Driving north into the western Mojave desert in early September had not been on my “bucket list” of places to visit. Had it not been for our now four-month old business, I would not have gotten to chat with some interesting people living and working in “the middle of nowhere”. And I wouldn’t have taken a scenic tour of the western Mojave.
A trip to Lancaster, near Palmdale, California was on company business for my spouse and me. Surprisingly, it became a “road trip”. For those unaccustomed to visiting the high desert, the most expeditious way to visit Lancaster is coming from the east, from the I-15 ( in the vicinity of Victorville). But those we were spending three hours on I-15 from San Diego were likely heading to Las Vegas. They pass completely by Antelope Valley and missed the rock formations, pinyon pines, Joshua trees, and the classified military-industrial complex in Palmdale. For nursing students this weekend, successfully completing their written and practical skills exams would be their ticket to immediate employment in California. For these kids, who were no older than toddlers when the area was known for the last landings of the Space Shuttle at Edwards AFB during the ’80s and ’90s they had the “Right Stuff”. No spaceship needed.
How many residents of a place that boasts dozens of “touristy” things to see and do, in of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States, frequent them on weekends? And particularly on a beautiful Saturday in the middle of summer? If seven sat at the same table in Seaport Village during the noon hour bustle there may be more than I imagined.
Living twenty minutes to the east of San Diego (judging by Sunday morning traffic), with our kids grown, we have gone to restaurants there for special occasions. So it was a special treat for another married couple, and my wife and I, friends for many years, to go to Seaport Village. Many people may visit San Diego for conventions (Comicon is coming soon), and the Gas Lamp district bars and restaurants is popular with a crowd thirty years my junior. A few minutes away from these, Seaport Village, in years past for my wife and I was a “date destination”. Little craft shops, boutiques, and ice cream and sweets – I admit, I prefer the ice cream to the shop selling handbags – but we enjoyed today as much as in the past. A photographer displayed some captivating images of the area with touches he described took thousands of images and a full day sometimes to capture and then superimpose.
Today the big challenge was finding seating with one of our party in a wheelchair. While the two husbands waited for the burgers, our wives were fortunate: a family invited us to join them. They were also “locals”, which to all of us (except my spouse, a native San Diegan) meant we came from other parts of the country and settled down.
One of the favorite areas that has been restored and re-purposed, is the former San Diego Police headquarters (dating from the 1930s) adjacent to Seaport Village. Though I have been in San Diego more than 20 years, I never noticed what it would become in the last couple years. It was at the suggestion of our lunchmates that we went over to see “the Headquarters” shops, and see what the old jail cells looked like seventy years ago. Where a board has dozens of mug shots of former burgulars, “weedheads”, and petty criminals on display, we all took turns getting a photo op.
There is a lot of San Diego worth visiting for first-time visitors, newlyweds, convention-goers and even some curmudgeon retired Navy people. As long as Haagen-Dazs ice cream is available afterward.
The “San Diego Chargers” jersey worn by a twenty-something man I met near the summit of Angel’s Landing trail prompted me to ask whether he was a Los Angeles -based fan or one from San Diego. From Temecula, Californi, he and his buddies were up in Zion for a “men’s retreat”; among the faith community, that is “code” for a spiritual bonding time. We talked about our respective churches and our military service. As a Navy veteran, he asked me whether I had been to the Philippines; his father had joined the Navy from there. Eugene was an Army veteran. I told him about my son, an Army veteran. Eugene knew Fort Bragg. He and my son, were sort of, but not quite, following in each respective fathers’ footsteps. One of his companions was a veteran of the Iraq war. Both were now college students. As we talked, I encouraged him to endure the bureaucracy of the VA medical evaluation process (he had gone once and was discouraged by the red tape) to get service-connected injuries treated – or compensated. Being young men of faith as well as warriors, these newly encountered Brothers encouraged me. Like me, though my friends and several dozen people attempted the narrow and very physically-demanding ascent to the “Landing”, I knew these guys had nothing to prove to themselves. Military services do the difficult every day. The impossible generally takes just a bit longer.
There weren’t but one or two available seats on the crowded shuttle bus from the Temple of Sinawawa stop in Zion National Park. It was a thirty-minute ride back to the parking lot. Looking tired and a little irritated, the large man ( solid, not stocky) squeezed into the last available seat, directly across from me. He looked at my ballcap and thanked me for my service. We chatted. He was taking in Zion while his wife was at some military event in San Diego. He is a civilian archivist for the DOD, which lead to talking about history, this blog, and travel. Apparently, Lake Powell should be on my “bucket list”. One of the things that all this military reminiscing lead to was to get some coffee prior to starting back to the hotel in St. George.
On Saturday morning, the motel cafe was busy. All eight little tables were occupied. At one table, a man about my age wore a Desert Storm veteran ballcap. I asked him what service, and he responded Navy. I was also a Desert Storm veteran. He offered me a seat. Mike had been an Navy “airdale”, the Navy nickname for a member of the aviation support community. An aviation ordnance technician, he served a carrier airwing in the Persian Gulf during the conflict. We chuckled about engineers who design but never actually tried to use some things in aircraft he worked on; trying to remove an assembly where you could neither lay flat or reach overhead comfortably, but in one case having to crouch the whole time removing it. My companion, a retired DOD engineer, feigned dismay. A couple of comments he made, however, suggested he was a little more ‘dismayed’ than he let on. The trucker at the table across from us was also a military veteran, though from the prior conflict. As Mike and I chatted about the Navy, missed advancement opportunities (if only those darn Master Chiefs would retire so others could move up the career ladder!), and life after the military, the more I got to thinking how a community, a brotherhood, sisterhood, or more accurately – a large extended family one can meet all over the country.
Community. Often it starts with a ballcap, a veteran-themed t-shirt, or other, and an interest in getting to know someone.
Mention grinders to an older Navy veteran, generally brings to mind the large parade ground we marched around in Bootcamp. But “grinder” also means a particular type of sandwich. In Southern California, while there are different names: submarine sandwiches, hoagies, and grinders, there are some places that are vastly different than the franchises that pop up everywhere. And in El Cajon, California, not far from my home, is an institution 50 years in the making, The Grinder.
I actually only stopped in Thursday night at the request of my son, a Vocational Nurse working the evening shift, for a sub specifically made there. It might have been my first visit though I have lived in the area twenty years. After a long workday and a long, rainy evening commute, but I would drive an extra few miles for a sandwich.
It was not a fancy place. A video game table of the sort I had not seen in thirty years was against the wall. On the walls, were Navy-themed art, a Bible quote, articles on the history of this deli, a plaque honoring fifty years, and pictures of local kids. But the one I noted just before ordering was the image of the late Chief John Finn, Medal of Honor recipient (Pearl Harbor) on the wall. The kids working there know whose picture it is. San Diego County is a military community, and El Cajon in the part known as “East County” is home to a large population of veterans going back to the Second World War.
“where do we eat and what show do we go to?”
On date night, quickly planned, even the retired Senior Chief’s understanding wife may have felt a grinder was sub-expectations. The mall was packed with Friday-night families. As it turned out, a little pastry and coffee with live music at a coffee house we like was perfect. We knew the music and lyrics; the acoustics were okay, and probably because the band and their fans are all about the same ages, they concluded at a reasonable hour on a Friday night. 7:30 is almost bedtime.
So much for foodies partying into the wee hours (7:30PM)
One of the major issues in North America and European countries today is immigration. Politics and basic economics drive the debate, regardless of which side one supports. Perhaps it is worth considering – by all parties – for thousands of years, new arrivals brought talent, art, foodstuffs, and skills in navigation, or farming, or just hardiness. There were no aid agencies or politicians, and the adaptable survived. Across vast distances and different continents, it is no wonder that these were first undertaken by sailors, military men, and adventurers.
Long before I became a Sailor, I recall reading the adventure of Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian zoological researcher and explorer. It was then twenty-five years after an impressive 1947 voyage his team made across the Pacific Ocean. Compared to the modern warships in which I traversed the Pacific Ocean, Heyerdahl – and by experiment, pre-Inca natives, constructed a thirty-foot boat, of reed and balsa-wood. With a banana-leafed thatch cabin and a single-mast, six men departed South America. If modern man, in a post-war world might feel exposed – a hundred miles at sea, no sign of land and no birds in the sky, what were the first explorers possibly thinking. I thought this with experience of riding a ship 530 feet (161m) at the waterline, feeling the speck he was in comparison to the ocean.
Thor Heyerdahl’s point in the mid-Twentieth Century was to test that people might have settled Polynesia not from Asia, but from the east – South America – fifteen hundred years ago. A second settling might then have come from North America- British Columbia – by way of Hawaii, five hundred years later. Through radio-carbon dating, sweet potatoes which originate in Central and South America, were subsequently (1991) found by archaeologists in thousand-year old sites in Polynesia. (Since 2005, scholars debate which group came first – Polynesians to Hawaii or Hawaiians into Polynesia).
If you have not read Thor Heyerdahl’s account, Kon-Tiki, and you have a bit of the ocean-adventuring spirit, I suggest adding this to your list. I intend to revisit his story. Perhaps while eating a sweet potato.
As a retired military man I am grateful that I am not deployed to far away seas these days. In San Diego, this holiday weekend has been an opportunity to meet with friends. Saturday with an outdoor concert by the San Diego Symphony at the downtown waterfront ending with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (with cannons!), Sunday with a gathering at Mission Bay, and today for breakfast at a restaurant our friends have enjoyed since the husband was a child.