Yesterday I fulfilled a longtime dream and made a pilgrimage to the grave of Jack Webb. I am proud to say that we share a birthday (April 2), and although I was a little late, it felt good to sit on the green slope of Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills and reflect on immortality and Dragnet.
An activity like this should always be done with a dear friend, one who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the 1970 “Night School” episode which, Joe Friday tells us, unfolds on a mythical April 2. While enrolled in a psychology class, Joe Friday busts a mouthy fellow student when he spies a bag of pot in the pusher’s binder. When traveling to the grave of Jack Webb, one’s companion must understand the pathos of the not quite pink or red or orange cardigan Joe wears to night school or at least possess a passing acquaintance with outdated drug vocabulary, and be able to separate sugar cubes and cartwheels from reds and yellows and rainbows.
I am lucky enough to have such a friend in Connie Pearson. We passed through the gates of the grand, palatial cemetery and in the Forest Lawn gift shop, I bought a little plastic HAPPY BIRTHDAY sign for $1 and obtained a map from the information desk which led us to Jack’s stark no-frills marker. Connie and I wrote notes of thanks to Jack, impaled them on the birthday skewer and stuck it in the ground. In the distance on a far away hilltop, we saw a deer grazing on some memorial flowers. Beyond the white statue of Moses in the green semi-wild mountains, we heard the weirdly joyful yips and howls of coyotes.
As I stared into the gorgeous pine boughs overhead branching in seemingly infinite directions, I remembered another tree, one in the infamous “Blueboy” episode. A teenage LSD enthusiast and dealer takes one too many “sugar cubes” paints his face half blue and half yellow, “like an Indian,” and tries to chew bark off a tree. “My hair’s green,” he proclaims. “I’m a tree!” When Joe Friday and Gannon find him in a park, the young freak has dug a hole in the ground and stuck his entire head in it.
In Los Angeles, meditations on nature often lead straight to the land of pop culture. I remembered a long ago picnic at a sea cave at Leo Carillo beach, an attempt to escape the city. Almost as soon as my boyfriend and I had set our basket down, Geena Davis walked out of the cave in a golden bikini, followed by a photographer from Harper’s Bazaar. Incredibly tall and trim, Geena Davis looked like Venus. Another time preparing for a horseback ride in Malibu Canyon, I met a visibly distraught Jan Michael Vincent. JMV is also a Dragnet alum: see 1967’s “The Grenade” in which the sullen surfer-handsome Jan has acid thrown at him in a movie theatre.
Connie and I talked about how Jack might like this spot in the Sheltering Hills section, with the coyote dens behind him and the 134 Freeway and Warner Brothers studios before him and how he opened each episode with a “This is the city,” mini-narration of 1960s L.A., and how we always wondered how these little anecdotes about the LaBrea Tar Pits or the crowded freeways would inevitably connect with the burden and responsibilities of the badge. We debated ashes vs. burial. We talked about things that had gone—not just the people, but eras and places, whole states of being, disappearances were harder to trace and difficult to describe in the typical vocabulary of loss. But the hot, still afternoon was too beautiful to feel too sad. Besides, how could we complain when the coyotes and the deer managed to survive on the vanishing margins of wildness? How could we not smarten up with the stern fact of a great man’s mortality written in the ground? So we gave our thanks to Jack Webb, walked down the hill, climbed into the car and left to find our place in the story of the city.