My Great Uncle Jim is 97 years-old. He’s my paternal grandfather’s brother, and true to the Clark genes, he’s as tough and cantankerous as they come. It had been two years since I had made a visit to see him on one of my prior trips home. I’d been curious about my sailing roots and asked my dad how he’d learned to sail:
“We should go out and talk to the man himself,” he’d said. So one afternoon, we’d hopped in the car and driven out to my great uncle’s plumeria farm in Fallbrook.
…I recalled hearing about this man on our family sailing trips when I was a kid. My father would often recount stories from their voyages to Catalina aboard his spartan, motorless sailboats. It was with this man that my father got to know the sea…
I’d been fascinated by my uncle that day, and since had written him letters from my voyage, but I couldn’t miss the chance to see him again in person, so I made my way out to visit him day while I was in San Diego. The handwritten letters on his mailbox struck me as I turned down the gravel driveway. ‘CLARK’, they read. As much as I’ve sought to define myself as an individual, this particular trip home had repeatedly reminded me that a huge amount of who I am resides in my genes…
It was early afternoon when I arrived and I hoped he wouldn’t be napping, as the phone number I had for him wasn’t working. I pulled up to the house and a big fluffy dog came out barking wildly, followed by my second cousin Michael whom I hadn’t seen in maybe 15 years…
“Michael?” I asked.
“Yes. Liz, right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“It’s okay, Charlie.” He cooed to the dog.
Michael is my Uncle Jim’s grandson. I was happy to see him. Up to a few months prior, stubborn ol’ Jim had still been living alone. Despite only having one eye, he would drive down the steep mountain road to get supplies of fresh catfish and orange sodas. He’d kept his tall, lean body able by tilling soil for his remaining plumerias and keeping up the house and property. Michael had recently decided to move back from San Luis Obispo and live with his grandfather, rather than let the rest of the family send him to an assisted living facility. Yeah Michael!
Uncle Jim soon appeared out of the back door and came down to greet me, moving with no evident difficulty. I threw my arms around him in a hug that seemed to surprise him. Michael grinned and they led me into the two-story, ‘barn-style’ house and up the bare wooden stairwell, lined with framed, black and white photos, spaced evenly up the wall. There was a picture of waves crashing against the rocks in northern Malibu, another of fishing boats docked in the LA harbor, and above the stairwell there was a sailboat pushing through a sparkling sea with the spinnaker aloft. It was my uncle’s favorite sailboat, he quickly explained. Freya was a Nordic Cruiser he’d had shipped in from Denmark.
The stairs led up to one large, open room that consisted of a kitchen nook and a living area with two rocking chairs, two twin beds, a table and a lamp. Sailing trophies and duck figurines sat atop the hand-made shelves. The room was clean, airy, and had a zen-like feeling of simplicity. There was no television, only a stack of National Geogaphic’s and a newsletter from the Southern California Plumeria Society sat on a tray table in front of the rocking chairs.
He offered me an orange soda and we sat in the rocking chairs. As quickly as I could ask a question, he’d answer and ask one about my sailing adventure. As my inquiries led from one tale to another, I learned we had more than just a love of sailing in common. He’d been a photographer, a surfer, a bodysurfer, a traveler, and a lover of plants. He’d shaped his own surfboard out of redwood in his friend’s garage back in Downey. “I loved to ride the breakers that crested and toppled smoothly,” he recalled, gazing out as if he could almost see them.
I listened eagerly, cherishing every word. Michael listened, too, and gently offered additions to the conversation when he deemed it appropriate. Their mutual love and respect was obvious.
Sailing had been a hobby for my great uncle. It was his passion for plants that had led him through various jobs in landscaping until he fled the urban lifestyle into the Fallbrook hills after finding a cheap piece of land, deemed invaluable for the fungus-infected grove of avocado trees that stood there. He’d uprooted and removed them, one by one, while living out of a damp old camper van on the property. Little by little he’d cleared and graded the land. Then my grandfather Bob and my father (his brother and nephew), had helped him build the greenhouse on the hillside and the home in which we all sat. Above the house, rows of special varieties of plumeria climbed the hillside. He grew and eventually sold them to nurseries or direct buyers around San Diego county for many years. The market for plumerias ‘was done’ now, he explained, ‘no room for the little guys’. But in spite of that, it seemed clear that he’d enjoyed his life–hands constantly in the dirt while helping raise Michael from a young age. A few houses had sprung up around his plot on the hill, but from the window on the east side of the room an unchanged view of wild brush on the adjacent hillside remained.
From what I gathered, he had loved a good adventure. In addition to the large amount of time spent sailing around Catalina Island, he and his wife, Norma, had made many overland trips as well. They’d driven all the way to Cabo in the late sixties and taken numerous summer trips to explore old mining towns in remote parts of the High Sierras.
He recalled one place, way back in the mountains, called ‘La Porte’.
“There were probably only five people living in the whole town–only one general store which was also the post office with a single gasoline pump out front. A real ‘off the map’ sort of place….It was blazing hot that day, and I went inside to get an ice cream. I came out with a Klondike bar and sat down on a bench. A real ‘old timer’ was watching me and soon his curiosity got the best of him. He came over and asked…”
At this point I pause to point out that my 97-year old uncle just described the man in his story as an ‘old timer’ like the description had absolutely no relevance to him. He then went on to imitate the high and squeaky voice of the ‘old timer’…
“‘Hey there sonny, whatchyou eatin?’” he mimicked. “Then I said, ‘You mean to tell me you’ve never had a Klondike bar?’ The ‘old timer’ shook his head so I told him to wait there. I went back into the general store and bought him a Klondike bar. By gosh, you wouldn’t have believed how big his eyes were after every bite!”
It struck me how clearly he remembered this small act of kindness. He also spoke of his close relationships with the migrant workers from Mexico who came seasonally to work agricultural jobs on properties nearby–how they helped him when they saw he needed a hand, and how he had helped them too—often helping them get legal working papers and improving the dismal living situations of those that camped-out nearby his house.
I suddenly realized it was dark outside. The afternoon had slipped away in a blur of choice narrative. My uncle’s voice began to sound hoarse and I knew I should get going, although it seemed he could have talked until sunup. We looked at the clock—nearly six hours had passed! I hugged and thanked him, giving him a copy of a book I thought he’d enjoy called, “An Island to Oneself” by Tom Neale. Michael graciously walked me out and I promised I would make one more visit before I went back to Swell…
I stepped out into the night and wandered slowly down to my car, taking in the stars above and the sweet silence between the crunching of gravel underfoot. I savored the distinct smell of native Californian shrubbery that I loved so much. Looking back at the house, its one window aglow with tawny light, I wondered, “When the end of my earthly haul closes in, what will I remember? How will I help generations that follow me understand where they came from, what to hold on to, and how to evolve? I loved my Uncle Jim for living his life exactly the way he’d believed it should be lived. I felt a surge of pride knowing that I was of his blood, and that his love of the sea had trickled down and lived on in me.