Mike Meszaros has lived in the same Inverness house for most of his life and, with one or two exceptions, has managed with the same, now-dated furniture. He drives a rust-embellished 1983 B.M.W. he inherited from his late father in 1991 and a 1975 Ford truck he bought from a friend in 2000. You might be thinking, “unimaginative, prosaic.”
Although he is modest about his abilities and even a bit shy, Mike has more interests and skills than any 10 people you know. He’s exceptionally resourceful, independent and curious about countless things, pursuing everything from culinary arts to stained glass to gathering his own salt from Tomales Bay in late summer, when the salinity is high. He has collected rainfall statistics for almost 60 years, grows his own saffron, and for many years kept bees.
He’s also out and about, generously serving his community in multiple ways, including delivering meals to folks unable to cook for themselves for the past 15 years. He’s a walking, breathing archive of all things West Marin, a compendium of dates, names and events that are at his fingertips. No senior moments for this fella.
Most people who have even a passing acquaintance with Mike peg him as a boat and sailing maven. Indeed, boating and sailing are among the main themes running through his life.
His connection to the Inverness Yacht Club goes back decades, to his youth. Over the years he has taught sailing to countless young people and participated in races and sailing adventures both in California and in waters off of New York and Italy. In 2009, he shipped his boat across the country to join a race honoring the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York (the race was sponsored by the Dutch government, which paid participants’ shipping costs).
On Mike’s kitchen wall are pennants dating from 1992 to 2018, commemorating wins and near wins in sailboat races sponsored by the yacht club.
He was born in the East Bay, but his family began coming out to West Marin when he was quite young. “I was introduced to the area in a cardboard box,” he quips. Several years later, in 1957, his family relocated to Inverness, and his father began commuting to San Francisco for his job as a civil engineer at Bechtel.
After the move, Mike’s mother, who had worked as a pharmacist for Owl Drugs, gave up her profession. Mike attended West Marin School, and although there was Little League and a Boy Scout troop (of a mere four guys), it was difficult to get together for activities with school friends, who lived on remote ranches.
“It was sometimes lonely,” he muses.
But things livened up when the summer people came to town. The population doubled or tripled during those months, and he and his friends fished from a small boat and dug for clams. It was an idyllic time for Mike, and many of the friendships he formed during those summer months are still going strong.
One especially close friend, William Prince of Seahaven, includes Mike at his family’s Thanksgiving dinners. William regards Mike as “a man of integrity with an amazing memory,” and Mike proudly displays a recent Christmas gift from William: a beautiful hand-forged kitchen knife.
With few exceptions, Mike has stayed within the community he loves. He attended high school in San Jose, and his final year was spent at Marin Catholic. (The Catholic training didn’t take, however, and he considers himself “completely lapsed.”)
He enrolled in the University of California, Berkeley, but left after his freshman year. He explains his low grades: “I didn’t study and was too immature. Also my grandmother, who lived with the family, was dying.”
After enrolling at the College of Marin and bringing up his grade-point average, he transferred to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. There he studied biological science with electives in astronomy and archeology, and he recalls cross-country skiing to class. After graduation he returned home. Why else? To build a boat.
But there was much more in his future. In 1981, Mike became the Inverness fire chief, taking over from Dick Graveson and initially sharing the job with longtime locals Dan Morse and Peter Worsley. He recalls that within months of taking the job, “disastrous flooding” hit Inverness. Years later, the Mount Vision fire burned many homes.
“I was the incident commander for the first nine minutes of the fire,” he laughs, “and then the county fire personnel took over.”
Mike was fire chief until 2001, and to this day he is still a volunteer, carrying around a squawking box at all times. (Our interview was halted at one point while he rushed off to assist with a car crash.) Currently his paying job is maintaining boats for the yacht club.
Mike was a foodie before the word was invented. He said he always had a peripheral interest in cooking; he and his family, including his grandmother, who was an excellent cook, prepared meals together in the same kitchen he cooks in today. At times they made dishes drawn from the family’s Hungarian background.
But his interest in food morphed into passion, and now Mike makes bread, pancakes and pizza crust from a sourdough starter that dates to 1970 (and it was 50 years old when he got it that year). He makes his own kimchi, beef jerky, sauerkraut and hard cider, and dries fruit grown in his small orchard. His dried persimmons are exquisite and his paella is unforgettable. I can only describe his pumpkin cheesecake, which he makes with squash, as orgasmic.
As a young man, Mike was mentored by Captain Oko, an impressive character who lived in West Marin for many years and sold real estate. Oko was a Sir Francis Drake scholar—he wrote a book, “Drake and Nova Albion,” which Mike has in his library—and he “instilled a sense of history as well as a love of sailing in me,” Mike said. During the war years, Oko took Jews by boat from Italy to Israel; he had lifelong interest in art and antiquities, and he gave Mike a sword forged by Andrea Ferrara, an antique navigation device called an octant, and a helmet from the Sir Francis Drake era.
Yet another interest of Mike’s is music. He has eclectic tastes and hundreds of C.D.s, but he prefers to listen to his vast vinyl collection. (He owns a special device that vacuums the dust from the L.P.s.)
If you walk by his house, you will often find him spitting wood, which is for him a relaxing pursuit rather than a chore. He gifts much of it to friends and neighbors. And if you happen to look up, you might see him perched in a tree, pruning.
As he thinks back on his youth, Mike appreciates the freedom children had to take off in sailboats or explore on foot without worrying their parents. He recalls an adventure as a teenager when he and a good chum, Nick Peachy, took a small boat to camp on Hog Island. A storm came up and 75-mile per hour gusts beached the boat. Before the storm subsided, he recalls watching a seal enjoying itself in four-foot waves. That time his parents did worry.
Much has changed in West Marin since Mike arrived in a cardboard box. The physical changes are obvious to everyone: more traffic, more visitors, more second homeowners and weekenders. As a longtime resident, he has a unique perspective on the past 60-something years, and he especially laments that there are fewer young families, who are shut out of the housing market. Most children no longer grow up as he did, free to roam the trails and waters with the outdoors as their personal playground. But he remains an optimist about the future viability of his community and its anchors like the Coastal Health Alliance and West Marin Senior Services, which serve mostly locals.
Says Mike, “I am confident that most services and institutions in West Marin are well grounded and are pretty likely to continue.”
Ellen Shehadeh has written for the Light, the West Marin Citizen, The Pacific Sun and the North Bay Bohemian, and interviewed artists and authors on KWMR, for 14 years. She lives in Inverness.