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In the Pipeline: Ex-manager's birthday evokes Meadowlark Airport's high-flying legacy

After thanking everybody, he said, with a smile and in his small voice, "This is the last plane to leave Meadowlark Airport." Then his forefinger pulled the trigger on a handheld launcher, sending the small, green plastic airplane across the room.

Everybody laughed and applauded. Then we had cake.

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I wish all of you could have attended Art Nerio's 90th birthday party last weekend at Meadowlark Golf Club in Huntington Beach. The party, thrown by his family and friends, also commemorated the 25th anniversary of the closing of Meadowlark Airport. I felt privileged to have been asked to emcee the event.

The Nerio family and the airport are Huntington Beach legends.

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Art is the eldest son of Japanese immigrants Koichi and Toyo Nerio. During World War II, the Nerio family was interned at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas, but Art was able to attend Brigham Young University during part of the relocation period (BYU was one of the few colleges that accepted Japanese-Americans during World War II).

After the war, the family farm was fortunately still intact. Art worked in the early morning to send produce such as chives and red leaf lettuce to supermarket buyers.

In 1952, the family bought Meadowlark Airport, and Art managed it from 1969 to 1989.

Many old pilots were at the party to reminisce. Dave Hanst Jr., son of the WWI I hero I wrote about several weeks ago, started flying at the airport in the 1970s. Today he is a pilot for American Airlines.

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"Whenever we fly back from South America," he said, "our route takes us right over where Meadowlark used to be just as the sun is coming up at about 6 a.m. I can't tell you how many times I've pointed down and told the other pilots I'm with about this amazingly special little place.

"When I grew up there and learned how to fly, I thought every airport had horses and dogs running around. But as I learned soon after, there was no place else like Meadowlark."

Other pilots talked about those horses and dogs, explaining that often they would have to do a low flyover to scare the animals off the runway before circling back to land safely.

A former Goodyear blimp pilot described how he once phoned the Meadowlark Cafe and asked for coffee to be brought out to him and his crew as he lowered the dirigible to within grabbing distance. This while being met by his son and dozens of his schoolmates who were thrilled to see the famous craft at such a low altitude.

A 30-minute documentary about Meadowlark played on a screen as guests arrived. Shot in the early 1980s, the film captured one of the most iconic sites at the airport: Nerio himself peddling on his bicycle, chasing down airplanes to make sure their $3 landing fee was paid.

"Hey," he chuckled to me, "it was a business too."

Nerio's daughters, his sister Betty and other family members were on hand. They had all spent substantial time at Meadowlark.

But for all the pilots' funny anecdotes, I think some of the best tales were overheard in conversations afterward. That's when you realized how big a part of people's lives that airport was. It was not just an airport. It was a community meeting space where pilots, their families and people who just liked the company could hang out. That communal spirit touched people unlike any other landmark that I can recall in Huntington Beach.

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When the airport was threatened in the 1960s after a Federal Aviation Administration official found that two new homes at one end of a runway were too close for comfort, Nerio purchased the homes and had them razed.

Nothing was going to take away his airport.

But, of course, times change and eras sadly see their curtains come down. Several pilots spoke about being some of the last ones to fly out of Meadowlark in 1989 before the property was developed into a shopping center. One told me he wiped away tears and later grabbed a chunk of runway as a souvenir.

In the next few weeks, a plaque will be unveiled at the site of the Golden Bear, a popular nightclub in downtown Huntington Beach until its closure in 1986. I think this might be a good time to start thinking about a marker to honor Meadowlark Airport, near Warner Avenue and Bolsa Chica Street.

A small, easy-to-miss plaque is already embedded in the ground near Heil Avenue and Plaza Lane, where one of the runways ended. But I think we need something more substantial there to remind future generations of a place where people flew planes for fun, when you could fly to Catalina for lunch or up and down the coast for no other reason than you felt like it. Where Bob Canon's beach banners were dragged up into the blue sky, letting everyone know it was summer.

There used to be an airport there. And I think it's time we remember it properly.

Happy birthday again to Mr. Nerio and all of his family and friends who turned out Saturday to wish this delightful man a happy birthday and to remember a special gathering place known as Meadowlark Airport.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 25 books. You can chat with him on Twitter @chrisepting or follow his column at http://www.facebook.com/hbindependent.

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