Category Archives: Memoir

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.


Coyote Cardio

 

Ed Ruscha's Cyotoe

Ed Ruscha’s “Coyote”

As the Wednesday morning management meeting was breaking up and, after determining that there was no further business, Jim inquired, “Any stories from our little snow bunnies?”  He was referring to Dennis and I, who had just returned from a four-day ski trip at Mammoth Mountain with some colleagues from other parts of the state. Sunburned faces after a two-day absence from the grind always left the door open to facetious references like “snow bunny.” Amid the noise of rustling papers and squeaky chairs as people transitioned out of the room, Dennis proclaimed, “Well, Lyle got chased by a coyote and he has witnesses.” Laughter ensued and chairs began to squeak once again, this time from returning butts, waiting for a juicy story.

Our ski trip to Mammoth Mountain resort had become an annual event and, over a ten-year span beginning in the 1990s, had grown to six skiers. George, most active in keeping it going year to year, knew the mountain well and was always looking for an excuse to be out of the office. He and a few others in the group wanted to be on the mountain early each morning when the lifts start running and used their late afternoon shut down as the only reason to stop. I preferred the 10:00am to 3:00pm window but my legs were strong and I felt up to the task.

After a twenty-minute lunch break, we exited Mid-Chalet to put on our skis and traverse to Chair Three.  George wanted to show us some new runs that we could access from the top. They were called “Critters” and “New Critters” which, within the hour, would be the irony of the day. Assembling at the top of Chair Three, we started down the backside of St. Anton where we could pick up enough speed to traverse past Bristlecone to the top of the new runs that would ultimately provide a long path down to Chair One. George’s plan connected many runs to give us one very long one, interrupted only by our need to catch a breath.  Somewhere near the top of Bristlecone, Gary caught an edge and fell, landing softly onto the new snow. While the others kept going, worried about having enough speed to finish  the traverse without excessive poling, I stopped to make sure that Gary was OK. “I’m fine, dammit,” he snorted, so I left, reminding him that we were all meeting at the bottom of Critters.

Poling, a consequence of not having enough speed, is defined by burning arm muscles and lack of rhythm, not the true exhilaration of skiing. Relieved to reach the top, I turned right and began my descent down the hill. Moving fluidly, I was relaxed, letting my ski’s do the work just before the chaos began. Suddenly, through my tinted goggles, I saw movement flash by, peripherally, on my right side. Within an instant I realized that it wasn’t another skier or snowboarder because it was staying with me.

Still startled, I planted my pole for a sharp left turn and it followed, head down, like its nose was glued to my boot, fortunately made of hard composite material. Planting my pole, I thrust my knees quickly to the right and glanced down to see breath streaming through its nostrils.   I was not only trying to shed the beast but concentrate on getting to the bottom without falling. Another quick turn to the left, then to the right and I could sense the commotion stop. Needing to regain my balance and composure, I forced my knees, once again into the slope and, quickly stopped, pushing up a small trail of snow. My heart was still pounding when I looked up and tried to make some sense of what just happened.

Fifteen feet up this slope named “Critter,” stood a large, skinny coyote with a long pink tongue drooping below its jowl. We shared a terse stare before he turned and loped through the white snow to some nearby bushes.  Turning toward the bottom of the hill I gazed at my friends. Still attached to their ski’s, they were rolling in the snow, consumed with belly laughter.  Then Gary came over the horizon and pulled up, “What’s going on?”  Not certain how to answer his question, I just said, “I’ll tell you when we get to the bottom.”  His questions continued after he looked down the hill, inquiring, “What’s up with them?” I left without responding, ready to confront my audience.

Theories abounded at the bottom of the hill, each attempting to justify what occurred. Dennis surmised, “I think he’s been waiting all day and he finally found the weak one of the herd.”  I reminded him that the coyote was still hungry and I was at the bottom of the hill. “Ya’know, in my old neighborhood,” George chimed in, “there was this dog, I think it was a black lab, who chased everything that moved, cars, motorcycles, even bicycles. He never hurt anyone, he just loved to run after moving things.  This coyote was the same as that dog, except this neighborhood has skiers instead of cars.”  Gary, who missed it all, added his opinion. “Maybe he’s rabid, we should report him to the lodge. Don’t these things hibernate?”

Coyotes do not hibernate or migrate during the winter. They survive on berries, bushes and very rare natural prey, a  segue way to my theory.  For my canid friend to be competitive for the occasional meaty morsels, he must stay in shape and maintain his edge.  Like duck hunters who hone their skills during the off-season by shooting at clay pigeons, this coyote used me and, maybe others, to exercise his instincts and remain sharp.  It was a collaboration.  I was pushed, through fear, to turn my ski’s as crisply and quickly as I had in years while the coyote worked on his cardio and learned to anticipate the moves of another frightened creature.

Ed Ruscha's Coyote #2

Ed Ruscha’s “Coyote #2”

As we gathered to ski down to Chair One, George, pointing up the slope, yelled, “Look!”  There was a female skier with a coyote’s snout at the back of her boot. Suddenly she fell and he immediately retreated into his hiding spot, presumingly feeling bad about being too aggressive.  We checked in on the latest victim. “I’m okay,” she responded, “did you guys see that?” I yelled back, “Know him well.”

Months later at a conference, I joined a friend and some of his colleagues for coffee. After being introduced, one of them said, “Your name sounds familiar, did you once get chased by a coyotes while skiing?”  “That was me,” I nodded. The diverse demographics of our ski group had taken the story statewide. I have fond memories and feel fortunate to have been chased by a coyote.  Only a handful of people, skiing this small area of Mammoth Mountain on this cold, white February day, will have a great tale to tell for the rest of their lives.

 

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Mr. Jones Revisited

Mentors are like artists or writers, sometimes their impact is not fully appreciated for decades.  Then, at times, it is passed on and lives for generations.  This could be the story of Mr. Ron Jones, a very normal looking young high school English teacher in 1965, with a fresh credential, trying to enlighten a class of 4th-year English Seniors, some looking for inspiration and others waiting for it all to end.  Though I found him an interesting teacher, it took years to fully understand the profound effect our time together had in developing some of my lifelong passions and, in many ways, guiding the way I look at things.

Mr. Jones had a typical mid-1960s high school teacher image, short hair, gray slacks with cuffs, a button-down dress shirt and tie and tweed jacket.  His look was preppy, but intellectual, one that would drastically change for teachers in the next few years. Jones had chosen, as one of his extracurricular requirements, to help with the football team and I would often see him at practice.  He was athletic and knowledgeable about the game, but his classroom persona revealed much more than just a jock teaching English.  The fall of 1965 was at the cusp of massive cultural and social changes in this country and, I believe, as a young man, he sensed and embraced them early.

During a week-long segment on poetry, Mr. Jones veered from the classics to discuss some new contemporary poets.  “Ya’know, he said, “many of the writers and poets today are singers and songwriters.”  Then, poetically, he recited lyrics by Buffy Saint Marie and Leonard Cohen, prose of a new day.  Half the class continued to be bored with both the new and the old, but Mr.Jones had my full attention.  In this moment, a teacher was about to inspire a student.  Months earlier, with no expectations, I had gone with a friend to a Bob Dylan concert.  The profound effect of his music had led me to other songwriters of the emerging folk rock movement and Mr. Jones just legitimized them all.

For the next few weeks, students were allowed to bring in music on Fridays.  We listened seriously to songwriters, discussing and interpreting their poetry the best we could.  Some students never understood or cared about it at all, foreshadowing future oblivion or a difficult adjustment through the next decade. At times, I thought Mr. Jones and I were having a conversation and others in the class were just listening. A typical classroom discussion was best summed up by one of my Friday submittals, Bob Dylan’s song, “Ballad Of A Thin Man” from his new album, “Highway 61 Revisited”:

You raise up your head

And you ask, “Is this where it is?”

And somebody points to you and says

“It’s his”

And you say, “What’s mine?”

And somebody else says, “Where what is?”

And you say, “Oh my God

Am I here all alone.”

But something is happening here

And you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mister Jones?

Passion for music of all kinds has continuously enveloped my adult life, always leaving time to explore the lyrics of great contemporary song writers like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn and others who have chronicled our time so eloquently.  Amid many musical influences, Mr. Jones steered me in their direction and gave me permission to be open and accepting of something new.

Weeks later, this engaging teacher offered an intriguing extra-credit opportunity, one that got the attention of my friend Steve and I.  “There is a film playing at the Towne Theater, it’s called, ‘The Pawnbroker,’” Mr. Jones announced, “it’s not required but if any students are able to watch it and write a brief description of your impressions, I’ll give you fifty extra credit points toward your grade.”  With SAT scores lower than expected, we were both focused on our GPA’s and justifying a week-night movie as the road to an A was appealing.  “If you wanna do it, I can pick you up at 6:30,” Steve said as I nodded affirmatively.  Steve’s dad had recently given him a brand new, burgundy-colored 1966 Pontiac GTO as an early graduation present, vastly increasing my transportation opportunities.  The car was a beast that delivered less than eight miles to the gallon and even with fuel priced at twenty-nine cents per gallon, lack of gas money often restricted our travel.  Luckily, tonight was about extra credit and Steve’s mom pitched in a few dollars.

I loved the movies, especially when Paul Newman overcame adversity and prevailed over the latest antagonist or Jerry Lewis would portray a character among his breadth of idiots.  I loved movies, but had no concept of film as an art form until that rainy January night, my first time inside the Towne Theater, at the time San Jose’s only art and foreign film venue. The featured film was director Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” a dark portrait of a soulless man, the survivor of the Nazi concentration camp where his wife and children were killed.  The main character, Sol Nazerman, played by young actor Rod Steiger, operated a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem that also fronted for a pimp.  His experiences had left him totally detached from others or the world around him. I was expecting a more dramatic Hollywood ending where we watch significant changes to Sol’s life unfold into happily ever after. In this film, real change came slowly or not at all, with a small glimmer of hope left to the interpretation of the viewer. The “Pawnbroker” was stark reality, but, at seventeen, the most poignant film I had ever seen, a film that heightened my understanding and awareness of the Holocaust.

Eager to write a brief review of the film to secure the extra credit, I described the use of visual flashbacks to horrifically reveal Nazerman’s past, they helped me to better understand his behavior.  Unlike today, information and reviews were not available to the masses.  Viewers had to rely on their own perceptions. In a later discussion, Mr. Jones, admittedly a fan of Sidney Lumet, described how the director used various techniques to create a more powerful message.  It was the first time I understood the role or appreciated the contribution of the film director.

Remaining somewhat interested over the ensuing years, my curiosity re-emerged after I met my wife, Karen, an undergraduate student who also had an interest in film.  Hers was influenced by her parents, who would go to the Towne Theater to watch art films and mine from Mr. Jones.  Karen and I have remained avid film buffs for 47 years, beginning in 1969 with watching art films on campus or at the old Saratoga Theater, a metal quonset hut nestled against the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the village of the same name.

I never communicated with Mr. Jones after graduation but like to remember thanking him and telling him how much I enjoyed his class. Moving on with my life, I remained unaware that he had touched and opened a side of me that could have remained dormant forever.  Questions will always remain of what became of Mr. Jones.  Did he continue teaching in the public school system or drop out and live in a commune for the next ten years?  He may have written the screenplay of a film that I enjoyed, not that credits for someone named Ron Jones would raise a red flag.

Whatever became of him, Mr. Jones will always be remembered as a wonderfully effective teacher, one that opened a young mind to appreciate artistic expression of all kinds.


Revenge for San Thomas

 

An April 2016 small headline read: “Cyclist killed in hit and run collision on San Thomas Expressway,” a very unfortunate repercussion of today’s crowded urban lifestyle as we all try to share access.  Today, the San Thomas Expressway, in the South Bay, is a crowded thoroughfare, extending from Highway 17 at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains to Highway 101, linking west Santa Clara Valley commuters to the likes of Apple, Google and Oracle.   Unless there is an accident or normal congestion, people take it for granted, hardly noticing what surrounds it and never comprehending what lies beneath it.  On the same day of the fatal collision, the Valley Transportation Agency announced the start of The  San Thomas Expressway Box Culvert Repair project.

After reading that, “The project will repair the floors and walls of the four-mile-long San Thomas Creek concrete drainage channel,” I stopped, letting  my mind transport me back to earlier years.  Ironically, the 1961 completion of the San Thomas Expressway was one milestone that marked the end of my childhood.  After homes replaced the orchard in 1957, new and old neighborhood kids still had the creek to play in.  Not learning its name until they were turning it into a box culvert, the San Thomas Aquino Creek, named for Catholic philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas was a natural open creek that carried storm water from streams in the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Francisco Bay via the exact route of the new expressway.  Actually, the kids in our neighborhood were serviced by a short, half-mile stretch of the creek that connected Saratoga Road to Stevens Creek Road, both upgraded to boulevard status years ago as they were also expanded in a never-ending crusade to end gridlock.

Our creek had everything.  Although water flow was scarce in non-winter months, there were always pools filled with tadpoles, lizards scurrying across the banks, loquats, berries and small bushes that tasted like licorice.  A special part of the creek lie ahead, a 500-foot stroll up from the Forest Avenue entrance.  The tiny stream meandered to the right, creating a beach of small stones, all under a large willow tree that made it a natural clubhouse that we named “Sandy Beach.”    We met there, planned adventures and argued there.  We talked about things that we weren’t supposed to, there.   Four hybrid mutts, Budd, Paul, Steve and I, wove time for the creek into every summer day.  Morning basketball in Paul’s driveway, grape soda in the party room that Steve’s parents build behind their house and wiffle ball games in my makeshift backyard stadium still left us plenty of time to enjoy Sandy Beach and to be annoyed when others would use it.

Another quarter-mile past Sandy Beach was the dreaded tunnel under Stevens Creek Road, a simple underground passage, not claustrophobic, that was always terrifying for me to pass through.  Local crime stories, graffiti on the walls and other evidence that people had been there provided ample justification for my young imagination to create many horrifying scenarios.  I never walked, but ran as fast as I could when I had to endure the tunnel.  There was no sky, no trees, just ugly concrete and stale air.

A similar scenario to the 1957 removal of our orchard playground, we ushered in a new decade in 1960 watching workers cut a deep, wide trench in the vacant land, parallel to the creek.  Nothing actually needed to cover our special part of the stream, but the decision was made to channel all the water through a culvert underneath the new expressway.  Left with no value, the creek would be filled in within the next few days as if nothing ever existed there.  San Thomas Aquino Creek, where life was once abundant, died and was buried in a concrete tomb.

I was disappointed and angry, but not as much as Paul.  No one ever consults the neighborhood kids before progress moves in unannounced.  Frustration and a sense of helplessness led to this moment in time for Paul and I.  A series of events over the next few days, a shared, private experience, allowed us to move on from our loss.

Paul moved into one of the new houses with his single mother and grandmother.  He was short, with an athletic build, a dirty blond crew cut and an oversized mouth that would make Mick Jagger envious.  He was very competitive and sports or anything he put his mind to quickly became easy.  Although we didn’t realize it yet, Paul was smarter than the rest of us.  He also liked things that went fast and had a temper, now directed at the new concrete villain.

I was nervous as usual but Paul kept insisting that we needed to face the new culvert.  “C’mon,” he said, “The workers are gone and no one will come back until Monday. Nothing’s gonna happen.”  I hated tunnels and was always afraid of getting caught, but succumbed to Paul’s insistence, thinking we could at least share the blame.  With a few hours of sunlight left, we entered the deep open drench and walked a few hundred feet to the opening of the newest completed section of the concrete channel.  From this point forward, it was a tunnel and I began to breathe harder and to take shorter steps.  Fortunately, I would soon be distracted.

“Hey, what are these?” asked Paul as he knelt and started tinkering with something.  Placed evenly along the concrete lip of the large box culvert were small, red Homelite motors that were attached to large hoses used to evacuate any nuisance water from the bottom floor as the work was being done.  Later in life we would all learn that Paul had an incredible mechanical mind, but this moment was the first hint of it.   He glanced up at me and I quickly recognized the look of determination.  “Ya know,” he said, and I could almost see his brains synapses working, “we could use one of these.”

With less than an incredible mechanical mind, I began to ask why, then stopped as I noticed the huge smile on Paul’s face.  I knew what he was thinking and I asked the question, “You’re not talking about my old go-kart, are you?”

“Yes,” he responded, “We can do this.”

I had a go-kart frame that had hung on the wall of my garage since the last blown engine and my waning interest in racing.  Paul had always wanted to get it running again, but my family was through putting money into it.  He looked at the motor.  “They’ll never miss it,” he said with a smile.  There was no going back for either of us.

We ran back to his garage to retrieve a wrench, a screwdriver and a flashlight, standard tools for a heist of this magnitude.  Within minutes, we were re-entering the culvert as the sun was setting and, in rapid time, Paul had freed the motor.  Those of us who knew him were aware of Paul’s two-stage laugh.  When something was reasonably funny, it was a smile, a softly muttered “huh” as his head and upper body rocked back.   The second stage, following something very funny or expressing enthusiasm, involved a big, loud, sometimes mischievous, laugh, arms and feet moving. He was getting excited about our new project and what was motivating us. As much as I enjoyed the big infectious laugh, this was not the time for it.  Changing the mood, I said, “Let’s just get this thing out of here and worry about the rest later.”

One on each side, we lifted the motor, carried it out of the culvert and across the now useless bridge, down Forest Avenue and past my house to Paul’s garage.  He checked in with his mother and I heard him say, “Lyle got a new motor for his go-kart and we need to work on it a little more.”  She said fine as long as he had dinner first.  A few minutes later, we hauled the motor to my garage as I informed my parents that it belonged to Paul.   Everything was okay, but now, my dinner was ready.  By the time that I finished, Paul had the engine mounted on the frame with one bolt and two small vice grips, an imperfectly acceptable short-term solution.  “We’ll finish it tomorrow,” he said, flashing me the small laugh before he ran home.

The next morning Paul was at my house before I finished breakfast.  By mid-morning, he had hooked up everything except the throttle.  These were gasoline-powered motors that were not intended to run a vehicle, but a solution was at hand that needed my approval.  “I’m just telling you this,” he said, “because you’re the one that going to be driving this thing first.”  Paul then explained his idea of connecting the throttle to a piece of cord that I would pull with my right arm to accelerate while driving with my left hand.  Those of us without mechanical skills must assume other roles, such as “guinea pig.”

We rolled the modified go-kart onto the driveway and Paul started the motor by tugging a built-in cord with a wooden handle on the end.  A small tug from my cord and I began to move forward.  Now in the street, I pulled cautiously, getting comfortable at each speed until I was at full throttle.  Who knows how fast I was going, but sitting six inches above the surface, I felt like I was breaking the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  After slowing to a crawl and making an awkward U-turn, I accelerated for the return trip and saw Paul down the street, waving his arms and running in circles.  It was the big laugh.

We took turns driving the go-kart all weekend.  We drove it everywhere, sometimes illegally, not the best idea when your powered by a stolen motor.  We cared little, it was great fun and both of us felt in control.  Our revenge had been imposed for losing the creek.

By late Sunday afternoon, we were both getting bored with driving our “rocket machine,” and having achieved our goal, agreed that there was only one more thing to do.  As inconspicuously as we have retrieved the motor, we quietly disconnected it from the frame, gathered a few tools and returned it to the culvert as we said good-bye to the creek.  Paul was right.  They never knew it was gone. That evening, through my bath, the Ed Sullivan Show and the first few minutes after my head hit the pillow, I though about our escapades and fell asleep smiling.  It was something we had to do.

As irony would have it, both Paul and I would be driving soon and the new San Thomas Expressway helped us get to where we needed to go.  Months ago, over 50 years from our special weekend, Paul and I shared dinner and a bottle of wine.  Sometime between the salad and the entree, he leaned over and asked, “Do you remember the time we stole the Homelite motor?”

“Of course,” I responded, hoping for the big laugh.

 


The Earthquake Game

 

Wow!  Here we were, sitting in section 6, Row 10 seats one and two,  a couple of seasoned baseball fans, ages 41 and 11, taking in the surroundings of Candlestick Park, attending our first World Series game in 1989 between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.  My son, Ryan and I had tickets to the 1987 World Series games scheduled in San Francisco that never happened  A costly error sent the St. Louis Cardinals there instead.

This year, we broke the hearts of Cubs fans, those who had waited longer than us.  No regrets.  Our team, not the Cubs, had advanced to the World Series for the first time since the 1962 San Francisco Giants were defeated by those damn New York Yankees in the last inning of the last game, missing greatness by only a few inches.  The tickets for tonight’s game came via the friend of the mother of a colleague named Steve.  Ironically, it was friends in Los Angeles who “scored” our tickets for this all San Francisco Bay Area World Series.  The seats were great, upper deck, right behind home plate, a bit high, but we could see everything from here.  Due to strange winds, the jets from SFO were using an alternative flight pattern that took them roaring above the stadium, inciting the crowd of 50,000 people, hungry for blood after a 27-year drought.   At 5:00 pm, the players were finishing their warm-ups and national media was beginning to present our anthem to a national audience, sung a capella by local band, Huey Lewis and the News.  Brief eye contact and a quick smile toward each other reassured us that this was going to a memorable night.

Absorbing all the visual and audible images of this moment, I thought back to when I was selected as one of two mandatory eight-year-olds on the Lions youth baseball team in 1956.  I never played but got to sit in the dug-out with the twelve-year-olds and began to develop a passion for the game.  Then, the large book, The History of Baseball, a birthday gift from my parents, taught me everything I needed to know up until 1957.  With the surprising news that the New York Giants, with young star, Willie Mays, were moving to San Francisco for the 1958 season, I was instantly consumed, spending many of my summer days over the next few years, lying around in the yard listening to the game through a transistor radio held to my ears.

As I do during each memorable baseball experience, I also remembered  Mr. Robert Ishimatsu, our former neighbor and a person responsible for my love of the game.  Amid some neighborhood concern when the Ishimatsu family first moved next door in 1955,  my parents became vocal on the right side of the issue and our families became good friends, me especially with their son, Marty.   Two years later, when I visited Marty in the hospital after he became ill, I fully expected him to come home soon.  He did not, leaving his parents and two young sisters to quietly mourn.

One day, in the early summer of 1958, I had deposited myself on the backyard lawn with transistor radio in hand,  listening to the latest sports news when a soft, clear voice from the other side of the fence, said, “Hey Butch, would you like to go to the game today.”  It was Mr. Ishimatsu.  I was elated.  My transition from radio to a real game was long overdue.   I answered affirmative  and I thanked him until he politely asked me to stop.  Bob Ishimatsu took me to ten or so games over the next few years, all of them great memories, quietly cathartic for both of us.   To this day, I think of him every time I attend a baseball game.

My passion for the game dipped during the ensuing years.  An inability to hit a curve ball rendered it totally a spectator sport and normal distractions in high school and college pushed it back into my subconscious, including meeting and marrying a women who found baseball slow, boring and a temptation to eat junk food, preferring an active soccer match instead.  However, we had two sons together and my suppressed love for the game began to re-emerge.

My wife, Karen and four year-old son Cole stayed home in Los Angeles during this World Series.  Cole was too young to understand, but still a Giants fan in training.  Ryan and I worked together to suppress any influence from his new little friends who would most likely grow up being Dodger fans, something totally intolerable.  Supervising a “play-date” with these new friends,  Karen paused to answer the phone, responding, “Oh, hi Steve, what’s up.”  Hanging up the phone seconds later, she turned on the television and, for the first time in her life, became interested in a baseball game.

The tremor was loud and violent, like an explosion.  At first, it was sheer panic, instinctively reaching to brace myself, totally in the moment.  I reached for Ryan while looking up to see 200-foot light standards waving like the outfield flags.  Surprisingly, my first coherent thought was a recollection that Candlestick Park was built in 1960 on landfill in the San Francisco Bay.  The seemingly endless, muscular vibrations would surely take us down. Then it stopped, everything stopped, for a moment.  There was silence.  Strangely what followed the shaking and the stillness was jubilation.  With San Francisco and Oakland as the competitors, the crowd was mostly Bay Area locals who had lived to tell their past earthquake stories.  The only question was how long the game would be delayed.

Ryan seemed okay, although experiences like this one can linger.  I was still thinking of our vulnerability, sitting atop the saddle of a twenty-nine-year-old stadium built on land that was once water. The fans around us instantly became a community, providing updates, ironically, from transistor radios, the only reliable source of information available at a 1989 baseball game.  For the next hour, the least informed people in the country, regarding this most current event, were the people in the stadium.  At one point, someone shouted that the Bay Bridge had collapsed, later clarified to a section that fell into San Francisco Bay.  Otherwise, local officials were reporting no serious damage or injuries.  I also learned that only the parking lot, not the stadium, was built on landfill and even it did not fall into the bay.

That next thing to occur was the most surrealistic image of the entire experience.  Fifty-thousand baseball fans, calm, patiently waiting for the game to begin, were soon watching chaos on the field.  While the fans were local earthquake veterans, the players, the player’s wives, the New York media broadcasting the game were from various other places throughout the country as well as from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, hotbeds for grooming the game’s future stars.  Uniformed players were hugging their distraught trophy wives or girlfriends, guiding them to safety as they maneuvered their stilettos across manicured turf.  Soon, anyone who was in the catacombs beneath the stadium was on the playing field seeking the safety of open space and local law enforcement officials were responding to what could turn into a significant event.

With no public address system or electricity for the scoreboard, the fans stayed until Huey Lewis exited through the centerfield fence as dozens of police cars entered and surrounded the field.  The game was over before it started.  Soon, after word of mouth from ushers,  disappointed fans stood up and quietly exited the stadium.  We had avoided tragedy, but the night was still young.

After exiting into the parking lot, Ryan and I hovered around an ABC truck that gave us access to the television, covering what we were in the middle of.   We looked up as a small truck, driven by Giants manager Roger Craig, drove by with several players riding in the rear bed, reminding me how Mr. White would transport our team to little league games.  But professional prima donna baseball players, riding in the back of their manager’s truck was not what we had planned to see tonight.   The evening was rapidly moving beyond baseball.

The setting sun injected a new challenge to the situation, darkness.  Tonight, we would not benefit from light of the modern night.  No street lights, no neon, just a glow from the Marina District to the north, becoming visible as we accessed higher ground in our new station wagon.  We were then directed to an alternate route when leaving the stadium.  Expecting to turn right onto the access road to Highway 101, less than a half mile away, we were all forced to turn left and proceed through Hunter’s Point, a neighborhood that had dealt with inadequate street lighting and law enforcement protection for decades.  Soon, we sat in gridlock, in a bad neighborhood during a declared city emergency, the only illumination coming from car headlights,  We were sitting ducks on a pond.

Already feeling uneasy, we began to hear the sounds of breaking glass, Soon, several looters were using baseball bats to shatter store windows, helping themselves to what was inside.   Our worst scenario happened after one of them glanced toward the street and saw targets, unable to run.  First, there was a shattered windshield of the Corvette a few cars ahead of us.   Then, there was another loud and violent explosion.  The rear window of our car was splintered,  our shocked bodies jolted from fear.

For the first time, Ryan’s sounds of distress pushed my adrenaline and anger to the point of giving him bold assurances that no one would enter our car.  Sounding tougher than I was, it was time to find a way out.  Sirens were approaching which would give us some cover and survival instincts seem to be an antidote for traffic congestion.  We were moving again.

We turned left, drove awhile, then turned right because it looked hopeful.  Always boasting of my directional acumen, I had no idea where we were.  Soon, my headlights illuminated a very brave man, standing alone next to a motorcycle, waving his arms off to the right of his body.   “This way,” he yelled. “Turn this way.”   We did, shouting a thanks through our fractured window.  A few hundred feet ahead, the road veered to the left and there it was, a green CalTrans sign that read “San Jose Ave South.”  No longer lost, we would be at our friend’s house in thirty minutes.

Surviving the trauma, we began to feel safe again.  However, after continued assurances of public safety, the radio was now reporting numerous casualties, a collapsed freeway and multiple fires in the Marina District, real tragedies of the day my oldest son and I attended our first World Series game.


The Orchard

 

As a child, I can remember being awakened by the sound of an irrigation pump, sucking the water from the nearby artesian well to the surface and out to the ditches that I called canals.  I was excited to hear it.  It meant that there was movement in the orchard and things would be changing soon.  The mustard plants were already a few feet tall.  Soon they would be taller than me, providing a bright yellow carpet beneath the prune trees that were blossoming their way out of dormancy.   With the onset of summer, the orchard would become much darker, much cooler from heavy new growth.  This was my first memory of spring, growing up in post WWII Santa Clara Valley.  From my bedroom window, I could look past our new lawn, through a small vacant lot right into the orchard, my personal forest and an ever-changing playground for the kids in this first new neighborhood

Early in Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” he describes “the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley” through the image of “an endless array of outhouses, long grape arbors, green pastures, orchards and berry patches.”   This was still true in 1955, even the old portable toilets that seemed to magically appear just before picking season.  My family was among the thousands that pioneered the growth of suburbia in west San Jose, California, proud, at the time, to be called “the second fastest growing city in America.”  My father installed hardwood floors in new homes, start to finish.  He was harvesting a different crop and the bounty was endless.

I was happy.  I had my orchard,  a place to play with my friends, a place to be alone.  Here, I could become Davy Crockett,  the rugged historical character portrayed by actor Fess Parker on the Mickey Mouse Club television program in vivid black and white.  The coonskin cap was a nice touch but the orchard, along with my imagination, brought him to life.  We built forts or formed multiple room apartments in the mustard plants, adding more space when needed by tucking and rolling our bodies to smash the plants down.  I was small, the perfect size for creating a hallway.

Now that the water from the pump was running, Steve, Eddie and I would curb our boredom by challenging each other to stick races in the canals.  Personalized sticks or whatever would float, were placed in the water near the pump for a boost, then we would all run to a place far upstream and wait for the results that were seldom accepted without argument.   Sometimes we would watch the end of a race from one of the large walnuts trees, dispersed among the rows of blossoming, soon to be fruit-bearing, prune trees.

The walnut trees gave us high ground, a look-out and a place to be inconspicuous.   Climbing up first, I had the element of surprise and ammunition, fresh from the tree.  While young, the hard, wrinkly walnut shell is encased in a soft, green, pulpy husk that fit well into a young hand, good for throwing at others, firm enough to sting, but not damage.  The unripened nuts were perfect projectiles and every kid on the block had survived a walnut fight.   Eddie was the smallest but could throw harder than anyone else.   “C’mon, stop,” I yelled, “didn’t you hear me call truce?”  He would eventually stop, reminding me, once again, not to start a walnut fight unless I could finish it.

Periodically we would hear strange music in the distance and rush to climb another walnut tree to listen to the Colonel play bagpipes.   The Colonel was a short, bald European-looking man who, while sitting on a bench under a small arbor, would unknowingly serenaded us with his unusual, haunting melodies.  We always had a perfect spot, we could see him, but he couldn’t see us.  Steve thought that the Colonel had been in the French Foreign Legion, something he thought of anyone with an accent.  “It’s just what I heard,” he scowled, defending himself against our insistence on proof. We should have introduced ourselves to the Colonel and, hopefully, heard some of his stories from the past.  Maybe we would have been disappointed.  He would forever remain a mystery, but the sound from his bagpipes formed a lasting memory.

While the walnut trees gave us so much, they had a way of consistently taking their pound of flesh, mostly in the form of long, deep, hard wood splinters in our hands and feet.  We could push the small ones out by squeezing our skin together, but the deep ones required a quasi-surgical procedure that involved a sometimes sterilized sewing needle, tweezers and my double-teaming parents, one holding me steady while the other performed the extraction.  My father was ex-Marine and a survivor of two battles in the Pacific.  He only knew one way to remove large splinters and each time he would declare, “This is going to hurt, but I will do it as fast as I can.”   It did hurt and always seemed to last longer than it should.  Splinters were an inevitable consequence of life among the walnut trees, but the fun was worth the pain.

One day in 1957, grading equipment appeared and soon a small paved street separated us from the orchard.  They named the street Forest Avenue, which seemed fitting.  It was installed by the city of Santa Clara which meant that we had lived on the undesignated border between the two cities all along.   The short-term pleasure in playing catch with neighbor Billy, each of us standing in a different city, was short-lived.   The graders didn’t leave and our lives were about to change.

Within a few weeks, large trapezoidal mounds of dirt appeared, the tops as wide as a road.  Still not fully comprehending what was happening, we quickly discovered a thrill in running off the top of the mounds to see how far we would sink into the sloping banks.   One time the dirt was above my knees, making it nearly impossible to escape without some tugging from others.  I joked that little Eddie would surely sink all the way up to his neck.  He jumped anyway, flashing me a familiar hand gesture as he thrusted his legs forward, landing on his butt and sliding quickly to the bottom, tearing his jeans.  From a large family, he had younger brothers waiting for those future hand-me-downs, and his mother would not be happy.

Late in the afternoon, the large earth movers were abandoned by the workers and Steve discovered that, without keys, we could still make them lunge forward a few inches simply by pushing the starter button.  We spent nearly an hour taking turns pushing the button until we had moved the behemoth maybe five feet forward.  That was my last memory of playing in the orchard.   Many more graders and other large equipment appeared, much more activity ensued and the reality set in that Forest Avenue would be a connector street for the new neighborhood, hundreds of six-thousand square-foot parcels replacing one orchard.  Less food, more people.   The pride in being recognized as the nation’s second fast fastest growing city came with some harsh physical truths.  In those days, no one protested or chained themselves to a tree.  Growth was progress.  Safely into my ninth year, maybe it was time for me to move on from the orchard.  Besides, Davy Crockett didn’t make it.  His battles were over.

Everybody went about their business as the new neighborhood progressed from sticks to walls.  Coming upon a fallen walnut tree made me briefly sad and nostalgic, but, for the most part, our lives didn’t change.  Some of the prune trees, those not in the way, were spared to help sell homes.  Buy a house, gain a free fruit tree.  Our orchard had become a sacrificial lamb to the American Dream.

Each spring revealed fewer blossoms.  The beauty of Jack London’s Santa Clara Valley could now mostly be found on postcards.  The new neighborhood unveiled scattered prune plum blossoms, but was now focused on the large production of a new crop that would later be called “baby-boomers.”  At first, they were nicknamed the “orchard kids,” but we welcomed our new friends as seamlessly as we said goodbye to the orchard.  Newbies Cindy, Paul, Budd, Tim, the Long sisters and others integrated with Steve, Eddie, Susan, Jill and Glen from the old gang.  As we progressed through adolescence, it became one community with hardly a memory of what once was.

My sister, born in 1965, grew up, then raised her daughters in that old house, all without any reality of my treasured playground.  A few years ago, I was talking to my youngest niece about the way things once were and she asked, “Where was that orchard you were talking about?”  Getting into the car on our way to the mall, I pointed across Forest Avenue toward the aging homes and  answered,  “Right there.”

Things that never exist to some, survive in the minds of others.


The Phone Is Ringing

 

It was after the fourth ring that I fully persuaded myself to not answer the phone.  The restaurant was closed, I had work to do and was still pissed off about missing the gathering at Kennedy campaign headquarters, that little house on Forest Ave.  The phone continued to ring.  It’s probably just those damned square dancers anyway, looking for late night pancakes, consistently messing with my closing shift schedule as a cook at IHOP.

The phone began to ring again but I didn’t even think to answer. I had to focus on finishing my work, getting some sleep and being alert for an early morning speech class where my final presentation fell into the “if time permits” category.

My “cook’s galley” was clean but still needed to be stocked for the morning. The AM shift will do a thousand pancakes before noon and if they didn’t have enough of everything, I’d hear about it.  Besides, I promised Chris, the evening waitress, that I would cover some of her work. She needed rest.

Chris Fuller and I had become friends and she had revealed to me that she was pregnant by her boyfriend who was infantry, somewhere in Vietnam.  She was strong, but all alone and we had bonded through our shared wit and a passion for music and politics.   With barely a high school education, she had an uncanny grasp of the world around her. When Bobby Kennedy entered the Presidential race in 1968, we were both ready to get involved, although I was too young to cast a vote.

Looking like I had been tar and feathered with fresh orange juice pulp, flour and egg yolks, I locked the doors at ten minutes after one, as the phone rang once again.  It must be a wrong number, not even I am supposed to be here at this hour.

Dragging myself out of bed the next morning was difficult, resulting from lack of sleep and the absence of coffee in the house.  I just needed to get through the morning, then plan to  meet up with Chris and some other volunteers.

My anticipated celebration, my day, and maybe my decade ended when I reached for the San Jose Mercury News on my way out the door.  The headline read, “Bobby Shot.”  Two words.  I was stunned.  How could this happen and why didn’t I know about it?  The morning edition of the paper could not confirm his condition, but early morning radio was reporting his death, the result of a shot from a single gunman.  I had heard this same scenario once before and my thoughts carried me back to a high school geometry class in November 1963.

There it was, face down, the latest quiz and that clammy feeling that began on my forehead was moving south, past the heart that was pounding more than usual.  Mr. Bender did his best to make geometry simple, but was not capable of re-wiring the brain of a fifteen-year-old.

During last-minute instructions, the phone rang, a brief reprieve.  The call seems to be longer than normal and Bender’s extended silence was noticeable as conversations subsided.  Should I be concerned or go over my meaningless notes one more time?  Everything became meaningless when Ron Bender spoke in  monotone as he put the receiver down,  “Class, the President has been shot in Dallas. We are all to report to the cafeteria immediately.”

Everyone was scattered, some moving quickly, some slowly. There was little talking, several students walking together, each alone in their thoughts.  I was feeling sorry for myself.  President Kennedy had moved me.  This was so unfair.

The school staff had very little new information, leaving the official acknowledgement of death to newscaster Walter Cronkite later that afternoon.  There was some talk of a book depository in Dallas where a shot or shots were fired at the motorcade, striking the President and Governor Connolly.  Then, as his comments ended, the Principal simply told us all to go home.  There was no mobilization of grievance counselors or heightened security,  just instructions to go home and be with our families.  I wondered if my parents had heard the news.

I wandered aimlessly through the school parking lot looking for my ride.  It was gone amid the chaos, my backup was hours away and the thought of walking home would be too “uncool,” even on a day like this. Then, a voice uttered, “Need a ride?”  I looked up.

It was Mike Jackson, a senior.  Mike drove a hot car, hung out with somewhat of a rough crowd, smoked cigarettes and I would place myself fairly low on his list of people to offer rides to. Maybe he remembered that I once played baseball with his younger brother, Danny, but it was probably the lost expression on my face or simply this moment in time.  “Sure, thanks,” I muttered, using a short answer to disguise the trepidation in my voice.

Once off schools grounds, Mike, with one arm slumped over the steering wheel, lit up a cigarette. I pretended not to notice.  Our limited conversation was mundane, clearly avoiding the reason we were both driving together in the same car on a Friday afternoon.  He asked me where I lived and I told him.  Without looking at me, he said, “I’ll take you home but I gotta make one stop.”  My mouth said, “Ok” while my brain frantically explored a dozen scenarios on where we may be going.  At this time I realized that I knew very little about him.

Confusion, surprise and relief all set in as his car stopped. Mike opened the door, giving me the option to go in or not.  He said that he wouldn’t be long, so I decided to go in.

I knew St. Martin’s Parish.  The neighborhood Catholic kids all went there.  On this visit, Mike Jackson, the intimidating senior, and I knelt in a pew and prayed. We prayed for our slain President, our first Catholic President.  Raised a Methodist, I had to follow Mike’s lead on all the formalities but the experience, although very surreal, was somewhat comforting.

During the next semester, I would direct a quick nod toward Mike as we passed in the halls of the school.  He usually nodded back.  Although our experience had not made us friends, he no longer intimidated me.  He would always be the answer to the question, “Where were you the day JFK got shot?”  I was in a strange church praying with a less sinister Mike Jackson, trying to cope with the setting and what I thought was the assassination of my lifetime.

Now, less than five years later,  this tragedy was even harder to accept than the deaths of JFK and Dr. King.  A large part of me was invested in a small role to make something happen.  Now I was just angry, without an answer.

I seemed to float as I walked across campus, looking for familiar faces, often being judgmental of those not expressing my grief and emotion.  Do they not realize what happened last night or that we have had three assassinations over the past five years?

I needed to find Chris and I knew she was looking for me.  Without cellphones, searching was an arduous process of elimination once people left their homes.  I finally found her later that afternoon.  Paychecks were ready for pick-up on Wednesdays and I knew she would be there sometime.  We both needed the money.

Today, she had been crying.  We hugged as she whispered that she had been looking for me all day.  “I tried calling you last night,” she said, lifting her head from my chest, “why didn’t you answer the phone?”  Lacking a meaningful response, I just continued to hold her in silence.