To eyes that had grown used to the flatly forested lowlands of Coastal Carolina, Southern California was an infinitely varied series of high desert steppes, rolling hills, and zooming concrete superhighways. Where Carolina had been uniformly green and rural, Southern California was all rocky browns and tans, distinctly urban, and interspersed at irregular intervals with tiny patches of spindly trees and tumbleweeds. As we drove north from San Diego Airport, the hills grew slowly greener and more forested, until at last we arrived in Fallbrook, a brilliantly green oasis in the desert of San Diego County and the self-proclaimed Avocado Capital of the World.
This would be our new home.
|My father as an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam|
My mother pulled off the interstate and into a distinctly small town, a place marked by rural roads, open space, and trees—all rarities for Southern California. We drove up Main Street and past an A&P supermarket, turned right, and headed along a narrow two-lane road up into the hills. That road wound its way into a hilly green subdivision of small, single-story ranch houses, mostly stucco but with enough brick and timber construction to keep the area from looking monotonous. At last we arrived at a short, dead-end street that curved up and around a long, low hill and then out of sight. My mother pulled her Isuzu Trooper into the driveway of a dilapidated old three-bedroom stucco house that sat on the corner. It was fronted by a small grove of some two-dozen fruit trees, but beyond that all I could see was a brown roof and ancient split-rail wooden fence that looked like it was rotting in places.
Mom parked the car and turned to look at me, pride evident on her face. “This is our new home. What do you think?”
“It’s gonna need some work,” she said, catching my mood. “Come on, I’ll show you inside.”
I followed her out of the car, not trusting myself to speak. She led me down a short brick path and on through a small orchard, which lay heavy with the scent of rotting fruit. I looked out and saw fully seven lime trees, small handfuls of orange trees, and a pair of gigantic grapefruit trees all packed at close intervals along the curb in our front yard. The ground below was littered with decomposing citrus, giving the air a decidedly tangy, slightly putrid smell. Beyond the trees, I saw a short grass yard and then the house itself, a small off-white structure with brown wooden highlights. Mom pulled out keys to a beat-up old front door, the top half of which was decorated with a geometric design of two-inch cut-glass colored windows. Together with the door’s dents, this made the house itself look like the front for a particularly vile Mexican restaurant.
Inside was no better. The house had hideously ugly brown shag carpeting, and it was filthy. When I put my hand down to touch it, a flea jumped up and bit me, leaving a small but incredibly itchy red welt. The walls were bare, but the house’s fixtures were gaudy black iron from the same tacky restaurant as the front door, complete with cheap multicolored glass lampshades. The house had a brick fireplace, and that was okay, but the kitchen was a wreck, with dilapidated particle-board cabinets, many with doors hanging askew. A few were pitted in places as though someone had taken a chisel to them.
My mom went over to one and ran her hand across the scars. “Apparently, this place used to be a way station for migrant workers moving north out of Mexico,” she said. “These marks are from where they used to practice throwing their knives.”
I stared at her. “You can’t be serious.”
“Come on, I’ll show you the best part.”
I followed wordlessly. Mom led me out of the kitchen and around the fireplace to a door into what I thought would lead to the garage. Instead I found myself in what had once been either a bordello or an impromptu porn studio, complete with brilliant red shag carpeting, red and white flock paisley wallpaper, and mirrors that ran end-to-end across the full length of the ceiling. This was the garage, but I could see from the doorway that the garage door had been sealed permanently with carpet nails.
“I know, right?” Mom smiled brilliantly. “We got a really good deal on this place.”
“You must’ve,” I said skeptically.
“Come on,” Mom replied. “We’ve got a lot of work to do before our furniture gets here. Once we fix this place up, you won’t believe it.”
My mother, I thought, has lost her damned mind.
* * *
My folks arrived in the San Diego housing market in the immediate aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash. Our eventual next-door neighbor had been a big-time stock speculator before the crash, and though he’d lost big time in the event itself, he’d decided to sell a cheap piece of rental property to cover his losses and reinvest. This allowed my folks to buy the house that my mother had just shown me for something like $140K. The fixtures and the grounds had suffered ruinously from neglect, but the house was structurally sound, and it sat on an incredible three-quarters of an acre of pristine land in one of northern San Diego County’s most prosperous communities.
I got a dozen or more flea bites from sleeping on an air mattress in the three days it took my mother to arrange to have the house’s carpeting replaced, during which I spent most of my time helping make basic repairs and upgrades. We repainted the rooms and replaced the wall fixtures, put in shelf paper down in the cabinets, and replaced the cabinet doors. I then helped my dad pull out the red carpeting and the wallpaper in the bordello/garage, after which we removed the carpeting nails, reopened the garage door, and installed an automatic garage door opener. This made the garage functional again. We then replaced a few of the posts in the fence and put up more fencing to match around the back of the house, so that our dogs could run free. We then painted all of the fencing a clean, matching white.
Once the carpet was replaced, even I could see that my mother had made the real estate deal of a lifetime.
Fallbrook looked very much like the answer to our prayers. My father was delighted to be back with his Marines, infantrymen from the First Marine Division. My mother had a long-term project in the form of our new house, and it promised to pay significant financial dividends when she was finally finished fixing it up. For me, well, Fallbrook Union High School not only had a swim team, it also had a water polo team and a swimming facility built right on campus! Swimming in San Diego wasn’t some weird, ancillary sport that no one understood. It was an integral part of our new community’s cultural institutions.
Our euphoria couldn’t last.
The first shock came when we checked out the local age group team, the Fallbrook Swim Team, known colloquially as “FAST”. They weren’t. My folks had planned for me to swim with FAST, but as we began to learn more about the area, we quickly realized that this particular team wasn’t ready to support swimmers with legitimate talent. It was geared more towards younger kids and part-timers, kids like the ones I’d known back at Camelot. The nearest good team turned out to be the Vista Swim Team, in nearby Vista, California, about a twenty minute drive from our new home. After two years commuting to swim with the Devilfish, my mother was not pleased by this turn of events, especially once she realized that she was going to have to take me to two-a-days if I wanted to succeed by the standards of San Diego County.
The next shock, though, was arguably worse. Dad came home one night during those first few weeks in Fallbrook looking as sad as I’d ever seen him. He had a forlorn look in his eyes that I didn’t recognize at all. He was haunted and near the brink of despair.
“Oh Tom, what happened?” my mother asked.
Dad shook his head. “There’s been a change,” he said. “They need a commander for Recon Battalion.”
“What does that mean?”
My dad looked at me. “I was supposed to command either 2-5 or 3-5, one of my old units. But they need a combat-qualified Airborne Ranger to command First Reconnaissance Battalion, and I’m the only one of my rank in the entire division.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” my mother said slowly.
“It’s theoretically the best command in the entire division,” Dad replied. Against all odds, a little pride crept into his voice. “I’ll get to earn my gold jump wings11, and I’m virtually assured of making full colonel once I finish.”
He shrugged. “They’re not real infantrymen, not my Marines. They’re… well, they’re Devil Dog Para-Frogs. That’s the best way I know how to say it. They hit the beach out of little rubber boats and scout ahead of the division.”
“So…?” my mom asked again.
“So?” My dad gave me a meaningful look. “So now I’ve got to learn how to swim.”
11. Given for making five parachute jumps with Marines. Since the Marines have very few airborne units, these are highly coveted.