Jon Alexander / Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020 @ 7 a.m. / Angels and Desperados
ANGELS and DESPERADOS: Comin' Home
The Wild Rivers Outpost is pleased to announce that Jon Alexander’s column Angels and Desperados, previously in the Del Norte Triplicate, has joined the Outpost family. Jon’s work will be published every other Saturday. We hope you will enjoy his column, as did his many followers in the Triplicate.
The Boeing 737 banked to the south, as it descended upon the airport named for the cowboy who always shot straight and never tarried indelicately with the ladies. It was the south west portion of Orange County, a part of “the OC,” and more specifically, a little beach town named Dana Point, that I had called home for twenty years.
I looked out upon the endless blue horizon we call the Pacific, as the memories washed over, somehow always tilting toward the good, rather than the bad or worse.
My gaze hung over a great surfing spot named Salt Creek. Steve Boehne, owner and founder of Infinity Surfboards, once shaped me a 7’6” board with a concave nose and an asymmetrical tail, crafted for a “goofy” footer, with dual channels. When I told Steve I was going to surf the Creek as it was just down the street from where I lived, he replied, “I wouldn’t recommend it, the surfers there are ‘young, talented, aggressive and hostile.’” Two weeks later with a bruised jaw, busted knuckles, a stitched right eye and a nasty ding in my board to match, I realized he was right.
I’d returned for two reasons, one of them being a performance in the CBS Radio-Jim Rome Sports Talk Show’s annual “Smack Off” competition. I’d been a contributor and caller on the show for the past 27 years. I continue to believe that Rome is the best radio sports talk interviewer in the business and he has always been gracious and loyal to those who have been with him from the beginning. I had lined up old Jersey ‘down the shore’ pal Bruce Springsteen and, on the fly, the great Vin Scully, for our gig. Very first thing out of Vin’s mouth on the phone was, “Jon, please don’t call me Mr. Scully, call me Vin.” Yeah, that’s the kind of guy he is. (And, for kicks, if you want to check it out, pull up YouTube and ‘TrapperSmackoff’)
The other reason was to see two oncologists I had appointments with. I’m presently dealing with metastatic prostate bone cancer and was blessed to see two of the finest doctors in that area, looking for new avenues of treatment for my disease.
Getting back to this idea of “home” and what it really means. I used to think that being within arms’ reach of all the conveniences – great theatre, great music, great waves (in warm water), anything you could ever want in stores – from fine wine to great threads ... Of course, a fantastic night scene, from dance clubs to concert halls. Add to it a tremendous view of the Pacific Ocean and some of the finest medical doctors and hospitals.
That was my idea of home back in “the OC.” At least, until in 2004, when I landed in a place called Del Norte County. I’d been kind of forced to be up here to be with a dying mother. Afflicted with the cruelty we know as Alzheimer’s Disease, she had been my lifelong best friend and I had to be here – both with and for her.
Having nowhere to stay and hotel bills adding up, two people I’d met within the first couple weeks offered lodging, the first upon his couch, then another giving me his trailer for the entire winter and spring of 2004-2005. I gotta tell you, people in the OC don’t do that for pure strangers.
Mom passed in 2006. By then, I’d gravitated from Brookings to Del Norte County. Short on cash and attempting to start an office in the small duplex I lived in on 9th Street, I put my pride aside and went and asked a local judge if he had any possible case appointments. I told him I was a former addict with a little past three years in clean time recovery. He told me that everyone makes mistakes, but everyone deserves a second chance if they’re serious about owning up and moving on. He appointed me on several Pelican Bay cases and later put me on the Pelican Bay appointment rotation calendar.
But for the kindness and humanity of a man named William Follett, I don’t know where I would have landed – good chance not on the square. Over the years, I found that kindness and quality of spirit to be indigenous to the folks of this community.
When I first landed here, I longed for, indeed craved, to get back to the “home” of life in Orange County. Life here seemed to be boiled down to doing without stuff that was available back there.
But gradually,I met people like Judge Follett, or Greg Duncan and Kevin Caldwell and Sandy Balbini and Jane Shryer and Joni Forsht and Art and Mary McCune and Jean and Jim Robson and on and on down the line, until you began to see what a community and home really is.
I lived in one townhouse for 12 years in SoCal. It had a beautiful view of Doheny Beach, but never once had a sit-down, hot meal with either of the people that lived next door or the total strangers down my own street. The definition of “neighbor” in Del Norte County is indistinguishable from the definition of “good friend” back where I’d come from. In these parts, I’ve learned that when folks say, “How are you?” it’s not a greeting, it’s a question. And they care about the answer.
I could go on, but one of the best examples of what Del Norte has taught me about what we call home and community goes back to 2015.
In mid-June, the words, “Man, that sucks!”echoed off the walls of my urologist, Mark Davis’ office. It was my less than Shakespearian response to his telling me my prostate biopsy was malignant and substantial (4+4 on the Gleason scale), all of which, as the sage trumpeted, “suck[ed]!”
The following month, I was honored to be a speaker at the 2015 Relay For Life. At that time, I told the people assembled in the bleachers that I would be undergoing surgery the following week to remove my prostate, which recently had tested malignant. One week later, I was coming out of post-op at Stanford, subsequent to the removal of my prostate whose tumors and lesions had unfortunately metastasized into my bones.
Unable to find anyone who could take a week off work, I ended up driving myself down to Stanford. Three days later, I still can’t sit up without a nurse’s assistance. The hospital social worker is now telling me that I need to leave the bed. I tell her that’s impossible, much less attempting to drive back home. Backing her up, the head nurse returns the following day with almost 20 students in tow and tells me she wants the bed, because there are people “in tents” waiting outside for my bed. I politely reply, “Well, [Nurse Ratched], is there some reason why Mr. Rodriguez’ bed that’s been empty for two days can’t be used for your ‘tent people’?” She responds, borderline surly, “That’s not funny.” Actually surly, I tell her, “You should try it from over here,” patting on my bed.
You can’t make this stuff up. It may sound funny now, but at the time, I was in a lot of pain and they were seriously talking about wheelchairing me out, so the people in these huge tents could have my bed. I will say, United’s got nothing on Stanford when it comes to over-booking.
I’m laying there in a lot of pain, also having just learned that my prostate cancer has metastasized past the margins and into my bones. I take a couple calls from friends, acknowledging the dejected desperation of my plight and condition. The mid-day nurse informs me that “Admin” is now attempting to place me in an elderly care center in East Palo Alto the following morning.
I couldn’t recall ever feeling so low, until just before last rounds. The social worker is walking up to my bed. With a beguiling smile, almost approaching joy, she announces, “Mr. Alexander, I am glad to inform you that your ride home has just arrived.” Immediately, I check both of her hands, ready to jump in case either holds a needle possessing Mamba venom.
In all sincerity, I was completely baffled and in utter disbelief at her statement. But, sure enough, they pulled the drape closed, while the attending male nurse helped sponge bathe me, then assists me in dressing. I was then carried and poured into a wheel chair and walked to the elevator. Four floors later, I was wheeled into a dark, parking garage.
Born and raised in Bergen County, north Jersey (where the Sopranos was depicted and filmed), this scene has a noir, menacing, grittiness to it, that is not escaping me at that moment. I sat there in the sweating, stitch-stretching, late July heat, when all of a sudden, my car appears, strangely being driven by a young girl, who looked to be about 15.
As the attendant wheels me around to the passenger side, I lean in and ask what has to be the valet, how much I owe. She looks back at me with a girlish smile that only the innocence of a teenager could possess, then attempting to stifle a laugh that somehow arrives anyway. She tells me that she’s Maria Pilipenko and that she does “a lot of stuff” with the Fort Dick Grange. I then recall seeing her and her sister Gala, blistering the Fair Grounds arena with the speed of their runs at several gymkanas, the rodeo and Junior’s competitions.
Even more bewildered, I ask who sent a teenager on a 14-hour drive in the night to go pick up a sick fella they barely knew. With that same smile, she politely tells me, “Helen.” At first, I’m vacuous, but then recall a phone call in the morning, when good friend Helen Ferguson called and I’d bemoaned my situation and impending nursery home tenancy.
Somehow, within the wink of an eye, this Grange matriarch had wrangled a couple of “her kids” to make that drive. Refusing attempts to pay for gas, much less a gratuity, the girls helped me into my house, where I collapsed in the early morning light.
Yeah, that one word, “Helen,” counts for a lot in this County. If you grew up in these parts and learned how to ride, odds are, Helen Ferguson taught you. Even more important, “Helen” taught you how to mount back up after you’d been tossed. Things that mattered in rodeo and, even more later on in life. Funny how folks that grow up close to the ground, end up more grounded later on in life.
There’s a slew of stretches and occasions I could go into to tell you why I consider Del Norte County my home and community – much more than most of those places southbound down the 101.
Lyndon Johnson, upon declining to run for a second term, war weary from Viet Nam, said that he wanted to go back to his ranch on the Perdernales River, a place “where the people know when you’re sick and they care when you die.”
I think Lyndon Johnson might’a known a person or two like Helen Ferguson and the folks you find here in Del Norte County. Which is why I hang my hat here and call it home.
Dedicated to Helen Ferguson, whose legacy lives on in her Grange “kids” and beyond.