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Ernest Wilson—If You Want To Enough

CHAPTER XII — Coming Home

Home! John had made great plans for a welcome-home dinner to celebrate my return from the three-month sojourn at Denishawn. Mabel Shawn had planned an early brunch with Miss Ruth, Ted, and members of the resident staff, following which I’d piled my luggage and mementos of the visit in the back of my Model T Ford, and I would start on the trip down the narrow two-lane highway for San Diego.

To John my coming home meant returning to my quarters in the Alabama Street church, which had so many cherished associations for us both. It was still dear to me; but I found that coming home meant going to a little cottage by the sea at La Jolla. How I ever came to have such a little retreat has always seemed to me a kind of mini-miracle, and though I have attained to several much grander ones, it has been with the effort to recapture the serenity and peace established there.

I always seem to feel most creative, most at home near water; a lake, a river, the ocean. So when one summer’s day I visited the seashore down the coast a ways from the Wind-and-Sea cottages, and discovered a sandy slope that could be had for $600, I felt I must try to buy it. My total financial resources weren’t much over three hundred dollars. And here two women who were to have a place in my future enter the picture. One of them was Ann Whitcomb Fairfield. She had come to San Diego following the transition of her husband back East seeking refuge from her grief in the balmy climate of the Southland. She had spent some time at Unity on Tracy in Kansas City in the early 20’s and had worked with Sarah Quigley on an early version of the Bible Dictionary which later took form under the editorship of Paul Rigby, a come-outer of the F.L. Rawson movement. She had become ardently interested in our work. “It’s just like Unity,” she said. John and I were to be her guests at dinner a day or two after I had discovered the seaside lot. I found that she contemplated building a home by the ocean. I took her to see the lot I hoped to buy, with the result that I offered to sell her the lower half of “my” lot for $300, reserving the higher part of the slope for the little house I hoped to build. John did not share my love of the sea, but he catered to my interest, and when he told our longtime Minneapolis friend, Anna Berg, about my project, she loaned me a thousand dollars. I don’t think she ever planned to collect on that loan, but I have always been grateful that I was able to repay it.

It is surprising to think what could be done with that sum in 1922. It required some figuring. I drew up the plans, for a twelve by fifteen foot livingroom, with windows across the twelve feet facing the sea, a window seat that provided storage space; a fireplace on the longer north wall, with book shelves to either side; a small bedroom and kitchen; garage under the livingroom, taking advantage of the slope. Redwood paneled wall, two-by-fours exposed, outside walls and roof shingled, and unstained to weather with the elements. Septic tank, water piped from the street along the property line; an ingenious little gas water heater on the bathroom wall that heated a thin stream of water, slow but effective.

All this was going through my mind as I set out on the trip down the Camino Real, the King’s Highway. It was a five-hour trip on a two-lane road back in 1922, and turned out to be an unusual one.

I hadn’t gone very far before I noticed that the engine was overheating, the radiator steaming. The fan belt was broken, and almost an hour was consumed in getting a replacement. Soon I was following the shore line southward. It was a warm day. I had thrown my jacket over the back seat of the car. The wind whipped my coat open. I felt some papers brush my cheek, and I saw them sail blithely out over a wide expanse of soggy marsh—including two checks I had expected to bank when I got home. Then a third incident of far greater moment took place. But let me quote from the letter I wrote to Ted’s stepmother, Mabel Shawn, the next day:

“I made the Torrey Pines grade nicely, and was hustling along between it and LaJolla. I was about a mile past the Pines grade and still several miles from the winding Biological grade, which was yet to be descended before getting to the Jewel City (LaJolla) when I heard a peculiar grating sound near the right front wheel of the car, and stopped to see what was wrong. Would you believe it, the hub cap of the wheel and some of the ball bearings were gone! I had been coming heaven only knows how far—up the Torrey Pines grade at any rate—with nothing to hold the wheel in place! It was after five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon; there was a grade to go down either way before reaching a garage; and of course traveling even on a level road under such conditions is not particularly desirable.

“I first thought of hailing a car and sending word to some garage man to come out and tow me into LaJolla; but the cars that I tried to hail whizzed merrily by. So I decided that the Lord must have been taking care of me for a good many miles, since the wheel had not come off (the tire had wobbled so much that the rubber was worn down to the fabric in spots), and that if He wanted me to write some more books, I should not topple off the Biological grade with Henry (pet name for the car). Besides, it was then so late that any further delay would make me late for dinner—and what is an honorary dinner without the guest of honor?

Making the Grade

“So I pushed the wheel on as far as it would go, climbed back into Henry (gingerly), said a prayer, and drove the remaining miles to the Biological grade, then down the steep, winding road, with the wobbly wheel grinding and shaking away within a few inches of the shortest distance between me and sea level. Of course I made it all right, and drove into LaJolla.

As If By Appointment

“As I passed the Thrifts’ place (church members) the Lord was surely right alongside, for there in her chummy roadster sat Mrs. Thrift, just back from town and preparing to put the car away. Fortunately for me she had stopped at the curb instead of driving into the garage. I should not have expected the Thrifts to be at home if I had not seen her. They should have been in San Diego to help welcome me home. I “hove to” and told her what had happened, and we hustled Henry to a garage. Then she, her husband, and I crowded into their roadster and whizzed into town—fifteen miles—in twenty-four minutes, with still enough time for me to wash off a bit of grime before going down to the dining hall as if nothing unusual had happened.

“The garage man said it was little short of a miracle that I had made the grade or had even gotten as far as the grade with the wheel in that condition. He said that I had had one chance in a thousand; but I didn’t tell him about my arrangement with the Lord, so I suppose he is still mystified—if he remembers the incident.

“This morning the family took me out to La Jolla again to get Henry, who is as good as new. We had luncheon on the Thrifts’ porch, overlooking the ocean, where Mr. Thrift looked solemn, and Mrs. Thrift admonished me never again to try such a stunt, even with the Lord’s help. I don’t expect such an emergency to present itself again, but the experience has given me a renewed confidence that some Power intangible to physical sense has something more important and less spectacular for me to do than to topple off the Biological grade into the Pacific.”

© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.