You can’t go home again.
That’s the title of a novel written by Thomas Wolfe, published in 1940 after his death.
Here’s some words from the novel: “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.”
My ear’s to the ground… I’m listening.
A few days ago I sat down at a table with pen and paper and tried to recall the floor plans of my childhood houses. My drawings were dismal, but they helped me remember the two houses in Southern California and the Wadsworth, Ohio, house.
I should remember the Wadsworth house best because I lived there twice – for three years as a toddler and as a teenager from 1965-1968. But I don’t, the memories are foggy. The California houses are much more distinct. I don’t need photographs to jiggle them to consciousness.
Just drawing the floor plans were enough to summon those bygone days in San Bernardino and Corona. For the Wadsworth house, I had trouble remembering the basics, like where to put the stairs and how to locate the two downstairs bedrooms. So I must have loved living in Southern California more than Northeast Ohio. I’m smiling. That’s a no-brainer.
The layout drawings are too badly done to insert into this post. Instead, I’m going to use family photos and generic shots of kids doing things I did back in the ‘50s and the ‘60s.
We moved into the St. Elmo Drive house in San Bernardino when I was in first grade. The elementary school was part of the Rialto School District, but the neighborhood was technically in the city of San Bernardino. We lived just a couple of blocks north of U.S. 66 or Foothill Boulevard as it was called locally.
Before moving to the four bedroom house on St. Elmo Drive, we lived in a rental a few blocks away. I recall walking to kindergarten. Once, I watched a bully beat up another boy, stomping on his bag lunch. Another time I walked with a school buddy to his house… and had no earthly idea how to get to my house. After eating my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I headed home and was soon hopelessly lost. Luckily, a friend of my mom drove by and took me home. I do recall my mom’s friend quizzing me why I was so far from home. I don’t think I was particularly afraid… figured as long as I kept walking something would start to look familiar. I was just five years old.
They built the St. Elmo Drive development in what had been an orange grove. We watched the house get built. I’ve seen home movies where the house is just a frame. We moved into it in the summer of 1958 before I began first grade at a school fronting Highway 66. The school board tore that school down when they built the new one on North Meridian Avenue. I still recall its name: Meyers Elementary School. Meyers still exists almost sixty years later. Back then it was a six-block walk from my St. Elmo Drive house to the schoolhouse. That tiny school I attended as a first-grader? It became the site of a firehouse. Behind that firehouse was the San-Ri Little League ballpark where mom was the scorekeeper, dad a coach and me… I did some pitching and played a bit of second base and the outfield. Now the place is called San Hills Park.
Even now – half a century later – I remember the layout of the one-story St. Elmo Drive house. Once past the front door, if you turned left, you could head down the hallway to the bedrooms. Going right took you to the kitchen and dining room. Going beeline straight led to the living room. My sister Jody’s room was the first bedroom on the left. Mine was the last one on the left. The kids’ bathroom was next to mine. The first bedroom on the right became a den. Dad paneled it and replaced part of a wall with a vinyl sliding door that led to the living room. The bedroom across from mine was the master bedroom. My parents’ king bed was good for high jumping and even pole vaulting. The room also included a laundry hamper that became the hiding place of Christmas gifts for Jody and me. Obviously, they weren’t secret with me.
I liked my tucked-out-of-the-way bedroom. When I should have been asleep, I’d sneak into the hallway in front of the bathroom and watch TV through the den door. Sometimes I got caught, often I wasn’t.
Almost all the family photos of Jody and me were snapped in the living room. That’s because it was the location for Christmas and birthday celebrations. I’m including three photos of the living room. My favorite is of my dad and his sister Emmy. There’s no carpeting yet, so we’d just moved in. Emmy’s mussing dad’s hair and both are laughing. Tapping on a drum is Emmy’s eldest boy, Billy, who passed away in 1980 in his early ‘20s. He and his wife were killed in a housefire. That boy who looks to be playing jacks? That’s me, a second-grader who could never sit still.
Notice the paintings of flowers on the wall? You’ll also see them in Christmas photos. Christmas after Christmas dad would put up the Christmas tree between the paintings. After we opened presents, he’d sit us in front of the tree for our posterity photograph. Here’s one… Jody and me in front of the silver tree. Is that a hula hoop behind me?
One last photo of the living room: Easter baskets sit on the couch. I can’t help but chuckle… the boy’s mom has dressed him to look like a miniature version of Fred Astaire. I’m wearing a bowtie, sweater and dancing shoes. I don’t look annoyed, so I’m oblivious to how silly I look. We must have just returned from Sunday school on Easter Day. I’m betting that as soon as dad pressed the Kodak Instamatic’s shutter, Jody and I reached for our baskets.
I’ve so many memories of that house in San Bernardino. A sliding glass door in the living room led to the backyard patio. Often, neighborhood kids would join me in the backyard to play in the above-ground pool and on the swing set. I’m including one photo of the backyard: I’m cooling off in my first pool. When I think of my friends Laura and Mark Wagner joining me in my backyard pool, this isn’t the one. We had a later one with walls four feet high. See the 1960s magazine ad? That’s the kind of pool every neighborhood backyard had back then. I don’t think anyone swam in a built-in pool.
Dad built a split-rail fence for the front yard. I actually remember him building it. You can see the fence in the photo of me in my San-Ri Little League Indians jersey circa 1961. We didn’t always play in the backyard. One summer dad bought a Wham-O Slip-N-Slide that we slid on like kids back east on their snow sleds. Just think… those slides led to today’s elaborate water parks.
Most of the time the family lived in Southern California, we lived in the St. Elmo Drive home. B.F. Goodrich brought us out to San Bernardino. When the company’s rocket plant in the Lytle Creek area ten miles north of Rialto closed, dad had to find work elsewhere. He did… at another aerospace plant, this one near Newport Beach. We moved to the house on Atwood Drive in Corona so dad’s drive to work would be easier. I went to Norco schools, the last few months of sixth grade, all of seventh grade and the first two months of eighth grade.
It’s the oddities I remember best about the Corona house. We had a yellow tabby cat named Harold. Harold was a lovable cat that never scratched or bit – unless it was another cat or the Wagner’s poodle. I’m including a photo of Jody with Harold in her arms. As you can see, Harold was pretty much a breathing stuffed toy.
Harold came with us when we moved into the Atwood Drive house near Parkridge Avenue. He apparently preferred the Rialto house. He disappeared one day. Harold would sometimes wander. This time he didn’t return. We drove around the neighborhood, but couldn’t find him. We figured he wandered into the nearby foothills and was killed by a rattler or a wild critter. Then one day – several months later – Jody and I were in the front yard when we noticed a yellow furred cat under the neighbor’s car. I went to my mom and said I’d just seen a cat that looked just like Harold.
Mom came out and approached the cat. “Harold?” He came to her.
He was wild… scary wild. If you approached him while he napped and frightened him, he’d attack, a miniature tiger ready to pounce. Mom went to the grave with a Harold-caused ankle scar. We figured he’d tried to return to the San Bernardino house and gotten lost. Somehow, he found his way back to us.
Another oddity: I had the duty of keeping the outside air cooler’s filters damp so we’d get cold air in the air. The auto valve on the cooler didn’t work, so dad had to disconnect the water hose. Every couple of hours during the summertime – with the temperature often more than one hundred degrees – I had to turn on the hose and spray the filters.
While mom was dodging Harold’s teeth, I was noticing that the flat-chested girls in the sixth grade weren’t so flat chested as seventh-graders at Norco Junior High School. That’s right… my sex hormones were awake and howling like a holy-roller preacher. I loved slow dancing with Cynthia, a fellow seventh-grader who lived in a house on Pike Drive, just one block from my house. And another girl as well, Tammy, who sat next to me at the back of English class. She liked to torment me by lifting a skirt and fiddling with her hose. She’d catch me sneaking a peek and smile coyly. Yep, Tammy was a seventh-grade tease.
I’d skateboard by Cynthia’s house. I was hoping I’d find her in the front yard and I could stop and flirt. Once, my next-door-neighbor Eddie and I decided to become gardeners. We tacked an ad on a bulletin board in a nearby supermarket. Cynthia’s mom telephoned and said she’d pay us to weed their backyard. It was summertime between the seventh and eighth grade, and hot enough that Cynthia called us into the house for an ice-water break. Even now, fifth years later, I recall how I tried not to stare too hard at the bikini top she was wearing. I will say this… she filled it out nicely.
Cynthia, her little brother and her parents moved away just a few weeks into eighth grade. I think they moved to Las Vegas. That would be ironic if true, since I live in Vegas now. Cynthia began going steady with the guy in the weeks before her family moved, so I never got a chance to ask her to a movie or a dance – or see if she’d let me kiss her.
Of course, I didn’t spend all my time daydreaming about Cynthia and her bikini top. Baseball still remained one of my loves. Our Little League games were held at a ballpark in Norco. We practiced at Norco Junior High. Foothills separated our housing development from Norco proper. A dirt road ran through the foothills, starting at the end of our neighborhood. In the mid-1960s, neighborhood kids played baseball and football in a field near where the dirt road began. The land also included an old, ramshackle house and a tower with a rickety ladder. Eddie and I explored the remains of the house and climbed that ladder. Looking back after half a century, I can’t help but wonder what happened to that derring-do I had as a thirteen year old.
Back to the dirt-road story… several times a week I rode my three-speed bike along the road to the paved Norco streets. Just now I took a look at a Google map to see where the dirt road may have tied into a paved road. Too much has changed. Interstate 15 runs where once there was nothing but desert scrub among hills. Back in the ‘60s, Norco was a small town of horse farms. Now it has a population of 27,000. I have my memories, but sometimes one’s memories and the world of 2015 just won’t mesh. Long ago, I’d ride my bike to and from baseball practice, and during sunset on the way back to the neighborhood, I’d have to dodge incoming bats. It was fun… I’d imagine they were enemy fighters and my bike a B-17 bomber.
So what did my drawing exercise tell me? Unlike Wolfe’s words, things do change, except in our minds. So yes, you can go home – in your memories.
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Mike is the author of a fantasy trilogy, Larenia’s Shadow. The first two novel, The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin, have been published. The last one, Assassins’ Lair, is in final edits.