Growing up at 911 South Conejo Avenue, Modesto, California was as hard as it was easy. I stayed a child for a long time but grew up long before I should have. That sounds screwy I know, but you had to be there to appreciate and understand it. It will be hard to list my life in a straight line as far as years of age goes, but I’ll try.
Meeting Sonny and Sissy helped me get used to the neighborhood. They were very friendly kids and easy to know. Sissy was as skinny as a toothpick and never wore a top in the summertime; I guess because she had no top, not even (she said) after she grew up.
I spoke to her on the phone in 1992 when I was down in Modesto at a Little Okie Reunion at the Legion Hall. I wondered about her and found her older brother, James', number in the phone book and called him and he gave me her number. She was surprised and happy to talk to me and we talked over old times for a while.
She said,” James, I am a grandmother now and have finally gained a little weight. My daughter told me that I even have a bosom now!” That was good for a laugh from both of us.
Sonny was the fastest runner in the neighborhood and a pretty good swimmer. Sissy’s claim to fame was the amount of water she could blow out of her nose when she came up out of the water when we were swimming in the river. It was unbelievable!
Sonny and Sissy came to my house occasionally but I was allowed in their house only to trade funny books. Their Dad was very strict about that. Their house always smelled of fried baloney, which was what they took to school for lunch about every day.
Their Dad had a girlfriend in South Modesto, and he walked over there most evenings after work. I never knew what he did for a living. He had three other sons, Paul, James and Theo. Paul was a huge fellow and James was about average size and I don’t remember ever seeing Theo. He lived on the other side of town somewhere.
Sonny and I traded funny books every now and again, after either of us had traded with someone else. Trading funny books was a very important part of our lives. Almost as important as was reading them. The main funny books I read were Superman, Captain Marvel, Batman, Plastic Man, Joe Palooka, Wonder Woman, Archie and Tarzan of the Apes. Later others emerged such as Spiderman, the Green Hornet, Dick Tracey and the Classics Comics Series which told of historic events. There were some spin-offs such as Humphrey, a spin-off from Joe Palooka and B. O. Plenty, a spin-off from Dick Tracey. The magazines of those early days were Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and Life and the pocket sized books, Pageant, Coronet and Reader’s Digest.
We, also, played marbles. Most of the kids in that time of our lives shot marbles. We had plain marbles and shooters. The shooters were larger than the plain marbles and some of them were denser. Some people called the shooters, taws. I was a pretty good shooter and usually had more marbles than most of the other kids. We traded marbles, too. With the plain marbles, they were traded mostly one for one. If I had one the other guy liked and he had one I wanted, we’d trade. If you wanted a shooter, you had to trade several plain marbles for one shooter. The number depended on how good the shooter was and how badly you wanted it. You could use steely balls for shooters but most kids wouldn’t play against a steely ball. It was considered not fair to use a steely.
We also played tops. The tops were regular tops with the point filed down to a sharp point. These were called,” Spikers.” The object of the spikers was to have a contest to see who could spike a top that was already spinning on the ground. If you were good at it (and I was) you could throw your top at the one on the ground and split it or chip a piece off it with your spiker. It was considered cool to have a chip or two off your spiker. After a while, word got around about who was good at spiking and then it would be hard to get anyone to accept the challenge to spike.
We, also, played,” Mumble-de-peg.” That is played with a pocketknife. Your knife is stuck into the ground from a certain distance. The blade is open and placed on various parts of your arms and hands. Then your right finger is placed atop the knife handle and the knife is flipped toward the ground and must stick to stay in the ground. You start on your finger, then your knuckle, then your hand, wrist and on and on until someone misses. When someone misses, the other person takes a small peg and barely sticks it into the ground, just so it will stand up. Then the winner gets one smack with the handle of his knife to drive the peg into the ground. Then the looser has to pull it out with his teeth. It is quite a game.(Some called the game, ‘root the peg.’)
Another game that was popular when I was a kid (many, many, many years ago) was Indian Wrestling. Two people, usually boys or men, would lie on their backs side by side but in opposite directions, with their waistlines at about the same spot. Then, on a signal from someone or just a mutual sign, they would raise their legs next to the others straight up and let it drop three times. Then on the fourth time up, each player would attempt to lock his leg around the leg of the other and flip him over. The one who flipped the other was the winner. Physical strength had little to do with the outcome. It is a skill game that depends on timing.
And, of course, the most popular game of all with most boys in different families was putting on the boxing gloves. If there were boys of close to the same age and size in visiting families, they would invariably put on the gloves and square off against each other. It was a family affair and the kids and grownups alike usually enjoyed the event.
The gloves were sixteen-ounce gloves and rarely did anyone get hurt. Occasionally some of the grown men put them on and scrapped some. The only rule was no one could get mad. If you were getting the best of the other guy, it showed class to find an excuse to rest or stop, and if the other fellow was getting the best of you, it was no disgrace to seek a rest and ask for a mutual stoppage of the fight.
My stepbrother, Floyd, and I put the gloves on regularly until he finally outgrew me and I had trouble reaching him with my punches. At that time in our lives we just stopped putting on the gloves and we never missed it.
The girls played mostly Jacks, Paper Dolls , jump rope or hopscotch. Sometimes the boys played jump rope and hopscotch. I remember when we lived above Pate’s Store on South 9th Street, my sister, Mickey had a ton of paper dolls. I think Joan and Eva played with them some, too, but it was Mickey who enjoyed them the most. Mother would buy groceries that were wrapped in such a way so the wrappers had paper dolls printed on them. Then Mickey would cut them out and wait for the next package that had the doll clothes for her dolls. I don’t remember her dolls’ names. I think they were Tillie the Toiler, Fritzy Ritz, Betty Grable, Dorothy Lamour and some others that were popular during the war.
Joan was the best at jacks. I recall her playing for so long without missing that I actually got tired of watching. Eva wasn’t as much of a game player as the other girls. Neither was Buddy. Buddy was always a good worker. When we lived in Merced, Buddy at age about 14 or 15 set pins in a bowling alley after school and made enough money to buy a new Schwinn Bicycle. He had it for years and rode it everywhere.
When we first moved to the Airport District (Little Okie) Mother worked at Hedley Hospital. Hedley Hospital had been a mental hospital before the war and during the war, it became a V A Hospital. I don’t know just when the changeover was made, to VA then back to mental but she worked there for some of both applications.
The main thing I remember about Mom working there was that she would sometimes bring home food. It was usually turkey. We would have it for our meals. And kids sometimes would kid me about my Mother working at the nut house. I had a few fights about that at first. Then Mother told me to stop fighting about it, that it was nothing to be ashamed of, so I stopped.
Shortly after we moved on South Conejo Avenue, Mom got word her brother, Bill, who was the baby of the family, had been killed at sea. He was in the US Navy in World War Two.
I remember Dad being there for a while. He and Mother never got along. Dad worked as a gardener around town. He had no formal education and never thought he could work at any kind of a good, steady job so he lined up what yard work he could and made regular rounds for a lot of people. I thought it was a pretty good job. If I was ever asked what my Dad did for a living (and I was a few times) I would said he was a Professional Gardener.
I was pretty sticky-fingered when I was a kid. We never had more than the bare necessities and money was hard to come by. If I wanted something and found a way to do it, I stole it from wherever I could find it. That was the only way I could ever have anything. I almost always got caught.
When I did get caught, I was taken to the Detention Home. Then mother would be called to come after me. I don’t know if she ever had to make restitution for what I had stolen. She would have if asked to. She never believed in taking anything for nothing. Mother always worked steadier than Dad to try to care for the other kids and me.
When I was eight years old, I met a kid in the neighborhood named William Bryant. He was fresh out of Oklahoma and had about as much nerve as I had. We plotted and carried out a burglary of Rollers’ Store. We broke in and stole cigarettes (neither of us smoked) and candy and soda pop. I don’t think we found any money. We, of course, got caught. I can’t remember what tipped everyone off but we were caught right away.
The police came out and took me to the detention home for the first time. Mom had to come and get me and I had to apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Roller. Mom blames ‘That William Bryant ’ for leading me astray and the Bryants blamed me. I never played with William Bryant again after that.
He had a big brother we called Junior Bryant.
A lot of Bryants lived in Little Okie. The one I knew later was Barbara Bryant. She was about my age and very friendly.
I stayed away from the store for a while then went back to buying apples and grab bags.
Grab bags were small sacks of assorted candies and favors; usually a plastic ring with a propeller that whistled when you blew on it. They were from a nickel to a quarter each depending on how much was in the bag.
Another popular item was a wax bubble filled with koolaide. They were shaped into different images; Elephants, Rhinos and the like. Each was a penny or two. You put it into your mouth and crushed it with your teeth and drank the koolaide and then chewed the wax like gum. There were a lot of little candies you could buy for a penny in those days.
The most popular was Fleers Double Bubble Gum. Each piece was wrapped in a small comic story of some kind. It was excellent quality and the flavor lasted a long time and the gum lasted for as long as you wanted to chew it.
It was a penny apiece and was very scarce after the war started. When I was in the fifth and sixth grades, I would go to a drug store on Yosemite Boulevard on a certain day each week and wait for the bubble gum delivery. If I was lucky enough to be there when the delivery was made, I would buy all I could afford (usually a quarters worth or so) and keep out ten pieces for myself and go to the school and sell the rest for a quarter apiece. It was in demand at school and I never had trouble selling all of it. I got a lot of spending money that way.
The Strand Theater was the main theater in Modesto. On weekends it would show feature pictures and comedies from nine in the morning until two am the next day.(If you stayed for the midnight show)
Sometimes there would be an amateur hour where people would go on stage and sing or dance or something. Prizes were given for the most applause. Sometimes there was a door prize given for the patrons, usually a dish of some kind. Sometimes your ticket stub would be put in a giant wire tub and the tub would be taken to the stage. Someone from the audience would be selected to spin the tub and a stub would be picked out. The one picked would be the winning number and that person would win a prize, a nice dish or something else.
In those days a quarter went a long ways. I could ride the bus to town and go to the show and get a bag of popcorn and ride the bus back with a quarter and have a penny left over for bubble gum.
Sometimes some of us kids would go around to the back of the theater and climb up to a window to the ladies’ room, and if we were very careful and watched for a time when the show was the most exciting and the room was empty, crawl through a tear in the screen and sneak out into the movie for nothing. This was a very common practice and I don’t remember anyone ever getting caught. I wonder if they knew about it and just let us do it. Not too many kids knew about that way in.
My mother was always worried and I usually got a whipping for being gone all night but I was not deterred. If I had a whipping coming, I took it and waited for the next time.
I spent many nights on the river alone. At first Mom would come looking for me and, once in a while, she would find me and whip me all the way home, as well as she could at a dead run.
Once in a while I would get hurt some way and her worries would seem justified. Once I was swimming at the pipe when the water was pretty low. I crawled along on the sandy bottom on my hands and knees. Just my luck, this time, someone had thrown a broken bottle in right there and my knee came down on it and it cut a huge gash in my right knee. I got out of the water with my knee bleeding like a stuck pig and started for home. I didn’t have anything to wrap around it so I just held my hand over it. Blood was everywhere.
Just then a lady came by in a car and saw me and almost panicked. She screamed for me to get in the car so she could take me to the hospital. She wrapped a cloth bag around it and started driving. When we came to the house, I told her that was where I lived and to stop. I almost didn’t tell her because I knew what Mother would do to me after she fixed my knee. But the lady did stop and Mother came running out and saw me. She thanked the lady and took me into the house.
By now most of the bleeding had stopped. It was a huge gash (about three inches long and to the bone-I still have the scar) and Mom cleaned it out with alcohol and, after the bleeding had completely stopped, put some Merthiolate on it and wrapped it in a bandage.
For some reason, to this day I don’t understand, she didn’t whip me. It bothered me for several days, both my knee being sore and not getting a whipping.
But I recall I was back in the river before the knee healed up all the way. It seemed I was always in the river.
I'll stop here and resume this later so it won't be too long.