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By Fred Swegles
San Clemente isn’t the same today. Long gone is the era when one day out of the year Avenida Del Mar transformed into water balloon wars.
My most vivid memory of Halloween growing up in San Clemente isn’t trick-or-treating.
It’s being taken into custody by the police for possession of a water balloon.
Of course, this was very small-town San Clemente back then. I don’t think we had the freeway yet.
Teenagers, together with a few kids who had decided they were too old to be trick-or-treating, would gather along Avenida Del Mar on Halloween, armed with water balloons.
They would toss balloons at each other at the corner of Del Mar and Ola Vista and on up the street. Any car coming down Del Mar or Ola Vista had to navigate the gauntlet.
I don’t recall how old I was. I had decided I was too grown up to dress up like a skeleton and march door to door for candy. My brother, Steve, two years older than I, had told me about Del Mar. It sounded exciting.
So I stuffed a wad of balloons into my pockets and set out on foot, before dark, from our house on Avenida Esplanade. My walk along El Camino Real toward Del Mar paused briefly when my dad suddenly appeared, driving north. He slowed as he spotted me.
“Dad, where ya going?”
“To pick up your brother!”
“Oh, yeah? Where?”
“He got picked up by the police on Del Mar, throwing water balloons. I’d better not see you down there!”
Me? I had never been in trouble. I was a top student at Concordia School, a good kid. Dad was proud of me.
It didn’t take long for my world to turn upside down.
Life isn’t fair. I didn’t even get to throw one water balloon.
I was squatting down, tucked into an opening between two Avenida Del Mar businesses, filling the very first water balloon of my career. A police officer tapped me on the back.
I had thought I was clever, discovering a clandestine faucet at the scene of water balloon wars. How could I know the cops knew precisely where every faucet was?
Busted. I think six of us were crammed into the back seat of a patrol car, driven to the police station on Avenida Miramar. I tried to ditch the evidence, stuffing my balloons between seat cushions.
The officer, letting us out at the station, probably rolled his eyes as he calmly retrieved packs of balloons from the back seat. He paraded us into the station.
The desk officer examined each of us sternly. He made us sit in humiliation as he telephoned our parents. I felt like a felon.
It was probably only a few minutes, but it felt like an hour before my dad walked in.
The desk officer took one look at my dad, raised his voice so the whole room could hear, and proclaimed, “Oh, it’s you again!”
It was the worst thing in the universe the desk officer could have said.
Other parents picking up their kids turned in unison to gawk at my dad.
My life was in tatters. Growing worse by the second.
Dad didn’t have to say a word. Nor did he, all the way home.
To this day, I can’t remember what the punishment was.
The sheer shame was enough.
I had flunked water balloon wars.
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 46 years of reporting experience in the city.