“Once on a High and Windy Hill….”


Over the weekend, I was invited to a wake held in a family home somewhere up high in the hills of Sherman Oaks. 

The house was set at the end of an ascending private driveway.

But it was not an exclusive house, the intimidating kind we imagine these days. I saw no cameras or threatening signs. There was no menace, only hugs and handshakes.

It was a 1952 ranch, un-gated, welcomingly decrepit, covered in shingles, set atop a ridge overlooking The San Fernando Valley, and a view to a vast, wild nature preserve. It was, indeed, charming, an adjective now banished from most residential dwellings in Los Angeles.

Inside was a dark, sprawling, old house with mourners, family members and friends, a table set with food, and more people sitting out on a flagstone patio, on plastic chairs, or, around the corner, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. A lazy hammock sat in a dirt yard under many trees; a yard that lead up into a steep trail, also a part of the property, with mature oaks and wild grasses and an open steel trash can with discarded bottles and cans. 

Back inside the house, I walked into the kitchen, still furnished with the original knotty pine cabinets, and a 1970s Tiffany lamp that hung over a small breakfast nook.

There was a pamphlet on a table printed for the deceased, Angelica, who was born May 14, 1948 and died March 25, 2019 leaving behind a husband and two grown sons.

A photo of her, taken perhaps in the early 1970s, when she was about 25, showed a radiant, dark-haired woman.

I remarked to one guest that I expected young Natalie Wood, circa 1955, to walk out and greet us. Then, overhearing me, a very old man with a hearing aid, white-haired and frail, spoke up.

“I dated Natalie Wood,” he said. 

He went on to talk about his one date with the young actress. He called her home the next week to take her out again. But her mother said her daughter “was out with Jimmy.” 

And that was the end of a beautiful friendship.

I spoke again with the widower, smartly dressed in an old, well-made, V-neck cashmere sweater, in a heft and weight no longer made, and I offered my condolences.

Unsure of where to go, I wandered out into a tool shed in a room neither indoor nor outdoor. Decades of equipment was hung on walls, piled up on tables, and stacked six or seven feet deep. There was multiples of everything: clippers and rakes, ladders and screwdrivers, hammers and spray cans.

This was a house where you might have gone to a wild high school party one weekend at 16 or 17. There would have been 50 or 100 people, a live band playing, kegs of beer, people sneaking off into dark trails or behind closed doors to get high or get off. Vomiting, burgling, breaking, burning, the party would have ended with police cars, screaming parents and fistfights.

Our California Dream, a nostalgia for it, is a fantasy so intoxicating and so mesmerizing that we lust for it, we fight for it, and are consumed with getting it, but yet we must not devour it all at once, for it will eventually devour us.

How I miss those thrilling years I never had here.

Two days ago, I was wandering here, around the California I never knew, but the one that existed until very recently, a place where people never threw anything away, a region where houses were intertwined with wild nature, a state of life where people were high, intoxicated, sensual, creative, and building; an industrious land where leisure was work and work was leisure and no grown man ever outgrew childhood, happiness was just one hit song away, and every night at six a cold bottle of Chablis was uncorked.

Two days ago, Sunday, I took a platonic liking to a (middle-aged, how I hate that word) woman who looked like she was born inside a VW van, grew up in Malibu, and went to school barefoot near a rocky stream. She had the glazed look of someone who had too many compliments and too much stimuli thrown at her, so she withdrew, behind vagueness, to a guarded, opaque sensitivity in an emotional jewel-box.

I took her photo in the little hallway behind the kitchen. She was one of the cousins. 

Two days ago, I stopped to sit down with those not so young, boyish guys drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. My plastic chair kept bending, like it was about to snap, so I got up and went out to the driveway, and started to say good-bye to the host. We hugged and promised to get together soon.

But that house, a type marked for extinction, built for $16,000, purchased for $88,000, it haunts me. 

A verdant, natural, nestling, cozy refuge from the city, destined for the bulldozer and the investor. Why can’t it just stay the way it is? Why must people die? And why must their houses, their stories and their hearts fall into oblivion?  

Rise up dead people and sing again!

Last Sunday, up on Marble Drive, I was somewhere special. I met a ruined beauty still singing the old songs. She sang for me too, and I listened. And I hope to go back soon to hear her sing again.

7 thoughts on ““Once on a High and Windy Hill….”

  1. I enjoyed this story enough to ask if you could extend it to a longer format. There’s a novella in there… the narrator explores different characters in multiple eras. I especially love the nostalgia for something you personally never experienced (and a world that probably never existed exactly as imagined.) That’s a peculiar and potent theme. Ren fair cos play for 1972?

    I’m old enough to have memories of Topanga Canyon as a kid in the early 70s. The adults (still in their 20s) had a languid pot induced attitude. That era had it’s charms. But it wasn’t perfect.

    Someday people might look back and dream wistfully about our era. These are the good old days.

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    1. I agree with your points. I don’t think I’d like to land in a room with smokers, and ride fast in a polluting car without a seat belt. I guess I’m just novelizing a setting and transposing my imagination onto it. That time along with the 80s had many odious things.

      Watching “Sixteen Candles” (1984) on Netflix last night I had to admit I cringed at a lot of its humor. I almost felt like a delicate snowflake as I saw jokes made about date rape, blacks, female anatomy and Asians. So maybe we’ve become aware of some bad things which is good.

      But any part of our life we lived when young is sacred in our minds and even the cruelty seems adventurous and thrilling.

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  2. Why does the woman in the picture look familiar to me? Have I seen her onscreen, or just wanted to, subconsciously? Great description of her…

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  3. Hey! I went to that party! It was in Ventura, and it was just as you described it. Garage band doing their best Grand Funk Railroad imitation. =) Those parties were not unique to California, of course, they are long gone everywhere I’m sure.

    With the imminent demise of that last rustic slice of Sherman Oaks……down here in the OC there is Balboa Island, a part of Newport Beach in Newport Harbor. It’s a mostly man-made, built up with sand dredged from the harbor early in the 1900s. Lots averaging 2500-3000 SF initially sold for well under $1000, mostly to comfortably well-off LA business types to construct beach cottages. That lasted up through the 50s.

    Today, nearly all the cottages are gone, especially those on the perimeter with harbor/beach access. Every new home is larger than the next, fully maximizing height and bulk limitations. Exterior walls are set to the inch from allowable lot-line set-backs. Prices are for these are typically in the $5M to $8M range. Homes in the island’s “interior” are $2M to $5M.

    Personally I don’t find it all that much of an improvement.

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      1. Thx…I’ll hafta grab some popcorn. James Mason, and Garfield (in his second-to-last movie before he died….at 39! Reckless is on the UTube……Breaking Point in one of those dopey screen-in-a-screen jobs, but it looks more watchable than most I’ve seen.

        For years I didn’t have much need for a remote….it just stayed on Turner. I’m the kind of guy who watched “Kiss Me Deadly” as much for the contemporary shots of mid-50s Bunker Hill as anything else. =)

        And here I thought I knew a lot about old movies. “More than most; not as much as some”, I’d say. You must be one of the “some”. LOL

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