I was a Depression baby, born in Houston on September 9, 1931. I suppose times were so tough that our family moved to greener pastures in Los Angeles, two years later. My earliest memory had to do with one of my Mother's tea parties. I was dressed as a cherub, in diaper, wings and halo. The women guests ogled me and I felt foolish. But, there was something about being noticed by them - if only for a few minutes.
Our neighborhood was nestled in the Hollywood foothills, before the freeway system came along. It was Stucco and Bohemian and full of struggling writers and other movie people trying to contribute in the new age of movie making. Cozy cottages sprinkled the hillsides, connected by quaint winding roads. There were no supermarkets - or super anything. Families were lucky to have one car. Streetcars and buses were available, and a lot of fun to ride. The word "smog" had not been coined.
At the age of five, I was allowed to make my own way to a nearby progressive kindergarten, just a few blocks from our home across the street from the Hollywood Bowl. On the way to school, I had to pass through a spooky pedestrian tunnel under Cahuenga Boulevard. I was always uneasy about it. One morning, while adjusting my eyes to the darkness of the tunnel, I saw a large grungy figure emerge from a pile of debris directly in my path. My worst fear came true. I wet my pants and ran home, never to set foot in that underpass again unless I was convinced it was clear. Oh yes, I remember one other not-so-nice thing about progressive school - the teacher instructed the class that there was no Santa Claus. That left me with a life-long suspicion of anything having to do with "progressivism."
As a depression baby, I seldom left any food on my plate. I was reminded continuously that someone less fortunate than I could have enjoyed the wasted food. This has remained in my subconscious to this day. I remember many unfortunate homeless or jobless people coming to the backdoor for something to eat. From a child's perspective, it was very sad and confusing. They were victims of a world depression, but they appeared appreciative, not bitter. They might have been broke but they held on to their dignity. Often the same people would return. When they didn't, I hoped they had found better pickings elsewhere.
We weren't rich, but during the depression and the workout years that followed, we rationalized employing a maid and butler and even a nurse for my baby sister. They received room and board and a modest amount of money each month. Everyone felt obliged to help one another and do the best they could until things got better.
Our house was located across the street from the great Hollywood Bowl, on what is now a parking lot. There was a giant avocado tree in the front yard with fruit so big I was afraid to play beneath it. We had a handsome Pierce Arrow in the driveway, until the aging axle fell off. It was replaced with a dark brown two-door coupe with a rumble seat for two. That was a blast. Birthdays were celebrated with a clown and Shetland pony, along with lots of kids and their mothers, that I didn't know, wearing funny hats. I was relieved when everyone left.
Just across the street was the most exciting play area imaginable. The only other kid on our dead end street was a recluse, so I had the Hollywood Bowl all to myself. Almost daily I wandered the hills surrounding the Bowl alone until dark. Each afternoon presented a new adventure. I became the mascot, I suppose, of all the employees that worked there - the ticket takers, watchmen, janitors, gardeners, concessionaires, prop men and musicians. Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini and Jose Iturbe waved sometimes when they saw me sitting front row center during their afternoon rehearsals. When I returned home, I pretended to direct the orchestra with a baton given to me by one of those great conductors. At home, atop a contrived podium, magical stick in hand, I had great powers. I could make the music go fast or slow. With a tap-tap-tap of the baton I could stop the music to instruct the musicians; then a nod to the concertmaster and a wave of my baton, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra would begin again, "from the top."
I had the run of the Bowl and I took full advantage of it. One day in the gift shop, no one was around so I picked up an old fashion viewer and peered into it, pressing the trigger that advanced the image. That was some image - a long barelegged dancer hiding behind oversize feathers. I was taken, and a strange feeling came over me. At that precise moment, the sales lady gently took the viewer from my trembling hands and said "Run Along now."
I followed her advice, scampering off into the foothills behind the Bowl until I came to within inches of a steep gravel slide, isolated high above the access road behind the Bowl. Still raging with nervous energy, I turned and faced down the three-story rockslide, crouched down and then hopped into the air above the fall line. I dropped many feet on to the loose gravel. It gave-way instantly and I sank up to my knees. I found myself hopping again-and-again, as if I was jumping up and down on my bed. By the time I repeated this motion about fifteen times or more, I came to rest, in a crouched position, on the asphalt road below.
Thrilled with the experience, I raised my arms in triumph. Suddenly, wild energy turned to exhaustion and relief. I was all in one-piece, but what possessed me to do something so wild? I thought it best not to disclose this experience to mom or dad - they might have put my personal playground off-limits, including the gift shop that I wanted to visit again - soon.
Copyright © 2003, Robert D. Harrell, all rights reserved
To contact Robert Harrell, Email Robert at firstname.lastname@example.org
Horseshoe Bay, TX
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Robert Harrell was born in the early 1930's. An avid sailor and golfer, he lives in Horseshoe Bay, Texas.