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Bonnie and Les

By Fred A. Reed

One of an occasional series of Scenes from a Southern California Boyhood.

I grew up in a tiny aspirational middle-class enclave in the heart of wealth and privilege that lay across the Arroyo Seco from downtown Pasadena.

The families that built their Southern California dream homes on our street just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour were all cut from the same conservative cloth. Husbands set out for work in the morning, while wives stayed at home to mind the children, keep house and cook and, in the case of our mother, to practice her violin for the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra’s next concert.

Every morning our father backed his turquoise Oldsmobile down our sloping driveway and glided off toward the freeway and thence to work as an engineer for the Telephone Company in Los Angeles, the great city that lay far beyond our imagination.

Suddenly into this island of pastoral innocence came a foreign presence. A presence to which I owe much if not most of what I would soon become: a rebellious adolescent for whom our ideal and perfect little world had began to fray, and soon thereafter would disintegrate.

This foreign presence took the form of Bonnie and Les. Bonnie and Leslie Baird that is, who after the war built a house on the lot just across the street from ours. It was unlike anything we had seen before. Where the neighbourhood houses were traditional in the extreme, theirs was ground hugging, built of concrete blocks with an aluminum roof. They came not in a Ford V-8, but a light blue Studebaker.

House and car made a bold fashion statement that, in those days, spoke if not rebellion against what was socially acceptable, at minimum serious anti-conformism. Too late, lamented the neighbours, to stop the project. The intruders were impeccably white and clearly could afford their new dwelling.

Bonnie and Les’ house was as unlike those of its neighbours as they themselves were unlike our quiet little street’s residents, staunch God-fearing conservatives, to the right of the Republican Party. Bonnie and Les were staunch agnostics or perhaps atheist progressives, who stood to the left of the Democratic Party.

An informal boycott quickly came into effect. No one visited them; no one invited them. Why would that be? I wondered, and crossed the street to knock on their door.

What I found told me why.

Our living room, in addition to the grand piano mother hoped I would master, boasted a modest collection of books: the Encylopedia Britannica and some sea-faring novels, including Mutiny on the Bounty. But Bonnie and Les’ living room was lined with bookshelves from floor to ceiling, books on sociology and novels by left-wing authors.

Our parents were near-teetotallers, although Father would drink the occasional cold beer to wash down a ham sandwich at lunchtime. Bonnie and Les religiously observed the cocktail hour, downing mixed drinks with names of untold exoticism until they were well beyond tipsiness.

No tobacco entered our home. Bonnie, though, was a chain smoker and like Roosevelt, jauntily affected a cigarette holder, while Les followed the arcane—in my eyes—rituals of the pipe.

The lives of our parents, or so we thought, were humdrum and conventional. Mother had coached child actors in Hollywood, despite being an honours graduate from Stanford; Father rose through the ranks at the telephone company despite having no formal education beyond high school.

Not so Bonnie and Les. They lived at the outer limits of the exotic, had travelled to France, worked with the internal migrants who flocked to California during the Great Depression, espoused causes I’d never thought existed.

“Remember, Freddie,” they told me, “the end never justifies the means.” It took me years to understand that simple proposition, and longer still to make it a life principle.

Bonnie, a professional social worker, created a gig for me as illustrator for the monthly newsletter of a home for orphans she advised. I used a stylus to etch drawings on a stencil. For the first time, at age fifteen, I was contributing to something beyond my ravenous self.

Their house was built on a steep slope. Beneath the broad main floor sun-porch Les had set aside a private space to which he retired daily. Unlike the other husbands of the neighbourhood, he did not drive off to work every morning. Later he confirmed that he had lost his job as an engineer. Someone had fingered him as a fellow traveller due to his former membership in the John Reed Club, a Communist Party front organization.

Les’ office was the place where he and I would sit and talk in an atmosphere of confidence I’d never before experienced. And in the back of the ‘shop’ stood a true and honest-to-God printing press, a platen press activated by a large lever, with several fonts of type. On it he would produce short-run booklets, as well as greeting cards. Entranced, I began with his help to produce family Christmas cards from linoleum blocks I’d laboriously carved.

Bonnie and Les entrusted me with looking after the house when they were away on vacation. I explored the bookshelves in the living room, but spent most of my time leafing through ‘adult’ magazines that Les had carefully left lying about in his basement office. It was high time I learned what men and women do behind closed doors, he said with a twinkle in the eye. How thunderously did my heart beat as I leafed through them; how remote from any practical encounter with the opposite sex!

During my years in Greece we corresponded regularly. And when Ingeborg and I took up residence in Montréal, they came to visit. After his wife’s premature death, Les moved up the Pacific Coast to a suburb of Santa Barbara.

In 1977 U.S. president Carter issued a pardon to all those who had refused to participate in the atrocity known as the Vietnam War, and to drop the criminal charges against us. We, as draft resisters, declared that we had no blood on our hands, and wanted no pardon from war criminals.

But we were now free to travel to California, where we visited him on each of our unded by his printing press and his books, Les dedicated his time to a one-man campaign to promote guyuale, a native California shrub from which rubber could be produced.

Bonnie and Les did not encourage me in my decision to leave my home and country. They did not have to; in my conscience they had planted the vigorous seeds of doubt. To this unique and noble couple I owe my life.

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