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By Fred Swegles
“Imagine you’ve never been anywhere near an ocean, and suddenly you find yourself face to face with that incredible body of water. How would you react?”
That’s what I wrote on March 31, 1976, in the San Clemente Daily Sun-Post, a five-day-a-week local newspaper.
A day earlier, I had viewed the facial expressions of 167 Navajo, revealing “fear, wonderment and finally glee as they cautiously decided that no, that massive wet monster wasn’t going to gobble them up at water’s edge. Moreover, there were new worlds to explore—a ‘beach’ with its tide pools, its seaweed, its shells, its starfish, its waves and even its giants (those strange tall palm trees).”
We published 10 photos of children experiencing the Pacific Ocean at San Onofre. Camp Pendleton had invited them to park, step off the bus and encounter something unimaginable to young people living in the Navajo Nation in Arizona and New Mexico.
Last summer, I wrote a San Clemente Times column celebrating a special place we have here in San Clemente, a 1,296-foot-long fishing pier. Visitors can walk out to the end and, if they come from somewhere not near an ocean, they can appreciate how remarkable it is.
In the column, I mentioned my memories of some Navajo children and how their animated faces left a forever image in my mind.
Recently, I rediscovered yet another Daily Sun-Post news clipping from the 1970s, featuring a picture of Navajo high school teenagers swimming on Memorial Day Weekend in San Clemente’s public pool, known today as the Ole Hanson Beach Club.
It was from May 1972, when 97 Navajo high school students from near Gallup, New Mexico, “might have never gotten to see the Pacific Ocean or Disneyland if the City of San Clemente hadn’t come to the rescue.”
SAN CLEMENTE SAVED THESE VISITORS
The students had raised $2,000 for their trip to California, with plans to stay in Camp Pendleton barracks, only to learn belatedly that the base couldn’t let girls stay in the barracks due to military regulations.
When they contacted nearby towns, including San Clemente, in desperation, the city let the female students stay in the San Clemente Beach Club building for three nights.
It was a pre-graduation high school trip to California. Arlie Waterman, San Clemente’s superintendent of parks and recreation, saved it.
“San Clemente was a kind of a light in total darkness,” said the Navajos’ adult chaperone.
The boys got to stay at Camp Pendleton, while San Clemente let the girls sleep upstairs at the beach club using sleeping bags that the city had provided.
WHICH IS BETTER, OCEAN OR POOL?
“While in San Clemente, the Navajo students toured the town and got their first crack at swimming in ocean waves. Many had never seen an ocean, and they were impressed, although they preferred the warmer water of the heated city pool,” I wrote.
“In the pool, some of the students comically got their first lessons on a diving board,” I wrote.
The students spent one of their days exploring Disneyland in Anaheim, returning tired, late that evening.
The students enjoyed San Clemente’s beach town ambience.
“I thought they only had trees like those in Hawaii,” one student said.
The Navajo met friendly San Clemente locals and greeted them with chants of “ya-ta-ha,” which meant hello.
While on their way to California in two school buses and a charter bus, the students toured Hoover Dam and a family-oriented casino in Las Vegas.
“They spent one evening staying on a gymnasium floor at Nellis Air Force Base, courtesy of the Air Force,” I wrote.
And while in San Clemente, they got to eat at Camp Pendleton for breakfast (25 cents), lunch (50 cents) and dinner (70 cents)—“just right for our budget,” the adult supervisor said, chuckling.
MY OWN PERSPECTIVE, NAVAJO RADIO
Remembering these two Navajo stories I’d written in the 1970s reminded me of the Navajo Nation’s radio station, AM 660, that my car radio had picked up in San Clemente in 2018, sometimes bright and strong.
I learned that the Navajo chanting songs that amazed me to hear in San Clemente were broadcast from the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arizona. I went in 2019 to visit.
Window Rock is a gorgeous geographical phenomenon. It has a Navajo museum, a cool mileage post and a monument celebrating the Navajos’ WWII code that Japanese forces couldn’t crack.
I wonder if anyone in the Navajo museum I visited could have been one of the kids who discovered the Pacific Ocean on one of those two remarkable stories, discovering our vast Pacific horizon on one of the two trips that inspired my articles.
Fred Swegles grew up in San Clemente before the freeway. He has 50 years’ reporting experience in the city and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.