MY first sight of California was from the deck of a British armed merchant ship during World War II, a heaving line coiled in my hand ready for throwing onto a pier in Oakland. Two months out of Britain, we had come to load a deck cargo of crated airplanes and some timber for Australia and the war in the Pacific.
I was 17, and it was my second trip to sea. I little thought then as we steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge that I would one day be writing this essay as a paean to California and to my 6-foot-2 son, who vicariously fulfills my long-held and as-yet-unrealized desire to be a resident there. Even so, as we entered the choppy waters of its famous bay, San Francisco's pastel-colored houses, its attractive hills, and the sparkling waters tinged delightfully and forever my impressions of the Golden State.
I have long since given up the sea, but its waters and California haunt me like the memory of a lost love.
Surprisingly, given California's beauty and the American penchant for extolling state features on automobile license plates, vehicles there simply proclaim "California," adding only a registration number. How, though, would one choose a feature to symbolize a state that itself features nearly everything: mountains, desert, seacoast, heat, cold, huge valleys, scads of people, industry, agriculture, and the film business?
One never knows, however; a motto may yet appear. If it does, I'd like to see it. For one thing, California humor has a strong element of mock-denigration and public display, and a license plate seems an appropriate place for displaying such license!
And with regard to the native humor, take the time I was rehearsing - poolside - in the lovely garden of friends who live in the central coastal town of San Luis Obispo, a place both respectable and beautiful, for a theater audition farther down the coast.
I had thought the only observer of my sotto voce mouthings and professionally hopeful gesticulations was "Bear," my friends' patient black Labrador dog. I was mistaken. Two workmen who had been adjusting the faulty temperature control of the hot tub that flanked the pool emerged from a profusion of hibiscus and stared at me.
I felt a need to explain: "In case you were wondering," I began, "I'm rehearsing for... ."
One of them interrupted me. "Don't think a thing about it, buddy," he grinned, "this is California!"
There are miles of scenic refreshment: ice-cold torrents dashing through wild-flowered meadows into the depths of Lake Tahoe's beautiful Emerald Bay; the churchly hush of tall sequoia and redwood trees in Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco; the chastening gloom of lovely Donner Lake as one enters California from Nevada; huge Mount Shasta's ever-changing panorama in my windshield as I descended from Oregon; Yosemite National Park, where I gallantly (and restfully) looked after our campsite while fami ly and friends clambered up a mountain - rocky Half Dome. They are now entitled to wear T-shirts that declare in bright orange (a good California color) "I climbed Half Dome." I cannot wear one, but given my sedentary inclinations I consider that a good trade.
My two favorite California vignettes, however, unfolded through the window of a concrete-mixer truck driven by my son - one of his several ways of paying the vast University of California for the privilege of becoming a geographer.
We were sharing a trip to a farm near Vacaville in the Sacramento Valley where a man and his little family were erecting a windmill to help water their holding. Their land lay quietly before the distant risings of the coastal range.
We poured the slurry from the truck's big drum into the foundation frame the farmer had prepared. Two young girls and a gray-haired neighbor helped him shovel and tamp it down. Watched by his wife, their baby on her hip, the lean and patient farmer briefly nodded his approval of the delivery and the quality of the mix. The group formed a frieze between the flat fields and the sky as we drove away. It might have been a scene from the days of the men and women who settled the Sacramento Valley more that a century ago.
Our next delivery took us into modern times. A small array of Mexican immigrant laborers awaited us in a subdivision just within commuting distance of the San Francisco Bay Area. A young executive was having a patio built.
The laborers ran with their wheelbarrows, the concept of manana, if it ever existed, nowhere present. Two sloe-eyed young boys gleefully aimed the chute for us as we filled barrow after barrow in the hot California sun. I tried to talk with them, but they spoke no English, so we and they and others of the party conversed in signs and smiles, though none of them stopped working.
When I ended my three-day stint aboard the concrete mixer, my son's employer had friendly words for me, among other things wondering with amusement if I would like a job driving a concrete mixer! Now when I mow my lawn near the Mississippi River in Illinois, just across from the bottom lands of Missouri, I wear the bright red truck-driver's hat he let me have.The most gratifying of my California experiences, however, was departure day on a previous visit.
I had said farewell the night before, my son having decided, because I had a long trip to take, not to wake me when he set out for work. At that time he was trucking tomatoes. He has trucked lumber, too, all the way down from the Oregon border to gridlocked Los Angeles.
I wasn't sure when I'd see him again. But as I swung my Volkswagen camper onto Interstate 5 and headed north, I had an uncanny sense that it might not be long.
Within an hour, a behemoth of a vehicle heading south appeared in front of me flashing its lights. Drivers on the interstate were treated to the sight of a grizzled former merchant-seaman-actor-journalist-teacher and a lanky truck-driver-geographer running to embrace each other on the median.
My son had drawn an early morning short haul and was returning to pick up another.
The old song says "California, here I come... ."