In the early 60s, I whiled away summer days under the sycamore tree in the front yard of our modest Kilarney Park home. Never far away was my best friend Ricky Delgado. One morning Ricky said, “Let’s go check out Cabrillo Creek.”
“Naw.” I was enjoying a library book about a pet turtle that solved crimes.
Ricky stretched like a bored cat. “Maybe we’ll find something interesting. My cousin lives in Sacramento and once saw an alligator sunning itself on a floating refrigerator in the Sacramento River. Maybe today we’ll find something even better.”
“Better than an alligator?”
“Did you hear that Bruce Moxley spotted an albino tadpole in the creek last week?”
I slammed my book shut. “No way!” Moxley was the most popular kid in the fifth grade.
“I swear.” He held a hand over his heart.
An alligator would be super cool, even though my parents would never let me keep one. But tadpoles fell under the category of “Flushable Pets,” the only type my parents allowed.
Cabrillo Creek began as an irrigation canal back when peach, apricot and pear orchards blanketed the county. The canal now channeled rainwater away from new housing developments, such as Kilarney Park. Over the years, compost heaps and discarded landscape materials had been dumped into it. Surrounded by houses and strip malls, Cabrillo Creek contained only a trickle of water during steamy summer months, but we kids thought of it as an untamed Amazon.
In anticipation of capturing an albino tadpole, I dumped screws and bolts from a mayonnaise jar Dad kept on his garage workbench, wedging it between the jaws of the bookrack on the back fender of my Schwinn. Ricky told me not to ask for permission to go because my mother was the neighborhood’s reigning queen of NO. She didn’t approve of Ricky, who had a juvenile record for stealing.
The day was warming up as Ricky and I pedaled to the creek, my face turning red as I struggled to keep up with him. When we reached the creek we stashed our bikes under shrubs and descended to the trickle of slow moving water at the bottom. With the sun beating down on us, we hunted for the illusive albino tadpole. As usual my mouth was working at full throttle; I chattered nonstop until Ricky finally broke down and said, “We don’t have a chance in hell of finding that tadpole unless it’s deaf, so shut the f*ck up!”
Several times I stumbled and nearly broke the mayonnaise jar. This was starting to feel like a bad idea, far less desirable than sitting under my sycamore tree reading Waterberry the Crime-Solving Turtle. The space between puddles grew longer as we squinted into every puddle we encountered. I finally glanced at my prized Zorro watch and saw that several hours had passed. Time had come to abandon the search and head home, but Ricky wasn’t one to accept defeat easily and pressed on.
Near a bend in the creek we encountered a deep puddle with a rusty washing machine peppered with pellet gun holes. It lay on its side in a puddle, its interior filled with brackish water. The detached lid was submerged a few feet away. Ricky and I were about to move on when something caught our eye; we both sucked in gulps of air and silently pointed—sunning itself on the white washing machine lid, invisible to all but the most observant eyes, was the illusive albino tadpole.
Its tiny brain managed to sense danger; it dashed from its resting place and disappeared inside the washing machine. With the mayonnaise jar in hand, I scurried over, bent down and swished the jar back and forth inside the washer. When I examined the jar, swimming frantically inside was the tadpole. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. This tadpole would grow into a white frog, a guaranteed crowd pleaser for Show and Tell when we returned to school at summer’s end.
In our quest for tadpole treasure, we’d traveled farther than I’d ever been without parental supervision. I’d be in hot water if my folks knew I’d come this far.
“What’s that?” Ricky said, pointing at shiny objects on the shadowed slope leading to the top of a nearby overpass. They looked like bikes. Ricky climbed up to explore, and retreated with breakneck speed. “We’re outta here!”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“C’mon, move your ass!”
He’d obviously recognized the bikes, but he was beating a retreat without further comment.
I’d been too distracted by the albino tadpole to notice the billboard towering above us. Dad and I often drove down the El Camino Real on our way to visit Grandma so the colossal woman should have been familiar, but she wasn’t.
Piercing the blue unblemished sky, the billboard’s wood scaffold rose thirty feet above the cars whooshing past on the highway below. Written in big letters was:
Kilarney Park Homes
in Five Miles
Had we come five miles?
My emotions, triggered by the giant lady painted on the billboard—a behemoth beauty with golden hair, pearly skin, perfect teeth and cherry red lips—were ricocheting in my head like a pinball. I knew little of Scottish clothing and would have had difficulty finding Scotland on a map, but I was enthralled by the giantess’ loose-fitting vest laced up the front, and her jaunty tartan tam and matching sash. I’d never seen bagpipes and could only wonder what it was being squeezed in her hands. I had no idea that this enormous lady, whose Ipana smile beamed down on me like sunshine, was an advertising tool marketing Kilarney Park. At that moment she seemed like a guardian angel, and I was about to need one.
Big Chris Ferris, the terror of my fifth grade class, who’d been tormenting me for as long as I could remember, descended with his henchmen like a cluster of spiders from behind the billboard.
Conclusion on Wednesday