When I Was a Kid in San Diego

Assignment from my writing class at Central Carolina Community College
8/2011

When I was a kid two of my neighborhood playmates, Lloyd and Julie, were dragged out of a pond in Hidden Valley where they’d fallen off a raft and drowned. I could feel the dread and sorrow hanging in my parents’ unspoken fears. I could see it in the eyes of my friend, Stanley Bolas and the Arboghast boys, too. This is why I was forbidden to venture into “the canyon.” And my mom would not hesitate to whoop my ass with the wooden spoon if I ever disobeyed that prohibition. But she had to catch me first.
Living on Clairemont Mesa, in San Diego meant being surrounded by canyons. We lived on hilltop islands shaved clean for our cookie cutter tract houses. Below us the oak and sycamores beckoned us to come climb them. Rabbits, deer, cowboys and cattle, corals, streams, and of course Farmer’s Pond where my friends had died all provided all the attractive nuisance I needed to tempt me out of the confines of the Heritage housing development..
But, years before I ever disobediently walked down into the abyss of my mother’s fears, I knew the canyon was there. I could hear it. After kindergarten one afternoon, mom and I ate our baloney sandwiches, listened to One Man’s Family and then she put me down for a nap. I laid down on the tufted chenille blanket, a soft ocean breeze wafted the curtains, carressing my little body with cool pleasure.. In the distance I could hear the throaty growl of a propeller driven plane growing as it flew over the mesa. The pitch of its drone dropped into the gorges and then climbed the scale like a baritone saxophone, tripping up and down as the sound waves reverberated through chasm and hill. It was like the call of a big bird, spiking my curiosity, a lullaby luring me to discover its secrets.
“Rules are made to be broken,” my mother told me more than once. The rule of not sneaking into the canyon was one of the first I abandoned.
Dropping off the end of Constitution Road one street up from us was a steep, perilous skid for a 7 year old used to concrete and asphalt. The yerba santa scrub stood as blackened sentinels burned by a brush fire the year I’d first heard the canyon’s call. Sliding a hundred yards down the hill I skided to a stop at the base of the big oak where Hector would later break his wrist jumping to catch the tire swing. Gazing behind me the hillside was a yellow blaze of mustard blossoms covering the hillsides all the way to the beach. I was suddenly in another world. It was all the canyon’s sonic call promised, and more. Later in the summer, after the blooms were gone and the mustard stalks had dried, the hillside would become a sledding hill without the need for snow. It was surfing without the waves.
Climbing up through the slick thatch, a three foot square of cardboard in hand, my buddies and I jumped on our fiberous magic carpets and slid ass down hill until we hit bare dirt and tumbled off ready to do it again. One’s speed was limited only by the distance you climbed and the guts it took make that climb. One day, Alex Calica rode down on his belly and a protruding stick punched through and tore a bloody gash into his belly. Nothing a few stitches wouldn’t fix; but that was the last time I remember Alex descending into the canyon with us.
Of course, the real forbidden destination was Farmer’s Pond. It lived in my memory as a place that had brought death to our street and into our young boy consciousness. But after I’d learned to swim—that was the problem for Lloyd and Julie, they couldn’t swim—I was ready to break my mother’s gravest rule.
Carl Schneider, Rick Frank and I started out early that Saturday and got to the pond by mid morning. The surface glimmered green as the sun angled onto the surface. Cattails circled the ten acre circumference, and the raft, yes, that raft, was pulled up on the sand like it was waiting just for us. Careless, without a thought, so like little boys, we strode up to examine our craft. Hammered together from logs and scrap wood, heads of nails hanging out ready to rip flesh and infect with lock jaw, she looked just fine to us. It was a day like no other in my young memory. We were all Tom Sawyer for the day, fishing poles in hand, in the middle of the pond, diving off, laughing, in another world.

Facto Phobia

Originally published in the Chapel Hill Herald
8/2011
Though the official name of the county in which I reside remains Chatham, the defacto moniker it has earned by the actions of our board of commissioners (BOC) and their supporters is Facto Phobia. This is now, quite literally, a province governed by those who fear knowledge.
A perfect case in point is the recent exclusion of the Environmental Review Board (ERB) from the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Conditional Use Permitting (CUP) processes by the county planning board.
First, a little background on the ERB. The ERB is comprised of local experts with training in sciences like biology, forestry, wildlife management, watershed administration, development practices and a wide range of other disciplines. They have no legislative or administrative authority. They are unpaid volunteers who act only in an advisory capacity. I know several of them personally, and I can testify that these are not pointy-headed, ivory tower academics disconnected from the real world. They are people who have earned their degrees by getting their hands dirty, learning in the field and then applying practical knowledge to the problems of planning and development. The depth and breadth of their experience and knowledge cannot be found among the staff of county government. And did I mention that their services are free?
They have contributed hundreds of hours of service to the county and have increased protections of some our most vulnerable watersheds and landscapes. The ERB has given informed advice on subjects like the Jordan Lake nutrient rules, sewage sludge application on Chatham farmlands, and the watershed protection ordinace to name a few.
I serve on the county planning board, and at our last meeting you’d have thought that the ERB was an all-powerful dictator whose sole purpose was to stop any kind of development in the county. The planning board members appointed by Commissioners Bock, Petty and Stewart voted to bar the ERB from reviewing the above mentioned matters. My question to them was, if someone has the knowledge to keep you from stepping on a landmine wouldn’t you want that person guiding you through a minefield?They apparently do not.
All developments are different. Each has its own peculiar and unique set of challenges. Developers and county staff do not necessarily have the expertise or time to look at a project and see the costly mistakes that can be made; mistakes that will hurt a development, cost the developer more money, or damage the irreplaceable natural resources upon which we all depend.
During the discussion about the ERB’s advisory duties concerning the EIA and CUP processes, planning board members Mike Grigg, Karl Ernst, Phillip Bienvenue and Kathryn Butler argued againts the ERB’s further participation. But their arguments were not based on any substantive grounds. Mr. Grigg was afraid that the ERB would run to the media with any findings they might make. Ms. Butler admitted her ignorance about environmental damage caused in the last ten years because of a lack of oversite. Butler said she didn’t know any of the ERB members but was operating under a “perception” that the ERB was too “stringent” in there reviews.
In fact, the ERB was founded precisely because there has been widescale damage done to our watershed and the state was doing little to nothing about it. Much of the county’s watershed is on the state’s list of impaired waters.
Mr. Ernst claimed there was an “agenda…” “in some of these groups,” ostensibly referring to the ERB. No further substantiation was forthcoming. Mr. Bienvenue said that it was his opinion that since the ERB was “staffed by scientific people” that they didn’t represent “the voice of the county”, and that since they were “scientists” average citizens would hesitate to “challenge” them. Finally, planning board parliamentarian, Tom Glendinning, who has no standing to participate in the discussion, accused an unnamed ERB member “of acting on the very edge of inappropriateness and double dealing, and I’d say conflict of interest” in some matter in which the ERB alledgedly had some involvement. When I pressed him for details, he refused to elaborate. That is a serious allegation—without a single shred of evidence.
These objections betray the naked prejudice of each of these members against the purpose of the ERB. This is judgment by innuendo, rumor and hearsay.
But the bitter truth about facto phobic Commissioners Bock, Petty and Stewart is that not only do they not know the many ways our rivers and lands can be permanently damaged, they don’t want to know; and they don’t want you to know either. This is the legislative enforcement of ignorance. This is the kind of policy making that leads to the irreparable damage of water resources, landscapes and the public health.
Welcome to Facto Phobia.