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I had a Fortress Once in Paradise

For my brother, Thomas John Van der Leun (October 30, 1947-November 3, 2020)

Butte Canyon, Paradise, California. Sometime in the 1950s

When my brother was five and I was seven my parents moved us to Paradise. We’d been living in the Los Angeles section known as Glendale. We lived at 521B Allen Avenue. (You never forget your address when you go off to school for the first time, do you?). It was a two-bedroom bungalow apartment. There was a driveway between the two parallel strips of postwar apartment units that opened in the back to a wide asphalt courtyard with a cement block fence at the rear and an incinerator up against that wall.

My brother Tom was always more adventuresome so he learned how to run along the top of that wall and enjoyed taunting me from the top. He enjoyed it right up until his foot slipped and he ended up with a green fracture of his arm. After the pain was gone and the cast was set he enjoyed getting everyone he knew or met to sign his cast. Tom strove to enjoy everything he did.

Once the cast was off he figured out how to further bedevil my mother by inventing the “Bunkbed Launchpad. ” This involved safety pinning a white towel to the shoulders of your pajamas so it hung down in the back like a terrycloth version of Superman’s cape. Then, using the flying powers of a white terrycloth towel, we would leap from the top bunk onto the mattress and piled pillows of the “guest bed.” And although we took off many times, I can say for certain that a towel is not a dependable aeronautic device. Indeed, its glide path resembled that of a brick.

It was only seven years after the Second World War and peacetime life in Los Angeles was fraught with housing shortages, a population explosion as returning soldiers tried to jumpstart families, and…


the smog.

Today we hear a constant plaint about air quality in  Los Angeles but that is just more endless whining about marginal problems that have overtaken those slunks among us who pass themselves off as “nice, thoughtful people.” Their chatterings but the stifled screams of those in spot-welded by selfishness to a metalled purgatory of their own design.

Smog? They have no idea what smog is.

In the days I went to my first two grades at Benjamin Franklin School, the smog was so bad that you could — many mornings — taste it in the dew. My father went through, at times, two white shirts a day since the smog’s grime around his collar and cuffs would be visible after only a few hours. The clotheslines in the courtyard behind the apartments were so filled with billowing white shirts we could have commandeered them for our pirate vessels if we weren’t terrified of the wrath of the awakened housewives of 521B Allen Avenue.

My paternal grandparents knew the problems of post-war Los Angeles and persuaded my parents to join them in their new town up in Northern California, Paradise.

And so I found myself drowsing in the backseat of the family sedan with my brother as, after a trip of two days, we drove up the Skyway to my grandparents’ handmade house. I saw them, as I woke from sleep slumped against my brother, waving to me outside the car window with tall pines behind them and flakes of snow “falling softly and softly falling.”

We got out into the snowstorm and went into my grandparent’s handmade house by their handmade lake with its handmade rowboat. All around their house was an apple orchard and inside the house was a meal by my grandmother featuring her handmade applesauce.

After that my grandfather made a bed for us in front of the wood fire smelling of dense high Sierra pine. The adults went back into the kitchen to talk and play canasta. The hum of their voices faded as my brother and I fell asleep.

It was our first night in Paradise.

Sometime later my parents bought a house on the edge of Butte Canyon out on the fringes of Paradise. My father built a new bedroom for Tom and myself at the back of the house with its own entrance stairs that incorporated the trunk of a black walnut tree. There was a cherry tree in the backyard along with a brick barbecue. Beyond the backyard was an acre of wild oak, madrone, and manzanita. Behind that was an old dirt road that ran right at the edge of Butte Canyon. The canyon here was draped everywhere by frozen flows of black lava in all shapes and often precipitous drops. Nearby there were trails branching out and down into the canyon. On weekends and in the summer, our parent’s instructions to us were simple: “Home before dark.”

I was 9 and my brother 7 and we set off every summer and non-school morning with a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to explore this strange landscape of lava beds, High Sierra forests, and streams, and abandoned gold mines.

For there were abandoned gold mines everywhere in the sloping walls of Butte canyon. You found them by following old almost erased trails that slowly slumped downwards on the canyon walls. One particular site boasted a mine with three entrances branching off into the darkness under the canyon. Some mines were said to go back several miles but they were always too spooky and our flashlights too dim for us to venture very far inside.

Whenever we could we’d escape out our private entrance and ramble about the canyon under the watchful eyes of buzzards roosting atop dead pines waiting for a meal. It’s strange now to say we skipped along the edges of the paths oblivious to the potential for becoming buzzard food, but children are immortal in their own minds, are they not?

One day in (was it late autumn or before or after?) we were following a new path when we came upon a wide and long lava bed somewhere midway down the canyon. The lava was coal-black and had many lichen-covered stones protruding out of the crust. And in the midst of it all, there was one large lava spire that rose high above the bed below; a monolith that had felt the splash of the molten lava but had survived in a cooled lava shawl. The spire rose at least 20 feet above the canyon floor. At the top, the spire forked into several shards on all sides leaving the top open. And somehow in the top, there was enough earth for, strange in this High Sierra pine forest, for a stand of green bamboo to grow tall all around. It was like a giant lava planter with just a bit of a Chinese landscape at its top.

There was a hand-over-hand way of getting up into the bamboo at the top. We found it through the kind of determined trial and error a boy can have on a summer afternoon with nothing to do and the whole local wild world to explore. At the top, the bamboo thinned towards the center and we squeezed inside to be able to see the whole wide world of the canyon around us without being seen at all. It was a boy’s summer dream. It was impregnable. It was

“This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,”.

And so we did what any two young boys would do. We improved our fort and hauled in supplies. With some pruning sheers that my mother convinced herself she must have mislaid, we carefully trimmed out the inside stands of bamboo until a comfortable space was made (invisible to outside eyes) for two brothers to relax in a comfortable manner. We hauled in some water in bottles and some “rations” consisting of apples, jelly sandwiches, and chocolate chip cookies. These “rations” did not last the afternoon when we would pour over our latest comic books bought at the Paradise drug store and soda fountain.

After sober consideration, Tom and I decided that grown-ups could not be allowed to know what we were up to and where our fortress was located. To heighten our fortress security measures we named the place: “X.”  After that, we always referred to it as such confident that no eavesdropping adult would be able to break our code.

Bored with being the only unattacked fortress in California we would sally out from the bamboo and climb down onto the lava flow to pick through the gold rush garbage dump at the bottom of the flow.

The considerable garbage tip of gold rush detritus had been formed when the various gold mining operations in Paradise had been producing in the mid-1900s to well into the beginning of the 20th century. The rush for gold was over but there was still gold in them thar hills and many prospectors still worked the streams, rivers, and canyons. Up and down the streams and canyons of Paradise, there were still places that were showing enough color for man to get enough of a poke for his whiskey and fixings and other needful things in their ramshackle camps along the canyon’s edge. When such needful things were used up or the gold played out, the garbage was taken to the top of the lava flow and disposed of by just chucking it over and watching it tumble until it disappeared into the tangled madrone and manzanita at the rock-studded bottom.

But what was garbage to a gold miner was gold to a couple of young boys. We found old whiskey bottles and jars of uncertain provenance. We found rusted metal sheets and rods that we fashioned into a lean-to deep inside the bamboo walls of “X” so we could store our comic books and other treasures. We found many things and then…


Then there was the day when we cut back a bunch of manzanita branches and pulled out a tightly dovetailed and nailed wooden box with the top stove in. Tom pulled back the shattered wood of the top to reveal a torn sheet of stiff brown paper. Widening the rip in the paper we looked in and saw about half a case of dynamite composed of broken sticks on the top and whole sticks of TNT on the bottom of the box.

Were we scared of these explosives? Not for a moment. Tom was 7 and I would have been 9 years old. Not only that but it was before the time when children were trained to be fearful before they were toilet trained.

Afraid of some dynamite? Please. We were overjoyed. At last, we had some real weapons! Better than guns! This was a boy’s nirvana.

And even though the years of winter rains had soaked the sticks through and through, the red paper casings still had all the warning signs printed on them. Perfection compounded.

We hauled the box of dynamite back up the lava flow to the foot of “X.” By the time we got there we were both into a shared dream of killing waves of Heil screaming Nazis in World War 2 as we had seen in a hundred movies. I reached into the box and took out a half stick of sodden TNT and heaved it a good thirty feet at the ghost Nazis until it went splat on a boulder.

Tom said, “Isn’t that a little scary?”

“It’s fine,” I said and added (betraying my limited child’s understanding of the nature and potential of Trinitrotoluene  ), “It’s all wet. It can’t explode.”

Since I was the eldest Tom just nodded his head and threw his half-stick of dynamite even further than mine until it went splat on the stones.

And so we passed a fine afternoon defending “X” from the Wehrmacht zombies until the evening fell and we went home to supper. We’d been dressed in those Levi jeans you bought two sizes too large and washed separately and Western-style Levi denim jackets. We tossed these war-stained togs into the hamper and dressed for dinner. I don’t remember what I thought but I’m sure I was excited that the brothers now had two secrets that the parents would never know; “X” and TNT.

The next day was a school day and, after breakfast, we walked down the short dirt road to the bus stop on the paved road that, over hills and through forests and orchards, would deposit us at Paradise Elementary School and Mr. Roberts’ classroom.

It must have been a bit before noon when there was a knock on the classroom door. It opened and my father walked into the room accompanied by the Paradise Sheriff sporting hat, badge, gun, the whole tool kit. My father gestured to me and I was whisked off to the Principle’s office where we were soon joined by my brother Tom, my mother, and a deputy sheriff sporting hat, badge, gun, the whole tool kit.

I wish I had some memory of what my 9-year-old self thought at that moment but I do not. I ascribe this to the fact that under those circumstances, my child’s mind would be nothing but a vast tsunami of unremitting white noise radiating through an ocean of fear.

It would seem that, upon leaving “X” the evening before, my brother Tom had neglected to empty his pockets of one of his half-stick TNT “grenades” that had been polishing off the Nazi zombies all afternoon. No, it would seem that one-half stick was still in the pocket of his jean jacket the next morning when my mother turned them out for the laundry.

One of the rare pleasures of having boys for children is that, if you are their mother, you can find yourself at the washing machine in the garage holding half a stick of TNT you’ve just found in your 7-year-old’s jacket. Now that is a feeling you don’t get every day.

More pleasant still after seeing your child has a half-stick of explosive in his pocket is the thought, “Just where is the other half?”

Naturally, my mother could not wait to telephone my father at work with the joyful news of explosives in the kid’s clothing. His reaction was, I am sure, “Just where is the other half?”

Once we were seated in the principal’s office ringed by every authority figure short of the National Guard our interrogation commenced. The questioning could be boiled down into:

“Just where is the other half?”


“Is there any more and will you show us where right now this instant?”

This was the shortest interrogation record since we instantly confessed every detail of our crimes and misdemeanors, the location of “X,” an estimate of the quantity of dynamite left at the site, and “We’ll lead you there right now if you let us live!”

Within an hour we were back at the lava flow where we pointed out the box of TNT and the locations of where we’d thrown the sticks. At one point, hoping to get a reduced sentence, I told the Sherriff, it was okay to play with them since they were all damp. As a very young idiot, I knew nothing about old dynamite weeping pure nitroglycerine into the container it is stored in. I’m pretty sure the Sheriff and his men did since we were no longer needed at the site for the cleanup. So my brother and I slunk home with our parents to prepare for THE. END.

But of course, it wasn’t the end. I imagine that our parents were so numbed by their sons’ stupidity and grateful they weren’t scraping said sons off the jagged black face of the lava flow that they could not find room for anger. Instead, we were forced to take, after cake, a solemn oath that we would never, ever again go to the place called “X.”

And we so swore my brother and me. And we were so relieved that we weren’t punished that we really meant it. And we never did go back to “X.”

For at least a month.

Then we reasoned that no adult could climb up to “X,” and — once we were inside the bamboo blind — no adult could see us, so why not sneak in when we wanted to? All our best comic books were stored up there in a cookie tin my mother thought she’d misplaced.

Years later, over a burger and a beverage, my brother and I agreed that our parents obviously knew that we were going back to “X.” They never brought it up to us because, well, when you know that your kids are going to be in someplace you’ve forbidden, you at least know where your kids are. And if you know for a fact that there are no high explosives anywhere around them, that’s good enough for you.

A few years before he died my brother, always more rooted in the mountains of our childhood, went back to Paradise and hiked along the canyon trail.

“I went to X,” he told me.

“X? Is it still there?”

“It is but much smaller than I remember it.”

“We were smaller. Is there still that bamboo on top?”

“Some. Some as far as I could see up to the top. I didn’t try to climb it. I’m not that boy anymore.”

I’m not that boy anymore either but, unlike most people,  I can still say with my brother Tom, “I had a fortress once in Paradise.”

Thou my soul shelter, and Thy my high tower

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Phil in Englewood November 9, 2020, 3:39 PM

    Outstanding story. Something wonderful indeed. I’ll tell you about the WW2 howitzer in our childhood soon. We lived in a great neighborhood with amazingly great neighbors. Thanks for the stories, Gerard. Stories are what lives are made of.

  • Carol S Baker November 9, 2020, 3:44 PM

    Great story, wonderful memories!!

  • julie November 9, 2020, 4:01 PM

    “It’s fine,” I said and added (betraying my limited child’s understanding of the nature and potential of Trinitrotoluene ), “It’s all wet. It can’t explode.”

    Holy smokes! The old tnt featured in the movie Sorcerer comes to mind. Your guardian angels were clearly working overtime, but what marvelous adventures!

  • Auntie Analogue November 9, 2020, 4:11 PM

    Delightful tale! Ranks right up there with “You’ll shoot your eye out!” in A Christmas Story.

  • Roll-aid November 9, 2020, 4:36 PM

    My childhood was not anywhere as colorful as yours. Even now in my 7th decade, my imagination transports me back….I can see, smell, taste and feel the wonders of “X” – less the high explosives. The wonders of growing up in that era….”Be back by dark” – what freedoms we had!

  • gwbnyc November 9, 2020, 5:59 PM

    lunch at that age was whose backyard you landed in where the fare was peanut butter on wonder bread and a dixie cup of kool-aid: “thank you, Mrs. (fill in the blank)”

    we had a bombmaker across the street, blew the back off his father’s workshop off with a wine bottle full of his homebrew. I remember the ingredients, but suffice to say he had included chlorine for use in their swimming pool that was damp. it generated enough heat to detonate what was an unstable mixture. he also had his two younger brothers mixing his batches of it so he could avoid being blinded&maimed in an explosion.

    to my knowledge, he improved little over the years and his level of compassion remained.

  • Flannelputz November 9, 2020, 6:00 PM

    Good job. Do more. Publish your stories.

  • Missy November 9, 2020, 6:02 PM

    Lovely nod to Isak Dineson. Wonderful piece altogether.

  • Kevin T Horton November 9, 2020, 6:23 PM

    Wow, excellent story, reminded me of my youth in the early 70s growing up on an AFB next to Lake Champlain in upstate NY, blowing up model planes with firecrackers, crabapple fights, tree fort building, and be home by dark, the time I fell off the rope swing an landed on a boulder and the swing cut down the next day. It’s amazing we all survived. Thank you for bringing back the memories, they are so fun to visit from time to time.

  • Joan Of Argghh! November 9, 2020, 6:32 PM

    Such a delightful perfection for a Monday evening. Oh, how nice to come here and find gold!

  • MIKE GUENTHER November 9, 2020, 7:39 PM

    Great story!

    Reminds me of me and my brothers exploring the canyon behind our house in San Diego. Riding our bikes through the canyon and finding and riding through the flood control tunnels that were part of the Sweetwater River. I guess they were more like storm drainage tunnels, but they were huge, seven or eight feet wide by about six or seven feet tall square.

    We used to ride through them for a few miles, finding branching tunnels, with some light coming down from the storm drains on the streets above. Sometimes we would climb the ladder at one of the street drains and poke our head out to see if we could see a street sign and figure out where we were. Good times.

    The canyon behind our house is also where I learned that playing with matches could be a real bad thing when I was six years old. I was playing fireman, lighting the dry grass on fire, then stomping it out, until one of my little fires turned into a big fire. It got out of control and I ran back home. It ended up burning 64 acres.

    We were sitting on the neighbor’s driveway across the street watching the firemen and the fire when the teenage girl who used to sit with us came up and sat beside me. She smelled the odor of burnt grass and dirt on my clothes and after some cajoling, I admitted that I had accidentally set the fire. She told my folks and I received the worst ass whooping I ever got. That was in 1964 or so.

  • Terry November 9, 2020, 8:07 PM

    Gerard, that story so parallels my growing up in the gold country of California that you made this depressed day for me glow in sunshine. As I have typed here a couple of times, I was born in Sonora, California. I am the eldest of the three boys my parents had. I always thought what my brothers and friends did for entertainment was what every kid did wherever one lived. Wrong.

    My family being “49ers”, had several gold mines in and around Sonora, (on HWY 49) and nearby Columbia. This is not all that far south of Paradise in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. A couple of these mines had very extensive underground workings (tunnels, shafts, stopes, inclines, and etc. Giant machinery and ore processing equipment, etc. My family had heavy gates with huge chains and locks at the entrances. We kids knew where the keys were hidden.

    When I was about 13 years old I hijacked an old Jeep from our homestead and took a trip to the Morris mine (owned by my family for approximately 100 years). This was a long trip down Hwy 49 from where I grew up toward Sonora, about 1-1/2 miles. My brother Tim was with me. We could not wait to get up the dirt road to the Morris, fetch the key and put on our miners hard hats and light the carbide lanterns that fit the hard hats. We knew we had to convince the watchman who lived at the mine that we had our grandfathers total permission to enter the main tunnel gate.

    We had been in the mine many times before with our grandfather (paternal) and my brother and I both were confident we would not get lost in the maze of tunnels. Anyway the watchman, an old German with heavy accent (his name escapes me) asks if we have a map of the works. Totally caught us both by surprise. Brother Tim and I probably looked at each other like “duh” what the heck. Map! So I said, “shoot I forgot it. We need to go home and get the map.” (We did not know anything about a map of the tunnel works.)

    Map. About six months later I asked my grandfather if there was a map of the Morris mine. He opens a drawer in a file cabinet where blueprints were stored for mining related machinery, derricks, winches and etc. Then out comes a huge surveyors map of the main level of the Morris mine, owned by my family as was printed in the description on lower right of the map. This was fantastic work that was surveyed and drawn by students of the University of California, Mining Engineering Department, dated 1930 something. I do not remember the exact date. I do remember the incredible detail of this work product and that it made me strive to become a surveyor and map maker.

    Not the end of the story, but maybe more at a later date. Including finding dynamite. And, by golly my brother became a drilling and blasting expert and practiced his trade at the last large operating gold mine in Tuolumne County, three miles from Sonora.

    Thank you for giving me the energy and venue to type these memories Gerard. AD is my home away from home. I have a sort of kinship with many of the great commenters.

  • Anne November 9, 2020, 8:52 PM

    I believe that Alamadea was street that divided kids into two different school districts. I lived .9 miles from you and Fairfield St. My mom had the beauty shop at the corner of Lake St. and Western Ave.
    What years did you go to school there?

  • Anne November 9, 2020, 8:53 PM

    I lived . 9 miles away ON Fairfield St. Were you there when the freeway was being built, or just after it opened?

  • Anne November 9, 2020, 8:57 PM

    I was in Benjamin Franklin School in 1954.

  • Anne November 9, 2020, 9:04 PM

    Who was your teacher at Benjamin Franklin School?

  • MollyG November 9, 2020, 9:46 PM

    Lovely. Thank you. I am so sorry about your brother Tom’s death.

  • MMinAR November 10, 2020, 2:53 AM

    Pretty cool story

  • John Fisher November 10, 2020, 3:48 AM

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful story!

  • John Venlet November 10, 2020, 4:39 AM

    Having been blessed with five brothers myself, and a multitude of adventures with them, I completely relate to this tale, well except for stumbling on decaying TNT, which is probably just as well.

    One of our Dad’s favorite Bible verses was Psalm 127:3-5, even though as his sons, our adventures, like yours, were not always without potential dangers.

    Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
    the fruit of the womb of a reward.
    Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
    are the sons of one’s youth.
    Happy is the man whose has
    his quiver full of them.
    He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gates.

  • Fr Patrick Dooling November 10, 2020, 5:56 AM

    This tale of your boyhood adventure, coming upon the heels of your brother Tom’s going to God and concluding with Be Thou My Vision, is both evocative, hope filled and so tender. I’m recalling my own boyhood adventures with my younger brother Leask, now dead, and looking forward with almost painful yearning for our reunion, complete with dogs, in that place whose bliss we cannot even imagine because of God who loves us. Thank you, Gerard.

  • orcadrvr November 10, 2020, 5:57 AM

    I grew up about the same time in the smog of the San Gabriel valley, and it was just as bad as Gerard describes it.
    I remember playing outside, and then having to come inside because my chest hurt from the smog.
    We lived in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, and oftentimes could not see the actual mountains which were only a short distance away.
    Great post by GV !

  • greg November 10, 2020, 6:45 AM

    Why are boys drawn to bombs? Before I had a drivers license, I found a written formula for Black Powder. The ingredients were simple enough to find. But it never worked as written. Until I changed a single item. Just add water and mix up real good. Let dry into a cake. Then grind up. I can still feel the excitement of cheating certain death if I messed up. Next was the collection of confinement containers and blackcat fuses. Never hurt my self or anybody else and never attracted enough attention that anybody even cared. Yes indeed 50 years ago was much easier to goof around.

  • Hoss November 10, 2020, 7:29 AM

    Thanks Gerard for a great story that reminds me of adventures my brother and I would have. Minus the TNT. I remember my 1st address from when I started school. 810 Grant St. North Bend, OR.

  • Chris November 10, 2020, 8:02 AM

    I can only give it my highest praise. It evoked memories of growing up with my brother in California too. And getting into trouble with him.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Dirk November 10, 2020, 8:09 AM

    Wonderful, my wife’s first paying teacher job was at Ponderosa Elm School, in Paradise. 1983/84. Her family has a long legacy there, as you do. Wouldn’t be surprised if they knew your people, you knew their’s.

    What a wonderful adventure!. As our world crumbles, I often think of my childhood, how wonderful it was. Born in Roseville, Raised in Rocklin. One great adventure after another. Summer’s out at first light, meet the lads, off on a great adventure, we roamed for miles and miles in every direction.

    Horses, actually Shetland? ponies, then Welsh ponies, then buck board horse drawn carts. Then horses. Roping, hunting, fishing, just watching the white fluffy clouds.

    Around 12/13 we discovered motorcycles. Could ride from Rocklin, eventually arriving in Truckee Ca, va,the NB Pacific Fruit Railroad tracks. Over tall bridges outside of Colfax “going over I-80, boldly thru the railroad tunnels, some were very long, very dark, we were certain trolls lived in em.

    One year we got cornered in the tunnel up on top of the summit, a SB train climbing slowly, very slowly, caught us. Most don’t know this, but their are man cutouts inside the tunnels, little recesses, to step into if you are present with a train.

    We thru our motorcycles on the rocks, off the tracks, climbed in the man hole, covered our ears, ” God their loud, powerful monster” this tunnel use to be the longest tunnel on the Donmer Summit. Felt like we were trapped for three months, terrifying twenty minutes.

    I remember being scared to death watching my life flash by, already missing my pesky crazy lil sister, and making some obscure promise to God, if he let me live I’d go to church, become a monk, never be bad ever again, the rest of my life. My fingers were crossed, no way I could live up to that standard.

    I remember the smoke, really bad, I remember getting low, to be under the hanging smoke. And I remember hoping my brand new Hodaka Ace 100, didn’t get destroyed. The bike was the single most important ” thing” in my life. It represented true freedom, I craved freedom, great adventure.

    Anyway we finally made it into Truckee, had a coke at Safeway,. We gassed at the gas station, where I years later met Danny Magoo Chandler, although we grew up together, ” kinda” I dint know him well. He went on to be a world class motocross racer, lived in a town named Forest hill.

    ” he eventually married the gas station owners daughter, a wonderful young lady.

    Life was grand, truthfully my life is still grand, I’ve been blessed, with much goodness, I share it daily, often with total strangers. I say I hate people, not really,,,,, I crave the human connection, what an opportunity to learn new and wonderful things daily.

    GV, you are blessed to have captured such wonderful memories. Life really is good, it’s all about perspective.

    End of the day, I’ve learned that ” Life IS the Real Lesson” live it/ Ride it like ya stole it. When I finally do fall over dead, I want to be completely warn out, all my joints trashed, hardly able to walk, with a mind sharp as a tack.

    Please God, don’t make me a drooling mess, that isn’t what we agreed to!.

    God bless, GV, I have tears from your story. Life has been a wonderful journey, full of ups and downs, blind corners. I’ve been wrong a lot, but I’ve benn honest enough to own it. Make needed corrections.


  • Vanderleun November 10, 2020, 8:17 AM

    Anne, I was at Benjamin Franklin Elementary in 1950, 51 and 52. My second grade teacher was a sort of rolly-polly woman named, I think, Mrs. Smith. Not sure about the others.

  • NealinNevada November 10, 2020, 8:18 AM

    Your kid brother lives in the memories that you shared so eloquently. My memories of youth parallel yours like the rails of the train tracks, trestles and tunnels I inhabited as a similar aged youth along the Connecticut River on the other side of the country. Out TNT was a rifle we found along the tracks…damn lucky to be here! Thanks amigo!

  • Sam L. November 10, 2020, 9:13 AM


  • Montefrío November 10, 2020, 9:14 AM

    Delightful tale! Wonderful memoir of fraternal love, may your brother rest in peace. We geezers are lucky folk something I never fail to consider when I check in here. Thank you, sir, for all that you do, and for the fraternity you’ve created here.

    I no longer live in the USA and am fortunate to see my grandsons and granddaughter growing up in a still largely pristine rural environment enjoying such adventures as you so lovingly and colorfully related!

  • James ONeil November 10, 2020, 9:36 AM

    Good on yer & your brother Gerard!

    & though the sun’s not even above the horizon, let alone over the yardarm, up here on top of the world, a wee toast of Jameson’s to your brother’s memory.

  • H.A. Reynolds November 10, 2020, 10:14 AM

    What an achievement, and a spectacular tribute to your brother, your parents, and Real Boys everywhere (including those LEO’s in “full kit”)

    As a boy, I read the “Penrod” books by Booth Tarkington, which IMHO set the standard for Boy Stories. You, Sir, just raised the bar.

    What a gift…

  • Harry November 10, 2020, 10:20 AM

    I didn’t get into explosives until my early teens, but around 7 or 8, I learned how to focus sunlight with a magnifying glass. PETA be damned, a number of ants met their demise under my glass. I did scare myself and all of the other kids when I figured out how to light an entire newspaper on fire by moving the sun’s light around in an outward spiral. Science!

  • Stephen B November 10, 2020, 11:39 AM

    I went to Glenoaks Elementary School in Glendale from 68-72.

  • pfsm November 10, 2020, 12:14 PM

    What a great story! Of course it reminded me of some of my own escapades. I didn’t have to go far, as Pop was in the construction business and had his equipment yard across the road from the house. Often there’d be a bulldozer there being repaired, and there was nearly always a big truck or two…a huge mound of truck and car tires that were used to start fires to burn brush and stumps on land clearing jobs. These were of course arranged into a tire fort. There was a 1919 Cadillac hearse that had been converted into a flatbed truck, and a big welder that Pop mounted on the chassis of an old 1937 Chevy, an underground gasoline tank with a hand pump, a big diesel tank mounted high on a wooden framework so the fuel could drain into the smaller tank on the pickup…. Good days indeed!

  • Mark R November 10, 2020, 1:59 PM

    Another great story GV.

    As a NYC city slicker, I looked forward to 4th of July when my best friend’s Uncle, home from Vietnam, would take us to Chinatown to buy “pineapples” which were 1/4 sticks of dynamite.

    We became old hands with these stout fireworks, and learned how to use a cigarette as a fuse to give us a 5 minute head start to get comfortably away from the explosion.

    By junior year we mustered the courage to light them off in the boy’s bathroom. And with the cigarette fuse, we had plenty of time to down two diet cokes and some no doze, and get to our next period class, where we’d tap our feet in anticipation of the boom, which was heard throughout the building.

    Fortunately, no one was ever in the bathroom, or they would have lost their hearing, and been cut by the shards of porcelain toilet that blew apart.

    We could do nothing other than put our heads down as the school loudspeaker called for the principal to head to the scene, and could barely contain our tears of laughter as we watched him sprint down the hallway.

    Now, if we were caught doing something like that it would mean certain expulsion, maybe even jailtime in juvey hall. Then, it would have been a 10 day suspension.

    Don’t know if this story jibes with yours, but I thought I’d share it any way.

    And again, thanks for all your posts, and sincere condolences.

  • DAN November 10, 2020, 2:22 PM

    having grown up in paradise &trundled along the lava rimrock & rolling all the boulders that we could find off the edge of the canyons, myself & little sister well armed with our 22s spent our days doing exactly as described. indeed be home by dark, or else we would get picked up somewhere down the skyway, watch out for rattlers. total FREEDOM. we are the luckiest kids ever to have had such a childhood. PARADISE truly was PARADISE !

  • Kristin November 10, 2020, 2:56 PM

    Summer days in the treehouse with my sister. We built a float to go down a small dirty muddy river but we were found out behoren de brought it into the water. My sister, older by 18 months was the driving force of our adventures as her creative mind was always working on high speed.
    Thank you Gerard for bringing some memories back.

  • Anne November 10, 2020, 4:57 PM

    With regard to trains:
    Where I lived in Glendale people kept horses in their backyards–still do. The LA Equestrian Center is very close as is the LA River (where I played daily)–don’t drink the water was the only command I had to obey. On the other side of the river is a small train museum with a real old fashioned working train that you all have seen in many movies. I wanted desperately to be a stunt woman–only with horses of course. One day I rose up next to the last car of the train as it started to pick up speed. I was able to pull myself out of the saddle and up onto the back platform. Having accomplished that I thought the return trip would be just as easy. My girl friend was on her horse and leading my galloping horse next to the train. I jumped for my horse from the moving train. The underneath side of my chin made initial contact with the top part of his tail and I skidded down the back side encountering his flying hooves with the rest of my body. The train moved on and when my girl friend circled around and brought my horse back as I was too sore to mount up. As you can imagine the walk home was painful!

  • Anne November 10, 2020, 7:52 PM

    For Steven B:

    Glenoaks was one of the primary boulevards in my day. There was a commuter train–we called them street cars. They ran in both directions down the middle of Glen Oaks Blvd. In 1954 and 1955, I would go to St. Marks Church on Brand Blvd. Then walk up to Glen Oaks and get on the street car. I would ride it to Western Blvd. I would get off on Western Blvd and wait for the bus to take me down to my neighborhood. You should also know that in those years (1954–?) there was a low wooden building at the corner of Brand and Glen Oaks. It was a restaurant. Each Sunday morning I was dropped off at church and given enough money so that when church services were finished I could walk up to the restaurant at the corner of Brand Blvd and Glen Oaks and order an english muffin and hot chocolate. When I finished my breakfast I would go outside to the corner and catch that street car ! That was 1954-1956. I was 11 years old to 12 years old. I went back for the first time in 2014. That is now a major freeway. Such peaceful and beautiful times. Yes, I remember Glean Oaks Blvd very well!

  • CW November 11, 2020, 6:42 AM

    I laughed out loud multiple times. Thanks for that wonderful tale. O, the days of youth!

  • Nobody Atall November 11, 2020, 7:12 AM

    Wonderful and Beautiful! Thank you, G.

  • Boat Guy November 11, 2020, 4:52 PM

    Like orcadrvr my childhood at the foot of Mount Baldy was marred by smog which frequently hid that 10k-foot peak from view.
    Thank you for such a great look back to a “be home by dark” boyhood, soon to be marred by the radicals in the late 60’s. I escaped eastward to the “west” now marred by the radicals.
    Thanks especially for all you’ve written and quoted for your brother

  • Cieran November 12, 2020, 4:24 AM

    Honey Run Road

  • Peter Bloch November 12, 2020, 10:38 AM

    Wonderful story and such evocative memories. Laughter and tears are mixing with deep appreciation of your family and heartbreak for Tom’s no longer being here. Your beautiful words keep his memory alive

  • Cletus Socrates November 13, 2020, 5:56 PM

    Dammit Boy:
    What a delightful story.

  • Webutante November 17, 2020, 5:30 AM

    This is absolutely one of the best of your best personal yarns of growing up in Paradise. Not only is it fun to relive your adventures there, it calls us to remember our own The End moments growing up when and where children were allowed to be children and learn from the special discoveries of life. Thanks for the memories, Gerard!

  • Tony November 3, 2021, 11:29 AM

    I mourn that my boys will never know the kind of freedom and adventure my buddies and I had growing up in the early to mid 70’s.
    My best bud Lee and I would sling our .22 rifles over our shoulders, ride our bikes down to the river, spend all day wading out onto sandbars, shooting at snakes and dragonflies, smoking purloined cigarettes, and eating hot dogs right out of the package. We were 13 or 14 yrs old and this was all with our parents’ full knowledge (except for the cigarettes).
    The only rule: Be home when the streetlights come on.
    My boys have never known that kind of wide open, devil-may-care freedom and adventure.
    It makes me quite sad to think of it.

  • Well Begun Is Half Done November 3, 2022, 3:36 PM

    Better a fortress in paradise than never at all.

    I’m thankful for seeing some of the long gone republic.

    Older brothers always got brought home by the railroad police for train hitching and hanging out on their land and partying and they had a wicked tree fort with car seats, stereo, and coolers, not far from the tracks.

    Now that land is a strip mall abomination where ducks and geese still gather.

  • captflee November 4, 2022, 9:22 AM

    The passing years have in no way diminished the power of this remembrance, though I pray that they have softened the pain of your loss.

  • Babs reed November 4, 2022, 12:05 PM

    As and OLD former freshman composition teacher, I would give this essay an A+. I was enthralled and knowing the brother has just passed this life made me read through tears as I walked through someone else’s private and beautiful memories. Thank you for sharing a forever story ❤

  • Anonymous November 4, 2022, 1:43 PM

    2 door ’56 Chevy wagon on the cliff?

    • Vanderleun November 4, 2022, 3:03 PM

      Yup. My family’s car (Dad sold new Fords in Chico and Paradise.And took trade-ins from Chevy and Jeep and even Caddys) And in those days you were allowed to drive up to the cliff — even over if you liked.

      • Anonymous November 4, 2022, 8:32 PM

        There was one at Hemingway’s funeral.

  • Ronald November 4, 2022, 4:50 PM

    598 Smithfield Ave officer
    Ok give me those matches and come with me..

  • rocdoctom November 4, 2022, 7:11 PM

    Great tribute to a brother. I’m the same generation and one of my memories is going out of the house on a summer morning–screen door slamming–and meeting up with my best neighborhood friend Johnny and heading out for a day of conquests. Armed with our BB guns and ready for any challenge. If we ran out of ammo we walked downtown to the Sears store and bought ammo–you remember those round shotgun shell-like packs of BB’s. And we were good for the day. Always home for dinner. My Mom worked–unusual in those 1950’s days–but Johnny’s and other Moms in the neighborhood kept any eye out for us so that we did not step out of line. Oh, those were the days.

  • Dirk November 5, 2022, 11:20 AM

    I have this awesome true life’s story, preserved in the March/April 2021 “ The Saturday Evening POST”.
    I received this magazine from a man I have a high regard for, a man whom is welcome at my camp fire, our “hides”anytime.

    I read “ fortress” to my grand kids every time their here. This is a life I knew, I lived. I want the “Grands” to know this quality of life,,,,,,,,still exists. They need only search over the next mountain, the next valley to discover what’s important in life.

    A times coming wherein the adventurous skills learned in our youth will once again become vital, associates, skills, location will be the difference between a good life, or a life looking constantly over our shoulders.

    Choose wisely

  • AesopFan November 7, 2022, 2:18 PM

    Thanks for posting this story again, Gerard.
    It is a beautiful tale, and a tribute to your brother, and to the rest of your family for having the wisdom to leave LA for the wilds of Paradise.
    In the city, they only put up parking lots.