The I-5 To Freedom

There are few things I love more than hitting the open road. The prospect of a long drive without any obligation fills me with joy. This is change I can believe in!

Soon after I arrived in California in 1977, my family drove south on the I-5 from the Napa Valley to Anaheim where we visited Disneyland for a day. I had high expectation, high excitement, and high frustration.

My memories of that trip are sparse, mainly of heat and claustrophobia, but when I made a similar drive a decade later, it was the beginning of my present self.

Despite a relapse of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I left for UCLA on Monday afternoon, August 22, 1988 from parents’ home at 7955 Bullard Drive in Newcastle, CA, 95658. Due to my more than six months of mystery illness, my parents did not want me to go, but I was 22 years old and could do what I wanted.

I packed my 1968 purple VW Bug. Then I came back to the house and said goodbye to my dad. He walked me out to my car. He told me to drive safely. We hugged awkwardly.

The Ford men are not easy at giving and receiving affection.

“I love you dad,” I said.

“The feeling is mutual,” he said.

It’s the only time I remember telling my dad I loved him. I certainly did and do but in my home, the men did not talk directly about their emotions. We were Protestants from stiff-upper-lip Australia. We were supposed to have hearts transformed by Christ’s love, and so we weren’t supposed to have the messy emotions of hurt, jealousy, anger, lust and the like. To do so would be to indicate that one was not truly saved. One had not truly accepted God’s love.

So we spoke about our emotions in code. We were silent or just alluded to them. We might preface our rare outbursts with, “If I wasn’t a Christian…” And then we’d really let our enemies have it.

I’d become an atheist at age 18 but was still Australian WASP in my mannerisms.

After the awkward hug, I drove to Lincoln to have my teeth cleaned by family friend Dr. Daniel Badzik. Then I drove to Rocklin to fix a sprinkler problem at the home of my late boss Doug Hanzlick. By 4 p.m., I was driving south on I-80, and then connecting to the I-5 for Los Angeles.

This would be my first trip to UCLA. I believed the university would be the place where my life would finally take flight. The four years since graduating from high school had been awkward. I’d done a lot of running around in circles. In fact, all of my life had been running in circles without blasting off to the stratosphere of the smooth, popular and successful.

Before I decided to take a year off after high school to live with my brother Paul in Tannum Sands, Australia, I had planned to major in Journalism at Cal-State Fullerton.

In June 1985, I came back to live with my parents in Newcastle, still a virgin, and decided to go to Sierra Community College and figure out where to go from there. My best friend Shannon Anderson was going (after his schooling in San Diego was interrupted by the need for brain surgery for a benign tumor). He persuaded me.

In my first semester, I took an Economics class in addition to a Journalism one. Since Reagan became president in 1980 and enacted deregulation and tax cuts, the American economy had boomed and I had become fascinated by political economy.

Many journalists I knew recommended against majoring in Journalism so I decided in my first year of college to instead major in Economics.

I figured I’d go to Sac State, but one day I told my friend’s father, Bob McKee, a mentor to me, and he’d said, “You know what they say about Sac State?”

I didn’t.

So he said, “Somebody has to go there.”

I felt so small that I decided to study hard and go to UC Davis instead.

During my Spring semester of 1986, I got sick with mono. I struggled to keep up with work at KAHI/KHYL radio and school but my life was miserable. When the semester ended, I determined to get strong.

I took a job in construction and after the first few exhausting days, I started feeling strong. I loved that feeling. I could swing a pick and drive a shovel all day in the hot sun. Quickly I became a supervisor and had teams of a dozen men working under me.

That fall semester of 1986, I dropped all my classes but two so I could keep my supervisory role, keep working outside and keep feeling strong.

I quickly realized that I had made a big mistake. Working in landscaping was not as much fun in the winter. In the Spring semester of 1987, I took 18 units in addition to working part-time.

I had been accepted into UC Davis but I decided to get serious, to drop my job at the radio station, to stay an extra year at Sierra College and to take Trigonometry and Calculus classes before transferring to UCLA.

I had grown disenchanted with journalism. I found I didn’t have enough time in radio to do anything in depth. I decided an academic career would be more rewarding. I’d follow in my dad’s footsteps.

Most economists were lousy writers. I knew I was a good writer. I just had to master math and then my career would take off.

In my fall semester of 1987 at Sierra, I took 21 units and got straight As for the first time in my life. In early 1988, I was accepted into UCLA for the Fall quarter as a pre-Econ student.

Then disaster struck in February 1988 as I struggled with 24 units (many of them were unnecessary, I just took them for fun). I kept telling myself, “I’ll break through or I’ll break down. Either way, I’ll get love. I just have to keep pushing.”

I got sick. It felt like the flu but it didn’t go away in a few days. As it stretched on, it felt like a relapse of mono, except it didn’t go away in weeks or months. Finally, in March 1989, a doctor gave me the waste paper basket diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

So I was 22 years old and I knew what I wanted to do with my life. The trouble was that I too sick to do much. So I decided that I’d just keep trying and on August 22, I kept driving south on the I-5.

Along the way, I heard a familiar voice on the radio — Jack Thomas.

We’d worked together for years at KAHI/KHYL. Then one morning I came in early to help him with the news and found him drunk. He looked at me and said, “Do you know what alcoholism is?”

I’d nodded but I had never known an alcoholic before.

He was fired from his job, but the station kept him on the payroll for a few weeks so he could go to rehab.

Now as I drove south on I-5, I heard Jack giving the news on a college radio station affiliated with NPR and I thought about the different directions our lives had taken.

The grass through central California was dead and it made me feel sad. Life as I had known it was dead. My health was dead. I wasn’t that far from dead and I hadn’t even had sex yet.

Because I felt weak, I took breaks every couple of hours. As the night came on, I tried to wrap myself in a blanket and sleep, but the sprinklers came on. So I got into a conversation with some hispanic guys my age. We were outside of Bakersfield and they lived in South-Central Los Angeles. They said I should come to visit them. They had videos, pornografia. I said I would, but had no intention of straying into that part of town.

After midnight, my VW strained up the grapevine and when I got to the top and saw the big city spread out before me, I told myself, “This is where you will make it big.”

Little did I know it would take me another decade to become the Matt Drudge of porn.

I had a great deal of body tension that night. I was tired and excited and trying to find my way over unfamiliar roads. I finally took the Sunset Blvd exit and drove slowly east for a couple of miles. As I prepared to turn right on to Bellagio, a car sped by me into the university. It was probably a student who already had the lay of the land. I felt like there was nobody for miles who was as scared as I was.

When I’m scared, I slow down and consider every step.

I knew the Playboy mansion was nearby. That you could see it from certain UCLA dormitories. My friend Cheryl Hanzlick had worked there with the animals.

I turned right on De Neve Drive and right again into the first parking lot. I was a quarter mile from my future dorm Rieber Hall, but it would not open for a month. I had come to UCLA early to see a doctor in Santa Ana my mother recommended — Norman Beals, endocrinologist.

It was about 4 a.m.. With my slow driving and frequent rest stops, I had turned a journey of six hours at high speed to a 12 hour ordeal.

I sat in my car scared. Was I allowed to park here? I had no sticker. I was in the big university in the big city and I had no place to sleep for a month and no intention of paying for a hotel. I had hopes that Dr. Beals would cure me and that my time at UCLA would begin my life of sex and success.

The emotions that dominated me that trip south were fear, exhaustion, hope and confusion. Over the next ten months, these feelings wouldn’t leave as my illness held me in its iron grip until I had to finally give up and return home a beaten man in June 1989.

My ten months at UCLA were not a total failure. They set the stage for my future choices, only I didn’t know it then.

So what had I learned at university? For one thing, I lost my virginity at Rieber Hall and had my first sustained intimate relationship.

UCLA was my first time living in the city and I loved it. Ever since then, when I’ve had the choice, I’ve gone urban (Los Angeles since 1994).

I impressed several of my professors that year. I knew I could be great.

I bonded with the faculty in residence at my dorm, Jules Zentner, and he’d be my best friend through the confusing five years of illness that followed my departure from university.

Most important, I met Jews for the first time at UCLA, including Orthodox Jews, and decided later in 1989 that I would join the tribe.

I came to UCLA in 1988 with great expectations and they were all dashed. I had planned to become an economist, that never happened. I had planned to become an academic, that never happened. I had planned to get a BA, MA and PhD and I never finished my undergraduate degree. I had planned to conquer Calculus and Linear Algebra and Econometrics and that never happened. I had planned a life of conventional success and that never happened.

If I had known then what I know now, how destroyed I would’ve felt. If I had known that chronic illness would keep me in bed for the next five years and hamper my life after that, I would’ve been devastated. If I had realized then that I would no longer be able to overcome my obstacles through will, I would’ve been stunned.

I knew I was a religious seeker in 1988 but this thirst wasn’t often conscious for me. I had to be destroyed before I sought God.

Sex was every bit as wonderful as I anticipated in 1988. I knew then from my experiences with porn that even after experiencing wonderful sex, it wouldn’t fix me. It wouldn’t transform me. It would just lay a temporary balm on my misery. I knew I had an insatiable desire for a variety of partners. I knew I had many such drives that would destroy me if I followed them, so I planned to keep losing myself in hard work and hoped that I’d find ways to get healthy and to connect normally with others.

If I had recovered my health that year at UCLA, I believe I would be an academic economist today, something like that Freakanomics guy. I doubt I’d be a Jew. I suspect that I’d be married with kids. One day I’d meet a woman I couldn’t live without and because I had my life together and she had her life together, we’d get married and build something.

So what exactly were my dreams that August 22-23, 1988 as I drove south to UCLA? And which ones came true?

* I yearned for transcendent meaning for my life and thought I might find it in political economy. Instead, I eventually found it in Judaism and 12-step work.

* I yearned to lose my virginity. I did and it was wonderful. I experimented most wonderfully in this department for many years, experiencing heights of pleasure and intimacy and satisfaction and healing but no relationship would last beyond a year, so I believe that my best sex is yet to come.

* I yearned to mix with people at my level of intellectual engagement with life. I found that in Los Angeles. Anything you want, you can find in this city.

* I yearned to recover my health. I never did fully, but I did partially in early 1994, and 2012 has been my healthiest since I first fell sick in early 1988.

* I yearned to become a star. I yearned for recognition. I yearned for honor. I yearned for thousands of people to read my work. I yearned for public speaking opportunities like my dad’s. I’ve had a taste of this.

* I yearned to make the world a better place. I thought I could do this by promoting Marxism or some other economic system. Within 1989, I’d replaced Marxism with Judaism. I’ve had a taste of making a difference for the good. Once you publish stories that have saved lives, it fills you with a rock-solid sense of your ability to read the world clearly, to report on what you see, and to see the world change for the good as a result. You never again worry about people taking you seriously.

* I yearned to create my own life separate from my father’s. I wanted to go out on my own. I wanted to be free from my upbringing.

* I yearned to be warm. I hated the cold winters of Northern California and Sydney, Australia. Mission accomplished.

* I yearned to be at the center of what was going on in the world. I hated living on the fringe. Mission accomplished.

* I wanted to create my own loving home. Mission accomplished (not in the sense that I’ve married and had kids, but in the sense that I’ve found a home in my various shuls).

* I yearned to escape my feeling of running in circles, my feeling of alienation from others, my feeling of being rinky dink and second-rate. I wanted to go big-time like my father but bigger. I wanted to see my photo on the cover of newspapers and magazines. I wanted to see myself interviewed on TV. I wanted people from around the world to beat a path to my door to hear what I had to say. Mission accomplished.

* I yearned for people to treat me with respect. I felt like I had been treated trivially most of my life because I was rarely part of the cool crowd. Mission accomplished. Once I took up blogging and the world took notice, people stopped treating me trivially for fear I’d blog them.

* I wanted to be a god and to have worshipers.

* I wanted to be able to return in triumph to all of my old haunts and feel at ease, and thereby heal the trauma of the past.

* I wanted to fulfill my mom’s prophecy when I was still in her womb. “This one will do something special for God.”

* I wanted a piece of Hollywood. I wanted pretty girls with loose morals. Mission accomplished.

I finally met Dennis Prager in person in Tampa Bay Super Bowl weekend 1994. He said that if I came to Los Angeles, he might have work for me. I decided to move to LA.

I flew home to Sacramento from Orlando March 24, spent a week at home in 95658, bought a yellow 1977 Datsun station wagon for $600 and just after 1 p.m., on Thursday, March 31, 1994, I drove south, avoiding rush hour in Sacramento and LA.

This would be my second move to LA and this one would stick.

Compared to August 22, 1988, I was much happier. I’d recovered much of my health. I’d gone through six years of hell and now I was strong enough to pull off most of a normal life. I planned to work for Dennis Prager and to finish my Economics degree at UCLA. I had been accepted back to start the Fall Quarter.

Spring is a more hopeful season than late Summer. When I first drove to UCLA, the center of California was filled with hot dead grass. Now the fields were green. My life was ready to resume.

My friend Jules Zenter said I could stay with him for a few weeks while I got on my feet. He was still a faculty in residence at a UCLA dorm.

My mother had given me a couple hundred dollars and told me to get a cell phone. She wanted me to be safe.

Driving down the I-5, I hit a big sandstorm before Bakersfield, which would necessitate expensive car repairs over the next couple of months.

My feelings now about my car were utilitarian. I didn’t love it like my first one.

On January 17, Los Angeles had been devastated by a 6.7 Richter scale earthquake centered in Northridge. I was aware that many roads were closed. I wasn’t able to go straight from the I-5 to I-405 to Sunset Blvd. Instead, I got diverted from the I-5 shortly after the Grapevine and inched along surface streets for miles.

By the time I got to UCLA shortly before 10 p.m., it was a dark and stormy night.

While my first trip five-and-a-half years before had been dominated by fear, this one was filled with hope. I now had God, Torah, Judaism and Dennis Prager.

I was calm. Hopeful. Expectant. Focused. Excited.

The previous time I’d been to UCLA, I’d been sick. Now I was OK. I felt like Douglas McArthur returning to the Philippines. “I shall return!”

On my drive south, I looked forward to:

* Reconnecting with Dennis Prager, working for him, and joining his temple and community.
* Exploring Judaism
* Sleeping with lots of women
* Getting together with my fantasy girl from UCLA in 1988/1989
* Returning to UCLA and getting my professional life back on track
* Exploring work as a model and actor
* Finding further help for my health

Deep inside, I had a sick feeling about losing six of the best years of my life to illness and that it had all been my fault because I had driven myself too hard at school with 24 crazy units.

Life was less lonely now that I had God and an organized religious/national/cultural community in Judaism.

Unlike my first trip, I knew where I was going to sleep for the next few weeks. Life didn’t loom up before me as dangerous and frightening. I’d taken this trip before. I’d spent a year at UCLA. I knew where it was and how it worked. This time I had a community and a specific identity. I had a mentor in Dennis Prager. I had a job. I had wisdom from six years in hell. Every day I could walk around like a normal person was a bonus, was something beyond my expectation. For much of my illness, I feared I would never get well. Now every day was a gift. I was filled with gratitude.

I’d gone through various stages in my conversion. At one point, I sold all my rock music CDs, gave up masturbation and turned my back on popular culture. Then in mid 1993, I met a girl with E-cup breasts and started compromising.

So I was a mellow believer when I drove to UCLA in 1994. I was ready to enjoy as much of life as possible while staying within the generous boundaries outlined by Dennis Prager. I took the 1994 drive with a smile on my face and a song in my heart (perhaps “Adon Olam”).

This drive was not nearly as hard as the first one. I was in better shape. I took fewer rest stops. I’d done it many times now, so I wasn’t afraid. I knew where to go.

I had my earthly possessions in the back. I traveled light. My heart was light.

The downside of my joy was that this journey was not as vivid as my first one. I was more sure of myself. I felt like I had been born again. Now I was Jewish.

Looking back from 2012, it is easy for me to relate to this guy in 1994. By contrast, the guy making the 1988 trip is a stranger. He’s so frightened and sick. It’s painful for me to put myself back in his skin.

On the other hand, the bloke making the 1988 trip had more than $25,000 in the bank while the 1994 guy had next to nothing. But the 1994 guy had an open heart. He plunged into Jewish life, going to every synagogue and speech and social event he could. He embraced it all, from Reconstructionist to Orthodox.

Once in LA, I was so eager to get into the mix with Judaism and discovered to my consternation that you had to make choices that closed off other choices. The big one was whether or not to be Orthodox. If you were Orthodox, you were part of a close knit community, but if you chose to not be Orthodox, you were outside of Judaism’s fiery core. You were compromising with the tradition and it’s hard to get excited about a compromise, to quote Rabbi Harold Kushner.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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