As soon as I knew we were leaving Ohio, possibly for California, I began researching what’s called The Golden State. Relying on library materials, I learned about the State and Federal Parks, Disneyland, the beaches and mountains. The endless sunshine, a relief from the frigid Midwest.
What most excited me was the lure of the community college system, something which Ohio lacked back in 1964.
I would be able to attend college, fulfilling a dream escape, for practically nothing. Tuition was free for residents, and by the time I graduated from high school in 1967, I planned to enroll in the local community college. My primary costs would be books and supplies. My biggest problem would be transportation as my older brother had first dubs on the family car.
I didn’t know all that when my parents sold our house in Beavercreek, Ohio, packed the family’s belongings in the back of the station wagon, then stuffed all five of us plus the dog inside.
When we drove passed field after field of corn, at first I was interested, but soon grew board. I’d researched the Mississippi River, so I had a vague notion of how wide it was, I also knew it was called “muddy”, but didn’t truly understand mud until we stood along its shore. Mud and more mud, extending way out toward the center of the bridge that crossed from Tennessee into Missouri.
I was terrified of that bridge. I’d never crossed one so high or so long and worried that it might collapse, dumping us in the rolling river, or perhaps bury us in the mud.
I kept my fingers crossed until we were on the other side.
The next big adventure took place in Colorado. We stayed in a motel within site of Pike’s Peak. The owners told us there was a way to get to the top, but as soon as my dad learned there was a fee, we didn’t go. I resented that for a long time even though I intrinsically understood that we had very little money.
In the morning we drove parallel to the Rocky Mountains. There were many tourist stops along the way, but we bypassed them all, until we can to the Royal Gorge. It was, indeed, a gorge. I had no concept of depth, but when looking down below, the train tracks seemed miniature. This was reinforced when a freight train rumbled by. It was smaller than the tiniest gauge trains my dad had collected.
There was a pedestrian bridge to the other side. My family wanted to walk it, but I flat out refused. I was afraid of heights, and the thought of taking one step onto the bridge made me nauseous. After much pleading and threats of punishment, I stood my ground. Because my parents wouldn’t let me stay behind, no one could cross the bridge.
On we went, traveling higher and higher into the mountains. Dark clouds formed overhead. It sprinkled, then turned into a downpour. The windshield wipers couldn’t keep up, so our vision was blurred.
At some point we came to an abrupt halt. Several vehicles were stopped ahead of us. My dad got out to investigate: a mudslide was blocking both lanes.
Oh, that made him angry! My dad had budgeted exactly how far we could get in a day, figured out the cheapest hotels, and even where we might get meals.
Being stuck in the Rockies didn’t fit his plans.
When a truck made it over the mudslide, my dad decided we could as well. He revved the engine, put the car in gear, then up we went. Until we sunk into the mud.
We were stuck until a large tow truck arrived from the west. It pulled us through, after collecting a fee. Unfortunately, there was damage to the car. I don’t recall what, but the parts had to be ordered. So we made an unplanned stop at an airconditioned motel that had a color TV!
Crossing the desert was another adventure. I understood hot and humid, but nothing I’d ever experienced prepared me for how very hot Arizona is.
Our car had no AC, so it was either roast with the windows up, or die with them down. I remember that we wound them down, suffered, wound them back up and suffered some more.
I recall practically nothing about the dessert except that someone had told my dad to buy lots of water. Good thing, as the car broke down. It was miserable waiting in the car for help, and there was no shade in which to seek relief.
I now know that I should have seen a variety of cacti, which, if I had been older than fourteen, would have been interesting.
The most striking memory I have is when we passed through a Reservation. The houses were either made of logs and dirt or metal Army huts. They were far from each other and I saw no power lines. I couldn’t imagine living in that heat without electricity!
Around lunch time was came to a store/restaurant that advertised its burgers. My dad pulled off the freeway and parked. I wanted to go inside! It was supposed to have AC!
But there were “Indians” milling about on the front porch. And the way my dad said the word, it was as if something distasteful was spewing out.
I’d known my parents were prejudiced against African-Americans since I was small. I had no idea that their hatred also went toward Indigenous People.
When we drove away, a range of emotions overcame me. I was disgusted with the hatred, angry at not being able to visit what was called an Outpost, and starving. Tears filled my eyes as for many miles.
Crossing Death Valley was something else that I’d yearned to do, even though I was afraid that we might get stuck and die. I never expected the steep descent, the miles and miles of nothing but dry dirt, then the ascent on the other side.
We were there in August, so none of the cacti were in bloom. What a shame!
California was a huge disappointment. We stopped in Bakersfield at a small strip motel that promised AC. The room was small. We’d just begun getting ready for bed when my mother screamed, yelled, threw such a temper tantrum about something that only she had seen. Next thing we were back in the car, my dad filing a complaint in the office.
Bugs. That’s what she’d seen. I think bedbugs, which is kind of funny since I later learned in Biology that we carry around our own, personal infestation of bugs!
My uncle lived somewhere in Orange County. Driving north in the early morning, a dense, foul-smelling fog enveloped us. My dad turned on the radio. That’s when we learned it wasn’t fog, but smog, a phenomenon that was new to us.
Something else unexpected happened on our arrival in California: an earthquake. My uncle’s house jerked, throwing me to the floor. It rocked and rolled, and even from down on the rug, I could see telephone poles swaying.
It probably only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like minutes.
We got to go to Knott’s Berry Farm (boring because we couldn’t afford any rides) and Disneyland. My favorite ride was the cars that went nowhere. I got to be the “driver”, and even though I soon figured out we were on a track, I didn’t care. The sense of being in charge, of having a bit of freedom, filled me like nothing else ever had.
My dad had heard of work in Sacramento, so we drove up there and quickly found a house to rent. I loved the house as the bedroom I shared with my sister faced the street. I hated the house because it was not air-conditioned. I also hated being assigned the job of weeding the gardens.
It seemed as if spiders and a variety of ugly bugs crawled up my arms every time I snipped or pulled. It made me queasy inside.
It was also hard to sleep. The house was near an Air Force Base, and so planes flew overhead. Large, loud, planes that I assumed carried bombs.
Swathes of planes. Hundreds, in a nonstop flight.
I pictured one of them falling on our house. Maybe dropping its bombs. Maybe bursting into flame.
I was really glad when we packed up and moved to South San Francisco.
Our rental house was tiny. My sister and I had to have bunkbeds. If I reached my hands from bed to opposite wall, I could touch both at the same time.
Good things happened there, however. I could walk to my new high school. I loved the sense of freedom that it gave me. For the first time in my life I was not constantly under the watchful eyes of my siblings or my parents.
I went out for sports. Never was any good, but it bought me time after school. I joined clubs. I never fit in, but when they met after school, once again, it meant I didn’t have to hurry home. My classes were incredibly easy. So easy, in fact, that I became a straight-A student! Pretty good for a kid who didn’t learn to read until fourth grade and whom my parents and teachers back in Ohio thought was stupid.
I began dreaming of college, sending away for brochures for any that seemed promising. In my junior year I applied for scholarships. I signed up to take a test of Union symbols, thinking it would be easy. I found out I had no aptitude for memorizing every Union symbol in the US.
I didn’t get a scholarship, but I was given a gold-leafed dictionary, a prized possession.
Then the state of California came through, offering me a full-ride to any college in the state.
I was so proud, so happy. I chose colleges that would allow me to move away from home, to get away from my oppressive and abusive environment.
I wanted SF State, but my parents refused to let me live on campus. Their reasoning was that SF was a dangerous city.
They did let me go to USC, only because my brother would be there to “protect” me.
If only they’d know that that college was in the middle of a ghetto, they would have said no. But by the time I’d been accepted and assigned a dorm, it was too late.
It’s interesting how first impressions are sometimes true, often not.
The corn fields were fascinating until there weren’t. The same with the Rockies and then the desert.
California greeted us with foul air and a good shaking, but later sent me off to college, away from my many years of being abused.
I quickly fell in love with my new home state. There was so much to see and do, and since most parks were free at that time, we got to see quite a few.
My impression of my state is one of joy, amazement, and definitely, love. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.