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JOSEPH N. BELL

Paradise Is Put on the Back Burner

December 11, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

I stopped by Dr. Bill Anderson's house in Laguna Beach the other day to talk to him about Saudi Arabia, from where he recently returned. We ended up by spending most of our time talking about his lifetime fantasy--which he also lived out recently--of returning to the American frontier.

Anderson is a 46-year-old general practitioner who spent six years as the director of student health services at UC Irvine. He was also the doctor for Bill Mulligan's UCI basketball team, and Anderson and I spent a good many evenings over those six years sitting in the stands at the Bren Center second-guessing Mulligan's coaching decisions. One of the few pieces of good luck Anderson has enjoyed the past two years is being happily absent during UCI's 5-23 season.

Anderson cut out of Orange County in 1988 to take his wife, Catherine, and two small children to Big Sur country, where he would go back to basics, live off the land and be a country doctor. We talked about this when we weren't talking basketball, and his eyes would light and his voice grow animated whenever he projected it.

I had some misgivings, especially when he told me he would be moving his family into a converted barn, temporarily without electricity, at the end of a 3-mile torturous dirt road that hugged a cliff and turned into a quagmire when it rained. He made it sound like Valhalla.

Well, it was something less than that--how much less depends on whether you are talking to Bill or Catherine. Country doctoring turned out to be impractical as a livelihood, and the nearest place Bill could find work was Hollister, a two-hour drive away. Bill worked in the emergency room there--24 hours on ("24 hours in hell" he called it) and 48 off. Catherine assured me that most of the crises at the old homestead took place when Bill was either at work or on his way.

There was, for example, the matter of the Doberman. The Andersons' dog, Comet, took to hanging out with two Doberman pinchers at their nearest neighbor's, a mile away, because they offered a house with heat, food served indoors, and other amenities to which Comet had become accustomed in an earlier life. To woo Comet back to the family, the Andersons adopted a Doberman from the nearest dog pound.

Shortly thereafter their livestock began to disappear, notably chickens and geese. The evidence was circumstantial until they caught the new Doberman with a dead goose just as Bill was leaving for work one morning. "Tie the goose around the dog's neck," he instructed his wife, "and that will cure him of this forever." Then he left.

So Catherine tied up the Doberman and hung the dead goose around his neck. A few minutes later, having chewed through the rope, the Doberman bounced into the converted barn, dragging the bloody goose along. Twice, Catherine re-secured the Doberman, re-affixed the goose, and retreated to the house--a little more hysterical each time. And twice the Doberman returned, his psyche apparently undamaged by the corpse around his neck. When Bill finally came home, his wife was waiting in the driveway with a badly shaken psyche of her own to take the Doberman back to the pound.

There were dozens of stories like this. It took two months, for example, to get a generator working to supply the Anderson family electricity, and then it wouldn't store up power but had to be running whenever the lights were on. It shook so violently that the whole barn would quiver and pictures would dance on the walls.

To avoid such distractions, Catherine would serve dinner at 3:30 during the winter so they wouldn't have to eat in pitch darkness. At Christmas, when Catherine's family came to visit, it rained for a week and her father sat up most of every night feeding paper and wood into the stove that provided the only heat, convinced they would all freeze if he didn't.

"People we invited up would look at me kind of strangely after they got here," Bill told me, apparently still puzzled over this.

The plan was to live in the barn only until they were able to buy land and build their own house. But several factors weren't considered when the plan was made. Like a local requirement that every new house must be located on a tract of at least 40 acres of land. And a tough building code. And environmental restrictions that probably would have taken many months to work through.

By the end of the first year, it was clear that they wouldn't be able to build--and that they had to locate somewhere closer to civilization. With maybe a grocery store and a gas station.

So the Andersons bought a splendid, spacious home in Hollister--and moved in two days before the earthquake that shook the Bay Area last year. Their house survived better than their psyches, so their stay in Hollister was probably foredoomed from the beginning.

"Two days after we moved," says Anderson, "we were without water and electricity again--and that's when I started suspecting I was doing the wrong thing."

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