In The Pipeline: Marsh docent gives personal history tour

I ran into my friend Marinka Horack recently at the Bolsa Chica wetlands. She and her fantastic Miracles of the Marsh docent team from the Bolsa Chica Land Trust were taking yet another school group out to learn about nature. Marinka introduced me to an older gentleman, a docent, and said, "You should write about him, Chris."

I went back a week later to watch him teach the kids about birds and local history — as he told them, he'd even actually been inside the Bolsa Chica Gun Club. In fact, this seasoned sage even had a local elementary school named after him. So I took Marinka's advice.

A few days later, on a bright, warm day, my son and I met 88-year-old lifelong Huntington Beach resident Bill Kettler at the end of Bolsa Chica Street, right where the Trails at Brightwater starts, next to a 6-acre parcel of land called the Goodell property.

Strong spring winds shook the palms and created waves in the carpets of vibrant yellow coast sunflowers. The view of the ocean was glorious from the mesa. But Kettler wasn't studying the view; he was ambling toward a cut in the fence, narrating his memory at this very same spot about 75 years ago.

"There were no houses out there," he said. "It was all rural. Far as you could see. I graduated from Springdale Elementary as class valedictorian — though there were only two of us in the class." With a short chuckle, Kettler motioned down at the soft dirt, which was studded with seashell fragments.

"These shells are all part of the Indian middens; their garbage heaps. This is where they discarded all their shells. I'd come up here as a young boy after the rains and look for arrowheads."

We kept moving ahead as Kettler looked for a special spot.

"Things have grown over a lot, changed over the years," he said to himself. Then he stopped at a point next to the thick, towering wild mustard. "It was here, right in here," he said softly.

Kettler has led us to the exact site where, as a young teen in the early 1930s, he made a discovery.

"I saw something shiny," he said. "Got closer and saw it was a skull. Then I saw another."

The rain had uncovered two complete Indian skeletons, most likely at least several thousand years old. He knew, after witnessing several scientific exhumations in the area, that he'd come upon part of a burial site.

"I recognized the way the bodies were in a crouched position. No doubt in my mind. I collected them, every bone, and put them in a gunnysack to keep in my house. They were with the arrowheads and cog stones I'd discovered."

But years later, in the 1940s, an Apache friend told him that he needed to bury the skeletons with dignity.

"I was a horizontal engineer at that point in life," he laughed slyly. "I worked as a mortician. So I knew all the cemeteries in town. And I went over to Talbert and Beach and explained everything."

Today, in unmarked graves at Good Shepherd Cemetery, lie the two skeletons Kettler discovered. But that was not the end of them.

In the early 1990s, when there was a proposal to build abut 4,800 homes at this site, Kettler said the developers told members of the Gabrielino-Tongva Band of Mission Indians that the area was not all that sacred. An alarm went off in Kettler's head. He knew what the area held. So he told everyone what he'd found years ago.

Soon, hundreds of skeletons were found, and today, within view of where Kettler discovered his skeletons, we now have one of the most significant archaeological sites in Southern California. Known as ORA-83, this site contains evidence of an 8,000-year-old village and burial ground.

It's also been the site of a long-running battle between Native Americans and developers over the right to build homes on hallowed ground.

Does Kettler realize his discoveries probably helped thwart the building of 4,800 homes on the mesa?

"Well, I guess it didn't hurt," he chuckled. "And I mean, I hope it helped. We have to respect this history — how we can learn from it and also protect the legacy of the Indians and their families."

He served his country, he raised his family here, he had a school named after him and he never left his hometown. He also made a discovery, and looking at him on this picture-perfect day, it's easy to imagine how fired up a young boy's imagination was as he roamed this very site all those years ago.

He loved history, he loved exploring and he loved Indians.

Today, as he followed his own boyhood footsteps across the path, he wore a mischievous smile. I wonder what he was remembering?

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Get a Taste

Hope to see you all at the Taste of Huntington Beach this Sunday, where I'll be judging food. For information and to buy tickets, visit http://www.hbrestaurants.com/taste/.

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Last Call

If you're a Huntington Beach or Fountain Valley high school student, e-mail me a story about a person, place or thing in your city that you'd like us to know about — reveal something special in 500 words or less using interviews, photography or whatever it takes to bring your story to life. Deadline is Saturday and the winner will be featured in this column, receive a signed copy of one of my books and appear with me on PBS SoCal during an edition of "Real Orange."

Good luck! Any questions, e-mail chris@chrisepting.com, which is where the entries get sent to as well.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at chris@chrisepting.com.

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