Yesterday & Today

Barbecue memories of simpler time
I clearly remember the first time I ever saw Dad because I was
over 2
½ years old when he came home from World War II.
At first, when Mom had collected him from his ship in San
Francisco and brought him home, I didn’t recognize him. But soon I
realized that Dad and the uniformed Navy man in the picture on her
dresser were the same person.
Barbecue memories of simpler time

I clearly remember the first time I ever saw Dad because I was over 2½ years old when he came home from World War II.

At first, when Mom had collected him from his ship in San Francisco and brought him home, I didn’t recognize him. But soon I realized that Dad and the uniformed Navy man in the picture on her dresser were the same person.

Mom and I had spent the duration of his absence living in a little box of a house on Dowdy Street and our life continued on there after the war ended. Following a period of readjustment when Dad returned, our little trio became a real family again. Part of the process was simply getting back in touch with family life in the middle 1940s, a re-acquaintance that was going on in homes across the nation. For most of the families in Gilroy, it meant catching up on lost time, all those months and years when the head of the house was gone. Not to mention finding a job to support the growing family.

Many of the other returning veterans also purchased those little box houses matching ours on Dowdy Street between Fifth and Sixth streets, and nearly all the families had children in the same age range. We kids attended Jordan School, so we saw each other daily on the playground and in class, then on the weekends we’d romp on our front lawns and in each others’ backyards.

The best part was the Saturday barbecues. Barbecuing as an art and social form had come into its own post-World War II, when leisure living, especially in the West took on a life all its own. Saturdays at our home, the same weekly scene played out as the Hannas, the Karps and the Youngs would come though our back gate, around mid-afternoon. The women brought potluck casseroles or salads to go along with the chicken or steaks Dad was preparing to grill. The men usually brought a case of Burgermeister or Lucky Lager, or a bottle of whiskey, since California wines hadn’t yet come into vogue.

For years the Saturday afternoon barbecue was an unchanging ritual. While the women retired to the kitchen, the men gathered out around Dad’s hand-built brick barbecue to discuss sports, the fate of the world, and their wartime service experiences. Sometimes with all the adults busy visiting, we kids would vanish and make up some innocent mischief, like sneaking up the back alley where we’d been told not to go, or getting into the snacks we knew were meant for later. If it got dark early, we’d crawl around on the neighbor’s front lawns, trying to sneak a peek into their front rooms without being caught.

When it was finally time to eat, the Saturday social ritual moved from kitchen and barbecue pit to the cement patio Mom and Dad had constructed just for such events. After all the meat, corn, salad and drinks had been passed, we kids would chow down so we could hurry up and wait for dessert, kicking the table legs impatiently to make the parents stop chatting and go inside for the hot apple pie.

After dinner, the women would lounge on the patio furniture, smoking cigarettes and chatting. The men set up the card table and quickly got down to business. Post-dinner activities were invariably a hot game of poker, or numerous rounds of Acey-Ducey, a board game Dad had picked up skills for while in the Navy.

We kids would gather around and listen to the dads as they related their colorful wartime experiences, the telling becoming richer and grander by the year. The stories never failed to amaze us, and we listened with rapt attention, certain their exploits must have placed them right alongside Douglas MacArthur, or perhaps even General Eisenhower.

In time in our country, General Eisenhower became President Eisenhower, beating out MacArthur at the Republican Convention of 1952. By then, there was a collective national shift in focus: the glorious post-combat stories had started to diminish, and in their place we heard terror tales of the silently unfolding Cold War.

About that time, we kids were ready to graduate from Jordan School and move over to Fifth Grade at Brownell. Our parents were moving, too. Families had grown larger, and one by one, we all departed our cozy, boxy little Dowdy Street homes for larger, pricier places. Some moved as far as Miller Avenue, a tree-lined boulevard on the extreme western edge of town.

Along with the moves came increased incomes and enhanced lifestyles. The same group of parents still got together, but infrequently, and usually minus us kids. By the time we hit high school, some parents were absent weekends, off on gambling and entertainment forays to Stateline or Reno.

I miss those simple, 1940s backyard barbecues. In the early post-war years, when families were just starting over, there was hope in the air, and the promise of a more stable world won by all those Dads who brought back their heroic combat memories. Those scenes fade with time, but for a little girl who first met her Dad on an October night in 1945, the picture remains clear.

He will always be that handsome man in uniform, come back home to complete the family. And to make sure, over the ensuing years, that the chicken and steaks were always done just right.

Elizabeth Barratt can be reached via email at: [email protected]

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