With a Little Help
Autobiography of Rick Wagner

Chapter 3: Junior High School

Having completed the sixth grade at Monterey Park School, I had turned 12 over the summer of 1961, and was ready for junior high, sometimes called "middle school" in other communities. Junior high in Salinas at that time was comprised of grades seven through nine. I think that because of the crowding due to the post-war baby boom, the ninth grade that what was normally the high school freshman year was retained in junior high at that time. All of my childhood education was at Salinas public schools.

Seventh Grade

John had been going to York School, a private school for boys in Monterey, and wasn't doing very well. I was enrolled there too, but at the last minute (to "save money") it was decided I would go to Washington Junior High in Salinas, instead. It was in bike riding range and I had a three-speed Raleigh from Anderson's Cycle and Key on Monterey Street. John Anderson was a survivor of the Bataan death march and both my father and mother made it a point to patronize his bicycle shop. The junior high school was in double session due to the baby boom. John Humphries and I had afternoon session and didn't start for home in the winter until after dark at 5:00 PM. We would meet at lunch time and then ride our bikes to school together. In math class, taught by Mr. Head, we learned about base seven arithmetic and prime numbers.

Year of family photo uncertain, possibly the fall of 1961. Dad had gone on a hunting trip to Kodiak, Alaska, where he had
bagged a Kodiak bear, and made a 16 mm film about the trip. That's the bear skin rug in the foreground.

Science Fiction

It was in the school library that I discovered science fiction. In a short time I had read every novel there by Robert A. Heinlein. I read other science ficiton too, but Heinlein's books were my favorites. I also read adventure stories about jet fighters and helicopters. I learned how to fly from the descriptions of the controls and practiced controlling airplanes and helicopters in my mind. Later when I took actual flying lessons after high school the instructor told me I had a good feel for it.


I was twelve years old in the winter of 1962 and was due to be confirmed in the Episcopal Church. John Humphries and I attended classes at Saint Paul's Episcopal Church on the corner of San Miguel and Pajaro Avenues to prepare us for that event. Bishop Pike was to ask us questions to verify our readiness for church membership at a ceremony later in the year. Not wanting to fail in public, we applied ourselves diligently to learning our lessons about the Bible and church doctrine, such as the Holy Trinity. I hadn't realized at the time how controversial Bishop Pike was. In the 1970s I came across and read Bishop Pike's book The Other Side about attempts to contact his dead son.

Walter had been in the choir of the church. I had tried out for it while in elementary school and failed. I still don't sing well. Walter was also an altar boy and got to help light the candles at the start of the services and things like that. We had gone to church on Sundays with the family. It was just a walk around the corner for us. We sang along with the congregation and sat, stood, and kneeled on cue. After the main service, the children were dismissed for Sunday School in the back rooms with volunteer teachers, while the adults remained for a sermon.

The big confirmation day arrived and it was a bit anti-climactic. Bishop Pike gave us just softball questions, which we handled easily. Bishop Pike and his wife would later be found dead from exposure in the desert of Israel where their car broke down in the wilderness. Questions concerning the existence of the supernatural became central to my early philosophical quest, fully answered, of course, in the negative. That is, there is no supernatural. The implication of this, which I didn't grasp until many years later, was that divinity, if it exists, must be natural, part of nature, which is essentially the argument of Spinoza, the father of pantheism.

I never did read the Bible in its entirety. My godmother, Jan Wyman, had given me a King James version of the bible, and that was what the Episopal Church used. I have since read enough of the Gospels to understand what Jesus was getting at ("you saw me hungry and you didn't feed me"), and enough of the Old Testament to know where the Fundamentalists are coming from, but I long ago concluded that I wasn't getting enough useful information from it to read it cover to cover.

My grandfather died of pneumonia that year, 1962. Grandmother was devastated. Grandfather had been in the hospital for pneumonia and then was discharged. He went out in the rain to do some necessary work with the tractor and had a relapse. He had collapsed and my father carried him upstairs. He went back to the hospital and died a day or two later.

He was the first person I knew who died. I was sad and missed him, but even worse was the effect his death had on Grandmother. She had to sell the ranch and moved into an apartment in Salinas. Things were never the same again. This might have been the beginning of the coming marital difficulties with my parents.

Seattle World's Fair

During the winter, the family made plans to travel to see the Seattle World's Fair in the summer of 1962. Life magazine had a photo-spread on the building of the Space Needle and we were all excited to see it. Mom and Dad had bought a travel trailer and planned a driving route that had us stopping at trailer parks for overnight stops (ONS in the travel trailer guide book). It took several days driving through California, Oregon, and Washington to get there. Sometimes one or more of the boys would ride in the trailer, and sometimes we all six rode in the '62 Buick Electra.

We all had a great time at the fair. We saw most of the exhibits, and naturally, I liked the science exhibits the best. There was a young Princeton professor who would give daily lectures on popular science, and always very dramatic, such as running up and down the aisle activating a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher, or making explosive "joy bubbles" by bubbling hydrogen through soapy water made with Joy diswashing detergent.

One time the professor was doing a demonstration on gryroscopes. He had a rotating platform he would stand on and holding a spinning bicycle wheel as a gyroscope, show how he could rotate his position by turning the axis of the gyroscope. He then asked for a volunteer from the audience and John was chosen. He had John stand on the platform, gave him a pop gun, spun him around, and then asked him to shoot a target. The object of this exercise was to illustrate how difficult it would be to hit a target from a spinning platform, such as a rocket from earth hitting the moon. The the professor's consternation, John hit the target on the first try.

Eighth Grade

I joined a science fiction "book club" and read books of short stories and novels by A. E. Van Vogt, Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and others. I read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (now a classic) in hard cover. One day my history teacher, Mr. Nichols, caught me reading in class when I should have been paying attention to his lecture. I was acutely embarrassed because I was at the part of the story where Smith, being from Mars and having never seen a woman before, touches his nurse's breasts in wonder. Mr. Nichols asked me what I was reading and I replied "The book is Stranger in a Strange Land." Naturally, he had never heard of it. I didn't know any adults who read science fiction. I also read Asimov's I Robot (now a classic) in hardcover. Because school didn't start until noon, I got in the habit of keeping the light on in my room and reading until midnight. My parents went to bed at 9:00 PM and sometimes insisted I get up when they did.

Model Airplanes

Just for the heck of it I built a control-line airplane with a wing made out of a 1/8 inch thick slab of balsa wood. The wing had square ends and square leading and trailing edges Nobody would believe it would fly. It was a small airplane with a 0.049 cubic inch displacement reed valve glow plug single cylinder engine with an integral fuel tank that used methanol and nitromethane fuel. John Humphries was really surprised when he saw how well it flew. I used a square stick of balsa for the fuselage and made it rather long so it would be easy for a beginner to control. John flew it without crashing and as a result he got hooked on model airplanes. After that we built bigger and better models and flew them together. Sometimes Walter would come along with us and help launch them.

Ninth Grade

I was in Mr. Killian's biology class when he got the news (and informed the class) that President Kennedy was shot. Later I saw the tape of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on the TV news. It was around that time that a TV production of On the Beach was shown. I was an adult by the time I finally read the book that the movie was based on. After a nuclear war, the entire planet is slowly dying from radiation poisoning. The northern hemisphere died off first. Only Australia is left with people alive and they knew the end was coming to them too. Very depressing, but it helped stimulate the anti-war movement.

I liked woodshop. I made the traditional napkin holder and finished it with raw linseed oil. I made a walnut jewelry box for my Dad and got an "A" on it. Dad was proud of it and kept his cuff links and tie clips in it. I also took metal shop at junior high school.

I started hanging out more at "hobbies and toys," what we called Toys Galore on Main Street. Harvey Kitamura, who worked there, helped us boys with our model airplanes and even took John Humphries and me flying a couple of times. He was a wizard with the models and a master of control line, free flying, and radio controlled airplanes.


I had read a magazine article on bonsai, the primarily Japanese art of growing trees in pots, most likely in Sunset magazine, which my parents subscribed to. By the way, in spite of some popular opinion being against it, and I was misled for many years as well, a preposition is something it's alright to end a sentence with. Bonsai looked interesting so I dug up one of my Mom's junipers in the front yard, pruned it, and put it in a terra cotta flower pot on my window sill and watched it die over the next month or so. I gave it another try before giving up. W. C. Fields once said "if at first you don't succeed, try again. Then quit. Don't be a damned fool about it." Twenty years later I would try bonsai again with more success.

Mom and Dad subscribed to several other magazines, besides Sunset, including Time, Life and Scientific American. I read Scientifc American, at least those articles that interested me. I would be 20 and in the Air Force before I began reading Time regularly. Our Aunt Frieda had given magazine subscriptions to us three boys. John got Popular Mechanics, Walter got Popular Electronics, and I got Popular Science, which, naturally, I thought was the best.

I liked Life magazine because of the great color pictures. I was fascinated by an article on computers that used color illustrations of a railroad switching yard to show how data was moved around in a computer. I'm not sure how accurate or relevant it was, but I wanted to learn more. Life also had a sensationalizing article on LSD, and another one on heroin addiction.

I joined the school track team as a high jumper and competed in a couple of track meets. I didn't do well. I was growing so fast I lost my timing and couldn't equal jumps I'd made earlier.

January 20, 2013, Aina Haina, 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.

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