Memories of Knott’s Berry Farm

Some images and recollections stay with us for a very long time. Among my favorites are the memories of a family trip to southern California and Knott’s Berry Farm in 1954. I was a young lad of fourteen at the time. My younger sister and I both sat for on-the-fly charcoal portraits, rendered by two of the park’s resident “sidewalk artists.” We, thankfully, have kept these unique likenesses which are still in their original natural wood frames – even after decades of knocking about and sitting patiently in storage.

Last Thursday, after years of good intentions, I finally took mine into our favorite local framing shop for some TLC. Jo-Ellen, who always takes good care of our framing needs, will touch-up scratches in the original frame (important to keep). She will also replace the original cheap paper mat with a fine archival mat and seal it all behind special, non-reflective museum plexiglass. This effort to preserve and properly display what, to me, is now an important keepsake is way past due. I always thought that the artist, Liz, who created it, signed it, and dated it ’54 did a very good job! That was me – white T-shirt, cowlick and all in 1954!

Our family of four was in southern California visiting Uncle Gil, Aunt Virgie, and young cousin Craig at the time, and Knott’s Berry Farm was on our list of things to do.

Although the theme park remains alive and well, today, in Anaheim, California, nearby Disneyland corners more publicity. Knott’s has grown considerably since 1954, annually catering to throngs of visitors from across the globe. Back in 1954, the crowds were smaller, the park was simpler, and the overall texture of the experience was most pleasing for the very reasons stated. I will also add that a family vacation trip like ours to southern California via United Airlines on a DC-6B Mainliner from San Francisco was a very rare treat, indeed. Money was scarce, and we kids were decidedly unspoiled. In 1954, Disneyland was a year away from opening nearby in Anaheim, so Knott’s Berry Farm was still the place to go in the region.

I recall panning for gold in real sluice boxes with sand and running water – like an active creek. The three of us kids each came away with a little glass vial filled with water and containing a dozen or so small flakes of real gold. A small cork sealed the vial – much like a miniature time capsule! I was long fascinated by my little vial of real gold. It was not until many years later that I finally decided to get rid of it, so I did. I now wish I had kept it, being a tangible memory of boyhood enthusiasm and joy.

I also recall riding the full-size train around the park and enjoying the interesting items and “scenery” installed by the park for the enjoyment of the passengers. About two-thirds of the way along the journey, three masked desperados on horseback suddenly burst from a grove of trees and headed for the train at full gallop. Whooping and hollering and firing pistol blanks in the air, they chased down the train and proceeded to stage a holdup. When the shooting and commotion first broke out, young cousin Craig, who was about six at the time, cried out, “Are they gonna kill us?” After the initial burst of surprised laughter from the rest of us at my cousin’s honest reaction, it took some dedicated reassuring before young Craig could accept that the action was all in fun. It was one of those wonderful incidents that remain etched in one’s memory for a very long time.

Those were wonderful times and memories for us in southern California. The sun-drenched, uncrowded paradise that was southern California in the twenties and thirties could still be occasionally glimpsed in the nineteen-fifties. My re-framed charcoal portrait by “Liz” of Knott’s Berry Farm will soon be prominently displayed on our wall, a constant visual reminder of the fun we had. Thanks, Liz, for the memories.

Family Funnies / Great Laughs!

Now and then, when in a reflective mood, I especially miss the presence of my parents, Alice and Alfred – both gone now for over twenty years. My sister and I being only siblings, and with relatives largely faded memories from our early Chicago past, we feel the loss all the more. For many reasons, we were blessed to draw the parents we did, and one aspect of their legacy remains particularly vivid and dear – their senses of humor.

My mother’s laugh was as contagious as any disease known to man. When she got going, it rapidly escalated as the absurdness of the situation that started it in the first place grabbed full hold of her. At that point, it was impossible to resist, and my father was no help in that regard whatsoever since he and my mother were kindred spirits in that sense. Soon, anyone within range was consumed by tear-provoking laughter from which there was no exit – like being caught- up in a tornado vortex. Here are two memorable occasions that top the family laugh-list, and they both center on Dad and “fly”ing.

The Great Plane Crash

Dad's RC Crash008

My dad loved airplanes; he worked as a mechanical engineer for United Airlines for 37 years. When he retired, he took up radio-controlled model airplanes as a hobby. He had built model airplanes as a child and later, but the radio control aspect really hooked him late in life. The airplanes he built were works of art; he was the finest overall craftsman I ever knew…period. Whatever he designed, repaired, and/or constructed with his two hands was impeccably accomplished. So was the brilliant red and black sport-flyer he took out flying that day. My mother, I, my wife, Linda, and our two daughters accompanied him to the nearby bay-lands RC field where he and other modelers of his local club gathered to fly.

Dad fueled the plane, started up its mini-gasoline engine and began the take-off roll. The plane swept smoothly into the air, dad at the controls. I noticed as the plane began its first broad oval flight pass above the field in front of us that dad’s hands were a little shaky that day at the  hand-held control box. Dad, like me, had shown a small-motor tendency toward “nervousness” through the years, plus, he was then in his late sixties which doesn’t help! He was also likely extra-conscious of us, his audience, that day. The plane was definitely acting a little “squirrelly” right after take-off.

The airplane wavered in the air as it came around heading toward us on the second turn of its closed-oval path. Now the wings began to “waggle” even more as it responded to dad’s shaky hands. “Oh my God, it has missed the turn and is coming straight overhead, now!,” I cried silently. When that happens, it is easy to become dis-oriented at the controls – which is exactly what happened. As the plane passed directly overhead with dad still fighting the controls, I swung around 180 degrees in time to see it arch steeply upward and then immediately plunge straight down into the parking lot, disappearing from view behind the modeler’s shed directly behind us.

We all ran to the parking lot; I knew the outcome would be ugly, praying only that nobody was killed in the parking lot by that sizeable plunging airplane. As we rounded the shed, there it was, a large radiating circle of splintered balsa-wood, two rubber wheels, and a bright red plastic nose “spinner” still mounted in front of the splintered wood propeller which was, in turn, mounted on the little engine all of which, as a complete sub-assembly, sat forlornly in the middle of the balsa-wood pile. Finally my mother rounded the shed, stopped, stared, and cried, “Oh Affie, it’s broken!” That probably was the greatest understatement of the facts I have ever heard in my life!

 As I stood there next to my father silently staring at what had been a beautiful airplane requiring many hours to build, a terrible tug-of-war raged in my heart and mind. On the one hand, I felt so sorry for my dad who was being very stoic; on the other hand, my mother’s severely understated response to the damage made me want to just bust out laughing. Luckily, I fought for and maintained my composure at that moment, but we all later laughed our way through an unforgettable lunch as we replayed the event over and over.

I drew the following cartoon of the event soon afterward:

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Dad Versus the House-Fly

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Of all my family reminiscences, the most memorable and hilarious was the afternoon of “The Great Fly War” waged between Alfred, my father, and an anonymous fly which had found its way into my parent’s house one warm afternoon. Linda, I , and our two girls had just settled down for a late-afternoon dinner prepared by Alice, my mother. As we sat down to eat and began to pass food around the table, a pesky, uninvited  fly decided to join us. After waving him off countless times, Dad started to become peeved. As we started eating, he abruptly rose to take action against this most annoying intruder, attempting to “herd” the little pest into the laundry room behind the kitchen where the door could be closed and the little bugger held prisoner while we ate in peace. As the rest of us continued eating, Dad succeeded in corralling this fly in the laundry room after considerable effort. By this time, dad was really upset at this fly and came out of the closed laundry room to fetch the fly-swatter. Dad had had enough and decided he was going to have it out with the fly right then and there. As he headed back into the laundry room, fly-swatter in hand, the door closed behind him, and we all started to giggle and laugh.

Dad was a lot like me, patient and stoic about large crises (stuff happens), yet  impatient with little annoyances (that should not be happening!). He had now worked himself into a personal vendetta against this fly, and once Dad made up his mind, there was no turning back! Soon after the laundry room door closed behind him, we heard a loud WHAP! And then a loud WHAP-WHAP! And then some more WHAPS. It wasn’t long before each subsequent WHAP-WHAP was followed by decipherable swearing….and then more and still more.

By this time, my mother’s laugh-machine was turned full-on and we were all experiencing tears with each swell of laughter. Finally, it was quiet – the battle apparently over. We heard the door open and Dad appeared in the dining room with fly-swatter in hand and his always neat hair considerably mussed. One look, and we were laughing even harder – if that were possible. He triumphantly announced, “I got him!” I recall that our faces hurt so from all the laughter, that it was hard to chew our dinner. What a time! The food was great…but a little cold.

Dad's RC Crash009 Rest in peace Mom and Dad; we all love you and miss you!