In Houston, Texas, September 1962, several days after second grade started, my mother gave me the best birthday present.
She said, “Linda, today we’ll do anything you want.”
I was just so thrilled, I blurted out, “Let’s go to the movies.”
I looked at her with anticipation. I felt overwhelmed and empowered at the same time to have my way. My mom had been so controlling in my young life that I was worried and scared she wouldn’t do what I wanted to do. But she said that I could choose, and she went along with it. To this day, that has been the happiest day I ever spent with my mom.
After second grade, in August 1963, towards the end of summer, we packed up and left Texas. We drove to California on America’s Highway, Route 66. The show that made it famous, and would become one of my favorites, was not yet on TV. Our trip would prove to be a test of my mother’s patience.
Before we left, my mom bought a new car. She showed it off and was very proud to own a Desert Gold Pontiac Tempest. To me it was just a tan car without a radio. So she bought a new portable radio for our trip. That radio was neat, in my hip eight-year old vernacular. It didn’t impress my mom, except that she paid hard-earned cash, a concept that I wasn’t aware of at that tender age and paid for dearly, later, for not knowing.
We drove through Texas and reached the middle of New Mexico, after about 1,200 miles, and who knows how many days, passing beneath endless blue skies that felt like forever.
Most of the time, I sat in the back seat and looked out the windows at the sky. The rest of the time I spent turning the dial on the portable radio searching through static for songs, or music, or just voices. Back then there were few radio stations along the way.
On our long, trip through the windy, sandy states, the heat took what little fun there was out of the drive to California. I don’t remember details like where we stayed overnight, or where we ate, or bought gas. But I do remember sitting at restaurant tables with delicious tacos, tortillas served on star-shaped wooden trivets, and drinking Coca Cola.
At night, when I sat in front while my mom drove, if I craned my neck, I could see the road ahead of the car. This was exciting—to drive into the sunset. After the sun went down, I watched the center line on the road appearing out of the darkness. I was always waiting for us to fall into the blackness off the end of the road in front of the car. It never happened. After a couple of days, I figured we weren’t going to drive to our death, and stopped worrying. It wasn’t exciting any more.
On the road, passing by desert, cactus, and small scrubby trees, the car was too hot to leave the windows closed. Rolling the windows down made the car noisy, and let in more heat from the hot desert air. Most of the time, the noise didn’t matter since the radio mostly played static. But when I could find music, I had to press the radio close to my ear; first with one hand then the other until both hands were tired.
A few times the portable radio slipped out of my hand and fell into my lap. We were well into Arizona, by another 300 miles. Then it happened. I was sitting close to the edge of the seat and the radio dropped to the floor. That’s all it took. After that, all the radio played was static.
I was too young to understand that the static meant there were no stations for the radio to pick up. Mom was no expert, but she definitely had an opinion. When she found out what happened, she blew up, she yelled at me about her hard-earned money, and she accused me of breaking the radio.
Then she was silent. When this happened she was silent for days. It was hard to bear the brunt of her silent wrath. I was stuck with nothing to do. I had no one to talk to. It wasn’t my fault the radio only played static.
We kept driving and eventually hit the rolling hills of California. Everything changed. The scenery went from dry yellow sand to moist green trees. The weather went from hot to temperate. My mom started talking to me again, sooner than expected.
As we were going up and down the hills, we were surrounded by trees and the sky grew smaller, peaking through the branches.
Oh boy, there were a lot of trees, and a lot of hills. In our amazement, we forgot about the radio.
The trees were endless. I got tired of waiting for the hills to end, and I started asking, “Are we there yet?”
After a few hours, this annoyed my mom. It was right up there with, “Looky.” Always curious, I wanted to share the new things I saw, and everything was always new to me.
We had gone another 500 miles since the radio fell in Arizona. Then we stopped in Los Angeles to visit my dad’s relatives. We drove another 400 miles up the coast, along the beautiful Pacific Ocean, to San Francisco, our final destination. I found out that the cold Pacific was not as wonderful as the deliciously warm water off the Gulf coast of Texas.
We had been in San Francisco a few weeks with a friend, when we found an apartment two blocks from the ocean and down the Great Highway from Playland at the Beach. Where we lived was flat like Texas. In the mornings, Mom would drop me off at the daycare and from there I walked to school with a group. That winter the weather was wet, windy, and freezing.
On my first day in third grade, the teacher introduced me to the class, and asked me to tell everyone about Texas. I couldn’t say a word, I was overwhelmed. I felt a lot of people looking at me. There were more kids here than in my classroom in Texas. After a bit, this was okay, I just didn’t know what anyone wanted to hear. As an only child, I wasn’t used to entertaining others.
In my Texas drawl, I said, “Texas is big and it’s hot.”
The teacher went on with class, and I made a promise to myself, from that day forward, I would lose my Texas accent because I wanted everyone to be able to understand me.
By the fourth grade, in 1964, I was a latchkey kid. We had moved to a third floor apartment across the street from the middle of the south side of Golden Gate Park. I liked our new apartment and the weather was milder with no freezing rain.
The first day I attended school, I walked a few blocks over and half a block up a hill. I definitely felt my Texas roots, walking uphill was strange. Every step I took felt like I was going to fall over, so I walked uphill backwards. It was awkward, but I didn’t trust myself not to fall. Luckily no one else walked my way to school. After about a week, walking uphill was easy.
When I didn’t have any homework, and before my mom got home from work, I used to throw my pink, blue, and white swirly-colored ball off the balcony and race downstairs to find it. That lasted a few weeks until I found Captain Satellite on Channel 2. Then I rushed home from school every afternoon to watch the show at 3:30 pm. I loved science and cartoons.
Something special happened in the fourth grade. I mentally felt the passage of time for the first time in my life. The principal of my school held a moment of silence, over the loud speaker, on November 22, 1964, for the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death. I’ll never forget that moment, thinking, wow, this is what a year feels like. I remembered, in my heart, voting for him to win.
Inspiration from that moment of silence impressed me to run for fourth-grade class secretary. I drew a poster for the election, with Frankenstein holding out his arms, saying “Vote for Linda.”