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The Wonder Years


    Playing with another friend's train set was particularly fun to me. Jerry Bayley was a likeable guy, but more importantly, he was very generous with the controls for the train, a prerequisite to a good train relationship Great imaginary adventures, they were. While backing the engine up to uncouple some cars, you had to turn the transformer power off at just the right second, as the connectors passed over the special decoupler section of track. This allowed the car to come loose and glide freely away on its own. Then, going back after a lap around the track, to back in and recouple a car or section of cars and then pulling away slowly, with this long string of cars behind you. Cool. The sound of the wheels even mimicked, to some degree, the sound of the real railroad cars, as they would pass over each section of track, giving a "clickety-clack" rhythm when you drove them slowly. I'd put the "smoke juice" in the engine and turn off the lights. Books were used as tunnels. In the daytime, we would pull the drapes closed as to heighten the effect of the train light. The default kid position was, laying "tummy down" on the floor, with your head right next to the railroad track, so you could look up the tunnel (encyclopedia) and see the engine train light coming through. Your neck would get sore after awhile, but it didn't matter. It worked especially well on a curved section of track. Made it harder to stack the encyclopedia, though. We would load stuff on the flat cars, fake little cereal boxes and advertisement articles that came with the train set, or send half of an Almond Joy candy bar around to the other guy. We were working men, with a serious job to do. Man, I loved those things. Having your hand on that control ... that transformer, when you were only 5 -10 yrs old? Now, THAT was being entrusted with REAL RESPONSIBILITY. Power that could result in a train wreck. Of course, you'd ultimately, more than once, take it into a turn too fast and a car would slip a wheel off the track. You'd stop the engine and quickly stretch out across the track on tiptoes and elbows, butt in the air, as to not touch the tracks and make them come apart. It took too long to do it the safe way, by going around. You started out doing it that way, but soon digressed into a stretch balance routine over the top cause it was quicker. In that position, you would fix the wheels of the railroad car so they were back on the tracks correctly. An art unto itself ... highly respected amongst train dudes. Our tracks were the 3 rail kind. Middle rail was DC current hot, I believe. After an afternoon of finessing the train, it was tradition to spend the last couple of minutes putting "the hammer" all the way down and blatantly taking it into a curve too fast and rolling the engine off the tracks, getting as many rolls as possible. A real mess when it took other cars with it. More importantly, it was good and visual. Delivering maximum satisfaction followed immediately with a "Woooooah. Did you see that?!"

    During many Christmas seasons, my mom would take me down to Sears and Roebuck's store, when it used to be on 10th street, just to see the train setups they would display down in the basement. Paper mache' mountains with tunnels, trestles and a blinking railroad crossing gate that worked. Everything laid out on plywood boards... WITH MULTIPLE TRAINS going at one time! A streamliner and a regular locomotive style. I'd always have good train dreams later that night. She got me a train set later, but by then, I was almost past the age of being into it. At least for awhile. I still have it. I always loved trains, as most kids do. Rumor had it that the caboose was where the railroad men played poker on long trips. True or untrue, it was gospel to me. We have a number of train lines in the Modesto area. The Santa Fe, The Southern Pacific, where my dad took me to see John Kennedy, when he came through town on a whistle stop campaign in 1960, as well as the old M&ET (Modesto and Empire Transit), the shortest railroad in the world, only about 5 miles long. It connects between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific lines. The Tidewater Southern is another short railroad in Modesto, though I'm not sure that the name is still the same.

    Train whistles are a staple of life in Modesto. All my life, it has been so. I still hear them at night, even now, and they call to me of childhood times. Warm summer nights, with only a hint of breeze, walking on sidewalks that buckled unevenly up and down, with the age of the old trees that were planted next to them years before. Grassy driveways that had two strips of concrete for the tires instead of the traditional full concrete driveway. All amongst the ambiance of the old style, "Rod Serling" street lights at Graceada Park, the "Homewood" of central California, if you please. Church socials, softball, fried chicken and potato salad. Always potato salad. Sunday afternoons at Legion Park, next to the river and all the Huck Finn drama it had to offer within the "toolies" and sandy islands, when the river was low. Grandma, Mom, Dad, friends from church, aunt's, uncles and cousins alike. Kids running and then, running some more. Soaring so high in rubber-seated swings, that the two chains would go limp for just a breathtaking second. Infectious energy. A wonderful time of life. For some reason, the state of OHIO has that feel to me too, but Modesto is home. My heart is there. The older I get, the clearer it is to me. Although I truly love playing music and enjoy the traveling immensely, because it has become such a big part of my life, it's good to be home. I don't understand it, but late at night when I hear one of our lonely train whistles, calling that old familiar tune, "Wooo Wooooo. Sleep gently, you're home," I also often feel a sense of sadness, somehow. The wailing, moaning echo of the past haunting me, yet, cuddling me in its bosom. Strange bedfellows, the past and the present. Like love and wistfulness forever intertwined ... beckoning you to have one more look back, while you still can, before the future comes in all its assumed finality.

   These shots were taken in 1952 and '53, respectively. Our address was 229 El Vista, Modesto, CA. A very wide road for the times that dead ended into dry creek where there is a bridge now. As you can see, we had a push lawnmower. Pretty neat, actually. It got the job done. On the right is "The First Club House." Check it out.


Me and our push lawnmower.


This is the same yard where I was taught how to play "mumbly peg." You would take a regular pocketknife, or a one-piece knife that didn't fold was even better. The idea was to stick it in the ground, tossing it from different points on your body. It was progressive, like shooting "out" or "horse" with a basketball. Let me explain: First you would have to just throw it and stick it in the ground. If it stuck good you had to be able to get two fingers, your index and middle fingers on edge, underneath the knife for it to be a valid stick. Then, you would move on to the next position, which was off your fingers. If I remember correctly, you would start with your left hand, palm up and the knife blade tip on the end of your index finger, with it standing straight up while being held by your right hand. Then, with an outward flick of the right hand and usually a little goose from the left hand, the knife would tumble to the ground. One and a half turns was optimum. If it made a legal stick, then you moved on to the next finger. If you failed (either it didn't stick in the ground at all or it was an illegal stick and you couldn't get two fingers under it) then it was the other guy's turn. He would pick up where he left off and the same would go for you, when it was your turn again. Here was the order: 1st finger, 2nd finger, 3rd finger, little finger, thumb, wrist bone, off the elbow, off the shoulder, off the chin (dangling and flipped out underhand),off the nose which was a manly thing, due to standing a sharp tipped knife up on it and then flicking it off, and then finally, a backwards, no-look toss over your head that also had to stick in the ground. dwn_arrow.jpg

  The First Clubhouse. Now, I was REALLY in business. Made out of wood, with an actual composition tile roof (scraps) and a cardboard door , with a lock. I had an ant farm that was nothing more than a bunch of ants stuck in a Mason jar with dirt in it. We would tape paper around it, to make it dark, then when we wanted to look, we would pull the paper off and there would be all the ant tunnels around the edge of the glass.

  Other cool things were our local monsters. That is, the tomato worms on Dads tomato plants. They were about a half-inch thick, green and looked prehistoric, with a horn coming out their head and everything.


They went into a jar many times, as well. Caterpillars, butterflies and ladybugs, the standards, were also part of our kingdom. Then, we expanded the clubhouse. There was an appliance store a few blocks away that had big cardboard boxes out back, that the stoves and refrigerators came in. Needless to say, we dragged them all the way home. We had to walk through "goat heads," a common sticker weed in Modesto that was not to be walked on barefooted. It could puncture a bicycle tire. We added 2 rooms to the back of the clubhouse. This was good. Of course, I had to get in my tv time. We got our first one in 1954. My favorites were, "The Little Rascals," "Howdy Doody," "Laurel and Hardy," "Superman," and a show called Mayor Art's "Tooney Town."

These were the rules. What did the winner get? Or should I say, "what did the loser have to do?" You were given a choice. The older guys were the rules committee on these matters. You could either 1) draw blood or 2) dig a stick match out of the ground with your teeth. Me, being the loser the majority of the time, would have to dig it out with my teeth, after it had been pushed as far into the ground as it could be pushed with a thumb. That was the only limitation. Or was it stomped on with a shoe? Something vaguely familiar sounding about that. Anyway, there I'd be, down on my knees, biting that dirt like crazy. By the time I got it out, my mouth and face looked like a dog that loved eating cat poop. Disgusting. Patoowee!!!

BB Guns

   A wooden stock Red Ryder BB gun, with a leather strap on the side to steady your aim. In case you didn't know, this was an era of BB guns. Dad had grown up hunting a lot and it was a part of his lifestyle that we also learned. Aspiring to be like Dad, we would go bird hunting with BB guns looking for blackbirds and sparrows. A great thrill, going up and down the alleyways, looking for birds on telephone wires. We would get 'em, too. High adventure to us. It would be years later that I would finally reject hunting for sport. They would argue, but you'll still eat your hamburger and your chicken sandwiches with no problem, won't you? They have a point. An unresolved dilemma in my mind, to this day.

   Previously, in another of my "fits of early genius," I sat something up on our driveway and took a shot at it with a BB gun, while standing up and shooting kind of down at an angle. Duh?!! The BB took one bounce and glanced off the driveway, went clean across the street and through a plate glass window in our neighbors living room, making just a tiny hole going in, but a nickel size hole coming out. You've seen the kind. No biggie, but can you blame them? They wanted a new window and my Dad DID buy them a new one. Needless to say, I didn't get to use the BB gun again until the turn of the century, or at least it seemed like it.

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