Thursday, December 24, 2009
in the '50s... I remember long summer days. Hot summer days! We needed some place to cool off. It was a treat if we could find a way to the beach. Huntington beach was always special. If we didn't have enough money (ten cents to get into the high school plunge), we tried for houses of friends with pools. The best pools were at the homes of Lana Gross or Toni Ziegler. Bill Canada and Bill Witke's were next on my list.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
By Bill O’Neill
(Downey High, Class of 1952)
Through the years, Downey’s high schools have produced many star athletes and some memorable teams. But the great, shining moment in the city’s sports history took place on Dec. 14, 1956, when undefeated football teams representing Downey and Anaheim met in a CIF championship game in the Los Angeles Coliseum that is still talked about, 52 years later.
The buildup to that game drew national attention and was like nothing Southern California has seen, before or since. It was front page news, drawing more notice and stirring more attention and debate than the area’s college or professional teams. Each team featured a running back (Randy Meadows, of Downey; and Mickey Flynn, of Anaheim) with staggering statistics and personal charisma to match. Meadows averaged 15 yards each time he touched the ball during the regular season and the playoffs, while Flynn, a quirky runner who could change directions in the blink of an eye, was virtually unstoppable.
The game itself took place on a cool, eerie night, with fog so thick spectators couldn’t see across the field. The official paid attendance was 41,383; but with all of the printed tickets sold and thousands of people still lined up at the turnstiles fifteen minutes after the game was due to start, officials threw open the gates and welcomed them in. Unofficially, the crowd probably totaled upward of 60,000; and thousands more might have shown up, had the night been less foggy.
The two star running backs lived up to their press clippings: Flynn scored on a 62-yard run in the first quarter, and Meadows answered with a 68-yard dash two minutes later. The teams battled on even terms, up and down the Coliseum turf, with the game ending, quite fittingly, in a 13-13 tie.
Fifty-three years later, the game is still remembered by many as “The Greatest High School Football Game Ever Played”—and, to followers of Viking athletics over the years, as Downey’s Great, Shining Moment.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
I heard that he was working in the area just recently (we are in Villa Park). Wally Kincaid was one of the two most important people in my life aside from my father. He taught so much more than just basketball, as if his exceptionalism was not enough in basketball alone. He set a very high standard to which most all of us who played for him tried our best to achieve and maintain. I doubt there is a month that goes by that I do not think about him or something he taught us. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving. Both of my sons turned out to be pretty good basketball players. What I learned from Kincaid at Downey and Cerritos helped me be in a position to participate in the coaching of my sons in high school. If I had not had the knowledge gained from my association with Kincaid that would never have been possible. That is a 1000 to 1 shot that any high school coach would ever allow an outsider, a father of a player, be one of the coaches. Sometimes I would be in the middle of a practice or game and would tell a player to do something or change an offensive or defensive approach of the team and I would start laughing to myself because what I was doing was simply repeating exactly what was learned from Wally Kincaid. Innumerable lessons for life were imparted to my five children learned from Wally Kincaid.
I maintain that the Downey experience was so remarkable in so many ways. Downey High School had magnificent coaches in almost every sport at a time when there were so many very good athletes and at a time when Downey was still a fairly small tight knit community. The football team brought not only the school but the whole community in tighter. Can you imagine today any school/community sending 4 or 5 big buses all the way to Antelope Valley to see a football game (in painfully cold weather)? We yelled all the way there and all the way back. Was it my imagination or were all the women in those years fun and good looking? Cheerleaders were great. This was a time when we had our own football stadium, first class I might add. The baseball field was a work of art because of Kincaid. The basketball gym was very old but full of history and even humor. Often the gym was heated up to a very high temperature for practice and then for a game. Visiting teams would often absolutely wilt in the heat of a small confined gym (told you Kincaid was smart). The school itself was old but so full of history and tradition. We could walk to town (sometimes after ditching a class) and be back in time for the next class. Was Pulley's pharmacy and soda shop a hoot or not? Right out of the early 1900's. How about driving up and down Downey avenue throwing water balloons at each other's cars? Orange fights in the groves off Cherokee, Lakewood, etc.? Swimming all summer at the school pool? It was barefoot all summer. Speaking of swimming. How many years in a row did Downey High School win the water polo A, B and C league divisions? How many water polo players went to USC and UCLA.....and the Olympics? Hey, and we had our grad night on campus where it was just us and not 20 other high schools at Disneyland. How about the weekends when the line to get a haircut at Lash's rogue barber shop in his parents garage was long. Since it was right at the back gate to East Junior High School we used to shoot hoops while waiting. I lost my haircut money many a day doing that.
Fortunately there was a little time left over for classes as well.
Harvey's broiler was the hangout for many. I was amazed when I went out of state to college and so many people from Southern California had been to Harvey's in Downey. McDonald's at Florence and Lakewood was not the original but I think it was the second McDonalds (not entirely sure about this). If there was nobody at Harveys then they were all at McDonalds. How about Wild Bill's in the same McDonald's center where many got their gas for 15 cents a gallon? How about Savon's next to North Junior High where it seemed that the manager hired every good looking girl in Downey including several of the homecoming queens.
I am amazed at how many Downey High people are now living in Orange County. We have several in our small community of Villa Park and there are quite a few more very close by. We lived in Corona Del Mar for a time and our children were going to Carden Hall. So winds up being my oldest son's teach but Kay Leary from our class of 58. Beautiful and nice woman. Her father was a doctor in Downey. I remember one night some hoodlums I was with went to Kay's house with a bag of excretement. We (they) put in on the porch lit it with a match, rang the doorbell and ran. I admonished these hoodlums the rest of the evening for doing this. There is a statute of limitations for these offenses right?
Here is an oddball story. Anybody remember Bob Curtis? Played basketball, class of 57 I believe. He eventually became a Downey Police officer. Unfortunately Bob died of cancer a few short years ago. Bob had a great sense of humor and was just a great all round guy, good looking and popular. He was a motorcycle cop and this is the story. He stops this woman for a citation one day and walks up to her car in his tight uniform pants. He gets her I.D. and then she looks out the window and says, "How do you get into those tight pants"? Bob says, "Well, we could start with a couple of bottles of wine and see what happens from there". I guess the woman reported him to the department for that one.
Said too much and spent too much time. Hope I did not offend anyone.
Randy Meadows–Hometown Hero
by Bill O'Neill
by Bill O'Neill
There was a time, in that magical fall season of 1956, when I would have bet everything I owned that Randy Meadows was destined to become a college All-America running back, and go on to even greater fame in the National Football League. And I wasn't the only person who held that opinion. He was that good. What else could one think about a kid who ran over, around, and through the best high school football teams in California, scoring touchdowns in bunches and averaging 16 yards, every time he touched the ball?
While I never met Randy personally, I had a great personal interest in him, and as a Downey High alumnus who had suffered through some lean, losing years, I reveled in the success of his 1956 Viking team. I attended several of the team's games that season--blowouts of perennial powers Compton, Long Beach Poly, and Long Beach Wilson. And yes, I was there in the fog-bound Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, cheering lustily, that surreal December night when Meadows and his counterpart, Mickey Flynn of Anaheim, lived up to their press clippings in what may have been The Greatest High School Football Game Ever Played.
The fact that neither Meadows nor Flynn enjoyed great success at the college level does not diminish their accomplishments as high school athletes. Playing behind a slick, college-bound quarterback named Jack Trumbo and a superbly coached, lightning-quick line, Meadows was sometimes 10 yards down the field and sprinting for the end zone before defenders on the opposing team realized he had the ball. On and off the field, he carried himself with dignity and class, and a modesty that was rare in star athletes, even in 1956. He and his teammates brought back the pride in our school and in our town that had been missing for years. And Randy, in particular, epitomized that spirit.
High school heroes come and go. But only a rare few are vividly remembered, as Meadows and Flynn and those teams representing Downey and Anaheim still are, 50 years after their historic meeting on the Coliseum turf. It is well documented that Meadows' life after that magic season of 1956 was not what one would have wished for him. He walked away from college football after a couple of injury-plagued seasons, and never seemed to find fulfillment as a series of failed marriages took their toll. He earned a decent living but was a heavy smoker, and died of lung cancer seven years ago. To Viking die-hards, he will always be remembered with admiration and respect‹and, yes, with awe.
Paraphrasing what Dave Powers wrote of his boss, President John F. Kennedy:
Randy, we hardly knew ye.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
A REMEMBRANCE OF HOW IT WAS
by Bill O'Neill
by Bill O'Neill
(This is the essay that was dedicated to the Downey High Class of 1952 by First-Semester Senior Class President Bill O'Neill, on the occasion of our 40-Year Class Reunion, in 1992)In advance of this 40-Year Reunion of the Downey High School Class of 1952, I jotted down a few random thoughts and recollections of our shared experience that hopefully will register on your nostalgia meter.
We of the Class of '52 arrived at Downey High in the fall of 1948 via varied and sometimes mysterious paths. We were classmates for a while; and then, for the most part–with the notable exception of a few special couples like Charlotte Bean and Ward Vaughan, Jeannie Stalker and Don Barnett, and Mariella Schmidt and Richard Pope–we went our separate ways.
A few of the 200-plus members of our graduating class had the good fortune to have been born and raised in Downey. But most of us were immigrants–not so much from other countries, as from other parts of the United States. Our Depression-era families rushed into California from all directions during the years surrounding World War II in pursuit of the elusive American Dream; and it is no exaggeration to say that in Downey, for many of our families, that dream became a reality.
My personal odyssey brought me to this land of orange groves and early pop culture from a poverty-racked little coal mining camp in the deepest recesses of the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the late fall of 1945. It was a culture shock of major proportions. I was like a timid little alien, suddenly afoot on a strange new planet.
Upon landing in Downey, I was intimidated by just about everything I saw–beginning with the way the kids dressed. My bib overalls were not considered "cool" in those days, as they might have been thirty years earlier or thirty years later. I found myself wandering around on the playground at Downey Grammar School at recess time, never having touched or even having seen a football, a basketball, a soccer ball, a tetherball, a tennis ball, a volleyball, or even a softball. (I did understand the fundamentals of baseball; we played it back home with a ball made of black friction tape wound tightly around a ball bearing or a smooth round stone, and a bat carved from a hickory limb.)
To give you an idea of the degree to which I was an outsider: One day after school I was dutifully standing in line, waiting for my school bus to come back for its second load, when I saw the other bus come into view. Looking to be helpful, I called out to the kids in the next line: "Hey! Here comes you-allses bus!" And sure enough, some smart-ass kid pounced on that line. "Hey, you guys! Did you hear what this dumb farmer just said? 'Here comes you-allses bus!'"
My backwoods mountain pallor stood out in shocking contrast to the California-tanned skin of my schoolmates. And I remember being greatly in awe of the Mexican kids, who were especially tanned and who seemed always so sure of who they were and where they were going.
The handsomest and most charismatic kid in school in the sixth and seventh grades was a cool, sleepy-eyed, very self-assured Latino named Louie Aguilar–who, if memory serves me right, later dropped out of school, fell into bad company, and died young. But in those days when he was still in school, Louie was someone special: cool and confident and imperturbable, but extremely nice and polite–even to a geeky new kid from the sticks. And Louie was easily recognizable, because he always–and I mean always had right at his hip pocket, walking in lock-step with him, the blond, tow-headed, sawed-off runt of one of Downey's finest, warmest, and most prolific families. Sure, it's Freddy McCaughan I'm speakin' of: later to establish a strong identity of his own, first at Downey High and then in the banking and printing businesses.
There were other individuals who stood out from the crowd; and I could regale you (or bore you) with my recollections of many of them–but I¹m not going to. Instead, let¹s conjure up a few images of our town as it existed at the turn of the half-century:
WHAT IT WAS LIKEThe vast, rich orange groves that covered most of the land, and the incomparable aroma of orange blossoms every spring.
The well-maintained but narrow rural roads. (Only Firestone and Lakewood Boulevards had more than two lanes in those days. There were few curbs or sidewalks, even fewer traffic lights, and no freeways.)
The thousands of smudge pots (fueled and maintained primarily by high school kids), blanketing the countryside with black, oily film on cold nights. (Remember the older boys coming to school late, with black smudge still showing around their eyes and inside their ears? )
The absence of any trash collection service. (We burned our combustibles in outside incinerators, and buried our garbage in our back yards. It made wonderful mulch for our gardens.)
The open-air vegetable market on Firestone Boulevard, at about the point where the All-American Market (later Albertsons) was built.
The long drive to the nearest viable shopping, in "cosmopolitan" Huntington Park.
Clandestine trips to the tawdry and wicked (but nonetheless wonderful) amusement park called The Pike, in Long Beach.
Auction City, on Firestone Boulevard between Downey and Norwalk.
The clusters of people who stood on the sidewalk outside local appliance stores (Wallar's, Bean & Wheeler, or Clyde Downen's) to watch sports events through the window on a "giant" 10-inch, black-and-white TV screen.
The daily arrival of more and more immigrants from other parts of the country, who kept coming in spite of all the negative publicity about smog, traffic, earthquakes, brush fires, and flim-flam artists who were looking to relieve unsuspecting rubes of their money.
The ease with which new, $9,000 tract homes could be purchased for a hundred dollars down and a monthly payment of about sixty dollars.
The unending parade of door-to-door salesmen who trooped through every neighborhood, hawking everything from encyclopedias and vacuum cleaners to water softeners and food slicers, from life insurance and food freezers to vitamin pills and snake oil.
The concept of the automobile as an affordable plaything, and the emergence of a youth-oriented car culture featuring hot rods and customized cars, with innovations in automotive design that wouldn¹t show up in Detroit for another twenty years.
In school, we tended to be conformists in those days. The idea of "do your own thing" was still pretty far off in the future. Fads in dress and personal grooming swept through junior high school like so many prairie fires.
Remember butch haircuts? Ducktails? Flattops? Plaid skirts? Hairy sweaters? Argyle sox? Penny loafers? Blue suede shoes? Chuckle-boots? The pink-and-black craze? Yo-yos? The ultimate possession, I suppose, (though I never owned one) was a balloon-tired Schwinn bicycle.
Through it all, there was one constant. For about ten years, any teen-age boy or young man in Downey was properly attired for school (or for just about any other occasion) in Levi's slim-cut blue denims and a white T-shirt. The Levi's, of course, had to be purchased a bit oversized in the waist, to hang low, without a belt, over the hips; and extra-long in the leg, to be carefully rolled up two turns to display a broad, two-and-a-half-inch cuff at the bottom. Any other brand of jeans–Lee's, J.C. Penney's, etc.‹was completely unacceptable. It had to be Levi's. And the red Levi's tag outside the right rear pocket had to remain in place throughout the life of the jeans. (Having your tag ripped away by some maniac with needle-nosed pliers was more degrading than a knuckle-rub, and almost as bad as having your bicycle taken away from you.)
The quality of teen-age life in Downey in the early Fifties must have been the best in the nation, anywhere east of Beverly Hills. True, not many kids had cars, and few of us had any of the amenities that are so often taken for granted by our grandchildren: one¹s own bedroom, entertainment center, tape collection, video games, cellular phone, personal computer, and credit card. But compared to kids from Bellflower, Norwalk, Paramount, South Gate, Bell Gardens, Pico Rivera, and just about any other community you¹d care to name–we had everything!
We had two movie theaters–the Meralta and the Avenue–right there in the heart of town. We had the Downey Plunge, which alone made our town a mecca for sweaty kids from miles around.
There was no such thing as "family billiards," but we had Bob's Pool Hall, with eight tables and games available at every level of competition, where generations of pool hustlers honed their skills.
We had the beautiful homes of North Downey, which we poor folks from South Downey would proudly drive by and show off to visitors from out-of-town as evidence of how wonderfully our Rich Folks lived. We never failed to mention that some of those homes even had private swimming pools.
Most of all, kids raised in our town had a sense of style. If you were from Downey, there's no way you could help strutting just a bit whenever you went out in public–and especially when you visited another town. Our guys were the coolest, our girls were the cutest‹and if you didn't happen to notice, and comment on it–we weren't too modest to point such things out to you.
Show us Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, and we were only minimally impressed. We'd suggest you check out Janet Frederick, or Charlotte Bean, or Dawn Muir Kyees, or Mary Jo Benoit, or a hundred other knockouts. And whatever happened to Shirley Brown? What a classic beauty she was!
Show us a rebel, like James Dean; and we'd equal him with the real-life Hollis Thornton.
You want nice? Betty White, the TV lady was nice; but probably not half as nice as our own Cynthia White.
You want a clown? You can have Bozo; we had Burton Fitch!
Tough guys? We had a kid named Jimmy Hearn who was so tough, he used to cruise neighboring towns, seeking out their toughest and challenging them, in his good-natured way, to bare-knuckle warfare. (Remember how Jim and Ward Vaughan used to stop out-of-town cars entering Richie¹s Drive-In, and charge them twenty-five cents to cruise through, with Jim doing a tap-dance on the hood of any car that didn't pay?)
It was that deeply held self-assurance that made our guys swagger a little more boldly during our yearly Easter Week sacking of Balboa, and our young ladies "accidentally" stop traffic when they went out walking.
Our athletic teams, if not always victorious, were always intrepid. Our bands were the brassiest, our cheerleaders the cheeriest, and our crowds the noisiest‹though usually the best-behaved.
Parenthetically, I must toss in an intensely personal observation at this point. In my time, I have attended numerous county fairs, barn-raisings, shivarees, hog-calling contests, Mexican weddings, Irish wakes, stage shows at the old Follies Theatre, and even a Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But the singular most erotic thing I've ever witnessed was when we were underclassmen, watching a couple of drop-dead dynamite cheerleaders named Nancy Wilhelmus and Katherine Vidovich perform a particular routine‹and I'm sure you know the one I mean. With body language that I won't even attempt to describe or demonstrate for fear of getting arrested or throwing my pelvis out of joint, they led us in:
Our team's nifty!There was something about that yell that brought us all closer together; so much so, in fact, that I think the school authorities soon banned it.
Our team's shifty!
Our team's shifty!
I do not mean to imply by this salute to the Downey spirit of togetherness that we were an extremely close-knit or classless society, in or out of school. We had our share of social cliques, and some of us were more "equal" than others, and there was an economic delineation between rich and poor that ran pretty much along the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, a hundred yards south of Firestone Boulevard.
Having said that, I should hasten to point out that as one of the hard-core economic have-nots at Downey High, I cannot recall ever having been reminded of my fiscal shortcomings, by the faculty or by my peers. Any feelings of inferiority were pretty much self-inflicted. I was able to meet the unofficial dress code (Levi's and T-shirt, with a suede leather jacket for the winter), and by working three part-time jobs I was even able to buy my own '36 Ford sedan (the infamous Smokemobile) on Sept. 2, 1951–a few days before the start of our senior year. There may have been (and probably was) some amount of social snobbery, but I was either too ignorant or (later) too proud to recognize it. Or it just might have been that in those days, even the "haves" didn't have all that much more than the rest of us.
One of the most disturbing things about life in this country today is the fact that over the last twenty years or so, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots has grown at about the same rate as the national debt. The poor today are still poor as ever; but the rich really are wealthy–whereas forty years ago a family that was considered wealthy might in reality have had nothing more to show for itself than a three-bedroom, one-bath stucco tract home, a black-and-white TV set with a screen the size of a postage stamp, and a single gas-guzzling automobile sitting in their "huge" two-car garage.
I guess the point I'm trying to make is that during our school years, economic disadvantage did not prevent a person from having a sense of belonging.
Our school, like our town, was a microcosm of the Great American Mulligan Stew Pot. We each contributed something to the pot, and the resulting stew turned out to be much more than just the sum of its parts. Our lives were enriched by the Downey High experience, in and out of the classroom.
TODAYI just hope that today's communities, and today's schools, will ultimately mean as much to our grandchildren as our Downey experience meant to us. And I would like to believe that there are teachers out there today like Mr. Francois Uzes, who taught U.S. History with such great passion and good humor; P.J. Burbeck, the genial senior citizen who opened the world of mechanical drawing to several generations of future draftsmen and engineers; Miss Leota Haas, who taught English and Drama; Mr. Mintner, Mr. Walker, Mrs. Bridges, Coach Smitheran, and the others–including my personal mentor, the journalism instructor, Mr. Thomas H. Johnson.
I doubt that any of those mentioned is still teaching‹or even still living. But let us all pray, for the good of our country, that their legacy lives on.
Thank you, for listening. Thanks to our Reunion Organizing Committee, for their sterling effort in getting us together again.
God bless you all.
• THIS PAGE SHALL BE DEVOTED TO "QUICKIE" MEMORIES OF OUR TOWN AND OUR SCHOOL IN 1949-52, AS GLEANED FROM THE MEMORIES OF OUR CLASSMATES.
ALL RIGHT, HERE GOES: DO YOU REMEMBER:
• Darlene Paulson and Cecil McCown, clicking those castanets and dancing for our enjoyment in school assemblies?
• Art Weiss, playing the part of a tough guy from Back East in his trenchcoat and pork-pie hat?
• Mel Fertig (Class of '51), introducing Joanne Strang in a Talent Show with the memorable line that she was "fresh off a triumphant engagement at Taco Hut"?
• Joan LeBraun, in our senior year, cruising around with her girlfriends in a NEW Ford convertible?
• The dreaded "Hall Monitors"?
• The tragic auto-accident death of Reed Horsley?
• The tragic auto-accident death of Reed Horsley?
• Ronnie Wendt, changing the oil in his car for the first time, carefully funneling five quarts of oil into the dipstick hole?
• Joe Adranga, our "local supplier" of booze pilfered from his dad's liquor store?
• Remember when there were far more Orange Trees than People in our town?
• Billy Overmyer (as we knew him in those days) and Bob Fruehe, always "at the ready" with their cameras?
• Larry Nelson and Al Buehlman, always looking for recruits for their flying club?
Friday night softball games at the Old River School field?
• Bart Horn, in his debut as an amateur boxer at the South Gate Arena?
• Bart Horn, in his debut as an amateur boxer at the South Gate Arena?
• The football-coaching triumvirate of William H. Smitheran, Jack Montgomery, and "Cactus Jack" O'Brien?
• The highly successful Swimming Severa Brothers?
• David Rodriguez, beating most opponents by a full lap or more in the mile run?
• Student Body President Jim Ball, on his way to becoming a world class track star at UCLA?
• Girls sitting in class, knitting argyle sox for their favorite guys?
• Inept rookie teacher J.L. Banks, allowing his class to be overrun by school bullies?
• Decorating the high school gym for school dances?
• Remember how, when we were sophomores, kids two years ahead of us (seniors) seemed so worldly and sophisticated while those two years behind (8th-graders) were mere children?
• The morning ritual (for most of us) of the hopeless task of covering up Pimples?
• Remember when there were only two black families in Downey, and they were nice people, and their kids were Achievers?
• Being allowed to watch the World Series in the Auditorium, on a "giant" 21-inch TV screen?
• Being required to watch the farcical, cheaply made anti-drug film, Reefer Madness?
• Grooving to the sounds of Dick Hansen's Dixieland Band?
• Riding to school in lousy buses, while the rich kids rode in with their parents, or drove their own cars?
• The long drive through the beanfields and dairies of what is now Artesia, Hawaiian Gardens, Cypress, Cerritos, Rossmoor, Leisure World, and Westminster‹to get to the largely unpopulated Orange County beaches?
• Going to surreptitious Beach Parties on trashy, unsupervised "Tin Can Beach," between Seal Beach and Huntington Beach, preferably at "Pecker's Point," the hilly area just north of Huntington?
• Don Swick, wearing the same pair of "new" Levis every day of the school year, without once laundering them?
• Cruising all the "hot spots" on Friday nights--Downey Avenue, Richie's Drive-In, Cook's Drive-In, The Clock, and Pacific Avenue in Huntington Park...?
Hey: If you remember even some of those things, baby, you were there!
William O'Neill, now retired, is a former amateur boxing champion, sportswriter, and President (in 1984) of the World Boxing Hall of Fame