Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why Rocket Kids?

A long, long time ago, in a life that now seems faraway, my agent suggested I start a blog to help promote the memoir we hoped to soon sell, my book Rocket Lessons. In that book, I wrote about growing up as the daughter of a bipolar rocket scientist in the Cold War era (think Dr. Strangelove).

Things have a way of evolving, and my writing evolved more in the direction of poetry than prose, with an intervening poetry collection, Femme au chapeau, absorbing more of my promotional space and time continuum than Rocket Lessons, which my agent and I finally agreed would make a great SECOND book. Problem now: write my FIRST book.

In the intervening six years I did write that first book. Turns out it has nothing to do with rockets or kids. And now I'm stuck with this lousy blog title. Or maybe great blog title, for someone else.

But I like the implication of zooming, and in the spirit of the original title, here's an excerpt (actually an outtake) from what I hope to be my second book, a little piece about a lovely little spot in San Pedro, my oceanside hometown in southern California.

The Lifeguard's Museum


Natural beauty was not one of the reasons my mother loved to spend a summer day on Cabrillo Beach. It was simply a good place to park your children. We ran pleasantly and safely amok in a crowd of kids on the small triangle of warm sand between the pier and the breakwater. Cabrillo Beach was a tiny San-Pedrans-only place that was so safe it was not long before my mother let Davey and me go there by ourselves. She was reassured by the surveillance of friendly but stern lifeguards under the direction of John Olguin, captain of lifeguards. With a fatherly smile as unvarying as summer sun, John made the beach friendly and safe, so that our parents did not have to watch us too much. He showed us how to respect, but not fear the ocean. John was a San Pedro legend because he had once swum the twenty-six mile Catalina Island Channel. These days, everyone thought of John just as the nicest guy anyone had ever met. You knew if you got into trouble in the water that John's boys would pull you out.

One day, John had had the idea of a marine museum and set up a couple of tables in the long deserted Beach Bathhouse. The gracious old Mediterranean style Bathhouse, with its red tile roof, thick adobe walls and red tile floor had been built in the 1930's at the end of the streetcar line that ferried beachgoers to San Pedro. The building was now gathering dust and sand. John, the official for the facility, had a key. No one objected when he took over the Bathhouse to create a marine museum, though a few people shook their heads and smiled. He swept out the sand, hung photographs of the largest fish ever caught at Norm's Landing, gathered skeletons of large tuna and arranged table-top exhibits of tide pool habitat. He put up a sign advertising free admission and -- Voila! -- a museum, San Pedro style – that is, fast and economical. With the right entrance fee, it quickly acquired an audience of children.

Mom drove me and Val and Davey to Cabrillo Beach almost every day of the summer. Davey was allowed to accompany us because he was willing to carry our towels and the bag of soft drinks. When sun-bathing became unbearable and the squawk of gulls tiresome, the three of us often traipsed uphill to wander through the museum. I was especially drawn to the display of sand dollars, those furry cookies that house teethed creatures that eat seaweed and bury themselves in the sand. The sand dollar, I learned, walks along the ocean bottom on tube feet. The babies have no feet when born, so they swim. This and other arcane ocean lore kept me coming back, and there were always new displays. One day, John hung on the wall a photo of himself wrestling in the surf with something long and feathery. It was labeled a sea-serpent. People whispered and winked, but they ran the photo in the San Pedro News Pilot on the front page. In the blurry snapshot it is hard to see the thing in the surf. It could be a sea serpent. In the museum, I found that scientific names are Latin, like the prayers in Sheila's church. The museum provided amazing discoveries: for example, that an octopus can walk out of the water and go hunting; that jellyfish have no eyes, ears or brain. In the quiet, sandy rooms, my flirtation with nature heated up.