A Moment Called “Ontario”
© 2009, 2014 by Vernon Miles Kerr
Not long ago, heading home to Northern California from San Diego, I was driving through a new multilevel freeway interchange that connects Interstate 10 and Interstate 15, just East of the Ontario International Airport in Southern California. Ontario was the town where I attended elementary school and graduated from high school,. While I negotiated the sweeping curve of the transition ramp, happy memories came flooding back.
Our family moved to Ontario, in those sunny and buoyant days following World War II. It was 1952 and my Mom and Pop’s three baby-boomer sons were already 9, 6 and 4. I was the 9 year old. We had been living 40 miles to the West in South Gate, close to Los Angeles. Mom and Pop had been working hard and saving money so they could buy their own home and when they were financially ready, they bought a little starter home in Ontario. In the ensuing years they both wound up working for Lockheed Air Service at the Ontario Airport.
For our family, those post-war years were a time of abundance, partly because of the post-war boom and partly because my mother was a working mom—one of the very few in the neighborhood. Every Friday, payday, Mom would stop off at the local Safeway on her way home from work and arrive with a trunk-load of groceries. Every fall we would go through the bountiful ritual of procuring stiff, new blue Levis and starchy plaid shirts for “back to school” time. We always had a late-model luxury car as our main family vehicle., and there was always money for adventures like Disneyland or the Los Angeles County Fair in the adjoining city of Pomona.
I think one of the things that attracted Mom and Pop to the area was Ontario’s then semi-rural atmosphere, a remnant of the days in the 1880s and 1890s when the little city was the center of the vast Southern California Citrus Belt. From the growing of oranges to the picking, packing and processing of oranges, all of it was still being done in Ontario in 1952. Although those high days of agricultural importance were numbered, there were still thousands of acres of producing orange and lemon groves marching in military order, column and file, from the Northern edge of Ontario and Upland, clear up to the shoulders of the steep San Bernardino Mountain Range, looming over our Pomona Valley. At blossom time, the fragrance of citrus blossoms was sublime—although during winter, the occasional black, greasy smoke from orange grove smudge pots could be somewhat less so. East of town, there were many square miles of grape vineyards owned by several local wineries. South of town was the Chino dairy district where the descendants of Dutch immigrants tended many square miles of alfalfa in order to feed hundreds of dependent Holstein dairy herds.
The significance of all this, to me, is that it was our backyard. We kids could reach any of these wondrous curiosities on our bicycles, within an hour. The orange groves and grape vineyards were places to explore. They were so vast, I don’t remember ever seeing a farmer or ranch hand, or ever having been asked to leave an orchard or vineyard. (Incidentally, green lemons make a fearfully stinging projectile for mock war and wine made from purloined grapes by junior high school boys, and fermented under the house, tastes pretty lousy.)
On up above the last row of oranges, North of town, were the washes and arroyos of the mountains. Completely dry except for a few weeks per year, the washes were another playground for us. They were like wide, sandy-bottomed highways that led higher and higher, eventually reaching into the tortuously twisted mountain canyons. In order to channel and contain the occasional flash flood, the washes were bordered with heaped stone levies, which created an atmosphere of isolation and privacy and set the stage for a variety of fantasy scenarios. We could be Portola or Fremont or De Anza discovering Southern California for the first time, or we could be the first explorers on Mars. When we reached a sufficient distance up the wash we would sometimes climb the levy bank and be rewarded with a bird’s eye view of the valley below.
Overarching this entire scene was the weather, or relative lack of it. The weather was usually unnoticed, with the exception of the seasonal hot, sometime hurricane force, “Santa Ana” winds, (or was it “Santana”—no one could seem to agree). I don’t remember having a concept of seasons as a child. I remember seeing a newspaper on someone’s lawn as I walked to high school one balmy morning. The banner headline touted “Los Angeles Times Midwinter Edition.” I remember being jolted to realize that I had been unaware that we were in the middle of winter. However, since our valley’s floor was at an altitude of near 1,000 feet, we did have events that might pass as seasons, such as when a few deciduous trees dropped their leaves (or most of their leaves) once a year—it seemed a rather half-hearted effort at autumn though, and didn’t really seem to constitute a season. The tropical and Mediterranean plants, like banana, bird of paradise, hibiscus and citrus seemed either oblivious or immune to whatever it was that made the elms and maples go semi-skeletal. I just remember a seemingly endless sequence of mild blue-sky days, every one of which held unlimited possibilities for adventure and exploration.
Because both Mom and Pop worked, we had lots of independence and freedom in the summertime. We could take off in any direction on our rattling but trendy “English” bikes, pursuing any quest we could dream up. Oh, we might call Mom at work and say “Hey, we thought it would be cool to ride our bikes clear to Fontana today.” But she would most likely answer, “Well okay, but you all be careful and watch for cars.” (Fontana is nearly 15 miles from Ontario.) By the way, we made the 30 mile round trip that day, without incident. I believe the oldest of our gang of neighborhood boys was in junior high school at the time.
Today, such an adventure would be out of the question, but in that era, there were few of the dangers young people face in today’s world. There were no gangs, there was no pressure to use drugs, and there was comparatively little crime. Maybe there was a gang or drug problem over in Los Angeles, I don’t recall. But in Ontario, in the 1950s, gangs and drugs weren’t an issue with any of us or with anyone we knew. So we pedaled…out past the grape vineyards on east 4th street, and up through the shade of the seemingly endless, cool canyon of towering Eucalyptus orange grove windbreaks that lined Baseline Road and that pointed us eastward through the groves, toward Fontana. Along the way we threw rocks at discarded bottles, caught a horned toad, and stopped at a little country store for refreshments. We achieved our goal–Fontana, then turned our bikes around and rode home. It was a great day.
Through the latter part of the twentieth century and this early part of the twenty-first, I’ve been back to Ontario many times, but it really isn’t the same. The little Ontario Airport has grown to become Ontario International Airport, familiar to travelers around the world as an alternative to LAX. The starter group of industries of our time such as Lockheed, Northrop and others, has expanded exponentially and, as a result, so has the population. The great Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees and their protégé orange trees gradually fell, as the profit from growing housing-tracts exceeded the potential profit from growing oranges.
So, as I drove my car through that new interchange, where we rode our bikes through the grape vineyards, I noticed a few scraggly grape vines sticking out of the dry sand that surrounded the man-made tangle of cement on-ramps and off-ramps. Those poor, neglected sticks still sported a few green leaves. They were a holdover from a different Ontario, the one I remembered. In themselves, they were a sort of memory that refused to die. Then the thought struck me, that the old saying, “you can’t go home” is true. At that instant I was indeed in the place called Ontario, the same Ontario were I grew up, and yet it was not the same. I then realized that our Ontario, that sunny, peaceful, abundant Ontario was not a place at all but rather an ethereal confluence of place and time: a moment…a moment called “Ontario.”