Growing Up in Alameda: Paradise on the Estuary

Growing Up in Alameda: Paradise on the Estuary

Dave LeMoine

Ben and Joanie Randolph lived on Marina Drive, 17 houses from the High Street Bridge. They loved having us teens around; it also gave them control, as we knew that Ben was in charge, and we loved being there. Another father figure. We were adopted, fed, loved, and disciplined. It was the place to be on the weekends.

We guys loved to help Ben set and repair pilings under the pier. Weekends would find the gang on skis behind the Chiquita, sometimes three abreast. Navigating from their home, down the channel, waving to the neighbors as we passed; then out into the San Leandro Bay, followed by a 180 degree turn, hoping we didn’t fall and hit bottom, which was pudding-type mud. After the turnaround at high speed, a return trip past the house, through the Fruitvale Bridge, another 180 and back to their pier.

As we passed the house, we could see 20 kids standing on the pier throwing water balloons. They had a homemade diving board at the end of the pier and, depending upon the level of the tide, we could dive maybe 12 feet to the water if you had the nerve, which I did.

The Raft

Mom worked for Trans Ocean Airlines and was given an obsolete, 20-man life raft. What fun. “Let’s use it to float the Estuary!” How can we inflate this giant blob of rubber without the CO2 bottles? We decided to just blow it up by mouth.

We laid it out on the Randolphs’ front lawn, which covered most of their yard. Ten guys began blowing at every inflation point until they were blue in the face, some totally covered by the raft, and some with only feet showing. Two hours later, it was floatable. But now what?

Twelve feet in diameter and about two feet high, it wouldn’t fit through the side gate to the water. So 10 guys with 20 legs, supporting a giant yellow donut, lifted it overhead to clear the tops of cars, moved it down Marina Drive a quarter mile, across the Fruitvale Bridge – which stopped traffic in both directions – and launched upstream of the house.

We drifted on the incoming tide, through the old, center-pivot bridge, past the floats, boats, and neighbors waving from their houses, where Ben retrieved us with the Chiquita. When not in use, the raft was tied next to the pier.

This went on for maybe six months. Sometimes Ben would tow us upstream and we drifted back. At other times, we would resort to carrying it down to the bridge to drift the middle of the estuary, diving off and climbing back onboard.

What a sight! It was like a waterborne trampoline. All the neighbors loved seeing the giant yellow sphere drifting by, boys all over it, jumping and bouncing off, diving under and disappearing into the air pockets that made it look unattended. When tethered alongside the pier, we could jump 10 to 12 feet and bounce clear out of it and into the water.

It stayed floating in the backyard until that fateful day, passing by our pier, when we were caught in the five-knot outgoing current and drifted into the superstructure of Fruitvale Bridge, coming close to drowning. Ben, quite angry and worried, had to bring Chiquita to the rescue. Caught in the bridge with the raft collapsing on us, it took full power to pull us to safety. Soon after that, our beloved raft disappeared; no one seemed to know where it had gone. I think by now it’s 30 feet down as part of the landfill in Harbor Bay.

In the evenings, at the end of a day’s water skiing, with the sun setting, Ben would drop us at the mouth of the San Leandro Bay to swim and drift without life jackets on the outgoing tide, down the middle of the estuary, past the sand and gravel barges, heads bobbing, and boats racing by, under High Street Bridge, past the old ships and pilings. Luckily no one was ever run over.

Back at the Randolphs’, we would swim a little while and dive off that great diving board until half frozen, then into that wonderful hot shower while Ben and Joanie barbecue. Truly a teen paradise!

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