A Tom Sawyer Childhood

The Costa Mesa Years
274E. 19th Street



As you read you will no doubt notice that most of my childhood tales involve some kind of shenanigan or mishap. That’s because I was a feisty, sometimes reckless child who wasn’t afraid to try anything, and if the opportunity arose, I usually did. I was also rebellious by nature. Oh, I didn’t talk back to my parents or argue with them, I just broke the rules whenever their backs were turned. The title “A Tom Sawyer Childhood” is a perfect choice, trust me.

 My place in the family history begins in southern California, where our family lived until I was six years old. I spent the rest of my childhood, along with my sister Patty, on the Colorado River just below Lake Havasu, in the two river resorts our parents developed and owned during our youth.

It was an idyllic childhood in many ways, truly rivaling the tales of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; a childhood full of joy and imagination and nature and unexpected adventures. And plenty of mischief. But it had some very serious shortcomings, too. Those I would come to realize many years later, as an adult.

That’s a story for another section of this site.

  Mrs. Hall, Surprise!  



This history is actually about both my younger sister Patty and me. We are just 18 months apart and grew up together. We came along later in our parents’ lives, to join an adolescent sister and teenaged brother. I truly think my conception was a total surprise to my parents, although they always denied that when I asked. However, over the years I overheard Mother telling the story of her "little surprise from the stork" and being a surprise never bothered me. Planned or not, I'm here and that's all that matters!

~  Patty, Judy, Mother  ~

By the time Patty and I joined the family our parents were well established both financially and in the community. Dad had a thriving painting business and our Mother, like most of the mothers of that era, was a full-time mom. Leonard and Dixie, the older sibs, as well as Dad and Mother, were very social and there was a constant flow of their friends and club members coming and going. Our maternal grandmother, whom we called “Nanan”, lived in an apartment above the garage and was a daily part of our lives. It was a busy household! Patty and I got an awful lot of love and attention from them all. Every night, without fail, someone would tuck us into bed and say our prayers with us, and kiss us goodnight.

I'm sure that having new babies in the house and piles of cotton diapers was what prompted the purchase of a Bendix washer and dryer set, which I think were stacked one on top of the other in the laundry room in the back porch, just off the kitchen. I can't remember which one was on the bottom, but they both had big round windows on the doors and Patty and I loved to watch the clothes tumble.


Patti and I were born in the same house ( and I think Dixie was, too), a house that started out as a tiny bungalow and grew over time. Though still quite small by today’s standards, it was cozy and quaint, furnished well (a beautiful Duncan Phyfe ensemble that included a dining room set that seated the entire extended family for holiday dinners, and lots of extras were added by Dad over the years: a den with a large stone fireplace with a rustic wood mantle and inside-access wood box, hardwood floors, wainscot wall trim, beautiful ceramic tile in the kitchen and bathroom, shake shingles, dinette with built-in bench seat. The front and back yards were full of  large trees and colorful flowerbeds edged with interesting rocks, mostly from the ocean, with holes in them that still had the shells and beaks of barnacles inside.

Original house
Mother's description, below

Before the den and fireplace were added
Late 30's early 40's


Early 1940's
Den and fireplace added

~274 E. 19th St. Costa Mesa, CA ~
around 1950

Layout of the Costa Mesa homestead in the early 1950's

Dad had built an apartment over the garage for our Nanan, who was living there when Patty and I was born and who was an active partner in raising Patty and me. We called her (secretly, of course) “Old Eagle Eye”.

Dad also built a rustic-style cabin cabin in the backyard that pretty much matched the style of the main house, but with more rockwork on the outside. When I was born it became Leonard’s Room, an enigmatic and impenetrable fortress.  Dixie’s room was given to Patty and me, and for some reason I can’t remember where that put Dixie. Dixie tells us that she took over the Airstream travel trailer that housed us on all our family camping trips and it became her bedroom and hangout. It was parked at the side of the house at that time.

Dad also had a ramshackle old combination paint and workshop shed, which was sandwiched between the cabin and the chicken coops. There was a giant old oak tree that grew between the cabin and paint shop and hung over the paint shop roof.

~ The Cabin, early 50's ~
The wood box is on the left side of the cabin, next to the fireplace (see arrow).
There's a story to that wood box, more later...

Beyond the cabin and garage and paint shop to the north was an enormous “victory garden” that reached all the way to the next street. In fact, most plots on the block were that size, and many of our neighbors also had victory gardens. In ours we grew everything, it seemed. Plus that, we had two chicken coops: one with leghorns and one with Bantams, our Dad’s prized hens. Somewhere in there we usually had one or two turkeys. These provided both eggs and meat. We traded produce, eggs and poultry with neighbors and the local dairy and maybe even the milkman and bread man. Everyone traded goods and services back then.

I remember waking up in the morning feeling the dampness that had seeped into the house from the overnight fog and listening to a chorus of roosters crowing around the neighborhood, our two included. I always seemed to be the first one awake. Mother taught me early how to put together a bowl of cereal for myself. When I was old enough to dress myself I would slip outside into the chilly early light of dawn. Everything was covered with a heavy dew; there was a profound quiet and stillness. The milkman's deliveries were still on front porches, waiting to be carried inside. Occasionally an early bird would come out to the porch to pick up their bottles of milk, still in their robes, and wave hello.

Our street was quiet, populated mainly by retirees, many of them German. I remember names like Werner and Vought, and dachshunds named Fritz. I remember their heavy German accents. I was fascinated by it all.

Everyone was friendly and Patty and I loved to visit with these older people, having tea or cocoa and cookies and admiring their mementos and bric-a-brac. The Vought's had the most spectacular seashell collection, specimens from all over the world that they had picked up during their travels. We weren’t allowed to handle them without permission and we were respectful of their house rules. But we were always invited to ‘listen to the ocean’ in this one large conch Mrs. Vaught kept on a side table within easy reach.

There were other kids on the block, but I can’t recall most of their names. There was Wayne Hunt from across the street. The non-identical twins Trudy and Judy, whose last name I can’t remember. There were the Funk kids, our next door neighbors on the south side. The Funks had four children; three older girls, and Jimmy, the one closest to my age (a year older), the one we played with and got into trouble with on a regular basis. Our parents did not get along well with the Funk parents, who were a somewhat unsociable couple. The grownups let us kids play together in spite of the bad blood however, probably realizing this would keep us entertained and out of their hair. Most of the time, anyway, when we weren’t raising hell together.

Then there was Nancy Newcomb, a quiet, rather delicate little blonde girl that was my best friend. She lived over on Magnolia Street, close enough for me to walk to her house alone. (Kids walked alone a lot back then and without fear.) We did sleepovers quite often. I cried and she cried the day my family left for Arizona. I still think about her now and then. I wonder what she’s up to these days.

~ Nancy Newcomb and Judy ~


The milkman delivered in the early hours of the morning, slipping quietly up to the porch toting his metal carrier full of goods. The first person to get up in the morning would fetch in the bottles of fresh whole milk: clear glass bottles with foil covered caps and a waxed cardboard seal you pulled off with the little tab. There was at least a half inch of rich cream on the top of the milk. Mother liked to put that cream in her morning coffee, if someone else didn’t get to it first. Sometimes she ordered a bottle of chocolate milk. We washed out the empty bottles and left them for the milkman to pick up so the dairy could use them again. The dairies back then were Calva, Knudsen and Alta Dena.

Several days a week the Helms bread truck came through the neighborhood, with racks of fresh pillowy bread and doughnuts, brownies and cupcakes, all lined up in wooden drawers. The bread man, in his crisp white uniform, would toot his whistle and we would all come running. Most mothers let their kids help them select the goodies. I remember the wonderful aroma that came from the open doors at the back of that truck. Bakery goods just don’t taste like that any more. Too many artificial ingredients, perhaps, or maybe these taste buds have just gotten old.

Every afternoon all the kids on the block listened for the Good Humor ice cream truck’s cheerful calliope music. The first kids to hear the music would start yelling "Ice cream man! Ice cream man!" and then all the other kids would run out to the street and take up the call. We had his route memorized and we knew exactly where in the neighborhood he was by how the music sounded. When he finally turned onto our street there was a resounding cheer from every front yard. He'd usually pull up in front of our house first. We’d all crowd around with our dimes and nickels to buy our favorite cone or bar or popsicle. Chocolate-dipped drumsticks with peanuts on top, Good Humor bars, neapolitan ice cream sandwiches, cups of sherbet with little wooden spoons, popsicles, fudgesicles - it was always so hard to choose, but you had to make up your mind quickly  because in a couple of  minutes he would be leaving.


We would all crowd into that little dinette at mealtime, and "crowded" was the word for it. I remember sitting in my high chair at the end of the table or in the corner. Mother and Nanan prepared the meals, and they were both  wonderful cooks. We had chicken from our own pens - killed, cleaned and dressed just before dinner. I remember the ladies dipping the chicken in a pot of boiling water then plucking the feathers. Mother would let Patty and I clean the sand out of the craw, and sometimes we would play with the feet, which was great fun. If you pulled the proper tendon, the claws would open and close. This may sound gruesome to modern folk, but people lived closer to the farm back then, and it all was just a part of life. And those chicken feet added something to chicken stock that no commercial broth preparation can match. Nothing could compare to Mother's chicken and dumplings!

~The dinette, as seen from the kitchen ~

Mother loved to cook!

Her Favorite Cookbook
(I have it)

Vegetables for the meal  were harvested from the garden and cleaned and prepped. I loved shelling peas and husking corn and scrubbing potatoes.

The goods we didn't or couldn't grow we bought at the local grocery, the Ranch Market. It was small and cozy and well stocked.

And since they could afford it, Mother and Dad often brought home Chinese food from a local restaurant on the weekends. This was a big, big favorite with the whole family. Our parents liked the seafood on the menu so they frequently brought home a shrimp or crab selection. Because of the fairly recent attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese food was definitely not a popular item in the United States on the early 50’s and sushi was never an option for us, which is too bad because sushi is now one of my favorite foods and a very healthy one as well.

Speaking of seafood, living close to the ocean meant that we ate fresh seafood often. Mother and Dixie would go to the fish markets at the piers in Newport Beach and come home with live shrimp, crab or lobster and on special occasions, all three at once. Mother bought all kinds of fish, too.

I remember sitting on the kitchen counter a safe distance from the stove, watching Mother drop the live critters into the pot of boiling water and marveling at the color change in the shells when she pulled them out. The ice pick was often on the counter when Mother cooked, and I realize now that Mother must have used the ice pick to rupture the air sac in the lobsters before she dropped them in the pot because I never once heard a lobster “scream” at that moment as they do when dropped in the pot live.

The first thing Mother did in the morning was make a pot of coffee. Although later on I do remember an electric coffeemaker in the kitchen, when I was small Mother used a stovetop percolator. I think there was a school of thought back then that electric coffeemakers made inferior coffee and the best tasting coffee could only be achieved with a percolator.

All coffee cans were metal and to open the can you pooped off a wind key that was attached to the bottom of the can, slid the sealing strip tab into the key and twisted the key around the can until the strip was completely removed.


Our favorite breakfast was Aunt Jemima waffles cooked in Mother's shiny chrome waffle iron, circa 1930's. There was a little round window on the top to check the brownness of the waffles as they cooked. To top them there was fresh diary butter and Log Cabin syrup in a lithograph tin can shaped like a cabin. And of course, plenty of fresh whole milk to drink.

I still have that waffle iron, but it’s packed away in a box waiting for some repair work. I used it for years until one morning in the early ‘80’s, when it became obvious the waffle iron needed some work. Sherryl and I lived in an apartment in Gardnerville at the time and I worked at Bently Nevada Corporation. Early one morning I was making us some waffles and I was washing dishes while the waffle iron did its thing on the counter next to the sink. Somehow a spoon I was washing got away from me and flipped over onto the counter between the waffle iron and the sink. The spoon landed in such a way it was touching both the side of the waffle iron and the edge of the stainless steel sink. There was a flash from the waffle iron and an awful pop. I grabbed the cord with an oven mitt and pulled the plug quick as I could. I them reached for the spoon to put it back into the dishwater and realized it had fused to the edge of the sink! The poor beloved waffle iron would not make breakfast again until it got repaired. Sadly, I haven repaired it to this day, because it needs a new cord and I haven’t found one like the original yet. maybe some day on eBay one will turn up. I keep looking!

We also had a fascinating chrome Toast-O-Lator toaster that matched the waffle iron. You fed the bread into on one end, and a toothed track would move it through the toaster to the other end.  A sliding lever let you control the darkness of the toast by speeding up or slowing down the movement of the track. There were little round windows on both sides so you could watch the toast move through. Sometimes the bread would jam in that old toaster and we would have to coax it back on track with a butter knife. I think it was vintage 1930. I have that old toaster and it still works just fine today.

We always had fresh whole milk at every meal and there was a special reason for that: Mother never got enough milk as a child. Now she had fresh milk delivered every week, and buttermilk and sometimes cream and butter.

A note to the milkman, written by Mother
on the back of a Yahtzee score sheet.
I found it in Dad's old dictionary.


Naptime is nothing unique. Most preschool children take at least one nap a day, so naptime in itself is not a remarkable topic for a family biography, but our naptimes were a bit different than the norm.

Naptime was always a dreaded event for me. I had inherited Dad's high energy and was a downright hyperactive kid. When naptime came around I was usually just getting into high gear. I wasn't at all sleepy. From around 3½ on I would spend most naptimes playing quietly in bed, wide awake, listening to the somber drone of a plane passing overhead, the occasional siren somewhere far off in the neighborhood.

Around the age of four naptime had become unbearable. I often would slip out of bed and play with my toys, and when I discovered that Mother was often taking a nap as well, I'd sneak out of the bedroom and go color or draw in the dinette, or even go outside in the yard.

Somehow or another Mother discovered what I was doing and took stronger measures to ensure I stayed in my room for that long and lonely hour: she put a latch on the outside of the bedroom door and sealed us in. I remember hearing the latch hook drop into its catch after Mother said goodnight and closed the door, and I would lay there wallowing in despair, mourning the loss of my freedom.

Then one day shortly after the door latch had been installed, I stumbled upon a wonderful stroke of luck. I was getting some crayons and coloring books out of the bench seat in the dinette, and there, sandwiched between the back wall and a stack of newspapers, were some extra window cranks. Aha!

Most, if not all the windows in our house were opened with a metal crank that fit into a socket in a corner of the window. The socket was connected to a gear that opened the window.  There were two crank windows in our bedroom: a small one at the foot of the bed looking out into the carport, and a larger one on the wall the side of my bed was attached to. It was only about a foot above the edge of the bed.

I grabbed one of those cranks and scuttled off to my bedroom to stash it away. I don't remember exactly the hiding place, but it was in easy reach of my bed.

Lunch was over and naptime came around. Mother tucked us in and closed the door. I heard the small rattle of the latch hook dropping into place and I lay there waiting, flush with anticipation. Finally I heard Mother's bedroom door close for her nap. Patty,  already sound asleep.

Quietly I retrieved the crank from its hiding place, pushed it into the socket and carefully opened the window. Almost free! Next came the window screen. I unhooked its latch and pushed the screen out from the bottom.  Forget the shoes, just hurry up and go!

And go I did. I went out in the garden or played in the sandbox or just ran around, free as a bird.  After a few minutes of this I would climb back in through the window, close it, and get back in bed. No one was any the wiser.

This went on for quite awhile, and it became my nap routine. Patty began going out the window with me after the first time or two. When Patty needed a nap she could be pretty crabby and testy, but not always, and making her my partner in crime was insurance against her tattling on me and ending the fun.

Of course, someone finally found us  out. I don't remember if Patty told on me or if Nanan witnessed one of my window escapes from her lofty watchtower, but one day Dad put a latch on the outside of the window screen and my crank disappeared from its hiding place.

Game over.

in her own words

As Judy has mentioned, we loved our Nanan dearly. But she was a strict disciplinarian and oversaw our upbringing with both love and a firm hand. When it was nap time, we were like most toddlers who fought it tooth and nail. We would wait until the door was closed and then get up and play, and even escape the room through one of the windows.

Judi had discovered at a very early age how to open those old wood crank windows and climb out through the opening into the back yard during nap time. There must have been no screens, or maybe Judi created an opening in the screen. It was not long before I followed suit. Like a true rug rat, she hid that crank under her pillow for easy access. Of course she was eventually busted by Nanan who had a clear view of the back of the house and our bedrooms from her Watchtower.

After that, Nanan took to waiting outside our bedroom door, with the door cracked ever so slightly, so she could peek in and make sure we were napping. (Hence the nickname "Old Eagle Eye")

When she thought we were asleep at last, she would gently close the door and leave. We knew these cues however, and after the door was closed we would get up and resume playing. Often we could hear her footsteps creaking down the hall and back into bed we would hop, pretending to be asleep.


By party time, in this case I’m referring to the grownups. Mother and Dad entertained often when Patti and I were small. They were involved in the community and were members of clubs like the Kiwanis and Dad was an scout leader. Add their extensive networks of friends and family, and it seems like they were always entertaining someone or hosting some event.

Depending on the type of event, Mother and Dad would either put the leaves in the Duncan Pfeiff table and set it up in the den and living room, or they would arrange rows of chairs. When Patty and I saw this activity our hearts sank, because we knew it meant dinner alone in the dinette and an early bed time.

Shortly after the guests began to arrive Dixie would hustle us off to the bedroom and into our pajamas. She always played with us for awhile before having us get into bed, and then she would read to us. While she read, we could hear the sounds of the growing crowd living room and the parents greeting yet more new arrivals.
Eventually Dixie would tiptoe out of the room and gently close the door. After a few minutes Patty and I would get out of bed and sneak out into the darkened hallway. The door to the living room was always shut during these nighttime get-togethers so that Patti and I could sleep undisturbed.

We would crowd up against that door, listening. Everyone on the other side was having so much fun. We just had to have a peek! So we’d open the door just a tiny bit, just enough room to get one eyeball’s view of the room.

After a few minutes we would relax and begin to believe we were invisible to everyone in the room. This lead to careless giggles and leaning too hard on the door, pushing it open. Inevitably someone in the room would spot us and announce our presence: “Betty, I think there are two little sets of eyes and ears at the door!” And Mother would come hustle us back to bed, this time fastening the outside latch on the bedroom door. Sometimes mothers are no fun at all.


It wasn't all sunshine and roses during our early years, unfortunately. Patty and I both developed asthma after we had our tonsils taken out and Mother took us to a lady pediatrician for treatment. I have her name on the tip of my tongue, but it doesn't come to me right now. Aha! It was Dr. Hatherley! Anyway, what I remember most about her is the huge, mean parrot she kept in her office. The cage had a big sign on it warning that the parrot bites. A very strange thing to have in a children's doctor's office! No doctor would have such a thing in their office today for fear of a lawsuit.

The pediatrician came into play for another health issue as well. Patty and I both developed nephritis at the same time, a kidney ailment that is supposedly not contagious. We spent some time in St. Joseph Children's Hospital in Orange County, which was run by nuns.

I remember that our hospital beds were surrounded by glass partitions that the nuns kept absolutely spotless. One day some dear friends of the family, Curly and Irene Henderson, came to visit Patty and I in the hospital and poor Curly, not realizing there was a glass partition, bent to give one of us a kiss when he arrived at our bedside and bumped his nose a good one! I remember gazing at that nose print on the glass after they had gone. A little bit of Curly Henderson was left behind to keep us company for the rest of the afternoon!

We had a really nice boy in another bed in our room who was very, very sick. He was so thin and pale and had huge dark circles around his eyes. In spite of his terrible condition he loved to chat with us and make jokes. He also had a sizeable personal stash of toys in the hospital that kept us all entertained. I think the boy's name was Jerry. I heard later that Jerry died soon after we got out of the hospital.

After we left the hospital, there was long recovery period at home. The first couple of weeks were almost complete bed rest, which got no protest from Patty and I because we were very tired and slept most of the day away.

When we were a bit stronger, Mother bought us some adjustable bed rests so we could sit up in bed and play or read. They were canvas on a wood frame and really quite comfortable.

Unfortunately, during the early weeks of recovery at home, Patty and I both had a problem with bedwetting, because of either the disease or the medications we were taking for it. I think, alongside the cod liver oil in the grape juice we drank every day, the bedwetting was the worst part of the nephritis. I remember laying there in wet underwear and plastic panties, waiting for Mother or someone to come help me change into something dry. I had potty-trained very early, and this return to bedwetting was a true humiliation.

Eventually we were able to spend time out of bed, but we had to limit our activity, so Mother set up a card table in the living room for us. We had matching blue terrycloth robes, flannel pajamas and warm slippers that we lived in while we were recovering. Mother and Dad bought tons of play sets for us to keep us occupied. There was the Happy Farm play set, and the Space play set which had lots of molded soft plastic spacemen. Of course, we each immediately picked a favorite. Mine was Standing Up Man and Patty's was Sitting Down Man. We created all kinds of space scenarios in which these two spacemen were always the heroes, and never died no matter how ugly the battle.

Another big favorite during our card table days was colored modeling clay. We played with that clay for hours!

Modeling clay box from the 1950's, front and back

There’s no doubt that while we were sick we had more toys that any other kid in Costa Mesa, maybe all the other kids put together. This is kind of shameful- maybe even disgusting - but I remember spreading as many toys out on my bed as would fit (and there were plenty still in the toy box) and running my hands over them saying, “Mine, aaaall mine!” Remember Daffy Duck’s greedy routine in those Warner Bros. cartoons? Yep.



Mother had a state-of-the-art Elna sewing machine and she was passionate about sewing. She made curtains, drapes, potholders, and dresses and outfits for Patty and me. We were little fashion plates. She often dressed us in matching outfits and people would ask if we were twins, even though we looked nothing alike.

Patty and Judy, with neighbor Wayne Hunt
~ Matching Easter outfits~

~ More matching outfits ~