by David L. Norris
Arvin’s first community center did not have a roof. As a matter of a fact, it did not have any walls either. It had trees. I am referring to the DiGiorgio Community Park. In the 1950’s, the park was many things to everyone in the community. It was a place for reunions, weddings, receptions, church gatherings, revival meetings, movies, swimming, baseball, basketball, football practice, roller-skating, Recreation Center games and of course long afternoon naps in the shade.
Many families celebrated their Easters and had their Easter Egg Hunts there, followed by family reunions or picnics, where they would reminisce of births, passings, wars fought and fish caught. Anyone that was passing-by was usually invited to join the party. Most of all though, just laying back on the cool grass listening to the birds chirp and the butterflies flutter as the clouds passed overhead, made life worthwhile. We met our friend after school to play there, or to challenge each other to fist fights to defend the honor of our brothers or sisters. The park was in the center of everything. You identified where you lived in Arvin, in relation to the park. If a friend was coming over to play, you met them halfway, “at the park”.
We kids use to swim and bodysurf in the flood irrigation lawn-watering ponds, long before there was a swimming pool in Arvin. One time, Mom and Dad were taking me to Little League softball practice. We turned off Haven Drive onto Myer Street and had just passed the “Easy Way Market” when my Father saw three young kids trying to catch a very wet and forever-mad gopher that was stranded on the berm between two adjacent ponds of water. The kids were closing in from both sides with their hands outstretched ready to grab their newfound pet. The gopher was standing on his hind legs chattering at his attackers.
My Dad saw this and hit his horn for a long blast, then slapped on the brakes, threw open the door and he ran across the flooded pond, yelling at the kids to get back as he gave the gopher a full football field-goal kick across the pond. He then gave the kids a stern lecture about trying to catch wild gophers, while still standing in nine inches of water. He then slogged back to the car that was still parked in the middle of the street with his door wide open and cars going around us. I do not think I ever saw my Father move that fast again his whole life.
The Recreation Center building was home for Boy Scout Troop 97, where we met weekly and I learned Morse code. Once while out in the park at night, we were practicing our Morse code using flashlights to signal back and forth between teams, one of the scouts noticed that there were flashlight signals coming from the Bear Mountain hillside above “The Cross”. DOT – DOT – DOT (S), DASH – DASH – DASH (O), DOT – DOT – DOT (S), (S-O-S). This is the universal distress Code (SAVE – OUR – SHIP meaning “HELP!!). The scout, seeing this, signaled back and the signal returned. They ran inside and got the leaders who signaled and got a similar return signal. Two of the Leaders with several of the scouts went up onto the mountain and found a family stranded with their car broken down, and they were able to rescue them. We heard all about their adventure at our next meeting, where the husband who had been stranded with his family was present as a guest to say; “Thank You,” to all of us.
We also learned knot tying and most of my outdoor skills that I have been able to amaze my kids with every time a knot is needed or trail is to be found. During the summer, you could check out checkers, chess, Chinese checkers, and backgammon sets. We played ping-pong and pocket-pool. The Recreation Center was the departure spot for the buses that took us to the Buena Vista Elementary School swimming pool before Arvin had our own swimming pool. In addition, we all met there to leave for Scout Jamborees, campouts to Caliente Creek and field trips to Fort Tejon up at Lebec.
In the early 50’s, 16mm black and white movies were shown on the baseball diamond. The projector would be on home plate and the screen would be at the pitcher’s mound. The audience would sit in the stands to watch the movie. They were showing a caveman movie one time, with lots of dinosaurs and wild animals roaming on the screen. I leaned over to my brother, Leo and asked him why all of the people were behind bars in a cage. He thought a moment, then leaned back over my way and told me that it was so the wild animals did not attack us.
My mother loved to Roller Skate and they had a concrete slab on the east side of the park which had overhead lights. Once per week, they would play 78 rpm records from a Victrola and we would skate until late in the evening. Most of us had roller skates that fastened to our shoes with skate keys that tightened tabs onto the soles of our shoes. My Mother had real shoe skates that she had brought with her from Kentucky. I remember that one young beautiful woman who could skate backwards around the entire rink and we would watch her as she skated, admiring her grace and beauty. I never did master the art of skating backwards.
In 1959 they placed the swimming pool deep in center field from the baseball diamond. Everyone was sure that the west side dressing room windows were at a safe distance, but Albert Bullard proved them wrong at least three times, by hitting home-run balls through the windows. The first time I was the centerfielder and I was sure that I was in trouble for not stopping a ball that sailed 20 feet over my head before it hit the window. I had to loan them my own personal baseball, so that they could finish the baseball game.
I took my Lifesaving Course at the pool and I became Arvin’s first “Certified Junior Lifeguard,” Later, we used the pool for Arvin High School physical education class, swimming team practice and a place to hold our hometown meets. In the summer, the pool provided us endless summer afternoons and evenings of relief from the heat. We lounged, swam, and splashed with our friends, as we watched the girls work on their perfect tans.
The Head Park Caretaker worked for Kern County and lived in a house provided for him by the County on the corner of Haven Drive and South Hill Street. My Mom and Dad were friends of his and we would often be invited over to his place for Barbeques. He had a dog that had been trained to only accept treats if given to him from your left hand, because his owner thought that most people were right-handed and there was less chance that he would be poisoned if he would not accept treats from just anyone.
I am sure, that while the trees have gotten taller, and some even fell over in the 1977 windstorm, the park is still used to wax your car, meet your friend, have a picnic, and play baseball or soccer. Nevertheless, most of all, it is still a place to listen to the birds chirp, butterflies flutter and to lie on your back on the cool grass to watch the clouds lazily glide overhead.