Shared Stories: City Slicker

Claire Hess grew up in a story-book time in the 1960’s – across the bay from San Francisco. Circumstances dictated an abrupt move to a very small town for her senior year in high school. 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

By Claire Hess

The authors of my being were travelling on a cool morning blanketed with fog from Pt. Richmond to Hayward, California, a distance of approximately 23 miles, in a speeding taxicab at 2:00 am to anticipate the birth of yours truly.

Why did they go so far?  Mom wanted me to be born in the same hospital with the same doctor as my brother who came before me.

The taxicab skidded on its side along the Bayshore Freeway close to Golden Gate Meadows, a race track.  The track was almost my birthplace, but the taxi righted itself and sped off to Hayward Hospital, where I was born instantly.

I entered this world on November 3.  Was this a twist of fate?  When I look back on the event, I see that I have been somewhat of a gambler too with life’s trials and tribulations.

After living in the housing projects of Richmond, my parents bought a lot on a small hill overlooking the bay called El Cerrito, neighboring Berkeley, California.  I missed the expansive lawns of the projects and the cot I slept on, but was excited to live in a new area that looked like mini-country.

Behind us was a golf course where my brother and I spent many long hours box-boarding down the 7th hole green and selling lemonade to the golfers.  There was also golf-ball selling, and many times a golfer would say, “I lost that one last week, but here’s 25 cents.”

A large, pregnant German Shepherd followed us home on the 10th hole one afternoon, and as a good book says, “Pick up a starving animal and it will thank you for it.” She delivered her ten pups one afternoon on my parents’ twin beds. She was thankful and said, “Here are ten more.”

Next door to us was Fire Station #3 and the firemen were not neighbors, they were family.  I can still remember the firemen, their caring conversation and their tiny kitchen.  When I smelled the aroma of spaghetti sauce, it was time for me to go home.  I always felt safe when my parents left, knowing that they were within earshot.

My brother and I always wondered who would run next door if we had a fire.  One Christmas, we were burning the discarded paper and the wood above the fireplace caught fire.  I can’t remember who ran next door, but they were in the house within a minute.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960’s was very political, and at the same time, sheltering. As we did not have computers and smart phones, I came home and practiced my squeak, squeak violin for two hours and did my homework.

I started playing in the third grade and stopped in my junior year of high school. I begged my parents to let me quit and take typing lessons or drama. They said OK.

That summer I missed out on a trip to Mason City, Iowa, to see the premier of the Music Man because of my estrangement from the orchestra. But I took it up again and played one semester in college.

San Francisco was only 12 miles away, but in those golden days that was a big trip.  When relatives came from the Midwest, Dad would pack everyone in our 1955 blue Ford and drive over the Bay Bridge to Grotto #9 at Fisherman’s Wharf to have the best clam chowder, with oyster crackers sprinkled on top, and, of course, the entrée prawns.

It took almost an hour to get there because most of the time we got lost, what with all of the one-way streets.

Oh, but what a city San Francisco was – so cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and with views of the bay on most of the hills.  Women wore stylish, small hats, and covered their hands and nails with gloves.

I heard the bad news when I arrived home from school when I was finishing my junior year.  We were moving to a small town in northeastern California by the name of Alturas.  This is the last larger town before you are in Oregon.  I couldn’t believe my ears.

I pleaded with my parents to let me stay behind and finish my anticipated senior year.  Couldn’t I live with my best friend? 

Oh, now Claire, you know that would be impossible.

Nothing worked and I was destined to leave the friends I had spent all my school years with. We were classmates since kindergarten and there were 562 of us – how could I leave?

The move took place, and two parents, three children, one German Shepherd, and one cat took Highway 395 up to Modoc County, the county seat.  This is where the Modoc Indian Wars were fought, and also the site of the Japanese internment in Tulelake during World War II.

The country was completely different from the bay area, and we were the strangers.  The town only had 2,450 people and had more bars per capita than any other city in California.  There was a saloon on every corner, it seemed.  If you lived in a small town, you know that all know your business before you do.

Two weeks before school, I saw two boys throwing frogs on the pavement, so I was not sure about this place.

I decided not to be a city-slicking snob and plunged right into my senior year with gusto.  September rolled around and the whole school of 320 was very friendly and welcomed me with open arms. I felt strange, but made many friends.

When there were tryouts for the senior play, I was chosen for the lead in the play, Aunt Susie Shoots the Works.  I would not have even been given a walk-on part at my old high school, as the competition was too keen.

The play centered on a man-hating spinster who owns a sausage factory.  This was living, and I did not miss the old school!

I met a friend who owned horses in a small town north called Davis Creek, and she and I would ride.

In my public speaking class, I announced that I had never, ever seen falling snow, and they answered, “Just you wait.”  The first snow was rather eventful, but after shoveling it with my dad, the novelty soon wore off.

The night of the senior play, I took my mother to the drug store and I was thinking a lot of my lines.  It was snowing quite heavily and a girl darted out in from of the car next to me.  Luckily I slammed on my brakes and did not hit her.  It really shook me up and I do not think I drove the car for a few months after that.

Graduation took place in May with 32 of us Modoc Braves, and I looked forward to the summer and then on to Chico State University in the fall.

That summer I was hired as a waitress at a local restaurant in town, and it was also the bowling alley and Greyhound Bus station stop.  I worked for $1 an hour.  That was less than the minimum wage at the time - $1.25.

Many interesting incidents happened on the job, but the one I remember the most was when two English ladies came into the restaurant and they each tipped me a silver dollar!

Every night I would arrive home and Mom would get up and we would count all of my tips – she was shocked at the silver dollars!

I believe in the premise that unfortunate circumstances train you, give you strength, and usually end with a happy ending.  I have wonderful memories of experiences in the small town that enhanced my knowledge and gave me a good comparison of urban versus rural communities.

Home is where the heartbeat is.