My weird and wonderful 1950s childhood as a Kiwi growing up in America

Jan 30, 2019
The local children invited Robyn to the movies, but she had no idea they were to play a prank on her. Source: Pixabay

In 1959, we lived with an American family in a tract house in California. It was quite difficult to find when mother and I went for our daily walk. We’d go once around the promenade deck, which was roughly 1 mile. We’d try a different path each day, but found that the shops were fascinating.

At the end of the semi-main road that led into the subdivision there was a block of shops with a plethora of goodies and the main stop for us each day was the drug store. In New Zealand, where I live now, we have chemists only and we have dairies, but rarely are the two ever found together. The drug store had a soda fountain, which was quite decadent. My mother and I made our way through the menu: pie, banana split, pie a la mode, pie with cheese… You name it, we tried it! To this day my favourite is a hot fudge with marshmallow sundae with cream and sprinkles.

In this set of shops was also a pizza place. Neither my mother nor I knew how to pronounce ‘pizza’ at the time — it makes me laugh even to this day — but we learned quickly thanks to the nice Italian man behind the counter. He would laugh at us whenever we walked in his shop. We had been saying ‘pee-zzz-ahh’, but Italians pronounce it more like ‘pit-tsa’.

After these walks, one of the ways we were able to find our way home was thanks to the palm tree that had been planted in the front yard. Though palms had been distributed to all the houses in the row, this one was slightly off-centre.

One weekend, I joined the other children at the movies. Prior to out United States trip, I’d seen a number of children’s movies at my local picture theatre in Remeura, New Zealand, including The Famous Five and The Wizard of Oz. It was the first time since we’d arrived that the local children had invited me anywhere; until then I had been totally alien to them. The movie house was enormous and sold hot buttered popcorn, soda and lots of lollies I’d never seen before.

In 1959 you could smoke in cinemas, and the movies ran on after each other, which was unlike anything I’d experienced in NZ. We sat down, arms laden with goodies, and settled in for the film, but I had no idea what was about to happen. The film we were seeing was for general release, and at eight years of age it shouldn’t have been a problem me viewing, however it started with enormous sound and the first image I had was of a giant cyclops dragging a dinosaur coming towards me. I froze. I must have gasped, as there were giggles from the other children around me and I heard someone say “You ain’t seen nothing yet”. It was so terrifying I just about soiled my pants, which the other kids thought to be hilarious. I had to sit there, frightened by what I was watching. The movie haunted me for years after, and those children continued making my life miserable.

Fortunately, we had become friendly with an older couple who lived in Bakersfield, California, and they had invited Mother and I to stay with them. Bakersfield was as hot as hell; I’d never experienced a heat like it. Fred and Fran Williams had grown up children. They lived in a moderate house in Bakersfield and we’d met them onboard a ship to Monterey, which was a ‘retirement treat’ for them. Fran was an incredible baker. Fred was a pilot and had a small Cessna. They also had a new Cadillac and would take us driving around the area.

At the end of a week with the Williams, my mother and I stayed into a hotel in San Francisco and enjoyed shopping all the large department stores. Back in New Zealand we only had two to choose from, but in San Francisco there were several within walking distance to where we were staying. I enjoyed Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue off Union Square, and the White House.

I have incredibly memories of these days travelling with my mother.

Do you remember holidays with your family? Where did you go? What did you do?

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