At around 1944, during my teen years, my parents moved into an erzats "Spanish" house in West Hollywood. It was located at 1200 N. Doheny Drive, and sat more or less part way towards the bottom of a low, typical Southern California hill. The backyard of the house moved up-slope and ended at a short chain-link fence. Beyond the fence the hill moved sharply upward and was covered with the ubiquitous succulent "ice plant" much favored by local developers who planted it in extravagant quantities in order to quickly hide the scars of their brutal gouging and flattening. There was a pad at the top of the rise, and a typical ranch house, swimming pool and all. Living in that house were Ronnie Reagan, his then wife Jane Wyman, and their kids. All very "Leave it to Beaver."
And one day...
We used to go to school on the terrible LA public transportation system, much supplemented by hitching rides from friendly (sometimes too friendly) motorists. This was particularly true when we were staggering home after a long day, and had to climb up a windy road to the house. We would frequently hitch rides up the hill, and Ronnie frequently obliged.
He wore an officer's uniform of some kind, Army or Air Force I don't recall, but his duty consisted solely of going to the MGM studios in Culver City to make propaganda films for the war effort. He frequently complained that he had to go all the way to Culver City when, since he was still under contract to Warner Brothers, he could have gone the shorter distance--and along a pleasanter route, with no "poor neighborhoods" to go through-- to the WB lot. But he was ordered to Metro. He really had a tough war.
There were a lot of Hollywood types who made similar complaints, just as there were a lot of them who actually went to war. This isn't the point of the story, however.
Our house was a two-story imitation of some builder's hallucination of a hacienda. My room was downstairs, by the driveway where I could make easy escapes from the familial atmosphere which my teenage angst sometimes found intolerable.
One weekend afternoon I was in that room struggling with homework due the next Monday. My younger sister was out in the yard playing with a young collie puppy she had gotten for her birthday some weeks before. I then heard her go inside, leaving the puppy out. Not unusually, especially after a Saturday night out with pals, I dozed off, my head cluncked down on my geometry text. A commotion outside woke me up.
There was a great of shouting and screaming outside in the back yard. I couldn't imagine what it was and I went out. I saw a kind of rhumba line being led by the puppy happily romping about, followed by Ronnie who, with a 6' long 2"x4", was taking great swipes at the puppy's head, followed by my sister sobbing and shouting at Ronnie to stop, followed by my father who was trying to get everyone to stop the infernal dance. The puppy had apparently gotten under the fence and had been cavorting around Ronnie's ice plant, doing about as much damage as a 2 MPH breeze could do to the hardy plant.
Regan's mighty swipes, however, were churning the plant up in great clumps of earth and greenery. Had the puppy not been quicker and more agile than Ronnie, its head would have been exploded by the viciously swinging timber which the enraged Reagan was wielding. The aw, shucks facade of the public figure were gone, replaced by a sweating, enraged, snarling, out of control destroyer of any young puppies who had dared tread on the field of his ice plants.
Finally my father got him to stop and quiet down while my sister retrieved the puppy and took the dog quickly inside. My father made offers of payment for any damage done, though Reagan's go for the fences swings were responsible for all of it and ice plant in Southern California is a commodity you can hardly give away. Ronnie's last snarl was that he would send a bill.
I don't know if he ever did. But as his public persona became more and more public, and he became more and more political, at no time did his little shit-eating grin and the seemingly naive cocking of the head fool me for a moment. I had seen the real Reagan: nasty, violent, unthinking, capable of great harm. Indeed, harm which poisons our body politic to this day.