Ken Leighton 5 p.m., May 24
- Community Blog
Doo-Wop Era, College Area
The world was not exactly a technologically primitive place at the time this guy I am now was born.
A decade before, World War II was wrapping up. My father had been in the military then, like all of our dads among the kids I grew up with. He had moved to California like many young men did in the heady days after victory, in the era of Kon Tiki and the conquest of Mount Everest and give-'em-hell Harry.
The registration of my birth at Mercy Hospital in the last month of 1954 was recorded on a punchcard and fed into a UNIVAC I. The atom had been split; the planet could be blown up. People communicated instantly worldwide by telephone and teletype. They travelled from one end of the country to the other in a few hours by propeller-driven airliners. Houses were comfortably warm in winter, air conditioning in summer wasn't unheard of, and television was a pretty common form of home entertainment. There was a lot of stuff a time traveller from today would find familiar.
I grew up in a little house on College Avenue, about a dozen houses up and on the east side from University. It's still there, a mustard-colored thing that was cocoa-brown with white trim for the longest time. It's not the fanciest house around, with a cement slab foundation and a flat roof with exposed water and gas lines running along the top. My dad planted pepper trees, and an ash tree in the back that still dominates the yard. We played on the hill behind the drainage ditch that ran through the back lot. It seemed like the neatest place in the world to be, and though we moved to a bigger house less than a mile away when I was ten, that too small place on College with the odd floorplan due to add-ons for our growing family is the one we remember with affection.
All the neighborhood kids were older than me, and it was hard to get around with a busy street running right past our front yard. I hung out with a not particularly bright kid about three years older, who sometimes walked me down the ditch to the dime store on University, where he'd give me a penny to buy some Bazooka Joe bubblegum or a Kraft's caramel. Then he'd read the comic inside for me if he was in a good mood. Sometimes he'd just throw rocks at me instead on the way back home. I never knew which it would be.
At some point before starting school I got the idea that the whole planet was just a short car ride away from our house. Perhaps it had something to do with my dad's fondness for taking out of town visitors to Tijuana and dragging me along; I thought for a time that, wherever you are, if you were to travel far enough from home you'd eventually be surrounded by Mexicans. I also figured that everybody must have an ocean nearby to swim in during the summers. For awhile I was convinced that Blessed Sacrament Church was The Vatican, and that one of the buildings visible at Darnall School on the hill above the intersection of College and University was the Champs Elysees in Paris. The big, not-too-bright kid had a beebee gun, and used to tell me that the water tank next to the school was an atomic bomb. He said he could shoot it with his beebee gun and blow up the entire planet!
Somewhere in the late '50s my folks decided I ought to go to nursery school before kindergarten. The nearest place was Oak Park School. Kids came from pretty far away to go there, and my mom was able to arrange rides for me with other kids' moms. We'd fingerpaint and play outside for a few hours every day. I recall once getting even the older kids to play along that we were all Lloyd Bridges on Seahunt; we'd amble along the dirt field waving our arms in front of us and breathing through our mouths as if we were swimming underwater. At some point several of us would start wrestling around and trying to cut the other guy's air hose.
There was Sunday school at College Park Presbyterian, near the corner of College and Montezuma. A bunch of kids who went to Hardy, that I wouldn't be in school with until junior high, were my buddies once a week as we colored in pictures of Jesus with crayons and messed up our Sunday clothes on the playground.
After church we'd hit the Jack in the Box at 63rd and El Cajon Blvd., the original one I believe. Hamburgers were 22 cents. Sometimes we'd go to the Fedco on Euclid and stand around until it opened at noon on Sundays. If the kids needed new Sunday clothes, there was a Robert Hall right next to a Kinney Shoes on the corner of College and University.
Once in awhile dad would buy a dozen donuts for Sunday breakfast at the Heavenly Donuts on the corner of 54th and El Cajon Blvd. Once a month, just after payday, we'd have dinner at the Sizzler near Rolando Blvd. and University. He'd always get the car serviced at the Richfield station on the familiar College and University corner, and the guy there sold Christmas trees in the back in December. One year my brother and I got a little one of our own for our room, which we decorated with construction paper cutouts and bells made from egg cartons and such. It was plain green, though my folks liked their bigger one in colors, usually white. The trees were painted there in the back of the Richfield station with chemicals that today are probably considered toxic waste, but I remember running around with my brother in a colorful forest of freshly painted Christmas trees that day in December 1959.
Most of our groceries came from Borden's, near the northeast corner of College and University. The building is still there, though it's been many different things since then. I remember the face of Elsie The Cow painted on the side, and visible from quite far away. There were also two Food Baskets in the neighborhood, one at College and El Cajon Blvd. and the other near the Sizzler at Rolando and University. Once a month, again just after payday, the folks would also go to the Fedmart in Clairemont to buy a month's worth of nonperishables. They'd always bring back a case of Reibenbach beer, Fedmart's generic brand. A few years ago I found a 12-pack of this stuff somewhere, and out of sheer nostalgia tried it with a buddy whose dad had also kept a case of it in his garage throughout the '50s and '60s. After a few sips we reluctantly acknowledged that our dads--heroes of our young childhoods--had been drinkers of cheap beer.
In September 1960 I started kindergarten at Henry Clay. From the beginning I had to walk there, up College Avenue and down Acorn Street to Seminole and over to the school, clocking in at just under a mile. Other parents and neighbors were encouraged to report it whenever I or my buddy, who lived even farther down and on the other side of College, were to step out into the street or engage in any other sort of dangerous activity. College Avenue didn't even have sidewalks then.
There was a kid a year and a half younger who lived at the dead end of Malcolm Drive near the bottom of the ditch. I still know him, though he isn't a kid anymore but a pretty accomplished surfboard maker. I was just walking down the ditch one day not long before starting kindergarten, going toward the dime store. He was standing there with a two-by-four, holding it like a walking stick. He came over with it and we started shootin' the breeze. We were inseparable buddies for the next five years, and still get along OK though we tend to antagonize each other because we really don't have a lot else in common other than these memories of an incredibly neat childhood. After I started kindergarten, we began devising ways to build an airplane and fly away so I wouldn't have to go to school. We tried flagging down planes that would pass over the neighborhood, like we always saw people doing on the Sky King TV program, but none of them ever landed for us. So we decided to build our own out of a wagon, some two-by-fours, and a couple of pinwheels I'd gotten at the County Fair. We actually thought it would fly; we really did.
As a student, I was smart but I was dumb. It took me awhile to "get" things, like that I was supposed to be learning to read, or that College Avenue was in San Diego and San Diego was in California and California was in the United States; Tijuana wasn't, afterall. By 2nd grade though, I was getting a certain awareness of such things through my dad's subscriptions to Life and National Geographic Magazines and the maps at school of the United States and the world that the teacher would occasionally pull down. I'd watch the news with my folks once in awhile, but found Walter Cronkite tedious and rather worrisome with his tireless recounting of train wrecks, wildfires, floods, wars, and every other kind of calamity; didn't the man ever have anything GOOD to say? I much preferred Johnny Downs and his Popeye cartoons every day after school, or Captain Kangaroo in the mornings. Even Uncle Russ, that curiously cranky looking guy with the local Saturday morning cartoon program featuring Mighty Mouse, was less of a downer than Walter Cronkite. He'd even mumble and grunt "Happy birthday!" to a dozen or so kids each Saturday morning if you'd send in a postcard with your name a couple of weeks before the Big Day.
Reading was getting to be a more important source of my peculiar world view though, and by 3rd grade I'd taken a liking to Reader's Digest as well, albeit mostly the car company and Farmer's Insurance and Planter's Peanut advertisements.
It was a kid's skewed view of reality, but sometimes I miss seeing the world like that. Once in awhile too, I just wish there were more of a basis for my childhood belief that adults actually had a clue, that the situation was well in hand, and that in the end everything would be alright.