by Tom Knight
I was three and very eager to explore the rural neighborhood which seemed to me like a vast land.
There were a few older homes in the hood, but no sidewalks, curbs or gutters, and lots of puddles and streamlets in the winter. Much of the area was still open fields punctuated by an occasional barn. Across the street were row upon row of glass greenhouses marching up the hillside, inside of which grew roses and hot house tomatoes. As boys, we used to take small Leslie salt shakers, sneak into the greenhouses and sample the tomatoes for quality. They were good, very good! Another attraction was a huge pile of brilliant yellow sulfur which was apparently somehow important in the greenhouse operations. We used to combine some of this sulfur in old discarded wine bottles to concoct strange mixtures which would layer out in different colors after being shaken. I cannot tell you all of the other ingredients which were added to these bottles, though I do remember some of them. At the top of the hill above all the greenhouses was a large open concrete water reservoir full of big bullfrogs. Only a very tall fence topped with sharp wire kept us out. Those frogs were really big and very loud, especially at dusk.
Also across the street was an old horse ranch with barbed wire fences, piles of sawdust, old barns and buildings, and a creek running though the middle. Just recently I discovered that this was the fading remnant of the Poppy Hill Creamery. I never knew the hill we climbed had a name, but I do remember poppies and lupine growing there in the spring. In the summer the long grass turned brown and dry, becoming very slippery, making a terrifying downhill run on large piece of cardboard, at least until the El Cerrito Fire Department burned it as they did every year, supposedly to prevent wildfires. Clearly, this was prior to the era of air pollution control. Actually, the fire department in those days burned lots of things just for practice or to get rid of stuff, things like old barns and even the remnants of the Hutchison Quarry rock mill where the recycling center is now located. That was one HOT fire.
There were no trees on the hills. We planted those later when I was a Boy Scout. In fact, a motorcycle club used to conduct an annual hill climb race up the face of the hill, a dusty, noisy, raucous event, very impressive to a young boy. There’s nothing quite like watching a full size Harley cart-wheeling 300 or 400 feet downhill without the rider. It’s amazing no one got killed, although I’m not sure about that. The top of the hill was relatively flat and a truly great place to fly a kite, particularly in the summer when the fog would blow in though the Golden Gate. It was also a place littered with broken glass bottles, evidently from many late nights of drinking. It had the fabulous view of the twinkling lights of San Francisco across the bay in the distance, so must have been the perfect party spot. Unfortunately, I was too young to know about or participate in those sports.
Creeks were open, had banks of slippery gray-blue clay and often grew watercress which tasted peppery. In the winter after heavy rains the creeks were fascinating attractions and in places formed deep pools upon which we floated makeshift rafts. We also floated boats and sticks down streams, especially during fierce storms when the action was fast and muddy. Later, as creeks were put underground in large diameter cement pipes and culverts, we used to adventure down them on Flexies, dangerous sleds on wheels which were later outlawed due to so many gruesome and sometimes fatal accidents. These dark tunnel expeditions became less interesting as they filled with spiders and webs.
This time of year, the spring, a certain war game was played using readily available bombs: dirt bombs. These were only available when the grass was tall and green and the soil was still moist after spring rains, so large clods could be easily pulled from the earth. These “dirt bombs” could be hurled rather long distances with considerable accuracy and resembled comets with green tails of grass streaming behind lethal dirt balls. Usually the only damage was to pride and clothing, though once in awhile a rock embedded in the dirt could draw blood with a direct hit. There was plenty of motivation to aim well, but duck often. Makeshift forts of plywood were hastily erected for protection, and with a good neighborhood turnout, sides were taken and skirmishes turned into battles royale! Free fun for all.
Trees were always of interest. Large groves of Eucalyptus trees had peeling bark which was useful for various projects. Sometimes paper wasps would build large hanging pods high up on a outward extending branches, obvious targets for our slingshots. There seemed to be many more bees and beehives in those days and getting stung was a mark of courage in battle. Slingshots became of less interest once we were old enough for bows and arrows. I shudder to think now of how reckless and dangerous these “toys” were. One favorite was shooting an arrow straight up and dodging the arrow when it returned to ground at the same high velocity with which it was fired. Most of us survived.
Other trees on our mental map included neighbors’ fruit trees, particularly at harvest time. Mrs. Tingley next door had a green gage plum which was fabulous, well worth the climb. Yards were not fenced, so it was pretty much open picking season when things were ripe. Obviously part of the fun was stealing without being caught. We were actually rather innocent and didn’t take anything we didn’t eat. The Lauenroths had good apricots. Even the honeysuckle was sweet at the right time of year. There was a big bush on Navellier just north of Gladys I would sample every day on the way home from Castro School. For fragrance, it was hard to beat the knarly old pepper tree on Blake just below the Hackbarth’s house. Trees were landmarks, rope swings over the creek in some places, fresh fruit in others.
Snakes. You had to be quick, because they moved so fast through the grass. Once in awhile you could get lucky and find a pretty good dead one on the street which worked sufficiently well to scare the neighborhood girls. Actually, anything dead was of great interest and could be put to some use. This was an age of transition, from rural to urban. Fields gave way to sub-divisions. All aspects of construction held interest. You could put your initials in the wet cement of foundations and sidewalks. You could find lead from plumbing projects to re-melt into sinkers for fishing. Sand piles for chimney construction were perfect for jumping into from the second story window openings. Paint can lids were instantly transformed into flying saucers long before Frisbees were invented. Any open field would do for football or baseball. For basketball there was the Castro School playground, or if it rained, the Chung Mei Home had a real gym with the most amazingly shiny hardwood floor. They were so generous to share such a treasure. It was always a fabulously good day to play there.
Roller skates were quite different then. They were all metal and had metal clips which you would tighten down with a skate key over the soles of your shoe. These were the toy of choice to make use of the all new sidewalks going in. Those metal wheels on the cement sidewalk were loud! Bicycles were a heavenly invention. I didn’t have one for awhile, but realized that an older girl across the street had one she never rode. It didn’t bother me in the least that Carolyn Bowman’s bike was a “girl’s bike.” The first thing I would do after I got home and changed clothes was to go across the street and politely ask if I could ride Carolyn’s bike, which I rode until dark and dinner time. I could never thank her enough for that great privilege. When I got my first bike the next Christmas, the Bowmans were probably quite relieved. My biggest ride: on I-80 out to Hercules and back before it opened to cars. I also used it every day to deliver the Berkeley Daily Gazette. I can still fold a paper into the throwing triangle.
In retrospect, it is easy to see from this perspective that I witnessed the very last days of rural El Cerrito and its transformation into the suburban town it is today. I was a kid who heard the shrill whistle and ran out into the street to see a steam locomotive pass at the bottom of Blake Street, the orange fire flickering in the firebox and smoke billowing from the smokestack. The tracks were located where BART is now. We had to wait in long lines of cars to get on the ferry boat to San Rafael for a day at the beach, usually out at Drakes Bay long before it became a National Seashore. We had Sunday picnics after church on the hills overlooking the construction of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Walking to school meant traversing fields and snaking through barbed wire fences.
The land was still just a little wild, full of streams and frogs, lots of mud, water and fire every summer. You could find blackberries and watercress to eat, and hiking in the hills was an adventure for a young boy with a sense of curiosity and wanderlust. There were the cuts, scrapes and bruises, poison oak and bee stings, but it was a good life, and at the end of the day being tired meant a sound sleep in a warm bed after a good home-cooked meal eaten with parents, brother and sister at the dining table. Dad liked to joke, because the table was round and his first name was Arthur, that he was King Arthur and we were the Knights of the Round Table. Such was my life on Blake Street in the late 40s and early 50s.