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.






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?


I Didn’t Make the Paper for Sports

nfl_a_baugh_576-e1276475731257I never made the local papers for high school sports. I played Frosh Soph football but I didn’t try out for varsity and I didn’t really care. Strange that years later I would replay some of my actions on the field, wondering what would have happened had I tackled that speedy tailback — the one with the tinted eye guard helmet – instead of letting him slip past me and score.

I had some brief successes: I made two picks as a free safety, and I ran one straight back to line of scrimmage and got pummeled by the offensive line. One angry lineman shouted “You’re going down!” as I lay at the bottom of the pile, grinning and holding the ball. What if I had tucked that ball under and ran for the sidelines? Perhaps I might have moved the chains another forty yards up field. Maybe that tailback who beat me earlier would have been forced to run me down. Maybe I would have beat him, and ran it all the way to the end-zone and scored.

It never happened. I didn’t give myself the opportunity to try again. I lost interest. The summer before Junior year saw the advent of a new world filled with drivers licenses, girls, beer, beach bonfires, surfing and guitars, and I hated the thought of going to summer football every day and especially those two weeks of double days in scorching August. I quit.  Later, at twenty-five, full of nostalgia from playing fantasy football, I would have given anything to intercept that pass again and run it back one more time.

So I never made the papers for sports, and I never thought I made the papers for anything.  Today I found this old piece from 1992 in the Los Angeles Times, a bit about how Nicholas Gustavson got a small scholarship. Strange how the internet works, recording old newspaper articles from the past before the civilian internet existed? Perhaps LA Times was available on Prodigy back in 1992.  Did someone scan all this data in later?  Probably some guys sitting in front of a scanner, dreaming of their glory days playing football.

What I learned from Googling myself

So, I googled myself today.  Come on, you’ve done it. Call it narcissism, vanity, or just plain curiosity.  It’s certainly okay to do this. We live in a world where employers google you before your job interview, so you better fire up your browser and check yourself out.  What do you find?

Unfortunately for me, I have a namesake Sex Offender hogging the top spot on a google search for my name, Nicholas Gustavson. Please be assured, this is NOT me.  This guy lives in Connecticut (I’m in California.) He got convicted in 2013 of Second Degree Sexual Assault against a “25 year old female who is a resident in a mental health facility.”  The charge description reads like a horror version of Eric Puchner’s short story “Children of God.”  Good grief.

My other famous namesake was a day laborer named Nicholas Gustavson who was shot dead by Jesse James or Frank James, or somebody in their gang or the Younger Gang, back in 1876 during a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota.  I already knew about this famous namesake as a kid, from reading a book my parents displayed on their coffee table “Wild & Woolly An Encyclopedia of the Old West”  This fantastic ’70s tome taught me all about the demise of Custer, the Gold Rush, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James and his gang.  What a shock I felt reading this as a boy, that I had been gunned down by outlaws. Who was this man, my namesake? Apparently he was a recent immigrant from Sweden, who didn’t understand enough English to realize he was about to die. Apparently, you need to understand English in order to deduce that a gang of outlaws with rifles and pistols yelling at you to get off the street means you should get the hell out of there or maybe duck and cover.

“What? But I need to use the ATM? Excuse me, I just need to deposit my check, Mr. James, can you not park your bank-robbing horse in the handicap spot?”  I mean, come on, Nicholas Gustavson. Either the history books got this encounter completely wrong or you were just a complete idiot. See the gun, buddy? You can’t translate what a G-U-N in your face means? Did they really need to say gevär for you to understand you are about to die? And oh the shame and embarrassment I felt as a child reading this. Why couldn’t he have been a valiant western character, a Swedish “Shane” who could have at least died gun fighting the bad guys?

I guess real life, unlike the movies, is a desultory pay day, just putting one foot in front of the other to the bank, trying to cash your paycheck before the bank closes. Head down, sweating, dog tired from the hard labor of building up America in the 19th Century.  Maybe he worked so hard for that paycheck that he was going to cash it, come hell or high water, or Cole Younger getting up in his face and trying to take it from him. Did they have federal insurance for bank deposits back then? I doubt it. Maybe Nicholas Gustavson represented Thoreau’s famous statement “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Maybe he knew the stakes, but he kept on walking, looking to turn that paycheck into an American dream. Rest in peace, my namesake.

Il Palio

Daily Mail has an article with some great pictures from this year’s Il Palio, the famous 400-year old horse race that occurs every summer in Siena, Italy. I was there in July 2001 and I remember waiting all day in the Piazza del Campo for the race to start. I sweated like a pig under the relentless Italian sun. We survived on pizza slices and water bottles with frozen cores that we purchased with real Italian lira (this was the summer before euro banknotes were introduced) from a vendor with an ancient cart.

As the afternoon wore on the piazza filled with fans from all the Contrada. We watched countless parades of armored horsemen and then the revered racehorse from each Contrada.  During the race, I remember one horse suffered a career-ending injury and its Contrada raged with grief as only Italians can do. We learned later they would have to put the horse down. Some men violently ripped cameras from tourists who had snapped pictures of their doomed horse. The cameras had invaded their sorrow, and the outraged Contrada shouted encouragement to the camera thieves.

Later, I was thrown aside by two burly men who busily plowed a path through a medieval alley for their winning horse. They were followed by a platoon of women garbed in the colors of their Contrada. Looking back now, medieval Siena’s ancient Il Palio seemed like a barbaric rite from Games of Thrones, with its violence, blood, passion and death. Even now I can’t stop looking at it.