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An autobiography

 
 

Harry W. Crosby
I was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1926, but my parents moved to La Jolla in 1935 and I entered La Jolla Elementary that fall as a fourth-grader in the class of Mrs. Catherine Brown. I graduated to La Jolla Junior-Senior High School in 1938, spent the usual six years there, and graduated in June 1944 when there was—as it turned out—a little more than a year left in World War II. I enlisted in the U. S. Navy while still in high school and the Navy sent me to Occidental College in Los Angeles as a pre-medical student in the V-12 (a Navy officer-candidate program). For five semesters (with no time out between) I was exposed to a curriculum long on math and science. When the war ended and the Navy program was terminated, I stayed on at Occidental and completed a double major, pre-med, and psychology.

By mid-1947, I knew that I did not have a medical calling. That summer, I was accepted to U.S.C. med school—got the news while working at a salmon cannery in Alaska. I did little soul searching before declining the offer. It wasn't the course work so much—I was pretty good at that sort of thing, but somehow I just couldn't imagine such long preparation followed by life among sick folk. After rattling around inconclusively for a year or two, I married my college sweetheart and drifted into schoolteaching because it was there and I had the credentials—in science. Thus began my twelve years as a teacher of secondary-level science, mostly chemistry — a real challenge in which I enjoyed the experience of trying to connect me and my subject with students (and I’ve enjoyed seeing and hearing from some of them ever since). But twelve years was enough. I knew that it had been worthwhile work, but not really the work of my choice. Meanwhile I had cultivated photography and done a lot of dilettante stuff with it in México, so I decided to be a photographer—just like that! In an embarrassingly short time, I was making more than I ever had as a teacher. (One of my early photo assignments came from a magazine that hired me to photograph Tijuana for a special issue entirely devoted to that topic. I spent two weeks below the border and took about 750 pictures. My ex-student, Paul Ganster, in the fall of 2000 helped to create a show in Tijuana of 100 of those photos, and he then ram-rodded the publication by San Diego State University Press of TIJUANA 1964, a handsome coffee table book featuring 43 of those pictures. (Paul is the founder/director of the Institute for Regional Studies, SDSU’s border studies program.)

In 1967, I was hired as a photographer to illustrate The Call to California, a book desired by the Commission of the Californias to commemorate California's bicentennial. I was given the task of following the route of the Portolá/Serra expedition of 1769 to make photos to illustrate a text derived from diaries of the trekkers. I rode 600 miles in Baja California —on muleback and on trails far from the then-wheeltrack road. Some of what I encountered resonated with earlier teaching experiences. My first job was at a southeast San Diego junior high where I became aware that Mexican-American students, even those whose families had been here for close to 200 years, had little sense of their people's role in California history. I also found that the school system was doing very little to remedy that. Now, in Baja California, I met dozens of isolated ranch families and became interested in their origin. My later studies [for Last of the Californios, Copley Books, 1981] proved them to be descended primarily from 18th century soldiers and mission servants and to be members of families that long ago provided colonists for Alta California. Along the way, I also encountered much physical evidence of the Spanish past. As I wrote up these experiences and the research that resulted in The King’s Highway in Baja California, I was frustrated by what seemed to be inadequate secondary sources. I began to collect the bits and pieces of published historical research to aid in drawing together a better picture of early Spanish times. Avocation turned to monomania. I ran out of published sources and turned to document research. That finally opened the door and I went in, going to the Bancroft Library at Berkeley and archives in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, D. F., and Spain. And then to Culiacán, Guadalajara, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Pasadena, etc., and back to most of the foregoing one or more times. And, bit by bit, I spent three years on the ground going over the peninsula's historic sites.

In 1986, I began to work on a scholarly study of an early California soldier but, after three years, I found myself in a quandary. Xavier Aguilar [1743-1821] was reared in peninsular California in a socio-economic environment that no present-day audience would know. A well-informed reader's background in Alta California affairs would not provide him a clue to California’s preceding Jesuit years. Existing secondary sources were and are relatively superficial or limited in scope. Studies of California before 1769—before the coming of Governor Gaspar de Portolá and Fray Junípero Serra—are few. The good works address limited topics; most simply introduce, translate, and edit 18th c. documents. Those of a more general nature suffer either from age and limited sources or from the parochial, religious-order points of view of their authors. The extent of the resulting vacuum is difficult to exaggerate. Antigua California began as my attempt to write the first unit of Aguilar's life, to introduce him as a product of the only world he had known. Eventually, I got frustrated as I realized that almost everything—social, political, economic, technical, even religious—cried out to be explained. My introduction grew to unworkable dimensions.

By that time I had reviewed the printed works, the documents, and their sources. I saw the opportunity to do a more basic and, perhaps, more valuable study than that which I had begun. The idea for Antigua California was born. I set out to create a rounded picture of the times, to use and cite the diverse and often obscure sources that I was uncovering. I looked for quotations that caught bits of the flavor of the times and the personality of some of the people. To balance out the predominantly religious bias of most previous writings, I gathered data on the adventures and affairs of ordinary Hispanic folk. And to the extent that documentation—and my limitations—permitted, I collected and interpreted material for a fact-based picture of the lives of the peninsula's mission Indians. In 1994, Antigua California was published to my entire satisfaction by University of New Mexico Press (Reprinted in 2000).

In October 2001 my first work of fiction appeared, Portrait of Paloma, a romantic novel the inspiration for which came to me quite literally because of and during a harrowing night of severe dehydration resulting from carelessness with my water supply during an exhausting day of desert fieldwork. I cannot recommend carelessness or dehydration, but for me the results have been a revelation and a redirection. Paloma liberated me from the declarative sentence and the reportorial voice. Bringing her story to life brought me to a personal medium in which for the first time in a long life, I could express my point of view, my opinions, my emotions. I hope Portrait of Paloma will reach many of those who knew me as I was – and, of course, that it will find favor with a broader audience looking for an intriguing story about worthwhile people.

For my subsequent historical writing see the most recent work page.