Chapter 1: Spring 1969
Chapter 1 SPRING 1969
EDDIE OTERO STEPPED ONTO THE corner of Seventh Street and D Avenue just as Mr. Lou Villar inched his red-and-silver Corvette into a parking space in front of the Coronado High School campus. No matter how many times Eddie saw the car, he always stopped to gaze at the lines, soak in the color, listen to the sound of the engine, feel the speed of the vehicle while it idled.
Mr. Villar stepped out and ran a hand through his dark hair. He wore a crisp, white button-down shirt with a pen positioned at the edge of the pocket, and a narrow black tie. As usual, a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer shades covered his eyes—even on cloudy days. Even inside the classroom.
“Hey, Eddie,” Mr. Villar said as he tapped the driver’s-side door into place and glided toward the sidewalk. Eddie, nearing the end of his freshman year, was not in any of Mr. Villar’s Spanish classes. But they were acquainted through Eddie’s involvement in water polo and swimming, sports Mr. Villar had helped coach—along with basketball—since he’d become a teacher at Coronado High School in 1965.
Like other swimmers’, Eddie’s hair, bleached and wispy from chlorine and salt water and sun, flew in all directions, like a dandelion in the breeze. Not that he ever looked in the mirror. He just found himself jerking his head to the side to move tousled strands out of his eyes. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d visited the barber uptown. But it didn’t matter. The school enforced no dress code, just an expected social norm—unless you were a drug addict or a complete dork. A few years earlier kids had come to school as if on their way to a job interview: modest mid-calf-length skirts and sweater sets for the girls, collared dress shirts and short hair for the guys. But that seemed like a generation ago.
As Eddie listened to Mr. Villar encourage him to work harder at swimming and water polo (something about wasting his potential as a capable freshman who could become a team leader), the campus came to life. Students parked their Schwinn beach cruisers against palm trees on Seventh Street; some wrapped cable locks around skinnier trunks, and two or three used the pole of a stop sign, fitting their bikes together like puzzle pieces. A lucky few who drove to school pulled into the remaining empty spaces along the curb on D Avenue and Sixth and Seventh Streets.
Eddie adjusted the backpack slung over one shoulder, hooked a thumb under the strap, and strolled toward the classroom past fellow students gathering on the quad according to well-defined cliques. Constructed in 1922, the original Coronado High School had been torn down. In 1960 the city floated bonds, and a demolition derby of sorts made room for a nondescript midcentury structure painted a faded yellow. Eddie thought it looked like the color of mustard that had dried and crusted on your kitchen counter after about three weeks.
The Coronado Islander mascot—a tiki reminiscent of the figures on Easter Island—stood on the edge of the patio, looking badass. A gift from the class of 1960 (probably mourning the disappearance of their old school), the tiki appeared to be constructed from rough lava rock scooped up after a volcanic eruption. It was a big deal, but Eddie secretly wondered if someone had found it at a street market in Tijuana.
When lunch finally arrived, Eddie was fiddling with a combination he couldn’t quite remember when a familiar voice traveled down the open-air hall, echoing off the metal lockers.
“Eddiieee! Oscar’s. Right now. Let’s go.”
Once in a while, Robert Lahodny showed up to say hello to various teachers and visit Lou Villar, his favorite, or eat lunch with Eddie. Despite graduating the year before, nobody minded that Bob, or “Lights,” as some called him, wandered around campus whenever he pleased. A former athlete and class president, with dark hair and Steve McQueen-like charisma, Bob had been a good student and yearned for those glory days. He enjoyed the short bursts of recognition that accompanied a stroll across campus. Eddie followed Bob to his car, threw his pack in the backseat, climbed into the passenger’s side, and turned on the radio.
“Hey, uh, I only have thirty cents,” Eddie mumbled. “Can you spot me lunch?”
“Tell you what: Use that to buy me a gallon of gas on the way, and I’ll get your lunch.”
They pulled into Oscar’s on C Avenue, a few blocks from the high school, and immediately looked around to see who else was there. A waitress approached the car and bent over to write their order on a slip of paper, giving them an excellent view. “So?” she asked.
Eddie paused, trying to slow the process while he gazed down her shirt. “Um, I can’t decide. What do you recommend?”
She smirked. “Really?”
Bob shook his head. “Sorry, we’ll have the usual.”
“Right. I’m new and don’t know your ‘usual.’?”
“Burger, Coke, fries. Two of each.”
“Make that three fries,” Eddie interjected.
“You got it,” she said.
In the bustling lunch scene, Bob and Eddie overheard people talk about meeting at the Long Bar that weekend. Infamous for the ease with which a minor could purchase alcohol, the Long Bar had become the go-to location for parties and even better day-after narratives.
“Wanna go?” Bob asked.
“Definitely,” Eddie said, already considering the story he would offer his parents. Benefit of the Long Bar: no carding. Drawback: It was in Mexico. A small detail, however. The trek to a different country amounted to little more than a half-hour drive, with minimal interference, as long as you didn’t breathe on the Border Patrol officer at the threshold to the United States. Tijuana sat, just barely, on the other side of the international border. It felt like California, only not quite.
As the drinking hole’s name suggested, the bar itself stretched across the entire interior, facilitating conversation, dancing (on the floor and on the actual bar), and the most uninhibited entertainment a kid from Coronado could conjure.
“Remember last time? Lizzy, man…” Eddie drifted. “She was messed up. And when that happens, she shows stuff, you know? Maybe we’ll get a flash of boob again.”
“You didn’t see anything. I was there.”
“Did so. Hey, I saw that girl Kathy earlier today, waiting for Mr. Villar.” Eddie shook his head and exhaled loudly. For a second Eddie wondered how it would feel to have a girl like that wait for his arrival, giggle at his clever remarks, wrap her arms behind his neck, press against him. “That guy has everything.”
“Lou? Yeah, I’m bummed he’s leaving.”
“He’s always been nice to me. Like, genuine. That’s why I hang out on campus. My stepfather… I don’t know. He’s always busy anyway. Lou makes time for you. He’s like a father, brother, and a friend.”
“Yeah, he has a way of making you feel, I don’t know, important. Why’s he leaving?”
“Not sure. He might stay another year, but I think he’s kind of done. He’s been a great coach and teacher. Everyone thinks so.”
“I heard rumors about him and Kathy.”
Bob shrugged. “Probably true.”
“Other girls too. Since he lives close to school, he takes them back to his house at lunch to ‘study.’?”
“I heard they practically beg to be invited over! What’s he supposed to do with that? Seriously, would you say no?” Their food arrived, moist and steaming. The boys shoved a handful of French fries into their mouths, chewing while tearing the wrappers from around their burgers in short bursts to avoid burning their fingers.
“Maybe I should be a teacher,” said Eddie.
“Don’t mean to sound harsh, Eddie, but you actually need to be a good student to become a teacher. Lou’s smart.”
“Buddy, you’re a different kind of smart. Good on the street. Not so great at a desk.”
“How does a Spanish teacher in his twenties drive a car like that and have a smoking-hot homecoming-court girl waiting around for him? I mean, teachers don’t make that much money, do they?”
“Maybe seven or eight thousand dollars a year. Not bad. But I think it’s because he likes his students. The teachers at Coronado High School are dedicated. Really. They want to make a difference, and all that.”
“So how’s Mr. Villar do it?”
Bob shrugged. “Look at him. He could be an actor. Girls love coaches. Plus, he’s personable.”
Eddie tilted his head. “I’m personable.”
“Actually, you are. But sometimes you act like an oaf. A cretin loaded with swimming talent, letting it all go to waste. And you do ridiculous stuff, like stealing a can of tuna during a field trip to a factory. Which I heard was really cat food, by the way. And the teacher made you eat it?”
Eddie laughed. “No comment.”
“Just letting the junior high legend live on, huh?”
Bob created a pile of ketchup and began sliding fries through it. “Lucky you’d left Sacred Heart by then. Your knuckles would’ve been bleeding for a month after the nuns beat the crap out of them with a ruler.”
Mouth full, Eddie said, “I want that.” A piece of burger fell to the wrapper in front of him.
“You want what? To go back to Catholic school?”
“Funny. I want what Mr. Villar has. Fast car, lots of pretty girls, style, people who like me.”
“Well, you have one of those! Let me tell you something: He has more than that. Something intangible, something nobody can define. Anyway, it all starts with money.”
Eddie pushed as much of the burger into his mouth as possible, including the stray piece; a thin streak of ketchup stretched across his cheek. “I know.” Almost choking on the food, he gulped from the straw in the soda, swallowed hard, then grabbed another fistful of fries. “I know.”
“Or maybe it’s the other way around. When you have that charm and motivation, the money comes to you.” Bob moved a bag of fries away from Eddie. “What’s that grin? Makes you look like you have some amazing idea.”
“I have a million ideas.”
“Yeah? Maybe take two or three of them to the classroom some time.”
“Nah.” Eddie laughed again.
“The thing about Lou is that even if he doesn’t have tons of money, he makes it seem like he does. Like he was born with it, you know?” Bob finished his Coke, then added, “Hey, want to take the ferry over to the Padres game next weekend?”
Eddie nodded. “Definitely.”
“Can you believe the bridge is almost done? Takes a hell of a long time to build two miles over the water.”
“We should be the first ones to drive it. Or maybe walk across. Or ride bikes. Take the last ferry, and then come back over the bridge.”
“Some club is already doing that. They call themselves the Pomona Park Panthers, I think. So the idea’s taken.”
“Athletes, Eddie. And class presidents. Good students. Yeah, those guys.”
“Whatever. We’ll do something better. Like swim across the bay. That’d be gnarly.”
“Right. They did that already. Got picked up by the Coast Guard. You didn’t hear? It seems the US Navy doesn’t appreciate kids swimming in the path of aircraft carriers.” Bob wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Come on, lunch is over. You don’t need another tardy. I’m watching out for you, man. Speaking of swimming, you going to practice this afternoon?”
Eddie shrugged. “Maybe. There’s a swell at North. So maybe surfing.”
Bob shook his head. “I don’t know what to do with you, Otero. Lou told me to get on you about training.” As they climbed back into the car, he turned the plastic crank to lower the window, then spun the volume button on the radio. “Favorite new song.”
Almost simultaneously they started singing “Touch Me” with the Doors while Eddie drummed to the beat on the sun-faded dashboard.
I’m gonna love you
Till the stars fall from the sky for you and I.
Bob yelled over the music, “I always thought I’d run into Jim Morrison around town some time.” Like Bob and Eddie, the rocker had lived in Coronado.
“Right, like maybe at Marco’s Pizza?”
“Or Cora Mart! We’d be, like, ‘Jim, what’s up? Want some of my Abba Zaba?’?” They both laughed before jumping back into the catchy chorus, singing out the open windows until they arrived at school.
As Eddie shuffled into typing class, dropped his backpack to the floor, and eased his large frame into the small seat, his mind began to wander.
“One-minute tests today,” said Mr. Valliere, a lithe, elegant man whose smile lit up a radius of forty feet. Students called him Mr. V. to differentiate him from Mr. Villar, even though they did not resemble each other in the least. “Now, folks, I need to ask you not to pound on the keys. We have only so many typewriters, and they cost money. And my budget is gone for the year. So let’s see if we can learn to type faster and more accurately with a little grace, shall we?”
His fingers poised on the keys, a thought far more interesting than the timed test occurred to Eddie. “Hey,” he whispered to Samantha, the girl who sat in front of him. “How much you think these things sell for?”
“We’re doing a test, Eddie,” she said with a glance to the front of the room, but without turning around. “Can you stop talking? Please?”
He rolled his eyes. Girls never gave him the time of day.
Twenty seconds after they started the one-minute test, his paper lurched and wrinkled. The same thing happened to the guy next to him, George something, and Eddie jumped up to help him, using just enough force to get George back on track.
George looked over at Eddie when the test ended. “You didn’t have to do that. But thanks.”
“No problem. Hey, I have a question. How much does a typewriter cost?” His fingers toyed with the lever that advanced the paper to the next line of typing.
“I don’t know. Around a hundred dollars. Maybe more.”
“No shit. Seriously?” Minimum wage still hovered around $1.65 an hour. One typewriter represented about a week and a half of work.
His face impassive, George examined the paragraph he had typed.
“Compare your paragraph with the one in the text,” Mr. V. said. “Be sure to mark every mistake. You’ll want to improve your score in the next round.”
“Hey,” Eddie persisted. “Another question.”
George glanced over at him while still managing to keep his attention on the front of the room. Nobody wanted to irritate Mr. V. Not because he would get upset—well, he might, though his good nature usually prevailed—but because everyone liked him so much.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear what Mr. V. is saying. I want an A in this class.”
“No danger of that not happening! So… is that why you look miserable all the time?”
George’s mouth fell open, and Samantha turned around to offer a scolding. “Eddie, leave him alone. Don’t you know about his best friend’s father, who’s practically an uncle to him? He’s a Navy pilot, and his plane was shot down by the North Vietnamese. The families are, like, in mourning.”
“Whoa,” Eddie exhaled. “He’s dead?”
“The family doesn’t know if he’s dead or alive,” Samantha continued in her self-appointed role of proxy. “They’ve heard from him once. He’s a prisoner of war. But nobody knows what’s going on. It’s a total mystery. Don’t you know about the other families? There are six or seven from Coronado. And they’re all heroes. Not that you would know anything about that,” she said finally.
“What is so important back there?” the teacher inquired.
“Sorry, Mr. V.,” Samantha said. “We were just talking about Vietnam and our concern for the prisoners of war from Coronado.”
“Of course. It’s terrible. But we’re not going to solve the problems in North Vietnam right this minute, in typing class. So shall we concentrate on the work at hand?”
Samantha nodded. “Yes, Mr. V.”
“Sorry,” Eddie mumbled under his breath. Vietnam was a huge deal in Coronado. How could it not be? You couldn’t turn around in this town or step into the Mexican Village restaurant without bumping into a four-star admiral. You couldn’t go to sleep or wake up without hearing F-4s landing on North Island, which covered two-thirds of the peninsula and was considered the birthplace of naval aviation.
“I thought you said your father was in the military,” George whispered.
“Right,” Eddie said loudly enough for the teacher to turn toward them. His father had a job on the base, but wasn’t actually in the Navy. Nothing to be ashamed of, Eddie convinced himself. Work meant paychecks—something he wanted and had not yet managed. But it was easy to get intimidated by all the kids of high-ranking officers in this town.
“Less talking, Mr. Otero,” Mr. V. said, his patience starting to wane. “More typing.”
Eddie’s last class of the day was, mercifully, ceramics. In the studio he settled onto the stool and began kicking the pottery wheel. He enjoyed the feel of wet clay seeping through his fingers; this class relaxed him, particularly when he spotted the admiring glances that other students directed toward his latest project.
The art teacher stopped and watched Eddie’s motions, pulled her hair back into a long ponytail, then made one gentle correction by pushing on Eddie’s thumb to form a more dramatic concave shape in the center.
“Nice work, Eddie,” she said. “Did I tell you that the vase on display in the front office is up for another award? You have a real eye for design and balance.”
“Thanks.” Eddie didn’t care about awards with his ceramics. Making each piece helped him feel calm and focused. And his favorite part was giving away the finished projects to family and friends. He liked the surprise he saw when the recipient realized the kid with the broad shoulders and goofy grin and disheveled hair had created something so intricate, useful, and attractive.
“You might be able to turn this into a business one day,” she added.
“Hmm,” he said, letting the idea hang for a second before releasing it as an impossibility. The pottery wheel probably wouldn’t provide a business platform, he knew, but it always sparked ideas. And with each passing minute, he shaped and stored the information he had learned in typing class for future use—just in case.