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Bench Jockeys : In Changing Times, These Sitting Sages Are a Constant

October 26, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — For 15 years their headquarters has been a park bench overlooking the sea.

From there they have witnessed the transformation of a city. They have watched the construction of the dome that houses the Spruce Goose across the water. They have seen the coming of the hotels near the Queen Mary for the growing parade of conventioneers and tourists.

Early morning joggers call them the Bluff Park Men's Club. And indeed, on almost any morning of the week they can be found holding court on their bench near the intersection of Orizaba Avenue and Ocean Boulevard, sharing pleasantries with passers-by or pronouncing their opinions on local issues with the wit and charm borne of age and experience.

"These guys are famous," said John Riley, a retired mechanic, during a recent morning stroll along the bluff. "Everyone stops here--this is a stopping place."

Said Luanne Pryor, president of a Bluff Park homeowners association called Beach Area Concerned Citizens and the jogger who first gave the "club" its name: "They're real Americana. They give us a sense of belonging. I think it's marvelous that they're here."

Though the daily gathering has now dwindled to four or five, there were times when as many as 15 elderly gentlemen passed their mornings here. It began in the early 1970s when Pat Sullivan and Howard Viney--the former now dead, the latter now in a rest home--became fast friends near this bench and made it their regular gathering point. Later Cleo (Smitty) Messerschmitt, now 84, joined the group and the others gradually followed.

Today Messerschmitt, a former steelworker, is the honorary president of the club. And the rest make appearances whenever they can, walking over from their apartments at the Galaxy Towers across the street or motoring in from other parts of the city.

"One of the nice things is the lovely ladies who walk by all day long," said Phil Dowds, the owner

of a manufacturing company and, at 68, the youngest member of the group. "If you really want to know the truth, that's why we come here."

But there are deeper reasons for their coming, the men say, and most of them have to do with friendship. In a city that is changing its face, these men have found a way to keep theirs familiar to one another. In a world in which older people often live in fear and isolation, they have managed to find a niche.

"I get damn lonesome for these guys," said Messerschmitt. "If someone doesn't show up, we find out what's wrong. We're interested in each other."

At times that interest has been painful.

Two years ago, one of the charter members of the group--M. H. (Curly) Stansbury--committed suicide at the age of 81. One day he had been at the park bench, the men say, and the next day he shot himself.

"Curly was a great guy, a real gentleman," said Dowds, even now fighting back tears as a pall falls over the group at the mention of Curly's name.

"We all felt real bad," said Leonard Bendinger, 79, who headed the city Gas Department for 24 years.

But mostly the men try to keep a positive face on their daily gatherings. Well dressed and dignified, they generally begin their mornings with an all-around handshake. "It's the history of life," Dowds explains. "People die and people are born and there's nothing you can do about it. That's the way the Lord planned it."

Says Messerschmitt: "Every one of us has illnesses, but we don't dwell on them. If you can't walk, why, you just sit there."

They talk about politics. And sports. And the weather.

They discuss things like whether there should be a bike path along Ocean Boulevard, which most of them favor. Or whether the city should have a full-time mayor, which most of them oppose.

Sometimes they talk about personal things, like those among them with wives who have died or become invalid. And how dealing with that has changed their lives.

Mostly they talk about all that they have seen, offering sage advice to younger passers-by who ask for it.

"They don't overreact to things," said Pryor, 53, who two years ago came to the park seeking good advice about starting her own public relations business and says she got it. "We get so busy today that we don't take the time to sit down for 15 minutes. These men have the benefit of years--they see things clearly."

Numbers Getting Smaller

Messerschmitt agrees. "I see these younger kids coming along and I know just about what's going to happen to them," he said.

He and his companions say they plan to keep coming to their bench as long as they can. Though their numbers are gradually dwindling, they say, they look forward each year to the winter months during which their club "roster" is bolstered by seasonal regulars from the East who have come to town to avoid the cold.

When the group finally fades from the Bluff Park scene, Pryor says, the community will have lost something unique and valuable. "It's something that happens in cities all over America," she said. "It reminds me of the Saturday Evening Post."

Down at the bench, though, the mood on a recent Saturday morning was somewhat bawdier than that depicted by Norman Rockwell's historic magazine covers. "The real action is all down there at the other side of the pier," said Messerschmitt, apparently alluding to a recent Huntington Beach riot that reportedly began when a group of adolescent male beachgoers tore the bathing-suit tops off a group of young women. "We read about it," he complained, "but we're too old to get down there and verify it."

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