Other Voices: Reminiscences of my hometown

Los Altos Civic Center
Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier File Photo
The sun sets behind the Los Altos Civic Center.

After growing up in Los Altos from 1956 to 1973, I have gone back on occasion to see a small group of old friends. On some of those visits, spaced years apart, I visited the ghosts of my past. One such visit last week prompted these recollections.

On a walk past my childhood home a few years back, I saw the mailbox where my brother and sister and I posed for the obligatory first-day-of-school pictures. I saw the chimney where my dad’s handpainted Santa welcomed visitors every Christmas. I saw the basket and backboard over the garage – home of countless games of hoops. I saw where all the bikes had been strewn around the yard when friends came over to hang out, and the tree that my dad and I planted. I saw my bedroom where my mom nursed me through childhood injuries and illnesses. I even saw the plant where I hid my first Playboy.

I dusted the cobwebs off of my favorite memory. I stood in the street with my hands on my knees. I pictured myself with my baseball glove on my right hand, waiting for my brother to hit another baseball. How could that have been almost 60 years ago?

On that same walk years ago, I recalled that the walk to my elementary school seemed like I was trekking halfway around the world. How long did that walk really take? When I arrived at Hillview, which became a community center, another flood of memories awaited me. My kindergarten classroom was still there (1960), as was the Little League field, home of thrilling victories and a few defeats (1965-1968). I even used the upperclass boys’ bathroom (1966). The most chilling recollection was standing where I heard that President Kennedy had been killed on Nov. 22, 1963. I remembered that like it was yesterday.

On a walk around downtown, I realized that while it is the same town with the same name, my past has all but vanished. There are no stores and only a handful of restaurants left from my youth. Even the Safeway of my past has been replaced by a behemoth that is the same in name only. I walked past an Italian restaurant that once housed a German restaurant called the Black Forest. How can it be that I first sat in a highchair in that restaurant over 60 years ago?

Another memory hit me as I passed by the location that was a burger joint called Dairy Belle, the scene of ice cream treats after those baseball games a few blocks away. Now, to quote Joni Mitchell, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Last week, I took my 93-year-old mom on a drive through our past. We passed the yellow fire hydrant that she thought was 8-year-old me one rainy day after piano lessons. The high school, home of the then-Los Altos Knights, has grown up. I wondered how many people see the name Tom Burt Field and have no idea who that legendary coach was. We even saw a 1950s MG sports car, another ghost from our past.

Our biggest shock was passing my old elementary school. Since I last saw it, it has been razed and is being replaced by a shiny new community center. I understand that time marches on, but I felt a tinge of sadness that part of my past was gone. A Paul Simon song came to mind that ends with the line, “preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” At least the baseball field is still there.

The current version of the joy of my hometown remains my friends of 50-plus years, and now grandchildren, sharing marriages, babies, divorces, triumphs and tragedies. We don’t see each other all that often, but each of us knows that the others will be there if needed for a helping hand, a word of encouragement or simply the enjoyment of one another’s company. They are as much a part of my growing up as my school and my home.

By the way, the walk to my school, that trek halfway around the world, took 4 1/2 minutes. It was 3/10 of a mile.

Bruce Arkley is a former Los Altos resident who graduated from Los Altos High School in 1973.

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