Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
- Community Blog
- Remembering Imperial Beach
Remembering Imperial Beach
Over the years I’ve heard all the snide remarks and the snarky nicknames for Imperial Beach. I can’t say they’re true, but I will admit the city is a little scruffy around the edges. Still it isn’t any worse than a lot of places in San Diego County and not a bad place to live while growing up. In my life I’ve lived there twice and worked there once. If it hadn’t been for some really bad family finances I might be living there still. I first came to the city in the late 40’s. My dad was a pilot in the Navy and there was a landing field in Imperial Beach and North Island was only a few miles up The Stand. Imperial Beach in the 40's was a wonderful place for a young kid. And that's what I was, a kid. I was in the first grade, I think, so my world was limited, but what I did see was great. I lived in a small house with and actual white picket fence which was only a couple of blocks from the beach, but I was too young to go to the beach on my own. Directly behind the house was an alley where we put the trash for collection and where I tossed a half-eaten tomato one time which grew into a plant and yielded more tomatoes. Across the street was … nothing. Well, actually it was a view of the distant Tijuana hills and a wetlands we called the sloughs. These were the days before the word ecology had entered the popular vocabulary and I just considered the area a swamp. Others considered it a dumping grounds. The street in front of my house was Coronado Avenue (renamed Imperial Beach Boulevard many years later in a political move to better identify the city and get freeway signage). Immediately across the two lanes of asphalt was about 100 yards of dirt before the water and marsh took over. Every so often someone would pull a large dump truck onto that open ground and deposit another mound of dirt from some construction site. And this became the basis of juvenile construction of my own and my brother's design. We had a wagon. I guess that was the big toy of those days. And so, instead of just pushing each other up and down the sidewalk in front of our house we set about creating roads of our own in this wonderland of hills deposited by construction crews. We built bridges between mounds and a path through the hills and pushed each other over our self-created highway. We could spend a good part of the day going up and down across the hills or constructing new parts to our highway. It was just a game to us. Something to do on those Summer days when we weren't stunning frogs in our front yard with a rubber-tipped dart gun or building forts out of scrap lumber in our back yard. But I think of those days now and marvel at how inventive we were in our pastimes. After all we were both under six years old. There were many things to see as a kid those days. One of the amazing sights I saw from my front yard was a plane ditching in the sloughs. Well, not the plane itself, but the fluffy white canopy of a pilot floating into the swamp after his plane went down. It was an amazing sight for a little kid, knowing it was real and happening right in front of me. I went to school at St. Charles, a Catholic grade school. I wore the school uniform, a little white shirt and white-spotted black corduroy pants. The uniforms were purchased at The Clothesline a mom and pop store on the corner of Palm Avenue and Tenth Street; a street where I would live years later. I was only in Imperial Beach for a couple of years. Dads Navy assignment was over and so we moved. We moved around a lot. I wouldn't return to Imperial Beach until 1958. This time we lived in the middle of the city on Tenth Street. I was old enough to go to the beach on my own now, but it was a long hike from the beach. And when I finally got around to checking out the old house everything had changed. Oh, I guess the city was pretty much the same overall, but the field where I had played as a kid was now apartment buildings. The sloughs were now called an estuary and there was talk of building a boat harbor there where people could park their yachts. It was still before ecology was a big word in the everyday language and people were making plans like yacht harbors for the land instead of the nature preserve which would be the eventual designation of the marsh land. The high school still used the dry open area around the wetlands as the training ground for cross country. My family had grown too. Where before it had been me, two younger brothers and a younger sister, we would add two more brothers while I lived in Imperial Beach. As most things from our youth do, the city seemed have shrunk and was much smaller when I returned. It wasn't really smaller since Imperial Beach is land locked and has nowhere to expand beyond the borders it had in the 40's, but the change in perspective made me see it differently. The city had a reputation for being rough, but I never had any trouble. Perhaps that was because I always felt isolated and not part of the mainstream. Since we traveled a lot I found I didn’t make friends easily. And since I came from a large family there was always plenty to do within the family and we stayed pretty much close to home. I was in high school at Mar Vista, my younger brother went to Marion the Catholic high school and the others went to St. Charles like I had. My brother and I discovered the tiny branch of the county library in the city and we would spend our Summers reading everything we could get out hands on. My mother even worked at that library for a while. The house on Tenth Street was just two blocks from Palm Avenue and down the street from The Clock, the bar on the corner directly across from The Clothesline. There was a rumor there was a brothel on Tenth Street on the other side of Palm Avenue, but I never had the desire to verify it. It was just one of those stories you hear when you’re a kid. I was only a fair student. I didn’t feel like I belonged, but I finally did participate in some school activities. I spent two years as the manager for the track team, one year attempting to wrestle with little success (actually a guy from La Jolla High School set a school record for the fastest pin in school history when we wrestled) and got my first taste of what would become a good part of my life; writing. The local paper had a column about social activities at the high school, but thought they needed one that covered school sports. One of my teachers asked me to write that column and it was my first experience in journalism. I spent five years in Imperial Beach this time before circumstances necessitated a move to Chula Vista where I have spent the next 40 plus years of my life. I returned to the beach community for work in the 70's as a reporter and then editor of a twice weekly paper. I covered city council meetings and school board meetings and watched the city government struggle with plans for the wetlands, other development and finances. It was still seemed to be the same kind of laid-back, low-key community I remembered, like it had always been and I kind of liked the idea that not much had changed over the years. And maybe it never would. Maybe some places should stay the way we remember them from our childhood.