In the Outside Land: Sons of the Desert Edition

Foreword by Mark Clifford

Old Man Time wept December 30, 2020—the day he reaped San Francisco’s Cliff House. The iconic restaurant had been perched above the Pacific just north of Ocean Beach since 1863. The popular destination on the craggy cliff has joined all the gone places that once delighted San Francisco’s crashing coastline from Land’s End to Fort Funston. Few remember the epic enchantments of Surto Baths, Playland, and Fleishhacker Pool. I pay homage to many of these mythical ruins in the pages of Typhoon Coast.

Now travel with me to another dimension in this installment of “Dispatches from the Typhoon Coast.” A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That sign up ahead reads: Your next stop is San Francisco during the Golden Age of Television!

You’re moving into a land of memories. You’ve just crossed over into… the Typhoon Coast. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between shadow and light, between science and magic, and it lies between the pit of fear and the summit hope. 

So cuff your jeans, lace-up those PF Flyers and race from today into the world of yesterday. Now, step right up and listen to my dad, James O. Clifford Sr., remember what life was like when he was a ten-year-old boy adventuring amongst San Francisco’s grand sand dunes.

Growing Up in the Sunset’s ‘Desert’

San Francisco’s Sunset District Post World War II. Colorized image.
Listen to an audio version of this article read by James O. Clifford Sr.

Trent McShane, the main character in the riveting novel Typhoon Coast, retraced a lot of history for me, bringing back memories of growing up in San Francisco’s Sunset District right after World War II.

Like I did, Trent spends much of his childhood racing around on his bike from one fascinating place to another. I also wondered if, like me, he was lulled to sleep by the roar of lions at the zoo, pounding ocean surf and the monotone of foghorns.

Those times can never be duplicated, unless you demolish hundreds of homes, cart away the ruins and convert the land into a massive playground. If there is a real “Sons of the Desert,” the men’s club parodied in Laurel and Hardy films, then I want to join. I was truly a son of the desert of sand dunes that once formed a checkerboard that ended at the Pacific.

There must be a dwindling number of people who can recall those times, so I wrote down some memories of a childhood in which mothers ordered their offspring to “empty your shoes” before entering the house. If the warning was ignored, a load of sand would be brought inside.

I drove to the old neighborhood in an attempt to recall those days, but there’s really nothing there to conjure up the freedom I had as a 10 year old, just the opposite. Some of the windows and doors had bars, something that would have been unthinkable in the late 1940s on the 2600 block of 45th Avenue.

There was one thing, however, that reminded me of my youth. A small brass kickplate was at the bottom of the front door of my family’s old home, put there in 1950 or so, not for people, but for our dog Gyp. Gyp scratched at the door when he wanted to get in; with the plate in place my dad didn’t have to paint the door so often.

There were only four homes on our end of the street when my family moved in about 1947. All were so new you could smell the paint. Another four were at the other end. In between was just sand, that within a decade would be covered with other homes like ours – two-story and built right next to each other. Until then, Gyp, I and the rest of the kids and dogs lived an alternate lifestyle right out of Huck Finn.

We’d pretty much come and go as we pleased. The rule for me was “be in when the street lights come on.” Looking back on it, I can understand why parents felt so at ease. All they had to do was look out the back window to see where we were.

If memory serves, there were at least four-square blocks of sand stretching to the east with similar acreage in the northeast, a panorama broken only by a few streets and occasional groups of homes that formed enclaves like the one I lived in. There was no sand on the other side of our street. It was lined with homes, some dating back to the 1920s. This unbroken line of homes to the west, however, lasted for just three blocks. Then there was plenty of sand again – at Ocean Beach. The San Francisco Zoo was just a block south.

The zoo, which then boasted the world’s largest swimming pool, was a summertime must and the beach was a great place to ride horses. (Somewhere, there’s a picture of my dad looking like cowboy movie star Tom Mix, waving from a horse that’s rearing up in our backyard.)

And, if we wanted to travel a bit, the old Sutro Baths and Playland, with its great roller coaster, beckoned. However, it was the sand lots that captivated us. The sand became the canvas on which our imaginations could paint any scene we wanted.

In the sand, we dug trenches and foxholes and flipped coins to determine who would be “us” and who would be the enemy as we reenacted “Wake Island” and “Sands of Iwo Jima.”

There were also peaceful pursuits. We dug shallow, grooved roadways for tennis balls, complete with tunnels. The object was to see whose ball would travel the farthest while still in the roadway. This was no easy task. The more momentum the ball gathered the easier it was for it to fly out of the groove.

This paradise soon disappeared with the coming of new homes. We kids adjusted pretty well by ignoring the no trespassing signs and playing in the houses while they were under construction. We’d chase each other through the framing, making it to the top story where we leapt into space, landing in the soft sand. But the end was inevitable with the growth of the city. We didn’t know how wonderful we had it.

James O. Clifford, Sr. retired from professional journalism in 2000 after a 40-year career that was split between United Press International and The Associated Press, where he was broadcast news editor for Northern California. His honors include the San Francisco Press Club’s feature writing award for 1972, which was awarded for a series on the ethnic history of California’s pioneering years. He also received the UPI Broadcast Excellence Award for his scripting of the Mount St. Helen’s volcano eruption in 1980. He is most proud of his exclusive 1972 interview with Black Panther leader Huey Newton in which Newton promised to “lay down the gun.” The story appeared in “Selections,” a digest of the top UPI stories of the year.

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