At the Placerville Fitquest class, Dr. Herb Blossom can be seen exercising along with about 30 other seniors, most much younger than him.
He blends right in, yet he will be celebrating his 90th birthday on April 30. This Army/Air Force World War II and Korea veteran seems to be going strong.
Blossom plans to keep on attending Fitquest, where he has exercised for over five years. He followed instructors Joan and Stan Geel from their class at Federated Church to their new location at Foothill Taekwondo at 1319 Broadway.
“Fitquest is wonderful,” Blossom said. “Between the exercising and being married to Sharon, I’m feeling great.”
He and Sharon McDavid, who retained her previous name, married on May 5, 2005 in Hawaii after a long courtship. When he and McDavid met, Blossom recalls that the old steam train was still chugging its way to Placerville.
One Fitquest classmate, Marie Villalobos, said that they’ll probably take Blossom to MacDonalds to celebrate his birthday, where he may be treated to a Sausage McMuffin. But it is evident that Blossom only eats them in moderation.
Blossom also doesn’t usually use his doctorate title.
“Most people equate ‘doctor’ with medicine, but my doctorate is in geography,” Blossom clarified. “I was the geography professor at Sacramento City College for several years, then I became the associate dean of the evening college from which I retired. I was there for 40 years. I enjoyed the academic atmosphere.”
The water of life
Most fitness gurus recommend drinking plenty of water. Blossom concurs, but water of another nature has been a big part of his life. The thesis that earned him PhD was entitled “The Agricultural Development of the Coachella Valley.” He delved into the Colorado River, the river of life for the southwestern states, and the reason for Coachella Valley’s abundance.
“San Diego also gets most of its water from the Colorado River through the All American Canal … but the water quality doesn’t match ours up here. It has a high sodium content, and the water there tastes much different,” he said.
“In fact, the Salton Sea was created by run-off from the Colorado River. It had flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, until North American engineers diverted it which had devastating effects on Mexico’s agriculture and economy. Water consumption and rights to the river have been a big issue in the border states. But for three years, the locks failed, and the Salton Sea filled up and expanded as a result of that error,” Blossom noted.
“The run off from irrigation keeps the Salton Sea alive. Otherwise it would have evaporated by now. And you can still catch Corvina (fish) that are planted in the Salton Sea,” he said.
The Salton Sea, which has parts in both Imperial County and Riverside County is below sea level. It’s quite a marvel to see in the midst of the extreme starkness of the desert. The Salton Sea’s salinity and buoyancy surpasses the Pacific Ocean’s and is exceeded only by the Great Salt Lake in the Western Hemisphere.
Blossom Valley wilts
Some 20 miles east of San Diego heading out Highway 8, there is a place called Blossom Valley, which is named after Blossom’s father.
“I got my start in life on a 98-acre ranch,” Blossom said.
There, Herb and his brother helped their father clear the profuse chaparral and to plant peach trees.
But dreams of peach production wilted as the peaches died in the arid sunshine.
There just wasn’t enough water. All of the water had already been pumped out of the ground, and the Colorado River was no longer replenishing irrigation. Apparently it was filling the Salton Sea.
This was during the Depression, Blossom recalled.
The Blossom family moved back to La Mesa, where Blossom had been born in his mother’s bedroom in 1919.
“In those days, La Mesa was a one street town with a blacksmith shop, two drugstores and a movie theater,” Blossom said. “We were fortunate, though. When the peaches failed, my father got a job with San Diego Gas and Electric. We weren’t wealthy … I wore hand-me-downs and such, but we had a good life and survived the depression.”
Still watched over by its beautiful Mt. Helix landmark, La Mesa is now a bursting suburb, neighboring San Diego State University and boasting of the esteemed Grossmont Hospital.
Intersected by Highway 8, traffic clogs in La Mesa each day as commuters head for Santee, El Cajon, Lakeside … and Blossom Valley.
“Last time I saw Blossom Valley, there were baseball diamonds and such. But there were still some old olive trees,” said Blossom, who seldom returned to San Diego after moving to Northern California to attend the University of California, Berkeley and to serve at Murock, now called Edwards Air Force Base.
A previous rural cowboy town, Lakeside housing developments now occupy much of Blossom Valley. But the Blossom legacy still exists on road signs and maps.
Rolling on the river
At 90, life is overflowing with memories. But one of the highlights of Blossom’s life was a 10 day trip on a float down the Colorado River.
“That was one of the best adventures of my life. That adrenalin rush you get when you go over Lava Falls is really incredible,” said Blossom.
About 25 people took the rafting trip through several states, camped on the shore, navigated rapids and saw some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable.
Memories of the rafting trip also spurred recollections of Blossom’s Boy Scout of America days.
As a child, the Boy Scouts opened his eyes to nature and the world, and as an adult leader, he had many more enriching experiences. The outdoors, skiing, hiking and camping have always been among Blossom’s favorite activities. He developed an appreciation for the Sierra Nevada and is delighted to live in the foothills.
He remembers climbing Mt. Whitney when he was 12, quite an exciting feat. He feels that Boy Scouts is a wonderful way to reinforce values and to inspire young men to be responsible, conscientious and to appreciate the environment and the value of hard work.
Chaparral vs. manzanita
A few years after moving to Placerville, Blossom bought two acres near the Boeger Winery, which was “mostly manzanita.”
He sort of relived his childhood, clearing manzanita rather than chaparral. But he and McDavid have tamed the land and cultivated beautiful gardens. Both he and McDavid are avid gardeners.
Sharon designed their beautiful home, which was built to her specifications. It shows an unerring eye for grace and comfort, and McDavid’s degree in interior design appears well-deserved.
“She knew what she wanted, and she definitely has a flair,” Blossom concurred modestly.
McDavid also has a degree in communications, which has served her well in her career as well as her community involvement. She is past president of the Placerville Fellowship and Newcomer’s Club and a member of the Placerville Shakespeare Club, among many other endeavors.
“Sharon has a coterie of friends,” commented Blossom. “But I sort of robbed the cradle — she’s 17 years younger than I am. She is a marvelous and talented lady … and she’s stuck by me. I helped to raise her two youngest, Brent and Brenda, but all our children are supportive and wonderful. I really have two families.”
A water-filled wedding
“Our wedding is a story in itself,” said Blossom, pointing to a picture of a couple in tropical garb and leis beneath palm trees. “We’d been dating for a long time, but we were in Hawaii, and I called to find out what it would take to get married there.”
It was a pretty simple process, so they found a woman minister who married them right on the beach in Shipwreck Cove on 5-5-2005. “It’s an easy date to remember,” Blossom said wryly, “but in the middle of the ceremony it started to rain, a downpour. We had to finish filling out the paperwork in the minister’s car.”
Rain like that would have been nice in the Blossom Valley days.
Blossom and McDavid returned to their condo, where they wrote postcards to everyone. “That’s how we announced it.”
It was an auspicious start to a marriage that seems to be blessed. Blossom feels fortunate to have two families, and adores Sharon’s children just like his own.
Blossom’s son, John Blossom is a medical doctor in Fresno, and his daughter, Joanne teaches in a private school in Cameron Park. McDavid and Blossom have 11 grandchildren altogether.
Sears & Roebuck nourishes dreams
Blossom said that he was able to work his way through college, which was feasible back in the day. He did live with his parents and brother, but in those days one could pay for college by working part time.
He had several odd jobs but his mainstay was his job at Sears & Roebuck where he worked every Saturday. He attended San Diego State College and lived with his parents until he moved to attend Berkeley.
Fascinated by physical geography and geology, Blossom excelled in his studies, inspired by professors who encouraged him and made the Earth come alive for him. He also developed an interest in photography, a hobby he adored until it became digital.
Photography would be his specialty when he served in the Army Air Corps. Joining the Army Reserve Corps while in college ensured that Blossom would be able to complete college before going on active duty. Blossom had graduated from UC Berkeley with his masters in geography and was married before he got “called up” in 1945.
In 1941, he was going out on a date, and had just walked up the stairs when his date opened the door and said: “The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.”
She had heard it on the radio. “It was jolting,” Blossom related. Since he was already enlisted in the reserves, he was prepared to serve his country.
He was a photographic officer stationed at Murock. “I was right there when they bombed Hiroshima — a lot of B-29s flew out of there. And it was a B-29 that dropped the ‘big one,’ effectively ending the war.”
Blossom was soon sent to Tokyo as a photography officer.
“Tokyo was a shambles. But I was a 2nd Lieutenant and I lived in first class quarters, so it was strange to travel from the base and see such destruction. But I came to love the Japanese people and their way of life,” he said.
He has many memories. One is a touching story about a POW who was held in a private Japanese home in Tokyo. He became close friends with the family, and this former captive was determined to help them with all their needs after the war. The ex-POW used his connections to ensure that they thrived, so thankful he was for their kindness.
Windows to the world
Blossom’s passion for photography served him well in both World War II and Korea. In Tokyo, Blossom was assigned to be the photographer for prosecution in the International War Tribunals. He saw many fascinating cases and heard horrifying stories. Blossom even met Premier/General Hideki Tojo (“the Razor”), who was tried for his war crimes. Blossom, however, had left Japan before Tojo’s conviction and execution in 1948. But as a photographer, Blossom witnessed history in the making.
When the U.S. Army Air Corps became the U.S. Air Force in 1948, Blossom remained on. He almost was sent to Korea, and made it as far as the Far Eastern Depot in Tokyo, where he sat in the Replacement Depot. By this time, Tokyo was built up again. At this time, Blossom worked on top-secret cases, which are now “just stories.”
He worked in the Radar Target Prediction section, and like his thesis, a river figured prominently: The Yalu River in North Korea.
“We were trying to bomb electrical plants on the river without ruining the dams,” Blossom said “and we also predicted targets in Siberia.”
Blossom made it back home and went back to teaching. But he was able to take a sabbatical to work on his thesis. When asked if the GI Bill helped his education, Blossom replied,”You bet it did.”
The river of life
From his fledgling teaching years to his professorship and administrative post, Blossom saw a lot of changes at SCC, as well as changes in society.
Back in the day, he wore a suit, coat and tie every day. Then the ’60s and ’70s came along when dress became more casual and student protests became more vocal.
As the associate dean of the evening college, he was often busy moderating student concerns. Also the ethnic composition changed over the decades, as well as the focus of the campus.
“When I began there, it was all Caucasians and when I left, Caucasians were the minority,” Blossom said, a fact that reflects Sacramento’s growth and diversity. “It used to be the “prep” school for UC Davis and Berkeley; it still is, but SCC has also expanded to other academic priorities.”
When Blossom did his second thesis, “Some Factors That Influence Where Students Go To College” (which he had wanted to title “Who Goes Where and Why” but they required a more pedantic title) his son John was already accepted at UC Davis, his dream school.
One of Blossom’s ancestors was a Reverend Blossom, who was slated to travel on the Shipwell, the ship that was supposed to follow the Mayflower. The Shipwell was deemed unseaworthy, so it ended up not accompanying the Mayflower. However, Rev. Blossom arrived at Plymouth Colony on the next ship that sailed from England, and seemed to make a name for himself in the New World.
Blossom is also descended from both Doyles and Fletchers with roots going back to Plymouth Colony on both sides of the family. Fletcher is also a very historic name in San Diego, and Blossom’s mother was a native Californian.
Besides serving in the military and being a proponent of education, Blossom is proud of his heritage. He is a member of the American Legion and the Mother Lode Lions Club. He used to be a member of the Elks Lodge, but dropped his membership when they moved the lodge from Bee Street to Mother Lode Drive; he prefers not to drive far at night.
And of course, he is diligent about attending Fitquest. Like many folks his age, Blossom has a medical history, including eye surgery and open heart surgery, where they installed a pig valve. He’s also had hip replacement surgery and wears a hearing aid, but he feels great most of the time, though he’s “not able to do as much as he used to.”
From study to reality
Blossom’s focus on geography was of the physical nature of the earth, as well as geology. But in real life, he has seen much of the world, much of it documented in his outdoor photographs. Long ago, he took a three day train ride from Mexicali to Guadalajara, and Mexico remains one of his favorite places. He and McDavid have enjoyed several cruises, one which took them around the Cape of South America, where they had a remarkable experience when they rounded the horn.
“It was sunny, and you could see the horn. They said that this was very unusual,” Blossom said. “We also really enjoyed the fjords of Argentina, which were magnificent.”
He and McDavid have also enjoyed several cruises to the Mediterranean and the Caribbean as well as an Alaskan cruise.
Blossom maintains that he has had a wonderful life, with “outstanding” experiences and travels. With good health and regular exercise at Fitquest, there appears to be more water in Blossom’s future. More cruises are probably on the horizon, but inside and outside the generous windows in their gracious home, the scenery is beautiful,
In the meantime, abundant rainfall this year is nourishing the gardens he and his wife created … and Blossom continues to blossom.
Contact the writer: [email protected]