Ted Martinez: Hobo Tales and A Bass Guitar

In 1996, the Vista Volunteers decided to honor Ted with an album from the children and a certificate of recognition for all the things he did  for our school. What a struggle it was to find the right wording for that certificate! Ted functioned in many capacities and always transcended their usual scope. He was, among other things, a bus driver, custodian, musician, singer, cook, and counselor. What we finally came up with to describe him, plain and simple, was friend. And because Ted was one of the people who made Vista a unique and special place, we decided to include him in our oral history project.

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Ted was born in St. Joseph, Missouri and lived there until 1942, when his family moved to the east side of Santa Barbara, near Milpas. Ted was about nine years old at the time. He attended Catholic school from fourth to eighth grade, and then went on to Santa Barbara High School.

Music has always been an important part of Ted’s life. As a kid, he sang in the church choir, and he enjoyed Mexican and country music. “Growing up with music was very natural,” he says, “Everyone in my family played. For as long as I can remember, there was guitar, mandolin, violin…”

As most folks at Vista know, Ted plays guitar and bass, but, as he points out, “not at the same time.” His true favorite is the bass, but he never could afford to buy a large bass, so he learned guitar, which was more popular anyway. He became especially motivated when he realized how much the girls liked guitar players.

Over the years, Ted has played in several bands. One in particular was a group of “old men” from Santa Ynez, who called themselves the Shinkickers. They would get together once a month or so and play at weddings or barbecues.

Ted first came to Santa Ynez after being in the service, when a friend invited him to come up and look for work there. He found a job at the golf course at Alisal Ranch, where he worked for about four years. He has lived in the valley since 1960, more than half his life.

But Ted enjoys reminiscing about Santa Barbara. “Santa Barbara used to be a super fun place,” he says. “The area I remember fondly is the stretch of lower State Street, from around Cota to Victoria. Back in the forties, in the summers, when the Spanish fiestas were held, it was the most beautiful place for a young boy or girl. Parades used to go from Victoria to Cabrillo Boulevard along the beach. Between Cota and Carillo, kids gathered, and people would stand on top of the buildings to look at the parade, and they would throw candy down to the kids. I think that was the most exciting part of the fiesta for us.”

“In 1943, a movie company came to Santa Barbara to film a cliffhanger serial called The Masked Marvel. I got to see them filming. It was not far from Stearns’ Wharf. I can point out two places in town where we stood. I remember it so clearly!”

“In those days, there were hoboes who would jump off the train and camp among the eucalyptus trees near Cabrillo Boulevard. We used to call it Hobo Jungle. These guys had names like Boxcar, Tin Can, Bo, and Charlie. I never heard their last names, and they didn’t seem to have families. They were not uneducated or ignorant, and they harmed no one. They just lived a life of wandering.”

“One of the hoboes would tend the camp and the others would disperse throughout the neighborhood doing yard work and odd jobs. They knew the area very well. They knew where all the bakeries were, and all the good Mexican places. And there were codes on fences and things that showed who was friendly. Anyway, when they came back, the guy tending the camp would have the fire going and they would make a big stew. I used to bring ’em potatoes in exchange for tobacco sometimes. I’d stay with them all day — we’d take a BB gun and pop a couple of seagulls, and they’d boil ’em all day to make ’em tasty.”

“There was a large lemon-packing house nearby — Johnson Food Company — and we kids would gather lemons that fell off the loading dock and bring ’em to the ‘boes, who would get clean drinking water and make lemonade.”

“This was during the war. These guys could be from the Texas Panhandle or Upstate New York. Sometimes I’d hear them playing harmonica over there — blues, mostly, or an old gospel song. I want to say that I never once felt any fear around these men — they just shared their adventures and taught me about life. As a kid, I felt there was a kind of mysticism and romance about their ways.”

One of Ted’s most powerful memories is of a day in 1945 when he was selling newspapers on State Street. The war had just ended, and the headlines said so. “There was absolute euphoria among young and old,” Ted says, “People were hugging total strangers. It had a dramatic effect on me. After four long years of war, people were crazy with joy. I’ll never forget it.”

Ted knew every square inch of Santa Barbara, and it was the setting of many adventures for him. He used to enjoy body surfing on East Beach, about a half a mile south of the pier, even though the water was dirty. On occasion, he would use an unorthodox way to travel downtown — he’d jump on a slow-moving freight train at Milpas and get off at State.

“As I got older, I had a different kind of fun, like playing music at State and Canon Perdido. I’d sit with my cousin and brother and we’d play guitars, and tourists would give us money.”

Ted’s favorite old-time singer is Hank Williams. And his favorite contemporary singer is Mark Chestnut, because he sounds more like the old-timers. One recent song he likes is called Brother Jukebox.

“Juan,” he says, turning to one of our students, “do you remember when I drove the old #1 school bus? I used to play the Ventura station, and that’s where I first heard that song. In fact, you probably heard it a zillion times, because it was on that old tape I used to play. The Refugio kids have probably heard all of my favorite songs!”

When asked how he feels about his job at Vista, Ted says, “I don’t mind the work, but it’s the people I enjoy most. The kids and the teachers. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve met some fine people here, and that’s mostly why I’ve stayed. I could go somewhere else if I wanted, but I think that the relationships I have had and the friends I’ve made here are what make it special. I’ve watched the youngsters grow. It’s kind of like watching your own kids grow.”

“I have so many fond memories of this place – barbecues, conversations, field trips, music, and good friends, particularly among the kids. One in particular comes to mind — he’s up in Canada now — a big kid named Brad Morris — he calls me all the time, and we’ve become good friends. When he was in fifth grade, I remember wondering if he’d ever make it to eighth. He was a little different, bigger than the others, and he loved to horseplay. I was always afraid somebody would get hurt. But he turned out fine, and we got to be friends.”

“I remember the first field trip I drove. We went out to the Hollister Ranch tide pools. Mrs. See’s little girls were small then. It kinda sticks in my mind. Standing there, watching the kids at the beach, it’s like a snapshot. I got to love that family, too — the Sees’. Like I said, it’s the people…”

In addition to his Vista family, Ted and his wife Angie have four grown kids: three daughters and one son. His son, the youngest, works as a media analyst in Goleta. Ted’s oldest daughter lives in Nevada, about 60 miles west of Las Vegas. His youngest daughter works in a hotel casino in Las Vegas, and his middle daughter teaches first grade at Los Alamos School. Ted also has three granddaughters.

An Afterword:

In 1997, about a year after this interview, Ted retired from his job at Vista de las Cruces, but he still took the time to visit with the children he loves so much. The school’s beautiful auditorium was christened “The Ted Martinez Auditorium” in his honor, and the following words are inscribed on the plaque which bears his name:

Acciones, mas que palabras, son las pruebas de amor.

(Works, more than words, are the proofs of love.)

Ted passed away on November 8, 2009, and I still miss him.  He remained my dear friend long after we had both left Vista de las Cruces. For more about Ted Martinez on the Still Amazed blog portion of this website, click here, or you can read a tribute I wrote in his memory for the Santa Barbara Independent.

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