My El Cerrito Gaucho Years

My El Cerrito Gaucho Years
What did you do your junior year in high school?

Last week, I took you through my school years at Portola Junior High in El Cerrito, California. Today, we’re still in El Cerrito, but this week looks at my high school years. My first job, marching band, taking courses at U.C. Berkeley. All were part of my El Cerrito Gaucho Years.

Sophomore Year

I don’t really remember much about my sophomore year. We lived in the parsonage on Norvell Street which was just three short blocks from school. During that year, Momma told me I grew eleven inches, finding my eventual height of six and a half feet (2 meters). Because of that growth spurt, I was sick most of the year. My system just couldn’t keep up with my body.

1231 Cabrillo, the “new” parsonage
Photo thanks to Kathy Gregovich

The one thing I do remember is that 1964 was the year the church chose to build a new parsonage. While I don’t recall the exact figures, my memory says that you couldn’t find a vacant lot in El Cerrito for less than $25,000. By the time we moved into the new parsonage, the construction costs approached $50,000. According to, the median price for a home in El Cerrito today is $744,600. No way could I afford that today. I know some classmates from my El Cerrito Gaucho Years still live there. I honestly don’t know how anyone can afford that.

Summer Trip(s)

After moving to California in 1959, we made a trip back to Montana almost every summer. My parents had kept our cabin in the Bitterroot Mountains, and that’s where we spent Poppa’s vacation time. In 1975, however, Poppa and I took a different trip. I wrote about our transportation on Thursday, but I neglected to add a photo of me tending the cattle on board the President Lincoln. In case you thought I was making that up, here I am.

Just me, the cows, and the ship

While Poppa and I went to Japan, Momma stayed home to get the new parsonage all set up. Poppa and I spent almost the entire month of July away from home. He had a hard time as that was the longest time my parents had been apart–at least since 1953 when Momma was in West Virginia taking care of Grandma. I’ll write about our Japan days next Thursday.

Junior Year

I played trombone all through my junior and senior high school days. At El Cerrito High, I played in the Orchestra, the Concert Band, the Wind Ensemble, and the Marching Band. I tried the Jazz Band, but I lack improvisational skills. I also tried the Pep Band, and was good there, but we didn’t get credit for attending the rallys and games, so I dropped that activity. We did get credit for attending the football games, and I can say honestly, that I was at every football game played during my El Cerrito Gaucho Years.

Junior year, however, I didn’t play trombone in the marching band. For some reason I cannot remember, that year I served as bass drummer. It was enough to get me my own page in the 1966 El Camino, our high school yearbook. That’s me, oh Lord, at the top of this page, with the drum that senior year would become famous. But that’s another story.

Foreign Language Classes

My parents, well Momma anyway, believed that children should learn a foreign language. She had studied French in school, and started me out with “Comment allez-vous?” when I was just learning to talk. At Rocky Mountain College, Momma hired a Rocky student to teach me French. In those years, U.S. elementary schools did not, normally, teach foreign languages.

In Colusa, we had rudimentary Spanish lessons, thanks to KVIE television out of Sacramento, as I have discussed earlier. El Cerrito had full-fledged language programs, and I took French at Portola and continued at El Cerrito High. I not only continued with French, but sophomore year I started German as well. Both classes were taught by Miss Brunink. I took four classes with Miss Brunink over my three El Cerrito Gaucho years: two in French and two in German. When I finished my doctoral dissertation, I dedicated it to my parents and to Miss Brunink, although I doubt she ever knew that.

More Foreign Language Stuff

Junior year, Mrs. Jonsson taught my French class. She also introduced me (and many classmates) to the inimitable Tom Lehrer. Today’s Video of the Day is actually two videos, both by Tom Lehrer. Mrs. Jonsson brought Lehrer’s 1965 album That Was the Year That Was and played one of the songs–topical of course, and somewhat fitting for a language class–The MLF Lullaby. I have no idea why, one of those things that seemed a good idea at the time, but she suggested a second song. Before she would play it, however, she had us vote. Not surprisingly, all the students said yes, but the class was divided. Protestant kids said “Play it! Play it!” The Roman Catholic kids said, “We don’t mind,” and so we got to hear The Vatican Rag.

High School Clubs

Clubs at El Cerrito usually had Spanish names. (El Cerrito, by the way, is Spanish for Little Hill.) Los Maestros members planned on becoming teachers. Kids who liked archeology joined Los Huesos. Los Sabios, as our yearbook says, “promote science.” Los Cosmopolitanos drew my attention. The general foreign language club attracted few students, in fact our yearbook photo shows only five. But the few of us did have fun. We would get together for “cosmopolitan” dinners, with dishes from various cultures. And we learned foreign language songs, especially Christmas Carols. To this day, I can sing Noël Nouvelet and Nu är det Jul igen. That’s right, we weren’t singing just French and Spanish songs. The latter mentioned is a Swedish carol that tells us joyfully “It’s Christmas time and we’ll celebrate until Easter! Oh no! That cannot be, for in between comes Lent!”

It was in High School that I became interested in “folk music.” In the 1960s, popular music tended to take two roads. Rock became harder, and harder, while ballads tended toward a folk heritage. I came to love the music of Judy Collins, The Mamas and The Papas, Peter, Paul and Mary. I got my first guitar in high school, and I took it everywhere I went. A group of us got together to sing and play, and we started a new club (without a Spanish name). Officially, all sanctioned clubs had to have by-laws. Our papers began with the sentence “The name of the club shall be The El Cerrito High School Folk Singing Club until such time as a name shall be chosen.” According to our yearbook, the club had 87 members, but I don’t recognize most of the kids in the yearbook photo.

How to Survive High School

Foreign language and music got me through high school. I can barely remember any other classes I took during my El Cerrito Gaucho years. Marching band took me to a football game every Friday during the season. It also took me to the California State Fair in Sacramento, to an Oakland Raiders football game where we marched for half-time, and to the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade.

The Trombone Section in the Gaucho Marching Band
All that wool in Sacramento Heat
The California State Fair September 1966.

Two memories of that parade stay fresh in my mind. I played first trombone and acted as the guide for the entire band. Marching in the front row on the left end, I experienced something I’m glad happened only on that one occasion. Kids kept trying to throw lit firecrackers into the bell of my horn. None connected, but it was a constant threat.

The other memorable incident occured because of the entry right in front of our band. Carol Doda, the first (in)famous topless dancer in San Francisco’s North Beach district, rode in a rickshaw directly in front of me and my band. When we reached the reviewing stand on Grant Avenue, the parade came to an abrupt halt as the judges tried to decide if Ms. Doda should be allowed in the parade. I’m not sure how she got that far without official approval, but in any event, the parade continued on after we marched in place for what seemed like hours. One of my classmates tells me that he was bass drummer that year, and Ms. Doda came over and signed the drum.

Attending Concerts

While at El Cerrito, I attended two concerts at the Berkeley Little Theatre. (El Cerrito and Berkeley are adjacent to each other, separated only by the Contra Costa/Alameda County Line.) My junior year, I happily attended a concert by Peter Paul and Mary. You cannot imagine my pleasure hearing my heroes in concert. And just as for many others, the music called forth an involuntary response. I wanted to sing along. Peter Yarrow at one point stopped the performance with this announcement. “A little door will open in the back of your head and a voice will say “Sing, Sing, Sing!!! Please don’t.”

Senior year, I returned to the Berkeley Little Theatre for another concert. The Mamas and The Papas performed, and I had to attend. As the curtain rose, the house manager came to the stage apron and said: “We had a warm up band scheduled to perform, but the fog has grounded their flight in Los Angeles. We have found a local band. Will you please welcome The Grateful Dead!” I’m here to tell you–the Grateful Dead were many things to many people. One thing they should never have been was warm up for The Mamas and The Papas. Remember my talking about the two directions popular music took in the 60s? It was a definite clash.

Starting College

The University of California has (had?) a program called Accelerated High School Special Program. If you lived near Berkeley, met entrance requirements except for high school graduation, and qualified for a course of study not available at your school, you could take classes at Berkeley. El Cerrito offered two years of German instruction. I wanted to continue, so at sixteen years of age, I entered one of the finest universities in the world. Every day I drove to Berkeley, took a German class, then drove back to El Cerrito to continue my senior year.

Even More College (while in High School)

Berkeley used the quarter system in those days. By the third quarter, I had run out of lower division German classes. I had to choose an upper division class. (Lower Division means Freshman and Sophomore level classes. Upper Division is for Juniors, Seniors and Grad Students.) One class met my schedule and interested me. German 145: German Phonology, Morphology and Syntax. Sounds like a real winner, right? The subject fascinated me. But in order to fit it in my schedule, I would miss my French class at El Cerrito. Hey, I was already a student at Berkeley. Take two classes instead of just one. So I began taking French at U.C. as well.

But back to German 145. I loved the class. My term paper topic was “Impure rhyme schemes in the poetry of Goethe, Heine, and Rilke.” I got an A- on that paper. One morning before class the professor stopped me in the hall. “Mister Spellman. Are you a grad student?” I answered truthfully. “No sir. I’m a senior in high school.” The professor never addressed me again. By the time I graduated from my El Cerrito Gaucho years, I had already completed a full quarter of classes at U.C. Berkeley. Is it any wonder I stayed on, eventually earning a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D.?

First Job

Sunset View Mortuary
Where Poppa Wanted Me to Work
Photo Thanks to Kathy Gregovich

Ministers work closely with morticians. No getting around it. My senior year, in spite of carrying a full load at high school and taking classes at Berkeley, Poppa decided I needed a job. He spoke to his mortician friend and arranged for me to be the Night Clerk at the mortuary. I went for an interview and was given the full tour. THE FULL TOUR. As Night Clerk, I would also assist the Deputy Coroner for any midnight calls. Momma says that when I came back out to the car, I was completely white. “Do I have to take this job?” I asked. “No, honey,” Momma replied. I didn’t take it. And by the way, the Cemetery attached to this mortuary is in the Berkeley Hills and plot prices depend on the view. As one of Poppa’s friends put it, “If you can guarantee I’ll appreciate the view…”

The job I did take was as cart jockey at the Lucky Store in the El Cerrito Plaza. Lucky is a large California grocery chain. Poppa told me that I was the youngest person ever to work for Lucky Stores. I started at 16 and spent the next four summers as a grocery clerk. That’s how I put myself through college. At Lucky, my first duty was to walk the entire parking lot looking for grocery carts, and then bring them back to the store. The shopping center at that time covered 350,000 square feet of commercial space and was surrounded by parking on all four sides. I spent most of my time walking the lot. It still amazes me how far people will take shopping carts.

Lucky Stores at the El Cerrito Plaza,  work life during my El Cerrito Gaucho Years.
Lucky Store at the El Cerrito Plaza
Photo Thanks to Kathy Gregovich

Recipe of the Day

Working at Lucky Stores seems a natural tie in to today’s recipe of the day. I’ve already featured two other Instant Pot™ Pork Roast recipes. Why not a third. As soon as I finish this post, I’ll be going upstairs to put it together. Unlike earlier recipes, this one includes carrots and potatoes, all cooked in the Instant Pot™. The trick is to add the veggies after the meat has cooked. Otherwise, you end up with vegetable mush. You can find the recipe on Julie’s Eats and Treats website.

Guest Site of the Day

Tumblr is not an easy platform to follow, at least in my opinion, but this Tumblr blog is worth the effort. A beautiful site, with lots of brilliant content, A Castle in the Sticks should be on everyone’s radar. Having just looked at prices for homes in El Cerrito, a castle in the sticks sounds ideal. The commute to San Francisco, might be a bit difficult, but we all have to compromise from time to time, right?

And that’s it for today

We made it through my El Cerrito Gaucho years. It was much easier now than fifty-five years ago. And there’s a lot I left out. No mention of my best friend, now a Ukrainian Catholic monk living in a monastery. No mention of all the time spent in Tilden Park, a Regional Park atop the Berkeley Hills. But you get the picture. Today, many of my Facebook friends are fellow Gauchos, and I’m sure they’ll let me know what’s wrong with the picture I’ve painted.

One more thing–what would High School be like without cruising. I didn’t do it a lot, but I remember driving up and down San Pablo Avenue for hours at a time. San Pablo Avenue, if you don’t know the Bay Area, runs from downtown Oakland all the way to the Carquinez Straits. I was talking with a friend about “cruising,” and looked up San Pablo just to gauge it’s length. In the process, I found a great blog post by Abraham Woodliff titled “To Know the East Bay is to Know San Pablo Avenue.” I recommend you follow the link and read it. Beautiful job, Abraham!

And you, dear reader. Please leave me comments in the box below. Google Analytics apparently use your comments (and the length of your comments) to help rank my site (or any other site, for that matter). And if you like my writing and want to continue following along, please subscribe by clicking on the link at the top of the page. All that’s left to say is



12 Comments on “My El Cerrito Gaucho Years

  1. Bryan, fellow Gaucho and classmate,
    The bass drum picture at the top of the article is priceless and I know there is a story about it, and I, the Archiving Project, would really be interested in it. Can I have your permission to use it on our website? Email me.
    Fascinating, hearing about your like, especially at ECHS. We all had different stories.


    • Thanks Roddy, for your comments. I have e-mailed you directly at your aol addess. Anything I can do to help, it would be my pleasure.


  2. A enjoyable read Bryan! I had no idea you were a language student. I did not fare so well in French and switched to
    Spanish before I received a failing grade. Thanks for sharing your memories. It’s nice to finally become acquainted!

    • Thank you Christine. Yes, language and music–what got me through High School. From Momma saying “Comment allez-vous?” all the way through a PhD in 20th Century French lit. And to this day, I tell people that the one saleable skill I got from Grad School was the ability to type in two languages. 😉


  3. Dear Bryan,

    Enjoyed reading your stories. I asked Alexis if she remembered her stories about Spinach. She had no clue what i was talking about. I loved the fact that you brought back many fond memories of my childhood. Tilden park was a special place. Girl Scouts utilized it well. Remember taking a hike and returning home covered in mud. I assisted as an older Scout with younger Scouts camping over night in the park. I spend one cold night sitting under a tree in a rain storm! My younger days went with the family on Saturdays to grocery shop at Lucky’s. My Father taught me how to drive in the spacious parking lot. I learned to shop in the big department store named Capwells? I attended Peter,Paul and Mary’s concert also. My first big concert and Sandy Folger’s sister had invited me. Thank you Bryan for bringing back the memories.

    • Thank you, Darlene. I spent so many wonderful hours in Tilden Park. I meant to write about it, but somehow that didn’t happen. Your story about sitting under the tree in the rain reminded me of a night camping with Scottish Dance friends on Mount Tamalpais. It didn’t rain, but the fog was so heavy that our sleeping bags were completely soaked by morning. And yet, we had fun, even then. A friend of mine from Missoula moved to the Bay Area to work as an accountant for Capwell’s–and then the Great Big E (the Emporium). I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


  4. Thanks, Bryan, for the trip down memory lane. Coincidentally it has been a reflective week for me and although we had different experiences in high school, I enjoyed your recollections. We were blessed to have grown up in El Cerrito when we did and privileged to have been young people in the pivotal era of the 60’s–the times they were a changin’. I am glad we reconnected after many decades and experiencing lives that could not have been more divergent. Peace. Gauchos forever!

    • Thank you, Nancy. I’m glad you enjoyed the “trip down memory lane.” It’s been therapeutic for me to write these posts, and I’m glad to have reconnected with so many Gauchos from so long ago. The 60s were definitely an interesting time. Bryan

  5. That’s a great read! Who was your best friend that became the Ukrainian Catholic monk? Anyone we know? Should have been Bill Monk. And thanks to Kathy for the pix of your house and Lucky’s —Joyce Woolf

    • Thank you, Joyce. I’m not comfortable naming my friend on the internet, but I’ll send you a private FB message. I assume you knew him. And Kathy was terrific. I told her what photos I wanted, and she got them for me, both last week and this week.