Morro Bay seemed so big when I was 8 or 9 years old. The blocks were longer, the hills steeper, the eucalyptus trees taller..and more numerous. We, my parents and I, lived near the southeast corner of Morro and Sixth streets, in an old 2 bedroom house that dated from the 1930s. It was the third place we had lived in since moving to Morro Bay just four years previous.
At that age, I was just beginning to extend my boundaries in the town, as I had just received my first bicycle a couple of years before. After finally losing the training wheels, and surviving several falls into the weeds along our dirt driveway, and the attendant embarrassment and uncontrolled laughter of my parents, I finally mastered the art of balance and two-wheel transport, and set off on my one-speed, balloon tired, J.C. Higgins.
After walking around my little three block radius world, the bike opened up entire new vistas. Where previously my boundaries had been the Bay Theatre, the elementary school and The Four Crabs restaurant on the embarcadero where my mother worked, I now was able to travel to exotic places I had only heard about from my friends at school. Places like the golf course, Eagle Rock, the boat basin, and if I dared, a trip to the end of the road and the lookout point on Black Mountain. Those trips were special, though rare. Usually, I just took off to visit my best friend Mike Teixeira, and if we weren’t riding our bikes around the neighborhood, we were probably playing army amongst the cars in his back yard. A trip anywhere usually included a baseball glove hanging from the handlebars and a ball stuffed into a coat pocket, just in case we encountered a game somewhere, or just decided to play catch in the park or the elementary school grounds.
At that age, I did not realize how unique and special a place Morro Bay really was. In 1957, it was just a blue-collar working village. The fishing industry was in full bloom, having blossomed following the end of World War Two and the construction of the embarcdero. The PG&E power plant had brought prosperity to the city, and tourism was growing as well. But for young children like myself, it was just home. A place to live and play and explore. Vacant lots were everywhere, and were far more than met the eye of an adult. Our eyes could see through the weeds and tall, brown grass, to the forts, the mazes, the hideouts; if the lot was big enough, we could see home plate near the corner and the foul lines extending along the edge of the streets. A shovel borrowed from someone’s shed, and the dirt from the shallow dugout could be heaped up to become a pitchers mound. Inevitably, a lot of that dirt ended up inside our shoes and the rolled up pant legs of our jeans, along with several hundred stickers from the grass and weeds.
After a few hours of pretending to be Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Henry Aaron (The Giants and Dodgers had not moved to California just yet) it was time to take a break and find something else to do. Hopping on our bikes, with our gloves on the handlebar, we might pedal across town and head to the Service Center News Stand across the street and a block up from the Bay Theater. There, we could get a soda from the machine on the front porch, go inside and look at the plastic models of cars and ships and airplane or hang out in the back and read the comic books, which we rarely bought. The only thing we regularly spent our allowances, or in some cases paper route money, on were packages of baseball cards. (It was many years into my adulthood before I understood why there were so few Mantle, Mays and Aaron cards, and why ever package seemed to contain at least one Pumpsie Green or Virgil Trucks.) Oh well, at least there was that thin slab of sugar-dusted chewing gum to gnaw on for an hour or two. Having made nuisances of ourselves long enough, we might say goodbye to the long-suffering old fellow behind the counter, and head out for another adventure.
In our far from politically correct world, a world just a decade or so removed from the catastrophe that was the Second World War, playing army was not only not frowned upon, it was completely accepted, if not openly encouraged. Every boy had some form of toy gun, be it a six-shooter or a .45. But to “play army”, more equipment was needed, and Hortons Army Surplus store was a veritable treasure trove of military related stuff. It was also easy to get to from the New Stand.
At the suggestion, several of us would hop on our bikes, and after some bumping and and bashing into one another, set off coasting down the sidewalk single file, dodging the occasional pedestrian, to make the three-block trip to Hortons. Once there, the bicycles were piled on the sidewalk outside, and in we went to look at all the cool army stuff we could never afford. The first thing you would notice, and I have never forgotten, was the smell. It was not entirely unpleasant, but quite unique. Leather, burlap, hemp, oil, grease and metal, swirling around ones head in an aroma guaranteed to send a young boys testosterone output into overdrive. The place just wreaked of ARMYNAVYMARINESAIRFORCE!
Wandering the aisles of crude wooden shelves and bins, there were all sorts of goods and devices to ooh and ahh at, some familiar, some quite mysterious. Army green backpacks, Navy seabags, folding shovels, canteens, heavy web belts with metal clasps that must have weighed a pound or more. Helmets, fatigue shirts and pants, some with people’s names still stenciled on them. Navy blue dungaree shirts and bellbottom pants and dozens of white navy caps (These I was to become quite familiar with a decade later.)
Another aisle had all sorts of gauges, dials, radio equipment, tools, and lots of brass and steel equipment that was a complete mystery. To us, it was all like a military Disneyland and museum wrapped into one. I think I talked my Dad into a backpack at some point, but my memory is fuzzy on that one. In dredging up this memory, it suddenly occurs to me why Hortons existed in a little town like Morro Bay. I suspect that most, if not all of the inventory in that store must have come from the Army and Navy when the Amphibious Training Base was closed following the end of the war. So odd, how one never questions some things. We just accept that they “are.”
A summer Saturday would find us gathering at that grand hub of social activity, the Bay Theater. Meeting friends there to wait in line and gossip was always a weekly highlight. The movie didn’t matter much, as long as it had plenty of action, war movies were the preferred medium of course. That and plenty of cartoons. It is difficult to imagine in these days of blockbuster movies at giant cineplex’s that one could spend an entire Saturday afternoon in a darkened theater, watching two feature films (well, a couple of “B” movies anyway) with as many as a dozen cartoons in between, not to mention a couple of Previews of Coming Attractions. This allowed for multiple trips to the concession stand as well as the restrooms, all in the name of FUN.
So, having stood in line in the fog for half an hour, and purchased a ticked for, say, twenty-five or thirty-five cents, and another seventy-five cents worth of popcorn, soda and candy bars, one could spend the next five hours or so in a sugar induced coma, watching the Allies hammer the Axis, Tom and Jerry hammer each other and see previews of more of the same coming next week. Utter bliss for a nine-year-old.
At the end of it all, with the credits scrolling up the screen and our bladders once more stretched to the limit, we would make our way through the folded seats, over the floor so sticky it threatened to pull the shoes from our feet, and up the aisle to the lobby. Pushing, shoving, laughing and snickering about the simulated and animated carnage we had been watching, and finally spilling out onto the sidewalk, now bathed in a blinding, setting sun that had finally burned away the afternoon fog. Squinting and shading my eyes with my hand, I headed down the hill towards the flashing red light in the middle of Fifth and Main. Sun warming my face, the whine of the turbines at the plant in my ears, the scent of salt air in my nostrils, and the lingering taste of Jujubes stuck in my molars, thinking, “I wonder what Mom’s making for dinner?”
Morro Bay. What a great place to be a kid.