Category Archives: Memoir

Riding The Flying Red Horse

 

The word got around the neighborhood quickly.  Balloons and banners were going up at the new local service station and, in 1955, that was all the advertising needed.  The Grand Opening was Saturday and everyone who was anyone would show up.  Copious amounts of food, drinks, rides and other free stuff would be at hand.  The fathers, wearing wingtips and work boots, would mingle with the new manager, eating hot dogs and listening to his subtle pitch of reliable service and proximity.  In those days, no one wanted to travel too far from home.

The mothers, dressed in petal-pushers and scarves to protect their hair from the wind, would talk among themselves. The adults would have their discussions and make decisions, but, for us kids, it was a young baby-boomers dream, fun in the sun on a Saturday afternoon at another gas station opening in post-WWII Santa Clara Valley.

This new station was a Mobilgas, so the flying red horse  ride would be there.  The deep red-winged stallion in full motion mimicked the large neon ones that hung above each station.  Today, it was a perfect fit for both my frame and imagination.

What is the attraction to a seven-year-old boy of sitting on some tiny molded horse that moved two inches forward, then backward to simulate galloping?  It certainly wasn’t my first rodeo but the red flying horse was different, an upgrade from the scratched up old mechanical mare outside of the grocery store.  This was a flying red horse, permanently posed, head down, wings spread as if in flight. It would be totally cool to ride a real red flying horse, although I would have to replace my cuffed blue jeans and homemade shirt with a super hero costume.  For now, I’ll use my mind’s eye and settle for riding this one, which comes with a free photo.

In addition to the rides and hot dogs, there was cotton candy and stacks of wooden crates holding glass Coca-Cola bottles.  This opening even had a guest appearance from local country radio disc jockey, Cottonseed Clark, a who broadcast a few hours of his radio program from the event. Another souvenir photo, autographed.  Mobilgas was pulling out all the stops for this one.  In the 1950s, these events were common because gas and service stations played an integral role in our daily lives.

Filling the car up with gas was only one reason for our weekly trek at the service station.  It began when we drove over the black hose that made a chime sound to alert the mechanic.  In 1955, there were enough cars to keep each station busy, but the pace was such that the operator could perform maintenance  work and still handle the pump demand.  The fact that our parents were having children in record numbers would change that dynamic and contribute to the slow death of the full-service experience.

“Hi George,” my dad said, “fill it up with Ethel.”

Before he said a word, George Osaka would open the hood, then walk to the rear of the car and insert the gas hose. Because he had to hold the hose the entire time, he had a few moments for friendly conversation before he completed his checklist.

George said, “How’s she running?”

“So far, so good,” said my dad, “that whine is gone since you replaced the belt.”

“Guess that was it.”

George would always acknowledge me in the backseat.

“You staying busy, Butch?”

“Yeah.”

My father thought that we could afford premium Ethel gas even though, at twenty-three cents per gallon, it was two cents higher than regular.  I would always roll down my back seat window during this process to experience the sweet smell of gasoline.  There are many people in today’s world that are addicted to intoxicative inhalants and, there but for fortune go I.  I loved the smell of fresh gasoline, possibly associating it with freedom.  I dreamt of driving my own car one day and, if I could ever save fifteen hundred dollars, buy that new Ford convertible shown on the local car commercial and take it on a long road trip.  There was not a faint glimpse of a thought that, years later, I would find the odor of gas toxic and obnoxious, connecting it to congestion and dirty air.  In the 1950s, cars and gasoline were the wave of the future, just listen to Walt Disney talk of his Autopia.

Tank full, George would focus his attention under the hood, checking the oil and radiator water levels then shaking the hoses to assure none were loose.  After checking the tire pressure, he would spray and clean all the car windows to complete the service, all for the price of the gas that, somehow flowed plentifully from a magical underground  reservoir.

“Everything looks good. That will be four fourteen,” said George.

My dad handed him a five dollar bill and he returned with the change, green stamps and wishes for everyone to have a good week.  Mr. Osaka was our go-to service station guy because my dad thought he was a good and trustworthy mechanic and had this belief that the Japanese were honest business people. I found this somewhat conflicting because he was slightly more than a decade removed from a foxhole in Tawara, but I witnessed him, on numerous occasions, do and say things that expressed his respect for the local Japanese community.  He would say that government leaders, not people, start wars.

After the car was serviced and when there wasn’t a station opening that I could persuade my parents to go to, our Saturday morning routine took us to the local donut shop for a late breakfast of donuts, coffee and chocolate milk, which set us back another dollar fifty, including tip. Then, on some days, it was off to the local car wash.

My father normally washed our car himself, but once a month we went to the new modern carwash because they vacuumed the interior and cleaned the cigarette smoke residue that would form inside of the windshield.  Carwashes represented new, state-of-the-art technology and it seemed like magic as I peered through soap-film-stained windows to watch our car go through.   Occasionally, in lieu of a gas station opening, we would go to Bounceland USA so I could jump on the trampoline.  For this enterprise, someone leased a vacant lot, dug twelve pits, covered the top with springs and rubber straps and charged fifty cents for kids to jump up and down for twenty minutes.  Life in those days would allow such a venture.  No liability waivers, no spotters, people did things at their own risk.  These, and similar endeavors, would soon fall prey to the mating calls of lawyers in love.

I stayed on the lookout for new Mobilgas stations during the next few months, but the arrival of a new Hopalong Cassidy bike, named after the television serial cowboy, and a pogo stick vastly escalated my mobility and I moved on from the flying red horse.

In my mind, that old icon has become a metaphor for innocent, simpler times when we had one phone, attached to the wall, one small television displaying three channels in a large ugly cabinet, one car and one bathroom. I am also reminded that, in 1955, I had seven normal years left before it all fell apart. As my family crashed and burned, there were times when I wished I had a red flying horse to take me away from it all.

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Edvins and Florencio

 

I remember simpler times when a face was just a face, another friend on the playground.  Post World War II Santa Clara Valley was rapidly expanding and most of the faces moving into the new houses were various shades of Europe. We were all different to some degree and, beyond a little curiosity, it was quietly accepted or irrelevant within the serious business of childhood.

Most of our fathers fought in the war, mine in Tarawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The common paradigm for returning GI’s was to get married, have kids and live happily and peaceably ever after.  The textbooks called it “Return to Normalcy,” a panacea for the scars of battle.

My parents had little money, but I had everything I needed and some things I didn’t, like freckled cheeks and a “cowlick” on the back of my head resembling the Alfalfa character on the “Little Rascals” television show.  Another social challenge, surprisingly, came from re-runs of The Honeymooners on the CBS channel.  In each episode, Bronx bus driver Ralph Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason, bullied and yelled at his sewer-worker neighbor named Ed Norton.  For an entire year, I was known only as “N-A-W-W-T-O-N,” usually from voices at maximum volume. Aside from that, things were quite normal.

During the 1958-59 school year, in Ms. Joan Davis’ fifth grade class, I met two young boys who were as different as any two people could be.  Although our friendships were short-lived and we have had no contact in sixty years, they both remain in my memory because their stories are still pertinent today.

Both Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez were immigrants, one seasonal and the other fleeing communism with his parents after the Soviet Union invaded his homeland.  Neither of them had television sets and both called me by my first name.  They focused on what they had, never on what they didn’t.

I asked, “Hey Edvins, where are you from again?”

“Latvia,” he answered.

“Latvia.  I’ve never heard of it.”

“Oh, that’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”

He often spoke of his homeland but didn’t dwell on it.  He told us that his father was an engineer in Latvia, but they had to leave and now he was managing an orchard across from the school until something better came along.  We never discussed it, but I strangely became empathetic to his quiet struggle and understood that life was a little harder for him. Feeling empathy was a new experience for me.

Edvins was outgoing, verbose and smart.  These factors offset his non-athletic, somewhat flabby body and the thick crew cut that fully covered his head like a completely grown “chia pet” gnome.   He had no reservations in assuming the role as the smartest kid in class and his strong opinions convinced us that he hated the “commies” more than we did.  His personal stories, many handed down from his father, reassured us all that Kruschev was the devil and the Soviet Union was indeed the “Evil Empire.”

Edvins was the first kid that I met who was an artist.  He could draw anything and often spent his day sketching portraits of other classmates and not concentrating on the subject at hand.  For the most part, we all saw his art as an asset, one that we relied on to make our class projects better.

One day, years later, in seventh grade homeroom, Edvins quietly passed me a dollar bill.

I whispered, “What’s this for?”

Gesturing with his finger, he said, “Look at it.”

Edvins had drawn a near perfect one dollar bill, both sides. At first glance, I easily mistook it for the real thing.

“I want to try it out at lunch,” he muttered.

I knew what he meant and still allowed my curiosity to make me complicit in his plan.  We ate lunch together in the cafeteria, then set out for the room where students took turns selling ice cream to other students.  The money raised went to the end of the year picnic.

Edvins said, “Two Fudgesicles,” holding up his fingers in the shape of a “V”.

The innocent student clerk took the phony bill, handed him the two bars and seventy cents change. Barely able to contain our emotions, we took the contraband and slithered out to a remote area to eat it.  Edvins was beside himself, celebrating the fact that he had pulled off his little scheme.

On our way back to class, we stopped by the ice cream room as Edvins turned over a real dollar bill and asked for his forgery back.  We all laughed, knowing it was typical Edvins, mischievous but honest, curbing his boredom in ways the rest of us could not imagine.

Florencio Lopez had dark skin.  His slim  but strong physique and the deep cheekbones in his face looked like an old, sepia photograph of a Native American warrior. His wardrobe consisted of jeans and a few different flannel shirts that he always wore with the top button fastened. His hard-soled  shoes looked like they had survived generations.

Florencio was shy, quiet and stoic, remaining a mystery to most of us.  He stood out as the sole Hispanic kid in class.  Because English was not his first language, he was often slow to comprehend lessons, making this strong kid self-conscientious and vulnerable.

When Ms. Davis called on him, he often answered, “I don’t know.” She was very patient and set an all-inclusive tone in the classroom,  yet  he remained aloof and preferred to be by himself.  There was still this mysterious aura that made us unsure and cautious about approaching him.

Florencio’s moment came not in the classroom, but on the playground.  In those days, every fifteen minute recess and the half hour remaining after lunch was ample time for many of the boys to divide into teams for a day long progressive touch football game.

He started showing up on the sidelines and watching us play.  One day, someone asked him if he wanted to join in. He nodded quickly, then as the football hurled toward him as an impromptu try-out, he raised his large hands up and stopped it in its tracks. After an instant of stunned silence, an argument ensued.

“Okay, we’ll take him.”

“No, no, we’re a man down, we’ll take him.”

With minutes of recess left, the dispute was quickly resolved and, before the bell rang, we all learned that Florencio Lopez could run like the wind.  From that point, he was known to everyone as Flo and he embraced it.  His athletic abilities became his wristband to inclusion.

He could outrun anyone else backwards in hard soled shoes and the team he was on typically called only one play, “Throw to Flo,” hoping that he would not out run the arm strength of the passer.  For weeks afterward, Flo became the playground star and far less mysterious to us all.

On the first Saturday of December, there was a district-wide football jamboree where all the elementary schools would gather for one day of competition.  Permission slips and a small lunch fee were required.  We all expected Flo to be our secret weapon, but he quietly told us that he couldn’t go.  We pressed the issue until it became uncomfortable for everyone.  Things that most of us took for granted were beyond the reach of others.

The last time that I remember seeing Florencio Lopez was a chance meeting when I was visiting his neighbor, Edvins Augusts. Next to Edvins’ modest, green, 1940s ranch house was a large, old bungalow in disrepair and in need of paint.  Florencio lived there with his parents and five younger siblings. Ironically, the only two dwellings in the large orchard were side by side and the homes of my two new friends.  Outside of class, it was the first and last time the three of us hung out together.  The afternoon did not include art or football, just the three of us talking about whatever ten-year- old boys talk about.

Florencio did not return for the sixth grade, but Edvins stayed for a few years.  The orchard was being sold off and by 1961 became a neighborhood with its own expressway, no longer in need of a manager or a foreman.

Recent research revealed an Edvins Augusts of my age who married twice, once in California and once in Nevada to a woman with a Russian surname.  The search results for Florencio Lopez ranged from a Professor of Finance at a major university to a notorious Mexican drug lord apprehended in the late nineties.

Their fates remain unknown, but for me, getting to know Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez in the late fifties widened my young perspective and began to cement the understanding that, with our differences, we are all, deep down, the same.


Precious and Fragile

 

October 7, 2017 was not an ordinary Saturday. We joined friends on a fancy tour bus for the ninety minute ride from Santa Rosa to Middletown, then up the mountain to the hydro-thermal power compound known as “The Geysers.”   Returning in the afternoon from Calistoga, the bus drove through the pass that became Mark Springs Road because it was the fastest and most accessible route.

Passing by the entrance to Safari West, an African animal preserve prompted discussion on who had been there

“We were there last month,” I said

Weeks before, in late August, out-of-town guests enthusiastically requested Safari West, a four-hundred-acre African preserve and breeding center, as a top priority during their short visit.  I either never knew or had forgotten that such a place existed northeast of Santa Rosa.  However, I was game and loved being around it.

On a warm morning, we arrived and soon met our guide and jeep driver, Cindy.  With dusty Levi’s, a khaki workshirt and the baked skin of someone who spends their days in our local Serengeti Plain, she was surely a seasoned veteran, comforting to our group.

Cindy explained that we would soon board what looked like a worn World War II surplus jeep retrofitted with a second level of seating for four people above the cab and a long gear shift protruding from the floor to the right of the driver. She  referred to the old jeep as her partner and I had full confidence in both.

First on our day’s agenda, before boarding the jeep, was some intense bird-watching, then viewing primates and predator cats that, for obvious reasons are prohibited from roaming freely among the appreciative prey on the preserve.

I have seen flamingos before, but never heard them make a sound.  We came upon a crowded colony of various shades of pink that, at times, sounded like an entire section of Type-A violinists who played and argued with each other simultaneously.  The crescendo came in waves.  One flamingo would annoy another, others, who I called shamers, would join in to escalate the volume and ferocity of the screeches, lowering their heads and projecting their necks forward like a weapon.  The colony moved from tranquil fluidity to chaotic dysfunction and back again within seconds. Watching their behavior made me think of the parallels between us and them.

After carefully cleaning the bottoms of our shoes, we entered the large aviary.  In trees and on the ground, we were surrounded by scarlet ibis, Argus pheasants, crown cranes,  Stanley cranes and a unique demoiselle crane named Kovu, who literally had no clue that she was a bird.  Some abandoned crane eggs were hatched in an incubator, producing Kovu,

Kovu

who was then hand feed by humans.  During both her formation and formative years, Kovu bonded with people, not cranes or birds at all.

She soon joined our group and participated in the walking tour. She stopped and started walking with us and seemed to enjoy observing these engaging winged creatures that surrounded us.  Cindy pointed out that she has, in the past, taken a particular liking to a specific person, prompting her to raise and spread her wings, strutting around ceremoniously in circles.

Moments later, I stepped back and accidentally nudged Kovu. I apologized.  She stared at me for a instant and then the “love dance” began. I became the one.   She pulled her wings back and, in full display, began to dance in circles just for me. I was embarrassed and flattered at the same time. At my age, it’s nice to have appeal, even by a demoiselle crane who thinks more like a girlfriend than being a bird.

Kovu

“Stand back Kovu.” Cindy delivered the disappointing news to our young friend, who had expectations of leaving the aviary and joining us for the rest of the tour.

After viewing the caged cats and before boarding the jeep, we observed several Black and White Colobus monkeys swinging from branches and moving quickly on the ground. Each one of these gorgeous creatures had a distinct black body with a white cape-like streak down it’s back and a ring of white fur that surrounded their entire face.

Colobus is the Greek word for “mutilate” and unlike any  other primates, these beautiful creatures, genetically, have no thumbs. They are also herbivores with a digestive system that enables the consumption of a variety of leaves, flowers and twigs.  Their sloppy eating habits and digestive systems are said to be vital to seed distribution.  It’s difficult to be neat without thumbs.

“Who wants to sit up top first?” asked Cindy as we boarded the jeep.  A young family of four jumped at the chance and were doubly pleased when we offered them our turn.

Buckled in, we started up the bumpy road.  Entering each section of the preserve required that Cindy stop and exit the jeep, unlock and open a gate, re-enter, start up the vehicle and move a few feet forward, stop and exit once again to lock the gate behind us.  She did this several times during the tour.  After all, this is old school Safari West, not Jurassic Park.

The first series of corrals belonged to five or six large giraffes with enough acreage to roam freely.

Cindy spoke.  “Thirty-six giraffes have been born here and we believe that Jamala, who is celebrating her twentieth birthday today, may be pregnant.”   She definitely was. When she turned, we were all surprised to see parts of two hoofed legs protruding from her.

Cindy quickly grabbed her radio.  “This is Cindy. Are you aware that Jamala is giving birth.”

A voice was transmitted.  “Yes, we’ve been monitoring her the last hour.”

“Does she need help?”

“We’re going to give her some time.”

“I knew that young Rico was up to no good.” Cindy smiled.

“Yeah, he was pretty active in the short time he was here.”

Rico was a nine-year-old male giraffe that was brought into the preserve to stimulate some growth to the herd.  Apparently, his activity level was so high that his stay was shortened.

Not knowing how long the birth process would take, Cindy suggested that we proceed with our tour but quickly return after any updates.

In the next minutes we encountered ostriches, water buffalo, varieties of antelopes and an interesting zebra dynamic.  We came upon three female zebras, standing side by side, intently observing a young male eating.

Admiring giraffes

“They shunned and were downright  mean to him when he first arrived,” said Cindy, “but after awhile, they all warmed up.”

The expressions of the tirelessly observant females seemed to say, “Isn’t he handsome when he eats?”

“Oh yes, such confidence!”

After listening to a scratchy voice over the radio, Cindy said, “It’s time to get back to Jamala.”

Handsome guy

We returned to the sight of two young women pulling on rope lines that had been secured around the calf’s hoofs, now below a dangling head and neck. This tug-of-war continued for several minutes before reinforcement arrived in the form of two more young women.

The giraffe corrals looked like one large square corral, divided into four equal parts. Although Jamala was separated, a six-foot fence could not keep the others giraffes from surrounding her with comfort and support.  They did not interfere, they were just there for her. One last tug by the young quartet and the new miracle of  life slid from the mother

Helping Jamala

and fell six feet to the ground.

The calf looked dazed for a moment and then began, in vain, to stand up.  Due to predators, standing is a top priority for baby giraffes.  After many wobbly, futile attempts, the twenty-minute-old calf finally stood up and a minute later was nursing.

Jamala tended to her new offspring, cleaned her up and, within  the forty minutes, we observed a new six-foot-tall baby giraffe walking steadily, looking a month, not an hour old.

She shared her wonderful birthday present with a small, fortunate group of people and supportive giraffes. The four interns were exhausted, but running high on

Jamala’s Birthday Gift

adrenaline.  We all shared a moment and a lifelong memory together, but theirs were up close and personal.

My story was convincing.  All on the bus agreed that we would go soon, together.

In the late hours of Sunday October 8, the Tubbs Fire ravaged through the same pass that we had traveled a day before and burned parts of Safari West.  After directing the staff to evacuate, owner Peter Lang, stayed behind and strung together ten garden hoses to hold it at bay. N one of the living creatures at the preserve were harmed.  The same could not be said for Lang’s home and a fleet of old, worn surplus jeeps with special seating above the cab.

Heroically, Peter Lang not only saved these beautiful creatures, but future

Mother and calf

opportunities for us to observe all facets of their complex lives, including the miracle of birth.

Safari West can be life changing.  At a minimum, it reminds us of what we have known all along and may have forgotten. We are part of a balance that is both precious and fragile. Although humans have benefitted from being able to walk and use our hands simultaneously, we still share an eco-system and a an obligation to nourish and protect it.

On October 19, our family welcomed Drew Sofia Norton, into the world. Her parents

Drew Sofia Norton

and Jamala experienced the miracle of birth months apart. I hope that this beautiful baby, precious forever and fragile for the short-term, will embrace and celebrate all living things in our world. Visiting Safari West in a few years may give her a head start.


Face of Five

 

“Damnit!,”

“What did you forget this time,” said Karen, responding to a familiar tone in my voice.

“My phone,”  I answered, tightening my grip on the steering wheel.

“Well, I’ve got mine, she said, reassuring us both that we would not be completely off the grid of modern life during the next few days.

It was 2009 and having celebrated our recent retirements with season ski passes to Mammoth Mountain Resort, we relished the concept of mid-week skiing and the availability of a nearby cabin, courtesy of friends, Cindy and Ross.  For us, the season passes were a metaphor for our new-found freedom and the ability to be spontaneous, to load the car on a whim and, within hours, be on a sparsely populated mountain.  Cautiously dipping our toes in the sea of invincibility that once dominated our early lives, we were happy, healthy and wanted to remain as young as we could for as long as we could.

Our plan was to ski Wednesday through Friday noon, have a quick lunch, then get out of Dodge before the weekenders arrived.  Today, there would be no standing in line to buy a lift ticket.  They were already around our necks, with photos, encased in plastic.  Season passes make you feel élite and special.

It had been awhile since Karen skied Mammoth and I was anxious to show her some new runs that I had discovered in a recent trip with some colleagues from work.

“Ross recommended a great warm-up run for me.  It’s called Mambo,” I said as we put on our ski’s at the bottom of Stump Alley.

Karen answered, “Sounds good, as long as they have already groomed it.”  To find her “ski legs,” she preferred that the first few runs of the day be free of moguls, chunky snow or ice.  Mambo is a series of plateaus, creating alternating degrees of steepness from the top to the bottom before merging with Escape, a chute that allowed us to build up enough speed to make it back to the Stump Alley Express Chair.  From there, we did it again, and once more until we realized we were falling into our comfort zones.  A very nice, cozy comfort zone where the challenge of the slope fluidly matched the skill level of the skier.   Feeling more confident, we were ready to push ourselves.

“Let’s go higher,”  Karen said.

So we did.  We ascended the mountain, Stump Alley to Chair #3 to a higher ridge line.

“This chute feeds into St Anton, follow me,” I pointed down the slope. From the back side, we could ski the St. Anton run which provided access to numerous opportunities on the northern side of the mountain.  There we were, me in my helmet and goggles and Karen, sporting a cute beret and designer shades, embracing the sense of freedom and euphoria that the mountain gave us.

On Thursday, I suggested we explore it’s back side.  The old two-person Chair #9  had been replaced with the new six-person Cloud Nine Express Chair which made many more skiers aware of these once-remote runs.  Off the chair to the right, Goldhill could be intimidating, but soon merged with great runs like  Haven’t The Foggiest and Quicksilver.  The calmness of this area, with the muted sun, struggling to penetrated the thick, grey-rust sky, painted a very heavenly portrait.  Nearly Nirvana but for the packs of helter-skelter snowboarders, passing through the silence like some Mad Max movie.

“Karen, do you remember Face of Five? I inquired. “We’ve skied it several times together.”

“Tell me about it,” she asked, signaling that her memory of it was, at best, foggy.

“The face is steep, right off the chair, sometimes chunky in the morning,” I said, “but it soon becomes Solitude, which you loved.”

“Where is it?”  expressing due diligence on my recommendation.

“Actually, it’s just around this ridge, follow me,” I responded.  And she did.

We skied Face of Five many times, benefitting by another new express chair until our legs began to tire.  On our last run, we would stay on Solitude, past the express chair, to connect with lower trails that would eventually bring us back to Stump Alley, where a beverage of our choice was waiting.   During this last run, it was important that we stay together.  My intelligent, educated wife is severely directionally challenged and I would like to think that she needs me to get down the hill.  Honestly, if we got separated, she would probably flag down a skier and ask directions.

We decided to spend our last morning on the back side, continuing to relish the challenge.  Skiing better than we had on our first day, we wanted more, but the early weekenders were arriving and clearly visible against the backdrop of the white snow.

“Let’s do one more, then go in,” Karen said, as noon was approaching.

Pointing to a narrow trail, I said, “This will take us back to Face Of Five and we can go down from there.”

“Great.”  There was an enthusiast tone to her voice.  She was feeling good and we would probably boast to each other throughout the drive home.

The trail merged directly into the traffic on Face of Five.  We pulled up to get our bearings and discuss a plan for the last descent.  Suggesting our usual route, I said, “Ski down to the sign, we can meet up there and then go down the rest of the way together.”

The sign is a large billboard-sized ski trail map that is located at the apex of the lower and upper slopes.  All the primary chair lifts coming from the various lodges dump skiers nearby and it is highly recognizable and helpful to those without pocket maps.

“You go first and I’ll meet you at the sign,” said Karen.

So I did.  I set the edges of my ski’s into the snow and stopped at the base of the gigantic trail map, listening to what my thighs were telling me.  I kept close watch for my partner for the next several minutes.  She didn’t come.  After another fifteen minutes, I became worried.   At the least, she had taken a wrong turn, descended to another area and, without my phone, it could take hours for us to connect.   This was the option that I was hoping for.

Polling slowly, I made my way back to the chair lift and rode to the top of Face of Five, looking off for signs of her.  I skied back down and still saw none. Beginning to feel helpless, I decided to ski down to Stump Alley, near where our car was parked.   Again, I waited and paced.  My mind was running out of good scenario’s and I decided to check the places that I was avoiding.

Neither of the two emergency first aids stations reported an accident involving a woman.  They recommended I check back later.  Thinking that Karen may have called the cabin land-line, I drove there and found Ross, an early weekender,  just arriving.  He is part of the volunteer ski patrol and has contacts and can ski areas most people can’t. Before immediately leaving for the mountain, Ross gave me his phone.  I called Karen’s phone and, for the first time in hours, heard her voice.

“Hi, you’ve reached Karen’s cell.  Your call is important to me, at the beep….”

Another hour passed and I found myself driving back to the places where she might be, including both first aid stations.  At 3:30 PM, the phone rang.

“Hello, Ross James please,” the voice on the line said.

“This is Ross’ phone, but my name is Lyle Norton,” I answered.

“Oh, Mr. Norton,  the voice answered back, “you’re the person I am trying to contact.  This is Dr. Siena at Mammoth Community Hospital.”

The scratches along the right side of her face and the broken clavicle would heal soon, but they were mostly concerned about the concussion.  Karen was resting, not so comfortably.  Dr. Siena explained that she had arrived in an ambulance sometime after 12:30 PM in a semi-conscious state.  She later regained full consciousness and he had spoken to her.  She recalled from an instant glimpse before the collision that it was a skier wearing a helmet.  She remembered parts of a bumpy, headfirst basket ride down the slope, briefly worrying about throwing up, then actually doing so as she was being placed in the ambulance.

Within seconds after I started down the slope, she was hit.  I was probably no more than fifty yards away and heard nothing.   Ironically, although it was a tragic event in our lives, neither of us have any recollection of what really happened or witnessed it. The resort accident report that I requested revealed nothing:  “woman found unconscious on Face of Five, evacuated at 12:18 PM and transported to Community Hospital.  No witnesses.”  The other skier apparently fled the scene and she was discovered, lying alone in the snow.  You really do ski at your own risk and radio communication between those on the mountain and the first aid centers is not always reliable.

Karen continued to rest.  After a few weeks, the facial scratches were gone and the fog in her brain was beginning to lift.  In April, two months from the accident, she was much better and, feeling the need to “get back on the horse,” we returned to Mammoth to finish the run on Face Of Five.  We skied for two days, mostly the back side (a reprise on Haven’t The Foggiest).  We were back, both skiing with helmets, one a bit worn and the other, new and shiny, still living the dream, day-by-day, acutely aware of our mortality.


Walt and My Autopian World

 

In 1955 suburbia, our quiet street was typically filled with young baby boomers seeking to play in the remaining after-school sun.  In the late afternoon, we would hear the recognizable unique sounds each parent used to call their kids to come home.  They ranged from whistles to something between a scream and a yodel.  Mine was simply a shout out of my name and these days, I had my parental alarm clock set at 4:00 pm, the time that the new Mickey Mouse Club television show began.

Walt Disney’s first major achievement in 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club had many diverse features that were presented in a very regimented way.   Firstly, it was anyone’s

The Original Mouseketeers

The Original Mouseketeers

guess on the outcome of cartoon Donald Duck’s daily ringing of the gong to introduce the show.  Sometimes the gong remained rigid, like a stone, leaving Donald to vibrate off the screen and other times it had the consistency of watermelon, surprisingly exploding on contact.  Then, there was clubhouse time with the original Mouseketeers including Cubby, Annette, Jimmy, the adult leader and one of my early crushes, Cheryl. The Mouseketeer activities changed daily, always woven within a fabric of wholesomeness.  They were the envy of every seven-year old that I knew.

Twenty minutes a day was devoted to special family serial dramas like “Spin and Marty” and “The Applegate Mysteries.”  “Spin and Marty” was about two boys who grew up on a cattle ranch, always finding themselves with strange conundrums to resolve, usually before their parents discovered them.   Disney always revealed his latest cartoons on the Mickey Mouse Club featuring Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy or Pluto, two mice, a couple of mutt dogs and an irritable, ill-tempered duck.  One of his most famous cartoons starred Goofy as a mild-

Disneyland (NBC, ABC, CBS) [1954-1990] aka The Wonderful World of Disney Shown: Tinkerbell

The Wonderful World of Disney Shown: Tinkerbell

mannered man-dog who became a crazed maniac when he got behind the steering wheel of a car.  This cartoon not only foreshadowed current life in the fast lane, but serves as a segue to the rest of my story.

Walt Disney used his new television show to market and promote a uniquely innovative and awesome new theme park, his second major achievement of 1955.  There would be nothing like Disneyland anywhere in the world and ample time on the Mickey Mouse Club and Sunday evening “The Wonderful World of Disney” television programs featured Walt himself, with models and drawings, looking like everyone’s grandfather, explaining new aspects that were well beyond people’s imaginative comprehension.  Anticipation throughout the country was so high that the grand opening was nationally televised, something unheard of in

Spin and Marty

Spin and Marty

1955.  Television personalities Art Linkletter, Robert Cummings and Ronald Reagan hosted the show, guiding the nation down Main Street and eventually into a jungle boat, a delta riverboat, a castle, then to Autopia in Tomorrowland, the attraction that I most coveted.

It seems ironic today that the opportunity to drive a car on a scale model freeway usurped my fascination with visiting far away tropical forests or the Wild West.  Like Walt, I saw freeways as alluring conduits that would enhance our freedoms and connect our communities.  Sustained with cheap, plentiful gas and enough

Ronald Reagan, Bob Cummings and Art Linkleter co-host Disneyland's Grand Opening

Ronald Reagan, Bob Cummings and Art Linkletter co-host Disneyland’s Grand Opening

rubber plants in the world’s jungles, the new freeways would be filled with families passing in shiny convertibles, waving to each other on the way to the beach or a picnic.  The obsession with driving clouded my memory of the Goofy’s “road rage” cartoon, Walt’s prophetic warning of the dark side of his mobile utopia.

While watching the grand opening show, I said, “Mom…”   Without letting me finish my thought, she said, “I’ve already talked to Aunt Naomi and we plan to visit her next spring and all go to Disneyland.”   My parents were in their twenties and probably wanted to go as much as I did.  This would be a dream for most kids in my neighborhood, but as a somewhat spoiled, only child, I complained to myself that our visit was almost a year away.  Maybe I would be too old for Disneyland by then.  Turns out I wasn’t too old, just too short.

The drive from Aunt Naomi’s house in Encino to Anaheim seemed to take forever.  Once we passed downtown Los Angeles on the 101 Freeway, their was nothing but orange groves and blue skies.  Most people had never heard of Anaheim, dtour02California before Disney selected the rural area for his ability to secretly buy up several large parcels under separate, newly created real estate companies, a feat he would repeat in assembling vast contiguous acreage for his Disney World theme park in Florida.   An enormous sign announced that we had arrived at the Magic Kingdom.  After entering the property,  traveling along a half-mile entryway to access the colossal parking lot, waiting for a tram to pick up and deliver us to the entrance, we were about to experience the dream.

Originally, Disneyland offered five categories of attractions ranging from A tickets for the more common rides to the E-ticket for those most popular and exciting.  To this day, the term “E-ticket” is a commonly used metaphor for describing something thrilling like “Surfing the pipeline was an E-ticket ride.”  My parents purchased the largest fifteen-ride book for

Original Disneyland ticket coupons

Original Disneyland ticket coupons

$5.95 Adult ($12.35 value) and $4.95 Child ($9.50 value) that included the following tickets:  one A ($.10), two B’s ($.25), three C’s ($.40), four D’s ($.70) and five E-tickets ($.85).  By comparison, in 2007, I treated my son’s family to a day at Disneyland, who now sells simplified general all-day passes.   Responding to my request for two child and four adult passes, the attendant responded, “That will be five hundred and thirty-six dollars, please.”   In 1956, the attendant would have requested the hefty sum of twenty-nine dollars and seventy cents for the same entry passes.

Since it was on the way, we went directly to the jungle boat ride in Adventureland, an awesome experience for my generation and a true E-ticket ride.  Surprisingly, the Autopia ride was only a C-ticket, but I wanted to drive those cars around that beautiful miniature freeway, and begged to go there next.

After rushing everyone through Fantasyland, by the Madhatter’s Cup and Saucer ride, we were soon standing at the

Autopia

Autopia

Autopia entrance.  Moments later, my lingering anticipation and excitement would crash like a lead balloon falling from the sky.  With a red arrow pointing to the bottom, the sign said “You must be this tall to drive the cars.”   I walked under the sign several times in disbelief.  I was two inches too short.  My only option was to ride as a passenger, arms crossed, bottom lip protruding and silent while my father drove the car, boring for him and humiliating for me.  C’mon, I  experienced this on the drive down from my aunt’s house.  The consolation that “there’s always next time” was not consoling at this moment.  An otherwise tremendous day was marred by this episode.  I had a bone to

The sign

The sign

pick with Mr. Walt Disney.

In 1959, we returned and I finally drove the small cars on the Autopian freeway, though at age eleven, some of the original excitement had waned.  Besides, other attractions like Tom Sawyer’s Island and The Matterhorn had been added, enough new imagination for any young mind to feast on.  Later in the day, we were walking in Fantasyland when my mother, grabbing my shoulder, pointed and said, “Look, over there.”  It took a few moments, but I soon realized it was Walt Disney, strolling through his masterpiece, holding the hands of his two grandchildren.   There was no crowd or entourage following him around.  We asked for a photo and he said, “Sure,” adding, “are you having a good time?”  “This is the greatest place ever,” I responded, deciding to put the Autopia incident behind me. He was forgiven. Few people had more influence on the my generation than Walt Disney and this small, barely focused photo, is a constant reminder of the wonderment that he created in me.

Walt and I, 1959

Walt and I, 1959

Epilogue:  It’s always nice to get through these childhood disappointments and laugh about them later.  But, really, two fricken inches!

 


The Holland House

Eastern view

Eastern view

It’s quiet in the house on the hill.  We can look down on a busier part of town, but only when we walk out onto the deck in the evening can we hear the sounds of far off traffic and sirens.  We also hear the sounds of wild turkeys, taking a dinner stroll with their poults, the crackle as their feet crush the leaves fallen from the majestic California oak trees

Each day, the ever present view is more stunning as the morning fog lifts to reveal the valley below, the Annadel Ridge and the Mayacama Mountains above. Mount Bennett rises to the Southeast exposing the seasonal green on green or green  on brown of the oaks and grasses, a signature northern California landscape.  It is panoramic, the flagship of our decor.

To us, the Holland House, named after our road, is like living in a tree, looking down upon the world or a terrarium, observing the daily changes to the local landscape IMG_2901through glass walls.  We have awoken to pinkish-red skies contrasting the deep blue dawn off to the East.  The afternoon sun illuminates the mountains, highlighting the portrait as a museum piece and the evenings, especially during a full moon, need no description.

The front of the mid-century house faces the Taylor Mountain Preserve with the IMG_3231stunning natural vegetation flowing downward, looking like it is about to devour us.  During the spring, fresh peaches, picked from a tree outside the front door are added to a breakfast menu.  Beneath the peach tree, ferns, fuchsias and rhododendrons are soaking up the shade, adding texture and color.  Up the adjacent steep entry steps where the black lizards sun themselves, is a natural path that separates the front garden. Through the ivy archway, golden heather is interspersed with spikes of lavender, staring across the path at ghost lady ferns, Japanese painted ferns, azaleas and more rhododendrons.   Natural vegetation lifts above the garden like a breaking wave.

Today, I came upon a grey and orange fox, laying on the gravel driveway, seemingly unbothered by my presence.  Any sudden movement could startle him so I stood IMG_2656motionless as we watched each other closely for several minutes.  He sat like a dog, with front paws extended and crossed, his rear legs protruding backwards.  For a moment, he began to crawl forward on his belly, leading me instinctively to talk to him.  “ Come here,” I said softly, “I won’t hurt you.”  It didn’t work.  Just as I thought we were about to bond, he stood and jumped through the old fence, running off through the dense natural vegetation on our lower property.  This was my second encounter with a fox since we acquired the Holland House.

IMG_1218

1960s kitchen

In December 2014, we purchased a view and this home with great potential, originally built in 1950,  Initially, we saw a 1960s kitchen, divided rooms and small doorways that all needed to be opened up and modernized.  Fearing to become too comfortable and complacent with the existing decor, we immediately consulted a young designer and began the process of truly making it our own.  In April 2015, our  kitchen

2015 kitchen

2015 kitchen

moved into a spare bedroom and bathroom,  most of our furniture was put on consignment, the washing machine was relocated and re-

attached to the rear garden and, with the exception of the master bedroom, the house was emptied days before leaving on a pre-scheduled sixteen-day trip to Kyoto Provence in Japan.  Shortly after our arrival in Kyoto, we received photos by text from our contractor displaying openings where walls once stood and exposed sub-flooring that was supporting worn linoleum.  One photo showed a large pile of wood and trash with the caption:  “This is your old kitchen.”

For the next three months, my desk was a makeshift counter, a hot plate was our stove, a IMG_2509microwave our only oven, and an old love seat gave us somewhere to sit.  The kitchen sink was across the hall in the main bathroom.  My outdoor laundromat was functional and the air-dry system involved draping our clothes over the deck railing.  I hadn’t worn air-dried clothes since those that my mother hung on our backyard line during the 1950s. The clothes were naturally fresh and stiff.  This new living arrangement was reminiscent of our early marriage and our college days.

Warned to expect delays and overruns, each one became less tolerable,  especially the closer we were to completion.  Perseverance and patience came easier with the completed design sketches, knowing that there was a pot-of-gold at the end of this huge, colorful, costly and time-consuming rainbow.  The near completion of construction also reminded us that we did not have any furniture.  In a crazy “start anew” moment, we sold it. However, the computer-generated sketches from our designer, Lauren, fresh from  celebrating her 27th birthday, gave us a starting point to collaborate on the last furnishing decisions.  Following our instincts while allowing Lauren to push us where we had never gone before, the final plan was approved and I began searching, not for another rainbow, but, literally, a pot of gold.  The last furnishings were delivered inIMG_2552 October 2015 and the first phase was complete.   The new design fits our lifestyle and gives us, arguably, the best view from any laundry folding counter anywhere in the  world.

The Holland House has given us a renewed sense of community, one that was much less evident in our Southern California neighborhood.  There are 116 homes on the hill, connected through a mutual water district and an email alert system, warning of nearby thefts or occasional mountain lion sightings.  Neighbors, immediate and nearby, have come to greet us and introduce themselves.  Today, a bag of fresh vegetables arrived at our door, from a neighbor’s garden.  We like the people on the hill.  They make us feel we belong here.  We do.

With the exception of our friendly neighbors, the Holland House is about privacy and serenity that connects us to the land.  Completely private, our master bath and shower is open to the outside through a large glass window.  Numerous times this season, while showering, I have observed an adult doe with her fawn during early survival training.  Deer use our property as a connector path to the preserve and they jump a short, old country fence before loping up the hill.   Instinctively aware that the fawn could not make the leap without practice, the doe would cross the fence, face away from the young fawn and wait patiently for the trial and error process to evolve.  When the IMG_2544fawn would panic after failing time after time, the doe jumped back for comfort, then repeated the process.  Today, the fawn, larger and more stable on its feet, conquers the fence, usually after a brief contemplative pause.

One hour away from San Francisco, our favorite city in the world, the birds are noisy and the squirrels are busy, leaping from tree to tree on a warm afternoon.  The hawks are circling above while the hummingbirds hover at eye level.  It is all ours to enjoy, breaking from the routine of the day, a continual reminder that we share this planet with many beautiful creatures and natural landscapes.  The Holland House has brought us back to the land and re-energized our commitment to preserve and protect it for future generations.


Change and Hope

 

The year 2008 was an election year and before it was over, I would step away from a thirty-six-year career in public administration.   Looking forward to doing many new things, I occasionally  questioned the timing of my retirement and had some trepidation about adapting to the significant changes that lie ahead, fearful it would change who I am.  We were deep into the Presidential election process and, in late spring, the economy was becoming a concern to most people in the country.  After eight years of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the public seemed ready for a change and I assumed it would be Hillary Clinton.  She had history and now Senatorial experience where she seemed adept at reaching across the aisle.  Many people saw her as the smartest and most committed Clinton in the White House and there was no doubt in my mind that she would be elected our next President.  Also, electing the first female president is still an important milestone for my generation.  Then came the 2008 Iowa Caucus, not something that I gave much credence to.   It was still not significant in the overall scheme of things until Barack Obama, a young senator from Illinois won the caucus, which afforded him the opportunity to speak on a national stage.  From that point and throughout the next few months, my personal and political experiences would be about change.

I have heard political speeches for decades.  They all cover the usual issues and hit upon the partisan biases of the day.  They also provide a platform for politicians to inject the most powerful tools at their disposal:  hope and fear.  Hope is hit or miss, difficult to effectively pull off, but fear works every time.  It gets their attention quickly and is welcomed justification for the anger some feel, trying to survive in a difficult, stressful society.  Hope, on the other hand, is more risky, but when it works it can drive people to change.   For any leader, hope can bestow reverent power, the kind given by the people because they believe in you.  We went to the moon and back in 1969 because John Kennedy, years earlier, told us that we could do it and we believed him.  Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt led us through difficult times because people believed in them.   I admired that Barack Obama was following the path of change and hope, but also remembered that it can be an obstacle for most people. Electing the first African-American president was still a milestone for my generation.  So I thought.

Words are just words, but I saw something in Barack Obama during his Iowa victory speech that I hadn’t seen in forty years, someone who could unite our country and, maybe, the world.  I had thought that a relatively inexperienced  African-American man named Barack Hussein Obama could not be elected as President of the United States, but from the 2008 Iowa speech, I began to comprehend what the excitement was all about.  He truly had the power of hope and the potential to make Americans and the world believe in America again. Our household was politically divided during the primaries, my wife, sticking with Hillary and me defecting to Obama.  “I like him,” Karen said, “but Hillary is more electable and she’s a woman.”   I responded, “I know, I will vote for her in November, but this guy could be one in a generation.”  Karen was retiring in June 2008 from a teaching career and was beginning to worry about her 401K.  She protested, “Greed always overcomes reason.”

Daily reports about the evolving economic crisis in the national housing market seemed to coincide with the announcement of my October retirement in April 2008.  We had some big and significant projects ahead of us and some colleagues suggested that I reconsider and “work until the storm clears.”  They still hadn’t realized that the merry-go-round never stops and it’s up to each of us to decide when to step off.  With college expenses behind us, I had hope that the country would eventually fix our economic ills.  The world was counting on it.

Karen and I had talked about going somewhere fairly soon after my last day in the office.  We talked about Paris or London, somewhere to celebrate and to de-compress.  At dinner one evening, we discussed our options and the words of a speech that resonated with us forty years prior somehow came up.   The basis of the speakers remarks were that the two things most difficult for people were accepting change and maintaining hope. Karen suggested that we include them as our retirement model.  “Ya’ know,” she said, “the dollar sucks right now, we should stay U.S. and go see some history or to places that inspire us.”    “Good idea, but we don’t have much time to pull it together,” I responded, giving praise but evoking a sense of urgency.  I was not in retirement mode yet, but maybe planning this trip would help with the transition.  We both soon knew where it would begin.

The economy was bad and would get much worse before it would start to get better.  The commonly used phase of the day was “too big to fail.”  It had to change or we were going to experience the difficult childhood of our parents.  In late August, an apparent act of desperation, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate announced the nomination of Sarah Palin for Vice-President and within a few weeks, it was over.   We would most likely elect the first African-American president, an act that, in itself, represented both change and hope.

Feeling nostalgic, I was drawn back to JFK,  listening repeatedly to his January 1961 Inaugural address from an old CD that I purchased at the Dallas Book Depository gift shop, ironically on the same day JFK, Jr. was killed in a small plane crash.  The speech began, “We observe today, not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.”    They were appropriate and comforting words for all that was happening in my life.

Our calendar was clear.  Less than forty-eight hours after I left my office for the last time on October 1, we were on a plane bound for JFK airport in New York City and after a brief layover, boarded a short flight to Logan International Airport in Boston, where we spent our first night.  The next morning, we picked up a rental car and headed north on Highway 91 toward  Vermont; there was no time to waste.  Connecting to Highway 89 in Woodstock, we headed northwest and would be in Stowe within a few hours.  We arrived just as the leaves were turning, vividly painted across the horizon, a natural, magnificently depicted metaphor for change.  Color was everywhere, covering the mountainsides like bright tie-dye covers a T-shirt. Individual trees were extraordinary and the hiking paths were covered with newly fallen leaves looking like multi-colored cobblestone.  The rest of our trip would be a celebration of this moment in time.  Change was inevitable and it was good.

We left Stowe four days later, driving past mountain lakes surrounded by rich Impressionistic slopes, through New Hampshire to a historic inn on Walker Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, across the cove from the Bush Family estate.  All the local seaside inns display flags whenever the President or Barbara Bush were in town.

A flat in Boston was next where we walked the Freedom Trail and spent a day in the JFK Museum at the University of Massachusetts, a prelude to our next stop, Hyannisport,  Camelot of the 1960s.  After visiting another small, more localized JFK museum, we were on the fast ferry to Nantucket Island for a slower pace, leaving our car on the mainland.  Back on the road days later, we headed to New York City via New Haven, Connecticut and Yale University.   New York didn’t have any special significance except that it was New York and we had an apartment on the Upper East Side for our last week.

Revitalized, we returned to watch Barack Obama make it official on the second Tuesday in November.  Change was here as well as a national crisis that was testing people’s hope.  Whatever the first-term agenda was intended to be, it was now about facing the most dangerous economic quagmire since the Great Depression.  I felt the weight on his shoulders.  I thought about Jackie Robinson and all he went through, but that was 1947.  This was the year 2008 and I was energized to stay engaged in how the next few years would unfold.  Somehow I felt primed to confront it all.  Those life changes that consumed my thoughts over the past few months were not as significant as I imagined.  My spirit was renewed and they hadn’t changed who I am.