Friday, May 11, 2012

Thunder and Flames on the Lake! Free Strawberries and Ice Cream On the Beach!

Recently, the Seattle Times featured a photo of Slo-Mo-Shun IV being moved to a new maritime museum. As I looked at that image, my head was filled with the sound of the hydroplanes of my youth screaming in one ear from the grainy black and white TV screen in my grandparents' living room. In my other ear the explosions of sound reached from Lake Washington, across Elliot Bay to Eagle Harbor. It was 1952 - the Gold Cup Race - Slo-Mo-Shun-IV. My grandfather teetered on his chair, head almost touching the little screen. It was science fiction - an airplane made of wood to fly on water. It was the fastest boat ever. Its rocket, three-point shape - crouched low, prow soaring above the waves, bouncing like a tennis ball. Only the helmet of the pilot could be spotted - reckless daredevil - our new hero - Stan Sayres - Seattle and the Pacific NW on the radar of the sporting world for the first time.

"Slo-Mo", the name on everyone's lips. She proudly spouted her thirty foot rooster tail across the Times front page. Over the next years, the "Thunder Boats" were the stars of Seafair culminating with the Gold Cup Race. World records, world-famous boats and their drivers vied for the coveted trophy. When a Thriftway supermarket opened on the Island, the glamorous celebrity was the racing star "Miss Thriftway" and her pilot, Bill Muncey. The red and yellow striped vision seemed to roar off her flat-bed truck platform in the parking lot. Spectators, some in "Davey Crockett Coonskin Caps", walked mesmerized around and around the truck.

In the same era, the Island's "Strawberry Festival" brightened up the summer. A group of Islanders volunteered to pass out free ice cream and strawberries in a little area behind the main street of Winslow. In the yard of Lincoln Elementary School the carnival was set up. It was pretty rickety but regulations were loose at best. There was a ferris wheel and lots of booths festooned with rewards of stuffed animals, celluloid dolls, pennants, and the like to tempt the unwitting to break a balloon with a dart or shoot down old bowling pins. We paid a nickel to toss a baseball through the mouth of "Old Wooden Face" (It was plywood with a painted face and big open mouth. And it lasted through many years of Island events) to dunk some tolerant target in a tub of water.

Of course, there was a parade. All the kids took part. Bicycle wheels with playing cards clipped to spokes for the flup flup flupping noise were favorite chariots. Wagons for the littlest pulled by the bigger kids and sometimes a dog or a goat. Always the first to pedal down Winslow Way was Ernesto the Magician in top hat and tails on his mono-cycle. He was at every Island event. Following Ernesto, came an antique car carrying Island pioneers. Every Islander wore the Festival's green or red paper felt fedora and sported the round pin with the symbolic strawberry image. There was a Queen and her court riding on the back of - of course - another flat bed truck adorned with greenery and a throne. The Queen won that title by selling the most Festival pins and tickets. The local newspaper editor once chided "Queenie" for perhaps not selling tickets on her very own and knowing she won before the winner was announced.

One year my little sister was a junior princess. My mother made her dress - and fingerless gloves - and her partner princess' dress. The dresses and matching gloves were white dotted Swiss with emerald green ribbon sashes. I still have the Review's front page picture of the two girls. In that same parade my girlfriend, Susan, and I marched wearing home-made green circle skirts. My mother made a giant strawberry stencil that we colored with crayons. Then, using wax paper, Mom ironed over the strawberries making them waxy and bright. We thought we looked pretty grand.

Of course, there was the Boy and Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. Where the small wooden race cars made by the boys (with some help I'm sure) were set to whizzing down a tilted course. One time, a girl standing amongst the spectators - who all were lined up shoulder to shoulder alongside the race ramp - was hit by a flying car. She was taken to the Winslow Clinic and treated and admonished to be careful standing so close. The same sort of nonchalant attitude persisted about nearly all kids activities. We played on the beach and in the woods, rode bicycles all over, walked wherever. All the dangers of childhood were taken for granted. Afterall, our forbears lived through the pitfalls of youth, why couldn't we?

At the same time, all us younger folks were expected to behave responsibly and shoulder our chores before heading out to play. Even though we thought we knew more than any adult, we weren't given special status - "teenager" was just a word; not a separate tribe designation. I doubt demographics and market niche were as important than as now.

But - back to the Strawberry Festival. My friend and classmate, Nina (Paynter) Head, has some memories too. Here are her thoughts.

"Yes, I have lots of memories of the Strawberry Festival and of the hydroplane races. We watched the races on Lake Washington avidly on early TV. There was some comedian named Bjorn Borg or something who came on with a thick Swedish accent who was a commentator. He had a dog he named Slo Mo. I think if we saw this today we would think it was so corny to be almost unbelievable but we liked it.

(Editorial comment: That was Stan Boreson and his basset hounds, Slo-Mo-Shun and No-Mo-Shun noted for just sitting - that's it - just sitting - which at the time seemed to be pretty funny. Stan was a popular performer on stage and TV. Several eccentric personalities entertained us in those years. Next post will be about them - they cannot be left out in the cold!)

More of Nina's recollections:

The Strawberry Festival was closer to home. I remember one year where one of the candidates was (one of our classmates' sister). The person who got to be Queen had to sell the most raffle tickets. Somehow my Dad decided to support (the sister) and ended up selling lots of tickets to his friends at work.

We always went to the parade and later marched in it for the High School Band. My Aunt Doris marched early on in her evening gown as a Rebecca - a women's lodge. Later on my parents were in the parade for the Senior Citizens Band. One year they were on the back of a flat bed truck (flat bed again!) - my mother playing the piano and my dad playing his clarinet when there was a muddle. By this time my dad's hearing was not too great. My mother turned from the piano and said, "Let's play Daisy," but my dad didn't hear and he was off on "Sweet Georgia Brown" while the rest were playing "Daisy." My mother had to shout at him to stop.

Another year we went down below Winslow on what was then a dirt road and they gave out free ice cream and strawberries. Mom sat at a picnic bench and someone behind her dribbled melted ice cream down the back of her neck.

I loved the parade. We went in my uncle's old black Packard; parked amongst the trees at the side of the road so my grandma could sit in the car to see the parade. I especially liked the float of the Strawberry Queen. I thought she was beautiful.

(Note: the following memories are painful reminders of the prejudices of the time.)

I think the Festival was a way to end the strawberry season and an attempt to stop the Indian pickers from going bezerk and breaking the windows of businesses along Winslow Way. Don't know if this worked. There were all sorts of stories around Bainbridge about these pickers who came from British Columbia. One story was that they had gone to Seattle and gotten so drunk the ferry boat workers had to carry them up off the deck of the ferry. This was before the terminal was built and so they laid them out on the grass. People said they lay there so long the grass turned yellow under them. Then there was the story of the Indian woman who no sooner got into the medical clinic, the doctor got her up on a trolley for the impending birth but didn't quite make it and the baby slid out, along the floor to the wall on the other side. I have no idea if any of this was true or not, but those were the stories making the rounds at the time."

At first I was not going to relate these stories. But it is necessary to understand the minds and environment of the time to keep the perspective as clear as possible. In earlier posts, I told of other instances of extreme prejudice towards those of other ethnicities. There are no excuses to be made; it is history from which we learn valuable lessons.