The First Whale I Ever Saw

Looking at the last weekend in this first month of a new year, dawning decade and still infantile millennium, I am confronted with some unavoidable recollections of my first experiences in this city in January 1973. What prompted my memory was the mention of whale-watching by someone or other. The first whale I ever saw outside of film or television was from the deck of a 48-foot ketch called the Gryphon (a cool but probably ill-considered name for a boat) on our way south from Santa Barbara.

It was the last week of the month when we rounded Point Loma, entering the bay after a day-long battle between our propeller and the kelp beds. Ponderous and graceful, the Gryphon surfed landward for most of that afternoon, bucking an outgoing tide and tangles of rubbery sea flora. We rode the tons of lumber, lifting sunward on the swells then yawing into a vast trough of aquamarine laced with foam and organic debris from the coastal depths. The pod of whales that intersected our progress was far too close, I thought, and reinforced my sense of insignificance, already established, thank you, by my first encounter with the Pacific. Hardly my boyhood Lake Michigan.

We anchored at the Embarcadero, at the foot of Broadway. It was free anchorage then, and from the deck we had a view of an imposing art deco erection thrusting skyward from a bowling alley on lower Broadway. It really was a sailor’s downtown some 37 years ago: dive bars, porno and tattoo parlors (the Star Bar and Chi Chi’s survive, and one can still get tattooed, of course), as well as four bookstores, including Wahrenbrock’s, the last to go and one whose abrupt absence, for many, left grief in its wake.

I remember thinking, in 1973, that San Diego might be a good place to live, and that idea grew over the three weeks we sat at anchor while our captain (a raging idiot with the unlikely name of Randall Royce) secured documentation papers for the Gryphon. The idea was to document the vessel as a U.S. ship available for impressing into national service in a time of war, with the side benefit (and what Royce’s intention was all along) that no representative of a foreign power could board the boat without the captain’s permission. Say, Mexican or Costa Rican cops, Coast Guard, Navy, or harbor masters suspicious of us as drug smugglers. In fact, that is exactly what we were — or, rather, Royce was — but my girlfriend and I didn’t know that at the time. Randall’s chick, a Playboy bunny from San Francisco, knew, all right, and it was she who told us all about it years later.

Royce, by the way, was shot to death in Hermosillo, Mexico, during a bank robbery in 1975. That is all part of another and much longer story.

I spent the weeks waiting for our papers, clearing the prop and tiller of seaweed, scraping barnacles off the hull, and reading science-fiction paperbacks bought on Broadway and sunning on the deck. In the evening, we would drink rum like all good sailors, since we couldn’t do so at sea. One needs one’s faculties out there.

I was 22 years old then, with no clue that I was to spend most of my life, period, in San Diego. But I was not to move here for another seven years as a married father with few preconceived ideas of the place. Any prejudiced disgruntlement with this huge patch of “Fruit and Nut Land” (most everyone from Chicago eastward had that bias toward the entire state) was honestly and empirically earned.

A bar called, I think, the Skyline was on the north side of Broadway, where One America Plaza is now. I would stop in after cruising Wahrenbrock’s, Bargain Books, and a gold mine of used pulp fiction we called “the mean-lady book store.” I’d pore over my finds while I poured beer from a pitcher. It may have been about this time that I first met Jan Tonneson at Wahrenbrock’s (though I may be confused with a later 1976 visit to town), a one-man institution among book lovers for decades and the first friend I made in San Diego.

As the earth cooled in those days, my girlfriend’s father, my future father-in-law, began buying real estate in Mission Hills, Coronado, and Fallbrook and set the stage for my life after 30. Stepping out of Brooklyn and onto Coronado was a unique kind of culture shock; and though I have now lived longer in these latitudes than any other, I have yet to think of myself as a San Diegan. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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"an imposing art deco erection thrusting skyward from a bowling alley on lower Broadway"!! Ha! Now we have "Gordon's Last Erection"!! This was great, John. "We rode the tons of lumber, lifting sunward on the swells then yawing into a vast trough of aquamarine laced with foam and organic debris from the coastal depths." What a super line. The Reader is just chock-full of gems this week.

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