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Ah-ha Anniversaries

50 Years after My Fall; Ten Years Since the Landslide

By Denny Freidenrich
By Denny Freidenrich

I have experienced several ah-ha moments over the course of my lifetime.  One included “winning” the first draft lottery of the Vietnam War.  Yes, my date of birth, Sept. 14, was the first selected on Dec. 1, 1969.

Another was being in the delivery room when my sons were born.  They are 35 and 22 now. I wish I could have been there for my daughter’s birth, but we adopted her at nine months. That first night she slept in our room 20 years ago definitely was worth the wait.

Two other ah-ha events have shaped my life. The first occurred 50 years ago this Memorial weekend when I fell off a cliff in Santa Cruz and fractured three vertebrae. I was 16 when I fell 40 feet and landed in a sitting position. I immediately knew something was wrong because I could feel internal bleeding. I remember looking up and seeing people pointing down at me.

Despite my injury, I forced myself to climb up the cliff to my car. Several hours later I was in an ambulance heading to Stanford Hospital. I was confined to bed for two weeks. When I was sent home, I remember wondering if I’d ever play high school water polo again? Thankfully, we had a pool in our backyard.

My rehabilitation started with one lap. The next day I swam two. From June to September I must have crisscrossed our pool a 1,000 times. I was determined to play again.  When the season began in the fall of 1965, I was in the best shape of my life. Good thing, because the following year I entered USC, where I played both freshman and varsity ball. I still have my Trojan letter sweater in case anyone’s interested.

The other momentous event took place a mere 10 years ago on a Wednesday. Early in the morning of June 1, 2005, a devastating landslide struck Laguna Beach. As quickly as it took me to fall 40 feet years earlier, 48 homes were either damaged, destroyed or imperiled by a shifting hillside. More than 300 homes had to be temporarily evacuated.  Experts claimed the landslide was the result of heavy rains from the previous winter.  Looking back now, this seems inconceivable given our current four-year drought.

I was on my way to La Quinta the morning of the disaster. My first call was to a friend I hoped would join me in some sort of relief effort. He rejected my idea and hung up. My second call was to then-Mayor Elizabeth Pearson. She agreed with me something needed to be done to help the victims of the landslide. By 10 p.m. that evening, we had developed a plan. I was now the coordinator of an all-volunteer community breakfast scheduled for Saturday morning in Bluebird Park.

All day Thursday and Friday people called offering assistance. I felt more like a medium than a coordinator. As far as I was concerned, the most important element of the breakfast was to make sure everyone who wanted to help was welcome. No strings attached.

I arrived at the park a full two hours before the event was to begin. Within minutes, about 10 people showed up with tables, food and more. By the time the public started to arrive, more than two dozen volunteers had transformed Bluebird Park into a temporary field of dreams for the victims of the landslide. An hour or so into the event, the mayor, fire chief and I spoke to a crowd of several hundred people who’d come to support their neighbors in need.

The mayor set the tone when she said, “We know how to do a disaster, by God.”

My comments were a little less heavenly. “You may be down, but you are not out,” I told the displaced victims.

It’s the same message I have often repeated to my kids. Life has its ups and downs. The question is: how long will it take you to get back up?  In the case of those who lost their homes in the landslide, not too long. Many pledged during the breakfast event to rebuild.

As a testament to their resolve, one of my Woods Cove neighbors stopped me on the street the following day and handed me a check. I thought it might be for $500. Turns out it was for $5,000.

“I have everything I need,” she said.  “These people who lost their homes have nothing right now. It’s the least I can do,” she told me. As she drove off, I could hear her say, “Have a nice day, Denny.”

So how are these two pivotal events in my life related? First, the obvious:  Both came out of the blue. Second, they underscored the fact I was unprepared for them; but, as life would have it, totally prepared.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years that matter.”

One free fall and landslide later, I couldn’t agree more.

Denny Freidenrich, a resident since 1970, interviewed city council candidates on local cable TV in 1978, represented beach cities in opposing offshore oil drilling and in 2009 organized a black tie, inaugural gala locally honoring President Barack Obama.



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  1. Denny – thanks for sharing your reflections. Although I have been a friend these many years, I am still learning more about you and how well you distill your experiences and how they serve as ‘wisdom’ for others. Thanks!


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