SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Kim Turtenwald is the hairiest man there is. At least he has a plaque saying so, awarded last year at the Hairiest Man Contest held in San Juan Capistrano as part of the city's festivities surrounding the fabled return of the swallows each March.
He won for having the "longest existing beard," which is pretty much saying he's the hairiest of the hairiest, given that the other categories are namby-pamby things such as "best-groomed."
He will be competing again at the event this year, which will be held Wednesday evening at the town's El Adobe restaurant. It's a new locale, the source of commotion in January when the San Juan Capistrano Fiesta Assn. moved the contest from its traditional digs at the neighboring Swallow's Inn, where hair pretty much grows on the walls.
He hopes there will be more competition this time, since his beard went uncontested in its category last year.
The event has been going on in one location or another since the early 1800s, always in conjunction with the swallows' return, which occurred Sunday this year, though just what relationship there is between the birds and the beards is lost in time.
No swallow has ever tried to nest in Turtenwald's thicket, though it has suffered its share of other indignities. Indeed, the main reason he entered the contest, he said, is "being in California, I don't get much outside validation on having a long beard. I thought this would be one safe arena for me to have a beard without facing any criticism or stereotypes."
The 38-year-old is an instructional assistant at Carr Junior High in Santa Ana, where we spoke during his lunch break last Thursday. It's one of the places where he gets grief for his looks.
"Since I work with junior high school children and they have a culture that doesn't really have people with long beards, they're always saying, 'When are you going to shave that thing off?' and 'You look terrible with that thing on, Mr. T.' . . . So I get a lot of tearing down. And even in my family of origin, there's not much approval," he said.
The world seems to conspire against a beard. Turtenwald keeps news clippings on businesses that discriminate against bearded employees, and, particularly, has no great love for Disneyland's anti-facial-hair strictures.
He griped, "Now don't you think it would be much more effective if somebody who looked like me dressed in a pirate outfit was helping people into those boats rather than some blond-haired girl with brown polyester pants?"
He hasn't measured his beard, nor has the Hairiest Man contest, which judges by looks. It looks to be at least 16 1/2 feet shorter than the Guinness Book of World Records honoree, Norwegian Hans Langseth, who left behind a 17 1/2-foot beard when he died in 1927.
Turtenwald says a long beard has its advantages. "When you're cleaning the dishes, it's a great scouring pad. I've done a lot of motorcycle riding, and it helps keep me warm, along with being the motorcycle image. And the longer my beard is, the less of a chance there is that people are going to ask to borrow money from me," he said.
Indeed, when out driving with his family last year, his children spotted a bus-bench charity advertisement.
"It had this tired-looking old guy with a beard eating Thanksgiving dinner and my 5-year-old son declared, 'Daddy, it looks like you!' I said, 'Nick, I don't think that was a compliment,' " Turtenwald said.
Susan, his wife of 12 years, would prefer he wore his beard shorter, and she sometimes gets catty comments about it from other women. Still other women--strangers--sometimes come up to him in public places and ask if they can touch it.
Does his beard trawl through his soup? Does it get caught in heavy machinery? Does it impair driving?
Well, when he rides his Harley Sportster the beard flares out to look like Yosemite Sam's, an effect he likes. On the occasions he's ridden motorcycles with windshields, he finds there's a vacuum effect that does throw his beard up in his face. Fortunately, he doesn't like motorcycles with windshields.
"And if I eat pizza, I have to cut it in very slender strips. Otherwise I end up wearing it in my beard. That's trouble. I suppose it's possible that in the old days, Moses sometimes had to be told that he had a speck of manna in a section of his beard," Turtenwald said.
He has as many reasons for having his beard as he has hairs. He's worn one since he was 18, to make up for a very thin and young-looking face. He always kept it short until 1991. Along with all his humorous reasons for the decision are some deeper ones.
"I'm an Old Age man," he said. "I'm not a New Age man, and I have a strong identification with some men in the Bible, who valued holiness in their thoughts and their actions. And they had beards."
Over the years, he's had a curious range of interests, the most innocent of which were collecting old lap steel guitars, vintage lawn mowers and newspaper clippings of odd human doings.