The Vietnam War – Dave Harris – Southern California beginnings

Sometimes a local veteran’s story began elsewhere. Cottonwood’s Dave Harris has such a story.

He was born in September 1950 in Fresno, California to Violet Harris, a 16-year-old mother who was in over her head. So, Dave spent much of his growing up years with his grandma Ruby Lee. He did not meet his father, Leroy Huerta, until he was 45 years old. His mother later married a man who worked in the entertainment industry. When they settled in Las Vegas, she pulled Dave out of his school to join them for a time in their Las Vegas home until she tired of him and sent him back to his grandmother. This became a cycle until Dave was 14 and he ran away when she came to pick him up again.

Dave recalled life with his grandma and his early school years.

“We lived in Torrance, California, when I was younger. She was working in a nursing home. She was a tough, old lady, but she was fine as long as you didn’t get in trouble and she didn’t have to come and get you and cost her money. I never had anybody to force me to do my homework or make sure you’re there on time. It was, ‘OK, go to school.’ But school and I just never hit it off. I was being a nuisance to the class because I didn’t enjoy being there. Probably the worst years were from 8th grade on. I got in a lot of trouble in junior high, but I didn’t mind going to school because I had a girlfriend. (Dave laughed) I got kicked off the bus and had to walk five miles to school. By the time I got there it was almost lunchtime (Dave laughed) because I screwed around so much.”

Dave became well-known among a certain class of school support staff.

“That was when they had truant officers. They used to come to my house and I’d be underneath the bed. They’d be banging on the door, ‘We know you’re in there, David. Come on. Let’s go! School’s waiting for you.’ (Dave laughed) I wouldn’t answer the door. Once I hitchhiked all the way to the beach (Dave laughed) and there’s the truant officer waiting for me.”

He reflected on how his early life could have been different.

“My life might have been different if I had a dad that was a little bit tight on the reins with me, but I didn’t have that. There was nobody telling me what to do. I was doing it on my own. Even when I was with my mom, she enjoyed the night life with her husband. So, I was on my own with two step-sisters I had to cook for and take care of.”

Although Dave did not get along with school, he enjoyed a long-term friendship that began during his years in Torrance and continued when he and his grandma later moved to Redondo Beach.

“I had one good friend. His name was Butch Nolan and we were inseparable. We’d hitchhike to the beach. We both got into surfing. His dad was an ex-boxer and had built a ring in their house. I’d spend a weekend at his house and his dad would make me work out. (Dave laughed) He grabbed me one time and said, ‘If you’re coming to my house, you’re going to box.’ (Dave chuckled) I thought, ‘OK.’ I boxed three-and-a-half years Golden Gloves. That was fun, especially because I had a coach that didn’t let you slack on anything. Actually, that’s what I needed in my life.”

The move to Redondo Beach led to a change in Dave’s schools, but not in his attitude toward school.

“My grandma tried. She would drive me to school and I’d be waving at her, but once she left, I’d walk out the gate. I got kicked out of Driver’s Ed because I burned rubber over a speed bump. (Dave laughed) The instructor told me, ‘Hey, you’re done. Like I said, school wasn’t my thing. But you know what? My grades in school, all the way up from 6th grade to when I started going crazy about 9th, were mostly A’s and B’s. Math was my favorite class.”

Dave explained he never made it to his high school graduation.

“I finally got my grandmother to let me quit school. She told me, ‘You’re going to get yourself in trouble and I won’t be able to get you out.’ (Dave chuckled) She was right.”

He described the day he appeared in criminal court with a group of guys he’d been hanging with when they all got in serious trouble.

“I’m lucky because the other guys with me went to jail. I think because of my attitude and how I treated him, the judge said, ‘Well, I’m going to give you a choice.’ I thought, ‘Oh, oh.’ He said, ‘You can go to a boy’s home until you turn 18and then you go in the service for two years or you can go in the service for three years and be done with it.’ I thought, ‘I could do that.’ (Dave laughed) That’s what I did.”

Dave described how court staff facilitated his enlistment in the Army.

“They had my grandmother sign that I could go in the service because she was my guardian. I had just turned 17. (Dave laughed) I was in Vietnam for my high school graduation.”

Please visit our new exhibit at the Lyon County Museum, “The Vietnam War and Lyon County,” to learn more about the experiences of our area Vietnam veterans.


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