Cambrian: Opinion

John Brannon: So long, pal

“Dutch” Van Horn died a few weeks ago. Actually, all three “Dutch” Van Horns died. I first met Bill Van Horn when I was hired by the Newport Beach Fire Department in April 1958.

He had been on the department for a few years and was perhaps three or four years older than I. It didn’t take long to realize that he was a dependable, hard working, detail- oriented kind of guy.

At first he appeared to be older than his age. He wore nothing but tan pants and shirts — almost sort of a uniform off duty. His hair was in a style called “white-sidewalls,” like an old man. His teeth were damaged and stained from habitually sucking on lemons. But he was a popular, swell person.

In time, he rose to the rank of captain and spent most of his career on a ladder truck. Through the years he was assigned at major fires to make sure the fire did not expand to other structures downwind. Before strict building codes were adopted, sun-dried chunks of shake shingles were blown downwind like glowing briquettes. “Dutch” made darn sure that exposure fires did not originate while he was on duty.

He was a terrific baseball player at Newport Harbor High School and Orange Coast College. His knowledge of baseball facts and stats was extraordinary. He must have known the names of several hundred former players, their lifetime batting averages and nicknames. He once read that a former Hall of Fame player said that watching television tended to damage eyesight; “Dutch” did not watch the tube—he wanted to keep the eyesight that made him such a fine batter when he was young.

I doubt if anyone enjoyed smoking cigars more than “Dutch.” That odor was part of his identity. When I returned to my station office one day after being on a drill for a couple of hours, I noticed his “presence.” “Where is ‘Dutch’?” I asked.

“He was here about an hour ago. He turned around and left when he found you were not here,” I was told.

But all that changed when Peggy came back into his life. He and Peggy were classmates in high school. When she became available many, many years later, he fell head-over- heels in love. A new Bill Van Horn emerged. He had his teeth capped, let his hair grow a bit longer and began wearing different clothes, including Hawaiian shirts. He also stopped smoking cigars.

The only thing he loved more than cigars was baseball. He had season tickets to L.A. Dodger games. To sit behind home plate and smoke some cigars was absolute heaven. When the next season began, he took his seat behind home plate to watch the first game since he had given up smoking after years and years of his old routine.

A middle-aged woman took a seat directly in front of him. After a few minutes she opened her large purse and removed her toy poodle. She reached back into the bag and took out a cigar. She lit the darn thing and began puffing away — the smoke blew directly into “Dutch’s” face. He silently cursed the luck and wasn’t sure he would be able to survive the test. But he did and said later it was one of the most difficult things he ever experienced.

The end came for this interesting, hard-working guy in a manner that didn’t fit: He died from a fall in his bathroom. It just didn’t seem an appropriate ending to the story of his life.

He will be missed by all who knew him … especially Peggy.

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