MEMORIES of "LITTLE USO"
A JOURNEY INTO OLD MERCED
By: Neva Sonia 'Calvert' Carpenter, Aug. 26, 2003
I am a seventy-five year old woman now reliving my teen years spent in Merced, California. My parents were Harold T. Calvert and Eva Margaret Calvert. My father worked for the I. R. S. Mother a piano teacher.
The summer of 1941 my father was transferred to Merced from El Cerrito, California. A small town (at the time) nestled between Berkeley and Richmond, to become the Chief Deputy of the Merced branch. I was 13 at the time and hated leaving all my friends and the town where I was born and raised. But it didn’t take me long to fall in love with Merced, with it’s tree shaded streets, and cozy, small town atmosphere.
The house dad found was on the corner of 25th and 'K' Streets. He rushed home to arrange the deposit. He showed us pictures of the house and we were very excited to move into this huge, old fashion two story home. By the time dad returned to Merced it had been sold. He found a rental for us at 520-22nd St. to move into till he could find a home to buy. This was also a big two story home. Not as big and as eye catching as the original one he planned on getting, but we loved it. We were sandwiched in between Judge McCray’s and Lawyer Hale's homes. The two families quickly became close friends of ours. The Mc Cray's had three sons, Jim, Larry and Kevin. They also had a daughter who would have been my age if she had lived. Because of this (and the fact that I was such a good kid...smile) they took a liking to me and I was often at their home. One winter during Christmas vacation they took me on a vacation with them to Wawona, which is above Yosemite National Park. It was my first time to ever be in the snow.
There was a primary school across the street called Freemont. It wasn’t like the school I had gone to in El Cerrito that had 6 grades. This one had only four grades. The grammar school, John Muir was from the 5th to the 8th. This meant I would not be going into Jr. High now but would still be in grammar school. I had been so excited about finally getting into Jr. High School and was very disappointed to find I would still be in grammar school for two more years. The Kindergarten was across from the Fremont Primary School on ‘L’ St.
Moving from the bay area in the middle of the summer the heat was unbearable to us. Dad got several large fans and scattered them around the house. Early one evening I was laying on the floor in front of a fan when I started hearing beautiful music float through our open windows. We lived only a block from the Court House Park and I could tell the music was coming from that direction. I was brought up with a love for good music so I proceeded to investigate where it was coming from. Working my way to the park I found myself in front of the court house where close by there was a round band stand (which had at one time been a gazebo) situated high enough off the ground for every one sitting around on the grass or blankets to view the stage were they were performing. I had only seen this type of bandstand in movies and was thrilled to find one almost in my own back yard. I spent many nights wandering over to the park to enjoy the music. Today in it's place is a rose garden.
Dad had informed us soon after we moved there that there was a large lake just outside of town. So it wasn’t long till we all piled in our car and headed for the lake. Swimming was one of my most favorite things to do and I could hardly wait till we got there. As it came into our view I got even more excited. I was expecting just a lake with trees around it and shallow places along the edge where you could swim, but there before my eyes were tables for eating, barbecue pits, a snack bar and best of all, a great swimming area with a sandy beach. There was a pier that made a half circle around the swimming area starting at one section of land where there was a diving board and ending up at another section. There was a large raft out in the center of the swimming area you could swim out to for sunbathing. There was a roped off area for the small children. Outside the swimming area was boating. Going to the lake became a ritual for our family. We often went in the evenings, as the sun was going down, and swam as the night sky covered us with stars. That was my favorite time to swim. There were many afternoons during the years to follow that my friend’s Verna Mae Danner, Madeline Lyper and I would ride our bikes the 5 miles to the lake for a day of swimming and fun.
One week end in December of ‘41 my brother, Jerry and his girlfriend, Patricia 'Pat' Donnelly had come for a visit from the bay area where he had continued living after the rest of the family moved to Merced. That Sunday, December 7th we had our usual day of family fun before they were to return home. After they left my sister, Patty and her boyfriend, Joe Bowles went to the movies. Dad, mom, Mary and I were in the living room listening to the radio when the program was interrupted. It was President Roosevelt announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor that morning. We became very quiet and tears came to our eyes. We could already feel the change. Dad quickly drove to town to get the latest newspaper. Soon after he arrived back home Patty and her date came in the house breathless from running the seven blocks from Merced Theater to tell us they had gotten the news at the theater. They had stopped the movie and requested the service men to leave and return to their bases. We again became quiet with tears returning to our eyes at the realization of how this tragic news was going to affect us all.
The war made a lot of changes in families throughout the country. Our world as we knew it would never be the same. As for our family, my brother joined the 82nd Air born, quit his job at Bethlehem Steel Ship Yard and sold his beautiful new turquoise Pontiac convertible. My sister Patty had the worse job any civilian could have in those days, working for the Western Union delivering telegrams. I would see her all over town on her Victory bike. A star on the telegram envelope meant bad news. When Patty had one with a star she would stand outside the home for several minutes before she could go to the door and hand that envelope to the family. My sister Mary was a telephone operator. As for me... I worked at Cal-Pac picking peaches. After all the peaches were picked we then cut some getting them ready for canning. One day the business closed down and volunteers came out to pick peaches to send over seas to the service men. We regular pickers got a kick out of some of the women as they came out all dressed up, picked a handful of peaches, dropped them in the bucket and left. They had done their part for the war effort. I am three years younger than Patty but she was tiny in size and not very strong so I had her work the tree next to mine and would move her ladder for her. It was very hot and she ended up fainting. She wasn’t able to pick after that and was in tears because she couldn't do her part picking peaches to send over seas for the men fighting for our country. Many of which were her friends.
Before leaving for his service training Jerry and another girl friend Kay Harcourt (who was an Adagio & Ballet dancer) came to visit the family. It was a rough time for all of us knowing he would soon be going off to war. We made every minute count.
Around a year after moving to Merced my father found a home for us just down the street on the corner of 22nd and ‘M’ Streets. This was a much smaller house but we loved it. We were still across the street from Fremont School. The library, which was in Court House Park was directly across the street from the side of our house on 'M' Street. It was a large, beautiful ivy covered building. I loved watching the people come and go as I did the dishes. I spent many hours in the library bringing home books to read. Not only did mother put a love for music in our life, dad put a love for reading. Since I was a tiny tot we would all gather around as he read novels or poetry to us. We anxiously looked forward to the next nights reading.
Earlier I mentioned my sister’s Victory Bike. It reminded me of a story about my father I feel I want to share here to add some humor. And believe me, dad added a lot of humor to our family. I came home one night and there was a man in our yard with his pants down. I ran in and told dad (who was in his p j’s). As he headed for the door he yelled, "Call the police!" Still in his pj's he ran out and quickly hopped onto my sister’s bike starting after the man who by then was running up the street trying to pull up his pants as he ran. Some time later the doorbell rang. When we opened it there stood two police men holding ‘the man’ between them. He was in pj's! Dad said, "Will you tell these guys I’M the one doing the chasing!" We couldn’t help but laugh. They apologized to dad and went on their way. After they left we were still laughing. I said, "Wouldn’t it be funny if it was in the Sun Star newspaper tomorrow that the Chief Deputy of the I. R. S. was picked up in the middle of the night in his pajama’s."
At that time Merced had three theaters. The Merced, the Strand and a Mexican theater called The Rio. The Strand Theater had a talent show on Saturday’s that any of the kids who wanted to could do what ever they felt they had talent for. My friends and I liked to sing so we decided to enter. Through the years the names of these friends have escaped me, but if I remember right one of them was Marcella Gaither. We didn't sing as a group, each sang alone. How I ever got the nerve to get up on that stage and sing all by myself I will never know. But I did. As it turned out they had us come back regularly, singing every week.
The lake holds many happy memories for me but the place that holds the most is the Bar-M Teen Canteen. I just about lived there. The woman that ran it was Dorothy 'Dot' Elder. She was a wonderful person. Loved by us all. She made me the teen hostess. I had a key to the canteen and I would often open it and get things ready for the evening. She and I got especially close. We not only spent time together at the canteen but also at her home. She lived on 23rd just two houses off of 'M' St. so we lived very close to each other. She was like another older sister to me. I could talk to her about anything. One night she and I were sitting in front when a sailor came up and stood looking through the window that went across the full length of the building at all the activity that was going on inside. There was dancing, pool, ping-pong, board games, cards and a soda fountain. After a few minutes he looked over at us and said, "Teen Canteen, huh?" "Yes, it is." He stood there watching all the fun that was going on inside for a few more minutes then he turned and slowly walked up the street. I watched him as he turned the corner a short distance away. Service men weren’t allowed at the canteen. They had the U. S. O. The look on his face had gotten to me. I looked at Dot. "Dot, he is probably remembering a teen canteen at home. This is probably a memory for him where the U. S. O. is wartime. Let me go get him?" She thought for a moment then said, "Okay, go ahead." I ran to the corner. He was just a short distance down the street. I called out, "Hey sailor!" He turned around. "Would you like to go in?" "You mean it?" "I sure do." He came tearing up the street and was in the building before I could get back to my seat.
My father’s office was in the basement of the post office. His job often took him away from home. Spending a good part of his time in Yosemite National Park on government business. During these trips he would run across service men who were far away from home and bring them home with him for a home cooked meal and to spend quality time with our family. Sometimes staying over night or even for a few days. He said he would like to think that there is a family somewhere doing the same for his son. There was one particular time that stands out to me. Dad had called from Yosemite telling mother he was going to be bringing home a service man that was in the R A F. (The Royal Air Force), by the name of Arthur Horton. He would be staying in my room. He told mother to be sure I gave my room a good cleaning. My room was a total MESS! I knew I wouldn’t have time to give it the kind of cleaning it needed, so I opened my closet door and started throwing everything that was out of place into my closet and shut the door. I then proceeded to change the sheets, dust and vacuum. When I got through my room looked great. I felt comfortable knowing there would be no need for him to open my closet. That evening Arthur and I were sitting on the back porch visiting while he polished his buttons. He remover his buttons from his uniform and proceeded to get a wooden board out of his bag. There was a slit in the board where he could slip the buttons in to hold them in place while he polished them. Upon finishing he said, "I say, could you show me your closet?" "What?" I was astonished that he would want to see my closet of all things. "Would you mind showing me your closet?" Well, I didn’t know why he wanted to see it, and I sure as heck did mind showing it to him. But I didn’t know how to get out of it. So I walked him into my room and proceeded to open my closet door. Like Fibber Magee's ‘things’ came rolling out. He stood there looking dumfounded for a bit then said, "I say, where can I wash my hands." I could have gone right through the floor. I was so embarrassed. I often wondered how many people in England heard his "Closet story".
Not only did dad bring home a lot of service men but my sister Patty did as well. She met quite a few at the Western Union when they would come in to send a telegram to their family. By then she had been promoted from delivering telegrams to being an operator. She also met many at the U.S.O. where she was a frequent hostess. She had a friend in the Navy she wrote to she had never met, Lee Shostle, she had been writing to for some time. One evening as we were at dinner the phone rang. Patty answered the phone. She talked for a few minutes and said, "Just a minute and I’ll see. Dad, this is my pen friend Lee Shostle. His ship has come to San Francisco for repairs after being in active duty and he wants to know if he can come here to meet me and bring some of his buddies with him." "How many?" She relayed the question over the phone. "Oh, I..." she hesitated. " I don't know. I...." she hesitated again. "I’ll see." She put her hand over the receiver and turned to Dad, "He says not less than five or more than ten." Being an old sailor who had served in action in WW 1 it only took a minute before he told her for him to bring his buddies along. He added, "But they will have to stay at a motel. We don’t have enough room to put up that many." Dad being Dad I think he would have made that decision even if he hadn't been in the Navy himself. A few days later, Lee called Patty to let her know there would be four of his buddies with him. So Patty and her high school chum June Brookin found a room for them at the Hill’s Motel on highway 99. Lee arrived with his buddies, James 'Buddy' Collins, Bob Land, Kenny Roll & Joe Gibson. As it turned out they were all five great guys. They spent five fun filled days with our family. Spending time at the lake and seeing Merced. But most of the time was spent with the family at our home. Visiting, singing and dancing to records. Just having fun. They treated me like their kid sister. I talked to Coach Joerg at Merced High about them and asked if it would be all right for them to use the basketball court from time to time when it wasn't in use. He told me it would be fine for me to invite them to play basketball in the gym when it wasn't in use. They were sometimes there when I was having P E and I was the envy of all the girls. All of a sudden I became very popular. (Smile) Some of the women in town heard about Mother’s house being full of sailors and sacrificed their precious sugar to bring cakes and cookies to serve them. Mother's very best friend, Mrs. McKinley 'Mac' even had all of us come to her small home for breakfast with her and her husband one morning. Three of the boys Lee, Buddy & Bob returned three more times for a few days. Patty and I have often wondered how many of those service men she and daddy brought into our home may have come back years later hoping to find our parents still living there only to find that not only were they no longer there but the home they had spent so many happy hours in before going over seas was also gone.
The five sailors ship had active duty all their service time except for the one month they came into San Francisco for repairs. Then they were sent right back into action without getting to go home to see their families. They were never once stationed in the states. And never once got to go home on leave. So their visit with us was the only touch of home they had during their service time.
(My sister Patty and I are still in touch with Lee Shostle. Recently she got a call from him where he spent time reminiscing about the days in Merced. He talked about how the folks treated him and that no one had ever treated him like our family did. That it was the happiest memory of his whole life).
Our little home (The Calvert U.S.O.) was filled with warmth, activity and much laughter in those days. Sometimes mother would play all the popular wartime songs as we gathered around the piano to sing. When she tired of playing the tabletop phonograph was wound up and we danced until time the boys had to go back to the motel or catch the last bus for their base.
During those years we missed my brother terribly. And worried about him all the time. One day his dog-tags had been found and sent home to us stating that he was missing in action. The worry we went through during the time he was missing was almost more than we could bare. There were many tears shed in our happy, little home during those days till we got news he was okay. As it turned out he had made a jump over Holland and some how his tags came off during the jump. Some Dutch people hid him out in hay stacks.
When he was in Italy he had sent a letter home saying that all he wanted for Christmas was a small camera he could carry in his pocket. It so happened I had one so it went without saying it would go to my brother. Dad as usual came up with a brilliant idea. He had us girls go shopping for toys to send to my brother for the children in Italy. He said when he first opened the box he thought his whole family had lost their marbles. Then he flashed on to what they were for. He got several of his buddies and off they went with the box of toys in hand. There was one problem though. The children had never had toys before and there were some they had to be shown what to do with them. These paratroopers got down with the boys and showed them how to play with cars, marbles, etc. As for the girls, they had to show THEM how to jump rope and play jacks. What a picture that would make!
Jerry related a story to us that really shows how small the world really is. I don't remember where he was at the time, but he was in a fox-hole with some others. It was between shelling and they were talking about home and family. This young man said to Jerry, "Where did you say you are from?" "El Cerrito, California." "Hell! I'M from El Cerrito! What's your name?" "Jerry Calvert." "Are you by any chance related to Harold T. Calvert?" "He's my dad!" "Hell! He was my boy scout leader!"
Mother received a phone call from my brother stating he had been in the thick of battle and was sent back to the states on a secret mission. He was being allowed enough time to spend a couple of weeks at home. My Dad was in route to Yosemite and Mother tried to call him there. When the call went through the long distance operator told the party that answered who the call was for. The woman said, "Oh, I saw Mr. Calvert's car go by a few minutes ago. I'll call the coffee shop up the road and see if he stopped there." Within minutes Dad was on the phone and quickly on his way home.
When dad was home he would tell stories of his youth or Navy days. Those stories got stretched with each telling. Especially when he had a large audience to appreciate them. Sometimes his stories made the room ring with laughter. Living across from the Court House Park and Applegate Park just a few blocks up 'M' Street brought much traffic by our home, both by car and by foot. Music and laughter would float out the open windows. I often wondered if people passing by could ‘feel’ the warmth and love we were sharing, stopping to enjoy it for a few minutes wishing they were part of it, especially the other service men far from home wanting a taste of family life. Not knowing that all they would have to do was to knock on the door and they would be welcomed in that little home also. Our parents had a unique way of making those under their roof have a feeling of belonging.
There are two service men I forgot to mention. I missed doing so because they weren't ones Dad and Patty had picked up and brought home. They lived in Merced and spent much of their time at our home. Wesley 'Wes' Williams lived with June's parents while he was in High School. Patty met Wes at the roller skating rink (that use to be where the Bar-M Canteen was later) before the war. When the war broke out he joined the Navy and was on a supply ship. In a letter he wrote to Patty he asked her to look up Junie. He felt they would become good friends. They became life long friends. The other one I forgot to mention was Leonard 'Del' Del Carlo. He was Mary's best friend and Betty Garrett's boyfriend. He got very close to our family and called me his 'Pal'. After meeting Jerry and talking to him about the paratroops he joined too.
I would also like to add Hugh Kiser to my story. He was very close to our family and spent much time at our home. He lived in Albany, near my hometown, El Cerrito and was Patty's boy friend for several years. He came to Merced often to visit spending three weeks with us during our first summer there. He always treated me like a kid sister and I thought of him as another brother. He admired my brother and also followed his footsteps into the paratroops. We are still in touch from time to time.
In March of 1945 while my brother, Jerry was on leave he and Pat Donnelly married. She has always been more like a sister to me than a sister-in-law.
We had to learn to be ready for our dates when they got there because if we weren’t and they had time to visit with dad and mom they would be enjoying themselves so much they didn’t want to leave. Sometimes while we were getting ready we could hear them out in the front room laughing and we knew it was too late. But we loved seeing them enjoy mom and dad's company and we did too. So we didn't mind. We also knew the boys would make up for it by taking us out another night.
Dad was not only fun but full of tricks. We girls had a certain time to be in but he allowed a few minutes late time. This one night Mary and Patty were out on a double date. It was past their curfew. Mary and Patty shared a bedroom at this time and their door was just to the right of the front door as you came in. Mom and Dad's bedroom was next to it. Between the two bedrooms was the bathroom with a door going into it from both bedrooms. He decided to set a booby-trap for them. I helped dad get the 'trap' ready. After finishing dad left both of the bathroom doors open and I crawl in bed with mom and dad to wait for the 'fun'. Not long after we heard the front door quietly open and very low whispering. I had to control my laughter. My sisters did just what dad knew they would do. They went into their large walk-in closet and quietly shut the door so that when they turned on the light in the closet it wouldn't wake the folks up. As the chain for the light was pulled they stood there in the total darkness as the vacuum cleaner came on. Their screams and our laughter filled the house.
Patty and I were always very close. My sister Mary was much older than I. By the time we moved to Merced she soon graduated and then started working full time. So she was either at work or I was off doing my own thing and we didn't really spend time together. Because of this factor we were unable to build many memories of our life together in Merced. We also didn't have much quality time in El Cerrito. My mother became ill with crippling arthritis when I was three and was a semi invalid. So at eight years of age Mary had to take on most, if not all of the household duties. Therefore she didn't have time to spend playing with her little sister as most big sisters do. My fondest memories of Mary are when she would let me crawl into bed with her and she would sing to me.
Even though my mother was crippled up with arthritis. She was a very classy little lady. I don't remember Mother ever walking to town but one day Patty looked out the Western Union window and was surprised to see her walking across the street. She was all dressed up in what we called her cute black "poodle" coat and hat. A truck driver stopped to let her pass on the crosswalk and he gave her a slow long wolf whistle. Mother then turned and gave him a little smile and slightly bowed.
Some of the places I worked while I lived there were Santie’s Drive Inn as a carhop, (Santie's is the only place I ever worked that hired a man to take their help home after work in order to be sure they got home safely. He had a pick-up where he could pile us all in at the same time), the Kings-X as a waitress and soda jerk, and my favorite job of all was working for the Modern Music Company typing the titles of the records to go on the juke boxes and sorting them out into piles to be placed in the juke boxes. The best part of all, I got free records. I also helped out in one of those little off the street photo business where you would just pop in, have your picture taken, wait for it to develop and leave. I didn't receive pay for helping there. It was something I just did for fun. He would take pictures of me in different costumes, Mexican, Hawaiian, etc. and display them in the window to draw others there. I have often wished I had those pictures.
In 1946 in the middle of my junior year of high school, dad had a promotion as Division Chief of the Internal Revenue Department and was transferred to Fresno, California. Which meant we were again uprooted and leaving another place I loved. This time it was a large town. Not the cozy small town that Merced and El Cerrito were. I didn’t want to leave when I had only a year and a half of school left. My two most important years and most of all I didn't want to leave the canteen and all my friends. Dot offered to have me stay with her until I graduated but naturally my parents were against that, as they wanted me with them. I hated living in a large town. To me they were fun to visit but not to live. Although I have resided in the area since then I have never developed the love for it that I had my first two hometowns.
As for the Merced of today, our cozy, happy little house is no longer there. Progress moved it to another area replacing it with the Probation Office. The whole block of houses on 22nd, including the school across the street, were replaced. The high school I attended, gone. The only thing different about the lake is that the diving board and the raft are no longer there. The library is still standing but all boarded up and a new one has been built near the north west corner of the park. Much of the beautiful lawn at the Court House Park has been taken up with business buildings. When I look around I can no longer visibly see the Merced of my childhood days. But even though these places are changed to the eye, when I was there a short time ago and looked upon the corner of 22nd and ‘M’ Streets, in my mind I blotted out the building that stood before me and saw instead the small white house we called ‘home’. I could close my eyes and the ghosts of memories past were still lingering in the air. Music and laughter filtered into my being filling me with the warmth and love of bygone years. Happy times I can bring forth from my memory bank to relive and bring me comfort through my ‘twilight years’.
Names I can recall at this time
I can only remember one teacher I had at John Muir. That is Mrs. Peterson. She was my cooking teacher, and a good friend of my mother's.
The principle was Mrs. Shehee
At Merced High the ones I can remember are:
Mrs. Norvell--vice principal
(We put on a play one night at KYOS radio station.)
I was the sound effects.
The cast was:
Lucetta Sullins &
Betty Elgin--One of my dearest friends. I lost contact with her soon after she moved to Oakland.
Betty Silva--We remained friends for many years. Lost contact with her in the 60's.
Verna May Danner--We also remained friends for many years. Lost contact with her in 74 or 5.
Theresa Lees--Lost contact with her in the late 50's.
Suzanne 'Sue' Messonier
Francis 'Moony' Mooningham
Buddy Raymond--The first friend I made at school, John Muir.
Clyde Guard-- My first real beau. We dated for a year.
Bill Price--Clyde's best friend.
Frank 'Capi' Capidonica
Fred Granillo--His mother and I were very close. She and I kept in touch till her death. Fred and I and his brother Manuel have been in touch through the years.
The five sailors:
Leon Shostle--We are still in touch.
James 'Buddy' Collins--After Patty's husband died Buddy heard about it and got in touch with her. They married and are now living in Sisters, Oregon.
Other Service men:
Ray Nieland--Patty met him on the Greyhound bus. They married in 1946.
Lou Hockel--He has stayed in touch.
Roy Cooper--Spent two weeks at our home.
Wesley Williams--A close friend of Patty's and June's
Don Johnson--My sister Mary's friend.
Earl 'Randy' Randolph
Arthur Horton--The R. A. F. flier.
These are just some of the servicemen Patty brought home and none of the one's dad brought home except for the R. A. F. flier. Now you see why we were known as "Little U S O".