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Celebrate! Volume Ii : Orange County's First 100 Years : Personal Influences : 30 Years' Tug Of War

October 16, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL | Bell is a free-lance author who writes a column for The Times' Orange County Life section.

The cowboy or the cathode? The citrus grove or the computer chip? Orange County has tried and is still trying to have it both ways, a fascinating exercise in balancing human greed with human longing.

A few weeks after I moved to Orange County in 1959, I was late for an appointment in Santa Ana because I got into a traffic jam on MacArthur Boulevard near my Corona del Mar home. Not cars. Cows.

A few hundred yards off Coast Highway, four honest-to-God cowboys were driving several dozen honest-to-God heifers from one side of MacArthur to the other. Apparently the grass was greener where Fashion Island would grow two decades later.

That was almost 30 years ago, and we've probably since raised a whole generation of Orange County kids who have never seen a cow--on MacArthur Boulevard or anywhere else. But not very long ago they were almost as commonplace as people.

For the first decade I lived here, Orange County tried to preserve a schizophrenic balance between its agrarian past and its urban future, but it finally was dragged--kicking and screaming--into an arranged marriage with high-tech.

The journey was managed with a lot of old-time residents vigorously pulling backward on the county's coattails with one hand while cashing checks for inflated land values with the other. Some of the residue of that feeling is now making itself felt in the slow-growth movement, an effort--perhaps subliminal--to protect the few pieces of that agrarian society that remain.

The longing is understandable. Until two decades ago, the drive north on Coast Highway from Corona del Mar to Newport Beach, for example, was garnished with magnificent fields of golden sunflowers framing a spectacular view of the bay and ocean beyond. The smell of citrus flavored the air, and for nine months of the year, the beaches were virtually deserted--the private preserve of the privileged few who lived here.

The year before my family moved from a Chicago suburb to Corona del Mar, our driveway was buried under a sheet of ice from November to April. To us, Orange County was Shangri-La--an oasis without snow suits, heating bills, commuting trains or mosquitoes. It also was Shangri-La to a lot of other immigrants from cold climates--many of whom passed through here during World War II--and it was only after we burned the chill from our bones that we began to take notice of the reactionary noises coming from our school systems and public officials.

Most of us were so grateful to be here that we embraced the sun and allowed public policies--conceived over many decades of a near-frontier environment and protected fiercely from encroaching outsiders--to go virtually unchallenged.

Many of the immigrants fell into this thinking permanently, taking on the philosophical coloration of the county. Some of us didn't--and we paid various prices for our heresy. But the price never was high enough to counteract the enormous assets of living in Orange County.

Once I got warmed through and started to look around my new digs, I saw some disquieting signs and odd values. There were more banks and savings-and-loan establishments in my hometown than gas stations, and more investment firms than grocery stores--a lot more.

When the president of the local Chamber of Commerce was sued by the police chief for allegedly defrauding him in a stock deal, it didn't cause nearly as much stir as the discovery of a book in the local library called the "Dictionary of American Slang" that contained a number of clinical sexual references. The troubled stockbroker resigned from the chamber and settled with the chief, and the community--still hot on the scent of dirty words--duly noted the moral: Never sell doubtful stock to a police chief.

The divorce rate in Orange County was then three times the national average. The ritual of "buying up" every couple of years made Orange County the most volatile housing market in the country--and made a lot of real estate dealers rich. And my congressman was writing newsletters and holding press conferences warning about the imminent invasion of the United States by U.N. troops.

All this was read with high amusement by the savants in the East who sent multiple journalists to Orange County to write about the local doings. As a result, Orange County had a reputation throughout the country as a kind of frontier "nut house"--of which I was reminded frequently and gleefully by my Eastern friends.

Living in Orange County in those years was a great conversation starter--outside the county. Some of this reputation was deserved and some of it wasn't.

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