The Revolution Comes to Rossmoor 

As the Vietnam War generation invades senior communities, an old generation gap rears its ugly head.

If the canopied glens of Lamorinda shelter its residents from the outside world, the Tice Valley that cradles the Rossmoor retirement community literally locks the world out. Uniformed guards stand watch in security kiosks that straddle the only access road, and unless the computer recognizes the bar code glued to your car window, the gates stay shut. Inside, the nine thousand seniors who call Rossmoor home drive golf balls along the 27 links that line the valley's floor, or drink cafeteria coffee and play bridge inside the Gateway Clubhouse. Thursday is "Fun Day," when residents sing along to "Camptown Races" or Irving Berlin. Some residents drink away their nights in front of the TV; others awake at dawn to watch wild turkeys graze the lawns in front of their million-dollar homes. Dogwalking is huge. The one thing people never do is risk arrest to confront the big shots who run the place. But last month, for the first time in its forty-year history, the revolution came to Rossmoor.

Just before eleven on the morning of February 1, nineteen people slid into the soothing waters of the community's Stanley Dollar pool and pretended to go about the business of warming their arthritic limbs. Along the pool's edge, roughly forty supporters tucked protest signs under their arms and swapped scandals concerning the Golden Rain Board of directors, the unfortunately-named council elected by residents to govern the valley. For years, they told each other, their apathetic neighbors had napped while the directors issued arrogant fiats, secure in the knowledge that old people don't raise hell. But when the Man cut back on the hours Dollar Pool would be heated, he went too far.

The clock chimed eleven, and the pool manager ordered his lifeguards to roll the tarp over the pool. Then he saw the signs taped to the lawn chairs: "Can you feel our arthritic pain, Golden Rain?" "Can you cut some small change loose, Golden Goose?" The swimmers refused to budge, treading water and staring up at him in their goggles and swim trunks. A photographer from the Contra Costa Times started snapping pictures. "They said, 'We're going to cover the pool,' and I hoped they would," says Jackson Stephens, a retired schoolteacher and a leader of this pool-protest movement. "What a story that would have made, if they covered the pool with a bunch of old people in it!"

The manager turned around, walked into the nearby clubhouse, and locked the doors, but residents followed him and flung them back open. As the crowd cheered, Stephens floated to the center of the pool. With slick black hair turning gray along the sides, a pencil-thin mustache, and a voice trained by years of ordering kids to open their textbooks, he bobbed with the chlorinated waves and rallied the crowd with an old-fashioned barn burner. Golden Rain thinks we're a bunch of sheep, he shouted, but we're not going to take it anymore. We pay through the nose to live in Rossmoor, but every year, the amenities dwindle away. Our voices have to be heard! Gnarled fists jabbed the air: "Yeah!"

Rossmoor has seen its share of revolts over the years. In the 1970s, a group calling itself the Rossmoor Residents Association spent years fighting for more direct democracy in the valley, and in 2001 residents organized a reform group known as the Committee for Open and Responsive Government, which campaigned for open government laws, filed lawsuits against the administration, and ran a dissident slate of candidates for the Golden Rain Board. But these were essentially "good government" citizens' groups, which used conventional electoral means to push a reform agenda. Nothing like what protesters dubbed the "swim-in," with its civil disobedience and '60s theatrics, had ever happened before. And for this, many Rossmoor denizens credit -- or blame -- the appearance of a new species of senior, the baby boomer, that promises to drastically alter the physical and social landscape of retirement communities around the country. The Rossmoor swim-in was just a shot across the bow.

"A lot of people here just want to go with the flow," notes Doug Krutilek, a 55-year-old Rossmoor resident who was among the pool-protest's leaders. "A lot of the fight has gone out of them. ... I suggested that we wear our Speedos and bikinis at the board meeting to get noticed. They said, 'Oh, I would never want to be seen in that!' I said, 'Yeah, well, the board wouldn't want to see you either. That's the point.' Somewhere in their mind, it clicked: 'Wait a minute, I can be heard.'"

Ever since the swim-in, Rossmoor's neo-beatniks have made sure they're being heard. Each Saturday morning at eleven, they have picketed the road leading to Rossmoor's gates, drawing honks from motorists and the occasional bus driver. Almost twenty were out one morning last month, crouching under yellow slickers and holding cardboard signs cannibalized from old humidifier boxes. The sky threatened more than a mere drizzle, but Charlene Wilcox's spirits were hardly dampened. "It's really a dictatorship in here -- the residents in here have no rights at all," she snapped from behind her rose-tinted glasses. "We're tired of it, we're just tired of it. I mean, it's gotten to the place where we're not going to stand for it anymore."

Protests inevitably draw a nut or two, and the pool demo didn't disappoint, as a Rossmoor bystander wandered by to shout "Slow down!" at cars rounding the corner at 20 mph. Jackson Stephens took little notice as he orchestrated the event from his command post on a nearby traffic island, checking his watch every five minutes and booming "Thank you!" at every car horn. The 64-year-old came of age at a time when young Americans were rejecting their parents' deference to authority and embracing rebellion, nonconformity, and the primacy of the individual. Although Stephens predates the baby boomers by a few years, he spent his adult life absorbing the boomer expectation that the world would have to change to accommodate him. And here he was, putting the Golden Rain board on notice that he and his friends were about to change life at Rossmoor forever. As a woman in a silver Mercedes-Benz SUV shot him the first scowl of the day, Stephens glanced at her rear bumper and guffawed, "A Cal sticker! Oh, my God! She must have been before Mario Savio!"


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