In rummaging about for an appropriate offering for Throw Back Thursday, a fun Facebook phenomenon, I found a wonderful old photo of my sister standing at the gate of our house in Perris. Looking at the photograph brought back so many memories of times that are fading. Like it or not, I have become one of those people who remember “the old days”. It seems very strange that the old days are the 1950s and the 1960s. As a teenager of about 13, I used think how appalling it would to be 50 and so very old. At the age of 65 I look back and realize just how young 50 is.
I had most of a real American graffiti childhood in a small town in California. It was rudely and wonderfully interrupted when I was 8 and my Air Force father was sent to Germany. That was 1956, I got home again in 1962, and I never quite fit in again. Looking back now, I think it was a blessing instead of a curse, although at the time I would have begged to differ. I thought how different my life would be if I had never left, if I had always been one of the gang instead of trying to figure out to reinvent myself to fit.
Because I was always a little out of step, I felt like that person at the dance that is watching everyone else’s feet to try and figure out the dance steps. Trying not to be obvious about not knowing what to do and watching my surroundings like a hawk I developed an artist’s eye and sensibilities early. That was the blessing although I didn’t know it until later.
There were some halcyon days and months in my childhood in Perris among the tough times with my mother. I remember having dinner on summer evenings and then being allowed to go out and play until dark. Escaping into games of hide-and-go seek and tag until the stars came out. There was always one cat under every streetlight, like they had been assigned to catch each night’s moths. I liked to sit at the open window in my upstairs unheated bedroom, which was freezing in the winter and meltingly hot in the Southern California summer, listening to the engines purring on the tracks. That was my lullaby, locomotives just waiting, rumbling like big cats all night long half a block away.
We lived in a farm town, and onions and potatoes and the sheds where they were packed and shipped were a fact of life. The tracks ran right behind the main street, right behind the single row of town businesses that made up downtown. Packing sheds were strung along the tracks the entire length of the town and locomotives would pull in and park on the sidings waiting for their loads. The depot was just two blocks away, we could see it from our house when we crossed the dusty empty field that was railroad property.
As kids we never wore shoes from about February to November and I have a love/hate relationship with shoes to this day. I love them but they are off my feet far more than on. We were grateful when the city put new white markings on the street to warn of the railroad crossing half a block away. In the summer, that white stuff never melted in the heat like tar and you could pelt across it barefoot without burning the soles of your feet before jumping into the blessed dust on the other side. Sometimes my mother would send us to Kirkpatrick’s market, a kitty-cornered block from our house to pick up things she’d forgotten to get for dinner. We crossed a field full of stickers, railroad tracks full of glass and splinters and assorted trains, usually barefoot on a regular basis. Back then you could go in a store with no shoes if you were a kid, I remember still how cool the linoleum felt on the bottoms of my scorched feet.
The trains scared me when I was small and I was terrified that I couldn’t get off the tracks fast enough, although walking on the rails themselves to the sidewalk was easier than crossing 20 feet of rusty nails, rock and broken glass. We would stand close enough to the trains to feel the breeze they kicked up as they passed but we knew enough not to get close enough to get hit and to make sure all the tracks were clear before we scampered across.
In my sister’s picture you can see the railroad tracks and the railroad crossing sign in the background. That’s how far away the trains were, from our house. Early one warm spring Sunday morning when I was about 15, I was sitting in my window watching the world go by, when I spotted our fascinating neighbor, Mildred Caylor who lived one block over on B Street.
Mildred was a blind woman and probably in her late 60s at the time. She had a series of German Shepherd guide dogs and we could see them in their pen when we climbed the Chinaberry tree in the vacant lot down the alley. That tree always had four or five kids building a fort in it and we probably sent the dogs around the bend with our noise and proximity. On this morning, one of the loopier later members of the menagerie of dogs was guiding Mildred to town. She had a net shopping bag and her handbag and her dog, and they proceeded briskly down the street in front of me and turned the corner and then turned the corner again.
Mildred’s dog was taking her right down the railroad tracks like something out of a bad movie. I yelled at the top of my lungs. “Mildred’s on the railroad tracks!” I sprinted down my steep flight of stairs and found my Dad had run out of his bedroom half asleep to hear my frantic screeched explanation. He bolted out the front door and I ran outside after him, watching in horrified amusement. My father in nothing but his underwear, consisting of tidy whities and an undershirt, was sprinting down the street barefooted. He ran down the tracks, collared Mildred and the dog and hauled her off the tracks. A train came through about sixty seconds later. I don’t know who was shaking most, Dad or Mildred when they got back to the house. Mildred never knew she had been saved by a middle-aged man in his skivvies. She would have been so shocked.
Dad put his clothes on and Mom fed everyone coffee and doughnuts. Later, we got Mildred home in one piece. The dog was replaced a week later and life went on, the trains kept coming and we kept growing up in that magical time and place, Perris, California in the “olden days”.