Monday, January 3, 2011

A Bit of Nostalgia

The picture is of the house where I lived as a child from 1954 to 1959 in Los Angeles County. I was idly Google mapping one day, decided to plug in the address -- which I have never forgotten -- and there it was, behold.

It was a three bedroom, one bath house, with a living room, dining room, entry hall, and a kitchen with an eating area and a space for a washing machine. The garage did not connect directly with the house. There was a small patio out the back, and a trash incinerator in the back yard. We built a little pond in back and for a time, hosted a multitude of frogs and a tortoise we called Myrtle. Those who remember Duck and Cover know who Myrtle the Turtle was. Myrtle eventually moved on.

At the time it was built, this house was the last one on the block; beyond it to the east was a scrubby field and then a rather high hill, a steep climb into an oak covered wilderness. There was a small lake or pond about half-way up the hill, the water was pretty yucky. There were tires and other bits of flotsam in the water, and some sort of black sludge around the perimeter. One ordinarily didn't choose to swim in the water or get oneself wet with it. I remember building a raft out of scrap lumber up there with some friends though. We launched it, me and another boy on it, and of course it sank promptly.

But the oaks made for an excellent forest environment, and once you got to the top of the hill, the view was breathtaking. To the north were the San Gabriel Mountains and Old Baldy; at their foot and to the east was Pomona. Stretching out directly north was the flatlands leading to Azusa. At first at least, these flatlands were mostly covered with orange groves. In fact, there were orange groves directly behind our house across the concrete drainage ditch. There was a large picture window in the living room at the back of the house, and on clear days -- which unfortunately weren't too frequent -- the mountains made a stunning backdrop for the orange groves.

No, the air was not very clear very often. Even then, stinging smog was the rule, especially the farther east of Downtown LA you were. And then there were the fires. Every year, the slopes of the San Gabriels would catch fire, and the smoke and ash would fill the air for days at a time. One time -- but just once -- the hill mentioned earlier caught fire, and everyone in the neighborhood was panicking about it. We were pretty far out from civic services, and people were terrified that the fire department wouldn't come before the fire got to the houses, but in fact, they did come and put the fire out very quickly.

I'm really surprised at how little has changed at this house. It is still the same pale yellow color it was when I lived there. The trim is still painted white. It still has the same blacktop asphalt driveway. The roses appear to be gone from the property line on the left, but the shrubbery in front of the porch is the same. The kitchen was extended onto the porch -- which appears to be the only physical change to the exterior. There is what appears to be a patio on the left side which wasn't there when I lived there, and the chain-link fence appears to have been replaced with a wooden one. The shrubs around the garage are the same. The oak tree by the street is actually one I planted more than fifty years ago. I brought a seedling down from the hillside one day and put it in a hole I dug in the lawn. I didn't think it would last, but it did until we moved away, and now to see it so much larger is quite a surprise.

When I lived there, there were no sewers in the neighborhood, and there were no curbs or gutters on the street. At first, there were cesspools in front of every house for waste. Then they were replaced with septic tanks. It's actually hard to imagine that an entire suburban neighborhood would have been built without sewers even in those days, but so it was. There was a kind of ditch on either side of the street where the rainwater was supposed to run, but we often faced street flooding even though the street ran downhill.

The drainage ditch in back was a concreted version of the little streamlet that ran down from the hill. It was mostly dry most of the time, of course, but sometimes, after a heavy rain, there would be a lot of water flow, and one time, foolish child that I was, I climbed over our back fence to have a closer look. Naturally, I fell in. Oh. What fun. I was swept downstream quite a ways, but luckily I found some debris to hold on to and managed to work my way out of the water and crawl back up the steep concrete slope to the ledge that ran along the backside of neighbors' fences and eventually made my way back to my own house, where, of course, I didn't tell anyone what had happened. These ditches are everywhere in Los Angeles, and children -- and others -- fall into them all the time. It's quite a wonder that so many survive.

The orange groves behind our house were ripped out within a year of our moving in. It was sad. Very sad. They pulled up the trees, bulldozed them into a pile and burned them. To the left -- or west -- of our property line, new houses were built. We called them "cracker boxes" because they were low or flat-roofed and they were built on concrete slabs rather than raised foundations. They sold for somewhat less than our house cost, too. To the right -- or east -- of our property line, a new elementary school was built. The following school year, I would be among the first 3rd grade students to attend. [Strangely, I have absolutely no memory of where I attended 1st or 2nd grade. But I do remember kindergarten in Santa Maria quite clearly. Hm.]

A little later on, I would climb the hill mentioned earlier (I don't think it had a name, though there were named hills in the area) and watch the freeway being graded and built to Pomona. It is now Interstate 10, the San Bernardino Freeway, but the only name I knew it by then was "the Freeway." A little later, I could climb the hill and watch one of those new shopping centers being built, I think it was called Eastland.

There was a small grocery store on the main street fairly near our house, but there were no supermarkets, no "town shopping" nearby. In fact, when my mother wanted to go shopping, we did it in Downtown Los Angeles, perhaps twenty miles west. It's remarkable to think how far out in the country we really were. It's certainly not that way now. When Eastland opened there was jubilation for miles around. Finally, some nearby major stores! May Company! Think of it!

On occasion, we'd drive up into the mountains and have dinner at a road house that is apparently still there (although if my websearch is correct, it's been closed for years). I didn't remember its name, but when I did a websearch, "El Encanto" came up, and I think that's what it was called. It was dark and smoky and dripped with neon and strings of colored lights and excitement. I would have hamburger, but the adults would have steak. That was its draw, the meat and the location in the San Gabriel Canyon.

Just a handful of memories; there are many more, but this will have to do for now.

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