Outdoors

Southern California in 1924

You could argue that I learned to stay warm or pretend I was warm when I learned to surf 15 years or so before the invention of the wetsuit

Southern California was a magical place to grow up in the 1920s and 1930s. I was born in East Hollywood just below Griffith Park in the grass-covered hills of Los Feliz. Every spring the sparsely populated hills would have three-feet tall slippery grass. I think this is where the sliding-downhill bug started for me as we slid down those hills on cardboard boxes.

I was introduced to the Polar Palace ice arena at the age of 12 and spent the next six years at least once a week making left turns for 25 cents for three hours. When the Pan Pacific ice arena opened, I was 16 years old and it was much larger than the Polar Palace. I graduated to speed skates and wound up qualifying for the 1942 Herald Examiner Speed Skating Championships and managed a third place in the class B finals.

During those years I split my time between weekends on pack trips with the Boy Scouts in the nearby San Bernardino mountains and learning to ride a surfboard. I built my first surfboard in 1937 in junior high school woodshop.

Before they brought water to Southern California from the Eastern Sierra’s it was a desert with lots of sand and gravel. Once the water arrived, Southern California was turned into the massive orange orchard it became before being paved over with concrete in later decades.

When I joined the Boy Scouts, my scoutmaster took us on a pack trip to a stay in the nearby mountains to the east, every other weekend from mid-December until late March. In those days it seemed as though those mountains were snow-covered every winter. And I can honestly say I was only cold once in all of the time I have spent in the mountains and never really been cold since. I learned my lesson early when I spent a sleepless night under a thin cotton blanket in Big Tujunga Canyon and from that weekend on I always had too many blankets in my rucksack.

Most of you readers know that Ward Baker and I spent two winters living in the Sun Valley parking lot in a trailer with no heat and we can honestly say we never were cold even though that first winter the temperature dropped to as low as 28 below zero. Before setting out on this trip we had both been smart enough to buy two Army surplus mummy sleeping bags that, according to the label, were designed to be comfortable at five below zero.

You could argue that I learned to stay warm or pretend I was warm when I learned to surf 15 years or so before the invention of the wetsuit.

I did not know at the time that my life was changing forever when in 1936 the Union Pacific railroad invented the chairlift in a railroad yard in Omaha, Nebraska.

The first time I stood up on a pair of skis and slid across a small snowfield instead of lying on my stomach and sliding on green grass everything that happened in my childhood in Southern California came into focus. I have had a cold wind in my face ever since.

It is easy to say that Southern California has changed dramatically since the 1930s. The surfboards are smaller, lighter, easier to ride, and wetsuits keep you warm. Another substantial change is that instead of two chairlifts in the state of California today there are literally dozens of them.

Where Universal Studios is today, there was a ski resort in 1937. Granted it was just a rope tow and people skied on pine needles, but they were making turns and inspiring other people such as myself to do the same thing.

The main difference in Southern California when I was born in 1924 was that there were barely 1 million people in the Los Angeles basin and today there are about 15 million. If you want to enjoy Southern California the same way I did set your alarm clock for 4:30 in the morning so you can find a parking place when you get to the ski resort or the surf. It’s up to you to enjoy every day of your life.