by Anthony J. Mohr
The test was open-book, anytime, anywhere, because Richard Nixon had invaded Cambodia and caused at least two hundred of my Columbia Law School classmates to strike and my Property Law professor to say, “If it would do any good, I’d blow the fuckin’ place up.” In solidarity with the antiwar protests, he said we’d receive no letter grades, just pass or fail.
I picked up the phone. If anybody was free, I’d go to the beach.
No one was free.
Joe had to help with seating plans for his wedding, four weeks away. Another friend had to serve hot dogs at Universal City, slabs of what he described as rotting green meat. A third said his boss needed him for a “dynamic new project” at the accounting firm where he had a summer job. There was nothing left to do but take my final examination in property law. If I managed to concentrate, if the sun didn’t break through, I’d finish by lunch.
Seated at a wrought-iron table with a glass top, I reviewed English legal anachronisms whose explanations consumed half a page of numbing prose, and every other sentence or so, I ate a piece of blueberry pancake. I was gaining weight.
The outside speaker to my parents’ stereo was on, tuned to KHJ, the AM rock station that billed itself “number one in Boss Angeles.” I goosed the volume; my mother was out with friends, and my stepfather had left for work.
In the distance were the Santa Monica Mountains, wraiths against a sky the announcer promised would turn blue by noon, when the “low clouds near the coast” would give way to “hazy afternoon sunshine,” the standard July forecast for Los Angeles.
I stood up, circled the pool, and then forced myself into the chapter on conveyances. My several-hundred-page casebook felt like a ball to which an invisible chain tethered me.
After a song, the disc jockey made a joke about a law firm that worked for KHJ. The attorneys “apparently did not do a good job” safeguarding the station’s cash, because, he said, they’d failed to control “Don”, who was now “up and out on the street headed for the Valley with some money to give away from KHJ.”
Don, as in Don Steele, The Real Don Steele, one of L.A.’s best known deejays, the man with the nonstop patter (“It’s three o’clock in Boss Angelese! Hey, hey, HEY! Thitz me. The Real Don Steele.”), the Boss Jock who often intro’d records with the shout, “Tina Delgado is alive, alive!” Don would go to his maker without ever revealing who Tina Delgado was. But it was the law firm reference that caught my attention. I wondered which firm it was; most likely a place full of balding wrecks who clutched their time sheets as they shuffled down the hall in search of coffee to help them bill another hour. I had trouble visualizing such a life, even though that’s where Columbia was aiming me. Worse yet, my receding hairline was making me look like a lawyer.
A shout popped up the hill from the country club that bordered my parents’ house. Someone had sunk a long putt. Down the block a rock band practiced, its drummer pounding too hard. Songbirds warbled in the trees. A koi splashed through the surface of the pond a few feet away.
Moments after I started to read another old English eye-crosser, the deejay said, in a breathless voice, “9:30 and The Real Don Steele is back on his feet again with some money, and he is headed for the Valley. Thought I would give you a warning so that you can get your kids out of the street.”
I had to smile. L.A.’s top-40 stations remained the carefree aural playground to which, with the turn of a dial, my older stepbrother, Skip, had introduced me one morning in January 1959, perhaps the day Fidel Castro entered Havana. I was twelve. Two weeks earlier my mother had married Skip’s father. At last she was happy, which made me happy, and the wacky-nutty Peter Pans they called disc jockeys fed my mood. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed their silly contests, like the one KHJ was hyping now, the Super Summer Spectacular. It featured The Real Don Steele in a red Buick Wildcat with a black vinyl top, driving all over town handing out money to his fans. Wherever Don Steele went, he’d telephone the disc jockey who was on the air, who in turn would announce Steele’s location. To win you had to be first on the scene and then answer an easy question—easy if you’d been listening to the station.
My property final could wait. I thought about getting in the car and chasing The Real Don Steele. Dozens of Angelinos were. But I didn’t, maybe because I figured that there’d always be another contest. Still, I needed to do something emblematic of a Californian, a native Californian, to be precise. Once I had received a survey from a think tank asking for the most pressing issues in my community. “The creative use of leisure time,” I answered. Was chasing Don Steele creative enough? Probably not, but the idea of doing so made me feel—this may sound bizarre but it’s true—connected with my Southland peers. Something in the smoggy air made me desperate to join the fun that swirled about—on my block, on the beach, and now on the freeways. “The action explodes all around the town,” read a headline in my high school newspaper, when I was a senior. But the blasts seemed harder to find, now that I was twenty-three.
“The Real Don Steele just checked in. He is westbound on the Ventura Freeway. He’ll arrive in about ten minutes. Keep track of the location on KHJ . . . Van Nuys in the valley, ETA about ten o’clock and he’s got bread to spread, so be on the lookout for him.”
Just get in the car, I said to myself, and drive down to Tee’s Beach, a spot in Santa Monica at the bottom of the California Incline, the preferred gathering place for kids from my alma mater, Beverly Hills High School. Maybe Don Steele would end up there. Maybe I’d know someone there, a person like me who wasn’t ready to move on. But the clouds had yet to move on and it was chilly.
“The Real Don Steele is down in the San Fernando Valley in Van Nuys, the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard across from the Carnation Plant. Don, will you have any money to give away?”
“ . . . [T]wenty-five dollars if they can tell . . . why Robert W. Morgan (another KHJ disc jockey) wasn’t on the air today.”
Someone—either Steele or the person running the board—said, “Hurry up and get here.”
I didn’t drive anywhere. I sat and stared at my property casebook, along with the test sheet. The deejay back-announced a song by the Jackson Five and then said, “Let’s check with The Real Don Steele in the Valley. Have you got any winners, Don?”
“Yes, sir, I am right across from the Carnation Plant. We have got the first person to get here. And what is your name, sir?”
I didn’t catch his name.
“And the question is, How come Robert W. Morgan wasn’t on the air today?”
The contestant answered, “He is sick.”
Another winner. Another twenty-five dollars. “And the Super Summer Spectacular continues…”
I tried to read, but absorbed nothing. I felt restless and frustrated, along with a hefty dose of longing, emotions inimical to the study of law. But then any emotion interfered with the study of law.
“The Real Don Steele is moving into Canoga Park, so be on the lookout for him. I’ll tell you what will happen if you get to The Real Don Steele. He’s got twenty-five dollars to give away if you can get it…and baby, all signed and sealed and delivered and wrapped up.”
The gray in the sky lessened, on track to turning blue by noon. I could take my property final tomorrow and start my summer today—I mean a real summer, a Southland summer, with lazy crazy days like the ones God had made for us during high school, when my friends and I sped down Olympic Boulevard, car radio blasting, en route to the beach to body surf and catch a few rays. I recalled the feel of warm sand, the sound of the waves, and female voices nearby, and dozing off. The next thing I knew, the girls would be gone; Joe—single and free then—might say he was hungry; and so we’d traipse to the food stand, a beach hut with sand for a floor and songs playing from a speaker on its rickety roof.
Those days had been magical, which, of course, I didn’t appreciate.
“10:54—The Real Don Steele is in the Valley near the intersection of Topanga and Roscoe Boulevard, right by the Loew’s Holiday Theater—you know where that is at, and he’s standing there with a little money he would like to give away to the first person to arrive and tell him what type car I helped Robert W. Morgan give away yesterday morning at KHJ. What was the make of the car? If you know that, split. Intersection of Topanga and Roscoe Boulevard—right nearby the Loew’s Holiday Theater—you will find The Real Don Steele. Tell him and pick up the bread.”
I slogged through a case on landlord-tenant law. Somewhere inside me the words of the housing court judge’s opinion fought with visions of the beach and of teenagers mobbing Don Steele. A butterfly floated across the koi pond. Meanwhile, bound for Canoga Park, The Real Don Steele was driving farther away from me.
“Bread is the word—The Real Don Steele in the San Fernando Valley. What’s happening, Don?
“I’ve got a winner,” said Don Steele. Then he asked the person what kind of car someone had helped Robert W. Morgan give away on KHJ.
“A Dodge Charger.”
“And what is your name, sir?”
A boyish voice answered the question.
“…Bill, you just won yourself twenty-five dollars. And the Super Summer Spectacular continues.”
Marsha Baime was nineteen; Robert Sentner, seventeen. They didn’t know each other but they’d meet soon. I didn’t know either of them and I never would, but years later I’d learn who they were. My guess is that, like me, they were bored and looking for fun. Whatever the reason, they joined the Super Summer Spectacular. While I studied, they got in their cars and found The Real Don Steele at his Canoga Park stop, but they arrived too late to win any money.
“11:13—The Real Don Steele with bread is heading for Thousand Oaks to give it away. Keep listening to KHJ. The Real Don Steele out on the highway—with bread to give away—be on the lookout, he may stop in Thousand Oaks and may stop along the way. Looks like it may be a good stop, Steele—drop some bread to those folks. Be on the lookout for Don Steele in your area—Westlake and Thousand Oaks—he’s on the way.”
I called another friend but his line was busy. It was as if the world were forcing me to take my final today. And so I turned off the radio and turned serious. Shelley’s Case, fee tails, worthier titles—I pored over them all before going inside and putting a sheet of Corrasable Bond into my typewriter.
The exam contained three questions. I flipped through my notes and typed.
According to court documents, Robert Sentner and Marsha Baime peeled out from the lot at Canoga Park and onto U.S. 101, the Ventura Freeway, each determined to be the first to encounter The Real Don Steele at his next stop. They drove up to eighty miles an hour, weaved from lane to lane, and as it became obvious that they were playing the same game, they signaled each other with words and gestures, definitely a creative use of leisure time.
When they approached the Westlake off ramp, either Robert or Marsha forced another car, a Volkswagen, onto the center divider. The VW overturned. Marsha stopped to report the accident, as did Robert, briefly, before he (and Marsha too, I presume) resumed the chase. Of course I knew none of this as I typed. Nor did I know that Robert became the first to reach The Real Don Steele at his stop near the Westlake off ramp.
I didn’t know that Ronald Weirum, the driver who Marsha or Robert forced off the road, died. All I knew was that according to Don Steele, Tina Delgado was still alive. Alive.
I completed my exam, walked to the mailbox, and dropped it in.
Joe got married a month later, on August sixteenth. I met a girl at his wedding, and we spent the rest of our vacation near the water and in the water, reaching for the good times before returning to our respective schools—and we listened to the radio.
Walking on the beach one night before August disappeared, I told her that I didn’t want to practice law.
She kissed me. She had dark eyes and straight, brown hair that dropped below her shoulder blades. She planned to become a scientist. The surf broke again and again, white froth that threw the odor of salt into the air. The ocean felt pleasantly chilly against our bare feet. In the distance cars hummed along the Pacific Coast Highway. The city lights obscured the stars.
I didn’t know precisely what I’d do. Clerk, work in Washington, join Legal Aid. I’d decide later. Right now I was in California and of California. And the next night my new girlfriend and I were hosting a mammoth party at my parents’ house.
Ronald Howard Weirum, thirty-two, left behind a wife and three children. They sued KHJ and won $300,000. The California Supreme Court unanimously upheld the verdict and used the occasion to woodshed the station. After Justice Stanley Mosk quoted (as have I in this essay) what KHJ broadcast over the air, he wrote that the Super Summer Spectacular “was a competitive scramble in which the thrill of the chase to be the one and only victor was intensified by the live broadcasts which accompanied the pursuit… Seeking to attract new listeners, KHJ devised an ‘exciting’ promotion. Money and a small measure of momentary notoriety awaited the swiftest response. It was foreseeable that (KHJ’s) youthful listeners, finding the prize had eluded them at one location, would race to arrive first at the next site and in their haste would disregard the demands of highway safety.”
He went on: KHJ “could have accomplished its objectives of entertaining its listeners and increasing advertising revenues by adopting a contest format which would have avoided danger to the motoring public.”
California’s dream years did not suddenly end at a Westlake off ramp. What happened on July 16, 1970, was one of many causes, small in comparison to Vietnam and Watts and other troubles. Still, I’m sure that accident helped make the Southland less carefree. The Supreme Court published their opinion on August 21, 1975. I was a lawyer then but wouldn’t read it until I became a judge, two decades later. It took a while for Justice Mosk’s scolding to work its way through the system and for insurance companies to restrain their radio clients. By the time I noticed our local deejays calming down, I was too old to play their games. A middle-aged man screeching into a mall to pick up bread from a boss jock? Ridiculous. Better to park in an assigned space and walk to a desk, there to earn more money—even if modest government pay—than Robert Sentner could have ever won from The Real Don Steele.
The Super Summer Spectacular is over forty years away now; high school, half a century. I grew up in a special place—Los Angeles—just as the world intruded and I felt the easy days become a gleam that bounced and slid, flew and whirled, no longer near. Maybe that’s why memories of the era cut so deep. Pool parties on summer nights. The beach on warm days. A radio contest on July 16, 1970, and the choices I faced that day. I chose but I still think of Robert and Marsha’s record run on the 101, two California kids, archetypes of the golden state at the end of its golden time, ebullient, the wind in their faces, shouting and waving and weaving and shouting while KHJ played the hits.