Pigeons and Portraits Leave Unsolved Mystery
To this day, so many years later, I don't know how to think about the experience I'm sharing with you. There was no high drama or humor, no lesson to be taken away, yet the visit to the old, whitewashed home at the end of a long dirt road up the hill from Redbud remains a vivid memory.
I'd seen Willie in Redbud many times, driving into town on his golf cart on the same road traveled by 60-ton log trucks. They shared the narrow winding road that went from Redbud up to Strawberry Mine, where it abruptly ended at an elevation of 7,500 feet. No one ever spoke of a near miss or complained that the unstable little cart was not road-worthy. No traffic tickets were issued, and sheriff's deputies simply gave Willie the standard Redbud high sign when they met on the road (an index finger almost imperceptibly raised from the steering wheel).
Willie drove the golf cart because he was not physically able to drive a regular car. He walked with a pair of crutches, his body bent oddly at the waist, and people explained his condition as "some kinda Polio”. He walked mainly through using upper body strength to pull the rest of himself forward, leveraging the crutches. The hand controls on his golf cart gave him mobility so that he could make the occasional visit to town.
Word in the Eagle's Eye Cafe was that Willie raised pigeons, prize pigeons. I thought his story would make a good human-interest piece in my weekly paper, The Timberline Times, and got myself an invitation to visit.
To say that the road into his place was unimproved is an understatement. As the crow flies, it was maybe two miles off the main road, but the twists and turns took it to more like five, ending at a homestead with outbuildings in various stages of surrender. Willie's golf cart was parked near the front door that stood open. No other vehicles were in sight. I thought how lonely Willie must be - disabled and alone with only pigeons for company.
I stuck my head inside the door and called his name. "In here," I heard and lugged my recorder and SLR camera toward the voice. I wandered to an arched door that opened to a living room. There I saw an elder man in a hospital bed shoved next to a window with only a fringe of white hair escaping from the sheet that wrapped around him. A second man who looked both old and young at the same time, sat in a chair on the opposite side of the room staring at the ceiling. In the middle of the room was Willie, leaning on his crutches. I saw no television or radio, and, with the exception of the continual cooing of pigeons and the remarkably fine oil portraits that adorned the walls, the atmosphere was not unlike that of a mortuary.
Willie wasn't much of a talker, and it was obvious he wasn't used to company. He didn't offer introductions or an explanation for the body in the bed (though I assumed it was alive), and I tried to compensate by asking questions. How long had he lived there (forever), did he ever feel lonely (nope) and asked about the artwork. "Who did these pictures, they're wonderful!"
Willie pulled himself over to one wall. "You recognize anyone?" He asked. I did indeed. Marylin Monroe, Elvis, Rock, Betty. A whole gallery of expertly-done portraits of stars from the 40s and 50s. Willie said the paintings had been done by his dad, who, in his youth, was a successful artist in Hollywood. People had paid him well for their portraits, and many ended up in the homes of Hollywood glitterati. I was also hoping for an explanation that would tell me how he and the silent company in the living room landed in a vast, dilapidated house hidden in the pines with the simple question. As a star reporter, I asked, "So, how did you end up here?"
I'm always here," he said. "You want to see my friends now?"
I glanced around the room once more. The mute man in the chair hadn’t acknowledged me. The body under the sheet had not stirred.
I followed Willie outside to a big oak tree outfitted with two by fours nailed into the trunk as a ladder that ended at a platform about 18 feet up. Willie dropped his crutches to the ground and, with one hand, grabbed hold of a sturdy rope that hung from the platform and pulled himself up the ladder, arm over arm, one rung at a time. I followed and joined him on the platform where boxes and cages were assembled into an avian apartment complex. The residents were not startled at his appearance, nor mine. They sat cooing and preening and cocking their little heads in calm curiosity.
Willie again displayed a loquaciousness that seemed totally out of character. He explained the differences and similarities of the birds. He made clicking sounds to include them in the conversation. He plucked a few from their perches and petted their silky feathers with tenderness. "They come back," he said. "They always come right back here." No, they were not homing pigeons, he added. Just pigeons who knew where home was.
I got lots of great photos that day - black and whites that seemed to fit both the birds and the cinematic atmosphere in which I'd landed - and am still trying to understand.
From under the cedars, watching for bears, breathing mountain air and being grateful for landing in the Sierra, till next thought hits me like a pine cone thrown by a giant squirrel, be safe, be smart and stick with me ...
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