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When O.C. Never Had It So Good

As 1999 and the entire 1900s wind down, the impulse today is to look back, to reflect.

What kind of year has it been? Did we learn anything? Did we grow? Are we advancing the dream of the Founding Fathers, who wanted first and foremost to create a more perfect union?

That may sound a bit weighty as we review our little corner of the world here in Orange County on the eve of 2000, but is it?

My guess is that historians will look at this moment in Orange County and marvel at how good we had it. They’ll note that serious crime continued to drop precipitously and that a vibrant, steady economy percolated--and that more people than ever felt good about the future.

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They’ll see the place as one where the possibilities to be something special abounded. They’ll see it as a place increasingly linked to the global society but with rich opportunities to secure its own identity in the next century.

The past is prologue, so here are some details of Orange County, 1999. . . .

Because we’re human beings, we fought with passion, had our hearts broken and buckled under man’s inhumanity.

But because we’re human, we also reconciled. We tried to forgive and understand. We laughed at life’s comedy. When buckled, we stood up again. We were touched by the depth of some people’s humanity.

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Proof of all that came in stories big and small.

We recoiled in May when a deranged man intentionally gunned his car through a fence into the playground of a day-care center in Costa Mesa, killing two toddlers.

We despaired when a gunman terrorized an Anaheim hospital in September and killed three employees.

We asked why when a 16-year-old Fountain Valley High School football player seemingly in the peak of health collapsed and died on the practice field.

But for every one of those moments, there were others that revived our faith and hope.

Cindy Soto, the mother of one of the toddlers who died, got her master’s degree a month later and wore a gold angel and shooting star on her graduation robe. She lobbied for legislation to protect children at day-care centers.

During the mayhem inside the Anaheim hospital, shooting victim Ronald Robertson’s last act was to heroically engage the gunman, wrestling with him and no doubt saving the lives of many others.

And at the funeral for 16-year-old Scotty Lang, his family rejoiced at his life and encouraged others to celebrate their son instead of lapsing into prolonged mourning.

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Other stories lifted us. A dying 10-year-old boy could have had any last wish, and he opted to watch his doctor perform life-saving surgery on another young girl. In Lake Forest, a jeweler returned to his shop 18 months after robbers killed his wife and shot out his right eye.

The past year only underscored how quickly Orange County and the globe are converging. Not all that long ago, a year-end review of local news would be very local.

No longer.

Last spring, Southeast Asian politics returned to Orange County, when Vietnamese refugees lined the streets in Little Saigon to protest a shop owner’s decision to pay homage to communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

The Balkan struggle hit home when a small group of Albanian refugees settled in a Garden Grove shelter.

Then, when an EgyptAir flight crashed into the Atlantic in October killing everyone on board, it at first appeared to be an “international” story. Instead, we learned that 10 Orange County residents were among the 217 killed, symbolically uniting segments of the county’s Jewish and Arab populations, who mourned as one.

A dimming but still audible drumbeat of immigration controversy lingered. Despite unemployment rates at an all-time county low and dropping crime levels--two elements often linked to the perceived perils of illegal immigration--private and public debates on the issue surfaced.

In Anaheim, a school board member insisted on billing Mexico for illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, on a more real-life basis, immigrants learned the hard way of their vulnerability when an infant girl died after receiving an injection from an unlicensed health practitioner.

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On other fronts, we realized again that institutions we trust aren’t infallible. Disneyland was fined after an inexperienced employee didn’t carefully monitor one of the rides and a tourist was killed in a freak accident. Caltrans confessed to a number of errors that directly led to one motorist’s death and created several other safety hazards. And St. Joseph Hospital proved it didn’t have a foolproof system for ensuring that newborns would be given to the correct parents.

And, surely, history will note that debate continued over the El Toro airport, highway construction and residential growth patterns.

In the end, though, those are momentary events.

They don’t speak to the larger issues of this and every previous generation, such as struggles over race and ethnicity and the ongoing quest to have humankind’s good instincts prevail over its evil ones.

Those fights are etched in the human experience.

We are not doomed on the local scene, however, to prolong them.

Leadership, vision and goodwill can thrust us into the future.

What will we do with a vibrant economy, shrinking crime rate and our enhanced technology? Will we parlay them into fulfilling our manifest destiny to improve our lives? Or will we squander what we have and succumb to our baser or pettier instincts?

In 1980, state Sen. John Schmitz referred to Orange County as a “focal point of Western civilization.” Hyperbole aside, I think he was alluding to the possibilities for the relatively new, post-World War II society fashioned from this seaside paradise.

Future historians will record how we did.

For now, let’s leave it at this:

Is it coincidence or grand metaphor that on Sunday, the new year will be celebrated in a seaside service sponsored by the Huntington Beach Interfaith Council, a 20-member group representing religious faiths across the spectrum?

The group’s flier reads: “As the sun sinks beyond the sea, a bagpipe will be heard playing ‘Amazing Grace.’ ”

A Pacific sunset. The dawning of the 2000s. An interfaith meeting. The timeless strains of Amazing Grace.

All in all, a promising start.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com

* OC 1999

A photographic replay of the passing year. B4


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