by Bill O'Neill
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:
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 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.
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.