Salty Heir: Old-Timer Recalls Imperial Beach
Growing old alone is not a thing anyone looks forward to, but Paul Smith, 85, has the hang of it now. After 60 years of living in the same old house and watching the world grow older, Smith is a living library of South Bay lore you can’t find in history books.
He was friendly with E.S. Babcock, the man who built the Hotel del Coronado in a year. Smith also knew Babcock’s mistress (or common-law wife, as Smith called her), who lived in an Imperial Beach house that he can point out. A respectable distance from the posh hotel and the legal Mrs. Babcock, but not too far a commute for the robust Mr. Babcock.
“When we first moved here to Imperial Beach, we were Route 1, Box 14. I figured there were 13 families here ahead of us. There were only two houses around us, and one down by the pond, and one up by the road. They used to drive herds of dairy cows past us, down to pasture and back,” he recalled.
Paul Smith came to California from the Kansas prairies in 1921 to work in the newly opened Long Beach oil fields. He was a tall, dark-haired, handsome youth of 20 who could wrestle pipe with the best roughneck in the outfit. It was a cut in pay from his Kansas job where, at 18, he was “supervisor for three counties” for a natural gas drilling company. But California was calling him, “and the hours were all daylight” and the weather was grand.
He met a girl from Arkansas on a blind date. Her name was Eunice, “and could she cook!” Smith reminisced. “I met her in July, and I married her in December.” Eunice died four years ago, but Smith has 59 years of memories to keep him company.
Back in 1924, with a wife to support, Smith decided to “settle down.” He took a job as a district sales manager with Standard Oil and moved to the South Bay, where he handled bulk oil sales “for the whole darn place, National City down to the border and up to Coronado.”
In those days, “there weren’t more’n 400 people west of the railroad tracks all the way to the ocean” in South Bay, and “I sold about 25 gallons of kerosene for every gallon of gas,” he recalled. Kerosene was the cooking and heating fuel of the South Bay for decades until natural gas pipelines came in, and Smith was the main supplier of household kerosene during many of those years.
He supplied fuel oil for the Hotel del Coronado’s laundry, among others, and recalls the stormy winter in 1927 “when Coronado was really an island.” Wind-whipped waves completely covered the road up the narrow strand, isolating the town. Smith’s trucks had to drive “all the way to town (San Diego) and take the ferry over” to Coronado to make fuel deliveries. Forty years later, while the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge was being built, Smith’s fuel trucks were driving out on the uncompleted span to service the heavy construction equipment.
“You could look down, straight down from the cab window to the water below. It was awesome,” Smith said, unconsciously using the lingo of today’s generation.
The Smiths found their little home in Imperial Beach--a tiny place on one-third of an acre--in 1926 and Smith lives there still, having rebuilt and enlarged the house to meet the needs of his wife and two sons.
“I loved animals, and I got me a cow and four horses. I bought up some lots around us, east a ways and down to the highway (Palm Avenue), which wasn’t there in those days. I had about three acres until the taxes got so out of sorts and I had to sell off all but this place.” Now he’s back to owning just the original one-third acre, which he bought for $1,000 in 1926. He was recently offered $147,000 for his homestead, but he isn’t selling.
Smith is a pious, churchgoing man, a former church trustee who would be a 60-year member of Nestor United Methodist Church, except that he switched to a closer congregation for one year but returned to the Nestor fold “because I didn’t like that preacher” in Imperial Beach.
He admits to a few minor sins, such as brewing beer on the back porch during Prohibition. “The first batch I made I’ll never forget. Out of 36 bottles, only about 10 or 12 didn’t explode. You could smell my house for 40 miles.”
He had better luck with a bootlegger who smuggled tequila from Mexico “once, maybe twice, a month,” arriving in an old truck and wearing a dozen watches up his arms. Smith routinely bought a case of the illicit booze each time the old man showed up until, one day, the bootlegger was caught. Smith sighed at the memory. “I didn’t drink all that much, but the big guys at the (oil) company would come into the warehouse and grab a bottle.”
The going price for a 12-quart case of tequila: $12.
Smith never smoked, not cigarettes, cigars or pipes, but he started chewing tobacco at an early age and never quit. He dragged his packet of Mail Pouch out of his back pocket and proceeded to explain that he had been working “in the oil business” since he graduated from high school and “oil men don’t smoke unless they want to blow themselves up.”
He added that his minister “said he couldn’t see anything wrong with the habit but told me I’d have to go to hell to spit.”
During World War II, Smith was area warden for the South Bay, enforcing blackout conditions, marshaling 150 civilian helpers to man the defenses and keep alert for enemy craft in the skies and on the seas. A Japanese submarine was sighted and sunk off the Coronado Islands, Smith said, but nary an enemy aircraft appeared.
It was not the concrete-encased anti-aircraft batteries buried along the Silver Strand or the Navy’s habit of putting up barbed wire fences around sandy beaches to keep out both civilians and the enemy that irked Smith. It was “the government” that got him riled.
Back in the ‘40s, Smith explained, there were a lot of Japanese farmers in the valley, and he recruited some as wardens on his civil defense team. Then “the government” demanded that he “get rid of the Japs.”
“I won that one. I said, ‘Not on your life because those fellows were the best men I have.’ ”
Smith had to find replacements, however, when Japanese along the West Coast--including his wardens--were interned and their lands turned over to others. Smith was given five farms in the Tijuana Valley to operate.
“One feller even give me the deed to his place, all the papers. I give ‘em back to him, of course, when it was over. I managed those farms and I made a profit for ‘em, too, and put it in the bank for ‘em,” Smith recalled, shaking his head at the stupidity of “the government” and, perhaps, at the actions of other caretakers who were less honorable and who did not return the lands and profits to the displaced Japanese-Americans after the war.
Smith kept horses on his place until Imperial Beach became a city in 1956, “and they kicked the horses out,” through ordinances aimed at turning the seaside town into a proper city. Not that Smith was against incorporation. He knew the town that had grown up around him was ready to govern itself, “and I served on the first planning commission.”
Smith found it hard to reconcile the desires of individual residents with the “best interests of the community” as a civic official. After 7 1/2 years, he fell victim to a coup in which Imperial Beach councilmen were recalled and their appointees, including Smith, not reappointed. He’d rather not talk about that period of his life except to admit that even now, 30 years later, “I just don’t know the answers” to Imperial Beach’s problems or the avenue to its aspirations to become another Newport Beach.
His six decades in South Bay have not all been work, however. Smith is a fisherman who has caught 14 marlin off the coast--the largest, 205 1/2 pounds--and has speared a 34-pound halibut in the Tijuana Slough.
His first boat “was a scow. It pushed more water ahead of it than passed by,” he quipped. But he went on to speedier craft, and, in 1948, bought a 24-foot custom cabin cruiser that could weather high seas or serve as a water-ski craft in the bay.
Smith remembers the time he met a visiting couple at a Glorietta Bay launching ramp and agreed to let them try water-skiing for the first time. The husband was clumsy but brave, Smith said, but the wife “took to it like a native and kept asking to go faster, faster.” Smith decided to give her a thrill, banking the boat sharply and sending her arching into the water.
“When we went back to pick her up, she didn’t have a stitch on,” he said. “We found her bathing suit and repaired it with a nail,” he cackled, enjoying the reliving of the event.
Smith also became a pilot, flying World War I surplus aircraft off a dirt field that is now the Mar Vista High School campus. His flying career came to an end with a jolt when a wire to the rudder broke, sending his plane into a 1,200-foot descent, finally pancaking in Palm City. “They didn’t make airplanes with much more than barbed wire and paper in those days,” he said, “but you sure could handle them.”
Having hunted the mesas and marshes of South Bay for decades, Smith had to bite his tongue on a public tour of the state wildlife preserve at the mouth of the Tijuana River a few years back. He kept his peace when the guide for the 50 or so visitors “told about how deer roamed the river valley in the old days,” but his restraint was tested even further when the young guide pointed to “a dad-gummed common hawk and called it a bald eagle.” Deer never roamed the valley, Smith said firmly, and the tour was meant for gullible tourists, not knowledgeable locals.
Smith’s dark good looks have turned to silver over the years--though he brags that his weight is the same as it was at his wedding--and his “serious fishing days are over.” He thinks more and more about “going home” to Kansas, perhaps for a visit to his sisters, ages 80 and 96.
But then a friend comes along to talk him into a fishing trip out to the Salton Sea or off the coast where the sea bass still are biting even if the marlin are not. Or someone comes by to listen while he tells them about the history you can’t read in books.
Then a grin creases his tanned face and he decides to stay just where he is for “a while more” because, he admits, “this is a grand place, isn’t it?”