Thirty years ago, an 8th grader named Donny Fife died while skateboarding in Tustin, California. He was hit by a car on the Santa Clara bridge after chasing his skateboard into the street. At the time, the Santa Clara bridge was a narrow, unlit overpass above the Costa Mesa Freeway, and Donny’s death sparked a years’ long crusade by Donny’s father to improve the bridge’s safety. If you lived and shopped in Tustin during the 1980s, you may remember the incident. The local paper, The Tustin News, ran several articles about Donny, and later the Los Angeles Times did too.
I met Donny at Hewes Intermediate School about three months before he died. Donny was a big eighth grader, and I was a newly minted seventh grader. Donny and I weren’t close, but we shared some good times together, especially in Mr. Livingston’s P.E. Class. Donny’s gym locker was near mine, and I remember feeling grateful on the first day of class because Donny chose not to pants me, or stuff me in a locker, or give me a wedgie, or torment me in some other way eighth graders tormented seventh graders on the first day of PE.
Maybe Donny had more important 8th grader issues to deal with. For one, he seemed preoccupied with his appearance. I remember him carefully unpegging his pegged jeans and folding up his Stüssy mock turtle shirt before suiting up in the Hewes regulation blue and white gym uniform. Then Donny touched up his hair in the gym mirror, spraying Aqua Net on his already Aqua Net-hardened bangs before making his way outside for roll call.
When we lined up on our numbers, Donny had a faraway look in his eye. Our PE teacher, Mr. Livingston had to shout “FIFE!” repeatedly, his kinky blond curls quivering until Donny responded. After a week of this repeated routine, Mr. Livingston’s hair looked like it was about to lift off into the Tustin airspace. I realized Donny wasn’t looking too far, just over to the other side of the blacktop where the girl’s P.E. class lined up. Something over there was distracting him, but my seventh grade brain didn’t know what it was.
Because our last names were close together, Mr. Livingston typically put Donny and I on the same team. “Fife, Gustavson, you’re Team B, move it!” I remember during volleyball lessons, Donny loved to sing that silly Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler song, a popular TV commercial at the time starring a pre-Die Hard Bruce Willis. We sang it on the Hewes blacktop while playing desultory volleyball, with Mr. Livingston barking at us to get our hands up and rally already. Donny did a good job passing the ball and crooning “Golden Wine Coooo-lller” like Bruce Willis, and I had fun trying to keep up with him.
That was November 1986, almost time for Thanksgiving, and the days were growing colder. I remember shivering on the blacktop in my tiny blue PE shorts. Maybe singing tunes and playing volleyball invoked summertime for us, especially that recently passed summer of Top Gun. Donny and I loved that movie, and when we sang on the blacktop we became Maverick and Goose, two sandy volleyball players who liked to belt out “Great Balls of Fire” on the piano, or serenade Kelly McGillis in a bar with the whole Navy backing us up. I realize now we weren’t just singing to survive PE, we were moving the needle forward into adulthood. We wanted to drink Golden Wine Coolers with Bruce Willis and play in his blues band. We wanted to hop on motorcycles with Tom Cruise and burn rubber over to Kelly McGillis’ pad and do all the things they said we were too young to do, the things they said we should wait to do because we had our whole lives ahead of us.
I didn’t hang out with Donny after school. I walked home my way and Donny skated home his. I guess his way included the Santa Clara bridge. One day in late November, Donny didn’t show up for school. The news filtered in slowly, first rumors in the hallways, then an official announcement by our Principal, Ms. Julie Hume. We heard about the accident. The skateboard. The screaming tires. The busting glass. Donny dying in his father’s arms. Then The Tustin News came around sniffing for quotes. When it was over, I found myself back on Livingston’s volleyball court, lobbing serves into the net. There were no songs to sing and no Donny to sing with. I walked home, terrified of each passing car, the world now a dangerous place that takes the best of us too soon.
If I could move that needle back to Livingston’s P.E. class, I wish I could tell Donny how it all turned out. I wish I could tell him how I tried Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler later and found out it tastes horrible. I wish I could share with him the article I discovered about Bruce Willis losing his position as a Seagram’s spokesman after getting caught drunk driving. And perhaps the most crushing to our adolescent souls, I’d be forced to tell him how our girl Kelly McGillis just isn’t into guys.
But Donny, some of the other stuff about growing up is worth the wait, and some things are even radical, like getting married and having children. I have a little girl who might grow up and see some real genius in your flying. I have a son who’ll want his own skateboard soon. I have loads of memories and anecdotes and life lessons to sing about. But I don’t have my blacktop singing buddy. So I’m waiting, Donny, waiting to reprise our duet someday. Someplace where all the Santa Clara bridges are safe, and the rivers underneath run with Golden Wine.
Articles referencing Donny Fife
Friends, Family Weep for Youth – The Tustin News, December 4, 1986
Parents Seek to Eliminate Overpass Danger – The Tustin News, January 1, 1987
2 Bridges Take Toll : Residents Fear More Deaths if Crossings Aren’t Made Safe – Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1990
Crusader Wins Battle for Bridge Safety – Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1994