The Early Years
September, 1932 was considered the depths of the great depression by most people in America but not so in the Wilkes household at 200 Agnes Street in Temple City, CA. There, Roy and Eva had just brought their new son Floyd home from the hospital. Father Roy, whose official name is William Leroy Wilkes, and mother Eva, known as Eva Nancy Angeline McElrath before her marriage, were joined by their older children, Elaine, Bill and Shirley Ann in the excitement of welcoming a new addition to the family.
Although these times were hard for many people, things had not been terribly difficult for the Wilkes family. Roy’s job as assistant cashier at the Temple City Bank appeared to be secure and provided adequate income for him to support his family. However, many people were out of work and depended on welfare soup kitchens for their next meal. But the rather favorable conditions at the Wilkes home were about to change.
I don’t have many memories of the earliest years of my life but fortunately I had older siblings who have filled in some of the blanks for me. From their stories I learned about being hit by a car while crossing the street in front of our house, climbing into the rabbit cages in our back yard and playing with my friends the rabbits, being able to remember where people had put something when it was misplaced, and when I was about four, wandering away from home on my own but always under the watchful care and protection of our prize collie dog, Laddie, until I was eventually found several blocks from where we lived by a police officer who took me back home.
Possibly the biggest event that happened to the family during this period was my father losing his job at the bank. This event precipitated many changes for our family. The first thing that had to happen was to find a new source of income. My father tried several things. He had a friend in Temple City, Frank Janes, an electrician who would take him out on jobs, he also tried his hand at other things like working on construction projects. On one of these projects he lost a finger when it got caught in a cement mixer. Fortunately, they were able to reattach it but he was off work for awhile until it healed.
When I was about five-years old, my parents decided to build a house on some property a mile or two east of Temple City in an area that at that time was not part of any town.
This house was a true marvel. Because financial times were hard, they tried every way possible to same money. First, they built the house in stages which was not unusual in those days. The garage was built first and became the family’s residence until the remainder of the house was completed. It was a three bedroom house with a single bath, a living room and a kitchen with an eating area. At the time it seemed sufficiently large to my 5-year-old eyes, but reflecting back, it was probably no more than 1200 or 1300 square feet. Mother and Dad, of course, had one bedroom, Elaine and Shirley Ann shared another and Bill and I shared the third.
The house was built on a concrete slab which helped keep construction costs low. To keep the cost of pouring this slab low, they laid down pieces of old concrete that had come from a road construction project that was going on somewhere in the area. My Mother contacted the construction company that was digging up the concrete and had them haul it to our property and dump it in the back part of our lot. When it came time to build the house, my father and those helping him with the construction took pieces of this old concrete and laid them down so they covered the entire area of the house and then poured new concrete over them, this way it did not require as much new concrete to create the slab for the house.
Since our house was being built in what was then a somewhat rural area lying between the three nearby towns of Temple City, El Monte and Arcadia, and since there was no place in the immediate area for people to shop for groceries and the like, my father saw this as a good business opportunity. Immediately in front of our property three major thoroughfares in this part of Los Angeles County intersected: Las Tunas Dr. which further to the East of our property was called Arrow Highway, East Live Oak Ave., and Santa Anita Ave. which was also called Double Drive since it was constructed with an island down the middle. It was a busy intersection. Further out in the county from our property there were several sand and gravel operations which provided materials for construction. Trucks loaded with sand and gravel passed by our house in a continuous stream every day along with many cars and other vehicles.
So with no competition at hand and lots of traffic passing by, my father decided to build a small grocery store on the front of our property. To get the business started, Grandpa Wilkes (William Attless Wilkes), my Dad’s father, sent a large truck loaded with grapefruit from his farm in Arizona to be sold in the store and things grew from there. My recollection is that it never became a huge success as a retail operation but it did provide some constructive activity for my siblings as they worked in the store. It also provided some hoped for income but my mother probably summed it up best when she described this situation by saying: We are not making much money but we eat well.
I had what for me was a traumatic experience while we lived there. A kind of “standard” toy that many kids had in those days was a homemade scooter. It was an early version of the small metal folding scooters with small wheels that kids play with now. It was made by fastening the wheels from a roller skate to the bottom on each end of a piece of 2×4 about two feet long. Then a wooden box such as a lug box that was used for fruit was attached to the top of the 2×4 with another smaller piece of wood like a 1×2 nailed across the top of the box to make handles for the scooter. I had one of these scooters as did a friend that I often played with, except that his had been made very fancy by wrapping a piece of sheet metal around it so it covered the front of the box. I was envious of his fancy scooter.
One day my friend and I were playing with our scooters at my house and I asked if I could ride his, which he let me do. As I was riding, I hit a bump in the ground and went tumbling head-over-heals. I was barefoot at the time and in the process of falling, my foot came down along the edge of the fancy metal front of his scooter. The edge of the metal sliced my foot like it had been cut with a knife from between my big and second toes to the side of my foot near my little toe. It was a bloody mess. My Mother was summoned from the house to see what had happened and when she looked at it said immediately that I must go to the doctor to have it stitched up. The idea of someone sewing on my foot sent chills up and down my spine. When we got to the doctor’s office, he looked at it and proceeded with the stitching. I remember being really frightened as I felt the needle and thread passing through the skin of my foot. As I recall it took ten stitches to close the wound. It was the first time in my memory I had experienced this degree of trauma. However, after a week or so, the wound had healed and the stitches were removed and I was off and running again as good as new.
Another significant event for me during this time was starting school in the nearby town of Arcadia, CA. I don’t remember the name of the school but I do remember walking home every day about three or four blocks down “Double Drive,” the street with a divider in the middle and a row of large Eucalyptus trees on each side. I still love the smell of Eucalyptus. I must have attended two years there before we moved on.
I believe in my father’s mind he saw that what he was building with the store and all would become the nucleus of a new town or at least an identifiable neighborhood and therefore it would need a name. To get a name he decided to hold a naming contest and offered a prize of $25.00 to the person who submitted the best name for the area. My cousin Mike McElrath submitted the name Arrowville which was declared the winner of the contest. But evidently Mike never received the promised prize money because he reminded us, in jest, many years later that the Wilkes family still owed him $25.00. Anyway, prize or no prize, in this book I use the name Arrowville to refer both to this geographic area and to this period in the history of the family.
I don’t know exactly how long the family lived in Arrowville but it was about three or four years. As time passed other forces were coming on the scene and the family began reacting to them. One such change were signs of impending war. In the late 1930’s and early 40’s the countries of the world including the United States were posturing themselves in response to militaristic regimes in Europe and in the Pacific. Our country was beginning a military build up that eventually culminated in the country’s entry into World War II on December 7, 1941 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. One indication of this buildup was the construction of new and expanded military bases at various places around the country. All of this construction provided many opportunities for jobs and my father saw this as a better economic opportunity for him personally than continuing as the proprietor of a new neighborhood market so he began looking for construction work. He soon found a job as a carpenter working on an Army base in the Tory Pines area near San Diego, CA and this brought the beginning of the end of the Arrowville era, and a new beginning for the Wilkes family following a period of significant economic privation and hardship.
As I reflect back on this period in the life of the family, it is interesting that at my age I had no concept of what was going on in the community or even in the family. I never realized until much later how hard people, including my own family, were struggling just to keep food on the table and shelter overhead. To me what was happening was just life. Looking back, however, I am sure my parents struggled almost daily with these issues but it all happened out of the sight and mind of their youngest child for which I thank them.
There were many signs of economic hardship, of course, but I didn’t recognize them until many years later. For example, between Arrowville and Temple City, there were some small farms where a group of Japanese farmers raised vegetables which they sold in a roadside stand. When we first moved to Arrowville, my family would stop there and buy a large grocery bag full of vegetables for about 15 or 20 cents which were often made into soup which would feed the family for several days. Then when it got closer to the time when we moved from Arrowville and because of the political situation in the world and the potential for war in the Pacific, our government moved these farmers from their property. The next year I remember we would go to these fields and pick the vegetables that came up volunteer.
I also want to mention the talents and efforts of my mother. She was an absolute marvel at “making do” with what we had which I find a little surprising since she grew up in a somewhat affluent family. At the time I am writing this if we need something generally we simply go to a store and buy it. But my sister Shirley Ann tells about a time in the Arrowville era when she needed a coat to wear to school. Since there was no money to buy one, my Mother, who was an excellent seamstress, took an older coat that we had and “remodeled” it so that she, Shirley Ann, would have a “new” coat (i.e. new to her) to wear to school. There were numerous examples of “getting by” but while there were struggles and there was hardship, to a 7- or 8-year old boy who had grown up not know anything different, it was just life.