How strange to be sitting at lunch at the site of the old Meadowlark Airport with the man whose name will be forever intertwined with it.
For years I've read about Yukio "Dick" Nerio, who purchased the airport in 1947. But it was his son Art Nerio whom most old pilots identified with the venerable landing strip.
Though Art's parents lived on the property for a time, he ran the airport through its most popular era, from the 1960s through the late 1980s, when it closed. I've spoken to so many pilots who recount seeing Nerio pedal around on his bicycle, collecting the $3 landing fees from planes as they taxied to a stop, that I almost felt like I knew him already.
Now 88 years old, Nerio still lives nearby, and I was very excited recently to be put in touch with him by his friend Linda Liem, who was a co-owner of the flight school that existed at the airport. As it happened, Nerio had read my recent column on Meadowlark Airport, in which I talked about trying to track down the iconic blue sign that sat on Warner. As I wrote then, I had a few leads on the whereabouts of the sign, but Nerio wanted to set the record straight.
Over lunch, Nerio, Liem and her husband, Ron, and I talked about the airport. But we also learned about the Nerio family history. I did not realize that his family had been sent to an internment camp in Arkansas at the start of World War II. Art was a teenager then, and when his family was released, they returned to the area and thankfully all of the property they owned in Orange County was still in their name.
They lived where the Westminster Mall is today, and Nerio told me that before they sold the property, one could see all the way to the ocean from their backyard. (Art's dad was keen on buying up lots of property back then, which obviously served the family well.)
I learned about Brandy, the airport horse that belonged to Nerio's daughter, and the fact that he had a student pilot's license, which would not allow him to solo but still allowed him the flexibility of taking to the air with other licensed pilots.
His family still owns a good deal of property in the area, and to see the twinkle in his eye, he's always looking for more. Shrewd, tough and sturdy, Art Nerio was a fascinating person to have lunch with.
But it got better.
Afterward, Liem, her husband and I accompanied Nerio to his house. Once there, I had a chance to look over the many curios related to the airport, including civic plaques and scrapbooks bursting with old newspaper clippings and weathered photos. But the surprise treat was in the backyard, sitting up against a wall and covered with an old blue tarp.
Ron, Linda and I peeled back the layers of blue plastic to reveal not just the Meadowlark Airport sign but also the sign for the Meadowlark Café. Nerio's wife (who passed away several years ago) had suggested they keep them, and so since the airport closed, the items have rested here, just several blocks from where they lived in the first place.
As an amateur historian who loves helping preserve pieces of the past, I was thrilled to be in the presence of these artifacts. The old Meadowlark Airport phone booth, still covered with stickers, is also in the backyard.
After talking about them a bit, Nerio said it would be OK if my son and I came over this summer and helped refurbish these items, which, while still in good shape, are beginning to suffer some wear and tear. After that, hopefully, we can figure out some way to display them for the public.
I'd like to thank Nerio for his kindness in showing me these things, and also to Linda Liem and her husband for helping to arrange this meeting. This was a very memorable day in Huntington Beach for me, spent with thoroughly lovely people. And the sign mystery is now solved.
Back in a 'Flash'
Also, since I like to give time to local actors who return home to perform, let me say that this week I caught up with David Gordon, who stars in the musical "Flashdance," which will be at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through May 19.
Gordon, 27, attended Los Alamitos High School and interestingly did not become involved in theater until he was 16. As he explained to me, that's the reason he didn't attend APA or the Orange County High School for the Arts — he was simply too late to the game as a junior in high school. But after landing the role of Mr. McAfee in "Bye-Bye Birdie" out at the Buena Park Youth Theater, he was bitten by the bug.
From there things moved quickly, and soon Gordon moved to New York and then traveled through Europe in a production of "Grease." This is his first national tour here, however, and he's thrilled to be back home performing for the very first time at Segerstrom, which is where he saw his first show, "Rent."
In "Flashdance," Gordon plays Jimmy, a wanna-be comedian who helps the lead, Alex Owens, on her journey to become a dancer. Working with the writers in New York last year before the show opened on Broadway, Gordon was able to develop the role as his own, and he joked with me that he can fully relate to the idea of a wanna-be comedian who moves to New York.
As the parent of a student who attends the Orange County High School for the Arts, I am really thilled to catch up with a performer who comes from our area and has gone out to defy the odds and land a remarkable role like this.
Congratulations to David Gordon on his ever-growing theatrical career. We hope you'll have a chance to see him at Segerstrom over the next couple of weeks. For ticket information, call (714) 556-2787.
Note for next week: some new information regarding the Air Quality Management District's proposed fire ring ban.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.