by Bill Thomas
From my commanding view, it's an overcast Saturday morning, hazy inland and down the coast from Dana Point to Cotton's, but, on the horizon, to the right of the now-looming shape of Catalina Island, sharp rays of sunlight slice through the clouds. Scattered sailboats hunt for wind in the spangled water. Within sight are fifteen or so fishermen leaning on rails, baiting, casting, reeling, intently watching the water. One has hooked a small shark; it squirms frantically on the wooden planks for a moment. Sea gulls soar happily and effortlessly overhead, landing wherever they suspect food is a probability. Random surfers paddle their boards or sit astride them waiting for a choice wave. The white water swirls, tosses, and moves towards the waiting beach. Waves of all sizes roll and froth, following their irregular, rhythmic sets. Behind me, are countless, pale-colored, multi-storied buildings rising gradually in tiers towards the gently sloping hills above San Clemente. Ever watchful, I stand guard at the ocean waterfront. I'm on the very edge, at land's end, where the expansive ocean begins.
Why? It's my duty...I'm the San Clemente pier.
Walking the planks
"Each of California's forty-three coastal piers has its own unique personality, a compound of setting, structure, geography, the circumstances which produced it, and the activities of the people who give it life," wrote Jean Fleming in her book, Great Piers of California. And so it is with City founder Ole Hanson's gift to his beloved city, the San Clemente pier, built by 25 men and countless mule teams in 1928.
Parking in the scooped out, landscaped vehicle lot, you approach the pier - stretching its distinctive wooden structure into the waiting sea strolling past lawns and benches and along walkways of red cement, grooved like rounded blocks, curving down to the railroad tracks. To the north is the Marine Safety Building, distinguished by the large rock chimney and a school-like, oversized clock. If you duck under the edge of the pier and look towards the end, the slanted piles, usually three per section, resemble a long line of elephants, legs spread and tails dragging. Below the Fisherman's Restaurant, a multitude of pipes and wiring run in different directions.
Stepping onto the pier's first plank, to the right on a table of sawed off piles is an engraved plaque, "In Honor of these who donated one thousand dollars or more to the restoration of the pier after the March 1, 1983 storm." Thirteen names of local organizations and families are listed. Repair of the severe 1983 damages to the pier was completed in five phases by late1985 at a cost of four million dollars - of which FEMA paid 75%, the City $100,000, private donors $37,000, and State and County agencies the rest.
Further to the left, a sign reads:
SAN CLEMENTE FISHING PIER
A cooperative project of the City of San Clemente with the State of California, Wildlife Conservation Board Department of Fish and Game and State Lands Commission.
From there the Fisherman's Restaurant stretches both to the right and left of you, the first of three T's seen along the pier's length of 4"X12" planks. These two buildings, flanking the base of the pier, formerly the domain of the local boat club, are now a seafood restaurant on the down coast side and an oyster bar up coast. Manager Bob Novello, seafood connoisseur, is on hand to give you a friendly nod. On both outdoor-tabled decks, diners and sippers enjoy the ever-changing surf line with the breakers crashing underneath and spectacular views in either direction.
Beyond the boardwalk are two telescopes; for a quarter you can peek at magnified objects in the distance. Seventy-five yards ahead on the left, atop a steep staircase, is the lifeguards station, with its Admiral's eye view and tinted, slanted observation windows. Fearless, feisty seagulls tease you from the railings; to the right, at the railing toe, a strapped, 4", copper water pipe runs the entire length of the pier. In front, behind, and next to you walk people of all sizes, cultures, ages, manners of dress, and casual purpose.
Next, you approach a winged protrusion on either side, the second of the pier's three T's. Three fishermen watch their lines for the telltale twitch. A tourist is feeding one of the ever-present sea gulls. Every thirty steps or so, you pass an old time-type-streetlight post, resembling the top half of an hourglass. On your right is the restroom building with pigeons perched atop its roof.
A little further on, you pass Schleppy's, a combination bait/fastfood/tackle/gift shop, with its four picnic benches and personable and entrepreneurial shopkeeper, Carl Kepner. He always greets you with a ready smile.
Passing a lonely payphone stand, you arrive at the pier's end, a helicopter landing-sized pad, which comprises the third T, or "hammerhead". Now, you can watch the always changing, rolling sea as it blends into the horizon. Turning around, you're a good distance from the shore. You're standing beside several silent fishermen, amongst them a few older couples settled in with folding chairs and attached parasols. Five marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, sporting swimming trunks and distinguishing crew cuts, peer into the water.
Out on the pier, watching long breakers and wet-suited surfers, straddling their boards as they rock gently on either side of the wooden sliver heading back towards shore, you're in a vast world. It's made larger by its contrast to the man-made structures on the bluffs, rising up from the long straight beach.
Today, the pier seems to have more traffic than usual. By sunset, people are still coming and going - families taking sleepy kids home after a day's fishing or frolicking in the water, European tourists and city dwellers replaced by casual strollers in the fading light, bouncing and bright-eyed lovers and after-dinner promenaders. As the big soft illuminating lamps come on, a few diehard surfers are still at it, riding their boards by the dim pier light.
The pier is a breath of life, an escape from problems, a oneness with nature, and a chance to clear out the smog and fill your lungs with sea air. Under your feet, it trembles softly as ocean swells wander through the pilings, racing shoreward, crashing in their endless rhythm. Doctors should be able to prescribe it in pills or inhaling tubes to cure all your ills.