ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE; SAN DIEGO AS SUNNY AS EVER

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No city is perfect. San Diego comes pretty close.

The early morning United flight out of Newark got me to small but convenient Lindbergh Field right on time and during the seven buck cab ride into town (that's how close the airport is) my driver, Mohammad Hamedi, welcomed me with a blase "Just another day in paradise."

The last substantial scatter of buildings you pass on arriving at Newark Airport is Northern State Prison. The first thing you see on landing at San Diego are the red-roofed buildings and palm trees of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, with burr-headed boots running about the parade ground and chanting in the sun.

It was 71 degrees and sunny at midday (it would hit 110 in Phoenix and 115 in Palm Springs that same afternoon) and I was happy. My 14th floor room at the Marriott Marina gave me a view of Coronado Island, the harbor, San Diego Bay, one U.S. Navy destroyer underway, and mountains way off there in the distance. The editor of the very good local paper, Copley's Union-Tribune, Karin Winner, said up in the eastern Sierra Madre there was still too much snow for backpackers and fishermen above the 9,000-foot level. But that lake ice was finally breaking up. This was July 10.

The sports pages of the Los Angeles Times reported Gary Sheffield might be testing owner Rupert Murdoch's patience. Gary had refused to represent the Dodgers at the All Star Game festivities unless they flew his family in from Tampa Bay. You may recall Gary got a $5 million bonus for agreeing to join the Dodgers. Don't push it, Gary.

I went for a walk along the waterfront. Some big, dead seabirds were fouled on the breakwater rocks. El Nino or just unlucky birds? In the Union-Trib Steve LaRue quoted experts from the local Scripps Institution of Oceanography that kelp beds had been diminished, fish catches were down the plankton-eating sea bird they call the sooty shearwater was off 90% in numbers.

I stopped off in a joint and had a cold beer while I pondered.

That evening, along a little park, the Embarcadero, which is what they call that part of the Bay's waterfront, half the town seemed to be strolling. Lots of little kids, Mexicans, just plain tourists, lots of pretty girls. Plus, a sketch artist of no discernible talent doing a charcoal portrait of a shaved-headed boy (Marine? sailor?) and his girl as they sat stiffly on folding chairs, a man twisting balloons into animals, a young man balancing stones on their ends, picnickers on the lawns, horse-drawn surreys a la Charleston, S.C., a man weaving palm, all variety of buskers and "Dusty Trails."

Mr. Trails, to whom I introduced myself next day, is a big old actor about as authentic though not as rich as Duke Wayne, who gets himself up in an oldtime western sheriff's outfit complete with gun belt and star and Stetson, and stands there posing, statue-like, while the gullible drop coins into his leather purse. Occasionally, when a child impudently gets too close, Dusty Trails goes swiftly for his gun, startling everyone and scaring the kid into a degree of civility at a respectful distance.

I had a steak and some merlot at a place called Harbor House at a table looking out at the Bay. Just as I fell asleep a railroad train called The Coaster rolled by my hotel, whistling in the night, headed north toward Oceanside. It sounded nice.

The next day I did an interview for Parade magazine on a yacht and lathered on the old sunblock and had fun and that night dined with friends in what they call the Gaslamp Quarter on the sidewalk outside a pretty good Italian restaurant. The last time I'd been to San Diego was two years ago during the Republican Convention and it seemed not quite as hectic but nearly as crowded. One reason? A convention of Meeting Professionals International. These are the pros who plan corporate meetings and they would be here three days and very welcome, I assure you. As the local Convention & Visitors Bureau man said, "You don't get many chances to showcase San Diego like this."

TV gave over some time to the "first brushfires of the season" and they didn't look like much. And there was a mild earthquake over there by the Salton Sea that you fly over getting to San Diego. And the Padres were actually winning ballgames and leading their division. While local high school stars that night would play the first football game of the year.

Sunday morning there was fog but the hills behind the city poked through it in the sun and it wasn't hot but you didn't need a coat either and even right there on the Pacific there was no humidity. I wished I had more time. Visit the zoo, drive up to Mission Bay, maybe take the little red train that runs through the city and go down to Tijuana. Or even get up to Camp Pendleton and stare at Marines for awhile.

When I came home from the wars 46 years ago this week, happy to be young and alive, it was at San Diego that we landed, with fireboats in the Bay squirting water, and a high school band playing on the dock, and a squad of cheerleaders with pompons. I have rarely known a day quite that wonderful. And whenever I get the chance to see San Diego again, to stroll its waterfront and remember, I do so.

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