by Mike Fitzsimmons
San Clemente Historical Society
Friends ask me what it was like growing up in San Clemente during the late 1940s and 1950s? I try not to make them too jealous by playing down what life was like here. But I’ve decided to tell the truth no matter how jealous they get.
Mark Twain once said that growing up in Hannibal, Missouri was a kid’s paradise. Well, San Clemente was Hannibal West, and we kids were all Tom Sawyers.
It took a World War to bring me and many other kids to San Clemente. Many veterans discovered the town after they returned from the War in the Pacific in 1946. After spending one winter in San Clemente they decided never to move back to the East or Midwest where they were born and raised My father was stationed at Camp Pendleton, and we lived in Oceanside. They began looking around for another town to settle in. After a 17 mile drive north they arrived in what appeared to be open fields with a few widely scattered houses. They weren’t sure they were in a town until they found Del Mar, the main street. I was only two years old, always hungry, and not interested in the barren scenery.
My parents were a little disappointed at first. Lots were selling for $700 which was a lot of money then. A real estate agent gave them a glowing sales pitch about the future of the town. In 1947 they moved to San Clemente. In 1948 they “took a chance” and bought a lot. My parents built their own house. I live in that house today. By the end of 1949 the modest redwood sided house with knotty pine interior was almost finished. My father and other marines were called back for the Korean War. My grandfather spent a winter finishing the house and then moved the entire family to San Clemente.
So I arrived in San Clemente when I was three-years-old. By the time I was five, I was enjoying the wide open spaces around our house. There weren’t many kids in town. My Las Palmas Kindergarden class was only 28, that was for all of San Clemente, Capo Beach, and Dana Point. So the kids all knew each other.
By the time kids were six-years-old they were exploring the wide open fields around the town. There weren’t many hazards, other than getting very dirty, catching poison oak in the canyons, or falling out of a tree. We would hide in the tall oats covering the fields and jump up and throw wild oat seeds at each other. The small barbed seeds would stick to our clothes. The City would plow under the oats in late summer to keep them from catching fire and burning the little town to the ground. All the kids looked forward to this because it signaled the opening of “dirt clod throwing season”. I still believe that San Clemente has the best dirt clods in Southern California. The soft mesh roots of the oats kept the clod from breaking apart and enabled a kid with a good aim to leave the big dirt mark on his opponent. Many a time I would come home covered with dirt and tired out from the dirt clod wars.
By the time kids were seven, they would leave their house with only a warning to be back by dinner, or else! This posed no problem because all the kids knew the old-time residents who were always glad to see us and were always good for cookies and milk. Many of the Ole Hanson homes were occupied by the original residents. They would tell us stories of earlier times which we would dutifully listened to while eating the cookies and drinking milk.
When we weren’t roaming the chaparral covered hills or exploring the deep, narrow canyons we would be on the beach or out on the pier. Every kid worth his salt knew how to swim, and we would dare each other to jump off the pier. If we needed money to buy candy we would haul the fishermen’s catch from the end of the pier to his car for a quarter. Somedays I would arrive home covered with fish slime with pockets full of change. My mother was relieved when some older boys put me out of business by throwing my wagon off the end of the pier. There were surprisingly few injuries: Lots of scrapes from running and falling, bike crashes, an occasional broken arm from falling out of a tree, but no car injuries.
We practically lived outdoors. We camped out in our backyards. We climbed Cross Hill past the old empty concrete lined reservoir and abandoned concrete water troughs marking the trail left by cattle that once roamed these hills. We would sneak onto Camp Pendleton where marines had held maneuvers and retrieve the C rations they left behind. We would have running marble shooting contests as we ran across the open fields. Well worn dirt paths led anywhere you wanted to go. You couldn’t get lost. All you had to do was look off in the distance across the open fields to some building you knew.
The town was so small that it wasn’t even on some of the regional maps. Everyone knew each other. The cops knew the kids and their parents. This made it very difficult to get away with doing anything bad. There wasn’t much to get in trouble over, anyway. The parents of many kids either worked for the city or owned one of the local businesses just getting started. It was a very tight knit community. Most kids had the same doctor, dentist, teacher, school bus driver. One time when I was sick our family doctor came to our house in his red evening robe to check on me. He decided I would live, had a drink with my father, and then went home.
Laws in the growing town were loosely enforced. Kids ran with their dogs on the beach and pier. Once when my dog Champ took off for a few days, a city police officer brought him home in his squad car. There were no parking problems and no parking enforcement. Crime was rare. There was no freeway, so San Clemente was insulated far from the metro areas to the north. If you left town you had to drive on a narrow two lane road past miles of orange groves.
School buses would stop at the orange groves to pick up farmers’ children. So you see Tom Sawyer had nothing on us. We lived in a kid’s paradise. San Clemente is still a great place for a kid to grow up, and if a kid knows where to look, he can still find a welcome with milk and cookies.