Archive for February, 2007

Elaine Street

A time to be reapin’, a time to be sowin’
The green leaves of summer are callin’ me home
It was good to be young then in the season of plenty
When the catfish are jumpin’ as high as the sky.

A time just for plantin’, a time just for plowin’
A time to be courtin’ a girl of your own
Twas so good to be young then to be close to the earth
And to stand by your wife at the moment of birth.

(A time just for plantin’, a time just for plowin’)
(A time just for livin’, a place for to die)
Twas so good to be young then to be close to the earth
Now the green leaves of summer are callin’ me home.

I remember the summer of 1960. The movie the Alamo, starring John Wayne was playing in theatres, and the Brothers Four song “The Green Leaves of Summer” was playing on the radio, over and over again. I remember it so vividly because a friend of mine had recently moved away, and not long after, we found out that he had been killed, and the mood of the song seemed appropriate for the occasion. Several days later, his mother and father stopped at our house, and saw my brother and me, playing out in our garage with some friends, and invited us to Mark’s funeral.

I had only known Mark for a year or so. He was in my class at Ramona School, and my brother was the same age as his brother Phillip. They lived in one of the nicer homes in our neighborhood, on the corner of Mapledale and Maryton. Being on a corner, it had a nice big front yard, but we never played outside. Mrs. Lee would always greet me at the door with a smile and invite me to go into Mark’s room, where we would spend hours and hours playing games together, or swapping baseball cards.

I liked playing at Mark’s house. He wasn’t my best friend – that was Hank. Every day after school I would go over to Hank’s house, and we would play football or baseball out on his front lawn, but I began to feel unwelcome there when every day his mother would charge out and grab him by the collar like Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly, and drag him into the house. It seemed like Hank was always getting punished for one thing or another – not making his bed, or not cleaning up his room, or arguing with his sister Judy. And if Hank wasn’t getting it, then Judy was. His mother wasn’t particular. Mark’s mother wasn’t like that at all. I don’t think she ever got angry at Mark. Mrs. Lee baked cookies instead.

One day they moved across town, to Seaforth Street. If I ever visited their new home, it was only once. Though it wasn’t that far, Mark started going to another school, and not long after that came the news that he had been killed. I learned the details about his death from the obituary in the newspaper. Mark was riding his bicycle on Rosecrans, near Elaine Street, and the wheel of the bike got stuck in a groove in the gutter and he got hit by a truck that was backing up, when he couldn’t maneuver out of the way.

I didn’t attend Mark’s funeral, but I felt bad about his death, and grieved for a long time. And even many years later, whenever I would ride my bicycle on Rosecrans, I would never go near Elaine Street. If I wanted to go to Norwalk Square, the shopping center that was only one block from there, I always rode my bicycle in the back way to avoid Elaine Street. It became a symbol of death to me, and I was deathly afraid of it.

Last year they began renovating one of the little nearby strip-malls, that had a taco stand that was a popular hang-out for the local high school kids, called Taco Joe’s. The day after they closed for business, I walked over to take some photographs of the old place, which I posted on the internet for friends to view. While I was standing there, I noticed an old couple sitting in a car, and took a picture of them. As I began to walk away, they pulled up and the old woman rolled down her window, and we talked for awhile. She was very old, with silver gray hair and she shook nervously a little when she spoke, and there was something very familiar about her. Like me, she said they had come to say good-bye to the old taco place. “We live up on Seaforth now,” she said, “but we used to come here a lot.” I started to ask her if she knew the Lee family, but something held me back. There is a time for raking leaves, and a time to just let them lie.

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A Day at Disneyland

Walt Disney deserves to be a Saint. Disneyland was and always will be every child’s favorite place on earth. I went to Disneyland for the first time when I was 8 or 9 years old. Mom and Dad always preferred going to Knott’s Berry Farm as a family, because it was closer and cheaper, and they both loved Western movies, but one day they gave in to our yearly entreaties, and gave each of us, my brother and sister and myself, seven dollars to spend there. That was a lot of money for us in those days. Even though my brother and I always had a paper route, we rarely saw any of the money after we collected it. Mom would always use the cash we brought in for groceries, and daily expenses, and at the end of the month she would write a check to the Herald American and later the Press-Telegram. But money earned from collecting pop bottles was all ours, and she was glad to be rid of Dad’s empty quart-sized beer bottles, which brought 5 cents apiece at the Mayfair Market.

Our trip had to have been after June of 1959, because that is when the famous “E ticket” was first introduced, that got you on the best rides at the time, which were the Matterhorn Bobsleds, and the Submarine Voyage. At that time there were no all-day passes, but a minimal cost of admission into Disneyland, 95 cents seems to ring a bell, and each book of tickets cost 3 or 4 dollars. As it turned out, our seven dollars was enough for all the rides we wanted and a splendid dinner of tacos and tamales at the Frito-Lay Mexican food concession. We rode the Monorail, and the Bobsleds we rode twice that day, though the lines at that venue were the longest we encountered the whole afternoon, and I held my breath both times, releasing it only after our log splashed into the pool of water at the end of the ride.

My favorite ride of all was the submarine ride. I could have spent all day underwater in an octopus’ garden. In fact, one of my favorite dreams even to this day is to buy a home on a tiny island somewhere in the Solomons, and sail around the South Sea isles in my own submarine ala Captain Nemo. It’s really not all that far-fetched. I’ve seen some beautiful corporate submarines that sell for 150 -200 thousand dollars, and there are plenty of wrecks to explore in that area from WWII, like the PT-109.

The management at Disneyland goes to great lengths to heighten the illusion of a land of fantasy and wonder, and I was mesmerized the whole time I was there. They make certain, even today, that no buildings in the immediate vicinity of Disneyland can be seen from inside the park, and they are very demanding in their hiring policies and employee code of conduct. Still my most vivid memory of that day at Disneyland, that I will never be able to completely expunge, the only piece of lint in my otherwise stellar day, or the flotsam in my jetsam, is of a mislocated pile of human waste.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn have always been two of my favorite stories. So it was natural that I would be excited about going over to Tom Sawyer’s Island. We crossed over the mighty Mississippi on some sort of a raft, as I recall, or perhaps there was a bridge. All I know is we didn’t get to ride over on the river-boat, that was quietly tied up at the pier. Once on the island, of course we had to visit Tom’s cave, and while we were exploring the blue concrete innards of the cave, we happened upon the aforementioned mess around the corner in one of the cul-de-sac branches.

Well, of course after getting a whiff of that, we couldn’t get out of the cave quick enough. I’m sure Disney had a clean-up crew there in no time, who made apologies all around, but it didn’t matter to me, by that time I was halfway to Tomorrowland.

Yep, Walt Disney is an E-ticket in my book.

For a very enjoyable AudioBook version of “Huckleberry Finn,” read ever so charmingly and precisely by a true Missourian, please visit Annie Coleman’s website at http://www.anniecoleman.com, or you can download it at Gutenberg.Org at http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Main_Page. Please be advised, however, that her reading is faithful to the original text, and some readers may be offended by certain words.

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A Valentine’s Day Poem

I wrote this poem many years ago, when I was in college and head-over-heels in love with a girl in my Russian class. I never got to give it to her though.

We were close friends for two years, or maybe three. Every day we would meet an hour before class and sit together, doing our homework or just chatting. In class she would always correct my test papers, and when she gave them back all my “i”s would be dotted with little smiley faces. After school she would walk back to her dorm room, and I would strap on my helmet and get on my motorcycle, and drive the long drive back to Norwalk on the freeway.

I still remember the first day I met Janie. It had to have been the first day of Freshman year, and I was sitting in the middle of an empty lecture hall waiting for my next class to begin, and she sat down in the chair next to me. “Aren’t you in my Russian class?” she asked, or maybe it was me who asked her. No, it was her – she was the forward one. She had on a pair of denim jeans and a little cotton shirt, and sandals on her bare feet, and when she sat, she crossed her legs like a boy. I looked over at her during the lecture, and saw that she had kicked off her sandals and was sitting with her feet on the seat-back in front of her, like she owned the place.

Janie worked evenings as a hostess at a Chinese Restaurant in Costa Mesa, called the Bamboo Terrace. It was a quiet little place, much nicer inside than out. She told me she worked there, and asked me to come, and the first time I saw her standing at the podium, greeting customers in her flouncy little dirndl dress costume, I thought to myself, how can such a pretty girl ever like me? I began to go there much too much. I preferred to sit over at the little cocktail bar in the corner, chatting with the Filipino bartender, and when finally I would order a dish of Sweet and Sour Pork or my usual Green Pepper Steak and rice she would always bring it over and smile, and ask what we were laughing about, and it was not unlike the way I remembered it had been in Japan at the White Rose, in another time and place, with another girl.

One day, she said she didn’t like me anymore, or something to that effect. She had asked me to come down to the restaurant, and her mother came in that night. I was drunk when I met her, and all I remember of the encounter is standing there in the foyer and feeling stupid. Her father was an alcoholic, and it was clear that I was becoming one, and if I had been sober I’m sure I would have heard the words “over my dead body” uttered a few times.

I was sitting alone one day outside the Humanities building, where Janie and I had sat together on many occasion, and I looked up and saw a tiny little ball floating on the sunlight. It was one of those puffy little balls that blossom on the end of a dandelion, and little kids like to blow on them. I watched it for a moment as it slowly made its way toward the Library, and just as it disappeared from sight, I saw Janie walking along the path, alone.

And that’s the last time I ever saw her, until last night in a dream.

The Kiss

I have a perfect pleasure
That never fails to please
A verifiable treasure
You gave it once to me

Similar to sunshine
And rare as Ephemer
I deign would not defend it
Though it may to thee prefer.

But if you ask, I’ll give it
For a sonnet or a song,
And when I ever want it back
I’ll steal it back again.

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The Day the Music Died

“On a cold winter’s night in 1959 a small private plane took off from Clear Lake, Iowa bound for Fargo, N.D. It never made its destination.

When that plane crashed, it claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and the pilot, Roger Peterson. Three of Rock and Roll’s most promising performers were gone. As Don McLean wrote in his classic music parable, “American Pie” it was “the day the music died.”

[The above quote is from http://www.fiftiesweb.com/crash.htm%5D

I was 8 years old when Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died, and I don’t remember much about it, in fact I can’t recall one word ever being mentioned about it on the radio, or any of my friends or family discussing it at the time. I used to listen to KRLA and KFWB, the local rock stations in Los Angeles, every morning before school, and at night I would fall asleep with the earphone of my Rocket Radio in my ear, listening to the Dodger game and the music that came on afterwards.

I must have known the songs though. I knew “La Bamba” by Richie Valens, though I couldn’t translate or sing the lyrics, and I’m sure I had heard “Chantilly Lace,” because it was all too familiar many years later when I saw the movie American Graffitti – but I didn’t know it was by the Big Bopper. OK, I liked the song “Peggy Sue.” A friend of my older brother used to make fun of it, referring to her as “Peggy Sloo.” But I “totally” grew up during that whole period, and I swear I didn’t know who Buddy Holly was, at least not before Don McLean recorded “American Pie.”

At one time, I knew the song American Pie by heart. I could sing all of the verses, occasionally slipping and putting Lennon and Marx before the Devil, or getting the book of love out of place. In fact, I’ll try it right now, and you can check to see how well I do:

Bye Bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Saying this will be the day that I die.
This will be the day that I die…

Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so
Now do you believe in rock and roll
Can music save your immortal soul
And can you teach me how to dance real slow

Well I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man I dig those rhythm and blues
I was a lonely teenage broncing buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died.

Bye Bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Saying this will be the day that I die.
This will be the day that I die…

Ok, so this is about as far as I was able to get without stopping and thinking what comes next. And if you don’t count the fact that I left out the entire intro, I think I did pretty well…


But I don’t think I’m having a problem with my memory, when I say I don’t remember the day the music died. In fact I remember lots of things. The Cuban Missile Crisis I remember. John Glenn’s mission into space I remember. The Beatles I remember. I remember the young girls lining up to wave at Elvis, when he passed by in a train one time, and my sister crying because my parents wouldn’t let her go. And I would sing “Hound Dog” and shake like I had seen Elvis do on the Ed Sullivan Show to taunt her. In my defense, I was only 5 or 6 years old at the time. And I will never forget the Kennedy Assassination.

For the life of me, I just don’t remember “the day the music died.”

I don’t think it really did die – I think we just didn’t feel like singing for a while.

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The Day Kennedy Was Shot

The Kennedy Assassination is probably the most memorable event of my life, and the circumstances surrounding it will be studied long after we are dead and gone and will likely be one of the first events that our future time-travelers will visit. President John F. Kennedy was ambushed by a gunman or gunmen on November 22, 1963 at 12:30 PM Dallas, Texas time. I remember that day – I was in the 7th Grade at Ramona School in Norwalk, California and that morning we were all outside at recess. One of our teachers, Mr. Boersma walked out to the old basketball court, where we were playing, and told us that the President had been shot, and that we should all go right home. Then, visibly shaken, he turned and walked away, evidently to get back to the office to watch more of the news.

The week that followed was the darkest, most dreary week of my life. I mourned along with everyone else, but after a day or so I grieved not so much for our departed President any longer, as the fact that all of my friends were being held hostage in-doors, and all of my favorite television programs were cancelled by the round-the-clock coverage of the funeral and the national mourning. Actually, there was one brief respite, when one of the stations ran a movie titled “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima,” very late one night, about the three children in Portugal who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary.

I remember clicking through all of the broadcast channels over and over only to find the same image emblazoned on all of them. I can still see the caisson with the flag-draped coffin of our departed leader rattling down Pennsylvania Avenue, and Jacqueline Kennedy, standing beside the coffin, tears streaming down her face, so lovely and so bereaved in black. What particularly impressed me though, was the somber cadence of the military color-guard, marching alongside with measured steps, reverent, and respectful of their precious charge.

Many years later I became friends with one of the men who had been in that color-guard, when I was driving a taxi in Anaheim. His name was John M—–, and he had retired from the Army after many years, and hired on as a driver. Unlike most of the other drivers, he didn’t have a car. Each morning a call would go out to pick him up outside of his home, a condomium complex situated back of Disneyland. At night when his shift was over, he would catch a ride home with one of the night drivers, just leaving the yard.

I would see John occasionally in the taxi stand by the Hilton or the Marriott hotel, waiting for a ride to one of the airports. Often when I came out, he would already be waiting in line, talking with my drinking buddy, Vinnie, a jovial, but rough and tumble, bull of a man, a few years younger than me. Gradually, I learned that John had a German wife, and two boys and a daughter, and some St. Bernard dogs that he loved as much as his family. He had spent most of his time in the service in Germany, and was a Sergeant when he retired. I also learned that he was John M—– III, and that his father John M—– Jr. had been a career soldier and had fought in WWII.

Before long, Vinnie and John became close friends, and Vinnie began picking John up in the morning and driving him in each day to save him the cab-fare. It was at this point that I entered the potential box, and I knew it was just a matter of time before the keyframe came into view. Sure enough one day Vinnie was gone, having finally been tracked down by his estranged wife, and that evening John asked me if I would give him a ride home. It wasn’t out of my way, so I said, “Sure.”

I drove him home for several days, and finally one day he invited me to come up to his place for a beer. His wife had died, and he was all alone now. It was then that I learned that he had been in the color-guard in Washington D.C. when Kennedy died, and that he was one of the soldiers in the funeral procession. I don’t remember if I mentioned in conversation with him, that my dad had known Kennedy when he was in the Navy, but I told him that I had loved President Kennedy, and said how exciting it must have been to be present at such an important event in history. He looked at me strange, for a moment, and told me on the contrary that most of the soldiers in the guard had hated him and would rathered have been anywhere else.

Several more years went by and I began to research my father’s military service on the internet. One day while searching through the rosters of the men in the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, I happened upon the name of John M—– Jr. I tried to get in touch with John to ask him about it, but by then he had moved elsewhere.

Still, what a small world, I thought.

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My Auto Biography

The first car I ever drove was my brother’s 66 Chevrolet Impala. It had a 3-Speed Stick shift on the column, and my dad took me out in it one day to teach me how to drive. He was a lousy driving instructor. He didn’t trust me on regular streets, so he told me to drive down Firestone Blvd along the freeway to the La Mirada Drive-in, and kept screaming at me all the way. Then he had me pull into the drive-in parking lot, and made me practice parallel parking over and over again, until finally I backed into some hedges. Then he got pissed, and told me to drive home.

I also had my first accident in that car. He was going to let me take it to school one day, if first I dropped him off at work. He had taken a part-time Security job at the Metropolitan State Hospital. I had spent all weekend washing the car, inside and out – my dad had started using it for work, and his job on the railroad left him often literally covered in grease. Just as I was making a left turn into the Hospital off Bloomfield, a man in a ’49 Chevy tried to pass me, and T-boned into the driver side of the car – caving in the door and taking me completely by surprise. He tried to tell me and my dad that I had neglected to signal for a left turn, but the blinker was still going while he was talking.

Just before graduation from high school, dad took me down to Green Motors and bought me a ’69 VW. It was raining that day, and we couldn’t really afford it, but he had just sold our house to get money for court. He had gotten arrested for drunk driving, and thought the judge was going to “sock it to him.” My sister and her husband lived in the house next door, and they wanted to move anyway, so it all worked out. We sold our house and moved into theirs, and they got the money for a down-payment on a new home in Huntington Beach. Except my mom hated this house – she much preferred the old one. And then it turned out dad only had to pay $500, so he bought me the car.

This was my favorite car. It was Peru Green and had white leatherette interior and cocoa mats, and I installed a Craig Pioneer Cassette player into the glove-compartment, so it couldn’t be seen from the outside and stolen. My favorite tapes were “Blood Sweat and Tears” and “3 Dog-Night” and “Bridge over Troubled Waters – by Simon and Garfunkel.” I used to play them all the time, when Jim Stewart or Dave and and I would cruise up to Whittier Blvd and eat at the Drive-in at Bob’s Big Boy Restaurant.

I had that car until I went in the Navy, and then my older sister bought it from me or something. I don’t really remember. I don’t think they ever liked it as much as I did, and eventually traded it in on a BMW.

When I got out of the Navy, I bought a 4 cylinder Honda 550 with the Savings Bonds that I had sent home for four years. I drove it out to UC Irvine every morning, while I was attending school there, when the weather was nice. I didn’t mind a little rain, but if it was too wet, I would take the VW that my brother had swapped for my dad’s VW fastback after he died.

Thankfully I wore a helmet. One morning, during my fourth year in college, I was cruising in the fast lane of the Santa Ana Freeway, and just coming into Anaheim when the traffic began to slow down in front of me. It was very overcast, and the freeway was still wet. That Honda had a big, beautiful disk brake in the front, and I had allowed plenty of room between me and the pick-up in front of me, so I was casually pressing on the rear brakes while feathering the front brake, but I hit a patch of oil on the wet freeway, and ran smack dab into the back of the pickup truck. I’m not sure how fast I was going when I hit, but I flew off the bike and right over the back of the truck at an angle and then skidded on the freeway on my helmet for about 20 feet. When I finally came off the helmet, I somehow landed on my right knee.

I just lay there for a moment, and somebody helped me stand up. I couldn’t keep my feet though, because the freeway was so slick. After a while, we picked the bike up and put it into the back of the pick-up truck, and the driver of the truck drove me to the nearest gas station. The front wheel was all bent up, and my helmet was cracked, and my knee hurt, but that was it.

I never drove that motorcycle again. I sold it to my brother-in-law, and he fixed it up and drove it for several years. I have driven other motorcycles since then though. I still think they are cool.

One of the reasons I sold the motorcycle was to get an apartment. I wanted to be closer to UCI, so I rented a small studio apartment at Oakwood Gardens in Newport Beach. I tried taking the OCTD bus to school every day, but that got old very quick. So I bought an old ’69 Opel Kadett Station Wagon for $800.00 to get to and from. It was the ugliest car ever, but it ran like a clock.

One day my sister asked if she could borrow the car, to take my mom somewhere. When she got home they were still laughing, because they had had to drive in the slow lane on the freeway, and even been “passed by two nuns in a Volkswagen.”

I still had that car when I began working at Golden State Sanwa Bank in Downey. After a while, I decided I wanted to buy a new Mustang, so I went down to Keystone Ford but the salesman high-balled me on all the Mustangs but made me a great offer on a ’79 Ford Granada.

My Granada was a beautiful car, nicer than the one in the photo above, and I kept it washed and waxed all the time. It had a small V-8, with an automatic transmission, air-conditioning, and power-brakes and windows – the whole nine yards. I was tired of driving cars with manual transmissions by this time.

I can’t remember why I ever got rid of that car. It was after I left the bank. I traded it in on a Chevy S-10 pickup, and the dealer only gave me $800.00 for it. I was delivering auto parts at the time, and trying to save enough money to go back to college and get my teaching credential. Finally I had enough money saved, and got accepted at Cal State Fullerton, and even quit my job, but on the first day of school the counselor in the Teaching Department told me that I had not been accepted into the Teacher training program, and I needed some experience working with children.

So I took the money I had saved for school, and signed up for an NRI correspondence course in Microcomputer Technology. I passed the course with flying colors, and this time I enjoyed learning electronics. It was a hands-on course, where you actually build things, like oscillator circuits and amplifiers, and assembled and tested a complete computer, which I then used to learn Assembly language and several other programming languages. I already knew how to program in Basic, from dinking around with my Commodore 64, and I spent so much time at the computer store, that the guy finally hired me to his service department.

Well, that was the last car I owned. After I quit working to take care of my 80 year old mother, I wasn’t driving very much, and the car just sat in the drive-way. Occasionally somebody would ask if it was for sale, but I didn’t really want to sell it. It still ran beautifully, but the plastic had begun to fade and crack inside and the paint was weathering badly, and the battery went dead. Finally, my nephew said he wanted it, and I told him he could have it. I told him the battery was dead, so one afternoon he stopped by with a new battery, and it started right up.

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Graduation Day

I left the Navy in August of 1974, and was fortunate to get a nearly three month “early out” to start school at the University of California in the fall. I had submitted all of my enrollment papers and been accepted months earlier, but the whole concept of transitioning so quickly from sailor to student left me with an empty feeling in my stomach. I wasn’t so much anxious about succeeding, because I had already attended school there for one quarter back in the fall of 1969, and knew that I could get good grades if I worked hard enough. I had already had my “Welcome to college – you aren’t in high school anymore, kid” note, with accompanying grade of F, on my history paper, and knew what the professors expected of undergraduates. Nor was I anxious about money; the U.S. Treasury would be paying me a comfortable sum each month per the G.I. Bill. It was me that I was worried about.

It was because I had changed. I was no longer the innocent, optimistic youth, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, breezing through life. I had been in a war, and my soul was tarnished. I had killed for my country, and no matter how I tried to rationalize it, I had helped forge the deaths of other people. I had real questions without answers, and doubts about myself, that I didn’t think Physics and Mathematics could help me with.

I had always wanted to learn to read and speak Russian. In fact, when I entered the Navy that was what I was supposed to train for, but the Navy convinced me that I had a higher aptitude for Electronics, and threatened to keep me in “boot-camp” for several more months if I wanted to get into a Language school. I knew next to nothing about electronics, and wasn’t interested in it at all. But I went to the Class “A” school at Mare Island, near San Francisco, and was able to learn the basics before entering the fleet. So naturally I signed up for a Russian class at UCI.

That’s when I met Professor Helen Weil. Helen was somewhat of a floosy, I guess. She was slender, in her forties, with reddish hair that had been dyed blond, and she and I hit it off immediately. She had been born in the Soviet Ukraine, Helen Harmash in 1933 and after the war had emigrated to the United States, where she was able to continue her education. I don’t know how she acquired the last name Weil, but she had two grown boys and never mentioned a first husband. She had only been teaching Russian at UCI for a year when I first met her, but she was already a driving force within the department. Her unique style included serenading the entire class with a battery of Russian folk tunes, which she would sing and beat out on her guitar.

Like most women on campus, Helen was caught up in the women’s movement of the 70’s, and I think she saw me as a challenge. I was older than her other students by four years, and one day when I held the door for her as she was leaving class she gave me a funny look. The very next day I collided with her at the Registrar’s Office. She was just coming out of the building, and seeing me struggling with a stack of books as I came up the steps, she waited and held the door for me. “Well, the shoe’s on the other foot, now isn’t it?” she said. “Thank you,” I replied, “you’re a life-saver” and I think it must have pissed her off a little bit to find out that not all men felt threatened by strong, independent women. To be honest, those were the only kind of women I had ever really known or cared about.

Over the next four years we became great friends, and I found myself signing up for every class that Helen taught. I continued to study Math and Physics, but in the third year I signed up for a required course called Mathematical Methods of Physics and found myself playing a mad game of catch-up to learn several subjects that I had somehow missed or overlooked – Linear Algebra, and Vector Analysis. At the same time, I found that these were much needed in my other Physics course, Classical Mechanics, and I began struggling there too.

It is customary for those who find themselves inside a burning aircraft, to seriously consider the possiblility of bailing out, and that’s what I did. I began to examine procedures for bailing out of school. I was closest to having a Bachelor’s Degree in Russian Studies, so I dropped everything else and began to work on completing the few requirements that I needed for my degree. Russian itself, had been an easy “A” for me, so the following year I signed up for Fourth Year Russian, and several other Upper Division courses in Russian Civilization and Russian Literature. Meanwhile, I visited the Student Health Services and they prescribed me some mild tranquilizers to get me through the Russian Literature part.

I made it through year four with minimal damage. My grade point average was a respectable 3.67, despite my having had to drop several courses. Additionally, I had been accepted to Graduate School at UC Davis, up north and shortly thereafter was hired by a certain agency in Washington D.C. When I told Helen that I had decided to take the job, she was very upset. It was then that she told me she had hoped I would stay on at UCI – unbeknownst to me she had already arranged to take me into her Graduate Program in Administration, and even gotten a job for me teaching Russian part-time for one of the schools in the Huntington Beach School District.

Of course the job in Washington didn’t work out. My anxiety attacks were getting worse, but I still wanted the degree in Physics and felt that I could do it, so I enrolled for another year at UCI. I dropped everything else and began to devote myself to Mechanics and Mathematical Physics, which was where I had left off. I studied, and studied and thought I had finally caught up by the mid-term exam. When I got my test back with a “B,” I was elated.

Several days later I was sitting outside, waiting for one of my classes and I knew I didn’t feel right. I got up, and somehow managed to walk over to the Student Health Center on the other side of the campus. When I got there I started to explain to the nurse how I was feeling, and the next thing I knew I was laying on a bed and she was shooting me in the arm with a hypodermic needle. I asked her what it was, and she replied, “Librium.” I lay there for what must have been hours, and my whole life swirled around me like a tornado.

When I got home, my mother told me that my Bachelor’s Degree had come in the mail.

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Pillow Talk and Party Lines

Pillow Talk

Remember the old Doris Day and Rock Hudson movie Pillow Talk?

Doris played an interior decorator, Jan, who shared a phone line with an obnoxious, lothario song-writer named Brad Allen, played by Rock Hudson. When Brad learns that Jan is single and attractive, he pretends to be a Texas gentleman, Rex Stetson, and then tries to ingratiate himself to her by convincing her via the party-line that Rex is too good to be true.

Party-lines were pretty common in the fifties. When we first moved into our home on Liggett Street we shared a phone-line with another party.

I didn’t use the phone much in those days, and rarely was inconvenienced but I remember my older sister Karin used to go round and round with the man on the other end of the line. He was always interrupting her when she was talking to her girl-friends, and of course, my dad would then start to yell at her for tying up the phone. And Karin would usually end up storming off to her room, in tears – unlike Doris Day, she was quite a drama queen.

I still remember our old phone number – UNiversity 3-0707.

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 There is no greater bond than that which exists between a father and son. Even before the son is born, he lives inside the father, and from the day of birth the father begins to grow in the son. Hardened to something akin to steel, and tempered by tears and time, the bond connects them forever, and the son must learn to live with that man inside him, or go mad. I understand now, that my father never wanted to hit me or my brother. He always gave us ample warning before his patience wore thin as the thin plaster walls of our tiny two-bedroom house, before he stormed into our room and drew his belt from his pants. Even as the last moment approached, we couldn’t stop our giggling, at least we never did, until we heard the unmistakable sound of the belt coming out, and by then it was too late.

You could say that dad was a patient man, but his patience had limits. You could say he was a just man, but lucky for us, he never measured out the punishments we deserved. Dad wasn’t the kind of man who meted out justice and counted the strokes. Nor did he ever feel the need to explain himself afterwards or fashion it into some sort of a life-lesson to rationalize his behavior. He’d just storm out of the room, as angry as he had arrived. He was working two jobs and just wanted us to be quiet so he could sleep. In short, what you needed, was what you got, with him. Because Eddie was the oldest, he would wale on him several times until his anger had nearly subsided and then, he would give me my two or three licks with the strap too. I was always small and thin. Eddie, on the other hand, was thick and heavy-set. His body absorbed the beatings better than mine did, and he was always first with the wise-crack after Dad had left the room.

I feared my father for most of my youth, and detested the harsh way he treated my brother, and I carried that mixture of hate and fear for a long time. But, in truth, the beatings were few and far between, and the benefits of having a strong and unambiguous parent far outweighed the bad. One day I woke up to the realization, that despite everything I had grown to love him over the years, and that most of what I had tried to accomplish in life was for him. But I also discovered how little I knew of him.

I met my father, Edward Dubiak, for the first time in the spring before my fourth birthday. He had left us nearly two years before to travel to California to find work. The post-war years were very hard on everybody in Scranton, but especially hard on my mother and father. The two major sources of employment, the coal mines and the railroad, had both closed down, and many men and women found themselves without work. Competition for the remaining jobs was stiff, and while other men were returning from the war with medals on their chest and honorable discharges in hand, my father waited for the War Department to process his case.

He was released from the Army in July of 1945, and at the time of his discharge he had to surrender all of his uniforms and unit insignias. Finally in 1950, more than five years after the end of the war, he received a copy of his discharge form signed by the Adjutant General of the Army; he had not received the honorable discharge he had hoped for, but other than honorable.

I found this document many years later and the picture it paints is not inconsistent with the story I was told of his time in the service. I can’t remember who told me exactly, or how it was divulged, but I grew up believing that my father enlisted in the Navy immediately after Pearl Harbor, and that he had struck an officer. He was a young man, with only an 8th grade education, burning to get into the war. He was court-martialed and discharged from the Navy, but later was accepted into the Army. In the Army he wore many hats, serving for a time as a mess-cook, and an Engineer, and finally volunteered for training as a paratrooper. He was injured, however, in a training jump from a high tower, and, when he never made it into combat, he started going AWOL and sat out the rest of the war in the brig.

Thats the story I grew up with, the story my father wanted his family to believe. While other boys spoke openly and proudly about their dads in the war, I kept silent. But it wasn’t the story that he carried in his heart or his wallet, where pressed tightly between a piece of boot-leather and a cloth pouch with a silver-dollar sized St. Christopher medal, was a faded photograph of a proud, disciplined young soldier with Corporal stripes on his sleeves and silver Airborne wings on his chest.

It was in the winter of 1972 that I first got an inkling of the pain his silence hid, and I was home on leave from the Navy for the first time in over a year. We sat at the kitchen table, and he listened quietly with his big brown belly protruding from beneath the unbuttoned flannel shirt, as I told and retold the story of how our ship had been attacked by a MIG in the Tonkin Gulf, and how one of our escorts had shot it down.

“Are you a shell-back?” he asked. I knew that was important to him somehow.

“Yes,” I replied, and proceeded to tell him how we had crossed the equator on my very first cruise down to Singapore.

“My brother was a shell-back too,” he said. Which brother, I wondered.

That night when I got home, Dad was still sitting there at the kitchen table, poring over his collection of silver coins and other trinkets he had accumulated over the years.

“You’re still up,” I said. I could tell that he had been drinking some. He wasn’t supposed to do that anymore, but we all suspected that he had a bottle or two of Kessler’s whiskey stashed around the house.

“I couldnt sleep.” he said, “I was thinking…” and his voice trailed off, helpless.

“When you go out,” he asked, after a moment, “do you go out with the other guys or by yourself?”

I knew that he meant my comrades in the Navy, and not the old high school friends that I had been with that night. “Sometimes,” I said, “but I usually end up by myself.”

“Me too,” he said, gently stroking the blue letters of the word Ski tattooed on the web of his right hand, between the thumb and forefinger. “I was a loner too.”

He never got to tell me what he tried to tell me that night. I went back to Vietnam, and he was hurt on the job in March of the following year, when he became trapped between two train-cars. One of the heavy laden cars hit his big belly and left a large bruise. At home that night he woke suddenly and rose up out of bed to go to the toilet, and my mom saw that he had been bleeding. She dialed 911 and that night they took him to the hospital, where he died several hours later.

My ship was in Yokosuka, Japan at the time, preparing to go back to sea. That afternoon the ship’s Chaplain called me to his office in the library and said that the ship had received a radio transmission from a ham radio operator near San Francisco, who informed them that my father had been injured on the job and might not survive. I was immediately granted an emergency leave and hustled out to the airbase at Yokota to board the first flight back to the States. I sat by myself on one side of the transport plane, staring at the wooden casket containing an officer’s dead dependent son, and everything else was just a blur. Death and I, it seemed were racing home to my father.

It was a long flight to Travis Air Force Base, and would have been the worst flight I had ever been on, had I actually digested any of it. The plane rose up and dipped and bounced continually as if it were a roller-coaster, and the compartment was very cold. A young Airman, one of the members of the flight-crew, stood outside the cockpit door, quietly listening through a head-set that he had plugged into a jack by the door, and occasionally he would repeat aloud what he heard spoken on the intercom.

“Were flying at 50,000 feet.”

“Anchorage is snowed in, so we cant land.”

When I arrived home, Dad was already gone. Death had beaten me. And it wasnt until several days later at his funeral that I actually got to see him, to say good-bye for the last time. I wasn’t prepared for that day, perhaps nobody ever is prepared for the death of a parent. I stood there by his casket staring at the life-less form before me, and all I could think was, it wasnt the man I knew. The body that lay there was cold and grey, and nothing like the wistful, brooding man I had talked to less than a year before. I said good-bye, as if to a noble stranger. I watched as the body was laid to rest, and the first shovelful of dirt shoveled in on top of it, but somehow I sensed that his spirit, once broken, perhaps shamed, perhaps bound to secrecy by some sacred duty or oath, was now free and alive somewhere in the world, and that it still had work to do and one day it would seek me out.

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The Search Begins

Many years passed, and the memory of my father faded into the landscape of my daily routine. For several years I was able to visit his grave once in a while at Rose Hills in the City of Industry. I would stop by and just sit with him on the grass, trying to make sense of it all. When I left I always felt better, more assured than I had felt when I arrived. But as the years went by, I was thrown farther and farther away from him, and rarely gave the past much thought.

It all changed in 2001, the year the movie Band of Brothers aired on HBO television. That year, I began my own strange and wonderful odyssey into the past. I didn’t see the movie at that time, but I borrowed a copy of the book by Stephen Ambrose from the public library. I began reading about the men who volunteered to be paratroopers in WWII, and how they trained and strove to “be the best,” to obtain their wings and the voice reading the words in my head was that of my own father. It was as if he were telling his story. He told me how he had made several jumps from the 250 foot training towers, and how he was hurt, and afterwards we jumped together from a C-47 and I realized that he had made those jumps, that he wouldn’t have had the wings on his chest if he hadn’t. I saw myself back in Navy bootcamp, standing in line to jump off the platform into the pool, and how I had felt him in front of me, and we had jumped together. And though I couldn’t swim, and he couldn’t fly, we made both of those jumps together, on our faith, and I had been with him.

And then I read the following:
“On December 26 (1942), the last jump, each got a certificate declaring that he was ‘entitled’ to be rated from this date as a qualified parachutist. Then the proudest moment of all, the one toward which they had been working for six months, the pinning on of the silver wings. From that moment, never to be forgotten, each member of Easy, every member of the 506th, was forever special.”

I felt the shame my dad must have felt when, after getting his wings, he was transferred from the Airborne to another unit for going AWOL.

I read further how Colonel Sink, the regimental commanding officer, sent the men home on a ten day furlough, and how when the furlough was over, many of the men reported back late for duty.

And then I read this:
“Colonel Sink held a regimental parade. The men turned out in their class A, or dress, uniforms. They were marched down a sandy street to an empty lot behind the cooks’ hutments. Sink called them to attention, then gave the command ‘At ease.’ They watched and listened in silence as a lieutenant read a list of names, one from each company, from among the men who had reported in last.

‘Private John Doe, E Company,’ the lieutenant called out. A drummer, standing beside the lieutenant, beat a soft, mournful roll. Two sergeants, bearing submachine-guns, moved to Private Doe. He stepped from the ranks. His face was pale. The sergeants, one on each side, escorted him forward. The drum continued to roll. They stopped in front of the lieutenant. he read out the orders. Private Doe was being drummed out of the paratroopers, condemned to the infantry.

The lieutenant ripped the 506th patch from the private’s arm, the wings from his chest, the parachute patch from his hat, and threw them all on the ground. It was so humiliating that the officers and men were cursing under their breath….There was more. A jeep drove up and dumped out Private Doe’s barracks bags. He had to take off his boots, put on regular shoes, wear his pants down like a regular infantryman (‘straight legs,’ as the paratroopers called them). He picked up his bags and, followed by the submachine-gunners, marched sadly away, the drum continuing to roll, a picture of bleak loneliness. This was repeated nine times….”

Suddenly, I broke into tears. Could my father have been one of those Private John Doe-s?

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