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New Coast, New-Old Bearings

By Todd Nelson / August 27, 1993

HERE is Chapter One of our move to California, according to my daughter, Hilary, aged 7:

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Harray, harray, I sed one day to my mom and dad.

"When are we going to get on the airplane?" I askte my mom.

"Ask yore dad. I am to bussy packing."

"Dad, when are we going to get on the airplane?'

"Why do you ask such a thing? Anyway, it is 8 p.m. we are going in 15 minutes."

"Dad I think I here the taxi."

"Yore rite."

"Mom, mom! Lets go."

Chapter One in my version would have to begin with the note from my friend Jonathan who, when he heard we were moving from Boston to San Francisco, couldn't resist giving me a copy of his favorite paragraph from his favorite novel, "All the King's Men," by Robert Penn Warren.

For the west is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you get the letter saying, 'Flee, all is discovered'.... It is where you go when you are told you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that's gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.

PART of what you do when you go is get new bearings. Given contemporary air travel, it's entirely possible to wake up one June morning in a large Victorian farmhouse in suburban Boston and retire that night 3,000 miles away in a bungalow with a fig tree in suburban San Francisco: your new home. The human mind can hardly keep pace with such fantastic physical transitions.

Within hours, all that was familiar in terms of physical setting is unfamiliar, from bird songs to shrubs to sunlight to air, and we grope toward acclimation by attempting to use our former "template" for the new alignments. Yet East or West, neighbors are neighbors. On our first day, 5th-grader Joe came over to say "Welcome to the neighborhood," and Gail brought us dinner on our second night.

In no time the lemonade stand was set up, the local clubhouse established, and the best penny-candy store explored. "Bubba's" became my new diner, replacing "The Town Diner." On the day our moving van arrived, I even ran into my high-school history teacher, whom I hadn't seen since graduation, at the art fair down on Main Street.

For several weeks palm trees thrilled our children; it was hard to accept that we could actually live in a place where they were not considered exotic. The redwoods are still unbelievable - their scale and sheer heft - even for an Easterner accustomed to old-growth forests. Seeing a redwood is like seeing a brontosaurus standing on the patio. One of my new colleagues at the school where I now work lives in a redwood grove with a tree that must surely date from the time before Columbus. It is a living tim e traveler, and humbling to behold.

Volkswagen "beetles" - "Herbies" as kids call them, after the Disney movie - are equally exotic. They have all but disappeared from Eastern highways, but there are hundreds of them, and a myriad of other classic cars, from overseas and Detroit, extant on California roads - even Corvairs.

One charming practice around here is to turn cars into artifact displays by gluing plastic toys and figurines all over the exterior. One particular vintage Toyota, famous all over San Francisco, is a reef of plastic toys, baubles, and Cracker Jack prizes.

In August, after two months in residence, the whole family took a long, hot drive down to Los Angeles to visit Gramma Evelyn and Uncle Mel. It was our first trip since moving, our first journey out from our new home, and a test of our sense of where home was.

On this trip, the ocean was on our right - all wrong. When driving south, the ocean should be on the left.