Reflections of the life I left behind, Those memories everlasting on my mind… JS
There are places I remember, All my life…though some have changed… Lennon/ McCartney
Last Saturday afternoon caught up in a state of nostalgic melancholia, I found myself driving aimlessly through the streets of my old hometown trying desperately to forget my present 51 year old condition and recapture the glory days of my youth. Up and down I drove reminiscing about the good old days, realizing that although much of the town remained unchanged, most of the familiar places I grew up with had long since vanished.
I found myself driving north on Azusa Ave at First Street. It looked so different now. Dick’s Auto Parts on the southwest corner was the lone survivor of the passage of time. Gone were Fry Brothers Market and Gregory’s Drug Store. Gone too were the Mexican Bakery, the cleaners,and the old self serve Flagg Gas Station up the street where I held my first job. I made $1.65 an hour to sit there and collect cash. When it wasn’t busy, I worked on my VW while listening to the Beatles and downing chocolate Yahoo’s. Gas was only 26.9 cents a gallon Yeah, life was definitely good.
A little further on Benny’s Liquor Store, our favorite place to score beer, was still open and still called Benny’s! A little further Rosales Market/Upholstery Shop was long gone but at Third Street Ozzie’s Burgers and Ortuno’s Market were still open for business, they had new names but looked pretty much the same. Bert’s and Joe’s Bike Shops were long gone but the memory of those cool Berts book bags they used to hand out lives on. Zesto’s our preferred ice cream stand was still there, but was now a Mexican food place. It was comforting to see that some of the originals, La Tolteca, Centrals Market, Azusa Sales, Carmen’s and Marchand’s Rentals had survived the passage of time and were still in business, a small, sweet taste of yesterday.
Soon I was approaching what was left of downtown. As I crossed Sixth Street the memories of old town Azusa overwhelmed me, flooding my senses with images of what had once been. In my mind’s eye I could see the downtown of my youth, the thriving business district that had existed before Cal Trans engineers destroyed our fair city by turning Azusa Ave into a three lane, one-way monstrosity. On the corner was the barber shop, next door was the Village Theater. Across the street were J.C. Penney’s, Karl’s Shoes, LaDue’s Cafe, Albonour’s Market, Nick’s Levi’s, and the five and dime, all vintage Azusa, all long gone.
I caught the red light at Foothill Blvd and sat looking at the Wells Fargo Bank Building on the corner. It still looked as strong and stately as it had nearly fifty years ago. Then it was called the First National Bank. I remember once when I was around 12 my mom took me there to deposit some money in my savings account. Afterwards we walked across the street to Foothill Drug Store with its “Happy Days” soda counter, for some ice cream. (Immediately images of cherry phosphates and root beer floats filled my head.) At my urging, before heading home, we walked up the street to the Hobby Shop. What a great store! They had everything! games, erector sets, rocket kits, science and electronic do-it-yourself projects, power boats, slot cars and the best selection of plastic model kits around, custom cars, hot rods, trucks, planes, ships, and all the latest Revell Big Daddy Roth monster car creations like the Rat Fink, Mother’s Worry, Drag Nut, and Big Daddy’s Mr. Gasser, which I bought that day.
Glancing to my right I could almost see the old, legless veteran sitting on his four wheeled, wooden plank, selling pencils in front of Colby Realty. He was a familiar sight in Azusa, scurrying about from place to place, using his arms to propel himself along the sidewalk. Truth be told, he scared me a little. I even remember having a nightmare in which he was chased me down the alley by my grandma’s house. Of course, my fears were unfounded. He was actually a pretty nice guy as I eventually found out.
I remember one day on my way home from school I stopped at Woody and Lena’s Music Store to check out the guitars in the display window. I was standing there admiring an old Gibson when he rolled up beside me. He sat there a few minutes looking at the instruments then asked, “You play?” His voice surprised me, it was soft, gentle, not at all like I imagined. I had expected it to be gruff and hoarse like a pirate.“You play guitar?” he asked again.“No,” I answered nervously, “but I’d like to learn.” “Well then what’s stopping you? ” he said with a laugh, “All it takes is practice, lots of practice. Who knows, in time you might be the next Les Paul.”I stood there looking at him, nodding like an idiot. I had no idea who the hell Les Paul was.
“I don’t have a guitar to practice on.” I finally managed to say. “Well now that does create a problem.” he said with a grin, “got to have the tools to do the job, but don’t you worry none, I imagine you’ll get that guitar soon enough.” I stood there looking down at where his legs would have been and wanted so much to ask him how he’d lost them, but when I started to, what came out of my mouth instead was “Wh-e-ere do you get all those pencils?” God, how dumb! Where had that come from? He looked up at me like he was reading my mind. I was certain that he knew exactly what I had really wanted to ask, and would have told me if I hadn’t chickened out. Instead he simply smiled and said,“Oh I get them from a private pencil supply store in Los Angeles.” Then with a twinkle in his eye he added, “They make them special for legless gents like myself.”Again I was speechless and just stood there nodding dumbly. After a few moments of awkward silence he smiled, handed me a couple of pencils and rolled off towards the Bank of America.“See you around son, hope you enjoy that guitar,” he called back to me, “and remember practice makes perfect.” That summer I got my guitar and practiced every day until I could play it. Eventually I even found out who Les Paul was, but I never did find out how the vet lost his legs.
The sound of a car horn brought me back to the present. The light had changed and I proceeded north on Azusa towards the canyon. As I slowed to cross over the railroad tracks I flashed on the Feed and Grain Store from back in the day. It was an old wooden warehouse size building that looked more like an old barn than a store. I don’t really remember much about it except that it burned down in spectacular fashion back in the early sixties and caused quite a commotion. It burned all afternoon and created a circus-like atmosphere on the streets. It seemed like the whole city turned out to watch it burn. It was never rebuilt.
On I drove, past Community Garage, Johnny’s Towing, A to Z liquor and on towards the mountains. Near thirteenth St. I saw a couple of boys with fishing poles headed toward the river and was reminded of “Huck Finn Days” and the Rainbow Angling Club. Every summer kids of all ages would meet at Parks and schools across Azusa, and under the supervision Recreation Department, walk up to the angling club, complete with straw hats, bare feet and bamboo fishing poles for a day of fishing and fun.A day or two before my cousin Dave and I would jump old Mrs. Simmon’s back fence and cut bamboo from her yard which was so dense with bamboo that you couldn’t see her house from the street. She lived on the northeast corner of Third and Angeleno. From there we’d go to my house and make our poles. We took nails from my dad’s work bench and use the vise and hammer to bend them into fishing hooks so we could catch the really big ones, but we never caught a thing, the nails kept falling off. What did we know about fishing.
As I crossed Sierra Madre Ave I flashed on Happy Jack’s Trout Farm, the old Ghost Town, the stables, roller coaster road, and Foothill Dairy, where we downed what must have amounted to hundreds of gallons of fruit punch each summer, after all of those canyon trips and Seven Pines hikes. Foothill Dairy, now only a memory, a victim of condo madness.I drove up as far as the El Encanto Restaurant and pulled into the lot behind the Canyon Inn. I turned off the engine and sat there awhile listening to the roar of the San Gabriel River down below, remembering the times we rode down the river on inner tubes. God those were fun times. On one occasion I almost drowned.
That particular adventure began one hot summer afternoon, about a half mile down river from the Morris Dam Spillway at what we fondly called the swimming hole. There the river made a sweeping left turn, then spread out to more than four times it’s previous width. Because of the depth in this section, the current slowed considerably, and created the perfect pool.There were eight of us there that day, Art Vasquez, Dave Morales, Steve Gallegos, John Montgomery, Jack Fitch, Bob Lloyd, Steve “Cannonball” Luevanos, and myself, all eager to ride the river. It took us awhile to pump up the tubes with the single bicycle pump we’d brought with us but eventually we hit the water.
We floated lazily downstream for about a mile or so, hooting and hollering and having a ball! Everything was going great, but when we rounded the bend just below the El Encanto, the current grew stronger and we began picking up speed.As we passed under the Highway 39 bridge we were really moving! I drifted wide, away from the others, got caught in the swirling current and was thrown from my tube. Almost immediately I was sucked under and swept downstream. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stop myself. If it wasn’t for Cannonball I probably would have drowned. Somehow he managed to grab hold of me and drag me to shore. I was bruised and my ribs ached, but otherwise okay. We sat on the bank until I regained my strength, then jumped back on our tubes and continued down river without further incident. In spite of my fall it was a real blast! Good times!
End of Part One