We grew up on Yucca Street in Beltsville.
"We" is me, my older sister, Barbara, my two younger brothers, Wayne and Pat, and more than a dozen kids that lived on our block.
Yucca Street could have been the poster child for the thousands of post-WWII housing projects that sprung up in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Yucca Street runs North and South from Sellman Road to Worchester Avenue. Five of the houses on the west side of the street, all built in 1951, were exactly the same, except for the different pastel shades of the asbestos shingle siding -- a material choice which, at the time, seemed like a good idea. About 1,280 square feet, each house was a Cape Code style two-story home, with two bedrooms downstairs and two more upstairs. There was only one bathroom -- unthinkable today. There were no dormers so the walls of the upstairs bedrooms were slanted -- making it impossible to put pictures of Corvettes on the walls. The only windows upstairs were two small ones at either end of the house, limiting natural light or any cross-ventilation in the hot summer months (we didn't have the luxury of air conditioning). My bedroom was upstairs.
The yards were a nice size for the price of the homes. There were no driveways or garages -- all the cars were parked on the street. There were fences in the rear yards, but none in the front yards -- which was fabulous because the continuous landscaping from one yard to the next meant that we had space for playing football, kick-the-can, tag-you-are-it, or anything else we wanted to play without risking our lives in the narrow street. Behind Yucca Street there were acres of unimproved wooded area to which we had complete access -- the woods were perfect for building tree houses or forts, hunting for snakes and other wildlife, all sorts of imaginary adventures, and for pretend camping trips. Because Worchester Avenue, at the bottom of Yucca Street, was a dead-end, there was virtually no through traffic, providing us with a safe place to drive our Go Karts and Mini-bikes.
I have never understood why the developer chose the word "Yucca" for the street name. Yucca -- a plant native to the Southwest USA, and Mexico, with sward-like leaves. I don't think there was a single Yucca plant on Yucca street. All the streets around us were named after the 23 Counties of the State of Maryland -- Montgomery, Wicomico, Caroline, Queen Anne, Kent, Harford, and so on. The name Yucca still seems like an odd idea to me, but it was a nice street to live on as a teenager.
I was starting junior high school when we moved from College Park to Beltsville. When we arrived on Yucca Street it was time to make some new friends. All the parents had done their duty to support the "baby boomer" movement -- families of three or four children were common, so making new friends was an easy pursuit.
Our house was 4505 Yucca Street.
- Next to us was the Scheirhorst family at 4503 – they had two small children so no playmates to be found at that house.
- But, thankfully, next to them was the Scaggs family at 4501 – with four children – Rick, the oldest and a few years older than me, next was Gary (whose middle name was Wayne), the same age as my sister Barbara, and two younger sisters, Nancy and Chris (whose nickname was “Zeke”).
- Next up the block was the Propts family - with three children -- Tom, Johnny, and Susie.
- Continuing up the street was found the Franklin family with three children – Gary, the same age as my younger brother, Wayne, and Gary’s younger brother, also named Wayne, and their younger sister, Carol.
- Across the street from the Scaggs house was the home of the Kelley family with a son Tommy and his sister, Carolyn.
- Also on the other side of the street, across from my house, was the Jefferson home -- David was the oldest child, and he had two younger sisters, Betsy and Karen.
If you have been paying close attention, you have realized that in the space of four houses there were three boys named “Wayne” (Wayne Franklin, Wayne Scaggs, and Wayne Thomas), and two boys named “Gary” (Gary Franklin and Gary Scaggs), and, to keep things complicated, girls named Carol and Carolyn across the street from each other. Imagine the confusion when one of our mothers yelled the name of a child out the front door – there was no telling which one would respond!
During my high school years my closest neighborhood friend was Gary Wayne Scaggs.
A little bit taller, slightly older, and much smarter, Gary was the person whom I looked up to as a leader and model. He excelled at anything he found interesting: athletics, scouting, nature, and everything he pursued. He was such a natural leader that when we gathered on the block for games, he was always choosing the teams and setting the rules. It was Gary who tipped me off about "teen club", and the dances that were held on Friday nights on the second floor of the building that housed the Beltsville Volunteer Fire Department.
Gary's Dad and older brother were involved in Boy Scouts, and he was too. He was one of the boy leaders of our troop, probably holding the rank of "Junior Assistant Scout Master". On camping trips, he was the first one to pitch his tent, and to build a fire. David Jefferson and I remember on one camping trip with Boy Scout Troop 238 in the Elizabeth Furnace Recreation Area of the Shenandoah Valley someone had killed a rattle snake. Gary brought it back to the campsite and carefully performed an autopsy, exploring the organs of the snake and telling us about its anatomy. He saved the rattles off its tail as a souvenir and proceeded to cook it. I wasn't able to bring my self to sample the cuisine.
Gary graduated from High Point High School with the Class of 1964. Although Gary was smart, he didn't excel in academics in high school, earning just so-so grades. In his later years he told his sister, Nancy, that he never took a book home to study -- she was surprised he didn’t flunk out.
Gary didn’t like school and was uninterested in attending college -- making him a prime target to be drafted into the military. Instead, he decided to join the Marines which led to him being stationed in Vietnam for about 6 to 7 months. During that time his unit was decimated. Because Gary's brother, Rick, was also stationed in Da Nang, their Mom intervened to get one of her son's out of the war zone. The result was that Gary was sent to Guam for the remainder of his tour of duty. Gary never used a gun again in his life. Later, Gary told his sister, Nancy, that he decided that if he made it back alive from Vietnam, that he would do something with his life.
During his absence, I lost track of Gary. Many of my friends who went off to that war as carefree teenagers, returned carrying mental scars. What I observed in Gary was different. In his high school years, from time to time, I saw a bit of anger borne of some unknown frustration or hurt. When he returned from the war my sense was that he was different, in a positive way. He seemed at peace with his station in life and now had a purpose – he would graduate with his bachelor's degree from the University of Maryland in College Park, and then attend, and graduate -- with honors -- from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry in Baltimore. After the rattle snake episode, I should have known that he would go into healthcare!
Using money that he had saved while a Marine, Gary bought a brand new, third-generation, silver 1968 Corvette Coupe -- one of the first new cars to ever arrive on Yucca Street and it was the first third-generation Corvette in which I had the pleasure to ride. And now, there were three Corvettes parked in the span of three houses on Yucca Street – Gary’s 1968, my 1959, and my brother Wayne’s 1957. Gary's Corvette was way cooler than our first-generation cars. The instrument panel looked like something out of a jet fighter, and the sleek body style was beautiful. Gary polished the car frequently keeping it in perfect condition.
As Gary went off to Dental School, I moved to California, and we permanently lost touch with each other. When I began writing my book in 2002, I tried unsuccessfully to make contact with him – so his presence in Beltsville Shell is minimal. I’ve always regretted that he didn’t have his own chapter in the book like so many other friends.
A few weeks ago, Jim Ziepold called me to let me know that Gary lost his fight with cancer back in September 2022 – probably the only time he ever lost at anything. Reading the tributes on his memorial web pages told me that he is survived by his wife, Nancy (which had to be confusing because he has a sister named Nancy, but Gary had conquered name confusion years ago), and two children.
Gary had a part-time dental practice seeing patients, but the majority of his professional life was spent as a faculty member at the University of Maryland dental clinic, educating and mentoring new dental students – many of whom wrote fond remembrances of his dedication and care.
Others described a man who was so at peace with life that he volunteered at Quiet Waters Park, his local gardening center, making many friends in the process. I'm told that he continued his love of all creatures and interest in how they lived—passing on that fascination to his boys—and to all the children who gravitated towards him, even in his final years. Kids loved Gary. His affection for gardening came at an early age on Yucca Street, and he maintained his Mom's garden until she died in 2012. He was most at peace when gardening.
Gary’s older brother, Rick, had predeceased him, leaving me to say to Nancy and Chris (his sisters), Nancy (his wife), and his children: Gary Wayne Scaggs was a great friend and neighbor, Boy Scout brother, and Corvette buddy to me -- like you, I mourn his passing.
One of my Yucca Street neighbors, David Jefferson, like me, moved from Beltsville to Los Angeles and worked at the University of Southern California. I always knew that David was really smart, and it was no surprise to me to learn that he holds a B.S. in mathematics from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Carnegie-Mellon University. Although he never owned a Corvette, his distinguished career included faculty positions at USC, UCLA, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. David has contributed to this posting with his own memories of Yucca Street -- thank you, David!
Special thanks as well to Gary's sister, Nancy, for her edits, corrections, and contributions to this post.
Hearing the news about Gary, and writing this tribute to him, motivated me to make a visit to the old neighborhood which I had left about 50 years ago. In June 2023, I was in Beltsville to attend the 19th Beltsville Shell Reunion. Since I was only about two miles from Yucca Street I stopped by for a visit. Here is what I found.
Our house at 4505 Yucca Street looked about the same as it did when I left for California. The woods behind the house are still waiting for adventure seekers.
The house next door, 4503, appears to have been upgraded with dormers and new siding (or maybe it always had dormers and I have forgotten that fact?).
The Scaggs house at 4501 seems unchanged like my old home.
The Propts house has been updated with dormers and a room addition.
Finally, the Franklin house has the popular room addition as well.
There are still no front yard fences. I wonder if the current residents are enjoying the ready access from one home to the next? I didn't hear the voices of children, or the sound of Go Karts -- but in my memory, those sounds will always be there. I now realize how very blessed we were to grow up on such a neat little street!
Cary Thomas, July 2023