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