50s: Suburbia

There were a lot of other kids in that neighborhood. On weekends and during the summer, we’d leave home after breakfast and play with five or more other kids all day, without going more than a hundred yards from home. We played football and baseball on the Cimino’s large front lawn, directly across the street from our house. We played cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians through several yards and on the street. A pause to grab a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at home (I don’t remember any meals shared with the other kids) and then back to play. 

We biked to school. I was five when I started first grade with the nuns at St. Nicholas Catholic School, which was where St. Williams church stands now. Chip and I rode our bikes about a mile through Los Altos without any parental concern or neglect. Lots of kids our age rode bikes through town. Biking in Los Altos was safe as long as I was with Chip, my older brother, who was seven. 

The Los Altos theater in the 1950s. We’d bike there for the Saturday matinee.

I had Sister Clarissa to start first grade, but she disappeared after Christmas vacation. The kids said she’d been taken to the loony bin. Sister Clarissa was just fine with some kids and mean as hell with others. I still remember when she slapped the daylights out of poor Patty Vance (who had an obvious disability). She liked me, but she had hated Chip. My parents rolled their eyes, obviously glad to see her go.  

A view of Clint’s ice cream shop in the fifties. We took Jay there often while he was still a toddler. The commuter train stopped across the street.

Being Catholic was a big deal. We prayed morning and night and went to Mass on Sundays. God and Jesus were always lurking. And you had to pray a lot when you went to sleep, afraid you’d see a nuclear mushroom cloud before morning. 

From the first time I heard it, I couldn’t believe that supposedly only Catholics could get into heaven. I asked Sister Judith what about some poor kid in Africa who’d lived a good life … no heaven for him? Nope. Purgatory. Tough luck, kid. And that was the crack in the armor; made me start to doubt. 

We also rode our bikes through town to the Los Altos Theater on Main Street for the Saturday matinee. It took a quarter to get in, plus another five cents for popcorn. The matinee would start with a serialized black-and-white episode of Flash Gordon. Our favorites were the Disney movies. I never went alone; always with Chip; often with some of the other kids as well.