Moving from Massachusetts
Some time around the winter of 1949, in Swampscott, Massachusetts, I remember when my father first told me our family was moving out “West” to California. I suspect he also told me that, as oldest boy, he was counting on me to set the good example for my younger brothers. But I don’t remember anything about that.
I knew all about that West – that was where the cowboys and horses were. And, I was an authority: our neighbors had a TV, and I could watch Hopalong Cassidy on Saturday mornings. I was born in October of 1943, and so should have been just turning six years of age around this time, that is, in October of 1949. For some reason I have always said that I was five when we moved west. It was a confusing time of big changes for a young boy, and though I survived those changes as all youngsters must, it appears I often retained the confusion about my age in my retelling of those old days.
I asked my father if I could have a pony when we went west. His considered answer was no doubt something like, “we could probably do that – if you are a good boy”. Of course, what I heard is that my father promised me a horse when we moved west.
My parents had run their family business, “Forbes Modern Interiors“, in a flatiron building in the neighboring Massachusetts town of Lynn. It catered to fine custom furnishings for an upscale clientele whose tastes and priorities were changing rapidly in postwar America. After the war, the business was not doing well. I remember very little of the running of the business, but in the upper floors of the building there was a lot of heavy machinery for upholstering, and I managed to create quite a fuss by getting my hand caught in heavy steel gears of a machine called a “mangle”, which I myself, proudly, had set into rotation.
I remember little of the preparations for the move west. My daily concerns involved the tribulations of grammar school, watching “Howdy Doody” on our neighbors’ little round TV tube, one of the first in the town, and trying to remember (the term “scatterbrain” comes to mind) where I had left my favorite cowboy cap pistol.
Somehow, with or without benefit of my consultation, the family business was sold, household furniture was auctioned off, and even the family home at 25 Palmer Avenue was sold, though once again little 5-year-old Alex, who really would have been six, was not let in on any of the details.
We piled into our brand new 1950 Buick Roadmaster and drove out west. Left to right in the photo, taken by my dad, are my grandfather, grandmother, mother, and my mother’s sister; in the foreground are the three boys. The auto pictured was not our 1950 Roadmaster. There is no one left around to explain where the Roadmaster was or when we took delivery of it.
There were five of us for 3,000 miles across the United States: my parents, myself, and my two younger brothers. How my parents put up with us is more than I care to try to imagine. We must have seen all the famous landmarks and traditional waypoints: Lincoln, Nebraska (perhaps) or Salt Lake City and the Great Salt Lake. I remember little or none of it.
In about five days we made it to Oakland, California, where we made a temporary home base at the Mission Motel, on MacArthur Boulevard. Last I saw of that part of town, in the 1980’s, there was still a “Mission Motel”, but whether it resembled anything I remembered from 1950 would be hard to say, and by the 1980’s, too, that had become a pretty rough and seedy district. I know that Dad had already lined up a sales position with an old name in Oakland furniture stores, Breuner’s, and also that my parents spent a lot of those weeks at Mission Motel looking for a new family home, though once again you can count on me to not remember whether they parked us somewhere, or toted us along.
And one day my mother announced excitedly they had found the right house. It was located in a town called Lafayette. Lafayette was and is a small bedroom community in Contra Costa County (meaning opposite coast, because we were situated on the other side of the rolling brown East Bay hills from San Francisco Bay). It was much smaller in 1950, with homes built on unimproved or slightly improved ranchland barely suitable for free-ranging California cattle. Many of the older, larger ranch properties actually had horses (ponies!), mostly Palomino, and cow flops were an occupational hazard of being a kid roaming the hills in those days.
House at 10 Pine Lane
One of those few clear images I carry across the decades from those times was of our whole family pulling up in the Roadmaster for our first visit to our newfound home. The image is one of adventure, mystery, suspense, and a whole new world to explore.
Our new house was a large ranch-style single story home, sprawling beneath a huge rounded hill across a leveled section on the west side of a few hundred feet of unimproved California creek, or “gully”. The eastern half of the lot was still in the morning shade of a long stand of towering eucalyptus paralleling the gully for the entire length of the property. The trees and gully lent the adventure and mystery that I saw there. There was a gravel drive across a culverted earthen berm to our driveway and garage, and a delicious “crunch” of tires on gravel as we crossed the moat, parked, and took our first exploratory steps on the new rental property.
I immediately announced my disappointment that there was hardly any water at all in the overgrown gully. There was some sluggish shallow seepage, and a couple of deeper “pools” where at some later point I would discover polliwogs, and green algae choked most of the sections where the creek water would still flow in the summer.
The gully was deep, possibly ten to fifteen feet in parts, and wide (or so it seemed to me) – perhaps a hundred and some feet on an average. You could see from the way the native vegetation was arranged that, at times, the water could be much higher. In fact, that winter it flooded to the brim and threatened to choke the culvert and wash out our gravel drive. My parents immediately announced I was not to go anywhere near that gully, but you know that order was not to be respected after a few days at best.
It surprises me that I do not remember much about the interior architecture, either at first impression or later, but kids are not generally concerned with the finer points of architecture and style. We had a large living room facing the gully, and a long ranch-style hallway extending the length of the house, connecting all the bedrooms, baths and perhaps a study. The boys’ bedroom was somewhere way in the back of the hall (a sensible arrangement for parents), but I remember nothing of it at all.
On the rear, a long shaded porch ran the full length of the long arm of the house. From it one could stare at the imposing presence of our hill, yellow bronze with the tall dried glasses of summer California ranchlands. The hill and entire rear of the property was enclosed in a rudimentary western fence of posts and 1×4’s which had at one time, I imagine, been stained with the cheap ubiquitous “redwood stain” so popular all over California.
The back yard was essentially unimproved. The carefully manicured rose bushes and privet hedges of Massachusetts were no more. Slip through the fence, and on the other side, more dried rolling grasses. Eventually we boys would discover how to haul flattened cardboard boxes up the hill, giving us an exciting and not too dangerous fast slide back down to the porch. Eventually, too, I would explore the hills beyond that hill, and discover the other side of a wonderful new world awaiting my adventures.
My dad built a gazebo on the hill so that he and my mother could enjoy cocktails. This involved a surprising amount of excavation to create a level surface. More surprising was the heat of the afternoon sun and the toughness of the raw native adobe soil. This project took my dad most of a summer, and they ended up seldom using it, even with the elaborate latticework and reed screening for shade, because it was simply too hot.
In this picture, you can see a side view of the gazebo, the typical wild grasses of the hills, and portions of the north corner of our house and trees hugging the water of the gully beyond.
Another photo follows here. From this view you can see the amount of manual excavation involved, and steps in the making to access the gazebo, and the far fence which might once have enclosed a corral. Whether it would again ever contain horses remained to be seen, and I was afraid to push the point.
Even to build a simple wooden structure out here was a monumental, back-breaking undertaking.
The front yard (partially pictured in the first photo) also had a “lawn”, which also paralleled that gully which had dominated and dictated the layout of everything on the property. As all Californians discover, lawns do not do well under the heavy alkaline droppings of the eucalyptus. Fallen leaves kill the grass both by prolonged chemical exposure and by shading the grass blades from whatever light gets past the leaves still on the trees, and when you rake the leaves off of the poor grass struggling to cling to the harsh adobe soil, the eucalyptus acorns dig into the soil and scrape off the grass blades like a scraper machine. The lawn always looked ratty and piebald at its very best.
But that is an adult observation. I was yet too young to be trusted with yardwork. That would come later.
We lived on the northern reach of Pine Lane, above Timothy Lane, and well above where the gully intersected a larger creek at what is now El Nido Ranch Road. It is difficult to tell from a Google hybrid satellite/street map whether the house even exists – after all, this is over fifty years ago now. There is a house, of a similar style, at more or less the location I would expect to find 10 Pine Lane, and on the other side of a community drive across what might still be a culverted gully, sits a neighbor’s house where the Zumwalts used to live.
As for the unimproved rolling brown hills I remember of my youth, that area is all built up now and green with planted trees. To be honest, I did try to drive out to look at Pine Lane, once in the 1980’s, on a return trip to Oakland on what is now called the Grove/Shafter freeway (State route 24). I found an Upper Happy Valley Road offramp, an area near my old Vallecitos grammar school that I used to traverse regularly on foot, figuring that I could rely on the old ancestral memories to backtrack to Pine Lane. (The school is pictured as the large structures on the grassy property in the lower left of the Google satellite image). Without benefit of either map or reliable ancestral memories on my drive down memory lane, I never found Pine Lane, and drove home in disgust.
As fall and winter rains started filling our gully back in 1950, I remember that I could be found more and more playing in the forbidden gully, and I suppose my mother stopped fighting it on the principle that at least she knew where I was – though this idea too would soon change in coming months, as I explored new frontiers in my widening territory.
I built little model rafts to float in the gully, too small to support my weight but amply large enough to support my imagination. It would have been too late in the season for polliwogs – that would be next spring. But the gully was always good for adventure. As the winter floods approached, the swollen gully changed its very character into something violently fast, deep, murky and threatening, and even I was afraid to get too near it.
Next summer or fall my little brothers got into the yellow jacket nest. My mother relayed the story to me, and told me to stay away from it – had they only asked, I could have told them, “stay away from the yellow jacket nest”.
It seems my brothers found this soil-dwelling hornet nest, burrowed in a dry hole in the gully bank and artfully concealed by dried poison oak, and somehow stirred up the nest violently. I knew well where it was. My brothers, I was told, came running and yelling up to our front door in a cloud of yellow jackets, and my mother opened the front door to hose the insects off with the garden hose, I suppose – but my brothers went running into the house to escape the yellow jackets’ fury, and of course the swarm followed them indoors.
By the time I got home from school, my brothers had been given cold showers, and my mother had bug-bombed the whole house a couple of times, and the excitement was all over. If you want to know about yellow jacket nests, you should always ask big brother first.
California Dinner Party – Eastern Style
This is what you learn as a Californian transplant. But my parents were learning too.
Establishing a new household for a family of five is a herculean effort from which kids are generally exempt. We kids were oblivious to most of what our parents must have gone through to make 10 Pine Lane seem like home. At first, there might not have been much time to establish social bonds in the neighborhood. We were newcomers to a strange land, and we even talked “funny”.
The Boston accent, “I pahked the cah in the Hahvahd Yahd”, rubs Western fur the wrong way.
We established a nodding relationship with our immediate neighbors. My parents attended a croquet and cocktail party next door at the Zumwalts (who might have been related to Admiral Zumwalt; I am not sure) and we were occasional acquaintances for years. And there were Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, across the street. I always seemed to be getting into trouble with the older Anderson boys, and I am not quite sure a fully neighborly relationship ever clicked in.
But we were starting to make social contacts. In the coming year or two, I would prove to be our roving ambassador as I explored the neighborhood, meeting virtually everyone, but I’m a little ahead of the story. My parents were also trying to establish social connections with my father’s associates at work.
My parents did not have a lot of money. What they both did have was tastes acquired from upbringings in very well to do families – silver spoon tastes on modest incomes. I do still remember how, as a special treat, they would occasionally try to reach a little higher for the taste or touch of elegance. And who wouldn’t?
That winter, my parents hosted a dinner party for my dad’s business associates at Breuners. My mother had a dozen large live Maine lobsters flown in for the occasion. It was sinfully expensive, I heard my mother saying. I was allowed in the kitchen for some of the preparations, while husbands and wives mingled in business suits and fine dresses in the living room.
I don’t think it was until my mother had actually dropped some of the lobsters in the boiling kettles that we discovered that our California guests were, unanimously, all absolutely horrified at the idea of eating boiled crustacean. It appears someone had to dash off to a market to load up on steaks. And, this was not to be a California barbeque, either, for (as far as I can recall), my parents did not own a barbeque nor did the property have a barbeque pit. We must have pan fried them.
My parents would discover no one in California who liked seafood in 1950. This was the land of BBQ beef and Jell-O salads. Sure, there was Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, for tourists who expected a maritime city to like seafood, but such delightful delicacies as red snapper or abalone did not truly become popular here until they became health fads, shortly before they were fished to near-extinction a decade or so ago, and I am sure there’s a connection there. In the 1980’s I joined some friends for dinner at Spengler’s in Berkeley, one of the finest old seafood restaurant traditions in Northern California. A well-heeled attorney in our group ordered a hamburger and fries, for which a very disgruntled culinary staff had to send out, and our dinner was delayed about an hour.
Such are a few of the differences between Californians and New Englanders.
Christmas – Mum’s Crystal
Evening cocktails were a firmly established ritual for my parents, and I do not mean Bud or Pabst, I mean martini, “shaken, not stirred” in the finest Bond tradition. The cocktail shaker was a prized family implement, and I can well remember the ice, the frosting that grew on the outer glass, the sound of the shaking, and the beads of condensation that would drip in slow rivulets down the sides of their prized martini shaker.
It was the first or second Christmas in Lafayette when my parents decided to order a set of fine crystal martini glasses, wine goblets and such. I don’t remember what presents I opened for myself that Christmas day, but I surely do remember their excitement when my parents opened their wonderful gift to themselves. They were in seventh heaven! I remember how pretty the crystal was; I remember my parents demonstrating that wonderful crystal ringing sound when they would tap a goblet on edge.
December 25 fell on a Monday in 1950, and on a Tuesday in 1951. I took the trouble to look this up because I was hoping to find a Christmas followed by a day of the week that is not a work day. But here is what happened with that wonderful crystal, wickedly imported from some fine shop in the East.
If you had just received such fine crystal ware, wouldn’t you “try it out” as soon as possible? That’s what my parents did, though the calendar will not let me now pinpoint the exact evening. What I do remember is that they tried out the crystal, with what concoction I know not (but you can bet it was shaken, not stirred). They were so delighted with the results they tried it out again, and to their joy found this too to be true ecstasy residing in their new stemware, and at some point I imagine “the boys” were hustled off to bed, and they continued the investigation of this wonderful substance in this wonderful expensively shaped blown crystal glass. My mother sometimes called this kind of extended merrymaking a “tombola” … in any event, by any name, in backwoods vernacular, they plainly became drunker than hoot owls.
Whatever year this might have been, the next morning was not a school or work day, for I remember I was already playing out in the back yard before my parents really started stirring. And they would have had their coffee, and eventually would have started thinking about things like cleaning up the house and all the household chores.
I was too young to know what “hangover” meant, but I instinctively knew Dad was hung over that morning. Into the back yard he started dragging out the litter from the Christmas present wrappings, empty cardboard shipping cartons, packing tissue and such, and he started a little fire in the backyard 50 gallon incinerator – everyone had one in those days, and could create their own smog with impunity. And I do remember Dad seemed a little ragged around the edges, and perhaps a little irritable and short of patience for little kids who wanted to hang around and help play with the fire, so I gave him a wide berth and watched from a distance.
Dad piled more and more tissue and cartons into the incinerator. To be sure, it was an awesome bonfire – a blaze roaring many feet above the mouth of the incinerator. Little chunks of glowing cardboard ash drifted way up into the sky. Perhaps keeping in mind the incendiary load in the bone dry hill grasslands, Dad had a garden hose at standby. And perhaps, I am not sure, he went into the living room and returned with more cartons.
The next thing I remember, as clearly as yesterday, is Mum running out into the backyard to Dad, screeching incoherently, pointing, still screeching franticly. Words utterly failed her: something horrible was evidently happening. And she pointed to the blazing cardboard box on top of the incinerator, which glowed in bright orange against a charred black cardboard, and she croaked out something to my Dad again:
The … crystal … STOP!
Well, what would you have done? My Dad didn’t hesitate for even a second, but grabbed the garden hose and directed a spray from the nozzle into the incinerator, extinguishing the whole sodden mess.
And you could hear the suddenly cooled crystal cracking: ting! snap! crackle!
I remember they were able to salvage one intact goblet out of the debris, or possibly two, and I can still remember their relief that they had something left to enjoy out of a fine collection probably worth hundreds of 1950 dollars, and I can remember when they finally started laughing and could not stop.
The Kaiser estate
At some point in the following year I discovered that “The Kaisers” lived in the massive estate well beyond the rolling grasses on the other side of our hill. I’m sure it was my father who explained that these would be the Henry J. Kaisers, of the World War II Kaiser shipyards, and the Kaiser-Frazer automobiles, and Kaiser aluminum foil, and Kaiser Steel, a vast conglomerate of enterprises which would spawn the surviving Kaiser Permanente health care system we know today out in the west.
They had kids about my own age, and one or two of them attended my school, and one of the first things I learned was that they were very well provided for, and, secondly, that I did not quite fit in. In their defense, I would point out that I was a pretty snotty, quarrelsome kid in my own right. The Kaiser kids had their own little miniature cars, mini-Kaisers I believe, which they could drive around on a track around the estate. I always tried to wangle a turn on those but was not terribly successful. It would make sense that they were probably instructed not to let their untrained and untutorable friends ride them, for personal injury and liability reasons, or perhaps because little heathens like me would probably wreck these expensive custom gems, and I probably would have, too.
There was an unpleasant incident involving some of the Kaiser kids, and possibly some others, in which I was ambushed from a hill while walking home from school. I found myself being pelted by dirt clods by unseen assailants from above. And, while these dirt clods hurt, and I was stung by several direct hits, you probably could not maim someone with a bomb made of dried grass stems embedded in an adobe dirt clod.
Angered as I was by this mean unfairness, I probably at first picked
up one or two of the bombs and tried to return the fire. I do remember
discovering the law of gravity was not in my favor: the up-hill
toss did not have the delivery punch of the downhill lob. I think
I discovered I just couldn’t make a pitch as high as their fort
of ambush. I’m pretty sure that it never occurred to me to just
run for it to get home; in those days I did not run, no matter how
angry the adults got later.
I was being attacked. What truth could be plainer than the fact that if I was defending myself, I was automatically in the right?
So what I did do is either pick up a clod with an embedded rock, or, I think, I just picked up a rock, and hurled it back. It was an accurate throw. A lot of yelling and name-calling followed. I yelled at them that they had started it, and I scurried home.
It turned out my assailants had their little brother up in their ambush fort, too, and my rock had struck him on the head.
In our household, when the phone rang, it was never anybody calling to say what a good boy that Alex was.
When this particular phone call came at home that night, it was the little tot’s parents, calling to let my folks know to not worry, that the doctor said their little boy would be OK. Of course, this was a complete surprise to my parents – especially since I had deliberately not mentioned the incident when they asked how my day at school had been.
So I caught hell, and never got any sympathy as the innocent victim of a dirt clod ambush, and none of that ever came up as a mitigating circumstance because I had clouded it by retaliating in kind and injuring a kid.
You never win praise by stooping to your assailant’s level, but that was a lesson I would repeatedly fail to learn. Hell, you know, and I know, I should never have picked up that rock. This was California, but it was not the Wild West.
Jacqueline’s gang at Vallecitos
AT the local Vallecitos grammar school I had a difficult time adapting, and a bad attitude must have helped make me a difficult student. The curriculum was a little different than what I had done well in, back in Massachusetts, and my initial resentment at being expected to know the same subjects as the other kids rapidly degenerated into after-class makeup sessions and disciplinary detentions.
Every school has its little cliques and gangs, as aspiring young manipulators and bullies try to carve out and control their own social turf. The gang at Vallecitos was led by a girl named “Jackie”, or, probably, “Jacqueline”, and it pleased her that her little obedient following of grammar school boys should call her “Master”.
The only defense I had besides my two fists – and an accurate throwing arm – was sarcasm. “Master”, now, I found utterly impossible to take seriously. It was absolutely preposterous, and you can bet I said so loudly. Soon enough this bad-mouthing was attracting the attention of Jackie’s gang, which attempted to immobilize me and take me to their leader.
I don’t remember whether they made one or two attempts to drag me as captive before “Master”. I hurt some kids who had joined in the attempt to subdue me, and they piled more bodies into the fray. Finally, I was forced to confront “Master” Jackie, as helplessly bound by strong arms as if they’d used rope. I remember understanding they had the upper hand. I remember being told that I too would join the gang and call her “Master”. I remember hotly refusing. Then all I remember was the indignation of showing them all who was boss by bursting into angry tears, at which point I suppose they let me go out of contempt.
Near Drownings, two of them
As the moth is drawn to flame, I have always been attracted to water from as far back as anyone can remember. I still remember being told how, on the shore of the family Island in Maine at the age or perhaps four, I announced to the adults I was a “jumping frog” (my grandmother loved frogs). Sure to please the adults by showing off, I jumped into the lake, got muddy as heck, and had to be saved from drowning by my uncle.
On the other side of our hill in Pine Lane, not too very far from the Kaiser estate, a family owned a swimming pool. In those days, probably very few homeowners had expensive filtration pump systems for their pools; this one was a bowl-shaped depression excavated out of the adobe and lined with concrete. In the winter, it was left to go green with algae. As a bowl, it had an angled or cupped edge one could stand on, which rapidly got steeper.
I remember how slippery with algae that rim was as I stood on it, as close as I could get to the water, in the hope perhaps of seeing polliwogs or salamanders. The next thing I remember is splashing around in that green scum when I lost my footing, and being fished out and stripped, shivering in their garage as I was toweled off – and then the inevitable phone call while I waited for my mother to come get me.
NEVER go near the water alone! Don’t play near pools without adults! The very next year, at the very same pool, I slipped and fell in again, and had to be rescued again, and I guess it was soon after that point in time my parents decided it was high time I got swimming lessons.
My first bicycle
My dad could be a wonderful companion when he had time. One of the things he really worked hard on was trying to teach me how to ride a bicycle. I could pedal around all day with the little training wheels attached, but it was irritating to me because the little wheel would dig in and catch in the gravel, and often as not I would go spilling off into the gravel myself. And this must have been irritating to Dad too, for he spent a lot of time trying to find a way to explain in words what we all know is best learned and remembered by feel and balance.
At some point, as every proud dad would know, the child first manages a short straight stretch where the training wheels aren’t really used at all, and the little helper wheels come off at this point, and the transition at that point is only a matter of minutes or hours to an important milestone in becoming a Big Kid.
One day soon after that, one early afternoon after school, I mounted my bike at the top of the driveway and hollered to my mother to “watch this!”
I pedaled down the gravel drive on my own steam as fast as I could, and over the sound of the crunching gravel I heard her call out something to me, so – with all of the considerable talent of the new bike rider – I turned around to see what she was yelling about.
I found out later she had yelled, “look out for that car!” The neighbor in the Cadillac was not concerned at all about the
big dent in her door, but only whether I was OK. I was. The adults
were grateful and I didn’t get yelled at. But that wasn’t the last
time I rode a bike into a car because I wasn’t looking (maybe 5
years later). And that car was a Cadillac, too.
I always have to learn the hard way, it seems, and rarely the first time, either.
My first Wrist Watch
In the Lafayette years I was chronically late for dinner, having become lost in time while playing in the creek, or riding my bike down Pine Lane, or hiking the hills to explore my domain. So it happens, as you’ll remember, that we always had the perfect excuse why were were late – we were doing something important, and lost track of time.
My dad remarked that just once, he’d like to see me responsible enough to come home at the proper time (probably 5:00 PM), and he was sick and tired of this whole repetitive alibi business, you can bet. Of all parents I’d met in my brief life, neither of mine were anything like the parents you’d think could be argued with, but that had little effect on me. I complained to Dad that I always knew it was time to come home when the sun set over the hills, but it was setting later than it used to, so how was I supposed to know what time it was?
Well, that stopped him short for a second or two – you could see one of my arguments had actually hit home for once. In a day or two, I was proud owner of a new wrist watch, and when the big hand was at five and the little hand was at 12, I had darned well better have my little fanny home and be washing up for supper.
For a kid’s first watch this didn’t seem like much of a watch to this ingrate. It was a wind-up (winding required about once a day), and it wasn’t even a Timex. Quartz movements wouldn’t even be in mass production for another decade. But this watch didn’t have to be accurate, for I couldn’t tell time very well. I was still late for supper, but it was minutes, not hours, and so an improvement.
Selling Seeds and Christmas Cards
By 1951, this annoying little goodwill ambassador with his winning ways was pretty well known all over the neighborhood. All the older folks – adults – were polite and tried to encourage me into better ways as best as they knew how.
In some comic book there was an ad dramatizing the free prizes kids could win. I was of the impression that practically all you had to do to claim your prize was to write in. Oh yes, there was something about selling Christmas Cards. I badgered Mum for a postage stamp. First class postage for domestic mail was 3 cents from 1932 to 1958.
When my package arrived my prize wasn’t in it. You mean, I have
to sell the cards first? A number of Christmas card samples were
in the package. If I recall correctly, what you were supposed to
do is have your customer pick which card or cards they liked best
from the sampler, and they would write you a check payable to the
card company, and you would send off all the orders and claim your
prize. Now, if you were a card merchant, you wouldn’t ship all your
inventory off some snot-nosed seven-year-old sales kid, trusting
you’d recover your investment. But they didn’t say that. This looked
easy to me. I could see the prizes rolling in.
Gosh, I don’t think there were hardly more than a dozen homes on Pine Lane, but that didn’t phase me at first. It was only when door after door closed with a curt “no, thank you” that I started to worry. Finally, I rang the bell at the home of some lady whom I knew (probably from some mischief I had gotten into before). She looked at me with the kindest eyes in the world, and asked what she could do for me today.
“Um, you wouldn’t want to buy any Christmas cards,
Well, she had a good laugh at that. Those kind eyes explained that you never make your opening sales pitch with a negative, and gave me some other example to show me how silly it sounds, and suggested something like “XXX Company has put together some really rather nice Christmas card selections this year. Wouldn’t you like to take a look?”
And she drilled me on the routine, and made me practice, and even became my very first customer!
I don’t remember how many more orders I sold, possibly a handful, and no doubt I had to stray off Pine Lane to do it. The suggestion worked, but it wasn’t enough. I had already blown half my prospects with the earlier presentation. I do vaguely remember my mother asking me if I had sent my orders off yet, and this might now have been around October or November. Well, no, how could I send them off if I didn’t have enough orders for my prize? I had lost interest already.
Wrong again: my mother explained that when adults write you a check for ordered goods, they certainly don’t expect you to sit around moping with their uncashed checks while they are waiting for their Christmas cards. And I bet I conned her into ordering a box of cards too, even though I could see she thought them rather hideous, and we sent off the orders, and I imagine they all arrived about the day before Christmas.
I don’t recall what kind of prize I had hoped for, possibly a model airplane, or balsa glider, or such. I don’t remember if I earned enough points that year to claim it. I do know that the next spring or summer I felt emboldened enough to try the same thing again, only with garden and flower seeds, and you and I would be safe betting that those seeds were delivered to my customers long after the best planting time had already come and gone.
But I used my new killer sales technique, and sold more seed customers than I had sold in Christmas cards.
As for the prize, one of those early sales efforts landed me a prize. When the long-hoped-for gift carton arrived in the mail, I still don’t remember what it was, but I do remember that the contents were a horrible let-down and disappointment to me.
But you can see that I actually learned a sales technique from this early enterprise, thanks to the kindly patience of a bemused neighbor.
The Creek at Potter’s Wheel
We called it a gully, that part-time water ditch through our front yard, because (I think) everybody else called it The Gully as well. Gullies are geologically associated with erosion, such as the ugly, muddy scar you sometimes see on a steep hill in a heavily grazed cow pasture when the soil has been riven and carried away by heavy runoff from the winter rains.
But our gully was rounded and densely vegetated, and had an ecology of its own, and that ecology changed with the seasons. I think I have mentioned the polliwogs. There were also caterpillars, and the yellow jacket nest, and the mature trees on the bank, and the shiny graded gravel washes above the ponds that showed this gully had been around longer than any of the houses that bordered it. No kid who ever spent a year or more in the country needs much more explanation than that.
So it appears what we really had was a seasonal creek, and it flowed down the side of Pine Lane to an old two-lane bridge, where it merged with a much larger, year-around creek that paralleled old highway 24. Having explored all of the way down the gully to the bridge, I was intimidated for some time by the much larger creek that flowed under that bridge. I was instructed never to go into that creek, as well, so I explored the banks on our side for a limited distance in each direction until I knew all of its wild buckeye trees and hiding spots and cool places to pretend I was in a wilderness jungle, which, by the lights of a city kid of today, I was.
In the spring of 1951 the water was fast and swollen under the bridge and my parents would comment how dangerous it was as we drove over it. So I resolved to have a look.
The next time I worked my way down that far, it was a fine weekend day and the sun was high and hot over the buckeyes. There was still a lot of water in the creek, yet no one could think of it as in flood, but there was still too much for a youngster go go rock-hopping across and keep his tennis shoes dry. So I just stood on the bank and tossed sticks in the water and watched the creek carry them away.
Now, as it happens, there were very few kids on Pine Lane. I was persona non grata at the Kaiser estate, the Anderson boys were much older and had little tolerance for pesky kids, and they were allowed to have BB guns and I was not, and besides one time the younger one had shot me on the toe of my tennis shoe with his BB gun, with my permission, and I had told on him. My parents called his angrily – “disgraceful, no child should be allowed to carry firearms” – only to find out later that it hadn’t hurt me, and I was only angling for a little sympathy and attention. Another clever little stunt that had backfired.
Also let it be known that I did play with my little brothers sometimes, when we were in the yard – witness the cardboard box slides we made to slide down the slick grass on the hill, and I think it was one of my brothers’ ideas, too. But they never learned to reckon with the universal law of big brothers. Big boys don’t take their little brothers on dangerous wilderness expeditions, because it just isn’t cool to be associated with the younger age group – your peers will think you feeble-minded. And then, many of the things I did probably shouldn’t have been suitable for boys in the four to five age group anyway.
But there were no peers to think me feeble-minded. Having established that I was a high-maintenance and high-risk kid to hang around with anyway, and having myself gotten used to the fact that I had no friends my own age to play with, I learned to have a wonderful time whiling away the hours on my own secret play missions. I probably learned some of my love of nature from those years, too.
There was still enough water flowing through the creek under the bridge that the babbling-brook sound of water bubbling and burbling over the rocks and reeds was pretty loud. But soon enough I became aware there was a boy on the opposite side of the creek. He was just standing there on the bank, watching me, and he waved. He was about my own age!
He called out, and I recall that it was not easy to hear him. “Hi, I’m Mike” he probably yelled. And I yelled something back. This was a tough way to introduce yourself to a new friend. It did present a good way to show off, though. I sat down on a rock and started taking off my tennis shoes and socks. “Be careful!”, he yelled.
As I recall, the creek rocks hurt my bare feet, and they were slippery, and the force of the shallow water was still something to help throw me off balance, and at some point I simply fell in and got pretty wet. Again.
But this new kid seemed friendly, and we chatted a bit as I put my wet socks and shoes back on, and he led me to the house where his family lived, next to a family enterprise called “The Potter’s Wheel” along old route 24. And his mother was delightful, and thought me a wonderful brave child (or so her grace was such that I believed this), and they were originally from Switzerland so she fed me some Swiss cookies which were real delicacies. And then she called my mother.
This time there was little or no mention of the fact that I had crossed the creek, and I was a little celebrity in our household for having discovered a really, really nice family. Mike’s family and mine continued to see each other for, perhaps, a couple of decades, long after all the boys were all grown and out of the house.
In the winter or early spring rains of 1952, a massive landslide choked off almost all of state route 24 leading to the (then) two-lane Caldecott Tunnel and the East Bay, at a spot about halfway between the town of Orinda and the tunnel. The volume of earth that moved abruptly was staggering. I can only guess that its volume would have represented a fair percentage of the cubic footage of San Francisco’s TransAmerica pyramid. As best as I can recall, it took a year or even more to clean up. Harried commuters wore forced to the high ground way above the valley, on Fish Ranch Road, which spills out onto an arterial road in Orinda where one could then work one’s way easterly to Lafayette, Walnut Creek or points further east.
My dad was one of those commuters, and so he often would not get home until after dinner, and this wore very thin on cocktail hour, and my mother, and on our whole fabric of family life.
I hated everything about school in Lafayette, and avoided home life as much as possible with my exploring adventures, but I loved the outdoors there, the willows and buckeyes and flowing creeks and dry, hot summers where you would sweat profusely with even minor exercise, and the adobe and gravel dust from the roads and corrals would stick to and coat your skin like a little savage, which is all I had ever wanted to be anyway.
Moving – Again
And so, it was no surprise when in 1952 my mother excitedly announced to the family she’d found the perfect home for us in Oakland, where everything was cooler and green, and we would have a grand view of San Francisco Bay, and “your father” would no longer have to endure those simply dreadful, horrible commutes.
We had only just barely managed to live in Lafayette two full years. My parents never fully mastered the rural California “outback” and were never comfortable with it. Contra Costa County then was certainly not farm country, and you never met the genuine ranchers further east and down in the agricultural valleys – “bucolic hicks”, my mother would have called them. Today, many parts of Contra Costa have upscale enclaves that rival anything you can find in the largest coastal cities. But the bedroom community mindset is certainly different, and even when their cultural events are as beautifully executed as the better-funded cosmopolitan establishment’s, a person who thrives in the big city will secretly look down on the laid-back lifestyle of the suburban nouveau-riche.
My mother never admitted it, but I suspect she secretly hated Lafayette and everything about it. In Lafayette, she coped, and coped well. But on Margarido Drive in Oakland, she came into her own, in the inimitable way that only she would ever able to master. For me, the Lafayette adventure was over, and quickly forgotten, for the new adventure had already started.
The Lafayette of 1950 is gone forever, too. I wrote that Pine Lane is still there, but memory has faded and routing and landmarks had changed so much that I did not find it when I looked. As for the massive scar from the landslide, it was visible for decades before time and vegetation finally reclaimed it.
In the intervening years the region has grown so much that state route 24 is now Grove/Shafter Freeway, Grove/Shafter formerly referring to a short Oakland section of connecting road out to Lake Temescal, and five to six lanes of traffic (each direction) funnel through two giant bores of the new Caldecott Tunnel. And you know what? Almost no one remembers Fish Ranch Road, perhaps, but it is still there, and on a heavy commute day, last I tried it, you can still take it and often shave some time off the commute when everyone else is stuck in their modern six lanes of traffic.
Of course you are probably wondering if it ever turned out that I was a good boy and got the “promised” pony as a reward. There was never any pony!
About the Photos
I searched through what is left of the old family albums for photos to scan for this article. My late cousin Sandy helped me rescue them from an ignominious end in Smithfield, Virginia, about a decade ago. Some of the photos were marred or even defaced. Many were missing for good.
There are still many photos from Massachusetts, many still unscanned from the Margarido Drive years, three whole albums of photo archives from when my parents were young in the 1920’s and 1930’s that I still don’t know exactly what to do with, and one album representing our vacation trip back to New England in 1959.
But there are only five surviving photos of Lafayette, and four of those are of Dad’s gazebo. There were not enough photos for a photo gallery slide show.
The real trouble with family photos is revealed in the very reading of this sentence; they are somebody else’s family. If I were Bill Gates, or Barry Bonds, or one of the Kennedy clan, people might pore over images and rambling narratives like these, looking for clues into the acknowledged greatness of the person whose youth is frozen in instant replay.
Or, they might not. “Alex Forbes became the great person he is today because he defied tradition and authority, and even his own parents, thus to do exactly as he pleased, when he pleased, even foolishly, and the heck with every other consideration.”
If you want to trot out the horrible old family albums, you’d better have something interesting to say … or at least, to show. Keep the family politics and skeletons out of it. Don’t badmouth people even if they have long since departed this mortal coil, for we might be surprised what words the next generation is preparing for us. I may find a fun way to present my parents’ photos; my dad was quite a photographer. Some of those photos are easily 80 years old, and show an old New England, one you can no longer find there either.
I tried to present this little sketch from the perspective of a six-year-old without getting overly sentimental or cute about it. Growing up IS a big adventure, and it’s fun to share the mistakes and errors in a family of California transplants trying to establish themselves in the wild West.
Almost everybody in all these albums is gone forever now.
With that thought in mind, I leave you (for now) with the final “Gazebo” photo: my brother Nickie, with our family cat Penny or “Henna”, playing at the foot of Dad’s gazebo in 1951. Old-timers are always saying, “I remember it like it was just yesterday”. Now I can finally say that myself.
Alex Forbes, September 2007
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