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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2


Camp Matthews

by William Brigham, M.A. '83, C.Phil '89, Sociology


I have long been drawn to the remnants of my past: old photographs and long-lost acquaintances, but mostly to the “places” in my memory.

So it was with some excitement when I first came to the campus of UCSD in 1981 as a 40-year old graduate student in sociology and happened upon the plaque memorializing the previous tenant, the United States Marine Corps. I realized that I was standing where I had stood or, more likely, run 20 years before as a Marine Corps recruit.

The first institutional occupant of this area had been the USMC rifle range, Camp Matthews, so named in 1942, the year of my birth. Fresh from an undistinguished tenure in high school, I had enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1961. After several weeks of basic recruit training, we hiked from MCRD near the San Diego airport to Camp Matthews where, for about two weeks, I worked toward eking out the minimum score as a marksman.

A typical morning at Camp Matthews consisted of calisthenics, squaring away our tents, and running to the mess hall for breakfast where a large sign advised, “Take What You Want, Eat What You Take.” Then we “snapped in”—mock shooting exercises—for a few hours, followed by a run out to the firing line; the 9-pound M1 rifle seemed to weigh about 90 pounds by the time the run ended. After completing a day of marksmanship training, we ran back through the chaparral and eucalyptus that dominated the landscape, followed by another meal characterized more by large portions than by quality. Our evenings were spent cleaning and oiling our rifles.

As I recall, the actual firing line was to the east, somewhere
in the vicinity of the graduate student housing I later occupied. An old ammunition bunker or two was still visible in 1981.

As I roamed around the core of the campus, I realized that the building that housed the bookstore had been our mess hall where sustenance had come in the form of high-carb, low-taste meals. The tennis courts adjacent to the bookstore previously had been a picnic area of sorts where recruits and families could meet on visiting day, the complex of tents in which we lived was approximately where the Medical School is now situated, and many of the Quonset huts were still in place in 1981.

These unique structures, so emblematic of WWII when they were developed for the military in Quonset, Rhode Island, had the same utilitarian value in 1981 as they had in the 1940’s: continuously used for maintenance, art studios, storage, whatever.

On the very day I was discharged from the Marine Corps in 1964, Camp Matthews was decommissioned, the firing range had been moved to Camp Pendleton, and UCSD had emerged in its place. My experiences, in the military and with the ways that American culture was beginning to change, altered my worldview. As Tolstoy wrote, “The changes in our life must come from the impossibility to live otherwise than according to the demands of our conscience.” My life and values as a Marine would be left behind, but it was nonetheless a welcomed remembrance on that day in 1981.

— William Brigham is the administrator for the NFL program for substances of abuse.


William Brigham's bio

The Journal of San Diego History

Historic California Posts

"A typical morning at Camp Matthews consisted of calisthenics, squaring away our tents, and running to the mess hall for breakfast where a large sign advised, “Take What You Want, Eat What You Take.”"