There are many palm trees in Huntington Beach, but few as meaningful as the pair of graceful and slender Mexican fan palms that scrape the sky just several blocks from the ocean on Eighth Street. Like the house they sway in front of, they date back to the early 1920s.
What makes them so special? They were planted by a father to honor the day his son was born — an effort to create two lasting monuments to mark his baby boy's entry into this world.
That proud papa obviously knew what he was doing, because today, the trees tower over everything in sight. That little boy, Leroy Jauman, is still thriving, too.
When Leroy's son, Jim, told me recently about his dad and the trees, I wanted to arrange a meeting at the house, which incidentally, is also where Leroy was also born in 1924.
Today, almost 89, he lives in Lakewood with his wife of 61 years, Yvonne, but Leroy's memories of old-time Huntington Beach are as sharp and vivid as the bright green fronds that grow in his honor atop the thin trunks.
Looking down the block at the structure that was once the Evangeline Hotel, Jauman fondly recalled visits he would make to the behemoth building.
"The roughnecks from the oil fields stayed there," he told me. "And I'd bring bouquets of sweet pea flowers from my backyard to the lady that ran the place so she could decorate the dinner tables for them."
For that, he'd pocket 15 cents; a Depression-era bounty for an 8-year-old.
Kery Beason, who lives in Jauman's house today with her children, kindly let us visit in the backyard, where we compared a vintage image of the same spot. Jauman showed us where the sweet peas once flourished, next to where he grew black grapes in a small orchard.
Then he regaled us with memories of fearlessly climbing oil derrick towers with his friends, wandering the vast vacant lots and catching soft-shell crabs near the pier. (They could fetch 10 cents a dozen for the crabs during the Depression.) Then the youths would spend the day jumping off the pier, which was allowed back then until an inexperienced "flatlander," as Jauman called him, was injured and his family sued the city. The kids also spent many hours riding the heavy wooden "belly boards" they made in shop class at Huntington Beach High School.
Several days later, I had the privilege of joining Jauman and a handful of his high school classmates, HBHS class of '42, who meet regularly at a local Marie Callender's.
"Our group is shrinking," he said bittersweetly, showing me a contact list with many crossed-off names. But it doesn't dull the laughs and reminiscing that takes place around the table.
Along with Jauman, Ray Walker, Cliff Clemens, Joanne Moore, Jean Parent and Rosemary Robinson all shared evocative local stories from the past.
"We had a war going on when we graduated," said Walker. "We didn't worry about college."
"Our generation had to grow up quickly," added Clemens. "Within a year, we were facing the enemy." All of the men at the table enlisted. Clemens was held as a prisoner of war in a German camp.
They told me how military personnel in Huntington Beach back then were revered. Meals were provided, rides were given and over-the-top appreciation was the norm. "A serviceman wouldn't have to stand five minutes on the street before being offered whatever he might need," said Walker.
The group talked about long-gone neighborhoods and businesses, like the Green Shack, a down-and-dirty burger joint on the outskirts of town, past the high school near the old tile factory, that oil workers would frequent. They remembered dancing at the Golden Bear in the 1940s, and then doing the Balboa dance at the Pavalon Ballroom adjacent to the pier, where famed composer and conductor Stan Kenton would sometimes perform (along with a local orchestra, the Esquires).
And they reminisced about lazy days swimming in the sea after sunning on the old wooden pier. Did you know that back in the 1940s, a shuttle boat from the pier would putter out about a mile offshore to a barge where you could sit and fish all day? It cost 50 cents round trip, and Clemens said that if you left early enough in the morning, by noon you had all the fish you could have wished for.
The boys all remembered the gun clubs, too — 23 of them between Pacific Coast Highway and Westminster Boulevard. In fact, during duck season, they'd hop the Pacific Electric Red Car to the beach near the Bolsa Chica Gun Club before high school. They knew that at 7 a.m. sharp, the first barrage from the hunters would commence, sending the ducks in a flying scramble toward the ocean where they'd float on the water until things quieted down. The kids, with rifles of their own and hiding under tarps, timed things so they could blaze away from the beach and each get three or four ducks before class.
Can you even imagine?
By the way, while visiting Jauman's old home, his wife asked him if he'd told me about "the movie." I asked what she referred to, and was informed of a film that was made in Huntington Beach in the 1930s, shot by a schoolteacher and actually starred Jauman and his classmates.
At the luncheon I attended, Rosemary Robinson brought along a copy for me to view. Next week in this column, I will share with you the story of this remarkable artifact, and you will even be able to see part of it on the Independent's website. It is quite special.
Meantime, if you're ever on Eighth Street near Pecan Avenue and happen to notice those two palms, stare up high and consider what they represent. They are not just any trees. They are a lasting gesture of love; a proud new father's way of saying, "Welcome, my son. To this world. To this family. To this town."
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.