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You Can't Get Here from There
Born in Oakland, California, in 1945, a month ahead of the boom, I think the first thing I learned to say was "Get me out of here," because even then I thought that things could get better. What I remember hearing most often in early school was "Who gets McEuen?" I couldn't figure out how, before even seeing me play, they knew I sucked at sports. During fifth grade, I faithfully paid a dollar a week to the Space Rangers Club, until the club president used three months' worth of my dues to buy himself a green transistor radio. He was the only other member — and my only brother, too — but he did let me listen to it a few times.
Though mostly ignored in school, I was a happy kid. Serving as crossing guard and operating my school's movie projector gave me a feeling of status and worth in those elementary school years. I lasted about three weeks in the Cub Scouts, as that did the opposite. From an early age, I hated uniforms, until they became costumes. That kind of group's activities always made me feel like I wasn't good enough, that I didn't fit in. This inferiority complex stuck with me, I guess, but I never saw any solution other than to drive on.
My first business was selling Christmas cards door-to-door in fifth grade. The more cards you sold, the more prizes you could earn, but I don't remember the prizes. I just wanted to make the sales, and I always sold out. That was exciting for me. Next, I begged my dad to bring mistletoe from the mountains; I would put it in little plastic bags that I sold for fifty cents apiece. That was killer, and the next year I cleaned up again at Christmas. Then I figured out how to put on a backyard carnival. I charged ten cents to play the balloon popping dart game, the BB gun target shoot, or the ping-pong ball toss. It felt like a big event, and I picked up $8.25 of my own. That was an exciting year. I also won third prize, and then second, at the school yo-yo contest. These were the first things that I could do that were really my own. They did win me recognition, but no real friends.
When we moved to Fremont, I started junior high school with renewed hopes for social acceptance, but by day two I was already hearing "Dog pile on McEuen!" My dad started a new business in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, and most of the week my mom and I were home alone. My brother, Bill, who was five years older than me, and my sister, Maureen, who was three years older, were also down in Long Beach. Bill was working for my dad's diesel equipment business; Maureen was starting business college. My mom and I had a ritual of having a frozen pot pie while watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson together. It made her so cool to me, and I felt fortunate to have a mom everyone liked.
Beginning somewhere around eighth grade, during the monthly air-raid drills, I'd deduced some cracks in governmental logic. To get ready for the big flash, we'd get under our desks as we were told, and when the siren went off, we'd put our hands over our necks. When the fireball didn't come, we would get a cookie. I quit paying attention when it dawned on me how stupid it was to wait for the fireball under a big piece of kindling.
Down south, my dad's surplus business grew. My family moved to Southern California's Orange County, where I started high school in Garden Grove. This provided my first exciting destination away from the house: Disneyland. And, amazingly, my sports ability improved! I excelled in badminton and ping-pong, but just try to win friends in a baseball/football/surf world with that claim. I still spent a lot of time alone. By the end of freshman year, I had become very proficient at climbing Disneyland's fence to get in free. I found it as advertised: "the Magic Kingdom, the happiest place on earth." In the backstage lots of the park, I made the exciting discovery that if you just acted calm and confident, and looked like you belonged there, you could walk into the park and no one would stop you. I mastered this "I belong here" attitude — that people would later call "let the force be with you" — to such a degree that I managed to never need a stage pass around most concert venues.
I'd climb over the fence that was topped with barbed wire, sneak through the back lot to Main Street, and then get the back of my hand stamped to come back "later that day." It also helped me to raise cash. At the front gate, I'd approach ticket buyers with an offer to get them in for two dollars each. Then, I'd enter the park on the right side by using my ultraviolet hand stamp, go to the exit on the left side to get stamped again, and tell the stamper, "Please put on a lot. I'm going swimming later." After pressing the stamp from my left hand onto my right, and holding it there to keep it wet, I'd meet my geeks at the restroom area and transfer the stamp from my right hand to their left, which made the pattern appear correctly. I got caught climbing the thirteenth time and quit.
I was drawn to magic tricks by my fourteenth year and spent all of my free time at Disneyland, mostly at the Main Street and Fantasyland Magic Shops. I saw how people liked being fooled, how they admired the person fooling them. I bought as many tricks as I could, took them home, practiced dutifully in front of a mirror, and became the family jester for any occasion. My mom would parade me in front of visiting aunts and uncles or friends, subjecting them to my tricks. It is a kid's thrill to do something adults cannot figure out, and I loved that I could finally do something my brother couldn't. But he never wanted to see my tricks. Magic shows for kids and parties earned me between twenty and thirty-five dollars for thirty minutes of work. I'd feel like the king of show business for that half hour. I was totally ready for the big time and even had a "have magic wand — will travel" business card.
I guess I was a pretty industrious kid, or maybe I just liked having some pocket money. My fifteenth year, I started my own pool-cleaning business with seven clients who each paid fifteen dollars a month. I steam cleaned diesel equipment at my dad's depressing place for fifty cents an hour and learned to drive a forklift well. I borrowed $200 from him to import two gross of toy airplanes from Hong Kong, and I sold them in a month at a small profit. I cleaned more diesel equipment, did yard work, followed various family dogs with a shovel, made magic tricks for my future boss Aldini the Magician, cleaned diesel equipment one last time, and made it to my junior year.
One of my biggest high school accomplishments was winning a bet with a teacher just by cashing a check. But it was no ordinary check. According to what the teacher said, a person could, in theory, cash a check written on anything, as long as the account information was right. So I challenged him with a crazy idea, and he bet me it wouldn't work. That was the first time I made it into a newspaper: "Student Cashes Check Written on Watermelon!" I liked that.
Another time I felt special in high school actually typified my youthful existence, but because of it, I still have a debt to pay to the guy who showed great kindness and concern for someone he didn't know. During one lunch time, I was circled by a bunch of big, big-shot football jocks who were pushing me around; I remember thinking I should try out to be the poster boy for the guy who gets sand kicked in his face. They were closing in, jabbing harder for no apparent reason, getting ready to go in for the kill, and I felt certain my life was going to be short and miserable. At the last moment, just as I was about to strike out in self-defense by blacking out, I heard loud yelling from the back of this mob of dumb assholes. I thought it was my death knell.
"Hey! Come on, you guys! Hey!" A huge football player pushed his way into the tightening circle of bullies and said, "Just back off. There's no reason to pick on this guy. Leave him alone — or deal with me first!" They dispersed, and I nerded along to class. I have yet to find this guy and thank him for a great save — one I've often thought about throughout my life. I hope to find him, and wonder if he might want to meet Willie Nelson, Steve Martin, or Dolly Parton, or maybe have some backstage food. He could use my backstage pass that I still never bother to get.
Things got a little better during my last year of high school. Until then, I hadn't even been an outcast in school; I just wasn't "cast." I accepted school life as an unaccepted dork, with three good friends and no noticeable achievements other than good grades. I challenged the PE teacher to a badminton game for my grade, since I couldn't get graded for fence climbing. He knew he would lose and turned me down, so my only C grade was in gym. I did list myself in the senior yearbook as president of the chess club, but in truth, there was no club, only one other player: my new friend Steve.
The most auspicious event of that year had taken place in early summer, before school started: I met Steve Martin. The two of us met hanging around the Disneyland Magic Shop, both trying to get jobs there, one May day, and then ate lunch in Tomorrowland by the House of Tomorrow. Here was a friendly guy I wanted to know. Later that week, after going over the fence to get back into D-land, I saw Steve at his work; he was a stock boy for the Tiki Hut, an Adventureland souvenir store.
Steve and I played chess every lunch hour during our senior year. By year's end, the score was eighty-five to eighty-seven, but neither of us remembers who was ahead. Eight-five to eighty-seven is also about the total number of words we said to each other during the lunchtime matches, other than "check/checkmate" and "adjusting" (something I could only seem to do on a chessboard).
In the middle of my senior year, I landed that dream job: working at the Main Street Magic Shop. Feeling this was good as it could get, I first ran the hand-set printing press in their print shop. I put people's names in newspaper headlines or on "Wanted: Horse Thief" posters or on fake marriage licenses. I even made an unknowingly prophetic one with "John & Marilyn" to display on the wall, because I thought it sounded nice. I was proud to hold the record for the most posters printed in an hour. During one rush I did forty-two posters — get the name, set the type, ink it, put in the poster, print it, clear the poster, roll it with a rubber band around it, clean and reset the type in the rack. That put twenty-four bucks in the till! Finally, I was good at something, and I was getting noticed for it, and getting paid, and they let me fill in behind the magic counter.
Even in high school Steve was a standout guy. As a cheerleader, he wore a pink tutu to lead cheers. I was glad he invited me to be in the Drama Club yearbook photo, as I wanted something more than just faux Chess Club president. I wanted to feel like I belonged. I found that feeling from working at Disneyland, where being on stage, even if only to hawk merchandise, made me feel at home.
I made two other close friends in those four years. Jim Arnold, whose mother worked for my dad, is still a great pal to this day. I learned from watching Jim that throwing up a six-pack of beer on the hood of your car is not as funny as it sounds. The only alcoholic drinks I've ever had are about twenty-two strawberry daiquiris. Jim is now living a simpler life in Montana. I admire his honesty, his up attitude, and his constant smile.
Mike Van Horn is still a great friend, although we don't see each other that much. As it is with Jim, when we do get together it feels like hardly any time has gone by, and I'm not sure I've really done anything, as seeing them is like traveling back in time to the days before anything happened. Mike is one of the many unique people I have been fortunate to know, and he impresses me to this day with his drive and the many hats he wears: magician, hypnotist, window washer, photographer, funky blues musician.
There is a special value in old friends from our early lives. They can be a reality check, like a platinum record on the wall. It impresses visitors, but those who have them know the dark truth: those records have a date on them, often from many years ago. And, more often than not, the sight of those records only makes me think, What did I do this year?
With the post-graduation summer of 1963 right around the corner, Steve was working the Fantasyland Magic Shop while I was mainly at the Main Street Magic Shop. Sometimes we'd play chess by phone. (Phone rings. "King pawn to king pawn five," he'd say. Phone rings. "Queen bishop to king knight six.") That was to be the best summer of my life. I had a car, a great job, the beach, no girl problems (no girls!), and I was making my own money: $1.15 an hour! I'd moved up to pitching tricks and I was good at it.
It was a great training ground for showbiz, with a constant flow of people generating an audience of two to twenty that turned over every ten or fifteen minutes. You could fool them into parting with their money, and it was essentially risk free. If you blew it, a new crowd would be drifting through in a few minutes. I credit those years with giving me the confidence to go out in front of any audience and get their attention, and keep it. I felt respected, especially the day I sold a record 154 decks of Svengali trick cards.
My coworker, the ever-smiling Jim Barlow, was ten years older but had the air of a man-child, and could always make anyone laugh. He was my first live example of confused confidence. His smooth, seemingly fumbling but well-practiced magic put people at ease. His secret language was usually shouted, and helped us spot the cute girls. "Shadowbox time" meant a girl in a thin dress was standing in the doorway, and that the hot sun was hitting the sidewalk just right so you could see through her dress, like she didn't even have one on. "Family of four" alerted the boys that large breasts, capable of feeding a family of four kids, were coming in. "Punch the time clock" let us know that it was easy to see down the blouse housing said large breasts, especially if we got the woman to pick up something we would "accidentally" drop on the floor while showing a trick. This might not be considered polite today, but we were teenage guys having giggly fun, and nobody got hurt.
It was a wonderful, carefree existence. I'd go to work an hour or more before the park opened to get the store ready, and just to be there before the crowd. I remember foggy winter mornings spent reading Ray Bradbury's science fiction while sitting on an empty Main Street bench when I couldn't even see Fantasyland, even though I was right in the middle of it. Around eight thirty, the fog lifted and the opening rope across Main Street dropped, people rushed in, and the day's show began. It was like a giant circus, only cleaner. I had no worries about "the future," which never extended beyond the next few hours or so, except making sure that I'd have enough money for gas. I was happier than ever. One week, I put ninety-two hours on the time clock, earning the biggest paycheck of my life: $124. Getting it cashed with all $2 bills, I put them in a stack, painted the ends with glue, and put them in a checkbook wrapper, so when money was needed I would tear one out like a check. I liked that all I did was tricks, and realized then that "working for a living" was not for me. It never really dawned on me that any of this was work.
One unforgettable night, our boss, Aldini, was locking the door at about 1:30 AM after a great sixteen-hour day. The last tourist leaving the Magic Kingdom came up behind him and asked, "Pardon me, sir, can you tell me just how much of Disneyland Walt Disney actually owns?"
Without missing a beat or looking up from fumbling with the key, Aldini brusquely muttered, "Two cows and a horse." Then he locked the door and walked off, never even glancing at the shocked tourist. We laughed for an hour.
My three years there were the best, and they left me believing that one did not have to become old, and as the years went on I'd strive to become a retired kid. Rather than work for a living, I would live for some kind of work. Thanks, Walt, for teaching that lesson to this Walt. (My legal name is Walter.)
I didn't meet Walt, but I saw him three times in the park. Once, while working Merlin's (the other Magic Shop, in Fantsayland), I heard he was at the front of the castle and went to see him. He was explaining to landscapers how to deal with an interesting problem: the new statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were all the same size! Not wanting to wait for new smaller dwarfs from the Italian maker, nor wanting to make a Snow White that would have to be twelve feet tall, he took a sketch pad and drew out a V-shaped waterfall that pushed perspective to a point at the top and was wide at the bottom. "Put her at the top, and all the dwarves down in front by the river, right next to the fence. She'll look bigger that way," he said. It worked. I learned even Walt Disney himself had to make lemonade from lemons.
Excerpted from "The Life I've Picked"
Copyright © 2018 John McEuen.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 You Can't Get Here from There 1
2 The Real Thing, the Big Show, Rock 'n' Roll! 21
3 Paint Your Wagon, a.k.a. the Big Break 35
4 It's Over-Breakup-to the Next Level 45
5 From Cowtown to Circles 61
6 The Circle Album 75
7 The Road Can Rule You 91
8 Road Animals: Linda, Bottom Line, Sedalia, Wyman, Russell 99
9 The Good, the Bad, and the Drugly 111
10 The Most per Note We Ever Made 127
11 The Red Brick Road 137
12 Starting On-the-job Training Being Towed in the Fast Lane 155
13 Little Jean, Dancing, Brings Us Together 173
14 That "I-Became-Earl-Scruggs"Moment 183
15 The Candidate Didn't Make It to the White House - What the Pluck Happened? 191
16 Can We Win This Crowd? And Finally Waking Up 207
17 Party of Seven-Single Father to the Max 221
18 Surfing in Kansas 227
19 Tommy Lee Jones, Sissy Spacek, and Four Ex- Wives 239
20 The Fog of Wall and Phishing for Notes 253
21 Closing the Decade and Opening the New Century 265
22 You Never Know Who You Know until You Meet Them 281
23 McNamara Fog-Speed of Life-to NYC 291
24 Digging into the Apple 297
25 Full Circle: I Didn't Know 1 Would Get Here from There 307