A WEEK IN 1972


“I’ll get out here.” It was midway down the coast and this beach looked inviting. My idea was to hitchhike California – Oregon to Mexico – hugging the western-most roads the entire way. I had time, as much as I wanted. It was the summer of 1972. I had just graduated with an MA and a teaching credential but with no interest, just yet, to look for a job. The war in Vietnam was winding down and years of pressure from my local draft board were finally over. I had a vague notion of continuing this trek to Mexico to study with Ivan Illich of Deschooling Society fame, a sort of guru of the most left-leaning educational philosophers at that time who had founded a learning center in Cuernavaca. But for now, it was – means and ends – a meander down the California coast. I stopped when I had the notion. Sometimes I pitched a tent on a beach or in a state park or would hike for a night or two in the redwoods or mountains. The beach today was south of San Francisco and west of Palo Alto, Stanford U about an hour’s drive away. I found a nice spot and stretched out – took out and readied my most prized and expensive possession, a new 35-mm SLR Minolta camera – rested my head on my backpack, and opened my copy of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat: “ ‘Now I am hungry,’ said Pablo. Pilon got up and went to the door and looked at the sun. ‘It is after noon,’ he said. ‘Pablo and I will go to Torrelli’s to get the wine, while you, Jesus Maria, go to Monterey for something to eat. Maybe Mrs. Bruno, on the wharf, will give you a fish. Maybe you can get a little bread someplace.’” My hat was pushed forward shading my eyes; I was someplace between the read and a snooze when the whirlwind struck. “Help.” “Please Help.” I looked up to see that this holler belonged to a woman frantically running towards me. She was holding a little boy, accompanied by a young teenage girl. While playing on the beach, the boy had cut his hands on the rusty lid from a tin can. His hands were badly bleeding. Without introductions and while pointing to my backpack, the child’s mother asked whether I had first-aid supplies. I did. I flushed his hands with the water from my canteen and followed with hydrogen peroxide. I then applied an antibiotic ointment and wrapped his hands using a roll of gauze secured with adhesive tape. During this time, the mother was either thanking me or calming her son, “Everything will be alright Griffy. We’ll drive straight to the doctor. We’ll be there in an hour. That’s a brave boy. Don’t worry.” As swiftly as it arrived, that’s how abruptly the whirlwind left. Griffy’s mother instructed the girl to gather up their belongings post haste. They were shouting thanks as they hurried off to the parking lot. I settled back into my life of leisure.

As I write this, thirty-five years after the fact, I can’t recall exactly how much time elapsed before I realized that my camera was missing. But I considered the following: Griffy’s mom and /or young companion, no doubt, gathered it up and carried it off in the rush and confusion. It was early afternoon. They would discover that they had inadvertently taken my camera within a couple hours after they arrived home. With a one-hour return drive (they would of course make that return drive, right?), I would have my camera back in a few hours. I would wait. Four hours later, with no sign of them and daylight soon to become an issue (it was much easier to catch a ride during the day time), I instituted Plan B. I had had four hours to think about Plan B. I walked to the road and pointed my thumb east, towards Palo Alto. If my camera was not coming back to me, I was going to it.

Most university towns in those days had what were known as “drop-in centers”. The specific name might be different from place to place and they were staffed by people whose qualifications varied, but ostensibly they served a very similar function. These were storefronts where someone could get free, or very cheap, counseling. A person manned a phone and individuals in the community having a mental health emergency (like a “bad trip” for example) could call, or drop in, and talk to a “counselor”. I say ostensibly because these places often doubled as hangouts for the more active and community-minded people in the “counter culture”. I inquired on the street if such a place was in Palo Alto and indeed there was one. When I arrived there, I told my lost camera story and presented my plan. The people agreed to help me, but I couldn’t begin implementation until the next day. As a bonus, they had a cot in the office and that’s where I would sleep. In those days I kept a journal (as I remember it, I thought “diaries” were for girls) where I made very irregular entries. I did make one that night: “August 1, 1972 – Palo Alto, California. Kent Hamilton [? – I don’t remember who that is/was] would call this day indelible. I’m certain I’ll remember it. An unforeseen set of circumstances has me in Palo Alto, Cal. My camera came here first – it got carried off in the frenzy of cut hands, and interrupted a very slow, laconic, unhurried trip down the coast of the Pacific. I waited for hours for it to come back and when it didn’t, I followed it into town. We are here together now and when we unite I can continue on my way. Until then, I’m eating Chinese food, finding the waitress very nice, and going to see Cabaret at the movies later. Fate becomes clearest when I don’t deceive myself with plans.”

The following morning, upon awakening, I initiated my strategy. I had identified the major (only?) local newspaper in Palo Alto. I placed an ad in all capital letters in the “Personals” section: GRIFFY’S MOM. DO YOU HAVE MY CAMERA? The drop-in center allowed me to use their phone as a contact number. Someone would be there at all times of course to answer it. I surmised that “Griffy” was an unusual name and someone who knew the family – in this not so big town – would read the ad and contact Griffy’s mom. She might even be on the lookout for something like this herself. I paid the three-day rate, but the ad would not begin to run until the next day. So I had time to kill (from my time-killing life). Off I went to Stanford. Which lectures by this world-class faculty shall I attend today? I began with Chinese History. I liked this lecture so I returned to it in the days that followed. I don’t remember which other lectures I visited, but I did “attend” Stanford for four days; strolling around campus and soaking up the atmosphere. But I’m getting ahead of the story. At the end of the first day that the ad had run, I returned to “my place” feeling confident that the message from Griffy’s mother would be waiting for me. Not so. Nor would it be there for the three days that followed. I was disappointed, but not defeated. It was time for Plan C.

I had learned, during these days, that in California – as distinguished from Michigan where I was from – it was legal for doctors to advertise in the Yellow Pages [This was controversial for, in those days, some perceived it as crass and unprofessional for doctors and lawyers to advertise.] Here, all the doctors were assembled in one place in one book. Bingo. I located the pediatricians, about 20 or so, and went to work: “Do you have a patient named Griffy, about five years old, whose mother brought him to see you on Tuesday at about 1:00? His hands were cut at the beach.” (For the sake of the dramatic, I might write that this performance was repeated down to the very last pediatrician in the book. The fact of the matter is, it’s true.) I was down to the end of the list and called the number:
“Yes, Griffy’s my patient.”
“I’m the guy from the beach who dressed his wounds.”
“I heard about you. You did a good job.”
“Thanks. How’s Griffy doing?”
“He’s doing quite well.”
“Here’s the reason I’m calling.” [And I told my story]
“Oh. They’ll be glad to hear from you. Here’s the phone number.”

Within an hour, I was tossing my backpack into the trunk of a fancy sedan. Griffy’s mom introduced me (as Griffy’s hero) to her mother as I climbed into the shotgun seat. The girl from the beach (? – a niece, family friend, Griffy’s babysitter – I can’t recall) made four of us in the car. After saying my goodbyes to the friends at the drop-in center, we headed to their home in Atherton, California. As we drove, I told the story of my escapades over the past four days. Perfunctorily, she expressed some surprise that she missed the ad and added that she was planning to place a full-page display ad in the student newspaper at the university that she knew I had attended (I – or a t-shirt – must have mentioned it at the beach). [I wouldn’t have been there to read it, but there was no reason to point this out.] That was the long-and-short of the lost camera discussion, never to return again. We drove into the family’s neighborhood, huge homes on big sprawling properties, then pulled on to their driveway and up to the house. I was escorted to the guest bedroom. I had a proper shower for the first time in I don’t know how long followed by a lovely dinner served in the garden. For the evening’s entertainment, we went to Foothill College – where Griffy’s mother’s mother, a graduate of Smith College back east, was a Trustee – for a performance of the play My Fair Lady.

The following morning I was driven to good location for catching a ride heading west. I hitchhiked back to the spot where I had left the coast. I then pointed my thumb south and continued, with my camera, to Mexico – and beyond.

Fred Belinsky
San Diego, California

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One Comment  to  A WEEK IN 1972

  1. Andy says:

    Very interesting i like your description of events. I always love reading your posts, at http://www.rapidsloth.com they have some interesting posts like yours.