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The Eternal Christmas Meets the Bottomless Pond

A Southern California Memoir

December 24, 2006|Michael Fessier Jr. | Michael Fessier Jr. has written for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and others.

The important thing was to be invisible. Not that they couldn't see you but that they didn't know what you were up to. You and they lived in the same place, 4945 Woodley Avenue, and talked often. "Did you brush your teeth?" they asked you, and you said yes. "Did you change your socks?" You did. "And what are you going to do today?" "Nothing much, maybe a bike ride," you said.

Ha, a bike ride. That was a good one when what you really had planned was a major breakout far beyond the prescribed boundaries, which consisted of the white granite boulders of the Sepulveda Dam at the bottom of your street and, up on the corner where your street met Ventura Boulevard, that little one-room real estate shack in front of the bragging billboard (Lee Coggins: "I know the Valley!") that seemed to slump more each day as if melting from the fiery midsummer Valley sun.Coggins: "I know the Valley!") that seemed to slump more each day as if melting from the fiery midsummer Valley sun.

Your older sister was out of the picture, which was a good thing. She was going to swim in some actor's pool on the other side of the boulevard. Gable, you thought the name was. And the drunk had disappeared from the living-room floor. There had been that party the night before and he was a sort of leftover in the morning, which you had simply politely walked around, familiar as such sights were. In the middle of it all was your father, who seemed so large but really wasn't, this big (to you) alternately charming and angry fellow who looked at you uncomprehendingly . . . like you were some sort of Martian. You were of course a Martian, with many wonderful ideas that he would not understand. You had already pissed him off this week by stamping all his fine books with MF, using that terrific stamping kit you got for your birthday. He did not appreciate this, though for the life of you you could not understand why.

But in the endless time of an endless summer you were well occupied, as each day offered new delights, miracles, great mysteries, some of which might take years to solve, and some you never would. Was that pond in fact bottomless? And had you really wandered into a snow-and-ice-covered village on the hottest day of the year, the air on fire, so hot even the birds went somewhere and hid and all you could hear as you and your buddies set off was the whackawhacka of hammers pounding nails into all those houses rising like mushrooms across the Valley floor?

Was it, and had you?

Who exactly do you think you and your buddies are? Cowboys is a pretty good guess, since the three of you are armed with cap guns. Yours, a silvery beauty with its revolving six-shot cylinder. Your bike is a sturdy apple-green Schwinn equipped most impressively with a speedometer plus odometer whose spinning numbers will testify to the amazing mileage you will rack up today.

Little abundantly freckled Walt, in his ragged shorts made from Levi's, is the last to arrive this morning. His father works for one of the surviving ranches a few streets over, and he had to clean up after his horse.

"Where are we going?"

Teddy asks this. Perennially cheerful and by far the bravest among you, he lives down the block and will occupy two side-by-side slots in your memory bank. 1: It is his family who will get the first television set on the street, big and blocky, with rabbit ears, which Teddy generously shares with the rest of you (amazing test patterns, extraordinary puppet shows). And 2: Two years after this day he will drown downstream from the Sepulveda Dam. With its mossy trickle of L.A. River water oozing through an ominous cement gulch it is a hard place to drown in, requiring perfect timing, but during a January cloudburst poor Teddy will manage it.

Today you begin your journey up the street and then take the turn north along Ventura Boulevard into the forbidden territory past the Richfield gas station, the new motel and the place that sells plaster dwarfs for the garden. On you will travel, an exuberant trio of 7- and 8-year-olds who don't know a lot but know a few important things, such as the fact that you are the only sentient beings on the planet, alive to everything in a way the troubled older folk are not, and that Getting Out of Dodge is now and will always be the thing that makes you the happiest. This run along Ventura Boulevard, Woodley to Balboa--.9 miles, announces the trusty odometer, and then 1.1 beyond--will preclude all the planes, trains and automobiles in your future (minus Teddy, of course, whose voyages are ending just as they are beginning).

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