This is the story of an unselfish Tehachapi man, a large carving of the word "JESUS' in an earthen bank, and the homeless Navy veteran who created it -- a man whose body has been lying unclaimed at the Kern County Coroner's Office for three months since his death on September 18.
The Tehachapi man is Jack Dufur, a master upholsterer who taught his craft to inmates at the California Correctional Institution prior to his retirement. Jack is an active guy and a devoted grandfather who taught his grandson to play chess at the age of five, and the youngster is now a first grader who can sometimes beat his adoring Grandpa.
While driving on Highway 58 west to Bakersfield a number of years ago, Jack noticed that someone had written the word "JESUS" in large letters on the bank of a sump near the Weedpatch Highway exit. It was plainly visible on the north side of the freeway. It intrigued Jack, who is a committed Christian, and he eventually stopped and made contact with the man who created it.
The sign was made by a homeless man named Daryl Collins, who was also known by the nicknames "Detroit" and "Double D." Daryl lived in the sump, which is essentially a dry reservoir. It was designed to catch runoff from rains, and since it seldom rains much in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, the rectangular catchment basin is nearly always dry. Daryl had made himself a little shelter he concealed with tumbleweeds, and almost everyone drove right by on Highway 58 without detecting the tumbleweed dwelling. The large "JESUS" sign was noticed by many, however.
"Daryl hung out at the Burger King off Weedpatch Highway and worked for food by cleaning all the fast food lots in the area," Jack explains. "He was very intelligent and read about five books a week."
Jack did what he could to help Daryl. After finding out that he was a Vietnam-era Navy vet, Jack started taking Daryl to the Department of Veterans Affairs, trying to get him into some kind of program. Jack was able to get Daryl a Veterans Health ID card and Daryl was receiving health benefits at the VA outpatient clinic in Bakersfield. Jack also found out that Daryl was eligible to receive a pension of $900 a month. Was Daryl excited to learn that he could be getting a monthly income? No, actually. He told Jack that he didn't want it or need it, that he was getting by alright on his own, and that he didn't want to take any money away from a veteran who might need it more than he did.
"I was frustrated that he wouldn't take the money and live differently, and he got a little upset with me," Jack told me when I ran into him at a Tehachapi hardware store. "Daryl said to me 'Why do you live the way you do, Jack? Why do you get upset with the way I live, I don't get upset with the way you live!' And then Daryl said this to me: 'I choose to live this way, I'm content, I don't hurt anyone, I am responsible for myself and keeping "JESUS" clean. I keep "JESUS" free of weeds and trash that all the people throw on him! I have maintained "JESUS" for the past 9 years! And then he added this, which is quite profound: "What exactly have you done for him lately?"
Despite his occasional frustration with Daryl, Jack continued to help him. Only a few months ago, Daryl got glasses from the VA to assist in his love for books and reading. And Daryl took part in this unlikely friendship as well -- "You're probably the only person who cares about me, Jack" he once told him, and one day took a brand-new San Francisco 49ers T-shirt off his back and gave it to Jack, since he knew Jack was a 'Niners fan.
Many drivers saw the earthen "JESUS" sign -- anthropologists would call it a geoglyph -- and motorists ranging from long distance truckers to local commuters commented on it. One little girl that had been diagnosed with cancer would have her father stop the car along the side of the road to pray by the sign each time they were on the way to the hospital for treatment, and she and her father stopped to thank Daryl on the day when she was declared cancer-free.
On September 18, at the age of 59, Daryl suffered a heart attack and died outside the Burger King on Weedpatch Highway. Since then, his body has been kept at the county coroner's facility, because no family members have signed a release. When that happens, he will be cremated and his remains interred at the Bakersfield National Cemetery at White Wolf, near the Arvin turnoff. Jack has been in touch with some of Daryl's siblings, all of whom live out of state, trying to get his body out of limbo and get him a resting place of honor at the Veterans Cemetery.
"I know Daryl had issues, and there was substance abuse in his past and he probably burned his bridges with his relatives," Jack says, "But he chose to live the way he did, and he died with that choice. He may have been a bum, but he was a likeable bum, and he did service to his country and he deserves to be buried in the Veterans Cemetery."
Hopefully the matter with Daryl's remains can be resolved soon. He has passed away, but the "JESUS" sign he created by hand lives on, and his unusual friendship with Jack Dufur persists -- it is Jack who continues trying to get Daryl interred. You can visit Jack's Facebook page to see if there's been progress.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org