It's that time of year and it might be the last swallowtail of the year. They're my favorite butterfly, and I watch as it flutters its large yellow wings over the few remaining blossoms in our back yard. I call into the house for someone to share it with. "I've seen one," my teen-age daughter calls back. It is late afternoon, and she has the television on.
I remember how my father would often share such things with me, how he would take us on short trips and with a special joy would point out things like swallowtails and tree frogs. The Los Angeles River was one of the places he would take us. There used to be a river in Los Angeles. Before it was turned into a concrete speedway for the movies, it had earth and mud banks, trees alongside, tall grass, deep pools, even rapids.
The river flowed under Woodman Avenue a little north of Moorpark Boulevard and there was a swimming hole a half-block left of the bridge. My brother and I would search for things, take our shoes off, walk the shallows, sense the earth and the insects buzzing. Dad usually gave us advice. "Don't hold tree frogs too tight," he would tell us. "You don't want to hurt them." Or, "hold a snake just behind the head," he would say, "so it can't turn and bite you." Only one ever did.
Swallowtails even then, were my favorite butterfly. It seems that near the milkweed there were always plenty of monarchs and they were easy to catch. Swallowtails, though, were fewer and must have been smarter because they were almost impossible to sneak up on.
There was an old mission in Encino that Dad used to take us to. It wasn't really a mission, but we called it that. It was more a line of low adobe buildings built next to a pond that was maybe 100 feet across. He would take us there on weekends to sail the model boats he had shown us how to build out of scrap wood.
The pond was fed by a warm spring that bubbled up into a deep stone well. Sitting on the edge of the well, we could see to the bottom and would watch bubbles rising to the surface. A trough that led from the well to the pond was usually filled with thousands of minnows. We would catch as many as a Mason jar could hold and take them to our fish pond at home.
There were no other buildings around, just this pond and the few adobe shacks huddled in along the mountains at the south end of the valley. I saw my first jackrabbit there.
My brother and I came across him while hiking, and we had been chasing him for 15 minutes. Somehow we had gotten close enough to worry him, so he put on an extra burst of speed, crossed over a small knoll and ran smack into the center of the pond. We ran up, stood on the shore and watched him, figuring he would be able to climb out of the water on his own. But the banks, being man-made, were straight up and down. He wasn't that much of a swimmer, and it looked for a moment like he would drown.
I reached down--he was still struggling--grabbed him gingerly by the ears and pulled him out. Dad had told us how to hold a rabbit. I set him on the ground. Exhausted and dripping wet, he just sat there looking at us.
I like to think that he looked grateful for being saved, but there was an air about him that said he wasn't forgetting who it was had chased him in the first place. I still remember the weight of him, his long droopy ears and his powerful hind legs. We watched each other for five minutes, then he walked slowly away, back up over the knoll that had done him in. Dad took us often to places like that.
Around 1948 they built a network of roads near the pond. These roads stood empty for years, just waiting for houses to be built around them. He taught me to drive on those deserted streets. We had a '41 Cadillac then. A black four-door with stick shift and no power steering, the '40s version of luxury.
Well you know that those houses finally went up, filling every inch of the field where that jackrabbit used to roam. Nearby, Ventura and Balboa boulevards form a major intersection now, lined with office buildings and restaurants. If you look for it though, you can still find the pond, complete with the warm springs and the old adobe buildings. I guess somebody was paying attention, because it's now a part of the state park system. It's called Los Encinos, and the brochure says that its written history goes back to 1842 when it was an Indian settlement built around a marsh. There's a chain-link fence circling it now, but it's there and it's open to visitors.
Flying high and fast, the last swallowtail gives up on our yard and crosses over the redwood fence toward the neighbors. For the rear porch, I hear that the television is still on in our den. It is MTV, and Madonna is singing--and probably caressing her body.
I have seen it, and I ponder how it is that some fathers just seem to do a better job then others.