Alhambra - 1940-1943

Thomas Turman

© Copyright 2023 by Thomas Turman

Photo by Chris F at Prexels.
Photo by Chris F at Prexels.

One of my first memories is of escape and the wonderful fear that comes from confronting something completely new. Looking at old, brown photographs my mother took of me as a four-year-old standing stiffly next to my dad in front of a blooming Poinsettia bush, squinting into the afternoon California sun. My mother’s clear, penciled title and date on the back of the photo; “Tommy, Alhambra, 1941.

My parents and I lived in one of those typical, Southern California, light colored, stucco duplexes on a busy street across from the Eagle Condensed Milk Company. Because of the traffic on our busy street, I was allowed to play outside only in the back yard. But the huge iron eagle attached to the wide, bridge-like, iron entrance to the Milk Company, its wings spread, its talons bared to all beyond the gate, invited and frightened me. I would often sneak out in the front to stare at the big bird directly in front of our house. The eagle was elaborately detailed when spotlighted by the morning sun and fiercely threatening with the afternoon sun behind the predator wings. Sometimes it seemed to be protecting the people who went in and out, and other times it looked like it was coming after me. I’d scurry to the back yard.

Beyond the inviting, but gated entrance, a shadowy, cool-looking, tree-lined street ran straight up to an elaborate solid building. It was made of red brick, with white columns and a peaked roof at the front and spread out in back. It even smelled wonderful; sweet and inviting. What went on over there?

As I gained confidence, I would sneak along the driveway, in the shade of the big hedge next to the house and just stare at all the people walking and driving into the mystery place every morning.

Each morning, I would creep closer and closer in the bushes around our house, trying to hide from my mom, who seemed to be able to see every bad thing I did. Sometimes I would hear her out back of the house and I would have to run back. But by the fourth or fifth day, I discovered that I could get all the way up to the street without her knowing that I wasn’t in the back yard.

After rushing through my breakfast, I would run out the back door and sneak quickly up to my front-yard observation post in a bush right at the curb of the busy street to watch the morning parade of people into the official-looking old factory. I began to recognize some of the men and women as they often wore the same clothes. The women wore pants and shirts with colorful bandanas to hold their hair up off their shoulders as I’d seen my mother do. The men all wore short-brimmed hats tilted slightly
to one side as they walked in bunches, bumping and laughing. Some of the men wore overalls and shirts with the sleeves rolled up, and some wore suits and ties. They were all like the men who came home with my dad some times. It was as if I knew them.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. On the sixth morning, with my heart beating very fast, I looked up and down the street, saw no cars coming, and dashed across to the big, black gates that seemed to invite me in. I just walked in behind a group of men swinging shinny metal lunchboxes at the end of their big arms. I got all the way up to the bottom of the steps in front of the deep red, brick building where the men, and some women, went to the left. This left me staring up at another wonderful and fierce eagle over the entrance doors.

Suddenly, a strong, eagle-talon-like hand griped my right arm and jerked me around. I was staring into the pretty face of a lady with dark hair not quite all tucked under a red bandana, who had swooped down on me. Her long fingers, wrapped tightly around my skinny arm, ended in sharp, red fingernails. She wore a flowered shirt and dark pants and shoes with her toes sticking out. Her toenails were painted red to match her fingers and lips. She asked me what I was doing there and if I belonged to one of the people in the plant. I didn’t know what “plant” meant, so I didn’t say anything. Then she asked me my name. I was scared and confused, and before I could answer, she took my hand and led me up the stairs. Up the stairs! I was going into the building right under the eagle. Great!

As we got to the top of the stairs she stopped another woman dressed in a dark suit like the one my dad often wore. They would look down at me as they talked quietly, smile and then put their heads together and talk some more. I was looking up at the eagle.

Suddenly, both the women looked over my head and down along the tree-lined drive leading up to us and smiled. I turned and my heart sank. There was my mother without much on under her long colorful, flowered housecoat, which streamed out behind her, running football player speed past the stunned and shocked workers toward us. She was yelling my name in a frantic, angry cadence with every other step.

I’d almost made my escape.

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