Nana suffered from acid indigestion and gout. Instead of sleeping in a bed, she slept in a chair in the living room, facing the front door. She controlled the Admiral TV in the corner with a remote control that emitted a very distinctive kerchunk sound that was kind of springy. When you’re a kid, a device that controls the TV is a powerful thing. TV is a powerful thing.
Watching Shirley Temple and the Little Rascals taught me racial inequality, but also taught me that black folks and white folks could get along together. Buckwheat and Farina were as much a part of the “our gang” as Spanky and Alfalfa. Bill Robinson may have played a butler, or a doorman, but Shirley Temple showed him love and respect. They were a dance team as important to the movies, and me, as Fred and Ginger. If Shirley Temple could dance with Bill Robinson, why couldn’t I?
Nana hated “colored” people. I begged her to let my friends from school come over and she wouldn’t budge. I remember standing in the shade of the apricot tree by the back porch; Nana and I were picking apricots that Grandma would turn into preserves. Nana told me that she wasn’t going to have any little thieves in her house or even in her yard. I was forbidden to go to their houses. It was bad enough that I had to go to school with “them”. It wasn’t fair. It didn’t make sense and I began to cry. Nana was wrong and I knew it.
Even if I couldn’t bring my friends home, I could at least lie and tell her I was visiting my white friends. Unfortunately, most of my “colored” friends didn’t live close by, so visiting usually meant going down the hill past Foothill Boulevard and getting home way after dark. The critical issue was not coming home or letting Nana know where I went. I would come home late and listen at the window where I could hear Uncle David or Uncle Gene telling Nana that they would deal with me. They would give me what I deserved for making her worry.
There was a house nearby that was being renovated and I would sometimes hide in the basement until Uncle David went to bed or Uncle Gene went home, but I couldn’t always wait them out. No one knew my hiding place. If it wasn’t for hunger, I probably would have stayed in that basement all night long.
What I find sad is that I don’t remember the names of any of those friends who were so important to me back then. Perhaps, they were beaten out of me. One boy’s father was a doctor. He lived in a two story house with shiny hardwood floors and a carpeted stairway that was only two blocks away from Nana’s modest one story house. Another one had really nice parents. They served me a delicious dinner, things I had never eaten before, and kept asking me if there was anyone that I needed to call. I got to listen to some wonderful R&B music and play with electric race cars. Eventually, I made a phone call and my father picked me up and took me back to Nana’s before returning to work. Then there was the friend who wanted to turn a pile of wood, in his backyard, into a stage so that we could put on a show. We would have made a great team, but we didn’t have a clue, or the tools, to make that particular dream come true.
Running away, drifting off by myself, exploring the urban landscape was what I did that got me into trouble, not where I went or who I was with. I must have been out on one of my adventures the day after my tenth birthday. I came home anxious to watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and Nana was ready to deny me the privilege. Grandma was home and able to act on my behalf. While Nana was quick to punish me for any indiscretion, Grandma, when in attendance, had a “boys will be boys” attitude that was frequently to my advantage.
Nana often fell asleep with the TV still on. This was also to my advantage, affording me the opportunity to see shows that I might never get to see because they were on past my bedtime. I would hide in the dining room. Sneaking into the living room, if necessary, to change channels. Then returning to my hiding place, near the china cabinet, just beyond the doorway, out of Nana’s sight should she wake up. Using this method, I became familiar with Dick Van Dyke, Danny Kaye, Gary Moore, Danny Thomas, and even Jack Parr. I kid you, not.
The life of Rob Petrie, as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke, seemed to me to be the perfect balance of home and work. Writing a weekly variety show with the likes of Sally (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) for Alan Brady (Carl Reiner) and coming home to Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) looked like a life worth living, such bliss. It was Show Business 101 and I was a willing student.
Once when, when I was sick, Nana reminisced about her youth. She told me about the time she and her friends put on a show in a big hole that was like an amphitheater, she talked about the San Francisco earthquake, and she told me about her father who was a beat cop and a Pinkerton man. He came from Dublin, Ireland.
Nana seldom let down her guard. She was usually strict and stoic. She was born Eileen Patricia Hitchcock in 1889 and had six children with Edwin Detrich Sandkuhle, who was found dead in their barn in 1947. His death was evidently accidental. He was found with a 22 rifle that he used to kill rats.
Nana second child, Phyllis, died when she was three. Edwin, her first, and Jack died in the nineteen forties. My Grandma Lorraine, my Aunt Jane, and my Uncle Ray were all part of my childhood. The last time I saw Grandma and Jane, was at a Masonic Park near Santa Cruz on Thanksgiving in 1986 when they got to meet my recently born daughter and my wife. The last time I saw Nana was in a hospital in 1970, she was already dead and Grandma told me to kiss her goodbye which I did.