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More Friends and Fun on the Estuary

This is part of our ongoing series of Dave LeMoine’s memories of growing up in Alameda. Further installments will be published every Friday.

Dave and Jerry

Jerry Green was like a brother. I spent a lot of time at his house on Garden Road, which was just next door to Dan and doors, looking across the street, were farmlands all the way to the bay. Jerry’s dad, Dave, was an Alameda fireman – a kind, wonderful man, and another father figure. I had the privilege of working for him during his last year as an assistant chief in the Alameda Fire Department.

Mrs. Green adopted me. I loved to sit in her kitchen, eat, and listen to the banter and an occasional strong word or two with friends and family; there was always someone in that kitchen. Jerry’s uncle and aunt would arrive on their Harleys or in their cool ’41 Ford, two-door sedan, equipped with glass pack mufflers, louvered hood and three carbs. Man, did I love that car!

Flaming Studebaker

Alameda Post - Vintage Studebaker pickup trucks
An array of Studebaker pickup trucks. Public domain photo.

Jerry’s dad drove an old, brown Studebaker truck that was left in their garage when Dave was at work. Jerry and I had been thinking that the old truck needed a little upgrading. So, with pencils in hand, we sketched flames all over the hood and front fenders. To us, they looked so good, we thought they needed to be permanent. Having found a can of red house paint and a three-inch brush, we completed our creation. What could it hurt?

I wasn’t at the garage when Dave saw his truck, but Jerry did live to grow old, and the truck was driven around with flames. So, just maybe, he liked it. I need to ask Jerry.

Shifter-ettes

As time went on, we paired off with girlfriends: Jerry with Judy; Dean with Joanne; me with Sharon and then Shari, Laurence and Donna; Red, Frank, Heater, and Budda with assorted girls. Fred had been adopted into the Canepa family and would take the twin girls, Diane and Doris, everywhere. He became their big brother, and then came his lifelong companion, Bev. Later on, Diane and Doris became cheerleaders. Diane paired with my brother, Jim, and in their senior year, Jim broke a list of football records as tight end. Cheered on by the twins at Thompson Field with their pompoms waving, we beat Berkeley 47-7 for the championship.

Jim and Diane soon married, went off to Utah State University with a full ride scholarship, and then onto pro football, and finally, to Alameda County Fire Department and a busy life together. Unfortunately, they both died before their time.

Paradise on the Estuary

Ben and Joanie Randolph lived on Marina Drive, 17 houses from the High Street Bridge. They loved having us teens around; it also gave them control, we knew that Ben was in charge, and we loved being there. Another father figure. Adopted, fed, loved, and disciplined, it was the place to be on the weekends.

Alameda Post - waterskiing behind the Chiquita

We loved to help Ben set and repair pilings that were under the pier. Weekends would find the gang on skis behind the Chiquita, sometimes three abreast. Navigating from their home, we flew down the channel, waving to the neighbors as we passed, then out into the San Leandro Bay, followed by a 180-degree turn, hoping we didn’t fall and hit bottom which was pudding-type mud. After the turnaround at high speed, we made a return trip past the house, through the Fruitvale Bridge, another 180 and back to their pier.

As we passed the house, we could see 20 kids standing on the pier throwing water balloons. They had a homemade diving board at the end of the pier and, depending upon the level of the tide, you could dive maybe 12 feet to the water if you had the nerve.

The Raft

Alameda Post - Trans Ocean Airlines Boeing 377 Stratocruiser
A Trans Ocean Airlines Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. Wikipedia photo.

Mom worked for Trans Ocean Airlines and was given an obsolete, twenty-man life raft. What fun. “Let’s use it to float the estuary!” How can we inflate this giant blob of rubber without the C02 bottles? We decided to just blow it up by mouth.

Stretched out on the Randolph’s front lawn, which covered most of their yard, ten guys began blowing at every inflation point until blue in the face, some totally covered by the raft, and some with only feet showing. Two hours later, it was floatable. But now what?

Twelve feet in diameter and about two feet high, it wouldn’t fit through the side gate to the water. So the ten of us with twenty legs, supporting a giant yellow donut, lifted it overhead to clear the tops of cars, moved it down Marina Drive a quarter mile, across the Fruitvale Bridge, which stopped traffic in both directions, and launched upstream of the house.

We drifted on the incoming tide through the old, center-pivot bridge, past the floats, boats, and neighbors waving from their houses, where Ben retrieved us with the Chiquita. When not in use, the raft was tied next to the pier.

This went on for maybe six months. Sometimes Ben would tow us upstream and we drifted back. At other times, we would resort to carrying it down to the bridge to drift the middle of the estuary, diving off and climbing back onboard.

What a sight! It was like a waterborne trampoline. All the neighbors loved seeing the giant yellow sphere drifting by, boys all over it, jumping and bouncing off, diving under and disappearing into the air pockets that made it look unattended. When tethered alongside the pier, we could jump 10 to 12 feet and bounce clear out of it and into the water.

Alameda Post - center pivot Fruitvale Bridge
This 1939 photo shows the original bridge across the Estuary that connected Alameda’s Tilden Way with Oakland’s Fruitvale Avenue. It pivoted around a center point to allow large boats to pass. It has since been replaced with the current single leaf bascule bridge as well as a vertical lift bridge for rail traffic that is no longer in operation. Photo Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room.

Chiquita to the Rescue

It stayed floating in the backyard until that fateful day, passing by our pier, we were caught in the five-knot outgoing current and drifted into the superstructure of Fruitvale Bridge, coming close to drowning. Ben, quite angry and worried, had to bring Chiquita to the rescue. Caught in the bridge with the raft collapsing on us, it took full power to pull us to safety. Soon after that, our beloved raft disappeared; no one seemed to know where it had gone. I think by now it’s 30 feet down as part of the landfill in Harbor Bay.

Alameda Post - Dave LeMoine's aircraft life raft

In the evenings, at the end of a day’s water skiing, with the sun setting, Ben would drop us at the mouth of the San Leandro Bay to swim and drift without life jackets on the outgoing tide, down the middle of the estuary, past the sand and gravel barges, heads bobbing, and boats racing by, under High Street Bridge, past the old ships and pilings. Luckily no one was ever run over.

Back at the Randolph’s, we would swim a little while and dive off that great diving board until half frozen, then into that wonderful hot shower while Ben and Joanie barbecued. Truly a teen paradise!

David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.

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