For 15 years, I have taught a course in the history of the American West. There is in my file of lectures a folder titled "California Dream." The folder is empty. The lecture title has appeared every year in my syllabus, but I have never delivered it.
It is not that I have decided, year after year, that the topic is unworthy. Some historians believe that California is not really part of the West. Others, and I am among them, think it is the ultimate West.
Nor is my failure to deliver the lecture proof of my indolence or incapacity for research. I write and publish on other topics while the "California Dream" folder remains empty. Indeed, I research the topic every year.
My failure to do the lecture does not mean that I do not talk about California in my course. I find the topic is beginning to permeate the course. It is appearing more and more in topics that in the past I thought had no relation to California.
I have not discussed the California Dream simply because I do not understand it. After living in the state for a quarter of a century, I still find California a mystery.
My first exposure to California came when I was a child growing up in Texas. I had an uncle who had moved to Los Angeles. I had only a vague recollection of Buck before he moved, but when he came back to Texas on visits, he talked about Los Angeles, Hollywood, beaches, deserts, orange trees, seedless grapes, and palm trees. In my young mind, California was a land to dream about.
Like many of my friends, I became a Saturday-matinee movie zealot. But there was more to my interest than mere entertainment. My uncle, I told my friends, was in the movies. His real name was Buck, but his movie name was Clark Gable.
I didn't think I was lying. I really believed it. Buck looked like Clark Gable. He was ruggedly handsome, with black, wavy hair and a closely trimmed mustache. He was neatly groomed, but there was a tousled look about him. His beard must have grown awfully fast, for he always needed a shave.
He wrinkled his forehead when he smiled, always closemouthed. He had a deep voice; he was muscular and radiated masculine charm. He looked like Clark Gable, and I decided that he was Clark Gable. It was not necessary to ask any adult, certainly not Buck, to verify it.
When my father announced one winter day that we were going to California the following summer, I couldn't believe my ears. I hadn't dreamed that I would ever actually see that never-never land. An aunt and uncle had moved recently from Texas to Santa Ana, and we were going to visit them. I spent the spring in ecstasy, saving and counting my growing hoard of pennies and nickels. I stacked them and arranged them in lines and circles, spending them in my mind on delights I had only heard about.
I hardly saw the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. We snacked on Ritz crackers and napped in the car along the roadside. I don't recall that the ride was uncomfortable and only vaguely remember the respite as we sat in the shade of palm trees in Yuma, waiting for night before we crossed the Colorado River and the dreaded desert beyond. I had only one thought: California.
I was not disappointed. My vision of fantasy-California became paradise-California. My aunt and uncle lived in a house in a walk-in court. There were palm trees on the street. An orange tree grew at the front door of the house. In the back yard was a tree bearing an exotic fruit that I had never seen and would not taste, but it was wonderful nevertheless. It was not until I moved to California nineteen years later that I tasted my first avocado.
It seemed that we stayed in California all summer, though it was just more than a week. My memories of that week are vivid and full of the wonder of a nine-year-old provincial Texas boy. We walked along Olvera Street and went to Aimee Semple McPherson's Temple. I waded in the Pacific Ocean twice. On a memorable afternoon, I bought a large sack of green seedless grapes for ten cents and ate them all.
We visited Forest Lawn. I walked on every sidewalk there and saw the disgraceful David statue with his bulging fig leaf. I was awestruck and stared until an elderly couple approached and I walked hurriedly away. My brother and I sat timidly on a stone twin seat, near the Wee Kirk o' the Heather, I think, while my mother took our picture.
We drove one cool morning to Mount Wilson Observatory. "You can see right into somebody's bedroom with this telescope," Buck told me and volunteered to give me a nickel for it. My Mother thought the price extravagant and the suggestion indecent and pulled me along to show me the tame deer that my brother was feeding.
Back at my aunt and uncle's house, I lay on the floor, eating a sandwich and grapes and an orange, listening to the phonograph, another wonder, driving the adults to the point of distraction by playing the same records over and over, day after day. I still associate the Andrews Sisters with palm trees and Los Angeles, and apple blossoms with peanut-butter sandwiches and California.
The awe I felt for California on that first visit has never really
passed. That sense of wonder and mystery in a place can be felt only by a newcomer. Anyone
who has traveled can understand that special feeling when touching foreign soil for the
first time. Nothing that happens later will change that magic. A native can love a place,
but it can never be a place of mystery, as it is to a newcomer. Natives understand their
own land, or think they do.
Ending my naval service in Japan, I traveled six months in Asia and Europe, then returned to graduate school in Texas. California was never completely out of my thoughts.
A friend in the same graduate program and I talked often of California, sometimes late into the night sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. In summer, we took our chairs to the back porch. We sipped wine and watched the sun set beyond Austin and talked some more about California. He finished a semester before me and moved to San Francisco. Following my graduation, I returned to Fort Worth, my home town, and became the controller of a plastics company.
California haunted me. I called my graduate-school friend often. He talked about San Francisco, his job at the Federal Reserve Bank, his apartment, and his friends. I told him about my position, friends, ties, roots, prospects of the heart and pocketbook.
During one of these conversations, I told him the news that had rocketed through the company that day. Our president had turned down a seven-figure offer from an automobile manufacturer to purchase the business. Recently, our company had received an extremely favorable write-up in Business Week. Only last week, we had gone public, and our stock was already soaring. Employees had been given the opportunity to buy stock at par, and I now owned a nice block. I explained in considerable detail how I expected to turn this windfall into a tidy fortune and my controllership into a post in top management.
I paused. No response. I waited. There was an excruciating silence. I thought the line had gone dead.
"You're coming then," he said.
"Well, come on."
"I'll be there in a week."
San Francisco proved a marvel that I've never quite gotten over. It is repetitious, even trite, to talk about the city's attractions: the fog, hills, wharves and cable cars, bay and breakers, night life and North Beach, beats, hippies and history, the hungry i, and the Old Spaghetti Factory Café.
I love the city now as I did that first week when Jon let me stay in his cramped apartment that I thought the most magnificent digs possible. It had no bedroom, just a fold-down couch in the sitting room. But that room had a view from one side--through the power lines--of Twin Peaks, and a small triangle of bay from the other side. Surely no mansion on Nob Hill had a better prospect, I thought.
I have been to San Francisco hundreds of times since--indeed, I worked there more than a year--and I still experience a delicious thrill as I drive over the Bay Bridge, especially just after sundown, before dark, when lighted windows and street lamps sparkle against the dark shapes of buildings that are outlined by the fading light in the west. Maybe it is the mystery that I found in the city twenty-five years ago, rather than the present reality, that holds me now. I've never tried to explain my passion for the place.
Los Angeles, too, continues to fascinate me. Polluted by highways, cars, concrete, sprawl, and smog--though a winter day can be superb--it is still seductive. When I visit my aged uncle in Santa Ana, I sit on a wooden bench in his tiny back yard and listen to the cooing of doves and hardly hear the drone of the elevated interstate highway a few blocks away. I admire the perfection of his garden and soak in the warmth of the winter sun.
Then I visit my wife's uncle at his home in west Los Angeles. He takes me again to his backyard greenhouses where he grows prize-winning orchids, partly for profit, but mostly for pleasure. Back in the house, we drink tea and he reminisces about his years as a movie sound director. He knew all the greats of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. We talk for hours, then drive to a restaurant in Chinatown for dinner. This is where he met his colleagues and cronies. We talk more, and what talk it is.
"Did you know Rita Hayworth, Lambert?"
"Oh, yes, I knew her. I remember when . . . ."
The magic of California for many people--for me, at least--may be traceable more to fiction than to reality. Since switching two decades ago from business management to teaching history, I have tried to find substance to explain the lure of the state. I have found only that it may be impossible to separate the dream from the reality of the land, even from earliest settlement.
Spaniards sailed north from Mexico, searching for a magical land populated by Amazons. And they looked for an elusive, legendary arm of the sea that passed through the continent from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Spaniards and, later, Mexicans also journeyed overland into unknown regions in search of rumored treasure and fabled cities and peoples.
They found instead a smiling land inhabited by happy people who lived comfortably on nature's bounty. At the arrival of the Spaniards in the mid-eighteenth century, California supported the greatest Indian population in the area of the present-day United States. Spaniards and Mexicans stayed and changed an Indian paradise into a Hispanic Arcadia.
Americans discovered California in the early nineteenth century. Mariners and merchants went there to seek their fortunes. They soon concluded that they must inevitably have this paradise. Thomas O. Larkin, a merchant and a leader of the American community, also was the American president's secret agent, with instructions to try to persuade the Californians that their future lay with the United States. Larkin might have brought it off, this conquest by persuasion, had not impatient politicians decided that war was more expeditious.
The United States got more than it expected when Mexico ceded its northern province in the treaty ending the war. The United States long had coveted California's harbors. It now acquired a cornucopia filled with equal portions of things and dreams.
The wave of newcomers to California at the end of the Mexican War came for gold; they found it and created legends. Others came to make homes on the land. Heeding the conscious myth makers, they came because this was the healthiest place on God's earth and because everyone could become rich on California's plenty. The state was filled with boosters and drummers and entrepreneurs of all stripes. They were eager, ambitious, aggressive, and convinced that they had found the end of the rainbow.
They continued coming in the twentieth century. Southern California became, in the popular mind, the fantasy world of the movies. By the hundreds of thousands, people fled the plains where they had seen their crops wither and the soil blow away and went to California, sure that it still rained in paradise. They came for the bounty of wartime jobs and the larger bounty of jobs created by the desperate hope of preventing war. They came because here were sunshine and beaches, surfboards and beautiful people, patios and barbecues, Haight-Ashbury and Jefferson Airplane, Yosemite and Big Sur. Sunrise in the Anza-Borrego Desert, fog in a forest of coast redwoods, soft shapes, quiet . . . .
I'll write that lecture someday. I'm still working on it.
Author note: This article was published in American Way (July 1987), the in-flight magazine of American Airlines. I have since decided that it was the Griffith Park Observatory rather than Mount Wilson where Buck tried to test my innocence. If you have comments or questions, write to the author.