In a follow-up to last week’s canine report, Coach Cavender, whose relationship with his beloved Yorkie Gig should and does concern his wife about her own place in his affections (I would not care to speculate about the outcome of a Sophie’s Choice involving the two) was just as pleased and proud as a new mother to see his little sidekick gracing the front page. Normally the coach considers the AVA more of an aid to starting fires than reading material, he being a rock-ribbed, dyed-in-the-wool, no-nonsense conservative of the old-school, but he intends lobbying the Pulitzer committee to consider the piece for an award.
I call him Coach because once a coach, always a coach, retired or otherwise, and after 35 years teaching and coaching at Ukiah High, he can no more stop doing either than stop breathing. He coaches his wife, me, the dogs, the mailman, whomever enters his orbit is in for some training, like it or not. Dragged out of retirement this last season in a desperate bid to turn around a team that had won only 9 games in the last 8 years, Coach took a group of undersized kids from an underfunded school without any bench to speak of under his wing and, as defensive coordinator and offensive line coach, took the Willits Wolverines to a 9-2 record and the second round of the playoffs, where they were a beaten by a very strong Ferndale. Along the way defeating powerhouses St. Helena and El Molino, Willits confounded both their opponents and the pundits with a nearly impermeable defense and a surfeit of heart and grit.
So I tend to listen when he instructs. Gary Cavender came up from a childhood of poverty and neglect in gang-infested Hawaiian Gardens in L.A. County, on his way to a bad end as a thug and a drunk when he discovered a latent aptitude for math and science right around the time of his spiritual conversion. He and Jesus battled their way clear of his deterministic fate and into Cal State Fullerton, where he distinguished himself in wrestling and football and received two master’s degrees. As an athlete, one of his many honors was the title of California State Powerlifting Champion, and as an entomologist became the world’s foremost recognized authority on three species of insect. As Gary will tell you, though, he is “addicted” to kids and found his niche in the classroom where he racked up a raft of Teacher of the Year awards and made deep impressions on generations of Ukiah kids in his math classes.
Retirement means different things to different people and the rarest position you are likely to find Gary Cavender is sitting down. Seven days a week he is up with the birds and tackling one project or another, generally improving his gorgeous riverside property where, in addition to housing over 60 foster children over the years (one of whom has starred in these pages of late, accused killer Caleb Silver), he occasionally provides housing for homeless people. In the beginning he had a grand vision of a place where lost souls could rediscover sobriety and Jesus, learn some marketable skills and a decent work ethic, and turn their lives around, but quickly discovered how many of the homeless are in that predicament for a reason and have absolutely no desire for improvement of any kind, self or otherwise. He has not quit on his desire to help them, though, and is currently designing and building portable sleeping pods to at least give them a place to sleep safe from the elements.
Several days a week, Gary collects food from area merchants and distributes it around town to the needy (once being chastised by the Ukiah PD for bringing cold drinks to the residents of the old tent city by the airport during last summer’s heat wave), absorbing the costs of time and fuel in his insatiable effort to help others.
Despite his property appearing the domain of an upper-middle class country squire, Gary drives a 28-year-old pickup truck and appears to dress in the same ratty shorts and sleeveless t-shirt every day, only donning long pants and a shirt with a collar for his Sunday gig, pastor at the Calpella Community Church, where he not so much shepherds as coaches his flock into heaven. His sermons are more pedantic than charismatic and often feature lessons with more mathematical formulae than scripture, occasionally confusing the ragtag congregation but always bringing it back around to his primary message of love for God and reaching out to the less fortunate. The fact that my secular-humanist ass finds itself in a pew every Sunday tells you something about the charm and simplicity of the church and the earnestness of Gary’s mission.
It was an odd confluence of events that led me here and I’ve become something of an anomaly in my relationship to the place and the people. Gary and I disagree on pretty much any subject requiring an opinion and argue our positions regularly and usually civilly, but we have become close—as close an association as I have right now—and this just goes to prove my long-held assertion that any beliefs or opinions about meaningless abstractions or things that have nothing to do with you, e.g., politics and/or economic systems, are not only the least interesting things about you but the most ineffective at determining your character and suitability for friendship.
There is a very small percentage of serious, competent people with the ability to get things done in this world, the folks we slackers, dullards, and layabouts depend upon to advance civilization for us while we snack, nap, and amuse ourselves with internet memes, and it’s been a real pleasure and learning experience to be around one.