After Aimee and I retired, we spent a portion of the falls of 2016 and 2017 in San Diego, my old stomping grounds. While there, it was impossible not to become nostalgic, and my poor wife got to hear all of my stories about my life growing up in El Cajon. It was a great time in my life and one that consists of fond memories. I don’t know how many times I’ve said it, but I’ll say it again. I’d go back and relive my formative years in a heartbeat, even the bad parts. Life wasn’t always rosy, but that I’d go back again should say something. I’m a member of a Facebook Group for people who’ve lived there. I made the following post back in 2016.
It’s pretty hard visiting the San Diego area without coming down with a bad case of nostalgia. But favorite restaurants, stores and places that have come and gone around town is not where my fond memories lie. My folks moved to the valley in 1959; I was six. Highway 8 still dumped down into El Cajon Blvd, and you were practically out of town by the time you hit second street. Have bike will travel. The valley was ours, and there wasn’t any place that bike couldn’t take you—until you got a flat, of course. Back in those days, the open fields were full of stickers from the tumbleweeds that blew down from the hillsides. If you didn’t want to surrender your ticket to freedom, learning how to patch an inner tube was an absolute necessity. I remember once having to fix the same tire twice in one day. And what kid didn’t clothes pin some bubble gum cards to his bike in hopes it just might fly. But it wasn’t so much the places that bike could take me that brings a smile. That bike was symbolic of a simpler time. We had no helmets and yet somehow, we managed to survive. We played football in the street without worry of being run down … or gunned down. We played hide and seek when it got dark, and moms didn’t have to worry about us being abducted. It was a time when kids used their imaginations. Of course, that imagination did lead to trouble from time to time. I mean, what kid doesn’t want to find out how big you can let a grass fire grow before it’s too big to put out? Not that I ever did anything like that. The problem is, you only find out once it’s too late. And we could be quite scientific when we wanted to be. How much water can a balloon hold before it breaks? How high can I get my kite to fly? How close can I shoot a sling shot at you before hitting you? How long could we stand on the asphalt barefoot before we blistered our feet? Yes, science seemed to have no limits for us. It seems too, we were always making something: a skateboard from an old pair of roller skates, a gun from a piece of wood, anything you could make from a set of wagon wheels, and of course, a fort. No summer would be complete without at least one attempt at a fort. You can’t play army without a fort to protect yourself from enemy bullets. I even remember one time we dug a hole—a big hole on the side of my neighbor’s house. Heaven knows why. I can still remember his dad was not too happy with us when he got home from work either. Not sure what the problem was there … it was just a hole.
Even though the world around us was in turmoil: the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy assassination, Viet Nam, civil rights protests … our valley seemed to be insulated from all of that. At least until … until somewhere along the way we lost our innocence. I’m not sure when that was exactly. Was it when they ran I-8 through our piece of paradise? Was it when they built Parkway Plaza? I know that once empty field holds a special memory for me (if you know what I mean). Or was it when they took the Hickory out of our phone number. Whose big idea was that, anyway? There was a time when we only had three channels to watch on TV, black and white at that. Maybe four on a good day when you could pick up one of the LA channels. Then someone had to come along with the brainy idea of cable and satellite. Don’t get me wrong, I love my computer and my IPOD, but what a price we had to pay for those conveniences. In many ways, we lived our own ‘Back To The Future’. I can practically hear the Chordettes singing Mr. Sandman, and I can still remember Jackie Gleason in the ‘Honeymooners’. There were coon skin caps on little boys imitating Davy Crockett and saddle oxfords on little girls playing hopscotch.
I suppose El Cajon wasn’t all that much different in those days than many small towns across the country. But it was our small town, and we lived there during a time in our culture that can never again be repeated. The sad thing is, it won’t be too many years before it will be gone for good. Just like the El Cajon we all loved, those of us who lived then will eventually pass. And with our passing, all of the memories of a time forgotten. Yesterday, I visited our little haven of paradise. And as sad as it was to see a town that is now unrecognizable, all the apartments and freeways in the world can’t bury the many fond memories of cuts and bruises, summer days at the beach, fishing at Lake Murray, hula hoops and yo-yos, waiting for the ice cream man or Helms Bakery truck, milk bottles on the front porch or playing in the drainage tunnel under I-8. Those are the things I remember and will always cherish.