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CELEBRATE! VOLUME II : ORANGE COUNTY’S FIRST 100 YEARS : PERSONAL INFLUENCES : 30 YEARS’ TUG OF WAR

<i> Bell is a free-lance author who writes a column for The Times' Orange County Life section. </i>

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.

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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.

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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.

I suppose the low point for me was after John F. Kennedy’s assassination: My daughter was suspended from Corona del Mar High School for leaving campus when she could no longer tolerate the talk about Kennedy. And I attacked a local businessman--given my state of mind, I might have killed him--when he greeted some friends with whom we were dining by saying it had been a good day, the weather was perfect for sailing and we didn’t have Kennedy around anymore.

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It could only get better after that--and it did. Although Disneyland preceded me by two years, two other quite disparate newcomers in the mid-1960s changed the character of Orange County considerably.

In 1966, I joined the faculty of UC Irvine and saw my first major league baseball game in Anaheim Stadium. UCI brought the leavening effect of philosophical, political and educational breadth. The Angels put us in the big leagues.

These changes helped me put Orange County into better perspective. For the first time, I became fully aware of its youth and vigor--not so much in chronological age as in spirit. Elderly people who would be consigned to rocking chairs in other parts of the country were riding bicycles and surfing and raising hell in public meetings. And every time an orange grove was displaced by a thousand houses, a thousand different families with different backgrounds moved in, thereby broadening the cultural and ethnic base of the county.

This convulsive movement of people converted Orange County into an immense social laboratory. In few other places have the agrarian roots of the past come into such violent conflict with the urbanization of the future in such a short period of time.

Orange County experienced considerable trauma trying to decide whether it belonged to the world of the cowboy or the cathode, the citrus grove or the computer chip. Its affections always have been with the cowboy, but its destiny--and its pocketbook--always have been with high-tech. The fact that it tried to have it both ways--and is still trying--has made living here a fascinating exercise in balancing human greed with human longing.

Actually, we’ve done a pretty good job of bringing off that balancing act in many parts of Orange County. William Pereira, who master-planned the Irvine Ranch, said at the time that “it would be a great mistake for the West to become a megalopolis--just subdivision after subdivision. The great cities of the past have sprung from their orientation toward universities. We are going to try and do here in 30 years what it has taken 300 years to do in other times.”

I’m happy to have been here through most of those 30 years--even though the philosophical and political climate in Orange County hasn’t changed very much during that time. But at least the Eastern magazines have stopped writing about us, and I’ve mellowed.

Now, instead of brooding about the fact that two Orange County Republicans favored to win Congressional seats in November were enthusiastically supported in the primary by Ollie North, I think about coming over the hill on MacArthur Boulevard and seeing the Pacific spread out before me. Or playing tennis year-round. Or walking a deserted wintertime beach under a full moon. Or sitting in the cheap seats in right field at Anaheim Stadium and drinking a beer and dangling my feet over the seat in front of me and allowing my head to vegetate. Or driving the brown hills of the south county. Or meeting in good restaurants with good friends for good talk. Or watching theater and ballet without being required to drive into Los Angeles. Or sitting outside on a lawn chair in January with a book. Or feeling the energy that this place still generates--this frontier place--and feeling in tune with it.

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That’s why I live in Orange County. And why Orange County lives in me.


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