In 1954 I sat on the school bus every day next to my best friend, Mark Robson. The ride home from Montgomery Elementary School in Otay was a straight shot east on Main Street. The bus dropped off poor white and Mexican kids until we reached “the Hill,” where Mark and the other black children bounded off and ran up Sycamore Street to ramshackle houses with spacious yards of junked cars, chickens, cows, and pigs fattening in the dirt. Woodlawn Park was called “the Hill” by its residents. It was referred to as “Nigger Hill” by my dad and most other people in Otay.
The last four on the bus — my sister, me, and the two other kids who lived on Otay Ranch — squinched our noses as we soon passed the stench of the hog farm and Omar’s Rendering Plant, where carcasses of dead animals were melted down to a substance that was most likely bleached, hydrogenated, packed in round blue containers, and sold to the nation as Crisco.
At the southwest corner of the 29,000-acre ranch, Mrs. Stewart waited at the locked gate in her dull green Nash to pick up her two children, as well as my sister and me, and take us down the half-mile gravel road to the houses where we lived. Her husband, Dave Stewart, was a real Texan cowboy and foreman of the Otay Valley Farm, as we called the small cattle outpost. They lived in the big house. Our family of five lived in the little one-bedroom house, since my dad was a hired hand. For a boy of seven years with an imagination entranced by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, horses, cattle, and the open range, it seemed that the Big Rancher in the Sky had heard my silent prayers. I still believe that those few months there were the happiest of my life.
At school I was attracted to Mark, as were all of us kids in Mrs. Eunice’s class. She was a wonderfully kind lady with silver hair. Mark could run faster, kick the ball farther, and beat up any other kid in second grade. Probably in the third and fourth grades as well. He was that strong, but my vague memory of Mark is that he didn’t use it, and a quiet friendliness was the source of his popularity.
In the fall of 2003, I ran down Mark Robson. After 49 years, his strength was still evident, although the muscles have been padded somewhat. I recognized his face immediately, especially the flared nose — a famous Sioux chief, Red Cloud, had the same nose; I’d memorized his face from a photo as a kid. That nose and Mark’s intense eyes returned to me like yesterday. His mouth smiled big with the same affability that made us friends back then.
Days later, Robson and I took a ride through our former town south of Chula Vista. We got off the 5 freeway at Main Street and headed east. Main is the major artery of Otay, as it was back then, but now the traffic congestion was immediate. It didn’t let up. I peppered Robson with questions at various landmarks, yet there wasn’t enough time for him to answer all my queries about the old establishments and buildings, many of them gone.
At the corner of Broadway and Main was what my dad and other ignorant bigots called the “Nigger Bar,” which once existed on a triangle of dirt. My father drank there, as he did in all the bars in town, but it was mostly a black clientele in the lively and raucous Uncle Sam’s Barbecue, owned by an African-American. Robson’s own father moonlighted there for a time as a bouncer, and one night during a planned attack on him, he was forced to shoot and kill one of two knife-wielding men. Eventually the thriving business was moved farther west on Main, but its doors closed forever when the new owner was fatally stabbed in the throat while breaking up a fight. As I said, it was lively and raucous.
We turned north on Broadway, and a few streets up, Robson pointed out where the infamous motel used to stand, discreetly tucked away on a side road. As a kid, I didn’t know about it, but Robson explained that it was a place of fleshly commerce in dark-skinned women. A smartly attired black man oversaw the affairs of the establishment. Robson chuckled in reverie remembering what his dad once told him: “Son, you’d be surprised who goes in there.”
Today’s Broadway Avenue was called National Avenue in the 1950s — a long thoroughfare that dropped down from National City. In Otay, Broadway’s now a hectic street of strip-mall outlets alternating with auto shops and fast-food eateries. Yet, up a bit farther from the former notorious motel still sits the Bayside Trailer Park. You have to look hard for it, since between the tiny exit and entrance is a discount tire shop. The park has shrunken to some 20 spaces, and the faded, timeworn trailers look like displays of a poor man’s museum.
Strange that I lived in that court several different times during my boyhood. The first in 1952, as a kindergartner attending Montgomery school. The next time was in 1956, and I remember a balmy summer night and the few black-and-white TVs in the court turned up loud, drawing us like moths to the sacred flame of Elvis Presley’s historic first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I watched through a screen door at the marvel. Reportedly 50 million Americans — one-third of an entire nation — were also studying the lip-snarling Elvis the Pelvis.
A bit farther up on the other side of the avenue, where Broadway intersects Palomar, used to be another trailer park. I remember it as Las Flores Trailer Court. On my brother’s birth certificate of September 5, 1954, the address is 1301 National Avenue. From Mercy Hospital he was brought to his first home there, a trailer 8 feet wide and less than 20 feet long, which housed five of us, including my ten-year-old sister and me. The moldy odor of the showers in the public bathroom was forbidding to a seven-year-old, and I remember the adjacent tomato fields where Mexican men commandeered powerful horses that pulled plows through the soil. One day a couple of us kids stood watching, and the mustachioed brown man who spoke no English smiled and pointed at the thick-shanked beast. “Caballo,” he pronounced and we repeated. Our first word of Spanish.
At the time, my dad was picking tomatoes and odd-jobbing after being fired from a job as a machinist. It didn’t matter what job he had, the outcome was always the same. On mornings after paydays, I recall going through the sweat- and tobacco-scented pockets of his khaki pants searching for money that would buy milk and bread at the corner store. Too often just a few coins or nothing at all; the bills had been left on a bar somewhere. Drinking got him fired from every job he ever had, and the result for us was constant evictions and new schools.
After first grade at Lillian J. Rice Elementary School in Chula Vista, I returned to Montgomery for second grade, where I met Mark. Next was a stint at Castle Park Elementary, but most of third and fourth grades I spent at the new Lauderbach Elementary. Fifth grade found me at Imperial Beach Elementary, in the neighboring town where we had migrated.
My particular remembrance of the second-grade class was the ethnic mix of kids. It typified Otay — the impoverished town on the outskirts of Chula Vista — a crossroads of Mexicans, blacks, and white trailer trash like me. School was the one public place where children of different colors, with different languages, cultures, and income levels, could mix with a minimum of self-consciousness. I recall Montgomery school like that. And then the bell rang, and we returned to our respective abodes, where once more we became more white, more Mexican, or more black. Yet each morning we could shake off anew some of the taint of the homes we were leaving.
As Carlos Hernandez, a second-grade classmate, today remembers, “We were all poor. Some more than others, of course, but maybe we just didn’t know it. Just like what race you were. Of course, we knew that distinction, but with us kids it rarely made a difference.”
Today the little community of Otay is inside a vortex of change, even as it struggles to retain some old houses and a few remnants of the past. The Coors Amphitheatre, within sight of the former farm where I lived, regularly brings thousands of fans and the resultant traffic jams to its concerts. Up on Otay Mesa, the U.S.-Mexican border teems with product-exchange; plane traffic at Brown Field Municipal Airport increases almost daily; Donovan state prison quietly bespeaks change and expansion too. Above all, the soft, undulating hills of the old Otay Ranch are rapidly being shaved and diced into streets, houses, schools, and shopping malls. The sage and cottontail rabbits are disappearing, while the largest single subdivision in California history, some 50,000 homes, rises up.
Even the Hill has undergone a profound metamorphosis. Only a dozen or so black residents — almost all over 60 — have stayed to live out the end of their lives in comfortable, rebuilt houses. The majority of the denizens are Hispanic. Not that the have/have-not dichotomy has gone away: it’s only that the boundary has shifted, making the 805 freeway the new line of demarcation. The two divided territories are now referred to as the “East Side” and “West Side.” Today if you reside east of the freeway, in Bonita, EastLake, or Otay Ranch, you’ve passed the socioeconomic test. If your house, apartment, or mobile home is west of the line — and certainly the wealth quotient decreases southward — your address more and more suggests a blue-collar salary, retirement, or possibly welfare assistance.
In my eyes, the transformation of Otay during the past 50 years is a weather vane pointing to where America has gone and is going — like it or not. Fifty years of living involves change in an individual’s life too. That twin optic, I suppose, is what made me chase down people who were seven years old the last time I saw them a half-century ago. A few pals to help me crawl back down a wormhole of space time and emerge on the other side. On the edge of what’s ahead.
DAYS OF ZORRO
In late 2003 I walked a quarter mile from the Lower Otay Dam in the direction of Mexico. I turned and looked down the long Otay River Valley, which slopes all the way to the San Diego Bay, about a dozen miles away. The river is now an imaginary one, at best a geographical line that meanders toward the ocean allowing only an idea of where it used to drain the adjacent hills of water and nutrients, providing drink and food for the early Kumeyaay Indians. Where the river flowed into the southern end of the bay — where the fish and shells were bigger and more plentiful — a large band of natives dwelt. Reportedly they were called the “Otats,” or at least one of their words, otay, provided the community’s eventual name. The word meant “wide and level knoll” or “a brushy place.”
One wonders what thoughts filled the minds of those primitive inhabitants when Father Junípero Serra, astride a donkey, crossed the Otay River one day in 1769 on his long, northbound journey. The small party of Spaniards continued only a dozen miles farther before founding California’s first mission in Old Town, and the indigenous people’s way of life soon surrendered to the Spanish cross and musket. Under God’s order, naturally, the surrounding land and its commerce were controlled by the mission fathers, and soon the coastal grasslands fattened not only the grazing livestock but the presidio’s coffers too. Not for long. The Mexican Revolution erupted in 1810, and the new government grabbed California from Spain and the Catholic Church, splintering the state into large land grants that were awarded to favored individuals, often military commanders. In 1846, the last Mexican governor, Pío Pico, reaffirmed that the children of Captain José María Estudillo owned the Rancho Otay and the smaller, neighboring Rancho Janal.
That was the romanticized era of adobe haciendas, immaculate white walls punctuated by magenta blossoms of bougainvillea. Hollywood would later depict a land where Zorro — the dashing Mexican version of the Lone Ranger — with rapier in hand, safeguarded the virtuous land-owning doñas of dark eyes, who languorously fanned the torrid summer air with precious Sevillan fans while the cattle went on chewing under the vigilant eyes of vaqueros.
California statehood in 1850 brought more changes by opening up the land to homesteading. Wagonloads of Americans rolled in to claim new tracts of public land, and the rich soil of the Otay River Valley and Otay Mesa gave birth to small farms. Several families of German ancestry settled there to toil and gradually prosper, cultivating lima beans, hay, and wheat.
The shedding of God’s grace on America didn’t let up. The 1880s marked a huge economic boom in America, and it was the railroad that ushered in the gilded age on its proliferating tracks, carrying people and money farther and farther west. The iron horse also transported agricultural goods more efficiently, so when the National City and Otay Railway was completed in 1887, crops were loaded onto railcars at the new town site of Otay. Before long, Otay became a hub of the South Bay, outshining even its lemon-growing neighbor, Chula Vista.
The railroad bonanza got people dreaming and, not surprisingly, got local land speculators dreaming as well. Early developers held cherished imaginings of both the nouveau riche and ordinary folk getting off railcars in San Diego to buy plots of land. Knowledge of where the iron network was to be set down far outvalued gold, and to no one’s surprise, the railroad companies were major players in the real estate game. In 1883, the Santa Fe Railroad formed a subsidiary, the San Diego Land and Town Company, to develop real estate projects in the South Bay. They bought Otay Ranch, which now included Rancho Janal, for eventual development and filed a subdivision map in 1900.
Of course, a subdivision meant lots, houses, and commerce, but all that required water. The Otay River, which ran only in the winter, had to be dammed. That chore fell to a likely candidate with a likely story. Elisha Babcock had earlier come to San Diego on a vacation and had a hard time leaving. An overachieving type A in paradise, he quickly set about on ambitious projects, which included the building of the Hotel del Coronado, started in 1886, and the Lower Otay Dam, started in 1887 in anticipation of the housing boom in Otay Ranch. If he wasn’t shaking and moving in real estate, Babcock could be found firing away at ducks and quail or casting for bass. He bought his personal playground when he picked up Otay Ranch about 1900, at that time over 13,000 acres with the two Otay Lakes thrown in. With land and available water, the speculator was set to roll out his fiefdom when the moment was right.
But if Babcock indeed had plans to see Otay Ranch chock full of houses, he never saw the plans realized. Wild overspeculation in railroad stocks had burst the iron bubble in America, and the result had been the Depression of 1893. South Bay did not soon recover, and the touted subdivision carefully laid out in Otay Ranch stayed a phantom town — mere lines drawn in the dirt.
The Depression of 1893 abruptly sobered up the giddy investors of the preceding decade. And just as the sea of railroad stock certificates and the planned-on-paper communities dried up, so did the weather in San Diego. The county underwent a devastating drought between 1887 and 1904.
Thereafter the rain arrived only intermittently and the dearth of moisture kept on until the City of San Diego in desperation summoned a well-reputed rainmaker from Los Angeles in 1916. Charley Hatfield had broken the drought of 1904 in Los Angeles and afterwards went on to have other watery successes throughout the state. When offered a robust fee of $10,000 to work his miracle here, he and his brother quickly erected a tower near Morena Dam, where in huge vats they stirred up a secret concoction of chemicals that ascended to the skies. Apparently the rising acrid fumes worked. On January 10, the skies over San Diego blackened and the first raindrops fell along with tears of grateful farmers. After a day of deluge, the rain subsided, but a second storm hit January 25 and emptied the skies; reportedly seven inches fell in an hour. The ground could hold no more, and several more days of rain put San Diego County under water, sweeping away over 200 bridges and severing all communication with Los Angeles. When the second storm arrived, a few experts down south were nervously watching the Lower Otay Dam. On January 27, the lake rose a phenomenal seven feet in one hour, and a roaring wind was clocked at 54 miles per hour. Prayers were futile.
Not along ago, I studied the white fortress of Lower Otay Dam, lined with ocher and rust stains running down its wall. I stared at the placid body of water behind it and tried to visualize the 40-foot wave, pushed by an estimated 13 billion gallons of water, that collapsed the dam and boiled down the valley. The tsunami reportedly spit up plumes of water hundreds of feet high before leveling everything in its path. In less than an hour it flattened the farms and the town of Otay, ripped up the roads and the railroad tracks, washed away the rich soil, and drowned some 20 people. Only three buildings withstood the flood, including the Otay Baptist Church, built in 1893; today the church, with its distinctive belfry, looms as the lone reminder of Otay’s distant past.
Not surprisingly, Charley Hatfield left San Diego in a hurry. He later returned for his pay, but the indignant city fathers of San Diego refused him any money for his acclaimed rainy miracle. It should be noted that he did attend the premiere of his immortalization in the 1956 movie The Rainmaker, featuring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.
As for the community of Otay, it would never fully recover.
The first time my dad drove us out to Otay Ranch was on a fall evening in 1954. He had landed a job as a laborer on the ranch, and in an old car we traveled the two lanes of Telegraph Canyon Road, which continued east from L Street in Chula Vista. After a few miles, a turnoff was marked by a wooden sign painted in black letters: Otay Ranch. The unpaved road wound south, and I remember excitedly counting 28 rabbits in the headlights during the short ride. A sudden clutch of buildings announced the Otay Agricultural Company, which consisted of an office, a large open-air garage where the many tractors and trucks were serviced, a gasoline pump, a handful of houses for employees, and a larger abode for the ranch foreman. Later I heard there was a kind of a bunkhouse down another road where the Mexican laborers were housed. I never saw it, but I saw some of those men when my drunken father invited several over for Thanksgiving dinner. They sat sheepishly eating and spoke not a word of English while my exasperated mother sliced up the turkey until it was gone.
In my memory, all the buildings there were clapboard, painted white with a lackluster green trim that framed the windows and doors. There was a small stable near our house, where I would often go to gaze at the animals, tantalized by the odors of fresh alfalfa and leather harnesses. Life had suddenly answered my every desire. Even the tan belt I got for Christmas — cinched by a buckle with two Colt .45s crisscrossing, their pearly white plastic handles gleaming — assured me that I would happily live out my life as a cowboy.
I soon picked up the rumor that a lucky, unmarried lady, Mary Birch, owned the entire ranch by herself. In my seven-year-old mind, I pictured a mysterious, severe woman living alone in the ranch foreman’s big house on the other side of the road, where we kids never ventured. In real life, the doyenne of the rancho was a highly intelligent woman, an Eastern blue blood whose hobbies ranged from raising Rhodesian ridgebacks to piloting planes to racing palominos to sculpting under the tutelage of the renowned Malvina Hoffman. She also drank and swore like a sailor, and with her brother, left a huge philanthropic legacy for the people of San Diego, which boasts the Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women and the Stephen Birch Aquarium-Museum at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Kate Lloyd, of Binghamton, New York, described to me her cousin, Mary, as a heady, independent woman who lived in an “era that didn’t cultivate those traits in women.” Possessor of “so much charm, wit, and talent,” Birch was also born into an immense fortune. “All her life people were trying to get something from her.”
Indeed, there was a lot for people to try to get. Her hard-charging father, Stephen Birch, started the mammoth Kennecott Copper Corporation in Alaska. Later, as president of the Alaska Steamship Company, he piled up even more wealth. Kate Lloyd told me about riding as a child in his private railway car, plush with the most luxurious fabric and lighted with Tiffany lamps. A rich hunter and fisherman, Birch traveled frequently in his car to Southern California during the ’20s and on various shopping sprees picked up impressive chunks of property in Orange County. In 1936, he bought the old Rancho Otay and much more of the surrounding land as well — about 29,000 acres in all. Death eventually visits even the wealthiest, and in 1940, Stephen Birch departed this world, leaving his vast estate — including enormous swaths of real estate in California and New Jersey — to Mary and her younger brother, Stephen Jr.
With such a portfolio, Mary chased many fantasies, but she also demonstrated a serious side; according to a family relative, she ferried U.S. military planes to London during World War II. She met a retired commander in the Royal Air Force, Patrick R. Patrick, married him in 1955, and soon after, her husband joined her in her bucolic lifestyle at Rancho del Otay — the 11-acre compound perched on a knoll above Upper Otay Lake — between occasional stints of luxury at the Hotel del Coronado and New York City. As for her brother, Stephen Jr. spent less time on Otay Ranch, but he did develop some personal interests there: a greenhouse of 1800 orchids and a game-bird hatchery. Eventually Stephen Jr. settled in the family’s sumptuous mansion in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he died in 1970.
Mary Birch was not alive in 1988 when her ranch was sold to the Baldwin Company for development. Five years earlier she had died, and subsequently her enormous estate, divvied up among relatives, friends, and former employees, became mired in lawsuits. The result was the longest probate case in San Diego County history. Sad coda to the tranquil life she had enjoyed for almost 30 years on her vast ranch.
If life was good for me on the main ranch, it got better within a few months when we were transferred five miles south to Otay Valley Farm. Today it is referred to as Bird Ranch — where the 12-sided game-bird hatchery still exists and marks a potential active recreation site. Back then, the small complex was designed to keep track of the Herefords and Black Angus roaming the ranch. That charge was given to Dave Stewart, who wore glasses and a straw cowboy hat over his white hair. Some days he would ride out on his horse alone, toward Otay Lakes in search of stray cattle — a task of immeasurable joy I believed. Then came that unforgettable evening, framed by fading sunlight, when the manly, metallic sound of his horse’s hooves on gravel announced the return of Dave Stewart. The butt of a rifle protruded from a long leather holster behind his leg as he sat and smiled down at us kids. Back of the saddle was a passel of lifeless rattlesnakes. He dropped the headless vipers to the ground. God, that was a real cowboy!
When I learned that Dave Stewart had worked as a cowhand on the gigantic King Ranch in Texas, that pedigree sent both me and his son, Davey, planning our own ranch one day. How many head of cattle, how many horses? Surely, thousands of each, and, of course, in Texas. But even while I plotted, I felt the designs of my future beginning to run into those of my dad and his drinking. I could predict the mood changes that alcohol brought in him: first the humor, then glass-eyed sullenness, next swearing rancor, and sometimes opened-handed or fisted assaults. As much as I loved living there, he hated it in equal measure. Hated the menial work of loading feed and distributing it to the brainless beasts; probably more so, hated the too-far distance from the bar where he normally ended a day — the nightly beer joint where he spent every dime, while spewing his bravado until some other miscreant followed him outside to settle each of their failed lives in broken knuckles and blood. I remember pleading, “Dad, don’t quit! It’ll be all right.”
It wasn’t, of course, and a few months later we were living in another trailer on Third Avenue in lower Chula Vista.
Having to change schools was often the worst part of a transient childhood. My friends at Montgomery were abruptly gone, and I would never see Mark Robson riding his horse bareback out to visit me at Otay Ranch as he had promised. After five decades I asked him, “Why didn’t you ever ride your horse out?”
“I never had a horse.” He seemed surprised. I was stunned. “You told me you had a horse!” He belly-laughed and replied, “Well, knowin’ me, I probably said that, but I didn’t have one. The only horse around was owned by an old German guy down the road.”
My turn to chuckle as we left Main Street and ascended the Hill. Robson’s 84-year-old mother still lives in one of the first houses on the street, and an aunt lives nearby. Farther up rests the small Woodlawn Park Church of God in Christ. Mark told me how his uncle, Clyde Ruff, helped build the church in the 1930s, an era when African-Americans, like white people, sought refuge out West from the Depression. Blacks also sought easing of the hard, virulent grip of racism found in older parts of the nation. To be sure, black people were met with no little amount of prejudice wherever they went, forcing them to settle in separate communities, but at least in California their kids could attend the same schools as whites.
The early residents of the Hill — like the Harveys, the Bookers, the Hawkinses, the Wallaces, the Ruffs — found jobs and cheap lots, so they naturally relayed the good news to relatives and friends. And the migration was on.
Inquiring about Robson’s family history, I began to feel anew a fascination with that long chapter of America’s past dealing with slavery and racism. It played to me like a hushed and brutal story, like the plaintive blues of Robert Johnson. Robson explained how his own dad, Mack, was raised not by his father but by his sharecropping grandfather, in rural Oklahoma. Until the day when the two were walking down an isolated dirt road and a white man in a truck suddenly swerved for no reason to crush the life out of the older man. Mack escaped that fate by leaping into a ditch as the truck rumbled on down the road, above any law or retribution.
A young, black sharecropper in Oklahoma during the Depression needed scant justification for jumping a freight train to anywhere new, and so Mack found himself in Arizona. He got work and sent for his young wife, Darphelia. Life was still hard, and after Darphelia visited her older brother, Clyde Ruff, in Otay, it became plain what was next. Packing up what little they had, the Robsons and their two young kids set out for the promised land.
Once in Otay, Mack Robson gratefully grabbed employment in what was available to black men — collecting and hauling garbage to Paul O’Donnell’s nearby hog farm. At times, O’Donnell also gave Mack and other Hill residents work with the animals and other chores at his adjoining Omar’s Rendering Plant. Working and saving, after some years Mack realized the dream too rare for African-Americans in those times: he purchased a lot and built a house. He also bought an old truck, rebuilt the engine, and stepped out on his own. No more collection of putrid food scraps in large restaurant bins; now it was a daily route of emptying the trash cans of Otay’s residents.
Pay was little and work was hard for men on the Hill, so industrious household heads like Mack Robson took the extra jobs that came their way, such as the bouncer position at Uncle Sam’s Barbecue. One side job that most men in Woodlawn Park practiced was “junkin’ ” — and that was the reason front yards were full of rusting cars sitting on rims. Spare parts could bring a little money as well as save on car repairs.
A man who did all those jobs, and a few more, today lives on the Hill in a large, handsome house with an impeccable lawn. Calvin Ruff is Mark’s uncle, and I met him in late 2003. A very fit man whose appearance roundly belies his 80 years, he shook our hands and grinned widely at his nephew, “Well, what wind blew you in?”
In 1940, Ruff was making one dollar a day loading cotton on boxcars in Arizona when his siblings beckoned him to Otay. Wasting no time, he got a job washing dishes for six dollars a day at Topp’s Cafe in San Diego. Ruff’s reputation as a hard worker next provided him a position with O’Donnell, picking up garbage for the hogs and performing other duties at Omar’s Rendering Plant. The money was a little better, but the daily closeness of animal carcasses took its toll on the man.
“One time I had to take some cattle on the train to Los Angeles. Some of them were so sick they couldn’t stand up. But they slaughtered ’em anyway. People were going to eat that meat! I was already a Seventh-Day Adventist, but when I saw that, I quit eatin’ meat for good.”
His diet, good genes, and his love of physical activity must explain why Ruff looks 20 years younger than he is — and how strong he was. Mark regaled me with tales of his uncle: how he could pick up and carry a refrigerator on his shoulder. How at family gatherings he would grab the back bumper to lift his huge Buick while his wife sat in the driver’s seat and accelerated, spinning the back wheels. “Then he’d tell us kids, ‘If you don’t eat meat, you can be that strong!’ ”
The quest to own a house was aided by a white man, O’Donnell, who loaned his trusted employee $600 to add to the $175 he had saved for the purchase of a lot. Ruff built his first house with his own hands, like most of the men in that era. Today he has three houses. But he also remembers the buying opportunities that were missed in the early days. A tacit understanding between real estate agents, banks, and sellers themselves kept the property lines racially defined: blacks only owned houses in Woodlawn Park.
If men had few job options, women had only one. Maid — or “domestic,” as was the more genteel word — was the trade adopted by Ruff’s wife, Paradine, who worked for years in the upper-crust houses of Chula Vista. Right after graduating from Memorial Junior High in Logan Heights in 1940, Paradine had been informed of her father’s decision to move to the outlying burg of Otay. She was mortified. “I cried all the way there. And it was such a long ride in those days.” Her hope of attending the more integrated San Diego High School, which drew students from San Diego’s large black community in Logan Heights, was supplanted by a far less attractive option. The only high school in the South Bay was Sweetwater High School, where Paradine had to commute every day on the bus. “I was the only fly in the buttermilk.” She smiled recalling the situation of being the only black girl in the National City school. “I kept to myself pretty much.”
To make it off the Hill became a goal for many of the next generation, and Annjennette McFarlin was the first woman to attain that. Her family lived next door to the Robsons, and she has since returned to remodel her parents’ original house, after a long career as a professor of speech communications at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and San Diego State University.
McFarlin’s life in Otay began as a nine-year-old in 1944, after a cross-county ride on a military train that originated in Pensacola, Florida. A girl with an early intellectual bent, she would choose the longer bus ride to San Diego High School rather than attending Sweetwater because “I wanted to take French, and they didn’t offer it at Sweetwater.” At San Diego City College she earned a nursing degree, then took a job in Los Angeles but soon discovered that nursing was not satisfying her cerebral needs. What did was a speech class, galvanizing a latent talent that would set her on the path to a master’s degree at UCLA, followed by a doctorate at Washington State.
An exquisite storyteller, McFarlin explained how the Hill in her youth was “a real community. Wonderful events, like Saturday-night fish fries, when families got together.” She recalled also the racial lines drawn outside school life, when Main Street was the divider. On the south side of Main and reaching down to the Otay riverbed was a white community. When McFarlin strolled down to the house of a classmate one afternoon, she was told by the girl’s father to leave. “I only went down there once,” she said smiling. “There was prejudice in Otay. But there were also acts of kindness.”
There were beneficent acts on the Hill too. One that forever impressed the struggling college student was the quiet gesture of her neighbor, Mr. Robson. “From time to time he’d come over to the fence and call me over. He always wore overalls with one of the straps hanging down. He’d hand me a five-dollar bill and say, ‘Here’s a little somethin’ for ya,’ ” she paused in fond recollection. “That was a lot of money then.”
With only two boys among his eight kids, Mack Robson finally got some help when his older son, Mark, filled out enough to ride with him in the truck. Mark inherited his dad’s natural strength and as a teenager assisted his father after school and on Saturdays following the streets of Otay on the trash route. “I was lifting 55-pound drums. Depending what they had in them, they could weigh over 100 pounds. I had to throw ’em up over the side rail, then jump up on the truck and bring ’em down again. You get strong doin’ that.”
A highly respected man on the Hill, Mack also knew the ways of the world and instructed his children in them. Some things the boy never forgot; one was about working in a white man’s world. Mack counseled his son, “First thing to know is that they don’t want you on the job. Second, if you do get it, do everything to keep it. Never be late. You might get a flat tire, so leave extra early just in case.”
After second grade, I never saw Mark Robson again until high school. Landing in Imperial Beach, I became mainly a basketball player at Mar Vista High. Robson emerged as a football star at the new Castle Park High, in Chula Vista. His physical prowess was legendary around the Metro League. He could run the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, and, as the local Chula Vista Star News reported, he was “190 pounds of muscle.” A running back, he was also an All-League selection as a linebacker in his junior year. Carlos Hernandez remembered seeing, hanging from the bleachers at opposing schools, signs such as “Stop the Black Monster!”
The Castle Park coach, Wayne Sevier, took a special interest in his star. “He bought my shoes so I could play.” Funny, in turn I recounted that as a sophomore trying out for the junior varsity football team at Mar Vista, I was in the same shoeless position. Until the head varsity coach, Verne Dodds, donated his old college high-tops for me to wear.
I was curious about other great athletes on the Hill, and Robson ticked off an uncelebrated roster that included Leroy Jackson, Fetris Neal, David Harvey, and Lavelle Lover. Jackson, Robson’s uncle, topped the list in his opinion. My friend went on to relate the fascinating story of a legendary footrace that pitted the fastest guy in Logan Heights, Rosco Cook, against Otay’s best, Lavelle Lover, who had happened to be a cousin of Robson’s. Growing up, I had heard of Rosco Cook, the fabulous sprinter from San Diego High School who ran an incredible 9.5 seconds in the 100-yard dash — a state record for many years. Granted, the footrace was unofficial, the prize being bragging rights, and Robson didn’t see the contest. “But the story was that Lavelle beat him. And he ran barefooted.”
Such stories spurred me to ask for more. I wondered in particular what racism Robson had experienced growing up. “Yeah,” he calmly confessed, “certain things like walkin’ on the sidewalk one day as a kid, a man threw an elbow at me.”
Unsavory incidents were more likely to happen the farther north kids of color traveled. One afternoon in the early ’60s, Robson and several friends sauntered up a few miles to play basketball at the Chula Vista Rec Center — the sole public indoor gym in the South Bay. Quietly they took the second court and played among themselves. Leaving was another matter; outside they found themselves surrounded by some 25 guys snarling with bad intent. No chance of running; things were just ready to erupt when the Chula Vista cop cars roared in. The officers corralled the black youths: “Boys, you better listen to this. Get back to Otay, and never come up to this part of town again.”
When Castle Park High School opened in 1963, things got better. Otay kids made up a substantial part of the student body, and instantly this high school had a sizable racial mix. Still, it was far from being socially integrated. Robson remembered, “I had my own cheering section, mostly people from Otay. There were only a couple of black guys on the team, but I had respect from the white guys. I was invited to their parties, but I usually didn’t go. I never really felt comfortable.” Interestingly, the Woodlawn Park resident was also an outsider in San Diego’s larger black community of Logan Heights. “I had cousins there, so I’d hang out and go to parties, but when they learned you were from Otay, it was like: ‘Man! You live out there in the country with those hog farms?’ ”
After a brilliant junior year, Robson’s senior year looked even brighter. Castle Park dramatically reversed a 1–8 record in its inaugural season to win the Metro League in 1964 with an 8–1 finish. The impossible dream of winning the county championship was looking very possible, but a major blow came halfway through the season when Robson was running a sweep and a vicious tackle blew out his knee. In the California Interscholastic Championship game against Kearny High, he was in uniform, but Coach Sevier put him in the game for only the last few plays. A tribute to his distinguished career. With only half a season played, Robson was still awarded All-League linebacker for the second time.
A great college prospect with a recuperating knee and mediocre grades was a common commodity, and so Arizona State counseled Robson to enroll at Southwestern College: play for a year and then transfer to the big-time school. It was going according to plan through half of the season, but this time it was Robson’s ankle that was badly shattered. “I came back at the end of the season, but I was never the same. I was tentative and didn’t have the same speed and agility.” Still, his partial season’s play garnered an All-Conference Honorable Mention as a linebacker.
At 19, Robson’s athletic career was at an end. His injuries kept him out of the draft and Vietnam, and the young man decided working was better than going to school. In 1966, the defense contractors were on a hiring binge, and Robson went down to Solar Aircraft for an interview. “Before going in, I prayed hard for the job.” Apparently no divine intervention occurred, since the interview ended with the executive, Bill Gunther, telling Robson that they had nothing suitable for him. “When I got up to leave, he asked me if I was that football player from the South Bay. He happened to like sports, and we started talking some more. He offered me a job.” Robson has stayed at the company, now called Solar Turbines, for 37 years. He moved to Paradise Hills soon after beginning his work career. Football was still in his blood, and for several seasons he coached Pop Warner football in that community.
My friend remained a bachelor for many years and traveled frequently, often to Mexico, or on enlightening trips such as to West Africa and the infamous sites where the slave ships were loaded for the New World. With a fat retirement not too far away, he plans to travel more. This time not alone. In 1994, he married Lauren Campbell, an accomplished woman who was formerly director of donor services at San Diego State University and now has a position at the church they attend.
Broadening his spiritual horizon, my old pal eventually got involved in St. Stephen’s Church. “I kinda drifted away when I was young, but through my mother’s influence I came back.” Today he is an associate pastor and acts also as president of Sunday school for the California jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ. The national congregation includes about 6 million members; Robson often travels to other cities to lead Sunday school seminars. Fifty years later, Mark Robson’s life seems full. He’s at once jovial and quietly charismatic — the same something I can’t quite explain that made me like him so much way back in second grade.
On our journey to 1954, Robson and I returned to our old school. The cement floors of the hallways were marblelike, slick and darkened with age. We peered into the cafeteria, astounded at how small the structure now appeared to our adult minds. I relied on Robson to identify Mrs. Eunice’s classroom; he remembered it cornering the asphalt and grass playground.
On a later day I returned to speak to the current principal. Nostalgia refired, I went to the locally famous landmark that rests on a brick pedestal, centered on the front lawn of the school. The bell. The iron object was first erected in 1884 at one of San Diego’s oldest schools — then called Otay School — when its sonorous peals announced the school day. The original school and its belfry were torn down in 1924, and the instrument was somehow lost. It stayed lost through 1945, when the current school was christened John J. Montgomery Elementary School — in honor of the almost-forgotten inventor who, just a few miles south of Otay, made aviation history with the first controlled flight of a heavier-than-air glider.
The long-disappeared relic was discovered in 1956 in a nearby back yard. Studying the small monument, I noticed that on the bell’s cement foundation a collection of initials were carved, and one of the more prominent was CH. Those two letters were etched in the late ’50s by Carlos Hernandez when his Boy Scout troop set the bell on its present dais.
Hernandez was the first of the old schoolmates that Mark Robson led me to. Some of the other half-dozen weren’t sure they were in Mrs. Eunice’s class, since there were two second-grade rooms, but it didn’t really matter. All but I spent kindergarten through sixth grade at Montgomery.
I soon discovered that Hernandez’s path had crossed with my own after second grade — when we were Safety Patrol boys. At Imperial Beach Elementary School, I was captain of the guards who controlled traffic for youngsters crossing the street, while Hernandez was an officer in Montgomery’s regiment. In 1959, Patrol Boys from all over the county were treated to a Saturday at Camp Pendleton, where U.S. Marines mesmerized us with the firepower of bazookas, flamethrowers, and machine guns. Then we were led to an outdoor stage, where we were greeted by legendary boxer Archie Moore; the rumor that the Lone Ranger was next sent us into a dizzying apprehension. Our rhapsody was only slightly attenuated when we were told that the Masked Man had been called away but his Indian sidekick, Tonto (Jay Silverheels), was there. Bigger than life, in buckskin, with a long braid of raven-black hair down his back, he walked onto the stage.
Hernandez proved to have an exceptional memory and a mordant sense of humor. “He was always the clown,” remembered Robson. And the 12th of 13 kids that included 11 sisters. “New teachers of mine would ask about past Hernandez girls in their class and if they were my sisters. For the good ones I answered yes, and the troublemakers I’d deny.” His dad came from Michoacán in 1917, met his mother in Plaster City, and soon thereafter arrived in Otay. Industrious, he worked as a mason, then became a master machinist. “He probably would have become a foreman, but he had a thick accent he never got rid of, and that hurt his chances.” In time, his father bought a house across the street from Montgomery School. At first befuddled, the ladies in the office soon learned why Carlos was habitually tardy. “I’d go in the attendance office to be excused, and they knew immediately. ‘The horse?’ they asked. ‘Yeah, he got out again,’ I’d reply.” It was a mixed blessing to be the only kid in school with a horse, at least when the horse was Bob White, named for his dappled white coat. Classmates envied Hernandez’s position, yet the stallion had a gift for escaping the back yard that fenced him in. “My mom would give me the bad news at the breakfast table, and I had to go find him. Usually he was visiting the mare up at Cacho’s farm.”
When Otay kids were lucky enough to have a dime, they bolted to a single venue too. For decades the hub of the community was the Otay General Store. The post office, groceries, hardware, and all sundry items could be found at the intersection of Third and Main, where the populace bought their essentials. Lydia Hernandez worked there as a cashier and let her little brother, Carlos, sack groceries for a candy bar.
Riding his bike on the dirt streets, running barefoot in summer, Carlos met his buddies regularly at Montgomery for pickup games. “The only grass in town was between buildings at the school. We snuck on after class and on weekends to play football on it. When it rained, it turned to a mud bath, and we just ruined the grass.”
Outdoor recreation was self-created, but the burgeoning presence of the television held sway in the house during the ’50s. Seventeen-inch screens provided San Diegan youngsters the network channels of 6, 8, and 10, dominated by The Mickey Mouse Club, Lassie, cowboys, or variations on the Western theme. During that second-grade year, Davy Crockett became a national phenomenon, spawning a movie, TV series, coonskin caps, and “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” — so much so that I began signing my papers in class with the name of the Tennessee frontiersman instead of with my own name. Music was making the transition from crooners to the tumultuous rock and roll. In 1954, when we began the school year, I remember the songs often played: “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes and “This Ole House” by Rosemary Clooney. The following year unleashed Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” — the first rock-and-roll blockbuster and the harbinger of what would soon change the music landscape forever.
It can’t be ignored that the 1950s were also the golden era of the car in America — sweeping fins, abundant chrome, and soft colors rolled smoothly over the highways and even cruised into Otay. One of Carlos Hernandez’s good friends was Dickie Thomson, whose father owned Thomson and Son Truck Repair and Welding. Most kids envied Dickie Thomson. Who wouldn’t? No other boy in Otay had the luxury of coming home every day to tinker with the motors, gears, and transmissions strewn about in the garage on Main Street. And more: Dickie was the kid with the Lionel electric train, owner of the fastest go-cart flying down Brown Hill, and possessor of a Mustang motorcycle, which was the tops. He shared that status with another sixth-grade friend, and their exploits of dodging the local cop through Otay alleys were the stuff of legend.
But if most boys in Otay had limited choices outside of school, the girls fared worse. Physical exercise was often defined by jump rope or jacks, and the female correlative to model cars and go-carts was furnished by scissors and paper-doll cutouts.
One Otay girl broke that mold. Although I never knew her, all my old schoolmates remembered Caroline Perez vividly. Bobby Gonzalez called up his vision of her. “She was as big as any guy and just as strong. By sixth grade she was probably five foot seven and 160 pounds. Caroline was from a tough family. I don’t think she had a mother, and her brothers had the reputation as some of the toughest guys in town. One was known as the Al Capone of Otay, and a couple spent time in prison. Actually, she was a nice girl, but she had a real temper.”
Being a girl in a home of tough males could have its effects. Mark Robson recalled that Caroline had scars on her arms from placing burning cigarettes on her own flesh. There were other signs that she was not a girl to be messed with. A notorious incident was witnessed by Bobby Gonzalez on Montgomery’s playground. “At recess she was playing tetherball against one of our friends. This kid was pretty small and wiry, but he wasn’t afraid of anyone. Their game ended up in a full-on fistfight with the teacher running over to break it up. They were finally separated and sent in opposite directions, but walking away, Caroline was still yelling at him, ‘Just wait! I’ll get you after school!’ ”
Like a chrysalis, Caroline underwent a softer, feminine metamorphosis in the end — at sixth-grade graduation. Carlos Hernandez repeated the story, still deeply moved. “I’ll never forget that she showed up in a pink chiffon gown. The rest of us were speechless. We knew she was really poor, and obviously the dress was borrowed from someone older. It looked like a prom dress. But to see Caroline dressed up like that, and to have her family there, was amazing,” he wagged his head and smiled. “But she still had those same shoes on.”
The shoes were part of the myth too. Like today, fads for us kids were established by the older high school youth: Peach Pomade, a pinkish goo liberally applied on guys’ hair to keep “ducktails” in place; Levi’s with the pant legs rolled under; finger-tip jackets. One female trend was the “bunny shoe.” This distinctive footwear featured two upward extensions in the front resembling rabbit ears. “Most girls wore white ones, except for Caroline. Hers were black,” Gonzalez told me.
It didn’t end there. At that time, the cool guys wore taps on their shoes, toe and heel. Not to preserve the shoe, of course, but for the sharp, steely sound. The bigger the tap, the cooler, and the ultimate were horseshoe taps that covered the entire circumference of the heel. Bobby Gonzalez remembered, “Caroline had horseshoe taps on her black bunny shoes.”
The outsiders’ view of a rumbling town with its cast of unruly characters was slow to change, if it ever did. Gonzalez learned that when “we all started junior high at Castle Park. I stayed after school for pickup games and fit in easily with the other kids from Chula Vista. But when they found that I was from Otay, they were shocked. ‘You live in Otay! What about the fights and stabbings?’ That shocked me. We’d hear of fights occasionally, but I never saw any of it growing up there.”
Bobby Gonzalez is one of the old crew I looked up who still lives in Otay. Dickie Thomson is another. Today Thomson wears a long ponytail of brindled hair under a baseball cap. Grease outlines his fingernails, and 30-weight Castrol runs in his veins; if there were ever an engine-and-wheels guy, it’s Thomson. In the DNA. By high school his interests had evolved into dirt bikes and a prized ’57 Ford station wagon with a 427-cubic-inch engine. It could be seen at the Carlsbad Raceway and on dark nights out at Otay Lake in illegal drag contests. “We were the outcasts in high school,” he commented.
When I visited Thomson, he had moved back to the same house on Main Street where he started life. Inside the same garage, behind the house, are immobile antique cars and a few junkers. The dirt floor is dark and moist from over a half-century of oil leaking into it. Ending the day with a can of Budweiser, Thomson continues to do what he loves for a living, assembling hot rods, motorcycles, and dune buggies. Eleven times he’s mounted his Harley steed for the holy pilgrimage to Sturgis, South Dakota, and he took his new wife on the last trip. “Bike people know him everywhere,” she says of her husband.
Dickie Thomson laments the current nonstop traffic on Main, as well as the disappearance of the sleepy town that Otay once was. “There were tomato and celery fields across the street here. You knew everybody, and there was a real sense of community.”
The affable Carlos Hernandez had a good social life all through school, which ended at Castle Park High in 1965. He played in the band and on some of the sports teams. He, like me, was required to register for the draft when he turned 18. We were just beginning to learn about a conflict somewhere in Asia and that young guys like us were actually getting drafted. The best way to avoid that — and most of us did — was to go to college. Southwestern College had just been constructed, and for a few bucks for registration and books you could attend.
Hernandez, like so many of the guys I knew who started in September, didn’t last more than a few semesters. “It was high school with ashtrays,” Hernandez said laughing. “Guys eventually flunked out and got drafted or enlisted. A couple of my good friends were brothers and both got drafted. One was killed within a year. At 21, I volunteered in his memory and went Airborne, just as he did.”
After spending 11 months in the maelstrom of Vietnam, Hernandez returned and took some time off to readjust. “I was short-tempered but after a few months calmed down and returned to civil service at North Island. I went from hydraulic mechanic to electronics, with a specialty in avionics. My job has taken me all over the world.” Today Hernandez lives on the so-called West Side, but farther north in Chula Vista, a bachelor with a healthy social life and a good retirement in sight.
Bobby Gonzalez’s tale bears similarities to that of Carlos Hernandez, except that he was granted a draft deferment because of high blood pressure. He took a job at Rohr Aircraft, moved to General Dynamics a few years later, then began a career in civil service. Also at North Island, he works as a sheet metal mechanic and has raised three children. Like Thomson, he still lives in Otay and also notes the changes. “It’s less a community with the growth. Growing up, you knew everyone who lived near you. It’s not like that anymore.”
POOR SISTER GETS A NEW DRESS
Back in the ’50s, a towheaded kid used to jump on his bike and ride it from his Chula Vista home down to Otay. It was wide open with fields, ponds, and the riverbed. Animals were likely to be seen — both domestic and wild — so for would-be cowboys it was a little excursion to the country.
Greg Cox was born at Mercy Hospital and spent his entire childhood in Chula Vista. A graduate of Chula Vista High in 1966, Cox became mayor of his hometown in 1981 and stayed on until 1990. Under his tenure, a plan to annex Otay and make it a part of Chula Vista seemed a good idea; initially, the smaller southern neighbor didn’t see it that way. Said Cox, “They were fiercely independent, and it took three tries to get it done. The first attempt was soundly rejected.” But finally in 1985, the proposition of curbs, sidewalks, gutters, parks, and libraries was worth giving up their birthright for.
Cox moved on to bigger and better things. As did Otay, in his opinion. A member of the board of supervisors since 1995, Cox recalled that in 1981 there were 25,000 people living in an area of three and one-half square miles. “There were only about three acres of parkland before the annexation.” After joining Chula Vista, a $13 million library was built as well as a rec center.
A few of my former schoolmates see the annexation with ambivalence. According to Dickie Thomson, “When Chula Vista took over, things changed. Before that, the county allowed more freedom.” Of course, for Thomson and his mechanic-minded friends, that largely meant one thing: your yard could be filled with as many cars as could fit there. Bobby Gonzalez admits that “some things improved, but we didn’t see the same services as Chula Vista. That’s what we hoped for.”
Yet, a historical look at the area reveals that the little town couldn’t have stayed independent for long. The population explosion in South Bay that began in the ’80s would eventually make it the fastest-growing part of San Diego County. Chula Vista today numbers about 210,000 residents. Beginning as a slow creep east of 805, construction accelerated into the EastLake development of 3200 acres, which added over 10,000 people. Cox observed, “Chula Vista has been lucky to have large land property owners. That allowed for the contribution of large portions of land for the public good as in the case of the Olympic Training Center.”
When the estate of Mary Birch Patrick sold Otay Ranch to the Baldwin Company in 1988, the massive scope of the planned-housing development — which retained the ranch’s original name — caused a stir among investors, politicians, environmentalists, and concerned citizens that took years to sort out. Understandably, the prospect of 50,000 new homes piqued interest. Meanwhile, the new wealth of the Internet bubble helped fuel a skyrocketing real estate market in San Diego and housing could barely keep up. The conclusion was inevitable: Traffic be damned! Start the graders!
Still, planners of the Otay Ranch development claimed that the innovative Village Concept design would make suburban life much more livable. An article in the New York Times (June 14, 2002) commented on this New Urbanism: “Otay Ranch is a kind of Levittown West, though for a slightly higher income bracket. The houses are affordable, by California standards, ranging from $250,000 to $500,000; the racial mix is diverse, by suburban standards; half the land has been set aside for nature; and homes are selling faster than any other big development in San Diego County.”
Cox sees Otay Ranch as a necessity. “The cost of housing in San Diego County is horrible. But as a result of the Otay Ranch project, Chula Vista has the most affordable new housing in the county.”
And given the overwhelming pressure for growth, the supervisor should be recognized for his efforts to prevent Otay Ranch from becoming a ten-mile-long stretch of hutches stacked up one against another. He touts the fact that for every acre of developed land there are 1.2 acres devoted to open space. Roads, shopping, recreation, and schools for the various subdevelopments have been well thought out. “These amenities were the first to go in because they were front-end costs carried by the developers.”
Plans on paper, at least, look promising and include the Otay Valley Regional Park, which is designed to stretch from Lower Otay Lake to the bay and eventually take in 8000 acres. The combined donation of land by the cities of Chula Vista and San Diego, the county of San Diego, and various developers account for the 11-mile-long park that will take years to complete. Curiously, its western end is Hollister Pond, where I fished and jumped off rafts so many decades ago. And even if the time of completion and the money to finish the park remain uncertain, there is an interestingly bright side to it: lots of free labor, as convicts from nearby Donovan prison are being used to do some of the work.
Problems? Anyone who has ever exited the 805 and driven through to EastLake during rush hour knows the traffic tangles and long backup of cars. Imagine 50,000 more homes! But a 12.5-mile stretch of highway expected to be completed in the fall of 2006 will provide some relief. Running north-south from Highway 54 to Highway 905, near the Mexican border, the thoroughfare essentially parallels the 805, lying just west of Otay Lakes. Cox adds, “Highway 125 is contentious but should divert a lot of traffic.” And while the former mayor speaks of the “fascinating melting pot of ethnicity of Otay Ranch,” he does not shy from the reality of the “new town versus old town separated by 805.”
The West Side and East Side division bequeathed by ubiquitous, macroeconomic forces is just another line that individuals, as well as politicians, cannot prevent. When I visited my old school, I got a good glimpse of what that division means. The principal, Cristina Flores-Speer, came from Tijuana to live in Palm City and attended Montgomery High School. Today she oversees 420 kids attired in blue and white. About 94 percent are Hispanic, and the second largest group is made up of “Other.” More than 80 percent of the kids qualify for free breakfast and lunch. She related how the past five years have produced a significant increase in immigrants in the area, and that accounts for the high 30 percent rate of mobility.
I struck up a conversation with a counselor, Sharon Ward, who has lived in Otay since 1970 and worked as an instructional aide at the school for almost as long. One of the big changes she’s seen over the decades is that “the rate of volunteerism has dropped.” Single parents, or two working ones, simply don’t have time anymore to help out in their kids’ classrooms. As a longtime Otay resident, for her the major change has been “a lot of the family dwellings are being replaced by apartments.” That accounts for more density and further loss of community identity. “I think our students would be more likely to say they live in Chula Vista than Otay.”
50 YEARS ON…
A fondness for Otay was palpable when my schoolmates gathered one evening earlier this year in a Chula Vista pizzeria. I mostly listened as they threw out old names and stories — and newer events, good and bad, that befall human beings in life. I was happy to see that Mark Robson’s sister, Joyce, was there. She was in our grade too, but in the other class. She told me, “I remember you riding the bus. You were a skinny blond kid.”
When Leo Mata stopped by, there were fresh smiles. Still living in Otay too, Mata was the kid who got polio at Montgomery. Carlos Hernandez told me, “When he came back from the hospital he was a hero. All the kids were really nice to him.”
I asked Joyce about a poignant incident that Hernandez had passed on to me earlier. During their sixth-grade year, the teacher organized a Christmas party where students drew names to exchange a gift. The one student who didn’t get a present was Joyce Robson. Seeing her in tears, the class grew silent in collective sorrow, bewildered by the failure of the designated classmate to present her with a gift. The reason: the boy’s father, hailing from Oklahoma, with redneck ways, had educated his children in his prejudice: a white boy didn’t give a Christmas present to a Negro girl.
Joyce explained how the class’s sympathy for her produced a reaction. “He felt terrible and even offered to give me his own gift. I was sad for a while. When I told my mother about it, she gave me an extra present that Christmas.”
The blank slate that we begin with — the tabula rasa of every soul — becomes a unique book written with our selected remembrances. Funny, but my most vivid memory of Mrs. Eunice’s class was not even about Mark Robson. It happened on a day when it rained. Confined to the classroom during recess, we played the normal indoor games, and the most popular one was Heads Up 7-Up. The rules were simple. The teacher picked seven kids, who stood at the front of the room. After the rest of the class lowered their heads on their desks with eyes closed, the seven would advance to each tap a single head. When the tapping was completed, the seven tappers returned to the front of the class, and the seven tapped stood up to guess who had visited them. Guess right and you replaced your tapper. Wrong, and your head went down again for the next round.
All my life I have remembered the surprise of the class when the little black girl in a tattered dress slowly stood up. “Who would tap her?” seemed the response. In my memory, even the few black kids usually avoided this shy gamine in activities that required popularity.
Too shy to speak, she pointed to one of the standing seven. Wrong guess. I wonder if she ever did guess who lightly touched her lowered head that day. Part embarrassed, part proud, I kept it for my own secret. It was me.
I told the story to Joyce, hoping that after 50 years she might know who the girl was. “Dolores, I bet.” Dolores fit the bill: small and exceptionally poor. Mark added that her family of eight lived in a one-room dwelling on the Hill. My mind spun in reverie — how I’d love to see her again and share my long-hidden secret. A quest for another day, perhaps.
It was good to see my old schoolmates. In a sense we were ahead of our time. While the other communities of San Diego were more delineated by wealth and race, Otay’s lines were less distinguishable. Granted, not by choice but through default of having little money. A real level playing field — and all dirt. As Carlos Hernandez remarked, “In high school we made cheers like ‘Yay, Otay!’ It was kinda half joke. And half pride.”
Things must change, especially in America, and especially in the West. The Hill is transformed, the Otay Ranch of my childhood is gone forever, and Otay itself has only faint traces of the town I remember. It will soon look as foreign as those photos from the flood era, when severe, mustachioed men wearing woolen suits in midsummer posed on plantless, dusty streets in front of stark wooden structures.
Looking back 50 years, I see that destiny dropped me off at a place and time that happened to be Otay Ranch. It was a special year of my childhood, when the future was as much shaped by imagination as by life's realities. My dreams would never again seem as accessible as during those months and that happiness would never again be realized. I never grew up to become a cowboy, nor would I own the expansive ranch I so yearned for. After all, it's the ongoing clash of one's dreams and one's world that melds into a life. And had I attained that spread in Texas, would I have ever looked up my best friend in second grade?