February 2, 2008) – (Please note that I’ve made some changes to this page honoring my friend, Lonnie Harvey. I’ve added and repositioned some photos and have also added a new story about a concert that we attended back in 1962. Hopefully you haven’t forgotten about Lonnie, I know I haven’t, and will enjoy this new story. I’ll add a few more from time to time. I look forward to your comments.)
The Phone Call
On September 15, 2007 I received a totally unexpected phone call. Mary Sands Miller, a schoolmate of mine going back to at least the 5th grade, called me and asked why I was not at my best friend’s funeral? It had just taken place in Riverside, California and she was a bit shocked that I, of all people, hadn’t shown up at the memorial.
Lonnie Eugene Harvey passed away on September 1, 2007. His death came while he was in Alaska on a fishing vacation. I don’t know any of the details except that a newspaper article said that a family member was with him at the time he suffered a heart attack. By the time help arrived it was apparently too late to save him. He was 63.
Losing friends is always a sad thing. After you’ve reached the age of 60, the loss of friends and family becomes an almost regular event. You come to understand that dying is as much a part of our existence as living. You see the process in action as more of your acquaintances begin to pass on to whatever rewards that might be awaiting them. From a logical point of view you realize that it’s part of nature refreshing and strengthening the human species by replacing each generation every 60 to 100 years.But losing some friends can be especially difficult. For me, Lonnie Harvey was one of those friends.
Living in Riverside, California
In 1954 my parents, Patricia and Alton “Jay” Hoyle, moved our family back from West Los Angeles to the home they owned in the University District of Riverside. Located on Douglass Avenue, our one bath house with three bedrooms sat directly across the street from University Heights Junior High School.
This location offered several advantages for kids because it offered large grassy fields, a running track, two full-sized baseball diamonds, along with four tennis and six basketball courts. For my younger brother and me, it seemed that we were living across the street from “Paradise,” a place that offered us everything kids could hope for – especially those that loved sports.
Douglass Avenue was on the eastern edge of the junior high school, while Kansas Avenue provided the western boundary. Railroad tracks divided the City of Riverside neatly in half. The neighborhoods between those tracks and Kansas Avenue were unofficially designated as the “colored section of town.” Everyone of color (African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans and even a few poor whites) lived within that section of town. Eighth Street (now University Avenue) on the north and 14th Street / Pennsylvania Avenue (now Martin Luther King Blvd.) on the south completed the boundaries of the unofficial “box” that held Riverside’s minority population.
Since our home was located on the eastern side of the junior high and the “colored neighborhood” was on the western side, it was only natural that we’d all meet in the middle to go to school or to play with each other in pickup baseball, football, and basketball games. For us, this was a distinct advantage because we could play with so many kids. Differences in skin colors went unnoticed and were unimportant. We simply wanted to be on the same teams with the fastest runners and best players no matter who they were.
My family went to the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses located at Park Avenue and 5th Street, about two miles away from our home. Every JW living north of Central Avenue went to that location. There were about one hundred members made up of all ethnic groups. Among the members was a ten year old “colored” boy named Lonnie and his parents, “Brother” and “Sister” Harvey.
On our first visit to the Kingdom Hall, my only thoughts were about making new friends. I met several young boys close to my age and seemed to get on well with all of them. I also noticed Lonnie, but he seemed distant and maybe a little shy. I thought he must be much older than me because he was so tall. After the meeting, my parents had an opportunity to meet the Harveys and found them to be a friendly Witness couple.
After the meeting, my parents had an opportunity to meet the Harveys and found them to be a friendly Witness couple.
I Meet Lonnie for the First Time
One day, while we were shopping at the local Safeway Store, my mother noticed Lonnie wandering around the aisles and she recognized him as being a young boy that she saw at the Kingdom Hall. She suggested that I go over and say “hi” to him and introduce myself. I was a little nervous at first, but with a little further
At first, I was a little nervous, but with a little further prodding, my mother convinced me to go speak to Lonnie. The first thing I noticed was that this tall, thin boy had the biggest smile I had ever seen. Great big beautiful white teeth seemed to literally spread evenly across his face from ear to ear. I knew at that instant that I wanted to be his friend. As we met for the first time, he turned to me and said, “Are you Johnny?” I said that I was and shook his hand. He looked back at me and asked, “I’m Lonnie. I’m ten years old. Do you want to be friends?”
And we were. For over fifty years we were friends. At times we were more like brothers.
Adventures with Lonnie
I soon found out that Lonnie lived less than four blocks away from my house near the corner of 12th Street and Kansas Avenue, right on the edge of the so-called “colored area.” In 1954, there were acres of orange groves across the street from his house. I would go to Lonnie’s house and we’d go exploring in the orange groves across from his house. Whenever the fruit was ripe, we’d snatch a couple and eat them right there in the grove to refresh ourselves. It was only after we’d eaten a few that Lonnie would remind me that the owners had the right to shoot us if they found us stealing their fruit. He’d usually follow that up with a grisly story about some rotting dead body that was found in a nearby grove that was full of buckshot.
One day when we went to his house after eating a few snatched oranges, his mother Hattie warned us to stay out, “’cause they been sprayin’ all over them there groves with some kinda nasty poison!” Thanks to his mother’s warning, for days afterward we expected to suddenly drop dead at almost any moment. Between 1955 and 1957 newer tract homes were built on both sides of Kansas Avenue between 12th and 14th streets and our little fun zone in the groves was gone forever.
Lonnie and I Go Mountain Climbing
Early one summer day, Lonnie and I started climbing up “Sugar Loaf,” a fair sized hill located above Box Springs Grade located just east of Riverside. For some reason, unknown to me, Lonnie was in a foul mood and gave me the silent treatment all the way up the hill. The higher we got, the more frustrated and angry I became and told him why. When we finally got near the peak I took off to the left of a huge boulder and Lonnie went to the right.
When I got to the top, Lonnie was nowhere to be found. I looked everywhere and starting yelling his name. In spite of the fact that I was clearly beginning to panic, Lonnie wouldn’t answer me. All I had with me was a small backpack with a couple of sodas and twenty feet of rope. Lonnie had some food and a BB rifle. If either of us got into serious trouble, there was no way the other could get him down the hill.
I finally found Lonnie stuck on a rock ledge. He tossed the BB rifle up to me and put on his heavy jacket to free up his hands. I tossed one end of the rope down to him. As he tried to pull himself up, his foot apparently slipped and he disappeared over the ledge and dropped behind a big boulder out of my line of sight. I briefly felt a pull on the rope – but then it went slack in my hands.
I heard Lonnie scream, but I could not see him anywhere. I looked down the hill and on both sides of the big boulder overhanging the ledge. Lonnie was gone! My panic turned into absolute despair and terror. In my mind, I could see Lonnie’s broken body lying in a heap at the bottom of the hill. What would I tell my parents? What would I tell the Harveys? My heart began to pound and giant tears poured from my eyes.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Lonnie appeared behind me off to my left. His body was not broken. He didn’t have a scratch on him. The whole event had been just a horrible prank.
I was angry. I reacted by calling him every bad name I knew – and even invented a few more as I yelled at him. He reacted by calling me a “big crybaby” and accused me of being “a bossy little wimp.” Still wearing his heavy jacket, he sat down on a big rock, turned his back to me, and just stared out over the valley. No matter what I said, he wouldn’t answer me.
He reacted by calling me a “big crybaby” and accused me of being “a bossy little wimp.” Still wearing his heavy jacket, he sat down on a big rock, turned his back to me, and just stared out over the valley. No matter what I said, he refused to answer me.
I became so angry that I completely lost it. I picked up the BB rifle and began pumping pellets at his back. The heavy jacket he was wearing absorbed the shock of the BB pellets hitting him, but I was close enough that they still had to hurt. I moved up a couple of steps and shot him about five more times.
Finally, Lonnie lurched forward and fell over “dead.”
After miraculously “rising from the dead” a few moments later, Lonnie admitted that he wasn’t mad at me at all, but had just been teasing me the whole time. We looked at his back and found several little round bruises where the pellets had struck hard enough to hurt. I just sat down and cried – more from relief than anything else. I made him swear that he would never do anything like that again.
Years later, when we would see each other at class reunions, he’d laugh and tell everyone that John “shot me with a rifle up on Sugar Loaf.” I’d often suggest that he tell the whole story, but I doubt that he ever really did. And if he did, I doubt that his story ever matched the facts as I remembered them. Lonnie loved telling that story and if I was around he’d expand on it to make it sound even more horrific than it was.
Lonnie was lucky that we weren’t packing a real rifle that day.
Lonnie and I Build a Soapbox Racer
With a 2″x 8″ and a couple of 2″x 4″ pieces of lumber, two wooden orange crates, four baby stroller wheels and a lot of help from my father, Lonnie and I built our first “soapbox derby car.”Our first version featured foot and rope steering and no brakes. As long as we were on level ground, that format worked pretty well. But “derby” cars were supposed to go downhill – and fast.
My dad worked out a foot operated drag brake that worked very nicely. Lonnie was able to make a steering wheel made out of steel rebar as a project in his junior high metal shop. A few strategically placed holes cut in the box frame and some rope and pulleys, and we had ourselves a pretty decent little hot rod that steered and braked like a real car.
We decided that we had to try it out. The closest downhill road was about a mile from my house over beyond Prince Albert Drive and down the (then) dirt road to “Lost Valley Ranch” (now the long dip in Chicago Avenue south of Martin Luther King Blvd.).
Riding our bikes and towing the derby car behind us, we finally made it to the top of the road. We both looked down at the gravel-covered surface that curved down to a sharp left turn. The lower side of the road was supported by large rocks and broken pieces of concrete placed there in an effort to reduce erosion. We both agreed that this was going to be a really scary ride.
I went first but only made it about ten yards down the road before one of the wheels came off. We eventually found the missing cotter pin and repaired the wheel. Now it was Lonnie’s turn.
He wanted me to give him a running push start so that he could really go fast. I ran so hard as I pushed that the car simply got away from me. Falling face first into the gravel, I briefly lost sight of Lonnie as he hurtled down the hill. As I looked up from my prone position I saw Lonnie and the car flying off the edge of the roadside in a neat downward arc.
All I could think about was how badly hurt Lonnie would be and whether the car would be salvageable. As I reached the spot where Lonnie had disappeared and looked over the edge, I saw Lonnie lying motionless in a heap on top of the chunks of concrete. The car was in shattered pieces scattered below him.
Fearing the worst for Lonnie, I worked my way down the hill. Lonnie just looked up at me with his great big smile and started laughing. There was a little blood on his face and arms, but all he had suffered were a few scratches.
“That was so cool,” Lonnie said. “We’ve got to build another car and do this again!”
I nearly had a heart attack, but Lonnie was OK. Unfortunately, the car did not fare as well. All four stroller wheels and the steering shaft had been damaged beyond repair. We decided to leave the wreckage behind. What was left of our beloved derby racer lay scattered amongst the rocks and debris that destroyed it.
We never built another soapbox car. But we sure had a lot of fun building the first one.
I Give My First Public Talk
Lonnie and I were both Jehovah’s Witness kids and went to the Riverside Kingdom Hall at 5th and Park Avenue with our parents. We’d do all the things that were expected of us – such as participating in meetings and going out in the “door-to-door service.” The difference was that my parents pushed me hard to become a truly active JW, while Lonnie’s parents didn’t seem to care much about what he did most of the time and they often did not come to meetings.
Lonnie and I always enjoyed going to the Kingdom Hall because our parents would let us sit together. We could have some fun during the breaks and loved talking to some of the cute girls that went there. All the girls loved Lonnie. They would flock around us as we stood outside in the cool air and told stories and jokes.
At the time, my father was a “Book Study Servant,” a minor “elder” position within the Kingdom Hall organization. Dad had never been a very good student and was a bit shy. He was very uneasy having to read or speak in public, especially in front of 60-100 people. One of his responsibilities, however, was to give an occasional “public talk” before the entire congregation. That situation came up three or four times a year.
I was a pretty bright kid and did well in school. I had purchased a portable typewriter when I was in junior high school and would type out my father’s speeches after he prepared them. Dad could not read his own writing when he was on stage. Eventually, my father just had me write his speeches for him – which was easy enough for me to do. All Jehovah’s Witness talks follow the same basic outline, but have different titles and will use slightly different Bible quotations. For me, preparing his public talks was a “no-brainer” and at times even fun for me.
I can not remember the exact reason my father couldn’t give his scheduled talk. But there was one Sunday when I was still not quite sixteen when Dad had to withdraw due to some important conflict in scheduling or due to a health problem he was having. The call went out to other local Kingdom Halls for a replacement speaker who had given that same talk, but none were available on such short notice.
My father finally suggested to the Congregation Servant that I give the talk. “Johnny writes and types my speeches for me,” Dad said. “He probably knows it better than I do anyway – and you know he is a better speaker than me even at his age.” I was actually too young to be doing this, and at barely five feet tall, I was awfully small to be standing up on stage and preaching to the Sunday meeting group. But the Congregation Servant, Ted Rogers, decided to give me a chance and assigned the public talk to me.
When Lonnie found out that I was going to be giving the public talk, he was so happy for me. He told me that he would sit right in the middle of the hall and silently cheer me on. Even though my father wouldn’t make it, the rest of my family would be there along with all of my Witness friends. This would be a great opportunity for me to really impress the crowd, and maybe even a few JW girls at the same time.
All went well as I began my speech. As all other public talks ever given before or since in Kingdom Halls, the opening discussed how Adam and Eve had disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, resulting in all humankind being born into sin and eventual death. As I finished the introduction, I received some polite applause for my performance up to that point.
As I looked out over the crowded Kingdom Hall, I could see my mother and siblings listening intently as I spoke. I could pick out a few of my other friends like Randel, Barry, and Walter. And as promised, there was Lonnie sitting in the middle of the first row of the second section.
About halfway through my talk, I happened to look out over the audience. To my horror saw Lonnie looking back at me from his centrally located seat. He had turned his eyelids inside out, had drool running down the side of his mouth, and had one finger stuck halfway up his nose.
My efforts to not laugh or break into a giggle were totally ineffective. I had to briefly turn my back on the audience as I regained my composure and tried to act like I was having a cough attack. In spite of some brief applause, I was absolutely ruined for the rest of the speech and had to stare at the clock at the back of the Hall to keep from seeing Lonnie and breaking my train of thought again.
Working extra hard through the rest of my speech to not break into uncontrolled giggles, I was terrified that I wouldn’t make it all the way through my speech. I went off script a little bit as I described in great detail the horrible things that would happen to the wicked at Armageddon. As the hour neared its end, I realized that I was running long and had to condense the 1000-year reign of Jesus into about 30 seconds. “Everlasting life” for the faithful in the “New World” was jammed into less than a minute.
After a rather lengthy applause, everyone came up to me to congratulate me on my great speech. A few mentioned that they noticed that I seemed to have had a coughing or sneezing attack during the middle of the speech, but only my mother seemed to know that something had been not quite right. She never said anything about it directly, but she did make a comment or two that I “needed to mature a bit more” before giving any more speeches.
That would not be the only time that Lonnie tried to sabotage my ego.
Lonnie and I Give a Demonstration at a Convention
Lonnie and I were chosen to put on a brief demonstration during a circuit assembly that was being held at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indio, California. I was to be a young JW going door-to-door offering a new book released by the Watchtower Society the previous summer. Lonnie was supposed to be a “worldly” teenager whose door I happen to knock on. I was going to be doing most of the talking, which was just fine with Lonnie. He hated giving speeches, even at Theocratic Ministry School. He was a little shy being up on stage. I was totally at ease in front of Kingdom Hall crowds, but even I found giving the demonstration in front of five thousand people a bit more intimidating.
We were both dressed nicely. Lonnie was wearing some tan pants and a dark shirt with no tie (he was the “worldly” kid). I was wearing some lightweight gray dress slacks, a white shirt, and a dark tie (I was the “Witness” kid.).
We waited behind the stage for our cue to go through the curtains and take our positions on the left side of the stage in front of two microphones on stands. After a brief introduction by the main speaker (who would “knock-knock” on the podium to indicate that I had arrived at Lonnie’s door), I would begin my demonstration of proper door-to-door techniques when witnessing to teenagers. I would stand toward the edge of the stage and Lonnie would stand closer to center stage.
As we continued to wait while the other speakers and demonstrations went on, Lonnie started telling me some new jokes. Even though we came off as “good little Witness boys,” we both enjoyed telling some of the sickest, nastiest jokes to each other. So while we were waiting for our cue call, Lonnie tells me this joke about a flatulent old man and his dog – or something along that line.
By the time he finished the joke, he had me laughing so hard that I lost control and pissed my pants. The closest restrooms were outside of the building and well beyond any distance that I could travel and return before we would be due on stage. I was standing there with a wet streak running down my left leg – clearly visible on those light gray slacks.
My terrified mind raced as I tried to come up with a quick plan to salvage myself from certain embarrassment and a probable painful death at my father’s hands. I frantically rubbed the pants to try and make them dry faster. I found some paper towels and tried to use them to soak up the excess moisture. As my brief life flashed before my eyes, the stage manager whispered that we were to go on right after the next demonstration.
All this time, Lonnie is cracking up. He is laughing so hard, that he is crying. And he’s due to go on at the same time as I am, just minutes away. I’m afraid that we will both end up giggling through our presentation.
In a pure moment of inspiration, I come up with a plan. I told Lonnie to walk out first. I would follow behind him and carry my book bag in a way that would hide the embarrassing wet spot. When we got out on stage, I wanted him to go to the right microphone, and I would go to the left one. That would put the wet spot on my pants facing away from the audience. When we finished our presentation, I would just turn my back to the audience and walk off the stage.
Thank God, Lonnie didn’t give me any crap about what he was “supposed to do.” But just to make sure, I told him that if anyone said something about our positioning, we would just say that we got confused at the very last minute.
Fortunately for me, I pulled off my part without any further problems. Lonnie just had to say “Hello,” “that makes sense to me,” and “why don’t you come in and tell me more?”
No one seemed to notice my predicament and my parents apparently never found out. I somehow managed to survive a potentially horrifying experience. Lonnie, however, found the whole incident so amusing that he had to share the experience with several of his Witness friends while we were at the assembly. So for the next two days, all the guys we knew would look at me and giggle. The girls just avoided me.
Lonnie Comes to Live With Us
When Lonnie and I were going to high school, his mother became very ill with a serious disease that would leave her completely incapacitated for the rest of her life. Lonnie’s father, Aaron, decided to take off and just disappeared completely for awhile. Lonnie found himself on his own and without any financial or moral support.
Lonnie lived in his parents’ house for a few weeks and didn’t tell anyone about his father abandoning him. Even though it was a very difficult time for him, he chose to keep his problems to himself. At one point, however, he had to talk to someone. He came over to my house to see me and asked if we could just go somewhere to talk.
Lonnie was an independent sort of fellow and had managed to make do for a couple of weeks living on his own. But there were bills to be paid for utilities and he needed money for food. I was working part time at a local gas station and was only taking home about $15 a week, but I gave him the two or three dollars that were in my pocket.
I told Lonnie that I would ask my father to help. Lonnie was reluctant to involve my parents at all, but I talked him into going home with me and seeing my parents. Even though our space was limited, both of my parents immediately agreed that Lonnie could stay with us. They didn’t have much extra money to help him financially, but would provide him with room and board and an open invitation to eat with us anytime.
Lonnie moved in with my brother Denny and me for a few weeks and then made other arrangements. My parents chose to allow him to come and go as he wished, and gave him very few rules, but Lonnie considered our home as also his from that time onward. He eventually moved back into his parents’ home and somehow managed to survive living pretty much on his own until we graduated from high school.
Lonnie Asks a Special Favor
Lonnie’s family life was in so many ways quite different than mine. Although his parents provided him with room and board and provided him with clothes and basic necessities, his family was about as different from mine as any two families could be. He rarely called his father anything but “Aaron” and often referred to his mother about half the time as “Hattie.” Their approach to disciplining Lonnie could sometimes be very severe, and often very scary – for even somewhat minor infractions on his part.
My father was always playing ball and wrestling with me and my siblings and supporting our involvement in Little League and school sports. My mother was always good for conversation, help with schoolwork, and a hug. Even though they could be strict disciplinarians at times, we never once doubted their love for us.
Lonnie loved visiting our home often and being a part of our family activities whenever possible. My brother and sister loved Lonnie nearly as much as I did, and my parents considered him almost like an adopted kid of their own.
After his mother was institutionalized and his father disappeared, I assumed that he would consider himself free of their control and that he would be glad that they were both gone. I was very surprised when Lonnie came to me one day and asked for a “big favor.” He wanted me to drive him over to the San Bernardino area so that he could see his “mother.” Hattie Harvey was hospitalized at Patton State Hospital in Highland, a small town just to the east of “Berdoo.”
I agreed and we made arrangements for our 35-mile round trip. As we neared San Bernardino, Lonnie asked me to head in the opposite direction, to the west side of town. I agreed and we soon found ourselves in a very rough part of town, but Lonnie kept assuring me that we would be OK. We eventually found the address he had been given. As we arrived, Lonnie asked me to wait in the car while he went inside to meet with someone he knew. A couple of young men looked at me menacingly as they seemed to be surrounding my car. All I could do was to wait for Lonnie to return and hope for the best. I was afraid that Lonnie might be involved in some kind of criminal activity. I did notice, however, that one of the young men looked a lot like Lonnie. His skin tone, the shape of his face, the big toothy smile (when he was smiling) looked so much like Lonnie that it was freaking me out.
After twenty minutes or so, Lonnie came out of the house. A middle-aged woman followed him to front door and watched us leave. Lonnie briefly stopped and spoke to the young man that looked so much like him. They shook hands and gave each other the briefest of hugs. Lonnie got back in my car and we drove away. We said nothing to each other for a few minutes until we got to Highland Avenue, the main east/west boulevard that ended up near Patton Hospital. “Turn right,” Lonnie said. We then drove straight east to the hospital.
The beauty of the hospital grounds gave no clue to the horrors inside the walls. At first Lonnie did not want me to go inside, but at the very last minute he changed his mind and asked me to go with him. A young attendant accompanied us as we went to Mrs. Harvey’s room. Along the way some of the patients were begging us to help them get out, pleading that they were being held against their will and were “not crazy.” Others sat nearly comatose in their wheelchairs or babbled in “baby talk.” Some patients screamed or cried out in shrieking voices. I can not describe all of the sights and sounds of that main room that Lonnie and I walked through, but I can say that no Hollywood movie has every recreated a scene as unnerving as what I saw that first trip to Patton Hospital.
Mrs. Harvey was unrecognizable to me. A rather heavy set and robust woman before her illness, she was now this little tiny thing, appearing to be about the size of a pre-teen girl weighing less than 80 pounds. She was in a near vegetative state and unable to communicate in any manner. Seeing her like that was a complete shock to my system.
Lonnie reached over the guard rails and gently petted her as he spoke in a soft and very loving voice. I stood in respectful silence as he told her that he loved her and was so sorry that she was sick. He begged her to not give up, but to try and get well and come home because he missed her. We sat down and just looked at her for about twenty minutes. Lonnie put his head in his hands and cried. I put my arm around him and joined him as we both began to bawl like a couple of infants.
After regaining our composure, we made our way out of the hospital, once again passing through that chamber of horrors they called a recreation room. As we drove away, we said nothing to each other for the longest time. But as we approached Riverside, Lonnie asked me to pull off the freeway and off to the side of the road.
“I have to tell you a secret,” Lonnie said as I just sat in silence. “Hattie and Aaron are not my real parents. I think they adopted me when I was very young, but I’m not really sure. That lady you saw me with today is my real mother and that guy is my brother.” All I could say was, “OK.”
“Right now I hate Aaron for what he did to my mother. I just don’t know how much I hate him. But he and Hattie are the only parents that I’ve ever known and they’ve taken care of me all these years. My real mother didn’t want me, but Hattie and Aaron did,” he continued. “They tried to bring me up right. Maybe they are not as good as your parents, but they’ve tried their best to be a good as they could be. I hope you understand and that you will just keep this between us.”
I found out later that everyone pretty much knew that the Harveys were not Lonnie’s biological parents. Lonnie had not the slightest physical resemblance to either of them. Apparently the Harveys admitted to their relationship, because they would often tell some of their JW friends that they were doing the best they could with Lonnie, in spite of his “bad blood.” I guess that was their reference to his biological mother and whoever Lonnie’s biological father might have been.
I’ve never forgotten what I experienced that day with Lonnie. He had shown a depth of love that I had no idea that he had. In spite of the way he had been treated at times, he always considered Hattie as his “real mother” and loved her in spite of her less than perfect skills as a parent.
Lonnie and I continued to make regular trips to Highland to see his mother. Each time we went it was a little easier because we knew what to expect. Lonnie never failed to tell his mother that he wanted her to get well and come home – because he loved her.
Lonnie Takes a Stand at the Park
You discover who your real friends are whenever you are in trouble. There were many times when Lonnie and I had each other’s back, but two of them stand out in my memory as rather remarkable. One day we were walking home from high school and took our normal route through Lincoln Park. Even in the 1950s, Lincoln Park had a deserved reputation for being a rough place, but since we walked through there well before dark and did not linger, and I was with Lonnie, we never seemed to experience any real problems.
One day, however, we had already made it through the park and were well down 12th Street heading home. Behind us we heard a voice holler out to us, “Hey, who’s that white boy with you?” Lonnie turned around and said something to them and then told me to come with him and go back to talk with “some of his friends.” As we approached, Lonnie and I both recognized one of the fellows sitting on the grass as a known criminal and the others as local tough guys.
Lonnie chatted with them briefly as I stood on the sidewalk off to his left. A police car passed slowly behind me and proceeded down Park Avenue. Completely by surprise, one of the guys that had been sitting on the lawn jumped up and slugged me with his right fist. I fell backward into the street. Suddenly time stood still and everyone in the area stopped to watch me get my ass whipped. Lonnie jumped between me and the fellow that had slugged me.
“He’s my friend. He’s a good guy. You shouldn’t have hit him like that. Why would you do that to my friend?” Lonnie asked. The young man answered back that I was “white” and that he hated white people. In his mind, I deserved to get beat up.
“You got the wrong guy. Go find somebody else to beat up on if you have to. But not him.” Lonnie was so sincere and convincing, that the guy that hit me actually helped me up and apologized.
As we left the park and continued on our way home, I nursed my now bleeding and swollen lip and bruised cheek. “Damn, John. I’m so sorry. I thought those guys were some friends of mine,” Lonnie apologized. “But I’m glad I talked them out of hurting you some more. If I’d had to fight them all, I’m sure that we both would have gotten our asses kicked real bad!”
Lonnie and I Go Dancing
After we got out of high school, Lonnie and I would occasionally take a break from our girlfriends and just go hangout together. We’d try to dream up something that might be a little risque or dangerous, but nothing severe enough to get us tossed in jail.
One day after hanging out at the B&B Drive-in on Magnolia Blvd. (near the old Poly High campus), we were talking about doing something together that would really be fun. While we were sitting in my car sipping on our Cokes, we heard an advertisement on the radio about a dance being sponsored by station KFXM. It was Friday night at the Orange Show auditorium in San Bernardino. Sam Cooke was to be the headliner, plus a couple of new acts. We figured out some excuses to give to our girlfriends and decided to go and have a ball.
Saturday night, when we arrived at Swing Auditorium on the National Orange Show grounds, we were disappointed to find that only about 100 people showed up for the concert. In spite of his wide popularity at the time, Sam Cooke’s primary audience was still African-Americans, so when we walked in I found myself very much in the minority. I was OK with that, but in those days there was not a lot of interracial mixing, and even though I didn’t have a problem with it, a white kid asking a “colored” girl to dance (and vice versa) could lead to serious problems. Swing Auditiorium was known to have had a rumble or two in the past. Lonnie, of course, was oblivious to the whole situation and was anxious to get it on and start partying. Girls were attracted to Lonnie like hornets to a barbeque, so he had plenty of dance partners. I had to be satisfied dancing off to the side of the hall like a tone-deaf robot with rusty hinges.
There were no seats except for a couple of rows of folding chairs along the perimeter walls. Most of those had already been taken and used for stashing purses and coats. It was clear that we were going to be on our feet most of the night. Might as well dance, right?
The first act was some small local doo-wop group, sent out to warm up the audience and get everybody dancing. The next special attraction was Clyde McPhatter, at one time the lead singer for the Drifters, but on the downside of his career. He still had talent and we all remembered his old songs.
Next up was a newcomer with a twist – literally. Chubby Checker had just released his hit song, “The Twist,” and really got everyone dancing. Even I could do the twist. By then, KFXM had announced over the air that Clyde McFatter and Chubby Checker were “special guests,” so as the audience began to grow more of the newcomers were whites and Hispanics, so the diversity expanded to include everyone. After all, everyone loved the music of Chubby Checker and Sam Cooke.
The audience hated to see Chubby leave the stage, and he was called back for one encore after another. He must have sung The Twist at least ten times before he finally left the stage for good. Then it was Sam Cooke’s turn…
Cooke had reached almost mythical status by that time with hits like Chain Gang, It’s a Wonderful World, Bring it on Home to Me, and of course, his signature song and biggest hit, You Send Me. He had just released his own album of “twist” songs, but we really wanted to hear his older hits. His backup group was most talented and served him well, with baritone and bass vocals handled by Lou Rawls – who eventually became a very big star in his own right. Read about it in an article posted on this recent blog page.
I stopped dancing and just watched Cooke do his thing. Lonnie was having too much fun and was dancing his way through the dozens of girls lining up for a chance to dance with him.
By the time the concert finally came to a close the crowd had to be close to 2500 young people, jamming the place to capacity. The screaming and cheering was deafening and wouldn’t stop.
Finally all three of the name acts came out one more time, together, to do a final encore. Once again, to the delighted roar of the crowd, the band played “The Twist,” with Checker, Cooke, and McPhatter each taking a turn singing the lead vocals. The song must have gone on for ten minutes, before everyone, especially the band, finally gave up as the lights were turned up.
Many famous performers put on concerts at Swing Auditorium before it was finally totalled by a plane crashing into it. ZZ-Top, the Rolling Stones, and many others played there early in their careers. My opinion, though, was that none could have been as good or as much fun as that single concert in 1962. It was a great moment that Lonnie and I shared together.
A little over two years later, in December 1964, Lonnie was the first to call me to share the horrible news that Sam Cooke was dead, shot in sleazy south-central LA motel by a desk clerk afraid for her life. Such a waste of a great talent. But at least we had seen him in his prime. That memory would live forever.