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Claire Hess’s introduction to college life included a college prank that left her shaken and full of remorse. It was a simpler time in northern California, and the memory brings smiles. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
The time: August 1963.
The place: Alturas – A very small town high in the Warner Mountains in northeastern California. Kitchen of the Hess household during dinner time.
Can you just picture a family in the early 1960’s sitting around the table actually engaged in conversation? This was the era of communication a la family. No IPods out, no Blackberries, no cell phones, just plain, common folk talking about the events of the day. The only piece of communication technology was the black telephone with the long cord dangling from the end piece attached to the wall.
My mother, after fixing the four of us a plate of cold cuts, was using this instrument to talk to the University in Chico as she tried to find a place in the dormitory for me. I was going off to college. We understood the conversation and heard her every word at this time.
“You’re full and there is no room for our daughter? Are you sure?”
The voices on the other end of the telephone gave their advice: “Why don’t you call the list of rooming houses that she could live in? We’ll send you the list.”
Since fax machines, computers, and other technological devices were not in use yet, the only alternative was the U.S. mail. We waited about four days for a letter to appear in our box at the post office since we had no mail delivery.
After reviewing the list, the only place that had openings was the Bidwell House. Bidwell was close to the college and housed quite a few girls. It was an old Victorian home with three stories: seniors on the first story, juniors and sophomores on the second floor, and then us lowly freshmen on the third floor. It was across from the college library and sounded like a nice place to live.
September rolled around and off I went, my suitcases piled high with wool skirts and turtleneck sweaters. Dad and Mom made the trip with me and, gee, I was excited.
Arriving at the house, I was greeted by the housemother with second-motherly affection. She instructed me that I was to take a bed on the third floor. Climbing three stories of steps I found my new abode – a little corner with a turret window overlooking the front street.
I learned that I would be sharing this upper floor that creaked with five freshmen girls. Five? The first day rolled around and introductions were long and detailed. Where do you live? What high school did you go to? What is your major?
Since I had attended school for a long time in the Bay Area before my family moved to Alturas, where I graduated high school, I knew quite a few people. I remember one fellow student said she lived in Downey. I said, “Where is Downey?”
After introductions, we all decided to go out together and see the town of Chico. Chico is a small college town but has a lot of amenities. The six of us walked downtown and decided to have lunch. We seemed to all get along and gabbed and gabbed even though this was our first meeting.
We entered a local cafÃ© and ate our first lunch together. After noshing on burgers and fries, one roomie eyed the salt and pepper shakers. They were mosaic on the bottom and looked rather expensive. She said, “Wouldn’t these look good in our room?”
I sat there very still. A chorus of, “Yes, let’s take them,” ensued. I remember one of the girls handed me the pepper shaker.
On the way back to our house, I was nervous. I saw a mail box and wanted to place the pepper shaker in it. I looked at my roomie and she gave me a look as if to say, “How could you?”
All of a sudden, a black Cadillac pulled up alongside of us and the waitress got out. She said, as we were shaking, our bodies like trees in a violent windstorm, “Hand over those salt and pepper shakers or I will call the police!”
Gee, this was something that was not supposed to happen. My roommate handed over the beautiful salt shaker with the mosaic bottom and I did likewise. We all stared at each other as if we were all guilty, and wondered if she would call the police even though we gave them back right away.
No. The Cadillac sped away back towards downtown. We all were shocked, some more than others. The roommate who had the idea to snatch the goods said, “We are all lucky she didn’t go to a pay phone booth, spend a dime, and call the Chico Police Department.”
I was so red-faced, upset, and in a state of shock that I did not say anything. All I could see and hear were my parents driving up and admonishing me for such a stupid act. One roommate said, “Let’s get back to our rooming house before the waitress changes her mind.”
Well, they say when you are young and vulnerable, you are influenced by your peers and this was the case. I learned a big lesson that day in that one needs to stay on the right path and not join in with any illegal activity. Otherwise, there will be consequences.
The six of us walked quickly back to Hazel Street and we all agreed not to go back to the restaurant even though we were not banned from it. We also vowed to keep this story quiet from the first and second floor girls who were older and much wiser and had probably already had their experience with college pranks.
Published: March 6, 2014 – Volume 12 – Issue 47