Noe Valley Voice June 2002

Florence's Family Album: Chasing Butterflies

By Florence Holub

One warm sunny afternoon in 1924, my 3-year-old brother, Warde, and I sat on the front stairs of our Chattanooga Street flat, whiling away the hours. We amused ourselves by sucking on some long-lasting Butterball candies. After savoring the butterscotch until it had completely dissolved in our mouths, we twisted the yellow candy wrappers in the middle so that they resembled butterflies, and we were ready for the game we called "Chasing Butterflies." We tossed the wrappers into the air and chased them up and down the sidewalk. A sudden gust of wind lifted my brother's butterfly and carried it out into the street, and he sped after it, darting between two parked cars and into the path of another one. There was a screech of brakes, a dull thud, and then a little boy lying motionless on the pavement.

I'll always remember the next few terrible days, because Warde, who had suffered a fractured skull, remained unconscious in the hospital for what seemed like an eternity to his 5-year-old sister. Since children were not allowed at the hospital, I would sit alone in the parlor of our house every afternoon while my mother went to visit him. On a table in our front room was a metal casting of a weary American Indian seated on a tired horse. It was called "The End of the Trail." I usually enjoyed looking at this souvenir from the 1917 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, but during those anxiety-filled hours of waiting, the Indian made me feel even sadder. Through the window the sinking sun sent a shaft of light into the dim room, illuminating thousands of tiny particles that floated slowly in the air.

On the third day following the accident, that gloomy moment was suddenly transformed. The front door opened and my mother called out happily, "Warde is awake!" As the door opened, a current of air sent the bright particles in the shaft of light into wild motion, circling and tumbling through the air as if they were celebrating the good news. Happiness had returned to our home. When asked how he liked the hospital, Warde had said, "I like it. They give me ice cream!"

Within a month of the accident, my little brother had recovered completely. Still, Mother and Father thought it wise to move to a house on an unpaved street west of Glen Park, where we "country-bred" children could run freely over the grassy hills and chase real butterflies.

Because our working parents were away during the day, we enjoyed a great deal of freedom as children, especially when we got a bit older. Our father was a strict disciplinarian, our mother more lenient. But they both expected us to abide by the rules they'd laid down for proper behavior in their absence. We generally obeyed. However, we did not always divulge the extent of our wanderings.

Soon Warde and I began venturing farther and farther from home. On one trek, we discovered a cave about 15 feet deep, set into the western slope of Glen Canyon. We entered the cave excitedly, expecting to find gold, just like in the movies! Of course we found nothing, and 20 years later I learned from Grandpa Holub, who had worked in the Grass Valley mines, that gold is found in quartz deposits, not in the local "rotten rock," as it is sometimes called. After Glen Canyon was excavated in the late 1920s to make way for O'Shaughnessy Boulevard, the cave vanished in the rubble.

Another time, we plodded all the way up to Mount Davidson, the highest point in San Francisco, where a huge wooden cross rose about a hundred feet. At the base of the cross was a small door, and upon closer inspection we found it to be slightly ajar, its lock broken. Our curiosity piqued, we entered the dark interior of the cross, which was empty except for a ladder that went straight up.

Being young and fearless, Warde and I began to climb the wooden rungs. Going up was not difficult, and before long we were standing on a floor within the arms of the cross. The view out the knotholes was breathtaking.

But the climb back down the ladder was truly frightening. While clutching tightly to the rungs with our hands, we had to blindly feel our way down with our feet. When we finally touched solid ground, we were filled with relief. Needless to say, this excursion remained top-secret.

The wooden cross was destroyed about a decade later in the '30s, when a gang of adolescents set fire to it and burned it to the ground. The arsonists were never apprehended. However, we all noticed one young man (usually a good kid) whose hand was burned and bandaged after the event but who refused to talk about it. By the following Easter, a new fireproof, cast-concrete cross was erected on the same spot. This cross still stands today.

We spent the rest of our growing-up years far from the urban hustle and bustle, but periodically revisited the Noe Valley attractions -- the library on Jersey Street, the Finn Hall on Hoffman, the Noe Theater on 24th Street.

And when it came time to choose a permanent home, I returned to the neighborhood of my early childhood. My man Leo and I settled into a house on the 21st Street hill, where we continue to watch the butterflies fluttering about in our garden.