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Widower Converts Home Into Whirligig Shrine : 'If it wasn't for something like this, I'd go batty. It's really been a savior for me'

September 28, 1989|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

On windy days, Gene O'Brien's festive front yard in Rosemead might remind people of a circus calliope. Or Flag Day on the deck of a World War II aircraft carrier. Propellers whiz, carrousels creak into motion, birds twirl, and O'Brien's prized zinnias, fat ones in a variety of colors, bob like pennants.

That is when O'Brien, a rumpled man with a Puckish smile and a wry, self-deprecating humor, likes to stand out on the front porch of the little square house with the stucco walls and take it all in.

"If it wasn't for something like this," he said, "I'd go batty. It's really been a savior for me."

'Idiot's Delight'

In the last year, O'Brien--officially Walter E. O'Brien, but his friends call him Gene--has converted his whole house into a kind of whirligig atelier, with most of its products ending up outside on the lawn. His scroll saw sits on a table in the cluttered living room. A rented copying machine, for shrinking or magnifying patterns, is nearby. Another power saw, for making straight cuts, stands in the middle of the garage. Works in progress are propped against a wall in the bedroom or laid out on the floor in the game room. Bits of Plexiglas are everywhere.

"It's kind of soothing," he said of his hobby.

O'Brien got into whirligigs--"idiot's delight," he says with a guffaw--about four years ago. But it was not until last year, right after his wife of 32 years died, that he became consumed by it.

"I wanted to get into something to take my mind off of her," said O'Brien, 68, a retired produce manager for Von's.

Now he turns them out in flocks. Plastic cardinals and blue jays, wings churning, circle a winged pin-up girl. Reindeer revolve around a pair of snowmen. Coyotes and butterflies, on posts extended from the edge of the roof, whirl like vintage flying machines.

The molded propellers seem to offer endless possibilities. "You can put a whirligig on anything," O'Brien said, pointing at a swan with twirling propellers. "That swan used to be a planter."

The problem is that O'Brien's lawn is small. "I keep running out of space," said O'Brien, who has taken to giving the whirligigs to neighbors and passers-by. Already, the roof antennas of three of O'Brien's neighbors are festooned with O'Brien-crafted whirligigs.

People who wander into the neighborhood slow their cars at the sight of the brightly decorated house. "There's one now," said O'Brien delightedly, indicating a woman motorist who had pulled over across the street to study the house.

But along Olmby Street, the whirligig man is just one of the neighbors--one with a wide streak of generosity.

The neighborhood is a friendly sort of place, with tidy stucco houses and folks who share recipes and pass out the products of their back-yard gardens. "Somebody told me to plant four zucchini plants," said O'Brien's neighbor Gene Boyd, shrugging hopelessly. "Now I've been keeping the whole neighborhood in zucchinis for months."

"Princes of people," said O'Brien, who has lived there 23 years.

The neighborhood's most noteworthy former citizen is singer Vikki Carr. "Her brother still lives right there on Chariette Street," said Howard Daykin, who lives across the street from O'Brien.

"Once in a while she'll ride by on a bike," Boyd added.

Friends like Daykin and Boyd drop by O'Brien's place regularly. Daykin, 75, a retired Robinson's delivery truck driver, comes in for an occasional cigarette. "I can't smoke at home," he said. "My wife smells it."

Boyd stopped by to see what O'Brien was working on. "He's the neighborhood celebrity," said Boyd, 69, a retired accountant who serves as the Rosemead Chamber of Commerce's ambassador at large.

Boyd marveled that no one steals O'Brien's display. "Not even on Halloween," he said.

Women Are Greatest Admirers

Surprisingly, O'Brien said, it's women--"the middle-aged ladies"--who are the greatest admirers of his work. "They're the ones who ooh and aah," he said. "I haven't seen any kid like it yet. They could care less."

"Gene, you know they like it," Boyd interrupted. "They don't bother it. If they didn't like it, they'd tear it down."

O'Brien scoffed and settled deeper into his couch. For all his laid-back informality, O'Brien is an admittedly stricken man. "It's all play," he said with breezy melancholy. "That's all I do. Get up and play and eat."

Things were going splendidly before his wife, Marian, died last year, O'Brien said. She had retired from her job as a bookkeeper; the house was paid off, and the couple were busy. "We went to Tahiti, clear down to Acapulco and up to Seattle several times," he said. "We'd make a short trip to Las Vegas every third month or so. We had it knocked there until Marian had to go bye-bye."

O'Brien, who was born in Kansas but settled in California in 1946 after a stint in the U. S. Coast Guard, was just learning how to make the colorful decorations in his front yard. At first he used wood, working from plans bought through crafts catalogues. "Marian had some good suggestions," he said. "Say the plan didn't have a good design, the eyeball was in the wrong place or something. That's when she was good."

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