Dad

“C’mon MAK. Let’s go for a ride.”

“Where are you taking her?” My mom was angry at me again for something.

“There’s a record at the music store I want to look at, Helen. C’mon, MAK. Get your coat.”

I put on my ski jacket. It was the early 60s, I was 14, and the jacket was pure — and new — fashion. It was reversible. One side a flowery pattern in mostly orange, the other side — the usual side for me — black because I didn’t like orange.

“Listen, MAK,” my dad said turning the key in the ignition. “Stay away from your mom when she’s been drinking. Some people are funny when they’ve been drinking. Some people are mean. Your mom’s mean. When she’s like that, just get away.”

We backed out of the driveway.

What was he talking about? I was already living in the disconnect a lot of kids of an alcoholic parent live in. But from then on I took my dad’s advice and got out when the fireworks began.

In the wings of our lives was a move from Nebraska back to Colorado, my dad’s soon-to-be-rapid physical decline from Multiple Sclerosis, my family’s disintegration. That night we stood in the neon-lit music store in Bellevue, Nebraska and bought an album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Most of my generation knows this one, grew up with this one, but one song was particularly important to my dad.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/bottle/

I Loved It

For two years — sixth and seventh grade — I attended a private, academic prep-school in Omaha. It was my favorite two years of school. It was an Episcopalian school which meant we went to chapel every Wednesday. We also had religion as part of our basic curriculum.

I had to ride the bus because school was pretty far away. Riding the bus through Nebraska’s farmland in any season was wonderful. The bus drivers were off-duty firemen, really nice guys, both named Ed.

I even had a friend at school, a best friend, for the first time in my life.

We wore uniforms, gray flannel skirts, white blouses and a red or gray cardigan in winter, a pastel, shirtwaist dress in fall and spring. It was great not to have to think about what I was going to wear in the morning. It made it a lot easier to get on the bus at 6:30.

Later in life I returned to the uniform idea and invested in “outfits” for teaching, stuff I would never wear in my real life, suits. Not only did they make me look like the real deal, I could sleep in an extra 20 minutes. 🙂

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/uniform/

King o’Dirt

“Dude, I scored.”

“No way.”

“Way. You know her. Big-tits, bleached blond. ”

“Craig’s MOM?”

“She let me.”

“Dude. Yuck. That’ disgusting. She’s a ho. We going to King o’Dirt or not?”

“How are we going to get there?”

“Ride.”

“That’s like, I dunno, fifteen miles?”

“Martha will take us to Mission. We just gotta’ get to Martha’s house.”

“We can take the trolley to downtown then ride from there. What’s that?”

“Five miles or something. Not that far.”

“Will Martha do it?”

“She will. I bet she’ll take the video camera. It’ll be rad.”

 

***

Note: It’s doubtful the word “brassy” was used in this conversation.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/brassy/

TNT Boxes

When I was a kid, we had lots of TNT boxes lying around. Empty ones, but still they had “TNT — Highly Explosive” lettered all six sides. They were wooden boxes and really handy for making shelves, footstools and playhouses for one’s little girl. My dad did this for me when I was two. He took a bunch of TNT boxes and painted them green (the family favorite color and left over from painting the living room) and set them up in the back yard. I don’t have a strong memory of the playhouse, but I have a picture.

TNT

My cousin Linda and I thought that was pretty uptown. You can only see a couple of the TNT boxes in the photo. The TNT boxes form the foundation for the end of the “table” where my cousin is sitting. (Some youngster will find this photo and post it on Pinterest as “Mid-century Modern Childrens’ Playhouse.” Just wait)

He used the TNT to launch rockets carrying radios and weather balloons. And, of course, in the early 1950s there was still a lot of Army surplus stuff left over from the war. They were kind of like this, but with the tops off and no locks and different words.

573818747191c234599c887b45505821

Thanks Pinterest! for this photo of a “vintage” dynamite box.

 

Later we lived two miles from the nation’s largest gathering of B52 bombers, and, as it was the height (interesting use of the word ‘height’) of the Cold War, the possibility of detonation was real. I knew at a young age what a megaton was and how powerful our nukular arsenal was. My dad explained it to me through the familiar unit of 50 pound TNT boxes. I think he drew a picture.

That was when my dad told me about Alfred Nobel and how his invention had changed the world of warcraft (see what I did there?). TNT made him rich, but it also left him with feelings of great remorse that led to the Nobel Peace Prize.

“For some reason, peace is harder for people than war, MAK.” I understood that fine. I lived in a family where tempers flared, not in a family in which people got angry and sang Mr. Rogers’ song about what you do when you’re mad.

Some people’s dads flew bombers during the war; some liberated Rome; some were there supplying the fighters on Guadalcanal, like my Uncle Hank. Some stood in the Marine color guard in Nanjing when the Japanese surrendered, like my Uncle Stocky. Many died what we call a “hero’s death.” Not my dad. 🙂

The featured photo is of my dad sitting in front of La Jolla Cove. It wasn’t until I saw a photo of myself leaning against that railing in the exact same place that I understood where he’d been during the war, or the geography behind, “You’d better pray you never have to clean a latrine with a toothbrush, MAK.” This was his fate after, “…getting drunk in Tijuana, busted down to buck private and thrown in the brig.” By the end of the war, this had happened to him twice. When he was mustered out, he was a Tech Sergeant.

I am proud of his war achievements somehow. They included taming a coyote dog and making him a pet. I think my dad might not have been quite like the other kids…

Postscript: I just found his wallet with his discharge papers. He was: Radar Repairman; Gun Laying Equipment Expert; Expert Rifleman (no wonder: he hunted with his dad all his life). He had a Good Conduct  Medal and a Victory Medal and was stationed in the American Theater. He went to school in Davis, NC for radio and radar repair.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/detonate/

Radio Days

Sunday mornings I listen to the RADIO. Its signals are no longer radiated through the atmosphere, but come through the miracle of cable Wi-Fi. It’s a station in San Diego. 94/9. The DJ, Steve West, is a guy I listened to back in the day, the 80s when the alternative station was 91X. Yes folks, it’s an oldies show called Legends of Alternative. Steve West plays alternative and punk, sometimes playing songs I request (through the miracle of Facebook). I’m pretty sure his favorite band is The Cure. If it hadn’t been for his radio show, which was always on when I was driving home from school around 1 or 2 pm, I would  not have heard many of the songs that are my life’s soundtrack, such as “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush and “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys.

I grew up with the radio. My dad was a radio man when he was in the army. Having failed to ship out twice with his outfit(s), he ended up out in the California desert with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Army finally sent him to school, and he was trained to be, as he described it, “a radio man.” He told me the whole story, but long before I was old enough to have the context points that would help it stick in my memory.

When I was growing up, our basement had lots of cool WW II tech stuff in it — hand-cranked generators, telegraph buttons (?), field phones (my brother and I LOVED playing with those), and an assortment of various strange radios. My dad had been a HAM radio operator while he was in college in Montana, so there was all that radio equipment, too. I thought of a radio as a box with sound coming out of it; for my dad a radio was a platform with tubes, wires, coils and antennae.

When I was very small, my dad worked for the University of Denver. Imagine how much fun this must have been. He shot up rockets carrying weather balloons dangling radio transmitters into the atmosphere to “find” radio waves emitted by, I’m pretty sure, the bomb that had been tested at Alamogordo, NM.

The most spectacular radio in our lives was his Zenith Trans-Oceanic. Once he and I (I was 10 or 11) had built his office in one corner of the basement, had stained the pine bookshelves mahogany (brown), put all the books away, set up a small sofa, put in his desk, arranged his things, we were ready for the ceremony of, “C’mon MAK. Let’s see if we can listen to Russia.” Usually we just got Juarez. “C’mon, MAK. We can practice our Spanish.”

I couldn’t choose between my favorite radio songs for this post, so here are my top three.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/radiate/

Moorings…

There are lots of boats around here, but the kind of “unmoored” that applies most often in the San Luis Valley, at my house, anyway, is “unmowered.” I have to fix that situation tomorrow…

But I feel “unmoored,” adrift. Sometimes I think, “Where do I fit in this place, in this life, right now?” and I have no idea.

What I thought I’d do when I moved here is now the last thing I imagine doing. My thoughts of being an artist here in Southern Colorado are far, far, far away. This place is crawling with artists. I learned about competition among artists very soon after I emerged into that world and I didn’t like it, not at all.

The pace of things here has been difficult for me to get used to. I lived such a long time under pressure to get things done, piles of papers graded, reports turned in, to class on time, etc. Even in THAT world I was “hyper-efficient” because it was the only way I could get time to myself. Now? Mañana. I got paid from the local bookstore yesterday for a book they sold last September. When I had an electric outlet in my kitchen repaired, the guys showed up more or less out of no where six days after I’d called.

I truly have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going with my life. It’s not the first time. When I got back from China in 1983 I felt this way. It was as if my life’s great dream had come true and then it was over. I was back in Denver with a husband who didn’t like me much and a future I couldn’t see clearly. Everything had built to that ONE thing, getting out of the country, getting some of what I called “exposure.” Coming back felt strangely like failure.

One evening I walked down to the local supermarket — King Soopers in Capitol Hill — a notorious, famous and wonderful supermarket. Outside, in a wheelchair, playing for tips,  sat a man I knew, a jazz saxophonist. Tom. When I left for China, he had not been in a wheelchair. I asked him what happened and he explained he’d gotten the flu, it had attacked his spine and left him paralyzed. He said he hadn’t even been able to play, but he kept working toward it and now he could play a little bit. I sat down with him instead of going in the store.

“Where you been? I ain’t seen you around.”

“China. I went to China and taught English for the last year.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. China. That must’ve been something.”

“It was.”

One night I was hanging out in front of King Soopers with Tom, and a woman came up, a woman I had once worked with. “Martha!” she said. “What are you doing these days?” There was a judgmental edge in her voice. And, considering that I was sitting on a bus bench next to Tom in his wheelchair, godnose what she thought. I just looked at her. What right did she have to my history, a recitation of my adventures?

Tom answered. “She’s livin’. She’s jus’ livin’. That’s all any of us are doin’ and if you think somethin’ else, you’ wrong.”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/unmoored/

Fear and Loathing Burgers

“Everywhere we go, there’s a picture of Wyatt Earp. Do you think it means something? I feel like I’m just following in his footsteps.”

My friend was about to bite into the grossest hamburger ever served on planet Earth. I’d already experienced mine and fought the urge to spit it out. I had already laid it to one side of my plate and decided to have fries for dinner.

“You’re in the West. Wyatt Earp is legendary and he traveled.”

“Remember when we took my dad to Tombstone?”

“That was fun. That trip made his whole LIFE I think.”

“Gah, this awful.”

“Mine too. I guess it explains why this is the only restaurant here in Glenwood that has any seats at 6:30 on a Friday evening.”

“The onion rings are OK.”

“You can’t fuck up onion rings. You just take them out of the freezer and pour them out of a bag into hot oil.”

“How do you know that?”

“Working at A&W back in the day.”

“Now THAT’S a gourmet establishment.”

“More than this. ”

“How’s your dinner?” asks the waitress.

We both look at her with expressions that say, “Do you really want to ask that?” and say nothing.

“If you can’t say something nice,” I murmur as she leaves.

“I’m not leaving a tip.”

“Hey, the food isn’t her fault.”

“Yeah but if everyone quits working here, they’ll have to close down.”

“That won’t happen. Everybody wants to live here and they need jobs. ”

“God, why?”

“Skiing.”

“Where?”

“Up there.” I gesture left, over my shoulder. “Aspen.”

“Really? It’s HERE? Why aren’t there pictures of Hunter Thompson on the walls? WhyWyatt Earp?”

“I guess the Wild West is more saleable to tourists than is a notoriously wasted and boozed up writer with a shotgun.”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/notorious/

Bricks and Mortar

My dad was a brilliant man who died young, but not before he achieved some remarkable things, and not just me ( ha ha ). He was one of the scientists who collaborated on a super-secret government computer code during the Cold War, JOVIAL. The name — an acronym for “Jules Own Version of the International Algebraic Language.“– (IMO) reflects the wry, dark sense of humor of guys who had lived through the Great Depression and survived WW II (a good example of this is Dr. Strangelove). My dad was VERY funny in that style and, as I grew up, I thought everyone appreciated it. OH WELL.

This morning, researching the computer language, the first sentence I came upon was, “Jovial is essentially a dead language.” That is true in so many ways, but I don’t want to digress.

In going through box after box of family photos, I found some from the time we lived in the first home my parents owned, a little post-WWII tract house in Englewood, CO. There were — as was the style and necessity at the time — street after street of little houses, 900 – 1000 square foot homes, usually 3 bedrooms and a bathroom, built to accommodate the Baby Boom. I have played several iterations of SimCity, and, seriously, that’s what a 1950’s neighborhood looks like from above.


However anonymous the neighborhoods, or identical the houses, no two families are alike. As soon as the people moved in, they began to make the houses theirs. My dad did, too.

My grandfather was a building contractor and my dad liked working for him. He liked laying tile, building things with bricks, putting up partitions. As my life with my dad proceeded, we both spent a lot of time in the basement of our future homes (our first home didn’t have a basement) building stuff, usually bookcases. Once my dad told me that if he hadn’t met my mom, he wouldn’t have become a mathematician, gotten a masters degree or any of that. “I was happy laying tile, MAK. But thank God your mother came along and talked me into getting an education.” He had many good reasons for feeling this way, notably, that when he was 27 it became apparent he had Multiple Sclerosis. He was ever-after grateful that he didn’t have to rely on his physical abilities to earn a living for his family.

My dad’s project on his first home was a grill. Here’s a picture of my mom standing beside the grill, probably 1955.

Mom and grill 1250 E Bates Pkwy

And here’s the grill as it looked in 2014, the last time the house was sold. It’s clearly marketed as a focal point of the backyard. From the smoke stains on the blond brick, it looks like the grill has been used a lot. My dad designed it well.

One of the BIG EVENTS of this backyard of my childhood was company (by dad’s boss, for example), a cloth spread on the picnic table (also built by my dad, the kind you find in park service picnic spots), T-bone steaks and corn on the cob cooked over an applewood fire. Why all that was so great I did not know, but for my folks it was a very big deal. I think for my brother and me, the big deal was sherbert at the end.

grill

I am sure only a few people remember JOVIAL. The events of the Vietnam war — with which my dad was involved as a war-gamer and adviser to the Pentagon — will be debated as long as people remember it. But this grill has stood for 62 years in this little backyard in Englewood, Colorado, and though no one who lives there, and enjoys cooking on this grill, will know who built it or anything about the lives of the people in the little family who first owned the house, I do. 🙂

***

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/collaboration/

I See Dead People

The task I set myself is — I find — a rather melancholy one. I didn’t know it would be. All I set out to do was clear out stuff from the garage that I don’t need and that no one else (I know) will need.

The last box of “memories” has been the best and the hardest. During the time before my mom was completely awash in bitterness, she made two photo albums. One photos of her side of my family and the other of my dad’s side of my family. She was interested in genealogy as well and had in mind that I and whoever came after me would see how things changed over time. She never imagined anything like Ancestry.com or taking photos of photos with a cell phone and uploading them so that anyone who’s interested can see.

I have been doing the 2017 version of what my mom did in the 1980s. It is all online now so that the great-grandchildren of my aunts and uncles can see the family.

There was an old log and sod cabin on the plains not far from Billings, Montana, that we used to drive out to sometimes when I was up visiting family. It was always called, “The house where Pat was born.” Pat was the second oldest daughter in the family of 7 girls and 3 boys.

Today, as I looked at these photos, I realized that most of the kids were born “in the house where Pat was borne,” not just Pat. Pat was ashamed of being born in so poor a place, and so they teased her. The only thing worse than being born into poverty was being ashamed of who you are. “You’re as good as the best, and better than the best,” was one of my grandfather’s philosophical tenets. And so my aunt was shamed by her sisters for her shame. “Be proud of who you are and where you came from!”

My mom is in the first three pictures. In the first two, she is the youngest kid. In the third she stands in front of my grandmother, between the littlest one and the one older sister who never seemed to feel comfortable on the earth. My grandfather — who regarded himself as a philosopher — poses as one. My grandma looks tired with the sun in her eyes. One uncle is missing, the other — who was a cowboy and worked on wheat ranches — stands in front of his own car. Once the older kids grew up, moved out and got jobs, life improved for everyone.

My grandmother made all their clothes, the dishcloths, dishtowels, sheets, pillow cases, rugs, quilts and pillows herself. She drove the wagon that was the school bus on weekdays and the church bus on Sundays. She took care of the chickens and other fowl. Grew food in her garden and “put it up” for the winter.  She milked the cows and made butter and cheese. I can see why farm families need to be large. Sure they have to find a way to feed all those kids, but the man power is important, too. The view I’ve come to about the philosopher is that he didn’t do much, but he was interesting. I don’t know very much about him. Those to whom I was closest did not have much to say. He was already in his 50s when my mom was born and it could be in his younger years he was not so much a philosopher as he was a farmer. He ran for political office in Iowa some years before the move to Montana.

Obviously their life was hard even before the Great Depression. My mother used to go on and on about the hardness of their lives until it was beyond bearing and I could no longer listen. It seemed that the difficulty of her life (their lives) was beyond the difficulty of anyone’s life ever before or after.

I’m done with this task now. I don’t ever want to do it again. It may have been a mistake to go through that stuff. If I had just left it until I died, someone who didn’t care would not even have looked at it. But if I hadn’t done this, I would not have found out some things I am glad to know, and I would not have found a couple of treasures that were tucked away for me to find.

fullsizeoutput_cec

The family around 1924

fullsizeoutput_cf9

The family around 1928 (with an extra little girl) and one boy missing

fullsizeoutput_ce4

Most of the grandchildren in 1956 (there would be more) on my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary

Mother’s Day Gift

My mother was an anxious person. She panicked easily (and often). There were drugs in the cabinet to help her with this. Librium was the main med, I think. She was also a sad person, an envious person, a doubtful person, an insecure person, a fearful person. When things were going well and life was balanced, she was charming and funny, but it was far too easy to knock her off balance.

She did not like me very much. I think that was always the case. I don’t think it happened later in life as the result of teenage independence fights. I think it was — early on — the status quo. I was a “colicky” baby and it made my mother feel that she was a failure. Very insecure people have an exaggerated idea of their own importance (a paradox) and so my crying and discomfort were all her fault or me doing something to her. She also relied on me, from a very early age, to help her. Helping her was a thankless task, but I loved her and saw it as a privilege to step in where she felt unable. I even made phone calls for her when I visited her in Montana. Once her stove broke, and she just used the one functioning burner until I got there and could call a repairman.

When my father died, my mom broke inside. It was horrible. He’d lived with ever worsening MS for 20 years. In the last years, we cared for him at home as long as we could. I couldn’t bear the thought of him being “sent away to die.” As a kid, I had no clue, really, what was happening. Finally he went to live in a nursing home. That should have alleviated some of my mom’s burden, but it just meant she had to drive on icy streets to visit him, and that terrified her.

When my dad died, she was a tangled mix of emotions. Since she lived in her own world, in which she was the center, she was increasingly trapped. Without my dad there to need her, to praise her, to love her, she felt she no longer existed. She retreated further into Librium and Bourbon, passivity and darkness. She was unreachable for a long time.

Then, somehow, it seemed miraculously, she rallied herself. She sold the family house (built for my dad, a special house for disabled people paid for partly by the Veterans Association) insisting it be sold to a disabled veteran. She moved from Colorado Springs to Denver where my aunt lived and not as far from where I was with my husband in Boulder. She tried (and fairly succeeded) to build a life.

Still, as dependent as she was on others, the life stood on shaky ground, and as time went on, life’s normal disappointments dragged her down again to the dark place where, finally, I think, she surrendered not only her life but her soul.

Yesterday, in the process of cleaning out the garage, I opened the box marked (by my mom) “Family Photos.” I don’t have any family that will want these photos, and I had determined to throw them out. There was a plastic bag with letters in it that my mom had saved. Many were letters from me to her while I was in China. There were a few letters from my brother, I kept them. Letters from her friends. Not my business. There was a letter from the man who had been the minister to her family all my mother’s life. He had baptized her (and her sisters) in the Little Bighorn River. He officiated at my parents’ wedding in 1948, he had done the funeral for my father in 1972. His name was Chet Bentley.

Rev. Bentley had suffered one of the greatest losses any human can experience; the death of a child. His son had fought in WW II. He’d survived and was coming home. Just a few miles from Crow Agency, less than 30 minutes from home, he was killed in a car crash. My mom, telling me this story, said, “I don’t know how Rev. Bentley survived that.”

The letter to my mom answers that question. It opens with, “O Helen, what in the world are you doing to yourself?” The rest is an impassioned plea that my mom pick herself up and find meaning in her life. He writes about the importance of will. He quotes Scripture (minimally) “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” He then writes, “It takes effort, it takes a change of mind sometimes and an act of the will, as well as reliance on the Divine Power. You can do it, Helen. I believe you can. I’m praying that you will find something to live for – in yourself, in Martha Ann and in some thing to you want to accomplish…”

I have wondered if this passionate, inspiring letter was the reason, the motivating factor, behind my mom’s effort to find her feet again.

After finding the letter and thinking about the times I met this man, I wanted to know more about him. I “Googled” him and found this amazing bit of history. It told me things I didn’t know — such as the Crow Indians refused to let the government put the Japanese who lived on the reservation (and there were many) into the internment camp at Hart Mountain. It’s a beautiful, inspiring piece of western history in which this passionate, kind man played a large part.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/panicked/