Monday, September 04, 2006

Moving to LA: murder, mud, fire, flood and Doo Dah!

In fall of 1977 my parents moved to Pasadena, California; known for its bad elderly drivers (as eternalized by Little old lady from Pasadena by the Beach Boys), its geeks in the form of Cal Tech and JPL, and its fairly affluent middle class values, from the Greene & Greene to Frank Lloyd Wright houses to Bullocks on Lake Street. Of course for me, that first year of 1977-1978 was all about murder, natural disaster and kooks.

Our arrival to Pasadena coincided with the reign of terror of the Hillside Strangler. The Strangler (which turned out later to be cousins working in tandem) terrified, because The Strangler attacked, raped and killed only women. The age ranges were all over, from 12 to 28 and every weekend, people waited to hear who was dead. Teenage girls were kept at home; single women were encouraged to not be alone as “The Strangler” killed again, and again, all over Los Angeles, leaving only dumped bodies behind, from Eagle Rock to Glendale, from prostitutes to country club members, if you were young and female, “The Strangler” was targeting you. With each death, things got worse; the next victim had been tortured before being killed, then the next body was staged so it pointed toward city hall. The last body was found in Feb. 1978. Most of this went over my head, but I do remember the tension among the women, and really everyone, wondering when the next person would be killed, when the next body would be found and more important, would it ever end?

Of course this was just a prelude to six years later when the Night Stalker began his summer of terror, simply walking into people’s houses, killing, torturing and raping them and then disappearing, sexually assaulting and/or killing as young as 8 and as old as 83. With the police composite description, you couldn’t go a block without seeing a poster as neighborhoods took turns watching and patrolling, every window locked tight and some people even using cardboard cutouts of the Night Stalker in their window to try and convince him to choose someone else. (consequently the clue of his wearing a baseball cap of the band AC/DC fueled the justification in our church for banning that “evil” rock music, specifically AC/DC – one of the bands my brother liked).

Back in 1978, our family moved from an apartment to a small house on Lemon Street, Pasadena, just at the edge of Hispanic gang territory. About 5 houses down was the bus depot and repair yard which, as a large open space abandoned on weekends, was used for duels and knife fights by the gangs. Many summer nights, I can remember going to bed listening though the open windowns, the screams and moans coming from the bus depot. Previously I had lived in a fairly remote area of Surrey, BC, with two neighbors and lots and lots of woods (which at school the 5th grade boys told us were filled with dead rotting bodies - so I didn’t go into the woods a lot). Besides the bodies-in-the-woods, it was a pretty sedate life in BC, well except that time my brother found the stash from the robbery from the corner store, or when the 18 wheel truck lost control and stopped just short of flattening our house (our fence and trees didn’t fair as well). Well, I guess LA wasn’t so different, just bigger.

The late summer of 1978 was marred by the Malibu/Mandeville Canyon fire, which set fire to the San Gabriel mountains, which loomed above us, only a few miles from where I lived. The fire spread everywhere, and thanks to the whipping winds up to 60 miles an hour, it also set a new speed record as it spread 13 miles in less than two hours (faster than most animals or humans could run), “One eyewitness account in the Los Angeles Times described how the rampaging fire front "turned thousands of wild rabbits into balls of flaming fur that darted insanely about, only to start new fires at the spots where they fell."” As the sun went down, the entire horizon, covered by the 5000+ foot mountains, was orange with the fires, and the sky rained ash continually. Every morning you would get up to find the lawn covered in a fine ash which hung in the air and stuck to your face and clothes, like grey snowflakes (which was repeated a few years later when Mount Saint Helen blew). I never worried that the fire would come down to us, though I wished it would (remember I was a disaster loving kid, not the disaster loving mature adult I am now). But it was a wonderful panorama of raging fires with helicopters and water bombers roaring by overhead to make their runs. Of course, the fire was barely out before the torrential rain started and the mudslides began, whole hillsides of houses disappearing under the mud in slides that killed 13 people. Drowned to death in mud – ug! Somehow the landowners of Malibu convinced the government to build a giant wall to stop thier houses sliding into the sea. The houses in places like Ventura weren't so equally protected (maybe something about how not many people in Ventura lunch with the governor?).

Of course, these were the “innocent” days of Pasadena; some serial killers, a lot of natural disasters. Soon the entire nation would be looking at LA, and parents would be checking what we were wearing daily; not because we were too low cut, but to make sure we weren’t wearing blue or red. The days of the “crips” and the “bloods” were soon ahead. But on Thanksgiving 1978, we all went out to see the latest Pasadena folly, the Doo Dah parade. The Doo Dah parade began in November 1978 as a parade for people who thought the annual Rose Parade was too stuffy and too serious. It was a parade for all the people who wanted to dress up and be in a parade.

The Doo Dah parade has been described as "a cross between The Little Rascals and a Fellini movie," which is famous in it’s own way for marching groups from “The Synchronized Briefcase Marching Drill Team” (an 1978 original group which has just grown and grown in popularity) to "The BBQ and Hibachi Marching Grill Team". The Pasadena of my youth was well known for its “colourful” characters such as “The Spinner”, a local man who dressed wild and spun in circles while waiting for lights, or “bee man”, the guy who covered his entire van in testimonies to bee pollen as a curative. The Doo Dah Parade just gave Pasadena eccentricity a little legitimacy; and considering the antics of the students of Cal Tech (including making a green glow-in-the-dark liquid, putting it on the highway and then cleaning it up in full Haz-Mat suits starting an urban panic), the oddities of exiled royalty of pre-WWII Europe to probably the highest per capita health food stores in the US, we needed all the legitimacy we could get.

Through random murders, fires, floods, mudslides and the Doo Dah parade I was baptized as an LA resident. It was good because the next year would have me trapped in a building singing hymns while surrounded by the LA sheriffs department with their shotguns and tear gas (story for another day). LA was not a place for the weak, as the State would later prove when they flew helicopters in Apocalypse Now formation over the city, dropping a nerve agent developed by the nazi’s; with such high toxic levels that it pitted cars and killed pets outright. LA also brought the US a new concept of road rage, with all out gun battles on the freeways of the 1980’s including one July with temperatures over 114 degrees which racked up 800 homicides in just one month. You’re not in Canada anymore; Viva LA!


Yoga Korunta said...

I'm going back to Toronto!

funchilde said...

wow. great post e. totally entertaining. vivid and engaging.

Sober @ Sundown said...

Some pretty powerful experiences in your early life. Love the Doo Dah parade!

GayProf said...

as a large open space abandoned on weekends, was used for duels and knife fights by the gangs.

Is this when you became interested in fencing?

Wiccachicky said... the larger question should be, did the murder just happen to appear upon your arrival OR *spooky music* did you bring the murder to LA?


elizabeth said...

that was.........cheerful. I was waiting for mention of the Abbotsford killer in BC(I lived out there then)Pig farms and all that fun stuff - when is that coming?

belledame222 said...

Hey, I grew up not far from Pasadena! dad still works there.

yeah, I remember the "Night Stalker" business. i think one of the few such times i remember actually worrying a bit.

and yeah, it has changed, i expect; but it's still a nice enough place, or so it seems whenever i'm there.

i dunno; probably i'm not a SoCal girl at heart, even if i don't end up staying out here either. Northern Ca or PAcific NW is probably closer to my spiritual home.