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Kaboom, Swat, Clang

Jim Hayes looks back at an L.A. childhood and hears many sounds, but the sweetest of all belonged to the Big Red Cars

April 30, 2006|Jim Hayes | Jim Hayes, a former newspaper editor and reporter, is a writing coach in Los Osos.

My memories of growing up in Southern California in the 1930s are marked by three experiences: an exploding whale, a killer earthquake and a bitter business lesson. All three revolved around my father, the dominant figure in my childhood.

Until I left home in my teens to join the Navy, I believed Dad knew almost everything worth knowing. He was only a couple of inches over 5 feet, skinny and coughed like a camel. But, as he bragged, he was "tough as an old boot and smart as a new whip." I felt his toughness when I broke the rules. He would thump me across the backside with whatever came to hand--razor strop, belt or drain hose from the washing machine. Swat. Swat. Swat. Gritting his teeth, he would mutter: "It's time I knocked some sense into your head."

Dad had left school after the eighth grade, and said his only good memory was of beating Charlie Paddock in a 100-yard dash on the playground. Dad went to work as a clerk in a warehouse; loser Charlie finished high school, served heroically in World War I, was an outstanding sprinter at USC, won four medals in two Summer Olympics and was dubbed by sports writers as the "World's Fastest Human."

Paddock married a newspaper publisher's daughter and in 1920 lured Dad away from the warehouse job by offering him $15 a week to cover cops for the Pasadena Post. Scratching for a living wage, Dad moved on to the Los Angeles Times and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin as a reporter, and to the Santa Monica Outlook and the Associated Press as an editor. He wore a .32-caliber Colt automatic in a shoulder holster and a small gold badge, engraved with "L.A. County Sheriff's Department--Press," pinned on the underside of his coat lapel.

My mother wore her badges outside. Pinned to her uniform was a gold and blue medal. Perched atop her bobbed black hair was a white cupcake cap with a black velvet ribbon. Both proclaimed that she had trained as a registered nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. When she came home after work, her wool coat smelled of ether. She was, in this order, a teetotaler, a Republican and a Congregationalist.

"I am certain she's Jewish," said our neighbor in the other half of our rented duplex, Rose Schneiderman. "Some Sephardim have her black hair and washed-out blue eyes." Rose was my baby-sitter, or kind-hitter, in Yiddish. Rose had no children of her own, was comfortably zaftig, kept kosher and, for all I knew, was a Democrat. She played mournful songs on a windup Victrola and smoked Cigarrillos Indios. She said her cigarettes came from Paris and contained cannabis, a medicine to cure her bronchitis.

Rose wrote poems that didn't rhyme and was passionate about books. She'd walk me home from school, going the long way by the library, where she would check out the limit: three. We'd sit on her sofa in what she called a "literary salon," and I can still remember, after more than 70 years, some authors and titles: Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories," Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows" and L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." Rose played all the parts in the "Oz" book by changing her voice, even squeaking like the Munchkins.

Mother read to me too, when she wasn't too tired. She introduced me to the book I came to love most: Monica Shannon's "California Fairy Tales." Mother said it was my Irish side that made me want to hear over and over the stories of "Last of the Leprechauns" and "The Hobby of Hugh Midity." Some nights, if she didn't have to work and I'd been especially good, she'd read Shannon's story of "An Enchanted Gypsy" until I drifted off to sleep.

I woke up most mornings to the roar of Mr. Schneiderman's Hupmobile Straight-8 as he backed it out of the garage to go off to his sausage factory. The car, fire-engine red with white balloon tires, was Mr. Schneiderman's pride. On Sundays, he'd park it at the curb, wash it with soapy water, polish and wax it. He took special care to shine the brass nameplate engraved: "Guaranteed for Life."

We didn't have a car. Dad said there wasn't any point in owning one when we lived so close to the trolley stop on Pacific Avenue. Dad and my mother rode the streetcars on the Venice Short Line to Santa Monica and then transferred to other lines to get to their jobs. In a Depression, Dad said, they were lucky to have jobs and be able to ride what he called "the world's greatest rail transit system."

Our duplex on a side street off Windward Avenue was a drab island in a sea of opulence and hoopla created by Abbott Kinney, an asthmatic heir to an Eastern tobacco fortune who had created a grand Venetian city on the marshes and sand dunes south of Santa Monica--complete with canals, lagoons and an ornate Italianate business district. To fill cafes and stores and attract buyers for mansions with gondola docks, he built a streetcar line, a huge amusement park and a boardwalk. People flocked to his "Coney Island of the Pacific."

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