Submitted by Bruce A. Haak
We moved to Coronado in the early 1960s. It was but one in a long series of frequent moves facilitated by the U.S. Navy. I had attended junior high school at Whidbey Island, WA, where my father flew jets off aircraft carriers. Our family lived at Oak Harbor for two and a half years, and my father was deployed in the Pacific for two back-to-back, nine-month cruises during this period. This was the ramp up to the conflict in Vietnam, which kept the western fleet busy for over a decade.
Despite its quaint California vibe, Coronado was a far cry from the easily accessible woods, fields, and elbow room of rural Puget Sound. At the time, these wildland amenities were outside our back door. Granted, the sunshine and warmth of southern Calfifornia were a step up from fog, wind, and drenching sheet-rain of western Washington. And to be fair, the Crown City was like a park compared to the bustling commercialism of San Diego county. The county was undergoing a massive growth spurt and issuing a whopping 25,000 new building permits annually. The onslaught of “progress,” or whatever passed for it at the time, would forever deface its natural features.
The saving graces of Coronado were always the beach and ocean. At the time, the surfing craze was sweeping the nation and the Beach Boy’s tune, “Surfing USA” permeated the airwaves. No question but that the beach was the focal point of teenage life, with guys toting surf boards and boogie boards around on bicycles. Every warm afternoon, scantily clad girls lay on beach towels reading newspapers and books while cultivating tans. To be sure, it was the culture of an endless summer, devoid of obligation and responsibility, fueled by Brian Wilson’s generational songcraft. For many like-minded souls, school was simply an inconvenient lag time between vacations.
I too was a fan of the craze and spent my time learning to surf using borrowed long boards with minimal guidance. It was the “sink or swim” school of offshore survival. I would not drown and, eventually, traveled sections of the coast in search of good waves. With an officer’s sticker on the family car, I could roll through secured miltary properties, like the gates of Camp Pendleton. Here, the ever-present Marine guards snapped to attention, proferreing salutes to a teenager headed to the beach. While some of these young men might have been jealous, they were surely never impressed.
Coronado always struck me as a strange dichotomy of cultures. Back then, John Birch Society fliers, stapled prominently to telephone poles, advertised their propaganda film “Anarchy USA.” To be sure a cultural revolution was in the air, fueled by a distrust of the older generation and a germinating “do your own thing” mantra. I don’t know about Middle America but here, sex, drugs, and rock and roll were gaining daily traction on the street.
First and foremost, this was a Navy town, populated by active servicemen and women, along with many conservative retirees, living the straight and narrow life. As a group, they were neither ready for the Summer of Love, nor willing to embrace the political pushback associated with an unpopular war being waged in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Our country right or wrong, no matter what, eventually proved to be unpopular dogma, soundly rejected by my generation.
Then there was the counter culture of hippies, surfers, and bohemian types attracted to easy coastal living. Seemingly everyone who couldn’t make it anywhere else in America ended up in Southern California in the 1960s. Given the sheer numbers of humans living here then, and the seething mass of humanity currently spreading inland to the mountains east of San Diego, the trend continues.
A bright spot of local color was provided by a couple of sailors who purchased a militray surplus amphibious “duck” that they drove around town, picking up kids and surf boards, and dropping them off at the beach. It was the closest thing to a carnival ride to be found on the island. I never took the duck ride but it always looked like a hoot.
San Diego County was famous for it’s sunny days and mild winter weather. In few other places could you ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon. The opportunities for outdoor adventures, including a myriad of sports and athletics, seemed limitless. Unlike L.A., where smog turned the air a grungy brown, San Diego Bay seemed relatively healthy in comparison.
The quiet, lazy summer of 1963 morphed suddenly into another cross-continental journey when my father got transferred to the Pentagon. Once again, we were moving back to Virginia, which would be our third residence in less than five months. If nothing else, Navy brats are adaptable.
A few years later, my father was given command of a ship destined for Vietnam, necessitating another road trip from Virginia to Coronado. This time, I would drive one of the family cars in a caravan with my dad for 2,700 miles from coast to coast. It was a spectacular experience for a kid.
Given an uncharacteristic abundance of lead time, we packed up, drove West, and arrived before school started. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it. Popular music had changed from carefree beach tunes to the harder edge of psychedelic rock, drugs permeated the island culture, and the unofficial new high school fight song was “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendriks. Most useful to me was that I could legally drink beer in Tijuana, which is where friends gathered on weekends.
We lived in a house at 6th and “J,” a few blocks from the high school. At the time, the high school was like an open-air market with a roof over pass-through corridors leading to classroom doors. Security was the least of anyone’s concern. About the worst offense was when culprits from an opposing high school spread lime on the football field to kill the grass.
Back then, physical education (PE) class was mandatory. At the forefront was a Coach with an ominous demeanor who looked like a pirate, including an honest-to-god patch over one eye. Truly, the man was a vision. While forceful in delivering his instructions to students, he was calculating when it came to meting out punishment for misbehavior during class. The many goof-offs offered easy targets for reprimands and were low-hanging fruit in his orchard.
Things occasionally got dicey near the end of the period, after the boys had showered and were getting dressed. The mood could suddenly turn serious when Coach walked through the room with a massive tennis shoe in one hand. Someone always spotted his approach and started a drum roll on the lockers. Singling out the victim, Coach would instruct the boy to grab his ankles as the throb of metallic rhythm swelled to grand decibels.
To be sure, this scene was a tribal ceremony. The rapid swish and echoing report of a rubber sole on a bare behind signaled an eruption of cheers from the ertswhile fortunate majority. This was 1960s corporal punishment at its most refined: violent but not permanent. It’s true, I goofed off in plenty of classes, but never during PE.
The school’s music teacher, who had previously played in a popular instrumental surf band, had celebrity status on campus. However, the most visible presence around town was Lou Villar, the Spanish teacher. We shared a back fence with the ever-popular Mr. Villlar who was in his early 20s and married to a former student. As I recall, they led a quiet life and were pleasant neighbors. An ever-present fixture at the beach, his VW Bus was parked where he surfed with the motley assortment of teenagers he taught and coached on both the swimming and basketball teams.
I assumed that the Villar’s cat, Stoney, was named after the fictional TV rodeo cowboy, Stoney Burke, portrayed by Jack Lord. Imagine my surprise when, decades later, I watched a news program about the takedown of a major West Coast criminal ring, masterminded by none other than Lou Villar. Originally recruited by his surfing students for his translation skills with Tijuana marijuana merchants, Villar’s aptitudes for negotiations and clandestine activities resulted in him becoming the kingpin of an international drug-running operation whose net worth was conservatively estimated at $100 million.
To me, the charms of Coronado lay in its location and isolation. The beginning of the end for both attributes came when the San Diego-Coronado Bridge was constructed and the ferry system was discontinued. Riding the “last” ferry from San Diego to Coronado in August of 1969, felt like the end of an era.
To be sure, the logistical needs for maintaining Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island would be varied and challenging. But the curtailing of the ferry system had two avoidable consequences. The first was needless elimination of easy foot and bicycle traffic from both young and old passengers, and those wishing neither to expand their carbon footprint nor contribute to San Diego’s ever-worsening traffic problem. The second was the shameless gouging of motorists needing to access Coronado for either business or pleasure—a calculated effort to offset the cost of the bridge. Some thirty years later, ferry service would be restored to the island for walk-on passengers only.
A cost-effective alternative to the bridge would have been an expansion of the ferry system with larger crafts capable of accommodating greater numbers of cars and passengers. The naval ship yard at Bremerton, WA, which supports a fleet of ferries plying daily trade to and from the port of Seattle, is a fine example of a viable system that has worked for decades.
Back in the day, everything in Coronado was within walking or biking distance from the town center. Most of my junior high cohorts rode home-made skate boards everywhere they went. There were “mom and pop” grocery stores that were well supported by the community and it was a truly family friendly environment. Today, walking Coronado’s six-block shopping district northwest from the iconic Hotel Del Coronado, is a decidedly different experience. Here, one sees high-end boutique clothing stores and fine restaurants rubbing elbows with the funky coastal establishments of bicycle rentals and shopfronts selling T-shirts, memorabilia, ice cream, and candy.
While some historic downtown buildings remain, most of the business district has been transformed into an attractive albeit hygenic beach town style, sure to offend no one. The once defining feature of the city’s skyline, the silhouette of the Hotel Del, now clashes violently with several condominiums along the southern shore line. They stand as living testament to the poor judgment of the city fathers who approved these tasteless bohemiths.
They are, however, in keeping with the notion that every square inch of Crown City soil must be transformed into saleable real estate. A walking/jogging/biking path skirting a golf course and stretching linearly down the Silver Strand serves as the only land-based recreational opportunity for a captive audience. Sterile environments envisioned and created by developers, while good for business, have fueled the epidemic of nature deficit syndrome in American culture. This is a good example.
The politically conservative leanings of the community are evident in the Wikipedia coverage of Coronado. Oddly, the Coronado High School website lists the late Jim Morrison, worldwide celebrity and lead singer of the rock band, The Doors, among its notable graduates. In truth, he graduated from George Washington High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Today, Coronado High includes the Coronado School of the Arts, a school within a school, and boasts its own on-campus swimming center. From the outside, this appears as a public institution for rich kids.
The curious juxtaposition of income and employment needs clarification: half of the employed population works at NAS North Island, the Birthplace of Naval Aviation.
The average annual income of residents of Coronado is around $90,000, while the average cost of a single-family dwelling is $1,800,000. So while many civilians and miltary personnel may work and live in Coronado, they can’t afford to own their own homes there.
In 1969, the ephemeral, highly migratory nature of my upbringing pushed me on to college and a career in the Pacific Northwest. Looking back, I believe that I experienced the best of times in Coronado. My mental snapshots of the past, like Norman Rockwell paintings, speak to simpler times of care-free beach life.
With hindsight, the future reality of Coronado was predictable. Gone are the herds of scruffy sidewalk surfers. Gone too is the quiet, welcoming charm of coastal California. All that remains of that life and times for me are my memories.