“Jim… You There?”

Santa Claus Lane, Carpenteria, CA

THE Worlds We Loved Change

One of the joys found in creating a new novel is to bring to life places that once stood along the side of the road, or a neighborhood as we recalled it, or a gathering place that has stood with little change over decades, and then offer to the reader a chance to be in that place as if they can experience what I the writer did.

But the saying, “You can never really go home,” holds true. Time changes the places even if they stand the test of time. We can go there, linger there, and reminisce of friends past, events gone, and moments that changed us; at that very spot, but places change.

Or is it each of us? As time marches on the facades of buildings can become remodeled just as the human soul too can become. Landmarks testifying of our history with them may stand in the same place but dressed up a bit they have become someone else’s experience since we last walked down the steps, the drive, the sidewalk.

Experience and weathering the years means many things. When change inevitably comes we are aging with it. We make decisions that change the appearance of things around us, and though old friends may recognize us many decades later, we must pull on the doors of time — like portals through mortality — and go back with them to a place where we mutually experienced events that created a bond of friendship, brotherhood, or love.

Santa Claus Lane in Carpenteria, California stood forever it seemed to me, along the 101 Freeway just beyond Carpenteria proper and before Santa Barbara on the coast. It was a wonderful place, making memories for millions of coastal travelers over a lifetime.

The land has been converted to condominiums now. To people who never stopped there, or who are too young to have visited when it was the village of the “Famous Date Shake” and Christmas memorabilia — it means nothing. To the rest of us, it is a memory with laughter, smiles, and the innocence that only Christmas all year-round brings.

Writing is a way to bring things to life, relive them; the loves, emotions, dangers, happiness, innocence, and even calamities that really do happen to us all in life. It is a way to experience with well-developed characters a commonality that is simply this:

Life is filled with uncertainty except one–things, people, and places change. We can want everything to be frozen in time. We want our children to remain under our protective care and go on enjoying the sweetness with their childhood never-ending; the same sentiment that lights and magic of the Christmas holiday invariably invites into our hearts and minds.

But sometimes Santa Claus Lane will become a place that we no longer can drive by, stop for a milkshake, and smile as we recall the girl we once held hands with while on a date there.

And… sometimes the town store we loved remains. We can touch the building as a smile crosses our face. We see with aged eyes where we leaned our Schwinn bicycle with the banana seat up against the wall, and then sit on the stoop where we took breaks at the place Mr. Fransen gave us a chance to prove ourselves on our first job.

I always drive by the old house, the store, the schools, and the church building when I revisit my hometown of Simi Valley, CA — but I can never really go back.

My world has changed. I am not the person you knew at 18, or 25, or 40, or 55… The world of “Jim” has been added to and repaired where needed. Each person I loved — alive and dead — have their own worlds of life and experiences tucked away in photos and a book of life with ten thousand pages that I have not been a part of.

But, then… once in a while — the phone rings, an email arrives, or a text shows up. I smile, and I am once again where I long to be, in a world before the changes, as I see the words:

“Jim, you there?”

VENTURA HIGHWAY IN THE SUNSHINE

An experience I had along the highway haunts me now, but first…the sunshine.
 
“Ventura Highway in the sunshine… You’re gonna go, I know…” the song from 1970 begins. Even if the colorful lyrics of “alligator lizards in the air” weren’t anything but a drugged stupor the writer must have been in, listening to it seems fitting now.
 
It is called the “101 ” by locals and was unavoidable to all of us back then… After a lifetime goes by, hundreds of millions of other lives and their stories have intersected ours along the 101’s traffic lanes.

Growing up in a California in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s was truly in a Golden State of opportunity. Friends, beach days, school days, lazy summer days. First jobs like the one in LA taking Ventura Highway to the 405 to Wilshire to the Federal Building, and later the adult thing — jobs won and lost all along the 101.

Walking down the driveway and taking Ventura Highway to the airport where I said goodbye to family and friends for 2 years to give service in South America, just as brothers before me did to Southeast Asia during the hot days of Vietnam. Married and living our first years within miles of the famed Pacific coastal road.

Training within eyesight of the 101 under stress to become a COP at the Ventura Police and Sheriff’s Academy. Actually firing our weapons into the bunkers with Ventura Highway behind it a 1/2 mile away. The smells of agriculture wafting in the coastal breeze; oranges, lemons, and in Camarillo the scent of the ever-present celery filled our lungs. Life was golden and good.

And there is one memory now that haunts me. Wish I knew the ending…

Beautiful Carpenteria, Ca. There is a McDonalds which backs on to the 101 — Ventura Highway, and it was the end of a hard day in the building trades. Now a family man, and trying to rescue my business in a declining economy, I was taking any job I could get, and this was 90 miles from home. I just wanted to get back, see my little kids, and fuel my body and truck. I walked past the disheveled young man with pleading eyes sitting under the juniper bushes in the parking lot — trying to tell myself I couldn’t feed or help the world.

But — I had promised myself when a missionary with a breaking heart who could do nothing to feed the starving people by the many 1000’s who I saw in Peru — always with hands stretched towards the Gringos — that when I got home I’d never pass by a stretched out hand again.

I turned around and went to kneel down next to the boy, maybe 20 years old, and said, “Hungry? Come on. Let’s get something to eat.” He got up from his nightmare and followed me inside.

As he hesitantly ordered, my heart started to break, just like it had every day back in the 1970’s Peruvian government socialist experiment where life was cheap, food was scarce, and opportunities for the people more so.

I wondered how his life could come to this when so much opportunity was everywhere to be had compared to what I had witnessed once upon a time in countries to the south of us.

My memory is sketchy. I recall getting him a room for the night and after listening to his story about how he had burned his bridge with family and friends up Ventura Hwy in the Bay area saying, “I’ve hurt too many people. I can’t go home,” I left to go to my home, with a prayer in my heart that he’d find his way back. All the way home I fought my conscience wanting to turn around and do more for someone’s prodigal son.

What haunts me is that I don’t know what happened. I don’t know the end to that story from a 1993 day on Ventura Hwy.

But the time came when my own children would grow up, become confused, and I know this: I thank God for those who reached out when I didn’t know if they were alive and in spite of self-inflicted troubles saw them as valuable, and assured them that they could go home. Now my son lives and works for a brother Rex Pratt just off of Ventura Hwy, and he is a good man with compassion–working at becoming better each day.

This song reminds me 50 years after it was first recorded, how life may revolve around the heartbeat of certain highways that lead away from and towards home — day after day, month after month, and after years of those, an entire life.

I still wonder — did the boy from the juniper bush in Carpenteria, there at the McDonalds, ever take Ventura Hwy north and find himself safe at home again?

Listen to one of the great songs from our youth:

VENTURA HIGHWAY by America

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnV7dTXlXxs&list=RDtRwYQgk05DY&index=25