Painted Legs and Packing Sheds: The Memories of Billie Caldwell
Billie Caldwell held my attention from the very moment I stepped into her house. She brought out an old photo album for the interview and let me examine each page. The pictures ranged from teenagers posing in little groups to a girl perched in a tree to a boy waving from a building he had just thrown water balloons out of. Though she insisted that she was never involved in any kind of tomfoolery, I caught her smile as she told me about the Halloween pranks, pulled off by boys she grew up with, such as tying the one and only cop car to a pole or putting an outhouse in front of the post office. Though Billie has watched Vacaville evolve from a 2,000 person town with a single cop, I can still see the spark of happy young woman in her eyes.
Billie grew up in a large family. She was the second oldest. Though her parents lived through the depression, they were never known to skimp on anything, especially food. Her mother was a wonderful cook and Billie vividly remembers her mother baking bread for morning meals and making stews, and soups at night. During the holidays, friends and extended family would come to enjoy the food and the company. “There was a lot of love in our house,” Billie recalled.
Before living in Vacaville, Billie lived in Oklahoma, then Fairfield. Her father moved the family to Vacaville after a friend told him about the possibility of growing fruit. Her father immediately transformed from a police officer on Mere Island into a rancher. Billie spent her summers picking up prunes for her father and other ranchers or earning seventy-five cents an hour (a decent wage for the time) at one of the fruit packing sheds. In the fields she remembers rows and rows of wooden drying racks that held apricots drying in the sun. And all those racks had to be run for and hurried indoors if it rained.
At the packing sheds Billie was the "stamp girl" which meant she had the enviable task of putting the stickers on the boxes towards the end of the process. She remembers with a certain amount of awe, the artistry of the packing women who wrapped the fruit for shipment. Paid by the box, they could wrap the fruit so fast and pack it into crates as neat as neat and she still remembers that as a beautiful sight.
In 1945, Billie graduated from Vacaville High School. The school colors and mascot are about the only things that have remained the same over the years. When Billie attended Vaca High there were only two buildings, their arch rival was Armijo (W.C. Wood didn’t exist), and there were no teacher’s assistants or librarians (everything was accomplished by teachers and students). One of Billie’s favorite staff members was Pop Williams, then principal, who acted as coach, and mentor as needed. She still thinks of him from time to time when doing cross-word puzzles because he had the biggest vocabulary of anyone she had ever known.
When the kids were not in school, they had plenty of ways to entertain themselves. The teens would hang out at the creamery on the main street of Vacaville until they figured out that the Greyhound bus depot had much better music and the man behind the lunch counter didn't mind if they came in to spend a nickel. If they weren’t there, Billie and her friends were having picnics at Putah Creek. When she was off school with her family, they would take a bus to Sacramento or San Francisco to do some shopping or see a movie. Her favorite movie, and the favorite movie of many others, was Casa Blanca because of its patriotic themes.
It was very important to be patriotic when Billie was growing up because of World War II. They were told that “a slip of the lip will sink a ship.” She was lucky enough not to have any brothers fighting, though her best friend had four brothers in the war. She doesn’t really remember being bothered by the rations, even when the girls in the school play had to paint their legs for lack of nylons. She was even lucky, because her father was a rancher she managed to get gas ration cards twice one year so she and her friends could drive around. Her only dark memory of the war was of the Japanese section of town being cleared out for internment. She smiled as she told me about the day the war ended: the teens drove back and forth from Fairfield to Vacaville in their fathers’ cars.
The city of Vacaville now has an estimated population of over 96,000. The Nut Tree, which was just a fruit stand when Billie was a teen, has been turned into a shopping center, torn down, and then turned into a shopping center again. Land which used to be open fields or cultivated plots has been turned into housing. Vacaville has changed a lot since Billie’s childhood, but Billie’s happy disposition and her memories haven’t wavered.