Revisiting the Park: The rules of summer

Richard Carl Lehman

The Lehman family was living in the California area where Dad was in the Army Airforce.

We witnessed the refugees from the “Dust Bowl” called “Okies” leave the area to look for more fields to pick in. There was a rubber shortage due to the war so they had to drive on the rims of their cars. The cops let them travel late at night when traffic was light. We heard the caravans of them go by traveling in groups in case one broke down.

Mom had packed me an extra sandwich for school one day, and I gave one to a boy and his sister. I had never seen a human eat so fast. That was definitely what hunger looked like.  Remnants of the sandwich remained on the wax paper, and they ate all of it including the paper. The cars settled into a grouping, kind of like the wagon trains of the old West. One day, I brought sandwiches with no wax paper, but the “Okies” had left, cars and all, probably to go find other fields.

Every school I attended from Sacramento to New Mexico had poor kids of all ages. Most of them were so skinny that the only way their pants stayed on was with a belt and suspenders. I saw a kid my age being picked on by others who were offended by his hygiene, but they would have used any reason to bully. All the school rooms were overcrowded, and many of the kids were depressed because their fathers were at war or worse: dead or missing in action. No way can education be fulfilling if there are not happy homes to come home to.

I learned a lot from my friends in Riverton Heights: Frank Burton, Johnny Mac and many more. We wore bib overalls or hand-me downs. It is amazing what can be learned from early childhood life than from any text book. Years later, I saw the same tough, hardcore lifestyle in the Army. At least there, everyone had to keep in line or they were off to the barracks where both the offender and the defender saw punishment.

The final move to Madison Park in the early ’40s was the last stop after California and the Mohave Desert. I wondered what this new school, J.J. McGilvra, would be like. Astonishingly, it did not have crowded classrooms, and it was neat and smelled clean. I was happy to find my home room just like in the movies. All the kids were nice and happy, even laughing. The schools I had attended were stoic, sad or boring. And shoes! Everyone wore shoes! No bib overalls. If they had hand-me downs, they fit. 

I found my very own desk, not a table shared with six to eight kids. The desktop had names carved in them and an ink well in the upper right corner. Mrs. Noon was the teacher, and she smiled as she entered the room. “Good morning, class!” she said. 

This was nothing I had ever heard a teacher say. She handed us new books, unlike the mimeographed pages of paper taped together, which I was barely able to read, in my other schools. I sat there and smiled thinking how much better this was than all the schools I attended elsewhere. Even rumors of homework sounded good. This was the Madison Park lifestyle I was about to embark on. I still have some of the same friends I met there over the years.

My aunt, uncle and I were still living in my grandfather’s garage (our very same garage today), but eventually Mom and I found a house on 41st; aunt and uncle moved to the east side.

School was great, but now it was summer on Madison Beach. Clean, clear water with a soft sandy bottom. Out about 100 feet was a raft with three levels of diving. The problem was we had to pass the swim test first. One cloudy cool spring Saturday (June-ish), I joined friends to take the test, which was to swim and/or stay afloat from the north walkway to the south walkway. We were really shivering but ready. This was it, no more splashing with the little tykes. This was to be the world of the adults.

A big lifeguard explained the rules and wished us good luck. We were perched hoping the cold water would give us speed. When he blew the whistle, we took off doing the dog paddle, side stroke and the crawl. A big kid passed me by, but I continued to take deep breaths and tried not to take in too much air or do too many strokes so as not to tire out. My dad taught me how to swim at a very young age at Olympic Hot Springs near Port Angeles. It is a national park now, with several unmanaged hot pools and takes a hike to get to.

I was approaching the south wall and was completely wasted when the lifeguard stopped me just short of the walkway. The lifeguard handed us triangular swim patches! This opened up a whole new world, so even though we were very cold, we immediately swam out to the three-level raft.  Once atop, we had to laugh.  One friend, Gregory, said, “Watch this!” He climbed the first, then second and finally the third rungs on the wooden ladder that shook uncertainly. He turned toward us while on the ladder and waved. After looking around he paused, looked down, shook his head and climbed back down.

We did not blame him one iota. There were not many who made it to the third level. However, by the end of summer we were able to jump from there, no problem. A few jumped from the handrails on that level.

A similar dive was from the ferry on little dock to retrieve coins (Penny, Nickel, Dime, Get ’Em Every Time!). There was an initiation to do this coin retrieval, decided upon by Leo Elliott, the big kid on the dock. We were to jump from the passenger loading ramp down into the dark green water. It was much different than diving from the platforms on the raft where you could see the sandy bottom.

Leo kept us all in line. No fighting over diving for coins. He reminded us to hurry along so as to not be there when the ferry landed. We procrastinated standing on that ramp looking down to that dark green abyss. There was only one way off that ramp, and that was to jump or dive. We jumped and could hear the water before we hit it.

Once was enough.