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Steve Lopez / POINTS WEST

A Man, No Plan, and a Canal

May 21, 2006|Steve Lopez

He lives in Southern California without traffic or stress and usually without shoes, the lucky cuss.

"Go play," his lovely Spanish-born wife, Maruxa, tells him every day, and he does. Like a kid.

Norman Cargill, creeping up on 80, has lived a fairy tale since 1970, an ancient yesteryear when a high school auto mechanics teacher married to a college professor could afford waterfront property. His back yard in the Naples section of Long Beach has a boat ramp on a sweet little canal that spits him past palms and bougainvillea and onto Alamitos Bay.

He watches friends retire, as he did roughly 20 years ago, and they can't wait to take out their equity and move to saner, more restful environs.

Not Cargill.

"He's kind of an original in an area taken over by multimillion-dollar houses and yuppie couples," his neighbor, Lesley Hawks, e-mailed me. "He runs over to share his discoveries regularly. A cactus plant that flowers only once every two years, a rare butterfly, a caterpillar he rescues from tree-trimming activities."

But it was the part about the birds that interested me most. Hawks said that when Cargill paddles out to the bay to go windsurfing, a daily excursion as predictable as the morning fog and dating back more than 20 years, he often returns with a passenger.

A sea gull he calls Pablo.

"I can't promise the birds will come," Cargill told me as he lugged his windsurf board under a Chinese elm and out to the launch. With a stranger on board, he said, his feathered friends might be spooked. I was willing to take that chance.

Cargill wore blue cotton shorts, a red fleece vest and a golf hat with back brim folded up. He's a stout chap, with a low center of gravity that serves him well on the floating dock and aboard the 40-year-old, 11-foot sailboat he's converted into a rowboat. Cargill attached the board to the stern, lowered himself onto a faded lawn chair and paddled away as he does seven days a week -- unless it rains.

Even as I propped my feet up and felt my blood pressure drop, I had never been so envious. We lolled under bridges in a Venetian dream, the marine light soft and lazy. "This is the life I should be living," I said, and the comment drew a knowing smile, with Cargill warning me not to let the secret out.

A few hundred yards of slow paddling and we came to the mouth of the canal, with warm salt air blowing in across Alamitos Bay like a tonic.

"Oh," Cargill said as he pointed the bow to open water, "here comes Pablo."

I turned to see a sea gull falling out of the sky and landing softly on the surfboard we were towing.

The names just come to him, Cargill said. Pablo is Pablo for no particular reason. Then there was Christopher the Navigator, Jezebel, Fuchida and Romeo, whose girlfriend's name I don't have to tell you.

But how can Cargill tell them apart?

"Pablo has markings on his tail. If I'm alone, he will come up here."

Before long, he did. Cargill makes a point of never touching the birds, respecting their place as wild animals in a fragile environment overrun by humans. But Pablo walked up the surfboard like a second mate on watch command, surveying the bay and giving both of us careful study.

So much for me being an intimidating force.

You can also tell who's who by their personalties, Cargill said. "They're very individualistic." Jezebel, the feisty one, likes to bite. Pablo and Romeo are fiercely territorial, guarding their small sectors of waterfront like feathered David Geffens.

As we moved out into the bay, another gull joined us.

"That's Romeo," Cargill said, but there was no sign of Juliet.

"I've known them three or four years," Cargill said of Pablo and Romeo, and he was surprised they hadn't yet matured enough to join thousands of other gulls who nest each winter and spring on Anacapa Island.

As Cargill's affection for the birds became more obvious, I didn't know how to neatly phrase the question I had in mind. Sea gulls don't have the greatest reputation, I was thinking, or they wouldn't be referred to by some as flying rats. So why the love affair?

"Oh, they're not nice birds," agreed Cargill, an Air Force vet. "But I get along with them. I'm a pilot and I still fly gliders, and these guys are soaring masters."

I wondered, too, if Pablo and Romeo would be standing on the surfboard if not for the pieces of trout Cargill was pulling from a folded napkin. Of course not, he said.

"They're capitalist birds and they love me for my food. But I love them because I love them."

Cargill cut a wake across the wind-rippled bay to the sandy peninsula, where he chucked a rusted anchor onto the beach and set up his windsurfer while Pablo and Romeo watched. Barefoot and smiling, the Bird Man of Naples climbed aboard his rig, caught the gentlest of breezes and sailed away with the two gulls trailing behind like ducklings.

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