SUISUN CITY — More than a half-century has passed since the bonds of friendship between four local women, all now septuagenarians, were forged. Happy (Hallett) Marinovich, Gordene (Parkison) Pienovi, Emma Jo (Kincaid) Ramirez and Nanciann Gregg, all Fairfield residents, met when they lived in Suisun City in the 1950s.
There was only one high school, so the four are Armijo High School alumni from different classes (1958-1960). From childhood through maturity, they continued to share the highs and lows of life’s journey together.
Happy Marinovich grew up on Line Street, the same street where her great-grandparents had lived. She has fond memories of enjoying a simpler time in her childhood.
“It was right after (World War II), so the boys would sometimes let us play “war” with them in the tules near the slough,” Marinovich said. “We had gangs then, but not like today. They were kid gangs. There was one called Easy Riders, another called The Tule Rats and also Skeeter’s Gang.”
Marinovich remembers loving to skate at the M & M Skateway, a roller rink built partially over the slough very near where Bab’s Delta Diner is now located.
“They had shoe skates, not the kind you strapped on when you were outside,” Marinovich said. “In high school, I was vice president of the teenage club and we got Fats Domino and Bobby Freeman and others to come perform there. They were called dances then, not concerts.”
Independence Day was a big deal in Suisun City and the parade used to come down Union Avenue and onto Main Street as there was no winding ramps, just a railroad track to cross.
“The Fourth of July was awesome. We had pie-eating contests, watermelon-eating contests, three-legged races, bicycle races and sack races,” Marinovich said. “The Suisun and Fairfield Fire Departments would have water fights where they tried to move a barrel with their hoses.”
After high school, Gregg and Marinovich were neighbors for a time and attended the same local social events. Once at a Halloween party, Marinovich and her husband dressed as Hell’s Angels and her husband roared his motorcycle into Gregg’s living room.
There were also times when friendship was focused by need.
“In 1991, my now ex-husband was going to have a bone marrow transplant and they had a huge block party for him and all my old friends attended,” Marinovich said. “It was kind of an all-day fundraiser to help with expenses, but it was really a party because he might not make it. That’s when you know you have a lot of old-time friends. He did make it and is still in the same house despite being 60 years old at the time of the transplant. I think after the party, he didn’t dare die.”
In 1955, Nanciann Gregg’s family made their way west from Ohio in search of greener pastures. Gregg’s father got a job as a Pinkerton Detective guarding the back gate at Travis Air Force Base. Being the new kid in town was hard, especially when the place they lived was viewed as “the other side of the tracks.”
“My family lived in Pierce Gardens in Suisun City, which was old military housing,” Gregg said. “My dad told us he had rented a duplex, so we thought it must be fancy and made of brick. When we pulled up in front of the clapboard-looking house, my mom’s mouth just dropped and she couldn’t even get out of the car.”
The houses were off the ground, which turned out to be a good thing because that fall there was a flood that had water lapping right up to their doorstep. The California weather welcoming committee also threw in an earthquake, the Greggs’ first.
“The metal closet doors started rattling and my sister and I thought someone was in there,” Gregg said. “My mom was in the kitchen and all three of us were screaming while my dad stood there laughing at us.”
Gregg’s family experienced financial hardship, which was compounded by her father’s alcoholism.
“The job at Pinkerton’s didn’t last long and my dad had to pawn his birthstone ring for $5 so we could have meatloaf,” Gregg said. “Then he got a job as a mailman – the first mailman in Fairfield. We had to move to Fairfield because the law then was that you had to live in the town you worked. We had been OK in Suisun, but once we moved to Fairfield, my dad started drinking.”
Gregg had felt the stigma of living in Pierce Gardens and was happy to move to Hayes Street.
“If Fairfield people found out you lived ‘over there,’ you were shunned. I remember hearing ‘white trash,'” Gregg said.
The friendships that Gregg made with Marinovich, Pienovi and Ramirez in high school helped her cope with growing up with an alcoholic father, and later they would end up at the same social events.
“When we had children, they went to school together – my daughter and Happy’s were the best of friends,” Gregg said. “Emma Jo’s kids went to Fairfield High, but they were all acquaintances because whenever there was some function, they were all there.”
Over the years, working on high school reunions cemented their already strong bond of friendship. In 1989, they began planning Armijo High School’s centennial celebration, which took place two years later, and those who participated eventually formed the Armijo Alumni Association.
The four share a friendship that can go from zero to intimacy with just a phone call.
“We don’t go to lunch every Wednesday, but there is a bond and you know they have your back,” Gregg said.
Emma Jo Ramirez was an only child and while her family was not rich, she never felt in need.
“We lived in Cannery Camp when we first came to Suisun. Right across from the railroad tracks there was a seasonal Del Monte cannery and for a lot of people it was the only place they could afford,” Ramirez said. “Then we moved to Solano Street and paid all of $18 a month rent on a little house that was probably no bigger than my living room and kitchen now.”
Ramirez remembers first being friends with Happy Marinovich as they went to Crystal School from kindergarten through eighth grade. While she understands the feelings of Gregg, she never really felt the stigma of living in Suisun City.
“The one thing I do remember really well is Friday night when you went to the Solano Theatre in Fairfield. When you walked in, all the Fairfield kids sat on the right and all the Suisun kids sat on the left. I don’t think it was a separation thing, just something we did,” Ramirez said.
Emma Jo married her husband Gilbert Ramirez in 1958 and they moved to Fairfield. That house contains a vivid reminder of living in Suisun City.
“My childhood home had burned down many years ago and once we were visiting some friends and walking around the vacant lot and my husband found a door. I asked him if it said “219 Solano Street” on it and he said no and I said maybe it was an interior door. So he brought it home,” Ramirez said. “He varnished it, kept the same doorknob and went to the hardware store and put “219” on it. It is now my bathroom door.”
Teens who got pregnant, married, divorced and then had their children raised by grandparents, was rare but not unheard of in the 1940s and 1950s.
After divorcing, Gordene Pienovi’s mother moved them from Nebraska to Solano County, where they stayed in several poor areas. They started out at Chabot Terrace in Vallejo, moved to Cannery Camp in Suisun City and then to the Waterman Park federal housing project, where the Fairfield Civic Center now sits. After that, they stayed in Suisun City at the decrepit Newbold Hotel, formerly a brothel.
Pienovi wouldn’t go so far as to describe her mother as an alcoholic, but settled on a “party girl” who had gotten pregnant much too young.
“Emma Jo’s dad was a bartender at Sterling’s and my mother was a good customer,” Pienovi said. “My grandmother would send me to the bar to get my mother and walk her home. I was, like, in the fourth grade.”
Pienovi moved to Fairfield on Bell Avenue in 1951, but the stigma struck with her from those who knew where she’d came from. When she met Ron Pienovi in 1961 – she’s been married to him since 1965 – his family, who lived in a historic home on Suisun Valley Road, weren’t exactly thrilled.
“They were very upset that he was marrying a lowlife from Suisun,” Pienovi said.
Of her three close friends, Pienovi knows that they are only a phone call away.
“If you have some sort of deep trauma, you know that they can talk you through it. I can call Happy, for instance, and she can tell me just how I should deal with something,” Pienovi said.
Pienovi is glad places that carry bad memories, such as the Newbold Hotel, are long gone. Still, Suisun City holds a special place in her heart. She goes to Bab’s Delta Dinner every Sunday for breakfast.
“When I go to Babs, I feel like I’m in front of the M & M Skateway,” Pienovi said. “When I walk along the waterfront – it’s the same water that was there before, and it’s beautiful.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at [email protected]