This is a story about a man who is much more interesting than the hassle he's in.
First, the man.
You wouldn't guess looking at him that Tu Blujays is 63. He looks like the active Marine he still is in many ways, “A. J. Squared Away” come to life, lean with parade ground posture. He wears a Corps cover with his jump wings on proud display, and speaks softly through compressed lips, like a platoon sergeant calling cadence. As a Vietnam-era Marine, Jays took combat bullets to his knees, rendering him a hundred percent disabled, a dramatic fact you wouldn't guess looking at him.
Jays is a Native American from the Big Sur area of Central California. His legendary grandfather was the last Costanoan medicine man, a man sought out by the Dalai Lama when the Dalai Lama visited America. During a visit to Fort Bragg not long ago by Tibetan monks, one of them remarked of Jay’s illustrious ancestor: “His grandfather,” said Lodsang Wangchuk, “could make lightening and thunder. His people are related to the Dalai Lama through Ghengis Khan. That he (Jays) lives here, this is how destiny works.” Jays himself functions as a kind of Native American medicine man as a combat medic.
His civilian friends call him Jays, but people with military experience call him “Gunny,” the affectionate term for top sergeant, the man you want in charge when the shooting starts.
Jays took that well-trod path to the Marines, the old Testosterone Trail you might call it.
“I was 17 and getting in a lot of fights, and finally the judge said to me, 'Son, I think the Marines is just the place for you,'“ and Jays was off to Vietnam, a placement that nearly cost him his life but also gave him a post-Marine Corps career as security man to a host of movie and music industry people who included Charlie Sheen and Frank Zappa. Jays knows these people intimately, having lived with them, cared for their children, herded horses for them on their Montana ranches, driven them on their late-night rounds.
While he was still with the Corps, Jays served as an instructor for the Marine Corps Overland, Sea-Air Rescue Unit, or “a whole lot of experience in a whole bunch of dirty little wars.” Jays still gets calls summoning him pronto from the civilian serenity of Fort Bragg to bring his parachute and medical emergency skills to emergency hot zones. He carries his body armor and surgical kit are with him at all times.
This seemingly invincible man has one almost paralyzing fear: “I don't want to be out on the street doing the V.A. Shuffle,” he says. “I see these veterans walking around Fort Bragg like zombies. They barely know where they're at. I can't let myself get there. I was surprised to see so many of them up here away from the population centers, and I try to help them where I can.”
Jays moved to Fort Bragg more than 20 years ago “to help my wife raise our son. I didn't want the boy to grow up without a father,” Jays explains. The boy successfully negotiated the minefield of adolescence and moved to San Francisco where he works with Trader Joe's.
In Fort Bragg, Jays has made his way teaching self-defense classes and, for one long pre-retirement stretch, worked for the late Jim Cummings of Noyo Harbor, a fascinating figure whose own adventures would be good for at least a couple of movies.
“Jim was very good to me,” Jays volunteers, “and I can tell you that working for him no two days were ever the same.”
Jays says the house he presently rents for $800 a month at 33300 Little Valley Road, Fort Bragg, has deteriorated to where its uninhabitable, a fact seconded by Mike Oliphant, a County building inspector working out of Mendocino Planning and Building's Fort Bragg office. A Planning and Building form signed by Oliphant confirms that “the heating unit is inoperable, water has accumulated in the basement, there's exposed wiring throughout the house, the stove is improperly installed, the sun room is in such disrepair it should either be removed or rebuilt, underfloor joints have rotted, the roof leaks, there's mold and rat droppings in the attic.”
A colleague of Oliphant's, Angie Hamilton, a Mendocino County's code enforcement officer, Jays says, refused to even climb up for a look at the attic.
“The house is falling down around me,” Jays says. “It meets most of the criteria set out in the Consumer Protection handbook for houses unfit for human habitation. It's termite and rat infested, the basement is always flooded, it's uninsulated. The Fort Bragg Fire Chief, Steve Orsi, has red-tagged the chimney. For two years I had no heat in the winter. The house got down to 37 degrees. It got so cold I had to put plastic up over the windows and still I just couldn't get warm.”
A counselor at the V.A. Hospital in San Francisco “told me I had to stand up for myself, so in January I bought a trailer just so I could get warm. And I stopped paying rent months ago. Funny things is, the landlord never called or asked about it. He just made it clear he wanted me out. But if I leave I'm afraid I'm going to get blamed for the condition of the place. I've put a lot of my own money into it, but the house is old. It's falling down, and it was in bad shape when I moved in almost 7 years ago.
Right now, though, I'm afraid if I move off the property the landlord is going to blame me for everything that's wrong.”
Jays fans out confirming photos of his imploding home like he's playing slum structure solitaire against himself.
The landlord isn't talking, Planning and Building's Oliphant is “on vacation,” and Ms. Hamilton, code enforcer, seems to be permanently out enforcing codes.
Jays found conditions annoying but endurable when the landlord's mother still lived in the other house on the property.
“I did a lot of work on her place for her, and I ran errands and kept up the yard and garden. We were good friends. We're still good friends,” Jays says as he produces affectionate greetings and the old lady written from her new home in Pennsylvania.
“The son in Pennsylvania called me up and said he'd come out and throw me off the place himself,” Jays recalls. “I told him I'd be here,” adding with a chuckle, “He doesn't make me shiver and he doesn't make me shake.”
The present owner of the property is a Mr. Horstman of Willits, the other of Mrs. Vandervort's two son. He prefers not to talk of the dispute beyond acknowledging that he “grew up in that house and I want to move back into it.”
Horstman has served Jays with a three-day notice to leave the property; the three-day notice was served a month ago.
Jays makes a strong case for himself. He's not the kind of guy who could be indifferent to a living space he couldn't keep as squared away as he keeps himself. It's not as if the old house isn't falling down. It is, a fact verified by Mendocino County's elusive authority at Planning and Building.
Certain assurances to the tenant from the landlord might resolve the dispute, but for now the old Marine is dug in, and he's got the high ground.