Cedric Sr. played football growing up in Arizona, but he told his sons they had to start getting along before they would get their chance. One day, when Cedric was 9 and Tedric was 7, their father took them to Jesse Owens Park in Los Angeles, site of a large indoor swimming pool, a gym and sprawling practice fields.
“They thought we were going swimming,” Cedric Sr. said. “We brought towels and everything just to throw them off. They jumped out, and I said, ‘Let’s go over here. We’re signing up for football.’
“As soon as they started playing football, they came together. They stopped arguing. They stopped fighting. I think about that all the time.”
The Thompsons played for the Woodcrest Generals, proudly wearing the red-white-and-blue uniforms. Cedric Sr. still has numerous photos from those days taped to a wall in Bombay Beach. But one of Thompson’s teammates didn’t make it to adulthood. Clayton Montgomery got shot by a gang member on Western Avenue, just a few blocks from Jesse Owens Park. He was 15.
Thompson managed to stay out of gangs, heeding his parents’ warnings, but other friends fell into the trap. When he was in eighth grade, his 16-year-old cousin, Roy Williams, was shot and killed. While the family mourned, the marriage between Cedric Sr. and Bradford continued crumbling. Bradford finally decided to pack the kids and move to Palmdale, an hour northeast of Los Angeles.
“I was just tired of L.A., and things weren’t getting better — the gangs and all that,” Bradford said. “So I was like, maybe if I just move my boys out of here, there won’t be any problems, and they won’t have to worry.”
But it didn’t take long for Thompson to find trouble at Palmdale’s Knight High School, a place where racial tensions were especially high between blacks and Hispanics. He started getting into fights and cutting classes, nearly getting expelled.
After doing some soul searching, he decided to go live in Bombay Beach, where his father had moved into a deceased uncle’s home.
“I was missing my dad,” Thompson said. “I knew he was the only one who could control me.”
Welcome to paradise
On Thompson’s first trip to Bombay Beach, the blue Astro van his father was driving sprung a flat tire along Interstate Hwy. 10. It was after dark by the time they arrived. Thompson could smell the Salton Sea, just down the road. But he was too tired to explore, too jaded to care.
“I woke up in the morning and went for a walk,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t believe I was here.”
The Salton Sea formed by accident in 1905, when the Colorado River flooded into a salt basin. For decades, people thought the area had limitless potential. Promotional ads in the 1960s billed it as Palm Springs-by-the-Sea. Movie stars turned up at the resorts. Fishermen flocked to catch corvina and tilapia.
“It was a gas,” said longtime Bombay Beach resident Larry Wiebalk. “You couldn’t find a place to put your towel down on the beach — that’s how many people were out here.”
The sea is 15 miles wide and 35 miles long. It takes in water from the New River, but nothing flows out, creating a hot stew of increasing salinity that has turned deadly for fish. The stench can be staggering. Tilapia still bite, when they’re not washing up on the shore. The corvina are long gone.
Wiebalk said he hasn’t stepped in the water in 20 years. Thompson can’t recall ever seeing a boat.
Last weekend, the temperature in Bombay Beach reached 122 degrees. Besides sitting 223 feet below sea level, at one of the lowest elevations in the Western Hemisphere, the town is located on the southern edge of the San Andreas Fault. There aren’t just earthquakes, there are earthquake swarms.