For years, every time I drove by Mission Bay, I saw the De Anza Cove mobile home park setting there at water’s edge on a real estate gold mine.
Those who dwell on those 76 acres are, technically speaking, squatters on city-owned land. If so, they’ve been squatting a long time. Finally, though, the city decided to reclaim it.
In a recent deal cobbled together to satisfy a homeowners’ lawsuit, the San Diego City Council has approved a payout of about $32 million to be spread among many of the 500-plus mobile homeowners, minus, of course, the giant first bite of the money that will go to their lawyers. And be assured, those lawyers will be chewing on filet mignon, not round steak. As the money is divided, many owners will get an average of about $77,000, but all will have to move out by January.
The city has not decided on the use of the land, but you can expect bulldozers to be revving engines as the final moving van leaves.
Easily overshadowed by the finances and logistics is the human story. Most of those modest structures have given warmth and security to people who have grown old between their walls. Some have had the same address for a half-century. Most residents are in their 70s to 90s, and many have buried the mates with whom they shared those sunsets.
Now they must pack up and go elsewhere, most likely to a place not half so beautiful with neighbors not half so friendly.
Watching all this is a man named Jeff Huckabone. The surname spins a vision of a straw hat, bamboo pole and freckles. But this Huckabone is a successful businessman who might have been rich except he keeps giving his money away. He is owner of a family business named Progressive Manufacturing Inc. in San Diego.
Huckabone (I could call him Jeff, but I love how that sounds — Huckabone) has also been part-time pastor of the De Anza Cove Community Church for 12 years. Given the age of his parishioners, he has gotten very good at memorials — baptisms, marriages, what are those?
He is a lay minister without ordination. He’s not a particular admirer of church hierarchies. He’s a San Diego native, graduate of San Diego State University and is married with four kids. He’s a trim 53, casual in appearance and direct in conversation. Huckabone will never put a listener to sleep. Words do not fail him; neither are they wasted.
He also listens, and what he’s hearing right now are the concerns of old people who don’t know where or how they’ll be living in a few months. Uncertainty is tough enough when you’re young and have time and energy to bounce back, but to lose your house at 85 is to trek across an emotional wilderness with growls coming from the weeds.
He says many of those in the park are “victims” of that aging-woman condition called widowhood. Most, he believes, were homemakers who now support themselves from month to month. Huckabone says he carries a light bulb in his car for the occasional woman who has a burned out ceiling light that she can’t reach.
The atmosphere he experiences is not of a tranquil seaside. “I see grief. It’s multiplied by age and lack of options. It’s much more than just having to move to a new place.
“These folks are losing their network of friends and social structure. (After they move,) it’s going to be difficult to get back together. They can’t just say let’s all get together for lunch. They don’t drive, most of them. They’re going to be at the mercy of circumstances.”
They’ll be dependent on others for transportation, he says. To get to a medical appointment will require summoning a van that might come in an hour, or maybe not at all. Groceries might depend on when a neighbor is going to the store.
Frightening and depressing make a tough tag-team.
These are the generation of the stiff upper lip. “They lie to me all the time because I’m their pastor. They think that when I ask them, ‘How are you doing?,’ they’re going to be good Christians and tell me, ‘We’re doing really good.’
“The reality is that my every other sermon has to do with fear: Don’t be afraid. It will be OK. We’re all anxious. Don’t lose this last piece of your life because you’re fearful about tomorrow.”
Huckabone’s church holds service in the clubhouse and attracts 20 to 30 worshippers. That’s half of what it has been. He says it is a hoary myth that old people are naturally religious. Many have been turned off by organized religion at some point in their lives. It’s a candle hard to relight.
He accepts no pay or expenses for his services. No collection plate is passed, and any funds accumulated are sent on to missionaries. Doctrinally, he says the church is similar to Baptists.
Though the move-out deadline is months away, the exodus has begun. It’s more than just packing up.
Huckabone tells of Gene, in his 90s, seriously ill, a World War II veteran who was packing up to go home to Hawaii to die.
“I went (to Gene’s place) and he’s throwing boxes of pictures out. I help him carry them because he’s old. We’re throwing pictures out and they’re falling on the ground, and I’m picking them up, and he’s showing them to me, saying, ‘This is right when I got out of the Seabees. … This was my first car.’ He left behind in his closet a box with wedding rings and an engagement ring.
“Many, like Gene, basically just lose the will to fight.” Huckabone pauses, shakes his head, then says again: “They just lose the will to fight.”
He was a widower?
“Yeah. Great wife, Jane. A pillar of the church.”
Has Gene since died?
“Yeah. I think he wanted to die.”
He says De Anza Cove residents have accumulated a lot of wisdom and knowledge that frustrates them as they view present-day society. They can see mistakes happening that they fear will be a great burden on generations to come. They have a sense of things that can’t be found on Google or a smartphone.
Huckabone says when he first meets older residents, he realizes it’s like coming into a movie during the last 10 minutes: So much has gone before in their lives that he will never know.
“I’ve learned a lot more than I’ve taught by hanging out with these folks. What breaks my heart is when people steal from them. Workers say they’ll do work, but they never (perform), but get paid anyway. Worse are family members that steal from them.”
The room of death and dying has become one he has visited often. He says that before going into such a room, the gravity of the situation weighs heavily on him. “I’ve gotten sick to my stomach. I’m nervous sometimes because I know this is the last conversation. It’s important for me to not give people platitudes. I don’t want to say something insignificant. What’s said should matter.”
One dying man asked Huckabone to pay Goodwill for some clothes he had stolen a long time ago. It had bothered him for years. Huckabone did.
“Sometimes, people have to talk about a thing because it’s important for their peace of mind. Like, I had one guy tell me that he had been too hard on his son, and if I got a chance to speak to his son, to tell him that he’s sorry.”
Vanity dies hard. “I remember one gal, I went to see her and she didn’t have her teeth in. She was in bed, almost comatose. She said, ‘Oh, I don’t want you to see me.’ I said, ‘Well, why?’ She said, ‘I don’t have my teeth in.’ I said, “Darlin’, it doesn’t matter.’ ”
It won’t be long before motorists driving past Mission Bay will look over and see no more mobile homes. They will see what the city decides to put there: marsh land for wildlife use, park land for citizen use, or something commercial for developer use.
Life moves on. We won’t miss the mobile homes, and we won’t miss the mostly old people who occupied them. They will have moved on to become a memory.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org