The following is an excerpt from Sammy Hagar’s book;
When I was growing up, Fontana, California, was all orange groves, grape vineyards, and chicken ranches. I could eat oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines all fucking day if I wanted. I had to walk through an orange grove just to go to my next-door neighbor’s house.
There really was no neighborhood.
It was long before tract homes. At the corner of each of the long country blocks, there were these big, ten-foot-tall cement tanks with open roofs on them, called water weirs, which fed water to the houses from clean, clear Lytle Creek in the foothills.
The water weirs had a float on them, and when the water got too low, the float would kick on and they’d fill back up like a toilet. Each one had a ladder going up so guys could ser vice them, and kids would drown in them all the time. We always heard a rumor that some kid got polio from one of them. But it was our drinking water and it was ice-cold. In the summer, we used to jump in and swim. Not swim, but dunk down, get cooled off, and climb out.
I don’t want to say we’d piss in them, but we did. My dad moved to Fontana because he heard the steel mill was hiring. When I was born in Monterey County Hospital in Salinas, California, Dad and Mom had been picking lettuce in the fields and living in a camp where everyone else was Mexican. The Kaiser Steel Mill—the first steel mill west of the Mississippi— pretty much made Fontana.
Growing up, every kid in Fontana was just trying to get through high school to get a job at Kaiser Steel. We thought it paid great. Originally, you didn’t even need a high school diploma, but, as Kaiser Steel built up, and other plants opened up, making pipes or big beams, you needed a high school diploma. Unless, of course, they got a big order and needed the people. Then they’d hire anybody, and lay you off when they got the job done. But everybody was happy to go there and make whatever they were paying.
It was a brutal job though, working at a steel mill in a 160- degree heat, pieces of hot metal flying out at you. My dad worked in the open hearth, the hottest, hardest work in the plant, where they pour the ingots into big troughs and make steel. Molten fucking steel. He came home with his clothes drenched from sweat, and he used to take salt tablets every day before he went to work.
He had probably the lowest job on the totem pole, and they moved his schedule almost every week. He would go from swing shift to graveyard shift to day shift. Sometimes he’d come home at mid- night and go to work again at six in the morning. He got burned real bad one time—the side of his face was completely taken off.
Just from the heat. It wasn’t steel hitting him. It was that he got too close or there was a flare-up or something and it just fucking ripped the skin off his face.
My dad’s parents had been migrant farm workers who came out from Kentucky on a covered wagon. They’d picked cotton all the way through Texas, and my dad was born in Texas. Two kids were—that’s how long they were in Texas. They had thirteen kids.
He had a younger sister, but he was the youngest boy. My dad was handsome and athletic, but he was a bad little fucker. He would beat the shit out of his big brothers. My uncle told me my dad chased his big brother, my uncle Charlie, up a tree. My dad sat there, smoking a cigarette, waiting for him to come down to beat his butt. Charlie slept in the tree rather than take an ass-kicking from my dad.
My mom, Gladys, was born in Los Angeles. Her dad came over from Italy when he was eleven years old and never learned to speak, read, or write English. He and my grandma—she was Italian, too— never owned a house. They lived in a trailer and were always on the move. He was a chef and he went where the work was. He cooked in Yosemite and went up to Klamath when the salmon were running.
He would hunt and fish and work only when he had to. During the winter season, he would cook in Palm Springs, make these huge buffets at the lodge where President Eisenhower stayed. But when the season was over, he’d pack up, take all his money, steal every- thing he could out of the restaurant, and take off in the middle of the night. The guy was a complete thief—a real crook, my grandpa, and a prick, too. Once in a while he was nice. I’m named after the fucker, Sam Roy. They raised my mom and her sister that way. She grew up in a tent and didn’t finish seventh grade.
Mom and Dad got married when she was fifteen. Mom always said all the girls liked him in high school. My dad had dreams. He wanted to be a big-shot kind of guy. He liked hanging around big shots. Bob Hope used to let him caddy on weekends, when he was growing up in Palm Springs. She was sixteen years old when she had my oldest sister, Bobbi. Practically the day she had the baby, as soon as she came home from the hospital, she got pregnant again with my other sister. My sisters Velma and Bobbi are nine months apart.
My father could beat up anybody. I was so proud of that, growing He was such a bad-ass. When he was younger, Bobby Hagar fought bantamweight. He won his first eight fights by knockouts.
He was a little guy, five foot eight, same size as me, but that son of a bitch could hit—he could have been something. But he got drafted during World War II, shortly after he’d gotten my mother pregnant again with my brother, Robert.
My father shipped out as a paratrooper.
He’d never even been in an airplane and suddenly he’s jumping out of them. On his first jump, over a battlefield in France, his parachute went way off course. He tangled in trees and smashed his face into a tree trunk. He had a Tommy gun and, as he was coming down, he was scared, so he sprayed the ground with bullets. He banged into the tree and broke his jaw. He cut himself down. He dug a hole, and stayed in a foxhole for a few days. His jaw was killing him. He was disoriented, obviously all banged up from hitting this tree, but he had his gun. Nearby was a German soldier, also separated from his unit, and they played a fox-and- mouse game until my dad killed him in a shootout. I think it really screwed up his head. Killing someone one-on-one isn’t like shooting people you don’t know. My dad lived with this guy for a couple of days, sneaking around, not sleeping at night, really not wanting to mess with each other, but every now and then, taking a potshot.
When he returned to his company, he was crazy. He was freaked out that he shot the guy. Plus he was a bad-ass anyway. He emptied his magazine in the ground in front of his commanding officer.
Told him to dance. That earned him a dishonorable discharge, to say the least, and by the time he came back to California, he was a complete alcoholic and madman. The war had really fucked him up. My mom said when he got home from the war, he used to jump up from bed in the middle of the night and shout, “Where’s my Tommy gun? Where’s my Tommy gun?”
I was born a few years later, on October 13, 1947, and by that point we were bone fucking poor. But even as I got older, I never knew just how bad off we were. My mom was a great cook and she could make do with things, so we always ate good. I went around hungry a lot because I never had any money. If I wanted to eat, I had to go home and either wait for Mom or cook something myself. I was cooking for myself when I was eight years old. I saw what my mom did. I could boil spaghetti and take canned tomatoes- or fresh tomatoes out of our garden. I could make tomato sauce. It didn’t seem poor to me. My mom was clean as a pin.
Our house was spotless. Our clothes were always laundered. She ironed them, stayed up until four in the morning doing ironing for other people and then ironed our clothes.
My mom always had a chicken coop and we always kept chickens.
Whenever we moved (which was a lot), we took the chickens.
We never owned a house, and we were always leaving my dad be- cause he was a terrible alcoholic who beat up my mom. When my dad would come home drunk, we’d sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and go sleep in the orange groves. Mom hid blankets wrapped in plastic bags, a flashlight, and little stashes of water and food out in back, ready for the times we had to jump out of the window in the middle of the night.
It was always on payday. He got paid on Thursdays, and when he wouldn’t come home directly after work, Mom would begin making plans. He’d come home drunk, start yelling and screaming.
He never beat us kids, but he’d thump my mom around. Everybody in the family hated my dad, but they were all scared of him. My sister Velma hit him over the head with a baseball bat one time, because he had my mom on the ground. She came up behind him—she was about twelve years old—and bashed him in the head and bloodied up the place bad. My mom got up and we ran. We got out of there.
So we’d leave my dad, and once he was left alone, he would lose the house. He’d stay there, wouldn’t go to work, and wouldn’t pay the rent, until he’d get kicked out of the house by the cops.
He usually got thrown in jail. That was the standard end result of his binge. Sometimes he’d get in the car and get thrown in jail for drunk driving. We’d have to go find a new house every time and move, or my mom would borrow a trailer that her father owned.
But somehow we’d always end up with my dad again. Right before I was born, my mom had a miscarriage. She didn’t want to get pregnant. She hated my dad by then. She knew he was crazy and didn’t want another kid. She just wanted to raise the kids she already had and get the hell out of the marriage. She had known that for a long time. She had a miscarriage and immediately got pregnant again. She was bumming. She didn’t like to tell me that, but later on in life she pretty much told me. “You’re lucky to be alive, boy,” she said. “If I’d have had that other baby, if it wouldn’t have been a miscarriage, I never would have had you.” I loved my dad, but he was crazy.
For some reason, my dad was tough on my older brother, Robert. Dad would call him “flea-brain” and my brother would start crying, which only caused Dad to make more fun of him. “Wahhhhh,” he would say. “You sound like a damn siren, you little shit.”
He hated my sisters, too. When they turned into teenagers and started seeing boys, that was when the whole thing blew out. He got so drunk he beat up one of my sister’s boyfriends. That was the end of the deal for him and my mom.
I was his favorite. I was the king. I was “muscle-brain.” He called me Champ, like I was the next champion of the world. He would introduce me to his buddies. “Hey, here’s Champ,” he would say.
“He’s got a left hand on him.” He was going to make a boxer out of me. Every day, I’d come home from school, and if my dad was there, he’d make me train. He’d make himself a BLT—he was a big BLT man—and sit there in his work clothes, ready to go to work.
“Put on the gloves,” he’d say. It wouldn’t matter if I’d brought a friend home; my dad would say, “Put on the boxing gloves with your buddy here.” He’d make my brother get on his knees to box me. He made me box every day. He’d put on the gloves with me, and teach me. He would take me to gyms and make me hit the heavy bags. “Step into it and twist your body,” he would tell me.
My dad was left-handed, so he could pop you totally unexpected, like southpaws can. Even if you know how to fight a little bit, lefties come backward at you. Plus, he was a hard puncher.
Some boxers have that gift. There are just guys who can punch. There is something to the magic of timing, how you put your weight, and all these things. Being a southpaw and knowing how to punch, he just knocked people out. He was a one-punch wonder.
Because my dad hit so hard, I learned how not to get hit. By the time I was eight years old, I was getting really fast. I would stand on the outside and move in. He’d try to hit me once in a while and
I’d weave. He loved that. He used to really brag it up about me. My brother was bigger than me. He could hit harder. I didn’t want to get hit by him, either, so I just kept becoming faster. In and out, in and out. I had a great left jab for a little kid. I used to beat up my neighbors, my buddies. I’d give them bloody noses and my dad would give me a quarter.
Sammy Hagars’s book is available at most book stores …