A lovely irony that many of us here in Southern California might have forgotten - the California Dream, the envy of the rest of the nation with our endless run and outdoor living, requires shade.
Sun Boss, purveyor of patio covers since 1947, is a great example of the dream, and the dreamer. What a story! I'd become fascinated with the everyday patios of my childhood - which were the patios of so many SoCal generations - by comparison with the elaborate outdoor rooms featured in so many magazines now, which feature actual rugs, furniture, chandeliers, and kitchen islands.
Then? We had small hibachis or Weber grills, a cement slab behind the tract house, and over us all, the best thing ever - aluminum patio cover held up by columns laced with those elegant scrolled shapes which embody the patio. The enclosed space where you live outside, where you skateboard in circles until you're dizzy, where you read sitting on a hot chaise lounge which peels away from your skin when you move, where you listen to the rain thrumming on the metal that let you be half-inside, half-outside.
The company has been in the same location near the Santa Ana River in Riverside since John Kain founded it. His is a classic tale of California dreaming.
Kain was born in Alabama in 1921, went to San Jose State for a business major, and then enlisted during World War Two. In college, he'd fallen in love with a Riverside girl - Barbara Keach. But on the destroyer escort ship in the South Pacific where he was second-in-command, he got a letter. A Dear John letter. Really.
He threw it overboard and pretended it had never been delivered.
On the way home to Southern California after the war's end, in the open water, he was on deck when a huge rogue wave nearly killed him. His body pulled by the rush of water, his face banged against the steel deck, the only thing holding him was a lifeline around his shoulder.
At Long Beach Memorial Hospital, his face and neck stitched, his shoulder torn, he got word to Barbara, and she came to visit.
After they were married and lived in Riverside, Kain began to sell cloth awnings to local businesses, but he realized that those needed frequent replacement because of weathering. Having knowledge of steel and structures, fascinated with design, he experimented with lightweight aluminum. He bought a brake machine, which bends aluminum sheets, and pioneered a design for patio covers which can be custom-designed, installed in a day, and which can still be seen all over Inland Southern California.
The machine is still there, and last week Kain's son David Kain, 51, who took over Sun Boss in 1988, grabbed a sheet of aluminum and bent it in the classic W design to show me. His father is still alive, still offering opinions on design.
Kain remembers coming downstairs when he was about nine, close to midnight, seeing his father at the kitchen table sketching out aluminum windowframes with louvers. "Hold this," his father would say, and David would hold up the design.
"It was a way for people to live outside," David said, about his father's patio covers. "The name came from the idea of taming the sun, and then my dad embossed the aluminum." Kain figured out a way to bake paint into the metal, and emboss designs onto the paint, so that the covers never rusted or broke down.
The carport he built in 1954 for his own house, on Magnolia Avenue in Riverside, is still there. I see it all the time.
Sun Boss installed patio covers in thousands of backyards - including Sun Gold, which makes for a great 1960s image of stucco and awnings. In fact, when I told my father about my memories of our old patio, at the tract house built in 1963 where we lived for thirty years, about the five siblings skateboarding and playing jacks under the shade, he said, "Well, Sun Boss built that."
Kain said, "Picture this, in 1962. A truck shows up with a 12X20 custom aluminum roof, all in one piece, and two guys put up the supports with those scrolled S designs you remember, and you have a patio."
He took us around the work area, looking for the machine which makes the scrolls, showing us the old brake machine and then a new model which can handle much larger sheets.
These days, Sun Boss builds solariums, sun rooms and conservatories. I checked the models, look up at the mansard roofs and windows. Kain told me his workmen can still put up a patio in one day. But they also install elaborate glass rooms on top of beach houses in La Jolla.
He had a folder of the patios I remember, though, with these great photos of the past. And after we left Sun Boss, for days I drove around looking for patio awnings, simple designs like the one beside my grandmother's mobile home in Hemet, like the one at the house next door to mine, owned by Herma King, who moved to California from Colorado at just about the same time John Kain did. Mrs. King died two years ago, at 105, but from my yard, I can still see her patio cover.
David Kain sketched one just like it for me, in his workroom. The California dream of being outside, in the shade, holding a drink, the sun just beyond your feet, still shines.
Susan Straight's latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room." Both she and photographer Doug McCulloh are natives of Riverside, and their stories appear on KCET every other Wednesday, all which can be read here. She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside.
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