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.
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, 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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
It’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).
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.
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.
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
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.
“[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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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?”
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.
It 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.
I 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.
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.
“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!!!”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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!”
“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!”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
There 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
What 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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?