Flashback, Spring 1969: McDonald’s Mania & High School Senioritis

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Just found a paycheck stub from spring 1969 from my second McDonald’s job in the Los Angeles area, and it sparked a tsunami of flashbacks and ramblings about the events leading up to my high school graduation in June.

All statutes of limitations having long expired, the tales can now be told.

Backing up a bit for context, in summer 1968, when I was 16 1/2, my family had moved from North Miami, Florida, to the L.A. area. My journalist-scholar dad, William A. Peeples, had earned a master’s in Anthropology at the University of Miami and wanted to continue pursuing his doctorate at UCLA with an eye to teaching there. My sister Ruth, then 14, and I couldn’t wait: California was the center of our known and imagined universe.

Last family photo in North Miami, June 1968: Ruth, Stephen, Bill and Joan Peeples, with faithful canine family member Ginger aka “Finky.” MIA: Tuxedo mama cat Soxie (aka “Tubby”) and her tuxedo daughter, Mustache (aka “Mousie”). The painting behind us is Mom’s self-portrait painted from a photo of her as a child in Wisconsin. This photo: Gordon McLeod.

Once in L.A. (the cross-country drive with my dad is worth a chapter by itself), my folks leased a three-bedroom house for a year in the tracts on Valley Circle Boulevard, on the western edge of Canoga Park, in L.A.’s West San Fernando Valley.

The owner was a cop who said he had just retired and was taking his wife and three kids on a year-long trip to Europe. Hmm.

At the start of my first term as a high school senior at Canoga Park High School, I got a job at a McDonald’s on Sherman Way, a few miles away from our new abode.

I’d landed the job immediately based on previous experience working at a Mac’s in North Miami (on Biscayne Boulevard at 137th Street) for most of my junior year at North Miami High School.

My main expense then was paying a small amount monthly for insurance as a 10 percent driver of my parents’ cars, plus my own gas, records, concert tickets and cigarettes (a bad habit by 15 but kicked at 30). If I didn’t work, I didn’t drive. Not acceptible.

That fall I met and fell in love with a classmate at Canoga, Jill H., also a senior. She was a petite (i.e. my size) brunette with shoulder-length hair, smart, read books, had cool parents and younger siblings.

Jill lived just a few blocks away, but we had places to go, things to do. Plus we needed a (relatively) safe place to make out. So wheels were essential and slaving at Mac’s was the price I had to pay to play.

Her folks also had a big console stereo in the living room, where we listened to The Beatles’ White Album the day it was released in fall ’68 and had a lengthy convo about its merits and demerits.

Our romance was pretty much over by early ’69, but I can’t recall why. Which means it was probably my fault. She deserved better. I was too unvarnished. (We reconnected a year later for a few months; that’s a story for another time.)

Flipping out at Mac’s in North Miami

Back in North Miami in 1967, my first Mac’s had made its fries using fresh potatoes. My very first task upon being hired there, at age 15, was peeling potatoes for fries. It was considered the worst job, so of course, the new kid got that gig.

The process started with loading unpeeled potatoes from 50-pound burlap bags into the industrial-strength electric potato peeler, about half a dozen at a time.

After grinding a few sacks of potatoes, the peeler had to be douched out with a water hose, which was a stinking mess to clean up.

The next step was manually loading peeled potatoes one at a time into a hand slicer and filling up two large kitchen sinks with raw potato sticks, then rinsing the sticks to get rid of excess starch (or so I was told) and loading rinsed sticks into a dozen or more fry baskets on a tall, rolling rack, ready for the fries cook to drop into the deep-fat fryer.

Later they put me on fries cooking duty. I got pretty fast at frying and bagging them, especially nights after local high school football games when there were lines 30 and 40 people deep at the three windows. Where I was happy not to be.

mcdonalds
All three of the McDonald’s restaurants in this saga looked like this one. IIRC, burgers were 25 cents by 1969.

As badly as peeling potatoes sucked, working the window was the worst. It involved interaction with customers, sometimes waiting on classmates.

“Oh, man, I didn’t know you worked here!” (bwahahaha).

Even more embarrassing was being sent out to the parking lot with a broom and dustpan to pick up the trash classmates had just tossed onto the asphalt.

Working at Mac’s was just uncool. But I wasn’t smart or old enough yet to not let such things bug me.

Eventually, the North Miami managers tested my skills on the grill, and I did well enough flipping burgers to stay there, thankfully mostly avoiding parking lot pickup, fries and the window. They even gave me a huge raise, from $1.10 an hour to $1.15.

Flipping Out at Mac’s on Sherman Way

So I listed that burger-flipping experience a year later in LA on my job app at the Sherman Way Mac’s, where the manager hired me at a really huge increase – to $1.25. He assigned me to the grill right away because that’s where the store needed help the most.

That fall 1968 I became a hotshot grillmaster; could cook 96 burger patties at a time during peak Saturday night dinner rushes. Managers considered me a top-producing employee so they didn’t hassle me too much or send me out on lot pick-up duty.

mcdonald's grill
A McDonald’s grill about half as big as the ones I slaved over, which could have patties up to 12 rows across, each row 8 patties deep. The buns were warmed on a separate side grill. Another Mac’s grunt added the condiments to buns lined up in three rows of 8 in one or more trays lined up on the back table. “Cheese on 24,” I’d call out, on a slow night. The manager monitoring the number of burgers in the warming bins on the window side of the grill would reply, “Gimme 12, please.” The bun geek would slap slices on 12 buns. Then, using a long spatula, I’d scoop up 8 burgers in a row, and drop them on the lined-up buns, three times. The tray of fresh burgers would go up on the counter to be wrapped and put into the warming bin. On the heaviest nights, there would be four sets of 24 cooking, or 96, at once. It’s exhausting to just think about it now.

Soon after I was hired, McDonald’s launched the new Big Mac sandwich with enormous hype. There were classes training us grunts exactly how to make a Big Mac per corporate specs. It was such a big deal that few customers noticed (or maybe cared) that Mac’s was also quietly switching chain-wide from fresh potatoes in big gunny sacks to frozen pre-cut fries packed in fry-basket-sized cardboard boxes and dry ice.

The frozen fries were much easier and faster to cook, of course, but tasted more like cardboard than the fresh-cut fries that were much more labor-intensive and therefore costlier.

Yeah, there was a time when McDonald’s fries were fresh and a double-cheese was the biggest burger. It was roughly the time the country’s population was getting hooked on fast food and soda and getting fat.

But that’s another movie.

Stephen K. Peeples, at 6642 Valley Circle Blvd., Canoga Park, California, spring 1969. Photo: Joan S. Peeples.
Stephen K. Peeples, at 6642 Valley Circle Blvd., Canoga Park, California, spring 1969. Photo: Joan S. Peeples.

Flipping Out at Mac’s on Roscoe

In January 1969, in time for the spring semester., a brand-new high school, El Camino, opened on Valley Circle about half a mile south of home. El Camino would have been a 10-minute walk, but no: I was required to finish my senior year at ancient, rotting, rodent-infested Canoga High anyway.

Just before the spring semester began, I wangled a transfer to the Mac’s on Roscoe Boulevard, just east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard. It was closer to school and home and easier to get to. I could hitch after school north on Topanga from Vanowen Street to Roscoe in five minutes, maybe 10 at most.

Before I was officially hired by the Roscoe Mac’s, though, I had to take a freaking polygraph test.

McDonald’s, right?

(Years later, a polygraph test wasn’t required for U.S. Department of Justice clearance for a press pass when I became a working journalist. Crazy.)

Fortunately, I wasn’t into pilfering crap McDonald’s food as an employee in North Miami or on Sherman Way and passed the Roscoe Mac’s lie-detector test. They hired me at a staggering $1.35 an hour.

For the full 41.75-hour two-week pay period, March 24-April 6, 1969, my gross was $62.63 and take-home $46.93.

I even got a $4.18 meal allowance, but would have rather gone to the Burger King down the street. They BROILED, did not fry. Whoppers were better, anyway. Then.

(Although I confess I started making 20-oz milkshakes for myself when the standard weight was 12 oz. and tripling the cheese on my personal burgers.)

1969
Our ’62 Buick Special station wagon V-6 parked in front of the first Peeples family abode in L.A. at 6642 Valley Circle Boulevard in Canoga Park, West San Fernando Valley. This is the car my dad and I drove from Miami to L.A. in summer ’68, and I drove up and down the coast from Santa Barbara to San Diego surfing all that summer and into the fall. By spring ’69, the racks were gone and my Hobie Super-Mini V-bottom languished in the backyard.

A buck-thirty-five an hour was about as pathetic and unsustainable in spring 1969 as $14.25 (or whatever it is) is now, 50 years later.

But then again I was a 17-year-old suburban high school dweeb with no overhead and living at home with my parents, not the head of a household trying to feed a family and/or pay the rent.

Most of my Mac’s co-workers were also West Valley high school and junior college kids, except the managers, who were in their early-to-mid 20s. The overnight maintenance guy, in his later 20s, was a nocturnal weirdo, so perfect for that gig. The crew was almost all-white, except one assistant manager, a total gearhead college kid of Hispanic descent.

He put all his money into a beautiful jet black ‘64 Chevelle SS 396 with racing slicks on the rear, very much like this one:

Dude did have some hot-looking girlfriends, as I recall, even though he was vertically challenged, as I was, and remain. My family ’62 Buick Special station wagon with an aluminum-block V-6 that sounded like a washing machine and a dodgy AM radio was definitely not the chick magnet his ride was, either.

On top of the aforementioned and myriad other adolescent indignities, the airborne grill grease from thousands of burgers wreaked havoc on my complexion, which is mainly why I have very few personal photos from that time. (The other reason is I couldn’t afford film and processing and it never occurred to me to learn how to DIY.)

My work shoes were so encased in grill and french-fry grease that I could only wear them at work, slippin’ ‘n’ slidin’ across the concrete floor. I’m not a clean freak, but it was effing gross, beyond dangerous.

A long, hot long shower was required after every shift at Mac’s to get rid of the burger reek all over my body, and the Vitalis that greased down my sprouting mane under the dorky paper cap (I’d started to grow my hair that spring in anticipation of graduation as a Class of ’69-er and the moment when I could tell my nice bosses at Mac’s to take their job and shove it).

Final Semester Fun

Aside from school and work, I had a large time that final semester of high school. Spring 1969 was consumed by, among other things:

• Going to concerts with my then-girlfriend Debbie D. (a junior classmate at school) like Led Zeppelin and Joe Cocker & The Grease Band, both at the Rose Palace in Pasadena on their first US tours; getting naked with her one afternoon under a big tree in a Topanga meadow and on an especially memorable overnight campout on the banks of Topanga Creek;

• Partying with high school and neighborhood buds Rick B., Mike F. and his brother Steve as we listened to Wolfman Jack on XERB, BMR on KMET, and Brother John on KLOS (the latter two stations on the air for less than a year), and among the new albums I bought on or about release day that spring new were Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bayou Country,” the first Led Zeppelin album, Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline,” Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere,” “Happy Trails” by Quicksilver, “Tommy” by The Who, Joe Cocker’s debut “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Chicago Transit Authority double-album debut, Traffic’s “Last Exit,” Poco’s debut “Pickin’ Up the Pieces,” “Clouds” by Joni Mitchell and the first Crosby, Stills & Nash album, with recent favorites by The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother & The Holding Company, The Doors, Cream, Moody Blues, Buffalo Springfield, Mothers of Invention, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead still in heavy turntable rotation;

• Hitchhiking into Topanga Canyon to see Spirit and other locals play free at the outdoors Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, stopping first at the liquor store on TCR where I asked an adult patron to purchase a gallon jug of Red Mountain rosé for $1.49 on my behalf, to be shared at the gig (which looked a lot like the one pictured below);

Will Geer onstage with at the Theatricum Botanicum local performers, late '60s.
Will Geer onstage with local performers at his Theatricum Botanicum, late ’60s.

• Sitting on the banks of Topanga Creek near Moonfire Restaurant for the 8th Annual Topanga Banjo & Fiddle Contest, my introduction to bluegrass;

• Going to the Bob’s Big Boy drive-in restaurant on Sherman Way with friends on car nights, when local low-riders dropped downers and came out in their trick rides with their high-haired girlfriends, a scene then so alien to me I wondered what planet I’d been beamed over to;

• Driving through Malibu, Decker, Encinal and Latigo Canyons, discovering Escondido Falls and sitting in a pool at the top, looking west toward the ocean, communing with Mother Earth and Our Mother Ocean;

escondido falls - hikespeak.com 1969
Escondido Falls in Malibu. Photo: Hikespeak.com.

• Seeing Taj Mahal play a lunchtime set for about 10 people at the old Topanga Post Office, which had been turned into a cafe after the ugly new PO opened some months earlier;

• Sneaking into the Valley Music Theater in Woodland Hills with Canoga classmate and mischief-instigator Dewey White to see Three Dog Night, Spiral Staircase on May 16
(I took a pair of my drumsticks as props and we strolled up to the backstage door saying to the rent-a-cop security guard, “We’re with the band!” We were handed all-access passes and just walked on in – great training for my later rock journo years).

after 1969 - Junction of Topanga Canyon Road (CA 27) and Pacific Coast Highway (CA 1), near Malibu in Los Angeles County. Photo: © JCS / Wikimedia Commons / License: CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL.
Junction of Topanga Canyon Road (CA 27) and Pacific Coast Highway (CA 1), near Malibu in Los Angeles County, is pictured in a photo taken years after Topanga Beach at lower left was “cleaned up.” Thirteen miles inland winding through the canyon took you to Woodland Hills and Canoga Park. Photo: © JCS / Wikimedia Commons / License: CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL.

Idyllic Virgin Psychedelic Experience

Speaking of the brothers Mike and Steve F., their parents worked during the daytime, so we incorrigible kids had that golden time at their house after school and before the folks got home to get into mischief.

That usually involved music and certain leafy green psychotropic substances, which had mostly replaced beer and wine as the chosen inebriant in the previous year or so but were becoming harder to come by due to spiking demand and Nixon’s crackdown. And what was available was usually Mexican dirt weed full of seeds and stems.

One night that spring, though, was especially electric. We went to another high school friend’s house nearby, north of Vanowen, where the kid host (whose parents were out of town) had a four-foot-tall hookah with several hoses set up in the middle of the living room.

I’d only seen these in movies. Of course I tried it out, and yes, it took things to a… higher level.

The place was packed with 25-30 kids, but was a pretty low-key scene. This was, after all, the West Valley, where LAPD under Chief Ed Davis routinely harassed kids, longhairs, Hispanics and black people, so nobody wanted the neighbors calling the cops.

The scene looked something like this, only with half a dozen more hoses and a kitchen trash bag next to the table stuffed with weed from Michoacan (an early encounter with a quality strain in California after being spoiled by Jamaican and Columbian gold in Miami):

hookah party sometime after 1969

Soon after we hit the hookah, our host offered us a capsule each of what he said was mescaline derived from peyote. My virgin psychedelic experience was hilarious, colorful, and lasted several hours.  We laughed hard at just about everything. The next day my face and sides ached from laughing.

The highlight was a wee-hours joyride through deserted streets and alleys in the West Valley neighborhood in another party guest’s hippie panel truck, riding with my head sticking out of the sunroof, face flapping in the wind. It was too much fun to be legal. Miraculously, we didn’t get arrested.

Diagnosis: Severe Springtime Senioritis

After the progressive curriculum and open campus my junior year at recently modernized North Miami High School (three blocks from the Peeples abode), my senior year at ancient, crumbling Canoga Park High School, where students were locked up for six hour-long periods a day inside a fenced Gestapo camp, was soul-crushingly depressing.

If you got caught hopping the fence going to eat lunch across Vanowen Street at Topanga Plaza or the Pancake House or Pioneer Chicken or another nearby fast food joint on Topanga, you’d get detention – which, come to think of it, was still preferable to risking the mystery swill served in the school cafeteria.

Half the student population was on downers – barbiturates, particularly Seconal, or “reds.” Most of the other half was smoking weed behind a certain portable every morning before classes and at lunchtime. They all seemed clueless about what was going on outside their shallow orbits.

canoga park high school 1969 1970
Canoga Park High School a year after I graduated. The smoking area was at right, behind the bungalows behind the red-roofed building. To the right is Vanowen Street, and the Topanga Plaza mall parking lot is just out of the frame to the right. The street in front of the school is Topanga Canyon Boulevard. The International House of Pancakes is where I met a very cute 18-year-old waitress and Pierce College student named Barbara. I asked her out and incredibly she said yes. She was great fun. We were in the sack together on Valley Circle (folks not in town) the night of August 20, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. I shouldn’t have had the radio on ’cause the news bulletin killed the mood. But that’s all for another brief but beautiful chapter.

They didn’t read or watch the news. I’d want to talk about Vietnam or Czechoslovakia or Nixon or the draft, but they’d rather talk about sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. Or hop the fence and sneak across Vanowen to hang out at the Topanga Plaza mall and heckle the shoppers for grins.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were fine, of course, but the lack of world-awareness of those kids who’d grown up in the West Valley stunned me. It made me appreciate having literate news junkie journos for parents, my early childhood in the Midwest and coming of age in South Florida, where my peers were relatively curious and engaged. My cross-country road trip driving from Florida to California with my dad the previous summer further expanded my world view and sparked a lifelong affinity for the Southwest.

Fortunately, I had to endure only a few classes a day my final semester at Canoga because I’d front-loaded credits in the fall ‘68 semester. I also got work experience credit from working 20 hours a week at Mac’s after school and on weekends.

But sitting in un-air-conditioned classrooms sweating with 35 other adolescents for six hours a day was intolerable. As the weather warmed, that spring of 1969, acute senioritis set in. I effing hated it. I needed relief.

The view from Alexander Payne’s house in Topanga Canyon. Photograph by Darcy Hemley.
The view from Alexander Payne’s house in Topanga Canyon. Photo: Darcy Hemley.

Cure: Weekly Mental Health Hitchhike to Topanga, Malibu, Venice

A weekly adventure kept me (relatively) sane.

Usually, I’d have one day off work during the week and would skip school on the same day.

In the morning, I’d catch a ride to school as usual with my dad, who’d be on the way to his grad school classes at UCLA.

Pop would drop me off on the southwest corner of Vanowen Street and Topanga Canyon Boulevard, right across the street from Canoga High. But as soon as he drove off on Topanga south toward the 101 freeway and was out of sight, instead of crossing Topanga to go to school, I’d walk over to the fire hydrant on that corner, have a seat, and stick out my thumb to go south on Topanga toward the beach. Sometimes I got a ride before I could sit down.

1969

I’d hitchhike south past the 101 and across Ventura Boulevard, winding up into the Santa Monica Mountains and through rustic Topanga Canyon the 13 miles to Pacific Coast Highway and Topanga Beach.

Other times I’d head north up PCH several miles to Malibu, or south a few miles to the Santa Monica Pier or Venice Beach. I could get to these places and back, sometimes twice, between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. by thumb. Getting rides was incredibly easy on Topanga and PCH, usually from other hippie kids.

When I was a surf kid growing up a few miles from the Atlantic in flat South Florida, albums by Topanga Canyon-based artists and outfits like Spirit (who I’d seen in Miami several times when they played there in spring 1968), Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Canned Heat and Taj Mahal were turntable staples by 1968 and 1969.

Now, I was actually hiking around in the canyon these guys were singing about. It was like a trip to Nirvana. Or Topanga.

On one memorable hooky hike from Canoga to the beach, I got dropped off at the old Topanga Shopping Center about halfway through the canyon. Standing on the roadside, smoking a cigarette, waiting for the next ride, I heard familiar-sounding music echoing through the canyon.

From what I could tell, the sound was coming from a yellow house tucked into the hillside overlooking the center. It sounded a lot like Spirit. (That was all confirmed several years later when I shared the story with colleague Barry Hansen, aka Dr. Demento – Spirit’s road manager in 1969.)

The hot spot for music in Topanga then was the Corral, but you had to be 21 to get in. One night I talked my way past the door and got in to see Little Feat with Lowell George, but that was my only wrangle at the Corral.

Another Topanga-based band, Canned Heat, boogied frequently at the Corral. They released a live album a couple years later titled “Live at the Corral” but it was actually recorded in ’69 at the Kaleidoscope on Sunset in Hollywood.

On another cool evening in late winter-early spring 1969, Steve F. and Rick B. and I were sipping hot cider at the Moonfire restaurant in Topanga. Stephen Stills and Neil Young were eating at a table nearby (and we were way too intimidated to bother them).

I couldn’t get enough of the canyons, from the cliffs above to the creeks below. As I recall there was heavy rainfall throughout the winter of ’68-’69; the creeks in Malibu and Topanga Canyons were running high and fast.

Topanga Beach was especially cool because it’s where canyon hippies surfed, and one of the last places I surfed. (No, I had no clue Manson and his clan were living nearby at the time.)

1969 flashback

After my first great California summer, the cold water that first winter caused major inner ear issues, so by the end of ’68, my Hobie Corky Carroll Super-Mini v-bottom was pretty much parked in the backyard. Somewhere there’s a sad photo I took that winter of my board upside down, fin up, covered in frost. By spring 1969, I’d morphed completely from Florida surf kid to California canyon hippie kid.

Graduation = Liberation

The day after each weekly mental health truancy (never the same day from week to week), to get back into school, I’d forge my mom’s signature on the school absence excuse card. Her hand was beautiful but easy to replicate. That worked great a dozen times, until early May 1969, when some school-office busybody finally busted me. They finally called the house to check up and Mom just happened to be home.

My folks and I had a long talk about it that night. The upshot was, “OK, we get it, don’t [expletive deleted] do it again.” The school admins made me serve a bunch of detentions that month in order to graduate in June, which I did with a slack 3.25 average.

1969 flashback

That last month without mental health breaks was excruciating. Graduation could not have come soon enough. I hadn’t connected with very many people beyond Jill, Steve, Mark, Rick and Debbie, didn’t go to senior prom, didn’t buy a yearbook, skipped the graduation ceremony. My parents were OK with all that; they knew how badly the school sucked.

When I picked up my diploma at the school office the following week, the lady behind the counter said sweetly, “Oh, so sorry you couldn’t attend!”

My retort was something like, “Nah, I skipped it on purpose, and I couldn’t wait to get out of this hell-hole.” She was SHOCKED. Her sputtering reaction as I left the Admin building for the last time ever filled immature 17-and-a-half-year-old me with glee.

Yeah, spring 1969: What a fabulous flashback, instigated by an arcane artifact like a pay stub from McDonald’s that I never tossed because I thought it might be good for a laugh someday. I had fun; hope you enjoyed the read.

Next, in summer 1969: buying a ’58 VW bus; moving with the fam to West LA; hitchhiking from LA to Miami and back (3,000 miles each way) and more – all before my 18th birthday.


Santa Clarita journalist and Grammy nominee Stephen K. Peeples was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. He was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990. He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set (Rhino/MIPF, 1992) with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans. Peeples’ first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He went on to be a record company Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983) and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). He was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). In the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). He is now a News Editor at SCVNews.com, Editor/Features Writer for Wealth Wisdom Wellness magazine, and VP/New Media Emeritus for Rare Cool Stuff UnltdFor more info and original stories, visit https://stephenkpeeples.com/For exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to his YouTube channel.


Article: Flashback, Spring 1969: McDonald’s Mania & High School Senioritis
Category: News and Reviews
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Article Source: stephenkpeeples.com