It’s unusually hot for Carlsbad, and sweat soaks the man’s T-shirt. He stops to wipe his face, then rips the chain saw alive and cuts another branch into short pieces to add to the pile on the cart.
Over the several hours and many days he’s been out here, the cart has multiple times been piled high with eucalyptus and willow branches, but there is no end of them, so his work will begin anew, even when he reaches the end of the trail. The trees must be amused.
The sweating man is Don Connors, and he’s out here cutting away at the overgrowth on the trail running along the edge of Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad because he knows what he’s doing will benefit nature lovers and casual hikers. His debtors are those who walk the shadow-laced trail alongside the lagoon waters where shorebirds and splashing fish elegantly go about the business of survival.
Given all his labors on behalf of nature, you might think he’d have a shrine to Greenpeace in his bedroom and know every lizard by sight and every bird by sound.
But he doesn’t claim to be a naturalist. He’s a citizen with a sense of responsibility who has committed to do grunt work that men half his age are happy to watch him do.
All this hard work would be remarkable, but it becomes startling when you’re told Don Connors is 89 years old. But don’t try to outwork him unless you have a head start.
He also has a personal grief that the work provides a distraction from. It has nothing to do with children hiking or birds in the tops of trees.
The sweat of his brow is a balm for a wounded heart, for the loss of a woman who slowly went from casual friend to someone who became his love — and for whom he made a grand, selfless expression of that love.
Now, three months after Dee Weldon’s death, when he first speaks her name, tears gather in his eyes.
Don Connors pinches words like a landlord does pennies: He’ll spend them, but only in exact amounts and dole them out one at a time. He feels no urge to burden others with his emotions, deep though they run. If he were subjected to medieval torture, he might admit, “That hurt.”
Perhaps he learned to be laconic because of his career — a CIA agent at the height of the Cold War. Even to this day, his lips are sealed on names and dates. When pressed, he offers a rather amusing anecdote that is carefully laundered with his mind on an oath of silence he took long ago:
“There’s one situation, it was a thing down in Central America, in the ’60s, and — let’s see, how I can phrase this — I was involved as field security manager for the operation. We had to remove some people who believed in what they were doing, but which was not quite the same as what the U.S. believed. They needed to be out of sight for a short period of time.
“We found a place where we could take them and give them a ‘vacation.’ I don’t know if I’m making myself clear enough. This place was where you would never, ever go or even think of going, or even know existed. We had (airplane) windows opaqued so they couldn’t tell where they were at.
“It wasn’t in any travel brochures, and these people were not volunteering, let’s put it that way. We had to build a facility to take care of them during their vacation. But then when we got them there, we had to keep them from straying because that would not be a nice thing to happen. It was dangerous for them and for other people.
“It was an interesting operation because at night you could hear critters out and around, and you knew those critters were looking for dinner. The project worked well. Nobody got hurt and the ‘guests’ finally went back to their original lives. Incidentally, our national concerns did not win the day.”
Connors is tight-lipped about missions the CIA has probably lost the files on. That he was a good “company man,” we should have no doubt.
Don lost Alice, his wife of almost four decades, in 1999 to breast cancer. She was 74, the same age as him at the time.
“I loved my wife very much, and she loved me. We had two sons. We went to Hawaii and we did things together. She was a member of Sweet Adelines. She liked gardening, and I still take care of her roses.”
In 2000, he went to a neighborhood gathering in Carlsbad and met Delores “Dee” Weldon, who lived only a short distance from him. She was his age, was a widow and was a veteran of two marriages that were not happily-ever-after. Dee had a son and looked back on a satisfying career in civil service.
Their attraction was not a mystery. They had a mutual love of travel, nature and hiking. She had a good sense of humor and was fun to be with. For the next 14 years, they were constant companions. They talked of marriage, but it didn’t seem to promise more than they already had, so they shelved the idea.
“We traveled quite a bit. She went up to Washington state one time to visit my son and his family, and we had trips when we would go to San Francisco, get a little hotel, and we’d walk up the hills and down the hills and go to the Palace and the Top of the Mark and little restaurants that I knew about. It was just always fun and a joy to be with her.”
They also traveled to Japan, and the familiar Hawaii.
In May 2013, Dee’s health began to decline. Don says they went to different specialists, but he never got a fix on a specific diagnosis — just a generalized condition and probably old age.
The decline was precipitous, and it quickly became apparent she no longer could live alone in the house that was the locus of her independence. She moved in with Don.
“She couldn’t care for herself. She couldn’t bathe herself. She couldn’t medicate herself. She couldn’t cook for herself or take care of her house. We went over to her house several times a week. Sometimes she’d use her walker, and sometimes a cane, but it was her house, and she wanted to go to it.”
When was the first time you said you loved her?
“Probably when she came to live with me. She certainly knew it before, but we didn’t need to talk about it. We were both comfortable with who we were and where we were, and how we were doing.”
This May, one year after the disease onset, Don remembers the day he knew the end was very near. He moved close to her and said, “I love you.” She looked up and whispered those same words back to him.
Don is alone once more. His strong caretaking instincts are again unused. But he’s turned his energy to trying to make a better place out of this small slice of earth we can touch and have an effect on. That’s why you’ll encounter him on the trail, but before he comes into sight, you’ll hear the chain saw.
“I’m not one to withdraw and close out the world. Too many things need doing.”
This is not a Hollywood love story; it lacks the silly groping and panting. This is a story of two mature individuals nearing the end of their days who challenged time, and time backed off. Don and Dee were open to life’s promise, and life rewarded them.
The felicity of romance is open-ended. “By heaven, I do love: and it hath taught me to rhyme and to be melancholy.”
Shakespeare is for (all) the ages.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org