Once upon a time, in a far away land known as West Riverside, California, a young boy was brought into the world. It was 1948 and a very good year for ex-servicemen to have a ‘boomer boy’. I know, because I am that boy.
My dad was working in a gas station as a mechanic at the time, making little to no money. When I entered the scene at a healthy 8lb, 10oz., he decided to get a higher paying job; he knew the food bill was about to increase. With a third mouth to feed, being a ‘grease monkey’ came to an end, and soon he was working for the ‘Southern California Edison Company’ as a meter reader.
The five of us moved to a generous six acres of land in a ‘poverty pocket’ known as Crestmore Heights, right above the Riverside Cement Company. ( If the wind changed direction we got dusted ). All of the neighbours had small pieces of land with horses, livestock, trees, or other types of small commerce that helped people get through tough times and little money. I’m not going to say we were “poor”, but one Winter we painted a ‘tumble weed. silver and used it as a Christmas Tree. It was pretty, a little thorny, and lacked that pine-y smell. My mom sprinkled some Pine-Sol over it and, having never been to the mountains, we kids didn’t know the difference.
The year the local Army base was closing down my dad bought a Quonset hut and had a flat-bed truck deliver it to the property. He promptly made a two bedroom home out of it and added a carport. I shared a bedroom with my two older sisters until I was five. At that age my parents decided we were too old to be changing in the same room. ( I guess they caught the drift of my confused looks ). I spent the next two years on a cot at the foot of my parents bed ( Boy! Did they make strange noises at night ). I kept my head down and didn’t peek over the end of the bed. I’m sure my parents explanation of what was going on, would just have confused me ( again ).
One of the best things about growing up on six acres was all the dirt; I was a digging fool. There is something about digging a hole that I find incredibly satisfying. Not only was the digging fun, but sometimes I would just sit and make a fort out of the mud, pretending to be in the Army. I always had an abundance of plastic Army men to play with, because every Christmas I would receive a fresh bag to replace all those soldiers who had succumbed to the dirt.
Our nearest neighbour was almost a mile away. The family had two sons whom I called ‘The Gromer Boys’, probably because their last name was Gromer. I didn’t actually know their first names, due to them always being spoken of as a pair. Mrs Gromer made Popsicles in an ice-cube tray with chocolate milk and a stick. ( They were the best on a warm day. ) The side yard by the house was converted into a baseball field where we would play ‘pick-up’ with any of the other kids in the neighbourhood ( even girls! ). We usually had a pitcher, a batter, and some random outfielders shagging balls.
It was a bit of a hike to visit the ‘Gromer Boys’ unless, that is, you cut through Mr. Black’s field. He seemed like a nice guy, but he had a stern face that made him look like he was always mad at something. He kind of reminded me of that famous painting of the guy holding the pitch-fork, standing next to his wife ( You know the one ).
Mrs. Black was a sweetheart and happened to be my first grade teacher. She was the type of teacher you would see on a Fifties-era black & white TV show. ‘Leave It To Beaver’ comes to mind, and Theodore’s teacher Miss Landers would be a close match. I would hang out at Mrs. Black’s house most of the afternoon, reading Dr. Seuss books and listening to her collection of Elvis Presley records. She had the patience of a saint and would put up with my endless questions. I would yell at her from another room and ask her how to spell a word. I could only remember a couple of letters at a time, so it took multiple tries at the same word, but she was always clear and concise, seeming to enjoy my curiosity. Mrs. Black was a sweet lady, a true inspiration to her students, and especially to me ( I cried when she passed, and I still cry when I think of her ).
Our property in Crestmore Heights was cleverly divided into six areas. We had three fields on the right: one for alfalfa, one for steers, and the back field was for the Mommy and Daddy cows. Coming back in on the left was the barn, which held the rabbits and pigeons. Next to that was the goat pen ( Nubians, I believe ). The middle section was for our fruit trees and a small garden next to the house.
Each of us kids was assigned specific tasks and jobs to do. I was in charge of the pigeons, the apricot tree, the rhubarb plant, and the strawberries. Home-made pie with fresh strawberries, became a substitute for a traditional birthday cake. My other task, taking care of the apricot tree, would require me to sit up in the tree, waiting for the fruit to ripen ( well, that’s the way I saw it ). Of course I was a kid, so I never could wait long enough. Even to this day, I can’t eat any ripe fruit. It’s got to be a little green and crunchy, even my bananas ( I know what you’re thinking: “How did he grow bananas in West Riverside?”).
I don’t know what the connection is between girls and horses, but both of my sisters loved to ride. We didn’t have a horse ourselves, but Mr. and Mrs. Black did. They also had a daughter around my sister’s age ( Myrna, I think? ). My sisters, Marilyn and Cathy, would hang at the Black’s farm and plot ways to get their ‘little brother’. You name the infraction, and it was always my fault. It was always two against one ( they stuck together ). Because I was afraid of horses, I resorted to riding the family cows. They were slow, I was small, and the cows didn’t seem to mind. We’re talking about riding ‘Daisy Mae’, not something in a rodeo where you did great if you made it 8 seconds without hitting the ground. The goats were my other favorite animal, and I played with them often. I have a picture of me down on all fours, butting heads with a baby goat. Their heads have a bone strategically positioned on top; it’s easy to presume why I always lost in a ‘head butting’ contest.
I attended West Riverside Elementary, which was a long and bumpy bus ride away, and the back of the school bus was always the preferred place to sit. Oh, and all the naughty girls sat there too. Now, I’m not saying that I was ahead of my time or anything, but at the tender age of five I got my first kiss on the back of that bus. Her name was probably Mary Lou or Betty Joe, I’m not sure. As I grew up I reverted to being a ‘late bloomer’, but it didn’t start out that way. I was a cute kid and could do no wrong ( Just don’t ask my sisters for their opinion ).
Crestmore Heights was about 20 miles from town and any form of basic shopping. Getting a ride into town with Mom was a big event and not to be missed. That, and the fact that I was a child, kinda made it imperative that I went along. The drug-store was my favorite. It was the perfect venue in which to practice my whining technique in order to get candy and other treats. Being the only boy and the youngest in the family worked in my favor and I took full advantage as often as I could. This trait would prove to serve me well later in life when meeting a young lady. I pride myself in giving a women the best five minutes she has ever known ( three minutes of which is me begging ).
After spending the first seven years of my life on that farm, we moved into the city when my Dad received a promotion. We sold ( or consumed ), the animals, kept some of the farm equipment and moved to the suburbs. The subdivision had what were called tract houses, meaning every fourth house was exactly the same as yours ( at least they reversed the floor-plan ). Dad got a job selling electricity to restaurants. His duty was to advise them on the best ways to cook with electric stoves, deep-fat-fryers or anything else powered by a spinning turbine ( propane or natural gas were bad words in our house ). I never really understood his job, but we did go out to eat a lot. We would visit his clients at night to make sure everything was working properly. “How’s that all-electric kitchen working for you?”, he would ask the head chef. The chef would always nod; ‘Fine’, secretly wishing he was cooking with gas. Years later, I would visit the same restaurants solo and get recognized as my father’s son. I was always seated at the best table by the head waiter, and the owner never let me pay. My dad had left quite a legacy in the Southern California restaurant scene.
The entire experience of growing up in the country has served me well over the years. I appreciate the basic upbringing and the ‘hard work’ ethic. Jobs like mucking out the pigeon coop, scooping up cow patties and generally wearing holes in the knees of your jeans were the norm. You may have guessed by now that I never want to go back to the land ( Well, maybe as a Rubber Baron that sips mint juleps all day ). To my thinking, its way too much work. I’ve spent the bulk of my life living in big cities, tending bar at night and sleeping until noon every day ( OK! until 2 pm…). People that can get up in the morning when it is still dark out…well, they’re just crazy. Harsh? Maybe. A little judgemental? Sure! I just don’t like having dirty fingernails.
“I do all my hunting and gathering at the local supermarket. It’s cleaned and ready.” by DVK