Opinion: Finding Meaning

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Things Held Dear

Remember the Longfellow poem that opens, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the Midnight ride of Paul Revere…”? The Colonists had an alarm system, a lantern in a church tower that sent Revere and others riding into the night to warn of British military action. Their ride led to the “shot heard around the world” and what became the American Revolution. Well, there’s a Laguna version.

Last weekend old-timers gathered at a Laguna icon—the old Main Beach lifeguard tower—to celebrate its rescue 50 years before. Longtime Laguna activist Beth Leeds recounted how, in checking a 1971 city council agenda, she was alarmed by item No. 3: a proposal to demolish the tower. Originally built across the street for a gas station, it was moved to the beach by horses in the 1920s for a lifeguard station. Though the demolition surely had been planned, there had been no public discussion. It seemed a sneak attack to destroy the tower before the community could react.

Leeds had only two hours until the meeting but she also had an alarm system, a telephone version of the lantern-in-the-church alerting horsemen. Two hours later, the City Council Chambers were packed. In front was a table covered with a sheet that Leeds suspected was an architect’s model of a new tower. When item No. 3 was announced, the architect unveiled his model to replace what he termed “the old, dilapidated, ugly tower.” From the room came gasps, followed by shouts and boos. The mayor pounded his gavel, calling order. The city council then descended from their dais to admire the model, nodding their approval. Now it was time for public comment.

Leeds sprang into action, reviewing the history of the tower and its meaning to Laguna. She then turned to the audience, “Can I see a show of hands of those who want to protect and save our Laguna Beach Lifeguard Tower?” Nearly everyone raised their hands then, by plan, began clapping and cheering. When the mayor restored order and called for a motion, a chastened city council voted against the project. The tower had been saved.

At the celebration last Saturday, a ‘50s photo of muscular lifeguards posed in front of the tower was passed around. Guy Westgaard was in the picture, about three years old, sitting on the knee of his dad, Dean Westgaard. Dean, now gone, is remembered as “fearless in the face of danger.” As Leeds, also fearless but now white-haired, retold that battle of 50 years ago, heads nodded in gratitude. In my mind, a new poem began to form, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear/ Of the value of saving things held dear…” This is to acknowledge the good people who speak up to protect Laguna’s heritage. They’re not always appreciated, but they help preserve what makes Laguna special. 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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