A Scary Abundance of Water

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.


My parents, Mary and Jack Brennan, aspired to these amenities -- "the cult of Valley living," as it came to be called -- but something festering in their marriage soon went terribly wrong. Jack recast his dreams and walked out, rejoining the wife he had never divorced and a young son from that marriage living in Florida. (Unbeknownst to us, he would soon return to Los Angeles with them, pick up his outdoor-advertising business again and also do very well with real estate development.) Orchards, north Valley, 1920

With Esther's and Sidney's help, Mother anxiously began to cobble together a financial life. Her most immediately marketable skills lay with dressmaking and cooking, with what in the 1950s was called homemaking. The first junior high school in the Valley had just opened in San Fernando. Like other Valley schools confronted with a rapidly expanding population, this one was desperate for instructors. Mother got a job teaching home economics there with no credential beyond her considerable skill and gracious personality.

Mary had a knack for getting along with people different from herself. It was more than an ability to smooth over rifts with the light touch of Southern manners; it was a tenet of her constitution. Young Mexican girls, the daughters of braceros working in the northeast Valley, along with the daughters of other, similarly marginalized workers, flocked to her classes. They liked her verve and egalitarian approach. Her success with them, I believe, was at least partly attributable to the students' sense that she understood class distinction went nearly as deep as race did in characterizing the nation's prejudices.

Mary also taught two nights a week at Pierce Junior College, and further supplemented our income by working as a dressmaker at home. On the odd Saturday morning, she'd whisk my brother and me off to L.A. to tour the fashionable department stores on Wilshire -- I. Magnin, Bullocks, May Co. She'd disappear into a dressing room with three or four couture outfits, then tell the waiting clerk that nothing quite fit her. Later at home, using the penciled notes from her purse, she'd pattern and sew identical outfits for herself and her clients in the Valley.

Her friends from those days have told me that, unable to call on child support, Mary simply pitched herself into the harrowing economic reality she faced. Hers was more than what many other women might have been looking at in her circumstances, because she insisted on buying her own home. After her divorce, she purchased a small two-bedroom house on a quarter-acre of land in Reseda, a lot that gave her room enough to plant two dozen fruit trees. She dated various men (including a successful poultry rancher from Canoga Park and a nursery man who landscaped the Reseda place), set a beautiful table and, as she repeatedly reminded us to do, held her head high.

It was, I can believe, just such an enterprising woman as this that James M. Cain had in mind when he wrote Mildred Pierce, dramatizing the difficulties of a divorced woman with two children, making a way for herself in the San Fernando Valley and periodically weighing the advantages of taking another husband.

WATER, ITS TRICKLE, POOL AND FLOW, IS THE DREAM image I recall most often from those years. And with it the fecundity of vegetable fields and flower gardens in the Valley; big marine winds boiling through the eucalyptus trees; and the ineffable breadth of farmland opening to the west of Reseda and to the north of Northridge. To this day, I locate in these bucolic images the impelling power of that mythic injunction to American children -- hit the road. Straddling the crossbar of my bike at the foot of a windbreak row of poplars on some dirt road between Reseda and Calabasas in 1953, looking out across the truck farms, walnut groves and orchards, the dark-green reaches of irrigated alfalfa to dry chaparral on the fan slopes of the Santa Susanas, I would wonder where fortune lay for me.

The intimate water of my childhood -- easy to surmise -- was the Los Angeles River. From my house on Calvert Street it was only a short walk to Caballero Creek, a dry wash mostly, but the best-defined stream course on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Caballero Creek empties into the L.A. River just past Victory Boulevard, near Lindley Avenue. Though the river was channeled to the west of Reseda in the late '40s, it wasn't paved, and we hiked it regularly. The soft river bottom formed a sonic tunnel, alive with red-winged blackbirds and house finches, black phoebes and yellowthroats, egrets, barn swallows and teal. To us, the L.A. was a different river here than the one running in a concrete shunt to the east, beyond Sepulveda Dam.


This way of imagining the Valley -- urban and domesticated to the east, wild and agrarian to the west -- fixed my way of seeing many things in life as extensions from a borderland. In grade school in Encino (at that time the most refined of Valley towns), boys like me from north of the Southern Pacific tracks were called dirtballers, kids who fought each other with dirt clods from the fields. We were from the outlands. We didn't build our play forts in backyard trees but out in the open, in decks of baled hay.

The rural character of the west Valley was changing so fast back then that only a child riding the crest of this wave of suburban development might remember it as gradual or isolated. In that pivotal decade (1950­60), the population of Granada Hills, for example, increased by 1,001 percent. Canoga Park grew by 576 percent, Chatsworth by 361 percent. In that same 10 years the Valley as a whole, growing at two and a half times the rate of the rest of Los Angeles, doubled its population from 402,538 to 840,531. This change in population density had an ã almost sharply delineated edge. It was surging west and north from the southeast corner of the Valley, moving toward Calabasas, Chatsworth and Granada Hills from Encino, Van Nuys and Pacoima.

In 1953, Reseda stood on the narrow, anomalous boundary between town-lot subdivision and small-scale irrigation agriculture.

The northwest and northeast corners of the Valley were marked for me by formidable icons in 1953, by the Simi Hills above Chatsworth to the west and by the Cascades of the Los Angeles Aqueduct near Sylmar to the east. The former incorporated several movie ranches seen often in B Westerns, of the sort Esther and Bobby Davis were helping Republic Pictures to make in those years (and which I and my pals watched as avidly as did any other group of American boys). The Cascades, lit up at night like the fabulous debouchment of a liquid silver mine, was the tumbling riot of water pumped over and through the mountains from the Owens Valley.

I can imagine no other but a Southern California childhood of this particular era that might have been tensioned in such a peculiar way. A boy could easily anchor himself, his innocent psyche, midway between the hay field and the public swimming pool in the San Fernando Valley, finding the two but a few minutes apart on a bicycle. He could position himself, as well, midway between a pre-eminent American symbol of mythic (though misleading) bounty in the east and, to the west, a rugged landscape of earnest but spurious histories, around which the country was reinventing itself in the Eisenhower years. Subdivision, Encino, 1953

To visit the Cascades as a boy, to stand in silence in a wash of water-chilled air before Mulholland's altar, was to experience something like spiritual exhilaration. It was solace and Edenic magic. To drive through Santa Susana Pass on the other hand and see a distant posse chasing cattle rustlers, to hear the pop and crackle of gunfire, did not seem in the least otherworldly. Recording these dramas was what your parents -- or other parents you knew -- did every day. They made up what you would later see at the movies or on television. Such scenes viewed from the car, however, were not entirely prosaic. The cowboy dramas embodied a serious code of behavior. The heroes rooted out and destroyed evil, and they were brave and eminently trustworthy in a world threatened by such as Hitler, by such treachery as Pearl Harbor represented.

We were not so removed from WWII in Southern California in those days as other American boys might have been. Fighter jets from Edwards, Miramar, El Tejon and other air bases all streaked across the west Valley regularly, sometimes breaking the sound barrier and shattering a living-room window. Perfecting aerial combat, making cowboy dramas -- that's what we imagined adult work to be. That and, for boys living in Reseda, field and orchard work, or maybe a blue-collar job at the General Motors assembly plant in Van Nuys.

The backbone industries -- moviemaking and aircraft development -- were brought home to me symbolically and tangibly by Esther and Sidney. Esther presented my brother and me with Roy Rogers sweaters and signed photos of cowboy stars like Hopalong Cassidy. When Sidney visited, he would often bring a new model plane to assemble, like the B-36 bomber he had worked on. The planes I most liked to put together were flying boats: a military aircraft called the PBY Catalina, built in San Diego during the war; the Martin M-130 (one of which was the China Clipper); and the Boeing B-314 (among which was the California Clipper).


My vision of life's goals, imagined at various times beneath poplars and eucalyptuses on dirt roads somewhere west of Reseda, was infused, of course, with romantic notions of justice and rescuing the unfortunate which I took from cowboy pictures. I had, as well, a yearning to run away, to wing far out across the Pacific in the China Clipper and there take up another life. More deeply, though, a sense of how my life might work hinged on my perception of that peculiar borderland that Reseda defined for me in 1953. One's hopes for a good life might depend entirely on the direction in which one looked. Onion field, Encino, pre-WWII

During my years on Calvert Street, a huge alfalfa field, bounded on the east and west, respectively, by Etiwanda Avenue and Reseda Boulevard, on the north by Victory Boulevard and on the south by Southern Pacific's right of way, was plowed up for tract housing. This was the breaking wave of urban development, but you couldn't say the landscape was thereby irrevocably changed. Something of the original land, something deep and elusive, remained. I can see it still today, like the memory of a thunderstorm awakened by sunlight glinting off a car bumper.

When the L.A. River channel west of Reseda was cemented in, we adapted to it almost without thinking. Instead of slogging through the cattails, trying to avoid stinging nettle and seeing which of us was quick enough to grab a water snake, we arbitrated our friendships in new games. Who could roll an automobile tire down the freshly grouted cobblestone bank of the river the farthest? You had to get just the right pattern of bounces to make it sail over the low water channel and roll partway up the other side. When tract houses came in where the alfalfa field had been, and we could no longer squirm around on our tummies in games of hide-and-seek, we learned to attach roller-skate trucks to two-by-fours and go hurtling down the new sidewalks. Where curbed gutters gathered the runoff from lawn sprinklers, we constructed elaborate check dams of mud and leaves and fashioned Popsicle-stick rafts to bob on the flow.

When we lost a squash field at the corner of Lindley and Oxnard to subdivision, we lost our last good source not only of dirt clods but of squash, a vegetable for which we found many uses. (One day we found a pile of empty cardboard boxes dumped by the trestle that took the Southern Pacific tracks across Caballero Creek. We filled them with squash and stacked them in a barricade on the tracks. The engineer bringing the afternoon train east from Canoga Park plowed straight through, sending shattered rind and stringy fistulas of seed flying out over the dry wash and streaming back along the flanks of the locomotive. The man's laconic wave to us, hiding in the brush, made us giddy with pleasure.) Beyond rotting melons, nothing could replace the splatter appeal of squash. We believed that they were growing elsewhere now, not that they were gone.

I saw large orange groves torn up in Granada Hills in the early '50s but did not feel anxiety or regret. It was change. If change didn't go well, it seemed it might be our fault, for failing to adapt. I remember watching a sculptor friend of Mother in those years, a Pole named Stosh. He worked in a ramshackle studio in an old poultry shed off Reseda on Sylvan. The way he took marble away with his mallet and chisel to make a torso seemed no less magical because I had to walk through a housing tract to see it instead of an alfalfa field. Such change in the landscape itself did not at all mean our aspirations were diminished nor our capacity for wonder. For us, the world waiting to be known was still vast, more so than it could be for boys growing up in the Belgian Congo or Tierra del Fuego.

Looking back, I might say that in those days we didn't take in with sufficient awe, with enough incredulity, that sparkling chute of water tumbling out of the mountain at Sylmar. If the adults understood a deeper message in it, in the magisterial change wrought in the Valley by water from the Aqueduct, they didn't let on.

They weren't afraid of it.

TWO BOYHOOD EXPERIENCES ENCAPSULATE FOR ME THE Reseda I knew as a borderland in the early '50s. One was my involvement with a flock of homing pigeons; the other was with what occurred at John Ford's Field Photo Memorial Farm, a neighborhood property that was sold and subdivided shortly after I left California.


Domestic pigeons and rock doves (their feral relatives) derive from cliff-dwelling stock in the Mediterranean. They're most at home amid bridges and buildings. Historically, they would not have been the type of pigeon to take up residence on the San Fernando Valley's broad, treeless plain. It was only with the advance of a built environment across the Valley that they found that landscape suitable -- and they followed it.

I was given 20 pigeons on my 10th birthday, in January 1955. They were a source of indescribable joy, especially the tumblers. I could not convey adequately to anyone what their soaring and homing meant to me. They seemed to exult in life, and no other kind of reassurance could match the emotion I felt when they returned each afternoon to the small coop I'd built. I spent hours with them, trying sometimes even to keep up with their far-Valley wanderings on my bike. It seemed in my child's mind then that, together, the birds and I were exploring a shifting country between the city -- that conurbation of towns in the east Valley, with its ruler-straight yards and immaculate cars -- and the countryside, with its traipsing coyotes, dirt roads and cactus fences.

The birds took in the Valley from above; I had the ground-level view. We were watching something emphatic move across the land, implacable, unfolding like the flaps of a cardboard box.

The John Ford place I remember as huge, but it was only 8 acres, on Calvert Street off Lindley. He had it built in 1946, a retirement home and recreation center to honor 13 men from his Field Photographic Unit killed while filming frontline combat in WWII. (The unit's films won Oscars for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1942 and Best Documentary in 1943.) A horse paddock and big swimming pool at Field Photo lured us to these private grounds. We'd sneak in for night swims, and during the day try to steal bareback rides on the horses, mounting with a fistful of mane and a boost from two friends. The men who worked around the big barn, with its racks of elaborate Western tack and its fresh hay and grain smells, hardly paid us any mind.

We were also greatly impressed by a sign at the gate: No Women Allowed.

Every Memorial Day weekend (when women were welcome), a celebration began with services at the farm's small war-memorial chapel. It continued on a parade ground with an equestrian show, and finished with a torchlight dinner at picnic tables around the pool. An aluminum canoe filled with iced cases of beer (no charge) and a band in Western regalia kept revelers going into the night. My friends and I, some having slipped away from home in pajamas, studied the final blowout from the cover of oleander bushes, fully expecting someone to fall into the pool.

The weekend festivities included stagecoach rides, a bonfire and flamenco, rancho events resembling those that might have unfolded in the Valley a hundred years earlier, during the waning days of the Spanish dons. Much of the festive life of Valley residents in the '50s, in fact, which played itself out at places like Ford's movie-set hacienda and at horse farms in Northridge, recalled the privileged life of the dons, with its sharp class, race and gender distinctions, its emphasis on horsemanship, its whole-beef barbecues and its disinclination toward labor.

IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL -- I ATTENDED OUR LADY OF Grace in Encino, at the corner of White Oak and Ventura -- we were taught to carve bars of Ivory soap to resemble the different façades of the churches in Junipero Serra's "rosary" of 21 California missions, but we learned nothing of the Gabrielino, the original inhabitants of the Valley. We did not suspect their language lingered in the names Simi, Pacoima and Cahuenga. Characterized as grubbing or "digger" Indians, the Gabrielino were in fact a culturally advanced people when Gaspar de Portolá's party first encountered them on August 5, 1769, in a village on the L.A. River the Spanish named el Ranchería de los encinos, for the coast live oaks in the bottomland. Arguably the most populous and powerful ethnic group in Southern California at that time, they had by 1900 ceased to exist as a culturally identifiable group.

A few years after de Portolá's party passed through, el Valle de Santa Catalina de Bonónia de los encinos was loosely apportioned between two Spanish lessees. In 1797 the leases were terminated, and virtually all of the Valley's 155,000 acres came under the control of the new Misión San Fernando rey de España. Mexican republicanism replaced Spanish feudalism in 1811, and following secularization in 1834 the mission system of land tenure gave way to a more formalized rancho system of pastoral and agricultural leases. These operations were largely replaced by dry-land wheat farms in the 1870s after a series of catastrophic droughts killed great numbers of sheep and cattle.


Platted towns first appeared in the east Valley around 1875; breakneck land development began about 1905, amid rumors of abundant water soon to be delivered from the eastern Sierra. (Under the so-called pueblo right, the city of Los Angeles laid claims to all Los Angeles River water, including the San Fernando Valley's immense subterranean aquifer from which the river itself arose.)


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