Terrace Rats from left to right: Joe Gooding, Johnny Carter, Larry, Eddie Polloreno, Larry Polloreno. The Terrace Rats had finally met up with their inland counterparts—the ones across the freeway who’d also enjoyed playing on the earthmovers used to build I-5.
Once the crew building Interstate 5 in the early 1960s went home for the day, the kids growing up in Del Mar Terrace had the time of their lives. The Terrace is the area immediately south of Del Mar, a small community nestled into the side of sandstone bluffs above the slough and west of I-5. First the kids scaled the six-foot, heavily treaded tires of the earthmovers, and then they put all their weight behind the enormous gearshifts, making rude engine noises as if driving in the demolition derby. The freeway workers couldn’t have liked their equipment being messed with, but they probably enjoyed working out in the boonies where they could breathe the fresh air. Anything north of Torrey Pines Golf Course was considered the boonies back then.
101 was a three-lane highway back then, and according to Dick Goodman, “The center lane was nicknamed the suicide lane because people were always having head-ons in the center, passing lane.”
Carmel Valley was sleepy — only a few farms and ranches existed at the time. The pleasantly unpopulated area was blanketed with the dank, wild smell of the ocean and contained everything from Torrey pine trees and open fields of buckwheat and wildflowers and manzanita, to salt flats and the slough, bobcats and mudsuckers, sea lions and dolphins and sand dollars. A dozen or so of these boys growing up in the Terrace in the late ’50s and early ’60s called themselves the Terrace Rats for no other reason except it made them sound tough.
The Terrace is the area immediately south of Del Mar, a small community nestled into the side of sandstone bluffs above the slough and west of I-5.
Roughly between the ages of 7 and 13, the Rats rarely congregated all at once unless there was a softball game or someone had a transistor and they could listen to the Pacific Coast League Padres, a Triple-A minor-league team at the time. “It wasn’t a formal group, just a nickname,” says Dick Goodman, an ex-Rat now 45 years old. Tall and youthful-looking, Goodman sits across from me in his comfortable Oceanside living room. Maybe his reddish brown hair is darker than it used to be and his freckles aren’t as bright, but there’s something mischievous underlying his quick responses that makes it easy to guess what a hellion he must have been.
Bridge over Peñasquitos slough. The Rats built rafts from whatever wood they could get their hands on and poled their way through the passageways in the mud, the marshes, and the inlets.
What I soon learn is that, as Goodman says, the Rats may not have banded together in any kind of organized way at the beginning. But eventually they — like many others — had to voice an opinion about the Terrace. They had to stand up and fight for the place.
Howard Fisher: “After my mom died when I was still in high school, we kind of became party central."
The Terrace was presumably named for the platforms carved into the enormous sandstone rocks in the area’s north side, resulting from the combination of the sea level rising and falling and geologic uplift. This is how the Torrey Pines Association defines similar formations in the nearby reserve in its booklet Torrey Pines State Reserve. Bob Wohl, supervising ranger for the reserve, agrees with the definition, adding, “But all this happened millions and millions of years ago. Each of those little bluffs is a former beach or bay formation that was uplifted to different altitudes 40 to 60 million years ago.”
Joe and Kay Gooding. "There were 12 of us in the first group of Terrace Rats in the early ’50s,” Joe Gooding explains to me over the phone, “and we were about 12 years old. Most of us had tattoos that said TR."
The Rats could not have cared less about any of this, though. They might not even have consciously noted the area was ripe with lizards and grebes, foxes and skunk, coyote and egrets and horned toads, but they were glad the wildlife was there. Back then, the Terrace was mostly vacant lots where kids slid down hills in old refrigerator boxes, pushing tumbleweeds out of the way, and the valley was a pastoral Eden for people of all ages.
Bart Moon and Joe Gooding. The Moon brothers—the twins Bart and Bill and their older brother Dickie—decided to carry the cross up to Red Rock, where it could be seen for miles around and everybody could enjoy it.
Of course, life wasn’t all play. Weekday mornings the Rats were out waiting with the rest of the kids for either the bus to public school or the car-pool ride to St. James Academy. “Everybody knew everybody else in the Terrace back then, even everybody else’s dogs,” Goodman recalls. “The neighborhood dogs always ran by to see the kids leaving in the morning and then took off in a pack for the day.” As he says this, the golden retriever snoozing at his feet, with all four legs straight up in the air, makes yelping noises in her sleep, until Goodman calms her with a pat on the head. Soon the retriever’s paws are twitching back and forth as if she’s running through the Terrace herself.
First the dogs swung by Soule’s Market to look over the morning’s garbage, and then they ran into the hills, their paws scooping dust from the dirt roads into the air behind them. Eventually they’d smell a squirrel or opossum and wouldn’t be seen for the rest of the day, until they somehow miraculously reappeared just as the kids were getting home from school.
Another common sight in the Terrace in the morning was Sam (not his real name). Sam had been hired to care for an elderly man who’d been injured in World War II and who was now an invalid and bedridden. Extremely obese, Sam was an alcoholic who’d been shellshocked during the same war and had trouble holding down a regular job.
Nearly every morning Sam walked his two Chihuahuas down to Soule’s Market for a couple of tail-boy six-packs of Busch Bavarian, which he’d spend the rest of the day drinking on his porch, sitting on an old metal rocking chair. “The Chihuahuas were yappy, mean little things,” Goodman says. “They snapped at us and everyone else. The only person in the world they loved was Sam.” Three or four pounds each, the Chihuahuas actually pulled Sam — who must have weighed 300 pounds — literally yanked him. The Rats as a gang of young boys weren’t always very nice to Sam. “We had a field day calling him names, teasing him for having a dog like a Chihuahua,” Goodman says, shaking his head.
And if the larger neighborhood dogs got too close to the Chihuahuas, Sam would start yelling and dragging his dogs away, according to Dick’s brother Pat Goodman, 43, who’s now over visiting briefly and who says he was something like a “Junior Rat” at the time. Pat is burly, has the same reddish brown hair and a beard that covers most of his face, though I can still see his forehead and some of the skin on his neck redden as he laughs with the memory. “Don’t you remember, man? That’s when Sam’d start turning in circles, and before you knew it he’d be spinning the Chihuahuas in the air over his head by their leashes, like he was twirling a lasso, so the big dogs couldn’t get them. Then he’d reel them in and they’d land with a thunk on his chest.”
But Dick also remembers that when the Rats weren’t together as a group, he was friends with Sam. On balmy summer nights, after Sam had lifted the elderly man and put him to bed, Dick and Sam would often sit outside on the porch, where Sam always had his metal rocking chair and a folding one for company. The two of them and sometimes other kids talked or just listened to the outdoor sounds around them. Sometimes they’d listen on Sam’s transistor while star players of the Triple-A Padres, like Chico Ruiz, hit home runs and then smoked whatever opposing team they were playing. And Sam was always nice to the kids, let them play ball in the Little Bavaria parking lot when he was the watchman there. He kept an eye on them.
Since then, of course, things in the area have changed considerably. Instead of sage scrub drifting idly on the mesas and bluffs above the Terrace, there is now Del Mar Heights and the Pines, where some inland boys from across I-5 whom the Rats wouldn’t meet for several more years actually did start up the earthmovers once they realized keys weren’t required. What the Terrace kids had in common with these inland kids was that both were often teased about living out in the sticks by those in “downtown” Del Mar. And both loved messing around with those earthmovers. The Rats would definitely have approved of how the inland boys used to throw oranges—stolen from Rancho Santa Fe—at the workers on I-5 who had to work nights when there was a push to finish the freeway. Afterward these inland kids disappeared into the darkness and the backcountry they were so familiar with.
In the backcountry these days, east of I-5 — where locals used to run their dogs and camp and go for long walks when the world was too much with them — there are now two enormous supermarkets, a Ralphs and a Vons, each large enough to employ small villages. There is a movie theater with eight auditoriums and viewing screens. There are two yogurt shops, a Starbucks, Burger King, McDonalds, tanning salons, and cellular phone stores; beauty supply shops, chiropractors, and wood-fired pizzas. There is a large hotel with Australian cuisine. Interstate 5 and Interstate 805 converge in what will be a cornucopia of freeways once Highway 56 is complete. At this writing, fully completed off- and on-ramps coalesce with partially built ramps that curve up toward the skies and then stop, abruptly, leaving one’s eyes teetering precariously over the edge. Where fields of mustard and lemonade berry and California sagebrush used to blanket Sorrento Valley, providing a murky wonderland the Santa Fe trains rushed off to after shushing over the bridges through the slough, there is now San Diego’s biggest industrial center. In place of the old Del Mar Terrace — the quaint stucco bungalows, dilapidated farms, uneven picket fences that could have used a little paint — there are now split-level homes worth close to a million dollars. The higher into the bluffs the homes go, the narrower and more bizarre they get, awkward angles flailing at the skyline, Disneyland extravaganzas with small checkerboard windows and hedges trimmed into razor-sharp edges — not a thought given to how any of this fits in with the surrounding setting. Homes are cleverly squeezed into lots despite the unusual sandstone formations, all with huge plate-glass windows that real estate agents can boast have excellent ocean views. These days many people in the Terrace, like people everywhere else, work hard and often don’t know all that much about the people living around them.
Certain things about growing up in Del Mar Terrace will never change, though. Young kids may not be interested in putting the beauty of a place into words, but they know when they’re growing up in paradise. Human beings have lived and fished here for thousands of years. Early Spanish explorers noted the unusual Torrey pine tree. The fact is, these pine trees alone make the Terrace unique. As Don Terwilliger — who, at 66, was born and raised in Del Mar — points out, “In many ways the area is even prettier now than it used to be because of how many more trees there are. The Torrey pine has become much more widespread throughout the valley and up into the bluffs over the last few decades.”
Torrey pines, known for growing sharply away from sea wind and salt spray, are natural to only one other place on earth -— Santa Rosa Island, up the California coast Their weathered gray branches gnarl and deform as they wind and fight their way toward the sun, eventually resembling the arthritic limbs of members of our own species, except that the trees are not only spooky and full of wonder but also beautiful. The slough and most of the Torrey pines, as well as the cliffs and the sea bluffs, the scrub and the chaparral, are all part of the Torrey Pines State Reserve. But when you grow up in Del Mar Terrace, you consider these things your own since you live with the slough and the trees on a daily basis. You can even find yourself feeling possessive about the Pacific Ocean. Especially when someone steps in and tries to take over, as someone did in the late ’60s.
But in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Highway 101 was still the sole route between San Diego and Los Angeles. It was a three-lane highway back then, and according to Dick Goodman, “The center lane was nicknamed the suicide lane because people were always having head-ons in the center, passing lane.” As described in Del Mar’s definitive history book by Nancy Hanks Ewing, Del Mar: Looking Back, the State of California’s first solution to this problem was to enlarge 101 so that an eight-lane state highway would go straight through the heart of downtown Del Mar, widening the existing road by bulldozing all the businesses on the east side of the highway. A later idea was to build a highway right on the beach. The people of Del Mar vigorously opposed and fought these proposals from 1947 until 1957, when the inland route was finally agreed upon, leaving the coastal towns and the beach intact.
Goodman and his buddies often watched Interstate 5's progress from the panoramic viewpoint on top of the sandstone bluffs behind Del Mar Terrace. The scuttle among the Rats — confirmed by others for this article — was that the section being built southward from Los Angeles and the section being built northward from San Diego didn’t meet up properly in the Cardiff area and so the workers had to backtrack and realign them. Regardless, the opening of Interstate 5 in 1966 siphoned an enormous amount of traffic off 101, so that making a left turn into and out of the Terrace from the coast highway was now possible without taking your life into your hands.
Back then, as now, channels in the brackish slough water cut through pickleweed at sharp angles. Goodman and his fellow Rats built rafts from whatever wood they could get their hands on and poled their way through the passageways in the mud, the marshes, and the inlets, then left the rafts moored on banks beside the road here and there. They regularly had BB gun fights in the slough, fished it for mudsuckers, played soft- ball out on the salt flats. Occasionally they even swam in the slough, but only if the bulldozer had been by recently to clear out the silt. Otherwise, the ocean couldn’t get in and out to clean it, and then it got plugged up and the water became stagnant and smelled. Since the bulldozer came about once a year back then, and since someone’s little brother had fallen in the slough once and gotten ringworm, they viewed the water suspiciously.
These days the slough is referred to variously as Los Peñasquitos Lagoon, the lagoon, the Peñasquitos Marsh, the marsh, and the wetlands. All are more poetic sounding, have a nicer ring in real estate offices, sound less like “loo,” but it’s still the “slough” to old-timers. And, according to Victoria Bradshaw, a biochemist and councilor of the Torrey Pines Association who was born and raised in Del Mar, partly in the Terrace, it’s actually an important term. “One definition of the word ‘slough’ is that it indicates the water has tidal action,” she says, “that it’s still connected to the ocean.”
Though the Rats perceived themselves as living in a paradise, Don Terwilliger—who’s also president of the Del Mar Historical Society — remembers a different perception held by kids in downtown Del Mar in earlier times. “Back then we thought the Terrace was where the poor people lived, the country people,” he says with a laugh, no doubt because of how differently the area is seen now. Dick Goodman concurs. “We just figured they didn’t know what they were missing,” he says. Had any of the Rats waxed eloquent at the time, they’d have been quick to point out the Terrace’s long list of natural resources as well as the close-knit neighborhood where people looked out for each other, and the amount of privacy one had there. But in reality, the Rats probably would have dared those town kids to say that again, then physically defended their territory.
Until around 1963, the Terrace was just about all dirt roads. Only Carmel Valley Road, called the county road back then, was paved. After heavy rains, ruts would be worn into these roads. The Rats liked to climb down inside and, using their pocketknives, carve the gutters and grooves even deeper. Then they took turns shooting marbles down the grooves. Sometimes the boys found snakes slithering through. These the boys killed with rocks. When the roads were dry, dust flew everywhere and covered everything, especially when there was any kind of wind, or when a car or a service truck, like Dirty Shirt Harry’s, drove by. Dirty Shirt drove door-to-door picking up the neighborhood cleaning. And delivering eggs. He was also the area’s bookie. Occasionally the county sent in graders and water trucks to help keep the dust down.
There were no sewers back then. Every once in a while someone’s septic tank overflowed, and the family’s whole yard would cave in with sewage. A tanker truck would come to pump it all out. The truck was called Little Stinker.
One of the Rats’ fathers bought three quarter-acre lots along the county road, between Via Grimaldi and Portofino, in 1950 for $500 a lot. He sold them in 1960 for $3000 a lot. Today, according to several sources, a quarter-acre lot in the area would go for about $200,000.
All the kids looked up to Joe Gooding, who’d been a member of an earlier generation of Rats and who had a pompadour haircut with the sides slicked back. Joe Gooding was eight or more years older than the new group and knew how to smoke and drink. “We were the original Rats,” Joe says today. “Actually,” he adds after thinking a minute, “I was like the king, King of the Rats.” He laughs softly. Asked to verify this, Goodman concurs with a grin: “He definitely was.” ‘There were 12 of us in the first group of Terrace Rats in the early ’50s,” Joe Gooding explains to me over the phone, “and we were about 12 years old. Most of us had tattoos that said TR. We called them our TRs. Some guys put them on their shoulders and some guys put them on their left ankles. We did them ourselves with India ink.”
During the tenure of the next, freeway-watching generation of Rats, Joe worked a series of maintenance-type jobs and continued living in the Terrace with a few of his buddies. “My family had moved to the Terrace in ’42 when I was five years old. My dad, Jimmy Gooding, was the one who had the five- foot-long, wooden Del Mar Terrace signs custom-made, and then we posted them at both entrances to the Terrace. I went to the old school on Carmel Valley Road, the Soledad School. I went there with all the other kids from the Terrace until the fifth grade, when they condemned it because it had outhouses. After that we went to Del Mar Elementary on 9th Street.”
One of the reasons the newer generation of Rats thought Gooding was so cool was because he didn’t just brush off the younger Rats, like some of the older guys did, but taught them how to shoot a harpoon and catch corbina and perch when he had time, sometimes even helped fix their bikes. Plus, that cool pompadour haircut had helped him win an Elvis Presley look-alike contest. “Yup, I even went to Hollywood for the contest. When I got off the train in Hollywood, I was jumped by all kinds of people who thought I was Elvis and wanted my autograph.” A few years later Gooding got married and started raising his own family in the Terrace. His son, Jimmy Joe, now 38, eventually became a Rat himself.
Dick Goodman’s group of Rats in the late ’50s and early ’60s — like Joe Gooding’s generation of Rats before them — loved climbing the sandstone bluffs behind the Terrace, where there were no houses in those days. Red Rock was a favorite— a large rock formation on the east side of the Terrace that starts out white and turns red halfway up. “If we were feeling brave,” Goodman says, ‘‘we’d climb out to what everyone, even the grownups, called the Donut. This was a sandstone rock extending from a cliff with a big hole through the middle. To get there you had to crawl over a huge drop. If you slipped, it was all over.” Some kids weren’t allowed to climb the Donut. Mothers could tell who was there by looking through their kitchen windows with binoculars.
Red Rock was tough to get to the. top of, especially for the smaller Rats, who wound up having to take the dog trail. In fact, for several years Goodman had to take this trail and meet his older brother Mike at the top. The dogs couldn’t make it up the steep grade either, or climb the chimneys—what the Rats called the steep tunnels going up the sides of some of the rocks, where you had to put your feet on one side and your back on the other to get to the top. So the dogs followed the kids up to a certain point, and then they cut over to a different trail that was longer and jackknifed back and forth. Since the dogs ran at full speed as opposed to climbing chimneys, they always reached the top first. How they knew where the Rats were going to pop up through the crevices was bard to figure, but they were always waiting expectantly, panting, ready for the next leg of the trip. The dogs were happy going anywhere with the Terrace Rats; the kids even had to put them on the first platforms of their tree houses or the dogs wouldn’t stop whining and barking on the ground below.
From the top of Red Rock, you could see everything—the slough, the backcountry, tiny figures on the beach. The boys loved the ocean, especially when their mothers packed them lunches. Sometimes dolphins swam right beside the boys, smiling, bodysurfing the very same waves. Once the Goodman Rat brothers had a couple of cousins visiting from Minnesota who tagged along to the beach. Since they didn’t have toughened feet from walking on the steaming tar of the county road and the hot sand all summer, they hotfooted it behind, skipping and yelping all the way to the water. A bunch of the Rats dove in past where the cousins stood ankle- deep, finally luring the cousins out farther to show them how to bodysurf, and before long the familiar blue-gray fins loomed up from underneath the water at high speeds to play in the waves beside them. The brothers shouted, “Shark! Shark!” and pointed out the fins to the cousins. Then the whole group of Rats laughed, watching the cousins scream and run back to the beach.
The boys also liked to climb the bluffs on the west side of the Terrace. To get there, they tromped down the county road, up toward the German Car Service, which has been renamed the Del Mar Car Service in recent years. The Rats passed prime land below a grove of Torrey pine trees and overlooking the Pacific Of course, the Rats never looked at the land that way; to them it was just another part of the paradise they called home. In the ’60s the kids heard their parents talking about how someone had bought most of the land the enormous bean field sat on. There was speculation that someone was actually thinking of putting in condominiums. Nobody could believe it; the community was outraged that anyone could think about doing such a thing. Still, nothing had happened yet to force the Rats to prove how much the neighborhood meant to them.
No, at this point the Rats merely hiked through the bean field, acres and acres large, to get to the bluffs on the western side of the Terrace, like they always did. A very old and large pepper tree below Red Rock marked the eastern end of the field. On the western end, just down the road and across the street from the German Car Service, was an enormous mound of dirt — bigger than two or three houses. On top of the grave was the HAVE FAITH cross. Eight feet tall by six feet wide and made of weathered redwood, the words HAVE FAITH were carved deeply into the crossbar. It had been put there by Brother James, an old-time preacher from Ramona who used to come to the Terrace and preach ip the old Soledad School. Not only was the cross a landmark, but the boys found comfort in knowing the giant being was sleeping there restfully.
After hiking through the bean field on the west side, Goodman and the other boys climbed up to Beauty Rock. On these climbs it was hard not to notice the way Torrey pine trees somehow managed to grow right out of the crevices of what appeared to be solid rock. The Rats found agates on Beauty Rock and took them to a jeweler in Del Mar, who made them into marble shooters. And they spent hours digging for hidden rubies and diamonds they were sure were buried there too.
For many years the only businesses in the Terrace were the German Car Service, Soule’s Market, and the Little Bavaria. Soule’s Market was on the corner of Carmel Valley Road and Via Aprilia. When Joe Gooding’s dad initially built it around 1958 or 1959, it was a 10 foot by 10 foot nook called the Driftwood that sold milk and bread and beer and cigarettes. Duma and Pauline Soule bought it after that and expanded its size to about 20 feet by 20 feet, making it into more of a mini neighborhood market. One of the Rats’ signature games—something like a secret handshake— was for one kid to shout to another who was up the road “Duma!” The other shouted bade “Pauline!” The store changed hands several times and was turned into a Roberto’s about ten years ago.
The Little Bavaria was probably the best-known Terrace establishment ever. Known not only in San Diego but up and down the West Coast, people drove great distances from the ’50s through the 70s to dine and dance there. Patrons ordered German beer before it became popular in the United States, and for dinner they were treated to knockwurst, sauerbraten, and Wienerschnitzel, all cooked up by the Sherman family, who lived on the premises. Grandma Sherman was the head chef. There were also Grandpa Sherman, Franz Sr., his wife Josephine, and Frankie Sherman. Big Sam worked the parking lot parking cars for some years. He never brought the Chihuahuas with him, but he’d set up his metal chair right at the entrance of the lot and sometimes Goodman and the other kids talked to him there too. Sometimes he’d have his radio going.
The Bavaria boasted the largest dance floor in all of North County; people who didn’t even dance somehow found themselves out there doing the polka. Poor Frankie Sherman had to wear lederhosen when he was working, a fact the Rats of course needled him about, the same way all of them were needled about their quirks and peculiarities. Later, when Frankie was in his early teens, he joined his uncles and his father in becoming a part of the Alpiners, an oompah-pah band that played at the Little Bavaria nightly.
One of the Rats’ favorite dares was sneaking across the dance floor and out the other side of the Little Bavaria at lunch time, before Mr. Sherman could catch them. It was also a great treat to go in for lunch and get to order a hamburger and a Coke for themselves. If only life in the Terrace could have stayed that simple.
In 1980, after first Grandma and then Franz Sr. died, the Bavaria was sold and stopped being the Little Bavaria. First it was a rock-and-roll club. Then it was a country and western bar. Now the building has been broken up and is used as office space.
An oddly built house up the hill from the Terrace was the tin can house. It was a house that roused the curiosity of the Rats, so much so that occasionally they’d hike up beyond Beauty Rock just to see it. The main route to the house was up 4th Street, renamed Del Mar Heights Road in 1962. At the top of the hill you took a right onto what was an unnamed dirt road. Later it was called Mesa, and then when it was paved it became Nogales, which is what it is today.
Where this public road ends, an enclave out on a bluff with a private road begins. Back then there was so little in the area that the tin can house seemed more naturally connected to the Terrace. Today what you find inside this enclave is a handful of expensive homes. Two of the four sides border the Torrey Pines State Reserve Extension. The Pacific Ocean can be seen along the western side, and on clear days La Jolla is visible down the coast to the south. All of Carmel Valley can be seen south and east.
According to Don Ter- williger, the tin can house was built in the ’40s—right after WWII. “The guy who built the house layered motor-oil cans instead of brick,” Terwilliger explains. “And he didn’t clean the cans well enough, so oil dripped out and seeped into the cement mixture used to plaster the cans together. Apparently the man tried to cover the oil drips by plastering over them, which made the house even more streaky. You could tell he laid all the cans in a uniform direction — the openings facing the exterior — because all the streaks appeared only on the outside of the house.”
Terwilliger remembers growing up in the area in the late ’30s to mid-’40s, when the land just south of the tin can house and down the hill to the east — land that is now part of the extension—was used as Del Mar’s garbage dump.
“The caretaker was an old hermit who lived in a trailer at the top of the bluff who had his own little campground,” Terwilliger says. “When he left to go to the store or something, some- times my father and I would sneak over and see if we could find anything good.” The hermit burned the rubbish at the dump, but his job was twofold. According to Terwilliger, he also oversaw the nudist colony on the west side of the same bluff, on land that now borders the extension. Surrounded by a six- foot-high chainlink fence, the nudist colony had attached canvas on the inside so you couldn’t see in. “There were only four houses up in the area at the time, anyway,” Terwilliger says.
The late Mrs. Rachel McDonald, a widow of 78 who passed away not long after she was interviewed for this article, owned the tin can house with her husband Brooks from 1956 to 1963 and lived in it for most of that time. “We suspected and had heard that the house was made out of motor oil cans,” she explained in a phone interview from Diana, Texas, “but we never actually saw them until we went to knock out a wall. We found the construction very good and sound — the trapped dead air inside the cans was very good insulation.”
Rachel McDonald’s son Donovan, who also lived in the house, concurs. “Those walls were sue inches thick. And whoever the builder was also used some of the sand and clay from the surrounding bluffs and canyons.”
Mrs. McDonald went on to explain that neighbors back in the ’50s said the house was constructed by the same man who built the old 76 gas station down on 13th Street in Del Mar. “He must have saved oil cans for years,” she said. “He and his wife lived in a small trailer on the property while he was building the house. The way the story went was that either Life or Look magazine sent someone out to do an article about the place, which appeared in 1952 or 1953. They sent out a photographer too — a woman — to take pictures for the magazine, and what happened was that the woman photographer and the man who built the tin can house ran away together.”
Though others have made reference to this article over the last year—believing it was in Life or Look magazine or, in one case, Architectural Digest, anywhere from the early ’50s to the early ’60s — I never located it.
Mrs. McDonald described lots of thick sagebrush growing near the house and two big Torrey pine trees on the property. “We planted succulents around the house and running geraniums. The jade didn’t become overgrown like it was later until after we left the house. We couldn’t plant much else because we couldn’t spare the water, it was too expensive.” According to Donovan, the water was hauled over by the truckload from the water tower still visible on Crest Road. Put inside a cistern buried behind the house, the water then had to be pumped.
In 1959, the City of Del Mar incorporated. This incorporation did not include the plot of land that contained Del Mar Heights and Del Mar Terrace. These areas were soon annexed by the City of San Diego. In 1962 street names in the Heights and the Terrace that duplicated street names already in existence in San Diego began to be changed. The people of Del Mar Terrace agreed to go with names of Italian origin. These became Via Aprilia, Via Borgia, Via Cortina, and so on in alphabetical order. This superficial change marked the beginning of bigger changes to come in the Terrace.
The people of Del Mar as well as many from San Diego have a long history of fighting to preserve the groves of Torrey pine trees, the unique cliffs and rock formations, and the unusual foliage and animal life natural to the area that is now the Torrey Pines State Reserve. Dr. C.C. Parry, George W. Marston, Ellen Browning Scripps, Guy L. Fleming, and many others fought hard through the years to ensure government protection of this distinctive landscape. Finally, in 1956, there was a special election in San Diego in which the people voted to donate to the State of California a large part of Torrey Pines Park, including the slough, so that it could then be protected and operated by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
But the population of San Diego continued to increase. More tourists were flocking to the area. Del Mar suddenly began to grow rapidly, and the price of land escalated dramatically. Whole groves of Torrey pines as well as unusual bluffs, foliage, and wildlife were increasingly encroached on. Torrey pine trees on portions of the large mesa behind Del Mar began to be razed. This area and the Terrace were privately owned and not protected. Then, after housing developments and new roads were planned, bulldozers began to appear on top of the mesa. While those inland boys from across 1-5 the Rats hadn’t yet befriended innocently rode the bulldozers at night, there were big plans for these same machines to be used during the day to remove with shocking precision and Speed a breathtaking amount of the unique local habitat.
Del Mar locals quickly decided to fight back. Between 1966 and 1970 a grassroots campaign developed that included not only donations of land and money but also homely offerings from bake sales and high school dances. Finally, matching funds for a $900,000 grant from the State of California were raised, and at least some of this northern segment — including many of the beautiful white and red sandstone formations that are the backdrop for Del Mar Terrace —were bought and donated to the parks system. This is now known as the Torrey Pines State Reserve Extension.
Unfortunately, not all of this beautiful land with the extraordinary trees could be saved. Part was kept by developers and landowners more interested in the private gain that could be realized by building on the unusual habitat. What this meant for the Terrace was that suddenly one day in the late ’60s, graders appeared out of nowhere, and before anyone knew what was happening, the whole western side of the bean field had been bulldozed. It was razed into a series of sloping terraces, presumably created for the foundations of condominiums that would soon follow. The bulldozing took place right up to the giant’s grave. This, it seemed, had been saved for last — as if even the developers knew that when the giant’s grave went, something bigger would be dying too.
Goodman and the other kids now worried that any minute the giant mound and the HAVE FAITH cross would be taken as well. Not only that, but they awoke every morning expecting to see that the builders had begun construction on some structure they thought could replace the bean field the kids in the Terrace had grown up playing in. One day went by, then two. Finally a whole month went by — and still no hammering or sawing.
It took two years for them to get around to scraping the grave. What people heard was that after the bulldozing, the earth had to settle before foundations could be built. In the meantime, while sewer lines were laid in and other details tended to, the different levels of these freshly scraped terraces offered a new dimension to the playground that was Del Mar Terrace. Younger kids on bikes and older ones on motorcycles constantly rode through the grounds making jumps off the various terraces, then gliding down the slopes to the next jump. Everyone began to think that maybe the developers were going to leave the mound and the cross alone.
But one day the bulldozers started moving again, scraping more land, leveling everything. They got closer and closer to the mound. Then the unthinkable: One day it was just gone. Someone had destroyed the grave where the giant had been resting peacefully all those years. The most shocking news circulating the Terrace by the end of the week was that the cross itself was next to be exhumed.
That’s when Joe Gooding sprang into action. He wasn’t going to sit around and let somebody get away with this—somebody who thought that purchasing land gave you the right to destroy it, to take it away from an entire community that had grown to love it. Joe marched right on out into the neighborhood and by word of mouth gathered as many locals—Rats and otherwise — as he could find. He invited them all over to his house. He tried to keep people calm, as well as organize beer and soda runs down to Soule’s Market. There were different generations, and they had lived in the Terrace for varying amounts of time, but they all agreed: something had to be done. The HAVE FAITH cross couldn’t stay where it had been all these years; it had to be moved from its rightful place in order to protect it.
Quickly, while they were still riled up, the whole gathering of neighbors tromped down the county road. It was only a question of time before the giant's cross was ripped from the earth, bulldozed. They couldn’t let that happen to the landmark that meant so much to all of them.
Soon they were standing near the bulldozers, around the cross. There were about 20 people now. Several started trying to work the wooden base free, and eventually the group excavated the cross without much effort.
But then what? Finally several of the stronger boys from the older generation of Rats, mainly it was the Moon brothers—the twins Bart and Bill and their older brother Dickie—decided to carry it up to Red Rock, where it could be seen for miles around and everybody could enjoy it.
Cheers broke out through the Terrace crowd once this plan had been devised. It was decided that everybody not helping to carry the HAVE FAITH cross to Red Rock would meet at an agreed-upon spot above Beauty Rock—in the bluffs on the west side of the Terrace—and observe from there. More people continued to join the crowd, and they walked the Moon brothers halfway, then split off from them and turned for the hills in the other direction to meet the rest of the neighborhood.
The Moon brothers took turns hiking the cross up the hill on their backs. They took it up the dog trail, not quite to the top of Red Rock, where the cross would be safe. There, the brothers used a pickax and a shovel to make a hole in the sandstone. With the handles of the shovel and pick, they tamped dirt in around the bottom. As they brushed their hands off and hiked across what was left of the bean field to join their buddies, they felt they had done the Terrace a good deed. Now everyone would be able to see the HAVE FAITH cross whenever they looked up at Red Rock. It would be a historical monument.
The people over near Beauty Rock—now maybe 25 or 30 in number—whooped and hollered Everybody in the Terrace knew what was going on by now. The crowd waited for the Moon brothers to finish the hike back over, then patted them on the back. Everybody sat there for a while, admiring the cross’s new location as the shadows grew longer. A beer or two were cracked open.
Suddenly somebody was shouting. A person had appeared over on Red Rock while none of them were paying attention, a person who was now pushing against the cross. The cross was down! Somebody had pushed the cross over! Everyone was standing now. Somebody said it was Mr. Prentice (not his real name), a man who owned property nearby. Yeah! said others. It was definitely Mr. Prentice!
So Bart Moon and one of the other older boys started the long hike back across the canyon to right this wrong, a hike that took 25 to 30 minutes. As soon as they got there, they put the cross back up. And then they began the hike back to Beauty Rock, where all their buddies were clapping and cheering and happy that the HAVE FAITH cross had been restored and was watching over Del Mar Terrace again. That was the whole idea.
But before they could even reach the other side again, Mr. Prentice was back up there, screaming this time that the boys who’d carried the cross up had walked across his property and had therefore been trespassing. And that nobody wanted the damn thing up there in the first place.
Before anybody knew what was happening, a shrill engine roar resonated throughout the Terrace — brrrrrrm! Mr. Prentice had started up a chain saw. And then, believe it or not, he walked straight up to the cross and cut it into five or six pieces, just cut it up and threw the pieces over the side of Red Rock.
Finally everyone climbed back down the hill and into the Terrace, where they made it back over to Joe Gooding’s place and ganged around for a while. By this time the whole neighborhood was outraged. People started calling Mr. Prentice’s house, one of the first built right into the side of Red Rock. Lots of people called him. They told him off, shouted, accused him of being in the Terrace only to make money, said he was just trying to move his way to the top of the hill.
Eventually Mrs. Prentice phoned Joe Gooding, yelled at him that all the stress was bad for her husband, said they were going to sue Joe if the calls didn’t stop.
“Go ahead!” Gooding shouted.
The Prentices kept threatening to get the police after him, but Gooding had no control over the number of outraged people in the neighborhood who called them that night, giving them a piece of their mind.
What kind of a person was it who thought you could own something like Red Rock, anyway?
Time crept by, and more and more homes were being built in the Terrace. More people wanted to live there, lie abundant vacant lots the Rats had grown up with started to disappear. People built farther up into the sandstone bluffs to the north, literally pushing the Terrace into the rock formations. Lots in these bluffs that had never been flat before were leveled and frequently given inadequate drainage. When it rained heavily, pools of standing water filled them since the sides were built up to keep water from running straight down and eroding the hill.
Elizabeth Taylor’s brother and his family had moved to the Terrace in the early ’60s, over on Via Esperia, next to the Moons. Except for being related to Elizabeth Taylor, the kids seemed normal and played with the other kids in the Terrace, though the couple didn’t mix socially. Many of the leveled lots that went into the rock formations were just up the hill and around the corner from their house.
One time when Elizabeth Taylor was visiting the Terrace, her nephew hit her in the eye with a rubber-tipped dart gun, giving her a black eye, so they had to temporarily stop work on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Dick Goodman remembers himself and other Rats stopping by the house to try to get a glimpse of the actress. “Girls who baby-sat there saw her once in a while,” he explains. “We never knew when she might be there, so we’d think of reasons to stop by — like collecting for the newspaper on the wrong day.” Goodman never got to see Taylor.
One afternoon it rained and rained and wouldn’t let up. The Rats couldn’t mess around with the ruts in the road anymore now that the roads were paved. Instead, they climbed up into the bluffs and examined the puddles of water stored in all the nooks and crannies. Then they went over to look at one of the graded lots in the sandstone bluffs, which had turned into an enormous pool of muddy water. When rain struck the water’s surface, fragile circles spiraled out from the point of impact. The clean smell of wet pine needles and mud sat over everything.
Goodman dropped his watch into the pool. He reached down into the muck to try to retrieve it but couldn’t see or feel it. He tried again. Finally, he poked a little hole into one of the built-up sides of the lot to drain a little water. His mother had given him that watch, and he didn’t want to lose it. Somehow, the hole got bigger than he intended, and soon quite a bit of water and mud were flowing down the side of the lot and then down the street. It reached Elizabeth Taylor’s brother’s house, and it didn’t stop there. Once Goodman saw the watch, he grabbed it and ran.
By that evening the entire hill had eroded and all the water had run into Elizabeth Taylor’s brother’s house. Everyone thought it was a natural disaster.
The California Coastal Act protecting California’s coastline was passed in 1976, but by that time condos had already appeared and taken over the western half of the Terrace’s bean field, as well as the spot where the giant and cross had been. The units were squashed in so closely that ever since they have been compared to the cells of a beehive. The people of the Terrace, the rest of Del Mar, and San Diegans alike were shocked. By today’s standards, these condos may not seem so atrocious. Still, it was hard to imagine hundreds of people living in the bean field.
Meanwhile, the Terrace Rats had finally met up with their inland counterparts—the ones across the freeway who’d also enjoyed playing on the earthmovers used to build I-5. Finally all the kids had been funneled into Earl Warren Junior High School in Solana Beach and then San Dieguito High School in Encinitas. By 1968 Howard Fisher, with help from his inland buddies, had started giving massive rock concerts, which ushered not only the Rats into the hippie era, but virtually every other kid in North County as well.
Fisher was an affable and popular kid to begin with in 1968 when his mini-Woodstocks began. His family are descendants of American Indians from the Osage reservation, and the Fisher/McGuire family used to own a great deal of land east of I-5, north of the McGonigle and Stevens ranches. For the Rats, nothing was finer than a beautiful Southern Californian weekend stretching out ahead with a Fisher party to go to. Virtually every teenager from Sorrento Valley to Olivenhain (all of whom were bused to San Dieguito High School) tried to get to these parties, but so did kids from La Jolla and Chula Vista, Arizona and Los Angeles. The Rats felt a particular sense of solidarity with Howard, though, because both the Rats and the Fisher kids had always been teased about living out in the boonies of Del Mar.
Howard Fisher—a sunny and articulate man of 47 — is still a tremendously well-known and liked character in Del Mar. He may be one of Del Mar’s last great holdouts as well, making waves to keep at least a corner of the area the way it used to be. Even today, the Rats can’t help but respect that.
Getting to Fisher’s place for this interview involves driving out to the back of a shopping center east of Del Mar, past some condos, looking for a certain color of mailbox, then “jumping the curb” and “riding the ridge” of a hill before coming upon his house. Out front, flapping at the top of a pole, is a well-worn flag that says Don’t Tread On Me. Tons and tons of firewood are stacked everywhere on the property so that I guess there must be a story behind it. Sage, buckwheat, cactus and manzanita—all indigenous — naturally frame the property without the help of ordered landscaping. People considered this area part of Del Mar until the massive development of the ’70s and ’80s. In reality it was part of the city of San Diego. The community became known as North City West and then eventually renamed itself Carmel Valley.
“Come on in,” Fisher says, standing up from a barbecue he’s working on out front. His three young sons are playing in the yard. Like their dad, the kids are lanky and good-looking with sandy blond hair. Only when I get up closer and see the scars and the way his mouth is askew do I remember more vividly the painful story in Fisher’s past.
Howard Fisher built the house we’re sitting in for $800 in 1976. It was only one room at first and then he added a few more rooms and water when he got married. He runs the place off a generator.
The biggest and most notorious of the Howard Fisher parties, he says, took place between 1971 and 1975, though they started giving parties as early as 1968 — before he was drafted. “After my mom died when I was still in high school, we kind of became party central. We’d have up to five or six bands. According to the police, our biggest was the one in 1972, when they said there were 5000 people here. Our biggest parties were, basically, an open invitation to Southern California.”
Joe Gooding, like the other Rats, could hardly wait to get there. “You’d go for the weekend and stay over,” he says today. “They were great.”
Dick Goodman remembers Howard Fisher greeting people who drove onto the property. “You’d turn off of Black Mountain Road, and there was Howard standing out front with a Hefty bag full of joints. He gave one to everyone and told you to have a good time.”
“All the locals knew the kilos were kept under the stage. That was the place to be,” says Gooding.
Reminded of this historic image of himself, Fisher laughs. “God, wasn’t that great! To this day I can walk around in the community and have people stop me and say, I know you. And then they start telling me things that happened to them at the parties, and it’s some of the greatest stories I’ve ever heard.
“But the pot was other people’s ideas; it wasn’t generated by me. We were just lucky to have this ranch only a mile from the beach with a sea breeze and the chance to become party headquarters. Other people would give us kilos of good Mexican pot. I didn’t feel right about doing anything else but giving it back to the people. We weren’t trying to promote drug use. We were just giving a party and it happened.”
The ranch where the parties took place was across the street and down the road from where Torrey Pines High School is now, on the present fire station site and south of there. At the parties’ peak, cars were backed down to El Camino Real and all the way up the hill to the freeway.
“The police were very nice,” Fisher says. “We had an agreement. If I did my best to go by their rules and game plan, they wouldn’t molest the party unless they were requested. We had lots of hand-painted signs: ‘Please don’t park on Black Mountain Road. It’s the only way we can get busted.’ Black Mountain Road was only a single lane back then, and we had to keep it open.”
Typically the parties started with mellow folk music, moved into more progressive rock, and finished with the hottest band they could get. “Usually the bands were from LA or San Clemente,” Fisher says, “but we used local guys, too, like Dean Smith, who went on to play for Faces, and Jubal from the South Cardiff Lodge. Brad was really the guy who lined up the music.”
On the phone, Brad is as enthusiastic as Fisher. Some of the best bands? Railroad Gin, which later became Turnquist Remedy. The folksinger Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. The Shragg Brothers.
“Volunteers started coming to the parties,” says Fisher. “Like Karen, a girl who’d play the guitar and sing real pretty, real mellow—everything would be, you know, the flowers are blooming and the birds and the bees and all that. And it was just such a lucky thing....
“There was another girl, Catie, who was always stirring a big pot of community chow that tasted terrible.” Fisher laughs. “It was gruel, you know? But it was the early days of the vegetarian movement. People would eat some gross vegetarian food.”
Were there outhouses?
“Yeah, well, it was pretty much urinary freedom, you know? We asked that just the girls use the toilets.”
He relates various party highlights, like the time a huge motorcycle gang, the Mescaleros, drove up. “One guy I was out front with assumed a karate stance. Me, I was like,” Fisher adopts an intentionally goofy, flower-child voice, “ 'Hey, guys! Howya doing? Cnion in Fifty cents each!' We asked everybody for 50 cents, and we gave them a joint.
“So by golly, they just stopped their motorcycles, and they handed me their 50 cents, each one of them, and we gave them each a joint. Then they started up their bikes again in unison and circled the mixing stage. Finally they all parked, and then they partied all day long. And they didn’t cause us any trouble. They were just wonderful.”
After all the peaceful years, though, the parties started getting out of hand in the mid-’70s. “What did it, really, was too much drinking,” Fisher says. ‘The one tHat really killed everything was a tequila party where people could drink all they wanted for 25 cents a shot. It was fun until about four hours into it when fights started breaking out all over the place, and we couldn’t control it because everyone was so drunk. The guy who’d promoted this tequila idea took off and left us with this big scene. Finally a guy got hit with a pipe, and that was the end of that. We asked the police to come in and take care of him and help us out, which they were very good about We called the ambulance, and we never partied again like that, ever.”
“We have parties, but just not like what I used to do. I quit drinking and everything at 24. That helps. We had a big one in ’85 that was probably about a thousand people. It was great, but unfortunately slamming was a new fad then. A kid dived off the stage and flipped into the crowd while wearing military boots, and one of them came down on a girl’s head and gave her a concussion. That was it. I never had a big party after that. If people are going to do things like that...”
According to Fisher, building the house we’re now sitting in was not possible to do legally, but he doesn’t care whether anybody knows about the place because the land has already been condemned for use for a public facility. And anyway, like the Rats, he has a good old-fashioned frontier sensibility of what’s right and wrong. Since being forced to sell, he’s rented his house back from San Dieguito Union High School District. “They have no funds for the junior high school they plan to build here. And they’re arguing over the design. I could be here another two years.”
Condemnation is a completely legal process, Fisher says, so that a city can provide for public facilities such as the expansion of a freeway. “Pardee offers a plan to the city, and City Planning almost always rubber-stamps it. They appraise your land and give you a chance to either accept it or fight it. Then it’s up to the individual like me to either fight it or take the money and run. But I never wanted to sell. This Is the last oasis. It’s funny because no one wanted to live out here in the beginning.” Fisher says this of an area that is now a solid mass of lights at nightfall.
Ironically, his grandfather bought the land here after his land in Oklahoma had been condemned for a dam. It was in 1947 that Fisher’s grandfather bought 360 acres for $45 to $55 an acre.
‘To get rid of us, they basically decided to put all the public facilities on my family’s property,” says Fisher. “They decided to put the high school, the junior high school, the fire station, the library, and the community park on the Fisher and McGuire property. All of them just happened to be on our land.”
Most people who visit ask if he’s really mad about all this. “But I’m not,” he says. “It was nice in the old days. It was wonderful. And it had its time. But now you’ve got thousands of people here enjoying this climate, enjoying this particular location because, you know,” he says, pointing out his beautiful view of the coastline through the valley and over the slough and how the area is just enough inland to be out of the fog, “we’re out here in paradise. Why not make it a city? The land isn’t good for farming.
“It could have been less dense,” he adds. “That would have been nice. The city of Del Mar sued North City West to lower the density, but it didn’t happen. It would have been nice.”
It’s hard not to ask about Vietnam—because of the scars, because people would like to know, to get a sense of what was at stake for the Rats when they became draft age. “It all ties in together,” he says, his arms taking in the rustic, sunny living room as well as the rest of our conversation.
In her book, Ewing called Fisher “Del Mar’s veteran.” I explain to Howard that I’m asking because for more than one generation of Del Martians, he was the Vietnam War. He was so well liked, so respected, that when the unthinkable happened — sure, the war was in the paper, people saw it on TV — but when the unthinkable happened to Howard, it had an enormous impact. The Rats, other North County kids, people everywhere, thought, God, how could something like that happen to Howard Fisher? It brought the war home to Del Mar.
Fisher nods, aware of all this.
In 1968, he says, when he graduated from high school, “You were either in college with a deferment, or you were fresh meat ready to go.” Sick of school and feeling patriotic, he wasn’t against some adventure and wanted to protect his country as well as the land he’d inherited. In addition, Fisher’s family had a tradition of military responsibility.
He’d only been over there 38 days in 1969 when it happened. His unit had been placed in a hostile zone for weeks, so long that the enemy was able to tunnel under them and set up an attack that Fisher calls well planned and devastating.
Proud that he was able to coordinate over the radio the rescue of three of their men who were stranded, Fisher was then asked if he’d run some ammunition to another group. And he did it — loaded up and ran through a short area, and made it. “It was like being in a bee swarm with all the different bullets going by making different sounds. It was just a sense of duty. And I wanted to get it over with, get it done, and support the guys. They were scared to death; I was scared to death. But we made it.” When the captain asked him to do it again, Fisher agreed but took a minute to catch his breath. “I was hunkered down in a place where I thought I was really safe. That’s when I got hit in the mouth by American shrapnel, from troops who’d been trying to help.”
An out-of-body experience followed, in which Fisher was asked by “an entity which had no being but was an obvious dimension which I had been to before” whether he’d lived long enough. After answering with a resounding no! he immediately returned to his body and had to pull a chunk of metal from his mouth. “I knew I was not going to die, even though I was bleeding like you’d turn on a faucet, and I had to scoop out my teeth so I could breathe,” he says. “Fortunately, a helicopter was landing, and it was a medical evacuation. After we got up in the air and all the noise and bullets stopped, it reminded me of the Melville novel, where you know that dangerous whale is down there and he’s pissed off and going to kill them if he can, but for a moment they’re up on top and looking around, and it’s all peaceful and calm.”
In San Diego’s naval hospital for 14 months, Fisher started working for Del Mar Beach Maintenance right after he got out of the service and, except for a brief hiatus, has been there ever since. “I needed a job. I needed to build my self-esteem back. I had a really odd face at the time. I didn’t have a jaw. I had to rebuild my face. And I didn’t have any teeth for a long time. I was kind of a freak. About the job, he says, “It’s fun in that it’s like Christmas every day. That chair you’re sitting on?
I found it just last Thursday. The barbecue I’m working on out front, I found yesterday.”
He ties the land and the military stories together by saying this: “The rules change. I never dreamed they’d go back on what they told us. No one dreamed Carter or whoever was going to come along and grant amnesty. It was a shock.” Just like you wouldn’t think land that you owned, that had been in your family for decades, could be condemned right out from under you. Or that people had the right to hack up and bulldoze a giant and a cross who’d watched over you your whole life, ruin land you felt so close to it was like family.
Fisher and his siblings still own eight acres nearby. And as it turns out, the firewood stacked all over his property came from the trees developers in the area are still cutting down. Fisher either goes and gets it himself, or workers for the developers save the dumping fee and bring the wood to Fisher, who’s glad to have it, though sorry to see more trees being removed from the land.
Dick Goodman sums up the gatherings on Howard’s land best when he says, “The end of those huge parties in the 70s marked the end of the flower- child era in Del Mar.”
Among the last people to live in the tin can house was my younger brother Claude ZoBell, who rented the place with a group of roommates from around 1985 to 1991.
I remember visiting Claude at the tin can house one day. The succulents Rachel McDonald had planted and kept under control in the ’60s now not only surrounded the place but had grown so tall you could hardly see the house from the street. Enormous Torrey pine trees further dwarfed and darkened the small adobe house. These and the overgrown jade could have had a suffocating effect except that the dark shadows and the funny oblong pads that stored water like cactus resembled something out of a fairy tale. Walking up to the house, my shoulders barely fit across the narrow path, which was lined so densely it was as if the plump leaves were guiding me to the front door themselves. Exceedingly modem and sophisticated homes had crept in quite close since the ’50s and ’60s. Rather than seeming just up the hill from the Terrace as it did in the old days, the tin can house now had its own neighborhood. The old places in the Terrace where the Rats used to live could have been in another galaxy.
While the tin can house had a red tile roof like any other adobe home, it was never normal, according to Claude. “It was a natural celestial spot. Except for Red Rock, it had the highest peak on the mesa and was very powerful. It was on the coastal line where the fog burned off to in the morning.”
By the time my brother lived there, the place had become rundown. Cans could be seen coming through the walls where adobe had chipped away. Nobody had sunk any money into the house in a long time. Because of the value of the property it sat on, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before it got scraped.
There’s a real bond between people who have lived there together, many are still very close. But there’s also a history of those who didn’t particularly care for each other but stayed because they loved the place so much they were willing to put up with anything.
My brother also recounts the time the roommates were sitting in the kitchen with only candles lit, since twilight was a particularly mystical time in the house. “A stranger knocked on the door and said he was sorry to interrupt, but he just loved the house and used to live there and could he look around for a minute. We could all totally understand since we loved the house too, so we let him in to look. The guy came in, and it turned out his wife never liked the place. He kept touching things and saying, ‘Well, here’s another thing I got to appease Edith’—like these really tacky fancy lights in the hallway. Finally she convinced him to buy a tract house in Mira Mesa, which they moved to, and they got a divorce anyway. So he ended up without the wife or the house.”
All kinds of people made pilgrimages to the house. “The Element,” says Claude, “this guy who wanders around Del Mar with a flute and beads and no shoes, he’d show up once in a while. And about once a month developers would come by and see if the house was for sale. I just told them I was the owner and that it wasn’t” Even a raven started coming by through a skylight and would take food by hand.
About a year after Claude moved out, the property was sold, and the house was finally scraped. Recently I walked by the new home with my mother and stepfather. None of us could understand why someone would buy such an exquisite piece of land— it’s surrounded by a nature reserve, for heaven’s sake — and then build the house on it they did. We argued about whether the boxy stucco building looked more like a bank, a detention center, or a motel. The house’s small vertical windows are quite narrow, and most of the ones downstairs are frosted over. We still don’t understand. Why doesn’t the owner want to see the Torrey pine trees and other natural flora just outside — the lemonade berry, the sage, and the prickly pear cactus; the manzanita, the buckwheat, the chamise?
It doesn’t take a Rat to be upset about what’s happening on and near the freeways that feed into the Terrace these days. Even a relative newcomer can become a little misty-eyed driving on the freeway south. There one sees the gouges yet another series of bulldozers are leaving on the hillsides. Those are the hills that contribute to making San Diego not be Los Angeles. Those hills help define our area as Southern California. They are hills that help us feel—when we’re sitting in traffic at the 5/805 merge — glad to be leaving the city behind and driving home from work to North County. Or, if one lives south of the merge, glad the open hills are welcoming us back to our beautiful San Diego.
The freeway is being widened — sometimes worked on late at night, as in the old days when the Rats first pretended they were driving in the demolition derby out there on Interstate 5.
Every spring that I can remember those hills have been covered with mustard flowers that make me want to roll down my windows and breathe in the air. The hills are truly stunning when all the yellow flowers are in bloom. According to Victoria Bradshaw, some of the native ecology of these hills east of the 5/805 merge and south of Del Mar Terrace had already been disturbed when the area was used for agriculture many years ago. But even recent additions are interesting. Russian thistle, which dries into tumbleweed, was introduced from the hays and grains imported from Siberia for farming. As for the mustard, Bradshaw explains, “The Franciscan priests who were here founding missions left a trail of mustard seed when they were out walking between sites so they could find their way back.” Ranger Wohl adds: “Junipero Serra happened to love mustard, but he also wanted to be able to get back, so he used it like Hansel and Gre- tel to create a yellow stream to follow home.”
But there is also a lot of native ecology being disturbed by all the bulldozing going on. “Native chaparral is being scraped,” says Bradshaw. “That’s a mixture of California coastal plants that includes other plants, like chamise, chia, white sage, datura. Vernal pools have been destroyed by the new freeways. These are whole worlds of algae and mosses and insects and microscopic organisms that spring to life when it rains. The whole area and rock formations were created underwater. Once these things are bulldozed, they will never be replaced These are not only interesting geologically, the/re habitat for various creatures. And they are nature’s art. Many people don’t know it, but San Diego County has more species of plant life than any other county in the continental United States.”
People have long argued where Freeway 56 should go in. “It was first proposed years ago,” Bradshaw says. “People have always wanted to connect Interstate 5 to 15 for easy access to the coast. Despite locals’ strong opposition, planners decided to destroy the natural Carmel Creek and tried to mitigate this by fabricating an artificial creek in its place.”
Dick Goodman looks reflective when asked to comment on the area. “My brothers and I used to fish for bass in that creek. It’s sad that some of the open spaces and the wildlife aren’t there for the kids today. We’re fortunate the state reserve has protected the places they have, but I hope these areas won’t start to seem museumlike and artificial to kids but that they’ll get some sense of living in nature like we did.”
Ranger Wohl: “Freeway 56’s effect on the environment has never been adequately dealt with.”
What people have done who are less interested in the environment, says Bradshaw, and more interested in making money is to separate the various issues central to all the development in Carmel Valley so that the overall impact will not be closely examined.
The example she gives: “Now that 56 has been approved and is being built, there will be a four- lane freeway ending and merging onto a small, two-lane country road—Carmel Valley Road. There are a lot of people who don’t want Carmel Valley Road turned into a big highway, so the city planners obscured the impact of the whole project. People were told we would just try to make do. But an obvious result of 56 going through without properly dealing with overflow traffic is that eventually Carmel Valley Road will have to be made into a four-lane highway.”
If Carmel Valley Road-— the old county road that runs below Del Mar Terrace — is doubled in size, this will have an impact on the character and growth of Del Mar Terrace.
Not long ago, Joe Gooding — once King of the Rats—decided to stop by the Terrace and have a look around. It had been a few years since he’d seen the place. He swung his truck into the Circle K, and lo and behold — there was Bart Moon, one of the old Moon brothers.
The two started shooting the bull about the old days, and before long Moon pointed to some kids hanging out on the other side of the parking lot. “I think that’s one right there,” Moon said.
“One what?” said Gooding.
“Yeah, that’s one of the Rats,” Moon said, and then he went inside the Circle K to get a Slurpee or whatever it was he’d come for.
Joe Gooding laughs with obvious amusement as he relates this story to me. “So I walked over to the four or five kids hanging out,” he tells me, “and I said, ‘Hey, you guys do any fishing?’
“ ‘Yeah, we love fishing! We want to go fishing!’
“And I said, ‘Wow, you guys take after me. You really Rats?’ “And so two of them roll up their sleeves and I said, ‘Oh, my God!’ ”
Gooding continues laughing. “These guys were, like, 13 or 14 years old. And they had TRs on their arms and legs!”
Not that long ago — late ’50s, early ’60s — it was big old Sam, 300 pounds, who was making his way down these same roads, only in his case he was with his tiny dogs, and he was on his way to Soule’s Market for his daily six-packs of tall-boy Busch Bavarians. Sam had the patience, even after they teased him, to talk to kids like Dick Goodman when their dads didn’t have time about those Triple- A, Pacific Coast League Padres. For years, he sat in front of and guarded the Little Bavaria, kept an eye over the neighborhood. He cared about the Terrace, did what he could for the place. He and many others, including the giant whose grave oversaw the west entrance, have long since passed away. Even Sam’s Chihuahuas have presumably met their reward, in whatever kind of place dog heaven is.
In the best of all worlds, their heaven, like ours, is something like Del Mar Terrace still is today—full of Torrey pine trees, sunsets, a natural estuary, the Santa Fe train honking comfortingly in the distance over the slough. Hundreds of beautiful native plants that others before us fought to preserve are here for us to see. It’s reassuring to know that there are still people living in the Terrace who love and want to be identified with the area. But they have to help the world understand that if the reason people want to live here keeps getting bulldozed away, it won’t be here anymore.
Long live the Terrace Rats!
Bonnie ZoBell’s short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and she won a 1995 NEA Fellowship for fiction. This article is a nonfiction version of various elements of a novel she is about to complete entitled Dog Girl and the Terrace Rats. She teaches at Mesa College.