Saturday, February 22, 2014

California Dreaming After All These Years

San Diego sunset
I fell in love for the first time when I was just 14. And it wasn't one of those adolescent summer flings. In fact, it's proved to be one of the most enduring and meaningful relationships of my life. But mind you, that first love affair, which started appropriately enough on a San Diego beach, wasn't with a girl. It was with the ocean.

It was early September, 1974. Richard Nixon had just announced his resignation on my 14th birthday, August 9, and Gerald Ford was our new president. As an A.M. radio junkie in those days, some of my favorite tunes on the singles charts that summer were Beach Baby by The First Class, Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd, I Shot the Sheriff by Eric Clapton, and Can’t Get Enough by Bad Company.

Although I had spent my entire childhood in the sheltered confines of suburban Des Moines, Iowa, I’d recently moved with my family to Las Vegas, and our tennis team was planning a three-day weekend trip to San Diego to play in a tournament and go to Sea World.

We were all excited -- not so much about the tennis match or even Sea World, but because only a few of us had been to California or seen the ocean. I wasn't one of those fortunate few.

We left Vegas in a bus on Friday afternoon, and after stopping for dinner at some kitschy diner in Barstow, we arrived in San Diego around midnight. After checking into our hotel, the Dana Inn, which still exists, we hung out in our rooms and talked about sports, music, girls and whatever else 14-year-old boys in the mid 1970's talked about. We crashed around 2 a.m.

"Whatever you do, Gerry, don't pardon Nixon!"
The next morning we were all up at dawn. Who needs sleep when you're 14? We were surprised and a little bummed when the sun didn't rise with us. It was surprisingly chilly and cloudy that day, not the kind of San Diego morning depicted on post cards and travel brochures.

After we scarfed our breakfast in the hotel room, our coach let us take off and wander around for a few hours. Yes, completely on our own. Of course, for all kinds of reasons, that would not happen today. After hanging out at the hotel pool for a while and flirting with a group of sunbathing ninth grade girls, we made our way westward. We knew the ocean was within range, but we had no idea just how close we were until we got on the roller coaster at Belmont Park, and started going up.

And there it was: the ocean. It was the most awesome thing I had ever seen. I almost had to close my eyes. It was this majestic, benevolent giant, and it was calling my name. As the coaster car took its first radical dip and turn, I let out a joyous "yeeeoooowwww!" My body pumped adrenaline; my heart raced. I still get stoked and misty just thinking about it. As soon as I got off the coaster, I ran to the water. I've been running to it ever since.

The rush of seeing the Pacific for the first time from atop a roller coaster left an indelible mark on me. I guess on some level I knew at that moment I'd return to San Diego, someday and perhaps forever, and that I was going to enjoy a deep and lasting alliance with the ocean. I'm sure that isn't the only reason the sea has been such an important part of my psyche ever since. But it was an amazing first impression. I still feel remnants of that buzz every time I stand on the beach and look out at the waves, even on the flattest of days.

When I graduated from high school and moved to California for good in 1979 - Santa Barbara first, then San Diego - I got an apartment on the beach and fulfilled a promise I made to myself that day on the coaster: I taught myself how to surf. It's not as easy as it looks in "The Endless Summer" and the Frankie and Annette flicks. After being caught inside, wiping out more times than I care to remember, and becoming familiar with the salty taste of ocean water, I was finally able to stand up and stay up. That's a moment you never forget.

My first ride took place on a three-foot wave (at the most) near the University of California Santa Barbara campus. I subsequently began surfing Rincon and a few other Santa Barbara-area spots. I got pretty good at it. One summer I even taught kids at a Montecito YMCA Summer Camp how to swim, dive and surf. My love for the ocean was immeasurable. I also quickly developed a healthy fear, which all surfers have unless they're idiots.

When I moved to San Diego in 1984 to attend San Diego State University’s journalism school - ten years almost to the day after I had first seen this beautiful city - I spent every moment that I wasn’t in class in and out of the water at various spots north of Crystal Pier in P.B., and farther south along Mission Beach, within eyeshot of where I saw the ocean for the first time.

But perhaps because that first day at the beach was a cloudy one, and because I'm a somewhat nostalgic and sentimental guy anyway, and because I'm getting older, I particularly enjoy the beach now when the weather isn't so perfect. I still spend a lot of time at the beach for a grownup, especially on bad-weather days.

There's nothing so poignant and reassuring as a stretch of San Diego sand on a cold, cloudy afternoon. After the boys of summer have gone, as Don Henley sings. When the bus and the tourists are gone, as Al Stewart sings. When it's chilly and overcast, the lifeguard towers are empty and locked, and there are only a few diehards dotting the sand and a couple of curmudgeons combing the sand for lost treasure with their metal detectors, there's no place I'd rather be.

San Diegans know this place isn't sunny and warm all the time. At least not at the beach, where it can be bone-chillingly cold and go weeks without a break in the clouds. If you live in East County, unless you're in the mountains you don't see clouds much; the sun shines most of the time. But at the beach in winter, you get a touch of real weather, of real life. It's calming for me. It makes me think of the east, and the past. It just makes me think.

On the other hand, when it's 90 degrees outside, the ocean is like bath water, the summer swell is pumping, and the sky is impossibly blue, but there are so many 'Zonies (Arizonans who invade our city every summer) and other fair-weather tourists putting sun block on their hairy, lobster-red backs and unsuccessfully trying to throw a Frisbee that you can't even find a spot on the sand, I often just sit alone on the shore and wish it would rain. 

Then I think back all those years ago to that gray Mission Beach morning atop the roller coaster, and smile. And they said this love wouldn't last.


  1. All the best stories have an Al Stewart reference.

  2. I have been to San Diego and it is beautiful; but darned expensive. The day I tried to get to the beaches at La Hoya the cars along the road for miles kept me from succeeding.

    1. ok, well it's spelled La Jolla, and the beaches here are free!! :)