Growing up in Manhattan Beach, my favorite place to play, bar none, was Sand Dune Park. It was a park like no other. It's main feature, an enormous 100 foot or so high sand dune hill sloping at about a 30 percent grade, was the only piece of "play equipment" required for any kid.
Going "up" the sand dune just to run down again was certainly one way to play there, and we did that...often. Going up the hill started out the same way every time. You's start with a run, believing that "this time" you would be able to make it all the way up. After about 25 feet your "run" would turn into a slow trudge, and then as gravity pulled your feet down, and the sand made them stay there, you will eventually fall onto your hands and start crawling. It was the absolute reverse one of those "evolution" pictures that shows animals crawling out of the sea, standing, and walking. You completely devolved back to what amounted to a slow amphibian as you tried to make it all the way up the hill. If there was a fish that could breathe sand, you certainly would have gone that far too, diving under the sand trying to swim the rest of the way up.
If you opted to not hit the hill right away, you could choose to take one of several wooded paths that wound their way to the top just to the south of the sand hill. Augmented with broken concrete, chains, and wood railroad ties for steps, these paths seemed both ancient and mysterious at the same time. The wound past groves of small trees, flowers, grass, ice plant, and other natural flora of the area. As a kid,I imagined that walking up these paths was just something native Americans, pirates or conquistadors might have done 100's of years before as they were on their own adventures. Certain parts of these paths had completely deteriorated or were covered by fallen and broken shrubs and trees. Every time we went to Sand Dune park we not sure what we might find on these winding paths, and that was part of the adventure.
Many times what you found were other kids, always too willing to pelt you (and/or your group of friends) with ice plant bombs from paths high above. If this was the case, you could do nothing else but quickly arm your self with your own ice plant grenades for the ensuing battle. If you did not want to fight, you could find possible refuge on the "long" path that went far out of the way, towards the Ladera Elementary School play field and back again. Of course, this path was not completely safe either. There was one particular large tree on this path that had been knocked-over by erosion to form a sort of secluded natural "club-house". Some times kids smoking pot, ice plant snipers or a couple making out were hidden behind the leafy walls of this sand-hill refuge. Most of the time though, you only found the remains of their activities: unused ice plant ammo, used roach clips, or various articles of discarded clothing.
No matter which route you took, directly up the sand hill, or through the winding paths, the top of the sand hill was a sight to behold. Directly over the summit to the west the ocean of the South Bay was visible: long black oil tankers quenching their thirst on the Chevron pipeline, buzzed by the white sails of small boats drifting through beds of Pacific kelp. Making a 180 turn to the East to look back down the hill netted you a view of the vast Chevron land holdings of the South Bay: the mammoth refinery to north in El Segundo, the mostly unused open, rail storage area to the north east (frequented by outlaw dirt bike riders including my own father) , and the huge round open storage tanks directly east on the site they would one-day build the Manhattan Village mall, Country Club, and gated community. Even more thrilling, especially to young boys in the 1970s. was the National Guard Armory located next to the park. Green camoflauged Vietnam era equipment dotted the storage area, and if you were lucky enough, you might see a soldier in fatigues moving about in one of the hanger-like buildings. It was still a time when armed conflict was still mostly romanticized in movies and on TV, with heroic exploits displayed for us the emulate. At the top of that hill my friends and I would become some of those heroes: WWII soldiers in Africa, the 7th Cavalry with Rin Tin Tin, CHiPs chasing down speeders, rebels making a Tatooine stand against Storm Troopers, or maybe the $6,000,000 Man in fast-slow-motion "cha-cha-cha-cha-ing" to save the world.
After taking-in the scenery, looking straight-down the hill was the first step for descent. The 100 foot drop might as well have been 1000, and the 30 degree incline looked just about 90 degrees. The manic sense that you would fall as soon as you start to run down always ran through your mind. The excitement of being at the top quickly overtook this sensation as you prepared yourself for the next stop: choosing the proper place to start. The middle of the sand hill was always the best. The far right was always a bit damp from the sprinklers that fed the growth along the winding, wooded paths, while the far right had patches of ice plant that were difficult to negotiate. However, sometimes kids would be playing on the hill: digging large holes, having their own ice-plant wars, or just plain goofing off. You would have to take all of these things into consideration, adjusting your launch position as you planned your descent. The aim was, falling as few times as possible, to make all the way down to the small 1/2 circle playground at the bottom of the hill, without going so fast that you would run into the 3 foot high chin link fence that surrounded it.
The run down the hill the mostly started the same. Long strides on hard packed sand quickly turned into a series of shorter ones as your feet sank lower and lower into the softer sand further down. Inevitably, you would fall: sometimes a small slippage that could be easily corrected, other times a tremendous sand eating face-plant. If you did not have the wind completely knocked out of you, you would get up as quickly as possible, and repeat the process. However, a hard fall sometimes meant you would crawl a few feet, pushing yourself down until you were sufficiently rested enough, to get up and try again. When you finally reached the bottom, you would turn around, look at the hill and think "let's do that again!"
For myself and my small cadre of friends in the 1970s, Sand Dune park was the perfect place to play. For us and friends like Wesley Crews, Bruce Finella, Richie Snare, Evan Pershing, and Mike Jackson it was a great place to summer days for a few hours. It was also the perfect place for a birthday party. My brother Jeff and I had one there, as well as many of our friends. However, as we left Pennekamp elementary school in the early 80's and starting going to Foster A. Begg Junior High, the place started to lose it's luster. Sure it was still fun, but it was a place for little kids. We worried that the wrong people might see us there, and word would spread around that we were doing such a "dorky" thing.
The final time we visited the park before High School, sometime in 1981, we noticed an older guy running up and down the sand hill. He looked like and athlete, so we asked him what he was doing. He told us that he was training for the L.A. Express Football Team. He was going to walk-on and try-out for kicker. None of us had ever met a professional athlete before, and we had never considered Sand Dune park a place to train for anything. We did not use it for exercise (well we didn't realize we did), it was pure fun. Suddenly there was an air of "seriousness" about the place. Whatever game we had been playing that day stopped, never to be played again. We didn't want this "cool" athlete to think we did played kiddie-games any more. Instead of going up the hill again, we sat and watched the guy for a few minutes and then went home.
In 1985 we returned once more with the Mira Costa High School Cross-Country Team, to train, just like the wanna-be kicker years before. However, in the guise of training Sand Dune Park was no longer fun. It was tough work and quickly wanted none of it. Not too long after Sand Dune Park got a reputation as a place for kids to hang out and drink and/or smoke pot. Soon after, the 80's child molestation witch-hunt put parents on the edge: no longer were many kids allowed to use the trails alone, for fear of meeting someone hiding in the bushes. A bit later, an attempt to bring some night-life to Manhattan Beach by renting out the near-by National Guard Armory for "dances" brought in a new element to the area the area. Late night fights in the park were common. The final straw was when a friend of ours, walking through the park at night, got the crap beat out of him by some gang members. That pretty much capped any reason or enthusiasm we had to ever go back. For all intents and purposes, Sand Dune Park became a distant memory. It was a great place that we had as kids, but we had no use for it anymore, and seemingly, it had no use for us either.
Ever since my first daughter was born in 1998, I started to think about taking her to Sand Dune Park. I had not seen it in more than 10 years, but the bad memories of the 80's had been washed away by my need to show my new daughter the neat stuff I did as a kid. However, I never found the time to take her. At first she was too young, then I got too busy. Then I heard about new, modern "problems" at the park: something to do with athletes using it for training, neighbors complaining, and the park not sounding much like a "park" any more. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but I was still surprised. Because of this, I avoided it on purpose, and then forgot about it again. I drove by it once, maybe 3 years ago, and I noticed it was very crowded with adults, but the atmosphere did not look very "kid friendly", so I avoided it once again, and forgot about it once again...until a few days ago.
My wife and I decided to to spend 5 days last week visiting many of the places in the Los Angeles area that tourists might visit, but residents would mostly avoid. We wanted to to show our kids what a full and interesting city we live in, and at the same time, see things we had never seen ourselves. Among our many trips to down town L.A., Santa Monica, The Wilshire District, Hollywood, and decided we should visit places in the South Bay that we had never taken our kids to, and Sand Dune Park made the cut.
At about 5:30 in the afternoon on a Friday, we made our way down Rosecrans and turned left on Bell Avenue towards the park. The first thing I noticed when we arrived was an absence of any available parking on the Bell, and after the the park came into view as we drove further down the street, I understood why this was the case. There were literally dozens of "athletes" training on the sand hill, jogging in place the bottom, stretching out on the grass, and resting on the walls that surround the playground. The Left-turn East away from the park was clogged with spandex and heart monitor-clad people of all types both coming from, and going-to Sand Dune Park. I suddenly felt a wave of claustophobia set-in, but I fought it off and kept driving. I was determined to finally let my kids play at a park I loved 30 years prior, so we drove around the block to the (secret) Ladera side (the area my mom always parked when she took us there in the 70's), and parked the car.
My family filed out of the car, and we walked cautiously down the street towards the south entrance of Sand Dune Park. Several other people, all in full exercise regalia, had also found this entrance, and were preparing to start their daily/weekly/monthly routine through the public park. The signs placed at the south entrance of Sand Dune belied the frustration of the neighbors surrounding the area, and the city's feeble attempt to address them: Quiet Hours, Usage Rules, Stair Restrictions, Parking Regulations, etc. all told the tale of a place that once hosted exploits of boyhood freedom, now turned into a seemingly cold, regimented and dire destination.
I quickly led my wife and girls up the nearest stairway up through the flora trails that wound to the top of the sand dune hill...except it didn't. Instead of a narrow beaten path augmented with railroad ties and a few chains to keep balance, we found a 6' wide concrete roadway that cut a swath diagonally through the hill. The plants had been cut far back away from the path, so much so, that if did not look close enough, you would have never known they were there. Still, my family trudged on, up the path. No sooner had we started then we had to dodge a jogger, so entranced by her iPod, that she missed the fact that there was a family of 5 sharing the same space with her. Where there used to be a single long stairway that existed as an alternate to the winding path, there were at least 2 new sets of stairs leading up the hill. All of these flights had the same sign with the same warning "No Jogging On Stairs", although this seemed to be one of those "must not pertain to me" warnings, because no one seemed to acknowledging it. My kids wanted to take the stairs, but I insisted we stay on the path, which at least seemed to follow the old route we took to the top as kids, even if now it was wide and sturdy enough to negotiate a Armored Personnel Carrier along it if the need arose. Numerous joggers and walkers passed us on the path, all either looking curiously annoyed, spying their watches to time themselves, or not looking at all. There were absolutely no other families or kids to be seen on the path anywhere, only people training and trying to improve themselves. There seemed to be nothing fun about it at all, just work, determination, and anything else you could attach to the word "serious". An air of sweat, and commercialization so permeated this once wild place, that as we turned the final corner of the path leading towards the top of the hill, I half expected to find one of those fake rock walls and a vendor trying to charge us $8.00 a head to climb it.
Once we made it to the top of the hill, the effort to get to Sand Dune Park after so many years finally paid off. I watched my girls faces turn from tired and grumpy, to altogether ecstatic when they looked down the sand hill to the playground below. "Let's go, let's go let's go" they insisted. For the first time since we arrived at Sand Dune Park, I could see that same fire of excitement in their eyes that I had when I first played there more than 3 decades prior. There is just something about the basic elements of height, distance, speed, and sand that instills universal excitement in kids. However, before I could let them run down, I had to tell them about the rules. A sign near the bottom of the hill directed that "training" should take place on the left side of the hill (looking down), and "play" to the right. There was no one else on the "play" side, but dozens of people on the "training side", so I moved the girls as far over to the right as possible. Even after more than 30 years, this side still held the disadvantage of being close to the sprinklers, making most of the top part of the hill just wet enough to soften the sand, but not wet enough to harden it. Still, I did not want them to get close to any of the joggers and athletes some of which seemed so serious about their exploits on the hill, that they would think nothing of running over a little kid, if it meant maintaining their P.B. I warned my gilrs to look out for other people, to be aware of the soft sand, and that they should keep a slow and steady pace. They insisted we all hold hands, and so we did. My wife bowed-out, picked-up the baby, and walked back down the stairs to the playground. Then the two remaining girls and and I prepared for our launch, we clasped hands and rushed down the hill. Well, we started to anyway, but at about 25 feet down, the girls were laughing and giggling so loud, that we had to stop. I remembered the signs about "Quiet Hours" and noise rules, and suddenly went into my own personal ugly "uptight" mode. I uselessly implored them to try to keep quiet for the rest of the way down. I'm not sure why I even tried. It was not within the posted "quiet hours", and even if it was, I can't recall any one time anyone ever told me, when I was a kid, to be "quiet" at a public park. Plus, trying to convince little girls to not scream with delight and joy is like trying to convince a dog to stop wagging his tail. We started again, and with only a few stops and tumbles, we made it all the way down to the bottom. Instantly my ears were filled with the words "let's do it again, let's do it again!" My uptight stomach relieved itself a bit, and I agreed. Instead of going up the stairs though, we simple tried to run back up the hill as far as possible, (about 1/4 the way) and then we ran down again. We repeated this process 4 more times before I begged the girls to stop. My leg muscles were burning so much that there was no way I could continue.
We all sat down on the little brick wall at the base of the hill, and emptied the sand from our shoes. The girls complained to me that they still wanted to play on the hill, but as the 7:00 PM "Quiet Time" neared, and my legs begged for mercy, I simply told them we would have to come back again soon. We replaced our shoes, and started towards the car. The girls were visibly and audibly disappointed by this development, but I still felt like I had succeeded in my mission. I finally took my family to Sand Dune Park, even though, as we walked through throngs of exercisers, training athletes, coaches, dad's imploring their sons to "not be weak!", and teams cheering on their struggling members, our little family could not have looked more out of place.
However, in my mind's eye, I saw none of it. Instead, as I walked away from the crowd, towards the street where the car was parked, holding my littlest one in my arms, and following my behind wife and two older kids, I realized I had finally returned the place I had been so many years before. Sand Dune Park had never really changed. The people might be different, and they might use it now for different purposes than we did as kids. The paths might be different, and signs might be different. The views might be different, and of course I am very different from the 3 year-old boy who first walked those paths and ran down that hill so many years ago. However, the basic, glorious thing about Sand Dune Park: The Sand Hill and its awesome power to inspire imagination is still there. The joy it holds for kids to simply run-down, with wild abandon is still there. At a time when the joy of life seems to have been squeezed out of almost everything and replaced with claustrophobic boxes that we place our kids into so they can fun, but not "too much fun", this place still exists. A place that can make kids scream with glee, and beg for more, not because of flashy graphics, a "cool" persona, or anything manufactured and marketed for their consumption, but simply because it exists to be conquered.