Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Monterey, California?!?!!!" Our creation story

"Tell the story," someone will say, on rarer and rarer occasion, and we tell it.

Most people and families, I expect, have the story. The fundamental tale, the progenitor, the what-if-it-hadn't-happened? story.

On the 27th anniversary of Nancy being willing to marry me, this is the story of how we became one.

It took place two years before our wedding — we have been together as best friends now more than half our lives.

Our friendship began when we worked together as journalism majors on The Mustang Daily at Cal Poly. I met Nancy while she was busy on deadline (to write the only story, she will add here, for which she won an award for student journalism). Soon that year we had more leisure time, and spent every moment we could together at Poly Royal, the May weekend when the entire campus turned into an open house (which is what it's called now anyway, since alcohol-fueled riots in 1990 nearly killed the event; another story for another time).

The school year ended. "Maybe I'll see you over the summer," I said. As soon as I said it, I wanted to make it true.

I had just gotten a shark-nosed Volkswagen squareback with my parents' help, so now I had motive and means. The opportunity came around my birthday. My loving family often and inexplicably felt need to mark my birthday by going to the Santa Barbara County Fair, which was held not in Santa Barbara (too picayune for that crowd) but in Santa Maria, in the north county. The fairgrounds was a glorified parking lot behind a JC Penney store.

Even if it was the fairest fair of all — which it wasn't; maybe 40th out of 58 counties — it was not the appropriate birthday destination more than once, not for anyone older than nine, anyway. For this birthday, I needed to escape.

Time to do something different, I told my parents. Just take a daylong drive, maybe. Being a lifelong Goody Two-shoes paid off: My parents said OK.

Get out of Lompoc by, oh, 8 a.m., make it to Auburn by lunch, say thanks and 'bye and drive back by around dinnertime. That was my plan — my deluded, naive, star-dusted plan.

The drive, we have learned over the many years, really takes more than seven hours, one way.

Lunchtime came and went on that first trip north, and I wasn't even halfway, having just dipped out of the Kettleman Hills into the San Joaquin Valley. Though not a stranger to this strange land — we'd gone through on many family trips to the Sierra — this was the first time I had a front row seat and had to pay attention to it all.

I might as well have been walking in space.

The miles droned on. The gray-white hills never seemed to move, nor did Auburn ever seem to get closer … until many, many hours after lunch, somehow I navigated my way through the macramé of freeway cloverleafs that was Sacramento, and ascended the foothills in the softening summer night.

Finally, Auburn! Now, how in the world to find Nancy?! In the dusk! I had packed neither telephone number nor address, just a map and memory of the city name. Of course, the only solution was to drive around in search of a miracle.

It came soon enough in the last of daylight, in the form of a green Volkswagen beetle, which crossed in front of me at an intersection. Who was at the wheel? None other than Nancy … well, maybe Nancy … unless it was her identical twin, Carol (sounds like a bad soap opera by now, doesn't it?). In the absence of any other sign or clue, I followed the VW to St. Joseph's Catholic Church, parked near her and followed her inside, taking a pew behind her and waiting until she finished her prayers to say:

"Excuse me, you look so much like Carol Lewis, it's scary." Clever me: If it was Nancy, she'd laugh and we'd hug. If it was Carol, she'd say something like, "I am Carol Lewis," and I'd explain everything. See!

(Later, Carol would say she thought I was a stalker intent on taking her tires; such innocents we were …)

Nancy was at work, Carol said, and Carol was on her way to work after Mass herself, but she would lead me back to her house and introduce me to their family.

All but two of the Nancy's 10 brothers and sisters were living at home then; older brothers Tim and Phil were out on their own. Without Nancy to guide and interpret, I was immersed in the chaos of a regular evening in the household — two small brothers, Stephen, just two or three years old, and Greg; a sister, Sharon, and brother, Joel, in the middle grades (I was like an insect in a jar, a thing of intense curiosity, to them); three more sisters, Kathleen, Joan and Susan, in high school (maybe Joan was home from college then?) futzing mostly unseen in the downstairs part of the house; and their mom and dad, all of whom welcomed me with warmth and expectation, and not a hint of trepidation that this guy who knows Nancy from college just drove nearly the length of the state unannounced to see her.

They would not let me leave after I saw Nancy. Stay the night, ridiculous child, they insisted.

I called my mom to say I'd be home the next day. "All right, I figure everything's OK," she said, not too put out that I deflected her pointed questions.

Carol returned from work and drove me to the pizza parlor where Nancy worked. I hid behind my cowboy hat as I walked in, but Nancy somehow suspected it would be me.

"How funny!" is what she said mostly, over and over. Back at her home, she reintroduced me to her family.

Next morning was my induction to the sophisticated choreography of getting a baker's dozen of people ready for early Mass. It was a process I'd join for many years.

After breakfast, we spent a final few hours down at the American River. Nancy accidentally threw her shoes into the water while throwing pebbles and had to wade in, in her Sunday dress, to retrieve them.

"Do you need some money?" she asked, saying goodbye. Nope! I said. I had my checkbook (This is a plot point; pay attention).

Off I went for home, only the roof of the car keeping me from leaving earth's orbit, a happy, happy guy. Since this was my first time driving the great continent by myself, I veered toward San Francisco, eager to go home by another way. With the last of my cash, I paid for gas in Pinole and turned west.

It turns out The City is blocked by toll bridges, each requiring toll. A strange and inconvenient concept. No cash in the ashtrays. Not a penny in sight. When you can't pay toll at a toll bridge, you don't get a just-this-once pass: The bridge keepers shut down all lanes so you can drive sidelong across lanes that aren't meant for driving sidelong. So the westbound mass of humanity, backed up near Oakland, watched me rattle along to the bridge headquarters building, where I wrote a check for 75 cents.

Beautiful city, though, San Francisco. Undeterred — reinvigorated, in fact! — I thought, Why not head to the coast and keep driving home along Highway 1? Yeah, why not? I'm king of the world!

The gas needle dropped. I was unafraid. I let it go to a quarter of a tank and pulled in to buy gas — where I learned that just that summer, the entire world decided it would no longer accept checks for gasoline purchases. This was not a matter that anyone would have thought I'd find newsworthy, apparently.

Vast quantities just waiting in my checking account to pay for fuel. OK, not vast, but enough. A fair exchange, check for gas. Can't you just take one lousy check? Just this once?! I'm good for it!

No! Also, no, no, no, no, no, no and no.

The needle dropped to empty as the miles passed, the inviting coastline turning lonely and cold and menacing, the hard sun shooting longer and longer glares, refusing to abate.

The needle dropped below empty when I coaxed the ter-pocketing car into the parking lot of the Hilton Hotel in Monterey at sundown. Clothes askew, sweat dripping from my body, my face red from screaming at humanity's blindness to my needs mile after mile, I looked like I ran all the way.

In those days:

(1) Pay phones existed,

(2) You could make a collect call for a dime, and

(3) The desk clerk at the Hilton wanted the dime back after I completed the call home. Hilton, above all, must balance its books.

"Where are you??" My mom asked.


Pause. "Monterey, California?!?!!!"

Appreciate, if you will, my nanosecond of restraint as I consider the wisdom of lightening the mood with the snappy, "No, Monterrey, Mexico (Duh!)" I settled on, "Yes," letting my mom have the funniest moment of the whole misadventure. I finally had to let them in on what I had done.

Since I was due in early the next morning to my summer newspaper job, my parents and sister had to make the three-hour trip from Lompoc to Monterey to retrieve me. Well, they didn't have to, but they did, bless them. Three hours and many miles served to soften my parents' mood (though my sister came along with the expectation of witnessing my evisceration), so that by the time they found me at 1 a.m., they were contemplative and maybe grateful that my absence was just a lot of fuss over a girl.

I rode with my dad for part of the way home, then switched cars with my mom at about Soledad, and attempted to deflect any lingering anger by asking them about their childhoods, filling in gaps about things I've always wondered. It worked: They were in a mood to talk, and I never had such uninterrupted time before or after.

After a couple of hours' sleep, I went to work and called Nancy later that day to tell her the whole story. I know that's hard to believe, but that's what the world was like without smart phones and facebook. News and trivia sometimes actually had to wait an entire day.

We married two years later in the church where I had met Carol on that first trip, 27 years ago this weekend. I proposed along the coast in Monterey, not far from where I borrowed 10 cents in hopes my parents would rescue me.

If you see us, pull up a chair and we'll tell you the story, complete with gestures and interruptions, maybe even song — a whole show.

Happy anniversary, Nancy!