I have heard that Erma Bombeck is going to be Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade next New Year's Day, which is a great honor for a newspaper columnist. Well, eat your heart out Erma.
Last Saturday I was Grand Marshal of the annual Potato Bowl Parade in Bakersfield.
The Potato Bowl is sponsored by the Kern County Shrine Club to raise money for the Los Angeles Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children, and other children's charities.
The club also sponsors the annual football game between two of the state's best community college teams, in keeping with a well-known Shrine saying: "Strong legs run that weak legs may walk."
Before the event itself, a group of Kern County Shriners came down to show me through the Los Angeles hospital, a handsome red-brick building almost hidden on Geneva Street one block south of 3rd and Virgil.
It is an airy, roomy, up-to-date hospital with spacious play and school rooms for children, and a baseball diamond on its roof. Since its opening in 1952 it has provided orthopedic care and follow-up care in burns to more than 7,000 children, all at no cost to patients, their families or any third party.
That was reason enough for me to drive over the Ridge Route once again and pay a visit to my home town. Technically, I am a native of Long Beach, but my family lived in Bakersfield at the time I was born. It was August, and it is too hot to be born in Bakersfield in August, so my mother took a cottage by the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, and had me there.
How familiar that Ridge Route is.
One year, when I was a small boy, I used to drive the ridge almost every week with my father. He was taking my sister to Los Angeles for singing lessons. In those days, before the freeway, the ridge took five hours, and my father used to boast that he knew it so well he could drive it blindfolded.
It is faster and more beautiful today, with the freeway rushing through the wrinkled old mountains, past the hard, bleak, neon-lighted gas and eat stops, through lovely green meadows and soft tan hills folded in shadows, then making the swift descent of what used to be the "Grapevine," and coming out finally on the southern reaches of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the richest farmlands in the world.
Years ago I talked to Don Hart, then mayor of Bakersfield, and he said: "I've been to remote places in the world, and I find excitement starting in me when we begin that letdown over the desert, flying into Los Angeles, and I can look off to the right and see the Temblor mountains and the Tehachapis. They're the hills of home."
Though I left Bakersfield for the last time 45 years ago, I still have a sense of coming home when we level out in the valley with its fields of onions, potatoes and cotton, dusted by little airplanes, its truck stops and water towers and oil storage tanks, and its side roads to such homely places as Taft, Weed Patch and Buttonwillow.
If you go past Bakersfield a way on Highway 99 you might even come to a sign that says Pond, though I doubt that a place of such little significance is marked. Pond is where my wife was born. When I saw it last it consisted entirely of a cotton gin and a rustic general store, and in the distance, barely visible through the winter fog, a 19th-Century two-story farmhouse, which I took to be her birthplace.
We had to be in Bakersfield on Friday evening for the pre-parade dinner at the Fairgrounds. It was held in an enormous half-barrel of a building called Harvest Hall. Five hundred people attended, eating T-bone steaks and Kern County potatoes and drinking hard liquor and wine from paper cups at bars tended by Shriner volunteers. There were hundreds of those Shriner fezzes in the audience, and the speeches ran late.
Before it was over the emcee called upon fellow Shriners to come forward with $100 contributions for a Shrine hospital fund. They came forward drawing $50 and $100 bills from their wallets as if they were ones, and when the line ended there had been 48 of them.
"Come on," the emcee urged. "Just two more. Let's make it an even $5,000."
A Shriner in a Keystone Kop uniform wrote a check to make it an even $5,000.
That's the kind of people they have in Bakersfield.
The parade and game were held next day in Bakersfield College stadium. I rode in the parade in a 1956 maroon Thunderbird. A sign on the right door said JACK SMITH, GRAND MARSHAL, but as we circled the field I wondered if any of the 6,000 spectators in the grandstands knew who I was.
I saw a couple waving on the east side. They turned out to be my wife's brother, Ernie, and his wife, Nelda. And on the west side a group of Shriners' wives stood and waved. I blew them a kiss. A moment later I saw my wife and her sister, Suzie. (My wife asked later if I had blown the kiss to her, and I had to tell her no.)
My Thunderbird was followed by several Shrine marching units in those exotic costumes of theirs, and by several junior high school bands.
By the way, Glendale beat Taft 30-24.