(Editor's note: Recently the Ceres Courier ran a 1988 essay written by the late Norma Jean Helsley McBeth and submitted years ago by Edward Brooks, a former Ceres resident. This is the second part of that essay, which focuses on people who lived in Ceres as well as their lives outside of Ceres. The Helsley family was well known in Ceres many years ago. The author, Norma Jean Helsley McBeth, was the daughter of Judge Stanton K. Helsley who was born in 1891, lived in Ceres and was a judge. He died in 1955 and is buried in Ceres Memorial Park. Norma was the granddaughter of Baptist pastor Joseph Helsley who came to Ceres in 1899. She wrote this piece after her 70th birthday in 1988. Her brother Sheldon Helsley died in 2000 in Billings, Mont. The author lived in Salem, Oregon, where she died on Aug. 21, 2004).
By NORMA HELSLEY McBETH
Special to the
Ceres (Calif.) Courier
The old elementary school was between Second and Fourth streets behind the Harris house. Almost the entire school ground was surrounded by eucalyptus trees. They were hard to climb. The upper grades and offices used the two-story building (in what is now Whitmore Park), and the lower classes were in the smaller building at the side. There was no kindergarten in those days; we just started in the first grade.
A number of students I started with are still in the area: Pearl Johnson Merritt, Walton Warner, Margaret Caulkins and Althea Parrish Broadwell are a few. There are others from my high school who are still around, too. Phyllis and Herb Muirhead keep in touch. Our folks were good friends, too. Walter White was the principal of the grade school. I remember a few special happenings at that school, such as experiencing my first eclipse. The teacher gave each of us a piece of film and told us not to look at the eclipse without it. I remember how dark it got. It was a little frightening.
The playground was large and spread out over a big area. There were teeter-totters and other things to play on, but my favorite things were the rings. I would play on them until I had blisters on both hands. In February of 1986 I had a hip replacement and used a ring above my bed in the hospital to lift myself. It took me back to my childhood days.
Ceres suffered a terrible loss when (my older brother) Sheldon "Shel" Helsley was in the eighth grade and I was in the fourth or fifth grade. On March 4, 1930, one of our teachers, Rae Day, went home for lunch. Her brother, Harry Edd Day, who was in Shel's class, and a younger sister, Mary Eloise Day, went home with her. On the return trip, their car was hit by the "Noon Flyer," a fast train. They were all killed. Everyone was stunned, and our hearts all went out to their mother. I believe there was one son left. It was a long time before Shel or I could sleep without having nightmares.
The year I was in the seventh grade our school moved to the new one on Lawrence Street. I was selected to recite "Old Ironsides" at the dedication program. When I was memorizing the words at home, someone (probably Shel), suggested that I say, "Tears her tattered insides out" instead of "tear her tattered ensigns down," and you guessed it ... I recited the words wrong. I was so embarrassed I cried then but I can laugh about it now.
Lots of people thought I was Aunt Carol Helsley Brooks Cochran's oldest child; I was with her so much.
When Auntie and Uncle Harold were married I had the mumps and being a generous kid I gave them to Uncle Harold. I'm glad he forgave me; it sure fixed their honeymoon.
When Edward was born, Auntie was at Babby's house, sweeping the floor, when suddenly she said, "Someone get the doctor! The baby's coming!" Well they did and he did. I don't know who got there first.
I felt like it, too, and I couldn't love the three boys more if I was their sister. I went through all the childhood diseases with them. Edward Brooks was a happy little guy who could wriggle his ears on demand. He always tried to do everything his brothers did, and usually succeeded with maybe a little help from one of them.
Vernon Brooks was the one who always got hurt. I will always carry the picture of him in my heart in his brown velvet suit with the pongee shirt. The time he fell out of the car he wasn't hurt but came running down the road, carrying his cap and crying because he thought his daddy was going to leave him behind.
Leslie Brooks was another story. He and I were buddies and shared everything. I taught him all my habits, good and bad. We both had a weight problem when we were growing up, but somewhere along the line he conquered his. Les had a cute little cap he wore most of the time, a beanie.
Auntie was very generous with her car, and Les and I put a lot of miles on it. I was quite accomplished at finding reasons to drive her car - another of my habits I passed along to my "Buddy."
Uncle Harold Brook had the mail run from El Portal into Yosemite Valley. El Portal was the end of the railroad line, so the mail had to be trucked into the valley. He had a big Rio Flying Cloud truck to do the job. It was a beauty. In the winter they lived in a government house in El Portal and in the summer they lived in Yosemite Valley, in a tent at one of the campgrounds. The tents were real neat; the floors and side walls were of wood and there was a framework above to stretch the tent canvas over. Usually there was some kind of makeshift cooler just outside the door, where we kept the perishable foods. They really perished when the bears came calling. One time when Babby and I were there, I wakened in the middle of the night and heard the older folks whispering anxiously and I could hear the grunts from the bear as he was raiding our cooler. I was scared of death, but I guess he preferred the bacon he had found, to us.
On weekends, Uncle Harold would take us for a ride all around the park, such a show of the Lord's handiwork! From the overhanging Glacier Point rock above Camp Curry, the quiet lakes, the graceful waterfalls, to the majestic Half Dome, I always had a feeling of insignificance when we viewed these giants. I saw them building the Ahwahnee Hotel which opened in 1927. I especially remember how I enjoyed the evening program at Camp Curry. The audience was seated on wooden benches in the outside theater. At 9 p.m. sharp the lights would be turned off and they would ask the people to stand and turn around and look up toward the granite cliff; then the master of ceremonies would loudly call, "Let the fire fall!" His voice would trail down in tone on his last word. Then someone on the mountain would push a big bonfire over the edge and the burning embers fell hundreds of feet into the canyon below. It was a breathtaking sight. I will never forget it; what a pity they don't do it anymore.
A few years after they moved back to Ceres, Uncle Harold became sick and spent his remaining years between the Veteran's Hospital and home. He passed away when Leslie was about 11 or 12 years old.
Grandpa and Grandma Brooks had a small ranch out on Creamery Road (now S. Central Avenue). After Uncle died, Aunt Carol took the boys out to see their grandparents often, and many times I got to go with them. I really enjoyed going as the Brooks were very nice people.
Auntie supported her little family by teaching piano and playing at funerals, weddings and special functions. We all suffered when we had to play in one of Auntie's piano recitals. How sad that none of us took advantage of the wonderful opportunity we had to learn from such a gifted teacher. She was so dedicated to her music and always used it to serve the Lord. She was one of the most outstanding students to graduate from Redlands University. I am sure we will hear her beautiful music again, someday. I loved her dearly.
She and the boys moved into the house on Eighth Street where Aunt Peggy and Uncle Clifford Strait had lived. We lived just a few houses away so it was handy for me to spend time with them. Sunday nights I always tried to go to Auntie's because she would make us hot chocolate and toast. Sometimes we would have big fluffy white marshmallows in the cups. It was always so good and so much fun.
There were lots of kids in our neighborhood - the Newberrys, the Landreths, the Brooks, the Helsleys and Bobby Robinson. Sometimes kids from the neighboring streets would come over, too. We used to play under the street light at night, and on our lawn during the day.
After Auntie married Reid Cochran, they moved to Modesto. I did not get to see them very often after that, and I missed them so much. But by then I was working in the cannery during the summer and going to high school all winter, so I kept busy.
Hazel Applegarth Miner told me that her brother, Leslie, lived in Hornbrook where Shel and I used to go on our summer vacation sometimes. Uncle Mickey had the mail route there. On our way back to Oregon one time, Tom and I stopped to see Leslie Applegarth. He had a grocery store there. When he retired he bought the old saloon there. From town, Uncle Mick took the mail 15 or 20 miles up the Klamath River to the California, Oregon Power Company (COPCO). I just loved to go with him because he used to sing crazy songs that he made up, and did crazy things like the day we chased a skunk up the hill with the car. Oh boy, did that skunk let go!
I remember Granny Cook, the cranky little old lady who lived kitty-corner from us on Eighth Street. Poor thing had so much to put up with - rotten eggs on Halloween and the kids ringing the doorbell and hiding, most any time. Mean kids!
Then there was my Mom's friend, Aunt Bessie Orr, who lived out Creamery Road past Grandpa Brooks' place. She made the best Italian macaroni. Her house was full of the most beautiful Chinese vases, antique furniture and bone china I have ever seen. Her sister, Pearl worked for a wealthy family in Oakland, and they showered her with these luxurious things. Aunt Bess was the worst driver; I can remember driving to Modesto and getting behind a long line of traffic and every time that happened it was Aunt Bess at the head of the line, in her little Ford coupe.
I remember our mother's friend, De Frieda Peterson. I was at her house in the country one time and her son William and I had nothing to do we went out to the hay field and set a few of the little shocks of hay on fire. The fires were quickly extinguished with a garden hose, then DeFrieda set a couple of fires of her own on our backsides!
A beautiful police dog named Metta was given to us. She had been trained by the Arizona State Police. She was quite vicious when we first got her. We had to push her food to her with a stick but it wasn't long before she was licking our hands and faces. She was so smart. When we were going swimming, Shel would tell her to go to the ditch, and when we'd get there she would be waiting! Often Mother would her to stay home when she left for work at the post office. But when she'd get there to work, Metta was waiting for her. I will never forget the Sunday afternoon she was hit by a car. Sheldon and half the football team came home crying. It broke all our hearts.
Grandpa Joseph and Rachel Ann "Babby" Helsley had some friends, a minister and wife named Yeager from Turlock, who used to visit often. I think they were grandparents if the famous pilot, Chuck Yeager, but I'm not sure. Another visitor who came often was Mr. Kemmit. He was some kind of missionary, I think, and traveled around living inside his small black touring car. It had dirty side curtains you could hardly see through. It really looked weird at night when his kerosene lantern was lit. He was a funny little man with Ben Franklin glasses.
One time when my folks were away on Sunday, I was told before they left to go to Sunday School and church. I decided they would have no way of knowing whether I went or not, so I chose not to go. I joined a bunch of kids riding around in a car. It was great sport to slide around corners, Well, we slid around the wrong one, right by the church when it was in session. Some of us who were hanging on fell off. I slid across the intersection in a sitting position. People from church came to help. The next day I had Dr. Lord pick the gravel out of my backside. Grandpa's words came back to me once again, "Be sure your sins will find you out." I have never forgotten.
Occasionally a road show would come to Ceres; some people called them a tent show. A big tent was put up first, then they spread sawdust for a floor. They placed wooden benches in rows to accommodate their audiences. The performers did skits, sang and dance, did juggling acts and magic tricks. We got popcorn and peanuts and loved every minute and bite! There was an open lot in the early days right downtown where they had a big movie screen and the same little benches to sit on, but the shows were more exciting as they were the Keystone Cops or westerns with cowboys and Indians. Some were even talkies!
When we were young we never thought about getting old, but the older we get, the faster time passes and the more we think back over the years of our youth and the family togetherness. I have made many mistakes in my life, and I have had some narrow escapes when I knew the Lord was watching over me. I do not know why He cares for me, but I am glad He does. I learned enough from the error of my ways to thank Him and ask His forgiveness.
I love you all and want you to: "Be glad that you've walked in sunshine and rain, be glad that you've felt both pleasure and pain, be glad for the comfort you've found I prayer, be glad for God's blessings, His love and His care."
We all have much to be thankful for. We never went hungry, we never were cold and we still have each other.