With a Little Help
Autobiography of Rick Wagner

Chapter 1: Pre-school

The Beginning

I was born August 11, 1949 in Carmel, California, and named Richard Jeffery Wagner. My mother, Evelyn Reeves Wagner (nee Evelyn Margaret Reeves, later Evelyn Aoki), a housewife, now deceased, liked the unusual spelling of my middle name. My father, Dr. John Donald Wagner, also deceased, was a physician and surgeon practicing in Salinas, California.

My earliest memory is of my father (whom we children called Daddy) and older brother, John Donald Jr. (whom we called Donny until he was about 10 years old and wanted to be called John). We were in the front yard of the rented house on Main Street, Salinas, and Daddy was about to take Donny across the street to the produce stand where I could see watermelons for sale. Cars were going both ways in the street. I wanted to go with them, but could hardly walk, being only a year old. Daddy said "OK, Ricky, come on" and excited, I lurched forward and immediately fell on my face and began crying. Daddy changed his mind and told me to stay there while he and Donny went across the street.

Me, two, Walter, one, and Mom at Grandfather Reeves's house in the country about eight miles south of Salinas
on the old Monterey Highway (California 68) at the corner of Corral de Tierra Road.

Another early memory is of me with my two brothers, Donny on my left and Walter Louis on my right, sitting in a perambulator, in our open garage at the house at nine San Juan Drive. The buggy was near the south wall of the garage and near the opening on the east side. It was the winter and somewhat cold. I was wearing a wool shirt and a Levi jacket. Morning sun was streaming in and our mother (we called her Mommy) was talking to a woman. I had a cold. My nose was runny and I was wiping it on my sleeve, which was scratchy and was irritating my nose. Both sleeves were quite snotty by then so the wiping technique wasn't working too well. I felt miserable. I must have been a year and a half old (because it was winter: any younger and Walter (about a year younger than I) wouldn't have been born yet, any older and John (about a year older than I) would have been three and a half, too old for a baby buggy).

Standing on the brick planter by the front entrance. I'm two years old at the new house at 9 San Juan Drive in Salinas.
The house is still there.

I discovered electricity the hard way. I was about two years old when I inserted a hairpin ("bobby pin") into the electrical wall socket under the mirror in my parents' room. There was a pop, a flash of light, smoke, pain, and a black hairpin imprint on the palm of my right hand. I cried. Mommy came running and tried to comfort me, telling me I shouldn't put things into the wall outlet, which was a bit redundant as I had just figured that out for myself.

I was three years old and playing in the vacant field next to our house. I was sitting on a "kiddie car," a push car for little kids that had a steerable wheel in the front on a vertical shaft with a cross bar handlebar. By rotating the wheel completely around, I could augur the front wheel into the soft dirt, boring a shallow hole. It was fun. I thought "I'm alive!" "I exist." "I am here!" It felt good to be alive. It gave me a feeling of confidence in anticipation of the future.

One day I was riding my tricycle on the sidewalk, north, away from our house. I must have been about three. I went around the corner west on San Juan Circle. It was all vacant lots. Nothing had been built to the north of our house. I continued on until I found a trail through the vacant lot to Pajaro Avenue. The field had been tilled, turning the dry grass under to suppress fire, and a tricycle couldn't be ridden on it. The pedestrian traffic on the trail had packed it hard so I could ride. I was barefooted, wearing only underwear briefs and a T-shirt. I got about half way across the field when I needed to defecate. I got off my trike and did my business in the middle of the trail. I then turned my tricycle around and got back on it to go home and then I encountered the turd I had left on the trail. It was covered with dark shiny green flies. The feces didn't bother me but the flies scared me. I couldn't get the tricycle around the obstacle on the rough ground. Dejected, I walked home and saw my Daddy who was home for lunch. I told him the situation and he accompanied me to my tricyle, picked it up and carried it home for me. I had learned that defecating in the open was wrong, and I was too ashamed to admit that the turd was mine, and lied, when he asked. I think he knew.

Mommy made occasional trips to go shopping in San Francisco on the Daylight Special train. When she came home she would often have presents for us. We three would jump up and down at her appearance saying "what did you bring us?" One day when I was three years old I was in the hallway with my brothers when she returned from a trip. John and Walter were both jumping up and down in excitement. I just stood there with my arms folded thinking "whether she brought gifts for us or not, jumping up and down isn't going to make any difference." That's when I knew I was a philosopher, although I didn't know the word for it at the time.

Nursery School

We (my brothers and I) went to nursery school in the old part of Salinas. There was a playground with swings and a hall where we could play with blocks and paint pictures on paper on easels with poster paint. One day I had succeeded in covering an entire sheet of paper with yellow paint. I regarded it as my best work yet and was very proud of it. I went to get Mommy to see it and when we returned the painting was gone, probably destroyed by one of the school helpers. I was heartbroken. How could anyone not have seen what a masterpiece it was? It was then I realized that taste in art is probably not objective.

When I was four I asked Mommy what water was made of. She had been a chemist at the Sprekels sugar plant during the war (World War II, which I sometimes call The Great War, Part Two). The Salinas Valley was a great sugar beet growing area at the time, and Sprekels Sugar was shipped all over the world. The Sprekels plant was later shut down due to poor profitability, and the town of Sprekels (four miles south of Salinas) became like a ghost town. Mommy answered that water was made out of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. I was fascinated by that, although it would be many years before I began to understand it. It was really cool to know that water was not an element (as the ancients had believed).

The slang term "cool" was coming into use then (middle '50s) and wouldn't fall into disuse until the '60s when it was replaced with terms like "far out" and "groovy." "Cool" made a comeback in the late '80s and remains in use today.

We used to take the cushions off the couch in the play hall and jump up and down on the springs as on a trampoline. I remember jumping up and down and thinking that four was the best age to be. I don't know why four was the best age to be but I was happy to be four.

My brief foray into a life of crime happened at Leidig's store on Katherine Avenue near Main Street. I used to walk there and buy penny candy like licorice and bubble gum. One day on impulse I grabbed an open box of about 100 bubble gum and ran out the door with it, spilling about half of it on the way. Mrs. Leidig caught me before I had gotten 10 steps out the door. She told me I shouldn't do that and picked up all the spilled gum. I wasn't punished for it and I don't think Mrs. Leidig ever told my parents. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I never attempted to steal anything again.

We boys had been taking horseback riding lessons in the English style at the Patee Ranch in Corral De Tierra, about eight miles south of Salinas, from Mrs. Patee. When a kid fall off a horse, after he stopped crying, Mrs. Patee would give him a quarter. My brother Walter once fell into a patch of thistles after little Jimmy Merbs swatted his horse's rump with a riding crop to make him bolt. Walter cried for a long time. I collected a silver quarter once too. Every year Mrs. Patee held a horse show with jumping and other horsemanship contests. I was entered in the 5-and-under age group and I was the only one able to back the horse up on command so I won the blue ribbon.


At the age of five (1955) I started kindergarten at Lincoln School in Salinas. I don't remember the teacher's name. There was a younger co-teacher too as it was a fairly large class, probably over 30 kids. We played with toys, blocks, paints, clay, etc. One day the teacher gave a science lesson in which she demonstrated that a dry paper towel, when stuffed into a dry glass, would remain dry when the inverted glass was immersed in a tank of water. This is the ancient principle of the diving bell, and I was totally fascinated with it.

That year Lincoln School began adding on a multipurpose room in which we would eat cafeteria lunches when I got into first grade. The kindergarten classroom was on the extreme south end of Lincoln school. Most of the classroom windows faced west overlooking the street, but there was one window on the south side of the room that had a view of the construction! I was fascinated with the process of forming, pouring, and smoothing the slab floor. Then the walls went up. Temporary bracing was installed and later removed. I remember thinking that there might be a more efficient way to do it that wouldn't require removal of anything (build it once). The teacher thought I was spending too much time looking out the window, and that I should be playing with the other children. I disagreed. She forced me away from the window, and I got in trouble when I sneaked back. This was my first major conflict with authority.

Santa Claus

On Christmas morning I woke up early before anyone else was awake. It was still dark and I made my way to the living room to peek in. There must have been a moon because I could see well enoughh to make out features in the living room by peeking through the crack between the louvered doors between the hall and the living room. There I saw santa Santa Clause with his white beard, in his red suit, pulling toys out of his big sack. I saw well enough to identify the electric train set I had wanted so much. I was so excited to see that train, but then I got scared that Santa would know I was there watching him, so I hurried back to bed, waiting for the others to get up so we could go and see what Santa brought. It turned out that the train set was for John. I was quite disappointed. But we all had fun playing with it after Daddy got it set up.

Daddy had carved a wooden boat for me out of a block of redwood. I loved pushing it through the sand in the sandbox at school. It looked like it was sailing on a raging ocean. About this time my sister Christina Lynne was born.

Daddy used to take us boys out to grandfather's (Dr. Wiley Reeves) ranch about eight miles south of Salinas on the Monterey highway at Corral De Tierra Road. We would "help" him with his various gardening and poultry projects. He eventually built some extensive coops and kept many kinds of fowl. Daddy would sometimes drive the tractor. He would put us boys on the fenders and his lap (all three of us) and give us rides. One time he tooks on the tractor to the highway in the front of the ranch and south along the highway shoulder to the corner store at Corral De Tierra Road and bought us ice cream sandwiches.

Sometimes we would play in the barn. There was a hayloft upstairs in the barn where grandfather stored bales of hay. One time John's friend Mark Lyons was with us and we were pitching loose hay down and up from a loft. John was only six at the time and can't be expected to have understood safety. He was pitching hay up and I was in the loft grabbing it off the pitchfork when a tine caught me in the outer left eye, piercing the sclera and going through the retina and out the back of the eye. I was temporarily blinded in that eye due to blood in the eyeball. I walked back to the house holding a rag over my eye with John apologizing profusely. I think he was quite affected by guilt. I know I would be had I been on the other end of the pitchfork. I never blamed John, as I felt I was stupid enough to be in the wrong place. I was taken to the hospital and my eye eventually healed without any degradation of my vision. It wasn't lost on me that in an earlier era without antibiotics I might have died from that wound or lost the eye.

Needless to say, Grandmother (Mrs. Wiley Reeves) was quite shocked and horrified when we showed up at the house with me holding the bloody rag over my left eye. She called my father to come get me and I spent a few days in the Salinas Valley Memorial hospital in Salinas. Dr. Kraft was my opthalmologist. Thanks to his care my eye healed nearly completely. My mother later told me the pitch fork almost penetrated to my brain. I think that incident along with most of the unfortunate occurrences in my early life can be attributed to a lack of adequate supervision or guidance. Human beings have evolved to become dependent on the features of civilization and don't do well in a feral mode.

Grandmother was descended from a cousin of George Washington's, and was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolutoin (DAR). She used to play bridge with John Steinbeck's mother. She once told me that Steinbeck was a "bum." A bum is lower in social status than a hobo, who is an itinerant worker. Bums will only work if they are forced to.

We boys liked staying at the ranch because of the creek, the barn, the apples and walnuts, the cattle, riding on the tractor, and so on. I later broke my wrist playing at the barn, but those were the only two injuries that I suffered at grandfather's ranch (aside from a bee sting and a wasp nest attack). Grandmother kept some large cardboard boxes of blocks and wooden trains for the grandchildren to play with and we loved making railroads and buildings. Later we also had Tinkertoys. We had lots of good food there. Grandfather used to smoke his pipe and watch sports on television. Mommy's brother, uncle Ed, lived there before he moved up to San Francisco and got married to aunt Betty Anne in a big church wedding in Carmel.

Daddy bought me a bicycle at Anderson's Cycle and Key on John Street in Salinas and taught me how to ride it. John Anderson had impaired hearing from artillery in the War and had survived the Bataan death march. He was a wizard with bicycles and locks. Later my friends would accuse me of hero worship when I would talk about him, but that wasn't the case at all. I regarded him as one of many good men.

Help from a Stranger

At first I had to stand on a soda crate to mount my bicycle. Soon I was mounting on the fly and riding as far as Leidig's store. One day Mommy needed milk. She didn't want to make a trip to the store just to buy a quart of milk. I said I could go on my bicycle. I didn't have a basket on my bike yet but I convinced her that I could take the paper bag with the quart of milk, bunch it at the top, grab it with my hand and hold the handlebar at the same time. At the time, I needed two hands to ride my bike. So she gave me some money and off I went to the store. I purchased the milk, took the bag and held it as planned and started home. The milk was cold and condensation started to weep through the paper sack. I was on Pajaro Avenue when the bag broke and the milk carton tumbled out onto the sidewalk. It was in one of those new waxed paper cartons so it didn't break. However, I was stuck. I couldn't hold the milk and ride (or even push) my bike at the same time. I didn't know what to do. Just then a man in a pickup truck stopped. I told him what had happened, and just by chance he happened to have a larger and stronger new paper bag with him in the truck. I made it home with the milk. That was the first of many interventions by the kindness of strangers in my life.

September 10, 2011, the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel, Sans Souci Beach, Waikiki, Oahu, Hawaii.

Note to other Rick Wagners about the use of our name: I am Richard J. Wagner, and I know there are lots of us Richard Wagners who go by "Rick." I use our name, "Rick Wagner," in the title of this autobiography because that's the name I go by. I established my personal home page under that name back in 1995, long before many people even knew the Internet (much less the Web) existed. So I consider I have a kind of Web presence precedence, and therefore am entitled to use my nickname in the title of my work. I know and/or hope you will understand.

Richard dot J dot Wagner at gmail dot com.

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