Neighborhood: Kearny Mesa
If you were to have asked most San Diegans back then about Kearny Mesa, they generally would have answered with a question. “Isn’t that Clairemont?” Or, “You mean Linda Vista?”
We’ve always felt a bit inferior to the more-coastal and larger Clairemont and a bit insulted by our association with Linda Vista. Both of those emotions were unwarranted at best, plain ignorant at worst.
My neighborhood, Royal Highlands, was an island of about 150 lower-middle-class homes in Kearny Mesa. Royal Highlands was Kearny Mesa, we thought. We kids didn’t have a clue that there was actually a name for our neighborhood/island until 805 was being built and we were visited by the principal, Mr. Alkire at Ross Elementary, to tell us we would be escorted across the construction zone by some poor flag-waving schmuck so we wouldn’t be mowed over by the monstrous equipment barreling through north and south.
We stared vacantly at Mr. Alkire until someone said, “Y’mean the Fedmart houses?” He returned the same blank look, and we all understood.
My parents still live there, in a house that has been heavily modified in the 50 years since they bought it with VA subsidies. Most of the homes started as three-bedroom, two-bath, ranch-style classic SoCal suburbia, with two-car garages connected internally to the kitchens/dining areas. Four similar floor plans made it a cakewalk for us to negotiate each others’ houses as soon as we met new neighbor kids.
Our house was one of just two with a single-car garage and one bathroom. The center houses in the neighborhood’s two cul-de-sacs…there was apparently too little room (or creativity) to make them bigger. Our house, then, was the cheapest in an already inexpensive neighborhood, which was helpful since my folks were damned poor back then, raising the three of us on a single income provided by the Park and Rec Department. I think they said they paid 13K for it.
Kilt Court has just five houses. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, it seemed there were school-aged kids in every house of Royal Highlands. I am sure that was the case on our cul-de-sac. And there was more than one child per family, so when we assembled at any given spot, things amped up quickly.
Kilt is on a mild slope, a perfect skateboard and go-cart testing ground and drag strip ending in what was a mildly busy street — Kirkcaldy. There was one way into the neighborhood from the west, Marlesta Drive, and it emptied out just to the south of Kilt, so cars whipped through that section of Kirkcaldy at a good clip. If there were enough of us out there, we assigned a lookout at the base of the hill.
We were often “forced” into a spontaneous game of chicken — us, butts parked on steel-wheeled, 18-inch-long red skateboards wildly wobbling and literally sparking against the rough asphalt, pitted unwittingly against those giant, Detroit-made station wagons with plastic “woody” veneer panels that were the middle-class family rage driven by unbuckled, overweight muumuued women, chain-smoking and slapping at their kids, headed to Ruffner Road to pick up their husbands who worked way down on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard at Aeronautics where they assembled pieces of bigger pieces of Cold War bombs to keep us all safe from the communists.
We generally chose the youngest kid with the loudest voice to be lookout, because if he failed in his duty, we could beat the snot out of him.
The fields were everywhere. They surrounded our island like a shallow sea, with low-lying chaparral and fast-moving denizens and holes and caves and crevices of red clay dirt, littered with cardboard and wood and tin beer cans and discarded tires. It was our playground in the summers, from the moment we put down our cereal spoons and slurped the last of the Cocoa Puff–enhanced milk from the bowls to the time our moms would scream out into the dry, darkening air that our TV dinners were ready.
The fields were attached to each other, and for each we had a name. The one closest to Kilt was where Sport Mart and Islands restaurant and Applebee’s now stand. It had roughly the same slope as our cul-de-sac, extending east to Ruffner and west to the then two-lane Balboa Avenue. That was called Armor Fields.
The bushes there were trampled, and the ground had been scraped when the neighborhood had been built. It was the best place for kite-flying and large-scale dirt-clod fighting. It was also the least-easy area to hide from parents and bullies.
Before it was fully developed, it became a field for Bobby Sox softball. My parents still have a playhouse/fort we built in our backyard from the plywood that made the dugouts and snack shack. This area was the first leg in many long hikes north. After bridging Balboa, there was a densely foliated tract — large and complex — crisscrossed by washes and mudflats and vernal pools. We could hide there under six-foot-tall sage bushes and manzanita, never seeing another kid unless we wanted to.
At the far end was Clairemont Mesa Boulevard (nearly as undeveloped as Balboa Avenue), then even denser elfin-forest-like lands all the way to the dump and Miramar NAS. Beyond that we hiked — just once that I can remember — finding Lake Miramar, with its cattails. We saw a golden eagle on that adventure — scared the hell out of us when we inadvertently flushed it from a small canyon. We were used to red-tailed hawks. This eagle was much, much bigger and clearly (we thought) pissed off.
There was an area off Ruffner, just past Balboa, that we called the Crater. It was behind what is now Ocean Enterprises. the Crater was where some construction project went awry and had been abandoned for a few years. Roughly half the size of a football field, it was a rectangular divot in the high end of a hill, with 20-foot-high walls tiered in two stages. An upper tier had eroded into small, single-person-sized caves that loomed over us and freaked us out.