The man who saved a 155-year-old ranch house

Posted on August 19, 2013

The first time Roy Coox set eyes on the Warner-Carrillo Ranch House was at least 15 years ago, after he had joined the Vista Irrigation District but a decade before he would become its general manager.

To motorists on their way from Borrego Springs, the place must have seemed little more than a heap of boards cluttering the high-country prairie.

But Coox saw something else.

“I was fascinated by it because of its historical importance,” he told me. “I was a history major in college, and this was really my first opportunity to put that to use, even though it’s not a core part of my job of managing the water district.”


Roy Coox, March 2013

Standing inside the original ranch house — one of San Diego County’s oldest and most important historic landmarks — Coox recalled a long process of restoration that resulted in permanent preservation.

Built in 1857, the Warner-Carrillo house served as a key stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail route and a crossroads on the westward emigrant trail, where an estimated 250,000 settlers stopped en route to San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In the early 1990s, the ranch house, drooping and crumbling more each year, became Coox’s pet project, and he began looking for opportunities to restore it. Small victories came and the water district kept the house and barn from collapsing, but Coox knew it would take a lot of money — and therefore time — to do the place justice.

He was right. The year was 2012 before anyone could stroll through the fully preserved house, but when they did, in November, Coox was thrilled.

“There’s a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment,” he said while standing in the original living room, a 156-year-old space. “To be able to open it to the public for the first time was very gratifying.”

“The pioneers stopped here because this was where they could water their horses for the first time since crossing the desert.”

Last weekend, I followed Coox and Bruce Coons through the storied structure, pausing to look at floorboards, doorjambs and a smattering of cowboy brands at the foot of the fireplace, burned there by idle cowhands a century ago.

Coons is the executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, a San Diego nonprofit that spent more than a decade advocating for the preservation of the Warner-Carrillo house.

“Over a third of the people going to the Gold Rush used this trail,” Coons told me, motioning toward some overgrown wagon path beyond the adobe walls. “It figured very prominently in all the diaries — this was the first well-watered valley they saw after crossing about 1,500 miles of desert, thinking they made the biggest mistake of their lives. Then they got here and thought, ‘There is a promised land,’ with the grass and the water. It was the first trading post after leaving Tucson, as well.”

The irrigation district owns more than 40,000 acres of watershed out here, where snowmelt trickles into Lake Henshaw and then out of faucets in the City of Vista.

Because of the district’s ownership, Coons continued, “This is the only place coming into California where you can still see what it looked like to the pioneers.”

Coons knows how close the house came to disappearing from the landscape.

“The district had tried to keep it together for quite a number of years, but it got beyond their control,” he recalled. “We almost lost it — many of the side rooms had already gone, and the main rooms were getting ready to collapse.”

Save Our Heritage put the old stage coach stop on its most-endangered list in 2000, by which time Coox was working to find grants and persuade water board members that resurrecting a dilapidated adobe ranch house would be worthwhile.

“We’re a water district — the reason we own this property is as a watershed, to develop water and bring it down,” Coox said. “But as a property owner, there are so many ancillary issues — being stewards of the environment, stewards of history.

“As a public agency, certainly our first responsibility is to provide water, and do it economically,” he added. “But we also have a social responsibility — we can’t let parts of our social fabric just disappear. I think our board wanted to do the right thing. They said, ‘We’re not paying for this, but Roy, if you can pay for the vast majority of it through grants, we’re willing to chip in for what needs to be done.'”

The bulk of the money finally arrived in the form of a grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, and by early 2012, Coox was spreading the word: the Warner-Carrillo Ranch House was almost ready to receive visitors again.

For his nearly two decades of effort, Coox was named “Preservationist of the Year” by Save Our Heritage in 2012. Also last year, the California Special Districts Association recognized him as its statewide General Manager of the Year, citing his district’s pension reform and strategic plan, as well as the time when he turned down a scheduled pay raise.

Save Our Heritage remains the irrigation district’s partner at the ranch house, staffing the facility for public visits on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m.

There is a formal grand opening scheduled on May 25, with stage coach rides and tours. The house is located on S-2 half a mile east of Highway 79.

Carrillo Ranch House floor-1


The floorboards in front of the fireplace still bear the brands of idle ranch hands.

In the end, Coox sees close ties between the history of water here and the history of an old ranch house.

“It’s all related,” he told me. “Lake Henshaw was a local water source that allowed San Diego County to grow before we tapped into other resources like the Colorado River. The pioneers stopped here because this was where they could water their horses for the first time since crossing the desert.”

Coox didn’t just advocate for the preservation of the house — he literally wrote the brochure. “Text by Roy Coox, March 2006,” it says, if you look closely.

And it is obvious that he loved every minute of it.

“When you have a passion for history, you understand how there’s so many themes and threads that tie to what you’re doing, and how important it is to understand how we got to where we are today,” he said.

“There are very few National Historic Landmarks in the country — it’s a designation that’s reserved for places like Plymouth Rock and Mt. Vernon,” Coons said as we wrapped up our tour last weekend. “And this is a National Historic Landmark. It’s really Roy’s interest, and his capturing the imagination of the board, that enabled this to happen.”

Mourning a man of music

Posted on August 15, 2013

In the building where Pastor Tim Mayfield spent 21 years leading thousands of worshippers at Emmanuel Faith Community Church, even the rooms seem mournful without him.

From the office where he spent years fine-tuning musical arrangements to the choir room where he led warm-ups, to the sanctuary, where a podium faces row upon row of pews, the impact of Mayfield’s absence remains a testament to a man who followed his calling.

Following a two-year battle with brain cancer, Mayfield passed away on Wednesday, Sept. 5. He was 64.

“It wasn’t a job for him; it was a passion,” said Greg Lane, pastor of life stages at Emmanuel Faith. “This was his passion.”


Emmanuel Faith Community Church, September 2012

Tim Mayfield led music at Emmanuel Faith Community Church for 21 years, before succumbing to brain cancer on Sept. 5, 2012.

In one of North County’s largest churches, where some 4,500 people show up on any given weekend, Mayfield was an equally large personality —- at home in Escondido, as well as the national music scene.

“He was a well-known musician, and a sought-after mentor for leaders across America,” said Lane.

Mayfield was primarily a vocalist, but those who worked with him recall his skilled touch at arranging, composing and perfecting a musical program, whether it was for any old Sunday or a Christmas special.

“He was so gifted —- perfect pitch, and just a phenomenal musician,” said Lori Smith, director of children’s choirs. “He could hear parts and stop the choir or stop the orchestra and say, ‘There was a note off here.’ He just had a gift for that.

“Everywhere you went, people knew him,” Smith added. “He was known all over the country. If I were to say, ‘My boss is Tim Mayfield,’ it was almost a credibility thing. His name meant something to people.”

More than a worship leader

To the roughly 350 musicians in the choir and orchestra programs at Emmanuel Faith, it meant “pastor.”

“Tim really connected with the choir more than just on a musical level,” recalled Martha Phillips, a soprano with 20 years in the choir. “He made a point of knowing and understanding what was going on in people’s lives.”

Smith said she arrived at Emmanuel Faith just a month after Mayfield in the early 1990s. He had moved south and west from Chicago with his wife, Teddy, and he helped Smith streamline and develop the children’s programs.

“Directing music and instrumentation, I mean, it was just his life,” she said. “Leading the congregation in worship was a part of his DNA, I think. He was so creative, and he never wanted to do the same thing. Variety, variety, variety —- that’s the word. Variety was key for him.”

To his colleagues, the church’s other pastors, Mayfield was a dedicated leader.

“The major part of his work was not on the platform —- it was preparing people to participate in that service,” said Lane. “There are probably 350 people involved in choir and orchestra. He would write arrangements for them, modify arrangements to fit the strengths and weaknesses of particular musicians.

“He was the personal shepherd to those 350-some people. Certainly, we all miss him as part of this church family. But those who knew him best were the ones that he worked with week in and week out.”

‘We’ve been mourning for two years’

Those folks, the ones who had sat through two decades of rehearsals, knew something was wrong in the months preceding his diagnosis in 2010.

“He was never one to talk in a rehearsal,” but the tumor had made him unusually chatty, Phillips recalled. “Some of us knew there was something really wrong. His behavior was so altered, and that was the beginning of fear in my heart.”

One Sunday morning in 2010, the typically punctual and organized music leader missed the beginning of a service, a mortifying error for any pastor, and something he would have never let himself do.

“He started losing his concept of time —- the importance of being where he needed to be when the time came,” said the church’s chief operating officer, Jim North.

Soon after, when another service started without Mayfield on stage, church officials encouraged him to see his doctor, who quickly singled out the brain tumor.

Given Mayfield’s phased withdrawal, beginning with surgery in 2010 and ending with his official resignation in October 2011, the musicians who knew and loved him have, in effect, mourned him twice.

Or, as North put it, “We’ve been mourning for two years.”

And the music, however good it may sound on any given morning, will never be quite the same.


“Tim was the complete package —- he was the composer, the writer when he needed to be, arranger, re-arranger,” North recalled. “He’d yank the words out, change the words around if he didn’t … think they were biblically correct.”

Added Phillips: “That was the one thing I admired most about him —- he never sacrificed biblical truth for the sake of artistic expression. It was always, ‘The word comes first.’”


In the months after Mayfield’s medical struggles began, Angela Lepkofker, a Juilliard-trained musician and Emmanuel Faith member, stepped in to lead. On Aug. 1, Mayfield’s permanent replacement, Dave Hook, began after the church recruited him from Nebraska Christian College.

A memorial service was scheduled for 11 a.m. this Saturday at Emmanuel Faith. Meanwhile, church officials praised the ministry that Mayfield helped build.

“Tim’s love for the Lord and desire to see others worship was the motivating factor of his life and ministry,” senior pastor Dennis Keating wrote in a statement this week. “He was a great blessing to our staff, congregation and believers around the world.”

Lane agreed: “Tim made a big impact … yet his impact was not about him —- it was about who he was pointing to. It’s God. It’s Jesus Christ. He didn’t draw the attention to himself.”

On Tuesday, the sanctuary was quiet. The choir room, as well.

A man vacuumed the stage where Mayfield spent hundreds of Sunday mornings in front of a microphone, but there will be joy again, and much more music, from that platform.

The grieving at Emmanuel Faith is tempered by the belief that Mayfield is singing on a much bigger stage now, face to face with the God who inspired decades of his work.

“He wasn’t just the music minister or the worship leader,” said Phillips. “He was our pastor.”

The brothers who built Fallbrook’s first Main Avenue brewery

Posted on September 6, 2013

Chuck McLaughlin’s story as a brewmaster began like most others: at home.

“About five years ago, my daughter gave me a home brew kit for Fathers Day,” he said. “It slowly took over my kitchen, and after that it took over my garage.

“And finally,” he added with a laugh, “this place took over my 401k.”

This place, where we sat on Friday morning, was the newly opened Fallbrook Brewing Co. at 136 N. Main Avenue. With his brother Stephan, McLaughlin transformed a long-vacant storefront on the corner of Main and Hawthorne Street, reusing lumber stripped from the ceiling to build countertops and signs.

The lease was signed in February and the sign’s been in the window for several tantalizing months, but it was just last week that the brothers McLaughlin opened the doors to their first patrons.

Fallbrook Brewing Company-2

The McLaughlin brothers, August 2013

Stephan, left, and Chuck have invested in Main Avenue at a time when downtown vacancies are up and folks go driving every weekend to visit breweries in Vista, Escondido and beyond. So far, the response has been steady business.

Regular business hours commenced on Wednesday afternoon, with beers like Reche Rye and Sleeping Indian IPA on tap.

On Friday, hours before Fallbrook Brewing’s all-important first weekend, I sat down with the McLaughlins to discover how they plan to make it on Main.

At a time when storefronts up and down the street sit vacant, Chuck McLaughlin acknowledged that it has been a calculated risk to invest in downtown Fallbrook.

Their own storefront was unoccupied for four years after a home and clothing boutique closed its doors.

“But the community has embraced us wholeheartedly,” he said. “I haven’t heard a bad word about it.”

And you’re not likely to: A brewery is exactly the kind of establishment that folks have been clamoring for in downtown Fallbrook, oriented toward a younger crowd, open after 5 p.m., tied in with a wider community that may well bring brewery tours to town.

Stephan added: “Even since we’ve opened, we’ve talked to some people who are opening a wine bar right across the street. And some of the local eateries are changing their hours to match ours. So we’re really seeing the community take hold of it, and take ownership of it.”

There is precedent for a successful craft brewery in Fallbrook. During the 1980s, two men, Clint Stromberg and Paul Holborn, launched Bolt Brewing here — it did well, and is still known among San Diego beer fans.

Perhaps the most innovative part of the business is the way the McLaughlins have tied in with Fallbrook’s restaurants.

Because serving food would have added another level of difficulty and expense, they have opted instead to invite patrons to bring their own dinners to the brewpub. There is a list of good eateries by the door, and they can tell you offhand which ones will deliver.

“I don’t know the restaurant business,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve been studying the brewery business for awhile now — and by ‘studying’ I mean frequenting establishments.”

Meanwhile, the brothers are betting that what’s good for Fallbrook’s restaurants will be good for the brewery, as well.

“Our whole thing is local — we’re hoping we can bring the whole community back down to Main Avenue,” said Chuck McLaughling, echoing what local leaders have been telling me for a decade. “It just seemed like we were always driving somewhere — half an hour to Vista or Temecula. We’re hoping to keep people in town.”

Fallbrook Brewing Company-1

A question likely to arise is whether Fallbrook Brewing Co. will concoct some kind of avocado beer, and at this point, the closest they’ve come is a saison brewed with honey from avocado blossoms.

“That’s probably as close as we can get with avocado in a beer,” said McLaughlin, adding that Fallbrook’s famous green fruit is just too oily. “Oil and beer, they don’t mix.”

But even more to the point: Beer and the avocado festival go extremely well together, and the McLaughlins are already looking forward to next year’s festival, the Christmas parade and 2014 Hot Summer Nites, given their prime curbside location on Main.

Even without a special event to fill the seats, all signs pointed to good business for Fallbrook Brewing in its first week.

“Last night, we ended up staying open later than our posted hours because people were hanging out, having a good time,” said Stephan McLaughlin. “We’d like to have that problem every night.”

For any upstart brewery, the business path is pretty well established: Start by selling your beer at your brewery, then expand to other establishments, delivering beer on tap to local restaurants. For most breweries, bottling is a distant goal requiring additional facilities and equipment and staff.

“I’ve been studying the brewery business for awhile now — and by ‘studying’ I mean frequenting establishments,” said Chuck McLaughlin.

McLaughlin said he was being approached by restaurateurs before the brewery was even open, and that he plans to start distributing locally some time after the operation has found its feet.

For now, he is just thrilled to be the man behind the first craft brewery on Main.

“A brewery in Fallbrook — as a home brewer, it’s just been a dream since that first batch,” he told me.

The Fallbrook Brewing Company is open for business afternoons and evenings, Wednesday through Sunday. Visit the brewery’s fan page for hours and directions.

Nagaki veteran banner

The man who walked a nuclear wasteland

Posted on August 19, 2013

When James Henkel tells the story of the four months he spent in one of the only two cities ever to suffer an atomic blast, he starts right where any good screenwriter would — in the bow of a Higgins landing craft.

That’s where, on or around Aug. 20, 1945, Henkel rode across Nagasaki Bay toward the Japanese mainland and a city shattered by a strange new kind of weapon.

“As soon as we got to shore, they dropped the ramp, and I ran off with my rifle, ready to shoot,” Henkel, 86, recalled during an interview this week. “There was a Japanese cop, standing there, saluting me. Saluting me so hard I thought his arm was going to break. (He was) afraid I was going to shoot him. Had he resisted or tried to get the drop on me, I’d a shot him. But he didn’t have any weapon.”

Henkel said he ran past the petrified police officer and into the most interesting four months of his life.

Nagasaki man_Pfingsten (2 of 4)

James Henkel, August 2010

As a young Marine, Henkel spent four months amid the wreckage of Nagasaki in the summer of 1945.

“Off to the left was the completely devastated area of Nagasaki,” said the Carlsbad resident who spent 36 years in the Marine Corps.

“It was,” Henkel added slowly, pausing, stumped by how to summarize the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

“Nagasaki was a ship-building city; that’s why they blew it away,” he said. “Off to my left was a huge ship — I’ll never forget it — laying on its side in the sand. That bomb just blew it, picked it up and put it right down on the sand. It was amazing.”


Various historical accounts reveal that Nagasaki was an important industrial center.

In a 1990 book about the Japanese shipping and shipbuilding industries, Tomohei Chida and Peter Davies wrote that the city was capable of producing some of the largest and most advanced vessels in Japan.

Among other ventures, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which eventually gave rise to Mitsubishi Motors, began as the Nagasaki Shipyard & Machinery Works in 1870.

With the detonation of a single bomb, all of the city’s industrial strength — along with anywhere from 40,000 to 80,000 lives — vanished.

While the exact death toll remains a topic of debate, what is known is that the bomb, nicknamed “Fat Man,” was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress on Aug. 9, 1945, three days after the Enola Gay dropped its payload, dubbed “Little Boy,” on Hiroshima.

The ensuing 65 years have allowed for a prolonged debate over the ethics of deploying nuclear weapons against a civilian target, but Henkel’s take on it is simple.

“It saved a million American lives,” he said flatly, literally, and with a strong sense of conviction. “If we’d had to invade, God knows how we would have survived.”

The perils of invasion were known at the time and have since been documented, with soaring casualty estimates and scenarios that invariably predicted fierce Japanese resistance.

Henkel said his unit, a communications company of the 2nd Marine Division, had already invaded Okinawa and was ready to help strike the mainland: “We had been preparing and loading ships for the assault on Japan for a long time,” he said.

“That bomb did something else. … No wonder I got radiation sickness — I lived in that darn place for four months.”

Former Palomar College history professor Linda Dudik said she only recently made up her mind that the August ’45 bombings were necessary to force the Japanese to surrender.

“When I handled it in class, I would present both sides and tell students that I was on the fence,” said Dudik, who taught for 34 years at Palomar and is now president of a nonprofit organization called “The World War II Experience.”

“I couldn’t decide which way to go on the atomic bomb, because I was a product of the ‘60s, but the more I read about the war in the Pacific, the more I came to understand the need to use the bomb,” she added. “Every day we could shorten that war, to me, was absolutely essential.”

Dudik pointed out that Air Force General Curtis LeMay, also known as “Old Iron Pants” and “Bombs Away LeMay,” had orchestrated the use of almost 1,700 tons of incendiary bombs to devastate Tokyo and kill an estimated 100,000 civilians just five months before.

The U.S. government put the death toll of LeMay’s air raids at 220,000 — more than the combined death totals from Hiroshima and Nagasaki — and Dudik said LeMay’s tactics probably would have continued if the two atomic weapons had not been deployed.

“It’s uncomfortable to have to look at civilian casualties, but they’re there,” she said. “We don’t like that phrase, ‘collateral damage,’ because it’s so sterile. But it’s a part of war.”

Reliving and trying to live

The last six and a half decades have also visited Henkel with three major radiation-sickness attacks. The former drill instructor, who calls the Marine Corps his “sanctuary” after a difficult childhood, is trim and alert, but walks slowly and suffers from intense fatigue whenever the radiation poisoning catches up with him.

His first onset was 20 years after the war, when he was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. He ended up in the hospital at Camp Pendleton, where the chief internist broke the news that his ailment was not fixable.

His four months in Nagasaki had caught up with him.

Henkel said he just recovered from his latest bout, during which he might “take three naps in the morning,” last week.

But he doesn’t regret signing up for the Marine Corps in his hometown, Cincinnati, in 1943, or going to Nagasaki, where certain scenes and characters were seared into his memory — men like “Nagasaki Joe,” a contraband-smuggling jail breaker, or the 18 gravediggers stationed with him for the last two months on a mountain near the city.

“Those gravediggers had buried a lot of Marines on the islands during the war,” Henkel recalled. “They were just goofy. And they’d drink — God, they got drunk. They’d seen too much.”

Nagasaki man_Pfingsten (4 of 4)

Henkel seems to sense that he saw just enough.

“I could stand on top of the mountain, and look down the long slope to the ocean, east,” he remembered. “Out in the ocean was this archipelago of little islands, guns on every one of them. Had we invaded, we would have had to go through those guns. I was out there at 5 in the morning, and I would watch the sun come up. It was a beautiful thing, it would reflect (through) the archipelago, it would hit the mountain itself and the sun would come up. I used to watch that every morning.”

Even that image from the Land of the Rising Sun, as Japan is known, does not wash away the legacy of destruction, however.

“That bomb did something else,” he said at the conclusion of his story. “God!”

“No wonder I got radiation sickness — I lived in that darn place for four months.”

The Pearl Harbor survivor who is buried in his own cemetery

Posted on August 19, 2013

As a Pearl Harbor survivor, Ted Roosvall has met a lot of people and championed more than a few causes to benefit U.S. military veterans.

But it was 1999, toward “the end of the century,” when he came face to face with his latest cause.

“A lady came up to me and stuck her finger in my belly button and said, ‘Why did I have to bury my husband in a private cemetery?’” Roosvall recalled during a recent interview.

Miramar National Cemetery_Pfingsten (1 of 6)

Ted Roosvall, June 30, 2010

A survivor of Pearl Harbor, Roosvall was the driving force behind establishing a new national veterans’ cemetery in Miramar. He passed away on April 4, 2011.

The woman was referring to the fact that Rosecrans National Cemetery, the only one in San Diego County administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, had closed to new casket burials back in ’66.

Roosvall was on it: “This was 10 years ago, and I was a little more naive than I am today,” so he sat down and fired off a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“She wrote back and said, ‘Thank you for the letter. I think San Diego County would be a great place for a military cemetery,’” Roosvall recalled. “I said, ‘All right, now what do I do?’”

His next move, a meeting with then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, would officially begin what Roosvall calls the “parade of politicians” — elected officials who lined up to offer their support.

Ultimately, Roosvall said, it was Cunningham who secured $19.5 million to build the facility that would become known as Miramar National Cemetery, but fetching that money was among his last acts as a congressman.

“The Duke, he was really enthused about this,” said Roosvall. “Unfortunately, Mr. Cunningham got eight years and four months up in a little place near Phoenix, cleaning toilets or whatever he’s doing.”

After that, said Roosvall, “It kind of came apart. Nobody did anything.”

Miramar National Cemetery_Pfingsten (5 of 6)

Miramar National Cemetery before construction

Several quiet years later, in January of this year, Roosvall was invited to the official ground-breaking off Nobel Drive.

It was a long time coming, acknowledged project manager Bill Peach.

“They’ve been talking about this cemetery for a long time — for years,” said Peach, who is overseeing construction for Veterans Affairs. “It started way back.”

Roughly scheduled to open for its first burials next year, the 150-acre cemetery will be built on the northwest corner of Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, with a main entrance off Nobel Drive between Miramar Road and Interstate 805. The site encompasses a total of 313 acres, but Peach said more than half of the space will be set aside for open space and to preserve sensitive habitat.

“It’s a fairly substantial project,” said Peach. “We have a site administration building and a public information center that will be built near the entrance to the cemetery near Nobel Drive.”

Construction was supposed to begin earlier this year, but the veterans department is still trying to find a contractor. Peach said the work will take about 18 months after the department has awarded a contract, but burials could start in as soon as nine months from the start of construction.

It’s all taking too long for Roosvall, whose questioner back in ’99 was long ago forced to bury her husband somewhere other than a veterans cemetery.

“Riverside is probably the busiest cemetery they have, and that’s too far for the average elderly person to travel,” said Roosvall. “Why don’t we have one closer?”

Riverside National Cemetery, adjacent to March Air Reserve Base off I-215, encompasses nearly 1,000 acres, according to the veterans affairs Web site.

But it lies about 90 miles away from Rosecrans.

“We have various criteria in the VA as to how you establish a cemetery, and one of them is the distance that a person would have to travel, and 75 miles is kind of the outer limit that they like survivors to have to drive — either for a burial or visitation,” said Peach. “Riverside is right on the threshold of that distance.

“There’s such a huge veteran population in San Diego, and they haven’t had what the VA considers all burial options available to them” since ’66, he said.

Rosecrans still provides space for cremated remains in its columbaria, he said, but had to stop offering new full-casket plots almost 45 years ago.

Paul Cline, a retired Marine and service officer for Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7041 in Vista, said it’s up to each veteran whether he or she wants to be laid to rest at a VA cemetery — some decide in favor of private cemeteries, he pointed out.

But he added that the Veterans Affairs facilities are considered top-notch.

“It’s a great system,” said Cline. “Anywhere you go in the country, the national cemetery’s all clean and squared away.”

All things considered, Roosvall seems likely to be appeased — pleased, even — when Miramar National Cemetery opens in the near future, even though it’s about half an hour away from his place in San Marcos.

“Miramar’s a lot bigger than I’d thought,” he said. “Not just a bunch of helicopters flying around.”

April 2011

North County veterans are mourning the loss of one of the region’s last Pearl Harbor survivors this week, after 22-year Marine Corps veteran Ted Roosvall passed away on Monday.

The colorful, wry veteran was remembered for his community service, letters to the editor, and his status as a survivor of the infamous Japanese attack in Hawaii.

In recent years, Roosvall was also known for championing the construction of a new national cemetery on the northwest corner of Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar.

Beginning in 1999, Roosvall was lobbying elected officials and anyone who would listen — including his fellow Pearl Harbor survivors — for what would ultimately become the $19.5 million, 150-acre Miramar National Cemetery, scheduled to open for burials next week.

The 90-year-old veteran will almost certainly be among the first laid to rest in the graveyard he was instrumental in creating. And, while there is a list of other deceased veterans to be interred before Roosvall, the irony is not lost on those who knew how much the cemetery meant to him.

“He had half a century of community involvement,” said Linda Dudik, a local historian who taught at Palomar College and has researched the North County chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association since ’03. “I lost a friend, you know, when he died on Monday night, but North County lost a friend, too — even if they didn’t know Ted.”

Miramar National Cemetery_Pfingsten (3 of 6)

Besides the Miramar cemetery campaign, Dudik said Roosvall was active in the San Marcos Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter, and pushed for the installment of the All Veterans Memorial at Helen Bougher Park in San Marcos.

And if folks were still unaware of the salty old veteran, said Dudik, perhaps they read his name from time to time in the local opinion pages.

“He was always trying to connect with people in North County, giving his thoughts and opinions on the issues,” she said.

Joe Walsh, the current president of North County’s Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Chapter 31, said the loss of Roosvall leaves only a handful of active members.

“He was our dedicated chaplain for years,” Walsh said, recalling how he and Roosvall would give each other a hard time.

A voracious consumer of daily news, Roosvall “would call me up all hours of the day to let me know what was cookin’,” remembered Walsh. “He’d say, ‘You ought to know what’s going on,’ and I’d say, ‘I can read the paper as well as you can.’

“He had a real good sense of humor, and he lightened things up,” added Walsh.

According to a biography written by Dudik last year, Roosvall joined the Marine Corps in January 1939 and was sent to boot camp in San Diego, earning $20.80 a month.

Boot camp, Dudik quoted him as saying, consisted “of very hard work, drilling, drilling, drilling, calisthenics, classroom work, inspections, saying ‘yes, sir’ a hundred times a day and suffering indignities of unmeasured quantity.”

In April ’41, Roosvall was sent to Lualualei, an ammunition depot near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where he survived the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, ’41.

Roosvall had entitled his book “The Life and Times of Just Plain Ted,” but, as Dudik put it, “He was anything but ‘just plain.’ He was really something.”

Because Roosvall spent his military career in supply depots — he was transferred to Oklahoma following the Pearl Harbor attack — he did not participate in the bloody island campaigns that the Marine Corps waged for the rest of the war in the Pacific, said Dudik.

But that didn’t mean he loved the service any less than the next man.

Ten years ago, Roosvall was passing out copies of his self-published memoir. Dudik, who has a copy, said it concluded with these words: “I am proud of my 35 years’ association with the Marine Corps. … Hopefully, I contributed something in all that time, even in a miniscule way.”

Roosvall had entitled his book “The Life and Times of Just Plain Ted,” but, as Dudik put it this week, “He was anything but ‘just plain.’ He was really something.”

Homecoming members of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing touch down in Miramar

Posted on August 19, 2013

Two hundred and sixty Marines and sailors with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing returned to Miramar on Friday and were greeted by a cheering, smiling crowd of wives and children and parents, bringing a joyful end to a seven-month tour in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province.

Anchored by a squadron that refuels warships in mid-air and transports cargo, the troops had been doing a variety of missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in south Afghanistan.

Shortly after noon, they filed out of an Omni Air International commercial jet and turned in their weapons before reuniting with their families.

Sgt. Daniel Coleman, 26, said that Friday marked the end of his fourth deployment as a Marine, but this time, the homecoming was sweeter.

“The first two times, I didn’t have anybody to come back to, but now, since I have a wife” —- he glanced and grinned at Niki Coleman, who hadn’t left his side since he showed up —- “way better.”

x.homecoming_Pfingsten (2 of 9)

Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Aug. 27, 2010

San Diego is never a bad place to come home to, he added: “The weather’s perfect. It beats Afghanistan.”

Earlier in the day, on a warm, bright morning muted with a touch of coastal haze, several hundred family members had been waiting behind concrete barricades on the edge of one of Miramar’s three sprawling runways.

Inside a nearby terminal, the crowd of families awaiting their Marines or sailors had swollen as noon approached.

Young mothers tried to entertain bored toddlers and officers walked back and forth as the moment of return approached.

“I had to take on both roles, and explain to her that daddy’s at work and he’ll be back in a little bit,” Simmers said.

Jay Rindler, the “Welcome Home Chairman” for the local Navy League of the United States, was scrawling personal messages on signs for kids to hold up.

Elsewhere, 68-year-old Lottie Ahrens was handing out flags while wearing a button identifying her as an “Official Hugger.”

“There’s so many families who can’t take off work, can’t afford the airfare, a hotel, rental car, meals —- they just can’t get here,” said Ahrens. “And somebody needs to make sure these guys are welcomed home, told, ‘Thank you, we appreciate what you’re doing.’”

About half an hour before the plane touched down, Megan Simmers said she was looking forward to welcoming her husband, Gunnery Sgt. Joshua Simmers.

While the couple’s 2 1/2-year-old daughter slept, she said this deployment went faster than his first one “because I had to get into a routine quicker. I didn’t really have time to sit and cry.”

Last time, Simmers explained, she had been pregnant with young Kayley when her husband deployed.

“This one was harder because I had to take on both roles, and explain to her that daddy’s at work and he’ll be back in a little bit,” she added. “We got into a routine, and we did OK.”

When asked whether the toddler understood that her daddy was coming home, she said, “I don’t think she’ll make the connection until she actually sees him.”

Outside and a little while later, the audience of eager families first saw a jet on the horizon, then taxiing to a stairway on the tarmac. Next they watched as a stream of Marines and sailors disembarked, turned in M-16 rifles and side-arms, and then walked toward the noisy crowd.

A crush of kisses and tears and embraces followed.

Unable or unwilling to wait another moment, one little girl hopped the barrier and ran 20 feet into the arms of her mother, who despite her fatigues and bulky pack gathered the girl up and stood with tears in her eyes.

Similar scenes played out everywhere: Husbands planted lingering kisses on their wives; girlfriends shrieked with joy at the sight of their beaus.

And Lottie Ahrens, the Official Hugger, was hugging someone —- a tall, broad-shouldered Marine who smiled and had to stoop a little.

“I’m relieved, I’m excited,” Simmers had said, noting the emotional ups and downs that define deployment for many spouses. “It’s just going to be another change —- but for the better.”

The man who crowned ‘Banana Joe’ at Westminster

Posted on August 17, 2013

On a Tuesday afternoon next winter, Michael Dougherty will step onto the most prestigious stage in the dog show business, surrounded by seven of the most beautiful canines in the world, and choose one as Best in Show.

It won’t be his first time judging at the nationally-televised Westminster Kennel Club show, scheduled for Feb. 11-12 in New York. Dougherty has participated in five previous Westminster competitions, and he estimates that he has judged in at least 600 contests in nearly 20 countries over the last 25 years.

But for the San Diego native who now runs the Windsong Pet Resort in North Escondido, reaching the industry’s most glorious stage has been a moment 50 years in the making.

The pressure will be enormous, by any standard.

“You’re absolutely splitting hairs,” Dougherty told me when I stopped by the pet resort just west of Interstate 15 on Wednesday. “They will have been judged by two other judges that day or the day before. So two judges will have said, ‘This is the finest of that breed.’

“You hope they’re as close to perfect as possible, and one false steps can sometimes make a difference at that level,” he added.


Michael Dougherty, May 2012

A native San Diegan and veteran dog-show judge, Dougherty was called up to the highest position as a canine jurist — that of “Best in Show” at the 2013 Westminster Kennel Club competition.

The American Kennel Club recognizes 187 breeds and varieties, and Dougherty is licensed to judge around a third of them.

“I’ve judged Best in Show many, many times at other dog shows, so the process is very familiar to me,” he said.

Westminster is such a big event that even channel surfers with no interest in the dog-show industry may have seen the hounds circling the judge in New York.

Picture Dougherty at the center of that much attention, scowling out of concentration, less than 20 minutes to eliminate six nearly perfect specimens.

“It’s an opportunity to judge, hopefully, the seven best dogs in the country,” he said cheerfully. “They bring you up in a limousine, they walk you in through the garden entrance, the lights are out, you walk into the ring and sign your book, and you look around and there’s seven dogs standing there. And then I go to work.”

Dougherty’s job is to measure each of those seven canines by the standards of its own species; the one that most admirably represents its breed is named Best in Show.

“You’re looking at bite, you’re looking at conformation, you will watch them move, you will watch the side-gait on them,” he said. “It truly is Miss America for the beauty, Kentucky Derby for the athleticism, and the Super Bowl for the enormity of it, in the dog-show game.”

His game face, so to speak, may not look friendly, but rest assured, he’ll be enjoying every minute: “My wife and my late mother would say the same thing —- ‘Michael will probably be scowling,’” he said with a laugh. “And it’s not that I’m ever angry, it’s that I’m so locked in, so concentrated, that sometimes I look like I’m scowling. My mother would say, ‘Look like you enjoy it, for a change.’ It’s hard work.”

Dougherty was born and raised in San Diego, the son of a retail clerk-turned-dog handler named Jack Dougherty.

“I learned to walk holding the nub of a tail of a boxer named Lady,” he recalled. “We bought a schnauzer that ended up being sort of show-quality, so we started showing dogs a little bit in 1961.

“We hired a professional dog handler, and he didn’t do very well —- my mom figured out she could groom better than he could and my dad figured out he could handle better, so they said, ‘We may have a talent for this,’” said Dougherty. “Five or six years later, we built the Lemon Grove Kennels, which was one of the three largest kennels in all of San Diego.”

Father and son showed dogs together for years, and he remembers that it was less about winning than it was “about the love of the dogs.”

“Fresh air, sunshine and dogs, how bad can that be? And occasionally somebody hands you a ribbon or a trophy,” he said. “He was always a guy who wanted his two sons to do better than he did —- it was his point of pride. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, you beat me,’ it was, ‘Great, you beat me.’”

In Escondido, Dougherty and his wife, Michelle, operate one of the county’s highest-rated pet resorts, where they house as many as 40 dogs and cats in air-conditioned rooms, with several pristine acres for their guests to chase squirrels.

We sat in the lobby on Wednesday as he explained that he simply loves dogs, loves everything about dogs, loves them so much that traveling 16 to 18 weekends a year to judge is no problem, even at an age when most folks are figuring out what to do with their retirement.

“Do I get nervous? A little,” he said. “I’ll tighten up a little. But the fun way outweighs the pressure. I know what I’m doing when I’m in there —- I mean, 50 years of doing this from one perspective or another? I’m comfortable.”

February 18, 2013

Michael Dougherty stepped onto center stage in Madison Square Garden last Tuesday night after one of the longest journeys of his life, through flight cancellations and a snowstorm, to fulfill his duty of naming the best dog in the country.

Thanks to a fierce blizzard that descended on the Northeast, Dougherty and his wife, Michelle, endured a harrowing trip from their home in Escondido to Midtown Manhattan, where he had been scheduled since early 2012 to judge “Best in Show” for the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual competition.

The ordeal started at 4 a.m. Friday, Feb. 8, when the telephone rang and an automated voice message explained that their flight into New York City had been canceled.

“I looked at a map and said, ‘We can go with a southern route,’” he recalled. “D.C. looked pretty safe — a lot of rain, but no snow.”

Ultimately, the couple flew into Washington, D.C., via Dallas-Fort Worth with plans to make the rest of the trip by rail.

In Washington, they were informed that even Amtrak was out of commission, but Dougherty had to see for himself. The couple finally made it onto a train bound for New York City, and he settled in to write the first of several speeches he was expected to give as the top official in one of the most storied sporting events on the planet.

“I have judged a number of best-in-shows, including on national TV … but I don’t think there’s anything that can top or match the 137-year legacy of this show, the oldest continuous sporting event (in the U.S.) other than the Kentucky Derby,” Dougherty told me last week. “It’s the Super Bowl, Miss America and the Kentucky Derby rolled into one, and I got to be the ringmaster.

“It was a long and arduous trip, but it was worth every second.”

I profiled Dougherty last summer, after it was announced that the canine world’s most prestigious ribbon would be his to hand out. At the time, he estimated that he had judged in more than 600 competitions across 20 countries in his 25-year career.

That staggering résumé is apparently what it takes to be called up by the Westminster Kennel Club.

Once the Doughertys had arrived in snowy New York late on Friday, they spent most of their time in a hotel room, sequestered and willfully ignorant of how the show was proceeding, which dogs were looking good.

“Our first event was the big cocktail party for the judges and dignitaries, and that was on Saturday night,” Dougherty told me. “The next night was the board of governor’s dinner at the yacht club, and that was absolutely formal — I had to give a speech at that one.

“On Monday, we had the day to ourselves,” he continued. “They didn’t want us to hear about any of the winners or goings-on through Tuesday. We were sequestered at our hotel, well away from the dog show people.”

On Feb. 12, the night of the live Best in Show broadcast, a car arrived to deliver Dougherty to the Garden: “They mic’ed me up, gave me a glass of water and said, ‘All right, we’ll call you in a few minutes.’”

From there, Dougherty would enter the ring with seven of the most beautiful and well-trained dogs in the world. His job was to choose one.

There was the American fox hound, the Portuguese water dog, an Old English sheepdog named “Swagger” and a bichon frisé that the USA Network announcers called “a beautiful little powder-puff of a dog.”

“They were all very, very good dogs — excellent specimens,” Dougherty told me.

As he worked with a trademark scowl of concentration on his face, the commentators called him “one of the great people in the dog-show world” and praised his decisiveness.

After 20 minutes of this, Dougherty awarded the runner-up award to Swagger, a 20-month-old novice in the sport, and chose Banana Joe, a jet-black affenpinscher, as the top dog.

As the first of his breed to win Best in Show — and as the winningest affenpinscher in history — Banana Joe earned a favorable write-up in The New York Times, which also quoted Dougherty from Tuesday night’s contest.

“I had seen him a few times outside the ring, but as a judge, I never had my hands on him,” he told me. “He was beautiful. He was a little dog, but he really owned the ring. I was told afterward that it was his last show — he’s retiring and going back to Holland.”

Dougherty, on the other hand, has no such plans.

It’s Chicago for him next week, followed by Seattle, Fort Worth and a trip to East Asia to help judge in several competitions.

Meanwhile, the Windsong Pet Resort that the Doughertys operate in North Escondido has been deluged with emails from clients and friends who watched Tuesday night’s national broadcast.

“I had talked to other judges who’ve done Best in Show, and they said the glow will not wear off for quite a while,” Dougherty told me. “It certainly hasn’t.”

Replacing the Oceanside Pier twelve inches at a time

Posted on August 15, 2013

Of all the people who traverse the Oceanside pier in a week, Joe Betancourt may have the most intimate knowledge of how that labyrinth of wood stays upright and traversable in the waves.

One morning a week — usually a Wednesday or Thursday — Betancourt and his crew of two younger city employees lay aside their plumbing, painting, cleaning and other maintenance duties for a shift of heavy lifting that has them replacing the wooden deck 12 inches at a time.

IP - Joe Betancourt

Joe Betancourt, October 2010

A long-time city employee, Betancourt holds an example of a new spike that will replace the old spikes as the Oceanside Pier is resurfaced.

Each diagonal row of wood consists of one 20-foot board and one 12-foot board, both of which are four inches thick and a foot wide. The long ones weigh at least 300 pounds.

As the man in charge of the project, Betancourt estimates that he’s overseen the replacement of a couple hundred feet of planks in the last three years.

The pier is roughly 1,950 feet long, and when I stopped by on Wednesday, he said it’s going to take a while to get all the way down to Ruby’s.

Betancourt, 57, is an Oceanside native, a father of four who likes to run and ride his bike to work during the summer.

Incidentally, the summer is when Betancourt’s crew puts its wood work on hold because traffic on the pier is too heavy and there’s too much else to do.

The four other days of the week, when he’s not prying up old wood and nailing down new, he fixes sprinklers, scrapes fish guts off the railings and cleans the sand on the beach.

But the topside work on the pier reminds him of his years as a carpenter, before he was hired by the city in 1980, and before the current pier was built, in 1987.

It occurred to me as I watched Betancourt and his two helpers, Juan Olmeda and Jaime Hernandez — “If your name doesn’t start with a ‘J’ you can’t work here,” Betancourt joked — that they were replacing wood over which I had walked hundreds of times.

The old wood is taken back to the maintenance yard near the harbor, where it is disposed of in a specific way, because of its chemical treatment.

The new boards are still moist with that same treatment, intended to enhance their life span as they are battered by saltwater, pedestrian traffic and delivery trucks, which Betancourt said take the heaviest toll on the deck.

On Wednesday morning, as dozens of surfers idled in the water below, Betancourt looked the part of a maintenance worker, with blue metal sunglasses and a carabiner of keys hanging from his belt loop.

He’s the smallest man on the crew, but can hammer a 10-inch nail home with the best of them.

He has never lived anywhere else besides North County, and told me he likes getting up early, which is lucky for him, considering that his shift starts at 5 a.m. — an hour when only the insomniac fishermen and hardiest of surfers are in sight.

“Since I work here, I always watch where I’m stepping,” Betancourt said, nodding at the gnarled wood that will be torn up and replaced in the coming weeks. “Some people don’t. It’s easy to trip.”

Before leaving, I took another look down toward Ruby’s. This time, measuring the distance in wooden planks, it looked further.

I remarked to Betancourt that he’ll be prying and nailing, prying and nailing until he reaches the restaurant, and he shrugged.

“That, or until I retire,” he said.

Roth slider

The rebuilding: Life on the edge of wilderness

Posted on August 15, 2013

It was during the church hours on a sleepy Sunday morning 10 years ago that Fallbrook suffered the scars of its first major wildfire — million-dollar homes reduced to thousand-dollar cleanup bills, the trauma of flames licking at homeowners’ heels or engulfing their cars as they fled.

The pain of loss lingers still, residents said last week.

Pictures. Antiques. Heirlooms.

Financial data, clothing, artwork, avocado groves, luxury sedans, mothballed wedding dresses, teddy bears and a thousand other irreplaceable things that people forgot or couldn’t carry out.

FALLBROOK - Gavilan fire after 10 years (3 of 6)

Dorothy Roth, February 2012

Roth’s Western Mutual Insurance Co. policy lapsed on Jan. 20, 2002, after she and her husband refinanced their mortgage. She said she was notified of the lapse on Feb. 8, mailed the check on Feb. 9, and watched her uninsured house — valued at $600,000 — burn down on Feb. 10 in the Gavilan Fire.

In the days after the February 2002 Gavilan fire, hundreds of people were mourning pets and possessions en masse for the first time in the town’s history, and the insurance headaches were just beginning. For some, they never really resolved.

When the ash settled, the Gavilan blaze had burned 5,763 acres, caused $25 million in damage, consumed 43 houses, and exposed the point of Fallbrook’s vulnerability that would be driven home five years later by the catastrophic Rice fire, which injured five firefighters and destroyed 206 homes.

That morning, smoke billowed fast and hot over a series of steep ridges on the town’s northern frontier. The flames advanced 100 feet per minute on a sprawling settlement of houses amid acres of dry brush, the type of neighborhood that fire chiefs call a “wildland-urban interface.”

In other words, the most dangerous place to be during a raging wildfire.

“It was beautiful before,” Parker said. “It’s beautiful now.”

On the eve of Gavilan’s 10th anniversary Thursday night, couples were out walking under a signature San Diego County sunset in what has reclaimed its place as one of Fallbrook’s most peaceful and scenic neighborhoods.

But scars remained, like the lot on the northwest corner of Santa Margarita and Hilbert drives — still empty, both entrances of what must have been a splendid driveway chained off.

A few doors down, Jim Churchyard and Alberta Parker were enjoying a glass of wine on the front patio of the house they rebuilt from the same blueprints as the one that the Gavilan fire took from them.

“I moved one wall 9 inches,” said Parker of her duplicate home, recalling the day when she carried her original blueprints — smelling to high heaven of smoke — into a Temecula printer’s office for replication.

Parker is especially proud of her cabinets — sturdy oak drawers and doors that she made by hand in the couple’s garage. (She made the first set, too.)

Next week, Churchyard will turn 77 and Parker will turn 82, but neither losing nor rebuilding has slowed them down.

“It was beautiful before,” Parker said. “It’s beautiful now.”

Fire Safe Council forms

A few hilltops away, Dorothy Roth’s chimney stood defiantly for five years after the fire, until a volunteer with a tractor and a chain pulled it down.

Roth and her husband, Russ Kortlever, fought a painful, protracted, and ultimately unsuccessful court battle over the timing of an insurance premium that she mailed to the Western Mutual Insurance Co. the day before the fire.

Roth’s policy had lapsed on Jan. 20, 2002, after the couple refinanced their mortgage. She said she was notified of the lapse on Feb. 8, mailed the check on Feb. 9, and watched her uninsured house — valued at $600,000 — burn down on Feb. 10.

The mutual sense of tragedy and helplessness would lead many of the fire victims to form a nonprofit called the Fallbrook Fire Safe Council, which Roth leads.

Over the last decade, the council has spent $800,000 of grant money to trim dangerously dry brush in key locations identified by the fire district. It also produced an evacuation map — in English and Spanish — that is available online at .

“I think the council has accomplished a lot — and it’s been with just a small group of very dedicated people,” Roth said. “The community has benefited a lot more from the council than most people realize. But that’s OK. If the effort I put out in trying to educate people and make Fallbrook more fire-safe — if that prevents one person from having to go through the mess that I went through — then it’s worth it.”

Memories linger

For every person who lost something that day, the memories fall into several categories.

There is the trivial, like this, from Parker: “You don’t realize how much plastic you have in the house until it burns.”

Or the bit of luck amid the wreckage, such as Churchyard’s and Parker’s computer, which was in a shop downtown that weekend: “Let me tell you, we were never so glad to pay a repair bill in our lives,” she said.

Then there is the visceral recall of barely escaping, such as he life-or-death minutes when Roth and Kortlever had to leave the car in the driveway and thread their way through the steep grove — past a crop of ripe avocados scheduled to be picked the next day — at a run.

“‘Flew’ would probably be a better word — he had my hand and we were going and I’m not sure how often my feet hit the ground,” Roth said. “It was panic. It was real panic.”

“By this time, everything was pitch-full of smoke, fires starting all over the place,” she added. “When we got out, I didn’t have a purse — no ID, nothing. Just really, literally, what was on my back.”

FALLBROOK - Gavilan fire after 10 years (1 of 6)

Wildland-Urban Interface

In North Fallbrook, steep slopes of uncut brush meet avocado groves and million-dollar homes. This type of terrain, which fire chiefs refer to as “wildland-urban interface,” is where the century’s toughest firefighting challenges await.

For Parker and her husband, the danger was just as close.

“We took both cars out of the garage and drove through the flames that the wind was blowing across the road,” she recalled.

“That still gets to me — driving through that wall of flames. I could see from the house that it was only about 50 feet, so I knew we could make it, but it was still terrifying.”

New house, sans heirlooms

The last, lingering memory — still potent after a decade — is the melancholy of loss. “What was hard was losing the irreplaceables — my husband lost a tremendous amount of family heirlooms,” Parker said. “Letters, pictures, from the 1800s.

“The house was 6 years old when it went down,” she added.

Yet there are also new memories, new possessions.

Parker has her cabinets, and Roth finally has her house on a hilltop again — though it’s half the size of the original home, at least it’s safer, thanks to hindsight and a decade of experience with the Fire Safe Council.

“In fact, several builders who’ve looked at it have said, ‘Well, if a fire comes through here again, everything will be gone except your house,'” Roth said with a laugh.

“For four or five years there, I guess, I’d just decided there was never going to be a chance to build a home again,” she continued. “You just can’t believe it. It’s so peaceful. It’s just really nice to come home.”

Ochoa slider

The girl who turned trauma into home runs

Posted on August 15, 2013

There was a moment — really, a terrifying chain of moments — when Brooke Ochoa was locked outside at Kelly Elementary School in Carlsbad on what she now calls the Very Bad Day.

Brendan O’Rourke had already begun shooting on the playground and was down on a knee reloading his .357-caliber Ruger handgun, while school custodian Fern Hartzler unlocked a gate leading to safety.

Brooke will always remember the tremor in Hartzler’s hands, how the keys rattled in the lock.

She also recalls that two of her best friends were shot and that it was supposed to have been a special day: Oct. 8, 2010, her seventh birthday.

Brooke described that day to a journalist for the first time Thursday, sitting on the grass at Kelly Elementary, paces away from where she was when the shooting began.

Now 8 years old, she wore a batting helmet during the interview, strawberry blond hair draped straight down over her shoulders and a grin while she talked about baseball.

Softball, she said, just wasn’t cutting it.

“It was mostly about ribbons and hair stuff,” Brooke said. “I wanted to play competitive.”

And compete she has: As the only girl in her Carlsbad Youth Baseball league, Brooke hit three home runs this year and helped lead her team from behind the plate, where she calls out the plays and does her best to run down foul balls. Now she’s on the All-Star team.

“We’ve only lost one game,” she declared proudly, glancing at her mom, Tiffany Ochoa.

“We didn’t see the man coming. He climbed the fence real quick, and we kind of froze for a second, but then both of my friends started running, so I was like, ‘Oh, I should run, as well.'”

Brooke is the youngest of three children, an athletic girl who can’t stay still. Besides baseball, she enjoys soccer, surfing, skateboarding and the golden retriever, Milo, her parents bought for her after the Very Bad Day.

Brooke is also tough. As her team’s catcher, “I’ve gotten hit in the thigh, the leg, the knee, the funny bone,” she said.

The boys like to tease her, but “it’s just little teases because they’ve seen me play” — and they know they need her.

“I like the part where you hit a home run or something,” Brooke said.

Her team is tied for first in the league’s Pinto division, and if the team wins its next playoff game on Tuesday, it’ll advance to the world series of Carlsbad on June 2.

It’s all enough to put the Very Bad Day behind her.

“I was over there with my friends, passing the ball around,” Brooke said, motioning toward the other side of the field, off Kelly and Hillside drives. “We didn’t see the man coming. He climbed the fence real quick, and we kind of froze for a second, but then both of my friends started running, so I was like, ‘Oh, I should run, as well.’

“At first, I thought it was some kind of drill — a man just costumed — but it wasn’t,” Brooke said. “When I figured that out, I started zigzagging so he couldn’t get a perfect shot.”

One of the yard supervisors was screaming at O’Rourke and the other fainted, Brooke said.

“I made a breakaway to the cafeteria over there,” Brooke said, pointing again. “Both of my friends got shot.”

She said one girl ran behind a little fence and the gunshot “went right through her arm — didn’t hit any nerves or anything.”

The second girl ran toward the back of the school: “The man saw her running, and the only shot he could get was her arm.”

Brooke was spared that day. A lot of children were. O’Rourke’s handgun jammed and he tried to run after a few minutes.

“Miss Fern, she’s the one that saved me,” Brooke said of the custodian. “She was shaking while she turned the key. She saw me coming, so she was struggling to get it unlocked.”

A construction worker ushered a group of kids to safety while several others chased O’Rourke down in the street and tackled him, ending what could have been a much bloodier school shooting. It would be several hours until Brooke was reunited with her panicked mother.

O’Rourke was convicted in March of seven counts of attempted murder with special allegations of gun use. Last month, he was sentenced to 189 years to life in prison for opening fire on a crowd of 230 grade-schoolers at recess.

With the completion of the trial, Tiffany Ochoa said the family have been able to put the ordeal out of their minds. Brooke now attends Magnolia Elementary School.

“She tried to talk to a school counselor, but she didn’t like it,” Ochoa said. “She wants it to just go away — she wants to focus on her sports and her life. She loves playing baseball, loves playing soccer, loves being in a team environment. That’s her world.

“For a long time, she’d get up in the middle of the night and have bad dreams,” Ochoa added. “And then she didn’t want her birthday to come this past year, because it brought too much back.”

The mother’s emotions still well up, too: anger, then a retroactive terror of what could have been.

“Thank God they didn’t call her in to talk about him” on trial, Ochoa said. “They asked us to write a letter and read it when he was sentenced, and I said, ‘He’s not worth my words, not worth my energy.’

“I didn’t understand how scared I should have been — that she was so close,” she said as Brooke practiced with her team Thursday, digging into a low, aggressive stance in the batter’s box. “She’ll be right next to me in the car, singing along with a song on the radio, and I’m like, ‘What if she wasn’t there?’ The what-ifs go through your head.”

What goes through Brooke’s head is much simpler: Maybe the nightmares will stop for good now that O’Rourke is locked up.

She giggles when she pictures it: “He can braid his beard, that’s what I’m thinking.”