When a childhood home is demolished

August 4, 2017

Eighty-three years ago, in 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, my childhood home in west Los Angeles was built.

It is a charming California ranch-style home of no more than 2100 square feet. According to neighborhood code, every home was set back 100 feet from the street.

When I was growing up, 15 mature trees populated the grounds. In the back yard, there were willow, palm, avocado, guava, kumquat, peach, plum, laurel, and lemon. In the front yard grew magnolia, jacaranda, paper birch, oak, pine, and maple. Alas, all are gone now except the maple.

As a kid, I loved climbing the tall oak or magnolia whenever I needed to be alone. I also loved to climb onto our tile roof being careful not to break the tiles, which I did from time to time.

My parents bought the home in 1949 just before I was born. My brother Michael left for college in 1966, and after I left in 1968, my mother sold the property. The family that bought it lived there for the next 49 years until this past year.

Last week the developers who bought it put up a green fabric fence signaling that demolition is imminent.

I loved that house. My very first memories are from the age of two. I played baseball with my dad and brother in the back yard. Michael and I dug holes lined with tin cans in the front yard so we could putt golf balls. In the back was a built-in red brick distressed barbecue. In the service yard behind the garage we inherited an incinerator from the 1940s and used it until the LA City Council banned them in 1957.

My dad played the violin and painted still life casein in the sunny lanai, a room he named for his pleasant experiences serving in the Hawaiian islands during World War II as a physician and lieutenant colonel in the US Navy. Our parents entertained with scotch and martinis before sit-down dinners. They drank their coffee black and hot!

My dad bought Michael and me our first bicycles. Mine was a red 24-inch Schwinn I called “Betsy.” His was black. We rode the neighborhood with gusto. I walked to the bus stop or the mile through back streets to school from the age of 6 without my parents expressing, to my knowledge, any worry.

Our house doors were never locked. Milk was delivered in bottles and placed in a small niche near the back door. The Good Humor ice cream truck drove our streets in the afternoon. I played outside until dark and came home filthy. I knew my neighborhood like the back of my hand and knew most of the neighbors. Dogs roamed the streets unleashed.

As a little boy, I remember following my dad (who I called “Daddy” and still do) like a puppy in the back yard picking up the clippings he pruned. I can still remember the smell of wet cut grass and eucalyptus from the adjacent property. We fed California jays (now called scrub jays) and had names for all of them according to their markings. We collected butterflies.

In 1953, my parents bought our first television set, a 24-inch black-and-white console. They put it in my dad’s study with his book shelves, medical journals, desk and two red leather chairs and ottoman on which my brother and I watched cartoons on weekend mornings, westerns in the afternoons, I Love Lucy when we were sick, the Friday night fights with my dad, The Wonderful World of Disney and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights.

In 1956, I remember the interview with Adlai Stevenson when the camera caught the hole in the bottom of his shoe. I recall also seeing Fidel Castro on Face the Nation in 1959 just after the Cuban revolution, JFK delivering his inaugural address in 1961, his Cuban Missile Crisis speech in 1962, Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall in 1963, the entire weekend after Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 including live the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, LBJ signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the White House, and footage of the fighting during the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and the combined armies of eight Arab nations who promised to “push the Jews into the sea.”

I emerged into political and historical consciousness in that house.

On August 10, 1959, my world changed irrevocably. Michael (a year older than me) and I saw our father for the last time that evening as he stood in the doorway of our small bedroom to say goodnight. He hadn’t been feeling well and while we slept an ambulance came to the house and took him at 2 a.m. to the hospital where he died 23 hours later from his second heart attack. He was only 53 years old.

My brother and I call that house “321.” It has been our link to our childhoods and father throughout our lives. I visited it from time to time and even knocked on the door 25 years ago and asked to walk through. The owners remembered my family and were gracious. Though it has been owned by others, Michael and I still feel that it belongs to us. I fantasized that maybe either of us would be able and want to buy it this past year when it was put up for sale.

One doesn’t say Kaddish over a house, but its demolition is a death for both of us. We’re left now only with, as Jim Croce poignantly said, “photographs and memories.”

Thanks to Michael for sharing his memories with me as I wrote this.

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