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Around the Foothills

Eddie was a walker you had to notice.

November 16, 1989|By DOUG SMITH

If you get around much in La Canada Flintridge, you must have come to know of Edson Johnson, at least obliquely.

He was the walker.

Eddie was a walker you had to notice. He looked quaint heading down the street, even from a distance. His clothes were out of style and uncoordinated. His pants sagged. Sometimes his clothes looked as if they needed a wash. He hunched slightly over a walking stick.

Most remarkable was the gait itself. He stepped smartly, with a keen sense of destination, even though, if you saw him often enough, you could guess that he was caught in a loop. He simply took great pleasure in walking. His stride made him look younger than his age, the mid-40s.

Eddie sent letters to The Times publicizing the Rainbow Walkers, a group he had created. It left every Sunday from the gates of Descanso Garden, bound at a leisurely pace for destinations with romantic names such as Winery Canyon and Fair Haven, the estate of actor Victor McGlaughlin. Eddie charged a fee of $1.

The form of the letters was more interesting than their content. They were crudely typed in script with broken spacing, errors corrected in ballpoint pen. Several weeks of announcements came together on a single sheet or sometimes on the back of a used envelope, the words tapering to the tip of the flap.

This was strange enough to call for investigation. It was a little more than a year ago that I conducted the inquiry, in person. Besides myself, 10 people assembled that day for the hike, one man and seven women who were regulars, a young couple who were new.

The women came in expensive cars and wore chic outfits. They chatted for a few minutes, bringing one another up on news of mutual friends. Eddie walked down from a handsome house on Fairlawn Drive, in which he had lived with his elderly mother for many years. He made small talk about the theories of electro-physicist Nikola Tesla, inventor of the alternating current motor.

Then he began the walk, which covered several miles, all on city streets.

Eddie played both guide and savant. He gave pointers on exercise theory and La Canada history. He recited the names and medicinal properties of the flowers that grew on the hillsides as well as the weeds that poked from the sidewalk.

Eddie said he formed the group because he was tired of Sierra Club hikes.

"All they do is hike," he said. "I like to talk."

The new couple vanished before the hike was half over. The others straggled in small groups. But all managed to take in some of Eddie's banter.

One of them said the women belonged to the Rainbow Walkers because they needed the exercise and because they found Eddie to be a fun companion. Obviously, they also found him non-threatening. Eddie's gushing laugh was as free of psychological pressure as it was absent of social acumen.

Anyway, Eddie had passed the test. His announcements continued to find a place in The Times.

A few months ago, signs of trouble in Eddie's life began to appear.

He raised his fee to $1.75. About the same time, his announcements grew even stranger. They came taped to the inside of preprinted mailers for the Children's Museum in downtown Los Angeles. It appeared that Eddie had found a way to post his messages without buying stamps.

Resolving not to honor the illicit use of the mail, I threw out a few of the releases. But soon I gave in. Lives held together with such flimsy string as Eddie's are not made for heavy handling.

It was no surprise, then, when the news arrived last week that Eddie's life had come undone the previous Sunday. His 84-year-old invalid mother fell and called her son-in-law in Monrovia, who called 911. When paramedics arrived, Eddie became frightened and wouldn't let them in. Sheriff's deputies were called. The son-in-law arrived to let them in. They found a terrible mess of trash, empty cat food cans and cat droppings.

Before the day was over, the county Fire, Health and Animal Control Departments had all dispatched agents to the house.

"The odor in the house was just so bad that while they were working there, the Fire Department lent our workers oxygen tanks," said Dan Sturkie, manager of the county's Baldwin Hills animal shelter.

The cats appeared to have come from all around the neighborhood for handouts, entering through a broken window, Sturkie said. About 20 had been trapped.

By day's end, Eddie's mother was sent to a hospital for treatment. She was later released to the care of the son-in-law. Social workers found Eddie another place to live. Health officials declared the house a hazard and ordered it cleaned. An official said the son-in-law planned to take responsibility for the cleanup, then sell the house.

And so the Rainbow Walkers have lost their guide and savant.

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