Merry Christmas

It is, as I sit and write this article, only a couple of days before Thanksgiving. The focus is on turkey, stuffing, rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy and every other good thing to overindulge upon.  Soon the tables will be set, mountains of food will be eaten, and a horde of people will present themselves  at doctors’ offices and emergency departments with gallbladders that have at last thrown in the towel and shouted “I can’t take it anymore!”  We all; consumers, shopkeepers and surgeons alike, love thanksgiving, but underneath it all there is another focus, another, more grand American extravaganza lurking under the radar.  It may be Thanksgiving on the front burner, but bubbling quietly along on the back burner, in the oven, and everywhere else in the metaphorical kitchen, it’s Christmas.

As always we will turn Christmas in America into a circus, and why shouldn’t we?  America is a secular state, or so most of us will tell you.  The fact is, however, we worship everything from money to power to sex to individualism to our local sports team, but we refuse to call those things what they really are, which is religion. So when we say that we are secular we mean that we are not a Christian or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, or any other recognized religion-based state.  And if that is the case (and that is a proposition open to a great deal of debate, I am aware), there is no real good reason why we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas any darned way that we please, and I will not be one to raise my voice against that proposition.

What I really do want to do in this article is address the issue of refugees in the context of Christmas. The refugee crisis is very much on the front pages and on the internet news sources in the U.S. and Western world, and I would like to view this crisis through this one Christian’s lens and within the context of the Christmas story. I will be quick to point out that these are my own observations as a Christian American and I do not in any way mean to imply that this is the only opinion that an American Christian can possibly have.  I am certain that I have Christian friends, dear friends all, who will disagree with me.  That is fine.  They may be right, or I may be right.  I love them anyway and I hope that they still love me too, but I have no control over that.  I see what I see, and I will share that with you now.

Christmas, as most of you know, began as a baby born in a stable.  There is actually more to the story to that however.  This kid named Yeshua bar Joseph, or Jesus, was born in that stable because a politician on orders from a foreign and unsympathetic power ordered everybody to return to their ancestral home base so that they could be counted and more efficiently squeezed for tax revenues.  Our President and Congress haven’t tried this yet, but do not count them out!  Joseph and his very pregnant wife Mary were therefore uprooted from their familiar home and occupation in Nazareth and forced to travel to the town of Bethlehem, far away.

Clearly there was little real connection between Joseph and Bethlehem.  There were no relatives offering to take in the weary travelers, one of them due to give birth at any minute.  Forced to go from inn to inn, Joseph could only finally secure lodging in a stable with the animals.  Some historians suggest that this stable was in a cave, and therefore at least protected from the cold wind.  Others stand by the traditional above-ground stable picture while still others locate the stable in the anteroom of a house. To me it makes no difference. Jesus’ company when He was born was Mom and Dad and oxen and donkeys and goats perhaps (have you ever smelled a goat?) and other denizens of the ancient Near East animal quarters.  Suffice it to say, it was not the Marriott.

Some time later, how much later is open to question, another cynical politician got wind of some dumb wise guys going around and spreading rumors about a new king of the Jews being born in Bethlehem.  It’s not like the existing king was a poster child for family values; he murdered his own children.  But the king was not eager for a rival to his throne and his dynasty to be gaining acceptance within his own kingdom, so he sent soldiers to slaughter every baby in Bethlehem.  Being warned of this, the little family shed its persona of economic refugees and took on the mantle of political refugees.  Fleeing ahead of the butchers, the family sought and was granted refugee status in Egypt.  The rest of the story is known to most people in America, and if you are not familiar with it, just about any church in America will fill in the gaps if you visit there between now and December 25.  There is, however, a deeper layer to this story in the holy writings revered by Christians, Jews and to some extent real Muslims, and I propose to write about those today.

In the beginning (important words for those who love the Bible) God told Abram to leave his home and become an immigrant.  Abram was obedient and eventually found himself in a land called Canaan.  While there a famine struck and Abram and his foxy wife, Sarai, became economic refugees and fled to Egypt.  Egypt, fortunately, accepted these refugees, even ones who worshipped a strange God.  Abe was far from honorable in this story however, as he knew that Pharaoh would notice his hottie wife, and so he used the old “she’s really my sister’ trick.  Bad form, Abe!  No huevos, no bueno!” Still, the kindness, or at least tolerance, of the Egyptians saved Abe from the famine, and the chosen line moved on.

Abe’s son Isaac found himself in the same fix a generation later and fled to Philistia where he used the same tired old “She’s my sister” trick.  Like father, like son.  God didn’t let the Philistine Grand Poobah fool around with Rebecca however, and the Philistines granted Isaac a place to weather the famine, even if many of the ruling class were covetous of the flocks and wells and orchards which God blessed Isaac with.  Ultimately Isaac retreated far enough away from anybody who would make a claim on what God had blessed him with, and he made a home there.

Isaac had a couple of sons, and that was a very complicated story.  The upshot is that Jacob came our on top and was the head of a large family that was pretty well settled in Canaan.  Then, a good long while later, Daddy Jacob’s favorite son Joseph got his uppity ass sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Soon after that, the old bugbear famine reared it’s head again and Jake & Co. were applying to Egypt for help to weather the storm.  Well, they would have welcomed a real storm, but let’s not get hung up on semantics.  So Jake says “Boys, we’re dying here.  Take some money, which we have but can’t eat, and go to Egypt and score some grub” or something like that.

So most of the boys go to Egypt to buy food, but Daddy’s real pet, Benjamin,  stays behind.  He was kind of a sissy anyway.  When they got to Egypt however, who do you think they found sitting on the seat as the Secretary of the Interior under Pharaoh but Joseph himself, the son whom they had sold years ago to the slave traders!  Now, Joseph’s life had pretty much sucked most of the time since he had been sold; unfairly accused, stuck in the Gray Bar Hotel, and so on, but Joe had kept his cool and eventually had begun to get some pretty good rolls of the dice.  God blessed him with position and authority in Egypt, and now he sat in front of his clueless brothers.

“So what’s up?” he asked them.  “What’re you boys doing in my neighborhood?  My guess is that you’re a bunch of spies.”  “Uh Uh!” cried Reuben,the oldest.  “Ain’t so.  We’re just hungry, and our daddy and the families are dying of hunger, and we’re here to buy a little food.”  “I doubt it” replied Joseph.  “You look like spies to me.  Might be terrorists too.  Maybe I should just drone your asses right now.”

“No, man, it ain’t so!  We’re just ordinary guys trying to buy some groceries for the fam.  Look at me; I’m so skinny that if I stand sideways and stick my tongue out I’ll look like a zipper.”  You probably didn’t know that they had zippers back then, but they did.  “Ummm, OK.  I’ll give you that one” said Joe.  “But I need some proof.  Are all of you boys present and accounted for?”  Now Joe knew that his brother Bennie from his own mother Rachel was not in the group, and he wanted to twist the knife just a little.  “No boss, said Reuben.  Daddy’s sissy little boy Ben is back home.”  OK then, that’s who I want to see.  Bring me the little punk or go home and starve.”

Joseph gave them enough food to hold the over for a while and sent them on their way.  When they got home they told Daddy Jake the story but he wasn’t ready to roll with it.  Soon, however, the food ran out again and now Jake bowed to the inevitable and sent Bennie along with the Gang of Ten to buy food.  Long story short, Joseph monkeyed with their heads for a while but ultimately obtained Pharaoh’s permission for the whole family to settle in Egypt, even though the possibility that they might have been spies for foreign powers could not be ruled out.  Unless you were Joseph, that is.

Fast forward to Israel a few hundred years later.  A guy named Elimalech and his wife and kids are economic refugees who seek refuge in Moab, the ancient enemy of Israel.  Refuge is granted, but the family’s luck sucks and soon the widowed wife Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth are returning to Bethlehem.  Fine for Naomi, but Ruth is like a Sunni Muslim in Iran, or a Shiite Muslim in Saudi Arabia, or a Tutsi in Hutuland or an Oakland Raider fan just about anywhere other than Oakland or, well, you get the picture.

The thing is, however, that the qualities of this Moabite woman are noticed by the people, who in turn elect to put up with her.  Ruth, the Moabite woman, is loyal to her mother-in-law and willing to do whatever is necessary, even if it means getting raped while gleaning in the fields, or poverty and starvation if no work or help is extended to her and her mother-in-law in this land which views her people as ancient enemies.  Ruth’s purity of heart, aided by Naomi’s understanding of the system and Boaz’s willingness not only to allow this undocumented alien work in his fields but also recognition of her humanity and value, results eventually in King David and ultimately Joseph, the human father of Jesus our Lord.

So where does this all take us in the context of the current refugee issue: one that will be with us long after Christmas of 2015? I suppose that my answer is this: The story that Christians subscribe to is one of dominant powers imposing their wills upon weaker people, and somebody being there when the crunch comes to help those people through the tough times.  The Bible, to me at least, is God modeling through defective and very fallible people (like yours truly and, in fact, like you too, reader) what He wants us to be, and the multiple examples of people being hospitable, for whatever personal reasons, to people in need up to and including God (Jesus) Himself, speak clearly to me about the attitude that we should take towards the alien and the refugee.  And that attitude, for me as a Christian, is acceptance and aid.

The people fleeing ISIS’ terror in Syria and other places come to us just as Abraham and Isaac and Joseph and Jacob and Ruth and Joseph and Mary and Jesus came to us; human, weak, hungry, devious, and perhaps none with a guarantee.  The Jew bleeding along the side of the road may have eventually stabbed the Samaritan who helped him in the back.  The Jews of Bethlehem might have consigned Ruth to a brothel, where she would have sold herself to provide for Naomi and both would have died impoverished, diseased, despised and alone.  Joseph, pissed off at his brothers, could have had them killed or let them starve in the desert.  None of that happened however and it provides a roadmap for those of us who call upon God as our Savior.

Which of those thousands of refugees are emissaries from God?  Which one will bring the world to a greater acceptance of each other and the blessings of peace which flow from such acceptance?  Which one will bring a bomb belt and an AK-47 to a concert or a Super Bowl game or a high school senior prom?  I don’t know the answer to any of those very good questions, and I do not disparage those who place security at the top of the list of things that we must strive for in this dangerous and complicated world.  The thought of a terrorist action taking my son or daughter or grandchild from me makes me nauseous.  Nevertheless, as I read the whole story of God and His interaction with His people on earth, I cannot ignore the fact that he loves us all, and the degree to which we love each other, even when there is risk, reflects the degree to which we love Him.

So this year I will pray that ISIS will either crumble into ruin or will be blown into atoms. I will pray that all of the innocents will escape the demonic claws of the twisted people who serve the worst form of evil in the world today, and I will pray that those of us who live far from the face-to-face confrontation with the very face of Satan itself will not snuggle in our consumerist comfort and say “their problem. Let them deal with it.”

God said “Let Us make man in Our image,” and I say let us be hospitable to all of those made in the image of God.  Perhaps not with the meekness of sheep but definitely with the mercy of God, let us welcome the refugees.

 

Werewolf of San Diego

Werewolf! Aghhh! Just the word summons up a dread chill which threads its way down our spines, and this is especially true for a kid who grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s and watched Henry Hull and Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Junior change from mild mannered men into wild and terrifying wolf men who struck fear into entire cities, towns and gypsy camps across England.  It was easy to ignore the fact that the early lupine night stalkers from Hollywood looked a lot more like overgrown Yorkshire terriers than fanged agents of death crawling out of our worst nightmares.  The simple fact was that they were big, they were hairy, and they would at least kill if not eat you, or bite you and turn you into one of them, was enough for me.

Over time werewolves began to – well – change.  In 1981 the creature in “American Werewolf in London” actually looked like something that you would really rather not meet in a dark alley instead of like some guy who should tip better at his barber shop.  From that point forward werewolves became truly more frightening as the transformations were more convincing and the results of those transformations more nasty and determined to ruin somebody’s day.  The television series entitled “Werewolf” (1987-88) introduced the usual reluctant werewolf who was suitably ugly and evil-tempered, but it also produced the innovation of a werewolf who actually enjoyed his werewolvery in the person of Janos Skorzeny (Chuck Connors), who’s death the reluctant star must effect in order to be released from the curse.

As we move into the 1990’s and beyond werewolves have once again completely transformed.  Long gone is the antagonist who looks more like your neighbor’s annoying pet on steroids.  In 1994 Hollywood gave us Jack Nicholson peeing on the shoes of an evil (and also Were) business rival (cleverly intimating the fashion of a dog marking his territory) in the corporate bathroom, and by 2009 Michael Sheen is saving a damsel in distress who just happens to be a vampire, to really muddy the waters.  In both cases the wereheroes end up enjoying the affections of fair ladies; Michelle Pfeiffer for Jack and Rhona Mitra for Michael.  How the heck can you go wrong with that?

It all gets adequately summed up by Warren Zevon in his 1978 tune “Werewolves of London.”  Whether enjoying a dish of beef chow mien at Lee Ho Fooks or a piña colada at Trader Vic’s, or ripping Jim’s lungs out or mutilating a little old lady in Mayfair, the Werewolf was sure to be engaged in either activity wearing a suit that makes you want to meet his tailor and with his hair perfect.  Warren Zevon was a world class songwriter and musician, and ahead of his time.

So, what does this all have to do with me?  While I am perhaps a bit more hirsute than is the norm these days I have an excuse; like Jackson Browne, in ’69 I was 21.  It just sort of stuck.  And while it is true that I am a carnivore without regrets, I tend to prefer my meat more on the medium side than really, really rare.  I am also much more of a shorts-and-tee-shirt sort of guy than one who might be envious of someone’s suit.  Finally, I have never even shaken the hand of Michelle Pfeiffer or Rhona Mitra, in London or Transylvania or anywhere else (and more’s the pity).  To the contrary, I still regard the full moon as only a likely harbinger of stranger folk than usual showing up in Emergency Departments in hospitals everywhere and, if I was to obtain a pet for my home enjoyment, it would be a cat.

The connection goes back to 1965, when Mrs. Lebeau decided to conduct a week-long day camp for the younger children who lived in our neighborhood.  Mrs. Lebeau was the leader of the recreation center which rested mostly at the intersection of Highland and Landis in San Diego, the city in which I grew up.  I can hardly remember what “the Park”, as we called it, was like before her arrival, but I do remember that she arrived like Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy, determined to rearrange things to suit her vision of how things should be run.  Mrs. Lebeau was there for at least the last six years of my childhood before I graduated from high school and left to join the Army and she succeeded, for the most part, to mould the Park in her own image.

One of the high points of the reign of Mrs. Lebeau was the day camp.  This was a week-long event in which every day was filled with different crafts and stories and games and so forth. One of the higher points of this camp came in the form of a genuine Hawaiian luau, in which our high-jump pit was excavated and a pig slow-roasted Hawaiian style, wrapped in banana leaves and buried and all.  I have to say that it tasted pretty good, although the head of the cooked pig looking back at me made me just a little bit squeamish.  All week was one imaginative event after another, and I cannot give enough credit to Mrs. Lebeau’s creative genius.  The greatest triumph of Mrs. Lebeau in this project lay in another direction however.  More amazing even than a team of Islanders roasting a pig where our high jump pit had previously been was the team that Mrs. Lebeau gathered and employed to help make all of this work:  Us!

“Us” refers to the older kids who used the Park as a sort of hang-out headquarters.  We were in our fourteenth through seventeenth years of age and came from a fairly wide ethnic, economic and family stability mix.  The Philippines, Mexico, Sicily, Hawaii, Poland, and us ordinary Anglos were represented there.  One parent and two parent families of varying functionality produced our little group, and of money there was rarely much.  Every day and evening some or all of us would meet at the Park to play basketball or football, or put together jigsaw puzzles or play ping pong, or sit on the picnic tables out in the field and smoke cigarettes and tell stories and generally try to act older than we were for hours on end.  Some of “Us” found more of a sense of family and community at the Park than we did at home.  As one might expect, such a group could have a difficult time positively channeling their energy, and such was the genius of Mrs. Lebeau that she accomplished exactly that.

This story takes place in and around a canvas teepee that was erected on the grass behind the basketball court.  This teepee was mostly a visual prop for the camp but one night Mrs. Lebeau agreed to allow us to spend the night there because we had been behaving ourselves particularly well during the camp.  This was extraordinary because the team consisted of underage boys and girls.  The piece which made this possible was the intermittent presence of Adam Clark.  Adam was a college student and athlete whom Mrs. Lebeau knew personally and who lived just across the street from the Park.  Adam was not going to stay in the teepee with us all night, but instead would get us quieted down for the evening and then check in on us at unpredictable times.  This tactic was sufficient to keep us all minding our P’s and Q’s, as Adam was serious about his role and we had no desire to damage the relationship that we had with Mrs. Lebeau and her two younger, paid assistants. We knew that we had a good thing at the Park and didn’t want to mess it up.

So there we were, six of us with our sleeping bags rolled out and stories flying back and forth.  Adam was with us for much of the evening telling about life in college;  a life none of us could imagine and most of us would never experience.  After a while, when we all seemed to be settling down for the night, Adam took his leave with a promise that he would be checking in from time to time.  We were lying in or on top of our bags when I paused from my yammering to look out of the opening which passed into and out of the teepee.  It was a warm, beautiful San Diego night and the soft glow of moonlight was flooding into the teepee.  It was the light of a bright, full moon.

My friend Max was lying just across the teepee from me and I saw that he was looking at the moonlit opening too.  There was a strange sort of bond between Max and me, and while we were very different people we had a lot of fun together, and frequently seemed to be dialed into the same wavelength.  We were sort of a comedy team, as we both enjoyed a good joke and tended to justify our position within the group by being funny.  Folks didn’t speak in such terms then, but I suspect that we both shared a lot of insecurities, and used humor to make that justification.  On this night, when I went silent and just stared at the moonlight, Max became quiet too.  He didn’t know what was stirring in my fertile brain but he knew me well enough to know that some sort of utter nonsense was about to happen.

At last my thoughts crystalized, at least to the extent that any seventeen-year-old boy’s thoughts ever get crystalized.  I saw Max looking at me and I gave him the faintest of nods.  Max looked at me for a moment longer and then turned his head away towards the inside of the teepee, as if he was going to sleep.  I let him lie in that position for a while, until at length I began to growl softly.  The conversation of the others continued at first until, one by one, they became aware that I was behaving more strangely than usual.  As the teepee fell quiet I slowly increased the volume of my growls for another ten or fifteen seconds until I exploded up and off of my bag and flew threw the opening, out into the night.

Max told me later that everyone in the teepee jumped about a foot off of the ground when I made my move.  He pretended to have been awakened by the commotion and asked what was up.  “Glenn just went crazy” explained Clarence.  “He growled like a dog and then jumped out of the opening.”  All of the other kids then spoke at once, echoing what Clarence had just told him.  “It’s OK” Max told them.  “He’s done this before.  Some nights when the moon is full he just changes.  I don’t think he really gets hairy or anything, and I don’t think that he’s ever hurt anyone, but he really does get pretty weird.”

Everybody knew that Max and I were tight and they assumed that what he was saying about my nocturnal habits must be true.  How it would have been possible for Max to know anything about what I did or did not do at night, full moon or otherwise, was a question which never occurred to them.  “I’m going to go out and keep an eye on him, if I can find him.  Sometimes he doesn’t know where he is when he comes back to himself, and it really freaks him out.”  “Man, I don’t want to be anywhere near him” said Elizabeth, and her twin sister Rebecca echoed that sentiment.  “OK, you can stay here” said Max.  “He’s never hurt me, so I GUESS he won’t hurt anyone else.”  Max let the uncertainty of that proposition sink in for a minute or two and then moved toward the opening.  A moment later, like little ducklings following their momma, four people who did not want to be trapped alone in a teepee with a growling lunatic running around outside followed Max through the opening and into the moonlit night.

I wasn’t very hard for Max to find.  Upon my exit from the teepee I trotted over to where a couple of rather small pine trees, neither of which was more than twenty feet high, grew at the other side of the field.  After climbing into one of the trees I waited until Max and the others emerged and then growled again and did a very poor imitation of coyote yips.  I would have preferred a good wolf howl but I had never actually heard one of those, and coyote yips are not a bad substitute if your goal is to scare the snot out of some fourteen and fifteen year old city kids.  The sound was sufficient to draw the little crowd towards my arboreal covert, where they gathered on one of the picnic tables where we would gather at other times and smoke.  There, Max spoke to me.

“It’s OK Glenn.  Just get it out of your system.  Nobody here wants to hurt you or get in your way.  We’ll just be here if you need us.”  I growled and yipped in response and jumped from limb to limb, which was not a bad trick when you consider that very little of the moonlight filtered through the pine needles to illuminate that stage in the air where I was playing my part in the drama.  Max was in fact the star of the show, making up stories about my psychotic history with the skill of a master storyteller, and as my persona became more frightening I felt that I had to elevate my own game.

While Max was talking I crept down to a lower branch and then without warning dropped to the ground about five or six feet from the bench that they were perched upon.  Elizabeth and Rebecca both shrieked while Clarence yelled “Shit!”  Even Max, who wasn’t expecting that move, jumped off of the bench with a “shit” of his own.  All of the others were freaking out and backing away too quickly to notice that Max could barely keep his composure and not laugh out loud at my moment of inspiration.  With nothing more to add I simply took off, running, tumbling and crawling awkwardly on all fours across the field and up into a pepper tree which grew between the basketball and shuffleboard courts.

In no time at all Max came over to the tree, leading his little flock.  Benigno, Clarence’s younger brother whom we called Bennie, had seen just about enough.  “This is bad, man.  This shit is crazy.  I don’t know what’s wrong with him but I think we need to go wake up his father and let him know about this”

That was a game changer.  Dad did not like the kids in my neighborhood very much and enjoyed being awakened at one o’clock in the morning even less.  The thought of my father being dragged from his warm bed at that hour with Clarence and Bennie, et. al., standing on his porch saying that his son was a werewolf convinced me that it was time for this ersatz werewolf to return to his lair.  Max understood that fact as well as I did and went immediately into damage control mode.  “No, it’s OK. He’s never like this for very long – – -.”

“Hey, what’s going on?  What am I doing in this tree?”

A Wrenching Tale about Monkey Joe

I recently saw a picture of the Julian Hotel on the internet.  The old place is enjoying better times than it once did, to judge by that picture, and I have no doubt that it is a great place now to spend an evening or two.  And it will come as no surprise to anybody that the Julian Hotel is located in Julian, California, a former mining town which dwindled to a few buildings when the mine played out but is now quite a destination in the mountains of Southern California.  Julian lies about sixty miles east and north of San Diego, the city where I grew up, and I am told that these days Julian is very tightly growth-controlled, as the village fathers and mothers seek to retain the charm of the place.  I applaud that effort, if that is actually the case, because Julian is one of my favorite places on earth.

When I was young we would often camp in the mountains south of Julian.  When we would pack up to head back to the city we would frequently stop in the town and enjoy what it had to offer.  On those rare occasions when it snowed in those mountains we would usually drive there to play in the unfamiliar white, cold stuff.  On those occasions too we would usually stop in Julian on the way back home.  Almost always we would end up in the one cafe in town, probably called the Julian Cafe, where hamburgers and fries and sodas or hot chocolate were to be had.  Yes, Julian was one of my favorited places to visit when I lived in San Diego.  But Julian also provides the starting point for a tale altogether unlike any that I can personally tell.  My friend Jerry told me a tale which began in Julian that set his hair standing straight up.  Here’s the way Jerry told it to me.

Jerry was two years older than me and a friend of my brother Brad.  Jerry was a handsome devil and secured the interest of Anne Marie, a girl who lived with her single mother a couple of blocks away from where we lived.  Anne Marie was my brother’s age and she knew him well.  Because Anne’s mother worked most weekdays, Anne’s house became a gathering point for Jerry and Brad and a lot of other kids in the neighborhood, and since I was Brad’s little brother and Jerry’s friend, and since Anne took a shine to me, I was allowed to tag along as long as I didn’t get under foot.  Anne’s mother liked us all, or most of us at least, and we generally behaved ourselves when we were there.

Anne’s mother, Gertrude (yes, Gertrude!) had lost her husband in an accident in Japan after the end of the Second World War.  I don’t know the details, but he survived the war only to fall in the peace, and never made it back to rejoin his family in San Diego.  Gertrude did alright however because she had extensive family in San Diego County, including one branch of the family which was located at Banner Queen, a collection of buildings which included a store, a headquarters residence, and several cabins which could be rented by vacationers who wished to fish in nearby San Felipe Creek or hunt, or simply escape the springtime gloom of foggy San Diego.

On many occasions Jerry and Brad and some other of Anne Marie’s friends would be invited to spend the weekend at the Banner Queen, and even little me was once invited to go with Anne and her mother to the place.  As I was thoroughly infatuated with the bewitching Anne Marie, I thought that such an event was like being invited to a weekend in heaven.  I still remember walking along the creek with Anne, watching the giant black wasps with orange wings who’s favorite meal to feed to their babies is tarantulas, and I also remember lying in my sleeping bag the first night, talking with Anne in the pitch dark.  “My father told me that I walk in my sleep sometimes” I told her, and it was true that I had done so.  On one camping trip my father heard me stumbling around the campsite and came out to investigate.  I was stone, cold asleep and yet mumbling and trying to go somewhere or do something which was real only in my dreams.  “Just make sure that you don’t crawl in your sleep” came Gertrude’s voice out of the dark.  She and Anne laughed heartily and I laughed along with them, although I really had no idea what was so funny about it.  I was only twelve at the time, and it would take a while for me to figure it out.

The road between Julian and the Banner Queen in those days was steep, creeping along the side of the mountains and ducking in and out of the valleys, generally paralleling  the descent of the San Felipe Creek Valley once it drew next to it.  This daunting grade dropped almost four thousand feet from Julian to the desert floor, and the route was known as Banner Grade.  I wrestled with motion sickness as a child, and when my turn came to descend the grade it was openly known that I stood only a 50/50 chance of making it to the bottom without popping like Vesuvius.  On my visit to Banner Queen I am certain that I successfully survived the grade; vomiting my guts out in front of Anne Marie is something that I would certainly remember, and I don’t remember doing any such thing.

I now return to my friend Jerry.  On one Friday afternoon he and Anne Marie found themselves in Julian.  How they got there, exactly, I don’t remember, but a good guess would be that some family member was going only that far.  The plan, as I remember it, was for another family member, one known as Monkey Joe, would take them the rest of the way to the Banner Queen, where Gertrude would joint them later after she got off of work for the weekend.  In most cases that would have been a good plan.  In this case however there was one glaring miscalculation in the logic, and that glaring miscalculation was named Monkey Joe.

Not every family has a Monkey Joe, but a lot of families do.  The prodigal son, the ne’er do well, the black sheep; there are a lot of ways to say it.  In my family we would have called Monkey Joe a shitbird, for a shitbird he truly was.  But in my family, too, Monkey Joe would probably have been included, accepted and endured as best as possible.  Blood, after all, is thicker than water.

Monkey Joe’s relationship with his extended family might have been strong enough to weather a few storms, but he definitely had a tenuous relationship with the law.  He was never know to hold down a job, but he always seemed to have money; sometimes more, sometimes less.  I never witnessed or heard of Monkey Joe being a violent person, and Jerry and Brad, who knew him a whole lot better than I did, had no concrete proof of such tendencies either.  But nobody could account for the money that he usually had, when we never knew of him lifting a finger in the pursuit of honest employment.  Nobody asked, either.

Some said that Monkey Joe had a penchant for braking and entering.  We knew that he spent a lot of time at the Banner Queen, both in hunting season and out, and without the benefit of state-issued hunting license in any season, and on many occasions renters complained of their cabins being broken into and valuables taken.  Monkey Joe could never be definitely linked to these events, but there was little doubt among non-family people that he was involved in this larceny.  Funny thing is that reports of such breaches of order dropped to near zero when Monkey Joe was not at the Banner Queen.  I wonder if there was a corresponding spike in nefarious activities elsewhere during those times.

But there Jerry an Anne Marie were one afternoon, in tiny Julian, waiting for Monkey Joe to take them the rest of the way to Banner Queen.  They found a booth at the Julian Cafe and first ordered a coffee for Anne and a chocolate for Jerry.  After a good long while, when the staff began to put the stink-eye upon them for occupying their space for so long with so little a purchase, they ordered burgers and fries.  These they ate slowly – glacially – until the last morsel of beef patty and ketchup-soaked bun, and the last cold, soggy fry was consumed.  Still no Monkey Joe.  At last they ordered a cinnamon roll and both had more coffee, eating slowly and planning how they were going to get back to San Diego.  No very good option presented, and Jerry was t the point of calling his father, who was separated from his mother at the time, and begging for a ride home when Monkey Joe pushed his way noisily into the cafe.

“Ah, there you are!  Why weren’t you down at the hotel?”  Monkey Joe boomed out over the background noise in the restaurant.  Jerry knew darned well that they were supposed to meet at the cafe, but shrugged it off.  He needed a ride now, and not an argument with an obviously tipsy Monkey Joe.  Joe had with him one of his cronies and they both plopped down onto the bench seat in the booth.  “We’ll have a couple of coffees” said Joe to the waitress, who in turn looked at Joe like he was a bug pinned onto a specimen tray.  This was probably not the first time that she had served him.  The waitress looked over at Jerry, who nodded his assent.  “The more coffee that Monkey Joe had in him before we started down that hill the better” he told me later.  Monkey Joe talked his usual crap and soon finished his coffee.  “Well, let’s be gettin’ down the hill” he said.  Jerry paid the bill, which took most of the money which he had intended to use to buy cokes and candy and other snacks for Anne Marie and himself at the store at Banner Queen, and they exited the cafe, probably to the considerable relief of the staff and owner.  Outside, the truck was waiting.  Monkey Joe often showed up in different vehicles and nobody asked where they came from.  This one was the vehicle that he most frequently drove however, and Jerry and Anne climbed into the back while Monkey Joe and his friend settled themselves into the cab.  Joe turned the engine over, ground the gears into position, and pulled away from the side of the street.  He turned right at the only intersection in town and pointed the truck towards the Grade, which began not a half mile ahead of where they then were.

The truck had gone only a few hundred yards out of town when Monkey Joe pulled over to the side of the road.  “This damned steering wheel is loose” Joe announced, and then he proceeded to yank it off of the column.  “Here.  Put this in the back” said Joe as he handed the steering wheel out the window of the driver’s side.  Jerry numbly reached out and took the steering wheel and placed it in the bed of the truck near where he and Anne were sitting.  “Are we going to walk back to town” Jerry asked.  “Nope.  I’ve got this under control”  Monkey replied.

“Under control?” Jerry asked. “How in the hell can you have it under control?  You keep a spare steering wheel just in case of emergencies?”  Jerry had had enough of Monkey Joe and this whole adventure, and was ready to get out of the truck and do whatever he had to do to get someplace where common sense was to be found.  “Alright” said Joe from the cab.  “Here we go.”

Jerry looked through the rear window of the truck and could see by the fading light of the late afternoon that Monkey Joe had placed a large crescent wrench onto the nut on the steering column and had now begun to drive down steep and twisting Banner Grade, steering the truck by turning that wrench.  By the time Jerry got his wits about him the truck was moving too fast for him and Anne to jump out, although he told Anne to be ready if the truck slowed down enough in one of the many hairpin turns on that serpentine ribbon of asphalt to jump out an make their escape.  The truck however didn’t slow down very much in those curves, and tires squealed while suspension groaned, and Monkey Joe cackled with delight at the excitement of the ride, or the terror being voiced by Jerry and Anne, or the white knuckles and face of his companion, or all of the above.

Finally the road leveled out and straightened as they reached the desert floor.  Monkey Joe roared down the remaining three or four miles of road between the bottom of the grade an the Banner Queen an then pulled into the parking area in a cloud of dust and gravel.  Jerry told me that what he wanted most to do was punch Monkey Joe right in the face but one got the sense that Monkey was probably a tough guy without much in the way of scruples or mercy, and could be a nasty opponent in a scrap.  Instead, he helped Anne out of the truck, grabbed the suitcase and sleeping bags that they had brought, and vanished into the store without saying one word to Monkey Joe.

Later that evening Gertrude drove into the lot at Banner Queen.  Monkey Joe had disappeared by then and the adventure had been pretty much forgotten.  It wasn’t until the next day that Gertrude learned that her daughter and her daughter’s friend had been subjected to what turned out to be one of Monkey Joe’s favorite jokes.  Apparently he was notorious for scaring the poop out of people with that routine, and it was reported that Gertrude walked up one side of Monkey Joe and down the other for that little episode.

I don’t know what ultimately happened to Monkey Joe.  He apparently got into some bad business in San Diego and became a guest at the Gray Bar Hotel.  Upon his release from that facility he quickly committed some other particularly nasty infraction of the law, such that his family was finally unwilling to put up witht.  They were also unwilling to talk about it.  Monkey Joe vanished and has been absent from sight until this day.

I have been down that grade many times and can’t imagine sitting in the bed of a rusty pickup truck while a crazy man, cackling like a hyena, steered the thing with a crescent wrench.  Every time that I have been to Julian and/or drove down that grade I have thought about Monkey Joe and how glad I am that he’s disappeared from the face of the earth.

Ice-Sliding

Some friends and I were recently reminiscing on an activity which many of us enjoyed in the city of San Diego, where we all had the extreme pleasure of growing up.  As we talked amongst each other it became apparent to me that we had different experiences of this same phenomenon, and so I determined that I would set down a short remembrance of my adventures with Ice Sliding.

Ice sliding could be done anywhere where there was a hill and grass.  The idea was to enhance the effects of gravity and enjoy a downward ride.  There were many solutions offered to the problem of increasing the effects of simply running downhill or rolling or whatever.  Some of my more creative friends have made good use of a large piece of cardboard, and I have even seen one of my friends seated on a large toy “Tonka” truck.  Whatever works.  My friends in our neighborhood and I preferred ice, and I now propose to describe how the whole thing worked.

The first things that we needed to procure was ice and darkness.  The preferred venue for our ice sliding was the Presidio Park in San Diego.  Presidio Park, one of the most beautiful places on earth, sits on a bluff overlooking Mission Bay to the west and the mouth of Mission Valley to the north.  As one would expect with a bluff, it is high and the land around it slopes quickly downward.  Such was the case at Presidio Park.  The grounds were impeccably kept and the grass thick, smooth and well watered.  This made it perfect for ice sliding, but also made those responsible for maintaining it less than favorably disposed towards people who might damage it by repeatedly sliding down it on blocks of ice and then running back up in order to slide down once again.  The solution to that minor inconvenience was to do our ice sliding at night when the unwanted attention of the maintenance crew had been diverted in the direction of dinner and sleep.

The bunch who would gather for this activity was a checkered one.  I rarely use real names in my stories but I will use them in this one, in order to pay homage to the memory of my time with those esteemed folk.  Donald and his brother Eugene were sure to be in on this, as were Terry, Max and Emilio.  Mike might have been with us once or twice, but his mother worked hard to keep his nose clean.  Charlie (Coco), a Hawaiian guy who lived with his older sister, might have been there.  Charlie was crazy as a loon and dangerous as a snake.  Geez how I loved hanging with that guy!  Under it all he had a really good heart and was (usually) a lot of fun to be around.  Dave might have been there too.  Dave was nicknamed “Monk”, but not because of any proclivity to hanging out in monasteries.  Dave made me give evolution another look.  And then there were the girls:  Linda and Deedee, Nancy, Zola, another Terry, Monica and Carla.  Well, I could go on, but my memory of some of the others is fuzzy and I’ll let it go.  Anyway, we were a bunch of kids who lived in the same neighborhood (East San Diego) and grew up together and were very much like a bunch of brothers and sisters.  I loved them then and I love their memories now.

So the protocol was as follows:  We would acquire two blocks of ice from an ice house up on El Cajon Blvd., one of 25 pounds and another of 10.  We would take them to the park where we would position ourselves at the top of the hill.  The rider would place the 25 pound block under his or her chest and hook their feet over the 10 pound block.  Then, with friction a memory and gravity our friend, we would shove off and slide down the ice like torpedoes speeding into the side of a doomed ship.

No ride was guaranteed to be pleasant however.  There was always the rock which some kid had left on the grass during a family picnic the afternoon before.  Some of those left a nasty scar.  And then there was the occasional salutation from somebody’s family dog; a pile of excitement and remembrance that would bring out gasps of outrage and roars of laughter, and a lot of paper towels.  At night you could never tell what you were going to run into; it lent an additional richness to the adrenalin rush of flying down that hill like a shot out of a gun.

And then there was the dismount.  At the bottom of the run the grass ended and all that remained was a stretch of dirt and rock and the occasional cactus, and finally a chain link fence established, apparently, to keep idiots like us from flying over the cliff and doing a face plant in the road which ran along the south edge of Mission Bay at the bottom of the bluff upon which rested Presidio Park.  We would time ourselves and see who could roll off of the ice in a dismount as close to the edge of the grass as we could manage.  Too soon and you bumped and tumbled, but ultimately stopped well short of the edge of the grass.  For your effort you were labeled a weenie and the next person ponied up for a ride.  If that person was too greedy for acclaim they would dismount too late and suffer the same bumps and tumbles, but this time in the dirt and rocks and cactus.  Their macho was established, and that was not to be sneezed at,  but their cool was still greatly in question.  The masters would roll off, bump, tumble and slide, and come to a stop right at the grass’ edge, a neat trick if it could be accomplished.

We would slide until the ice melted, which was usually not long before most of us were supposed to be home for the night.  I have a million great memories of being a kid in San Diego in the 50’s and 60’s, and ice sliding is one of my very favorite.

You Can Never Go Home Again, Part III

For the first time in a decade I stepped up on the small concrete pad on the side of the house and into the small room that we used to call the back porch.  My immediate impression was “this place is tiny!”  The house consists of less than 1,000 square feet but seemed much larger when I was much smaller, and growing up there left me fully comfortable with its size and fit.  Now, returning after living in own houses which were all of a good deal greater size, I was shocked by how snug this house really had been.  There was still a washer and drier in that little room, but probably not the ones that Mom left when they moved in 1976, and my eyes lifted instinctively to the shelf above them.  That was where Dad kept his liquor.

My father enjoyed his alcohol.  You could never describe him as an alcoholic, although he did get hammered from time to time, and those were good times to be somewhere else.  A cold beer when working outside under the San Diego sun was a given, and a bottle of inexpensive chianti when eating Mom’s spaghetti or a pizza from Lido’s in Lemon Grove was not uncommon, but Dad was particularly fond of a snort of whiskey every now and then.  He kept that bottle on the shelf, and we left it strictly alone.  There was no doubt in our minds that Dad knew how full that bottle was the last time that he touched it.  We will return to that bottle momentarily

My guide led me through the kitchen, and the old stove and even the linoleum floor were the same.  I’ll never forget the day that we installed that stove.  The part on the back; you know, the upright part where the clocks and knobs and things go?  Well, this one had a fluorescent light and I pushed the button to turn that light on.  Fluorescent lights, as everyone but, apparently, me and my parents, knew required that one hold the button in until the light flicked on and stayed.  I only pushed the button and released it, the light flickered on, and then it went out.  “You’ve broken it already!” groused Mom.  Dad instinctively reacted much the same as Franklin D. Roosevelt did after Pearl Harbor.  It was tense and more than a little painful until Mom pressed the button and enjoyed success in lighting the backboard or instrument panel or whatever the hell you want to call the damned thing.  I waited a diplomatic moment and then removed myself from the kitchen; in all likelihood I went up the tree in the front yard.  I didn’t know about the spiders at that time, or else I would have retreated to the roof of the old garage.

In the dining room, which I could easily see from the kitchen, sat a man at the table.  He had on work clothes and appeared to be eating his lunch.  “Jorge, este hombre se crió en esta case.  Te importa si ve interior?”  My host asked her husband if it was OK for the gringo who grew up in his house to look inside.  Jorge thought about it for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and went back to his lunch, which was no doubt a good deal better than mine had been.  We passed through the dining room and I looked through the wide square portal which opened into the living room, and memories flooded over me like the Santorini tsunami over Crete.

Directly in the middle of south wall between two windows was a little table with a statue of the Virgin Mary and a couple of candles.  I quickly remembered the day that we put our first television in that spot.  Television was not exactly new then, but in our lower-middle class neighborhood it was far from ubiquitous.  Dad must have really wanted one of those things though, and so we tightened our family belt and saved so that the television could be purchased, and now it sat in regal state right in the middle of the room.  The first thing that I saw when Dad turned on the set, once the vacuum tubes warmed up that is, was a test pattern.  “That’s cool” I thought.  “None of my friends have a test pattern in their living room.”  Then Pop screwed down the connection from the rabbit ears antenna on top of the big mahogany cabinet to the contacts on the back of the set and voilà:  a picture appeared on the screen.  I don’t know if it was Beanie and Cecil the Seasick Serpent or Howdy Doody or just what, but my brain exploded with joy over the recreational possibilities of that magic box in the middle of the room.

We had that television set for many years, and frequently we would eat dinner in the living room while watching it.  Brad and I would have our plates on the low coffee table in front of the sofa and Mom and Dad would place their plates on TV trays, and we would watch the western shows that were so popular at the time while we ate.  Gunsmoke, Maverick, Have Gun Will Travel, Wanted, Dead or Alive, Rawhide; we watched all of them.  Dinner would vary, but the entertainment remained the same.

One night I told Dad that I wished that I could have been a cowboy so that at the end of a dusty trail I could belly up to the bar at the saloon and down shots of whiskey.  “Oh, so you think that would be a pretty nifty thing to do, eh?” Dad asked.  “Yes” I responded.  “They all look like they like it, and then they do so many cool things while they are there.”  Actually, they usually got into fights or got shot, but then there was never any blood and most of them appeared in the next installment, so it looked pretty cool to me.  “I know that I would like that too.”

Dad, as I mentioned before, kept a jug of rye whiskey on the back porch.  His favorite brand was Old Overholt, which has become a trendy drink in Portland, Oregon hipster bars these days but was a rotgut cheap whiskey back then that Brad and I called Old Overshoes.  “I can set you up with a shot right now if you want it” said Dad, and I hungrily took him up on the offer.  We retreated to the kitchen, where Dad procured a shot glass from the cupboard over the sink and then retrieved his bottle of Old Overshoes from the back porch.  Pop poured me a shot of that toxic waste – well, maybe a bit more than a true shot – and said “You know how the cowboys do it:  Bottoms up.”

Feeling as grown up as it was possible for a ten year old kid to feel I picked up that shot glass and slammed whatever quantity of rye whiskey that Dad had poured into it down the hatch, and then immediately thought that I was going to die.  That fiery fluid rolled across my taste buds like the German Wehrmacht across Poland, erupted into an apocalyptic inferno around my tonsils and landed in my stomach with the grace and delicacy of the British bombing raid on Dresden.  I dropped the glass and plopped into the first chair that I could find, hands on my knees and head down low, trying to keep from launching that shot and whatever I had eaten for dinner all over the dining room floor.  Dad laughed, but not maliciously, and asked “now what do you think of whiskey?”  I don’t remember my response, but to this day I enjoy only the most limited amounts of distilled spirits.  Whether on purpose or by accident, I think that Pop scored a home run with that lesson.

As I have written already, I had been struck by the smallness of the house.  I was bowled over by that same impression when I stepped into the living room and then looked to the right and down the old hallway to the three bedrooms and the bathroom at the end of it.  It seemed so short and tiny that I could hardly believe that it was the same hallway that I remembered.  When I lived there the hallway was the spine which connected the front and back of the house and seemed a half mile long.

And memories of that hallway began to flood back as well.  The hall was floored with wooden boards which Mom would keep clean and well waxed.  That well waxed stretch of wood floor was, in the eyes of young boys, a place where we could slide in our stocking feet from the kitchen door to the table that held our telephone at the end of the hall in the back of the house.  I can’t remember how many times we did this, but I remember well the last time that I did it.  As usual, Brad and I backed up into the living room in order to get a good running start.  Upon hitting the hallway we threw our weight forward and would slide like shuffleboard discs all the way to the back.  On this day however entropy, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, reared up its ugly head.

That hallway had been walked on and slid over for more than thirty years when we were doing our act that day, and finally the wood fibers of that flooring yielded to the insults of time and pressure.  I think that the devil had something to do with it too, but I can’t prove that.  Anyway, as I slid down that hallway a large sliver or wood finally gave way and poked its head up slightly so as to bury itself in the bottom of my foot.

I yowled like a banshee and plopped myself down on the floor right where I was.  I pulled my sock off and could see that the offending splinter was deep into the bottom of my foot.  Shuddering as I pondered the probable solution to my problem,  I then hobbled to where Mom was folding clothes on the back porch in the feeble hope that she could solve my problem in a kinder and gentler way.  Mom led me onto the sofa and laid me out on my stomach, examining my foot closely.  “No,” she said finally.  “I can’t get this one.  I’ll have to go get your father.”

I quivered at the thought.  Dad was a simple man who, in his youth, had plowed the fields of southern Georgia behind a mule.  His approach to any problem was to identify what was needed to correct that problem and then take the most direct path between points A and B.  In this case point A was a splinter in the bottom of my foot, and point B was the small blade on his pocket knife that he would use to dig it out; the pocket knife which he had named “Briar Picker.”

Fortunately for me I was young and did not know that there existed in some other corner of the world that thing known as anesthesia.  I had always known that briars or splinters or whatever else managed to get buried in the flesh were ultimately retrieved by Briar Picker; it was an axiom of life to be endured and not questioned.  And so with a heavy but resigned heart I agreed that Mom should go to the back yard and alert Dad to the need by his youngest offspring for his rustic (dare I say shade tree) surgical ministrations.  Pop came in from the back yard and inspected my punctured foot.  “Yep.  We’re going to have to go after that with Old Briar Picker.”

Dad stretched me out on the sturdy wood and metal ironing board and opened up the small, and especially sharp, blade of his knife.  I couldn’t see what he was doing and didn’t want to even if I could.  Dad dug into the flesh of the bottom of my foot, locating the splinter which had entered at nearly a 90 degree angle, and then extracted it with a pair of Mom’s tweezers.  Through it all I alternately grunted through gritted teeth or cried like a baby, but eventually Dad pronounced the operation a success and a band aid was placed over the surgical site after that site had been doused liberally with mercurochrome, and I was condemned to wear socks and shoes for the next week.  I have never slid over that damned floor or any other like it to this day.

There are many other stories that I could tell of that hallway, such as the time that I snapped a towel at my naked brother Brad who was drying himself off after a bath in front of the wall-mounted heater. Brad jumped back to avoid the snap and roasted his bare backside on the hot heater, which left marks that persisted for years.  Brad landed many well-aimed and equally well-deserved blows before Dad intervened to restore order.  And then there was the phone conversation at the end of the hall with Karen Berry, but we’ll let that one slide.

I had been in my old home for but a short time but it was clear to me that it was time to go.  I had no interest in peering into this family’s bedrooms and I could anyway declare my itch to have been scratched in spades.  I told them all how much I appreciated their hospitality and then, for the last time up to this moment, I walked out of the front door, onto the little porch, down the two steps and onto the walkway poured by Dad and me, and into my car.  I turned the engine on, waved to my new friends, took one last long and loving look at the foundation of my life, and then drove south on Highland Avenue to return to my world of 1987.  I felt full and satisfied and could state then as I can state now:  Hell yes, you can go home again!