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The Rico Chronicles: First Sighting

Rico at Fourteen with his father photo courtesy of Steve Rees

My great friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees, died recently at the age of sixty-eight. To celebrate Rico’s life, I will be posting a series of remembrances entitled The Rico Chronicles. Here for your enjoyment is the first of those memories.

October 1957. Atherton, California.

I was just about to turn eight, riding on the big school bus on our way to Las Lomitas Elementary situated on the border of Atherton and Menlo Park. A sunny morning, Mr. Viera, one of the kindest and most patient human beings I have ever known, was driving the bus down Atherton Avenue in his never-hurried way. The morning ride to school was usually a calm affair, in contrast to the afternoon ride home when things often verged on chaos, the main instigators of that chaos holding sway at the back of the bus.

I loved Mr. Viera. His first language was Spanish and he only spoke a little English. Nevertheless, he connected with each of us in a friendly way as we got on and off the bus, unless he was in a bad mood, which he sometimes was, and then he was merely silent.

He ferried me and many of my classmates to and from school every day from First Grade through Sixth, and when my dog Cozy had her one litter of puppies when I was in the Second Grade, he came to our house with his wife and they took two of the pups, after which he gave me occasional reports about que buenos perros they turned out to be.

My bus stop, which was right across the street from our house, was near the beginning of Mr. Viera’s route in the morning, so I always found an empty seat halfway back where I would sit by the window and hope someone I liked sat beside me. Sometimes kids I didn’t especially like would sit with me because I never had the heart to tell them not to sit with me. Many other kids saved the space beside them for kids they liked and wouldn’t allow other kids to sit with them.

I always sat on the right side of the aisle (right facing forward) because this afforded me a view out my window of the kids waiting for the bus as we approached their stops, as well as a view of them getting on the bus, which for some reason I just loved. We weren’t supposed to stick our heads out the windows that were easily opened in those bygone days, but I sometimes leaned out my window to watch the kids getting on and maybe call out to a friend before he or she ascended onto the bus.

On this particular morning in October, the bus nearly full, we stopped on Atherton Avenue just west of Selby Lane, and after the few regulars got on, a pretty woman with black hair, half-carried and half-assisted a little boy with braces on his legs up the stairs onto the bus. He had two short metal crutches attached to his wrists by what appeared to be metal bracelets at the tops of the crutches. As the little boy reached the top of the stairs and the woman released him to stand on his own, Mr. Viera directed a kid in a front seat to relocate to make room for the little boy.

I was amazed and awed that someone so small and fragile and walking with crutches would get on a school bus and go to Las Lomitas where before school and during recesses and after school, the corridors and playground seethed with unhinged children racing around and crashing into each other. How, I wondered, would this fragile child survive?

This child was Richard Rees. He was six-years-old, though at the time I guessed he was four or at most five. I never imagined that eight years later, when I was sixteen and a high school junior, and Dick (Rico) was fourteen, a freshman, that he and I would meet backstage in the Woodside High multi-purpose room where we were both in a play, and we would become instant friends and best friends for life.

It wasn’t until we’d been high school pals for a few weeks and I found out where he lived, that I realized Dick was the little boy I had watched get on and off the bus those many times before I went off to junior high, and how each time he mounted those steps to get on the bus he was more and more capable of getting on without assistance, how he became progressively bolder and more talkative as he rode to school, and how ever after he was my hero.

fin

Rico’s Dance

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Nice Wealthy

Paloma bw

Paloma photo by Todd

I met a man the other day I described to a friend as “a nice wealthy person,” and my friend was curious to know why I called the man nice wealthy? To explain, I gave her a sketchy history of Atherton, California.

Atherton is twenty-seven miles south of San Francisco and surrounded by Woodside, Redwood City, and Menlo Park. Nowadays, 2016, only very wealthy people live there, but in the 1950s and 60s, for a brief time, Atherton was home to a few thousand middle-class folk.

In the 1600s and 1700s and early 1800s, the ground that is now Atherton was part of a huge Spanish land grant known as Rancho de las Pulgas. The famous Alameda de las Pulgas (Road of the Fleas) still runs through the heart of Atherton. Then in the mid-1800’s, Stanford and other Robber Barons, the founding rich white people of the state of California, built their mansions in San Francisco, but since summers in the city were foggy and cold, the barons also built estates in the sunnier climes of what are today Atherton, Woodside, and Palo Alto.

Stanford bought his thousands of acres of land that would eventually become Stanford University, and he and his fellow magnates traveled from San Francisco to their sunny estates in opulent private train cars attached to trains running between San Francisco and San Jose.

Then in the 1900s most of those huge estates were carved up into twenty-acre estates, and Atherton became home to several dozen wealthy families living in mansions with extensive servants’ quarters. Then in the 1940s and 50s those 20-acre estates were broken into one-acre lots, and hundreds of smaller homes were built, with some of the mansions remaining on multi-acre parcels of land.

My parents and my three siblings and I moved to Atherton in 1955 from San Mateo, and upon our arrival I entered First Grade at Las Lomitas Elementary in Menlo Park. Our modest three-bedroom house stood on the corner-acre of the 20-acre Erman Estate. The abandoned Erman mansion remained standing until I was ten, so I had the extreme pleasure of growing up near a huge haunted Victorian.

My friends and I had many adventures playing on the deserted Erman Estate. There was a still-intact tennis court, massive old oaks, date palms, olive orchards, fruit trees, a huge crumbling swimming pool that became a frog pond every winter, collapsing stables, ruined greenhouses, and several acres of neglected vineyards.

But the biggest attraction was the haunted mansion. One day a friend and I found the kitchen door ajar and went inside. I remember the wood-fired stove was the size of a car. There was a wide staircase rising from the grand foyer, and a narrow staircase behind the scenes for the servants; and there were several steps missing in that servants’ staircase, below which was a vast basement.

We ran home and got flashlights so we could see down into the abyss, and we discovered the floor of that enormous subterranean room was covered with claw-foot bathtubs. Turns out great quantities of bathtub gin were manufactured in that basement during Prohibition, though my first surmise was that the Ermans raised fish in those tubs. Silly me.

Now nearly all the smaller houses in Atherton have been replaced with huge houses owned by people who made their fortunes in the computer business. The creator of Quicken bought dozens of houses near my parent’s home and tore them down to create a huge estate crowned by a palace resembling the Disney castle. Larry Ellison of Oracle bought several contiguous Atherton properties, removed the houses, and built a hundred-million-dollar mansion on the shores of a three-acre lake.

But in the 1950s and 60s, middle class people abounded along with the newly wealthy and the longtime wealthy, and in the 1970’s many Europeans moved to Atherton to get in on the early Silicon Valley gold rush featuring companies such as Ampex, Hewlett-Packard, and other electronic and pharmaceutical companies. When I came home to visit in those days, my mother liked to introduce me to the new families in the neighborhood—the French and German and British wives staying home while their engineer husbands went off to invent the latest circuitry.

Today there are several East Indians living on the street where I grew up, but in my childhood nearly everyone in Atherton was white. There were all sorts of wealthy people: reclusive wealthy people, ambitious wealthy people, snooty wealthy people, and crazy wealthy people. And there were some nice wealthy people, too.

The nice ones I got to know were inheritors of old wealth, and not having fought to earn their money, they were gentler than those who had to claw and scratch and do bad things to make their fortunes.

Before the 1980s, most wealthy people in Atherton employed Japanese gardeners to care for their extensive gardens, and as a boy I learned to prune fruit trees from our neighbor’s Japanese gardener. He allowed me tag along on his pruning jobs in the neighborhood and very kindly taught me how to care for fruit trees. I got my first gardening job when I was eleven and worked as a gardener after school and on weekends through high school—all my gardening jobs given to me by nice wealthy people.

Which brings me back to the fellow I recently characterized as a nice wealthy person. He and I were speaking about my possibly pruning some fruit trees for him, and he reminded me so much of the nice wealthy people I knew as a boy, I assumed he was wealthy.

Unlike most of the other adults I knew, these nice wealthy adults treated me as an adult and spoke to me with respect and kindness. They trusted me with their tools and gardens, and they genuinely liked me and wanted to know what I thought, what I was reading, what I wanted to be, all of which made them remarkable to me.