Wednesday, November 25, 2009

His Stamp on Me


We finally got the key to the attic door.  It opens to reveal a rough-hewn stairway that winds around to some storage space in the top of our house.  That key opening that door is what initially sent me into my closet.  All I needed to do was go through a few storage bins to make sure they could sit in the attic for the next few months.  I threw out a broken picture frame in one, and decided to leave some artifacts from the last English class I taught in another.  That's when I saw my childhood stamp collection; not the book, that's still packed somewhere, but a box from a now defunct department store that my mom gave me when I was 10.  Inside the box were a Band-Aid tin and an empty Marlboro flip-top box, (both good for storing loose stamps,  lots of small envelopes with collectable postage and even more torn off corners containing stamps mostly from Mexico and Japan, that my dad used to bring me from work.  He commuted with a man originally from Mexico and worked for Sony.  My stamp book was full for those two countries.  
That's when I found it.  Inside a plain white letter-size envelope was a small neatly folded piece of paper.  The writing in pencil was unmistakable--Grandpa.  He sent me an uncanceled stamp commemorating the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley.  Probably got it at the Post Office in New York where he lived and decided tear off one of the sky blue beauties to send to his grandson in Southern California.  With the stamp, came a note.  On one side of the paper it read:                       SPECIAL
                              TO BRUCE

                  A NEW
                      STEMP TO BRUCE
Grandpa wrote in English as he spoke it.  Having immigrated from Eastern Europe in the 1880s as a young man, English was not his first language.  On the other side of the paper, in his trademark thick pencil he wrote:
                                 SUN 5/8 1960 11 pm
     DEAR BRUCE
     RECEIVED YOUR LETTER
     AND GLAD TO HEAR FROM
     YOU   KEEP YOUR SELF
     IN GOOD SHAEP CLEAN
     AND HELTE IS THE MORST
     IMPORTIN IN LIFF  I HOPE
     YOU MAEK A GRAET
     SUCSES IN YOUR LIFF
     LOVE AND KISESS
                              FROM GRANDPA
                                                      
I only saw him in person twice.  Though he live to be 91, by the time I was old enough to travel on my own he was gone.  Comes with the territory of having older parents than most.  But at least I knew him.  He was the only grandparent I ever got to meet.  Our first visit happened when I was only about 4 years old.  A few snapshots of us together remain.  But at 14, he came for a visit and stayed about a month.  We shared my bedroom, (really a small den) and bonded.  Indelible memories.  Grandpa kept a small flask of brandy in the kitchen cabinet.  It was really a glass Good Seasons salad dressing carafe.  I loved when he cut my fingernails and toenails and used a dab of brandy as an antiseptic.  He taught me to play Gin Rummy.  Once a tailor, he always carried around the blue chalk for marking things.  He went on long walks, really long walks.  He'd walk to a shopping center we always took the bus to, and back.  In the daytime, when I was at school, Grandpa would often go to Santa Anita, by bus of course.  I'm convinced I get my love of thoroughbreds from him.  And when he left, and returned to New York, my sister and I found that we both had bank accounts.  Grandpa could pick a few winners too.
When I look at his letter to me now, I see his wonderful face.  I see him wearing a gray wolly sweater and khaki work pants, his pockets full of small pen knives, blue chalk, and a wooden stub of a carpenter's pencil; always the pencil.
Grandpa's letter told me about the importance of health and being in good shape.  he wished success for me.  Never once did he mention wealth or money.  I love that.  I'm going to answer him now.  Grandpa, I'm going to say, it's been a good life thus far.  I've made a few mistakes and regret a couple of things along the way, but I've learned that the meaningful stuff really is in the transitions.  Enough of the philosophy.  You made an impact on me that lasts to this day.  I plan to make it to my 90s too.  Oh yeah, one more thing.  If there is any way it could be arranged, I'd love to go to the track with you.  You could show me your methods and secrets, and I'd gladly show you mine.   I'd really like that.  But know this, every time I go I take you with me.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sound Track


 

                                                Piped In

 

In the Men’s Room

            at Portland Meadows,

            Frank Sinatra is always singing.

Through the white porcelain, up and around the mirror splashed

   sinks, over the din of flushing urinals,

            Frank Sinatra sings,

                        every day.

Into this private party, rat-pack, brassy big band braggadocio

            Comes a post parade of wily winners and lowly losers.

They unzip and position themselves to The …. Party’s …. O ver.

Outside, in the real world, missing people bubble up in rivers,

            seven-year-olds die in drive-bys from Maine to Mexico,

                        a board of education president commits suicide,

                                    Islamic terrorists stare back through wooly manes, rifle sight eyes, and layers of cotton clothing,

But in the Men’s Room, at Portland Meadows,

            Frank Sinatra is always singing,

            Fly me to the moon,

                      And let me play among the

                            Rogue politicos,

                                    Post Traumatic Stress Disordered,

                                                Children of a lesser dog

 

In the Men’s Room, at Portland Meadows,

            A Chicana  with glistening black hair, wipes sinks, clears the floor of abandoned exactas, trifectas… personal handicapping.

            In this beige-tiled cocktail lounge, patrons void, then avoid the “lady,” tucking in shirttails, jiggling flies, deciding they’d better wash their hands now.

Outside, the planet hatches more headlines,

            Sex scandals, sweet and sour Tweets, 

An ape rips a face,

An addicted horseplayer rips a ticket.  

Stick around, there is always another race, somewhere,

            A play among the stars,

And in the Men’s Room at Portland Meadows,

            Frank Sinatra is always singing.

Luck be a Lady Tonight.

 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Out of Synch



This is the time of year to be very careful.  Some say it coincides with the moon in Scorpio.  I'm not so sure about that, but I do know that the last couple of weeks in November are prime time for the strange and dangerous.
Looking back, I first began to trace this delicate time to the Kennedy assassination.  If ever there was an example of something knocking the universe for a loop, that was it.  World views changed.  Many people, myself included, were never quite the same.  Loss of innocence I suppose, but something more.  At least it wasn't hope.
Shakespeare talked of the music of the spheres.  When the music of the heavens in in synch, it's a lovely concord.  The dis chord is what results when things fall apart.  Think of someone learning to play an instrument...such sour sounds are only to be endured.  Hardly the stuff to sooth any savage beast.  
If you think about it, many eerie and horrendous things take place this time of year.  I remember that week back in November of 1978 when the tragedy of People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana occured.  Within days, in San Francisco the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk happened.   I think there may be other assassinations and attempts within those dates too. 
Yesterday I saw a stunning image of incongruity.  I was walking to the ATM at my local bank and chanced to see an empty wine bottle standing near the curb right next to a covered bus stop.  This vessel would hardly be out of place in this part of town.  It's a couple of blocks from The Goodwill, just down from a large supermarket chain, and on a street loaded with all manner of cheap restaurants and struggling businesses.  Looking carefully, however, I recognized the wine label.  It was a bottle that once contained Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon.  Great stuff, and I know it sells for about $50.00 a bottle.   People who drink anything Stag's Leap produces hardly leave their empties at bus stops.  The backstory possibilities here are very tasty.  For a moment, I thought of a bottle of Stag's Leap Pinot Noir I once received as a gift.  The pricey wine was given to me by a beautiful woman with whom I once had a brief but very intense affair.  To me, it was a relationship.  Oh, I knew the boundaries and limitations from the start but chose to proceed.  Just like all the rest, I was guilty of thinking she might come around and decide to spend her life with me, at least for a while longer.  When the very predictable end came, I was bombarded with gifts, including two crystal wine glasses and the Stag's Leap.  I wish I had taken the hint and made my own leap...away.  Instead, we met one more time about 3 years down the road.  That little encounter had about as much romanticism as a root canal.  Insert a verse of "Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair" here.  When I finally decided to drink that bottle of Stag's Leap, a couple of years later, it had turned.  Reason enough to abandon a bottle by a bus stop.   Hope the owner of the bottle I saw has a kinder tale to tell. In any event, all's well that ends well.  How wonderfully mysterious.  It's that time of year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

No More



He never knew that he was a veteran.  All he knew was that he'd traded in his life tinkering with an education, a girlfriend, and wondering about a future for an army uniform.  No Germany, no Korea, no local military base; Vietnam, just Vietnam.  It was 1968, we were down to one Kennedy, no more Dr. King, escalating death tolls, and hundreds of thousands in the street.  All he really wanted was to get away.  Tie up that relationship that would have never worked, get a chance to smoke and drink without being hassled, maybe learn a trade, and consider himself a man.  
He wrote me a number of letters.  Particularly ironic for a guy that didn't really like to write.  He'd begun to harden; became less tolerant of those around him.  Hate began to leak through his beaming smile.  At home, the music was unifying our movement.  The opportunities to express our disgust and anger grew more frequent.  Yet, we never forgot about him.  We never judged him.  He was still our classmate, our friend, our forever funny iconoclast.  We all knew our plans for anything would be put on hold.  But we never thought there would be no more dances where he'd chose the sexiest girl and dance to Louie Louie.  We never thought there would be no more trips in his '59 Ford Fairlane convertible to Santa Monica or Sorrento beach.
No more cruising Bob's Big Boy, no more double dates or top 40 countdowns.  
Somehow I lost his letters, but he lost his life.
The obituary said he died in a place called Happy Valley.  Just another 21 year old frozen in time by the war in Vietnam.  Some years later I made a pilgrimage to the wall in Washington D.C. to find his name.  William Garcia was near the highest point of the wall.  The park ranger that works at the memorial offered me a ladder to climb up and make a rubbing of his name.  While I was doing that, cameras flashed.  Bill would have loved that; I could see his wide grin.  All I wanted was a moment alone...he wouldn't allow that.  
As we all watch our dark brown or black hair turn salty, Bill is perpetually blonde in my mind.  His Spanish blue eyes  never represented his Mexican mother.  He'll always be 21 in my mind.  That's all I have to hold on to.  
When I think about him on this Veteran's Day, I think about all the others too.  The people, men and women, who really believed they were serving their country.  Really thought it was worth their lives at 21 to insure that our country and culture was protected and defended.  It's a good thing that they weren't around to see what's  become of Vietnam.  To see how all those supposed promises and threats, those claims and warnings were untrue.  Vietnam today for the next generation is a name on a clothing tag they pick up in The Gap.  It's the label in Ikea where a rug was made.  The children of Garcia's generation are investing in Vietnam.  It's just about as much a capitalist democracy as we are.  They wouldn't want to know that.  

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Panel 12 East

ROW 1 DAVID GREGORY¨WALTER JOSEPH JANKOWSKI¨MICHAEL WALTER KOLEMAINEN¨PHILLIP DALE JOSLEN¨HARRY WILLIAM JUNTILLA¨

ROW 2 DANIEL JOHN ILLI¨TED T LOCKLAR¨ELEFTHERIOS PANTEL PAPPAS¨LEROY BURKS Jr¨RONALD A VAN SESSEN¨

ROW 3 LAWRENCE R COSTELLO¨CHARLES CHAPMAN CLARK¨MARION LEON DRAPER¨RICHARD JOHN EDRIS¨CHARLES N CARSON Jr¨

ROW 4 RONALD ALBERT FROMM¨DAVID LEE HALL¨DAYTON LEO HARE Jr WILLIAM GARCIA¨ANDREW HERMAN HODGE¨

ROW 5 JOHN ERNEST JOHNSON¨JAMES LEE HOLCOMB¨ROBERT IRVIN JOHNSON¨TIMOTHY HOLSTER¨EDWARD PAUL AUSTIN¨

ROW 6 JUDD WAYNE KENNEDY¨JOSEPH PAUL MACHALICA¨DONALD KAY LAKEY¨JOHN FRANCIS KNOPF¨JOSHUA THOMAS JONES¨

ROW 7 DANIEL TIOFILIO MARTINEZ¨WILLIAM G MENDENHALL¨ALLAN ARLYN MILK¨MICHAEL LAVERNE PUGH¨THOMAS MICHAEL MOORE¨

ROW 8 GARY LYNN SUBLETTE¨MICHAEL HOWARD STOFLET¨ROBERT LE ROY SHUCK¨JOSE ANGEL VAZQUEZ¨KLAUS WARRELMANN¨

ROW 9 BILLIE ALVIN ALLEN¨CHARLES EDWARD BROWN Jr¨RANDY BLAKE WRIGHT¨GEORGE ROBERT WEAVER Jr+JERRY PAUL WITT¨ 


If I'm ever at the wall again, I'll climb to the highest point and find the name WILLIAM GARCIA, lean over and tell him.  It'll make me feel better, but it won't stop the tears.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

In Zen



It's nice to have a dose of pure joy to end this week.  Bad enough it poured all day, the leaves clogging the street drains, the water in small ponds over the curb, the freeway full of hydroplaning fools.  This week the health care bill took a few more jabs, the media convulsed repeatedly on missing children, new serial killers, and then the coup d' gras, the mass murder committed by an Islamic army psychiatrist.  Hollywood has nothing on reality.  
Somehow, in the big middle of all this chaos I got excited about the Breeder's Cup.  Anybody who knows me well knows you don't mess with me during Breeder's Cup.  It's in my blood.  Thoroughbreds are one of my true passions.  Anyone with a similar bent will know exactly what I'm talking about.  For some reason I was particularly down this year.  Maybe it's because attending Breeder's Cup here at my local track in Portland has become a solitary affair.  Some of my old mates are either gone or living all over the place.  Those days are over.  But at the race track, it's easy to make new friends.  That happens, but, of course it's not the same.  
This year, however, we have Zenyatta, one of the most beautiful and athletic individuals I've ever seen.  Like all special horses, she's got quite a personality.  She works the crowd like John Henry did.  Sure, being a mare, there was all the hype about "Girl Power"  (what happened to woman power?) and all the knocks that go with any "my horse can beat your horse" bantering.  In the end, there is only the moment the gates open and every breath and  stride the next mile and a quarter requires.  
Zenyatta's triumph in this year's Breeder's Cup Classic was definitely one for the ages.  All the pundits will argue about Horse of the Year, and what quality of competition who faced, where.  None of that matters.  Her victory today was pure joy.  In a sport where the highs are the highest and the lows as low as it gets, this is a moment to savor forever.  If memories are all we have, and they are, then this is one shining possession.  
Still, I can't help thinking how many people have no knowledge of this beautiful animal and her aesthetic prowess.  Too bad those left wondering about all the tragedy and loss of the past week couldn't share in this moment of ecstasy.  Funny thing is that Zenyatta has the ability to do what Seabiscuit did for a floundering nation almost 75 years ago.  I know it's not really the same, so many technological changes make that era impossible.  But to live in a world where now and then everything stops for a horse race is to live in a world with possibility, and perfectibility.  Damn she was gorgeous winning today. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

White Noise


One big player in determining how safe any school or environment can be is the Code of Silence.  On a high school campus, this unwritten law enjoys health and wealth.  The deliberate choice to remain silent in the face of moral outrage thrives in an era of collective "don't ask don't tell." How ironic, in this era of instant messaging, that the code of silence still supports so many egregious acts.  Yet this glaring contradiction can become a savior.  It just might be the key to preventing crimes of group-think that outrage and threaten so many.  
Some new studies show that the availability of anonymous outlets for reporting crucial information are having a real impact in preventing the serious crimes that threaten school security.  Some have even suggested that the presence of anonymous "counseling" seems to have a real impact on helping those in need actually seek help.  Here's how this might work.  Within a particular school/community, students have phone numbers or social networking addresses available to them 24/7 when the need arises.  
Kids easily adapt to the technology; this has real promise.  Just imagine, if any of the onlookers at the Richmond H.S. tragedy had been tempted to break the code.  Certainly someone who saw that act of depravity must have had a shred of empathy.  Perhaps if some alternative to dialing 911 existed this atrocity could have been cut short.  Yes, I know, just the thought of someone being intimidated from calling 911 in a real emergency like this is sad; but that's what is out there.  
There is much work to be done.  I suspect a significant part of this issue involves the dearth of moral emotions in so many young people.  Could it be possible that the line between reality and fantasy has become so dulled, so faded, so invisible that we have a much deeper problem here than we think?
I'm also wondering how often a crime like the gang-rape detailed here occurs.  I suspect that it may not be as isolated or rare an occurrence as we think.  Perhaps the number of onlookers or participators involved might be smaller, but the type of crime is probably much more common than we know.  Can you see the curriculum possibilities here?  Again, the political will to educate our young people in a way that matters is what's needed as much as any security camera or beefed up police force.