By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I didn’t intend to go to Gardena High School’s centenary celebration. Gardena, after all, is one of many small towns in the big city that, unlike Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, have never registered on L.A.’s social Richter scale. It’s nothing more or less than a neat, working-class South Bay hamlet tucked between bad-breaks Compton and the beachy glamour of Hermosa, Manhattan and Redondo. Yes, I went to high school there. But I never lived there, even when I was a student. I owed Gardena nothing.
But I have to admit that I was fond of high school, in part because it had given me the only truly integrated experience of my life. During the late ’70s, in the midst of busing wars and other civil rights backlash, modest Gardena was an oasis of diversity long before the word had any cachet. The campus was equal parts white, black, Japanese and early-generation Latino, with some Korean and Chinese thrown in for good measure. It was a rare moment that didn’t last — Gardena High, alas, has since “re-segregated” — but the impression it made on me, the foundation it laid for a certain idealism by which I stubbornly measured the world, did.
And so, when I discovered that the centenary committee was soliciting “Memory Lane” speakers at an afternoon event, former students willing to say a few words for about two minutes, I found myself signing up. I got back an effusive response from Gentry “Buzzie” Akens (“Great, Erin! Thanks!”), a graduate of the class of ’72 who was coordinating this whole thing. Gentry, I discovered, was an animation consultant living in Florida, planning the Gardena bash from his computer 2,000 miles away. Of course, he’d be flying in. I was impressed.
I showed up at last Saturday’s event knowing at least one of my brethren from the class of 1979, Helena, would be there; we sang in choir together, and became very good friends despite the fact that I was black and rode the bus and she was white and lived in town. Things got started early for a Saturday morning, 8:30, already hot. The auditorium was nearly full, and humming with a sense of unqualified expectation I hadn’t felt regularly since about the 11th grade. Helena confessed to me that she’d colored her long hair that week to avoid looking old; she didn’t have to worry, because most of the Gardena alums who showed up were old, or at least old enough to not bother dyeing their hair. The first Memory Lane speakers of the day were graduates of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s who waxed mostly sentimental about Gardena High’s rustic beginnings, its local hangouts and hokey, farm-based traditions. The high school that was founded in 1904 — only the third campus in the then-fledgling Los Angeles school district — had a heavy agricultural emphasis that lasted officially for about a decade, and unofficially much longer than that. The city was a haven for farmers, many of them Asian immigrants, up until about World War II.
We all knew the reason for the change, but nobody could get around the fact that something like half the town — the Japanese half — was rounded up and sent away to internment camps during the war. One speaker, a white woman, tried to make light of one of the darkest moments in the history of American civil liberties. “Hey, we had some real good times!” she exclaimed from the stage. “The Japanese were such good farmers, we didn’t really have a chance to do it ourselves until they were dragged away. Then the Texies and the Okies and Arkies came after they left, so we filled up again pretty good.”
It was the most awkward moment in an otherwise feel-good afternoon. Even the reminiscences of war and loss, of the 1933 Long Beach quake that leveled the school and the political explosions that leveled it in the ’60s in quite a different way, only added to the growing sense that Gardena High was like an underground club to which we would always belong, an L.A. memory utterly unique and shared only by a lucky few. When I stepped from behind the enormous curtain to say my piece, people were already clapping: I was there. That was all anybody needed. “Hello from the Stars of ’79!” I shouted to the crowd. The class name that I’d always denounced as clichéd was suddenly, unironically perfect.
Now is the time for inconvenient courage. I am an Air Force veteran, and every Sunday, Veterans for Peace and volunteers gather at the Santa Monica Pier at 7:30 a.m. to erect Arlington West, a memorial to the fallen U.S. military of the current Iraq war. One cross for every American serviceperson killed is planted in the sand.
As the group arrives, we unload the crosses from Mark Scully’s old blue pickup. Mark is the coordinator for Arlington West and a veteran from the Vietnam War. At times he is still there, and then he returns to the present, his old green eyes jaded and sad. He adjusts his long, white ponytail and hands me a stack of crosses.