It's high school graduation time and at hyperlocal midsize papers like The Californian, that means all hands on deck, even the crotchety old veteran columnist with zero photo skills. We had 18 commencement exercises to cover over two days, and my services would be required. My assignment was Golden Valley High School, at the far southeastern corner of the city.
The place was already rocking when I arrived at the front gate of the packed stadium. The band had just finished playing the processional, and all of the blue-gowned graduates were perched in anticipation on their white folding chairs. I had to find my way onto the field quickly, do my job and get out because my deadline was only a couple of hours away.
Sizing up the situation, I saw that I could maneuver onto the field, where the stage had been set up near the south goal posts, through only one open gate — and it was at the opposite end of the stadium. I made my way through the crowd milling around in front of the grandstand, made a hard-left turn at the open gate near the stadium field house, and walked across the all-weather track onto the field, using my "look like you're supposed to be here" walk.
I took two dozen photos, wrote down two dozen names in a scrawl I would scarcely be able to read later, and then headed for the front entrance/exit.
At this point I was in clear, open view of 2,000 people watching from the grandstand.
As I got nearer the exit, I realized, again, that there was no way out on this side of the field — this gate was locked.
I could spin around and walk back the entire length of the field to the south end, in full view of the crowd — or I could keep walking to the north end and hop the fence. Problem was, people were everywhere, and three police officers had already noticed me and were probably wondering where I thought I was going. What now?
I headed straight over to the big, orange-and-blue Hall Ambulance truck-van that was backed up against the locked gate and said hello to the driver, a young guy. (Everybody seems young these days.) "Could I ...," I asked, but he seemed to already know what I was thinking. He grinned and gave me that "I know nothing" look. So I walked to the back of the van, blocked from most people's view, and sized up the fence.
It was chain-link and almost chin-high. Fifty people around the perimeter of the track were already watching me, including three or four college-age guys who were elbowing each other and nodding in my direction. Hey, watch this old guy.
Now I had no choice.
If I were to do a face-plant, at least the ambulance was already right here. But they'd probably have to stop the whole graduation ceremony. Maybe they'd make an announcement over the loudspeaker: "Is there a doctor in the house? Some idiot has broken his neck over at the north end of the stadium."
I grasped the top of the fence and, with remarkable athleticism and grace, flung myself over — and stuck the landing. "Eight!" shouted one of the college guys. I pretended to be outraged. "Eight? I nailed it!" "You dropped your sunglasses," he said, explaining the point deduction.
I slapped my forehead, pushed my sunglasses back onto my nose and walked quickly toward the exit. I didn't look back, in case any of Bakersfield's finest wanted to remind me that locked gates are usually locked for a reason.