A Reunion At Mt. Lowe
By LIONEL ROLFE
Some time ago I wrote an article in which I mentioned that my parents sent me away to a military school in Altadena when I was perhaps 13 years old and it was probably 1955. This fellow wrote me and asked me if I was talking about Mt. Lowe Military Academy. He introduced himself as Chris Andrada, president of the school’s alumni association. Would I like to come a reunion?
We corresponded for over a couple years while I contemplated the idea. I told him that the truth was I did not have a lot of fond memories of Mt. Lowe. Quite the contrary, I had some distinctively negative ones.
So on a recent Saturday I went to a reunion. Mt. Lowe Military Academy is long gone, but Alta Loma County Park which includes a community garden stands in its place at West Palm Street and Lincoln Avenue. The same stone gateway to the military academy is still there, but the barracks and buildings are long gone. It was a nice spring like sunny day, and as I inspected the nicely manicured gardens and park facilities, I wondered if this could really have been where Mt. Lowe Military Academy so grimly stood. Chris had finally prevailed.
The place was jammed with people. The Mt. Lowe reunion was one of the smallest of the events that day, off in its own small corner among the picnic tables. People were doing organized park things such as games and horses and food and a booth dedicated to the famed sheriff’s search and rescue team that operates out of the Altadena Station.
It was a stark contrast to my memories.
My years as a cadet at Mt. Lowe Military Academy occurred in my mind as a dark and almost sinister place and time that I had to live with because it was a part of who I am.
W0hen you looked north, the mountain that gave Mt. Lowe Military Academy its moniker still towered above everything, looking this particular day rather innocent. Mount Lowe has a colorful history involving a famed narrow gauge railway and a grand hotel halfway up the mountain built by a man named Lowe. There was a stark beauty to the place, and a strange kind of devastating quality to it as well. Or at least those were my memories from youth.
I marveled that here the school had stood, near the top of the alluvial landfill at the base of the mountain. You still could see that the trees and brush and shrubbery quickly give way to the mountain’s steep barren slopes. Free of its flora and fauna, I saw that Mt. Lowe was the same mountain that had been there in my youth. It was ever a geological protuberance of enormous gothic presence. Perhaps not this nice spring day, but you could easily imagine in other, darker times and moods, the mountain would belch and lava would decimate us.
Mt. Lowe had been a shock for me, if only because I had been reared in a household where some of the world’s greatest musicians regularly played chamber music. At Mt. Lowe, when I once tried to turn a radio away from Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra to the old music station, KFAC, I was quickly reprimanded and questioned, as if somehow that were a subversive act.
Major John Hayden Dargin founded the school in 1937 on the site of the biggest and most infamous speakeasy in the San Gabriel Valley. Dargin was a stern headmaster. When he wanted to reward the cadets in masse, he’d do things like usher us all into a large room with a small television to watch the world series. I had no interest in baseball and the event was claustrophobic. But when he invited me to be one of the handful of cadets allowed to hang around him, I was flattered. We’d join him for television in his own living quarters. Sometimes we would go with him on day trips to the inner reaches of the Mojave Desert, where we’d go racing on the desert floor in his souped up miniature race car, a wonderful contraption build atop a Crosley chassis. It turned out that Dargin’s elite cadets were drawn from the ranks of cadets who had rich and/or famous people. I qualified because I came of a iconic name in classical music.
I’m also reliably told that Major Dargin, who apparently had never been a real major, was also a predator. Mt. Lowe had a reputation for being a tough place–it was as close as a young boy could get to real life, by plunging him into a giant thumping heart of darkness there in the army barracks. Dargin, as it happens, had always good to me, providing me an intelligent and interesting mentor of sorts.
Obviously I was affected by the place emotionally, because it served as the stage where my coming of age began. My parents had sent me to Mt. Lowe for a typical reason. I had gotten into some trouble hanging out with young gangsters. We had stolen my dad’s prized coin collection and when we were caught, everyone confessed, and I was sent off to Mt. Lowe.
This all occurred while I was falling in love for the first time. We spent all our time together and there was puppy love involved. But the romance suffered because I was sent away.
My only solace was at night, after taps had played, when I’d get into bed and imagine my girlfriend was with me. When the last of the whispering had stopped, I was all alone with her, there under the blankets.
I’d dream of always saving her from some unimaginable catastrophe, just like I was Superman. I battled monsters to save her, and rescued her when she fell off a cliff. Although I hadn’t yet figured out what parts of her body I was supposed to touch, I had deduced that breasts were an important part of a woman’s body and in my dreams I did things I never had done with her in real life.
Of necessity, it was only in my mind. The barracks were not co-educational. We young boys slept on cots in a big green dormitory, our only privacy provided by grayish plywood separators.
The barracks had a “night life,” run by the captain. The captain was the grand old age of 16. I forgot his name. He was the supreme authority of the place, before and after the lights went out. I remember that he had an unsettling kind of rolly polly and smooth face, which somehow made his bullying all the more terrifying. The “captain” never accosted me, although he was a bully, and there were certain people he bullied after the lights went out. You could hear, but I was never clear what was really going on.
I didn’t want to know. My inner life was entirely consumed with my girlfriend. Then one day we were all called to the parade field, and with a full dress ceremony, the captain was stripped of his ranks, dishonored and stripped of a chestful of medals.
As far as I knew, he then disappeared from the face of the earth.
After that, things improved. I felt brave enough to chance reading. Then I’d go to sleep and dream of my girlfriend. There was always a lot of “falling” together with her in my dreams.
I always looked forward to those weekends when I could go home for a weekend and see my girlfriend.
The reunion of grown cadets slowly drifted away from the park, and moved to the Glendale home of a former cadet now working as a successful actor. It would be fair to say a lot of the alumni had led successful lives in various fields, from aviation to Hollywood to business. A surprisingly high percentage–perhaps 30 percent–became career military. One fellow said he went to Mount Lowe for nearly a decade, by choice. He had liked it a lot. Then he had a military career.
As it became colder, and the last of the tri-tip was finishing up on the barbecue, the sun slipped out of the sky. And the discussions continued to the things we had in common. Most of us had issues with our parents. Many times parents who were not getting along or were getting divorced would dump their boys off at Mt. Lowe.
Mt. Lowe was not one of those fancier military schools, like Black Foxe or Urban Military Academy in Brentwood. Yet somehow most of us had survived, a number of us had died, but apparently no worse for wear than had we attended other schools.
We discussed the predatory relationships that for sure had marred the place. Sometimes this was not just staff on cadets, but cadets on cadets.
It might have been unspeakable then, but now with the last lights descending in Glendale, we accepted that too, not in the sense of condoning it but just knowing what had been.
Besides, one former cadet said, “It isn’t like this was happening only at Mt. Lowe. I mean, look at the Catholic Church.”
Despite my sensitive soul being broken at Mt. Lowe, I got some good out of it. I learned that I was actually pretty good at the shooting range with a .22, and I ate real Amerikanski food like I never had at home–and loved it. My favorite was shit on a shingle.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.,” about which a documentary is being made (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Literary-LA/115509071864686?sk=wall). Many of his books, including “Literary L.A.,” “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” are available digitally in Amazon’s Kindlestore.