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A Few Good Men Find Haven, Mom Away From Home

December 15, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

For more than 4 years, Doris Schwartz has had a reputation in San Clemente for making friends with Marines and inviting them over to her place for fun and games.

At Schwartz's place, the fun and games are exactly that: a fast game of darts, a round of Monopoly, a session of chess or bridge or cribbage.

Schwartz owns a tiny shop in San Clemente called I Love Games Too, a store devoted to games in general and Marines in particular. Since 1984, the shop has been a magnet for hundreds of Marines from Camp Pendleton who have made it a home away from home and have taken to calling Schwartz "Mom."

"We treat them like family here," said Schwartz, 48, who lives with her husband in San Clemente and has three grown sons. "I explain to every Marine who comes in that this is an extension of my home. They call me Mom, and I feel like I have 70,000 sons. It keeps me young."

Schwartz estimated that 90% of the people who fill the gaming areas adjacent to her retail operation--the shop sells games and game accessories of all kinds as well as kites and comic books--are Marines. The games are of the non-kinetic variety: board-type games rather than video games. And particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, the two rooms--one a dart lane and the other a small, cluttered den-like room filled with game boxes and various-sized tables--are packed to the walls with players.

The popularity of her store among the Leathernecks, Schwartz said, wasn't a result of her consciously looking for a few good men. Instead, they found her.

"The first night we opened the store," she said, "a couple of Marines came in and said there was absolutely nothing to do in town, and could they come in and play some of the games. When we expanded the store (to include a game room), we invited everyone to come in and play, and they started learning about us by word of mouth. It's gotten to the point that last Friday we were so crowded we had about 30 people in here, and almost all of them were Marines."

A bunch of hard-as-nails fighting men blowing off steam over a game of cribbage?

"Carousing and boozing, most of the Marines who come here don't want that," said Schwartz's son, Steven, a salesman for an electronics store. "A lot of them are just scared kids who need a place to unwind. Marines are people too. They're like an extended family to us. I feel like I've got a couple of million brothers."

Brian Sczesny, a Marine who is a regular at the shop, said he was less cerebral when he was stationed in the Philippines: "It was party heaven there."

In San Clemente, he said, "you can go out and get drunk and get in trouble or come here. Here, it's cheaper, you don't get in trouble and you don't come in at 2 in the morning."

Tom Allen, another Pendleton Marine, said: "If I didn't have this place, I don't know what I'd be doing. I used to drink a lot."

While some of the Marine patrons are in their 30s, many are too young to drink legally, Schwartz said.

"The ones who come here don't want that sort of thing," she said. "They're looking for a place to socialize and let their hair down, where they can be people and not just Marines. My first house rule is that everyone who comes here is on a first-name basis. No one knows anyone else's rank, nor do they care. Officers and enlisted men sit at the same table."

Not that a bit of barracks language doesn't appear from time to time. Which brings Schwartz to house rule No. 2.

"I have the cuss box," she said, pointing to a small red cardboard box on a nearby shelf. "When you cuss, you have to put a dollar in the box. 'Hell,' 'damn' and 'crud' are acceptable, but everything else costs a dollar. And I put more money in there than anyone."

The money, Schwartz said, pays "basically for a Thanksgiving dinner my husband and I have at our house. This year we had 25 of the guys at the house for dinner, and we sent 10 or 15 care packages of food down to the base."

The store is open 7 days a week and is officially closed only on Thanksgiving and on the day of the San Clemente Fiesta Parade in July, when Schwartz and several of her Marine patrons build a float, using thousands of lollipops for decorations. On Christmas and New Year's, Schwartz said she simply leaves the key to the shop with one of the Marines with instructions to lock up when they're through.

On Friday and Saturday nights, Schwartz said, "I usually go home around 10, and the place officially closes at midnight, but we've been known to stay open later if people want to keep going. Sometimes we've closed at around 5 a.m., and sometimes some of them will end up sleeping on the dart room floor."

Such devotion to games has probably rubbed off from Schwartz herself. Schwartz was licensed as a child psychologist and play therapist--a practitioner who uses play and games as a form of therapy--in New Jersey. She began using games to rehabilitate her own mind after she suffered extensive brain damage in an auto accident in 1973.

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