A while back I was sharing a ride with a gentleman transplanted from back east. He repeated a joke he heard in a comedy club about living in Utah. The comedian said, “This place is filled with cities with Indian and Book of Mormon names: Nephi, Lehi, Moab. Who’s this Jewish guy named Murray right in the middle of them?”
Well, growing up in Murray in the 60’s and 70’s, not a member of the LDS faith, was a little like being that guy.
The funny part is that I am a native Coloradoan. Who’d a thought? How did I end up spending all but six months of my life in the Salt Lake Valley?
I was born in Pueblo, Colorado. My mother was born in Lawton, Oklahoma and then transplanted to Long Beach, California in the middle of the depression. My father was born in Lincoln, New Mexico, and met my mom while serving in the Navy. Alex had left that little town because there was no future in it for him. He had a friend who convinced him to join the navy and see the world together. My dad said that they joined together, got shipped out a week apart, and never saw each other again until years later. So my seventeen year old dad, who had never seen the ocean, got on a bus and ended up in California, where he shipped out, and did see many parts of the world. One time, while in port, he met my mom. Wilma told the story years ago to a neighbor saying that it was a blind date. She rarely shared many stories with us, but you could learn a lot by listening in when she spoke to others. She said that she wasn’t ready for the date and had been out playing ball with a bunch of neighborhood boys and was filthy dirty. My dad almost backed out, but she cleaned up quickly and nicely and the first date ended well.
My parents had two daughters before having a son, Stephen, who died when he was nine or ten months old. My mother was already pregnant with me. She suffered from a deep depression. According to my dad, he came home one day to find her gone, moved out, drawers empty. She had taken my two older sisters and he didn’t know where she had gone. He checked contacts in California; her older sister there, but no one knew what had happened to her. My dad said that he followed a hunch and after waiting three days called his sister in New Mexico. Nonchalantly, he asked her, “Did Wilma get there safely?” “Oh, yeah, she arrived last night,” was the answer. My mother refused to return to California. She said there were too many memories. So my dad went to New Mexico, but there was no work to be had. A cousin was relocating to Colorado and knew of a job in Pueblo. My parents moved there and, thus I was born in the pit of the world, as my dad called it. They lived there for six months after I was born when the work dried up. The same cousin told my dad about work in Utah.
Well, that’s a long introduction to my landing in Murray. My family lived in the Hunter area for a few years before buying a home right behind Murray High school. My young family lived in West Valley for a few years. The rest of my life has been spent in Murray or Taylorsville. I expect I’ll die in this valley, not far from where I have lived my life.
One time, when my daughter, Sarah was about seven, we were driving and I was waxing nostalgic. “Why I remember when you couldn’t drive past 700 West on 5300 South where the road ended. You had to curve and go through Bullion Street out to Kearns. I remember when they built Taylorsville High and it was a brand new school. These little tiny stores at the end of 4800 South used to be Reams and it was where a lot of people shopped and now it’s all torn down.” Sarah said sympathetically, “It must have been hard for you to live through all these changes.” It still makes me chuckle thinking about it. Well, was it hard? Yes, sometimes, maybe. But I’ve lived through a heck of a lot more changes than that…
When I was growing up behind Murray High, there was a giant smelter smokestack on 5300 South where a Costco stands today in 2017. I’m not sure how much it was operating in the 1960’s but there were still cars and an office, so it must have been doing something. At the bottom of a hill was a tiny market called Great Central, which was a grandiose name for such a little store. We called it Hubs. That had been the name of a previous owner and it stuck like glue. Didn’t matter how many name changes or upgrades, it was always Hubs. It was the place to go when you got a dime from the tooth fairy or after spending an afternoon collecting pop bottles to cash in. For a dime, you could get a toy, jacks or a hoppy taw, a nickel would buy an 8 to 10 inch long candy bar, and a penny could get you some a seriously good piece of candy, sometimes two. The store had everything and was the place to go when you needed an onion for dinner, a pack of cigarettes (which my sister, Mona, said she purchased often for my mom), or some orange creamsicle ice cream (which was my mom’s favorite, served with Apple Jacks cereal on top). Hubs installed a drive through window at one point, which we believed was the utmost in convenient 20th Century shopping.
At the intersection of 5300 South and State Street, there were four service stations. Gas, as I remember it, was about 27 cents a gallon. When you pulled up, a worker came out to gas up your car, check your oil, and clean your windshield. If you frequented the same station often, you could collect points toward china pieces. Many ladies got whole sets, starting with gravy boats and soup tureens. I remember stopping in and getting free maps until my mom got mad at us for cluttering up the house with them. Those stations were a favorite stop for bathroom breaks to and from the long walk to school.
South of what we called The Four Corners, was a Western clothing shop. It had a tall sign that was a Western lady dressed in turquoise, lined in fluorescent lights, tipping her cowboy hat. I think it must have been 25 feet tall, but my memory could be stretching the height a bit. You could see that sign for miles up and down State Street. I went in once or twice and was attracted by the fringed, rhinestone clothes, but my mother would have none of it and forbade me to stop in after I told her all about it. My mother and I always had different taste in clothing, and she always felt the need to reign me in from my own naturally flamboyant tastes. Murray High was up the hill from that store. A PC Computer shop is there today, I believe.
Walking to school was daily adventure. It was the rare occasion when we would be driven or picked up. In kindergarten, I was supposed to be walking with my older sisters, but I don’t think that lasted long. I remember walking with my friends, Shirley and Chris, and running, skipping, jumping. Once, not watching where I was going, I ran into a high school girl in the midst of her group of friends. She grabbed me and shook me, giving me a stinging slap for knocking into her. I heard her friends laugh. I felt so hurt, embarrassed, and ashamed. Most of the days were less eventful. We often kicked rocks or cans all the way to school. We walked down State Street, which was a lot less busy then. Our elementary school was where Murray City Hall is now, south of the post office. It seemed like that walk took forever.
My mother had drilled into us that under no circumstances, whatsoever, were we to talk to strangers . We might get kidnapped or worse! She never really told us what the worse was. Once a car pulled up and offered a ride. Shirley and Chris jumped in. I was panic stricken. They assured me that they knew this lady. She was Sister ****, their primary teacher, the sweetest lady they knew. “Come on, Joey. It’s okay.” Disobeying my mom was something that only came after greater peer pressure than that and I refused. I cried all the way home, knowing that my friends would be found dead in a ditch somewhere, murdered by this stranger. When I got home and told my mother, she asked why I didn’t just go with them? Confusing? Yes. Naturally, they were all playing outside and happy when I went to check after changing out of my school clothes and bragging about how they had gotten the jump on play time by accepting the ride.
Walking to school in autumn was filled with a feeling of excitement, Halloween, football, and cool in the air. Walking to school in winter was less exciting. I do remember stopping often to break bits of ice that had formed in puddles. Walking to school in the fog was the best because we pretended we were in clouds. Realistically, it was might have been smog caused by the air pollution of the smelter. Ah, but walking to school in the Spring time was magical. Nothing can compare with finally being able to switch out the heavy coats and gloves for a light sweater. Springtime did bring one challenge, however. Being semi-active Catholics, my mother always made us give up candy for Lent. So when friends would stop by Hubs for a Tootsie Pop or Charms sucker, I was left forlorn and long faced. That was one long six weeks. But, oh how good the candy on those Easter baskets tasted after that long fast!
One Spring, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, I had a friend introduce me to the wonders of walking through Murray Park. Back then in the bowl of the Park, there was a Ferris Wheel, Merry-go-round, and train ride. Above that was a WWII plane that had been made into a slide; no matter that there was jagged metal all through the area that had been the cockpit. Beyond that were the botanical gardens, full of exotic plants with a little stream running through it; not to mention the regular play grounds and empty swimming pool. The idea of exploring a park by myself in the early morning mist had never occurred to me. But with this new world opened up, I started to leave earlier and earlier for school walking alone each day. On some level I must have known that it wouldn’t work to explore after school because my mom would be angry at me for getting home late. Naively, when my mother asked why I was leaving so early each day, I excitedly told her about the wonders of an abandoned park. I was blown away by her panicked and angry response. Yep, my explorations were immediately shut down and I was once again back to the straight and narrow path down State Street.
It occurs to me that growing up in Murray is going to take more than one telling, so more to come later.