Rounding Second Base

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Rounding Second Base

California Girls, by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, sung by the Beach Boys (1965), encountered 1965

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            The parts of the summer of 1966 when I wasn’t writing loyal canons of contemned love for the absent Kate were largely devoted to my filling in holes in my education and curriculum.  I count the Driver’s Ed I took at Ann Arbor High in June as education, the Golf I took at Eastern Michigan University in July as curriculum.[1]  The proof: I use get behind the wheel almost every day; the last time I picked up a golf club was the last day of the class.

Almost immediately after the class ended, I spent a week visiting my father in New York.  And the day after I got back from that, my mother, my stepdad and I were on the road, out to circumnavigate Lake Michigan.  It stands out in my memory as the only strictly touristic trip the three of us ever took as a family.  Every other voyage with them as a family centered on some kind of family visit and/or meetings of my stepdad’s professional organization, the Modern Language Association; there might well be side trips or treats, but the main object on those occasions had been more utilitarian.  This one time was about seeing interesting places and a few friends along the way.  Period.

            Bearded and Curious

Before I can describe what happened on the trip, though, I need to mention two things.  One, I was sporting my first beard.  I liked the way it made me look older than my 17 years.  And in 1966 a beard was also a political statement.  Plus it made my mom nervous.

           She’d have been even more nervous if she’d known that my father had taken me to see Dear John up in the mountains, I think at the art movie house in Woodstock.  Now that’s a movie no one has heard of these days.  It was quite a statement in its time, though.  I quote myself in my journal — a nascent film critic:

…a Swedish movie drenched in sex.  In fact it was the most sexually explicit movie I’ve ever seen…. It was the story of two people lonely beyond belief who desperately try to find refuge in making love to each other.  And then they discover that they really made love…. It stirred me deeply.  It was truly a religious experience …

            That last phrase in particular might have alarmed my mom about what was going on in my head.  I was beginning to reevaluate this whole line on sex I’d been fed by my church.  Why couldn’t I come to my own conclusions about what was right and wrong – even if that meant concluding that what had been forbidden was actually sacred?  And I have no doubt that my Quaker (and born Jewish) dad knew exactly what he was doing when he took me.  After all, he read movie reviews in the New York Times.  And I know he had something of a taste for the offerings of the Olympia Press, purveyor of high-class erotica in that era.  There was no mistake there.  I’m sure he wanted to get a few licks for a more bacchanalian point of view than I was being taught courtesy of my ultramontane mom.  My journal also contains some positive comments about Playboy at this point.  So what was going on in my head wasn’t hard to figure out.

So there I am: bearded and curious.  And on the road.

            Sex On The Beach

Our second stop was on a Saturday night in Whitehall, north of Muskegon, at a place called Murray’s Inn.[2]  It sat at the end of a peninsula separating a coastal lagoon from Lake Michigan proper.  Here’s a vintage postcard photograph of the place.[3]

To my parents, it was a kind of disappointing evening, I think.  There was no liquor license, and I guess they must have gone to bed early.  At any rate, I wasn’t with them.  I’d been tipped off by a bellboy that the kids, many on staff, all gathered together in the snackbar downstairs at the end of the shift.  And sure enough the party started up.  We played cards, Crazy Eights.

Sitting across from me was a Betsy, my age, blonde, from a Chicago suburb.  “I like Johns,” she said when I introduced myself.[4]  Shortly thereafter she said, “I like your beard.”  Not too long after that, she was suggesting we go for a walk on the beach, which I said I’d love to do.  Even then, I recognized that this was a girl with an agenda, but I was unable to rush into making a first move.  Of course she’d already made the first move, conversationally.  But the ball, I knew, was in my court, and I was not bold about advancing it.

So we just walked and talked, with the light from a lighthouse brushing over us every twenty seconds.  And the conversation was, as I recorded in my journal, “rather dull.”  Meanwhile the wind was blowing colder, and she was wearing shorts.  We decided to go for a longer walk, but she had to check in with her parents (and I’m guessing she wanted to change into something warmer).  We held hands on the way back to the hotel, but that was the end.  The parents were upset that she’d gone out without checking in with them in the first place, and she was grounded for the evening.

We arranged to meet the next day, Sunday, and as I recorded, this was “the most unendurable and long night.”  I knew what was going to happen the next day – and I also knew there was a tight schedule.  Mass was at 10:00, checkout at 2:00.  Not very romantic to be thinking this way, you might comment, and I couldn’t disagree.  Kate was about romance; this was about something else.

Come the morning, my folks and I breakfasted at 8;30, and, leaving the dining room, met Betsy.  (My parents were “not impressed,” per my journal.)  I told her I’d call as soon after 11:00 as possible, and with that, I followed Mother to Church.

The service was at someone’s private estate, high above the Michigan waters.  I can’t bear to quote directly what I was thinking while at Mass; it’s just too jejune.  Let’s just say I was wrestling with the right and wrong of what I was about to do.  I decided, let us further say, that I could go pretty far into the sacred mysteries, if not “all the way.”  My conclusion: “I received Communion with a prayer for guidance.”

Then back to the hotel, where I was told we’d be checking out at 1:45.  I went by Betsy’s room, picked her up, met her dad, who told Betsy I seemed like “a good boy.”  Her dad, she told me, always thought the boys she went out with were good boys.  A remark full of implications.

The sequel was surprisingly long-drawn-out, considering our tight schedule.  We went down to the end of the boardwalk and out onto the beach.  I took a dip in the freezing water.  My parents walked by, and either were or pretended to be oblivious.[4]  We returned to the sand near the boardwalk.  My folks came back, exchanged pleasantries, left.  We were all alone.

And then, finally, we got around to it.  I’m not going into the particulars, though I went into them in lip-smacking clinical detail in my journal.  Call it a solid mutually satisfying second-base experience.  We exchanged a ritual remark about not making out just to make out, that we felt something.  But of course it was not true on either side.

            Even More Sex On The Beach

And two days later, it happened again, with a Kristine, in Traverse City.  This time with the added fillips of being mean to another boy who had a real crush on her, and trying to charm the girl’s father right after having my way with her – or at least as much of a way as either of us was ready for.  Call that one a solid third-base experience.  And of course no sooner had I tagged third than it was time to pile into the car and make another getaway.

So I was getting further around the base-path than ever before.  But, as I confided to the journal, I really wasn’t comfortable.  It didn’t have much to do with the apotheosis of sex, the sex-blending-into-love stuff I’d seen depicted in Dear John and which I’d used at that Mass above the waters to justify what I was about to do.  And I tried to talk myself into feeling good about weaseling Kristine’s old man and humiliating that other boy, but when I got down to it, it humiliated me to behave that way.

This Casanova stuff was terribly exciting, but in the psychotherapeutic language we all use today, I needed to process it.


We pulled into Charlevoix on Tuesday, with me sitting in the back seat, processing like mad.  We got out and walked along the waterfront.  I remember looking into a boathouse where three young guys were working on a boat.  And I could plainly hear the LP of Goldfinger playing.  (It had come out the preceding year, and I had that LP myself.  I knew every note, and recognized it instantly.)   James Bond, hero of that movie, was a master of the love-‘em-and-leave-‘em, the very stunt I’d just pulled twice.  If I couldn’t feel a little good about that, what was anything worth?, I asked myself.

We drove on to Petoskey, lunched, and then drove north of the town where the road climbed upward to where we could see far out over Lake Michigan.  We pulled over the car so we could enjoy the scene.

            California Girls Moment

And that’s when I had my California Girls moment.

I whipped out my camera, the DeJur reflex my father had given me, with the huge-field 120 film, and just tried to encompass the scene in front of me.  Here’s what I managed to ensnare, with the afternoon sun glinting off ten thousand billows:            And then I turned the camera on my parents, and got them at a happy moment when they were still relatively young and relatively healthy (their decline being only a few years off).

            After that, my parents let me walk down to the beach by myself.  There was some kind of wooden stairway.  And the wind was gently blowing in my face, and for a moment I felt utterly at peace.  And as I did so, California Girls came powerfully into my head.

It didn’t happen because I was asking myself what was the perfect song to come into my head right then; it came unbidden.  But it doesn’t take much reflection to see why that particular song came into my head.  Let me count the ways.

First, there was something evocative of spacious horizons in that music that exactly fitted the scene before me at that moment.

Then too the melodic tension through all the key changes in the “Wish they all could be California,/ Wish they all could be California” is resolved in a way that sounds as if it’s coming down in a strange and beautiful place, in a new key.  (Actually it’s not; it’s the same Bb chord we started with, but Brian Wilson and Mike Love have spun us around so we don’t hear it the same way.)  You feel as if you’ve just arrived somewhere new, musically.  Which I had just done in a different way.

There’s the carnival feel in the organ chords, evocative of a locale devoted to pleasure – a locale on a left coast, looking westward toward sunsets.  Exactly the kind of place I’d been visiting for the last three days.

And then there’s the lyric, limning the charms of the girls of all sorts of places, topped off, however, by a somewhat ambiguous wish that they could be something else.  No question that I had a someone else in mind too.

            Not Very Creepy

I’ve already commented that there’s something slightly creepy in the lyrical trope found here and in the English lyrics to Calcutta and other songs like I’m a Wanderer (Dion, 1961), the notion of a guy wandering around the world sampling everyone’s charms but committing to none.  If you’re going to go down that road, however, the Beach Boys’ approach is the way to go; the singer admires women the world over, but for aught the lyrics disclose, he may never have laid a finger on any of them.  Call him an admirer, a connoisseur, not a promiscuous letch.

As for me at that moment, I didn’t know – and don’t know now – what I was, or what I should have been called.  Partly I was intoxicated by the vistas opening up before me; certainly I was thrilled that if I wanted, I had some of the basic skills and equipment to be a ladies’ man.  But was I really going to wander out into those vistas just yet?  Would I wander into the water, like that swimmer who’s a speck at the bottom of my seascape photo?

Or would I, instead, clamber down to the bottom of those stairs, stand for a moment on the beach, and then clamber back up again, to continue riding around with my parents?  And would I, in less than two weeks, surrender the beard upon demand of the principal and headmaster?  Even before I reached the bottom of those stairs, I knew the answer to those questions.  It wasn’t my time yet.

But it certainly was time for that glorious song.  I’ve indicated before that Walk On By remains my all-time favorite song; this is my all-time runner-up.

[1]   I needed another Phys Ed credit, and there would be no room in my senior year curriculum for three languages if I had to spend part of my school days getting sweaty.  But through my stepfather’s affiliation with Eastern, I wangled the opportunity to audit the college golf course for high school credit.

[2]   I believe it is probably the establishment now known as Hollister’s The Water’s Edge Lodge.

[3]  Source: .

[4]   I went by Jon then, rather than Jack, which I switched to the following year.

[5]   My mom’s diary suggests she knew something of my movements – but obliterates Betsy entirely.  That entire passage reads: “It’s rather cold on the beach + no one is in the water.  Jon takes a dip and we just wade.”

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for commercial images

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