With all of the recent news about squalid homeless encampments, mismanaged utilities, gun-grabbing Democrat politicians, a potentially bankrupt public employee pension fund, and wildfires in California, I thought that it would be apropos to post a personal lament. This is a largely autobiographical commentary on the sad fall of the state of my birth, since the 1960s. But first, let me look back a bit further in time:
Our Pioneer Roots
The Rawles family came to California in 1856, via covered wagon. My great-great grandfather, Joseph Rawles, was a fifth generation American of English extraction who was born in Ohio. He was a horse breeder. Seeing that Ohio becoming too populous, he decided to move west, bringing with him 50 head of horses. He settled his family near the tiny hamlets of Philo and Boonville, nestled in the Anderson Valley of the Coast Range, in Mendocino County. There, they first raised horses, and then during the Civil War they transitioned to raising sheep. By the 1870s, his two eldest sons owned more than 6,000 contiguous acres. And by the year 1900, they had flocks numbering more than 5,000 Merino sheep. They made a good living at selling wool and redwood timber. At that time California had a small and unpretentious government, with very little regulation of people’s lives and livelihoods.
By the time I was born, in 1960, various branches of the family had scattered throughout northern California. I was raised in the suburban town of Livermore, at the eastern fringe of the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1960, Livermore’s population was around 16,000. As of 2019, it is now close to 87,000. But in the 1960s, it was quite pleasant small town with some brown smog that crept in from Hayward and Oakland, but very little crime or traffic. The public schools were good and people generally got along very well. My school classmates were mostly the children of Lawrence Radiation Laboratory employees (like me), or the children of ranchers and wine grape growers. (With surnames like Wente and Concannon.)
In the California where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, it still very much the traditional conservative bedrock culture, where most people owned guns and went to church on Sundays. Kids like me went out in the hills around town and shot jackrabbits with our .22s. Nobody blinked an eye when they saw 14 year-olds on bikes with .22 rifles slung across our backs. (See the book Suburbia, by Bill Owens. Nearly all of those photos were taken in Livermore, from around 1968 to 1972. The cover photo from that book tops this article.)
The Flower Power Generation
Everyone could see that California was already changing rapidly by the 1960s. The influx of defense industry workers who had arrived to work for companies like Lockheed and the Kaiser shipyards in the 1940s had changed the state’s demographics. Democrats were beginning to hold more and more offices at the city, county, and even state level. California was becoming a west coast state with an east coast mentality. The new arrivals brought their eastern liberal attitudes and politics with them. The 1960s hippies grew up and took positions of power. This meant that big government buzzwords like “planning”, “affirmative action”, and “urban renewal” became ascendant. Frequent bomb threats by anti-war protestors began to disrupt the schools. The higher population density made legislators feel justified in instituting building codes, smog controls, mosquito abatement, and a plethora of other regulations, licenses, fees, “services”, and “programs.”
My first abrasion with the nouveau California laws came in 1973, when as a 13-year-old, I was forced to queue up to register my bicycle, have a serialized City of Livermore bike license sticker applied, and its frame stamped with the city’s Atomic symbol. (With a fee for the privilege, of course.) Failure to do so would have been punishable with seizure of the bicycle and a hefty fine, before it could be returned to the owner. Even though I had never heard of even one of my classmates getting their bike stolen, this was promoted as a “crime-fighting” measure. But in retrospect, I can see that it was all about generating revenue and imposing control.
Even in the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of Californians respected the right to keep and bear arms. Some of the best gunsmiths in the country had their shops in L.A. and San Francisco. For example, I had some trigger work done on my first M1911 by the great F. Bob Chow. And one of the best gun shops in the country was the San Francisco Gun Exchange. It had an amazing inventory. Gone. High Bridge Arms–San Francisco’s last gun shop (founded by Bob Chow) closed its doors in 2015. Gone. And even Weatherby Inc. recently packed up and moved to Sheridan, Wyoming.
Then Came The Gun Laws
In 1967, the Black Panthers had marched armed through the state capitol rotunda and halls. Almost immediately, the California legislature banned open carry of loaded firearms. That law was signed by then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Later, it was expanded to ban the open carry of unloaded handguns, and most recently, even to unloaded long guns.
By the time I was in college in the 1980s, California had substantially more crime, traffic, and rampant illegal use of marijuana and cocaine. My college dormitory building at San Jose State University reeked of “Mary Jane”, especially on weekends. Liberalism was also rampant. Homosexuality was becoming accepted as a “lifestyle choice.” My classmates in the Journalism program were overwhelmingly liberal, and I was belittled and marginalized as the “token conservative.” It was only in my Army ROTC classes that I felt like I was among more conservatives than liberals. I was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in 1983 (by then-President Ronald Reagan), and graduated in December of 1984. I left the state in early 1985 for active duty, but then returned to serve as an Army Reserve officer, with an ASA (Intelligence Corps) unit.
By the late 1980s, I considered life in California just barely tolerable. I married in 1987, and that distracted me from the creeping socialism, apathy, and ongoing social decline that surrounded us. In September of 1987, my young bride started a job as an elementary school teacher with the Fremont School District. Since concealed carry permits were almost unobtainable in the populous counties, she decided to carry a pistol daily, in defiance of the law. Every day that she taught school, she carried a stainless steel Colt Mustang +II .380 ACP pistol and two spare loaded magazines in a hidden compartment of her oversize shoulder bag. Thankfully, she never had to use it. But it was reassuring knowing that she had it, and that she practiced with it fairly regularly.
Meanwhile, I worked as a journalist with Defense Electronics magazine, and later as technical writer for a variety of defense contractors and high tech companies, commuting across the Dumbarton Bridge five or six days a week. I had to get up at 4:45 a.m. to beat the traffic across the bridge. I regularly worked 12 hour days, returning home to our rental house in Fremont, only after the traffic died down. The property crime, the commute traffic, and the city lights that drowned out any view of the stars were becoming wearisome. The bridge tolls were ratcheting up. “Diamond Lanes” were being added to freeways. And there was already talk of creating what is now known as the FastTrack transponder road toll system.
The average car registration jumped up to around $120 per year. Landfill fees doubled. The California Redemption Value (CRV) added 5 cents to the cost of bottled beverages. Property taxes were also accelerating for any houses that were not “grandfathered” under Proposition 13. My annual deer hunting in Mendocino County–very close to the original Rawles Ranch–was becoming frustrating. The rapidly-growing Mountain Lion population was cleaning out the blacktail deer herds. This was because the California legislature had passed a blanket prohibition on all Mountain Lion hunting and trapping. Gradually, California was becoming a less and less fun place to live. It was getting oppressive, and I was feeling miserable.
In 1989, a mentally-deranged drifter shot up a schoolyard in Stockton, California, with a semi-auto AK-47, killing five children, ages 6 to 10. He also wounded 29 other students and one teacher. Later that same year, the California legislature banned most semi-auto rifles with detachable magazines, and new manufacture or import into California of magazines holding more than 10 rounds, under the misnomer “Assault Weapons.” (The Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989.) Much of the wording of this law was copied in the Federal 1994 Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). That law was signed by President Bill Clinton. That odious law was in force until it sunsetted, in 2004.
California banned any new private manufacture, purchase, sale, or importation of magazines holding more than 10 cartridges, in 1999. So, even after the Federal AWB sunsetted, California’s magazine ban remained in force. And so did California’s state-level AWB. The civilian disarmament laws keep creeping forward. Absurdities like blocked thumbhole stocks and “Bullet Button” magazine releases became required. And most folks stopped bringing their grandfathered 20-round and 30-round magazines to rifle ranges, for fear of being arrested. Most recently, a California law was enacted that mandates background checks for purchases of ammunition. And in two years, that will be expanded to include background checks before the purchase of 80% complete receiver chunks of metal!
In 1990, I bought my first ranch in Idaho–a house on 40 acres, for $29,000. We were thrilled to move out of California and take up a fairly self-sufficient way of living. I thought that I was escaping California’s Assault Weapons Control Act. But I was alarmed to see that a California-style AWB become law, nationwide, just four years later. From Idaho, I ran a home-based business and profited from my stockpile of “pre-ban” magazines–mainly M1 Carbine, AR-15, HK, and FN-FAL magazines. My only regret was that I hadn’t put my entire life savings into such magazines, before the ban. During the 1994-to-2004 ban, a pre-ban 17-round plastic Glock sold for as much as $90. The law of supply and demand does some curious things, when legislatures are in session.
California’s slow slide into a socialist morass has continued from the 1960s, to today. More and more liberals have moved in. Democrat politicians are now deeply entrenched, with secure Democrat majority voting blocs. Democrats now control the California State Assembly, the California State Senate, and the California Governorship. There is no end to that in sight. California’s two U.S. Senators are both hard-left Democrat women. They are assured a lifetime of re-election if they simply refrain from murdering any of their staff members. With any lesser offenses, they’d probably be re-elected.
The poster child of entrenched Democrats is Fortney “Pete” Stark, who nominally “represented” the eastern Bay Area. He was a U.S. Congresscritter from 1973 to 2013. After his 40 years in office and surviving three re-discricting arrangements, he was succeeded by fellow Democrat Eric Swallwell, who is even more liberal than Stark. Swallwell recently became famous for none-too-subtly threatening to use nuclear weapons on American gun onwers.
California has the largest tax base of any state in the nation–with quite high income taxes, sales taxes, and fuel taxes. But despite these criminally high tax rates, California is now famous for its crumbling freeways, decrepit bridges (despite $3 to $7 bridge tolls), 20+ cents per kilowatt hour power bills, high tap water bills, and taxes that have boosted gasoline prices to $4+ per gallon. There are restrictions on wood home heating stoves, hundreds of gun control laws, and bi-annual smog inspections for cars. Many older cars can be re-registered only after paying hundreds of dollars in “attempted” smog control remediation. And then there are the leaky water mains, the leaky natural gas pipes, and leaky dams.
The state is becoming over-run with illegal aliens. The state legislature granted them driver’s licenses. And now there is talk of illegals being appointed to state boards and commissions–all for the sake of “fair representation.” In California’s larger cities, the streets are strewn with human feces and hypodermic syringes. Rats now breed in piles of uncollected trash. Homeless mental patients wander through neighborhoods shouting obscenities, there is public nudity, burgeoning homeless encampments, legalized recreational marijuana… The list goes on and on. Despite all of these problems, the legislature seems intent on providing free health care to illegal aliens, and taxpayer funding of huge Green Energy boondoggles. Not just millions but billions of California taxpayer dollars have been wasted. Talk radio show host Michael Savage refers to San Francisco as “Sodom By The Sea.” Unfortunately, his jab is not just hyperbole.
All in all, California is now just a dim reflection of the paradise that it once was, in its golden years as The Golden State. Even the once ultra-conservative Orange County has a majority of Democrats. I’m sad to say it, but California is now a lost cause. I mourn for the loss of the California of my youth.
For any of you reading this who still live in Commiefornia, I urge you to move to less populous interior states. Do so soon, before the newly-expanded Red Flag law is used as a weapon against you, by one of your anti-gun leftist neighbors. Just the sight of a gun case could set them off. It is time to flee the Tranny-Loving Tyranny. But please, don’t bring any Big Government pretensions with you! Remember that you are escaping the liberal morass of California. If you move the American Redoubt, then don’t expect your neighbors to change. Rather, you should adapt to their culture and their preferred small scale of government and love of liberty.
California is often called the nation’s Bellwether State, for politics, morality, popular culture, and lifestyle. If that continues, may God help us! – JWR