The Bernalians: Growing Up on the Hill

By Alex Grimm, 2008

Alex Grimm is a writer who grew up on the north side of the hill.

A sort of madness overcame us on the hill as we raced one another down the steep, slick slide we had created with our cardboard sleds on dry grass. Risky recreation required recklessness. Sitting backward sent a hair-raising rush of adrenaline through our dirt-caked, sun-baked bodies as we screamed: "Geronimo!" Another trick was to roll down the incline encased within brown corrugated battle armor -- this resulted in exquisite dizziness and after lunch, vomit! Our chariots had names: Red Racer, Hurricane, Rocket Blast, Flying Fist, and my brother's ridiculous "Secret Agent Car." The rush of wind through our hair and on our cheeks was a thrill to rival any carnival ride, but the cost of admission was only a produce box from Lorraine's Market on the corner of Precita Avenue and Harrison Street in San Francisco's Mission District. Flattened carrot boxes, freshly waxed with crayons and loaded with three eager riders, sped downward at accelerated trajectories to smash into tall piles of weeds and brush for an explosive finale. The bruises and scrapes we earned from our rough play were badges of courage which we showed to one another proudly: "I ripped my arm open on a sharp rock on the way down," or "That's nothing. Yesterday I skinned my back AND cut my arm AND got this big bruise on my shoulder." Sleeves were pulled up to display heroic proof, and those without wounds hung their heads in shame.

Hill injuries, however, resulted in an unexpected complication during the summer of 1966. One racing enthusiast nearly caused the cancellation of the Bernal Heights Indy 500 when he went too far in his display of prowess. Curt, supposedly the smartest one of our six-member group, tried standing up like the Silver Surfer: "Hey, guys, watch this!" We paid close attention, for none of us had ever tried what he was about to do. As Rocket Blast sped down the well-used run, it hit a patch of ground where the grass had worn thin. The slick waxy surface under the cardboard did not have the usual distribution of body weight to glide it over the scratchy dirt spot. The cardboard suddenly stalled, sending the Silver Surfer head first over the front. Curt fractured his wrist, we learned later. What we noted immediately was that the epidermis of his right cheek peeled away and curled downward like a thin slice of apple skin. He looked like hell, and though he didn't cry, his pained voice told us that this was one injury we couldn't hide from his mother. He looked up, wincing, and in a wobbly voice said, "Could one of you guys help me get home?" Yep, he was seriously hurt, alright.

After that, parents began to ask questions about the hill. "Do you know that the other side of the hill is a bad neighborhood?" "Were there any kids up there sniffing glue?" "Have you ever talked to strangers up there?" The interrogation seeped into every home, and soon mothers were comparing answers. The bombshell came when Eric told us that his mother was going to send his teenaged cousin up there to make sure it was safe. We panicked! Of course it wasn't safe, that's why we had so much fun up there. We couldn't let the mothers know of the death-defying feats we performed, or they'd make us stay close to home. A miserable summer playing kickball in the street or climbing memorized branches at Precita Park could not compare to Bernal's entertainment. Up there we swung from a rope tied to a branch hanging over a cliff above broken bottles and rusted metal. As we all clasped the rope we'd kick one another with ferocious vigor to eliminate weaklings and establish a king. How could we give up that kind of fun? We convened a meeting on Skip's front porch to discuss what we were about to lose.

Listening to a transistor radio thinly playing "Ticket to Ride" by the Beatles in the shade of fennel plants as we read Superman comics was our right. We had an obligation to protect our neighborhood from the ghetto kids on Bernal's south side by digging trip holes on our side of the hill and covering them with brush. We also had the job of maintaining our poorly constructed forts built with pilfered wood from unguarded paternal caches. There was quite a bit at stake. We didn't feel it was fair that mothers, who couldn't understand about rights, duties, and jobs, should have the authority to separate us from Bernal Heights. Who did they think they were, anyway? We belonged on the hill. "Yeah!" was the rousing chorus of agreement. The hill was ours, or at least it was in 1966.

In 1776, before we came on duty as self-appointed guardians of the hill, an expedition from New Spain to Alta California led by Juan Bautista de Anza secured San Francisco for Spain before the Russians could move in from the north. One of the twenty soldiers assigned to this colony was young Jose Cornelio de Bernal. During the time Bernal helped colonize the area, New Spain became Mexico. The fledgling nation realized the importance of colonizing Alta California and awarded Bernal a huge land grant extending south from the hill to what is today Daly City. Ironically, though most of the land ended up in the hands of yet a third governing authority -- the United States -- Bernal's name did not become associated with wavering political changes, but rather with the solid stability of a mountain. Both Bernal's name and his hill came to mean reliability and safety to the people of San Francisco and, much later, to me.

Bernal Heights is only a minor hill located on the boundary line between the Mission District and the Bernal Heights district in San Francisco. A mere 475 feet high at its summit, it is as Mount Everest to nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-old kids. It rises from amid residential structures like a humped Acropolis with a single transmitting tower upon its crest: a tower where knights and kings climb upward to rescue fair damsels held hostage by evil wizards. The rounded mountain is more than eighty percent covered by grassland draping the mound in a golden mantle during summer and a flowing green cape of bunchgrass, wild oats, and other annuals during the rainy season. From a distance, the arched rise appears like a great slumbering giant, but this gently sloping half dome deceptively hides small niches where cliffs and ravines lie sequestered in shadows. Secret folds near the hem of the enduring prominence harbor defiant ecosystems, resistant to the metropolis pressing in from all directions. About its base a cluster of varied styles of architecture gather together like clinging children around the feet of a gargantuan mother.

Dwellings closest to the bedrock foundation receive the benefit of the solid sedimentary support of Bernal Heights. A few homes, nestled comfortably on slopes that ignored the wrath of the 1906 earthquake, are crowned with the distinction of being some of the oldest homes in the city. Like delicate shells, the homes of Nob Hill's aristocracy collapsed in shambles after forty seconds of violent seismic shaking which commenced at 5:15 in the morning of April 18, 1906. After the shaking had subsided, the working-class dwellings of Bernal Heights, having been founded on dense bedrock, stood intact. Additionally, because of their distance from congested development, buildings on Bernal Heights were spared destruction by the subsequent fire which consumed more than 500 blocks of real estate. Bernal residents continued to live in the familiar surroundings of the Cortland Avenue community along the south side of the hill while 225,000 San Franciscans were homeless.

Homelessness faced my friends and me if mothers restricted us from our poorly made forts on the hill. Built with nails taken from assorted garages and yards during football season (a profitable time for kids with fathers immobilized by televisions), we had created a sort of shantytown in a small thicket of trees. Each rickety abode had its own name: The White House, Taj Mahal, Fort Knox, and one named by my brother -- Raccoon Palace. In my humble abode, named Camelot, all of my shelves, framed pictures, and potted plants were drawn in with colored chalk. Eric and Rob, who were brothers, decorated Fort Knox with old hub caps. Curt, who now sported a cast on his right arm, had Taj Mahal cushions made from huge potato sacks stuffed with grass. Skip, a ringer for every Huckleberry Finn I'd ever seen in any book, placed a large piece of plywood between two branches and hung a white sheet over a higher branch, which gave his fort a tentlike appearance, hence the name White House. My brother was afraid of heights, so his apartment was more like a lean-to against a tree trunk. The poorly made huts leaked during summer showers and rattled fiercely in the wind, but they were our places, our homes.

From our base of operations we conducted much warfare. During military campaigns we selected weapons for combat from limitless rifles, swords, and spears supplied by abundant fennel plants. The pungent licorice scented air called us to war: Knights versus Vikings, Americans versus Germans, Cowboys versus Indians, Romans versus Spartans -- the list goes on and on. The squirting, bubbling snails that crawled on fennel stalks made excellent ammo to discourage sisters with Barbie dolls who occasionally tried to invade our domain with the pretense of sharing picnic lunches. We knew they were spies using peanut butter and jelly to infiltrate our world and report back to the kitchen headquarters of the enemy. We took their lunch bags and launched wet snails at their neatly ribboned hair as they ran away in tears, crying "We're telling! You're gonna be in trouble!" An ass-chewing at the dinner table was always a small price to pay to keep them off the hill and out of our closed warrior society.

Activities on the hill were not always deadly, however. There were opportunities for exercise on day-long hikes into history. These quests were arduous, and there were rules to be followed once roles had been assigned. If you were killed, you couldn't come back as the same character, and the game would pause as Curt took the history book out of his army surplus satchel. He'd flip through the pages, scanning for a new name: "Okay, you're Charlie Mane, a German King. You get to ride the Magna Cart which is ... oh hell, it doesn't matter. Can you do a German accent?" "Ja," and a new persona entered our realm of imagination. Neighbors watching us climb toward the tower may have wondered why we followed the same route over and over, but they were on the outside and didn't realize that with each journey we were different people in a different era with a different purpose. History and Creative Writing were subjects the hill encouraged.

Bernal Heights did not neglect our science education during summer vacation, either. While searching for throwing stones, we often discovered rare and interesting rocks. The crumbling chert on the exposed cliffs and rocks we dug from the ground motivated summer visits to the public library on Cortland Avenue. We would check out geology books and try to match our rock collections to the pictures and pronounce the Latin words assigned to our finds. In the long run, we ended up using them to build rock turrets on which we positioned little green army men that were targeted using other rocks as projectiles. The summer reading taught us, however, the various origins of rocks and gave an explanation for the sea shells we found -- Bernal Heights had once been under the ocean. The ancient sea fossils we found usually became just another thing to throw in a toy war:

"Wheeeeeee, Pouh! Wheeeeeee, Pouh! Got your general!"

"No you didn't, asshole, that's my captain."

"Liar! You called him as General when you set up. He's out of the game, shit-head."

"Okay, but you gotta give me time to collect more ammo and I get to reposition my infantry to the left."

"What the heck, Skip! You just moved 'em to the right!"

And so, the afternoons passed with a sort of cooperative, aggressive, and stubborn camaraderie nurtured by the hill. The hill also provided other nurturing opportunities.

During the spring, a shallow pond formed, which gave us a generous supply of tadpoles. The weeks of watching our captured prisoners swimming in brown water and developing into frogs enriched our lives with a godlike sense of accomplishment. Though we did nothing at all to assist the tadpoles in becoming frogs, somehow, by the ritual of daily observation we were connected to these amphibians in an unspoken contract of obligation. More than biological savvy, we gained a sense of right and wrong. When they began to leap out of their containers, we dutifully returned them to the hill. We said farewell to Hoppy, Snot Slime, Squiggle, and many others because the tree frogs were only on loan to us. They really belonged to Bernal Heights.

Bernal Heights seemed like a gentle and benevolent guardian to those with a need for reassurance and sanctuary. This had been the case sixty years before, as well. Precita Park, one block from the northern foot of the hill, became a temporary location to house the homeless for about a year after the big quake. Small cottages designed by the U.S. Army and built by local carpenters were used as temporary shelters after the loss of $400 million worth of structures. When the government offered these little wooden habitats for purchase, some San Franciscans bought the affordable shacks and hauled them upward to be anchored securely to the immovable Bernal Heights. As the refugee camp in Precita Park disseminated, the hill began to blossom into a bouquet of rich ethnic diversity as new residents with European roots moved in and began their lives as "Bernalians." Secure in the knowledge that a future quake was unlikely to destroy their houses, the newly adopted residents were assimilated into the hill -- they were safe. Sadly for my pals and me, not all the abodes on the mighty hill rested so tranquilly.

One day the tough kids from the south side of the hill came through when we weren't around. They tore our skimpily constructed architecture apart and stole the possessions we left in our houses. This was, of course, grounds for war. Honor demanded retaliation, but we carefully sought balance between cowardice and recklessness in appeasement of honor, for we lived in terror of the kids from the other side of the hill. Long deliberation and careful strategy resulted in a ruse to trick the thieves into taking tainted pennies. The underside of each penny was coated with ink from a broken pen. When the thugs came back and found the change, we reasoned, they would stain their pockets and fingers with a sticky mess. Sadly, the robbers never returned and we had to clean the pennies off before Lorraine would let us buy bubble gum with them.

Though we never got our revenge, we were content to know the ghetto kids had to live in a slum where spray-painted cuss words greeted them when they returned home. They played on streets where cars without wheels never took kids to the zoo or beach. They couldn't read. Their dads were either drunk or in prison. They never got money for Popsicles or fudge bars from mothers who slept all day so they could work all night. Looking back with the knowledge of an adult, I now understand why they stole whatever they could get their hands on and why they were so mean: it was a meanness born of desperation. We couldn't possibly have known what they had to live through because we were the favored ones, the children on the north side of Bernal Heights. Poor as we were, we had families that cared enough about us to keep us from harm. We had families that would check on us.

As it turned out, Eric's cousin took one look at our setup and grinned with approval. "You little shits got it pretty good up here. Hell, I wish I could've had all this cool crap when I was your age." He had become part of our group. He had become a Bernalian. With a wink to Eric, he disappeared to quash the maternal inquisition against our play world. We got to complete our perfect summer on Bernal Heights, although we were much more vigilant about hiding our wounds. In fact, we assembled a community first aid kit so we could treat cuts and scrapes without alerting the mothers.

We clung to the hill for two more seasons before time and puberty separated us from our childhood. On his twelfth birthday, Eric got a go-kart which absorbed his life. Rob got hit by a car and had to spend many months in recovery, after which he stayed close to home. Curt moved away to Arizona: an unfortunate fate for a boy who loved climbing a round hill with bushy green foliage. Skip, the oldest one of our group, got arrested for stealing from Lorraine -- although she had given him many chances prior to finally calling the police. When Skip got out he seemed less like Huck Finn and more like Huck's Pa. He joined the thieves on the other side of the hill, but for old time's sake he never took things from us. My brother grew chubby and lethargic watching Lost in Space, The Wild Wild West, and Hogan's Heroes. I became a bookworm, staying up late at night learning the northern constellations. Bernal Heights blocked out a huge section of the sky and had become an annoying hindrance to me -- I was growing up.

Just as we had returned frogs to Bernal Heights, no longer recognizable as tadpoles, Bernal Heights returned us to our families, no longer recognizable as fennel-armed warriors. Eventually, we stopped going to play on the hill and only nodded to one another as we passed on Harrison Street going to or from school. We saw one another with new best friends. Out of respect for what had been between us, we did not greet one another with names like Fart Breath, Fungus Face, or Puke Bowl. Those familiarities were left in the past.

As an adult, I would often look out from a window in another part of the city and seek the silhouette that reminded me of sure-footed days on the hill when good guys always won and a blue Popsicle made me happier than pay day. Even now, living too far away from San Francisco to seek the rounded shape of Bernal Heights with my eyes, I still carry within me the sights, sounds, and smells of the place that fostered my dreams. Bernal Heights shaped and built the mettle which has pulled me through many difficult times. It is a comfort for me to know that my old friend is still there, unchanged, resilient, and probably raising a new litter of dirt-smeared dragon-slayers whose sunburned faces beam with the adventurous joy that only a Bernalian child can know.