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A rocky start to a life of goodness

His mother traded him for a cigarette when he was an infant, and tumultuous years followed. Now he has interrupted his calling to help the people who took him in.

January 02, 2011|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Danny Brizendine sits where his birth mother traded him away. After meeting her later, he said, I realized how good Id had it.
Danny Brizendine sits where his birth mother traded him away. After meeting… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Danny Brizendine was 2 months and 3 days old when his mother traded him for a cigarette.

"It was for a whole pack of cigarettes," says Brizendine, now 47.

No, it was for a single smoke, corrects Annie Brizendine, the woman who made the trade, took the infant in and later adopted and raised him.

It was Oct. 17, 1963, when Nancy Keller walked into a mobile home park near Lockheed Air Terminal, now known as Bob Hope Airport, and knocked on the door of the trailer in Space 1.

"She was carrying Danny in a little seat. She said, 'I'm going to trade you a kid for a weed.' That's what they called cigarettes back then," remembers Annie Brizendine.

Brizendine didn't smoke, but her sister, who was visiting that day, did. Her sister pulled out a pack of Pall Mall filters and Keller took one and handed over the baby she was carrying.

In the years that followed, Danny Brizendine always wondered how the woman came to knock on a trailer coach's door at 2157 N. Ontario St. in Burbank. Was it a random act by a rootless street woman?

Now 74 and living in Bakersfield with her 80-year-old husband, Jimmie, Annie Brizendine filled in the blanks.

"My brother and his wife went to school at Burbank High with the girl who had Danny. They picked up Nancy and her baby when they left the county hospital where he was born," she said.

On their way to drop off the new mother and infant in Glendale, the pair stopped at the trailer park to show Annie Brizendine and her sister the newborn.

"I was only teasing and I said, 'Why don't you just give me the baby?' " said Brizendine, who was an assembly line worker at a plant that produced children's products. "Two months later that's what she did."

As she handed over the infant, Keller explained that she was unable to care for him. "She said, 'I can be a mother and have a kid, but I can't be a mother who raises him.' "

Jimmie Brizendine was at work at an aircraft parts company when the trade took place. He was surprised but supportive when he got home that evening.

The couple, already the parents of a 7-year-old boy named Jerry, were eventually able to piece together their new son's history. Danny's birth father was apparently a married man; for the first two months of his life, Danny had slept in a dresser drawer instead of a baby bed.

Things were difficult at first. "Danny wasn't eating real well. He was sick, I was sick. I told my husband I didn't think we could keep him. And he said, 'They threw him away, we have to take him,' " Annie Brizendine said.

The Brizendines formally adopted Danny on June 5, 1964.

They moved from the trailer park to nearby Sun Valley when Danny was in second grade. After the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, they moved to the San Joaquin Valley town of Lamont.

It would not be until much later that Annie Brizendine would tell Danny of their difficult first days and of her husband's support.

"Good for him," Danny Brizendine says now. "It was certainly good for me."

--

Childhood and the teen years were difficult for Danny Brizendine.

There was always the nagging question in the back of his mind about his past. Money in Lamont was tight and he dropped out of Arvin High School in the 10th grade and got a job moving irrigation pipes in agricultural fields.

In his 20s he took a job selling advertising for a Bakersfield company owned by country music entertainer Buck Owens. Owens asked to see his birth certificate as part of the employment process.

"Buck and the others there threw money in a fishbowl and told me to use it to try and find my birth parents if I wanted to. I started calling all the people I thought might be them," he said.

"In September of '87 I found Nancy's father. Members of her family said she had run away from home at 13 and was living at that time in Oregon. They set up a reunion for us all."

He was embarrassed for both of them when he finally met his birth mother. Before the reunion, Annie Brizendine took Keller shopping for new clothes, he said.

"When I saw her I realized how good I'd had it. I realized I was not raised with wealth but with quality," Danny Brizendine said.

Keller died in Nevada of cancer in 1998, Brizendine said.

He began painting homes for a living and later expanded into remodeling. On one of his jobs he met an artist and animal activist who was operating an animal rescue center in Twin Oaks. They became friends.

Brizendine was soon building spec homes (one of which was for his parents, he said) and selling them for a large profit. He had built up a nest egg when he and artist-activist Jennifer Randall decided in 2005 to move to Kansas.

The pair bought an abandoned 100-year-old opera house in Hutchinson, Kan., and converted it into shops and an art studio. They became well-known figures in the town and helped launch art events.

So it was a shock to former Hutchinson mayor Trish Rose and everyone else when Brizendine and Randall packed up and moved earlier this year to San Luis Obispo and bought a 12-acre horse ranch.

They wanted to be closer to their aging parents, Brizendine said.

"We still own property in Hutchinson. There's something to be said for life there. It's grounded — the fluff isn't there. I've tried to convince the people in Hutch this is short-term. When our parents pass, we'll go back," he said.

He returned recently to Ontario Avenue in Burbank, where life as he now knows it began.

He introduced himself to Blayney Anderson, vice president of the Hechter aircraft parts company, which was built in 1976 at the site of the old trailer park. Later, Brizendine drove to Sun Valley, where he was able to pick out the house he once lived in.

Crediting his upbringing for his frugality, he was driving a 1993 Ford F-250 pickup. And he said he and Randall and their family are plenty comfortable living in the mobile home that's set up at their San Luis Obispo ranch.

It's a double-wide.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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