WHERE ARE THEY HIDING?
I attended EXCELSIOR UNION HIGH SCHOOL in my hometown of Norwalk, California. The “UNION” part came about as a result of consolidation of high schools in the communities of Artesia, Bellflower, Carmenita, and Norwalk. I graduated in 1950, one of a class of 700 students and my academic standing was telling of my major interests: sports, cars, and friends of both genders. If you have seen the movie “Grease”, you know something about my old High School. The movie was filmed there. I had good teachers who tried in vain to motivate me to rise to “my potential”. However they managed to keep my curiosity about the World alive for four years. It was there for me when I finally grew up a few years later. At the 50 year re-union of the Class of 1950, I reunited briefly with two of my Teachers. They did not remember me, but I felt a kind of bond with them anyway.Then I became emotional as I met my former team-mates for the first time in 50 years. It was an intense moment for me. However, the most intense moment of my reunion activities came when I visited EUHS and walked the campus alone. It became 1950 again! Everywhere I went and every corner I turned, memories burst into my consciousness. It was a bittersweet flood. Bittersweet because of regret at opportunities lost, exultation at victories won, thankfulness for my tolerant teachers, sadness over lost friends, satisfaction that I had risen to my teacher’s expectation. I started walking around the running track and began to feel the urge to run again. I resisted; the urge would have to do. Then it happened! It seemed like I was watching a movie! I was running a relay race and I passed the baton to George and he turned away and ran like hell. I remembered how great the feeling was when we won. I remembered the foggy night games when I waited for the kick-off ball to descend below the fog. I did not have the foggiest idea where it would land. The fog was our friend; our secret weapon against the Long Beach High schools. A very large dairy was across the street from the stadium and the fog became heavy with the smell of cow manure and urine. We could easily withstand this sweet insult to our sense of smell; we lived there! Pity the “city kids” if you must for they hated it. Those were good times.
When I arrived for my first Freshman day at EXCELSIOR, our escorts led us into the Study Hall. It was a large rectangular room filled with standard student desks, cast iron frame fixed to the floor with varnished wood tops. The desks were suitably adorned with old chewing gum and richly decorated with initials and base verbage. Several large double doors in the South wall were our point of entry and our exit when, thankfully, the Study Hall period ended. The North wall was devoid of windows and decoration except for a clock and several blackboards. Centered in front of the North wall, on a large dias, was the desk of the Proctor. The room was full of light and fresh air thanks to the many large windows placed in the West and East walls. I remember the windows! The open windows on my first days as a freshman seemed the potential point of entry for the Seniors, armed with clippers and hungry for Freshman hair, that stood outside and, by animated gesture alone, let us know what was coming. Soon enough, the Freshman boys were a sorry looking lot. These same windows became my escape route on those “too hot to study” days after I became a bold and fearless Sophomore. It was easy! The Proctor, an elderly teacher ready for pasture, would doze off and out we would go. Funny thing, I am still jumping out of windows on those “to hot to study” days except today I call it my afternoon nap.
Bellflower Blvd. was the place you cruised on Saturday nights. Today you must look close at the boarded-up buildings to catch a glimpse of the center of local commerce it was in 1950. Cruising was frowned upon by the merchants due to the clogged traffic and the simple fact the “cruisers” could barely afford gas let alone spend money with them. So, we played cat and mouse with the Deputies that were on patrol at the behest of the Merchants. Today we would be arrested for the games we played. However, the Deputies seemed fairly laid back because they knew we respected the Law and did not have knives, guns, or drugs. Actually, we cruised do to the lack of parking – sure we did! After our gas and money reduced to a little above the cost of a hamburger, malt, and fries, we gathered at the Clock Drive-in in Norwalk for the eats. You could always tell who had a little money to spare; they had a girl in the car with them. We were not at all envious of the “rich” guys because, if you had a good line, you could snag a well fed girl to escort home. Sometimes it actually happened. So I have been told.
My Father was an Auto Mechanic and made his living plying his trade in his shop in Norwalk. I grew up around cars and I was a fair mechanic. My Father agreed but thought me lazy and compared to him, I was. I knew easy “A” grades were available if I took auto shop courses. I did. Mr. Hawley, the shop Teacher, thought I was crazy to waste my time in his courses. In hindsight, he was right but he allowed it to happen. I got the “A”s and learned something to boot. The biggest “something” I learned: Do not show off using other people’s cars! I was a Senior then and my Father had just purchased near-new 1948 Ford sedan. The coming weekend my Father planned to take the rest of my family on a weekend drive using the “new” Ford. On the Wednesday before I asked my Father to allow me to take the car to the School Shop and tune it for the weekend trip. He thought it was a fine idea. Next morning, Thursday, I tuned the car. That is when the real learning began. I backed the car out of the shop and started to park. On an impulse,that I regret to this day, I tried to “lay down some rubber with disastrous results. I stripped the teeth off the differential’s ring gear! You can imagine my embarrassment as I sat there, going nowhere with the engine running, and Mr. Hawley fast approaching the car. I remember calling my Father with the news. I am still amazed at his calmness. He told me he would get a new ring gear and bring it to the School Shop and I would install it. He made it clear he expected to leave home on Friday afternoon using his “new” Ford. I got the message and he left on time. I wonder at my gross behavior and my Father’s generosity and wisdom yet today. Mr. Hawley gave me an “A” for the course; he must have thought I learned something.
One time, during Mr. Hawley’s Aeronautics Shop, I examined an aircraft engine mounted on a stand. It was a new, war surplus trainer aircraft engine; it was spotless. As I slowly rotated the propeller shaft, I heard a “clunking” noise emanate from the front of the engine. I asked Mr. Hawley to explain the noise. In place of an answer, he directed me to dis-assemble the engine of find the source. I found the source of the noise after a partial dis-assembly. It was the harmonic balancer located within engine’s front housing. Perfectly normal! You would think I learned to think before asking idle questions after that. You would be wrong. A short time later, I asked Mr. Hawley a similar question about a very large sixteen cylinder fighter aircraft engine with similar results. He directed me to disassemble the very greasy engine and scrap it. We did not have special tools and this required me to improvise often in the very dirty dis-assembly. I believe this experience was the beginning of my ambition to become something other than a mechanic – too dirty and miserable on hot days. I became a machinist instead. Much better.
Each year in the springtime, things happened at EXCELSIOR which are easy for me to recall. The male student’s hormone level rose and we began perfecting our future mating rituals by acting out for the female students in various ways. The female students, being more mature than the typical male student, dismissed our actions as “dumb”. They watched anyway. Other things worth noting are the Seniors receiving their class rings and the Juniors their class sweaters. Here I must digress to explain the concept of “Senior Square”. The main buildings at our school formed a large enclosed area known to us as the “Quad”. The “Quad” was divided into lawn filled rectangles one of which was “reserved” for Seniors only. This “reservation” was established by school custom alone and subjected to challenges by the Juniors during the school year. Most were unsuccessful. By tradition the Juniors were expected to challenge the Senior’s hold on their Square on the day they received their new status symbols. It was done in good humor with lots of posturing, shouting, and running about the square. By the end of the day, the Juniors and Seniors were allied in a join effort to purify the square of the unwelcome lower classmen. After the day of challenge passed, Juniors were again unwelcome until the last week of the school year. This was the time for the graduating Seniors to hand responsibility for keeping the square pure over to the new Seniors. This tradition exists today only in the minds of the surviving EXCELSIOR students because “OUR EXCELSIOR” no longer exists. The beautiful, classic buildings are still there in all their glory; our school is long gone. “ONWARD AND UPWARD” was our motto and so we have.