Turkey Jon, the rumpled mascot of Hermosa Beach
Jon Burt lives in Torrance, but his real home is eight miles away.
Early each morning, he loads himself on his seven-speed black bicycle for the hourlong ride. His destination: Hermosa Beach, a town made iconic by the legends of surfing.
Burt is a huddle of clothes, hunched over the handlebars, white plastic bags hanging as sentries. “Stuff for the beach,” he says of the contents.
He is wrapped in layer upon layer of warmth topped by a flannel jacket, ripped in places. Windbreaker pants fend off the stiff ocean breezes that come with sunrise.
Affectionately called Turkey Jon, he rolls along Hermosa Avenue. Rumpled, grizzled, wearing moccasins with his big toe poking out of the left one, Burt seems out of place in this town of bikinis and flip-flops.
“See that surfer over there?” asks longtime resident Josh Huante, pointing to Hermosa’s celebrated sculpture at the end of the pier. “He’s like that. He’s a monument.”
This is where Burt’s heart is.
“This is where I grew up,” he says. “And I want to stay here.”
His eyes occasionally wander. He is missing some teeth. He can be stubborn and sometimes his speech gets snarled.
“Brain damage,” Burt, 56, says, as if anticipating the question. “When my mom was delivering me, there was bleeding from inside her stomach, and that caused a hemorrhage.”
His sister Sharon admits it hasn’t been easy.
“I care very much about him,” she says. “It’s just hard because sometimes he won’t let me help.”
Burt, though, likes being on his own. Decades of routine make that possible.
Indeed, halfway to his hometown, Burt hews to his routine, detouring to the end of Redondo’s Avenue I to study the surf. He takes his usual place, plopping his bulky frame down in the same spot on the same wall as he did yesterday and the day before that.
“You can always tell if it’s coming in from Baja, because it’ll be bigger waves,” he says. “When they come in from the south and west you can tell because they come in at a weird angle.”
He climbs swiftly back onto his bike and doesn’t stop until he sees the Good Stuff restaurant on the beach at Hermosa. Server Jen Danner and manager Antonio Villegas are waiting with his drinks: always an apple juice, a Coke and a water.
“He orders the tamales every day, and we special order them for him,” Danner says. “They’re not even on the menu. But we all love him.”
He eats his breakfast methodically, at a rate of one tamale per hour. So there is plenty of time to analyze the news. He talks about President Obama, Bush-era tax cuts and the economy.
“Someone needs to get their head on right, and say enough is enough,” he says, his voice rising. “Something needs to be done now.”
Burt finishes eating and opens a plastic container and withdraws wrinkled bills to pay. He climbs back on the bike. Next stop: Spyder Surfboards, about 200 yards away, where friends like saleswomen Alexis Braitenback are ready to chat.
“I know he enjoys talking to us and genuinely cares about the people he comes in contact with,” Braitenback says. “He’s always asking how my two dogs are.”
Next comes a 17-block ride to 30th Street. Along the way, people go out of their way to greet him.
“Hey, it’s Turkey!” says one college-age surfer who knows Burt’s story.
“Hey, Jon, how’s it going, buddy?” asks another.
Burt is glowing. He loves his hometown and it is loving him back.
Burt even has a Facebook fan page with more than 5,000 “likes” — but you won’t catch him looking at it. He knows that people will “make remarks about you.” He is sensitive to that kind of thing.
He admits that he wouldn’t mind losing the nickname. “I’m over it,” he confides.
It doesn’t take much to win Burt’s affection, and when you do, it shows. Sitting on a bench at the end of the pier, he is quick to wrap his arm around you, adding pressure as he says something important. Later, squeezed together on the same side of a restaurant booth made for one, he asks a friend to scoot even closer.
“It’s better to sit together as friends … nobody else can hear what you’re saying,” Burt says.
He understands that not everyone in Hermosa knows his story now, and meanness can surface.
Childhood pal Shar Franklin says it doesn’t happen often, but when someone does say something nasty, Burt can get feisty.
“And I will say to him, ‘Jon, you know your mom wouldn’t like that,’ ” Franklin says. “And he straightens right up.”
Burt was 2 when his family moved to Hermosa, where his mother, Wilma, became a political force. She fought for homeowners’ rights and to keep the coastline free of over-commercialization.
“She was not on the council,” says former longtime Councilman J.R. Reviczky, “but she certainly let the council know her feelings.”
Everyone who knew her knew her special-needs son.
“There’s a whole litany of people that have lived here and have maybe lived outside boundaries of what some people call normalcy,” Reviczky says. “It’s a safe community where people watch out for each other.”
Everyone watched out for Turkey Jon.
When they were growing up, Franklin says, Hermosa was the blueprint for a laid-back beach town. But as property values soared, the demographics of this 1.3-square-mile area shifted.
“Quite honestly, over the years, we’ve become less tolerant,” Reviczky says.
Franklin doesn’t disagree, and worries about Burt.
“The way he’s perceived has changed since when I was a kid,” Franklin says. “People look at him a little differently because he looks like he’s homeless, but he’s not. The teenagers now don’t look at him the same as when I was a teenager. I don’t think the kids nowadays do stuff with him.”
But they sure did then. It’s how he got his nickname.
As Burt tells it, by the time he was 8, he was riding his bike to the pier every day. Only thing was, he wouldn’t go in the water. His pals pleaded with him, though to no avail. Then one day he waded in and began to dog-paddle. It made his head and shoulders bob up and down, like a turkey on the run.
The name stuck.
“We’d go swimming with him, or go for a bike ride,” Franklin says, “and that was a day-to-day part of our lives.”
Life changed in 1993 when the indomitable Wilma died. Then Burt’s sister moved away from Hermosa, and suddenly, there was no one left to pester him on a regular basis.
Even now, Burt doesn’t talk about his mother’s death. His voicemail still tells callers, “You’ve reached the Burt family.”
“They lived together for a long time,” Sharon, 66, says. “So he holds on to that. He doesn’t really like change.”
The biggest change came in 2008 when the house was sold. Using money from his inheritance, Burt lives comfortably in an upscale mobile home park. Inside, granite countertops mark the border of an immaculate kitchen filled with appliances, many of which go unused.
There is order — individually wrapped pastries on the counter in meticulously assembled columns and TV dinners stacked in the freezer. A nearby bookshelf has row upon row of ball caps.
There is also disorder — lawn chairs sprawled in front of the TV, boxes of his parents’ belongings stacked haphazardly in a spare bedroom. His mother’s framed flower paintings hang on the walls, but slightly askew.
“You cannot reason with him,” Sharon says. “He needs more help than he’s willing to acknowledge.”
He sometimes forgets little things, too, but folks like Franklin and Villegas know him well enough to give gentle reminders, such as when it’s time to run clothes through the washer.
But Burt bristles at the mention of his clothes, and shifts the conversation."I like riding my bike,” he says.
At 30th Street, he steps off his bike to say hello to surfers and deliver the wave report he gathered at Redondo. Most strike up a conversation.
Burt’s “stuff for the beach” goes untouched but he’s OK with that.
“I know quite a few people who still paddle out at that street,” he says. “A lot of the guys that go out with their longboards — I like to hang out with them.”
The surfers are part of Burt’s routine. They always have been.
“We used to hang out when we were kids,” he says, “down at 2nd Street or 5th.”
By midafternoon, Burt calls it a day. He doesn’t tower over his bike — he is only 5-feet-7 — but he is a picture of strength as he wheels south.
Yet he can’t leave Hermosa without one more stop, at Good Stuff. He meets up with Villegas, now wearing a well-used white apron after a long day.
“Thanks Antonio,” Burt says. “See you, pal.”
Villegas starts to stand.
“Love you,” Burt whispers.
Antonio smiles. “Love you, too.”
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