A Market Tale, Part I

I was a young man in the days before the time of the supermarket.  My father was a career Navy man so we had access to the commissary on the naval base, and that would pretty nearly qualify as a supermarket in today’s sense of the word, but most of the other souls who resided in San Diego didn’t have access to that vast emporium of comestibles.  Instead, they did their shopping at small neighborhood markets.  The market in my neighborhood was Jim’s Market Spot, and there now follows a couple of stories about that business and also about the building which remained there after Safeway and FedMart and Albertson’s drove Jim and others like him out of business.

Jim’s was located in a brick building on the corner of Landis Street and Fairmont Avenue, about one block away from my house.  The building was not very large, but it was easily three or four times larger than were the tiny intra-neighborhood stores that dotted the residential areas of the city.  Jim’s occupied a corner on busy Fairmont and served the neighborhood with a variety of meats, vegetables, dairy and package goods that the little satellite stores simply couldn’t stock.  My mother did her monthly shopping at the commissary and we drove on weekends to get fresh vegetables and dairy from farms where  Interstates 8 and 805 now cross each other in Mission Valley.  At any time of the month however the baking soda or laundry soap or sugar or eggs would come up short and it was off to Jim’s Mom would go.

I was no stranger to Jim’s either.  I had little use for vegetables and only slightly more for soap, but Jim had a collection of candies that was more than enough to fulfill any young boy’s dreams.  Bubble gum, Pez candies, Likum Straws, jawbreakers, licorice; it was all there and more besides, and much of it could be had for a penny or, if there was a couple of baseball cards or some other prize to be found in every package, maybe a nickel.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that, in the mid 1950’s, pennies and nickels were not so easy to come by for a young kid in what I would later learn was a mid-lower income neighborhood.

That problem was temporarily corrected when, at the age of six, my father returned from a deployment into the Western Pacific.  His ship had been engaged in ferrying Vietnamese people who did not wish to live under the new communist government in the north down to the south of that country where an alternative government had been established.  During that deployment my father, who was a machinist, created a brass piggy bank from a spent three inch shell casing and put all of his spare change into it.  When he returned he gave that treasure trove to my brother Brad and I to saw open with the hacksaw in the garage and divide up.  This we did, and Brad poured that shining, jingling hoard out onto the workbench where we nearly drooled over our Midas-like unimaginable wealth.  We simply split the pile, half and half, and then retired to count our stash like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin.  The only problem is that I couldn’t count so well.  I certainly knew a penny from a nickel from a dime and so on, but I couldn’t really tell you what a penny plus a nickel plus a dime added up to.  Never mind.  It added up to a lot, and I was thrilled with my share.

So now I had to decide how to dispose of this bliss.  My friends, of course, had no end of ideas for the distribution of these bright coins, and more expensive items like ten cent sodas and twenty cent bags of Bell Brand Potato Chips were purchased and consumed at my house or the houses of Wes and Johnny and others, and still the money pile seemed great.  My next opportunity to share my largesse was unique however in that I was presented with the chance to give back to my giver.

Dad was in the Navy, as I have previously stated, and periodically had to deploy on sea duty for extended periods of time.  Upon his return my father would be engaged in all manner of projects, trying to put our house and grounds shipshape before his next deployment.  Painting, patching leaks around the windows, fixing electrical outlets or leaky faucets took up much of his time, as did weeding and repairing fences and many more such outdoor activities.  Dad was a country boy, Georgia farm-born, who preferred being outside to all things, and when he worked outside in the warm San Diego sunshine he would periodically enjoy a cold beer during a break in the action.

Usually it was Pabst Blue Ribbon or Eastside Old Tap Lager.  This was before the proliferation of micro brews and there was a much smaller choice of suds from which to select a favorite.  If anybody today was to taste a Schlitz, or Burgermeister, or Lucky or Blatz, my father’s preference for Pabst and Eastside would demonstrate that he had a discriminating palate indeed.  And when Dad peeled off a metal cap or punched a couple of holes in a can top with a tool that we affectionately called a church key, I would always be out there to get my swig to two from the jug.  Dad was of the opinion that alcohol should not be a mystery to kids, since mystery adds greatly to desirability.  He would therefore share with Brad and I when we were at home and under his direct supervision.  We were never given enough to make us at all wobbly, and I always loved taking a break and sitting with Dad on the big bench swing that he had built out of pipes and other pieces of metal that he cut, threaded and shaped at the machine shop on board his ship and sharing a beer while he told me stories.

It was on one sunny day when Dad was hacking rocks out of the cement-like adobe clay soil that made up our back yard, with the intention of starting a garden, that I had the bright idea to surprise him with a cold beer.  We had none of that commodity in the house and so I dipped into my booty and walked up to Jim’s.  I stepped into the cool, well-lit interior of the building and walked past the butcher counter, past the candy counter (with more than one sideways glance), past the butter and eggs and milk, and straight to the cooler filled with beer.

I was determined that this would not be a miserly show of generosity.  Dad usually bought six packs of stubby glass bottles or metal cans of beer to enjoy at various times of the day.  I had no interest in such a paltry indulgence for Dad’s break time pleasure and went straight to where the big boys rested on a shelf.  I don’t remember which brand I selected, but it was 32 ounces of cold joy which I could already see myself sharing with Dad on the swing.

I selected my purchase and carried it over to the checkout counter, waiting my turn behind a woman who was doing her weekly shopping.  Nobody noticed me, which was normal, and so when the woman concluded her purchase, loaded her bags in a sort of tall wire basket on wheels and rolled it out through the doors of the store, I stepped up and place my beer on the counter that stood a little less than eye level to me.

Jim turned to greet his next customer and just stopped dead in his tracks.  Before him was a quart of beer and a curly haired urchin (I hated that curly hair!) looking up at him with the innocence of a newborn babe.  Jim, who knew me and all of the other kids in the neighborhood, let out a peal of laughter.  As soon as he regained his composure he said “I can’t sell that to you Glenn.”  “Why not?” I asked.  “I want to surprise my dad with it.  He’s working in the back yard and I know that he would like it.”  “I believe you, and I’m sure that your father would be very happy to get your surprise,” Jim knew that Dad enjoyed a brew or three when working outside, “but I can’t sell it to you.  The law says that you have to be twenty one years old to buy it.”

I stood mute for a moment and then pled my case with the vigor and cunning of a pint-sized Perry Mason, but to no avail.  Jim was unwilling to lose his alcohol license or perhaps even his store to aid and abet my surprise gift to Dad, and in fact wouldn’t even let me put the quart bottle back on the shelf.  I left completely indignant and disappointed, and went straight to my mother to share this glaring example of injustice.

Mom laughed out loud, much like Jim had, and this did little to mollify my hurt feelings.  “He’s right” she told me.  “You have to be twenty one to drink beer.”  “But Dad lets me drink beer” I reasoned.  “That’s OK” she replied “As long as we’re here at home.  Out there,” she pointed out the window, “It isn’t allowed.  Dad doesn’t let you drink beer when we’re at the beach, or camping in the mountains does he?”  I had to admit that he did not, and it began to sink in that this surprise was not going to happen.  Mom, however, came to my rescue, as she did so many other times in my life.  “I’ll go up and get you your beer.  And you keep your quarter; I’ll pay for it.”

Cheap grace!  I get the surprise and don’t even have to pay for it.  I readily agreed and walked to Jim’s with Mom.  I stood by her side, and I’m certain that I must have been smirking just a little bit as she paid for the very bottle of beer that I had so recently been holding illegally in my felonious little hands.  Both Mom and Jim had another good laugh, an occurrence that was beginning to rankle considerably, but Jim patted me on my curly head, appreciative of the impulse behind my little role in this episode of life’s theater of the absurd.

We walked back home from Jim’s, with Mom holding the quart, and then I opened it up and went to the back yard to complete my irritatingly delayed surprise.  Dad, who was wielding a pick and shovel and had worked up a good sweat, looked up as I approached him and repaid my efforts with the look of surprise followed by a wide grin that I had looked forward to from the outset.  “Where did this come from?” he asked as he took a long and appreciative pull from the brown glass jug, handed it back to me, and led me over to the swing in the shade of a large Torrey Pine.  I took a swig and began to tell Dad the tale as we sat down.  He put his head back and roared with laughter, which confirmed my growing suspicion that all adults were either crazy or in on a plot to make me so.  He then put his arm around my shoulders however and thanked me for the beer, and that went a long way toward making the whole ordeal worth it.

This break took longer than most.  I shared a little more of the beer while Dad polished off the rest.  He told me stories of his boyhood in Georgia or adventures in China, the Philippines, Korea and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka),  or maybe just daydreamed with me about living in a cabin in the forest or starting a farm of our own.  It was a hard-won quart of beer, but the payoff was well worth it.


Squggle, or how the War was really won

I wrote this story just a few days before December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, and that day always makes me think of my father.  Dad was a sailor but was not stationed at Pearl on that infamous day.  I don’t recall that he ever told me where he was on December 7, 1941,  but I heard a lot about what happened to him soon after.  Dad was on a battleship for a couple of years and then on a repair ship for the last year or two of the war.  He told me many stories of those years.

Dad was a good storyteller in a time when people appreciated a good story.  I remember scruntching up next to him on our sofa and listening to the grownups talk when company would come over.  “Company” would usually mean men and women of similar age and experience as my parents, so the conversations and stories would carry a mix of the familiar and the exotic. Topics ranged from the mundane events of the day to places and events far removed from the tiny living room of our stucco house in San Diego.

Dad was a storyteller alright, but above all things he was a yarn-spinner.  When my brother Brad and I were alone with Dad and there was free time on an evening in the back yard or at a campground in the mountains east of the city Dad could whip up a story out of thin air that would have both of us silent and spellbound until the final “…and that’s how it really happened” was pronounced.  Of course, Dad’s range was a bit narrow.  He was after all a Georgia farm boy who joined the Navy to escape the Great Depression, and not a novelist with an extensive education from a great university.  He did study at a fine institution for the art of the yarn however.  Nobody tells a better story than a military man, and no branch of the military produces more or better storytellers and yarn-spinners than the U.S. Navy.

Some of my favorite stories were told to me while we were in the bathtub.  When Dad was stationed in San Diego and not at sea he would take a bath with me.  I was small enough that we could fit quite nicely in the big iron tub.  When Dad was young they also had a tub which was filled with water drawn by hand and heated on a big black wood burning stove, so multiple parties enjoying a bath together was considered a very common and practical thing to do.  Anyway, we would draw a tubful of hot water and ease into it, with Dad leaning against the sloping end and me with my back up against the straight wall at the drain end of the tub.  It was at these times that Dad would tell me about Squggle.

Squggle was a sea creature.  Dad never did tell me the exact nature and physiognomy of Squggle, preferring that I use my own imagination to fill in the details I suppose, but enough details came out during the stories to permit me to craft the image of something like an octopus.  Squggle had a particular affinity for the U.S. Navy and a decided antipathy for the navy of the Japanese Empire.  Dad never explained why that should be so, and it never occurred to me that this was anything other than perfectly normal.  And so we would literally spend hours in the bathtub, Dad spinning tales of Squggle like a master weaver making a Navajo rug or a Belgian lace and me soaking them in like some kind of sponge with an endless capacity.  Sometimes we would pull the rubber stopper and drain out half of the water which had cooled off while Squggle assisted the Navy in this battle or that, which always ended in defeat for the Japanese and another victory for the American Navy.  We would run another half-tub of hot water and Dad, if he had his game on, would launch into another tale, perhaps another story of Squggle.

I wish that I had a memory of Dad’s stories exact enough to do them justice, or perhaps the skill to weave such tales of my own.  Sadly, I have neither.  But as I sit here thinking of Dad and the hours of wonder that he blessed me with so long ago I feel compelled to try my best to capture even an echo of the beauty of his stories.  I hope that there are at least a few small parts of this story that you find entertaining, and I assure you that they are but a thin pale shadow of the tales told to me by the Master.

This story takes place at the beginning of World War II.  The forces of the Japanese Empire have celebrated one victory after another over all foes and are poised to establish unopposed dominance in Asia.  The only force which stands between Japan and it’s goal is a band of American and Filipino soldiers who are stoutly resisting the Japanese Army in The Philippines.  General McArthur is holding on by his fingernails and badly needs supplies in order to continue the fight.  Admiral Nimitz knows the danger faced by any American fleet that steams into the battle zone in order to resupply McArthur and his joint force, and has to weigh carefully whether he dares to risk it with such limited ships and men as are available after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Send us in” growls Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey.  “We can’t let those brave men be starved into surrender when there’s still fight left in ’em!”  “But think of the risk” replied Nimitz.  “If you go down to the bottom there will be nothing left between Japan and Hawaii, or the West Coast of America for that matter.”  “I know it looks chancy” says Halsey.  “But I’m giving you ten-to-one that we can push through and sink a few Japanese ships in the bargain”.

Admiral Nimitz was not entirely convinced, but there was somewhat of an assurance in Admiral Halsey’s voice and manner that gave him the courage to go ahead with the plan.

In a few days a small force under the command of Bull Halsey had been scraped together from what was left at Pearl and was steaming west, straight into the battle zone.  The sailors all knew that an important battle was coming, one that they may not come back from.  Their courage was bolstered however by the calm assurance that Halsey seemed to show.  The sailors saw Halsey stroll about the deck, smoking and chatting with the sailors and staring fixedly toward the west, toward the battle that waited.  Halsey seemed calm as he scaned the horizon, and also seemed to study the ripples which appeared in the evening just as the red sun began to extinguish itself in the western waters.  The men noticed those ripples shortly after putting out from Pearl and at first thought that they might be enemy submarines, but the admiral gazed at those ripples and showed no sign of concern.  Soon some of the men decided that they were American submarines which only surfaced at night, while others ceased to think of them at all.  On and on they steamed, growing ever closer to The Philippines and ever closer to danger.

Admiral Yamamoto knew that they were coming.  Spies and other intelligence, plus his knowledge of America and Americans, told him that this patchwork fleet would be coming to bring supplies to the embattled fighters on The Philippines sooner or later, and he was ready for them.  One mighty battleship, three cruisers and fifteen destroyers were waiting in the islands, looking for any sign of the Americans.  They did not know which route the Americans would take, but they stationed themselves so that they could move quickly to intercept no matter which final approach Halsey chose.  The Japanese were alert, well trained, and ready for a fight.

Halsey checked his maps and charts and chose a path between two islands.  The clouds that stacked up against the peak of the mountain on the island to the right would give him cover from attacking Japanese planes and the narrow, shallow channel between the two islands would give the Japanese little room to maneuver if they chose to engage in that spot.  General McArthur and his army was just a hundred miles further west, and if they could sneak through this gap between the islands they would be at their destination by morning and could say “mission accomplished”,  for the moment at least.

Admiral Yamamoto knew their plan however.  Submarines had reported the Americans’ course and seaplanes had dipped into and out of those cloud banks and confirmed the Americans’ position and heading.  Yamamoto had placed the battleship and cruisers with their huge naval guns on the right and destroyers with their deadly torpedos on the left.  Halsey was steaming right into a trap.

The bright sun began to glow a softer red as the day slipped into evening and Halsey steered straight into that channel between the islands.  All the while he stared intently into the west and also into the water.  All of the sailors on deck went about their duties with one eye on their work and the other on Halsey, but one sailor near the bow who was mopping near the anchor chain hole look instead out to sea.  The sailor wasn’t sure, but he thought that he saw what looked lie a large, gray tube of something with a blunt end, glistening in the dancing waves and deepening shadows of late afternoon, and pointing to the far side of the island, towards the left.                                                                                                              That was the smaller island of the two and it had no high peak.  As a consequence there were no clouds banked up against a mountain to obscure the view, which made it strategically insane to steam in that direction.  Admiral Halsey noted this phenomenon too, and ordered the fleet to change course to the left and swing around the backside of that island anyway.  As he did so he ordered all of his sailors to get ready for battle.  The little fleet began to swing around behind the island and come in from the south.  As it did so Admiral Halsey noticed two things; the rear of the Japanese destroyer group began to come into view and the ripples which had accompanied the fleet all the way from Pearl were now gone.  Halsey allowed himself a small smile before he set his famous battle frown, with lower jaw jutting forward as if daring defeat to take a swing at him.

The transport ships fled on towards the hungry troops to the west as the small fleet of cruisers and destroyers opened fire on the unsuspecting Japanese destroyers.  Near misses were soon followed by devastating hits and huge explosions began to rock the enemy ships while fires began to gnaw at their vitals.  Quickly there were eleven destroyers sinking or burning beyond control while the remaining four fled towards the presumed safety of the Japanese battleship and cruisers.  Halsey pressed on, as if ignorant of or indifferent to the massive guns of the Japanese ships that were even at that moment being trained on his fleet.

Yamamoto could not believe that the American ships would sail straight into his guns, and he gave orders to fire at will.  The mammoth turrets of the battleship swung towards the Americans and the barrels raised up to train their lethal aim on the advancing prey.  The Japanese fire control officer barked his orders and shells the size of cars were rammed into the the guns with a huge charge of powder behind it to propel those lethal packages against the American ships.

Just as the officer prepared to scream “fire” a huge tentacle rose out of the water which was coiled around a boulder brought up from the bottom of the sea.  With a quick movement that tentacle stuffed the boulder into one of the gun barrels while other tentacles pushed the ship ever so slightly out of alignment with the American ships.  The officer in charge cried “fire” and all of the powder charges were ignited.  Eight of the gigantic shells were hurled through the pacific Ocean sky to splash down harmlessly into the water well away from the American ships.  The ninth gun however,  the one into which the boulder had been stuffed, blew up igniting the rest of the powder charges in the turret, destroying the turret and taking with it most of the bow of the doomed battleship.  As the ship began to take on water the crew became much more interested in beaching the damaged vessel on the nearby island shore than continuing a fight with the Americans.

The Japanese cruisers continued to blaze away and succeeded in sinking one and damaging a few other American ships, but the Japanese sailors soon saw that huge tentacles had begun to pluck their shipmates off of the decks and some destroyers were being pulled towards nearby rocks.  All the while the American ships drove into their midst with guns blazing and torpedos churning through the water and in a very short time the two surviving Japanese cruisers and one of the destroyers were speeding north as fast as their engines could propel them, carrying Admiral Yamamoto away to lick his wounds and plan to fight another day.

The American ships were busy the rest of the evening putting out their fires and pulling survivors from both navies out of the water.  As the last glow of the day barely illuminated the waters of that now-silent battleground Admiral Halsey gazed intently into the waters.  Then, just before the Pacific sky slipped from the dim light of evening into the pitch dark of night, the waters foamed and bubbled as a giant gray shape rose slightly above the surface.  A great eye, alien but somehow friendly, blinked a salute to Admiral Halsey.  The Admiral, in his turn, lifted his cap and made a small bow to that great shape, and it slipped back below the surface to rest and wait for the next time that it’s help was needed.

At this time I would beg for another story, but even my father would eventually tire and declare that it must end for the night.  After completing our baths he would climb out to towel off and prepare for bed.  I would always pull the rubber drain stopper and loved to watch as the water would whirlpool down the drain.  Lower, lower, lower it would go until at last the final inch of water would begin it’s exit and the whirlpool would give way to a sucking sound, a sound that I never connected to my father’s stories, a sound only pointed out to me decades later by my brother after Dad had passed away.  A sound that was a lot like “squggle, squggle, squggle”.

Chasing Thunderstorms

In the 1950’s when I was growing up in San Diego it was in the midst of a very dry weather cycle there.  Our stated average annual rainfall was about 10 inches, but I don’t remember ever getting that much rain until the 1970’s when all of the county’s reservoirs, most of which had boasted of little more than puddles at the bases of the dams for as long as I could remember, were filled to overflowing.  During those dry years I loved to see and get out into that infrequent novelty that was rain, and took every opportunity to do so.

One thing in particular that we enjoyed was the occasional thunderstorm that built up over the Laguna Mountains to the east of the city.  Any given day would begin as usual, but on very special days by late morning big, puffy clouds could be seen boiling up over the mountains and my father, brother Brad and I would glance knowingly at each other and it was game on.  My mother would see that look in our eyes and know what was coming too.  Mom had the misfortune of being the only one in our family with good sense, in that case at least, and she knew that what we were about to do was sheer idiocy and that she would more than likely lose her family that day.  That my mom was wrong was owed more to luck than brains.  When the thunderstorms rose up over the mountains Dad, Brad and I would love nothing more than to drive up into the mountains and chase them down.

My father had a 1950 Studebaker Champion in those days, which was the finest automobile ever made for one overgrown kid and his two witless sons to chase storms in.  It was big and comfortable and seemed to be able to go places that a Jeep wouldn’t attempt.  My father bought that car with a total of two miles on it:  the two miles that factory workers drove it to be certain that it actually ran before they sold it.  Dad bought the thing at the factory in South Bend, Indiana, and drove it on Route 66 most of the way back home.  From that time onward that car purred like a kitten; a large, bulbous, asthmatic kitten, until the day he traded it in for a ’63 Mercury.

We would climb into that iron stagecoach and head in the direction of the largest of the thunderheads knowing that the picture would change by the time that we arrived on the mountain.  On the way my father would tell stories about his childhood in Georgia or adventures in the Navy.  I remember one story in particular of him plowing behind a mule when his plow bit into a bumblebee hive.  As Dad told it, a buzzing, swarming, angry cloud of bees boiled up out of that rent in the ground and split in two, administering justice equally to mule and child alike.  The mule bolted one way, dragging a rapidly disintegrating plow behind him, while Dad ran with the feet of Mercury to a nearby pond into which he dove, ignoring the possibility of water moccasins, and stayed under water as long as he could until he would have to breach the surface, pay for it with one or two new stings on his increasingly lumpy noggin, take a deep breath and then submerge for another while and hope that the bees felt compensated or bored enough to move on.

Up we would climb into the the mountains and the center of the storm would seem to move first here, then there, then somewhere else.  Dad was a sort of prototype for the G.P.S.  He knew main roads, back roads, private roads and darned near no roads all through those mountains.  We would wind or creep along those trails until he began to close in on our prey.  Usually the first thing that we noticed was the wind.  Dad told us that as rain was falling it pushed the air out from under it and that is how we get the big winds from thunderstorms.  I think that is true, but I couldn’t swear to it.  Then we would get the lightening and thunder and the first drops of rain.

I am always amazed at how inadequate a word “thunder” is.  If the lightening strike is eight to ten miles away “thunder” may be adequate I suppose, but if the lightening is only a mile away or less “THUNDER!” is more appropriate, or “ARMAGEDDON” maybe, or even “THE MOLECULES AND ATOMS FROM WHICH YOU BODY WAS COBBLED TOGETHER BY THE CREATOR WILL BE RETURNED TO THEIR RANDOM PRIMEVAL STATE”.  The effect of thunder at such close range would be staggering to a person with an IQ approaching room temperature.  Fortunately for us we were not encumbered in that fashion and prepared ourselves for our plunge into the maelstrom.

The aforementioned Studebaker came with one particularly convenient feature.  The hood would begin in the middle at an apex and slope down towards the sides of the car where the headlights were housed in what looked like two torpedos on either side of the front.  The depression where the hood and those torpedos met made for a perfect saddle where two kids could sit while a deranged adult drove slowly, never more than 5 miles per hour, through the heart of the storm.

The experience was overwhelming and exhilarating.  The lightening would strike all around us; frequently we could smell the ozone.  The rain would sometimes come straight down and sometimes blow right into our faces.  My brother and I would be ecstatic and squeal with unrestrained delight with every crash of lightening, and I say “crash of lightening” because it was often so close that the bolt and the boom were simultaneous, and at every wave of water that would pelt us from above or in front or wherever like a tsunami washing over a low-lying atoll.  Dad would stay away from the low places because he knew of the danger of flash floods.  Somehow the danger from a gazillion volts of lightening didn’t occur to him or to us either.

When it was over, which it was all too quickly, we would pile back into the “Studie” wet to the bone and shivering like the convicted.  Dad had blankets for us to sit on and cover up in, and he would run the heater full blast until the windows were fogged up from the water evaporating from our clothes.

We would make our way to the nearest restaurant; the Julian Cafe or the Alpine Tavern or that little place in Santa Ysabel, and get hamburgers and french fries and a coke, and leave wet stains on their chairs when we departed to return home to our mother who could scarcely believe that her family still lived.  Of course, Brad and I were fast asleep by the time we got home; sleeping the sleep of the innocents.