Santa Cruz ‘52

Santa Cruz ’52. It’s Saturday morning, the first day of summer vacation. Mission Hill Junior High is history and Santa Cruz High is a forever three months away. Join Marty and his pals, Sammie, Mitch, Kenny and Milo as they ride the roller coaster, cruise the Boardwalk, surf at Cowell’s Beach, explore the IXL cave, and paddle canoes on Lent’s Lake.

Take a trip back to the ‘50s for a stroll down Pacific Avenue, stop to enjoy raviolis and spaghetti at the Santa Cruz Hotel or pull into Spivey’s 5-Spot for burgers and shakes. On Saturday afternoon, catch a movie at the Del Mar. That evening, enjoy the best abalone dinner ever at the Palomar Hotel.

As a Santa Cruz native, I’ve revisited the places, events and people that comprised Santa Cruz of the ‘50s, recalling the small beach town as a warm and wonderful place to grow up. I invite you to come along for a visit to one of the greatest small towns on the California coast: Santa Cruz ’52.

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

Chapter 1

Farewell, Mission Hill

Saturday morning. School was done for the summer. When Darius woke me up, I took a deep breath that filled me with enough joy to inflate a dirigible. Just acknowledging that I didn’t have to go to school for three months excited me. Today, I was poised to tackle whatever came my way with the strength of Superman, the wiles of The Shadow and the intellect of Einstein.

Finally, I was finished with Mission Hill, where, just a few blocks down King Street, I’d spent the past nine years of my life. Well, that was the theory. Come September, it would be back to school, this time at Santa Cruz High.

When Darius stirred, stretched, got up and sat on my chest, I was still half asleep. Rotten beast that he is, he sat there for a moment or two like he usually does, tail twitching like a crazed metronome, then hauled off and whapped my nose. My fur alarm clock. I pushed him off.  “Not today, cat. No school. Get off my chest.” He got the message, moved aside and sat, waiting for me to get up and attend to my feline duties.

Darius Meow was our orange long-hair tabby and my pal. He slept on my bed every night and on most mornings, woke me up when it was time to eat, which generally coincided with my time to get up for school. He did this by giving my nose a smack. Darius was my responsibility, something he knew too well. He had two requirements: feed me and pet me. According to his cat-clock, it was time to feed him. According to mine, that was tough crackers. “Darius, you can wait. It’s Saturday morning and I’m going to zonk out in bed and listen to the radio.”

I leaned over and turned on my old brown RCA tabletop that sat next to my Lone Ranger alarm clock. I dialed the station for Smilin’ Ed McConnell and the Buster Brown Gang, heard the theme song, “I got shoes, you got shoes, everybody’s’ gotta have shoes. An’ there’s only one kind shoes for me, good ol’ Buster Brown Shoes!” and “I’m Buster Brown. Look for me in a shoe. Here’s my dog, Tige. He lives in there, too.”

Smilin’ Ed came on, then Froggy, the Gremlin, plunked his magic twanger and croaked, “Hiya, kids, hiya, hiya.” Midnight, the Cat, said everything was “ni-i-i-ce,” but I figured Darius was a whole lot more talented. The stories were fun and it was a great way to begin Saturdays, but halfway through, I reached over and turned the radio off and announced to my blasé feline, “Nuts to this. I’m not a kid anymore, Darius.” He blinked and stretched, got up and gave me his best look of cat superiority, his way of saying, “Who cares? Feed me.”

Sun shafts pierced the gaps in the Venetian blinds and I lay there, watching dust float in the sunlit stripes, focusing on one until it drifted out of sight, then another. I grinned and thought, that’s me, free, fourteen and floating on air! First day of summer vacation and no more school for three months!

I reveled in being warm and lazy, knowing I didn’t have to get up, didn’t have to do anything. At least not for a while.

Dad was rustling around, getting ready for work, but for me, it was June 7th, 1952, first day of summer vacation and I’ll never have to go to Mission Hill again! For now, nuthin’ but freedom and fun. Kenny and me and Milo? Today, we had plans.

Dad went downstairs to the kitchen, followed by a waft of bay rum. I heard the snap-pop-hiss as he opened a fresh can of Maxwell House and when I could smell the coffee brewing and bacon frying, I got up. Darius and I woggled through the dining room into the kitchen.

“’Morning, Marty, Darius.  Sleep good?”

Darius waltzed around Dad’s legs. He didn’t much care who fed him, just as long as he got fed. I poured a little cream into a saucer, put it on the floor, poured some kibble in another saucer, paired it with the milk.

“Um. Yeah. Makin’ breakfast for two?”

“Sure, easy enough to do, just add some hash, drop in a couple more eggs. How ‘bout you put some bread in the toaster.”

“Okay, sure.” I took a couple slices of Sunlite and dropped them in the toaster, then opened the refrigerator again, poured some milk for myself. I leaned against the counter and watched him turn the hash. “Nice having Charlie back home again, huh. He gonna get on at the Sheriff’s Office with you?”

“We talked about it, but he’ll have to go through the application process, same as anyone else.”

“You like being a deputy, Dad?”

I was really proud of my father.  I liked what he did, what he stood for, the way he looked in his uniform. He was big, better than six feet, strong and broad. When I was little, I imagined he was really made out of railroad ties. Even now, Dad could pick me up one-handed and tuck me under his arm. Years ago, I learned the hard lesson that it was impossible for me to lie to him so I quit trying, willing instead to bear the consequence of my foolish choices. Dad put a high value on honesty.

When he was really serious – dead serious, I called it – his crystal blue eyes glinted and his mouth grimmed into a hard straight line and nobody, I mean nobody, gave him any lip, least of all Charlie or me. I could only imagine how people might have felt when he came to arrest them. Thing is, I never once saw him look that way at Mom.

“Most of the time, yeah. It’s a good job, get to help people straighten things out, keep things safe.”

“Does it ever get scary? You know, goin’ after bad guys and all?”

“Once in a while, sure, but most of the time, no, it’s not scary.” He flipped the eggs over. I liked the sizzle. It always sounded like home.

“You never had to shoot anyone, did you?” The toast popped up and I buttered both slices.

“No, never did. Santa Cruz is a pretty quiet town, hardly ever any reason to pull a gun.” He slid the spatula under two eggs and put them on a plate, then did another plate. He served up some hash from the other frying pan, poured himself a cup of coffee. I put a slice of toast on each plate, got two forks out of the drawer and we sat down at the kitchen table. Dad bowed his head and gave thanks. I bowed my head, too, piggybacked on his prayer. We ate.

“First day of summer vacation, Marty. What’s up today?”

“Milo, Kenny and I heard about this new cave up in Cave Gulch.  Couple of guys at school discovered it.  We thought we’d go see if we can find it, do some exploring.”

Kenny Proulx – his family pronounced it ‘prew’ – my long-time friend and beach buddy, lived half a block away around the corner on Laurent Street. Milo Alexandreous lived over on Rigg. Milo was one of those kids who was always happy, so we called him Smilo.  Any time we went to his house, his mother, a round and soft woman with dark hair and exotic eyes, always welcomed us with, “You boys, come in, come in, have something to eat.” I can’t remember how many pies, cakes, cookies or brownies, all washed down with glasses of milk or lemonade, we’d consumed there. The things I liked best were the spanokopita and tzatziki and moussaka and salads filled with feta cheese and lamb and onions and tomatoes and fat, green olives so briny that they puckered my mouth. Because we never got that kind of food at home, eating at the Alexandreous’ home was like visiting another country in the company of a peaceful and pleasant family, full with warmth and kindness and plenty of good food. Small wonder Milo was happy.

Kenny was an only child and his mom and dad were sort of casual and cool, and okay, I guess, but they never interacted much with Kenny and me, so I never got to know them very well. Because he’d lived just around the corner forever, Kenny and I had been friends ever since kindergarten, but being more of a surface guy, he was never one I could share secrets or private thoughts with. Anyhow, he was as spontaneous as a hiccup and was always willing to try new things, which made him a great companion.

I felt a gentle, insistent tapping on my thigh and I knew without looking that Darius was standing on his hind legs, one front paw on the edge of the chair, the other tapping me. Meow. Feed me. I smushed some hash onto a bite of toast and gave it to him. He ate it with polite relish, asked for more.

Dad said, “Okay, be careful.  Don’t take any dumb-bunny risks.  And Marty, you need to know this is going to be your last summer of freedom. I just want you to be aware of that.  Next summer, we expect you to get a job, learn how to work. Whatever money you earn is yours.”

The money part was good, but I didn’t want to hear this, certainly not today. It kind of threw cold water on things as I’d gotten accustomed to not having to work at all, except for my chores. “Okay, Dad. Can I get on at the Sheriff’s Office?”

“Not a chance, kiddo. We don’t have summer jobs. No, you can probably get a job down at the Boardwalk, they hire a lot of summer help, or maybe at a grocery store, you know, bagging, making short-run deliveries on your bike.”

The Boardwalk idea kind of appealed to me right away, figuring it would be a good place to meet girls, but then, I already had a girl. Well, kind of. Neither Kenny or Milo dated and whatever Sammy and I did could hardly be called dates.

We finished eating and I rinsed the dishes off and left them in the sink to wash later. Dad went back upstairs, brushed his teeth, then, quietly so as not to wake Mom, came back downstairs. He buckled on his holster with his .38 Special, put on his jacket and cap.  He gave me a little sideways hug on his way out the door. “See you later, kiddo. Love you.”

I said, “Bye, Dad. Love you too,” and watched him walk down the steps and get in his Jeep.  He’d bought a war surplus Jeep for $400 mostly to use for going back and forth to work, but used it for fishing and other stuff, too. As he backed down the driveway, I nodded my head and thought, that’s the kind of man I want to be like when I grow up. 

My Saturday mornings, however, also had regular responsibility. I had daily chores like take out the trash and keep the cat box clean, but on Saturday mornings I had to mow the front and back lawns, do the edges, dump the clippings, and sweep up. This wasn’t such a bad job except it would have been so much easier if Dad would just buy a power mower. I pestered him about this but his answer was they were too expensive and, with a big grin, he reminded me, “We don’t need one since we’ve got you. You’re all the power we need.”

Forty, fifty years ago when our house was built, King Street had been one of the nicer residential streets in Santa Cruz. Each house on our block was a different architectural style, all single stories except four. Most everyone who lived in our neighborhood took pride in their homes and yards, and when I mowed the lawn, I felt kind of proud to be part of that legacy, something the smell of fresh-cut grass always reminds me of.

Ours was a two-story yellow stucco in the middle of the block. It was a comfortable home, hardwood floors and a spacious yard out back. The living room was off to the right of the entry, the dining room to the left, with a small den off to the side where we spent most of our time in the evenings. Charlie had the larger front bedroom, mine was down the hall, next to the bathroom. Mom and Dad slept in the upstairs bedroom which had its own bathroom. The kitchen was at the back of the house and had a big walk-in pantry where we kept the refrigerator and a washing machine, and stored stuff we didn’t use very often.

The lawn in back was small, most of the yard given to flowers and vegetables. The front lawn was even smaller, so it took me less than an hour to push the old mower around and trim the edges of the whole thing. The mower was one of those old reel clunkers with the heavy cast iron wheels and steel cutter blades and the heavy T-top hardwood handle. The grass catcher had canvas sides and a tin bottom. Dad said it had belonged to his father and he kept good care of it, I think more for sentimental reasons than practical ones. Anyway, despite it being heavy and clunky, it worked really well, reason being that Dad insisted that after ‘every time we (meaning ‘I’) use it, we (‘I’) clean the grass off and give it a little oil every once in a while. “If you take good care of your tools,” he said, “they’ll give you good service for years.”

After I’d cut the grass, then came the part I disliked more than anything, ‘cause I had to get down on my hands and knees and edge the lawns with a pair of grass clippers, then clean up the clippings. It took longer than I wanted to give it and I was always running into slugs and pincher bugs and roly-polys and sometimes a salamander, but it gave me some good time to think about things. Mom said that kind of work was ‘therapeutic,’ whatever that meant.

Mom and Dad took care of the rest of the garden, planting bulbs in the winter and flowers in the spring, preparing the beds, fertilizing, things like that. This time of year, the back yard was an explosion of flowers with stock and snap dragons and marigolds and delphiniums and roses and columbine, zinnias, hollyhocks, callas, and more stuff I never knew the names of. Over next to the driveway was a huge bed of stinky nasturtiums where a huge family of snails lived and dined. Mom loved flowers and always had big bouquets in the house. I guess you could say our back yard was fruitful, as the soil was rich and black and loamy and in the back section we grew a few rows of vegetables, lettuce, beans, tomatoes, potatoes and carrots. Mom said the dirt was so rich, all you had to do to grow things there was to toss out the seeds and let nature do the rest.

We had a big, fat lemon tree that produced big, fat lemons all year long. Next to it was a lawn swing with a canopy where we’d sit and rock back and forth and drink lemonade when it was hot and where Mom and I used to play ‘Button, Button’ when I was little. Our apricot tree was getting old and even though one long limb had died, the tree still produced decent apricots every year.  There was a grape arbor, too, but the grapes weren’t for eating, just clusters of stingy sour green things that looked like they might be worth something someday but never were. The arbor was surrounded by a border of baby tears and ferns, making it a good place where Mom could sit and read when she wanted to be quiet and alone. She had outfitted it with a cushion and three large pillows. I’d found her there a lot of times when I got home from school. It’s a special place.

Right next to the garage under a spread of morning glories was a semicircular flower bed where Mom planted pansies every year. I always liked to watch them when a breeze came along and made them look like they were smiling and dancing. Behind the pansy bed was a shed where we kept our gardening tools, built from redwood. Over the years it had taken on a pungent smell of old wood and fertilizers and earth and sweat, the smell of labor and fruitfulness.

The garage was just a garage, with a big ‘ol workbench Dad had built, complete with a vise and a spread of tools he’d accumulated over the years, enough to tackle any mechanical or woodworking project that came along. Other than that, it was just a place to park the family car and my bike and stuff we didn’t want to store in the house, kept watch over by spiders that inhabited in the rafters.

Out front were a pair of hearty hydrangeas. Dad tossed old nails onto the soil and dug them into the dirt, said the iron made them turn blue. Three jacaranda trees grew in the parking strip that produced great splashes of purple blossoms during the early spring every year. Sometimes, Mom liked to go across the street and look back at our house when they were blooming, just to take in what she called ‘one of the Lord’s great glories.’

I was just finishing up in the back yard when Mom called, “Marty, when you’re done with the lawn, come on in. Breakfast is ready.”

I clipped my last clip, swept up, put the tools away and ran through the back door, letting it slam. “I already had breakfast with Dad.”

“I know. You’re also a boy and you’re fourteen.  Go wash your hands and come have breakfast.”


In my view, Mom was solid, solid in her look, her build, her faith, and her attitude.  She stood straight, took care of herself, always did and said the right thing, and in one of Gramma Bess’s favorite expressions, ‘didn’t take any truck from anybody.’ Mom was a very cool lady and you always knew where you stood with her. Besides loving her, I liked her. A lot. She was fun and had this goofy sense of humor and something else I liked a lot was that all my friends liked her, too.

This morning, she was wearing jeans and one of Dad’s old white shirts. Most women her age didn’t wear jeans, but she never cared about that. There was some work she wanted to do this morning, probably in the back yard, and jeans and Dad’s shirt suited her best.  She wasn’t one to be concerned with what the neighbors thought.

Her hair was tied back in a pony tail – Mom prided herself in having natural blond hair, I think, mostly to stifle those picky, gossipy women who insinuated that she colored her hair – and when I looked at her this morning, I was kind of shocked to realize there were wrinkles around her eyes. Mom was getting older!

Wrinkles didn’t make any difference to her hazel eyes, though, as they were always – I means always – kind and soft. Mom was a lover, a lover of her husband, her kids, her Aunt Kate, Darius Meow, her friends, and up until she passed on before us, Gramma Bess. And – never bashful about this – she loved Jesus in such a way that was uplifting and reasonable, a way that helped me know how real he could be, how real he was. Her faith was reflected in the kindness and compassion she gave to every person who crossed her path, without reservation. Beyond that, she loved cooking, which she was really good at, and her garden. Anyone who saw it could tell she loved the garden because of how everything grew. Mom said it was love that made everything grow, plants and animals and children alike.

Back at the kitchen table, Mom set down three bowls of oatmeal with brown sugar, butter, raisins, crushed pecans and sliced bananas. I picked up the pitcher of cream and poured it on, stirred everything together, let it cool.

Charlie came in, barefoot and in his robe and p.j.s.  He yawned, wuzzled his hair. I was awfully glad to have him back home and had worried about him the whole time he was in the navy and prayed for God to keep him safe every night before I went to sleep. Charlie was 21 and had only been back a couple of days. My brother’s a rubber stamp of Dad, same height, about six feet, same build, same dark brown hair, but he’s got Mom’s hazel eyes and her goofy humor.

“‘Morning, Charlie.  Have some oatmeal.”

“‘Morning, Mom, Marty.” He poured himself a cup of coffee, sat down and poured cream on his cereal, started to eat.”

“Charlie. Grace.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry, Mom. Kinda got out of the habit.”

We took a minute while Charlie gave thanks for the three of us, then ate.

“Got anything planned for today, Charlie?”

“Yeah, I’m going down to the Sheriff’s Office this morning, check on my job application, let ‘em know I’m very interested, maybe make it go a little smoother. Okay if I use the car?”

“Sure, but what if you don’t get that job, son?  You know what your father said, hiring’s tight right now.”

“Dunno. I’ll apply somewhere else, maybe the Santa Cruz Police Department.”

“Got your heart set on law enforcement?”

“Not entirely. But I like the idea of carrying on kind of a family tradition, maybe, you know, with Grampa Walter having been a U.S. Marshall and all. It’s something I can do, I think. If I get on, then I’d like to get some more training later on, maybe some college classes.”

“Where would you do that?”

“I’m not sure, San Jose State, Police Academy? We’ll see.”

Mom said, “Hmm,” sipped her coffee. Then she said, “Charlie” with that tone in her voice that said she wanted to talk about something serious.

My brother stopped eating. He heard it, too. “Mom?”

“I know you’ve only been home a couple of days, but you haven’t been your usual self since you got back from the navy.  Something happened while you were away, didn’t it, something that’s bothering you.”

Charlie put his spoon down. “Yeah. Yeah, it did. I really don’t want to talk about it, not right now, not yet. Even though I liked the navy, what happened is why I decided not to reenlist. I’ll tell you about it sometime soon, maybe an evening when Dad’s home.”

“How about this evening? He’ll be home. I think it would be good for us to talk about it.”

My ears perked up. Being a nosy sort, I wanted to know what had happened, mostly because hardly anything ever happened to me. Having something serious happen to someone in the family was exciting. All I knew is that Charlie had served on board a destroyer for two years, and that the ship had been part of the war in Korea. Later on, after Charlie told us about it, I was sorry I knew.