Last Day

It was our last day of youth; Julio, Ben, Luke, Robb, and me.  Tomorrow Ben was Army bound.  Hard to want to leave when summmer kissed our coast and surf called every day.   But Ben, though he could make twice a ride of any wave as we could, he was itching to go to Nam like his older brother, Mitch, had.  So after our pomp and circumstance at Salinas High School, he had gone to a recruiter’s office and signed up.

We all thought he was crazy.  “most likely get shot by VC before you even see them,” argued Luke.

“Mitch didn’t.”

“Yeah,” Julio argued back, “casue Mitch is Mitch.  Everything he touches is magic.  But you aren’t Mitch.”  But once Ben came to any conclusion, our arguments never could change Ben’s mind.  We knew that, not that it ever stopped us trying.

So on this last day, Ben, Luke, Robb, and me took our boards and hitched a ride to the beaches.  Always some pickup comes along, willing to let us ride in back.  But on some days, waves aren’t good, hardly swelling and breaking too soon.  We went as far as Sunset before turning back.  Fog rolled in as we passed Castorville.

Julio had not been with us as he had to work in his dad’s artichoke fields.  So after we got home, stored our boards, and grabbed our jackets, we decided to go meet Julio after dinner and hang out one last time.  Julio lived in town just south of our High School.  He was sitting on his front porch steps when we arrived.

“So, what shall we do?” asked Robb.

“You know old Kleinsasser?” asked Ben.

“Of course,” by which we meant we all knew of him but nothing personal.

“Crazy old man,” said Luke.

“Believes the Old Man of the Sea is real,” Julio said.  “I heard him tell my dad he actually saw it once, just off the old cement ship.”

Now Old Man of the Sea was a tale among fisherman habored between Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove.  “Fish’s body,” they claimed, “with a man’s head all covered with long hair.  Bad luck to see it.  Might as well turn back to harbor than go on out if you do see it.”

“So what about Kleinsasser?” Luke asked.

“I don’t know, said Ben.  “Always thought it would be fun to pull some prank on him.”

“It would be easy,” said Julio.  “Tonight is grange, and he never misses.”

“What could we do?” I asked.

“TP his house?” Robb suggested.

“Soap his doorknobs” said Luke.

“Too lame,” Ben decided.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said.  “He drives his pickup everywhere except to church, right?”

“That’s when he drives his old Hudson,” agreed Ben.

“So what say we go out to his place, hot wire his Hudson, and drive it out into his fields?  Park it among his cauliflower?”

“I like it,” said Ben.

Kleinsasser’s farm was just south of where Alisal dead-ended.  Didn’t take us long to walk there.  We could see his house as we walked to his driveway.  His pickup was gone.  “Must be at grange,” I said.

“Keep an eye out,” ordered Julio.  “Don’t want anybody to see us.”

We reached his car.  “It’s unlocked,” Ben announced, easing open the door.  He slid in, bent over, and reached beneath the dash.  A moment later, its motor roared to life.  “Don’t tell anyone you saw me do this.”

We all scrambled into the car.  Ben bunny-hopped the clutch and we were bouncing bauble-head dolls, all yelling and shouting and arms waving.  Ben might be able to hot wire a car, but he didn’t have much driving experience.  He swerved to miss plowing into Kleinsasser’s poarch steps, kicking up dirt and grass behind us.

Ben roared into a bumpy farm lane, more ruts than road.  We bounced, hitting our heads on the roof and the side windows.  “Slow down,” shouted Robb.

“Let me drive,” yelled Julio.  “I can drive better than this.”

Look out,” I yelled, for just in front of us an animal leaped out of the cauliflower.  Ben swerved, hitting brakes.  I ducked.  A sickening thump told us Ben had swerved directly onto the animal.  The car came to a stop, Ben killing the engine that same moment.

“What was it?” asked Luke, fear in his voice.

“Some animal,” I answered, getting out.  I found it just a few yards back.  “It’s a dog,” I called.  “Still alive.”

They joined me there, staring wide-eyed at a whimpering golden retriever.  Julio bent down, examining it.

“Not Kleinsasser’s,” Robb said.  “He doesn’t have a dog.”

“Is it going to be OK?” asked Ben, his voice shaky, husky.

“No,” Julio said.  “It’s dying.  We need to put it out of its misery.”

“Not me,” gasped Robb.

“Nor me,” sobbed Luke.

“I don’t know how to put a dog down,” I said.  “Ben, you hit it.  Maybe you should do this.”

“But I’ve never killed anything,” protested Ben.  “I can’t.  I won’t.  Oh, God, I wish this hadn’t happened.”

Julio looked up.  He spoke in a tight, strained voice.  “It’s dead.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Ben hissed.  And then he was running.  Robb and Luke took off after him.

“Julio,” I gasped, “We can’t leave the car here.”

Julio nodded.  “Get in,” he said.  “Unlike Ben, I not only can hot wire a car, I can drive it.  I’ve been driving my dad’s old pickup out on our farm since I was six.”

We left Kleinsassar’s car where we had found it.  Julio and I walked back not saying a word, not even when we separted to go to our homes.

The next day, Ben left.  I wrote him a couple of times, and he sent a post card once from Fort Lewis.  I never heard from him again.  According to the papers, he died a hero in a fire fight.  They said he stood up shooting while his buddies crawled back to safety.  But they didn’t tell us that when they were safe and he could have left, he just stood there shooting until the VC got him.

Julio worked for his dad all summer.  Somehow, we just didn’t seem to be able to hang out much.  We tried, but what had happened was a huge unspoken thing that wouldn’t leave us in peace.  We soon stopped trying.  Julio went to Hartnell and studied agriculture.  That was the last I saw him before I quit college.

Robb and I went surfing a couple of times, but the joy seemed to be gone for me.  I hung up my board and never surfed since.  Robb moved to Venice, hoping to become a surf pro.  I never saw him again.

Luke went off to college in Berkeley but washed out his first semester.  Next I heard, he had fled the draft to Canada.  I never heard any more from Luke.

And I?  I left twelve months later, planning to hitchhike across America.  Made it to Freno where I got a job flipping burgers at the Sunset Burger Stand.  I’ve been there ever since.  And although I left, I have never escaped.  Every time I see a golden retriever, I remember kneeling over that dog, it pleading with its eyes for something I couldn’t give it, and nothing I’ve ever done will ever erase that.

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