Imagine, if you can, taking a drive in Orange County and not seeing another car for miles. Picture a panorama not of housing tracts, malls and freeways but of wide-open skies, fields and fruit groves. Imagine the sweet smell of orange blossoms all around you.
Joe Anton is 75 now, but the Orange County of his youth is still only a quick recollection away. Hanging out at the Hula Hut, swimming in Newport Bay, driving to Placentia for American Legion dances on Friday nights . . . this is what it meant to be a high school kid from Anaheim in the mid-1930s.
Anaheim had all of 10,000 residents then; almost all knew Anton by name. That's how it was if you played football for Anaheim High. You were big news, a headline waiting to happen. People from around the county came to watch you play.
In 1936, Fred and Ginger were all the rage. Telephone numbers had only four digits. A "drive by" meant someone was out showing off his new car. Anton, a high school senior, played linebacker and offensive guard. He was 5 feet 7, 135 pounds.
High school football was a little different in those days, Anton says. Helmets were made of leather; shoulder pads, too. If you took an elbow to the face, you were sorry because face masks and mouth guards didn't exist. Coaches didn't use chalkboards; plays (usually of the single-wing variety) were diagramed in the dirt. A varsity team consisted of 12 to 15 players. Games started at 2:30 or 3 p.m. because stadiums didn't have lights.
Assistant coaches? Unheard of. Game film? Still a dozen years away. Pre-game meals? Carbo-loading? Amino acid supplements? Sorry, Anton says, but he and his pals pigged out on tamales and burgers before every game.
"Though I did take vitamins," he says.
Conditioning meant heading down to Newport Bay for a swim, or--in Anton's case--bringing along a paddleboard fashioned from plywood. Surfing had yet to catch on, so body surfing was the thing to do. Three-sport athletes were the norm, though apparently they didn't have much say in the matter because Anaheim football Coach Richard Glover also coached basketball and baseball.
High school sports were still in their infancy in 1936, especially in Orange County. Anaheim was still two decades away from winning its first Southern Section title. Clare VanHoorebeke had yet to coach, Mickey Flynn was not yet born. The formation of the Sunset League wouldn't take place for another year.
Still, as far as Anaheim residents were concerned, watching the Colonists play was like tuning in to the Lone Ranger or Gene Autry radio shows. You couldn't miss them. Businesses shut down early on Friday afternoons, farmers left their fields by 2. Everyone from Osborn's Malt Shop to the Nicco Chop Suey Cafe geared up for the game.
The players weren't always the only attraction. During a game against Tustin, a group of female students took the field for a football exhibition of their own. The press was not impressed. "Girls aren't in condition for the fall pastime," wrote a reporter. "The dainty misses found the exercise a little too violent." (Apparently, most opted for the Anaheim High Girls League, where, according to the Colonist yearbook, the focus was on etiquette, flower and garden cultivation and the aiding of orphans).
When Anaheim beat Huntington Beach, 22-0, to set up a showdown with Orange for the 1936 league title, the town went wild. A newspaper's account: "Anaheim, on Friday night, was a bedlam of shouting hometown rooters who roared up and down main street with motors sputtering, horns screeching, pompons waving and vocal chords splitting . . . Hully gee, how these kids do yell!"
Anaheim lost the league title to Orange the following week, and Anton was made an honorable-mention selection on the all-league team, a designation his teammates didn't quite support. "You got rooked!" one wrote in his yearbook. Nearly 60 years later, Anton certainly isn't holding a grudge. Life has worked out too well.
Anton went on to play football at San Diego State, married Mary, his wife of 53 years, and started a Santa Ana stock brokerage firm, which he still owns. He watched his sons, Phil, Al and Ron, play varsity football for his high school alma mater. He watched his granddaughter, Jody, lead Brea-Olinda to one Southern Section basketball title after another.
But this time of year, Anton's passion is football. He never misses a Colonist game. He attends practices when he can. He's already pegged Anaheim to win the Orange League championship and predicts sophomore twins Reuben and Robert Droughns "will be the best ball players from Anaheim since Mickey Flynn."
Looking back on his own high school playing days is nice, Anton, a soft-spoken sort, says. But its hardly the memories of big plays or victory parties that he holds most dear.
"It's the friendships, the friendships that we created," Anton says quietly. "You never forget friends like that."
Like orange blossoms of long ago, they make for memories forever sweet.