Pine Cone Memories

By Tim Henney
Reader Contributor

I revere pine cones. Our Selle Valley property has almost as many pine cones as ant hills have ants. I prefer dead tree limbs to charcoal when grilling salmon, and a pine cone is a tree limb’s kissin’ cousin. But I don’t burn pine cones. I don’t even step on them if I can help it. Before mowing the lawn I chuck fallen cones into adjacent tall grass so I won’t shred them.

Pine cones remind me of Southern California’s San Bernardino mountains when I was a lad. When “going to the mountains” from the beach town in which I was reared was the most exciting thing that could possibly happen. Wild and rugged Mt. San Gorgonio was 11,500 feet high. But magical Lake Arrowhead and its environs were a mere mile high and as forested with cone-bearing conifers as North Idaho is today. Bigcone Douglas firs, Jeffrey pines, white firs, sugar pines, incense cedars, Coulter pines with cones the size of footballs. Their crisp fragrance was what I imagined heaven must smell like, if heaven smelled.

When I was a small boy, Lake Arrowhead was like our lake is today. Pristine, perfect, but much smaller. And Arrowhead Village, on the shore, was like something from a fairy tale. Camelot in the mountains. It had a rustic miniature golf course beneath giant pine trees, a guy renting canoes and rowboats from the beach, and an outdoor bowling alley where the pins were set manually. There was a small theater, a grocery store and an Orange Julius stand, among other essentials. Camp O-ongo, a boys and girls summer camp, was a few miles up Route 18, Rim O’ The World Highway. O-ongo also had zillions of sweet-smelling pine trees and cones, like Arrowhead Village and the conifer forests surrounding it.

Since those halcyon years—mid 1930s to mid-1950s, before Southern California itself became an ant hill—the lake, the village, the  pine-scented forests, and even Camp O-ongo, have been devastated. At least to those of us who knew them when. Too many people and cars. Too many forest fires.Too many bark beetles. Too many greedy developers. Garish hotels and condos now occupy the unpopulated sandy coves where my buddies and I camped and swam over the years. The former Camp O-ongo, for instance, for more than 50 years a piney Shangri-La for those so fortunate to have been molded by its spirit, today looks like an asphalt parking lot. A trillion years removed from boisterous after-dinner songs in the timbered lodge: “Oh you can’t get to heaven on a slide trombone, ‘cause the Lord don’t like, Tommy Dorsey’s tone.”

While pine cones remind me of those pristine mountains, of that storybook mountain village, of campfires and Deep Creek hikes at Camp O-ongo, they bring even more dear memories of my dad. Of summer weekends and vacations sitting on his lap helping steer a Packard with white sidewalls from wherever he was then living—Glendale, Hollywood Hills, Pasadena, San Fernando Valley—to the mountains. Negotiating Route 18, a twisting, narrow, switchback from San Bernardino up the mountain to Arrowhead. A 1930s 30-mile climb more like the road to our own Schweitzer Mountain than to the bumper-to-bumper California freeway it is now. Warning my dad whenever the headlights picked up a black and yellow curve sign en route up the mountain: “Here comes a curve, Daddy!” And his assurance to me that the success of our journey was because of my 5-, 6-, 7-year-old navigational skills.

Halcyon years when a kid could leisurely cruise the blue lake in a wooden Gar Wood speedboat with his dad and dip a paper cup over the side for cold, pure drinking water. Today if you stopped to try that on Lake Arrowhead you’d be run over. Or arrested for blocking traffic. And the water sure wouldn’t be drinkable. When a kid could sit on the pine-shaded porch of a rustic family cabin in a mountain canyon, a cabin long since replaced with a mega-mansion by more hip, striving “new” Californians. Could sit on the pine-shaded porch with his dad and, wide-eyed, watch him call birds right up to the railing by whistling their whistles. Then, with help from his dad and a frigid rope, haul up a bucket of icy water from a deep backyard well after a game of horseshoes in the dirt under a canopy of cone-laden conifers. And the air. The sweet, crisp mountain air almost gave the little kid goosebumps—even on a warm summer day.

Television and computers weren’t even a gleam in the eyes of Bell Laboratories’ scientists yet, but the cabin, along with an attached outhouse, had another primitive accessory: a radio. Jack Benney. Bob Hope. Amos ‘n’ Andy. Lum ‘n’ Abner. Soap operas. Joe Louis fight broadcasts. Kate Smith. The Lone Ranger. The Bell Telephone Hour—which morphed into television and which the little kid would one day be involved with producing, in NYC. Who knew?

The Los Angles Coliseum has little to do with mountain pine cones except that football season is here and my dad and I spent as much time together in that massive saucer as at Lake Arrowhead. Near downtown L.A. and adjacent to the University of Southern California campus, the coliseum was hallowed ground to me.

My dad had been a USC “yell king” in the late 1920s when a yell leader at a big football college was as celebrated as today’s rock stars. He became locally famous for originating “The Trojan War Horse” on brightly colored “cards” in the student cheering section (“card stunts” evaporated in the 1950s). For his yell leading, and for later years of involvement in SC alumni activity, he was asked to announce half-time entertainment at USC home football games at the coliseum. From the mid-’30s to the mid-’40s I spent autumn Saturdays with him in the public address booth on the big bowl’s 50-yard line. Once, as he was describing a visiting Stanford marching band performance, a purveyor of popcorn, colas and candy bars passed near the booth. I yelled, “Daddy, can I have a Baby Ruth?” Before he could slap his hand over the microphone my request boomed out over the loudspeaker system. He was amused, not angry.

The only time I recall his ever chastising me was at the 1939 USC/UCLA football game (my mom, in Long Beach, where I lived, took care of discipline with the back of a hair brush. Butt spanking was legal, even recommended, in those days). At the ‘39 bruin-trojan battle I rooted for the wrong team, UCLA, for two reasons. First, I liked their uniforms. The Bruins looked flashier. It was bad enough to cheer for upstart UCLA, a public university where people studied to be teachers. The in-crowd attended private USC and pursued studies aimed at making them titans of commerce. Worse, I cheered for Jackie Robinson, a young Bruin speedster from Pasadena who ran circles around the Trojans. My dad didn’t know any blacks personally, and didn’t want to. He wasn’t crazy about Jews, Hispanics, Asians or Catholics, either (because of him, for years I thought Notre Dame, a major SC opponent, played dirty football because it was Catholic).

Jackie Robinson, future sports legend and all-American hero, led a gang that used razors on boys like me, my father said. His downtown L.A. buddies, many of them former SC football players, felt the same about people who weren’t White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. L.A.’s male business leadership in the 1930s and ‘40s was not known for enlightened views on humanity. Some say it hasn’t changed. But my dad dearly loved me and I loved him.

When he suffered a sudden, lethal heart attack at 46 from too many years of too many gin martinis at the downtown Jonathon Club, and too many thick, marbled steaks slathered in butter, I was 16. That was 68 years ago. I’m almost over the shock. My dad was trout fishing with his third wife, Nora Lane, who had acted in western movies opposite William (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd and other pre-Clint Eastwood, pre-John Wayne actor cowboys. He was fishing in Bishop, Calif. between Big Pine and Deep Springs. Bishop is known for an ancient bristle cone pine forest. How fitting for him to die there, if he had to die when he did.

I have often wondered if maybe my dad had me partly on his mind when he and Nora hiked in over fallen bristle cones and pine needles to a sparkling Bishop trout stream. I mean, fair is fair. I think of him when I hike with our dogs through our backyard piney woods.

My dad is there, in the pine cones on the path.

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