Carnett: When OCC was young

I took a walk through my Mesa del Mar neighborhood the other evening.

It was just after sunset — the gloaming — and the sky had the luminescence of a shiny pearl. A fresh ocean breeze wafted across the mesa.

For a few moments I tried to imagine how things might have appeared had I walked the same real estate in 1943. The residential neighborhood would have then comprised the parade ground of the Santa Ana Army Air Base.

The breeze no doubt would have been stronger in '43 because few buildings existed on the mesa to break up prevailing wind patterns. The parade ground, I was convinced, would have been deserted and ghostly.

The air base was open from 1942-46 and contained hundreds of wooden barracks. It encompassed 1,336 acres, covering one-fifth of today's Costa Mesa.

In the early 1950s, my friends and I used to play in several abandoned two-story barracks sitting near the present-day Civic Center. We occasionally uncovered such treasures as uniform buttons and insignia.

The air base's buildings resembled thousands of other World War II-era wood-frame structures built on installations throughout the world. Simple and utilitarian, they were arranged in long, neat rows.

In 1945, on what three years later would become Orange Coast College's campus, sat two rows of the distinctive two-story structures, 12 in each row. The buildings were exact replicas of one another. Numbers stenciled above the entrances were the sole means for telling the avocado-hued barracks apart.

While I served in the Army in the 1960s I was housed in such buildings at Ft. Ord, Calif., and Ft. Benning, Ga.

Military lore is replete with tales of soldiers staggering back to installations after an evening "on the town" and awaking the next morning in a strange bunk in unfamiliar surroundings.

Following the war, some of the two-story barracks on OCC's site were torn down; others were moved to locations near and far. In early 1948, some on OCC's new campus were cannibalized so that the wood and nails might be used for the conversion of other campus structures into educational facilities.

Two barracks remained from a former row of 12 and from 1948-60 served as the college's dormitories. They were situated where the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building is today.

In the spring and summer of 1948, Fran Albers, OCC's carpenter, was tasked with converting a wide assortment of air base structures into classrooms, offices, labs, a library, a student union, a cafeteria, an auditorium and a gymnasium. Two of the barracks were selected for renovation into dorms.

Albers put up walls in the two-story cadet barracks and created two-man rooms. They could be accessed via a hallway running down the center of each barrack.

One dormitory was set aside for athletes — football, basketball and baseball players, and wrestlers. Nonathletes of the male persuasion used the other dorm. There were no dorms for females.

Students began moving into the dorms in September 1948. One initial resident was wrestler Dean Burchett who hailed from El Centro. Burchett later became an OCC counselor.

"It wasn't bad," he told me a few years back. "We had everything we needed."

Dave Heikes, a petroleum technology major and football player, lived in the dorms from 1952-54. He eventually became a 41-year OCC employee, and retired in 1993 as director of maintenance and operations.

"The dorms were great," Heikes said. "For $30 a month we had a clean room, a comfortable bed, three meals per day, a closet for our clothes and a desk for our homework. You couldn't beat it."

Dorm students ate all meals Monday through Friday in OCC's cafeteria. Surrounded by a gated fence, the college was closed on weekends and holidays. Dorm residents had to seek out local restaurants and grocery stores for weekend sustenance.

The dorms were torn down in the summer of 1960 to make room for new classrooms.

Their demise brought an end to a colorful era on campus.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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