In the spring of 1973, my parents, my toddler sister and I moved into a 3-bedroom house on Key West Way in Sacramento, California. I was five years old, and, overeager to immediately figure out what new turns life would place in front of me, proceeded to knock on every door in the proximate neighborhood with one extremely urgent question: “Do you have any kids?”. If this sounds like a moderately adorable tale, embellished by parents and worn with time – well, I’d agree, except that I remember making these rounds as clearly as if they’d occurred yesterday.
As far as finding fellow five-year-olds in the neighborhood that day, I struck out (I hadn’t gone as far as Scott Garo and Rebecca Gailey’s houses yet). Yet I totally hit the mother lode with the house directly across the street from ours. “Yes, we have three kids – Tammy (aged 10); Sami (Samantha, aged 11), and Jim (aged 12). Big kids!! These were the Reece children, the progeny of Wayne and Mary Reece, and for the next five years, they’d be formidable and consistent influences in my young life.
Even now my wife jokingly needles me about my outsized idealization of this relatively short period in my life, age 5-10, when we lived in Sacramento and when I traversed a path from Kindergarten into the 5th grade. Yet the years 1973-78 loom overly large in my psyche. I had a happy childhood there, with lots of friends. There was Little League, Cub Scouts and tons of off-leash, free-range 1970s-style roaming. It stood in marked contrast to my San Jose-based adolescence, which was by no means miserable, but which came with typical teenage travails and challenges. I’ve written some words about that time in my life here and here.
The Reece kids and their parents instantly entered our family’s lives in 1973 and carved out an extremely important place there until we moved away. It was to the Reece’s that I’d go during summer afternoons when my mom had work. Tammy and I would sit on the couch and watch “Match Game ‘75” and other game shows until the soap operas came on, which signaled to me, at least, that it was maybe time to go outside into Sacramento’s 95-degree heat. Tammy was our first regular in-home babysitter as well, including the time my parents went out to see the talk-of-the-nation new film The Exorcist. Given our five-year gap in age, she fell somewhere between a peer and a respected elder, and re-connecting with her on Facebook a few years ago helped to validate the existence of social media in the first place.
Tammy and her siblings were huge music fans, in an era of AM radio and a time when popular music was an extremely important component of youth culture. Tammy once told me the start-to-finish story captured in the lyrics of Tony Orlando & Dawn’s 1973 hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, which I found totally enrapturing (a guy coming home from prison! 100 yellow ribbons!!). This led me to bug my mom to buy me what became the very first 45rpm single I ever owned. Jim seemed to have snippets of song lyrics darting across his brain at all times; he flung some verses of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” my way once, and that instantly became another song that was the epitome of childhood cool, merely by virtue of Jim having sung it.
One time he busted out, apropos of nothing, the Led Zeppelin lyric “Say hey mama like the way you MOVE / gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove!”, which my sister Julie and I thought was probably the funniest thing we’d ever heard. There’s another one he used to sing that I’m still puzzled about, the lyrics of which were just, “Li-za Minelli”. Mostly I remember the three Reece kids were deeply into the AM radio-friendly rock of the day like Boston, the Steve Miller Band and The Eagles. This music was totally ubiquitous in the 70s, with every local kid’s radio tuned in simultaneously to the top 40 stations KROY and KNDE. I’m pretty sure it was Tammy that got me into Steve Miller, with “Fly Like an Eagle” being an early big hit in my house as a result.
Jim Reece was definitely far less of a peer and much more of a respected elder, the sort of teen my parents probably wanted me to be, and whom I certainly held as a model youth to emulate. He and his father Wayne were of the era and temperament of men who actually built and repaired things, as opposed to lily-livered modern guys like myself who mostly write checks for others to do the heavy lifting for them. They had a garage with a perpetually open door, and inside were various dials and winches and tools and a beautiful old Packard that I took to be Wayne’s pride and joy (outside of his kids, of course). There seemed to be constant fiddling and repair work of all kinds going on in there, night and day.
One of the major, top-tier highlights of every year was the “Jim Reece room cleaning”. He’d invite me over for the blessed event to be on the front lines as he purged various trinkets large and small. I’d come home with armloads of his rejects. I got a fantastic old Victrola-style radio that served as my main music-listening companion for several years afterward; copies of Boy’s Life magazine, and lord knows what else. I just remember it being extremely exciting to get the good word each year that it was, once again, finally time for Jim Reece to clean his room.
One time Jim foisted his ne’er-do-well friend Henry on my parents when Tammy was unable to babysit. If Jim was the Wally Cleaver of the neighborhood, then Henry was definitely the Eddie Haskell. Even at my young age, I knew that Henry had not been born to babysit. He certainly faked it enough with my sister and me to keep us safe and sound, and in the libertine 1970s, that was more than enough for parents of the era. I remember only one thing about his short tenure as our babysitter, which was that he introduced Julie and I to the time-honored “watch me light my farts on fire” trick. He’d throw himself on his back, jack his legs up in the air, stick a lit match in front of his ass, and – whoosh! Fantastic entertainment for a 9-year-old! We’d never seen anything like it, but we still liked Tammy better.
Another defining moment for me, one which very much involved Jim Reece, was the time I was “hit by a car”. It may have been the lamest hit-by-a-car moment of all time. We were out in the front yard, me and Jim and several other neighborhood boys, engaging in the exceptionally popular 1970s pastime of “Smear the Queer”. For those unlucky enough to have not played this pre-enlightenment childhood classic, it involved throwing a football randomly upward in the air; having someone grab that football from the resulting scrum, then run away as everyone tried to tackle (i.e. “smear”) the possessor of said football – the titular “queer”. Once the tackle had been completed, the game started anew, with the “queer” again chucking the football vertically.
For whatever reason, I found myself across the street in the Reece’s yard – perhaps grabbing an errant football – and darted between two cars to run back over to my own yard. A car – as it turned out, the aforementioned Scott Garo’s grandfather’s green, ancient 50s Detroit car – was creeping down Key West Way at about 3-5 miles per hour. I was tapped very gently by this car as I sailed across the street, and the massive force of impact made me fall to the pavement for about three seconds, before hopping right back up again, fully uninjured and unhurt in any way. I still remember Scott Garo’s older sister, name now forgotten, in the passenger seat, screaming like a banshee; Jim running immediately to my parents’ front door, and me, now sobbing – not because of my horrible accident, but because I didn’t want my parents to find out about what just transpired. I was tugging on Jim’ shirt: “No, Jim, no, don’t tell them, no….”. I remember Jim blurting out – and remember, this is with me standing right there, with five other boys at my side – “Mr. and Mrs. Hinman, Mr. and Mrs. Hinman, Jay’s been hit by a car!”. My mother actually fainted. I think I eventually got a popsicle. We dined out on that story in my family for years.
Samantha, known to all in those years as “Sami”, was the Reece teen who was always nothing but nice to me, but with whom I probably interacted with least. I get the hindsight sense that the annoying younger children across the street were probably – and quite understandably – not an adolescent priority of hers. My friend Charles Davis and I used to play a game we made up called “Starsky and Hutch”, where we’d run around the neighborhood like idiots, climbing and jumping off of fences, rolling on car hoods, shooting neighbors with our finger-guns and so forth. One time I remember doing this all by myself, as Sami and her posse of denim-jacketed, feathered-hair 15-year-olds roamed the corner of Key West and Rawhide Ways, looking not at all dissimilar to the cast of Dazed and Confused.
Let’s state for the record that they were less than amused by my antics, and by my attempt to stalk them to wherever they were headed. One rogue, a blonde male who’d code-named himself “Snake”, asked to see my eyeglasses (I was – and remain – ridiculously nearsighted). I dutifully handed them over, at which point he hocked a gigantic disgusting spitball onto a lens, and then carefully placed them back onto my face. If that’s the main thing I remember about Sami during those years – well, it’s just not fair, is it? It isn’t. She was absolutely a great childhood comrade. I just hope Snake is serving time in Folsom Prison right about now.
During the latter part of that era, a sense of dread and fear pervaded our neighborhood and the entire Sacramento region. You’ve quite possibly heard of the East Area Rapist – later known as the Golden State Killer – a sociopathic serial rapist and murderer who was finally, finally named, captured and imprisoned several years ago. The “East Area” – well, that was our area. Some of his higher-profile crimes happened less than a mile away, with nearly a dozen more taking place within a 10-mile radius. I remember my mother and the neighborhood in general being really worked up about it, yet at the same time, I was 9 years old, and didn’t quite understand what rape was, nor did I quite understand the stakes for teenagers like Sammy and Tammy; their mother Mary; my own mother, etc.
My dad has subsequently told me about the watch patrols that he and other neighborhood men would go on during the nights, and about the gun he kept by the bed. I read Michelle McNamera’s excellent I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, about the quest to find the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Golden State Killer, and later watched the HBO documentary series of the same name. It was only then that I truly became retrospectively terrified for the women of our neighborhood, and for the teenage Reece girls in particular. I am thankful that our tranquil and neighborly Key West Way was spared.
In late 1977, my dad announced that he’d found better employment in San Jose, and that we’d be moving. Since Sacramento, Key West Way and the Reeces were virtually all I knew in the sentient phase of my life, I was both saddened and yet excited about this new development. We’d grown extremely close to the Reece family, every one of us, and we never again had neighbors quite as good as them. Jim, too, may also have been sad to see us go; he tried to scare me by telling me that “all the girls in San Jose carry switchblades in their hair, and they’ll cut you”, along with various other horror stories that contrasted San Jose quite poorly with idyllic Sacramento.
While he may have been a bit, shall we say, hyperbolic, he was also right, in his way. We didn’t ultimately like it as much as the world of Key West Way, the world of the Reeces; Strange James next door; 4th of July block parties; the sunshine, the heat, and the American River levee nearly in our backyard. When I became old enough to drive, and once nostalgia truly started kicking in around age 25, I’d sometimes go back to Sacramento by myself. I returned in 1992 and decided to walk the old neighborhood. I parked the car in front of our house, and found Wayne and Jim Reece across the street, working on an old car in the driveway, just as they’d done fifteen years previously. It was some incredible deja vu come to life, and they delightedly came across the street to greet me, like we’d only slinked away to our new life just the week before, rather than back in 1978.
It was only a few years ago when I thankfully reconnected with not just Tammy, but with all 3 Reece kids on Facebook. I’m going to send this piece to them right now and see what they think. Hey, if you see it published here on my blog, then it looks like they were cool with it.