07. December 2017 · Comments Off on Reprise Post – Another Sunday, Another War · Categories: Memoir

Note: This is not of my own writing, but something I clipped from the L.A. Times around 1971 or 1972, and tucked into my paperback copy of Walter Lord’s “Day Of Infamy”. It was written by Jack Smith, who was then and for many years, one of the columnists at the L.A. Times. I thought at the time, and still do, that it was one of the most evocative short pieces ever written about that day—Celia

It was 30 years ago, as I write this at last; a Sunday morning. It doesn’t matter any more, but I’ve always wanted to write it down anyway, while it was still vivid, and before to many anniversaries had passed.
At approximately 8 o’clock on that morning we were standing in the front yard of Bill Tyree’s rented house, out in a valley back of Diamond Head. It had been an all-night party and Tyree was standing in the front door in his pongee Chinese housecoat with the dragon on it, waving us goodbye.
In those days there was nothing necessarily dissolute about an all-night party, especially on Saturday nights. We were night people, and there was always an excuse for a party, always some correspondent on his way out to Manila or Jakarta to cover the war we knew was going to break out in the Far East. The honoree this weekend was a United Press man from New York who was leaving on Monday for the Dutch East Indies.

It had been a good party. We were all keyed up and full of war talk and we envied the correspondent, who would be there when it started. That very morning the banner on the Honolulu Advertiser had said WAR EXPECTED OVER WEEKEND. Japan was expected to attack the Dutch Indies, or if they were insane enough, the Philippines.

We stood in the yard, all quite sober; but drunk perhaps, with a subconscious excitement and a benign fatigue. It was a bright morning. The pink was fading from the sky. There is no exaggerating the beauty of Hawaiian mornings. Sometimes, after these parties, we would drive out to the lagoon at dawn and watch the Pan American clipper come splashing in from San Francisco or Samoa; a flamingo landing in a pink pool.
I don’t know how long we had been standing there in the yard when we heard a thump; one of those deep, distant, inexplicable sounds that make human beings feel suddenly very small and cold.
“It must be the gas works” somebody said, and we laughed. Days later, when we were all together again, we agreed it must have been the Arizona blowing up.

We piled into the major’s car. The major was a press relations officer for the U.S. Army in Hawaii and he knew everything. He and the correspondent got into the front seat, my wife and I in the back. As we drove along Kapiolani toward Waikiki I looked up idly into the sky and saw a silver plane flying high along the shoreline with puffs of dark smoke bursting just beneath it, I was wondering what this phenomenon might signify, when a second plane flew over, provoking more puffs, and then another.
“Something funny’s going on up there,” I said. The major stopped the car and we all got out and stood in the street, looking up into that lovely sky. Another plane came in over Diamond Head and the puffs appeared, futile and somehow comical, like bad stage effects.

The major put his hands on his hips and swore;
“Damn it, I’ve told them not to pull this kind of stuff without telling me.”
We got back in the car and drove into downtown Honolulu, past the quaint old Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in America. The palace air raid siren was going full out. We were no longer frivolous. Things were out of joint but how, we could not guess. The major dropped us off at our apartment.
“I’m going to the fort,” he said, “and see what this is all about.”
In the apartment I started to undress and went out on the balcony in my underwear. A plane flew over. I had no idea what it was; but what the hell, we were making new planes every day. I heard gunfire, but gunfire was not unusual on Oahu in 1941.

I went inside and lay down. “Something funny is going on, “I said, “but I’m too tired to think about it. I’m going to bed.”
There was the sound of someone running up the stairs to the balcony, pounding at the door and shouting; “The Japs are bombing us!”
“I know,” I said, knowing it as if I had never not known it, “You’d better put some coffee on, “ I told my wife. “It might be a long day.”

(And that’s the entire column – one man’s reaction, recollected in tranquility thirty years later, transcribed by me, another thirty years after that – how the world you know ends and another begins, all on a Sunday morning. I don’t know if this column was ever reprinted, or put into a book or anything – but I thought it was one of the best recollections of that day that I knew of.)

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.