by Helen Chade Mahshi
Growing up in rural San Juan Capistrano in the 1960s was a dream. My family lived at the top of a hill on a cul de sac. There were enough kids in the neighborhood that we could spend hours outside playing softball and kickball. Summers and after school, the street was our playground. We roller-skated and rode our bikes. Behind our home, where the hills were covered with orange trees, we kids would find dirt slopes, make a “sled” out of cardboard boxes and ride the hill on our derriere with nothing but cardboard to protect us from the weeds and creepy crawly things. On hot summer nights, we slept with all the windows open. No one worried about burglars or kidnappers.
Back-to-school shopping meant driving all the way to Santa Ana unless we found everything we needed at “The Wardrobe”, a children’s store on Avenida del Mar in San Clemente. Safety and a sense of community were attributes most residents of South County took for granted.
Renee Bondi, who has lived in San Juan Capistrano all her life remembers, “you could easily run across San Juan Creek without worrying about strangers. It was so carefree. I would ride my horse all over town and we’d ride through the Jack in the Box drive-thru. Except my horse would freak when the Jack in the Box voice came on to take my order!”
Steve Carter, resident of Capistrano Beach since 1960, says rural South County was “an adventure” for a young boy. “I remember as a kid walking all the way across the 5 freeway, crossing the hills where San Clemente hospital is and ending up in San Juan Creek with our BB guns. We’d see wild cows out there.”
With six brothers, two sisters, and a neighborhood full of kids, Steve had plenty of playmates. As a student at the Mission Elementary School, he reminisces that his “sense of adventure” often landed him in the principal’s office.
Before the harbor was built, Doheny beach was known for its excellent surf conditions. Steve remembers “diving and swimming where the harbor is now.” Some of his fondest memories include “fishing at the old pier and hanging out at the beach club” in Capistrano Beach. That area is now known as “hole in the wall” and neither the pier nor the beach club exists anymore.
“The water and the air were so clean,” said Steve. The ocean was a deep blue; the sky was a beautiful, clean blue with fluffy, white clouds. You could count the number of days that it was smoggy out.”
Capistrano Beach was still quite rural with empty lots between houses and no streetlights. The neighborhood kids used the fields as their playground.
Renee Lacouague (now Renee Bondi) “We would dig underground forts and tree houses”, remembers Steve. “There was a sense of community. You’d spend hours a day with your buddies and love and hate them. You can’t get that depth of relationship sitting in front of a TV or a computer.”
Renee, certainly an adventurer herself, remembers the night she dared to live on the wild side. “I was 13,” she said. “My older brother, Danny, had a very cool, Ford truck. Because there were so many dirt roads around our home, I’d learned to drive stick shift at an early age. One night I decided to borrow Danny’s truck. I drove through the Orange groves, down the dirt road until I reached the pavement where Ambuel Elementary School is now. I was in a dilemma. Should I continue on the pavement or turn around? I drove a little further and realized a police car was behind me. When the cop came to my window I was like a deer in the headlights. He asked me my name and asked for my driver’s license. I told him my name was Renee Lacouague.” (Her maiden name.)
The policeman asked, “Lacouague?” “As in John Lacouague?”
“Yes,” I said.
“As in John Lacouague, Fire Chief in San Juan Capistrano?” he questioned.
“Yes,” I gulped.
The policeman laughed, turned to his partner and said, “Hey, we have John Lacouague’s daughter here!”
“At that point, he told me to turn around and go home. For years, I never knew if Dad knew or not, so it scared me enough to keep me on the straight and narrow,” said Renee. Living in a small town where everyone knew each other saved Renee from getting penalized for driving under age. But the more significant—and much more dramatic— meaning of community was demonstrated to her years later when she was a music teacher at San Clemente High School.
“I was 29 years old and broke my neck in a freak accident in my home,” said Renee. “It left me paralyzed from the neck down. I am a quadriplegic. The parents of the choir students I taught came together and formed a group called ‘Rally Around Renee’. They hosted huge fund-raisers for me at the Coach House in SJC and the Old Sebastian Theatre in San Clemente. They raised about $35,000 a year for four years to pay for my attendant care which insurance does not cover. This was incredible! And dinners were brought to our home for a whole year. People came together for years after my accident,” recalls Renee. “That’s really what community is all about.”
Steve Carter, left, resident of Capistrano Beach since 1960 with a fish caught off the old pier. Many inspirational stories were shared with me about Renee for years after her accident. I have heard her sing, but had never met her until this interview. It was an honor for me to talk to the lady whose Christian music has helped bring many people to a deeper faith. In speaking with residents about the growth of South County and how it used to be, I commonly heard phrases such as, “people used to be so down-home here.” Many of the old-timers still are. You couldn’t tell then if someone was a millionaire by the way they dressed or the kind of car they drove. With growth and development has come more accessibility to shops and consumer goods, hospitals and theater; but traffic and safety concerns rank high among the locals who grew up here.
“I don’t let my nine-year-old son ride his bike into town,” said Renee.
Development has come at a price. Nevertheless, the friendships made over a lifetime and the continuing beauty of South Orange County keep many of the locals rooted to this area.
“This is still a great place to call home,” said Steve.
“I still love our weather and beautiful rolling hills,” added Renee.
For this writer, my most vivid memories include the view from my parent’s home after a cold, winter rain. From the kitchen window, the ocean is a sparkling, deep blue. I walk to the back yard and see the Saddleback mountains covered in snow. That kind of beauty has drawn many of us to this area. We are proud to call it “home”. b