Dozer, the Bulldog

Dozer, the Bulldog
Feeling the "Bern"

Ellie Mae

Ellie Mae
No time for gates...

Ollie Mac

Ollie Mac
My cooking assistant

Ollie and Annie

Ollie and Annie
Azorean grandmother


38 years on this mountain, come May 31st...



Papa and Ollie Mac

Papa and Ollie Mac
Priorities, Baby


Annie, my Sweetest of Apple Blossoms

My first portrait

My first portrait
"Mr. Farmer"

Mahlon Masling Blue

Mahlon Masling Blue
My friend and brother.

Mark's E-mail address

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Collection of Christmas Reflections #6: War Admiral Avenue

This is the sixth in a series of Christmas reflections.
War Admiral Avenue
While living on War Admiral Avenue in San Jose, we sat around musing, “What can we do to earn some Christmas money?”  There never was a money-making, get-rich scheme, like the mushroom candle gig we engineered in that fall/winter of 1974.  I give one hundred percent of the credit to Matt, though Noel was a key component to the whole project, especially when we drove Molly, his yellow VW Bus up to the mountains to get bark for the candles.
There were six of us living in the four bedroom, corner house in South San Jose: Nancie and I; Noel and Sharon; and Matt and Steve.  Steve was Sharon’s six feet, six inch, sophomore-in-high school brother, who had joined us in time for school to begin in September.  Steve was not in trouble at home or anything like that; his folks just thought that he would do well with his big sister.  He flourished in our household, including making a concerted effort to contribute to chores such as cooking and cleaning.
Matt brought the concept of the candles, together with the most experience, to the table in San Jose.  That first year we operated solely out of the garage, and all phases of the game were conducted on the premises.  We had the bark inside so that it was dry; we had the four foot by four foot sand box in one corner, which we needed to create the mushrooms themselves, made out of paraffin wax, obtained by the ton from Tap Plastics, in Redwood City.
We set the cast mushrooms on the bark, in varying numbers, depending on how big the bark was.  Next we heated vats of wax as close to boiling as possible, consulting the thermometer regularly, so as not to allow the wax to overheat.  We then distributed the wax over the mushrooms with turkey basters, the wax flowing over the top, and down the sides of each mushroom, slowly forming the stalactites which were so essential for the overall effect. 
The most commonly asked question was, “Are they magic mushrooms?”  The response was automatic.  “You better believe it.”
We began making the candles in September, driving around San Jose and neighboring cities, trying to get our candles into the gift shops in time for Christmas.  As we got into October, we started taking a van load full to the flea market each Sunday, at least two members of the household having to be along on that type of chore.
There were Sunday mornings when the crew getting up at 3:30, in order to drive to the flea market and get into line, met the candle-making crew on its way to bed.  Of course, they were just wrapping up the most recent batch, and getting the candles boxed and ready for the flea market.
There was a sense of unity and comaraderie, because we all had our individual school careers and jobs going on, but we were also working together on this other enterprise. I remember the initial thought was to make money for Christmas, but the whole thing rocketed out of control, so much further than merely making some extra spare change.  The figure I remember was five thousand dollars made, with all overhead paid and significant chunks of change going to each member of the crew.
Whether or not we got the loot in time to buy gifts, or whether we even considered spending the money for anything but food for the table, I do not remember.  I do remember the sense of exhilaration at what we were doing, and how much fun we had while doing it. 

As a household we combined talents, schedules, funds, and energy into a huge container, and churned out a successful endeavor, from every angle.  Each of us had specific strengths, and contributed accordingly.  No matter what you could or couldn’t do, as far as the manufacture of the candles, everyone could help peddle them.
One of the most interesting-and enjoyable venues for selling them, was the art fair held annually in the student union at San Jose State University.  Already a home away from home for all of us living on the south end of the city, the fair being in the student union was great.  We had to park blocks away normally, and then hang out all day long on campus anyway, so we chose most frequently to chill in the student union, the availability of the library notwithstanding. 
By being official vendors we got preferential parking, within a few steps of the building, making it easy to transport our candles.  Too bad the fair only went for one week out of the year.  

The Church of the Eternal Bleacher # 7: What About the Giants?

The Church of the Eternal Bleacher
What About the Giants?

In the name of Timmy, Buster and Nate the Great, now and forever, you’re safe.  Welcome to the Church of the Eternal Bleacher, for the first post season service of the year.  We are celebrating with our brothers in St. Louis now as we see now that the National League has captured the trophy for the third year out of four.  Though I know everyone has a lot to say, sometimes one question can speak for everyone.  So let’s do that.
“Someone said the Cardinals were just like the Giants were last year.  Is that because the hit into a lot of double plays [169] during the regular season?  Or was it because they won the Series?”
“Yeah, what’s up with that?  The Cards had the best offensive stats in the National League.  That doesn’t sound like the Giants.”
“I think what that person meant is that both the Giants last year, and the Cards this year, got red hot at the end of the season.  Both were fortunate that the teams in front of them, by at least ten games in the standings, suffered a total team collapse in the last five weeks of the season.  Both the Giants and the Cardinals clinched their divisions on the last day of the season, each opposed Texas in the Series, and both won.”
“How did the Cardinals do it?  How did they keep coming back at the last minute?”
“Look at last year’s Giants.  They had all the right guys hitting at the right times, and their bullpen was untouchable.  Bochy was golden.  Look what happened in game four, when LaRussa pulled Jackson and put in Boggs.  Napoli hit a three-run jack.  He was off on that one, and the series went seven.  But the Cards were just like the Giants, playing against favored opponents, and not backing down an inch.
“What happened to the Phillies?  Didn’t they have the best pitching staff in baseball?”  There was widespread laughter at this last comment.
“We all know who has the best pitching staff in baseball, in the name of Timmy...well you know how that goes.  The Phillies, like the Giants, have an excellent pitching staff.  I think after this season, it is clearer than ever which staff is better.  However, the Phillies did not lose in the fist round of the playoffs because of bad pitching.  Look at that organization:  They won the whole enchilada in 2008, lost in the series in 2009, lost in the NLCS in 2010, and lost in the NLDS in 2011.  Who even knows if they’ll make the playoffs next year?”
“Wasn’t it sick that there were no East Coast teams in the Series this year?”
“Now Billy.  You can think that, but you can’t say it.  You know that fans from any denomination, even Dodgers fans, can be members of the Church of the Eternal Bleacher, so out of respect to them, let’s dispense with dissing on the Yankees today, unless of course there are no objections?  In which case, let’s all give a big raspberrious cheer for the Non-Yanks and the fru-Phils, or the Phollies, if you prefer.  Then we will go back to proper protocol.”
As the din finally died down, a small voice rose out of the choir area, up in the balcony.  “What about the Giants?”  There was a chorus of shouts, all apparently happy to hear the one question they had been waiting for.
“The Giants?  What do you want me to say?  That Barry Zito doesn’t care about the nineteen million dollars he is owed?  That the Giants don’t still owe Aaron twelve mil?  They do, and they have a bunch of tough choices to make.  But don’t you get confused.  The Giants haven’t gone anywhere.  Buster is taking bullpen practice, and Freddy’s surgery went just fine.  They have the same starting pitching and a very solid bullpen.
We saw an impressive debut from Brett Pill, and we saw the two Brandons, Belt and Crawford, and each of the three tells us that the kids are here to put pressure on the veterans.  The Giants know they must score more runs, and the Giants’ ownership knows they must make an effort to provide more potent bats in the lineup, or else we will be waving good-bye to Timmy, Matt and Madbum.  We don’t want to wave bye-bye to any of those three, though,  because it will mean we will also have to wave hi, as they come to visit AT&T, as members of opposing teams, in the name of Timmy, Buster and Nate the Great, now and forever, you’re safe.  

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Collection of Christmas Reflections #5: Drama in the Middle School

This is the fifth in a series of Christmas reflections.

Drama in the Middle School
No narrative dealing with Christmas memories would be complete without a discussion of the theatrical productions we did at the middle school.  Of the nine years we put on full-length productions, we devoted two years to Christmastime presentations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Not only did students perform this classic onstage in my classroom, the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge was performed by a girl in both productions.
Presenting a dramatization each year was part of the culture of my classroom.  While teaming with Mr. Poulton, our classroom featured sixth, seventh and eighth graders together in the educational environment, working to create a performance which included student production of props and scenery, a music soundtrack, the lights, sound effects, back-stage direction, on-stage choreography and, in some years, costume design and manufacture.
We handled the assignment of roles to individual students, on the basis of a tryout in front of a committee of at least three members: a student, an adult on campus known to all the students, varying year to year on availability and schedule, and me.  We on the committee, listened to the auditions, took notes and convened afterwards in the classroom next door to make our decisions.  I encouraged students to try out for any and all roles, with no consideration of gender.  
Hence, one year we had a female Romeo, and twice we had Eleanora Scrooge.  Aside from making adjustments to the script as far as pronoun use was concerned, Eleanora was believable and performed both years by imminently talented individuals, thank you very much Sarah and Jessica P.
The number of lines needed to pull off this role was astonishing.  I used to tell my students routinely that I asked them to perform feats that I was no longer capable of doing, and they did it with fire and panache.
The students would have been coming to my classroom annually, as they progressed through the elementary school, so they knew what to expect.  Many had older siblings involved in earlier productions, and many had attended evening performances in the past.  The thing they always seemed to remember was how dark it was in the classroom/theater when the lights were turned off.  That’s because we had covered all of the windows with black plastic and tape, and I had even gone up on the roof to cover the skylight.  When the classroom lights were suddenly doused, there was always a gasp from the audience, followed immediately by the slow illumination of the stage by the lighting crew. 

Very early in our production years, en enterprising parent of one of the actors, had improvised a light box which allowed us to have four separate control switches for the four “banks” of Halogen lights.  Students were in complete charge of this phase of the production, and had to participate in rehearsals so that they knew the cadence of the play, and the sequence in which to brighten and dim the lights.  The kids who controlled the lights had to be as familiar with the play as the actors, and it was an incredible motivator to get kids to read, especially since it was always either Dickens or Shakespeare in our productions. 
In the years we presented Dickens’ story of Christmas spirit, we had to start right out the gate in September, working during seventh period elective, immersing ourselves in Victorian England, while it was still ninety degrees outside in the late summer.  By the end of the first quarter, we were already rehearsing small segments of the play, and well along the way to having scenery planned and sketched.  As the second quarter drew nearer to Christmas, time spent in elective began to spill over into language period, which worked out well, since all of the actors in the play came from our multi-graded classes.
Former students tell me, to my utter shock, that they do not remember the lessons on diagraming sentences as well as they remember the dramatizations.  Though that astounds me, I must accept them at their word, especially when I think of Spencer as Old Joe or Silent Steve as The Ghost of Christmas Future.  It was all about getting buy-in from the inhabitants of the middle school, and as their performance indicated, buy-in was not an issue.  
As long as assignments were turned in and did not interfere with regular business, we flourished,  Besides, it was hard to criticize a student for not completing vocabulary homework, when said student was working to memorize the challenging language of Dickens. 

Thank You, Doctor Jill *

This is the first two pages of "Six Day a Week," the story of my therapeutic journey.

Thank You, Doctor Jill
My therapeutic “journey” took only a total of five hours and fifty minutes, stretched out over seven weeks. There was no luggage and there was no send-off party.  I resolved my lifelong conflict with anxiety issues stemming from panic disorder, after completing seven visits to a competent therapist at the local health center.
Most people have some personal contact with the process of therapy.  I know a person for whom therapy is a way of life, because he has grown to rely on the ongoing advice and guidance from his therapist.  What I have not encountered is a person who suffered from what amounts to a lifelong disability, and who had tried therapy in the past with no success.  Then, along comes that mythical (mystical?) person, who deftly inserts the key, unlocking the door to a solution for resolving the conflict in that person's life.
For me that mythical person turned out to be a resident psychologist at the local community health center.  Unknown to me, Dr. Jill had been at this clinic for the past thirteen years.  Yet I had been going down to Ukiah to see a counselor, who told me on my first visit that she could help me with immediate concerns, but was unlikely to resolve my anxiety issues.  So you can imagine my surprise to find out that within a half-hour of my rural residence, I could get help to rid myself of a lifetime disorder and its long range effects.
Furthermore, within the first five minutes of my initial session, Doctor Jill assured me that there was a cure for my problem, she could effect that cure and all that was left was for me to do the work.  Was that possible?  I envisioned some sort of disease coursing through my veins that Dr. Jill was going to eradicate with a deft inoculation of penicillin, and I would walk out the door with a new lease on life, but I knew it didn't work like that.  Yet this beaming, diminutive, effervescent  person sat in front of me and declared confidently that my problem was very common, and there was a solution.  It was up to me to be an active participant.  I told her I was ready for action, ready for danger.
Exactly, what was my lifelong affliction?  From the time I was ten until the time I approached my fifty-eighth birthday, I suffered from panic attacks.  I didn't know they were panic attacks, I didn't seek medical attention, and the only person I ever told was my mother, who was very supportive, but unable to provide any definitive answers.  When triggered, this overwhelming physical sensation surges up into my brain, takes control, and sends me into a tailspin that results in loss of consciousness if I don't get out of wherever I am trapped,  sit down in the fresh air, and drape my head between my knees, not a very dignified posture. 
The first time it happened, I was in St. Martha's church for the eight o'clock mass, mindlessly standing there, going through the ritualistic motions of the service, when a girl not much older than me in the pew in front of us, keeled over like an ancient oak, and when she hit the floor, it sounded like a sonic boom.  She was standing where the pew met the aisle leading up to the altar, and she toppled out into this center aisle.  How could a person make so much noise hitting a tile-encased, concrete floor?
The absolute shock of this event seared into my mind as though someone had surgically opened the top of my head and poured in some sort of toxic acid that drained the blood from my brain and caused me to heat up instantly.  Spontaneous combustion was a distinct possibility.  My vision was clouded, my face was  white, my breathing was rapid and shallow, I was sweaty and dizzy and I knew I would be next to go down if I didn't get out of there.  I stumbled out the side door just as a man I did not know was approaching; he took one look at me and told me I had better sit right down on the curb of the church driveway and get my head between my knees.  He told me I looked like a ghost, and that I should take deep breaths until I felt the nausea pass. 
I’m fifty-nine now, and the nausea has passed.  Thank-you, Dr. Jill. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Collection of Christmas Reflections #4: O Tannenbaum

This is the fourth in a series of Christmas reflections.

O Tannenbaum
Is there a more identifying feature of Christmas than the Yule tree?  The only Christmas day of my life which did not contain a Yule tree was the December I spent in Korea, and even then, when I returned home on leave on January 5, 1973, the tree remained in place in the front dining room on Fellowship Street.
I was due to leave Korea on January 8th, but since the 8th was a Monday, I had made a slight adjustment on my orders, so that they now read January 5th as the day I was supposed to leave.  Coincidentally, the 5th was a Friday, so I left after work, and no one noticed.  Walking through the front door on Fellowship Street, and realizing that the tree was still up, in honor of my return home, was an uplifting experience.  
The Christmas tree represents a connection between when we were kids, and Christmas was the penultimate occasion of the year, and now, when the amount of attention given to the Holidays, depends on what else is going on around us.   During the years of teaching, we went each year on the last Friday afternoon before the big day, up Bell Springs Road to the “Christmas Tree Farm.”
After we added on the living room with the ten foot high ceiling, I insisted that the tree match its environment.  When we went searching for a tree in those days, we were looking for a tall, well filled-out tree, which filled the whole bay window of our lower living room.  With the three different seven-feet-high windows reflecting back the sparkling lights, the lower living room was transformed into a  panoramic Holiday scene, and it set the stage for our two-week sojourn from the rigors of the classroom.
Yes, it overwhelmed our living space, but we let it, spreading the gifts out on the red, glittery spread beneath the tree, and crawling to the base each morning to fill the reservoir with spring water, to help keep the tree fresh.  The pine scent permeated the air, and wafted upstairs, aided by the branches of fir that lined the railing on the way up the steps. 

On that Friday that ushered in the celebratory part of Christmas, Annie used to present our annual tree-decorating feast, which consisted of only finger foods, all elaborately planned and prepared to coincide with outfitting the tree with its colorful ensemble.  Hang a glittering red ball, munch a stuffed mushroom.  Dangle some tinsel, crunch some shrimp.  Attach an elf, snag a little smoky sausage, and so it went, until both the tree and our stomachs were maxed out, filled to the point of bursting.
On the television we would be watching one of a collection of Holiday classics, selected in advance, so as to complete the evening’s entertainment.  Our only consideration was the ongoing possibility that snow would interfere with tree hunt, because farther up the road, the elevation made it more likely that we would encounter the white stuff.
The year I blew my knee out on Friday, December Thirteenth, when we went to acquire the tree the following Friday, I was on crutches, and the snow was impossibly deep.  We had floundered our way up to the Christmas Tree Farm, at the ten-mile-mark, only because the road had been well-packed before us.  Now, as we maneuvered our way slowly around, we found that the steadily falling snow had obliterated any chance we had of selecting a tree, based on anything other than size-and luck.
We could see whether a tree was tall or not; we just couldn’t tell if it was aesthetically pleasing or more of the Charley Brown variety.  In either case we made our selection, cut it down with the bow saw, and placed it in the bed of the truck, nestled in the snow.  I couldn’t drive because I couldn’t depress the clutch with my knee being injured, but Annie did an admirable job, gliding and sliding our way down the driveway, to deposit us and the tree in front of the house.  Anytime we drive a vehicle down to the house from Bell Springs Road in the snow, we risk the possibility that we will not be able to get back out until after the storm passes and the snow melts.

I used to say, “The only time I don’t mind being snowed in is the first day of Christmas Vacation.”  This particular year Mother Nature listened and obliged.

Making a List

This is an excerpt from "Blue Rock Ridge."
Making a List
Would you quit you job of eight years, pack up your belongings in an ancient VW bus, and move up to Northern Mendocino County to live in a windowless sixteen by twenty foot cabin?  Neither would I, except that I did.  Together with Annie, who was four months along with our oldest son, I left San Jose (and San Jose State University), and all the creature comforts of city and civilization, to relocate in the coastal mountains of Northern California, about halfway between San Francisco and Eureka. 
Up here, on a wind-swept ridge, we took up residence in a one room cabin that I had built the previous summer with the help of a neighbor and two of my brothers.  We had no running water, no electricity, no propane, and no source of heat.  There were no windows, cupboards, shelves, or appliances, and there was no way of refrigerating food, except to go to town for ice to put in the ice chest.
We arrived on May 31, 1982, inexplicably expecting that June would be bright and sunny as it was in San Jose.  What we found was California's infamous June Swoon, which produced a climate consisting of mist and drizzle, (mizzle?) and temperatures in the forties.  I had tacked pieces of plywood over the window openings to keep out the critters, so we didn't get wet, but we also found that living in a cave was not that much fun either.  Being excited about our overall outlook was all good and well, but facing the daunting prospect of trying to muster up a few of the basic elements of comfort and civilized living, proved to be a serious challenge.
Where did one start?  I like lists, so Annie and I dug up a notebook and pencil and set about the task of brainstorming a list of the most important creature comforts that most people would find essential to maintain existence (no lofty goals).  We kept in mind that there was a limited budget and a pressing need for an immediate infusion of income.  
Our initial list, with no special focus on prioritizing,  looked something like this:  find/install a wood stove and chop some wood; install a propane line that would fuel a cook stove and a refrigerator and then acquire a refrigerator; find a source of water and direct it into the house after first setting up a sink/drainage system; build an outhouse; install windows; build steps up to the loft, build/install steps up to the front door (the only door, I might add); buy and install a hot water heater; obtain/install a bathtub, and prepare ourselves, both mentally and physically, as best we could, for the arrival of a new-born baby.
As I reflect on the fact that, when Casey was born the following September, we still did not have hot water in our cabin, I shudder.  And yet, as events unfolded, that doggoned list of priorities directed forward progress, and which of the other items on the list was less important?  There was a sense of urgency juxtaposed with the serenity of our immediate environment.  Couple that with the necessity to maintain gainful employment with my brothers, building homes for others who had made the move, I found that when push came to shove, shove wouldn't budge.
We had to settle for the things that got done and not whine about the rest.  Annie puts it most eloquently when she reminisces, stating flatly, “I remember one of those first days sitting on the bed in semi-darkness in a little white sun dress with red polka-dots, listening to the sound of water dripping everywhere.  I was cold, wanted a hot bath and a warm fire.  I thought to myself, 'What in the heck have I got myself into?' At that point I couldn't even answer my own question.”
What did compel us to move out of the city and up to the country at this particular point in time?  Start with pollution, proceed to traffic congestion, dwell on kids growing up on the streets versus kids growing up on twenty acres of rolling hills, and finish with the final component of living in your own home while forging a new life away from corporate America.  So we knew why we were here; we just didn't know whether we were going to be able to stay.  Fortunately we were about to discover the secret to life on the mountain: community.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Collection of Christmas Reflections # 3: The World's Finest Chocolate or Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

This is the 3rd in a series of Christmas  reflections from all stages of my life.

The World’s Finest Chocolate
Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
How did I earn that five dollars I kicked into the Christmas fund, in 1965, so that I could be part of the Christmas present-buying- extravaganza?  I could go it alone, as we all did at times, I could work with JT, or finally, I could put in with everybody, as we combined forces to earn money for presents. 

As Brian got more into both Sunrize Market and Bishop Amat, he found himself with more money than time, a good arrangement for me.  He had to sell those World’s Finest Chocolate Bars, in order to be hip and happening at school, but he had no time outside of work and homework.
He therefore recruited me and JT to sell his candy bars.  I started at Bishop Amat in September of 1966, so I had my own candy bars to sell, but guess whose got sold first?  At a dime a pop, we could earn two dollars and forty cents for selling a box of Brian’s candy.  My own homeroom spirit took a backseat to financial prosperity, so I didn’t much care whether my candy got sold or not.
As a family, though, we had several ventures that we employed over the years, that relied on Pa spearheading the effort, with all of us kids going out into the neighborhood, to entice the good folks to buy what we were selling.  The most effective, in terms of returns, was the mistletoe gig, which combined several elements of the process, to form one solid package.  Doing mistletoe involved a trip up to the San Gabriel Mountains to gather mistletoe and pinecones, always a fun excursion.
The folks would package a sprig of mistletoe with a red ribbon on it in a little plastic bag, and the price would be fifteen cents.  Make it a big sprig with the ribbon, toss in a pinecone or two, and charge a quarter.  We went door to door in the neighborhood, and brought the loot back to Pa.  Spending a whole Saturday on the project might net us thirty dollars, which was then divvied up amongst us, depending on how old you were, and how much work you had done.  It was a lucrative way for us all to get a financial infusion.
Another way to earn money was having Pa make redwood baskets for hanging plants, and then again taking them door to door, selling them for one, two or four dollars each.  Pa used to stockpile a bunch of them, while teams of two covered all of the neighborhood. Again, we divvied up the profits.
There was a discarded telephone pole down across the street, in the empty lot next to Mrs. Downin’s place.  Now today, the last thing I would ever burn in my wood stove is creosote-soaked wood, but back in the day, we burned anything in our fireplace that would warm things up.  I had made an attempt at some earlier point to saw this baby up with a bow saw, but had given up after cutting two rounds.  Not enough return on my time investment.
Now I attacked the project a second time with a vengeance, and succeeded in lopping that pole up with a methodical directness which impressed me as much as anyone.  As the length of the telephone pole diminished, the coins in my piggy bank increased.  One thing for sure is I found it did not pay to try to earn money as a painter, because in the summer of 1967, I painted the entire house fire engine red for the total sum of five dollars, indicating the need for me to get a new agent. 
By the time 1966 rolled around, I was working as a bottle boy at both Sunrize Market and Handy Liquors. I earned a dollar an hour and probably took home ten bucks a week, of which I kept fifteen percent.  That would be a dollar and fifty cents weekly.  It was a good thing we understood the concept of saving our money.
A couple of years in a row, Auntie Anne and Grandpa made Christmas wreaths, and we got to go stay at their house for a weekend and sell them around the neighborhood.  I should say that Auntie Anne made the wreaths, while Grandpa drove us around, and we would take them door to door. 
Not able to guarantee peace and harmony for all mankind, I settled for buying Christmas presents for my family.

The Unauthorized Pet *

This is an excerpt from "Military Madness #2: Rat Fuzz."

So it was that, when I went to have my picture taken for my military identification at Fort Leonard Wood, I still had a mustache.  The guys clipping hair (actually they were shaving heads, and it took them all of about sixty seconds apiece)  were not paid to notice facial hair, and since Drill Instructor Gaines had vacated the premises with his platoon in the interim I had been gone, there was no one who now seemed to care one way or another.  That was then, but the following morning, when we were at parade rest after having come from the chow hall, I drew the notice of Drill Instructor Stephen C. Fletcher, our junior drill instructor, who couldn't have been more than twenty-three.

DI Fletcher was not a big man, but his physique reflected the fact that he was in the best possible shape a guy could be in, an obvious effect of working at a job which required tremendous physical stamina, and a tenacious approach to the habitually frigid environment in which we all existed.  He stood about six feet, and weighed about one eighty, with a compactness about him that suggested that in an endurance race, he would outlast anyone.  He was as light on his feet as Muhammad Ali, and his “Smokey the Bear” hat was tipped slightly forward in a jaunty sort of manner that belied his intensity. 
Stopping in mid-sentence of his outline for the day's agenda, he directed his gaze at me and stared.  His eyes widened and he extended his index finger and crooked it toward himself, in the unmistakable gesture that means, “Front and center, Trainee.” 
When I had scurried up to the front of formation, and positioned myself in front of him at attention, he stood transfixed and ogled my face.  
“What is that on your lip?”  
Uh-oh.  I  had a real bad feeling about my hasty decision to follow DI Gaines's instructions so literally.  “Nothing, Drill Instructor!”
His face began to turn pink.  “Nothing?  Are you telling me that there is nothing on your upper lip, except snot?”
“No Drill Instructor!”
“NO?” he bellowed.  “No?  Then, tell me Private O'Neill, is that a G****ed caterpillar?  Do you have an unauthorized pet in my platoon, Private O'Neill?”  His face began to turn red.
“NO! Drill Instructor.”
“Well, now, I just think you do, because I can see it crawling there on your upper lip.”
“No Drill Instructor!”
“If that is not a caterpillar, what is it?”
“It is a mustache, Drill Instructor.”
“Were you issued that mustache, Private O'Neill?”  
All of this was happening at warp speed, and I never do well in the spotlight, but still I could see that DI Fletcher was enjoying himself.
“Yes, Drill Instructor.”
That wasn't in the script.  “Who issued you the mustache?”  Parry, thrust.
“Drill Instructor Gaines issued me the mustache, Drill Instructor Fletcher.”
DI Fletcher's eyes went from amused detachment, to amused interest.
“What do you mean Drill Instructor Gaines issued you a mustache?  That is a load of shark s**t.”
“I mean that DI Gaines specifically ordered me to shave the whiskers off my chin, but he did not order me to shave the whiskers off of my upper lip.  Drill Instructor!  According to the company clerk, once your military identification picture has been taken with the mustache, it's part of your I.D. and it can't be required that I shave it off.”  Ah, the perfect application of the nebulous passive voice.  Note that I didn't tell DI Fletcher that he couldn't tell me to shave it off, only that I couldn't be told.
Yes, I was a smart-mouthed trainee, a slimy newcomer to his world, and a short-time visitor at that, but I had tickled his funny bone, and that was a key factor in determining the success or failure of any given day for DI Fletcher.  He liked humor, and he appreciated it when it was presented to him, as long as it was not perceived by the troops as humor.   It was just as crucial to him to have an appreciative audience for his wit.  It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, one that was to come into play a great deal in the following nine weeks.

“You are the one who came in with the beard.”  Unconsciously, he brushed the fingers of one hand across the neatly trimmed mustache on his own face as he studied the razor cuts and burns on my face.  “How'd that work out for you?”
“Pretty well, Drill Instructor.  I got a mustache issued to me.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Collection of Christmas Reflections # 2: No Socks in the Box

The 2nd in a series of Christmas reflections from all stages of my life.
No Socks in the Box
Once the house was clean, we could focus more on the important part of Christmas: presents.  We were big into the giving thing.  Papa’s standard line while en route to the dump, was that it was better to give than to receive, and no better example, besides the dump, existed besides Christmas.

Mom has said repeatedly that Pa closely monitored the gifts that Santa brought to make sure that each child’s “stack” included the appropriate percentage of real gifts, as opposed to cosmetic gifts.  You know what I’m saying/talking about.  Gaily wrapped packages that contain underwear or socks are so bogus, because they help create the impression that life is good, and you are making out like a bandit.  Pa was there to make sure that no kid walked away on Christmas Day unhappy, at least from the perspective of having opened the proper number of quality gifts.

I only remember being disappointed one year, as far as choice of gifts went.  I received a guitar around the time I was twelve.  When I saw it on my stack, I went to Mama and asked her if Santa hadn’t made a mistake.  To her credit she never hesitated, assuring me that Santa knew what he was doing and that I would love playing the guitar.  Well, the very question itself boded ill for the venture.  I may have given it a try for two or three days, fifteen minutes per, before announcing that my musical career was stalled.  I don’t even remember what happened to the guitar. 

Otherwise, each year I was sure to receive two, three, maybe four new books, all hardback copies, with at least one of my favorite casts involved, like the Hardy Boys or the Bobbsey Twins.  The older boys read the Hardy Boys, while the younger set read the Bobbsey Twins.  On one occasion, when I announced that I was going to Sav-On Drugs Store to buy three Bobbsey Twins books, older brother Brian lobbied for me to buy as-of-yet unread Hardy Boys mystery stories. 

“Why should I?” I had asked.  “You won’t let me read the ones you own, so even if I bought Hardy Boys, why would I let you read mine?”  Leverage with the big boys was difficult to achieve, and I worked on it continuously.
“I’ll tell you what, Babe, er, uh, Markie.  For every Hardy Boys book you buy, I will let you read one of mine.”  His proposal merited consideration, but I went for the jugular.
“How about you let me read two of your Hardy Boys books for every one I buy?” And thus it was that negotiations were conducted on the home front.

When it came to Christmas, everyone was actively involved in the pursuit of cash so as to be in a position to buy presents for the other members of the family.  Even a nickel candy bar, poorly wrapped in crumpled wrapping paper, was welcomed by each and every member of the family, the logic being that it was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as Himself used to say.  Sound logic, that.

In 1965 we put our money together, the five oldest of us, and went to the outdoor shopping strip containing Sav-On Drugs, Kresge, and Gemco.  My contribution was five dollars, and we had about thirty altogether, but in 1965, it might as well have been ten times that.  We were able to do a worthwhile facsimile of Santa, and provide each member of the family with an expertly wrapped package, with the guarantee that there was no underwear or socks in the box.

By the next year (The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” was blaring on the store’s speakers) we had two hundred dollars, and ended up buying a new turntable and speakers for the folks from Wallach's Music City,  and boss gifts for everyone else.

There is no way I can adequately describe how crucial this whole process was to each and every one of us.  All of the [negative?] emphasis today on the material side of Christmas, ignores the fact that people who like people, enjoy giving presents.  The stores did not create that need; they just facilitate it.

All we did was pick up the loose ball and run with it.  If I could go out with five bucks and buy everyone presents, imagine what we could do with thirty bucks.   And skip the socks, please.

Rat Fuzz *

The following piece is the first part of two excerpts from "Military Madness # 2: Rat Fuzz."

Boot camp...

No Razor Required
The first week of basic training at Fort Leonard Wood was a blur with all of the moving around from station to station. Long about the third day, they lined us all up for haircuts, a symbolic enough of a ritual associated with countless books and films depicting military life. I should mention that my beard, which I had worn so proudly on that first day at the AFEES, turned out to cause me some serious grief. I didn't think anyone even noticed it or cared the first couple days, but then came Haircut/Picture Day. 

So there I was, standing in a line of close to two hundred guys, when along came this drill instructor for one of the other platoons, and he noticed my beard. He. Went. Ballistic. Of course, I was mortified; my whole program in these early days was to stay unnoticed, and therefore be in the best position to survive this disaster.
Positioning himself directly in front of me, with his toes touching my toes, or rather his toes doing a little tap dance on my toes, he commenced to make conversation.
“What in the Sam hell is that on your face?” His roar sounded worse than his bite might have been.


“SIR! What do I look like to you? SIR! Don't you ever call me SIR again. I work for a living in this man's army, and I WILL BE GOD-DAMNED IF I WILL LET A PISS-ANT SORRY EXAMPLE OF A SACK-OF-SHIT TRAINEE INSULT ME! YOU WILL ADDRESS ME AS DRILL INSTRUCTOR!”

“Yes, Drill Instructor!”

“I asked you, 'What in the hell is that on your face, Soldier?'”

Probably fear. Either that, or egg yolk from breakfast. “Drill Instructor?” There was a split second there when I thought he was going to lose it completely, but it was all an act.  Later, I could see that.  Right now, all I could see was his flaring nostrils.  He perched on the balls of his feet, the better to be able to glare down at me, while he tried to figure me out.

“WHAT IS ON YOUR FACE?” His cheeks began to turn beet red, as he geared up for some serious “in your face” dialogue, except that there was only one of us currently speaking.  

“Whiskers, Drill Instructor?”
“I ask the questions around here, and I asked you what the hell that was on your face, and why is it there?”


“There you go asking questions again.” His face was all of two inches from mine, and his eyes bulged out comically, only no one was laughing.


“Are you calling me a liar?” he roared.

Inside I could rationally see that it was all a game, and one that he had played countless times before with countless numbers of new recruits, and one for which there was no victory in store for me.
“No, Drill Instructor. I need to shave.”
“You're damn right you need to shave. You needed to shave yesterday! You need to shave right now, before I do it for you, and if I do it, I won't need a razor, 'cause I will rip it out by the roots! Am I making myself clear?”

“Yes, Drill Instructor.”

“I CAN'T HEAR YOU!” How many times I was to hear that refrain over the next ten weeks I can't even guess, but there was only one way to respond.

He heard me this time.  “You got exactly five minutes to get into your barracks and get that rat fuzz off your chin.”

“When you're done, you will get your shaved self back out here so that you will have plenty of time to push up Missouri, while you wait for your own personal hair stylist to beautify yourself.”
Push up Missouri? How do I do that? “YES! DRILL INSTRUCTOR!”
The amazing thing is, that even in the midst of my fear and embarrassment, my little pea-brain was still sifting and sorting the previous exchange between me and Drill Sergeant Gaines. His specific words were, “...get that rat fuzz off your chin...”  
First of all, I never saw a red rat before.  I say red, because, even though I have brown hair, my beard comes out red, especially if I spend time in the sun.  “ your chin...”  He didn't say anything about shaving the “rat fuzz” off of my upper lip.  “Hmmm...”

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Collection of Christmas Reflections-# 1

This is the first in a series of reflections based on Christmas memories from all stages of my life.
A Cascade of Color
Of all childhood times, vacation included, Christmas took the pudding as far as good times went.  From the warmth exuded by Ma and Pa, to the sumptuous fare served at both meals on Christmas, to the exuberance demonstrated by all of us kids, this season stood a Christmas tree’s star higher than any other time in our lives.
In our house the emphasis was always on the spiritual side, with the materialistic part allowed to flow in as a welcome addition.  Therefore, the time before Christmas was spent preparing for the grand day.  Most of this work was done under Ma’s supervision, with the house just blown apart, while we all attacked the job to the best of our abilities.  Cleaning the place involved everyone who was not gainfully employed outside the home, bringing in hard, cold cash.
This was not like in the summer, when Ma would hand each of us a list of chores, with the understanding that when the work was done, you were a free bird.  There was also the understanding that if any of the chores did not met expectations, then you could be called back for an encore effort.  No, this was an endurance race: which would come out on top, the house or the kids?

We’re talking about pulling the couch away from the wall so as to be able to scrub baseboards, wash windows and vacuum.  We cleaned door jambs of fingerprints and dirt, we took the curtains down in the kitchen so that Ma could wash them and we scrubbed the widows and sills.  If we griped about the work, Ma reminded us about the reason for the clean-up.  “Santa Clause does not stop at dirty houses.”  And if the older boys already knew that there was no Santa, they were smart enough not to let on.
The tree rotated around the living room different years, sometimes ending up in the window looking out onto the front porch, and other years being set up in the front dining area, in the years after the floor heater was replaced with a more practical wall furnace.  Of course, JT had to experience sitting on that hot furnace first before it was deemed replaceable.  I don’t have any idea if there was a connection, but I do know that the floor furnace got covered up with flooring and then carpeting.
My earliest Christmas memory is from when I was three, and the tree was set up in the front dining area.  I was pushing a yellow dump truck across the carpet in the direction of the tree. The tree lights were on and it was dark outside.  The windows were all steamed up, and the lights flickered off the inside of them in a sparkling bonanza of Christmas color.  The tinsel and ornaments, always in abundance on our tree, reflected off of those same windows, the steam diffusing the bright colors unevenly all across the framed glass, in an unbalanced kaleidoscopic cascade of color.
No matter how trashed the house looked three days before, by the time Christmas Eve arrived, it was immaculate.  We never set the tree up any earlier than the  eve of the great day, mostly because it did not belong in place until the house was clean;  even as kids, we recognized that.
I awoke from a nap one Christmas Eve, and stumbled out to see Pa placing ornaments on the tree.  No one else was around, and he was in a wonderful frame of mind, as was mostly the case when these kid-oriented events took place.  It seems obvious to me now, that Mama had taken the others off the the store, or to Uncle John’s, and that Pa was enjoying himself, performing a simple task which connected him to his childhood, as surely as I will soon be connecting to my own childhood.
I might as well be three again, pushing my dump truck across the living room carpet.  The ornaments dangling from their respective bobbing branches, the sparse tinsel all the prettier for its scarcity, and the smell of Douglas Fir permeating the room, all combine to keep that Christmas pageantry alive and flourishing.  The homemade ornament, made by Pa when he was in grade school, hangs in its honored place, amidst the ornaments that will continue to carry the message of "Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men and Women," even if a poster of Buster Posey has replaced that dump truck.   

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On the Steps-Again

This is an excerpt from “Never Hit your Sister with a Baseball Bat; it Makes a Bad Impression on her Mind.”
On the Steps-Again
When growing up on Fellowship Street, baseball was another example of process versus product, where process was everything and product (as in, who won?) was not even on the radar.  Though the orange groves were now gone, replaced with tract homes, our street was still old-school, with one acre lots, front yards and homes with screened-in porches.  
There were two vacant lots available for baseball, one directly across the street, and the one between our house and the start of the tract homes.  Early in the morning or anytime after dinner, we played next door, so as not to bug either Mrs. Downen on the left or Miss Buck on the right, of the field across the street from our house.
However, once the day was under way, we played across the street, in marathon games that began as soon as breakfast and chores were dispatched with, and continued all day.  The games would continue until the dinner hour demanded that kids who did not want to sit on the steps and listen to the sound of the rest of the family grubbing down, get back to the house in time to wash up, before grace was said.  
Those who did not hear the bell (or did hear it but opted for one last at-bat) and arrived late for dinner, were invited to occupy said steps until Papa figured you had learned your lesson, or more likely when it was deemed essential that you join the table before the food was gone.  In our house everyone filled his or her plate before saying grace, to give everyone an even chance, so sitting on the steps was decidedly not a good strategy to practice.
The rules of the baseball game were simple.  You couldn't strike out, thereby ensuring that all willing participants would be allowed to play, and there was no limit to the number of kids who could play at one time.  My older brother Brian and I had to be on opposite teams in the early days, because we were the only southpaws, and there was only one left-handed glove.  Therefore we-or rather, I-had to be sure that we never ended up on the same team,  or I would be the one without a mitt. 
Whereas you couldn't strike out, you could foul out, because chasing foul balls was time-consuming (especially trying to locate a ball in tall grass...“Dear St. Anthony, I hope you're around; we've lost our ball and it can't be found.”) 
Our games would begin as soon as we had enough players to be able to field  a first baseman and at least two outfielders.  We could close off right field, since both Brian and I were right-handed batters, and no one else ever tried anything as exotic as switch-hitting.  Then we could simply make any ball hit to the right of center field foul, and then open up the field when there were enough to fill all of the positions.  
Every kid who showed up was allowed to play, as long as it was established that he or she could handle a batted ball well enough to avoid injury.  I liked that everyone could play because that meant that JT could play too.  Her enthusiasm dipped for a little while after she got hit in the forehead with a baseball bat, but she came back stronger than ever.  I promised I would never swing the bat when she was in my immediate vicinity again, and she forgave me.  Heavens to Mergatroid.  I never saw such blood. 
Kids came and went, depending on the responsibilities each had to account for in order to be able to break free and play in the game.  We didn't mind, though, if players came and went, because the game itself never stopped.  The score could easily end up 77-73, though no one ever kept track of the innings-why bother?
The games would break up only when the depleting ranks made everyone realize that the time had arrived.  We could always come back out afterwards, but that rarely happened, because there were too many dishes to be washed, and besides, though coming back outside was generally the norm, it was to shift the focus from day sports to night sports.  
Anyone for Hide-N-Seek?    NOT IT!