I was born a nostalgic soul, attracted to realities thousands of years past, sometimes a childhood away. This time of year — and I know the reason why — I’m haunted by a man I never met. Same with a quiet journalist who sold me a race car. I’m haunted by a vision in a truck’s rearview mirror.
I suppose all towns have their characters, those lost souls who walk among us, but don’t quite come into focus. In the early 1960s, here in Santa Clarita, there was a man simply known as Red. He had an interesting life. Red was a professional scuba diver and stunt man. As an actor, he had many bit parts, including in the Oscar-winning film, “King Rat.” He sometimes doubled for John Wayne and, in his later years, was caretaker on Ronald Reagan’s Santa Barbara ranch. In 1957, he developed lymph cancer and no longer could perform the physical work that was so effortless in his youth. I am grateful to The Signal reporter from so long ago who brought Red’s story to light.
“I’m 59,” Red said. “I feel 108.”
Red was illiterate. And dying. In his 60s, he was one of Golden Oak Adult School’s first students. He enrolled to learn how to read and write.
He had a small monthly disability check that just couldn’t stretch. A local pastor in Canyon Country kept a tab for him at the Denny’s in Sand Canyon. The manager reported sometimes having to playfully force Red to take a meal with his coffee. Frequently, he slept in his pickup truck with his dog, Puppy, who was part coyote.
“Humans start wars,” said Red. “All animals want is your love and affection.”
Homeless, hungry himself, Red spent his last Christmases, Thanksgivings and holidays wandering the backroads from here to Palmdale and Frazier Park. In his dilapidated pickup, Red helped hundreds of people who had broken down or were displaced. He poured gasoline into empty tanks and offered hot coffee and a shared lunch.
“My story?” Red repeated the question. “Running away.”
How could he think that?
They say you only live as long as the last person who remembers you. There are fools and imbeciles who have edifices named after them. Red is just a whisper, riding on a canyon wind. I have no idea what happened to Red, nor to that young journalist who sold me that damned souped-up Alfa Romeo in 1971.
My dad sighed so heavily and warned me not to buy it. But, I was 21. You’ll never see in my obituary the description: “practical.” I can’t remember the writer’s name, only that he had been a crime reporter for the defunct Los Angeles daily, The Herald Examiner. He was a crackerjack mechanic and had rebuilt a 1961 Alfa Giulietta Spider with a blue-printed racing engine. When it ran, it was — profondamente bella.
In Italian — profoundly beautiful.
It was fast, temperamental and always sick.
That man’s soul was forever entrapped in that convertible. I’d see him wandering Downtown Newhall. Barefoot, formerly talented, formerly profound, another zombie of the romanticized drug culture. There were no words, there never will be, to beg someone to come back, to be alive again. All around us walk those who never became the man or the woman they were supposed to be.
My last haunting is a most pleasant one. It involves my daughter, about whom I’m not supposed to write.
It was Christmas morning, long ago now. She was 8. The last thing I ever wanted in life was to be a weekend father.
Yet. There I was.
There I am.
I dropped her off at her grandmother’s house. That cursed staccato timetable of a single dad. Bliss. Goodbyes. Counting days before making the next batch of blueberry pancakes and choosing of bedtime stories. Always aware: too soon, no bedtime stories. I wouldn’t see her for a week. She didn’t want me to leave. She hung on to the side of the truck as we tried to work out some way out of this goodbye. The tomgirl I call “Pie” came up with a compromise. She’d run along next to the truck, all the way to her other home across the valley.
I drove slowly as she jogged on the sidewalk, next to the truck. We laughed and chatted. Soon, her image in the truck’s big side mirrors grew smaller and smaller. She waved with both hands and yelled Merry Christmas and that she loved me. I turned a corner. Her image was gone, forever burned into my psyche.
Like a charcoal lozenge, I nursed that vision of my daughter in the mirror. That long Christmas morning, I went home. It was empty. Predictable. Boring. I wrote that day and fought off wallowing in self-pity.
Thank God for small sentences served. It took me an entire year to finally see correctly. I had been given a great gift. Couldn’t see it. Couldn’t grasp the enormity of it.
My daughter — my life with her — wasn’t disappearing. The reality, the blessing, was that I have — have — a daughter who runs after my truck, yelling “goodbye” and “Merry Christmas.”
You see, I have — have — a daughter who says “hello.”
And, “I love you.”
And, “Merry Christmas.”
John Boston is a local writer.