HERE IS A MEDIUM HISTORY OF EL FORNIO, California, which I wrote in the manner of a foolish general going on about how much brandy he had consumed. Worse, I had sworn this kind of behavior off: the writing about stuff—any stuff—I insisted would never happen again, and thankfully.
So many are felled by autistic gentlemen’s hobbies—the writing of local history or collecting of unplayed, vintage guitars—so what looked in appearances as a gallant project to those closest, I knew to be an imperfection, a kind of internal fiction I kept alive as a necessary gyroscope. I might find it a balance, but did the world need me to go on about it?
 As a senator once said, “What did I know about El Fornio and when did I know it?”
 There were other histories of the area that were competent. A. Lee Greyna’s Dream Days of the Spanish and The Fisherman (including the two-hundred page introduction that was longer than the book) captured the overall romance of the area’s 19th century rhythms. Criticism that it was generally fictional and Eurocentric not withstanding, there were instances of historical accounting as well as the archiving of records that made most efforts worthwhile. Indeed, Disney was given a repository for future animated classics. Using Ricardo Monteblan’s voice for Abraham Librado in their 1996 production was to many uncanny, while to others patronizing and predictable. Pick your conceit.
  Mark Twain passed through the area—once as a young man and again with his wife and daughter—and went on to write “The Trails of El Fornio,” a short story based on his imagination of the area. John Ford picked the piece up after reading it as a child and went on to make the film version with Robert Mitchum and Ava Gardner. This time Vittorio Gassman played the part of Mayor Librado while the real Librado can be seen in several downtown cameos with native Fornioleno and the local population mixing it up.
  Hollywood came to El Fornio in 1952 when John Ford made the film adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Trails of El Fornio.” While Mayor Librado had always been popular, the making of Ford’s version of the Twain story began Hollywood’s personal relationship with the mayor and family. Hearing that Sydney Lumet was looking for locations to film his 1963 classic “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” Mayor Librado offered the director and studio access to many El Fornio locales. After some scouting, and nearly choosing the Casino park for the film’s final sequence, the director ultimately passed on El Fornio and the scenes were shot down the coast at Portuguese Bend, on the Palos Verdes Penninsula, renaming the entire area Santa Rosarita.*
  That is obviously a brief history of the place, while the following is a quick, personal history and, arguably, the the greater task of writing The Medium History of El Fornio is likely a combination of the two.


*


I REMEMBER PASSING THROUGH EL FORNIO with my mother, sister and brother, circa 1975. We had meant to camp just outside the city when we arrived, but everything was filled up, so some miles later, along the San Luis Obispo coast, we staked our claim in a dry wash by the beach.
  The next day, we broke camp, as it were, and ended south back over the county line. My mom always kept important goals for travel not least of which was brunch at whatever wharf we happened to be visiting, in this case the harbor at El Fornio where, over your Mahi Mahi burger and her Bloody Mary, you might see dolphins coming into the harbor.
  As it stood, we hadn’t really been to El Fornio before as a family, and Mom was going on the memory of having visited the place when she was married to my father in the early 1960s. They still ate dolphin meat back then and Dad—who was the family’s primary consumer of marine animals great and small—maintains to this day that he had eaten it on that trip as well as on previous trips with his parents just after the war. My mother said she had never eaten it and can’t even remember whether my father had or not on that particular trip—which makes sense: there were always tall tales being told up and down the coast.
  It goes without saying that there was a lot happening in El Fornio, which is the kind of thing that is a disadvantage when it comes to my family. With its casino, sailing, tours, Indians, all the goings-on of summer, El Fornio had long lines. There would be cars—every year more of them—and people who owned them, in the heat, and this just wasn’t the kind of thing my family did. We did not stand nor idle in lines.
As we drove our little marine blue Toyota station wagon up the main street, I remember being struck by all the Campari parasols filling the eateries and corner hang-outs. I had never seen a Campari parasol in person. For me, they were right out of National Geographic and European travel brochures. I was excited, to say the least, but the moment of truth would arrive in August when El Fornio made the cover of National Geographic (1976). Straight from the mail box, I ran upstairs to my room to pour through that issue’s photos, looking for the blue Toyota, just knowing that we had to be in there somewhere, amongst the crowd or passing along the horizon on the road out of town.
  We spent the whole day that day. We had our brunch, Mom her Bloody Mary, and walked around trying not to stare at the Fornioleno we encountered on the street, their kids with golden blond hair. Mom had instructed us this was the way to deal with—I’m not sure what exactly it was, but perhaps it was just—their presence. I do remember on a trip to the Mid-West the following year, she had issued the same admonition when dealing with the Menonite. Only years later did I look back and realize that the Fornioleno kids had the same instructions not to stare at us, while the Menonite were as much tourists as anyone. To this day, I enjoy spending time around the Fornioleno, while I continue to stare at the Menonite.


FOOTNOTE

* The reasons for the studio rejecting the city for the final sequence in the film—in which the treasure seekers discover the “Big W,” where the money is buried, turns out to be a well-grown constellation of palm trees—are strictly regional. Mayor Librado had never allowed palm trees to be planted in city or county parks to begin with since palm trees were not native to the area. The planting of Coastal Live Oaks (Quercas agrifolia), however, which had fed the diets of coastal natives for millennia, received a fair share of money from city and county budgets through the years. Unfortunately, though, an oak tree, given its metabolic idiosyncrasies, cannot be bent nor so swiftly grown to resemble a giant W.

 

RELATED LINKS

More Writing by John Graham


Copyright © 2007, The El Fornio Historical Society