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.”
This past week, Julie had to fly off to Denver on business. She doesn’t love traveling by air or staying alone in hotels, so she was dreading the entire trip. I, however, was eagerly looking on the bright side. For one thing, I was going to have multiple days free of political jabber and, in fact, free of any news whatsoever except for my morning Chronicle read. Julie, you see – the woman who moved to California 22 years ago with not a scintilla of interest in politics – has now become a journalistic junkie, whereas I am so roiled by national and world events that even the slightest passing glimpse of the news gives me agita. One evening I fell asleep while she was listening to cable news on headphones, and the next morning I awoke to a 1,000-word e-mail message from her – a series of bullet points, no less! – summarizing the previous day’s political revelations, accompanied by a succinct legal analysis of each incident. My heartburn erupted.
More importantly, Julie’s absence for a prolonged period of time also means that I can clean out all of our expired food. Oh, the rapture! Our cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer are always filled with food that we’ve forgotten we have, or that we bought for one exotic recipe years ago, or that we purchased after one too many wine-tastings, if you know what I mean. Julie never wants to get rid of it but I can’t stand to have solidified fig preserves cluttering up my space! So when she is gone I gleefully throw open the cupboards, take out our stepstool, and start TOSSING, baby!
My time of uninterrupted organizational bliss was about to begin.
After dropping Julie off at the airport, I stop at the UPS Store to pick up a couple of parcels. The guy behind the counter says I have seven packages. I’m rather surprised. By my calculations, all I am expecting are printer ink and some orange shoelaces. Maybe Julie has bought me a raft of presents! He hands me the packages and I start hefting them out to the car. I can’t wait to tear into them. When I glance down, though, I see that they’re all for someone else. Dejectedly I trudge back into the store. The guy apologizes and says he thought I was another woman. I’m kind of excited to think that I have a doppelganger in West Portal.
I then race home, eager to get started on the kitchen. My rule is that the expiration dates on the bottles, jars, and packages must have come and gone. I spot about 11 expired bottles of assorted vinegar varieties. Can vinegar even go bad? It’s already so bad. Then again, we bought these bottles when we lived in a different house. It’s been more than 12 years! Surely they must be riddled with sediment at the very least. Can sediment kill us? It’s certainly possible. I throw out the vinegar.
I throw away half-used bars of Ghirardelli Cooking Chocolate from 2009. Out goes the stoneground mustard that is so desiccated it has become colored pebbles. With an athletic hook shot, I toss the foil-wrapped beige-colored thing from the freezer that cannot be identified. I take the rubbery Triscuits and sink a fade-away jumper into the trash.
I empty dozens of jars and haul many bags of recycling down to the garage. I’m so lucky that tonight is garbage night.
My rotator cuff starts to burn from all the “kitchen basketball” heroics. I down a bunch of Advil.
Buster sleeps for part of the night in the foyer, right by the front door, waiting for Julie to come home. I don’t think he usually does that when I’m gone. He obviously likes her better. Why am I so unlikable?
As per my usual morning routine, I go downstairs and exercise on the elliptical. Thankfully I’m on a roll and I’ve been able to work out for a full 30 minutes regularly for about a year without tearing any muscles or snapping any bones. As usual, I listen to one of my CDs and fantasize that I am asked to play drums for the performer when the regular drummer has a sudden but nonfatal bowel emergency. Today I am listening to HitsvilleUSA, which is a box set of the Motown singles. I notice that the main Motown drummers (Benny Benjamin and Uriel Jones, members of the Funk Brothers) would often start a song (like “My Girl” and the sublime “This Old Heart of Mine”) with the same fill: one hit on the high tom, some 16th notes on the snare, and then one bass drum BOOM before the song starts. But they never finish the fill with a crash. Why? Everyone crashes at the end of a fill! When I get back upstairs I obsessively comb the Internet looking for an answer. This takes hours. Finally, I watch a video and find out that in those days the singers and musicians all recorded together in one room and the drummers were afraid that if they crashed, especially going into the start of a song, the sound would bleed into the other mics. Ah. Now I can relax.
I go in to take a shower and start worrying about what could happen if someone broke in. Buster is a prize-winning barker but I don’t think he would deter a marauder. I start hearing voices. It sounds like someone is begging for his life! Why would a criminal be begging for his life? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Or does Buster have him cornered? I shut off the water to listen. Nothing.
In the kitchen I see some purple bloodstains on the counter. Is someone in the house? Aren’t bloodstains red? Wait a minute, that’s where I inadvertently smashed a blueberry with my elbow.
In the afternoons I like to lie out in our backyard and read for a while. I’m beginning to have an unsightly farmer’s tan. Right now I’m continuing to make my way through A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I really enjoy it and I think Dave Eggers is brilliant. Many people reviled this work as an overblown exercise in self-indulgence. They are clearly misguided. I, for one, love stream-of-consciousness. Give me the hearty Thomas Wolfe or William Faulkner any day rather than, say, that insufferable Henry James. Gad. When you read that guy’s prose it’s as if you can actually hear the delicate tinkling of teacups.
It’s about 43 degrees outside with a blustery northwest wind (welcome, summer!), so I last only a few minutes. After I come inside I realize that Julie’s dad has called but the downstairs phone was malfunctioning and I could not hear the ringer. It is a beige 1970s wall model that I cherish. I decide to look at it and the entire phone clatters off the wall and falls on the floor with a bunch of electrical things hanging out of it. I’m horrified. I leave it on the dining room table for Julie to fix.
I decide to spend the latter part of the day watching all the documentaries that are piled up on my DVR. I can’t believe Julie has no interest in watching docuseries about the Kennedys or the Patty Hearst kidnapping. Tonight I choose HBO’s The Searcher, about Elvis Presley. Gosh, I never knew how much his manager Colonel Tom Parker screwed him by insisting he take time off from music to take on movie roles in Hollywood. And wasn’t he a handsome guy? Those lips!
Buster spends another couple of hours in the foyer at bedtime, waiting for Julie. He finally saunters back to the bedroom, where he sees our cute little stuffed Giants mascot Lou Seal. He eyes it warily and smashes up against me, far away from that terrifying seal.
In the middle of the night I am startled awake by a robocaller. I cuss heartily. I decide that I should change our answering machine greeting to simply state that I already know I owe the IRS and have debilitating credit card debt and could use a vigorous carpet cleaning.
In the morning I wake up with lower back pain because I have had to sleep curled around Buster like a paper clip. The bed is 76 inches wide. Buster has somehow taken up 70 inches.
I down more Advil.
The Chronicle points out that Southwest Airlines keeps having to make emergency landings. Julie is flying Southwest. What if she gets sucked out of an airplane?
This morning while exercising I worry that I could have a heart attack like Sheryl Sandberg’s husband did while he was working out in a hotel gym. What if I keel over and die right here in the garage? I’m not wearing pants!
I am going to the Giants day game today against the Reds. And I have a huge decision to make. Do I leave the door to the backyard open for Buster? I am afraid that he might encounter a coyote or start eating landscape bark. After an agonizing three hours I finally settle on leaving the door closed. After all, finding a small pile of poop in the house is much preferable to Buster’s being devoured by wild animals or choking to death on mulch.
For this ballgame I am bravely attempting something new: I’ve resolved to find the crab sandwiches! I am filled with excitement and anxiety. Normally I sit in the same general area: sections 310-314, between home plate and first base, on the top level because that’s where the cheapest seats are. I keep a spreadsheet on the specific seats I’ve gotten over the last 5 years. The spreadsheet rates the seats according to the following criteria, among others:
How long am I in the sun? (I prefer that it be half the game.)
Do I have to look through that infernal Plexiglas wall?
Are the season-ticket holders around me obnoxious or friendly?
How close are the bathrooms?
The problem is, some of my favorite food items near those sections have, over the last few years, disappeared. So I am left primarily with my old standby: the “Sports Meal,” which consists of a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. However, I really really really love AT&T Park’s crab sandwiches. They’re on buttered, crisp toasted sourdough with some kind of herb sprinkled on them. Heavenly! But, unless you are sitting in the luxurious Club-level seats, you can get them only on the opposite side of the stadium, near the bleachers.
Julie has told me not to worry. She says that I should try to find the Marina Gate, which will likely be the nearest entrance to the precious sandwiches. Then I can “just trot upstairs and find the crab.” I obsess about the whole procedure all the way to the game on Muni. Sure enough, I can’t find the Marina Gate. But I adopt a new tactic: ask for help. Ask repeatedly. I get there early enough that all of the Giants personnel are still eager to assist. So I ask about the gate, I ask how to get upstairs, I ask where the crab is (that gentleman is so happy to help me out that he escorts me directly to the sandwiches!), and I ask how on earth I can then get back around the entire stadium to section 311. It all goes off somewhat without a hitch. I carry my sandwich delicately all the way around the ballpark, more than once narrowly avoiding having it knocked out of my hand by clueless frat boys, and make my way to my tried-and-true vendor where I buy my Sierra Nevada beer. My stress levels ease as I get to my seat. I then sit there and smugly scorn all the people who have a hard time figuring out on which side of the section to enter while trying to find their seats. Dolts.
Buster is still alive when I get home.
I decide to watch more documentaries, but they are starting to get tedious.
At some point in the evening our landline rings and the phone identifies the caller as my nephew Alec. What?? No one under 40 uses the telephone anymore! Someone must have died!!
(No, thank goodness.)
The Chronicle runs a long article detailing how scores of people are dying from carbon monoxide poisoning because they don’t realize that they’ve left the engines of their keyless cars running in the garage. I immediately become convinced that I will easily make the same mistake and that I have very little time to live before I die of carbon monoxide poisoning myself.
While exercising I tell myself for the 50th time that I really should let my hair go grey. But I don’t have a young face. I have furrows in my brow the size of the Marianas Trench. If I go grey, that guy at the UPS Store might start mistaking me for Mel Brooks.
I go to Safeway to replenish our stock of expired food. I buy 11 replacement bottles of vinegar. Julie will never know what I’ve done. I have successfully covered all my tracks.
I spend some time continuing to work on my long-running project to finish scanning and naming (using a very strict naming protocol, of course) my parents’ and grandparents’ old photos. I’m also continuing to get my Super 8 films digitized, including my two-hour movie (with soundtrack and narration!) of my three-month 1980 round-the-country trip with a girlfriend in a VW van. It’s an epic and Oscar-worthy film. The thing is, who is going to care about any of this when I’m gone, which will be soon because I will imminently be murdered in the shower, suffer a massive heart attack while exercising, or asphyxiate myself with our keyless car? No one will care about your silly digitized photos and movies, Paula. They will just be summarily deleted.
Thank goodness Julie is coming home today. Being alone, even with freshly organized cupboards and brand-new vinegar, isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Meanwhile, I’ve still got my next blog hanging over my head. I’m letting down my legions of fans. Maybe I should write about the time I got an X-rated videotape stuck in my VCR. No, that would sully my pristine reputation.
Buster has developed a sudden fear of uncarpeted stairs. Good grief, where is he getting all of his strange neuroses?
Julie’s plane is late but she finally lands around dinnertime. Hallelujah! Buster and I pick her up. The “Human Anti-Anxiety Pill” has arrived!
As soon as we walk in the door, she heads to the kitchen for a snack. “Hey, you rearranged the cupboards!” she announces. “And have you heard about today’s chaos in Washington?”
Strangely, I feel a wash of serenity.
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.
11/19/70[Ed.’s note: I was a couple of years younger than others in my class]:
“Today was a great day! They sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me in Spanish and we went through the whole age routine. At lunch, everyone got me ‘Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour’ album. During Geometry, someone wrote ‘Happy Birthday’ on the board and I went through the whole age bit again. Tonight I got a Glen Campbell song book from Mom & Dad, 5 dollars from Zia, Grammy, and Auntie Jackie, a belt from Marc, a guitar strap from Jan, ‘Oh, Happy Day’ record from Colleen, and personalized stickers from Barb. It was all very happy, except now I realize I’ll never be 14 again. Never!”
“Tonight, [my sister] Jan discovered that [our tiny pet frog] Toby wasn’t in his cage. I love that frog. We’ve had him for a year and a half. I feel like crying. We looked all over for him and finally found the poor little guy all dried and shriveled up under the T.V.”
“Tonight at 6:00 we went to the Blanchettes for dinner. We had barbecued bonito. It doesn’t sound too good, but by that time I was so starving I would have eaten anything. We had a little game of football and Butch and I were the best. Then Butch and I went into his mom’s room to watch T.V. Once he called me “honey.” How romantic! I wish I was clever or humorous or something. But I’m such a complete dud, I swear. We watched interesting things like bullfights.”
10/7/70: [Ed.’s note: I think Eddie Ryan was just a guy who went to our school]
“[My brother] Marc and I have a thing going when we walk to school every day. We have to see ten landmarks: 1) “Whistle-’em-up” the crossing lady (she told us to whistle when we want to cross), 2) A pet, 3) “Hawkins” written on sidewalk, 4) “Rhonda Kelly was here” on sidewalk, 5) Piedmont Hills bus, 6) little bus, 7) Boys’ P.E. bus, 8) Girls’ P.E. bus, 9) A motorcycle, and 10) Eddie Ryan. That’s the hardest one.”
“You know, I really want a bike for Christmas. But Dad thinks it’s too dangerous. To him, everything is too dangerous. But Mom said she’d rather wait and give us a Honda. So now I want a Honda. You don’t need a license except for the streets. Like Bronson –the feel of the wind on your face. Groovy!”
Well before dawn this coming Wednesday, city officials and a parade of fire trucks will convene downtown for the annual commemoration, at Lotta’s Fountain, of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which killed up to 3,000 people, destroyed 28,000 buildings, and rendered 225,000 people homeless. Lotta’s Fountain was a gift to the City from Lotta Crabtree, a local actress, and it was used as a meeting place for residents after the quake. The last two survivors of the devastation died a couple of years ago, but the annual ceremony continues, beginning at 4:30 a.m. and counting down to a moment of silence at 5:12 a.m., which is the moment the earthquake struck.
My grandmother, 18-year-old Ambrogia Fontana, was one of the survivors. Newly arrived from Italy through Ellis Island, she had been in San Francisco less than a week. She spoke no English. She and her younger brother David were aiming to get a foothold in the new land, trying to figure out the people, the food, the language, the urban hustle. The culture shock was immeasurable. The two of them were asleep on Wednesday morning, April 18, 1906, when the most devastating natural trauma ever to hit San Francisco shook and burned the city. David was smashed in the head by a falling ceiling beam and was injured so badly that he was knocked unconscious and lapsed into a coma. The two of them were carted off to a tent city for quake refugees. Ambrogia had no idea where she was, where to go, or what to do, and no one could understand her. All around her, the city was in ruins.
Ambrogia, who was born in 1887, had grown up cutting quite a rebellious figure in the tiny northern Italian town of Staffoli, near Lucca in the Tuscan region. The oldest of 8 children, she worked in her father’s bottega (shop) where, at the age of 9, she spent her days making panini (sandwiches) while pouring a bit of grappa for herself every time she served a glass to a customer. Stern, robust, and always resentful of authority, as a teenager she would deliberately walk the streets of Staffoli wearing – gasp! – pants and smoking a Toscano cigar, just because it wasn’t done in those days.
(As an aside, Staffoli was originally in the province of Florence, but when Mussolini tinkered with the divisions in 1920 [gerrymandering!], he made Staffoli part of the province of Pisa. This would enrage my grandmother, who considered all Pisans to be thieves. The sentiment seems to endure somewhat today, and it may have stemmed from a time in history when many Pisans were tax collectors. One of my grandmother’s favorite [albeit skeevy] sayings was “Meglio che mangiare la tigna dalla testa di un cane che avere un Pisano alla porta!” [“Better to eat the mange off the head of a dog than to have a Pisan at the door!”])
Ambrogia’s father Pietro was a fairly successful businessman. In addition to owning the bottega, he was a cattle dealer, buying the animals in Milan or Venice and selling them in Florence. He also traveled extensively to Sao Pao, Brazil, where he had a coffee plantation, and to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he owned a brewery. Rumor has it that he kept a woman in every port, and the fact that two of his children were named Brasila and America certainly nurtured the speculation.
Although he was one of Staffoli’s few wealthy residents, Pietro was, for some reason, a socialist. In fact, he periodically hosted neighborhood socialist meetings with about 15 other men – a risky proposition, given that at that time the Italian government was cracking down hard on political activists, especially anarchists and socialists. The women, of course, were not allowed to participate in the meetings. Ambrogia was required to serve the males, and she grew increasingly resentful of her father’s rigorous authoritarianism. (Little did he know that when he went off on his trips, she would gather up her younger siblings, haul a bounty of salame, bread, and a bottle of chianti up to their room, and host a food-and-wine fest on their beds!)
At one particular political meeting, at which the now-18-year-old Ambrogia was, as usual, serving, Pietro’s rigid child-rearing practices were questioned by one of his more lenient buddies. “My children,” he responded angrily, “can do whatever they want in life.” This was the moment my quick-witted grandmother seized like a snake. “Oh, yeah?” she piped up in front of everyone. “Then I want to go to America.” Shocked by her audacity, the rest of the men challenged him. “You heard her, Pietro. So you will really send your daughter to America, then,” they said, mockingly. Pietro was stuck. He had made a proclamation and he couldn’t backtrack. His ego overruled his common sense. “Sure,” he answered. His wife immediately began to cry. But it was done.
That’s how my grandmother came to find herself boarding the steamship Prinzess Irene in Genoa, Italy, on March 22, 1906. It was unheard-of in those days for a young woman to travel alone; typically, in fact, it was a household’s father or eldest son who made the voyage and then sent for the rest of the family when life was settled. In this case, though, Ambrogia’s dim-witted 16-year-old brother Davide (David) was sent with her as a “chaperone.”
The Prinzess Irene was a German-built ocean liner that ran on the Genoa-to-New York line beginning in 1903. She was 540 feet long and 60 feet wide, weighed almost 11,000 tons, and traveled at about 15 knots (18 mph). The ship carried more than 2,000 passengers – most of them, including my grandmother, in 3rd class or “steerage.”
Before boarding, passengers were asked to answer a number of questions, the oddest of which included whether they were polygamists or anarchists. I’m fairly sure my grandmother was not the former, but she may well have been the latter. In any case, both she and David answered “no” appropriately. They also were subject to medical examinations and to “disinfection.”
There is no way to sugarcoat the experience of the passengers in steerage. In fact, up to 10 percent of them died on the way. They sat crowded together, in the dark, under the most unsanitary of conditions. The air was chokingly foul. Five years after my grandmother’s trip, the U.S. Immigrant Service reported that “[t]he open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys. . . . The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it . . . . Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air. The food often repels them. . . . It is almost impossible to keep personally clean. All of these conditions are naturally aggravated by the crowding.”
In my grandmother’s case, this went on for 15 days. She and David arrived in New York on April 6. She had $25 in her pocket.
Three million Italians came to the United States between 1900 and 1915 during the “New Immigration” of Slavs, Jews, and Italians. Most of them were farm workers and unskilled laborers fleeing not only a politically chaotic country but also the crush of abject poverty. That was not the case with my grandmother, but it did apply to my grandfather.
Gustavo Bocciardi, a Tuscan like my grandmother, grew up extremely poor and with very little education. In April 1904, Gustavo came to America (also on the Prinzess Irene) by himself, as a teenager, in search of work. A couple of aunts in California had wired him the money to find his way out west. While on the train from Ellis Island to San Francisco, he was nearly taken advantage of when the guy at the café counter tried to charge him something like $30 for a 52-cent sandwich. As the story goes, my grandfather – short in stature, but strong as a bull – grabbed the guy by the collar and throttled him until he got his money back.
My grandfather was an interesting dichotomy. He was an emotional pushover who, in his later years, liked to push me around the neighborhood in a stroller to show me off. But apparently he had a temper – one I never, ever saw. Maybe his attitude was hardened by the bigotry that Italians regularly endured in this country. My dad told me that one day a passerby called Gustavo a “dago” to his face. “So he dropped the son of a bitch,” my father said, rather dryly. The man hit his head on the sidewalk, and Gustavo thought he’d killed him. While he was trying to explain the situation to his aunts afterwards, a police officer arrived at the door – a fellow who knew the aunts and liked them. “That guy is a jerk,” said the officer. “He’s just fine, he didn’t die, and you just tell your nephew Gustavo not to worry about it.”
In the few days between the time they arrived in San Francisco and the time the Great Earthquake hit, Ambrogia and her brother David had been staying in SF with their relatives the Mancinis. On April 18, the Mancinis had already gone to work by 5:12 am. – the moment the house was destroyed, and David was critically hurt – and they had no idea where their young charges were. The American Red Cross and local charities were providing food and medical care to everyone in the tent cities, which is where Ambrogia found herself, along with David, who was unconscious for days. One day, as Ambrogia was still trying to make sense out of what had happened to her, she heard Italian being spoken outside their tent. She ran out and discovered that a representative from the Italian consulate was walking around offering assistance, and she was able to tell him that she had been separated from the Mancinis, who, she knew, had relatives in Redwood City. Somehow the Consulate ended up finding the relatives and providing Ambrogia and David with transportation to their home. David would recover from his injuries.
By 1907, after working for a short time as a nanny, Ambrogia packed up and moved to San Leandro, a small city across the Bay from San Francisco to which many people displaced by the quake had relocated. She began working at the King-Morse cannery off of San Leandro Boulevard (now the site of the San Leandro BART station). Meanwhile, Gustavo Bocciardi – who’d been working as a logger in Boulder Creek – had also moved to San Leandro and was working at the same place.
San Leandro has perhaps the greatest weather in California, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s there were plenty of farmers growing stone fruits, asparagus, and other produce in the area. The farmers made a lot of noise about getting a local cannery built to help ensure that their produce didn’t rot, and the first San Leandro cannery was established in 1898. In 1916 it became part of the California Packing Corporation (CPC), which eventually merged with the Del Monte conglomerate and became the largest fruit and vegetable canning company in the world. (Del Monte moved the San Leandro operation to the Central Valley in 1967.) The cannery employed a lot of Italians, and it was one of the few businesses in the area that provided employment to women. It was even so progressive as to offer free on-site day care. It also supplied little living shacks, for minimal rent, to some of the workers.
Gustavo and Ambrogia saw each other for the first time at that cannery. And here’s the craziest thing: they discovered that they were from the same tiny town in Italy! And they hadn’t known each other! I don’t know the population of Staffoli back then, but even now it has only a few thousand people. I can’t imagine how they could not have run into each other, especially because they were only two years apart in age. But my grandfather was poor and uneducated, and my grandmother traveled in a different universe.
Not surprisingly, Gustavo and Ambrogia ended up getting married, in Oakland, on December 30, 1907. A year later they had their first child, my aunt Nini, whose real name was actually Maria. [Ed’s note: every Italian family has a Maria!] My grandfather apparently won the naming rights and chose to name my aunt after his grandmother Maria, even though my grandmother – who was very anti-clerical (but not anti-religious) at the time – emphatically insisted that the Biblical Maria (Mary) was “the world’s first whore”!
My aunt Nini – who was loud and very funny, often unwittingly – used to tell us that she was “born dead.” That declaration always amused and puzzled us kids, but my mother explained that although the doctors did initially pronounce her dead because she wasn’t breathing, she suddenly took a gasping breath and that was that. Nini slept, as an infant, in a dresser drawer, and when she was a month old my grandmother took her to work with her in a shoebox. They were all still living, at the time, in a cannery shack.
What continues to amaze me to this day is that my indefatigable grandmother found an additional way to make money. At night she would cook up an abundance of food that she could feed at lunch the following day to the many single young men who worked alongside her at the cannery: stews, chicken in sauce, etc. In the morning she would set the table, and at noon she’d race home to heat up the food. Then the cannery workers would come over and buy lunch from her to eat while they rested! How she did all this and cared for a baby, I do not know. She was strong, smart, and determined. It didn’t matter that she had been brought up in a family of means. She was on her own now, and she had no expectations of being handed anything anymore. She could stand on her own two feet. And hold everybody else up as well.
At some point my grandmother quit the Cannery and they rented a house in San Leandro. Gustavo then worked at a variety of jobs – lumberyard, sawmill, munitions factory during World War I, etc. – for a few years each until his hot temper got him kicked out. Finally, nearly 20 years later, they could afford to have their first home built in 1926, right across the street from the San Leandro Ballpark (adjacent to the cannery) where my father says he saw Billy Martin play before he made it into the majors. Tickets to the Sunday afternoon baseball games cost 15 cents for gentlemen and 10 cents for ladies. What a steal! (That field, which I remember well, is now long gone, demolished when the BART station was built.)
By then my grandfather had gotten into the poultry business, and eventually he established his own market with two other guys – one of whom was his new son-in-law Ray. My grandparents weren’t keen on Ray because he was, irony of ironies, a Pisan! And true to stereotype, Ray’s father was a crook – a bootlegger who somehow cheated my grandfather out of a lot of money, although no one quite remembers how.
Nearly nineteen years after Maria was born (yes, you read that right), along came my father in 1927. He was almost named “Sbaglio” (“Mistake”) because my grandparents had been convinced that they were too old to have children. In fact, once she started to show, my grandmother went to the local pharmacist to ask him what to do for her “tumor.” His reply? “That’s no tumor, lady. That’s a baby!”
Dad once said that they should have named him “Tumor.”
My father had a wonderful childhood in San Leandro, in what he calls “the Italian ghetto.” He was adored and spoiled and many of the neighbors spoke Italian (or Spanish or Portuguese) and everyone watched out for each other. When he ran home from his first day of school because he couldn’t speak English, my grandmother ushered him right back. Her children were going to make something of themselves, and they would have an easier life.
I’m only half Italian, but nearly all of my historical and cultural understanding of my heritage came from that side of the family. The German relatives on my mother’s side were almost guarded about their ancestry. But the Italians were proud and joyful.
My first language was actually Italian. I didn’t know how to speak English until I was about three years old and my maternal grandmother was babysitting me one day, couldn’t understand my repeated requests for acqua (water), and implored my parents to for God’s sake teach me some English.
When I was a child, I had the great fortune of spending at least every other weekend at my grandparents’ house in San Leandro. Nonna (my grandmother) wore aprons all the time and was constantly at the stove. Nonno (my grandfather), as I mentioned before, pushed me around in my stroller and visited all the neighborhood ladies. He let me help him pick vegetables from their perfect garden and dig for treasures in their basement. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran two lines near the house because the cannery depended on trains to bring in produce and ship out the canned goods. In the middle of the night the house would shake and rumble and the train whistle would practically wake the dead as the “choo-choo” thundered by. I loved the comfort of it.
What great resilience and fortitude the immigrants had. How did those people from quiet little towns – some of them teenagers, like my relatives – find the courage to leave their homes and families and travel in horrid conditions across an ocean without knowing whether they would even survive the journey or, if they did, what they would do when they arrived? Most of the time they would end up sacrificing everything for their own new families in America. And yet, despite the prejudice and the barriers, they did it without complaint. Without defeat. They were heroes without monuments.
One of my very favorite movies, Mi Familia, ends with a scene in which the mother and father of an immigrant family from Mexico sit at a table and reflect back on their lives. The mother had suffered terribly getting to this country as a young woman. Their oldest son had been murdered. Their daughter-in-law had died soon after giving birth. But ultimately their remaining children and their grandchildren had found their way in life. As the parents savor their coffee and reflect on their marriage and family, José says, “Maria, we’ve had a good life. We’ve been very lucky.”
She nods but then pauses. “It would have been even better if . . . .”
But José won’t hear of it. “No, Maria, don’t say it,” he says. “Don’t even say it. It is wrong to wish for too much in this life. God has been good to us.”
“You’re right,” Maria says. “We have had a very good life.” And they kiss.
Sometimes I wonder what my grandparents would say if they knew what the world was like today. How could they comprehend people pulling out guns and shooting up schools and workplaces because they’re frustrated that things aren’t going quite perfectly for them?
And what would they think about those of us who show off pictures of our own food? How self-important have we become?
And how high are our expectations about the happiness we think life owes us?
Ambrogia and Gustavo lived in their little white San Leandro house for the rest of their lives. It was a simple existence, but they provided their two children with everything they needed: love, support, and education. My grandparents worked hard and had no time to be self-important. Life wasn’t easy. But they were self-reliant and they were happy. They talked, they laughed, they loved, they ate, and they drank with gusto.
And even when they were practically penniless, they were rich with courage, culture, and ideals.
It was the good life. It was la bella vita.
Salute, Nonno and Nonna. Vi voglio bene. I will love you forever.
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.
“6th period I have Geometry with Miss McCulloh. I always get done before everyone else in there. She said kiddingly, “I’ll have to give you extra work.” Well, brother, I have had enough of THAT before!”
“I had to stay home from school today because I was sick. What a bummer! I’ll have to miss tennis tomorrow. Shoot! Not much else to say. I watched Graham Kerr [“The Galloping Gourmet” on TV] make poached eggs in wine sauce. Then I got hungry so I went up and had lunch. I had green-pea soup, a salami-ham-cheese sandwich, potato chips, an apple, a Ding-Dong, and a Coke.”
“Today we went to Church in our red plaid Scottish skirts and blouses and berets. The blouses were wool blue and so were our sweaters. Janine and I were scared with our berets.”
I have been lazy of late, dear readers, for no particular reason, and I know that it’s high time I got back on the blogging horse. I’m working on a more dignified piece right now, but in the meantime, just to sate your appetite for my literary pearls, I’ve decided to present to you the official minutes of the Tibby Club of America. And I will reward you with more substantive content in the days to come.
The Bocciardi kids founded two groundbreaking organizations in the 1960s. One of those – The Fishing Club – has already been covered here on Monday Morning Rail. The other was dedicated to my grandmother’s dog. Luckily, in both cases I appointed myself the recorder of the meeting minutes, and the historic proposals and decisions we made as members of these clubs are now saved for posterity.
As a bit of background, my mother’s parents lived in La Crescenta, California, which is in the southern part of the state near Los Angeles. At some point when we were kids, my grandmother acquired a cute little Lhasa Apso puppy whom she named Tibby, presumably because that breed of dog originated in Tibet (and was in fact not introduced to the United States until the 1930s).
Tibby was an adorable but completely spoiled little white bundle of hair. Now that Julie and I have a Lhasa Apso of our own, we’re quite familiar with the breed’s extreme stubbornness, tendency to bark maniacally at perceived dangers (their name in Tibetan means “Bark Lion Sentinel”), mischievous ability to outsmart their owners, and marked distrust of strangers and children, with whom they can be quite snippy.
Luckily, Tibby was a fairly chill little dude. His worst trait came about only because my grandparents fed him “people food,” a practice that was frequently evidenced by Tibby’s walking around with an orange beard after slurping Ragu-drenched spaghetti out of his bowl. (These grandparents weren’t the Italian side, hence the dubious sauce.) However, when the family sat down to dinner, Tibby would expect additional tidbits and would beg and yap ceaselessly in a voice so shrill that it could cause serious tinnitus. He would then be banished to the backyard, where he would continue to yip, all the while pawing and scratching incessantly at the sliding glass door until we went nearly insane.
Otherwise, though, he was very good with children, and he put up with our constant mauling in a manner that was both aloof and patient. We absolutely worshipped him.
When the first meeting of the ambitiously named “Tibby Club of America” was convened at our house in San Jose, I had just turned 12, my brother Marc (obviously the money guy) was 10, and my sister Janine was 7. Occasionally our grandparents drove up to visit from SoCal, bringing Tibby and sometimes the two other people present for the club meetings: our first cousins Carla (12) and Kathy (10), the two daughters of our beloved hippie aunt Jackie who lived just a few blocks from my grandparents.
This is an abridged version of the complete minutes of the Tibby Club. If I were to include the full documents, you’d all be snoring. My comments are bracketed in italics.
TIBBY CLUB OF AMERICA
The meeting came to order at 8:25 p.m., Friday, November 24, 1967. Kathy Gross, Janine, Marc, and Paula Bocciardi attended.
The President, Marc Bocciardi, said that the four slips of paper in front of us may be wrote on about a suggestion [sic] after you call time out.
We all called time out and wrote our suggestions. Then we all called time in after putting our suggestions in the bandage box located behind Paula, the Great.
Marc then proceeded to write down the Tibby motto.
Paula voted that we read the suggestions. Marc took them out and the first one was Janine’s. It said, “My thing is this – we should feed Tibby every day except once in a while.” Everyone voted on it.
The next suggestion was Janine’s. It said, “Do the Tibby sulut [sic] every day.” Everyone almost voted it in. Then Janine got a demerit for talking about how Marc once said, “Dear Grammy and Grumpy.”
Next was Paula’s. It said, “We should have an itiation [sic; initiation] for Kathy and other new members.” Everyone voted for it.
Kathy got a demerit of salivaing [drooling on] her knee. Paula said Kathy should say to Grampy, “Grampy, damn it.” The inititon [sic again!; initiation] was decided to be a tickle torture.
Paula said, “Wall – damn it” after Jan fell and Paula made a loud poop [fart].
Next was Janine’s. It said, “I love Tibby . . . I love Tibby.”
Next was Kathy’s. It said, “I don’t love Tibby.” Kathy almost got a demerit for it.
Next was Marc’s. It said, “I think we should all five of us (Kathy and Carla, Marc, Jan, and Paula) should contribute 10¢ for Tibby’s birthday present and 10¢ for his Christmas present.” We all voted for it.
Then Janine said, “I think that we should play with Tibby more often.” We all voted for it.
Then I read this, and the meeting was adjourned at 9:04 p.m.
The meeting started Saturday, November 25, 1967 at 8:10 a.m. Marc, Paula, Jan Bocciardi and Kathy Gross were present.
Marc, the President, passed out suggestion slips. Everyone called time out and wrote down their suggestions. We all called time in.
Then we decided to collect the 20¢ for Tibby’s presents. Everyone contributed 20¢ except Kathy and Marc. Marc had done it the previous night.
Then Marc read the first suggestions. It was Paula’s and Marc’s and Kathy’s. They said, “We should give Tibby a final salute and have a salute every meeting and a final playing with.” Everyone voted for the first and third, everyone except Paula for the second.
Next was NOBODY. It said NOTHING. [It appears that I had left blank spaces where someone later filled in the “nobody” and “nothing.” The handwriting was clearly my brother’s.]
The meeting adjourned at 8:26 a.m.
The meeting came to order at 7:31 p.m. on Saturday, November 25, 1967. Kathy Gross, Paula, Jan, and Marc attended.
Kathy suggested that we read the promotion. Then Paula said to Kathy, “You stink.” Then it was decided that Kathy and Janine were to be promoted. Kathy was promoted to first class and swore (an oath, that is). Janine was promoted to first class and swore.
We discussed swearing.
Marc suggested we read the suggestions. The first one – Jan read. It was Marc’s. He said that we should have a crown [for Tibby]. Suggestion was overruled.
Then Kathy read Jan’s. It said that we should comb, brush, feed, and give water to Tibby everyday.
Then Marc read Kathy’s. It said that Carla should send up her membership and that we should care for Tibby better. The first part was voted for by everyone.
Paula moved that we should adjourn the meeting and give the Tibby salute. We all voted on it.
The meeting adjourned at 7:55.
Minutes [these are written by my brother]
I had to write the minutes because Paula got mad and threw the orig. ones in the wastebasket.
The meeting came to order at 3:57 p.m. on Thursday, December 21, 1967. Kathy and Carla Gross and Marc, Paula, and Janine Bocciardi were present.
We wrote our suggestions.
The first one read, “Let’s give Carla her Initiation Tickle Torture.” Everyone but Carla voted for it.
The next one said, “let’s have a party.” Everyone voted for it. The next said, “We should give Marc demerits when he needs them.” Everyone voted for it.
The next said, “let’s make a Tibby song.” It was overruled.
The next one said, “we should have interest on dues.” [Guess whose suggestion THAT was?] It was overrruled. The meeting was adjourned at 4:31 p.m.
P.R. – Marc (President)
M.M. – Paula (Minute Man)
1st class Jan – Janine
The meeting came to order at 10:05 a.m. PAT (Paula’s alarm clock time) on Sunday, June 30, 1968. Then Paula read the minutes of the last meeting. After Marc passed out the suggestion slips, we wrote them down and put them in a jacks bag.
The first Marc read’s [sic] was 1st class Jan’s. It said, “We should take turns reading these.” That was voted in. Then Jan read her own, which said that we should sell Tibby badges for 5¢ apiece [and] that she could make some – Marc’s idea. Then she read Marc’s which said the same, but also 5¢ for folders, money to Tibby fund. We voted that in.
Marc read Paula’s, which said we should have a Tibby scroll. Jan read Paula’s, which said she’ll make a Pig crown for Uncle Dave.
Then Paula read Jan’s, which said, “I think every day we should give Tibby rewards because he’s KING. First-class Jan.”
Then Marc read Paula’s, which said not to go too far or Mom or Dad will get mad.
Janine then left to go to the bathroom.
The meeting was adjourned at 10:35 a.m. PAT.
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.
12/13 and 12/14, 1971 [the hard life of a teenager]:
“Mrs. Moore gave me a tutoring assignment today. I was really happy about it until she told me it was in Algebra. Yecch! My worst, most hated, dumbest subject! Yecch! First period P.E. has (glory of all glories) BASKETBALL IN THE GYM. And do you know what I got stuck with? Huh? FENCING!! That’s right! I’m so sore I can’t move.”
“I was very busy today and did not go to church. Dad had a cold, Mom had a stomach pain; yet I could have walked. I should have. Somehow I know that I am a good person, and perhaps those religious standards made me that way. Yet there are all these new voices proclaiming that we do not have to go to Mass. I hate to think that they are right, and that all my Masses and all my Confessions were for nothing!”
“Tonight, I went with Mary Pasek to my first P.A.L. [at the time, sort of like little junior police officers] meeting. We got a thing for our parents to sign saying that if we are killed or seriously injured, the Police Department is not liable. We are binded to risk our lives for policemen. The rigidness of conduct and the very strict inspection scared us into a panic. However, it scared me INTO P.A.L. because I have found that I have a certain desire for very authoritative procedures. We MUST have black shoes and a pen.”
“I watched the Baltimore Bullitts [sic] beat the Atlanta Hawks today, 105-118. Pete Maravich is the only reason I watched. I used to like ‘Pistol Pete’ a couple years ago when he played college ball. I can’t say he’s too much of a shooter, but he sure can handle that ball. I used to think he was cute. YICK!”
“Boy, did we see a tear-jerking movie tonight. The movie was “Brian’s Song” about Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears. Brian died of cancer. I cried the last half hour and 15 minutes AFTER that movie!”
“Today I was notified that I am going to be Editor-in-Chief for the next issue of our [school] paper. SWELL. I had to fork out an editorial today. I also got my senior pictures taken. At first I was really scared, but it didn’t take too long, thank goodness. One thing I am afraid of is Driver’s Training. I’m getting it sometime this quarter. Boy, I am so scared. Thank goodness tomorrow is the last day of this week. Yay, Thanksgiving! Food!”
“What did I do today? I went to Church, finished selling my box of candy bars, vacuumed my room (there were 26,962 pieces of confetti on the rug), wrote thank-you notes, got Mom to let me wear pants once a week, made up a schedule for wearing my clothes, and took a BBGO (Big Bath and General Overhaul).”
February 21, 1992, was going to be a problem for me. The Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France, were in full swing, and I was finding myself riveted by the competition in women’s figure skating. Americans Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding were rivals then (this was two years before one of Harding’s goons would whack Kerrigan on the knee in a failed attempt to end her career). Nancy was the more elegant, graceful skater, in the old tradition, and Tonya was stronger and more athletic, able to land a triple axel. Nancy’s mother, sitting in the stands, was legally blind and the cameras kept cutting to her face, full of love and anticipation, an inch away from a monitor to better see her daughter. So I felt an emotional attachment to the Kerrigans. But Kristi Yamaguchi was also in the mix, as was a sturdy Japanese woman named Midori Ito who, like Harding, could pull off the triple axel.
Anyway, my problem was that I wanted to be able to put in my full workday without hearing anything about the Olympics and then rush home to watch the results of the skating final on television. Because of the time difference between the U.S. and France, the actual event was held in the middle of our day, but the networks, of course, ran their programming in prime time. Remember that in 1992 people did not own cellphones, so there was no chance I’d accidentally see any kind of sports news alert. But in the workplace there was bound to be a colleague who would listen to the results on the radio and then spill the beans. The restroom alone was a veritable hotbed of skating gossip.
I was an editor at the time, and I shared a huge cubicle with my fellow editor Lisa. Lisa and I had asked that the wall separating our adjoining cubicles be taken down so that we could cohabit a much larger area. The person in charge of office space, Carmen, told me that it was the most refreshing request she’d ever had. “Most people ask me to put up as many barriers as possible between them and their co-workers,” she said. “I’ve never had a request like this!” But Lisa and I were great friends. When we petitioned for the cubicle modification we claimed that we needed to be able to discuss the finer points of grammar on a regular basis (“Hey, did you know that the subjunctive is not a tense but a mood?”), but in reality we just wanted to gab freely all the livelong day.
Lisa was as obsessed with the skating competition as I was, and we were fixated on ways in which we could keep our colleagues from spilling the beans. It wasn’t too difficult if I happened to cross paths with someone talking about it in the restroom: I would simply shriek “NO OLYMPICS!” and blaze out the door. But dozens of people visited our “editing zone” every day, whether to drop off a manuscript, throw us a grammar question, or just shoot the breeze.
We sweated and fussed about this issue so much that the people in our typesetting department finally came to us with a solution in hand. They had printed out – and strung together so as to resemble crime scene tape – yellow pieces of paper imprinted with the words “Please! No skating results beyond this point.” And they strung the yellow “tape” across the entrance to our cubicle.
The caution tape became a conversation piece and, of course, drew even more gawkers to our space. But it did the trick. No one dared speak a word about the Olympics. And we didn’t care that we had to limbo under it to leave our cubicle.
Having made it through the day without hearing any results, my last task was merely to get home and ensure that no one called me. I figured I would unplug the phone, turn off the answering machine, and just read a book until the CBS coverage started. It was do-able! So I took off on my beloved red Honda C70 scooter and set out for home. The weather was foggy and in the 50s that day, and it was a cool, grey ride heading west down Geary, through Golden Gate Park, and up 19th Avenue toward my house on 21st Avenue. I remember sitting at the last stoplight on 19th, two blocks from home, dreaming of the sports meal I would soon be eating, when I absently glanced to my right and saw the evening’s San Francisco Examiner, in a newsrack right by the curb, with its bold headline blaring straight at me:
“YAMAGUCHI WINS GOLD!”
Oh, bloody hell!
I hadn’t cared about figure skating for very long. Truth be told, I’d never considered figure skating to be a sport, especially on the women’s side. Until women started adding triple jumps into the mix, I thought figure skating was more like dancing on ice. Contributing to my disdain was the fact that until 1990 the skating competition included an event called the “compulsories,” in which participants were forced to skate various patterns in the ice that generally all looked like figure eights. It was slow, tedious, and – to my mind – ridiculous.
I remember that one day at softball practice my teammate Elena M. and I were standing around on the field, waiting for someone to hit grounders to us. The “what constitutes a sport?” topic came up, and Elena and I riffed on it so long that at some point we fell on the grass choking with laughter. I was, however, mostly serious. I declared that there had to be some element of danger in a sport. The act of figure skating seemed like it barely qualified, although we both acknowledged that flying around on the ice and then falling on your bones could possibly result in injury. But then I brought up the compulsories. I spouted that there was absolutely no risk involved and thus it was not a sport in any way. Elena and I decided that a perilous element would need to be added and that if we were in charge we would modify the competition: sharp spikes would be placed all around the ice so if someone were to waver and trip while doing the compulsories, he or she would be instantly impaled. This solution satisfied us both.
The potential for injury has not been my only criterion, over the years, for defining a sport. I feel that there needs to be strenuous movement and exertion involved. My friend Julie Riffle agrees and adds that if you can drink and/or smoke while playing something at the competitive level, it is not a sport. Long ago I ruled out golf as a sport (and decreed it to be a game instead) because generally one does not break a sweat while playing – unless it’s nervous perspiration triggered by the knowledge that your bungled chip shot just cost you a $3 million prize.
So consider the luge – one of the mainstays of the Winter Olympics. I must admit that up until this writing I’d assumed that the worst that could happen during a luge event was a bruised tailbone. However, my research today revealed that two lugers have actually died in practice runs leading up to the Olympics. Okay, so there is an element of danger involved. Still, the gist of the sport is that you lie down on a sled and go careening down a slope. On many occasions I have suggested to Julie R. that she become a luger because, as I still insist, anyone can do it. She’s in good shape, she’s smart, and she’s not a scaredy-cat, so in my view she has the DNA to be a champion luger. And except for the few seconds at the beginning of the run, when the luger flaps his or her hands four times on the ice to get going, the event requires no physical exertion whatsoever. I maintain, therefore, that luging is a skill, not a sport.
Even more absurd is the four-man bobsled. It’s almost the same idea as the luge, but it’s slower, and in this event two members of the team do nothing except push the bobsled for a few feet and then jump into it, put their heads down, and pray! I COULD DO THAT!
If we deemed any skill – however difficult – to be a sport, then knitting, parallel parking, and pulling out splinters would be considered sports. Case closed. Mic drop.
Coincidentally, the other day I was digging through my online “memorabilia” when I found this letter that Julie R. and I had penned to the San Francisco Chronicle editors. Neither she nor I remembers the letter now, but I will publish it here in its entirety:
August 2, 1996
Sporting Green Editor:
We were greatly amused to see the story in Friday’s Chronicle about the poor guy who accidentally had explosives lodge in his nose and who underwent delicate underwater surgery to have them removed.
But it occurred to us that this story ties in with our current disgust over the many non-sports in the Olympic Games: among others, synchronized swimming, skeet shooting, and the laughable rhythmic gymnastics. Since we believe that a “sport” should at least involve sweating and/or risk-taking, we think that rhythmic gymnasts should be required to compete with explosives up their nose.
Paula Bocciardi Julie Riffle
The letter was not selected for publication. Quelle surprise!
Of course, even if we were to agree about what constitutes a sport, there is still the matter of whether a particular event belongs in the Olympics. Basketball and baseball are sports, in my view, but I don’t think they should be Olympic events. In general I’m not keen about any team sports in the Olympics, except for relay events, which depend on each runner or swimmer to maximize his or her time. With baseball and basketball, one team member could do absolutely nothing and still come home with a medal. When teams merely play against each other, the win or loss is dependent as much upon the other team as it is upon one’s own, so a medal doesn’t necessarily reflect an individual’s ability at all.
And then there are the events I find just plain ludicrous, like rhythmic gymnastics, curling, ping-pong, and anything involving horses, in which case the horses should get the medals, not the riders.
For a long time I was such a purist about the Olympics that I thought only individual sports involving the body exclusively – without any accoutrement, tool, or accessory – should be allowed. I figured the Olympics should be about pure athletic ability (running, jumping, swimming, throwing), and I didn’t think any event should be dependent upon the manufacturer of a ski, a sled, or a skate. But I came to realize that if you eliminated accoutrements from the Winter Games, you would be left with no events at all. After all, it’s not as if you can run or swim on ice. “That’s fine,” I thought, “then we should do away with the Winter Olympics altogether, because there was no such thing when the Olympics were invented.” Well, true, but the original, oh-so-sacred Olympics that took place in Greece hundreds of years B.C. involved naked men running, jumping, and throwing (aha! I knew it!) but also wrestling (the contestants were covered in oil) and chariot racing. Oops. I have to concede that a chariot is an accoutrement.
And I suppose it might be fun if all the contestants today had to be naked – especially the greased-up wrestlers – but then again, if that were the case the sumo wrestling competition might not entice many spectators.
As the years have gone by, and I’m finding myself less and less opinionated, I’ve softened my beliefs about sports and about the Olympics. Life is so much more enjoyable when one is open-minded, and I can now enjoy events like short-track speedskating and the gloriously exciting snowboard cross.
But do you know what I most anticipate watching? It happens only once every four years, people!
I am pleased to point out that the biathlon does fit the Paula Bocciardi definition of “sport” – at least in part. Although it includes a skill (shooting a gun), it also includes a sport (skiing). And although it does involve an accoutrement (a gun), it also involves sweating.
The essence of the biathlon (there are many permutations) is that the athletes are required to perform grueling cross-country ski sprints intermixed with swooshing to a dead stop, grabbing seven-pound rifles off their backs, somehow tamping down their racing hearts, and shooting at precision targets 160 feet away, from both prone and standing positions. And the killer is that if they don’t hit five targets, they are penalized by having extra time added to their total or having to ski a penalty loop for each target they miss! I mean, it’s both physical and mental torture! Nirvana to watch!
This week marks the time of year when my sports-related depression starts to hit. The football season just ended (in a glorious fashion, I might add), and baseball players haven’t yet set foot on the grass. I call the next couple of months the “sports drought.” But every four years the pain is nullified by the Winter Games, and to my delight the Opening Ceremonies for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea will take place this Friday, February 9.
I can give myself permission to sit on the couch and eat sports meals (hot dogs, popcorn, and beer) for more than two weeks straight. I will shed my usual buckets of tears for each poignant story about the athletes’ heartbreaks and triumphs. And I will enjoy every single event and every single individual accomplishment – whether in victory or in defeat – as I remind myself that these athletes from all over the world have dedicated their lives to being the best that they can be, and they have all conjured up heroic levels of hard work, persistence, and mental toughness that I could never imagine in myself.
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.
“Mr. Healy was very sad today because of our class’s remarks about how boring it all was. Why does he listen to them? Anyway, he asked us to put down our goals. Mine were 1) To uphold justice 2) To become coordinated 3) To be sensible and not be so absent-minded, and 4) To not be alone.”
“I’ve been pretty dumb this past week. All week long I worried about the Faculty-GAA tennis tournament. I figured that since Mr. B is so good, I’d make every single one of our mistakes. Well, Mary Pasek and Jeanne came down to watch and I was really scared because I thought I’d show them how lousy I was. But they must have given me [divine] guidance because I hardly flubbed at all. We then went out to the Circle Star [Theater] to see Glen Campbell. Wow, what a thrill! It was neat when I saw him run down the aisle right by us. Seeing such a god in person is too much. I’ll never forget it!”
“Boy, so far I have a “B” in English. On our last test, EVERY SINGLE person around me cheated. [The teacher] gave it orally, and they all just discussed. If I heard them say the right answer, but I hadn’t known the answer before, I didn’t put it down. THAT is will power. So as it was, I got an 80 and they got 90. I’m beginning to wonder — should I cheat, too?”
“Last night [our family] went to a movie ‘Billy Jack,’ rated R. But we had called up and they had told us it was rated GP. So we decided to try it. It wasn’t too bad, no nudity or anything, but it sort of condoned unwed pregnancy for [my 10-year-old sister] Jan. So we came out and Dad said he’d call ‘Action Line’ and all. [My brother] Marc and I were figuring how embarrassing it would be.”
“Dad suggested tonight that I drive to Payless part-way. I never expected to go that far and I was nervous, but really nervous with Dad making sarcastic comments. I almost hit the Penitencia bridge. Perhaps I had better wait until Driver’s Training. Mom just sat there and died a thousand deaths.”
“Another boring day. I even offered to scrub off the popcorn popper and Mom refused. And that’s hard work! We were going to go to Confession, but then we decided to go to a movie instead.”
Every few months, San Franciscans seem to pounce upon some new kind of culinary fad that much of the rest of the world has known about for years. In this city, though, we like to market the “new” food or drink to an upscale crowd and imply that it is appreciated only by the discriminating connoisseur.
For awhile we had a polenta craze. Polenta is basically cornmeal that, over the last few centuries, has been eaten as a staple by poor and working-class Italians because it was cheap and filling. We ate it all the time as kids, boiled one day and fried as leftovers the next. However, restaurants over here can throw some truffles on it to fancy it up and then charge an arm and a leg for a dollop of the stuff because it’s “artisanal.” Right now it seems that cauliflower and pork bellies also are beginning to dominate the more lavish menus.
Along these dubious lines, a couple of weeks ago the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article highlighting the recent popularity of bitter liqueurs called amari. (Amaro, the singular, means “bitter” in Italian.) The article said that 70 percent of the amari in the United States are consumed in San Francisco. Entire bars are now devoted to amari, some of them even offering “amaro flights.”
The cool, glamorous amaro liqueur that everyone in the “bitters cult” orders is called Fernet. I tried it a few years ago, and I would say that you, too, will love it if you enjoy the memorable taste of chewed-up aspirin.
Needless to say, I hate Fernet. And for the most part I have not been able to figure out what all the fuss is about. I have had no amore for amaro.
However, not long ago Julie and I were dining at Poesia (pronounced “Poh-eh-ZEE-ah,” Italian for “poetry”), our favorite Italian restaurant in San Francisco. Mistrustful of most recommendations, a number of years ago I had asked an off-the-boat Italian teacher from Bergamo to tell me which SF Italian restaurant she found to be the most delicious and authentic. She suggested Poesia and I’ve found her advice to be right-on. It’s not in North Beach – the ever-changing once-Italian neighborhood – but it sits on 18th Street, in an old Victorian home in the Castro. Classic black-and-white Italian movies are projected silently on one of the walls. The food is consistently delicious, and the owner and some of the servers are bona fide Italians.
Anyway, the cocktail menu that day included a drink called Vecchio Amaro del Capo, which means Old Amaro from Capo, a town in the Italian region of Calabria. I had never heard of it, but the ever-adventurous Julie ordered it as her dessert.
We each had a sip, and our lives changed instantly.
Vecchio Amaro del Capo is an aromatic, amber-hued mix of 29 herbs, spices, fruits, and flowers in a secret blend that tastes like orange, cinnamon, cloves, caramel, ginger, sarsaparilla, and a hint of licorice. It is both bitter and sweet. It is spicy, piquant, peppery, and complex. It smells like cedar. It jazzes up your taste buds. Essentially, it’s Christmas in a Glass.
At 70 proof, the drink is strong, so like all luxurious beverages, it’s best sipped in small amounts. Because it carries a moderate measure of bitterness, the people of Calabria (according to the waitress) like to cut its potency with a few squeezes of fresh orange and serve it on the rocks with a slice of orange dropped in for a celebratory garnish. That’s how it came to our table that fateful night. But it can also be savored straight. The important thing is that it must be poured frosty cold, right out of the freezer.
Take time with it. Cherish it.
A few years ago, I was talking to a cherubic nursing home resident who told me that he envisioned heaven as being a place where he would float in the air above a beautiful meadow, holding a cocktail in each hand. I smiled at that image. My cocktail of choice would be Vecchio Amaro del Capo.
I believe in heaven. My Catholic school stint undoubtedly cemented that belief, but my convictions had settled firmly into place in my heart years before I first set foot at St. Victor’s Elementary.
It wasn’t until my parents passed away that I earnestly petitioned for some kind of confirmation of the afterlife. My father went first, in 2009. He had suffered with Alzheimer’s disease for about 15 years – an eternity. Mom cared for him at home for 14 of those years, as he slowly lost his mind. For a good while he knew it, too; I remember clearly the time he asked me, pleadingly, “Will I ever get better?” I lied to him, as you have to do with Alzheimer’s patients. “Oh, you’ll definitely get better soon, Dad,” I reassured him. Then I ran into another room and bawled. In his last year, when he moved into the anger stage, he had to be placed in a dementia facility. Neutered by anti-psychotic drugs, he lived there until his organs shut down many months later. He didn’t know me at the end, and Mom didn’t think he knew her, either, but I swear that the last thing he did before he died was stare piercingly at her face, as if he wanted to silently declare to her his love and recognition.
I drove Mom back to her house in the hours after Dad died, and when we got there we agreed that we needed to have a glass of wine. I took a bottle of sauvignon blanc out of the refrigerator and set it on the kitchen counter. Then I went out in the garage and, out loud, asked Dad if there were any possibility that he could show me a sign that he was finally free and happy. (With the firm caveat that the sign NOT be scary!) Hand to God, just as I came inside and walked back into the kitchen, the cork loudly popped off the bottle – all by itself.
Two years ago my mother died. It was very different. She and I e-mailed each other nearly every day, although we’d skip a day every once in a while when she had a doctor’s appointment or when she was otherwise occupied at the local casino. She had completely beaten bladder cancer a couple of years earlier, so there were no immediate health issues to alarm me. It didn’t concern me, then, when a day or two went by and she didn’t return my e-mail or answer my phone call. But on the morning of the third day an unexpected chill went through me, and I called her friend and neighbor Linda, who said that Mom hadn’t shown up for a planned outing with her that morning. Certain of the outcome, I asked Linda to go check on Mom, whom she found lifeless on the dining room floor. Mom had smoked heavily since the age of 19, and although we don’t know for sure, we believe that she died suddenly of either a heart attack or a stroke. It was how she would have wanted to go, and she had prepared all of us in every way possible, both logistically and emotionally. She had let all of her wishes be known and had purchased a plot next to my father. And she had shown me great faith and strength by example. I will always be grateful for the life I had with her and the tools she left me with.
A few days later, a slightly freakish natural event occurred outside my bedroom window. A huge bird – I have no idea what it could have been – whizzed so low and loudly past the window that I was dumbstruck. It was like a shooting star in bird form. Even though nothing like that had ever happened before (or since), I didn’t ascribe any special meaning to it. But that afternoon my sister called from Washington and mentioned that a huge bird had whizzed low and loudly past her window, startling her. I asked her when that had happened, and it turned out that both birds had hurtled past our windows at the same time.
Still not completely convinced that there was anything more to that potential coincidence, I decided to ask Mom to show me a “sign” as I had asked Dad to do so. I was about to start ironing at the time (yes, I still iron!), and I turned on the television as I always do. And there was Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers. No particular significance there, I thought. But then he started singing to her: “Heaven, I’m in heaven . . . .”
Now, I’m no fool. All of these events easily could be explained by science or sheer coincidence or the mathematics of odds or my wishful thinking. The bottle of white wine had a plastic cork that probably – because of expansion, contraction, condensation, or some other physical principle I don’t understand – was destined to loosen itself from that bottle anyway. The astoundingly dramatic low-flying birds were happenstance. Fred Astaire crooning those “Cheek to Cheek” lyrics about heaven? Sheer coincidence.
And I also know that many of us need to believe in the afterlife because the idea of it comforts us and allows us to make some sense out of mortality. The notion of our nonexistence is just too difficult to bear.
But it’s the timing of the cork, the birds, and the song that has stayed with me.
When I asked Dad for a sign, he did the very thing that Gerald Bocciardi, if alive, would have done. It was clever. It was passionately Italian. It was brilliantly symbolic. I believe he was saying to me, “I am finally free. Don’t grieve for me, my daughter. Raise a toast to my liberation!”
Mom loved Dad, fiercely, until the day she died. He was her absolute one and only. I believe that, during the last couple of years of her life, she secretly hoped to be with him sooner rather than later. Perhaps she sent the two birds as symbols that their love had once again taken wing.
As for the Fred Astaire moment, well, the lyrics are obvious. Mom was telling me to stop my doubting.
I have friends and family members with all manner of religious affiliations, or lack thereof. I carry absolutely no judgment of other religions, or of atheism or agnosticism. I consider spirituality to be a private matter. (Until, that is, I decide to discuss mine in a public blog, for reasons I frankly can’t explain.)
More importantly, though, I strongly maintain that our values and beliefs, whether religious or secular, have to be accompanied by humility.
On the one hand, I don’t want to be bludgeoned by fanatics of any stripe. Do not wield your religion as a cudgel. Your God might not resemble my God; your scriptural interpretations might not resemble mine; your imagined heaven might not resemble my own. Please don’t tell me that you know what does or doesn’t happen after our time on earth because you don’t know. No one does. It is arrogant of you to fancy yourself to be in possession of the secrets to the universe.
On the other hand, please don’t dismiss me as ignorant, or as a naïve, polyannish idiot, because I subscribe to Christianity. I’m strongly disappointed by the arrogance of judgmental nonbelievers who seem to feel that science disproves the existence of God and have no problem telling me so. In my view, science and religion can easily co-exist because science is about knowledge based on proof while religion is about faith in something that by its nature cannot be proved. Faith requires humility because it involves a belief in something that we, as coarse and limited human beings, cannot even begin to imagine.
I’ve had people explain to me that it is the amount of cruelty and suffering in the world that prevents them from embracing the idea of a loving God. But for me, it is the very unfairness and inequity governing our lives that supports my belief in something beyond our mortal coil. In my mind there has to be the prospect of an ultimately level playing field and universal happiness for everyone. Otherwise, our disparate life experiences would be so unfair as to be beyond all reason and purpose. Why should I have been as privileged as I have been?
And by the way, science actually bolsters my belief in God. As my family members can groaningly attest, I have been yapping for decades about how my college Entomology class not only was absolutely scintillating but also provided me with proof about a much higher power. I won’t go into details about the physiology of every kind of bug, but there are up to 30 million species of insects in the world. Not individual insects, but species! And each type of insect has complex and flawless physiological, nutritional, and reproductive patterns and systems that would blow you away. Did all those millions of species just spontaneously emerge from the primordial muck, or did they all, as I believe, evolve in a beautiful piece of divinely guided choreography?
Whatever your own beliefs may be, I am thinking about you, my friends and family, this holiday season. I am inhaling deeply the frosty air, the mulled spices, the food, the drink, the music, the love and friendship. I am reflecting on the choreography of our lives, and I am grateful for our differences.
You know, Dad loved to dance, but Mom was shy and would typically demur. I choose to believe that somewhere they are dancing together now, gliding effortlessly along a meadow – each holding a golden goblet of Vecchio Amaro del Capo.
It is, after all, Paradise in a Glass.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone.
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.
“Today we went up to Mrs. Moore’s and Miss Azama’s cabin in the Sierras. They have a lot of records, including one by the Four Tops which has ‘Reach Out – I’ll Be There’ on it, a fantastic song which I almost never hear. Mom said maybe I could take it home and record it. [They also have] a color T.V. and a stereo set with radio, record player, and 8-track tape player. Also it has headphones. Wow, what class!”
“Mrs. Dossa [our neighbor] asked Jan [my sister] and me to go to S.F. with her and her sister. What a day! I got up at 7:00 so I could go to San Francisco at 9:00. The bath alone took an hour. It was tiring. I don’t have the money to shop around, and I don’t really like it. We went to Union Street. Big deal! She made us pay for our own lunch and made her sister pay, too. Jan and I had a sandwich and a Coke, $1.67 and .50 apiece respectively. I would much rather have gone to the Wharf. There they have shops, plus you can take a Bay Cruise, walk along the dock and smell crab and stuff and eat Fish ‘n’ Chips.”
7/22/71: (Ed.’s note: this was a full 18 years before I first picked up a drumstick)
“Sue Lajon came by at about 2:00 today to talk. It’s good to talk to her because she laughs at just about anything. Rudy has arranged for Bruce Tambling to give me free drum lessons. I think it might be neat to have the beat.”
“Today (Sunday) the rest of the family went fishing. Until 1:00 I watched T.V., took Baron [our dog] out, read, and listened to the radio. Before the Gallos came I had an entire package of graham crackers, root beer, and two buttered corn tortillas. They picked me up and took me to a little carnival they had and I ate an entire package of licorice, a hot dog, and a Coke. We stopped back at Gallos for a few minutes, and I called Mrs. Rosales [our neighbor] to ask her to PLEASE lock our downstairs door and close the garage because they’d kill me if they came home to find I’d forgotten. Then we went back to the carnival and we played basketball with these guys. Then I ate an ice cream bar and a mess of sunflower seeds. At 7:00 the Gallos took me home, and on the way we stopped at MacDonald’s and I had a Big Mac, Root Beer, and some candy. Nourishing, huh? Oh, by the way, I won a goldfish.”
“I used to like to believe that the first time somebody asked me to go steady would be very romantic, and I would be very shy. But it wasn’t like that. Rudy asked me tonight while we were playing ‘capture the flag’ in the orchard. I guess it didn’t really count.”
In 1971, when I was 15, the allowance allotted to me by my parents was a meager $5 – PER MONTH! Under that kind of economic pressure I finally came to the conclusion that I should pitch a $3 increase, and I wrote them a letter in my best teenage legalese and accounting-speak. On a light note this week, I am reproducing the letter here, verbatim. Maybe Congress can use it as a model in the forthcoming budget negotiations.
From the desk of Miss Paula Rae Bocciardi on this day, July 1, in the year A.D. 1971 to Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Raymond Bocciardi:
A request for a raise in allowance to increase my previous income of $5 monthly. The underlying are reasons why $5 is too small a sum.
Presents – counting up all gifts, we have Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Marc’s birthday, Janine’s birthday, Beverly’s birthday, Gerald’s birthday, Colleen’s birthday, Beverly’s Christmas present, Gerald’s Christmas present, Marc’s Christmas present, Jan’s Christmas present, Carla’s Christmas present, Kathy’s Christmas present (this year), Colleen’s Christmas present, Mary Blasi’s Christmas present, and let’s assume 1 assorted birthday party, even though there were 2 last year. These total 18. Assuming $3 are spent on each on an average, a sum of $48 is spent per annum, or $4 per month. This leaves only $1 per month.
Food – rather than spend $.10 a day for hot bread, I suffer at “B” period [break]. But a $.10 root beer at lunch is absolutely necessary, since its absence will cause withdrawal symptoms known only to root beer addicts, such as falling asleep 5th period, a certain listlessness in 6th period, and a tendency to get hit in the eye with the ball in P.E. Also I develop kleptomaniac symptoms in G.A.A. [Girls Athletic Association]. Now, assuming that I get a root beer only 120 school days, the total is $12.00, or $1 per month, leaving me totally broke. Bankrupt. Caput.
Slurpees – after hot hours of tennis I can take one of two alternatives: a) buy a Slurpee, or b) watch everyone else gurgle and slurp theirs and die of 1) jealousy, and 2) extreme thirst and dehydration. Obviously, step a) is the only possible choice. Considering 24 days of tennis, Slurpee cost would be $4.80, or $.40 monthly, leaving me $.40 in the hole.
Other costs – necessities such as $.50 for G.A.A., money for gifts, and G.A.A. parties in which I seem to be the only one to chip. School presents many new and fascination [sic] expenses every week. So far, $2.00 in the hole.
“Luxuries” – things which I don’t have to get, but should. Film and developing are quite costly. Occasionally I get invited somewhere and must buy something to keep myself from starving. $3.00 in the hole.
Entertainment – since I have the unique ability to attract only little boys and wierdos [sic], and lack for dates and/or good* (*clean) fun with the opposite sex, and don’t enjoy or believe in turning on, and don’t drive, I turn to music. Once a half-year I might like a record. A far-fetched thought, I know. I haven’t gotten one in months and months, unless counted is the $1.97 1932 Glen Campbell record I got where he sounds 12 at the most and howls as he sings “Those Lonesome Lonely Jailhouse Bluuuues.” YECCH!
Other income – none. The Gallos have no work to offer. Since I am only 15 I cannot get a decent job. I can’t babysit. I’d destroy the babies.
Bank – I should think ahead. The $130 I have saved for 10 years won’t go too far in college. Birthday money should go to the bank, but is always needed to put me out of the hole.
All in all, we can conclude that a raise is desperately needed. I have been proven to be very resourceful in times of crisis and butt operations. [Ed.’s note: I believe this referred to a procedure my father had done at the hospital. We’ll leave it at that.] I was uncomplaining. I have helped more and thoroughly destroyed the house, but that is unimportant. I have a $1 raise already, but now that the causes are understood, perhaps sometime in the near future the remaining $2 in the hole monthly will be considered.
Thank you and sincerely yours, Miss Paula Rae Bocciardi
My parents caved. I got the full $3 raise.
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.
“Softball was wierd [sic] today. Mom and Dad came for the first time and watched the other team get 10 runs in the first inning. We made about 15 errors (me not included). But after that we held them scoreless. I got a home run. Soon we had only 10 minutes left and we were up. The score was 10-8. All we needed was 3 runs. All of a sudden it was 13-10. What a comeback, man! Right on!”
“We went to Coyote [Reservoir] to fish and have a little picnic. We caught about 76 crappie – the best we’ve ever done, not counting Clear Lake. They are small, but plentiful. It would have been perfect except as usual my hay fever started acting up around lunchtime. Hay fever is one thing I simply cannot stand. I don’t mind all the work I’ve had done on my teeth, or my operations, or even having to wear glasses. But hay fever is terrible. I sure wish we could have shots for it. But for some reason good ole Doc Williams won’t give us the shots. Let me tell you, I’d suffer any amount of pain. And I had taken a [Ornade prescription antihistamine] pill in the morning! Those babies are strong, too, boy.”
“Marc [my brother], Ted, and I have a dirty book storehouse in Rudy’s poolroom. We’ve only got two books, but they’ve got loads of Playboys to read. I’ve read one of the books so far. It was called ‘Retribution.’ Some name, huh?”
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 came to mind recently that although I’ve filled many drawers and shelves with diaries, journals, notes, correspondence, and more than a few published articles, I never seemed to be very prolific as a poet. In fact, after much searching for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been able to unearth only the following six works, all written in my childhood. And now I know why no one encouraged me to pursue the poetic arts any further.
This first gem is actually one of three songs I wrote as a youngster, all of which have specific melodies. Because I’m unable to reproduce the tunes here, I thought I’d figure out their closest approximation. After all, they must have sounded like some nursery rhyme or popular children’s song at the time, correct? But I gave up after spending a couple of hours online, listening to at least 50 classic children’s songs. None sounded familiar.
Believe it or not, I then tried singing the songs (sans lyrics) into the Shazam app, hoping that somehow the melodies would be recognizable. Uh, no.
Finally I did what I often do in these situations – I called my sister Janine. But she could not pinpoint my musical influences, either. These must have been original melodies I came up with! I was obviously a genius!
As for this first song and its lyrics, neither Janine nor I could imagine how I came up with the idea of three men in a bottle. Our best guess is that I was influenced by the literature I was reading at the time: “Run-a-Dub Dub, Three Men in a Tub.” Which makes a lot more sense than three men squeezing into a bottle – full of whisky, no less. My father used to drink whisky “highballs,” a classic cocktail, so maybe that’s what was on my mind.
Anyway, here’s the song, any mistakes included.
THE THREE MEN (age 8)
[a nursery rhyme with a lilting melody]
Three men went out in a bottle to sea
And it was full of the drink wiskey,
But when they got there they all drowned
I think the bottle has not been found
So please, unless you’re less than 1 pound
Don’t try to sail, unless what you’re in is round.
I tried songwriting again the following year, and I’ve wrestled with whether I should publish it, because it deals with my brother Marc accidentally walking in on my sister when she was taking a shower. It seems a little odd that I would write about this incident, but I did.
JANINE TOOK A SHOWER THIS MORNING (age 9)
[belt this one out with gusto]
Janine took a shower this morning.
She got water all over the floor,
She got soap all over the soapdish,
And she forgot to close the door!
Marc walked into the shower
And he saw her standing there.
He looked at her in amazement
’Cause he’d never seen her bare!
My final tune is a bit of a cross between a folk song and a wartime march.
We had just moved into our new house in East San Jose, and at the end of our street stood an orchard followed by rolling hills. I couldn’t stop wondering what lay beyond those hills (answer: more hills). This became an obsession, so I composed a song about it.
My sister nailed my style and influences when she reminded me that when I wrote the song I was squarely in the middle of my “New Christy Minstrels period.” I was quite enamored with large groups of folk singers.
And I will add that my appending the “boys” to the end of each line is reminiscent of those World War I and II songs about soldiers leaving for, or coming back from, battle.
Obviously I liked mixing my styles, so I will call this song a “pastiche.”
WHAT’S ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HILL, BOYS? (age 10)
[sing this song in a rousing manner]
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
Do you know?
We will go,
And we’ll see,
You and me.
Yes, we will
Climb that hill
And we’ll look dowwwwwwn.
Will it be a town, will it be the sea, will it be the woods, what will it be, what will it be?
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
What’s on the other side of the hill, boys?
What’s on the other side of the hill?
Although I was done writing songs, I did continue to churn out a few poems. This one was a Catholic school assignment. I was already in the seventh grade, so the real travesty was that I still had to go to bed at 9:00!!
UNTITLED (age 11)
Over and over my dad has said,
“Paula, it is time for bed!”
How I dread the hour of nine
When I begin to beg and whine,
“But Dad, please, just a little more?”
And that’s when he gets really sore.
So I, not making one more peep,
Go up to bed, and fall asleep.
I wrote this poem on the eve of my starting “Driver’s Training,” which in those days was a short high school course that involved hands-on experience behind the wheel. My course was taught by football coach Ron “No Neck” Locicero. He took us up in the East San Jose foothills and was actually very kind, even though he was forced to use his extra set of brakes liberally when I was behind the wheel.
The poem was published in the January 14, 1972, edition of our high school newspaper The Legend. Of course, it wasn’t difficult to get my own works into print, since I was the editor of said paper.
FUTURE DRIVER’S LAMENT (age 16)
O Horror of Horrors! I grieve in sorrow;
I wish I never could see tomorrow,
For when 3:30 comes I start Driver’s Training.
What if it’s windy? What if it’s raining?
What if I make a jillion mistakes
And he always has to slam on the brakes?
Everyone knows I’m the world’s biggest clutz –
The whole Driver’s Training Department is nuts!
They decided to risk it and hand me the wheel.
It seems they don’t value their automobile.
What if I step on the pedal too hard
And we end up in somebody else’s backyard?
I’m so absent-minded I just may forget
That I’m driving a car, and I’ll daydream, I bet!
I’m no big speed demon, the world will soon see.
Ten miles an hour is the limit for me.
Oh, no, I don’t panic, just go in a coma.
They may have to revive me with some strong aroma.
I don’t want to look like a stupid old fool
Nor be laughing-stock every day I’m at school.
They said, “Don’t be scared, Paula, you’ll do all right.”
But I have to drive at 5:30 at night!
The world will be dark. Is it like being blind?
What if I hit some poor guy from behind?
“It’s only 9 days – they go pretty fast.”
Oh sure, but I do hope my teacher can last.
My friends have no mercy. This whole bit they’ve seen.
Don’t they know what it’s like to be only sixteen?
“What about college? You won’t want to hike!”
You’re right, but I’d rather stick with my bike.
I guess I’ll live through it. I just hope I don’t kill
Some innocent soul. I keep thinking I will.
Yikes! Here comes the teacher! My heart beats no more.
Oh, what did I ever get into this for?
There’s just one thing to do. I look at the sky
And plead with Him, “God, oh, I’m too young to die!”
I didn’t even remember the following poem until my sister – who actually recalled most of the first stanza! – pointed out that she had once tried to set it to music. An accomplished banjo and guitar player by the time she was 12, she apparently wrote a melody for this poem “using a lot of minor chords.” Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the tune, but she claims that it was truly terrible, which I strongly doubt.
As for my influences at the time, I would have to say that they were a mixture of William Shakespeare, John Dunne, and whoever wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
UNTITLED (age 17)
This cool, tranquil, weightless night
A star begins to die
In quiet, pulsing, choking gasps.
And I must say goodbye.
In young, confused and awkward grief
I watch the lonely light
The sky gives up its ghost; the star
Plunges out of sight.
If time would just dissolve this knot
I’ve never overcome –
But I, in muted silence, stand
Embarrassed, frightened, dumb.
O God! If man is so supreme
Then why am I so weak
That those whom I adore the most
Have yet to hear me speak?
I cannot catch my tortured breath
Or cool my heated head;
I cannot purge my heavy heart
Of all I’ve left unsaid.
I love you, friend, though through it all
I gave you not a sign.
If all you saw were pleading eyes
’Twas not your fault, but mine.
Could this be any more overwrought?? Then again, I guess that’s what being 17 is all about, isn’t it? ℘
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.
“Monday night I had my first driving lesson [with my parents]. I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself, with my uncoordination and absentmindedness and stuff. I get so nervous. So we took the truck. I was scared to death. I jerked on the brakes a little. It’s hard to know how far down to push them or the accelerator. And sometimes I forgot to change the gear shift. I think I got up to about 9 M.P.H. but was scared. I thought about 4 M.P.H. was a safe speed.”
Finally, as a reminder, our band, “Hotter Than Helga,” will be playing in Fairfax at 19 Broadway on Thursday night, September 14. (I play drums.) If you like alt/country/rock/Americana music, come out and have a listen!!
I’m calling this my “By Popular Demand” post because I’ve gotten repeated requests for a few specific items. First, people who read my last blog are wondering about the brushes with the law that I mentioned briefly. Second, friends who are not on Facebook are asking me to repeat my weekly diary entries so that they can see them as well. Finally, the non-Facebook people also continually ask me when my band will be playing. So I’ll cover all three requests in this week’s post.
My first scrape involving law enforcement involved, as usual, my friend Jeanne who had wire-rimmed glasses and the intense disapproval of my parents. (I’m beginning to see why!) I was visiting Jeanne in August 1975 and we’d just come back to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, after a trip up to Maine to meet her new husband Steve’s family (see “Return to Triangle Acres”).
For whatever idiotic notion, we decided to head over to a nearby private beach on Steve’s decrepit motorcycle. And this was, according to my diary, after I’d already donned my nightgown and “put on my curlers and retainers.” So I threw off the curlers and retainers, we grabbed a bottle of rum (never a good idea) and packed a knapsack, and we took off. Along the way we purchased some Cokes and napkins, and my diary says that “we had to use the napkins to sop up some of the gas which kept spilling out of the tank.” Again, never a good thing.
Leaving the motorcycle up off the road, we walked down to the beach in the balmy moonlight. The white sandy dunes were, of course, beautiful, and we proceeded to alternately drink rum and Cokes and then take plunges into the warm Atlantic waters (we had bathing suits on under our regular clothes). Once again, not a good idea. Luckily, neither of us drowned, and we spent hours making ill-informed forays into philosophy, all the while slamming down liquor as if there were no tomorrow.
Eventually we passed out on the beach, and a few hours later we awoke, shivering, both of us heavily encrusted with wet sand. It was time to go home, we thought, and off we trundled towards the poor excuse of a motorcycle that was waiting for us. A hideous idea. Anyway, as we approached we saw, squinting through drunken eyelids, that the bike was surrounded by police cars and a group of clean-cut men, many of whom were in uniform. Someone asked Jeanne for her license and registration, which she cheerfully handed over, but we knew that the bike itself was an illegal mess. It had no brake light, no license plate, and lots of duct tape everywhere. Oy. One of the local police officers said that the infractions amounted to a $66 ticket and he began to write it up.
Another of the officers – with a rather rough bedside manner – asked me for my license, but I wasn’t carrying one and explained to him that, since I wasn’t driving, I didn’t have it with me. “Well, show it to me anyway!” he barked nonsensically.
Then for some reason the police cars both drove off and we were never issued the ticket.
Still, a group of men remained, and one of them – not in any kind of uniform – sort of took us under his wing as we stood there perplexed, still reeking, I’m sure, of spirits. He explained that the local officers could not ticket or arrest us because we and the motorcycle were on private property. But he pointed out that they were parked just across the beach line on the public road and would surely nab us, if we dared to start the bike and venture home, for not only the vehicle infractions but also for trespassing, sleeping on a beach, and of course driving while intoxicated.
Then he asked us if we were “holding.” I had no idea what that meant. But Jeanne said yes, she had a lid (an ounce of marijuana, for any of you under 55). This was news to me.
Then the man pulled out his badge and flashlight and identified himself as a state SLED (South Carolina Law Enforcement Division) officer.
I just about died.
As luck would have it, though, he had much, much bigger fish to fry. He explained that we had actually stumbled into the middle of an enormous statewide drug stakeout whose mission was to break up a network of heroin dealers. To prove it, he shined his flashlight up into the hills surrounding the beach, and about 50 flashlights blinked back.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, sympathetically. “Let me take you up into the trailer park across the road, and you can sleep off your intoxication in the lounge chairs by the side of the pool. By the time you sober up, those cops will be gone. They’re not going to sit there all night waiting to nab you.” I could tell that there was some tension between the city and state officers, and he was happy to thwart the efforts of what he thought were clumsy local goons. I myself was happy to take advantage of that, so I thanked him until the cows came home.
Jeanne and I climbed into his Volkswagen – really, another stupid move because he could have been an axe murderer – and sure enough he took us to the trailer park and helped us find lounge chairs. And he watched over us all night.
At sunrise he woke us up and told us we had to get moving because the residents were starting to rise. So we dragged our sand-encrusted carcasses to the bike, started it up, and got home safely.
Then, of course, we went out to breakfast and, according to my diary, “had a beer to settle our stomachs.”
Youth: Reckless, dumb, and lucky.
On Friday, November 22, 1985, I had just turned 30 a few days earlier and was driving over to my friend Ellen’s house on 21st Avenue in San Francisco’s Richmond District, ostensibly to pick her up to go to dinner at Speckmann’s, a German restaurant that I’d heard served great spaetzle. Sampling that spaetzle was my one and only fervent birthday wish. When I got to Ellen’s, though, I found myself ushered into a surprise party. All of us had a great time, and I remember that at one point we all donned streamers to mimic Bruce Springsteen’s then-ubiquitous headband as we danced much of the night away to Springsteen tapes. After most of the guests said their goodnights, the few of us remaining were still full of residual energy. So at 3:00 in the morning we came up with the brilliant idea of playing “knee football” on the hardwood floors (ouch!), using a birthday balloon as the football. Three guys and three gals. As we were scuffling around on our knees, laughing loudly and hysterically, we looked up and saw flashlight beams coming through the slatted doors that we had closed to shut off the living room. Two police officers were out in the hallway; we’d never heard their robust knocking at the front door. Uh oh. They admonished us to be quiet, and after they left, still wanting to play, we came up with the idea of “silent knee football.” The idea was that we would no utter no sounds at all, so as not to disturb any neighbors. As my diary says, that “made the whole game even more fun. I must say that I was the star of the game, making most of our touchdowns. Boy did we all have bruised knees the next day.”
By the time she was 30, my mother had three kids. I, on the other hand, was single and playing Silent Knee Football.
I’ve been pulled over three times while driving. The first two instances happened with Julie behind the wheel. In 2001 we were in my new T-Bird on Route 66 – or should I say, accidentally well off of Route 66 – going a tad over the limit as we sped past an Oklahoma police officer who just happened to be sitting by the side of the highway with a radar gun. When he asked us where we were headed, we told him the truth, that we were dreadfully lost going north trying to go west, and we admitted that we had absolutely no excuse for flying along as fast as we were (except gosh, in that car it really feels like you’re just CRAWLING if you’re going 80). We were so polite and deferential and confused that he pointed us in the right direction and let us go.
Much more recently, we had just left Safeway and were driving TWO BLOCKS to our local meat market, Guerra’s. I reminded Julie, who was driving, that she needed to put on her seatbelt, but she insisted that there was no need for that as we were going to be in the car only 90 seconds, and I retorted back that people had been known to die in low-speed collisions not far from home. Of course she refused, and of course we then saw the flashing lights. I was almost smug about it. The female officer told Julie that she was in violation of the seatbelt law and that “people have been known to die in low-speed collisions not far from home,” at which point I smacked Julie on the shoulder and said, “See?! What did I just say?” and thanked the officer. She let us off.
The only time in my life I’ve been personally pulled over was in the late 1980s when some of my workmates and I piled into my Corolla to attend a wedding in Chinatown. I was driving all of us down Oak Street, and it was one of those situations in which I had to keep flying through yellow lights in order to beat the red. As a side note, for reasons I cannot recall, my girlfriend Adair’s wisdom teeth, which she had just had removed, were in one of the front seat cupholders. I swear to this day that I was already in the intersections when the lights turned yellow, but we were driving at a fast enough clip that my friend Leon Acord – possibly the funniest human being who ever lived – began screaming dramatically and then grabbed the teeth and hurled them into the air as though all the passengers were losing their teeth from the ultrasonic speed.
Of course, then came the flashing light.
The officer pulled me over and asked me for my license and registration. The license was in my purse, which was in the trunk of the Toyota, so I got out and wobbled to the back of the car in my dress and high heels (yes, I know that I’m not normally associated with purses, dresses, and heels, but I was going to a wedding, for crying out loud). I cannot possibly replicate in words how my hands were shaking, but let’s just say that it took me about four hours to get my license out of its little plastic holder. I think the officer was starting to feel sorry for me. I pleaded with him that the lights had all been yellow, and he said he wasn’t so sure about that. “Besides,” he continued, “what on earth were those things flying through the air?” “Teeth,” I answered.
By the time I got through explaining why the wisdom teeth were in the car in the first place, he was probably weary. So he let me go.
One experience with the law, though, caused me great mortification twice – 10 years apart. Yes, the same offense.
In 1975 I was living in the dorms at San Jose State and working towards my (first) degree in law enforcement. One Saturday night in December, a friend of my brother’s called me up and wanted to know if I wanted to go see a movie. I don’t think either of us thought it was a date, but we were both feeling kind of gloomy and thought it would be nice to get together. I will call him “Rusty,” after my childhood crush Rusty Hamer from the “Make Room for Daddy” TV show. (Truth be told, there was some resemblance between the two lads.)
Warning: This anecdote carries a PG rating, so please tear your small children away from this blog immediately.
Anyway, after the movie Rusty and I decided to drive to Santa Cruz. This was what young people always did in those days if we were feeling shiftless and wanted to seek out some form of adventure. No matter what we were doing, or what time of day, “Hey, let’s go over the hill!” was always cause for excitement.
Long story short, the two us ended up on a deserted dirt road in Scotts Valley and let’s just say that Rusty ended up on one of the bases. I don’t know all of the distinctions between the bases, but I can say with certainty that he did not get a home run or even a triple. I think he ended up only on second base, and nothing below the waist was involved. So it was fairly innocent. But we had a lovely time, and he was just cute as a button. A lovable, freckle-faced cad.
As luck would have it, though, just as we were about to leave the scene of the crime we saw the telltale flashing red light in the rearview mirror. I frantically threw my shirt on backwards.
It was a patrol officer, and he admonished us for parking on private property. We were trespassing, technically. After sitting in his police car and taking what seemed like forever to make sure we weren’t wanted anywhere, he jotted down our names and addresses and employer’s addresses and said that we were now going to be put on the Scotts Valley “list” of offenders, that we’d now be “on file,” and that if we were ever caught again we’d be in a heap of trouble.
I was mortified.
Now, at the time I was working part-time as a teacher’s aide in San Jose at James Lick High School, which is part of the same school district for which my father was working as principal of Piedmont Hills High School.
On Monday, I was at work when I was summoned to the office of Lick’s vice-principal, Russ Phillips, who was a giant of a man, an ex-football coach with a huge square head and heavy, oversized rings on his fingers. I was absolutely sure that the Scotts Valley Police Department had called Mr. Phillips to tell him that he had an immoral employee working for him. I was also sure that he was going to fire me and then call Dad. I was about to bring shame down on my entire extended Italian family and on all devotees of the Catholic faith.
“Principal’s Daughter Caught Canoodling in Scotts Valley,” the San Jose Mercury-News headline would read the next day. Or so I imagined.
I panicked and started to sniffle as I headed to Mr. Phillips’ office.
Luckily, he wanted only to ask me something about my payroll form.
And my father, bless his soul, never knew about Rusty and me. On top of everything, he never really liked Rusty much, either.
A decade or so later, this incident actually was a factor in influencing the course of my career. I was a freelance editor at the time, after having gotten a second degree in English. I’d all but given up on a career in law enforcement because police departments were requiring perfect vision among their recruits and I wore contacts, but times started changing and two local departments had no such requirement: Fairfax in Marin County and Fremont in Alameda County. So I applied to both and began working to build up my legendary herculean strength.
Fairfax, like most departments, had a physical skills requirement, and the one possible impediment to my getting past that test was The Wall. We had to perform other tasks like dragging a heavy mannequin or stepping rapidly through tires while wearing a heavy weight belt, and I was able to do those easily. The Wall, though, was a different story. It was taller than we were and we had to leap up, grab the top of the wall, and hoist ourselves over it using sheer upper-body strength. In general, men are taller and their upper-body strength is much greater than women’s. All of the other women at the test site failed; they just weren’t able to pull themselves over that thing. I was the last hope for my gender. I went flying towards that wall, leaped up with every ounce of momentum I had, grabbed the wall, and flung myself over. It was all adrenaline, I think.
I was secretly happy, I have to admit, because all of the other women had been effectively eliminated, which greatly increased my chances of getting the one open position. Or so I thought. Then they allowed the women to all try again, with some help, and a couple of them made it. I was furious. Damned liberal Fairfax!!
I didn’t get the job, but it’s interesting that a couple of years after that, my parents in Clearlake met their new police chief, who just happened to have arrived there from Fairfax. Upon hearing their last name, he remembered me and apologized to them for my not having been picked. He said the department brass had been impressed with me (it must have been my domination of the wall!), but they already had had someone picked out before testing had even started – a guy who was a police cadet serving in that department. I guess that made me feel a little better.
Then came Fremont. It was a much larger and seemingly more professional department. There was no physical agility test, for some reason, but there was a written test and a grueling oral exam. After both of those, I was #1 on the recruitment list. All that was left was the lie detector test.
So I found myself sitting in a little room, wired up to the polygraph, with a kindly young officer. It was the last question, and it was an odd one: “Have you ever committed rape, child molestation, or indecent exposure?”
I said no, and the polygraph needle started jumping all over the place.
“That’s odd,” he said. “Let me try again.”
Same result. That needle was flying.
He turned off the machine. “Okay,” he said, “I’m quite sure that you have not committed rape or child molestation. Tell me what’s going on with the indecent exposure thing.”
I was – of course! – mortified. I knew I was thinking about Rusty and that night in Scotts Valley with my shirt off! But I didn’t want to tell the officer. My heart started hammering and I completely lost focus, to the extent that I neglected to mention that Rusty and I had been out in public, which was of course what triggered the “indecent exposure” fear in my head.
Instead, all I said to the officer was, “Well, one time I was with a guy and we had our shirts off.”
There was a pause. He looked at me with a puzzled expression.
Then very gently he said, “Really, dear, that’s okaaaaaaay.”
I didn’t get the Fremont job. My status as #1 on their list must have plummeted after that polygraph test. They probably thought I was just too weird for words.
Of course, in retrospect it was good not only for me but for the safety of all the citizens of the Bay Area that I did not become a police officer. Things, as they say, happen for a reason.
There are countless people in our lives who say or do something, however insignificant it seems at the time, that we will remember all of our lives. I wish I could thank all of them. When I think back on that sweet little evening in Scotts Valley, I can’t help but smile. It really did me a world of good, in so many ways. Thanks, Rusty.
Due to popular demand, for those of you who are NOT on Facebook, I am including for you, here, the 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, and they’re all inadvertently hilarious. From now on, my most recent entries will be at the top.
“We went to Clear Lake today. Big deal. It was miserably cold, miserably rainy, and miserable. Dad took us out to dinner and I became ill. There’s a lot of flu going around. It’s weird — you get very depressed and feel very blecchy. And another weird thing is you feel like crying. So I ate only 2 pieces of chicken, 1 helping of beans, 1/2 baked potato, 2 pieces of bread, and a chocolate sundae. Since I hardly ate anything, they KNEW I was sick.”
“I wanted to see what sport I’ll be in in P.E. It’ll probably be tennis, basketball, or flag football. All of those choices are good, but I like basketball best. I just adore the feel of that big orange ball.”
“Today I took my ‘big bath.’ There I 1) wash face with special soap, 2) pluck eyebrows, 3) clean ears, 4) blow nose, 5) brush teeth, 6) shave, 7) take the bath, and 8) clean my nostrils, etc.”
12/22/70, one of many displaying my teenage eating prowess:
“While there I ate an egg sandwich, macaroni salad, toast, popcorn, and Tab. Then I came home and ate dinner.”
“Today [my cousin] and I stayed at [my aunt’s] house while they all went shopping. We played with [the baby] a lot, and we looked at all their dirty books. One that was really a crackup was A Guide to Sex in Marriage, and man, it told the whole procedure!”
11/11/70 (and it MUST be the winner of the “Unclear on the Concept” award):
“We went to the Veterans Day parade on 1st Street today. We were going to march in the ‘Silent Majority’ section but there wasn’t one.”
“[My brother] Marc beat me 17 games to 0 in Hex today. It’s a game like Twix but on paper. It was the first time I played, and quite possibly the last. How humiliating!”
“Mark, the president of our class, is in my History class with Mr. Ferguson and he is the most good-looking boy I’ve ever seen. He says hello all the time and WOW!”
“Barb and Denise came up later and we just talked in my room for hours. I showed them my big Glen Campbell poster and we tied all our shoes together and other such mature stuff.”
“On another one of our numerous high school surveys, I had to put down 3 careers I want to enter. I was tempted to put down prostitution but I’m sure Dad would find out.”
Again, this is just for people NOT on Facebook:
Our band, “Hotter Than Helga,” will be playing in Fairfax at 19 Broadway on Thursday night, September 14. (I play drums.) If you like alt/country/rock/Americana music, come out and have a listen!!
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
And then there was the time I found myself downtown at rush hour with my nylons around my ankles.
My latest blog posts have been a bit on the serious side, so I decided that today’s would be simple and light – another in my endless series of embarrassing moments now set forth for all eternity.
I’ve had a number of clothing-related mortifications in my life. I once walked out the door and all the way to the bus stop before realizing that I was wearing only a slip. The uncommon chill is what finally tipped me off.
But a couple of other incidents stand out.
Early in my career in San Francisco, I would periodically wear dresses to work. I had landed a job as an “editorial assistant” at Harper & Row Publishers right out of college, and while most English majors would have swooned at that opportunity, I worked in the production side of things, which meant that I really functioned as an accountant. I dealt with lots of invoices and spreadsheets (all by hand, of course) as I developed a growing familiarity with the intricacies of offsheet presses and bookbinding.
Anyway, one evening I was walking down Sutter Street after a long day at work when quite suddenly both of my nylons rolled down around my ankles. I was wearing thigh-high hose at the time – individual nylons with a tight band at mid-thigh level that miraculously gripped one’s leg. They were supposed to stay there. I don’t know why I preferred them over your standard-issue panty hose, but that was my scene at the time. (By the way, I just Googled them and discovered that they still exist today, so perhaps I was not as far afield fashion-wise as you might be thinking.)
I have no idea why both nylons decided to defy all odds and slide to earth at the same time. In fact, I don’t understand why they slipped down at all. My best guess is that they were getting on in years and perhaps I’d stretched them out when I was heavier – when I had put on the “freshman 15” living in the dorms at SF State, scarfing down as many carbohydrates as I could stuff into my gaping maw. Well, that and the sodas.
Speaking of sodas, I must digress for a moment, because one day I was in line at the college cafeteria with my friend Kati. I had poured myself a Coca-Cola and she had gotten a Pepsi, both in gigantic paper cups, but I’m sure we were distracted by a million things and by the time we paid our “scrip” for them we couldn’t remember which was which. “Don’t worry; I can tell just by smelling them,” she assured me. So she proceeded to stick her nose down into one of the cups and draw in a huge, dramatic sniff. Well, in front of a long line of students, the soda shot way up her nostril, so far that it then streamed out the other nostril and back onto the counter. We both guffawed so hard that she practically choked to death. It caused quite a delay at the counter.
“Well, I can say with clarity that that was definitely not the Pepsi,” she deadpanned.
And that, my friends, was the only time I’ve been around someone snorting Coke.
Anyway, back to the nylons. So now I’m in a torrent of people heading home, my stockings are bunched loosely around my ankles, and I’m overcome with embarrassment. What the heck am I going to do? Undress right in the middle of Sutter Street?
So, I decided to ever-so-gradually back into a doorway so that I would go undiscovered by at least the majority of the people on the street. I eased myself slowly backwards until I could lean up against the solid wall behind me, at which point I took off my heels, rolled each piece of hosiery all the way down and off, stuffed the nylons in my backpack, and slipped my shoes back on. It took quite a bit of time because I was very deliberate and protracted in my actions so as not to draw attention.
Then I turned around to look at the building.
The “wall” that I had backed into was really a window. A huge plate-glass window. And inside the lobby of that building was a large crowd of people, all of them staring. They had had quite a show. A long show at that. They could have consumed an entire tub of popcorn watching me undress!
I suppose the most mortifying of all my clothing situations, though, occurred the day I went to the water-slide park with my sister Janine, my former brother-in-law John, and their children. This time I planned carefully in advance and donned a one-piece bathing suit to avoid any mishaps.
I had a fantastic time that day. It was an hour of pure joy and laughing and screaming.
On my last trip down the largest slide, a 10-year-old boy had somehow gotten stuck partway down and along I came, barreling towards him. I flailed around and tried to stop myself, but to no avail, so I careened into him and ended up taking him down with me, the both of us shrieking and hopelessly entangled.
Now, at the bottom of the slide was a shallow pool. Just beyond that was a large, grassy hillside, on which all of the parents sat to watch their kids as they splash-landed after a wild ride.
I stood up out of the pool, cackling and grinning from the delight of not only the fast ride but also the craziness of being intertwined with the startled little boy.
John and the kids met me at the edge of the pool, and I began breathlessly recounting the details of the slide.
As I stood there jabbering, facing not only my family but the hordes of parents on the grass, I noticed that John was staring perplexedly at me. And not at my face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, still catching my breath.
He just pointed.
Somehow in all the chaos my bathing suit had slipped down on one side, and my entire lily-white left breast was out and pointing like a beacon at not only him but also the large crowd on the hill.
“For God’s sake, John, why didn’t you say anything?” I blurted at him while stuffing everything back into place. “A hundred people are staring at me!”
It was 45 years ago this month that I graduated from high school, and every so often a few of my old friends get together for a weekend of wine, memories, laughs, and sentiment. This time we met up in Ventura. Even though our school – Piedmont Hills – was located on the east side of San Jose, a handful of us have relocated to southern California, and we thought we’d gather down there for a change.
Two days, many cocktails, countless stories, a plethora of hugs, and a few tears later, I drove back home, cranking up the tunes (a luxury best reserved for solo driving) and reflecting on where we’d all come from and where all these years had taken us.
I was utterly terrified on my first day of high school. I’d come from a Catholic school and had never known what it was like to have lockers, carry books, change classes, navigate from building to building, or walk hallways filled with students who were older, more mature, and almost adults. “I couldn’t believe that I was now surrounded by men,” one of us said this weekend. “Not boys, but men. With beards.” To some of us that was exhilarating. To me, it was just plain frightening. Raised by loving but extremely protective parents, I was naïve and unsophisticated.
Within minutes after I arrived at school that first day, a senior boy/man saw me and took off his class ring, slipping it on my finger and asking me how that felt. I didn’t know what to make of the entire thing. I was only 12 years old. Just a baby. I went home and told my father about the whole mystifying situation, and he made quick work of tracking down that senior and handing him a stern lecture. My father, you see, was the principal.
Obviously I had a few strikes against me.
Later that day, we were all asked to pair up and choose locker partners. Most of my St. Victor’s Elementary School classmates were off at Catholic high schools, and I didn’t know a soul. The time ticked down and I found myself standing alone, consumed, as always, with worry. But I mustered my courage, walked up to a total stranger, and asked her to be my partner. Her name was Barbara. I don’t know why I picked her. Maybe it was because she looked reserved, she wasn’t rocking a miniskirt, and she wasn’t sporting two tons of blue eye shadow. I hoped that my intuition was right and that she wouldn’t reject me. Saints be praised, she said yes immediately, which was a great act of gallantry because she had to have known that I was the principal’s daughter and that her association with me could prove to be an inconvenience at best. Almost half a century later, we’re still in touch. And by the way, she still looks exactly the same.
Barb didn’t have a single affectation. There wasn’t an elitist or supercilious bone in her body. Her parents worked on a farm, and she routinely presented me with gorgeous fresh produce as gifts. One time she gave me some sweet anise on my birthday and I was so thrilled that I gushed about it in my diary. I also remember driving out to the farm with my parents to pick squash blossoms, because there is nothing more delicious in this world than fried zucchini flowers. (Just dip them in egg and flour, fry briefly in oil, and be prepared to swoon.)
In those days, San Jose was not the technology mecca it is today. Much of it, in fact – especially on the east side, where we lived – was agricultural land. As my high school years went on, I would befriend lots of kids who had grown up on ranches and farms and knew their way around the county fair.
Barb had met Sue when they started kindergarten at Orchard Elementary School, one of the oldest educational institutions in the state (1856) and one that served residents of a part of the city that remained agrarian despite the burgeoning presence of housing tracts and malls. The two girls bonded at naptime that first day because Sue had an apparently-coveted Huckleberry Hound mat.
While Barb was more reticent, Sue was outgoing and full of spirit. She was optimistic and quick to laugh. I also thought she was very grown up – not in a “blue eye shadow” kind of way, but in a wise kind of way. She meant a lot to me because she always gave me good advice that came from a warm place deep in her heart.
In preparation for this reunion, I decided to drag out my diaries. For about 17 years, I diligently wrote in those little books every night, with the tiniest of Parker pen nibs. The diaries were delightfully unfiltered and un-self-censored, and when I think about it, I really have in my hands a remarkably honest chronicle of a young girl’s adolescence and young adulthood.
According to my diary, in March of 1972 I decided to run away from home. I loved my parents dearly, but holy cats they were strict with me! I wasn’t allowed to wear pants to school when girls were finally given that “privilege.” I wasn’t allowed to spend the night at a friend’s house ever, even if both sets of parents knew and thought highly of each other, because my father thought it was barbaric not to be at home at night. On my first date (I was a senior) with Jerry Miyakusu, my curfew was so early that Jerry had to shatter speed records racing home from Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in his sports car on dangerously curvy backroads. I’ve never wolfed down a pizza that fast since. And I think Jerry created a sonic boom as he hurtled me home. He wouldn’t have had time to kiss me even if he had wanted to.
(By the way, in 1972 when I was finally allowed to wear pants to school – but only on Fridays – I donned a super-cool ensemble that consisted of tight gold-plaid pants and long-sleeved gold Western blouses with lots of embroidered curlicues and snaps.)
Anyway, my frustrations with my folks had been piling up, and according to my diary, on March 21:
I called Sue because I thought she had an empty duplex, but it’s inhabited. She said, “Don’t leave, Paula, it won’t solve anything.” So I didn’t.
It was as simple as that. My plans were instantly jettisoned. Sue had spoken.
I guess it makes sense that Sue would go on to be a teacher and a motivational speaker.
I was an absent-minded little thing. It was legendary. My mother would ask me to “watch the rolls,” and I stood and stared at the oven glass and watched the rolls burn to a crisp. I routinely threw my socks away. I was playing the board game Risk once, with a Ritz cracker in my hand, and I popped the dice into my mouth and rolled the cracker!
Wednesday I looked in my purse for my glasses but they weren’t there. Obviously I almost had a heart attack! I decided to tell the parents at Clear Lake this weekend when they were in a good mood. But luckily I asked Miss Lasagna [yes, that was her real name] and she said she found them and my badminton racket on her desk. Whew! I don’t know how many times I have come so close to losing my glasses. And last Thursday I came home from badminton, changed, took off my blouse, and calmly went into the bathroom and deposited it in the toilet!
When I read back over those diaries, I am absolutely astounded at how worried I was about every little thing. I mean, I was a roiling cauldron of anxiety.
Boy, am I worried. Last semester I had a lot of points wrapped up by Final time, but not this year. In Chem I have a 90%, and I need an 86 on the Final to get an A. Shoot! His Finals are tough. I may shoot myself if I miss it. You won’t believe how worried I am. Every so often little pangs of fear go through me.
I am worried sick about the swim test tomorrow because of only one thing – diving. I can do everything else but that, and I get so embarrassed when I bellyflop.
Friday is the GAA/Faculty Mixed Doubles Tennis Tournament, and I am worried. I have to play some of the best players. It’ll be worse with Mr. Barisich as my partner because now he’ll know how really lousy I am.
Nearly every page is filled with one anxiety or another, sometimes accompanied by beseeching prayers to the Almighty. This one really takes the cake:
I, my friends, am really up-tight about something which most people would be happy about. “Our gang,” or, as we have come to call ourselves, “the out crowd,” has informed me that I may accidentally get a lot of nominations for Junior Prom Princess. Well, for one thing, I am not pretty. The only time I may be cute is when I smile, which helps decrease the length of my nose. Maybe I can persuade the kids to put up somebody else. Help me, God!
Finally, there’s this:
Today I went to the dentist. I had no cavities but I had fluoride. YICK! I hate it, and it always upsets me for a long time.
I honestly can’t figure out what on earth that last one means.
It was an interesting time to be young, back then. Just a few months before we started as freshmen, both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. The number of Vietnam War casualties would hit an all-time high of nearly 17,000 in 1968. New and wilder kinds of drugs were infiltrating the schools.
Over the next four years, the war engagement would start to wind down. Men’s hair would grow longer. Women would start to speak up. The voting age would be reduced from 21 to 18. Meanwhile, we were learning who we were and how we fit in with the changing times. Some of us (myself not included) wore black armbands to school to protest the war. Some of us struggled with figuring out our political identities and how to behave in a world in which gender roles were suddenly changing. We made mistakes and we were insecure and we were sometimes jealous in the most petty of ways, but we were all finding our way, bound together by the fears and joys and struggles of adolescence.
I remained – not altogether voluntarily – essentially a Puritan. My friends still remember the long skirts my mother sewed for me. And of course, as the principal’s daughter, I could get away with nothing. On Senior Cut Day I was one of the few hapless kids forced to come to school. The worst thing I ever did was steal some pre-signed get-out-of-class-free pink slips from one of the counselors and use them liberally during my senior year. I was finally caught by a sympathetic teacher who never ratted me out to my father, thank goodness.
Some of the friends I hung out with, though, were a little wilder. I loved them for what they were, but I think they deliberately withheld a lot of their activities from me – an arrangement that, in truth, was beneficial to all parties concerned. One of those friends was Jane, who had a gorgeous English accent and whom I always considered to be supremely exotic. She seemed so worldly. She flowed mysteriously through our group and I was never quite sure what she was up to, believing that one day she’d end up as some kind of insurgent – maybe one of those radicals who joined the Weather Underground and set off explosives.
Jane became a nurse. A Critical Care nurse, in fact. I imagine she has helped save thousands of lives in her career. In Ventura we talked about what retirement would mean for her, and she said she feared that leaving her job would mean losing her purpose in life. So we all discussed options that would enable her to maintain her dedication to health care, such as volunteering in places like homeless shelters. As she wavered about eventual retirement, I could see, in her eyes, her devotion to her calling.
Jane wasn’t the only one of the group who went into public service. I suppose it was the specific time in which we graduated, but it’s interesting that no one in our group left high school with the goal of making money. That wasn’t even in our vernacular. I think it was because we graduated at the tail end of the peace-and-love days. We were many years removed from the Summer of Love, but we were also two years ahead of the invention of the microprocessor and the total domination of the world by Silicon Valley. Just a couple of years after we left high school, people’s values began to change. But we just wanted to study the arts and help people and have a lot of goofy fun along the way.
Our friend Terrie became a lifelong public servant, too. After high school I lost track of her until many years later when I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle and her name suddenly appeared. I don’t remember what the story was about, but I learned that Terrie was a police officer in Morgan Hill. Eventually she would become Commander. Remember that in the 1970s there were very few female police officers anywhere, and Terrie was the only woman on the Morgan Hill force for a long time. To this day she says she didn’t think about it much. If she faced any biases, she never let them get under her skin. And she truly loved her job. In Ventura she talked about how people she’d arrested had come back to thank her because she listened so openly to them and, if they were willing, she helped them find their way towards becoming productive members of society. “It’s how you handle yourself,” she once said. “That goes across the board. If you have the ability to talk to people, to respect them, you can accomplish a lot. You always aim for diffusing a situation, not using force.” Terrie is probably one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met, and when she retired after serving for 26 years, the whole community felt the loss. A 2006 Letter to the Editor in the Morgan Hill Times said, “We have never met a more kind, generous, hard-working and professional public servant in our lives. Morgan Hill has been blessed. The force will be without her, but we know that she will only redirect her many talents in other community aspects. The quality of our community is so much better because of Terrie. May the force continue to be with you Terrie.”
Our friend Mary is the one who keeps everyone laughing, and she increases the hilarity quotient of any gathering by 1,000 percent. I mean, spend 5 minutes with the woman and you need to take Advil to soothe your stretched-out-from-laughing jaw muscles. I love her stories of our high school days, like the time she found an entire unopened jug of Spañada wine in the orchard and considered it to be the greatest treasure find of her young life. From what I gather, she dipped into that thing any number of times during the school year. My favorite family anecdote of hers is that she “started a campaign around Christmas time one year to convince my two younger sisters that Santa was indeed watching them – even in the bathroom. I constructed little paper cameras and colored them black, then placed them on top of the light so they could just see enough to be nervous!”
Mary left her home in northern California a number of years ago so that she could care for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She gave up a lot, but that’s who she is, and she wouldn’t have dreamed of doing things differently. She’s currently thinking about starting a humor blog, and we couldn’t be more encouraging about that. Start it now, Mary. It’s never too late.
When I really think about it, there weren’t all that many things that our group had in common. But we didn’t judge each other. We weren’t snarky. We were never arrogant. We never thought that we were the most interesting creatures on the planet.
Hmmm. Maybe that’s what we had in common.
Half of us turned out to be gay, proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my longtime contention that something sketchy was going on with the drinking water in the East San Jose foothills. Half of us ended up caring for parents with Alzheimer’s. Half of us had kids and grandchildren. And all of us have been successful. It really rankles me that the term “successful” means, to many people, earning a lot of money. You never hear people say that someone is “a successful preschool teacher” or “a successful police officer” or “a successful court clerk.” Well, in my book we’re successful if we pay our taxes and behave like responsible citizens. We’re successful if we raise our children with all the selflessness that that role demands. We’re successful if we keep our commitments to friends and family. Really, we’re successful if we manage to navigate our way gracefully through life’s challenges.
Being with these old classmates, despite the years and the miles, was easy. We don’t have to get to know each other all over again. It’s like the comfort of being bandmates or teammates or lovers. You may move on, but you can’t dismiss the times you spent together and the influences you had on each other’s lives.
As Sue summed it up later, “I just can’t put into words how precious every moment, every laugh, every tear is to my heart.”
A few days after I returned from Ventura, my family got together in San Jose to bestow our Gerald and Beverly Bocciardi scholarships on four remarkable seniors. All of them have specific goals and majors in mind, but the truth is, some of them will end up in places, and enjoying accomplishments, that they cannot even imagine now. We shook their hands and asked them about their college choices and their chosen fields, but if I’d had the time I would have said a lot more than that.
Don’t short-change yourself. Every so often, say hello to someone you don’t know. Be grateful for fresh produce. If someone you love wants to run away from home, or from life, talk them through it. Make others laugh. Consider public service. If you venture into the business world, keep your integrity; they’ll take your soul if you let them, ah, but don’t you let them. Take care of your parents, and learn about their lives; they are far more interesting than you think. Most importantly, hang on to your friends with character – the ones who count. If they call out your name, come running.
And for God’s sake, don’t be upset by fluoride.
Write your own life’s music. Learn the chords and the rudiments from the people who came before you, but then make the score your own. Play it loudly and then eventually teach it to others. That’s the reason you’re here.
That’s what we were doing, back in 1968. We were just trying to figure out our songs.
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.
When I was about to graduate from high school, my friend Jeanne bestowed on me – in most dramatic fashion – a book called Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was a very popular little book about evolving until you become your perfect self. Its teachings about freedom of thought and expression reflected the times and appealed most especially to young people for whom life was about to become an adventure. I was 16 years old. And I decided, after reading it, that I was so completely evolved that I was destined to die before my 18th birthday.
My younger sister, only 11 years old but clever as a whip, declared that when I turned 18 she would throw me a “Guess What, You’re Still Alive!” party.
I look back on that time with amusement. I was only a child – and a particularly immature and naïve one at that – and I knew nothing about what it meant to become a fully formed person. I had no conception of the tangled choices we all must make as we wend our way through a complex world.
The humbling coup de grâce to my adolescent ego would come the following year. Jonathan Livingston Seagull had aroused in me a full-bodied curiosity about knowledge and human existence, and I ended up taking an introductory philosophy class in my first year of college. I ate it up. The works of Plato, Descartes, Hume, and Kant were like manna to my hungry young intellect. And when I aced the class, I figured that I was the consummate intellectual. I truly thought I was all that and a bag of chips.
So I decided, the next semester, to bolster my scholarly résumé by taking an upper- division philosophy class. This is where the humiliation comes in. The course was called Epistemology – the nature of knowledge. I strutted into that classroom with absolutely no idea of the brilliance of the typical philosophy student’s mind. I looked around at my classmates and was a bit taken aback, first of all, by how old they looked. I had only just turned 17 years old at this point, and the guys sported beards and an aura of great wisdom. The professor spoke for an hour that first day and handed out lists of potential topics for the five oral reports we were expected to deliver that semester. I did not understand one word the professor said. I did not understand anything my classmates said. I did not understand the titles of the textbooks. I did not understand the syllabus. I did not even understand what any of the topics meant. As the class came to an end, the students eagerly raced up to the professor’s desk to sign up for their preferred oral report themes. I got through the line, looked sheepishly at the professor, and dropped the class like a hot potato.
And that, my friends, was the last time I thought I was all that and a bag of chips.
In the decades since, I’ve held onto my (admittedly very simplistic 17-year-old’s) view of the teachings of Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century German philosopher. Among other things, Kant believed that our behavioral decisions should be based on this categorical moral imperative: act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law. In other words, ask yourself, “What if everybody did that?” Then act – or refrain from acting – accordingly, even if it is contrary to your inclinations. If it would be wrong for everyone to commit that act, or if the results would be unsatisfactory, the act has no moral worth.
At least, that’s what I think he meant. (Where are you when I need you, Walter Lammi?)
I recall the anecdote I related a few blog posts ago, in which my mother had to point out to me the immorality of my ripping off the phone company for long-distance calls I made from a phone booth, even though I thought my measly $3 transgression wouldn’t make a dent in AT&T’s profits. After all, I wasn’t a big corporation stealing millions from the phone company. What I didn’t consider then was, “What if everybody did that?” And Kant likely would have added that if an action committed by one entity is wrong, the identical action committed by another entity is wrong as well.
Let’s say that you’re strolling through Golden Gate Park holding a banana peel. You’re unable to find a trash can, so you decide to just toss the peel into the shrubs. After all, you rationalize, it’s a big park, and one little banana peel isn’t going to make much of a difference among the flowers. And perhaps it isn’t. But what if everybody did that? What if the park were to suddenly become overrun with everyone’s discarded garbage? What gives you the right to think that you – and you alone – can simply be the exception to the rule to fit your selfish needs?
I have another example, and it involves my single biggest pet peeve. I simply don’t understand why people walk two or three abreast on the sidewalk and refuse to fall behind each other in line when someone is walking towards them. For some reason, they believe that they are under no obligation to make room on the sidewalk for anyone else. This means that people walking towards them must step into the street or walk into a tree because there is nowhere else to go. What kind of mentality is this? And how do they know that the people walking toward them don’t have the same selfish notion?
I was shopping at Stonestown once and this happened to me, except that we were all pedestrians inside one of those sidewalk construction areas that involve a temporary wooden walkway with plywood sides from which you cannot escape. Three teenage girls were coming towards me, and I could imagine the whole scene unfolding before the collision even occurred. There was room for only one person going in each direction, but these girls with attitudes were not about to walk single file. They were so clueless that they did not remotely anticipate the possible consequences of their behavior. I, however, saw the whole thing coming and braced myself. Sure enough, one of the girls plowed into me head-on. The impact was pretty formidable. “Ow!” she yelped. “You b—h!”
Where in the wide world of sports had she expected me to go? Was I supposed to rappel up the plywood?
More importantly, what if everyone did that? We’d all be crashing into each other willy-nilly!
On a more serious note, I suppose what I’m lamenting these days is what I believe to be our culture of insolence. A lack of respect for both established and unwritten laws and conventions, coupled with people’s self-besotted embrace of their own wonderfulness, has made for a culture in which the population feels entitled to self-serving behavior at any expense.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can think more broadly.
If you stand in the grocery express line with 63 items, just because you think the world will not come to an end if you do so, think about the fact that if everybody did that, the notion of an express line would become worthless.
If your goal is to avoid paying any taxes whatsoever, think about what would happen in this country if everyone did that, and ask yourself why you’re entitled to good roads and clean water and are not obligated to pay for them while you expect everyone else to do so.
If you think that you should be able to break the law and text while you’re driving, you’d better hope that the person who needs to reflexively get out of your way is not texting, too.
If the airline has a rule about bringing a double-wide stroller onto a narrow plane, and you decide that you should be entitled to break that rule just because it would inconvenience you, imagine every paying passenger toting an enormous object onto a plane. Think of the chaos that would ensue. Not to mention how difficult it would be to get to the restroom.
A few years ago, my manager Tony told me the most hilarious story about his wife Kay’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure trying to make a trip to see him. I probably have many of the details wrong, except for the very-real punch line. Tony was working in San Francisco and his wife Kay was still living temporarily somewhere else. Perhaps it was Arcata. Kay would take a small, local airline down to see Tony on the weekend. She left one morning in her van to get to the tiny airport on time. Rushing along, she came to a stop sign on a remote country road in the wee small hours of the morning and, thinking no one on earth was anywhere around, zipped through the stop sign. Immediately, out of nowhere, a police officer appeared and stopped her to issue a ticket. This, of course, was an unforeseen delay. After she got on the road again, she was stricken with a flat tire. Along came another officer, or maybe it was the same one, who offered to help her. Unfortunately, the officer was a slow talker and a lollygagger, and although he fixed the tire, all the while she stood there thinking that she could have fixed it herself in much less time. Then the details get a bit blurry. They involved her finally getting to the airport and checking in, but then going to Costco to get a new tire. I believe she may have missed her original flight and had a couple of hours to kill before the next one. At Costco, I remember only that there was some sort of problem with the credit card, and that some nuns were involved, and that she made it back to the airport for her flight with only minutes to spare. However, as she approached the gate – the very same one where she’d checked in a couple of hours earlier – she noticed that the employees were all huddled around crying. Then she saw the sign on the counter: “ALL FLIGHTS CANCELLED. THIS AIRLINE HAS GONE OUT OF BUSINESS.”
[Let me take a moment to control my guffawing.]
Aside from my recollection of this story as one of the funniest tales I’ve ever heard, I frankly often wonder whether I would have put on the brakes at that first stop sign. Maybe I would have gone blithely on through, just as Kay (one of the sweetest people ever) did and just as most people would do. Then again, my friends remind me that I am the most law-abiding person on the planet. Okay, perhaps I would have rolled through the stop sign. A “California stop.” After all, if everybody felt that they had the right to choose whether or not it was necessary to stop at a traffic signal, there would be anarchy. Even before dawn in the middle of nowhere.
We live in a world in which very few think deeply. And I don’t mean deeply like the geniuses in the Epistemology class. I mean that we make snap judgments. We see a 30-second video and instantly ascribe guilt and malevolence to a situation we know nothing about. We consider a public policy issue for 30 seconds and decide that it was proposed for nefarious purposes. We see a histrionic headline on a sketchy website and share it as if it were gospel. We believe other people to be morally bankrupt just because they don’t agree with us. And we don’t contemplate the universal implications of our behavior because at times we are simply too selfish to do that.
I fear that we’ve become immature, sophomoric versions of our best selves. But we’re adults. We’re not 16-year-olds reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull, listening to Tom Rush, and writing bad poetry in our bedrooms late at night.
We’re not all that and a bag of chips. We haven’t achieved perfection and we’re not always right.
But most of us, while fraught with imperfections, are hungering for the same things out of life. If only we could consider the background, the facts, and the nuances before making judgments. If only we could break through our own self-involvement and consider the bigger picture.
My father had the world’s most bizarre middle name.
If you think yours can top it, think again. If your middle name is Phinneas or Clothilde, you still don’t get the blue ribbon. Even if your middle name is Adelgunde, step aside.
My dad’s middle name was . . .
Wait for it . . .
Hand to God.
As the story goes, my father grew up believing that he did not have a middle name. No one told him otherwise, and because Italians really didn’t hand out middle names the way other cultures did, he was simply Gerald Bocciardi.
At some point, though, someone decided that he should adopt Raymond as his middle name. His paternal grandfather’s name was Raimondo, so that made as much sense as anything.
So he’d been going along in life as Gerald R. Bocciardi until the day he went to the Oakland Hall of Records to obtain his official birth certificate.
My father had been in the army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at UC Berkeley when he was an undergraduate. ROTC was a program that trained young college students to be commissioned officers in the armed services. When he got his draft notice in August of 1952, in the middle of the Korean War, Dad drove from San Leandro with my mother – his new wife of three months – directly to the Presidio in San Francisco to activate his commission so that he could go into the army as an officer rather than as a grunt private. After a full day of being sent from building and building, signing and transporting paperwork, he was given an official letter to present to the Oakland draft board declaring that he was a commissioned officer.
Now, my dad was a patriotic man and he wanted to fulfill his duty to his country, but Gerald Bocciardi’s boots on the ground would not have served America well. He was a smart guy, but he was also completely inept at practical matters. The man just could not master the most basic of everyday tasks. Boot camp would have kicked him to the curb.
When he got to Camp Cooke – a former army base near Lompoc, California – he was assigned to, of all things, “heavy mortar.” That obviously was not going to be a permanent spot for him. Later, at Fort Lewis in Washington, he was asked to oversee “reconnaissance patrols.” As my mother told me later, those were “the guys who go out in the middle of the night, and they have to read the maps in some foreign, strange jungle. He couldn’t find his way around San Leandro!”
That was a bust, too. It was then that my dad, who was nothing if not crafty, marched into the General’s office with a plan. “I think I’m probably misplaced here,” he announced. “I’d be much better utilized in Intelligence. I speak foreign languages. I’m fluent in Italian and Spanish, I can get by in French, and I also know a smattering of German.” It was all true, although because we were at war with North Korea, I’m not sure how any of those skills mattered. In any case, the General bought the pitch, and my father soon found himself with a top-secret clearance.
During that time, Mom and Dad lived off base in a motel room because Dad was supposed to be deployed to Korea any minute. Every day they waited for his papers to arrive. Mom was isolated and had nothing to do all day, so she put her considerable energies into a lot of cleaning and knitting. At night they watched television. In those days you had to put a coin in the slot to watch a motel television, but when the coin box broke and my mom – in all of her honesty – told the proprietors about it, they felt so sorry for her being alone all day that they decided to “forget” to fix it. So Mom and Dad had free TV for all those months. As long as she lived, she was always grateful for that.
She and Dad would get out to the Officers’ Club every Saturday night, though. “For one buck,” she told me, “you picked out your huge T-bone. Thick, and choice meat. The army had the best meat in the world. And then they had all the other stuff on buffet tables and salad tables. And they cooked your steak right in front of you. For a dollar!”
Months passed, and more months, and the deployment papers never came. It was a classic army snafu.
In any case, at the beginning of this whole process, Mom and Dad stood at the counter at the Oakland Hall of Records waiting for a copy of his birth certificate to submit to the army. The woman helping them returned with a wry smile on her face. “Well, I see you have a very unusual middle name,” she said, mysteriously.
“What do you mean?” my dad replied. “Raymond?”
“Oh, no. Fug.”
Well, that certainly blew their minds!
My father made the mistake, when he first got into the service, of telling a fellow soldier about his newfound middle name. It was a grave error. From that point on, he couldn’t walk through the base without someone hollering “Hey, Fug!” at him.
And when his two years were up, his army buddies sent him off with a party, a poem, and a cartoon. The presentation was called “Fug’s Final Feature.”
I now have a certified copy (dated 1980) of Dad’s birth certificate, and it offers Option No. 3. It lists his name as Gerald Gus Bocciardi. Gustavo was his father’s name.
I don’t know what happened. Maybe the original original did show Fug as his middle name. Or maybe someone transcribed or typed something incorrectly along the way, and “Gus” became “Fug.”
You know, maybe the army never got Dad’s papers sorted out because they were looking for Gerald Raymond, who technically didn’t exist. Or maybe they were looking for someone named Fug. I don’t know. Things happen for a reason, though. Had Dad gone off to Korea, it’s possible that his ineptitude would have singlehandedly and inadvertently sabotaged the entire U.S. war effort. On a more serious note, it’s also possible that he never would have come back.
Well, how odd. That was the entire, precise Facebook message, including caps and exclamation points, that suddenly appeared on my new smartphone at 3:15 p.m. on October 3, 2014.
Now I just had to figure out why in the world my friend Mona, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, had sent a message out of the blue shouting “son of a bitch!” at me without so much as a greeting or an explanation. How does one respond to such a thing? What did it mean?
Mona and I had gotten to know each other back in the 1980s, when she decided to sponsor my softball team. Other than my move to San Francisco in the 1970s, that team was the single most significant influence in my life. The lessons I learned, and the powerful friendships I made, informed my life’s course at a time when I most needed direction. And I have been blissfully bound in the mesh of those relationships, filament by filament, ever since.
As time went by, after Mona married and had a couple of children, we’d just naturally lost touch for a few years. She and I are very different in a million ways. She owned the first female-run network telecommunications company in the country and has been a serial entrepreneur ever since. She’s energetic, gregarious, and progressive. I’m more reticent and conservative, and I prefer the back of the stage rather than the front. She has a warm voice and a beautiful crinkly smile and she wears her feelings on her sleeve, while mine are often deeply concealed. But at our essence we’re both passionate and emotional, culturally similar. And as with all old friends, the bonds between us have abided.
Anyway, that October afternoon I was glued to the television watching a baseball game. When the “son of a bitch” message popped up, I’d been digging around in a wooden bowl for old maids. You know what they are – those partially popped kernels of popcorn at the bottom of the bowl that are so crunchy and satisfying. I’d just finished eating a sports meal, or at least my definition of one. A Paula Bocciardi sports meal consists of three items: a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. I prefer Hebrew Nationals, Pop Secret Homestyle, and Sam Adams Boston Lager.
As I sat on the couch, crunching on the last of those old maids, I racked my brain for some kind of meaning to Mona’s expletive. At first I figured it was a mistake. Maybe she hadn’t meant to send it at all. And why no explanation? Did she really expect me to understand what she meant, especially since we hadn’t spoken in so long? It must have been meant for someone else. Maybe she was sitting in a boardroom somewhere, seething about something, and she’d fired off the message to the wrong person.
But then I started laughing. I figured it out. It was right in front of my eyes. I was watching game 1 of baseball’s Division Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals. The Giants were ahead 3-0 going into the 7th inning when coach Bruce Bochy pulled out starting pitcher Jake Peavy – who had a shutout going – and brought in the ever-erratic reliever Hunter Strickland, who allowed back-to-back homers by Bryce Harper (whom I loathe anyway) and Asdrubal Cabrera.
It was after the homer by Cabrera, when the score was suddenly 3-2, that Mona flew into a baseball rage and messaged me.
Assuming that my clever deduction was indeed correct, I messaged her back. The exchange was exactly this:
M: Son of a BITCH!!!
P: No kidding!! Plus I hate Bryce Harper.
M: Then I hate him too!
P: He’s an a-hole. On the plus side, I love Joe Panik. i just gotta first iPhone. This is fun!
M: Panic is a fun player to watch. Strong infield, I love Brandons!
P: I agree! Now we need to suffer through 6 outs. I need some bourbon.
The beauty of the whole thing was the fact that someone knew me well enough to correctly assume what I was doing at a particular moment in time. And to assume that I would know exactly what she was talking about, despite the years since we’d last talked. Within seconds we had effortlessly relinked ourselves. That kind of friendship is a precious gift.
I probably have hundreds of ballpark memories, but my most cherished are those that were shared with friends whose hearts beat with the same love of sports. In the first season the new Giants ballpark was open, tickets were nearly impossible to get, but my good friend Julie R. and I developed an elaborate scheme to score some seats, part of which involved my cozying up to a workmate whose boyfriend had season tickets. Armed with a couple of his unwanted seats, Julie and I went to our first day game at what is now AT&T Park on June 14, 2000. What made that day almost unrivaled in San Francisco history is that the temperature was 103 degrees. For San Francisco, that means you have practically entered the gates of Hell. (The average temperature for that date, by the way, is 69 degrees.) I would send an e-mail to my sister-in-law Lori later that night, telling her that it was 91 degrees inside the house at 9:00 p.m. (no one has air conditioning here). I also reported that I’d been reading Rolling Stone magazine that evening, and that the inks on the cover had melted in the heat and run all over my legs.
In any case, Julie R. and I were not to be deterred from seeing that game. We were intrepid sports fans and we were not going to let the heat get to us, even if we boiled to death. Our seats were, of course, in the blazing sun; they were very close to the field, along the third base line. We endured the conditions as long as we could, but after an hour and a half, with sweat cascading off of us, we decided that our hearts were racing dangerously fast and we needed to seek shade. Only when we turned around did we realize that no one else in the stadium was sitting in the sun. And I mean no one. It was 111 degrees on the field, we had heard, and I believe that we were possibly close to death at that point. Plus we hadn’t had a thing to eat; as Julie later said, “My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow.”
The fans, it seemed – at least, those who were still there – had crowded into any empty spots they could find in the shade. There was very little shade left for us, but we eventually managed to spot four seats under an overhang, and we quickly grabbed two of them. Shortly afterwards, however, along came the season-ticket seat owner. He was with only one companion, so we asked him if we could use his other two seats. It was then that we realized that he was drunk as a loon. He was stumbling and slurring, his zipper was half-down(!), and he declared that we could use his seats only if Julie R. gave him a hug! (She ended up being the one next to him, thank God.) So the typically reticent Julie had to close her eyes and reluctantly hug him. It was hard for me to control my laughter, and at the same time I was utterly relieved that he wasn’t sitting next to me. Anyway, whenever the Giants did something good, he would sort of put his arm around Julie, but she was sweating so much that he would then draw it back in revulsion. He did this repeatedly because he kept forgetting that he’d tried it earlier! Luckily, he left before the game was over and we were able to enjoy the rest of the afternoon baking in peace.
Whenever either of us recalls that game, we burst out laughing. It’s just a funny, funny memory that can never be replicated.
Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees at AT&T Park are, as one might expect, rare. In my estimation, the ballpark had to have been designed by a meteorological genius, because no matter how chilly and windy the San Francisco days and nights might be, inside the park it’s usually fairly temperate, as if you’ve entered another town altogether. The team’s former stadium, of course, was Candlestick Park, which was not so temperate and had a worldwide reputation for its blustery, howling winds. Longtime rumors have it that Giants pitcher Stu Miller was blown clear off the mound there during the 1961 All-Star game. Witnesses agree. Miller, though, claimed that he merely “waved like a tree” in the sudden gust.
In any case, my favorite Candlestick wind story was not Miller’s. My friend Erlinda and I were there for one of the rescheduled 1989 World Series games, and she told me about an acquaintance who had brought a little boy to the park for his very first game. When it was over, the boy gushed about what a great time he’d had, and she asked him what his favorite part of the game was.
“The flying napkins,” he answered.
Another only-in-San Francisco moment of a totally different nature came during a game in August of 2002. Barry Bonds hit his 600th homer that night. Julie S. and I were sitting in a good seat down the third-base line. A yo-yo sitting in the row on front of us, and slightly to the right, was constantly standing up and blocking my view of home plate. I could have stood up, too, but then I would have been obstructing the people behind me. It was very frustrating, and these two young guys beside me asked me if I could see. “Not at all,” I said glumly. They were peeved on my behalf. They shouted to the guy a polite request to please sit down, but he belligerently told them that he was going to do what he damned well pleased.
Their furious San Francisco response? “Well, that’s not very mature!!”
The next day, I ran the situation by my friend Carl – a Yankee fan and consummate New Yorker. I asked him what would have happened had a similar situation occurred at Yankee Stadium. His answer was that the scenario would have progressed thusly:
Man stands up and blocks people’s view.
Someone: “Down in front!”
Man does nothing.
Someone else: “Hey! Sit the f— down!”
Man does nothing.
A fight ensues and the man gets beat up.
The year after the ’89 earthquake, when many of my workmates and I were displaced from our damaged building, I somehow finagled a work situation in which I was allowed to edit manuscripts from home. (Remember, this was before the concept of telecommuting existed.) No one ever checked up on me, and I would steal away to Giants day games by myself at Candlestick. I was never caught, and in fact this is my first public confession of those crimes. (Honest as I was, though, I would always make up the hours and work late into the night after I got home.) I would walk two blocks to 19th Avenue and catch the 28 bus for its very circuitous route to Candlestick Park. (The bus schedule was dubious; I remember that one time the driver made us wait 20 minutes while he parked and bought something at a garage sale!) I shared the bus with five-foot-tall little old ladies from the Sunset, all of them wearing baseball caps adorned with pins marking some Giants event or another. They were hale and hearty and always undeterred by the Candlestick chill.
These days, I still go by myself go to all the Giants weekday afternoon games. I’m a loner, so that’s just fine with me. But sharing the games with others is so much better.
Last year, Mona treated me to a seat at the ballpark on Opening Day against the Dodgers. When Hunter Pence hit his grand slam, I believe I actually crawled up Mona’s arm. She paid me no mind. She also participated in one of my fantasy leagues last year, drafting an all-Latino team as her “strategy.” It was not a particularly successful strategy, but I wished I’d thought of it nevertheless.
My mother became a hardcore Giants fan in her later years, and I took her to a handful of games at AT&T Park, where she always insisted on having a glass of (bad) red wine with her crab sandwich on sourdough. She thought Brandon Crawford was a hunk. Those are some of my most beautiful memories.
During the 2012 playoffs, Mom was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery, so we watched the Division Series together in her hospital room. When Buster Posey hit his grand slam against the Cincinnati Reds in game 5, we tried to maintain quiet and dignity so as not to disturb the other patients on the floor. Then we heard the whoops erupting from the other rooms and echoing along the hallways.
When the San Francisco Giants finally won the World Series in 2010, it was their first title since they’d arrived in the city in 1958. A lifelong fan, I wept for three days after that Series. My emotions partially sprang from the happiness I felt for the ragtag group of players who pulled off that improbable victory – especially for Andres Torres and Cody Ross, good-natured and grateful guys who had been put out to pasture until the Giants picked them up. But mostly I cried for the fulfillment of my 50 years of hope and longing.
That night Julie S. and I took the bus down to the Civic Center, where a celebration was brewing. All I could think of was the night the 49ers won their first Super Bowl in January of 1982. Cynthia and I had raced out of our 9th Avenue apartment into an exuberant crowd of celebrants. It was a spontaneous and delirious gathering. A young man – a stranger to both of us – suddenly swept Cynthia up in his arms and kissed her. We were all smiles; there was no harm or disrespect intended. The whole thing looked like that iconic World War II photo of the kissing strangers in Times Square – a sailor dipping a nurse and planting a joyful smooch on her when the news broke that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.
But the Civic Center in 2010 wasn’t like that. It was mostly a bunch of drunken college girls who may or may not have had any idea how the game of baseball is even played. We came home quickly, dejected. But the next day I was listening to Gary Radnich, one of my favorite Bay Area sports show hosts, on the radio. And he launched into a speech about how the lingering euphoria in the air was most decidedly not for the youngsters. It was not for the bandwagoners. It was not for the casual fan. It was, he said, for the battle-scarred veterans.
It was for the little old ladies with the pins in their caps. And frankly, it was for me, too.
People wax poetic about baseball all the time, and they often talk about the concept of renewal. Spring Training is a metaphor for that. It’s a way for the team to rebuild and refresh itself, and for the fans to revive their sense of optimism for the coming months. Everything starts all over again. I look at friendship that way. Sometimes it waxes and sometimes it wanes, but it can always be renewed. The ties, they bind.
The Giants take the field at AT&T Park in just a few hours for their 2017 home opener. The ticket prices were just ridiculous, so Mona and I decided to go to a sports bar instead and watch the game from there. It’ll be the two of us, then, throwing back some Boston Lagers and cheering our way through a 3-hour ballgame, tethered gently by 30 years of friendship and the beautiful, delicate filaments of memory.
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?
Those of us who live in California are getting a bit tired of the unending rain. We’re ecstatic, of course, over the apparent end to our five-year-long drought, but enough is enough. I have to check the weather sites and watch the “motion radar” every few minutes just to determine whether it’s safe to take our dog out without walking into a deluge. The lakes, streams, and reservoirs are getting full now – some dangerously so – and we could all use some sun exposure.
When I was young, full lakes and the promise of spring meant one thing to our family: fishing. We never took fancy vacations, but we spent many a Saturday or Sunday throwing worms or minnows into a host of Santa Clara Valley reservoirs hoping to bring home bluegill, crappie, bass, and catfish. Mom packed a picnic basket full of salami sandwiches, potato chips, and Cragmont sodas. Dad spent much of his time untangling our lines, and he and my brother ultimately had the task of cleaning and filleting the fish. (We ate everything we caught.) Once in a great while we would rent a cabin up at Fallen Leaf Lake in the Sierras, and Dad would take us out in the early morning chill to fish for trout. I remember that he used to sing or whistle the Army’s “Mess Call” (“Come and get your chow, boys”) so the trout would bite. In the early days, I believed that that worked. I will never forget the taste of fresh rainbow trout, right out of the water, wrapped in bacon for breakfast.
The Bocciardi kids became avid anglers.
Meanwhile, we also loved to form clubs devoted to our youthful pursuits, and as luck would have it, I still have the “minutes” to two of those clubs. One of them, The Tibby Club, was dedicated to my grandmother’s dog, an adorable but spoiled and yappy Lhasa Apso whom we revered. The other club was The Fishing Club. We were a little older then, so the minutes were, of course, typed.
The year was 1969. The meetings took place in our house in San Jose. I was 13 years old, my brother Marc was 11, and our beloved but beleaguered (you’ll see what I mean) little sister Janine was 8.
Please note that although there were four meetings, all of them appear to have taken place on the same day. Then the club completely fell apart in acrimony.
I don’t believe I need to say anything further. I have re-typed the minutes precisely as they originally appeared. They speak for themselves. Enjoy.
Date: June 19, 1969
Time: 8:25 – 8:48 a.m.
Place: Paula’s room
Present: Paula Bocciardi, Marc Bocciardi, Janine Bocciardi
Acting Chairman: Paula Bocciardi
The meeting was called to order by Paula at 8:25 a.m. All were present.
This was the first meeting. The list of club duties was passed around.
Next, we voted on the place to go fishing. The area that came in first will be presented to our parents and if they disagree, the others, in order, will be presented to them. Lexington was first with 11 points, Mt. Hamilton second with 9, Coyote and Chesbro with 5, and Anderson is the alternate.
Then we decided on date, time, bait, and other articles which will be on the plan. Paula will type the plan.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:48 a.m.
Fishing Club Duties:
The main duties and functions of the fishing club are as follows:
To plan and prepare one fishing trip a month
To trade fishing gear
To make better fishermen of all its members
To find out the fishing rules and regulations for various areas
To aid, if possible, in fish conservation
Any other duties pertaining to a fishing club
Paula Bocciardi – secretary
Marc Bocciardi – equipment manager
Janine Bocciardi – frog-keeper
Meeting place – 3561 Telegraph Drive
Meeting days – anytime
Date: July 19 or 26
Area: Drive around lake, then return to old spot if no other one is available.
Getting up time: 4:45 [a.m.]
Bait: 2 dozen minnows, 2 night crawlers, 2 worms, no clams, etc.
Leave: anytime parents want, possibly no later than 2:30 [p.m.]
Go across street to buy bait
Wake up parents
Get ourselves ready
All parents have to do is dress, drive, and pay for bait.
Fishing Day Activities:
Make breakfast (Janine, Paula)
a. Tell man what we want (Paula)
b. Pay (Marc)
c. Carry bait (Janine)
Wake up parents (Janine)
Load car (Marc)
Make lunch (Paula, Marc)
Date: June 19, 1969
Time: 12:37 p.m. – 12:52 p.m.
Place: Marc’s room
Acting Chairman: Paula Bocciardi
The meeting was called to order at 12:37 p.m. The minutes were read.
There were no corrections. There was no old business.
Paula read the fishing plan. No corrections were made.
Janine suggested that we have a suggestion box. This was voted down.
Paula informed Marc that, as manager of the equipment, he must obtain a notebook for the club.
Marc suggested that we should collect dues every once in a while to pay for certain fishing gear we could buy. Paula added to this and said that the equipment manager should present something new we might get at every meeting and we could vote on these presentations.
It was decided not to present the parents with our plan today, but wait.
The meeting was adjourned at 12:52 p.m.
Date: June 19, 1969
Time: 2:24 p.m. – 3:09 p.m.
Place: Paula’s room
Acting Chairman: Paula Bocciardi
The meeting was called to order at 2:24 p.m. The minutes were corrected by Janine, who said that the opinion she gave of the problem that she and Paula would fight over the lures, etc. we buy was not included in the minutes. However, since this was only part of the discussion, and not a suggestion, it does not have to be included in the minutes.
Janine, the frog-keeper, was called upon to report. She said that she was going to ask the twins (Chris and Dan Sears) to take care of Toby, the frog, when we go up to Fallen Leaf Lake on Saturday. The twins weren’t home, so Marc will call them later.
Marc, the equipment manager, was called upon to propose some ideas on things to buy. He suggested a bass/crappie jig, some split shot, some #8 hooks, some #2 hooks, or a plastic worm. We voted on the split shot. We will pay, as individuals, 8¢ for 20. It was agreed that anyone who loses a lure, etc. will be unable to use the others.
There was no old business.
We then chose some projects to undertake. Marc will write to the Fish and Game Department and ask if there is anything we can do, such as putting up posters. I, too, will write to them and tell them about the bad situation at Ed R. Levin Park.
Marc then read the portion of the fishing regulations that tells about night fishing. We discovered we cannot night fish at lakes here.
We decided that Janine should put up posters saying to come to our house for information on local fishing. Janine refused and was kicked out of the club.
The meeting was adjourned at 3:09 p.m.
Date: June 19, 1969
Time: 9:44 – 9:58 [p.m.]
Place: Paula’s room
Acting Chairman: Paula Bocciardi
The meeting came to order at 9:44 p.m. The minutes were read. There were no corrections.
There were no new developments on the frog. The equipment manager had nothing to report.
There was no old business.
Janine orally took an oath, then signed a written one, which enabled her to come back into the club. This was done because Janine tattled and Mom said that if we didn’t let her in, we couldn’t have a club either. Mom also said she did not want any posters to be put up so we’ll have to think of a new project for Janine.
Marc got a notebook during the meeting.
It was decided that we will write our letters tomorrow if possible, and if not, as soon as possible when we get back from vacation.
We voted on a suggestion made by Paula and Marc. The club shall temporarily be closed to further membership. However, if one of us would like a new member to join, the person would have to be approved by every other member.
The meeting was adjourned at 9:59 p.m.
I, JANINE BOCCIARDI. DO SOLEMNLY SWEAR THAT IF KICKED OUT OF THE CLUB I WILL NOT CONVEY THIS MESSAGE TO OUR PARENTS IN ANY WAY. I ALSO DO SOLEMNLY SWEAR THAT I WILL NOT DISCUSS ANYTHNG ABOUT THIS CLUB TO ANYONE, INCLUDING OUR PARENTS, UNLESS I AM GIVEN PERMISSION TO DO SO BY EITHER MARC OR PAULA BOCCIARDI.
I hope you enjoyed that peek into the past. Meanwhile, for those of you not on Facebook, I have some blogging news. I am now the official blogger for the San Francisco Giants on a website called “Sports Spotlight.” If I think any of those blogs might be of interest, I’ll include the links at the end of my Monday Morning Rail posts.
One late afternoon, back in the 1980s, my friend and colleague Ellen and I were interviewing a prospective employee. The two of us worked for a political think tank and book publisher called the Institute for Contemporary Studies. Both of us were drinking beer. It was a wild time to be working in San Francisco. Workdays were short on hours and long on cocktails.
For some reason, even though I was a copy editor, I had been handed the human resources responsibilities when the real HR person had left, even though I had no experience in that field whatsoever.
So we were interviewing John, a cheerful, curly-haired young man with a linebacker’s sturdiness. The position was low-level and I believe it had something to do with the mail room. The sole reason we had chosen John’s résumé from among the others is that it contained the following item:
Winner of Chili Cook-Off, 1983
This skill set was, to us, extremely appealing.
Then he sealed the deal by saying something that I have not forgotten, all these years later.
“Joe Montana is God.”
He was hired.
For those of you who aren’t sports fans, the two teams in the Super Bowl yesterday were the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. The Falcons have been a professional football team since 1966 and have been to only two Super Bowls, both of which they lost. The New England Patriots started out in 1960 as the Boston Patriots but changed their name when they moved about 20 miles outside of Boston in 1971. They’ve been to nine Super Bowls. Seven of those appearances have come during the era of coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. They’ve won five.
It’s really quite astonishing. Belichick and Brady have won more Super Bowls than any other coach and any other quarterback.
I hate them both.
I’m not normally a fan of any team from Atlanta. It all goes back to 1993. The San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves were locked in the last true pennant race of all time – before the “wild card” scenario was instituted. The Giants were phenomenal and won 103 games, but the Braves won 104. The Giants needed to win their last game to force a tie-breaker, but they were massacred by the &^%$#@ Dodgers. During that entire season, my stomach ground itself to bits, night after night, and to make me seethe even more I had to endure the Atlanta fans’ odious “tomahawk chop” and war chant whenever the two teams met. I got an ulcer that season. No lie.
So I’ve continued my loathing for all teams Atlanta.
But this year I was all in for them. Anything to put Brady and Belichick in their respective places.
Bill Bellicose, as I like to call him, has to be the world’s surliest man. His hostile unwillingness to ever utter more than a two-word mumble at press conferences – even after he has won a Super Bowl – makes me sick. The least he can do, before he runs home with his $7.5 million annual salary, is offer his fans a smile and some insight. Instead, he wears a perpetual frown and a perpetual gross sweatshirt, glares at everyone in the room, and acts as if it would be far too much of an imposition for him to answer a simple question.
Here’s a tiny compilation of Bellicose’s upbeat cooperation at press conferences:
I’d say he was generally a sore loser, but truth be told, it’s hard to tell because all of his press conferences are exercises in moroseness, whether he wins or loses. I do know that in 2008, when his Patriots were upset in the Super Bowl by Eli Manning and the New York Giants, the classless Bellicose actually left the field before the last play of the game. I imagine it might have killed him to shake the hand of winning coach Tom Coughlin, or to congratulate him.
“They made some plays. We made some plays,” he said magnanimously after the game.
During his reign, Bellicose has presided over both “Spygate” and “Deflategate.” His role in the 2007 Spygate mess (in which the Patriots were caught videotaping an opposing team’s signals from the sideline) personally cost him half a million dollars, the largest fine ever exacted on an NFL coach (and the maximum allowable amount).
For his role in Deflategate, quarterback Tom Brady may have taken some flimflam tips from his coach. In 2015 he was accused of using purposely underinflated footballs to his advantage during the AFC championship game. The Patriots would have won the game anyway, but the point is that Brady cheated, then contorted himself into a pretzel trying to deny the hefty accumulation of (admittedly circumstantial) evidence, then destroyed his own cell phone immediately before he met with NFL investigators! (In the end, he was given a four-game suspension to take effect the next season.)
I don’t know Brady personally, but word around the NFL is that he is a whining crybaby. Players say he looks at the referee nearly every time he gets hit, hoping for a penalty flag.
One of my favorite gems about him: he left his girlfriend when she was three months’ pregnant to take up with his now-wife Gisele Bündchen. I just love his family values. Oh, and Gisele herself is a paragon of sportsmanship as well. After her husband’s team lost in the 2012 Super Bowl, she said, blaming Brady’s receivers, “My husband cannot f—ing throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time.” So lovely.
There’s no doubt that Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to have played the game, and he is now the winningest Super Bowl quarterback as well. Someday soon he will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I wrote much of this blog post just before yesterday’s game. I wrote from the perspective that, regardless of who won the Super Bowl, Joe Montana would still be the greatest quarterback of all time. But this morning, as I savor the memory of cocktails, “Betty’s Shrimp Dip Divine,” wings, bruschetta, nachos, sliders, and Derby pie, I have to concede that Brady now shares the podium with Joe.
In my heart, though, Joe stands alone. He might have four Super Bowl rings to Brady’s five, but Joe is the guy I’d want to be helming my all-time fantasy team. He never lost a Super Bowl and in his four championship games he threw for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions. NO interceptions. Brady can’t say that.
But greatness is not necessarily measured by stats. Joe was a consummate leader who could see the entire field, coolly call a game, complete a miraculous pass, and carry out a comeback with steely calm. He was smart and never sloppy. He also played, let’s remember, during an era when football players – especially quarterbacks – were not protected the way they are now. If Brady had to take the hits today that Joe took during his career, he’d be full-out bawling on the turf.
Someone once asked me to explain why anyone would be a sports fan. I tried to tell her that in my view it’s all about hope and loyalty. For a variety of reasons, a fan develops an emotional tie to a team or a player, and from then on, season after season, the allegiance perseveres. And hope endures – for the next game, the next season.
On December 7, 1980, I was driving up Highway 280 back to San Francisco from my parents’ house in San Jose. It was Joe’s second year with the 49ers, along with his genius (and 100 percent classy) coach Bill Walsh, and although the team still ended up with a losing season, the Niners had improved over their 2-14 record from the year before. That day, Joe presided over the greatest comeback in NFL regular-season history by erasing a 28-point deficit and beating the New Orleans Saints 38–35. I was listening to sportstalk radio and a young-sounding guy called in, his words cascading over themselves with excitement about the promise of his team and of Joe Montana. It was only the Niners’ sixth (and last) win of a 16-game season, but that young guy’s world was bursting with hope. That’s what sports are all about.
In Joe’s case, he gave us hope during each and every game. There was no deficit that could not be overcome. Joe could see the unseeable, throw the unthrowable, find the unfindable, score the unscoreable.
I remember watching the most famous 49ers play of all time, when Joe completed the touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that won the 1982 NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys and opposing quarterback Scramblin’ Roger Staubach. The sporting world refers to that play as “The Catch,” which honors its matchlessness. The entire game had seesawed back and forth, and for me it was four quarters of fierce pain and intense hope. My father, who watched the game with me, kept darting out into the backyard and slamming the screen door behind him. “Dad, why in the world aren’t you staying in here to watch?” I yelled to him. I’d never seen him behave this way before. “I just can’t stand the stress,” he said.
After that game, the Cowboys were no longer a dynasty. And the 49ers went on to win the Super Bowl and to dominate football throughout the 1980s. My friends and I would gather every Sunday, throughout the fall and winter, to watch those games. We stopped talking whenever Joe had the ball, wondering what kind of miracle he would pull off next.
There is no doubt that yesterday’s comeback performance by Brady and his receivers is historic. Before that, though, most sports fans would have pointed to the final drive of the 1989 Super Bowl, culminating in Montana’s touchdown pass to John Taylor, as the most riveting performance ever in a football playoff game. The Niners were on their own 8 yardline, trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 16–13, with only about three minutes left to play. Before starting his legendary 92-yard drive down the field, Joe calmly looked toward the stands and breezily said to his tense teammates in the huddle, “Hey, isn’t that [comedian] John Candy up there?”
Joe threw that winning touchdown to Taylor with only 34 seconds left in the game.
He would have 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his NFL career.
With Joe, there was never “not enough time.”
A couple of decades later, I have lost some of my love for watching football. Too many sketchy characters seem to be part of the game now. We’re seeing multiple arrests for domestic violence and other criminal behavior, and the NFL has done far too little for far too long. Aaron Hernandez, a New England Patriot (no comment!) now serving a life sentence for murder, already had been involved in violent behavior when he joined the team. There had been a bar incident in which he refused to pay his bill and then punched an employee and ruptured his eardrum, but city officials looked the other way, reportedly because of his athletic talents. He also may have been involved in a double shooting later that year, but no charges were ever filed. Eventually, he learned that he couldn’t get away with out-and-out murder.
Maybe my disappointment with football also has to do with the 49ers and the mess that owner Jed York has made, what with the move out of San Francisco down to Santa Clara and into a poorly designed stadium that caters to the wealthiest ticketholders, and York’s decision to show the door to coach Jim Harbaugh, who might be grating but who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl. And then there’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who, I hope, will be moving on to another team any minute now. Good riddance. Joe Montana is the only player to have thrown two touchdown passes of 95 yards or more. Kaepernick is lucky to ever connect with a long bomb. And he can’t see the whole field, in my opinion. He just doesn’t have all the tools. And he surely isn’t a leader.
My friend Kelly once played basketball with Joe Montana. That’s right. He was a terrific basketball player, and she was at her gym one day when he came in and both of them ended up in the same pickup game. She said he was just as cool on the court as he was on the field, and just as inclusive. He didn’t seem to notice that he was a celebrity and everyone else was just a regular person at the gym. He didn’t treat Kelly, a woman, any differently from the respectful way he treated the guys. In fact, he set a tone. That’s what good leaders do.
Joe Montana and his wife of more than 30 years have four children. He spends much of his time now devoted to charities – the bulk of them for kids. “Typically, we don’t do things in public for charity because we feel like if you’re doing it for charity, you shouldn’t get anything back for it,” he once said. And that’s how people of character feel.
Maybe that’s what I miss – character. You never heard about Joe, or Jerry Rice, or Roger Craig getting into any kind of trouble whatsoever, or being anything but dedicated athletes. There weren’t any cheating scandals, and their wives didn’t make statements disparaging the team. It was another era, I guess. People didn’t spike the ball, do the chicken dance, kiss their own biceps, and congratulate themselves every time they made one good play. It wasn’t all about self-promotion. It was about the team.
But enough about that. The world has changed. I don’t want to get stuck in the past. Congratulations to you, Tom Brady.