The following article first appeared in the “Ojai Valley Guide” (VOLUME 37 NUMBER 2/SUMMER 2019) on pages 154 and 155. The “Ojai Valley Guide” was published by the “Ojai Valley News.” The article is reprinted here with their permission.
Exiled To Mira Monte
(LOOK BACK IN OJAI)
My parents built their dream home in 1963 in Mira Monte on South Rice Road just at the crest of the steep hill. We moved into it that summer. I dug on having my own bedroom for the first time, but we were no longer in downtown Ojai where I had lived my entire life with all my neighborhood buddies. I had just turned 12 years old and was about to begin junior high school and would have to ride a school bus for the first time. I had always enjoyed the freedom of walking and riding my bicycle to school. Dang it! I had to figure out how to entertain myself now that I lived out in the sticks.
Long before any of the custom homes were built in this neighborhood, the area had been covered by really large commercial English walnut orchards. I mean acres and acres and acres of the trees with a big ol’ barn full of processing equipment. So, almost every home out there had English walnut trees. But, there were a lot of acres that had yet to have homes built on them. These undeveloped old orchards made for good fun. I hiked many miles through them. I got a bow with arrows and hunted in them. I got a mini-bike and rode many miles through them. They got even better when I made friends with a few neighborhood kids and we took them in together.
It must have rained fairly decently that year because Mirror Lake filled up. It was a natural pothole that ran sort of north to south next to the Southern Pacific Railroad bed and Highway 33. You’ll find it on old maps of the area. It was that spring or early summer I decided to build a raft. I hauled a bunch of wood, nails, and other raft materials down there and began construction. There was nobody there but me. As I was pounding away, I looked up and noticed two big guys pushing their bicycles on the path towards me. I was rather startled, hoped they were friendly but had a hammer to defend myself. They stopped and watched me for a bit. It was kinda like when dogs sniff each other out upon meeting for the first time. Finally, they asked me what I was doing. I told them. They dug the idea. Come to find out, these two soon-to-be fellow shipmates only lived about a block away from me. They were cousins that lived together with their grandparents, and their grandpa had just built a split-rail fence around the home into which they had very recently moved. Rick Askam and Doug Schmelz would become great friends of mine, especially after they offered up the leftover split-rail fencing of their grandpa’s for our use in raft building.
The three of us spent hours upon hours, poling (pushing the rafts with a long pole extended to the bottom of the pond) around Mirror Lake. Sometimes, the train would stop. It was usually just the engine with a couple of cars and sometimes a caboose. The engineer and his assistant would stand on one of the flatcars, fold back the waxed paper in which their sandwiches were wrapped, then chat with us while they took their lunch break. Man, those were good times!
The railroad is now the Ojai Valley Trail. Mirror Lake got cut in half with the extension of Woodland Avenue from South Rice Road to Highway 33. The larger portion of the lake got filled in and the Ojai Woodlands condominium complex and the Ojai Oaks Village mobile-home park were built on top of the fill.
But, let’s go back to one more story from back in the hood. Pretty much across the street from my parents’ home was the Ventura County Sheriff’s “Honor Farm.” That’s where Help of Ojai is located presently. But, when Doug, Rick, and I were young teenagers the farm for low-risk prisoners was in full operation and a barbed-wire fence ran alongside the farm property next to the road. From the fence down the hill to the agricultural fields in the farm, the hill was kept barren to make prisoner escapes about impossible. We figured out when the deputies were not looking toward that barren hillside, we’d clear that nasty barbed fence, then sprint down the hillside into the cornfield. We’d scatter amongst the tall corn stalks, then have hellacious corn fights.
We’d break off an ear and set it sailing towards one another. You could hear the ear crashing through the stalks as it torpedoed towards you. Let me tell you … when you get clobbered in the noggin by a heavy, green ear of corn, you’ve been clobbered! I got nailed several times. Explains a lot about me, I suppose.
I lived in that same Mira Monte home all the way through high school. I ended up loving the heck out of the neighborhood to which I had been exiled. I became friends, not only with Doug and Rick, but their entire family. All the neighborhood kids called their grandparents “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” Big Joe and Mary Silvestri lived next door to Grandma and Grandpa Schmelz. We played countless football games out front of their home. They treated all of us kids like we were their grandkids.
I could tell you about English walnut wars; running across Henderson Airfield as planes were about to take off; cows grazing where Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Circle K are located now; riding our skateboards and anything else with wheels down the steep South Rice Road hill; playing baseball at Grandma and Grandpa Schmelz’s and knocking the balls over the fence into grumpy Mr. Johnson’s yard (Grandma gave him a piece of her mind a few times); asking my first girlfriend to got steady with me while walking down Woodland Avenue; playing and exploring the Ventura River bed; chasing pigs at the Honor Farm; riding my 1961 Yamaha 80 motorcycle at “Devil’s Gulch”; placing pennies, nickels, and nails on the railroad rails to flatten them; watching Russell Glenn’s 4H Club sheep while he was on vacation and walking it on a leash; rototilling for countless hours at Mr. Peacock’s to make a few bucks, but feeling like I was still shaking for about two days after I was done. I think you get the idea.
Mirror Lake seems so long ago. Yet, in some ways, it was only yesterday. The smell of the warm still water permeating the air, the sound of the rustling cattails as the warm summer breeze gently blew through them, the melodic call of the red-winged blackbirds, the constant clicking of the American coots, the occasional croak of a big ol’ bullfrog, ducks rapidly rising from the water while quacking their hearts away, the train rumbling along the tracks and its occasional whistle blasting — it all lingers sweetly on my mind. I was never really exiled.