No one who knows the first thing about me can separate me from my love of books. An only child (for my first nine years) who was taught early to rely on myself, it's hardly surprising that most of my childhood friends were of the print variety. For that reason, I thought I'd share some of the most memorable ones, the ones that had a lot to do with who I became, here. There is also the fact that modern kids don't want to read anything that isn't composed of two or three incomplete sentences on a screen, so maybe one will stumble across this and see what he's missing.
Grandma had me reading by the age of three. . . During three; before four. She must have read to me a lot to have produced that effect, but what I remember is reading the Sunday Funnies upside down as she read to me with them on her lap. I was way too young to get the humor, and to this day, I rarely laugh when I read humorous material, but it counted. It was the ability to read, and I was on my way. I have spoken harshly of the Grandmas in these posts, and I stand by my opinions, but that's one thing I can place on their side of the balance sheet: They understood the value of literacy, and made sure I had it before I ever walked out the door to head for school.
I remember having quite a shelf of Little Golden Books, a line of children's books from the 1940s and 50s. They weren't challenging, but were "comfort reads," and I would read them over and over as a small child, escaping into a world where everything came out all right on the last page.
I had two high-quality books from Great-grandma's Victorian childhood that were just fabulous. Uncle Wiggily's Travels was one of a series about an anthropomorphized rabbit teaching morality lessons to his niece and nephew, and the first edition of Aesop's Fables with its intricate lithographs was a dream come true for a child; I have to love those Victorians!
When I checked into Sunset View Elementary School in San Diego to start the third grade, they had
converted a small unused office into a library for the students. There I discovered the All About Books. These were science books for schoolkids that explained everything from dinosaurs to space travel in
terms that preteens could easily grasp, and these ignited an interest in how things work that is with me to this day.
Growing up in the 1950s, all of us kids were steeped in and surrounded by stories, first hand accounts by our own family members and those of friends, who had defeated Germany and Japan. War was glorified in that period, and it seemed with good reason; it took Viet Nam to beat that out of us, but the literature of the day was heavy with stories of everyday heroes, the shop clerks and farm boys who had put down their schoolbooks and marched off to fight and defeat the professional military forces of two of the most brutal tyrannies the world has ever seen. The Last Parallel was the war diary of Martin Russ, a marine corporal in the Korean War. It was a book of spooky creeping through no-man's-land, sitting in your bunker listening to rustling sounds in the darkness to the front, wondering if it's a human wave attack forming up, and the raucous liberty calls behind the lines that broke up the tension. I had, and still have, a tremendous admiration for The Corps, but the book that was instrumental in bringing me into the navy was United States Destroyer Operations in World War II by Theodore Roscoe. A stilted, institutional title devoid of romance, yet in his soaring prose, Roscoe caught the romance of the sea, and of heroic battle against impossible odds, and did as much as any other factor to make me a sailor. I found this book, and its companion volume, Submarine Operations, in a used bookstore years after my service. I bought them both, and have read them cover-to-cover at least twice each.
Once every couple of weeks, Grandma would put up an expedition to "The Goody," by which she meant our local Goodwill and Salvation Army stores. I put in my share of time in the toy bins to be sure, but they had something else there that I found more interesting: A mile-long set of bookshelves boasting people's discards from every field of interest. It was on one of these expeditions that I encountered a gem called The Seagoing Tank. Published in 1924 by Roy J. Snell, this was the fourth installment in The Radio Phone Boys series. The Radio Phone Boys were a group of friends who were interested in the relatively new technology of ham radio, and in this particular installment, they joined an inventor to drive across the floor of the Pacific Ocean in what could loosely be described as a watertight RV. We know today (and suspected then) that the science was ludicrous, and they got the details of the ocean floor all wrong, but that wasn't the point. I hung on every word like I was there living it myself, and encountering this book was what sent me running for Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and anyone else who could tell a rollicking good adventure story. It is hardly surprising that this remains the kind of story that I write today. Today's authors are through writing them. I'm not through liking them, though, and so I write them myself. If the reception they have received from everyone who has read them is any indication, there is still a market for the good old stuff.
Since then, I have found science fiction, fantasy, mystery, horror, and the trend I have identified is that my reading takes me further and further into escapism, and further and further from an increasingly ugly world. I have always said that I feel deeply sorry for everyone who does not read fiction of some kind; they only get to live one life. Every time I turn on the news, that feeling becomes stronger. So for those of you who have yet to discover the fabulous worlds that live just behind your eyes, find a good book, one that looks like it will hold your interest because of its characters, situations, backdrop, or whatever, and take a journey inside. I promise you'll be amazed at what you find there. Those of you who read, you already know what I'm talking about. Happy adventuring!
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
Today I am going to talk about that big, ugly thing that we learn at our parents' knee, that serves to divide us from the moment we lay eyes on one another, and that is used to divide us by politicians, law enforcement, fanatics, and just generally underhanded individuals who find us easier to manipulate if we can be kept at each others' throats... Race. Why would I want to have this discussion, you may ask? Because the attitudes we hold in this arena are a key component of who you are, and my purpose here is to tell the kids and grandkids who the old man is... This cannot be avoided, so here we go:
BACKGROUND: First of all, race, in the sense that it is used in modern society, is a misnomer. We are all members of the Human race, with far more things that unite us than divide us. When someone says his race is Native American, what he means is that his ethnicity is Native American. Using the term "race" to separate humans into Africans, Orientals, and so forth is a relatively recent construct dating back to the Colonial Era when, through a series of coincidental accidents of geography and disease (see Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond), Europeans got a leg up on the competition and set out to explore the world. Needing a system to describe the inferiority of all the varied and differing cultures they came up against, and a justification for destroying and enslaving many of them, they invented the modern concept of Race, and the seeds of many of our current problems were planted.
WHO AM I? Ethnically, I am a northern European, with genes harkening back to the British Isles and Scandinavia. Many generations ago, my ancestors came to the New World and settled in the American south, which almost certainly means there was an African-American or two in the family tree somewhere. My skin is slightly darker than the pure European, and I tan more quickly and evenly during periods of high sunshine. There is possibly a bit of Native American as well, but I do not hail from a family who spoke of such abomination.
HOW WAS I RAISED? Ethnically, as someone blessed and fortunate to be a member of the "best" race. Four generations back, my family consisted of slave-owners, and I was taught all about how inferior blacks, African-Americans, were, not because it was their fault, they just were. Any other less-than-white race was considered a failed attempt to be white. Grandma was virulent about it, tossing terms like "spooks, spades," and of course, the n-word about as casually as you might talk about rats and roaches. Great-grandma, who was the closest to the slavers as I got to meet, just viewed being not-white as a handicap, and "not their fault." An incident from my childhood will be instructive: Variety shows were common during my youth, and a frequent guest on these shows was Sammy Davis Jr., an African-American of superlative talent in the fields of singing, dancing, and acting. He had very black skin, and when he smiled, his teeth naturally made a brilliant contrast. As a small child, I once remarked on this, and Great-Grandma just casually said, "That's the only white thing they have, so naturally they take care of them." Astounding.
HOW WAS I AFFECTED BY THIS? I was incredibly fortunate to have grown up in an all-white enclave. I say fortunate because, not being exposed to very dark-skinned people at a young age, this was all more or less academic to me. Had I had African-American classmates at that age when a child just says what's on his mind, I shudder to think of all the trouble I might have gotten myself into, and the attitudes I might carry to this day because of it. Being in southern California, there were Mexicans, but as the Grandmas had nothing to say on that subject, I had no attitudes to be cured of, in fact, my first neighborhood friend was a Mexican-European whose Mexican mother was the very picture of nurturing, caring grace. I didn't learn first-hand about African-Americans until I served in the navy, and what I learned was that they were complex individuals most remarkably like myself. Of course, I didn't get along with some of them, but I didn't get along with people of many races, white included, and the reasons had nothing to do with their ethnicity. The legacy the Grandmas left me with is that I know all the words, and one will pop out once in a while, fortunately so far, very much in private, and usually in regard to some non-functioning inanimate object as opposed to another human being. I never acquired the idea that I'm better than anyone else, and that may be attributable to the Grandmas as well, who never missed a chance to say something charming such as, "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear," "You can tell a Tyler, but you can't tell him much," and "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy (especially weird, as I've never lived a single day outside a major city)."
SO, WHAT CAUSES PREJUDICE? In my case, the Grandmas worked diligently to instill it. I thank God every time the subject comes up that it didn't take, but I think the main factor is in-home training. We are all inclined to be Chauvinistic; I live in a better city than you do, the sports team I support is better than yours, I dress nicer than you. I think it is human nature to compare one's self to others, and put any perceived difference down to the other's inferiority. Add parental training to that, and outside factors such as media coverage (look at the rhetoric in the way the current immigration stalemate is being covered for an example) and the attitudes of others that you meet who have had their own training, and the wonder is that we've gotten as far as we have.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO FIX IT? The great minds of the human race, from Martin Luther King to the Kennedys, have worked on this for over half a century. Does anyone think some random blogger has the answer? Personally, I think it's hopeless in our present situation. What first has to happen is for parents to stop passing their racial bigotry down to the next generation, and that is very difficult. See, parents don't sit their children down for a talk, and tell them all about the problems being caused by all these other, inferior races. They show them, by attitude and example, a hundred times a day. How is anyone going to fix that? People aren't even aware that they're doing it. The media could tone down the rhetoric, but what gets higher ratings, a reasoned, balanced report of the facts, or film coverage of two angry mobs facing off with chants and signs? Yeah, doesn't look like that's going away any time soon... So it's an individual issue. To fix this, every single one of us would have to adopt the attitude that we aren't going to act like bigots. Just for today, I'm not going to use any racial slurs, I'm not going to assume that someone is stupid or evil because their skin is a different shade from mine, I'm not going to act like an @$$hole, just for today. And then I'm going to do it again tomorrow. As someone raised and taught to be a racist, that strategy has gotten me through 65 years of living. Sure, I make mistakes, I have slip-ups, but I also have good friends in every ethnic group on the planet, and the benefits far outweigh the shortages. Of course, it's easy to make assumptions based on skin color, eye shape, and the implications of someone's accent, and I don't see most people giving up those shortcuts, even if they would broaden their horizons exponentially. Sure would be nice, though...
HOW HAVE ATTITUDES TOWARD MY RACE CHANGED IN MY LIFETIME? I have seen a world-wide backlash against whites as all the peoples everywhere who have been exploited by us stand up and assert themselves. I can't say this is unjustified. People tend to want to get even. I can say that I have so far been spared from any personal application of this, and I think that may be because I have never gone out of my way to be nasty or abusive to anyone else because of who they are. I'm knocking on my wooden desk here, but hopefully this will be the norm for whatever is left of my life.
WHAT MESSAGE ABOUT RACE WOULD I LIKE TO LEAVE YOU WITH? Race is a farce, a sham, a tool of those who would divide us to their own advantage. The color of your skin, the kind of foods you eat, the clothes you choose to wear, have nothing to do with kind of person you are. They make you neither superior nor inferior to me or anyone else. Reverend King really had the call on this when dreamed of the day when a man (and women too!) would be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. Of course, we aren't supposed to judge each other at all, but we all do it, and aren't likely to stop anytime soon, so just make sure that you base that judgment on things that matter; skin color is not one of them.
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
I'm supposed to be working the nostalgia buttons here, writing about things as they were back in the Precambrian Era, you know, when I was a kid. But I'm going to touch briefly on the modern era, and look back on things from the here and now. I hope you'll forgive me.
In the fall of last year, I turned 65. A "Senior Citizen." That's an odd spelling for a term that is pronounced "Old Goat," isn't it? But, hey, it's English, so all rules are off. But the point here is to address what it feels like to be a Senior, give an overview of the march of life that I have seen. What a road it's been...
When I was born, in 1948, for the record, the great war against global tyranny had just been concluded. The bad guys, Germany, Japan, and for a while, Italy, had been resoundingly defeated, pounded into the earth never to rise again, and we immediately found them replaced by an even more sinister global tyranny, the Soviet Union. Thanks to our mutual possession of nuclear arms, neither of us dared move overtly against the other, so the years of my youth were spent against a backdrop of uneasy, distrustful peace called the Cold War. Every Monday at noon, air raid sirens would be tested in neighborhoods across America, and we were expected to practice whatever we had settled on as a strategy to defend ourselves from nuclear ruination. As wee tiny school children, we were taught to "assume the position" under our flimsy plywood desks, hands carefully protecting the backs of our little necks, so that the ripple of atomic bombs detonating over our local military bases wouldn't snuff out our fragile little lives. In the affluent neighborhood where I grew up, many families dug fallout shelters into their back yards. I understand these became great store rooms later, sort of underground garden sheds with radiation filters in the ventilators. Meanwhile, our surrogates fought each other to exhaustion in conventional warfare in Korea, Viet Nam, China, Cuba, Angola, Cambodia, Malaya, and probably dozens of other places I've never heard of. It went on long enough for me to grow up and take part in it, and it is a tribute to the resilience of children that we still played. We met in back yards across America, tried on every future career from Astronaut to Zookeeper, and if we were playing when the sirens went off, we just shouted over them. Maybe we quietly understood that if the world was going to end tomorrow, we'd better have our fun today.
But what about the other stuff, the march of everyday life that goes on constantly around us? When I was a young child, people rode on propeller-driven airliners that cruised serenely at 300 mph, taking a full day to cross the United States. Long-haul variants had Pullman-style beds above the seats so you could get a good night's sleep while your flight was in the air. It was a major event, and people dressed in their finery for the occasion. My great-grandmother flew back to North Carolina to visit the part of the family that never moved when I was six years old. It took her twelve hours, including fueling stops, and when she got there she couldn't just pick up the phone and tell us she had arrived safely. No, that was a process.
Like everyone, we had a telephone in the house. It was wired into the wall, and rang with a bell that could have served as the wakeup call on Judgment Day. A service technician came to install it, and that was a production. You showed him where you wanted it, usually in a hallway at my house, and he connected wires from the nearest pole to your house, installed a connection box, and attached your toaster-size instrument to it. Funny, the phone company always referred to it as an instrument, but the sound it made was far from musical. Anyway, once this thing was installed, you were given your number. These used to be colorful, almost romantic. The number at the house where I turned four was Atwater 1-5943. Children always had to memorize their phone numbers, because if they got lost, the kindly strangers who found them would have to call their parents to get directions to bring them home; those were happier times...
Anyway, once you had this monster sitting on a telephone stand, a purpose-built piece of furniture that held the giant phone on top, and had a shelf for your two phone books underneath, the things you could do with it were amazingly limited. You could call any place in town that you could obtain a number for, and that was the purpose of your two phone books. The Yellow Pages held the numbers of businesses arranged by category, i.e., all the car mechanics were together, the florists, and whatever you wanted. The white pages were an alphabetical listing of everybody on the grid. That in itself seemed pretty miraculous. Instead of hitching up Dobbin and driving the buckboard across town to inquire as to whether Joe's Diner served Peking Duck, you picked up the phone and asked him. But great-grandma had a more daunting chore facing her when she wanted to let us know that she had landed safe in Ashville. She had to call an Operator, an employee of the Telephone Company, usually a female with a pleasant voice, an aptitude for electrical engineering, and the patience of Job. She took the number you wanted to call in the other city, and began to lay a trail of connections from city to city across America until she got into your destination city, and the operator there could directly dial the number you wanted, and connect you through thousands of miles of physical wire so you could talk. And this wasn't cheap. You could spend the price of a good winter coat hooking up for a five minute call, hence the golden age of postcards.
Nowadays, as everyone well knows, I can take a 2-ounce "instrument" barely larger than a credit card out of my shirt pocket and dial up a Bedouin tribesman riding on a camel outside Timbuktu using a number I obtain from the Internet. Oh, and the Internet; don't get me started! Oh, well, too late. Computers were things I was aware of during my childhood. They were housed in refrigerated warehouses, and basically solved huge math problems. They were the 700-ton calculators that made the Space Program possible. Now I am sitting here in my living room typing on a laptop that contains more computing power than existed in America in 1955. It doesn't need to be plugged in to power or an Internet wire, and the potential exists for three-quarters of the population of the world to read these words within seconds of the time I push the Post button. The potential also exists for three-quarters of the population of the world to hack into my bank account or my medical records, and use that information to my detriment. Oh, but not to worry. I have a password to keep them all out!
But do you know what these things have really eliminated the need for? Education, or effort of any kind. Watch this. I am going to step away for a moment, and type "string theory" into my Google search engine. Hang on... Okay, I'm back. It just took Google 0.36 seconds to deliver 8,650,000 articles on string theory to my desktop. What the hell else do I need to know besides how to read? Every piece of knowledge that anyone ever dreamed of is right here in the magic box. Oh, and it makes shopping a breeze! Let's say I want to buy a bed liner for my 1999 Ford Ranger. Be right back... Hmmm. 665,000 results, which is the computer's way of telling me, "I found what you're looking for. It's on Earth." Many years ago I read Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic, Dune. Described therein was a fictional event called the Butlerian Jihad, which was a revolution that did away with computers. I recall thinking at the time, "why would anyone do that?" Now, well, all I can say is maybe Frank Herbert was ahead of his time...
Everything has moved on in this fashion, and it's constantly accelerating. Advances in medical science are probably why I'm sitting here typing this today. I am on medications to control blood pressure, migraine, ulcers, diabetes, cholesterol, and water retention. How long ago would these things have combined to kill me without those advances? But these days, the biggest problem my doctor faces is making sure the drug interactions don't kill me. So far, so good. But what I originally set out to do was to explain to my teen and pre-teen grandchildren what it feels like to be a Senior Citizen. I'll give it a shot.
Physically, there are limitations. I have a trick knee and a perpetual lower back strain that limit my mobility to a fraction of what it used to be. The bursitis (at least I hope that's what it is; I'll be seeing you soon, Doc!) in my left shoulder keeps me from raising that arm above my head without pulling it up there with the other hand. I have limitations on the things I can eat if I don't want to give myself some bad problems. We all know what happened last winter. I caught a simple flu that turned into pneumonia and almost killed me.
But mentally, I feel like the same person I was when I was ten. I get up eager with anticipation to see what the day will bring, and if I don't get around as smoothly as I used to, well, that's the natural order of things. I have lived each phase of life to the fullest. Well, maybe that's not true. I've never jumped out of an airplane, or ridden a bike with no brakes down a mountain (Oh, wait, I have done that, just not on purpose), but I have made sure that I've enjoyed every day, and that seems to be what's important. When I was 29, I was told, "You're going to be 30 next week. How are you going to cope?" It turned out to be easy. On the contrary, 30 was my license to skip any challenge I wanted. When my hooligan friends would dare me to stand in the road at a blind corner and try to dodge a speeding car, all I had to say was, "What, at my age?" It was the same story at 40. At 50, it was, "You've been around for half a century. You must be worn out!" At 60, I was informed that I was officially OLD! That's your opinion, punk. Maybe 70 will be the milestone that upsets me, but I don't see it.
So gather 'round, kids, and I'll tell you the secret as I've learned it: Enjoy the age you are. Milk it for everything it offers, then smoothly transition to the next one. If you can pull this off, you won't waste your older years regretting the things you never made time to do. There's a saying that I love that goes, "No one's last words were 'If only I'd spent more time at the office!'" The society that we have to function in requires that we have money to pay for the necessities. It's nice to have some extra to pay for the fun things, and have a cushion for the inevitable problems that will arise, but the trap is if you come to love it too much. I see so many people who feel like they have to work every minute they're awake because they're afraid there's a dollar out here somewhere that they don't have yet. These are the people who will spend their old age being bitter and nasty, because there will come a time when they realize that they've missed the whole point of the journey, and they can never get it back. That mountain of stuff you've collected, those bags of money, don't go with you when you check out of life's hotel. You are a tourist here in life. You came in with nothing, and you're going out with nothing, except maybe memories of the fun you had while you were here. So make sure you enjoy it. Lay up those memories of fun-filled days and years, and you won't die angry over what you've missed.
And reading this, I realize that I've just given young people the most valuable gift I can impart... If they'll only listen. Oh, well, I've done my bit. Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
I turned 65 last fall. I have heard some people call the years from 40 - 65 "Middle Aged," which is true, I guess, if you're going to live until you're 130. But it's a useful bracket, nonetheless, and one I'm going to explore from time to time. By the time you're 40, you have been an adult long enough to know where you're going and how you plan to get there; at 65, you'd better have reached that neighborhood, so I'm going to share some of the things I've gotten out of the journey, and hope that if my grandchildren ever read this, it will give them some insight into the old grouch, and maybe they'll benefit from my mistakes... Of course, with that crowd, that's probably a forlorn hope, but here we go, anyway.
When I was 40, it was 1989, and my daughter was 11 with all the world laid out ahead of her. My sons were 12, and I was pretty much convinced they were going to die at the hands of the street gang that had taken over the neighborhood. Bonnie was... Never mind how old Bonnie was, but she was having a hell of a time with her heart disease, and being harassed at work by the this-is-a-man's-world dinosaurs in the male-dominated industry her career path had brought her to. She was a year from her heart attack, and there was no end in sight to our barely-getting-by existence. Up until I had met her in 1975, I had basically been a happy-go-lucky jerk whose life consisted of having all the fun I could grab. So, what had changed by 40?
Well, I had kids. That's the biggest life-changer there is. You either suck it up, become and adult, and deal with everything they need, or you disappear, and know for the rest of your life that that face you see in the mirror is what a miserable, self-centered a$$hole looks like. I'm still here. I couldn't live in incredible little studio apartments any more, and I couldn't spend money frivolously like I used to, but what were the specific lessons?
I learned that life doesn't move at my whim. Life is sort of like the gears in a transmission, intricate, complicated, and all moving in synchronicity to a end that you can't foresee. You can either get yourself in synch with the flow, or they will grind you up and spit your broken carcass into the drip pan.
I learned that, with the exception of firefighters and an occasional individual who you remember because it's such a rare quality, people are basically lazy and selfish, even those in positions of authority, and those whose job it is to be helpful. They will get out of any work they can dump on someone else, and you are at the top of that list. From President Kennedy's, "Ask what you can do for your country," to Lt. Kermit Tyler's response of, "Yeah? Well don't worry about it!" when informed that a huge fleet of planes was approaching Pearl Harbor; from teachers to cops to the guy at the DMV window, if you need something done, you'd better be able to do it yourself.
I learned that money doesn't grow on trees, and if you come up short, nobody knows you. We filed bankruptcy in 1981. Bonnie's other medical condition had flared up and her treatment had been costly. We had three very young children, our car had gone belly up after two years of ownership, and, like everyone knows, there were other bills to be paid. We tried to set up something with Bonnie's doctor, but his response to our efforts, and in full knowledge of Bonnie's fragile medical condition, was to send a collection agency after us. Did he care? To the extent that he didn't get 90% of his money, he probably did.
I learned, as you might imagine from that one representative story, that the only thing people love is money. As long as you're on top, everyone is your friend; the first time there's a little hiccup in your prosperity, you're on your own. I'm not saying I've never been helped, and sometimes that help has come from surprising quarters, but for the most part, your friends are your friends for as long as you don't need anything.
I learned, again as a consequence of this, to have a sense of humor about life. As Stephen King said in Danse Macabre, "Time is not a river, as Einstein theorized—it's a big f***ing buffalo herd that runs us down and eventually mashes us into the ground, dead and bleeding, with a hearing-aid plugged into one ear and a colostomy bag instead of a .44 clapped on one leg." This is reality, and you'd better have a good sense of humor about it, or you'll wind up one of those bitter, angry old farts who snarls at everyone, becomes outraged at the concept of children having fun, and dies alone and despised. Mean people really do suck.
I learned to be patient, for life doesn't move at your pace. "Everything comes to he who waits," goes the old saying, and I would append, "...as long as he who waits works like hell while he's waiting." Sew the seeds of the crop you want, tend the soil, and results will come. They may not be exactly the results that you want, but that's part of the fun, isn't it?
I learned to thrive in the chaos, turn on a dime, and make the surprises work for me. It's the only way to be, for events don't line up to enhance your preconceived notions of the way things ought to be. They happen to you, and like the star of a kung fu movie dodging arrows and blocking kicks and punches as he moves through the crowd toward the final boss, you have to dodge, deflect, and absorb what comes your way until you win or you lose. Well, we always lose. Like Jim Morrison said, "No one here gets out alive." What matters is what you accomplish along the way, and how you are remembered by those who knew you.
So, am I cynical? To a large extent, yes. Life hands you road apples every day, and it's a question of how many times you can be kicked in the ass before you figure out that this isn't fantasyland, and neither the world nor society owe you a damned thing. But it's also a question of how you respond to it. Despite everything I've said here, I still like people. I welcome the opportunity to get to know new folks, both in person and on-line, which is why I continue to post here despite the fact that our grandchildren don't read it, and our children rarely do. Friends? Forget it. Occasionally a stranger passes through and we thrill to see a new city listed on the counter. Did they read it? The counter doesn't tell us, but we hope so, and we hope they enjoyed it. Maybe someday, someone will even take the time to say hi to us; hope springs eternal...
For better or worse, I am the owner of a 19th Century soul. When I say to you, "I am your friend," what I mean is that I will step in front of a bullet for you. Sadly, that meaning has passed out of our culture. I realize that no one feels the same way about friendships any more, and yet I continue to seek them out, and I strongly recommend that you do, too. Because the journey is long and often unpleasant, but all that matters in the end is how much fun you had along the way, and friends are a big part of that. So trust, love, laugh and enjoy; just be ready to turn on dime, and always take care of yourself. Sometimes you're all you have...
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
Bonnie and I have both described the joy we felt when we welcomed our children into the world, and some of the fun we had when they were happy little cherubs, and believed that we had hung the moon. But there comes a time in the life of every child when he or she outgrows that state, and adults, especially parents, become killjoys whose only motivation is to ruin said child's enjoyment of the big, wide, wonderful world he is trying to explore. Ours, alas, were no exception.
Let me take a moment and restate the parameters. Our first "child" was actually a set of twin boys, and 100% boys they were. Brian was born first, followed by Alexis ten minutes later. They had a tough birth experience, both of them being breech, that had to be as hard on them as it was on Mom. I read a dissertation years ago by one of those psychobabble gurus who voiced the opinion that we all go through life trying to "get even" for the birth trauma, and given the experience I had with the boys, maybe he wasn't so far off base at that. On top of that, Alexis hated his name, and may have been trying to get even with us for that. All reference material completely ignored, he swears it is a girls-only name, and to this day goes by Alex. Our third child, daughter Sidra, was born 16 months later, after which I had myself fixed; enough was enough!
The twins were always referred to by everyone by that unitary descriptor, "the twins." Despite the implications, they were very different. Alex was out there interacting with the neighborhood kids in typical little-rascals fashion. Brian was more likely to be quiet, introspective, a student of the world as it affected him. Sidra, well, our little girl was a little girl. She had a Cabbage Patch Kid, an early electronic talking doll that would occasionally get her into trouble after bedtime, and a collection of Nosy Bears that she still has; the granddaughters are fascinated with them.
As they grew, my relationship with my daughter remained pretty much unchanged as far as I can recall, but maybe that's because my sons gave me so much grief that she was always golden by comparison. She was her daddy's girl, still is, and loved to hang out and get involved with whatever I was doing. No surprise, then, that today this dynamic woman in her thirties does her own routine maintenance on her Mustang 5.0 without assistance, and likes nothing better than a long session of Left 4 Dead or Borderlands with her daddy. That's me.
Between the boys, Alex was the one that dug what I was doing, and hung out with me much more than Brian. Brian enjoyed things that his mom was into, which was just fine with her. He learned to cook and sew at an early age, and before you go there, he gave me four of my seven grandchildren, so just forget it. When the boys were 7, we were able to move out of the apartments and into a big house in the 'burbs. They started growing, finally, a fact that Bonnie attributes to the fresh air and outdoor exercise they were able to get, and as I have no evidence to refute it, we'll just go with that. A month after I turned 40, they became teenagers. That would be hard enough to deal with, but a far more insidious factor was added into the mix. Almost too gradually to notice, in those six years between 7 and 13, a street gang had moved into the neighborhood.
If you are a teenage boy, and you live where a street gang is active, you either get yourself on good terms with the gang, or you get beaten up every day, money and articles of clothing taken from you, and eventually maybe killed. I know this now; I didn't then, and spent many fruitless man-hours counseling, cajoling, and threatening my sons with all sorts of dire consequences if they didn't stay away from the gang. They didn't. They couldn't. It wasn't possible.
Let me take an aside here, and offer any people going through this now the benefit of my own experience: If you have a child who is influenced by a gang, do everything in your power to MOVE! As long as he is surrounded by these thugs, his very life is dependent upon his ability to remain on their good side, and there is nothing you can do about it, short of quitting your job and spending every minute of every day with him. If your neighborhood is killing your child, get out of it. Move heaven and earth, beg, borrow (I'll stop short of advocating theft), do whatever it takes, but leave.
To this day, Brian acts like there was no such thing as a gang. They were just misguided kids. I understand his reluctance to involve his parents in this unsavory past, especially since so much of it was my fault for not trying to get us out of there, but he needs to understand that I have another son who was much more ready to talk about it. When they got into their twenties and put all this behind them, Alex and I used to sit on the porch and swap war stories. I'd tell him about Viet Nam, and he'd tell me about Spring Valley; some of his stories were hairier than mine.
We spent some days in court. My boys were present at a murder. One of their little friends, a kid I knew well, who had been to my house many times, announced that he had been dissed by a rival, was going to call him out, and wanted a posse with him to make sure it stayed a fair fight. The twins went on that run, the boy did call his rival out, and when he came out, their friend pulled out a gun no one knew he had, and shot him. My boys escaped prison, because they had stayed up the block with the cars, and no one, including the victim's family, could put them at the scene. I don't know what guardian angel was watching out for them that night, but something told them to not be present for this particular bit of retribution.
On another occasion, a carload of "our" kids got into an altercation with the neighboring gang along a disputed border street. The police were called. Alex had a magazine (the kind that feeds bullets to a gun) in his pocket, and since another kid in the car had the gun it fit, they were all arrested for unlawful possession and transport of a firearm. Because Alex had the lesser component, he was sentenced to probation and community service, performed it, and had his record expunged; just one more useless experience. Yes, compared to these two, my daughter was incredibly boring. She took dance lessons, ballet, jazz, and tap, had drum lessons from a private studio, and played in band and orchestra at her school. Not once did I have to go sign her out of the Sheriff's Station over in Lemon Grove, and not once did I have the joy of watching her stand before a judge to receive her sentence. Sorry, Sid. Maybe I'll write about you next time.
To complete the story, Alex, who was always the natural fighter of the duo, went on to work in a pizza joint, and with that good recommendation in hand, got a job at Target. He soon transitioned from the sales floor to the security staff where he had the time of his life. His crew caught an FBI-ranked wanted criminal stealing cigarettes, and the story is that he met his future wife when he tackled a fleeing shoplifter, and they somersaulted over her jewelry counter. With his Target experience on his resume, he was hired by the Federal Police who provide security at the local navy bases, transitioned to the army when he moved to Colorado, and worked security there until he was injured in a training exercise. Now he's Mr. Mom, staying home with his delightful children while his wife works, and collecting his disability. He seems happy with that, and he knows only too well the value of having a parent at home at all times.
Brian, the brains of the operation, got his first job at a small factory that made wrist, knee, and back braces, that kind of orthopedic equipment. He went on to deliver parts for a local car dealership, and established a tree-trimming, pruning, and removal business. When the economy tanked, that went under; people aren't thinking about having their trees serviced when they're worried about putting food on the table. He then went to Target and took a temporary stock room job for the Christmas season. When that ended, he was one of the few that they kept on. He now manages several departments, and on some shifts, the entire store. He's doing fine.
Sidra went on to college, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, was on the President's List every semester, earned three degrees in two majors, and was the class valedictorian. She was set to be the best preschool-kindergarten teacher ever, but on her summer job with Hallmark, she injured her back lifting their 80 lb. shipping boxes, and was unable to go back to teaching because of some of the physical requirements. She was paid a small Workman's Comp settlement which lasted about a year. This happened just as the economy was going under, and no one would give her the time of day with a back injury on her resume, and she continues to live with us, paying her keep by doing the things the old folks find too taxing. Lest this be construed as a complaint, let me hasten to assure you that I don't know what we'd do without her. While we constantly pray that a break will come her way, she, Bonnie, and I are the real Three Musketeers, and I don't know what Bonnie (or I) would have done without her during my recent illness. She did research and challenged every procedure that sounded sketchy to her, and backed a doctor out of the room who suggested that I might not make it. She's the bomb, and I will freely state right here that no one ever had a more loving, caring daughter.
One last little footnote: We've all heard those stories about twins who do similar things without realizing it. I don't know about that, but here's one to consider. Both our sons married Mexican girls named Lorena and Loretta. Just one more in the long chain of coincidences that drive the myth, I suppose, but something to think about, nonetheless.
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
There's a line in a Roseanne episode in which Dan, her husband, asks, "When did we stop doing stuff, and start yelling at other people for doing stuff?" I know the exact date that that happened to me. Follow along for a while, and see if you can remember your own date.
In the spring of 1975, I accepted the job I spoke of in my last post at the Maintenance Support Package Branch at NAS North Island in the middle of San Diego Bay. I was assigned to the office, where there were three women. One was old and crazy, having driven herself insane through her insistence on eating no more than 100 calories a day. She was painfully thin but very spry, dressed in elegant office clothes that would have been suited to a woman half her age and twice her status, and constantly belittled everyone around her, especially the women, for eating real food and having real figures. The other two were about my own age, which was 26 on the day I walked in the door. One was married, and the other was Bonnie.
Bonnie was in the habit of buying her lunch from the mobile food wagon that came around each morning, more to bug the older lady than from any love of their greaseburgers, and one particular morning, it was raining cats and dogs. As Bonnie headed out the door, I tossed her my jacket, a sporty little number in gray water-repellant canvas that had my navy patches all over it. She wore it for the rest of the day and returned it with her thanks as we were leaving. I read something into this that maybe wasn't there, but here's a footnote: Two days ago, I saw that jacket. Threadbare and dryrotted, unfit to wear, it is folded up and stored on her closet shelf, so maybe there was something there after all.
Here's the thing about MSP: It was run by a couple of old retired chief petty officers who basically had nothing to offer, and tried to run the place like it was still the Industrial Revolution, and we were all indentured servants with no rights whatsoever. One day not long after the jacket incident, I encountered Bonnie in tears in the utility room. I arrived at the right time, as she had just thrown a full cup of coffee against the wall, and I had inadvertently avoided the line of fire. When I inquired into the reason for her obvious lack of well-being, she said the bosses had just shot down her leave (vacation) request. At that point I had been following the path of Taoism for about three years, and shared this verse with her:
"When the sage finds himself in the company of
loud and aggressive persons, he is like a lotus flower
growing in muddy water; touched, but not soiled."
I gave her my number and told her to call me if she wanted to talk, and that weekend she did just that. She invited herself over, and we spent Saturday together talking and listening to some albums from my hardrock collection. Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Deep Purple... She had never heard anything like it, at least that was the impression I got. As she was leaving, I told her, "Sometimes all you need is a friend," and we were inseparable from that point onward. We spent the weekends out playing, ate lunch together, went for walks around the warehouse on our 10-minute breaks, and never tired of each other's company; we haven't yet. The Neanderthals who ran the branch never tired of telling us we couldn't hang out together because "People would talk." Recognizing this as a clear violation of the rights of Free Speech and Peaceful Assembly that we were entitled to as Americans, our response was to listen politely, then go hang out together. It was also right around this time that I taught Bonnie to stop justifying herself to these people. It drove them crazy.
I was leaning hard on 27, and Bonnie would turn 29 a couple of months later, and it was "well-known" in that era that it was dangerous for a woman to have a child after she turned 30. Without any detailed discussions, we agreed that we would have a child together. Thinking back, I don't know how you make a decision like that without detailed discussions. I guess we were of one mind on the subject, and didn't see the need. In any case, we knew we wouldn't have him or her out of wedlock, and agreed that we would marry. Again, there was no formal proposal, we just knew; we still do.
We were wed on her birthday, Christmas Eve, 1975, in her mother's living room by a Methodist minister to the strains of Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Center of the Earth. It was a small, simple ceremony. My sister was the maid of honor, and her brother was the best man. Her father made a rambling speech about roses having thorns, and how he'd give it a year. I guess he was right, we made it a year.
Our plan was to have one baby, an only child, to raise in the house full of love that neither of us had known. The following November, on the evening before she delivered, we learned that she was having twins. Brian and Alexis, two beautiful little boys, were born the next afternoon, and we considered ourselves done, however... God, fate, chance, whatever you believe runs things, decided we weren't done after all, and within days of the time we resumed our naughty activities, with full birth control in place, may I add, she conceived our daughter, Sidra, who was born the following March. As soon as that pregnancy was confirmed, I went and had myself snipped; there's a limit to how much a supply clerk can make, after all.
But returning to my original premise, the exact date I stopped doing stuff and started yelling at other people for doing stuff was November 17th, 1976. That was the day life stopped being about how much I get out of it, and became about how much I could give to the little family I had been blessed with. All the yelling was to keep them safe from other people, from stuff in their environment, and from themselves. It went on for a long time, and it took me a while to step back from it after they started families of their own, but I want them to know as they read this that I never had anything but their well-being in my heart and mind. The boys are parents now, and Sidra loves her nieces and nephews like they were her own, and I comfort myself with the thought that they understand now what I was trying to do.
Did I get it right, kids?
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
I served in the U.S. Navy from 1965 to 1969. The Vietnam war had just escalated when I joined, and would continue to rage long after I left. I began my naval service in minesweepers, serving my first duty aboard USS Fidelity. That's USS Fearless in the picture, Fidelity's twin sister. Last wooden ships in the U.S. Navy. I was there, got the shirt. I was a radioman, served a year and a half at the big communications hub on Guam, and finally returned to 'Nam on an oil tanker. The navy calls them "Oilers," and they're the ships you see in the movies steaming alongside another ship, topping off its fuel tanks.
By and large, I didn't enjoy my naval service. The military tries too hard to pound every peg into a square hole, and I've always been one of those people that doesn't fit neatly into compartments. I made some friends there, had some adventures, and as a radioman was taught to type. That one skill opened the door for the rest of my career, which could be better, I suppose, but I can't complain. I was fortunate not to have been assigned to one of the carriers or battleships, big spit-and-polish showboats where your career hinges on the quality of your shoe shine or whether your neckerchief ends are even. I'd probably still be in a brig somewhere.
But I'm not here to post about the navy. I didn't like them, they didn't like me, and that's about the only thing we ever agreed on. No, I'm here to talk about what happened right after I got out. I parted company with my first real employer on October 3rd, 1969 in Long Beach, CA. I took a Greyhound bus to San Diego, and a Yellow Cab from the bus station to the homestead in Point Loma. With everyone's blessing, I moved back into my room which I paid for by doing chores around the house. Grandma and Great-grandma were advancing into old age by then, and there was a lot they just couldn't do anymore. It was understood that a lot of my day would be spent looking for a job. I had just gotten that process well under way when Great-grandma, up on a midnight potty run, slipped on a rug and broke her hip, changing the course of my life forever.
The sole family income at that time was provided by Grandma, who supervised the cleaning staff at the Mission Valley Hyatt Lodge. I have related before how we lived rent-free in my uncle's house in exchange for keeping it up, and had we had to pay rent, we would have all lived together under a bridge somewhere. There was no question of being able to afford professional in-home care. She was only able to get primary treatment of the injury because her son was a general in the Air Force, which entitled her to care at San Diego's Navy Hospital. How this impacted my life was that I suddenly found myself a nurse. When Grandma was at work, I had to be at home to provide for Great-grandma's every need. A lesser man could have left, I suppose, but this was the woman who had provided years of care for a child who wasn't hers, and saved me from growing up in an orphanage. What would you do? What I did was to put my career launch on hold, and spend the next five years as an in-home nurse.
I adjusted my life to Grandma's hours, and found a job manning the counter at a dry cleaning drop-off shop a block from home, enabling me to be there at the drop of a hat should the worst happen. I walked my neighbor's dog for $10 a week, and put in paid hours doing grounds work at the Little League field a block in the other direction. My best friend Chip, whose father owned a surgical supply house, brought Great-grandma a walker free of charge so she could get around the house, and that was a lifesaver. And somehow, I was able to find time for myself in that strange whirlwind of constantly changing schedules and activity.
Chip and his little brother, Dennis, became my primary companions as I in some ways got back the last three teenage years the navy had taken from me. Dennis, who had been little more than a toddler when I met Chip, became a great guy to hang out with and discuss movies, TV, and world affairs... Especially after we'd put back a couple of joints. Yes, I smoked weed for a little bit, probably around six months, and unlike some famous BSers of the recent past, I did inhale. Back then, grass was just grass, without all the chemicals the dealers add these days to hook you faster and move you up to the expensive stuff, and smoking a joint provided a buzz that was comparable to drinking a beer, only without the violent follow-on tendencies.
There were a few other friends, though none as close as these two, and a girl occasionally passed through my life, though a guy who lives in his grandparents' garage and walks dogs for pocket change was as unattractive to women then as he would be now. I made models (ships, planes, tanks) and played tabletop wargames with whoever I could rope in. I got a kitten from Chip, and named her Lid. She was a hoot, and smarter than Lassie; more on her in a future post.
The highlight of this period was going cruising with Chip. His dad had financed him in his purchase of a '57 Bel Air. Not the classic then that it is now, but it represented freedom. Sometimes we would go to a specific place for a specific thing, but the best times were had cruising. Chip was going to UC Irvine, a college up the coast where he would achieve his Ph.D. in philosophy, and we would drive up and down the coastline, out into the back country, and through the local mountains while we had the most amazing discussions about anything that came up. Those were great times.
And then, in the summer of '74, my uncle retired from the Air Force and came home to live. His first decision was to sell his house, which sort of put us in a bind, as you might imagine. By that time, my mother had left the gambling arena and had a job at the Civil Service Commission in San Diego, and she was living with us and sharing the nursing duties. It turns out we needn't have worried. He wasn't about to leave his mother in the lurch, and he bought a house out in the east county that had once been a nursing facility, and had about eight rooms around a central living room that was huge. I suffered from hereditary migraine, and announced that I couldn't abide the heat out there.
I had been cut loose from the dry cleaners, having gotten into it with the main office accountant over an issue that I can't even remember now. There was a lesson that I took with me, though. I mean really, how was I to know she was the owner's wife? I was collecting unemployment insurance at the time, and in my naïve belief that I would find a job within a couple of weeks, I rented a studio apartment in North Park. This place was fabulous! Built seventy years ago atop a garage at the back of a driveway, it looked like something out of Follow That Dream. It had a gas heater with no safeties that stood out away from the wall, stained glass paper over the windows, a balcony off the kitchen that no one in his right mind would step onto, and a gas stove with a mind of its own. You turned this thing on, and for ten seconds you would hear the hiss of gas, after which it would blow the tea kettle a foot into the air, and then everything was fine. Brought my cat with me, and got around on a Peugeot mountain bike I got from Jeff Kelly, one of the Point Loma gang, for $5.00. Had to be stolen...
Not long before the move, Mom had signed me up for the Civil Service exam, which after some heated exchanges and blowing one off, I took. I posted a pretty good score, and not long after the move, I started getting calls to interviews. Grandma let me use her car, and I attended several before I was picked up at Naval Air Station, North Island, out in the middle of San Diego Bay. It was in the Maintenance Support Package Branch, and the job was to keep track of the location of small aircraft parts in a huge warehouse. It was the lowest-paying of the jobs I had interviewed for, but the others all told me they wanted to look at more applicants; MSP told me I could start Monday.
That was in 1975. I still work at North Island, though MSP is long gone. I sometimes think I could have done better financially or even in terms of job satisfaction if I had held out for one of those other jobs, especially one at the Naval Supply Center or the one at the VA, but I met Bonnie at MSP, so there are no regrets, and no second-guesses. Bonnie has completed me in a way that I can't compare to anything else. In 38 years of marriage, she has been in my corner, on my side, had my back rain or shine, right or wrong, no matter what, and had I taken one step down a different road, someone else would be with me now, or just as likely, nobody. But that's a story for another post...
For now, get out there and live life like you mean it, and I'll see you in a week or so.
. . . she wasn't, but there was a fun side to her for all of that. Kay Frances, her name was, and in her high school days of the mid-1940s, she was wired to be a mathematician. If women had been allowed to do anything in that era, she would have been one of the pioneers of the space program, but they weren't, so she turned her faculty with numbers to a trade where she was welcome. She was a gambler.
Mom played every card game you could toss down a nickel on, and played it well. In fact, I hesitate to call what she did gambling. There are 52 cards in a standard deck, four suits of 13 each. To calculate the combinations that are possible during a game, multiply 52 by itself 52 times. When I lived with her in Monterey, her specialty was panguingue, a game of Filipino origin played with 320 cards, and that makes for a calculation your pocket calculator won't help you with. The thing with mom was that every time a card was exposed as a discard or a play, she would recalculate in her head the odds of what would likely happen next, and bet accordingly. The Christmas I was with her, 1963 if memory serves, we had spent all of our money on food. I had about $5 in my piggy bank. Mom took that and disappeared for three days. When she returned home, she had $850! We drove down to San Diego with the car packed with gifts, and had one of the great Christmas reunions ever.
Sometimes mom worked for the house, either salaried or for a percentage of the take, sometimes as a shill, and sometimes she freelanced. A shill is someone the house pays to pad out the game in order to attract more players. She would be given a stake which had to be paid back, and she kept whatever she won beyond that. When she freelanced, she almost never lost, as witnessed by the fact that this was her career for decades. She paid rent, owned cars, had a social life, and moved from town to town all without ever seeing a guaranteed payday. The card rooms, licensed and otherwise, must have quaked in their boots when she sat down at the table, but they didn't dare refuse her, or she wouldn't work for them in the future.
It sounds carefree the way I write about it, but it couldn't have been easy. At sixteen, she was pregnant with me, dealing cards in the back room of a waterfront bar and doing her own bouncing. That's the family story, anyway. It seems harsh to modern ears, child labor laws being what they are, but she gave birth to me a month after her 17th birthday, and I'm pretty sure she didn't meet the sailor who was my father in her high school home-ec class. With her as my escort, I spent some time in that world, and it was a subculture that lived by its own rules even back in the 50s and 60s.
I have always held it against my mom that in the age of Leave it to Beaver, I didn't even have one parent, but whenever she was around, at least when she was younger, we always had fun; my friends always thought she was my sister. I think it was her lifestyle that gave her a devil-may-care, get through today attitude toward living, and it rubbed off on me when I was around her. Later in life, she got a civil service job. Card rooms were in decline, run off by the Indian Casinos, and if you were going to deal for them you had to look like a runway model. Besides that, she may have been thinking about laying up a retirement fund. She worked in the main personnel office in the San Diego Federal Building, and put my name on the list for the test that got me my first Federal job, but something about the 9 to 5 turned her sour and cynical. Something about being a rat in a maze killed that free spirit, and in her old age, she became such an emotional black hole to be around that we finally stopped seeing each other. It's hard to say whose fault that ultimately was, but when she started dumping her emotional baggage on my 5-year old daughter, I told her to knock it off or take a hike; she never called again. You know, maybe she didn't have the nose-to-the-grindstone temperament to be a rocket scientist, even if they'd let her in.
So that's the story of Kay F. Davidson, September 19th, 1931 - May 23rd, 1998. There are many things that can be said about her, pro and con, but this must be included: She molded life into what she needed it to be...
Now take your cue from her, and get out there and live life like you mean it!
Before I get started on this week's entry, allow me to answer a question we received a couple of days ago. A reader complimented us on the professional look of our site, and asked how hard it was, and whether it was expensive. It is neither. Everything that you see here is free of charge. There are additional features that can be purchased as options, but you can accomplish what we have done here without laying out a cent.
Simply go to http://weebly.com and follow the simple instructions for creating an account. Choose a theme, or general "look" of the site (there are scores to choose from), upon which you will be taken to a blank screen like the one above. At that point you simply drag and drop from the left sidebar whatever you want, for example, a block of text, a picture, set out quotes in a different format, or a text-picture combination, which is what you see here. Create separate pages to organize your presentation, lock them with passwords if they are for certain eyes only, and import third-party widgets such as the visitors' log you see to the right. The real beauty of this service is that what you see while you're typing is what you'll see on the page when you post. Anyone who has ever struggled with Blogger's "Guess what this is going to look like" text box will appreciate this feature.
And now, on to the business of the week...
OUTBREAK! It's a word that gets your immediate attention, and will cause high anxiety feelings if it appears on your local newscast. Look, I don't try to follow the news too much; I get enough depression dealing with my own issues, but some things are impossible to overlook. There seems to be a sharp rise in the number of mumps infections across the country, and here in California, we're dealing with a small but tragic outbreak of a disease that mimics polio, and can to date only be treated by the amputation of the affected part, which can be especially devastating for the children who are its victims. As a grandparent, these things are distressing to me.
If you went to school in the 1950s, chances are good that you knew a classmate who wore an arm or leg brace because the poliomyelitis had atrophied that part down to a toothpick that couldn't lift its own weight. Some kids were confined to iron lungs because they couldn't breathe on their own. In some of the lesser diseases, I personally had bouts with measles, mumps, and chicken pox. Chicken pox was frightening, as my whole body was covered with multi-lobed blisters that resembled the gun turrets on a B-17, and the measles laid me in bed in the dark for a week while my fever at its peak reached 106`. Okay, you modern kids who have grown up with the benefits of vaccines in your lives, may be thinking, certainly not pleasant, but an old-timer's rite of passage.
But the fact is that these childhood diseases could and did kill children whose immune systems weren't up to the challenge. I seem to remember reading somewhere that measles killed more American children in the 1950s than smallpox. Consider that for a moment. A disease that practically every child in America was guaranteed to get, the only treatment was to put the child to bed in the dark for a week, and it was deadly! What must it have been like for a parent in those days?
And then came Dr. Jonas Salk. At the dawn of the 1950s, this hero developed a vaccine that would prevent polio. The child had an injection when he started school, a couple of boosters during his school years, and the fear of this life-destroying epidemic was banished forever. This was rapidly followed by vaccines to prevent measles, mumps, and a whole pantheon of childhood diseases which became unnecessary to the childhood experience. Miraculous, yes?
Before I continue, I'm going to take a few steps down a side road and shine a light on something for your consideration: Imagine that the pharmaceutical industry of the 1940s and 50s operated the same way it does now. The government funded Dr. Salk, and gave him all the money he needed to find his miracle cure for the most feared disease of the age. Today, it's all in the hands of the corporations. Imagine for a moment that you have AIDS. You are probably taking a drug cocktail three or four times a day at a cost of thousands of dollars per dose. How is it, then, in the interest of a drug company to develop a vaccine that you're given once for $100, and then they never see you again? It's a pretty safe bet that we're never going to see one, and that's only one of the many scandalous developments that has reduced this once-great country to what it is today.
But the subject here is childhood diseases, right? Eradicated, right? WRONG! Now we come to the age of the celebrity-doctor. No, not those guys on the late night infomercials. I refer to such learned lights as Meryl Streep, Ted Danson, and of course the gifted Jenny McCarthy. Credentials? None. Influence? Ah, utilizing the soapbox provided by their dubious acting or posing-nude-for-Playboy skills, they have done more damage to America than Sherman's army during the Civil War. Doctor Streep, with her high-profile campaign against alar, or daminozide, single-handedly destroyed the American apple industry; next time you have to pay top dollar for apples imported from New Zealand, you might consider dropping by her website to leave a thank you note. Doctor Danson warned us 24 years ago that the planet would only support human life for another ten years; don't know about you, but I'm starting to get worried. And now we have Doctor McCarthy standing up to assure us that childhood vaccinations gave her child autism.
It's difficult to blame them. After all, in a population of 300,000,000, it is no surprise to find three high-profile idiots. No, who I blame are the tens of millions of low-profile idiots who ignore the advise of thousands of health care professionals, and the evidence of the lack of leg braces, pox scars, and iron lung wards all around them to listen to the advice of a woman whose main talent consists of showing her crotch to a camera, because she wants someone to blame for her child's tragedy. Stop listening to these fools, America! Turn off Access. Turn off TMZ. Turn on your brains, for God's sake! If you want to be entertained by a movie, check out an actor. If you want to know what's proven to keep your child healthy, visit a doctor.
Or on second thought, don't. Every nation, being not just an outline on a map, but a manifestation of the will of its people, gets what it deserves through its own making. You're making your bed, America. Enjoy sleeping in it...
As I've mentioned before, I grew up in the very affluent neighborhood of Point Loma, an exclusive suburb of San Diego, California. I've covered the circumstances more than once, so I won't rehash it here. I've talked about my family not fitting in due to our meager financial means, but this time, I'm here to talk about the good stuff.
And there was plenty of good stuff. My teenage years began in the fall of 1961. While I was largely unaccepted by the general population at school, I did have a cadre of friends from my own neighborhood that I had made from the time I moved in at the age of six. Our "neighborhood" consisted of one block of houses set off a main street, and not directly connected to anything else. These homes had been built as a single development and sold at roughly the same time to young families, and I have calculated that there were over forty kids living around that cul-de-sac, all very close in age. On the map above you will see a curving road at about one o' clock from the red marker. Our block was at the top (west) of that road. There were two Little League fields at the end of our street in a back-to-back arrangement, and we could field four baseball teams to play on them when all the kids were available. There were always some fun and games going on, from cowboys and Indians to hide and seek to wrestling on the lawn. It's always spring in San Diego, and fun times were readily available for the price of walking out your front door.
Go straight up from that red marker until you come to the ocean, and you will have found Ocean Beach. OB was one of those fabled little California beach towns where it was always summer, and the living was easy. It was full of hippies and surfers, and everyone was friendly. It was three miles away, an hour's casual stroll from my house, and on the far side of the world. Nobody cared about the size of your money pile down there, in fact, nobody seemed to have any. I would ride my skateboard over; going down the ultra steep hills into town seems like suicide today, and I have to wonder where I found the guts. If one little thing had gone awry, I would have had a good view of them while I waited for the ambulance!
The town has gone upscale in recent years, the five-and-dimes, the sandwich shops, the Strand, a 25c creature feature theater, all having been replaced by antique shops, photography studios, and high-end furniture stores, but the last block down by the water has kept its flavor through it all. Down there you can find surf shops, the OB International Hotel (an antique in its own right), and The Black, a dimly-lighted store selling every sort of hippie paraphernalia from tie-died clothing to marijuana accessories. Feels like home. And yes, they still have that diagonal parking. Real easy to park, you just crank the wheel and you're in; getting out on a busy weekend day is another matter all together, but that's just part of the charm that is OB...
At three o' clock from the marker can be found Shelter Island. Today this is some of the most exclusive real estate in Southern California. There are resort hotels that feature top-name musical acts on an almost daily basis, the world class Bali Hai Restaurant at the northern tip, and several yacht clubs, chief among them the venerable Shelter Island Yacht Club. That little pier in the photo has a bait shop at the end that sells a wicked fish taco, and Bonnie and I still go there to hang out sometimes.
But back in the early 1960s, it was largely undeveloped, with only the Bali Hai and SIYC occupying opposite ends. A rock sea wall about three feet high backed a calm relaxing beach, and when I wanted to fall off the radar, this is where I went. I'd beachcomb, chase the seagulls, fly a kite, or just lie in the grass and watch the clouds, and to my certain knowledge, no one ever thought to look for me there. If anyone asked where I'd been, I'd just straight-up lie, and tell them OB, or Mission Bay, or Portland Oregon, anything but let my secret out. It was a source of great serenity, and helped me keep it together when things were tough at home or school.
I have recounted how I was sent to Monterey to live with mom three times. First in the summer of '62 for two weeks. That wasn't bad, as I was unsupervised for about 16 hours a day, and plus had I not gone, I probably never would have seen Hatari (or PT-109, for that matter). The second time was 1964, when I did the first semester of 10th grade at Monterey Union High School. Didn't like being away from home, and returned to San Diego to complete 10th and 11th. I was sent back for the summer of '65, and when it was time to go home, I was told that I would be doing 12th grade in Monterey. I told mom that I by God would not either, and by mutual agreement I joined the navy on October 12th, 1965, five days after my 17th birthday, thereby officially bringing my four carefree teenage years to a close. Yes, I was still a teenager, but the navy will have discipline, and I have to say that they taught me a lot. I saw a lot of places and learned a lot of skills (some more useful than others), but those are stories for another time.
I hope you've enjoyed these anecdotal tales of life from Southern Cal in the '60s, and I'm glad to have lightened the mood somewhat. If it sparks any memories of your own, click on Comment and pass them along.
Meanwhile, get out there and live life like you mean it!
This is for the grandkids, the family, close friends, and anyone else who can keep a civil tongue in their heads! It amounts to an interactive book of memoirs, but only if you interact... so get to it!
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California has been my home since 1965. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm home to stay!
What is there to say about a ten-year old turning 65, besides, what the hell happened?!??