Santa Cruz ‘42

Santa Cruz ’42. December 11, 1941, everything changed. Two months later, Charlie Stevens’ father, Bryan, is in the army. A Japanese submarine prowls Monterey Bay. There’s a Long Tom cannon and a machine gun emplacement on Lighthouse Point. Nighttime blackouts are the rule as air raid sirens pierce the night, summoning wardens to roam their neighborhoods and watch the skies. The Casa Del Rey Hotel is a convalescent hospital. Gas, meat and butter are rationed. Boy Scouts mount scrap drives, collecting newspaper, rubber and metal for the war effort.

And yet, life in Santa Cruz goes on. Children still go to school. Moms still go shopping. Birthdays and holidays remain on schedule. The Del Mar Theater still shows movies and the Pep Creamery across the street still serves ice cream. A circus comes to town.
One day, 11-year-old Charlie and his best friend, Barry Bennett, are Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, Rocky Mountain trappers; the next day, dressed in army surplus gear, they’re soldiers on patrol. A week later, they’re dismantling roller skates to make orange crate scooters and before you know it, they’re tearing down Miramar Hill on a patchwork soapbox car.

Through it all, Charlie’s grandfather, Vernon Stevens, gently guides his grandson through lessons about Santa Cruz and nature, scouting and life… until that one day when the tables are turned: Vernon’s life is suddenly at risk and Charlie and Barry are faced with a challenge that may be beyond their reach.

At my age, it took more time and effort that I’d like to admit to wander through the mists of memory and retrieve events from my early years in 1940’s Santa Cruz. That said, I’m doubly grateful for the bounty of photos and article on the war years available online.

Nonetheless, writing this book was a lot of fun, for it was very much like re-living many of my childhood joys. Most of the accounts of each chapter actually happened, at least in part, like gleaning Brussels sprouts, the soapbox fiasco down Miramar hill, taking a ride in the locomotive, the abandoned house on Mission Street and the ‘discovery’ of the valley, complete with the Jewish cemetery on Meder Street. And yes, there really was a fern-covered cave with a small waterfall in the back.

You can purchase this book at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Avenue, Santa Cruz, California, 95060; 831.423.0900.

Chapter 1

Bombs & Bugs

Dad stood up and turned off the radio. His face was pale, almost white. My deputy sheriff father was big and tall and strong, but I’d never seen him like this, with his jaw clenched and his eyes like slits. Anger seemed to burn off him. Something was wrong, really wrong.

Me? I wasn’t paying attention to the radio broadcast, daydreaming instead about Christmas which would be here before I knew it. Maybe a new bike this year?

My father looked at me with sad and angry eyes, shook his head slowly, back and forth, back and forth. “Well, pal, we’re in it now.”

I was about to ask what ‘it’ was when Mom came in to the living room, drying her hands on a dishtowel. “What, Bry? What are we in?” She finger-combed her blonde hair off the back of her neck. She had pretty blonde hair that glowed like a halo when she sat in the sun.

“They just bombed Pearl Harbor.”

Mom wrung the towel in her hands, sat down on the sofa, hard. “Oh! Oh, my Lord, God in Heaven! No! The Japanese?”

“Yeah.” Dad sat beside her, put his arm around her shoulders. I just stood there gawking, still half lost in Christmas dreams, half wondering what was going on.

“Yeah. Jap planes, hundreds of ‘em. Sneak attack. Bombed and torpedoed battleship row, sunk every one of the battleships and cruisers. Blasted Hickam Field, shot up the airplanes. Hit us so hard and fast we could hardly retaliate.”

Mom swallowed. The towel dropped to the floor. Her face was the same color as the towel.

Now I was scared. “Dad, Mom, what does this mean?” I gulped air. “Are we next?” I felt tears ready to bust loose. “Are the Japs gonna bomb Santa Cruz?”

They opened their arms, welcomed me into their embrace. It helped a little. I felt like I was shivering.

That was when my little brother, Marty, wandered into the room, clutching his beat-up old stuffed bunny and said, “Mama, looka Peter Rabbit.” He’d made a wonky paper hat and put it on the bunny’s head, cut holes for the bunny’s ears.

In spite of the news, we laughed.

That night, long after I’d gone to bed, I could still hear murmurs as my parents talked. I fought to stay awake. When I finally drifted off, they were still talking.

The next day, we huddled close to the radio to hear President Roosevelt announce the attack as ‘a day which will live in infamy.’ I’d hoped that this might have been a big mistake, but no. It was certain: the United States had been attacked by Japanese naval and air forces. Roosevelt asked for a declaration of a state of war between the U.S. and the Empire of Japan. Congress gave it in a heartbeat.

Dad was right. We were definitely in it.

After the first of the year – Christmas had hardly been merry and New Year’s Day didn’t even make it to happy – the phone rang. I picked it up, said hello.

“Hey, Charlie. It’s Terry. Your dad home?”

“Hey, hi, Uncle Terry. Sure, I’ll get him.”

While they talked, I stayed close by and listened, trying to make sense of this

side of the conversation. I didn’t like what I heard. When Dad said, “Yeah, Terry, I think you’re right. We’ll come over, meet you and Scotty and the folks this Sunday,” I knew from his tone this was serious, really serious.

Sunday after church, my father, grim-faced, loaded us into our ’38 Chevrolet and

drove Mom, Marty and me over to Gramma and Grampa Stevens’ house on Atlantic Avenue, just off Seabright. Our car was a sedan, kind of a dull grey that Mom said she never liked, but Dad said he got a really good deal on it and that was that.

Like most every winter, the weather in Santa Cruz had been clouded over. I hoped it would break in the afternoon, but it didn’t. Everything was dull and grey, inside and out.

Gramma Grace met us at the door. Terry and Scott were already there ‘cause they were younger than Dad, weren’t married and still lived with Gramma and Grampa. When we went in, it was like the air had gotten heavy. Nobody smiled.

Grampa and Scott and Terry shook hands with Dad, hugged Mom, who sniffled and dabbed at her eyes. Gramma gave hugs all around just like she usually did, but all in all, it felt like happiness went out the window.

Mom said, “Boys, you can go out to the back yard and goof around. Us grownups need to talk, okay?”

“Sure, Mom. Gramma, can we have a couple of Cokes?”

“Certainly, boys, just get them out of the ice box. And don’t let the screen door slam.”

I took a pair of Cokes from the top shelf of the ice box, right next to the big cake of ice where they stayed nice and cold, then dug around in the drawer where Gramma kept kitchen stuff, found the bottle opener.

Marty said, “I wanna do mine, Charlie.”

He fumbled with it for a minute, couldn’t make it work, handed me the opener with a big smile. “You do it, Charlie.”

Our grandparent’s backyard was small, kind of like ours back home, but they had this big old fig tree in the corner, perfect for climbing. No fruit, though – wrong time of year.

Since my uncles were all grown up now, there wasn’t any kid stuff to mess around with, so I started to climb the fig tree just for something to do. Marty whined at me, “Charlie, I can’t climb this tree, I’m too little. Play with me.” I loved my brother, but there were times I wished he was older.

“Sure, Marty. What do you want to do?”

“Dunno, Charlie. You say.” He waggled his bunny at me and grinned. A little bead of Coke drifted down his chin.

I looked around the yard, spotted a stack of wood scraps against the garage wall. I said, “Hey! Let’s see if there’s any neato bugs under the wood pile.”

“Okay, but get a jar to put ‘em in.”

“Good idea.” I went into the garage and rummaged around, found a box of Mason jars Gramma used for canning, brought one back to the woodpile.

We pulled off one-by-six and two-by-four stubs and tossed them aside. Under the bottom boards, pincher-bugs and black beetles scurried away. Marty crouched down to look. When I shifted a board, a cricket jumped away. Marty hollered, “Get it, Charlie! Get it!”

I clomped the jar over the cricket then wiggled the jar around so I could get the lid on. “Got it!” Finding roly-polys was easy. I just picked up another board off the dirt and there they were. They were slow to get away and when we poked them, they rolled up tight and were easy to pick up. We put about a dozen of them in the jar.

“They can keep the cricket company, huh, Charlie.” He pointed at a pair of slimy grey things. “Ewww. What’s those?”

“Those are slugs, Marty. They’re like snails, ‘cept they don’t have shells. They just look icky.”

He held up the jar. “Let’s show Mommy and Daddy our bugs.”

“We’d better put the boards back, first.”

We were stacking the wood, Marty picking up the smaller pieces, me the heavier ones, when I saw something black and shiny scuttle off the end of the board I was holding. Slowly, I turned it over. “Oh-oh.” Just what I suspected.

“What, Charlie?”

“Stay back, Marty. That’s a black widow spider. Don’t want it to bite us, they’re reeeally poisonous.”

Marty let out a screech and ran back into the house. The screen door slammed behind him.

As carefully as I could, I set the board down, picked up a smaller piece of wood

and smashed the spider flat.

The screen door slammed again. Mom rushed out. “Charlie! Are you all right?”

Dad was right behind her.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Sure. I’m okay.”

“Marty said you got bit by a black widow!”

“Nah, nobody got bit. I just found one. Smushed it.” I tossed the board onto the pile, spider-side up so they could see it.

She sighed, brushed some stray hair back over her ear. “Good. Glad you’re okay. C’mon inside. That’s enough excitement for one day.”

In the living room, Dad said, “Sit down, boys. We’ve got something we need to tell you.” He sat next to me, put his arm around my shoulders, took a deep breath.

“You might not understand all about this right now, Charlie, but now that war has been declared. Terry and Scott and I have decided to enlist in the army.  We’ve all talked this over, Gramma and Grampa, all of us, and we all agree. This is something we as men need to do.”

“I … I don’t understand, Dad. What do you mean, join the army?” The words felt like electricity, vibrating inside me.

“This is about duty, son, duty to our country. The United States has been attacked by the Japanese in the Pacific. The Germans and Italians have started war in Europe and Africa. The United States has declared war and it’s important for us to do our part, to serve our country, to help keep our country free and safe.”

Almost involuntarily, my head shook back and forth, back and forth. “No! No, I don’t like this. No! I don’t want you to go!” It felt like my tears jumped from my eyes. I didn’t want to cry, wished I could stop, couldn’t.

Dad hugged me close. Mom leaned in, put her arms around me too. That helped me not feel quite so embarrassed because we were all kind of crying together.

After a while, Grampa Vernon knelt in front of me, put his hand behind my neck, brought our foreheads together. “Charlie, I want you to know we’ll take care of you and Marty and your mom, I’ll take care of you while your dad is away. This isn’t a time for fear and worry, that’s not about who we are. Even though our men will be away fighting the enemy, we’re still a family and families care for one another. Together, we’ll work things out.”

I felt a little spark of anger flare. “How do you know that, Grampa, ‘cause I sure don’t know it!”

“Grandson of mine, I know that because I know God and I trust him.”

I said, “Okay, Grampa, okay,” but it really wasn’t.

Grampa stood and motioned everyone to come together. “Join hands, family. It’s time to pray.”

Back in the car, Mom said, “Bry, I want to go to Mom’s house. We need to tell her about this.”

“Understand. You sure you want to do this now?”

She nodded. “Yes. I’m sure.”
“Okay, hon.”

On the way to Gramma’s house, Marty held up the Mason jar, shook it gently. “Look, Mommy, Daddy.”

“What’cha got there, pal?”

“Bugs. Charlie and I got ‘em.” He shook the jar again. I could hear the bugs rattle against the sides. “This was a really good bug day.”

Mom and Dad had to laugh.

Couldn’t help it.