Memoirs of High School by Judith Evicci
A few days ago, I received an invitation to my class reunion – Woodland High School, The class of 1957. I couldn’t attend, but my thoughts floated on a carpet of time, back through the years, as I fondly remembered the ten years of my youth I spent in Woodland.
My twelfth birthday just passed when my family, including Buz, my three-year-old brother, arrived in Woodland. My father, a newspaper man, took a job at The Record, which was one of the two Woodland newspapers. He worked as circulation manager for Doug and Mary Tibbitts for many years before developing and owning thirteen California senior citizens newspapers.
It was 4:00 in the afternoon, as we walked down Main Street for the first time. In the middle of July, the temperature displayed on the nearby hardware store sign, read 113 degrees. My sleeveless summer dress invited wavering rays of sun to attack my unprotected Irish/Corsican skin and I felt familiar white blisters rising on my arms.
Small retail shops lined each side of Woodland’s wide Main Street. Visually I followed the residents as they moved in and out of the air-conditioned establishments, as I vicariously enjoyed temporary relief from the heat.
During the day, the Woodland summer heat was the worst I ever experienced. At night, with the deadly sun resting around the other side of the planet, temperatures were perfect for teenagers to cruse Main and College Streets, in their brand new Chevy’s and Ford convertibles.
Parents drove Lincoln Continentals and big Buicks. Even though, nationally, only 1 in 7 families owned cars, everyone I knew anxiously awaited the unveiling of the new models in order to discard their outdated, perfectly-running, loyal transportation vehicles, for a brand new car. A new car cost $2,000 to 3,000 Dollars, which was equivalent to one year’s employee salary.
Summer pushed ahead toward fall, and living conditions in Woodland vastly improved, except for my year around allergies. The Woodland pollen count, swollen by its beautiful English and Black Walnut trees, choked my breathing.
My father believed allergies were psychosomatic, so, without treatment, every day I had a coughing/sneezing attack. I never knew when the attack would come, but I always knew it would come. I was very embarrassed, especially while school was in session. There was nothing to do though, but cough, and be excused from class for a few minutes, as the tears rolled down my face.
Our first Woodland home was near Beamer Park. The great little park lay right around the corner from my house. My grammar school friends and I considered it our personal park and played there every day after school and during the summer. The park had a merry-go-round, tidier-totters, and, most importantly, bathrooms with doors.
My first and only experience with a bully occurred when Norm Shearer, threatening me with a whip, locked me in the girl’s bathroom and vowed to keep me there into the night. Although young, Norm had a real dark side, and I knew he was mean enough to carry out this threat. Somehow, after a few hours, I sprang out of the restroom, running like a racehorse out of the box, and escaped unharmed.
In 1953, I entered Woodland High as a freshman. On the first day of high school, my friend Karen and I were hazed by a boy named Shotgun Schuman. In case you don’t know, the most common type of “hazing” involved humiliating the freshmen by putting lipstick on their face and cloths.
During the freshman welcoming speech, the school principal instructed us on how to handle unpermitted initiations. Students should go to the nurse’s office to get the lipstick removed. No questions would be asked. The school staff claimed to have special “clean up” products, especially stocked for de-initiating freshman.
With lines of lipstick on our faces, we fell for the trap, and found the nurse’s office and asked for help. Grilled, as if we had done the hazing, high school officials demanded to know who did it, and we wouldn’t say. Informing wasn’t part of the bargain the school made, and if a looming redheaded giant named Shotgun says not to tell, then you don’t tell.
Karen and I were the only students that were hazed that year, and we got detention, for being victims. Justice hid from us that day, and I figured I was off to a bad start at Woodland High. The principal knew me by name and vowed to watch me!
Principal visibility worked against me the following year, when I wrote a book review on “The Animal Farm.” The principal called me in to his office again. He actually accused me of being a Communist. I was simply doing some creative writing, you know, looking at the other side of the coin, but he didn’t see it that way. I had the attention of the principal and this time, not for a traditional reason.
To add to my other capital crimes, I occasionally forged class pass slips. I would get myself out of class of course, but I also wrote passes for my friends. In time, Mary Greiner was caught, I was found out, and I had to stop my life of crime. My wings were pinned for sure.
I don’t think those crimes put me on the most wanted high school criminal list, although the principal knew me a little better than I wished. The rest of school years passed without incident.
I had three girlfriends. Two of them were daughters of the owners of the only two fertilizer companies in the farm town of Woodland. You can guess, the families were in business competition, so their children didn’t get along at all. Why it happened that I had to be friends with both girls, at the same time, I have no idea. It simply evolved that way.
Karen Lohse, class of ’57, and Saundra Barber, class of ’56, were my friends.
Saundra told me that, as even as a high school student, she owned enough Ford Motor stock that she could live comfortably and never have to work a day in her life. I wonder if she ever had to make a living.
After a short time at Woodland High, Karen transferred to Hamlin School for girls, located in San Francisco. Karen became my weekend friend. Actually, this arrangement worked out fine for me. I saw Saundra for lunches and during the week. When Karen came home on the weekends, we would swim and ride horses. No one seemed inconvenienced by this arrangement, but I felt a little tension with the parents. I never purposely discussed either family with the other.
Mary Greiner, my other good friend, was a member of the class of ’56. Mary was a talented piano player and singer. We spent hour after hour in her living room, practicing for the next talent show. Mary’s voice was splendid. She had perfect pitch and, upon request by Mrs. Reese, she sang out the beginning note in the madrigal choir group and the girls’ choir.
Like many others, I fondly remember the Fitz Family. The routine was that, after a dance, Frank would select some girls to pile into his Model T or Model ?, whatever it was, and drive through the cemetery. The big square car had a front and a back seat. Frank turned off the car lights, and we squealed in terror that the ghosts would come up from the graves. We attempted to hide by sinking down into the mohair upholstery. Yes, it was real mohair, and, if I remember correctly, his car had isinglass roll down curtains.
All the members of that same group, Franklin, Bill Hollingshead, Dave Rumberger, Bobby Nash, were a couple of years ahead of me. When I was a freshman and they were juniors, our idea of fun was to read poetry to each other. We especially read silly poems, like, the Ogden Nash “Strange Case” poems. One poem I remember was, “The Strange Case of the Child Who Knew It’s Own Father.” We laughed as hard as only kids can. I can’t imagine high school students reading poetry today, but perhaps they do.
I remember some the boy’s favorite tricks. For instance, to add to his charm, Franklin had a real cannon, that he occasionally shot off, usually around July 4th. I heard the cannon, and I also heard a story that Billy Hollingshead, a real live Magician, painted his entire bedroom black. Recently Bill corrected me on this story. He said the story was true, but he didn’t do the paint job, it was two of his friends. Because we both liked the story, for its creative flair, I decided to leave it in its place.
Frank and the boys enjoyed dressing in gorilla suits and delighting children they met on their camping trips. Once the children knew where Frank and boys camped, there was no peace, so the campsite sprouted legs at night and moved often. For sure, they were special people, fun loving, and kind.
I believe my class had more than its share of beautiful bronze girls. I watched them with envy as they tanned in the sun, slathered in a mixture of baby oil and iodine. During the hottest part of the day, they fearless lay, on their beach towels, on the cement, around the Woodland public pool. I, on the other hand, swam mostly at night and, during the day, ran from shade tree to shade tree, in attempts to avoid my next “bad burn.”
When you think about it, the fifties were truly special times, still recognized in movies and stories. Can you imagine, we had Elvis, the beginning of the Blues, and the mass production of computers began in the ’50s. There were Thunderbirds, with portholes for windows and good music was everywhere.
In the winter, when we felt adventurous, we had the killer two-lane River Road to drive. The fog was thick like a steam room. We couldn’t see two feet in front of the car and we definitely couldn’t see the levy edge which separated us from the cold Sacramento River. We thought the dangerous 26 mile trip to Sacramento was worth it because we could cruise K Street and look for cute boys to honk at. We were in the right place at the right time.
Today, I live in a place that reminds me a lot of Woodland. It has the many old established trees, and one main street, called Yucaipa Blvd. Winter tree limbs, withered and dry, are revived in the spring by some miracle of nature. Un-miraculously, I still have my allergies.
Like Woodland, many Yucaipa homes were built in the fifties. Yucaipa is bigger than Woodland was when I lived there. If I remember correctly, Woodland’s population was less than 10,000. Yucaipa, California’s population in 2010 is 50,000, but you couldn’t tell by looking.
Yucaipa is a little Southern California town in San Bernardino County, which hosts the entrance to the mountains, just five miles from the turn that takes you into the hills to the apple groves, and past that, the road goes to Big Bear and Arrowhead Lake. Palm Springs is 30 miles east of Yucaipa, down the road on the 10 freeway.
However, Yucaipa isn’t Woodland, and I will never forget my years growing up there. As kids, we ran after the mosquito spray truck, happy to be hiding in the dense fog it created, while inhaling all the DDT we could consume.
The Yolo County Fair was the highlight of the summer. We sat on the brand new John Deere Tractors, near the entry gates to the fair, and watched the crowds come and go. Woodland in the 50s, was a safe place to be.
I enjoyed writing this piece and remembering Woodland and my classmates, especially the ones who still live there. I am sure they are attending plays at the Opera House and dining at the Fliers Club. I wish you all the best. Sorry I couldn’t attend the reunion, but I am there in spirit.