I got a call Saturday night from a man whose name I didn’t remember, but someone who remembered me and had the kindness to telephone with the sad news that Robert Mitchell died. Heart attack, hotel room in Anaheim.
Ordinarily, I would consider this private business and go ahead with the week’s column, but Bob is different. He would agree with that statement, by the way. Bob was a leading character in the first story I wrote for the Reader, back in 1989. And he was the focus of another cover story nine years later. He appeared in several inside stories, and at least a dozen Sporting Boxes. Since there are readers who have followed the Box for many years, the loss of one of our own requires a farewell.
Robert Mitchell lived in Jacumba. To get there, find I-8, drive east until you hit the Imperial County line, turn around, drive back three miles. It’s 90 miles out, 4000 feet up, high desert, unexploited country, tight community, smack dab on the border.
How Bob got there is part myth and part legend. Something about buying the town. He was either in the process of buying the town or in the process of selling it or planning to do one or the other. That never changed.
Bob stood five-foot, ten inches, 165 pounds, with a trim, athletic build, gray-black hair, fierce brown eyes, and a raspy voice. But, that’s only flesh. His spirit is what grabbed you. Bob was BIG. He made a wave.
He built his house around massive boulders, incorporating them into kitchen walls, hallways, bedrooms, everything. Like its owner, the house is one of a kind, sits on a ridge that overlooks the town and Jacumba Valley. The last time I saw it, the swimming pool was long finished and the guesthouse was closed in. Sitting on his patio, outside the second-story master bedroom suite, in summertime, watching the sunset, felt like being aboard a great sailing ship. A pirate ship. Talking to Bob was entering into a conspiracy. You and him against the corrupt bureaucrat/cop/politician/corporation of the moment.
One measure of a man is the breadth of his friendships. I don’t think any one person knows all of Bob’s friends. They are located on several continents, range from national politicians to welfare moms, diamond merchants, movie people, music people, TV people, hookers, professional athletes, real estate hustlers, prison graduates, and those without a career description. Bob’s family is considering a memorial ceremony in May, to give friends living overseas time to get here.
He was a loyal friend. I never doubted Bob would be there if I needed him. In fact, I never thought about it; that was a given. He had detractors, sworn enemies. Like I said, he made a wave. I could go two years without seeing him, then tap on his door, walk in, sit at the big oak dining room table, and continue a conversation as if we’d talked that morning. Zero lag time.
The reason he appeared in so many stories I wrote was not because we were friends (this is a job), but because he knew what a story is and where to find it, exceedingly rare skills among civilians. But then, he’d been a newspaperman. One of his countless employ-ments was publisher of a weekly, The Plain Speaker.
Bob was constantly in and out of Jacumba, working one business deal and then the next and the next. His business model was to try out ten grand ideas and expect nine of them to fail. RV clubs, timeshares in Mexico, consumer protection bureau, Caribbean real estate, sports drinks…believe me, you don’t have enough time to read them all.
He loved Jacumba. He was a townie, a great gossip, and in the deep of a moonless night, when no one was around to see, Robert was a do-gooder. Like the rest of us, there was a gap between what he said and how he acted. Unlike most of us, Bob’s actions were better than his talk.
Before the border fence was built, we used to walk over to Jacumé, a Mexican village two miles south of the line. We had friends there. We’d go to parties, dances. Richard Spencer and Kirk Gilliam owned a home in the village, lived in it for years. Richard is buried in Jacumé.
And that’s as good a marker as any. Americans in Jacumba didn’t go to Jacumé, wouldn’t walk in coal-mine darkness to visit people who are poor and speak another language. For Bob it was, “Hell, yeah.” Life, for Bob, was “Hell, yeah.” He knew something nobody tells you. Life is as big as you can handle.
Bob could handle a lot.