05 September 2014

I Walk Through My Childhood and Note How Everything is the Same Only Different

My childhood backyard today. There are still marks on the redwood tree from where my fort was.
Walked to Nina’s on Shattuck for a 9:00 am haircut appointment. She gives the best haircuts West of the Pecos. They’re fairly quick too and the conversation is light and easy. From Nina's I went for a long stroll down memory lane.

First stop was a few blocks south of Shattuck at my childhood residence. From ages four through 17 I lived at 1426 Grove Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Way). For the first half of my time there we lived in what my brother and I later referred to as “the old house." We always said this with some longing for we loved the place. It was a cozy abode with a living room, fireplace, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, bathroom and large backyard. My dad built a tree fort for me when I was about five. This was not just a platform of two by fours, this fort had four walls, a roof, floor, and window. Initially there were stairs to access the fort from but that made it too easy for unwanted kids to sneak up there so my dad took out the stairs and the only way in was via a rope that hung from a branch above the fort. You might not be surprised to learn that I loved that fort.

The backyard also featured a garden and plenty of grass. It was heaven for a little kid. The house itself felt like the home you grow up in should feel. There was a large picture window looking out on the street that I would gaze out sometimes especially on rainy days. I also remember waiting for my brother to come and looking out the window to see him coming. It would be hit or miss after that as to whether he'd play with me.

But my dad didn’t want to leave well enough alone. Against my brother and my futile objections our parents decided to raze the house and replace it with a four unit apartment building, with us living in one of said units. As I’ve detailed here before my father was from very humble beginnings in rural Finland. After seeing the world as a merchant marine, he married, settled in Berkeley and worked as a carpenter during the post war building boom. This was at a time when a union carpenter’s salary could easily support a family of four, with a house and two cars and vacations and without need for a second income. My father saw a way to increase the family income by replacing the home with rent-generating apartments. So we went from our typical white picket fence type middle American home to living in a big apartment building. The tree fort remained but the rest of the backyard was concrete parking space.

As a minor consolation my dad put up a basketball hoop and I had myself a backyard basketball court. Also our basement featured a sauna for our personal use only. Our apartment offered a terrific view looking out toward the Golden Gate and the bridge of the same name. So it wasn't all bad. Also the apartments were quite modern by 1960s standards.

I wandered to the backyard. The fort is long gone but the redwood and walnut trees are still there. I got dizzy looking at how high up them I used to climb as a reckless child. There was the ten year old me throwing the football with my brother.  There was the 16 year old me getting high in the fort. There were all the friends I used to play with. Mark, Robin, Mike, Thornton, Douglas, Jeff….
The old neighborhood hasn’t changed a whole lot. Most of the same dwellings looking pretty much as they did. There are condos on the corner where the Flying A gas station used to be.

I then took the same walk I did for many years to Jefferson elementary school. It boggles the mind that in those days it was nothing for a child to walk 15 minutes to school. A parent who let their child walk half that distance today would be deemed insane. The world hasn’t gotten any more dangerous for kids since the Sixties, we are all just a lot more paranoid. You never see kids walking the streets like we did. You also never see kids organize their own baseball games as we did in the Summer. We never needed play dates. For the life of my I don’t know why children do today. Parents provide way too much structure and don’t allow nearly enough time for children to just be and think and play and use their own imaginations. But I digress.

On the way to Jefferson I boldly walked under a tree that I avoided for years. Within a day of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) for the first time, I was walking under that tree and a crow swooped down and buzzed me. Although I’m sure there was no ill intent on the bird’s part the timing couldn’t have been worse. I ran in desperate fear the rest of the way to school. And henceforth never, as a child, walked beneath that tree.

My grandparents' house.
I got to Jefferson and it looked remarkably similar to how it did when I attended there from kindergarten through the sixth grade. Of course the gates around the school have locks now and are shut tight, presumably to keep predators at bay. The jungle gym is in the same place. I was standing under it one day when I saw a girl get hit by a car. I still remember seeing her flying in the air and blood spraying from her. As I recall she suffered no major injuries.

It was recess when I was walking outside the school with happy, yelling children at play. I saw one boy off by himself swinging in circles on a tire swing. That would not have been me, I thought. Then I noticed a baseball game in progress and a little blonde boy whacked a line drive into left field. That, I thought, would have been me. The big screened backstop looked the same, I doubt they've repaired it in 50 years, nor needed to.

I also saw the area where my brother punched a bully so hard he broke a bone in his hand. We were all so proud of him for that. I also saw the spot where I karate chopped a bully that my friends and I called The Choker because he tried to choke kids. His name was Mark Furman, yeah same as the cop in the OJ Simpson case. I did not break a bone in my hand when I karate chopped him but he never bothered me again.

I circled the school and looked up at the windows I used to gaze out of. The houses I would have looked down on when I was on the second floor in 5th and 6th grades are the same. I recalled one of my most incredible memories, one that you might find hard to believe but I swear to be true. I still was sitting in the classroom on the first day of 1st grade and think achingly that I had 12 more years of school to go. I remembered it depressed the heck out of me, or as much as a first grader can be depressed anyway.

From Jefferson I walked the block and a half to my grandparents’ old house on Sacramento Street. It was where my mother grew up starting from about age six, which would have been in 1926. I, like my brother before me, attended Jefferson even though Whittier was closer because Grandma lived so near Jefferson (or Yefferson as my dad called it). Everyday I would avoid the horror of elementary school lunch and go to grandma’s for a home cooked lunch that I enjoyed with her golden retriever (he got what is now called halfsies from me). One day as I sat down to lunch and turned on the TV, the usual fare, The Donna Reed Show, was preempted by live reports of the assassination of President John Kennedy.

When I returned to the playground for the last part of lunch that day I informed one and all of the news. Of course, no one believed me. Then after lunch a teary eyed Ms. Phillips came in and informed us the president had been killed. We were all thus excused for the day. On the way out all who had disbelieved me acknowledged their mistake.

Grandma’s house looked ever so much smaller than I remembered it. I suppose its been a long long time since I stood outside it. There are now trees on the front lawn and the house has been painted a garish color. It was a great place to have grandparent’s living. There was a huge dining room for Thanksgiving dinner and extra bedrooms and a big backyard with a doghouse built into the backstairs. Grandma would sometimes sit in a lawn chair and pitch baseballs to me. She also always had cookies made and would gladly prepare pancakes in the middle of the day if I so requested. Jenni Kurki belongs in the grandmother's hall of fame.

From there I walked home. Total time elapsed since I left was two hours. Or a lifetime depending on how you look at it.

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