Upon walking up our circular drive, I encountered a black bear standing upright on his hind legs eating apples off one of our trees. The bear looked enormous as he and I stood face-to-face no more than ten feet apart. I was four years old.
We hadn’t owned a television set so I missed seeing Disney’s Davy Crockett series. A few of my neighborhood friends had and owned fake coonskin caps, rubber Bowie knives and plastic long-rifle replicas purchased from Woodward’s department store. All had Davy’s name prominently embedded in the toys.
My friends and I frequently re-enacted the scene where barehanded Davy fought huge ferocious teeth bearing, snarling black monster. We would take turns being either Crockett or the bear. On the show, Davy eventually ended unscathed and killing the huge wild beast using only his Bowie knife. His weapon hadn’t been the rubber version.
Young Davy Whalen did not own a knife or have a coonskin cap but was just as invincible. Upon facing my massive bulk of black fur, I reached down to the gravel driveway and picked up a rock. I was not under the illusion I was going to kill the bear but expected I could scare the intruder scampering back into the forest.
I threw the rock as hard as I possibility could. It flew high and wide to the right. Inconceivable, I missed my mark.
It was a safer and more trusting era. Port Alberni was a logging and paper mill town. Tall trees and thick-forested mountains surrounded the area. The valley air constantly hung with a pungent odor emitting from the oversized pulp mill located along the canal on the border between Port Alberni and Alberni.
Alberni Valley was a wet dreary place, built in the shadow of nearby mountain foothills and surrounded by wild animal infested bush. It was a continuous wide hill containing various degrees of slopes and bisected with numerous creeks and ravines. With the exceptions of a few of winter snowstorms, it rained constantly from permanent gray skies. The heavens dripped non-stop starting in October and ending in late May and more than not the rest of the year.
Most of the rural neighborhoods had gravel roads and ours was no different.
My parents bought an old two-story house on five acres of land along the southeastern edge of town set back from the adjacent neighborhood at the dead end corner of Fourteenth Avenue and Scott Street. Tall Douglas fir hid our property from view. The yard accessed only by the circular graveled driveway.
The house contained three bedrooms and one bath plus an unfinished basement. The outer wall’s wooden lapped whiteboarding in need of new paint resulted appearing more run-down than it was. It could have easily doubled as a haunted house. All it needed was a secret room.
To enter the home you climbed a wide wooden staircase hugging the outside front wall. It led to the elevated covered porch and front door. The other entrance was a ground level back door at the rear left corner leading into the basement.
The house pad and surrounding yard was located in the front corner of the property and surrounded by five apple trees and a large cherry tree. In the summer time, our field filled with overgrown grass and bracken ferns. Across the pasture laid a decrepit old barn and a worse conditioned one-room shack.
The rest of the thick-forested land spread out past our property line eastward to the mountains. The wild bush populated with cougar, bear, deer, and smaller wild creatures. Unbeknownst to us children, it was a perilous playground.
Kindergarten was not part of the required school curriculum and only offered privately. It is akin to modern day preschools. My mother apparently thought I needed as much schooling as possible and without a minute to lose. She signed me up for our church sponsored kindergarten. None of my neighborhood friends attended.
Our home was more than a mile from the Church’s downtown location. We only owned an old two-ton International pickup truck and my mother didn’t drive. She escorted me to class. The two of us walked a couple blocks downhill to the bus stop kitty-corner across the street from DeVoy’s small corner market. It cost each of us a dime for our fares. After disembarking, we walked downhill, another two blocks ending in the church’s basement room.
At the end of the two-hour morning session, I would meet my waiting mother for the short stroll to my father’s store in the heart of Port Alberni’s small retail district. Father closed his Sherman Williams Paint Store coupled with his backroom sign shop for the lunch hour and drove us home.
After a couple of days, my mother made sure I was appropriately clad, donning rain gear and warm clothing and handed me a dime for the bus fare. It was up to me, unescorted, to get to kindergarten and subsequently to my Dad’s shop. Barely past toddler stage, I rode public transportation alone!
My routine lasted for the few months I attended kindergarten. We were a poor family and could not continue to afford the almost-free tuition. I possessed the distinction of being a kindergarten dropout.
A couple of weeks later on an uncommon clear Fall day my father, on his way to a rare lunch time painting job, dropped me off from kindergarten in front of DeVoy’s Market to walk the final leg home by myself. This day I walked into my nearly fatal bear encounter.
After the immature young, Davy missed hitting the bear with his rock our short stocky black mongrel dog, appropriately named Stubby, charged to my rescue. My fearlessly barking savior chased the bear off into the forest while I scampered across the yard and up the front porch stairs to safety.
It was only minutes later when Dad came to a dust covered sliding halt in our driveway.
My father sat me down on our chrome legged and yellow vinyl covered chairs surrounding our kitchen table. He explained to me a bear’s forest dexterity, blazing speeds, unstoppable strengths and unwillingness to share their territory with small lunch-sized children.
He ended with, if I, unfortunately, hit the bear with my rock, it would not have scared him off but enraged him to the point of attack. My bear could have easily jumped the short distance and landed on me. It would have ended quickly and badly with me mulled to death beyond recognition from one powerful swoop of his giant paw.
His lecture sent shivers throughout my small body down to my core. I experienced years of nightmares where I always ended up eaten by large black bears. The common dream had me running around an old steam-powered locomotive on display across from the pulp mill. The snarling creature on my heels never failed to catch me!
This was the only one of my father’s countless lectures I retained throughout my life. If dad’s good-intentioned sermon hadn’t scared me to death I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about my bear encounter.
Black Market Business
Nervously I approached the United States Customs station. I was eleven. It was my first attempt at smuggling contraband across the Mexican-American border.
For years living in San Diego, we entertained a steady stream of northern vacationers. Southern California is definitely a top holiday destination. Tijuana was number two on everyone’s to-do-list right below Disneyland. We lived twenty miles from the border.
Tijuana was an extremely large border city; rife with crime. It was always dusty, hot, and filthy. The city widespread slums filled with cardboard shacks.
Street people were everywhere shoving colorful piñatas and plaster-of-Paris statues in your face begging for an overpriced sale.
The streets lined with opened bazaar styled shops. All had natives standing in the middle of the sidewalks trying to convince tourists they featured the lowest prices in the city. Most of the shops featured the same paper mache and plaster products coupled with velvet paintings of Elvis and other celebrities. Also, animal-feces softened-leather hung throughout the stores, belts, wallets, coats, handbags, saddles and more.
As soon as any young man entered an establishment they were barraged with, “Switchblades? Stilettos? Firecrackers? Horse-shit cigarettes?” and more.
Street vendors were barking more of the same contraband. Every male seemed to have a virgin sister he was willing to part with. They all took turns wearing you down.
Besides the merchandise carts, countless filthy, fly-infested food vendors hawked tacos, burritos, candy, pastries, sodas, and the like.
Every corner featured black and white zebra-stripe painted donkeys standing endlessly in front of brightly painted wooden carts with attendants offering souvenir snapshots of tourists sitting on the cart’s bench seat wearing large sombreros and colorful serapes.
Hundreds of supposedly orphaned grimy children and crippled adults spent their days hawking Chiclets gum everywhere you walked. Tourists thought they were saving third-world starvation by throwing money at them. In reality, the poor population of the city received very little benefit from these sales. The band of street urchins was organized, and the gum supplied by the same American gangsters that owned the famed Agua Caliente horse racing track and jai alai betting facilities. These unscrupulous men received the lion’s share of all gum money and extra donations.
The border crossing line meandered slowly north until it was our turn for inspection. I pushed the illegal switchblade farther down my pants as the officer asked my parents’ “Where are you from. Do you have anything to declare?”
My dad retorted, “San Diego and no.” They ignored children and waved us through. It was too easy.
Apparently, my apprehension developed from our previous Christmas vacation to El Cajon. Our family went to Tijuana with my uncle and his family. He was unafraid of the frenzied traffic across the border and regularly drove the city’s mish-mashed roads.
Most tourists grabbed a smelly battered old taxi for the short ride downtown. Walkers forced to fend off the aggressive drivers blocking your way while offering rides from the multiple lines of colorfully painted vehicles. Everyone was forced into this scene as soon as you stepped foot into Mexico.
None of the drivers ever attended a drivers training class; they drove erratically down mud and sewer filled back alleys and side streets. These men spend desperately throughout the city anxious to drop off their fare and pick up the next. Every driver kept one hand on the horn, one on the steering wheel and two feet on the gas. I do not believe any taxi in Tijuana had working brakes. The jaunts were more exciting than an E-ticket ride at Disneyland.
On returning through customs my uncle told the guard, we had nothing to declare. His young daughter immediately piped up, “What about all the bottles under your seat Daddy?”
He stepped on the gas and sped up the highway. He purchased considerably more liquor than was allowed to import. Our trip back consisted of a long explanation on the importance of keeping secrets from border agents and the eminent penalties of truth.
On an early school day, during my first semester in junior high, I proudly exhibited my new ill-gotten illegal switchblade. Several classmates instantly started making monetary offers. Without hesitation, I accepted the highest bid. My black market business was born.
Every ensuing visitor followed with a Tijuana excursion and moneymaking opportunity. I continued smuggling with my pants and coat jammed with switchblades, stilettos, and bags of fireworks. Nobody ever questioned a small demure boy’s bulging clothes. My enterprise boomed and I was always flush with bills. This venture lasted my entire seventh grade school year.
In the eighth grade, I got a real job, an early morning paper route.
Excerpted from "Life Check: A Human Journey" by Harold David Whalen. Copyright © 2017 by Harold David Whalen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.