Author: Cornish, Rick

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, but doing it after you’ve done something really wrong can be downright difficult. And complicated. I learned that lesson the hard way during a long, hot summer in my twelfth year. How hot was it? I remember walking to school our last day before summer vacation and seeing a plastic Santa Claus Christmas ornament on the sidewalk melted. For nearly forty-five years I’ve wondered how hot it must have been for that Santa to melt….wondered too about why it was on the sidewalk in June in the first place. But I digress.

Brooks, my best friend, and I were walking home one day from the Hayward Plunge and we met up with a friend of ours, Gary Richards. We three lived in the Hayward hills, which meant that to get home we needed to walk up the “Hill”, a half-mile stretch of road that was very, very steep. Once to the top, the road leveled out into a slight incline, but getting up the Hill, especially on a scorchingly hot day, was murderous.

Brooks and I liked Gary okay, but we hadn’t seen him much in the past year or so, except at school of course. We used to go to Gary’s house to play, especially during the summer months, but then, when we were in the fourth grade, Gary and his dad were in a serious car accident. They’d just started down the Hill in the Richard’s ’51 Plymouth when the brakes went out. Mr. Richards had to turn the car hard to the right and up an embankment in order to stop—the Plymouth rolled over. Gary was okay, but his dad hit the left side of his head smack onto the little plastic door lock knob and was knocked unconscious. Mr. Richards was out of work for quite a while after the accident and then, not long after he was back home and working again, Mr. and Mrs. Richards separated and divorced. In the Ozzie and Harriet years of the 50’s, in a small little community like the Hayward Hills, this was a very, very big deal. Gary stayed with his dad—it was just the two of them—and Brooksie and I were never invited over again.

“It’s gotta be a hundred and ten”, Brooks said, puffing as we climbed the steepest part of the Hill.

“Or more,” I said, “I’ll bet it’s even hotter than that.”

Gary, who was bringing up the rear, said he guessed that it wasn’t much over a hundred degrees but that it felt worse because of the humidity. We stopped for a rest under a big palm tree. We knew it was the only shade we’d see again until we were at the top of the Hill.

“How do you know about the humidity,” I asked.

“We’ve got a barometer at home. In fact, we’ve got seven barometers, although only three or four work.” Gary was the second smartest kid in our class, after Brenda Bays. If anybody was going to know about humidity and what the temperature really was, it was going to be Gary Richards.

“Wow, seven barometers, “Brooksie said. “I don’t think we have even one at my house. Why you got so many, Gary?” Gary shrugged.

“Come on,” I said, “let’s keep going.” It was early afternoon, and the sun was only going to get hotter. We trudged on.

Finally at the top of the Hill we stopped and took another breather. Gary’s house was right at the top of the Hill….Brooks and I lived another mile or so, but the walking was much easier now that we’d made the top.

“Gary,” Brooks said, “can I go in your house and use the bathroom? I gotta pee.”

“No,” Gary said, “I’m not allowed to have visitors when my dad’s at work.”

“I don’t want to visit, Gary, I want to pee.”

“Nope,” he said, “no can do.”

“Come on, Gary,” I said, “give the guy a break. It’s a half hour walk home. If you don’t want him to go in the house, just let him go in the back yard and piss.”

“I told you, my dad said….”

“Your dad said not to bring anybody into your house for a visit. We’re talking about whizzing in the backyard. Geez….”

Gary shrugged. “Okay,” he grumbled, “but make it fast.”

We waited for a break in traffic, went across the street and entered the backyard through a gate next to the garage. Once through the gate I stopped in my tracks and my mouth dropped open.

“Holy crap,” I said.

“Holy double-crap,” said Brooksie, “what is this stuff?”

“It’s just my dad’s stuff,” Gary snapped, “my dad collects stuff.”

“No kidding,” I said, still taking it all in. The entire backyard was one huge pile of junk after another, with just narrow walkways between them. Some piles were over six feet tall. Tires, car parts, cash registers, paint cans, empty and full, piles of lumber, store displays, roofing material, stacks and stacks and stacks of newspapers and magazines….unimaginable mountains of junk. Even under the patio covering leading into the house there were cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling.

Gary looked over, read the amazement in my face and looked sheepish. “Hurry up, Brooks, take your piss,” he said impatiently. Brooks had forgotten about peeing and was just wandering through the rows and rows of junk piled high.

Through the patio doors I could see into the house, and it was the same in there….piles and piles of newspapers and magazines and boxes and books, lots and lots of books. And trash: hamburger wrappers and paper coffee cups and donut boxes and shopping bags, mountains of shopping bags, all stacked neatly. It sure didn’t look like this when I was here last time, I thought to myself. That had been two years before, before Gary’s father’s accident, before the divorce.

I was standing next to a pile of electrical stuff—wires, old radios, tubes, switches—and a crude lean-to had been constructed over it, presumably to block the rain. There on the ground I spotted what first looked like a bent grey pipe about three inches in diameter and seven or eight feet long. But on further inspection I saw that it was a cable….inside the grey plastic skin were hundreds and hundreds of narrow, insolated strands of wire, wrapped together in pairs of two. I picked up one end.

“Gary, what’s this thing? What’s this used for?”

“It’s not ‘used’ for anything,” he said with an annoyed tone. “None of this stuff is ‘used’ for anything. It’s just stuff my dad brings home. Okay, he’s finished. Now take off, guys, or I’m gonna get in trouble.”

Brooksie and I left through the side gate and once we were on the sidewalk and well away from Gary’s house, Brooks squealed, “Holy crapola. Did you see all that stuff?”

“See it? I was surrounded by it.”

“Man,” Brooksie said, “how lucky is that guy to be living with all that cool junk?”

“I dunno, it didn’t seem to me like Gary’s feeling all that lucky.”

It cooled off very little by the time I went to bed that night and even with the fan on I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind was running on two parallel tracks. I was thinking about Gary Richards and about how things had changed for him and I was wondering why his dad would do that….collect all that junk, even in the house. But at the same time my mind was turning over and over the mental picture of that three-inch thick cable I’d seen on the ground in Gary’s back yard. I estimated it had been a good ten feet, and there must have been 500 separate wires bundled together, each one with its own insulation. Ten times five hundred, divided by two (one positive and one negative) equaled twenty-five hundred feet. But what if it was twelve feet…. fifteen feet? What if there were only three hundred wires? Six hundred? I feel asleep doing the math, and at the same time thinking about my friend Gary and his crazy father and how much their life had changed.

Early the next morning Brooks and I were outside my bedroom window with a thirty-foot tape measure borrowed from my father’s tool shed. About 25 feet from my window to the fence bordering our back yard with Mr. Laravee’s back yard next door. Left turn and another 40 feet to the back of our property line. Right turn and just under 300 feet across the Laravee’s back fence. Another right turn up the fence separating the Laravee’s and the Judd’s yards, about 40 feet. A final lef
Posted:  3/12/2004

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