August 14, 1970“So, this Mr. Benedetti, what did he say?” Donna looked up, waiting for Nick’s answer.
“Turns out he knows a guy at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He’s working with Coach McWilliams, setting up a campus visit for me.”
“That’s great, Nick! When do you go?”
“Sometime in September or October. If they offer a scholarship, I need to sign a Letter of Intent in early November. I’d start classes there in August of ’71, about a year from now. It’s still a big if.”
Nick and Donna relaxed on the couch in Morgan’s apartment while Morgan and her boyfriend Zeke were busy in the kitchen putting the final touches on dinner. The apartment was an odd configuration resulting from the conversion of an old two-story Victorian. The front door opened into a living room with high ceilings and bright white walls. The living room gave way to the bedroom, what had once been the dining room of the old mansion. Pocket doors could be closed to provide privacy, but were seldom used. A door at the back of the bedroom led to a large kitchen, big enough for a dining table and six chairs, in addition to the sink and the appliances. In one corner of the room, near the door to the bedroom, a full bath had been added. Morgan referred to floorplan as the Mystery House, but somehow it worked. The landlords had maintained the apartment well and furnished it with sturdy but inexpensive pieces.
Morgan called from the kitchen to tell them dinner was ready. The table was set with a large platter of spaghetti and meatballs, green salad, crusty French bread, and a basket-covered bottle of Chianti. The four friends sat down to the sumptuous feast.
Zeke made sure wine glasses were full and then raised his own. “Here’s to Donna, leaving tomorrow for UCLA. Donna, we wish you all the best. And the next time we do this, let it be a toast to Doctor Donna Foxworth.” They touched glasses, drank their wine, and filled their plates.
The toast hit Nick like a punch to the heart. Donna was leaving in the morning, her parents driving her to Los Angeles to check into her dorm. This would be their last night together. Nick tried to put it out of his mind and join the spirited conversation.
After dinner, Morgan and Zeke insisted on doing the dishes. Nick and Donna returned to the couch in the front room. The latest issue of Playboy magazine lay on the coffee table. Nick picked it up and opened the centerfold.
“Whoa! That’s an interesting pose.”
Donna laughed. “You guys like that stuff, don’t you.”
“Nah. Too much makeup.” Nick put on a frown.
“Oh, as if you’re looking at her face.”
“Hey, Donna, you could do this…be a Playboy model.”
“Ha! No way. I’m barely a C-cup. These girls are all D’s. Maybe double-D.”
“Yeah, but look at this feature. ‘Girls of the Southeast Conference.’ College girls. Maybe they’ll do ‘Girls of the Pacific Coast Conference.’ You could represent UCLA.”
“Very funny. For one thing, my father would kill me…”
Morgan and Zeke emerged from the kitchen, Morgan carrying her purse and a light jacket.
“Okay, lovebirds. Zeke and I are meeting some friends for drinks and a movie. We’ll be gone for two or three hours. Make yourselves at home, if you know what I mean.” She laughed, but then her voice changed. “Donna, give me hug, sweet girl.”
Donna jumped up to hug her friend. They held each other close. “Don’t cry, Morgan. I’ll be home for Thanksgiving. And I’ll call you. Okay? Soon as I get settled.”
Morgan broke away, wiped her eyes, and headed out the front door with Zeke. “Lock up when you leave, sweetie.” They hurried down the steps. “And remember to change the sheets.” Morgan’s laughter faded as she headed toward Zeke’s car at the curb.
“Well that was subtle.” Nick chuckled as he closed the front door.
“Yeah…well…we’ve got a couple of hours, lover. Let’s make ’em count.” Donna turned and headed for the bedroom.
Nick shook his head in wonder. God, what a girl! How am I gonna live without her?
It happened at the worst conceivable moment. They heard a commotion at the front door—keys jingling, doorknob rattling, tires screeching as a car tore away from the curb. Morgan burst into the living room. She threw her purse on the couch, kicked off her shoes, and ran for the bedroom where she dove onto the bed. Nick and Donna barely had time to separate. Morgan sobbed hysterically as Donna gathered her in her arms.
“That Zeke is such an asshole. I hate him! I hate him, Donna. I never want to see him again. He’s such an asshole…” Morgan went on, tears and rage uncontrolled. Her breath reeked of alcohol. Drinks with friends had not gone well.
Nick retrieved his clothes from the foot of the bed and tried to sneak away to the bathroom.
“Oooo, nice butt, Nickie!” Morgan shouted after him, giggled for a moment, then dissolved in tears again.
Nick dressed while Donna did her best to comfort Morgan. He went into the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. It might be a long night. A while later, Donna and Morgan joined him around the kitchen table. Morgan was in the midst of describing Zeke’s asshole-ness—something about flirting in public with another girl—when they heard a loud knock at the front door. Nick went to answer. It was Zeke in a state of emotional meltdown.
“Nick, geez, I’ve gotta talk to Morgan. Let me in, man.”
“Not a good idea, Zeke. She doesn’t want to see you right now.”
“Come on, man. I’ve got to talk to her…to apologize.” He started through the door.
Nick placed his hand on Zeke’s chest and held him in the doorway. “Zeke, I’m telling you, this is not a good time. You need to leave.”
Zeke looked past Nick and shouted into the apartment. “Morgan! Morgan, I’m sorry, baby. I messed up, I know it. I’m sorry—”
Morgan shouted from the kitchen. “Go away Zeke! Get outta here. I never wanna see you again.”
“I love you, Morgan! I love you, baby. I swear to God, I’m sorry. Morgan!”
Nick saw a streak of light and color as Morgan rushed past him and into Zeke’s arms, the two of them sobbing and apologizing at once. Their embrace morphed into a passionate make-out session. Nick and Donna looked at each other and shrugged. They gathered their things and left quietly, shutting the door behind them.
Nick held the car door open for Donna. “Oooopps.”
“What?” Donna looked up as she entered the vehicle.
“We didn’t change the sheets.”
It felt good to share a laugh.
Nick was quiet as he drove across town, taking Donna home. Maybe it had been a good thing, all the drama with Morgan and Zeke. No time for tears and regrets. Nick tried to count the days until Thanksgiving when Donna would be home. He gave up, sure of only one thing: it was a hell of a long time.
August 24, 1970All through the Steffan Manor neighborhood, sidewalks were set six feet inside the curb. Along the six-foot wide curb strip, the City had planted sycamore trees, now nearly thirty years old. The roots of the mature trees lifted and broke the sidewalks and the curbs, creating an ongoing task for the Street Department. The broken concrete had to be taken out with a jackhammer, the offending roots cut back, and new sections of concrete poured.
The work began promptly at eight, heading up the Laurel Street hill from the intersection with Buss Street. A member of the crew with a fifty-pound jackhammer began to break the old concrete into chunks. As he moved along the walk, followed by the large compressor mounted on a trailer at curbside, men would jump in to take the chunks and toss them onto the street where a front-loader would scoop up the debris and drop it into a dump truck.
After the old concrete was cleared away, men with axes and a chainsaw would go to work on the protruding tree roots, and when they were finished, another crew would come with two-by-fours and metal stakes to frame for new curb and sidewalk. Later in the day, a cement truck would show up to pour concrete into the frames, followed by the finishers with their rakes, trowels, and brooms.
This little army made its way up Laurel Street, from tree to tree, section to section, each crew performing its given task. Nick’s job: lift the chunks of concrete and toss them to the street, then take an axe to the tree roots. It was backbreaking work, and it felt good.
The noon whistle sounded on the shipyard five miles to the west. The men found a shady spot on the curb strip and opened their lunch pails. Nick was finishing his lunch, chatting with his mates, when their crew leader, Ed Martin, approached.
“Hey, Joe College, I hear you want to try your hand with the jackhammer.” Ed gave him a skeptical grin.
“Yeah, Ed. Can you check me out, show me what to do?”
“Sure, kid. Come with me.”
Nick closed his lunch pail and followed Martin up the street. The compressor, quiet for the moment, waited at the curb, the jackhammer leaned against a sycamore. Ed Martin lifted the tool and carried it like a toy to a cracked section of sidewalk.
“Okay, this lever on the right handle activates the bit. Just plant the bit where you want it and let the tool do the work. Give it your weight, but don’t try to force it. When you lift it, bend your knees like this, hold the hammer close to your thighs, lift with your legs. If you try horsing it around with your arms, you’ll ruin your back. Just take your time, let the tool do the work. And for God’s sake keep your toes out of the way. Got it?”
“Got it. Thanks, Ed.” Seems easy enough. I’m twenty years-old, six two, a hundred and eighty pounds, a damn fine athlete. Hell, I can handle a jackhammer.
Ed gave Nick a pair of overshoes with steel toes to slip over his boots, then handed him a pair of clear safety goggles. Class was over, time to go back to work. Ed started the engine on the compressor that fed the thick orange hose connected to the jackhammer. Nick set the bit firmly on the damaged sidewalk and squeezed the lever. The noise, the pounding, the shaking racked his body and he nearly lost his balance. He reset the bit, squeezed the lever again. Same result. Nick looked up to see a half-dozen guys watching, smiling, laughing as he fought the machine. He’d show them.
Go ahead and laugh, assholes. You’ll never see me quit.
By mid-afternoon, Nick had broken up the last section of sidewalk on Laurel Street and secured the jackhammer on the truck that pulled the compressor. Ed Martin clapped a hand on Nick’s shoulder.
“Good work, kid. Come with me. We got one more quick job to do.”
They engaged in small-talk as they drove across town, heading toward South Vallejo. It was quiet for moment and Nick was curious about the quick job.
“Where are we going, Ed?”
“To Mike Bouchka’s place. We have some asphalt left over from a job and we’re gonna fix his driveway.”
“Is Gus okay with this?” Nick looked out the window at Wilson Park as they headed southwest.
“Well…let’s just say Joe Jacoby did the estimating and Gus signed the order.” Ed laughed and turned into a residential neighborhood just off Sonoma Boulevard. Several City trucks were parked up the street near a neat two-story house. “This is Mike’s place, Nick. I need you to break up the old asphalt with the jackhammer. We’ve got a different bit to use. I’ll help you change it.”
The driveway in front of Mike’s home was twenty feet long and about the same width. Half of the driveway, connecting to the street, was paved in asphalt. The rest, leading into the garage, was concrete. The crew stood by to replace the worn and rutted asphalt. Nick helped Ed change the bit on the jackhammer to flat blade. Ed fired up the compressor, and Nick went to work. He finished in about thirty minutes.
Nick and Ed stowed the jackhammer as the crew cleared away the old pavement, smoothed and tamped the base. A truck pulled forward towing a trailer with a stinking, oil-covered tank. A hose connected to a long wand was unrolled and a black oily substance sprayed over the subsurface. Ed explained that it was a tack coat, intended to bond the new asphalt to the base. With that task completed, a truck backed into position and dumped new asphalt into the prepared space. Men jumped in to spread the material, tossing it expertly with their shovels. Everyone stood back as a guy named Don, an expert with the long-handled aluminum rake, leveled the surface to near-perfection. When Don signaled his satisfaction, a large diesel roller with two steel drums for wheels moved in to finish the job, rolling back and forth over the surface. They all stepped back to admire the work, start to finish in little more than an hour.
While this activity was underway, old Mike stood off to the side. Next to him, a short gray-haired woman with a sweet smile held his left hand. The men addressed her as Dory, or Mrs. Bouchka. As the work finished, she spoke to two men who went into the garage and returned with a case of ice-cold beer. Dory Bouchka invited everyone to enjoy a tall cold one and then went through the crew, clasping hands and saying thank you. Nick smiled as she reached for his hand.
“Oh my,” she said. “You are a young one. Thank you. Thank you so much for this.”
The five o’clock whistle blew on the shipyard. The men finished their beer and headed for home base.
“How do you feel, Nick? Long day, eh?” Ed Martin grinned at him as they cruised along Sonoma Boulevard.
Nick’s thoughts were with old Mike Bouchka and his sweet wife. “What? Oh yeah. I’m gonna sleep well tonight.”
He flexed his aching shoulders and glanced at the older man next to him. Ed hadn’t called him Joe College, or Boots, since they broke for lunch. Maybe he’d accomplished something this day.
August 29, 1970
Nick downshifted as they began the climb out of Jenner, heading north on Highway 1. The V-8 rumbled smoothly, more than up to the challenge of the winding road. The early morning air was cool and they’d left the top up on the old Ford convertible. Now they rolled down the windows to savor the breeze off the Pacific, the pungent mixture of saltwater and kelp.
The road rose and fell and rose again, clinging to the cliffs overlooking the rugged coast. They came to a point where the highway crossed a long flat ridge, and there to the north, Ft. Ross came into view. It was a pretty picture—the rectangular walls of the old stockade surrounding the few remaining buildings, the Russian Orthodox chapel built of redwood standing proudly in the southeast corner. A welcome sight, because it meant they were only a few minutes from their destination.
Nick, Jeff, and Grady were headed for a cove just north of Ft. Ross, a spot where enduring memories had been made. They’d first visited the cove as twelve-year-old’s, camping and fishing with Grady’s parents. That trip had been epic, resulting in a washtub full of fish—black and red snapper, sea trout, cabezon, even a couple of ling cod. They’d been back many times, and though the catch had been adequate, it never came close the level of that first visit. And yet the beauty of the place drew them again and again.
With the fort behind them as they approached from the south, the highway made a graceful curve to embrace the cove. Nick slowed, checked for cars in either direction, then made a quick U-turn to park on the west side of the highway. A wide patch of ground allowed amble room off the southbound lane.
A well-worn path led down the steep cliff to the narrow beach. At the north end of the beach, a fresh-water stream flowed out of a redwood canyon, washing the base of a great rock that sat at the water’s edge. A hike up the canyon was like entering a cathedral, sunlight streaming down through the redwoods, each bend in the stream presenting a view more beautiful than the last.
Once upon a time, the cove had been the sight of a timbering operation. Until the early-sixties, a massive incinerator, looking like a tall, rusted wigwam, sat up on the cliff above the north point. The boys had always known this place as Timber Cove, though it was a mile or two south of the lodge bearing that name.
And here they were again, one more time, a farewell adventure for Jeff who had been drafted and would be leaving soon for basic training. They climbed out of the car and approached the edge of the cliff, looking down on the familiar scene.
“It never changes. Thank God.” Nick loved this cove, his favorite place on the planet.
“Yeah. About the only change was when they tore down the incinerator.” Grady took a deep breath and stretched, happy the two-hour ride from Vallejo was over.
“Let’s get the stuff down to the beach and then get some fishing done, before the wind comes up.” Jeff checked his watch. It was 7:30, a good time to get a line in the water. “We can set up camp later.”
It took a couple of trips to get their gear down to the beach. They dropped everything at the north end, near the creek, a spot that gave some protection from the wind that would come blasting from the northwest in the afternoon. They grabbed their fishing gear and the bait they’d purchased in Bodega Bay and headed for their favorite spot—around the north point away from the beach, a rocky shelf that hung out over the surf. The three friends smiled as they rock-hopped their way, as though heading for the promised land.
The morning bite wasn’t bad—six fish for the large cooler. They took a break for lunch, then set up camp. The nine-by-twelve tent would provide shelter from wind and fog, the two-burner stove more than adequate to heat large cans of Dinty Moore Beef Stew for dinner. Nick made a quick trip up the road to a small grocery to buy ice for the fish and the beer. Then it was time for a hike up the canyon to see what changes time had wrought.
Back in camp, they rested, waiting for the afternoon wind to subside. And then it was back to north point, to that rock shelf over the surf, for the evening bite. They reeled in five more snappers—three red, two black—to toss in the cooler.
Time now to watch the sun set, diving into the Pacific, a magnificent display of yellow and orange. Wood gathered from the beach and the canyon fed a small campfire, the firepit formed by large rocks rolled into place. It was a day to remember. Good fishing, fine August weather, and great company.
“Gentlemen, I have a little surprise for you.” Nick went into his duffle, pulled out a fifth of Wild Turkey, and held it high. “To celebrate our pal Jeffrey, heading off to be a soldier.”
Tin cups were filled, toasts offered, and they settled back to enjoy the campfire, the cold beer, and the smooth sting of good whiskey.
“Jeff, tell me something buddy, why didn’t you enlist…like you planned. Why just accept the draft?” It was growing dark now. Nick could see Jeff’s face, lit by the campfire.
“I don’t know, man. It’s like I couldn’t move, like my feet were in cement. I wanted to do something, anything, to stay out of Vietnam. But I couldn’t do it, couldn’t pull the trigger.”
“Hell, here I am, ready to go, and I can’t get in.” Grady couldn’t contain his frustration.
“Grady, did you see a doc? Did he confirm your heart mummer?” Nick passed the bottle to Jeff.
“Yeah…what bullshit. I’m in better shape ninety percent of the guys going to Vietnam, I guarantee it.” Grady shook his head. “What about you, Nick? Anybody at the draft board been in touch.?”
“Nope. But they know where to find me.”
It was quiet for a while. Nick looked up to the heavens, admiring the Milky Way, always amazed at how many stars were visible out here away from civilization. His thoughts turned to another perfect night spent here at the cove.
“I brought Donna here once. I think we pitched the tent in this same spot.”
Grady and Jeff took in that thought and mulled it over, along with their whiskey.
“Man…you are one lucky guy, Nick.” Jeff smiled and raised his cup.
“Damn, you got that right.” Grady joined the salute.
“Here’s to Donna.” Nick made it unanimous. “And to Jeffrey. Keep your head down and cast a short shadow.”
They downed the whiskey, cooled their throats with ice cold beer, and threw another log on the fire.
September 8, 1970Gus Cordeiro left Nick with these words of advice: “Bring old shoes if you’ve got ’em. The tack coat and the asphalt will ruin your good boots.” Nick would start work with the paving crew on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.
He climbed the stairs to the attic and found his father’s old foot locker. He moved it away from its place against the wall and opened the lid. Nick’s mom had placed a few items of clothing, laundered and carefully folded, in the locker; things that were too good or too precious to throw out—denim work pants, dark blue work shirts, an old gray fedora, and at the bottom of the stack, a battered pair of boots wrapped in old newsprint. Nick lifted the boots from the locker and set them on the floor. The rubber heels were rounded, the neoprene soles smooth with wear. Would they fit? Dad was barely five nine, his shoes at least a size smaller than Nick’s.Nick slipped on the right shoe. Not bad. The wear and tear had softened the leather, made it pliable. This would work. With his mom’s approval, Nick had the old shoes Gus recommended.
September brought Indian Summer to the North Bay, temperatures rising into the eighties and nineties. Nick remembered his back-to-school days at Vallejo High, shopping for Pendleton shirts and crew-neck sweaters, then letting them hang in the closet until Halloween. Now he’d be on the street rather than in a classroom, a different kind of education.
The assignment was a major repair along Tuolumne Street, running north from Tennessee. Wally Grover maneuvered the Cat grader, cutting away the old asphalt, piling it to be loaded and hauled away. Nick and his mates jumped in to remove any loose debris. The foul-smelling oil truck came along to spray the tack coat over the base, followed by a large dump truck that dropped the hot black asphalt in a long low heap. Now the shovel crew, Nick included, began to spread the material over the surface. It was mid-morning, the temperature climbing. Sweat poured from arms and foreheads and the men striped to T-shirts as they worked their way up the street. When the shovel work was done, they stood by while their man Don, the master of the long aluminum rake, smoothed the surface to near perfection. Then came Norm Runyon with the heavy roller, packing the surface to permanence.
Every truck carried a ten-gallon water jug and a supply of paper cups. Staying hydrated was a must. When the twelve o’clock whistle blew, they’d completed the work as far as Illinois Street. The men found shady spots along the walk and opened their lunch pails. Joe Jacoby approached as Nick filled his mouth with turkey on wheat.
“How’s it going, kiddo. Still havin’ fun?”
“Oh yeah, Joe. It’s a blast.”
“Look…” Joe lowered his voice. “I’ve been watching you. Pace yourself, okay? You don’t have anything to prove out here.” He flashed a smile.
“Got it, Joe. Thanks.”
Joe turned to a group nearby. “Hey, did you guys hear the one about largemouth frog?”
The joke was hilarious. Joe soaked up the laughter, then headed out to check progress farther up the street.
Back at work after lunch, they finished a section and stood back for Norm to come with the roller. Nick was busy using his shovel to knock the caked oil and asphalt from the soles of his father’s shoes when he heard voices shouting for Norm’s attention.
“Norm! Hey, Norm!”
Norm was riding in the driver’s seat atop the rear roller, his foot on the accelerator, his right hand manipulating the wishbone steering lever. He peered back over the roller to admire his handiwork. The diesel engine was too loud; he didn’t hear the warnings. He turned his head just in time to raise his right arm in defense. The limb of a curbside tree caught him under the armpit and plucked him neatly off the seat. There he hung while the roller continued, coasting to a stop ten feet away. Nick and two others ran to where Norm dangled from the limb and grabbed his legs, easing him down to the pavement. And then the laughter started; it seemed like it would never stop.
Another Norm Runyon classic.
Late in the day, the crew came to the intersection of Nebraska Street. Nick stood at the curb as Norm rolled the last section of pavement. Mike Bouchka shuffled to Nick’s side and touched his elbow.
“Hey, Mike. How’s it goin’?” Nick was surprised, not sure what to expect.
Mike smiled his lopsided smile. “I knew your old man.”
“VFW Post 104. Both of us members.” Mike formed the words carefully.
“I’ll be darned. I didn’t know that…that you knew each other.”
“We shot pool. He was a good stick.” Mike smiled again. “Liked his beer, too.”
Nick laughed. “Oh, you got that right.”
“Hard workin’ sonofabitch, your old man.”
“Yeah, that too.”
“You’re just like him.” Mike reached with his left hand and squeezed Nick’s forearm. He turned and shuffled away.
Nick stared at the pavement for a while, and then smiled. It was the message he wanted to hear, but from an unexpected source. The five o’clock whistle blew on the shipyard. Time to head for home.