Thursday, December 4, 2014

Memories of My Life and Family in Mid-Century Southern California

My parents got married in February, 1946.  This is their first Christmas card.
My father and mother were both children of the midwestern America.  My mother, Hellyn, and my father, Carl, were born in 1921 and 1922, respectively, in Kansas and Minnesota.  They were both members of large families that were at the bottom of the economic ladder where the only way to go was up.  The Great Depression that began in 1929 devoured their youth and formed them as people with habits of thriftiness and a strong work ethic they would have for the rest of their lives.  Their life decisions had profound benefits for my own life.

My dad left high school early and joined the Marine Corps when he was only 17 years old.  He hated the bitterly cold winters of St. Paul, Minnesota, and he hated the hard work on a horse stable where his father was a care-taker.  He was sent to San Diego, California for his basic training. 

My father in 1940 at Mission Beach in San Diego, California

My Dad in 1940 on a visit to Tijuana, Mexico.
My Dad at Camp Elliot (San Diego County) in 1941 where he did his weapons training

Before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, I think he felt he had arrived in paradise in warm coastal California in 1940. 

My father, Carl  (c. 1945), spent 21 years in the Marine Corps.
My mother was the second eldest of a large Kansas family.  She was a bright girl in a dirt poor family and she longed for much more.  So after graduating from high school at the top of her class but with no money to attend college, she worked different low-paying clerical jobs with an eye on getting out of Kansas as soon as the opportunity presented itself.  When she saw an ad by a fellow who offered a ride to Los Angeles, California for $13, she borrowed an additional $5, took the ride and never looked back.  She moved in with friends who had moved to L.A. before her. 

My mother (left) in Los Angeles with her girlfriends (June 6, 1942)
She worked in a printing company and then joined the Marine Corps Women's Reserve in 1943.  Among all the young soldiers that flooded L.A. in the early 1940's,  my father met my mom.    After the war ended, they eloped to Yuma, Arizona in February, 1946. 

My mother, Hellyn (c. 1947)

After being discharged from the Marine Corps after the war, my father became an apprentice carpenter for his Uncle Tom who was a builder of homes in the Los Angeles area.  He also tried his hand at photography during this time.  But with the first baby born (my sister) in 1949 , money was tight, so my father re-enlisted in the Marine Corps as the Korean War approached. He got a sign-up bonus to re-enlist and bought his first home in Baldwin Park, California in 1949.  The now famous fast food burger place, In-N-Out Burger had just established its first  restaurant there in 1948.  Southern California was "taking off" with exponential growth after many GI's settled there after the war.
Their first child, Jeanne, was born in January, 1949.

They bought their first home in Baldwin Park (a suburb of  Los Angeles) for $7150.

Jeanne playing with the family's first TV

I was born in December, 1950 and the family was complete

Our family in 1951 in Baldwin Park, CA
Here's a picture of Jeanne and Vicki in 1951 (just before we moved to Hawaii) 
We moved to San Diego for a short time in 1951.  We lived in the Naval base housing before my dad was transferred to Hawaii.

Our home and car in San Diego. 1951 

Our family moved to the Territory of Hawaii  after my father was transferred to Honolulu in 1951

My sister went to a private kindergarten in Hawaii.
Here she is as an angel during a school Christmas play
 For three years, we lived in the Kaneohe base housing at Mokapu  called "Termite Village".  It was an idyllic time for our family.  Near her death in 1999, my mother recalled this as the best time of her life.   My parents were young and living on an island paradise.  They enjoyed partying with other Marines Corps families and luaus on the beach.  My father was an E-8 rank of Master Sergeant who provided technical leadership in communications.  He was fortunate not to have been sent to fight in Korea where the US was at war.

In 1954, my father was transferred back to California, this time to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California (located in San Diego County).  My father bought a "fixer-upper" for $5000 on slightly less than 3 acres in what was then rural Oceanside on Canyon Drive.  As a man of great skill in carpentry, he rebuilt the small 4 room house to suit his taste.  The house was halfway up a canyon and was originally built around a 1929 trailer home.  The single bath had an old-fashioned claw-foot tub.  The bedroom my sister and I shared had a clerestory window for us to view the sky from our bed.  The home was heated by an oil heater that I always was scared of because when I viewed the tiny window of the stove, there were flames and black smoke.  The living room had huge windows covered with bamboo curtains from Hawaii.  The view was of massive eucalyptus trees growing around the house, giving one the impression of living in a tree house. It was a home I have so many memories of, living there from 1954 to 1957 and then again from 1961 until 1964.  My sister and I built "forts" with eucalyptus branches on "Christmas Tree Mountain" - the name we gave the canyon hillside that towered above Canyon Drive -- that had a few straggly cedar trees growing among the chaparral and sage. My family sold walnuts for 35 cents a pound that we harvested from our English Walnut trees and we girls sold bunches of wild sweet pea flowers for 10 cents.  We had apricot and almond trees and my mother canned apricot and loquat jelly and my father brewed beer and root beer.

We kids pretended we were Indians and made our own bows and arrows. We had dogs and "secret" trails and a grass hill to slide on in late summer with large pieces of cardboard.  We swam and fished at the local beaches.  With our friends, we worked for many hours building a mud playhouse we called "Adobe Wells". It was a pretty good time and place to grow up.  My mother worked as a linotypist for the local newspaper, The Blade-Tribune, then owned by the iconic liberal writer and politician, Tom Braden.  Braden had recently left the CIA and borrowed $100,000 from Nelson Rockefeller to buy the paper in 1954.

In 1957, my father was transferred to the Terminal Island base (Long Beach, California).  We moved again and rented a home in Buena Park, California (a suburb of Los Angeles located in Orange County). I went to 2nd Grade at Buena Terra Elementary School.  We lived less than a mile from Knott's Berry Farm and my family frequently strolled the grounds there where we could walk through an old "Ghost Town," ride a mule or pan for gold.

There were few rides there then (before it became a huge amusement park). Mostly it was a family farm where chicken dinners and berry jam were sold. My mother got a job as a printer with her former employer, Moore Business Forms, in nearby Fullerton.  We kids were sleepily transported next door to our neighbors for care until school started. Our neighbors, Tomisina and Alfonso were from Mexico and I still can remember her hand-crocheted starched dollies on the furniture and warm, hand-made four tortillas with butter when we got back from school each day, and pinatas at birthday parties.  I loved Tommie and Al as if they were family. My best friend then was Scott, a neighbor-boy from down the street, who was an albino and had webbed hands with few fingers and a cleft lip.  It was my first experience with a friend who had disabilities and I became sensitive to the bullying of such people from 7 years of age.

In 1958, we bought a tract home in Anaheim, about a mile from  the new Disneyland Park that opened in 1955.  There were still a lot of orange groves in Orange County and a small farm with an orange grove still existed at the end of our street where we neighborhood kids played baseball in the street. I attended Jonas Salk Elementary School from the 3rd to the 6th grade.  It was a brand new school with almost 100% white students.  There were very few hispanic students and no black kids at all. Racial segregation as practiced in Southern California was primarily housing segregation and the new desirable housing developments in Orange County were "off-limits" to black buyers.  I remember living in Anaheim as a dizzying and fast-paced time.  Anaheim was the fastest growing city in the entire USA in the late fifties and early sixties. Indeed, all of Southern California experienced a time of rapid change and urbanization with freeway construction, fast-food restaurants, the film and aerospace industries replacing farming -- all led to increasing growth for the Middle Class.  Orange County was a bastion for conservative politics and even today, places like Anaheim are touted as a "Best City for Conservatives".  Today, the demographics for Anaheim have changed so that whites are a minority.  The KKK has begun to exhibit an ugly response.  A violent riot resulted when they marched in Anaheim on February 27, 2016.

My family at Disneyland in 1959 

In 1960, my father was transferred to Okinawa in Japan for 13 months.  Mom, my sister and I stayed in Anaheim.  I was halfway through the 6th grade when my dad returned.  He moved us back to our Oceanside house because his new duty station was MCRD in San Diego.  I remember I felt like I was dropped into "Hicksville" when I transferred to Mission Elementary School in the much slower-paced Oceanside.  

Now, looking back, I know moving back to San Diego County was the best thing to happen to me. Oceanside is a small town where a large Marine Corps base dominates the culture and demographics. Oceanside was racially diverse and so were the schools.  We had a student body of mostly White, Black, Hispanic, Samoan, and Japanese kids.  The fact that so many kids of different races and nationalities went to school together meant we didn't have the racial prejudices and conflicts other places had in the 1960's.

I went on to Jefferson Junior High in 1962.  I worked on the school newspaper in the 8th grade.  I vividly remember when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.  I had just had lunch in the cafeteria and went into the library when the loudspeaker announced the event.  I sat down and penned an article (a memorial) right there which got printed at the front page of The Falconer, our school newspaper. We watched the events play out on TV in real-time, the arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald, the shooting of Oswald by Jack Ruby, the funeral in Washington, the caisson with the President's casket, the riderless horse, the grieving widow and children, the salute graveside by "John-John", the President's small son.....  As a girl about to turn 13 years old, I was profoundly affected by these events and was experiencing a common mourning with the rest of America.  But my father who was a very conservative Republican, hated Kennedy and he made many disparaging comments that made me question his political views forever after.  The man that I had always looked up to said such ugly things about this young President who was killed tragically that I experienced a life-changing epiphany.  This was the first moment for me "to question authority" which became a clarion call for my generation in the 1960's.  

I had my first boyfriend in the 8th grade.  Martin gave me his shop ring to wear around my neck and his red and black Pendleton board shirt to wear (these were the symbols of young love in 1964 southern California).  "Going steady" didn't last too long for me and Martin.  He was painfully shy and he could not even bring himself to hold my hand, let alone kiss me as we sat in a darkened movie theater.  We "broke up" within a few weeks of his asking me to "go steady" and I sadly returned his ring and shirt.  

My 6th grade class in Oceanside, California (I'm in the 2nd row, 4th from the left).  Martin  (my first boyfriend) is in the top row, 2nd from the right.

A clay sculpture I did in 1968
I went on to Oceanside High School for 4 years (1964-1968). I spent idyllic summers on the beach and got a surfboard and attempted to be a surfer (that didn't last very long). I listened and danced to the wonderful music of the sixties. I avoided using drugs completely but did learn how to get drunk. I was on a College Prep track but also took a lot of arts classes.  I spent 4 years as a Thespian and won Best Actress for a One Act Play High School hosted by San Diego State College (later "University") and was awarded a one year scholarship to major in Theater at San Diego State.  I took four years of art and entered sculptures and paintings into art exhibits.  I even painted the sets for my high school plays and for the local community theater production of The Fantasticks. I still have 2 pieces of art from high school.

An acrylic painting I did in 1968

I got politically active in high school. We students supported our teachers who went on strike in 1966 as we brought out our own grievances about the school administration.  My boyfriend then was the high school ASB President, Bill (Will) Bagley.  He was a champion debater and award-winning extemporaneous public speaker.  Today, he is a well-known writer and historian in Salt Lake City.  I found my niche in a group of bohemian-leaning super-smart students who listened to Bob Dylan, did theater and folk music and read philosophy.

My boyfriend, Bill, is on the right
 in the tie and jacket leading the student protestors.
In my senior year of high school, I was passionately against the war in Vietnam and I volunteered to work for Sen. Eugene McCarthy for President.  Many students joined Jack Estes, a OHS Civics teacher, to work on the McCarthy campaign.  We were all together at a "Victory Party" on the night of the California Primary, June 6, 1968, when we watched "live" the assassination of the primary winner,  Robert F. Kennedy.  After Martin Luther King's assassination in April, 1968, it seemed our generation was to be plagued with endless political violence.  I continued to work for McCarthy and wrote a letter to the head of the California Delegates, Speaker Jess Unruh, to swing his Kennedy votes to McCarthy. Years later, I found out in his biography that my letter was not only read, but considered seriously, by Jess Unruh.  But Gene McCarthy's candidacy was to be "quixotic" as the Democratic Convention in Chicago turned into a police-state like confrontation with the forces of democracy.

My 1968 high school graduation picture
The 1960's were turbulent with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, race riots, the Farm Worker's Union Movement, the assassinations of political figures, the Hippie Movement. The  "boomer generation" of children produced by the children of The Great Depression were very much full of themselves.  Through the financial support of their increasingly middle-class and upper-middle class parents, the people of my generation went to college in great numbers.  My father had retired from the Marines Corps by 1964 and was receiving a military pension but he continued to work in the Civil Service as a Maintenance Worker at Camp Pendleton.  My mom worked as an encyclopedia salesperson, a Gallup Poll interviewer, and a clerk-typist.  She changed jobs from a clerk-typist in the Civil Service to a "Packaging and Preservation Specialist" at Camp Pendleton where she unpacked, cleaned, and repacked equipment returning from the war in Vietnam.  A terrible car accident in 1964 caused my mother to be hospitalized with a broken neck.  She experienced extreme pain for the rest of her life and retired with a disability retirement.  My family bought our first "new" home in 1966.  It was a 3 bedroom, 2 and one half bath split level ranch-style home at 320 Kennedy Lane in Oceanside.  We bought it while it was still under construction for $19,750. We had a recreation room and bought a pool table for it and it was the location for many teen-age parties.  My mother bought  new French Provincial living room furniture.  I had my own bedroom, finally, and the place was new and shiny.  I think it was the first time I felt "we had arrived" to the Middle Class.

After graduating from high school in 1968 I went to the local community college for my freshman year (my parents were adamant about equal treatment for my sister and I, and since she went to the community college her first year, I had to do the same).  I fell in love with Roy Cook at MiraCosta College.  Roy was 7 years older than I.  He was the Vice-President of the college ASB and the Editor of the college newspaper.  He was was a Jump Master in the Army Special Forces Reserve (the Green Berets) who loved parachuting and mountain climbing.  He was proud of his heritage as part-Native American and part-Mexican American and part-White. 

Roy Cook (c. 1969)
He transferred to San Diego State College in 1969 and I followed, majoring in Theater Arts so I could use the scholarship I had won in high school.  A boy from Tucson, Arizona, from poor economic circumstance, Roy wanted to study Business Law and be a corporate lawyer.  He eventually became an artist, teacher and leader in the Californian Indian and Veteran communities.

Vicki in 1970 (on top of Mt. Soledad, La Jolla, California)
I transferred to the University of California San Diego in 1970 and graduated in 1972 with a B.A. (Sociology).  In those days, college fees for the public-supported University of California were only $100 an academic quarter and there was no tuition.  The then-Governor, Ronald Reagan, increased the fees to $300 an academic quarter in 1971-72 and they've kept climbing so that today they are out of reach to the average middle-class student without student loans, scholarships or grants.

For my family, I was the first to get a college degree and my parents were extremely proud of my accomplishment.  It was, after all, what they wanted for me and my sister, academic and economic success - the Middle Class Dream of the last century.

My grandmother and mother on a visit to Death Valley, California in 1970

When my father retired from the Civil Service at the age of 52 and my mother began receiving permanent disability from Social Security,  they sold their home in Oceanside in 1974 for $34,000.  They stored their personal property and took off with a  17 foot travel trailer to travel full time.  They had always dreamed to see Europe but never made it as illnesses prevented the achievement of that goal.  They finally settled down in Yuma, Arizona until their deaths in the 1990's.  I think they looked back at their lives and their children with great pride and accomplishment.  They came a long way in their own lives and achieved just about everything they set out to do.  One cannot ask for more in this life.

My parents with me (c. 1978) in San Diego, California.
My father had just been diagnosed with heart disease and was to undergo quadruple heart by-pass surgery.


  1. What a timely post Mama! I always enjoy reading and learning about our family. Love your insights and photo selection... Love you!

  2. A remarkable family and personal story, Vicki, I'm not even jealous though it makes my life trajectory look rather mundane....:)

  3. A great history. The phots are wonderful. Oh that moment when we question authority. I have to say I have been surprised by a few people whom I had greatly respected when I heard some of their political leanings this past year.

  4. I'm glad I came across your site, thank you. I grew up in BP 1951-1959 and your pics remind me of my parents and our house at 5045 La Sena. John