The Mount Lowe reunion
Not-so-fond childhood memories of Altadena’s long-closed military academy
By Lionel Rolfe 06/23/2011
Some time ago I wrote an article in which I mentioned that my parents sent me to a military school in Altadena. I was perhaps 13 and the year was probably 1955. This fellow wrote me recently and asked if I was talking about Mount Lowe Military Academy. He introduced himself as Chris Andrada, president of the school’s alumni association. Would I like to come to a reunion?
We corresponded for a couple of years while I contemplated the idea. I told him that the truth was I did not have a lot of fond memories of Mount Lowe. Quite the contrary, my memories of the place were distinctively negative.
Then on Saturday I went to a reunion. Mount 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 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 the academy so grimly stood. Chris had finally prevailed.
The place was jammed with people. The Mount 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 — playing games, riding horses and eating food. There was even a booth dedicated to the famed LA County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team.
It was a stark contrast to my memories of the academy, which in my mind was a dark and almost sinister place.
When you looked north, the mountain that gave the academy its moniker still towered above everything. On this particular day, it looked 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 Mount 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 darker times the mountain belching and lava that would decimate us.
The military academy 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 the academy, 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 en 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 made me claustrophobic. But when he invited me to be one of the handful of cadets allowed to hang around with 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 built atop a Crosley chassis. It turned out that Dargin’s elite cadets were drawn from the ranks of children who had rich and or famous parents. I qualified because I came of an iconic name in classical music.
The academy 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 been 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 there for a typical reason. I had gotten into trouble hanging out with young gangsters. We had stolen my dad’s prized coin collection. When we were caught, everyone confessed. I was then sent off to Mount Lowe.
This all occurred while I was falling in love for the first time. She and I spent all our time together and there was puppy love involved. But the romance suffered after 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 that I never did 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, who was the grand old age of 16. I’ve forgotten his name, but he was the supreme authority of the place, before and after the lights went out. I remember that he had an unsettling kind of smooth, roly poly 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 pushed around after the lights went out. You could hear it, but I was never clear what was really going on. I didn’t want to know. My inner life was entirely consumed by my girlfriend. Then, one day, we were all called to the parade field, and with a full dress ceremony, the captain was broken in rank, dishonored and stripped of a chest full 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 her.
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 number — perhaps 30 percent — became career military personnel. One fellow said he went to Mount Lowe for nearly a decade, by choice. He liked it a lot. Then he embarked on 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 Mount Lowe, which was not one of those fancier military schools, like Black Foxe or Urban Military Academy in Brentwood. Yet, somehow most of us survived. A number of us have died, but apparently we are 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 Mount Lowe. I mean, look at the Catholic Church.”
Despite my sensitive soul being broken at Mount Lowe, I got some good out of it. I learned that I was actually pretty good at the shooting range with a .22 caliber rifle, and I ate real American food like I never had at home — and loved it, my favorite 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.