My curiosity finally got the best of me. After reading Comptche resident Jerry Philbrick’s almost weekly letters to the AVA I just had to meet him. How many people around here sign their letters with the tag line “God Bless Donald Trump”?
So on a picture-perfect fall morning last week I hit the road to visit Jerry and Terry Philbrick at their home in Comptche.
When I asked Terry how I would know their house she said “You can’t miss it.” She was right. A couple miles down the Comptche-Ukiah Road after turning right at the fork with the post office and general store, I spotted Jerry’s bright-red pick-up and parked in front of a hand-painted sign that read “Jerry Brown Sanctuary City.”
I had definitely come to the right place.
After passing through the gate and walking up the path up to his house, Jerry came out onto his front deck to greet me. I have rarely been given a warmer welcome. Knowing nothing whatsoever about me (or my politics, for that matter) he gave me a bear hug after we stepped past a very protective Airedale and into the living room, which in many ways is a personal museum of both the many phases of Jerry’s working life and his diverse outside interests. Several rifles stood in one corner and a beam across the ceiling had spurs from his rodeo days. “I rode bulls in rodeos for 12 years,” he said. There were also pieces of specialized logging equipment from his many years working the forests. “I did everything in the woods you can possibly do,” he said. “I started my own logging business in 1961 and had 40 employees.” He said he stopped working just three years ago but still fills in when he’s needed. There was also football memorabilia from his years of both playing and coaching football locally. “I played my last game ten years ago when I was 72,” he said. “It was an alumni game that we lost to Fort Bragg, six to nothing. I felt fortunate to be able to still play the game.”
Jerry’s wife Terry joined us in the kitchen. Next July they will have been married 30 years. They married in Boonville. “She’s been chasing me around ever since!” he said. “With a spatula!” Terry laughed. In the way of tight-knit rural communities, they knew each other casually for years. But as in many budding romances, there was THE MOMENT, in their case at Mendocino Coast Hospital in Fort Bragg. They were on side-by-side gurneys; he had just had one of 11 knee operations and she had just delivered her daughter. They looked across at each other and something clicked. They’ve been together ever since.
As it turned out they are related, but not by blood. “His ex-wife and I have the same first cousin,” Terry said. They have ten grandkids between them. Jerry credits her with saving his life when he technically died in a medevac helicopter en route to Santa Rosa to treat his misdiagnosed acute pneumonia. His heart stopped beating before they landed and would have stayed that way had Terry not asked the medical crew to continue CPR. “He’s a logger and a tough guy,” she said, and after more CPR his heart started beating again.
After that scare Jerry said that his doctor asked him if he wanted to stay on the couch watching butterflies or again live an active life. He chose active and today he has a defibrillator embedded in his chest. It records data from his heart with a hand-held remote-control monitor that sends that data electronically to his doctor.
Jerry is fourth generation Mendo and has lived mostly in and around the Comptche area his whole life. His father’s grandfather, who moved there from Maine, fought in the Civil War. His great-grandfather’s wife was one of the first doctors in Mendocino. Over the years his large family acquired land in the Comptche area, which at one point grew to 12,000 acres. Most of it has been sold off over the generations though Jerry and Terry have 60 acres.
Their story is very much a family affair. His 95-year-old uncle lives across the street and still puts in a big garden every year on his property. Laughing, Terry said, “He still cusses up a storm!” Jerry’s 90-year-old aunt lives in Fort Bragg. “She’s beautiful,” he said. “If I didn’t know her and I saw her in a bar somewhere I’d jump right on her. She’s somethin’ else.” He also has a brother in Ukiah and a sister in Covelo.
Jerry wore a Trump hat, which he said his daughter sent him since “you can’t find one around here,” and psychedelic-looking mirrored sunglasses, a combination well suited to his all-around moderate political views. He was far more rational and thoughtful than most Democratic activists I’ve spoken with. “I know many Democrats, Truman and JFK are my idols,” he said. “There are decent Democrats and there are liberals; they’re as different as night and day. I invite anyone to come to come speak with me personally about it but nobody ever does.”
He said his relationship with Earth First! founder Judi Bari, who was nearly killed in 1990 by a car bomb in Oakland, a federal crime still unsolved, is a good example. “Judi Bari and I hated each other but we were good friends,” he said. “We agreed to disagree.” He said he attended a county supervisors’ meeting where Bari tried to filibuster the meeting and made threats about her organization’s plans to interrupt local logging operations. “I stood up and said somebody else needs to talk. Then I said that if any of my equipment is damaged, or if one of my guys gets hurt, the shit’s gonna hit the fan.” Jerry said his comments earned him a visit from the FBI. “They blamed me for the bombing,” he said, still incredulous about that all these years later.
Jerry said he’s always been a Republican but became more conservative when he left the Navy; he thought the government neglected the service people who had risked their lives for their country and its freedoms. For him it was a matter of respect, a strong belief still today, a respect that extends to patriotic symbols like the American flag. “I stopped my logging truck in the middle of the road next to the local school because they didn’t have the flag up,” he said. “I walked into this classroom unopposed because of our freedoms,” he told the teacher, who said the students got in late and didn’t have time to raise the flag. “I said you’re the adult here, make them do it. Then she called our county supervisor and accused me of being a terrorist!” But he says that now the flag is up every day. “There are kids 24 years old who have only known liberalism,” he said. “When people attack the flag, the Constitution, and the Second Amendment it pisses me off.”
Jerry said that his relationship with the AVA began when publisher Bruce Anderson got wind of the Redwood Practical Shooters, a group of 30 or so that gets together for shooting tournaments. He said the paper labeled them “Camo Buddies,” which prompted Jerry to write a nasty response – which was printed in the paper, word for word. He said he was impressed with the unfiltered openness and has written for the paper pretty regularly ever since. “If somebody pisses me off I say ‘I’m gonna call Bruce Anderson,,” Terry laughed.
About Trump, Jerry said that he supported him and predicted he would win from the day he announced his candidacy for the presidency. “He doesn’t take any crap from anybody,” he said. “He’s done a lot of good stuff, but the better he does the more liberals attack him.” Jerry said he sees the divisiveness of the country as a huge problem. “What would this country be like if the parties got along? We’d be the strongest country in the world.” He says he has mixed feelings about the size of the defense budget. “Couldn’t we take a little bit of that money and take care of our cities, attack crime here?” he asked.
Then there’s gun control. Nobody likes to see kids blown away in their classrooms, of course, and Jerry says he sees more school security as a possible solution. People leaving the military, for example, could be hired for school security. But basically he sees guns as a way to protect himself and others. He lifted one of his pant legs to show me a pistol in an ankle holster. Never having touched a pistol, I asked him what it was. “A Glock 40,” he said. “Terry carries a gun, too.” He asked me if I carry a gun. Nope. “How about pepper spray?” he asked. Nope to that, too. He encouraged me to consider it, for my own protection. He also thought of my safety as I said good-bye, complete with warm hugs from both of them. Jerry had noticed me tottering around, still recovering from a hip replacement, so he spotted me on the steps.
He never did ask me about my politics.