(A Little 1940s Nostalgia)

16 February 2023


    Oakland, California, was already a big city when I was young in the 1940s, and seemed a lot bigger because many of the local cities [Berkeley, Alameda, San Leandro, etc.] had already grown together into one big metropolitan area. Our part of Oakland, called the Dimond District, was five miles or more from the city center, and it was continuous city from there to us. Dimond, which was about a mile from our house, had all the city amenities [banks, library, stores, movie theater, etc.], and that was where we did most of our business. We very seldom had any reason to go “down town.” [Actually, we didn’t even go to Dimond more than a time or two per week. There were “corner grocery stores” distributed all through the residential areas, usually within a few blocks of almost everybody. Our nearest store was on Madeline, about six short blocks away, and there was another one on Maple, about eight blocks in another direction. We bought almost all our food staples at the one on Madeline - bread, meat, vegetables, etc. We had home milk delivery at least some of the time. We may have had bread delivery some of the time, too. I know it was available. But Mom made bread regularly, so maybe not.]

   Our neighborhood in the 1940s would probably have been characterized as “middle class” single-family residential. Almost all the homes were one story, with moderate-sized front and back yards, and lots of trees and green lawns. I don’t know when most of the houses were built, probably in the 1920s and 1930s. We were almost at the eastern edge of the city. There was one more-recently constructed housing area beyond us, but there were still a number of vacant lots between us and them, and beyond them it was pretty much undeveloped open space.

   Oakland was - in a de facto sense - strongly racially segregated in the 40s and early 50s. Our neighborhood was not 100 per cent white European, but pretty close. I seem to remember that there were some Oriental children in our grammar school, but I don’t think there were any African-Americans. I didn't think of Oakland as “racially troubled” during my youth. [My high school seemed to do fine with a good mix of white, black, and oriental.] However, we were pretty well insulated from the rest of town in our White suburban neighborhoods, so (from what I learned about Oakland in later years) I had clearly  been unaware of the bigger picture.


Our house [actually, it belonged to Jack and Gladys Moore] sat on the corner of Rhoda Avenue and Carmel Street. Carmel was a fairly busy suburban street (but mostly local traffic, not many business vehicles). Rhoda went west all the way to MacArthur Blvd (a half-mile or so from us), the nearest major business route. East of us, Rhoda was only one block long, and dead-ended in a large vacant field area. Very large black walnut trees lined both sides of our part of Rhoda, and it was a quiet, shady street with lots of squirrels. The trees were eventually cut down, probably in the early 50s, but I can’t remember it happening. Allegedly, the trees were getting old, diseased, and dangerous.

   We lived upstairs above Jack and Gladys. As I said above, they owned the house; we rented the top floor from them. Even in the early days, it was a massive “castle” of a house [or barn, if you prefer] compared to all the one-story houses around us. I don’t know its history, or why it happened to be such a big house. Up until about the time I went off to college, there was only one front entrance. You walked up a flight of fifteen steps or so to a large porch, and entered a large, high ceilinged foyer. Off the porch was a door into a separate room that was first Roger’s, then Roger’s and mine, and then mine. Two doors into the Moores’ living space were located in this entry area. There was a table in this foyer, with an old black, stand-up telephone on it [the only phone in the house; Sandra remembers that later it was up on the wall, where we could reach it from our staircase.] A sweeping, slightly curved staircase led up to the second floor, where we lived. There was no door at the top of the stairs; you just were suddenly in our “house.” [I think I was already in college when the front door situation was changed. Jack was long dead, and Gladys became close to paranoid about danger from people breaking into the house. She had the door to “my” room walled off, walled off the old stairs from the entry hall, and had a side entrance constructed for access to our apartment. She put bars on all her windows and doors, and had her own fortress.]

   My folks paid very low rent throughout their almost 60 years of residency. I have no idea what they paid initially, but I think they were still paying less than $30 a month when I went off to college, and it was still only $100 or so when many people in the Bay Area were paying hundreds more for less space in worse locations. The rent was kept low in part because Dad did most of the yard work and much of the general upkeep. After Jack died, Mom and Dad helped Gladys in many ways, and were really in charge of the house and yard.

   Our living space wasn’t overly large for a family with four kids, but I don’t think any of us felt too deprived of space. There was a fairly large kitchen; a living room about the same size; a small “sitting room” at the top of the stairs [where our only heat, a standup gas heater, was located]; two similarly-sized bedrooms; and the room off the porch that served as a third bedroom. Additionally, off the bathroom (bathtub, no shower), there was an open air porch where Mom hung out the clothes (there was a clothesline connecting the porch with the garage-shed in the back yard), where we sat on warm afternoons, and where we occasionally “slept out.” [We saw some wonderful “falling stars” from that porch.]

   The shortage of bedrooms was taken care of by the youngest child sleeping in Mom and Dad’s room, and the next older ones sharing the middle bedroom. When I came along, Roger and Sandra had the middle bedroom. As I got a little older, Sandra remembers that I moved in there, too, and we shared a bed (one at each end). When Dale was the baby, Sandra and I had the middle bedroom, and Roger had moved to the room off the porch downstairs. I later moved down with Roger, and Dale moved in with Sandra. [She says they shared until she was 16 or 17 years old.] After Roger left home, I had the downstairs to myself for a while. Dale may have spent some time down with me, but I can’t remember it.

   The bedroom situation wasn’t really as clear-cut as I’ve described it, because it seems we always had extra people sleeping all over the house - young men from the Navy during the war years, and lots of relatives [Uncle Ross and Aunt Eva, Uncle Russell and Aunt Ruth, Grandpa and Grandma Millward, uncles Gordon, Gaylen and Joe, Aunt Irma]. Some stayed a long time. They, or we, were on couches, cots, or the floor much of my early life.

   Living upstairs was not easy for us kids. We were told many times each day to be quiet and not thump around and disturb Jack and Gladys. I think I was generally afraid of Gladys (or, at least, didn’t consider her a very nice person), but I liked Jack, a lot. We heard that he ate horse meat during the war, rather than feeding it to his cats, which we thought was pretty weird at the time. Gladys read “true detective” mystery magazines all the time, and scared herself silly with them. As I noted above, after Jack died, she really worried about people breaking in, and she had bars over all her windows, double locks on all her doors, outside lights by her car, etc. [I saw some of her magazines in later years - they were really grizzly trash. No wonder she was scared!]

   The most vivid memory I have of Jack was him killing a “giant” [even allowing for kids’ imaginations, probably a 6-foot long] gopher snake in our front yard. We were scared and excited.

      Our yard [the Moores’, actually] used to extend the entire block from Rhoda to Madeline. The third of the property closest to Madeline was sold fairly early in my life, and a house built on it, but the middle third wasn’t sold and built on until  after I’d gone away to college. It was a wonderful yard for kids. We didn’t lack for open space at that time - you only had to go up a long block to the end of Rhoda, and you were almost in “the wilderness - but it was fun to have our own outdoors right in the yard. The Madeline end of the property had pepper trees and some fruit trees, and the middle area had a big flat-topped wooden “barn” that served as two garage stalls, Dad’s work-shed, and storage for Jack and Gladys. I loved to climb up on the shed, and just sit. There was a giant fig tree in front of the shed which was my favorite spot. The branches were massive, and it was easy to climb ten feet or so off the ground and then sit safely and comfortably on one of the branches where it left the trunk. Also, the figs were excellent eating.


Along Carmel, the property had high clay cliffs, in places probably 8 or 10 feet high. Roger loved little cars and other models, and he made roads all over the cliffs. He’d level out little roadways, and then cover them with thin sheets of plaster of Paris, so we had real “pavement.” We spent a tremendous amount of time climbing up and down those bluffs, playing with model cars on them, etc.

   In the front yard, we had a “lawn,” but it was actually mainly composed of a low-growing perennial [I think it was called lippia], rather than all grass. I don’t think Dad had to mow it very often. There was a hedge between the lawn and the sidewalk on Rhoda. There was a monkey puzzle tree [we always just called it a “monkey tree”] on the lawn. It was there forever, but never got gigantic like some of them around the Bay Area [ours was maybe 10 feet tall]. My folks were not learned gardeners but they loved to work outdoors, and there were always lots of flowers and interesting trees and shrubs.


   I was born in that house, as were my sister and my younger brother. My parents lived – and rented! – there until my mother died. My dad spent his last couple of years with my sister in Oklahoma. I never went back. It was never “ours,” and everything had changed in the area, to the point it wasn’t recognizable as the place where we got our start in life.

  I found a recent photo of the house online. It looks to be well cared for, a strange two-story structure in the middle of a one-story neighborhood. It was a great place to grow up at.

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