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Harley’s Transient Life Touched Many : The Tragic Times of a Town Bum

Times Staff Writer

Harley had this spot next to the newspaper racks outside the Thrifty store in Capistrano Beach. He would sit every day, sunup to sundown, jabbering about nothing in particular.

Unwashed, wearing greasy, torn clothing and an earless Mickey Mouse cap turned backward, he would proclaim, “the sky is shaking” with a knowing twinkle in his eye.

He perched on his stoop nearly every day for about 10 years. When he got hungry or tired of sitting, he would wander to other stores in Capistrano Beach Plaza on Doheny Park Road. At night, he would shuffle behind the plaza to a drainage culvert, where he slept.

Harley was the town bum, a street person whose odor and oddball ways disgusted many residents. Some took pity on him, especially the local merchants who would give him food or coffee.

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On Aug. 15, passers-by noticed that his spot was empty. Then Harley’s body was found slumped on the railroad tracks, just yards from his favorite culvert.

A press release from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department the next day said only that the victim was a well-known local transient and that he may have fallen or been struck over the head by an unknown object before he was run over by a Santa Fe train during the pre-dawn hours.

Two months later, Harley’s death--like his life--still stirs conflicting emotions in this seaside resort community of 6,500. Some feel sadness, others guilt.

Still others question how they treated this stranger among them.

“He was a transient, but he never bothered anybody,” said Reggie Fernandez, co-owner of Willy’s Meats, where Harley stopped for coffee every day.

People have left flowers on Harley’s stoop. Some also taped little cards to the wall where he rested his back. One card read: “Harley, will you ever forgive me? I wish I would have at least bought you a cup of coffee.”

Hypocrisy Intimated

Fernandez and other merchants believe the community’s outpouring of affection for Harley is somewhat hypocritical.

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“Everyone talked about him like he was a dog, but now that he’s lost his life they feel sorry for him,” said Willy’s cashier Karen Charlton, who recalled that Harley used to walk into her store “10 to 15 times a day,” sometimes breaking into a dance he called his “shuffle.”

The community is feeling a collective sense of guilt over Harley’s death because some realize it is too late to do anything for him now, said Father Coleman Nolan, pastor of the San Felipe De Jesus Catholic Church.

Harley Edward Duggan, 50, son of migrant farm workers, was once a professional boxer, an accomplished guitarist and a successful businessman. He once lived in a nice house with a wife and three young children before a mental collapse brought on by stress and drugs drove him out into the streets.

Few townspeople knew much about Harley because he rarely talked about himself.

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Here, then, is Harley’s story.

“I always worried that they’d find him dead,” Harley’s mother, Flonnie Duggan, said last week from her home in Pilot Rock, Ore. “I think that if he had two more years to live, I believe he would have come off the streets. (But) he had been (away) so long he was ashamed to come back.”

Harley was born Feb. 3, 1938, when his parents, Flonnie and Houston, stopped for a few weeks to work in a cotton field outside Dexter, N.M.

The family moved to Oregon three weeks after Harley was born. For the next 15 years, he and his brother and seven sisters followed the crops, picking cotton in Texas and Oklahoma and berries in Oregon and California, Flonnie Duggan said.

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Settled in Mountain Town

Life in the fields was hard. They would drag 90-pound sacks of cotton during the day, then return home at night to cramped, rental houses, frequently without electricity. The family finally settled in the mountain town of Pilot Rock.

Harley was never satisfied with a drifter’s life and vowed to make something of himself, said his cousin and one-time best friend, Dale Herndon.

“He just wanted to be real comfortable,” said Herndon, 54, who runs two shoe repair shops in Orange County.

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So Harley, a sixth-grade dropout, left home at age 15 and went to Los Angeles to learn the shoe repair business from his uncle, Roy Windham, Herndon said.

Herndon, who also worked for Windham, recalled that Harley caught on fast: “He was a super worker. He had super hands.”

Harley lived with his uncle for about a year before moving into a place of his own. He met his future wife, Frances Mae, and married her June 16, 1956, in Mexico. Within two years, they had their first child, Tina; over the next two years, they had two more, Danny and Randy, according to Harley’s family records. The couple lived in a three-bedroom home in Garden Grove.

Short-Lived Boxing Career

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At about that time, Harley pursued a short-lived professional boxing career.

Winner of a dozen or so amateur contests, he fought three pro bouts as a middleweight at the old Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, winning two “and losing one--badly,” Herndon said.

Afterward, Herndon said, Harley gave up boxing and concentrated on the shoe repair business.

For about four years, Harley ran one of Herndon’s shoe repair shops in Costa Mesa, supervising an average of two to three other workers. Herndon recalled that Harley worked at least 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.

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Harley left the shop to take a better paying job as manager of a Newport Beach shoe repair store, owned by a large chain. The store grossed $2,000 to $3,000 a week in the early 1960s; Harley pulled down a weekly salary of about $400, which was considerable at the time, Herndon said.

Harley’s ultimate goal was to open his own shoe repair shop, but Herndon said drugs interfered. To help keep up his energy, Herndon and other family members said Harley began taking methamphetamines.

They said he refused their pleas to quit. “At times, he told me he was taking 50 pills a day,” Herndon said.

The drug use intensified when Harley joined a country-Western band and needed more energy to work 12 hours a day at his shoe store and play nightclub gigs until 2 a.m., Herndon said.

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Drugs and Long Hours

The combination of drugs and long hours of working transformed Harley’s gentle personality, making him more irritable with his family, Herndon said.

He often flew into jealous rages at his wife over imagined grievances, Herndon said: “He was getting mean and vicious. Finally, she couldn’t stand to be married to him.”

Harley’s former wife, who still lives in the county, could not be reached for comment. Divorce records on file in Orange County Superior Court show that she filed for divorce June 29, 1971, citing frequent physical abuse, to end their 15 years of marriage.

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At a subsequent hearing that Harley did not attend, a judge awarded Frances Duggan custody of the three children--then 11, 12, and 13--and ordered Harley to pay child support and her attorney’s fees.

But Harley was unable to pay either, for after the divorce he “went off the deep end,” according to his mother.

‘He Couldn’t Control Himself’

“He called me . . . and he was crying,” his mother said. “I said, ‘Harley do you need me?’, and he said, ‘No, momma, I don’t know how you could help me.’ He said every muscle in his body was jumping and that he couldn’t control himself. After that, I didn’t hear from him for years. He just completely dropped out.”

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After the divorce, Harley quit the shoe repair business and reverted to his old life in the fields. He drove a tractor for the Sakioka vegetable farm in Costa Mesa in 1972-75, then dropped out of sight.

His son, Randy, said the family had no idea of Harley’s whereabouts until they spotted him several years later in a TV interview about problems of the homeless in Capistrano Beach.

Harley’s mother and other family members drove to Capistrano Beach and found him, disheveled and unkempt, sitting on the street.

He Hugged His Family

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“He knew us,” Flonnie Duggan said. “He hugged me and said, ‘I thought you’d be dead by now, Momma.’ I gave him $50 and he accepted it.”

Flonnie Duggan said her son invited her into his “home,” a 9-foot-by-8-foot clearing in dense brush and suggested that she sit on a dirt mound.

Randy Duggan, 29, said he talked his father into staying with him in Orange for a while. But after a week’s stay, he said Harley became restless and told his son to drive him back to Capistrano Beach.

“He wanted to live out in the bushes,” Randy Duggan said. “He liked being by himself.”

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Duggan, who was in the sixth grade when his father left home, said his mother took Harley’s homeless predicament hard.

“She felt a little responsible,” he said. “We all did.”

Harley’s story is not so unusual. Many of the estimated 5,000 homeless people in the county come from successful, middle-class backgrounds, according to social workers.

“Some go off because of alcohol and drug abuse, and some snap from pressure,” said Dennis C. White, executive director of the Episcopal Service Alliance, an ecumenical organization in Mission Viejo that provides food, shelter and counseling for the homeless. “That old saying, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ could happen to any of us.”

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No one knows exactly when Harley first showed up in Capistrano Beach. Herb Lamb, a barber there for more than 20 years, said he just showed up one day.

Lamb said Harley “sat around talking to the Lord all the time. He always had a cup of coffee and a cigarette in his hand.”

Merchants such as Fernandez, co-owner of Willy’s, got in the habit of giving Harley free cups of coffee and sandwiches. His family would bring him money, usually about $50 at a time. Merchants also left out fresh jeans and shoes when his clothes appeared almost rotted. But as Willy’s cashier Charlton remembered, Harley would not always accept charity.

“Last winter when it was so cold, Harley was sitting outside, and I ran out to my car to get him a blanket,” she said. “But he would not take it. Some people would leave shoes out here, and he would not take them.”

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Although county court records show that Harley had several skirmishes with sheriff’s deputies, including nonpayment of child support and assaulting officers, he was regarded as peace-loving and nonviolent.

Fernandez is angry at county government officials for not doing more to help Harley. He said it had been obvious for years that something was mentally wrong with Harley, that he needed help.

But he said no county agency bothered to do anything: “When it got real cold, we had to call the police to have him arrested so he wouldn’t freeze.”

County officials acknowledged that they had not adequately addressed the problem of the mentally ill homeless until 1986, when a new law provided money for a homeless outreach program. Under that program, social workers at the county’s Health Care Agency now work with the Episcopal Service Alliance to persuade people such as Harley to accept psychiatric counseling.

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County officials noted that they cannot commit people to institutions unless they are shown to be an imminent danger to themselves or society.

Harley’s family doesn’t think the county could have done anything anyway.

“He was happy, not sad,” Randy Duggan said. “I asked him what he planned if something happened to him, and he said he was just waiting ‘for the hole in the sky to open up.’ ”

Some people in town are talking about putting up a permanent remembrance; perhaps a plaque on the stoop where Harley sat.

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But he has already left a haunting remembrance of his own: Harley had sat on the stoop so long that a silhouette of his body is etched in the blue paint of the wall where he rested his back.


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