Carnett: OCC's early dorm residents quite the party animals

Last week I reflected on what the Santa Ana Army Air Base was like 70 years ago.

The base was open from 1942 to 1946. Covering an area of more than 1,300 acres, it occupied a fifth of today's Costa Mesa.

The column specifically mentioned two, two-story barracks buildings — leftovers from the base — that were used by Orange Coast College when it opened in 1948. They were converted into student dorms, one for male athletes and the other for male nonathletes.

The dorms were in service for a dozen years, and were torn down in 1960.

Here's more about dorm life at Coast:

"The barracks were located just over the right center-field fence of our baseball field," Bob Wetzel, an OCC baseball player during the 1954 and '55 seasons, told me several years ago. "I saw many home runs ricochet off the clapboard walls. We aimed at them during batting practice."

Wetzel, who also played basketball for the Pirates, returned to the campus in 1964. He taught physical education for 31 years, and coached the men's basketball and volleyball teams.

Gary Lewis, who lived in a dorm during the 1956-57 academic year, recalls the Spartan shower and restroom facilities.

"Most of us shied away from using them," he said. "If you were an athlete, or took a P.E. class, you'd usually wait to take your shower in the gym. The facilities there were much nicer. Dorm urinals were strictly government-issue."

Weekend dorm parties became the stuff of campus legend.

"Those parties were a regular topic of discussion on campus," Wetzel said. "In those days, we thought the parties were pretty wild … but I only heard about them. I never attended one. I didn't live in the dorms, so I wasn't invited. They only invited girls."

Female students were spirited into the dormitories for the parties. That was very much against the rules, and cloak-and-dagger techniques had to be employed.

A dorm advisor was permanently installed on the first floor. The men of Lewis' dorm would tie ropes around the waists of coeds and hoist them up to the second floor and through an open window.

"The girls loved it," Lewis said. "It seemed so perilous and exciting at the time. Females were strictly verboten, of course, and we were always afraid that someone would rat us out. But the parties were benign and innocent by any standard. The dorm residents were gentlemen."

In addition to prevailing dorm hijinks, the facilities also featured a cacophony of barnyard sounds. Animals were occasionally — and illicitly — introduced into the dorms. They included ducks, chickens and an occasional domesticated cat or dog. And, of course, there was the cow.

Cow?

Lewis said that a student across the hall from him kept a Hereford in his room at night.

"I know that sounds bizarre," he said with a laugh. "An agriculture major, he kept a prize calf in his room that he was raising for the fair. He'd release it during the day to graze with the college herd, but at night he'd sneak it into his room.

"Of course, the thing kept growing bigger and bigger, and the stench became unbearable. We — the other dorm residents — finally put our foot down."

A favorite hangout for students in Lewis' era was a Corona del Mar drive-in restaurant.

"The drive-in was at the corner of Coast Highway and MacArthur [Boulevard], and it was a classic. Carhops served customers on roller skates. Lots of Coast students would hang out there on weekends. We also had beach parties and bonfires."

Football weekends were especially exciting.

"We'd have a pep rally or bonfire on campus Friday night, and then the game would be played in Pirate Stadium on Saturday evening," he said. "The games were big social events for students, faculty and staff, and for the community. We'd pack the stands."

Campus dances were often held after games.

As the nation sought to move beyond a catastrophic world war, OCC's campus in the 1950s emphasized academic growth and the preservation of small-town ideals.

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

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