Vail Daily column: Escaping in the dark
In 1930, we were northbound on a very narrow two-lane road in the San Fernando Valley California, called Ventura Boulevard. Our family’s entire possessions were jammed in and on the car because we had once again moved in the middle of the night to avoid paying back rent. Apparently, my father didn’t feel like working and since it was the bottom of the Depression, he thought he had an excuse, except I don’t think he even tried to get a job that paid a regular salary.
He did have a dream though of resurrecting his radio show that was canceled in Oakland, California. He could speak with a lot of different accents and pretended to be the owner of a country store, dispensing advice to his customers. The show was called Cy Toosie’s Farm. With his multiple voice/accent capability, and as it was radio, he was able to be both the storeowner and the customer.
After traveling through what seemed like endless orange orchards and other farms, a two-story building appeared in the distance. This was the only structure in the town of Encino besides the three one-room schoolhouse. We turned left on Havenhurst and on the side of a hill in the distance stood the imposing Encino Country Club. As a young kid it seemed like a four-story tall castle with the adjoining stables, an Olympic size swimming pool with a 10-meter tall diving platform and a lake of about 3 or 4 acres.
I didn’t know it at the time, but it would set off the other half of my lifelong love of the ocean and the mountains.
Instead of my two sisters and me sleeping on mattresses on the floor, we each had our own bedrooms with attached bathrooms. In the center of all this luxury were a massive dining room and a ballroom ready for big bands and dances of that era. The kitchen was equally large and capable of preparing meals for about 100 people at one sitting. It was a one-mile walk to the Encino grade school that had three grades in each small room, with one teacher for each grade, one janitor and a very large gravel playground.
My parents were very shocked when after two months in this small school, the teacher wanted to let me skip the fourth grade but my parents only allowed me to skip one half of a grade.
I could write an entire book about those two years: Helping to herd horses on Saturday or Sunday and earning 10 cents a day; in the late spring walking that mile to school learned to leave my shoes in an orange tree and to spend the day barefooted just like at least half of the students and the countless other adventures I thrived on while we lived there.
During the first summer, I was attacked by a very large dog, knocked to the ground and got a lot of puncture wounds and tears in my shoulder and upper body.
Someone beat the dog off of me with a 2-by-4 and my parents put me in the car and took me to the hospital where it took four adults to hold me down on the table as a doctor put some liquid in each puncture wound and each time he did, steam came out of the wound.
Years ago when I first talked about this dog bite incident, I remembered that I was lying on a stainless steel table. It was then that I remembered that emergency ward tables have pads and sheets and my father had probably taken me to a veterinarian instead of a hospital because it was cheaper.
After the acid ordeal, the vet told my parents that when we got home to tie up the dog for 30 days to see if he developed rabies. When we got home however, someone had already shot the dog.
In the spring it was wonderful to watch the green grass grow 2 or 3 feet tall in the surrounding hills and earn my 10 cents a day helping to herd the horses. When one of the cowboys gave me his old cowboy hat and that evening when my father saw it on my head, he slapped it off me, saying that no kid of his was every going to be a cowboy. I lost a prize that the cowboy gave me — something that helped me define what I loved just as my experiences on Topanga Beach opened up the world of the ocean for me.
During the couple years that the family lived in Encino every day was a new experience for me. I roamed the nearby hills and got as far away from the country club building as possible but making sure that I could get back home before dark so I could get dinner which a few times were just leftovers when I was late.
The recording studio in the dance hall that my father thought he could pull together into a nightclub never happened. The only event that ever took place that I remember was one Christmas when they had a dance and admission was 25 cents per couple or a can of food.
The dance was very successful but for some reason, he never staged the second one. Nor was there ever a broadcast from the ballroom/sound studio.
Sometime in the second spring of living the good life, I found myself once again in the backseat of the car with my two sisters and all of our worldly possessions skipping out on a lot of unpaid back rent.
This time, we settled in a three-bedroom house in Las Felis, below the Griffith Park planetarium: One-bedroom for my parents, another bedroom for my sisters, the third bedroom for a $5-a-month bachelor friend of my parents. I still had my blanket and my mattress in the hall, still living the good life.
This is when my grandmother once again came to my rescue and gave me back a lot of my freedom by giving me my first pair of roller skates for my 10th birthday. I was so excited about the skates that I was strapping them on long before the sun came up the next morning. By the time I had to go to school, I had accomplished roller-skating around the block twice, without falling down.
My mother was working for the WPA at the time and the government decided to give all the ladies 20 cents a week to sharpen their scissors. My mother gathered them up and one day a week she would wake me up at 4:30 and I would roller skate the two miles to my grandparents house so my grandfather could sharpen the scissors in his machine shop. While he did that, my grandmother cooked me a bowl of hot oatmeal and I got to sleep for 45 minutes before roller-skating back to meet my mother at the streetcar stop so she could take the scissors back to work.
As I’ve said many times, I was born with good luck on my shoulder and it has been there ever since.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.