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Stranger in a not-so-strange land

By DUNCAN FORGEY

It’s late Sunday night at LAX. Flabbergasted by immense crowds at the gates, restaurants and sidewalks, all the way to the streets and car rentals, it feels like I am looking for a lifeboat on the Titanic. Los Angeles, once a sleepy pueblo called “El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles del Rio Porciuncula,” has become a monster megalopolis that grows like unattended mold.

Driving alone on a transition road to the 405 Freeway, my rear view mirror is temporarily empty. But in an instant, speeding headlights pour angry light into my rear window as speeding cars fly by. My speedometer is 40 mph. I am driving Kauai-style. Speeding up to 65 mph, I slide into the freeway’s slow lane dodging others going 70-85 mph. My little Nissan and I made enemies all the way to Newport Beach.

In the course of the next eight days, five “mini” road rage incidents came into play due to my “cautious driving.” I was like a child in the NFL, always in the way and definitely out of my league. People yelled and their anger surfaced because I obeyed stop signs, drove the speed limit and took slow tight turns. I was constantly challenged by oversized SUVs, modified teenage cars and even a wrong-way skateboarder. Hostility boiled over like volcanic lava. It seems that  breaking the law is the norm and anyone not doing so is the recipient of middle fingers, derogatory names and hostile looks. I soon fell into line by increasing my speed and stress level.

Stranger Cub Scout Troop

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

Cub Scout Troop, Lido Isle in the 1950s (Duncan is pictured in the second row, second from the right)

Within the city limits of Newport Beach, I felt a sense of relief. This will always be my town. My memories and experiences here are key to who and what I am today. Life around Newport Harbor is unlike anywhere else in the world. A “live-in Disneyland” with residents armed with tickets for all of its many rides.

I was home, or at least I thought I was home. Little did I realize how fast time changes things. There existed a sad detachment from the streets and neighborhoods that I have frequented since kindergarten.

First and foremost, I was on a business trip. But as we all know, Newport Beach is never all business. Old friends and colleagues reached out sharing some great times. Age has taken a ravaging toll on some, but they still remain lifelong playmates. In Newport, parties and friendships are to be celebrated.

Returning to Newport Shores, once the “poor man’s Lido Isle,” it looked the same. Famous for its “renters and partying locals” decades ago, the Shores has matured and is attracting more mainstream families. Like the rest of Newport’s neighborhoods, older houses are vanishing and in their place are larger contemporary homes. “Oldsters” are dying and small-town beach attitudes die with them.

Tom Stillwell has captured this phenomenon in his popular Facebook Page, “I lived in Newport Beach BEFORE it was the OC.” Those of us who experienced the “golden era” of the harbor (pre-1980) may sound a bit like snobs, but actually it is the reverse. Our love for the town is strong. Like fanatic Dodger fans, Trojan versus Bruin graduates or a diehard Marine, we honor the huge influence that Newport Beach has had on all of us.

Many current Newport residents don’t appreciate the smells, noise and intensity of oldtown. They stay away from the beach due to hassling crowds.  Developers are tearing down everything that is old in an antiseptic style. The city is an expert in dealing with invasions of tourists, having dealt with Bal Week, Fourth of July, hot summer Sundays and Christmas Boat Parades for decades, all of which bring thousands of tourists and challenges to residents and law enforcement.

Those who were raised here are different. We were raised with a sense of independence, desire for adventure and strong makeups that both attract and frustrate future spouses. Right before “For richer or for poorer…until death do us part” should be inserted: “…acceptance of my collection of quirky friends.”

Even in the beginnings of this great city, Newport Beach has produced an amazing collection of characters. The Gabrielino Indians were the first smart enough to enjoy the laidback beach life of the Santa Ana River and Big Canyon.  Joseph and Helen Duarte, The Sharp family, Edward Abbott, John Scarpa, George Hart, Dr. Gordon Grundy, Sid Soffer and thousands more have slipped into obscurity while sculptures of Bunny Rabbits circle around City Hall. The past sadly disappears quickly in Newport.

Field of Honor flags

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Photo by Lana Johnson

Flags line the path in the Field of Honor at Castaways Park

Shout outs are due to those quietly keeping Newport Beach’s soul alive.  The Exchange Club of Newport Harbor, the oldest existing service club in the harbor area is a roomful of wonderful people dedicated to old values and patriotism. Visit the annual Field of Honor in Castaways Park each spring with 1776 American Flags, or attend their movie fundraiser for prevention of child abuse, and you’ll see the heart and soul of Newport Beach. Spirits of Theodore Robins and his son Bob, Art Gronsky, Dick Freeman, Jack King and Jerry Wooters circle Newport Beach forever, leaving behind a vibrant tradition of self-sacrifice for the community.

Stranger Karams restaurant 1953

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Karams restaurant on Balboa in 1953; it latemoved to Cannery Village. Cruisers Pizza Bar & Grill is now located at this location.

The Commodores Club of Newport Harbor, created as part of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce, consists of 35 of the best and brightest business men and women in Newport Beach. It has become the beating heart behind so much of the entrepreneurial and promotional events that makes Newport unique.  Annual Christmas Boat Parades, Sandcastle Contests, Flights of Lasers plus appreciation breakfasts for fire, lifeguards and police are aimed at celebrating how great our city is. But it is the Commodores’ influence regarding the politics and business environment that makes the club a force in town. Leaders like Paul Salata, Seymour Beek and Tom Johnson plus hundreds of others over the years keep the Commodores Club vital to modern day Newport Beach.

Stranger Flight of the Lasers

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

Flight of the Lasers (now called Flight of Newport)

In my eight-day sojourn, I was also blessed to attend ongoing birthday celebrations. It became obvious that my fellow “children of the 60s” had changed. We once talked athletic accomplishments, jobs, boats, babies and finances. The subjects of conversation now are doctors, politics, ailments and memories. Prideful old injuries have long been forgotten and damaged organs, various cancers and faltering minds are today’s concerns. Baby boomers have moved past replacement surgery and entered into the “cross your fingers and hope not to die” stage of life. Among these groups of old hippies, Vietnam Vets and grandparents, laughter is sometimes a cover up for concern, but if you are lucky enough to have known them since elementary school that same laughter is the best prescription for a failing body.

War babies are now at the age when younger people tolerate them. These once unruly youth of the 1960s and 1970s shuffle as they walk and are hurtfully described as elderly. They are frightened of losing their relevance. By looking in the mirror, they see that Peter Pan has grey hair and a bad prostate and Tinker Bell can’t remember what she is supposed to do with her magic dust. But discussing the past makes it seem like it happened yesterday. Remembering with old friends ditching school and hiding from “Bring them Back” Jack King to surf or drive to Mammoth for a weekend of skiing.

Stranger Newport Pier

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Photo by Duncan Forgey

Newport Pier, a constant throughout the years

Note to Millennials: If you happen to see one of these “oldsters” as they drift off do not worry. They are likely revisiting their favorite sandy beach circa 1960 with the warm summer sun baking their skin, while making fun of LA, Chicago and New York. You see, there were very few real challenges then, plus we experienced a trifecta of schools (Newport El, Ensign and NHHS), the harbor and its old boats, the Pavilion, dory men, and of course, the ferry boats…

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Duncan Forgey, a lifelong resident of Newport Beach, now makes his home in Hawaii. He is a monthly contributor to Stu News Newport.