My birthday in 1979 was a lot of fun. And it should have been because it was my twenty-first birthday.
Back then, I was in the United States Air Force stationed at George Air Force just outside of Victorville, California. I had been at George for only eight months and had met some real cool people. It was kind of weird adjusting to life back in the States and the “real Air Force” after having been in Panama for two years. Although I had been looking forward to returning to the States, back then I was beginning to wonder if I should have stayed in Panama longer.
It was the Friday night before my birthday and I was working the swing shift in a supply section assigned to maintenance when two of my friends stopped in to see what I had planned for my birthday. That year, my birthday fell on a Monday, which also happened to be Memorial Day—a three-day weekend for us. Other than checking out this base festival on Monday, I didn’t have anything else planned. They suggested that we get together at one of their friend’s house in Victorville (who happened to have a swimming pool) the next day and maybe head down to Los Angeles for the night.
Sounded like a great plan.
After work that night, we kicked off the celebration by just hanging out in the barracks drinking and listening to some music. There was a lot of cool music coming out around that time. There’s no doubt that 1979 was a watershed year for music and the beginning of what would end up being the “New Wave” era, but that is another story for another time.
The next day, we got together as planned at this guy’s house in Victorville. Spent part of the afternoon hanging out at the pool swimming and drinking. I don’t remember clearly if we had decided that we were definitely going down to LA for the night or not before we had gone there, but that is what we ended up doing.
Along with the two friends who had first talked about going to LA, six more friends joined us. We piled into two cars, picked up some beer and other refreshments and munchies and headed on down the highway. We didn’t have any idea what we would do once we got to LA though. Someone mentioned something about camping out on a beach all night and that seemed like the thing to do.
We were all pretty tanked after having spent the afternoon drinking and shouldn’t have been on the road at all, but when you are in your early twenties, you feel a little invincible. Well, we took that to the next level because after we came down from the Cajon Pass, the two cars we were travelling in pulled up along side one another as we passed beer from one car to the other. Crazy.
How we managed to stay in sight of each other and not get separated (at a time when there were no mobile phones) as we proceeded down the freeway I’ll never know, but we finally made it to our destination, which turned out to be Huntington Beach. Speaking of tanked, we probably should have thought about filling up the gas tank in one of the cars before we left base because one of the cars we were travelling in ran out of gas. Back in 1979 there was a mini oil crisis of sorts and you could only buy gas on even/odd number days according to your license plate number. Unfortunately, it was the day we couldn’t buy gas, but fate or some good Karma must have been with us that day because the car ran out of gas not far from the beach and literally coasted into the parking lot of a Pizza Hut. As for our plans for the night, we had no choice but to spend the night on the beach.
Well, we probably couldn’t have picked a better place to run out of gas because by now we were all quite hungry, so pizza was in order to satiate our appetites and prepare us for what promised to be a long night of drinking on the beach. After we filled our bellies with pizza, the car that still had gas took some us down to the beach and then went back to pick up the other guys.
There was a section of Huntington Beach that was open to the public all night and that is where we set up camp for the night. On the beach were these huge concrete urns for making a campfire, so we picked out the best one we could find which was the closest to a convenience store across the highway from the beach. We had drank all the beer we had brought from the base and would need to replenish our provisions soon.
However, when it came to getting a campfire going, there was nothing on the beach that we could use for firewood. So, we had to do a little recon and see what we could find to get a fire going. Then someone came up with the crazy idea to use (actually steal) some wood from this wooden fence around an oil drill across the highway from the beach. It was one of these temporary construction-type fences made up thin wooden slats. So, there we were, darting across the busy highway, pulling off as many wooden slats as we could carry (and making sure to remove every other one as not to call attention to our firewood heist) and then darting back across the highway to the beach. Just a few trips and we had enough firewood to last the night.
By now everyone had made it down to the beach, we had a roaring fire going, and had stocked up on enough beer and munchies to get us through the night. It was turning out to be pretty cool weekend, which as far as I could tell was only going to get better.
There weren’t too many people on the beach that night and those who were didn’t pay much attention to us. We were kind of off by ourselves on the beach, away from other people doing the same thing as us.
Then Keith showed up.
We were just drinking and talking and enjoying the cool night air, when we spotted this figure come out of the darkness and approach our campsite. He was a young man, with long hair and a few days beard growth on his face, dressed in jeans and an over-sized long-sleeved shirt and carrying a knapsack on his back. One of us invited him to join our little party.
He turned out to be a rather interesting and colorful person (and it didn’t hurt that he had some herb in his possession which he was more than kind of enough to share with us) who was hitchhiking across America.
“So, what do you do Keith?”
“I’m hitchhiking across America.”
“That’s so cool man. When did you start on your journey?
“A few days ago.”
“Wow, so you’ve just started. That’s cool. So, where are you from?”
Must have gotten sidetracked or wasn’t in too much of a hurry for some serious travelling.
Keith asked us if he could crash out at our campsite for the night, which we were more than happy to accommodate his request considering he was so generous with his herb.
We stayed up for as long as we could before crashing for the night which was just stretching out on the beach on some blankets that we had not forgotten to bring. Actually, we didn’t get that much sleep. We ended up lying there on the sand looking up at the stars.
In the morning, when most of us started to gather our senses and think about food, we discovered that Keith had disappeared some time during the night. We hoped he found his sense of direction and was now headed on his way across America.
As for whatever breakfast we were going to have that morning, two people in our group who had already did a recon of some small cafés across the highway came back with stories of cheap eats and a cornucopia of culinary, albeit greasy spoon delights. After we loaded up everything in the one car, we headed across the highway and stopped in the first café we saw. Judging from all the surfboards propped up against the front and side of the café, it was definitely a favorite among surfers. If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for us.
Sure enough, the small café was packed with surfers, many in dripping wet suits who had already ridden their waves for the morning. There was only one table open, in the back next to the kitchen. We must have seemed like strangers in a strange land as some of the surfers eyeballed us as we weaved our way to the table in the back. Not in the mood for your standard breakfast fare of eggs, bacon and toast, we decided to blend in with the locals by opting for their breakfast of champions: a hamburger, fries, and a Coke. As for the taste, what I remember most was that it was as greasy spoon as you could get without the FDA issuing some health warning.
After breakfast, we still had to gas up the car that was still sitting in the parking lot of the Pizza Hut. Once we had done that we were back on the road again. Someone suggested checking out Lake Arrowhead nestled in the mountains north of San Bernardino before we went back to base. Seemed like a pretty good idea. Unfortunately, once we got back on the expressway, we got separated and only the friends I was with made it to Lake Arrowhead.
We still had all this beer from the night before, so we found some secluded spot and kept on partying until all the beer was gone. After practically being up most of the night and going non-stop since yesterday afternoon, our fortitude started to wane a bit. What we needed more than anything else was a few hours of sleep to recharge our batteries, so we decided to cut short our sojourn in the mountains and head back to base.
And that is exactly what we did. And later that night we were at it again. Just a few of us got together in the barracks and sat around drinking and listening to music.
The next day, Memorial Day and my twenty-first birthday, a bunch of us in the barracks got together and had a small cook out before we went to this park on base where a festival was being held. Two guys who lived in my barracks were one of the musical acts that afternoon and we wanted to get there early to get as close as we could to the stage (a flatbed truck). We were all pretty hammered by the time we got there and I don’t remember much. All I do remember was that when I was sitting close to the stage, there was this big gust of wind that knocked over one of my friend’s cymbals, which fell on top of me. Everything after that was pretty much a blur.