A memoir by Tracy Mears
“This is no place for kids,” BaaBaa decided after our parents divorced, and each decided it was just too damn much hassle to raise their five kids. Good old Mom and Dad first dumped us on a foster family who raised other people’s children as a way to make a living, just like raising show dogs, except we kids living there were more like misfits no kennel club would ever certify. Daddy Dearest picked us up one Saturday and drove us to see our maternal grandparents for a visit. Probably took us there because it was just so uncomfortable for him to spend a few hours with us.
“All it took was one look at all five of you sitting on the couch with down turned faces that I told your father to go back to that place and pack your clothes up so we could move you in with us,” Nana always smiled when remembering those days. As soon as BaaBaa’s proclamation of seeking more countrified digs was made, Nana packed up their two-bedroom apartment and called the movers to truck everything to a town on the outskirts of the L.A. metropolitan area—Simi Valley.
We all loaded into the Dodge wagon for the hour drive to a three-bedroom rental house situated next to a walnut grove. We loved the swinging salon doors that led into the kitchen. During the few months we lived there, I am amazed that none of us ever clobbered one another while one went in as the other went out of the swinging doors. The black walnut trees were a magical German Black Forest as far as we kids were concerned. The small rental would do, while we looked for something bigger to buy.
Once we had finished exploring our temporary new base, we sat and waited for the moving truck to arrive. BaaBaa suffered from a melody of serious medical conditions – diabetes and high blood pressure among others—that required daily medication. It was not like we were moving to another state, so Nana had not packed BaaBaa’s pill bottles into the car with us, but rather boxed them up with everything else that was somewhere in Southern California, just not Simi Valley.
Since this was stone-age times, there were no cell phones. Trips to the nearest payphone to call the moving company got us no answers. And this was not one of those fly-by-night outfits; Nana had hired one of those giant corporate companies with a fleet of giant trucks boasting a logo of how they were king of the world when it came to moving your precious belongings. Bullshit. We slept that night on the floor with newspaper pages as blankets. I was appalled and disturbed to see my beloved BaaBaa sleeping like a hobo. If those movers had pulled up that night, I would have waited until they offloaded our boxes and bunk beds, and then strangled them with the shoulder strap from my Girl Scout canteen.
We spent two nights on the floor until the morons at the moving company finally managed to show up at our door. Maybe they routed through Vegas to play craps before finally realizing the journey should have only been sixty minutes. Since our experience with that moving company, everyone in our family over the decades now does the rent-a-truck-and-haul-your-own-shit route.
The next four years we spent in Simi Valley were almost too good to be true. My grandparents found us a grand house within a couple of months. A two-story monster that looked just like Tara from Gone with the Wind with its soaring front porch held up by tall white columns. With BaaBaa in a wheelchair, my grandparents’ twin beds went into the big bedroom downstairs that had its own bath and a walk-in closet where BaaBaa stored his old wooden leg, that he once used to walk with crutches before getting too old for that struggle. For the next four Decembers, Nana would hide our Christmas presents in that closet, aware that lower leg wearing a black sock and shoe was enough to keep us out of there.
The house backed up to a mountain full of canyons and cactus and trees big enough to hold the tree house we soon erected. The houses around us were full of families with kids and all of us formed into a tight gang that ruled the fields and streets of our fiefdom of fun. Our house was on the highest cul-de-sac of a neighborhood full of streets that climbed from the base to the top of the hill. Behind us was an even taller hill called Mt. McCoy that had a huge concrete cross on its peak. Our usual habit was to walk the wide trail that led along the crest of Mt. McCoy to the cross, then come down the 40-minute walk through the brushy canyons like pint-size pioneers. One day as we descended the hillside, several of us noticed a coyote running toward us.
“Wolf!” someone shouted, and we all began to run. The flash of fast-moving beast gave me instant visions of being torn from limb to limb. There was no time to walk around the cactus and shrubs in our way as we ran straight down the hillside rather than take the meandering trail. I remember vaulting over what seemed like four-foot bushes at breakneck speed as we sped to the backyard of my house..
Breathless and shaking, we arrived at the same time and all turned to see how close the wild beast was. A smirk filled my face, as I realized the canine creature wore a big grin on its face and was wagging its German Shepard tail. Like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, people should not yell “Wolf!” in a crowd of over imaginative idiots.
Even with the cactus and rattlesnakes among us, Nana considered the most dangerous aspect to living in Simi was the bowling alley that we passed on our way to the Saturday movie matinee at the walk-in movie theatre. As young as 11, my friends and I could walk down Simi’s main drag, Los Angeles Avenue, to go to the movies. Larwin Square was an open-air mall where I used to love looking at the variety of linen paper at the stationery store or looking at the pierced earrings at the W.R. Grant store that was Simi’s version of today’s Wal-Mart. They sold everything from candy to clothes, kitchen towels and knick-knacks, but no groceries. The mall was anchored by a fourth-run movie theatre that ran kids’ films on Saturdays. For fifty cents, there would be some Disney cartoon like Jungle Book or a musical like Sound of Music. In those days, they would first run a few animated shorts. Then the lights would come on to show that the stage down front was lined with five or six fantastic prizes like erector sets or dolls. Everyone in the pint-sized audience would check their ticket stubs as the manager called out numbers from a spinning bingo-type cage. Kids today can keep their 24-hour cable cartoon networks and home video games; even though I never won a prize it was still a thrill I can remember decades later.
The theatre management in those days did not even care that before coming to the theatre we would stop in W.R. Grant’s and load up on cheap popcorn, candy, and soda to imbibe during the movie. We did not even have to sneak the stuff in like I do today. I guess they made their money from the adults coming to see evening adult fare of the day like The Graduate and Cool Hand Luke.
On the way home we would hesitate, remembering Nana’s warnings, but some strange force would propel us into the bowling alley on the way home. I felt like I was practically in a bar. Here it was in the mid-afternoon and the place was barely lit. In the darkness you could see down the lit lanes, but the carpeted walkway between the cocktail lounge and the front door was lined with amusement machines you could play for a few coins. Three games of pinball for a quarter or one game for a dime, but our favorite was a large clear box on a platform. For 25 cents you could use a stick to propel a helicopter up and down to score points by hitting a target as the craft flew around and around. Nana would always suspiciously ask us if we had gone inside the bowling alley and we would always speak in a high pitched, innocent-sounding, “No.” To be able to sleep at night after lying to someone who is a true saint, I think that was the beginning that led to all of us being able to beat any lie detector test.
It is amazing none of us are felons. Or politicians.
Tracy Mears has won numerous awards for both fiction and nonfiction, including an honorable mention from PEN Women. Her work has appeared in Painted Cave and The Gila River Review. Tracy’s piece ‘Home Sweet Home’ reflecting on her time with a traveling carnival is in the current issue of Swamp Ape Review. Her short story ‘What a Boy Needs’ is in the new Brushfire Literary Arts Journal.
You can read more of her work at https://tracymears.wordpress.com