Holiday excitement began the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Marie, who was my godmother and legal guardian, emptied the freezer of leftover bread crusts and stale loaves of bread. She spread them on a cookie sheet to dry in the Mojave desert air—air drier than the stale bread.
The brothers Bill and Charlie (Marie’s husband), wrangled a big and mean old turkey that always chased me back into the house. Whack! Like a drunk, the turkey spun and danced on the ground. The brothers, proud of their Irish heritage, jigged with the headless fowl until it collapsed into the dirt. Bill’s youngest son, Timmy, and I howled with delight. Bill plucked the biggest feathers from the beast and handed them to his anxious son. That’s when Timmy turned into Tonto and I morphed into the Lone Ranger.
We galloped on imaginary horses through the desert ranch where we chased down bad guys, rescued wild dogs from panthers (Timmy’s mixed breed pooch and my big black cat), and bellied up to the bar in Marie’s kitchen that smelled of the cinnamon and nutmeg that she added to her pumpkin pie with homemade crust. She handed just baked chunks of extra pie crust dusted with cinnamon and sugar to Tonto and Lone Ranger for a job well done.
What does this have to do with Stephen Provost’s recent book, Fresno Growing Up — A City Comes of Age: 1945-1985?
It was a big deal when Bill and his family made the holiday trip from Fresno to the Antelope Valley, a three-hour or more drive south down Highway 99. It was also a big deal when Marie and Charlie loaded me into their Pontiac and we made the same drive north to stay with Bill and family in their circa early 1900s house on Illinois St. My memories are like worn negatives tucked into an envelope with the black and white photos of Timmy and I trying to reach the sweet navel oranges from the giant tree in their backyard—a backyard that smelled of decaying leaves and urban air.
I thought that by reading Provost’s work, that I would find the answers to my disjointed dreams of exploring Blackstone Street with Timmy, and shopping with Marie in Gottschalk’s downtown Fresno.
Fresno Growing Up — A City Comes of Age: 1945-1985 didn’t resolve my dream query, but it did pack more information about Fresno than I could have ever imagined. For that reason, the book has been a recent nightly read from cover to cover (okay, I skipped the sports section).
If more history books where written in the style of Provost, a California State University, Fresno grad, more students may find history intriguing, instead of a reluctant must-do.
I did not know the historical cultural soup of Fresno—and Provost writes in a manner that makes me want to know more.
As I got into the chapter “They Paved Paradise,” I recalled Bill’s annual reports: “Yup. Fresno just added another 10,000 to the population;” “Yup, Fresno is now a metropolis—that means over a 100,000 people live here;” “Yup, they made the downtown into walking mall now;” and “Yup, they’re going to build a freeway two blocks from the house.”
Linking pop stars to a San Joaquin Valley town sparkles Fresno’s agricultural history. I did not know that Cher is from Fresno and comes from an Armenian family—as opposed to the stuff I read in the past that does not mention Fresno, and said that she’s part American Indian. And Steve Perry from the band Journey? A local band drummer/singer and from one of Fresno’s Portuguese descendant families.
But it’s not just Fresno kids who made it big that kept me turning pages. Do you know the real story behind California’s iconic businesses like Sambo’s, McDonald’s, and Bank of America and the first credit cards? There’s a chapter for that in Fresno Growing Up.
Fresno’s growth paralleled California’s growth, all while keeping raisins and figs on our tables.
You see, I never appreciated the city. Los Angeles was my reference for most everything. But Provost put Fresno into California’s historical perspective, which it seems to me, has not been fully portrayed before.
Reading this coffee table style book, perfectly illustrated with both historic and current photos, did resurrect some personal regrets. I’m sorry that I lost touch with Timmy—that funny “cousin” with a child’s imagination as silly as mine—who went to Vietnam and died much too early from his post war nightmares that he tried to smother while working for the city of Fresno. I’m sorry that when I found “Uncle Bill” a few years back, then in a rest home for WWII vets, that I couldn’t get away to his Fresno retreat before he died, and talk about the holiday excitement that he and his brother created every year and kept this lost child smiling.
Fresno Growing Up: A City Comes of Age: 1945-1985 by Stephen H. Provost, 2015. Craven Street Books, Fresno, Ca. ISBN 978-1-61035-250-5