Robin Glen was a backwoods kind of place for those few, fleeting years. Educators were drawn there, executive types, blue collar folks and engineers, a disparate cast of eclectic characters who had found their way to that bucolic end of the world. Probably they shared one common denominator, a memory of pastoral surroundings as a child, or a longing for such origins—like an old farmhouse you came to driving down a country road—and were collectively drawn to Robin Glen as a way to hold onto dreams of a rapidly disappearing part of American life.
Whatever the reasons, we as kids got to grow up surrounded by wild country and with earth beneath our feet. The place was so rural, Robin Glen High School still kept a 4-H club at the backside of the campus. You went around the last building and up a small slope to a collection of covered animal pens. An orange grove bordered that end of the school and the 4-H kids had planted a garden next to the pens. Only to the northwest was it possible to see out past our hills to the greater world beyond. A new freeway had gone in the previous year, slicing a stark line between our secluded enclave and a grid of streets that spread from the other side of the freeway, all the way up to LA, choked with smog and power lines.
On that particular Thursday afternoon, my friends and I had gone up to hide out in the 4-H area after lunch, wanting to place as much space as possible between ourselves and a pep rally taking place in a sunken amphitheater at the center of campus. It was a crisp fall day, football season and our school had a big game the following night. The idea for holding the pep rallies during school hours was to ensure that every student would attend. It was that or sit in study hall and tried to block out the cacophony.
My friends and I had positioned ourselves in such a way that we could smoke a joint without being seen and still take in the spectacle taking place down below us. A thousand students were down in that amphitheater, getting juiced up on speeches and pom-poms.
“Go, Spartans, go,” I said sarcastically.
“Effete intellectual snob,” Chris said of me.
“He’s a nattering nabob of negativism,” Michael added.
“Yep, I’m a nabobby kind of guy, all right.”
“Hey, nabobs are cool,” Eric said with a wry smile.
“Yeah, you know, I’m actually kind of fond of nabobbing.”
I made a gesture and my friends laughed.
“Will you pass that fucking joint,” Chris said to Michael.
I lay back and sang quietly.
“Don’t bogart that joint, my friend.”
Eric joined in with me. I was gazing up at the passing clouds.
“You should write a story about our lives,” Michael said.
“Yeah, all that David Copperfield, family saga kind of crap,” Chris said.
He choked and handed me the joint. I took a hit.
“Yeah, right,” I said. “Never mind all that David Copperfield kind of crap. I especially don’t want to write all that Holden Caulfield kind of crap. You go on like some jackass moron prep school kid for two hundred pages and where in hell do you go from there?”
“Wow, far out,” Eric said. “I get the feeling like Standish is going to kick you out of our lit class if you keep ragging on him about Salinger.”
“Screw Salinger. In fact, screw Standish.”
I got up on one elbow and pretended to be an old geezer.
My friends laughed.
Mr. Standish was our American Lit teacher and an aging relic. He had come out from the Midwest at some point back in the thirties. Wire rimmed spectacles. Gray hair growing out of his nose and ears. Feeble with age but still split rail wiry.
He had given us a choice of three novels to read for the semester and I was more than modestly surprised to find Catcher in the Rye among them. The other choices were Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby. Those I had figured on but rather expected the third choice to be something like The Scarlet Letter. I had lobbied for Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut. Trout Fishing in America by Brautigan would have been all right, too, but no.
By default I had chosen Salinger’s book and never got through it. Like I said, you went on like some jackass moron prep school kid for two hundred pages and who cared? Not me.
“Why don’t you turn on your radio,” I told Michael. “See if we can drown out the court fops down there.”
Michael turned on his little transistor and played with the dial. Spinning Wheel came on.
“Jesus, will you turn that crap off,” I said.
“Try KMET,” Chris said.
Michael did and the Doors came on. When the Music’s Over.
“That’s more like it, brother,” I said. “Turn that sucker up.”
Michael did. Kreiger was just going into his mind warping guitar riff.
“Go Spartans go,” I said again.
“Wow, it’s kind of scary to think there’d actually be an ideal archetype of that pep rally going on somewhere in the universe,” Eric said.
He was referring to Martinez, our philosophy teacher, who had been preaching all this Platonic crap to us over the past semester. Somebody must have filled his head with that elitist, intellectual snobbery in college. He had bought it, hook, line and sinker, and was now trying to stuff it into our heads.
“That is definitely an imperfect copy of something going on down there,” Michael said.
“Fuck the theory of forms,” I said. “It’s a bunch of sophistry.”
I pulled a dog-eared paperback from my back pocket and read the words of Juan Luis Vives, who had encouraged thinking men to enter the workshops and factories. Query artisans. Study nature. Learn from practical knowledge. It was the dawning of true scientific inquiry.
“Oh, here,” I said. “This is one of my favorite passages. Vives refers to ‘Platonic ideas and other monstrosities, which cannot be understood, even by those who invented them’.”
“I love it. Take that, Martinez,” I shouted at the pep rally and lay back down.
Chris was giving me his philosophical look. He was very philosophical looking. Eric was chuckling.
“I mean it,” I said. “I think it’s folly to treat words like mathematical terms when they’re at best arrows pointing us in the direction of truth. They’re not the truth and never will be, any more than a map is equal to the terrain.”
“Right on, brother,” Eric said. “You’re on a roll.”
“Words,” I said with a look back up at the passing clouds. “Used best, they are the hammer and anvil of our dreams.”
“I definitely daydream a lot whenever I’m in Martinez’ philosophy class,” Michael said.
Right on cue, Martinez came out of our second story philosophy class and started down the exterior stairs. Medium height, stout. He had some Mexican blood in him but could just as easily have passed for being Italian. He sure had the airs of a Roman emperor, heading down to his seats at the Coliseum.
“Hail to Caesar,” Chris said.
“Wow, it’s more like hail to Nero,” Eric said.
Martinez was also our head football coach and you could tell he was really milking the drama as he came down the stairs. A thousand kids cheering to him from down in the amphitheater. In his head.
Later that year, they would catch him having an affair with a fellow teacher. Stripped of power, he served a brief penance at home and was reassigned to the junior high school just down the road. They set him up teaching woodshop. The last I heard, he had accidentally cut off his left hand and was forced to retire. He sure had looked like Nero that day, coming down to feed a few Christians to the lions.
The three of us lay there stoned, watching the ersatz Roman spectacle unfold. A goat came over to the side of the pen nearest to us and Michael blew a puff of smoke its way. A pig snorted and came over too. A rooster crowed and flapped its wings.
“Everybody must get stoned,” Michael said.
“Well, I would not feel so all alone,” I sang.
“Everybody must get stoned…” we sang in unison.
“Hey, will you pass that fucking joint,” Michael said to Chris this time.
I laughed but suddenly remembered the world. It was out there, just past the freeway.
I had never really given it much thought at the time but we lived in a fairly affluent area and everything about our young lives was pampered, right down to our brand new high school. Just the fact that we were surrounded by russet colored hills and miles of orange and avocado groves said it all.
A sweet, longing pain filled me then. An awareness of our younger years. The early sixties and prosperity. A simple world, before the cultural revolution had torn everything apart. We were seniors, at the shores of the world and in the flower of our youth, with all of life ahead of us, but what next? Where were we headed? What would become of us? An epoch was coming to an end and I suddenly wanted to go back and start the game all over again—the pain, the confusion, the heartaches—the whole goddamned thing.
I glanced over at my friends, wondering if they felt the same as me. Probably, but it was like a dark secret that none of us dared to speak out loud.