Schaniel recalls China Lake in the 1960s

Former resident reflects on childhood as museum prepares to celebrate historic accomplishments

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Schaniel recalls China Lake in the 1960sThe Cuban Missile Crisis. President John F. Kennedy. Vietnam War. Moon landing. As the China Lake Museum Foundation prepares to celebrate local contributions to some of the historic events that defined the 1960s, one former resident recalls his childhood during that era in the unique community that arose out of The Great Experiment.

That experiment began in the throes of World War II, when military and civilian scientists joined forces in an effort to overcome global adversaries. Naval Ordnance Test Station was established in November 1943, and this year — now operating as the Naval Air Weapons Station — turns 76 years old.

Early China Lakers fondly reflect on the first few decades that followed as the Golden Age of advancements in defense and technology.

For many growing up in that environment, China Lake was a close-knit community that shared a common mission, vibrant social scene and access to world-class education and culture.

“I think I arrived during the heyday,” said Bill Schaniel, who moved here with his family in the early 1960s.

Bill’s father, Carl, was living and working in San Diego during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “As a kid, even if you didn’t know what was going on, you knew it was serious. We all knew the drills and practiced them at school.”

Bill said he didn’t know what it was like for other families, but as the son of a scientist who worked around the clock, “I have never seen another situation with even close to that level of worry. Everyone was on high alert. My dad was gone for six days at the height of it.”

At home Bill’s mother had a plan in place to evacuate the children. “I remember one time she was packing up so that we could be ready to go into the San Diego hills.”

Once the immediate threat had passed, life returned to normal. But shortly thereafter the family moved to China Lake, where Carl would spend the bulk of his career. (His monumental contributions to the local Navy base and to national defense earned him the distinction of having the new energetics lab named for him, but that’s a story for another day.)

Bill recalled that his mother, Willa, had trouble at first adapting to the isolated, desert community. But like many spouses of that era, she soon came to be an active participant in creating whatever culture those residents were missing.

“When we were growing up in San Diego, we never thought of our mother as much of a cook.” But after the family moved to China Lake, she began developing her culinary artistry. “The younger kids in our family only know her as a gourmet chef.”

In addition to honing her skills as a hostess and entertainer, Willa helped Carl found one of the early square dance clubs. That was just part of the culture, said Bill. Everyone who had a hobby or passion made sure that they fostered a local group for it.

“It was really an extraordinary place to grow up. There was always something going on, and everyone went to everything,” said Bill. From parties to concerts to plays to backyard gatherings, “It was just a unique environment where everyone worked together, played together, went to school together.”

The Station Theater hosted concerts from some of the most famous artists of the time. “I remember when we went to see Steppenwolf, we walked over from the house. Where else in Southern California could you have that kind of opportunity without contending with traffic and parking and everything else?”

The community also got a rare treat in 1963 with the visit from President John F. Kennedy.

“We were lined up along the boulevard with everyone else, watching him wave from his vehicle,” said Bill. “I remember one of our neighbors, who was a pilot, got to shake his hand. He talked about it for years like it was the greatest thing ever to happen to him!”

Bill was a cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon.

But he distinctly remembered the 200-plus cadets crowding around a single television (technically against the academy rules) to witness the historic moment.

“It was just a shared point of absolute pride. Everyone understood what it meant; everyone was excited about it,” said Bill.

“In a similar way, the Kennedy assassination was a shared sadness. It seemed like those experiences, good and bad, drew people together.”

Bill noted that contrary to modern perceptions, “these people who worked for the government really were the best, the brightest, the most committed.

“There was something different at China Lake in the way they brought people together to find creative ways to solve our problems.”

That spilled over into the education of children growing up here, he said.

“I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but this was a great place to attend public school,” said Bill.

Back then, students could manage their schedules so that they had very light course loads their senior years.

“What I did, and what a lot of other students did, was take an internship on base senior year,” he said. “This wasn’t the kind of internship where you filed and poured coffee, we really had an opportunity to learn about whatever we wanted to.”

The value of those mentorships and the high-quality instruction in the schools, became apparent to Bill after his graduation in 1970, when he attended Ganzaga University in Washington State.

“When I got to college I wasn’t just prepared — I was bored!”

When the 1960s ended, so did Bill’s time in the valley. He went on to study, travel and teach in his field of economic anthropology.

But after five decades of living in communities and continents across the globe, “I have never experienced a place like China Lake. I don’t know if anything like it even exists.”

For more about the China Lake Museum Foundation celebration, see related article, this page.

Pictured: A weathered photo shows Bill Schaniel, circa 1960s.

Story First Published: 2019-11-08