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 stuffany stuffI insisted
would never happen again, and thankfully.
So many are felled by autistic gentlemens hobbiesthe writing
of local history or collecting of unplayed, vintage guitarsso 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
Greynas 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 areas 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 Monteblans
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 areaonce as a young man
and again with his wife and daughterand 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 Twains The Trails of El Fornio.
While Mayor Librado had always been popular, the making of Fords
version of the Twain story began Hollywoods personal relationship
with the mayor and family. Hearing that Sydney Lumet was looking for locations
to film his 1963 classic Its 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 films 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 hadnt 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 Dadwho was the familys primary consumer
of marine animals great and smallmaintains 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 cant even
remember whether my father had or not on that particular tripwhich
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 carsevery year
more of themand people who owned them, in the heat, and this just
wasnt the kind of thing my family did. We did not stand nor idle
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 issues 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 withIm not sure what
exactly it was, but perhaps it was justtheir 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.
The reasons for the studio rejecting the city for the final sequence in
the filmin which the treasure seekers discover the Big W,
where the money is buried, turns out to be a well-grown constellation
of palm treesare 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
Writing by John Graham