By Paul D. Speer Jr., Special to the Independent
My family moved from Laguna Beach in my graduation summer. I came back to the village periodically while I was in college. After 1953 I did not return for 31 years. In 1984, as I drove down the coast past Corona del Mar and Emerald Bay I was accompanied by a rush of memories, spirits of recognition and a profound sense of change. I returned as a stranger. I was no longer a part of the most important, carefree, most happy years of my life. Now I am returning again for the 50th anniversary.
We forty-niners were part of a great transition period. Many of our class were born or spent their first 12 years of school there and did not think on this — not so much an increase in population, with growth spreading up the canyons and down the coast — but in attitude. As we were marching toward the future we did not look back on this, concentrating on our own transition and growth, but it was so.
To this day I cannot look at the Goodyear blimp without remembering the stately navy blimps from Tustin which patrolled our coast like airborne whales, searching for Japanese submarines. The World War took from us, temporarily for most, our fathers and gave to us waves of servicemen, taken from their own homes in Nebraska, Ohio, and Louisiana, and elsewhere. These young men drifted in on leave or liberty from temporary stops at El Toro, March, and other southern California military staging points and left for far distant islands to return in 1945 and 1946 with memories and membership in the 52/20 club – $20 a week for 52 weeks, which their government provided for re-adjustment. We grew up with these men among us, parking their swim fins in the sand next to ours, looking out to sea with us to spot the next series forming, swimming with us out to catch these waves and bodysurf into shore. I have so many memories of these fine men who steadied themselves in Laguna Beach and then moved on with their own dreams in synch with their life’s work once more.
To many who came after, especially the outlanders from Chaffey, Pasadena, Glendale, and the other cities in the Los Angeles orbit, the beach and the beer, the surfing and the volleyball, the skin diving and the tanning looked like a way of life. It had not been so. Listening to the few who had been there whisper the magic word “Hawaii”, sitting as a 15 year old on the back porch at Camille’s while an actual Hawaiian played an electric guitar, we strummed our Martins and cracker box ukuleles or merely slapped rhythm on the wooden backs. Watching the only hardwood board in town being dragged down to the water by someone who had really been to Hawaii, it was possible to lose ourselves in the moment, to believe that this was all we would need to take from life, that the shack on the beach just south of St. Ann’s was the highest place in one’s dreams.
But it was never so and the rhythms we felt however seductive were not the song of life but an invitation to stop growing. Most of our 52/20 left sooner or later, one by one, to become doctors, or teachers, or salesmen – each keeping memories of a time that brought a measure of peace. Misinterpreting their dreams but imitating their ways, those that remained and those that followed became the beach generation, living as if that was all there was.
We forty-niners are the survivors of that period, of reading comics outside Carpenter’s, of Rankin’s and Rawson’s, of pronto pups and abalone, Peter Paul Ott and those canvas surfing rafts which, if you could find enough bottles on which to collect the two cents and five cents deposits, could be rented for one hour or until you abraded your nipples, whichever came first. The question man showed up on the boardwalk from time to time offering nickels and dimes for the correct answers to vocabulary, arithmetic, science, geography and history posers. A soft ice cream store opened at the corner of the boardwalk and the guard tower. The boardwalk itself was a source of splinters and shade on hot afternoons. Hotel Laguna, a palace with high ceilings and sitting rooms with checkers, backgammon and chess sets available for guest play, was at the south end of the boardwalk, which finished behind the Richfield Station, Jerry’s Coffee Shop, the roque courts and our self-built youth center. Standing sentinel on the hill at the north end was Victor Hugo and its terraced flower gardens.
The beaches went on, cove by cove north and south separated by rock outcropping and promontory, each a neighborhood, mostly public except for Three Arch Bay in the far south and Emerald Bay at the far north. It was possible to walk all along the coast bare-headed and barefoot as we were all summer, carrying swim fins over the shoulder held there by a towel laced through and perhaps a tee shirt to wear if it turned cool in the evening – from Crescent Bay almost to the south end of town, looking for good friends and good surf and a two man volleyball game on the natural sand courts set up in each cove. Catalina Island would appear on the horizon from time to time. Cargo ships and tankers would pass well offshore, and perhaps we might see pieces of tar wash up on our beaches. Much worse, a beach would fill with kelp brought inside the breaker line by tides and wind and impeding our surfing games.
Life was so full and clean like the beach and the waves. Each day the ocean told us of its strength and the secret was in using its power to propel you rather than fighting it head-on. And when the wind was bad and the waves crashed with no curl, no angle down on which to slide, we flipped out on the drop and underwater grabbed the bottom, and in the smallest space between the churning surf and the sand, watched its power passing overhead, rolling itself up smaller and smaller until finally wasted it hissed upon the shore.
It was a simpler life. Each summer gaggles of girls came down chaperoned from the interior to rent houses for two weeks to a month, swim, burn, tan and return from whence they came; boys, too, in separate houses, to be replaced by the next shift. We were the permanent bronzed cadre, bodysurfing on the steepest of waves. We spearfished with mask and snorkel and a long broom handle with a trident nailed at one end and a sling made from tire inner tube rubber at the other and returning triumphantly to the beach with a small halibut which outlined on the bottom had been pinned, the picture made somewhat less dignified by the flop flop of our swim fins. We dived on demand into the apparently dangerous blowhole, with the waves crashing high on the rocks and the secret was, as with anything, in the timing. We went abalone diving with tire iron, bringing up those muscular mollusks to be pounded into steaks. With apparent abandon we flung ourselves on the thin skim of the dying surf, good timing was important in body sliding. On shore we had volleyball games, the sand cushioning our bodies as we dove for loose balls. We played bridge on blankets and towels brought together while one person sat watching the swells for a set of waves on which, after scrambling to the water and swimming through the surf line might be ridden.
And yet, for the most part it was an innocent life. Some smoked, some drank, usually beer or cheap sauterne on a Friday or Saturday night. Sex was not an overwhelming drive; our morality, generally, matched what we saw in films. First, we were allowed to be children. Adolescence was permitted and the transition to adulthood eased by families planning for us a better life. Perhaps because going steady was not required for acceptance in a social group, we were given time to grow up. Whatever happened to adolescence? Why did all this change? Why did we, for our children, permit this moral dumbing down of society?
Salute our athletic heroes – Emilio, Skip, and Ben – the dark, the tall, the golden all whipped into shape by that tiny red haired tiger, Coach Guyer. How I wish that I could see Emilio and tell him that as Faulkner wrote, one must do more than endure, one must prevail. Too late. And Skip, who took it on himself to give up his future and support a wife by leaving school and logging in northern California. Thanks, Skip; you taught me something about taking responsibility for one’s actions. Too late. And Ben, forever good natured and wise beyond your years – now he too has passed.
So many forty-niner memories. Rod Riehl’s arm coming out of a crowd of Capistrano players completing the last second desperation touchdown pass, saving us from the everlasting shame of being the first team in memory to lose to San Juan C. Miss Donaldson teaching all the science courses. Sitting on the wall in front of LBHS. Sewing geometry patterns on pie plates for Miss Collins. Getting the rights to the senior lawn. Giving pencil up/pencil down signals for the true or false section of Mr. Tischler’s general science class. Writing parodies for Miss Patterson. Civics from Colonel Hoop. Bob Hope broadcasting his radio show from our small auditorium and giving a later show in Irvine Bowl to benefit our Youth Center on South Coast Highway, which we all helped to build.
Does anybody still sneak into the top of Irvine Bowl to watch the Pageant of the Masters and bring their girls? Or meet new ones there? Living statuary and frieze, I was a laughing cavalier for three minutes.
So many memories. David, running the distance races with all his heart; Francine, and her peter pan collars; Suzanne, and her harlequin glasses; Betsy, so petite; Patty, so shy; Alice, the tennis star; Joe, and the white Continental; and Jimmy Skilling, whom I saw for the first time after nearly five years after graduation in April 1954. From our 60 person graduating class, Jimmy and I were part of a 60 person Navy OCS class in Newport, R.I., on the other, surf-less coast. Small world, isn’t it? College graduates from all over the United States and a sprinkling of career sailors, and two LBHS graduates. And so many others for whom I have respect — Colin and John, Jim Blacketer and our dashman Tommy King. So many others..
My brother and I had been brought by our mother to Laguna in 1943, swept in by a father sent overseas and anchored by the presence of grandparents. Our family rented the house on the cliff at the beach end of Sleepy Hollow Lane, then to Monterey Drive and finally a block uphill on Locust. High Drive was the upper limit of building and behind it were the steep hills up which we would clamber.
Our two story white stucco and frame house now looks so small. It just may be that as we left Laguna, each of us took in his own mind pieces not only of time but also of space, and our absence has caused the place to compress in upon itself so that in the viewing Laguna now seems so dense and only the Esslinger house and pool upon the hill at High Drive retains itself.
One glorious day, I believe it was in the winter of 1948, it snowed in the hills behind Laguna and for the day we were let out of school. I hooked up with Jerry and some others and we went into some higher hills to play. Senior ditch day was planned around Washington’s birthday; we rented a cabin at Big Bear and tried to ski, without much success.
So many memories. Meeting friends in the back rows of the South Coast Theater, folding papers and tossing them from my bike for the South Coast News. A small part in community theater. Watching Eiler Larsen, with a different kind of happy wisdom, wave at the cars on South Coast Boulevard. Who is left now to wave at me?
Where have you all gone? Is your reward in life as great as the time and space and friendship and feeling we had growing up in our Laguna? It should have been, for it was the preparation for all that has come to us, the learning to swim so that we could sense and know the world beneath the sea and then beyond the village, the practice which ever after we are making perfect.
Life is not perfect. Nobody promised us that. But over time the disappointments and joys become less jagged because of the thousand small satisfactions which provide in the long view contentment. My life has been a kaleidoscope of experiences, tumbling pieces reshaping themselves with the turn of time. For those parts of my past I cannot yet understand, I mostly accept. I look at the present and let it drive me into the future with an open mind, for I still expect that I will find something fresh every day. And this I attribute to my growing towards adulthood in Laguna.
Paul D. (Pete) Speer, Jr.
aka: Slick the Walrus
Mount Prospect, Illinois
Written, June 17, 1998, Revised 4/25/2008,
The LBHS Class of ’81 holds its high school reunion on Aug. 6, 6-9 p.m. at the Woman’s Club, 286 St. Anne’s Dr. Tickets of $95 per person are available until July 31. Check out the link on Facebook and the Laguna Beach Alumni Association Website.