"My work may be garbage but it's good garbage." Mickey Spillane
It was not all bad. Fifty cents would get you a big burger and a soda. I was a latch key from first grade on. Mama and Papa both worked. Mama sold luggage at a major department store and Papa worked at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard. Strikes and other sources of unemployment often had us moving around as Papa took jobs up and down the coast of California. He was one of the earliest men to be trained on the first of the big electric eye machines that could cut steel with great precision.
Long Beach was where we spent the majority of my early life. We lived on Hill Street between Long Beach and Atlantic. I always had pocket money and was free to grab a burger and a soda at Switzee’s that sat at a diagonal from the elementary school I attended.
We used to go on weekends to a hamburger place called Whimpy’s that sat on a hill over looking the ocean. I would feed part of my burger bun to the pigeons.
We had a field trip to the airport in second grade. Everyone in the class drew pictures of the airplanes. But I was always the one who saw something else in the world around me and found it far more interesting. I drew an oil derrick and one of those things that look like a giant chicken trying to pull the worm out of the ground, but was actually pumping oil. There were a lot of oil rigs around the edges of the airport.
The area was hilly. One of my favorite things was when we drove up to Signal Hill and then went down it. The hill was so steep that going down always made me feel as if my stomach was about to jump through my throat. I used to have dreams about going down that hill.
Mama taught me to read and had lots of flash cards to help me learn. I learned fractions in kindergarten because Mama bought one of those learning kits that involved putting slices of pie into a big circular frame. I enjoyed learning.
Since I was always a responsible child, I got my first record player in first grade. I was very careful about putting the records on and afraid of scratching them. I loved Spike Jones and my favorite song was “it might as well be spring.”
My Uncle Pete was outraged and threw a fit right in front of me over the record player. He felt that Mama should not have given a child a record player. She basically told him to forget about it, that the judgment call was hers.
I liked Pete most of the time. He was a pushy wino who insisted upon giving me periodic pep talks. He was short and slender, only about five six, and wore his sandy blond hair in a crewcut. Pete wore very thick glasses. He had been born with cataracts and went blind at the age of two. However, the cataracts were removed and he was able to see with those odd glasses. He used to squint a lot and twist his nose up which I thought was funny looking, but I was too polite to laugh.
I liked him enough that I named my parakeet after him. Pete the bird was a pretty blue creature that I got a lot of pleasure from owning. We had a parrot for a while, but Papa taught the bird to say dirty words and cuss people out, which Mama did not find at all amusing. She made Papa sell the parrot because it was a bad influence on my tender ears.
Papa hung a carpenter’s apron on me and taught me to build things. I loved hammers and vises. He had this huge black vise that fascinated me. You turned it with a rod that had a big knob on each end. The rod would slip down when you got it to the top, so I had to keep shifting my grip to the bottom.
We built a bookcase for my encyclopedias. I had three sets of them by the time that I was ten. There were three books in the Whitman Children’s Classics series that I loved a lot, Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe, and More Than Courage. Considering that all three books were about animals, it is no wonder that my first attempts at writing featured dogs and horses.
Each summer we would drive to Texas and visit our relatives there. One cousin had horses. She was a barrel racer and her big gelding named Doc was a lot of fun to ride. i would take him around the barrels in the corral and pretend that I was a racer also. Because the days were so hot in the summer, the riding club that my cousin belonged to would hold trail rides after dark. That meant that I not only got to stay up very late, but I did so on horseback.