It was a Saturday much like any other, except for the fact that it was one of the Saturdays we spent, at least part of it, together, just him and me.
I think it was Summer, not sure. I know it was sunny and warm, could have been anywhere from April to October in Southern California, after all it was sunny and warm.
My Dad and I jumped in the 1956 plain white Pontiac two-door station wagon (Pontiac’s answer to the Chevy Bel Air station wagon) with a vinyl bench seat…no seat belts back then. I remember those vinyl seats like it was yesterday: cold in the winter and blazing hot in the summer. But today, they were just right. Dad lit a cigarette, a Tareyton (a popular brand in 1960), and placed it in the ashtray. Turning the key, the V-8 came to life as he slid the column shifter into ‘drive’, the big station wagon lurched forward, and we were headed downtown.
We drove out Vanowen Street past the high school I would attend in a couple of years. Across the street from Canoga High was a huge grove of what looked like old orange groves and walnut trees, long since abandoned. A large sign stood near the street hawking the property’s availability, it was for sale: “40 acres for sale. Zoned commercial. Will build to suit”. A couple of years later, this is where Topanga Mall was eventually built along with many other stores, businesses, and office buildings. The property just west of that, Warner Center, similar in size, would be developed a few years after that with 15 story office buildings, restaurants, theaters, and the like. From 1960 to 1969, the transformation the west valley went through was drastic and relatively quick. It was fast becoming the center of something bigger rather than the small country bumpkin western end of the San Fernando Valley. It was fast becoming just another part of Los Angeles. But right now, it was the beginning of the 60’s.
That big field across from the high school was empty save for the old groves, weeds, an occasional palm tree, and one big old house in the far corner. Presumably this structure was home to the long time owners, old property owners from the early days, now standing to make a mint with the impending purchase of their acreage. My Dad and I continued our drive east on Vanowen past Canoga Avenue and Mason Street to Winnetka Ave and our destination…a little strip mall shopping center across the street from the Canoga Bowl. In this little collection of shops and businesses was a barber shop, a neighborhood bar, and a few other establishments that may or may not have been a laundromat, a little furniture store, and a cafe with a sign that touted it as having “The Best Biscuits and Gravy in the West Valley”. All I remember for sure is that this is where my Dad and I would go every few weeks for a haircut and a beer!
We got our haircuts from the two barbers who worked there. My Dad would get a flat top and I would get what is now called a “buzz” cut, short short and easy care for a 10 year old. When I turned about 12 he allowed me get a flat top, which cost a buck or so more than the $2.00 standard fee for a plain haircut. After all, it took longer, was more precise, and included a slather of palmade, the styling gel of its day.
After the haircuts, we left the barber shop, made a sharp right turn then another right turn into that neighborhood bar right next door. It was 11:30 am on a Saturday. I don’t recall the name of the bar, it could have been one of many ‘Jack’s Office” type names. It was dark in there coming in from the bright sun outside. It always took a little while for my eyes to adjust. The room was long and skinny, with a well-stocked bar stretched out on one side with a few little neon signs that said, “Miller High Life”, “Seagrams 7”, and “Jim Beam”. There was well-lit jukebox in the back playing a Patsy Cline song. The bartender and owners was named Bill. And although he didn’t know my Dad by name, within a few seconds he placed a small glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon draught beer on the well-worn bar top in front of my Dad. He didn’t know my Dad by name, he did know what he drank. I will always remember the smallness of that glass of beer compared to the unweildy, giant, frosted mugs of beer they push on you today. Mugs so large that the beer is warm by the time you finish it. The reason for these old skool, small glasses of beer, almost the size of a slightly oversized juice glass: your beer never got warm. It was still cold when you finished it, then you’d have another one or two. That’s the way it was done then.
One of the things my Dad always did was sprinkle a little salt in his beer. He not only loved salt on everything for the taste, the salt help the beer keep a bit of a head. Oh, as for me? I barely reached the bar sitting on the stools, so I would be on my knees, waiting for my “cocktail”…a frosty glass of 7up with a splash of grenadine and a cherry…a Shirley Temple! With that, I would jump down from the bar stool and over to the other long wall in the bar where the shuffleboard was located. It was one of those long, wooden, waist high structures (chest high to a 10 year old), what seemed like 100 feet long (probably 10 feet), with a fine sand spread out on the polished wood surface. My Dad and I were usually the only ones in the bar at that time of the day save for the bartender and one lone guy sitting by himself at the far end, so I had the shuffleboard to myself. Laid out in from of me were several, heavy, shiny, chromed, hockey pucks. And there I would stay, playing shuffleboard, trying to slide those pucks all the way to the other end without them falling off the edge, while my Dad chatted and smoked Tareytons with Bill the bartender. I would sip my Shirley Temple, which eventually became a Hopalong Cassidy (substitute Coke for the 7up), eat a few hands full of peanuts from the bowl at the bar, and play shuffleboard. I never payed much attention to what Bill the bartender and my Dad chatted about…probably complained about taxes, or the price of gas, or how much it costs to raise kids. I will never forget the smell of beer and cigarettes, playing shuffleboard, and the taste of those little glasses of Coke, grenadine…and the cherries. My Dad paid for our drinks, stamped out his Tareyton in the little plastic ashtray, whistled at me, and we headed out the door into the bright Saturday sunshine.
The rest of those Saturdays didn’t matter much. My Dad and I got to go and get haircuts and have a drink at the bar, just him and me. We would stop in downtown Canoga Park on the way home at an intersection whose four corners contained the Bank of America, the post office, Green Thumb Nursery and Hardware, and Toytown. He would spend some time at Green Thumb buying a new garden hose or a big bag of manure for the grass, and I would languish in Toytown ogling all the neat things a store with just toys offered a 10 year old. On occasion, my Dad would come into the store to get me and he would buy me a balsa wood glider for 10 cents with the warning, “Don’t let your sisters know I got this for you. Tell them you got it in school…for a reading contest or something”. Of course, I would comply. My sisters were extremely envious of our little Saturday forays and wouldn’t have stood for us leaving that morning without throwing fits had it not been for the fact that they were distracted by my Mom with some baking project or something similar. We always managed to make our “getaway” without too much trauma. There would be some whining and crying from them when we returned, but, too bad…it was a done deal, we were already home! I spent at least part of the day with my Dad, just us, getting haircuts, hanging out in a bar, and playing shuffleboard. I was 10 years old.