One hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ, a Byzantine mathematician and traveler assembled a list of the Seven Wonders of the World. His name was Philon and he journeyed to the far edges of the known globe to see for himself the most spectacular manmade objects then in existence. Why he included only seven wonders is unclear. Perhaps it came down to his personal tastes, or maybe he ran out of traveling money. Whatever the reason, this is his immortal list:
- The Colossus of Rhodes
- The Lighthouse of Alexandria
- The Temple of Diana at Ephesus
- The Tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus
- The Statue of Zeus at Olympia
- The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
- The Great Pyramid of Cheops
Of course Philon could not have known that his list would establish a trend that has lasted more than 2000 years. Historians labeled his list the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and went on to compile the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages, which were:
- The Colosseum of Rome
- The Catacombs of Alexandria
- The Great Wall of China
- The Leaning Tower of Pisa
- The Porcelain Tower of Nanking
- The Mosque of St. Sophia in Constantinople
Wonder-list mania went into full swing. Not to be outdone by a bunch of eggheads in togas, encyclopedia editors put together a list of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, which is periodically updated but at last count included:
- The Panama Canal
- The Golden Gate Bridge
- The Empire State Building
- The Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope in England
- Hoover Dam
- The Atomic Submarine Nautilus. Proving the arbitrariness of such lists, this one has included at various times, and according to various sources, the Suez Canal, the Alaskan Highway, and the Eiffel Tower.
Wonders never cease, though. It was inevitable that wonder experts would name a Seven Natural Wonders of the World:
- Mount Everest
- Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border
- The Grand Canyon of the Colorado
- Australia’s Great Barrier Reef
- Caves in France and Spain containing prehistoric wall paintings
- Paricutin, a volcano in Mexico
- The harbor at Rio de Janeiro
Alternates to this list have included Rainbow Bridge in Utah, California’s giant sequoias. Crater Lake, and Carlsbad Caverns. Many, many more wonders could be added to that list (why not the Northern Lights? the Amazon River?), but people soon became bored fiddling with it. Still, wonder listing never ends. With all these lists noting the world's past, present, and natural greatnesses, a list of local San Diego wonders seems to be in order. A macro-view of the world is fine and fulfilling, but a micro-view is more important and useful. We can travel to distant wonders, but we live among quite a few that are commonly taken for granted or forgotten. The obvious local wonders would of course include the San Diego Zoo, the Mt. Palomar telescope, the Hotel Del Coronado, and such like, but those should be summarily eliminated from the list. They belong more to the world at large than the local populace. A local list should include coordinates of our real identity — significant objects and events from the past and present that are less well known but just as enriching to the life of the community. These seven wonders belong to us, as neighbors, and help to pinpoint San Diego’s place in the world:
1. LILAC ROAD BRIDGE
Freeway designers and engineers judge their work by way of a maxim: If you don't hear anything about a completed project, then you’ve done a good job — because when you do hear something, it's usually a complaint. But the Lilac Road Bridge, ten miles north of Escondido on Interstate 15, broke all the rules. Caltrans workers have heard a lot about it, and what they've heard has been all good.
Spanning a road cut 675 feet wide and supported by an arch that sweeps elegantly to a height of 150 feet, the Lilac Road Bridge provides a grand entrance to the lower left-hand corner of the United States. Travelers who approach it from the north First see it with nothing but blue sky under the arch, framed by steep, rocky hills dotted with avocado trees. Caltrans engineers often receive letters from drivers who have been struck by the span’s beauty. Begun in July of 1976 and completed in May of 1978, the bridge has won national design awards from the Portland Cement Association and the Prestressed Concrete Institute, and to a bridge builder, these mean a lot.
Bridge architect William Wells, who came up with the initial design concept, is still with Caltrans in Sacramento. Via telephone recently he was asked why the state made such an aesthetically pleasing bridge when something more drab surely could have done the job for less money. “Bridge design over the years has gone through several cycles,” Wells explained. “Safety, economy, aesthetics. At the time we did that one, the pendulum was on aesthetics.” (The bridge is obviously safe, and at a cost of $1.5 million, a bargain.) But the design of the Lilac Road Bridge couldn't have been ugly, anyway: “We rejected tall columns right away,” Wells said. “It’s such a big road cut, vertical columns would have been ungainly. The arch was the only solution.”
How rare it is when beauty and balance also make good sense. As you approach the bridge heading north, it slides into view from the left and immediately arrests your attention like a revelation. The overall effect is one of “Yes, of course!” Its height is stunning. Before I-15 was built, old Highway 395 through here was known as “Blood Alley” because of the frequency of accidents in a high volume of traffic that had to negotiate steep hills, blind curves, and narrow lanes. The old road had been built in the 1940s by convict labor, and it followed the contour of the rough country. The new road was blasted through some of the steepest hills, but it wound lazily up through most of the others to the north. The Lilac Road Bridge is at the top of a crest just this side of the San Luis Rey River valley, a crest the road had to go through, not over. The rock that was ripped out to form the roadbed was moved to the south slope of the hill to smooth out the grade.
A close-up view of the bridge from underneath reveals several nice touches in the small details. The bend of the arch is quite pronounced and integrates perfectly with the surrounding hills. The arch footings, set into solid rock, hit the hillsides at different elevations on either side, and the road above crosses the ravine at a slight angle to the highway. The arch itself varies in width as it rises, merges with the road above, and falls. The lower edges of the arch angle out slightly beneath the road and then flatten into smooth lines as they drop toward the footings. Small concrete triangles fit perfectly into the confluence of the road and the hilltop. A series of wishbone-shaped fence supports runs across the top of the bridge. From up close you can marvel at how well the simple design fits this exact place, in a manner that joins humanity and nature harmoniously, but it’s truly uplifting to know that it was built by a government agency. There is hope in government after all.
2. THE BALANCING BOULDERS OF BOULEVARD
While a manmade bridge of concrete and steel bids a majestic welcome at San Diego’s northern frontier, the eastern approach to the county is guarded by ancient, brooding monoliths of granite. Stabbing into the relentless wind of the Carrizo Grade, the boulders line Interstate 8 like a petrified army, inert and mysterious. What crazed general could have placed each enormous stone in its improbable position, balancing precariously on a narrow ridge top, jutting horizontally from a cliff face? Many of the rocks seem to mock natural laws, their huge mass held aloft by the tiniest thread of stone. Others have lost out to time and gravity and have tumbled into grotesque heaps. It is a renegade army of glittering granite, locked in mortal combat with superior natural forces.
At the top of the grade, in the high country of the In-Ko-Pah Mountains, this quiet battle proceeds in the picturesque McCain Valley. Seventy miles east of San Diego and a short buggy ride north of Boulevard on the unpaved McCain Valley Road, the domed hills and rocky flats of the long valley are strewn with granite boulders that have been weathered into unique shapes. No single pattern of erosion is apparent in the buff-colored rocks; some are smooth and rounded, others jagged and flat, while a few have taken on the top-heavy shape of toadstools. It is a crazed landscape of stone, cactus, chamise, and rattlesnakes. Wandering lost in this land by moonlight, one could easily imagine oneself going slowly, exquisitely insane.
Geologists have named the granite bedrock La Posta quartz diorite. This specific combination of seventy percent feldspar, twenty percent quartz, and ten percent mica occurs all over the world, and it weathers everywhere into distinctive shapes. The rock was formed about 100 million years ago, and slow cooling allowed its various minerals to form large crystals. These crystals give the rock a crumbling, granular composition that yields reluctantly to the eons.
Much of the erosion, according to geologists who have studied the McCain Valley formations, took place while the rock was still underground, covered by the sediments of an ancient sea. As the In-Ko-Pahs and other coastal ranges were uplifted, the underlying granite came closer to the surface. Water began trickling down into surface fractures, eventually reaching the granite. These surface fractures tended to break at right angles to each other, allowing water to seep down in cubelike patterns. After millions of years, the water broke down the rock around these cubes and also rounded off the cube edges, forming gigantic spheres of underground rock. When the surrounding eroded material was washed away, these stones, called corestones by geologists, were exposed to the sun, wind, and rain.
When these corestones are stacked concentrically to form a hill, the formation is called a “tor,” which is an Old English word meaning “tower.” There are several such tors in and around the McCain Valley, some of them visible from the freeway. But the most spectacular tor, topped by a hundred-foot-tall boulder, is located about seven miles north of Interstate 8 on McCain Valley Road. Viewed from the road, the boulder is enormous. But it requires a close-up encounter truly to comprehend its enormity. Walk the quarter-mile trail up to the boulder, and see for yourself how tiny you are.
This trail also provides a good overview of the different weathering patterns in the granite. Some rocks have been hollowed out on the side, and only thick spires remain, giving a cathedral effect. Some gigantic boulders have been split right down the middle and have spread far enough for a man to squeeze through. Huge overhangs of incalculable weight provide shelter for lunch, if you’re feeling lucky. Follow the coyote and deer tracks to the many tiñajas, or water holes, carved by wind, water, and chemicals in flat-top boulders. Beside some of these rest the incongruous toadstool rocks whose tops, rather than weathering into depressions, have become weatherproofed by chemicals. Metal oxides and silica brought up to the surface of the rocks form a kind of protective crust, while the boulder's sides continue to erode beneath it.
What it comes down to is this: these rocks are disturbing. While most boulders show an impregnable countenance that demonstrates the battle with nature can be fought well, if not won, the McCain Valley boulders tell a less heartening parable. Not even rocks can last forever.
3. DIRIGIBLE SAN DIEGO
What would San Diego be without its spectacular boondoggles? And what would a spectacular boondoggle be without elements of high humor and deep tragedy? If you thought the J. David Dominelli story could not be matched in terms of human gullibility and folly, you haven’t heard the wondrous story of C.H. Toliver and the airship San Diego.
On June 26, 1910 an advertisement appeared in the San Diego Union announcing the impending construction of the most advanced dirigible ever conceived, one that would surpass the German Count Zeppelin’s new airship. Inventor Toliver, who owned the Toliver Aerial Navigation Company, had set up his shipyard in a canyon at Thirty-first and B streets in Golden Hill and, according to the ad, was building a cigar-shaped blimp 250 feet long and forty-three feet in diameter, nearly twice as big as the first German zeppelins. It was to be filled with pure hydrogen and was advertised as just the first of an entire fleet of such dirigibles, all to be built in San Diego, which would carry passengers to principal cities throughout the nation.
For months, as work progressed on the airship, Toliver placed ads offering stock in his company. This apparently was his only source of money, and he was a visionary master at selling his idea. The headline for one of his advertisements read, “The Wonders of this Ship Are Almost Beyond Description.” But the ad went on to describe them fully anyway. They included a new type of lightweight, thirty-two-horsepower engine, patented by Toliver, four of which would power the dirigible; “special methods of construction,” which gave the airship twice the strength and half the weight of any dirigible yet built; special propeller controls that would allow the airship to move in any direction; and location of all passenger cabins inside, rather than under, the gasbag. “The stock will make you a joint owner of the wonderful inventions of Mr. Toliver, and sharer in the tremendous profits that will follow the complex on of this ship,” the ad trumpeted. “If you would have a share in the wonderful future of this company, and a part of the riches that will follow its first success, then ACT AT ONCE.” Sound familiar?
There followed an eighteen-month publicity barrage, the stuff of which makes up every publicist’s spinning headline dreams: “Material Is Here for Huge Airship”; “Work Rushed on Monster Airship; Inventor Claims Dirigible Will Be Best Flying Machine Yet Invented”; “3000 Pay Visit To Big Airship”; “Dirigible Will Soon Be Prepared To Fly.”
The scale of the project seemed to warrant all the ink. Toliver's work force of forty men built a huge wooden hangar over the Golden Hill canyon, and they dammed the canyon’s lower J at C Street so the aluminum-coated silk gasbag could be inflated while submerged in water (which was piped in when the blimp was ready to receive the gas). East of the canyon the men built a hydrogen gas manufacturing plant. In June of 1911 Toliver sent an employee, Bert G. Lewis, to San Francisco to secure some of the raw materials, such as steel shavings and sulphuric acid, required to create hydrogen. Eventually fifty tons of steel shavings were dissolved by seventy-five drums of acid, and the giant gasbag began to inflate with the hydrogen byproduct of the reaction. “I am proud to say that we have the most perfect hydrogen gasmaking plant in the United States,” Toliver told a reporter from the Union.
Thousands of people from throughout Southern California gathered in Golden Hill at daybreak on November 4, 1911, to see the San Diego make its maiden test flight. The spectators lined both B and C streets and waited for the historic moment that had been hyped for so long. But although Toliver's airship may have been lighter than any ever built before, and his gas plant was the most perfect, the dirigible wouldn't budge from the canyon. The crowds left at midmorning, having seen nothing but a giant cigar resting comfortably in a ravine. And then Toliver's visionary zeal suddenly began to deflate.
In an effort to determine why his ship wouldn’t float skyward, Toliver had asked city gas inspector Edward Jewell to analyze the gas inside the balloon. Fearing, correctly, that the hydrogen was highly explosive, Jewell and some employees of the San Diego Consolidated Gas and Electric Company attached a five-foot length of rubber hose to a jar containing one and one-half cubic feet of the gas. They ignited a pinpoint jet of the gas coming out of the hose end, but the flame instantly climbed the hose and caused the jar to explode. Two men were injured by flying glass, and Jewell went straight to the city attorney's office. “It’s a wonder I have my eyes left,” Jewell told reporters. “A cigar I was smoking was cut- off as though with a knife, a quarter of an inch from my lips. An explosion [of the dirigible] would raze buildings for hundreds of yards and destroy life within them. It would shake the whole town.”
Headlines roared, “AIRSHIP GAS EXPLODES” and announced that the city had declared the dirigible a public menace to life and limb. It was ordered out of town immediately.
The city attorney told the city health inspector to tell Toliver to remove his dirigible from the city limits. The district attorney notified Toliver that he would be prosecuted if the airship weren't moved. Responsibility for exiling the dangerous gasbag was eventually kicked back and forth between the city attorney, the district attorney, and the grand jury. Reports that Toliver had had similar dirigible debacles in northern California and St. Louis began to circulate. All the while, residents of Golden Hill tried to get by without open flames in their homes, and Toliver continued to downplay any danger from the hydrogen.
The whole affair quickly turned into the kind of marvelous fiasco for which San Diego is known and loved. Gas experts convinced the city that the hydrogen couldn’t simply be released from the gasbag, because it would invade the neighborhood and probably blow it up. Toliver and the city gas inspector tried to locate large balloons in Los Angeles that could lift the monster airship and tow it to a place where the inventor was more appreciated. Several shady balloon dealers rolled in and out of town, but as the balloons failed to materialize even the Los Angeles newspapers started to ridicule San Diego. (The name San Diego had been summarily stripped from the dirigible by the inventor; it became Toliver I.) It was now a “dread and deadly dirigible” to the newspapers, and Toliver was finally arrested on charges of maintaining a nuisance. He posted bail and vowed to build another hydrogen balloon himself that would remove the airship.
Finally, on December 20, 1911, a vicious storm tore holes in the gasbag and all the hydrogen leaked out. Golden Hill did not explode. Within days Toliver had worked out an agreement with local businessman Ed Fletcher to move the airship plant to Grossmont, at the foot of Mt. Helix. And the inventor took the opportunity to shake his fist at the city. “The treatment that has been accorded me in San Diego has been unjust and cruel,” he told the Union. “This may not be the end of the destruction of that airship. Certainly the city officials have been responsible for it, and certainly there should be some redress.”
But Toliver’s plans to set up his dirigible terminal in Grossmont were never realized. On May 25, 1912, when he and his wife returned from the moving picture show to their small house at Thirty-first and B, they were both brutally murdered by Bert G. Lewis, the man Toliver had sent to San Francisco for hydrogen-making material. One-time secretary and chauffeur for Toliver, Lewis had lain in wait and then emptied two pistols into Mr. and Mrs. Toliver. To stop Mr. Toliver’s agonized wails, Lewis had also thrust a knife into his former boss’s abdomen. When he was arrested, Lewis was asked if he had killed the Tolivers. “No, I did not kill any people,” the newspapers reported Lewis as replying. “I just killed a couple of skunks, that’s all.”
Lewis was eventually acquitted of all charges, after pleading temporary insanity. The testimony of his wife saved him. In a dramatic courtroom confession, she said that when Toliver sent Lewis to San Francisco to buy the material for manufacturing hydrogen, she was ravished by Toliver and his wife. Toliver’s wife was his “procuress,” Mrs. Lewis testified. “Mrs. Toliver told me that when she agreed to marry Toliver she also agreed to allow him to have as many women as he desired and also to help him obtain them,” Mrs. Lewis said on the witness stand. “He was of a very fiery nature.” Mrs. Lewis testified that the Tolivers had brought in a trance medium who held a séance at the Toliver home, during which the medium told how unfaithful Mr. Lewis was. Mrs. Lewis soon filed for divorce and took refuge in the Toliver home and indicated that the Tolivers repeatedly had their evil ways with her. The Lewises were reunited later, and Bert Lewis filed suit against Toliver for “alienation of affections.” He didn't wait for justice to be administered by the court. Lewis’s growing rage ultimately extinguished the dreams of one of San Diego’s long and continuing line of visionaries.
Today the canyon at Thirty-first and B offers no sign of past feverish enterprise. It is thick with eucalyptus and palm trees, and its rim is lined with modest homes and apartments. A visitor to the site recently encountered a neighbor boy playing at the canyon's lush edge. The boy was asked if he ever played down in the canyon.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Do you ever find old parts from blimps?”
The boy looked at the visitor with a quizzical expression and asked, “What’s a blimp?”
4. SEALAB II
When was the last time you heard the term “aquanauts”? Since the late 1960s, when the word was used to describe deep ocean divers living in underwater habitats, “aquanauts” has been banished to the realm occupied by “frontiersmen” The aquanauts signify the high aspirations and boundless optimism of their time even more so than the early astronauts, because in the 1960s we hadn't yet learned that the sea was just as hostile as outer space. But in the summer of 1965, with Sealab II resting at a depth of 205 feet a half mile off the end of Scripps Pier in La Jolla, all things seemed possible. As astronaut-turned-aquanaut Scott Carpenter, who spent thirty days living in Sealab II, was fond of professing, “I know, I am absolutely positive, that anything man can imagine, he can accomplish.” That man might not want to accomplish all he could imagine was a lesson eventually provided by Sealab.
Sealab II accomplished quite a lot, including the proof of the practicality of saturation diving that today allows divers to work for long periods of time at depths down to 1000 feet. But in retrospect, Sealab II's greatest accomplishment may have been its inadvertent discovery that there really are places on the planet best left to the crushing cold, the eternal blackness, and the octopi. The navy came out of the Sealab experiments with a deepdiving capability based on transporting divers from their underwater work to a deck decompression chamber, rather than living under the surface for great lengths of time. Underwater habitats are now relics of the past. Sealab was also a turning point at which the navy began intensive research into unmanned submersibles. Today these “remote operated vehicles” are common and effective and risk no diver’s life.
The idea that the ocean bottom was no place for habitation wasn't fully accepted until a veteran diver from Sealab II was killed in 1969 during Sealab III off San Clemente Island, which brought the Sealab projects to an ignominious and tragic end. La Jolla’s Sealab II was the pinnacle of the nation’s impossible dream of living and working in permanent underwater habitats on the ocean floor.
Even before Jacques Cousteau perfected the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) in the early 1940s, it was known that normal air breathed under the pressure of depth could be fatal. Nitrogen, air’s main component, has a narcotic effect that, combined with oxygen’s poisonous properties when breathed at depth, make normal air unusable to people wanting to live under the sea. Captain George F. Bond of the Naval Medical Research Lab in New London, Connecticut, began animal experiments in 1957 in an effort to study how a different breathing mixture, helium and a small amount of oxygen, could help people to live safely at great depths. The theory, which Bond and Sealab eventually made practicable for the U.S. (Jacques Cousteau proved the theory first with his Conshelf I and II sea colonization experiments in 1963), was that the helium would “saturate” the body's tissues and would replace the nitrogen. Once saturated, a diver could stay at depth almost indefinitely and still require only about thirty-five hours of gradual decompression. When Bond first began his work, navy brass regarded him as something of a dreamer, but then came the implosion of the submarine Thresher on April 10, 1963, in which 129 men were lost, and the navy suddenly realized that it needed the ability to descend to depths approaching 1000 feet for salvage and rescue purposes. Soon the “Man in the Sea“ program was born.
The program’s ultimate goal was to unleash divers Jo be free-ranging, independent of the surface, and capable of living at a depth of 800 feet for ninety days. Just what people were supposed to do down there remained sketchy, but there was a lot of talk of “exploiting” the “tremendous” natural resources of the continental shelves, conducting scientific research, and of course using the newfound capability for military purposes. Much of the talk had a dreamlike quality to it. People envisioned “floatels” where the general public would live in underwater paradise, and Capt. Bond, a charismatic figure who became known as Papa Topside during Sealab II, predicted that an entire corps of navy aquanauts would dot the sea floor before 1970, living and working on a rotational basis in permanent underwater habitats.
Bond’s 1964 Sealab I project, in which divers lived for a week in a relatively crude chamber placed at a depth of 193 feet in warm and gentle waters off Bermuda, whetted the navy’s appetite for a deeper saturation diving experiment in a harsher underwater environment. The site next to La Jolla Canyon, at a depth of 205 feet, was selected for several reasons: local water conditions (forty-eight-degree temperatures, poor visibility) were more usual for navy operations; local sea life was very interesting and abundant and would be the subject of extended underwater studies; and the site was close to both Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where the navy had already funneled a lot of research money, and the navy’s research lab on Point Loma.
From a publicity standpoint, which was important to the navy at the time, Sealab II was a spectacular success. Three teams of ten aquanauts spent about fifteen days each living underwater, and reporters were brought to the mother ship, perched above the site, by the boatload. Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven astronauts and the second American to orbit the Earth, was the chief aquanaut. He was a natural lightning rod for publicity. “I felt so sorry for Scott sometimes,” says Art Flechsig, a retired Scripps scientist who was on the second crew of Sealab inhabitants. “He was always the center of attention, no matter what. But he handled it real well. He was a very personable guy.” All twenty-eight of the aquanauts became world famous. Flechsig was asked for his autograph on the streets of La Jolla.
Sealab II consisted of a cylinder fifty-seven feet long and twelve feet in diameter. It was inhabited for forty-five consecutive days, August 28 to October 14, 1965. The first team of aquanauts, most of them senior navy divers, descended to the habitat in a pressurized “personal transfer capsule” after breathing the helium/oxygen gas mixture for several hours. One of the first orders of business was for Scott Carpenter to talk with astronaut Gordon Cooper, who was orbiting the Earth in Gemini 5. After settling in, the aquanauts proceeded with a series of physical, physiological, psychological, and sea life studies. Each buddy team of two divers exited through the open hatch for an open-water dive every day. “Some of us felt we could have accomplished more if we’d been able to make more dives,” says Art Flechsig. “But for safety reasons only two divers could be out at any one time.”
In the murky bottom conditions, none of the divers could venture very far from the habitat. And since hot-water suits, which today provide a comforting flow of hot water through a diver’s wetsuit, weren't perfected yet, the aquanauts were limited to thirty- or forty-minute excursions because of the intense cold. In between dives — which was most of the time — they ate, slept, and worked in the cramped quarters and provided valuable data on the ability of men to work in confined spaces under stressful conditions for long periods of time. The project was hailed as the most complex and difficult oceanographic research effort ever attempted, and many navy commands and private corporations elbowed their way into the next project, Sealab III.
“The program had progressed to the point where there were a lot of high-level people who wanted to get a piece of it,” explains Flechsig. “Sealab II had been a class operation, with only a fringe of people in it for the glory. But Sealab III cost tens of millions of dollars, and it was taken out of the hands of the enlisted men. The opportunists saw it as a way to make a name for themselves… Berry Cannon's death may have been avoided if the project had been done in a more measured way.” It was determined that aquanaut Cannon died due to carbon monoxide poisoning, probably attributable to human error in the preparation of his breathing gear. He went into convulsions beside Sealab III at a depth of 600 feet off San Clemente Island, before the structure was even inhabited. Sealab III was raised and the project, five years in the making, was scuttled. Talk of colonizing the sea floor has not been heard since.
5. THE NIGHT LA MESA STOOD STILL
La Mesa, California, September 7, 1977, 3:57 a.m. Temperature, 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind out of the west-southwest at twelve to fifteen miles per hour. Ceiling unlimited. Thirty-year-old Kathleen Canterino, just home from her job as a waitress at the Cotton Patch restaurant, opens her bedroom curtains to look at the stars, as she does every night before going to sleep. But this night, as she gazes out over Grossmont Hospital and the nearby Grossmont shopping center, she sees something that has yet to be explained. A white, oblong blur of light is hovering about seventy feet off the ground, within a quarter mile of her apartment on Buckland Street. At the time she is sure it’s a flying saucer. Today, after having been “born again” into Christianity, she doesn't believe in extraterrestrial life. “We're the only people here, created by God,” Canterino says with certitude. “But I still can't explain what I saw.”
In the late 1970s San Diego experienced what UFO researchers term a “flap” or wave of mysterious sightings. These clustered sightings tend to occur globally on a five-year cycle. Between 1976 and 1978 witnesses reported strange objects over Fortuna Mountain near Miramar, above the college area in eastern San Diego, and in the skies over Mt. Helix, Jamul, and La Mesa. In August of 1978, after the La Mesa police department received more than one hundred calls from witnesses, a La Mesa police officer attempted to follow a fast-moving object that glowed red and yellow, but he lost sight of it near the Grossmont shopping center. Three sheriff's deputies watched mysterious red lights cavorting over the East County for two hours in November of 1979. But the most extensively investigated local UFO sighting was that of Kathleen Canterino and five other witnesses in September, 1977. At the time, Robert Garis, field investigator for the Illinois-based Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), told reporters, “This is the best case we've ever had in San Diego.”
The National Enquirer eventually offered Canterino several hundred dollars for her story, but she refused it. “They wanted to change it, put something more dramatic into it,” Canterino explains. “But I turned it down. I know what I saw, and it was strange enough.”
Canterino described her experience in a CUFOS questionnaire. “I heard a humming sound first and saw a searchlight going over the whole width of the Grossmont shopping center,” she wrote. “I got up and went to the window to see what was making the lights. I first saw one blinking on and off light of three colors. It was hovering just to the right of the Mt. Helix lighted cross. Then I noticed the large pulsating light hovering just above the roof of Grossmont Hospital. It looked like a white oblong blur. It was very still and it was in a white cloud that surrounded the whole thing. It was stationary for about thirty-five minutes and then green, blue, and red lights started blinking at the right of it. Two smaller lights that seemed like stars were almost blinking their lights together. [These were later determined to be Mars and Jupiter.] It started to hum louder and then it had a high-pitch peeping sound. ... It seemed that the thing was trying to get the energy from the lights. It was almost like on a dimmer. When it was getting ready to leave it started glowing in the same colors as the two other lights and it grew faster and almost like they were blinking together and it was in all the colors. It shot straight up and was gone…”
Dogs were howling outside when Canterino first saw the object, and she immediately began calling police and friends. “It was so overwhelming, people thought we were nuts,” says Canterino. “I had to wake everybody up so there were a lot of nuts with me.” One neighbor. Mama Azar, became frightened after seeing the object; she knew before parting her curtains that it was probably the same thing she had seen above her apartment building at 2:30 a.m. one week before. Another friend, Doris Lloyd, also saw the object. But when Canterino called the La Mesa police department. she was laughed at by a dispatcher, who gave her the number for the San Diego UFO Research Organization. The UFO researcher told her wearily that she was probably seeing Venus and Jupiter, and signed off. Frustrated, Canterino rushed outside with an Instamatic camera. “What about your children if they take you?” asked Mama Azar as Canterino hustled past her neighbor's locked screen door. “Take care of them,” Canterino called back.
She shot almost two rolls of pictures, which were later developed in the Union-Tribune photo lab. They were inconclusive. After the object ascended and disappeared, Canterino said she felt drained but was warmed by an inner calm. Later that morning she called Robert Garis of CUFOS, who immediately began an investigation. He checked with Miramar Naval Air Station’s approach control and found no unusual radar blips reported; the La Mesa police department received at least two calls about the object but couldn't dispatch an officer because all street units were involved in a high-speed chase at the time; the nearby Gillespie Field airport and its tower were closed at the time of the sighting; the San Diego County sheriff's helicopters were all on the ground that night; a local car dealership was not flying its advertising balloon. Nobody at the hospital reported seeing anything, but a security guard at Grossmont shopping center named Ira Klarr said he saw a red light and heard a humming noise at the time of the sighting. He thought it was coming from a sheriff's helicopter and paid it no mind.
Canterino says the air force also sent out an investigator, “but nobody was ever able to explain what it was.” As the years passed and her friends drifted to other cities, Canterino got married, found God, and moved to Clairemont. She says her memory of the event is still vivid, and time hasn’t shaded the experience with doubt. But she’s even less sure now of just what exactly she saw so clearly that night. “I don't believe in UFOs anymore,” she proclaims.
6. THE XUONG MACHINE
Nguyen-Huu Xuong, a professor of physics, chemistry, and biology at UCSD, heads a group of scientists who created a machine that has been declared a national resource by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Each year since 1983, about a dozen researchers from around the nation have each spent two weeks using what's known as the “Xuong machine” (pronounced sung) to unlock the structure of the protein molecules that govern all life. It is no longer the only such device available for that kind of research, but scientists say it was the first and is still the most effective. “What we were able to do in ten days at UCSD would have taken a year before,” says Marvin Hackert, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas. “They deserve all the credit in the world for making this process a reality. They really are the trailblazers in this kind of work.”
Understanding the structure of proteins is an essential part of many current scientific endeavors, such as the new technology of bio-engineering — altering the structure of DNA to create new organic compounds. The Xuong machine has also been used to examine the way cancer drugs interact with protein molecules, and this particular application has led drug companies, such as Monsanto, to begin development of a similar device. The end product of the machine is a three-dimensional image of what a particular molecule looks like. Cancer researchers can see for themselves exactly how molecules of cancer drugs combine with the protein molecules. “The Japanese tried to copy the device, but they didn’t succeed!” Xuong declares with one of his frequent bursts of laughter. “I'm very proud of that.”
Though it took many people to perfect the apparatus, including physicists Ronald Hamlin and Wayne Vernon, as well as computer specialist Chris Nielsen and engineer Donald Sullivan, the project couldn't have succeeded without the broad expertise of Xuong. A Vietnamese educated in Paris, Xuong did graduate work in high-energy physics at UC Berkeley before coming to UCSD in 1963. Two years later he became fascinated with molecular biology. “It was like physics in the 1950s,” Xuong explains, sitting in his cluttered office in Meyer Hall. “Molecular biology was going to revolutionize the way we lived.”
Xuong’s experience as one of the first scientists to use a computer to analyze photographic film served him well when he became a biologist. In 1970 he and his group of researchers began making grant requests to try to use a computer to reconstruct from x-rays the image of a single protein molecule. The two-million-dollar device, completed in 1976, consists of a computer, an x-ray generator, a complicated apparatus for holding and moving a protein crystal on any axis, a xenon tube, and a multiwire x-ray area detector. This last piece of equipment picks up x-ray beams as they are diffracted through the protein crystal in a series of pulses. The computer receives and analyzes these hundreds of thousands of scattered x-ray beams and is now able to present a three-dimensional image of the protein on a computer display screen.
For the first time, researchers have been able to see what certain proteins look like, how they are assembled, and how their various components interact. Although methods for attaining a three-dimensional image of a protein molecule did exist before, they took months and even years and required many protein crystals (which are extremely difficult to grow) to produce an image whose resolution was weak. The Xuong machine is said to be one hundred times faster than the previous method, and it has allowed scientists from all over the country to unravel the structure of certain proteins that just three years ago were impossible to analyze fully.
7. THE GREAT GUNFIGHT
The biggest shootout in the history of the San Diego Police Department took place on April 8, 1965 at the Hub pawnshop downtown. And although two men died and it took almost four hours, sixty-five police officers, and 800 rounds of ammunition to subdue a lone gunmen holed up in the pawnshop, the gun battle is more than just an extraordinary local legend. The Hub shootout is the case the California Supreme Court used in abolishing the state's death penalty in 1972. That decision was overwhelmingly condemned by voters, who moved to reinstate the death penalty by qualifying and passing an initiative on the following year's ballot. But repercussions from the high court’s action are still being felt; no one has been put to death in San Quentin’s gas chamber since 1967.
The Hub gunman, Robert Page Anderson, was exactly the kind of killer the voters had in mind when they passed the initiative. He served eleven years and four months in prison for first-degree murder and is now a free man.
Twenty years ago Anderson walked into the pawnshop at the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and F Street (where Mr. O’s Liquor is now situated on the bottom floor of the William Penn Hotel) at about ten o'clock on a Thursday morning and asked to see a .30-.30 rifle. Clerk Ted Sweinty instead handed the man a 30.06 with a telescopic sight, and after examining it Anderson said, “I’ll take it.” Sweinty had no hint of Anderson's true intent, which was robbery. Anderson asked for some shells, loaded the gun, then told Sweinty and another clerk, Louis Richards, “I'm going to blow you guys' brains out.” Richards bolted for the door as Sweinty dropped behind the counter. Anderson pumped a bullet into Richard's chest, killing him almost instantly. Sweinty ran upstairs as Anderson fired another shot, and the terrified clerk yelled for help through a second-story window before hiding under a bed. There he remained for the next four hours, eluding ricocheting bullets and Anderson himself, who searched the room for Sweinty several times.
A plainclothes police officer was driving by the Hub on Fifth when he heard the shots. He immediately opened fire on Anderson, who returned fire and retreated to the back of the shop. Within minutes, dozens of police officers arrived and began exchanging fire with Anderson, who had access to hundreds of guns and an unlimited supply of ammunition within the pawnshop. “It became kind of a fiasco, but at that time it was the best we could do,” explains deputy police chief Ken O'Brien, who was involved in the shootout. Today the situation would be handled in such a way that a shootout would be a last resort. O'Brien says the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team would be called in (the team didn't exist in 1965), and it would be better equipped to ascertain how many gunmen there were. For the entire duration of the shootout, the police were never sure of the number of gunmen. “Today we have much better visual capabilities, such as scopes, and the SWAT team would first gather information on the building structure, to determine entry routes,” O'Brien says. “Then they'd develop an entry team to go in. There wouldn't be a shootout."
It's a miracle only two people died that day in 1965. Anderson murdered one, Louis Richards, and the other one, Robert Crandall, editor of the San Diego Independent, died of a heart attack while covering the event. But the shooting broke out in one of downtown's busiest districts, at a time when people were still arriving for work, and it was raining almost the entire time. Crowds of rubberneckers were within a block of the battle, and they often cheered when Anderson returned fire. Newsmen were also extremely close to the action. “It was demeaning that the crowds were cheering for the villain," says O'Brien, “and the press were a pain in the ass, too. Everyone was much closer than they should have been. But then, it was one of the most significant events we'd experienced in the city, and it happened at the worst place, at the worst time."
Eventually sixty-five cops took position along Fifth and F. They were armed with shotguns, rifles, and pistols. Each time a police whistle blew, the officers would change position and would pump lead into the building as they ran for new cover. The objective was to neutralize the gunman or gunmen, and get to Richards, lying in the doorway. Tear gas grenades were tossed through the shop's broken windows. Wearing a gas mask whose goggles fogged up because of the rain, Sgt. Allen Brown attempted to reach Richards' body. After Brown was driven back by gunfire he removed the mask and waited for some of the tear gas to clear before making another attempt. As the police provided cover by blasting away at the shop, Brown pulled the body clear and signaled that Richards was dead.
The police tried several ploys to force Anderson to surrender. They commandeered a soft drink delivery truck to use as a barricade from which to launch a withering fusillade. They got a Thompson submachine gun and proceeded to blow everything in the shop to bits. That didn't work. They tried more tear gas, which also failed to bring Anderson out. One cop on the scene told a newspaper reporter that the gunmen must have eyes made of stone. Next the police brought in an armored car, from whose gunports they sent more bullets into the shop. Finally, Sgt. Brown suggested that concussion grenades might incapacitate the gunman, and six of these antisubmarine-warfare practice grenades were obtained from the ship Tioga County, docked at the Naval Station.
Third Class Gunner's Mate Frank Morales was on shore patrol duty when he heard over his short-wave radio that the police were looking for a gunner's mate who knew how to use the grenades. He volunteered and was instructed to drive directly to Fifth and F and report to the police. At about 1:35 in the afternoon Morales threw the first concussion grenade through the shop's broken window. Sgt. Brown and officer Bob Augustine were the first ones inside, and they fired their weapons all over two dark rooms in the back. They were surprised to find an unlighted staircase. Brown reloaded and got a flashlight, then headed up the stairs. The gunman Anderson fired from the top of the steps but missed, and Brown retreated. Morales was called in to throw another concussion grenade, which apparently had no effect on Anderson. When Brown and Augustine tried to advance up the stairs, Anderson fired at them again, and the two cops fired back. Anderson retreated down a hallway, and when Brown reached the top of the stairs he fired his shotgun and wounded the gunman. Brown ran down the hallway, turned a corner, and came face to face with Anderson. “He had no place to go this time," Brown told the newspaper reporters just after the incident. “He was standing on a shelf about a foot above the floor. He had a gun in his left hand and one in a holster at his belt. I emptied the shotgun. I don't know how many times I fired. Someone said four. He fell over to his right, bleeding profusely. I could see he was hit in the stomach. His left arm looked shattered."
Anderson survived five hours of surgery. He was tried twice and sentenced to die both times (the first conviction was thrown out on technicalities), but on his last appeal the state Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was “cruel or unusual punishment" that violated the state constitution. Deputy chief O'Brien says the last he heard of Anderson was that he'd returned to San Diego and was living comfortably, although wheelchair-bound because of injuries he received in the shootout. The state was providing him with free nursing care.