Picture a classic American town of a simpler era: a white stone courthouse at its center, Main Street winding its way between awning-clad shops and offices, row upon row of quaint village lanes overspread with shade trees.
Picture following U.S. Highway 50 up from Sacramento toward Lake Tahoe, curving through towns like Shingle Springs, El Dorado, and Missouri Flat on your way into the sun-splashed foothills.
Picture a sleepy community nestled in those hills, girded with apple and pear orchards, mantled with forests of oak and pine reaching into the hazy blue of the High Sierras.
Picture Main Street itself, antique lampposts lining the sidewalks, historic buildings of brick or weathered wood on either side of the street, some dating from the rough ’n’ ready Gold Rush days of the 1850s.
Picture an iron bell tower at the town’s central square, an American flag rippling languidly from one of the upper crossbars.
Can you see it all on a hot June afternoon? Can you imagine a sky as clear and deep and blue as a mountain lake? Can you catch the fragrance of sunwarmed pines wafting down from the hills? Can you hear the clatter of dusty pickup trucks dropping off farm kids for an afternoon in town, or the friendly murmur of sidewalk gossip as neighbors pause to pass the time of day? Now, look up one of those side streets coming down out of the scruffy, hillside neighborhoods. Can you spot the young boy in ragged jeans, Keds sneakers, and a faded, striped T-shirt, flying down the hill on a Stingray bicycle?
That’s me, Thom Kinkade.
And that’s my hometown, Placerville, California.
If you had seen me on such a day, I might well have been heading into town for my summer haircut at the downtown barbershop. After ten minutes or so (it doesn’t take long to administer a flattop on a boy’s head if he sits still), I would emerge with newly exposed ears and a tidy crop of bristly brown hair.The barber’s vain attempts to create a part in the remaining undergrowth were to no avail.This would perhaps be the last time a comb would touch my head for the next month or two.
My barber had decades of experience cutting little boys’ hair. But he was also a bit of a lush, and if you got your hair trimmed in the afternoon, more than likely he would have already paid one or more visits to the Round Tent Saloon, a watering hole dating back to 1849 or so. You could never be sure what the results of your visit to the barbershop would be. But what did a bald patch or two matter? Eight-year-old boys are supremely indifferent to the quality of their haircuts. Of much greater interest was the barber’s prowess as a storyteller.
This was one of those old-fashioned barbershops where two or three old men in overalls always seemed to be sitting. Loafers, we called them. They never seemed to have much of anything to do except sit in the barber chairs chewing tobacco, leafing through ancient pinup magazines, and telling yarns about recent fishing trips. The barber himself had an interesting conversational style. No matter what you were talking about, you always ended up in World War II. It wouldn’t be long before he would drawl,“Well, back in the war….” And he would launch into an oft-repeated tale of brave deeds, exotic places, and the antics and camaraderie of young soldiers far from home.
The shop was a cheerful chaos, littered with candy wrappers, cigarette butts, old newspapers, and piles of hair that the barber would move around from time to time with an indifferent nudge from his broom. But the price was right—one dollar—for a haircut that would last you almost all summer.
Freshly shorn and redolent of Butch Wax, I’d step out onto the hot sidewalk and hit some of my favorite haunts before heading home. Good old Main Street! To this day, I can close my eyes and see the signs of local merchants proudly hung from awnings that provided shade along the sun-baked streets. The Bluebell Cafe, P&M Market, Raffle’s Hotel, Florence’s Dress Shop, and Mac’s Jumbo, the local malt shop. At the Hangman’s Tree Saloon (a competitor of the Round Tent) a cowboy mannequin dangled in effigy from a noose attached to a tree limb nailed to the front facade.
At Vesuvio’s Pizzeria, you could look through the front window and watch the guy in the white apron tossing pizza dough high in the air. At Blair Brothers Lumber Company, east of town, the man behind the counter would give you a free yardstick. Up the street a couple of blocks, at Chuck’s Frosty, you could get a soft-serve ice cream cone for a dime.
When my friends and I were doing the rounds, we’d usually start with the Ben Franklin Five-and-Dime—a real town landmark. The old ladies who ran the place frowned and harrumphed when my buddies and I came through the door, convinced we were stealing them blind. Oh, sure. As if we were tempted by all the thimbles, thread, dress patterns, and sewing implements they had on display! What we came for was their popcorn machine. For ten cents you could get a two-foot-long bag of popcorn—every bit as fresh and tasty as you’d get at the Empire Theater next door for twice the price.
From there, we’d pop into Ed Arayan’s Department Store. They still called it that, even though old Ed had died some years before, leaving the business to his widow.What a store! We’d get down on our knees in front of the glass counters and ogle the strange and fascinating collection of pocket-knives, compasses, and bizarre musical instruments that the Arayans had assembled. In one display, there was a whole collection of harmoniphones —long instruments that you blew into with piano-style keyboards along the side. It always seemed to us that it would be a cinch to master the instrument—if any of us could have ever afforded one.
Unlike the Five-and-Dime ladies, Mrs. Arayan didn’t seem to mind the daily visitation of little boys. When one of us asked to see one of the “genuine pearlhandled” jackknives, she would roll out a small velvet mat and present the article with all the sober dignity of a jewelry salesman showing diamonds to a wealthy client. “Oh, yah,” she would say in her heavy German accent, “fine qual-i-tee.” As a matter of fact, everything in her whole store was “fine qual-i-tee.”
Another business owner who saw a lot of traffic from the sneaker set was George, owner of The Newsstand. It probably had another name—the Placerville News Company or some such thing—but everyone in town just called it The Newsstand. It was one of those old buildings from the Gold Rush days, with the original, creaky wood floors and an ancient ceiling fan, spinning away up above. The floorboards felt wonderfully cool to bare feet that had been dancing across scalding concrete sidewalks. While you cooled your heels at George’s place, you could check out the latest comic books and baseball cards—or maybe invest in a jumbo Tootsie Roll.
Placerville in the fifties and early sixties was a slow, sleepy, safe place to live. No one worried about kids out on their own, having the run of the town. There were no malls, no McDonald’s, no cell phones or beepers, no gangs or graffiti. Commuters from sprawling Sacramento had not yet begun to absorb the town as a bedroom community. It was still smalltown America, right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, and was a wonderful place for a boy to explore and roam with his buddies.
Nothing too monumental happened in my early years—beyond absorbing the comfortable rhythms of an old-fashioned American small town. My mother and father parted ways when I was very young, and my brother, Pat, and I grew up in a single-parent home. Riding my bike around town on a summer night, or maybe walking home from school on a dusky winter afternoon, I would always find myself drawn to the warm glow of windows in the homes I passed. I always tried to imagine what was going on behind those windows… the laughter, the conversations, the horseplay, the hearty family meals around dining-room tables.
The windows in my own home were often dark,my mother hard at work (often until late in the evening) supporting the family. From those very early days of childhood, I’ve always been drawn in by the buttery yellow light pouring out of friendly windows and the smoke curling out of a chimney.They’ve become a hallmark of my paintings.
Maybe that’s why I particularly enjoyed being a paperboy from age eleven on. Besides the pocket money it afforded, going from street to street, house to house, yard to yard, was endlessly interesting to me. You could tell a great deal about people from the way they kept their lawns or gardens, by looking into an open garage door, or perhaps by the toys lying out in the front yards. Now and then, you could catch a whiff of dinner cooking: spaghetti at the Wards’,Mrs. Rossi’s meat loaf and fresh bread—or chocolate chip cookies—at the Reeses’.
But it was a chance encounter on Fairview Drive that would change my life forever.
The Willeys were new in town, and as I sailed down the road to toss a free sample onto their porch, I saw a pretty blond-headed girl about my age sitting on the front step. On that particular day, I decided against firing the folded paper against the front door with my usual pinpoint accuracy. On that day, the paper would be hand-delivered.
The girl’s name, I took care to find out, was Nanette.
Our family had just moved to Placerville. My father had been on an assignment overseas in the Philippines. It was a hot day, and I was sitting out on the front steps with one of my favorite books when I suddenly looked up and saw a gangly teenage boy pulling up in front of our house on his bicycle, delivering papers.
He smiled, introduced himself as Thom Kinkade, politely handed me the folded paper, and took off down the street. It was one of those times that you read about in stories or see in old movies but have difficulty believing.
We fell in love.We truly did. At first sight. Thom was thirteen and I was twelve. And through the years we’ve always agreed on one thing: From that moment in front of my house on Fairview Drive, we knew that—somehow, in some inexplicable way—we were going to be together the rest of our lives.
The very next day we met again. It was a funny incident that did not seem at all funny to me at the time.
I had planned to walk down to the high school swimming pool with the girl from next door. Knowing that she was coming by for me at any minute, I donned my brand-new bikini. When the doorbell rang, I thought it would be fun to show off a little. I threw open the door with a grand gesture, opened my arms wide, and shouted,“Ta-daaaa!”
Only it wasn’t my friend.
It was Thom, soliciting for the newspaper. He was standing there with a surprised, somewhat dazzled expression on his face. Being the mature twelve-year-old that I was, I screamed and hid behind the door.
I think Thom and I were just enamored with each other in those early days. As time went on, we saw energy and creativity in one another. Thom was immediately drawn to our family. Because we’d traveled a great deal and had lived overseas, we had a number of unique decorations and furnishings around the house—and a wealth of experiences and interesting tales to tell. Compared to life in provincial Placerville, we must have seemed glamorous and exotic.
Coming straight from several years in the Philippines, I didn’t dress like any girl he’d ever seen. All of my clothes had been hand-tailored and embroidered by Filipino seamstresses (which is about the only way you could get clothes over there). Thom, romantic even in those early days of preadolescence, was completely enchanted.
And I, a new girl in town, enjoyed having such a receptive audience for my stories about where we had lived and the things we had done.
Besides being flattered by Thom’s rapt attention, I was impressed with his self-confidence and unique outlook on life. Who ever heard of a paperboy who talked about painters and carried a sketchbook with him on his route? The more we talked, the more amazed I became at how ambitious and goal oriented he seemed to be. At the age of thirteen, he already knew what he wanted to do in life. He knew he wanted to be an artist, and he knew the kind of lifestyle he wanted to live.
As we jumped and bounced together on our family trampoline in the backyard, Thom told me he wanted to travel, have adventures, and do things that were out of the ordinary—or “out of the box,” as he would later explain it.
I had goals, too. I wanted to be a nurse, eventually become a wife and mother, and devote myself to caring for a family. So we talked a lot about those goals and dreams. I think that’s how we became such good friends: We talked continually about everything. As time went on, we really came to understand each other and communicate on an even deeper level. As we spent hours on the trampoline, on the front porch, and delivering Thom’s papers in the neighborhood together, we began to feel like soul mates in our dreams for our futures.
This is all very odd for us to think about now, because we have a twelve-year-old daughter. She is very mature and responsible and loves the Lord with all her heart. But Thom and I can’t imagine her having that same vision of a very specific future the way we did. I think God just put that in our hearts at an early age because He knew He had a plan for us together.
It makes me smile to recall that as bold and outgoing as Thomas was as a young teenager, I was the one who asked him on our first date.Not long after we met, our junior high school had a Sadie Hawkins Day dance, and I invited the paperboy.
I’d understood that Sadie Hawkins Day is the day when girls get to invite boys to a dance. What I hadn’t understood is that we were to be “married” at that dance—as the girls dragged their dates in front of a “country preacher” (one of our classmates in tails, top hat, and a phony mustache). Now I was embarrassed. But as we were waiting in line, I was even more aghast when I saw that part of the mock marriage ceremony involved “kissing the bride”—right there in front of everyone.
I’d never kissed a boy in my life, and I found myself thinking, Oh, my gosh. What is Thom going to think? What am I going to do? I was as nervous as could be.Then Thom looked over at me with a twinkle in his eye and slipped his arm around my shoulders. In a very cool and debonair voice he leaned toward me and whispered, “Wanna practice?” Without waiting for my answer, he bent his head over and kissed me. Right on the lips, too! So our first kiss was right there in the line.A few minutes later,Thom and I kissed for the second time as the preacher pronounced us “man and wife.” And that was the end of the kissing for a good long time!