Oh, To Cycle and Swim…
My mother Beth was a wonderful person in so many ways and she was the one I regularly turned to in moments of childhood crisis. When we were sick she’d nurse us to health and her chocolate chip cookies made my packed school lunch special indeed. But when it came to anything physically robust involving my brother Jim and I, she was over protective.
When Jimmy and I began riding bikes she made us promise we would never cycle down the big hill on Molino which took us to Montford below. To be fair it is a very steep hill but the fact that my brother and I never cycled down it was noticed often by our friends Jimmy Brown and Johnny Lem who would regularly race down that hill on their bikes.
“What’s the matter Myers? Are you chicken?”
Jim and I just had to accept these carping comments. The trouble was that Beth had made such a heartfelt case about not cycling down that hill and, having promised we wouldn’t, we didn’t. This meant we took the less vertiginous Janes Street whenever we rode our bikes down into Homestead Valley.
For a brief period of time Jim and I were in the Boy Scouts. Mister Collett was our scoutmaster and we used to attend weekly sessions at the scout hall on East Blithedale. He taught us to march in a military style and we worked for the various merit badges and I think I even earned my first class badge. We bought our uniforms from Men’s Mayers which was exciting. There was a winter trip planned to the snowy Sierras which I was particularly keen on as I had such vivid childhood memories of snow in New York, Connecticut and Minnesota and longed to experience it again. I was so very excited about this trip. All the arrangements had been made and my parents had paid for it. But at the eleventh hour Beth became worried that something might happen to me and I didn’t get to go. I was terribly disappointed.
Before Vin Hallinan went off to prison in 1954, he taught my sisters Nell and Kate to swim. The Hallinans had a big pool up at their mansion in Ross and Vin regularly gave swimming lessons. Their pool was a terrific place to learn how to be comfortable in the water. But when it came time for Jim and I to learn to swim, Beth wouldn’t allow us to have lessons with Vin. It was probably the aggressively athletic environment the Hallinan boys grew up in which made her mind up. There were six sons: Butch, Kayo, Tuffy, Dynamite, Ringo and Danny. They all swam beautifully and were highly athletic. Football and boxing were the main sports indulged in though they also did gymnastics.
I think Beth wanted to protect her little boys from what she perceived as Vin’s ‘bullying’ ways. Vin was a highly educated and well read person who also happened to swear like a longshoreman. The Hallinan boys were all tough and the rapport Vin had with them was verbally aggressive. They in turn were aggressive back and I think this reinforced Beth’s opinion that Jim and I shouldn’t learn to swim with him. But he was, according to Danny, a highly sensitive teacher. It seems he didn’t learn to swim until he was in the navy and he was well aware of how very frightening the water could be for a beginner. Danny has always been pretty critical of his dynamic father but when it came to swimming lessons he had nothing but admiration for Vin. So Beth was totally wrong not to let Jimmy and I learn up at the pool in Ross. Instead we went for swimming lessons at Tam High during the summer vacation.
My memory of these lessons is that we were a group of about fifteen boys and girls all roughly the same age. The instructor was a young woman who was very gruff and not at all friendly. There was a good deal of shouting and absolutely no fun. A sense of unease would come over me as Jim and I entered the boys’ changing room with the smell of chlorine heavy in the air. I never felt good about going through to the pool. Once we were in the water my dread left me. The first thing Madam Shouty had us do was to hold on to the edge and kick. This got us used to floating on the surface, the position we would find ourselves in while doing the front crawl.
There is a strange transitional zone which exists between being incapable of doing something through to the beginnings of some kind of ability. I remember the day I mastered riding my bike down in the playground at Molino and Janes. Once I realised that it was actually a balancing act and got comfortable with shifting my weight from side to side I then found that I could make it all the way around the playground albeit a bit wobbly. Eventually, with practice, the wobbling diminished and by the time that happened I could no longer recall not being able to ride a bike. It was the same with swimming. Once I was able to do it a bit I totally forgot about the inability which preceded it. And we did learn to swim after a fashion. In fact I even learned to dive into the pool and we basically were equipped to spend summer days in the pool with friends.
However I still wish that I had learned to swim up at the Hallinans’ as my front crawl was never strong. My stroke was sloppy and my kicking uneven. One day out at Stinson Beach I was body surfing. You would stand out in the water and when a wave swelled behind, you’d start swimming and as the wave caught you, you’d tuck your arms in and ride it. Jar Dreyfus saw me doing this and commented negatively on the way I was using my arms when swimming to catch the wave. Jar of course had to learned to swim with Vin. I was doing a kind of windmill stroke rather than bringing my elbow up out of the water then extending it through and Jared was very critical. So I was aware that my swimming wasn’t that good but had no help in putting it right.
My very first experience of a swimming pool occurred at Fred Field’s estate in Connecticut when I was three years old. My father Blackie and I were sitting by Fred’s pool on a beautiful sunny day. I stood and looked down into the shimmering blue water which looked absolutely beautiful to my young eyes. On an impulse I simply jumped in. Suddenly I was in a different reality down at the bottom of the pool. There was an explosion of bubbles and I saw the strong eyebrows of my father Blackie as his face came straight at me and the next thing I knew we were back up on the surface. There was no trauma or upset. I didn’t cry as there was no time for panic to set in.
I have always been beguiled by the sight of a blue swimming pool. There was one behind a wooden fence on Ethel Avenue which we’d always walk past on our way to downtown Mill Valley. The shimmering reflections off the water played on the wooden fence and I longed to be familiar with what was on the other side of it. One of our neighbours down by the playground, Kelly Giles, had a swimming pool but nobody’s pool came close to the Hallinans’. It was about the same size as the one at Tam High and sat behind a big hedge at the end of Lagunitas Road in Ross. Right next to it was a big gym and from the pool you’d look across a massive expanse of lawn to the mansion at the other end with pillars on the porch.
But I never felt confident enough about my swimming to enjoy a day in the Ross pool so most of my swimming happened at Tam. Such days were terrific fun. Jim and I would spend all day in the pool horsing around. It was always too full of screaming kids to ever swim a length as you would constantly bump into others. After such exertions we’d come out of the changing room with an extra special kind of hunger in our tummies. We’d walk across the front parking lot and up Miller Avenue to C’s Drive-In. As we never had that much money on us the most we could afford at C’s was a bag of fries with sauce for fifteen cents. The sauce came in a little paper tub and consisted of ketchup mixed with French’s mustard. Not exactly Hollandaise but that special kind of hunger we came out of the pool with made dipping those fries into the magic sauce the greatest delicacy on earth. If we didn’t have the fifteen cents for this treat we would have to continue on to the Miller Avenue Shopping Centre where we’d buy a 3 Musketeers bar, a Milky Way or a Snickers for a nickel.
One summer’s day we were in the pool with our friend Henry Serra who lived just around the corner from Homestead School. I’m not sure exactly what happened. Maybe Henry was under the water when someone dived in just above him but the result was that suddenly he was seriously unwell and we had to take him home. It transpired that Henry had concussion.
Another time after a swimming session at Tam my right ear began to hurt. It was mildly irritating throughout the day and just got steadily worse. The optimist in me kept thinking it would get better but it became terribly painful and I finally went to Beth about it. I remember that she was distracted by something else and didn’t take what I was saying seriously. This was not her usual way. She was usually over indulgent but she brusquely said: “All right. Let’s look at it.” She grabbed my ear clumsily which sent a searing pain through my head and brought instant tears to my eyes. Poor Beth suddenly realised that it was serious and felt terrible about her cavalier attitude. We went to see Doctor Moore who said my inner ear had become infected as a result of water getting in. He prescribed me some drops which cleared the infection up over a few days.
The liberation of learning to ride a bike meant that I could now occasionally cycle to Homestead which had its good and bad points. Both Jim and I were in the habit of running to school as our route was all downhill but the negative aspect of this was having to climb hills on the way home and if you had a bike it was worse. Our home at 10 Seymour Avenue was on the lower slopes of Mount Tamalpais and the town actually consisted of valleys: Old Mill, Homestead Valley and Tam Valley. There were steps up from downtown at several locations including one connecting with our road which began down on Miller Avenue at Una Way.
So riding a bike in Mill Valley was a mixed experience but it was the way most kids got around. I never did a paper route but had friends who did. The paper was the Independent Journal, an afternoon daily which covered mostly Marin County news. The man in charge of the paper routes was Jack Benjamin. There was a big tree surrounded by a circular wooden casing you could sit on in the middle of Miller just opposite the 2am Club and this was one of the many drop-off points for the I-J delivery boys. About six guys would arrive after school on their bikes with a big cloth bag sporting an I-J logo. Once Jack delivered the stacks of newspapers, their first job was to roll each one up into a baton shape and put a rubber band around it. If it was raining they had to wrap a sheet of waxed paper around it.
David Gilliam, an actor colleague of mine in London who also grew up in Mill Valley remembers: “We always used rubber bands but the order of business was to break open the wrapped stacks of papers and then do the insert, which was like the lifestyle section going into the main news section. We then rolled, banded and placed them in our bag. We’d sign for the number of papers we had, which we paid for once a month. Tossing them was an art because you had to figure out the right position for it to land on the doorstep of some funky wooden house on struts below the street. They were never above you in the canyons. Either level or below. When funds got low, you would spend an evening going around collecting subscription money and marking it down in your book. Not spending before you had to pay Jack was tough. He carried quite a few of us as we’d skid into arrears, settling the bill with the IJ himself as he would have had to do. For me, the highlight was gathering all together at that spot opposite the 2am club where we ribbed each other, planned some mischief and bonded as mates. Great fun at fourteen.”
I would have found a paper route an awful burdon. Pushing my bike up the hills was not something I ever enjoyed. There were yellow school buses which we only took to Homestead when it was raining but when I began sixth grade at Alto it was either taking the bus or riding my bike.
The fact that Jim and I each had a bike was due to the benevolence of our rich friends back east. The money for these came from Fred Field and Ruth and Luke Wilson. Jim recalls a visit we made to pick up my three speed bike from the Montgomery Ward outlet in Mill Valley just on the other side of Miller from Brown’s. The clerk brought out a big cardboard box saying it “was all ready to assemble.” Blackie however was having none of that and told the clerk in no uncertain terms that we’d be back in awhile to pick up the bike after he’d assembled it, which he then did.
Summer days were a lot of fun in the Mill Valley of my youth. Swimming, cycling and riding cardboard boxes down the big hill on the Pixie Trail made me and my friends forget our agonies for a brief moment and enjoy the thrill of being alive in a beautiful place.
For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org