By Dave Stancliff
Rafter Rabago barely managed to get his diploma from Covina High School in 1968, surprising friends, family, and the school’s entire faculty. Some of his detractors said he shouldn’t have graduated, based on the time he missed. His commonly known distain for the whole process of education had pushed more than one teacher to the limit.
He was never interested in organized school sports. His physical education coaches constantly tried to get him to play football, basketball, or to wrestle. The reason? He was probably the most gifted athlete in the school. Except he didn’t want to be an athlete. A jock. It drove his PE coaches crazy to watch him dribble the basketball around others and to slam dunk it with apparent ease during PE class.
When it came to football he could pass, defend, and receive the ball effortlessly. He was faster and more agile than any student in the school. At six-feet, and 180 pounds by his senior year, he was a force few physically challenged. In his physical education tests he did more pushups, sit-ups, chin-ups, and pull-ups than anyone on the varsity football squad.
He set school records in all of them. He was faster than anyone on the school’s track team, and tied the fastest 100 meters record in the school’s history as his PE coach clocked him in awe.
With all his physical gifts, Rafter should have been groomed as a professional athlete. The coaches daydreamed about his potential. Friends didn’t ask why he didn’t participate in sports. They knew why. He didn’t like the discipline. Didn’t like the idea of being told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
Rafter was not a good student either. That discipline thing was a problem in classrooms. He wasn’t stupid, but he sometimes did have trouble focusing on the lessons. The teacher’s words sometimes sounded like angry bees in his head and his attention wandered off to other subjects.
As could be expected, this lack of attention hadn’t gone unnoticed by his teachers since the first day of his first grade class. His eyes gave him away, staring into space. Or, his other extreme; Class Clown. Getting laughs while earning Ds in Mathematics and English.
Some of the contorted faces he made caused teachers to grin in spite of themselves. He was a natural clown. A rubber face. A teller of off-color jokes when adults weren’t nearby.
Despite being a poor student and a non-jock with a perfect record of never having made the honor roll in 12 years of basic education, Rafter was popular. People liked being around him because he exuded a certain air of adventure. Of discovery. And his sense of humor was a hit, especially when it came to getting girl friends.
Rafter was not what you’d call a good looking guy. You know, like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. Truth be told, he was very average looking with a pudgy nose and lips too full for his thin face. His mouse brown hair never looked combed, and was always borderline too long according to school regulations. One ear was lower than the other His golden brown eyes, topped with dark brown eyebrows, were the most intense feature of his face. His moods were reflected in them like serene twin lakes, or stormy seas, depending upon the moment. His voice was a husky baritone that carried well. It could sooth or terrify.
And what of his home life? Pretty boring actually. Mom and Dad both worked while he was growing up. Frank, a dentist, and Madeline, a bank clerk, were both active in community organizations.
Rafter had a succession of babysitters until he was ten, at which time he declared his independence and right to be home alone while they were out doing their things. That was fine with his parents. It saved them money.
Speaking of “saved,” no one in the Rabago household went to church. It was never discussed. Rafter remained blissfully doctrine free throughout his childhood. The world around him talked about God and he formed a vague opinion of the omniscient Spirit from what he heard. There were many times, during his school years, that God was mentioned. The Pledge of Allegiance, and songs like “God Bless America” were commonplace. Rafter saw and heard references to God in court houses, schools, and public buildings. Personally, Rafter did not know the God everyone referred to.
Talking with friends who did attend various churches gave him little insights into God. His over-all impression was of a wrathful supreme being who did not tolerate sinners (anyone who did'nt believe in him) and who had a long list of what was good and bad. That list was summarized in the Ten Commandments laid down in God’s Bible. He did see an upside to a God who loved him no matter what he did. The idea of a loving Supreme Being sparked a longing in his lonely heart. He really wanted to be loved by someone. He longed to experience the magical feeling poets and singers conveyed when describing love.
He never told people about this longing. It was his secret between him and God…if God existed.
He didn’t have brothers or sisters. This was never explained. Not that it mattered. It was obvious early on his parents weren’t thrilled to have even one child. Listening to them late at night, when they thought he was asleep, he discovered at an early age that he was an unexpected surprise. Not a happy surprise either. No, he heard words like “mistake,” and “regret,” when they talked about his birth.
Even his name isolated him. Who else had a name like Rafter? No one he read or heard about bore his unusual first name. In bits and pieces of conversation between his parents over the years, he discovered the name Rafter was the Irish variant of Raferty.His mother’s brother, Raferty O’Brian, a private in the Marines, was killed in World War II at Omaha Beach on D-Day. They decided on Rafter before he was born. If he had been a girl, his name would have been Shirley.
One thing was for sure. He hated the name. Especially when he found out that a group of turkeys was called a rafter! His classmates used this knowledge to mock him. He discovered his best defense was to roll with the laughs, and even walk and talk like a turkey for more laughs.Rafter never let his parents know he knew how they really felt about him. He just stayed out of their way, caused a minimum of fuss around the house, and became a first class survivor. After he figured things out at age seven, he played the game to perfection.
He thought of them as Frank and Madeline. Not as Mom and Dad. Home was in name only. He never felt “at home.” Never felt ties to the place where he grew up. He slept and ate there. That was it.
He knew when to pick his battles and when to retreat. Catch them at the right time, when they were feeling guilty about their mutual lack of interest in him, and he got what he wanted. From a BB Gun to a Davy Crockett coonskin hat, he more or less got what he wanted with that strategy.
Rafter wouldn’t have been so lonely at home if his parents had let him have a dog. That was out of the question. When they gave him a laundry list of reasons why he couldn’t have one, he stared into space, pretending he was on another planet. Communication in the Rabago household was often strained. He grew up silently envying everyone he knew who had a dog. He loved animals of all kinds, and promised himself that one day, when he was on his own, he would get one. Picking the best breed was one of his favorite day dreams.
With the end of his formal education upon him, Rafter could honestly say he had no plans. College wasn’t a consideration. Up to this point he hadn’t had to worry about money. His parents bought whatever he needed. Food, clothes, toys, a weekly allowance; no problem. A roof over his head in a quiet middle class neighborhood. Check. It was all free. That was about to change. The independence he desired required getting a job and a place of his own. Oh, yeah. And a car.
When it was Rafter’s turn, he stepped up to the podium and accepted his diploma (it was a phony, you got the real one when you turned in your cap and gown) from Principal Sanderson. Family and friends in the front row of the auditorium waved happily as he strolled down the steps with a big smile. He waved the false diploma at them and followed the other students to the chairs provided for graduates.
Afterward, there was a Graduation Party at his house and relatives he hadn’t seen in years attended. He zombie-walked through the rituals, cutting the cake, opening cards and presents, and smiling. Lots of “Thank yous,” to people he barely knew. Lots of advice on what to do, also from people he barely knew.
Alone in his room that night, he added up the money inside the cards. It came to a staggering $2,240! He’d never seen so much money. All in hundreds and twenties. It was liked he had robbed a store or something.
The biggest cash gift came from Frank and Madeline. A thousand dollars (ten $100 dollar bills) were stuffed into an envelope with a card that said, “Congratulations Graduate. To a wonderful son on his Graduation Day. Best of luck, Mom and Dad.”
The next morning, Rafter phoned his best friend Lenny, who had a Ford Mustang, and got a ride to “Angelo’s Used Cars” on Alosta Avenue. There were forty-two cars to choose from on the lot. He took his time and examined every one of them, occasionally asking questions.
He finally selected a bright red 1963 convertible Chevrolet Impala SS. Its jet smooth styling and powerful V-8, 409 cubic-inch engine with 360 horsepower made his heart jump with excitement and anticipation.
The car sported bucket seats and a shift console. There wasn’t a scratch on the body and the interior was like new. Someone had installed an eight-track cassette player just beneath the radio, and two Craig Pioneer 10” speakers in every door panel, and the rear window area.
The bargaining began. The salesman, who was actually Angelo, a short squat Italian with shiny pointed loafers and green silk tie, said the price was $1,400 out-the-door. Rafter got up, didn’t say a thing, and walked out of the office towards a waiting Lenny who was cleaning the windshield of his Mustang.
Angelo caught up to him. “Hey! Wait a minute, kid!” Rafter stopped and slowly turned around. “How were you planning on paying for the car?”
A calculated moment of silence. “Cash.”
Angelo’s eyes momentarily lit up.
“I see…maybe we can knock off a hundred. What do you say?”
Rafter should have been the salesman. Once again, he hesitated then countered, “I’ll give you $1,000 for it. Right now.”
Angelo gasped like a fish out of water and staggered backward a few feet. “I gotta get at least $1,200, or I’m losing money,” he wailed. Rafter thought about the drifter in “Hang ’em High” and imagined he could hear the Italian backround music that made Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti westerns” so popular.
“I’ll give you $1,000. Take it or leave it.”
The sun beat down. It was pushing 93 degrees and Angelo hadn’t made a sale in three days. “You’re robbing me. Come on inside. There’s some paperwork we have to fill out before I give you the keys.”
It was high noon and Rafter had won the shoot-out.
Days later he found a one-bedroom apartment in Huntington Beach a mile from the ocean. It was furnished with a futon and a rickety wooden end table that supported a 19” Black & White television complete with a telescoping antenna. On good days, it worked well enough to get all three television stations.
The curtains were a dirty beige with a chicken foot design. The kitchen was a nook in one corner, with an electric plate, a small sink, two small cupboards made from cheap pine but stained a dark mahogany, and a table with dual chrome legs, big enough for two. Two chrome legged chairs with red vinyl seats, complimented the modest arrangement.
Rafter thought it was great. His first home. No long term lease either. Rent was due every month. Miss the rent payment one month and you got kicked out. It was really a temporary way station for single young men and women. It was meant as a place to sleep, sometimes eat, and to shave and bathe. The location was its greatest asset.
He could walk to the beach easily from his apartment. His mailing address was Apt. 4A, 2377 Ocean View Drive, Huntington Beach. He got a phone. A standard black rotary phone, but special because it was his first. Everything was special because he was a free man living near the beach. He spent days walking around the neighborhood, getting to know the area.
Months slipped by like the steady surf at the beach he enjoyed so much. Lenny, who worked Monday though Friday at a car parts warehouse, usually came by on weekends and they got drunk and chased women. He could have gone on like that forever but his money was running low and he had to find a job.
The newspaper was full of ads for unskilled laborers like Rafter. He applied at a plastic factory in La Mirada and got a job loading box cars with boxes of plastic products ranging from cups to plates.
They taught him how to drive a forklift so he could pick up pallets of boxes and supply himself as he filled a box car every shift. The warehouse was huge. Others like him worked at bay doors open to the railroad tracks and the hungry box cars. When it rained, the metal ramp to the box car was slippery and he had to watch every step as he carried the heavy boxes and neatly stacked them to the ceiling inside.
For two months the blood vessels in both arms and his chest looked like red spider web tattoos, until he finally got into lifting shape. He slowly adjusted to his new routine and became comfortable with it despite the physical demand.
Working the graveyard shift, he soon became a night owl. It was hell on his social life at first, but he wasn’t looking for a lasting relationship anyway. After a year, he had a half dozen friends at work, both male and female. They did the lunch thing at 3:00 a.m. every morning and shared life’s defeats and victories over warmed up leftovers, sandwiches, and snack goodies.
One of his female friends, LeAnn, was married to an abusive husband, and the other, Tina, was a single mom. Gary, Cole, and Lee were all single, and Ron was married with two children. Twins. The men enjoyed going to basketball, football, and baseball games. The five of them enjoyed playing basketball and formed a team. They called themselves the “Hoop Heads” and played other pickup teams at local gyms that offered open nights for hoopsters.
They were his inner circle. Tina and Rafter dated several times, but the sexual attraction wasn’t there for either of them. Their relationship settled into a platonic one based upon trust. Sometimes when Tina came to his apartment for a drink she got drunk and he made her stay on his futon. He slept on the floor without grumbling. Her safety was more important than ruining a friendship.
It was an easy, free flowing life, and predictable. Some might say boring. He seldom strayed outside his routine. He laid around on the beach during his days off, if the weather was good, watching the pretty girls in bikinis. No desire to travel troubled his mind.
No dreams of being rich. He was content to put his years in with a company and to retire with a small pension and Social Security. He didn’t expect a gold watch, knowing he’d never stand out as employee of the month, year, or decade. Knowing he’d never turn in a money-saving tip to the suggestion box. Just an average Joe getting by.If he didn’t like the job, or got fired, he could easily find another one. There was no shortage of manufacturing jobs in Southern California in 1968. There was no shortage of any kind of jobs when he graduated. Jobs for college grads, service jobs, and manufacturing jobs, were all abundant. Full time or part time.
He could have picked something more adventuresome to do with his life. He might have been a world record breaker in sports with his natural talents. An inspiration to average-looking humble guys everywhere. Or a seeker of truth with a college degree in Philosophy. A champion for the downtrodden.
Fate held a different future for him. One day Rafter checked his mailbox and found a draft notice! Uncle Sam had sent him an invitation he couldn’t deny. It arrived one year and three months after he graduated from high school and said he had three days to report to a processing center in Los Angeles for a physical.
He stared at it while the sun suddenly hid behind gathering clouds in the sky. His steps were heavy as he slowly walked back to his apartment. The Army. He was going to be a soldier. His country wanted him. He was in trouble now!
That night he watched the six o’clock follies on the news, as soldiers charged through rice paddies chasing little men and women in black silk suits with funny conical straw hats. The TV anchor man droned on about 234 enemy causalities and two wounded soldiers in the Valley of the Jars, which had been an enemy stronghold, but wasn’t any longer. There was no word about when the war in Vietnam would come to an end.