Billy Casper: Life's circle, and the taste of lima beans

Published: Sunday, April 8 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

My grandfather was a tyrant, a man hard to live with and harder to please. His children kept leaving because they couldn't get along with him, and then they'd come back, like my father did, because they knew he could help them make ends meet.

Adolf was a man of some means. He owned the mercantile store in nearby Central and had a stake in a gold mine. On his farm he raised crops and livestock, both of which could be that night's dinner, an important thing in the 1930s. He cut a wide swath, figuratively and literally, and even as a young child I sensed how fortunate he was to have my grandmother to smooth things over for him. He was the dictator but she ran the show.

How and when my parents met is another lost story. I never asked either one of them for the details and they never volunteered them. They took care of me in the big ways, made sure I had enough to eat and a place to sleep, but from the earliest times I can remember both of them were constantly working. You could not fault their work ethic, but there was never enough energy or inclination for much talking.

They had no more children, I was it. As far back as I can remember, after providing the basics of surviving, they left the rest up to me. When I was 4 and 5 I was alone much of the time. I would walk around my grandfather's farm, just roam for miles. I had two pals, a couple of big farm dogs named Minnie and Blackie, that I spent way more time with than anyone in my family.

When I was 6 we moved back to San Diego. We lived in a small house — a shack, really — in the Sorrento Valley quite a ways north of downtown, where my father found work in a dairy. My mother got a job at the telephone company.

A lot of people were poor during the Depression, including us. One of my clearest early memories of life in San Diego is going in the evening to the lima bean patches in the hills. My parents and I would pick what was left after the farmers had harvested the rest. I thought everybody did that. It was our version of fast food. To this day I love the taste of lima beans.

We moved constantly. We lived in a trailer and hauled it to Mission Valley closer to town so my dad could work at another dairy. It was in an area near the stadium where the Chargers play football now, but back then it was nothing but wide-open fields and the San Diego River. Then we moved again. And again.

I attended five elementary schools in three years. Changing schools is never easy for a kid, and I was a big kid for my age, which is a kind way of saying I was fat. The other kids invariably called me, the new kid, Fatso. It stung when they said it, but I'd get even when they had races. I would outrun everyone in the class. That would always surprise them. I was fat but I was fast. Anything to do with sports always came easy to me, which is more than I can say for my studies. By the time I got to third grade I was so far behind they made me take it over again.

When I was 9 years old and World War II was already going strong in Europe we moved yet again, this time south of downtown San Diego to the community of Chula Vista. When I woke up the first morning I thought we'd gone back to New Mexico. Just up the street was a golf course. I had come full circle.

TOMORROW: Contract on a napkin

"The Big Three and Me" is available at www.billycasper.com and Deseret Book. Email: benson@desnews.com

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