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Memoir of my brother, Tom Van der Leun published in The Saturday Evening Post

[The Saturday Evening Post, at 200 years of age the oldest publication in America, has just published the article about my brother I wrote upon his passing on November 3rd of 2020. I Had a Fortress Once in Paradise | The Saturday Evening Post]

Free-range kids: On weekends and in the summer, the instructions were simple: “Home before dark.” Left to right: Gerard (12), Tom (10), Jeff (2). (courtesy Gerard Van Der Leun)

When my brother was 5 and I was 7, my parents moved us to Paradise. We’d been living in the Los Angeles section known as Glendale. We lived at 521B Allen Avenue. (You never forget your address when you go off to school for the first time, do you?) It was a two-bedroom bungalow apartment. There was a driveway between the two parallel strips of postwar apartment units that opened in the back to a wide asphalt courtyard with a cement block fence at the rear and an incinerator up against that wall.

My brother Tom was always more adventuresome, so he learned how to run along the top of that wall and enjoyed taunting me from the top. He enjoyed it right up until his foot slipped and he ended up with a green fracture of his arm. After the pain was gone and the cast was set, he enjoyed getting everyone he knew or met to sign his cast. Tom strove to enjoy everything he did.

Once the cast was off, he figured out how to further bedevil my mother by inventing the “Bunkbed Launchpad.” This involved safety-pinning a white towel to the shoulders of your pajamas so it hung down in back like a terrycloth version of Superman’s cape. Then, using the flying powers of a white terrycloth towel, we would leap from the top bunk onto the mattress and piled pillows of the “guest bed.” And although we took off many times, I can say for certain that a towel is not a dependable aeronautic device. Indeed, its glide path resembles that of a brick.

It was only seven years after the Second World War, and peacetime life in Los Angeles was fraught with housing shortages, a population explosion as returning soldiers tried to jumpstart families, and…


the smog…

RTWT AT I Had a Fortress Once in Paradise | The Saturday Evening Post

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sam L. February 20, 2021, 9:22 AM

    The SEP is still published? Why was I not informed????

  • John Venlet February 20, 2021, 9:42 AM

    Outstanding, Gerard, and a fine recognition of your wordsmithing talent.

  • Dave February 20, 2021, 9:46 AM

    I have similar childhood memories with forts, and the like, but sans the TNT. I’m envious.

  • Joe February 20, 2021, 9:49 AM

    Great Story, thank you for sharing.

  • Jrod February 20, 2021, 10:07 AM

    Congrats on the publication of your paradisal essay. Now if only we had Norman Rockwell to illustrate it.

  • Kevin in PA February 20, 2021, 10:11 AM

    That was funny, Jrod!

    A Norman Rockwell image of the Van der Leun boys playing with dynamite. An American classic!

  • James ONeil February 20, 2021, 10:23 AM

    Good on yer & your brother Gerard, so many folks and things well worth remembering.

    Among mine, a jar of black gun powder I found when we moved into a new house. My cousin Charlie throwing it against a wall, shattering it and shouting run! Luckily Charlie not knowing the powder needs a spark to ignite and a container to explode.

    Hope you write more about Tom & your mom, sharing such memories just might help make the world a better place.

  • Terry February 20, 2021, 10:49 AM

    In the California Motherlode (gold) areas your mother would tell you as a kid, “Don’t play with dynamite.” In addition to, “Don’t play with matches.” Many, many mines had dynamite stored in unsecured shacks.

  • Mr. Bingley February 20, 2021, 11:03 AM

    a sweet and loving memory, Gerard; thanks very much for sharing.

  • Joe February 20, 2021, 11:20 AM

    What are the coordinates of X?

  • Mike Anderson February 20, 2021, 11:49 AM

    The 50’s were some golden days in Northern California; Gerard nailed it. My pal Punky and I would hide out in forts improvised from the burnt-out stumps of giant redwoods, or roast hot dogs on a fire beside the Eel River, or drive an old pick-up around a hay field, or even set off builders’ .22 blanks with a hammer on a sidewalk (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME). Childhood has not been improved by modernity.

  • gwbnyc February 20, 2021, 12:05 PM

    didn’t know the post was still in business- my family subscribed.

    as fine a second read as the first, again bringing my own days of existing that close to the ground back for review. I’ve retained much of what was intuited.

  • Mike Walker February 20, 2021, 12:08 PM

    I knew Tom since the 70’s; admired him and miss him. I’ve a keepsake, but ought to offer it to you or Ryan – at the height of the O.J. trial, Tom bought a white Ford Bronco. He got a license plate reading DID’NT DO IT.
    He was a wit, a true friend and a most admirable man.

  • Vanderleun February 20, 2021, 12:19 PM

    I remember that license plate Mike and would love to have it. Send an email if you like and we’ll work it out or just post it to my sadly unused AD mail box at:

    Gerard Van der Leun
    1692 Mangrove Ave
    Apt: 379
    Chico, CA 95926

  • BonafideView February 20, 2021, 12:23 PM

    Congratulations! The Saturday Evening Post knows a good story when it sees one.

  • H (science denier) February 20, 2021, 1:53 PM

    A delightful story, told perfectly.

    I grew up in a hick town in a hick area where they was plenty opportunity for mayhem, some of which I took full advantage of, but I had to find my own fun because there was no brother to aide, abet and toss dynamite with. I envy you this, velly muchly Sahib.

  • Kevin T Horton February 20, 2021, 4:47 PM

    That’s awesome Gerard! I enjoyed the essay all over again and just like the first time, it brought me back to my youth of firecrackers, bb guns, tree climbing and fort building of my youth in the early 70s at Plattsburg AFB. I didn’t realize that it was ground zero if the big one broke out, being a SAC AFB with B52s and FB111s ready to lay hell on the bad guys. Good times were had by all! My kids definitely did not quite reach that level of “come home before dark”.

  • Kevin T Horton February 20, 2021, 4:51 PM

    I think it all ended in the early 80s when the “Baby on Board” stickers started appearing on the Boomers cars.

  • PA Cat February 20, 2021, 4:52 PM

    How much did your parents have to bribe (or threaten) the three of you to get you a) dressed up in crisp white shirts and bow ties; and b) smiling so innocently for the photographer? I had one cousin who hated the dress uniform, so to speak, imposed on boys in the 1950s and usually looked like a rumpled straggly-haired mess in family Christmas photos. He must have decided in college that crew cuts, close shaves, white shirts, and tailored dark blue outfits weren’t so bad after all– the kid that I used to carry around piggyback just retired as a senior captain for American Airlines.

    As for hunting Nazi zombies: there was no dynamite just lying around in the part of Pennsylvania where I grew up, but I did have access to an old Wehrmacht helmet and belt that my dad had brought back in 1945, and I always took these items along when the kids on my block played war games. The belt was long enough to have fit Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes, and the helmet was also sized for a large head, but never mind, the kids argued over who got to play Nazi every time. There was something about those souvenirs of actual combat that fascinated all of us, and of course, WWII was “the good war.”

  • Dirk February 20, 2021, 5:38 PM

    Outstanding, I remember your story as it were my own. Well very simlar. NorCal, what a wonderful place to grow up.

    Ashame really, what’s happened to the place.


  • Kevin Baker February 20, 2021, 7:36 PM

    My condolences, Gerard. Unfortunately I don’t read your blog as often as I should, and was unaware of your brother’s passing until today. That was a touching memory, well told.

  • Motus February 20, 2021, 8:11 PM

    It’s not fair – boys always get to have all the fun, I want reparations.

    So much fun to read I feel a little guilty.

  • jwm February 20, 2021, 8:33 PM

    All time great story.
    Still, our bookshelves are missing a volume with a title sorta’ like, ” Van der Leun, Poetry & Essays…”
    If ya’ know what I mean…


  • waepnedmann February 20, 2021, 8:36 PM

    I have a friend, Ralph, who, as a teenager, was exploring old mines around Redding with his brother.
    The case of dynamite found in an abandoned mine was smuggled home and stored in a defunct woodstove in the backyard of their home in downtown Redding.
    Ralph said his father was a pious man of even temper and not taken to profanity, so when one afternoon as Ralph was perusing his contraband Mad magazine in the privacy of his bedroom and heard his father cursing vigorously from the backyard he knew the cache of sweating dynamite had been discovered.
    I had another friend, Glenn, who with his brother uncovered a cache of gold coins at an abandoned homestead in the mountains around Paradise. At that time the price of gold was set by the Feds at $35 an ounce in the United States. However one could get over $100 an ounce in Mexico.
    So, as any enterprising college students would do (at least in those days) a road trip to Mexico was in order. One had to be concerned with safety and security, so grand dad’s old sawed-off 12 gauge was tossed on the floorboards of the backseat and a half of a case of found dynamite was stashed in the trunk (most problems can be solved with the applications of high explosives).
    All was well until they were stopped by a CHP officer while southbound near Sacramento.
    This being the era in America when the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground were bombing various government building the officer became somewhat alarmed when he discovered two long-haired college age males in possession of gold coins, dynamite, and an illegal sawed-off shotgun.
    A good lawyer and a hefty fine kept them out of prison.

  • Yaacov Ben Moshe February 20, 2021, 9:27 PM

    Yet another example of why it is a miracle that so many young males survive to become adults. Innocence, poor judgement and vivid imagination- combine them with testosterone and you have a great summer’s afternoon and a wild tale to tell. Beautifully drawn in this case and made poignant beyond words by your loss.

  • Nobody Atall February 21, 2021, 5:27 AM

    One of your best, Gerard, grats on the publication.

    Our childhood fort was The Big Rock (TM). It was actually three granite boulders that had been bulldozed into a little group. I remember shivers of fear when I jumped off the tallest rock as a 2nd-grader; those rocks were the best cover from enemies, at least until you were surrounded. When I went back decades later, they sure looked small.

  • Jeff Brokaw February 21, 2021, 6:05 AM

    Congrats Gerard — and I’m glad for Post readers that they too get to enjoy your well-written and entertaining stories. I had no idea it still existed!

  • rongalt February 21, 2021, 1:21 PM

    Great story – it was wonderful to grow up as a free range kid (for me and my brother it was the late 60’s). There was an army salvage yard not far from where we lived and we had a great time exploring all the awesome things there (in a time long before it was deemed necessary to secure those types of areas).

  • DAN February 21, 2021, 1:28 PM

    WAEPNEDMANN: kinda curious about your story, the part about GLENN & his brother, sounds strangely familiar but some parts aren’t quite right, i will neither confirm nor deny until i figure out where you got that story. GLENN died a few years ago. i do know the REAL STORY !!

  • Andrew Brooks February 21, 2021, 2:44 PM

    Like Kevin Baker, please accept my condolences. Between your brother, mother, and the fire it’s been a fought time I’m sure.

  • Andrew Brooks February 21, 2021, 2:45 PM

    *rough* time.

    I blame autocorrect for my dyslexia.

  • EX-Californian Pete February 21, 2021, 4:37 PM

    Gerard, I’m very happy to see your story was printed in the Saturday Evening Post, but am not surprised- considering what an excellent and expressive writer you are.
    My deepest condolences for the loss of your brother, and the date he passed (Nov 3rd) is also the day my mother was born- 99 years ago.
    As a wise man once told me, “Never say that we are ‘getting’ old- say we are ‘growing’ old, and the key word is growing.”

  • azlibertarian February 21, 2021, 5:57 PM

    What a wonderful tribute to your brother and congratulations on it’s publication.

    While neither my brother or I ever scored any dynamite, the first thing I did when I got a chemistry set for Christmas was to make gunpowder. I ran through the components pretty quickly and once they were gone, I sorta lost interest in chemistry. I remember using pliers to pull the bullets from a handful of .22 rounds that I’d swiped from Dad’s stash. I singed my eyebrows after I stuck a match in the shell just to see what would happen. While I’m sure that there are families who had sons injured or killed by the antics of Free Range Boyhood, I wouldn’t one part of it.

  • Joan of Argghh February 21, 2021, 7:29 PM

    Oh Gerard, such a well-deserved honor for you and for your brother!

  • Nori February 21, 2021, 7:41 PM

    Those young faces,life’s brightness shining.
    What a beautiful picture.
    Looking at the cover art of Saturday Evening Post,I made a snap judgement,thinking,
    Great,they’ve caved to Diversity Inc.
    No. “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.”

    SaturdayEveningPost.com is well worth the visit.

  • Crazy World February 21, 2021, 9:02 PM

    Very cool