Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Yuma Bob

The desert calls to all manner of dreamers, drifters, and free-thinking contrarians. Offering too much sun, too much space, and too little water, the desert allows these people to be exactly who they are. It is the lucky outsider who sometimes gets a glimpse into the life of a bonafide iconoclast.

A visit to Bob’s place in Yuma, AZ had always been in our travel plans. Bob is a long-time friend of Diane’s late father Chuck. Bob grew up a farm kid outside of Yuma in the 1940s. Chuck grew up a miner’s kid in the California Sierra at the same time. Bob joined the Army and was stationed throughout the Southwest, working for a while as an atomic bomb mechanic; Chuck joined the Air Force and was stationed in the Southwest for a while where he learned to sight guns on fighter jets. Bob became a civil engineer and inventor who traveled the world for building projects; Chuck was a carpenter who became a project superintendent who traveled the world for building projects. Despite the fact that Bob and Chuck lived in the same desert towns at about the same time, probably even frequenting the same bars on the same evenings, they did not meet until they worked on a road-building job in Malawi, Africa in the 1960s. They were best friends ever since.

A mostly-retired engineer, living alone, and in his early 70s, Bob prides himself on living frugally. He carries no debts. He owns a comfortable trailer and rents a spot in a very clean park for next to nothing. He buys old cars for a song, drives them till they drop, then buys another. He wants for nothing save time to think and read and garden and tinker with his investment portfolio and dance (Bob is passionate ballroom dancer, tripping the light three to four times a week – “I don’t exercise. I dance and I sit. That’s it.”). This frugality also gives him flexibility. When Chuck’s health was ailing (a year and a half ago now), Bob simply shuttered his place, drove up to Sacramento, and moved in. For about five months Bob was Chuck’s boon companion, erstwhile caregiver, a cook, and friend. We are forever grateful to Bob for his acts of friendship and mercy.

We arrived at Bob’s place mid-afternoon. He was waiting for us. No sooner had he showed us around the place, lingering only to cover the details of his garden, we loaded up into his car and took off on a guided tour of Yuma and the surrounding areas. Bob showed us the old town, pulling back the ghostly sheets to reveal a town in its 1950s heyday and its 1880s beginnings. He talked us through the farming history of the area and showed us the dam and irrigation projects, the Indian resettlement schemes, the farm where he grew up. After pausing to walk us through a freshly-harvested lettuce field he took us through new Yuma and tut-tutted its burgeoning dazzle of strip malls, highways, and subdivisions. Urban growth is one thing but wasteful sprawl, predicated on the auto, is a raging cancer that gobbles up farm land is folly. That we could all agree on. He has given this much thought throughout his years and is quite convinced that a city size should not exceed 200,000 people. “With cities this size you get all of the services and amenities you need,” he said. “Populations over that size don’t add anything.”

After living for three years in the Eugene/Springfield, OR metro area (total pop. 210,000), we can’t agree more.

After a wonderful night of conversation and Sudoko lessons, then a morning of thrift-store shopping, we bid Bob a heartfelt adieu. It is our sincerest hope we drift through Yuma again sometime soon.

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