As a kid in the 4th grade sometimes, instead of going to school, I’d walk out the back door of my house in East LA to the ally and I’d go a couple blocks to the San Bernadino freeway underpass, go under the freeway and walk a few more blocks to the rail road-tracks. Sometimes my older brother Richard and my best friend Eddie would go with me.
Richard was 3 years older than I was which made him 13 years old. We’d walk down the rail-road tracks a couple miles to a different world called Burlake Creek. It was like being in the wild-land swamps of Louisiana with nobody else around but the tall eucalyptus trees towering overhead with their powerful fragrance clearing our nostrils and the cold water rushing over the banks of Burlake Creek.
We’d bring along our BB guns with us and shoot frogs or anything else that moved or looked like it might be a good target. The musty aroma of the soft, gushy, rich soil underneath our feet got our tennis shoes black up to our ankles and got our socks and pant legs caked with thick mud. The jack rabbits were running by and the stink from the skunks was ripe. Coyotes and other wild animals scared us silly. We were sure there were mountain lions and bears nearby just waiting to pounce on us. There were rumors that people disappeared in Burlake Creek and were never seen again.
We’d usually bring along something good and healthy to eat like peanuts or cookies or a candy bar and soda pop and lots of extra BB’s to shoot in our Daisy BB rifles.
Then when we got tired and/or lost we’d scare each other that this was going to be our new life and our new home where we were going to have to live from now on and we weren’t going to have to go to school anymore and have to do any more boring homework or anything else we didn’t want to do.
There was a very large rock that we’d all climb up on and just below it was a deep, cold swimming hole. We’d shoot our BB guns into the water to try and hit the fish swimming below. If it was hot like it was a lot of the time in LA, we’d take off our clothes and jump into the water and go skinny dipping and scare each other that we were drowning. My older brother would say, “If one of you punks need rescuing, I’ll have to knock you out to save you so you don’t make us both drown.”
One time when we ditched school and went to Burlake Creek there were six older, bigger kids swimming in our swimming hole. They were mean, tough looking guys who were called pachucos. They talked with funny accents and spoke with a lot of slang. The biggest guy looked to be a full grown man of about 18. He towered over all of us. He had homemade tattoos all over his arms and neck and he had two tear drops tattooed under his right eye.
I heard his friends call him Veto. Veto just stared at us giving us the meanest look I’d ever seen. He took a look at our BB guns and came over to me and grabbed my BB gun and said: “What are you guys doing here? Shouldn’t you punks be in school?”
Suddenly I was wondering the same thing. My brother Richard tried to act tough and said: “We come here all the time. What are you punks doing in our creek?”
I hoped Richard meant what he said about knocking me out if I needed rescuing because I think we all needed rescuing and I wished our BB guns were real guns or that Richard might actually know how to knock somebody out. The other 5 guys with Veto came up to Richard surrounded him and began shoving him with Veto saying: “You ready to die here now punk?!”
Richard pulled his belt off that he always left unbuckled just in case he might need to use it as a weapon. Richard began swinging it like a whip at Veto and his friends and he began screaming in a crazy manner in some language he must have made up because nobody including me and Eddie ever heard it before or knew what he was saying but he looked like a mad man.
When Richard did that we all flinched and stepped back and didn’t know what was happening. Suddenly Veto looked at his friends and calmly said “I know this guy. He goes to the school I used to go to and he’s deaf. He’s probably crazy too. Let’s get out of here.”
I never looked at Richard the same way again after that. I’m sure he saved our lives that day.
The next year Burlake Creek was fenced off and the bottom of the creek was paved with concrete much like the LA River is. Cal State LA was built right next to where the San Bernadino and the Long Beach Freeways intersect and on the other side of the freeway they built a huge four story women’s prison.
If you look carefully when you drive by on the freeway you can see what’s left of Burlake Creek flowing into a culvert underneath the off-ramp for Cal State LA and the Long Beach and San Bernadino Freeway interchange.
You have to look quickly as you drive by at 60 plus mile per hour to can see our old swimming hole down below in the middle of both freeways. It doesn’t look attractive or anything at all like it used to.
Whenever I’m in LA and I’m driving by Cal State in my old neighborhood, I remember fondly our days of ditching school and Richard saving our lives and I think to myself, I have to go there again just to look around and smell what’s left of the wilds of Burlake Creek. What’d I ever do with my BB gun?