Dad’s Education from Sea to Shining Sea

Born, raised and lived in Washington D.C. That was supposed to be my father’s life, and it did start out that way. Life was good for the Sherman family during the early years of the marriage, three sons in less than five years and a good job with an engineering firm. The family melded into Washington Society since my grandmother had known that life since her childhood.  Dad started school in the District, but I’ll let him tell the story, and I’ll add little comments here and there and finish it up for him!

“As hard as it may be to believe today, that northeast area of Washington was largely rural, and our subdivision was built on a corner of some land that had formerly been a dairy.  That same land today is figuratively awash with apartment houses, stores, and people.  No trace remains of the dairy, or the stream where the kids my age used to skinny dip, or the fields where we used to have “camp fires” and incinerate hot dogs.  Anyway, it was there that we all survived until it was time to enter First Grade.

Sherman Family, c. 1921

 Except for three older boys, all of us in the neighborhood were about the same age and all entered First Grade the same day.  In those days it was the custom for teachers to follow students through school, moving from grade to grade with them, thus perhaps warning the teachers that they couldn’t pass their mistakes along to another teacher.  I remember my First Grade teacher very well because I had her in the first two grades in that school and the Fifth and Sixth Grades at another one.  Miss Eastlack was young and new at teaching, I believe, and for the first year was willing to give us the benefit of any doubts, of which I now realize she must have had plenty.  There was a mixture in our class that would have made an ordinary mortal run screaming for help:  There was a spoiled Congresssman’s son whose mother spent as much time at school as the Principal did, making sure that her son was not discriminated against, but discriminated for, as befits the son of a Congressman; there was the boy next door to me who turned out to be a brain and skipped several grades on his way through school; there were the half- sisters, one of whom was very pretty but of average intelligence, the other sister very homely but quite personable amd extremely smart, and one sister’s full brother who did not go all the way through First Grade with us, being detoured to a school that specialized in kids who got lost going the two blockes from home to school; and there were the rest of us – playful, inattentive, active, scholastically lazy, lying, noisy, dirty kids.  Perfectly normal.

 In about 1923 my father’s fortune smiled upon him, and we moved from Brookland to another part of Washington – the North- west section – and I was registered in West School.  This school was probably fifty years older than the Potomac River, and most of the faculty had been there for the ribbon cutting.  All of the teachers (it may have been typical back then) were females at least seventy years old, and wore pince-nez glasses suspended from their black, high-necked dresses by either a thin black ribbon or a very thin chain attached to a metal button with a wind-up mechanism enclosed.  All wore the same kind of dress and a stern, unforgiving frown.  The principals were usually men with bushy eyebrows, always older than the oldest woman on the faculty, and so impressive to the kids that we felt that the President of the United States would say “sir” to him.  And if the principal would not bother to answer him, we kids would not have been surprised. All principals also wore black suits, high collars with black ties, high-topped black shoes, and a perpetually threatening frown.  Staying out of the principal’s office was one of the smartest things a kid could do.

  While at West School I was called into the Principal’s office to explain why I was not doing as well as I had done at Brookland School.  I was so scared of the giant leaning over his desk and glaring at me that I could barely talk.  My promises to do better failed to impress him, so he sent me back to class with a warning that I would carry a letter to my father home with me, and an answer was expected from him the following day.

 That night there was an explosion that may have been heard in Tokyo.  The principal’s letter resulted in my losing all play time after school, and my having to do certain exercises in math, history, geography, and English that my father set out for me to do.  After dinner I had to do my homework, and then have everything reviewed by my father.  This kept up about two or three weeks and I was getting pretty tired of it.  One day our school was visited by someone from elsewhere who said that she had to give us a test to see how we were doing compared to other schools.  The tests took all morning, and they were tough, but I battled my way through, not wanting to let the school down.  I didn’t remember having all that stuff in class, but resolved to pay more attention in the future.  I managed to complete the test, although I guessed, bluffed, and stumbled as I got closer to the end.  Since my trip to the principal’s office I was not very popular with my classmates, so I ate lunch by myself as usual and started reading my father’s daily assignment.

Age 10 years, Washington D.C.

The following morning I was again called into the principal’s office, and I went – shaking every step of the way. My classmates, ever ready and eager to kick a friend when he was down, let me know that they had noticed my fall from grace, and said all the kind things people say to the weak and the helpless on their way to the guillotine. I was met in the office by the principal, looking his sternest; the visitor who had given the exam; and my father, who actually beamed at me when I very slowly edged into the office. The principal started the meeting by accusing me of cheating on the exam I had taken, and demanded that I confess to it, as well as reveal how I did it. The examiner said that I could not have cheated because it was a new test. I was deeply confused. I thought I had failed. It was not until my father told me that I had passed the entire test at a grade higher than the one I was in that I understood why I was being accused of cheating. I was skipped one semester – not a whole year – and started the new class the following day.”

Elementary School Diploma, Brighton School, 1928

In 1928, Dad graduated from Brightwood School and the following September he started the school year as a freshman at Central High in Washington DC. This was the year his father lost his job and the family began to lose it’s social standing. My father tells it in a much more colorful style, though, so I’ll let him continue with the story ~

” As a high school freshman I had no standing to protect and a firm position as the lowest on the social totem pole.  I had another burden handed to me at that time:  My father was laid off at his firm and we literally lived from hand to mouth until he was able to find other employment – in New York City.  Our home had been sold for what they were willing to pay for it – not much during the days immediately preceding the Crash of 1929.  Our car was sold, and an old Model T bought for essential transportation; my Mother’s jewelry was either sold or hocked  for whatever it would bring; and an evening’s entertainment consisted of our having a treat of a mixture of ice cream and ginger ale while listening to either station WRC or WMAL on our old Atwater Kent radio.  Times were tough when my father had to work for a bookmaker on a commission basis in order to bring any money home to feed us.  The only bright spot in that school year was the fact that our High School Cadet company (predecessor to high school ROTC) came in second in the annual city competition, something that our high school had not done for some time.  My joy was dampened by my immediately catching the mumps, causing me to miss the last three weeks of school and fail some classes. It was not a pleasant year and I was glad to see it go.

     In the Fall of 1929 we moved to New York City and lived in a community on Long Island called Elmhurst (pronounced “Elmhoist”).  While living there I was enrolled in Newtown High School and did very well, both in classes and socially.  I was quite surprised to find that I was considered a novelty because of my Southern accent – and that in a city with more different accents than any other place I have been!  I was also shocked to find that I even had an accent; I thought that New Yorkers were the ones with  the accent.  I quickly learned to clip off my words, speak rapidly, as if to get everything said before I was interrupted, and be very careful not to take my new way of talking home with me.    

Our time in New York impressed me as a period of waiting for something to happen.  The Depression had hit with full force shortly after our arrival, and we had to readjust our living standards to those we thought we had left in Washington.  My dad’s job and the company he had worked for disappeared one day, and he again had to come up with something to keep the family alive.  When he did it was not what he wanted, but it did the job – for a while.  Unfortunately the type of work for which he was most qualified had to do with businesses connected with the construction of skyscrapers, and once the orders had been placed for the equipment and materials his company furnished,  no orders were placed for materials or equipment for new buildings; there were none being started.  Now we were really in the soup.  Jobs were disappearing as fast as snow in the Sahara; men highly qualified in professions were selling apples on the street for the dime each apple would bring; well-dressed men were going door to door asking for work doing anything at all to earn some money; and every day there was less optimism on the radio and in the newspapers.  My father put in many hours writing to firms throughout the country seeking work – and one day he got an offer from San Francisco!  It was in a line with which my father was familiar, so he took off on the next bluebird.  Money began to come to us from California, and we mentally packed our bags for our move to the Sunshine State.  It was some time before our tickets were in our hands, so with some friends I did whatever broke kids did in New York to pass away the time waiting for the move.  

   Living in New York while our father was in San Francisco was an expensive business, so when no money was received from my father for our fares to California my mother wrote to his employers asking when we could expect it.  The company sent the funds immediately and we started making arrangements for the trip to the Golden State. . . . Mother  told us that tickets had been purchased for a steamship voyage through the Panama Canal. It was a long and educational trip, we were told, and unlike a train, it included meals in the ticket price. Twenty eight days later we landed in San Francisco.

The family lived off of funds from my Grandmother’s parents, while waiting for passage to California. At this point in the story, Dad goes into detail about the trip, stopping in Havana, Panama, Los Angeles and adventures on the way. I’ve left them off since this is about his education.   Well, I guess that trip could be included as part of his education, but it would make this blog into a “chapter book” as my grandchildren used to call long books!

  Since it was only April when we arrived we still had two months of school left in the semester, so getting us registered was an important first step.  Raymond and Vincent were easily placed in neighborhood schools, but I was another matter.  I had to go to the office of the Superintendent of Schools to be assigned to a High School.  The very imposing lady who met us told me that I had my choice of schools:  First of all, I should go to Commerce High School where I could learn to be a bookkeeper or an accountant.  I respectfully declined, saying that since Lowell High was nearest our home I wanted to go there.  The lady said that Lowell was restricted to college prep, so perhaps I’d like to go to Poly and become a carpenter, plumber, or auto mechanic.  I once again declined – to my mother’s embarrassment – and said that I wanted to go to college.  “Why not go to Galileo High, then?  Some of their graduates have gone to college.”  I again asked why I couldn’t go to Lowell, and once again I was told that it was specifically tailored for college preparatory students.  Only then did she open my transcript and read it.  She looked at my mother and said, “Why don’t you enter him in Lowell High School?  It’s close to your home.”

     Lowell High and San Francisco were equally cold during the l930′s.  I first identified myself as an outsider by referring to the City by the Golden Gate as “Frisco”.  Very coldly my new friends and classmates told me that only sailors, Easterners, and people from Los Angeles used that name, and if I continued to do so I would not be accepted among true San Franciscans.  It seemed like a small sacrifice to make so I conformed. “

Dad's High School Graduation Picture on the name tag for his 50th class reunion

I knew my father graduated from Lowell High School in San Francisco.  I had heard it ever since I can remember and even have his name tag (with his graduation picture) from his 50th Class Reunion along with a yearbook celebrating the event, picture of him and Mother at the event and a letter from the Alumni Association.  This verifies it for me.

I had been told Lowell was the best school in San Francisco and was always an exclusive school for the brightest students. Stephen Breyer, Supreme Court Justice, Pierre Salinger, Press Secretary to JFK, Irving Stone, author of “Agony and the Ecstasy” and William Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard Company, can be counted among it’s famous graduates. Another tidbit we had been told was  Lowell High School required a test be taken and only those thought to be college-bound were accepted.

Stories about the superiority of Lowell High just family legend?  Evidently not.  Recently there was an article on Yahoo rating the best high schools in the country. Lowell High School is on that list in the 28th position.  The 28th best high school in the Country.  That would be an honor for any school. It is an honor just to be on that list in any position!

Dad’s brothers did not go to Lowell, but both became very successful in life, as did my father. In the summer after high school he traveled south to Vista in San Diego County to work on a ranch owned by his mother’s cousin, John Hamilton ~ John Hamilton of the Superman movie fame.  John Hamilton who played the editor of The Daily Planet, yes, that John Hamilton. He was Dad’s “cousin.” Such was California life in the 1930’s for my father.  He’d work and save money for college and send the rest to San Francisco to help with the expenses of the family in the northern part of the state. He continues with the story:

     San Francisco’s enervating climate (“brisk” was the accepted description) and the pervading gloom of the depression did not do anything to make the city a place in which I wanted to spend the rest of my life.  Unhappiness at home caused by the growing rift between our parents made “away” the place to go to college, and although they convinced me to try a local Junior College, even that cooperated by folding before the semester finished.  Lacking any funds at all I was hired to work on a ranch in Vista in the San Diego area at a salary of Thirty Dollars a month, plus room and board.  When I was told by my mother that her cousin had agreed to hire me to work on his ranch, I was ecstatic.  Me a cowboy!  I would have worked there for nothing!

     That feeling lasted until my first day on the job.  One horse, no cattle!  I learned that in California any piece of land larger that one-quarter of an acre is considered a ranch if more than flowers are grown.  This ranch was many acres, but instead of herds of cattle it had groves of avocados, oranges (Valencia and navel), grapefruit, and lemons, and I had to do most of the irrigation, all of the weeding of the irrigation ditches (MILES of them), almost all of the cultivation around the trees, and be on the job before breakfast.  Instead of having a saddle on  my rear end I had a hoe in my hands and callouses on those hands.

     Within a week I had developed an appetite for anything that could be termed “food”, and the more that was put in front of me, the better I liked it.  Breakfast was almost always hotcakes and eggs – a dozen hotcakes and three or four fried eggs for me – and keep that coffee coming!  By the end of nine months on the ranch I had grown from a 130 pound city boy to a 185 pound ranch hand, able to do more than a day’s work for his pay and tanned like a beach boy.  I had also taken limes to Tijuana for sale to barrooms and had unknowingly helped the boss smuggle tequila across the border into the States.  It was very simply done: When we were finished selling the limes to the bars and had nothing on the truck but the empty cases we were returning to the ranch, the boss usually handed the Mexican Pesos to me and told me to get as many American Dollars as I could for them.  I was to go into the stores, bars, and other businesses, and try to get them all changed at the prevailing rate. In the meanwhile he would reload the boxes, cover them, and tie them down.  I protested that it was my job to do that kind of work, and I was sure that he could get a better exchange rate than I.  He reminded me that he was not only my boss, but he could tell me what to do.  In the face of such hints I obeyed him and went down the street  swapping  pesos for dollars until the pesos were all gone and the sun was going down over the hills to the west.  Back at the truck I was told to take over the driving and make for Vista.  At the Border the Customs Officer greeted the boss by name, and asked him what he was smuggling in this time.  “Nothing but tequila this time.  Those cases in the back are all full of it.  Want me to unload everything so you can see?”  “Someday, George,” said the Customs Officer, “I’m going to make you do just that.  I hope I catch you with a bottle.  I’ll make you pour it out right here in front of me.  Just you wait!”  Immigration had the usual questions for us, and then we were on our way back to the ranch.  At the truck shed I was given the job of unloading the empties, and in almost the very center of the load was the reason I had been sent on the expedition to change the money:  While I was on my tour the boss had bought at least two cases of tequila, put them in the center of the truck,  piled the empties all around them, covered them with tarps, secured them, and off we went.      

     ”Never searched me yet” the boss said.  “If I got caught today, you were driving, and you are safe because you are a kid, and too young to do anything to.  I’d have told them that I knew nothing about it, and I’m pretty sure they would have taken a bottle to forget about the whole thing!”  I still don’t know, but I didn’t do it again – I think.

     I learned some useful things, too.  I learned how to plant; how to graft buds to root stock (all citrus trees are – or were, then – grafted to Mexican lime or lemon roots); how to tell when trees were ready for picking; how to do that picking so Sunkist (or Calavo, in the case of Avocados) who gave the best prices for fruit, would accept them.  Nothing that I have used since, but I sometimes amaze people with my encyclopedic knowledge of useless facts.  

     In September I left the ranch in my newly-acquired 1928 Whippet (in l934) and made another attempt at college, this time at Long Beach Junior College.  This choice was not a very astute one.  Long Beach had been devastated by a earthquake the previous year and all buildings at the school were in tents, the faculty was still in shock, and the student body was putting in their time until they went on to a “real” college.  I lost interest in attending a school where no one seemed to care very much about the education being offered, so after a month or two I dropped out and returned to San Francisco, having sold my six year old car for enough to buy bus fare home.

     At home I was able to find work immediately in a series of gas stations, pumping gas, lubricating cars, repairing flats, wiping windshields, and doing whatever the manager told me to do.  One thing I did do was start to save money so I could try college again.          

     At the library I delved into catalogs from various schools I could consider attending, and eventually came up with USC and their School of International Relations.  At the end of summer I rode my thumb to Los Angeles, took their entrance examination and literally killed it, and registered.  My money didn’t quite last for a whole school year; By the end of the second semester I was eating just one meal a day, plus whatever my roommate could sneak out of the Boy’s Dorm dining room.  I worked hard the following summer and spent all of my money just registering for the fall semester.”

Tired of working menial jobs to go to college, he fell under the spell of an Army recruiter and decided to go that route towards getting an education. His expression is much better than mine when he says they “grabbed him like he was the last streetcar home!”   and I’m glad they did.  His assignment? Hawaii!

. . . and that’s when his real education began! He met the wahini of his dreams. He was in uniform and she was in shorts and they were married and lived happily ever after, for the next 52 years anyway, continuing traveling from one coast to another coast, crossing the ocean to the east and to the west, living in two states, two territories, one foreign country, and visiting many others.

As Paul Harvey would have said . . . Now you know the rest of the Story!


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