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.
The depression filled with rain water each winter, making for a spectacular pond, strewn with trash, awaiting the fashioning of rafts. Water every bit as opaque as the surrounding clay soil, it nonetheless squirmed with hundreds of thousands of polliwogs and fairy shrimp. A few minutes with a bucket and bare hands on a spring day would yield a hundred polliwogs and “sea monkeys” for study and live food for our tropical-fish tanks.
The expanse that is 805 was relatively flat, covered by tumbleweeds, and unmolested by asphalt from Balboa north to the curve in Convoy Street to the far south, save for the aforementioned Marlesta Drive.
This field was forded each weekday by the child occupants of Royal Highlands, a morning-and-afternoon pilgrimage to and from Ross Elementary. It was here where we met up with gangs from other Kearny Mesa neighborhoods — exotic places like Ashford Street, Beal Elementary, and Ardmore Drive. Spontaneous dirt-clod fights escalated into rocks and actual hand-to-hand combat a few times, so use of that field was limited by most of us on weekends unless we were expressly in desire of trouble.
My best friend Greg lived at the corner of Kirkcaldy and Othello Streets, right where the Dirt Clod Battlegrounds and the Fedmart Fields merged. His house was the place to be at as night fell because Fedmart Fields were the neighborhood’s preeminent spot for “Search” — essentially hide-and-seek in the pitch black, through trails and bushes we all knew and could navigate at full sprint.
Mini bikes and motorcycles and BB guns added the thrill of illegality and potential injury. Each week, Longs Drugs, way down by Genesee, put out an ad in the paper that on two occasions had a coupon for a free, ridiculously powerful flashlight with the purchase of the six D-cells it required. For the first few nights after redemption, those flashlights became the source of hysterical Lord of the Flies–style jungle hunts and imposed temporary blindness.
We would return home at nine or so, sliced up by the multitude of burr seeds, Russian thistle, sharp rocks, and the opponents’ filthy, grabbing fingernails. Nothing a soak in the tub and a violent scrubbing by our moms couldn’t cure.
Fedmart Fields extended along Othello Street to Convoy (a dead end at the time) on the east and south to where the Battlegrounds merged with it, right where Convoy turns into Linda Vista Road. Ostrow Street winds through what used to be Fedmart Fields, and to this day, although it must be 35 years old, I think of it as “the new street.” (Didn’t know its name until I Googled it for this blog.)
About where Ostrow curves, behind Wings N Things, was a leveled area, about 100 yards square, that we called Fedmart Flats. This was the spot for any pre-planned contests. Kids from all over Kearny Mesa knew where it was, and its lack of foliage, relatively soft dirt, proximity to several housing tracts and Convoy Street eventually turned it into the primary kite-fighting, bike-racing, model-plane flying, pretend-war staging area. The local Cub Scout troop even added some legitimacy to Fedmart Flats by having an annual kite-flying festival there.
The best dirt clods there were set in bulldozed mounds near where Convoy was being developed — perfectly hard for throwing as far as an arm could, and they would explode with wound-like patterns on impact.
One Saturday, my brother Erick, Greg, and I casually started tossing dirt clods from one of these little hills toward an open-seated bulldozer that sat vacant next to Fedmart Flats in the construction area. Over time, our throws went from light tosses at the treads to slightly harder chucks at the main frame until finally we began arcing the missiles into the cabin itself.
We were at it for a good half hour and then decided to get a close study of the damage we’d wrought. From the floorboard to the base of the seat, the cabin was full of red dirt and partially detonated clods. As we whooped it up over our marvelous handiwork, a tall, hairy, and stereotypically beer-bellied construction worker stomped furiously toward us from the east, bellowing out obscenities and threats.
The three of us scrambled off the bulldozer treads, stumbling over each other and trying to find any bush or ditch that would provide shelter. But this was Fedmart Flats. Everything done there had to be out in the open and preplanned. We lay absurdly spread eagle flat on the ground a few dozen yards from the guy, who then said he was armed and was about to call the cops and our parents and our teachers and the God-damned military.
Greg and I are two years younger than Erick, and by all accounts, not nearly as intelligent. My friend and I arose slowly and shuffled toward the puffy, huffing giant, quaking and mumbling apologies. Erick, recognizing at that point that we were just anonymous punk kids to the adult, bolted. He disappeared into the safety of the trails and foliage he knew so well, leaving us to our own dumb decision. The man — using language we’d never heard — pried our names out of us and then set us back up on the bulldozer to start our pathetic clean-up efforts. After a few minutes, he marched away, roaring about how he would be talking to our parents. Greg and I scooped up worthless little palms-full of the dirt, sobbing and shaking in breathless terror.
Ten minutes later, Erick scurried back and, hiding behind the machine, tried all forms of logic to get us to leave the crime scene. We were afraid to even glance toward where the man had gone, whispering to Erick that the ogre was at that moment bringing the police to our houses to narc us out to our parents. When he finally did convince us, another half hour later, to head back to Kilt Court, we trotted through Fedmart Fields, down Kirkcaldy, and took refuge in our backyard, all the while darting our heads back and forth in fear of the confrontation that never would happen.
There had always been at least a few buildings to the east of Royal Highlands. Convoy was going through, connecting Balboa to Linda Vista Road, Mission Valley, and on to the more-established neighborhoods of uptown. The fields there were short lived, broken up by new buildings and tiny strip malls but extremely rich in interesting, potentially harmful little treasures left by workers and teenagers during the night.
This was the edge of town then, so folks came here to party in relative privacy. We found our first pornography on the path that had formed between the eastern houses of Dellwood Street and the rear of the first stores and restaurants lining Convoy’s west side. We also spied on neighbors’ backyards, declared war with the children of Dellwood, and ran away from their German shepherds. That path could get us back to Ruffner Road from Fedmart Fields. From there, we had Armour Fields to the left. To the right, we could head east on Balboa, cross the Convoy construction area, and find yet another field where the multitude of car dealerships now exists.
This was prime lizard-catching territory — one of the pursuits beloved by the boys of Royal Highlands. My brother, Greg, and I were among the best, and that particular area was chock-full of blue bellies, sand lizards, and skinks. It was also there that we managed to bag the biggest horny toad that I have ever seen. We could overturn nearly any piece of litter and find at least one reptile.
Different hunting styles were required, depending upon the species, but the basic method involved covering opposite sides with pieces of wood or cardboard and diving on the first movement. Sometimes that meant stopping short of pawing a huge, mandible-slashing centipede, but usually it was us looking like a group of bear cubs chasing a salmon upriver — eventually the lizard found refuge in a thicket or one of us raised up with the little animal in hand. We brought along plastic containers, and it wasn’t uncommon for the three of us to take home a dozen lizards in a few hours. We let them loose after several days or, in an entrepreneurial windfall, we found that we could sell them to a Linda Vista pet shop. We assumed we were just wholesalers in the live-animal trade, helping some unfortunate children who lacked our superior lizard-trapping skills to experience the love of the little reptiles. Fact was, I later learned, we were providing cheap snake food.
Royal Highlands remains an island, though now it is a little tract of aging homes set among urban sprawl. It is wonderfully central, with 30-minute-or-less access to all parts of the county; though, conversely, it is now only connected to the rest of the world by Othello Street or the parking lot that sits like an asphalt quilt over Armour Fields.
I’ve been describing how it all once was to my ten-year-old, and in walking around with him, I’ve found it astonishingly difficult to find a single dirt clod for him to throw, to experience just how perfect those projectiles are, under all of that concrete and ground covers and single-story commercial real estate.