Keeping It Straight: Flagstaff Memories

As a kid, I would do the vacation thing with my folks, traveling Route 66 back home to see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I loved the road and I think that was because my dad was a real road guy. The desert was my favorite, but I loved the mountains of Arizona as well.

And then in 1958 I was moved to Flagstaff. To say I fell in love with the town would be an understatement. I lived in east Flagstaff, an area still called, at that time, Sunnyside. The house was on North East Street, which was separated from North West Street by Center Street - seriously what could make more sense than that?

I was enrolled at Flagstaff High School, up on the hill above town on Kendrick Street. At that time, the old building was used for the junior high school and the new buildings were the high school. Having been moved from Phoenix, I suddenly had to learn GO EAGLES in place of GO THUNDERBIRDS and recognize the Bulldogs of Winslow as our arch enemies.

In the mornings I would walk down to Santa Fe Avenue - Route 66 - from the house to catch the bus. Sometimes I would stop at Johnson's Market to buy a pack of Twinkies to go with my lunch. If it was towards the end of the month I might buy the morning paper and swipe a pack of Twinkies. Yeah, I was that kind of a kid.

The school bus stop was on the corner of Arrowhead and Santa Fe Ave, across from the Twilight Motel. The Santa Fe tracks were across the highway and we would see the Santa Fe Chief racing past, heading west with people sitting in the dining car having breakfast. I used to wonder if they ever noticed us.

With winter came the snow, and the cold - something strange for a desert boy. Clear mornings were the worst. The air would be crisp and biting, and hurt your lungs if you breathed too deeply. The snow squeaked and crunched when you walked on it, and the bus was always late because they had trouble getting it started at the bus garage.

Sometimes one of the dads, I think it was Hector's dad, would drive him down in his new '58 Pontiac Safari Station Wagon and let us all jam into the car and wait for the bus. Those were great mornings.

There were days, when the weather was nice, that I would not catch the bus back to East Flagstaff, opting to walk. That walk would lead me down the hill and into town, where I headed for my favorite place. No, it wasn't the Pine Tree Café on Aspen, where we'd sometimes go for lunch. It was to McGaugh's Newsstand - the old location in the middle of the block on San Francisco Street between Santa Fe and Aspen. Mr. McGaugh would always be there with a big cigar stuck in his mouth with a curl of smoke working its way towards the ceiling. I'd look at the car magazines, and if I was flush with an extra 35 cents in my jeans, I'd buy the latest Motor Trend, Custom Cars or Rod and Custom.

From there it was out to Santa Fe Ave and the walk east. Once over the hill just east of downtown there were the motels, seemingly dozens of them. The Amber Sky, the Ben Franklin, the Chalet, the Porter House, the Skyline, the Frontier, the list could go on and on. One of my favorites was the Western Hills that stood up on a rise looking down on the highway. It had a great neon sign and a coffee shop where I never got to eat.

And of course, further east were the small mom and pop places, lined up one after the other. I knew the kids whose parents owned those little motels. Some of the stories they told were really something to hear.

But the classic in town, at that time, was the Flamingo at the Westside junction of Route 66 and Highway 89. That's where the god-awful ugly Barnes and Noble now stands. I still have a postcard showing the Flamingo with its huge red and yellow sign and a '58 Cadillac, a '57 Buick and a '55 Lincoln very visible in the parking lot.

Every two weeks, on Friday, we would go out to eat. My foster dad, flush with his paycheck, would load us all into the car - a '57 Desoto station wagon, and off we'd go. It was always Mexican food for a couple of reasons: We all loved Mexican food, and you could get a lot for a little money. Of course there were decisions to be made, and the arguing usually began as we raced to the car, because no one wanted to be stuck in the rear-facing third seat and have to climb over the bumper to get in.

Usually the girls lost the race, then my foster mom would tell us, "Be gentlemen, let the girls have the back seat."

"Yes, ma'am," we'd grumble.

The big decision was where to go, El Charro on San Francisco Street south of downtown - we all loved their sopapillas - or La Fonda in East Flagstaff - we all loved their tacos. Dad would listen to us argue for a couple of minutes and then make the decision - it was La Fonda this week. All right, I won!

Fred wheeled the big Desoto like a pro into the parking lot and we'd all scramble out and storm through the door like a starving army. The hostess would smile and ask how we were and the boys would always say, "Hungry!" and she would escort the party of seven to one of the big tables.

If we were lucky we'd get one of the big corner booths in the front dining room. The place always bustled with activity and was steamy and warm on a cold winter night. The smells drove us mad as we chomped on our chips and salsa waiting for dinner. The three taco combination plate was my favorite. Then one night Fred said, "Try an enchilada!" Reluctantly I gave in and sacrificed one of my tacos for a cheese enchilada. Hmm, I kinda liked it. "Well?" he asked. "It was good," I replied, and he smiled, "I thought you'd like it."

Fall came and with it the new cars. At that time I was a total car nut and I noticed on the way to school one morning that Chesire Motors, the local GM dealer, had pasted huge sections of butcher paper over all of their showroom windows, and there were signs announcing THE 59'S WILL BE HERE THIS WEEK! Oh, boy, did I want to see the new cars. That night I told Fred about the signs and the windows being covered.

"Sounds like something we need to check out," he said.

On Thursday evening after he got home from work, he announced it was going to be a boy's night out and that we were going to see the new cars. The girls just said big deal, Ann smiled as we guys headed out. What an evening - the 59 Buicks, Oldsmobile's and Cadillac's were amazing. A stop by Babbitt Ford was actually a letdown after seeing what GM had to offer, and then we topped off the evening with a big bag of burgers and fries from Miz Zipps that we took home to share with mom and the girls.

It was the spring of 1959 when I became the Matchless Matchbook Salesman of Coconino County, a story I've told before. That was quite a time, selling matchbooks to the motels and cafes all along Route 66 in Flagstaff and, with the help of my buddy George and his car, branching out to Williams and Winslow and then out onto the reservation at Gray Mountain and Cameron.

Flagstaff was a great experience for me. George's dad drove a Silver Eagle bus for Continental Trailways and sometimes we'd sit on the fence across the highway from the two bus depots - they sat side by side - and watch the Greyhound Scenicrusiers and Trailways Eagles pull in and out of the garage. We never did agree on which was the better bus. I liked the Greyhounds.

There were times when we'd go across the tracks in East Flagstaff and wait for the El Capitan to come roaring through in the early evening. When we'd hear it we'd scramble to the tracks and lay down a penny. Once the train had passed we'd pick up a two inch length of copper that, if we'd been lucky, had flipped off the track and still bore a faint impression of Presidents Lincoln's head. If it stuck to the track it would be just as flat as it could be. One of the guys at school, David, whose dad was a professor at the college - it wasn't a University then - told us we could derail a train by doing that. Neither George or I believed him - I still don't.

Winter came again and my foster dad was one of the men who volunteered to drive a snowplow. It was snowing hard one day when we were let out of school early and Fred showed up in front of the high school sitting high up in a plow truck. "Do you want to go out plowing with me," he hollered down. Was he kidding? You bet I'd go. And that's what we did, north, out Fort Valley Road, then back into town followed by a radio call to head east on 66, all the way to Winona. What a night that was. Snow blowing and drifting everywhere, the trucks yellow lights flashing into the near whiteout conditions and my foster dad dropping the blade and clearing the way so Route 66 could stay open. It was late, very late, when we go home that night. Ann was still up and fixed hot chocolate for both of us. A couple of the boys came in the kitchen and listened to the stories of the night's adventure. They were jealous and Fred said, "You're too young right now. But next year you can go."

I don't know if they got to go the next year or not. A few months later I was returned to Phoenix.

Yeah, my time in Flagstaff in was special, and I miss it. Not so much the town as the feeling of what it was like in the late 1950s to live in an amazing Route 66 town.