Monday, August 10, 2009

Cieolo Drive-By

Given that the late '60s were such a tumultuous time in America's history, the last few years we've been marking the 40-year anniversaries of many events that shaped this nation (the Detroit riots, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Woodstock, my birth). Perhaps the event of that era that fascinated me most happened during a 48-hour period 40 years ago today, the shockingly gruesome Tate/LaBianca murders, during which Manson Family members slaughtered seven people, including the 8-1/2-months pregnant Sharon Tate. My self-diagnosis attributes my true-crime obsession to the Blue Gremlin that still drives around inside my head, but I can still vividly recall the most unlikely setting in which the Manson crimes first captivated me, on a night a few years after the last Oakland County Child Killer slaying. The year was 1979 and my family had recently moved from Detroit to Phoenix. I was the new kid at Rhodes Junior High School in Mesa, Arizona, and my 7th grade English teacher, Carol Carney, and I had immediately hit it off, laughing hysterically after class discussing the latest Erma Bombeck novel and our mutual love of entering contests (what 12-year-old boy doesn't click best with middle-aged women???). Our relationship was taken to "the next level" one afternoon when she asked me if I'd be interested in babysitting for her. (Would I??? Like I wasn't secretly DYING to see what her house looked like!) Looking back, she must have been insane. Although I was quite experienced with children -- I was the genius behind the Kenny Kid Kare (KKK) service on Dobson Ranch -- her daughter was an infant(!), and I'd never changed a diaper before -- and was pretty sure I'd gag if I did. But at that point I'd do anything for Mrs. Carney.

(We got so close, in fact, that my mom flew into a jealous rage at one point pulling all of my CATCH 'EM DOING GOOD notecards I'd received from my favorite teacher off my bedroom wall and crumbling them up into a ball -- "I don't see you doing ANYTHING good around here -- I just seeing you being a spoiled brat!!!!" -- and then went so far as to destroy the photos I'd collected for my precious women's tennis rankings, including my precious Mima Jausovec photo.)

The first time I sat for her, though, the baby had already been put down for the night when Mrs. Carney and her husband took off for an evening on the town. Bored, I began scouring the bookshelves in the front room when this GIANT black hardcover with creepy red letters all but jumped out at me -- HELTER SKELTER(!!!!). I knew what it meant and was almost too terrified to even open it, but too sickly intrigued to even think of not. Instead, I dug in, each page more terrifying than the one before. (All that gore and glamour was entirely too much to resist!) For the next three hours, every little creak in the house or sound from outside nearly sent me into a panic. I read nonstop that night till the Carneys got home. But feeling like I was doing something I shouldn't be, the second I saw the headlights in the driveway, I flew back to the bookshelf to put it back where I'd found it. Even though she was my English teacher (and she was impressed by my extensive reading list), somehow I was too ashamed or embarrassed to let them see me reading it, let alone ask to borrow it. (Something about the little boy babysitting your newborn daughter being really into the Manson murders just didn't seem like it would go over too well.) As a workaround, I spent the next year or so eagerly returning to babysit just to get back to where I left off in Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry's masterpiece.

Nearly a decade later, my best pal from Detroit (Mark) moved to Southern California. Naturally, one of the first things I wanted to do when I visited him was drive through Benedict Canyon to find the house on Cielo Drive, where Tate & Co. met their grisly demise. We arrived late at night -- but as we got near the place we sort of panicked and sped off. The last time Mark was up there a woman came out and screamed at him and his Hearse-driving friend, Robert, "If you're looking for the Manson house THIS isn't it." Being the good Nancies that we are, though, we drew the conclusion that it indeed was. (I was THRILLED!) Like the slaughtertownhouse on South Bundy Drive in Brentwood, the street number has since been changed -- and in this case, the house demolished and replaced with a new one.

In 1991 (when I, myself, was living on South Bundy Drive), I went home to Phoenix for a visit and ended up accompanying my friend Debra to a children's event she was producing for Planned Parenthood. (Debra had a wonderful young troupe of performers who would act out scenes on topics related to sexuality and the like.) As we were leaving the venue packed with teenagers I heard a familiar voice in the distance screaming out, "Kenny! Kenny! Is that you?" There was Mrs. Carney -- or was she Carol by now? -- looking exactly the same as she did when I'd last seen her a dozen years ago. We only spoke briefly -- my ride was pulling out and she had a hundred kids to round up -- but I remember a really warm feeling coming over me as I thanked her for the support she'd given me as a child. (I still didn't have the nerve to mention "Helter Skelter," although I wish I had.) It wasn't that my mom wasn't a good mother. In fact, she was and was just hurt that I was giving so much of my time and attention to someone else. (Moms have feelings too, something I only realized when I got older.) But sometimes you need to feel like you're special from a less partial observer (years later, this EXACT same thing happened between Roseanne and Darlene Conner). When I started school in Arizona after spending the first 12 years of my life in Madison Heights, I felt pretty disconnected. Mrs. Carney made me feel important when I really needed it.

At the end of the school year she even awarded me with this certificate for "Best Attitude." (I assumed she meant that I "gave the best attitude," although I was never really clear.) The day I left Rhodes to go to Dobson High I remember the last thing she said to me as I walked down the hall out of the English department: "I expect to see your name in lights someday, Kenny." I may not have lived up to her great expectations yet, but her vote of confidence has certainly stayed with me over the years, and I've had a lot of fun trying. (How's that for an attitude?!)

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