After my last piece's exploration of slow pitch softball in Anderson Valley and the Rest of the World two generations ago, it's been a comfort to return to Navarro around 1975 during the hippie 'Renaissance" and relate the story of another kind of Hippie who migrated to our town around that time.
Here's how Buzz and Barbara Barrett fit into the Hippie spectrum: married, no children, no long hair, no shaggy dog, just levis and a workshirt, and an almost cherry 1948 Straight Eight Ford pick-up truck. They moved into Susie's House, Rena Nicolai's shotgun two story Painted Lady across the Old Highway from the now burnt Navarro Inn.
Where they had migrated from prior to arriving in the Valley they never really said. But in easily becoming friends with them, as did we all, I pretty quickly extracted from them their formal credentials. Buzz was born and baptized Francis in Richmond, CA, son of an Okie immigrant local city cop, had a high school degree and further educated himself by hitting the road and becoming a temporary resident in interesting places around America. He had no strong professional skills, rather a combination of intuitive mechanical competence, quiet integrity and sociable, sweet kindness that easily found him odd jobs around our town and in fact all over the Valley. Later in our friendship I found out there was a roots magnet here drawing Buzz back; his mother was a Ledford, descendant of the brothers who started an early stagecoach and hotel chain from Cloverdale to the Coast.
Buzz and Barbara's last residence before settling in Navarro had been in Santa Rosa, where he and a partner and lifelong friend, Tom Harkleroad, had operated an "antique" (junk) store on Fourth Street, the quaint residential/manufacturing area along the railroad tracks and sealed off from the rest of downtown by the elevated Highway 101 freeway. Yes, Buzz said when I inquired, they had made money in the retail business, but got tired of dealing with the customers.
Barbara was another quiet, earnest individual of a more unpredictable personality than Buzz. Her pedigree she was proud to note was "born in Tulsa, the Athens of Oklahoma," as we all tittered at this reference to her aristocratic roots. She also was a Registered Nurse specializing in eldercare. Barbara's persona was similar to and different from Buzz's. While he was a duty-driven Capricorn, loyal and reliable to friends and neighbors alike, Barbara was those, but also sometimes revealed a strongly mystical religious bent, such as having an informal relationship with Theosophy and its prophet Madame Blavatsky. Again more titters around the post-dinner living room, at which she once threw her full wineglass down on the rug, flounced through the adjoining kitchen and melodramatically slammed the door at the bottom of the stairs leading up to their bedroom. More titters.
Susie's House was a work of graceful architecture and limited comfort. As imposing as it is from the outside, Victorian Painted Lady false façade and all, inside its scale and simplicity made living and visiting there extremely intimate. First, there was no insulation in the building, upon which the sun shone only a few afternoon hours from November through March, and the sources of warmth were a large inefficient woodstove in the long, narrow living room and a trash burner in the kitchen. No heat upstairs under the roof. The narrow "shotgun" floor plan was such that when we had our Mussel Run to Albion biweekly communal dinners, it was difficult to accommodate more than six people around the dining table in the kitchen. One time we had a twenty invitee Capricorn Party at their home. That number of guests filled the living room, kitchen and though it was January, even out on the front steps.
Like Buzz Barbara settled easily into the Navarro community, was liked and trusted by all. In fact within a year of their arrival, she became a part-time clerk at Betty Zanoni's Navarro Store, assisting the Old Ladies running their business and social gathering hub. Her timing taking on the job was perfect because Betty, Osana Pardini, and Cynthia Modenesi, her sisters-in-law, were beginning to slip into age-related forgetfulness about store management details. Shelves were not restocked consistently, the new electronic cash register baffled them, sometimes they returned the customer twenty dollars for a seven-fifty purchase, sometimes they forgot to provide the change at all. And no Coors in the cooler at four PM.
Barbara read the social terrain quickly and gradually her hours extended until sometimes only she and Betty were commandeering the store, still mostly serving local customers, sometimes she alone kept its door unlocked and gas pumps serving til the end of the day, seven o'clock in summer. She had become the Old Ladies surrogate niece.
Buzz had a more relaxing daily life. Some days he was out of town all day, building fences, doing client household repairs or yardwork, tree planting in winter, and so on. Other days he'd be preoccupied at home or around The Village. Any electrical problems at the store, or plumbing in one of the local homes, Buzz would be there with tools and skill to right the matter. Often he did his duty with no charge to the Old-timer customers he helped.
At home there was always maintenance and repair to do, all part of his and Barbara's simple and comfortable life under the redwoods at Susie's House. Most important was installing newsprint insulation around the window frames, upstairs and down, to mitigate winter storm winds invasion of the building. But also the regular plumbing, electrical and other problems an Old Timer like Susie's suffered from. And there was personal vehicles maintenance and repair too, all under the shade of the trees. Beside the classic Ford Buzz also drove a late fifties Ford pick-up.
As the years went by Buzz's presence and services became taken for granted by the Old-timers around The Village. "Sure, Angelo," he'd promise old bachelor logger, Angie Bacchi, "I'll be over after lunch. We can look at the bath tub drain then."
I remember sitting in the kitchen with Buzz one foggy late March afternoon having a beer. Up from the Drunk Tree, the old guys horse shoe pit hangout across from The Store there began this low keening, "Buuzzz...Buuuzzz... Buuzzzzzz.." As it grew louder we recognized Rob Bloyd's voice. He'd been abandoned by his drinking pals as the dusk came down, and simply expected that Buzz would provide the local Uber service he needed to get to his home on Lazy Creek four miles away. So Buzz and I drove down to the Drunk Tree, loaded Rob into the pick-up, scooted in ourselves from the driver's side and headed south. It was pretty dark when we pulled to the end of the Old Highway spur near Rob's. I proposed we k-turn around at the bridge there before helping Rob to his house and got out on Buzz's side to guide. Didn't work out so well, as he edged too far into the first back up, dropped a rear wheel off the road above the creek, losing traction. Rob had sobered up by this time, got out of the stuck truck, sauntered onto the trail home and gave us a "So long, guys, thanks," farewell. With a little digging and weight shifting on the tailgate we did get the truck back on the road and drove home to finish our beers.
Buzz's gentle spirit also provided an environment allowing him to be a trusted counsellor among us, his Old-timer and Newcomer friends in the community. One winter afternoon, while we were cleaning mussels for the communal Mussel Feed, Lornie Bloyd knocked on the kitchen door and staggered in packing a half drunk can of Olympia. As we continued our food prep, Lornie went off on a drunken tear about the darker side of his life so far. It was a pretty boring saga we were fairly familiar with anyway, though we nodded assent as appropriate.
Toward dinner Lornie got tired of us and himself, stood up, started out the kitchen door and down the back steps to his vehicle, slipped off the steps and fell gracelessly into the mud puddle waiting for him out there. Buzz and I followed, gathered him up and deposited him in a deck chair under a redwood sucker shelter from the rain. Whereupon Lornie broke into soft tears of despair chastising himself a useless drunk who couldn't do anything right, even to go home.
Buzz without a pause stooped over Lornie, gently grabbed his left wrist and said, "Cut it out Lornie, we all care about you; now come on back in and have some mussels." All three of us crowded back into the kitchen, sat down at the dining table while I did the cooking, and the six of us, Buzz and Barbara, Lornie and Brad, Tom and Lydia Harkleroad, congregated to savor the steamed ocean, a beer and lots of reminiscences about Navarro and its local characters.
Last I heard Lornie was employed full time at the Coyote Valley Casino in Redwood Valley, happily married and hadn't had a drink in twenty years. And after that evening with Lornie it dawned on me, Buzz's gentle soul was something special among us, and I began calling him "St. Francis of Navarro."
After more than six years living in Navarro, Buzz I could tell was getting restless and starting to talk about The Road. I recollect several of us close friends, one on one, sometimes in groups, trying to persuade him to go as far as he needed to, but he wouldn't find another place like here. Or another argument was, don't forget this is your roots, so come on back.
The way we even found out about his roots was almost by accident. Back around the tree planting season of 1977, a bunch of us were enjoying a warm early spring lunch break that drought year shaded up under live oaks near a landing in the Bald Hills. Mickey Bloyd started asking Buzz some kin questions, to which he diffidently replied that his mother's ancestors were from the Valley. Under further interrogation he acknowledged the ancestor family was the Ledfords settled in Yorkville and buried in the cemetery there. Mickey doubled Buzz by reminding us he was related by marriage to the Gschwends, therefore the Guntlys, Studebakers, Browns, McGimpseys, Bivans, etc. Then Mickey began to laugh softly, "I guess we're all related here in the Valley."
So roots or not, friends or not, Buzz and Barbara began preparations for departure. First Buzz bought an old dark green twenty four seat school bus and began restoring the engine and interior. Then they gave up their Susie's House lease and moved into the bus for a month of trial living at the campground/picnic area on my ranch. On my birthday, January 14, saddest birthday of my life, They drove off the hill to their next test site, the intersection of Lansing and Main in Mendocino, the wide dirt shoulder by the half acre vacant lot that used to be there.
During the late Winter and spring I usually went over to visit them at their Mendocino town campground, the usual ruminations about the past, present and future for all of us who'd been such close friends. Then one day in mid-April, they departed, destination unknown. I didn't have the heart to go over to say good-bye. Three weeks later I got a phone call from Barbara. They had broken down on old Highway 66 outside of Kingman, Arizona. They were living on the side of the highway where Buzz was underneath the bus, cooler there, waiting to get the parts shipment to Kingman needed to fix the vintage driveline. Barbara had walked to town for groceries and was calling from a pay phone in an air-conditioned truck stop.
Our next communication found them in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Buzz had secured a job as janitor for the Chemistry Department at the University. Later on that year my consort and I spent a few days with Buzz and Barbara at their rental home under the oaks east of the campus, another more modest bungalow as craftsmanly in style as Susie's House in Navarro.
The University of Arkansas campus back then was itself a time warp. The campus was the town and vice versa. Each department had its own brick, Georgian building covered with ivy, and no air-conditioning. There were, I believe, about seven thousand undergraduates on campus in those days. Except when we showed up in early June, school was out for the summer and the student population was almost zero.
Almost zero. When we went down to visit Buzzy's jobsite in the Chemistry Building there was one lonely grad student from India doing some kind of biochemical molecule behavior research all by himself in a tiny lab. Panki was of course a scholarship boy from rural Punjab who couldn't afford the plane ticket to go home and see his family. After our tour of the department Buzz, of course, invited Panki up to his rec room, the roof of the building, where a gentle breeze filtered through the oaks and ash mitigating the Ozarks summer humidity.
After credentials swapping with me, we settled into Panki's work and life here in the US. He did point out that this undergrad he was dating provided some relief from the loneliness so large a part of his student life. He then went off on a rumination about how he didn't really understand the social mores of educated American girls, like his friend from Yallville, Arkansas. And Buzzie was such a comforting guide to Panki. Even though he knew little about the feudal marital arrangement ritual in India, he could describe, with kindness and candor what American women generally expected of their male counterparts relative to personal deportment, wealth, and status. Buzz the compassionate counsellor uncle, not the boring sociologist of our dating folklore.
And by the way, I should mention that the almost cherry straight-eight '48 Ford pick-up had made it to Fayetteville along with Buzz and Barbara. It was parked in the sideyard of their rental home; alongside it was another '48 straight-eight, in considerably less mint condition, with its hood up and rear end on jacks.
Two or three years later I next accosted Buzz and Barbara living in a mobile home park at the Tee in the road from Highway 101 to Avila Beach. It was the first time I had ever camped out in a mobile home park, sleeping on a tarp six feet from the back on the next trailer. Nice ocean air though, and the recreational activities around the area were quite diverse, my wife Earlene and I, along with Buzz and Barbara, enjoyed the local hot spring at midnight, the bars in Pismo and Avila Beach, and the boat yards and fish docks, more exciting than Fort Bragg, north a few miles along the ocean. Only discomfort sleeping out was the constant stop-and-go of auto traffic each 5 AM at the tee intersection next door. Turned out it was the labor force at the nearby Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant headed to work on the early morning shift.
Next time we all met was early in this century and Buzz and Barbara had found a new home romantically more dramatic than even Navarro. On Highway One south of Point Sur in Monterey County is a place made famous by Henry Miller called Partington Ridge. Somehow Buzz had landed the job of on-site custodian on a seventeen acre piece of ground, a quarter of a mile long strip literally below highway 1 and about four hundred feet above the ocean. The owner, Douglas, an old gay guy living alone in a grand wood butcher's home at the south end of the property, also patrolled his property on horseback white Apache Indian style, dressed in long hair to his shoulders and wearing some kind of breech cloth, that's all.
Buzz and Barbara lived at the north end of the property in a "soddy," a log bungalow partly indented into the nearly vertical Big Sur cliffside, partly a front terrace right on the edge of the cliff down to the sea. One morning, after arising from sleeping on the terrace, I walked over to the edge and looked over. To the north I could see the lee side of Point Sur, but more exciting, right below me I spotted grazing among the offshore boulders the silhouette of a full size blue whale, never seen before or again. Exotic place. And Barbara could use her professional skills gainfully by commuting several days a week to work in assisted living eldercare homes.
Nice place, except for the landlord. Half way between Douglas's home and Buzz and Barbara's was an incredible piece of geology. Just below the Highway was a fifteen foot sandstone sheer wall at the base of which gushed a spring creating a surrounding seep of green grass, purslane and pennyroyal. Must have been flowing in and out of storage tanks alongside at least two gallons a minute. This spring and irrigation system enabled Douglas to have extensive gardens, decorative and productive, all over the property, the responsibility of the live-in staff, Buzz and Barbara to maintain.
In the morning Douglas would ride over on his horse, issue the orders of the day in a faux-feudal landlord manner, and ride off without a word of encouragement or thanks. As a result, despite their congenital considerateness for all neighbors Buzz and Barbara were soon back on the road again.
This time, Morro Bay, in a boxy, unlandscaped tract home rental on a street of unkempt brown lawns behind the local docklands the main feature of the village. I know I visited them there once, but somehow never saw the inside of the house, only remember visiting the docks to see large trawlers unloading Chilean caught tuna and dayboats with halibut, cods and other Pacific groundfish, a sight I love. And spending an evening at the local dockside fish house chowing down and telling stories. I must have just been passing through town on my way to selling text books in LA.
Well, Buzz found a new career for himself there in Morro Bay, traveling fish monger. Come seven in the AM two or three times a week, he would take the old pick-up down to the docks, buy a good mixture of ground fish fillets and steaks of the right size, all two hours out of the ocean, drive a hundred miles over the Coast Range to Taft in the Kern Ridge oil fields, and sell the fish on the streets from the back of the truck. Two or three hundred dollars gross a day and back home by 3 or 4 PM.
Next job on his Morro Bay career path Buzz became the harbormaster for the town's large fishing fleetdocklands and anchorage, a task for which he had no previous training whatever in Richmond or Navarro.
Buzz the entrepreneur and Buzz the Saint in Morro Bay. One day the next door neighbor drove his pick-up, drunk and too fast into his adjacent driveway, impaling his house cat on the front grill and hood ornament (Chevy?). Furious at the cat, he jumps out of the pick-up, jerks the dying animal off the grill and tosses it into the garbage can by the kitchen door.
Saintly old Buzz waits until the drunk has gone inside, walks over, gently lifts the cat from the garbage, sees it's still breathing and takes it inside where he and Nurse Barbara perform whatever medical operations they thought the situation required. Three weeks later I show up in Morro Bay on my way south, stop by for a beer and some gossip. Sitting on a rocking chair on the front patio is this large skinny orange tabby, head, eye bandaged and one of its front paws too. "Where'd you get that, Buzz?" Sheepishly he told me the story of his newly acquired orphan. "His Christian name is Hood Ornament, but we call him "Orny" for short."
During Buzz and Barbara's next "Back on the road again" adventure we lost track of one another, probably because we went in dramatically opposite directions, I to a white collar job in New York, they to the tropical Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands. Kathy MacDonald, however, reminds me of her and Michael Nissenberg's to Buzz and Barbara and Tom and Lydia Harkleroad. Kathy assures me Buzz always found comfortable rentals for them all on vibrant tropical streams coming off the mountain, cottages with decks under the Java Plum and Mango trees, warm during the day, cool at night.
Five years after losing contact we regain it, and Buzz and Barbara tell me they have moved on again, this time to Pahrump (Pahrump?), a high desert mining town just across the Inyo County border in Nevada, and already becoming a suburb of Las Vegas. To this day I have no idea how or why from Kauai to Pahrump. I always wanted to try once a Las Vegas weekend and thought that would be how I could justify the drive from Anderson Valley to Pahrump for a visit, but it never happened.
Each time we phoned one another to celebrate the year-end holidays, the Fourth of July or our birthdays, same day Capricorns in January, we would talk about getting together, either here or there. Buzzy always promised me, yes, it was important for him to come back to see Navarro and its latest chapter. But we never did get it done. About five years ago, the phone calls stopped coming. It took me another year finally to contact Barbara. She was alone and struggling. Buzz had died, which I had already kind of intuited. Barbara had had a complete breakdown herself after Buzz's death and was, she thought, in recovery.
On one of our phone calls Barbara proposed a wonderful idea. She wanted to ship me Buzz's ashes and those of Tom Harkleroad's wife, Lydia, Barbara's best friend, for celebration and scattering in Navarro. What a great idea.
So I thought out the script for the celebration and got in touch with a few of Buzz's best friends from the "Renaissance" days, Tom English, Doug Johnson, Rick and Randy Bloyd, with others to be invited later. What I pictured was a celebration in two acts and four scenes. First we would scatter Buzz and Lydia on the front door steps at Susie's House, then cross Highway 128 to where Tom and Lydia had lived, finally back to City Hall at the Drunk Tree, at each location we would find a story to share.
Then for Act Two those of us who were interested would mount up and drive out to Yorkville to the old Ledford Cemetery under the oaks and madrone just this side of Y Ranch and repeat the ashes celebration there. I would of course provide a guided tour of the cemetery and its inhabitants to any of us who hadn't been there before.
However, at each package delivery date follow-up phone call Barbara promised it would be in the mail tomorrow, though the ashes never arrived. Then the phone calls became less and less frequent, and finally, about two years ago simply stopped. I wonder if Barbara is still with us.
Well, whether the ashes event happens or not, I still celebrate Saintly Old Buzz of Barrett every time I go down to my postbox or The Navarro Store and drive by Susie's House and the Drunk Tree. Be well, Buzz, as your spirit continues its journey. And thank you for the wonderful memories of Navarro's First Hippie and unforgettable saintly friend who learned about the world by traveling it, living simply and comfortably in quaint rental homes, doing "odd" jobs, and being kind to friends and neighbors.
(Next week: The Navarro Saga, random recollections.)