Opinion: Finding Meaning 

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An Impulsive Side Trip 

By Skip Hellewell

It started with a roof leak in an easy-to-ignore overhanging edge. Years passed, a tribute to my procrastination skill, and then dry rot appeared. I spoke with a contractor, but it was one of those small jobs with a big price. Thinking to impress the Beautiful Wife, I announced I would just fix it myself by watching YouTube rain gutter and roofing videos. The BW diplomatically kept quiet, except to mention Norm Roberts, who long ago fell off his roof and was never right again. Long story short, the job’s done, but there’s a side story caused by a $100 downspout. 

It wasn’t part of the original project, but the house had settled a bit, and the rain gutter needed another downspout. The local big box store wanted $100, an exorbitant price, but I dug around and found a deal up in Anaheim. Nearing that store, I saw a sign for the “Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace.” Despite its proximity and Nixon being the most notable California-born politician, I had never seen it. On impulse, I followed the signs.  

Of Nixon, I’ll say nothing, believing it will take a few generations for emotions to settle enough to gauge his contribution fairly. Of my visit, three things stand out: the family home, a classic bungalow built by his father from a kit; his mother, Hannah, the Quaker daughter of a pioneer citrus rancher; and his wife Pat, a lady with true grit. The home is small, perhaps 700 square feet, with a narrow staircase leading to the attic where the four boys slept. The bed in the parent’s small bedroom is still decorated with a Quaker friendship quilt, each of the patches hand-sewn by Hannah’s friends who embroidered their names on the back. The kitchen is simple: a wood-fired stove, the sink originally filled by a hand pump connected to a cistern of rainwater, and, because she saved things, her original pots and pans. The home was built before indoor toilets and kerosene-provided lighting. A tour of the home is a walk-through time to a simpler day of humbler living.  

Nixon reverenced his mother as “a Quaker saint” who not only cared for two sons who died of tuberculosis but four other boys who also died. Quakers didn’t smoke, dance, or drink, and when her first son wandered during high school, she made arrangements for Richard to attend a better school where he excelled, though it was an hour’s drive away in Fullerton. It was surely through her influence – children don’t naturally have the discipline to practice, that Richard became proficient with five musical instruments. When it was time for college, he was admitted to Harvard but was needed at home, so he attended Quaker-related Whittier College, where he graduated summa cum laude in history, followed by a law degree at Duke University.  

Nixon met his wife Pat when he was just out of Duke, and she was a new Whittier schoolteacher. He proposed on their first date. She “thought him nuts or something.” Pat grew up on a family farm, helped run the home at the age of twelve when her mother died, and then worked her way through USC after her father’s death to become a teacher. Pat later noted, “. . . politics is not a life I would have chosen”, but she was loyal to the end, and their graves lie together beside his birthplace home. And those are the three things that impressed me on my impulsive visit. There’s meaning in that.  

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ’50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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