It was interesting for me to read Art Van Rhyn refer to Jim Buckley as a curmudgeon. I never heard Jim called that before, but it is how I always thought of him. Jim Buckley was very opinionated and enjoyed vehemently sharing his thoughts. He was very articulate, and it was a waste of breath to try to contradict him. I loved that spirit. I don’t know why, maybe because of his age, but also because he was already a legend when I met him — and I wanted to hear his stories.
When I moved to Cambria 28 years ago, there were a handful of colorful Cambria “curmudgeons.” Jim Buckley, Art Beale, Dale Perry, Warren Leopold, Dane Burwell and Dusty Rhoades are at the top of my list. (Arguably Art Van Rhyn may fit this characterization now.) Of course, all of these guys had a softer side that was accessible without too much effort.
A few years ago, Christopher and Dinah Brazelton hosted Jim to see three or four plays in Los Angeles. Jim came home by himself on the Amtrak train, and I picked him up at the SLO Depot. Jim was over 100 at the time, and it gave me the perfect opportunity to quiz him about his youth and wartime experience. He didn’t consider himself to be a veteran because he never saw combat, but he did more than design camouflage. He also helped design and construct dioramas of towns and hedgerows that Patton would use as the Army fought its way across France.
I never had an opportunity to speak with Art Beale, but I would see him walking along Main Street regularly in the late ’80s. As irascible as he appeared in public, it was well known locally that if you knocked on his door, there was a very good chance that you would get a personal tour of his aerie on Nit Wit Ridge, and might share a glass of wine with him (especially if you brought the wine).
Dale Perry was the very vocal leader of the Pro Growth Camp in the ’80s and early ’90s. When he approached the podium at CCSD meetings, the No Growth Camp on the segregated right side of the room would groan, while on the left side, people would be muttering “Give ’em hell, Dale.” Dale was a pretty gruff character, but ask Bob Morales what he thought of him. When Bob wanted to build his El Chorlito Restaurant in San Simeon, none of the banks would lend him the money. Dale believed in Bob’s vision, and gave him the credit he needed at the Lumber Yard. A few of us contractors would have lunch with Dale every month and if there was a lull in the conversation, Dale would pull out a pistol or a Nazi SS belt buckle to pass around.
Warren Leopold was the only member of the Cambria Sunshine Club when I knew him. He didn’t have a particularly sunny disposition, but he held court on a bench near the Post Office, and was open for conversation to anyone that was willing to sit down and breathe the same air for a few minutes. I was curious to hear about the Beat Poets that would arrive at Henry Miller’s doorstep while Warren lived and worked in Big Sur. He didn’t have much use for these heroes of mine, but I did enjoy times I had sitting with him listening to his story.
Dane Burwell is a personal favorite of mine. I can picture him crossing the street, bent over with arthritis; arm and finger outstretched, lecturing the passing traffic. I think he actually cultured the identity of a curmudgeon, but all it took to open him up was to ask him about his family. Once he got started telling you about how his father rode with Black Jack Pershing chasing Pancho Villa all over northern Mexico, and was the nineteenth person to win his wings in the Army Signal Corps, you couldn’t shut him up. When Wes Torrell was restoring what is now the Garden Shed across the street from Dale’s home, Dane would visit every day. When Wes was wrapping up the construction, Dale came over to say goodbye, and told Wes “You’re the kind of guy I’d steal a truck to go visit.”
Dusty Rhoades lived high up San Simeon Creek Road near Rocky Butte. I don’t know if Dusty fits the mold of a typical curmudgeon, but he was a very private person and just wanted to be left alone up there on top of the mountain. I spent a day with him listening to him reminisce about how he flew Gen. George Marshall to the Cairo Conference near the beginning of World War II. When Marshall wanted to go around to Brisbane Australia to confer with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Dusty flew him there too. He ended up flying Marshall around the world, but while he was in Brisbane, MacArthur asked Dusty to be his personal pilot for the remainder of the war. A commission was created, and the rest is history. Dusty was there for every big moment in the Pacific Theater, including when MacArthur landed on the island of Leyte in the Philippines on Oct. 20, 1944. Dusty wanted to be a part of this memorable moment and so served as a bodyguard and appeared in the famous “I have returned” photo commemorating the event.
A few years after I met Dusty, our county supervisor, Bud Laurent, wanted Cambria to build a pipeline over the Santa Lucia Mountains to supply water from Nacimiento Lake. Well, Dusty was getting pretty old and had cancer, but assured me that he had one more fight in him and there would be no pipeline as long as he could still breathe.
Jim Buckley may be the Last of the Mohicans, but like all of these characters that were the warp and weft of Cambria, my life has been enriched by being in their presence. I miss them all.