The House on Erwin Street
The house I lived in for my first seven years – 13458 Erwin Street, Van Nuys, CA – still stands. As I gazed at the Google photo of my birthplace home, sadness came over me when I saw that my beloved pepper tree was gone. I loved to run under it when it rained. I would slosh around in my galoshes in the lacy falling leaves and pink berries and breathe in the peppery smell. A maple tree now replaced my tree but our front hedge and one lone orange tree to the left of a newly laid drivewayremained .
In 1942, when my parents moved to California, Van Nuys was a paradise. Gentleman farms dotted the landscape, mostly owned by Hollywood actors. Groves of orange and lemon trees could be seen for miles. In our back yard were four orange trees, three lemon trees and a grape arbor bursting with purple.
By 1947, we were eight altogether - two older brothers, Mom and Dad, and four younger kids. Mary was nine, I was five, Jimmy was three, and baby Janie was two.
My brothers, Chuck and Bill, old enough to be my dads, lived in a cottage in the back yard. Mary would make Jimmy and me sneak into that cottage when they were away and look for dimes under the chair cushions and goodies in the frig.
Mary and Me getting ready to steal
At three, I attended Mrs. La Gasse’s Child's Garden School on Kester Avenue for nursery school and first grade. I dreaded getting up on schooldays. Because I was the youngest, the kids would bother me with questions like, “How do you spell ‘stop’?” I didn’t know and I cried all the way to school.
In first grade, we had a talk about clouds in circle time. The teacher called on me and I said, “What the hell are those clouds doing up there anyway?” I was sent to the hall for what seemed a very long time.
Like most suburbs where kids reside, we had neighbor friends and neighbor feuds. Our greatest foes were the Henner kids next door. The Henners would climb over our fence, steal our grapes and sell them from a booth on the street. We knew the Henners didn’t have much, but we kind of wanted some grapes for ourselves. One day we kids took the grapes back. Then, as revenge, the Henner kids tied Jimmy to a tree.
One day, the Henners threatened to burn our house down. My sister, Mary, decided to set the Henners field on fire. She said it was an accident. She said she was playing with matches. But we knew sister Mary had a fierce sense of justice— kind of an eye for an eye. Mr. Henner’s honey bees about got wiped out, but he managed to save them from the fire. For weeks after that we kids had to lay low and not provoke the Henners anymore or Dad would whip our butts.
During the war, the Van Nuys airport had been converted to a military base to train P-38 Lightning pilots. Rumors about Japanese planes overhead were common. So were blackouts. Though the war ended in 1945, we played “war planes overhead” well into 1948 because it was so much fun. While our mother fed clothes through her wringer washer in the garage, we would whip around her legs, hiding. Then we would burst forth out into the yard with machine guns blasting.
Van Nuys 1945
While our father did his best to defend the U.S.as an accountant at Lockheed Aircraft, we kids did our best to destroy homeland security on the ground. Jimmy took matches under his bed one morning and our mother found the bed smoking with flames. She bodily dragged the whole bed outside with her tiny five foot frame. On returning, she found the burned carpet and the matches but no Jimmy. We found him hours later hiding in the bushes in the back yard.
We also had critters in our back yard. “Horny toads,” tree frogs, and varieties of birds inhabited our fruit tree filled oasis - creatures with usually highly developed defenses but security evaded them as we stalked the orchard and grape vines, seeking our prey. Animal rights were unheard of in those days and all nature was at our mercy. The trees lost limbs, the grape arbor suffered a rape of sorts beyond what the Henners managed. Horny toads scurried like lightning when they heard the scrape of my brother’s little blue wagon across the sandy path.
My mother’s favorite threat was, “I’m going to give you away to the Indians.” That was before political correctness and “Native Americans” came to live in America. Back then, Indians were Indians - even the Indians thought so.
Indians and cowboys were real to us in the San Fernando Valley. It was the heyday of Westerns in Hollywood and many of the “B” movie stars and some of the “A”'s lived in Van Nuys. It was not unusual to see a movie cowboy or an Indian in the local market. Often they were dressed for a movie shoot. Other times, they showed up with mud on their boots and hay in their hair from ranching. With that inspiration, when we weren’t playing “World War II,” we reenacted the latest Western. Our back yard became a cow ranch, and we fought off the rustlers with six shooters. The real thrill though remained seeing a Lone Ranger or a Tonto type cowboy or Indian as we hung off the grocery cart.
One of our favorite adventures was to “trick or treat" at Andy Devine’s house. Mr. Devine was well known then in the Westerns as a kind of comic relief from the gun fights and land battles. His greatest movie role at that time was as Cookie Bullfincher, Roy Roger’s sidekick.
Mr. Devine put on a real Hollywood show for us on Halloween. As we approach his door, ghosts would leap out of windows and scare us witless, even though we had seen them the year before. The door would fly open and there was Andy in his movie western garb, with a huge bowl of pennies. He chuckled and cried,” Happy Halloween!” in his famous scratchy voice. We kids were encouraged to take as many pennies as we wanted. We didn’t tell him we’d like to have some candy too.
Andy Devine's House on Kester
Jimmy, Janie and I got up one morning and the ground was white. I stared out the window, ran to my mother to ask what that white stuff was, then ran back to the window to stare out again. Jimmy, being the pioneer, just whipped out the door in his underwear to inspect the white stuff. He was right back in a flash. “Holy cow,” he said,” it’s cold out there!” Once we scraped up makeshift winter garments, in short supply in our sun drenched oasis, we played in the snow as long as we could stand it.
At that time our brothers attended UCLA and before the age of TV, dragged our parents to every football game. We younger kids had to have a babysitter and never got to go, to which we voiced our disapproval loudly. After the games, the adults returned home and relived every play, beers in hand around the patio. We four then got the opportunity to run around the patio and shout rah rah and kick our play football around. Once a year, the adults took extra effort to plot how they could cause the whole USC team to fall off a cliff before the cross town rivalry.
Our brother, Chuck, an amateur photographer constantly followed us around, trying to capture our childhoods. Early on, he caught me posing with Mary in droopy diapers, and later me in the flower garden, modeling one of my aunt’s famous pinafores. His photo below suggests Jimmy and I never had a fight. Ha!
Jimmy and me in a friendly moment
We moved from Van Nuys in 1949. The war had ended and the San Fernando Valley as well as the country had launched into great prosperity. In time, orange and lemon orchards were cut down to make freeways. The old Hollywood Westerns faded. And the Child's Garden School was torn down for apartment buildings. So to find the old homestead still standing with one orange tree remaining in the front yard was sweet to behold.
Van Nuys 2007