Posts Tagged ‘Los Angeles Childhood 1940s’

from the Estate of RH Euston

from the Estate of RH Euston


A picture in faded sepia. A father and two boys stand behind a great green prickly pear cactus, the boy’s faces full of sun, graced with a  shimmer of security and contentment.  The father, well, a father’s firm gaze looks straight into the camera lens.  The day is lazily, autumnally hazy. The blight of smog has yet to suffocate the Los Angles Basin. It’s a warm late afternoon. It’s Sunday. The resinous smell of an old eucalyptus tree mingles with the scent of  nearby chaparral.

Though the picture is now almost three quarters of a century old, I know the setting and the time: the La Crescenta Valley, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, when in 1944 a few vineyards still survived on terraces and when in the deep mauve of sundown I heard dogs barking, that domestic call echoing across the valley, breaking an almost rural quietude

But the  year is 1944. Around the world the greatest war is in its most fateful stage. But for one hundredth of a second, the world in one tiny spot on earth is at peace.

My father and my brother are gone years ago. My father from ripe old age. He and I walk  for a last time, in Spring, carefully, slowly rounding the gentle curve of the San Diego mobile home park, while I point out and name every kind of flower and tree that I can. He seems to understand, maybe, I think, from the smell of jasmine and lemon. Is this his last taste, his last smell, his last seeing of the natural world around which so much of his life revolved? Days later he lies unconscious in a white bed in San Diego Kaiser Hospital,  intravenous vines twining around his pale arms. He finally sleeps, and soon joins the infinity of the Pacific Ocean, as he wished.

My brother brightens the picture with the innocence of an Andy Hardy movie character, with stocky frame, short sleeves and wavy hair, his smile that of a buoyant teenager in the 1940s who runs track and wears a letterman’s sweater with golden track shoes pined to a big “G”, who edites the high school newspaper, who wins blistering towel fights with his little unarmed sibling, my brother who graduates from UCLA Phi Beta Kappa, serves as a second Lieutenant in the peace time army, and who talks and writesabout high adventure. But in adult life he chooses to live close to home, work in Los Angeles, travels about the world. His life closes very near home.

I alone remain, putting memory to work, to find the direction of the past in the ravines and hills of the mind. The “I” is not the boy of seven standing before the cactus, suspenders rounding the shoulders, in love with this magic afternoon. But in the picture the “I” of that certain afternoon has come to life for a moment in this very present. That one hundredth of a second of camera time has brought life to a long ago moment in the life of a family, of a place called Southern California, at the cusp of its great transition into the world of the present. Its shimmering, beckoning autumnal imprint has traveled those long halls of memory to a far distant vanishing point. Thus the magic of that quicksilver, evanescent click of the shudder.    SRE

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With a depth of nearly 2,000 feet Crater Lake in the Oregon Cascades is one of the deepest lakes in the world. In terms of average depth, it is fourth.  After a earth rumbling explosion and then collapse of 12,000 foot Mt. Mazama some 7,000 years ago, the lake filled with prodigious snow melt. It is now in a state of hydrologic balance.

Crater is also one of the most pristine of lakes, with remarkable clarity. Established in 1902 as one of the earliest national parks, it’s pretty much pollution free. And thankfully  the Park Service intends to keep it that way.

A lot of natural wonders are called jewels of this or that. But Crater Lake is surely the jewel of jewels. Like an opal, the color of its waters migrate as the sun and atmosphere change, all set in a deep facet of whitish volcanic cliffs streaked with black igneous rock, some rising over 2,000 feet above the lake surface. Sun rise, high noon, late in the day, clouds or clear skies, the colors are what? Sky blue azure, deepest cerulean blue, palest magenta, dark agate, silver in rippling and glinting reflections, even a bland gray under high clouds, red and gold at sunrise and sunset, mild rose to purple blue as evening falls across a mysterious void 6,000 feet above the world.

Crater Lake presents exhilarating mountain beauty at its most intense. Millions of photos have been taken over many years, years of depression and prosperity, war and peace, hope and fear, and the lake has survived intact. The record below spans some seventy-five years and three generations, from film to digital photography. Hopefully little will change in the next  seventy-five. But Crater Lake, because of its purity and uniqueness, is a frightfully good place to watch the growing impacts of climate change.

Whitebark Pine, the picturesque icon of the higher altitudes of Crater Lake National Park, is being decimated. A major factor is the mountain pine beetle, which proliferates as winter low temperatures rise and which, over time, can kill a tree. The Whitebark Pine is a “foundational species”, on which many other species, plant and animal, depend. Together with an onslaught of white pine blister rust, Whitebark Pine is on the way to extinction. Tiny carbon atoms may be the destruction of Crater Lake’s ecosystem, and thereby the lake itself as we know it.  And in truth, we all know where those atoms come from.


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For my mother and father, the tree had to fit these specifications: a six to seven foot Douglas Fir, fresh if possible, big blue-green needles, full branching.  And oh, yes. It must exude that wonderful resiny smell of the forest on a summer day, the trade mark so to speak of the doug fir.

The excitement of my family buying a tree around December 10 in one of the numerous lots that sprang up after Thanksgiving was usually the opening chapter of the holiday season.

First Christmas Tree 1930 © SR Euston

But for me as a boy, this was really not the essence of the thing. The tree selected (after much discussion and sometimes disagreement) was a kind of shadowy symbol of the great mysterious forest that I imagined covering the slopes of a semi-mythical Sierra Nevada—mist covered or snowy, cloud hidden or stormy, winds roaring. After my great imaginary storms passed over the peaks, a luminous sky broke into pure cobalt blue. Only the silence of the snow covering forests of pine and fir or Sequoia remained. Hidden in our small ornament-clad Christmas tree were such evanescent forest dreams.

The Tree Trimmer circa 1932 © SR Euston

Understand, this was Los Angeles. The Santa Ana winds could howl dry and dusty or even smoky over the San Gabriel Mountains even into December. The winter rains may have hardly begun. The Christmas tree lots may have had only a few green things, weeds, growing on the very ground where the quasi-green trees from Oregon rested in clumps, harvested in October for the LA market. Some years, the trees were dry enough that, by merely picking one out, the needles dropped like tinder ready to burn.

This fascination with the forest was hardly the Christmas of the Bible or the First Methodist Church my family attended. In a sense, I suppose, Christmas for me was a Christmas without Christ. I might have been called a boy pagan. I thought the tree in the church sanctuary as almost sacrilegious—not from the Christian standpoint, but from the tree’s.

Grandmother's Tree © SR Euston

I have some idea where such imaginings came from. My father and his natal family, mostly German in descent, treated the tree as a central part of Christmas. I can sense that looking at an old picture I have of my Grandmother, in old age but still winsome, standing beside her trimmed tree set on a round maple table, looking calm and happy.

And from a sepia photo of my parents’ first Christmas tree, in 1930.  I can almost smell the resinous tang and guess at the tree’s significance at the beginning of a marriage.

And from every tree I helped my father trim, and from every tree I later have trimmed myself, a tradition has carried on to an uncertain future.

Today, after all, we helped fabricate a fake tree made in China, for incongruous decoration in a nearby historic Victorian house. (Strangely, almost eerily, a few of the branchlets of the fake tree fell off, just like a real tree.)

I suppose in retrospect it’s not too far of a jump from the Christmas tree to the forest of dreams.

I doubt if plastic trees make for dreams.   SRE

The Forest, South Fork, Eel River, CA © SR Euston

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I grew up on a 7000 square foot city lot in inner-suburban Los Angeles. I grew up gardening. But I considered it, or imagined it, to be farming.

Watering the Garden © SR Euston

In Southern California before automatic drip systems, the homely hose was the workhorse of the garden. Since my family often traveled through the San Joaquin Valley on vacations, and my father liked the landscape, the “Valley” became my ideal for farmland, and irrigation was synonymous with farming.

I made deep furrows for watering the vegetables and placed the hose at the head of the little 25 foot rows, watching as the water coursed slowly down the trench, imagining water coursing down Valley irrigation canals.

I was a boy alone on a summer afternoon, irrigating the crops, the smell of smoke from dry burning grasses next door, water creeping down the furrows between the vegetable rows. Some people, for whatever reason, have a kind of rural imagination. I’m one of them. I thought of the great hot green irrigated fields around Fresno or Modesto.

But the hose had another more transcendental meaning. Nozzle in hand, I used the finest spray adjustment, turned it to the sun and the cooling tiny droplets trailed like a floating nebulous prism.

In Spring/early Summer it was time to plant. With my father, I placed the seeds very carefully in the string-straight rows, pressing each seed to the proper depth per instructions on the seed packet. I liked to think of the garden as producing crops – radishes, usually “icicles”, kentucky wonder snap beans, carrots, romaine lettuce, cucumbers and zucchini squash, which I hated to eat but loved to watch grow.

In furtherance of my agricultural career, at about age 11,  I got a Christmas present of a five-tined hand held cultivator, like a forked hoe. It was like getting a new tractor. And, I noticed, the quality was good.

I used that tool for over 40 years and finally replaced it in Virginia, when I had a real farm – and a real tractor.

Grandmother Teaches Gardening © SR Euston

San Joaquin Valley Farm: Olden Days © SR Euston

The Farm, Virgina,1998 © SR Euston

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The woman in the picture is eighteen. The location, resembling a Hollywood stage set, is Avalon, on Catalina Island, some 30 miles west of Los Angeles harbor. Yachts anchor offshore, a casino is in the background. The time is around 1928.

Catalina Island, 1928 ©SR Euston

The photo of the woman is well composed. A slight angle of the jacket, balanced by an offsetting angle in the legs; the arch in the background complementing the gentle curve in the bench. The dress style reflects the late 1920s—a large bead necklace, purse, pumps, short waved hair sliding over the left forehead. The smile is just about right. Not strained, rather comely. A perfect afternoon in the ocean air of what used to be California’s answer to Capri. A very young woman from the midwest, recently arrived.

Canyon Trail, San Gabriel Mountains, 1927© SR Euston

Then there is the picture of the young man, circa 1927. He pauses on the trail, which is dropping into a steep canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains, some 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles. He carries a side pack and rucksack to carry overnight provisions for a stay at one of the numerous hikers’ camps sprinkled though out the Angeles National Forest. In another photograph, the young man gazes towards the mists, the trail ahead leading through burnt-over chaparral.

Mountain Mists, Angeles National Forest © SR Euston

One day, hiking with different parties, the man and the woman meet on the trail. I imagine it was hot, as hiking the San Gabriels so often is. They exchange conversation. The woman is with a Sierra Club group.

Now, reel forward a few more years. It’s the deep depression. The early ‘30s. The man and the woman who met a few years ago on the trail are posing together in the mountains as a couple. The high boots look uncomfortable, but ranger official. The outfits look remarkably alike, even to their belts. The sleeves are rolled. The clothes look rustic, undoubtedly khaki or deeper brown. One can almost smell the scent of pines encasing the scene. The woman’s hairdo has changed rather dramatically. Her eyes show a more mature look, scarcely studied or posed. And there’s symbolism as well as geography in the mountain setting—a far cry from the real estate creation called Avalon, Santa Catalina Island.

So in 70 or so miles from island to mountains, from the fake but pleasurable to the rugged yet accessible, from teenage responsibility, from being single and 18 just arrived from Minnesota to married—all so far off in time and place, yet so near.  SRE

A Couple in the Mountains, early 30s © SR Euston

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Once upon a time there was a woodsy cabin, made of alder logs, set deep in the woods.

The Original Cabin, 1950. ©SR Euston

This cabin was very small. That, however, made little difference. This is the thing: Each Christmas season, around December 6, the cabin was reoccupied for a month. Sometimes it stood firm, heavy with snow. The chimney was smoke-blackened at the top, with a neat woodpile set outside.

Sometimes the cabin sat in the midst of a tantalizing green of sphagnum moss, the soft green of the rainforest. To the occupants, the velvety feel of this lowly plant was luscious, and the smell when wet with rain was December and Christmas.

The scene below the tree glimmered with shafts of muted morning light, or was lit by a glowing Christmas light at dusk. Here was the presence of the mountain fastness. Our imaginations were helped by the fact that this was Los Angeles, and the temperature outside might be 80 degrees.

The first cabin was constructed out of alder twigs in the 1920s. It was circled by a 4” tall split rail fence, also of alder. It was my Dad’s construction. The snow was real cotton, the kind you could buy years ago in the five and dime, and the moss was from the neighborhood florist.

The Cabin 2009 ©SR Euston

All this was about my father’s remembrance of an Oregon childhood.

Eventually, the original Christmas cabin was lost in the chaos of time. In the 1970s, to keep alive a yearly rendezvous with tradition, a simple new cabin was made, just roomy enough for the Christmas “occupancy of the imagination” by the second and third generations.

Over some 70 Christmases, a little homemade cabin, set in a scene of imagined woods and wilds, has kept alive remembrances and expectancies, all waiting in the forest deeps.       SRE

The Oregon Woods ©SR Euston

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