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Streetwise - Rites of Spring

by Frank Dunnigan
April 2016

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

As the calendar pages turn and springtime approaches, many of us recall some of the rites of spring that were once part of lives, year after year.

Easter—The floating-date holiday always drives retailers crazy because they cannot make easy year-to-year comparisons of sales. When I was in grammar school, we always paid a visit to the children’s department at Emporium-Stonestown to watch baby chicks hatching in incubators while picking up new Easter clothes. After spending time in church between noon and three on Good Friday (when every neighborhood merchant was closed for a full three hours), we came home to boil and color eggs. Easter Sunday usually meant brunch at the Cliff House and then a visit to the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden at the base of the Dutch Windmill along Great Highway. Later, my parents shifted their breakfast allegiance to the then-new Jack Tar Hotel (1960-2013) on Van Ness Avenue, where the buffet menu included typical Italian and Greek Easter pastries that featured a colored, hardboiled egg inserted into a Danish-style pastry—talk about multiculturalism in a single food item! Most Irish families would then sit down to a ham dinner, while many Italian households served lamb. In most years, Orthodox Easter came a week later because of arcane calculations involving the calendar and the moon, and on that day, many Greek families would be serving goat—a very tasty dish, indeed. In our family, there was always the perennial debate about who produced the best rocky road Easter eggs—See’s or Shaw’s?

The Dineens in their Easter best, 1957. Note the lack of buildings on Golden Gate Heights in the background., 1957 -

Farmers Market—My parents were avid fans of the Alemany Farmers Market, and we would generally stop by there on a couple of Saturday afternoons each month. From the limited offerings of winter (potatoes, onions, turnips), springtime always meant the arrival of tasty and colorful treats such as asparagus, early apricots, and berries.

Gardening—It was a true rite of passage when sons in a family were allowed to take over the household lawn-mowing duties from their parents, often at about age ten or so. This new chore usually had some pleasant monetary compensation as well.

Girl Scout cookies—February and March have always been the classic months for sales, and in the 1950s and 1960s that meant that an army of little girls were out and about, hitting every house in the neighborhood on a daily basis. Mom was seriously addicted to the thin mint variety, and never turned anyone away. She bought at least one box from each scout who showed up at our door and, consequently, we were well stocked until mid-summer each year.

May Day festivities in McCoppin Square, 1949. - WNP Collection

May Day events—Whether religious activities at local churches, or just the public event of dancing around maypoles in McCoppin Square, May Day has always been marked with celebratory events in the western neighborhoods.

Opening Day at Candlestick—Spring training in Arizona was not an option for most of us in the 1960s—though many kids from that era now engage in annual visits to the southwest desert for just that sort of thing in their retirement years. The first pitch was usually thrown sometime in the first two weeks of April, and transistor radios then became standard features in neighborhood parks and school yards until October.

Outdoor play—The coming of Daylight Saving Time (earlier now than in the past) always marked extended outdoor play time. Even for those of us who had a city park or a schoolyard close by, everyone knew that the very best places to play were on the streets and sidewalks in front of your own home. Hide-and-seek was a game that was especially well-suited to the thousands of tunnel entrance homes across the western neighborhoods.

Passover—Sometimes coinciding with Easter and sometimes not, this Jewish holiday requires that all leavened products be removed from the home. Our neighbor Claire always sent us a shopping bag full of bread, crackers, cereal, and rolls as she was preparing for her family’s Passover celebration. Mom always returned the favor by sending back a large bag of our family’s abundant supply of chocolate Easter bunnies.

Rainy days—As school kids, “rainy day session” was always a treat, since it meant early dismissal and classroom games with names like “7-Up.”

Senioritis—Whether grammar school, middle school, high school, or college, all students have an internal clock that seems to go off around February or March of their final year at a particular institution, forcing them to abandon common sense and engage in less than stellar behavior. Sad to say, it was true fifty years ago, and it remains true today.

Senior pranks—Without a doubt, Lowell High School students have a well-deserved reputation for engaging in some downright spectacular senior pranks over the years, including the time that an enormous redwood tree was planted on the 50-yard line of the school’s football field or the time that an enormous goldfish pond was created, filling the courtyard in front of the main entrance. But don't mention these to some parents, who are still smarting over the costs for repairing the damages.

Senior Sneak—Related to Senioritis, Senior Sneak generally involved high school students cutting class en masse and then spending the morning at Ocean Beach, just hanging out. Depending on the school involved, the event might be overlooked, though some schools would send someone from their Dean’s Office to round everyone up in time for afternoon classes.

Review of the San Francisco School Safety Patrol at Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park, 1968 - San Francisco Examiner

School Safety Patrol—If you were a traffic girl or boy in almost any San Francisco public or private school at any time from the late 1930s until the early 1970s, you certainly remember the Annual Review program that was held each May. Formations of assigned crossing guards wearing white Sam Browne belts and yellow-orange caps embroidered with their school name in blue were joined each year by school bands in a public performance. In the early years, these events took place at Civic Center Plaza, and then later at the Golden Gate Park Polo Fields and Kezar Stadium.

Sick Days—Whether real or imagined, many students managed to come down with something debilitating between February and May each year. In 1966, a springtime flu epidemic—the size of which was seldom seen either before or after that year—literally emptied out classrooms in both public and private schools all across San Francisco. Parents will confirm that many once-common childhood illnesses—chicken pox, measles, and mumps—often seemed to occur during the early months of the calendar year. Neighborhood pharmacies, like Reis’ on Taraval, Conlon’s on Noriega, and Wakelee’s on Clement Street were always ready, with high school students driving VW delivery vehicles filled with prescriptions, ice cream, and fresh supplies of comic books.

Summer jobs—I was fortunate enough not to work during school vacations until I was in college, which gave me plenty of time for after-school activities like yearbook, which always had deadlines looming. Friends who did work during the summer months of their high school years used to begin looking for the perfect job by March. The lucky ones might land a temporary stint in an office filing endless mountains of paper or answering telephones. Those who postponed their job searches until the last minute often found themselves pumping gas, washing dishes, baby-sitting, or dipping frozen bananas into chocolate sauce at Playland. For those who spent the summer listening to the endless calliope music along the Midway, there was a strong incentive to start looking for summer work much earlier the following year.

Vacation planning—At about the time of Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 each year, many families began thinking about summer vacations. Several of my grammar school classmates were shrewd enough to begin insisting on watching "Disney’s Wonderful World of Color" on Sunday nights on KGO Channel 7 (instead of "Bonanza" on KRON Channel 4 or "Perry Mason" on KPIX Channel 5) in order to encourage parental consideration of Disneyland as a summer vacation destination instead of just the usual getaways to Guerneville or Rio Nido at the Russian River.

Today, in the post-school lives being led by of most of us, spring is often just another few pages fluttering quickly past on the calendar. Yet it’s nice when we take a moment to think back to the times when we were feeling those first warm rays of sunshine, hearing the crack of a tennis racket against the ball, and inhaling the pungent smell of those freshly mowed lawns at Larsen Park—ah, spring has arrived!

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Page launched 24 April 2016.

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