My Mother and Father came out to Richmond, California from Oklahoma to work in the Shipyards during the war. They left their wheat farm to make the big wages in the shipyards. My Father was a welder and a tool and die maker as most farmers knew these skills. My Mother became a Riveter. They left my older brother with our Grandparents, taking my younger sister and I with them to California. My first memory was of the child care center that was provided for the children of the workers. They were available 24 hours a day, as the parents worked rotating shifts. I remember the cribs and being awakened, wrapped in a blanket and placed in the car in the middle of the night to go home. I also remember the wash houses that my Mother used to wash our clothes. I remember the wringer washing machines and the wooden troughs between the gutters for the waste water. There were clothes lines to hang ones laundry on to dry. My Father bought a vacant lot in San Pablo and built us a house. He was very handy and could do many things, being raised on a farm, a boy was taught to build and fix. I remember it had Tar Paper on the outside with a pattern of fake tan brick.
Harvest time came and my Father went back to Oklahoma to work his farm. My Mother elected to stay in California with us girls and continue working at the shipyards. My Mother was proud of the fact that she had never tasted alcohol until she was twenty-five years old. Oklahoma was a dry state. When my Father went back to the farm my Mother went out with some of the women she worked with to the many night clubs available around the shipyards. She got her first taste of fun and independence. And she loved it. She was a pretty blonde with a tiny body endowed with large bosoms, of which she was very proud . She loved the music, dancing and attention her cuteness attracted. It was a great life for her. She had her house, a car, plenty of money and freedom. There was no way she was going back to that farm.
My next vivid memory as a child was my younger sister and I being left in my Father’s new car he had bought with some of the harvest money. My Mother and Father had carefully locked the doors and rolled up the windows and left us two little girls in the car. They went to see an Attorney in the office on the second floor of the building where we were parked. I became bored and managed to open the glove box. There was some matches which I played with and managed to catch the car on fire. I remember screaming and pounding on the windows as the car filled with smoke. People stopped on the side-walk and stared in at us. But they didn’t try to get us out. I don’t know why someone didn’t break a window. Maybe it was because of the war and no one was about to damage a new car. I just remember crying and pleading for someone to help as I banged my little fists on the window . I remember feeling so trapped and helpless. I remember the faces of people looking in the car window. Doing nothing.
Someone finally went up the stairs to the Attorney’s office and asked if anyone there owned the car with the two little girls in it. They informed my parents that the car was on fire and we were inside. I don’t have any memory of being punished for that deed. I was told later when I was an adult that my parents were in the Attorney’s office drawing up the divorce papers.
My Mother later went back to Oklahoma where my Father had filed for divorce suing for custody of my brother. I don’t know if he tried to get custody of us girls. I just know a cousin who, became a lawyer said my parents divorce was written up in the Oklahoma law journals. There was accusations of infidelity made by my Father against my Mother to claims of bribery of witnesses by my Father. It was very messy and nasty. My Father came from a well to do farm family. His parents were granted custody of my brother because he was their name sake. My sister and I were given to my Mother. My Father was awarded the farm and my Mother the house in California.
Next childhood memory I have is of this handsome tall, dark-haired sailor with sea-blue eyes. He spoke with a different accent than we did, he was from Boston. “This is your new Daddy”. My Mother told us. She married this Boston, Irish, Sailor fresh out of the service. He was five years younger than her and had never been married. His Mother was a very devout catholic and was not happy about him marrying a divorced woman with two children. Even if she did own her own home and had a car. He came into the marriage with a GI benefit that paid for him to go to carpenter school.
He then proceeded to build a new house behind the house my Father had built. It was a beautiful house but only had one bedroom. We moved into the new house and he tore down the old house and built a big garage. It was a nice house even if the garage was in front of the house. Later they bought a larger lot on the next block and built a large two bedroom house with an attached garage. They sold the old house and we moved into the new house before the doors and windows were installed I remember the plywood over the door and having to climb into the kitchen window until he got the windows and doors. He bought and tore down the old shipyard buildings and used the reclaimed lumber to build that house. It was the prettiest house on the block. It had hard wood floors and big windows. I remember when he plastered the kitchen he made a sponge shaped like a palm tree and indented the walls . This was considered very artistic.
My Father never sent any support money. So, my Mother would put my little sister and I, starting at age six and seven, on a Greyhound Bus. It took three days and two nights with a six-hour lay over in Denver. They would put her in jail today for that kind of action. It was a different time. The bus driver would hand us over to the next driver and people would vacate the long back seat and cover us with their coats at night. We were polite well-behaved little girls and were treated well. We would spend the three-month school vacation in Oklahoma. I remember feeling so home sick and missing my Mother so much. Three months is a life time for a little girl. We would get bored being with my Father. He had remarried. Doris was, ” a hired girl”, my Grandma, his Mother, said. She never really accepted Doris into the family. My Grandma, and my Father’s sister adored my Mother. They tolerated Doris. Doris was a simple-minded woman. She was hard-working, kind to us and kept an immaculate home. She was attractive and kept herself well-groomed. She birthed three more children for my Father,two boys and a girl. He never gave her the respect she deserved. She worked full-time at outside jobs and turned her money over to him. He didn’t beat her or openly mistreat her. He just treated her like the hired girl who got in a family way and he did right by her, by marrying her. She deserved better. She was a good woman who devoted herself to my Father.
After the first week of our visit and my Father taking us around and showing us off to his friends and relatives he would need to get back to the work at the farm. Summer was “Harvest Time”. There was little fun for us city kids on the farm. After playing with Doris’ little children there was not much for us to do. Doris never ask us to do any work around the house. She would say; “Ahhh, you girls are on vacation”! Terrible mistake! We used that to the hilt. Much to our other relatives dismay.
I don’t think I liked my Father very much. He smelled bad. His course whiskers chafed, he chewed tobacco and his breath often smelled of whiskey. He had terrible personal hygiene. I remember Doris begging him to take a bath. Before he got into her nice clean bed. He would joke that he smelled of hard work and money. He would pull me on his lap to hug me and I would wiggle down. He stank! My Sailor Daddy was clean-shaved and smelled of Old Spice After Shave. He took his shower every night before dinner.
My Father tried. I remember one time he bought my sister and I matching corduroy cow-girl out-fits complete with boots and hats. We were thrilled. Another summer, knowing I had gotten so horse crazy he got three horses and saddles for us. None of our other relatives had horses. They were wheat farmers. Horses were dangerous! “Your Uncle broke his leg on a horse.” My other Grandma said.
I was so excited. He made us wait around until he did his morning chores. I got so impatient I decided to saddle my horse myself. I was use to riding a horse with out a saddle. There were horses staked to graze at the end of our street in San Pablo. I would take a carrot and my Mothers clothes line, unhook the horse from its chain and ride all over Tank Farm Hill. No one ever stopped me. I won all the other kids marbles by proving my braveness by walking under their belly. I loved horses. I had no fear. To this day I love the smell of horses. Even their poop doesn’t stink.
I couldn’t lift the saddle by myself so I put a saddle blanket on. I didn’t know how to put the bridle on so I found a rope and made a halter of sorts. I finally managed to climb on the horse and the blanket slipped and I fell on the ground. My Father watched as I struggled back onto my feet and took a piece of rope and tied it around the blanket and the horses’ belly. Pulling the horse next to the fence I climbed the fence and was prepared to attempt mounting the horse again. My Father finally came over to assist me. Chuckling he asked if I knew how to saddle a horse. I confessed to him I had never saddled a horse before, so he taught me how. Even showing me how I could use the rung on the fence to aid me in leveraging the saddle onto the horse. We saddled all the horses and my brother and sister came out and we were off on this glorious adventure. We were going to ride the horses over to my Uncle Bills’ farm. My Mother’s brother Bill lived about four miles north of my Father’s farm. My Father was adamant that we were to be back before dark. We promised we would indeed, be back before dark. Off we went.
My brother Jim was four years older than me and my sister was 18 months younger. My sister did not like horses. She was afraid of them. My brother assured her he would protect her and he took a lead rope and led her horse at a slow walk. ” Don’t be afraid Little Sister, I will take care of you.” He said sweetly. I galloped ahead and would only slow down and wait for them when I heard my brother admonishing me to wait up.
I was so happy and excited. A whole summer to ride horses and my cousins available to play with every day. What a glorious summer to look forward to. I could hardly contain myself.” Yippee Ki Yan! I’m an old Cow- Hand!” I broke into song at the top of my voice. And proceeded to trot my horse in figure eights. When we got to our cousin’s farm we were hot and thirsty. Our cousins were ” Lester”, my brother’s age, “Cotton” close to my age and “Elva Mae”, a little younger than me but older than my sister. They were my favorite relatives. They were so kind to each other. I don’t remember them ever fighting or arguing. We tied up the horses at the water tank and went to the watermelon field. Our cousins gave us each a melon. I watched with awe as they broke open theirs on their knee and reached in with their hand scooping out just the heart. Discarding the rest in a bucket to give to the hogs later. Watermelon was a highly coveted treat in California and was eaten to the white of the rind. We were allowed and encouraged to eat as many and as much as we wanted. This was indeed heaven. We were sticky with juice and the flies were starting to bite us. So, the cousins took us to the stock tank. I asked if I could get in and swim and they said sure. So removing my boots I climbed in clothes and all. I loved to swim and I swam around and around that tank until I was cool and tired. I climbed out and shook off my wetness, doggy style. I was dry in that heat within the hour. My sister did not want to go in the tank she was timid around water. She opted for the water pump. The cousins pumped her some water into a bucket and she splashed herself a bit. Getting the stickiness off. We played hide and seek and I tried to avoid the dang ghenny hens they nipped and chased me,screaming their God awful screech. I hated them. My Uncle kept Coon Hounds and it was always fun to go over to the pens and pet the big dogs. I remember one time when I was very young maybe about two or three years old. I saw the big Momma pig and the darling little baby pigs. My Uncle Bill was plowing the pasture near the pig pens. He saw me climb into the pen to play with the little baby pigs. I heard him yell at me; “KAY NO”! They always called me by my second name in Oklahoma. Or by my full name; “Mary Kay”. He jumped off the tractor, hopped the fence and swooped me up just as the ole sow made a charge for me. He was white with fear! He was shaking , I started to cry. Not knowing why my Uncle was upset. He said ” Kay, that ole sow would eat you up for supper for touching her babies.” He took me back to the house and handed me to the women, admonishing them to keep a better eye on me. He was my hero from that day forward. I adored him. One time he took me to a stock auction. He gave me 50 cents and it was burning a hole in my pocket. The auction started and a good-looking Heifer was being bid on. I got caught up in the excitement and hollered out; “50”. My Uncle laughed and held me up for the crowd to see this four-year old wanna be Cattle Baroness. Yep, my Uncle Bill was my favorite.
My brother Jimmie, told my Aunt Juanita we couldn’t stay for supper because we had to get back before dark. My Aunt must have thought we were just trying to get out of doing some work. She said we were not to leave until the evening chores were done. So, we helped gather the eggs, milk the cows and feed the stock. This made us very late. She had no idea the trouble we were going to be in.
Our Father met us in the middle of his pasture. He was staggering. It was dark and he was very angry. I am sure he was worried about us and had worked himself up. He pulled off his belt and pulled my brother off the horse. He started beating him with his belt. My brother was an epileptic. His head was damaged at birth and he had motor skill problems and often had seizures. My brother was later diagnosed as a savant. One side of his brain was damaged making his speech slow and his movements awkward. The other side of his brain over compensated and he was a whiz at math and any thing mechanical. He later became a Tax accountant and was a talented welder and tool and die maker. I am so proud of his achievements in spite of his handicap.
My brother went into a full seizure. My Father was cussing and yelling at him as he continued to beat him with the belt. I started screaming at him to stop. I had not seen many drunks in my short life but I knew my Father was drunk from his whiskey. He would lose his balance and fall down. This would make him angrier, he would get up and swing the belt at my brother who was writhing on the ground. I screamed and cried. My Mother and Sailor Daddy had never hit us with a belt. They had spanked us with their hand on our bottom if we were naughty which was very seldom. I had never witnessed this kind of violence. I was scared and then I was mad. I jumped off my horse and ran at my Father. I grabbed the belt and pulled it out of his hand. I took the lead rope of my sister’s horse and the reins of my horse and started for the barn. I never looked back. I helped my sister off the horse and unsaddled both horses. Then I took my little sisters’ hand and went to the house. We snuggled into the bed without any dinner and tried to snuffle our whimpers.
The next morning, my Father tried to act as though nothing had happened. I refused to talk to him. I asked Doris in front of him if she could drive us over to my Grandma Hills’ farm. As we wanted to visit with our Mothers’ parents. She said she would. After breakfast she loaded us up with our suitcase and we went to our other relatives. Never to return to our Father’s farm for the rest of that summer.
To be continued….