The Pike, 1952
When I was seventeen, I knew two things that were true: You couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a man in a military uniform in Southern California in the early fifties. And somehow, sooner or later, men would leave. But that didn’t stop me, my mother, or my sister from trying to find a man who would stay.
“Come on Rosalie, we’re going to miss out on the best ones,” Babs yelled as she revved the engine of our mother’s forty-seven black Mercury convertible.
“Norma is going to kill you if she sees you driving her car like that.” My sister Babs and I had to promise Norma, our mother, the moon to take the car out on a Saturday night.
“She won’t know—unless you tell her. Get in and put that sweater on later. Or skip that silly looking cardigan and show off your figure, for goodness sakes. If I had your body, I’d really be showing it off.”
“I think you show off enough, Babs. Can’t you tone that down a bit and show some taste?” Babs, with her leopard-skin tapered pants, and her black cotton blouse tied at the waist, was forever embarrassing me by what she wore, did, and said. Could she, at least, dress up like a lady when we went out?
“What, and wear beige this and beige that? How boring!” Babs waved her hand toward me, and then shifted into gear, trying to hold onto her cigarette at the same time. “Here, hold this for me, will ya?”
“Can’t you wait to light up until we get there? You’re going to get ashes all over me!” I brushed the ashes off my demure beige-pleated full skirt cinched at the waist, and my beige blouse accented with redheaded polka dots, as my father would say. See—my outfit wasn’t completely beige—Babs was exaggerating once again.
Our father had a thing for redheads, and he used to tell our mother that when she turned forty, he’d trade her in for two redheads. Well, he’d made part of that dream come true when he left and took up living in sin with a redhead named Rosemary. He tried to coerce me into forgiving him by pointing out the similarities in our names, as if he was committing adultery in my honor. Babs never forgave either of us for that, and held it against me that our father favored me over her.
“Give that back to me. I can handle it now. You can wait, Miss Goody Two-Shoes, until we get there, but I want to set the stage on the road in case we meet some cute sailors.”
Babs winked to nobody in particular. That was Babs for you. She hadn’t always been that way. No, Barbara and I had both been quiet little girls, when we were all living together, when our father was at home. It was our older sister, Colette, who’d been the loud, vivacious girl, on one date or another until she eloped with the steady, but boring Tom. Maybe that had been how Colette was able to deal with the chaos at home.
Barbara Jean had become this new person, this Babs, when our parents began fighting on a regular basis, with our mother and father taking turns peeling out of the driveway in a huff. We girls never knew who we’d be living with—mother or daddy. Until that one dark day I remembered so clearly when daddy packed up a few belongings and drove off in the old Ford sedan. After that, Mother bought a new car and pretended like he’d never lived there.
“Oh look, there are the guys I met last week. Hi there fellas. Going to The Pike tonight?” Babs pulled over to the side of the road where a group of four or five sailor boys dressed in whites were walking, smoking, and laughing, looking like they were headed to The Pike, too.
Great, just great.
“Sure, Babs, can you give us a ride?” A short stocky guy with dark hair and a big grin left the group and leaned on the side of the car. Most kids either walked if they lived close enough, took the bus, or the trolley. We were lucky to get our mother’s car on Saturday nights. “Girls, be careful,” our mother would say. So how was picking up sailors being careful? They were the ones you had to watch out for. Long Beach was a Navy town, and sailors from all over were everywhere—mostly on foot—and so many of them it was hard not to run over them even if you weren’t as crazy of a driver as Babs.
“Hop on the back!” Babs gave them a start by gunning it. “Hold on for dear life.” Any attempt at jumping on the back bumper with any panache would be soon lost as Babs’ jerky maneuvers weaving in and out of traffic would require total focus on not falling off.
I took refuge by sliding lower into my seat, grasping for comfort and hiding out from any onlookers who might see I was in the car with my crazy sister.
“Babs, slow down.” I tried to be authoritative from my position on the floor, but my nervous giggles weren’t very convincing.
“Hey, we’re here guys.” I popped up in my seat as Babs pulled into the seemingly last remaining open parking place on a crowded side street, set the car into neutral, and pulled on the hand brake. Excitement fluttered in my belly as the scent of salty ocean, salty popcorn, and salt water taffy filled the warm, night air that screamed summer in big headlines. The waves crashing, and the crowds screaming in rhythm to the amusement rides were exclamation points.
“Gee, Babs, were you trying to kill us?” One sailor asked from the sidewalk. Another one said, “Yeah, you trying to save the Koreans some trouble?”
“Ah, shut up. You made it okay didn’t you?” Babs’ trademark was her gruff-sounding voice and her lopsided grin, her snug summer sweater, slim skirt and hip jutting out of that skirt with cigarette in hand. Babs was the whole package, the whole enchilada as her Latin boyfriends liked to say. “But now we’re here, get lost so we can check things out.” She must have seen something better to pass up an opportunity like this.
“Okay, Babs, we’ll see you guys later. We’ll be swingin’ with the Dorsey Brothers down at the dance hall. If we don’t get lucky, we’ll give you a chance, huh?”
Whew! I was relieved when those guys left. But when a tall man wearing an officer’s uniform approached Babs and kissed her, I looked him over carefully and longingly. He looked respectable enough—at least he was an officer—and when my sister waved me off, the two of them heading for the beach, I tried not to worry. I’m not my sister’s keeper. And why should I be? I was only a year older than Babs, but, still, I worried about her. Let her find somebody decent.
“Hi there, toots,” a fresh voice matched an arm as it swung around my shoulder. Who was this—another friend of Babs or another sailor? I was getting ready to throw his arm off me when I recognized my cousin, Frankie, dressed in his Navy whites.
“Oh, Frankie! What are you doing here?” Relieved to see somebody I knew, I hadn’t realized how alone and vulnerable I’d feel without my friend Betty there with me, but Betty was spending the summer working at her grandparent’s ranch in Texas. I envied her, recalling that year my family spent on my grandparent’s ranch in Central Texas before my parents split.
“Well, I’m here on leave, having a good time like everybody else.” Frankie squeezed my shoulder.
“Where’s your wife?” After my father left the family, I didn’t trust any man, even my cousin.
“Oh, she’s still in Boston. I’m spending a few weeks here until I ship out. Just got in today. Didn’t get a chance to come by the house yet.” He added the last bit, looking rather sheepish.
“Didn’t have time or didn’t want to? We all know you’re Mother’s favorite. ‘Why I’d be tickled pink if Frankie would come home and spend some time with his Mother.’ ”
Our mother had a special relationship with Frankie, treating him like the son she never had and seemingly preferring him over her three daughters. In my mother’s eyes, Frankie could do no wrong, which was just one more thing that Babs resented. As for me, well, I laughed it off and would often make Frankie laugh mimicking our mother.
“Ah, come on now, Rosalie, give a guy a break. I’m here to get out from the tight rein of Maria. Sure don’t want to walk back into the rein of Mother. I’ll stop by tomorrow. After all, Maria is coming out here in a couple of days. At least I would enjoy listening to Mother much more without Maria being here. Then, it would be two against one, and I’d have to settle down and behave myself.” I laughed easily around Frankie, and he offered me much-needed comic relief.
“Seriously, though, Frankie, how are things going with you and Maria?”
“Oh, it’s not as bad as it sounds. She’s a fiery redhead with the temper to match, so we’re bound to have a few explosions. But, oh boy, when we make up, it’s sure worth the trouble.” Frankie let out a big wolf whistle. Had he purposely chosen a redhead, competing with my dad’s love of redheads? I could never understand this competition, but maybe it was the lonely male syndrome—each one wanted the attention of every woman around him.
My cheeks grew warm at Frankie’s risqué comment. In order to escape my embarrassment, I said, “Well, I’m going to go to the dance hall. Wanna come?”
“Nah, some of my buddies are around here somewhere.”
“Hey, Frankie.” At that moment somebody yelled, “Come on, let’s go. There’s a craps game starting down on the beach.”
“See ya later, toots,” he called out as he joined the others. I waved to Frankie, relieved that my face was returning to its normal temperature, reassuring myself the blush must be gone by now, even if it was probably too dark to actually see any color in my face.
It seemed everybody had a place to go, so I pushed on down to the dance hall called The Majestic Ballroom. That’s where the kids went to dance and listen to the band. I didn’t mind so much if I didn’t have anybody to dance with as long as I could surround myself with people who did. I loved music, and I was content to find an unobtrusive corner and stand there and listen all night long.
I’d met that guy at the apartment and he’d invited me to come listen to him at The Pike. He seemed so sure of himself; I didn’t want to let on that I might be interested. But I couldn’t wait to get there, to see him, to hear him, and imagine what it would be like to belong to a man like him.