Desperation? Or just plain meanness.
I have this intense childhood memory that I can’t shake. It would have been some time between 1960 and 1963. I would have been between four and seven years old. My parents had these friends dating back to when Dad was in the Navy. That was up until 1959. The man’s nickname was Blackie, and this couple always seemed to be working for some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. I remember them buying a house, a Victorian mansion, just off I-94, just before you get to downtown San Diego. This wasn’t a nice neighborhood, still isn’t, although the mansions date back to the 20’s and 30’s when this was where all the rich San Diegans lived. I imagine they bought it because they could get a big old mansion for little money. I remember visiting them at this house, walking around with their children, older than we were, and noting one of these mansions, just something from an Alfred Hitchcock movie, falling apart right there. A great loss, I thought. All the locals, all Black, glared at us like we were the most unwanted people on the planet. I wonder now how they took to this white guy with the nickname Blackie. You can go by these houses today, most of them renovated and turned into offices for lawyers and dentists. It’s still a rotten neighborhood. But my Dad and Blackie were close friends at one time. They were my God parents, although like my mother pointed out once, it was so difficult to find other practicing Catholics in the Navy circles that we lived in, us settled in El Cajon, the rest of the community constantly in transit, Blackie and his wife were my God parents by default. In any case, I remember being aware that there had been something of a falling out, not hearing my parents talk about them for awhile. Then, out of the blue, they sent a letter inviting us up to a lodge they’d bought not far from Big Bear Lake. In the course of correspondence, they told Mom and Dad they had a private lake with the lodge, and that they had stocked it with fish. Blackie had been insistent that we come. I don’t remember the ride up, I remember going past Big Bear Lake, and being disappointed by how much further we had to go to get to the lodge. It was still deep in the forest, though, pine trees and giant oaks. I think I’d overheard my parents discussing the possibility that maybe Blackie had invited us up to entice us into either investing in the lodge or maybe becoming partners. Dad had laughed that off, saying no way would he go into business with Blackie, but that we’d go and see. No harm in looking. The lodge itself was gorgeous. It looked like a two-story log cabin with the pine bark still on. Dark and majestic, it was just everything you might want from a lake lodge. Inside, the walls were lined with mounted deer heads, nick-nacks, pictures and momentos that suggested lineage. Blackie and his wife gushed on us. They sat us down, served drinks from the bar to my parents, set forth a mighty meal, which would have been lunch. Thing is, we were the only people there. I’m pretty sure it was the weekend, Friday in fact, and the place was deserted. And Blackie and his wife didn’t sit down with us, they just served us. Dad asked what they had in mind for us, and I remember reading irritation in Blackie’s response. Well there’s hiking and sight-seeing. The lake was a disappointment, something had gone wrong with the stocking, not enough oxygen in the water, not deep enough for the particular fish they’d stocked it with, but there was plenty to do. Where were Blackie’s kids? Not there, back down in San Diego. When you’ve got four kids in the family, the eldest being only six years older than the youngest, there’s no shortage of playmates, but still, that struck me as odd. Dad pressed. What did they have in mind for the weekend? Well, they, Blackie and his wife, were at work. They couldn’t drop everything to entertain us. They’d be around, of course, but the lodge and the grounds required maintenance, supplies needed to be brought in. This had to be a giant red flag for my parents. They’d gone up there with the expectation that they would be spending the weekend with old friends, visiting, sitting around and discussing the meaning of life, that sort of thing. Well, then, why had they invited us up if they weren’t going to spend time with us? My parents did not pose this question to our host, but I think I heard it shared between each other. Blackie’s wife walked us down to our cabin. The cabins were not nestled under the trees, but out in the open near the lake. They were boxes, like motel cabins, clapboard sides, small windows. The inside was bare and dark. Mom had brought supplies, milk, stuff like that. The refrigerator was cold, but it stank from having been turned off and left closed. Blackie’s wife seemed more miffed by my mom complaining than the fact that the reefer reeked. I don’t know where the parents went at this point. We kids walked down to the lake. The lake wasn’t huge, but impressive. The cabins across the way were shaded by the fir trees around them. A new dock went out practically to the center of the lake. It would have been beautiful if the shores hadn’t been covered with dead fish. And not small fish. Big and bloody, freshly dead and being fed on by seagulls and crows. It smelled strongly after fish, although no rot. I remember finding myself looking around for something pleasant. The cabin smelled from the reefer, the lake smelled after newly dead fish, and there really wasn’t anything else there to go. No playground, no clubhouse with games, nothing. Having driven through the Big Bear area a few years back, I’m pretty sure I spotted the entrance to this lodge of my childhood. I copied down its name, which I couldn’t tell you from my early days, and did a search on-line. This particular lodge was developed back in the 70’s for movie making and television producing. They had pictures of that large lake decked out for filming some kid movie. Dad and Mom came back to the cabin. The plan had been to stay until Sunday, mom hunting up the local Catholic church so that we might fulfill our Sunday Obligation, but now it sounded like we were loading up and heading home Saturday morning. We ate dinner, and it was again, just us in the lodge, and Blackie and his wife only showed to deliver the food and take the plates. I don’t remember that night. I remember Mom making us breakfast, and the milk smelling after the refrigerator. We loaded up. Dad went into the lodge to say good-bye. “Leaving so soon?” Blackie asked with a tinge of accusation. “Well, then here you go, your bill.” Dad stared at the invoice. Apparently it included all of our meals and our cabin. “Blackie, you invited us.” “Yes, of course, to enjoy our beautiful lodge in the Big Bear Mountains.” “We were your guests.” “As is anyone who comes and stays here.” “You invited us,” my Dad repeated. There were other things said. No shouting, no accusations, nothing like, ‘you enticed us up here under false pretenses’, nothing like that. There was a building tension in the tones, but finally my father said, with infinite cool, “Will you take a check?” “Of course.” And then my father deliberately wrote out that check as my mother, Blackie and his wife silently looked on. Somewhere down on the highway headed back to San Diego, I remember, Dad at the wheel, asking if there was enough money in the account to cover the check. “Something doesn’t get paid this month,” Mom answered. I think we got a Christmas card from Blackie that year, but it was the last time I ever heard mention of them.