Held at Gunpoint: Training for Berkeley, and the Peace Corps… Part 2

In my last blog-a-book story from “The Bush Devil Ate Sam,” I introduced the tale about getting caught in a laundry takeover by armed men in South Lake Tahoe, California where I was working at the time. Today, I will conclude that story.

Surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and noted for its clear blue water, Lake Tahoe is one of the top resort areas in the world. The laundry I worked at was located in South Lake Tahoe. This map also shows the route I followed from Placerville to the Lake along Highway 50. Three years ago, I hiked from I-80 to Highway 50 through the mountains as part of the 750 miles I backpacked to celebrate my 75th Birthday.

My humdrum, ant-like existence of delivering linens to the motels of South Lake Tahoe came to a dramatic end the morning I heard the roar of laundry trucks firing up an hour before they were supposed to. I threw on my clothes, sidestepped the gunman guarding my door and jumped into my car. The guard immediately repositioned himself as a hood ornament and looked threatening. Guys with guns can do that.

“Don’t be worried, Curt,” a familiar voice told me.

“Right,” I thought as I checked out the tough looking goon. I turned my head and spotted Woody, our lead driver. “What in the hell is going on?” I demanded.

“We’ve taken over the laundry,” Woody replied casually. 

The next question followed naturally: Who in the hell constituted we? Woody had an answer for that, too.

“I work for the people that Douvres screwed when he took the laundry back,” he told me. “We’re here legally. These armed men are professional security guards we hired to protect our interests.” Apparently Woody had been quietly arranging a coup while taking Roger’s money.  

“I am leaving now,” I informed Woody.

“I don’t think so,” Woody replied. “Relax, it will all be over in a few hours and you can go to work for us.”

I was beginning to feel like I had been caught up in a B-grade movie. 

“Woody, you are not going to shoot me,” I said with a lot more confidence than I felt. “Tell the man to get out of my way.” I was irritated to the point of irrationality. I turned on the car and started rolling forward. At the last possible moment, when it was clear that I intended to keep going, Woody motioned for his man to move. I was glad they couldn’t hear my sigh of relief over the sound of the engine.

Once away from the laundry, I shoved the gas pedal down and made a dash for Cefalu’s house. I knocked on the door of the dark house and was surprised to find Roger open it in his pajamas. He’d come up the night before.

“What’s wrong, Curt,” he said sounding a little alarmed. Obviously, I wouldn’t show up at 6:30 a.m. to wish him good morning.

“Your laundry has been taken over by armed men,” I blurted out and then quickly filled in the details. Roger responded with an incredibly imaginative stream of swearwords. He grabbed his jacket, yelled for his daughter to call the sheriff and told me to jump in his truck. There are three red lights between where Cefalu lived and the laundry. We ran them all. Our truck screeched to a halt in front of the office and Roger jumped out with me close behind.

Fine, I thought to myself. I just escaped from this place and here I am back providing muscle back up for an angry man who is probably going to pop someone in the nose and get us both shot. Fortunately, there were a lot of words before any action, and the Sheriff’s deputy showed up with siren blasting. It would all be settled in court. I was still in one piece and my experience at facing armed men would make a good story. I had no clue at the time that it would also help prepare me for facing men with guns as a student at Berkeley and as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa.

Roger and John were successful at winning the court battle but things continued to be crazy at the laundry. I returned to my more peaceful job of driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. All’s well that ends well, but the insanity of the laundry takeover was about to be replaced by the insanity of being at Berkeley in the 1960s when the University was at the center of a world-wide student rebellion. Join me next Wednesday as I head off to UC.

NEXT BLOGS

Friday’s Travel Blog Post: The sea anenomes are marching off to war at Harris Beach on Oregon’s coast plus other fascinating creatures that hang out in the tide pools of the Pacific Northwest.

Held at Gunpoint: Training for Berkeley, and the Peace Corps… Part 1

In 1963, I landed a summer job driving a laundry truck between Placerville, California and South Lake Tahoe, a 60 mile drive. I’d pick up dry cleaning and motel linens in Placerville and make deliveries along the way. My day started at 1 p.m. and ended around 10 p.m. six days a week. This is a more recent photo of Placerville, but it doesn’t look all that different. The Bell Tower has been a symbol of the town seemingly forever. As has the hanging man…
Founded during the 1849 Gold Rush, Placerville was known as Hangtown for how it treated outlaws. It’s a heritage the town has strangely— but proudly— maintained ever since. This guy was hanging out on Main Street in the 50s and 60s when I lived three miles away and still hangs out there today. If Guinness had a record on the longest hanging man in the world, he would be it! He must have one heck of a strong neck.

The man leaned on the front of my 56 Chevy and rested his rifle on the hood. The message was clear. I wasn’t going anywhere.  Ten minutes earlier I had been happily sleeping in my trailer next to the Lake Tahoe laundry where I was working for the summer. I woke up and jumped out of bed at the sound of trucks warming up. Oversleeping was no excuse for being late. I looked accusingly at my alarm clock. It said 6 a.m., an hour before I was supposed to go to work. Glancing out the window, I spotted an armed man standing in front of my door. Several others were wandering around the property. The laundry truck drivers were people I didn’t recognize. Lacking a phone to call my boss, I decided it was time to vacate the premises…

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year at Sierra College I graduated from working on pear ranches to being a laundryman. Every afternoon at one o’clock I would zip over to Placerville, pick up clean laundry and dry cleaning and head over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to Lake Tahoe via Echo Summit on Highway 50. It was a great job for a college kid. I was provided with a new VW van and was totally on my own except for loading up in Placerville and making my stops on 50 and at the Lake. In between was a beautiful drive through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There was even a touch of glamour to the work. 

Sugarloaf Mountain located next to Kyburz Resort on Highway 50 in El Dorado County, CA.
This wonderful chunk of granite is known as Sugarloaf and is a favorite view along Highway 50. It’s quite popular among rock climbers, which, like jumping off of high cliffs into water, is another sport I see no reason to pursue.

One of my regular stops at the Lake was Bill Harrah’s home. He was incredibly rich from his gambling empire, and his home seemed palatial to me. Never having mastered the servant concept, I always made my deliveries to the front door and was occasionally greeted by his headline performers who stayed there. This came to a screeching halt one day when a young Liza Minnelli opened the door in her baby doll pajamas. She didn’t seem to mind my admiration, but the major domo directed me to make all future deliveries to the service entry in the back. I had little appreciation for my new backdoor status.

Roger Douvres, my boss, had a contract to handle the dry cleaning for the stars that performed at Bill Harrah’s lakeside casino. They often stayed at his home, where I would make weekly deliveries. The picture windows provide a beautiful view of Lake Tahoe.

The best aspect of the laundry business was that the pay was four times what I had earned working in fruit orchards. Since I lived at home, I was able to stash most of my income away for college needs. Eventually, this would pay my expenses at Berkeley. Those were the enlightened years in California when tuition was free.

In the summer of 1963, Roger asked if I would move up to Lake Tahoe and work for his son-in-law, John Cefalu. John had taken over a laundry that Douvers had owned, sold, and then reclaimed because of back payments. There was an old trailer sitting next to the laundry ‘in need of a little work’ that I would be welcome to use. I jumped at the chance. What twenty-year-old male given a chance to work in one of the world’s top resort areas wouldn’t? The only disadvantage, from my perspective, was the distance from my girlfriend. At least, I consoled myself, there was a beach three blocks away that was normally filled with scantily clad young women. I’d get by.

Things, of course, are rarely as rosy as they seem. To start with, the trailer was a mess. It was probably twenty years old and, as far as I could tell, hadn’t been cleaned it in nineteen. My first weekend was devoted to twenty hours of scrubbing. There were no scantily clad women for Curt. Monday brought work, and it was work. I no longer had my leisurely trip back and forth across the mountains. It was stuff the truck with a mountain of clean linen, dash out to the motels and make deliveries, cram the truck up with dirty linen, and rush back to the laundry— over and over and over.

Fatigue, by the end of the day, usually meant I would crawl in bed and go to sleep. It was not the romantic lifestyle I had imagined. The second weekend, I did manage an obligatory trip to the beach for Female Body Appreciation 101.  But I had no desire for any other relationship and most of what my excursion did was to remind me of what I was missing. I did say mostly, didn’t I? The age of the ‘itsy bitsy, teeny weenie, yellow polka dot bikini’ was dawning, and it was a sight to inspire bad poetry. Not even true love can totally deaden 20-year-old hormones.

My daily routine was about to end, however. I was soon to learn what it was like to be held by gunpoint. I’ll tell the story in my post next Wednesday from The Bush Devil Ate Sam.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: I’m going to leave Oregon’s Harris State Beach for a week and jaunt 360 miles south to Pt. Reyes National Seashore in California to visit the Elephant Seals that hang out at Drake’s Beach.

Monday’s Blog-A-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me” : My love of the outdoors (plus a desire to escape from sharing a bedroom with Marshall) led me to move into my backyard the summer between second and third grade. It was perfect except for the tombstones…

A Choice: Graduate or Go to Jail… The MisAdventure Series

I wasn’t expecting a tour of Placerville’s City Hall and the police parking lot on my day of graduation from high school. But as they say, “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray…”

As you read this, I am out on the road doing some last minute route checks for my thousand mile backpack trek. So, I am effectively off the net until I put up my first post from the trail in a week or so. See you then! –Curt

 

My graduation from high school almost didn’t happen. The student strike I had organized wasn’t the issue. It was good practice for my future at UC Berkeley. Nor was it my grades. While mine had dropped somewhat when I simultaneously rediscovered girls, developed an aversion to algebraic equations and became allergic to chemistry labs, I was still floating along somewhere in the top ten percent of the class.

My problem was with the law, or, in this case, Mike De Natly, the Placerville Chief of Police. I had my run in with him on the very day I was to graduate. Of course, it was a goof off day. All the tests were over, yearbooks signed, and caps and gowns fitted. There really wasn’t much to do except revel in the fact that we were through and to say goodbye to friends. Lunchtime meant a final cruise of Placerville’s Main Street to check out girls, to see and be seen.

What happened was out of character for me. I normally keep my comments on other peoples’ driving habits to myself and car-mates. The horn is for really bad infractions and, on very rare occasions, a single digit comment is appropriate. I would never stick my head out the window and yell at someone. That can get you shot.

But we were hot stuff on graduation day. When a blue car decided to stop in the middle of Placerville’s crowded, narrow downtown street right in front of us, it irritated me. When the driver nonchalantly got out to have a conversation with the driver of the car in front of him, it pushed me over the edge. Out went my head as we edged around the two cars and I had an attack of uncontrollable Y chromosome aggression.

“You SOB,” I yelled, “get your car out of the way!”

So what if I didn’t recognize the Chief of Police out of uniform in an unmarked car. So what if he had stopped to offer help to a guy who had managed to stall his car on Placerville’s busy main street. So what if I had suggested he had canine parentage in a voice that half of Placerville heard. It was an innocent mistake.

“That was Mike De Natly you just cussed out,” our driver managed to stutter with mixed parts of fear and awe.

As a teenager, I had pulled some fairly dumb stunts. Teenagers have a responsibility to push the envelope. It’s the rather awkward method evolution has provided for growing up and developing unique personalities. Mistakes are bound to happen and it’s okay. But I was carrying my responsibility too far; I had gone beyond dumb and plunged into really stupid.

How dumb do you have to be to cuss out the police of chief of a town that is known as Hangtown?

A hundred years earlier, I might have found myself next to this guy. He was hanging there in 1961 and is still hanging there today.! Would-be hoodlums beware!

“Keep driving,” I uttered with all the hope of the irrevocably damned, “maybe he is too busy and will ignore us.”

Sure, like maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow. The poor stalled guy could still be sitting in the middle of Placerville for all of the attention the police chief paid to him after my little admonition. De Natly jumped in his car, slapped his flashing light on his roof, hit his siren and sped after us. Not that he needed to speed fast or far. We were creeping up Main Street in sheer terror about one block away. I am sure my car-mates were wishing fervently that one Curtis Mekemson hadn’t gotten out of bed that morning, had never made their acquaintance, and was, at that very moment, facing a group of starving cannibals in some far-off jungle.

We pulled over with De Natly literally parked on our rear bumper and resigned ourselves to the firing squad. Luckily, for my friends, the Chief had no interest in them. He appeared at my window red-faced and shouting about five inches away. Under the best of circumstances, he was known for having a temper and these were not the best of circumstances.

“Get out of that car,” he yelled. “Get out right now!”

I moved fast. This was not the time for bravery and stubbornness. It was a time to be humble— it was groveling time. And I groveled with the best. I blathered out apologies and managed to work “sir” into every sentence, several times. I trotted out my friendship with his stepson, I threw in the City Treasurer who was a mentor, and I even brought in Father Baskin, the Episcopal minister, as a character reference.

“Get in my car,” he ordered. My groveling seemed to be having minimal impact. At least he hadn’t handcuffed me.

We drove up to City Hall and I had visions of being booked and thrown into a cell with some big hulking giant who either didn’t like young men or liked them too much. I thought of having to call my parents and explain how their son had become a common criminal. But De Natly had an even more diabolical plan in mind. We slowly made a turn through the police parking lot to give me a sense of my future fate and then, to my surprise, hopped on Highway 50 to Canal Street and drove up to the high school. I was going to have to explain my actions to the Principal. My chances of graduating that night slipped another notch. I doubted that the Principal would have much of a sense of humor about one of his students cussing out the Chief of Police. But explaining my inexplicable actions to the Principal would have been mercy in comparison to what happened.

It was a beautiful late spring day, this last day of school, and it seemed like half of the student body and a significant portion of teachers were enjoying their lunches on the expansive lawn in front of the school. De Natly pulled up to the sidewalk beside the lawn and ordered me out. The Chief of Police arriving with me in tow was enough to capture the attention of several students sitting close by. Then he made sure that everyone was aware of our presence.

“Do you want to spend the night in jail or graduate, Curtis?” he asked in a voice that was easily equivalent in volume to the one that I had used in suggesting he move his car. Conversation on the lawn came to a dead halt. Every ear in the place honed in on us with the intensity that a cat reserves for a potential mouse dinner. And I was the mouse. This was a Kodak moment, not to be missed. My answer was easy: Of course, I wanted to graduate, SIR. And so it went, De Natly barking questions with the voice of an army sergeant and me responding as the lowest of recruits. Finally, after a few minutes that felt like eternity, the Chief got in his car and drove away. I was left to deal with the not so gentle humor of the students and faculty plus a Principal who wasn’t quite sure whether he should take over where De Natly left off or laugh at my predicament. At least he had the grace to wait until I left his office before he chose the latter. I could hear his laughter echoing down the empty hallways. And yes, I was allowed to graduate that night.

This concludes my MisAdventure series for now. On Sunday, I start my 1,000-mile backpack trip and in a week or so, my posts from the trail should start arriving. Please join me as I make my way south following the Pacific Crest Trail.  It will be an adventure!

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Held at Gun Point… Training for Berkeley in the 60s

The man rested his rifle on the hood of my 56 Chevy. His message was clear. I wasn’t going anywhere

My summers between college were spent working for American Laundry driving a laundry truck between Placerville and Lake Tahoe. In addition to having one of the country’s most scenic routes to travel over each day, the job paid for my college education.

At the beginning of my summer between Sierra and Berkeley, Roger Douvers, the owner of the business, asked if I wouldn’t like to move up to the Lake and work for his son-in-law, John Cefalu. John had taken over a laundry that Douvers had owned, sold and then reclaimed because of back payments.

As an incentive, Roger threw in free rent in an old trailer next to the laundry.

I was happily sleeping in my trailer one morning when the laundry trucks roared to life.  I jumped out of bed. Over sleeping was no excuse for being late. I looked accusingly at my alarm clock. It said 6 AM, an hour before we normally went to work. My watch concurred.

More than a little confused, I looked out my window. An armed man stood in front of my door while other men with rifles were posted around the laundry.

Not having a phone, there was no way to contact Cefalu or Douvers. I decided it was time to vacate the premises.

I threw on my clothes, sidestepped the gunman and jumped into my car. The guard immediately repositioned himself as a hood ornament and looked threatening. Guys with guns can do that.

“Don’t be worried, Curt,” a familiar voice told me.

“Right,” I thought as I checked out the tough looking guy. I turned my head and spotted Woody, our lead driver. “What in the hell is going on?” I demanded.

“We’ve taken over the laundry,” Woody replied casually.

The next question followed naturally.  Who in the heck constituted ‘we?’ Woody had an answer for that, too.

“I work for the people who Douvers screwed when he took the laundry back,” he told me. “We’re here legally and these armed men are professional security guards to protect our interests.” Apparently Woody had been quietly arranging a coup while taking Roger’s money.

“I am leaving now,” I informed Woody.

“I don’t think so,” Woody replied. “Relax, it will all be over in a few hours and you can go to work for us.”

I was beginning to feel like I had been caught up in a Grade B movie.

“Woody, you are not going to shoot me,” I said with a lot more confidence than I felt. “Tell the man to get out of my way.” I was irritated to the point of irrationality. I turned on the car and started rolling forward. At the last possible moment, when it was clear that I intended to keep going, Woody motioned for his man to move. I was glad they couldn’t hear my sigh of relief.

Once away from the laundry, I shoved the gas pedal down and made a dash for Cefalu’s. My trip was over in a flash but it was not nearly as quick as the trip back. I knocked on the door of the dark house and was surprised to find Roger open it in his pajamas. He’d come up from Placerville the night before.

“What’s wrong Curt,” he said sounding a little alarmed. Obviously I wouldn’t show up at 6:30 A.M. to wish him a good morning.

“Your laundry has been taken over by armed men,” I blurted out and then quickly filled in the details. Roger responded by saying some very unpleasant things. He grabbed his jacket, yelled for his daughter to call the sheriff, and told me to jump in his truck.

There are three red lights between where Cefalu lived and the laundry. We managed to run all three. Our truck screeched to a halt in front of the office and Roger jumped out with me close behind.

“Fine,” I thought to myself. “I just escaped from this place and here I am back providing muscle back up for an angry man who is probably going to pop someone in the nose and get us both shot.”

Fortunately there were a lot of words before any action and the Sheriff’s deputy showed up with siren blasting. It would all be settled in court. I was still in one piece. My experience at facing armed men would make a good story.

And, unknown to me at the time, it would help prepare me for being a student at Berkeley.

Next blog: The strange world of Berkeley in 1963.

Graduate or Go to Jail… I Have a Choice

I organized a protest my senior year. It was probably the first time El Dorado Union High School students in Placerville ever went on strike. (It may have been the last.) As I recall we skipped class and presented a petition to the Principal. Some our more rowdy classmates added an exclamation point by lighting a trashcan on fire.

As a 60’s issue, it wasn’t a biggie. The Administration had axed our Senior Ditch Day; we wanted it back. Practicing for my future at Berkeley wasn’t what almost got me thrown in jail, however.

My problem was with the LAW, or, in this case, Mike Denatly, the Placerville Chief of Police. I had my run in with him on the very day I was to graduate.

It was a goof off day. All the tests were over, yearbooks signed, and caps and gowns fitted. There really wasn’t much to do except celebrate and say goodbye to friends. Lunchtime meant a final cruise of Placerville’s Main Street to check out girls, to see and be seen.

What happened was out of character for me.

I normally keep my comments on other peoples’ driving habits inside the car. The horn is for really bad infractions and, on very rare occasions, a single digit comment is appropriate.

I would never stick my head out the window and yell at someone. That can get you shot.

But heh, it was graduation day. When a blue car stopped in the middle of Placerville’s crowded downtown street in front of us, it irritated me. When the driver got out to have a leisurely chat with the driver of the car in front of him, it pushed me over the edge. Out went my head as we edged around the two cars and I had an attack of uncontrollable Y chromosome aggression.

“You SOB,” I yelled,  “get your car out of the way.”

So what if I didn’t recognize the Chief of Police out of uniform in an unmarked car. So what if he had stopped to offer help to a guy who had managed to stall his car on Placerville’s busy main street. So what if I had suggested he had canine parentage in a voice that half of Placerville heard. It was an innocent mistake.

“That was Mike Denatly you just cussed out,” our driver managed to stutter with mixed parts of fear and awe.

As a teenager, I pulled some fairly dumb stunts. Most of us do. Young people have a responsibility to push the envelope. It is the rather awkward method evolution has provided for growing up and developing unique personalities. Mistakes are bound to happen. But I was carrying my responsibility too far; I had gone beyond dumb and plunged into really stupid.

“Keep driving,” I uttered with all the hope of the irrevocably damned, “maybe he is too busy and will ignore us.”

Sure, like maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow. The poor stalled guy could still be sitting in the middle of Placerville for all of the attention the police chief paid to him after my little admonition. Denatly jumped in his car, slapped his flashing light on his roof, hit his siren and sped after us. Not that he needed to speed fast or far. We were creeping up Main Street in sheer terror about one block away.

I am sure my car-mates were wishing fervently that one Curtis Mekemson hadn’t gotten out of bed that morning, had never made their acquaintance, and was, at that very moment, facing a group of starving cannibals in a far off jungle.

We pulled over with Denatly literally parked on our rear bumper and resigned ourselves to the firing squad. Luckily, for my friends, the Chief had no interest in them. He appeared at my window red-faced and shouting about five inches away. Under the best of circumstances he was known for having a temper and these were not the best of circumstances.

“Get out of that car,” he yelled. “Get out right now!”

I moved fast. This was not the time for bravery and stubbornness. It was a time to be humble… it was grovel time. And I groveled with the best. I blathered out apologies and managed to work “sir” into every sentence, several times. I trotted out my friendship with his stepson Brian Morris, I threw in the City Treasurer who was a mentor and I even brought in Father Baskin, the Episcopal minister, as a character reference.

“Get in my car,” he ordered. My groveling seemed to be having minimal impact. At least he hadn’t handcuffed me.

We drove up to City Hall and I had visions of being booked and thrown into a cell with some big hulking giant who either didn’t like young men or liked them too much. I thought of having to call my parents and explain how their son had become a common criminal.

But Denatly had even more diabolical plans in mind. We slowly made a turn through the jail parking lot to give me a sense of my future and then, to my surprise, hopped on Highway 50 to Canal Street and drove up to the high school.

I was going to have to explain my actions to the Principal. My chances of graduating that night slipped another notch. I doubted that the Principal would have much sense of humor about one of his students cussing out the Chief of Police. But explaining my inexplicable actions to the Principal would have been mercy in comparison to what happened.

It was a beautiful late spring day, this last day of school, and it seemed like half of the student body and a significant portion of teachers were enjoying their lunches on the expansive lawn in front of the school. Denatly pulled up to the sidewalk beside the lawn and ordered me out.

The Chief of Police arriving with me in tow was enough to capture the attention of several students sitting close by. Then he made sure that everyone was aware of our presence.

“Do you want to spend the night in jail or graduate, Curtis?” he asked in a voice that was easily equivalent in volume to the one that I had used in suggesting he move his car.

Conversation on the lawn came to a dead halt. Every ear in the place honed in on us with the intensity that a cat reserves for a potential mouse dinner. And I was the mouse. This was a Kodak moment, not to be missed.

My answer was easy: of course I wanted to graduate, SIR. And so it went; Denatly barking questions with the voice of a marine sergeant and me responding as the lowest of privates. Finally, after a few minutes that felt like eternity, the Chief got in his car and drove away.

I was left to deal with the not so gentle humor of the students and faculty plus a Vice Principal who wasn’t quite sure whether he should take over where Denatly left off or laugh at my predicament. At least he had the grace to wait until I left his office before he chose the latter. I could hear his laughter echoing down the empty hallways.

And yes, I was allowed to graduate that night.

This blog is part of a series in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up: Love, Lust and Like

A Penguin’s Guide to Long Distance Running

I am not a jock. It isn’t so much physical as mental. You have to care to be good at sports and I find other things more challenging.

Part of this evolved from a lack of enthusiasm for sports on the home front. There was little vicarious parental drive to see me excel on the playing field.

Being as blind as a bat didn’t help much either. Like most young people, I was not excited about wearing glasses. When Mrs. Wells, the school nurse, came to class with her eye charts, I would memorize the lines and then breeze through the test. As for class work, I sat close to the black board and squinted a lot.

While I got away with this in the classroom, it became a serious hazard on the Little League field.

I remember going out for the team in Diamond Springs. All of my friends played. Social pressure suggested it was the thing to do. Nervously, I showed up on opening day and faced the usual chaos of parents signing up their stars, balls flying everywhere, coaches yelling, and kids running in a dozen different directions.

“Okay, Curtis,” the Coach instructed, “let’s see how you handle this fly.”

Crack! I heard him hit the ball. Fine, except where was it? The ball had disappeared. Conk. It magically reappeared out of nowhere, bounced off my glove and hit me on the head.

“What’s the matter? Can’t you see?” the Coach yelled helpfully. “Let’s try it again.”

My Little League Career was short-lived. I went back to carrying out my inventory of the number of skunks that lived in the Woods.

This didn’t mean I was hopeless at sports. In the seventh grade I finally obtained glasses and discovered the miracle of vision; trees had leaves, billboards were pushing drugs and the kid waving at me across the street was flipping me off. I could even see baseballs. It was time to become a sports hero.

It says something about your future in sports when your career peaks in the eighth grade. Thanks to Mrs. Young kicking me out of the first grade I was slightly older than my classmate and, thanks to genetics, slightly bigger.

More importantly, I had mastered the art of leadership: make noise, appear confident and charge the enemy.

As a result I became quarterback and captain of the football team, center and captain of the basketball team and pitcher and captain of the softball team.

Unfortunately, such glory was not transferred to El Dorado Union High School in Placerville. I blew it. Any red-blooded American male knows that you have to go out for football to become a high school sports hero.

There’s some glory in basketball and a little in baseball, but other sports are pretty much on the level of “Oh I didn’t know you did that.” What did I do? I went out for the cross-country team. Now if you are really, really good at cross-country, like best in the state, you might get an occasional story in the school paper.

But say you are the quarterback of the football team and you throw the winning pass in the annual game against your major out-of-town rivals. You are immortalized. You get the front page of the school paper and major coverage on the sports page of the community paper. As for the babes, they come out of the woodwork.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the best runner in the state, or in the community, or in the school, or the freshman class for that matter. In fact, I am not really built for running. My friends sometimes describe me as penguin-like. I have the upper body of a six-foot-six basketball player and the lower body of a five-foot-five VW bug racer.

It was only excessive stubbornness that usually found me somewhere near the middle of the pack in my cross-country races. It certainly wasn’t a love of running. There was to be no glory in the sport for me, and certainly no babes. But a lot of character building took place. Great.

By my sophomore year I decided I would have more fun playing football, but it was too late. I didn’t eat, dream and sleep football. I lacked the necessary motivation to smash my way to the top. I would come to practice after a long day of work in the fruit orchards where I had put in nine hours of hard, physical labor.

The first thing I did was don miscellaneous body pads that were still slimy with yesterday’s sweat and smelled like week-old dead fish. By then the coach would be yelling at us to hurry up and get out of the locker room and on to the field.

I decided there must be a high correlation between football practice and boot camp including push ups, wind sprints, humiliation and more push-ups, everything it takes to turn a wild bunch of undisciplined young men into an organized group of would-be heroes eager to go out and win one for the Gipper.

The hard work was okay, even fun, but I was highly allergic to being yelled at. I still am. My rapidly waning enthusiasm took a sky dive leap when the coach decided my position would be second-string left guard.

Now don’t get me wrong, guards and tackles are critically important to the success of a team and I confess that smashing into opponents and sacking the quarterback resembled fun. Where else could I practice physically aggressive behavior and be applauded? Even second-string made sense. The other kids had played freshman football and earned their places.

But I lacked the psychological orientation for being second string and had something else in mind in terms of position. I envisioned myself charging down the sidelines with the people in the stands on their feet cheering wildly.

I dutifully put in my time, finished out the year and decided to forgo a career in sports. I am glad I played. I gained new friends and new experiences, both valuable. But I can’t say I learned anything of great significance. What I recall from the season was there was little ‘thrill of victory’ and lots of ‘agony of defeat.’ We were not a team destined for glory.