I grew up in the projects of a relatively small Bay Area town in California. Although, at present, it has an undeserved reputation for crime and violence (and there is much more than there should be), in those days, during and after WWII, there was a dignified innocence in being poor and struggling for survival. I was the oldest of four children and the only girl.
The project buildings had been built to house the tidal wave of mostly poor migrants from the South lured by the siren song of jobs and riches offered by the non-stop churning of riveting steel in the ship-yards of WWII. My town was one of those teaming industrial port towns. We lived in a two bedroom downstairs unit. Above us lived the handsome Napoleon, his tiny, beautiful wife, Naomi and their young son, Lester. Week-days consisted of walking the three blocks to the Boulevard, arriving just in time to watch the lumbering yellow bus chug to an exhaustive stop to transport our neighborhood children to school. However, Saturdays were special. On Saturday mornings Mom and Dad slept late while the four of us gathered around the radio to be transported to other worlds of fiction and fantasy. I can still hear “plunk your magic twanger, Froggy” and “that’s my dog Tide, he lives in a shoe, I’m Buster Brown, I live in there too.” A catchy commercial was as important then as now. From fairy tales to super-heroes, they were there waiting for us as our sleepiness was replaced with wide-eyed wonder at the sounds that emanated from the mahogany, bullet shaped box, stoking each of our imaginations for a few hours of giggles, shoves and shut-ups on Saturday mornings.
Saturday evenings offered a different kind of entertainment as the sound of music filled the air as doors slammed and voices buzzed with expectation. It was Saturday night and there was always action at Red Robin pool hall and bar, Minnie’s bar or sometimes a dance at the Civic Center Auditorium for Dad and resentfulness for Mom. There was definitely a double standard â€“ the men went out on Saturday nights and only a certain type of woman was seen regularly in the bars and pool halls, but everyone went to the dances at the auditorium. There was usually the obligatory fight that Naomi and Napoleon performed for the neighborhood. We kids listened for the yelling to start; followed by the scuffling, then the thud of a body hitting the floor. When the ambulance came and the EMTs brought down the body of a bleeding Napoleon, we would strain to ascertain the seriousness of the beat-down that he had taken this time. He went to the hospital; she went to Red Robin. He would miraculously return home at some point (I think he would sneak upstairs upon return) and they would commence being the loving couple until the next Saturday night. I never knew where Lester was during the Saturday night fights.
Between the radio shows and the fights, Saturday offered another treat for us. If we were good; if we had been obedient; if our father deemed it OK; we could go to the movies; if there was enough money. After all it cost twenty cents per child, plus the cost of popcorn, a soda and a Power House five-cent candy bar. The cost was not much by today’s standards; however, after the war was over and shipyard lay-offs took effect, money was fugally managed. Dad searched for work, while Mom worked at the Del Monte Cannery. She worked with peaches and often came home with the skin peeling from hands scalded from handling the hot fruit.
Although the original “King Kong” was made in 1933, in the early 1950’s it came to our local theatre. The advertisements were spine tinkling and breathtaking. “A Monster of Creation’s Dawn Breaks Loose in Our World Today!” This movie was the topic of conversation at school and anywhere else that people gathered. We all wanted to see “King Kong.” And no one wanted to see it more than my brother Chance. He was the middle brother. Chance usually followed the lead of my oldest brother, Earl; however, on this issue, Chance was his most outspoken self. His eyes sparkled and his lips quivered when the subject was the giant gorilla. Looking back, I believe that Chance’s creative side was intrigued by the thought of seeing on screen this product of Ray Harryhausen’s creative genius.
In those days, so unlike children of today, you did not talk back to your parents. It was unheard of in our community. So, late one evening, although we had been told there was no money for movies, my brothers and I had conspired and they had convinced me to approach my dad about letting go to see this special movie that everyone, even he, had been talking about. Being the only girl and the oldest, I was my dad’s favorite. I got good grades, cooked in my mom’s absence, cleaned house and watched after my brothers. It was decided that if anyone could convince my dad to let us go, it would be me.
The four of us approached Dad together (Mom was at work). He was searching through his toolbox and kept up his search rattling the various tools, as I had to lift my voice to be heard over the static sound. “Daddy, can we go to see “King Kong” this Saturday? “What you say Baby Girl?” I said in a louder voice “We’ve all been good, can we go to the movie and see “King Kong”? He looked at the four of us with one eye half closed and his answer was a curt “No. I turned to walk away. Two of my brothers, my oldest and youngest, turned with me. However, Chance hung back a little, then turned slowly to follow us, but said under his breath, “I want to see “King Kong.” That moment froze in time. Everything slowed. Horrified, I turned to see my dad’s reaction. I looked at Chance whose head was lowered in dejection. The overhead light fixture reflected against his bowl haircut’s shiny scalp. “What you say, boy? You want to see “King Kong?” All right then get your tail outside and run around this building until you see “King Kong.”
Chance tried a feeble show of defiance and attempted to puff out his chest as he stomped toward the door. The night air was balmy. A full moon glimmered a pale yellow smile at Chance as the starry blanket blinked in random play twinkling down at skinny nine year old as he ran around the twelve family unit (two levels of six). We were ordered to helplessly watch as he twice passed the front door. As he began his third lap, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I decided to take a chance on defying my father too. I ran through the kitchen to the back of the house and from my mom and dad’s bedroom window I could see from the street light the shadow of a haggard and perspiring Chance as he approached. I whispered in a frantic voice as loudly as I could “Tell him you see “King Kong.” He didn’t seem to hear me on that lap; however, on the fourth lap his gait had so slowed, I knew that he heard me as I whispered even louder “Tell him, tell him that you see “King Kong.” I hurried back to the living room and waited to see if Chance would make his admission to Dad. Chance passed us again going for another lap. Finally on the fifth turn, a sweating, Chance with his tongue hanging out in exhaustion, probably ten pounds lighter, staggered through the door into the living room and with a dazed look in his eyes he told my dad in a choking voice. “Daddy I saw “King Kong.” My dad looked up at Chance in a dismissive way and with a “harrumph,” put his toolbox away.
We finally got to see “King Kong” and not one of us enjoyed it as much a Chance did. His eyes danced and the smile on his face lit up the room whenever he talked about the big ape.
It’s ironic the things you remember about loved ones who have passed on. I told the story of Chance and the ape at his Memorial Service. He died in a local hospital, the result of a tragic beating. His life was one of missed opportunities. His love and devotion to his older brother lead to a degeneration of values where he found comfort living the kind of life that his sweetness and kindness left him without protection or escape. Could I, as his older sister have done more? I don’t know, but I do now realize that he was probably an undiagnosed dyslectic, which would explain his problem in learning to read. Would that explain his total adoration and dependency on an older brother who could not protect him when a monster attacked?
I’ve written about his death and how it has affected me. For me writing is cathartic. Writing helps with the healing process. The irony is that how he died is not what I dream about, think about and feel. Now, I remember the goofy things that happened when we were young.