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Days gone by …

Submit "Remember When" contributions to admin@martineztribune.com.
Submit “Remember When” contributions to admin@martineztribune.com.
By RAY ROBBINS
Special to the Tribune

I miss tagging along with my older brother and his friends, riding the ferry boat to Benicia and back. You could ride all day for 10 cents, if you knew where to hide.

I miss being shooed away from Pasco’s Bar on the wharf, which was always filled with laughter and smoke from the little Toscano Cigars that looked like twigs.

I miss the thump, thump, thump sounds of the single stroke engines on the fishing boats tied up in the creek at Granger’s Wharf from the aromatic food cannery all the way past the Pellegrini home where there was an area fisherman dried and mended their nets. That way of life ended for them in the early 1950s when someone deemed it was illegal to fish with nets – everyone except Chucky DiMaggio’s defiant stand which earned him a vacation in the “Gray Bar Hotel.”

The food cannery at Granger’s Wharf was managed by Mr. Graziano and was home to a lot of blue-collar jobs for the locals. Some of the things I remember being canned were sardines, tomatoes, peaches and asparagus, and I think they even made saltwater taffy once. The cannery also had the best softball team in town. The roster was filled with guys whose last names ended with a vowel.

I miss the ship the “Forester,” grounded northwest of town. We didn’t know the owner’s name at the time (Captain Otto A. Daeweritz); he was just known as the captain, or the informal “Cap.” I’ve been on that ship. Cap had a rickety gangway on the port side where you boarded the ship. He would show you around the deck and let you play pirate for awhile. Once he allowed us below deck where he and his dog lived and showed us a rack filled with different flags and insignia that he flew to message fellow mariners. When Cap died, the new owner was a grouchy guy that wouldn’t let anyone get near the ship. It eventually had a mysterious fire and burned down to the waterline.

The shoreline was different in those days and was loaded with tulles where the duck hunters built their blinds. They laid out their decoys, sat in their blinds and called the ducks in. They never had a chance.

I miss those Foley & Burke carnivals set up across the tracks between the Alhambra Water building and the little airport, where Jack Davi kept his airplane. They had a Ferris wheel and other rides, and games that were nearly impossible to win.

I miss being a paperboy and hanging out at the Gazette (then in the Sharkey Building), and the ebullient Elmo Crow and his little mustache; he looked after the carriers like we were his own. He showed us how a paper was put together, from the typesetters in front of their huge machines, lifting the metal letters, making the leaden molds and man-handling the giant spools of newspaper. The press was underground and when it was asleep, the pressmen would show us how it operated. No one was allowed below when it was running because it was too dangerous and the roar was deafening and shook the building.

Elmo could drink a coke from the side of his mouth but when we tried, it dribbled down our chins. A couple more names I remember at the Gazette were Clarence and Dink.

I miss playing street games like hide and seek, kick the can, red rover, dodge ball, mumblety-peg, marbles, rubber gun fights, stilts, skates and coasters. Does anybody know what olly, olly, oxen free means?

I miss unsupervised sports we played without umps, refs or parents and everyone got to play no matter how good or bad you were. I miss the skating rink next to the Masonic Hall and Dairyvale and Ice Cream kitty-corner from the hall.

I miss the mom and pop grocery stores dotted all over town, especially on Alhambra Avenue where there was Barnett’s, Drago’s, Brown Street, Red and White – where the high schoolers hung out – Knutson’s, and Valley and Trestle Markets. Just about every one of them had their own butchers.

I miss the alumni football, baseball, and basketball games played at Alhambra High; to me it was like watching the pros. I miss the fastpitch softball games played under the lights of Rankin Park by both men and women teams, and the men’s city league basketball played at Alhambra gymns.

I miss the dances that were held at our schools, the Firemen and Police Balls held at Carpenters Hall, the Job’s Daughters Balls at Masonic Hall and the teenage dances held at the old Odd Fellows building.

I miss Mr. Ackel’s Avalon Theater that played mostly B and cowboy movies. It was alright to wear your holsters and guns to the shows. Ackel once showed a controversial movie called “Mom and Dad” that was for adults only; today it would probably be in school biology classes.

My favorite intersection was Ward and Ferry, which was where the majestic State Theater stood. It had a well-appointed mezzanine that led to the balcony. The tickets were priced so you could afford to go every time they changed the bill. Across the street was the alcohol-free pool hall where kids and men of all ages could hone their skills playing 8 ball, snooker or billiards. There was the Corn Crib Cafe where I learned to drink coffee like the big boys, and listened to the Nickelodeon. There was also the telephone company where all the pretty operators were always coming and going.

I miss the old friendly police force that you knew by their first names and they kept you in line by threatening to tell your parents or take your car keys away from you. Who can ever forget the gallant Roy Nicola on his motorcycle, or Chief Nielson in the passenger side of a patrol car sitting at the corner of Main and Ferry looking over his town.

I miss the long parades we had that featured every attraction from drill teams to horses, and usually started with Majorette Jeanne Vallejo and ended with sweepers and the Balestreri twins standing in garbage cans hung on the back of one of the Bisio’s trucks.

I miss the festivals, whiskerinos and street dances we had celebrating anything we could think of. We even had a festival for the opening of Interstate 680 and the bridge that, along with the closing of the ferry boat and the opening of Sunvalley Mall, was the beginning of the end for downtown Martinez being a shopping destination.

We had a lot of dinner houses throughout town, starting with Sprigg’s Chicken Dinners at the four corners of Highway 4 and Pacheco Boulevard where Kirk’s Drive-In and the old CHP office was located. Sprigg’s raised their own chickens; can you imagine what the health department would say today? The four corners were also the original eastern entrance into Martinez before I-680 was built.

There was Mitch’s Club and Dinners that was more family oriented. Mitch ruled with an iron fist and raspy voice, but we all knew the real boss was his lovely Ann. Paul’s Place catered to a more sophisticated clientele that enjoyed dinner and dancing to live music. Nick’s Place was rebuilt at the original Armando’s on Escobar Street, where there had been a fire. Nick’s also had music on occasion, but there were some people who thought he watered down the booze.

Amato’s had a lot of legal people as customers. Some people say there were more cases solved over a three Martini lunch than at the courthouse.

Dominic’s Grotto was a seafood favorite and I can remember you could get an Abalone sandwich on a French roll for less than two dollars.

I miss the service stations that had attendants that cleaned the windshields and checked under the hood. They had water and air hoses on the islands, and most of them had unlocked restrooms open 24-7 for your convenience. Our favorite was Rupe’s, who allowed us to tinker with our engines in the parking lot and use his washing rack and accessories. Thanks, Rupert Lorenzo.

I miss all the Damon Runyon-type characters that frequented our more than adequate watering holes, card rooms and cafes. Andy Bellecci used to say that if Mr. Runyon had stopped in Martinez he would never have made it to New York. For those of you that do not know what I’m talking about, all I can say is, I wish you were there.

Share your Martinez memories in the Tribune’s “Remember When” feature. Call (925) 229-2026 for more information.

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