And so at last, it’s happened. I’ve become a member of the club. For those of you who read my memoir, Passage From England, you’ll know the significance of that statement. For those of you who haven’t, I’m including the relevant chapter from the book at the end of this post if you care to read it.
Well, in a different life, I was a newly minted immigrant on the American Shores of Tarzana California in 1956. By the time I turned ten in 1960, I was spending many of my summer mornings and afternoons bow-hunting in the Santa Monica mountains. Mostly, I was hunting rabbits my mother would cook. And mostly I was stalking those rabbits on the fairways and putting greens of the Braemar Country Club, which in my youth was called the Doeville Country Club and which still has an iconic doe as its logo.
I rode my bike into the mountains to escape the chaos of my childhood. I hunted rabbits to impress my father, who was the source of the chaos, and to impress upon myself that there was something I could do well, something I could do entirely by myself anytime wanted. I wasn’t aware then that my last name meant rabbit in Polish (zajacz means hare or rabbit) and that in effect I was hunting if not myself, then hunting to find myself. And in a sense I did find myself there on the verdant byways of the golf course where the slow-winding hawks circled high above me.
The club spawned a dream in me of being a kid of families who belonged to such a club, like the kids who were my friends in school, the kids whose parents picked them up in new Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals, the kids who thought nothing of trading me my homemade lunch for the 35 cents they had in their pocket to buy a cafeteria lunch, a unbelieveable treat for me. One of those kids invited me to her birthday party at Doeville. The unadorned disgrace this invitation brought upon me is illuminated in the chapter below.
There was, of course, a lighter side to all this time spent on the course, a profitable side in fact. Here’s a snapshot of the money machine that became my personal ATM on hot summer days when the rabbits were scarce and the golfers were plentiful. This is, for all you non-golfers out there, a simple device for cleaning your golf ball that may be mud-spattered or grass-stained. But for me, this handy little machine turned a lost golf ball into 10 cents, 15 cents, or if fate would present to me a pristine Titleist or Callaway ball in a thicket, even 25 cents!
I became expert at judging where best to look for golf balls that had been badly hit off tee shots or poorly judge iron strokes from the fairway. Finding these balls as I trudged through the bushes and sometimes waded into the ponds was a bit like hunting for Easter eggs. Just when you were about to give up hope, when you were tired and sweaty and scratched from the bushes and intimidated by the prospect of stumbling upon a rattlesnake or a coyote in the underbrush, the white globe would appear in front of you as if by magic.
You reach for it, give it a quick spit-clean, thrilled if it isn’t sliced or chipped or gouged, and race to the nearest ATM to give if the full scrub ‘n buff, and then wait for the “customers” to amble your way or drive up in their fancy electric carts.
Needless to say, for a writer like me, I’ve often looked back on these childhood experiences over the years and considered many times the implications of what a “member of the club” meant to me then and means to me now. I’ve joked with myself using Groucho Marx’s line, “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member,” and I’ve considered the deeper philisophical implications of membership in a club that comes with a dress code by reciting Thoreau’s caution: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.”
The truth is, Nettie and I joined the Woodland Hills Country Club for the same reason we took up sailing and joined the St. Thomas Yacht Club when we arrived in St. Thomas in 2005…to expand our horizons, increase our social interactions and most importantly to stay active and challenge ourselves as the years roll on.
The Woodland Hills course was designed over eighty years ago and is truly a beautiful, park-like presence only a few minutes from our house. I especially delight in arriving in the early morning when the shadows are long and the dew is fresh upon the grass and the air is scented with oak and eucalyptus. I’m already buddies with a large red-tail hawk who roosts near the driving range and exercises his wings in ready for his long day of flight. We nod to each other as we warm up.
Nettie and I are taking lessons, learning humility mostly in the face of this difficult game. She says I’m a natural, my hand-eye coordination a result of my bow-hunting youth. I laugh to think of what I’d do if I saw a young kid stalking rabbits with his bow drawn as I was about to line up a putt.
I haven’t yet been approached by a golf ball hawker with a pocketful of freshly scrubbed Titleists or Callaways, offering me a chance to buy back my own balls at a discount.
When I do see him, I’ll ask the kid if he recognizes me. He’ll give me a confused look as he puts the balls back in his pocket.
Then I’ll say, “You don’t, huh? Well, I’m the member of the club that you’ll be one day. And you can take that to the bank.”
Chapter 29 – Character Assassin
I kept working hard at being popular at Portola Jr. High School, wearing the right clothes, being nice to everyone. By the Eighth Grade I decided to run for Treasurer of the school since the most popular kids were in Student Government. I gave a funny speech about being unable to pronounce my name, Zajaczkowski, and I came up with a catchy campaign slogan, Bank On Frank, to tie in with the treasurer theme, which Mary helped me write on hundreds of 3×5 cards that I passed out to everyone at nutrition and lunch.
And I won! I could hardly believe it.
Mr. Walker was the teacher in charge of Student Council and took us out to a victory lunch at The Oak Room restaurant in Encino. It was the first time I’d gone out to a restaurant with tablecloths and silverware in my whole life. I was sitting with the most popular kids at Portola. Danny Stein was the new Student Body President, Craig Miller the Vice President, and the girl sitting next to me, Diane Brown, was the Secretary; she had been Treasurer last year.
I wouldn’t say I was Mr. Popular at the table, most of the other kids ignored me, but Diane was kind; and even though she was a bit chubby with puffy arms and a little roll of fat under her chin, she was cute with boobs a lot bigger than a skinny thirteen-year-old girl would have. Besides, I needed to pay attention to her cues—which fork to pick up for the salad, which plate for the hard-crusted white rolls, which knife for the butter. Stuff like that.
After lunch, she handed me an envelope.
“I’m having a birthday party at Doeville Country Club this Saturday,” she said smiling.
Wow, I thought to myself, Doeville Country Club!
“Thanks,” I said a little too eager, taking the invitation, “Thanks a lot.”
It’s really happening, I almost said out loud. Like I planned. Like a dream, I’m moving into the life I want, out of my junky life. I’ve gotten through lunch okay, and now I’m
being invited to the country club for a birthday party. Too cool!
I’m glad I didn’t open the embossed invitation until I was alone. I mean, I knew I’d have to ride my bike there, no way was I going to chance having my dad’s car spotted or him in it. So I didn’t care when the party started or ended as I read through the invitation. But what stopped me cold, and what I couldn’t have hidden on my face in front of others was the very last line of the invitation: Dinner Jacket Required. Dinner Jacket? I said out loud walking home after school. Where the hell am I going to get a dinner jacket? I didn’t have enough money in the middle of the month from my paper route for that.
Then I got an idea, and like Andy Griffith used to say on TV, it seemed like a good idea at the time. You could even call it a genius idea. I decided I would “find” a jacket, and where’s a better place to look than at the Lost & Found at school? I mean, even if I couldn’t find the perfect dinner jacket, I was sure there’d be something close enough to be acceptable.
The next day I went to the Lost & Found near the cafeteria run by Mrs. Gersmann, a beefy lady with bad breath. She knew I was Treasurer. I was somewhat famous on campus with my long last name, but she did seem a tad suspicious when I picked a dark brown and black plaid jacket off the coat rack.
“Did you lose it at the Council Dance last Friday?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I took it off after dancing. I got really hot. My mom wasn’t so happy when I came home without it.” I had to force myself to shut up. Going on too long is a sure sign of lying.
It was a big coat, at least on me, which made it look a little like a lumberjack coat but it did have lapels with three buttons down the front and two on the sleeves.
“It looks nice,” she said like she didn’t really mean it.
I didn’t say another word, just filled out the Found Receipt.
As I was leaving, I heard yelling and saw two kids pushing each other, a fight just beginning so that everybody started gathering round. Then I heard a piercing voice of a girl.
“Kick his ass! Kick him in the balls!” It was an ugly voice, shrill, echoing in the lunch area.
The girl was wearing a pink mohair sweater with a large fishnet weave so you could see her black bra underneath with little pink roses along the straps. Her hair was ratted high up on her head, and her eyes were black and blue with makeup.
“Kick him in the balls!” she screamed again, her greaser girlfriends squealing and hooting with her, “Kick his ass! Kick his ass!”
I almost didn’t recognize her at first. Then all at once, I did. It was Michelle who was screaming, with her friends egging her on. I hadn’t seen her in awhile. She’d been out of school with mono, which you get from kissing all night long with too many guys. She looked like her sisters now, like she’d taken some kind of drug that changed her completely from a new girl in town into a cheap girl from the poor side of the tracks.
She didn’t see me as I hurried away, and I was glad we didn’t stay girlfriend/boyfriend. She sure wouldn’t fit in with the kids at the country club dance I was going to. She wouldn’t fit into my new scene at all.
It was dark as I pedaled up Mecca about 7:00, cars whizzing by me, headlights sparkling off the silver bands I’d clipped onto my pant legs to keep them from getting caught in the gear changer. It was colder than I thought it would be and I was glad to have on a warm “dinner jacket” even though I had to roll up the sleeves to keep them from slipping over my brake grips.
I pedaled on, thinking back to the time I’d been up this road in the dark with Henry, on foot in the early dawn, with razor-tipped deer arrows on our bows, planning on bagging a big old buck. We didn’t see a deer all day, not even a doe or fawn. We were singing Duke of Earl to keep our spirits up. That seemed a world away from tonight, an eon away from the me I was becoming, all dressed up and heading to a party inside the Country Club, not stalking game out on the hillsides. And tonight I was singing Beatles songs, Do You Want To Know A Secret? It Won’t Be Long? All I’ve Got To Do…
Beatlemania had broken out in our neighborhood, like it had all over the world. When I first heard the word Beatles, I thought it was spelled like an insect. I loved Buddy Holly and the Crickets that my brother used to listen to, so it made sense to me to have a group called The Beetles. I went down to the record store next to Fox Market and bought the 45 Single I Want To Hold Your Hand. That’s when I first saw the spelling of Beatles and figured it out, Beat, like a musical beat. The Beatles. Cool.
I watched them on Ed Sullivan with everybody else in the known universe; and when they came over and talked to him, I heard their British accent the girls were swooning over. It meant everything to me that they were British. This new music that was changing everything around me was started by my countrymen. Groups like The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Peter and Gordon, The Hollies, The Kinks, Manfred Mann. All of them from my England, my real home.
I could have cursed my mother then for making me lose my accent in speech classes she forced me and Mary to go to at Nestle Avenue. “Not caw but carrrrrrrr!” I can still hear the speech teacher saying to me, frustrated. Now all I wanted was to talk like John, Paul, George, or Ringo. My brother, John, still had his accent whenever he wanted to use it. I was determined to get mine back and practiced in front of the bathroom mirror, sounding pretty good on some words and not so good on others. Mary thought I sounded ridiculous, phony as could be.
“Give it up,” she laughed in my face, flipping her long bleached hair as she turned up her record player, booming out House Of The Rising Sun.
So I practiced in my bedroom at night, whispering to myself as I fell asleep. Now, as the lights of the Doeville Club came into view up on the hill, I repeated a few phrases I planned on using tonight: “‘ello dere,” I’d say with a Ringo wink to the girls I’d meet. “eh, fancy a drink?” I’d say with a George Harrison smile, all those crooked teeth. I’d pal around with the new guy friends I’d meet tonight, all “me mates ’aving a bloody blast,” as John Lennon would say.
For a moment, just a brief moment, for the first time in my life, I knew I could be somebody like them, some kind of singer, or an actor maybe like my brother, some kind of star. Free and creative. New and unknown. Somehow I could be a part of everything that was changing around me, in the music and the clothes, in the fun the Beatles showed laughing and joking with Ed Sullivan right there in front of the whole world, the whole world be damned if they didn’t approve, the girls and even the guys were screaming for more and more of what was happening in front of their eyes.
Tonight was a start of all that. I’d be a big hit as the British Character of the party. A big star in a big new world.
I hid my bike in a clump of bushes at the bottom of the driveway, and pulled The Beatles’ album Introducing The Beatles from under my shirt that I was giving Diane as a gift. Then I walked quickly up the driveway to the Club parking lot, hiding my face when cars passed me so I wouldn’t be recognized by anyone who’d think I walked to the party. I went up to the front entrance, invitation in my hand. I hesitated. The last time I was here, the first and last, I was standing next to the Cadillac girl. She smiled and I watched her drive away. I shook that image from my head, and pushed open the glass doors.
I expected someone to stop me, to ask me for my invitation, my permission to be here. No one came up, instead kids rushed past, ignoring me, and I decided to follow them deeper down the main corridor where the same glass boxes held the same wonderful stuff for sale. The carpet was soft like I remembered it, and felt good under my shoes. I looked down and saw the silver bike clips still on my pant legs. I ripped them off and stuffed them in the inside pocket of my dinner jacket.
It was Diane. She was standing at the doorway of one of the ballrooms. Did she see me take the bike rings off? God, I hope not.
“Hi,” I say, coming over to her quickly, handing her the album, the birthday paper a little wrinkled.
“Oh, thanks,” she says, setting it on a table behind her that has maybe ten better wrapped albums, probably all the same Beatles’ album.
Her mom’s there, too—diamond earrings and necklace, wearing a gold dress that hugs her like a mermaid’s tail. We shake hands and I give her the invitation. She has a clipboard with a list of names and checks off mine. I like that. My name’s on an official list.
A girlfriend of Diane’s comes up, all friendly.
“Hi, you’re Frank, right?”
“Yeah,” I say and Diane looks embarrassed for a second.
“This is my friend, Sheryl,” she says.
“Hi,” Sheryl smiles at me, almost doing a curtsey.
I’m kind of embarrassed and don’t know what to say, so I’m glad that somebody else comes up and drops off a present and I can slip into the ballroom.
It’s loud, large, and decorated like crazy. Big balloons with Happy Birthday, Diane printed on them, and a sign strung across the whole room with Happy Birthday on it, too. There’s a guy at the front of the room, a DJ, who’s got a stereo with speakers bigger than I’ve ever seen, and he’s playing record after record of fantastic music. Everyone is dancing and eating and laughing.
I say hi to Craig, the Student VP, when he comes up to the sandwich table where I’ve been kind of hanging out by myself, trying not to be too obviously impressed with everything. I’m standing off to one side, eating my second mini-roast beef sandwich. He says hi back, but nothing else. He’s not exactly offering to be friends, and I don’t feel like trying out my accent on him.
There’s another guy I notice far across the room who keeps staring at me. He’s a big oafish guy, familiar looking, but I don’t know from where. I think I saw him at a Portola dance, could even have been the Council Dance, which was open to a bunch of schools in the area. Yeah, maybe there. He keeps looking, but not coming over, so I stay put.
The music the DJ is playing gets better and better. I have to admit I’m not a very good dancer, and scared about it, and wouldn’t even consider doing it, but I’m getting pretty uncomfortable at the food table. Besides, I’ve been practicing at home with Mary showing me how to properly hold a girl’s hand for a slow dance. Mary will ask me if I danced, and I’d rather make a dope of myself here for a few minutes than have her mocking me for a month. I figure I should ask Diane. Everybody else has as if it’s kind of payment for getting invited.
I look around the room for her, and that’s when I see the Cadillac Girl. She’s standing talking to Diane, laughing, holding both her hands. She’s just arrived. That’s it. She’s saying hello to the guest of honor. I’ve spotted her just as she got here. Something made me turn in her direction at that very moment. Suddenly, the DJ plays, I Saw Her Standing There, and I believe this is all meant to be. It’s supposed to happen. That’s why I’m here. It’s some kind of destiny. That’s why I won the election; it’s why I got invited to the party. Found the jacket. That’s why she’s here, too. It’s our time, our night. I’ve got to ask her to dance. I’ve got to. I’m going to.
I walk across the room. Right up to her. God, she’s gorgeous. Older now, like me, a teenager, not a kid in a yellow sweater looking out the back window of an emerald Cadillac Seville. Her hair is brown, and her eyes are brown, too, and they open wider as she notices me, notices I’m walking in her direction. Diane sees her friend turning to me, they both are facing me now.
“’ello, there, Diane,” I say in my best British accent, looking only at the Cadillac girl, “’ello to you, too.”
“Frank, hi,” Diane’s a bit uncomfortable for a second, surprised probably at how much I sound like a Beatle, like the guys singing the song we’re listening to.
“This is Alexis,” Diane says, “and this is Frank.”
Alexis. I’ve never heard a girl called that before. It’s a perfect name for her. She’s one of a kind, I think to myself, for me only.
She’s shy. She nods with a smile, and I’m reminded again of the first time I stood next to her and she nodded so slightly.
“I really like this song,” I say to her, my accent getting a bit garbled, “Would you like to dance?”
I’m amazed the words have come out at all, amazed that I’m standing here, that all this is playing in real life, not on TV or in my fantasies.
She says yes, yes she would. Diane fades into the background of the room with all the other kids who fade into a blur and we dance to The Beatles, my Beatles from England. My mates singing this song for me and Alexis.
We dance to the next song, too, and the one after that. No talking, just dancing. I’m afraid even to look at her too much for fear she might disappear, afraid to stop and take off my dinner jacket, which is making me sweat. Afraid it will all go poof, like a Cinderella dream. But it isn’t a dream. She’s real when I take her hand to turn her, real when I hold her close, dancing slowly to Ferry Cross the Mersey in the darkened ballroom.
We dance on and on, taking a break just to sing Happy Birthday to Diane, not saying a word to each other as we stand watching her open presents. Then we go back to dancing when the music starts again.
At last, though, the party starts ending. I can see waiters clearing stuff off tables. Diane’s mother and father are matching arriving parents with kids. Alexis and I have barely spoken the whole evening. As we walk off the dance floor and back to solid ground, I’m about to ask her where she lives and what her phone number is when the guy who’s been staring at me all night long comes up quickly right in front of us.
“You’re wearing my jacket,” he says loud enough that a couple kids turn around and look at me.
I hesitate. Terrified and pierced instantly all the way to my heart.
“That’s my jacket!” he yells now.
“No, it’s me jacket,” I say in a stupid British-American mess of an accent.
I’m not looking at him. I’m looking at Alexis, and I understand instantly from the blinking of her eyes, the slightest opening of her mouth that she knows I’m lying. I hope desperately she’ll say something to save me, just a word to defend me, please, just a word. Instead, she moves a few inches away, becoming a witness to my murder.
“Yeah, it is!” his voice is nasty now. “You stole it at the Portola dance last week!”
I just shake my head, not knowing what to say.
“My name’s written on the inside pocket. Clear as day. My name! Steven Richards!”
“It’s my jacket,” I croak, trying to walk around him, but he moves in front of me, reaching for the lapels of the goddamn dinner jacket.
I take a step back so that he misses me with his stubby fingers.
“Give it to me, asshole!” he screams, and now he has
everyone’s attention, all of them hurrying over, huddling around us. The whole ballroom has its eyes on me.
“Take it off,” he says growing tougher from the strength of my weakness.
A waiter and Diane’s mother push their way through the crowd.
“What’s happening here?” the waiter demands.
“He’s a liar, a chickenshit liar!” he screams at me.
“Stop yelling like that,” Diane’s mother says, and I see Diane coming through to the front of the crowd, the Happy Birthday sign tilting down from the ceiling behind her.
“What’s he talking about?” her mother asks.
I never hear Diane’s answer because I make a quick-walk retreat through the opening she’s made in the crowd. I walk faster and faster until I break into a full run along the softly carpeted corridor. I run down the stairs, where an old couple dressed in tennis clothes separates to let me through, then I run across the tiled lobby, bash into the glass doors, luckily not breaking them, but throwing them open as I race across the parking lot, ducking into the hedges that border it, lying in the dirt, waiting and watching the lobby doors to see who’s coming after me.
A few minutes pass. No one comes, but I’m too afraid to come out of the hedges, so I crawl on my hands and knees, tearing up my only dress pants on a sprinkler head, and ripping the right shoulder of the jacket on the bougainvillea thorns. Then I scoot on my butt down the landscaped hillside, duck across the entrance driveway and practically dive into the brush on the other side where I’ve hidden my bike.
I’ll stay here all night if I have to. They might even call the police. Jesus! I’m not leaving until every goddamn last one of these fucking bastards leaves the party. Nobody’s going to see me riding my bike down Mecca Avenue so they can hoot and honk at me as they pass, especially Alexis, especially her. She’s not going to see me like this.
I sit there in the cattails and mud by the side of the road as the fancy cars start to file past me a few at a time. Soon, there’s a thick line of them, white headlights turning into red taillights as they pass. I stay low so they can’t see me, one after the other, slowly filing down the Doeville Country Club driveway like at a funeral procession. Like the car upon car that lined up for President Kennedy’s funeral last year after his assassination. Every hope for the country over in just a minute or two. Every dream dying with him like they said. They called it the end of Camelot on the TV news. Yeah, that make-believe time in England when everything was a dream come true. Then suddenly everything was over. Just like I felt now. Dead and buried.
I don’t know how long I sat there in the weeds with crickets and spiders crawling all over me until I felt safe enough to push my bike out and start pedaling as fast as I could down Mecca. Of course I forgot to put my bike clips on and nearly killed myself when my pant leg got caught in the gear changer and just about flipped my bike over. I came to a screeching stop under a street lamp and opened my jacket, pulling my bike clips out of the inside pocket.
And there it was, printed neat as could be, Steven Richards, on the label just above the pocket opening. How could I not have seen it before?
Disgusted. I threw my bike onto the street, tore off the stupid jacket, and ran down the steep embankment that led into the hills where I hunted. I didn’t go far because it was too dark to see and my eyes were blurry anyway. I tossed the jacket under a bush, got down on my knees and clawed a shallow grave for it, then I covered it with the loose dirt, and swept leaves over it, burying it as best as I could.
As I stumbled back up the embankment, I swore I would deny the truth of that jacket to the end of my days. I’d never admit it wasn’t mine. No one could prove me wrong. No one could prove me a liar.
But I knew no one needed to prove it. All that mattered was that I knew it. I knew what I’d done, and what I couldn’t undo. Above all, I knew now that I would never be a member of their club.
— Excerpted from Passage From England, a memoir by Frank Zajaczkowski
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