Cupid’s Arrow at Crystal Cove

He was a kid from Pico Rivera and she was a girl from San Marino, but during the summers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, they both called Crystal Cove home. Her family’s cottage was in a quiet corner on the North Beach and his family’s tent was on the sand in the middle of the South Beach, but those differences, and most other differences from the “real world,” fell away from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend.

Mike was the handsome young lifeguard who first started camping at Crystal Cove as a boy in the 1940s. Carol was the pretty sister of one of his friends whose family leased a cottage in the 1950s. More than five decades later, Mike still remembers the day he first saw Carol in Cottage #30, and Carol still remembers how much fun Mike was and how safe he always made her feel.

From his perch on the lifeguard tower, sporting a fifties-style crew cut and aviator sunglasses, the highlight of Mike’s day was seeing Carol walk down the old North Beach boardwalk to say hello to him. “I was dying to see her,” he says. Carol didn’t think it was proper to stay at the lifeguard tower for more than a quick visit, but later, after Mike was off duty, they would find each other at one of the beach campfires, or pile into a jeep with friends for a run to the old Jolly Roger Restaurant on Balboa Island.

Their romance blossomed over three summers at Crystal Cove; there was always a fun way for them to be together at the beach.  Long moonlight beach walks ended with plans for the next morning. Carol’s family kept a boat just off-shore in the kelp bed, and she and Mike and their friends would swim out to the boat early in the morning to ski on the calm open ocean before the wind came up, and before Mike’s lifeguard shift. On Mondays, Mike’s one day off, they sometimes set out together on surfing safaris to nearby beaches.

Back then, Crystal Cove was a magical place for Mike and Carol where the enchantment did not end at the stroke of midnight, but instead on the last day of summer when they returned to the cares of life away from the Cove. As their romance grew more serious, they tried to stay in contact during the rest of the year, but away from Crystal Cove, it was hard to bridge the distance between their different lives.

They wished the summer days, sunsets, and volleyball games at the Cove could last forever, but every September the cabana-style tents came down, and the grand beach party was over. Carol remembers feeling sad as each summer drew to a close, and Mike says that no one could bear to say “goodbye,” but would instead say, “see you next summer!”

At the end of their last summer, though, Mike and Carol finally did say goodbye to each other and to Crystal Cove. They were growing up and times were changing. Carol’s family sold their lease to their cottage, and tent camping on the beach was no longer allowed. Mike and Carol went separate ways, eventually losing touch. Carol became a nurse, and Mike became a local city manager, inspired in part by living at the beach with people from so many different walks of life.

Years later, the once private cove where Mike and Carol fell in love as teenagers was listed on the Register of Historic Places and became a California State Park. The news created interest in a reunion of Crystal Cove tent campers and cottage dwellers. Twenty years after they last saw each other, with no word of each other in all that time, Mike and Carol saw each other again.

Unable to find a quiet moment at the reunion, they planned to meet again at a beach campfire like those they’d gathered around as teenagers. A ranger, seeing Mike’s bundle of firewood, reminded him that a few things had changed at Crystal Cove, but even without a bonfire, their happiness of being together was renewed.

Mike promised Carol he wasn’t going to lose her again, and within a year, he proposed. On a beach bike ride Carol called out “yes, I will marry you!” and a few months later, in a little church not far from Crystal Cove, she did.

Now happily married for 35 years, Mike and Carol see their carefree summers as part of the living history and golden age of California’s beach culture. They live year-round by the ocean now in Laguna Beach, close enough to Crystal Cove for them to volunteer at the place that’s meant so much to them. Mike shares stories from the bygone tent camping era on the Historic District Tour and is a docent in the Visitors Center. Carol helps coordinate the huge job of decorating the Cove for the holidays.

If asked about their long-ago summers at the Cove’s beach colony, Mike and Carol smile and use words like “lucky” and “grateful.” Their shared memories of their youthful days at Crystal Cove are precious to them and helped turn their once-upon-a-time summer romance into a lifetime of love.

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