved! Without saying a word to each other, John and I knew exactly what we would do once the task was complete. With job done, John ran over to the driver’s seat and started the car. I jumped into the shot gun seat and threw a $10 bill on the ground and we burned rubber. We, in essence, were thieves while this guy was just a prick. Somehow, being a thief seemed like the higher road under these circumstances. We spent the remainder of our trip looking through the rear view mirror for the New Mexico, Arizona or California Highway Patrol and to our good fortune, they never came. Neither John nor I ever had a modicum of guilt about that incident. This guy tried to take us because he could. Some years later a buddy once jokingly asked…”do you know why a dog licks his nuts?” “No,” I replied. Response was…“because he can.” Ummm!
The drive took us through Albuquerque, Gallup then into Winslow, Arizona where we ‘holed up for a spell.’ That’s western talk for all of you east coast dudes. After some sleep in a real bed, a shower and a good meal we set out to cross the dessert. Since we were without air, we thought it best to cross in the evening. We passed through Flagstaff, Kingman then into California. We were getting excited. When we passed through Barstow, we knew IT was not too far now. After driving all night through the Mojave we were about to drop into the Southern California basin when something ominous appeared. While coming down the Cajon pass, the sun was rising from behind us and it shinned golden upon the east face of these majestic rock mountains directly in front of us. I was driving and John was asleep. I shook him, and as he woke, he too was taken by the magnificence of this sight. Neither of us said a word. It was a spiritual moment to be savored. We were awestruck and saw this as some sort of ‘divine message’ portending grand things to come. That was and is accurate.
Santa Monica and The Wilshire District
Once in San Bernardino, we picked up Interstate 10 (the San Bernardino Freeway) and did not stop until we jumped into the deep, blue Pacific on Santa Monica beach. It was joyous! Beethoven’s Ninth could have filled the air. I commented to John, “they’re takin’ me outta here in a box ‘cause I ain’t ever leavin’.” After frolicking in the ocean and enjoying the moment we needed to attend to the business of finding THEE apartment in LA where arrangements had previously been made by a buddy of ours in Oklahoma. We were supposed to stay in an apartment free of charge, but, not before I gave $5.00 to some 19 year old big titted blonde in a bikini who blinked her eyes at me while asking if she could borrow some money. John again, was not amused… he was a really high strung guy.
Stay in an apartment free you ask? Well, not so fast. While in Oklahoma, we befriended Mike Schuminsky. Mike was a mountain of a man in his late twenties from Chicago who’s self image was that of a ‘wise guy.’ Since John and I had very Italian last names, he thought he would endear himself to us believing we were somehow ‘connected’. He said he had an uncle who owned an apartment complex in the Wilshire District and that he would let us stay there at no charge until we were able to get settled in with jobs and some money. “Don’t sweat it guys, I’ll make the call to my uncle” were the last words we heard from Big Mike. He gave us an address on AlexanOria St. in Los Angeles and there is no AlexanOria St. After an endless search, I think we slept in the Green Hornet that evening with wet clothes (almost broke), and at day break we continued to look for this mythical apartment complex whereupon we discovered AlexanDria St. Yup, it was the right street with the right address but my handwriting read it as AlexanOria St. John again, was not amused…are you getting a picture? I am amazed we have remained close friends all of these years.
We found the manager of the complex and told him our tale. He looked at us as though we were insane. We pleaded with him to call what might be a Mr. Schuminsky, the owner, to verify our story. To our great surprise, there was a Mr. Schuminsky who really owned the building and he was Big Mike’s uncle. The manager asked us to come back later that afternoon where we would learn our fate. We did and were invited to stay in a furnished one bedroom apartment…free. Amazing! The very next day John and I returned to Santa Monica beach and we bumped into two girls whom I knew from my Blue Mountain Camp work days in the Poconos. Both were recent Penn State graduates traveling through California for the summer before returning to Philadelphia to begin teaching careers. Of course, we invited those two lovelies to come back to our place and stay as long as they wished. After the second night, the manager threw us out. We were now without ‘companionship’ and a place to stay while nearly broke. The Green Hornet was once again home but not before we concluded an unsuccessful cruise of Sunset Blvd. for the purpose of seeking ‘entertainment.’ Remember, this is an ‘exorcist green’ ‘59 Ford Station wagon filled to the brim with stuff while sporting an Oklahoma license plate. Think of that ‘Dust Bowl’ image. Very cool! John said we couldn’t score because I was ugly… what a dickhead!
The Hunt For Gainful Employment
The next morning, John and I went to the Los Angeles Unified School District facility in downtown LA searching for teaching/coaching jobs with zero luck. We then visited the Beverly Hills Unified School District office with similar results. Our next attempt was the Los Angeles County Office of Education where I was directed to the Covina Valley Unified School District and John to the Glendale Unified School District. We were to meet with each respective personnel administrator but had to set up appointments at staggered times since we shared one car. In Covina, I had two opportunities…the traditional old school, Covina High or the newer school which opened the year prior, South Hills High. I asked, “which of two has the better basketball program?” Mr. Matecjeck, the associate superintendent for personnel responded with an emphatic, “Covina High! They have a great basketball program with a rich history and the team is coached by the famous Doc Sooter.” I immediately responded with, “I want to interview at the other place.” “And why is that” asks Mr. Matecjeck? For those who do not know, gymnastics coaches and basketball coaches almost always share a facility and usually do not get along well. Doc would probably run me off during my initial year due to chalk dust settling into the strakes and seams of a wooden gym floor and basketball coaches want to hear sneakers squeaking. ‘Fairy dust’ (as it is known in some circles) which is magnesium bicarbonate (chalk) prevents that squeak from happening. Matecjeck got it and sent me to South Hills for interviews. My thinking was …I stood a chance of holding my ground with that basketball coach since all of us were either new or almost new coaches…no real history yet.
The interview process was fairly extensive. I met with four members of the South Hills High School administration. First meeting was with Mr. Deal, the principal, who was a decorated WWll marine. We connected in some way and I’m not quite sure how given that we are of different generations, ethnicities and geographical regions. He also interviewed John for a job teaching English whereupon John responded with, “teach English? I can’t even speak it.” I’ll have more to say about Joe Deal in a subsequent story, but for now, know that he too was a wonderful administrator and a really good guy. Next I visited with Mr.Ross, an assistant principal and left that session with no sense of how I did…sort of a neutral feeling. He sent me off to visit with the Athletic Director, Mr. Moore who was also the basketball coach…ummm! The best I could hope for was to engage with a sense of cooperation regarding the shared facility and earn his trust. We got along quite well during my six year tenure. The last of my interviews was with the guy who really hired me… my great and longtime friend Dick Harris. Mr. Harris (now Dr. Harris) was the department Chair and we just clicked from the start for a host of reasons, the most important of which is that he played for the Phillies organization… my team. Further, the Harris family (parents) had roots in Oklahoma and that was the place I just left. I’ll have lots more to say about Dick and his wonderful family… like when he almost fired me during the second week on the job for oversleeping and missing my first two morning classes…twice within 10 days!
John signed his contract to teach physical education at Toll Jr. High in Glendale and coach the varsity basketball team at Glendale High and I would teach physical education at South Hills and coach the varsity gymnastics team which Dick Harris established and coached during the school’s inaugural year. Life was good. It was late August and we landed teaching/coaching jobs. That issue resolved, we now had several other items on our agenda like…finding a place to live, getting cars and oh that pesky little problem of MONEY. And at that point, there was none. We reported for work the day after Labor Day but would not get paid until October first and we still lived out of the Green Hornet. John called his dad (a longshoreman in NJ) who connected us with Texas Inter-Mountain Express Trucking Company (TIME) where their trucks unloaded at a dock in Montebello, CA. We ‘broke down’ the trailers during a graveyard shift and were paid in cash. That first night on the dock, John and I got into a ferocious argument as to how we might spend our last bit of change when we went on lunch break…like at 2:00 AM. John wanted crackers because it would give us a sense of actually biting, chewing and swallowing something of substance while I argued for a chocolate bar because of the sugar and instant energy it would provide. John was generally very persuasive, but I had a rare win on this one for the right reasons. I love chocolate! And, I received higher grades in our physiology courses. Case closed, damn it!
Our second night on the job, we determined that if we worked harder, faster and better than the other guys, the boss would choose us again from the ‘shape up’ which is a line of ‘wanna be’ workers formed in front of the loading dock at 5:00 PM. Good thinking, right? Wrong! At lunch time (2:00 AM as it were) four or five of the biggest, ugliest guys we had ever seen entered our trailer and closed the gate behind them. John and I knew immediately what was going on and it appeared certain we were goin’ down. The spokesman for this ‘committee’ was an African American guy who stood about 6’ 3” and probably weighed 240 lbs with a 4% body fat and could have been either an NFL middle linebacker or full back…and he was scary ugly. He spoke… “this may be beer money for you college boys, but this is how we feed our families.” John and I blurted out, “WE GET IT!” The two of us survived that night without a scratch and learned a valuable lesson… “don’t argue with guys who can kick the shit out of you.”
Where to Live and What to Drive
We now had a little pocket cash, gorged ourselves on a great breakfast then pursued our next mission which was to find a place to live. First, we had to determine just where that might be. After studying a map of Southern California, we decided upon South Pasadena. It was about half way between Covina and Glendale. We then selected the Penthouse Apartments (liked the name) which was a singles complex of 60 or so furnished units. John and I settled one a one bedroom apartment (two beds thank you) and then explained to the manager that we did not have the financial resources necessary to occupy the unit until October first (pay day) and it was early September. That manager let us move in immediately with no upfront cash after verifying our teaching contracts. Try that today! We bought cars the same way…John a ’61 white Cadillac Coupe, and me, a ’62 black TR III (Triumph). Our collective thinking about the selection of cars was predicted upon using the ‘TR’ to go to the beach but the ‘Caddoo’ for evenings…very visionary. Everyone at the pool watched two guys move into a one bedroom apartment. It was not good for our highly anticipated social lives. We then realized we had some explaining to do before we could get ‘live’.
John and I worked a few more nights on the truck dock, got breakfast, and then went on to our respective schools to teach all day. We slept little in September, but were just thrilled being in LA and working in our chosen profession. I think about that journey often…more so now than ever. We were young, athletic kids who were well educated and confident. By that stage of our respective lives, both John and I were afraid of nothin’ and believed we were impervious to any perils. We were also very stupid which is corollary to being young, but man o’ man, we had fun. Known as Mancini and Mantovani in some circles, we played well in the ‘LA night league’. The year was 1966. We were two east coast guys, ages 23 and 24 each with Master’s degrees, and living in Southern California. The sexual revolution was upon us and we hit the sweet spot. It was all Disneyland for us. Life could not have been better.
As I said in the concluding paragraph of my University of Oklahoma story, I am not sure if I would have made that trip to LA without John or ‘he’ without me. We were on the same page once the idea was floated and never backed away. For that, we are both ever so thankful.