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The Saratoga Relay – Class of 1940

On the occassion of the 50th Class Reunion of Los Gatos High School, the reunion committee asked L McKay for his reminiscences.

Does a seal like sardines? When Dede Crawford Mayberry asked me if I would present a program for our class reunion, my answer was, “Does a seal like sardines? oh course I would. But what should I talk about, so much has happened. Should I tell about how our class won the first Santa Clara Valley football championship in the history of the school. Or should it be about our wonderful teachers: Aubrey, Burke, Bruntz, Huff, Nelson, Page, Smith and all the others? Or the near disaster when the total student body was sitting in the high school auditorium early on a Friday morning when the adjacent building blew up. This building was under construction when gas from a ruptured main exploded, killed a worker and threw a car-sized chunk of concrete right over the top of the auditorium where we were all sitting.

Lost Gatos was a wonderful place to grow up, and as I look back I appreciate it even more. In the hills around the town lived the literati, John Steinbeck, Ruth Comfort, Mitchell Young (they even had a dog swimming pool for their racing greyhounds), Yehudi Menuhin, Gertrude Atherton, Helen Hoyt and Mrs Fremont Older.

The rest of use lived in the town, and about half our students commuted on the Peerless Stage #259 from the San Jose suburb, Willow Glen, or from Saratoga. During the depression it took a great effort to keep meat and potatoes on the table, but we all managed and by today’s standards we could have been judged poor, only none of use knew we were poor. We were so much better off than those people who lived in the coal mining towns or the eastern cities with shut-down factories, we thought we were rich. I never knew what an allowance was. I thought my folks “allowed” me to work on farms picking prunes and cots and “allowed” me to use the money to buy school clothes.

One of my boyhood friends and classmates was Dave Phillips, the youngest member of a big family of boys. The Phillips family lived in a turn-of-the-century house on Loma Alta Avenue and operated the Macabee Gopher Trap factory in the basement of that house.

In the early 1930s the H. O. Quaker Oats cereal company gave premiums to acquire cowboy clothes for the turning in box labels. I remember that the only thing the Phillips family ate of could afford to eat was Quaker Oats, and I envied Dave, as the youngest of the tribe, because he had the whole outfit: chaps, gun, holster, vest, and bandana – he was the toast of the neighbourhood.

While Dave came from humble beginnings, he certainly became a richly endowed human being. He costarred with Phyllis Berkquist in our senior play, “Death Takes a Holiday,” star athlete in two sports, halfback passer on our championship football team and record high jumper, good singer, and later a senior 747 pilot for United Airlines, and all because of those damn Quaker Oats. How do you compete with a guy like that, particularly when you only have one sister and she wouldn’t eat Quaker Oats. Well, I’ve rambled when I wanted to tell you about the Saratoga Relay.

The Saratoga Relay was an annual foot race from the center of the little town of Saratoga four miles to the slightly bigger town of Los Gatos. This was a high school tradition, and being exactly four miles, the race was divided into segments of a quarter mil each, and sixteen boys from each class raced against the other class members. The race was held in early May and as a handicap, the freshman class was given a 220-yard head start. In track parlance the “440” is a dash, rather than a run, as each contestant runs flat out the entire distance, not keeping a reserve for the final kick. Our class, as freshmen, started our first race with our head start. The other classes only saw our heels, as we raced first uphill, then down, across the level and by the time the nearest runner approached my lap, number 10, our racer had a ten-yard lead over the next runner. Red lights on a black an white Ford Highway Patrol sedan led the solitary runner, and as he approached my heart was pumping and the adrenaline surged. Orlin slapped the baton in my right hand and I was off like a rocket.

I fully enjoyed the fact that I had one of the best laps, oak shaded on this beautiful May day, and I was determined that I would not five up any of the lead we’d accumulated. Much strategy had been devoted as to how our class would race. The powerful runners, that is, the distance runners, would race the uphill laps, the speedier runners or dash men were given the level or downhill distances, and the final lap was always given to our fastest man, Curtis Langford.

While I was running right behind the flashing red lights, I could hear the commotion and yells behind me, but I never looked or turned to the rear for fear of losing precious yardage. In less than a minute I could see classmate Bob McArthur awaiting the baton, and I discovered that I had not changed the baton to my left hand for the pass. Hurriedly I did so, slapped the baton in his waiting hand and he too was off. Now our lead had grown to fifteen yards. As I gasped for air, I wobbled to the side of the road and heaved what little I’d eaten on this beautiful California spring day. The other runners passed, the pickup cars approached and we followed the line of cars to the finish. There we found that our freshman team was the first ever to win the Saratoga Relay. As sophomores we won again, this time without our handicap lead.

Then came our Junior year, we were cocky as we’d won the two previous years, and we didn’t bother much with strategy or training, and we lost to the Senior Class.

But something much more important was happening on far distant shores, that was to vastly affect our lives. We were unaware of the consequences, and while we were running a school race across the rolling oak-studded countryside, Hitler and Mussolini were signing a full military alliance and the Japanese had invaded China.

Four months later as we were reporting for early football practice, Germany unleashed its blitzkrieg on Poland. Nine seniors were on our starting eleven. We played both ways then, offence and defence, and our uniforms included leather helmets and pads. We were probably the first team to have “tight ends”. Most of the football players were on the stage crew that attended the Friday student body assembly. One Friday morning, the stage crew got some “juice” and had a merry time. At that afternoon football game, we had tight ends, tight guards and tight tackles!

Our team was to win the first-ever SCVAL football championship for Los Gatos. Two of our passing halfbacks were Bobby Jones and Bob Slaght. Each was to give his life in the great war that followed, Jones as a Spitfire pilot defending England, and Slaght on the ground in the Philippines. Another class member, Bob Blackman first flew with the RCAF over England and was later killed flying a P61 Blackwidow over Luzon.

On April 9th, in the following spring, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, meeting no resistance in Denmark and only minor resistance in Norway. Totally unaware of what these events were to mean to us, we of the Wildcat staff were busily preparing for the Varsity show, but the real show was soon to be played on the international stage where we were to be the featured players, and although this was just a dress rehearsal, the curtain was about to raise.

On Tuesday, May 7, 1940, our Senior relay team was stationed at the beginning of each lap, between Saratoga and Los Gatos. Team members were Adamson, Casterson, Van Dalsem, Gould, McArthur, Lopes, Gire, Sonntag, Quintana, Phillips, McKay, Hummel, Livingston, Riola, Sturla and Langford. We won the relay going away, and we were then concerned about who we would take to the Junior Prrr on the next Friday, May 10th. The prom was only for Juniors and Seniors and, as boys, we were fascinated by the beauty of our dates. These developing beauties were gowned in the most beautiful of strapless silk crepe and taffeta formals. By no stretch of the male imagination could we understand what held these gowns in place (remember this was 1940).

But while we were concerned with our young dates, Hitler was concerned about the breastworks of a different sort, and on that same May 10th, his Panzer legions crossed the border into Holland and World War II was officially started. Four days later, his troops crossed the river Meuse, and on June 17th , we graduated. Three days after graduation, the Panzers and the Wehrmacht entered Paris. Another two of our graduates, Gene Katt and Bob Burdick, handsome in their caps and gowns, were to have watery graves: Katt aboard the Arizona when it was bombed by the Japs at Pearl Harbour, and Burdick while on submarine patrol in the Pacific.

Yes, ours was an outstanding class, products of the good faculty at LGHS, tempered by the great depression, and seared by the flames of war. Those who survived know the price that was paid by those who didn’t return, but we were able to pass the baton of freedom onto the next generation.