It’s was 9am and a chill still hung in the summer air. The coastal wind whipped by a shifting high pressure system had lifted a fog bank off the Farallons and gently deposited it on to the Western Edition. You could see it cresting up from the Golden Gate and settling like soft cotton on the crowd that slowly moved from cars and cabs toward the cathedral that rested at the top of San Francisco’s Parnassus Heights.
These early days of summer are whispers from a distant youth – soft breezes and a warm sun promising a day bursting with possibilities. We arrived in tight, somber bands shuffling toward the Mass where we would mourn and celebrate the sudden passing and life of our friend and confederate, our “blue sky” giant who could see a little farther than the rest of us — always promising treasure and believing that tomorrow would hold a bigger and better island to explore than today.
Larry Del Santo Jr. Aka Laurie, Little Lar, The Giant, Mr Blue Sky etc had more monikers than Methuselah. He had been pried loose too soon from his grasp on life’s mortal coil and gone to surprise his mother who had been mourned in this same church on this same day some seventeen years earlier.
Growing up, I can only see Becky Del Santo in some form of pregnancy. She was in this compromised state for twenty five consecutive years. Larry Jr. could never remember a time when his mother was without a child stuck to her breast or wearing a floral sun dress that portended the arrival of another brother or sister. Like all suburban 60’s mothers, Becky was two parts Saint and one part clairvoyant, air traffic controller. She and my mother were best friends and compared notes on how they could keep their kids on the right path and out of harms way.
Becky’s eldest boy, Larry Jr was her agent and proxy tasked against his will with leading the procession of Del Santos through life and toward a chance at Heaven. We grew up in the great Jurassic age of American families. It was the final epoch of politically incorrect patriarchal rule where children were viewed as useless lumps of coal requiring swear words and enormous pressure so they might one day become a diamond in the eyes of society.
To be the eldest kid in this patriarchal community carried its own unique burden. You were expected to serve as defacto adult when no parent was present and would invite admonishment and reprisal if something illicit actually occurred on your watch. In our Southern California suburban neighborhood, alpha older brothers directed traffic and meted out pioneer justice on an ecosystem of middle class kids who were blessed with time and a less suffocating form of Darwinian parenting that afforded them a free-range childhood with community supervision.
The average family had four kids — hedging in the event someone got a faulty fuse while playing with an M80. Silent Generation fathers disappeared at 7am and staggered home at 7pm asking their wives two questions,”how was your day and who do I hit?” Mothers were soft breezes that blew in to sort out the chaos, prevent the T-Rex fathers from devouring their young and to ensure the laundry got folded. Matriarchs were the de facto rulers of the roost and over time, slowly learned to exercise the power that Gloria Steinhem so desperately tried to convince them they possessed.
In the long hot summers of the late 60s, packs of free range children migrated on foot, skateboards and bikes across a lime green veldt of manicured front lawns, latticed by magnolia tree lined sidewalks and perfect two car driveways. Larry Del was a giant towering over any kid south of Huntington Drive. He would not stop growing until he cast a 6′ 7″ shadow against the broken red oak fence that separated our two abutting properties. He was the eldest — a mischievous man mountain that appeared to have stumbled out of some Northern Italian fairy tale. He was blond with a massive grin and eyes that narrowed as he surveyed how he might torment you. His mere size compelled a kid to offer up your lunch money. Yet, his Catholic compass kept him on the right side of decisions. As with all industrious Italians, he would periodically remind you that he would indeed call on you some day for a favor — a social contract in which you would be well served to comply.
He accepted us before we ever met. Our addition to the neighborhood would turn out to remove pressure and suspicion that often rested firmly at the door of the Del Santos of Warwick Rd. The day my parents were signing papers to purchase our new home on adjacent Windsor Rd, my brothers and I were in the back garden, unsupervised ( big mistake ) and launching the largest dirt clods known to man over the backyard fence into what sounded like a rural pond. We laughed hysterically as the nuclear bombs repeatedly hit their target launching water spouts eight feet high. We could not see our new neighbor’s pool nor knew that the five kid Del Santo family living next door to these ill-fated people, would be initially blamed for the first of many decades of transgressions.
Later that night, eleven year old Larry Del Santo Jr would grin upon hearing that four boys were moving into the house behind them. With two brothers and two sisters and another sibling on the way, Larry Jr understood this new tribe of Presbyterian boys could prove a useful distraction to his house of diapers, Von’s breakfast pastries and Catholic expectation.
His dad, Big Larry, and our father were the most feared Dads in the neighborhood. They shared a belief that no one was innocent and while it was God’s job to punish in heaven, a parent was God’s quartermaster here on earth. Big Larry was a tough food industry executive and practicing Catholic who felt the Spanish Inquisition was justified and that a few public burnings could do wonders for kids and politicians. He did not publically take the Lord’s name in vain but secretly admired my father’s profanity which could have won a gold medal at the Cursing Olympics.
Larry Del Santo Sr, aka Big Larry, liked to remind you that a father was the ultimate alpha male. You were a child – a single cell paramecium that moved mindlessly toward food and light. To emphasize your utter uselessness, he would compel you whenever he saw you to shake his hand. “Get over here and shake my hand you little creep.” He would then squeeze your digits so hard your knuckles would be touching. He’d release you and as you fell to the ground massaging the broken bones metatarsals he’d bellow to your father. “Jesus, Miles. You’re going to have to toughen up these pansy boys.” If we had been meat, we would have been placed under his Hun saddle to be tenderized.
From 1957 to 1982, Becky Del Santo would give birth to twelve children with Larry Jr the steward and standard bearer as the eldest child. In life, he found his purpose in being a first child. He had the “blue sky” humility of a man who somehow knew his role was not just to be a standard bearer but to forever lead the denizens of adolescents who would follow. He would serve as the tallest tree on our horizon line and and a non judgmental lighthouse for his siblings and any friend that sometimes got lost in the marine layer of life — reminding us all where the shoals had scratched the keel of his boat. He was always just ahead, yelling back to that everything was fine and to keep following his voice.
He thunderous laughter could perfume any room and his capacity to find trouble was legendary. He was a self anointed Mr Fix It — the kid in the neighborhood who “kind of knew” how to use his all dad’s tools and could build everything from tree houses to trebuchets. Like PT Barnum, he could smell a sucker and often organized his growing army of younger siblings and neighborhood kids to carry out a personal vendetta that might increase the chance of our arrest and his damnation. Yet, the benefit of Catholicism was weekly absolution in confessional followed by a dozen “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers”.
When the local Helms bakery began delivering baked goods, Larry Jr recognized that the Helms driver was not the freshest bun in the oven and proceeded to develop a strategy where we might distract him while others emptied his change belt and then proceeded to buy all his donuts and candy back from him. Years later, we would conclude the Helms man had been intellectually impaired. ( Yep, we’re doing’ time in Purgatory for that one.)
In the days before helicopter supervision or political correctness, kids played a major role in the neighborhood ecosystem as a part-time labor force, extended family for kids from broken homes and change agents interpreting for one another the strange mysteries of life. This required collateral material usually stashed in Larry’s tree house — a cornucopia of Oui and Playboy magazines . In an age of Moon shots and mainframe computers, we were pirates and he was the Pirate King. To possess Larry’s physical prowess meant that you could move freely across streets and no one would dare fire a BB gun or launch a bottle rocket.
As kids, we were forever in search of money –to buy food, fireworks or attend a double feature at the local Alhambra theatre. Larry’s larceny included a black market in fireworks and quarter sticks of dynamite that would be administered to the mailbox of any octogenarian bold enough to chase us off his dichondra lawn. If that subtle warning did not intimidate the offending neighbor, we might resort to eggs launched with a funnel and surgical tubing or perhaps Epsom salts were poured on the lawn to spell a forbidden word. The doorbell might ring to a flaming bag of dog poop or an empty space. When the usual suspects were hauled in for questioning, we became one another’s permanent alibis.
When the Pirate King punched your shoulder, your arm would hurt for a week. He once had me lean on his feet while he laid on his back. “It’s a rocket launcher ride” I sat on his feet as he yelled “next stop the moon.” He proceeded to “launch me” fifteen feet into the side of my Dad’s Ford Granada almost breaking my arm. When we saw the dent I had caused, we all fled the scene. “Boy, kid, are you in trouble” Larry Jr yelled as he climbed over our fence where Tipper his faithful Irish Setter waited on the other side.
Like wartime prisoner exchanges, my brother Miles would invite Larry Jr with us on vacation while the Dels might get a “Turpin to be named later” for their week down at the beach. Years later, the families finally saw the logic in renting homes in Newport Beach at the same time. Big Larry loved his time on the Balboa Peninsula and was always surrounded by a swirling, one degree of separation scallion of food, beverage, insurance and consumer goods Catholics – small armies of six, eight and ten kid families all renting beach houses near one another each August. In time, Larry Jr, his brothers Michael and John, sisters Mary and Therese would end up helping their own and other people’s siblings.
The Pirate King longed for his own ship and state room but instead had to settle for a few precious belongings. His most treasured possession was his stereo. In the last golden age of high fidelity, Larry Jr became an audiophile. He matched a Pioneer turntable with a stylus as sensitive as your shy cousin with a 200 amp Kenwood receiver, Bose amplifier, Infinity speakers and an eight track deck to create a system so powerful it could knock down an old lady fifty yards away.
He had plastic sleeves for each Beatles album and would spend hours listening to the dulcet music of Paul McCartney on his headphones. Just for a minute, he was alone — in his own room with no filthy crew and cramped quarters. Moments later, the magic would always be broken by the scent of a dirty diaper announcing the arrival of an infant sibling who would drunkenly stagger into his room looking for his or her mother.
Perhaps being surrounded with so much life compelled the older Del Santo boys to flirt with Death — activities that by today’s standards would land parents in jail for child endangerment. Yet, we were the pioneers of mischief – ancestors whose BB gun wars became tomorrow’s paintball and whose motocross and mini-bike jumps laid the foundations for X Games.
Our friend Judd recalls that common sense was permanently on vacation in those days. A favorite high risk game required one kid to ride a mini bike up and down the street and through the back yard while others would fire BB guns at him from concealed sniper nests. When a bullet lodged under the driver’s eye, they quickly picked it out with tweezers but explained the injury as a baseball accident. Injury was not a badge of honor but a potential invitation for punishment. A contusion was something to be disguised. Blood or a tear in one’s clothing was a sign that a kid had been engaged in grab-ass. You tear your shirt? You pay for it. You get a cut requiring stitches and scare the hell out of me? Ill make you wish you died out there. Injury was a kid’s fault. “What in the God’s green earth were you doing over at the Del Santos?”
Life in the late 60s and early 70s was a death defying time of discovering boundaries, learning through failure and encounters with authority figures. The police did not work at cross purposes with your parents. The cops often brought a kid home to a punishment that they knew was likely to be more painful and decisive than any visited by local law enforcement.
Larry Del Jr was exposed to the full radiation of first child accountability. It pulsed from a busy father and an overwhelmed mother who looked to him to ride shotgun for an army of children still finding their way in the world. He never relinquished the job of Pirate King. It became his raison d’être.
Larry had his share of life’s successes and disappointments but he was always grounded in the singular fact that he was his family’s sibling leader — large and in charge, ready to give advice to anyone. He deeply loved his own kids who had become his pride and joy. He was genetically predisposed to be a Dad. Later in life, he would make it his priority to know each of his thirty nieces and nephews.
For four decades, our lives would intertwine – vacationing together, swapping kids, offering summer work, helping potential felons find the right college. It was always the same — the cabal of Italian Catholics and the feisty and felonious quartet of Presbyterian boys who were uncertain whether they wanted to be superior court judges or wards of the criminal justice system.
It’s 4am now. I’m feeling old driving south on Highway 101 to SFO to fly back to JFK. A tangerine sunrise to the east feels like a home fire burning. The San Francisco Bay is an ebony inkblot sequined by the lights of a hundred high tech office parks and residential homes along the waters edge.
I’ll miss him. He was a thousand summer nights running across the innocence of my youth and my fascination with risk. He was a surrogate big brother and a talisman for the truth. He was a Pirate King, the Leader of the Lost Boys — always itching for a golf game or a dinner with as many people jammed into one house as the fire marshal would allow. He was big in every way and his heart showed how endless our capacity for love can be.
All hail to the Pirate King, our Blue Sky Giant, the vanquisher of bullies, master of mischief and champion of all sound systems. He blazed a trail that we will follow for the rest of our lives. His inate sense of kindness taught all of us that God does not work through burning bushes but through people and he was perhaps, the tallest and most amazing juniper in our garden.
Don’t worry Larry. We will pick up the torch and the funnelator to be sure we keep things loose and when it’s necessary, we will enforce the community standard – perhaps launching a few eggs at a grumpy neighbor’s house.