Another Caliente Character
Joe Higgins will be remembered by a number of current CIYCers because he and his wife, Helen, were active members of our little club for 40+ years, up until not so long ago. They were special in so many ways, including being among the few anointed as Lifetime Members for their special place in our club’s history.
Like so many of our old timers, Joe and Helen were very skilled boaters. As with other members of that age, they cruised a Chris Craft woody. Macushla was 32 feet long and probably built in the mid-1960s. Joe must have been a boater for a pretty long time because he knew everything about wood boats. Macushla wasn’t one of those glorious, fully restored wood Chris Crafts that are only occasionally seen these days. But it was still very easy on the eyes. Joe not only kept up with the cosmetics -- chrome, varnish, canvas (including designing and sewing his own canvas) and the like. He kept up with the engines, transmission and all the stuff many of us farm out to experts. Some of what he tended to on that boat were really difficult issues, like when the boat needed some new planks on the bottom. It is remembered that he took that project into a yard for some expert work. At one point, something happened and Joe had a falling out with the yard. Apparently they weren’t doing the job right, or at least not to Joe’s satisfaction. Soon he was lying on his back replacing planks himself. Now, for a guy in his 40’s, even 50’s laying on one’s back fitting and fastening unwieldy boards into place overhead seems at the least, plausible. But it is further remembered that Joe was in his late 70’s or early 80's at the time.
Joe was handy with the tools in ways that so many old timers were, maybe because he was a highly skilled technician who worked at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale. He would tell us guys that he worked on “government projects.” That was pretty much the total explanation of what he did for a living. But there was a clue about what he really did for a living along the way. I distinctly remembered him telling me that he once worked at the super secret “Trinity Site” in New Mexico. Now, that name had meaning to someone who grew up in Berkeley in the late 40’s and 1950’s, where we regularly did “duck and cover” exercises, crouching under our school desks wondering what the hell was going on — were the Russians actually starting to bomb Berkeley, the home of the country’s nuclear bomb research. What was going on, in general, were the advanced nuclear tests at Trinity Site, named for the place the first atomic bomb was detonated and where tests went on for years to come. Joe was apparently a hydrogen bomb tech of some kind.
Joe and Helen loved Caliente Isle Yacht Club, especially the monthly parties in our old clubhouse. We remember them mostly in the period after Joe retired and when he and Helen would come across the footbridge hanging onto themselves and to Leonard and Minerva Reed who had a house on the levee side of Taylor Slough. The four had been visiting and basically “pre-loading” for the party to come. “Hanging on” as in if they didn’t hang on, they could have fallen off that footbridge and directly into the drink. Here would come the four of them, down the bridge to the patio in full party mode. They would come inside, chat us up a bit and proceed to continue having their good time. If it was a Halloween Party, Joe in particular would come in an incredibly clever costume, almost always winning the best costume prize. The only one well-remembered was when he came as Jack, as in the Jack-In-The-Box guy. In addition to a finely cut suit, he had his head inside what was once a basketball. And on the top of Jack’s head, was a perfect cone hat just like the real hamburger guy. First prize, for sure!
Joe and Helen were active until their mid-80's. They were particularly pleased when the Board, led by Chip Maguire, voted them into Lifetime Member status. That was truly meaningful to both of the Higgins. Around 2010, Joe passed away while he and Helen were still living in the home he built in Castro Valley. The last time we visited, he specifically commented on his honored award. Helen passed away just two years ago in a senior center in Grass Valley near their only child. We visited shortly before she died and she too commented on being a Lifetime Member of Caliente Isle Yacht Club—an award made only in part because Joe, in particular, was such a Caliente Character.