By Annlia Hill
The ocean was a way of life for the Alley Kids ‒ on boards and in boats.
In the 1930s, they discovered sandsliding on a board. Nelson’s first board was an old warped ironing board of his mother. He would throw it onto the wet sand, jump on and ride it standing up. Later, with wooden boards, all the Alley Kids were doing it. Visitors would watch and want to try it, often with painful results – stubbed toes, scraped skin “strawberries,” twisted joints. According to the Bugjuice Bulletin (the neighborhood paper by Frankie Price and Edie Hill), the wonder child was Nelson. “Nelson Price gets his daily exercise in his now famous sport, which few can do. It is sandsliding. It does look so easy that other people have tried to learn to do it. One of these is Mr. Gooch, who evidently thought that it looked so easy that he could do it. If you wish to hear the remainder of the story, inquire at 160 Oak Street.”
These boards also doubled as “belly boards” to ride the waves. But watch out if the board nosed down and the point stuck in the sand; the board would jam into one’s midsection.
Still, the ocean beckoned, and boats were needed to go further out. Nelson and Gifford were the primary boat builders. Alas, voyages in the first “boats” lasted only seconds. What would one expect of two vegetable crates nailed together, covered with canvas, and sealed with house paint? She flipped on her maiden voyage.
One summer, the kids were given an old wooden rowboat 7 feet long, painted red. But it leaked. Even after repairs, it was no use in the ocean but perfect for the duck ponds in Laguna Canyon. Auntie Coolidge would load the boat on top and the kids inside her Studebaker and drive to the ponds for hours of sailing and playing in the reeds and pussy willows. Patient Auntie would sit in her car and read a book.
The duck ponds have another story, that of Bubbles. A two-ton hippo, Bubbles burrowed under her fence at the old Lion Country Safari animal park in Laguna Hills one February night in 1978. She found the duck ponds and settled in. For 19 days, Bubbles stayed in her pond, only her eyes and nose visible. Then she wandered up a nearby hill and was shot with two tranquilizer darts and a potent calming drug. Bubbles stopped breathing, and an autopsy revealed she had been pregnant. Lion Country Safari donated Bubbles’ body to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Her bones rest in the museum’s warehouse in Vernon. A tag attached to Bubbles’ skull reads, “Female (died with fetus). Born in captivity. California, Orange County, Laguna Hills, Lion Country Safari, Inc. Died 11 March 1978.” However, on another tag attached to a box of teeth, someone has handwritten, “This is Bubbles.” And to many, the duck pond is “Bubbles’ Pond.”
Back to the ocean and more sea-worthy boats. Gifford built the Thor, Nelson the Sea Devil. Eight redwood slats (6’ by 3” x ¼”) cost one dollar, and became the frame; 1” x 2” pieces from the scrape pile at the lumber yard were the bow and side staves; galvanized nails held it all together; $2 of canvas from Sears tacked to the frame with carpet tacks was the outer skin; all were treated with linseed oil and oil-based house paint (another $2). Sitting on the floorboards, the sailors at first paddled then rowed with oars and finally sailed. But alas! The boats lasted only a summer or two. Although stored under the house, the tacks rusted, the canvas tore, and the boat leaked.
Then came real boats:
Pluto I and finally Pluto II – length 16’, beam 4’. June 20, 1938, was the launch of Pluto II. Nelson, Gifford, Frankie, Walt, and Mert were aboard. The wind was moderate SSW, the beach rocky, and the waves big. “Under oars and sail, mostly oars, we reached the raft (downtown) and then on past to the pier. Coming back, we ran before the wind crossing, kelp beds easily and landing well.” The boat was a big success. The five Alley Kids became the regular crew, although many other neighborhood kids rode along. The Bugjuice Bulletin highlighted its own editor, Edie the Great: “The breaker of all records is Edith Hill, being the first girl to get her toes wet over the side of Nelson Price’s boat. She has gone out further and more often in his boat than any other girl and was the first to dive overboard and to be part of the crew (poor boat) … What a gal!“
Annlia is a 50-year resident of Laguna Beach and married to a fourth-generation Lagunan. Having walked nearly every street and alley in town, she has observed firsthand the artistic charm and imagination of residents.