(and Other Bits of Nonsense)
Where do you start when you begin writing about your life? I guess the first thing is to figure out who your audience is. My kids might, perhaps my grand children, probably; possibly the few friends I have left, and maybe some of my extended family that are still alive and kicking. My girl friend will, if she can stand being my first choice as proof reader and grammar commentator. She has read all my poetry, pointing out misspellings, poor use of some words, and where the lack of meaning disrupts understanding by the reader. She’s usually diplomatic about it, but sometimes I can tell by the way she purses her lips and wrinkles her nose that she’s not quite getting what I’m trying to say but is not quite ready to tell me it needs to be changed. But hey, that’s OK, sometimes I don’t get it myself.
We did collaborate on one poem, she and I. I thought it turned out quite well. We called our poem “A Game of Love,” needing both a male and female voice to read it properly. It was fun and a little erotic in the writing of it, which might be one of the many definitions of my life – a little erotic, now and then…interspersed with lengthy periods of more mundane, less exciting times.
He was hesitant, cautious – unsure
She was hesitant, reflective – unsure
How far to travel down their common road
Questioning what defined their common ground
Searching out more intimate surroundings.
Seeking out safe footing in shifting sands
He had been hurt, you see, and in return
She had hurt you see, and over time
That hurtful cause, that paying back, the need
Had chosen to select with greater care,
To even up the score, make love a game
To not make light a find of precious stone
Of winning and losing – unsatisfying at best,
A win, a treasure, when once released the pearl
Cold and lonely at worst. Analytical
Caution, care with utmost tenderness
Of mind, he worried at the act of love
Of mind, body she worried at the Act
The way a kitten plays a ball of twine,
Willing waves to lap along the shore
First held close with teeth and claw, then batted
Caressing softly, bracing for the crest
Away to chase after it again.
Away only to chase for it again
Almost a sin, it seemed, but exciting
Sinless, seamless with renewed excitement
As well. Until last night when he picked up
Welling. And last night when he surged on
Her ball of string and put it on a shelf
Against her shore, the sand again shifted
To play with her himself and while she purred,
Frenzied play amid dynamic roar
Enjoyed her pleasure much more than his own….
Waves cleansing rocks – begs for repetition….
There were two marriages, four children, five or six careers, depending on how they are defined, and up to now a forty-five year avocation of writing, or trying to write, poetry. I suppose that should be enough for anyone to shoot for. Still, I’m not quite ready to pack it in. I feel like I have more to do, to give, to experience. It’s just that I’m really quite comfortable where I’m at right now. I’m content to sit back and watch the rest of the world pass by while sketching momentary scenes into a poem or two, like snapshot recordings. It’s a lazy way to be, kind of like long rainy afternoons I spent as a teenager reading a book by the warm oil stove or playing solitaire at the dining table on long summer days when it was much too hot to go out and play. Growing up was like that, rainy winters, hot summers and a lot of nice days in between.
The first birthday that I can remember was my fifth. It was August 14, 1945, VJ-Day, victory in Japan. I’ve never had a bigger birthday party any time since with the whole town, indeed the Nation, celebrating vigorously. I got presents then, I’m sure, but what they were I can’t remember. The biggest, most enduring gift, however, was the next fifteen years, the late forties and fifties growing up, going to school and entering adult life during a time of hope and clearly defined expectations. It was a time where all the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black. They could fight and never get bloody, never get there clothes dirty or lose their hats. The good guys also never lost their temper, could win with nary a blow below the belt, and then end the day with a serenade – the guy and the gal holding hands, if he was lucky.
Even the war movies held to this plan. We were always the good guys, of course, fighting for “truth, freedom and the American Way.” To be sure, as we found out the horrors of what the Nazi’s did to the Jews and how they treated the Russian prisoners of war, we felt justified for what we had to do to win. Our bombing enemy industrial centers and the Japanese mainland with all of the civilian casualties were right and proper in our need to win the war and stop Hitler and Tojo devouring the world in their madness.
Those war films would show men falling in battle or being blown up and flung through the air by explosives, but I never saw limbs severed from bodies leaving bloody arm or leg stumps, or belly wounds with guts hanging out, or heads blown off with the torso falling away fountaining blood. It wasn’t that we were so innocent or too naive to face reality. We were a nation of veterans then. Those movies didn’t need to be so graphic because many in the audience had been there and seen war up close and personal. Even those that stayed home saw the outcome newsreels Life Magazine photographs, and in the Veterans that came back missing limbs, or blinded, or moments where the sighted would pause with a far away stare haunting their eyes. They didn’t need to be reminded of what they had already seen.
There was one movie that I remember in which the lead character was shown being killed in order to make a point. It was John Wayne in “Sands of Iwo Jima.” Amid the firing of machine guns, the sound of artillery firing and black powder explosions on the beach, they tried to depict the savage extent of the battle. John Wayne was the heroic fighter of Marine legend, a tough sergeant who looked out for his men, putting himself in harms way for the good of the corps. When he was killed in the movie, he just fell and laid there face down as his men gathered around him. He didn’t even look dirty – no blood or gaping hole in his body to show how he was killed. His death scene was played for all of its worth with his men reading a letter found in his shirt fatigue pocket addressed to a son we never suspected he had. It was effective. I cried, there in the dark theater, along with most of the grownups seated around me.
Recently, I saw the modern film “Iwo Jima” directed by Clint Eastwood. It was full of special effects, very realistic in its display of guts and gore. It probably needed to be that way for the audience to get some feel for the horror of what had happened there. But then, we’re a different nation now, not many of us are of the warrior class. And we have all been bombarded with the violent realism of the modern movies and games until we have become inured to the depiction of pain to others we have not experienced ourselves.
After WWII, there were still villains and criminals around even in that time of our nation’s innocence. But after what everyone referred to as” The War” and Hitler, our homegrown bad guys seemed tame, almost family, careful to keep their affairs out of sight and to operate within a code of their own. I learned of that by watching the God Father movies. They did cruel things to some individuals, lived outside of the law, but took care of their own, warred mostly on other enemy families, and generally kept the naïve public like me ignorant of their crimes.
Things were more simple then. Like the good guys and bad guys in the movies, you could sometimes settle a difference with a verbal or minor physical altercation as long as you followed the rules, fought fair and didn’t bring out a knife.
Nowadays, if you even shove someone out of your way, or threaten them with force, or douse them with a drink of water in anger, you could go to jail for assault. It’s kind of insulting. It seems that we’ve come to the point as a nation where we can’t settle our differences in person. We can’t actively express ourselves without someone carting us off to a holding cell and forcing us to admit to the deviancy of our ways when it’s the new standards that are deviant to our past.
All in all, however, it was a good time for growing up.
They came by convoy seventy miles long,
American warriors, molded by necessity,
Marines packed on ships with weapons in holds,
one hundred thousand personnel ferried
four thousand miles to a lone black dot of sand
surrounded by water. It was shelled night and day
until they, in the first morning waves, went ashore to fight
and maybe survive.
The sand was a churning maelstrom of enemy fire,
flowering artillery shells, blossoms of steel
bursting on flesh, rending arms and legs,
some bodies torn asunder while others floated
face down in the surf like apples bobbing in a tub –
every inch of the beach a target randomly stacked
with wounded and dead – nine thousand marines ashore
by noontime advancing over broken ground
from shell hole to shell hole through grenades and pill box fire
to seize and hold a bare stretch of sand desperately
trying to survive.
Thurman, only eighteen, was there on day one
running and cowering, crawling and fighting, sickened
and fearful, a youth becoming too soon a man,
too late for innocence so near to sorrow’s hand,
too far from heaven for his life to end, too close
to death for any hope to exist and so,
with so many about him wounded, dying, or dead
he had no choice but stay, no chance but fight
and hope to survive.
The battle lasted all of thirty-five days.
Seventy thousand marines came to the fight,
twenty-six thousand were wounded or died and remain
under sixty-eight hundred stars and white crosses
along with twenty-one thousand enemy dead,
sleeping forever together where both nations bled.
I remember in the movie, my hero, John Wayne died.
I cried, but I was more innocent then, a child.
I could only pretend I knew how real it was,
but Thurman was there, lived through the worst of it all
learning the real and bitter truth that wars
are fought by living men where too many die
and Hell is a walk through fear to a river of blood
where the bravest heart fills with terror and
the weakest soul finds strength in its core, and when
in the end, and all is said and done, like Thurman,
it’s enough to have lived through it all, to be one of the ones
Dedicated to the memory of
“Flags of Our Fathers”
Pages 162, 163
My sister told me recently, that even as a very young child I insisted on doing my own thing. A great frustration to my mother, I’d do things I shouldn’t even after being told not to. I don’t remember the time they caught me and my cousin Gene a mile down the highway on our way to town from where we lived ten miles out in Old Shasta. Nor climbing on the porch trellis where I got caught in the diamond pattern, hanging there by the little finger of my right hand torn and bleeding down the trellis weave. I know it’s true, however, because I still have the scar and can look at it any time I need to confirm the theory of cause and effect.
I do remember one ending to a misguided toddler adventure. My cousin and I (he must have put me up to it) went visiting to the house of a family friend who lived some distance from us. Going back years later, I clocked it as being over five miles by road although it was less distant going overland along brushy footpaths and trails. To be truthful, I don’t remember the trip out, but I do remember the trip back. My mother and my aunt found us there. So few then had phones in their houses, I’m guessing that Mom and my Aunt looked all over for us until they found us there by chance. On the way back, they both cut willow switches to encourage us on our way. Every time Gene or I would slow down, we’d get another stinging reminder that we needed to pay attention and that stopping for a rest was not a real good idea.
I have some recollection of beginning school in Kindergarten, that great social enterprise dedicated to breaking us all to civilization’s demands. Since my birthday was in August and the school year started in September, I was by design one of the youngest kids there. I was also one of the most naive. I mean, the stalls in the boy’s bathroom didn’t have doors on them! I didn’t know if the stalls in the girl’s did, wouldn’t have gone in there on a bet. There I was, exposed to the world when I was used to being secretive in that very personal affair of…ahem, elimination. I just couldn’t go…but had to badly. My only hope was to go home, right in the middle of the school day. Without telling the teacher (how could I have explained it?) and in all haste because my need was urgent, I took off. But, alas, I didn’t make it. Now I was doubly embarrassed because I had to inform my mother of my predicament and she had to clean me up, all the time telling me how foolish I had been. Then she escorted me back to school to face the displeasure of my teachers. They didn’t say anything, had probably seen it before, but I knew what a failure I was.
I must have used the stalls without doors after that, but I don’t remember doing so. Perhaps it’s because after a time you don’t remember all of the bathroom incidents that happen daily and so often that it becomes something we just don’t dwell on. Or, more probably that year, I was just too embarrassed to even think about it. Still, it’s almost funny now that I am approaching 70 that some of my friends have taken up bathroom habits as a topic of conversation. Late in life it seems that “regularity” is something sought after and “incontinence” is a dreaded future to be faced stoically while supporting a whole new industry of pampers for elders. But I digress.
In the first grade, we moved to a house dad and mom bought in the little community of Keswick, northeast of Redding. In its heyday, at the turn of the twentieth century in the peak years of the local mining industry, Keswick was the second largest town in Shasta county with a population of over a 1,000 and dozens of saloons with a couple of churches thrown into the mix. I don’t know how big a school population it had back then, but it was much smaller when we moved there with only a single bar that also sold a few basic groceries left operating.
The new school was a one-room affair that operated on a split school day schedule with the first four grades attending in the morning and the upper four in the afternoon. The boys and girls toilets were out back on the hill, simple “two-holers” set over open pits, whitewashed on the outside and enclosed from the weather. There was a crescent moon design cut high on each outhouse door, a universal signal of that building’s purpose. It seemed like an improvement to me because the door could be secured on the inside by a metal hook and eye bolt for privacy. I thought it was a much more civilized way of doing business than the open stalls of that other, more modern school.
The school house was heated in the winter by a fuel oil stove set in the back of the room. When it was cold, it took the first hour our so for the school to warm up enough to shed our coats and get comfortable. One of the older eighth grade boys had the job to fire up the stove each morning before we came to school. First he would turn on the valve to the gravity fed fuel line that attached to the big oil drum mounted to the side of the building just outside. Then, after letting the oil drip down into the fire chamber on a bed of sand for a minute or two, he would strike one of those large kitchen matches and drop it into the fire box to start it going. After it was well lit, he would adjust the fuel flow to get the fire high enough to heat the stove and, in time, the rest of the one big room.
I remember one time the fire had gone out but the valve hadn’t quite been closed over the weekend. There was enough of a flow so that the fire box had a quart or so of fuel oil sitting in it on Monday morning. Of course it couldn’t be lit until that was emptied out so the excess oil was scooped up and taken outside for disposal. The stove was then lit and the school room eventually warmed up. I didn’t see what happened later because it was during the older-kids class, but there was a fire that afternoon in the girl’s outhouse. It seems that the extra fuel oil had been dumped there for disposal. One of the eighth grade girls got permission to go to the outhouse where she lit a cigarette and dropped a match down into the hole. There wasn’t any damage done to the structure of course, since the fire was contained in the pit, but it made for a good story. The girl was reprimanded in front of her class for smoking and her parents were undoubtedly told, but her reputation among us kids wasn’t hurt a bit. In fact, she sort of flaunted her notoriety.
At the more modern school in town, we hadn’t begun to spell or read even simple words before I left. I don’t know why we hadn’t, but we hadn’t. My new first grade peers had already begun to learn to spell and read simple words like cat, rat, hat, etc. I was embarrassed because they could already do what I could not. Many years later, I figured out that I had had a somewhat severe case of dyslexia. I still do I guess, even with all the practice I don’t spell well. I mean, what sense does it make to spell “desert” with one “s” and “dessert” with two? But we didn’t classify kids as defective back then, we were just smarter or dumber, perhaps a little slow, but capable of learning. So, I began to learn to read and to spell those simple words because I was too embarrassed not to.
Thinking back on my early childhood, it’s a wonder I survived. I remember being on the top of a well house at the neighbor’s. I was playing with two girls about my age and we were imitating the movies. I must have been playing Superman, because when they dared me to jump off the roof, I did. Of course I sprained both of ankles and couldn’t walk. Mother came and got me and helped me home. She had me soak my ankles in Epsom Salts and wrapped them tightly with cloth strips (no Ace Bandages for us). I was sure I couldn’t go to school and had to stay home. Nope, she sat me on my tricycle and pulled me all the way to the Schoolhouse where I was the butt of my fellow student’s jokes about not being able to fly.
And then there was the bicycle. I think I got it for my seventh birthday. It had balloon tires, only one gear but with coaster brakes, and a horn operated by two d-cell batteries. It also had Donald Duck’s head in the middle of the handle bars and was painted in Donald’s bright colors of yellow and blue. Boy was I proud of that bike!
One afternoon after morning classes, I was giving the neighbor girl a ride on the handlebars down the long stretch of paved road going past Keswick. Being a new biker, I wasn’t very skilled as yet, but I was sure I was good enough to give her a ride home. But the road had a slight downgrade to it and I got going a little too fast and began to get nervous and tensed up. As the bike started to wobble a little, the girl got fidgety trying to shift her weight for balance. Somehow the front tire twisted sideways and we both went sprawling.
She got scrapped up a little from falling on the pavement, but not too much because she jumped off the bike as we were going down. I went down in a crashing heap, hit my chin on the pavement and bit a hole through my tongue. Since doctors were reserved for serious injuries, mom treated that too by making me gargle with a strong mouthwash that burned like H…eck and tasted terrible. Like before, I couldn’t escape displaying my injuries at school as a demonstration of my lack of biking skill. But the hardest thing I had to deal with was that Donald’s head just wouldn’t fit on the bike after the fall, having been crushed on the pavement, bright yellow duckbill and all.
A few months into the second grade, dad sold the house in Keswick and we moved to company housing on Iron Mountain where he worked in the mine as a hard rock miner. The price was right, I think he paid ten dollars a month for electricity and water but the houses were free to mine employees. There was a small but friendly community spread out on the two mountains that made up the Iron Mountain Mine property. We lived on the north flank of South Mountain with about six families scattered along a fairly level road cut along the flank of the mountain. Another dozen families lived across the intervening depression we called Brick Flats on the south facing slope Iron Mountain where the mine was. Another set of families lived on the next mountain over where the schoolhouse was located along with the community center. Getting from our house to the school or community center required a trip down our mountain, around Iron Mountain and then up the one lane road on the next mountain. The roads were steep and where they turned off of the main road, unpaved, and cut like notches into the mountainside. The ground was somewhat rocky so they didn’t erode too badly, but had to be graded each spring to keep them usable.
The company operated the schoolhouse and bused the kids to classes from our side of the mountain to school each morning, returning us after school in the afternoon. That school was an improvement over Keswick since it had two rooms with two indoor toilets, each with their own doors for privacy. The lower grades were in one room and the upper grades, fifth through eighth, in the other. We had two teachers that co-taught all grades and we spent a regular six hour school day. I was not a stellar student. Later in life, I wondered that if mom and dad had delayed me a year in starting school, I might have done better. But they didn’t, so I just had to try harder.
I struggled with reading and spelling, again my dyslexia got in the way, but I liked being there and enjoyed the kids at the new school. Since I couldn’t read that well, I paid close attention to whatever the teachers said, listened to my peers as they read their lessons out loud and generally watched what went on in the classroom throughout the day. I still like to sit back and observe events and people passing by around me. It’s probably why I write poetry. It’s like I’m still trying to record and remember what I see and feel so I can pass life’s final exams…the outcome of which I really won’t know until it’s over.
I spent the rest of the second and all of the third, fourth and fifth grades at that company school. When I started the sixth grade, the mountain population had thinned out so much that the company found it cheaper to bus us to Redding rather than operate their own school. That made for longer school days, having to ride the bus down the mountain in the morning and back up at night. I didn’t mind at all. It was fun seeing and talking with my friends and going to Pine Street School in Redding gave me a lot more kids to know and to play with.
I made my first weather observations riding that bus. The elevation where we lived on the mountain was around 2500 feet. Redding sits at about 600 feet at the head of the Sacramento Valley surrounded on three sides by mountains. I remember mornings when we would catch the bus at Brick flats in bright sunlight and clear blue skies only to come around the mountain to look out over the valley covered in clouds below us. It was like looking down on the tops of clouds when flying. As the bus would pass through the cloud banks into the valley, we would travel under thick overcast skies into a gray, solemn day. I sometimes wouldn’t see the sun again all day until we went back up the mountain and through the overcast to greet clear blue skies once again.
Other days we would go down the mountain in a steady rain, getting to school in a wet world. The rain would usually let up a little as we went down off the mountain and into town. There it might rain steady, but it would usually be off and on with periods where we could go outside at recess to play and work off energy. After school, riding back up the mountain, the rain would become more regular and come down harder. When I asked mom about it, she would usually say that it had rained hard all day. I read years later about how the rise in elevation of storm clouds coming in up the valley would cause the cloud mass to cool off and condense more moisture into rain as it came. Red Bluff, thirty miles south and 400 feet lower in elevation got half the average rainfall Redding would, 15 inches for Red Bluff and 30 for Redding. Some places further up the mountain toward Dunsmuir would regularly get up to 100 inches a year, a true rain forest in our own back yard.
I loved the mountain. The four years I spent there were mostly carefree and happy. I enjoyed all of the distinctive four seasons. There were real winters, usually with a couple of snows to play in. Spring would bring out all of the new growth with vibrant colors, varying in shades of green, but with some mountain flowers, dogwood trees and lilac blooms. Summers were warn with long days to run and play in – cooler on the shady north face of South Mountain were we lived, hot to broiling on the opposite mountain face that had been denuded by years of mining activity and erosion. Fall brought it all back around again, as life slowed down and cooled, sliding on into winter once more.
All seasons were good, but somehow fall seemed best to me. I would walk along trails early in fall through dry leaves lying thick on the paths, crackling under my feet and releasing a sweet aroma in the still warm air. Later, after the rains had begun, they would start to decompose, aided by earthworms, beatles and giant banana slugs. The whole mountainside would take on an earthy scent, heavy and moist in the lungs, almost physical the way it wrapped around you and coated exposed skin. Its kiss was cool enough that the coat and sometimes hat mom made me put on to go outside were welcome. Although I usually took them off to hang on a bush while I ran with my friends playing our made-up games after school.
snow is falling.
Faintly is the striking heard,
One flake upon the other pressed –
A rumpled quilt
Soft flung upon the land.
A Crescent in Winter
The icy seat in winter
of that two-holed-house out back
is avoided until the very last instant,
until the very last possible hint
of comfort passes,
or of decorum.
trudging over frost heaved ground
(a spring’s overflow frozen solid)
fumble with buckle and with buttons –
and just as quickly done.
But tell me,
how does one wipe with mittens on?
April in the Mountains
It’s April in the mountains.
Frost still nips the night time air,
but a day sun strokes the humus there
to tempt last season’s seed to life
and warm the tardy snow packed heights
to cause the crystal water’s flow
in tiny rills from rock to rock
to feed the greening land below….
Spring comes softly after winter.
On stealthy padded paws,
she prowls the lowland valley glades
alert to all the verdant shades
that mark the seasons passing
Climbing greening foothill slopes
of Winter mountains, she strokes
the barren branches with her breath,
coaxing sleeping seed to wake,
urging life to life
and death to death.
Climbing higher day by day,
cautious, always wary,
she hunts beside the icy hem
of winter’s gown, careful not
to touch her trailing cloth
and herself be bound.
With Summer season at her back
fiercely shedding fire
on her most recent range, she purrs
and presses on with calm disdain
to glance where last she ran,
With Fall, at last the hunt is done.
Her game has gone to ground.
Time has fled from youth to age
and dropped its seed to earth to lie
asleep in layered beds
Then Spring descends once more, softly,
to the valley floor
and with a patience born of knowing,
lies in wait as with the sun
to mark the seasons passing
one on one.
I remember summers fed
by dry July and August heat
scorching stones in dry creek beds,
hanging before our eyes a sheet
of distant shimmering stands of pine
sentineled on the far hill crest.
The only stirring of the air
was caused by our quick passage there,
my friends and I, about our play
of pretense war and mock-pain yells.
Dying a hundred times each day,
we’d argue how shot first and laugh
when someone stumbled, falling flat,
concealing by our glee the pain
of being yet too young to tell
how well we then resembled men.
Late August Storm
Late for summer,
too soon for fall
an August storm
has come to call
cold winter approaching)
the long summer,
it’s oven cooling,
reluctant now to tarry
one moment more
from vaulted V’s descends
their call to echo deep in mountain cleft.
Astride bold drafts of icy air, pressed on by cold’s
pursuing steed, they heed, those winged legions there,
an ancient migrant call to flight, fleeing south
to warming climes to feed and mark
the ebb of time with wild
yet firmly beating
We didn’t need as much up on the mountain, my friends and I, as kids seem to need today. There were enough of us for our play to be active and fun, not quite enough of us nor space for organized games like football or baseball. While a few of the kids were my age, the rest were both younger and older, so we did a wide range of things like exploring the huge castoff ore pile built up over more than 50 years of mining activity, or playing we were grown ups in the old company buildings on Brick Flats, or pretending to go on trips driving our family’s cars parked there on the mountain roadside by our houses.
There wasn’t much else to do. No TV, libraries, parks, or stores to visit. We hadn’t heard of anything like a Mall and didn’t worry about gangs or bad people to be on the lookout for. One summer day we all decided to hike up the mountain to the South Mountain Fire Lookout. It turned out to be quite an adventure going straight up the mountain slope, sometimes on all fours, to barge in on the lone fire ranger housed there all summer watching for telltale smoke columns in the valley floor and forests around us.
He was quite friendly though, giving us a drink and cookies to snack on. He let us look through his powerful binoculars at the mountains across the valley and explained how he could sight in on a fire and call in its bearing from his lookout. Then another lookout would do the same and headquarters would use the intersection of those two bearings on a map to tell where the fire was so they could go put it out. The stool he sat on at his sighting table had glass insulators on its legs like those on old telephone poles in case of a lightning storm. He had electricity but also had a battery powered radio as back up to call his sightings if the power went out. I was quite impressed with all of his high-tech tools.
It was much easier coming down the mountain than going up and we were happy and proud of what we had been able to do. I doubt we even told our parents we were going, usually we just went and did whatever we wanted as long as we got home by supper. After being out and active all day, there weren’t many times I was late for dinner, as hungry as I usually was by then. I’m sure I wasn’t late for dinner that time either, and if Mom and Dad were upset about our impromptu outing, I can’t remember them sharing it with me.
We would come down the mountain for shopping every Saturday. Mom would take me to the Seventh Day Adventist church for the morning service and we would shop in the afternoon. The first few years on the mountain, in our trips to Redding, I had to stay close as she shopped. Mostly I would follow her from store to store along Market Street. It was almost a ritual, going up one side of the several blocks of stores and down the other, window shopping or going in to browse over the wares – Woolworth’s Five and Dime, Penney’s, Montgomery Ward, Dicker’s Clothing, Burton’s Shoes, Eaton’s Drug Store, etc., etc. etc…
This was all retail, an open aired, squared off precursor to a modern mall with its anchor department stores with specialty shops strung in between with the; main north-south highway running through the center. All the bars and less savory establishments were a block over on California street facing the railroad track. Mom would shop diligently through each department store, going into the special stores when needed. Except for the jewelry store that also carried expensive crystal and china out of price of all but a few local families. I didn’t get much out of it all except for Woolworths and their toy counter, or when Eaton’s Drug store got in the first soft whipped ice cream machine in Redding. But I did like watching the people around us. The population of Redding was not all that much at the time, certainly not with respect to the Bay Area or LA, but compared to our mountain home, it was quite a crowd.
We would join dad later in the day to get the groceries we would need for the coming week. I don’t think I ever wondered where he had been or what he was doing by himself. There were a lot of bars in town, especially along California Street, and all of the other families on the mountain would be in Redding doing their shopping too. Since he wasn’t much a man for literature and there weren’t any sports venues to speak of, and he didn’t gamble, there wasn’t much else to occupy his time or that of the other men come down to town. He wasn’t one to enjoy spending time wandering through the stores either, so Mom and I would spend the afternoon shopping through all of the stores, buying only what we needed, with her enjoying the outing after a week on the mountain being a shut-in housewife.
There weren’t any corner convenience stores on the mountain to run down to for a quart of milk or a loaf of bread if you ran out mid-week. So each Saturday we would stock up on everything we might need for the next week. We would shop in each of the three local grocers late in the day, especially in summer, so the fresh food wouldn’t spoil before getting home. Any meat was purchased last, freshly cut and wrapped in white butcher paper. We got mostly basic foods, like potatoes, beans, cereal, coffee, flour, and sugar, along with some canned meats (Spam was a good bet and still popular after the war). We would buy fruits and vegetables in season, and packaged goods like cereal, Jell-O and pudding mixes, even a kind of ice cream mix you could combine with milk and freeze in ice trays in the refrigerator. We didn’t buy fresh milk though, opting for a case or two of canned milk that could be kept on a shelf. When mixed half and half with water, it made a good hot chocolate for a bedtime snack and for cooking.
As I grew older, reaching the ripe old age of nine years, I was given a freer rein. When we got to town, dad would give me a fifty cent piece and I was on my own. I would generally visit Woolworth’s toy counter and then take in an afternoon show, meeting my folks afterwards for supper and grocery shopping. Redding had only two theaters then with only one screen each. The Cascade Theater on Market Street was fancier and more up scale than the less fancy Redding Theater on California Street where it was wedged in between several bars and restaurants. The price of a ticket for the Cascade was thirty-five cents, leaving me with fifteen cents for snacks. A one-size-fits-all box of popcorn was ten cents, leaving me with a nickel for a candy bar. A ticket at the Redding Theater was only twenty-five cents meaning I could get at least two more candy bars. It had to be a really good movie at the Cascade to get me to squander my allowance by going to a show there.
One summer I got lucky. There was an older, single man living on the mountain in company housing named Frenchy. He either didn’t have a car or didn’t want to use it so he would ride down to town with us each week. Since dad wouldn’t take any money from him for the trip, he would give me another fifty cent piece to match Dad’s. I spent that whole dollar every week, usually buying a toy at Woolworth’s and taking in a show with enough cash to have several candy treats and maybe two boxes of popcorn to get me through a double feature.
Other than not being bitten by rattlesnakes which were abundant on the mountain, especially on the bare mountainside across Brick Flats, nor being eaten by mountain lions that I never saw but just knew were there, or getting the electric train for Christmas I couldn’t play with most of that day because my brother-in-law was “helping me set it up,” there were four events that stick in my mind as helping to shape my life.
The first happened right after I got to the new school while at a recess. The school yard was cut into the side of the mountain with a steep slope on two sides of our half-court basketball/playground area. The older kids would climb up on those slopes where they had built a tiny mountainside model community of switchback roads, little cave houses and pretend cars which were really small stones. I wanted to play too, but they were up maybe ten to fifteen feet above the playground. I finally got up the courage to climb the slope, and did so by working my way up sideways using the edges of my shoes and hands to clamber up to where the others were.
At the end of recess, everybody else went down to go in to class, but I couldn’t. Looking down, I was terrified of the slope that looked straight up and down, and I was certain that I would fall if I let go of my perch. The teachers tried to coax me down and the older kids tried to tell me how to do it, but I just couldn’t move. Finally, one of the eighth graders climbed up beside me and with his help I was able to climb down. I didn’t get teased for that by the other kids, perhaps they had all been anxious their first time up there too. But I was ashamed, kind of hunkered down so I wouldn’t call attention to myself for a week or so after my hillside ‘petrefication’. Years later, my second son Allen took up rock climbing and is still avid about it in his late forties. Obviously, it wasn’t a genetic thing.
The second event was another bathroom tale. Someone, probably whoever cleaned up the school, had tacked a sign on the bathroom wall over the toilet. I don’t remember what it said, probably something about keeping it clean but probably not that old adage about “you aim too please.” In the lower right hand corner of the sign, some bright upper grader (I couldn’t have printed it as neatly) had written a terse comment, probably in an off-color way. By the time I saw it, some other boy or boys had penciled a series of six or seven ditto marks in columns under the comment. Again, I don’t remember what it said, but I wanted to be cool too, so I added my set of ditto marks to the rest.
The teachers didn’t think it was funny at all. I remember sitting in class right before noon recess as they took turns lecturing us about how what had been done was not acceptable at all and we could just remain seated at our desks until the guilty party admitted his error. It puzzled me that the whole class was kept captive; obviously none of the girls could be guilty. Looking around the room, none of the other boys seemed ready to cop a plea either. The longer we sat there, the more I was convinced that no one was going to fess up. After about fifteen minutes of listening to the teachers going on and on about how disappointed they were, I became certain no one else was going to come forward. So to break the impasse, I meekly held up my hand, thinking that at least everyone else could go to lunch.
I thought the teachers had been unhappy before, but after the other kids had gone and I was left alone with one of them, she very sternly, and in no uncertain terms, told me how bad I had been. I tried to tell her that I had only added one small line of dittos to the sign, but that didn’t seem to be much of a mitigating factor. And so I had to endure the whole blaming and discipline session all by myself. I never did find out who the main culprit was, no one ever admitted there guilt. They were probably very relieved to have escaped unscathed.
What’s the moral I learned from this story? Don’t accept the blame for more than what you yourself have done; you’ll probably let someone else off the hook, get all the blame, and have to face the music alone.
The last event was much more serious. During WWII, my two older brothers had been too young to serve in the military and my father was too old besides having a family to support and working in an essential industry (mining). After winning The War at great national sacrifice, most young men considered it there duty to serve, so my older brother, Robert, enlisted in the army right after high school. My other brother Dale didn’t finish high school and talked my parents into letting him enlist in the Navy before he was old enough to do it on his own. After four years of service, Bob had made sergeant. He liked the service so well that when his discharge date came, he reenlisted for another four years and was assigned to the Army’s Second Division. When the Korean War broke out and was one, if not the first Army division to be sent to keep the South Koreans from being overrun by the North.
As the division was getting ready to ship out, Mom took me with her to Fort Lewis, Washington where the Division was stationed so she could see him before they left. We were there a week or more and she spent as much time as she could with her oldest son. But the whole division was working hard getting ready to board ships and debark, so she didn’t see him as much as she wanted to. I only recall seeing him maybe two times myself. Being nine years old at the time, I was more interested in playing with the new kids of the family we were staying with. It didn’t think about the danger he and his division was going to face, and even if I had I doubt that it would have made much difference. I was proud of my big brother and could only imagine him coming home a hero.
Later that year, in the winter, I remember I was playing on the living room floor with a small metal airplane whose wings could folded up the way they do on Navy aircraft carriers. I had used some clay to make bomb racks for its wings and nose and was using spent .22 shells as pretend bombs for my war games.
My baby sister had been put to bed in her crib for the night and Dad was listening to the radio news programs with his eyes closed, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. Mom was crocheting, keeping her hands busy. The living room was where we had the oil stove for heat and where we spent the evenings in the winter after supper before bed time.
There was a knock on the door and dad went to see who it was. A neighbor had come to fetch dad saying he had a call on the only telephone on our side of the mountain. A mine foreman lived in a house just off of Brick Flats where it was located and dad went with the neighbor to go there to take a call. It was unusual but I didn’t think much of it except that both mom and dad looked nervous wondering what it was about. When dad came back, he was devastated. He came in, flung himself down in his chair, tears brimming in his eyes, his hands held in close to his body to keep them from shaking. After two tries, all he could say was, “Bob’s dead.”
Mom went to pieces, letting out a sharp scream, dropping her crocheting needles and half finished doily on the floor. Getting up from the chair, she turned and knelt before it using the cushioned seat as a makeshift alter, praying through her sobs for my brother’s soul. I was confused. This wasn’t supposed to happen. In all the movies I had seen, only the bad guys died. While I knew in movies about war that soldiers fell on both sides, I hadn’t considered what it really meant. I remember getting up and running into my bedroom, throwing myself on the bed and crying. But it didn’t seem real; my tears were forced, my mind still not believing something so terrible could have happened. I stayed in my room because I couldn’t stand to return to the other room to witness to my parent’s grief.
Mom never really recovered from her grief, but after a time things returned somewhat to normal. Several months later, after his body had been returned to the States, we traveled to San Francisco to the military cemetery there for his burial service. Several family friends and relatives went along as well. My brother Dale couldn’t come, he was serving on a submarine off the coast of Korea at sea, but he had a wreath sent for the ceremony in his place.
I remember the green expanse of the grounds with its well tended lawns and tight groves of trees scattered about. There were rows and rows of plain white tombstones standing a uniform thirty inches high in ranks upon ranks like they were in formation at attention. The day was cool but the sun was out in the sky blue, the air crystal clear. Ours wasn’t the only burial that morning. As we were escorted to our site, I heard three volleys of rifle fire followed by the softer sound of Taps floating out over the grounds.
The grave site was prepared for us with the coffin already in place and covered with an American Flag. At most burials I have been to, there is usually a mound off to the side where the covered over dirt from the grave awaited to be put back in after the ceremony and the mourners had gone. I don’t recall seeing any such mound there so they must have taken it away for some reason. The ground around the grave site had been neatly covered so that an opening just the size of the coffin was all we could see of the grave itself. Folding chairs were set up close for the family. Mom and dad were escorted there as we waited for the service to begin. Mom wouldn’t look at the coffin; she just sat there, quietly sobbing. Her head was bowed over her hands that were clinched on her lap worrying at a white handkerchief she used ever so often to wipe the tears from her face. Since I was standing behind them, I couldn’t tell if Dad was crying as well, as he sat there strangely rigid, his back straight and shoulders squared.
After a bit, an army car pulled up painted brown with a white star on its two front doors. An army Chaplin and two carefully uniformed solders got out. The toes of their boots glistened in the sun like mirrors as they went to the grave and took up parade rest positions at each end of the coffin. The Chaplin, a captain with two silver bars on each shoulder, came over to my parents and spoke to them softly, exuding compassion that I’m sure he felt – had felt many times before our service and would, I knew, many times more.
As he was getting into position with his Bible to start the service, a small army bus pulled up and another group of solders got out, seven with rifles and one with a bugle to form a rank off to the side. The solders formed a line with the bugle on the far end facing the grave and coming to a parade rest. The rifles were held butt down on the ground and presented muzzles up and at a slight angle to the front. The officer in charge took position at right angle to their line, facing them, with no rifle but also at parade rest. They weren’t statue still, like those guards in England with the tall bearskin hats, but they looked prepared to stand without moving for the duration of the service.
I don’t recall anything the Chaplin said. I doubt that I wanted to hear any of it, standing there behind the family, twisting in place, looking out over the cemetery grounds. I was dry-eyed but couldn’t seem to swallow the choking sensation in my throat as I drew air into a chest grown too tight to take but the shallowest breath. As the Chaplin ended his final prayer and said “Amen,” the officer of the guard called out “Attention!” All of the soldiers came from parade rest to ramrod straight in one motion, all of their heels striking together as one sharp sound. Even the Chaplin braced himself with his bible closed and tucked under his left arm against his side leaving his right hand and arm free.
“Present arms!” the officer called out. The Chaplin and the soldiers at the grave saluted while the men with rifles took a position with their legs spread shoulder wide, left foot to the front and right foot back as a brace, their rifles up to their right shoulder and held across their chest pointing at a forty-five degree angle to the sky. “Ready!” the officer called. Three times he commanded, “Fire!” Three times the rifles responded in volley, a salute of 21 guns in the military tradition of honor to the fallen. As the last volley echoed over the cemetery grounds, the riflemen snapped to attention and the bugler I hadn’t noticed until then began to play. It was the sound of taps played more sweet and more mellow than any I have heard in all the years since.
With the final notes of the bugle call still ringing in the air, the two soldiers at the coffin grasped each end of the flag to lift it under tension, holding it out stiff and level to the ground, their forearms extended with their elbows tucked in close to their sides. Taking two steps right to clear the casket and with two precise movements, they folded our flag twice lengthwise with the blue field down. Then the soldier at the foot of the grave began advancing toward the other, neatly folding it into the triangle I had seen in books in school as being the “respectful” way to fold and store our flag. When finished, the soldier receiving the flag took one step back and a smart left face to present the flag to the Chaplin with a salute which the Chaplin returned. Much less formally, he brought the flag to my mother, placing into her hands on her lap as his left hand settled on her shoulder and he bent close to speak quietly to her and to dad.
The ceremony over, all of the soldiers were released from attention and they sort of meandered over toward their bus. The Chaplin said his goodbyes, and then he and his companions got into their car to go on to the next site as the rest of the detail filed on to their bus to follow. The soldier that had guided us out to our site had left earlier when the Chaplin had arrived, no doubt to greet the next group and be their guide as well. There was no hurry for us to leave, but no reason to stay. And so we too went to our cars to begin the journey home.
The Korean War went on another couple of years with a lot more soldiers falling in that “Police Action.” As a nation, we elected General Eisenhower as president to end that conflict and preside over the golden years that were the rest of the fifties. Korea became a footnote in history, an anomaly that didn’t quite fit with our image as a nation. Then came Vietnam and the world got a little darker, our purpose as a nation less certain. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the First Gulf War, we seemed to have regained a little of our way. Now we are in to the post 9-11 era and the Second Gulf War and uncertainty abounds
That was nearly sixty years ago that we buried my brother. Yet the parts that I remember are still crystal clear in my mind. I never went back there again and don’t think my parents did either. Years later, after dad passed away, my older sister was going through some records that he had left behind. In those records, she found a faded carbon copy of an order written in his own hand addressed to the “Commandant” of that cemetery requesting that the enclosed “five dollars cash” be used to buy a “a five dollar wreath” to be placed on the grave of one Sergeant Franklin Robert Peery. It was dated 1953, around the time of my mother’s death. He had kept that receipt in with his important papers for the rest of his life.
I too have mementoes in my “important” keepsakes and records. That old carbon receipt is one. Bob’s Purple Heart is another. Up to now, my memories of that day were stored on a fragile, organic, impermanent storage device. Now it is in writing, on a hard drive and on paper. I know it won’t last forever. But it might remain a little while, for a time, after I’m gone.
Thirty Years Out of Date).
were all I heard him say –
just two –
yet in his naked pause,
he shared more sense of loss,
than any single heart should bear.
I still can see him standing there,
framed as if by wood in glass –
great knuckled hands clinched, bled white
as though the sun had never touch his skin,
had never ridden with a proud Nebraska youth
a horse, trying to catch the wind.
My father never was
a man of strength to me.
I was at first too young,
and lately now too old
to see him in that form.
Yet still do I retain his imaged soul
before my eyes, standing clear,
while wondering why it is
that fathers grieve with silence
while mothers grieve with tears?
United Nations Cemetery
Somewhere near Seoul
“The Best Friend a Man Could Have….”
An afternoon wind swirls cones of dust among the white
Christian Crosses, Stars of David, and Start wooden stakes
ranked on the red-brown hillside site. The U.N. Flag
at half mast, white on blue, flutters in
the breeze over the Army, Marine, and R.O.K.
soldiers there, attentive men honoring the fallen.
The thin edge of the sea lay to the west, the road to Seoul
to the south bustling with men and weapons where these
dead had marched and fought a few days before;
to the west lay the tanks and guns their enemies had used
to try to halt their savage, determined advance.
A Chaplin, holy book in hand, speaks…”The Koreans
…and Americans whose bodies lie beneath…these markers
died…in the service…of all freedom loving people
of the world….” His words drift like a banner over
the hillside markers and past the withering leaves that spill
from a blue glazed pot, alone of its kind, and the head of a grave.
A three-star general stands and steps to the microphone,
his boots raising tiny puffs of blood-tinged dust:
“These men…in this hallowed spot gave their lives,
like Nathan Hale, for liberty and dignity of man. They
…risked death itself to preserve the right…of all…to go
where he likes, do what he likes, and think what he likes.
I believe they died in full knowledge that…
their sacrifice…would be a distinct factor in
…preserving liberty. I salute them and ask that you
Do likewise….” As one, right hands snapped to salute, the band
played softly as the general laid a fresh flowered
wreath on the white grave cross of an unknown American dead
and a Korean colonel placed a wreath on the white
staked grave of soldier Poe Sun Ha. An honor guard,
seven men drawn from assembly there, fired
three volleys, a soldier’s farewell, and taps played out
across the empty, war-torn, South Korean hills.
At last, with all the living gone, only the wind
remains to blow across the barren hills
to ruffle a lone hand-lettered note tacked
to a single Christian Cross: “To the best friend
a man could have from all the men of the First Marine
Amphibious Truck Battalion. May he rest in peace….”
I’ve been seated here now for over an hour,
probably closer to two, trying to fit
a poem around an old newspaper clipping
given to me this morning by a sister
still mourning a brother fifty years dead – a soldier
doing what soldiers do when called upon
by the rest of us to exercise our will.
He fell, halfway around the world, more
than two generations past. History hardly
remembers the why of it; school books hardly
touch on it; today’s youth have hardly
heard of it, most never think of it
nor wonder why they should. Tucked as it is
in the back of my mind – wedged among the rest
of my life, a boy’s recollection of long ago war
before South Vietnam and the two in the Gulf –
there lies the memory of a soldier’s grave and coffin
draped in a shroud of red, white and blue,
the sharp crack of a rifle salute, and the soft
mellow sound of taps that still bring tears
to my eyes remembering an older brother that
I never knew and a question to my mind
of why…why did he have to die?
(Written on the eve of the
first Gulf War)
Some years ago, when I was ten,
I knew another time…another war.
Korea was the contest then,
and saving the world from a godless hoard.
Then too, I had a brother, somewhat older
that I hardly knew
except in gray-toned photographs
kept on mother’s dresser top
or home in uniform, on furlough.
I remember, when word came,
the pain contained within my father’s eyes
and in his tortured voice…
and his hands, touching
either cheek in turn
of mother weeping, helpless
to that flat official form;
our notice of a son and brother dying
far away and now so long ago.
Today, with another war unfolding,
fought in other places
and for other goals,
I wish my arms were big enough
to gather in and hold
all children who will feel the loss
that I have felt since then;
and who, like me, won’t understand
their parents’ grief
until they’re old enough to know
the joy of children of their own;
and how the fear of losing them
outstrips the joy of birthing them;
or understand how much is sacrificed
upon the fields of war
and in the hearts and minds and souls
of children watching parents grieving
other children lost to war.