Nan Lemm


It was one of those beautiful June days in California in 1961. We had purchased a house in San Pedro, and were able to see from our living room windows the harbor with ships sailing in and out. We were celebrating that day with an ocean cruise, because it was our son Tim’s twelfth birthday!  Our family had been fascinated with Catalina ever since we heard music coming from KBIG’s Avalon Radio Station as we drove west the year before.  The car radio played it’s theme song, "Twenty-six miles across the sea, Catalina Island is the place to be!" The island sounded enchanting and exotic, almost like a distant fairyland, although we discovered it wasn’t.


When we arrived at the terminal building, the place was already crowded with restless people, all talking at the same time. Everyone was anxious for the ferry’s departure. Hoards of overly animated children, most of them on their first outing of the summer, were racing around the building, impatiently waiting for the gangplank to drop.


As soon as we were welcomed aboard the ship, speakers on deck serenaded us with lively music. Our family headed for the top deck. It promised to have the best views of San Pedro. However climbing up the outside metal staircase was not a good way to preserve modesty, as gusts of air nearly shot my skirt up to my chin.  I would know better next time and wear different clothing.


The leisurely ride down the smooth flowing channel provided our family with an incredible opportunity to view all the activity up and down the Los Angeles River. Tugboats were pushing large freighters to wharves so stevedores could load or unload cargo. In the distance we could see the Vincent Thomas Bridge being built across the river to Wilmington and Terminal Island. It would save people miles of driving and waiting for drawbridges to open or close. We could see ships being constructed, or under repair, or being demolished. Privately owned boats of every size were being launched for a day’s sail into the open sea.

As our ship sailed along the rock-lined breakwater, a red and white-striped lighthouse beckoned a welcome to us. It resembled a sentinel protecting ships as they moved to open ocean, through an area appropriately called Angel’s Gate.  People fishing on the slippery riprap waved as our ship glided by. Terminal Island was on our left side, covered with oil refineries as well as remnants of former military establishments. Not too attractive! We were also given a view of a federal penitentiary, with sturdy, intimidating walls. We got chills seeing it, thinking how lucky we were to be free.


As we approached the harbor exit, our ship gave out an earsplitting blast on its horn to warn other ships of our departure. It resulted in a black stream of smoke that covered our faces and clothes with tiny specks of soot. Immediately, we realized that we were seated on the wrong side of the ship’s funnel.  “Let's move to the bow," Fran said. But that was easier said than done. My legs had become weak and wobbly…. they couldn’t seem to find the floor! I discovered then how difficult it was to walk across the deck of a moving ship, almost as if I was intoxicated.


Over our heads, flocks of white seagulls and pelicans circled the ship, making raucous noises. They were hoping to attract passengers to throw nuggets of food to them. “It would have been wise to bring along umbrellas to shield us from the birds,” I said to Fran.


At last our ship left the security of the breakwater and plunged into the turbulent, choppy, deep waters of the Pacific, and to my dismay it began to pitch and roll, back and forth, and my tummy followed every uncomfortable motion the ship made.  Our children were completely undisturbed. They excitedly ran around the deck looking at everything, and then encouraged their dad to go with them to see the seals racing ahead of the bow. I was beginning to feel seasick. I could feel my stomach was having a difficult time keeping my breakfast down. I found a shady bench to rest on, but first newspapers had to be placed on the seat to cover the bird droppings. My daughter Carole returned several times, attempting to coax me to come and see the seals. "Seals” I thought hopelessly to myself,  “All I want to see and feel now was solid ground!” Any urge to survey the world from the deck of a ship was long gone.

Finally Avalon Bay appeared on the horizon. It would feel good to put my feet on something that didn’t move. When our ship pulled along side the wharf, I noticed a seaplane was just landing and offloading its passengers. “At least they had a nice quick ride to Catalina,” I thought enviously!


Hawkers met us at the end of the dock extolling all the wonders of the island.  Incredibly, the first thing Fran suggested we do was to take a ride on the glass bottom boat, where we could observe all the marvelous aquatic wonders of the ocean floor, from its windows. We were told we would see all the many dissimilar varieties of fish swimming in the bay’s deep crystal clear waters!


 “Take another boat ride?” I exclaimed. That was the last thing I wanted to do; however the children were so excited about the prospect of seeing all the fish that I agreed to go.  Afterwards I was happy I had, as what we saw was really spectacular and an experience all of us will long remember.  Later Fran apologized for suggesting that we take the ride on the glass bottom boat, as he had been completely unaware of how seasick I had been. However I really enjoyed seeing the marine environment of the ocean floor.  I now have a different perspective of what it is like and I’m glad I agreed to take the trip.


The small town of Avalon is attractive. Primarily it offers little shops aimed at parting tourists from their money, as well as a variety of restaurants, a hotel, inns, bars and a movie theater, among other establishments. Because of the fragile environment, no automobiles are allowed on the island except tour vehicles or buses, which means that people can wander safely across streets without fear of being hit by a car.


It was time for lunch, so we looked for and found a delightful park with shaded tables and benches on which to sit and eat the picnic lunch I had packed for us.  Afterwards, we returned again to enjoy the beach. In the distance, the Los Angeles coastline was blanketed with a thick layer of smog. Our kids handed me their shoes, and then walked along the surf looking for pretty seashells.  Straight ahead of us in the bay was a flotilla of every variety of vessels ranging from large yachts down to small cabin cruisers, each one secured to a buoy that was

tethered to a submerged unseen anchor.  Some of them had rowboats trailing behind to transport their owners to the island.  Many boats had people industriously fishing, hoping to bring home a catch of some kind of sea life. Other boats had scuba divers popping up beside them like corks. The never-ending fleet bobbed up and down in the water, moving back and forth with the waves, reminded me of the rough voyage we would have to take home.


Farther down the beach from the wharf we could see Catalina’s dance pavilion. Fran called out to Tim and Carole, “Finish up your ice cream cones, and we’ll take you over and show you the famous ballroom!”  We walked together to the big round building on the edge of the shoreline, with the kids balancing themselves on top of the sea wall. When we pulled open the doors to the building, we were welcomed with cool air and hot jazz being played by the local Avalon Radio Station. It took a minute for our eyes to adjust to the dimness inside the ballroom. Its dome was covered with tiny twinkling lights, appearing to look like stars in the evening sky. The station was broadcasting music from the Big Band Era.  My mind became filled with nostalgic melancholy for the songs we once heard played during WWII. A young lady escorted us around the casino, and then once again we returned to the heat and bright sunshine outside the building.


Tim and Carole wanted to take a jeep ride to see the rest of the island.  On the way up Mt. Banning, we saw wild pigs and some shaggy buffalo, along with some scrawny cattle. The island is fragile and can’t support too many animals. Our guide drove us past a small airport toward Two Harbors, where an isthmus joins the two islands. Later we stood on a bluff looking out to sea on top of Sentinel Rock, a steep, scruffy hillside.  “Perhaps,” I thought, “Pirates once might have climbed these same jagged rocks to hide their…. “ill-gotten gain” Later, on the return trip to town the Wrigley mansion was pointed out to us.  Their family formerly owned most of the island and acquired their fortune from… “well-gotten gum” like, Spearmint and Juicy Fruit !


The day was nearly over, and we could see the Catalina Excursion boat nearing Avalon Harbor again. Surprisingly, the afternoon’s waves had calmed down, so our journey home was much smoother and more relaxing.  We never saw any flying fishes. but we did see a school of

thousands of tiny, agitated, silvery-colored fish all congregated in one spot. They seemed to be in a terrible frenzy, fighting over some unseen object…. perhaps a bit of food a passenger had thrown overboard? Rays from the late afternoon sun glistened on never-ending waves and small white caps as our ship navigated its way towards San Pedro.


Tim and Carole were thrilled to see the young actor who played Wally on “Leave it to Beaver” flash by in his speed boat and wave to them. Our family had not yet become immune to celebrities in our midst.


The sun was dropping like a stone in the western sky when the steamship’s passengers tramped down the gangplank again, but with less enthusiasm than when the day began. Our faces felt stiff from being exposed to the sun, wind, and salt sea air all day. Although tired from the trip, all of us agreed the excursion to Catalina had been marvelous and we treasured the wonderful memory of our visit to the enchanted island twenty-six miles across the sea.


Even so, what I discovered from the trip was that I could never be a sailor…as I am definitely a dedicated landlubber!



On the Road to Mandalay!

 Where the Flying Fishes Play.

And the Sun Comes Up Like Thunder,

 Over China Cross the Bay!”

                         -- R. Kipling