After school let out in June of 1953, we moved from Heise Station outside Westmorland to the 600 block of Euclid in El Centro, the hub of the agricultural Imperial Valley. The house had three bedrooms, and we four boys shared one on our Navy-surplus bunk beds. My four-year-old brother, Rick, christened the new place with one of the numerous injuries/emergencies that we treated our parents to when he jumped—barefooted of course—from one of the top bunks smack onto the sharp wood-screw booby trap of a broken toy. Piercing screams and gushing blood brought Mom and Auntie Honey on the run, and in their usual calm and efficient manner, they bandaged and soothed another satisfied patient.
I decided to escape the hubbub and went outside to explore the new neighborhood. I saw another kid sitting on the curb across the street, playing with something in the gutter, I couldn’t tell what. As the new kid in town, I didn’t have any friends yet and was tiring of playing with my little brother and littler cousins. A second-grader needs pals his own age. I stepped off the sidewalk, crossed the street, and stopped in front of the skinny kid with glasses.
“Watcha doin’?” I asked.
“Playing,” he said.
“Watcha playing’?” He had some three-inch-tall plastic figures he moved back and forth between his legs in the gutter. He looked up at me, his eyes magnified behind the thick lenses and black horn-rimmed frames. I’d given him a perfect opening to nail me with a sarcastic answer, but he wasn’t the type.
“Spacemen,” he said. “I just got these at Woolworth’s with my allowance.
Allowance? That was a new concept for me. My folks had always just scraped by, and an allowance was something that had never been mentioned in our house.
“Those look neat,” I said. Can I see one?”
Without a word, he handed me the one he was moving at the time. It was a rubbery, purple plastic figure of a man in a spacesuit and helmet and brandishing a ray gun. Shades of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, an early TV adventure series of which I had been particularly fond. I squatted in the street and walked the spaceman back and forth a few inches, then pretended he was on the moon, taking great leaps and bounds. My new playmate grabbed a second figure—a blue one—and followed me in the gutter.
“These are really neat spacemen,” I complimented him.
“Yeah. I’ve got a whole bunch more. Do you wanna see ‘em?”
“Stanley!” A new voice yelled out. It sounded like a mom. “Are your shoelaces tied?”
I looked down at his brown leather shoes, the untied laces lying loosely askew. I looked at him, and he smiled.
“Yeah,” he shouted.
I grinned the grin of conspirators.
My name’s Denny,” I said, thrusting out my hand and cementing a friendship and the bond that would last a lifetime.