My mother and father chose the lot on Grove Road out of pure love. That half-acre off a private, winding road, one not maintained by the county, was accessible only via a steep and narrow driveway that went down, down, down. And at the bottom, in early 1967, you’d have been standing in the middle of an avocado grove, attended by nectarine, lemon, tangelo, and plum trees. It was the situation my mother had dreamed of for years, and so there my parents built their home. I was about three months old when it was time to move in.
Our house sat on slopey ground, so although the living quarters occupied just one story, ranch style, the rooms on the front sat square to the ground; those at the back sat atop a 12- to 15-foot drop, the windows looking off into rocky hills beyond. I remember very few people and houses in the hills back there. During those early years in eastern San Diego County, trees far outnumbered people, and the land between homes presented many secret ways and means for clandestine travel, many short cuts and hiding places between rock piles, across the fields and through the groves. It was a no man’s land and it was all open to us.
Here I had a girl gang.
Me, my sister, Suzanne, and the Ford girls, Veronica and Vicki. The Fords were Irish twins, the youngest two in a family of eight kids. Veronica was one year younger than I was, but Suzanne and Vicki were virtually the same age, some two-plus years behind me. My father made jokes about the “little Ford girls,” and how he couldn’t tell one from the other, but I knew what they were.
Egged on by her older brother, spindly Veronica introduced me to street fighting at age six, forcing me to fight her by the Holloways’ white fence at dusk, in front of all the neighborhood kids. Size didn’t matter that day because Veronica pulverized me, showing me just exactly how much I needed to toughen up.
Vicki, the baby of her family, had ice blue eyes and a wicked temper. She’d go zero to sixty, just because. Add 20 years, a prison sentence and a shiv, and you’d be done. I knew Suzanne best of all. My baby sister was a dirty rotten hair-puller. She had the craziest ideas and the loudest voice. She was all copper-colored curls and fury.
The four of us did not mix so much with other girls in the neighborhood. While we lived on Grove Road, the Fords were on Monument Hill, but that was no matter. Only one lot separated us, and the Holloways gave an easement to pass through the grove between our houses at any time of the day or night.
Maybe we all attended Catholic elementary school, wearing plaid skirts and pinafores by day. Maybe my classmates thought I was just a sullen, chunky bookworm, ignoring lessons and reading novels under my desktop during lessons.
But when the bell rang?
Well, sometimes, if the weather was inclement, we sat in one of our bedrooms, dressing up or playing Herman’s Hermits and the Beach Boys, old 45s that Veronica and Vicki pulled out of their brothers’ closets. And we had the weirdest fascination with The Battle Hymn of the Republic, so we pounded it out on Mrs. Ford’s upright piano, up tempo, belting out the lyrics.
Usually, however, we were outdoors, roaming.
We went by foot over those steep hills. We set out every afternoon, looking for things to do. One day, when we were bored and no one was around, we walked into a new house under construction just up the road, and pulled all the door stops and scraped the walls with them.
We may also have entered the construction office that sat in a trailer near the house. Perhaps, looking for a mystery, we may have disordered the invoice book, searching for clues like Jim Rockford would have. And after we did all that, did we actually scrape up the earth with our fingers and bury the door stops in the yard? If we did, it was surprisingly easy.
One time, I must have been sick or otherwise missing, but the girls told me they went into the boulders in the grassy field behind the Fords’ and lit matches. This could have, should have, been a disaster, and I think it shocked even me. But I went back into the rocks and brambles later and saw the evidence: the old coffee can, the burnt matches and paper. It was true. They had done it!
For two glorious editions, we were the editors of a four-sheet, The Neighborhood Tribune. We took our own photos, typed copy on a Smith-Corona, Xeroxed our work, and peddled the paper door-to-door for a quarter. Nan & Sid Holloway were our best contributors and subscribers. They consistently related something humorous about their arthritic old German Shepherd, Kelly, or about fruit that had come off a tree looking strange. This was fruit that could not, in truth, be explained.
But the Tribune didn’t last long, for we were on the move. We took offense and had bones to pick, wrongs that could not be addressed in print.
Like when the Fords’ big brother and his friends rode aggressively by on dirt bikes, justice required us to pelt them with avocados. Like when we found a stash of porn magazines out in the rocks, and knowing they were bad, knowing that boys had been in our space, tore them into pieces. Like when Mark Huzak said something nasty to us, and I said we should rip out his mother’s new embankment of gazanias and throw them at his house.
We pulled them out, orange handful by orange handful, with relish. We loved doing what we were doing, loved being us, all while the other neighborhood children stood and watched in what was surely disbelief.
My mother received a call at work that day from a distraught and angry Mrs. Huzak. “How old are your boys?” asked co-workers who’d overheard her side of the conversation. “Oh, they aren’t boys,” she sighed, arranging for restitution involving lost allowances and replanting.
And then there was the mud. Rills, runs, and streams in the spring presented numerous opportunities for forts and dams. One time we dug for mud, made bricks, and piled them into what would be our new 5’ x 5’ adobe fort under one of the Fords’ avocado trees. It got to be about a foot and a half high before it caved in during a rainstorm.
We loved the stream through a nearby walnut grove, and after school we lived to dam it. We’d stay till it was nearly dark, piling up the mud. Once, Suzanne had the idea to lay her body across the stream. She encouraged the rest of us to use her skinny back as a bulwark, to pack big handfuls of mud up against her. We did this until evening fell, until we had a suitably thick and towering dam, and then she moved. Right away, half of the dam fell down.
My mother cried when she saw our clothes that night.
We were not nice girls, and I’m not certain who among us was the biggest instigator. It was certainly my idea to hit the gazanias. It was Suzanne’s idea, I heard, to light the matches. Veronica may have led the charge into the construction site. And the oddest thing was we got away with it all. We’d come home each evening tired but satisfied, and we’d carry on the next day, our consciences free and easy.
Was it the landscape, aiding and abetting us?
At school we were all good students, law-abiding.
But those streams, that mud, the boulders, hills, and passages. Roads of dirt, big climbing trees, crevices for hiding, fallen barbed-wire fences. In, around, under and through. Fruits and nuts everywhere. Tadpoles and nests. We could go anywhere, stay out all afternoon.
We knew no fear.
Today all those shortcuts and passages are gone. Only a few parcels sit undeveloped. Coyotes still yip at night and bunnies still run, but with them are stressed commuters with smart phone GPS apps. Such apps encourage using the old private, windy road as a shortcut; drivers often lose control, take out fences, and generally piss off the neighbors.
I imagine that few easement are granted now for “necessary travel.” Each new home seems grander than the next, whether it serves the land or not. Even the Fords’ old home, which managed to nurture eight children into adulthood, has been expanded and fluffed up.
The land clings to its beauty, but it is fading, dry and brown.
Maybe once a year at Christmas, I’ll have lunch with my oldest friends. We shake our heads in disbelief, laughing about how bad we were, about how different things are. When I see children in my old neighborhood now, they are riding, helmeted, on new bicycles behind their dads. Maybe they play soccer or toss a ball in the street for an hour or so after school. They move when cars come by. I imagine they mostly are busy with sporting matches, mounds of homework, and extracurricular activities. Those activities might not be meaningful in the moment, but they must — mustn’t they? — serve some future end.
And oh, the technology.
While my mother feared the microwave oven and forbade it in our home, these children know things I never could have imagined. Like how to blend photos together so that your face looks like a deformed strawberry, but also kind of like a cat.
These children. They are fast, smart and disciplined, and I marvel at them.
I remember all these things that happened. All these places that don’t exist anymore. And I don’t know how to do them justice, all those things that happened, before.
I just feel lucky that for even one, too-short moment, I owned the neighborhood and ruled that land. My friends and I were the masters of our domain.
And it was pretty much magic.
Heather Pegas is an avid reader and she is passionate about writing. For over 25 years, she has written grant proposals for cities, counties and nonprofits, telling compelling stories about good works. She makes her home in Los Angeles, and Free Range is her first literary publication. Editor’s note: It will not be her last.