California Here We Come

It’s late summer 1956. My parents, my sister Jane and our collie shepherd, Irish, pulled away from the two-story, white clapboard house at 23 Linden Avenue in a brand new, 1956 black and white Plymouth station wagon.  The roof rack was loaded and we’re towing a rented trailer filled with two wing back chairs, a washer and dryer, beds and our personal belongings.  Everything else my parents sold.

23 Linden Avenue in Westfield, Massachusetts was the house my Dad was born in.  We lived with his mother, Grandma Galland, and next door to Nanny and Nish, my Mom’s mother and stepfather.  Our destination was the “land of milk and honey”—California, where everyone had a ranch with horses, where it never snowed, where there was an ocean and where it was always green and lush.  A few weeks before our departure my father quit his job of 15 years as a precision machinist at the American Bosch Company. They turned out fuel injectors for virtually every U.S.-built plane, battleship, aircraft carrier, destroyer, and submarine. My parents told everyone that he had a job in California waiting for him, but there was no job.  They were heading out to make a new life, 20th Century pioneers looking for something better.

I was seven and Jane was 10.  Surely, they realized what we were leaving behind in addition to our grandparents: our neighborhood gang, best friends and worst enemies, our cats, Rainbow and Snowball, cousins, aunts, uncles, Snake Hill, the Swamp, Abner Gibbs School and my first two-wheeler.  Yet, I don’t remember being overwhelmed with sadness, rather there was a sense of adventure and anticipation and perhaps a touch of unreality.

It’s funny that although Jane and I bickered constantly, saw many sights, and stopped in St. Louis so that Dad could represent his union at the AFL-CIO annual meeting, I have only two vivid memories of that two-week trek. One was an accident and the other, our first sight of California.

The drive through Texas was hot and dry.  Windows open to catch an occasional, not very cool, breeze; you could taste the dust. Everything and everyone was parched.  The bleached remains of longhorn steers on the roadside were almost as common as the tumbleweeds. Without a doubt, I knew they had all died of thirst.

One afternoon, as we made our way along one of those empty two-lane highways, where the horizon shimmers in the distance and the road ahead looks like glistening black water, we suddenly came upon a long backup of cars in our lane.  Dad got out of the car with Irish and walked up the line of idling hot boxes.  There was no air conditioning then, just open windows blowing in the dusty air.  He came back and told us that a big tractor-trailer truck had jack-knifed across the road blocking both lanes.  The driver was hurt but eventually, the state troopers got an ambulance to him going through a sandy gully next to the road.  We’d been stopped for an hour or more, and it could be hours before the truck was cleared. Then the state troopers began directing everyone to drive into the ditch to get around the accident and then back up onto the road.  As we set in the shade of the car our parents talked for a long time about whether Dad could do it with the big trailer.

Mom said, “Cripes, yes,  I want to get out of here, the kids haven’t stopped bickering since we got here, we don’t have much food left and it’s just going to get hotter.”

Quickly Dad responded; “Okay so I’m going to try it.”

“I want to get moving but I don’t want you to turn the damn trailer over and end up stranded in the desert for even longer!” Mom countered.

They argued almost out of hearing range, we could hear just enough to know that Mom wanted to get moving out of the heat and sun, but she was afraid he wouldn’t make it, the soil was loose and the banks of the ditch steep.  She thought he’d turn the car over and the trailer with it. Dad was confident that he could do it.

Finally, after most of the cars had navigated around the accident, Dad came over to Jane and me and said:

“Stay with your mother. Irish and I are going to give it a try”.

Under her breath, you could hear Mom say “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”…half supplication and half her “go to” expression of frustration bordering on anger.

We watched as Dad and the ’56 Plymouth, trailer attached, went carefully but quickly into the gully, inched past the truck and then gunned the engine and made it back up onto the highway in a swirl of sand.  For a minute or two, you only saw a cloud of dust but once we saw the car, then the trailer reach the blacktop we ran down the road past the accident scene where we yelled and shouted in relief.  We celebrated with the Kool-Aid Mom rationed while we were stuck and then drove on to Lubbock, where we got a motel with a pool.

We started singing “California Here We Come” long before we reached the state line.  When we finally crossed the line and saw only the continuation of treeless, brown hills, we thought it seemed awfully barren and desert-like but we were sure that we were heading west to greener pastures.  We crested the San Bernardino Mountains and got our first view of the valley.  It too was dry and brown with no ranches or horses in sight.  I remember silence and a palpable disappointment as we continued toward L.A.   I don’t think it was just Jane and me who were let down, I think my parents, or at least Mom, were too.

We made our way to Redondo Beach where Mom’s best friend from high school, Goodie, and her family lived.  We stayed with them until Dad got a job.  It turned out the California job market was more fertile than the fields and mountainsides.  The story goes that my dad drove by all the aerospace company parking lots the first Saturday after our arrival.  On Monday, he went to the places where the parking lots were full on Saturday.  He figured that there must be jobs if people were working on the weekend.   He got a good job as a manufacturing engineer at the first place he tried, Douglas Aircraft.

We found a house in Manhattan Beach and began our adjustment to life away from “home” back east.  The little two-bedroom rental was walking distance to the beach. The salty ocean aroma and a misty fog greeted us each morning. We moved into the house on Walnut Avenue in late September when you could still swim in the ocean.  Both my parents were swimmers and very athletic.  My Mom had worked for the YMCA in Westfield as a swimming instructor, so the beach was a big draw.  The neighborhood wasn’t anything like Linden Avenue, the houses were all one-story stucco bungalows packed in close together. Ours was green with palm trees in the yard and more dirt than grass.  It had a detached garage filled with stuff, much of it the owner’s. The cool, dank space beckoned to Jane and me, and we played there on Saturday mornings when my parents were sleeping in.  Back home, we always woke up early, by 6 AM on Saturdays and in the summer.  We dressed and went outside where we could count on finding our neighborhood friends ready to play.  In Manhattan Beach, it was just the two of us and the garage was a place to explore and to make up games.  We pretended that it was a pirate ship or a dungeon…not as good as Snake Hill, but the best we could do.

One morning, Jane decided to rummage through Dad’s Navy duffel bag filled with his uniforms and mementos.  She reached her hand in, jerked it out and shrieked, “…there’s a mouse in the bag.”  We raced into our parents’ bedroom screaming “ there’s  a mouse in the garage in Dad’s duffel bag!”

“Jane even touched it” I yelled.

Dad went out to the garage, reached into the duffel and pulled out a moldy bunch of grapes left behind from our last adventure.

It must have been coincidence, but it turned out that there were two other families from Massachusetts on our new block; Ruth and Bev Small and Dot and Walt Dashnau.  Bev and Ruth had two boys who were exactly our ages.  Richie was Jane’s age and David mine.  Often thrown together, David and I sometimes played together after school.  Bev worked for an aerospace company and had a job similar to Dad’s.  The two couples played cards together, drank and partied at each other’s houses.  Ruthie sometimes watched me after school when my Mom went to work.  The two couples became life-long friends. The Dashnaus were more occasional participants; they were older and didn’t have kids.

Jane and I went to different schools.  Jane attended the American Martyrs Catholic School next to our parish church.  The 2nd grade there was full, so I had to go to public school; Pacific Elementary. It was scary to go alone to school especially to that school.  My teacher was a man, Mr. Cutler. He was youngish, with a brush cut and complexion the color of old masking tape.  It was a new school, built just a few years before.  As was typical in southern California, the halls were outside and so was the cafeteria.  We ate our lunch on picnic tables. The desks were modern, flat tables with light, faux-wood Formica tops.  You slid your books and papers into a 3-inch high slot below the tabletop.  They were easy to get under when we heard the alarm bell and did our “Duck and Cover” drills.  Mr. Cutler said we had to do the drills in case there was an earthquake or a nuclear bomb. It was the first I’d heard of either threat.

Pacific School was not anything like Abner Gibbs.  Abner Gibbs was a turn of the century brick three-story building, a block from our house in Westfield.  The desks were attached to the seats and bolted into the floor; I could lift the desktop up to get to my books and papers and I could hide behind the open desktop to talk to my “neighbor”.  Dad was in charge of flooding the playground in the winter turning it into a skating rink and Mom was the skating monitor when all the students skated during lunch recess.  My class was full of friends from the neighborhood including my best friends, Carol Clark and Donny White. My kindergarten and first-grade teachers were Miss Brick and Miss Waters, two graying spinsters.

I don’t remember having friends at Pacific School.  One day, Mr. Cutler announced that someone had stolen a quarter, another student’s lunch money.  I always brought my lunch so I wasn’t too concerned.  He said that we all had to put our heads down on our desks while he went through our books and papers in search of the quarter.  I put my head down, squeezed my eyes shut, and resisted the urge to peek.  Mr. Cutler stopped at my desk, felt inside and found the quarter.  He sent everyone to lunch but held me back.  I was panicked.  I said:  “I didn’t do it! Someone else must have put it there.”  “I didn’t even need a quarter for lunch”.

Eventually, he let me go to lunch, crying I tried to hide from the rest of the kids…I knew that they all thought I stole the quarter.  He called my parents and Dad talked to me about it that night.  I was scared that they were really mad especially when Dad brought me into the bathroom, but he said that it was so that we’d have privacy from Jane.

“Did you take a quarter from someone?”  Do you know the boy who said he lost his quarter?  What was his name? Through my tears, I answered him.  I promised that I didn’t take the quarter, I didn’t even know where it was. Then Dad said: “ I believe you. I know what it’s was like to be blamed for something you didn’t do”.  One time your Uncle Genie stole a jack knife and then said I did it.  Grandma believed him because he was her favorite.  She believed anything he said”.  I was glad that he understood and little surprised, I expected not to be believed and to get into trouble.

I thought maybe Mr. Cutler didn’t like me because my Dad had complained to him that we weren’t learning cursive in 2nd grade, that we played too much and spent time on those silly drills.   I knew my parents didn’t think that Pacific School was as good as Jane’s school, American Martyrs.

My parents were always big on Sunday afternoon drives.  In California, when we weren’t at the beach we were out exploring.  Every weekend included trips to some place different, Knott’s Berry Farm (before we knew that it was a front for the John Birch Society), to movie sets where they filmed my mother’s favorite cowboy shows and to all of the southern California missions.  We panned for gold in the hills, just like the forty-niners, looking carefully for shiny specks; we learned the difference between mica and gold. As Christmas approached the newly opened Santa’s Village in Lake Arrowhead was our destination.  A visit to the real Santa and the chance to play in the snow were meant to make up for not “being home” for Christmas.  Later we trekked to Sequoia National Park with the Smalls to see trees you could drive through and bears on the roads.

California was freedom for my Mom.  Liberated from her mother and her mother-in-law, from my Dad’s large family, from the neighborhood and the small town where everyone knew you and your business, and from their judgments.  I don’t think she missed it a bit.  In addition to her old high school friend Goodie, she had her new friends Ruthie and Dot down the street. She also went to work.  California was expensive and rent higher than at Grandma’s.  After twelve years of marriage, my parents wanted to buy a house of their own and needed the down payment.  Mom got a job as a teller at the Southwest Bank, not far from our house, in the shopping center across Sepulveda Boulevard (two California words hard to get my tongue around).  All dressed up in a fitted sheath and high heels, Mom would walk with me to school and then on to the bank. She was usually home when I got home from school except on Fridays when the bank stayed open until six.  On Fridays, I sometimes stayed at Smalls’ and sometimes Jane and I stayed at home alone.  Mom’s job also introduced us to Eva and Nancy, two young “gals” who worked with her.  They were very exotic, not married, living on their own.  Nancy had a pet skunk.   Sometimes they invited us to their apartment and we played cards or went to the beach.

For my Dad, the move was full of exciting possibilities.  He was glad to have escaped as well.  He no longer had to pander to the “powers that be” at work and in the union.  The new job was at a higher level and more professional.  He liked the work and the freedom.  There were burdens too, supporting us and pressure (some self-imposed) to buy a house and create a new life.  He missed his family, but as the youngest of seven children, he was ready to be his own person.  Eventually, he would get two occasional part-time jobs.  He worked as a landscaper for a very wealthy family whose house sat on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Palos Verde and sometimes bartended at the Portuguese Bend Beach Club.

Jane and I missed our life back east, Jane more than me.   Jane was the favorite of both Nanny and Grandma.  She was smart and articulate and she was the first.  They defended her when she got into trouble with our parents. The loss of that always-present affection made her angry and resentful of our parents; anger she carried with her much of her life. I had never been the center of the universe and didn’t feel as passionately about our move.  But, as was often the case, I followed her lead and took up the cause. We both missed our old friends and our neighborhood.  We missed knowing where everything was and we missed everybody knowing who we were.  We missed our lives “back home”.

We played games centered on Westfield and talked about returning to “back east”.  At night as we lay in bed talking and bantering, we plotted and planned our escape.  We ignored our parents’ constant appeals to settle down and go to sleep.

“You two quiet down in there.”  “It’s time to go to sleep.”  “I don’t want to hear another word from you.”  “You’re going to get a spanking if you don’t quiet down”.

We continued whispering into the night especially before that Saturday.  There was plenty to discuss and plan. We woke up even earlier than usual.  We quietly dressed and found Mom’s two bandanas we’d pilfered for a game of dress-up.  We packed some essentials in the bananas, an extra pair of underwear, shirts, and shorts and then crept out to the garage.  I wore my new Davy Crockett hat. We had already hidden sticks behind some tires.  We wrapped the bananas around the sticks, hobo style, and headed off.  With about a dollar in change, we planned to stop at the big Lucky’s grocery store across Sepulveda Boulevard (we were forbidden from crossing it on our own).  To our surprise, Lucky’s was closed.  We looked around, thought about waiting until it opened, and finally used our change to buy candy and gum from the machines outside the main entrance to the store.  From Lucky’s we headed to the train tracks.  Jane knew the way; she walked by the train tracks on her way to school. She noticed that the trains slowed down as they approached the crossroads.  There were ladders between the cars that we could climb up on and into the cars.  Our plan was to jump aboard the first train headed away from the ocean…going east.  We set by the tracks for an hour or so, the sun had fully risen and no trains had passed.  I was hungry and wanted something to eat.  Jane and I bickered:

“I don’t think a train is coming,” I whined.

“Of course a train is coming, they come every day on my way to school.” Jane declared.

“Well maybe that’s only school days, maybe trains don’t go back east on Saturdays!” I argued.

“I’m hungry anyways and what if Mom and Dad are already up?”

“Yeah, they might have already seen that we’re not there, they’re probably looking for us.” Jane reluctantly admitted.

“Yeah and I bet they’re mad.”

Jane cried from disappointment, but we picked up our hobo sticks and headed back to Walnut Avenue.  Mom and Dad were just getting up.

Mom asked: “What have you been up to this morning?

“…nothin’…just playin’ around” we answered.

We never ran away again, although we plotted countless getaways.  Many years later when we shared the story of our attempted escape with our parents, they didn’t believe us.

Within a year, my parents bought their first house in a new subdivision, Torrance, California.  Jane and I went to St. James Catholic School in Redondo Beach. Although her doctor told my mother that she would likely never get pregnant again due to the position of her uterus, our sister, Patricia was born a year after our arrival in California.

Later that year, my father saw an ad for a job with Sperry Rand Corporation in Salt Lake City, Utah. He answered the ad; Sperry flew him to Salt Lake City and hired him.  In February, we headed for Utah.  Again, a new school and another rented house until the Torrance house sold.  A year later, they bought a house and within the next two years, we acquired two more siblings John and Louisa.

Jane and I did adapt to our new lives away from “back east”.  We made friends and Salt Lake eventually became home. Although, when asked where are you from? We both even now will answer…”I’m originally from Massachusetts but I grew up in Salt Lake City.”  It may be telling that Jane was determined to raise her kids in one place and passed up professional opportunities to assure that they were never transplanted.   I didn’t make the same decision consciously, but I have lived in the same house with my family for nearly 38 years.

Jane and I have romanticized my parents’ great adventure to the Promised Land.  We admire their courage and their pluck.  We still wonder why, what really made them leave?  With 50 plus years of perspective, we debate whether they were running to a dream and a new life, or escaping from something. But those are stories still to be told.


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