Memoir: Sand Dune Park
by Matt Wachtfogel
In 1962, my parents moved our family into a home near the base of the sand dune in Manhattan Beach. I had just turned four years old. Coincidentally, that’s about the time a child’s memories begin to stick with them for a lifetime. That was almost 50 years ago.
Back then, the sand dune was just that, a sand dune and not Sand Dune Park. The National Guard Armory bordered the dune on the north and Ladera Elementary School on the south. The dune consisted of beautiful beach sand with sparse native vegetation. Bell Avenue, from 29th St. to 33rd St., was a dirt road. There was no fence on the west side of Bell Avenue so vehicular access to the sand dune from the dirt road was uninhibited.
My earliest memories of the dune were of the occasional dune buggy driving down our street and on to Bell Avenue. The buggy would survey the base of the dune, choose a route and attempt to climb to the top. Neighbors hearing the sound of the buggy would walk out to watch. When new park was constructed the streets that led to the dune were closed. I am sure the OHV enthusiasts who used the dune for years were very unhappy. But I’m sure they found other places to recreate, as people do when they are no longer allowed access to public areas.
Visiting the park now a sign can be found stating that the park was “built by the citizens of Manhattan Beach in 1964”. I remember thinking how great it was to build the park as I was helping to dig trenches for the sprinkler lines. I was only six at the time so I probably wasn’t affording much help, but it was exciting nonetheless.
When the park officially opened for business, I was seven years old and entering my prime “outside” playing years. In those days, parents could let their young children play outside unattended for long periods with no concern about being thrown in jail for doing so. There was a maze of sand trails and just a couple of railroad tie paths on the planted area of the dune. There were swings, slides, teeter-totters, jungle gym and a concrete turtle at the base of the park. But the sand dune was the highlight of the park (for us anyway).
Bell Avenue was still in use as a dirt road next to the park. There was no “tot lot” at that time so cars could parallel park on the dirt road.
I attended Ladera Elementary School. After school, my friends and I would walk home and stop at the park for a quick swing or a run up the sand hill, which at the time seemed monstrous. The park attendant was a nice woman who worked in the building where the bathrooms are now. She was in charge of keeping order in the park and checking out play equipment. We would stop for an hour or two to play caroms, kick ball or just run around on the dune and act like kids.
The sand dune was a four-season playground. At some point, we realized that after a good rain we could carve “ball tracks” in the wet sand of the dune. We would build 50-foot long tracks similar to a bobsled run with bank turns, jumps and tunnels. One of us would sit at the top of the track and one at the bottom. We would take turns rolling small balls down the tracks. If we had enough kids, we would make multiple tracks and have ball races. Sometimes we would play “last ball down wins” because that meant the slower track was more complex. We would experiment, modify and play until dark even though we were cold from the wet winter sand of the dune.
Ladera School on the south of the park had the younger kids’ classes on the lower levels and the fifth and sixth graders’ on the upper levels. The upper playground was known as the sixth grade playground and you did not go up there before your time. Finally earning access to the upper playground, I would exit my classroom after school, walk down the ramp to the playground, exit the playground on the north side and walk home through the park. It was such a great feeling to cross the boundary from the school to the park and be on a sand trail in a little bit of wilderness for 10 minutes or so until I reached the bottom of my street at the base of the park. A quick stop at the park to play for a bit was usually in order before heading home to argue about the necessity of doing homework with my mom.
As the park increased in popularity and foot traffic increased, the City was forced to control erosion on the planted area of the dune. Many of the sand trails were converted to railroad tie walking paths and fences were installed to keep people on the paths. A fence was installed from the bottom of the sand dune to the top between the dune and the planted area of the park. I am not sure how the local parents felt about the changes, but my friends and I felt like our wild park was changed forever and not for the better. Now our hide and seek and hill wide ball tag games were limited. Of course, we adapted and found ways to work with the new obstacles but at the time, the changes seemed terrible.
One day we realized the prevailing “on shore” wind at the top of the sand dune was perfect for flying kites. We would spend hours at the top of the hill flying kites, talking and gazing down on the neighborhood, searching for friends or landmarks. We would let our kites out so far the weight of the string would pull them down and they would fall far to the east. Interested to see how far our kites had flown we would jump on our bikes and track the string from treetop to treetop through the neighborhood. I remember following strings past Sepulveda Blvd. As our need to fly the kites higher beckoned we did away with the standard kite string spools and used fishing poles with high capacity reels and monofilament line. We would let the kites out so far we couldn’t see them and only knew they were still flying based on the angle of the line. One day we decided to leave a kite flying over night to see if it would be there the next day after school. The night we left a kite flying I could not sleep and the next day at school all I could think about was getting to the top of the hill to see if the kite was still there up in the air. After school, we ran to the top of the hill and the kite was still up. We felt like we learned something about the Jet Stream that day but it was probably just a very windy night. Whichever the case, the experiment was exciting. We tried and tried again but I can’t remember another successful overnight flight.
There used to be a perfect sand volleyball court at the base of the sand dune with City furnished permanent poles and court lines. When my friends and I approached 12 years old, we became interested in playing sand volleyball. We had a great group of kids and adults who would play volleyball in the evenings and on weekends. One of the parents started putting on tournaments and that became an annual thing for quite a few years. My friends and I played volleyball on that court until we were old enough to make the trek to the beach and play at Marine St.
The sand dune portion of the park was beautiful white beach sand — no rocks, just sand. You could run full speed down from the top and didn’t have to worry about anything but sand in your mouth and ears when you exceeded your maximum speed and cart wheeled out of control to a gruesome stop. We would walk up and run down as many times as our legs would allow. I’ll bet between my brother, sister and me we brought home hundreds of pounds of sand in our pockets that ended up in the family washing machine. I vaguely remember my mom asking me to empty my pockets of sand before I left the park but I didn’t have time for that.
We discovered another advantage of the clean sand. We found if we took a varnished piece of wood and rubbed paraffin wax on it we could slide down the hill like nobody’s business, so we did. In 1967 or so, sand boarding was on, big time. The sand had to be dry so summer time was best. We searched for old water and snow skis on trash day or would build sand boards and sand riding vehicles out of anything that would slide down the hill. My father had a well-equipped wood shop and I was allowed access to it if I cleaned up after myself, but that is another story. We made some wild stuff and learned a lot about friction, gravity and bruises. The Parks and Rec. Dept. began putting on annual sand boarding contests. My brother still has his trophy: He could go from the top to bottom on his wooden snow ski, no binding just bare feet on the carpeted ski. The really good boarders could go down the hill and across the volleyball court to the grass before stopping. I probably should not disclose this because my mom will find out and I’ll get in trouble, but once or twice, we loaded four people on a surfboard at the top of the hill, pushed off and let it fly. And I mean fly. We ended up bailing out at the bottom to avoid certain death as we approached Bell Ave. at about 40 mph.
Sometime in our teens, there was an unfortunate accident and the sand dune began to change. One of the local kids was digging in the hard dirt at the top of the sand dune. The tunnel he was digging collapsed on him trapping him under the dirt. The Fire Department was summoned and luckily, resuscitated him. Following that incident, whenever the hard dirt showed at the top of the hill the City removed sand from the bottom of the hill and dumped it at the top to cover the hazard. Unfortunately, the soil beneath the beach sand topping contained clay and rocks. The monthly movement of sand from the bottom to the top destroyed the clean sand quality of the dune. We realized, clean sand, fast sand boards. Dirty sand, slow sand boards. We were forced to move our sand boarding activities to small paths between the bushes next to the Armory fence since the relocation of the sand did not affect that area. But sand boarding as we knew it was gone.
I attended Aviation High School. I joined the Track and Cross Country teams since they didn’t have horse racing (I was small). Our coach was always searching for new ways to make us hurl. Somehow, coach caught wind that the sand dune was a great place to work out. My friend and I verified his discovery and the rest of the team never spoke to us again. We would load up in a few cars, drive to the dune to work out and the hurling began. I believe the Mira Costa teams did the same, perhaps less the hurling. I guess you could say we were the first teams to use the dune for training, other schools caught on and the rest is history.
My playing career slowly ended at Sand Dune Park. But the things I learned and the friends I made at the park are an important piece of my life. The park and dune were the perfect place to get away from the city for a while and just play.
Think about all the places you have been in this world. Have you seen another park like Sand Dune Park? Sure there are massive sand dunes in remote places and many other great city parks. The “sand dune” is a special place in the middle of busy town. The park and dune will never be the same as it has been, it can’t be. Perhaps if nothing else it can still be something great for children. B