Tell us about the home where you lived when you were twelve. Which town, city, or country? Was it a house or an apartment? A boarding school or foster home? An airstream or an RV? Who lived there with you?
The year was 1969. A lot going on that year. Richard Nixon took the oath of office as the 37th President of the United States and Neil Armstrong leaves the first human footprint on the moon. A new counter-culture took shape with Woodstock and the Beatles break-up ended a musical era. It was a year of unbelievable atrocities, of Charles Manson, the Vietnam War and My Lai.
And for me, 1969 was the pivotal year between childhood and teenage. It was the year I turned twelve.
For eleven years before and another five years after, I lived in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate. An exclusively white, middle-class neighborhood where most of my neighbors were older people; but that didn’t mean I couldn’t hang out at their house from time to time. My grandparents came from Texas around 1930, when South Gate was nothing more than a seed community, starting to grow. They bought their house and the surrounding land when my father was my age. It became my home when my mother died.
Unlike the neighbors homes, which were modern and well-maintained, our house was not much to brag about. Less than a thousand square fee, the house consisted of a living room, dining area, small kitchen and laundry room, a couple of bedrooms and one bathroom. My bedroom had been part of the living room but a little carpentry provided seclusion with a sliding door. My bed and a desk hardly fit. There were, however, plenty of windows. My room had five: two along the wall I shared with the front porch, two along the front of the house looking toward the street and a fifth window that looked down the block, showing me what was beyond the confines of my own room.
As I mentioned earlier, my Grandparents were from Texas and if you closed your eyes to the rest of the neighborhood, you could almost imagine you were back in Texas, complete with chickens, a broken down truck, and a vegetable garden. Our quarter acre property was quite large for a residential area. A gravel driveway separated the property into two halves. On the south side sat the house, a neatly mowed front lawn, and Grandma’s flower gardens encircling yard. To the north was a vacant lot that served as home to a colony of red ants and not much else.
To say my Grandmother had a flower garden is a bit of an understatement. Grandma had been growing flowers for thirty years and her gardens would put any nursery to shame. No bare patch of ground was wasted. Vibrant red roses, pale pink carnations, wild tiger lilies, colorful daisies and much more. All her flowers delighted the senses but my favorites were the tiny fingertip puppets, snapdragons.
From the street, the gravel drive-way led to a detached dirt-floor garage that looked like a good wind could knock it down. The garage smelled of dirt and oil, thirty years worth. Granddad had a work bench and a lifetime of tools, but I don’t remember him using the work area for anything other than a place to hide his whiskey from Grandma. He thought she didn’t know but while Granddad took his afternoon nap, Grandma stole to the garage and poured it out.
Daddy lived in a small room behind the garage. Sometimes he stayed at the VA Hospital for weeks at a time. He had been sick for as long as I could remember. I never knew the details, but I realized when I was older that he was an alcoholic. It seemed to run in the family. Daddy died the following April of lung cancer. Sometimes I would go sit in his room, for no reason at all.
In 1969, kids played outside as much as they could and the front porch was my personal play area. It had been added on after the house was build and was large enough to be an extra room. Except there were no walls. On the porch there was an old rattan couch and chair, painted forest green, just like the concrete floor. A table was available for eating or playing Monopoly. Holly berry shrubs planted along the front of the porch kept it private from street view. Alone or with my friends, the front porch offered ample room for all sorts of play, or for just resting and watching the world go by.
Memories have a funny way of playing tricks on you. For the longest time I thought I was miserable as a child. But after thinking about to that time and that place, I don’t the twelve-year old child who was me was really all that unhappy. After all, I had sheds to explore, trees to climb, flowers to pick, places to hide. Does that sound like an unhappy child to you?