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When I was thirteen, Dad received orders to command the USS Whetstone (LSD- 27) at the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado, California. He had taken Chip and me on a road trip from Chicago ahead of the family to find a house on the island. By preparing swordfish grilling it with a little butter, pepper and salt, he wowed us with his cooking before his parents and Aunt Jane arrived. A Spanish-styled three-bedroom house surrounded by a white wall walking distance from the Pacific Ocean was our new home. Living on an island a block from one of the five best beaches in America offered us surf, fish, sunsets, sports, music, and many lasting friendships.
Chip went out for varsity football at Coronado High School, while I attended Junior High. One day when I had finished gym class, I saw him in his uniform with shoulder pads bulging from a green and white Varsity Football Jersey and yellow pants. I could hardly believe my eyes. It made me proud to know he competed with the school’s best athletes. The sting of taunts and put-downs were lessened by his transformed image. “You look great in your football uniform,” I told him.
He shrugged, knowing others players heard my comment and glanced at me, in a moment of acknowledgment before he raced off to practice. Hearing the sound of those cleats clickity clacking on cement was new for me, but one I would hear for many years. Chip raced out the locker room door as I noticed a slogan on the wall: “Quitters Never Win and Winners Never Quit.” On the spot, I vowed to never quit any sport. The slogan meant quitting is never an option. A winner must never give in to the temptation to quit, even when exhausted, injured, or losing.
Neighbors who played on the varsity basketball team allowed me to shoot baskets with them nearby. They helped me polish moves I copied from them. The high school scoring leader, Robin Dean, lived around the corner. He put up a basketball net over a garage in our alley with enough space for a half-court game. Robin had a deadly accurate shot from almost anywhere. Outstanding players joined him, who taught me to shoot a jump shot and my set shot steadily improved. Eventually at these “pick up” games the experienced players selected me on their team, which boosted my spirits.
When I finished my paper route, I often played touch or flag football with high school students in my neighborhood including Chip, John Strobane, and others in a neighbor’s large yard covered with ice weed across the street. Competing with high school athletes with my passes, runs, and punts was a new challenge. The ice weed left a stain on my jeans, but it acted like padding, so falling wasn’t dangerous.
We lived so close to the Pacific Ocean, Chip and I regularly changed into swimming suits, took our towels, put on swim fins, and walked one-half block to the beach. We swam and body-surfed on the rolling waves that crashed onto the sandy shoreline at regular intervals. Catching a wave and riding it into the shore was another athletic endeavor with the wind whistling, the aroma of salt sea, and the force of the ocean behind our own swift swimming skill adding to the excitement.
Sometimes the lifeguards put up a red danger flag to warn us that powerful surf made it too hazardous for swimmers. A rip tide could take a swimmer far out to sea. Swimming parallel to the shoreline allowed a swimmer to progress toward the shore against strong forces. One huge wave approached giving me pause but in no time it broke over me and made me tumble down a mountain of white water until my body hit bottom, knocked the breath out of me, scattered my fins away, and nearly drowned me. I staggered to my towel and rested before dragging my feet home with a new appreciation for the forces of nature.
One sunny Saturday, Chip and I pushed a yellow three man raft we purchased from the Army-Navy surplus store over powerful waves using our swim fins. We jumped into the raft to relax after the struggle to arrive beyond the wave line, reclined, and reveled in our comfort, feeling safe in a calm part of the Pacific Ocean about a hundred feet off shore. Reveling near the coastline, swimmers played in the surf and sunbathers rested on the sandy beach before the rocks separated by the street leading to the Coronado Hotel. This architectural wonder majestically rose into the sky with spires, white walls, red roofs, turrets, large glass windows with green awnings, tennis courts, long pier, patios, walkways, and tourists wandering by shops, outdoor walk-up bar, and marimba bands that sent rhythms of the Beach Boys, Harry Belafonte, and others wafting across offshore winds.
Two dark fins cut through the calm water a few feet away bringing me out of my reverie. Sharks are surrounding us I thought. They could tip us over and attack in deep water beyond the waves where we’d drifted in a rip tide. “Chip, sharks have surrounded us,” I said.
He scrutinized the danger and laughed, “Those are dolphins, silly.” Having assumed the worst from dark fins slashing through the water, I watched them with amazement as they gracefully moved through the water, traveled up and down in groups of three or more, cavorted with one another, and swam off gracefully.
Dad came home on a Friday night in March, “Boys how would you like to go on a grunion run?”
“What’s a grunion run, Dad?”Chip said.
“They’re small fish on the coast. March through August, many grunion swim out of the water to spawn in the sand with an incoming wave. The females dig tail first into the sand and deposit their eggs. Males fertilize them spraying semen nearby, then swim back while the females wait for the next wave.”
“How big are grunion? I asked.
“About five inches long. They “run” three or four nights after the new and full moon between 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 p.m.”
“What should we bring to catch them?” Chip asked.
“A flashlight and a bucket, but you can only use hands to catch them.”
“Can you eat them?” I asked.
“Yes, by breading and grilling, or frying them. Their bones are so fragile you can eat the whole fish during March, June, July, and August, but not in April and May, which are closed for fishing to allow them to produce enough for next season.”
We went grunion hunting that night at 10:00 p.m. in our bathing suits carrying our equipment. The moon shimmered on the incoming waves that drove water to glide rapidly over the gradual sloped sand until only an inch of water covered the wet moonlit sand. The incoming surf slowed and returned to the next wave. We didn’t see any grunion until 11:00 p.m. when we saw a few silvery flashes off their slender sides squirming on the wet sand after the wave receded.
“Grunion send scouts to see if predator fish threaten the school. Don’t try to catch those. Wait ‘til the whole school runs or you could scare them from running here,” Dad said.
We heard shouts from other hunters who didn’t care whether they caught scouts or not. They grabbed what few they found. We told them, “Those are scouts. Throw them back so the school will come in unaware we’re here.” They ignored us. We decided to go further down the beach. We walked to a quiet, darker, and unpopulated part of the beach.
In twenty minutes, we saw grunion in the returning water from every wave in the wet sand flipping, squirming, and flashing. Many of the females had their tail dug into the sand while white semen from the males dotted the surf’s ebb and flow. I screamed with delight, “There’s one. Look at ‘em flipping.”
“Grab ‘em and put ‘em in your bucket,” Chip said.
When I spotted a group of grunion on outgoing water, I ran to catch them in my hands, but they slithered through my fingers. We counted nearly twenty in each bucket before the run ended. Dad made us throw back half the grunion as we had caught more than we could eat. We went home, washed off the sand, and changed clothes while Dad cooked up a batch. We devoured them, bones and all with a dab of tartar sauce, butter, and a root beer.
A baseball coach from Coronado wanted to form a team for boys my age. The thought excited me. I showed up for a tryout with friends at the high school practice field. A tall man with a bag of bats, balls, and catcher’s equipment gathered us on benches at third base. “I’m interested in coaching a team of thirteen year-olds to compete in a league. I own a store in Coronado and plan to sponsor the team. Take positions for fielding and batting practice.”
Twenty boys in baseball cleats, jeans, jerseys, caps, with gloves, signed his list and raced out to their favorite position. I took second base. The coach hit balls to each of the players and shouted, “Good throw,” “Nice pick-up,” and “Great catch” when players performed well. When he pitched batting practice to us he said, “Way to smash the ball,” “Good hit,” and “Way to drive the ball to the opposite field,” to our hitters. After two hours he said, “Men, gather on the bench.” That was the first time I heard “men” used by any coach referring to me. After three practices, he scheduled a game the next weekend, placed me at second base, and batted me lead-off. The first pitch I slammed for a triple off the center field fence. As I coasted into third base, the coach smiled, “Super hit, Danny. You missed a homer by a foot.”
We took a lead against our opponents through the first three innings. A player hit a hot grounder that skipped up and hit me in my crotch. After I threw him out, I fell to the ground writhing in pain, became nauseous with no place to hide my agony, and heard laughing voices from a group of girls that turned my face into a bright tomato. Coach whispered to me, “Always wear a jock.”
The players gathered after school before our next practice. A large athlete from our Boy Scout troop said, “My father wants us to quit the team because our coach is a communist. Some businessmen plan to run him out of town.”
“He ran a good practice and would help us win games. We should never quit,” I said.
“Communists are evil, won’t salute the flag, and don’t believe in God. Like many he’s also a Jew. My dad says the FBI knows.”
I loved Boy Scouts, enjoyed marching with them in formations in a scout uniform, and was patriotic, but I didn’t want to quit a baseball team. To quit because we had what someone thought was a communist and an unpatriotic coach might be right if true, but because he was a Jew was wrong.
“Jesus was a Jew. Don’t criticize anyone for their religion,” I said.
“You don’t know shit, Lavery. The Jews killed Jesus after Judas betrayed him.”
Another player said, “I heard the same thing from another kid.”
The Scout said, “Let’s have a show of hands. How many want to quit?” After the leaders shot their hands in the sky, most raised their hands and walked away. Quitting a baseball team because someone suspected the coach was a communist didn’t feel right. They made a special exception when an athlete can quit.