Of Goats, Pans, Poetry and an 'Airwolf' Episode : Explorer Takes the High Road to a TV Location on River

IN SEARCH OF THE L.A. RIVER,This is another in an intermittent series.

November 21, 1985|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer


Up on the dike, the Explorer double-knots a new pair of Hush Puppies. He will take the High Road this day, walking the banks of the Los Angeles River and leaving the deep to its denizens.

He knows now that there are crawly things down there, snakes, and bloated rodents with needly little teeth, and killer frogs, and unfocused gangs of teen-agers who smoke long green cigarettes and . . . music?

The Explorer cocks his good ear. Sure enough, from far below in the wry recesses of the river echoes an insistent beat--the boomlay-BOOM of the Congo as translated by Philly Joe Jones. A lull in the freeway traffic on the opposite bank opens the air to a swoop of sax, a snatch of synthesizer.

And from under an overgrown flap of brain, a phrase struggles to the surface, then bursts free: "What is he doing, the great god Pan/ Down in the reeds by the river?" A semester not entirely wasted.

Searching as much for the genesis of the phrase as the source of the music, the Explorer abandons both resolution and caution and clambers down the dike.

The river, at this point, still sports bushy green sideburns of bog grass and bulrush, the only shelter for miles around from a hot and humid morning . . .

Just in time, the Explorer puts together the elements of the equation, but not before he has glimpsed, inadvertently, a telltale tableau: Two big feet, one little one and the corner of one of those huge transistors called a "blaster." The fourth foot, he assumes, is around here somewhere. Let it be.

Pan is indeed abroad today. In an extemporaneous eddy just off the main flow, a dozen three-inch fish of indeterminate sex chase each other in crazy circles, having a ball, secure in the knowledge that nobody's going to eat them.

The dragonflies aren't so sure. Sambito, 9, and Sambito, 11 ("He's my cousin") are out for blood.

"You gotta be fast to catch 'em," says Sambito II, up from Frogtown on a picnic. "The little ones are real quick. The big ones bite."

The big ones, a feral orange-red, join the Sambitos in chasing the little ones, which have sparkling aqua heads, string-thin bodies and fluorescent tails.

"You put some food in this little basket," says Sambito I, demonstrating. "When they land, you go 'zip!' and cover the basket.

"They're neat, aren't they? First time I saw one I thought it was a stick. Then a turtle et it."

It is the dance of the dragonflies that kicks through the mucilage of encroaching senility and liberates the phrase, something of Browning's: "What is he doing, the great god Pan/ Down in the reeds by the river?/ Spreading ruin and scattering ban/ Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat/ And breaking the golden lilies afloat/ With the dragonfly on the river."

An omen? The Explorer will keep a sharp eye out for golden lilies and goats today--neither of which he will sight. As it turns out, he will have to do with a ghost, a buzz bomb and Ernest Borgnine . . .

For now, though. it's up the graffiti-scarred bank--"God Is Alive," "Defend the Faith" and "Make Them Red (sic) You Your Rights"--and over the river on an unexplained footbridge. A precarious, swaying affair with a floor of peeling metal plates, the bridge continues to the west over the Golden State Freeway.

The second segment is completely enclosed by wire mesh that shelters the pedestrian against neither wind nor rain nor the sonic boom of an air-horn let loose precisely under the bridge by a crazed trucker. It occurs that the cage is less to keep the elements out than to keep the brain-damaged from getting back at the good buddies.

The bridge, in any case, leads to a sylvan soccer field in a corner of Griffith Park. The field is empty. Recrossing the river, the Explorer comes across a band of the youths for whom the bridge presumably was constructed. They are playing baseball spang in the middle of busy Sunnybrook Street.

North of Los Feliz Boulevard is a nine-hole riverside golf course. Outside its fences is a smooth path atop the dike, which should be open to cyclists but isn't. (In the riverbed, a yellowed old Acushnet with a lopsided grin hacked into its cover takes a benign view of man's inhumanity to ball.)

Upriver from the links, a huge hump of loose dirt tumbles from dike all the way down to channel, like a sand castle kicked over by a Brobdingnagian brat. Across the river is a similar dirt hill. Atop the near pile sits a boy named Darek, 13, who kindly explains that the piles provide access to Griffith Park for the equestrians who live on the east shore: Down the hill, across the river, up the hill, through a tunnel under the freeway, and hi-yo, Silver.

"The horses love the trails," says Darek, "but they don't always like walking in the river."

Darek is not whistling William Tell. A lone rider descends the opposite dirt pile, then sits for fully 10 minutes as her mount, a well-muscled roan, stops still in the current, cooling its heels.

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