"In The Days of my Youth" Memories of an Old Altar Boy

                                                  IN THE DAYS OF MY YOUTH                                                                                                     John Sausedo             March 2003

Reflections of the life I left behind,                                                                             Those memories everlasting on my mind… J  S

There are places I remember, All my life…though some have changed…                                                                                                           Lennon/ McCartney

My Hometown

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 signal 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 – where 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. We took turns using the single bicycle pump to fill our tubes then 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. I was immediately 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!

I sat listening to the river for several more minutes, then headed back down the mountain. I turned left on Azusa-San Gabriel Canyon Road and headed south towards the ranch. The one acre ranch, owned by Art’s dad, was part of a much larger avocado grove, and one of our favorite places to hang out back in the day. We spent a lot of time there, kicking back and drinking beer, a lot of beer. It was also a great night spot to spend some time with our girlfriends, which we often did. Yeah, we had some good times at the ranch, some really great times.

I drove by slowly and couldn’t believe how different the ranch looked. It was nothing at all like the lush, green, little piece of paradise that I remembered. There were far fewer trees and most of those were small and sparsely covered with foliage. Could this have really been the site of all those good times? It sure didn’t appear to be. So much for memories.

I headed back down San Gabriel and hit the signal at  Sierra Madre. I could see my mom’s old restaurant Angela’s. in the small strip mall across the street. My mom really loved that place and always seemed so happy there. I could almost she her inside throwing together one of her famous pizzas or grinders. I wish they’d never sold it. I know they had their reasons, but maybe things would have turned out differently if they hadn’t, maybe she’d still be alive. Way too many maybe’s. God I miss her…

I pulled over and stopped in front of the apartments at 1212 N. San Gabriel. Raylene and I had lived in apartment B for about a year when we were first married. Our apartment still looked exactly like it had when we lived there. I shook my head remembering our time there. Could it have really been thirty years ago? It didn’t seem possible. Where did all the time go?

I drove down to Foothill Blvd and headed east, continuing on my little trip down memory lane. Driving  past the city hall I couldn’t believe how little it had changed. It still looked exactly as it had in the sixties. When we were kids there had been an enormous evergreen on the front lawn. It must have been fifty feet tall! Every winter it was transformed into a giant Christmas tree complete with lights, ornaments and a large gold star on top and a live manger scene in front of it. It was incredible! The tree blew down in the big wind storm of 68 and though it was replaced, it was never quite the same.

I continued east past Baker’s (now called California Burger), Whites Funeral Home, St Frances of Rome Church, and the Foothill Drive-In. The drive in had closed several years ago and was purchased by Azusa Pacific University. As teens we use to go to the swap meet at the drive-in nearly every Sunday. My parents thought I was going to the 10:15 mass to sing with the school choir and were more than happy to let me go. I’d usually meet my cousin Dave, Pete Smith or some of the other guys in front of the church, then we’d go in and stand near the glass doors in the back until just after the sermon, grab a bulletin, then make a quick exit and head for the swap meet. The quicky church stop was just in case we got the third degree from our parents, we could, give them a bulletin, tell them about the sermon, who the priest was and what color vestments he was wearing. It was a perfect plan. We never once got caught.

After the swap meet we’d usually stop at McDonald’s for a burger and fries or go across the street to A&W for a root beer. Sometimes we’d go up to Azusa Lanes, which was next to the drive in and buy cigarettes from the vending machine. Like the drive in, McDonalds, A&W and the bowling alley were now only memories.

I made a right turn on Rockvale, made my way back to Cerritos Ave and drove by Azusa High School, my alma matre. Actually I had attended Bishop Amat until the middle of my junior year then transferred out, but that’s another story.

My one and only year at Azusa High was a strange but memorable one. My apathy nearly cost me graduation. Two weeks before the ceremony my mom received a letter from  Mr. Jackson, my counselor, informing her that I had failed a class and would not be graduating. She was irate. When I got home that day she was laying in wait. While in the bathroom I heard my car start up, so I cut things short and quickly headed outside. I found that my mom  had pulled my car into the garage and was padlocking the door. “What’s wrong? What did I do ?” I shouted. She wouldn’t answer me. She was on a mission.

Next she went into my room and began gathering up my clothes and carrying them into the garage. She tossed them into the small storage room that would serve as my new bedroom. Dave and I had cleaned out the room a few summers before to serve as our private little sanctuary. She had moved in a folding cot and taken out the few remaining tools my dad still kept in there and replaced them with me! I kept asking her why, but she wouldn’t responded.

After several trips all my stuff was in the garage. She then went back in the house and returned a few minutes later with the letter she’d received. She proceeded to lay out the terms of my new restricted life. Since I was not graduating, I was grounded indefinitely, I would no longer have a room in the house, I could not eat with the family, my car was gone, and last but not least, I would have to move out as soon as I turned 18.  I tried to explain to my mom that I could go to summer school and still get my diploma, but she wouldn’t listen to me and walked away. It was bizarre. For the next two weeks I was like a ghost, going into the house after everyone else had eaten, scavenging the left-overs, showering, then disappearing back into my little dungeon in the garage. It was horrible. My mom was not speaking to me at all, and my dad, well my dad, was the same as always, a hard nose.

If not for the kindness of one of my teacher’s just three hours before graduation, I wouldn’t have walked. On graduation day, I went to see the teacher who had failed me. The class I failed was a zero period data processing class. the only class available at that time. I arrived at Mr. Harbo’s classroom around 3:15. There were two other seniors at his door waiting to see him. We could hear Harbo inside chewing on someone pretty harshly. A moment later a girl came out crying. Seeing that, the other students simply walked away and suddenly I was next. “Sausedo, what do you want?” Harbo yelled, “Get in here.”

Reluctantly I went in and asked if there was anything I could do to pass his class and graduate. I half expected him to burst out laughing, instead he glared at me, picked up his grade book, and went into a loud, lengthy, lecture that addressed my poor attendance, lack of interest, and low test scores. I can still hear his booming voice “What do you expect, you were absent twenty times, late a dozen times, and when you were here, all you did was sleep or fool around in the back of the room with Lloyd and Mill.”  “As for test and assignments, your highest test score was a 63% and you’re missing most of your assignments. You earned your F young man.”  By the time he finished I was convinced that he was right, I truly deserved to fail and my hopes of convincing him otherwise were simply ridiculous. None the less I tried to explain that the only reason I took the class was because I needed the credits to graduate and that I had no real interest in computers, and had no intention of becoming involved with them in the future. He shook his head and told me that there was nothing he could do, so I got up and left.

On my way out I muttered under my breath, “you just don’t understand.”  Harbo heard me, called me back in and asked what it was that he didn’t understand. I proceeded to tell him about my situation at home and all my mom had done. When I finished he looked at me kind of funny and said, “You’re kidding right?”  I shook my head no. He sighed and motioned me to sit back down. “I’ll be right back,” he said and left the room. I found out years later that he had called my mom to verify my story. He was gone about fifteen minutes, came back and gave me a passing grade. I couldn’t thank him enough, and promised him that I would stay away from computers, not realizing that twenty five years later nearly everything would be computer related and that my job would involve working on a computers everyday. Talk about irony!  Three hours before graduation I had been given a reprieve and was able to graduate with my class and receive my diploma. Thanks Harbo!  Like I said before, it was a strange year. Stranger still, is the fact that I am now a guidance counselor at Azusa High. Who would have ever thought…

I made my way south to Gladstone then west to Orange Ave where I grew up. Along the way I passed the Edgewood Shopping Center. Once upon a time The Roadrunner Coffee Shop had been there right where Pep Boys now stands. They had the best coffee in town. We use to spent a lot of time there, mostly sobering up. We got to know the waitresses really well and they got to know us. Suddenly I thought about Marge. I hadn’t thought about her in thirty years. Marge was by far our most favorite waitress. She always took great care of us. She was like a mom to us. I wondered if she ever thought about us. I wondered if she were even alive.

The street I grew up on Orange Ave hadn’t changed much. Most of the houses on the block looked like they had when I was growing up. I slowed down as I approached my old house. The front still looked the same, but visible above the roof line was a huge room addition that had been added over the garage. It looked enormous! I thought about my little 8×8 garage room. My mother had originally banished me to the garage as a punishment for letting her down, but as it turned out, life in the garage was good. After graduation I could have moved back into the house, but chose to stay in the garage.

The room, though small, afforded me one luxury I never had in the house, privacy.  There was just enough room for the cot, an old arm chair, my stereo, TV and a deformed floor lamp that had been attacked by my buddy Art one summer night for reasons we won’t go into here. Again, that’s a story for another time. The room had been a  real sweat box in the summer and cold as hell in the winter, but the seclusion it provided made it all worthwhile and definitely allowed for some really good times.

Driving up Angelino Street was like entering a time warp.  Everything still looked like it had back in the day. All that was missing was us!  I half expected to see Cheryl Hahn or Cathy Smith walking down the street, Paul McCully sitting in his Ford panel with the stereo blaring, Art’s 57 wagon, affectionately known as the “burnt tortilla”, Bob Pacheco’s blue VW and my red 63 parked at the curb in front of Pete’s or Paul’s house. Angelino had been like a second home to all of us. We spent a lot of time there, made a lot of memories there.  If we weren’t at the ranch you’d usually find us on Angelino, just hanging out.

Up the street, Memorial Park hadn’t seen much change, a few improvements here and there, but basically the same park we grew up with. The rec center at the west end of the park was where we spent most of our time playing basketball, volleyball, table tennis or just hanging out. As we got older and began driving, we gravitated away from the park and began spending more and more time at the ranch or on Angelino St. Still, we didn’t give up the rec completely and would drop in from time to time to see what was going on.

It was getting late and time to head home. I drove east on Fifth Street and considered driving home on old Foothill through Glendora. I turned left on Pasadena Ave and was preparing to turn onto Foothill, but at the last minute decided to continue north on Pasadena and take Sierra Madre home. I can’t explain why, but as I passed St Frances Church I got the overwhelming urge to turn into the parking lot and did so. I drove around the auditorium, (home of some great CYO dances and a mother’s day show I will never forget), and pulled into the schoolyard. It too was like driving into the past. Everything looked the same. The buildings color had changed, but otherwise the school was much the same.

While I sat there taking it all in, I was reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode where this guy goes back to his old hometown of Willowsby after thirty years and finds that it hasn’t changed a bit. St. Frances was my Willowsby. Just then one of the doors opened.  Three girls of about eleven stepped outside, followed moments later by a group of eight or nine boys and girls and a nun. They began walking toward the church. As I watched them I realized two things. The first was that they were probably public school students here for a Saturday religious education class, and the second was that they had come out of my old eighth grade classroom! I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Here was a chance to actually visit my old classroom, a room I hadn’t seen in nearly forty years. I got out of my Explorer and eagerly walked towards the classroom.

Unlike the outside of the school, My old, eighth grade classroom had undergone major change. I was a little disappointed to find that the blackboards and wooden desks that I remembered were gone, and had been replaced by whiteboards and aluminum legged, plastic molded tables. Gone too were the odd spiral shaped light assemblies that had hung precariously over our heads. In there place was a white dropped ceiling and eight rows of recessed lights that turned what I remembered as a drab dimly lit room, into a bright and cheerful classroom. It was all so different, yet oddly the same.

As I entered the room, the memories of all that had taken place in this room all those years ago came alive. Names, faces, voices and events flooded my senses, so real, so detailed, as if they’d happened yesterday instead of all those years ago. There, at the front of the room stood Sister Simplicia, squinting and blinking, rolling back her shoulders, calling us “Jellyfish,” and telling us we had “no backbone.” In the back Cathy Vargas and Theresa Rodriguez passing notes. Pete Smith sucking on a full sheet of loose-leaf paper, the ultimate spit wad. Paul McCully catching flies, pulling off their wings, then putting the flies inside his cartridge pen. Just another day at the office. It all seemed so real, so fresh, could it really have been that long ago.

I stood there completely lost in the memories. I could clearly see Sister Simplicia walking back and forth between the rows of desks, going on about something or other, spitwads clinging to the back of her habit. Paul McCully silently mimicking her. Across the room Larry Coleman, red hair and freckles, mouthing the words to some Stones song with his fountain pen microphone, doing his best Mick Jagger. If Paul was our class clown, then Larry was the village idiot. He was the butt of all jokes and pranks. He may as well have been wearing a target on his ass. Most of us felt sorry for Larry and all the abuse he received, but were secretly thankful that it was happening to him and not to us. I wondered about Larry. I had heard that the abuse continued throughout high school. Had he survived?  I could only conclude that he was either dead or locked away in some high tech mental facility. Or perhaps all those years of abuse had toughened him up and he was now the CEO of some large corporation. I didn’t really think so.

It was then that I noticed two young boys seated quietly near the back of the room. I hadn’t noticed them at first, because they were bent over the table working intently on a project. I watched the closer of the two working quietly for a minute or so, then walked over and sat down next to him. He was working on a drawing of a crucifix. After a minute or so he finally looked up from his work and said hello. I asked him about his drawing and he explained that they were drawing the crucifixion and began telling me about it.

As we talked, I saw the monsignor with two altar boys in the parking lot near the church. I asked the young boy if he were an altar boy. “No way,” he said, “ I ain’t no altar baby.” Surprised I asked him why and he just shrugged. “I was an altar boy,” I told him, “ one of the best.” Suddenly images of altar boy drollery filled my mind. We were an irreverent bunch, and oh what a time we had!  feasting on unblessed hosts and altar wine, locking each other in the cassock closets, leaving large, candle smoke stains on the low, white, acoustic ceiling, then blaming poor Larry Coleman, yeah being an altar boy was one good time!

 I remember on mornings when there was to be a funeral we would sit in class anxiously waiting for Father Rodin to come in, hoping to be among the seven boys he would select to serve in the funeral ceremony, so that we could get out of class. At the funerals it was all fun and games, we had a total lack of respect for the dead or their survivors. While in the procession we would try to blow out each others candles or make each other laugh. I can still see some of those crazy Paul McCully faces, what a crack up. We were always trying to trip each other by stepping on the back of the cassocks, It was all we could do to keep from busting up. Yeah, those were the good old days.

Suddenly it was all too much. Memory overload. I was desperately fighting to hold back tears. “Hey mister, are you going to cry?” I looked down and found the boy looking at me. He looked concerned. I shook my head no. “I’m okay,” I lied. “You sure?” He asked uncertainly. “Yeah I’m sure.” He watched me for a few moments longer, smiled and went back to work on his drawing. I just sat there watching him.

In those moments all the memories, the joy, the pain, the unforgettable, had come alive. I looked down at the two young boys  and saw myself, my friends, the innocence of our youth. The boy turned towards me again. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked again. “You look kind of strange, like you saw a ghost or something.”  I gave him a sort of half smile and told him that I was fine. I rubbed the top of his head, turned and walked out the door. It was time to go home. Funny, but the young boy didn’t know how close to the truth he had come. My entire day had lent itself to this end.

Truly I had seen a ghost.

The ghost of my life past.

The ghost of childhood lost… 

  J S


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