A Scary Abundance of Water 

Growing up with the San Fernando Valley

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002

A FEW HOURS AFTER THE JAPANESE BLITZKRIEG AT Pearl Harbor, a Czech national, a combat pilot who'd been shot down over the French Alps in 1918 by a German flying ace, rapped briskly at the door of an apartment in Birmingham, Alabama. A handsome young woman answered. The man, dapper in a linen suit, ushered himself in, courteously acknowledging another woman in the room, and came straight to his point. He was afraid they hadn't heard what had just happened, far out in the Pacific. More precisely, he wasn't sure either of them understood how dramatically different everything was now going to be.

The anxious messenger with his intuition of upheaval was an artist, a muralist and portrait painter, as well as an aeronautical engineer, working then on the wing design of the B-24 bomber for Bechtel-McCone. A fused neck from the WWI air crash, his French schooling and cosmopolitan clothes gave him a slightly aristocratic air, dubious in the Deep South of 1941. The person who opened the door was currently one of his fine-art students. The other woman, an attractive writer for The Birmingham Post, a stylish dresser with raven-black hair, 14 years his junior, was his former wife. The women, both divorced native rural Alabamians, were as controversial -- then -- as he was.

In a matter of weeks the writer, with a yearning for the broader world, would marry a businessman not yet divorced and move with him to Mamaroneck, a suburb of New York City. In the winter of 1945, before the holocausts occurred at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would be born to her and three years later there would be another son. Her Birmingham roommate and best friend, Esther Kelton, would also choose a second husband and move with him to Southern California, where he planned to join the Navy and fight in the Pacific. The artist, Sidney Van Sheck, with a slew of patents and work on the B-29 and the first satellites still ahead of him, would remain in Birmingham. In a year or two he would marry another one of his art students.

While Esther adapted to single life as a war bride in Van Nuys, my mother settled into a Westchester County apartment with her husband and two sons. What Sidney envisioned for each of them that morning in 1941, however, had little to do with these new arrangements. The change he imagined occurring was more akin to the opening of the Jazz Age or the economic shift that brought with it the Goulds and Carnegies and Ford's assembly line. Los Angeles River flooding, 1950s

Esther's letters during the war, describing the good life in Southern California, and later the opportunities for employment with the advent of peace, had a personal impact on my mother and on Sidney. In the late '40s, within a year of each other, they both arrived in Los Angeles. As enticing as Esther's letters had been, promising a renewal of their close camaraderie, Mother and Sidney were driven as well by a siren song. It emanated from an imperfectly understood but catalytic and evocative image Southern California projected then to war-weary Americans -- a fresh start in a balmy and promising land. Along with your overcoat, you could check your personal history at the door. You could pick oranges from your own trees for breakfast. No region of the country had ever, or would ever again, burgeon as Los Angeles did in those postwar years.

In 1947, Sidney and his wife Grace bought a house in Pacific Palisades, and he began a long and wide-ranging career as a design specialist with Hughes Aircraft, tackling everything from high-speed cameras to Hughes' Spruce Goose. Esther and her husband Bobby -- "the love of my life" she would later call him -- had already been working together for a couple of years on the back lot of Republic Pictures in Studio City when the Van Shecks arrived. With families surging into the San Fernando Valley, however, and industry expanding, Esther decided to move into real estate. When my family arrived, my father opened a business in Reseda in advertising and consulting. The narrow but robust economic order that defined the region -- aircraft design, the motion-picture industry, real estate development and corporate advertising -- also defined the financial well-being behind these three families.

During the Depression, a new style of American leisure living had evolved in Southern California among people largely able to ignore the effects of the Depression. After the war that elitist, upper-class life -- barbecuing for friends on a backyard patio, driving the Pacific Coast Highway in a two-seater, casual clothes for golf and tennis weekends, a Spanish Revival bungalow with a swimming pool -- would become, with bewildering swiftness, part of people's expectations for middle-class living.

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