Tag Archives: Life

The Garden Chapter XXIII

Charlie was sitting in the fourth row in the auditorium, two rows in front of Maureen and Jack and five seats to their left.  He had arrived early and waited impatiently in front of Loolooska High School in Gresham, on the Oregon side of the river, watching as proud mothers and fathers and bored siblings accompanied a herd of boys and girls who were wearing suits and dresses.  No doubt, those children would provide the afternoon’s entertainment.  Charlie had continually scanned the incoming crowd, wondering how he would react when he saw his ex wife and son, and how they would react when they saw him.  At last, as teachers began to lead a number of the younger students backstage, and parents and other family members began to file into the building in order to find their seats, the familiar faces of Jack and Maureen appeared at the side of the auditorium, walking toward him.

Charlie’s heart skipped a beat or two when he saw them.  Jack was taller than his mother, and probably almost as tall as Charlie.  He walked with a confident air, almost a swagger, and his face projected a nonchalance that suggested that this was a day just like any other.  Maureen walked by his side and, once she saw Charlie, locked her face into an expressionless mask.  Jack, once he made eye contact, allowed something that looked like a smirk to play across his face.

“Oh, God in heaven” Charlie thought.  “This is the biggest fucking mistake of my life.”  He felt an urge to turn around and run, not walk, away from this place, but he thought of D’Andra, LuAnn, Billy and Rachael, who had all supported his decision to proceed with the project.

And also about Carolyn.   “You don’t seem to be yourself tonight” She had told him after he met with her at four o’clock the previous Wednesday.  “Is everything alright?”

They had retired to an Indian restaurant after concluding their business, which consisted of a medium-sized and somewhat decrepit strip mall that was for sale at a very good price.  Carolyn had made an offer which, if accepted, would give her the equity necessary to secure a loan that would allow for the old and worn half of of the mall to be torn down and replaced and the rest renovated, with the whole of it potentially turning into a very comfortable income property.

Carolyn’s instincts were acute, as usual, and Charlie’s experience filled in the gaps here and there and allowed Carolyn the comfort of confidently making what she could consider a very good deal.  They were now celebrating the potential acquisition that could make her very well off, if all things went according to plan, and provide a project which, along with the apartment remodel, could keep Charlie’s new crew busy for the rest of summer and fall.

“Well, not really” Charlie answered.  “It’s beginning to sink in that I’m going to be seeing my son and ex wife in five days.  The prospect of that stirs up memories and poses ‘what if’s’ that I sort of wish I didn’t have to think about.”

Carolyn thought about that, shifting gears from her business and it’s potential triumph and focusing her attention on Charlie.  “Oh, I forgot about that.  I imagine it’s a very hard thing to prepare for.  There’s nothing that I know of that I can say to give you comfort about this, so I’ll just say that I am in your corner.  I hope that this turns out well for you.”

“Thank you” Charlie replied.  “That means a lot.  I’m more nervous and confused than I thought I’d be.  I really don’t know what in the world is about to happen, or how it will affect my life.”

“Well, I hope that it results in you getting close to your son.  That’s the point, isn’t it?”

“Yes” Charlie agreed.  “That’s the point.  That’s the ‘main thing’ as one friend described it.  But it’s become more complicated, maybe.”

“More complicated?” Carolyn asked.  “What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that this process, which was intended to put me back into a relationship with Jack, will by necessity put me into some sort of contact with my ex wife.”

Carolyn waited for Charlie to elaborate, which he did not do.  She pushed a piece of eggplant around in a pile of savory rice until she decided that he wasn’t going to complete his thought.  “So, Charlie, what’s the matter with being in contact with your ex wife?”

It was Charlie’s turn to push a piece of chicken around in the few vegetables that remained on his plate.  “Maybe I should just lay it out for her to see the whole picture” he thought, but then he thought “No, are you crazy?  You might trash a very productive partnership!  But what about your heart, fool?  You’ve bullshit yourself your entire life.  Why don’t you be real for a change?  Because ‘real’ can blow shit up like an atomic bomb!  Can’t you ever leave well enough frikkin’ alone?”

     The battle raged in Charlie’s mind and the effort of it played on his face.  Carolyn put down her fork and sat silently, waiting for whatever was to come from the struggle going on in Charlie’s agitated mind.  At last he put down his own fork, drained the Vietnamese Tiger Beer, and looked directly into Carolyn’s eyes.

“I’m dealing with the possibility that Maureen might want to return into marriage with me, for Jack’s sake, of course.”

Carolyn’s face didn’t change; not one iota.  Or did it?  If anything, it set a little more rigidly, but that could just be his imagination.  After a moment she spoke.

“That would be good, wouldn’t it Charlie?  I mean, putting a family back together is usually thought to be good.”

“Yeah, that’s what they say” he replied.  “And that’s what I would do, if it came to that.  For Jack’s sake, at least.”

Silence fell again.  Charlie fidgeted with his empty beer bottle and Carolyn caught the waiter’s eye.  With hand signals she called for refills of their drinks.

“For Jack’s sake” she echoed.  “Yes, Jack is the point of all of this, isn’t he?”

“Yes” Charlie replied.  “He is, and that’s what makes this wonderful and what makes it hard, too.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“I mean, it’s wonderful because I set out to do this thing and, against a whole lot of odds, it looks like it’s about to happen; about to start, anyway.  Of course, I have no idea how it will progress beyond this Sunday, or if it will progress at all, for that matter, but I’ve learned that I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it.”

Charlie stopped talking when the waiter brought their drinks, and then began to fidget with the new full bottle of beer rather than continue his train of thought.  After a short period of silence Carolyn took the initiative to get the conversation rolling again.  “And what about the hard part?” she asked.  “As if any of it hasn’t been hard.”

Charlie stopped picking at the label and put the bottle down on the table.  He drew a little cleansing breath and the looked again directly at Carolyn.

“I was given some good advice when I began this project” he said to her.  “‘What’ll I say to him, or to Maureen, if I even get in touch with them?’ I asked some people.  I believe that you were one of those people.  ‘Tell them the truth’ was the good advice that those people gave me.  I have tried to take that advice so far and will continue to do so.  Now, I’m going to continue that policy with you.  I hope that this doesn’t damage our relationship, but telling any less than the truth wouldn’t enhance it, so here goes.

I would be wise to renew my marriage with Maureen if that extremely unlikely opportunity should ever present, for all of the obvious reasons.  It would be very painful for me to do that however for the single reason that I feel myself becoming more and more attracted to you.”

Charlie felt his face turning red at this point, but he pressed on.  “I feel sort of like a seventeen year old kid just now.  Forgive me if I’m stumbling a little about this, but it’s hard for me to feel like I’m saying it correctly.  I don’t want to let ambiguity be the guiding principle however.  I don’t know how you feel about this, or me for that matter, but I can’t pretend that what I feel isn’t real and I won’t lie about it.  I hope that our relationship can grow to more than it is now, but at the same time I also hope that if that’s not possible, then it won’t change to become something less.

But a renewal of my marriage to Maureen, which I repeat is highly unlikely under any circumstance but which I would nevertheless do, and do with a whole heart for the sake of my son, would end even the possibility that I might further develop a relationship with you, if such a thing is possible, and that thought is very hard for me to deal with.

So there it is; the plain truth.  I know, it’s not very romantic.  I’ve daydreamed about telling you this in a manner something more like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, but I’m afraid that’s just about the best that I can do.”

Charlie sat back in the booth, picked up his beer and took a long drink, trying to lubricate his throat which had suddenly become as parched as sand.  Carolyn said nothing.  Charlie felt like fidgeting with his beer bottle again but fought the urge.  Carolyn raised her glass to her own lips and took a sip of her drink.  At last Charlie couldn’t restrain himself any longer and began to pick at the label of his beer.  Carolyn reached over the table and gently removed the bottle from his hands and set it down.  Charlie looked up over the bottle at Carolyn as she began to speak.

“Charlie, that’s the most romantic thing that I’ve ever heard.”  He looked confused, and she then continued.  “You just told me that you care about me and want to have a relationship with me, but your love for your son and sense of duty to him could force you to possibly give up a chance for that to happen.  Oh, my God!  You’ve told me that you have feelings for me, and only the power of a man’s love for his son can prevent you from hoping to see what those feelings for me could grow into; that you would give up your hope of happiness with me only for the love of your son.  Charlie, a girl could live a couple of lifetimes and never hear such an expression from such a good man as you are!  Cary Grant never said anything like that to Grace Kelly, and I know this for a fact.  I’ve seen every movie that either one of them made and I never heard anything like that.

Charlie, I have been developing feelings for you as well, and that is something that surprises me very much.  I could not imagine somebody taking the place of my husband.  In fact, the thought is still difficult to comprehend.  But I will put those feelings that I have for you on hold indefinitely, and I don’t foresee any change in our current relationship – business or friendly – as this situation develops.  Your faithfulness to your son is the most important thing here, and I will support that with a whole heart.”

Disappointment, desire, relief, and hope all danced an intricate minuet on Charlie’s face as he tried to digest what Carolyn had just told him, but while his face was busy, his mind struggled to put two coherent thoughts together.  Carolyn, at last, took pity on him.  She reached back across the table, took Charlie’s hand, and gently wrapped his fingers around the bottle of beer.  “Here” she said.  “Drink this before it gets warm, and let’s talk more about a schedule for the project in Orchards.

Charlie sat in his auditorium seat, thinking alternately of Carolyn’s comments and what he might say to Jack after the recital.  That event had progressed from young children playing pieces barely more advanced than ‘Chopsticks’ to a very simple version of Für Elise.  Jack, being one of the two or three most advanced students, would be performing at or near the end of the recital, which gave Charlie time to let his thoughts drift from Carolyn to other things.

He reflected that Maureen had not exuded one bit of warmth when she and Jack walked up to Charlie in front of the auditorium.  “Hello, Maureen” he had said to her.  “It’s good to see you again.”  And then he turned to Jack and observed “You’re as tall as your mother!  It’s really good to see you again, too.”

Jack had said nothing in reply.  Maureen merely said “It will start soon.  We have seats already.  You had probably better get one before the good ones are gone.”

She and Jack then turned and walked into the building, and Charlie was left standing under the sun to decide if he would follow them in or simply walk back to his truck.  The truck lost that debate, but only by the barest of margins, and now he was in his seat close to the stage.  He had no idea where Maureen and Jack were sitting at the time and did not immediately look around to find out.  Almost by accident he had noticed that they were not far away.

Charlie eventually found that he was enjoying the music as it got more advanced, and he began to think more about that than of his tangled and tentative relations with Jack and Maureen and, well, life in general.  Billy had introduced him to Chopin, and now he was listening to music at night that had been composed by a variety of people.  Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven he had heard of before, but Borodin, Lizst, Enesco and others had created music that was healing to Charlie’s soul.  The music that he was beginning to hear this day was progressing in complexity, and Charlie gave it more and more of his attention.

At a point half way through the recital an intermission was scheduled.  After it was announced from the stage, people began to rise and head towards restrooms and a concession area in the lobby of the auditorium.  Charlie looked towards Jack and Maureen’s seats and found them to be empty.  Feeling like he could use a cup of coffee, he left his seat and joined the throng.  “I could use a shot of Billy’s whisky more” Charlie thought, “but coffee will have to do for now.”

The line for coffee was not long and soon Charlie had a cup in his hand.  The coffee was free, with only a donation requested.  He sipped the coffee and decided quickly that the cost was an accurate reflection of the quality, and he stepped outside in order to find someplace where he could discreetly dump it on the ground.  To his surprise, he came face to face with Maureen.

They both stopped dead in their tracks, neither one speaking a word.  Seconds passed, and Charlie decided that this whole affair was not going well, and that it would have to change or he would withdraw from it altogether.  “This coffee is awful” he finally said lamely.  “There’s not much that I can’t drink, but this fits right into the middle of that category.”

He turned to empty his cup on the ground by some bushes.  “If she’s gone when I turn back around, I’m walking to the truck and getting the hell out of here” he thought.  He took longer to pour out his coffee than was necessary, and then he turned back around.  Maureen was still standing there.  Charlie drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, and then stepped back in front of his ex wife.

“Maureen” he said.  “I’ll not pretend that this isn’t awkward, well, actually more than awkward, for all of us.  I admit, I thought about saying how nice it was to see you, how good you look, or ask how you’ve been doing, blah blah blah.  You know, all of that small talk stuff.  I guess I did that a little when I mentioned how tall Jack has become.  You probably already knew that Jack is growing and didn’t need my observations to confirm that fact, so that was a little bit stupid and predictable.

Well, what I really want to say, to you at least, is that my intentions are exactly what I said they are.  I am not here to pry into your life; of either of your lives, for that matter.  I just want to find out if there’s some way that I can still be a father to Jack.  If this is going to cause pain or problems to you – either of you – just tell me and I will drive away right now.”

Maureen was silent as she digested what Charlie had said to her.  At last her face softened, or so it seemed to Charlie, and she replied.  “Charlie, I’m sorry that you didn’t get a better reception from me.  I can’t speak for Jack, but it hurt more seeing you than I thought it would.  I don’t know how he felt; he’s been a little bit of a closed door to me for some time now.  I think that it’s hard for him too however.  We cried a lot together before he began to draw away from me, so I think it must have been hard for him today too.”

Charlie thought about Billy’s metaphor of putting fingers into bleeding arteries.  Here was one standing in front of him, and he wondered what to do.  How could he put pressure over the wound?  It occurred to him suddenly that he was not there as a medic; the metaphor only went so far.  He couldn’t fix everything, so he just had to plow ahead and do the best that he could.

“We’ve all been through hell” Charlie began, “and I wish that I had a magic wand that I could use to fix things up.  I’m all out of magic wands though.  I’ve just barely held myself together until last spring, when things started to get turned around for me.  I don’t really know what I’m doing or even how I’ll do it.  IF I get a chance to do it.  But I feel strongly that I have a duty to fulfill towards Jack, and that by doing that duty I might generate some health for both of us.  Maybe for all of us, actually.”

“Maybe so” Maureen replied.  “I came to believe something like that might be possible, or I wouldn’t have agreed to this.  But I’m being cautions,  I don’t know you anymore.  Not really.  We’ve been apart for two years, and more than two years if we want to be honest.  Perhaps you are a different person now.  It seems to me like you might be, but even so, who is that different person?  The last one messed me up pretty good, so I’ll not be too quick to get entangled with the new version.”

“That makes sense” Charlie said.  “It hurts like hell, but it makes sense.  You are wise to approach this in such a way.  I’ll do my best to be as open and honest about who I am as I can, but for now we probably had better return to the recital.  I don’t want to be stepping on some proud parent’s toes when their Johnny or Susie is playing ‘Moon River.’”  Maureen smiled at that and agreed.”

“Where is Jack, anyway?” Charlie asked as they reentered the building.

“He went backstage” she replied.  “He calls it ‘putting his game face on.’  He’s serious about his music and gets into some kind of a zone when he plays.  I think it’s the place where he goes to get away from things.”

“Oh, I never even picked up a program!” Charlie said.  “Is he playing last?”

“Next to last” Maureen answered.  “There’s a girl who he competes with who’s last today.  They battle for last place – which is first place really – at every recital that they both attend, and it’s about a fifty-fifty proposition.  She’s really good, and gives him a run for his money.”

‘What’s he playing today?”

“It’s called a nocturne.”

“Nocturne?” Charlie asked.  “By Chopin?”

“Yes” Maureen answered.  “I’m surprised that you know of him.”

“Yeah, I’ve been listening to some music lately.  My roommate is quite a fan.  Do you know which Nocturne?”

“Not really.  I’ve got a program here though.”  Maureen unfolded a single sheet of paper that she had stowed in her purse and looked on the back.  “It’s Number 2”

“Opus 9” Charlie added.

“Yes” Maureen replied, clearly astonished by Charlie’s familiarity with the music.  “How did you know – – -, well, we had better get back to our seats” she said.

Charlie returned to his seat feeling much better about the way that things were progressing.  Maureen had opened up and allowed civil conversation.  That was probably enough for one visit by itself.  Now it was a matter of waiting for the recital to be finished and then beginning the process with Jack.  Charlie sat back in his chair and let the music play through his head, simply enjoying the increasingly advanced pieces, mistakes and all.  “I wonder what that girl will play” Charlie thought.

That girl played ‘Malagueña,’ a piece of music composed by a Cuban pianist, and it was of sufficient complexity that it deserved to be played last.  The young woman performed flawlessly and everyone, including Jack, rose to their feet to give her a standing ovation when she struck the concluding chords with authority.  Charlie made contact with Maureen’s eyes and signaled that he would meet them outside.  He then shuffled along at the speed of the herd of parents, performers and their siblings, and finally found Jack and Maureen waiting outside.

“That was amazing, Jack”  Charlie said as he walked up to them.  “I haven’t heard that piece played better.  You really nailed it.”

“Oh, really?” Jack replied.  “So you’ve been listening to a lot of Chopin lately?”

“Yeah, I’ve been listening to a little” he replied, overlooking the snark in Jack’s voice.  “Hey, let’s go and get some food.  Did you say The Iguana Feliz?” Charlie asked Maureen.

“Yes, it’s just down Grandison, about seven or eight blocks and on the right.”

“I know where it is.  I’ll see you all there in a few minutes, OK?”

They agreed to that and Charlie walked to his truck.  He fired it up and drove it slowly out of the parking lot, inching it along in order to avoid running over any of the little people who were prone to dash about once released from the agony of having to listen to brothers or sisters and others play the piano on a perfectly beautiful Northwest day.  He waited for a break in the traffic and bolted into a left turn onto Grandison, through a gap that was smaller than safety would normally allow.  He was anxious to get to the restaurant and let the process begin.  Soon he was parked and walking into the front door of the restaurant.  The place was crowded but, to his surprise, Jack and Maureen already had a booth.

“I can’t believe that you beat me here” Charlie said as he walked up to them.  “You must have let Jack drive.”

The quip fell flat.  “I’m fourteen, Charlie.  I don’t drive yet.”

Charlie was set back by Jack’s remark.  He had meant it as a harmless joke, and he didn’t particularly like being called by his first name by his son.  “Pick the battles that count” he told himself, “if you have to pick any battles at all.”

“I know, son.  It’s just a joke.”  He slid onto the bench seat next to Maureen.  He was here to connect with Jack, if that was ppossible, so he wanted to face him.  “So, what’s good here?”

Jack was silent, and Maureen spoke to fill the awkward silence.  “Jack likes the carnitas tacos.”

“What do you like?   Charlie asked of Maureen.

“I’m fond of the fish tacos” she replied.

“So, can I order those things for you two?” Charlie asked, looking first at Jack, then at Maureen.  Jack shrugged his shoulders, which Charlie took to be at least a ‘why not,’ and Maureen nodded her assent.

The waitress came to take their orders and Charlie said “Tres tacos de carnitas para el joven, dos de pescado para la señora, y para mi chili verde.”  The waitress was obviously pleased to hear the Anglo ordering their meal in her native tongue.  Charlie ordered the drinks and she swished away through to crowd to place their order.

“I didn’t know that you spoke Spanish” Maureen said.

“Yeah, a little.  I worked with a lot of Hispanic construction teams and learned enough to get by.

“That was pretty awesome” Jack said.  I’d like to learn some Spanish.  Maybe next year.

“I find it to be useful, even a little bit fun”  Charlie replied.  “And getting back to what we were talking about at the recital, that was a very good job on that nocturne.  I’ve listened to most of them; Chopin’s Nocturnes, I mean.  I downloaded a set performed by Brigitte Engerer.  You heard of her?”  Jack shock his head.  “She was a Tunisian born French pianist, and I love the touch that she has with Chopin.  You know, that girl rocked Malagueña, but the touch that you displayed in Number 2 was every bit as deft as the passion that she expressed through her piece.  I’m really impressed.”

“Wow!” Jack said, and this time without a bit of snark in his voice.  “When DID you start liking music?”

“I’ve always liked music” Charlie lied, and then he remembered his friends’ advice that he be nothing but truthful with Jack and Maureen.  “But I’ve come to appreciate it a lot more lately, since I moved in with my roommate.  I was always the big shot contractor, but now I have time to cultivate a taste for other things.  Billy turned me on to classical music and I’m really enjoying it.  Did you know that Chopin was Polish, but that he didn’t have a country?”

Jack was beginning to warm up to the thread of the conversation, while Maureen sat in her corner of the booth with surprise all over her face.

“What do you mean he didn’t have a country?  He was Polish.

“Yes, there were Polish people but there wasn’t a Poland then.  It had been divided up between Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  A lot of Poles fought for Napoleon, hoping that he would restore Poland, but he didn’t do it.  While the Poles were out in their own wilderness, their musicians, writers and poets spoke, played and sang to the heart of the people.  Chopin was one of the greatest of these.”

“That’s awesome, Dad!” Jack said, and then continued the conversation.  “Napoleon screwed a lot of people over.  Beethoven wrote his Third Symphony in honor of him, but changed his mind about it before it was finished.  I don’t know why.”

“Me neither, but maybe it was because Beethoven was German, and the Germans were one of the people who were sticking it to the Poles.”

“Naw” Jack replied.  “There wasn’t really a Germany yet, and Beethoven was from one of the western German states while Prussia was in the east, although he did die in Vienna, so maybe it was an Austrian thing.”

“You know, you may be right about that.  The Austrians turned on Napoleon first chance that they got.”

“So, Jack asked.  “How come you know all of this stuff?  This doesn’t have much to do with building houses and collecting rents.”

“You’re right.  Music is not at all like building houses and collecting rents.  But I don’t do as much of that as I used to, although I still am busy in the trades.  I’ve just found that there’s value in slowing down and enjoying some of the other things of life.  Besides, my roommate is pretty smart and knows a lot about this stuff.”

“Who’s your roommate?” Jack asked.  “Is she pretty?”

Charlie could see Maureen’s face redden at that moment, but he spoke quickly to defuse any possible reaction from her.  “HE’s really not pretty at all.  Well, I guess he’s kind of cute, in a G.I. Joe sort of way.  I guess you’d have to ask a woman about that.  He’s a veteran that I met through another friend.  He was wounded in Iraq and is getting ready to go back to school.  He’s one of the smartest guys I know.”

“He was in Iraq?  Cool!  I bet he has some crazy stories to tell.  I think maybe I want to join the Army when I’m eighteen.  Or maybe the Marines.”

Charlie thought for a moment about Walt and Billy, and about the bombs and machine guns and prisoners with most of their heads eaten away.  He thought about their trip to the forest to try and see some elk that nearly turned into a gun battle between a game warden and two damaged soldiers.  Charlie wanted to shout “Are you crazy?”  Instead, he said “He has stories to tell, but he is not very quick to tell them.  Maybe it would be good for you to hear some of them sometimes, so that you have a more clear picture of what the military can be about.  Military service is honorable, but there’s a cost.  Maybe some time, if your mother approves of course,” he nodded at Maureen, “I can introduce you to Billy.  Whether he tells you any stories or not, I can’t predict.”

“That would be awesome, Dad” Jack said.  “So, do you have a girlfriend?”

The question caught Charlie almost flat-footed.  “Who taught you to be so direct?” he asked his son with a laugh.

“You did” Jack replied.  “You never know when everything’s going to go to pot, so I don’t have time for B.S.”

“Touché” Charlie said.  “And ‘NO,’ I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“A boyfriend?”

Maureen turned bright red this time, but Charlie laughed out loud.  “No, pipsqueak” he said with a big grin.  This was like talking with the guys at the Smelly Socks.  “I don’t have a boyfriend.  Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?  Or a boyfriend, for that matter.  I’m not judging.”

“No to both, but I’ve got the serious hots for Maria.”

“Maria?”

“The girl who played the last piece” Maureen interjected, trying to become a part of the conversation.

“Ah, I’ll bet that she knows that.  It explains the passion in her playing.  She was showing off and telling you how she feels.  Well, you’re going to fall flat as a pancake if you try to woo her with your morose Nocturne.”

“Opposites attract” Jack replied.  “And besides, I have a little ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ in me.”

The food arrived at this time and banter and serious talk about music and girlfriends and wounded veterans was spaced around bites of the quite delicious food.  After they were finished eating Jack announced that he was going to walk home, as they lived not far from the restaurant.  Jack rose out of his seat and Charlie got up too.

“Jack” Charlie began. “It’s been really good to see you.  If you are OK with it, I would like to stay in touch with you and your mother.  I’ll be going fishing with Blly when his schooling permits, and if you’d like to speak with him I’m sure that he could tell you a lot about being in the Army, although once again, he may not share too many stories about his actual service.”

“Yeah, that would be cool, Dad.  You know, you’re all right.  I didn’t think you would be, but you are.”

Charlie nearly choked on that.  He could feel his eyes beginning to fill and had to take a moment to make sure that his voice didn’t waver on him.  “I’ve been learning how to hug people and I would like to give you one.  If that’s too weird for you, a handshake would be fine.”

Jack extended his hand.  Charlie grasped it and, to his surprise, Jack pulled him into an embrace.  “It’s cool, Dad.  People do hug.”  After a long embrace, Jack stepped back, said “See ya,” and walked out the door.  Charlie watched him leave and then turned to Maureen.  He sat in Jack’s seat so that he could face her.

“Well, I didn’t believe that it would work out that well” he said.

“Nor I” Maureen agreed.  “He’s not been that open for a while.  I know the music thing really spoke to him.”

“I hoped that it would.  I learned a lot from my roommate, about music and a lot of other things.  He really is a pretty smart guy.”

“Well, I hope that you discourage this Army thing that he brought up.  I don’t need to see my son march off to a war.”

“Don’t worry.  That’s the last thing that I want.  Believe me, Billy will say nothing to make it look glamorous.  He got torn up pretty badly, and in some ways he still is.”

“Well, that’s good.  I mean that he won’t encourage Jack, not about him being torn up.  We can talk about future contact later.  I have to get going now myself.  Oh, but there’s something else that I want to bring up before I go.”

“Yes?” he asked.  “What is that?”

“Uh, well, I am fine with you and Jack getting connected.  I really am.  And I can see that you are changed.  You seem to be in a better place than I’ve seen you in a long time.”  She laughed at that.  “Not that I’ve seen you in a long time.”  Then she became serious again.

“Charlie, I want you to know up front that I am not interested in resuming much of a relationship with you.  I’m just beginning to get my own head together and I am in a relationship with another person.  That was hard to do, because I could only see you for a long time.  I finally began to see Carl for who he is, and I think I am on my way back to happy.  So, if you had any such ideas, I want you to know clearly that I am not interested in that.  I can see that you are a good person but I’ve moved on, and I intend to keep it that way.”

Charlie was so happy to hear that that he could have reached across the table and kissed Maureen.  “I’m really glad for you, Maureen” he said.  “I admit that the thought of you with somebody else gives me a flutter or two in my gut, although I have no right to feel that.  I assure you that there’ll be no interference from me.  I’m real busy trying to rebuild my own life, and I’m happy to hear that you’re doing so too.  Between us, I hope that we can still provide a family for Jack, even if it’s a separated one.”

“So do I, Charlie, and I want you to know that I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for you, even if it didn’t look very much like it when we saw you earlier.”

“Don’t worry about that” Charlie replied.  “It was hard for all of us, but it was worth it.”  Charlie looked at his watch and said “I guess I should be going too.  I have some things to attend to on the other side of the river.  Maureen, it has been really good to see you again, and that’s not just some lame social convention.  I wish – – -, no.  I’ll not go there.  It’s just good to see you again.  Let’s stay in touch.  Does Jack have a phone?  If he wants, we can exchange numbers.

Maureen and Charlie rose from the booth and he walked with her to her car.  When she unlocked the door Charlie extended his hand to her.  “I think a handshake is the best goodbye for now.  Holding you, even for a moment, might be too painful, for me at least.”

“I believe that you’re right” Maureen replied.  She took Charlie’s hand and shook it.  “Goodbye for now, Charlie Hamer.  It has been a pleasure to see you again.  Until the next time, as circumstances permit.”

Charlie said “I would like that,” and let go of her hand.  He watched Maureen drive out of the lot, and an old ache welled up in his heart.  He really had loved that woman, even if he did a lousy job of showing it, and failed miserably when the bad times came.  The thought of her with another man was hard to take, but that triggered thoughts of his own incipient relationship with Carolyn.  Maureen had obviously progressed in her new life further than Charlie had.  That was a shortcoming that he intended to address immediately.

Charlie climbed into the cab of his truck and pulled out his phone.  He found Carolyn’s number and punched it.  “Hello” came her voice after three rings.

“Hello, Carolyn” Charlie answered.

“Oh, Hi Charlie.  Well, how did it go?” she asked.  Clearly, she had been thinking about his meeting with Jack and Maureen.

“Pretty good” Charlie replied.  “I’d love to discuss it with you.  How about dinner tonight at Rory’s?”

“Rory’s?  It must have gone really well.  Or really badly!”

“No, it was good.  I can’t wait to tell you about it, and there’s a lot more that I want to tell you, too.”

“Ummm, interesting.  Six o’clock?”

“If you must, but I was thinking about five.”

“He’s anxious!  This just keeps getting better.  I’ll call and make a reservation for five o’clock.  Oh, I forgot, my Rory’s dress is at the cleaner’s.”

“I’d be proud to go there with you wearing sweats.  Carolyn, I – – -, well, I’ll tell you at Rory’s.

“I can hardly wait.”

“Me too.”

Death Comes For Three Friends: Why Not For Me?

Death.  Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention!  Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death.  In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death.  Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait.  Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  No, really, all joking aside.  If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere.  I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of.  I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.

Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us.  The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it.  We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces.  In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite.  In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.

It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life.  All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way.  A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment.  A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor.  Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!.  One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them.  Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink.  I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of.  In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery.  A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.

But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics.  I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me.  I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache.  And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming.  When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens.  Hell, it happens a lot!  That’s the point of war!  But the thing is that you expect it.  Death is not a surprise visitor in the night.  Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.

In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam.  In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war.  Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one.  That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years.  I propose now to write of these three people.  Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility.  But that was not my friend’s fault.  They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me.  I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.

I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood.  I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place.  I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female.  I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.

We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it.  Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic.  It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat!  I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter.  And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly.  We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military.  I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?”  I certainly was thinking just that thought.

Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team.  I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego.  Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.

We certainly did know how to have fun though.  Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height.  We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.

When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there.  On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive.  I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool.  Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.

Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin.  Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents.  The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father.  Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so.  I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.

I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life.  I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school.  Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage.  Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think.  I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average.  We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies.  Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.

We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years.  Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School.  Time had been very kind to Jo.  In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day.  Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either.  She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked.  In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen.  I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.

A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality.  She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything.  Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars.  Jo really was our queen.  The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us.  Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.

When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful.  My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo.  Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer.  She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her.  Killed her instantly.  Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck.  He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers.  Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly.  None of them saw their twenty first birthday.

I did see my twenty first birthday.  Now why the hell is that?  I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit.  They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound;  it means that you are still alive).  I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact.  I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane.  How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?

I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply.  I was far to stoned to do anything like that.  I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child.  As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it.  Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.

In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more.  Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”.  Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living.  Perhaps.  Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle.  But I call ‘bullshit’ on that.  Death is not natural after all.  Death was not a part of the plan.  Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture.  Death shouldn’t be.  Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t.  And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.

I hope that my three friends have found peace.  I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true.  In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier.  It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story.  If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.

Cars

     Sociologists and historians have written at length about the impact that widespread access to automobiles has had on American society.  In the time of prosperity following World War II the access to automobiles now enjoyed by millions of average Americans changed completely the patterns of life of men and women in countless ways, too many to record here and it is not the purpose of this author to record them anyway.  I am writing not a history but a story and this story revolves around the influence that the automobile had on one group of American society and that group is teenage children, and within group one child in particular:  Me.

     It is not an overstatement to write that ownership of a car of one’s own was the holy grail of teenage boys in the 1950’s and first half of the 1960s.  Actual ownership of a car by a kid was still something of a novelty then, but the movies in the 50s and the music of the 60s set that ownership as the apex of desire for any American teen.  “Rebel Without A Cause” was a movie which was released in 1955, and James Dean driving a stolen 1949 Mercury towards a cliff in a game of ‘chicken’ made every kid who watched it long for a ride of his own to go with his leather jacket, his comb for that hair held perfectly in place by some brand of pomade, and Old Spice after shave that would make him irresistibly cool. 

     Brad, my brother, is four years older than me and was deeply influenced by “Rebel”.  The first car which Brad owned was a 49 Merc, the car that James Dean was driving in the movie.  Brad was somewhat boisterous in his youth and he and the car fit into the rebel picture very nicely.  Brad’s Merc was not nice and new and shiny like James Dean’s was however.  The car, which was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Taco Wagon’, had a lot of hard miles on it and needed a good deal of maintenance to keep it running.  Brad was up to the task.  I frequently found Brad in the old wooden garage behind our house with parts of that car spread out all over the concrete floor.  I was amazed then that Brad could keep track of all of those parts, knew how they worked and where they went, and could put them there.

     Not only could Brad manage that feat of auto mechanics magic but so could nearly all of Brad’s friends.  It was expected of a teenage boy that he should be able to maintain a car, even if he didn’t personally own one since many didn’t, and the road to any kind of status ran through a greasy pair of hands.  I was twelve years old the summer that Brad had that car, and technically was not yet a teen.  That was small comfort however since my friends Wes and Larry and Hank were my age and already doing tune-ups and oil changes and stuff like that for their brothers or fathers or other older kids in the neighborhood.  I had neither the ability to screw with cars nor interest in learning how to do so, but I could feel the pressure to conform even then.

     That pressure ratcheted up one day when Brad and four or five of his friends had the Taco Wagon torn apart and were planning to grill some hot dogs or something when they were finished.  The price for a dinner of whatever they were going to cook was a pair of greasy hands, and just grabbing ahold of a crankshaft or sticking one’s hands into the oil pan was not what the older guys had in mind.  I stood by the front fender and looked over it into the yawning cavity that was the engine compartment, then looked at the collection of metal parts and wires and hoses which littered the concrete floor, and knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do that would add in any way to the project at hand.  Brad was not all that keen on a little brother getting under foot anyway, so I made a lame excuse and then quit the building, trying not to hear the chuckles and snickers as I left, and climbed into the tall pine tree in our front yard.  That tree was a place where I hid from the unpleasantness of the world on many occasions in my young life, and it was to that refuge I fled on that day.

     A few years passed and the status of the car in teen life changed but became on weaker.  Music was now the medium by which youth culture expressed and defined itself and that culture was filled with cars.  “Little Deuce Coupe”, “I’ve got a thirty Ford wagon and they call it a woody—“,”She’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’till her daddy takes the T Bird away—“.  Even some little old lade from Pasadena had a muscle car of her own, but what could I do?  Not much.  I loved beach sound music but the Beach Boys sang of their car which had a flat head mill and was ported and relieved and stroked and bored and had a competition clutch with four on the floor and even had lake pipes.  Out of all that stuff I knew what ‘four on the floor’ meant, but to this day I don’t know what all of that other crap was.

     But most of the other guys did.  Peter had a Chevy Malibu with a lot of that high performance stuff.  Gabby had a 55 Chevy and Bruce, of all things, had a slightly beat up but still extremely impressive Corvette.  This gave Peter and Gabby a considerable leg up with the ladies at school and in our neighborhood, and also their closer friends who knew what all of those contraptions were and what they did.  Bruce was such a worm and a loser that he could have had a Ferrari and it would have done him no good.

     There was one thing in life that I could count on, and that was that I would never own a car as a teen.  My father would not let me work to earn the money for a car unless I received straight ‘A’s in the academic classes at my high school, and that was going to happen, like, never.  My consolation prize was that I had a fair amount of access to Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor.  That Meteor did not have a competition clutch or any of that other stuff but the little car with the little engine and the automatic transmission gave me mobility, and that was worth gold.  But status, real status, depended upon one’s ability to race, to burn rubber in all four gears, and all of that.  That was not going to happen in Dad’s Meteor.  I did get a microscopic amount of rubber one time however.  I put the shifter into neutral and revved up the engine, and then dropped the shifter into drive.  The little bit of sound which the tires made as they broke traction with the pavement was only slightly more audible than the sound of pain coming out of the transmission.  To this day I wonder why I didn’t leave a trail of broken tranny parts behind us as I rolled down the street, away from the scene of my dubious triumph.

     Many of my friends had no wheels at all, and when I could get the car keys they would all climb in, somewhere away from where Dad could see them, and we would act like we were as cool as the guys with hot cars.  One night we wanted to see a movie at a drive-in theater but most of the guys didn’t have the money to buy a ticket.  I finally arrived at a solution to the problem.  At that time guys with serious muscle cars had the front end lowered while gigantic engines which were stroked and bored and blah blah blah would hiss as they sucked in oxygen that would complete the combustion somewhere in its metal innards and make the car go like a bat out of hell.  I had three or four of the guys climb into the trunk of the car, which lowered the rear end instead of the front, and removed the air cleaner which made the car hiss like Gollum cursing hobbitses as he searched for his precious.  The guy at the ticket booth either didn’t notice or couldn’t believe the idiocy of this obvious bit of subterfuge, but we got into the movie and had a good laugh about the whole thing.

     The teenage love affair with cars had changed by the time I returned home from the Army.  The 60s were bleeding, literally, into the 70s and music was pretty much all about peace, love, revolution and getting high.  Cars were not even on the list of accessories needed to achieve coolness.  In fact, the older and more beat up your car, the more pizzaz it had with the trend-setting counter culture bunch that I identified with.  In those days I drove my old gray 1961 Dodge Lancer with the push button transmission and the evil hiss from a leaking hose somewhere under the hood and felt like I had finally, at long last, come into my own.

     

     

It’s Only Rock and Roll

     I love rock and roll, and while I understand that it is really only rock and roll, nevertheless I like it.  The truth is that I like most music and if possible never miss a chance to hear it live, or as close to live as I can get.  In my twenties, which occurred during the bulk of the seventies, I saw a great many concerts, most of which I remember.  Sort of.  Growing up in the fifties and sixties in San Diego however afforded me and other music lovers a lot fewer opportunities to hear live music but we did the best we could.  This is a tale of my love of music and pursuit of exposing myself to it as much as possible.

     In the 1950s I had two avenues for the above mentioned exposure to music; the AM radio and my father’s record collection.  Dad had big, thick 78s with a variety of classical pieces on them and 45s of mostly Country and Western, singles from movies, and big band stuff.  It’s all I knew then and I loved it.  I can still hear Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind”, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” and all of that Rachmaninoff stuff that came on the thick, black records that were kept in the heavy pressboard boxes.  I mostly listened to what Dad listened to until a guy named Buddy Holly came along.

     The second phase in my life of music appreciation arrived with Buddy and the big Bopper and Bill Haley, et. al., and lasted through the great rivalry between the West Coast Beach Sound and Motown.  Most of the white guys in my neighborhood were solid Beach Sound, but the Latinos and Filipinos and the few black guys preferred Motown.  I came down squarely in both camps.  I loved Smokey and David Ruffin and especially the Four Tops, but I loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and others just as much.  Every night when I wasn’t hanging out with friends at the local recreation center which we just called ‘The Park’ I would be home listening to KCBQ, hearing my favorite two and three minute songs being spun by the legendary disc jockey Happy Hare.

     Then one day I got to see Jan and Dean live.  Concerts were rare in those days, in San Diego at least, and when my friend Ellen Marie and I heard that there was going to be the filming of a television show which would be emceed by Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the TV show ‘Bewitched’, featuring the surf singing duo, and that they needed members for the audience, we signed up as quickly as we could.  Ellen was one of my best friends in the neighborhood and we could often be seen hanging out together.  We both had braces on our teeth and the other kids joked that if we should get together as a couple we would be the “clash of steel”.  We never did have that kind of relationship, but our friendship was more solid and of longer duration than most of the romantic liaisons in my life.

     On the big day Ellen and I walked up to University Avenue and boarded the Number Five bus that took us directly to downtown.  From the old Horton Plaza it was only a walk of a few blocks to the Spreckles Theater where the show would be filmed.  Ellen and I showed out tickets, bought some popcorn and candy for a buck or two, and found our seats in the auditorium.  We were not too far from the stage and could see everything very clearly.  Ellen and I yammered away with each other until Ms. Montgomery mounted the stage and gave us all instructions on when we were to cheer, when to clap, when to laugh, and so on.  Ellen and I sort of paid attention, but we were too excited about seeing Jan and Dean to care very much about the details.  Finally all of the instructions were delivered and the crew began to film.

     The whole thing seemed a little bit odd to us but we played ball as best we could, clapping and cheering and laughing on cue.  Of course, Ellen and I would frequently laugh at the wrong time because the whole thing seemed silly, and to a couple of kids in their mid teens it was truly silly indeed.  But at last we came to the payoff.  During a break for technical reasons Jan and Dean came out on the stage and the cheering then was genuine.  The stars of the show, as far as we were concerned anyway, waved to the crowd and said a few words to the people in the front row.  

    After a few minutes they disappeared again and it was back to business.  The crowd settled down, Ms. Montgomery began her introduction, and Jan and Dean reentered the stage as their cue was given.  The “cheer” sign went up, but we were already providing that prop, and this time in earnest.  Ms. Montgomery said a bunch of words that nobody paid attention to and then Jan and Dean stepped up to sing.  The “cheer” sign was not up, but as the duo broke into “Surf City” a few of the girls screamed and some of us began to sing along with them.  That was not in the script however and the “cut” sign was given.

     “Please don’t make any noise while the boys are singing” admonished Ms. Montgomery.  “The producers want to hear the singers, not the audience.

     We settled down again as best we could and the introduction was made again, complete with canned and less-than-spontaneous cheering this time.  Jan and Dean burst once more into “Surf City” and this time the audience maintained its cool until the end of the song, at which time we anticipated the “cheer” sign and burst into wild applause.  Jan and Dean’s time was precious, and so their closing act of “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” came right after that.  Same format, same admonition when our youthful enthusiasm got the best of us, and same sense of awe as the singers produced, right there in front of us, the songs that we heard at least twice per day on the radio.

     After a few more laughs, cheers, and rounds of applause, all delivered on cue, we were excused and filed out of the Spreckles and onto the sidewalk running along Broadway under the brilliant San Diego sun.  As we walked back to Horton Plaza where we would wait with the sailors, the derelicts sleeping on the grass, and the pigeons which flocked around the domed fountain which was a fixture in downtown San Diego as long as I lived there, Ellen and I dissected every word, every movement, and every glance that had undoubtedly been aimed directly at us.  The Number Five finally arrived and we climbed on board, thumbed our dimes into the box by the driver, and rode that bus back to East San Diego and to the park where we could brag about our adventure to all of our friends, who were jealous as could be but insisted that they really preferred James Brown anyway.  And indeed, some of them did.

     All of the Motown and Beach stuff came to a screeching halt in January of 1964 when the American release of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” exploded onto the charts and the English Invasion was under way.  My Navy father wouldn’t let me grow a “mop top” but a lot of my friends did, and we listened faithfully to the radio as sometimes two or three new groups with a totally new sound emerged each week to make a splash.  The Beatles were nearly everybody’s favorites at first, with the Rolling Stones a very close second.  My one and only girlfriend, Rhonda, was much taken with the Stones and I have to admit that I was more than a little jealous of that, so I had to claim some favorite other than them. I chose the Kinks, partly because I really liked their music and partly because they were even uglier than the stones, at least to judge by the bands’ pictures on their album covers.  I don’t know why that mattered, but it did.  

     My relationship with Rhonda ended amicably – no point in being a sore loser – and I was soon in the market for a new girl friend.  That mission was a lot like Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.  I was terribly shy and after my first relationship ended I couldn’t muster the courage to try again.  This was a pitiable condition because Teresa Beal, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood by my standards, was unattached.  I was on good terms with Teresa and I dropped more than subtle hints of my interest, but never received any indication of interest in return.  The thought of just coming out and expressing my interest made me nauseous, so I dithered and plotted how i would eventually make my move.

     My opportunity came in May of 1965 when it was announced that the Beatles would perform in Balboa Stadium.  The Beatles were an irresistible draw and I was certain that an invitation to go see them would be irrefutable proof of my ardent and undying love, and Teresa would fall into my arms like Snow White into Prince Charming’s, or something like that.  Tickets were $3.50, $4.50 and $5.50, and all I could afford were the $3.50 variety.  Two tickets added up to $7.00, and that was a lot of scratch for a sixteen year old kid living in East San Diego in 1965.  The tickets were procured and rested in my dresser drawer for days and weeks as I struggled to find the right time and right words to ask Teresa to go with me to see the Beatles.

     The upshot of this tale is that I didn’t have the cojones to pull the trigger.  Beatles or no Beatles, you don’t get a date unless you ask.  I tried as best I could but Teresa and I lived in the same neighborhood; if she turned me down I would be faced with that fact every time I saw here and everybody would know.  That wasn’t going to happen and so I asked my brother if he wanted to go instead, which he did.

     Brad is also an interesting musical tale.  My brother spent two years at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and had recently returned from the Army.  In Texas Brad learned to like old school Country and Western.  Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and Marty Robbins were his sort of acts.  A few weeks after returning home Brad walked into our bedroom while I was watching either Shindig or Hullabaloo, which were television shows that featured rock and roll acts playing their music.  It was sort of like early videos, only live.  Anyway, that night the Rolling Stones were singing “Satisfaction” when my brother walked into the room and my old fifteen inch black and white television screen was filled with Mick Jaggers’ lips, teeth and tongue.  “What in the hell is that?” asked Brad in stunned amazement.  “Give it a few months” I replied.  “You’ll be borrowing my records.”  And indeed he was, so when I mentioned the concert Brad leapt to the occasion.

     We found our seats and almost had to pay for oxygen, they were so high up.  I had never been to a real concert before and had no idea what to expect.  The opening acts were all pretty good; Cannibal and the Headhunters was my favorite of that bunch, but soon we got to the main event.  Out they came; four tiny figures on a stage down on the fifty yard line who wasted no time in starting the show.  The audience wasted no time either in breaking out in pandemonium.  Girls were screaming and kicking the sheet metal which surrounded the stadium lights.  Guys raced out onto the field only to be tackled by burly security men.  It turned out that Ronald Angulo, a kid from my neighborhood, was one of the first idiots to pull that stunt.  The Beatles sang twelve songs and that was it.  It actually seemed like less than that, but I am assured that we got twelve.  And then it was over and I went home again to crow at the park, although it was hollow because I had wanted to be there with Teresa.

     My love of music grew over the next decade as music became the medium by which  disillusioned youth expressed their feelings to one another and the world.  Music had become a complicated business and revolution filled the air along with the sounds of Hendrix, Cream, The Starship and a million others.  But I’ll never forget the simple love that I had for the music, just the music, of my youth.  No great causes or movements, no subliminal messages, just innocent music.  Yeah, it was only rock and roll, but I liked it then.  I still do.

 

Sand Trap

1967 was a very good year for me. I had a girlfriend in that year and this was not something which came along often in my young life. In fact, she was the one and only girlfriend I had during the first twenty one years of my life. Rhonda was the friend of one of my neighborhood pals and we used to all eat lunch together at school. I was quite taken by the extraordinarily pretty Rhonda and hesitated for the longest time to ask her out on a date because of the curse of painful shyness which I endured in those years. When I finally found the courage to ask Rhonda out she accepted, much to my surprise, and we began a relationship which lasted a short but very pleasant while.

As I wrote earlier I was very shy, and just the thought of trying to kiss a girl made my head spin; the prospect of rejection was almost too great to bear. On the other hand I had an easy knack for talking with anyone, and with Rhonda it was even easier than with others. We would talk about our likes and dislikes, plans and dreams, our lives before we met, music, in fact just about anything and everything. I eventually worked up the nerve to try a kiss, and to my surprise and delight I met with success.  None of this ever led to more than a bit of innocent teenage necking, but it was heaven to me. Of course all of this very personal conversation and extracurricular activities required a quiet place of solitude, and that solitude was frequently found parked at the top of Del Cerro hill on what was then the edge of San Diego. A street had been paved over the top of the hill in anticipation of houses that would be built later, but at the time the street is all that there was, and we spent a few evenings there talking about life and plans and sharing a kiss or two.

I have always enjoyed variety however, and so one evening I decided to see if we could find a place to get away from the maddening crowd by going to the beach. I selected Mission Beach to be our hideaway for that evening, which proves that logic was not yet my strong suit. The beach, in a large beach city, is never a place to get away from people. In this case however, those people would save my bacon later that evening. We drove down Mission Blvd., past a closed and darkened Belmont Park amusement center. It seemed like Belmont Park was closed more than open back then, or the wooden roller coaster out of commission by fire or things like that.  Anyway, it was dark that evening and as we drove south on Mission Blvd. it got even darker, but still there were people popping up on sidewalks or paths which led to and from the beach itself. Eventually we came to a dead end at a jetty built out of large, jagged boulders. A dirt road led to the left, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen in that direction, so I pulled in and drove a hundred yards or so down that road in search of the solitude which we desired.

There was, however, no solitude to be found. It wasn’t exactly a parade, but it was summer at the beach in San Diego and any solitude found there would be rare and of short duration. I analyzed the  situation and decided that the heights of Del Cerro was going to have to do, and began to make what was called a ‘Y’ turn in the dirt road rather than return to Mission Blvd. in reverse. That was where I made my big mistake.

The road was narrow but I was sure that I had room to make the maneuver of inching forward and backward, slowly turning the car to the right and eventually making a 180 degree turn. Perhaps I did have the room, but the night was dark, my mind was on other things, and my hand was completely out of aces. At ninety degrees in the road I backed up a foot too far and settled gently into the soft sand of that dark bit of beachfront San Diego. Thinking of myself as a resourceful male I got out of the car certain that I could make everything work out just fine. I walked around to the back of the car and sure enough, the tire was buried in sand up to the hub.

I reentered the car and assured Rhonda that I could get us out of this.  I began to try to rock the car gently by accelerating in drive and then backing off of the gas pedal, hoping that my parent’s Mercury would sort of walk its way out of the trap. This plan was a complete bust; if anything at all the tire sat lower in the sand than before. For the first time since I felt that depressing sink of the rear of the car I registered a twinge of fear.  The car was not going anywhere, and I had no idea how to change that fact.

“How are we going to get out of here?” was Rhonda’s reasonable question.  I concealed my annoyance because I really liked Rhonda a lot.  Besides, I wasn’t annoyed by her question; I was annoyed because I didn’t have a good answer.

“I don’t know.  I’m going to have to think about this”.

We got out of the car and stood disconsolately next to the sunken tire. I had never been in this position before, and had no interest in walking a great distance back to the lighted area where I could find a pay phone and call my father. Dad went to bed early and would be unimpressed with his son stuck in the sand off of a dirt road in a darkened section of Mission Beach with his girlfriend. The thought of explaining myself to Rhonda’s parents gave me little cause for cheer as well.

“Do you need some help?”

I was jolted out of my thoughts by an older guy, maybe in his twenties, and his lady friend, who had approached as I was lost in my reverie. I explained the problem, which was pretty obvious to see, and he stood and thought a minute.

“Let’s get the girls in the back seat for some additional weight and you drive while I push” was his suggestion, and it seemed a pretty good one to me.  The ladies, who were not impressed by the ‘extra weight’ comment, nevertheless piled in and I fired up the Merc once again while my new best friend pushed, but the result was the same.  Before we threw in the towel another couple arrived and soon I had two guys pushing while I drove, but still the Mercury squatted obstinately in the sand.  I exited the car and walked back to where my two new best friends stood discussing the problem.

“How about if we jack the car up and then push it forward?” I proposed.  “We only need a foot or two to be on the solid part of the road.

“You’d probably put that jack through your gas tank” came a voice from behind us. The owner of that voice was a single guy of undetermined age who was carrying a paper bag. “Let’s see what we’ve got here” he said.  Our new rescuer placed his bag on the sand and studied the problem for a minute, and then said “I think we can use that jack after all.”

I raised the trunk lid and extracted my bumper jack, which was the old kind of jack which stood vertically on a square metal plate and attached beneath the car’s bumper.  This newest member of my rescue party placed the jack under the bumper and began to lift the car up.  “Go and get some rocks to put under the tire he said, and we scattered to find stones of the right size, which was not as easy in the sandy area as I would have liked.  We all came back with what we had found and put them as close to underneath the tire as we could get them. He lowered the jack and I tried once again to advance the car out of the sand. The attempt failed and some of the rocks flew out from under the tire, but some of them stayed in place.

“Get more” said the new quarterback of this operation. We scattered to comb the area for rocks, preferably flat ones of just the right size. Several more people out enjoying the evening pitched into the effort and soon we had a nice pile of rocks under the drive tire and I was ready to try to move the car once again.

“Wait a minute” came a voice from the crowd.  “Let’s get some people on the trunk.”  Guys lifted their ladies onto the truck while as many as would fit positioned themselves behind the car to push.  In a moment I shouted “Ready!” and the throng responded “Go!”  I did just that. The tire bit into the rocks while the guys pushed, and with the agility of an arthritic rhino the Mercury lumbered forward onto the solid dirt path.

A cheer went up as I stopped the car, now safe and sound on solid ground.  People were talking and laughing; the men shaking hands. This was 1967;  nobody hugged back in those days. The quarterback with the paper bag retrieved his cargo and pulled a beer out of it and popped it open, toasting to the success of our operation. I thanked everyone profusely and assisted my lady into the passenger seat. With a last round of thanks I climbed into the driver’s seat, put the Merc in gear, and rolled out accompanied by the waves and cheers of our rescuers.  You’d have thought that it was a wedding.

Rhonda and I knew that little in the way of kisses would be enjoyed that night, but there was no shortage of things to talk about. We drove directly to Oscar’s, a drive-in hamburger place on El Cajon Blvd., and soon the drama of the early part of the evening faded as we returned to our role of two teenagers infatuated with each other. Rhonda got home on time, we shared a good night kiss on the front porch, and I got home just before my curfew. The next morning I was up early vacuuming sand out of the inside of the car and checking it over for scratches or dents. There was no physical evidence that anything untoward had happened with Dad’s car the night before and I chose not to share that tale with him. In fact, Dad died almost forty years later without ever hearing that tale. I hope that it’s possible he’s getting a chuckle out of it somewhere right now.

Camping in Wonderland, Part II

     My love of camping was born and nurtured within my family when I was a child.  Equipped with a mix of commercial, military surplus and homemade gear we would set up camp mostly at a public campground in the Laguna Mountains east of San Diego.  We came to know every inch of that campground as if it was our own back yard, and even with that familiarity we still loved every hike, every dip in the river, every slide on the wet rocks by the falls, every day and every night that we spent there.

     When I graduated from high school in 1966 my President had plans concerning my immediate future, and within two months of my graduation I was a soldier in the U.S. Army and doing more camping out than I liked.  In California, in Texas, and in Vietnam I enjoyed multiple opportunities to live close to nature, all the while dreaming of getting back into nature without a drill instructor or a first sergeant yelling in my face or an enemy soldier shooting at me.  That opportunity arrived in late 1969 after I had finished my tour of duty and was discharged from the Army, a free man once again.

     Shortly after my return to San Diego my oldest friend, Wes, proposed that we backpack into the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a place called Minaret Lake.  Wes showed me a book which contained many hikes in that area and they all were appealing.  The hike to Minaret Lake drew us to it mostly because the trailhead began at Devil’s Postpile, a busy area where it would probably be most safe to park a car for several days, and because the eight mile walk with a gain of over two thousand feet of elevation made us confident that we would encounter nobody who wasn’t out there for the same reason that we were.

     Preparations began for our trip, and for me they began at zero.  I had almost no backpacking gear and what little I did have was left over from a short and unsuccessful experience with the boy scouts.  We were all a bunch of misfits in my neighborhood and did not comport well with the boy scout mold at all.  With some of the money with which the Army sent me on my way I purchased a lightweight backpack, an Army surplus mummy bag for sleeping, a one man tent and other accoutrement.  We planned to spend five days at our camp, and so freeze dried and other dry and instant food products would also have to be carried in.  When we were ready my pack didn’t feel very much lighter than a full pack in the Army did.

     I arose early and drove to Wes’ house, where we added his gear to mine and began the day long drive to Devil’s Postpile.  Our route took us east of Los Angeles and out across the Mojave Desert.  I have always loved the desert and this was a very enjoyable part of the trip for me.  Speeding on northward we entered the Owens Valley, a dry valley now that most of its water has been siphoned off to supply that precious resource to Los Angeles and environs.  The locals are still quite irritated about that.  We drove through Lone Pine and Bishop, where we stopped to get a meal and a few other last-minute items, and then finished our drive in the parking lot at the Postpile.  We parked close to the ranger station, hoping for more security for my car.

     We slept in the car that evening; the big bench seats front and back that were common in cars of that vintage made pretty good beds, even for a couple of six-footers who had to fold themselves up a little in order to fit.  At first light the next morning we crawled off of our car seats, walked around a bit to work the kinks out of our cramped muscles, secured our packs onto our backs and set out on the trail which led to Minaret Lake.

     The trail was mostly broad and easy to follow, and Wes and I chatted as we walked along through the conifers.  It was easy to talk even though we started at about 7,500 feet above sea level, as we were young and in pretty good physical shape.  The gain in elevation for the whole trip was about 2,300 feet but the grade was easy at first.  Soon however we broke out of the thick conifer forest and began to pass through more sparse growth.  At one point, as we neared a broad valley where the creek which we were paralleling broadened out into a marshy area with no definite banks or borders, Wes and I somehow lost the trail and began following what looked like it might be a trail which led south of the valley and up a rocky and pine covered hillside.  After twenty or thirty minutes of struggling up that false track we realized that we were way off course and returned to the valley floor.  There we promptly regained our trail and continued across the cattail-covered valley to begin climbing again on the other side.

     By this time Wes and I had ceased to talk much.  The trail was beginning to climb more sharply now and although we were eating trail mix and hard candy our energy was being sapped by the grade and the altitude.  All along from the beginning of the hike I had enjoyed the view of the majestic mountains, with jagged splinters of rock which jutted a thousand feet into the sky after which Minaret Lake was named, and Minaret Creek which bubbled and splashed down the mountainside nearly always within our view.  As we began the final few miles towards our destination I began to focus more on simply getting up the next hill, breathing, and putting one foot in front of the other.

     At length we came to the last half-mile or so of our hike, which also happened to be the most steep.  We dug into that climb with determination in order to put this ordeal behind us.  I remember counting cadence in my mind as I walked; one-two-three-FOUR, one-two-three-FOUR.  My feet kept moving, rising and falling with my mental calling of the numbers.  The effect was hypnotic and soon my feet and the count were all that existed.  This went on for what seemed like an hour but in fact was much less than that, and soon the trail began to flatten out and I marched over the last rise to catch my first glimpse of the breathtaking jewel that is Minaret Lake.

     The lake lies in an upland valley at the base of a mountain range which includes several rocky spires which rise up sharply into the clear sky of the Sierras.  Somebody many years ago thought that they resembled the tall, thin buildings which tower over Muslim cities and towns from which mosque officials call the faithful to prayer.  I confess that I did not see that resemblance at all, but the other guy saw these mountains first so he got to name them.  The lake itself is the bluest blue imaginable, taking up much of it’s valley.  Grasses cover the dry portions of the valley with occasional evergreens stretching skyward, and softly rounded boulders seemed to have shouldered their way through the soil to show above ground a tiny glimpse of their true bulk, much like an iceberg shows itself in arctic waters.  It is quite possibly the most beautiful place that I have ever seen.

     But that is not what I thought when I first saw it.  The exertion, the altitude, and perhaps a little dehydration combined to force me to sit down on the first rock I could find and try not to throw up.  Wes was similarly affected, but recovered a bit more quickly than me, so he shortly went off to scout for a good campsite while I continued to convalesce.  From my boulder I looked back at the terrain across which we had traversed on our assent to the lake.  I could clearly see the gain in elevation that we had recently made, which made me feel better about not feeling so good as I sat on my rock in the sun.  

     The ground sloped steadily to the east while mountains of bald, rounded rock rose up to the north and northeast.  It is said that those mountains were smoothed off by the action of glaciers during the last ice age.  I suppose that is true, but I don’t know; I wasn’t there then.  Regardless of how they were formed their massive solidity communicated strength and permanence, but their soft roundedness also suggested welcome, although I am certain that there was danger enough for the foolhardy in those peaks.  At least, that’s what it said to me.

     To the west rose up a cliff which was probably 800 feet high.  This rock feature traveled from southwest to northwest and provided a back wall for the valley of the lake.  the cliff was steep but not sheer, and Wes and I would soon be scaling it, but more on that later.  The southern boundary of our valley was the massive body of the Minarets, into which the previously mentioned cliffs merged.  The totality of this panoramic view was breathtaking and I could hardly believe that I was in this place, although the shakiness in my knees served to remind me that it was quite true.

     After catching my breath and regaining some strength I rose up from my rock and shouldered my pack.  I could see where Wes was pitching his tent and angled around a bay of the lake to gain that spot.  A good spot it was, between the lake and a stream flowing into it, on good dry ground and close to but not under a lone tree.  I pitched my tent beside Wes’ and we made a fire pit out of stones and a wire grate which we brought for that purpose.  Our food was placed in a bag which we hoisted into the tree.  I don’t know if bears hang out at 9,800 feet, but Wes and I had not interest in being surprised.

     With the hike over and camp made we sat with our backs against the tree.   Wes was facing the Minarets and I the rounded mountains to the north.  We didn’t speak much at first, as we were struck with the power and beauty of the place. I can remember reflecting on how only a couple of months before this moment I was squatting under a metal roof on the tarmac of Bien Hoa Air Force Base hoping to not catch a last minute bullet or rocket before flying home after two surreal years in Vietnam.  The regimented life of a soldier, the threat of death at any moment from a bullet going so fast that you don’t hear it, the alcohol and drugs that I used to self-medicate against the stress of Vietnam and the strangeness of returning home to a country which seemed to either scorn me or be embarrassed by me, and mostly preferred to pretend as if I wasn’t there at all.

     All of that baggage seemed to slough off of me as I sat in the tranquil cleanness of that vast mountain landscape.  The lake, the rocks, the streams, the mountains; none of them cared where I had been or what I had done.  They did not care that I was there, but neither did they reject me.  I was there as my own agent, as much a part of that scene as a fish in the lake or squirrel in the tree or marmot in the rocky cliff above us.  I was welcome to come and take my chances like every other living thing there, with the prize being a peace that I had not felt in years or perhaps at any time in my life.  I thought to myself “Not a bad way to start a trip”.

When God Comes Calling

This is a story about me and God. I realize that this opening sentence is enough to put some readers off right away, but I hope that they will bear with me for just a little longer. I am not trying to write an evangelistic piece. I never was good at that sort of thing. This is a very personal account of a very personal relationship that exists between myself and someone who many people don’t believe is real. That is all right. I don’t ask for anyone to believe in God in order to enjoy this story. It’s all about me anyway, so how can you go wrong?

I was not raised in a religious family. Apart from a period of probably less than a year I do not remember seeing my parents in a church. My mother was apathetic about the whole thing and my father thought that only the simple minded could believe stories about lions that didn’t eat people and furnaces that didn’t burn people up. Perhaps my father was on to something; we could debate the Bible as being literally true or symbolic all day long, but that is not the goal of this tale. The point is that I had little reason to believe in the Christian God or any other god, and therefore no reason to direct my life based on any such belief.

That one year, more or less, that my family attended church happened when I was nine or ten years old. It would be a lie, more than simply a stretch, to say that the experience made much of an impact on me. I managed to dodge many of the sermons by artful means but could never escape Sunday School. That eternal and, to me, infernal hour was spent fidgeting on my hard folding chair and thinking more about how much I wanted to get my squished and aching feet out of the too-small leather shoes I was forced to wear at church than the patterns made out of felt that were being used to tell Bible stories. At school I could wear “tennies”, as athletic shoes were then called. During most of the year when I was not at school or church I wore no shoes at all. I grew up in San Diego after all.  But for that one hour of trial and pain I had to squeeze my poor feet into shoes that I was too big for and would have hated even if I wasn’t.

So from my pre-teen years I emerged with little to recommend me to the faith, and it remained that way until the tenth grade. That school year I had the good fortune to sit next to the most beautiful girl in Hoover High.  I thought so anyway. This angel was bright and pretty and friendly and asked me if I wanted to go with her family to a Billy Graham Crusade.  I had never heard of Billy Graham, but would have agreed if she had asked if I wanted to walk over hot coals and eat live slugs with her and her family.  I was not at all accustomed to girls, beautiful or otherwise, asking me to do anything with them, so I agreed in a heartbeat.

At the crusade I actually liked what I heard and went forward, identifying myself as a Christian, and began to attend the same church as the Beautiful Girl. I really did believe what I was taught and continued to attend that church even after it became abundantly clear that pigs would fly before the Beautiful Girl would ever look twice at me in a romantic fashion. Eventually however I simply lost interest in the church and for my last year and a half of high school my focus returned to girls, who continued to be generally unimpressed with my overtures, and hanging out with my friends in the neighborhood.

I had the misfortune of graduating in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War, and the military was casting a broad net to procure men enough to fight that war while still holding the Soviet Union at bay in Central Europe and Communism in general elsewhere in the world. I was not married, had no aspirations to enter college or become a police officer or firefighter, and so the only option seemed to be to join the Army before it joined me.  This was quickly accomplished and I spent the next three years in the U.S. Army, with two of them in Vietnam where any and all restraint against indulging my own personal pleasure in any way and in any form that I could find it was removed.

This is not a tale about my dirty laundry; I’m writing a story, not a book.  My belief in the story of the Bible had deteriorated into a belief that two thousand years ago an unmarried teenager had gotten herself pregnant (no miracle there) and cooked up a story about how God did it and, to my utter astonishment, people believed it!  The crafty conniver in me, one of my Army nicknames being Weasel, did admire that scam just a bit. The Old Testament was simply a collection of Jewish fairy tales and life after death would be if my friends would remove my head after I overdosed on something and used my skull for a planter to grow a marijuana plant in.  My friends could then point to the weed growing out of my unused cranium and state “there’s Glenn, still getting his head.”

This was the condition that I was in when one day I decided to ride my bicycle away from most of the nearby habitation and smoke a joint in the open sun. I lived then in El Cajon, just east of San Diego, and nearby was a road which climbed the hills east of that city up to a town appropriately named Crest. It was a long and fairly steep hill and I rode my bike about a quarter of the way up when I decided that I had gone far enough. I walked my bike through the low, sparse chaparral and perched myself on a pile of large rocks under the warm sun. I could see a house several hundred feet down the hill and nothing else anywhere near me. Feeling safe I pulled out a book that I was reading, lit a joint, and settled in for what I expected to be a pleasant hour or two of relaxation.

The joint was long finished and the book engrossing when I heard my name called. That’s all it was:  Glenn!  I jumped a little and looked around to see who had found me in what I thought was an isolated location. There was nobody anywhere to be seen. I looked down at the house and saw nothing stirring but a dog trotting across the yard. I knew that that this voice could not have come from there because it was too far away, there was nobody in sight, and nobody there, including the dog, knew my name.  I tried to account for this experience by thinking “I’m just stoned,” and went back to my book. I was unsuccessful however. I had been stoned before; a lot more stoned a lot of times before, and I had never had any experience like this. Contrary to most Hollywood representations of drug-induced hallucinations I never believed that any of mine were real. I sat on that rock a short while longer but my uneasiness continued to grow until I stuck my book into my back pocket and walked my bike back to the road. I pedaled home and then proceeded to forget about the experience as quickly as possible.

Thirteen years, two businesses, two marriages and two children later I found myself in a very small rental in Washington State. My family was still in San Diego, as I had graduated and taken my first job as a vascular technologist and had gone ahead to prepare a place where my family could join me. The last several years had been extremely difficult for me. My first marriage had dissolved painfully, and for most of my second I was struggling to provide, first by working in construction and then by working in a pathology lab while attending school full time. The stress was terrific and for a short while a doctor had me on mild antidepressants. I had long since quit using any sort of drugs, legal or illegal. I felt an urge to find peace in a non-chemical way and began to read everything I could get my hands on that might help me to make sense of life; everything except the Bible that is. Been there, done that. I read about Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. I read Plato, Aristotle, and other guys whom I couldn’t make heads or tails of. I finally stumbled on Alan Watts and was drawn to the Tao, an ancient Chinese spirituality. I still could not fully buy into the Tao because of its airy-fairy (to me) nature, and so I graduated with a degree in vascular technology but no degree that could explain why it was worth it to stay alive.

During the two months between graduation and my first job the pressure inside my head continued to grow. Externally I continued to do the things that made daily life seem to work; get up, got to work, watch the kids while my wife went to work. But inside I could feel my stomach tied in knots and a tension in my neck and shoulders that wouldn’t release, no matter how much I tried to will myself into some kind of rest.

My wife at that time attended the church which I had once attended with the Beautiful Girl. That girl had long since gotten married to a very nice guy and moved away to start a new family. My wife had a Bible which she would sometimes read and frequently it would be lying on a table in the front room when I returned home from work. I would get home at about 11:30 PM and my wife would be lying in bed, waiting to hear my key in the lock before she could relax and fall asleep. At some point during those two months I picked up that old, leather covered Bible and started reading from Genesis 1. I found it familiar and comfortable, although I still couldn’t believe it and had no intention to read about that Jesus stuff. I read through the first two books but stalled out badly on Leviticus. I put that old Bible down and didn’t pick it up again for the rest of my stay in Southern California.

When I received my first job offer I was ready to leave the rat race of Southern California. A couple of weeks later I was alone in the Northwest with no family, no friends, and nothing familiar to anchor my miserable self to. The result was muscles so tense and a stomach so knotted up that I could barely eat or sleep and the bridge over the Columbia River which I crossed twice each day began to look more and more like a good place to make a one-way visit.  Only two blocks from my rental there was a very large Catholic cathedral. I had only the smallest knowledge of the Catholic version of Christianity and had no idea why I would walk into that building. I was so miserable however that I was no longer able to figure out why I should do one thing or not do another. Rather than making a rational decision that I would walk into that large, ornate building I instead found myself walking in that direction as if I was watching from outside of myself. I walked up the stone stairs and through the massive doors, and stood inside to see what could be found there. There were a few people sitting in the wooden pews and someone kneeling at a rail up at the front. There was a great deal of art on the walls and I began to walk slowly around the inside of the building.

That was when it happened. I felt God all around me. How do I explain that? It wasn’t like being in a room with one person you really like or love; it wasn’t like being in a stadium with a hundred thousand fans watching your team seal a victory. The closest that I can come to describing it is a warm and comfortable sense of peace and rest for my agitated nerves that completely surrounded me and even seemed to press into me. More than that, I knew more certainly than I knew my own name that this feeling was nothing other than the presence of God, whom fifteen minutes earlier I didn’t even believe in. I stood there in that place marveling at this experience and expected it to go away. It did not go away. I began to walk again slowly around the inside of that building while the sense of the presence of God continued to work it’s way through my exhausted mind, body and soul until finally I was convinced that this was real and even if that feeling departed, which it eventually did, my mind knew beyond a doubt that the God responsible for it was real and eternal and would always be there for me regardless of the bumps and bruises that life would continue to bring me. I stayed in that cathedral for at least an hour and finally left to go home to get some sleep before I had to go to work the next day. That night I slept pretty good, and the next day I crossed the bridge without any thought of taking a short hike off the middle section where the bridge is highest.

The third meeting which I had with God occurred a couple of years later. I was now a regular church member and learning more about what it means to be a Christian. I have slowly learned that it is not at all what non-Christians think it is, nor what most professing Christians think it is either, but that’s meat for another story. I determined that I would read the Bible cover to cover and was diligently engaged in that pursuit one evening while lying in bed when once again I heard only my name: Glenn!  This time it was a little different however, for the voice that I heard was easily recognizable as my dad’s. Dad, at this moment, was sound asleep 1,500 miles to the east in Kentucky. I knew instantly who it really was, and the fact that the voice was my earthly father’s made it just that much more comfortable and welcoming. I felt like that one word was an affirmation that God and I were on a journey together that would take me places that I never expected to go. That is how it has turned out and it has been a hard but completely satisfying ride.

So there you have it. I know that many people will not believe that these visitations were an actual encounter with a benign supernatural entity of any type, much less the God of the Bible. I do not blame anyone for that and will not think one bit less of them if that is the case. I would not have believed such a tale if it was told to me before I had experienced it myself.  It is sufficient for me to write that this is what I have experienced and is therefore worthy of writing as one of the stories of my life. I hope that you, reader, can take it for what it is worth and enjoy the story, even if only as a story. For my part, every word of it is true.