Fran Braga Meininger
On a late afternoon ride, I stumbled upon a small plaque I’d never seen before. I walked my bike on the pedestrian sidewalk to the center of the bridge to get a photo of the creek. As I leaned in, I saw it, “The Buck Stops Here”. I knew instantly what it meant.
Everyone here knew “The Buck”. All who live in Glen Ellen and drive through the Sonoma Developmental Center, as I do several times a day, knew who he was and we miss him.
He stood tall, over six feet, a big man with a toothless smile, who made his daily rounds, stopping by to visit those who kept a stash of orange candies just for him. To say Buck’s favorite color was orange is a gross understatement. Buck was obsessed with orange and the staff at SDC provided him with plenty; a book highlighted with orange marker he kept tucked in his back pocket, an orange t-shirt that fit tightly around his round belly and a blaze orange hunter’s cap placed carefully at a jaunty angle.
I don’t know when or why Buck was institutionalized. He just always seemed to be there, a fixture, no, an icon, as permanent as the institution itself. He had some obvious difficulty with communication. I never heard him speak, only laugh, a spirited, full body laugh accompanied by shaking his hands in the air with an unabashed joy. It was a delight to witness.
Like many of the clients, Buck was free to roam the Center and walked miles each day as he made his rounds of the sprawling property nestled at the base of the Sonoma Mountain. Rain or shine, he had his routine and he rarely deviated from it.
Mornings were for sitting on the bench at the main entrance watching the cars go by. Occasionally, if I was lucky and the mood struck him, he’d return my wave on the down low. No smile, nor any sign of recognition that I’d been waving for years, he’d usually just watch with amusement as I drove past.
In the afternoon, right around 3 00 pm, I’d find him on the bridge to the east of the main entrance, his pockets weighed down with gravel. The SDC operations staff kept him stocked with a pile placed adjacent to the bridge. He’d throw the pebbles into the creek below one by one, looking around for anyone watching to share in his excitement. He would stand there for hours as each stone splashed and sank before he would drop another. Every day, for years and years, he would watch and laugh, savoring the simple pleasure as though it were new.
Buck left sometime a few months ago, when the state closed the center and relocated all those who lived there. I don’t know where Buck went from here. There was no ceremony, no fanfare or farewell. He just left. I only hope wherever he landed, there is a pile of gravel and a creek.