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
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
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