88: Bob McKinney, A Hermit in Fort Bragg

Reminiscence no. 88: Bob McKinney, A Hermit in Fort Bragg

My home town, Fort Bragg, located on the upper California coast in Mendocino County about 180 miles above San Francisco, had a population of around 3,500 people during the years I lived there, from my birth in 1926 until I was in junior high school at the age of around twelve. (There was no fort there, only the   remains of an old fort, further up the coast, that had protected early settlers from the Indians; it shouldn’t be confused with the Fort Bragg in North Carolina, a real army base.) Fort Bragg in Mendocino County was dependent largely on a lumber mill, a fishing industry (located mostly a mile or so to the south, in Noyo); and small farming.

Since my parents were divorced when I was only two, I lived with a family named the Blackledges in a house on a hill off Cedar St., on the east outskirts of Fort Bragg. Charles Blackledge was an insurance broker, a short and mild-mannered bald man; his wife Esther Blackledge, known (from her youth) as Prim, was temperamental, even neurotic, persuaded that because she had once been a belle she had married beneath her, lapsing often into what were called her “spells” in which she would shut herself up in her room for hours. But all that is for another reminiscence.

Down the hill was a house in which the Rasmussens lived. Old Grandma Rasmussen had been an immigrant from Norway (if my memory is right); she was a devoted member of a Christian sect, perhaps Calvinist, I don’t remember their name but only her insistence that “the words have to come before the water” (or after, I forget.) She and her husband, who was long dead, had produced a large family. Prim was one of her daughters; others were Helga, who lived in a big house at the center of town--she was married to the longtime mayor of Fort Bragg--and Tolly, who lived in a more modest house on a nearby street; her husband was a shop-owner, I think, and they had a daughter Rowena who was like a kind of cousin to me. And there were Rasmussen sons who had left on their careers, and one, I forget his name, who wasn’t quite “all there,” as they put it, and who stayed around to do odd jobs for the household. We would often walk down the hill to spend an evening with the Rasmussens; I would sit in a big chair and read a book or look at stereopticon cards in their viewer--pictures of faraway places or of the First World War. I would fall asleep in the chair, and have to be carried to the car for the trip home (just up the hill).

Behind the Rasmussen house, in the woods that filled the space between it and the dropping-off down to the railroad tracks and the river, was a big old house occupied by one of the two town hermits, Bob McKinney. (The other, whose name I don’t remember, had a simple hut in the bushes above Pudding Creek--he was said to be a member of the British aristocracy who had somehow been banished. I never got to know him.) We saw quite a lot of Bob McKinney; sometimes he would be invited up the hill for dinner. He was more than a little “cracked,” crazy; he talked slowly in an odd voice, sometimes using word unfamiliar to me. I remember his scrawny neck and nearly-bald head. He must have been middle-aged; I couldn’t tell age at that time. He could play classical music on the piano and, if coaxed, would play and sing--we would persuade him to do that, then stifle our laughter at his fumble-fingered playing and croaky voice, while making a show of praising his performance. He was, poor guy, for us a figure of fun.

But he was the remains of an educated, even a cultivated man. His father had been a minister, who must have been more than a little “touched” himself, because he set out, we were told, to raise his son as the second coming of Jesus Christ. Bob McKinney, the story went, had once been made to try walking on water. Of course he sank. After he had received a formal education that fitted him for nothing practical, his mind cracked under the pressure of his father’s expectations, and he became the hermit we knew. He lived by going around the town collecting sour-milk slops and garbage in a smelly tank on a cart and feeding this to pigs he raised, also chickens; he cultivated vegetables around his house. What he mostly ate, I remember, was hominy, a kind of mush he could cook up in a big pot that would last a week or so. I would visit him in his house--he liked to talk to me--but I was never comfortable there.

I remember, too, that he would sometimes, maybe weekly, be visited by a teenage Portugese girl--we would be playing in the street between his place and the town, and would see her go by and taunt her, without quite knowing, at our age, what it was she and Bob McKinney did together. She would hurry past us saying nothing. This was one of a number of mysterious glimpses into matters of sex still beyond my knowledge and understanding: others included a street with brothels behind the Catholic Church south of the main crossing on Main Street, and a store in that part of town that displayed in its window “dirty” picture books of which we could see only the covers--there were Maggie and Jiggs, or Little Orphan Annie, looking quite different from the way they appeared in the comics; what they did on the inside pages I was to see only in later years--but only at a time when it was no longer exciting or stimulating.

The fantasies that these hints of sex conjured up in my child’s mind, and the part in them played by the very attractive newcomer girl in my class (also Portugese, I think) named Jean Borges, for whom I felt a hopeless passion--and she seemed compliant, even flirty--without my having any notion of what to do about it--these are matters beyond this account. It is not comfortable to think about them, since they push me into thoughts of the type: if only I had known then what I knew later! Dear Jean Borges, we would have grown up fast. And with much pleasure. Augh.

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