Saturday, October 31, 2015

Me and Mamie O'Rourke

Fall is now well underway, though in Southern California temperatures are still in the mid 80s or more during the day. Nonetheless, there's something of the feel of fall, with a background of impending coolness to even the hottest days and the peculiar way the light reflects at this time of year, giving everyday things a special clarity.

Me, I've had enough of 100+ temperatures, which was pretty much all I encountered last summer wherever I went. For five weeks, from June 12th to July 17th, I was away from San Diego. It was my first return to the Washington DC area since 1994, when I'd been in Baltimore for a conference and spent a couple of days afterwards there. I was stationed in DC two different times with the army, with a three year tour in Frankfurt sandwiched between. Jerry Ford and the Bicentennial festivities are my main memory of the first time, and the Iranian hostage crisis that clouded Jimmy Carter's last year in office dominated the news during my second time in the Military District of Washington, or MDW (which I like to call M.D.Dumb-ul-you).

Five days was enough to do what I wanted to do there. I stayed along Wilson Blvd. in Arlington and rented a bicycle to get around and see the old haunts. Though he grew up in San Diego, my boyhood friend Billy, and his mother, are interred in Arlington Cemetery. It was an adventure to find their marker, which included me getting locked into the cemetery after closing time on a Saturday late afternoon. I'd parked at Fort Myer, near the site of the old Building 403, which was demolished some time ago. Having lived there for a long time, it wasn't hard to figure out how to jump the wall back onto the base without attracting attention (I won't say how, but it was a common maneuver when I lived there and still works). Then I had a look around, and even walked into the recreation center and talked with some old-timers about the new construction and such.

There was a visit to George Washington U. that following Monday, where I signed documents to include something for them in the trust I'd drawn up the month before. Then I biked over to Buzzard Point in Southwest DC, a relatively unknown place whose federal buildings include Fort McNair, the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, and the Half Street Building. The latter was where I worked during my second tour, though it's no longer DoD but the headquarters of whatever the special police force is that is responsible for guarding federal buildings throughout the U.S.

A complex of temporary buildings dating from WWII also once stood along the eastern wall of Fort McNair, but were finally removed sometime after I left the army in February 1981. Robert Oppenheimer was interrogated in early 1954 in a temporary building that might have been part of this complex, and the entire complex housed the 1981 Presidential Inaugural Committee; perhaps that for previous years as well. My last duty days with the army were spent participating in the setup of the Mall for Reagan's first inauguration.

At the base of the point is the marina. I'd moved out of Building 403 at Fort Myer and lived at the marina in my motorhome during the last part of my second time stationed in DC. Had read an online article about Buzzard Point, how the marina no longer had residents other than the long-time caretaker. I saw his boat docked alone in the corner, the same one he'd had 35 years earlier and in the very same place as always. I walked around awhile, but though I'm sure he'd have remembered me after a bit I didn't want to bother him unless he noticed me first.

He didn't, and one of those very strong perceptions of time and place was burned into my memory in that moment. The marina was completely deserted, isolated, and peaceful. Though less than a mile from the U.S. Capitol, it seemed idyllic and pastoral, almost otherworldly. The only sound was that of the river slapping against the dock irregularly, and a few cooing birds. I sat there at a picnic table thinking a bit. Billy had been a Coast Guard officer, stationed at the headquarters building several times himself, though our tours of duty never overlapped. He'd bought a place in Southwest DC and settled there, until a bicycle accident resulted in a concussion that eventually caused him to have a stroke and die, right there while crossing the National Mall.

DC is not really what this story is about, though. I spent a few days in New York City afterward, catching the train up, then taking another train all the way to Miami to stay in my Miami Beach condo for a month, before flying back to San Diego. For some reason, that entire NYC leg of the journey feels like one strong perception of its own. I've looked at maps of NYC from time to time in my life, and had been there a few times before, most recently in 1991. After this visit though, I can picture in my mind the places on the map and their relationships to each other, geographically anyway. This is a common enough human experience, I'd figure, where the things you've read about and looked at for a long time finally come together like pieces of a resolved puzzle.

I brought along a copy of a song and its woodcut illustration, "Sidewalks of New York," taken from an elementary school children's songbook from the mid 1950s. You can see it below. Then I went searching for the place pictured in the woodcut. I was staying near Penn Station in the middle of Manhattan, and was struck by how so many of the famous things you associate with NYC are within a short walking distance of each other. The site of inspiration for the illustration in the book was too, a few blocks down the street from the Empire State Building and Macy's, near the East River.

"Things have changed since those times," as the song says. Yet it's clearly recognizable as the spot where the artist drew his inspiration. It was an ordinary neighborhood then, perhaps with an organ grinder plying his trade on the corner from time to time and any number of old brown wooden stoops. It's still kind of an ordinary neighborhood, by the standards of new millenium Manhattan, I guess.

One of those factoids that stick in my mind is that the long-time mayor of NYC, Fiorello La Guardia, spent much of his boyhood in Prescott, Arizona, where his dad was an army band leader at Fort Whipple, now the site of the VA Hospital there. You can see the plaque dedicated to him on the La Guardia Bridge in Prescott as the last photo below, taken during my visit to Prescott earlier in June. As described in the previous entry, I've had a 4.4 acre place there for a number of years, and came upon the plaque by chance several years ago. As a boy, Richard Nixon was also a sometime resident of Prescott and worked at the annual rodeo in the summer... but that's another story.

Apparently, La Guardia was teased as a boy when an organ grinder visited Prescott and his father befriended him as a fellow musician. It's a story you can find online, but the point here is that La Guardia banned organ grinders from the streets of New York during his time in office, apparently for that very reason. He thought the job was demeaning to Italian Americans, and because he could do pretty much what he wanted as mayor he forbid them to go about cranking their organs within the city limits!

The illustration shows a car with large fins, which would place the illustration in the late 1950s, the time the songbook was published and used as a California State textbook. It was a contemporary woodcut then, produced less than a decade after La Guardia had left office. This is a small and maybe insignificant thing to ponder, but it shows how each day you learn a little bit more and add a few more pieces to the puzzle.

The song itself, "Sidewalks of New York," has a nostalgic, wistful quality, and it's strange to think of someone early in the 20th century feeling inspired to write a song that longs for the times of his childhood late in the 19th century. There's a sweetness to that, even though we know that life in the big city is not all sweetness. Partly from this experience, I came to feel a liking for NYC in a way I never have felt before. It's a package deal--some good and some not so good--but overall I get a pleasant feeling when I think of the place.

Who was Mamie O'Rourke, the woman mentioned in the song? You can look that up online too if you wish, but to me she represents that little corner of every man's mind that wants to idealize at least one woman whose path he's crossed in his life, no matter how harsh that life has been to him. Have a look at these two short video clips, the first taken from "Citizen Kane" and the second from "City Slickers:" (Bernstein monologue) (Curly monologue)

The similarity is striking, isn't it? In a sense men are just softies, regardless of what the facade presents. As Orson Welles, creator of Citizen Kane, once put it, "Men created civilization to impress their girlfriends."

Women are perhaps more romantic in their day to day thinking, but at the base of things they're iconoclastic realists, worried about the next meal and the mortgage payment and such. Men are providers, guardians against the chaos that life can bring to their women and children, but at heart there's a lot of Bernstein and Curly and the author of "Sidewalks of New York" in them. They long for something that they know probably doesn't exist, and it's probably no more insane than some of the things women habitually do that caused Confucius to opine that women "want fried ice.".

Friday, September 4, 2015

As Summer Fades

"A Spanish cavalier stood in his retreat
"And on his guitar played a tune, dear
"The music so sweet would oft times repeat
"The blessings of our country and you, dear
"So say darling, say, when I'm far away
"Sometimes you may think of me, dear
"Bright summer days will soon fade away
"So remember what I say and be true, dear."

I remember this song that I learned in school when I was 10 or so years old, back when kids actually learned about things other than how to take multiple choice tests. It would have been around 1965, now 50 years ago. The world was hardly a primitive place, though it's hard to believe you could be out of contact with your kid for hours on end and not really sure of where he was while he played outside, or that you had to go find the nearest landline phone if you encountered a life-and-death emergency.

Now I'm 60, going on 61, and summer 2015 is fading. It's not really that big a deal when you live in San Diego and vacation at your place in Miami Beach, but there's a mood to it. Had the yearly summer lunacy with my Significant Person there, and wonder if she's really gone for good or if this is just like every other summer since 2011, when I started spending time with her there.

For decades, not a day or even a few hours went by that I didn't think of my childhood. It was a handicap of sorts, this collection of memories that take up so much of my brainspace. It took a long long time to understand that it's not normal, or at least that I'm somewhat unique in that way. Then again, I never really understood the concept of competition when I was growing up, and Mom wrote once that I seemed incapable of comprehending aggression in other kids. Even now, I have to consciously remind myself that the future is supposedly more important than the past. That Fleetwood Mac song that Clinton used in his first presidential campaign--itself a part of fading history--never really resonated with me.

So here we'll look at the past few summers, since 2010. It isn't hard to believe the latter is now half a decade ago; it's just hard to believe that a half decade can pass so quickly.

The summer routine for me since forever has been to take a run of 10 days or so out to Arizona right after the school year ends. I tend to my property there, a doublewide mobilehome with deck and carport that looks--for all intents and purposes--like any other house aside from the front door being 3 feet off the ground. The land is 4.4 acres of juniper and pinion pine trees, with low chaparral and an occasional cactus. It's the Prescott area, Williamson Valley, and I love going there though I'm really not sure if I'll live there again myself. It's rented, and though the management company takes 10% they also handle a lot of headaches for me. The broker has become a personal friend over the years. By tacit agreement, our emails are strictly business and our facebook interactions are purely social.

I work outside there for a few days, clearing brush, digging silt out of the drainage ditches, and using the dirt to fill in ruts in the entrance road. I remove everything from the large shed on the upper lot and clean it out. Some of the tenants--who change every few years--are friendly and invite me over, but I tend to keep my distance beyond a few polite exchanges.

When the work is done, I linger a day or two just to enjoy how nice the place looks after my TLC. It can be uncomfortably hot during the day, and the nights are what I love most about the place. You can see the milky way, and the moon reflecting off Tabletop Mountain. At some point I'll stay a night at a motel in town to get cleaned up and have a nice restaurant meal, but I usually return to the shed for the final night there, shaved and showered and supplied with cold beer. I store some old things there that I don't need around my San Diego or Miami Beach places, but that I can't bear to part with. There's a sofa and rocker, shelving, a sea grass floor cover, and a battery operated radio. I haul water up from the house, and use candles for light. It looks like a rustic studio apartment, the ultimate man cave.

Then I generally set out on a run that eventually brings me the long way back to San Diego. In 2010, I set out to see the Grand Canyon for the first time. I went through Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, had a look at the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff, and stayed in a hostel by the train station. Heck, you can  just read the award-winning story about it here:
(I call it "award winning" because it won an award, not because I think I'm bitchen for writing it.)

Starting in 2011, I've tended to take a second trip somewhere after returning to San Diego. That year, I went to Minnesota and Wisconsin for a week, then on to Miami. This was before I bought my place there in 2014. I had three old friends, from three different periods of my life, between Minneapolis and Eau Claire that I hadn't seen in decades. It was a nice visit, except that I found out two days into the trip that Dad was dying. He and my sister didn't feel that I needed to cut the trip short, but it put quite a damper on things. One of my friends was in the VA hospital in Minneapolis. He'd been there for months with complications from heart surgery. Then all the time in bed rubbed a huge hole in his back, down to the spine. I'd never heard of such a thing, but apparently it happens. Then his kidneys began to malfunction. I spent a couple of days with him, and during that time he went off kidney dialysis and seemed to improve dramatically. By the time I headed over to Mall of America to meet another friend for dinner on my last night there, his wife had come out to get him and he was released from the hospital!

The Miami leg was the beginning of the yearly bummer with my significant whatever-she-is. She picked me up at the airport and immediately began bitching about my hair, my clothes, my weight, and everything I said or did. If it wasn't so easy just to tell her to fuck off and not bother with her, I probably would have slapped her. When she started telling me about how her ex-husband abused her, I told her that maybe she deserved it and that was the end of that. I spent five crummy days at a hotel in downtown Miami, waiting to go home. She gave me a ride to the airport on the last day, then smiled at me like nothing had happened. I told her thank you for the ride, and turned and walked away. This wasn't the end of things, though. By the time I returned at the end of the year, we were again like the high school sweethearts we'd once been.

Dad died three days after I got back, on the second day of summer sessions in the last year I taught summers. Because I taught evenings and had the days free, basically the entire matter of settling things fell to me. It was a bummer of a summer, and you can read about it here:

I ramble, so let's take the other summers in brief sketches.

2012 was the Arizona run, followed by a visit to Vegas to see a friend from Japan days for the first time since 1996. He lived just a few miles from the strip, off Sahara, but never went there. This was fine with me. He and his Chinese wife thought the water in their pool was too cold, but I was happy to spend most of the next couple of days soaking in it. Then I headed for Death Valley, enroute eventually to my brother's place in Reno. I spent the night in the parking lot at Badwater, making me the lowest person in the United States for one evening. I went through Yosemite in a snowstorm to visit another friend from Peru days outside of Sonora, then camped a night near Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe before arriving in Reno.

There's a story about that too, come to think of it:

The second summer 2012 trip was five weeks in Europe, sandwiched between flights and short stays in Miami. The gal, a world-class talker, had spent months gassing on and on about taking a trip with me to the Florida Keys, but went into a don't-touch-me routine as soon as I got there. Again I told her to get lost. I flew into Lisbon, then on to Frankfurt, where I'd lived from 1976-79 while stationed there with the army. It was my first time back in Europe since December 1979, and a nostalgic trip. I took a train to Munich, studied for four weeks at Goethe Institut while staying at the edge of Olympic Park during the 40th anniversary celebration of the Munich Olympics. Then a two-week Eurailpass trip, where I saw the home of a paternal great-great grandfather, visited the hometown of El Cordobes, returned to the University of Valencia where I'd studied for five weeks in summer 1979, and spent a couple of days in Lisbon before my flight back to Miami.

I didn't call the gal during the three days I was there before returning to San Diego, though I'd spent most of the break times at Goethe Institut arguing with her by facebook chat. This is FAR from the end of the story of her and me, though... Read a bit about my time in Munich if you'd like:

2013 was all Arizona, with just a short step into Nevada. That was the year of the fires. The larger one was still going when I got into town. It had been moving down Granite Mountain and steadily toward my house. The tenant had been sitting on the roof a couple of nights before, waiting for the evacuation order. Eventually the evacuation area would extend to within a few hundred yards of my property; the lights from the police roadblock shining into my shed all night. I attended a briefing on the fire at Prescott High School, and spent a couple of days doing the usual chores on the property, confident at last that it wasn't going to go up in flames. I left feeling pretty good about the community and very "up" in general.

Then I headed for the Grand Canyon, this time to take a paddling trip on the Colorado River. I spent two nights in Oak Creek Canyon, climbing a steep mountain several times for exercise. Then a couple of days in Flagstaff, camping in a crummy campground that must turn into a muddy mess every time it rains. Then two nights in Grand Canyon Village before hiking down the Bright Angel Trail to the rendezvous point, where some people got off and hiked up the hill while others joined the guides for the lower river leg of the trip. It was there that the guides told me they'd gotten their first news briefing in a week, and heard about the tragedy of the firefighters in Yarnell just the day before.

Everyone got along fine on this trip-of-a-lifetime, though I didn't make any lasting friends beyond adding a few to facebook and meeting the trip leader a year later for lunch. We came out at the east end of Lake Meade, so I called my friend in Vegas and spent another couple of days at his place before heading home via Lake Havasu City and Parker. It was interesting to follow the river, then the All American Canal, until it peters out in a series of irrigation ditches outside Calexico. Maybe some of it was the same water we'd been riding on a few days before!

Oh yeah... I took a week long trip to Miami later in August, but got into another blowout with the gal. This time it might have even been more my fault than hers. I told her it was a drag being with her, and got out of her car at a stoplight along Collins Avenue. Among the various annoying things about her is that she seems to have no friends of her own. Her best friend is a Peruvian lady I introduced her to in 2010. She was an old friend I'd taught with in Lima, but she'd since moved to Miami Beach. Anyway, we were going to meet her for dinner, and I told the gal to count me out and just go with her new best friend. This is STILL not the end of that story.

You can read a little about my state of mind then, and my affinity for Miami Beach here:

2014 was another Arizona+ road trip. It was the usual routine in Prescott, then a ride up Nevada's 95 just to see what it looked like. I spent a night in Tonopah, which has some interesting characters. Then headed for Reno, passing through the big ammunition storage facilities near Walker Lake. Stopped in at the museum there, and got into a discussion of whether the F-100 Super Sabre had been an inferior plane to the F-86 Saber. A nice visit to Reno followed, then it was on to Auburn for lunch with the raft trip leader from last year. Like many of the guides, she's a teacher who does it as a part time job during the summers. As I told her, it must be nice to take the trip of a lifetime several times in a season.

Then I spent a couple of days in Contra Costa County, seeing the Sacramento River delta and the settings for several scenes from Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, On the spur of the moment, I called an old army buddy who lived nearby, and saw him and his wife for the first time since I'd been stationed in Germany with him. Then a quick run through San Franciso and down the Coast Highway back to San Diego. I spent the final night at a roadside rest outside Santa Barbara, and visited a friend's bakery in Oxnard for awhile. His wife said later that my visit had cheered him up; he'd been in a downer lately.

The second leg of summer 2014 was a visit to Indiana to family plots and the places where Mom and Dad grew up. Dad was from Franklin, south of Indianapolis. Mom was from Switzerland County; she'd lived in several small towns along the Ohio River across from Cincinnati. On my last day there, I drove over to Cincinnati to see one of the friends I'd visited three years before in Wisconsin. It was his hometown, and he'd moved back there a couple of years ago.

Then on to Miami. Earlier in the year, I'd bought a condo around 85th and Collins. Things had since been patched up with the gal during my end of year visit, but I saw her all of once during my five weeks there in the summer. I stayed quite busy fixing the place up, furnishing it modestly, and cooking myself gourmet meals every night. After a half dozen times talking to her about getting together and having her cancel out, I once again told her to fuck off... though she'd be back. The rest of the trip was pleasant but uneventful. I got a kick out of the idea that I now lived part of the year on the east coast, and wasn't just a a visitor.

This summer it was a week in Washington DC and New York City, after an unusually short Arizona run that was strictly TCB (takin' care of business). I'd lived in Washington during army days, had been back a couple of times, and know my way around pretty well. Manhattan I can basically navigate, having visited a few times from Washington and during a TESOL Convention in 1991. That really almost warrants a separate story here.

I rode the train from New York to Miami. Glad I did, but it was a pain in the ass at the time. Once the train gets a little behind schedule--which it often does--it ends up having to stop and wait constantly while freight trains pass going the other way. Still, arriving by train in a place where I own a home gave me the very neat feeling that I was more than a tourist while traveling around the east coast.

We got into Miami six hours late. Actually, I got off in Hollywood, which was more convenient for... the gal... to pick me up and take me to my condo. We had a nice evening visit by the poolside for several hours, and that's the last time I saw her during my four weeks there. I cooked nice meals like the one pictured below, and enjoyed my neat little place on the inland waterway, all of two blocks from the beach.

I returned on July 17, wanting to have more time this year to enjoy my hometown during vacation, which after all is a place people travel thousands of miles to be in. However, bummed more than ever about the gal and arguing with her non-stop via text messages, I finally decided to start the project of upgrading my stuff and getting organized. I bought my first smart phone, my first flatscreen TV, and my first DVD player. I converted my CDs to MP3 and loaded them into my phone, then got a good quality Bluetooth speaker to play the music on.

Another family friend died in late August, and I went to another funeral with my sister. Friends of my parents, about a decade younger than they, are starting to fade away one by one. It's that time of life. Thus did summer for all intents and purposes end, and as part of the self-improvement kick I'm on, I taught myself Blackboard, the popular course management program for college instructors.

I'm very much in work mode now. EVERYBODY says I deserve a better gal, but I can't seem to find one and right now I don't have the time to worry about it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The President of My Childhood

It is very difficult to get an understanding of me without an appreciation for my complicated relationship with our 36th president. Lyndon Johnson generates strong feelings in many people of my age, and fascinates nearly all who endeavor to study him. Robert Caro has spent decades as his biographer, writing volumes and never really capturing the essence of the man because he was just too unnervingly complicated to capture.

Just a few weeks shy of my 9th birthday, he became president upon the assassination of John Kennedy, and I'd just turned 14 when he turned over his responsibilities to Richard Nixon. I think of him as the President of My Childhood, in much the way I associate Nixon, who resigned a few months before my 20th birthday, with my teenage years.

Let me say, here at the outset, that I don't believe any of the conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, least of all that LBJ was in any way behind it. Indeed, there were some strange coincidences. It is little remembered that LBJ--as well as Robert Kennedy--were in some increasingly hot water over what was then called the Bobby Baker Affair, a matter quickly forgotten after the assassination. JFK was killed almost exactly a year before the next presidential election, in LBJ's home state, while on a political trip to heal a rift in the Texas Democratic Party. Johnson had definite presidential ambitions, and it was almost certain that Kennedy would have been re-elected. With the Bobby Baker matter, it was also quite possible he would have sought another running mate in 1964. The timing of the assassination was certainly convenient for LBJ. With the election so close, it was unlikely that Americans would have "switched horses," allowing the White House to be occupied by three different presidents within barely a year.

Strange coincidences these, but my own life has been full of strange coincidences, matters that could have landed me in jail for something I didn't do as well as random quirks of fate that brought me successes I probably didn't deserve. That's just the way life is, and as far as I'm concerned the circumstances that ended Kennedy's life and brought Johnson to the presidency are just more of it on a grander scale.

LBJ was the first president I became aware of on a day-to-day basis. I knew who Kennedy was when he was president, and was just learning elementary civics. It was my understanding that President Kennedy lived in "The Lighthouse" in a city called Washingtondeesee. In contrast, around the time of the assassination I was finally reading beyond the Go-Flip-go level, and LBJ was in the news every day. He was the last adult I'd believe, in a little kid's way, to be way smarter than everybody else and virtually infallible. He was older than my dad and he was the F'ing president of the United States, so he had to be some kind of superman!

Indeed, if you have a chance to visit the LBJ Library, a person of my age can't help feeling as if he's stepped into a time warp, where all the odds and ends of a 1960s childhood come alive. The nation was prosperous, the times were optimistic, and--as Jack Valenti once famously put it--you slept a little better at night knowing LBJ was our president. Bits and pieces of nostalgic memory are jogged, and I find myself longing to sit in front of the black and white TV at our old house on College Avenue and watch first-run episodes of The Lucy Show or The Beverly Hillbillies.

On July 3, 1964, I sat in the living room of my maternal grandparents' rural house across the Ohio River from Cincinatti on the Indiana side, watching something quite different on the TV. It was my first trip outside of California, and only the second of three times I'd ever meet my mom's folks. The first few minutes of the speech LBJ gave upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, up to the spot where he invokes JFK's name, is among the most eloquent and important discourses in American history:

"From the minutemen at Concord to the soldiers in Vietnam, each generation has been equal to that trust..." No matter how many times I listen to it, I get misty-eyed over the hopefulness of the era, and over the impressionable kid I was. I'm older now than the president was then, yet there's a fatherly sincerity in the man's face that I've never seen in any president's since. I'd read later that many thought of him as the ultimate cynical politico who didn't really believe in anything, but he was more complicated than that. I see now--as I did then-- something deeper in that grainy black-and-white footage.

Things went sour shortly thereafter, as we know. In the link below, we see LBJ at the conclusion of his last public appearance in December 1972, a civil rights symposium at the LBJ Library. He is a month from death, and visibly weakened by his heart condition. Jack Valenti describes in his account the tears in the eyes of Roy Wilkins and other civil rights leaders as "the champ" entered the ring one last time, and gradually warmed to his task. Julian Bond, in the last half minute or so of the video, sums up the LBJ Legacy wonderfully. I include it without further comment:

If not for Vietnam... Caro repeats that phrase at the end of one of his volumes. It was the graveyard of many an expert's reputation, a war the U.S. wasn't really prepared to fight, but one we figured we ought to be able to win without working up much of a sweat.

The best account of one important aspect of the air war, Operation Rolling Thunder, appears in the link below, a documentary on the F-105, the world's first supersonic fighter-bomber. Christened "Thunderchief," but commonly called "Thud" by pilots who grew up on Howdy Doody and recalled the recurring character of Chief Thunderthud, the F-105 was designed as a kind of Doomsday Machine, ready to carry a single nuclear weapon deep into Russia at low altitude and supersonic speed. We had a lot of them, and they were largely made obsolete for their original purpose when the ICBM fleet was developed and deployed.

Thus were they adapted for use in the air war in Vietnam, with the bomb bay re-fitted for extra fuel storage. As a kid, I remember a photo of a squadron of them flying past Mount Fuji on the cover of National Geographic, and reference articles were forever showing photos of them with various kinds of ordnance spread about on the ground. The message seemed--even at the time to my ten year old mind--that the U.S. had the capability to fuck with anybody anywhere anytime and was quite self-satisfied with that fact. This effect would come to be called "the arrogance of power," and LBJ was not beyond becoming infected with it. He was never able to understand how such a "raggedy-ass country" could hold out against the world's greatest superpower.

The Thunderchief became the first U.S. aircraft in history to be withdrawn from service due to its high casualty rate over North Vietnam. Yet in retrospect, the problem was not with the plane itself, which turned out to be an incredibly adaptable and resilient weapons platform, but with the fact that we were stepping slowly and gradually into our second great "limited war" at the absolute height of the cold war era. Unlike Korea, the terrain and the very nature of the conflict in Vietnam made superior weaponry almost irrelevant. The Russians happily provided the North with the capability to shoot the F-105s down in great numbers, while LBJ fretted over how to respond appropriately without starting WWIII.

The documentary is about 45 minutes long, and worth watching in its entirety. Several pilots pay tribute to this amazing plane at the end of the video, and the opening and closing scenes in the airplane graveyard at Davis Monthan AFB, the latter overlapped by a fading clip of LBJ presenting the Medal of Honor to a Thunderchief pilot, get to me every time:

The Thunderchief was retired with honors in the early 1980s, being used in its last years by a few Air Force Reserve units to provide pilots with flying hours. It was known for its distinctive howl, no better demonstrated than in these videos of a 24-ship flyby and of the squadron landing at the end of the practice. A co-worker describes the video clips as "majestic," and indeed the old birds seem to possess a proud and dignified persona of their own: (flyby) (landing)

Like LBJ himself, I see the F-105 Thunderchief as a capable instrument of perhaps the greatest force for good in human history, yet caught in a terrible twist of history that relegated it--unfairly--to the status of a dubious failure.

Once while thinking over the irony of all of this, and wondering if anyone else at some point had attempted to articulate what I was feeling, I came upon this section of a website. It is filled with pictures of LBJ in conference with various "experts," and seeming utterly bewildered by their inability to make reality conform to their expert predictions. These were the times I grew up in, and they made for a generation of skeptics... most of whom have less empathy for our 36th president than I do:

With long contemplation and study, my own conclusion is that LBJ had two great failings as a leader in those difficult times. First, he presumed that he could use military force, particularly strategic bombing, as a negotiating tool. He underestimated the effectiveness of Soviet military assistance to the North, and the fanatical devotion of the adversary to uniting Vietnam under their auspices. Being communists in the cold war era, it was perhaps understandable that LBJ felt obliged to oppose them no matter how ineffective the South's position appeared. However, he was unwilling to treat the U.S. role in the conflict as anything beyond a police action to retain the status quo.

This brings us to the second great failing. LBJ--a master politician--tended to approach the commander-in-chief's role as if he were still Senate Majority Leader. By trying to please hawks and doves alike, he pleased no one. It made for a stalemate with no end in sight until, finally, he turned the problem over to someone else. That someone, of course, was Richard Nixon, who recognized early on that there was no viable military solution to the war. As some of the pilots in the Thunderchief documentary allude, the plan then shifted to extracting the U.S. from the mess while ensuring the safe release of American prisoners of war (who were largely F-105 pilots).

Everyone knows the famous scene at the end of LBJ's March 31st 1968 address to the nation, in which he announces a partial bombing halt and intones in his inimitable cadence:

"Ah shaaaaaaall nooooooot seek............................................. and ah wiiiiiiiiill nooooooot accept........................................ the nomination.................................. of maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah party.................................... for another term........................................... as yooooooooooooooour prez-dunt."

There is no need to link to it here, nor to the many other public addresses now available through YouTube and other sources. He was--let's face it--a lousy public speaker. His ears stuck out, he tried too hard to appear solemn and serious, and he lingered over words so emphatically that it sounded at times as if he were dictating to a stonemason. Yet the text of the speeches are among the most eloquent and meaningful orations in American history, all the more so because they often accompanied dramatic actions such as the signing of bills into law.

He believed in the Great Society, where material abundance was only the beginning of a nation's measure of greatness. He believed in the innate value and dignity of all human beings. He believed in the power of education and knowledge. He believed, also, that he had a unique opportunity to push the nation in the direction of a truly great society.

There was no other time like that in human history. We were coming off the retreat of colonialism in the post-war (post-WWII) period. New nations were born with great feelings of hope. Disneyland had opened less than a decade before, and less than 100 miles from where I lived. It was fresh and new and accompanied by any number of Southern California infrastructure projects, all designed with an eye toward the glorious future. All human problems seemed solvable, and wonderful dreams and opportunities waited to be harnessed under effective government leadership. I grew up in the middle of that; I cannot get it out of my head.

To end, I will link to a 25 minute video biography of LBJ. Some sections are better than others, though the entire biography is certainly watchable and not lengthy. If nothing else, go to 16:25 of the video and learn something that few remember or ever knew about our 36th president, the small town schoolteacher:

LBJ with MLK, in a favorite photo

Listening to a report on the Tet Offensive, early 1968.
Note the bust of JFK in the background.
Awarding the Medal of Honor
The incomparable F-105 Thunderchief

Thursday, April 2, 2015


Now that I'm getting the hang of how to use this site, I'll provide a couple of links to stories about two of my best childhood friends. Both stories won modest awards, and were written straight from the heart in a single draft.

Some of my best friends have managed to make colossal messes of their lives. I love them anyway... not that I want to hang out on a regular basis with one in particular. (Tom M.) (John B.)
(The editors rather gracelessly changed the title from my original: "Does God Live in Old Men?"

These are not they, but two other childhood friends I've stayed in touch with. They're known in the shorthand idiolect I use with close friends as "Larrys B&K." We're at my mom's memorial service in July 2006:

As the song we learned at Henry Clay Elementary tells us:

Make new friends
But keep the old
One is silver
And the other gold.

Of course, though, you have to keep meeting new people. The ESL field is mostly female, at least domestically. These are folks I've known for a mere 12 to 15 years, including a male alter-ego who did the whole marriage & kids bummer but nonetheless, at heart, has a lot in common with me:

For more on the Magic Triangle and its link to the area around College and University Avenues, here's the story:


4275 College Avenue

This is the house I lived in from birth to Veterans' Day 1965. As it was a school holiday and dad was a school teacher, he chose that day for the move a few blocks away to the house most friends know as our family home. In my profile picture, you can see me standing on the other side of the front window, posing as Roy Rogers.

The place is up for sale, and my sister and I were able to visit it with a realtor friend a couple of weeks ago. We were all struck by how small the rooms were. It was initially a 2 bedroom 1 bath house with a small garage. Dad converted the garage into a dining room with back utility room in the early 1960s, and added a bedroom when my sister was born. Then the covered porch in the back was enclosed. It made for a crazy floor plan, and subsequent owners have since converted it into a psychotically half-assed duplex, complete with barred windows as the neighborhood became enriched by diversity.

On the other hand, the enormous back yard continues to impress. It faces on a drainage ditch and hillside, which figures into several of my stories about growing up there. For an intro to the world I was brought into, the link to my old neighborhood blog below provides a start.

A couple of weeks ago
A couple of weeks before I was born
A favorite shot at the edge of the back yard by the ditch and hillside, circa 1959

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Having been born in December 1954, I turned 60 four months ago. Even as a very small child in late 1950s and early 1960s Southern California, I had the sense of living in a very special time and place. Even then, I would tell myself to try intensely to remember the events of daily life as a way to refer to them later, believing they would eventually become enough a part of the distant past to be of historical interest.

At times it felt a futile endeavor. It seemed odd to think that the Kennedy Administration, the Twist, the Watusi, the British Invasion, the F-105 Thunderchief, cigarette commercials, or Alvin and the Chipmunks might ever be considered anything but thoroughly hip and up to date. Yet, as the young Bob Dylan put it around that time, present now will later be past. Still, it seems a bit disconcerting to watch an episode of "Mad Men," and to think of all the period pieces not as quaint anachronisms but as things that were once very real parts of my life.

One day in August 1965, sitting in the back of the family car as we cruised up the Coast Highway to the beach, I found myself staring out the window and told myself to concentrate as intensely as possible on the moment, as a kind of future reference to the concept that that single time/space particle, which I would later compare to a photon of energy, was absolutely real and present. After that, for many months and even years, it annoyed me a bit that the memory of the moment was merely one of many pieces of recent past. I perceived it intensely, but so what? By the end of the 1960s, that moment in late summer 1965 still wasn't really very long ago. Now at age 60 though, I feel my 10 year old self was trying to think ahead to the person I would be now, to communicate with me across time in a sense.

The child is father to the man, and for most of my life I've had to remind myself, over and over again, that the present and future are supposed to be of greater significance than the past. Yet it is my nature to be reflective, to spend at least as much time thinking about things I've done as about things I plan to do. I've had an interesting life--perhaps an exceptionally interesting life to some people's perceptions--yet so often feel like I'm trying to speak to my 10 year old self, trying to impress the kid with what an interesting and successful adult I've become. I'm forever Googling and YouTubing things I used to see as a child and not really know much about: news stories my folks would fret over, toys I played with, TV commercials I laughed at, breakfast cereals I ate, football games I watched, snippets of song and verse I heard before I could really process language.

Asked to pick one example out of gazillions, here's a vintage 1960s gum commercial that I'd hoped to run across eventually, in my humble opinion just about the coolest ever:

Over the years and slowly, all of this reflection has provided virtually a day-by-day chronology of the first twenty years of my life, from news stories to pop music to fashion to general interpretations of the zeitgeist behind any given event. This is not to brag; there are huge gaps in the knowledge, but for myself it's satisfying to have a frame of reference for just about everything that happened around me--and often confused me--as a child.

In starting this blog, I hope to consolidate some of my earlier writings from other online publications that have discontinued their blog functions. Where practicable, I'll provide links to the original blogs, some of which have won awards and some of which are mediocre meanderings by anyone's judgment.

Well, it's getting late but this is a start...