DANCING THE BLUES AWAY Kate’s Journal


Episode 5
Long Beach 1934-1938

Indomitable people always seem to find a way to lift their spirits and in the Great Depression, spirits needed a lot of lifting. Grandma loved to dance, and often went out in the evening dressed in great style, sometimes taking the boat to Catalina Island to dance at the famous Avalon Ballroom. I liked to rummage through her closet looking at her lovely evening gowns which she probably either made or picked up at a second hand store. Both she and my mother were excellent seamstresses.

The phenomenon of the marathon dance came about during the Depression. Dancing couples would remain dancing as long as possible on their feet, only taking time for a bite to eat and bathroom breaks. Otherwise, they even slept one at a time while dancing. If one or both fell they were disqualified. There was a monetary prize, so it was a good incentive to stay on your feet. People paid to watch, sitting on hard bleachers, and followed favorites, calling encouragement now and then.

Grandma was also a sucker for a sob story, and everyone seemed to have a story to tell her. I remember so many faces which showed up for a meal or two and then left. Harry Hance was the only male roomer we had and he lived with us for many years. I never knew if he started out as a “stray”, but he became part of our resident “family”.

Grandma’s theory was that everybody deserved a second chance. “You don’t throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.” You can always find few rubies in the rubble.

Harry had the biggest bedroom in the house, one which my mother and I had occupied for a short time before he came to us, which probably led to any feelings of resentment I had toward him. He came and went through the laundry room which always smelled a bit like dry cleaning solvent because Nellie cleaned her own clothes. It’s a wonder she didn’t blow us all up, but that was the extent of thriftiness then.

I was named for my Great-Grandmother Kate Hadley Kendall and for my mother who went by the name of Kathy. The name now belongs to my Granddaughter Kate.

As a child I was dubbed “Katie Lou”, and I disliked it so much I began changing it with each new school I went to. It gave me a sense of mystery because no one really knew who I was. It was harmless entertainment and got me through the initial period of being the new kid on the block.

In 1937 we were stationed in San Diego again, the town of my earlier bullying at the age of four. I lied once more and used the name of “Elsie” when asked by the teacher. I greatly admired a neighbor of Auntie’s named Elsie Brown who was a few years older than I and may have played the piano.

My fourth grade class was putting on a talent show for which we signed up to perform our particular talent. For some unknown reason I chose to play the piano, which was a terrible choice since I did not know how to play the piano.

In the class of nine year old strangers I heard my “name” called to come to the front of the room. “Elsie Sweetland will now play a Russian piece on the piano for us.”

At Auntie’s I was allowed to bang away on the piano as often as I liked, though I somehow knew the mandolin resting against the wall beside it was off limits. Staying there often I was steeped in the classical music playing off their record player. I don’t remember listening to music at Grandma’s, though I often heard that Grandpa Jim was a lover of classical music, and his sister Corinne was an opera singer in Montreal.

I confidently stood and not looking at anyone I walked to the piano and sat on the small bench. After announcing my intention, I pounded away until the teacher mercifully brought my performance to a close. I believe I was as surprised as anyone that I could NOT play the piano.

Shortly after my disastrous debut the census was being taken, and a man came to our door and after assuring himself that my mother was indeed Kathryn Sweetland married to Walter Sweetland, came to question number three: “And you have Kathryn and Elsie in school?” I was busted.

FRAGRANCES OF MEMORY Kate’s Journal


Episode 4
Long Beach 1934

I blame it on the neighbor who had a grand mal seizure on my bedroom floor. Was she contagious? Among all the other vaccinations, I didn’t have that one either.

Grandma had discovered Christian Science in the body of Mary Baker Eddy, and we did not believe in doctors or vaccinations. She took my mother and aunt Corrine into the fold, but not my father and me.

I was a silent rebel, dutifully attending church services three times a week, wearing my shiny black Mary Jane’s and hat with streamers down the back. When I was sent to Auntie’s the shoes were exchanged for brown high top Buster Browns, a Dutch cut and no church.

Grandma and me 1935
Grandma and me about 1935

We lived a few blocks from the beach and there was always the smell of the ocean along with the acrid smell of oil from the derricks on the north side of town. But on warm silent evenings the perfume of orange blossoms filled most of Southern California. I believe it was the beaches and the orange blossoms which drew so many people to California in those days. The promise of jobs didn’t hurt either.

Along with other aromas flickering through my memory, the water in early Long Beach was undrinkable due to its smell and its color. Yellow sulfurous liquid poured from the spigots reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Everyone had a large bottle of water delivered to the house for drinking purposes but the bathtub was filled with deep cadmium yellow which fortunately did not stain the body.

Auntie and Uncle Phil had an avocado tree with climbable branches and Grandma had a fig tree shaped appropriately as well. I liked them both and spent a great deal of time up the fig tree. From its top one could see directly into the dentist’s office next door which gave good entertainment when he was working on a patient’s open mouth.

I could have made a lot of money inviting the neighborhood kids to climb as well, charging a nickel apiece. You could buy a lot of candy from the penny candy store around the corner in those days. The dentist was a nice man who gave me free tubes of Ipana toothpaste which I saved and gave to my teacher at Betty’s Dance Studio, where I was a primo tapper.

The movie star Laraine Day lived around the block, and I always hoped she could get me a job in the movies, but obviously it didn’t happen. Nancy Joy Peterson was a fellow tapper, whose pushy mother curled her hair high on her head and let her wear lipstick, didn’t make it either.

Me 1938
1

The Great Depression was a terrible time for the country. We were among the lucky ones. My father had a job and grandma had her renters, plus she and my mother and Aunt Corrine often were able to get a short term job. Grandma knew about the restaurant business from helping at her father’s summer resort, and there was always a need for a good waitress. My mother also once worked in a hair salon giving what was called a “marcell”; pressing the hair into waves with a hot iron. Grandma was also a great seamstress, and sometimes worked in a nearby factory sewing. None were high paying jobs, but people took what they could.

Though I was too young to understand the magnitude of its impact on our society, I retain memories of the Depression which I realize are due to the hardships we endured. My mother told me of the times we had no food in the house and so she did not call me in for dinner hoping the neighbors would invite me in to share theirs. I was often sent to Auntie’s at those times.

Many people rose late in the day to eliminate an extra meal. Coffee grounds were used more than once and then put on plants in the garden. Occasionally I went with Grandma to a place where we were given paper bags of vegetables for soup or stew. My dear aunt Corrine used to cringe with guilt to remember once stealing some empty milk bottles, because you could get a nickel apiece and three bottles could buy enough vegetables for a pot of soup.

Long Beach was a beach town and a navy town with plenty of suitable entertainment for those hoping for a respite from Depression blues. More about that later.

A HOUSE FULL OF WOMEN Kate’s Journal


EPISODE 3
Long Beach, California

It always seemed big to me during the years I lived in it.
We were crammed in nicely; a house full of women, except when my father was in port. Grandma, my mother and her sister Corinne and various female renters made up our family.

Dad 1928

Mama 1928
My Parents in 1928

Aunts and Great-Aunts have had an influence in most of our lives, some of whom are elevated to “Auntie”, as if setting them apart from just being an ordinary Aunt. I had all of these, with Grandma’s sister Georgia at top of the Auntie list. Given the fact of my birth to my nineteen year old parents in a shaky economy and in an unusual living environment, Auntie and Uncle Phil wanted to adopt me, which obviously did not happen. However, their Highland Park home formed my alternate home throughout my younger life.

Running up the middle of American Avenue, now Long Beach Avenue, was the Pacific Electric Railway, otherwise known as the Red Train. This rail line was the brilliant idea of Henry Huntington, one of the Big Four railroad tycoons. The streetcar connected us with Los Angeles where My mother would hand me off to Auntie in the morning and Auntie was waiting with me to be returned at the end of the work day.

The Red Train holds other memories as well of my kindergarten beau Richard, with red hair and freckles, whose father was the conductor of the Red Train. The ultimate job for a father to have.

baby parade
The Long Beach Baby parade

first day of school kayti louFirst Day of School, Long Beach

By the time I entered school we had spent time in San Diego twice where I have fleeting memories of one room apartments/bathroom down the hall, and being very glad to come back to Grandma’s house.

I had a police record of sorts when I was lost at the age of four. Victimized by six year old twin boys who thought it a grand idea to desert me at the bottom of a deep ravine near our apartment. Later, when returning in the third grade, I met the boys again, who obviously remembered the thrashing I had given them when I was recovered, because they avoided me like poison, as I had been given lessons in self defense by my father, who did not tolerate cry babies.

Navy life was filled with hellos and goodbyes; some happy and some not. In the times we were stationed somewhere for a time, life was good. It was the three of us and my father was home each night.

Mom, Dad and Me 1934 1934, Long Beach

We were stationed in Bremerton, Washington twice, and lived across the Sound in Port Orchard, where puppies came into my life. Grandma did not tolerate dogs; dogs were dirty and had fleas. She would not be happy today to know that Charlie, Master of the House, sometimes slips into the room where her large favorite chair provides a night’s resting place.

GypsiesGypsy Camp Wikipedia

I have written about our time in Port Orchard in second grade on a previous post and the fear I had in walking to school passing the camp of gypsies. This is similar to my memory of it as I ran past. There was also the collapse of the large sand hill where we played which buried two of my classmates.

My mother became active in the Navy wive’s club, where the Admiral’s wife took an interest in us. They frequently sent the shore boat over to Port Orchard and I was sometimes allowed to steer the boat. Thrilling on a windy day. I repaid this kindness by climbing the Admiral’s cherry tree and falling out breaking up a perfectly sedate tea party, and sending me to the infirmary for patching up.

The other good thing I remember about the second grade is being selected to hang the class paintings which probably gave rise to my future occupation in the art world.