California is the place of constant reinvention. Starting as the sleepy remote adjunct to the nation of Mexico only to be totally transformed into an almost instant American state by the 49ers of The Gold Rush. Then the Jewish American Dreamers who fled the East Coast and Edison’s stranglehold on the film business to found Hollywood, and the Dust Bowl refugees searching for the promised land, it’s always been a place in flux.
At the end of World War II, the exodus of former servicemen and their families from their traditional homes led to a doubling of California’s population from 9 million in 1945 to 18 million in 1965. Now that the population has peaked at around 40 million and started to slowly decline over the last few years, things are very different from the wild unsettled land that Dan Fogelberg sang about.
What follows is my personal story as part of the post WWII wave of transformation.
It was Christmas Eve Day 1961, and there was about 3 feet of snow on the ground in Detroit when my father pointed to our old black and white TV that was showing the AFL championship game between the Chargers and the Houston Oilers at Balboa Stadium.
“Look,” he said, “See all those people in short sleeve shirts? That’s where we’re going.” He was inordinately proud that he was achieving a long-time dream of moving to California, changing engineering jobs from The Ford Motor Company to CONVAIR in San Diego, working on the Atlas Missiles and eventually the F-111 and cruise missiles, thanks to an army buddy who helped him find the job. His father lived in Los Gatos, south of San Jose, on the side of a large hill with a beautiful view. We had visited him at least once, as far as I can recall, and that was enough to sell Dad on the California Dream.
The next week was spent getting things ready for the movers, including packing up the mattresses and box-springs. My brother’s missing baseball glove tumbled out of his box-spring when we turned it on its side. I’d forgotten that I’d taken advantage of a tear in the guazy fabric to hide it there months before in some fit of pique at some real or imagined offense. Ed and I were 3 years apart and were the typical brothers, sharing a room and frequently driving each other crazy. My younger brother at 4 had his own room and was too young for us to bother with.
The plan was for us to use our sleeping bags for a couple of nights before heading on to the Golden State. Those plans changed quickly when the weather report showed a huge storm was coming in to blanket the Midwest (kind of like 2022), so we left the next day instead. All the way across the country, our family of 5, packed in our station wagon, was chased by the storm. My parents had planned on crossing the midsection of the country, but plans went out the window due to the weather. Hoping to get around the storm, we headed south as fast as we could. The first night we ended up in a motel in Missouri with my parents anxiously following the weather report, worried that they might have to get chains for the tires. The storm chased us all the way to Texas, always a few hours behind it seemed. Although winter travel was new to us, every summer we would take my father’s vacation, driving all over the country. We had a pop-up tent that went on top of the station wagon, and Ed and I would sleep up there while our parents would put the seats down and sleep in the back of the station wagon with Ernie wedged in somewhere. Winter though, was no time for such camping.
As a Midwesterner, I was used to crossing state lines every few hours, and all I remember of Texas is that it seemed to go on forever. When we finally got to El Paso, we had apparently outdistanced the storm, and we managed a stop at Carlsbad Caverns, and somewhere there’s a picture of me standing in 4 states at once in 4-Corners New Mexico, although my memory may be faulty, and the geography suggests that was from an earlier trip to Colorado. We stopped in our cousins’ place in Tucson for the next night. He was an architect, and she was a newly minted English professor at the University of Arizona. It was my first introduction to the desert. They lived in a house by a seasonal stream, so there were some Mesquite trees rather than just the scrub brush. It might as well have been Mars to my 10-year-old eyes.
The next day brought us over the Cuyamaca pass on US 80 (now upgraded to Interstate 8) for our first sight of San Diego. I remember it was raining, and my father, with his usual sarcasm, said, “Welcome to sunny California!” Rain in January was another totally foreign experience for me, and both Ed and I were unusually quiet as we couldn’t stop looking at this very foreign place through the rain. I was surprised when we turned north on Hwy 163 after passing the cows grazing in Mission Valley, and headed for this strange place called Escondido. That was where my father’s army buddy lived (actually in next door San Marcos, but close enough), and he had recommended it. We set up camp at the old Palm Tree Lodge across from the rustic Wagon Wheel restaurant that was only torn down in 2017, and stayed there while my parents engaged a real estate agent with her pink Lincoln (That was her method of branding. She was ahead of her time.) to start their search for housing. The agent would show us empty unfurnished houses to rent, and my father would measure the bedroom size by pacing it off until we got to the house on the ranch where he said he didn’t even need to measure the bedrooms to see how big they were. The house was well over 2,000 square feet. The ranch house was shaped in a truncated U with the garage, utility room, and kitchen on one side of the U. A very long living/dining room with a giant picture window through which I used to watch the rabbits devour our front lawn at twilight, and a glass-enclosed patio formed the lower part of the U, and 3 bedrooms and two bathrooms fronted by a long hall made up the last part of the U. The house was certainly unique, and that will require a whole new essay.
Next on the list was buying a second car. We had the station wagon, and, before we left, my father had sold his beloved convertible that my mother hated because it frequently wouldn’t start for her. Most of what I remember about the convertible was the realization that convertibles, despite their appearance, are actually hotter in the summer to ride in because a car roof deflects so much of the sun that in a convertible beats down on your head. The breeze doesn’t make up for it at all especially as the windshield deflects most of it. Now, with us 10 miles north of town, my mother definitely needed the station wagon as a car of her own.
So we went down to the local VW dealership, and my parents bought their little VW bug. Although my dad drove it the 20 miles each way to CONVAIR in Kearney Mesa every weekday, we could actually all fit in the bug with my youngest brother still small enough to ride in the little space behind the back seat. It had this strange innovation called seatbelts, at least for the front seats. The bug’s gas mileage, more than double the typical American car, was a big selling point with my dad’s long commute, although he said it actually took him less time than his previous commute in Detroit. I remember my Dad getting a booklet that noted all the minor distinguishing features from each year’s model of the otherwise indistinguishable little Beetles. I’m sure I can still tell a ’59 from a ’61 and that from a ’64 based on the size of the taillights or the rear window. Not a lot of call for that skill I’m sure, but, hey, it kept a 10-year-old busy and made me think I knew secrets that others didn’t.
So that was my introduction to California. When people ask me if I’m a native San Diegan, I tell them I call myself a near-native, having spent over 60 years here.
Leave a Reply