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25. April 2015 · Comments Off on A Nice Derangement of Education · Categories: Memoir, Uncategorized

My slightly younger brother, JP and I have always counted ourselves fortunate that we got through primary school in the happy baby-boom years of the very early 1960ies, before a hitherto solid and well-established education system suddenly lost all confidence in itself and began whoring after strange gods, fads and theories. We both were taught the old phonics way, carefully sounding out the letters and the sounds, until… oh! There was that flash of understanding, at unraveling a new word, and another and another. We read confidently and omnivorously from the second grade on, and were only a little scarred from the infliction of the “New Math” on our otherwise happy little souls. It seemed like one semester I was memorizing the times tables and the “gozintas” (two gozinta four two times) and wrestling with very, very long division, and suddenly it was all about prime numbers and sectors and points on a line, and what was all that in aid of?

I really would have rather gone on with word problems, thank you very much, rather than calculus for the elementary school set. It was at least useful, working out how much paint or carpet to cover an area, or how what time a train going so fast would get to the next city. Thanks to the “New Math” I wound up working out how to figure what was 70% off of $15,000 when I was forty-three. Got to love those educational fads. You spend the rest of your life making up for having them inflicted on you. Pippy’s elementary education was far more adversely affected; she caught the “whole word” reading thing in the neck. While she did successfully negotiate the second grade and learned to read on schedule, she never enjoyed it as much, or read as much as JP and I did routinely.

Our baby brother, Sander had the worst time of all. Mom racked up conference after conference with his second grade-teacher over his failure to advance, and generally unsatisfactory class behavior. Mom was a pretty experienced and hard-bitten Mom by the time she rotated four children through the same set of public schools. She had cured many of our teachers of their initial habit of carving off great dripping slabs of condescension to parents in a nominally blue-collar working class suburb by tactfully making it clear that both she and Dad were college graduates also. Sander’s second-grade teacher remained pretty much a burr under Mom’s parental saddle, especially since he was struggling desperately and unhappily in her classroom. It never got so bad that he was wetting the bed, or developing convenient illnesses, but he was adamant about not enjoying school… or at least the second-grade class.

We began to wonder if the difference was in the teacher; she seemed to be very cold, and judgmental. He had done very well the year before, an active, charming seven-year old, the youngest child in a family of mostly adults, who were devoted to books and education. Later on, JP would suggest that Sander was thought to be so bright by his teachers because he would constantly uncork four-syllable words that he picked up from us. It really wasn’t the way, then, to blame a teacher entirely for a problem, but this was our baby brother, our real doll-baby and pet, but everything his teacher tagged on him was always his fault. First his teacher adamantly insisted he was a discipline problem, then that he was hyper-active and out to be in a special class… and then took the cake by suggesting that he was mentally retarded. Mom had gone to a great deal of trouble to get him after-school tutoring, and she blew her stack at that. Whatever was his problem, he was not retarded, and she was shocked that an experienced teacher would even make that unsupported diagnosis.

About halfway through the semester, Mom noticed that Sander rubbed his eyes a lot, and they always looked a bit reddened and crusty at the end of the school day. Eye problems? I was nearsighted, as blind as a bat without glasses, which was about the first thing that all my teachers knew about me, and I had never had that sort of trouble. Mom took him to the ophthalmologist; it turned out he was quite the opposite from me— he was far-sighted, to the point where it was acutely uncomfortable to concentrate for long on the written word. Once he was fitted with glasses, all the problems— except for the basic personality clash with the unsympathetic teacher— melted away.

Mom added her scalp, metaphorically speaking, to her collection, right next to the scalp of my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Range, who was only called Mrs. De-Range out of her hearing. Her students all knew very well that she was a nutcase almost immediately, beating the school administration to that knowledge by several years. Late middle age had not been kind to Mrs. De-Range; in fact it had been quite brutally unkind. She was a tall, gawky Olive Oyle figure of a woman, with faded reddish hair scraped back in a meager old-fashioned bun, long, yellowish teeth like a horses’ and a figure like a lumpy and half-empty sack suspended from narrow, coat-hanger shoulders. As a teacher she was fairly competent in the old-fashioned way; a strict grammarian and exacting with punctuation, wielding a slashing red pen with little regard for our delicate self-esteem. She expected us to keep a special folder of all our classroom and homework assignments, to methodically log them in by their assignment number, make a note of the grade received, and keep them when she returned them to us, all splattered over with red ink corrections. This was eccentric, but bearable; as teacher requirements went, not much variance from the normal.

What wasn’t normal were the sudden rages. In the middle of a pleasant fall day, doors and windows open for air, and the distant pleasant sound of a ball game going on, and maybe the drill team counting cadence drifting in from the athletic fields, when we were engaged in a classroom assignment, nothing but the occasional rustle of a turning page, the scritch of pencil on paper, someone sniffing or shifting in their chair… Mrs. Range would suddenly slam a book on her desk and go into a screeching tirade about how noisy we were, and how she wouldn’t put up with this for a minute, and what badly-behaved, unteachable little horrors we all were. We would sit, cowering under the unprovoked blast of irrational anger, our eyes sliding a little to the right or left, wondering just what had set her off this time. What noise was it she was hearing? Her classroom was always quiet. Even the bad kids were afraid, spooked by her sudden spirals of irrational fury.

I have no idea how much of this was communicated to our parents, or if any of them would have believed it. But I am pretty sure that Mom had Mrs. Range’s number, especially after the legendary teacher’s conference— called at the request of Mrs. Range. I had too many missing or incomplete assignments, and it seemed that she took a vicious pleasure in showing Mom and I all the empty boxes in the grade-book against my name, at the after-school conference in the empty classroom. This was almost as baffling as the sudden rages, because I was fairly conscientious—a little absentminded, sometimes, a little too prone to daydream— but to miss nearly a third of the assignments so far? “Show your mother your class-work folder,” commanded Mrs. Range, and I brought it out, and opened it on the desk; my own list of the assignments, logged in as they were returned to me, the corrected and graded assignments all filed neatly in order.

All of them were there, every one of the ones that were blanks in Mrs. Range’s book, corrected and graded in her own hand, all checked off on my list. Mom looked at my folder, at Mrs. Range’s own assignment record, and said in a voice of velvet gentleness “I believe we have solved the problem of the missing assignments. Thank you for your time, Mrs. Range— will there be anything more?” Mrs. Range’s face was unreadable. There was the faintest gleam from the steel gauntlet, the tiniest clink audible, when Mom threw it down, adding “Of course, we will pay… special attention… to the completing of all Celia’s class and homework assignments after today. Good grades are very important to us.” Mom took up her car keys, “Coming, Celia?” Out in the parking lot, she fumed. “Horrible woman… and such a snob. She went to a perfectly good teacher’s school in Texas, but she groveled so when I told her that your father and I went to Occidental… it was embarrassing. And so strange to have missed so many of your assignments… good thing she had you keep them.” “Yes,” I said, “A very good thing.” I was still trying to puzzle the look of Mrs. Range’s face; bafflement, fury frustrated of an intended target.

What on earth had she been thinking, what sort of mental lapse was this? I would never know, but two years later, after I had moved on to High School, JP came home with the intelligence that Mrs. Range had truly and ultimately lost it, melting down in the middle of a tirade to a class of terrified students, from which— according to JP—she had been removed by men in nice white coats armed with a strait-jacket, drugs and a large net. The school administration may have been shocked, but I am confident that none of her former students were surprised in the least.

22. April 2015 · Comments Off on The Camellia Collector’s Garden · Categories: Memoir

In an upscale neighborhood halfway between Redwood House, and Granny Jessie and Grandpa Jim’s tiny white house on South Lotus, there was a magical place tucked into a dell of huge native California live oak trees. Looking back, we— my brother JP, my sister Pippy and I— seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time there, in those lovely leisurely days when mothers were expected to stay at home with children, but not to spend every waking minute ferrying them frenetically from scheduled amusements, playdates and lessons, with barely time for a snatched meal from drive-through or take-out.

Compared to our peers in the 1960ies, Mom may have been a bit of an overachiever, with Cotillion on alternate Tuesdays, Girl Scouts on Wednesday, and Confirmation on Thursdays. That was during the school year, though… in the summers, we three had swimming lessons at the house of a woman in La Crescenta who had, like her mother before her— been on the American Olympic swim team in their respective days. Mom sat with half a dozen other mothers on the deck in back of the house, while the two women dragooned a dozen tadpole children through their paces: diving, back-stroking, holding our breath and diving down to the bottom of the nearly Olympic-sized pool, treading water. It must have been rather boring for her, I imagine. Mom must have enjoyed the time during our lessons in nature appreciation at Descanso Gardens more, because she could walk around the acres of Manchester Boddy’s landscaped estate.

He was a newspaper publisher in the 1920ies and 1930ies, an aesthete with a mad passion for camellias, and a lovely chunk of property, close against the hillside and thickly grown with huge native oak trees. His house was still there, back against the first rise of the hillside, a large, graceful white house with the hollow and institutional feel common to a mansion that has once been a great home, but now full of empty, or nearly empty rooms, given over to official enterprise. Owing to a number of business reversals, the estate and garden wound up being in the public domain, but unlike the house, the gardens were burgeoning, enchantingly full of life… and flowers.

As children, we loved the camellia woods, but Mom loved the rose garden, two acres of roses, Grandpa Jim’s tiny formal garden expanded exponentially. Like his garden, it was for roses and roses alone, bare thorny stems rising up out of carefully tended weedless ground, planted in curving beds, and straight disciplined lines, trained over arbors and pergolas, every selected bush lovingly tended and encouraged to bloom, bloom and bloom again, encouraged with every atom of the gardeners’ art and skill with water, and application of clippers and fertilizer. Under the hot spring sun, the scent of acres of roses in bloom was intoxicating… but the rose garden was baked and bleached by sun, shimmering off the gravel paths, and we preferred the cool green shades of the camellia grove and the pond with the ducks. The gardens seem to have been much improved upon, since we were there so often, and even since I took my daughter in the early 1980ies, perhaps the large artificial pond, just inside the old main entrance is no longer there, or in the same form, but the gardens that I remember was threaded with artificial, but skillfully built watercourses, and the main catch-pond was the home of a flock of tame ducks. There was a coin-op dispenser that for a nickel, administered a handful of cracked corn— so very clever of the garden administrators to charge the public for expense of feeding the tame resident waterfowl. By afternoon, the ducks would be lethargic, sleeping off their orgies of gobbling corn from the hands of small children, but in the morning hours, when the garden had just opened, they would throng hopefully towards anyone approaching the main pond, and the ever-bountiful coin-op dispenser.

On the other side of the pond there was an oval lawn, shaded by towering oak trees, and groves of shrub camellias, acres of cool and misty green paths planted with Manchester Boddy’s pride and joy, all dark glossy green leaves and pale pink and white or magenta flowers. We loved the camellia groves, and the tangle of green paths threading the dell: we knew the chaparral hillsides, and the open, sun-blasted acres of rose garden— it was what we lived our lives amongst— but acres of cool green woods, and stone-trimmed water-courses, that was something rare and exotic and special.

Bearing to the left of the duck pond was another bit of exoticism; along about in the late 1960ies, they built a Japanese tea-house, a lovely little tile-roofed pavilion, led to by a series of bridges, walkways and a carefully clipped landscape of bamboo and azaleas. The watercourse was extended into a lagoon around the tea-house foundations, and stocked with fat golden carp. The teahouse served tea, of course, courtesy of a concessionaire who was in the good graces of the Japanese-American organization who had funded construction. The tea was clear greenish-golden liquid, served in handle-less cups and accompanied with fine-grained, soy-salt tasting crackers. We sipped it, looking out into the serene green depths of the camellias and the sheltering oaks, and thought there was nothing more restful, nothing more peaceful in all of the world, than Manchester Boddys’ wonderful gardens.

04. July 2014 · Comments Off on My Absolutely Most Memorable Fourth of July Ever · Categories: Memoir, Uncategorized

(From my archives, and included in this book – my most memorable 4th of July ever!)

The flags are out, like it’s 4th of July every day, like the pictures I saw of the glorious, Bicentennial 4th of 1976… which I actually sort of missed. Not the date itself, just all the hoopla. The 200th anniversary of our nation, celebrations up the wazoo, and I missed every one of them because I spent the summer in England, doing that cheap-student-charter-BritRail-Pass-Youth-Hostel thing. I lived at home and worked parttime, and finished at Cal State Northridge with a BA and enough money left over to spend the summer traveling. I didn’t go alone, either. My brother JP and my sister Pippy were bored with the prospect of another summer in Tujunga, California. I assume our parents thought the world in 1976 was a much safer place than now, or I was responsible enough at 22 to be at large in a foreign country in charge of a 20 and a 16 year old.

JP and I, waiting for a bus in Scotland later that summer. Pippy took this picture.

JP and I, waiting for a bus in Scotland later that summer. Pippy took this picture.


So we missed all the official 4th of July events, but boy, do I remember that 4th. We arrived in a village called Street after three train changes, a bus ride, and a half-mile walk on a dusty road in the hottest, driest summer Britain had endured since 1940, or so older people said. Thirsty, sweating, dusty and longing for a shower, we arrived at the Youth Hostel, which oddly enough, was a three story Swiss-style chalet on the outskirts of Street. The ground floor contained the offices and member’s kitchen, and a combination common-room and dining room. The boys dorm and facility was on the next floor, and the girls on the top floor, right under the eaves. Pippy and I dropped our packs by a corner bunk and went looking for the showers.

We’d have had to walk all the way to Wells to find them. The girls washroom contained a single bench along the wall, with ten or so large plastic basins on the bench and an equal number of large pitchers underneath. There was a single cold-water tap, and a sign directing us to the hot-water tap, next to the kitchen, two flights of narrow stairs down. Pippy and I looked at the basins, the tap, and each other and burst out laughing, our only alternative to sobbing hysterically. When we met JP in the kitchen to do our dinner, he said the boys’ washroom was just as Victorian, and Hatch and Kowalski from Michigan who had been at hostel in Bath were staying here too, and had bang-up plans to celebrate the 4th.
“We have a bet on to drink 10 pints of English beer” said JP. He had been overjoyed to discover that if you appeared old enough to walk into a pub and ask for alcohol, you would be served, no questions asked.
“Gee, think your kidneys are up to it?” I said. Pippy and I resolved to have no part in this, and to stick to lemon shandy.
“The warden won’t let us celebrate here anyway, he says he’s a patriotic Brit. Are there any other Americans here.”
“Just Hatch and Kowalski and us. There’s this Guy from Canada, he says he has a half-interest, so he’s coming too. Everyone else is part of some school sociology class field trip. They have teachers and chaperones with them. Bleah… where on earth is that stench coming from? It smells like something died. About a week ago.”
From where we were eating our dinner, I could see into the kitchen, where elements of the sociology class were prepping their own evening meal.
“Some chicken they’d bought. I think it went bad in the heat.”
After our dinner, we washed the plates and utensils we used, relenquishing them to the school party. We put away our jar of jam and packet of tea and the end of a bottle of milk in one of the small cupboard spaces, hoping the milk bought fresh in the afternoon would be fit to drink in the morning. Youth Hostel amenities usually didn’t include refrigeration, and were usually short of things like mugs and forks.

Wandering outside, I asked directions to the village pub from a older guy in overalls who was doing something vaguely agricultural in an overgrown garden next to the hostel. He pointed out a footpath between his garden and a fenced pasture and replied, unintelligibly. It sounded like
“Argy-bargy-argy-bargy-rhubarb-rhubarb-argy-bargy-rhubarb,” and Pippy apprehensively moved closer to me.
“Thank you,”I said politely.”It is lovely weather….”
“What did he say?” JP asked, when we were out of hearing.
“No idea… but this is the direction we came from this afternoon. It wasn’t that big a place.” The path led to a stile, and across another field, where cows had obviously been grazing, and leaving huge, mud-puddle sized cow-pies.
“Great, just great,” JP grumbled, “Cows with the trots. It figures.”
The lane on the other side of the field was free of cows, and led towards the metropolitan heart of Street, and the excitements offered by a pleasantly shabby pub with a terrace and tables outside at the back. Hatch, Kowalsky and Guy from Canada waved to us.
“Catch up!” Hatch slid a pint in front of JP as we sat down. “Here’s to George Washington!”

“Thomas Jefferson! (cheers!) John Hancock! (cheers!) Ethan Allan! (cheers!) Button Gwinnett! (cheers!) John Addams! (hic-cheers!”
The evening passed, long and impossibly golden in that summer twilight which lasts to almost 10PM in northern Europe, an evening as bright as an afternoon. JP, Hatch and Kowalski’s pint mugs covered most of the table at times. Pippy and I stuck to shandy in half-pints: curious thing, it wasn’t ladylike to drink shandy in a pint, even if Pippy and I could put away two half-pints in the same time as it would take JP time to do justice to a pint. We drank toasts to all the signers of the Declaration that we could remember, to Revolutionary heroes, to Betsy Ross and Lafayette, von Steuben and Paul Revere. Hatch and JP held true to their intent of drinking 10 pints, although both of them did have to make sudden, hasty visits to the WC.
“It’s true,” Guy from Canada murmured quietly, “You really only rent beer.”

It was a lovely evening, I don’t think we were raucous enough to bother the other customers, no one got sick or belligerent, we remembered the curfew for the hostel was 10PM, and paid the tab, weaving only slightly as we walked back along the footpath, full of mellow goodwill and good English ale, bound for our various sleeping bags and pillows.
We were not in the least prepared to see the Youth Hostel all lighted up, and a pair of ambulances and a couple of cars at the front door, people coming and going, frantic footsteps and the sound of noisy barfing, upstairs and down.

Pippy and I climbed the stairs, and it got even worse. Upstairs in the girls’ dorm, one of the girls in the sociology class was throwing up into a basin every ten minutes. The girls who were still there, lay miserable and queasy on their bunks. We washed up, and got into our sleeping bags, while a doctor and the ambulance attendants bustled in and out. Everyone in the school party – which was everyone in the hostel but us Americans and Guy from Canada – had gotten suddenly and violently sick during the evening.
“Food poisoning,” explained the girl on the bunk next to mine. “They think it was the bean salad. We threw away the chicken, but we thought the salad was all right.”

And that was my memorable, Bicentennial 4th of July; believe me, I’ve been trying to forget about the food poisoning part for more than twenty-five years now.

17. May 2014 · Comments Off on RIP, Mary Stewart – And Thanks For All the Novels · Categories: Memoir, Random Book and Media Musings · Tags: ,

From the temple of Poseidon at Sunion, Greece

From the temple of Poseidon at Sunion, Greece

I see from a link from a Facebook friend that author Mary Steward has passed on to that great and ultimate publisher in the sky. (Facebook links and Twitter posts – I swear, this is how we find out news of a relatively minor nature these days.) She was well into her nineties, and the books that were her mega-popular best-sellers were all from several decades ago. (Including The Crystal Cave – the first of a five-novel retelling of the Arthurian cycle; these are the ones which most readers remember.) I, on the other hand, remember finding, reading and adoring her earlier books – the romantic-suspense-mystery ones. Yes, because they not the least bit risqué, no bad language or anything more sexually-explicit than a fond kiss or a close and comforting embrace – I recollect that I first encountered them in the library when I was middle-school age and no one burst any blood vessels over me reading them. I might even have read them first in the Mount Gleason Junior High library, at that – since the movie that Disney had made from The Moonspinners was shown in the school theater over summer. Although I was a bit disappointed when I looked up the book and read it after seeing the movie. Everything was different, just about! But for the setting and … well, the setting; I did get to appreciate the books, later on – as the memory of the movie faded. Especially those of her books with a setting in Greece; My Brother Michael, (Delphi and environs) and This Rough Magic (Corfu), especially … and then I had a soft spot for her very first book, Madam, Will You Talk? – which was set in southern France. I never did get to check out Corfu – but I did visit Athens and Delphi – and Provence, as well – motivated in large part because of the beautiful way that she had of establishing a place and the character of it.
Never mind about the romance and all … dumpy and rather plain fifteen-year-olds, cursed with glasses and metal braces – still have a wistful affection for romance. Even if the prospective hero is at first meeting grumpy and impatient – even slightly mysterious. Someday, my fifteen-year old self hoped – I would go to Greece, or the South of France, although the romance part was perhaps a little bit too much to hope for.

And I did – but that is another story. At any rate, she and Rosemary Sutcliffe were among the first writers that I came back to, over and over – because of the way that they wrote about a place; every leaf and tree and flower of it. I would like to think that I have taken some lessons from them, or at least had their very good example before me when I began to write about specific places.

21. March 2014 · Comments Off on La Vie en Rose-Colored Postcards · Categories: Memoir, Uncategorized

SS Majestic - when getting there in style was all the thing.

SS Majestic – when getting there in style was all the thing.

My Grandpa Jim, who was short, energetic, and as a young man, fabulously charming, emigrated from Five-Mile-Town, County Armagh in 1910. Sometime over the next few years, he fetched up in Southern California. Having been trained as something of a specialist – a professional estate gardener, he took employment with an old-moneyed California family and spent the following five decades as their old family retainer, keeping the grounds of their estate up to par.

The view to the west from the Hotel Cecil, London

The view to the west from the Hotel Cecil, London

He was mildly renowned in the neighborhood where he lived, with Granny Jessie and his two children- my mother and her older brother, Jimmy-Junior – for not only having been employed during the Depression, but for having held on to the same employer from one end of it to the other.

The Hotel Vista del Arroyo, Pasadena, California

The Hotel Vista del Arroyo, Pasadena, California

I was rather vaguely aware of this employer’s family, as I grew up: when we drove from Sunland-Tujunga to Pasadena to visit my grandparents’ house, on South   Lotus St., Mom was often given to pointing out their old, original mansion – a grey neo-Gothic style roof-peak, rising out of the trees lining the edge of the Arroyo Seco, as she drove the old green Plymouth station-wagon over the bridge. That was where the senior B – ‘s had lived throughout the Twenties, the Thirties – and in fact, a good way into the Sixties. Grandpa Jim was rather feudally devoted to the senior lady of the house, always referred to as Old Mrs. B – , to differentiate from the wife of her oldest son, Young Mrs. B.  Old Mrs. B loved roses, and that was what Grandpa Jim was most particularly skilled at as a professional gardener.

Devil's Gate Dam, La Crescenta, California

Devil’s Gate Dam, La Crescenta, California

Besides the oldest son, there was a sister and another brother, and a much younger boy whose name was Mark, called Markie, who happened to be very close to my mother’s age. She was born in 1930 – but Markie was delicate, an invalid, with health problems so chronic that he died as a teenager. He was never well enough to go to school or to participate very much in life as his parents and sibs lived it; and my mother was frequently imported to be his companion. I’ve often thought it must have been rather like the children in The Secret Garden – except that Markie was treasured by both his parents, and Mom was not an orphan.

Courtyard, California Exposition, Balboa Park, San Diego

Courtyard, California Exposition, Balboa Park, San Diego

Still, there was something rather old-world about it all – the gardener’s daughter being brought to the enormous grey manor-house, to play with the invalid little boy of an afternoon. Old Mrs. B. loved shopping, loved to buy dresses for little girls, and Mom was the beneficiary of this impulse – except that Old. Mrs. B never thought to buy practical things, and so Mom had the prettiest and most lavish dresses – but only ragged underwear, to wear underneath.

Roman Forum, Trajan's Column and Market, Rome

Roman Forum, Trajan’s Column and Market, Rome

I was, I think, about nine or ten – which would put this happening in the mid-60s – when the old B – mansion was closed up and sold. Young Mr. B and his family – maybe to include Old Mr. B – went to live in a grand estate on the outskirts of Santa   Barbara. I remember our family going to visit them, and I think I recall me being given a bouquet of flowers to present to a very, very elderly man, but to ten-year old eyes, everyone fit to receive Social Security appears enormously old …

Excelsior Hotel, Naples

Excelsior Hotel, Naples

Anyway, there was a day when Grandpa Jim took Mom and I, with my brother J.P. and sister Pippy to the old B – mansion, because there was a bunch of discarded old stuff in one of the outbuildings, and Grandpa had permission to let us have the pick of it. My mother chose a cast-iron lawn-chair, and regretted for decades that she hadn’t also taken the love-seat that went with it. Both were layered with decades of paint, and as heavy as original sin; it was just that the love-seat was so much heavier than the chair.

Canal Street, New Orleans

Canal Street, New Orleans

I don’t remember what J.P. and Pippy came away with – if anything at all – but I came away with a shoebox almost full of old postcards.

SS Havana, viewed from Moro Castle, Cuba

SS Havana, viewed from Moro Castle, Cuba

They were unused, un-postmarked, un-written upon, and there were heaps of duplicates among them – pictures of hotels, of steamship liners, of views of half a hundred of places as far removed as a Japan, and Naples. There was a collection of views of New Orleans, and of Washington DC, with the streets full of antique-looking cars, and the skies tinted peculiar shades of pink and pale blue.

Scenery in the Rocky Mountains

Scenery in the Rocky Mountains

There were postcards that were actually paintings of spectacular scenery in the Far American West, of tree-ferns in Hawaii, and stands of azalea-bushes in Florida, colored in not-quite-natural hues. Taken all together, they offered an entrancing view into another world, another time.

Luxemburg Gardens, Paris

Luxemburg Gardens, Paris

They exuded – and still do – a faint and evocative smell of old paper. Some of them were even places that I had seen myself, and a few were of local landmarks; sequoia trees in Northern California, like the Devil’s Gate Dam, a nearly-empty reservoir in La Crescenta, and the old Arroyo Seco Hotel, within eyesight, practically, of the B’s mansion.

Tree Ferns near Volcano House, Hawaii

Tree Ferns near Volcano House, Hawaii

The elder B’s and their older children traveled widely, so Grandpa Jim and Mom explained to me, when I showed them the postcards. Mom ventured a guess that perhaps the cards were brought back for Markie, the invalid little boy who was never strong enough to venture much of anywhere. So, his parents, his older brothers and sister, wherever they traveled, by train or steamship, they picked up handfuls of postcards, and brought them home for Markie – although the oldest of them would have predated his birth by a good few years.

Palace of Justice, Monaco

Palace of Justice, Monaco

Perhaps the senior B’s had made a habit of this all throughout their marriage, and travels. Over all those decades, the postcards had gravitated from across the world to the neo-Gothic mansion on the edge of the Arroyo Seco, tucked into a purse or train-case, perhaps a suitcase with hotel-stickers on it. Going from there to a desk, to a box in a closet with a bunch of other oddments – until the day they came to me.

Shijo Street, Kyoto, Japan

Shijo Street, Kyoto, Japan

I’ve had them ever since; maybe the old box of postcards, with their vivid link to a not-quite-out-of-touch past was what set me off on a love of history and travel. Or maybe I would have come to that anyway.

Tomb of the Unknown, Arlington

Tomb of the Unknown, Arlington

Live oaks with moss, Florida

Live oaks with moss, Florida

Sgt Celia copyCuriosity led me to look up the history of the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service – from which I parted company about two and a half years before I retired from the military. I found a couple of names I recalled – a guy who was a baby airman when I knew him, now a master-sergeant and instructor at the military broadcaster training school, which amused the hell out of me. Well, someone has to do that – just that I had never seen him as having that potential at all. Frankly, I’m surprised there is still  an Armed Forces Radio and Television, what with the international reach of satellite radio and TV these days. For all of me, the military information mission could be folded up and inserted as needed as public service announcements and segments into regular commercial satellite radio and television programs beamed overseas to American military establishments.

Oh, I had fun for a time with various assignments in my career field, and didn’t bring down any particular discredit on the various outlets I was assigned to, unlike some that I could mention, but the bald truth of it is that it was a dying career field, and moreover, one which had an unenviable reputation for chewing people up and spitting them out. Add in the fact that you were guaranteed to spend long stretches overseas or in remote locations, and any assignments back in CONUS were guaranteed to be very, very short ones … it was only natural that the appeal of working in that field would wear thin after a while. I looked around one day, when I had about fifteen years total active federal military service, and realized that every station manager I had ever worked for had cracked up in some spectacular manner, either physically or emotionally. There was the one who tried to commit suicide – twice – the one who barely survived the heart attack and the quadruple bypass which ensued, the one who had to work several outside jobs to keep up with the alimony and child support for all of his ex-wives, a handful who were serious alcoholics, the one who tried to stiff the US government with a false claim on his travel voucher … it went on, and on.

Reflecting on this dismaying tendency, I concluded that it was because of a particular kind of stress inherent in having a management position of the kind that broadcasters did. There was an enormous amount of responsibility, but no hands-on effective control. That, so I was told in several professional development courses that took over the years, was guaranteed to produce a high level of stress. One had to see that certain tasks were performed – there were so many hours of live programming produced by the staff, so many spots and readers, that so many hours of television programming were aired – but the means of ensuring that it all happened were all severely limited. One had to operate within the constraints imposed by the supply chain, the transport chain, the station’s individual technological capabilities, peculiarities of the host nation (some of which – notably Greece – were flat-out insane), the personnel system, plain old human nature, and the fact that most stations were tiny tenant units on a larger base. Throw in the demands of a distant headquarters – whose demands were quite often contradictory when they weren’t nonsensical … a good few years of this would begin to tell on the most able, dedicated NCO.

I didn’t see any of these stressors during my breaks from broadcasting, when I worked in the PA shop, or in the military video production service. I saw excellent managers, high morale, an achievable mission, support from higher HQ and realistic expectations of personnel. I got my very-best performance ratings and service citations during those stretches – which to me merely emphasized the dysfunction in the broadcaster organization. I’d have cross-trained in a heart-beat, if I could have, but the high panjandrums of military broadcasting didn’t allow it; you couldn’t even get out to be a recruiter or a DI, which is usually an all-paid-expenses escape with the blessings of your personnel manager. So, I got out of it the only way possible – by bailing at 20 years and never looking back. So did another NCO that I knew – the finest all around broadcaster, manager and leader that I ever worked with; good at everything, which was rather rare (most people had a strong suit of technical skill, administrative wizardry, or leadership, or a combination of any two) – he didn’t make any higher rank than I did. He went into local politics – he’s a city councilman in Plano, Texas these days. I scribble historical fiction. We both got something out of being military broadcasters for a while, but sometimes I do wonder if any other career field would have done better for us.