Monday, June 30, 2014

Medalist

It was the bronze medal for the high bar from the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.  That's what everyone said.  And it belonged to one of the P. E. teachers, Mr. Thom.  They said it was on display in the P.E. office at Sun Valley Jr. High where he taught.  If you got Mr. Thom for P.E.  then you were in for some serious gymnastics from an Olympic medalist.
In 7th grade, I had 1st period P.E.  Mr. Schorr was my teacher, but I got plenty of glimpses of Mr. Thom and a few of the medal in a window display near the Boys locker room.  That first year was uneventful, except for the time Ernest Takimoto forgot to put his shorts on and came to attention in his tightie whities.  We were all barely awake by the start of 1st period and Ernest paid the ultimate price.
My 8th grade year began with new teachers and...of course...Mr. Thom


The word gymnastics was enough to strike fear into my 13 year old self, but when coupled with the thought of Mr. Thom, it became sheer terror.  I wasn't the gymnastics type.  I could catch a fly ball with the best of them, but turning flips or climbing the rope, or what were called "C-circles" on the high bar...I had nothin'.
And then there was Mr. Thom's physical presence.  He had the biggest thighs I'd ever seen.  Massive, and they gleamed like his bronze skin.  Mr. Thom was Filipino, spoke with a little accent, and grinned broadly whenever he spoke his name.  Despite the angst, it wasn't so bad.  We all had to "skin the cat" which was the term for jumping up on the high bar and with him spotting us, turn an under flip and then dismount.  I always wondered what went through his mind as each one of us dutifully went through the motions. Somehow, he got me over the hump.  I landed on my feet after a complete loop and was ready to retire from gymnastics...forever.  I didn't need a medal.
Years later I've thought of that bronze medal sitting in the display case in the P.E. office.  When I tried an Internet search for any details...I again got nothin'.  Except for the fact that no bronze was awarded in 1952, I couldn't find his name anywhere.
So just what was that displayed so prominently for all those middle school athletes to admire?  Urban folklore?  Perhaps.  Just another mystery to let go of if I choose.
But those thighs were real.  I still see them in his bright red-orange trunks.."I am Mr. Thom..."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Snapshot

Today I mark the 48th anniversary of my mother's death.  Over the years, I've noticed that by the middle of June, the date enters my consciousness and I begin to take notice.  It's been so many years but I still dream of my parents and of the house my small family and I shared for almost 20 years.  These constructs are with us for a lifetime.
My mother was only 54 at the time of her death so it's inevitable how many medical advances have come along since she battled cancer.  Back then, the word was difficult t say, and coming out of the mouth of a doctor was as chilling as it gets.

What I wonder about the most, however, is how her death has impacted my life and various decisions and choices I've made over the years.  I wonder if she would have been pleased with my girlfriends, wife(s) and some of the friends I've collected a an adult.  It's all conjecture, of course, but just being able to have those conversations would have been wonderful.
I remember during the last few months of her life I'd have these conversations with her about what I think would probably happen in my future.  I was just about off to college, driving around in a little VW bug, and just beginning to wonder about the draft, the changing music scene, and this place called Vietnam.  She missed all that and sometimes I think it's just as well because of all the pain, the chaos, and realization that things were no exactly as we thought them to be.
Mostly, when I think of my mom, I recall the chance to get close to her in her dying moments, growing to appreciate the struggles of a young couple moving from the east coast to southern California soon after the war ended, and trying to chip off a little shard of the American Dream in a place that came to be known as Sun Valley.  Some things were so simple then.  Television was new, cars became available and futuristic, houses were affordable, public schools nearby and most everyone went there.  My parents, despite being perceived as the other by some, fit in well to their burgeoning neighborhood.  There they found similar folks from Boston to rural Tennessee.  They all became Californians and identified themselves with barbecues, and new Fords, raking leaves and taking snaphots of their gardens.
Today, when I think of my mom, I'll see her sitting on the end of the front porch, smiling as I take her picture, but not really wanting to be photographed.  I'll remember the pain, but also the smiles and all the things she made possible for me from Little League to Cub Scouts, to PTA meetings.  She was the classic martyr because her kids always came first.  Ma, just want you t know that I never forgot.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ben

That summer of 1964 was particularly warm in Southern California.  One more semester of high school to go and then hopefully on to a state college.  I was looking forward to the local Catholic church's carnival and car raffle. (The Monsenior won the car every other year, I swear!) The playground of Holy Rosary school was transformed into booths and stalls with all the teddy bear games and dime pitching glassware you could carry.  There was cotton candy, sno-cones and, of course, lots of girls in small clusters to gawk at for my 17 year old friends and me.
There was also news of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
I knew about the literacy tests, the marches and demonstrations, the danger of trying to bring liberty and justice for all.  My history class the previous semester gave me the opportunity to study current events and my eyes opened to the reality of democracy, or the lack thereof, in America.
When the three civil rights workers went missing in Mississippi, nobody expected a happy ending.  The South, especially Mississippi, seemed intractable. We knew about the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council, and the code of silence that daily covered up all manner of crimes and thuggery. Most of the country knew the time had come. There would be no turning back, but they also knew that this struggle would take sacrifice.  People's lives.
Perhaps I identified with one or two of the young Freedom Riders.  Perhaps my understanding that my baseball idols, like Willie Mays, hadn't had it so easy.  Maybe it was that essay exchange between my English class and one from South central Los Angeles.  No matter, the subsequent deaths of these 3 young martyrs hit me much harder than anything I'd ever experienced.
Before that summer ended I remember watching the younger brother of James Cheney crying at the service for his lost older brother.  That image never left me.

Shortly after that funeral I went to the church carnival and came home with a small goldfish in a bowl.  I named him Ben for the youngster whose grief wouldn't leave me alone.
The following year, my mother's terminal illness would occupy most of my time and turmoil.  I'd go on to study history in college and within five years from that life-changing summer, I'd find myself in the South as a VISTA volunteer.  I'd see parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and yes...Mississippi.  I'd also have a couple of sleepless nights courteously of the Klan.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sojourn

It's almost light at 6:00 am.  We're driving south this morning.  Twelve hours on the road with about four planned stops.  We know the drill.  Portland to Berkeley and other parts of the Bay Area.  Must have made this drive at least 10 times in the last few years.
I slowly drive down the street where I live and think about the cup of coffee that will give me enough courage for the next few hours of this sojourn.  The baristas at Peet's are like family.  They'll say good-bye, see you in a couple of weeks. The mist is lifting as I straighten out and drive up Hawthorne Ave.  Is someone in the middle of the street?  Am I seeing things?  Three small figures come into focus right on the white line.  I slow down and come face to face with three young deer looking at me, flicking their ears, all seeming to say, what are you doing here?  I stop and flick my headlights at oncoming traffic and soon about half a dozen cars in both directions are aware.  The three invaders (all does) get the message and leave the street and disappear into the foliage of a nearby mortuary.  Nobody died...yet.
In the days that follow, I go as far south as Monterrey to help some in-laws move and then to the Eastern Sierra to my nephew's wedding in a small Gold Rush town.
California seems so different to me now.  Almost a decade as an Oregonian and the landscape is so different.  The price of everything is so much higher in Cali.  Gas is just under $5. a gallon.  I forgot about sales tax, especially at restaurants when four people have dinner.  I cope.
On day three of this adventure I check my email and social media and find that Portland has had more wildlife enter the city limits.  A bear has been sighted in a NE Portland neighborhood and, sadly, another school shooting...only this time it's the high school where the son of a friend of mine goes.  It's close to the schools where I now supervise student teachers.  Two dead.  74th school shooting since Sandy Hook.  People double check that figure, but it's unfortunately true.

I spend the night in Carmel because of my brother-in-law's connections.  I'm out of my league here sleeping on a bed in a room with incredible views of the ocean and cypress trees.  I'm just along for the ride.

The wedding is beautiful.  I encounter a former student who introduces me to her husband and 3 month old daughter.  It's only been 15 years but she looks the same.  Doing well.  I have another glass of wine amid the pines and the oak trees and a smattering of redwoods.
I wander around a couple of these little foothill towns with cell phone service wandering in and out as well.  This is Calaveras County but there are more motorcycles visible than jumping frogs. Still many bikers but they are aging fast.  It ain't pretty.  I tire quickly of the little tourist traps and just sit on a bench for awhile.
Years ago I used to fantasize about having a small TV that I could peak at from time to time so I could watch a ball game or a horse race I had to miss.  My I-Phone is just that.  I am way into the future in a town that lives in the past.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

One More Time

Three stories dominate this week.  A prisoner returns after 5 years in Afghanistan, another school shooting involving a disillusioned, mentally ill young man, and the improbable chance that an upstart 3-year-old colt with obscure breeding will break the 36 year-old Triple Crown drought.
We'll save the optimism for last.
With the release of Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for 5 Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, the country seems to be at war with itself all over again.  Prisoner or traitor?  Did he desert, wander off, or simply convert?  What kind of shape is he in and what about that father with his sympathy beard?  No prisoner left behind, right...not so fast.  And then there is Idaho, Hailey, Idaho to be exact, a prettier place you couldn't find.  Cancelled the town celebration on the off chance that there is no hero and that some folks feared tens of thousands more crowding int the little hamlet of 7,000 to "express their opinions on the matter."

Wars don't always go the way you want them to.  Ask the survivors of D-Day who returned 70 years later to re-live that day at Omaha Beach and wonder how and why they made it when most of those who made the trip over with them now lie in vast cemeteries.
From foreign wars to the one that constantly plays out at home and more recently, on school campuses. It's been a bad month for college campus violence.  The postcards saying NOT ONE MORE weren't even addressed to our legislators when it happened again.  Santa Barbara and Seattle this month.  As a nation and a culture we seem hit...paralyzed...drugged...incapable of any real change or even agreement on what path to follow and how crucial it is before this business as usual attitude sets like cement.
So maybe that shiny copper penny of a colt will give us something to smile about before another untimely death.  He's on the brink, as this is written, but it won't be easy.  Nothing in New York comes easy.  For me, a follower of the sport and thoroughbred enthusiast, it's all about the possibility of one more in my lifetime.   Do I think it'll happen...not really.  Do I want it to happen...absolutely.  I'll be cheering him on every step of the way and I'd love to be wrong on this one.  One more in my lifetime would be enough to stop the craving.  But like invading other countries for dubious reasons, and the inability to keep assault weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill, the desperate, the pathological... this one seems to elude us completely.  If those days are gone, what might replace them?  Do we think we know?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Jagged Grain

I got to thinking about some of the artifacts I've kept over the years.  It's always a bit of a surprise when I open a drawer or lift the top off a storage box and find something that has followed me around for a few decades. Even thought I've been through spurts of downsizing and and purging, there are nevertheless some items that I can't seem to part with for an unknown reason or two.
Items that remind me of the people I knew or of places lived.  Items that bring back a particular day or night.
In many ways, I consciously save something for the sole purpose of looking back on it and the emotions embedded within.
I have a woman's hair scarf worn the night I picked up a girlfriend at the airport.  I was 22, a college graduate with the draft lurking over my head and a partner who was willing to go the distance with me on this issue whatever and wherever that meant.  The blue/green checkered scarf seemed a beacon that night.  I never felt more alive, scared, and hopeful.
I have a phone book from a small Texas town that shows how far we've come in the area of race relations. Jim Crow, in the form of the inserted phrase (Colored) in some adds.  It's a reminder that tis was in my lifetime, not the distant past. There is a belt buckle from a "peg belt" I bought while wandering the California coast on my first venture from home. Eighteen, hitching from Monterey to San Francisco, seeing North Beach and City Lights bookstore, Haight Ashbury.  Something happening here.
I have cards, notes from former students, a hoof pick to remind me I once owned a horse, and a few illustrated journals of watercolor poem/paintings.  Such intense emotion in my younger days.
I marvel at how some of these things have followed me.  Can't really remember packing them up or re-discovering them after I've moved, but here they are.  My Jr. Fire Dept. badge from 4th grade, an accidental collection of U.S. postage stamps because they have either people or places I admire pictured.  Matchbooks from restaurants, race tracks, bars and country stores; business cards from people I can't recall.  Somehow they all made the cut.

There is a corner I will soon turn.  I'd like to find new homes for any of these items that matter and make sure the rest moves on in some form or another.  One of my favorite phrases comes from an essay on blues music that the great writer Ralph Ellison once used.  To "finger the jagged grain," Ellison wrote of the blues performer.  We all do this in one way or another.  I like to finger the grain that these items represent.  Jagged or not, it's worthwhile.