By Louise Rafkin
Clams For Nixon
In 1969, The President's Arrival In San Clemente Gave The Little Seaside Town Its Day In The Sun. But For One Local Girl, The Changes Ushered In A More Troubling Era
When I was 10 my world was full of sand and salt and endless days under the hot Southern California sun. All summer long I swam and rode the shore break on planks of hard-packed styrofoam. My body was nut brown, my face streaked white with zinc oxide. Still, my nose peeled pink and by September was as rough as raw hamburger.
It was 1969, and nestled halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, San Clemente was peopled mostly by working professionals, couples who had come from everywhere to live by the idyllic blue-green Pacific. Whether in the tendril-like ranch houses or in the glaring stucco cottages, no one lived more than a mile from the beach. Ours was a bright town, with a bright future. Although nearly uniformly white, we were religiously diverse. My parents, East Coast transplants, were lapsed Jews, and at times it seemed we lacked something, and perhaps it was religion. Yet our blue clapboard house was surrounded by believers. Born-again Christians flanked us on the right, with Presbyterians on the left, and Mormons behind. There were Catholics up the street -- my best friend was one -- but most of the Catholics lived in the south end of town, where there was a small Hispanic community. My beach town with its vaguely Spanish flavor had yet to appear on maps of California, and I think many believed that until it did all of us were safe. The outside world seemed full of war and riots and strung-out teenagers -- but it seemed the only taste of that life was glimpsed when we caught drift of the few longhaired hippies who drove through town in battered VWs on their way south to Mexico, for drugs, perhaps, or to escape the draft.
Life in San Clemente was sun and surf and cocktails at 5. Wives attended ladies' groups and volunteered as scout leaders or schoolroom helpers. Teenagers didn't yet own cars and strolled through town in small sex-segregated packs. Towheaded kids rode bicycles on the sticky and still-fragrant asphalt streets and along the dirt paths that dangerously ribboned the railroad tracks that edged the beachfront. Smaller children built sand castles along the shoreline and collected clams and small, eerily prehistoric-looking sand crabs with plastic trowels and buckets.
This is where the story starts, the story of me and Richard Nixon and a man I had never heard of at that point, a man named John Ehrlichman.
As a kid, I liked to go clamming. My father would follow a tiny tri-folded year-at-a-glance tide chart -- free from the bait shop, which then was perched on the far tip of the town's wooden pier -- watching for an extra low one, called a minus tide. Then, on a Saturday, or even a Sunday if it was after church time, or the time of my father's standing tennis game, two or three of the neighborhood families would gather buckets and spades and hand rakes, don holey sneakers, straw hats and pedal pushers (originally, and with good reason, called clam diggers), and make our way to the clam beds. The beds, a spate of rocky tide pools at the south end of town, were situated on a private beach that shored a gated community. A family friend -- Lucy Cotton, who lived in a classic Spanish villa overlooking the ocean and whose last name fronted for the whole territory, Cotton's Point -- allowed us to use her family's private road, circumventing the guarded entry. After parking the cars on the bluff next to her house, we'd climb down the rough dirt pathway to the beach. Fanning out in front of Cotton's Point, spanning nearly half a mile in length and running a quarter-mile out to sea, the dark, shiny rocks spotted the sand like marks on an ancient treasure map.
The trick to clamming was to uncover a nest of clams, a vein, as my father called it, as if we were prospecting. There were many veins, both close in and farther out. I would venture out into the beds, hopping from rock to rock, slipping in the water, occasionally, up to my knees. Bending down over my wet sneakers, I would stop here and there, and with my hesitant forefinger outstretched, probe urchins and anemones and small frightened octopuses. My strategy about clam digging was to think like a clam. If I were a clam would I like to live here? Under this rock? I'd find my own veins and then, with some degree of guilt, scratch and grab the spitting mollusks. Whole families of clams filled my bucket, though the baby clams, those under two inches long and therefore illegal, were left behind to fend for themselves.
We'd dig for hours, stopping midday for Wonder Bread sandwiches and deviled eggs, before dragging the buckets, brimming with clams topped with salt water to keep them alive as long as possible, back up the steep bluffs to the cars. Occasionally a ranger would drive up in a jeep and make us count out our booty -- 50 clams per adult and child -- to make sure we weren't picking the beds clean.
We made this pilgrimage several times a year. And then Nixon came to town. Nixon moved in with great fanfare as real estate agents and businessmen looked on greedily. The mostly right-leaning town held gala celebrations. My fifth-grade class, with Mrs. Sink at the helm, red hair whipped into a frothy swirl like a soft-serve ice cream, was entrusted to make the official welcome sign. We were bused the half-mile to Nixon's helicopter landing pad to greet him at his first arrival. Somewhere there is television footage of me in a chorus line of children holding signs that spell out "Welcome President Nixon." I held the "X."
But with Nixon in town we no longer had access to the clam beach. Lucy Cotton's father, despite his Democratic leanings and celebrated friendship with President Roosevelt, had sold the villa to be converted into the Western White House. The gazebo, a card house in which the senior Cotton had reputedly parleyed nights with one of America's beloved presidents, was transformed into a submarine lookout for a man who would soon become one of America's most despised presidents. Nixon brought with him a bevy of Secret Service men who, while awkwardly brandishing fishing poles, nervously patrolled the beach in front of the estate dressed in suits.
Just south of Cotton's Point is a beach called Trestles, so named for the transom where the train from San Diego to Los Angeles crosses a slight inlet of seawater. Some of the best surf in the world breaks at Trestles, with stunning regularity. With Nixon in town, surfing was outlawed in front of the new White House, though valiant attempts were made to circumvent the ever-present security. Those young men daring enough to make the long paddle in from the public beach to the north in order to catch the perfectly sloping tubes had to be darn sure of their skills. This was several years before my high school history teacher, Bob Nealy, invented the Surf More, a stretchy leash that binds surfer to board (my first job was in this teacher's garage sewing lengths of rubber to Velcro ankle bands), so when a surfer wiped out there was a good chance that his board would ride the white water into the shore and disappear into the hands of Secret Service men.
Only the best, most accomplished watermen continued to surf the point; the others reluctantly accepted the off-limits dictate. For Father's Day that first year in town, Julie and Tricia Nixon gave their father a surfboard, though his private surf spot was deemed too dangerous for beginners. "I'm going to rent out my surfboard," Nixon jokingly told reporters. "I can deduct it from my income tax."
Almost overnight San Clemente had landed on the map, but I could not accept that I couldn't go clamming anymore. So I sat down and wrote a letter: "Dear President Nixon," it began.
I wrote about how I was friends with the people who used to live in his new home, and I explained about clamming and that his clam beds were the only ones in the area. I told him that I had greeted his helicopter, and then asked if he would let us -- my mom and dad and maybe some of the neighbors -- traipse through his property to the clam beds. I also offered to teach him to clam and even to show him the best veins. I included my mother's recipe for fresh clam chowder, and then I drew a bunch of clams dancing around the edge of the paper -- they had, I remember, long necks and, true to my 11-year-old sensibilities, wore high heels and bikinis. I drew more clams on the envelope and mailed it to the Western White House.
A week later I received a reply. A long white envelope arrived with a blue embossed return address that read simply The White House but did not indicate which one. Eagerly, I opened the envelope and found a two-page typewritten reply. I was sure Nixon had replied Yes, we would all going clamming together, so I flipped directly to the second page to check the signature. But the letter was not from the president. It was from someone named John D. Ehrlichman.
My father read me the letter. It was long and wordy and, in retrospect, oddly pathetic, though I can't say exactly why. I imagine Ehrlichman now, sitting down in some room of the White House to reply to a young girl's request to go clamming, while in other offices plans for secret bombings were being drafted.
Ehrlichman typed the letter himself. There are no secretary's initials and, rather endearingly, there are several whited-out mistakes. He assured me that the president asked him to answer me directly, and he went on to say that it was his job, as counsel to the president, to ready the new property security-wise. Chattily, he described the work being done:
. . . the old tennis court is being torn up and a new swimming pool will be built there. A windbreak will also be built along the west side of the swimming pool and it will make it impossible for anyone to walk through that area since it will be like a glass wall.
Then he hinted about us teaming up for a future clamming date:
I think after we get out there this summer it might be possible for us to work out some way for you to get to and from the beach with your clam buckets (if you can work out something with the Secret Service so they will let you on the beach!) but I think that we had better wait and see how that all develops.
Did he really expect me to work something out with the Secret Service? He went on to say that he would be very happy to see me if I came to visit. "Maybe at the same time," he wrote, "you could show me where I could dig some clams. I'm originally from the Pacific Northwest and am very fond of nice clams." Before he signed off, he acknowledged my X-holding moment: "The President asked me to thank you for writing and to especially thank you for coming to greet him that day when he came to his new house."
I was still disappointed in Nixon, but now hopeful about clamming. Since I was working on my Girl Scout letter-writing badge at the time, I immediately wrote Ehrlichman back. I took what he said literally, and tried to pin down a clamming date, first consulting my father and the all-knowing tide chart. This evolved into my first experience with bureaucratic runaround. A volley of letters ensued, Ehrlichman to me, and back again, and most of his repeated his claim that the president was too busy to clam at this particular point in time, but would, indeed, even absolutely, like to pair up with me sometime in the future. The last letter from him is dated October 10, 1969:
You wrote to me in September and I have been too long in answering you. I apologize. I'm also sorry that we didn't get together while we were in San Clemente but I expect to be back before too long. At that time I hope you'll telephone me at 492-0011 and we can make our plans.
Life outside our town was now coming through harsh and violent on the nightly news. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, and Bobby Kennedy, too. I hardly knew who these men were but I had watched my mother and her friends mourn and even weep over morning coffee. And there was that nightly body count at the end of each TV news broadcast. While I sat in front of the television eating meatloaf and waiting for "Gilligan's Island" or "Laugh-In," the numbers came up on the screen: how many we had killed, how many they had killed. When October rolled up, and the Vietnam Moratorium day was announced, I knew I would protest.
My parents must have said it was okay because that morning I dug through my mother's sewing scraps for a piece of black cloth, which I knotted around my arm, just above the elbow. Nervously I walked next door to pick up my neighbor for school -- a friend whose father was in Vietnam flying bombers -- my arm feeling tingly and strange. Her mother glanced down at the black band before asking pointedly, and with some hardness I thought, "Do you know what that means?"
"Yes," I said quietly, "it means I want the war to stop."
"The war to stop," she clipped. "That would be nice."
I was singled out in social studies class by my teacher, Mr. Garris, who himself must not have been long past draft age, to explain my armband to the class. I remember wondering, as I made my simple explanation, if I was somehow wrong about what any of it meant. My older brother skipped school altogether that day, ostensibly in protest as well, but I knew that he spent the day on the beach, surfing.
That day's editorial in the local Sun Post lamented the "campus radicals" who were "blind to the world past the borders of the U.S." As evidence of this blindness, the writer described the fingernail torture in Vietcong prisoner-of-war camps. I'm sure most residents agreed with him. There was certainly never a swell of anti-war protest from those who lived in our town, though people came in from elsewhere, sometimes on buses, to show the vacationing president their opposition to his policies. One protest attracted some 4,000 out-of-towners, including, it was rumored, Jane Fonda. The Sun Post reported that the protesters were "clad in everything from army fatigues and work clothes to see-through blouses and bikinis." This throng was met at the gates of Nixon's estate by two battalions of trained Marines and more than a hundred sheriffs and deputies.
Things were changing in my family as well. My mother and father had taken a meditation course, and that year I routinely came home from school to find my father, thumbs pressed together, eyes half-closed, tilted back in the La-Z-Boy. Both of them volunteered on the teen hot line, and the phone would ring at odd times; one of them would talk for sometimes hours in a hushed voice, no matter if it was the middle of the night. Once, when I knew my parents weren't on the hot line, I called the number myself to ask about the white powder I saw my brother and his friends sniffing out in the garage.
"Cocaine is addicting," the counselor said. "Absolutely." I knew his name, James Gibson, because I had read it on my parents hot-line schedule. "Psychologically addicting. Is there something you'd like to talk about?" he added. I hung up.
Drugs was a word I heard all the time, everywhere. While I started working alongside my father at the pharmacy where he dispensed them, my teenage brother started taking them, and eventually sold them. It seemed like everyone around me had a secret life. Soon, Watergate broke open and few locals could believe it. Slowly, I began to find out about who John Ehrlichman was.
I never went clamming again, even after Nixon left town. Sometime during his tenure a nuclear power plant was erected -- despite protest from environmentalists, including my mother -- not far from Trestles beach. The outflow from the plant changed the water's temperature, and for a while the clams were hard pressed to make the adjustment to a new climate. But apparently they have. The people who now clam in front of Nixon's old place are still forced to walk the mile from the nearest public beach, and most of these clam hunters are, ironically, Vietnamese people who came to our town as refugees after the war.
There have been people in my town who fought hard for our own Nixon library and for a monument to the man who gave us early residents of San Clemente our day in the sun. For a long time many of us pooh-poohed these plans -- who, we argued, would want to celebrate a crook? -- but now it looks like the prime ocean-view property that was once envisioned for the proposed library will be divvied up for more houses and an outlet shopping mall. Facing the imminent loss of beautiful land, many of us naysayers now wonder why we ever opposed something as benign as a library.
It's now been more than 30 years since Nixon came to town, and I'm sure there are many residents who haven't a clue about his role in our history or the promise he brought, briefly, to our seaside village. Before Nixon arrived, the street leading down to his estate was called Calle Fuente -- street of the fountain, or spring, neither of which I believe existed -- but then when he came it was renamed, and now remains named, Calle del Presidente -- street of the president. Still, few people pay much attention to what the Spanish street names actually mean. I lived on
Paseo de la Serenata for all of my childhood before coming to know that we lived on the street of the serenade; for so long I thought we lived on Serene Street.
In the summer of 1969, I was too young to know that a president would neither go clamming with me nor stop the war. But was Ehrlichman innocent enough, and of an era that still held some innocence, to believe we would spend an afternoon together and I would show him the good veins? If I have gleaned any small thing from growing up in a small, newly discovered town, it is that life abounds with scary juxtapositions, events that, bound together, refute reason. My family, having now lived through our own tangles and complications -- losses and addictions -- has found something like religious faith, if this is the belief that some things should not happen and that other things will get better. And I am heartened by the thought that generations of clams continue to eke out a place to call home there at the southern end of San Clemente, no matter who overlooks them from within the old Cotton estate. It's amazing they still live there at all.