According to our little counter, we get a slow but steady stream of visitors here, and It has occurred to me that some of you may be wondering why we haven't had a new post since back before Christmas. So I'm going to tell the whole sordid story here, and maybe we can get back on our semi-schedule.
Christmas evening I started showing flu symptoms. I had shaken it off by the next day, but it came back again harder just before New Year's. I was scheduled to be off because of the holidays anyway, so I just loafed around the bed thinking "this is unusual" for
a couple of days, and it broke again. I returned to work, and it came back worse than ever on a night shift, the 6th, with almost nobody around, and I could feel it getting worse by the minute. I made the 25 mile drive home, and I don't remember one thing about it. The next day, evening I guess, it was to the point where my wife and daughter took me to the ER. They put in an IV, but it wasn't doing all they wanted, and they decided I needed a "pic line," sort of a super IV. I remember them explaining it to me, nearly every word going right over my head, and them asking if I wanted that treatment, I remember giving a very weak nod, and the next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital three weeks later. I had contracted the "ordinary" flu, whatever that is, H1N1, and pneumonia simultaneously; I didn't think that was possible, either.
They had placed me in a medically induced coma, and loaded me in a brand new, almost experimental device called the Roto-Prone bed. Once strapped into this thing, you are rocked, inverted, and spun (gently), as they use gravity and centrifugal force to draw the fluid from your lungs. It apparently works, as my presence here attests. They also cut my throat and put in something called a trach-line (root word, trachea) to help me breathe; I
never actually saw it, but it drove me crazy, and they tell me I bent every effort to trying to get it out. Fortunately, I was unsuccessful.
Having now experienced a coma first-hand, let me tell you what it's like in there. Your mind, normally a very busy place, is floating, unoccupied, in a black void. I imagine it's close to what sensory deprivation is like. Desperate for anything to occupy itself, it will seize on any little pixel of information that finds its way in, and construct a whole narrative around it. Since you are aware that you are ill, in pain, restrained, and whatnot, that narrative takes that into account, and creates a series of nightmares that seem to go on for days without letup. In one, all the doctors that I could hear talking were metal-voiced robots who were waiting for my wife to come so that they could kill us; motive unknown, but when you
believe something like that, you just believe it. In another, I was a British sailor (I've always been something of an Anglophile) stationed in Singapore. A buddy and I were lying in ambush in a shot-up shipyard waiting for the Japanese to try to cross from the mainland so we could engage them in a firefight. They never came, but for four days, dream-time, we laid on concrete, moving as little as possible, concealing ourselves under rotten shrimp cans, dead fish, twisted through fallen girders, and so forth. I could "feel" the presence of another Brit, but we never spoke and I never saw him, so I don't know whether he was someone from my real life or not. What broke this was an Asian-accented feminine voice (one of
the nurses, no doubt) clearly asking if I wanted a bath. She was present in the dream, though I couldn't see her either, and I began to frantically warn her away: "There's going to be a battle, you're going to get shot, you have to get out of here!" and other things along that line before my brain caught up with my mouth, and I suddenly said, "A bath?" Warm cloths descended on me, pulling me out of that nightmare and setting me up for the next, which
thankfully, I don't remember, and hope I never do. My advice to anyone who chances to find themselves in a bedside vigil with a coma victim is don't make a sound. No talking, no singing, no wind chimes, no nothin'. The less information that trapped brain gets to work with, the better.
They tell me I was in the hospital for 35 days, but I don't remember much of that, just flashes of lying in an uncomfortable bed. February 11th I was transferred to a rehabilitation center where I found that my legs were virtually paralyzed. The doctor had some fancy name for it, and said it's common among people who are bedridden for long periods. He said it can take a year and more to recover. The nurses were fabulous, seeing to my every need with smiles on their faces, no matter what the task was, and through the efforts of a brilliant young physical therapist named Eric, I graduated from barely being able to stand, to a walker, to a cane, to walking on my own in two and a half weeks. They discharged me yesterday, and I'm back home with a walker just in case. I'm nowhere near where I was before all this happened. I'm shaky, weak, and have no stamina, but every day brings
improvement. Couple that with my natural determination (read "stubbornness"), and to quote from Roots, "Gonna learn to run!"
And that brings us up to date. So, how were your holidays?
I have spent several posts building up an image of a small child set upon from every direction, with no refuge, no place to go for respite or succor. Well, of course there was my aunt Marie, but I didn't have at-will access to her, so what could that small child do to get away?
Dream. Awake, asleep, it made no difference. I lived in a dream world of action and danger in which I was a heroic protector of those weaker than myself, a shield of the helpless that feared no man nor monster. I found my solace in solitude, and kept my sanity by learning how to make those alternate worlds real.
I was aided greatly in those efforts by books. One might expect a child of the '50s to say television, but our family came late to that medium, and anyway, television isn't for dreamers. Doubtless, it played its part, and when out for a play day with the neighborhood kids, I strapped on my cap-guns and laid claim to the character of Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickok (always famous lawmen, you'll note) just like everyone else, but a television show gave me individual people fully realized as the characters; that wasn't me on the screen, that was Guy Madison, and it showed me actions fully formed. I was reduced to a passive spectator engaging no faculty beyond my eyes.
But books gave my dreams wings! I've noted previously how Great-grandma had me reading at the age of three, and books became my hideout of choice. If a book presented me with a car, it might be red or blue, large or small, but that car was constructed inside my imagination, and it looked like what I decided it looked like. Same with the passengers and the destination. They were all me. During the pre-school age, I read a lot of the Little Golden Books (fellow oldsters will remember those as a shared experience of American kids everywhere), and the titles that leap to mind are Little Toot, The Taxi that Hurried, and The Little Engine that Could. It is instructive to note that these, and many more I fancied, share a theme of a small, insignificant anthropomorphized machine that endures ridicule and scorn, then steps up in a crisis to become a hero. Coincidence, I'm sure. Another favorite was Uncle Wiggily's Travels (Howard R. Garis, 1913), one of a series about an engaging elderly rabbit-gentleman who teaches life-lessons to his nephew and niece, Sammie and Susie Littletail, as they walk through the woods.
When I arrived at Sunset View Elementary School in the fall of 1955, I found that they had a modest library that filled a converted office. The bookshelves were stocked with books that the librarian felt were grade-appropriate, and although I was in third grade, I went directly to the sixth-grade shelf; talking rabbits and reckless taxi-drivers had lost their appeal by then, and I wanted science books about dinosaurs and microbes, and documentaries about fire-fighters. One Friday afternoon, one of the volunteers decided that, being a third grader, I wasn't allowed to check out sixth-grade books, so I walked out. When I came to class Monday without my customary library book, my teacher, Mrs. Booth, asked if I had forgotten it. I explained what happened, and she reacted sympathetically and carried on with her day's duties. Next time I went to the library, that volunteer apologized to me, and I never had another problem. I didn't realize that a teacher would say anything to another adult on behalf of a child, but I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during that conversation!
It was somewhere in here that I discovered the "Boys' Own Grand Adventure Story." I've mentioned that my family shopped at Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Value Village, and so forth. In thrift stores of that time, whatever toys came in were piled in a bin to be picked through. That was usually where I was while the grandmas were shopping, but one time the toys were lame, and I went in search of games or jigsaw puzzles, I don't remember which. Anyway, what I found was a wall of books, Sunset View's library on steroids, and the book I pulled out was The Seagoing Tank (Roy J. Snell, 1924). The fourth book in the Radio-Phone Boys series, this was a sci-fi adventure of the first order that involved a vehicle the size of a suburban house driving on tracks across the ocean floor to one adventure after another. It starred a couple of teenagers who were constantly saving the adults' bacon as well as their own, and I was hooked. This was what I was looking for, rip-snorting adventure stories that didn't fuss too much over getting every niggling detail of physics exactly right, and not allowing romance and bouts of depression to get in the way of the action. I'm still looking for those stories, and when I can't find them, I write them. I'm still hooked!
At the age of 13, I discovered my second refuge, and one that would carry me well into adulthood: Games. Not just any games, but games in what was for a brief, golden age, a niche market that exploded beyond all reason to become a major hobby of many young gents of the era. These were wargames, table-top recreations of battles and wars, most historical, some outright fantasy. Instead of a stylized map of Atlantic City, you played on a highly accurate map of the land surrounding the village of Gettysburg (for example). Instead of a ship, a dog, or an old shoe, your playing pieces represented the actual formations that clashed outside that little crossroads in the summer of 1863. The rules were to regularize the movement of the infantry, cavalry, and artillery over the various types of terrain, and when the formations came to grips, dice rolls recreated the Fog of War. There were literally hundreds of titles recreating every battle known to man, and for thirty years I threw myself into leading military units on the great campaigns of history. My collection peaked at about 80 titles, and I may have played twice that many in the course of playing other peoples' games.
But my preferred method was always solitaire. Whenever two gamers got together, the battle on the board always seemed to spread to include the participants, as it was inevitable that a dispute over the often imperfect rules of the simulation would arise: "It takes three movement factors to cross that stream!" "Uh-uh! It's only two millimeters wide in that space, so it only takes two!" Something like this could lead to pistols in the front yard, and while it was refreshing to engage another mind in the maneuver of armies, I always preferred solitaire, moving first one army, then moving to the other side of the board and moving the other. My personal friends became Robert E. Lee, U. S. Grant, George Patton, Erwin Rommel, "Bull" Halsey, and Isoroku Yamamoto, among hundreds of lesser lights. I've lead the Afrika Korps through the desert, and the mighty 7th Fleet across the Pacific, and by trying alternate strategies, learned things about history that books can't teach. But in the early days, I was hiding. Be it the Libyan desert, the beaches of Normandy, or a stinking green flyspeck on a tropical sea, that's what I was doing, by any other name.
So what does all this talk of refuge, hiding, and solace have to do with heroism? Well, it all came with a need to prove myself to myself. That led to a four-year engagement with the navy during a vicious, nasty, no-quarter war with an insidious and implacable enemy. I took my turn in that arena and emerged unscathed. I served on a wooden minesweeper not much bigger than a tuna clipper, and rode her through two hurricanes. I've ridden an oil tanker through a Pacific typhoon as well, but compared to the 'sweep, that was child's play. I learned the craft of being a sailor as well as a demanding technical trade in naval communications. I've been subordinate, and been in charge, and done well in both roles.
I speak ill of the navy on occasion, but it isn't their fault. There are people you can't pound into a square hole, and I learned that I am one of them, but those four years taught me that I can do anything, and that golden thread of belief in self has been woven into my life ever since. Couple that with the loyalty I express toward anyone who demonstrates that they have my back, and I flatter myself that I'm a pretty good person to have on your side; but you'll have to ask my wife to get the final answer to that question.
But to the grandkids, and any young person who may be reading this, the message here is Dare to Dream. Look, all kids are put upon. They're all buffeted by the whims of often unreasonable adults against whom they have no protection. Get inside your own head, find out who you are, and develop the person that you find into the best person he or she can be. My religion offers this proverb:
"He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened."
Truer words were never spoken! Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
The journey I refer to here is the daily trek to and from school. The adventures... well, we've all been children, right?
For a few brief years that had constituted 100% of my life to that point, I had had this existence that amounted to "eat, sleep, play." Oh, I was misunderstood and subjected to mild forms of abuse, but let's be clear here, I was never in the sort of extremis that children of the Third World considered normal. So it constituted a bit of culture shock when my days of leisure were interrupted by a torrent of cold water called Compulsory Education.
First, my birthday was in October. As American public schools begin their school year in September, the decision was made that I should start each grade a year younger than the conventional numerical age, and I would catch up a month later. This was compounded by a decision made when my grandma took me to sign up. They sat me at a desk, and handed me a pencil and an S.A.T.-style sheet for me to read the questions and fill in a bubble corresponding to the correct answer. I realized years later that the whole point of that test was simply to determine whether I could read at all. As I could read very well for a four-year old, it was decided that I would skip kindergarten altogether, and start first grade at the age of four, and thus I was denied that whole process of gradual acclimatization to the school environment. It was akin to being taught to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool, and a side effect was that I was almost invariably the youngest member of my class... And that led to all sorts of other effects, social and academic, that I'll get to in other posts.
The upshot here is that at the age of four, almost five mind you, I was handed a brown paper bag with a sandwich in it, pointed in the direction of Alexander Hamilton Elementary School in the North Park community of San Diego, wished the best of luck, and pushed out the door. I didn't even know where it was, and I have a vivid recollection of asking an older girl, who must have been in 5th or 6th grade, for directions, and her walking me to the school grounds. After a semester there, we moved down the street, and I transferred to Thomas Jefferson elementary which was easier to find, and the process continued. I have described in a previous post my friends, Johnny Wallace and Paula Nellie, and as they both lived within a stone's throw of my house, we always walked together to and from.
Then came the move to Point Loma, a much more affluent community of San Diego, and my folks somehow determined that I was to start third grade at Sunset View Elementary School, a new facility built on a steep hill (the very name was Hill Street, and they weren't kidding!) on the ocean side of the craggy peninsula. I was, in fact, out of district, and should have attended either Silvergate or Cabrillo, both older facilities like Hamilton and Jefferson, and in the case of Cabrillo, populated by the tough children of the Portuguese fishing community down in Roseville. It was a happy error that was caused by the confusion involved with opening a new school, and the district allowed it to stand for the whole four years I attended.
I once again walked to Sunset View. The distance was maybe a mile, and once again on the first day, I had to ask one of the kids waiting for the bus to Junior High or High School how to get there, but once I arrived, I found an open, airy campus with a lush square surrounded by three wings of the main building, and classrooms that opened directly onto the playgrounds. There were hallways, but the only time I spent in them was when I was put out there for a time out. The playgrounds were on two levels, the combination cafeteria and auditorium was a separate building with outdoor tables for the nice weather, which was pretty much always, and we could watch the spouts of the Gray Whale migrations as we ate our lunch. The schools I had attended before were prisons by comparison, and I definitely felt privileged to be in the environment.
But this is about the to-and-fro, and this is where the defiance began I think. See, the Grandmas had always expected the sort of Little Lord Fauntleroy behavior that may have been common in children during the Victorian era. It is certainly portrayed as the norm in films and literature, the little boy who is dressed in a suit upon rising in the morning, who spends his day discussing politics and world affairs with the adults in the drawing room, and whose suit is still clean and pressed at bedtime.
Yeah, I ain't that kid. None of my friends were, either, and we're talking about some upscale families here. The thing is, living out-of-district, almost none of the kids I was in school with lived anywhere near me. So naturally, when the last bell rang and I headed up the hill with a group of friends, when someone invited me over for an after-school play session, I was always up for it.
Bobby Eggert had a little brother who looked just like him. His dad designed space products for Convair, and he had that gene. He designed things to do with trash that would boggle your mind. One thing in particular was when he got hold of a number of discarded refrigerator boxes, opened them up, and laid them in a ramp configuration down the hill that was his front yard. He then laid another open box at the top, two of you would hold hands and run, and flop down on this second box, which zoomed, almost free of friction, down the ramp to the street , at which point you had a rather tricky landing to engineer on the fly. Came home with more than one rip in a piece of clothing they could ill-afford to replace.
Then there was David Mandich, who lived in a house that used to be the main part of a mansion; had no-longer-used maid's quarters underneath, which was headquarters or space ship when the game was Flash Gordon or Commando Cody. More usually, though, David's group wound up wrestling on the lawn, which sent me home covered in grass stains, grass cuttings in my hair and pockets, and an occasional bruise or friction rash.
Greg Adams had a big back yard and a cute little sister who as an only child I was fascinated by, and would give piggy-back rides around the yard. We role-played WWII. A decade before, our parents, men and women both, had rolled up their sleeves and defeated the two most powerful evil empires the world had ever seen, simultaneously. We stacked picnic tables and benches into various configurations as we refought the war in tanks, planes, and submarines. I didn't come home dirty or injured from Greg's, but I came home late, and they didn't like that. Fairly early on, they established the unbreakable rule that I had twenty minutes from the last bell to be standing in the living room.
I suppose they were worried about me, but I couldn't see from my child's perspective what harm I was doing, and suspected that they were worried that I might fit a little fun into my life. This was before the days when schools piled hours of homework on every kid from the first grade on, and I didn't have anything in particular to do after I got home, so I just assumed, you know? It was a rule I never obeyed once. I got spankings, I got grounded, I lost TV privileges, and I didn't care a jot. That was the price I paid for acting like a kid with my friends, and every punishment was a price worth paying, even when I broke the two floating ribs on my right side in a collision with Craig Burke as we ran along some razorback ridges that had been cut by a rare downpour in a vacant lot. I was confined to quarters when I limped home in pain two hours late, and when I took my navy physical a decade later, the examining physician asked how I'd gotten the broken ribs. That was the first time my suspicion was confirmed, but it was all worth everything I went through to get them. They are my badge of honor. The recipient of a Purple Heart or a Silver Star can point to those awards and say, "I was a hero!" I can point to these broken ribs, and say, "I was a kid!"
Richard Henry Dana Junior High was about a mile-and-a-half away. Within the first couple of days there, I met Chip Hanika, who had gone to Cabrillo, and though we didn't realize it at first, we were going to be inseparable throughout the rest of school. I continued to walk to and from, and I continued to accompany him home after school, flaunting the 20 minute rule, which had been extended to 30 to accommodate the longer distance. As junior high was when homework started to make its appearance back in the day, this was when my schoolwork began to suffer because of my antics. I basically never did homework. I'd carry the books home, toss them on the table in my room, and pick them up the next day to carry back to school. Chip's parents never intervened to put a stop to this, as he managed to have his social life and get his schoolwork done, too. The only reason I can think of that I didn't was that it was boring; I mean, come on, I'd been looking at this crap all day! Now you want me to look at it at home, too?
But Chip was a philosopher, even at that early age (he went on to get his Ph.D. in philosophy), and the things we would talk about as we sat in his magnificent family room overlooking the broad sweep of San Diego Bay were far more interesting than anything that school had to talk about. With the exception of the semester I spent at Monterey Union High School (which I talked about here), this continued through my time at Point Loma High School until I quit after 11th grade to join the navy.
So now it's time to summarize this post, to attach some meaning to all this rambling. I guess it would be that, building on that foundation has brought my life to this point, and made me the person I am. One of my cyberfriends, Rachel, recently did a blog post about making time for the things that matter to you, and I just realized that she may have inspired this post. What I know is that from my earliest childhood, I have always made time for the things that I enjoy, and I don't regret a minute of it! It's possible that, had I chosen another path, I might have turned out wealthy, or powerful (in the political/industrial sense), or had a long and illustrious military career. Maybe in the next life, I'll do those things, but in this one, it has been far more important to me to play video games with my young children, to create fantastic worlds in my head and share them on paper with other like-minded dreamers, than to spend a 12-hour day at a $12,000.00 desk trying to come up with some way to improve my company's sales by another billionth of a percent, and I don't have any doubt that I'm a better person for it. I'd rather give than take, and I'd rather play than work, and at the end of the road, all of those riches that you've taken or worked for won't fit in that coffin, but I have to believe that if there is an afterlife, the memories you make are your treasures.
Okay, my work here is done. Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
Well, besides myself, of course... I'm going to institute an audience participation aspect to the blog by putting a topic out here, "showing you mine" if you like, then inviting you to show us yours. I thought an interesting place to begin would be a discussion of the person I knew who reached the farthest back into history.
For me, that's an easy call. That person was my maternal great-grandmother, Louise Willis Holt. Louise, or "Gan," as three generations of children knew her, was born on October 21st, 1888, just weeks before the election of Republican President Benjamin Harrison. The big issues of the day were high protective tariffs, and the payment of pensions to Civil War veterans, both of which he was opposed to. Interestingly, though his opponent, incumbent Grover Cleveland, received most of the popular vote, Harrison won the most Electoral College votes, seemingly thereby thwarting the will of the people. This was the third of four times this has happened in U. S. history, the last being the 2000 election that saw "W" begin his eight year presidency.
But this isn't about politics. This is about my great-grandmother, who also happened to be my primary caregiver. I have already had some less-than-flattering things to say about her child-rearing techniques, but I'm going to refrain from that here. This is about a life, and I would suggest that by the time I came along, she might have been tired.
Louise was born to southern business moguls outside the little town of Ashville, North Carolina. During the Civil War, Ashville was a small village of 2,500 people. The state was occupied by Sherman's troops moving north following the March to the Sea, and they were for the most part on their good behavior. Ashville, however, was the home of an Enfield plant that produced weapons for the Confederacy, and as such was defended by Confederate forces making a determined stand across the Buncombe Turnpike approaches from Tennessee. The town was accordingly treated roughly by General Stoneman's troops, culminating in the burning of some private homes.
Incredibly, I found this photo of the Buck Hotel and a few nearby businesses in downtown Ashville taken in 1888. The town struggled to recover from the burden of being on the losing side of the Civil War, gradually recovering until a boom in the 1910s and 20s, at which time Ashville was the third-largest city in the state. The Great Depression burst the bubble that had developed around the boomtown, and investors and residents who had bought into the skyrocketing prosperity were wiped out overnight; no less than eight of the town's nine banks failed. The novel Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe is generally regarded as a historical fictionalization of Ashville in this period.
Anyway, in 1929, at the age of 41, her husband, William Harvey Holt (father of the aforementioned General), moved the family to California. I don't know much about the journey, but in 1929 they settled in San Diego, where they made a permanent home. If they had lived anywhere besides the Ashville area since the family had come to America, I've never been aware of it, and to commemorate this new chapter in the family saga, he had this opal commissioned for her from a local jeweler. As the next October baby to be born, I inherited it. It's hard to get a good picture of that shimmering blue stone, but with the square cut and the onyx border, it's quite the ring; I'd have to guess that they got out of Ashville before they were ruined.
At some point before this, during the nineteen-ohs, she was a fashion model. This wasn't like today. The girls didn't strut the catwalk, and no one knew their names. They would put on the clothing and pose on small stages around the ballroom or hotel meeting room where the show was being held, and the participants would move around the room to examine the wares. She was in her late teens by all accounts, and her prematurely snow-white hair (like mine) put her in high demand. I've seen a picture; she was quite impressive with all that snow piled and coifed into one of those elaborate Victorian hairstyles.
Her three children, Bill, Helen, and Marie, would have been in the 25-30 age bracket by the time she moved west, and her daughter, Helen, must have found employment (or her husband did) over in the desert at this point, because in 1931, my mother was born in El Centro, thus completing the chain from her to me.
So, what did this woman acquire during her long life that passed itself along to me? Our white hair, of course. Her hereditary migraine; oh, that's been an adventure! Her constant examples of how to live with decency and elegance. This may be telling: She was the child of parents who had been the children of slaveowners. There is quite naturally a racism inherent in this; it doesn't seem possible to own another human being unless you don't truly consider them to be fully human. Like all parents everywhere, she must have learned their attitudes at their knees, so to speak, and while she was very much a racist, she wasn't nasty about it, as modern racists are; it was just an aspect of life that she dealt with. It wasn't discussed, it was understood, but on those rare occasions when she did try to impart attitudes to me, it took the form of admonitions not to hold African-Americans (and believe me, that wasn't the term she used) in contempt, not based on any notion of equality, but because it wasn't their fault; in other words, they, and by implication, everyone, couldn't help being what they were born! There is in that, no matter how you look at it, a lesson to judge a person by the color of his character, rather than the color of his skin. I know that sounds very much like the great Dr. King's words, and given her background, she might be the last one you'd expect to hear that from, but that was just one of the many surprising aspects of her personality.
Great-grandma's life, for the most part, consisted of raising children, and she had to have gotten tired of it. As the third generation under her tutelage, I caught the brunt of that fatigue. Having raised her own children through the 20s, and suffered a financial upheaval at the end of that process, she then assisted in the raising of her grandchildren, and finally had me, and nine years later, my half-sister dumped on her doorstep with nary a by-your-leave. It speaks a lot to her character that she didn't just pass us on to an orphanage. She turned 60 two weeks after I was born, and filled the role of my mother for 17 years thereafter. I remember being a well-mannered little tyke, but no teenager is an easy proposition, and I'm sure I was no exception.
Other than the modeling stint I mentioned above, I'm not aware of her ever taking employment outside the home. Her life-long husband died the year before I was born, and she never remarried. For virtually all of the time I was with her, she lived with her daughter, Helen, who filled the role of breadwinner, having been "Rosie the Riveter" during the Second World War, and being one of the few women skilled enough to keep her job when the men came home. She could certainly manage a home, to the extent that when I was a child, I was never aware of it being managed; everything just fell into place so naturally it was as if it couldn't have gone any other way.
In October of 1969, I left the navy, and came home to begin my civilian career, whatever that was going to be. About three months later, she fell during a midnight potty run and fractured her hip. She never walked again, and I put my life on hold for the next four years to become one of her caregivers. I had to leave that role in 1975, when a career opportunity that I couldn't afford to pass up opened, and in the spring of that year, she died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 87.
In the course of her lifetime, she had ridden a horse to her one-room school, raised three successful children plus two more generations, flown across the country several times, and seen men walk on the moon. She had gone from reading schoolbooks by candlelight to touring the world via color television, and her music had progressed from classical string quartets to classic rock quartets. Whatever she thought about it herself, and she hid it well if she was disappointed, she lived a fuller life than anyone else I have ever known in terms of things she had experienced. If she was cross sometimes, and harsh in her treatment, I know now that it was all part of her attempt to raise a decent and successful child, and she was following a formula that had proven successful for two previous generations. I look around at the world I inherited from her generation and a couple in between, and I flatter myself that she did all right.
So thanks, Gan, for the great head start. I could have done better, I suppose, but the shortcomings are all on me. For all of my complaining, I never think of her once without missing her. She was my life for the first six years, and those years matter more than any of us realize. I had just met my soon-to-be wife when she died. We weren't courting yet. My greatest regret in all of it is that they never got to meet. She would have loved Bonnie, who is so traditional and dare I say Victorian in so many ways. I would have liked to have shown off my prize catch! Alas...
I'll let it stand there. There are so many negative things I've said about her in these posts, and so many more I've left out, but those are for another time. This one is about a life well-lived, and a person who stepped up and lived it every day. She set a great example, one that I've tried to follow. My wife and children can be the judges of whether I've succeeded.
And on that note, I shall bring this to a close. Who have you known that has reached back farther than anyone else? How have they affected you? Step in and join the conversation; this will be so much more entertaining if you're a part of it...
Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
First things first; today is the birthday of my oldest grandchild. Happy Birthday, Brian! The celebration begins as soon as school lets out. But first...
As we have stated as our clear purpose, this blog is first and foremost for the grandchildren. I am trying to be completely honest in everything I write here, because after I'm gone, this will form the tangible memories they, and if I'm fortunate enough to be remembered, their children have of me. I look back across these posts, and I see an isolated child undergoing a mild sort of abuse, spanked almost daily, though not in the emergency-room-visit manner that we all hear about on the news, blamed for everything bad that befell anyone in the family, and constantly made to feel worthless. I'm sorry for that. I merely report what happened. Lest this blog become an unreadable crescendo of doom, I will point out that I lived under a roof, never missed a meal that I can recall, never slept outdoors unless it was by choice, and nobody made me carry an AK-47 in their revolution before I turned 10. But there was an exceptional bright spot.
Marie Wheeler, nee Holt. Auntie-Ree I was taught to call her before I could form a memory of why, and she was in my life from the beginning. She was my great aunt, my grandmother's sister, and she thought I was the greatest thing since carbonated soda; or at least if it was an act, it was a good one. I never received a cross word, a backhand across the face, or any expression of displeasure whatsoever from her. Her husband, Otha Joseph Wheeler, Uncle Joe, followed her lead where I was concerned, and whenever their car pulled up in front of the house, I couldn't have been more thrilled if the circus had set up its tents in my yard.
She always dressed up for her visits; I guess it went with the times. I remember most strongly a navy blue dress (probably more than one) with white polka dots, open-toed pumps, and a sweet floral perfume. She would come in, and the first piece of her ritual was to bend over from the waist, kiss me on the cheek, and hand me a dime. She visited on average about twice a month, and that dime stood as my allowance for all the time she was with us. The grandmas hounded me mercilessly about not squandering that dime on anything worthless, by which they meant "fun," but I always did. Sometimes she would bring an inexpensive toy, usually a small cap pistol, or a toy tank or airplane... She had a fine instinctive understanding for what a young boy would like, and war toys hadn't yet been branded Products of the Devil.
There were a few occasions when the grandmas went out of town, or once one of them was in the hospital, and I was sent to spend a week with her and Uncle Joe. Their house was... interesting. It was, in the strictest interpretation, an apartment. They had one unit in a duplex in which the two units were stuck together back-to-back instead of side-by-side as is usual. There were, I think, three of these arranged around a grassy common space, with the garages enclosing the fourth side. It was very cool.
Auntie-Ree was a collector. Every horizontal surface in their house was filled with Oriental brass. I learned early the differences. Indian brass items, slippers, bowls, human figures and so on were thin, and their decorations etched into the surface. They were delicate and looked fragile, even though they were made of solid metal. To my child's eye, they paled next to the Chinese brass they shared the shelves with. Chinese brass was thicker, had a duller, more substantial appearance, and the carving most often went all the way through, giving the bells and bowls the appearance of quarter-inch thick, solid metal lace.
She also collected U.S. coinage. She had blue folders for every variant of every denomination. I was amazed to learn that there had been pennies with Indians on them, nickels with buffalos, dimes with Mercury, and gray pennies made of steel. I learned to tell which mint a given coin had come from, and to locate the marks of the artist who had engraved the design. She tried to get me started with my own little collection, but money in any denomination was far too rare and precious for me to justify laying up a hoard that would never be spent. She interacted almost constantly with me when I was staying with them; Uncle Joe read the paper and watched boxing on their black-and-white TV.
Uncle Joe was a big-shot with the Teamsters' Union. This was in the heyday of Jimmy Hoffa, and I still wonder sometimes what his real function was. He used to talk about driving a truck, and some of the jobs he worked on, and no doubt he did, but grandma told me several times that he was one of the men that would pull scabs out of the trucks and leave them bloodied by the roadside. I don't know. His "grunt" days were before my time, and he was never anything but gentle and friendly toward me, but this is Hoffa's Teamsters we're talking about, and how many times have you heard that you never really know somebody? I do know that by the time I came along, part of his employment arrangement was that every year he would go to a prominent San Diego dealership that is still thriving nearly sixty years later, pick out his new Oldsmobile, and drive away without a cent changing hands. There was probably a great story there, if only I'd had the awareness to run it to ground.
But every chapter closes, and in 1957, the year I turned nine, she paid a visit to her doctor for treatment of a nagging cough. All the women in the two generations before me smoked like chimneys, and it shouldn't have come as a surprise when Uncle Joe called my grandma to tell her that Auntie-Ree had lung cancer, and a life expectancy measured in a small number of months. Back then, any cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. There was no cure, there was no treatment. They just made you as comfortable as possible, and sent you home to live out your last weeks. As Uncle Joe had a job he had to go to, she came to stay with us. I remember always making myself available to fetch her things and fluff up her pillows, but if I had truly understood what was coming, I never would have left her side. Children in those days were shielded from things considered too mature for them, like sex, death, and property tax, and I can't say that was a bad policy, but the curtain came down on this particular chapter when I was nine years old.
She converted to Catholicism at the end, and had she sworn allegiance to a witches' coven, her sister couldn't have been more upset. My first exposure to the Catholic religion was thus listening to grandma go on and on about how it was a cult, her poor sister was going to hell because she'd turned away from the Lord, and a lot more things in this vein. Even today, when I have interactions with a Catholic, I have to consciously remind myself that not everything my grandma taught me was necessarily true. The funeral was held in a Catholic church, and my impatient nine-year old self sat in the pews through what seemed like hours of ritual. We finally formed a line and filed by to view the body, and the moment I saw that cold, perfectly constructed face, so lifelike and yet somehow not, I knew that a corner had been turned.
I have carried on without Auntie-Ree ever since, but despite all her efforts to teach me about coinage and culture, what I learned from her was that there were decent people who cared about children, and hope could not be taken, only surrendered. I don't think she ever realized what she was giving me, and I didn't have the maturity to tell her, but if her religion turns out to be right, then she knows. I think she would be pleased. Uncle Joe remarried a year later, something for which grandma never forgave him. I only saw him once more, at grandma's funeral, where he was kind and gracious as ever. My final assessment: He deserved better in-laws.
I'm sorry, it seems I've ended on another downer. If there's a positive side to all this, it involves the growth of my character. I've heard it said that what doesn't kill you makes you tough, and I'd have to say that that's true. Auntie-Ree's influence was an early step in the forging of the man I am today, and while she was taken early, the lesson I want to leave you with here is the good you can do without even realizing it, if you just decide that today, just today, you're going to be decent to the people you meet. Marie Holt Wheeler always did this every day, and in the 56 years she's been gone, I have never heard one unkind word about her. There are worse ways to be remembered.
And I'll leave it there. I have a million stories, but I think, like an Oriental painting, a few clean brush strokes paint a clearer picture than the clutter of minute details. Next time we meet, I'll tell you the story of the oldest person I ever personally knew, and I promise it will have a more positive note than you've become accustomed to. Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
When we last visited young Master Jack, it was 1954. He was five years old, and living at his fourth address. There was one more of these transient addresses left for me to visit, but it was at this time that I would become aware of the condition of childhood, so I've put it together with my last more stable home, because that awareness generates a lot of the important background about the man that I became. It is best treated as a unified whole.
Sometime very early in 1954, we moved to a fourplex in North Park at 2548 Landis St. In the picture, the front of the building is facing the camera, and the four apartments were arranged in a square, two upstairs, and two down. Each apartment was long and narrow, running front to back, and was arranged as a long hallway with the rooms off to the side. We lived on the ground floor, street side, and above us lived a man named Mr. Hurey who my caregivers described as a troll who hated noise, so I'd better keep quiet! He gave me a plainly homemade toybox that was so well made that my twins had it for most of their childhood. Maybe it was them who hated noise...
This house was slightly less than two miles from the one on Fairmount, which means that the last four houses I had lived in were in easy walking distance from each other; that should bring home the humor in the "Gypsy" part of the title. Anyway, from this house, I attended Jefferson Elementary for the second semester of first grade, and all of second. My first grade teacher was Miss Cook, who was young and cute, and who took off for two weeks, and returned as Mrs. Weaver. She was still young and cute, I liked her a lot, and she participated in the event that formed the foundation of my view of the institution of public schools to this day.
Another boy went to her and told her that I had kicked him in the face. Not maliciously, mind you, I was just "kicking around," apparently doing chorus line kicks for no particular reason, and hit him through carelessness. Even though there wasn't a mark on him, she asked me what I was thinking to do something like that. Knowing full well that nothing of the sort had happened, I denied it. She decided that I was lying about the event, took me to the principal, and reported the incident as such. I was spanked by the principal, suspended for three days for lying, not for kicking, sent home with a letter, spanked by great-grandma, put on room restriction, and spanked again when grandma got home from work. I never trusted anyone from the school system again, from superintendent to assistant janitor.
Didn't much trust the grandparents after that, either, willing as they were to believe anything bad they were told about me, truthful or not. My best friend from my teenage years once told me that the strongest vibe he got from me was my powerful sense of justice. I made some joke about being a Libra (the scales, you know), and moved on, but it might be that this is where it began. If so, then this event gave me a lot more than it took away, but it's impossible to say that with any certainty.
In any case, it was here that I discovered the enchantment of having friends my own age. Halfway down that block on the right side of Arnold Street lived Johnny Wallace. He was half white, half Mexican, and 100% boy. In another time, he would have been Tom Sawyer, playing hooky as he ran from one adventure to the next. He turned me on to baseball in his backyard, and Monopoly (though I had no idea at that age what the symbolism meant). His mom was a sweet Mexican lady, always ready with the milk and cookies. Often joining us on our adventures was Paula Nellie, a tomboy who lived in the corner house out of the picture to the left. I liked Paula a lot, but didn't think of her as a girl, just a playmate. She was a chunky little thing with a round, cherubic face surrounded by short brown hair, and she had cap guns on the rack next to her dolls.
I did have some idea what girls were all about, though, because I had what passed for a girlfriend at school. Gail Garbus was her name, and she was a vision of loveliness. Petite, a pixie face in a halo of golden hair, and often wearing a white fur coat, we would walk around the schoolyard with our arms around each others' shoulders, blissfully unaware of what the gesture meant. The difference between then and now is that the school didn't have me arrested for molesting her. Those were simpler times...
Eventually, the time came to move. Every move before this had been a grand adventure, but this one was an unmitigated disaster. I had these three close friends who meant the world to me; they were my sanctuary from all the child-hating, strap-wielding adults I had to deal with, and I cried my eyes out over having to go. But go, we did...
...to 982 Manor Way in Point Loma. You'll recall my great uncle Bill, the Air Force officer. He had joined the Army Air Corps before WWII to get flying lessons. Came the Great War, he was recalled to serve as one of the pilots of Axis Ass Ache, a B-17 flying out of North Africa to strike targets in Southern Europe. Following the war, he tried civilian life again, only to be recalled again for Korea, where he flew F-86 Sabres. This time, he took the position that, "You aren't going to let me get a civilian career off the ground, so you're stuck with me," and the Air Force became his career. In the summer of 1955, he had a vision, I suppose, of where the housing market was about to go, so he bought his retirement home in the very affluent neighborhood of Point Loma, and installed his mother, rent free, as caretaker. Since his mother was my great-grandmother, I came with the package. The garage in the picture had been converted to a bedroom, with windows across the front as wide as the garage door, and that became mine. Very nice! The little window to the left of the door was the kitchen, and the bay window to the right was the living room. The other bedrooms were in the back.
We moved in during the summer before third grade, and the second morning, about a dozen kids arrived at the front door, introduced themselves, and invited me out to play. Included in that group were two of the three Horton brothers, Todd and Tim. If you want to know the significance of that, do a Wikipedia search for Alonzo Horton... And Horton Plaza while you're in there. They, and presumably some of the dads, had built a soap-box car that had a fully enclosed body, and I got several turns to drive it as some of the other kids rode hanging on the sides and so on. The great feature of this car was that the steering was roped backward; turn left, go right. That made for some excitement, let me tell you!
This little development was a square block of houses, both sides of the street, with one bare street where Talbot climbed up to the crest. It's still that way, as you can see if you Google a map of the area. There were probably 30 houses around those three streets, and a quick calculation tells me there were over twenty kids of roughly equivalent age in those houses. We could field two full baseball teams at the drop of a hat, and our hide-and-seek games were epic! Westerns were all the rage during my childhood, and we all, boys and girls alike, strapped on guns, chaps, and ten-gallon hats, and turned the block into an old-west town every Saturday morning.
From third grade, when I turned seven a month into the school year (and had my only kids-invited birthday party), through sixth, when I turned ten, everything went along just fine. I was part of this great Spanky-and-Our-Gang scufflin' crew that did fun stuff, got into mischief, had each others' backs, and just generally treated life as our personal playground. Despite my cold and austere home environment, it was a wonderful childhood, and I feel profoundly sorry for today's kids who can't go down to the mailbox unless a parent is standing in the door with a shotgun, and who can expect to be thrown out of school for pointing a finger and saying "bang" to a playmate. I've heard many in my generation say that today's kids are dolts who can't do anything but push buttons. I don't buy into that myself, but if it does turn out to be true, all they will have done is to live down to the expectations of the jackasses who pass themselves off as educators these days. But that's another post (and don't think I won't revisit it!).
Beginning with seventh grade, which was the beginning of Junior High School back then, kids began socializing with the opposite sex, and they became aware of money. This process took the form of a sort of gradual, building culture shock. I was in a neighborhood I didn't belong in, financially. I went to school with the children of moguls in the clothing industry, defense contractors, medical suppliers, founding fathers of San Diego, and because of the way we came into the neighborhood, being what would have been the servants had the homeowners lived in our house, my education was about to begin.
We did a lot of our shopping at Goodwill and Salvation Army stores. The clothes I wore to school were last year's model, and these kids were well aware of it. Kids I was in class with would buy their lunches with $20.00 bills. That was the equivalent of about $150.00 today. I know; I looked it up. Once, and sometimes twice a month, my aunt would come over and give me a dime. That's what passed for an allowance. These kids were aware of that, too. From being a popular member of that Little Rascals crew, I went almost overnight to being a castigated outcast, someone who was the butt of jokes and ridicule from every quarter. This is how I can tell you that if you don't have an experience like this in your personal background, you seriously cannot imagine in your wildest dreams the contempt that these people hold you in, simply because you aren't sitting on more money than anyone could possibly need. Look at your politicians. Do you know one that isn't rich? Well, if you do, that is the only one who doesn't believe in his heart of hearts that you are lower than whale poop at the bottom of the ocean.
It was rampant and life-changing. A few girls took a liking to the way I looked and treated me as potential boyfriend material... Until their parents looked us up in Dunn & Bradstreet, and couldn't find us there. I could always tell the day that this had happened, as they had been directed (I like to think) to avoid me like I was a diseased dog. The only thing that kept me from turning out a much darker person was Chip.
Walter David Hanika, son of Roy A. Hanika, owner of Burlingame Surgical Supply, the largest supplier to doctors and hospitals on the west coast, approached me at lunch within the first couple of days at Richard Henry Dana Junior High School. He had attended a different elementary school, and didn't know me from Adam, yet he walked up to me with that long, narrow horse face of his, the black-rimmed glasses, and that infectious smile, loudly calling, "Helloooooooo, Tyler!" Whereupon he sat down beside me, carefully examined his cafeteria hot dog to determine whether it was right- or left-handed, and proceeded to eat it with his left hand. This magnificent show about tired, capable heroes called Combat! had just started, and along with one of my friends from Sunset View Elementary, Craig Burke (great-nephew of Admiral Arleigh Burke; see what I mean?), we discussed what we had seen in the last episode.
Thus began a friendship that lasted well beyond high school, through his college days and my military service, until we finally drifted apart because recreational drugs came between us. But that, too, is a story for another post. We stayed in that house until 1974, when my uncle retired and came to take over his property. He did right by his mom and sister, getting them a house in Lemon Grove; that was my cue to take control of my own life. I had served in the navy from 1965 to 1969, came back to the old homestead, and began looking for the job that could parlay my navy experience into a civilian career. Within a couple of months, my great-grandmother fell and broke her hip, and basically never walked again. There was no question of grandma being able to afford a nurse, so I put my life on hold and assumed that role for the next four years. Chip brought a walker-chair from the store that she used free of charge until she passed on in 1975 at the age of 87. During that time, I walked the neighbors' dogs, cut grass at the local Little League field, and held a menial job behind the counter of a dry cleaning store in the little center across Talbot Street, bringing in a little money, but always close at hand.
At the age of 12, I had spent two weeks during the summer living with my mom in a Monterey hotel, and returned again at 14, staying to spend the first semester of 10th grade attending Monterey Union High School. That was when one of those contrived emergencies came up, and I was sent back to San Diego to resume life with my grandparents. Ironically, I was good with that. At Monterey High, I was almost a celebrity, as I was from the big city, where all those kids were trying to escape to. I was accepted by popular cliques, had girlfriends, was friends with seniors, and through them, college kids. I would walk down the street with my sophomore friends, and cheerleaders from Monterey Peninsula College would pull over to the curb, call me by name, and offer us rides; I was viewed by my friends as a minor god. Stupid as only a young teenager can be, I couldn't wait to get back to San Diego.
So it transpired, and I suffered through another year of condescension, and mental and physical abuse until during the summer following 11th grade, I was sent back to Monterey to try it again. About a month before school started, I was told I would be attending 12th grade there. I still didn't get it, and announced, "Over my dead body!" Mom and I worked out an agreement by which I could join the navy on a minority enlistment if I could pass my G.E.D.s. That was the navy's requirement; mom couldn't care less where I was, as long as it was somewhere else. Long story short, I took a week's worth of tests in a single day, passed them all with flying colors, and was given a report date of October 12th, 1965. Columbus Day, five days after my 17th birthday. Thus was I ushered into adulthood, at an unexpected time by unexpected means. I have made it my personal philosophy, and tried to teach my own children, to always be ready to turn on a dime, thrive in the chaos, and make the surprises work for you. I guess this is where it started, and it makes a fitting end point for this phase of the journey. There are a million stories tied up with this address, and I'll probably get to all of them, but not today. I'll see you again in a week or so, when I'll talk about my aunt Marie. Until then, get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
Top o' the morning to ye! I promised, and shall deliver, a story about the places I lived as a child, but first, a self-serving piece of political fluff. Today is my 65th birthday, the gateway to the golden years, and for the past week I have been looking at "celebrating" it as a laid-off Federal employee, not knowing whether I would be in my house a month from now. This morning, my boss called to tell me to resume my schedule, and that we are going to be paid; see, I'm in Defense.
That was a great birthday gift, and no joke, but there are still 4-500,000 of us who are waiting it out, day by day, as their savings dwindle and they have to choose between milk and diapers for their babies. This is wrong. I don't care what moral or political compass you follow, it is wrong to treat your loyal employees this way. I have read a number of comments on the internet extolling the government to "Lay 'em all off! We don't need any of 'em!" I can ignore those people, because that view is so far past ignorant that the only people who can seriously espouse it are brain-dead swamp people whose parents are brother and sister.
As for everyone else, you don't have to be on the Federal payroll to be hurt by this. If you fly in airplanes, visit National Parks, travel abroad, or like to eat meat that isn't being sold with botulism as the secret ingredient, if you're hoping for a tax return or have a question about your Social Security benefits, if you're a poor single mom who depends on WIC to feed your baby, or counted on the CDC for your annual flu shot, this is hurting you! I would like to suggest a solution: STOP VOTING FOR THE DAMNED INCUMBENTS! If you would like to see our broken government changed, that isn't going to happen if you keep voting the same people into office who benefit personally from their own mismanagement of the system.
*All right, Jack, take a breath. People at large are too stupid to change and you know it, so move on...*
I'm told the first place that I lived was down on "C" Street south of San Diego. I'm afraid I don't remember a thing about it. My first memories, flickering, ghostly near-still pictures imbued with that fleeting motion of a stack of kinescope cards, come at 2881 University Ave in the San Diego neighborhood of North Park. The address was in the middle of the block, but the Thrifty Drug store was on the corner, and the apartments were entered by a dark staircase that opened off the street in the middle of the block. They occupied the second and third floors of the building on the left side of the photo. The drug store is long gone, and there seems to be a small theater that has incorporated the second floor, but the third floor apartments appear to have survived. I would have turned three in this apartment. We were on the second floor, and I have a precious few memories. I would get a pot out of one of the low cabinets, take it to my great-grandmother, and say, "cook!" No memory of whether she would or not.
I remember eating fillet of sole in the diner that was part of Thrifty's. It was full of bones, and I became quite the expert at removing them as I ate, sort of like that trick of tying a knot in a cherry stem (no, I never learned that one...). I remember the man who lived upstairs who would come in from work and drop his shoes, about 30 seconds apart; that saying, "Waiting for the other shoe to drop" never confused me a bit! I remember going shopping with grandma down on the street. The butcher would always give me a cold hot-dog when we came in, and there was an appliance store that would put televisions on display around the door. At least once, I witnessed a college football game on those TVs, and was terrified that I would be made to play football when I got older; were it so easy... It was here that I learned to read, following along with great-grandma as she read the funnies to me. I was too young to get the humor, and to this day I don't laugh when I read comedic material. Doesn't mean I don't get it, though.
And I remember my half-brother, Don Christianson (are you out there somewhere, Donny? Are you reading this?), wrapped up in infant swaddling lying on the couch, which was just about at my eye-level back then. My little three-year old self had no way of knowing that his dad was loading the bags in the car, preparing to take him home to Tacoma, Washington, and that I would never see him again. Probably just as well; I was too young to be accepting abandonment as a lifestyle...
From there we moved about a mile-and-a-half to the City Heights area, to this cute little house at 4045 Manzanita Drive, perched on the rim of Wabash Canyon. There's a freeway down there now; back in 1952, it was a wilderness area as wild and untamed as central Alaska. Manzanita was a dirt road, and I remember watching the paving crew asphalt it. Had a birds-eye view from the corner of the raised yard at the lower right corner of the photo. I turned four here, and got a tricycle. There was a lady across the street who had two boys, not twins, named Gary and Terry. Both were a little older than me, and they had a game where one would distract me while the other stole my toys. Periodically, their mom would return a batch of them. She drove a Hudson Hornet, and even at 4, I somehow understood that it was a high-performance car; perhaps the name "Hornet" was what tipped me off, who knows?
It was here that I became aware of my great-uncle Bill. William Harvey Holt, great-grandma's son. He was a Major in the Air Force while I was here, and went on to retire a Major General. He had flown B-17s in WWII, Sabres in Korea, and would go on to fly Phantoms in Viet Nam. More on him later... I remember playing with his son, who he called "Doody," and having an infantile crush on his daughter, Christine, a cute little blonde who knew it, and kept herself aloof from us icky boys. She would have been, I don't know, 8, while Bill Jr. was maybe 10. The main thing I remember is how decent they were to a little kid who must have been a real pest to them. Class does come through. I also remember that my uncle was friends with Bill Vukovich, though I never met him. For a while, we had a midget race car body stored in our garage, and my uncle may have raced with him before he became a legend. Classic case of two friends going their separate ways.
From that house, we moved less than a mile to another cozy little cottage at the corner of Dwight and Fairmount (on the right in the photo). I was here until I was on the verge of being six. Very few memories stand out. I went to my first school here, Hamilton Elementary. I walked to and from; those were simpler times... The criterion for what point you entered school then was whether you could read. I could, so I skipped kindergarten, and began in first grade, making me younger than most of classmates for the rest of my school experience. I had to get a polio shot, which was given by a cute candystriper; I never felt a thing! Polio was a big real-life terror back in the day, and every kid must have known someone who wore the leg braces, or a steampunk contraption on an arm. Some were even confined to iron lungs. Google that, and try to imagine what the quality of life must have been like. I've been doing a lot of whining on this blog, but things could have been a lot worse!
We got our first TV at this house, a small black-and-white set, and I would watch the westerns that were so prevalent back in the day, while seated astride an oval coffee table, shooting an unloaded cap gun (no caps in the house, young man!) at the screen. It was on this TV, in this house, that I met Commando Cody. Horses? This guy flew a rocketship, and battled the villains with ray guns! All during my childhood, I had the western rig to play cowboys with my friends, but CC captured my heart early, and stood up to take charge whenever I was choosing entertainment forever after.
I should point out that all during the time I have described, I was being raised by my grandmother and great-grandmother, with my mom popping in for holidays, and seeing my great-uncle once a year, as he took military leave to visit his mother. Grandma had been Rosie the Riveter during WWII, and was one of the fortunate women who was able to keep her job when the men came home. She had worked for Lockheed during the war, churning out P-38s, and later found employment with Convair. It was either here or at the Manzanita house that great-grandma and I would sit up waiting for her to get home from the swing shift sometime in the vicinity of midnight. We would listen to a swing band on the radio, and I would eat "butter-crackers," basically Ritz crackers with butter. I was a weird kid...
I had planned to cover all of my childhood homes in this post, but this is already pretty long, there are more left, and they are the ones with the more detailed and extensive memories, so I'm going to leave it here. I'll pick it up next time it's my turn. Meanwhile, I'm sure Bonnie will have some entertaining tidbits for you, so I'll see you in a week or so. Don't be afraid to use that chat room we've set up. It's for your convenience, and offers direct and quick access to the bloggers in question. We're aquiver with anticipation! Now get out there and live life like you mean it!
All the best,
Awwwww, who couldn't love that baby? Apparently, his parents... In my last post I described my adventures during the process of just staying alive long enough to be born. I guess now I should try to talk about what I inherited from these parents, neither of whom had any patience for anything that might tie them to a life of stability. As you might imagine, this is going to be difficult, having barely known one of them, and never laid eyes on the other, but we'll see what can be accomplished. The easy one first: My dad.
You might think he would be the hard one, not knowing anything about him, but that's what makes him easy; I say next to nothing, and I'm done. They say I'm the spitting image of him. I always thought I looked like mom when I was younger, but maybe they weren't all that different. I have one picture of him somewhere. It doesn't come readily to hand, and I don't want to hold this blog up for a week while I look for it, so you'll have to take my word for it. That's what I've had to do my whole life. But here's an interesting anecdote:
Once upon a time, before I got my current job, I worked in an office where squadron personnel came in to pick up their invoices. One day an older lieutenant, what they call a "Mustang," meaning he was an enlisted man who worked his way up to officer, came in. The guy was nearly my age, and looked just like me. Heavy-set, round face, seriously, it was like looking in a mirror. His nametag read "TYLER." We had a few moments to talk, and it turns out he was from northern Georgia, dad's ancestral home, and he didn't know his father, either. Probably just an eerie coincidence, but food for thought; I mean, the guy treated one woman like a sex toy, why not another? Just sayin', you know? We had plans to meet off duty for a good old fashioned chin wag, but his unit was shortly deployed to Operation Desert Shield, and I never saw him again. As to dad's genetics, I know absolutely nothing. I guess they're okay, though. I turn 65 next week, and all I have is hereditary migraine (from mom's side of the family) and a pre-diabetic condition that's being successfully treated (so far) through diet.
And then there's mom. The professional gambler, you'll remember. She cleaned up well, I have to say. She usually made it back into town for holidays from whatever hotbed of high-stakes card rooms she was frequenting. Christmas almost always, and my birthday occasionally... More at first. This picture would have been taken on one of her "state visits." I'm pretty sure I'm three here, which would make her twenty.
Mom may not have looked like much of a handful in her A-line dress here, but she was rougher than a stucco bathtub. If Lara Croft had run afoul of her, we'd all be playing Tomb Raider-Slayer today. I always knew when there was about to be an impending visit, because grandma would cackle with glee, and regale me with assurances that she would be putting her fist right through me. It was a long time before she figured out why I was always in hiding when her cab pulled up to the house. Or maybe it wasn't. She couldn't have had much of a childhood if she was raised by my grandparents, and that may explain her morose moodiness, and desire to be far, far away all the time. I share a lot of that...
But I'm drifting off subject. The subject here is what I inherited from my parents, genetically and personality-wise, and maybe that complete comfort with being alone with my thoughts is part of it. I can be moody like she was, though I make a conscious effort to moderate it, and I tend to withdraw from contact when I feel like I'm being ridiculed or denigrated. You've been warned...
Genetically, there was always buzz around the family that her kidneys were bad, but I see no sign of that in my own life. The migraine was present in my great-grandmother, skipped grandma, but mom had a migraine-like pain that would flare up in her neck independently of any exercise or trauma. Migraine in the neck, is that possible? She was also said to have had asthma, which seems to afflict me in a minor fashion, only after exceptionally hard exertion. The diabetic proclivity seems to come from her as well. She was heavy, and so am I. Aside from a general similarity in the face, I don't know what else.
I think I could have liked mom. I lived with her for two weeks during the summers I was 12 and 14, and attended a semester of high school from under her roof when I was 16. During those times, I was treated like I had a brain, and was allowed to use it to exercise control over some non-life threatening aspects of my own life. But there was always some drama, real or imagined, that reared its head, and I would be packed off back to grandma. What I think is that she tired of having a kid around, figured she had gotten all she could out of the experience, and "something came up."
So what I think I ultimately inherited from my parents was a real firm sense of how to be a rotten parent. People have expressed amazement, given the kind of parents I had, at how good I am at it. I don't know about that; my kids have problems that I might have been able to spare them were I more skilled or attentive, but I sure had a real good model of what not to do! So, thanks for that, Mom & Dad. Things may not have gone the way I would have chosen, had I been offered a choice, but you showed me more than you ever planned or knew about.
All right, like it says in the intro, this is being done for family members, and these are things that future Tylers need to know. But I recognize the tone of doom-and-gloom that's crept in here, so next time out, I'm going to take a break from all that, and talk about the neighborhoods I lived in growing up. There's some comedy to be milked from that, so y'all take care of yourselves, and I'll see you in a week or so!
All the best,
I was ages 2 - 12 in the 1950s, so absolutely a child of that decade, which coincidentally happened to have been the last full decade in which the nuclear family was considered the norm. For the benefit of you youngsters, the nuclear family was that model in which Dad went to work and brought home the bacon, and Mom stayed home, cooked it, and kept hearth and home running between meals. You can see how this worked in black-and-white reruns of Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, and Father Knows Best. I sometimes try to envision my parents in that relationship; it isn't a pretty picture!
It starts in the late afternoon, as Dad (the navy diver) comes into the house, tired and grimy from a hard day of underwater lint removal (or whatever his job was...), kicks his way through the sea of empty milk cartons, formula boxes, and soiled diapers to the dining room table, where he asks Mom (the professional gambler), "What's for dinner, honey?"
To which she replies, "Whatever you feel like fixing, dear!"
Dad's name was Carl William Tyler, native of Decatur, Georgia, and he may have felt trapped by unexpected parenthood, or he may have just had a handle on who Mom was by then, but whatever the case, he was long gone by the time I was able to form memories. Mom wasn't far behind, and likely I was the better for it, but all I have to piece together into a narrative of my parents' life before Little Jack came along is the word of two older women who wouldn't have peed in his face if his beard was on fire. So search your pantry for a large grain of salt, and then we'll continue.
Got it? Good.
Given that Dad was 21 in 1948, he must have joined the navy right after World War II. Family lore is that he was involved in the Bikini A-Bomb tests, though as junior as he would have been at the time, he probably wouldn't have been in the water, but rigging gear for the divers, tending the compressors, that sort of thing. But here's an interesting factoid: Dad is out on a boat in the radioactive lagoon for a couple of weeks, and not long after, he's back in San Diego laying the keel of Little Jack. Ever since I can remember, I have carried a static charge that can knock people down. It has been suggested that if I could learn to control it, I could be a legitimate superhero. I can't go shopping alone on a dry summer day, because I don't dare touch the store shelves, and when I take off a wool sweater, the fireworks display rivals the Fourth of July. Coincidence?
By the way, I inherited a number of these photographs, including some that aren't the famous ones you often see in the magazines:
Here's a little-known fact: Most people assume that vertical black smudge at the right side of the water column is a shadow, or a flaw in the film. Not so. It is the 26,000 ton battleship U.S.S. Arkansas being blown completely out of the water like a bathtub toy.
But I digress. In San Diego, Dad served aboard the U.S.S. Sperry, a submarine tender. Family lore says that, when he found out that Mom was pregnant, he passed the hat among his buddies to collect the money for an abortion. Abortion was illegal in 1948, but as San Diego is a stone's throw from Tijuana, Mexico, this was hardly an insurmountable problem. She is said to have taken the money to an address reputed to be that of an abortionist, only to find he had been called away by a family emergency. Rather than wait for his return, she used to money to go on a weekend drunk, which is why I'm here to tell this story. True? Who knows? The source is hardly unbiased, but I wasn't there (in the figurative sense), and it is part of the narrative that forms my self-image, and colors my view on abortion. Anyway, it is said that when she returned still pregnant, he took her for a moonlight stroll in Balboa Park, and on the most remote athletic field of San Diego High School, tried to kick me out of her. That I got from Mom's own lips, so I give it a little more credence.
Okay, so I probably dodged a bullet (literally?) by never knowing that guy. What sort of person was Mom? At 16, Kay Frances Jentoft, late of El Centro, California, was dealing an illegal card game in the back room of a waterfront bar along the San Diego shoreline (it wasn't always the upscale tourist mecca it is known as now), and doing her own bouncing, so Dad may not have had the easiest contest of his career when he assaulted her...
Mom was in and out of my life until we parted ways over her dumping heavy adult business on my 7-year old daughter, so that would have been 1985. I finally began to get to know her when I spent a few weeks in the summer of 1960 at her little crash pad in Ocean Beach, one of the classic Southern California beach towns. The thing about Mom is that she had the true gambler's outlook, that yesterday is history, tomorrow is a crapshoot, and all you really have is right now. Sometimes being around her was more like having a big sister than a mother, and when things were going well, it almost felt like we were on a caper together. On the other hand, Mom wasn't ever quite happy unless she wasn't happy. She was an emotional black hole that could suck the joy out of a room just by walking in the door, and if she had designed her own coat of arms, emblazoned on the traditional ribbon across the bottom would have been O Me Miseram, which I am reliably informed is the Emperor's Latin for "Oh, poor me!"
By the time I was making memories, I had been placed with her mother and grandmother to raise. She always said they had had me made a ward of the court, as she was, by dint of her profession, unfit by the standards of the day to be a mother. They as vehemently denied it, but I tend to believe Mom on this one. See, in California, when you take in a foster child, you get a monthly payment to defray expenses, and given their "love" of children, I can't imagine them keeping one in their home without being paid for it. In this day and age, court records can be researched on the Internet, but I've never done it, I think because I prefer the ambiguity. Weird I suppose, but that allows me to keep thinking that someone in my family wanted me...
Sounds like a big sob story, but I've never cared for sympathy. This is just the story, as best as I have been told by a bunch of people who hated each other, of my parents early life, and why, in that age when it was rare to find a single-parent child, I didn't have any. It was probably for the best. Had Mom and Dad tried to stay together, I probably would have witnessed a murder around the age of five.
So this is the environment that produced me, and now you all know where I came from. I intend to go further, much further, down the road of nostalgia, but first I must ask everyone to tighten up your seat belts, place your chairs in the upright positions, and make sure there is a supply of airsickness bags in the pocket in front of you. When everyone is ready, we'll take another excursion.
'Til then, all the best!
As I sit here on my well-worn overstuffed couch with an Xbox controller in hand and a teenage grandchild at my side, I have to wonder how I acquired grandchildren who are older than I am...
But of course, they aren't. I don't know how it is for others who are aging, but I don't feel a day over ten. How I came to have ulcers, dentures, reading glasses, and a host of other things that only old people are supposed to have is a mystery that I never expect to solve. But Bonnie thinks it would be a good idea to begin to run this blog as a form of memoir for the kids, the grandkids, close friends, and anyone else who can keep a civil tongue in their head. I fully agree, although it will force me to take a close look at who I am and how I got here.
Before you can begin to make sense of the events of which I will be writing, it will be necessary for you to understand that I grew up in a very different world from the one inhabited by my grandchildren, and even my children. For example, I have been reliably informed that my mother smoked, drank, ate tuna from the can, and had little or no prenatal care at all. I was put to sleep on my tummy in a baby crib covered with lead-based paint. There were no childproof caps on the medicine bottles nor locks on the kitchen cabinets, and later on, when I rode my bike, if anything was on my head, it was a baseball cap. The other kids would have made me wear a dress if I'd shown up on my bike with a helmet on!
I rode in a car without a car seat, a booster seat, seat belts, or air bags that had bald tires and marginal brakes. My favorite riding position when "shotgun" wasn't available was standing on the floor in back leaning on the front seat so I could see out the front window. Riding in the back of a pickup truck on a warm summer day was always a special treat. I drank water from a garden hose, and four of us routinely shared a Coke or Pepsi, and I don't remember one case of typhoid flaring up in my neighborhood.
We ate Twinkies, white bread, real butter, and bacon. We drank Kool-Aid made with real white sugar, but none of us were overweight. Why not? Because we were always outside playing, that's why not! On weekends, and especially during the summer, our folks would push us out the door after breakfast, and they didn't expect to see us again until the street lights came on. They only had the most general idea where we were, but we knew where they were if we needed adult intervention. We spent hours building soapbox racers out of junk, and rode them down the steepest hills we could find, only to discover that we had neglected to include brakes in our brilliant design. We fell out of trees, got cuts and scrapes, broke bones, chipped teeth, and yet somehow no lawsuits were ever brought over these accidents.
We didn't have Playstations, Nintendos, or XBoxes. There were no video games, nor 150 channels on cable, because there was no cable! There were no DVDs, no DVRs, no surround sound, no cell phones, no iPods, no MP3s, 4s, or 5s, no personal computers, no Internet, and no chat rooms. We had actual friends, and when we wanted to chat, we didn't look them up on Facebook, we went outside and found them. That's right, we rode our bikes or walked to a friend's house and knocked on the door.
Little League had tryouts, and not everyone made the team. Those who didn't had to learn to deal with the disappointment. Imagine that! And the idea of a parent bailing us out if we ran afoul of the law was unheard of; the parents actually sided with the law!
We were spanked with wooden spoons, switches, coat hangers, Ping-Pong paddles, and belts by parents, aunts and uncles, and schoolteachers, and no one ever called child services to report the abuse. We ate worms, dirt, and suspicious vegetation. We were given BB guns for our 10th birthday and made up games using baseball bats and golf balls, and contrary to what we were told, very few eyes were actually put out.
Our generation went on to produce some of the best risk-takers, problem solvers, and innovators in history. Today's kids master hand-held games that are more capable than the computers that put men on the moon, but if their fanbelt breaks halfway between L.A. and Vegas, do they know how to fix it using a pair of pantyhose? We had freedom and responsibility, experienced success and failure, and had to deal with it all, good and bad. If you are one of us, congratulations! You might want to share this with those less fortunate, those whose childhood came after the lawyers and politicians decided that being a child was far too lucrative to be left in the hands of children.
So now you have some idea of the perspective I bring to this project. I think the world seen through the eyes of today's child, despite all the electronics and wonder-toys, is nowhere near as interesting as the one I saw was. But that's just my opinion. Settle back for the ride, and don't hesitate to speak up if we strike a nerve...
All the best,
[Disclaimer: A good many versions of this "child of the fifties" thing has been going around the Internet for a good many years. I freely admit to have cherrypicked the points that spoke closely to my own childhood, and expanded them through the filter of my own experience. I don't want to take credit for anyone else's work, but why reinvent the wheel? Regardless of all that, I hope you had a good time! ~ J.T.
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?!??