I grew up inside a political home. It was my mom who was most active in community action and this opened up various opportunities for leadership positions in local politics of the Republican Party. My dad read the daily newspaper, mostly the sports section and he kept on top of national affairs. However, it was my mom who filled her free time getting certain people elected to office.
My earliest recollection of early political events stems from our then State Assemblyman, George Dukemajian attending a meet and greet in our large living room as my mom introduced him to her neighbors and friends for the 1962 election.
I was ten years old, paying less attention to the political talk and more attentive to the appetizers left behind, being given the task of cleaning up, bringing the china to the dishwasher and by consuming the remainder of the tasty treats left unconsumed.
My mom’s role in the local Republican party was especially noteworthy for her enthusiasm for Barry Goldwater and her expressed dislike for the Kennedy’s. Unconsciously and by family osmosis I tried on the hand me down clothes of conservative political discourse emanating from the vitriolic Joe Pine radio talk show constantly broadcast in the background of our home. That “other voice” of media was an indoctrinating presence planting right wing ideas in my mind, not all of which were right.
Another of my mom’s favorites was Dr. William McBurney’s Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, broadcast from his headquarters in Glendale. In addition to his radio broadcasts he had a very well-oiled propaganda machine of print materials sent by mail providing supporting materials and soliciting donations. Needless to say my mom was also a fan of William F. Buckley whose talking head was an occasional visitor in our home via television.
Listening to these folks certainly filled my head with big ideas and shaped an early yet bent opinion of the world. When the civil rights movement raised up Dr. King as spokesman and leader, those right wing firebrands of the opposite political spectrum convinced my mom he was a communist.
It wasn’t a matter of racism, my mom had a few black friends which was a bit unusual in those days. Her prejudice was focused on Communism and for that she was red, white and blue.
In a class discussion in the sixth grade of 1964 I shared that information – that Dr. King was a communist – as if it was fact and was shell shocked to be confronted with an opposing student equally as informed as I was who disputed my intelligence and challenged my source of fact. My citing of Dr. McBurney had no relevance one way or the other to justify my facts but the challenge added an element of caution to my using certain sources as indisputable authorities again.
One learns at an early age to question authority. It is only natural. We are not born to follow the rules. So it was that also in the sixth grade I formed a small gang with three friends and named ourselves “Rat Finks” in honor of popular custom car designer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. We didn’t think of ourselves as a gang, more an exclusive group who gathered behind the fence to concoct new ways to get into trouble.
We had no idea that the Beat Revolution was changing America. While it was several years before I would read Kerouac’s “On the Road” or hear a recording of Lenny Bruce, there were creative people organically influencing me without my knowing so and doing so more effectively than right wing zealots.
In a way I was inspired to be mini-me version of the beatnik the television character Maynard G Krebbs played by Bob Denver (Gilligan) in the TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Somehow I latched onto Maynard as the older brother I never had, showing me “the way.”
Although I saw my brother as a sort of Beaver of the Leave it to Beaver kind, I never saw myself as a Wally kind of older brother. Much later I learned that Denver graduated from my high school (David Star Jordan, Long Beach) We could pick and choose our role models from a large cast of characters. Not everyone choose Ozzy and Harriett or The Donna Reed Show to emulate characters. So our little gang began adopting slang talk as another means of distinguishing ourselves as unique individuals, independent from our parents. And it drove our parents nuts!
So it was that we got the idea to cut off the sleeves of our little sweatshirts to be cool. As “the artist” with the steady hand, I drew on the back of each one a carefully designed and very large Iron Cross with the indelible ink of a black magic marker. With that symbol we were united. For what we did not know.
Somehow in an unspoken way I was knighted as ringleader of our little crew, a 1960s version of Our Little Rascals, updated with bongos doing the beats. My juvenile power lasted just two days. The first day no one in the school really knew what to do about the four little kids bearing that awesome cross upon their backs.
Perhaps it was their fear of the unknown because back then there were no illustrations on tee shirts or symbols adorning clothing like there is today. It was a black and white world prior to color television and what we wore was atonally lacking the sparkle and arresting brilliance prevalent now in fashion. Thus the symbol stood out much more then for it being unusual in contrast to how now it would be ignored.
The second day the leader of the gang was called into the Principal’s Office to cough up an explanation and answer questions from the interrogator about our use of the Iron Cross, a German symbol honoring war heroes. Probing questions were asked about our intentions for which I had no answers.
In that moment I was being swept away by forces of media greater than myself that left me inarticulate in the void of rebellious dissonance. The tone was set in a cinematic challenge of Rebel Without A Cause with James Dean being asked, “What are you rebelling about?” and he answered, “What have you got?”
By some 1952 birthright the flavor and nature of rebellion had worked its way down into some kind of dumb osmotic neo-natal baptism of riotousness into the brains and spirit of ten year old kids.
That the year 1952 marked the birth of rock and roll was not known to us then. We didn’t read the book or see the movie, instead we lived the life.
For over 40 years Dean has been published in a variety of small newspapers and magazines. As publisher he founded an alternative city weekly newspaper in 2008 and published over 200 uninterrupted issues over 4 years to over 20,000 readers via 800 locations (and online) before selling the business.
Dean is a Master Carpenter and the author of the biography of Hilda M Gray, desert homesteader.
In 2014 he was appointed Planning Commissioner for the city of Desert Hot Springs, California.
Dean M Gray is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors and lives in Desert Hot Springs, California.