|JIM CHLEBECK with his dogs DAISY and TARA, October 2009|
Grateful thanks to TONY WALDRON
for sharing this photograph
I recently learned that my dear friend Jim Chlebeck died of cancer on or around August 12 at his daughter's home in northern California. Jim was in his mid-seventies and had been in poor health for about a year following the return of the prostate cancer he first fought and conquered nearly a decade ago. Unfortunately, the disease failed to respond to treatment this time and spread to his bones, meaning nothing could be done for him except to keep him as free of pain as possible while it ran its inevitable course.
I first met Jim in 1986 when he and his wife Marty – who also succumbed to cancer in May 2008 – became friendly with my parents. Jim and Marty were Americans who came to Australia in the early 1970s for a vacation and, liking what was then the laidback lifestyle of the southern Sydney suburb of Cronulla, decided to stay and raise their three kids – Barry, Steve and Julie – here. They became regulars at Rumble family parties where I always made it a point to chat with Jim about the country, jazz and blues artists he loved so much and was always pleased to recommend to me. I also visited him and Marty at home many times where their garden – a garden he planned, planted and scrupulously maintained almost singlehandedly – served as an enchanting backdrop to many a fascinating conversation about the novels of William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, their lives in the States and our mutual fondness for Westerns starring John 'The Duke' Wayne.
Jim was born in rural Minnesota and spent his first six years on the family farm. He often spoke to me of how much he valued the freedom that being a 'farm kid' gave him to discover and develop the love of nature that would stay with him for the rest of his life. His world changed dramatically, however, in the middle years of World War Two when his dad, seeking a more dependable income in what were uncertain times for many mid-western farmers, decided to move the family from the Gopher State to the greener economic pastures of southern California. Jim's aunt and uncle had recently opened a successful hotel/restaurant not far from Hollywood – an establishment patronized by several movie stars and other notable characters of the era including US General George S Patton – and it was here that he spent the next few years, learning a lot about the hospitality and catering industries in the process.
He attended high school in Los Angeles where he soon learned to speak a fluent variety of what he called 'street Spanish' which helped to gain him the acceptance and eventually the friendship of his Latino classmates – something not easily accomplished in the rigidly segregated society of 1950s America. Living in such close proximity to what was then the entertainment capital of the world also gave him the chance to attend live performances by everyone from West Coast jazz icons Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton (whose band featured his favourite female singer, 'Misty' June Christy) to pioneer rockers Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran to blues legends BB King, Elmore James and Muddy Waters. It was Jim's abiding love of the blues that led him to small local radio stations located in black LA neighbourhoods like Watts where it was possible, in those days, to see some of the nation's finest blues and R 'n B artists perform live-in-the-studio without having to pay a cent for it. 'The black guys didn't mind my being there,' he often told me, 'because they knew I loved the music and hadn't come to cause trouble.'
Five Long Years
Buddy Guy was Jim's favourite blues guitarist
After graduating from high school and spending two years in the Coast Guard to fulfill his national service obligation, Jim planned to go to college to study for the Biology degree that would allow him to become a Park Ranger for the US Forest Service. This plan changed, however, when he met and married his first wife and became the father of two kids. A variety of jobs followed, including a stint as a Highway Patrolman where he quickly learned an important lesson about breaking up bar fights – sit in the car with your siren blasting for at least ten minutes before you and your partner enter the club, giving the perps plenty of time to clear out through its back door. This technique spared him a lot of unnecessary bruises and may have saved his life, he believed, on more than one occasion.
In the late 1960s, with his first marriage amicably ended, Jim met his second wife Marty while working in his uncle's doughnut shop. Marty came in to apply for a job and that was it – one look and he was hooked. They married soon afterwards and spent many a weekend in San Francisco, checking out the Haight-Ashbury scene and smoking grass with the love children – an atmosphere Jim enjoyed and was sorry to see ruined by the introduction of hard drugs and violence into what had been a movement dedicated to fostering peace and brotherhood among Americans. What drew the Chlebecks to Australia – and particularly to what, at that time, was the sleepy beachside suburb of Cronulla – was its similarity to hippie-era San Francisco and the small Californian communities in which they'd both grown up. Although they never intended their stay in Australia to be permanent, things didn't turn out that way. Jim soon opened Sydney's first 'freshly-baked' doughnut shop in the Bankstown Square shopping mall and, within a couple of years, was working as an advisor for the White Wings flour company – a position which saw him travel the country to teach other shop owners how to make doughnuts in the true 'American style.' He and Marty owned and ran a successful tobacco/gift shop in the 1980s and, not long after I met them, started a busy catering and providore business which kept them working twelve to fourteen hours a day seven days a week.
Jim became a lot more than a beloved friend to my family in 1991 when my father, who had been complaining of persistent stiffness in his shoulder for over a year, was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. As his condition worsened and it became increasingly difficult (and dangerous) for him to drive, Jim made it his self-appointed duty to take him out somewhere every Wednesday – outings which provided my mother with some desperately needed respite from what, in my father's case, was a particularly harsh and unrelenting form of the disease. These periods of respite became even more important as the years passed and my father fell victim to a related condition known as Lewy Body Dementia – a comparatively rare but particularly destructive form of senility which is frequently (but not always) linked to Parkinson's Disease. Without Jim and these weekly outings, I doubt that my mother or I would have survived what became the crisis point of my parents' marriage and the painful decision we were eventually forced to make to place my father in a nursing home. Whatever happened, Jim remained patient, unflappable and sympathetic, someone who was always there for my father when many of his other friends – alarmed and threatened by what was happening to his brain and what had been his sparkling personality – preferred to keep their distance from him.
As good as Jim was to us, he was even better to his wife after she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as 'sickle cell carcinoma.' Marty didn't want to die in hospital so Jim nursed her at home – a harrowing experience for any relative but especially so for a spouse forced to watch the person they love most in the world weaken and deteriorate right before their eyes. Again, I never heard him protest or complain, not even when I turned up unexpectedly to visit them one day and found him looking more exhausted, physically and emotionally, than I believed it possible for any adult human being who had not survived a war or some form of major natural disaster to look. He wanted Marty to go to hospital – just for a day or two, he pleaded, so her medication could be adjusted and her condition monitored and stabilized – but, delirious as she was, she dug her heels in and refused to cooperate. After begging her to change her mind for close to three hours, she finally relented and agreed to go if I'd ride in the ambulance with her. The next day she was home again, flitting in and out of consciousness as she lay in the hospital bed Jim had rented months earlier and set up for her in their sun-room so she could watch their two adorable Shih Tzu dogs Daisy and Tara snooze on the couch and potter round the garden. It was only a few weeks later that Marty died – an event which, while long expected and even welcomed after the many years of suffering she'd endured, was nevertheless devastating to Jim who, within a year, sold their house and moved to the town of Wentworth Falls in Sydney's Blue Mountains.
But Wentworth Falls wasn't to be his final destination. Jim had dreamed of living on Magnetic Island – a small community a short ferry ride away from the city of Townsville in tropical north Queensland – since first coming to Australia and moved there in 2011, sharing a rented flat with his son Steve which featured uninterrupted views of the beautiful wild Pacific from almost every room. The warm climate and the slower pace of island life suited him, as did the sense of anonymity that came with living in a place where no one expected or demanded anything of him and he was free to spend his days doing as much or as little as he pleased. Each time we'd talk on the phone, I'd notice how much calmer, wiser and more accepting he seemed of everything, as though he'd put the pain of losing Marty behind him and had truly entered a new, more contented phase of his life. He enjoyed taking his early morning stroll along the beach and would occasionally drive his lime green Holden ute to Townsville to play Texas Hold 'Em Poker – a game he loved and could have played professionally had he chosen to – in its casino. 'I love it here, Bentley mate,' he'd tell me, his voice slightly blurred by the red wine he sometimes liked to sip while we chatted. 'They'll have to kill me to get me off the island.'
Jim Chlebeck was not a famous man. Nor was he a particularly talkative one, at least during the thirty years I was fortunate enough to call him my friend. But he radiated qualities like kindness and integrity which drew people to him like moths to a flame even as the shy, self-effacing side of his nature strove to keep them at what he deemed to be an acceptable emotional distance. He was the most personable of men but also one of the most obsessively private individuals I've known, drawing lines around certain parts of his life that nothing (and I mean nothing) could force him to cross. (He was so private that I didn't even own a photograph of him until his friend Tony Waldron was kind enough to send me one after reading this post.) He never spoke, for example, of the gruelling treatments he underwent during his first battle with prostate cancer or of the serious heart condition (from which he made a full recovery) he developed during the final years of Marty's life. When you asked Jim how he was, he was always 'fine.' Like the man, that answer was 100% consistent 100% of the time.
Jim was unreservedly supportive of my desire to write – so much so that I dedicated my second novel, Blues for Eddie Clay, to him and Earle Page, another close friend of my father's with whom we shared many a fine lunch at our favourite Greek restaurant in downtown Sydney before Jim moved to Queensland. These lunches were vitally important to me because Jim and Earle were my last remaining links to my father and the man he'd been before the combination of Parkinson's Disease and dementia robbed him of his reason and irreparably damaged our relationship. Our lunches were something I eagerly looked forward to because they gave me a chance to talk about jazz with people who didn't say 'Who?' when I mentioned names like Helen Merrill, Teddy Wilson and Lester Young and whose eyes didn't automatically glaze over while I waffled on about famous New York venues such as Birdland and the Blue Note. It was a proud day when I handed them their copies of my completed manuscript and drew their attention to its dedication page. I felt I was repaying a longstanding debt and was delighted to have the chance to do so.
I last saw Jim in November 2015 when he passed through town on his way home from a trip he'd taken to the States to visit his sister. Although I knew his cancer had returned and the prognosis was far from good, it was a shock to see him looking so tired and functioning in what was obviously a substantial degree of discomfort during what proved to be our final lunch together. We both knew, without either of us needing to say so, that we'd probably never see each other again and I felt overwhelmed with sadness as I hugged him goodbye – an emotion I was obliged to hide because I knew he'd be embarrassed if I failed to conceal it from him.
But it's gratitude rather than sadness that I feel as I write this post today. As sorry as I am to lose him, I'm also grateful that I got to spend the short but precious amount of time I did get to spend with him and that our time together was, on the whole, as pleasurable as it was memorable. Jim was one of the good guys, a person who gave much more than he took, and his life was a testament to the fact that true greatness is a private and individual quality, not a question of publicity and who makes the most amount of noise about themselves and their so-called achievements and successes. There's a John Wayne movie called The Quiet Man and that, it strikes me, would serve as the perfect description of Jim Chlebeck. He was a quiet man and a great one and he made the world a better place to live in for everyone who knew him.
Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered (1959)
June Christy was Jim's favourite female jazz singer
My heartfelt condolences to Jim's children Steve, Julie and Barry, to his daughter-in-law Fran and to his grandchildren Ashley and Ryan. Your father/grandfather may be gone but he'll never be forgotten. He'll be in my thoughts every time I hear the blues, read one of the Faulkner novels he was kind enough to pass on to me or sit back and enjoy a glass of good Australian Shiraz. I consider it a true privilege to have known him and will always feel honoured that he considered me his friend.