Trip Eve

We saddle up the big horse in the sky tomorrow headed east.

Home.

Too long away. Always is too long.

Too short of a stay. Always is.

i miss home.

But the stay is also too long.

Sometimes i wonder why we go.

After all, i went Christmas shopping last Thursday and just happened to wander into Balboa Park. It was seventy-two, no wind. i parked by the carousel, wound my way past the Casa del Prado Theater and the Natural History Museum to look out on the fountain. The Timken Museum is on the left, the Botanical Building on the left, and the lily pond just past the Timken make it a peaceful vista.

i look back at the covered walkway of  the Casa del Prado. i would like to just sit and contemplate, maybe bring a note pad and write a few words. History seems to lie here. Very few just sit and contemplate: too many things to see and experience. It is a big, lovely place in the middle of the now big city, an escape in the midst of madness.

i pass the Botanical Building, home of about a gazillion ferns and plants of all kinds of variations. It is cool inside, even in the Santa Ana’s. Someday, i plan to actually stay for a while when i go inside, study the plants, learn a little biology. It would be good to get smart about plants and those strange ferns. But i have other things to pursue.

i walk past the Timken and look out at the plaza, a place to mingle. It is a comfortable place with nice dining on the edges, much better since they closed off the plaza to traffic. i try to imagine 1915 and the California Pacific International Exposition, which created these buildings, this atmosphere. It is not hard to imagine.

 

i look at the California Tower and the Old Globe beneath it. Magnificent structures and the Old Globe, close to an exact replica of the original with many plays, especially those of Shakespeare, and i think i just don’t go to enough of them. i have enjoyed every one i’ve seen in that place, yet i always seem to find reasons to not go. Crazy.

i must go. It’s only been less than an hour, too short a time, always too short, too many things to get done. on my walk back to the car, i pass the Morton Bay Fig tree, enormous now, planted as a small sapling at the exposition in 1915.  It is about eighty feet high and close to 150 feet wide, one of nature’s ways to make us feel small with her majesty.

But i will not tarry here this season. It’s time go home and see friends and family. Again, i ask myself why. i have friends here:

Jim and Sharon Hileman and Pete Toennies with his Christmas lights sweater, fortunately turned off for this photo. Sharon went to high school with Maureen; life-long friends. Jimbo was my second golfing buddy in San Diego. The first, our best man, the helo pilot Dave O’Neill, is somewhere in South Dakota dove hunting…and Pete, well, i think i’ve said enough about him.

Then there is the “Grand Whiner” of the Friday Morning Golf Curmudgeons with a fez  we gave him to prove it, and a hero few know about, Marty Linville with his wife Linda, a Chiefs fan through and through. Next to them is Joanne Stark, Irish through and through who loves French and is from Boston. the profile on the edge is the goofy guy.

Rod Stark with Joanne and the goofy guy. Rod is a great golfer, a former club pro and the guy who almost read my retirement speech while i was with my wife in labor…but i made it. He’s one of the nicest guys around. There will be more about the goofy guy in a later post.

 

It’s not a great photo of Nancy, but she is one beautiful lady, like six feet tall and can turn heads when she goes to brunch at the Hotel del Coronado’s Crown Rook with a five-six goofy guy. She is also caring beyond belief. She has been tending to one or both of her parents for twenty years. Pete helps, and they both have included us as family on many outings.


And of course, there is this native San Diegan who just happens to be my wife. This is her home yet she follows me…no she doesn’t follow we go side by side anywhere together. Have been doing that for a long time. She fits in with every family and friend i have, perhaps even better than me. She is sophisticated and sometimes unabashedly a little crude. She loves jokes; she laughs and the whole world laughs with her. And San Diego is her place. So i wonder why are we going to travel across the country where i won’t play golf, where i won’t go to Balboa Park on a perfect day in December.

After all, we have a tree, a beautiful one at that thanks to Maureen and Sarah, and, i mean we haven’t had but two Christmases here since we moved in 1989. We had Christmas at Maureen’s dad’s house from our third year together — the first i was in the Indian Ocean, and the second (another sea story) we spent with Frank and Jan Kerrigan in Jacksonville. That was a long time ago and i think it would be lovely to have Christmas here, and i could play golf the next day, and we could go to Balboa Park the next, and the zoo the next, and dine at our favorite places, and take a walk along the ocean, and we wouldn’t have the stress of Christmas travel, or the pain of packing and unpacking and packing and unpacking, and getting home and sorting through the mail, and spending time with the neighbors and…

But you know what? We’ve been coming to Lebanon and Chattanooga, or rather Signal Mountain since 1992 and it’s Christmas, our Christmas, and my sister plays the bells in the Christmas Eve and home. Well, home is home and will always be home.

i’m glad i’m headed east for Christmas.

Heroes

They are heroes. Real heroes, not the military and first responder kind of heroes, but heroes never-the-less. They are also kin.

They live about a day’s drive from here.

Stefanie is my wife’s brother’s daughter. Therefore, i’m kin. Eric Johnson is Stefanie’s husband. Therefore, he is my kin. Stefan is Stefanie’s son. Therefore, he is my kin. Naomi is their daughter. Therefore, she is my kin. They are all heroes because one, Naomi, is a super girl.

Naomi almost died during her birth. She has had difficulties to overcome since then. She has special needs. And you know what? She has overcome the obstacles. She will have to deal with them for most of her life, but her parents and her brother will help. And there is no doubt in my mind, Naomi will succeed. i have never known a couple and their son being so dedicated to the uniter, the hero. They are.

Eric is the most loving father i have ever met. His care for his wife, his son, and his daughter seems to have no bounds, and he uses that love for kind and caring discipline as well as affection to give the two young ones a better chance at succeeding. They have and they will.

Stefanie is equally loving and supportive of her family. Her love for Eric is palatable. They are a team, a good team, dedicated to their family. Stephanie is a rock. Naomi also inspired her Stefanie to write two books, I See You Little Naomi, and I See You  LIttle Andrew.The book is for helping children to understand how to relate to other children with special needs (they help the adults as well). i have written of Stefanie’s books  here before.

i don’t see them enough. That is my fault and my loss. Every time i am around them, i feel inspired, happy, awed like i should being amongst family heroes.

i didn’t forget Stefan. Can’t say i’ve seen a finer young man. Good student. Good athlete. Ready for college. Still remembers the Padre game i took him and Eric to a long time ago. But that is just the beginning. Stefan is a hero too. He, like his mother, can write. He wrote an article about his family and his feelings about his sister.  It was published today in the December Alive Magazine, a monthly publication in the East Bay (San  Francisco Bay). It made me smile, it made me weep a bit. It made me proud. After all, i’m kin to a hero. Several of them.

Special Needs Inclusion: It Takes A Village

My heroes at our home during a 2011 visit.

A Christmas Thought

i was just a bit embarrassed. That is what started it all.

Tonight, i was driving home from a meeting right after sunset. The drive through our neighborhood looked more like a drive through a gaudy midway with all of the lights of the Christmas decorations.

There were icicle lights in droves hanging from the eaves. Colored lights were wrapped around everything not moving. Reindeer plastic skeletons were lit with care…and abundance. Blow up figures of every animal species known to man that had littered the yards during the day, were now glowing and puffed up into Pillsbury Dough Boy wannabes. Giant presents, lit of course, were strewn over the yards. A few homes, including two of our neighbors had this new stuff, green and red tiny points of light shimmering on everything from a projection gizmo. Figures of Santa, elves, snowflakes, and Lord knows what else wandering around garage doors. This stuff was everywhere, nearly every yard.

i pulled into my driveway and there was my puny, handmade “NOEL” sign. That’s it except for the Christmas tree, a number of music boxes my sister has given our daughter every year, and a few other decorations inside the house.

i felt ashamed. No, that’s not right. i blamed everyone else for playing the “Christmas Vacation” game of greatest number of lights and decorations and felt smug for a few minutes.

It all got me to thinking in the screwy way i have of going about thinking.

i don’t like the commercialization of Christmas. i don’t like being bombarded by Christmas commercials from every media when it’s still late summer. i don’t like Christmas becoming a huge big party with lots of partying, celebration, and forgetting why it’s the reason for the season as they say. i mean i’m not a big churchgoer, but hey, even if you don’t believe, all this stuff was begun over two thousand and years ago because there was this pretty special kid born under some pretty exceptional circumstances. i mean until some politically correct yahoo tried to ignore it and rename it, our calendar year is based on when this young baby grew up and died in pretty rough fashion.

But then i got to thinking about it. Some people i know are of different faiths than Christianity. Some don’t believe. But they all love Christmas, even though some have tried to claim it’s the holiday season, not Christmas time. Sensitive souls they must be i guess. Way too sensitive to be healthy for them. They celebrate also. They light up the world. They sing carols although other yahoos seem intent on ruining that. They get together with friends and family.

And everyone of them focus on giving gifts to others. Charities of every version for every purpose weighs in and we all give to help in some noble cause.

So thinking about it in my weird way, it occurred to me that the guy who started all of this, that little baby, is probably just fine with that. After all, he really wanted the world to be better, people to be kinder to each other, to enjoy each other, to treat others as they would want to be treated. And at least for a couple of weeks every winter, most of us do exactly that.

So neighbors, shine on.

And a merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

Amy Beth Hale Should Have Been Here

i met Amy Beth Hale once when a bank decided to dig up my football field, actually Castle Heights football field named after Stroud Gwynn. It was several years ago when that bank decided they needed a corporate headquarters where once the Castle Heights Tigers ruled the gridiron, soccer field, and track and field site. Several of the alumni of the defunct school attended the sad event and even created a formation roughly of the kind that marched into that sacred ground every Sunday for the parade and pass-in-review. i was in that pass and review roughly 160 times, not counting practice runs.

Amy’s father, Gene Hale was a professor there when i attended. Good teacher. Good man. Amy came along much later. She is currently “Director, Member Services at International Bluegrass Music Association.”

That is why Thursday night, i wished she was here along with a couple of friends. You see, my buddies, Alan and Jim Hicks, Cy Fraser, and i love bluegrass. Alan and Cy are downright aficionados. Alan plays the banjo like his mother, Miss Tarwater, played the banjo in Greenwich Village a long time ago. Cy Fraser bough a mandolin, but i don’t think he has played it very much. i own a guitar. i pluck. About once every two years. Badly. But we all love bluegrass. i teased Alan and Cy about joining me Thursday, figuring they might just be crazy enough to show up from San Francisco and Orcas Island respectively. i didn’t tease Jim because i knew he wouldn’t come from Connecticut.

i was going alone. Maureen’s annual dinner with six of her closest girl friends was  scheduled up at Del Mar for the same evening. But Wednesday night, her dinner was cancelled. It actually rained, really rained in the Southwest corner. With thunderstorms even. Now, i hope you never get caught in the Southwest corner when it rains, even a little. These people go nuts. They have no idea how to drive in the rain. So then Maureen says she might go with me to the symphony. It’s a special show. i’m glad she’s joining me.  She has second thoughts then changes her mind again. And again. Finally, she says she’ll go but is worried about the flooding. i said “Don’t sweat it.” Not the best thing to say. We go in the middle of a gully washer complete with thunder. It doesn’t let up the entire trip to downtown. Maureen gasps about every thirty seconds with a splash of water from a nearby car, a lightning strike, crazy drivers cutting in front of us, crazy drivers almost stopped on the freeway, crazy drivers period.

We make it downtown. It is pouring still. i let her out near the symphony door. i park about a block away. i’m okay because i’m well prepared unlike about seventy-five percent of the other folks living downtown walking about (for some inexplicable reason). i do fine except for the guy with a skateboard tucked under his arm dashing in front of me requiring me to sidestep into ankle deep water by the curb and i’m not that prepared. i don’t have galoshes. Finally, i am inside. Whew.

We take our seats. Some pseudo science guy who admits to be a nerd but he’s too old to be a nerd i think engages Maureen in a conversation about we might live on mars because of the surface conditions or something.

Finally, it begins. The orchestra’s composition is nearly all strings with a harpsichord for the evening’s slate is music from the 17th and 18th centuries. The first piece is just beautiful, lyrical. It’s “Chacony in G Minor by Henry Purcell, written around 1680. i now have another composer for seeking classical music.

Then what i went for is next. Avi Avital is the star artist. He plays the mandolin, a classical mandolin. His first piece is “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concerti. Avi plays the mandolin instead of the lead violin. i am entranced. i wish for Alan and Jim and Cy and, of course, Amy Beth.

Avital played his mandolin in Bach’s Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, replacing the lead instrument the harpsichord. Again i am enchanted. Again, i wish for my friends.

Bill Monroe, Vince Gill, and Ricky Skaggs. Les Thompson, eat your hearts out. Avi is that good.

And best of all, when it was over, it had stopped raining. We drove home gaspless. And i played golf the next morning. After all, it was Friday morning.

Christmas Okra, the completed version

Fat fingers got me again. i hit “Publish” rather than “Save Draft,” so it wasn’t really fat fingers. It was fat head. So now for the rest of the tale.

Those two words don’t quite fit together. Christmas. Okra.

i should have known.

Then, there was this crazy thing when i found okra in the Navy commissary at the 32nd Street base in San Diego. In late November. i haven’t seen it all year anywhere except at the North Island exchange in early October. Go figure.

i should have known.

Then, i made the mistake of looking up fried okra on the internet. Initially, Paula Deen and i had a rocky relationship.

i should have known.

i have tried frying okra, twice previously. The first time, i could not find any fresh okra in the Southwest corner, so i tried it with that frozen muck. Bad idea. The next time, i got some fresh okra, worked on it for about three hours, counting cooking and it turned out…well, not quite as bad as the frozen stuff.

So i quit the frying jag.

i came up with own recipe for okra, something roughly akin to a Cajun gumbo. It has gotten some pretty good reviews. i toss in some Tennessee Pride Sausage, and i like it. So i stuck to it. It goes really well with my mother’s biscuits or Maureen’s gourmet takeoff on my mother’s biscuits. My cornbread also works pretty well with my okra.

i made some about a week ago before i came upon this commissary okra. So i decided to try the fried version again.

For a while, it appeared this time would not be a great deal different from the other two fiascos. i blamed it on Paula Deen. i took the ingredients and mixed them as directed. The problem was i was not supposed to mix the buttermilk into the mix. i was supposed to wash the okra in the buttermilk — i know, i know “wash” is probably an incorrect description, but hell, i don’t claim to be a knowledgeable cook, just good at couple of things stolen from my mother’s extensive recipe cards and several things i picked up from others like The Alligator, Colonel Jimmy Lynch, my former father-in-law — wash the okra in buttermilk before dragging through the mix to deep fry.

When i got to that part about not mixing the buttermilk, i tried to salvage the whole thing. More buttermilk. Not mixed.

It came out of the fryer in big lumps about the size of a baseball. i didn’t include photos here because it was ugly, real ugly. i separated the lumps as best i could with knife and fork, but it still remained lumpy. And ugly.

But then Maureen came home and we tried it. It was really good, tasted as good or better than most okra i know.

So Paula, you have a free pass on this one. But write your recipes so bozos don’t mix everything together before they read to the bottom of the recipe.

Christmas Okra

Those two words don’t quite fit together.

i should have known.

Then, there was this crazy thing when i found okra in the Navy commissary at the 32nd Street base in San Diego. In late November. i haven’t seen it all year anywhere except at the North Island exchange in early October. Go figure.

i should have known.

Then, i made the mistake of looking up fried okra on the internet.

There’s Something Here

Another from the “in progress” files:

there’s something here;
you can sorta feel it;
you really don’t know
what the hell it is;
but,
then again,
you really don’t give a damn:
do you?
no;
so wander along in your nothingness,
enjoy what it is
or
whatever it might be;
enjoy the puritanical, the risqué, the commercialism, the naturalism
or
what ever it really is.

what might be there?
who cares what might be there:

it’s a quiet night;
it’s rather cool;
it’s pleasant:
so just sorta sit back,
enjoy the infinitesimal bliss
lying there for you.

Newport, Rhode Island
Summer 1968 

Words

From my old “in progress” files i found yesterday:

Words

who can muster words to flow
like some swirling sea,
still expecting the world to know
what’s beneath the waves and foam?
who can spray forth torrents
of loud and verbose brine
believing the following silence
means everyone else is like inclined.

Newport, Rhode Island
January 1969

Sorry. An Old Man Found Some Things

i apologize in advance.

Today, i had numerous things to get done. My top priority was to write on my book.

Didn’t.

Before i started, i created a file for the lateral file case in my home office. Putting it in its place i found three thick folders of things i had written i had not completed to my satisfaction, dating at least back to the middle 1960’s. As with most of my stuff, the shards of writing long ago had grammatical errors, oversights, typos, were too wordy and in general what you expect from a story teller not a writer.

i was fascinated.

i am now going through them, cleaning them up a bit (but never enough for critics and most of the time, me too, but hell, i’m a story teller).

So you are probably going to see a lot of stuff from those folders on this site. i apologize. But my muse made me do it.

Pompei

i went to Pompei today
in the rain;
left Naples in a bus;
a fat little man
mechanically spoke his piece
about Naples’ squares and statues
while pimps and whores and hustlers
and
little boys selling dirty pictures
crowded past the bus
while
the bus itself was composed
of innumerable people in one large box,
highly seasoned with the filth of a city
integrated with the smell of the diesel fuel.

in Pompei,
the rain turned gentle;
vendors donned their rain gear;
their umbrellas blossomed
to protect their wares,
slides, tour books, trinkets;
the fat little guide swept us along
in his unbemused fashion
telling of the grandeur, the beauty,
reeling off death statistics
like an accountant,
and
suggestively showing ruined rooms of license.

i left Pompei today in the rain;
the bus felt dry;
soon, near Salerno,
no,
Amalfi, at the crest it seemed,
the clouds broke out the sun
in its harsh, startling glory:
the Mediterranean waters sparkled below;
the hillside homes blanched white
against the breaking sun’s fury
as the bus wound its way
up and down the switchbacks
of the Amalfi coast roads
enchantingly
on the return to Naples.

i left the bus,
making my way
to a phone exchange,
waiting, calling
only to hear the unanswered rings
before
walking to the pier
to wait for the liberty boats
to take me to my anchored ship
alone.

At least, the rain stopped.

Naples, Italy
October 14, 1972

Noel Time, a Story…Again

Well, bless you, Coach, as in JB Leftwich, columnist and journalism mentor extraordinaire.

You see, one of the grateful moments of my short and oft interrupted life in journalism was to write a weekly column on the same newspaper, The Lebanon Democrat, while JB was writing his weekly column on another day of the week. Even when i had no hair…again…i learned from Coach about writing for a newspaper.

One thing i learned was if you have a column for a specific season and it is well received, keep submitting/posting it that particular season every year. JB did that with a column about his mother’s fruit cake (again, Leftwich family, please correct me if i got the kin or the dessert incorrect in my memory).

So on Thanksgiving, i re-posted my column about smoking a turkey. And now, i’m re-posting my column about a dark day of the Christmas season. i know it has been appreciated because my close friend, Pete Toennies, guffaws each time he reads it. Sometimes, i am embarrassed by the story. Sometimes, i wonder why i have told anyone about that dark day. Then, i recall what occurred. i start laughing. It is a good story.

i cutsied it up a bit last year and called it “No, Noel, No.” with a couple of photos edited to make my rather silly point. But it was the same column.

The saga continues. The “NOEL” sign in the original story was made of 1×2 pine, was much larger, had holes drilled into the wood for the lights, and weighed considerably more than the current version. But a couple of years ago, some of the lights on the original went out and it was just too complicated to replace the lights in the series. So i constructed a more manageable sign. i was very meticulous and before drilling the one hundred or more holes, i decided to check it out and just stapled the light strings on the front. i showed it to Maureen. She decided she liked it much better than the more regimented one with holes drilled in it. Since she is the one who has an eye for design (and it was one heck of a lot less work), i agreed.

So i put the sign up last year.

That’s when i noticed i had two different strings of white lights. The first string was “white;” the second string was “bright white.” There’s a difference, you know. i didn’t.

Now i should change them out to match. But you know what? It sort of looks like i made it. So it’s staying this way, at least for this Christmas season.

Noel.

The “NOEL” sign was created in memory of Col. Jimmy Lynch. My father-in-law at the time asked me to help put his up in Paris, Texas in the mid-1970’s. There is another story in that adventure for later. But i loved the sign and made my first one in the early 1990’s.

 

Notes from the Southwest Corner: An Embarrassing Christmas Moment

As I have noted previously, I am in Tennessee for Christmas, not in the Southwest corner. The below events, however, did occur near San Diego.

Have you ever had one of those days when everything turned into an embarrassment? I had a champion day like that several years ago.

It started innocently while I hung our outdoor decoration, a home-made “NOEL” sign from the eave of our garage, hoping to get it up before my wife’s friends arrived for their Christmas dinner.

Maureen and her six friends have been meeting monthly for dinners 15-plus years. They had this December dinner catered, did it up right. It was Maureen’s turn to be hostess.

It was dark when I began. I was at the top of my step ladder attaching the second of two wires from the sign to a hook secured to the eave when the ladder lurched and toppled. I grabbed a metal ornamental grating above the garage door.

There I hung, my arm intertwined with the “O” of the sign. If I tried to drop, the sign could catch my arm and do some pretty bad stuff.

I yelled, but Maureen had Christmas carols at top volume and didn’t hear. I tried to think of what to do while simultaneously wondering how long I could hold on. The dog wandered underneath, occasionally looking up as if I was a very strange person hanging there.

After several minutes, a neighbor’s son and friend pulled into the driveway several houses away. As they emerged, I swallowed my pride and yelled “Help.”

At first, they could not discern who was calling. Then they spotted me and came to help. The dog decided to protect me and began barking threateningly. The boys hesitated. I assured them the only danger was being licked to death. They finally righted the ladder and helped me down.

I thanked them profusely and then studied whether I should tell Maureen or not. Now that I was back on solid ground, I decided it was too funny not to tell her. She was incredulous and not particularly amused.

I did not realize my embarrassment for the night was just beginning.

While Maureen made final arrangements for her dinner, our daughter, Sarah, and I went to a local spot for supper. The little place was an oasis of sorts in Bonita, where there were only Mexican, Italian, and fast food restaurants. The attraction was being different and having a wide-range of ales and beers for golfers finishing a round across the street.

When we arrived, two couples were at tables and three guys sat at the bar. As we neared the end of our meal, the largest of the guys at the bar walked to the door and then turned back. I noticed his eyes seemed glazed. Then he walked back to the bar.

Suddenly, this guy and the one on the other side grabbed the guy in the middle off his stool, slammed him into the wall and started pummeling him with their fists. The three male diners, me (instinctively) included, approached from one side and two cooks approached from the back. Sarah had retreated to the door with the two lady diners. I grabbed the big guy. He spun and fell backward, slamming us into our table, knocking it over with shattering glass. It gave me some leverage, and we spun to the floor with me on top and knocking the wind out of the big guy. The other two diners helped me hold him until he calmed down. The cooks had quelled the other assailant. The two left quietly.

Even though the waitress wanted us to not pay our bill, we paid and left for home. On the way, I talked to my daughter about what I should have done (directed her outside before joining the fray) and what she should do the next time if she were ever in a place where a fight broke out (get out and away and not come back until she was sure it was over).

I was feeling pretty good as we arrived home. Then Sarah dashed out of the car, ran into the house and yelled to her mother in front of the caterer and her six friends dressed to the nines amidst fine china, Christmas decorations, and haut cuisine, “Mom, Dad got in a fight in a bar.”

Some days, I just can’t get a break.

May your holiday season be embarrassment free.

And may all of you have a most wonderful and amazing Christmas Season, and please, please, please (as James Brown would implore) remember the reason this all occurs every year.