The girls of summer

The girls of summer

On a beautiful May day in 1954, on an innocuous ballfield in Charleston, South Carolina, two Negro League professional baseball teams faced each other in a preseason game. It wasn’t a particularly big deal for the players. The dry infield dirt, as usual, crunched under their spikes. Gloves were oiled, rawhides roughed. But looking back now, it’s clear that that moment was definitely a big deal. Three of the players warming up on the field that day were women. They were the only women, in fact, to ever play professional baseball.

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson was pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns. Infielder Connie Morgan was on the bench. Toni Stone was up to bat for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson had been throwing a shutout until Stone stepped into the box and sliced a base hit to the outfield. But she took a careless lead on the next pitch and Johnson picked her off first. It was baseball as usual, but they were not the usual ballplayers.

They were the girls of summer.

***

Baseball as usual, of course, has disappeared for now, and we don’t know when it will return. I’d been planning on writing about these three women for nearly two years, but I backed off when I learned that a play about Toni Stone was due to open in San Francisco this March. Frankly, I was incensed that the theater company had stolen my idea.

Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, the live production of Toni Stone didn’t happen. Yet perhaps now, more than ever, we need stories like these. You do not have to be a sports fan. This story is about much more than that. It’s about sexism, racism, talent, and guts.

***

From her earliest days in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where most of the Twin Cities’ black population lived, Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone had an absolute obsession for baseball. She thought of nothing else, dreamt of nothing else. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I’d go crazy,” she said. But it was the 1930s, and her parents thought it was unnatural and unseemly for a girl to be crazy about a “boys’ game.” On top of that, Toni wasn’t at all interested in makeup or dresses or boys or any of the girlie fascinations that were thought to be “normal.” Everyone called her “Tomboy Stone,” and it was not necessarily a flattering moniker. Still, no one could deny that she was the best athlete, of any gender, in the neighborhood.

Stone started out playing in a summer Catholic boys’ league because a priest named Father Keefe needed someone to beef up his church’s ballclub. She then joined her high school softball team but quit after a year because the pace was too slow. But one spring day in 1936, at the age of 14, she stopped at a local park to watch a bunch of young white ballplayers coached by a man named Gabby Street, who had once played for the San Francisco Seals and the Washington Senators and who was then managing the minor league Saint Paul Saints. On that particular day, he was running a baseball camp for white boys in the area. Toni desperately wanted to play, and she was unaware of the fact that her race and gender were two strikes against her. Two strikes meant nothing to her anyway. So she began a campaign of relentlessly haranguing Street so that he would allow her to prove her skills.

Although Stone didn’t know it at the time, Gabby Street was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s activities had begun to wane nationally, however, and the last Klan meeting in Minnesota had been held seven years earlier. Street began to wear down. “I just couldn’t get rid of her until I gave her a chance,” he said later. “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.” Second base was her preferred position, so he asked her to field grounders and hit a few balls. And he was more than impressed. A few days later, on her 15th birthday, he bought her a pair of baseball shoes, and she thought it was a miracle. She had never owned anything “official” like that. He also allowed her into the baseball camp. Those white boys couldn’t believe their eyes when a black girl walked onto the field.

But she quickly proved her mettle.

Toni Stone
Toni Stone

Although Toni was not a good student in high school, she became an astute student of baseball in that camp. The game is packed with more nuance than those who don’t follow it could ever imagine. Under Gabby Street’s coaching she also honed her athletic abilities and learned the more intricate skills, to the extent that she was asked to join a few summer barnstorming teams of amateur African-American ballplayers. In addition to her comfortable position at second base, she’d play center field on those teams and sometimes even take the mound to pitch.

Barnstorming teams typically were based in cities that had no major league teams, and they spent much of their time on the road. (Note: The Minnesota Twins, formerly the Washington Senators, did not move to Minnesota until the 1961 season.) Keep in mind that in that day and age, being on the road for Toni and her teammates was not all fun and games. On one of Toni’s trips to Bloomer, Wisconsin, with her Twin City Colored Giants playing a white team, the man announcing the lineups blithely declared over the loudspeaker, “And now the starting lineup for the niggers.”

***

After dropping out of high school at the age of 19, Toni left her barnstorming Minnesota teammates behind and hopped on a bus headed for California, to see “what was over there on the other side of the fence.” Her sister Bunny lived in San Francisco, where men and women of all races had come to work in the shipyards. It was 1943, and the war effort was increasing. Toni had no idea where Bunny lived, and depending on when she would later re-tell the story, she had somewhere between 53 cents and $7 in her pocket. Her belongings consisted of a few items of clothing, her Goodwill baseball glove, and the cleats given to her by Gabby Street. To find her sister, the only thing she could do was comb the city’s streets. Incredibly, a few days after she arrived she was walking down a random alley when Bunny happened to look out the window and spotted her!

As I’ve written before, San Francisco is a mix of cultures, with so much to offer that any marginalized person can come here and find identity and acceptance. That happened to Toni. “I love my San Francisco,” she once said. “I had my hardships there. But they treated me right. Old San Francisco folks taken me over.” She had long had a passion for jazz, and the city’s Fillmore District was alive with it. She would hang out in Jack’s Tavern there, not only listening to the music but engaging in conversation with people more worldly than those she had known in her neighborhood back in Saint Paul. It was there that she would meet Aurelious Pescia Alberga, the much-older man whom she would eventually marry. He and the owner of Jack’s got Toni a spot on a local American Legion baseball team. Needless to say, she was the only woman on the squad. The team was part of a junior league, which required its players to be 17 or younger. It was now 1948, and Toni was 27 years old, so she decided to “change” her age by subtracting 10 years from it. It got her onto the team, but it also was the genesis of a long lie, and in years to come her fake youth would create unrealistic expectations and prove to be more of a hindrance than anything else.

Ultimately Toni found a place to live in Oakland through a priest at St. Benedict’s (because of Father Keefe, she would always have a soft spot for the Catholic Church). And she wrangled a job at Foster’s Cafeteria in the Fillmore District, although she would soon need more money and would end up doing physical labor down on the docks.

Toni stone_espn.com
Toni Stone

The next year, Stone was recruited by the San Francisco Sea Lions, a black barnstorming team that traveled throughout the country. (Note: The San Francisco Seals, part of the Pacific Coast League, did not include any black players.) She played second base and hit leadoff. Virtually no records were kept of those games, so no stats are available for me to quote. We do know that at some point Toni discovered that she was being paid less than her teammates, so she joined the New Orleans Creoles when they presented a better offer – which would indicate that her play was impressive. The Creoles went 44-8.

Better records are available for 1950, and by the middle of the season Toni was batting close to .300 for the Creoles. Meanwhile, she continued to fib about her age. She was a 29-year-old posing as a teenager. But she still had guts like no one had seen before. During one game in Iowa, a double-play throw from her third baseman ripped its way through her weakly made glove and knocked her out cold. Her teammates stood around pouring water on her (I’m not sure how that “treatment” was supposed to help), and when she regained consciousness she immediately stood straight up and screamed “Let’s go!” It stunned the crowd.

It was after the 1950 season, though, that Toni did a more audacious thing. She went and got married to the 67-year-old Aurelious Alberga.

No one really knew why she did it. In the first place, she had never had a boyfriend, had seemingly no interest in sex, walked around in men’s clothes, and, frankly, had been considered by many to be a lesbian. Yet her marriage to Alberga, in whatever form it took (they had separate bedrooms from the start), would last until his death.

Alberga was a well-known black social and political leader, and he provided stability and financial resources to the couple. But for a while, at least, he resisted the idea of her playing baseball, so she sat out for about a year and concentrated on home repairs and domestic chores.

Meanwhile, she was dying to get back to the diamond. During her hiatus she wrote to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – the one featured in the film A League of Their Own – but it was not only “all-American” but also all-white, and she never received a reply.

***

By 1953, some of the Negro League players had joined Major League Baseball (MLB), which had integrated six years earlier, and few Negro League teams remained solvent. But half a dozen were still in existence, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns, who had won the 1951 league championship. The Clowns’ young shortstop, Henry Aaron, had left for the Boston Braves in the middle of 1952, and they needed infielders. The players were well aware of Stone’s play with the barnstorming Creoles, when her powerful arm, her defensive abilities, and her speed (she’d been able to run the 100 in 11 seconds) had impressed them. So she was offered a spot in the Clowns lineup for the 1953 season and joined them for spring training that year. The owner did try to convince her to wear short skirts on the field, but she threatened to quit and he relented. I mean, seriously, who can effectively slide in a skirt??

At this point, don’t forget, everyone assumed that Toni was 21 years old, and they also assumed that she could move like a dancer and run like the wind. But she was a full decade older than that and edging past her prime.

After only two days of practice (the extent of “spring training,” in those days, for the Negro League) and a month of preseason games, Toni Stone officially played her first game as starting second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns on May 15, 1953. She was 31 years old. As she took the field against the Kansas City Monarchs in Beaumont, Texas, she earned her place in history.

She was the first woman to ever play professional big-league baseball.

***

Just a few words, at this point, about the Negro Leagues. They were not minor leagues; they were not repositories for lesser talents. They were the beginning of organized professional baseball for black (and Hispanic, by the way) athletes who were not yet allowed into Major League Baseball. That would not happen until 1947, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Willie Mays were some of the former Negro League players to follow Robinson into the majors and ultimately into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Negro Leagues lasted for 40 years, but they started to wane significantly once MLB began attracting their best players. The owners typically weren’t compensated for the departure of their superstars, and many of the teams went bankrupt. By 1960 they were defunct. The loss was bittersweet, because the Negro Leagues had helped spur economic growth in black communities and helped provide a sense of social cohesion among people of color. Their passing was greatly mourned.

This year we celebrate their 100th anniversary. It was in February 1920 that Andrew “Rube” Foster – owner-manager of the Chicago American Giants – convened a meeting with the owners of seven other independent black baseball teams to form the Negro National League. For true baseball fans and also for historians, it’s a really big deal. In fact, on June 27, 2020, all MLB players, coaches, and umps are (were?) slated to wear a Negro Leagues logo on their jersey. A host of other celebrations have been planned as well. The nature of those commemorations, however, remains to be seen.

***

A little more than halfway through that ’53 season when Toni Stone made history, her Indianapolis Clowns were in last place, despite Toni’s .364 average – fourth in the league. (Ernie Banks, by the way, was in second place.) Still, the team ranked first in attendance among all the Negro League teams – due almost exclusively to the presence of Stone, most observers agree. By season’s end, though, her batting average had dropped to .243, and almost all of her hits were singles.

It gave her cause for worry, especially because at that point a couple of other women were about to join the team.

***

Mamie Johnson was living with her grandmother in Ridgeway, South Carolina, when she first started playing ball in corner lots as a little girl. According to Michelle Green’s book A Strong Right Arm, a “pie plate was first, the broken piece of flower pot was second, and the large root about three feet from the lilac bush was third.” Home plate was the “smooth white lid of a five-gallon bucket of King Cane sugar,” the sweetest in the South. The “baseball” was a bunch of tape wrapped around a rock. And Mamie could throw that thing, powerful and smooth. She had a fastball, a change-up, and even a knuckleball, and the neighborhood boys had a tough time connecting with her pitches.

peanut johnson 1_National Visionary Leadership Project
Mamie Johnson

When Mamie’s grandmother died in 1945, it was decided that Mamie would move in with an aunt and uncle in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was about 10 years old, and it was not a popular move with her. Not only did she miss the sweet southern air, but there was no baseball at the school she had to attend. It was just softball, and she hated it and refused to play. The ball was way too big, and the pitching was underhand. Sissified blasphemy! But she had gumption, and one day she passed by a field on which a bunch of kids were playing baseball. All boys, of course. And all white. (Sound like a familiar story?) Although told she couldn’t play, Mamie noted that the team was sponsored by the Long Branch Police Athletic League and she hustled right on down to the police station to ask the officers – repeatedly – about whether local laws prohibited a girl from playing baseball. Eventually she wore everyone down and was allowed onto the team, which ended up winning the division championship two years in a row.

For a couple of years Johnson played for other sandlot teams, as well as for an all-black semi-pro club. Like Toni Stone, she also got wind of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and in her case she actually took a bus with a friend all the way down into Virginia to try out for the team. Once they arrived, though, exhausted but ready to play, they were told that no “colored girls” were allowed.

In 1953, when Johnson was playing for a sandlot team, a man in a pinstripe suit who’d been watching their games for three weeks came up to her after he’d witnessed her strike out a series of batters with a particularly voracious fastball. (By the way, she was about 5’2” and weighed 92 pounds.) His name was Bish Tyson, and he was a former Negro League ballplayer and now an unofficial scout. He told her that the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, would be coming to town for some pre-season exhibition games and would be looking for new players. He was taking a gamble on her; after all, she had no high-level experience on the playing field and no exposure to skilled coaching.

When she arrived at the field in September for what she thought were widespread tryouts, she discovered that the only person trying out was her! She also noted that the Clowns had another female playing for them – second baseman Toni Stone. Mamie did well in the batter’s box and threw to some great hitters that day, and right there on the spot they signed her. She’d be allowed to play in postseason barnstorming games throughout the fall and then would join the permanent roster the following season. Johnson quickly quit her job selling ice cream and boarded the Clowns’ bus, without getting a lick of input (or approval) from her husband. “It didn’t make any difference because I was going to play anyway,” she said.

Peanut Johnson
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

By 1954 Johnson was in the regular pitching rotation and took the mound about every six days. Her curveball came to her when, in Kansas City, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige complimented her throwing arm. He was retired from MLB and back to playing in the Negro Leagues with the Monarchs. He told her to stop squeezing the ball as tightly and showed her his curveball. Allegedly. Years later, at a conference about the Negro Leagues, Mamie corrected the story. “He didn’t teach me how to throw it, he taught me how to perfect it,” she said. “I knew how to throw it.”

One day she faced hard-hitting Hank Baylis, third baseman for the Monarchs. Baylis reportedly stepped out, turned around, and hollered to the fans, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her!” She reached back, uncorked her fastball, and struck him out. “Call me Peanut,” she yelled back at him. From that point on she was Peanut Johnson.

***

At the end of 1953 the Clowns were also starting to look at Connie Morgan, who would be a more direct threat to Toni Stone because Morgan, too, played second base. Toni started to see the writing on the wall. Peanut Johnson and Connie Morgan – two 19-year-olds – were both slated to be her teammates on the 1954 Clowns. Toni was in her thirties, and the decision had been made that only one female at a time would be in the lineup. To add insult to injury, owner Syd Pollock offered her $350 a month, which was less than the $400 a month she’d been paid the previous year. So she made the decision to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs, who offered her $400 a month and the possibility of a $200 year-end bonus.

2009_16_15_082.tif
Connie Morgan

Constance Enola (“Connie”) Morgan, born in 1935 in Philadelphia, had played five seasons with the all-girl North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, with whom she’d logged a .368 batting average. She’d read about Toni Stone and the Indianapolis Clowns in Ebony magazine and penned a letter directly to Syd Pollock, requesting a tryout. He obliged in October 1953, and she signed a two-year, $10,000 contract after impressing the team with her defensive skills at second base. She was right out of high school. She’d never had male teammates, and at that point most of her time on the field was spent behind the dish, at catcher. But she could play any position except pitcher, and she shared the same chutzpah and self-confidence that Stone and Johnson possessed.

We don’t know as much about Morgan as we do about the other women, but we do know that her defense was spectacular. She was only 5’4”, but she was strong, and manager Oscar Charleston – a Hall of Famer, and universally considered to be one of the greatest ballplayers of all time – said “her throws across the diamond rank on par with many major leaguers.”

***

So, what was life on the road like for Negro League players? The teams played almost every day for eight months, with two (and occasionally three!) games on Sundays. Unlike MLB ballplayers, who usually had days off for travel, Negro League players had no such luxury, often riding on a bus for up to 400 miles between games with no break. Syd Pollock meticulously recorded every conceivable kind of stat, and according to his publicity material, “The Clowns have traveled 2,110,000 miles. Once played in a town with a population of 476 and had 1,372 fans at the game. Largest crowd 41,127 in Detroit. Smallest 35 in Lubbock, TX during a tornado. Have had the same bus driver for 17 years, worn out three buses and 19 sets of tires.”

By the way, for bathroom breaks, the bus would stop so men who had to pee could just line up on the side of the road and do their thing. The women, of course, had to walk off into the woods or a culvert, often in the middle of the night.

While traveling in the South, the players had to drink only from certain water fountains and shop only in certain stores. Many of the gas stations were “Whites Only.” Restaurants below the Mason-Dixon line often provided no service to black customers, and much of the time those places were the only food establishments in the area. Once in a while the players would be allowed to go to a back window to pick up cold food. When white people were traveling with the team, sometimes they would pick up a load of food at “white” cafes and bring it back. But they had to be careful; servers had been known to spit into glasses of Coke being served to black people.

The_Negro_Travelers'_Green_Book_1953As for hotels, many refused rooms to black people, and it was often a scramble if schedules got changed. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book helped out when the team was traveling in the South. But for Toni, there was an added burden. It started when she was turned away at some of the hotels – the few who would serve African-Americans – because they assumed she was a hooker for the players. When the hotel owners pointed her in the direction of the nearest brothel, she found that the kindness of the ladies there was better than some of the everyday treatment she received from the outside world. The women not only provided her with a place to sleep but also fed her, laundered her uniform, gave her extra money, lent her a car, and often even attended her games. It was the prostitutes who always helped her out in life, she would say years after she’d left professional baseball.

One night after a game in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Toni’s rattletrap team bus caught on fire for no apparent reason. Almost all of the players’ belongings and equipment were lost, although Toni had managed to grab her glove before bailing out of the bus. No one, of course, immediately stopped to lend a hand. When a sheriff finally came by, he called his dispatcher. “Nothing serious,” he said. “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” Help didn’t arrive for two more hours.

The players knew they had to be infinitely careful about their behavior, especially in southern towns. The smallest of infractions –and sometimes no infraction at all – could get them jailed or killed. “Reckless eyeballing” was one of the ridiculous charges potentially facing a black man. Any white woman could accuse any black man of looking at her too long, and he could be put away. Coaches would tell rookies to “keep their heads down and their mouths shut.”

At ballparks in the South, black major leaguers usually were not allowed in clubhouses and were required to change clothes on the bus. Even more ridiculous – if that’s possible – black fans often had to completely leave the stadium to use a toilet!

Unlike today’s ballplayers, who sit out a game if they have a hangnail, the Negro League players had no physicians available and simply had to play through almost every conceivable injury or health condition outside of a coma. Players who got spiked, for example, would make paste from coal-stove soot, rub it on the (often very deep) wound, and lay a spider web on top of everything to protect the wound because there were no bandages available!

Toni Stone, in particular, was no stranger to being spiked, or to being hit by pitches. Many of the men in the league – including some on her own team – resented playing with or against a woman so much that they either ostracized her or blatantly tried to hurt her. Some teammates even threw to her directly in a baserunner’s path to make it easier for the opposing players to gash her with their metal cleats. She ended up with a lot of scars to prove it, although later she would shrug them off as being battle wounds.

Meanwhile, sportswriters were beginning to be more callous about the women in the league, considering them to be novelties and concerned that they were somehow emasculating the men and the sport. “It’s thrilling to have a woman in one’s arms, and a man has a right to promise the world to his beloved – just so long as that world doesn’t include the right to play baseball with men. . . . This could get to be a woman’s world with men just living in it!” screamed one such insecure writer.

***

Jackie Robinson and Connie Morgan
Jackie Robinson and Connie Morgan

After 1953, the league was on its last breaths.

Connie Morgan played only one full season with the Indianapolis Clowns. She never quite found her footing offensively, hitting only .178 with seven singles, a double, one stolen base, and one RBI in 45 at-bats.

Peanut Johnson hung on for a bit. She played for parts of three seasons with the Clowns and ended up with a dazzling win/loss pitching record of 33-8 and a batting average reported to be between .262 and .284.

Toni Stone_Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Toni Stone

The 1954 Monarchs season was not a good one for Toni, who was now 32 years old and 12 pounds over her typical playing weight. She was trying too hard, and her batting average never crossed what is now derogatorily called the Mendoza line (.200). As a result, her temper was closer to the surface. During one game she was called out by the ump on a pitch she thought was a ball, and the catcher yelled “pussy high” after the ball crossed the plate. Enraged, she leaped on the catcher’s back. She would later say that she didn’t know what made her the maddest: the call, the catcher’s vulgar and sexist remark, or the fact that manager Buck O’Neill loved retelling the story.

The Monarchs would come in last place.

Toni Stone retired at the end of the season. The owner gave her $400 for the month but refused to hand over her $200 year-end bonus. It wasn’t the money that mattered, though. “Not playing baseball hurt so damn bad,” she lamented, “I almost had a heart attack.”

After these three women left the game, no woman would ever play professional baseball again.

***

Toni had a hard time adjusting to life after Negro League baseball. She settled back into her home on Isabella Street in Oakland. Her mom and sister lived nearby, but she felt unmoored. She spent time alone with her mementos, reliving the glory days, and occasionally she took to drinking a bit too much. She was always suspicious of visitors claiming to be sympathetic reporters, who on more than one occasion stole her mementos. But she was also suspicious of bona fide reporters, who, she thought, would go to great lengths to make her seem more sophisticated, educated, or feminine than she really was.

In the 1960s, though, she emerged from her funk. She began playing rec baseball and coaching neighborhood teams. She attended Oakland A’s baseball games, sitting by herself behind home plate. In June of 1975, Stone threw out the first pitch at a Giants game. She also did work for local hospitals and served as an occasional home caregiver. When her ancient husband Alberga turned 100 years old in 1984, he asked Toni to give up playing recreational baseball, and finally she agreed. She was in her sixties. After he died at 103, she could often be seen riding her bike around Oakland.

Peanut Johnson earned a nursing degree, moved back to Washington, D.C., remarried twice, and had a 30-year career as a nurse. After retirement she managed the Negro League Baseball Shop in Maryland, which not only sold memorabilia but also taught the public about the historic nature of the Negro Leagues and about living during Jim Crow. It was impossible to get baseball out of her soul, and she remembered only the good times. When asked how she felt about her days in baseball, she would say, “Have you ever won a million dollars? Just to know I was good enough to be there was a tremendous thing for me. If they didn’t let me play, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I’m very proud of that.” She passed away on December 18, 2017, at the age of 82.

Peanut Johnson 2_Smithsonian
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson

Connie Morgan went back to business school, graduated in 1955, and enjoyed a career that included working for the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country. But her subsequent days working for a furrier aggravated her arthritis, and when she switched to driving school buses she developed kidney disease and had to retire at the age of 40. According to Martha Ackmann, Morgan “rarely talked about the Negro League. To many who saw her, she was just the lonely woman who sat for days by the window of her Federal Street row house with only the light of a flickering television set.” In 1995, she was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the next year – after living with constant dialysis – she succumbed to her kidney problems at the age of 61. For years her grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia was unmarked. A travesty. But in 2014 she was finally given a headstone through the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project.

***

Incredibly, the Baseball Hall of Fame did not even officially recognize the Negro Leagues until August of 1991. Seventy-five former Negro League players were invited to Cooperstown that year, and Toni Stone was one of them. It was the second-happiest day of her life. The happiest, according to a tale she would oft repeat, was the day she got to hit against Satchel Paige during a barnstorming game. Paige loved to toy with batters by outright asking them, ahead of time, which pitch they’d prefer to see. He did the same for Toni. “It doesn’t matter which pitch,” she yelled back. “Just don’t hurt me!” Satchel had a lot of pitches in his bag o’ tricks: the bee ball, the two-hump blooper, and a raft of others. She didn’t even know which one he unleashed on her, but she smacked it over second base. Yes, that was the happiest day of her life.

Toni Stone Alberga died of heart failure in an Alameda nursing home on November 2, 1996. She was 75 years old.

A year later, a baseball field named for her was dedicated at the Dunning Sports Complex in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

***

The year Toni Stone died, Minnesota playwright Roger Niebor wrote a play entitled Tomboy Stone that had a brief run at the Great American History Theater in Saint Paul. “I suppose the number of women who could travel and play like that, discriminated on the basis of race and sex the whole time, would be few,” he said. “And to do it with the energy and intensity of Toni Stone evidenced the power and beauty of the human spirit and made me proud to know her.”

To “power and beauty” I would add “fearlessness.” Those women needed to be physically tough and to have no problem squatting in a dark culvert at night or playing through serious injuries with no medical attention. And they had to be courageous enough to suffer relentless racist and sexist taunts and all the other consequences of breaking barriers more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed.

Finally, I would also add “dignity.” No matter what they faced, these women continued to live their lives with self-respect. And when they retired from the game, and their departures garnered no attention, they showed no traces of bitterness over the ways they were exploited by team owners. Even in later years, when they spoke of their reverence for the game and for their time in the big leagues, they never dwelt on the fear they lived with on the road, the inconveniences, the scorn.

They played with passion, these women. Passion got them through the tough times.

Like a lot of war veterans, Toni Stone “didn’t talk too much about her baseball life,” said her niece, Maria Barlow. “But she was the first woman to do a lot of things. She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but she knew that she wanted more in life and she was fighting for it. She stood up to people, like the white owner, and fought for her pay. She stood up for herself. I saw the letters that she wrote. And she did it all by herself. She didn’t have anyone helping her or clearing the path for her. My aunt was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.”

All three are gone now. But they represented the best of America. And for a brief moment in time, they were our girls of summer.

***

Note: Much of the information in this piece was taken from the beautifully researched Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann and from A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green.

the end

 

 

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

7/24/72 [age 16]:

 “I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I have begun reading the Bible. Seriously, and completely. I have only gotten through Genesis. It is interesting reading, though sometimes the ‘Jason had two sons, Esau and Aron, and Aron had . . .’ and it continues for pages is boring. It may take me a year or two to read it, but I want to conquer it, just as I conquered ‘Leaves of Grass’ (of which I finally bought a copy, the cheapest paperback available, 95 cents).”

8/5/72 [age 16]:

“I rode [my bike] down to Confession tonight. Big deal, I missed Mass once. But I won’t miss it again. Hey, Auntie Jackie called yesterday and asked if I could fly down to her house [in southern CA]. I really want to go, and I love to fly, and I’ll be AWAY. But Mom and Dad are against it, and as yet they haven’t produced an answer. If they say no, I’ll croak!”

8/8/72 [age 16]:

“The [Santa Cruz] beach was awful today – it was completely cold and gray and overcast and there were absolutely no waves at all. No surf + no sun = no fun. (A Paula Bocciardi original – perhaps I should have it patented.) I didn’t even go in swimming, although I did wade a bit. Mom and Dad still haven’t given me an answer on the trip down south. They better hurry. If they don’t let me go, I will stay mad the rest of my life!”

8/10/72 [age 16]:

“It’s hard to believe that I got to come down South [to visit my relatives in southern CA] today. At 6:55 we took off from San Jose, and Grammy and Grampy picked me up in Burbank at 7:43. Fantastic, that plane ride! I mean, all by myself and it was so miraculous looking down on the earth. I was not afraid at all. I also love it down here. [My aunt] Jackie is a neat-type parent, and I like her way of life (except her house isn’t very clean). Today I was introduced to a new way of life. We drove down to [my aunt’s friend] Renee’s store. I met Renee – she’s a middle-aged hippie and owns a boutique shop and sells organic health foods. A friend of hers was in there, another free-spirit musician, playing his guitar and singing. The place smelled like a funny spice, which I can still smell, and was so hot I almost passed out. Also, I had one of her homemade organic fruit drinks and it nauseated me.”

8/14/72 [age 16]:

“I pulled one of my traditional ‘Paula Bocciardi the klutz’ tricks today. Dad had given me five dollars for this trip [to southern CA] along with the strange words ‘Don’t spend it’ (don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean) and [my cousins] Carla and Ronnie and I went down to a record store in Hollywood to get Andy Williams’ ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ for Carla. I stuck the bill in my pocket and – ack! – it had a hole in it. I LOST it! What will Dad say?”

8/15/72 [age 16]:

“Oh, wow, today was the best day of all. Grammy took [my aunt and cousins] Jackie, Kathy, Lisa, and me (Carla was too tired) to Magic Mountain in Valencia. I loved it. You pay $5 to get in, but after that ALL THE RIDES ARE FREE, yeah. I liked the log ride because there are two slopes that are straight down. And I also liked the bumper cars, because we met some guys (I swear they are all cute down here) and had a ‘war’ with them. From 8:00 to 8:45 we saw TRINI LOPEZ (free!). And Grammy saw GLEN CAMPBELL stroll by, and I’m sick because I didn’t see him. 1:00 to 11:00 – total time, 10 hours.”

9/9/72 [age 16]:

“Mom and Dad and [my visiting uncle and aunt] Fred and Jackie and [my cousin] Lisa and I went off to the Cannery and the wharf and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I’ve seen them a million times but I love San Francisco for its hilaric [sic] craziness. The city has a grand, majestic, mysterious beauty but the cars and the people and the streets – they’re all crazy. Two guys came near to blows in the middle of traffic and some girl who thought she was a witch was cursing some guys, and the musicians – it’s so crazy!!”

9/11/72 [age 16]:

“The very worst possible thing has happened. Dad mentioned tonight that we are going to Clear Lake this weekend. O, I did so want to make the most of this very last weekend before I start college! I don’t want to go to that horrid place I hate so dreadfully! Maybe if I play it straight and be calm and cool and good, something’ll happen. Please, God!!”

9/14/72 [age 16]:

“Today was a nothing day except I found out some wonderful news. We are not going to Clear Lake this weekend. I wanted everyone else to go and just let me stay at [our friends] the Rosaleses at night, but instead we are not going at all. Now I feel guilty. I don’t know if I should, since I HAVE put up with it for so often. Maybe it wasn’t wrong to ask – God heard my fervent, fervent prayer and granted it, so perhaps it’s okay. I don’t know. I can’t help but feel guilty, but my joy and relief right now overrules it. Yeah.”

9/15/72 [age 16]:

“The time for college is growing near, and I am no more emotionally prepared for it than I am sensible, and THAT’S not at ALL. My car pool situation is very confusing, which doesn’t cheer me up at all. My best friend and teacher and confidant is going away, and the thought of homework kills me. Only a few days left, and I am so scared. Oh, my aching heart.”

9/16/72 [age 16]:

“I went to see ‘On a Clear Day’ and ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’ with Jeanne, and something a lady in the latter movie kept saying has been bothering me. She was always in a constant state of depression, and told Alan Arkin that he couldn’t be able to think of three kind, loving, decent human beings, and I’m wondering if humanity is all that bad. Who would my three be? [My cousin] Carla, Sister Kathleen Mary, and Abraham (my Bible hero). Linus and Charlie Brown aren’t real, and Christ is God. I don’t know if I could think of anyone else.”

A patriot’s dream

A patriot’s dream

The woman who wrote “America the Beautiful” was not exactly a 19th century wallflower. She was a feminist. She was an activist. She was most likely a lesbian. And she was involved in a “Boston marriage” – a concept certainly new to me when I began to research this piece. Little did she know when she boarded a train in Chicago one summer that it would lead her to set down some of the most stirring words ever written about this country and its ideals.

***

Katharine Lee Bates 3
Katharine Lee Bates

As the spring semester drew to a close in 1893, a 34-year-old Wellesley professor named Katharine Lee Bates was offered the opportunity to teach a summer class on Chaucer at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. (Wellesley was, and is, a private school for women in Massachusetts.) Bates jumped at the chance. Earlier that year she had dealt with a severe bout of depression, and the travel, she thought, would do her good. A published writer and poet, as well as an experienced international traveler, she nevertheless was unlikely to have seen much of the country west of the Mississippi. So she was eager to get started on the roughly 2,000-mile train trip.

O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears

The first leg of the journey by rail ended in Chicago, where Bates would pick up Katharine Coman, a fellow Wellesley professor of economics and history who would likewise teach a summer class in Colorado Springs. They’d known each other for six years. Coman’s family home was in Chicago, and the two spent a few days there, visiting the World’s Fair and a recently-built monument to women in the arts and sciences. At the World’s Fair, Bates took note of an area called “The White City” that featured buildings illuminated not only by their painted-white exteriors but also by the multitude of streetlights lining the boulevards. It was the beginning of modern city planning.

“Thine alabaster cities gleam,” Bates would later write.

From there, “the two Katharines,” as they were often called, boarded a train on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rail line. It was July 3, 1893.

***

Bates was an ardent member of a group of progressive Boston female academics and activists who were pioneers of social reform and concerned with immigration, labor union rights, women’s suffrage, and urban poverty. She was the author and editor of more than 40 works of poetry and literary criticism.

Katharine_Coman_(Yellow_Clover)_Wikipedia
Katharine Coman

Katharine Coman, two years younger than Bates, taught at Wellesley for 35 years and was the first female professor of statistics in the United States. Like Bates, she was interested in social reform, especially through political economics; she would take her students on field trips to tenements, factories, and sweatshops in Boston to teach about applying economic theory to social problems. In 1910, Coman would help unionize striking women in the garment industry during the massive Chicago garment workers’ strike. She was the author of The Industrial History of the United States, among other works.

Together, the Katharines – who were dedicated to helping the poor – had in 1887 founded the College Settlements Association, which assigned female students to help poor European immigrants who had recently come to America. The two women volunteered at the association’s Denison House, which was a Boston settlement house that distributed necessities like milk and coal, offered classes, conducted housing investigations, and served generally as a neighborhood center. Bates and Coman were totally committed to ensuring that immigrants and women could have the basic support they needed to get a foothold in society.

***

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain

With the land opening up in front of her as she rode the rails to Colorado, Bates saw vast open spaces for the very first time. The raw, sweeping West was so much grander in scale than the populous East Coast. Out the window of the train, in what was likely Kansas, she could see endless fields replete with “amber waves of grain.” Above it all were the “spacious skies” of the Great Plains. Overwhelmed, she scrawled some notes. It was the Fourth of July.

***

For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain

Bates had a lot of free time that summer, in between her Chaucer classes. She and Coman and other professors took group trips around the area, and on Saturday, July 22, they headed for Pikes Peak, which, at 14,115 feet, is higher than any point in the country to its east. (The area is named for explorer Zebulon Pike, so it baffles me that there is no apostrophe; it somehow got discarded along the way.) The little Cog Peak railroad that had been built two years earlier to convey sightseers up the mountain was broken down that day, so they ended up having to take a horse-drawn wagon halfway there, and then mules the rest of the way. A sign on the wagon read “Pikes Peak or Bust.” At that altitude, by the way, oxygen levels are dangerously low.

View from Pikes Peak_Shutterstock-2
Pikes Peak

The 360-degree panorama from that summit took Bates’ breath away. She was awestruck by the grand appearance of the Rockies, the “purple mountain majesties.”

“I was very tired,” she said. “But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there. . . . [We] gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse of mountain ranges and sea like sweep of plain. Then and there the opening lines of ‘America the Beautiful’ sprang into being. . . . I wrote the entire song on my return that evening to Colorado Springs.”

***

Antlers_Hotel_built_in_1883_in_downtown_Colorado_Springs
The Antlers Hotel

Bates was staying at the Antlers Hotel, a rather grand lodge built in 1883 by William Jackson Palmer, who also happened to be the founder of Colorado Springs. The 75-room hotel was named for the collection of elk and deer racks that he installed there. Bates undoubtedly enjoyed her summer residence at the Antlers, especially because it was a fancy place for the time. No two rooms were alike. The guests enjoyed steam heat and hot and cold water. There was a music room, a Turkish bath, a barber shop, and a hydraulic elevator. It was all downright luxurious.

I don’t know whether Bates and Coman stayed together. But it was in her hotel room, when she returned from Pikes Peak that night, that Bates sat down to pen the original words to “America the Beautiful.”

***

In the late 1800s in New England, female pairings were so plentiful that they came to be called “Boston marriages” or “Wellesley marriages,” in which two women lived together without – gasp! – any financial support from a man. These couples were not necessarily romantic, although my guess is that more of them were than were publicly acknowledged. Typically the women were well educated and had solid careers, often in social justice areas. If nothing else they were intellectual companions, and they provided each other with moral support in the unrelentingly sexist environs of the time. At Wellesley, specifically, female professors were usually forced to resign if they married, so if women wanted to keep their careers they often paired up for financial reasons at the very least. In the late 1800s, according to Lillian Faderman, “of the 53 women faculty at Wellesley, only one woman was conventionally married to a man; most of the others lived with a female companion.”

The Katharines lived together for more than 25 years. When they were apart, they wrote each other letters every day and pressed yellow flowers between the pages.

***

Samuel_Augustus_Ward
Samuel A. Ward

“America the Beautiful” took a crazily convoluted path. Bates’ poem, titled “Pikes Peak,” was first published as “America” in The Congregationalist newspaper on July 4, 1895. People loved it so much that at least 75 melodies were written for it (even “Auld Lang Syne” was matched to it for a while because the song’s meter fit the lyrics). Finally, in 1910, a publisher added a melody that had been written in 1882 by New Jersey organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward. The combination was now retitled “America the Beautiful,” and Bates amended her lyrics shortly thereafter, in 1911, to the version we know today. Sadly, Bates never met Ward. He had died in 1903 and was never aware of his music’s legacy.

***

Katharine Coman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1912 and died on January 11, 1915, at the age of 57. Bates, who had lovingly tended to her throughout her painful ordeal, was so grief-stricken that she said, “So much of me died with Coman that I’m sometimes not quite sure whether I’m alive or not.”

Seven years later, Bates published a book of poetry about Coman called Yellow Clover: A Book of Remembrance.

At least one scholar has disputed the now-accepted notion that Bates and Coman were lovers. I don’t think it really matters. Romantic or not, love is love.

Katharine Bates never left Wellesley. She continued her work there until 1925 and after she passed away in 1929, the flag at Wellesley’s Tower Court was flown at half-staff.

***

O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life
America, America, May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine

Because of its first verse, “America the Beautiful” is often seen as a lovely but innocuous song about the breadth and beauty of this country – the spacious skies, the amber waves of grain, the purple mountains, the fruited plain, all stretching from sea to shining sea. But really, the song is just as much about principles, and about the rich history of people who courageously fought here. It’s about wayfarers who managed to settle a wild, sometimes coarse landscape. It’s about the heroes who loved their country more than themselves. It asks for God to mend our flaws (and heaven knows there have been many). It reminds the citizenry to reign in their newfound freedoms through self-control and the exercise of law, and to ensure that the pursuit and use of the country’s riches remain noble. And in the end, it expresses the hope that, years hence, our shining cities will be undimmed by the tears of the unfortunate.

It was a prayer, it was a caution, it was a patriot’s dream.

I doubt that the dream will be fully realized in my lifetime. But I do believe that both our idealists and our pragmatists continue to try to bring it to pass. Maybe that constant effort is actually what makes Americans who they are.

Happy Fourth, everyone.

***

Coda:

The 1976 Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” stands alone. There is no other version, as far as I’m concerned. It’s sung with sincerity, love, longing, and guts. Even if you’ve heard it before, please give it a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CILIBlQ2D0Q

 

“America the Beautiful”

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain 
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain 
America, America, God shed His grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea 

O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress 
A thoroughfare of freedom beat, across the wilderness 
America, America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw 
Confirm thy soul in self control, thy liberty in law 

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife 
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life 
America, America, May God thy gold refine 
Till all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine 

O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years 
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears 
America, America, God shed His grace on thee 
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea

 

the end

 

 

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

4/2/72 [age 16]:

“We all went to [my aunt] Zia’s for Easter dinner today, and when we got back an unusual thing happened. We all smelled something funny [in our house] and we searched for a long time trying to see what was burning. Finally, [my brother] Marc discovered that I’d left my lamp on and my pet plastic monkey from Barrel of Monkees had fallen off the lampshade and had welded itself to the lightbulb in a glob.”

4/7/72 [age 16]:

“I don’t know why, but I got this sudden urge to read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I found out we [my parents] have it. One poem, “Tears,” is really good. I like good old Walt baby.”

I’ll stand by you

I’ll stand by you

One of my former colleagues needs a new liver.

The problem is, in order to be eligible for an immediate liver transplant a patient must be very high up on the waiting list and practically at death’s door. She is not there yet, although she has suffered terribly with this condition for many years. More than 17,500 people are on the waiting list in the United States.

There is, however, a way for “living donors” to give someone a portion of their healthy liver. The donor’s liver regenerates; we can actually lose up to 75 percent of that organ and it will grow right back. The recipient, in turn, grows a virtually new liver from the piece he or she was given.

My friend’s hepatologist works out of the University of California, San Francisco, and I decided to research the procedure on the UCSF website. It turns out that it is no walk in the park for the donor. The potential complications are severe and could even be life-threatening. The postsurgical pain is brutal – worse for the donor, in fact, than for the recipient. Recovery takes a week in the hospital and many months afterwards, and some donors suffer from pain and complications for life.

Strongly shaken, I closed my eyes and tried to assess the degree of courage I had. To what length would I go to save a life? What amount of pain and potentially life-changing discomfort could I imagine going through? And for whom?

***

I was thinking about friendship on my recent ’cross-country train trip. I’d met an older woman in the observation car, a mentally and physically strong widow who went to the gym every day and kept up with politics and had a plethora of art-related hobbies and was taking the trip by herself to visit her daughter in Florida. “I’ve gotten along just fine living alone,” she said, “and I’ve kept myself healthy, but this year I lost my best friend, and that’s what kicked me hard in the gut.”

It was the third time I’d gone back East, by rail, to the beautiful state of Maryland. Three of my friends happen to live in the Baltimore area, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate for me that they happen to live within 60 miles of each other. Unfortunate that they’re not in San Francisco any longer. They weren’t West Coast people in the first place, but they’d all ventured out to the Bay Area for a time, shortly after college. Eventually, and for varied reasons, they made their way back and settled in Maryland. All of their departures broke my heart.

So, on the first day I ride the train back from Baltimore, I cry. It’s become a tradition.

***

There is little in the world that I value more highly than friendship. It probably even irritates a few people who may, in fact, consider my persistent loyalty and sentimentality to be an unwanted annoyance.

I’ve always longed to enjoy the “Cheers” or “Sex and the City” dynamic with a few really close friends – that is, a group of people who get together on a regular basis, rain or shine, at a preordained spot, over coffee or wine or a meal. But that is not to be. Almost everyone I know has moved out of San Francisco, or left the Bay Area or the state entirely. So I jealously take note of the small group of retired bearded gents who take up the same table at my neighborhood Peet’s Coffee every day. Or my high school teachers who meet once a month for a sandwich, half a century after they worked together. Or my father-in-law’s high school and college buddies from Shelbyville and Georgetown (KY) who get together like clockwork. In fact, he told me that he has eight different groups, from different parts of his life, that he sees on a regular basis for lunch. They’re all in their eighties, by the way. “And normally I don’t even eat lunch,” he recently told me. “I have to take care not to spoil my boyish figure.”

***

So, what qualities do I look for, instinctively, in a friend? The ability to laugh. Shared values. Kindness. Intellectual curiosity. A complete lack of arrogance or pretense. A strong respect for older people and institutions. And most importantly, the willingness to listen. I have to admit, I’ve jettisoned a few “friends” over the last few years because I suddenly realized, after many decades, that they’d never listened to a word I’d said!

And to further escalate my demands, I prefer that people not only listen but also respond.

Lest I start getting too serious, let me give you an example of someone who listens to my tedious minutiae and follows up, which is the critical thing. One day this summer I was at the ballpark with my attorney friend Char. Char has been a bandmate of mine off and on for many years now. And I don’t think she would mind my saying that she has virtually zero interest in baseball, so when we go to a game I have to occasionally (and discreetly) shift one eye to the field if I have any hope of keeping track of the game at all. Char is an example of one of the world’s greatest conversationalists. The topics range from the ridiculous (“Paula, would you kiss so-and-so if you were the last two people on the planet and stuck on a desert island?”) to the less so (“Char, for the love of God, please explain emoluments to me”).

(By the way, if there were only two people left on the planet, why would they have to be stuck on a desert island?)

At our game this summer, Char mentioned that when she saw Springsteen with me two years ago, it was a life-changing concert for her. I think she actually said “life-changing.” Swoon! I started yammering on about how I was in the middle of a years-long process of listening to, cataloguing, notating, and rating all of my Springsteen bootlegs. My end goal, I told her, is to come up with “The Definitive Bruce Show,” with the best live version of each song I feel worthy of inclusion.

What I didn’t mention, because who on earth would care, is that I’ve been obsessing all these years about what format to use for the final output. CDs? (but there would be multiple CDs, and who but me listens to them anymore?) MP3 disks? (but would they play in precisely the order I decree?) Anyway, I didn’t mention my obsession because who cares. No one.

“By the way,” Char responded immediately, “what format are you going to use for this project?”

This is why Char is a gem.

***

When I arrive on the East Coast, I’m typically met at the train station by my friend Ellen, whom I met when we worked together at a nonprofit political think tank in San Francisco. Ellen came from a huge East Coast family, went to college in Oberlin, shared my undying love for Springsteen when we were young, introduced me to a host of terrific Oberlin and Jersey guys, drank profusely with me throughout the 80s, lost her husband at a way-too-young age, works in book publishing in Washington, D.C., lives in a lovely home in the country, and still amuses me with her opinionated, broad-based, funny takes on all of life’s variables, from the profound to the mundane. We like to rave about how cool we are. Springsteen’s gorgeous ode to friendship – “Bobby Jean” – always reminds me of her:

We liked the same music, we liked the same bands
We liked the same clothes.
We told each other that we were the wildest,
The wildest things we’d ever seen.

We have so many laughs. I’ll never forget the day I finally came out to her, in 1984, after years of friendship. I was absolutely terrified that that would be the end of our carefree years of running around town together. This is how she reacted:

“Well, if I’d known that all along, I could have become your plaything and you could have been my sugar momma!”

Ellen Loerke and granddaughter Allie
Ellen and her granddaughter Allie

***

After a couple of days with Ellen, I check in for a week at a hotel in downtown Baltimore, just a few blocks from my friend Julie R.’s apartment.

I’ve known Julie for more than 25 years. When we first met in San Francisco, she claimed – at the time, at least – to be an anarchist. And she’d been “warned” by a mutual friend that I was – at the time, at least – a Republican. I’m sure we both did an inner eyeroll. All these years hence, I think I can accurately assume that we’ve both been pulled a few degrees towards the middle.

Riffle Mohawk
Julie R. and her scary mohawk

Julie had more contradictions than anyone I’d ever met. I knew that she had formerly rocked a mohawk and had been arrested in a variety of political demonstrations, yet she was earnestly, by degree and trade, an accountant. An aficionado of the punk scene and devotee of Iggy Pop, she had painted obscene epithets on her bedroom walls back home, yet her inner core was sweet and sensitive. She wore black. She was a serious introvert. She refused to eat any green foods or anything crunchy. She laughed easily. And she played the guitar like Keith Richards.

Julie and I had a band called Three Hour Tour for many years, but eventually she headed back to Maryland where, among other things, the cost of living was a lot lower. A few years ago, to my unending admiration, Julie courageously decided to completely raze her career path and go into physical therapy. It required getting into a school with very specific requirements, following a point system I never understood, and the first time she applied she was rejected. Most of her friends and family responded in the same way: that she just needed to be patient and try again the following year. My response, by contrast, was abject anger. “What?! What kind of so-called school is that – that would reject someone clearly smarter and more qualified than any other possible applicant? Are they blind??!” I was aghast, outraged. She later told me that my response was the one she liked best. (And she got into that idiotic school the next year.)

We typically keep in touch via phone conversations that can last for hours. She also frequently sends me envelopes full of newspaper clippings about topics ranging from baseball (she’s an avid sports fan) to music to Maryland history and lore. (Using the U.S. Mail! Who does that anymore?)

A few years ago, for Christmas, I bought Julie a book called The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever, and the Strange Story of Ignac Semmelweis. Yes, it sounds odd. But I had seen it on her Amazon wish list and, knowing her broad range of interests, I didn’t think too much of it. It turns out, though, that she’d put the book on her list so she could remember to buy it for her sister, who does medical research. After she opened my “gift,” she was too polite to tell me that I had made an idiotic mistake until I forced the issue when I asked her how she was enjoying her wonderful new book on childbed fever.

***

During our week in Baltimore this time we toured the Bromo Seltzer Tower (much more interesting than it sounds!), visited the Peabody Institute Library, frequented any number of charming Baltimore taverns (although one drink puts Julie under the table), walked 40 miles (at Julie’s insistence, of course – she’s a long-distance runner) to find the 49ers game at one such tavern, saw an Orioles game at Camden Yards, went through Baltimore’s fantastic African American History Museum, watched a Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary, embarked on a self-guided literary walking tour (to which Julie had made her own personal additions), sought out all the best Maryland crabcakes around, and played music nearly every day.

Julie Riffle Bike 2011
Julie on one of her innumerable athletic endeavors

One day, Julie and I drove out to her parents’ house, in her home town of Thurmont, to work out with her mother and other ladies of, shall we say, an advanced age. More advanced than mine, to put it one way. Julie has been a certified personal trainer, and she really loves older people, so she enjoys torturing putting the screws to the ladies and forcing them to keep up with their exercises. She’s coerced them into getting together regularly at her mom’s house for strength training and conditioning, and on her rare days off Julie drives out there and makes sure they’re not shirking their commitment. Then, after their workout, they all tell stories and scarf a bunch of doughnuts.

Julie has always loved older people. She arrived at work one day recently to find one of her elderly hospital patients crying hard. Julie asked what was wrong, and the woman (let’s call her “Dottie”) said that she couldn’t find her beloved stuffed animal. It had gotten misplaced somehow and Dottie couldn’t bear the thought of going on without it.

“Honey,” she sniffled, “I didn’t sleep one minute last night because all I did was cry and pray to God that He would bring my teddy back.”

Her plight was not taken seriously at all by the nursing assistants. But Julie would have none of that nonsense.

Over the years, Julie’s tendencies toward steely introspection have softened into a gentle, universal, empathic kindness. Most of us mellow with age, I suppose. In any case, the stuffed animal situation sent her into action. During one of her spare moments (God forbid she do this on company time), she whisked herself down to the hospital laundry in hopes that somehow the animal had been caught up in her patient’s bedding. Sure enough, there it was, perched on a shelf. Julie brought it back to the ecstatic woman, who then proceeded to tell everyone within earshot about “that white woman who was so kind to me.”

“You would have thought I was some kind of saint,” Julie told me, unassumingly mystified.

***

cajonIt’s become a tradition that, when I visit Baltimore, Julie and my friend Lauren and I play a gig in a small café called The Village Square. I’m a drummer, and obviously I don’t lug a drumset across the country with me on a train, nor would the café tolerate the noise, nor would it fit well with the folk-acoustic style music we play. So I accompany my bandmates on the cajon (box drum).

(For those of you not on Facebook, a link to one of our songs is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoxZDnREiCQ. Notice that I had no idea when the song was supposed to end.)

185_Baltimore_Paula, Lauren, Diana
Paula, Lauren, Diana

Lauren worked for a short time with Ellen and me at the think tank in San Francisco. A native of Chicago, she is a wickedly brilliant writer (and editor) on a variety of topics, mostly related to politics and the arts (oh, and did I mention that she was the speechwriter for the U.S. Secretary of Defense for three years?). Anyhoo, she has a beautiful voice and plays a deft guitar and those qualities, accompanied by her encyclopedic knowledge of American folk music and singer-songwriters in general, are what she brings to our little trio, Transcontinental Railroad.

***

I like it when friends champion each other’s passions. Julie has always known how important my blog is to me and continues to mention it in conversation. She says she appreciates that my writing “covers a lot of ground.” Well, that’s a nice way of putting it. Someone else once said that my blogs are “too long and have too many facts.”

Friends can also help nudge us in better directions. Julie, of course, is always touting the value of exercise and checking in to make sure I don’t spend all my hours sitting on the couch eating clam dip. She’s also recently been chastising me for not seeing enough live music. So I’ve got a couple of shows lined up in the near future. Lately she’s started nagging encouraging me to take piano lessons, which I haven’t done since I was seven. “For God’s sake, do things out of your comfort zone,” she keeps telling me. Hmmm. Staying firmly in my comfort zone is actually one of my life’s goals. But deep down I know she’s right.

 

Finish line_May 15, 2011
Julie and Paula, Bay to Breakers, May 15, 2011

***

As the years go by, I’m realizing that the nature of my friendships has become wildly varied. Some friends are good for a laugh, but nothing deeper. Some are extroverts who can make any moment fun, and they serve a special role for me because often I live too closely bottled up in my own tiny anxieties and can’t always see the forest for the trees. Some were friends from long ago but are now Facebook acquaintances, and we keep abreast of each other’s lives but never talk; still, I enjoy knowing they’re doing well. Some share the unbreakable bonds we formed at a particular moment in our lives, like high school classmates or bandmates or teammates. Some are former lovers, and I’ve kept in touch with almost all of them (okay, there aren’t very many, but still).

Each kind of friend represents a lovely trinket in a box of treasures. We have to appreciate them for whatever role they play in our lives.

But the gold nuggets are hard to come by. They endure. “We carry each other’s history,” as songwriter Carole Bayer Sager says. We see each other through all of our relationships, moves, job and career changes, perceived slights, setbacks, right turns and wrong turns, hangovers, regrets, embarrassments, illnesses, failures, triumphs, moments of beauty and creativity, and moments of sheer vulnerability.

True friendship is a very, very rare connection. Sometimes it develops very slowly over the years, sometimes in fits and starts, and sometimes in an instant. However it begins, its nurturing takes care and commitment. If you take it for granted, it can slowly and imperceptibly trickle like sand through your fingers until one day you realize it’s gone. But if you make an effort to sustain it, you will have a lifelong gift. Hang on tightly.

109_Lauren's house_Lauren, Riffle 3 - Copy
Julie and Lauren

***

The day before I left Baltimore, we played music together, this time without the pressure of preparing for our gig (which had been, of course, a triumphant success). I like the language of musicians. It’s unspoken, based on a shared affinity. It’s like a secret code.

After we finished playing, we were talking about something health-related and I told her my story about living liver donations. She, of course, was very attentive.

I thought about the people most important to me. I thought about the history we carry. I thought about how life without Julie R. would kick me hard in the gut.

I looked up at her. “Julie,” I said sincerely, “if you needed it, I would gladly give you a piece of my liver.”

 

THIS BLOG POST IS DEDICATED TO JULIE’S MOTHER,

NANCY JAYNE CARBACK RIFFLE,

5/12/37 – 10/30/18

the end

 

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

6/29/71:

“[This summer] has been rather boring. Besides getting my one suntan hour every day, I am making a cassette of my favorite songs. Most of the time I am outside. We are in the middle of a Frisbee fad. We play tag with them, war with them, or else we line up along the curbs and throw them at a poor kid who runs the gauntlet down the middle of the street.”

6/11/71:

“We went to a surprise party for Judy Czarnecki today. It was supposed to be mixed, but only one of the 15 guys showed up. But it was fun. Mom bought me some good plaid western pants and a gold blouse to wear. We sat around and talked, and even had a séance and levitated and stuff.”

6/9/71:

“All we did today was sign yearbooks. I always write really good things in other people’s books. Most of them are funny. But everybody always writes really clutzy stuff in mine, like how smart I am or ‘you’re a nice girl. Stay that way.’ Aauggh! I could just scream!”

5/31/71 [Memorial Day weekend]:

“Saturday we worked all day, and Sunday we went to a late mass, which wrecks the WHOLE DAY. So I thought Monday we could do something I like, maybe get some kids together and go down to play ball at Noble [School] or Piedmont Hills. But I guess I expected too much. We went fishing and (you guessed it) caught nothing. And they force me to go, which makes no sense at all. Why, why, why? I can see it all now – if I forced them to go to rock concerts on their free days. No way, man, no way.”

5/24/71:

“We lost in A-league softball today and Andrew Hill [High School] got the championship. We both were undefeated. Now, being objective, I can sure criticize the plate and base umps. They were boys from their school!”

5/11/71:

“What a dream I had last night! First I had a wierd [sic] short one about Bruce Tambling trying to teach me how to play the drums on a set that must have cost 25 cents. But then I dreamed that we were going to go fishing up this mountain that looked like granite and had roads like glass. There was water all over the roads. Reports came in that 52 people had died already, because their cars had slipped off the roads and plunged to their deaths. So I begged and pleaded that we wouldn’t go and everyone was all mad at me and I kept saying, ‘But don’t you see? People are DYING!’ When I woke up I was in agony, and my heart was on the verge of exploding. Why do I always have such terrible dreams?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A thank-you lives forever

A thank-you lives forever

My father hand-picked my high school teachers. That’s right. He was the principal, so he had special powers, and this was one of them. I didn’t have a particular opinion about it at first, but I grew to realize that although he generally chose the toughest, strictest instructors, he knew exactly what he was doing. Most of my teachers were on the “excellent” end of the scale.

It’s been many decades since I graduated from high school, but since then I’ve thought often about one teacher in particular: Ellen Giannini, who taught Spanish. And I was reminded of her again over the Christmas holidays when I was in Kentucky. It’s become somewhat of a tradition that Julie and I get together every year with my old grade-school classmate Mary and her sister Patty, who now live in Georgetown, KY. Both of them attended my high school, Piedmont Hills (in San Jose). While we were slamming down our hearty diner food, Patty (who graduated a few years before I did) pulled out a few photos of her 50th reunion and I immediately recognized my beloved Mrs. Giannini, who might have aged a little (she’s now nearly 80), but overall she looked much the same as I remembered her.

At that moment, I fell into the vise of yet another Paula Bocciardi obsession: I had to contact her. All these years, I hadn’t even known whether she was alive. Now here she was in the photo, the same woman who’d embodied what I most respect and admire about teachers. And I needed to tell her how much she had meant to me.

With Patty’s help and encouragement, and with some investigative twists and turns, I finally got Mrs. Giannini’s address. Then I sent her a letter in February, telling her what she meant to me and citing examples of her efficacy and her kindness. I told her that she didn’t need to respond, although I was fervently hoping that she would.

But I heard nothing back.

A couple of weeks later, I got this chilling e-mail from the person who’d passed her address on to me:

“At our monthly PHHS luncheon today, I found out that Ellen has had a stroke.”

“Oh, no!” I thought. “She never got my letter.”

***

Ellen Delucchi (her maiden name; she was single then) was the very first teacher I saw when I walked onto the Piedmont Hills grounds in September of 1968. Spanish I was my first class of the day. She was a tiny spitfire with a beehive hairdo, and I liked her immediately because her unwavering no-nonsense demeanor was always accompanied by a persistent twinkle in her eye. The twinkle suggested not only a keen sense of humor but a kind and flexible heart. She was so human, with a rare and perfect combination of toughness and sensitivity.

1971_Ellen Delucchi-GianniniIt didn’t take long – perhaps mere minutes – for her empathy to reveal itself in a way I wouldn’t have expected. That first day, the principal of the school – aka “Dad” – stopped by to just “check in on things.” When he strolled to the open doorway of the classroom and leaned oh so casually against the jamb, I was an instant wreck. With a fire-red face I tried to squirm as low into my desk as possible. Dad was probably there less than a minute, but during that time I died a thousand deaths. I was, after all, only 12 years old. And what did Miss Delucchi do? Nothing overt, of course. But then she called the roll. Her routine was to refer to everyone by last name. “Señorita Atkinson?” she would call out. “Señor Azevedo?” Oh, God, I thought, she’s going to say “Señorita Bocciardi” next and they’re all going to turn and stare at me with disdain.

Except she didn’t. “Paula?” she called out, nonchalantly.

You know, even today, as I write this, I get tears in my eyes. She broke her own previously inviolable classroom rule for one reason only: to save me the embarrassment of having the same name as the principal. She couldn’t have been more than 29 years old at the time, but she had the discerning heart of a woman with vast perspective.

Yet she was also a disciplinary stickler to the core. We all knew that she would allow no señor or señorita to stray even one micrometer over the line. And she had the uncanny scofflaw-detecting abilities of a bloodhound. In those days, for instance, the school did not abide gum-chewing by any student. It was an intolerable crime (probably in no small part thanks to Dad). Yet on one particular occasion, Carolyn Edmonds – who sat in the very back row – decided to flout the rules. Miss Delucchi was up at the board, with her back turned to the classroom, writing out some conjugation or another. “Señorita Edmonds?” she called out, without turning even one degree towards us. Uh oh. “Spit out that gum!”

We all gasped. How on earth . . . ? Obviously she had sonor capabilities that could detect a gum-chewer a mile away.

Carolyn slunk up to the garbage can and tossed the offending Chiclets.

The same Carolyn, who was mature beyond her years – after all, she wore a bra in grade school! – was of course also the first to spot the ring on Miss Delucchi’s finger one day. “Miss Delucchi, don’t you have something you need to tell us?” she demanded. Miss Delucchi smiled sheepishly but broadly, telling us that yes, she was soon to be married to a certain Mr. Peter Giannini. We were all delighted for her.

***

Five decades later, I still remember much of the three years of Spanish that I took with Mrs. Giannini, because her passion made it all so enthralling. Learning a foreign language truly enriches our world. It also teaches us about elements of grammar that we may not even have known existed. I learned, for example, about the subjunctive mood, which is used in situations expressing doubt, possibility, desire, or circumstances contrary to fact. It’s complicated, and I was annoyed by it initially, but it’s actually quite beautiful. We don’t use it much in English, but it has its place nonetheless (“If only I were there with you”). A former work colleague in the process of getting his master’s in English once told me that his college professor believed the subjunctive to be useless and therefore not worth teaching. I almost lost consciousness. And I fantasized about siccing Mrs. Giannini on that guy.

***

A few weeks ago, while I was sitting at the Giants game enjoying a sunny day at the park, my cell phone started ringing. Of course, I would never answer the phone at a ballgame, but I did glance at the caller I.D., which merely said “Unknown.” Another robocall, I thought, no doubt about my being an IRS outlaw on the brink of arrest. But the caller left a message (odd!), and my curiosity got to me, so I immediately checked the transcription (this is a much abbreviated version):

“Hi, Paula, this is Ellen Giannini. You probably thought I fell off the face of the earth! What happened was I had a cerebral hemorrhage and I was at the hospital for four days. I go to the ‘Y’ every day to work out, though, and that really saved my goose! But anyway, I wanted to get back to you with regard to that beautiful letter you sent me. You actually took my breath away when I read it. I just couldn’t believe it.”

***

“Oh, my gosh, I thought maybe my letter had killed you!” I joked to Mrs. Giannini when we connected on the phone later that day. “Call me Ellen,” she insisted, although it was hard for me. Lucky for all of us, Ellen’s stroke had left absolutely no residual effects. When I heard her voice, I could tell that she was exactly the same person who’d made such a mark on me 50 years ago. Funny, loquacious, spirited, kind.

“All three of you Bocciardi kids were different,” she said. “You hit the nail right on the head when you said that I didn’t use your last name for a reason. I knew how sensitive you were, and I could tell you were shrinking in embarrassment when your dad showed up. But your sister was the real character. When your dad would come on over the loudspeaker with an announcement, she’d just yell out, ‘Now what do you want?!’ ”

We both cracked up.

I asked her about how times have changed, especially in regard to students with attitude who think there’s no need to listen to their elders. “It’s actually the parents who have changed,” she told me. “A lot of them are now telling teachers what to do. You never saw that back when I started in my career. As for any problem kids, my philosophy was always this: First, talk directly to the student. Don’t immediately resort to taking action by sending the kid to the administrative office. If that doesn’t work, phone the parents. Then, only if all else fails, write a disciplinary referral. The bottom line is that I never took any guff. ‘If you don’t want to stay in this class,’ I’d tell them, ‘go see a counselor and transfer out.’ ”

Before we got off the phone, Mrs. Giannini told me that a group of retired teachers from my school got together regularly, and she thought it would be nice if I could come to her house, chat with her awhile, and then go to the luncheon. It would be held at Harry’s Hofbrau – a deli from my childhood that was a personal favorite because of its enormous portions of freshly carved meat heaped on huge sourdough sandwich rolls. I agreed immediately.

2018_05-29_Harry's Hofbrau_Ellen Giannini, Paula 1I suppose the lunch was a bit anticlimactic. I have to admit that many of the teachers who were there from my era hardly remembered me. All of them, though, seemed to recall my character of a sister!

The overriding sentiment I sensed at that lunch was that these people were genuinely happy. They had a camaraderie that reflected not only their shared experiences but also their shared commitment to education. I would think – or at least hope – that they’re content with, and proud of, their careers in public service.

Teachers have to deal with a lot. They’re instructors, parents, psychologists, and disciplinarians. They have to deal with demanding and critical parents. They work long days, spending many an evening at home correcting papers and preparing lesson plans. In inflation-adjusted terms, teacher pay has fallen nationally over the past decade, yet 94 percent of teachers, according to the stats I’ve read, spend their own money to buy school supplies. And in this country, at least, they now have the added worry about feeling secure in their classrooms. But their dedication persists. They deserve our deepest respect and our greatest gratitude.

***

All of us can look back and appreciate the scores of people who, along the way, have made a positive impact on our lives. And it could have been just a gesture, a word, the slightest whisper of an influence that blew us gently in one direction or another.

Maybe somebody suggested you have an artistic talent you were unsure about. Maybe they said a kind word when you nervously told them a secret. Maybe they held you while you cried. Maybe someone hired you just when you were getting desperate. Maybe someone called just when you thought you were going to fly apart over a broken heart. Maybe they gave you a book to read that steered you away from self-destruction. Maybe they told you that you were beautiful, in one way or another.

I suggest thanking them. Write them a letter, call them, send them a text – just let them know. Show appreciation for someone who is least expecting it. Don’t let a life end before you show your gratitude. It will make both of you happy. A thank-you will live forever in both of your hearts.

Before I left her house, Mrs. Giannini mentioned to me that she had re-read my letter many times. I had a twinkle in my eye all the way home.

the end

 

***

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.

 

1/11/71:

“I have made up my mind a long time ago not to ever smoke weed. But now that I’ve listened to the other side I’m not so sure. I mean, I’m not really going to, I don’t think. But it doesn’t sound that bad. I’m getting [the info] straight from someone who does it and really knows. Oh, shoooooooooot!!!”

 

12/26/70:

“Today and Sunday were average days. We got up around 9:30. After breakfast we watched football. The SAN FRANCISCO 49ers are division champions! And today they beat Minnesota and I hope they go all the way to the SUPER BOWL. I practiced shooting with Grampy’s pellet gun and can now do 13 jumps on the pogo stick. I got blisters on my hand from the pogo stick. In the afternoon we went over to the cousins [house] and looked at dirty books until [my sister] Janine squealed and we got in trouble.”

 

12/11/70:

“You know, for some strange, wierd [sic], unexplainable, mystical reason I began to think about Nonna’s [my grandparents’ house]. It began Sunday when I saw some old pictures. Now, I feel, I don’t know, crushed, it feels hard to breathe. I know I will never again see those days. I remember we used to watch Shirley Temple. I remember the chicken store, Nonno’s love, fresh fugaccia [dialect for focaccia], the old house, the garage with the scales, the “treasures” we used to find in the chairs, the old ball park, the zucchini and the flowers, how we used to play on the porch, soccer on the cracked patio, naps in the cold bedroom, the pantry, the basement with the old games, and bottles, and the dirt where I thought money was buried. I can’t get over that ache in my heart.”

 

Parlour lessons

Parlour lessons

A number of years ago, both of my ears spontaneously plugged up at the same time, and all I could hear was an internal roaring wind. This lasted for days. I wasn’t prone to seeing doctors then, but I had no problem complaining about my plight to everyone around me, and someone suggested that I follow the instructions of an old wives’ tale. To wit: I should heat an onion in a 400-degree oven, slice the onion in half, cover each piece in a towel so as not to inflict any burns on myself, and hold each piece to an ear, thereby allegedly drawing out whatever it was that was clogging up my hearing. Although I’m not normally one to experiment with alternative remedies, out of desperation I gave this a shot.

It didn’t work.

I was just about at the end of my rope when my old friend M.L. happened to call. M.L. (her name is Mary Lynne, but some of us just use her initials) is a now-retired career military officer and nurse practitioner, and she was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs at the time. I didn’t miss the opportunity to whine to her about my ear problem and recount my failures with all the suggested remedies, including the onion that I was still holding in my hand.

“Paula, first of all, put down the onion,” she ordered.

“Oh. Okay.”

“Now, I want you to go to the drugstore and buy some Sudafed. The box will tell you to take one or two, but you should take four.”

That scared me. “But drugs always have super-adverse effects on me,” I argued. “Are you sure?”

“Yep. Just be quiet and listen. Take four Sudafeds. You’ll feel like shit. But your ears will open right up.”

Nurse practitioners always know what they’re talking about, and she was positive and convincing. So I went to the drugstore, bought some Sudafed, took four, felt like shit, and my ears opened right up.

Such are the curative powers of Lieutenant Colonel Mary Lynne Bement.

***

I like to take a train trip every year, and a few weeks ago I embarked on my excursion for 2017. I had decided to ask M.L. to accompany me because she was visiting her legions of friends on the West Coast anyway, and we’d always talked about doing a train trip together. I thought we should start out small – i.e., not a full ’cross-country run – because neither of us was certain it would work. This would be new territory for M.L., and she didn’t know whether she could be cooped up for a long period of time, unable to participate in her usual hikes, climbs, triathlons, and heaven knows what other super-athletic events in which she’s typically involved on any given day. I was unsure, too; I’d always ridden alone, and M.L. is a loquacious extrovert, full of restless energy, who could be easily bored by my cautious reserve.

031_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_outside of train 1

So I suggested the Coast Starlight, which runs from Seattle to Los Angeles. The entire length of the route spans two days of travel, but we would board in Oakland in the morning, disembark 12 hours later in Los Angeles, stay in a hotel that night, and come back the following day.

Beginning in Seattle, the Coast Starlight winds south through Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, and Klamath Falls and then into California through Mt. Shasta, down to Sacramento, and into Oakland, where we would board. After that, it churns through the Santa Clara and Salinas Valleys, kicking up dust in agricultural land before it hits the coast at San Luis Obispo. After a few hours hugging the gorgeous California coastline, it heads inward after Santa Barbara, continuing through Ventura and Van Nuys before terminating in L.A.

Although this route is touted for its views of the California coast, my love for the Starlight is all about the Parlour Car, a luxurious passenger railcar from the mid-19th century that was considered to be the gold standard at the time and that remains in existence today only on the Coast Starlight.

AMTRAKSPACIFICPARLOURCAR2-vi-copy

The Parlour Car is elegantly beautiful, rich with wood and brass and burgundy velour. It has its own little bar at the end of the car, padded swiveling chairs for observation, six dining tables with white tablecloths, decorative gold sconces and etched glass logos, a lounge area, and a tiny “library” with books and games. And it has a multitude of uses. At any time of day you can just lounge in its cushioned seats and watch the scenery roll by. At lunch and dinner, it offers a special menu for passengers who might not want the dining car offerings or who might not want to sit with strangers (in that car, there is no mandate to fill the tables with four people). Downstairs, amazingly, passengers will find a movie theater, where I once saw McFarland USA, starring Kevin Costner as a real-life high school track coach in the central California valley. And then there is my favorite Parlour Car activity: the afternoon wine-tasting.

018_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_Parlour Car_Paula 1

Generally, only the sleeper-car passengers are allowed access to the Parlour Car, which initially appeared to be an obstacle for me because our trip would run (if on schedule) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and we would have no practical need for the extra cost of a sleeper. But here’s where my sterling train smarts came into play. Amtrak – whether wittingly or unwittingly – provides an incentive for passengers on non-overnight trips to purchase a sleeper. The cost is only an extra $50 for two people. But all meals are free for sleeper-car ticketholders, so M.L. and I together would get 6 free meals, plus access to the Parlour Car, for that amount. Sleeper-car passengers get free water, juice, and coffee, too. It makes financial sense, doesn’t it?

We plunked down the dough.

***

M.L. grew up in a large family in Avon, New York. She was a mischievous but extremely likeable kid who kept everybody laughing while she ran around smoking a pipe and regularly getting sent to the office for too much yakking and horsing around. When she was about 13 she ditched class so that she could spell out, in the snow, “Class of ’82” in the school courtyard. The school was built in an L shape around the courtyard, so the antic had its intended effect of luring every single student to the classroom windows. Another time in high school she decided to grab onto her friend’s car door handle and “ski” alongside the car while the friend spun doughnuts in the schoolyard snow. “Mary Lynne!” she heard over the school loudspeaker. “Report to the principal’s office right away!” She and the principal were well acquainted.

The local constables periodically showed up at the Bement family’s front door, but those were simpler times, and M.L.’s antics were those of a lively and playful kid, not a delinquent. When her family couldn’t afford a live Christmas tree, she illegally whacked one down on public property behind the schoolyard and had it all decorated by the time her mother got home from work. When she and her friends concocted some homemade bows and arrows – built with saplings, twine, and some stiff weeds – to shoot at cars, one of the drivers didn’t take a shine to the notion and got the police involved. Officer Pete Piampiano (or “Pipi-anno,” as the kids called him) was the one who nailed her for painting graffiti on a local bridge. And then there was the time, before she had a driver’s license, that M.L. noticed a student’s car parked in the school lot with the keys left in the ignition. The car – which belonged to a girl named, of all things, Pinkie Dodge – was calling M.L.’s name, of course, and she “borrowed” it, drove it around the lot, and left it in a different parking spot. But she got caught and Pinkie pressed charges. M.L. made a formal apology, though, and Pinkie’s family backed off.

M.L. says that despite all of her shenanigans, she never got into any real trouble. The reason, she claims, is that she was “so good at making formal apologies and then lying low for a while.”

As she grew older, M.L.’s mischievousness would evolve into an endearing playfulness and a fervor for life that would imbue every experience with meaning and a sense of adventure. There was a certain hardiness in her family. In his early days, her uncle Frank lost his job for protesting against the Vietnam War when he was a teacher in New York; he fought to get his job back, won, worked one day, and then resigned – all out of principle. After that, he worked for the Transportation Communication Union and, coincidentally, retired from the railroads. Her aunt Katie was a nurse and served as M.L.’s muse and inspiration. And her mother Mary raised five energetic children by herself from the time her husband left when M.L. was 12. It was not easy in those days. Among other things, Mary owned a fabric shop, worked as a bookkeeper, did wallpapering and child care, and served as a deputy town clerk – all the while keeping tabs on her young ones and making sure they grew up with the right values.

When M.L. graduated from Plattsburg State with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, she enlisted in the U.S. Army on something called a “Direct Commission,” which enabled her to “walk in” as an officer. She wanted to serve the country, and she looked forward to the promised retirement that would be in store at a relatively young age, but mostly she did it for the adventure, she says – to explore the world. And to have a “double career” as a nurse and an officer. One of her friends begs to differ, however; she claims that M.L. announced at the time that she was going into the military simply to avoid the prospect of interviewing for a job!

No. 12m EFMB SF
M.L. in center.

We met when she was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco from 1987 to 1993 (a plum assignment!), but she also spent a great deal of time elsewhere in the country, along with stints in South Korea and Honduras and time spent getting her nurse practitioner degree in New York. Her most challenging year in the military, though, was 2009, when she was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington. She was handed a taxing assignment as the Officer in Charge of the medical component of Warrior Forge, an ROTC leadership course for about 1,000 cadets from around the country. At the same time, she was also dealing with a horrendous personal tragedy, and in the middle of it all she was asked to prepare to deploy to Iraq. “But I didn’t hesitate,” she told me.

Shortly after completing her deployment in the Iraq War, M.L. retired as a Lt. Colonel with 23 years of service.

One last thing: Organization and planning are not M.L.’s strong suits, because they take a distant back seat to her practice of living intensely in the moment. When M.L. retired in 2010, she and her two dogs left Fort Lewis behind in September, pulling a little orange teardrop travel trailer behind them as they headed east for home in upstate New York. She was expected home within a couple of weeks. Along the way, as she was passing through South Dakota, she was so delighted and distracted by the wildlife, the rugged environment, and the salt-of-the-earth people in that state that she ended up staying awhile. And by awhile I mean weeks. This happened so frequently that eventually she found herself barreling along a dark highway in upstate New York as she tried to make it home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

***

We caught the Amtrak bus at the Temporary Transbay Terminal early on Tuesday morning, and it took us to the Oakland train station. As always there was confusion about where to catch the bus, on what platform we should stand to wait for the train, when the train would actually arrive, etc. Communication is not Amtrak’s strongest asset.  But as if she were still responsible for her troops, M.L. ran around sniffing out the accurate information and reporting it back to the assembled group. She would always address people by calling them “my dear,” which I realized was a respectful way to show humanity for someone. She uses that term of endearment for anyone, young or old, male or female. It makes everyone feel good. I’m sure it was cultivated from her years in the medical profession, but I know that M.L. was born with the qualities that she says are critical to successful nursing: empathy, patience, and compassion. Her mother passed on those qualities by example, but M.L. also just has natural warmth and sensitivity.

When we boarded the train, we stowed our bags in the roomette and waited for our room attendant to come by. One attendant is assigned to every sleeper car, to help passengers with turning the bed down at night (which we wouldn’t need) but also to answer questions, help with luggage if necessary, and keep the room stocked with things like bottled water. When our guy Michael came around and shot the breeze with us, M.L. pulled out one of her Ben’s Bells handmade ceramic “Kindness Coins” and handed it to him with a flourish. “Here you are, my dear,” she said. “For your kindness.”

kindness-coin-10-pack
Kindness Coins

***

We had breakfast almost as soon as we boarded, and we had no tablemates because the train was late getting in and there were no other passengers still eating. In the dining car, passengers are seated so that the entire four-person table is filled up, so most of the time – when I’m alone – I’m sitting with three strangers. While we were gobbling up our “free” meals, M.L. told me that around Watsonville we would probably have the privilege of seeing Elkhorn Slough Reserve, a natural sanctuary that most people don’t have the chance to see casually because no roads run past it. I did not know this. Elkhorn Slough is a tidal salt marsh 7 miles long that is home to more than 300 kinds of birds as well as sea otters, harbor seals, and sea lions. Amtrak runs right through it. It’s a privilege to be able to see it from the window of a passing vehicle, so we headed to the Observation Car to spend the afternoon taking in the sights.

007_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_breakfast_ML 3

As I’ve mentioned, the best part of the afternoon on the Coast Starlight is the 3:00 wine-tasting in the Parlour Car, open to sleeper-car and Business Class passengers. For a mere $7.50, you can participate in an attendant-led tasting of three wines. You can also buy a cracker-and-cheese plate, which I never pass up. Typically, so few people participate that it’s like a personal event during which, in addition to learning about wines, you can ask all kinds of train-related questions if you want to. The wines themselves can be red or white, mediocre or delicious. It’s a gamble, like much of the Amtrak experience.

028_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_Parlour car wine-tasting_ML, Paula

Michael was our server, and he served a chardonnay, a cabernet, and a Malbec, talking nonstop about wine-making as he poured. He seemed to know his stuff, and when M.L. mentioned the “ice wines” of the Finger Lakes region in New York (where she currently lives) he seemed to know all about them. Ice wine, I learned, is frozen on the vine itself. After the usual fall harvest, some of the grapes are left on the vine to continue maturing throughout the winter, which raises their sugar content. In turn, the soil content contributes the right amount of acidity. Each grape, by the way, produces only one drop of the sweet wine. The Finger Lakes region is perfectly suited to the very delicate creation of ice wine because of the combination of rich soil and sub-freezing climate. I munched on my crackers, sipped my wine, listened to these two give me a viticulture lesson, and eyed the farmland out my window a bit blurrily.

043a_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_scenery 8a

At some point during the day, it became clear that we had been stopped for a long time. Two hours, in fact. A shopping cart on the tracks had gotten lodged under the train. Thank goodness the owner of the cart was not in the vicinity. But the incident did mean that our arrival time in L.A. would be pushed back considerably.

It didn’t really matter. We had a nice dinner with a couple of young honeymooners from Alaska. The young woman had a lovely name (Sarai), sported myriad tattoos and piercings (but none of those earlobe-disc thingies, thank goodness), and told us she manages a social program for kids with disabilities. She and her new husband used to work together but now he’s a landscaper. Both of them were engaging, attentive, and fine-tuned to life’s details. How delightful that they had decided to spend their honeymoon on a train. They’re going to have a long life together.

***

On Wednesday, M.L. and I boarded the train heading back northbound at about 10:00 a.m. after having spent the night at the Miyako Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The air conditioning in my room was functioning at only about what must have been 10 percent of its capacity, because I absolutely boiled and hardly got a wink of sleep all night. I couldn’t help but muse on the fact that had I slept on a train, I would have had a peaceful night’s slumber. The train whistles, the squeaks and hisses and rumbles, the jostling of the car never seem to keep me awake. But that night in the hotel was a killer.

046_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_Jim, Bonnie Blue, ML, Paula
Jim and Bonnie Blue

I was raging with hunger as soon as we boarded the train and M.L. agreeably assented to my fervid wish that we grab the earliest lunch reservations. Our tablemates were Jim and Bonnie Blue. That’s right – Bonnie Blue is her first name. I vaguely remembered a song with “Bonnie Blue” in the lyrics, and it turns out that “Bonnie Blue Flag” is an 1861 Confederate marching song. Our Bonnie Blue, however, was born and raised in Orange County, which put to rest my internal contention that I had detected a faint southern accent in her voice. The two of them have two children. One son has cerebral palsy, and Jim and Bonnie Blue have devoted their lives to caring for him while keeping him at arm’s length as much as possible to nurture his independence. Mathematically brilliant, but hamstrung by his physical limitations, he actually has become a successful professional gambler. The other son – in the sad process of divorcing his wife, who left him for another man – was just diagnosed with multiple myeloma. Jim and Bonnie Blue, however, have retained sunny dispositions and love train travel so much that they deliberately racked up thousands and thousands of miles on their Amtrak credit card when they had their business. Now they ride the rails for free everywhere, and they keep trying out different routes to help them keep their minds off the challenges their sons are facing.

***

068a_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_scenery 30a

We looked forward to our wine-tasting in the afternoon, but for some reason the rules had changed. When we arrived at the designated hour, we were told by the bartender that we had to have reservations – even though there had been no such restriction the day before. Amtrak’s rules and procedures are extremely fluid. And this bartender was dead-set on not serving us because, she said, she feared that there would not be “enough glasses.” Of course, my eyes kept resting on one of the tables that was set with glasses but never used. This kind of inconsistency and illogic is the kind of thing that sets my blood boiling. I was an instant, seething grouch. M.L., on the other hand, chatted up the woman (although I noticed she did not bestow a Kindness coin on her!). The woman didn’t budge, but the tenor of the conversation was calm and friendly. Perhaps that is why M.L. has been a leader and I have not. When I sense an injustice, I want to hit someone upside the head with a mallet. M.L. set a beautiful example of how to be patient and respectful and keep one’s cool.

And also how to turn lemons into lemonade.

“You know, instead of spending our money on the wine-tasting, let’s go get some ice from the café car,” she suggested. “I brought a teeny bit of bourbon in my suitcase, and we can have a cocktail back in the roomette.”

The café car is downstairs below the observation car. It serves snacks, sandwiches, microwaveable meals like hamburgers and hot dogs, and all kinds of beverages, ranging from Coke to juice to beer to hard liquor. We got ourselves some ice in plastic glasses and repaired to the roomette.

(By the way, only sleeper-car passengers are allowed to bring alcohol onto the train, although there’s no question that M.L. would have flouted that rule had we been in Coach.)

I poured myself a full glass of water over the ice, then gingerly dropped in a smidgen of bourbon.

“What on earth are you doing?” she asked, incredulous. “That’s not enough bourbon! Your proportions are all wrong!”

“You mean, this won’t work?” I asked.

“Paula, that’s like putting an eye dropper of bourbon in a pond of water! It couldn’t give a buzz to an ant!”

***

055_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_scenery 16

We whiled away the afternoon talking about everything from sports to families to our medical conditions. (Gotta get that in!) The fertile valley earth, the laborers in the field, the pristine coastline, the languid sunbathers – all of them rolled by our windows.

We got pensive. M.L. told me that she was starting to realize that she is more nostalgic for the Army than she thought.

“I can well imagine,” I said. “It was all about youth, adventure, travel . . .”

“And all the camaraderie,” she added wistfully. “The camaraderie is what I miss the most.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Is that a cigar? Some things never change.

We delved a little bit into politics. One of my unending lamentations is the lack of rational discourse about political policy today. And when I say policy, I don’t mean frivolous, half-baked ideas. I mean well-thought-out solutions to our national – and global – issues. Instead, all we do is micro-scrutinize and insult each other.

I’m sure my brow was furrowed.

She clinked my glass. “Don’t worry, my dear,” she said. “With a touch of alcohol, we will all be okay.”

***

Our last meal on the train was our dinner with Michael and Kay on Wednesday evening.

Michael, a young tech industry worker from Irvine who had just gotten a job with Hyundai, was taking his mother on a trip to San Francisco. His mom – a very beautiful, primly dressed older Asian woman – wasn’t speaking at all. When the waiter came, in fact, Michael ordered for her while she just nodded. I assumed that she didn’t speak English, and, although I addressed the two of them when I spoke, I didn’t pursue anything with her because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. M.L., however, finally couldn’t take it anymore and decided that our internal conclusions might be wrong. So she looked directly at Kay.

“My dear,” she asked, “tell me this – have you been to San Francisco before?”

Kay smiled broadly and answered the question perfectly. From that point on, we had a full and lovely conversation about everything from movies to the economy. The sun set and we were all throwing our heads back, laughing.

***

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but Congress is still going back and forth about cutting funding for Amtrak and effectively dismantling the country’s passenger rail system. The current budget proposal seeks to maintain funding for intercity commuter service in the Northeast corridor and a few other high-passenger runs while eliminating the service for others. Estimates are that 144 million people in 220 communities would lose local access to trains. Incredibly, 23 states would lose all access to Amtrak passenger rail service, and another 12 would retain only partial access. Funding for long-distance trains would be eliminated altogether. The upshot: passenger rail service would be preserved for only the wealthiest communities.

I’ve learned so much on trains. They’ve provided me with rich instruction on the vast geography of our country as well as the wide-ranging humanity of our fellow Americans.  I feel like cutting access to Amtrak would be akin to cutting funding for institutions of higher learning.

020_Coast Starlight train trip, September 2017_Parlour Car_ML, Paula

On this trip I learned how to properly mix bourbon and water. I learned about ice wine and Elkhorn Slough. I learned about people with disabilities. I learned from M.L. how to look people in the eye and treat them kindly and without judgment.

And I learned to just chill out.

Thank you for being my friend, M.L. Thank you for your service. And thank you for teaching me that, with a touch of alcohol, we will all be okay.

 

ML as pilot

 

***

 

Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1971 and 1987.

4/17/71:
They told me I have to go fishing tomorrow. But I hate to go! Why? 1) Hay fever, 2) Getting up early, and 3) They never get any fish! Why don’t they let me stay home? Then we all could have a good time.
4/18/71:
Since they decided to go to Lexington [Reservoir], I got to stay home. I played basketball with Ted and Bruce Tambling, and Frisbee, too. Then the whole family came home. Naturally they only got 1 fish. I played catch with Marc, and played basketball and hide-and-seek at Ted’s. It was fun having two lunches today. At 10:30 I had a ham sandwich, potato chips, and root beer, and at 2:00 I had a salami sandwich, potato chips, Coke, and licorice.

3/15/71:

“Now, about Mrs. Dossa [my English teacher, who was on maternity leave] — what she tried to teach us was okay, but I did not like how she did it. She is almost completely humorless. Now we have a substitute. It’s always hard to get used to a substitute anyway, but this one is really wierd [sic]. She is about 23 years old and 5’2 or 5’0 inches tall. But remember when I said Mrs. Dossa was almost completely humorless? Well, this one is COMPLETELY HUMORLESS!”

3/7/71:

“Mom is very great. Today she turned in my library books while I was at G.A.A. [Girls Athletic Association]. I appreciate everything she does. Anyway, she is making me a skirt that I’ll be able to wear with my G.A.A. sweater. I was trying it on today when I suddenly remembered how LONG the last skirt she made me was. Now, I am not the kind who likes to wear mini-skirts to school or even come close. I really am very reasonable when it comes to that. But I hate wearing skirts down to my knees. All my dresses are a good length but for some reason Mom FLUBS UP on the skirts. They look like I’m a grandmother!”

 3/5/71:

“Mrs. Dossa [my English teacher] came back today and we gave her a WARM welcome (you’ll get the pun). Mary Pasek and I turned the heat up to 90 degrees and she didn’t even notice it when it got really hot later on, we heard. A kid turned it down. Mrs. Dossa was still rather sick and it probably felt good. We’ll have to do it again sometime. It was reminiscent of the time when Mary Blasi and I turned the heat up so high during an art show in the St. Victor’s library that the tape on the pictures melted and they all fell off the wall.”

August 15-20, 1971 [from my week spent at the Santa Clara County Fair with my friend Colleen, who was in 4-H]:

“There weren’t too many hippies there. Wednesday I got to try out a waterbed. Wow, are they cool. You move constantly, but I guess you could get seasick. I also watched a milking contest with DJ’s and a milking machine. I played free Bingo for two hours and Sharon won a $7.50 carving set but I only won a can of Stridex [acne pads] and a can of hairspray. The only clumsy thing I did was to spill Kool Aid all over an exhibit in Fiesta Hall.”

 

 

 

Return to Triangle Acres

Return to Triangle Acres

 

It was really right out of a movie script, and a saccharine one at that. A couple of years ago I drove all the way to a small town in Maine in search of a farm, a house, and a family that I had loved and lost four decades earlier. Against all reason, I wondered if I could find the glorious place where, on the verge of adulthood, I had once spent three idyllic summers. But when I finally arrived, I saw that all of it had vanished. And then I turned . . . .

***

The people in Maine say that there are only two seasons in the state: August, and winter.

I saw Maine for the first time in August of 1975. My high school friend Jeanne – she of the wire-rimmed glasses whom my parents mistrusted – had married a man named Steve Harrington (I’m changing his last name, out of respect for his family’s privacy). How Jeanne – a paragon of narcissism – had landed Steve is something I’ll probably never understand, because he was the gentlest, sweetest man I’ve ever met. The two of them lived in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but he was a native Maine-iac and was up visiting his family at the time. The plan was that I would fly out to meet Jeanne in South Carolina and the two of us would drive up the East Coast together to Maine, where she would reunite with Steve and meet her new in-laws for the first time.

It was a crazy vacation because we were young (19) and somewhat reckless, and our adventures were abundant. We spent some time in New York City, seeing off-color shows at the Village Gate and closing down the bars. (It was a Village bartender who first introduced me to the wonders of Sambuca Romana, the clear licorice-flavored liqueur that’s as strong as whisky and absolutely must be drunk with three coffee beans floating in the glass. The drink is called “Sambuca con la Mosca,” which in Italian means “Sambuca with a Fly.” And there must be three beans, representing health, prosperity, and happiness. But, as usual, I digress.)

We also got stuck in the middle of a statewide drug bust in South Carolina – a bizarre story that will be told at some later date when I discuss my brushes with the law.  😉

Anyway, eventually Jeanne and I made it, pulling up at the Harringtons’ farmhouse at 5:00 one morning after an 18-hour drive through some dangerously misty backroads in New Hampshire. I remember the instrumental “Tubular Bells” coming eerily through the radio, white birches glowing like spectres in the blackness, and wisps of fog skulking low along the road. We’d been through so much that day. We’d driven 60 miles out of our way to the town of Woodstock so that we could stand on the farm where half a million kids had spent three days of love and rock ‘n’ roll, and it turned out to be the wrong site. We’d gotten stuck with a flat tire and no tools on the New York Thruway, and had had to sit miserable and shivering in a downpour until relief came. And after I accidentally loosened my grip on our trusty map and let it fly out through the open sunroof, we’d meandered lost down every side route, dirt road, and ghostly trail along the way.

Anyway, long after our edge of exhaustion, the mountains became level and the darkness became dawn. Jeanne and I pulled up to the farmhouse and were instantly met with the strongest, longest hugs imaginable from an extended family that had come in from far and wide to meet Steve’s new wife. And that was my warm orientation to rural Maine – a stone’s throw from the capital, Augusta, but a world away.

1976_Maine_Chris, Paula, Steve Purington
Steve

“Triangle Acres” read the sign on the roadside that marked the entrance to the farm. I don’t know how many acres the family had, but the land was enough to provide lodging for horses, cattle, a rooster, hens, sheep, a ram, and four dogs, all running around neighing, mooing, crowing, clucking, bleating, and barking at once. The land also provided sustenance for the Harrington garden, a veritable Eden of beans, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, and oh-so-sweet butter-and-cream Maine corn. Off to the left stood a huge weatherbeaten barn, complete with cats and barn swallows and a hayloft. Behind the barn were woods and fields. And down by the road stood the family’s vegetable stand, which was never manned; a sign merely instructed customers to “Pick out your vegetables and put money in the jug,” which they did, on the honor system, with nary a hint of thievery.

The Harringtons lived in a century-old, two-story white clapboard farmhouse. I don’t remember much about the house except that it was well-worn but tidy, and it had many of the “appointments” common to old farmhouses, like pantries and built-in corner cupboards and a wood-burning stove. At night it was a little crazy – people on couches, cots, or on the floor, or outside in tents, trailers, or the hayloft in the barn. I suppose out of deference to my being a guest and a girl, though, I got to sleep upstairs in a tiny bedroom full of Charlie’s dusty Zane Gray paperbacks about the American frontier.

Charlie – to this day one of my favorite human beings of all time – was the patriarch of the family, a beanpole of a man, with a bald, sunburned head, a smattering of whiskers, a cigarette or pipe constantly hanging out of his mouth, and pants rolled up about six inches on the bottom (“darn these things,” he’d say, “they’re too blasted stiff”). He was born around 1909, which would have made him about 66 when we met. After the eighth grade he’d left school and gone to work on the railroads and then on construction sites.

1980_07_Gardiner, Maine_Charlie Purington, Paula
Charlie

I loved his stories and recorded some of them. “I been up to the top of Maine and back down again with this construction company, used to work seven days a week, holidays, 12-14 hours a day; we’d be so weary we’d walk along and trip over a little pebble in the road,” he told me. “Once it rained and stormed and we all decided to go home. The boss got mad but we said hell, we been workin’ every day since spring, we got a right to come home, but my little daughter Cherie, she was but 8 or 9 months at the time, if I saw her and came to pick her up in my arms, why, she’d scream ’cause she didn’t know me, her own fatha. Three years I lived in a tent. It had a hahdwood floor and a gas stove and heata and a sink, a bed . . . why, it’d be 20 degrees outside but so warm and comftable in my tent, maybe 70, 75 degrees, you know, yes, it was comftable. I took a bulldozah and plowed a hole in the woods so the wind’d go right over the top, see, and took a tarpaulin and put it over a pole, makin’ whatcha call a ‘fly,’ and covered everything with snow and leaves. I tell you it was comftable. But lonely, oh, it was so lonely.”

Charlie was sinewy but strong, hard-working but playful, and he had a keen sense of honor. The only time I ever saw him mad was when we all sat around the table one night and drank up all his whisky. For this I could be forgiven, because I was simply following his children’s lead. But that whisky was precious to him, and he laid into his kids the next morning when he discovered the empty bottle. We all sat there sheepishly and full of shame and of course replaced the booze the next day. Other than that, he was a jokester and a prankster and perennially of good cheer. I’ll never forget his favorite line about his philosophy of life and death: “I’ll know when I get t’heaven, because I’ll get t’live my dream of walkin’ barefoot across a field of naked women’s breasts.” He always said it with a twinkly grin and would leave us all laughing as he strolled off to the barn.

“Not everyone can get as much out of their land as you do, Papa Charlie. You must be awfully proud of this farm,” I once told him as he took some tobacco and rolled a cigarette. (I’d gotten that line from Easy Rider, but I meant it nonetheless. I thought he was everything a great man ought to be.)

“Dahlin’,” he said, “I’ve got everything heah with me. I’m retired now, but I do desehve t’be after so many yehs of wehk, and I’ve got my gahden and my woodchoppin.’ It’s so good, so good for a man t’be able to make a little money from his own hands, and I love my house so much that whenevah I leave, even just for a minute, I look back and akchally cry.”

In front of the house sat an ancient truck (the “Tonka Toy,” as it was affectionately named), an old beat-up ’52 pickup with wires and rusty bolts and levers hanging out, windows blistered or broken, seats torn out to reveal just bare springs. But it did its job, however haltingly. When Charlie finished talking to me about his house, he went screaming off with it into the woods, over the stumps and the rocks and the trees, choking to a stop every couple of minutes.

1976_Maine_Gert Purington, Chris
Gert and cousin Chris, my flyfishing teacher

Gert, his wife, was four years younger. She was shaped like a barrel and had a raspy voice and wiry gray curls, and her teeth were either missing or askew. But she was loud and jolly, and she loved every second of managing this insane houseful of Maine-iacs. She’d been a looker in her younger years; I saw a photo of her once and nearly gasped with the recognition of what the aging process does to us. “Why do you insist on looking at those old scrapbooks?” she asked me. “I hate lookin’ at myself.” I remember that she said it with sadness, and it was the first time I realized the melancholy that can catch us when we’re not looking, when we are reminded what the years have wrought.

Jeanne’s husband Steve, with his soft southern drawl and his kind eyes, was one of five kids in the Harrington family. One sister, Judy, lived in California but was out visiting with her two young children. Brother George, who lived in Connecticut, sported an impeccable haircut and seemed a bit more upscale than the rest of the family. Cheryl, the youngest, was a good-humored young woman who always seemed to be rubbing cake in someone’s face. I didn’t know it then, but the next year she would catch leukemia and it would take her very quickly. After Cheryl died, they told me that Charlie would cry almost every night, thinking that no one heard him.

1976_Maine_Paula, Ronnie Purington
Ron, always the scamp

Then there was brother Ron, the oldest, who reminded me of Jack Kerouac – my favorite author at the time. Ron had been all over the country from east coast to west, bumming and fighting and riding the rails and doing odd jobs, and he was still a perennial vagabond. He was coarse and had an annoying giggle, but because he was a rambler and even physically resembled Kerouac, I romanticized him for a long time until I learned what a scalawag he was. He had a darling son we all called “Little Ronnie” who was only about 6 years old and whose mom hung around a lot but was no longer in any kind of relationship with his father. There was simply an understanding.

1980_07_Gardiner, Maine_Ronnie Purington, Jr, Paula
Little Ronnie

***

I was a child of the suburbs, and although I ran free in the San Jose orchards and knew my way around a fishing pole or a county fair, this was the first time I was introduced to rural living. And to say it was heavenly would be an understatement. The family and all of its cousins and extensions loved each other fiercely, and I was now a part of it.

I got to swim in the ice-cold, crystal-clear, cobalt blue waters of the local quarry.

I spent $4.50 on tickets to the drag races.

I dug my own worms, caught a few bass, and took flyfishing lessons from one of the cousins.

Out in the barn, I spent hours talking about life in the earthy-smelling hayloft. Sometimes a joint may have been involved.

We chased escaped piglets up and down the road until we were exhausted from laughing and running, and, by the way, we never caught the pigs.

I once accidentally left a gate open and a steer got loose, resulting in lots of hollering until he was recaptured.

1976_Maine_Jeanne Andrishok and Bucky
“Bucky”

I was also violently slammed in the butt by “Bucky” the ram. I’d been standing around in the pasture, minding my own business, when without warning I found myself hurtling through the air and landing squarely on my back. Luckily I was young and no body parts were damaged. And true to their code of integrity around woman and guests, the boys who witnessed it did not laugh. Not even a smirk.

We took the coon dogs out into the misty Maine woods at 1:00 in the morning, seeing no raccoons but inhaling deeply the fresh odor of loamy soil.

I went bareback horse riding down empty streets at midnight.

I shot high-caliber pistols at targets up near the waterfall.

I picked my own vegetables and shelled my own peas.

I saw Tom Petty in concert in Augusta, with a crowd about 1,000 times rowdier than any I’d ever experienced in the Bay Area. Beer, brawls, and beards in abundance.

In the evening, we sat outside and had huge family feasts. Once or twice we picked out lobsters and clams from a nearby distributor and cooked them up, but they were luxuries. So usually dinner was something like venison, thick homemade potato bread with fresh raspberry jam, abundant ears of garden corn, mustard pickles, fiddleheads, fresh peas, new potatoes, and strawberries. I mean, delicious.

At night we played spoons and drank whisky and made up stories and laughed until long past midnight.

Never once did we want for anything to do or anyone to hug.

***

So it was that shortly after Memorial Day in 2014, I pulled into that small town in Maine in search of a memory. All I wanted was to see that white clapboard house again, if it was still standing.

I couldn’t remember the address, so I’d done an Internet search, finding only the business address of a roofing company operated by a Harrington I didn’t know. Still, as soon as I saw the street name I knew it was the one. I thought that maybe one of the descendants was operating a business out of the old house.

When Julie and I pulled up, however, we saw that there was no more open land on the old spot – just some small, nondescript homes. I hadn’t had high expectations about seeing the old place again, so I just sat in the car and sighed and submitted wistfully to the inevitable shifts of time.

As we started to pull away, though, I glanced towards the opposite side of the street and thought for a moment that I saw a flash of white hanging from the bottom of a tree. It was a familiar-shaped sign with worn black lettering, and since it was hanging perpendicular to the street I had to get out and walk up to it to make out the words.

“Triangle Acres,” it read.

***

248_Gardiner, Maine_Purington residence

I looked up and saw the old house. The front of the bottom story was stripped down to bare wood. Wires and antennae and satellite dishes were now attached to the roof.  But it was the same place, all right. A couple of boats were in the backyard, looking as if they had been marooned there for quite some time. There were a few sheds and a woodpile and a rusted-out garbage can.

I decided to take a picture of the sign, for old times’ sake, and I was standing in the road adjusting the focus when a woman strolled purposefully out of the house and directly towards me. “Can I help you?” she asked, in a way that was neither friendly nor antagonistic, just direct. She wanted to know who the hell I was, this stranger with a camera and a rental car with New York license plates.

“Well, I know this is kind of weird, but I’m from California and I came all the way up here just to see if I could find the house where I spent many summers – maybe before you were even born – with a wonderful family called the Harringtons,” I explained, taking out my old photo album so I could show her that I wasn’t a loon.

“Well, you’ve found it,” she said. “I live here with Ronnie Harrington and his father. I’m Ronnie’s girlfriend.”

***

Her name was Jamie, and she texted Little Ronnie (as he was apparently still called!), who was away as he often was, for weeks at a time, working seasonal construction jobs and trying to make ends meet. I figured he’d have forgotten me, but I was wrong. “Damn,” he texted back to her. “Paula was supposed to wait for me so I could marry her.”

His dad, Ron, had driven into town, and Jamie called him and asked him to come back right away, saying he had an old friend waiting for him.

There was no garden anymore, no barn, no animals. Jamie invited us in for a drink of water, and when I looked around I saw that the house was in some disrepair. I remember thinking that someone could easily fall through the floorboards. I doubt that Little Ronnie’s hard but sporadic work in construction was able to provide enough for upkeep and repairs on an old, creaky home. I started to feel embarrassed to be breezing in with my fancy camera and my L.L. Bean sweater.

250_Gardiner, Maine_Purington residence_Ronnie, Paula
Ron

Ron drove up about half an hour later. I figure he was about 80, still robust and not all that aged despite the 40 years, and he held my hand and was sweet as can be and wanted us to stay for dinner. We weren’t able to stay, but we spent a few hours talking about the family, especially old man Charlie, and much to their amusement I repeated Charlie’s notion of heaven and the naked breasts, and they laughed knowingly.

Gert had died of cancer in 1985, and Charlie had passed in 1990. Steve and Jeanne had long since divorced – such a shock! – and Steve was still living in the Carolinas, although he was struggling with health problems.

I don’t know exactly why Ron and his son hadn’t kept up the farm. I don’t know whether the younger Ronnie made a choice to work seasonally, or whether that was the only job he could find in an unsteady economy, or whether it was the only one for which he was suited. I don’t know how many strikes he may or may not have had against him, especially considering his father’s propensity for a nomadic, adventurous, but somewhat shiftless life.

But does the cause – which was probably a mix of many factors – really matter? I’m just plain lucky that I’ve been able to retire before the age of 60 and carry a fancy camera and hail from the land of artisanal toast and hand-massaged beef. So many of us live in a ridiculous bubble of comfort and security, and we take for granted how fortunate we are. Out here most of us think alike and vote the same way and share the same outrage at things we believe to be uncouth or boorish. We forget that many people live differently and suffer pain and hardships that we could never imagine having while we hunch over our computer screens or sit around with our glass of chardonnay and exclaim over mango foam.

***

This weekend I finished reading a little book called The Rangity Tango Kids by Lorraine Rominger. I would not recommend it to anyone looking for exceptional prose, nor would I recommend it to anyone under 50 who hails from an urban or suburban environment. It’s a folksy memoir written by a local woman from Winters, in northern California, about her childhood on a farm in Sonoma County, and what it was like growing up with a passel of brothers and sisters in a time whose traces are disappearing so fast that there are very few remnants left for us to savor. Although I didn’t spend my childhood on a farm, the memories and the values evoked in Ms. Rominger’s book brought me back to my youth.

“There were things I took for granted growing up that are gone now,” Rominger writes, “things my nieces and nephews will not have the opportunity to experience, like the simplicity of a farm family whose lives revolved around a place where we lived and worked, so our family and farm would prosper. Dad’s attachment to the land, and his father’s, is like none any of us will ever know. My grandparents have passed, but Dad and Grandpa Rominger have collectively been on the farm for nearly a century and have witnessed the wild, open country taken away over time. I prefer the world I grew up in, not the world I am growing old in.”

To our detriment, I believe, so many simple pleasures have vanished. If I could go back in time for a moment, I would. I would walk back onto that farm in Maine and remember the joys of physical exertion, the tastes of food right out of the earth, and the prolonged laughter that comes from family and friends actually interacting with each other, without judgment. I would let Bucky ram me from behind just so I could sail through the air again, free, without a care in the world. I would ride a horse bareback down an empty street at midnight.

So don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot

For one brief, shining moment . . . .

Their last full measure

Their last full measure

 

My mother told me more than once, in her later years, that when she reflected on my upbringing she had only one major regret: that she did not buy me the thing I most wanted for Christmas. I begged for it every year. It was in the Sears Christmas catalog, on the costume page with the nurse’s outfits and the ballerina tutus. But I didn’t want those, of course. What I was dying to have was a U.S. Marine Corps dress uniform.

Sears catalog 1969There is no more beautiful uniform in the world than the Marine Corps “dress blues.”  The sky-blue pants had a dark red stripe running down the outside of the leg. And the jacket – oh, that dignified jacket! – was a deep midnight blue and sported red trim, gold buttons, a sergeant’s insignia on the sleeve, epaulettes on the shoulders, a mandarin collar, and – best of all – a beautiful, wide white belt to make it all look so crisp.

I never found my coveted dress blues under the Christmas tree, so I spent many hours marching in circles around the dining room table wearing my father’s old olive-colored army hat and listening to my most cherished LP, “American Patriotic and Marching Songs.” My favorites were the military anthems, and I would belt out “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” “The Halls of Montezuma,” and “The Army Air Corps Song” until my parents wanted to rip that record right off the turntable.

Mom mentioned her regrets about the uniform so often that a few years ago I decided to find some dress blues and surprise her by strolling into her house wearing them. I checked ebay and costume shops and military surplus stores, but unfortunately I came up short. Even though I did find one or two authentic uniforms for sale, they wouldn’t nearly have fit me. I guess there aren’t too many 5’6”, 135-pound Marines. I did find some old Women’s Army Corps uniforms, but they were skirt outfits. Ew.

Album cover-2

***

On this Memorial Day, I wanted to pay tribute to my great-uncle Reuben Steger – a genuine hero who lost his life in World War II. Uncle Ruby, like most of the relatives from my mother’s side of the family, grew up in Marshfield, Wisconsin. There were nine boys and two girls in the family and Ruby was the most loving of the boys, many of whom had dispositions coarsened by their hardscrabble lives. They wore shoes only to church on Sundays; otherwise, they roamed the farmlands barefooted. Their mother, despite having 11 children of her own, took in other people’s laundry to make ends meet. They grew their own potatoes and cabbage, raised their own cow for milk, and ate meat only when it was killed by one of the sons – squirrels, rabbits, deer, whatever they could find hunting the open lands.

When he was 19 years old, Ruby joined the Wisconsin National Guard, and he was a guardsman for four years until his unit was placed into active service in October 1940. He was almost immediately shipped to Australia, where he and his comrades spent more than a year in a tent city, waiting to be sent to New Guinea, into a war that President Franklin Roosevelt undoubtedly wanted us to join, despite his assertions to the contrary. Ruby and his fellow soldiers, in fact, may have been sitting in front of a crackly radio somewhere when the President gave his October 30 campaign address in Boston and brazenly stated to the American people, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

Uncle Ruby-2
Sgt. Reuben J. Steger

But everyone knew it was inevitable. The United States declared war on Japan one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and three days after that Germany declared war on the U.S.

Japan invaded New Guinea in January of 1942, and the Allies sought to retake it later that year. Ruby was 25 years old and a first sergeant in the 128th Infantry, Company C, when he found himself suddenly in command of a group of men in Papua, at the Battle of Buna. It was a miserable battle, fought in jungles and swamps during the wettest season of the year. Up to 95 percent of the Allied forces were carrying malaria. There was a terrible shortage of food and ammunition. Allied losses were enormous; it was one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater.

On November 20, all four of the officers in charge of the 128th Infantry were killed. The next day, sergeants Reuben Steger and Carl Cherney, both from the same small town in Wisconsin, assumed command. Reports were that the troops fought heroically, almost maniacally, but they made almost no progress. The carnage was overwhelming. In three days of combat, the 128th lost 63 men. But Ruby saved at least half a dozen. Time and again, under raging machine gun fire, he ran into the field to bring his wounded men to safety. Eventually, on the sixth or seventh foray, his luck ran out. He was picked off and drew his last breath on that field. His buddy Carl Cherney died a few hours later.

What courage and fearlessness and heart that young man displayed. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, and the Distinguished Service Cross, which is for “extraordinary heroism.”

It wasn’t until 1949, for some reason, that the army got its act together to present the long-overdue medals to Ruby’s parents, my great-grandparents John and Caroline. The Marshfield News-Herald’s article about the private presentation says that “the 83-year-old father’s shoulders were shaking and Mrs. Steger’s eyes were blinded by tears.”

1949_10-20_posthumous receipt of Reuben Steger medals_John and Caroline Steger 1
John and Caroline Steger, receiving their son’s medals, 1949

My mother always had a special place in her heart for Ruby, who was not only her uncle but her godfather, and his death hit her hard. She never forgot him, and decades later she embarked on a four-year mission to get copies of his medals. She found the relevant photos and news articles with the help of the Marshfield Public Library, and ultimately she was able to get the medals through the efforts of Rep. Mike Thompson of California’s 5th Congressional District. Congressman Thompson himself was a Purple Heart recipient for wounds he suffered in the Vietnam War.

***

Although Memorial Day is meant to honor soldiers who lost their lives, I can’t help but think about another American soldier who survived his wounds but showed a kind of honor and commitment that went beyond what he endured on the battlefield. His name was Kunio Shimamoto.

Kunio was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was primarily a Nisei unit. Most Japanese Americans who fought in World War II were Nisei, which means that they were “second generation” – born in the United States to immigrant parents. The 442nd was the most highly decorated military unit, for its size and its length of service, in the history of the American armed forces. The unit’s motto was “Go for Broke.”

japanese-internment-poster-optWhat absolutely astonishes me about the Nisei soldiers, though, is that so many of them experienced fierce bigotry during the war, and many had families who had suffered forced relocation to internment camps. President Roosevelt ordered more than 100,000 Japanese Americans to be relocated and imprisoned in internment camps after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Anyone with an ounce of Japanese heritage was ordered out of California and certain regions of other West Coast states unless they were in government camps.

The relocations were ostensibly conducted because there were fears of security risks. But statements made by high-ranking officials at the time would indicate that there was no small amount of racism involved. Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt, head of the Western Command and administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress that “I don’t want any of them [Japanese Americans] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty. . . . [W]e must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.” The Joint Immigration Committee of the California Legislature alleged that Japanese Americans were “totally unassimilable.”

The conditions at the camps were spartan at best. Some centers offered only cramped housing with no plumbing or cooking facilities. Beds were just saggy cots. Medical facilities were often unsanitary and overcrowded. Food poisoning was common, and diseases like dysentery and malaria made their way easily into the camps.

Kunio Shimamoto and his family were interned at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in southeastern Arkansas. “My grandparents came over from Japan and ended up in Los Angeles County as sharecroppers in strawberry farming,” Kunio’s daughter Joyce told me. “They lost their home and all belongings when they returned from camp. My dad was very much into photography before being interned and had to leave his darkroom and cameras behind. They were staged at the Santa Anita racetrack for a couple of months while waiting to be shipped to Arkansas. I remember my dad telling me that they lived in the horse stalls, which were not cleaned out, and they only had straw to sleep on. Writing this brings tears to my eyes.”

Kunio Shimamoto
SP6 Kunio Shimamoto

I don’t know all the details, but Kunio was eventually able to leave Rohwer on a work furlough, so he was employed for a while at auto plants in Detroit, helping to make parts for military tanks.

Then he decided to volunteer for the United States military. For the very government that had forcibly relocated his family to rural Arkansas.

“My dad was always very pro-American despite his internment,” Joyce says. “I was always amazed at how patriotic he was after all that he went through. It was even to the point of buying an American-made car. I once asked him why he just didn’t leave and go to Japan. He said that Japan wasn’t his home.”

I cannot begin to fathom the strength of character it took for a man to defend so honorably a country that had been so ignoble to him and everyone he loved. Kunio fought in Italy, France, and Germany and was awarded both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He was injured more than once, at one point hospitalized for three months because of devastating shrapnel wounds. Painful back problems that he endured throughout his life were a result of those injuries.

But he rarely talked to anyone about his experiences. “He didn’t want to discuss the hardships he went through,” Joyce remembers. “When he did tell me things, it was still very upsetting to him even after several decades. I didn’t even find out that he and his family were interned until I was in high school.”

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized for the internment and admitted that U.S. government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Kunio Shimamoto passed away exactly 7 years ago today. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

***

Like so many superlatives today, the word “hero” is tremendously overused. I’ve always said that heroes are people who actually do things like throw themselves on grenades. Reuben Steger ran repeatedly into a hail of bullets and knew that eventually one would kill him. Kunio Shimamoto put himself in harm’s way to protect a country that hurt him but that he loved deeply. These were noble men fighting for a noble cause.

Thank you, Uncle Ruby and Kunio, for your dedication, your courage, and your patriotism. Thank you for having a sense of purpose that transcended your individual selves. You were both true heroes. Thank you for giving us your last full measure of devotion.

 

**********

For SF Giants fans, my latest Giants blog posts (most of which are dullsville) are at http://sportsspotlight.com/blog/author/paulabocciardi/

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Nobody knows you when you’re down and out

Nobody knows you when you’re down and out

 

What are the chances? I recently finished researching and outlining this blog entry – about a jazz singer named Alberta Hunter – only to find that the very next day the Chronicle’s Datebook section would feature two stories about the same Ms. Hunter! I gasped, wallowed for a while in the disappointment of it all, and then finally decided to write the post anyway. But I’m still wondering who tipped off the Chronicle. Frankly, I blame the Kremlin.

What got me started researching the life of a jazz singer born more than 120 years ago is that a book I was reading about the music business mentioned that Frank Sinatra once said he learned more from Alberta Hunter than from any other singer he’d ever heard. To pique my interest further, this woman once recorded an album called Amtrak Blues, and you all know how I feel about trains. I decided that I needed to look her up, and her inspiring story then led me to a similar – but ill-fated – chronicle of another jazz entertainer of the era. Their talents were similarly abundant, and the women faced similar constraints, but difficult personal choices would lead them down tragically dissimilar paths.

***

Alberta Hunter was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1895. Her father – a Pullman porter – died very young, and her mother eked out a living as a servant in a brothel. Alberta, a relentlessly cheerful child, sang incessantly around the house, and when a friend in Chicago began sending letters back home about a Southside joint called Dago Frank’s where girls could make $10 a week singing, Alberta saw an opportunity to help out her mom. So in 1911, at the age of 16, she left home quickly and without a word. Clutching a kids’ railroad pass, she hopped on a train headed for Chicago, where she was given a job peeling potatoes in a boarding house for $6 a week.

Because she lied about her age, the scrappy teenager was able to land her first professional gig singing at night at Dago Frank’s, which was both a bordello and a gangster hangout. She felt safe there, though, and grateful to be living in a city in which black entertainers could get paid for their talents. Later in life, she would credit her time there for teaching her most of the life lessons she needed. “That’s a place where all the white prostitutes hung out,” she said, “and all their pimps, you know? And they knew I was nothin’ but a child, young, having run away from home. So they tried to teach me how to be a good girl. They said, ‘See what we’re up against? Don’t let fellas fool ya.’ And my mother always told me, ‘Have plenty sense. Use good judgment. Have a mind of your own.’ ”

When Dago Frank’s closed after someone was murdered there, Alberta moved on to other nightclubs, with both black and white audiences, earning enough to pay her mother’s way to Chicago so that the two could live together. They were sketchy places, but Alberta viewed every situation with good humor. “There was a pickpocket named Tack Annie,” she remembered. “Ugliest woman that God ever put breath in. She could walk up to a man and bite his diamond pin off. But she looked like a horse with a derby on!”

One night, though, Alberta’s piano player was actually shot and killed while they were on stage. So in 1921 she packed up and moved to New York, and that same year she recorded her first tune (“Bring Back the Joys”) with Black Swan, a black-owned blues and jazz record label operating out of New York that claimed it was “The only genuinely colored record – others are only passing.” Not much later she signed with Paramount. And she was no dummy. She recorded under a host of pseudonyms – including her half-sister’s – so that she could have “exclusive” contracts with a multitude of record companies!

ah-vaudeville-mobile
Alberta in Vaudeville, far right

It didn’t take long for Ms. Hunter to become internationally famous – not only for her singing, but for her composing and, occasionally, for her stage acting. In 1923, the great blues artist Bessie Smith sold 800,000 copies of her recording of Ms. Hunter’s composition “Downhearted Blues.” (Alberta, though, ended up with only $368 in royalties because her producer had clandestinely sold the rights and somehow ended up with all the proceeds. Such was the lot of black entertainers in those days, who had neither sufficient resources nor the sympathy of the law at their disposal.) In 1928 Alberta was cast in the role of “Queenie” in the London production of Showboat, and over the next couple of decades she spent time in the States and in Europe, recording, singing in nightclubs, appearing in repertory theater productions, and serving as a dedicated USO entertainer during both World War II and the Korean War.

Once the Korean War ended, though, Alberta’s life would take two major turns – one completely away from her music, and the next one all the way back in. As the war was winding down, her beloved mother was ailing, so she returned from Europe to care for her. Then, after her mother passed away in 1954, she stopped singing. Completely. As usual, though, she was able to cut through this roadblock with a bold and unusual plan. Consumed with the desire to find a different kind of meaning in her life, she gave away many of her possessions and became, of all things, a nurse. True to form, she lied about her age and her high school diploma (which she had never gotten) and enrolled in a practical nursing course, earning her license in 1957. For the next 20 years she worked at Harlem’s Goldwater Hospital. But she never sang a note during that time. Not even in the shower? she was asked. “No, I didn’t even hum, because all my interest was in my patients,” was her answer.

After she was laid off from nursing in 1977 because hospital administrators thought she was too old at age 70 (although she was in fact 82!), Ms. Hunter was invited to a party one night given by singer/pianist Bobby Short and she got to talking with the jazz impresario Charlie Bourgeoise, who – once he saw how spry and sharp she was – tried coaxing her back into show business. “Alberta,” she recalled him saying, “we need somebody, when there’s stories to be told, that can tell it. When you’re singing, people know what you’re saying.” She was intrigued but noncommittal. The next morning, though, she got a call from the owner of the Cookery nightclub in Greenwich Village, and he ultimately convinced her to jump back into the business and sing at his club for a two-week “limited engagement.” Well, that lasted for more than a year, and her career was thus resurrected at the age of 82.

For the next six years, Ms. Hunter continued to record and sing in the States, in Europe, in South America, on television, and at Carnegie Hall. She recorded the album Amtrak Blues in 1978. That year, she composed and sang the score of Robert Altman’s 1978 film Remember My Name, despite being unable to read music. She turned down a Sunday invitation from President Jimmy Carter once because – not one to be charmed by power, politics, or fame – she insisted that Sunday was her day of rest. But she relented in 1978 when he asked her to sing at the Kennedy Center in honor of her friend, the contralto Marian Anderson. “Bless his ole heart,” she said about the President before the show. “I’m gonna lay it on ’im!” It turns out that she was the only performer goaded into an encore that evening, and she later remarked that nothing in her career had ever thrilled her like that moment. After that performance, she was a frequent invitee of the Carter White House.

Alberta w_ Carters @ White House
Alberta with President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter, 1978

At the age of 89, Alberta finally stopped singing in public because age had started to affect her physical and mental health. She died in October 1984, with most of the money she’d made throughout her life stashed under her mattress.

***

When I listen to the recordings that Alberta made after her comeback, it’s hard for me to believe that she was in her eighties. Her voice was deep and rich as loam.  She looked glamorous and classy, but she was also fearlessly suggestive and sultry. “She doesn’t belt the blues, she insinuates them,” a reviewer once said. Yet the ironic twinkle in her eyes also revealed an appreciation of living that sometimes only the mounting years can bring.  I’ve always said that as the years go by, singers’ ranges narrow but their textures broaden. That’s what I call style.

amtrak blues

Off of Amtrak Blues, 1978:

“Darktown Strutters Ball” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OP-0geORbvM)


Live from the Smithsonian, 1981:

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdaNlZhmHoM)

“Handy Man” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IiG3adgU0BI)

If you watch those live Smithsonian clips, you can’t help but smile. I’ve sat back and savored them dozens of times.

***

Being a black artist in a white world presented an enormous set of challenges that, for the most part, Alberta Hunter was able to face head-on, with cleverness, temerity, and subterfuge as required. But most of the world didn’t know that she was also hiding a major part of herself.

Alberta Hunter, as we now know, was gay.

She was married briefly to a waiter once, when she was in her twenties, but rumor has it that the marriage was never consummated because she told her new husband that she couldn’t bring herself to have “relations” in the house where her mother (and she) lived. It comes as no surprise, then, that the young couple separated just a few months later. I watched a clip of Ms. Hunter’s appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” decades later when she was in her eighties, and Mike asked her if she’d been married. She confirmed her brief nuptials and added, “He was a fine man – believe me when I tell ya. But I knew he needed a wife who was going to look after his clothes being cleaned and get his meals regular. And I wasn’t cut out for that.” Mike asked how she’d given her husband the news of her displeasure. “I didn’t tell him. I just ran away!” she answered. There was much shrieking laughter from the audience. But Ms. Hunter once admitted that the whole sham had been very unfair to her heartbroken husband.

The thing is, the great love of Alberta’s life was a beautiful woman named Lottie Tyler, who was the niece of Vaudeville entertainer Bert Williams. The pair reportedly met sometime between 1915 and 1917 at the Panama Café in Chicago, Lottie gave Alberta her uncle’s address in New York, and Alberta looked her up two years later. After that, they formed a bond that lasted for decades even as they lived apart. Alberta always kept her distance from men so as not to encourage them, and when she traveled back and forth between Europe and the United States, she always had Lottie to come back to.

lottie tyler
Lottie Tyler

Lottie Tyler died in Chicago in 1960, and I can’t help but wonder whether she had been ill for a time and whether Alberta’s disappearance from the public eye, along with her sudden inability (or refusal) to sing for a couple of decades, was related as much to Lottie’s passing as to her mother’s. I guess we’ll never know the answer to that.

***

One of Alberta’s contemporaries, unfortunately, had a career that began similarly but ended sadly, partly because she did not suppress certain parts of her life the way Alberta managed to do so deftly.

Her name was Gladys Bentley. Born in Philadelphia in 1907, Ms. Bentley was, like Alberta, a multitalented performer who left home at the age of 16 and found the beginnings of her career in New York in the 1920s. Unlike Alberta, though, she refused to hide away her natural self. She often eschewed dresses, sporting her trademark tuxedo and top hat instead. And she lived openly with a white woman, making no attempts to conceal her sexuality. “It seems I was born different,” she said, matter-of-factly.

gladys, 1932
Gladys Bentley, 1932

bentley-postcard2

This particular time in New York in the 1920s was called the “Harlem Renaissance.” Greenwich Village and Harlem were neighborhoods that attracted artists and intellectuals, in part because housing was cheap but also because there was a sense of cultural freedom from the restrictions of the Victorian Era. Gay people found an accepting home there, too, and gay entertainers like Gladys felt free to be themselves in cabarets and speakeasies.

Ms. Bentley did some recordings with Okeh Records but her live shows were what drew the crowds. She was a rhythmic, powerful pianist, and she parodied blues standards and show tunes, making up bawdy lyrics as she went. Her shows were funny and risqué. She had a sweetness about her, too, so when she laughingly flirted with women in the audience, no one seemed to mind. And oh, that powerful voice. Her range was such that her voice could sound like a brass section or a bird within a few measures of each other.

1928: “Worried Blues” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptIBk2PZK74)

Gladys made a lot of money in those early days, and she sported a fancy car and an apartment on Park Avenue. But as the 1930s wore on, the effects of the Great Depression were taking their toll on American society. People began to mistrust each other as they scratched out their own livings. Black migration to large northern cities heightened racial tensions. And as Victorian values started to resurrect themselves, the public slowly grew intolerant of gay people. The police began making arrests.

In 1933, Gladys moved her act from Harlem to Broadway for a short time, but “morals complaints” from the more uptight Broadway crowd ended up shutting down her club, so she was forced to move back to Harlem. By then the blues were passing out of favor, and her venue the Ubangi Club shut its doors, too, in 1937. So at the age of 30, Gladys left Harlem for good and moved to Los Angeles to live in a tiny house with her mother, and little by little her confidence, independence, and success began to ebb away. She continued to perform in a selection of nightclubs on the West Coast, and in 1945 she made a few records on the Excelsior label (always careful to watch the content of her lyrics). But with the advent of McCarthyism came the witch hunts aimed at not only communists and their sympathizers but gay people as well. Suddenly, special permits were required for Ms. Bentley to wear pants (I know, it sounds absurd). The House Un-American Activities Committee investigated her as a “subversive.” She grew fearful, started wearing dresses, and cleaned up her act.

In 1950 an article under Gladys Bentley’s byline appeared in Ebony magazine. It’s unclear whether she actually penned the piece, entitled “I Am a Woman Again.” She first writes about how society’s censure “has the effect of creating within us a brooding self-condemnation, a sense of not being as good as the next person, a feeling of inadequacy and impotence.” She talks about how people like her can often find solace in the professional world, in that audiences who would “bitterly condemn” them personally still recognize their talent and pay to be entertained by them. But then she goes on to say that she had renounced her ways after finding the love of a man who awakened the “womanliness” in her, and that through his help and the aid of hormone treatments, she had found a way to be “happy and normal.”

The truth was, Gladys claimed to have married two men in her life, but there were denials (from one or both of the men), and it’s possible she never married either one of them. In any case, the relationships ended, of course, in the inevitable dissolution.

To find some meaning in the paradoxical twists her life had taken, Gladys finally turned to religion, but at the age of 52 she became a victim of a flu epidemic and died, emotionally desperate, guilt-ridden, and terrified.

***

Like many others, I often look back wistfully on “the good old days.” For someone like me, who has led what I consider to be a charmed life, there are good reasons to be nostalgic. But what I often forget is that for many others, the “good old days” simply weren’t.

If I could go back in time, I would thank Alberta Hunter for her guts and for her persistence and for listening to Charlie Bourgeoise when he convinced her to start singing again at the age of 82. As for Gladys, I would thank her for her youthful courage. And given the opportunity I would steer her gently away from dosing her body with hormones in a frightened, misguided attempt to rework her essential nature.

A few months before she died, Alberta was asked what advice she would give to young people. “Learn respect,” she answered, “and by all means respect the other fellow’s ideas and thoughts. Have a mind of your own. Don’t let money get you off the track. And don’t begrudge other people of their success. And don’t sit around waiting for somebody else to do things for you. Do them yourself. And remember, time waits for no one. It passes you by. For no one. Do you hear what I’m saying? It rolls on forever like a cloud in the sky.”

Our ephemeral lives are indeed short. But who knows what more either of these two women could have accomplished if the times in which they lived had been more forgiving of people’s differences. How much better could this world be if people were only allowed to simply be themselves?

Alberta older

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Stagecoach days

Stagecoach days

A few weeks ago, the Chronicle’s outdoor writer Tom Stienstra published a column that was a real blockbuster for me: one of Black Bart’s hideaways may have been discovered in the Sunol Regional Wilderness.

I was about 7 years old when I first learned about Black Bart in a thin little book called Stagecoach Days, a Sunset publication that Wells Fargo Bank gave away to its customers. A few years later, when I frequently insisted that my younger sister and I “play school” and that of course I be the teacher, Stagecoach Days was one of my two “textbooks.” (The other was the Bible. The sole reason I chose them was that they were the only books in the house of which we had two copies.)

stagecoach-days

Black Bart was an outlaw who robbed stagecoaches in the late 1800s, shortly after California’s great Gold Rush. I became obsessed with him for a couple of reasons. First of all, he was a “gentleman bandit” of sorts. Second, he was known to have left poems at his robbery sites, and one in particular became part of my repertoire. As a youngster and a bit of a loner, I took to memorizing things, and I could recite the states and their capitals, all three stanzas of “O Captain, My Captain,” the last two paragraphs of The Great Gatsby, assorted Kerouac quotes, and the entire Gettysburg Address. But my favorite piece of literature that I committed to memory was one of Black Bart’s poems. You’ll have to wait for it.

***

Born in England in 1829, Charles Boles (later Bolles, or Bolton, depending on his alias du jure) emigrated with his family to America when he was two years old. Not much is known about his childhood on a farm in upstate New York, but we do know that as a young man he and his brothers joined everyone else and their brothers in heading to California for the Gold Rush of 1848, hoping to strike it rich. Some were fortunate, but many came up empty. The Boles Brothers were in the latter group. They made two unsuccessful trips, and two of his three brothers actually died in California.

We also know that Charles fought with the Union Army during the Civil War, marching with Sherman through Georgia and suffering life-threatening abdominal wounds at the Battle of Vicksburg. Though his wounds were considered to be so bad as to preclude his ability to continue fighting, he rather heroically went back and served on the battlefield for three full years before being honorably discharged.

Charles eventually married and raised four children in Illinois and Iowa. But it seems that his stint in California had created in him an unshakeable urge to gamble, and he periodically would leave his family to mine for gold, at first in Montana and Idaho and eventually back in California. During this period he sent his wife a letter, recounting an event in which Wells Fargo agents tried to buy out his share of a small mine he was tending in Montana. When he refused, apparently the bank agents somehow cut off his water supply, forcing him to abandon the mine. His conviction that he had been wronged caused him to tell his wife that he was going to “take steps” to exact revenge. The poor woman never saw him again, and at this point she just assumed that he had died.

But he hadn’t. And gold fever still infected his bloodstream, so he headed back to California with one last hope of striking it rich.

***

In those days, stagecoaches were often used to transport passengers, mail, and valuables to and from areas not served by the railroad. Enterprising robbers realized that they had a convenient opportunity to simply travel to areas through which they knew the stage would be passing and quickly hold up the helpless driver and passengers without leaving a trace. They often would select a spot through which the stage would be traveling laboriously – e.g, up a steep hill – and spring out from the bushes, brandish their rifles, demand the loot, and scram out of there in very short order. The greatest bounty they could get was the box of money that companies like Wells Fargo transported to pay the workers who labored in their mines.

During the period 1870 through 1884, there were 313 attempted robberies of Wells Fargo stagecoaches. Wells had the money to hire some very accomplished detectives, though, who did a fairly good job of solving these crimes. Five miscreants were killed during the attempts, 11 were killed resisting arrest, 7 were hanged by lynch mobs, and 206 were ferreted out and sent to jail. Only 84 robberies were “unpunished,” but many of them, it turns out, were committed by the same person.

***

220px-charles_bowles_aka_black_bart-wikipediaDuring this time, Charles Boles was living in San Francisco. He lived a rather highbrow life despite not necessarily having the means to do so, since all he appeared to own were some unsuccessful mining interests in the hills. He attended the theater and concerts, ate at the finest restaurants, wore natty clothes, and always sported a cane. The cane was fashionable rather than functional; he was in terrific shape, walking many miles a day. He reportedly never took a drink in his life, always carried a Bible with him, and was generally a respectable, quiet man who eschewed profanity and was not prone to any kind of excess other than his unending tendency to take a gamble.

***

Beginning in 1875, Wells Fargo stagecoaches traveling through California’s Gold Rush country would be hit 28 times by the same bandit. Some say he was afraid of horses and others say he simply couldn’t afford one, but in any case he walked to and from his crimes and carried a shotgun that he never fired, which was a good thing because it was so rusty that no bullet could have successfully traveled through its muzzle. He wore a flour sack with two holes cut out for the eyes, and he sported a linen duster (which is a long coat). Unfailingly polite, he never harmed a passenger; in fact, if they handed over their money or jewelry, he would insist on giving the items back to them. All he wanted was Wells Fargo’s money. And he was highly successful, netting thousands of dollars a year.

For me, though, the most delightful thing about the bandit was that on a couple of occasions he would leave poems at the site, like this one:

Here I lay me down to sleep
to wait the coming morrow;

Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
and everlasting sorrow;

Let come what will, I’ll try it on
my condition can’t be worse
and if there’s money in that box
’tis munny in my purse

— Black Bart

Black Bart was the name of a fictional character who had appeared in a story called “The Case of Summerfield” that ran in the Sacramento Union in the early 1870s. That man, though, was a vicious villain and certainly didn’t resemble the gentleman who was robbing these stagecoaches. But the name sounded ominous, and the robber didn’t mind the fear it instilled in the public. He probably also thought the moniker would evoke an image that was such a far cry from his public persona that it would throw detectives off the trail.

The story goes that at his first holdup, in July 1875 in Calaveras County, Black Bart asked the driver to please “throw down the box” and shouted over his shoulder into the woods, “If he dares to shoot, give him a solid volley, boys.” The driver, on seeing several rifles pointed at him among the trees, swiftly threw down the box as ordered. Then, after the bandit disappeared, the driver discovered that the rifles in the woods were just meticulously crafted sticks.

It was at the scene of his fifth crime that Black Bart left the poem that I have memorized, and it makes me smile every time I repeat it (bear in mind that Stagecoach Days conveniently did not include this particular poem):

I’ve labored hard and long for bread
for honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
you fine-haired sons of bitches.

***

Black Bart committed his last robbery on November 3, 1883. A man with one of the greatest first names in the world – Reason McConnell – was driving a stagecoach out of Sonora alongside a 19-year-old boy named Jimmy Rolleri, who had just been gifted a new rifle and was out to do some rabbit hunting. At the bottom of a place called Funk’s Hill, Jimmy jumped down from the stage to look for rabbits and Reason continued up the incline. Black Bart leaped into the road at the summit and, as was customary for him, politely asked for the express box, which was bolted to the floor in an attempt to thwart such robberies. When Reason pointed out this situation, he was ordered by our robber to step down and unhitch the team, at which point Bart himself jumped up and started working on the box with a hatchet. Meanwhile, Reason slipped away and got Jimmy’s attention, and somehow three or four shots were then fired at Bart with Jimmy’s new rifle. The local newspapers reported that the driver had fired all the shots, but Jimmy’s family members insisted that after Reason missed the first two, Jimmy disgustedly snatched the gun from him and slightly wounded the bandit in the hand. (Apparently there is some evidence that Wells Fargo later gave Jimmy a fancy inlaid and engraved rifle.) In any case, only one of the shots grazed Bart, who took the $550 in gold coins and 3-1/4 ounces of gold dust worth $65 and got clean away.

Or so he thought.

Wells Fargo detective J.B. Hume was quickly dispatched to the scene, and there he discovered a black derby, magnifying glasses, field glasses, and a handkerchief, among other things. And in one corner of the handkerchief was a laundry mark.

Ultimately, Detective Hume and his associate Harry Morse traced the laundry mark to San Francisco and, after visiting 90 laundries, finally learned that that particular mark was used by a fine gentleman named C.E. Bolton. Mr. Bolton took frequent trips into the hills to check on his “mining interests,” but he always came back to his boarding house in San Francisco – which, by the way, was directly across from the police station. In fact, he often dined with the gentlemen of the police force and expressed an acute interest in that nasty outlaw Black Bart.

Detective Hume filed this report:

“Bolton, Charles E., alias C.E. Bolton, alias Black Bart, the PO-8 [“poet,” get it?], age 55 years; Occupation, miner; Height 5 ft. 7-1/2 inches; Color of hair, gray; color of eyes, blue; gunshot wound on side. He is [a] well educated, well informed man, has few friends. He is a remarkable walker, has great strength, endurance.”

Charles pleaded guilty to the one crime and spent four years in prison at San Quentin. During that time he sent a number of letters to his wife, professing his love, expressing remorse for this crimes, and asking her for forgiveness. She apparently responded that she would be willing to take him back, but when he was released from prison, he vanished.

He was the most successful bandit in the history of the American west.

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There are countless rumors, folktales, tall tales, old saws, fables, and fantasies about what happened to Charles after he was released. Three Wells Fargo stagecoach robberies took place shortly thereafter, but no one was ever caught, and there was no tangible evidence linking Charles to the crimes. In one story, however, Detective Hume somehow tracked him down and offered to pay him a lifetime pension out of Wells Fargo’s money if he would just, for the love of God, stop ripping them off. Some say he moved to New York City, where he spent his last days. Others speculated that he went back to Montana to try more mining. The most popular story seems to be that someone saw him boarding a steamer and heading for Japan.

***

So, who were the “fine-haired sons of bitches” to whom Charles directed his antipathy? His hatred probably didn’t emerge during his Civil War days; in researching this piece I learned that it was common among Confederate soldiers – but not among Union soldiers – to aim their sights at companies that appeared to have too strong on a grip on the economic machinery that ran the country. No, most likely it happened when the Wells Fargo agents used their power to unfairly force him off his own mine. So his particular grudge was probably against that one company. And perhaps the wealthy money-lenders could afford to keep their hair fine? I don’t know. Maybe someone can look that up for me.

I know that it’s wrong of me to harbor any feelings of admiration for a criminal. And just because he stole from a massively wealthy company does not mitigate the crime. I learned this early on from my mother. When I was in college, my friend Jeanne and I concocted a scheme by which we could talk endlessly to each other, long-distance, for free. In those days, of course, it cost a ton of money to make a long-distance call, and there was no way my parents would have paid the bill for such a luxury. (Plus they completely distrusted Jeanne because she wore wire-rimmed glasses.) But Jeanne was working as a telephone operator on the East Coast, and she had access to credit cards held by large corporations. So I would find a remote, unoccupied phone booth somewhere, and I would somehow place a call to her, through an operator, that allowed me, without charge, to give her the number on the phone in the booth. Then I would hang up and she would call me back using a random corporation’s credit card number.

As I type this, I am absolutely appalled at myself. But back then I thought that it didn’t matter because those big companies had unending funds and they would never miss the paltry amount it would cost them. I was so clueless about what I was doing that, in fact, I went home and cheerfully told my mother all about the scheme and how clever we were and that we would never get caught. Very calmly, but while undoubtedly choking back her complete disgust, my mother explained to me that stealing is stealing. It took all of two minutes for her to point my moral compass away from south and back to true north, where it has been ever since.

Still, I will always secretly admire California’s gentleman bandit, and I will forever appreciate the way in which he poetically told those fine-haired sons of bitches that they had stepped on his toes for far too long.

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My dear Kentucky home

My dear Kentucky home

 

Before I met Julie, I assumed that Kentucky was a southern state representing all of the personal and political stereotypes we coastal folks like to impose on a huge swath of this country. Essentially, I imagined that Kentuckians all swilled moonshine and feuded with each other. I figured that there weren’t any real cities there but just an endless procession of tobacco fields, ramshackle dwellings, and muskrats.

But I was so wrong. The Commonwealth of Kentucky, as it is delightfully called, is an uncommonly beautiful state, with luxuriant hills, blazing forests, abundant water, and long, rolling country roads. It has prosperous cities and well-known universities. It is the most affordable U.S. state in which to live. And its residents are blessed with experiencing all four seasons – none of them in the extreme. The average annual snowfall is about a foot, so most of the time it’s just a “wintry mix,” whatever that is. Julie complains about the humid summers, but her whining falls on deaf ears because I happen to think that humidity is really sexy. The air rests heavy on your skin and is thick with desire. Remember Marlon Brando wearing that damp t-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire? I rest my case.

Louisville, where Julie was born, sits in the northern part of the state, near the Indiana border. It’s a blue town in a deeply red state, and Julie always claims that “it’s the Midwest while the rest of the state is the South.” This morning I looked up the latitude coordinates for Louisville, and sure enough, it is actually located north of San Francisco. It’s what I’d call a medium-sized city, with both modern and historic architecture, stunning parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who, by the way, also designed Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Central Park in New York), lots of museums and performing arts spaces, a burgeoning indie scene, a fairly sizeable gay neighborhood of beautiful Victorian homes, and of course a population of rabid college sports fans. Most importantly, chefs from all over the country are serving some of the most creative food in America at a host of new restaurants that have sprung up in the city over the past decade or two.

Every year, Julie and I drive out to Louisville with our dog Buster at either Thanksgiving or Christmas, and we get to spend a happy week or two with her family. We stay with Julie’s father Bill in a lovely part of the overall Louisville metro area called St. Matthews. Bill taught high school physics for a little while at the beginning of his career but then got into computers (in the punch card era) and never looked back. A lifelong runner, he’s finished many a marathon and half-marathon in his life, often taking top prizes in his age group. To this day he still helps out at races around town, and although his creaky knees prevent him from participating, he walks more than 10,000 steps a day and still looks and acts like a young man. Now that he’s retired, he spends most of his time helping people with age or disability challenges. The rest of the time he spends watching college basketball games or telling loads of corny jokes, 75 percent of which are funny.

The holiday celebrating is typically done at the home of Julie’s sister Lori. Like her dad, Lori works with computers (databases, to be precise) for a large health insurance company. (Julie says she is the smartest of the siblings.) Lori inherited her mom’s penchant for decorating, and at Christmastime her house has the most gorgeous lighting, scents, and holiday adornments you could imagine. (I frequently walk into the bathroom, ostensibly to wash my hands but really just to get a whiff of the vanilla or cinnamon or whatever spices seem to miraculously infuse each room.) She makes the creamiest mashed potatoes on earth. She is really funny, and sometimes I make her laugh so hard that she has to scrunch up her face to keep from peeing.

Lori’s husband Dale is a strong, good-looking man who can fix or build anything on the planet. He’s been an iron worker and a general handyman and now he’s building houses as a general contractor. He’s a perfectionist, and I have every expectation that his houses could withstand the tornadoes that I always fear will be rumbling through Louisville at any minute. Dale enjoys a good bourbon, and one time the two of us foolishly decided to do a “bourbon taste test” that involved slamming down shots of five different bourbons in quick succession. I don’t remember much after that. What I love most about Dale, though, is that for all his masculine toughness, he has an uncommonly sensitive disposition. On one Thanksgiving visit, we all wrote down on little slips of paper what we were thankful for, and then we took turns pulling the slips out of a hat and reading them aloud. I remember that he stood in the middle of the living room, read his little daughter’s note that she was most thankful for her mommy and daddy, and started to cry.

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Tara, Lori, Dale, and Alicia

Which brings me to my two Kentucky nieces. The “little daughter,” Alicia, was born shortly after I met Julie and is now in her second year of nursing school. I know that wherever her career takes her, it will involve caring for others. She’s always been very, very kind, with a soft spot for anyone different or less fortunate. A little boy in her neighborhood who had suffered a series of strokes in utero was born with the gender identity of a woman and wore dresses ever since he was old enough to do so. Alicia took him under her wing and made him feel loved and normal from the day she first started babysitting him. She’s artistic and creative, too; in high school she studied theatrical design and production and became an expert in costuming. She also has an uncanny sharp wit.

Alicia’s older sister, Tara, lives and works in Nashville (what a cool town!) and has the most boundless energy of anyone I’ve ever met. She walks into a room and lights it up. She’s a musician, and life to her is a big dance. She’s happy when others are happy. She gets outrageously excited over the smallest of pleasures. She loves San Francisco, and once when she was visiting and we were driving around Twin Peaks, I kidded her about the way she would throw her arm out the window in glee, snapping photos with her cell phone in the most breezy fashion, never looking at what she was photographing, and then I would look later at the pictures and every single one of them was beautiful and perfect and artsy. That is Tara in a nutshell – a creative, refreshing, and breezy romp through life.

When Alicia and Tara were both out in San Francisco one year, I recorded their voices and I now get to listen to them every day when I turn my computer on and off. When Windows boots up, Tara’s exuberant voice greets me with, “Hellooo, loverrrrrrrrrrrrr!” And when the computer powers down, I hear Alicia signing off with “Ciao, bella, Paola, Paola.” (I taught her a couple of Italian words and it turns out that she has one of the best accents I’ve ever heard on a non-Italian.)

Even Buster loves our Louisville family. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he is completely smitten with Tara’s alluring little red-headed vixen of a poodle.

Our holiday times in Louisville are always rollicking good fun. We were last there for Christmas in 2015, right after I had broken my foot, so I was hobbling around on crutches the night that Julie’s aunt Judy treated us to a terrific dinner at a restaurant overlooking the Ohio River, right on the outskirts of Louisville. It was a dark and stormy night, and I had been watching the ongoing weather reports and growing increasingly worried about a host of potential horrors, including how I would be able to crutch around through a driving rainstorm. In addition, I was hearing reports of a tornado watch in the county, and I imagined that, if we managed to make it home alive, we would find the house and Buster gone.

Julie’s relatives all listened to my concerns and looked at me as if I hailed from another planet. Major storms are apparently just an inconsequential part of life out there. They simply threw my sniveling self into the car and off we caromed. At the restaurant, I was seated by the window, staring out at the high winds, drenching rain, hail, and lightning. A couple of minutes later, I actually got rained on through a roof leak that became suddenly apparent. Then the power went out. But these Kentuckians paid it all no mind. The restaurant’s backup generator kept everything on except the computer, which for some reason meant that no food orders could be taken. I have no idea why they couldn’t simply write down the orders and enter them later. Furthermore, in true southern fashion, they were mysteriously able to take our drink orders, so we had plowed through quite a bit of alcohol by the time the computers came back up and we could order our food. A couple of hours later, the storm had blown past. The roads home were covered with downed tree branches, flooded areas, and emergency workers, but the neighborhood – and Buster – were unscathed. Crisis ignored.

The one missing part of our Kentucky visits is Julie’s mother, Lynne. Lynne passed away a few years ago from the worst disease known to humankind. But her spirit is always there. She had the strongest accent in the family, which made her wild southern tales even funnier. My favorite story of hers was that she attended a rug-hooking convention with her friend Bonnie once, and the sign outside the hotel said, “Welcome, hookers!” In the lobby she ran into a group of businessmen and proceeded to announce to them, “Well, gentlemen, the good news is that the hookers are here. The bad news is that you’re lookin’ at ’em!”

I found out fairly quickly that I could make Lynne laugh very easily, and like her daughter Lori, she would giggle until she cried and peed. She had a lovely singing voice and was a talented musician who played a variety of instruments in a mountain music ensemble. (When I first heard the term “mountain music,” I thought again of moonshine and feuds. After I reluctantly attended one of Lynne’s rehearsals, though, I was absolutely blown away by the enchanting music created by the sweet interwoven notes of dulcimers, fiddles, pennywhistles, banjos, mandolins, and other acoustic instruments.) She collected miniatures and built me a miniature country store that I keep in our guest room to this day. She took me on dozens of day trips when I visited so that I could learn all about the history and folk culture of Kentucky.  But most of all, she was a loving mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law. You could tell Lynne anything, and she would listen until you were done. Then came her quiet wisdom.

As I once told her after she took ill, Lynne was my courageous hero. A little piece of Kentucky magic left with her. I miss her so much.

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Lynne and Bill

During the holiday season in particular, it is not lost on me that I am among the lucky people who are blessed with a loving second family. Bill, Lynne, Judy, Lori, Dale, Tara, and Alicia (with a special shout-out to Lynne’s friend Bonnie) took me right into the family from the moment we all met each other, and it’s a generosity of spirit that I will never forget. I hope they know how much they mean to me.

One of the greatest benefits to me, too, of being a part of two families is that I have gotten to know and understand people from a region I would likely have never explored. We may believe that there are intractable divisions in this country, but learning about each other on a personal level is invaluable. My heart and my world were both expanded when I first met Julie’s family back in 1995. I am richer for knowing them.

This holiday season, let’s tell our loved ones how much they mean to us, open our hearts to the differences of others, and listen to everyone until they are done.

***

I would like to thank, from the bottom of my heart, all the people who have taken the time to read my blog this year. It really has changed my life in many ways. I especially love your comments, because otherwise I would have no idea whether anyone was reading the darned thing.

Some of my posts have been good, others have been only so-so, and nearly all of them have been too long. I will try to work on that in the coming year.

I did write one masterpiece, in my opinion, and that was my first post, about my beloved parents (for my more recent subscribers, it’s here: https://mondaymorningrail.com/2016/05/30/the-courtship-of-paulas-father/). Mom and Dad always encouraged me to write because they thought I was good at it, but I never believed them. I do truly believe, however, that they both had a hand in that first post.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.

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Begone, Marlins Man!

Begone, Marlins Man!

The World Series begins on Tuesday, and I for one cannot wait. For those of you who don’t follow sports very closely, it will involve two of the most storied teams in baseball: the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. The Indians last won a World Series in 1948. But Chicago’s drought beats that dubious record by decades: the Cubs have not been to the Series in 71 years and have not won it since 1908. That’s a 108-year deprivation.

For me, though, this historic Series will be slightly marred by one thing. One guy, actually. His name is “Marlins Man.” And I loathe him.

I first became aware of Marlins Man last year, when he showed up at the All-Star game in July. He was constantly on camera because he sat right behind home plate, and he was wearing an orange Miami Marlins sweatshirt and an orange visor.

Then he became a fixture during the playoffs and World Series, always sitting behind home plate, always wearing the ubiquitous Marlins outfit. (Mind you, the Marlins were not in the postseason at all.) Of course, all of the other fans were wearing the colors of the two teams involved. But not Marlins Man. He really stood out. He was a blazing beacon in orange.

It amazed and intrigued me that one guy could somehow score a ticket – right behind home plate – to every playoff and World Series game. (Well, not every playoff game, obviously, because sometimes multiple games occur simultaneously and he had to choose one.) How can that even happen? It’s not that these tickets are easy to come by. And the chances of getting a coveted seat in a particular section on camera must be very, very slim.

So I did some research on the guy.

His name is Laurence Leavy, he’s 60 years old, and he owns a big law firm in Miami. And it’s not just baseball games he attends. He’s also inhabited choice seats at the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, etc.

So how does Mr. Leavy score the tickets? Generally he gets them off of StubHub – a site on which season-ticket holders sell their unused tickets. He apparently has no problem getting them because, as he boasts, “people will sell them for good money.” He says the price he’s able to offer is equivalent to an entire year’s worth of seats. So we’re obviously talking YUUUUGE bucks.

I use StubHub myself. That’s where I buy my tickets to all of the Giants weekday afternoon games. I set myself a price limit of $20-$40, and I sit in the highest-level seats, in sections 312–314 because they’re near the escalator and Tony’s Slicehouse Pizza, which also happens to sell Sierra Nevada beer. Nirvana.

Marlins Man, obviously, is in a far different league. He’s unbelievably wealthy. During the 2003 World Series, he apparently bought an entire section of seats and brought 104 people to sit with him. There was nothing wrong with that, of course; the Marlins were actually in the Series that year, and I am not one to unilaterally demonize the rich. He did a generous thing, and wealth in the hands of good people can do immense good.

Why, then, does Marlins Man bother me so much? I’ve asked myself that question many times.

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That stupid visor

First of all, I hate that he wears the same outfit to every game he attends. The same orange Marlins sweatshirt, no matter the weather, the event, or the location. And I hate that he wears a visor, for cryin’ out loud. Why not wear a baseball cap, as everyone else does? Visors are for accountants, bookies, blackjack dealers, high-society Napa ladies, and golfers (not that there’s anything wrong with any of those people!). To make matters worse, he often wears the visor sideways, which really gripes my keister. It just looks ridiculous.

I hate, too, that he hardly ever watches the game. He’s either blathering to the fans around him or obsessed with his cell phone. Since he has no particular allegiance to either team involved, he doesn’t feel a burning need to focus on the game. In the ninth inning of Saturday night’s Cubs victory, for example, while the Chicago fans were at once nervous and weeping with joy, he was turned with his back to the camera, taking selfies. What a jerk.

I’m not the only one who takes issue with this guy. During last year’s World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets, the Royals were royally miffed that he was there. They tried to bribe him with World Series paraphernalia if he would just jettison the *&^%$#@ orange sweatshirt. And they even offered to move him to a private suite. But he refused. After all, he’d paid $8,000 for his ticket. And he certainly was well within his rights to wear what he wanted and sit where he wanted. But still, it was almost a deliberate attempt to flaunt his power and show up the Royals fans. What a putz.

He also got into a beef with some Indians fans once, so this upcoming World Series should be interesting. After the incident (which is too unclear to recount), he actually engaged in a Twitter storm with Indians fans and somehow ended up tweeting something about the “Japs.” Lovely. What a bully.

It bothers me, too, that he feels he has to have seats directly behind home plate. In my view, those seats should go to diehard loyal fans. Instead, Marlins Man admits that he wants those seats so that he will be on camera for the entire game. If he fit in with the crowd, and didn’t make such an effort to call attention to himself, no one would notice him.  But what a shameless publicity hog.

Of course, Marlin Man’s ability to get those seats also means that someone is willing to give them up. This is what really puzzles me. If I had a World Series ticket, and the Giants were playing, and I could be sitting a few feet behind Buster Posey, would I sell my ticket to this obnoxious dude from Florida? That hypothetical recently prompted a conversation between Julie and me. I asked her to imagine that she had such a ticket and that Marlins Man offered her money to give it up. How much dough would it take? I declared that for me, it would take half a million dollars. Julie said that she would sell out give up the ticket for $10,000. (I was aghast.)

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He’s on the phone, as usual.

Mostly, though, what bothers me about Marlins Man is that this one wealthy guy can have continuing access to the most coveted seats at the most significant sporting events in the country. There are people throughout this nation who would give their eye teeth to go to one of those games, but they can’t afford even the least expensive of regular-season games, which are now – like everything else – beyond the means of so many. The concept he represents is what most of us know to be true – that wealth equals power, and part of that power is the ability to have anything one wants and to wield control, however subtly, over the less wealthy in the process.

I’m sorry, dear readers, to have put this guy’s visage in your heads, because if you tune in to the World Series, he is going to haunt you. I guarantee that he will be at every World Series game starting Tuesday, sitting in his usual spot, and you will not be able to avoid his garish presence. I’ve been thinking about sticking a Post-It note on my TV screen over his vile head.

But keep in mind that you will be witnessing history. I cannot wait to watch these two great teams play for the greatest title in the greatest American sport. My heart lies with the Cubs, because of family and friends and that 108-year dry spell. But I will not be dismayed by a Cleveland victory if that happens. These are two honorable teams, each of them deserving.

And if your eyes should fall on Marlins Man, just avert them. This rich, orange, entitled, self-besotted, intimidating cretin of a media hog may lurk around for a little while longer. But come early November, when the contest is over, we will be rid of him. And what a relief that will be.

***

By the way, I would love to hear from my readers as to how much money they would be willing to take for a coveted ticket. Don’t limit this to the World Series. Imagine it’s a ticket to something you revere. It could be the Super Bowl, or the NBA finals, or Wimbledon. It could be front-row seats to see Streisand or Springsteen. Or a chance to ride with the Blue Angels. Just let me know how much lucre it would take for you to sell your soul!

Finding Myra

Finding Myra

This is a tale about a woman named Myra Stratton who had no memory of her own life story. It’s about how I became her closest companion, and how I grew increasingly obsessed with figuring out exactly who she was. But she had no friends or family, and virtually all I knew about her was her name and her age. She could tell me almost nothing more. So it was all going to be up to me.

It’s a long story, so you might want to get your beverage of choice and settle in.

***

A few years ago, I realized that I needed to get back into volunteer work. I had tried it when I was younger, but I’d never found a volunteer stint that was a perfect match. My first assignment was reading books to sick children at Kaiser Hospital. That was a terrible fit. Those poor little souls had absolutely no interest in hearing me read them a story, and it made me horribly uncomfortable to barge into their rooms and inform them and their parents that I was going to be interrupting their day. All in all, I had neither the aggressiveness to start the process nor the stomach to remain dispassionate about those suffering children.

Then I worked for an organization called Little Brothers: Friends of the Elderly and visited lonely elders on their birthday. But most of them wanted me to come back regularly, and it broke my heart every time I had to tell them that I would never see them again. So that didn’t work out for me, either.

Finally I decided to volunteer for the Institute on Aging (IOA). One of their programs paired volunteers with elders who had no friends or family, and our charge was to provide them with companionship a few hours a month. This, I thought, was perfect for me. I sent in the paperwork, got my required TB test, and showed up for the orientation in March of 2009. After the orientation was over, of course I got lost trying to find my way out of the building, so no one was around when I promptly fell down the stairs. Quite a bit of time elapsed while I sat alone that night in the building’s empty lobby waiting for the searing pain to subside. Finally I dragged myself to my car, drove home, and was taken to the ER. I left the hospital on crutches, but luckily it was just an ankle injury. When I recounted this story to my sister-in-law Janet, who had been trying unsuccessfully to persuade me to post my various misadventures on Facebook, she noted that my tumbling down the stairs and injuring myself at the Institute on Aging was ironic, hysterical, and the perfect example of a Facebook gem.

***

I had indicated on my IOA application that I was open to being paired with an Alzheimer’s patient because I had lots of experience in that area. My father lived with that cruel disease for 15 years and I had developed extreme patience in responding to his repetitive questions and comments. I came to understand his fears, his paranoias, his limitations, and the ways in which he communicated.

Months passed before I finally got word that a match had been found for me. There was a woman living in a residential care facility out in the Avenues who had no known living friends or relatives. I was told only that her name was Myra Stratton; that she was 85 years old and had been born and raised in San Francisco; that she had once been a nun; that she was “friendly, polite, reflective, and confused”; and that she had Alzheimer’s.

***

I met Myra in January of 2010. She was living in a small house with other dementia patients. Generally the caregivers there were very kind, but because of language barriers Myra did not have a single soul to talk to her. She lived her life sitting in the living room staring at – but not comprehending – a blaringly-loud television. The first time I visited, the television was tuned to a sports program about baseball catcher Joe Mauer. Neither the residents nor the caregivers had any idea who he was, nor were they able to follow the narrative, nor did they care. The residents were just parked there. I sadly realized that for Myra, it was just one day in what could be many years of a completely empty existence.

But I would end up injecting a bit of human connection and brightness into that existence, and I would come to find joy myself in discovering Myra. By the end of that first visit, I could tell that she was a diamond. She had wit and intelligence and that certain kind of virtue and grace that I often ascribe to people of previous generations. I had to figure out who she was. I had to learn about her life. I had to honor her. I had to do her justice.

***

What Myra told me during that first visit was that she was born in San Francisco in 1924 (which seemed to be the correct year, according to the age I’d been given) and that her father was a famous politician. She also said she had a sister Myrtle Marie, who was four years older, and a brother Chuck who was eight years older and had been killed in World War II. She seemed to recall that she had become a nun before she finished high school, but she had no idea why she eventually left the convent. In fact, she remembered nothing beyond the age of 18. But there were bits and pieces of her childhood that always made her smile. She said that she lived near a big park (which I assumed to be Golden Gate Park) and that there was always lots of love and energy in the house, with friends and relatives coming and going, and big meals over which everyone talked passionately about politics. She adored her parents and her siblings, and she said that her childhood was a deliriously happy one.

But I would learn soon enough that the things Myra told me were often colored by the fluctuations of her declining mind. She got the emotions right, but not necessarily the details.

***

When I got home after that first visit, I sat down at my computer and started my year-long quest to decipher who this woman was. First, of course, I did a Google search for Myra Stratton. And I came up with absolutely nothing. Normally I’m a crackerjack sleuth, if I must say so myself, but the initial results were nada, zip, zilch.

I then decided to look for her brother Chuck. If he was eight years older, that would have meant he was born in 1916, putting him in his mid-thirties when he would have enlisted in the war effort. So that was definitely possible. I combed through every online World War II record I could find relating to military casualties, but again, I came up with nothing. That seemed odd to me. If a Chuck Stratton from San Francisco had been killed in the War, I think I would have found something.

***

There was so much I wanted to ask Myra. First and foremost I wanted to know what it was like to live in San Francisco in the twenties, thirties, and forties. I wanted to know about labor strikes, high society, the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the dealings of big-city politics back in those days. I wanted to know why she became a nun and why she left, and what she had done with the rest of her life. But other than the scattered bits she recalled about her childhood, there was just no way to unearth the rest of her buried memories.

I enjoyed our visits nevertheless – especially during that first year. She was curious and kind. She spoke with elegance. And despite her dementia, Myra had a sense of humor. She once told me that she was going to get her hair dyed so that she wouldn’t look old. She also told me that that she had come from a family of Republicans, and that she was shocked to discover that there weren’t very many Republicans around her now!

In the beginning, she also understood my own lame attempts at jokes. When she claimed that she had once seen an Alcatraz prison cell, I asked her whether it was as a visitor or as an inmate. She thought that was HIGH-larious.

And in her clearer moments, she could spin a few yarns. One of them was that she was named Myra because when she was born her father was at a baseball game. He was a huge fan, she said, and her mother kidded him about cheering at the game while she was in labor and suggested they name the baby “Rah.” Allegedly Myra’s dad looked down at the baby and said, “My Rah,” and they ended up with “Myra.” I was pretty skeptical about that one. After all, the Giants wouldn’t get to San Francisco until 1958 (although I supposed that her dad may have been a fan of the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League).

Sometimes our visits broke my heart. Once she told me that she prayed to Jesus every day that He would give her memory back. She also suffered from anxieties influenced by her strong sense of dignity and propriety. At one point her dentures became loose and made a clattering sound when she talked, and the poor thing was profoundly ashamed. I reassured her that I couldn’t hear her teeth unless I put my ear right up to her mouth and that she needn’t be embarrassed. She said that she was relieved because it had been worrying her so much.

I tried to come up with interesting things for us to talk about on our visits. I repeated the names of her siblings each time, because I knew that soon enough they, too, would escape her memory. I also brought my San Francisco Then and Now books so that we could look at old photographs. She didn’t seem to recognize any of the old places or landmarks, but she appreciated the photos nevertheless and even commented to fellow residents about how interesting they were. Remember, these visits were Myra’s only real interactions of substance with anyone in many years.

***

One day the living room was occupied with too many loud people, and Myra and I went to her bedroom to chat. I took the opportunity to look around for any personal effects she might have, but the only thing on her nightstand was a plaque. Myra proudly insisted that I look at it. It commemorated her 22 years of service with the United States Department of Labor. Of course I went home and Googled the DOL, and I found an online reference book that listed her as the agency’s San Francisco Regional Director, 1972–1994.

***

Later that month, Myra finally remembered the name of her father. It was Charlie Stratton, she told me. So I rushed home to do more Internet sleuthing. This time – finally – something startling popped up. It was a question posted on the Ancestry.com message board in 2003: “Looking for info on Charles Stratton and his wife Rose McMonagle, my deceased grandparents. They lived in Chicago IL. Children: Myrtle Marie, Charles, and Myra. Rose died of cancer circa 1937, Grandfather died circa 1950 in Chicago, IL.”

Myrtle Marie, Charles, and Myra. Holy smokes.

Myra did not grow up in San Francisco, as everyone had told me. Myra was from Chicago.

***

When I saw her next, the first thing I asked her about was the baseball reference. “Myra, when you said your dad used to bring you to baseball games, were you talking about a place called Wrigley Field, where the Cubs played?” A huge smile crinkled her eyes. “Or maybe it was Comiskey Park, where the White Sox played?” When I mentioned the White Sox, she got a look on her face like she had just smelled a pile of rhinoceros poop.

That proved it. The famed rivalry was alive and well in her head. This lady was raised in Chicago.

***

Although I could read that Ancestry.com post, I could not get onto the actual Ancestry site unless I was a member. The annual fee was a couple of hundred dollars. It took me all of 5 seconds to decide that I needed to join. That’s how possessed I was.

After I joined, though, I spent many weeks in dismay. It turned out that no one had answered the question I’d seen posted, and when I searched for the Strattons on the full Ancestry site I could find nothing. That made no sense! Over and over again I looked for the names of Myra, her siblings, and her parents. Nothing. I practically got an ulcer over it.

***

At one point I decided to change tacks and try Googling “Sister Myra Stratton.” Usually nuns change their names, or at least eliminate their last names, but in this case I did find two interesting search results. There were a couple of brief references to a Sister Myra Stratton who was a student at the University of Nevada at Reno in 1969. “I suppose that’s possible,” I thought, “but it still doesn’t tell me much, other than that Myra was still a nun in 1969, at the age of 45 – if that was indeed her. But why would she have been a student at that age, and why Reno?”

The second link, though, was a more interesting discovery. It led me to two pieces written by a Sister Myra Stratton for a Catholic journal called Commonweal, which still exists. In May 1968, Sister Stratton authored “Sister Scabs in the Suburbs” about tense relations between unionized teachers and the school administration. Among other things, the administration instructed the teachers that they were not to allow the “Negro” students to have a mass for Dr. Martin Luther King after he was assassinated and that such a request would “cause trouble.” The article said that the author – whose sympathies clearly did not lie with the administration – was a teacher at St. Mary’s High School in Chicago. Aha! There was now no question in my mind that this was my Myra.

In 1970, Sister Myra Stratton of Reno, Nevada, wrote a letter to the editor of Commonweal, recounting the story of her trip with other nuns to Washington, D.C., for a peace march in 1968, only to be summarily turned away by the Catholic nuns and given lodging by the Presbyterian church. She wrote that she and her fellow nuns had “taken seriously the ideas presented in Pacem in Terris” but that the Washington diocese seemed to be a place “where obedience to Humanae Vitae seemed to allow for no such discussion.” I have absolutely no idea what that means. But it’s quite clear from both pieces that Sister Myra Stratton was a brilliant writer.

***

After many weeks of frustration with my fruitless searches for the Stratton family on Ancestry.com, I had a breakthrough. I had been looking at some of the Bocciardi and Steger records related to my family, and I’d noticed spelling mistakes galore. The 1930 census, for example, indicates that my father’s last name was “Boccirdi,” and even more ridiculously, my grandmother Ambrogia’s name is listed as the decidedly un-Italian “Amblonia.” It occurred to me then that the census takers in the 1920s and 1930s walked from door to door and recorded their notes in longhand, and whether immediately or through subsequent translation, spelling errors were rampant. So it popped into my head that maybe even the simple name “Stratton” could have been misspelled.

So I tried “Stratten.”

Eureka.

I found her.

***

Myra Stratton (“Stratten”!) was born in Chicago on May 30, 1924. Her siblings were indeed Chuck and Myrtle Marie. Chuck did not pass away until 1981 and was thus not killed in the War. Her father, Charlie, was not a famous politician but an iron welder. Her mother, Rose McMonagle, was from Holy Hill, Wisconsin, and had died when Myra was only 14. The family lived near Garfield Park (aha! – not Golden Gate Park) on the west side of Chicago. I began meticulously building the Stratton family tree on Ancestry.com.

myra-as-a-child_edited-custom

As soon as I started mentioning Chicago, Garfield Park, Holy Hill, Rose McMonagle, and the other tidbits I’d gleaned, Myra opened up. She would smile and laugh and tell me about the wonderful childhood she had. She could walk to the train station and go downtown (on the Garfield Park L-Line, I later figured out, which no longer exists) and help her mother and sister, who had a dress shop there. Sometimes she and her sister would dance for money in front of some sort of audience (which puzzled me). The family would take fall vacations to the most wondrous place on earth, Holy Hill, with its farmland and fall colors. And she often mentioned visits from her favorite cousin Mary Ann, who apparently lived in New York and had a very exotic mother.

I shared all of this information, of course, with Myra’s social worker, and shortly afterwards I got an e-mail from her city-appointed conservator. He told me that he actually had addresses for two of her old friends, and also for an unknown person named Mary Ann Hogan. She was still living!

It took me just a few hours to fire off a long letter to Mrs. Hogan.

***

A couple of weeks later, I got an eight-page handwritten letter from Mary Ann Hogan in Flushing, New York. That dear woman told me as much as she knew. She was widowed, was getting on in years, and had a disabled daughter, so she hadn’t been able to see Myra in quite a few years. The last time she saw Myra was at the Broadmoor, an independent living facility for the elderly in San Francisco. But she could already tell at the time that Myra’s memory was fading. And shortly afterwards Myra stopped answering Mary Ann’s notes and did not answer phone calls, so all contact was lost.

Mary Ann finally cleared up the mystery about the political affiliation – and in a big way. Myra’s great-uncle William J. Stratton was the Illinois Secretary of State from 1929 to 1933, and her cousin William G. Stratton was the Governor of Illinois from 1953 to 1961. According to geneaologytrails.com, Governor Stratton (a Republican) not only “built the economic backbone of the State of Illinois” but “spoke out against racial discrimination, attempted to create a fair-employment commission, and named the first woman and first African-American to a gubernatorial cabinet.” To this day I wonder what Myra’s politics (if any) were. It became clear that her family was well known in Republican circles, but Myra may have leaned Democratic, considering her labor and civil right causes. Then again, the two major political parties were much different then. [Ed.’s note: That is the Understatement of the Year.] Interestingly, I would learn later that Myra played a small part in the eventual trial of Governor Stratton – a trial in which he was quite likely railroaded by a powerful political machine, and during which she came eloquently to his defense. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

myra-stratton-flower-girl-1934_edited-custom
Myra Stratton at far left

***

Mary Ann told me that, as a nun, Myra had gone to New York for a few years to teach part-time at a Catholic school on Long Island while going to college part-time and earning her degree at St. John’s University in 1959. She later got a master’s degree in English from Creighton University in Omaha and finished her coursework for a Ph.D. at the University of Nevada at Reno but never completed her dissertation. While she was there, according to Mary Ann, Myra contributed 10 percent of her income to her order (the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, centered in Dubuque, Iowa) but was so poor that she sometimes hung out in casinos, scouted out slot machines that weren’t paying off, waited for the gamblers to leave, and then tried playing the machines in hopes of a payout. And although Myra was happy to contribute to the convent back home, she was deeply, deeply disappointed that the order completely abandoned her emotionally and spiritually. “She felt alienated,” said Mary Ann, “and decided to leave.”

According to Mary Ann, Myra went to New York after she made the agonizing decision to leave the order. She joined the U.S. Department of Labor there, transferred in time to Washington, D.C., and eventually went to San Francisco when a position as regional director opened up. So that’s how she got to the City.

I looked up some Department of Labor records and discovered that Myra was the Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance in San Francisco, where it appears that her last role involved helping women find work in nontraditional jobs formerly dominated by men. She retired from public service in 1994, at the age of 70, after 22 years of service. Hence the plaque in her room.

***

By the way, around this time I learned another vital piece of information. Although she would eventually use her given name, the name Myra initially chose when she became a nun was not Sister Myra Stratton. It was Sister Mary Charlesita.

Eureka again!

***

Now I needed to start searching for “Sister Mary Charlesita,” just in case there was anything there. Sure enough, there were two tidbits.

A journalist named Kathy Farren, a past-president of the Illinois Press Association (IPA), recounted that in high school she’d opted out of classes with a dour 80-year-old nun and decided instead to take journalism and literature “with the smiling, 30-year-old Sister Charlesita.”  Ms. Farren’s career began then and there.

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Sister Mary Charlesita (Myra), 1964-65, Dubuque, Iowa

It was from the second tidbit that I first found out about the tax evasion trial of William Stratton. (He was completely exonerated, by the way.) I also learned of the existence of a book called A Political Passage: The Career of Stratton of Illinois. Of course, I promptly ordered myself a copy. What is notable is that during the trial, Senator Everett Dirkson read aloud a letter he received from “a humble little nun – Sister Mary Charlesita, BVM, a teacher in the Regina convent in Dubuque, Iowa who wrote that her prayers were with the former governor in this case.” She wrote that “there are few whose lives could be scrutinized as was yours in this endless presentation of minutiae without revealing weakness or vice.” How beautiful a line is that? According to Chicago writer and broadcaster Thomas F. Roeser, “After that, there was such quiet in the courtroom that the ticking of the clock could be heard.”

***

I started writing furiously to anyone I could find who knew her. I wrote to Kathy Farren, I wrote to Thomas Roeser, I wrote to the two long-lost friends that the conservator had told me about, and I wrote to the convent. And I heard back from almost all of them. A couple of her sister nuns (now long retired) recalled her fondly and remained impressed by her intellect and progressive ideology. One remembered that Myra encouraged her to include Film Study in the Communications curriculum in the 60s, at a time when high school students were typically not yet being exposed to the cinema as art. And her students absolutely adored her, believing her to be the most impressive, brilliant, forward-thinking, beautiful, loving teacher they had ever known. A journalism student of hers recalled that after St. Mary’s had abandoned the school newspaper for some years, the students wanted to resurrect it and Sister Charlesita was a “vital advocate in that regard. Working with her and learning from her was a joy. I remember her as a kind and patient teacher; a true educator. Our class of ’67 had more than its share of strong personalities and Sr. Charlesita embraced all of us.” Kathy Farren mentioned that Myra’s nickname as a teacher was “Chuckles.” I could see that. Even in her eighties, with dementia, she was still smiling and chuckling.

The best return on my investment, though, was an actual telephone call. One of Myra’s students, Susan Endre, was so excited to get word that Myra was still alive that she found my phone number and wanted to talk. She had been looking for Myra – well, Sister Charlesita – for THIRTY-FIVE years and wanted to thank her for her support and influence all those years ago. She told me that Myra was “gracious, sophisticated, kind, and beautiful.” I told her about Myra’s dementia, and we both cried.

***

After making all these connections, I decided to build a website in tribute to Myra. I did it for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want her to be forgotten, and 2) I wanted to put her name out there so that anyone else looking for her could find her. So I published a simple site (after all, I didn’t have that much information about her), and Susan sent me a photo of a young Sister Charlesita that I could use. I asked someone at the residential facility to snap a photo of Myra and me, and I posted that as well. Done. (http://sistermarycharlesita.weebly.com/)

***

During a visit with Myra one day, I went looking for a Kleenex for her and noticed a manila envelope in her nightstand, full of photos. I hadn’t known that Myra had any personal effects whatsoever except for her Department of Labor retirement plaque. So I took the envelope home, scanned the photos (some of which are now on her website), and returned them the next week. Shortly after that, the envelope disappeared. Myra had just gotten a new roommate, and it looked as if the new person’s family had commandeered the nightstand. They probably cavalierly threw out those photos. I was absolutely apoplectic. I mentioned it to the staff, and they did a cursory search, but nothing ever came of it. Nobody really seemed to care.

***

I can honestly say that my determined search for Myra’s identity was self-serving in many ways. I felt like the detective I had always wanted to be. But ultimately my discoveries helped Myra as well – to a degree more profound than I could ever have imagined. Now I was able to buy her a book called Chicago Then and Now, which was filled with photographs of places and landmarks in Chicago. It turned out that Myra was able to recognize, however faintly, a few of those places, including churches, libraries, and of course the famous Marshall Fields department store. I also made sure to repeat names of her family members, which now included cousins and other extended family and produced surprise and smiles. Most importantly, I continued to delight her with all of the wonderful comments that were pouring in from her students. Remember that this woman had no tangible connection with her own past. Day after day she sat alone in front of a television, her memory mostly shredded. But the gratitude I delivered to her from her former students put her on Cloud 9.

I clearly remember one day when she kept repeating how happy she was to hear about the lifelong influence she had had on her former students. Right about then, a caregiver entered the room. The caregivers there were very capable at conducting their business, but they also tended to be loud and brusque, and they had thick accents. So when the caregiver curtly tried to tell Myra that she needed her clothes changed immediately, she didn’t understand, and I could see by the look on her face that the usually sweet and docile Myra was not happy. I quickly assured her that I was not leaving and would wait for her on the couch, and she turned to the caregiver and said, as she was being led away, “Okay, but I hope whatever you’re going to do with me is as wonderful as what Paula was saying to me!”

***

In December of 2011, I had my first contact from someone who had Googled “Myra Stratton” and found my website. This was precisely what I had been hoping for! On the other end of the phone call that awakened me that morning was a woman named Cynthia who knew Myra in the period long after she was a nun, when she used to visit her brother Chuck out in Indiana. Cynthia was Chuck’s landlord, and of course she absolutely adored Myra and had been wondering about her for years. She told me that Myra had had a “gentleman friend” at some point. I remembered that, early on, Myra had told me that her long time spent as a nun had prevented her from being able to relate as well to men as she would have liked. That was the most lucid thing she ever said to me, actually. After talking with Cynthia I asked Myra about the gentleman friend, but of course the fog of vanished memory had already crept in, and she couldn’t remember anything about him.

***

In the spring of 2012, a woman named Patricia found the website. Pat had worked for Myra in the Bay Area when both were at the Department of Labor. “Myra was very involved in the area of equal opportunity,” Pat wrote to me. “She was the Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance in San Francisco. Although her position was managerial, she did a yeoman’s job of helping all of us with inadequate resources. She would work with contractors and their representatives and put in far more hours than anyone else I have seen in her position. She taught many of us well. She lived a very cosmopolitan and full life. Her stories were enriching and thought provoking. She and I would go shopping at I Magnin in San Francisco. I marveled at her taste in clothing. She always pulled the beautiful tailored suits as we walked through the sale racks together.

“I found your web site just because Myra came to my mind and I had to see how she is. I went on the web and Googled her name and the city. After I read your web site I knew I had the right person. Thank you for doing this for her.”

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Myra, 1988

***

The next year, Myra began losing her ability to converse. She clearly appreciated the things I kept reminding her about her past, but she wasn’t able to really respond other than to repeat the things that were meaningful to her (like her siblings’ names) and to smile. The caregivers told me that although she had recently forgotten my name, she continued to ask where her “friend” was. So I hoped that somewhere deep in her brain, I was still having an impact. I printed out a map once of the area near Garfield Park where she used to live, and I pointed out her old neighborhood to her. “You are very good,” she said.

Every so often, her impish sense of humor would still come through. I remember that once she made a point of showing me that after she blew her nose, she wadded up the Kleenex and rifled it under the bed with a pitching arm like a shotgun. She said she liked to throw it back “as far as possible” and demonstrated this technique a couple of times for me until I was snorting with laughter.

As the months went on, I reveled in the brief moments of peace and lucidity that came over Myra. Once, after I told her that she now lived in San Francisco, for the first time ever she started singing! Of course, it was “San Francisco, Open Your Golden Gate,” and I sang along with her. So I brought in some CDs of 30s and 40s music. Unfortunately, whether it was because of her fading hearing or her lack of focus, the music didn’t resonate with her. But “San Francisco” always did, as long as I was singing it.

***

Later that year, I began to be contacted by long-lost relatives. A second cousin, and then her nephew Roy, found the Stratton family tree that I had created on Ancestry.com. Both sent me photos, some of which I posted on the website. Roy wrote, “Dear Paula, you have no idea how you have enriched our lives just by letting us learn that Myra is still alive. Since we lost contact with her we have felt that she must have died all alone not knowing that there were still those of us who loved her dearly. As for the dancing in Chicago for money, she is right on the money. She and my mother used to go into town and dance with the servicemen for a dime a dance at a USO dance pavilion.” He went on to tell me that Myra started having health problems after she had taken a fall stepping off a streetcar, and that “[a]t one point a few years ago I had the SF police go by her old apartment only to learn that she had moved to a nursing home two years prior but it was unknown as to which home she went.”

A Bay Area cousin named Cathy found the website, sent photos, and helped me identify some of the people in the pictures I had scanned. She mentioned that Myra had become a member, and later president, of a chapter the San Francisco Lions Club. Like some of the other relatives, she talked about how Myra just seemed to fade away and disappear at some point. “We tried to call and write to her. But she no longer returned calls or answered her phone, and the letters came back ‘undeliverable.’ In June 2005 I attended a three-day seminar in San Francisco and I walked up to her last known apartment on Jones Street. Her name was still on the buzzer/mailbox but someone else had just moved in. I spoke to the manager who said that Myra had been moved out just the week before. He wasn’t very clear about where she had moved. He just said it was somewhere in San Francisco. He probably couldn’t give her new address to anyone.  He did tell me that she hadn’t been paying her bills or rent so I assumed that perhaps she had some dementia. Since she had a Federal Pension I assumed that she had resources to pay her bills. We hoped that whoever was taking care of her would somehow figure out that she had relatives in the area and try to contact us.” Well, that didn’t happen.

Another cousin remembered Myra’s brother Chuck and said that he had lost an eye in World War II. So that finally cleared up the mystery of Myra’s belief that he had been damaged in the war. “I remember her transformation to a strong unionist and outspoken critic of the Cardinal,” the cousin said. “Myra was teaching in the late 1960s. That was a very turbulent time, not only in American history, but within the Catholic Church, as well. She became very angry with the Archbishop, John Cody, regarding his views on nuns, their emancipation, and the poor working conditions for lay teachers in the Catholic schools, which he fostered. There was a strike, and Myra became very much an activist and very vocal. I remember my mother sitting on the phone talking with Myra for at least two hours the night Myra told her she had decided to leave the convent. I was pretty surprised because I had always thought Myra was very ‘nunny’ and pretty docile. Boy, was I wrong.”

***

Around that time, my neighbor Mary Clare lent me some CDs of old religious hymns, along with a “meditative book,” as she called it, and an old Catholic missal, thinking that perhaps those things might have some meaning for Myra. It was a wonderful gesture. When presented with them, Myra didn’t recognize, as far as I could tell, any of the music or prayers, yet she declared them to be beautiful – especially the Latin pieces. (She also loved my boombox and its antenna!) The look that came over her face when I recited “The Lord’s Prayer” was beatific. Her cheeks flushed, her eyes got bright, and she gasped, “Oh, my God!” As far as I could tell, she had no grasp of the concept of God at that point, but the recitation of the prayers really moved her.  When I reported this back to Mary Clare, she taught me about “being present.” She said that my frustration at not seeing many glimmers of memory from Myra and not being able to “accomplish” anything anymore with her was something that I could perhaps let go of, and that maybe instead I could just focus on getting out of fate’s way and just being present with Myra and holding her hand. Why hadn’t that occurred to me?

***

Over the next couple of years, Myra’s dementia reached a more advanced stage. She started to worry obsessively about how she wasn’t doing “the right thing.”  I assured her constantly that she always did the right thing, but I knew that as soon as I left, she would fall back into bleak anxiety. And she began to get into the sometimes-paranoid “loops” that I recognized from my own father’s illness. Try as I did to deflect from the pattern, she would talk in an endless circle about the embroidery on her bedspread, or how groups of people were traipsing through her room at night, or how the [imaginary] man she was dating was angry at her. She would begin a sentence lucidly and then trail off into gibberish halfway through the thought.

In 2013, Myra started wandering, so special locks had to be installed on her door.

It was then that I began to recognize the heartbreaking irony that all the while I was finding Myra, I was also losing her.

***

On April 15, 2014, I arrived at Myra’s facility only to be told that she had tried to walk without her walker and had slipped and hurt her leg. The caregivers didn’t think she had a serious injury, but because she was so vocal about the pain, they had her taken to a hospital. I was worried. If she was that vocal about the pain, she must have broken something. I went home and notified the social worker and the conservator.

The next day, I learned that Myra had indeed broken her hip and had undergone surgery. I was about to head off on my ’cross-country train trip, but I knew there would be no visitors to see her at the hospital so I made sure to go down there. She was asleep most of the time, but when she did wake up, she was happy and almost buoyant – a sign that the pain medications were doing their job, I imagine. The surgeon’s associate came by and said that the plan was to transfer her to a skilled nursing facility after a few days, but he warned me that sometimes patients with dementia are unable take care of themselves as well as non-dementia patients and that it remained to be seen whether she would be able to return to the residential care facility. I was just glad to see that even though she was all alone, she wasn’t terrified.

Three days later she was transferred to the nursing facility. From what I heard, she was doing very well in physical therapy, was in a good mood, and was able to stand at the parallel bars.

At my request, Jeff the conservator kept me posted. On May 14 she was able to go back to the residential facility, and I was ecstatic.

On May 19, though, Jeff wrote to me that Myra wasn’t doing as well as it had sounded in previous reports. She had lost a lot of weight and wasn’t eating or drinking much.

Finally, on May 28, I got this e-mail from Jeff:

Hi Paula,
I just wanted to let you know that Myra passed away this morning at about 9:15. I can’t thank you enough for everything you did for her.
Jeff

***

It’s been a bit of an arduous task, writing this post about Myra. I wanted to do her justice, but I know so little about her. I can tell that she was a woman of dignity and virtue. I know that she felt a strong religious calling at a young age and that she spent many years teaching students who would never forget her. And I know that at some point her conscience persuaded her to veer off in a different direction and to devote the rest of her working career to public service, helping women find work in nontraditional jobs and leading her employees by example. She was energetic and progressive and generous. And I don’t know the half of it. What is certain is that all along the way, she touched the lives of countless people.

People are often asked, for fun, questions about whom they would choose as a dinner partner if they were able to name anyone, living or dead. For me, much as I would like to say Aristotle or Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman or Katharine Hepburn or Hank Aaron or my boyfriend Bruce Springsteen, my biggest wish would be that someday I could meet Myra as she was, with her clear and brilliant mind, her wit, and her unending sparkle. For now, though, all I can say is that I think about her nearly every day. And I marvel at this unquestionable truth: Myra Stratton – even as her mind and memory failed her – continued to bless others with her presence every minute of her life. She certainly blessed me.

 

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Myra with volunteer, 2011

 

*********************************************************************

I would like to dedicate this blog post to my friend Val (Vienot) McNease and also to her father Robert B. Vienot, whom she lost on September 19. Val may not remember this, but she was the person who initially suggested I write Myra’s story. Bob Vienot served in the Marines and fought at the Battles of Guadalcanal and Okinawa in World War II; he was married to his high school sweetheart for 69 years; and he had a full and distinguished career as a San Francisco police officer. As Val said, he “exemplified the common values of the Greatest Generation – duty, honor, courage, personal responsibility, love of family and country – and lived his life by example, with dignity and deep devotion.” Myra was a member of that same generation. Hats off to both of them.

*********************************************************************

OK, on a lighter note . . . . I will be boarding the California Zephyr train on Tuesday morning and, if all goes well, I’ll be gliding across the Sierra Nevada mountains by mid-afternoon. On the other end of the trip, I’ll be spending time with friends in Maryland before heading back home on the same route. What this all means, my friends, is that the Rail will be on hiatus for awhile. But stop your cryin,’ ’cause I’ll be back with more stories.

My heart’s still here . . . .

My heart’s still here . . . .

 

I’ll never forget the night I was sound asleep in my San Francisco apartment when the phone rang and a friend of mine demanded that I leap out of bed and rush immediately to the Symphony.

I had just started work for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, at a job I thought would be temporary but, as it turned out, lasted 26 years and netted me a pension. We worked only until 4 p.m. in those early days (ah, the 80s!), and my new co-workers told me about their “tradition” of periodically heading out to the Cliff House bar after work to quaff a few on a Friday night. I happily agreed to go along, and that night they introduced me to the delightful but merciless beverage called the Long Island Iced Tea. This insidious assassin of a drink contains five different alcohols, with a little Coke thrown in for good measure. I certainly hadn’t been a teetotaler up to that point – far from it – but I had no idea what that drink was. The very first sip was absolutely delicious – it tastes, of course, like iced tea – so I downed a tall one and then ordered another, unaware that the copious amounts of hidden alcohol in that lovely amber cocktail could kill a horse. About halfway through the second one, I realized that I couldn’t feel my feet.

So I stopped drinking and left for home, probably on a bus, because I’m sure I wasn’t driving. It was only about 6:30 p.m., but of course the minute I got home I decided it was time for bed.

I was already slumbering soundly when my friend Kay called. She worked as a marketing person for the San Francisco Symphony and had two tickets for the Symphony that very same night. In about an hour. Insisting that I go with her, she wouldn’t take my protestations seriously. “Good God, Kay,” I groaned, “I’m already in bed! My contact lenses are being disinfected and I already have my retainer in! And I’m sure my hair by now is a rat’s nest. Plus I just drank the equivalent of four liters of alcohol and can’t feel my feet! Forget it.” But one of Kay’s gifts was the power of persuasion, and for some reason I acceded to her demands and dragged my sorry self wearily out of bed.

I hardly had time to get dressed, but I managed to pull on some nylons, the only dress I owned, the only shoes with heels I owned, and the only coat I owned, which was a London Fog raincoat, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I thought I should try to look elegant.

Mind you, I was not a Symphony type of gal. In addition to rock and roll, I definitely loved Big Band and the great American crooners. But to a great extent I’m a cultural philistine, and I keep my distance from the refined arts. So I had never been to the Symphony or the Opera and had intended to keep things that way. Still, I had heard a few classical pieces and thought to myself, “Well, some of that stuff can be rousing and might get my adrenaline going. How bad can this be?”

I’ll tell you how bad. What I didn’t know until the music started was that I was in for an evening of ancient chamber music, performed by a string quartet. Four people with violins on a stage. The best way I can describe the entire night is that it went like this:

Plink.

Plink.

Plink.

With an occasional:

Plunk.

Needless to say, it was neither rousing nor inspiring. It finally got to the point where, much to my amusement, I thought I heard the older gentleman next to me sawing logs. Then a loud snort came out of me and I realized, to my mortification, that I was the one who’d been snoring.

***

When Kay drove me home after the evening mercifully ended, I told her in no uncertain terms that she owed me BIG TIME. What I demanded in return was that she get us two tickets to see Tony Bennett when he appeared with the Symphony later that season. She thought I was joking. “Tony Bennett?? You’ve got to be kidding me. That old guy? What are you, a senior citizen?” But I would not back down. I loved the man, and she was going to take me to see him. She teased me about it for months and proclaimed my uncoolness to all of our friends, but I kept my resolve and won.

***

I had been a Tony Bennett fan for nearly my entire life. When we were kids, my mother kept a radio on top of the refrigerator, and it was on KABL night and day. Mom was first and foremost a Sinatra fan, but she certainly loved and appreciated all of the sophisticated adult (i.e., non-rock) music of the time. I absorbed all of it.

Sinatra, I thought, was an actor as much as a singer, and his style could practically conjure a feature film out of every song. Perhaps because of my age I wasn’t a fan of his woeful laments like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” that he recorded when Ava Gardner was about to leave him. But I adored his big-band and swing tunes, Sinatra at the Sands with the Count Basie Orchestra being an album I could listen to every day.

Tony Bennett, to me, was jazzier and less mercurial. He didn’t have Sinatra’s urban rakishness, but his voice was so good that flair was unnecessary. He could do ballads and he could do swing, with equal weight. He was never breezy. His voice had a hint of Italian huskiness to it, like a little bit of peppery seasoning on a tender filet.

Sinatra famously said Tony Bennett was “the best singer in the business.” Is there a greater endorsement?

***

Anthony Dominick Benedetto was born in Queens, New York, in 1926. He studied music and painting in school but dropped out at the age of 16 because his family needed the financial help. During World War II he served on the front lines with the U.S. army infantry – an experience, by the way, that spurred him to become a lifelong pacifist. After the war, he decided to study singing and acting. Pearl Bailey discovered him in Greenwich Village, Bob Hope put him in his road show, and Columbia Records signed him in 1950. Lucky for us. Since then, he has sold more than 50 million records.

Tony’s life wasn’t without its problems. When music labels began demanding that singers record rock albums in the 1970s, he hated compromising his principles so much that he apparently would get sick before recording sessions. The rock records didn’t sell. His second marriage dissolved, his lack of business savvy brought him to near financial ruin, and he got involved with drugs. Fortunately, his son Danny helped him completely resurrect his career. He got Tony booked on “MTV Unplugged” in 1994 and exposed him to a hip, younger crowd. The Unplugged album from that show won the Grammy for Album of the Year, and Tony was hot again.

Tony Bennett is a gentle man, happy and grateful, with an artist’s sensibility and an abundance of class. He walked with Martin Luther King in the Selma-to-Montgomery marches. He’s an accomplished painter whose works hang in the Smithsonian. His paintings have been commissioned by the U.N. and he was named the official artist for the 2001 Kentucky Derby. He is tirelessly involved with a host of charities. He and his wife founded Exploring the Arts (which promotes arts education) and the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, a high school dedicated to performing arts instruction. Right now he’s in the middle of a tour that runs at least through November and includes a show next month at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

On August 3, he turned 90 years old.

***

Most people don’t know that “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” was written in 1953 by two gay World War II vets, George Cory and Douglass Cross. They lived in New York City after the war but strongly missed what George called “the warmth and openness of the people and the beauty [of San Francisco]. We never really took to New York.” They moved back to the Bay Area in the late sixties, and three years after Douglass died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 54, George took his own life. The coroner’s office reported that he was “despondent over failing health,” but I wonder about his broken heart.

After it was written, “I Left My Heart” languished until late 1961, when Tony was looking for a song to add to his repertoire while he was on tour. Not even realizing that the tune would be a hit, he sang it for the first time in December 1961 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, where his tour culminated.  He recorded it in January 1962 and it was released as the “B” side to “Once Upon a Time.” The rest is history. It won the Grammy award for Record of the Year, and Tony won for Best Male Solo Vocal Performance, his first Grammy.

San Francisco adopted “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as the city’s official song in 1969. In 2001 it was ranked 23rd on the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

***

2016_08-19_Tony Bennett Statue Dedication_2

On Friday, August 19, San Francisco organized a huge celebration for Tony by unveiling a statue of him in front of the Fairmont Hotel. The Giants game that night was dedicated to him as well. I had decided months ago to attend both events, and I was determined to follow through with the pledge, despite the fact that I was suffering from vertigo.

(Yes, I’ve been dealing with dizziness for about three months, on and off, and am not happy about it. It’s become clear that it has something to do with my ears – so I probably don’t have a brain tumor, which is always my initial assumption – and I’m going through the process of getting medical attention. But I’ve been living in a disoriented fog of dizziness, nausea, and general ennui on and off since May. It was so bad last week that I wasn’t able to work on my blog because I just couldn’t focus. I hated not posting something, but it also made me realize that there is no way I can come up with 52 good ideas a year anyway! So now I am reconciled to the fact that Monday Morning Rail won’t be published every single week. At least my misery has resulted in a revelation.)

Anyway, that Friday morning I found myself walking up Powell from Market Street towards the Fairmont. It may not have been the best choice of routes, because in that area Powell Street is so steep that you practically need climbing gear trying to summit it. I was huffing up the street at a pretty good clip, though, silently congratulating myself for being in such decent shape after not having exercised in many weeks because of the *&^%$# vertigo, when I looked to my left and a young woman and her three-year-old child went skittering past me up the hill like a couple of mountain goats.

I could probably write a 100,000-word love letter about San Francisco, and maybe I will someday. The subject, though, is probably much too broad and much too emotional for someone like me to adequately capture. I would undoubtedly lapse into clichés or drunken sentimentality. But let me just mention that the two hours I spent in front of the Fairmont were arresting. The fog, of course, was hanging over us, somewhat lightly, but enough to keep me cool in the almost constricting crowd. There were tourists, residents, babies, parents, old folks, and people of all colors. The bells of Grace Cathedral were ringing melodiously and with grandeur. The San Francisco Chief of Protocol (I love that quaint designation) spoke, as did the mayor, and Nancy Pelosi, and Dianne Feinstein. Behind the blue birthday balloons – some of which were lurching and popping in the wind – the Fairmont’s procession of international flags lined its historic façade. I was thinking about the Fairmont and how it survived the 1906 earthquake, and how I loved the hotel’s tropically decorated Tonga Room and its thatch-covered floating stage and its exotic drinks, and how the Fairmont had been the site of our wedding reception and I had actually, truly, gasped when I first saw the view from the room. About then, a cable car stopped behind us and remained there for the ceremony, the conductor ringing its bells periodically with great spirit and joy.

View from Fairmont
The view from our reception room at the Fairmont, 2008

Three very elderly women were standing behind me, and I could tell that they were native San Franciscans – probably Italians. They spoke with a classic San Francisco accent, and yes, there definitely is such a thing among the old-timers. My cousin Jerry, who was born in San Francisco, used to speak with a combination of Boston and New York accents – an articulation cultivated specifically by the Irish and Italian Catholics who lived out in the Mission District. Sure enough, when one of the speakers joked that the world is divided into people who are Italian and people who want to be Italian, the ladies cheered. I knew it! Anyway, these women were about 4-1/2 feet tall at best, all dressed to the nines. And they had that unselfconscious way of speaking their mind and not caring who is in earshot – common to the elderly, I think. “The papers said this ceremony was going to be on the Fairmont lawn,” one of them declared loudly. “There’s no lawn at the Fairmont. What a bunch of crap!” She was right about that. When Dianne Feinstein came out to speak, one of them sucked in her breath at what she must have considered a fashion faux pas. “Oh, my,” she hissed, “can you believe she’s all in red?”

The sun finally broke through the fog, with its usual good timing. Tony Bennett walked out to much applause and his huge statue was unveiled, depicting him with his head thrown back and arms raised upwards, singing with great heart, as he always does. The real Tony choked up and told everyone, “You have been so wonderful to me. I’ll never forget this day.” I felt embarrassed to be fighting back tears myself, but I stole a glance at the young man beside me and he was sobbing!

***

2016_08-19_Giants Tony Bennett Night_3

That evening, Julie and I took the streetcar out to the ballpark for Tony Bennett Night. Tony didn’t sing, but he said a few words. The entire stadium sang “Happy Birthday” to him. I had a crab sandwich on sourdough.

2016_08-19_Giants Tony Bennett Night_1

After every Giants home victory, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” is piped over the public address system at the ballpark. While most people file out of the stadium, I always stick around to listen to the song. For those three minutes, I relish not only the victory but my great fortune to have spent a lifetime loving both Tony Bennett and San Francisco.

That night, the Giants won 8-1.

***

You know, something else sticks with me about the day. Mayor Lee made a point of saying that while the city is facing new problems that need to be resolved soon, “we also need to celebrate what is right and what is great about San Francisco.” To me, everything about that day was right and great.

You’re a good man, Leon Emmons

You’re a good man, Leon Emmons

 

Leon Emmons is going to kill me. If my body is found tomorrow morning at the bottom of a nearby river, please give his name to the police. You see, today is Leon’s birthday, and he has no idea that I am writing about him. He’s going to be mighty mad and I’m going to be in trouble.

***

Leon Emmons lives in Des Moines, Iowa. He and I have been friends for 14 years, but we met each other for the first time only two years ago.

The catalyst for our very unlikely friendship was the Thunderbird that I bought in the fall of 2001 and drove down Route 66 with Julie. It took Ford two years to produce the car after it was introduced in concept form at auto shows in 1999, and many of us around the country managed the wait by joining what were then called online “newsgroups.” Leon and I were both members of the Thunderbird newsgroup, but I didn’t know him at all. After my Route 66 journey, though, I submitted a long piece about the trip to the Vintage Thunderbird Club International for inclusion in its quarterly magazine. There was no money involved. All I requested was that I be sent a couple of copies of the magazine when my article was published. Unfortunately, the organization’s president fell out with his colleagues and refused to ever send the copies. I happened to mention this in a newsgroup post one day, and that’s when I became acquainted with the generous, decent Iowan I am writing about today.

Leon sent me an e-mail telling me that he had a bunch of copies and would send them to me. To this day I have no idea how he acquired those copies. When I profusely thanked him, he actually said he was grateful to me for having written the Route 66 story, especially because it had an uplifting ending. He told me that a few years earlier he had been in a hospital with bacterial pneumonia, fighting for his life after being given a 5 percent chance of recovery. He said that he continued to be thankful every day, and that “we all need to slow down and reflect, and your trip was a great way of showing lots of busy people the real meaning of life.”

Of course, I have no memory of what I wrote back then, so I had to go back to those now-dusty magazines and read the ending again:

Well, I’ve worn the same socks for a week; my cholesterol has GOT to be over 300; and my uncut hair looks like Ringo-Starr-meets-Bozo-the-Clown. This is the end of the line. A bittersweet end for me, but it was certainly a joyous ending for the Dust Bowl travelers who saw the orange groves of the L.A. basin for the first time. For me, my reward was to see the orange sky over the Pacific Ocean at sunset in Santa Monica.

One thing all of us have been brutally reminded of this year is that it is all too easy to make our way blindly through the minutiae of daily life. But we live in a gorgeous country whose past and present we need to respect and cherish. All of it is out there to experience: the roads, the burger joints, the friendly motels, the abandoned buildings, the farmhouses, the autumn leaves, the canyons, the desert, the sun setting over the ocean.

Okay, that settles it: The primary thing that Leon and I have in common is that we’re both a couple of saps.

***

Buster and Leon's football
Buster with Leon’s football

Since that time, Leon has periodically sent me newspaper articles and packages. They’re often Iowa-related. I’ve received food items like Maytag blue cheese and a kind of Norwegian crepe-like potato bread called lefse. He’s sent articles about the Iowa Cubs minor league team and about famous gymnasts who have trained in the state. When we got Buster, he sent a little stuffed football. And if I happen to mention something I like, he remembers it. He sent me a 49er jacket. He sent me a Route 66 book. When I mentioned that I watched “Mad Men,” he mailed me a DVD box set of season one, signed (and personalized) by January Jones because of course he knows her. Similarly, when I noted that I watched “Nashville” regularly, he sent me a personalized, signed photograph from one of the cast members because he somehow knows her, too.

For the past 28 years, Leon and a bunch of his buddies have rented a ski lodge for an annual get-together in the Rockies, and he mentioned once that they had brought a bottle of rye whiskey with them. When I responded that I had sampled my share of Kentucky bourbon but had never tried rye whiskey, of course a bottle of Templeton Rye arrived in the mail.

I’m afraid to ever tell him that I have never ridden in a fast, expensive car, because I fear that a few days later a Ferrari will show up on my doorstep!

***

Early in our friendship, after Leon started sending me things, I decided to Google him, because of course one never knows the intentions of strangers. What I found was an article in the Des Moines Register about a tragic accident in which a 13-year-old boy named Roger, riding on the back of his dad’s motorcycle, was seriously injured when they were hit by a truck. The dad died. The doctors told Roger that he was paralyzed from the neck down and would have to breathe through a tracheostomy the rest of his life. Leon somehow heard about the story and paid for the boy’s first month at the Ronald McDonald House. He also gave him a jersey signed by Vikings QB Dante Culpepper, organized a meeting with former running back Chuck Foreman, got one of the coaches to call, and promised Roger a trip to the Metrodome if he walked out of the hospital. According to the article, three months later Roger’s bones had miraculously fused, and sure enough, he walked out of that hospital.

Leon hadn’t mentioned this to me.

When I brought it up with him, he just said that we all need guardian angels.

***

Leon is a salt-of-the-earth midwesterner. He’s been married almost 40 years to Sherry, a “blond beauty,” he says, who is the absolute love of his life. (The story of their courtship and marriage actually made it onto the nationally syndicated Paul Harvey show.) They have two children and a couple of beautiful grandchildren. He’s a religious man – a man, I can attest, of tremendous faith.

The town of Emmons, Minnesota, is named after Leon’s family. Every year, Leon takes his mother to a Minnesota Vikings game. She is NINETY-SEVEN years old. When she turned 95, she asked Leon to buy her a push mower for her birthday. Man, they make ’em strong and tough in the Midwest.

I know that Leon has an attorney brother, so I should probably be doubly afraid that, if Leon doesn’t kill me when he sees this blog post, he may take me to court. I don’t know the brother’s name, so just for fun I will assume his nickname is “Lemons.” Lemons, please read this whole thing before you sue me for libel.

(By the way, just as an aside, Sherry’s maiden name was Clemens! And yes, she’s related to Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain]!)

So please forgive me, Leon Emmons, Lemons Emmons, and Sherry Clemens!

***

In 1981, Mickey Rooney starred in a made-for-TV movie called Bill, a true story about a sweet, charming, developmentally disabled man named Bill Sackter who was institutionalized at the age of seven and spent 44 years in a neglectful home, never seeing his family again, and not knowing the touch, affection, and love of other human beings. Forty-four years. Imagine that. Bill was doing menial work when he met Barry Morrow and his wife Beverly – two saints who would save his life. Barry Morrow was just out of college and starting a career then (he would dedicate his life to the disabled and go on to write the Oscar-winning screenplay of a little movie you may have seen called Rain Man), and he and Beverly befriended Bill, got him out of the institution, brought him to Iowa when Barry got a job at the university, and essentially saw to his care and development.

Bill was a funny guy; he would make everyone around him smile when he’d say things like “Be careful when you cross the street, because a car can kill you. And that isn’t good for anybody.”  He played a mean harmonica. He was a loving, giving, charismatic man, and as much as Barry and his circle of acquaintances taught Bill, Bill returned the favor by helping them all see the beauty in our differences.

In 2005, a director name Lane Wyrick made a documentary about Bill’s life called A Friend Indeed.  The documentary points out that the only times Bill would get sad would be when he obsessed over his wigs. Apparently, when he was living in the institution, a cruel worker had once grabbed his hair and thrown him down the stairs so violently that his hair was pulled out by the roots and never grew back. Bill was self-conscious about his baldness, and he always wore terrible-looking wigs, sprayed with a bottle’s worth of shellac-like wig spray, placed on his head in ways that could only generously be called “askew.” The documentary points out that an Iowa man in the hair restoration business saw a photograph of Bill in the newspaper and noted the god-awful condition of Bill’s wig. So the businessman volunteered his services to make a good-looking wig for Bill that would be stylish and match his beard. Bill absolutely adored his new wig and it marked a turning point of sorts in his life. His self-consciousness abated. That generous businessman was, of course, Leon Emmons.

A Friend Indeed is one of the most moving documentaries I have ever seen. At 90 minutes it’s a bit long, so it was edited into a one-hour version. It won a lot of independent film awards and was shown on various PBS stations throughout the Midwest. When I stopped weeping after I saw it, I decided to write to the public TV stations in San Francisco and Santa Rosa to ask if they would run it. The Santa Rosa station didn’t bother to respond, and the San Francisco station took a pass. I guess they figured that their viewers, with the attention spans of three-year-olds and all the empathy of speed bumps, wouldn’t care for it. It’s a real shame. That film is a wonderful reminder of the kindness of strangers.

***

Speaking of the kindness of strangers . . . . When Iiowa wine took my train trip in 2014, I started off on the California Zephyr, which runs from Emeryville to Chicago by way of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa. One morning our attendant Lamar showed up at my room and delivered to me a bottle of red wine from Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, along with a card from Leon and his buddy Bob. At Leon’s behest, Bob had actually driven to the Amtrak station, met the train, flagged down a conductor, and given instructions for me to receive the bottle. What a fantastic experience it was for me to be presented with a gift while traveling alone 2,000 miles from home. These Iowans are good folks.

***

I have to say, one thing not so good about Leon is his ability to predict the outcome of sporting events. Every year I participate in a March Madness pool, and as most people know, Iowa seems to breed some pretty rabid college basketball fans. A couple of years ago, Leon told me with great confidence that certain Iowa teams were going to go all the way. Knowing nothing about college basketball, I took his word for it when I filled out my bracket. And every single team he touted failed miserably in the first round. That’s the last time I’m going to take sports advice from Leon Emmons.

***

I finally met Leon, face-to-face, in October 2014. Julie and Buster and I were driving to Kentucky and at the last minute decided to detour and avoid Missouri, which was plagued at the time by bad weather, baseball playoff traffic (did I mention that the Giants beat both the Cardinals and the Royals to become champs that year?), and unrest in Ferguson. We ended up driving through Iowa close to Des Moines, and I decided to get in touch with Leon and meet him in person once and for all. I texted him and sure enough, he dropped everything and came to our hotel lobby, bringing some edible Iowa goodies with him.

***

When my mom passed away last fall, Leon sent me a card. I was sitting in our backyard on an uncommonly warm evening, drinking a glass of wine, when I opened it. Inside the envelope was some money that Leon specifically told me to use on a Giants game, because he knew that every year we brought Mom to one or two games in the fancy Club Level (where she wouldn’t have to climb any stairs). I’m sure the wine magnified my sentiments, but I burst into tears at the thoughtfulness of Leon’s gift. So on August 19, Julie and I will be at the game in Club Level. I chose that night because it is Tony Bennett Night at the ballpark, and Mom and I shared a love for him. Tony just celebrated his 90th birthday, and that morning the Fairmont hotel will be dedicating a new statue to him. Rumor has it that he also may be at the game and may even sing for the crowd. In any case, I’ll be thinking of Leon when I am in my seat at the ballpark.

***

One of Leon’s best friends was a gay man who lived in San Francisco. I’ll call him “Aaron.” Every year, Leon would come out to California and they would go to a 49er game together.  When Aaron died, Leon wrote to me in grief and said that he was glad that God had given him the opportunity to get to know the man. Aaron had been one of the ski buddies, and Leon told me that the guys were going to hold their own service in Iowa, at a synagogue up the street from his business. “What a sight that will be, a bunch of Baptist conservatives praying for the soul of someone with such a different lifestyle. When it comes to compassion, [Aaron] showed us and taught us the real meaning of love and not labeling people,” Leon wrote.

Barry Morrow said at the end of A Friend Indeed that it’s important that we value people who we might think are lesser than us. I would suggest that we also value people different from us. In this day and age when everyone judges everyone else, I hope that’s still possible. I suspect that Leon and I are different in many, many ways. But I believe him to be one of the greatest people on earth.

Leon, there is absolutely no reason for you ever to have been so kind to me. After all, I have done virtually nothing in return. So this is finally my gift to you, Leon. Happy Birthday.

It’s all Springsteen’s fault

It’s all Springsteen’s fault

The terrible shootings in Florida have taken a toll on many of us these last couple of weeks, and I haven’t been able to figure out what to do with the heartache. June 23 was Julie’s and my 8th (official) wedding anniversary and, more importantly, in a few weeks we’ll commemorate 20 years together. It should be a time of celebration, but I just can’t shake the news about Orlando (not to mention Sandy Hook, and San Bernardino, and Charleston). So I’ve decided to display my defiance by simply telling my story. And along the way, I want to explain how Bruce Springsteen made me gay.

***

I first heard the ferocious wall-of-sound chords of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” through my FM converter as I was driving to San Jose State on a scorching day in 1975. I actually pulled the car over and stopped on the side of the road, breathless. The song was a revelation. It was the anthemic answer to the insipid music dominating radio during that time. There was a lot of disco and very, very little rock and roll. That year spawned an anemic swarm of hits that represented the nadir of once-great artists. Glen Campbell sold out with “Rhinestone Cowboy.” The underrated folk-rock singer Johnny Rivers covered “Help Me, Rhonda.” Cat Stevens recorded the forgettable “Two Fine People.” Paul McCartney released – gag me – “Listen to What the Man Said.”

The songs on the Born to Run album pulverized the mold. None of them followed the standard verse-verse-chorus of pop music. They were, instead, long poetic stories about what it was like to be young in the seventies, populated with characters right off of the Jersey shore. The band was full and resonant, with guitars and piano and organ and a lyrical, echoing sax that always sounded like the mysteries of a city at midnight. The songs were about nights on the beach, wheels on the highway, the rush of the city, and the languorous days of summer, with “barefoot girls sittin’ on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.” Bruce was the poet Everyman for teenagers like me who didn’t do drugs and didn’t mess up our lives but still lived slightly recklessly because we had no responsibilities and everything was magic. It didn’t hurt, either, that Springsteen’s voice was growly, howling, and provocative. It was almost choked with desire.

I know it’s heresy to some people, but I really prefer men’s voices in rock and roll. My vision of hell is being trapped in a room where I am forced to eat nothing but couscous and listen to piped-in Joni Mitchell music.

***

It took nearly three years for me to see Springsteen in person. In late June of 1978 I went with my brother to see his concert at a half-empty San Jose Civic Auditorium. We practically frothed with anticipation. We had heard rumors, after all, that his shows were nearly four hours long, and it all proved to be true. Even in front of a fairly small audience, that man and his band spent every last ounce of their energy on that stage. The songs became epics; the youthful Bruce leaped onto his amps, onto the piano, and into the crowd; and we all were held fast by what Springsteen calls “the power, the magic, the mystery, and the ministry of rock and roll.” The show is among the very few for which there is no fully recorded bootleg and no complete setlist. I remember, though, that after the last of the drenching encores, I knew that I had just seen the greatest live American rock and roll band in history.

***

In those days, I thought I wanted to be a police officer. But when I graduated from San Jose State with my law enforcement degree, I was still too young to apply to the force. So I decided to move up to San Francisco, a city I dearly loved, and get a second degree in English. That was a fortuitous decision. I would have made a terrible police officer, for two reasons:

  1. I am not brave; and
  2. I can’t make a quick decision to save my life.

***

So in the fall of 1978 I moved into the SF State dorms, and on a Sunday morning in November I was reading the Chronicle’s pink section when an ad sent me rocketing out of my chair. Springsteen was coming to Winterland the next month and the tickets were going on sale at 10 a.m. that very morning. My diary actually says that the ad “shot me into the realm of ecstasy.” (I was a bit dramatic in those days.)  I hurriedly picked up the phone and called BASS (the local ticket supplier) multiple times but never got through. Panic set in. Certain that tickets would be sold out within minutes, I grabbed my credit card and screeched off in my Corolla to the closest ticket outlet, which was inside Bullock’s department store in the Stonestown Shopping Center. There was a fair-sized line, and when I got to the counter, the woman casually told me that it was cash-only. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Two tickets would cost me $15. I didn’t have that kind of dough!! I had only five bucks and some change to my name. I noticed a phone hanging on the wall and I shakily dialed my roommate for help, but she said she had only two dollars. Then the phone ate all my change. What a nightmare!

It was, according to my diary, the coldest November 12 in San Francisco history. But I flew so fast getting back to my car, and then from my car to the dorm, that I was pouring sweat. I bolted down the hallway, pounding on doors and begging for money, but no one had cash to spare. Then, as I sped past the glass-enclosed study room on our floor, I glanced inside and saw a young woman I had not seen before, studying peacefully. I skidded to a halt, threw open the doors like a SWAT officer, and bellowed, “I know you don’t know me, but in the name of God, do you have $10 I can borrow?” She didn’t say a word. She got up quietly, said “follow me,” and led me to her room, where she slowly opened up a little wooden box that she had brought with her to school. Inside one of those “secret” compartments was her emergency savings: a $10 bill. What I didn’t know at the time was that she had grown up with very little money, was the first in her family to go to college, and was dependent on that money. I snatched the bill out of her hand, threw an “I promise to pay you back!” over my shoulder, and raced back down the hall. I ended up with two tickets. And that Winterland show is now universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have ever done.

As life goes, that encounter was my destiny. It was not the concert. It was Cynthia.  It was the beautiful 19-year-old girl with the $10 bill.

***

I had dated a few men – well, boys, really – but it had never been quite right. It’s not that I didn’t find them to be attractive, but the way I explain it is that there always felt like there was a wall between us. Like a clear Plexiglas wall that I couldn’t break through. I couldn’t feel the euphoria of young love that others felt. It was being withheld from me.

When Cynthia’s dogged pursuit ultimately wore down my resistance, the wall cracked and then disappeared. We had no money, yet we lived an exuberant life in the City and drove around the country in her VW bus between jobs. I was as happy as it was possible to be while living in secret. I hid my entire life away – from family, friends, co-workers, everyone. I know it became a burden for her, and I lost her, with much heartbreak, after five years. In retrospect I see now that it was primarily because I was crouched with fright in the closet.

And it took me forever to realize what a burden it was for me, too. I mean, when she left, I spent the weekend at my parents’ house in Clearlake wearing nothing but a trenchcoat.

And no one had any idea what on earth had gotten into me.

***

Decades later, I now firmly believe that I owe it to myself, my family, my friends, and the community at large to be honest about my life. But it can be a terrifying step to take, and for some people, the consequences can be disastrous. So I understand the need for people to be revelatory at their own pace.

I had it fairly easy. When I finally told my family, they were terrific. My father, I believe, already knew. “Is there something you would like to tell me?” he had asked when I was parading around in the trenchcoat.

My mother needed more time and didn’t speak to me for a few months, but the thaw happened fairly quickly. The younger folks, like my friends and siblings, didn’t seem to give a gnat’s ass. And my sister tells me that she and a friend were riding in her car one day, speaking about me in hushed tones, when my 9-year-old niece piped up from the back seat, “Oh, for goodness’ sakes, Mom, I’ve known about Auntie Paula for years!”

But whether it was because I was old-fashioned, religious, ashamed, or just plain scared, I really wasn’t able to speak openly about myself to everyone until this millennium. I learned from watching a good friend of mine at work speak naturally and easily about his partner. He never really “came out.” But when someone would ask what he had done over the weekend, he didn’t circumnavigate the question, the way I often did. “Oh, you know Paul; he made me chauffeur him all around town,” he would say and roll his eyes. Everyone loved him and would laugh. It was as easy as that. A name and a pronoun.

***

Julie and I got married on June 23, 2008, one of the happiest days of my life. Just a few weeks earlier, Chief Justice Ronald M. George of the California Supreme Court had authored the state high court’s opinion that granted gay people the right to marry in California. I don’t think I have ever been able to adequately describe what that decision meant to me. It was more than just the sudden, exhilarating right to get married. It was, for me, a sense that I could enter the mainstream that I always wanted to enter. I was being accorded respect and dignity – not by a politician or an activist or a celebrity, but by an authority figure with solid integrity and conservative credentials.

“In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry — and their central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful, and satisfying life as a full member of society — the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples,” the Chief Justice wrote.

My sister had come down to my workplace the day that the decision was announced. She and I and some colleagues gathered in my director’s office to await the news. When the decision was read, most of us erupted in cheers. I was tearfully weak with amazement and emotional fatigue. But I do remember that a colleague from a different group had a stricken look on her face and turned away in disgust. It hurts me to this day. It’s too bad that that’s something I’ll always remember.

But I called Julie, demanding that she leave work and meet me at the county clerk’s office, and we were the first in line to get our marriage licenses. Our picture was in the New York Times.

***

Paula, Julie, and Mom (with copyright)As strange as it is for me to recall now, I was hesitant to tell my mother that I was getting married, even though she loved Julie with every fiber of her being. She was a devoted Catholic, and I was afraid of putting her in an awkward position. But I finally called her, and it turns out that she was full of joy and couldn’t wait to be a part of the festivities. She later told me that she “talked” about it with God for a few days and that after those conversations, she felt that He kept asking her, “Why not, Beverly? Why not?”

***

I know that I have a handful of dear friends and family members, including some of my blog readers, who have heartfelt religious convictions preventing them from supporting gay marriage. (Oh, yes, I know who you are!) I’m deeply happy that you continue to share your friendship with me anyway. And I firmly believe that some of you, at some point, will come to ask yourselves, “Why not?”

***

I have read the entire Bible, cover to cover, word for word – including the “begats.” When I finished the last page, I was thoroughly intoxicated with the rhythm and beauty of the writing and the power of the message. The Bible never gave me doubts. It is the interpreters who have bred the doubt.

I take comfort in knowing with absolute certainty that no one could ever condemn my sweet Julie to eternal damnation. But what about me? What if I am a different story? I’m a religious person, I still say prayers every night, and to be 100 percent honest, I occasionally worry and obsess over whether I will end up rotting in hell with Joni Mitchell and all that couscous.

***

I met Julie Scearce 22 years ago – where else but on a softball field. Duh! It’s how we all meet! She was visiting from Kentucky and filling a temporary vacant spot on our team during a tournament in Tahoe. That girl could throw a baserunner out from far right field. Dreamy.

Julie denies it to this day, but she was actually repulsed by me when we first met. Lucky for me, I eventually won her over with my endless charm, and she moved out west and into my house 20 years ago. She left her family, her friends, her job, and her home to be with me. I think she knew it would kill me to leave my beloved San Francisco, so she made the sacrifice. Those who know Julie would not find that surprising. The woman never thinks about herself.

***

People say that marriage is hard work, but in my case it’s been very easy. I can remember only two major arguments between Julie and me. One happened when she didn’t like a piece of furniture that I had suggested buying, and in the middle of the Ikea aisle I loudly accused her of not loving me. (I believe some hormone issues may have come into play when I pulled that one.)

Our second major argument was on June 13, 2012. It was about baseball. I don’t want to point fingers, so let’s just say this: We were both watching the Giants on television. One of us fell asleep in the middle of the game. Matt Cain went on to pitch the first perfect game in Giants history. The awake one did not want to rouse the asleep one. The next morning, the asleep one found out what she had missed and went bananas. Absolutely bananas. I won’t say who was who, but the argument raged for days.

***

Without Julie, I would never be able to follow the plot of a movie. I just never know what is going on. Thank goodness we now have DVDs and streaming videos and I can pause every five minutes to ask Julie what the heck just happened. Why are they whispering? Is he a bad guy or a good guy? Is that Brian Dennehy or Charles Durning? Is the dark-haired guy Luke Wilson, or one of those innumerable Arquette siblings? What does “money laundering” mean? Why is that guy hiding in the shrubs? Is there a conspiracy I don’t know about? For crying out loud, what’s the connection????!!

(I think I have a hard time telling people apart. Back in the 1990s, when a lot of my friends followed Stanford women’s basketball, I went to one game and realized that I couldn’t distinguish one player from another. I just collectively called them “The Blond Ponytails.” They all looked alike. And to make matters worse, their names were all some version of “Kate”: Kate Starbird, Katy Steding . . . . Oh, and then for God’s sake, there was also Kaye Paye!!! I mean, COME ON!!!)

***

Without Julie, there would be no smoky smell of southern barbecue floating into my kitchen window on weekend nights. She lovingly tends to her marinated meats and veggies out on our center patio while I wait inside, drinking my glass of wine like the Queen of Sheba.

Without Julie, I would not understand what baseball’s “double switch” is. She patiently explains it to me over and over, every season.

Without Julie there would be no one in the house to install light switches, set up wireless networks, pound mollies into lathe-and-plaster walls.

Without Julie, I would not know the burnt-oak taste of a good bourbon.

Without Julie, no one in my house would joyfully drive over the speed limit.

Without Julie, no one would do “the Tom Jones dance” down our hallway.

Without Julie, I would not have the unqualified love of my second family in Louisville, and I would not know the natural beauty of Kentucky’s forests and lush green hills, the exhilarating crash of a cleansing thunderstorm, or the flash of fireflies on warm summer nights.

Without Julie, I would not know how to pronounce “Lou-ah-vul.”

Without Julie, there would be no humor in my home.

Without Julie, I might still be encased in Plexiglas.

Without Julie I would be a roiling cauldron of anxiety.

***

I have dragged Julie with me to many of the 15 Springsteen shows I’ve seen. This last time, in March, she had been up nearly 72 hours straight working on a critical project for her employer. Her exhaustion was almost beyond measure. And we had tickets for a Springsteen show in Oakland. I asked her repeatedly whether she should just stay home, but she said that she knew it meant a lot to me and that she would insist on attending. I have no idea how she stayed awake for those four hours and the BART ride home. And it turns out that the next day she came down with viral meningitis, a serious illness that would sideline her for a month. The doctor said it happened because the virus opportunistically raided her exhausted body. She should have been home sleeping that night. But she went out of love for me.

When it comes to our relationship, Julie definitely ended up with the short end of the stick. I can be moody, nervous, impractical, distant, hypersensitive, and juvenile. She, on the other hand, is steadfastly perfect. Always kind, always empathic, always mature. She is good-natured, even-keeled, strong, capable, and selfless. She encourages my passions for drums and train travel. She likes my blog. She calms my nerves. She steadies me.

Happy anniversary, Sweetie. I love you with all the madness in my soul.

 

 

 

 

This train carries saints

This train carries saints

In early 2014, I developed a plan to purchase what I considered to be a “train outfit.” I had decided to take a dream trip on Amtrak from San Francisco to the East Coast, where, as it happens, three of my good friends live within a few miles of each other in the state of Maryland. I would be on the train for four days, and although I was content to dress like my slovenly self for three of those days, for some reason I wanted to look feminine and sophisticated for at least a 24-hour period. And because “feminine” and “sophisticated” are not adjectives typically ascribed to me, this would be a bit of a stretch. To help myself out, I turned to the TravelSmith catalog, and I finally settled on a lovely turquoise microfiber “big shirt” to be accompanied by a white microfiber tank top and white pants. The trip would be in the spring, after all, and my understanding is that one is allowed to wear white pants after Memorial Day. I would accessorize the ensemble with matching aqua earrings that my sister had made for me. I could really see myself breezing through the cars in a supremely confident fashion.

Train outfit with copyright(I am posting a picture of the general outfit. Obviously, the young woman in the photo is not me, and she is wearing black pants which is clearly a mistake. She is, though, hanging off the side of some sort of transportation, so she clearly agrees with me that this is, for all intents and purposes, a “train outfit.”)

Originally I thought I would describe my entire, wonderful Amtrak journey in detail in this blog, but it occurred to me that droning on and on about it might give my legions of readers a good reason to drop their heads and snore. So, fast-forward to day two of the trip. (Day one was a fiasco involving a six-hour bus ride to Reno, but I can save those details for another post.)

I was in the observation car that day when I met a woman named Pearl. (That is not her real name, and I didn’t think I should post a photo of her. And she is not one of those two characters in this blog’s featured photo. They were just fellow denizens of the observation car.) Anyhoo, Pearl lives in San Francisco, and she was heading back to visit her relatives somewhere in the Midwest. One of the first things I asked her was how she’d found herself in SF, and she told me she had moved west when she realized that she was not going to survive financially where she was living and that California offered a lot more in the way of support.

Sigh. This is where my bias started to kick in. I started to make internal assumptions about Pearl, and I wondered if she was taking advantage of California’s legendary largesse.

To be perfectly honest, one of my shortcomings is that I can form a strong, stubborn opinion early on. But I’m also willing to listen and then completely change my mind. For example, when my former band Three Hour Tour decided to insert “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges into our setlist, I gnashed my teeth and whined like a baby: “Too vulgar, not our style, gross, loud, and just plain VILE!” Three months later, I declared it to be my favorite drum song of all time.

So, I decided to suppress my rush to judgment and ask Pearl about her story, even though I was continuing to assume that she was on the dole and sucking away the taxpayers’ money. Well, it turned out that she had three sons. Two of them were out on their own, including a military medic who had just gotten back from Iraq. But her youngest son, Benny, was 31 and autistic, and, although fairly high-functioning in some ways, he was totally unable to care for himself. After her husband left her, Pearl had gone to work as a paralegal, but the cost of home care for Benny ate up most of her earnings. In fact, she began to see herself heading for abject poverty. So she moved to San Francisco, where she could get enough assistance to enable her to support herself and her son. She did sell her car, which meant that she and Benny had to haul their Costco groceries on the bus back to their small apartment in a questionable part of town. But at least they were able to live on the money she earned through In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) for working as her son’s caregiver. I was starting to see that California’s largesse was, in some instances, a godsend for people who were struggling to manage the daunting challenges they had been handed.

I ended up spending a lot of time with Pearl, and one morning she asked me if I could do her a favor. She and Benny were in the coach section of the train, and Benny was pestering her because he wanted to know what a sleeper room looked like.

I had gotten a sleeper room because I really did not want to travel four days across the country sitting upright in a seat. I was very fortunate, of course, to be able to afford the luxury of a bed (loosely defined) and bathroom (even more loosely defined). Pearl and Benny had no such good fortune, and they would be together, never losing sight of the other, sitting upright in their seats for days. (I will say, though, that Pearl looked like a million bucks. She wore – and slept in – the same outfit every day: a neon orange suit, festooned with all kinds of fun costume jewelry. She felt that a respectable person should dress for the train.)

So Pearl asked me if I could show Benny my accommodations, and as soon as the word “sure” barely escaped my lips, she whirled around and scampered off to the café car to get a burger, which threw me into a sudden and severe state of panic.

First of all, I have the worst sense of direction known to humankind. We all know lots of people who claim to be similarly handicapped, including, I would guess, a good proportion of the people reading this blog. However, I firmly believe that my particular affliction is unparalleled. In fact, it is legendary. One time I was dining with a group of co-workers at the California Pizza Kitchen on Van Ness when I found myself (shudder!) having to get up to use the bathroom. When I emerged from the restroom, I could not for the life of me figure out how to get back to my table, and I found myself out of the restaurant entirely, in a back alley with a bunch of construction workers. When I got back to the office, I was recounting the story about the construction workers to my friend Kate H. and she said it sounded “like the plot of a porn film”!! That line will make me laugh until the day I die.

The thing is, Pearl had asked me not only to show Benny my accommodations but also to bring him back to the coach section to find her! Ordinary people would think nothing of this, but it was already a challenge for me to find my own way around on the train. To be honest, I was never really successful at it; I just went lurching from car to car until I found myself in, for example, a place with tables and silverware, which I would then cleverly deduce was the dining car. One evening I headed back to my sleeper and threw open the door to what I thought were my accommodations, only to find that it was the porter’s room. And he was in there. I stammered my mortifications and lurched away to find my own room.

My other source of anxiety was the fact that I was unsure of myself around an autistic person. At the time, Benny might have been the first autistic person I had ever met. Would I know how to behave? Would he like me? Would he express emotions in uncomfortable ways? Would he ask me math problems I wouldn’t know how to solve? Would he suddenly curse me out as had happened to me once when I worked with a writer with Tourette Syndrome? (“Your articles are very sweet and graceful,” the writer had told me. “F— you!”)

But I swallowed my anxieties and carefully led Benny back to my room. He absolutely loved it and took photos of just about everything. He did nothing unusual and didn’t curse at me. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all until I got him back to his coach section when I luckily spotted Pearl’s neon orange outfit. “Okay, Benny,” I said, relieved that we had found our way. “There’s your mom. You take care now.”

He hesitated. “I want to tell you something first,” he said. “I love the way your blue shirt matches your eyes. Did you know that there are many shades of blue? There’s periwinkle, cornflower, royal blue, midnight blue, turquoise, powder blue, sky blue, baby blue . . . .” Five minutes later, he finished with “. . . and cerulean.”

He actually said “cerulean.” I didn’t remember that one from my box of Crayolas.

“But yours are more like sapphire blue,” he said. He smiled and put both of his hands on my face. “And you are absolutely beautiful.”

****

Well, not really. But it didn’t matter. I floated back down the aisle in my glamorous train outfit. Meanwhile, Benny and his devoted mother continued on their journey, bound together forever. God bless and protect them both.

The courtship of Paula’s father

The courtship of Paula’s father

 

When we were kids, my brother Marc and I decided to torment our younger sister Janine by claiming that we could speak Romanian.

To bolster this claim, we produced a letter allegedly sent by the Romanian Language Division of local pop/radio station KLOK. Dated June 13, 1969, the letter informs me that Marc and I were among 23 listeners who had participated in the station’s broadcast of Romanian language lessons and that we had scored very highly on the final exam.

It could be said that I myself wrote that letter, although it was signed by one Nicholai Jansek. If that isn’t a Romanian-sounding name, I don’t know what is.

For some reason, not only did we claim to speak Romanian (which required that we utter complete gibberish to each other), but we also claimed to be able to sing in Romanian. The song we selected as proof was Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feeling Groovy.” In Romanian, the last line of that song is apparently “Sah-bay ding-dong!”

My sister bought it.

Romanian is one of the five most common Romance languages (along with Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese). They all evolved from Latin, and they are the most beautiful languages in the world.

I bring this up because I was thinking about both romance and language the other day. I’ve been slowly going through my mother’s things since she passed away a few months ago, and when I was looking through her wedding album, a diary entry caught my eye. Although we all knew that Mom and Dad had eloped to Reno 64 years ago this month, I’m not sure that anyone knew they had been arrested along the way. At least, that’s what it says in my mother’s matter-of-fact entry:

“Saturday, May 10, 1952: We departed from San Leandro, California at 10 a.m. Arrested for speeding at 10:30 a.m. Arrived Reno, Nevada at 2:30 p.m. Car vapor-locked; delayed forty-five minutes. Married 5:20 p.m., county courthouse. Telegrams sent to parents, 6:00 p.m. Dinner at Riverside Hotel at 7 p.m. Gambling in the evening until 11:00 p.m. Bride won, groom lost.”

Gerald Raymond Bocciardi and Beverly Jane Steger met in the fall of 1951 at the University of California at Berkeley. Twenty-five-year-old Gerald was heading towards his Ph.D. in Romance Languages and was teaching Italian II. He had grown up in San Leandro, the first-generation son of Italian immigrants, and had started school without knowing a word of English. But he was soon proficiently bilingual, and by the time he was a couple of years into his stint at Berkeley, he was a multilingual scholar. For some reason, he had originally signed on as a pre-med student, but as my mother tells it, he would “faint at the sight of a bloodshot eye” and soon realized that his calling was elsewhere. He got his master’s degree but never finished his Ph.D. because, after getting all the way through the coursework and the oral exams, he couldn’t bring himself to write the dissertation. “It’s just nonsense,” he told me once. “I didn’t want to spend a year researching Petrarch’s pubic hairs.” The man had a way with words.

Beverly, born in Wisconsin and raised in southern California, escaped a fairly loveless household when she made her way to Berkeley. The Stegers had an unhappy marriage, and they were stoic and demanding parents who never hugged their two daughters or told them they loved them. Despite her environment, however, Beverly knew no better and would have stayed at home had she not gotten a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley. She was a strong student and a professional-caliber athlete. But she was also quite provincial, and she was worried about moving to such a cosmopolitan city. Of course, as life goes, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her.

That September day when Beverly sat down in Jerry’s classroom, he felt – for the first time ever – love’s mysterious and feverish joy. He was smitten with her beauty, her freckles, and her impeccable pronunciation of the Italian language. She seemed to be everything his unformed self had ever wished for. So he would gallantly light her cigarette in class (yes, it was the 1950s!). And he would frivolously call her up after class to discuss homework. But there was nothing more he could do; he was, after all, her teacher, and though there were no written rules about consorting with students, he was a man of ethics.

Until, that is, one day when another instructor had to depart suddenly for Italy to care for an ailing mother. The department’s teachers were hastily rearranged, and Jerry announced to the class on a Friday morning that he was being transferred out. That night, he called Beverly for a date. On Monday morning, Jerry was miraculously teaching Beverly’s class again. Somehow he had finagled a way to get back in. But he had already asked her out, so his ethics – however shaky – were intact.

On date 1, Jerry took Beverly to San Francisco to see An American in Paris and have dinner in North Beach. They got back to Bev’s Berkeley dorm at 7:45 p.m. – 15 minutes after curfew. Bev, who had to beat on the door and be let in by the “house lady,” was “campused” (grounded) for her transgression. Jerry was mortified and sent red roses to her every day for a week. Flowers lined the hall, filled the bathroom, and ended up in other girls’ rooms because the whole place began to look like a hothouse.

On date 2, Jerry took Beverly to the very fancy Sainte Claire Hotel in San Jose. Beverly, who had never had hard liquor in her life, made the mistake of ordering a Tom Collins. She drank only half of it before getting violently ill. Still, on the way back to Berkeley, Jerry cheerily announced that they would take a “little detour” to San Leandro so she could meet his parents. Beverly hung her head out the window of that little Nash Rambler all the way back. It took a while to make the trip in those days, on the slow backroads, and the bracing fall air must have cleared her head, because she ended up making a lovely impression on Gustavo and Ambrogia Bocciardi. When she returned to the dorm and mentioned the “little detour,” her friend Hjördis – from Sweden and eminently more sophisticated – issued a prescient warning: “Uh, oh. You’re stuck. When you meet the Italian parents, you are hooked for life.”

On date 3, Jerry took Beverly to the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland and then to an observation point in the Oakland hills, where he finally got up the nerve to kiss her. He then immediately asked her to marry him.

Beverly laughed out loud at the insanity of it and initially turned him down. But they would be married within a few months.

They were making plans for the wedding one day, and drawing up the guest list, when Beverly started to cry. With the Italians, you know, you have to invite Uncle Lorenzo’s barber and the next-door neighbor’s live-in boarder, and the list was growing and the Stegers were refusing to pay (they wanted cake and punch for 12 people, not anitipasti and ravioli and lamb for 212), and the Bocciardis had no money, and the Italians were complaining about the wedding being in southern California because none of them had been on an airplane before and God forbid they get in cars and drive, and the whole thing was getting to be a fiasco. So Jerry suggested they elope to Reno and have a tiny little church wedding later, and Beverly breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

They jumped in the car as soon as the weekend came because they just could not wait a moment longer. It was a different time. There is no doubt in my mind that they were both virgins. They were both good, chaste Catholics. But they also loved and fervently desired each other, and I’m sure those tires left skid marks peeling out of San Leandro that Saturday morning. Hence the “arrest” for speeding just half an hour into the trip.

My mother and father had an absolutely storybook marriage. In their early days, they lived on and off with Gustavo and Ambrogia in their tiny house in San Leandro. “Groom’s room remodeled by bride,” Beverly wrote in that wedding album. “Improvement is indescribable.” Beverly shadowed Ambrogia, learned about olive oil, prosciutto, parmesan, and chianti, and laughed all day with my grandmother over stories about the Old Country. My favorite was about an Italian relative who named her child Ultima (“last”) because she didn’t want any more children; she then proceeded to have three more, and when she finally pilgrimaged to Lourdes to pray that her fertile days would end, she got pregnant while she was there!

Jerry spent his days at Berkeley earning his secondary teaching credential, his weekends working side by side with Bev at his father’s poultry business, and his evenings on the porch, writing poetry for his new wife and chewing the fat with every Italian and Portuguese neighbor who passed by.

Those were the days of wine and roses.

***

I was thinking about what makes marriages work. Some people say that it’s best not to get married young; after all, people can change dramatically, and it’s hard to know, at age 19, who you really are.

But in my parents’ case, their youth was a gift. When they looked at each other, they were exhilarated.

None of us really knows, when we first settle in with a friend or lover, how well our hearts will mesh through the years. I actually believe that the key to a successful marriage is a lot of luck. My father could not have known, when he met my mother, that she was his perfect complement. He was a brilliant man, but there were few practical things he could do outside of teaching. My mother was the household engineer; she knew what to do with a plumber’s wrench and how to fix a carburetor. She hand-made all of our clothes, handled the finances, whipped up delicious multi-course meals when my father brought school administrators home on the spur of the moment. She went shotgun-shooting with Dad and learned how to fish. And she immersed herself completely in the culture of his family.

And Mom certainly could not have known that Dad would lead her gently away from her lonely childhood and bring her into an Italian family that shouted their love of each other to the rooftops. They were loud, funny, embracing, hungry. It must have been like a dream for her – all that adoration and attention. One of my father’s favorite memories that he told me repeatedly – even in the throes of the Alzheimer’s that would eventually claim him – was that one time his mother was rolling out some pastry dough, and she looked up and said to him, “See this dough, Jerry? If I were to try to make, with my own hands, someone who would be the most perfect wife for you, I could not even dream up someone as wonderful as Beverly.”

(Or, as she pronounced it, “Bebboli.”)

And throughout his entire life, my father demonstrated to my mother what devotion and romance really are. When we were kids, he used to write poems about her upper arms. Sometimes they were in English and sometimes they were in Italian. He would write them on the spur of the moment on a tiny piece of paper that he would fold up and ask one of us to deliver to her. I used to wonder if maybe “upper arms” was a euphemism for . . . well, you know. But no, he just thought her upper arms were magnificent. She saved all of those poems. We found them when we cleaned out their house.

***

In 2004, when I was still working for the Administrative Office of the Courts, I did an interview with Judge Al Delucchi, who had been assigned to preside over the Scott Peterson capital trial. As I began to ask my first question, the judge stopped me and said that he first needed to know one thing. “Is your father by any chance Professor Gerald Bocciardi, who taught at UC Berkeley?” When I said yes, he said that he had been one of Dad’s students. “And my guess is that your mother was in that class, too,” he added with a chuckle. He was remembering back 53 years. That was the impression my parents made.

My beautiful, beautiful parents. ›››››

 

 

Romanian certificate