Dick Nixons Orange County

A Guided Tour

Art by Bob AulWithout the railroad, this place wouldn't have become Orange County, and little Dick Nixon—raised in short pants and dust—wouldn't have grown up to become Richard M. Nixon.

Passenger-fare wars between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific lines in the late 1880s made it possible for hard-working, God-fearing, politically conservative (but poor) Midwesterners and Southerners to move here in great numbers. At one point, a one-way ticket from Kansas City to Los Angeles cost $1. On the return trip, Southern California shipped new ideas—real-estate marketing, chiropractic medicine, odd religions—and lemons and oranges.

Without the railroad, Frank Nixon wouldn't have drifted to Los Angeles in 1907 to land a job as a streetcar conductor. Nor would he have lost that job after hitting an automobile, an act of fate or negligence that drove him into manual labor and failure as a lemon rancher at the eastern terminus of the Pacific Electric railroad line in a Quaker town called Yorba Linda.

Without the railroad, Frank Nixon's son, Richard, wouldn't have heard the hypnotic rhythm of railroad cars rattling on the tracks a mile from his house, or the sound of locomotive whistles piercing the stillness of the night. He wouldn't have imagined his earliest dream, of someday becoming a railroad engineer, of traveling to distant, unknown places. It's an understandable ambition in a young boy growing up in a dusty little town at the edge of a desert where rattlesnakes and tumbleweeds outnumber possibility 100 to one.

It makes some sense, then, that a quarter-mile from the high-tech, immaculate Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda is a different kind of memorial to our most famous native son and former president: two railroad cars rotting on the side of Imperial Highway. They're antique railroad cars, two of the hundreds of Pacific Electric cars that made up the mass-transit system traversing Los Angeles and Orange counties. A plaque on the first car reads, "Mini-Museum. President Nixon. Pacific Electric Car." But it's not much of a museum, even for a mini one. The windows are boarded, the cars little more than splinters and rust. There's graffiti scrawled on the back and Coors Light cans tossed carelessly underneath. It seems more abandoned than merely unkempt, like a once-cherished memory deliberately driven into oblivion.

Standing atop one of the cars, you can watch automobiles stream by on Imperial Highway, steered by drivers doing what so many of us do in Yorba Linda: driving through it as fast as possible. But the Red Cars make a kind of weird, poetic sense: I'd come to the Nixon Library today, for the first time, to pay my own kind of respects to the memory of the only man ever to resign as U.S. president; the 25th anniversary of that resignation is Monday. These dilapidated cars suggest the underbelly of the Nixon legacy, the neglected, provincial part scarcely touched by the brightly polished, cosmopolitan history found inside the Nixon Library.

Any guided tour of Nixon Country must begin with the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. It's required visiting for even the most casual student of history and worth the price of admission ($5.95) just to trip out as you stand toe-to-toe with life-size statues of the world leaders Nixon thought were most important in his life. I especially like the pint-sized Nikita Khrushchev and the towering Charles de Gaulle. The stacks of Dan Quayle books for sale at the entrance stink of brimstone.

Nixon's family left Yorba Linda for nearby Whittier when he was 9. But there is one other Yorba Linda building that offers a glimpse of his life you don't get from his memoirs or the more soft-boiled biographies.

Nixon painted those days in Yorba Linda as a time of bucolic peace in an unspoiled countryside. In reality, it was a dusty, windy, arid piece of land filled with snakes, horned toads and all kinds of things that bit, clawed and scratched. If you think Santa Ana winds are hell now, imagine what they must have been like 80 years ago, when there were no trees or buildings to block their howling progress.

Human nature was also quite different from the Rockwellian portrait of salt-of-the-earth farmers. Orange County politics were already taking on the fiercely conservative tone that would brand it for the rest of the century. In common terms, that tone was produced by the middle-American values all those Quakers and Methodists and other migrants brought with them—the devotion to local control and free enterprise. In more extreme terms, such conservatism could heartily embrace fanatical groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which dominated city government in nearby Anaheim in the 1920s. In that town, the city pool was drained and refilled after the one day each week that Mexican children were allowed to swim.

Yorba Linda escaped that taint, but the Yorba Linda Packing House reflects a glimmer of the turbulence that engulfed most of the nation in the years following World War I. Just east of the Nixon Library on Yorba Linda Boulevard, the Packing House is reckoned to be the place where Richard's mother, Hannah, went to work after Frank's lemon grove went sour. Labor in the packinghouse was harrowing and, for Hannah, humiliating: being forced to work long hours for low wages was bad enough; being forced to do so alongside Mexicans and other poor migrants was, she felt, the real punishment. According to Roger Morris, one of Nixon's biographers, young Richard was physically repulsed by the movement and sounds of the heavy machinery. It's interesting to wonder about his psychology: his experience with the Dickensian plant could have turned Orange County's most famous conservative into a radical. But it didn't, even when he woke up one morning in 1920 and saw, with the rest of his town, that agitators affiliated with the radical International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, had painted a huge IWW on the walls of the packinghouse.

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