Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I’ve had the privilege of living in a wide variety of countries and societies. And having not always been entirely sane myself, one way that I judge societies is by how they handle their crazy folks. “Back in the day”, as they say, I lived in a town called Olema, and I was loosely associated with a group of people called the “Diggers“. The Diggers had a communal ranch up the hill from my place, Peter Coyote lived up there. It was a lovely secluded old place, with a constantly changing cast of outrageous characters living and passing through the ranch. Among them was one of the crazy folks, I’ll call him Billy because that wasn’t his name.
Like many crazy people, he cycled into and out of his illness. When he started acting up, people would talk to him about it. When it got bad, he’d retreat to his one-room shack behind the main house where he lived. He’d go into his shack for a while, and wouldn’t come out. People fed him, when the dinner meal was cooked and everyone sat down to eat together, someone would take him a plate, and he’d open the old wood-panel door to the shack, but hardly talk, take the plate and close the door. And when he got really mental, he’d pull the bottom panel out of the door, and people would just put the plate in through the open panel, and take out the dirty dishes. After while, he’d hit bottom, and the first sign of him coming back was he’d put the bottom panel back in the door, and open the door for his food. Then after a while he’d start to talk to people, a bit at first, and finally, maybe a month after he’d first shut himself up, he’d come back out and join the group for dinner and the like. He’d talk to people about where he had gone, it didn’t make much sense, but people listened and tried to explain things as best they could. No one thought of him as special, he was just crazy Billy.
That was one of the most compassionate acts by a group of people that I had seen, and the memory of it has stuck with me.
I was reminded of the Diggers, and of Crazy Billy, by the recent death of a man whom everyone around here called “Ranger Rick”.
Ranger Rick Kaufman, 1949-2012 SOURCE
I live near a little town in the redwood-covered hills called Occidental. It’s not a city, it has no city government, it’s known for its Italian restaurants and not much else. There’s maybe a dozen or so businesses. And somehow, over the last quarter century or so, Ranger Rick became the unofficial mayor of Occidental. Or maybe the town greeter. Or perhaps just the street sweeper. He didn’t do much, he didn’t have any official job, and he drank too much, but he was the spirit of the town.
Ranger Rick was nobody’s fool … but he looked at the world from some very different place than you and I. He could be kind and gentle one minute and raging angry the next, but he never hurt a fly. He watched over the town like some benign and slightly demented elf.
A local guy let Rick sleep in an old cabin on his land. Some of the town merchants kicked in a few bucks a month for a stipend. People who had restaurants gave him the odd meal. He walked from his cabin to town every morning. If you drove through town too fast, he’d shout at you. Sometimes he was not entirely coherent. He pruned the town trees. But mostly, he just wandered the town, back and forth, side to side, helping people who looked lost, keeping an eye on the kids getting on and off the school bus, talking to the tourists. He was the public face of the town, the common thread over the years, the often-inebriated town greeter, both cranky and kind, sweeping the streets and muttering to himself.
And finally, sadly, I suppose inevitably, the alcohol caught up with Ranger Rick last week, and he died peacefully in his sleep.
Yes, you’re right, this has nothing to do with climate, check the masthead, sometimes this site is commentary on life. I bring this up because far too often we are reminded of man’s inhumanity to man. I bring it up because I want to commend and celebrate the spirit of the people of the town of Occidental. Any place else, Ranger Rick might just have been despised as the town drunk, but the people of Occidental made room in their town for a strange, lonely, eccentric and somewhat demented man to have a full and meaningful life. And to me, that’s an important measure of any society, what we do with our crazy folks.
My best wishes to all, hug your loves and your folks and your kids, life is far too short, remember Phlebas …
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell And the profit and loss. A current under sea Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell He passed the stages of his age and youth Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
I thought long and hard about whether I should publish this one, and as part of that, I recalled my childhood where my father helped out a guy like this from time to time.
I also recalled something said in the journalism business, about how every person gets their name in the newspaper; when they are born, and when they die. Since Occidental apparently doesn’t have a town newspaper, I decided to let WUWT serve that purpose.
My thanks to you for your choice, Anthony. Indeed there is no newspaper in Occidental. A memorial service for Ranger Rick will be held at 11 a.m. on March 3 at St. Philip Church in Occidental.
I went today to the town of Occidental for Ranger Rick’s memorial service. The yellow daffodils were blooming all over town. Rick’s mother and his two grown daughters were there. I think they were surprised at how well-loved he was … and at the host of strange folk, young and old, who were his friends.
Occidental is a time-warp kind of place, located in a hidden landscape of the mind rather than a geographical location, full of vestigial hippies and other refugees from the 1960s. It’s not even a town. People came from miles around to honor Rick, and to tell stories of how he had touched their lives. A little girl, maybe five years old, stood up at the microphone and said “I liked Ranger Rick. He was my friend. One day he stopped us from having a food fight, and gave us bouncy balls instead.” From the mouths of babes … kids were always his favorites.
Occidental for a while had a couple of resident chickens, a rooster and a hen. They just wandered around town, kind of the town pets. A local merchant told his tale of the Ranger. “When I came to town to open my pub, Rick started coming around. I asked some of the other merchants who he was. They said ‘He’s the Mayor of Occidental’. ‘Mayor?’ I said. ‘Occidental’s not even a town, it’s just a ‘census designated place’, it doesn’t have a Mayor.’ ‘Rick’s the Mayor anyhow’, I was told. So when I saw Rick again I said ‘So I’m told you’re the Mayor of Occidental.’ ‘No, I’m not,’ Ranger said. ‘The Mayor of Occidental is the rooster.’ He was perfectly serious.”
Another man who was living in another town told of taking a job in Occidental. At his first lunch break he went to a local store to get some food. “I was standing at the counter when I heard the door open. A man who was mostly beard stuck his head in and said ‘Hey … come with me.’ I looked around, no one else was there, he must have been talking to me. I didn’t know what to do, so I turned away, and I heard the door close. In a few minutes it opened again, and the strange man was there again. ‘Hey … come with me.’ I truly didn’t know what was happening. I paid for my food. When I went outside, he was there and said “Come with me!”. He disappeared around the corner of the building. I didn’t know the town, I didn’t know him … people had warned me about Occidental, and now four hours in town and I was already going down the rabbit hole. I peered around the corner. He was just going around the next corner. I followed him out to the edge of town where he had stopped under a tree. ‘It’s here’, he said. ‘What’s here?’ I said. ‘I mean right here on this spot’ he said. What is it that’s here?’ I asked. ‘It’s the Yum-Yum tree’, he said, and pointed upwards. I looked up and to my amazement, the tree was full of ripe pomelos. Rick started pulling them off and piling them in my arms. He loaded up as well, and we went through a back trail to the main road. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘I just got to town and I’m already a criminal with a demented accessory’. When we got to the road Rick said excitedly, ‘It’s up there!’ and pointed up the road. ‘What’s up there?’ I asked, mystified. ‘It’s big, it erupts out of the ground’, he said. ‘That’s a fire hydrant’ I objected. ‘Exactly’, he said, ‘let’s get it,’ and he started bowling pomelos, uphill, at the fire hydrant. I had no choice at that point—there was nothing left to do but embrace the suck, so I joined in the bowling. I ended up good friends with Rick, and I have to add there’s one thing he did for me that nobody had ever done. He really improved my pomelo bowling …”
Yeah, that’s Occidental, all right, spend half a day there and you end up pomelo bowling with a genial madman … the next guy got up. “I went over in the morning after Rick died. I took his stash because I didn’t want the police to find it, and I put it in a safe place. So after I finish talking here, I’m going across the street and anyone who wants can help me use up Rick’s stash in his honor …” He drifted off. I saw him later across the street with a half-dozen folks. As sometimes happens in Occidental, the weather in their immediate vicinity had gotten kind of hazy, I think it might be something to do with naturally generated aerosols or something. They were laughing, talking about the Ranger, honoring their fallen friend in their own manner.
So the stories flowed, one hour, two hours, people talking, people weeping, stories from the kids and the dads and the moms. One woman said she’d let Rick sleep on her couch sometimes. She said he never asked for much, but occasionally she’d give him clean socks when he asked for them. Another man stood up and said “I thought I was the only one giving him clean socks”. So did another man … socks, go figure. Occidental is a town where the people give a lost man clean socks … and it is a town where that’s pretty much all he asked for, people gave him the rest without his asking, because in his madness he worked hard every day at keeping the town sane.
Lots of folks were wearing Ranger Rick t-shirts today, with no words on them, just his face in black and white with his piercing blue eyes. And there was a sign up on a table that said “Everything I need to know I learned from Ranger Rick”, with his photo, and a place for people to write their wishes … and there were pages and pages of wishes for Rick.
It’s that kind of town. The daffodils were blooming today in Occidental. Rick planted most of them. He cared for the flowers and talked with them and gave them water. We cared for him and talked with him and gave him clean socks. Sometimes, life is not all that complex.
…  collected for Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …