Cambrian: Slice of Life

Bit tongues save the evening

People can amazingly perceptive, really they can.

Case in point: About 140 of us had gathered in the Hearst Ranch Warehouse in Old San Simeon Village recently for the annual Friends of the Elephant Seal fundraiser, “Sunset at San Simeon.”

The event included appetizers and wine, dinner and wine, dessert, coffee and wine. There were drawings, a DJ/emcee/raffle-master, music, lots of dancing to work the mega-calories from our lavish meal of seafood, Hearst beef and sweets, and a silent auction under bright, ceiling-hung parachutes.

There even was a catchy new system of balloon-popping and number catching (sometimes) that determined which four raffle participants won striking pieces of art donated by the artists in residence.

It’s the kind of event North Coast nonprofits have down to a science, thanks to various groups of splendid people:

In this case, the cause is educating the public about a large rookery of elephant seals that haul out and snooze within sight of Highway 1.

As my columnist colleague Joan Crowther reports regularly, the Piedras Blancas rookery draws considerable crowds daily. No wonder. A record number of pups were born in the rookery this season, about 4,500 of them!

The entire process happens right there, from birth and nursing to breeding, weaning to departure, molting, resting. The only thing they don’t do here is eat much.

Then it starts all over again.

Trained volunteer docents work their shifts on those windy bluff-tops nearly year-round. They inform visitors (and residents!) about the blubbery mammals, and they protect each from the other by convincing people to keep themselves, their children and pets away from the seals.

We arrived late to the Friends' dinner, latched on to the last two unoccupied chairs and took our plates to the end of the buffet line, where we chatted with some friendly, part-time San Simeonites, who live in the Bay Area and Los Angeles the rest of the time.

We shared our table with four other couples, all of whom we knew slightly or by sight … the kind of acquaintances about whom my Texas stepdaddy would have said, “We’ve howdied, but we ain’t shook yet.”

As we ate, we talked table chat about seals, otters and vacations, dancing at Madonna Inn and kayaking in San Simeon and Morro Bay.

Then the discussion turned to Cambria’s water shortage, always a potentially touchy subject in a crowd.

Flinch. Cambrians are noted for having strong opinions and not being shy about sharing them.

One man began explaining why he believes a desalination plant would help revive the town’s economy, along with its water supply.

I knew, however, that another couple at the table is adamantly opposed to desal for Cambria, so I began bracing for a nasty disagreement.

At the outset as each man stated his case, it was obvious that neither was going to change the other’s mind or back down.

It could have turned really ugly.

Fortunately, most Cambrians who disagree, no matter how vehemently, know there’s a time to argue but many more times not to, and that this was one of the latter. As if it had been planned that way, the two men stopped talking.

We all got really, really quiet. Then, in a stroke of serendipitous timing, the dancing began. The others began tripping the light fantastic. By the time we all reconvened for dessert, things were back to normal.

I’m sure we’ve all attended events where a contentious, single-issue discussion can turn the atmosphere sour in a heartbeat, making everybody squirmy except the arguers. The rest of us would rather drop through the floor than watch the inevitable.

But these two men disagreed without being disagreeable. They handled the situation with grace and sensitivity to everyone around them.

And they also knew when to shut up.

We all appreciated it. Thanks, guys. You’re true gentlemen.