The house across the street overflowed with little ones, and always another on the way, including twins. With each birth another room was added to their tumble-down home. One day a girl close to my age invited me to a tent revival with the family, and I reluctantly agreed, squeezing into the back of their big old station wagon with seven others. I sat wide-eyed and terrified when people began to fall to the floor, their bodies shaking or writhing while saliva and undecipherable sounds streamed from their mouths. If not the fear of God, I developed a fear of preachers who could bring about such horrors, and a terror that it could happen to me. Between my religious experience and nightly watching the skies for aliens, uncertainty filled my days. (I should add the movies like Forbidden Planet, The Blob, and War of the Worlds triggered my imagination in those days.)
Mom did her best to brighten our home, transforming the yard into green lawns, beds of Shasta daisies and Calla lilies, fruit trees, a bountiful garden with fresh strawberries, vine-ripened tomatoes, and a special treat—home grown artichokes. That garden had more influence on me than anything else to tell the truth. I enjoyed sitting on the front porch, snapping green beans, shelling peas and listening to early rock and roll. And the pies mom made—peach, apricot, strawberry, apple—the best pies in the world. Such are memories.
“Call Del Pero’s and tell Al to bring home some meat for dinner,” she said before leaving in the big Dodge station wagon. My step-father was a butcher at a meat market in Yuba City. “Make sure the kids take a bath and polish their shoes before bed.”
I hated making that call, though it was one of the few instances where Al and I exchanged words. I felt like I was intruding on his work world, and he would be annoyed at me, as would anyone else who answered the phone. Why didn’t he already know we needed groceries? “Mom wants you to bring home some meat for dinner, and some lunchmeat for tomorrow. I don’t know what kind, doesn’t matter, I guess…” Fact is, it was a standoff, He thinking she picked up something with her tips, and her not having enough tips. Sometimes I didn’t have to call and we would feast on a meal from the pot of beans or spaghetti sauce that had been simmering all day. After American Bandstand, I’d fry up some potatoes and make cornbread or cook the spaghetti and make a salad. The kids and I would eat, because my step-father often stopped at the Owl and had a couple beers before coming home to a house full of kids and a cold plate sitting on the stove. Who could blame him? “I never loved him,” my mother confided on her death bed, though he was a good man. But, I digress.
In some ways it was a cold house, devoid of parental signs of affection—a house kept busy with work, making a living, cleaning, struggling to keep a family of seven well-fed and dressed. But to me that was normalcy, and it was not all work and no play. Little brothers and sister, you were too young to even evoke much of a memory, I hate to say. My closest sibling, Denny, and I created our own adventures though. The irrigation ditch was full of frogs and crawdads in those days. A raft could be built from old lumber to make it easier to track down and catch critters. We stomped all over those ten acres with Al’s .22 trying to shoot jackrabbits and pheasants—never came close to hitting anything. We laid pennies on the railroad tracks and waited for the Southern Pacific to pass and claim our prize. There were a few other kids on Murphy road, but I didn’t really get to know them.
If you had been there, you’d know what I’m talking about—ten miles out of town, last house on the right, the end of a dead-end, railroad tracks delineating Murphy Road’s termination. We kids had a half-mile walk along that pock-marked road lined with sky-blue chicory weed and yellow star thistle to the school bus stop. If you crossed the highway and walked another half-mile you passed through a peach orchard and ran into another dead end—a levee and the Feather River. Heading back home took you past scattered, rundown houses, a couple nicer ones, a few trailers, one-time small farms, the outbuildings in disrepair, and the Mexicans’ place with chickens pecking around the yard and a tied dog that lunged whenever anyone came near. Boxed in, so to speak, by tracks on one side and the river on the other, the outlook seemed limited.
My mom and step father bought the small stucco house on ten acres in 1955. It had two bedrooms and one bath. There were five of us kids, me being the oldest. That first year the flood waters threatened to break through the levee and everyone in the community had to find refuge in a school gymnasium and wait for the water to recede. I busied myself fixing and serving tuna sandwiches to the other refugees, and felt somewhat self-important. The Feather River spared our home that time, but those ten flat acres remained derelict and unused. And though my step-father had dreams of utilizing the land with a couple beef cattle and a milk cow, the acreage remained idle during my four years on Murphy Road, choked with star thistle and pesky fox tails that worked their way into our cocker spaniel’s ears.
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