I stopped by Dr. Bill Anderson’s house in Laguna Beach the other day to talk to him about Saudi Arabia, from where he recently returned. We ended up by spending most of our time talking about his lifetime fantasy--which he also lived out recently--of returning to the American frontier.
Anderson is a 46-year-old general practitioner who spent six years as the director of student health services at UC Irvine. He was also the doctor for Bill Mulligan’s UCI basketball team, and Anderson and I spent a good many evenings over those six years sitting in the stands at the Bren Center second-guessing Mulligan’s coaching decisions. One of the few pieces of good luck Anderson has enjoyed the past two years is being happily absent during UCI’s 5-23 season.
Anderson cut out of Orange County in 1988 to take his wife, Catherine, and two small children to Big Sur country, where he would go back to basics, live off the land and be a country doctor. We talked about this when we weren’t talking basketball, and his eyes would light and his voice grow animated whenever he projected it.
I had some misgivings, especially when he told me he would be moving his family into a converted barn, temporarily without electricity, at the end of a 3-mile torturous dirt road that hugged a cliff and turned into a quagmire when it rained. He made it sound like Valhalla.
Well, it was something less than that--how much less depends on whether you are talking to Bill or Catherine. Country doctoring turned out to be impractical as a livelihood, and the nearest place Bill could find work was Hollister, a two-hour drive away. Bill worked in the emergency room there--24 hours on (“24 hours in hell” he called it) and 48 off. Catherine assured me that most of the crises at the old homestead took place when Bill was either at work or on his way.
There was, for example, the matter of the Doberman. The Andersons’ dog, Comet, took to hanging out with two Doberman pinchers at their nearest neighbor’s, a mile away, because they offered a house with heat, food served indoors, and other amenities to which Comet had become accustomed in an earlier life. To woo Comet back to the family, the Andersons adopted a Doberman from the nearest dog pound.
Shortly thereafter their livestock began to disappear, notably chickens and geese. The evidence was circumstantial until they caught the new Doberman with a dead goose just as Bill was leaving for work one morning. “Tie the goose around the dog’s neck,” he instructed his wife, “and that will cure him of this forever.” Then he left.
So Catherine tied up the Doberman and hung the dead goose around his neck. A few minutes later, having chewed through the rope, the Doberman bounced into the converted barn, dragging the bloody goose along. Twice, Catherine re-secured the Doberman, re-affixed the goose, and retreated to the house--a little more hysterical each time. And twice the Doberman returned, his psyche apparently undamaged by the corpse around his neck. When Bill finally came home, his wife was waiting in the driveway with a badly shaken psyche of her own to take the Doberman back to the pound.
There were dozens of stories like this. It took two months, for example, to get a generator working to supply the Anderson family electricity, and then it wouldn’t store up power but had to be running whenever the lights were on. It shook so violently that the whole barn would quiver and pictures would dance on the walls.
To avoid such distractions, Catherine would serve dinner at 3:30 during the winter so they wouldn’t have to eat in pitch darkness. At Christmas, when Catherine’s family came to visit, it rained for a week and her father sat up most of every night feeding paper and wood into the stove that provided the only heat, convinced they would all freeze if he didn’t.
“People we invited up would look at me kind of strangely after they got here,” Bill told me, apparently still puzzled over this.
The plan was to live in the barn only until they were able to buy land and build their own house. But several factors weren’t considered when the plan was made. Like a local requirement that every new house must be located on a tract of at least 40 acres of land. And a tough building code. And environmental restrictions that probably would have taken many months to work through.
By the end of the first year, it was clear that they wouldn’t be able to build--and that they had to locate somewhere closer to civilization. With maybe a grocery store and a gas station.
So the Andersons bought a splendid, spacious home in Hollister--and moved in two days before the earthquake that shook the Bay Area last year. Their house survived better than their psyches, so their stay in Hollister was probably foredoomed from the beginning.
“Two days after we moved,” says Anderson, “we were without water and electricity again--and that’s when I started suspecting I was doing the wrong thing.”
When they decided last summer--to the immense relief of Anderson’s old patients--to move back to Laguna, Bill got restless. That’s where Saudi Arabia comes in. A doctor friend told him that the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre in Riyadh was looking for American doctors to fill in for a month for vacationing staff physicians, so Bill went. And his luck held. He’s written a long piece about it which is full of thoughtful insights.
He stressed two of these in particular that he feels have not been presented very clearly to the American people.
“I have to assume,” he told me, “that our intelligence has made clear to the people setting policy in this country the vast differences in culture and thinking between the Western and Arab countries. I don’t think these differences are fully appreciated here. They need to be escalated to another plane where these factors are taken much more strongly into consideration. We’re not going to get anywhere by trying to force them to play our rules by using Western logic.”
And, second, Anderson pointed out that we have very little comprehension of why some Arab nations have thrown in with us against their Arab brothers. “The overthrow of the royal family in Kuwait,” he said, “is the first time that the proletariat has ever risen up successfully against a royal family in the Arab world.
“That has a lot of royal families worried. They don’t want to see that precedent set in Kuwait, and that’s why they are supporting us. The first rumors we heard in Riyadh were that rank-and-file Kuwaitis were throwing in with Iraq because they wanted out from under the royal family. There’s still a lot of that feeling around.”
He added that the people in Riyadh--the capital of Saudi Arabia--were “pretty well insulated from day-to-day news because this is a very closed and controlled society. People were nervous but not afraid. This is a society where everything stops five times a day for prayer. Everything. That’s the extent of control.”
So Bill Anderson follows the news out of the Persian Gulf with a special fascination while he tries to reorder his life in Orange County. At the moment, that means re-establishing his private practice while he works two gigs at Emergicenter Family Care in Costa Mesa and Anaheim Memorial Urgent Care in Anaheim Hills. He also plans to catch some UCI basketball games.
Meanwhile, he hasn’t let go of his fantasy, just put it on the back burner. “I want to go back there someday, and I will,” he says firmly. “We gained a lot from that experience. This country grew out of that kind of spirit. A lot of me is still there and always will be.”