Sixteen

I have a young friend who’s turning sixteen, and it sort of dawned on me last night as I was trying to fall asleep, what a significant date this can be when you’re living the experience yourself.  My friend Daina’s wonderful daughter is turning sweet sixteen on June 2nd, and the thought of this lofty experience brought back some memories from my youth. 

For me, sixteen was huge for so many reasons.  First, my experience in grammar school included a “grade skip.”  I started kindergarten at the normal age, but early in first grade I found myself being yanked out of class for what seemed like an endless battery of tests.  My teacher was somewhere between delighted and concerned (for both herself and yours truly) that I was teaching my fellow first graders to read and write and do simple math, faster than she was.  So the testing that I thought everyone was being subjected to, was actually a thorough I.Q. exam on both educational and social levels which would determine if I should “skip” second grade, and go from first to third.  Apparently I aced the tests, as about three-quarters of the way through first grade, I found myself ousted from Room Six of Westlake Shool, and sent next-door to Mrs. Van Valen’s second grade class in Room Seven.  This is where I’d spend the final couple months of my first / second grade year, and if their assessment of me was on target, I’d go directly to third grade. 

Being both the “new kid” and the one who was a full year behind the rest of the class chronologically, was sort of like diving into the deep end of the pool for your first attempt at swimming.  But amazingly, there were some great kids in this class, and I became fast friends with several, and am still friends with a few of them today.  Kids tend to hang with other kids in their grade at this stage of life, and while the third graders (and up) were known as “big kids,” the younger ones (like me) were considered beneath them.  But my friend Geoff Becker (who I still see a couple times a year) came to my rescue, and several others followed.  Geoff proactively came up to me and introduced himself and asked if I wanted to have lunch with his group.  I’ve not only never forgotten this moment of kindness, I embarass him and remind him of it every couple of years.  He doesn’t seem to mind, I still appreciate it, I’ll continue to do so. 

Being a year younger than my classmates always seemed unfair.  The milestones of turning 10, 13 (becoming a teenager!), 16, 18 and of course 21, would be experiences that all my friends would experience a year before I did, although we were all in the same grade.  I turned 17 a few weeks before graduating from high school, while everyone else was already 18 (and able to vote!).  And sixteen was the biggie.  I’ve always been fiercely independent, and I had to wait an extra year, which seemed like an eternity, before I could get my driver’s license.  All my friends had licenses, many had cars, and the fact that I had to either “bum a ride” from one of them, or ask my parents to take me places, was miserable. 

The places this manifested itself the most was with regard to dating, and surfing.  Any dates other than going to a party or “meeting up” somewhere, meant that I had to double date with one of my friends who had a license and access to a car.  Even if they had to borrow their parents’ car for the night, the difference was huge … they got to drive, I was a passenger in the back seat. 

And surfing was the killer.  I started surfing at about eleven or twelve, and had initially depended on my parents, and later friends to get to the beach.  The other alternative was to hitch hike the 10 miles to Pedro Point with a wetsuit and forty-five pound nine-foot-seven surfboard in tow, so I obviously bummed rides more often than not.  And as all my surfing buddies got their licenses, drove around with surfboard racks permanently affixed to their cars, and were able to make the trek to the beach whenever they wanted, I was still bumming rides. 

 It seemed like the longest wait in the world, and that I’d never reach the lofty age of sixteen, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and after counting the days forever, it finally arrived.  I attended Westmoor High School for my freshman and sophomore years, but had to spend my junior year at El Camino High when the family moved out of the district (just barely out, as I recall).  Fortunately, there was something called “senior priveleges” which made it possible for me to spend my senior year back at Westmoor with all the friends I’d known since grammar school.  But it was at El Camino where that huge April 7th finally arrived, and I was going to get my California driver’s license … assuming I passed both the written and behind-the-wheel tests.  I believe I was in second period (Shirley Axt’s social studies class, I believe) when a messenger came to the door and handed a note to the teacher.  Mrs. Axt said that someone was asking for me at the Principal’s office, and I was to go there.  That “someone” was my dad, who apparently fashioned some sort of family emergency to drag me out of class … and escort me to the DMV.  It was license time! 

I passed both the written and driving tests handily, and as a birthday gift, I was granted use of the family car.  The old blue Valiant station wagon would be MINE for the evening, and I already had big plans to attend what would surely be an awesome concert.  At the risk of dating myself here, the concert was the Buffalo Springfield (Neil Young, Steve Stills, Jim Messina and Richie Furay all in the same band!) opening up for the Jefferson Airplane.  The Airplane had just released Surrealistic Pillow, and were at the top of their game.  I believe this concert cost all of $2.50 apiece, and was held in the gym of the University of San Francisco.  My girlfriend Kitty was my date, and friends Tim Pappas and his girlfriend Vickie joined us.  Great show, awesome night, I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven. 

Turning sixteen was an incredible event that I thought would never happen.  The “big birthdays” of 18 and even 21 were somewhat anti-climatic, although it was nice to be able to order a glass of wine at dinner or make a purchase from a liquor store (legally).  But while getting “carded” and being able to produce valid proof of being twenty-one was initially a thrill, the subsequent milestone years are mostly forgettable.  The “left digit rotation” years of 30, 40, and so on, tend to be dreaded, vs. something anyone looks forward to.  I imagine it’s going to be the achievements of hitting something like 80 or 90 when I’ll want to start bragging about my age (or even admitting it) again.  Interesting how that works. 

But sixteen was indeed sweet, and I remember it like it was yesterday.  And while this blog entry consisted predominantly of my memories, I wish Rhys a wonderful day that will be filled with great memories for many decades to come.  She deserves it. 

Happy Birthday Rhys!
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