I am in the final stages of editing my biography after a four-year struggle writing about the ups and downs through a lot of years — much fun, some pathos. Some parts of my life are probably only interesting to me, but I’ve put it all down, nevertheless.
I have been privileged to live through a lot of changes during the first few decades of my growing up and living in Southern California. It was a virtual desert in 1924 when I was born.
The ice truck that came through the neighborhood once a week was pulled by a giant horse. All of the families that could afford ice that week got 25 pounds chipped off of the big ice block. We kids followed along behind it and scrambled for the small ice chips that fell out of the wagon in the process before they melted on the hot asphalt. These were real treats. This was long before we could afford to have any kind of store-bought cold drink, ice cream or a Popsicle.
There was still one street car left in Hollywood that was pulled by a horse. It ran along Franklin Avenue as far east as Western Avenue.
You could buy a brand new 1930 Model A Ford for under $600, and a well-running, 1-year-old car for somewhere between $100 and $200. The higher-priced ones had almost new tires.
There was a great big red street car that ran west on Santa Monica Boulevard to the oceanfront in Santa Monica, and then the tracks turned left and went south along the beach as far as Redondo Beach. I could ride that entire distance for 25 cents, but I usually hitch hiked because the 25 cents was almost two weeks profit from selling Saturday Evening Post magazines door to door.
Manhattan and Hermosa Beach had each built a pier as a tourist attraction. The subdivisions of both towns had cut up the sand dunes into vacant lots only 25 feet wide. They also specified a three-foot setback so that the cottages could only be nineteen feet wide. This was plenty of room to build a weekend beach cottage, but today the lots are full of houses that are nineteen feet wide, three stories high and ninety feet long, that the views are almost all gone.
In 1930, when I was 6 years old and practically living in the Encino Country Club, I helped herd 25 or 30 horses to their grazing in the deep green grass on the property. It was a great feeling to walk barefooted down a dusty road and feel the dust squirt up between my toes. Other than growing up in a completely dysfunctional family, I never did have a bad day as I was growing up or since then.
Today when I watch a robot landing on Mars after years-long journey, I realize that I have lived through such huge changes in everything in America. The only place you can see a horse-drawn carriage today is for tourists such as in Central Park in New York City or the Budweiser Beer wagon in a parade somewhere.
Who is to judge which days were better? Who cares?
Our phone number in Encino in 1930 was Van Nuys 63M, and anyone who wanted to could listen in. No government getting nosy, but there was plenty of corruption in those days, too. Mulholland, Chandler and Huntington poisoned the wells in the western San Fernando Valley and dropped the price of land to as low as $50 an acre with an orange orchard that was now dead because of that lack of water. The moguls wanted to build the government-bond financed aqueduct to Los Angeles from Mono Lake 300 miles away and make a gazillion dollars.
Were my parents smart enough to buy any acreage?
Not even close.
In Topanga Canyon, we lived in a $5-a-month shack with an outhouse. There was a yacht club down on the beach that was run by the Los Angeles Athletic Club with big regattas on Sunday amid big surf sometimes. My life was changed forever by a fisherman from Hawaii who lived there who taught me to bodysurf when I was 5.
The young children of today are spending a lot of their spare time exercising their thumbs in computer games instead of paddling for a wave on a surfboard or just bodysurfing. To me, the water, the mountains, just being outside means freedom much more than sitting on the couch with a computer game.
Today there is a waiting list for people to take a space ride and a few laps around the Earth, along with some weightless time. Why not, if you can afford the $20 million ticket to ride? I was lucky to go to many of the ski resorts of the world before they were ski resorts. I took the long, hard climb to where ski lifts would carry you today.
When the trains were coming out from Chicago to Pasadena in the winter to sell the passengers Southern California land, they tied oranges to the tall desert cactus, making them look like desert Christmas trees.
My first real improvement of swimming through the water to catch a wave bodysurfing was when Owen Churchill invented the swim fin in the 1930s. For $7 plus tax, I was now able to catch a wave and ride for four or five body lengths. As I grew, I could ride bigger and bigger waves. It was a little bit short of a walk on the moon, but I was way ahead of all of my school friends in the wave department.
Memories are just what you make of them. As I wind down on writing about my 88 years of living a way-better-than-good life, I have written about some of the stuff that won’t be in the finished bio or as I am calling it. “A Narration of My Life,” because some of it is just for me. My wife pointed out that some experiences seem pretty negative, but it’s good for me to get it out of my system … a catharsis, so to speak.
On that rainy night in October in 1924 when I was born in Hollywood, there were less than a million people living in the Los Angeles Basin. When I moved to the Northwest about 25 years ago, there were almost 16 million. That is a pretty prolific environment with a lot of job security if you build freeways.
But there won’t be any horse drawn ice wagons anymore. The one thing you can count on is that there will always be change.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications.