dranthonysblog

March 30, 2013

My time in San Quentin Prison

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I just completed spring quarter at the University of California in Santa Barbara and was looking forward to spending the summer at home with my parents.  My father had recently accepted a position as Associate Warden of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.  One of the perks, which could be debated, was that staff had the option to live on grounds at the prison.  The facility consists of an outer gate with full security that houses the prison inside as well as a community includes streets and living quarters for hundreds of employees and their families.  At that time, it also had a community gym as well and a small post office and gift shop located just outside the main gate.  The cost, I was told, was much more reasonable than rent or a mortgage payment was in Marin County, which is one of the more affluent areas in California.  The real estate that the prison and the expansive grounds it occupies, due to its location and proximity to the bay, are worth millions of dollars should the state of California ever decide to sell it!

It was very early in the morning when I left my small off-campus apartment in Isla Vista and my mind was filled with a predictable mix of thoughts about school and anticipation of a summer spent at home.  I moved out a couple of years before when my parents had lived in Sacramento and, though I had visited them since the move, I was unsure what to expect spending a few months living at San Quentin.  This was before I entered the Army and so I had no experience living in any type of secured community.

I arrived in the late morning and the gate guard asked me who I was there to visit.  I informed him that I was moving “home” for the summer and would be around for a few months.  After verifying my identification, and calling to confirm I was authorized, he lifted the gate and I drove in and down the road towards my parent’s house.  They lived on a hill in a beautiful home that appeared to be built around the turn of the last century, plus or minus a decade.  The yard was filled with flowers and the living room had huge windows that had a fantastic view of the San Francisco bay as well as the prison itself.  I remember thinking what a contrast the two aspects of the view were.  On exceptionally clear days, which were rare due to the near ever-present bay area fog, you could also see Alcatraz prison, then a state park, which added to the spectacle.

In addition to the living room, the house had a family room, sun room, back yard (also filled with flowers) and three bedrooms.  I remember thinking that aside from the proximity to the prison this was a nice place to live.   Interestingly, the grounds were all maintained by inmates supervised by guards.  I realized this early on when I saw that the landscape workers wore the same blue shirt and denim pants that the inmates had on.  I also noticed that they were very observant, especially if you were with a female.

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In the morning scores of inmates would gather in the main yard and would chant in unison while exercising.  I later learned that some of the groups also did this for religious reasons as well as for a show of unity.  To a curious outsider, hearing this mixed with the chilling and dense morning fog was both fascinating and somewhat unnerving at the same time!  In thinking about it now, it was not unlike some of the more solemn cadences that resonated during early morning physical training sessions that army units do when in garrison.

I visited the inside of the actual prison several times that summer and was fascinated not so much by the denizens, as I had been raised around that (i.e., my father spent the majority of his career in corrections), but by the stark surroundings and the aging architecture of the walls and buildings.  I later learned that it was constructed in 1852 with little renovation or change since.  In many ways it was similar to ancient forts of the type you would see in far-flung outposts still standing from Spain’s hegemony in places like Manila Bay.  During my visits, I also was the recipient of catcalls and much staring as I was 18 then, and even though I am a native Californian, it left an impression on me.  One positive outcome from this was that it helped me to more fully understand just how some employees feel when they are victims of harassment, which was useful when I started working in human resources a few years later.  I also viewed death row and saw the gas chamber, which was still operational at that time, though that summer it was not put to use.

Visiting day was on Sunday and I remember that because it was one of three times that the main gate was often crowded with people and cars.  The other two were during protests, which were also fairly common and usually concerned the death penalty, and during daily shift changes.  Visitors would line up and they included a fairly representative sampling of individuals from all walks of life, ethnicities, and income levels and included; girlfriends, family members of assorted ages, attorneys, and friends.  The expressions were as varied as the people though many sported looks of sadness tinged with frustration, no doubt in part due to the wait in line, and some tried to look cheerful, though it was clear they did not want to be there.  It was not too different from the group that I would see visiting juveniles when I worked as a counselor in a probation department later on.  During these experiences, I always wondered what these many were really thinking as they journeyed through the rote security process and queuing just to share a few moments with family, or associates, who were incarcerated.

The prison was located just a few miles down highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge, which was next to San Francisco.  During that summer I often rode my bicycle around the area and occasionally over the bridge never-failing to marvel at the scenery and the pace of life in and around the city.  It is impossible to live in Marin County and not visit the City for shopping, entertainment, or just for escape.  When you live on grounds at the prison this is especially true because there is a ferry terminal outside of the back gate that goes directly to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.  The ride across the bay takes under an hour and is better than fighting traffic and searching for an overpriced place to park your car on the weekends.

The summer eventually passed and it was time for me to leave the prison by the bay and get back to college life.  As I left I told the somewhat bored looking gate guard that I was going back to college and he responded with an indifferent “I don’t care gaze” but, being the well-trained peace officer and public servant that he obviously was, he wished me well nonetheless.  Living on grounds at a prison and not being a convict or peace officer is an unusual experience and one that stays with you for life, especially when that prison is San Quentin.

October 30, 2012

A Teddy Bear Tale

What you are about to read is believed by the party involved to have happened.  The person is completely credible and the story is unusual.  I have altered some of the details at the request of the person involved though, aside from that, what you are about to read is the story as I understand it.  It is up to you to decide how it happened…

Cindy lived with her two terrier mix dogs in a townhouse she rented in a trendy area of southern California.  She was 28 years old, college educated, and worked as an Office Manager for a mortgage company.  Her commute to work took nearly an hour each way, but she did not care because she enjoyed where she was living.

Her life to this point was fairly typical and according to Cindy she had no history of anything strange ever really happening to her.  Her parents were supportive and she was close to her brother and sister, though they lived in another part of the state.  She dated occasionally, though she had no one steady in her life at the time.

One day in October, she believes it was a Friday, she came home after a long commute and walked upstairs to her bedroom to get comfortable.  As she passed the spare room that she used as an office something seemed odd.  She continued on to her bedroom and as she put on her shorts and walking shoes, but she could not shake that feeling that something was not quite right.  Before she took the dogs out for a walk, she retraced her steps and stopped in her tracks when she looked into the spare room.

As she looked into the office she saw that the bed was still made and nothing was on the floor.  She also noticed that the closet door was closed just as she had left it that morning.  In the far corner, her desk chair was exactly where she parked it under the small table that served as her desk. So far so good she thought to herself.

However, when she looked on the desk, her heart pounded, her hairs stiffened, and goose bumps appeared instantly.  She froze and just stared at her desk for a long while.  What she saw, was really nothing much at first glance, but to Cindy it was surreal and not possible.  Her small brown teddy bear was standing on its head in front of the inbox, perfectly balanced.  The problems with this were several and they were exactly what had unnerved Cindy so much.  The first problem was that Cindy did not leave the bear that way and the second was that she knew it probably could not be done, at least not without glue, strings, and/or some other manner of support.  Lastly, all of this caused her to want to scream, though she held back.

Being a practical person, she spent a long while just studying the 12 inch, 8 ounce, toy with a bean filled body and stuffing filled head and appendages. She did this to confirm that there was no way that this pose was possible without support.  She looked for thread, wires, and glue and found absolutely nothing.  She then stopped and quickly checked the rest of her townhouse for signs of someone having been there.  Since she was a very neat person she would have spotted anything out-of-place in an instant, but she found everything in perfect order except for her bear.

She went back to the office, sat down, and finally grabbed the bear taking it from the unnatural position that it was in.  She then thoroughly checked it over for anything that could explain what had happened.  The bear was a little dusty, but otherwise in like new condition and, as far as she could tell, completely unaltered in every way.  She thought to herself that perhaps she was wrong and that an earthquake had made the bear fall and land on its head and that maybe just maybe it could somehow be posed in that way after all.  She spent the next half hour trying to repeat the pose but the bean bag torso and stuffing filled appendages would not allow it.  The bear simply could not be posed on its head perfectly balanced the way she found it, no matter what she did, even by leaning it against the wall for support!

Two people had access to her apartment, her landlord and her ex-boyfriend, who still had not returned his key.  The next day she explained the weird situation to both and was told flatly that neither had done it.  In fact, her ex-boyfriend was at work from the time she left that morning until well after she returned home that night, so he could not have done it.  Her landlord, who was also a neighbor, was honest and not one to break rules.  He told her that it is illegal for a landlord to enter without some compelling and urgent cause, like a fire, or without advanced notice being provided to the tenant, in non-urgent situations. He then reiterated to her that he did not do it, though he agreed the whole thing was very odd.

That day she felt uneasy, but she still loved the toy and did not want to get rid of it.  Her mother understood that her daughter loved antiques and had a fondness for bears.  So, when her mom spotted the vintage teddy bear in like new condition, at a local street fair, she bought it and gave it to her daughter for Christmas.  Cindy immediately loved the bear and put it on top of her inbox in the office.  The bear had been in the same spot for nearly a year, and only moved when Cindy picked it up to place unpaid bills underneath or pull them out to pay them.

After much thought, Cindy, who was raised Catholic, though she did not attend church, made a decision.  She grabbed some holy water that her grandmother had given her and sprinkled it on the bear.  She then said a brief prayer to herself.  After that she looked the bear in the eyes with a clarity of thought and absolute intent and said out load if he ever moved even millimeter or so much as gave her a creepy feeling again, she would immediately burn the bear to ashes and scatter what remained over a wide area.  When she was done with her statement to the bear, she left the room and went on with her life not thinking much about it again.

That was well over a decade ago, and according to Cindy, he still sits on top of her inbox, in her office. He has not ever given a repeat performance, though Cindy still occasionally wonders how, and why, it happened and she still says it is the oddest thing that she has ever experienced before or since.

October 28, 2012

Charcoal (my dog’s true tale)

During the summer that started with the end of third grade we moved to Morro Bay, a sleepy little fishing village located on California’s central coast.  It was quite a change for me as I had lived nearly all of my young life until that time in Rialto, a suburban community located in a large valley east of Los Angeles, that still had numerous orange groves.  We had also lived a couple of blocks from my paternal grandparents, who I frequently visited.  Our new home was several hundred miles north and far from family and childhood friends.

While lacking many things I had grown accustomed to, it made up for it in other ways.  Also, since we had vacationed in the area before, it was not completely foreign to me.  I recall spending most of that first summer riding my bike, playing on the beach, and exploring my new home.  When fall came that year it brought with it many cold and foggy days and, of course, the start of fourth grade.

Soon I found myself thinking about turning 10.  Like many pre-teens, I remember feeling that I would be very grown up since my age would now include two numbers.  My birthday fell on a Saturday that year and my mom and middle sister had left early that morning to go shopping.  They returned later on and asked me to help bring in the groceries.  I ran to the car and instantly noticed a shopping bag moving by itself!  I reached for that one first, as my mother and sister must have known that I would, because they were behind me.  I was happily surprised to see a small, dark and furry lump that popped up and greeted me with a lick!  He was no bigger than a Guinea Pig and had soft but wiry black fur, with a matching black nose, dark brown eyes, and a wiggly, long for his size, tail.  From the minute that I spotted him I knew that he was one of kind.  The first thing my mother asked me was “what are you going to name him?”  Without hesitation, I responded that since he was black as “charcoal” that would be his name.

Initially, I made Charcoal a nice bed, I thought, on the floor next to me, but he would have none of that and carried on until I picked him up.  After that, he slept at the foot of my bed.  We went for walks nearly every day and he grew quickly.  Being mostly Terrier, he was a smallish, medium-sized dog, who probably never exceeded 30 pounds in weight.  As he grew, he turned out to be not the cutest dog, but he had qualities that made him endearing nonetheless.

I taught him how to walk on a leash, though he really never cared for that much.  We would hike through fields and down rutted roads usually on route to the bay, piers, or the beach.  When he got bigger, I would ride my bike and he would run behind where often, because he was mostly a Terrier, he would bark at cars or people while trailing me.

I would sometimes find interesting trees to explore which, being a boy, I would do often.  One day while doing just that, Charcoal became tired of waiting for me on the ground and he started to climb the tree too!  After a few attempts doing this, he became pretty good at it, for a dog, and could usually make it half way up most trees.  Of course, I almost always had to help him get back down because I did not want him to get hurt, though loose sand covered most of the ground that we explored and the trees were not very tall.

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Charcoal loved to play tug-o-war and he would find a toy, or rag, or once in a while even a stray piece of clothing, and drop it near me whenever he wanted to have a game.  He also loved chasing other animals and at night he would sometimes go out for a bathroom break and refuse to come back in the house.  This worried me, but in the morning he would always be at the door and wagging his tail, as if to say thank-you for not making me stay in all night.  It was during these “adventures” where he must have met the locals, because when I rode my bike around town neighbors would often talk to him as if they knew him.  I figured that he must have because his response to them was a wag and never a bark, which he did to strangers he did not trust!

When Charcoal was a year old we moved about 5 miles across the bay to another town called Los Osos.  The house we lived in was brand new and surrounded by fields with Oak trees and bushes, containing all manner of wild life from possums to lizards, the former Charcoal loved to chase!  This was made easier for him to do because the property, like most in the then semi-rural area at that time, had no fence.

The elementary was also brand new, and located down a sandy dirt road, two blocks from home.  One day, Charcoal showed up after lunch, and was distracting students who were looking at him through the windows.  The teacher was about to call maintenance to have him removed when I recognized him and let her know that he was my dog and that I would take care of it.  I went outside and walked him to the road and told him to “go home.”  He looked at me with pleading eyes and then turned and went back towards home.  At some point after that initial showing he appeared again, though this time it was near the end of the day, and he did not go close to the windows, but waited until I came out.  By spring of that year, he regularly met me at the end of each day and walked me back home!

The next year I started Junior High, 7th grade, and also attended a new school, but it being well over a mile away, I had no visits from Charcoal.  One day, in the fall, I road my bike up to a local market to get some comic books (we did not own any video games).  Charcoal followed me and waited outside the store.  I was not inside for more than a couple of minutes when I heard the sound of dogs barking, with one of them being mine.  When I got outside he was in the jaws of a large Pit-bull and it was swinging him around.  I quickly located the owner inside and he freed Charcoal, who was bleeding from a large wound on his neck.  I went to the payphone (cell phones were not widely available yet) and called home and asked my brother to come and pick us up.  Charcoal did not whimper or fuss when the Veterinarian was fixing him up.  If I remember correctly, he required around a dozen, or so, stitches and the Vet told us he was lucky to be alive.  He soon healed up and was back to doing the things that he loved in a short time!

When taking him on walks, or bike rides, to the bay, I noticed that he did not want to go near the water.  I thought about this, and one time brought a favorite rubber toy with me and tossed it in the bay very close to the shore.  He went in and grabbed it quickly, shaking himself off and looked at me as if asking that I not do that again.  Of course, being the child that I was I ignored his request, and in a few days I had him regularly fetching sticks in the bay, which he did often after that.

Time passed and before I knew it, I was starting the 8th grade.  I had Charcoal for 3 and half years by then.  Unfortunately, he still liked to go out at night and many times continued to refuse to come back inside.  One morning after going out (I think it was in October) he did not show up and was nowhere to be found all day long.  I was really worried about him when late that afternoon a friend from school called.  I knew from the sound of the ring that I did not want to answer the phone, but I did, and my friend asked if I was missing my dog.  I said that I was and he told me that his brother accidentally hit one while driving home late the night before.  He asked me to come over and see if the dead dog was mine.  I hung up and was at his house in half the time it would have ordinarily have taken me to travel the 4 blocks.  I slowed down when I saw my friend in his driveway and the unmoving, small mound of black matted fur next to him.  He asked me if that was my dog, to which I just nodded, turned and quietly walked back home.

In his passing he taught the 13-year-old me a great deal about the essence of life and, in time, there were other terrific dogs, but none were quite like him.  I have not been back to that town in many years, but when I visit, I am instantly reminded about those halcyon childhood days and my loyal pal and fellow adventurer who was so much more than simply a pet…

July 16, 2011

Our last family vacation!

“We are going to take a vacation to Mexico” my mother told the five of us kids as we listened, most only half interested.  She said that it was going to be our last family trip together because my sister was starting college in the fall.  I do not recall the rest of that conversation as I was very young, but the outcome is permanently imprinted in my mind.

The next thing I do remember is all 7 of us piling into our brand new Chevy Impala and driving from our home in southern California towards the Mexican border, which was a couple of hours away (this was before the current problems made trips like this less desirable to take).  We crossed the border and drove to Guaymas de Zaragoza, a port city on the eastern side of the Gulf of California notable to tourists for its warm weather and many undeveloped beaches.  From there, we boarded a ferry, the Benito Juarez (I am not sure why I remember the name, but I do), headed across the gulf to Mulaje in Baja, Mexico.  However, after a few of days of fun, somehow, we missed the return ferry to Guaymas, but learned that we could take the newly completed Baja highway and be back home in a day.  This is where the trip took a really memorable turn!

We followed the directions and drove a couple of hours to the place where we were to connect with the highway. When we arrived all we could see was more dirt road.  My father checked with some locals and found out that the highway was not yet completed, but that the asphalt was only around 30 miles away.  My father had to be back to work soon and so we decided to go for it!

Unfortunately, that information turned out to also be incorrect – this was long before the days of cellphones and the Web, and no maps were available that showed the progress of the road construction in Mexico.  We continued on and, at one point midway in our journey, we ran over a large cactus that was half buried in the sand and had transmission problems.  Some ranchers were nearby and helped my father make the car drivable again (I never heard exactly how they did that with few tools and no parts).  Another time my mother was answering nature’s call when a bull started heading in her direction.  When have super-8 film of her running back towards us with the animal clearly visible in the distance!

At times we had to move large rocks to enable the car to pass the very rough dirt road.  At night, my father and brother slept on the hood of the car, while my sisters, mom, and I slept inside as we had no camping gear.  Along the way we passed a small village where my father was able to get enough gas and food to keep us going.  We also met some Americans in a dune buggy going the opposite direction who updated us on how far we were from pavement (still over 100 miles) and gave us some foul-tasting water to drink.  I am sure they thought my parents were crazy and, being a parent today around their age then, I can totally understand why!

By noon on the third day we finally connected again with the asphalt.  My mother literally kissed the pavement, which was not very clean but mom did not care (we have that on film as well)!  We ended up driving well over 200 miles on unpaved roads in the Baja desert, during the middle of summer, with 5 children, and few supplies.  Later, we learned that there were 7 species of venomous snakes in the region and the car forever after had a layer of red clay that permeated the interior no matter how well it was detailed.  This was no doubt deposited during the numerous times my brother was slow to roll up the window when wind gusts or passing dune buggies kicked up dirt and dust!

Mom and dad are gone now and that trip is just a memory from many summers past.  As mom predicted it turned out to be our last trip together as a family and it was very memorable, though not for the reasons that she had hoped.  Still, we persevered, worked together despite the occasional bickering, learned some important lessons, and have great stories to tell about it that never fail to entertain!

June 5, 2011

A summer trip to New York City…

We had an informal tradition in my family, or at least that is how I understood it, that when you were around 16, you would get to go on a trip.  The trip was usually taken alone and to someplace far away with the duration being at least two weeks.  One of my older sisters visited Mexico where she stayed with relatives one summer and perfected her Spanish that she had studied in school for years.  Two other sisters went to Hawaii for a couple of weeks where they soaked up the sunshine and my brother went to Washington, D.C. where he visited the historic sites of our nation.

Being the youngest, when I turned 16, I naturally reminded my parents about these journeys that the others took and asked where I could go.  My parents were in a situation at that time where their resources were temporarily stretched, so they tried to dissuade me from any thoughts of a trip by saying that I could go next year or perhaps the year after.  However, I was ready to go somewhere and, as my father had observed long ago, when I get something in my head I usually find a way to make it happen!  A trait that has (mostly) served me well in life and this time was no different.

The “where” was a bit more challenging to figure out as I received the message clearly that it had to be relatively inexpensive and so Hawaii was definitely out of the question.  I spent a few days thinking about it when I remembered that my brother-in-law of 5 years was attending the University of Southern California’s film school and was a graduate intern working for Paramount Pictures in New York City.  I had only seen the western United States and Mexico up to that time and had never been on an airplane, so the thought of spending a few weeks in Manhattan was interesting to say the least.  My parents probably did not think I could come up with an acceptable trip, but when I did and discussed it with them they reluctantly had to agree.

It was the early summer of 1981 and soon I was going on a plane and bound for the Big Apple!  My sister drove me to the airport, LAX, and made it a point to remind me to be nice to my brother-in-law, her husband!  Another message received.  She helped me to check in to my flight and before long I was listening to my Walkman, playing “California Dreamin'” among other tracks that I remember, while flying east alone in what turned out to be the first of many such trips in my life, though I had no clue about that yet.

Three months earlier, I was sitting in 10th grade waiting for English class to start when I looked down and found a piece of paper that set me on another related, but much larger, journey.  That paper described a test that I could take and if I passed would enable me to drop out of high school and go directly to college.  My father’s promotions had come at the cost of the family being moved several times during my childhood and most recently to California’s capital where I attended high school.  The school I attended, Del Campo High, was the same one where Candy Lightner’s daughters went the year before and one was tragically struck and killed by a drunk driver causing the grieving mother to found Mothers’ Against Drunk Driving (MADD).  It was also the same school that former baseball major leaguer and current Cincinnati Red’s Manager Dusty Baker graduated from years earlier.  To me it was a nondescript suburban holding facility for teens where I knew few people, due to the moves, and was not at all challenged by the curriculum.  So when I found the paper under my desk, I read it and happily realized I had stumbled upon, by chance, a solution to my problem.  A literal treasure map for me!  My parents saw things differently and it took some work (well, a lot to be honest!) to convince them but they came around (I probably should have gone into sales!).  I took and easily passed the test a few weeks later.  Sitting on the plane, I had time to contemplate the fact that in the fall I would be in college, at a time that should have been my junior year of high school.

In a few hours the plane landed and I was off to retrieve my suitcase.  I then called my brother-in-law who was not able to pick me up because of work, but told me how to find the train to the plane and where to catch the subway and that he would meet me at one of the stations.  I navigated the crowds and remember feeling very grown-up as I followed his instructions and eventually got off at the correct stop.  My brother-in-law was, at that time, a big burly fellow who greeted me warmly, though in looking back, I am sure that he had to be convinced to put up with me for several weeks.  We quickly hopped into a taxi for a short trip to a large brownstone building on West 67th Street, located next to a restaurant that I am sure is long gone now called “The Three Monks” or something like that.

The apartment was a studio layout that my brother-in-law was leasing from a doctor who decided to give up his practice in favor of pursuing a career in acting (I am curious to learn how that turned out!).  Not being used to apartment life at all, I remember being struck by its small size as well as the fact that it only had one bed and a small sofa, where I was to sleep.

That evening we went out to eat and walked around.  I remember thinking how alive the city was and how things were very lit up and noisy.  Everyone appeared to be in a hurry and I recall being especially struck by the sheer number of people everywhere!  Being from southern California where you drive to go places, it also surprised me that the only car I needed was a taxi and that only rarely.  This felt far more foreign to me than being in Mexico, where I spent many earlier summer days enjoying the beaches with my family.

The next morning my brother-in-law went to work and told me to enjoy the city and left. Being a teenager, I went back to sleep but soon got up and ventured out into Manhattan.  I walked around the streets and saw girls younger than me selling themselves, other people in suits or dresses headed to meetings, students rushing to classes, and tourists like me taking it all in.  Once I walked by and twice passed Flip Wilson with a fancy invitation in his hand, apparently trying to find an address.  I saw street hustlers at work and was told by a stern-faced man that I was not “dark enough” to continue farther on from where I was, so I took the advice and turned around.  I spent a lovely morning in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, with a pleasant girlfriend of my oldest sister’s, who told me that I looked at least 18, which I know was said to make me feel grown-up and it did!  I explored central park daily and took a ride to the observation deck of the World Trade Towers, which I will never forget!

Most of the time, I had lunch on the street at one of the many vendors and never tired of people watching, foreshadowing what I would do on many future trips to faraway places.  At the end of the day I would meet my brother-in-law at the building where he worked, which was the headquarters for Paramount Pictures.  I got to know the elevator attendant fairly well and enjoyed seeing the well-appointed suites, where the executives worked.  Once, I was standing next to Warren Beatty when he was talking to an executive while I waited patiently for my brother-in-law and I remember thinking how many people would love to be standing in my place!  I, of course, just wanted them to finish up so we could have dinner and explore the city some more.

At night, we would eat in different restaurants and soak up the city.  We explored the village, listened to music at various clubs, and took in the movie, “New York, New York” one evening.  I remember the movie because I thought it was very cool to be seeing that while sitting in a New York City theater!  We went to Broadway, and saw “A day in Hollywood, a night in the Ukraine” and another time caught a pre-release viewing of “Gallipoli” in an executive screening room at Paramount.

On the weekends, when my brother-in-law was not working, we watched Shakespeare in the Park, Henry the VIII, if memory serves.  We also took a train trip to Connecticut for a few days and visited a good friend of my brother-in-law, who had recently written a script that was made into a movie starring Burt Reynolds.  I remember the writer had a girlfriend that was not a lot older than me who asked if I was going to miss attending 11th and 12th grades, to which I responded, without hesitation, that I would not and meant it.  Still, that served to remind me that things were changing for me and they would never be the same again.

Several weeks passed and it was time to head back home.  As I said good-bye to my brother-in-law, I sensed that he would actually miss having me around even though I am sure I was a burden that he had not wanted.  I thanked him and hopped into a taxi and went to the subway station, caught the train to the plane, and checked myself in for the trip back to Los Angeles.  On the flight home, I spoke to a much older lady who was an executive for a perfume company and she gave me her business card.  I also listened to my Walkman again, which at one point was playing “Arthur’s Theme” that includes the refrain “When you are caught between the moon and New York City” and I smiled to myself as I realized that it had been a good trip for me.

As for my brother-in-law, John Wells, he completed his master’s degree at USC, under the tutelage of instructors like Spielberg and Lucas, and eventually became one of the producers of China Beach, ER, West Wing and others. He was also elected President of the Writers Guild of America West, started his own successful production company, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He and my sister eventually parted ways…

May 7, 2011

My Mom…

I could not write about my father without also writing about my mother, Dorothy Jean Smith.  Her experiences are less expansive than my father’s, but that does not mean that her journey is no less unique or important than his.  Also, with Mother’s day coming up, and the world still digesting the recent news about what bin Laden’s demise means, a story about a mother is just what this doctor decided is needed.

My mother was the third born child of Ivan “Jim” Smith and Adelie “Addie” Kent.  She was born in the middle of the depression in Boise, Idaho.  Her father was earlier in life a farmer and park ranger but, by the time she was born, he was a beer distributor and her mother took care of the 5 children (4 girls and 1 boy).  Addie could trace her family tree back to the Mayflower, while Jim’s included a Dutch grandfather born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and also likely a confederate soldier from Louisiana.  Addie was raised on a horse farm and though short (a couple of inches shy of 5 feet tall), she was said to be a great rider.  At nearly 6 feet, Jim was tall for a man of his day (he was born in 1899), and had traveled the rails for a time when he was young.  When Dorothy was a girl, her father told her stories of a place where they eat flat, round bread with vegetables so hot they would burn your mouth.  She would later retell this story acknowledging the irony of her later life with my father and that fact that she was a great cook, especially of Mexican food dishes!

Dorothy, according to my grandmother, was a headstrong little girl, who when she was 3 would make neighborhood kids walk around, not on, her father’s sidewalk.  She loved to play with her younger sisters and sometimes had crushes on her older brother’s friends.  At 15, she took a job as a soda jerk (mom’s term for it) at a local ice cream shop, where she earned money to buy clothes and have fun, like most young girls in those early post war times.  While in high school, she was a cheerleader and among her classmates at Boise High, was a young man with the last name Albertson, whose father owned a local grocery store.

After graduating high school, a first in her family, she wanted to see the world. She found her ticket when a girlfriend suggested that they join the newly created United States Air Force (prior to 1947 it was part of the Army) together. Unfortunately, her father would not allow it and refused to sign off on her enlistment paperwork, a requirement in those days.  She eventually convinced him to sign and a few weeks later she found herself in San Antonio, Texas attending basic training, which is something that few young women did in 1951.  Her friend, unfortunately, was not found to be fit for service and so Dorothy entered the Air Force alone.

Immediately after completing basic training she attended a service school where Dorothy learned administrative skills.  Upon completion of the program she was stationed at Eglin, Air Force Base, in Pensacola, Florida.  Dorothy would later say, as her husband did as well, that this was one of the happiest times of her life!  The base was staffed with thousands of airmen, including pilots and support staff of all types, however, only a couple of hundred were women.  Mom said finding a date to catch a movie or go to a dance was never a problem.  Playing on the then undeveloped beaches, snorkeling and enjoying a game of ping-pong were the favorite pastimes that mom said she enjoyed while stationed in Florida.  One evening she met a Latino airman from California, who played piano in local clubs after hours.  The pair were soon dating and eventually became a couple, not unlike the popular one portrayed by Lucille and Desi on prime time television at the time. They soon married and spent most of their last year in the service living off base in a small house, where mom said that they constantly entertained their friends who liked escaping barracks life as often as they could.

After both were honorably discharged, the couple moved to southern California where they decided to settle down.  Over the next 10 years they had 5 children, 3 girls and 2 boys.  Early on they opened a restaurant which did not last, and my father worked a number of jobs, while mom stayed home and taught the children how to make beds so tight you could bounce a quarter off of them, and at bedtime lined them up and marched off to bed.  These practices were amusing remnants of the fact that Dorothy really wore combat boots and had all the training that came with them!

Mom was always there to make sure we were up in the morning, did chores after school, cleaned our rooms on weekends, had fun, and along the way taught us those skills that would be needed as adults.  Like most mothers during those days, her job was to manage the household.  She did this very well and cooked, cleaned, and coordinated all the daily details for her family while still making the time to befriend many and enjoy life.

She had a great sense of humor, even if it was at her own expense such as the time one of my sisters, who was 3, locked her out of the house when she really needed to use the restroom.  The result was predictable and mom loved to retell the story anyway never failing to mention the devilish grin her daughter had as she repeatedly refused to let her in the house.  There was also the time when mom needed to dry her hair while simultaneously trying out her eldest son’s mini-bike in the backyard.  She drove round and round until her hair was dry and had fun while entertaining us.  During our last trip together as a family, we drove 200 miles through the Sonoran desert (that is a tale for another time) and have super 8 film of her being chased by a bull while answering natures call and of her literally kissing the pavement when we eventually reached it!  The road did not look that clean either, but mom did not mind as she was just happy to be on pavement again!

When the children were a little older, she worked as a waitress part-time at a restaurant to earn to extra money and told us kids to help ourselves to her tips, which we (the bigger ones anyway) apparently did perhaps a bit too often.  Later on, she worked part-time as a hotel maid, but did not share those tips with us!  After her kids moved out, she worked full-time for a state social services agency helping field client calls and completing paperwork.

She supported my father’s career fully and even helped to found a halfway house and assist with professional association membership drives. She made sure our holidays were filled with cheer and laughter and that we took vacations back to Idaho, down to Mexico, up the coast, to the desert, or in the mountains whenever possible.  In later years she even made sure that Dad and her visited Alaska, Hawaii, Central America, the Deep South, the East coast, and Europe.

She loved to shop and enjoyed buying her friends and family presents, which she did often.  Dorothy believed in helping people and many times while growing up we had family or friends staying with us to assist them in getting through some transition in their lives.  She told me that it was important to always celebrate marriages, births, graduations, and other significant life events and to remember those who are no longer with us.

At the age of 60, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and I was present when the doctor gave her 4 months to live. This was one of the very few times that I saw the twinkle leave my mother’s eyes. She quickly rebounded, obtained another medical opinion, and fought with everything she had to live.  Five years later she was cancer free and went on to live another 10 years after that! Mom was quite the fighter!

She saw the birth of 7 grandchildren, 4 girls and 3 boys, and made it a point to be present when both of my sons were born.  She told us children that she loved us very much, but that grandchildren were very special in a different way in terms of the joy that they bring during that stage of a person’s life.  She and my father were together over 50 years and, though they were quite different, they loved and supported each other as much as any couple I have thus far known.

Summarizing a life in a few hundred words provides an incomplete glimpse at best, regardless of who they were or what they have done.  Still, hopefully enough was written so that you have an idea of the kind of person my mother was and what she meant to her many friends and family members.  As this mother’s day approaches, the third since she has left us, I am very much reminded of her wise words about celebrating life and about how fleeting it really is.  If yours is still with you, spend time with her, and listen to her unique stories, even if you have heard them many times before…

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