Fish, Firefighting, Olympians: A Watery View of Los Alamitos

Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to the Times Orange County Edition.

Los Alamitos can be a shell of a place to visit: The World War II bombardier mannequin at Los Alamitos Museum is more than slightly shellshocked, there are oysters on the half shell at the Fish Co., and the turtles at nearby El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach wear their shells proudly.

1 to 2 p.m.: Keep an eye out for specials at the Fish Co.

One assumes everything at the restaurant is fresh, so when items are listed as specials, perhaps they're extra fresh. And while oysters and swordfish are always on the menu, for instance, specials recently included Malpeque oysters from Prince Edward Island ($6.95) and local harpooned swordfish ($9.95), offered with a choice of two side dishes.

There are even "special" side dishes that are usually available: Fresh roasted garlic mashed potatoes came mixed with chopped green onions and topped with onion ringlets delicately fried.

A cup of Manhattan clam chowder ($2.95) proved pungent and picante , and the cup really has a handle so you can enjoy every last drop; also on the menu is a Blue Plate Special ($5.95) including chowder and a scoop of halibut salad.

Northern Alaskan halibut is always available, but the restaurant had printed flyers announcing the arrival of halibut from Alaska that day. Who could resist a fish that wears both eyes on one side of its head? I passed on Dungeness crab cakes with whole-grain mustard sauce ($9.95) and swordfish with pine nuts and capers ($10.95); the halibut ($8.95) was mesquite-broiled with just a dash of butter and paprika.

2 to 2:45: The Los Alamitos Museum usually focuses on local history. It has a permanent display about the Puvu Indians, for instance, who lived here thousands of years ago in tule-thatched huts called wickiups. More recently, in 1947, the adobe brick building that now houses the museum opened as the local volunteer firehouse, and the old fire cart provides the museum's centerpiece.

But right now the museum is taking on the world. This month director Margaret Kendrick launched a World War II exhibit and activities culminating next September with the 50th anniversary of Japan's surrender aboard the battleship Missouri. "The (war) didn't really end until the Berlin Wall fell," noted Kendrick. "But the generation involved with World War II won't be here much longer. I'm gathering written accounts, and I hope to leave a file folder for young people."

She's also gathering memorabilia. On display is a handkerchief bearing signatures, in Japanese and dated March 13, 1942, of Japanese American community leaders before they were sent to detention camps. The cloth was loaned by Yosh Fujimura of Los Alamitos, not a signer but also Japanese American. "His whole family was put into the camps," Kendrick said. "First he was in detention, then he fought in Italy with the Red Bull Division." A mannequin wears the leather and silk-lined uniform of a German bombardier loaned to the museum by one of its members. "She'd received it from a friend who fought over there and actually took it off a dead body," Kendrick said. "The suit has an electrical system. You can plug in batteries, and that kept them warm." The mannequin came from a local store. "He's a community effort," she said.

The museum also has a Los Alamitos Hall of Fame. Olympians include gymnast Cathy Rigby, divers Larry Andreasen and Patricia McCormick, and Wilbur Thompson, who won a gold medal for shotput at the 1948 games in London.

There's a bevy of swimmers: Lynne Cox, who swam the Bering Strait, the English Channel in record time and the 26 miles from Los Angeles to Catalina Island, and whose goggles from her crossing of New Zealand's Cook Strait in 1975 hang on the wall; Greta Anderson, the first woman to swim the English Channel, and freestyle silver medalist Ralph Flannegin, the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic swim team in 1932.

"Must be something in the water," said Kendrick.

2:45 to 4: Turtles bask on wood planks floating in the lake, and swim beneath the bridge leading to the El Dorado Nature Center bookstore and gift shop.

Inside are books such as "The Yucky Reptile Alphabet Book" and a puzzle called "Pollution Patrol." In the adjoining museum are Madagascan hissing cockroaches, more than two inches in length but not found locally; an award-winning school science project about owls by a 10-year-old featuring literally hundreds of bleached mice, rat and gopher skulls, and displays including skunk scat and a snake skeleton.

The intimate trail system is dotted with benches. A shady one-mile trail starts out with gentle switchbacks leading to a platform eye level with the treetops. Those may not be flying squirrels sailing from branch to branch, but they sure look like it. There are power lines along one stretch, but soon you come to a cluster of fabulously gnarled trees, each looking like it could illustrate a Gothic novel, and each telling its own story. If you're lucky, you'll spot a gray fox.

The one-mile walk is perfectly lovely, the two-mile walk probably doubly so.

3-HOUR TOUR

1. The Original Fish Co.

11061 Los ALamitos Blvd.

Los Alamitos

(310) 594-4553

Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (Fish market open daily at 9 a.m.)

2. Los Alamitos Museum

11052 Los Alamitos Blvd.

Los Alamitos

(310) 431-8836

Open Tuesday and Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m.

3. El Dorado Nature Center

7550 E. Spring St.

Long Beach

(310) 421-9431, ext. 3415

Museum open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Trails open Tuesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Parking/Buses

Parking: There is ample parking at each location. Parking fee at nature center is $3 Monday through Friday, $5 on Saturday and Sunday.

Buses: OCTA bus 42 runs north and south along Los Alamitos Boulevard with stops at Katella and Cerritos avenues.

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