Peter Shelton

The Airplane View

Posted in How the West was Lost, Personal History by pshelton on September 20, 2015

You can’t go home again. But I was going home to southern California to help my mother following her total knee replacement, an elective trauma none of her children was sure she should undertake at 90. She had made up her mind, though, and she’d made it through surgery and was about to return to her own home. I’d carved two weeks out of my calendar and prepared for a stint as Nurse Peter.

On my second flight from Oregon, the leg from San Francisco to Orange County, my left-side window seat proved spectacularly lucky. We had taken off to the north and banked wide over the fog-draped city and out to sea. The sun was setting, and as we leveled off heading south, my window was eye level with a mass of cauliflower shaped thunderstorms piled atop the Coast Mountains. From Santa Cruz to Big Sur they ranged unbroken, lit like an enormous pink glacier about to calve into an already dark ocean. Lightning flashed on and off within cloud caverns.

Floating below us, between the land and my airplane, was an armada of pink “icebergs,” individual cumulous formations glazed with the same plummy light. Below them a third cloud layer, a blanket of Pacific fog, captured no color but lay flat, gray, and cracked with a million leads, like Arctic sea ice.

Color slowly drained from the scene, first from the lower, drifting “icebergs.” Then, gradually from bottom to top, the wall of pink was replaced by old Carrara marble and finally a bruised blue-gray.

But the show wasn’t done. When all the sunlight was gone from the clouds, my Airbus remained burnished by last rays. For a final few seconds the edges of its silver wing glowed candy apple red, nearly the same color as certain Corvettes in the beach town of my youth.

When I say I was going home, I don’t mean to the house I grew up in. That would be The Brown House, The Old Shelton. My mother no longer lives there. Neither of my parents has lived there for 40 years. They divorced in 1974, and that house was a necessary casualty.

Brother Tom came up with name Old Shelton. When he was in high school he wrote, directed, and starred in a series of musical comedies (The Genuine Gem, Overboard, Nuts to You, and Speakeasy), staged with ever more sophistication, in the back yard, to paying crowds, including local theater reviewers. The Bard, or anyway Cole Porter, would have approved. The youngest sib, Tom knew no other house growing up. I was seven when we moved there and 18 when I moved out. So I had a “wonder years” decade on Ocean Boulevard, our sisters somewhat longer than that, and Tom, as I said, remembers no other childhood abode.

It perched – perches still if only just barely – on a bluff above the harbor entrance at Newport Beach, which at the time we moved there, in the mid 1950s, was a somewhat sleepy, sandy, weekend town with a redolent cannery a block from City Hall. John Wayne kept a varnished powerboat on the bay, and a retired America’s Cup sloop called Newsboy glided by now and again, but the Newport Beach of today, the gilded, shoulder-to-shoulder redoubt of the one-tenth percent, was nowhere on the horizon.

At least not to a boy in thrall at the continent’s edge. The Brown House (we kids coined the somewhat unimaginative appellation) looked down on twin rock jetties protecting the channel. On our side was the gentle crescent of Corona del Mar State Beach. On the far side, at the tip of Balboa Peninsula, was the Wedge, the infamous body surfing spot where waves on a south swell refracted off the jetty and reared up to double height, pile-driving unskilled, or unlucky, surfers headfirst into the sand. Below our bluff on the bay side was Pirate’s Cove, a wave-sculpted maze of sandstone caves and pelicans and urchin-filled tide pools. Just above the high-tide line one cave in particular remained dry year round. Its cool sand floor smelled of piss and mystery. Directly below the house, “The Big Beach” featured one of the safest sand-bottom breaks anywhere on the coast, perfect for learning to body surf, then to surf with fins and a mat, then to stand up on a fiberglass surfboard. All of which I was allowed to do pretty much without adult supervision. It was heaven.

We had an avocado tree in the back yard, and a big magnolia, with fragrant white blooms, in which I built a tree fort. There were Monterrey pines in the front yard that whistled in storm winds and from whose heights I taught myself to rappel on a rope. We could climb out the bathroom window upstairs directly onto the roof.

As kids we took all of this as our birthright, our charmed, unselfconscious destiny. The house was old, perhaps 50 years old when we bought it. It was one of the first houses built on the bluff. An aerial photograph on the wall of a local diner – a family eatery that has since become a bank – showed the neighborhood with just three craftsman-style cottages, ours in the middle. Ocean Boulevard and the alphabetical flower streets – Heliotrope, Iris, Jasmine, etc. – were faint lines in the sand. From a neighbor we learned that the three had been built by Pasadena families back when electric streetcars connected Los Angeles and all of its surrounding communities, including Newport Beach.

My sister and brother and I drove Mom home from the hospital to her slowly crumbling 1960s house on a hillside above Laguna Beach, six miles down the coast from Corona del Mar. Realtors are constantly pestering her to sell, for the value of the view, but her place holds little of the resonance The Brown House contains. She’s lived in it for 30 years, but it means much less to us kids, except for the fact it is filled with her art and has been her home since the end of her second marriage. Tom does maintain an eclectic garden on her deck: pineapple, sweet pea, eggplant, bougainvillea. As a young actor he lived with her there for a number of years and now, as the nearest child, with a condo in Long Beach, he drives down coast for semi-regular visits.

With her walker and her new knee, Mom squeezed through the front gate, navigated the patio overgrown with ivy and a few of the big marble pieces she sculpted when she had studio space (and an air compressor) in Laguna Canyon, negotiated the front-door step and the right turn into the kitchen. We installed her, exhausted, on her favorite couch where her Chihuahua, Rita, went crazy with recognition and relief. We fed her a hydrocodone, a dose of the blood thinner Coumadin, and slumped down around the dining table, drinks in hand.

“Have you heard about The Old Shelton?” Tom asked. “It’s in foreclosure.”

What?! How could that be? The people who owned it were the same couple who bought it from Mom and Dad in a real-estate downturn in 1975. Surely they had paid off their mortgage, if there was one, ages ago. Yes, they were strange. They cut down the Monterrey pines and placed gnomes around the garden. On one prodigal drive-by with my own children, I couldn’t help noticing a black Corvette in the driveway becalmed on four flat tires. Still, it was inconceivable with real estate values the way they were, and had been for years, that anyone would let that property slip away to the bank.

The place had been on and off the market in recent years. Tom, who paid attention, reported asking prices in the 10 to 15 million-dollar range. The numbers were staggering but not out of line with everything else on Ocean Boulevard, which has transmogrified from a line of modest, redwood-shingled cottages to a phalanx of faux villas with nothing to recommend them but piled-high square footage and unassailable views of the Pacific.

Next door to The Brown House on the Heliotrope side now stands a three-story Italianate monstrosity complete with fake stonework, wrought-iron balconies and giant terracotta pots practically on the sidewalk. Back in our day a much smaller house, with a big vegetable garden, was the domain of the Germans, Mr. and Mrs., who played Mr. and Mrs. Wilson to my Dennis the Menace. I used to sneak along our shared fence and lob navy beans, via peashooter, at old Mr. German as he bent to pick weeds. On the Iris Street side, where tolerant old Mrs. Burton (everyone seemed old to us then) hosted tea parties for us kids in her eucalyptus-shaded back yard, now stands what I can only describe as a modernist aquarium masquerading as a house. The front is all curved glass, an aquamarine, Caribbean blue glass, through which one can see a white grand piano, white leather couches, coffee tables, and so on. Only faith convinces me that there are people in there and not schools of giant grouper. It was always just a matter of time before The Brown House, mousey and indifferently kept between these two monuments, would be bulldozed and replaced with a similar abomination. The fact that the eccentric owners had held out as long as they did endeared them to us in a strange but real way.

My father still lives in Corona del Mar in a less imposing neighborhood with no view of the water. He remembers The Old Shelton with both fondness and pain. He’s 92, and slowing down. He thinks a lot about things winding down. I drove up the coast from Laguna to visit him one afternoon while Tom was in charge of our convalescing mother. He wanted to give me a folder from his files, marked PETER in capital letters. We had fun skimming through it: baby pictures of me in Sacramento; a letter from a camp councilor praising my “character;” hand-written budgets I had sent to Dad when my tuition at UC Berkeley came to $158 per quarter; a copy of a column I wrote for Ski Magazine about joining Dad for a day of skiing at Mammoth Mountain, when he was 70 and I was 45.

After the visit, I drove down to Ocean Boulevard to have a quick swim at the Big Beach. There was no place to park anywhere near the bluff; cars were sardined in everywhere. So I parked illegally in the driveway of a house I happened to know was empty, hoping the cops wouldn’t notice. The lady who had lived there, an old friend of our parents, had died recently, in her mid-nineties.

As I approached The Brown House I could see that the hedge in front had been cut down and replaced with opaque green construction fencing. There was a porta-john in the driveway. Shingles slid of their own accord off the roof. The lawn was barren, and a white curtain waved forlornly out one of the bedroom windows. Most of the rest had been boarded over with plywood. The teardown had commenced.

I was surprised by a lump in my throat. Surprised, I guess, because we’d been expecting this for so long, and because now, in my mid-sixties, the vast majority of my life has been spent in mountains far from the waves. Memories will remain, but this physical ending, the disappearance of the vessel in which so many of those memories were born, hit me hard.

From Mom’s deck after sunset I could see a big swath of Pacific horizon, the dark sea ruler-sharp against the sky: Catalina Island in silhouette 27 miles off-shore, the lights of oil rigs in the channel, Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Pacific Palisades pointing a lighted finger at Japan. She is progressing well, impressing her doctors and caregivers, if not herself. She wants the whole knee-replacement thing to be over with. She’s impatient with the pain, which she somehow expected to sail through. Impatient with me for nagging, for insisting she eat and be more deliberate when she walks. She’s glad for her children’s attention but eager to resume the independence, the control she has always taken for granted.

Once she was in bed, Tom brought up The Brown House again. “Can you imagine how $15 million would change all our lives?” Of course it’s completely academic, a fantasy forty years too late. And it’s unattractive thinking. Unseemly. Unattractive is a word our mother would use, and she’d be right. The money thing aside, we don’t often mention The Brown House in her presence. She feels guilty enough, if not strictly speaking remorseful, for having caused the split, even these decades later.

Out my airplane window, returning north to Portland, the wildfires ravaging northern California had spread a blanket of smoke over hundreds of square miles. From Sacramento north it covered the land as far as the eye could see. Only once, nearing the Oregon border, did something emerge from the obscuring smoke. It was the very tip, the top few hundred vertical feet of Mount Shasta’s volcanic cone, a rock and snow island nosing up into the blue.

6 Responses

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  1. Pastor said, on September 20, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    Peter: Amazing and sad. Thanks for plugging me into the memories. Pastor

  2. Heidi said, on September 21, 2015 at 12:43 am

    Such vivid memories for a place we, your cousins, loved to visit for a beach day when we were all growing up!

  3. litotf said, on September 21, 2015 at 1:25 am

    Bravo Peter, glad to see you haven’t lost your gift for finding the right words. Cheers Lito

  4. Allyn Hart said, on September 21, 2015 at 4:07 pm

    I love your writing Peter. I lived at 317 Goldenrod when I was in college.

  5. john fago said, on January 23, 2016 at 12:01 am

    Peter –
    another nice snapshot, thanks.
    Two updates from the changed weather patterns of the Northeast:

    humor in the face of change may be rewarded…
    Health and happiness in the new year!
    Hugs to you and E.

    • pshelton said, on January 23, 2016 at 12:35 am

      Hugs back atcha, John. What, no reward guarantee?

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