I was born on September 7, 1921 in my parents' house at 2010 Oxley Street, South Pasadena. In those days I believe it was quite common for childbirth to take place at home instead of in a hospital. The birth seems to have been a difficult one. My mother, who had been active and energetic before and had played golf and climbed mountains, remained more or less in poor health for the rest of her life. She later told me that at the time I was born she suffered from a calcium deficiency, which wasn't properly understood in those days. A later pregnancy eventuated in a miscarriage or stillbirth; it would have been a brother.
This house, as memory is refreshed by photographs, was a typical California bungalow, with a low roof and overhanging eaves, shingled on the outside. There was a large front porch with pillars of water-rounded stones. In the back yard was a large walnut tree, excellent for climbing. If you handled walnuts at the season when they were good to eat, the black came off on your hands and was impossible to remove even after several washings. This house, which was probably built before the turn of the century, was there still when I went past, some time in the mid-1970's.
Oxley Street was a quiet and respectable, somewhat old-fashioned street just off Garfield Avenue. The center of South Pasadena, which was quite a small town, was on Fair Oaks about a half-mile away. My first recollection is of watching some older children on the sidewalk on Oxley Street, riding tricycles and conversing vigorously. I knew for a certainty that I would never be as old, as self-assured, or as important as they were. I was perhaps two at the time.
As a child I had a number of friends in this immediate neighborhood. Next door was a family named Smith. A son my age, named Gordon--at that time we called him Gogo--later became a bank executive. Another Smith family around the corner on Montrose was English. I was fascinated by their accent, which I now recognize was Midlands, or Northern. An early instance of my interest in foreign places, and in language. Their son, also my age, was named Johnnie. His father John was a radio amateur and fossil collector; he had a microscope with which he examined diatoms. This was my first introduction to the world of the technical and the scientific, and it fascinated me. I always had in me the capability of being an engineer, which was what my father wanted me to be. If I had artistic or literary talents, they didn't manifest themselves so early, or they weren't noticed. I'm sure I would have made a very bad engineer or scientist. I didn't have the patience for it, or the head for numbers.
If there were literary influences in my early childhood, they were that my father was a great reader, although he preferred non-fiction to fiction, and that my mother had a flair for curious turns of language, private jokes, and special expressions understood only in the family. Some of them were country locutions, like "to go all around Robin Hood's barn," or "as queer as Dick's hatband." Others were private solecisms; for example she said "flustrated." But this was a good word, and she went on using it, and so did all of us, long after she understood that there was no such word.
My father was a taciturn, rather timid man--although he had partly overcome this at least on the surface in his job as a salesman--and my mother was a sensitive, worried, hypochondriacal, vaguely "artistic" woman who was rather fearful about the blunt realities of the human condition and preferred not to face them directly. For example, when I came back from the War, she was shocked at the suggestion that I might have killed anybody in my duties as a naval officer, and didn't want to hear about it. She also refused to believe, until the day I was married, that I had any sex life. Neither of my parents graduated from highschool. My father was quite well self-educated, and my mother believed that she stood for the finer things of life, but this latter took the form mainly of "good taste" in things like household decoration and clothes. From his experience as a soldier in France, and later as a student-soldier in Toulouse, my father acquired a taste for wine and and interest in good food and the good life in general. When we lived in South Pasadena, we often went in to downtown Los Angeles to have dinner at Taix's French Restaurant, a typical table-d'hote where everyone at the long table was served from a common soup tureen. Although I didn't realize it at the time, my father made homemade beer during Prohibition. Later, when Prohibition ended, wine and cocktails came into our house with a bang. Of course, neither my mother nor my father ever drank to excess. When I was perhaps sixteen, I was offered an occasional sip of wine at the table.
When I was a small child, my parents were rather concerned about me because I was so thin and frail, so much in need of fattening-up and cod-liver oil; then they took pride in me because I did so well in elementary school; and then they were annoyed and puzzled by my profligate ways as a highschool student--I was interested in nothing but cars and girls and got poor grades. I think it would be fair to say that my mother loved me passionately (compensating, perhaps, for the austerity of her conjugal relations, and her lost second child), but disliked me or was hostile toward me in ways she did not understand herself. Similarly, my father had a fondness for me, coming out of recognition of the parallels in our personalities, but was deeply but silently disappointed with the way I was turning out. I am speaking here, of course, of the time when I was a highschool student.
The school I went to in South Pasadena was about a half-mile to the north, near enough that even as a kindergartner I was able to walk to it. Anyhow, the streets were safer in those days. I scarcely remember a single teacher or a single friend I had there--apart, that is, from the friends I already knew in my neighborhood. I have few strong recollections. One day a man came to demonstrate a diabolo, if anyone still remembers what that is, and we all stood out on the lawn to watch him twirl it and fling it high into the air. I can't image what the school administration had in mind. On another occasion, on the playground, which was at a higher level than the hillside school (this is an eidetic memory) we were engaged in some sort of sashaying or boys-and-girls circling pattern under the supervision of an ambitious teacher, and when I made the wrong turn I was sentenced to go with the girls and do their part for a while. This made me hotly resentful and it was a very long time before I got over my humiliation. Very early on, I got hold of the notion that the one unforgivable crime to commit against another human being is to humiliate him; the wrongness about capital punishment, for example, is that it is humiliating. And the same may be said of death itself, and in this case the charge may be led to God. All these ideas, still inexpressible, were latent when I was six years old.
Another anecdote is about our nature teacher, who was called Mrs. Newton; the incident is strong enough in my memory that I remember her name. Someone brought her a wounded bird, a victim of a boy's attack, a rock or a slingshot. She said that it was doomed to die. And then she broke into hopeless weeping and had to withdraw from us into her room and shut the door. My feeling is that I was sorry for the bird, but even more it struck me that women were weak creatures and should be a little more strong-minded about the realities of life. She was supposed to be a scientist, after all. At this time, I was perhaps seven.
A final memory from my school days in South Pasadena is quite strong, although this may be because I have read meaning into it in later years. I must have been in the first grade, because the point of the story is that at school I was given the first book that ever really belonged to me. Of course we had story books, picture books, and so on at home, but this one was destined for me personally, to study and learn from. I practically ran all the way home to show it to my mother. But when I got home, she wasn't there; she was out shopping or something. I was bitterly disappointed and felt resentment toward her. This story is also interesting in that it shows that, in those days, people didn't necessarily stay home all day to take care of a six-year-old.
We moved from South Pasadena when I was nine, so all these things happened before then. On Fair Oaks Avenue, the main street of South Pasadena, there was a movie theater, and we children used to be allowed to go there, in small unsupervised groups, on Saturday afternoon. That's all I remember; I don't remember the movies, although it would be fascinating if I could--it was the heyday of the silent film. Now that I try a little harder, I do seem to remember Harold Lloyd, clinging to a clock-hand high above Broadway in Los Angeles. This rather frightened me, so probably I was too young to appreciate the humor. And another movie--the same Harold Lloyd was for some reason pretending to be a decapitated Chinaman, and was carried in with his head on his chest. I gasped, and my mother, full of sympathy, whispered to me, "It isn't real." I believe we used to buy good things to eat in conjunction with these movies, but I can't remember what they were. Probably just ice cream, in a cardboard container with a wooden paddle.
When I was seven or eight there was a typical town bully, who used to lurk in wait for me, and other children, on our way to school. Children have no civil rights; brutal stronger people can threaten and intimidate them, and even assault them, and no adult intervenes. I used to take long detours to evade this boy, whose name I can't remember. I do seem to recall that he later got some terrible sickness like meningitis, and perhaps died. If so, I wouldn't have been sorry then, and scarcely am now. We children used to discuss fatal diseases in hushed tones. There was one called lockjaw, which you could get from a rusty nail; you can imagine what our thoughts were about that. As for my own health, the only serious illness I can remember from those days was an occasion on which I ate green kumquats.
One summer my parents bought something that came in a huge wooden packing case. It might have been a washing machine, since we didn't have a refrigerator in those days. (When the iceman came, we would go out to catch the chips that feel from his pick, and suck them.) All that summer we played house, ship, fort, automobile, and other games with that wooden box. I remember it more clearly than I o a lot of more important objects that I have owned later in my life. Another memory: the Smiths next door had a massive English bulldog, a gentle creature, even though ferocious-looking. They kept it on their high front porch, on a leash; and one day the unfortunate animal fell off the porch and hanged himself. I don't know whether I saw the corpse or not, but I was as shocked as if I had seen it, and it stuck in my memory. Death came mainly in the form of dead pets. A child down the street watched as his dog was run over and his red entrails spilled out; and I watched too. The drive of the car, with a hangdog look, said, "I couldn't help it, Sonny. It wasn't my fault." Death became a nightmare to me, even though I had never witnessed a human death and it was all kept from me. My grandfather died while we lived in South Pasadena, but I don't remember being informed. In the War in the Navy, I saw many dead bodies. But I never attended a funeral until the death of my mother in 1967, and neither then nor at the funeral of my father the year after did I go up to view the corpse.
My parents played bridge with friends, and my mother belonged to a Women's Club. After that, her chief amusement was shopping. The Pacific Electric streetcar from Los Angeles to Pasadena ran along Fair Oaks Avenue. She and I would walk over and get on the Big Red Car. I enjoyed this very much; I remember the fare was fifteen cents. The seats were slatted wood and cane, the car rocked, and the inside smelled of electricity. It was only about fifteen miles to the P.E. terminal in downtown Los Angeles. There we would get out and everything was within walking distance. Sometimes we would have lunch at the lunch counters of department stores: Bullocks, the May Company, the Broadway. For special occasions, the restaurant was the Pig and Whistle. My mother would happily spend the afternoon going from store to store. I have no memory whatever of what she bought, except that now and then she bought a corset, and I had to be taken with her into a part of the store where I felt uneasy and embarrassed, an awkward male. Even worse was the business of going to the bathroom when we were downtown. I was too young to do this my myself (I had never heard of a "molester" when I was young but I am sure this is what she had in mind), so I had to go with her into the Ladies. There was of course a sort of anteroom, in which some women gazed at me with curiosity, but no one objected to my presence. I must have been five or six. My mother took me into a booth to do my business under supervision. I have a strong impression of the odors: bad smells, combined with a melange of female perfumes and powders. Later, at eight or nine, I went into the Mens by myself.
My father worked for the A.M. Castle Company, a wholesale steel distributor, in Vernon, in southeast Los Angeles. Sometimes, when my mother and I were downtown, he would meet us in the car to take us home. We would rendezvous at Seventh and Broadway, the main intersection of the city. I remember the pleasant and cozy sensation of getting into our own familiar car in the middle of the strange and busy city. It was almost as though our house, or part of it, had been brought downtown to us. All my life I have retained this fascination with "moving lairs," cozy protected enclosures than can nevertheless move and carry us to exotic and fascinating parts of the world: boats, cabins of ocean liners, cars, railway carriages. There are two strong instincts in me: one to be "cozy" and protected inside a familiar enclosure, the other to move about through the world. Both are combined, for instance, in a small cruising boat, such as I later owned.
My father was a motoring enthusiast from the time he was a young man, before he was married, in the pioneer days of automobiling. He took pride in his cars and enjoyed taking trips in them. His letters to my mother before they were married are full of accounts of these trips and reports of how the car performed, or how many miles he covered in a day. When I was a child, most of our outings and vacations involved car trips. We went to the snow in the winter and to the beach in the summer--usually, in those days, Long Beach or Alamitos Bay. Once in a while we took a longer trip, to Tahoe or Yosemite--there are snapshots of these vacations. There was one car we had that dated from around 1925, with a running-board, and all our baggage was fixed on the left side behind a folding metal rack. This rack failed, or something broke, and all our possessions spilled onto the highway, to be struck by a car coming at high speed the other way. My father's despair was one of my earliest inklings that all did not always go well in the lives of adults.
I enjoyed camping, not so much because I liked nature, or roughing it, but because of the "cozy lair" complex I described above--a camping- tent was just such a portable home of the sort that gave me this satisfaction. A second reason was my fascination with water. In the mountains there were streams or lakes--an early snapshot shows me at Lake Tahoe with a homemade raft. At the beach, more water, and boats. Even a trickling stream, in those days, was enough to fascinate me, and my impulse was to put something in it--a stick, or even a fallen leaf--to simulate a boat. I can't account for this fascination with water, and with boats that float on water, except to surmise that it was something genetic, an archetype going back to a time when my first ancestor crossed a pond on a log. The earliest toys that I made for myself were generally crude boats, and I also enjoyed being dressed in sailor costumes.
In my South Pasadena time I belonged to an organization called Woodcraft Rangers, but I can't remember that we did much except have meetings. One sort of program I do remember. My father had a friend named Luther Little who was an amateur ornithologist. He knew all about the habits of birds, and several times my father asked him to come and give a talk to us boys. I imagine that Mr. Little was the sort who took pleasure in this, and it gave him a sense of importance. Evidently he was also a taxidermist, because he had countless stuffed birds to show, and he must have been skillful, because some of these were tiny. He explained to us that we ought to respect birds and be kind to them, not to disturb their nests, and not shoot them with our beebee guns. When the question rose where he had obtained his stuffed birds, it transpired that he had a special license of some kind and was entitled to shoot birds with a gun loaded with very fine shot. At the time, this explanation seemed to me perfectly satisfactory.
My mother often suffered from colds and respiratory ailments, and in the winter complained of the cold and damp even in our mild climate. We frequently went to the desert, in the area of Palm Springs, where it was hot and sunny even in the winter. As it happened we had neighbors, the Hunts, who owned a small house in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs. Often during the winter we would rent this house for the weekend, Friday to Sunday night. Cathedral City was only a small village, and in five minutes' walk you were in the open desert, with some typical volcanic hills to climb. I believe that, even in the South Pasadena period when I was not yet nine, I was allowed to hike about in these hills by myself, accompanied by the family dog. Probably, more often, my father went along. He too liked walking and climbing. My mother confined herself to lying in the sun and nursing her ailments. She always said that she didn't mind walking on the level, but that walking uphill made her tired. This was one of her truisms, along with the statement that alcohol made her "woozy." I ought not to overemphasize her hypochondria, however, because she had a sunny optimistic nature and was almost always cheerful. As for my father, he stoically refused to admit that there was ever anything wrong with his body.
During all the time when I was young, from my birth to 1942, we often drove down to Orange County to visit my mother's aunt, Nanny Hickey, and her husband Uncle John. Sometimes, especially in the earlier days, we stayed all night. Aunt Nannie and Uncle John lived on a lemon ranch on Prospect Avenue in what is now the city of Tustin, just to the east of where the Riverside Freeway crosses Chapman Avenue. In those days you drove out a mile or so to the east from the round plaza in the center of the town of Orange, with citrus and walnut groves on all sides. Aunt Nannie had come to California in a covered wagon, and even into the 1930's she went on cooking on a wood stove. The ranch had its own water supply, with a well, a windmill, and a tank of stilts. There were chickens and a cow. Uncle John would let me ride on his tractor, and Aunt Nannie would have me search for eggs in the barn, or feed the chickens. She made a special kind of sour-dough biscuits called Aunt Nannie Biscuits in the family, but no one was ever able to get the recipe out of her. Just a pinch of this and a handful of that. I suspect she brought the starter with her to California in the covered wagon. I enjoyed the farm and Aunt Nannie was my connection with the past and with history. The visits to the ranch, however, did not give me any desire to live in the country. As I lay at night in a rather cold bed, I could hear, at intervals, the cars whizzing by on the road outside, and for some reason this was both a lonely and a comforting sound. Probably it was comforting because I knew that the next day I would be back in the city, where things weren't so quiet.
When I was nine--so this must have been in the summer of 1931-- we moved to a new house at 404 West Roses Road, in San Gabriel, perhaps three miles from our South Pasadena house. This house was in a newly subdivided neighborhood just south of the more prestigious town of San Marino. It was on a pleasant street with large estates on the other side of Roses Road. One of them was owned by Eric Pedley, a well known millionaire and polo star of the time, and another, Three Oaks, directly across the street from us, was so palatial that it was sometimes used as a movie location. My father had a good job all through the Depression, and it is a tribute to his thrift and his financial managing that we were able to buy this house at a time when the Depression was at its worst. We never had a lot of money, but we always had enough to live in a good neighborhood and to have a new car ever so often, to have good clothes and furniture, and to go out to dinner at nice restaurants. The fact is that I have never known what it is to be short of money at any time in my life. My parents always had enough, and later, when I was a student and on my own, I had a backlog of money I had saved from my Navy pay and was also supported by the G.I. Bill.
In San Gabriel I went to Washington School, which was just a short walk down San Marino Avenue. I don't remember much about my classes; my memories are mainly of recesses, and of bringing home projects of various kinds to show to my mother. I remember only one teacher, George Cornelius, who taught "manual training" as I believe it was called. From him, and not from my father, I learned to use a saw, to drive a nail, and to apply a coat of paint. All these things were useful to me later in life. Much later, when my parents were living in the retirement community of Leisure World in Laguna Hills, I encountered Mr. Cornelius again. He was just the same, and made us a couple of wooden household appliances which we still have at this writing.
To be fair to my father, I ought to say that he enjoyed tinkering and making things with tools, and tried at least to transmit these interests to me. The main thing that I remember he made with his own hands was a hammered wrought-iron firescreen, which we had in the Roses Road house all the time I lived there. When he and I tried to do something with tools together, he would become exasperated and lose patience quickly because I didn't do things right. He would say, not addressing me directly, "All I need is someone to hold this steady while I hit it." But I couldn't hold it steady. He did give me tools and other mechanical things, however, and tried to teach me drafting and lettering. The style of block lettering I use today I learned from him. He also taught me to be neat and keep things in their place, a habit I have retained for a lifetime.
By the time we moved to San Gabriel I had a bicycle--in fact I believe I was given this "large two-wheeler" on my ninth birthday, while we were still in South Pasadena. I enjoyed taking longer and longer rides--bike tours that, as I got older, might extend to towns like Arcadia and Monrovia, ten or more miles away. Again my fascination with travel, and with travel vehicles, was evident. Sometimes friends went along on these bike trips; we would take a lunch, and on one memorable occasion we even bought ears of corn from a rancher and roasted them in a field. The main friends of this period were Bill Ferris, who lived a few houses away, and Jack Stevens, who lived just around the corner. I didn't get along with Jack Gordon, who lived next door. Bill Ferris later became a prosperous insurance agent, and Jack Stevens a professional naval officer; but his ship was involved in a collision and he had to abandon his career.
We kids in the neighborhood had many games and pastimes; for the most part we provided our own amusements and were not given elaborate toys or games by our parents. In the spring, when the wind blew, we could hardly wait to get home from school and run for our kites. The large area to the east of San Marino Avenue was still undeveloped, open country covered with weeds and with mustard-blossoms. This was ideal for kite-flying, since the strong winds came from the west. We also did other things in this large open field; there were California live oaks here and there, pathways and ditches, and even wild life--rabbits, snakes, and an occasional coyote. It was almost like living in the country. We had beebee guns, which we were supposed to shoot at tin cans, but sometimes shot at live targets. One time, a pair of policemen showed up in a car and confiscated my gun. My father went to the police station to retrieve it. He didn't see anything wrong with a boy having an air rifle, even though it was technically against the law in the city.
We also had a lot of fun with wagons; we would load them up with things and then go off and pretend to camp in the fields. When I was about twelve, I conceived an overwhelming passion to build a car I read about in a popular science magazine, with a wooden frame, toy wagon wheels, and a gasoline washing-machine engine. My father held out for a long time, but finally he let me do this. I built the frame myself, with the skills learned from Mr. Cornelius, and he after endless trouble found what was deemed to be a suitable engine. But the engine never worked very well, and perhaps I ruined it by trying to start it before it was fastened down properly and upsetting it. This was a big disappointment. But my friends and I pushed the engineless car around for a long time before we lost interest. It had a real steering system, with an automobile steering front wheel, a pivoted front axle, and clothesline steering cables.
Another of my possessions at that time was a primitive radio, a crystal set which must have dated from the early twenties. It consisted of a coil, a tuning condenser, and a galena crystal with "cat's whisker," and was mounted on a handsome hardwood base. If I had it today, it would be a valuable antique. I often listened to this radio--it had earphones, of course--in bed after I was supposed to be asleep. It spoke to my early interest in things technical, especially if the equipment was finely crafted and finished. But it provoked another interest. The signals it received were very faint, and the only station it would bring in adequately was KFI, which often played classical music. So, whether I wanted to or not, I listed to Tchaikowsky and Grieg. I found that, to my surprise, classical music was quite enjoyable, although I didn't communicate this secret to anyone else. To my knowledge, my parents never in their life went to a concert or listened to music other than on a popular radio show.
When I was twelve I did what all other boys in the neighborhood did--I joined Troop 2 of the Boy Scouts, which met in a nearby Episcopal church meeting hall (the Church of our Savior). I learned a lot in the Scouts and it was very useful to me. There were the usual camping trips and training in woodcraft and so on. But the two men mainly responsible for running the troop were both remarkable people. Mr. Howells, the Scoutmaster, and Mr. Ashbrook, the Assistant Scoutmaster, were both engineers with the Edison Company and skilled in matters of electricity and radio. Under their direction, we made telegraph equipment, starting by winding our own coils around soft-iron bolts. I went on to make my own radios, and then a small 5-meter transceiver. Eventually I got some kind of learner's amateur radio license. I remember that I used to make trips downtown to Los Angeles, with a friend, to buy radio parts at a supply house. I don't remember how my mother did her shopping after we moved to San Gabriel; we were no longer close to the Pacific Electric line. Perhaps we went on a bus. This too must have been how I went downtown to buy radio parts.
After we moved to San Gabriel, we went more and more to the beach for our vacations, now to Balboa Peninsula or Balboa Island, where we would rent a house for two weeks or a month, sometimes along with the McGills, friends of my parents. Christine McGill had been a friend of my mother before she was married, and Al McGill owned an automobile agency in Whittier. I didn't care for their son Ken, who was a year or two younger than I was, nor did I care for most of the other children of my parents' friends. Still, they were inflicted on me. The big event of those times, when I was around fourteen, was that I built a kayak, the only boat I could afford. More correctly, I bought the wooden frame from a craftsman neighbor who made them as a hobby and then sold them to boys. Then I had to stretch canvas over the frame--not easy, because of the complex shape--and finish and paint it. This kayak was carried on top of the car, and was a great success, the only boat I ever really had as a boy. After a year or two, I fitted it with a small lateen sail; I simply steered it with the paddle.
Later, when I was perhaps eighteen, I set out to build an eighteen-foot sailboat--a Flattie or Geary Eighteen--in the back yard. This project probably would have come to grief anyhow, because we had no way to get it down to the beach, and no place to keep it. I actually finished the hull, over a period of two or three years, and then the War intervened. When I was gone, my parents sold the boat, and later I saw a photograph of the finished project, sailing in Newport Harbor.
The kayak reminds me of fireworks. We always had firecrackers and other fireworks at the fourth of July, and nobody worried about a "Safe and Sane Fourth." I was really excited by fireworks; I expect every child is. There is probably something sexual in it. My parents always urged caution, and for a long time I didn't hurt myself. But one July we were staying for our vacation in Balboa, and on the Fourth I got excited and began shooting off firecrackers from my kayak, lighting them in my hand (this was forbidden) and then throwing them out over the water. Inevitably there were accidents. Later I found a hole blown in the canvas deck of the kayak. But worse, I failed to let go of one in time and it went off in my hand. It was terribly painful and I wept copiously. My father showed little sympathy. He was really angry. He took me back to the place where we were staying (it may have been the old Edgewater Hotel, or the Gray Goose) and ran scalding hot water into the washbowl. Then he made me hold my hand with its purplish finger in the water, which caused an even greater pain. I felt sure he was doing it not for therapeutic reasons but out of vindictiveness. Perhaps he was, but I understand now that he was terribly worried about "blood poisoning" and had no better way to treat it. This was before the days of antibiotics and children could and did die from such things as staph infections. I had a small allowance in the days when I was going to Washington School, and I used to spend most of it at the candy counter of the market across the street from the school. Everybody else did too. The things we bought included frozen candy bars (Snickers and Milky Ways), liquorice sticks, ice cream bars, and even wonderful flutes and ocarinas, made of wax, which you could chew later in lieu of chewing gum. I was also frequently sent to this store on my bicycle to buy groceries. My mother would always specify "a pound of the twenty-two cent hamburger;" but that was considered a bargain even in those days. As for her nutritional principles, my mother was advanced for her time. She urged orange juice on me--in those days squeezed by hand from oranges--and gave me cod-liver oil, in the hope that it would prevent my continual colds. She insisted that I eat a hot breakfast and cooked cereal for me. But she showed little awareness of the concern that people now have about sugars and fats. We always had candy in the house, especially on holidays, and my mother was fond of dates, which she associated with her good times in the desert. She thought that potatoes were "starchy" and one shouldn't eat too many of them. She was, however, in favor of carrots and green vegetables, but served them only in small quantities.
My mother was a good cook and had several dozen "favorite recipes" that were famous in her circle, and in the family. These included "Donald's Favorite Cookies," which involved swirls of dates, and several casseroles including a tamale pie. I can't remember any other of these dishes, but she did take pride in cooking, and she transmitted some of this interest to me. I was allowed to help with the cooking as soon as I was old enough, and the thought never occurred to me that there was anything unmasculine about this. My father, however, was scarcely able to cook an egg. After my mother died, his health suffered as a consequence of his inability to cook. He had his own principles about food, however. He was raised as a farm boy, and he believed that you should take only one helping;, but clean off every scrap on your plate. Yet sometimes, when there was gravy, he would say, "Would anybody mind if I soaked up some of this gravy with bread?" This was a thrifty farm habit and he was afraid it was vulgar. My father, by the way, had a shy and understated but keen sense of humor. I can record only one of the better known of his ironies, from a later period. Once, when Paul was about two, we were staying with my parents and Paul one by one dropped everything off his highchair tray onto the floor. My father suggested mildly, "Paul why don't you sit on the floor and if anything falls up we'll hand it down to you."
There were some sporadic attempts to send me to Sunday School--at the same Episcopal church where I went for Boy Scouts--but it didn't take, and neither of my parents went to church. My mother of course had been raised as a Baptist but I don't believe she had any real religious belief. In the way of my cultural betterment, however, I was given piano lessons. I believe these began only after we moved to San Gabriel, although I also have the impression that the first teacher--who lingers only as a kind of flowery-clad cloud, warning me I would have to "work like a trooper"--lived in South Pasadena. These teachers always came to the house. I can't believe the teachers were very good. I took lessons for a number of years, but was always a shaky sight-reader, especially in the bass clef, and I never heard of such things as phrasing or legato until, later in life, I took up the piano again on my own. Still the lessons couldn't have done me any harm and they were a sacrifice on the part of my parents. At one point, they actually bought a large Baldwin grand which was said to have been formerly the possession of Jose Iturbi, and this enormous instrument filled our living room for several years. But, as I lost interest in the piano and neglected my practicing, they were disappointed and rather angrily sold it. There were always a lot of these undercurrents of bitterness and disappointment in the family when I was young, but they seldom came to the surface except as innuendoes. We were a very restrained family, not to say inhibited. I tended to be somewhat demonstrative even as a child, and would gesticulate when talking. This among middle-class Anglo-Saxons was considered a deplorable Latin tendency, and my father would say, "If we tied your hands you wouldn't be able to talk." Likewise with any eccentricity of speech or striking metaphor.
Later, when I was highschool age, I got interested in popular piano and became a fairly good jazz pianist (in those days it was called swing). I was almost semi-professional. A group of my highschool friends had formed a band and played for dances. Occasionally I substituted on piano in this band. But my weakness at sight-reading was too great a handicap; and although I had developed a considerable skill at improvising, I always did this in C major, where there weren't too many black keys. A dance band, even a semi-amateur one, I found, did not play everything in C major. However, to conclude the subject of music, my exposure to the Baptist hymns which my mother loved, and my interest in popular dance music (the two forms are more alike than you might think) gave me a competence in basic harmony and a feeling for the structure of music that has lasted all my life. I think I have a natural aptitude for music and might have been a professional musician, if I had ever learned to sight-read or to play in a key other than C.
About my person, and my personal appearance. As a child I was always underweight, or was thought to be so. The popular appellatives for me, in the years before I was twelve, were "Skinny" and "Egghead," this last on account of my almost white hair, which darkened only slowly with age. This hair was a source of considerable bother to me. Not only was it fine, but it stuck up in the back and refused to stay down even when dosed with various unguents. In those days, you wore your hair in a "pompadour," that is combed straight back, and didn't part it. Later, of course, the stuff began to grow sparse, so I never had much luck with hair.
At fourteen I graduated from Washington School and went on to Alhambra High School. In those days there was no high school other than San Gabriel. Alhambra was a working-class town and a little rougher than middle-class San Gabriel. There were some tough kids at Alhambra High; on the one hand I was afraid of them, and on the other hand what could be learned from them was rather interesting. I developed a great interest in cars and girls, the two main subjects of attention in the male student body. I had a little more money to spend now; a dollar a week, for lunches. At the drugstore across the street, you could get a businessman's plate for twenty cents, or a chocolate malt and a grilled sandwich. Or, next door, you could get a doughnut and a root beer. My dietary standards went into a decline. So did my moral standards. I didn't do very well in highschool, especially in the last two years, because I was interested in nothing but cars and girls. There were many painful discussions with my parents. My father told me that going to school was my job, just as being a salesman was his job, and I ought to strive to do my best at it. My mother just looked sad. Meanwhile, as a matter of fact, I had become an avid reader and used to take out a half-dozen or more books from the library every week. But it never occurred to my parents that my interest in literature could eventuate in a career, one that paid. It wasn't their fault. No one they knew had ever been a teacher or a writer--although my grandfather had been a newspaperman. My father once caught me in my room, on a week- night, reading a forbidden book. I remember that it was Barrie's play The Admirable Crichton, a satire on the British class system and fairly advanced reading for a sixteen-year-old. He was unable to pronounce two of the three words of this title. But he shouted, "Is this your homework? Is it?" Of course it wasn't. He, and my mother too, were probably unaware of the perils they had subjected me to in sending me to Alhambra High. Other kids in the school were experimenting with sex, and with marijuana. I experimented with marijuana, once, but not with sex.
At Alhambra High I took a typing class, which was to stand me in very good stead later. Most of the other students in the class were girls, but that didn't bother me. I did have some difficulty with the teacher. She wanted me to keep my eyes off the typewriter and fixed on the work I was copying from. This was good technique, but I took pleasure in seeing the words form on the paper under the keys of the machine. To me, writing has always been a concrete act and I enjoy its tools, even pencil and paper. To see the words form in the machine as my fingers worked the keys gave me a deep creative satisfaction, connected fundamentally with the magic of language. My instincts as a writer were developed even then, even though nobody recognized it, even myself.
It was true that I did well in English, and that some of my compositions--I remember an impressionistic sketch of ships in Los Angeles harbor--were reprinted in the local paper, the Alhambra Post-Advocate. But everyone, myself included, regarded this as an interesting hobby, to my credit of course but not serious. I did have an English teacher named Mrs. Brown, who recognized my talent and favored me, but my main recollection of her is a shameful one. We were all issued copies of Untermeyer's American poetry anthology, and I didn't turn mine back in. She announced that a copy was missing and would the thief please return it. But I was fond of it by that time and kept it. When her further requests were unavailing, she, like Mrs. Newton with the bird years before, broke into tears at the thought that there was such a dishonest person in her class. Yet I feel that this small crime on my part had its sort justification--connected perhaps with a theory I developed later in life that there was a criminal streak in the Artist temperament--and this one book was a very great influence on the formation of my literary temperament and taste. To my mind, this involuntary contribution of the School Board to my secret vice of literature was one well justified by subsequent events.
I can't remember what I read in those days. Just about everything, I imagine, especially biography, travel, and adventure. The fiction writers I remember reading when I was highschool age included Conrad, Stevenson, and H.G. Wells. I also read forbidden magazines, like Esquire, in the hope of learning something about Life, without much success. Little did I guess that in 1947--only about ten years from the time we are talking about--I would publish my first story in Esquire.
In the summer of 1937, when I was sixteen, we made a trip "back east" to pick up a new Dodge in Detroit, then on to visit my father's relatives in Dayton. They gave us a warm welcome, although there was a certain amount of latent jealousy toward the fortunate Californians who probably considered themselves superior. Some of my father's brothers and sisters and their families lived on farms around Dayton. This was interesting, but it didn't give me any more desire to live in the country than the visits to Aunt Nannie had. Some of the younger men worked at the "Cash" (National Cash Register Company) or at the Delta battery factory. But these relatives were mainly rural people; the only one who was more or less urbanized and educated was my father's niece Zelda Heiney, who went to Columbia Medical School and later became a practicing pediatrician in Dayton. During the War, I visited her at Bellevue hospital in New York where she was a resident. The only other direct contact I ever had with the Dayton relatives was that some of them came out for the funeral when my father died in 1968. I was told at that time that our two sons are the last male descendants of the Dayton Heineys, that is the last to carry on the name.
When I was a junior in highschool my father bought me a car. You just about had to have one, in those days, first of all because it was considered humiliating to go to school on a bus, and second because you needed it for dating and to impress the girls. In those days everyone bought a new car every two years and the lots were crammed with used cars. My first one was a 1930 Ford Model A Phaeton, and it cost $135. I was in ecstasy and after that found it even harder to keep my mind on my studies. Just as I had earlier gone on like bike trips, now I went on long and sometimes forbidden car trips. On night I went over to study with my friends Bill Ferris and Bob Holden. About ten o'clock, we called up my parents from West Hollywood, where we had just had our second flat tire, and it never occurred to us to take the tire to a gas station and have it repaired. My mother and father drove over to rescue us. My father didn't have much to say--much less than I expected.
When I got out of highschool, I didn't have the grades to go to the university, and in any case my parents couldn't have afforded it. Like most of my friends, I went on to Pasadena Junior College. There I majored, first, in Chemistry, and then shifted to the easier Chemical Engineering. This was my father's idea and I didn't question it. He and my mother thought that because I had a chemistry set when I was a child and enjoyed it, this was something I could do. It never occurred to them or to me either that you could make a living out of literature. I had of course dated, gone out with girls, and had some sort of mild flirtations in highschool. At PJC I fell violently in love with a girl named Ellene Boyd. She didn't regard me in the same highly favorable light, although she was friendly enough. I imagine that, in time, I became a kind of nuisance to her. Meanwhile my grades continued to decline. I really can't establish now, looking back at it, whether my life at this time was fairly normal or whether I was unusually and miserably unhappy. I suspect that I was pretty much like other young people my age, that there were good times and bad times. I enjoyed some classes and did well in English. Ellene drifted off, finally, and during the War married somebody else. By coincidence I met her years later, when she had become a minor bureaucrat on the UCI staff, and I found that she was quite an ordinary person.
After two years I left PJC without the AA degree. There was a family conference about what to do with me. Finally my father used his influence to get me a job in the Land Escrow and Safe Deposit Company, at its office in Alhambra. The vice president of this company was Homer Waldo Brown, a friend of the family. For a little more than a year I worked as a messenger, going in every day in a company car to Los Angeles, delivering documents to title companies and doing title-searching in the public records. In time, I might have become an escrow officer, a responsible position. I can't believe I would have done well at this. Luckily, history intervened. Shortly after the War began I sent in an application to the U.S. Merchant Marine Cadet Corps. In the spring of 1942 I received orders to report to San Francisco. I filled out the papers and was interviewed, but I failed the medical because I was underweight and my teeth were badly aligned. I had to come home for six weeks while a request for a waiver was processed. Finally--it must have been early in the summer of 1942--I left by train again to go to the basic training station on Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay. At that point my childhood was over and the things that happened after that are another story.