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If a person must live off the land, Encino is not a bad place to do so. : Stalking the Wild Survivalist

Al Martinez

September 30, 1985|Al Martinez

I was pleased to learn that a man in camouflaged fatigues whose face was painted black for night combat was spotted in the underbrush near the Encino Reservoir, carrying a bow and arrow. It was probably my friend Jurgens.

Jurgens is a survivalist. He used to buy books and magazines and send away for equipment meant to facilitate his outdoor existence following the war of Armageddon.

"When the rest of you are practicing cannibalism," he would say with arrogant self-assurance, "I will be living off healthy natural resources in a self-contained burrow."

What he meant was, he would dig a hole somewhere and eat roots and field mice. He would purify his own water and protect his hole with booby traps.

"Wouldn't it be easier," I asked him one day, "to just loot a 7-Eleven and sleep in the house of someone who had been eaten by the urban cannibals?"

The question made him angry, so he bet me $50 he could survive in the Santa Monica Mountains for an indefinite period. I haven't seen him since.

Then I read last week that joggers had come upon combat-clad archers off Mullholland Drive. I felt that one of them had to be Jurgens, so I went looking.

If a person must live off the land, Encino is not a bad place to do so. It is a hillside community peopled largely by actors whose homes reflect either their affluence or their ego.

Most of the estates have swimming pools and some of them have tennis courts so that, when not grubbing for roots, a survivalist can work in a dip or a game before relaxing in his hole.

Years ago, a newspaper in San Francisco made a big deal out of its outdoor writer's living off the land in the Sierra Nevada for several weeks. But, when a reporter from a competing paper visited the survival site, he found empty cans of beans, potato chip bags and gin bottles.

The outdoorsman's idea of survival was apparently being more than three miles away from his favorite bar. So much for journalistic credibility.

Back to Jurgens. I wandered for hours along the edge of the Santa Monicas, at one point driving onto a rutted dirt road that seemed to disappear into the underbrush, but saw no evidence of him, his spoor or signs that he had grazed in the area.

Simply being able to maneuver on that road was survival enough for me, so I returned to the paved street, where God intended man to drive.

I spoke with several residents in the area who were, how shall I put this, suspiciously polite. I guess it's not every day that someone comes around asking for a man in his mid-40s, slightly balding, with a pointed nose, who is black-faced and dressed in camouflaged dungarees.

The nose itself is a dead giveaway. It comes to an almost perfect point and glows red at the end as though it is heated. Jurgens was (I guess still is) Swedish, and the Swedes, as I understand it, are famous for their pointed red noses.

One woman on Encino Drive who was working in her garden vaguely recalled a man sitting in a hole one day while she was hiking near her home. She thought it very strange so she didn't stare at him.

"I remember," she said, "he was gazing off as though he might be . . . well . . . meditating."

Breath control. Jurgens used to practice shallow breathing in the event there was a shortage of oxygen in the postwar air.

"Did he have a pointed, red-tipped nose?" I asked.

"What a peculiar question," she said, and turned back to her garden.

During the 1950s, when it seemed as though we might fight Russia, many Americans built bomb shelters. They stocked them with food and water and waited for all hell to break loose.

Several of them were bitterly disappointed when nothing happened.

Jurgens is that way. He is probably afraid that, if he comes in, he will look like a fool for having attracted so much attention when he was trying to remain hidden.

Only full-scale war will justify his adventure. Then he would be a folk hero.

I don't know about the others who were seen with him near the Encino Reservoir wearing the camouflage outfits.

I suspect that they, like my friend Jurgens, are simply harmless nuts out playing survival games to avoid having to eat their neighbors after Gelson's market is closed due to nuclear devastation.

But, when you stop to think about it, no one has to hide in the mountains to prove he is a survivalist.

We are already survivalists by the nature of the strength and skill required to simply keep our sanity in a world always on the brink of something ugly.

If Jurgens continues to scamper through the Santa Monica Mountains for the rest of his life, surviving on ground squirrels and tree bark, he will probably die of old age feeling he has proved a point.

But no one who doesn't drive the Hollywood Freeway every day and who avoids newscasts filled with AIDS, serial killers, terrorist attacks and world starvation has any right to feel he has conquered adversity.

Any fool can eat roots. It takes guts to sit through the 11 o'clock news.

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