WEATHER »

Rooftop Escape

When Reagan Came to Town


Ronald Reagan was president and occasionally based at the Western White House. I was 16 and didn’t know much about Reagan, except that during the elections my mother vowed to escape a Reagan presidency via moving us out of the country-but before the deciding votes were in, my parents experienced mutual escape from each other via a wild and woolly divorce, one plunging their four daughters into a life of rampant dysfunction. My father dropped out of Santa Barbara and moved down the coast, and my mother took us from the view-struck foothills to a fixer-upper low on bedrooms on Quinto Street, near Oak Park. As we struggled to adjust, my mother hooked up with a petulant boyfriend who liked to bully us, smack our dog, and “work” in our backyard shed, ruining canvases with Rothko-rip-off rectangles. Devastated, I didn’t care who was president-then suddenly, Reagan became my primary excuse for escape.

The president was to visit Cottage Hospital, whose towers I could see from the roof of our house, where I curled up regularly on a beach towel with my books. The pending visit had Reagan’s “flunkies” (my mother’s label) swarming neighborhoods surrounding Cottage Hospital, interrogating residents. Could we see the hospital from our homes, for instance-questions my mother answered with her vast, captivating smile of shipwrecks and danger, a dauntingly in-your-face smile that made people stare or bolt. The pending visit had my mother and her boyfriend ranting about the pitfalls of Reaganomics, my mother recalling-with a moony wistfulness aggravating both her discombobulated daughters and her jealous boyfriend-a particular Santa Barbara peace march in the late ‘60s that my parents took part in, marching their girls along State Street as helicopters buzzed overhead and the Clark Kent-ish Santa Barbara Police Department transformed into riot-gear-wearing aliens. My mother’s boyfriend hadn’t participated in this peace march. Back then, he “lived” on the beach down south, juggling beanbags for tourists and forging his self-proclaimed title of Clown Prince of Malibu : ne dog smacker.

I didn’t know the exact day of Reagan’s visit, but that he was due at all got my mind off my absentee dad, out of skirmishes with the Clown Prince, and up on the roof monitoring the towers of Cottage Hospital, where I’d heard, or read somewhere, that Reagan was to be deposited by helicopter. One day, two helicopters circled our neighborhood. I was on the roof in a flash. This was it! Reagan! Hooray! I was just out of sight of my mother lounging in an iron chair on the cracked patio below me. She was reading the newspaper and sighing audibly over headlines. Between chopper sweeps, we could both hear the Clown Prince slamming things in the kitchen, exhibiting a typical temper tantrum about nothing much. I flashed the peace sign to a helicopter making another buzz around Quinto Street just in case Reagan was inside. As it bumbled off toward the hospital my mother and I clearly heard the Prince on the kitchen phone, yelling, I’ll shoot them down!

My heart was booming and a tiny, incredulous smile was on my face-the same shrunk smile that first blossomed when my parents announced their divorce.

A gasp from my mother, the legs of the iron chair rashly scraping the patio. I peeked over the rust-blotched gutters just as the Prince thundered down our back-porch steps, pushed roughly by my mother, and raced across the yard, slamming himself in the shed. My heart was booming and a tiny, incredulous smile was on my face-the same shrunk smile that first blossomed when my parents announced their divorce. I crept across the roof, terrified something exceedingly nasty was about to happen-something worse than divorce, Reaganomics, anything.

Someone thumped on our front door. My mother opened it. Although I couldn’t see her from my discreet perch, I knew the smile of shipwrecks and danger was in place, probably at its most cinematic.

When the Secret Service man asked her, robotically, “Ma’am, are you all right?” she invited them in. I scuttled across the roof to the area over our living room and listened at those gutters as she offered them rose hips tea. They refused, firing off questions, and all I could think was: Will she or won’t she squeal?! I imagined the flunkies-Magnums whipped out from their government-issued vests-bashing down our shed’s flimsy door, brutally cuffing the Clown Prince, hauling him from our lives forever, me saluting their dark sedan from the roof as they drove away, our dog barking joyfully, my mother at the lopsided front gate, misty-eyed, but nodding as though she’d done the right thing despite her anti-Reagan vehemence, a hand raised in firm farewell. I imagined newspaper headlines: Reagan Sting Saves Broken Family.

Scooting closer to the gutters, I imagined my mother sitting in the lotus position on the drab carpet before them as they shifted uncomfortably on our couch, a lumpy beast covered in throws to hide the Clown Prince’s cigarette burns. I knew she was wearing her favorite pair of Bermuda cut-offs and an orange tube-top I secretly coveted. Will she, won’t she?! I listened harder-then let out a gasp of my own. My cute, Doris Day-blonde, eerily smiling mother was using the same enchanting voice she plied on bill collectors, using it to protect her Prince. I couldn’t hear everything she worked into her spell, but the men left without searching the house or shed. I pulled back from the gutters and hugged my knees to my chest, weeping softly, Reagan forgotten. Eventually the helicopters disappeared with the twilight and the Clown Prince emerged from the shed. He and my mother fought until he yelled at her that she was beautiful when angry. The ensuing silence resembled the bottomless silence I received from my father the next day, when I telephoned him and tattled, emphasizing the “I’ll shoot” part.

After that, I sought escape away from our home. Oak Park’s picnic benches worked until I was canny enough to navigate to the beach, where I “lived” -Black-Cloud-Princess-Bookworm-of-Hendry’s-until the second I was old enough for the Emerald City of UCSB and student housing.

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