It was the final Cruise Night of the season in Santa Paula, held on the first Friday of each month from April through September. The event begins at 5 p.m. when three blocks of Main Street are closed-off west of the Ojai-Santa Paula Road. Exhibitors begin parking their cars nose-in along both sides of the street well before show-time and turn them around immediately the road is barricaded.

Will Reed and I arrived fashionably late, a little after six p.m. Upon our approach to Main Street, barriers were swiftly removed at the eastern end of the closed section of street and we were ushered into the vehicle display area. One slot was left at the far south east end of the street and Will maneuvered his celadon green, 1968 Jaguar XK-E 2+2 Coupe into place. This beautiful sports car, a recherché symbol of a long ago, dare I say swinging ? England thus took its place among the American muscle cars, classic vehicles, low-riders and antique trucks that make up Cruise Night.

When we had collected our respective wives who had, perforce, parked two blocks away in their decidedly non-classic 2006 vehicle, we four sauntered along the ranks of cars almost all of which were built in the post-WWII era - in a nation that had, as its people understood history, saved the West from the evils of Germany’s National Socialism. Emerging almost entirely untouched by the ravages of war, the U.S. then proceeded to build the mightiest civilian industrial infrastructure the world had ever seen from the core of their military-industrial complex. This became the backbone of a society characterized by the easy availability of a cornucopia of consumer goods and which exhibited a hubris that still, it seemed, shone in the be-chromed vehicles before us.

These consumer goods, the car preeminent among them, were the envy of the rest of the world. The USSR, which lost 20 million men, women and children in defeating Nazi Germany, had no conception of the private car for personal or family use. Britain’s indebtedness to the United States, incurred while it pursued its lonely war against the Nazis between 1939 and 1942, crippled the country and enabled the U.S. to take command of the global capitalist system at Bretton Woods in 1944. For many years after WWII, most Brits were more accustomed to the sweaty confines of bus and train than to the interior of an automobile.

Walking through the promenading crowd of Santa Paula residents, some of whom had poured money, sweat and technical expertise into the restoration of the cars on display, and many more of whom were viscerally connected to this car-culture rooted in an era of American triumphalism, I felt excluded from the general bonhomie that prevailed. As a middle-class culture worker from Upper Ojai, not born in North America, I was at a distance from the white and Latino, predominantly working class folk enjoying the automotive display and the attendant music and food.

Living close to the tipping point where the watershed is gravitationally divided between east (towards the Santa Clara River) and west (towards the Ventura River), we also sit atop a class divide between the equidistant Santa Paula and Ojai. Torn by these territorial and class allegiances, the serendipitous display of the XK-E that evening, amidst the best of American iron, was, I realized, a statement loaded with ironic absurdity – the only reasonable response to lives spent in the limbo of false consciousness.

Retreating from the angst of alienation and oppression which perhaps I alone perceived on Santa Paula’s Main Street, we decide to eat at Familia Diaz, an historic Mexican restaurant at the corner of Harvard and the Santa Paula - Ojai Road. Settling into the red leatherette booth, Will told me that the restaurant had begun as a soup-kitchen serving the survivors of the St. Francis dam disaster.

Early in 1928, Santa Paula was engulfed by a wall of water - a fresh water tsunami. Although the word is usually associated with oceanic tidal waves generated by seismic activity, 'tsunami' can also refer to any large displacement of water resulting in a ‘wave train’. On this occasion, the two hundred foot wall of the dam, located at a pinch in San Francisquito canyon, ten miles north of Santa Clarita, failed disastrously and unleashed 12.4 billion gallons of water.

Built on a fault-ridden geological substrate and inadequately engineered, the St. Francis disaster effectively ended the career of William Mulholland, who had overseen this vast enterprise –designed to store a year’s worth of L.A.’s water safely away from its source, the Owens Valley, where ranchers had become increasingly militant in their efforts to defend their livelihood, culminating in the bombing of the L.A. aqueduct in 1924.

In Water and Power, U.C. Press, 1982, William L. Kahrl notes that “by the time the Owens Valley ranchers blew up the No-Name canyon siphon in 1927, the reservoir was nearly full and withdrawals to replace the lost flows from the aqueduct began immediately”. By early March 1928, the reservoir was again full, and on March 12, Mulholland personally inspected the structure and pronounced it safe. That night, at midnight, the dam collapsed and a one hundred and fifty foot tsunami wave swept down the Santa Clara Valley obliterating Castaic Junction, Bardsdale and Fillmore, before devastating Santa Paula and then emptying its victims and huge chunks of concrete into the Pacific just south of Ventura Harbor at 5:30 a.m.

Now, as you exit the 126, you are funneled onto the 150 and the Familia Diaz restaurant is on the right as you head for Ojai. While it is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the town, and is on Ventura’s list of Historical Landmarks, it did not open until 1935, seven years after the dam burst. The connection made to the disaster in the restaurant’s literature is thus a tad specious,

“In 1928, José and Josepha Diaz family barely escaped the Saint Francis Dam break flood that destroyed much of the Santa Paula Valley. In 1929 a bakery was built at the corner of 10th Street and Telegraph Road (now Harvard Boulevard) but it lasted only a few years because of the depression. Josepha opened a café in 1935 with farm workers and their families as her main customers. In 1936 the Diaz family bought the abandoned bakery and an adjacent house and lived in a room in the bakery and José operated a cantina in another room.”

The fact is, as shocking as was the loss of life (the official death-toll exceeded 450), almost everyone extant at that time in Santa Paula ‘escaped’. Most of the victims did indeed die in the ‘Santa Paula Valley’ – more usually referred to as the Santa Clara Valley - not the town itself; but I do not know where José and Josepha were that night. Will, apparently, had unconsciously attempted to add narrative muscle to the restaurant's claim to fame.

In my mind, however specious the reference, Familia Diaz still connects me to that dark and tsunami-struck night 85 years ago. Passing through town, past the Union Oil Company building on the corner of Main street and the battling western-wear stores on either side, (Muwu), past the Limoneira building (now the Santa Paula Art Museum), there looms on the right, just before the train tracks, a life-size bronze casting of two motorcyclists and their bikes.

 These erstwhile, gallant knights of the road  (local police officers) were responsible for warning residents in the town to move to higher ground before the tsunami reached their homes and they were, perhaps, the saviors of José and Josepha.The sculpture, appropriately titled ‘The Warning’, by local artist Eric Richards, was erected to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the disaster – which represents the second biggest loss of life In California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and fire (Another Day).