Westward Ho!

When school resumed in 1956, I was filled with confidence and joy. I had advanced to the outermost wing of the school which made me feel as grown up as a third grader might. I was a seven year old with lots of friends and a lovely life on Northdale Street. I had spent a glorious summer traveling, sunning at the beach, going to movies, and just running and playing in my bare feet with Lynda. She and I made plans for a future that would take us into adulthood, forever mates whose little brothers and sisters might even marry and make us officially relatives. I even considered marrying her brother, Mike, when we were old enough. We had the rest of our lives as besties all figured out.

My new teacher was a sweet lady with a talent for telling extremely funny stories. She had the whole class relaxed and laughing on the first day of school. I was convinced that this would be my best year of education ever. I had settled into what seemed to be a quite satisfactory routine.

Just as I felt assured that I had somehow found perfection, my parents excitedly announced that we would soon be moving to California. It was one of those moments when I felt as though I was having an out of body experience. I heard what they were saying but it felt so unbelievable that I was not sure that I had understood them. It was as though I was watching them from afar as they chattered and smiled as thinking that they had just revealed that our life was going to be Christmas every day of the year. In my head I wondered if they had any idea whatsoever of how cruel their decision to upend my perfect world felt to me. Nonetheless, I said nothing, only nodding as though I agreed with their frightful plan. 

There is a blank spot in my memory from the time that I learned that we were moving until we were actually on the road to California with our belongings following us in a big moving van. I was walking through a fog, creating an alternate plan in which I would go live with Lynda and visit my parents and brothers in California in the summer. I obediently participated in the ruse of excitement that seemed to have overtaken my mother and father. I quietly complied with their joy while wanting to scream that their idea was terrible. 

Michael and Pat and I were stuffed into the backseat of the Pontiac for the long drive. Mama had attempted to make our accommodations comfortable by putting pillows and blankets on the floorboard in case we needed to sleep along the way. Two of us would share the seat and one would lie down on the contrived floor bed. It was incredibly uncomfortable no matter how we attempted to make the best of it. It felt as we were traveling to the end of the earth in a box as my father pushed forward for hours each day. It was not until we reached Phoenix, Arizona that I felt a glimmer of hope. There we found a fancy hotel with features I had never before experienced like air conditioning and a television that actually worked properly in the room. We enjoyed an evening playing in the swimming pool and Mama excitedly gave away the surprise that when we got to Los Angeles we were going to visit Disneyland. 

Soon we were in LA staying with relatives of my father that I had never known to exist. They were an older couple who seemed thrilled to finally meet us. I was still in such a stupor that I can’t recall ever hearing their names. I simply remember smiling politely at them and wishing I was at Grandma Ulrich’s house with my cousins instead. 

We did indeed go to Disneyland before heading north to our ultimate destination in San Jose. The theme park was quite literally a child’s dream. I have vivid recollections of Main Street, Cinderella’s Castle, fireworks, parades, and so many rides. We were there from the moment the park opened until it closed at night. The last thing we did was ride around the periphery in a train modeled after those of the old west. It all seemed to be a fitting introduction to California where everything felt bigger than life and there was a story for everyone living there. Our family had headed west in our modern day covered wagon in search of a dream that belonged to my parents. I don’t know what they expected to find, but I decided it was time for me to play along.

We spent a few more days with our relatives. To this day I wish I had paid more attention to them and found out who they were. I’d love to know their connection to my family. I’d like to know their names, but that was never to be. They were kind and hospitable and I should have been more appreciative of their attention. Mostly I should have been happier for my father who seemed to be a bit more overjoyed each day. 

Just before departing Los Angeles we spent a day touring the walk of the stars and visiting Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Drive. It was fun seeing the footprints and handprints of famous movie stars on the sidewalk, but my father’s real quest was to find a most remarkable bookstore. Pickwick Books was a multi-floor structure with volumes of every kind. Being there with my family was almost as good as our time at Disneyland. Best of all my parents told us that each of us could purchase any book that we fancied. 

Michael was already well on his way to being curious about how things work. He had walked around the the house with our father’s books about future travel to the moon and other texts that illustrated engineering designs. Even though he was not yet old enough for school he was good with numbers. It did not surprise me when he chose a book that had photos of how to tie different kinds of knots. I was still dreaming of Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland, so I found a beautifully illustrated version of the classic fairytale. Patrick was still a little fellow so Mama chose a storybook for him. 

We spent hours walking up and down the aisles of that bookstore. It felt like sharing a spiritual journey with our father who was enamored with the place. It seemed so right there that part of me wished that we could just stay there forever, devouring one book after another until we had read them all. San Jose was calling so we had to say our goodbyes to the sweet relatives who remain a mystery to me and head north to our new home.