By Maria E. Garcia
Johnny Rubalcava is a very young 90-year-old man. He has been married five times, his last marriage lasting 30 years. He has been a widower for the last two years. When you look at Mr. Rubalcava you think you’re speaking to a man of 70, not only because of his wonderful memory, but because he carries himself like a much younger man.
He started going to the Neighborhood House at the age of six, during the 1930’s. Like so many of the other people I interviewed, Mr. Rubalcava remembers Neighborhood House as the place where kids in Logan Heights learned to dance, play on sports teams and enjoy occasional trips to camp.
Mr. Rubalcava was an enthusiastic participant in the sports offered there. Although he participated in football, basketball, boxing and baseball, he is quick to admit the only game he was any good at was ping pong and proudly says that he received a plaque for his ping pong skills. He played basketball as a young boy and remembers helping to build the basketball courts, under the direction of Coach Frank Peñuelas.
One of the requirements was to use new baseballs and as a rule the Neighborhood House teams did not have new baseballs. They often had to wash their baseballs so they would look new.
While being interviewed, he spoke of the kids and young men that worked to build the basketball courts, namely John Holden, Frank Gallindo, Tweetie, and Coach Peñuelas. He say there was a lot of cooperation between the various ethnic groups. Their goal was to make Neighborhood House a better place for kids. His comment was “We all helped and got along.”
Mr. Rubalcava also played baseball. His experience on the baseball team was positive although he is the first to admit he was not a good player. He played for the Toltec Midgets. Their pitcher was George Wilson. The Neighborhood House team was not as polished as teams from other parts of the city.
One of the requirements was to use new baseballs and as a rule the Neighborhood House teams did not have new baseballs. They often had to wash their baseballs so they would look new. At other times the opposing team would feel sorry for them and give them a new baseball. Another factor that made the Neighborhood House team stand out as different from other teams is that they had to walk to most of their games. Mr. Rubalcava remembers walking from Neighborhood House to North Park to play baseball.
His experience at Camp Dehesa was not as positive as the other boys, the reason evident by his comment “I didn’t like it because I got poison ivy.” Mr. Rubalcava said that even back then he knew that the Marston family had something to do with the camp, though at the time he wasn’t sure exactly what the tie was. He remembers that he slept on a cot.
One of the women from Logan Heights had the responsibility of cooking for the camp. Employment at Neighborhood House or through Neighborhood House has been a recurring theme but records of employment have not been easy to find. Unlike many of the other boys that went to camp, John did not go in a bus or truck, but rather in a car driven by Henry Boulder. At that time it seemed that camp was so far away and it was only as an adult that he realized that it was much closer than he thought.
Mr. Rubalcava remembers one particular incident related to the boxing program. He recalls a few boys yelling and being loud in the hall at Neighborhood House. Husky Velasquez, a boxing coach, grabbed one of the boys and paddled him as punishment for the noise they were making. The paddle was thick and had holes in it.
The boys were angry that this had happened to their friend. Henry Gonzales and Mr. Rubalcava decided to get even for the paddling. They waited, and when Husky did not expect it, they jumped him and beat him up. Mr. Rubalcava admits that the only reason they could beat him up was because of the element of surprise and the fact that there was two of them against Husky. At that moment Husky did not retaliate. However, he was the person responsible for the boxing schedule.
The boxing ring sat behind the building by the basketball courts. Velasquez’ retaliation was to schedule fights with fighters that could beat them with little or no problem. One important fight was against Max Lance which Mr. Rubalcava won.
At a time when many of the boys were turning to drugs and as he puts it “the dope made them crazy,” Mr. Rubalcava takes pride in the fact that he did not get into any serious problems. He can name many of his friends who ended up using heroin throughout the community around Neighborhood House. This became a huge problem with many of the young men from Logan Heights.
When WW ll broke out, it was not only the talk of the nation, but the talk of Logan Heights. Some of the guys sat on the stairs outside of Neighborhood House and talked about the possibility of being bombed. Others went home or to friend’s houses and talked about what they could do to support the United States. Some of the boys were unsure of how to fill out the enlistment papers and went to Neighborhood House to receive help in filling out the documents.
Mr. Rubalcava enlisted and ended up in Arkansas, along with Joe Lerma and Ernie Silva. He saw action in Europe and has several medals for his duty to his country. He did have one problem while in the service. He did not write to his wife and she complained to his commanding officer. He was threatened with a court martial unless he wrote a letter home. That very afternoon, he sat down and wrote the mandatory letter to his wife.
As you can see from the picture, Mr. Rubalcava received a great deal of recognition for his service, yet he is reluctant to talk about it. As he puts it “Once they find out you were in the war they ask you all these questions or they want you to talk at a school and I don’t want to.”
He is extremely modest about his war accomplishments. One of the few indications of these accomplishments is a shadow box that shows not only his Purple Heart but other commendations he received for his efforts. When he returned from the war, John went to Neighborhood House to see old friends and play basketball.
Things had changed as the group that had left the community as boys returned as men ready to take their place as full-fledged U.S. citizens. Mr. Rubalcava attended school then went on to a career at North Island.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.