The Would-Be Boys of Summer

It started in 1939 at Route1, Box 223, on rural Zediker Avenue outside of Parlier in the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley. The Great Depression was still in full throttle and my recently widowed mother had been forced to move with her children from Tucson, where my dad had been a university mathematics professor, back to her family’s farm where she grew up to start her life anew. That’s when six-year old Edward (me) met my ten-year old cousin Gilbert for the first time. My new home was immediately across the farm driveway from his.

I was in awe of Gil. He was already athletic and good-looking at an early age, while I was pudgy, often clumsy, and went by “four-eyes” because of the eyeglasses I wore. Still, he found me to be a useful foil, especially for his athletic skills. “Come on, Edward, let’s go out and throw the ‘feetaball’ around in the driveway after supper.” “Feetaball” was his jocular reference to a football. And with the coming of spring and the baseball season, it was “do you want to do some pitch and catch against the barn door, Edward?” Of course, he was always the pitcher, thus leaving me as the catcher, with a fair amount of trepidation on the receiving end of his baseball projectiles.

As boys will do, we talked a lot about our favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, and discussed at length those heroic and legendary figures: “Joltin Joe” DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Phil Rizzuto, Joe “Flash” Gordon, Spud Chandler, Charlie “King Kong” Keller, Frank Lazzeri and on and on. Employing his trademark humor, Gil liked to call them the “Janks.” In the fall, his favorite and mine was Notre Dame’s football team, which produced juggernauts year after year until World War II, when the military academies, especially Army, rounded up all the talent and crushed every college team they played. In later years, Notre Dame fell out of Gil’s favor, though he never explicitly said why.

I was never much more than a mediocre athlete. I was a fairly decent lineman in high school football and an undersized guard in basketball, but I barely made the cut in baseball and track. That said, I’ve been an ardent fan of various college (especially Cal and UCLA) and professional sports teams through the years and can trace much of my interest in athletics back to those early experiences and conversations with Gil.

Gil at Parlier Union High School

Gil enrolled as a freshman in Parlier High School in 1944 while I moved up from the “little room” to the fifth grade in the “big room” at Ross Grammar School, the two-room elementary school situated among the vineyards just a short distance from the farm. Gil’s father, my Uncle Harry, was averse to the term “farm” and preferred calling his modest forty acre spread “the ranch.” Gil and I still played ball together, but not as much as before. He had started to develop new interests in high school. He served on the staffs of both the yearbook and student newspaper, was a member of the Hi-Y, and acted in school plays, including the lead role as King Herod in the high school Christmas pageant.

He also played an excellent trumpet and could often be heard at home triple-tonguing “Carnival of Venice” or practicing the music of bandleader Harry James. At the same time, for a little youthful pleasure, he liked to ogle pin-up pictures on his bedroom wall of James’s famous wife at the time, actress Betty Grable, and other Hollywood sex symbols. He was, after all, a teenage farm boy.

But it was Gil’s interest in athletics that marked him most throughout his high school years. He lettered in three sports: track, football, and baseball. He could run like the wind, either sweeping the end as a football running back or doing sprints at a track meet. He had very muscular legs, which served him well in his athletic endeavors. With his well-defined physique, Gil in high school could easily have been mistaken for a handsome Greek Adonis. His passion for sports carried forward throughout his life and, as those who were close to him knew, became his dominant interest during his adult years. At one time, he even had a part-time gig, in addition to his regular day job, as a football scout seeking talent for the Blue Chip Scouting organization.

On to the San Francisco Bay Area and the Big Apple

Gil graduated from high school and went on to serve a stint as a student at nearby Reedley College. He respected one teacher there in particular, Gus Garrigus—who had also been a state assemblyman—and spoke fondly of him throughout his life. But he was restless. He wanted to get away from the San Joaquin Valley and move up to the San Francisco Bay Area, emulating our Uncle Charles, who had done that years earlier when he was a young man. Gil idolized Charles (aka Aram among our Armenian relatives) and relished visiting with him and his glamorous third wife, Alene.

So, Gil enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and, to my knowledge, spent his entire tour of duty at the base in Pleasanton, whose location in Alameda County apparently was close enough to San Francisco to meet his needs. After his discharge, he worked briefly for Time Oil Company in Richmond. Around this time, I enrolled as a freshman at Cal in Berkeley and was able to see him more frequently than in the preceding three to four years, but still not too often. I remember once he met me with his date, a young woman whose father was a jewelry merchant in San Leandro. The truth is, I had actually dated her before Gil did but wasn’t taken with her, so I wasn’t put off when I learned he was seeing her. The next thing I knew, they got married—I think it was a justice of the peace affair—and just as quickly they got divorced.

Gil’s big career break came when he was offered a stockbroker’s job in New York City, and soon he was off to the Big Apple, where he would spend the better part of a decade. He loved everything about New York. I remember visiting him once when I was on business there doing labor market research for my employer at the time, System Development Corporation. He made sure I saw all his favorite Manhattan hotspots like Ciro’s and sundry other supper clubs. He also invited me to spend a wonderful evening with him and his new bride, Lucine Amara, the Metropolitan Opera diva. Gil embraced opera plus all its trappings and seemed enchanted by the larger-than-life figures at the Met, but that marriage didn’t last much longer than his first one. I don’t think you’ll find mention of the marriage in her bio. I liked meeting Lucine and found her private personality to be down-to-earth and almost old-worldly, in contrast to her glamourous operatic stage roles.

I don’t really know why Gil’s marriages didn’t succeed. I was interested, of course, but I respected his privacy and never pried, nor did he offer any explanation. My hunch is, coming from a traditional family-oriented Armenian background, he may have felt ashamed and embarrassed about his marital failures. I know I did after my first marriage ended in divorce.

Back to California

Gil returned to California in the mid-1980’s after the breakup of his second marriage. Initially, he worked for a stock brokerage firm in Beverly Hills, but he disliked almost everything about Southern California and soon was back up in the San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, he took the same apartment near our Uncle Charles’ pharmacy in Oakland where he had lived prior to going to New York. He got mugged there one night when he opened the door to strangers and got cut up pretty badly, but he stayed put in that same apartment until his retirement years later.

Meanwhile, Gil was seeking female companionship. Dee Ann, my wife, and I met several of his prospective partners over the years, but none appeared to suit him. Finally, he connected with Ingrid, and they seemed to fulfill their mutual needs for companionship. They were together for quite a few years until her death in 2012. He enjoyed her company and they travelled and undertook many activities together but never married.

He was very proud of the high-achieving exploits of his nephews and nieces by his sister Elaine—a lawyer, an orthopedic surgeon, a school superintendent, a pharmaceutical executive—and of his many grandnephews and grandnieces as well, especially when it came to sports. He was also very generous and attentive over the years to my daughters and grandsons. Gil seemed to get a lot of vicarious pleasure from the high achievements of all his young relatives. It almost were as though he was their dad when my daughters excelled academically and started fine careers. He himself never had children.

Gil looked forward to attending the Parlier High School class reunions, which were held triennially, and he and I attended virtually all of them together for many years. He ensured that the attendees received engraved ballpoint pens, PHS baseball caps and other memorabilia. Gil paid for these things out of his own pocket and such generosity, to my mind, was one of his special characteristics. Another was his remarkable knowledge of history: Arootian family history (that’s our extended family), people and places in the San Joaquin Valley, school histories and statistics on just about anything and everything having to do with sports. I think he had close to a photographic memory.

Gil’s serious medical problems first emerged about 12-13 years ago when he was diagnosed with diabetes. Three years later, they discovered he had several occluded coronary arteries. Dee Ann and I drove him to Redwood City for heart bypass surgery and spent a week with him up there. Before surgery, we had some fine restaurant dinners together and these seemed to perk him up. After surgery, while he was still in the hospital, we met up with one of his nephews (the aforesaid lawyer) and family for an enjoyable dinner in Menlo Park, during which we reminisced a lot about Gil.

On our final visit to his hospital room before returning home, Gil pleadingly said to Dee Ann sotto voce, “Stay…please don’t go.” Leaving him to go home that day was incredibly tough for us. I think the surgery was considered a success, but Gil developed depression afterward and started having panic attacks as well. He had to go on a regimen of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs.

The worst was yet to come. His diabetes was never fully controlled and the disease continued to progress until the pain in his lower limbs became excruciating. Irony of ironies, Gil’s last years were marked by the amputation and loss of his legs, those selfsame sturdy oaks that had propelled this Adonis-like youth so well on the playing fields of Parlier High School.

He was mostly confined to his Fresno condominium with the help of caretakers for the remaining five years of his life. Dee Ann and I would make the 4 1/2 hour car trip up from Laguna Beach to visit him on occasion. His personal memorabilia—trumpets, athletic trophies and mementos, items from the Met, various keepsakes and souvenirs—were on prominent display throughout the condo. His Mercedes convertible, in mint condition, remained parked in the garage. He always seemed happy to see us, but I don’t recall our ever conversing about our years growing up together on the farm.

Gil died recently.

It’s hard to believe this “boy of summer” is no longer with us.