July 23, 2014

Remembering Jack Birdsall—1934-2014

 

Oh, Jack Bird . . .

You pal, You friend, You kind, kind man.

How very sad to say goodbye.

You gentle, accepting human being,

You warm, appreciative guy,

You mentor, inventor, helper,

Handyman, confidant, teacher,

You sweet person, You dear, dear friend,

How can it be that this could end?


Topanga mourns the loss of former resident and longtime friend, Jack Birdsall, who passed away on March 28, after he was stricken with a relentless respiratory illness. Less than a month had gone by from the time he and his wife Marlene returned from a jaunt to their get-away casita in the coastal village of La Bocana, Baja. Jack became ill on the return trip, the flu-like symptoms quickly developing into full-scale pneumonia from which he was unable to recover.

Jack Birdsall was born in San Diego August 19, 1934. His mother died within a month of his birth and his father, apparently overwhelmed by the responsibility, deserted the family leaving Jack and his four siblings in the care of his grandfather and step-grandmother who lived in Lynwood. The older children proved too great a burden for the elder Birdsalls to care for and they were placed in an orphanage where conditions were so poor that one of Jack's sisters died. Eventually his grandparents were able to retrieve the remaining children.

Jack had many interests as a child and according to his memory book called "Stuff," his curiosity about flight began at an early age. World War II was in full swing. He and his brother, John, lived near the Vultee Aircraft Plant and saw planes in the sky everyday. They learned the names and specifications of every airplane of WWII and they "made model airplanes and kept lists of the bombing raids in Europe. It was all very intense, and the main topic of conversation between the boys at school was flight in all its forms."

In his memory book, Jack also recalls the air raid of 1942 where "We were awakened by gunfire nearby our house. Anti aircraft cannons were shooting at an intruder.... Searchlights were racing across the sky...the shooting went on for quite awhile." He adds that everyone huddled in the dark hall of the blacked-out house while outside his grandfather, donning his Air Raid Warden helmet, was carrying his club and "making sure no one turned on a light." Later, Jack learned that the whole thing had been a panic attack and there never had been an intruder.

Though Jack had many, many interests, number one on his list was Marlene. Theirs was a love story that began like the script for a teenage movie. He was a lifeguard at a summer resort where she was vacationing with her parents. The sparks were intense enough in the first brief encounter and, although he had to drive 20 miles each time he wanted to see her, Jack pursued the relationship when summer became fall and they returned to their respective homes and schools. According to Marlene "He was fun, funny and helpful. He won my parents over because he liked helping in the kitchen." The romance continued throughout their college days at UCLA and the two were married in 1956, a marriage of 58 years only now interrupted by Jack's untimely passing.

Following their marriage and after working for two years, Jack at Douglas aircraft and Marlene as a teacher at Samo High, the two romantics took their entire savings and set off for a month-long trip to Europe. The journey began with more adventure than they had anticipated when the DC-7C aircraft on which they were flying developed a runaway propeller over the middle of the North Atlantic, a very serious problem according to Jack in his "Stuff."

"The Airplane suddenly slowed and the pilot applied full power to the remaining engines. We went into a take-off attitude even though we were high in the sky, with the remaining engines straining to keep us airborne. When a prop 'runs away,' its connection with the engine is broken and it is free to turn on its own. The wind created by the airplane's forward motion makes the prop spin rapidly, which, in turn, creates a terrible drag that can only be overcome by full power from the other engines.

"We were all worried but there were no announcements from the pilot or crew; they were probably scared speechless or were too busy to care. For some weird reason, we put on our shoes and packed all our books and papers in our carry-on luggage. A small English child was crying; his mother said to be quiet or 'the others would think you are an American,' proving there's always time for prejudice even in the presence of imminent death."

Needless to say, the Birdsalls survived this harrowing ordeal, though Marlene had great difficulty getting up the courage to fly again, but that would be necessary, as Jack never flinched in his love of flight and went on to get his pilot's license and obtain part ownership of a plane.

After living in several rentals in the Santa Monica area and a home in Pacific Palisades, the Birdsalls moved to Topanga with their two small children, Brian and Janine, in 1964. Jack didn't like the conformity of life in the Palisades and was influenced by some friends they'd made in the hills above Santa Barbara who were living an alternative lifestyle, one that included adobe homes, hot tubs, wine making and communal living.

Commuting from the Palisades to work at Litton in the Valley where he was now employed as an electrical engineer, Jack traversed Topanga Canyon on a weekday basis and discovered what seemed like the ideal place for him and Marlene to pursue their dream of building an adobe house.They bought a 3-acre parcel up and over the very top of Topanga Skyline Drive. They moved into the Old Canyon apartments as managers while they worked on building their dream home from scratch.

And scratch it was. They began by making their own adobe bricks, mixing Topanga clay with emulsified asphalt to make them waterproof and filling the handmade wooden forms with the viscous blend, which was then dried in the sun. The acreage was quite remote at the time, with no other houses around and their "casa" was to rest on a tiered area of small flat sections half-way up this beautiful pristine, primitive little canyon.

But something else was happening. As managers of the Old Canyon apartments, the Birdsalls found themselves in the center of a real old-fashioned community, making friends, many of whom they maintained a relationship with throughout their lives.

Among those who actually lived in the apartments at the time were Connie and Ian; Bob and Phyllis Lathers and their sons Delmar, Herbie and Stanley. Delmar, who is a docent and teaches pottery, is still a friend as are many of the other children who began their respective Topanga lives in Old Canyon at that time. Brent Holmes, a bachelor who remained a friend until his demise a few years ago, also lived there.

Lee Chiles (Kelly) lived across the street at the corner of Bonnell Drive with her two boys, Greg and Chris, and became a lifetime friend. Eli Sercarz was married to Renan at the time and lived behind the apartments with their children, Margo, Lisa, Joel and Yana. Years later, Eli and Renan divorced and Eli married Rabyn Sheldon who was also a friend of the Old Canyon group. Stan and Mary Cepin lived across the street with their six daughters and baby boy Michael.

Jack and Barbara Rice and their three girls, Caitlin, Megan and Anthea, were a block or two away on Topanga Skyline Drive, and eventually they had another child, this time a boy they named Aran. Jim Sullivan and Sue Scott ran the Old Canyon Pottery out of a garage behind Brooks Market and later married, moved to Greenleaf Canyon and had Kathleen. "Scotty" Colin Turner hung around in his old Chevy panel truck, and later became known as the "Veggie Man," driving an old VW on loan from the Birdsalls. Even "Shorty" Ewing was in the picture along with his real live lion cub because he was sweet on a little beautician who lived in the apartments.

Jim and Rebecca Andrews were guests at some point or another as their close friend, Maurice "Mo" McEndree, was flitting about Old Canyon in pursuit of several females, one of whom was Connie Wright. Mo had co-produced the John Cassavetes film "Faces." Later, Rebecca divorced Jim and many years later, married Howard Craig, an artist from the Topanga Canyon Gallery. Jack and Howard were destined to become very good friends.

The essence of Jack Birdsall was his acceptance of people from any walk of life and, even though the Birdsall's lifestyle was more traditional than not, the hippy era was in full swing and there were many shared gatherings of one kind or another with just about anybody in attendance. Sometimes there was a fish fry in front of Brooks Market or a barbeque potluck at the apartments or a communal gathering of clams just south of Ventura followed by a clambake of sorts back home. Whatever it was, Jack would get out his guitar or sit down at the piano and everyone would sing together. Jack had always loved music, and folk music was "in" so most everybody knew the words to the songs.

During this period of time, the Birdsalls began to pursue their wine-making hobby and held the first of what was to be a series of annual grape stomps. They set up a vat at the apartments and everyone was invited to come. The vat didn't hold many people, so folks removed their shoes, rolled up their pants and took turns crunching the grapes between their toes. Little wine resulted from this event, but all had great fun and looked forward to doing it again next year.

Needing more room for their expanding family, as Sarah had now come along, the Birdsalls moved across the street into the small yellow house at the corner of Old Canyon and Skyline. This house had a large yard and more room for the stomping vat which doubled as a hot tub during the off-grape season. A goat was added to the family and a dog named Lassie joined them after the kids found her on a camping trip.

Jack loved the outdoors. He enjoyed cycling, skiing, hiking, walking, swimming and camping. In the earlier years the camping was fairly primitive and at some point we all set off together for Guaymas, Mexico. I had been there before with my parents and opted to be the guide, so the Birds and I with five children between us, took off in a van and a Volkswagen bug, toting supplies and a borrowed tent. It was a long haul to Guaymas so we decided to spend the first night al fresco, in sleeping bags on the desert floor sans tent. Jack went for a moonlight walk and returned a short time later, out of breath, panting and scraping at his skin and clothes. Marlene and I were stunned at his behavior until he revealed that he had encountered some kind of wild screeching creature and had climbed the nearest semblance of a tree, a cactus, to get away. Poor Jack! We couldn't keep from laughing as we picked the thorns from his body. Otherwise, for the most part, it was a grand trip, and the beginning of a love affair with Mexico for the Birdsalls.

Once back in Topanga, the Birds discovered that Mary Cepin was not too keen on the wine vat event occurring next door to her home and her six daughters, so the annual stomp was moved to the little canyon where the Birds' adobe casa was rising, and the clothed participants began shedding their togs, the primary reason being that clothes sucked up too much juice and there was just too little left to make wine once the stompers were out of the vat.

These events in that untouched canyon setting were beautiful. Sangria flowed endlessly, folks stripped and stomped and sang, food was in abundance and the little canyon glowed with friendship and camaraderie. It was warm and heartwarming and wonderful, and fully in the hippy-era mode of peace, love and song. Eventually, as the saying goes, "The Times-They Were A-Changing"; folks moved away or found other interests and by 1982 the annual bash had become more work than fun, and so the great era of the annual grape stomp came to an end.

Always happiest when he had a project to work on, Jack liked to tinker with things and cars were among his favorite toys. During the '70s he started to amass a virtual horde of old Volvos which he was constantly renovating by using parts from one for another. Several years later, their landscape now filled with Swedish car carcasses, Jack grew tired of the activity and moved on to a new endeavor. Marlene, also weary of the unsightly vista, was happy to dispose of the accumulation of tangled mangled automobile pieces and parts.

In 1997, with their children now grown, married and having left home, Jack and Marlene sold their beloved adobe house and moved to the valley. Jack's love affair with painting had already begun and he kept in contact with many of his canyon friends through his association with the Topanga Canyon Gallery of which he was a member. He became a close friend of Howard Craig and Megan Rice, and got reacquainted with Jim Sullivan and Rebecca Andrews. He made many new friends, among them Rebecca Catterall and Hadiya Finley. Jack was an accomplished painter and exhibited his work in both the canyon and the valley.

Jack and Marlene loved to travel and now was the time. Though son, Brian, had married a Southern California girl and remained in the Southland. Daughter, Janine, had married a Mexican veterinarian, Luis Lizarraga, whose family hailed from Ensenada. The Birds were quite familiar with the Mexican landscape, having built their own little cottage on the rocky shores of La Bocana in Baja where they made frequent jaunts. Now they crossed the border to spend time with Luis' family, celebrating holidays or just visiting.

Youngest daughter, Sarah, had married an Italian, Alessandro Valori, from Torino, Italy, and moved to his homeland. The Birds began regular trips to Europe for alternate summers with Sarah and Ale, and excursions elsewhere. As they became more adventurous they traveled more extensively and favorites were Greece, Sicily, Puglia, Southern Spain and Turkey. Their last trip was to Croatia in October, 2013.

The Birdsalls never took tours, but preferred to use ferries, local buses, the train and sometimes a rental car. They stayed in rooms rented by locals or little two-star hotels. Marlene made the plan as Jack never liked to, but "he was happy to follow along," she says. Wherever they were, Jack would make cappuccino every morning to have with their cereal, and a picnic lunch so they could eat outside and watch the world go by.

Jack was the kind of guy who went to great lengths to help out family and friends. When Brian and Betsy purchased a house in Agoura, Jack and Marlene would whisk over on the weekends to help them with renovations.

Marlene relates that every Tuesday, Jack would drive to Northridge to assist his 92-year-old drawing teacher, Alex Carrillo. They would have coffee, visit and do whatever Alex had a need for. Among other things, Jack wrapped all the pipes on Alex's roof, repaired the washing machine, trimmed bushes, painted trim, fixed the watering system and shopped for him.

Jack had also befriended a fellow artist, Brian Spellman, while the two were attending art classes at the old Learning Tree. When Spellman had to have a lung operation Jack took him to the hospital and became his main visitor during the long hospital stay. By now, Jack had also mastered the art of self publishing and helped Spellman make books of his art and his many cartoons.

Malibu architect Doug Rucker was a friend and on Fridays, when Jack made and took lunch over to son Brian's home, he would stop by Doug's house. He formatted many of the artistic books that Doug had created and published them on Lulu. According to Marlene, Jack must have published close to 100 books for family and friends, including daughter Janine Lizarraga's novel, "On Uneven Ground." He loved publishing books and never failed to ask just about anybody if they had a book they wanted published!

Jack Birdsall was the kindest man I've ever known. Kind enough to assemble a bike for one of my boys and walk out in the rain and adobe muck to give it to me on Christmas eve. Kind enough to continue to spend time with Howard Craig at Howard's home even after Howard could no longer paint or remember much of what it was about. Kind enough that he and Marlene were the ones who spent the whole night lying on the floor at UCLA hospital while my husband underwent surgery for a liver transplant. And kind enough to go with me to the four-hour class I had to attend in order to learn how to take care of Richard when he was well enough to come home. Somehow Jack knew how scared and how alone I was, and his presence at that time made all the difference.

Jack is survived by his wife, Marlene; their children, Brian, Janine and Sarah; grandchildren, Laura and Jennifer Birdsall, Ricky and Gabriel Lizarraga and Nicholas and Isabel Valori; and all those who were lucky enough to have Jack Birdsall in their lives.