It was a long day, starting with Sunrise Rotary, court, budget meetings, case reviews, arraignments, trial prep for next week and an after-work meeting with the Sheriff's Office Association.
Around 6 p.m. on the drive home, I remembered I’d been invited to the Smith River Neighborhood Watch meeting. I look at what the Bertsch Tract and Dundas Watch groups and the folks in Smith River are doing to take back their neighborhoods, and the fatigue faded as I realized the blessing of that invitation.
As I listened to the 20-plus people who gave up their dinner and family time to make a difference, the pages turned back, as they do at times, to the winter of 2005, when I’d traded in my room at the Royal Roman Motel on Front Street for a smaller room with a kitchen sink at the old Brookings Hotel in Smith River. I still recall that first night, looking across the street around closing time and thinking, “Damn, the banks stay open late in this town.”
A couple nights later, my landlady told me there was going to be a town meeting at the Community Center because some folks in a big white mansion on a hill were actually getting a court order to close the center.
I went to that meeting and listened as the people who lived on the hill spoke of the noise the gatherings at the center sometimes generated. Sadly, there were racial overtones to the complaints, as well.
Good and bad, never one to go quiet, I stood up and related how that building and what it represented reminded me of a community center where I grew up in Newark, a place that was blind to racial, religious and economic differences and on a daily basis reminded us that we all go down this path together and how it got us through the riots in 1965 as well as the celebrations of our lives — the births, christenings, weddings, graduations and passing-ons — and how that center in Smith River served that same purpose.
Things then got a little testy as a couple folks said in language that sometimes gets you to a parking lot invite, how I was an outsider and ought to keep my opinions to myself. Things heated up, until a fellow sitting behind me got up and said he’d been living in the area for a couple decades and more and had seen all the celebrations of life that building had witnessed and welcomed, and how he agreed with the “new fella” and how a little noise every now and then just went to show we were alive and what a sin shutting down the center would be.
On that night, Chuck Blackburn came to my defense. Over the next five years, he came to be my friend.
On Wednesday night, as I walked from that room where we met six winters ago and heard my boot heels echoing off that small gym floor and its walls, I could hear the ghosts in the past — the cheers, the tears, the scoreboard buzzer, the chant of “Team” as the hands came off a coach’s outstretched palm, and the guitar strains from weddings and quinceaneras. All those and a thousand others that celebrate this thing called life, especially in small towns where folks know one another.
I think of Chuck Blackburn and I see the best of that — something that James Earl Jones spoke to when he told of “all that once was good and could be again in Americ,” and Ray Kinsella touched when he called to his Dad to play catch one last time in that same field of dreams.
And tonight, I’ll be thinking of another Chuck Blackburn look-alike, Gene Hackman’s Coach Norman Dale in “Hoosiers,” which told the real-life story of small town Milan High School’s impossible run to the 1954 Indiana stat championship:
“If you put your effort ... into being the best you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book, we’re gonna be winners. I love you guys.”
There are things in this life and this place that are precious and venerable and soon I’ll listen to one of them on his last radio call from the booth. And I know I’ll hear the phrase from the mike one last time, “Can’t buy it.”
Truer words never spoken. Thanks, Chuck.
Jon Alexander is a Crescent City resident and the Del Norte County district attorney.