Whitewashing the fence - 1968

(The Burbank-Hannibal Connection)

I put this photo in the home tour not to describe the back yard - you can't see much of it from this shot - but to describe myself at the time and this Tom Sawyeresque pose.

I first read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was twelve, when this photo was taken. These books are a boy's birthright, and like many boys, I was swept up in Twain's descriptive imagery and yearned for adventure and life along the Mississippi. More than that, I tried to picture myself in the context of a boy my age living 130 years before, in a small town with small town people. Having been born and raised in Los Angeles and living in a modern suburb, this wasn't easy. For instance, while my friend Richard Springer and I pretended to be Tom and Huck (I was Huck), neither of us could really imagine ourselves smoking corncob pipes. (To perfect the Tom Sawyer impression Richard procured a Missouri corncob pipe, but not the tobacco, and pulled the thing out of his back pocket to stick in his mouth every now and then for effect.) And the image of taking a raft down the Lockheed wash that flowed through our neighborhood was pretty silly, too. After all, even with the runoff from heavy rains, the wash was only about six feet wide and three feet deep - and surrounded by high concrete walls, parts of which were decorated by graffiti. The Mighty Mississippi it wasn't. Older boys we knew in Burbank didn't want to pilot riverboats, either. They wanted their driver's licenses.

The most memorable part of my Mississippi period was a excursion Richard and I took late one night. In accordance with our plan I got up just before midnight and "meowed" near his window to awaken him (as Twain described for Tom and Huck), and we set off to our school five blocks away, dodging silvery pools of light from street lights. This was what was then Monterey Avenue Elementary School, where we were sixth-graders. Now the place is used as a remedial high school of sorts. There's a nursery for the children of the female high-schoolers. Visiting the place years later was a depressing experience.

In a "secret" place - on a grate behind some bushes near one of the side entrances to the school - we pricked our fingers with pins to be able to write in smeary, bloody letters on a piece of paper, and performed a "blood oath." An oath to do what, I don't remember, but it seemed very daring at the time. Our oath may have had something to do with keeping the site behind the bushes a secret. If so, I have broken the oath by posting the photo above to the Internet. (Richard, if you ever read this you may exact a penalty.) Anyway, just as Tom and Huck had to do things in a certain way described in the books about pirates they read, we had to do things the way Twain described!

We also planned a visit into a "haunted" (that is, abandoned) house near school but were thwarted when we were discovered in the driveway and told to get home by the neighbor. (I undid the project when I shone a flashlight into her car to read the clock, which attracted her attention. She put on her slippers, grabbed a flashlight of her own and followed us - brave lady!) Somewhat crestfallen, we went back home and to bed.

So this is more than a photograph of a lanky twelve-year-old, hair bleached blond by the summer sun and dressed in the suburban approximation of rags, painting a fence with white paint his father swiped from Lockheed. It's me as a boy, and boyhood in general.

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