My Life and Times
CaliforniaJim came home one summer evening in 1958 and said. "I've been invited to spend a year at UCLA". What's Los Angeles like?" we asked our family and friends; but none of them had ever been there and they didn't know. "Well, what's California like?" we would ask.
Our cinema-going friends told us that it would be sunny and hot. "The sun always shines there," they said. We went to the library. "California is the Golden State," said the books, "it has mountains and deserts, forests, orange groves, vineyards, palm trees, cool-watered beaches, blue skies and sunshine."
So, that December we crossed the Atlantic on HMS Mauretania and landed in a bitterly cold New York. We had planned to stay for a day or two in Washington DC but an airline strike and no room on any trains kept us there for ten days during which time we used up all of our money simply on lodgings and food. Eventually we arrived virtually penniless in Los Angeles by train, the Super Chief from Chicago.
From grey, industrial Birmingham England, via the frozen eastern US, we came to a land bursting with sunshine. We planned to be Californians for a year and were eager to start. At the train station we were met by Keith Killam, a colleague from UCLA, and were driven on a freeway for the very first time. Cars, cars, cars speeding along, weaving intricate, erratic patterns from lane to lane. Keith followed the signs and we sat with white knuckles and looked out of the windows.
"See the smoke in the sky over there?” Keith pointed ahead as his foot suddenly went down harder on the accelerator. “That’s coming from close to Beverley Glen – that’s where I live. I think we’ll go there first if you don’t mind.”
Our route took us through a small range of brown, parched mountains with polite little signs asking us please not to smoke. To the north, our anxious driver told us, was the San Fernando Valley where people once lived in rural peace and solitude in the shade of walnut trees. We looked and saw nothing rural, just neat little houses and streets. Above them the air shimmered with heat and the sky was yellow. We took out our handkerchiefs, wiped away the tears and rolled up the windows. (It was not until a few days later that we first saw the legendary California clear blue sky -- on a huge backdrop looming high above some Hollywood movie studio buildings.)
Arriving in Beverley Glen we found Eve Killam worriedly eyeing the crest of the hill where there was smoke but not yet any flames. She threw clothes into bags and gathered important documents together. I watched their baby Anne Louise while David crawled around and investigated cupboards and their contents. Jim and Keith went up onto the roof with a couple of hoses to wet the place down. As we all left in the station wagon we glimpsed flames above the crest of the hill.
Eve and Keith spent the night with friends and we booked into a hotel with money borrowed from Keith. The next morning we all went to watch the Rose Parade in Pasadena and experienced an American “sandwich” for lunch – this was quite a shock. What we had expected was simply two pieces of white or wheat bread, buttered and with cheese in between, cut into two triangular halves; what we got was a large plate filled to overflowing with a toasted sandwich filled with cheese, bacon tomato, and lettuce and a green salad and pickled gherkin on the side!
Within a couple of days we had moved into an apartment in Westwood Village. It was grey concrete hung about with ivy and banana trees and we had to climb six flights of steps to our front door. Now we began to learn how to be Californians. To begin with we needed to be tanned. While Jim was at work in his windowless lab I swam in the tiny pool at the top of the apartment steps, and sun-baked on our pocket-handkerchief sized patio.
All Californians have two cars. We didn't drive. This must be our nonconformity we decided; we will keep some of our old identity by walking. We walked everywhere. At the top of the cliff above the beach in Santa Monica we climbed down the steep flight of steps that warned us to do so at our own risk. Safely at the bottom we were accosted by a sign telling us that by command of the Watch Committee there would be, "No dressing or undressing on the beach. No ball games. No fires, No closed umbrellas or tents." We sat quietly on the sand long enough for David to dig a dozen holes and get sand in his eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair ....
We walked along to Muscle Beach but the Watch Committee got there before us. The gymnastic apparatus had been removed. "No acrobatics" said the sign. The Mr. Universes just paraded up and down. We watched interestedly for a while.
The year passed quite quickly. I soon spoke fluent Californian with a British accent, acquired the suggestion of a tan, learned about barbecues, garbage disposals, dish washers, television commercials, Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, the 'Fair Housing Act' and Father Junipero Serra.
The sun did not always shine. We enjoyed the rain when it came and after the rain the blue sky and a gentle, coaxing sunshine that turned the brown hillsides a luxuriant green. Then the spring sunshine matured into a glorious fiery sun and everything cringed including us.
"It'll be nice to go home," I said.
"Don't you like it here?" My husband asked anxiously.
"Well, yes," I said, "But the sun and the smog ..."
"We've been invited to stay," he said.
"It will mean learning to be real Californians, not tourists in disguise," I said.
In 1960, son Peter joined the family and in 1963 we completed the family with son John. That was well over forty years ago and we have lived most of those years under the wide, blue and sunny skies of Davis. We have tried hard to be Californians -- we do have two cars. Our three sons are true Californians but we hardly have to open our mouths and someone says, "You must be English?"