Pancho Villa, indubitably the most hated man on the North Beach, is dead.
Few knew him well enough to know his real name: Craig Heiller. Everyone just called him “Pancho.” Everyone who liked him, everyone who hated him; everyone who felt he was a disgrace to Copalis Beach, everyone who thought he was a harmless old kook.
You may know him only by the hand-written billboards at his home/business (“J. Wales Trading Post,” where he sold goods he bought on trips to Mexico as well as antique signs and other assorted trinkets). His place was on the east side of State Route 109, just before — if you were driving from Ocean Shores north — one of the sharp curves.
People driving south tended to slow down for that sharp bend, then hit the gas and speed down the straightaway in front of Pancho’s place.
Pancho hated the speeders, but this was just one of a long list of pet peeves that he cultivated like a greenhouse gardener growing multiple tomato plants. Pancho nourished his annoyances with tequila, coaxed them along with creative curses, pruned away anything that conflicted with his worldview.
And, in time, Pancho’s peeves grew to raging, monstrous vengeances.
They were often one-way streets, as in The Great Al Carter Feud. A few years ago, Pancho started trashing the then-county commissioner with one nasty sign after another. Carter, much to his credit, avoided Pancho’s baitings, whether it was the signs or in-person accusations and complaints that Pancho would make at meetings.
“I used to like talking to Pancho,” Carter told me, on more than one occasion. “I don’t know what his problem is …” (Or words to that effect.)
In the spring of 2009, after I got to know Pancho a little bit, I tried to talk him into removing the most offensive of the Al Carter signs. I remember talking to him on the phone, making my little pitch that I thought was quite clever, and then hearing him shoot it down. After another futile attempt, we disconnected — I sat there and suddenly realized what I had done wrong.
I was trying to deal with the master trader, and probably was a bit patronizing.
I called him back. “Pancho, let me rephrase: I’d like to ask you a personal favor.”
A short time later, the sign was down.
Eventually to be replaced by an even nastier one, but still …
I’m not going to pretend I understood Pancho, knew him well or was a close friend. But he was a friend — even if he liked to push my buttons with rambling phone calls that lashed out about North Beach and Ocean Shores institutions and individuals.
At a certain point, his criticisms began to get pretty personal. “Are you a reporter or a paperboy?” he rhetorically asked on one memorable message.
I wondered if his annoyances toward me were about to hulk out into Al Carter territory, but they never got that bad. His voicemail rages drifted away from me, back to his usual suspects.
I came up with my “Pancho rule,” wherein I would hit the delete button after his third curse word. There are probably quite a few sailors who would cringe at Pancho’s language — which is not to say he was stupid. Pancho was well educated and, when he put his mind to it, a refined writer.
He just liked to curse.
I let months go by without calling him back, reasoning there was no point in it. Pancho just liked to vent.
A couple of months ago, something he said pushed my buttons to the extent that I did call him back. We hashed out (so to speak) our differences on a particular topic, then moved on — better put, he moved on, and spat some venom about a few other topics that didn’t concern me.
We talked another time a few weeks later. Though he wasn’t as friendly toward me as he had been in the past, it was a sane and civil conversation.
Not long after, Pancho Villa died. Like most people around here, I didn’t even know he was sick; it was cancer that took him down, swiftly and mercilessly.
The southern wall — facing Ocean Shores, one of his favorite targets — of his Copalis Beach home/shop now has the following, in big white letters:
“ADIOS AMIGOS PANCHO VILLA IS A BLESSING YOU THE KING IS NO DIED”
I’m not sure if Pancho did this one himself, or a friend wrote it for him. Whoever authored it, Pancho’s last sign perfectly captures his spirit.
His death left some around Copalis Beach grinning and cheering, happy that the mean old so-and-so with that nasty eyesore of a place was gone, finally good and gone.
Those people probably don’t know about all the little things Pancho liked to do, donating comic books to school kids, doing volunteer landscaping in the dead of night so no one would know about it, giving soccer balls and footballs to kids, picking up trash on the beach (he was also a professional beachcomber, out there just about every day scavenging for prized finds) …
He’s probably not very happy with me now, furious that I’m blowing his hard-earned reputation as the evil-hearted Public Enemy No. 1.
Was he Pancho Villain? Or Pancho Valiant?
I keep getting this image of Pancho Villa in heaven.
“So, how’s my amigo Pancho?” God says to him.
“Glad you asked, Sir. I’ve been observing some things and I’d like to point out that there’s some pretty shady things going on. According to Article 3.2 of the Angel Code, the choir is directed to sing ‘Hallelujah’ no less than a million times consecutively. Lately the lazy you-know-what’s have been cutting it short after 750,000. And that dirty rotten guard at the gates is taking payoffs — he’s letting all kinds of tweakers and meth heads in.
“Now, let’s talk about the clouds. I’ve taken the liberty of doing some testing —do you realize that they are in danger of becoming …”
And what can be said to that button-pushing, tequila-swilling, foul-mouthed scoundrel of Copalis Beach, that secret do-gooder, my friend Pancho Villa?
God only knows.
Tom Scanlon is editor of the North Coast News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.