In my misspent youth – which is to say until my early 30s – I used to visit the clothing-optional section of Black’s Beach, in La Jolla, California. The appeal wasn’t strictly exhibitionistic or voyeuristic, although of course it contained elements of both. Visits there were profoundly relaxing, and, being a naturally tense person – I have woken up spitting shards of molar that I managed to grind off in my sleep – I figured I needed all the relaxation I could get.
The drive from Phoenix to La Jolla took about six hours, and included a crawl up the Jacumba Mountains so steep that I often felt as though my car were traveling backwards. After parking on a bluff high above the beach, I’d have to inch my way down sideways to avoid slipping and falling, or even tumbling down ass-over-teakettle. If it wasn’t the world’s most arduous journey, it wasn’t the world’s easiest.
Arriving, at last, on flat sand, never failed to bring a deep sense of relief.
In 2003, I made the trip in the third week of March. It was slightly out of season, but the timing couldn’t be helped. I was then closing mortgages on straight commission and struggling to adjust to life on a wildly fluctuating income. I had just drawn a nice, fat check, but my loan pipeline was disintegrating as one glitch after another revealed itself to the processors and underwriters. As far as I could estimate, the following month’s check wouldn’t be nearly so healthy, and I was increasingly doubtful that I’d receive any check at all in the month after that. Fearing I might soon have to surrender the Ford Explorer I’d just bought used, I decided to grab my bliss while I could get it.
I arrived at this decision just before midnight on Sunday, so I made the entire drive in pitch blackness, on a nearly empty interstate. The driver’s side window had gotten stuck halfway up, with the result that a constant blast of cold air tore through the interior. When I hit the mountains, the temperature dropped and the blast grew more violent. The enormous sport-utility vehicle began sliding toward the shoulder. In order to prevent it from careening off, I had to grip the steering wheel with both hands and keep it twisted, sharply, to the left, which left me with the not wholly unpleasant feeling of flying in a Great War-vintage open-cockpit biplane.
But we were preparing for a new war then, one involving stealth fighters and cruise missiles. Every media outlet was announcing how our troops were massing in Kuwait, preparing to drive all the way to Baghdad. Cheney was on NBC telling Tim Russert that Muhammad Atta had met with an Iraqi official in Prague before taking off on his suicide mission. Chirac was all over CNN telling Christiane Amanpour that the UN inspectors were doing a fine job all by themselves. Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon had flashed the peace sign at the Oscars. Natalie Maines had told a British audience that she was ashamed her president was from Texas.
It was exciting. It was exhausting. I hated the thought that we might end up killing tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians. I hated to think that Natalie Maines might be right about anything. Most of all, I hated my job, seeing loans fall apart over offhand notations in the appraisals and being shopped by borrowers who had suddenly gotten wise enough to the ways of the industry to figure out that we were charging them points. Choosing the lesser of two evils, I submerged myself in war news until, three days before kickoff, I realized, like a child who’d gorged on candy, that I could hold no more.
I can’t have driven straight to the beach, since that would have meant arriving at dawn, which is not the ideal time to arrive on a clothing-optional beach – or, for that matter, a clothing-mandatory beach – in the last week of winter, even in southern California. Probably, I tooled up and down La Jolla’s hills, or maybe just pulled into a parking lot and slept for an hour. In any case, by the time I finally descended from the bluff, the sun was well above the horizon, and the beach already had a number of visitors. Some had already set up lean-tos to retreat under when the sun got too strong. Just in front of one of those lean-tos, I noticed something scratched in the sand.
It was a peace sign.
The thing measured about six feet in diameter. Clearly, the owners of that lean-to were at pains to show the world where they stood on the upcoming invasion. Just then, about a dozen yards up the beach, in front of another lean-to, I saw an American flag, mounted on a small pole and snapping in the breeze. As I scanned the shoreline, my eyes picked out other flags – some American, others representing the Navy or Marine Corps. (San Diego is home to a good share of both services.) And I saw a few other peace signs – some dug in the sand, others printed on flags or on large sheets hung like old badminton nets between pairs of poles.
Nobody was engaging his neighbor in debate. No champions met – thank God – to represent their camps in single combat. The general effect was less a political demonstration than a tailgate party, but it was still very different from what I’d hoped to see. I don’t recall that these displays of allegiance ruined my good time, exactly, but I did leave shortly after one in the afternoon, which, given the time I’d spent on the road, wasn’t much of a stay. With my olive skin, I tan well, so sunburn can’t have been the issue.
The next Wednesday, F-117 Skyhawks bombed al-Dora, and Operation Iraqi Freedom was on. The rest, as they say, is history.
I submit this story by way of explaining why I haven’t hoisted the Vatican flag in my Facebook profile. If the Church is due a confrontation with the state, acting on behalf of LGBT activists, flag-waving won’t do a thing to stop it, or to ensure victory for the Church. Why start the rumble ahead of schedule?
In the meantime, I know whose side I’m on. If anyone, not knowing, should find me more approachable or friendable in the meantime, that might not be such a bad thing. At worst, it means I’m working undercover.