My father spent 20 years as a Hospital Corpsman in the U.S. Navy, beginning in 1942 when at age 19 he enlisted to serve in the Second World War until 1962 when he “retired,” and began a second, civilian career as a life insurance salesman. This meant that I had a military childhood. One feature of that way of growing up shared by all military children is the experience of living in military housing. It is a bit like living in a parallel universe: a common experience for those within the bubble, but often exotic to those who grow up in other ways. My time living near the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, many years ago was an interesting example of the process.
In 1950, I went, at age 6, with my mother and father and my sister, age 3, to a Navy housing project that was very close to the Air Station where my father was assigned. We had an apartment, on a cul de sac called Ammen Court – probably named after some war hero — that was one half of a single story bungalow. There were three bedrooms. For the first time in my life, my sister and I both had our own rooms. In mine, I could spread out my toys, have my own bureau for clothes, and even collect things like the bunch of rocks I kept under my bed. The place also gave my parents more of a feeling of being settled, something that did not come easily to military people even five years after the Second World War and with the Cold War in progress. In a gesture of commitment, my father requisitioned tools and lumber from the Air Station and built a picket fence around the backyard. My parents bought me a fast running little cocker spaniel dog. Un-euphoniously, but appropriately for the era, I named him “Jet Propelled.”
We also got our first television set on which, like many others in America who were mesmerized by this fledgling medium, we watched endless hours of Roller Derby and all of the movies of Hopalong Cassidy. Hoppy’s black costume and white horse took on an extra degree of drama, and sometimes of menace, because people in those days were in the habit of watching television in darkened rooms.
My overall memory of that apartment is one of peace and settledness. I felt it when my father played the phonograph he bought and put in our living room. He had a large collection of 78 RPM recordings which I had never seen before and which he had begun accumulating in the late 1930s. They must have been in storage during the Second World War. It was logical that he would own the collection. He was a talented singer and guitarist. In high school, before the war, he and two friends — one man, one woman — formed a musical trio that won many talent contests. My father sang tenor. He had a clear, resonant, evocative voice. One of the records in his collection was his own rendition, which he sent to my mother during the war, of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” He also played lots of songs by Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and the young Nat King Cole. Vocals predominated. We also listened to instrumentals by Frankie Carl and various Boogie Woogie artists.
I had a collection of my own. My parents bought me the recorded story of “Little Toot,” the boy tugboat in the harbor who mistakenly dragged several ships onto the shore, was ostracized, and then redeemed himself by bravely rescuing an ocean liner stranded in a storm at sea. I also remember listening, again and again and again, to the story of “Bozo the Clown” who journeyed from one country of the world to another in his rocket ship, landing in Holland and Russia and China just long enough to hear welcoming remarks in foreign accents and a joke from some local resident before zooming on to the next destination. Both albums included music and sound effects that moved the narration along. I can still hear, in my mind, the sounds of waves and wind and lightning as the Andrews Sisters sang “Wake Up, Little Toot” to make certain that he got out to sea in time to make his heroic rescue.
The neighborhood was full of children. I played Army Man, and Cowboys and Indians, with the boys my age. We liked to trade outfits and toy weapons. The kid who had the Hoppy guns, with the white handles and double, black leather holsters, would trade with the kid who had the Roy Rogers hat and neckerchief, or with me, the proud owner of a Red Ryder repeating rifle, or with the kid who had the Lone Ranger hat, mask, and belt with extra silver bullets.
Sometimes the girls joined in, taking the role of Roy’s wife Dale Evans, or perhaps a ranch woman needing to be rescued from scalp hunting savages. After we rescued the girls we made them our prisoners in the fort we created in the ground under one of the bungalows. Those were the rules of the era.
Living next to the Naval Air Station created interesting possibilities for play. The kids my age, and a few who were older and had more sense of strategy, sometimes got together at a cherry tree that was next to one of the storage areas of the base. After we got tired of climbing the tree, we went over to the cement drainage ditch that was next to it. There was no fence to keep children away, as there probably would be today. The channel was about four feet wide and usually had water in it, to a depth of about two feet. With a running start, we could jump the ditch. Then we crawled under an opening we had dug in the dirt under the chain link fence that separated the housing project from the base. The area was filled with wooden hangars and warehouses. They were seldom needed now that the War was over. Inside we discovered old fighter planes and bombers. Most had parts missing — a wing, a motor, a tail, sometimes all the landing wheels. There were lots of seaplanes. In and near the warehouses, there were thousands of spare parts for the planes, some in big packing crates on wooden pallets, some just strewn around. No adults ever seemed to be in the area. At will, we wandered from one building to another, sometimes playing hide and seek, sometimes just enjoying the adventure of being in a mysterious place and wondering what kind of war would have required so much junk. Our favorites of all the spare parts were the aluminum pontoons. They were stored in halves, not yet bolted and welded together, that looked like elongated eggshells bisected lengthwise. To lift each half of a pontoon required the coordinated, experienced muscle power of four children. We carried the halves back to the chain link fence, pushed them through our opening, and then paddled them along the drainage ditch with boards or our hands.
A popular activity for boys in the 1940s and 1950s was soap box derby racing. You and your buddies built a small motorless racing car, about four feet long, out of old packing crates and leftover wheels and hardware you scrounged up in your neighborhood. Or, if you were skilled at carpentry and perhaps got help from adults, you constructed your car in the sleek Art Deco style that had been popular since the 1930s. If you built a good car, a local merchant sponsored you as his entry in the annual race for your part of town. If your neighborhood was hilly, the cars simply got a push and then coasted to the finish line. If there were no hills, your friends pushed you the whole way. The winners of the derbies got prizes –things like U.S. Savings Bonds, tee shirts, movie passes, or a month of free ice cream cones at the local soda fountain.
My friends and I decided to build a soapbox derby car. We were too young to enter an official race. For that you had to be at least ten years old. But we thought it would be fun to build a car of our own and zoom it around. So few people on the base owned automobiles in those days that kids could play safely on residential streets. We got some tools from our parents and found various pieces of discarded wood. My mother let us take the wheels off the baby carriage she had used for my sister, who was by then three years old and no longer needed it. My friends and I sketched plans, sawed and pounded for a few days, and soon had a respectable looking race car complete with a roof over the driver’s head to protect against the rain, which, for who knows what reason, seemed important to us. Unfortunately, the active life of the car was very brief. The tragic flaw in our effort was that we did not understand weight. The wheels from the baby carriage were not strong enough to support the car. Even if they had been, we would not have enjoyed success. Our car had no axles. We didn’t comprehend the need for them. We simply attached the wheels from the baby carriage to the wooden floor of our car, using four large nails. When the first one of us climbed into the car, the rest of us pushed it forward, there was a slight buildup of speed and about ten yards of forward motion, and then the nails ripped from the wood and the car skidded to a stop like a platypus on sand.
That would have been the end of things, except for a happy coincidence. My mother’s three brothers, Franklin, Donald, and Buddy, who were all teenagers, had recently entered the soap box derby in nearby Albany, where they were living, and where there was a large hill that made the annual contest there very exciting. When my parents told them about my friends and me, my uncles generously gave me their racing car. It arrived by pickup truck and was truly beautiful –bright red, with sleeked, curved lines, strong axles and well-aligned wheels, and a responsive steering stick in the comfortable, padded driver’s cab.
For the next several weeks, my friends and I pushed our new car all around the neighborhood, enjoying the excitement even after covering the same routes hundreds of times. We might have gone on for a much longer time, had we not run into another area of ignorance. As part of the fantasy we were enjoying, one of us decided that, after so much time on the road, our car needed gas. We got a stick and poked a hole in the rear end. Only then did we learn that the vehicle was made of papier mache attached to a wooden frame. When we inserted the nozzle of our gas pump, which was a garden hose, and turned on the water, the papier mache began to decompose. Instead of stopping, however, we put in more water. The beautiful design of our car was soon marred. Without the sense of sleekness, racing around the neighborhood was no longer fun. We relegated the car to a corner of my backyard and, with apologies to my uncles, my father later took it to the dump.
One of the big events of the week during this time of my life was the “Saturday Matinee” at local movie theaters. Every weekend, my mother gave me a dime for admission, a nickel for popcorn, and another five cents to buy a soft drink. One of the theaters, the Alameda, showed the most current movies but required transportation by some generous parent with a car.
The other theatre, called the Rio, was located on Webster Street, half an hour’s walk away from our Navy housing.
My friends and I went in a group but were not accompanied by adults. Neighborhoods were safer in those days, or at least perceived to be so. The theatre, which held about three hundred people, was filled with kids from all over the city. We watched cowboy movies, pirate movies, The Three Stooges, and Abbott and Costello.
Actually, we did not so much watch the movie as attend it. We spent about half the time running back and forth between our seats and the lobby, where we stood in long lines to buy our refreshments and then spilled half of what we bought as we ran back to avoid missing any more of the story. Through most of the movie, we talked to each other loudly in the dark. The ushers didn’t seem to mind, as long as we didn’t get in fights or throw food. Then suddenly, as the hero of the day’s film seemed to be almost doomed, the whole theatre would become quiet, and, as the cavalry rode in, three hundred little boys and a few stray girls would cheer, stomp, and clap their hands in shared, loud joy.
And of course there were visits to the nearby air base. That was where we bought our groceries at the commissary, went with many others for holiday dinners served on stainless steel trays at the base dining hall, and enjoyed spectacles like the air shows offered from time to time and the dramatic takeoffs and landings of the trans-Pacific seaplanes that used the Air Station as their terminus.
On many of the trips to the base we visited my father at the medical dispensary that was his workplace. Sometimes the whole family visited, to let my father know we were always thinking of him and to learn more about his job. At times he also took me for the day by myself. I knew I didn’t want to be a medical corpsman, but I was fascinated by the dispensary: the shelves containing hundreds of bottles of medicine and more Band-Aids than I had ever dreamed could exist; the mysterious operating room where the staff performed emergency surgeries on pilots who had bad landings; the steam cabinets where the medics sterilized hypodermic needles and surgical equipment; and the nurses who shuffled silently past me in the hallways dressed in their starched, all white uniforms.
When I was around six and one half years old, my family’s period of living in the housing near the Naval Air Station came to an end. My father received orders to report for duty on a U.S. Navy ship that would be crossing the Pacific Ocean to participate in the Korean War. Without him there, my mother, my sister and I no longer were eligible to live in Navy housing, and so we moved to an apartment elsewhere in Alameda, a short bus ride from the Naval Supply Depot where my mother took a job as a secretary to supplement the family budget and make time move more quickly while we awaited my father’s return.