I’m not quite an Arizonan native, but almost, having moved to Mesa just before my fourth birthday in 1958 from a small farming community in Syracuse, Kan. It was a caravan move of three families, leaving the dusty farm behind. This was the beginning of the Starlite Motel, home to the famous sign of the three diving girls, which is how we referred to them back then.
The owners, Elmo (Bud) Kaesler and Richard (Dick) Kaesler, with a little financial backing from their father Ed, built the Starlite and later the Stageland a block away. Customers called them the Kaesler brothers. They took turns sleeping at the motel every other week. Our houses were three in a row on Harris Drive a few miles away.
The customers came from the east and stayed for months at a time, the same ones year after year. Our customers were very social and became good friends to our family and one another. I took great delight diving to the bottom of the pool at age 4 to show off my newly acquired swimming skills. Yes, you can learn to swim with one of those orange life vests.
Every now and then, Uncle Bud would suggest we have a feed. Dad and Uncle Bud grilled the meat and the customers all brought a pot-luck side dish cooked in the kitchenettes of their units. Everyone played shuffleboard on the courts behind the pool and horseshoes on the back lawn. Men played cribbage on the sidewalks and the ladies had cocktails at the pool.
For me, it was like having many a grandparent. I felt very small trying to wave to one of the customers who had a heart attack and ended up at Southside hospital.
I followed our beloved maid, Elsie Hall, around with her cart as she cleaned the rooms, giving me a few tips along the way. What I liked best about her was the gifts of homemade fudge and divinity that she gifted us with at Christmas.
I had most of my birthday parties at the pool and played with the Davenroy girls who lived directly behind us. My brother Rick and cousins Kim and Terry used to walk a half-block to the filling station next to the motel to get frozen zero candy bars. In the summer we ran across the hot pavement playing cowboys and indians and were soldiers right out of John Wayne movies, making our best dying moves with a splash into the pool.
You might take your kids to the zoo, but we were right next to Jack Adams’ alligator farm with turtles and colorful peacocks.
My brother, Rick, remembers being there when the sign went up. I can recall the sign swaying when the monsoons brought howling winds and clouds of dust.
They are all gone now — my grandparents, my father and Uncle Bud — but I still see them in my mind standing tall, with their Stetson hats, just like John Wayne. I, too, would love to see the sign of the neon diving ladies restored. It may be just a sign, but it signifies an era in Mesa when it was a small town that welcomed people of the north with a little relief from a cold, harsh winter.