One retiree who won't sit back

May 02, 2002 12:00 am

By ERIC BURKETT

Retirement. The golden years. Time to sit back and let the world go by.

Except in the case of retiree Peter J. Fernandez — with the world soon to be passing by his house on the new East Sonora Bypass.

Already bent out of shape by the bypass — it runs less than a mile from his house — Fernandez recently learned that Phoenix Lake Road will be reduced to nothing more than a dirt track for about six weeks this summer.

And he was mad.

There's nothing to be done about the bypass, he conceded. That's history, a fact. But Phoenix Lake Road reduced to dirt? With 7,000 cars a day? That really rankled him.

At an informational open house given by Caltrans in Sonora a few weeks ago, Fernandez had plenty to say about it to anyone who would listen. And he was hard to avoid. With his Bronx accent and penchant for brightly colored Western shirts, Fernandez stood out.

"Drugstore cowboy," he called himself recently. "Right out of Times Square."

There was no way a dirt road could accommodate that kind of traffic, he said, to say nothing of possible damage to the cars themselves.

But Caltrans planned to proceed with the dirt road, so Fernandez got on the phone.

"I'm retired and have nothing else to do, so I've been on the phone for a couple of days," he said.

And he went straight to the top — to Gov. Gray Davis' office.

OK, Fernandez is the first to admit that calling the governors's office didn't get him very far, but it was a dramatic first step. Eventually, he ended up going through about four people at Caltrans, finally making his way to Mark Leja, director of Caltrans District 10 in Stockton, the office that oversees the construction of the bypass.

Now, Fernandez readily describes himself as a pain in the, well, rear. Actually, he describes himself in a number of ways that really can't be reprinted here.

Fernandez will also be the first to tell you he's never been one to be relegated to the back of the bus.

"That'll be the day," his wife, Helen, shouts from the background. "You'll have a steering wheel and drive from the back."