The Things That Matter Most
Sean Christian Herzig was born on July 15, 1966 at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. He was adopted when he was not quite a year old through a Solano County Adoption Agency. I interviewed him on August 15, 2016 in the old Hollister house in Gaviota, California.
SH: My mom, Sharon Herzig, was born and raised in Lompoc, so when my parents divorced, she moved to Lompoc and my dad went to Oakland. I have a sister, also adopted, from Houston, Texas, who lives in Santa Clarita. I eventually did meet my birth family and I’m close to my brother. I have two full brothers and a half-sister. I keep in contact with them and my birth mother.
CCW: And you're married to Ceci and have three kids.
SH: Yes. Danica is 27, Johnny is 25, and Devon is 20.
CCW: How did you come to be be hired at the Ranch, and what did you think the first time you set eyes on this place?
SH: It was 1987. I had been bouncing around between my dad and my mom, and Oakland back then was pretty nuts, and I figured I’d come down here and give it a try. I was working at K-Mart, and I saw an ad in the Lompoc Record for a gate guard job. Ceci, who was my girlfriend back then, gave me a ride here to apply. I interviewed with Michael Drury.
CCW: So picture yourself driving in here with Ceci back then. What did you think? Did this seem like it might be a good place to be?
SH: I didn't know what to think. Where we lived, this much open area would have been a park! I started out doing a swing shift, so it was a trek from Lompoc to here, and minimum wage back then was $3.35. But the Ranch was a lot slower paced back then too, so it was manageable.
CCW: I take it you didn’t immediately get housing here.
SH: No. I didn’t move out here until the latter part of ’89 or ’90.
CCW: So you did that commute from Lompoc for a couple of years. Was Michael Drury still around?
SH: Yeah. Tom DeWalt was chief of security, and Michael was his number two. When Michael left, I kinda became number two…it wasn’t ever offered…but at that time it was George Donnelley and Phil Ballantine, and the management was kinda bouncing around. Chris and Tony Barr had moved to town, and they had been living in the Knoll House, so the manager offered me the Knoll House. By then we had Danica, so obviously we took that.
CCW: Are you still in that house?
SH: No. I’m actually in the house I've always called Vickie's house, where Justin Cota grew up. It's next door to where Tom DeWalt used to live, and where the manager currently lives.
CCW: What was the job like in those days? And who are some of the people you remember coming and going?
SH: I remember the Stockwells, on parcel 88. The Goudys on 92, where the Reepmakers own now. And the Kiewits. Gosh, I miss Mrs. Kiewit. Linda. She was a nice lady. She took an active interest in what I guess I’d call it the guts of the place. We kept our relationship as friends all the way up until she passed away.
CCW: I’m so glad to hear someone mention Linda. I hadn’t realized she was your friend, but I'm not surprised. Linda had an ability to recognize good people. She was one of the special ones.
SH: I’ll never forget her.
But to me there was the constant schism that still goes on today. Are we a community or are we recreational? I always personally hoped to see it go community based, but that same schism seems to be happening today, I think. The people who don’t invest time in this place, they see it a different way.
CCW: I think you’re right. I so want it to be a community. And it is, in so many ways.
SH: I have a foster mother and she’s from Brooklyn. She likened it to, when she was a kid, if you’re from another borough. She said, that’s all there is to it. You gotta let those people be those people, and you be you.
CCW: So you’re thinking of the schism as being between the people who actually live here, as opposed to people who just come here now and then as a getaway?
CCW: Do you perceive a schism between employees and owners too?
SH: No. I think the employees want to view this place as a community too. When we first moved out here, the employees segregated by choice. But as time went on, the owners made it a point to say, hey, we’re having a barbecue, why don’t you come over? It's residents that feel community. Not the ones who come maybe every third Sunday.
CCW: I’ve often wondered what you think about all this stuff. And I imagine you see a lot from the gate.
SH: I was scared when I first got hired. A security guard is kind of like a cop. Sometimes you see the worst of people. And even now, for this interview, I wondered, gosh, do I have to talk about those kinds of things? I decided no, I don’t, because that’s not history, it’s just personal mess-ups, for the most part.
CCW: But I guess you see the best in people as well as the worst.
SH: Yeah. But if someone who is a nice person is just having a bad day, I can tell. Then there’s people that are just stuck on stupid. Let them be them. With one particular individual, I know it’s going to be piss and vinegar, no matter what. So if he yells at me about something, I don’t take it to heart, because it’s him. With another owner, I can always tell if he's having a bad day, but he’s not mean. He just doesn’t wanna talk on those days.
CCW: Can you think of anyone who’s been especially kind?
SH: For me, the one I didn’t expect was Linda Kiewit. But they’ve all…well, I would say most of the people that live here…are pretty kind.
CCW: Has there been anyone here that’s been a mentor or teacher to you, anyone played an important role in that way?
SH: I would say I've learned from pretty much everyone. But Tom DeWalt kind of taught me how to brush off the bad things and understand what was my job and what wasn't. That helped me to deal with stuff. I was a young kid when I started here…twenty years old. Ceci was eighteen at the time.
CCW: Gosh, you practically grew up here.
SH: Definitely. When Ceci and I first got here, we had never heard an owl. It scared the heck out of us!
CCW: So...are there certain aspects of the place that you love?
SH: I’m a history nerd. I love this house. I love the parcel that we’re on. The houses are old. If the termites quit holding hands, it will fall apart. But the parcel has a sense of community. I think for Josh and I being neighbors for twenty years, we get more accomplished in the driveway than we do in staff meetings.
CCW: So you’re more focused on the history aspect of it. Do you feel a sense of being part of the greater story?
SH: When the history book came out, I was looking through the book, and I saw a picture of my Uncle Bud Howerton out here. That man was cantankerous, and didn’t like anybody, but there he was. I never knew that he'd lived out here. I can remember going to family reunions up at Nacimiento, and Uncle Bud would throw horseshoes at us if we got too close to his horseshoe game. He was just a mean son of a bitch. I never felt proud that Bud was a relation, but when I saw his picture in the history book, I kinda thought, "I came from over here." Somehow there's a path back for someone in the family to be here.
SH: When the kids were little, we spent so much time in Bulito Creek, like after El Niño. We found old bottles, old cans. I’m a geek like that, but I see it in Johnny now. He can never leave this place. He tried living in town...
CCW: It gets into your blood somehow.
SH: For me and Ceci, we knew we were never gonna get rich here, but raising the kids with no gangs and no dope? Okay. All we ever wanted was to give our kids a good foundation of morals, and hopefully still have their head on straight to save a dollar or two, like we didn't. That was always our thing. We knew we were never going to be rich financially, but as long as the kids were okay, we were okay.
CCW: Some people think they need so much. Bigger houses. Fancier cars. I feel incredibly fortunate just to be here. I grew up in New York, in Brooklyn. So I started out as a city person too.
SH: And you know this much open space would be a park.
CCW: Yeah. And it would be crowded and there'd be all sorts of infrastructure and it would be completely different.
SH: I don’t know if owners realize it or not, but because we are employees, we realize there is a class distinction. I wouldn’t say lower caste, but we know our place in the inner workings up here. But we take a serious affront to what the Coastal Commission is doing right now. I don’t have a vested interest in the place other than...you’re kinda messing with my people! For them to…oh, it irks me to no end that they think to save this place, they gotta blow it up. I don't get it. They're saying five hundred people a day, bathrooms...where are you gonna put a septic? Where are you gonna get the water?
CCW: I know. The public has always had access to the beach. I don't get how it's necessary or justified to make that access easier by busing people through private property. Seems like it would change the very character that is so special and appealing in the first place.
I guess the whole surfing thing is a big draw, but that's lost on me. I don't even swim.
SH: I don't either.
CCW: You don't either?!
SH: I mean, I do swim. But I like to see the bottom.
CCW: Sean, just to backtrack for a moment to when you were talking about the class distinction between employees and people who have a vested interest, I just want to tell you I don't feel that at all. I couldn't possibly respect you more than I do. To me, you and the other people who work here are just as much a part of the bones of this place as we are, and maybe more so. Probably more so. I think you know that.
So...anyway, here's a question: can you just reflect a little on what the Ranch means to you? I guess it's kind of a big question.
SH: When I’m at work, the main concern is customer service. Making sure the guests have a good experience coming in, the names are written down, all these rules to follow. Again, I put it back to being a policeman. When we have to tell people that they’re breaking a rule that they made, or that other owners made, we’re the bad ones, but when they need help, they need gas, or whatever, we’re there to help them, and that feels good.
Then, when I get off work, watching Johnny run to the beach to go fish, it’s worth it, and my youngest comes home once a week, just because she misses it. She lives in Santa Barbara, she’s by a beach, she’s going to school, she has a job, but she comes here once a week, and just goes on a walk. That feels good. My oldest, Danica, she’s in the Navy. She’s so homesick right now she can’t see straight. She said she’s coming home soon. It’s been two or three years since she was able to visit.
It’s funny. The place gets into them. And that’s a proud moment, when you’re able to say I could provide this for you. You’re gonna spend the rest of your life trying to find this or something like it, but if not, you can always remember it.
CCW: No one can take that away. It just shapes your soul.
SH: Definitely. I’m proud of the fact that this place got into my kids.
CCW: You’re gonna make me cry. Is there a particular place here at the Ranch where you are most aware of this, maybe a canyon or view you're especially fond of?
CCW: What’s your favorite moment of the day?
SH: I’m a morning person. When I’m at work, probably around 9 or 9:30, it slows down and all the employees and commuters are out of the way and you finally get a chance to breathe. The sun’s just starting to heat up and the squirrels are getting hungry and they come begging for food.
CCW: I've never actually been inside the gate house. Do you have a little office back there?
SH: There’s a little work station in the back. You’re not missing much. Josh and Juan are working with me to hopefully revamp it. Basically it looks like the 70s. We’re hoping for a remodel, but like everything, we have to watch our budget.
CCW: What’s the night shift like?
SH: It’s not bad. It depends. Weekends can get nutty. But nights…it usually slows down around 11 and starts back up around 5 a.m.
CCW: Ever have any scary confrontations?
SH: Me personally, I’ve only had one. A transient walked up at two in the morning. The guy was mumbling. Remember the double Dutch doors we used to have? I stood up and said may I help you, and he just started kicking the bottom part of the door. I grabbed a bat and told him to go away or I was gonna call the police. He kept kicking and I called 911. They said, what are you reporting? I said hold on, and I just held up the phone while the guy’s screaming and kicking the door. He was still doing it when the sheriff showed up and they took him away. He had mental problems.
CCW: Anyway, you had your trusty bat.
SH: We had a gun at the gate at that time, but we were told never to draw it. Tom said you had to be in mortal fear for your life. Plus it was locked up with a bicycle lock that had a combination. It would have took longer to get the gun, than to defend ourselves. The gun’s been gone since probably ’92. I took it out of there and asked Jim Goebel to put it in his gun safe. I figured, well, the cowboys all had guns.
CCW: So the gun's been locked up since ’92?
SH: It’s still in Jim’s cabinet.
CCW: Is there any advice you would offer to a young person or a new employee?
SH: I would say don’t take people’s bad attitudes to heart. And if you’re at the gate, look around. That should stay with you. The person with the bad attitude goes home. You get to stay here. If we’re doing a ten-hour day and someone with a bad attitude comes in, well, even if you don’t live here, you still get to be here for another two hours, or whatever it is. The main thing is don’t take people’s attitudes to heart. If they’re mean, they’re mean. We may have to deal with it, but they have to live with it.
CCW I just think the prevailing attitude should be gratitude. We should never take it for granted.
SH: I agree. Wholeheartedly.
CCW: What do you hope for? What gives you hope?
SH: I’m a complete Luddite. Being a history nerd, I’ve always thought the people in the past, they had it right. I watch the world changing into what it is, and for some reason, I think it was better when I was younger. I don’t know that clinging to the past that much is healthy, but I hope that people’s morals would come back. It doesn’t seem that way now. That would be my hope. Just basic morals and ethics, and the way we treat each other. The moral structure seems to have changed.
CCW: Yeah, you do see that nowadays. Even in public discourse. Like, suddenly it’s okay to be nasty.
SH: And if you’re not, you’re not cool. We’ve had an owner come out here and say, "Hey Sean, how you doing? I made a million dollars last year!" Well, I think to myself, you’re still ugly and your mother dresses you funny. Like, what’s the point?
CCW: It's different values, I guess.
My hope would be that some morals and ethics will return. Everything my parents taught me and that I tried to instill in my kids. I look at the picture all the time of the El Niño School and I don’t think there’s one kid in there that doesn’t have the basics. Not one. They’re all good kids. They all still talk. I would hope that the rest of society could follow suit. They’re nice. They’re respectful. It’s not like I’m a cool guy or a hip guy, but every one of those kids still talk to me. Janey, and Sandy, and Daniel, Miranda when I saw her... These are just nice kids.
CCW: It’s that sense of community you were referring to. We had that. There’s a new generation of kids coming up here. Hopefully it will be like that. Seems like some nice families. It seems like a whole new crop of kids.
SH: For me, that El Niño year was the year community just happened. I may not care for you, but if you need help, I’ll help. Now this is what it’s supposed to be like. Everybody helping everybody. To me that was just incredible. While it was a horrible year physically, the community came together. That to me is what it’s about. The El Nino school kids. All those kids turned out great. There’s hope.
CCW: Are there any funny stories you feel like sharing?
SH: See, that’s what I was talking about. I have plenty of stories, and some of them are funny, but it's people's personal lives. I don’t know if it fits in. Part of it has to do with the job, what I learned from DeWalt. If it’s their personal business, and it has nothing to do with what we do, it's not your business. But it’s an awkward place to put a young person. And moral issues come up:
CCW: Can you tell me about a big turning point or decision in your life, and how you navigated that?
SH: I was trying desperately to get out of here. I took a job at FedEx, and was still working here. This was before my stroke. Devon was still in high school. I was working two jobs, making good money. Then I also got my life insurance license. It boiled down to: do I uproot my kids and try and buy a house, and do all this stuff I was supposed to do as a parent? Or do I stay here and just be? That was hard. I had a job offer in El Paso. It was all about the family. My wife was always worried. But Ceci told me, “This is my own Hawaii. I’ll never get to see Hawaii, but I have this.” And that was it. I was like...I can’t take that from her. It was the right decision.
CCW: Absolutely. You know it was the right choice.
SH: I don’t regret that one. There’s a lot of personal choices I regret that I made when I was younger, but nothing that Ceci and I did for the family.
CCW: Well, you know…we all live with regrets. But look at what you’ve provided for your family, look at what a good life you have…as they say, when you reach the top of the mountain, don’t curse the trail that brought you here.
SH: Lord knows I made enough mistakes and I paid for 'em, but I don’t regret ‘em:
CCW: Sometimes I wish there had been an easier way to do it. I could have skipped certain parts.
SH: Yeah. What's that saying? The easy things in life are never easy…something like that.
CCW: It seems to me you you've learned what matters and what doesn't, Sean. Personally, I’ve never thought the bottom line was about how much money and stuff we accumulate. When my father died, he maybe had eleven dollars to his name. To me that’s proof that money is not the measure of a man or a worthy life.
SH: My dad was the opposite. We always had a house. He had to have a Cadillac. He never voiced it to us, but because he was so poor growing up, that’s what he wanted. He still gave us the message to be nice to people, that kind of thing. But I look back on it now, when my parents split up, he was always a go-getter, had to have money. Then he retired, and he went back to Texas where he wanted to be, and within a year of retiring he passed away. I was like, "You did all this stuff, all your life, and now you’re gone. My stepmother has everything. So what did you miss? What was the point?" I don’t want that. I mean, I don’t want my wife living out of a box, either, but I don’t want that. I started saving for retirement late. I told Ceci that little trailer we have is starting to look better than ever.
CCW: And what are you most proud of?
SH: My kids.
CCW: What gets you through the hard stuff?
SH: My wife and my coworkers. I can open up to my wife about everything, and I usually do. And my coworkers…we’re a tight knit group. When I first started, there was an us and them mentality. Administration was administration, and maintenance was maintenance, and co-op was co-op, and security was just…eh. Out of necessity, we became close. And that closeness has remained. We’re all pretty cohesive now. But my coworkers, I can tell them anything. Josh and Jackson, Willy, Jeff Peterson.. I remember Jeff being little running around out here.
CCW: I appreciate the guys at the gate. When I was a teenager, if I went out at night, my father used to tell me he'd leave the front light on for me. And so whenever I'd get home, I'd see that light and know someone was watching out for me. It's a little like that with the gate. There's always someone who knows you, waiting there to let you in and welcome you home.
SH: Someone once remarked that gate guards are a dime a dozen. All of us took it to heart but I know we're better than that:
SH: Before we go, I want to show you where I saw the ghost:
CCW: And look. There's the photo of the El Niño kids.
SH: Good kids. Every one of 'em. There's hope.