Writing to Remember Part 2

In the following article, Aurora Lewis describes a vacation with her family. Memoir suits her writing style and motivation; she is compelled to write because “as a grandmother of three, it is very important for me to document my personal history for them and others.”  If we write to remember, it is sometimes in the hope that others will never have to walk along that same road.

The Bitter Taste of Santa Barbara

In 1957, my grandfather purchased a new cream and sherbet orange colored Ford station wagon.  With the larger car, my grandfather decided it would be a good time for the entire family to go on vacation.  He selected Santa Barbara, California as our vacation spot.  On this trip were my grandparents and aunt, my parents, younger brother, myself, uncle, aunt, and their two small sons, one of whom was a baby less than 3 months old.

Unlike vacations to Yosemite where my grandparents camped in tent-like cabins, my grandfather located a resort in Santa Barbara, close to the beach that had log cabins.  He mailed a check, reserving three to accommodate the family. I was seven years old and for weeks my aunt, who was 5 years older, and I were giddy with anticipation. I had never been on any of the Yosemite vacations; although my mother had been asked, she declined because she often had carsickness. The thought of staying in a cabin was like something I had seen on the Spin and Marty Show, a segment of the Micky Mouse Club.

The logistics of all of us gathering together and making the trip had its obstacles.  My grandmother had to drive to a different area in Los Angeles to pick up my mother, brother, and me.  My father was a Los Angeles County Sheriff and he was to meet up with us at the resort after he got off from work that evening.  My uncle and his family lived a few miles away from my grandparents, in Compton. During the day, my grandmother made and packed an abundance of sandwiches, potato salad, chips, cookies, and other treats for the trip. Once we arrived at our destination, her plan was to get groceries from a local market and prepare our meals at the resort.  

It took us longer than my grandparents thought for us to get on our way, and it was starting to get dark.  Los Angeles is about 95 miles from Santa Barbara; today it would a little over an hour and half. In 1957 it felt like an eternity, stopping for gas, and eating our dinner in the car along the side of the road.  I was too excited to take a nap and chattered endlessly with my aunt.  Most of the trip was along streets in various cities we passed through.  There weren’t as many freeways in 1957 as we have now.  We did do some traveling on the Pacific Coast Highway that runs along the coast.

Finally, at what felt like mid-night we reached our destination. I could see a row of cabins behind some trees across the road from where we parked. We met up with my uncle and his family in their red and black Ford Fairlane. My grandfather thought my father would be along soon. He went alone to the registration desk to get our keys. To his surprise, he was told they didn’t have any cabins, even though my grandfather made prior arrangements and had a written confirmation he received in the mail. The White man at the desk gave my grandfather cash to cover the amount of the check. I remember my grandfather told my grandmother how rude the man was, tossing the money on the desk counter.

We waited for my father who arrived shortly. He was still dressed in his Sherriff’s uniform and my grandfather thought perhaps my father would have some influence on the man at the resort desk.  My grandfather and father went back to the resort. My uncle stayed with the women and children sitting in the cars.  However, my father had no impact on this man at the desk.  My father and grandfather said the man told them he didn’t care if my father was a Sheriff, they didn’t have any cabins for “You people!” 

The men in my family were educated, my father and uncle were veterans of the Korean War and all held good jobs. My grandfather was a Maintenance Engineer with the California Department Finance Division of Buildings and Grounds. My uncle worked on airplanes for Northrop as he had been in the Air Force, and as I have already stated, my father was a Los Angeles County Sheriff; before that he was a hospital orderly. I know the men in my family had more intelligence than the racist at the desk.

My grandfather had no intentions of making the long drive back home, he still wanted us to have our vacation. After some thought it was decided we’d drive along the coast and perhaps find a place to stay.  We came to a beach where we could camp which was legal back then. I was afraid of sleeping on the beach that night after hearing the adults discuss the White man who was so hateful back at the resort.

Pallets made from blankets and pillows were spread out on the sand for some of us and others slept in the cars where enough room was provided. I slept on the sand with my mother, father, and brother. My uncle also slept on the sand as added security to ensure we were safe. My grandparents and young aunt slept in their station wagon, although my aunt went back and forth from the car to our pallets on the sand. My uncle’s wife slept in their car with her sons.  No other families were camped near us although some White families could be seen in the distance. I had a fretful night staring up at the dark sky, stars, and moon until I finally fell asleep cuddled next to my mother.

The next morning, we still had some food from the day before that had been stored in coolers.  Since the sun was shining, I began to relax and enjoy the day, running along the shore, and wading in the ocean.  I saw White families doing the same thing. My grandparents drove off in search of provisions to get us through the remaining days of our vacation.  They were not gone very long, and I was elated when they returned.

As we sat around a campfire laughing and talking, a strange White man approached.  He was old, bent over, ragged with an unshaved stubble on his face.  He had a can in his hand and asked my grandfather to buy the can of beans. Politely, my grandfather told him we had plenty of food and that we didn’t need the beans.  The man insisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer or leave.  My grandfather became angry as did my father and uncle.   Firmly, they told him to leave.  Although they did not threaten the man, my father had his service revolver in the trunk of our car.  The man left mumbling obscenities, but he didn’t call us niggers.  My stomach had been uneasy during this whole encounter and I really wanted us to pack up and go home. My father tried to assure me I had nothing to worry about.

Earlier that day, my uncle buried some sodas in the sand close to where the ocean rolled up to the shore.  The sodas were placed there to keep cool as the water was very cold.  My uncle marked the area with a large stick stuck into the ground, like a flagpole.  As we sat around talking, my uncle jumped up, and started running toward his pole.  A young White boy was pulling the stick out of the ground, heard my uncle holler “Hey put that back!” and took off running, my uncle in fast pursuit.  My family started shouting at my uncle to come back and stop chasing the boy.  He came to his senses, went back and dug up our sodas.  My Black uncle chasing this young White boy could have resulted into something terrible, after all this was the 1950s.

About this time, my uncle’s wife had enough of our vacation.  It was not her original intention to have their small baby camping on the beach. She was not having a good time and the tension and arguments between my uncle and his wife exploded into a sand-throwing contest, which my grandfather and father broke up.  As hard as we all tried, this vacation was a bust, and my grandfather said we’d leave the next day, to my delight. 

The trip back to Los Angeles went much faster than the trip to Santa Barbara.  Perhaps because it was daylight, more than likely because I was happy to be going home. I never heard my family discuss our vacation to Santa Barbara again, I guess it was something they wanted to forget about, though I never did. My grandparents continued to take family vacations with my aunt and her son after he was born. They took a trip to Oregon, stopping in Carmel and Monterey.   At that time, I lived with them and had a job. I couldn’t take any time off and I wasn’t that interested, the bitter taste of that family vacation was still in my mouth  It’s been over 60 years since that vacation to Santa Barbara, it is a  beautiful place but my seven-year-old first impressions remain with me, always.

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