The Lonesome Death of Peg-Leg Ronnie

A first-hand account of life and death in the Orange County Riverbed. Writer and activist Patrick Hogan illuminates the circumstances that are frequently overlooked.

By Patrick Hogan

The morning Peg-Leg Ronnie passed, it was a typical Orange County day. The sun rose over Saddleback mountain to warm the remnants of the chilly, arid night. Money chasers sped through the Orange Crush interchange, where four freeways merge, bringing vehicles to five miles an hour. Maids and nannies were already working, as the white bread workers headed out to their daily bowing to the almighty dollar.

It was the year before El Nino, which meant hot, dry, and windy days. Southern California was experiencing five years of drought. In droughts like these, the ground becomes dry, cracked, and brown — and so do the people. Some are changed if they take too much sun. Ronnie knew this and was careful to avoid the sun.

Peg-Leg Ronnie was well-seasoned; for most of his life he worked and played hard. Being mechanically-inclined, he became a jack of all trades but a master of none. And Ronnie was a simple and honest man. Now all of us have a little larceny in us, after all we’re human and Ronnie was no different. But he always tried to treat people right, and to stay away from judgment. His creed was something his father instilled in him — walk a mile in another’s shoes and then you’ll know him.

Now Ronnie wasn’t always homeless. He worked and was married in a better time in his life. No children, but he felt that he and his wife could always adopt later.

Later was not to come. When Ronnie was thirty six years old, he mounted his motorcycle and headed home from work after having had a few drinks. He was forced off the road by a driver who didn’t see him. Ronnie hit a telephone pole while horizontal in the air.

The doctors could not save his leg.

The adjustment was difficult. Ronnie would go into bouts of depression, and even when he received the latest prosthetics, he still felt less. Thus began the deterioration of Ronnie’s life. The loss of his job, a divorce, and a developing addiction to pain pills put Ronnie where he never thought he’d be: living in a tent on the river.

Humility comes from the acceptance of each one’s humanness. People saw their own humanness, their faults and failures, and their triumphs in Ronnie. And through others’ acceptance of him, Ronnie was able to accept himself, even one leg short.

Yet there he was. As the years rolled by, Ronnie’s health worsened. Diabetes and a bad liver from drinking began to take its toll. Yet somehow, through it all, Ronnie held true to his father’s creed. If something was taken from him, he would declare that whomever took it must have needed it more. When gossip would fly, he’d walk away mumbling, “There’s two sides to every story.”

Anyone who lives as a homeless person long enough gets their own handle, and Ronnie was no exception.

On a particularly bright, Southern California day, after a healthy Santa Ana wind blistered through, Ronnie emerged from his tent, the sun forcing him to close one eye. At that precise moment, Babbling Brenda came to see if Ronnie needed anything from the store. Ronnie always had people looking out for him, and as Brenda espied him, she spouted out, “Peg-Leg Ronnie!” and the handle stuck.

Ronnie never really liked his handle, but people had a certain affection for him, and it shone through when they greeted him with a boisterous, “Hey, Peg-Leg!” Over time, Ronnie grew to like the name, and even began to introduce himself as Peg-Leg Ronnie. This is how Ronnie came to accept loss of his limb.

Humility comes from the acceptance of each one’s humanness. People saw their own humanness, their faults and failures, and their triumphs in Ronnie. And through others’ acceptance of him, Ronnie was able to accept himself, even one leg short.

It was the summer of the last year of his life, and Ronnie had two different veins of the human condition. His spirits soared as many came to him for his wisdom and for his stories. As high as his spirits rose, his health failed just as much. He knew it was a combination of drinking and diabetes. He did not blame anyone. Nor did he curse the government for not helping enough. He put himself in that position, and he would not excuse it.

In the last month of his life, many people came to see him. They felt something was wrong, and many were concerned. One of his neighbors began to keep an eye open for the eventual ambulance call. Most along the river did not want to involve emergency services and Ronnie felt that way as well. So Dirty Doug kept an eye out for Ronnie. Most of the river felt it was right for Dirty Doug to tend to Peg-Leg Ronnie. Dirty had the gift of gab, and they genuinely had a liking for each other.

A bond was formed, but not the kind of bond that happens in fraternities, or with members of an exclusive country club. No, this was a bond of necessary caring and need — one that may not be recognized by those bonding.

On the night Peg-Leg Ronnie passed, Dirty Doug was there. Dirty was slumbering off when he was startled by a piercing, anguished cry. He ran to Peg-Leg’s tent and looked in. Peg-Leg was a ghastly gray and was frightened, but would not be taken to the hospital. And as Peg-Leg would not allow Dirty Doug into his tent, Dirty knew he couldn’t leave just yet.

So Dirty did what he does best — he sat outside Ronnie’s tent and talked, and when he felt he could talk no more, Dirty Doug and Peg-Leg Ronnie said good night. The next morning, Dirty Doug went to check on Ronnie. Doug knew he was gone.

After much discussion by the municipalities over who had jurisdiction over Peg-Leg Ronnie, he was hauled away and disposed of with as much compassion as road kill. There was no ceremony nor a memorial. No one came to pay their respects, yet Peg-Leg Ronnie lived his life as best as any man and better than most. His father’s creed became his own, and he knew he was no better and no worse than anyone else.

Peg-Leg Ronnie helped others see the vulnerability in themselves, and in return they helped him accept himself. And he was spared the humiliation of dying alone.

Dirty Doug eased his passing and in his act of kindness and compassion, both men were able to feel the presence of each of their creators.

 

note from the author

 

 

In the late spring of 2017, I became homeless. It wasn’t because of substance abuse or from being incarcerated; it happened because I lacked the foresight to ensure that I would be hired out of my union hall. No one’s fault, really. Sometimes we are put in positions or places that we are supposed to be in, and the reasons are revealed later. So, there I was, looking for a place to pitch my tent. To many, the homeless are a group who have created many of their own problems: irresponsibility, substance abuse, selfishness, and so forth. The reasons for becoming homeless are endless and many are legitimate, yet just like cases of crooked cops, corrupt politicians, or molesting clergymen, the old adage, “a few rotten apples spoil the whole barrel” seems appropriate. Furthermore, speaking of solutions to a problem as complex as homelessness can seem like an endless conversation that no one wants to have.

For community leaders and concerned citizens, providing housing either through government assistance or by loosening laws that allow citizens to rent out garages at affordable rates seems to be a fair and reasonable start at reclaiming the homeless back into society. These beginnings unfortunately are temporary, and honestly, how many citizens are going to allow Hobo Joe into their lives? So the endless conversation continues. The vast majority of people whom are homeless just want a roof over their heads; a place they can call home. Concerned citizens want the homeless off the streets and those who can be productive should do so, yet at the same time stop-gap measures are put into play that place the homeless temporarily put out of sight.Both sides of the Orange County community should begin to see what they have in common to ensure long-term solutions.

At first glance, one would say it is obvious that both want to be off the street and in affordable places. However, looking for commonalities between people will create a foundation for more concrete solutions.

All human beings have spirit. It is like health; some have good health, some have bad health — but we all have it. Also, just like health, each one of us is responsible for our own health. And so it should be with the spirit that is within each of us. When we consider those whom are homeless, most people have a negative view of them, but consider the positive traits of those who live this life: resourcefulness, tenacity, cleverness, and creativity are prevalent. A bike ride through a tent city will bear witness to these traits. Also when you consider the noble traits of human beings, the homeless are compassionate, full of charity, and display a willingness to help anyone new or old in their community. There is also an enthusiasm to share their experience and know-how on how to make things easier for their fellow neighbors. Their fierce independence and individuality make them survivors where many would have failed. To the concerned citizen, many have the same traits, as witnessed by the homeless themselves.

Compassion, charity, and a willingness to help those less fortunate on their own time and at their own expense is a testament to what America has always been since the days of our founding fathers. By using these common traits as a reference point for finding solutions, maybe a larger sense of community can be felt. In our society today, there is an ‘us against them’ mentality: whether it be the police against minorities, the haves against the have-nots, or undocumented immigrants against legal citizens. To categorize citizens and shuffle them away into institutionalized living quarters because they are poor, or to subsidize their existence without offering these citizens a hand up, a way out, is tantamount to treating them as cattle.

As our American population ages, and if opportunities for the growing number of have-nots do not materialize, the number of homeless will undoubtedly increase.

— Patrick Hogan

Patrick Hogan, activist and writer for the homeless, pens an essay about the death of Peg Leg Ronnie, a known presence on the Orange County Riverbed.

1 Comment

  1. Patrick is an amazing man, I loved seeing him at the Q&A panel during InSight’s launch earlier this year. His story is definitely one of the best on here!

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