Sunday, August 2, 2015

This Old House

These reflections on my childhood are true, subject to the frailty of memory.

Before setting out on my great adventure, I took a trip to Oakland to revisit some scenes from my childhood. 

This old house, built in 1914 at 570 Athol Avenue, Oakland, California is the warehouse for many of my childhood memories. I lived there from 1944 until 1952, from when I was five years old until the summer I was thirteen.

I slept in the house during the night, but most of my memories are outside in the backyard, in the streets, on the sidewalks, roaming the neighborhood, and beyond. We were free-range children. I don't know if that was the norm for the day, or if it was because my mother was always busy with the baby -- I was the oldest of five children, so there was always a baby. Perhaps she was settling into her alcoholism, or just, as she said, "Too nervous to have us underfoot." But, as nearly as I can recall, unless we were at school, it was raining, or we were sick, we were turned out to play.

Sometimes we played in the backyard. My father was very clever at all kinds of building, and made our backyard into a great playground. There was a nice lawn, beautiful flower beds, a 15 x 20 foot playhouse constructed as soundly as any house with cement foundations, wood framing on 16" centers, solid wood sub floors over sturdy beams, an eight foot ceiling and a pitched roof with exposed rafters. It served later residents as a studio, He had constructed a swing set from salvaged pipes, and an enormous sandbox filled with sand liberated from the glass factory where he worked as an architectural engineer. When glass furnaces were rebuilt, used bricks became available for reuse and showed up in our backyard as a barbecue pit on our patio (pronounced PAH-tee-oh, by him).

But, the front yard, the streets, the neighborhood and beyond were also part of our range. In the front yard, we played jacks, or rock school on the front steps. In rock school, one kid was chosen to be teacher and stood in front of the students who sat on the steps. The teacher hid a small rock in one of her closed fists. The students started in Kindergarten on the bottom step and if they guessed which hand held the rock they would be promoted. The first kid to the top of the steps became the teacher and the game started over. I loved rock school.

The street was great for jump rope, kite-flying, hide-and-seek, kick the can, Red Rover, Mother May I, Simon Says, and an infinite variety of tag games, like freeze tag, blind man's bluff, and stoop tag. On really hot days, we liked to squat down in the middle of the street and pop the tar bubbles that formed. We would also pull up a patch of the sticky stuff and chew it like gum. If we were really lucky, someone in the neighborhood would be having a roof repaired and there would be a truck pulling a tar pot parked in front of their house. We could then get a fresh, "clean," chunk of tar to chew on. If we got thirsty, we drank from the hose, anybody's hose, in the front yard and we might accidentally squirt one of our friends.

We knew all the neighbors, if not by name, by ethnicity: the Brazilians on the corner, the Filipinos next door, the Jews on the other corner, the Chinese on the other side of the block, the Greeks who ran the grocery down the street. Mrs. McCarthy could always be depended on for a cookie if we knocked on her door and asked; Mr. Green always called his car his "machine." The Amundsen's across the street still had an ice box and had ice delivered twice a week. If we were out front when the ice man came, we could get a chunk of ice to suck on. And the Lukes had the first television on the block, making their live-in granddaughters, Sandra and Claudia, very popular.
Large Queen Anne style Victorian -- missing witches hat tower roof

The architecture of the neighborhood was eclectic. Older Victorians stood next to Maybeckian shingled houses, Craftsmen-style cottages, '30s deco and Spanish-style houses filled in some of the gaps and a '50s moderne occupied the last-to-be-built corner lot.


More on the old neighborhood tomorrow.

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