The Eternal Christmas Meets the Bottomless Pond

Michael Fessier Jr. has written for the New York Times, Sports Illustrated and others.

The important thing was to be invisible. Not that they couldn't see you but that they didn't know what you were up to. You and they lived in the same place, 4945 Woodley Avenue, and talked often. "Did you brush your teeth?" they asked you, and you said yes. "Did you change your socks?" You did. "And what are you going to do today?" "Nothing much, maybe a bike ride," you said.

Ha, a bike ride. That was a good one when what you really had planned was a major breakout far beyond the prescribed boundaries, which consisted of the white granite boulders of the Sepulveda Dam at the bottom of your street and, up on the corner where your street met Ventura Boulevard, that little one-room real estate shack in front of the bragging billboard (Lee Coggins: "I know the Valley!") that seemed to slump more each day as if melting from the fiery midsummer Valley sun.Coggins: "I know the Valley!") that seemed to slump more each day as if melting from the fiery midsummer Valley sun.

Your older sister was out of the picture, which was a good thing. She was going to swim in some actor's pool on the other side of the boulevard. Gable, you thought the name was. And the drunk had disappeared from the living-room floor. There had been that party the night before and he was a sort of leftover in the morning, which you had simply politely walked around, familiar as such sights were. In the middle of it all was your father, who seemed so large but really wasn't, this big (to you) alternately charming and angry fellow who looked at you uncomprehendingly . . . like you were some sort of Martian. You were of course a Martian, with many wonderful ideas that he would not understand. You had already pissed him off this week by stamping all his fine books with MF, using that terrific stamping kit you got for your birthday. He did not appreciate this, though for the life of you you could not understand why.

But in the endless time of an endless summer you were well occupied, as each day offered new delights, miracles, great mysteries, some of which might take years to solve, and some you never would. Was that pond in fact bottomless? And had you really wandered into a snow-and-ice-covered village on the hottest day of the year, the air on fire, so hot even the birds went somewhere and hid and all you could hear as you and your buddies set off was the whackawhacka of hammers pounding nails into all those houses rising like mushrooms across the Valley floor?

Was it, and had you?

Who exactly do you think you and your buddies are? Cowboys is a pretty good guess, since the three of you are armed with cap guns. Yours, a silvery beauty with its revolving six-shot cylinder. Your bike is a sturdy apple-green Schwinn equipped most impressively with a speedometer plus odometer whose spinning numbers will testify to the amazing mileage you will rack up today.

Little abundantly freckled Walt, in his ragged shorts made from Levi's, is the last to arrive this morning. His father works for one of the surviving ranches a few streets over, and he had to clean up after his horse.

"Where are we going?"

Teddy asks this. Perennially cheerful and by far the bravest among you, he lives down the block and will occupy two side-by-side slots in your memory bank. 1: It is his family who will get the first television set on the street, big and blocky, with rabbit ears, which Teddy generously shares with the rest of you (amazing test patterns, extraordinary puppet shows). And 2: Two years after this day he will drown downstream from the Sepulveda Dam. With its mossy trickle of L.A. River water oozing through an ominous cement gulch it is a hard place to drown in, requiring perfect timing, but during a January cloudburst poor Teddy will manage it.

Today you begin your journey up the street and then take the turn north along Ventura Boulevard into the forbidden territory past the Richfield gas station, the new motel and the place that sells plaster dwarfs for the garden. On you will travel, an exuberant trio of 7- and 8-year-olds who don't know a lot but know a few important things, such as the fact that you are the only sentient beings on the planet, alive to everything in a way the troubled older folk are not, and that Getting Out of Dodge is now and will always be the thing that makes you the happiest. This run along Ventura Boulevard, Woodley to Balboa--.9 miles, announces the trusty odometer, and then 1.1 beyond--will preclude all the planes, trains and automobiles in your future (minus Teddy, of course, whose voyages are ending just as they are beginning).

No one ever really knows much about the now in which they live. It's only later that a story emerges, a context, and for you and your buddies the just-ended war was mostly inexplicable and the danger it posed far away. Still you had heard an uncle say he had his .22 ready in case the bastards landed in Santa Monica, a vow that you thought correctly had more to do with what he was drinking than any actual threat. You took the war in stride as well as the ever-accelerating transformation taking place around you, as walnut grove and alfalfa field were transmuted into street upon street of new houses. Somehow it was what was left behind that fascinated you most, and by far the most curious example of this was what you called "the mission," your first stop this day, a block down from Ventura and Balboa.

You have no idea what it is, or why it has been abandoned and left to crumble into such a weedy forlorn state. A collection of buildings you think of as being made of "mud" (adobe actually), old in a way you can't quite fathom (though of course the Sepulveda Dam with its presiding rusted-out steam shovel, built in 1941, five years before, also seems old to you), the mission possesses a special orphan melancholy that makes you and your buddies feel curiously proprietary, as if it's yours somehow, because obviously no one else cares a fig for it. And there is the slimy little pond in front, home to a few ducks, some frogs and the occasional timid little garter snake, that somehow you know to be bottomless. You have dismounted from your bikes, attempted skipping a few stones on the sludgy surface, and then Teddy gets that dangerous challenging look in his eye.

"You guys want to go look in the storeroom?"

There is a low-grade danger with some attendant guilt attached to the storeroom, the sort of place where the Hardy Boys would have found the clue that solved the case, but for you just deepens the mystery for which you have no answer. Of course you go, as you have before, not exactly Lord Carnarvon going into that Egyptian tomb of his, but for you, something like. Through an unlocked door in this shed-like building built of mud there are blackened dusty treasures of distant times past . . . old tools with chipped handles and household goods such as pots and dishes, wooden implements of some sort and, hanging in the dim light, leathery straps, cracked and worn.

The guilt is tangled up with your contrary impulses: the souvenirs you desperately want to put in your pocket and that curious proprietary sense that it would be wrong, a sacrilege of some sort, though as usual a few nails and a rusty screwdriver or two do find their way into your pockets.

Normally this would be far enough to travel, and as little Walt says with some urgency if you don't turn around and go home right now you'll likely miss the Ice Cream Man, a central figure in your life. But Teddy, your de facto leader, urges you to continue your exploration and with some reservations the rest of you agree. Not that you haven't been this far afield many times with your parents, but on your own, choosing this street or that one, feeling the intoxication of your fledgling independence . . . soon, peddling east one cautious block after another, you have traversed that extra 1.1 mile.

There are new houses here and still many open fields and an apricot grove with heaps of lug boxes piled in front. But what interests you more is something you recognize as "a place they make movies"--but not like the studio where your father and his pals work, the one with the gate and the guards at the other end of the Valley. This is an auxiliary outpost above whose fence you can see the bulbous nose of some sort of aircraft and the upper half of one of those false-fronted Western "hotels."

As it happens the gate here opens to let in several large trucks, and it is no trick for the three of you and your bikes to sneak in behind them. Inside you see about as strange a sight as one could imagine: whole streets and houses and trees all covered in white, not the usual back-lot sets you've seen at your father's studio but a real . . . place, to the eye a perfectly authentic village covered in ice and snow. Wow, serious weirdness.

You and Walt hang back, but fearless Teddy pushes forward and grabs a handful of the white stuff as if to make a snowball. "Fake," he says, dropping it with a knowing shrug. The people, clots of them standing around, sitting, waiting for something to happen, are split into two species that you already know to be the essential yin and yang of moviemaking, the observers and the observed: those behind the camera and the snarl and clutter of cable and lights, shaggy characters of indifferent appearance, many wearing shorts, bearded, fat and anxious, and on the other side, the objects of their sober attention, a completely different sort, in this case men and women and a handful of sour-looking kids your age all burdened with overcoats and scarves, dressed for the coldest winter day on this, the hottest day of a San Fernando Valley summer, fictional people in this amazing snow-covered fictional and yet entirely real town.

You are only there for about five minutes but the strangeness of the experience will stay with you that day to this. On the way home Walt picks up an apricot seed and somehow transforms it into a whistle, blowing it, you will somehow remember, meditatively.

An actor you know once suggested a bedrock truth about moviemaking, accompanying his remark with a gesture: right hand held palm down and, beginning on one side of his body, progressing on a flat horizontal plane to the other. "A movie begins," he said, grinning, "and continues without stopping, one damn thing after another."

The suggestion, at least the one you took, was that even in ordinary run-of-the-mill films so much has happened by the end, one damn thing after another, that much is forgotten, not fully perceived or remembered out of order. It is also true that even perennials, the films that have become ubiquitous, part of the very environment in which we live, include moments that on the fifth or 10th viewing may cause you to say, "Hey, I didn't know that was there."

You've only seen "It's a Wonderful Life" end to end maybe three or four times, though of course snippets of it show up in most every movie retrospective and it will haunt your television every Christmas, now to the end of time. And not so long ago, sitting down with grim purposefulness to see it first to last for the first time in many years, you noticed a few new things, such as the fact that George Bailey's many good deeds involved real estate loans to poor folks who tended to speak with Italian accents, and that during a brief (no more than 60-second) sequence those homes were represented by the sort of tract houses being built all around the bogus New England village of Bedford Falls so artfully constructed on the RKO ranch lot you had visited so many years before. This, a curious moment of largely unperceived authenticity in all that complex contrivance.

So?

You had of course solved the twin mysteries of that day long before, backing up your memory with some of that lovingly gathered minutiae film historians are so fond of: a Main Street 300 yards long, 75 constructed stores, 20 oak trees and snow made of 50 tons of white plaster garnished with 3,000 tons of shaved ice . . . all this during one of the hottest Valley summers on record.

Your "mission," on the other hand, was considerably less known and considerably less revered, though perhaps the single most authentic remnant, layer upon layer of it, of an authentic Southern California past: The bottomless pond (now less than 10 feet deep) had for 1,000 years or more served local Indians, some of whom cheerfully greeted the intrepid Captain Gaspar de Portola and his comrades (and 100 or so mules) who had tramped up from San Diego on the long march of 1769, seven years before the Declaration of Independence, toward the Monterey they found but somehow didn't realize they had. Those hospitable natives they met at the pond (fed by a powerful underground spring) would for the next 100 years offer similar succor to assorted Spaniards/Mexicans and finally those Basque sheepherders whose old implements it seems likely you fingered that adventurous day.

Left to rot on its own in that time of great Valley growth, it was ultimately adopted and nicely preserved (patched together once again after the 1994 earthquake) as a state park known as Los Encinos, neatly sequestered behind a strip mall a block down from the corner of Balboa and Ventura, a mere 1.1 miles from the site of Bedford Falls, itself and the RKO ranch lot covered over with the sort of houses whose reality intrudes ever so briefly in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Interesting, don't you think?

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