This is the most difficult post I’ve written, because it captures a moment of despair.
I began the Sixties in a small, rental house in El Cerrito, next to Berkeley, financed by a loan from my father. I worked for $200 a week against expected earnings I would make from selling my father’s airline maintenance equipment. He was a good engineer and designed first-rate equipment, everything from wheel chocks to complicated nozzles and wing stands. I met his suppliers, helped assemble equipment, finished a brochure of our products and went on the road. My father already had worked the airports in San Francisco and Oakland. I would head out to the Central Valley.
In the Spring of 1960, airports in the Central Valley were small, one or two hangers, enough room for a few crop dusters and a handful of private planes. A shed served as an office and waiting room. Veterans of World War II and Korea managed these small airports. Their first question after my pitch, new brochure on the desk between us next to an overflowing ashtray and a collection of airplane parts, a girly calendar on the wall behind them, looking at me (the earnest college kid with the brochure), “How old are you kid?” Which I quickly learned was the prelude to no-sale.
The let down as I retreated to my car was a stone sinking in still water. How many times did I go through this same scenario? I would hit, maybe two or three airports a day. Look on a map of California. How many airports were there within a day’s drive of El Cerrito? The territory was quickly exhausted without a single sale.
I starting driving out to a river bluff above the Sacramento River where I read European fiction. The advance for the house and weekly $200 draw were piling up. I needed a plan. I didn’t have one.
I came home in the afternoons and played with my daughter. She hid behind the roses in our tiny yard in El Cerrito. I went to bed early, tired of hearing my wife complain about an empty day with a demanding infant and no money. This was typical of my generation. We married young, had children quickly and provided no easy way for mothers to return to work. In the absence of traditional communities, women were isolated, home alone and frequently miserable, the potential and hope of youth gone in the burdens of child care.
Shortly after my return to Berkeley, Norman Mailer came out with Advertisements for Myself, a collection of essays and fragments of fiction. Mailer’s World War II novel The Naked and the Dead had been widely praised and read since its publication in 1948. By the mid-Fifties Mailer had gone rogue. In 1955 he co-founded The Village Voice, New York City’s iconoclastic, underground weekly. He published The White Negro in Dissent in 1957, in which he expressed his loss of faith in political radicalism and embraced the Beats and Hipsters (as he called them), as “courageous outcasts defying America’s repressive culture.” Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, Ferlinghetti and now Mailer were surviving as artistic outcasts.
I woke early, at 5:00 am in the morning, and went into the study where my daughter slept. Shelving filled with books divided the small room with my desk on one side and my daughter sleeping on the other. I typed out literary stories with obscure plots. My daughter would wake, pull herself up in the crib and peek through the books to look at me. I’d be concentrating and then sense that I was being watched and there she would be, smiling with blind trust. My heart would soar and then sink. How would I ever take care of it all?