Remembering Donny Fife

Donald Leroy Fife, II
Donny Fife, Champion. (Photo Courtesy Jill Fife)

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.

Hewes Middle School P.E.
“Line Up on your Number!” My kids visiting the Hewes P.E. blacktop.

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.

Donny’s Memorial Bench at Hewes, with Matt Wilson (photo courtesy Jill Fife)
Hewes Memorial Bench
Donny Fife Memorial Bench at Hewes Middle School, with Matt Wilson (photo courtesy Jill Fife)

Articles referencing Donny Fife

Friends, Family Weep for YouthThe Tustin News, December 4, 1986

Parents Seek to Eliminate Overpass DangerThe Tustin News, January 1, 1987

2 Bridges Take Toll : Residents Fear More Deaths if Crossings Aren’t Made SafeLos Angeles Times, June 1, 1990

Crusader Wins Battle for Bridge SafetyLos Angeles Times, March 28, 1994


Late August Lament

Shawn-Caulin Young
Actor Shawn-Caulin Young, to play Nicholas Gustavson

Late August lament for the loss of summertime. The rapid fade into autumn.  There’s dew on my windshield in the morning, and a slight chill in the air at dusk. Swimsuits become sweatshirts. Sandals become shoes. On the roads, there’s more traffic. School’s in session, but I’m not ready to accept it.

Here’s a weird piece I found from 1992, something from the Tustin News about graduation day, just a long list of students, including myself, Nicholas Gustavson, and the various programs etc.  Amazing to see some database is keeping these old newspapers around. I found out the Tustin News was purchased by OC Register back in 1995, and folded into the paper sometime after that as a local insert. It’s still alive though!

Looks like there’s a new TV Series called “Godless” coming out in 2017, described as a Western set in the 1880s.  The script is apparently secret, but there’s a character named “Nicholas Gustavson” played by Shawn-Caulin Young, who will appear in two episodes.  Nicholas Gustavson, if you remember, is my famous namesake. Back on September7, 1876, he was a recent Swedish immigrant who was gunned down by the Jesse James’ outfit, the James-Younger Gang during a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can still check out new new story “Naughty Maggie” in the Easy Reader.



More Good News! Naughty Maggie receives honorable mention in contest

Naughty Maggie Short Story
Naughty Maggie Short Story by Nicholas Gustavson

Pleased to see “Naughty Maggie” earned an honorable mention in this year’s Easy Reader Writing Contest. The contest usually receives entries with a geographical focus on the South Bay, a region of Los Angeles that includes the southern shore of the Santa Monica Bay. The South Bay boasts several sun-kissed beach cities including El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach, as well as near-coastal inland cities like Hawthorne, Torrance, and Lomita. Well, Torrance includes a sliver of beach, so let’s call it a coastal town too. The winning contest entry was an excellent non-fiction piece about a Greek immigrant growing up in the South Bay in the 1950s, written by Spiros (Steve) H. Mikelatos, M.D..

My short story Naughty Maggie addresses nostalgia, crime, and bar culture in a tiny beach community known as El Porto, bounded by the El Segundo oil refinery to the north, and fancier Manhattan Beach to the south. Although El Porto is arrayed with expensive beach homes, there’s a large encampment of twenty-something renters who lease rooms or units for a few years before moving on to more permanent digs, or a more responsible lifestyle that doesn’t include Monday Night Football, Taco Tuesdays, Big Wednesdays, “start the weekend early” Thursdays, Friday nights out, daytime Saturday bike bar crawls, Saturday nights at the pier, Sunday champagne brunches, anything back shelf, top shelf, lower pantry that pours into a cup on Sunday night before dawn, before the work week arrives. And when that morning alarm clock screeches, take heart, my lovelies–there’s only a few hours of corporate pain before happy hour.

I wanted to explore shared memories of El Porto’s saltwater stretch of Highland Avenue, and take possession once again of its crumbling haunts with sandy bar tops before the backed-up urinals and sawdust floors disappear, remodeled into commercial bliss. I don’t know if I succeeded, with a rigid 2000 word page count, but “Naughty Maggie” was darn fun to write.






Summer News

Hermosa Beach Reading by Nicholas Gustavson
Hermosa Beach Reading by Nicholas Gustavson

Reading away this summer at the beach with the kids. My son likes to read the local paper, Easy Reader, keeping up on local events. He also loves eating sand.

Super excited to get an acceptance letter from Effervescent Magazine.  The issue comes out August 25th and theme is “Tempestuous.” Looking forward to reading about those summer storms, first loves and firecrackers.


Finding the time

Dicken’s huge family

As a father of two toddlers, I’m challenged to find quality writing time. I move from work to daycare, from bath time to bed time. The stories inside me simmer; I thumb-type snippets on my phone while attending my daughter’s dance class, but I miss her new twirl, and the scene crumbles when my 11 month-old son waddles up behind me, grabs my leg hairs and says, “Baba!”

I used to write late at night or early in the morning, but I’ve exhausted the reserves of energy needed for those writing sessions, depleted by the demands of managing their childhood. Actually I don’t even manage it, my wife does that. I’m more an assistant coach, or even a coach’s assistant. I find it exhausting. How did Dickens raise ten children and produce so much content ?According to this book, it appears the children suffered for it. Is it possible to provide for a quality childhood, and keep writing?


Montauk Ranch and other updates

Writers DigestThe other day I received two copies of Writer’s Digest March/April 2016 issue and find my contest contribution to Your Story printed in there.  So great to finally see my little entry about Montauk Ranch in print.  Thanks to Writer’s Digest for running these monthly contests, as it’s a great way for an emerging writer to get some exposure.

Here is a round up of current activity:

I joined GoodReads. Seems interesting but not sure I’ll have much time for writing review on here. Time is so precious these days, best spent writing. Anyway here is my profile:

I joined  I’m not sure why, but you can find my profile here:

I recently started using Flickr again, which i guess used to be Yahoo pictures. Found some old pictures from my European Backpacker trip back in 2001. I had uploaded these in Europe i believe, from an internet cafe at 10p per minute. How did I do that?  I also finally scanned those disposable camera pictures i took at the Pink Parade in Berlin in 2001 and I have uploaded those as well.  What a crazy day that was.  Parades, DJs, and Bratwursts.

You can view my pictures here:

Also I recently paid a visit to visit to Manhattan Fine Wines and bought some bottles for Valentines Day.  I haven’t been inside the store since my wine tasting class days back in 1999, this is the place my wine tasting teacher told us to buy wines and he used to call it “Nick’s” after the owner at the time.  Since it’s my namesake, I should have gone there more often.  But this is the inspiration for my short story “Tasting Class” which won the grand prize last summer in the Easy Reader Writing Contest.  I still don’t know much about wine, but its fun to poke around and read the labels and wonder if you have enough cash to buy one bottle.

Patterns wins honorable mention in Exposition Review (formerly Southern California Review)

I’m pleased to announce my new flash piece “Patterns” won an honorable mention in Exposition Review’s inaugural Flash 405 Contest, and they’ve published it on their website.  My heartfelt thanks to Abigail Mitchell and all the staff at SCR for the long hours they put in reading all the entries. I’m honored to have my work included among such great stories.  Here a link to the announcement: Exposition Review’s Flash 405 Winners:

Nicholas Gustavson places third in Writer’s Digest Fiction Contest

Thank you to everyone who voted for my entry in the recent Writer’s Digest Fiction Contest, Your Story #69.  My entry, which I call “Montauk Ranch” finished third, beating out some tough competition. Congratulations to the winner for an inventive entry charged with adultery and murder. The contest results I believe will be published in March 2016 edition of Writer’s Digest. Thanks again to Writer’s Digest and for the opportunity.

You can read all the selections here Writer’s Digest Your Story Contest #69.




Vote for my entry in Writer’s Digest Your Story Contest

Nicholas Gustavson Finalist in Writer's Digest Your Story Contest I’m pleased to announce my entry “Montauk Ranch” is a finalist in the latest Writer’s Digest Your Story Contest. The contest is looking for the best opening sentence to a story based on this photo. Please help me out by voting for my entry, either by clicking here and leaving a comment, or emailing “Entry H” to with “Your Story 69 Vote” in the subject line.

To be fair, please read all the entries. I am up against some tough competition. If you prefer another entry, go ahead and vote for it.  I’m impressed by the body count in these entries.  Lots of murder, death, adultery, theft and prison going on here.

You can read some of my other work here: