Thursday, October 27, 2011
One thing I noticed during my sojourns was that all the driveways and private lanes were covered with some white stuff rather than gravel or blacktop. It was even the toping for paths and sidewalks. The more I explored the more of this strange stuff I would find. It was everywhere. I decided to ask grandpa, who knew everything, what this strange stuff was and why it was everywhere one looked.
I was never sure what grandpa actually did for a job because he did not work all the time. I later found out that he only worked part time because of some health problems but was considered a full time employee and got paid all the time just as if he was at work. It was decades later that I found out why a company would make a deal like that with an employee.
One evening I asked grandpa about the white stuff I had discovered everywhere. I was right, he had the answer. The place where grandpa worked was the American Limoges China Company. The company made fine china and ceramics. Grandpa was the mold superintendent. He worked with the designers, and even did some of the ceramic designs himself, and once the design was complete he would make the master and the master mold. The production quantity was set prior to the production actually starting and when that quantity was met, the molds, master and working molds, would be destroyed so no more of that item could be produced. I also found out that a new master mold could not be made that would be the same as the original. In some cases as few as fifty pieces of a certain design would be produced. My grandpa actually designed a series of wild animal ceramic pieces and after almost a year’s work, only five hundred of each piece was to be produced. The reason for limited production of most items was to make them more valuable.
As the molds and any flawed production pieces were destroyed, they were put into large bins and anyone could take as much as they wanted. It turns out that the material that was disposed of by the company made great cover for dirt driveways and lanes. It also worked well on paths and, when tamped down, also made great sidewalks. So the mystery was solved and I knew why everyone had this strange stuff all over the place.
Grandpa went on to tell me that the company got the idea from God. He told me that God always has production runs of only one, then the mold is destroyed so that there can be only one of each of us. I think that sometimes grandpa was glad that God made only one of me. He and my grandmother on my father’s side always said I had more questions than a hundred boys combined. In that respect, if you ask my wife, I guess I have not changed. I have spent my entire life questioning everything. Sometimes when I can’t find the answer to a question anywhere else, I go to the ultimate source, God. Sometimes I can almost hear him asking “don’t you ever stop”, just like my grandparents, parents, and wives. I always remind God that it was him that made me the way I am and that I know he loves my questions, no matter how many there are.
Peace and Love
Another time I asked grandpa why bad men like gangsters got rich and had such good lives, fast cars, big, fancy cars, expensive clothes, while many good people were poor and some did not know where their next meal would come from.
At this point I should stop to tell you that my grandparents, parents and most of my aunts and uncles grew up or were adults, many trying to raise families, during the “great depression.” Many of the terms I use originated from that period of time. Even thought I had not arrived in time for that event, I heard some reference to it nearly every day of my life. Those who lived through that time were permanently scarred and traumatized and wanted my generation to understand how bad things were and to teach us to appreciate what we had. The terms they used to describe that time have stuck with me all these years and I have even paid attention to some of the lessons they taught.
Grandpa surprised me when he got up and went to his bedroom and retrieved his Bible from his night stand. I had never thought of my grandpa as being a devout or a non-devout man. We had never discussed the Bible except in passing. I only saw my grandpa as the smartest man that ever lived. I never questioned anything about the source of his wisdom. I was just a little boy who loved, and was loved by, his grandpa.
Grandpa and I sat on the big sofa in the living room, a room usually reserved for visiting with company. He introduced me to the book of Ecclesiastes and read the whole short book to me. I have to tell you, it made no sense to me a eight years old but grandpa made me promise to read that book of the Bible at least once every six months for the rest of my life, a promise I have tried to keep but fall short at times. Over the years it began to make more and more sense and I came to understand that it explained all there is to know about the meaning of life and that what we have, or do not have, is not the measure of our success in life. Another time he introduced me to the book of Job. I have thanked God many times that he did not read the whole book to me in one setting. Over the years he would question me about some part of Job’s life. I felt so very special when I could explain my understanding of what he asked about and he would hug me. Sometimes, when reading Job, I can still feel his arms around me.
Once, I asked grandma about Grandpa’s Bible reading. I told her that I had never seen him reading anything but the newspaper. She told me that he kept his Bible on his night stand and every night would spend an hour before he went to sleep, lying on the bed reading from it and meditating about its lessons. I began to do the same thing and even thought I do not read the Bible every night, I do spend about an hour each night, just before saying my prayers, reading. It is a habit that has been with me for over fifty-five years. I always figured if grandpa did it, it must be the right thing to do. I still feel the same way. And now my lovely wife knows the secret of why I lay in bed and read each night.
Grandpa never did answer my original question, but he taught me how to find the answer for myself. Some nights I think I can feel him there, reading with me and I hate to stop and turn off the light.
See you next time
Peace and Love to you all
At eight years old, one’s understands of words and concepts quite differently than an adult. At eight we kind of knew that when someone died, it meant that we would not see them or talk to them again and that we were sad. I don’t think we really understood death. Drunken driving was a concept that we had no real grasp of, but we knew it was bad and anyone that did it was bad. Someone did it and that’s why our neighbor, Dutch, was dead.
One day I told my grandpa about Dutch being killed by a bad man, a drunken driver. He shocked me by asking me how I knew he was a bad man. I replied, “Because he was a drunken driver and he killed Dutch.” Grandpa asked me if I had considered the possibility that he was a good man that had made a mistake. Of course I had not. At eight years old there are not a lot of shades of gray, just black and white. Grandpa also asked if I had considered that Dutch was a bad man that did good things. At that point I was totally lost. My mind had not yet developed to the point that I could comprehend such contradictory concepts.
Grandpa pulled out a silver dollar and told me which side was heads and which was tails. He handed it to me and asked me to give him just the heads. I looked at the coin and then at him and must have had the look of a deer caught in the headlights because I had no idea what he was talking about. There was no way I could give him just the heads. I tried to give him the whole coin with heads facing up. He said he did not want the whole thing, just the heads. I was so lost I may as well have been on Mars. He saw that and gave me a break and said “OK, just give me the tails.” This too was impossible and I finally told him there was no way to split the coin the way he wanted. He just said “yup.”
Then he explained to me that most all people are like coins, they have a head side and a tail side, a good and a bad side. You cannot split them apart. Sometimes a good man will do bad things and sometimes a bad man will do good things. He explained we find the same thing in all of life and nature. For example, sometimes the rain is good, it waters our garden and makes the grass grow nice and green, but sometimes it is bad, it causes floods and people lose their homes and even die. He told me to always look at things, especially people, as I would a coin, two completely different sides, but still just one coin.
It may have been many years before I completely understood his lesson, but eventually I really got it and today I never look at people, or nature, as only one side of a coin. At this time in my family’s lives, we have had a tendency to look at only the bad side of the coin, we have lost two of the people we love most in this world and we are sad. But when we turn the coin over we see, and share, the joy of seeing two other people we love beginning a life together. We get to see that in all things, there is a coin to turn over and over in our hands and to understand that in life we always get the whole coin. All I can say to that is “Ain’t God Grand.”
See ya’all next time, till then Peace and Love to all
Gramps asked me what I would do when mom was so mean to me. I confessed that I sometimes told her that I thought she was mean and even once told her that I wished I had different parents. Grandpa listened to me until I was done then took out his bag of Redman and shoved some into his mouth, leaned back in his chair and just sat quietly for a few minutes. I figured he was trying to figure out how to get my mother straightened out, I was wrong! He finally spit, hit the cuspidor perfectly, sat his chair up straight, looked me in the eye and began speaking in the steady, authoritative voice that I had become so accustomed to and respected so deeply. To me, when grandpa spoke, it seemed like the voice of God himself speaking.
He began “boy, do you love your mother?” I told him that of course I loved her, she is my mom. He said he was not sure I was telling the truth and I was near tears because grandpa had never accused me of lying. It was like he stabbed me right in my heart. I was totally confused when he continued.
Your mother loves you and she does her best to protect you and to teach you good habits and then you tell her that you wish she was not your mother. “You are about the meanest kid I have ever known. You ripped your mother’s heart right out of her chest and threw it in the garbage heap.” He told me that every mean thing that I ever say to my mother will form a chain around my neck that I will carry for my whole life and when the chain gets to heavy it will break my back and I would never have happiness in anything in this life.
“Someday, boy, your mother is going to die and you will have to look at her in her casket and know that the pain caused by the chain you are carrying is nothing compared to the pain you placed on her heart. You have a lot of thinking to do and right now I am not sure we can be friends anymore. You think about it tonight and we will talk tomorrow and see if you can find a way to forgive your mother for her love of you and find a way to empty your heart of this meanness you have hidden there, then we will see about you and me.” With that he stood and walked away leaving me sitting there feeling like my whole world had just ended. I had hurt my mother and I had lost my grandpa. I was truly a lost little boy with some real grown up problems on my mind.
I did not sleep much that night and tried to think what life would be like if my mother was dead. I cried a lot that night then I prayed a lot. In the morning I asked grandpa if I could talk to him and he asked me what I wanted like I was a total stranger. I told him that I was sorry for bring mean to my mother and that I did not want anyone else for a mother and that I never wanted her to die. By that time I was sobbing because I loved my mother and was so ashamed that I had said things to hurt her. I told him that if she was here I would hug her and never let her go.
When I finished, he took me in his arms and held me like I was a big fish that might slip away. He said”sonny boy, every word you ever utter lives forever but there are words that can cancel out the bad words so that they can become meaningless, the best ones are I’m sorry. Do you want to call your mom and try it out?” Of course I wanted to and did. Looking back, I doubt my mom had any clue what that phone call was all about, but I am sure that she was moved by it and loved it.
When grandpa called me “sonny boy” rather than “boy” I knew that things were ok between us. As things worked out, I was not there to see my mother in the casket but I can tell you that there were no more links added to that chain grandpa talked about, at least not for being mean to my mother. Today I still wonder how grandpa gained so much wisdom. I will never know that but I am glad he did and that he shared some of it with me while we were sitting around the old coal stove.
Till next time, Love and Peace to you all
My fondest memories of my time staying with grandma and grandpa came from the time around the old coal stove. In the dining room, toward one side and centered stood an old, new then, pot-belly coal stove. After dinner everyone would pull their chairs around the stove and just talk. I got a large part of my education in that dining room, especially about life, people and moral conduct.
I will try each month to share with you some of the tidbits of knowledge that was passed on to me as they had been passed from generation to generation for many years. Some may not be original but were original to me, so forgive me if you have heard some of them before.
This month I will just toss out a little sample and will add stories and more bits of wisdom in coming months. I hope you will enjoy!
You can't unsay a cruel remark. Grandpa said this was one of the most important lessons I would ever learn. Of course it was many years before I fully understood the full meaning of this simple statement.
If your nose itches, someone's coming. I thought this was some kind of universal law and was probably in the sixth grade before I realized that there was nothing wrong with my nose itches. I just couldn’t figure out why no one showed up every time I had an itchy nose. I used to run to the window and watch to see who was coming and most of the time left the window sill disappointed.
Peace and Love to each of you.
It’s hard to believe that my first day of school was nearly sixty years ago and yet it is still so clear in my mind. Where I grew up and at the time I grew up we did not have kindergarten for everyone. The kindergartens were private and rather expensive so most kids from the middle class families did not attend. That is not to say that we were behind the kids that did attend. Our parents taught us everything important that was being taught in the kindergartens. Because of the way our neighborhoods were set up, it was easy for a dozen mothers and all their kids to have school for a couple hours a day. Those were very smart ladies. One thing they did was have school for about an hour and a half, then break for lunch and return for an hour. That way we learned about the fact that there were two Halves to each day and we had to return after lunch just as ready as we had been in the morning. So all in all when the first day of the first grade came along we were as ready as any six year old could be.
My siblings consisted of two older sisters and everyone knows what a pain little brothers are to older sisters. To say I was unfettered when I was a child might be an understatement. I was always a child full of curiosity and sometimes lacked self discipline when on a quest for answers. My sisters were both little angels when it came to school, a fact I would hear over and over from teachers who had had one or both of them in her classroom. My sisters would tell me stories about what happened to kids like me that had a short attention span or just misbehaved. They told me all about the paddles the teachers had and how they just watched and waited for someone to step out of line so they could bend them over a chair and set their butts on fire. To say the least, I had a great deal of apprehension about going to real school.
On the first day of the first grade a parent, mothers of course, had to escort us to school and take us to our room and meet our teacher and to introduce the devils and angels that would make up that very first class. I did not fit into the angel classification but I was not quite a devil either. All of us brand new students and our mothers were assembled in one corner of a large entry hall. Other kids from the upper classes, second through sixth, were gathered in the entry also but not in our corner. When the bell rang and all of those kids took off for their rooms I and a few other kids took off also, having no idea of where we were going. Our mothers caught us and were not very happy with us. So the day got off to a bad start right away. But things went well after that and we were assigned to our classroom and our parents had an opportunity to tell the teacher what brats we all were.
In those days, the first three grades were bussed back and forth for lunch. I got off the bus and ran the block to my house and ran inside and proclaimed with great pride “I went to school for a whole half of a day and have not got one paddling.” It was one of the proudest moments of my young life.
As time went by, I figured out that my sisters had been less than honest with me. I never did find a way to get even and today I have to admit that they had gotten me and that it was funny. It took a long time to figure out why my mom had such a strange look on her face that day, I guess they got her too!
Monday, October 24, 2011
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
October, what a spectacular month! When most of us think of October we think about the beautiful panorama afforded us as the leafs on the trees change color, each with it,s own special spot on the palette, or we think of Halloween and the wonderful spectacle of kids dressed in the newest or the oldest costumes, begging for a piece of candy. The smallest ones my favorite, barely able to walk on their own, yet knowing somehow that it is a very special night they are taking part in, looking up at you with those innocent eyes in expectation of something and their joyful giggles when they actually get a gift from someone they have never seen before in their lives. Too bad we can’t retain that innocence forever. We may think of the day set aside to either venerate or denigrate, depending on your point of view, Columbus and his “discovery” of the new world. Did you know that Columbus Day is also Indigenous Peoples Day? There are many people and events to celebrate during October, I want to share three of my very favorites.
First, and a day that changed all our lives, was October 4,1957 at 7:28:34 p.m. when The Soviet Union launched the Sputnik-1 into a low altitude elliptical orbit around the earth, the first artificial satellite ever to orbit the earth. The newspapers, radio, and television were all full of the most starling news any of us could imagine. We all listened to the beep-beep signal that was sent back from the satellite. We were terrified that the USSR now controlled outer space and could attack us from there at any time and there was nothing we could do about it. By the time we went back to school on Monday, the process of revamping the curriculum was already going full speed ahead. Almost immediately, in my hometown, science became a full year subject starting with the fifth grade and the new emphasis put on math was unbelievable. For the first time that any teacher could remember, algebra was taught in the eighth grade. For once our school system was a little bit ahead of the curve but it was not long that schools across the country, with financial help from the government was doing the same as us and in many cases, much more. The writer, Arthur C. Clarke , commented the next day that, “on Saturday the United States became a second rate nation.” As history shows, we fought back and it was the United States that put a man on the moon and brought him safely home. Many things have changed since that morning so many years ago when we first heard a man made sound coming from outer space, but it remains, for all of us alive then or born since, a day that redefined the world.
For me the next important October event occurred on October 7,1952. On that date Bob Horns Bandstand aired in Philadelphia. It remained a local tv show but in 1956 a new guy took over and ABC decided to pick up the show, rename it American Bandstand, and aired it nationally for the first time in 1957. Teenagers all over the country had concluded that heaven had come to earth while the parents of teenagers all over the country concluded that hell must surely have come to earth. The new guy by the was a clean cut 26 year old named Dick Clark, who until a stroke a few years, put an end to many of his activities had not only hosted American Bandstand for what seemed like a century but developed and hosted game shows, hosted the Rocking New Years Eve celebration for several years, and had so many face lifts that his current facial skin used to be on the bottoms of his feet. Why would anyone want to be 26 forever? The birth of the local show way back in 1952 changed the teen generation culture dramatically as kids would rush home from school to see their favorite regulars on the show, find out what they were wearing so they could wear the same thing, and learn the latest dance steps. Just think about how boring the world would have been without American Bandstand! Thank you Philadelphia channel 6 for your fantastic imagination and foresight in creating an American institution.
My big day #3 - October 5, 1902. In Chicago, ILL, a new life was introduced to the world that he would help to recreate. He was not a likely candidate to become an icon. The baby grew up, served as an ambulance driver during World War I, tried his hand at working in restaurants, selling paper cups, working as a jazz musician, and working at a Chicago radio station. He finally settled into the role of a milkshake mixer salesman. Among his customers was two brothers that owned a California restaurant that was different from anything he had ever seen. The restaurant was run like an auto assembly plant. He had an epiphany right in the kitchen. People don’t dine out, they eat and run. He saw a new career for himself and talked the brothers into letting him use their name and open some restaurants like theirs. In 1954 Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald’s drive-in in Des Plaines, ILL and officially founded the McDonald’s Corporation. Who among us has never eaten at a McDonald’s? Who has never heard of Ronald McDonald? I had my first McDonald’s cheese burger in the early 1960s and since then I am sure that I have enabled McDonald’s to add several new stores. Yep, Ray Kroc is one of my heros. He was a guy that stumbled onto an idea and changed the food service experience around the globe.
So, while you are celebrating Columbus Day, I will be sitting back watching reruns of American Bandstand on my computer, and maybe listening to the recorded beeps of Sputnik and enjoying a Big Mac and fries.
Have a happy October!!!!!
THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS
Its hard to believe that the day we celebrate as Christmas had it’s roots over 4000 years ago.
Many of the traditions of Christmas actually began 2000 years before Christ was born. Of course it was not called Christmas then. Wouldn’t that be something if people celebrated the birth of our Savior so many centuries before his birth? But alas, I’m afraid that was not the case.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the people, who believed in many Gods, believed that there was a chief God, Marduk, who, at the arrival of the new year, would do battle with the monsters of chaos. To assist their God, they held a twelve day festival called Zagmuk. Our tradition of the twelve days of Christmas began so many centuries ago that it seems so impossible, but true. They had some other traditions that did not survive, there was one that involved the sacrifice of a person so that the life of the King could be spared.
Similar festivals were held by the Persians and the Babylonians. It was called Saccea and involved the slaves and their masters changing places for the length of the festival.
The early Europeans were extremely superstitious and believed in evil spirits and ghosts along with a variety of other supernatural beings. When the Winter Solstice got closer and closer, the days got shorter while the nights got longer and colder. People were afraid the sun would not return so in many areas special celebrations were held to welcome it back.
In the Scandinavian areas, the sun would completely disappear for many days. After about thirty-five days, they would send scouts to the mountaintops to watch for the sun. When they saw the first bit of sunlight, they would return and notify the community. Then it was time for a festival. The name of that festival was “Yuletide.” There was a special feast prepared and served around a fire burning with the Yule log. They would also set massive bonfires to celebrate the Sun’s return. In some areas, people would apples to the branches of trees as a reminder that spring and summer would return.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The Greeks held a festival much like the Persian/Babylonian festival but in their case they would assist their God Kronos who would go to war against Zeus and his Titans. Since this war, as well as the Mesopotamia war of Gods, was fought every year, I have to assume that neither side won. As we look around at our world today, one would have to wonder if Chaos wasn’t the ultimate winner.
The Romans conducted a festival called Saturnalia to celebrate their God Saturn. The festival lasted from the middle of December until January 1. Included in their celebrations were big festive meals, masquerades in the street, visits to friends and the exchanging of good-luck gifts called Strenae. During the celebration the people would yell out “Jo Saturnalia.” The would deck their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees were brought in and decorated with lit candles. Like the Persians and Babylonians the masters and slaves would trade places for a some period time.
Does that sound anything like Christmas time in our day?
As Christianity began to have influence on the Roman Rulers, they complained that such a festive time was an abomination for them because the festival was to honor a pagan god. They demanded that the “Jo Saturnalia” be abandoned and a solemn and religious holiday replace it to celebrate the Birth of their Christ child. The did not want cheer and merriment to muddy up the importance of their newly declared holiday.
Imagine what Christmas would be like today without “HO,HO,HO.”
As Christianity spread and became more organized, the leaders were alarmed at the continuing celebration of pagan deities by their new converts. The church forbid any kind of festive celebrations but were unable to enforce their law. They backed off and decided to allow a much tamer and sober celebration of their design, one fit to honor the Son of God.
It appears, from centuries of research, that the Christian Christmas was invented to compete against any pagan celebrations during December. The twenty-fifth was sacred to the Romans and to the Persians religion of Mithraism, which was the main competitor to Christianity then.
The Christian Church, over the course of centuries, was eventually successful in stealing the merriment, lights, gifts, and joy that they found so distasteful, form the Romans and making it part of the Christian celebration. This is the Christmas we still celebrate, but I fear we have forgotten the purpose of the celebration.
The actual date of the birth of The Christ Child has never been, and never will be, accurately established. In 350AD, Julius I, Bishop of Rome, arbitrarily chose December 25 for the observance of Christmas.
In our own country, the early settlers of Massachusetts felt that Christmas Day was simply a pagan celebration taken over by the early Christians. In many of the colonies, members were asked not to celebrate Christmas Day but to continue working. Most complied and some celebrated behind closed doors. Finally, in the early 1700s they declared that they were completely done with the “silliness” of Christmas and for over 100 years, Christmas was not celebrated in Massachusetts. It was forbidden.
In the 1830s, the Dutch and English were becoming a much larger portion of the population and with them came their own opinions and celebrations. Christmas was restored by the new comers.
Many of the early settlers to America feared that the Christmas celebration had regressed to the point that in was indistinguishable from the old Roman celebration. They wanted a holiday set aside to celebrate the birth of Christ, not a pagan holiday with no meaning and no reverence to God. They feared that the business leaders of early America would find a way to turn Christmas into a tool for making money and keeping the lower classes under control. They did not want commercialism to invade the Christmas celebration.
How are we doing on that?
As I said in the introduction of this book, my memory of many names has grown dim after so many years but the stories I will tell you are as clear as if they happened this morning.
Working out of the slave markets in Los Angeles was an interesting experience on many levels. As I go through the stories of the men and women I met during my stay on the streets, I will try to explain those various levels of experience and how those experiences and the people who were part of those experiences, although for very short periods, influenced my life and the way I think about life.
I was assigned to work for about ten days over a two week period for a company that inspected what were called “sucker rods” for the oil drilling companies. My understanding of how a sucker rod oil pump works is based on a very brief explanation on the first day I was assigned to help with the Magna-Flux process that was employed to check the rods. I am sure that my few moments of education would not qualify me to go out and start pumping oil. The oil pumps have a motor and gear box on the surface. This is the little monster machines most of us have seen from time to time in the middle of corn fields, wheat fields, fields, back yards, down town lots and just about any place one could think of. Many times they are painted in a way as to imitate a horse, or a dinosaur, or a woodpecker. The design of the mechanism allows a rod to be attached and be driven straight up and down into the ground. At the end of the rod is another part than, at the lowest point of the stroke, picks up oil and delivers it upwards to a valve system that sends the oil into some type of storage component and then the cycle starts anew. I understand that the rods have to be flawless in regards cracks or hidden defects that could cause breakage. Four of us were assigned to this operation and our participation was vital to the well being of the oil industry. Our job was to take the rods from a big pile that had been assembled for inspection, carry them to the mobile inspection station, place them on a conveyor belt type of carrier then unload it from the out going end of the belt and place them in an appropriate stack on the “inspected” side of the inspection machine. If there was a problem, the operator would mark the bad spots with a blue marker and we would put those with marks in the “defective” stack. It was a very easy job, it was outside in the always perfect Southern California weather, and it required very little thinking, which allowed for our minds to focus on thinks that were of importance to us as individuals.
I met Ray on this assignment. We were both given a “short term steady ticket”, which meant that this was our assignment for the length of the contract our employer had with the inspection company. Because of the status of this assignment “temporary steady”, we actually made a little more money. We cleared twelve dollars a day. That may not seem like much, but it was actually a substantial increase, twenty per-cent. Who would not like a raise like that every now and then?
Ray pretty much kept to himself, even more than most of us. I think many people working out of the slave markets may have been on the run from the law, from immigration, from something they were afraid to face, or, at least some of the younger ones, just running away from home. I watched Ray with normal curiosity and imagination and tried to figure out what his story was. Everyone on the street had a story. I loved to hear them, even though I think about fifty per-cent of each story was probably an embellishment on the actual story. I decided I wanted to hear Ray’s story. I wondered if he was a bank robber, on the lam, with millions hidden away. There were a lot of them hiding on the street in L A. I started to arrive at the labor office early each morning and offered to buy Ray a cup of coffee at the café next door. We did not have to wait for an assignment; we just had to watch for our transportation. Coffee was ten cents a cup. Boy, do I miss those days! I would make it a point to join him when we broke for lunch and he wandered off to some spot that seemed isolated from the rest of the world. I know he would have rather I would disappear so he could read his book. He constantly had a used paper back and spent his down time reading. His books covered just about everything, western, mystery, science fiction, and once I saw him reading Plato’s Republic. He finally gave up on losing me and we started having lunchtime discussions about anything and everything. After about five days I asked him if he was a native of California or if he came from someplace else. All he said was that he came west from Michigan. I mentioned that I was from Ohio and that it really is a small world when we two Midwesterners were hooked up in California. He agreed with some reply like “yeah, I guess so.” I think what he really meant was “yeah, lucky me.”
I never saw ray at the bar and grill that was located at my hotel so the only time I had to talk to him was when we were at work. I knew he lived at a hotel around the corner and about a block away. I felt that ray was a pretty smart guy and that he should not be here with me on East Seventh Street in L A. Guys like me that were young and just bumming around for awhile belonged here along with the perpetual down-and-outers; he did not fit in with either of those categories. He was very knowledgeable about nearly any subject you could get him to talk about and after talking to him as much as I did, I had a feeling he belonged back in Michigan. I actually thought he may have been a school teacher that had gotten into some kind of trouble
One evening I invited him for coffee and, to my surprise, he accepted. We talked about a lot of things sitting in a torn up vinyl seated booth in that café in the heart of life’s last stop. I finally asked him what he did in Michigan and how did he end up doing day labor in Los Angeles. To my surprise he opened up and began to tell me about his journey to this street of broken dreams. When he finished, I knew for the first time in my life just what a broken man looked like. I wish I could say I knew how he felt, but to be honest, I had no idea and neither would anyone who had not walked just two steps in his shoes.
Ray told me that he had been a certified welder in Michigan and he worked for a company that made very large tanks. I believe he said his company made the tank trailers that semis pull around the country. He told me that he had worked there for over twenty years. I kept after him to tell me his age. All he would tell me was that he was in his late forties. I would have guessed him to be in his late fifties. He was married to his high school sweetheart and had two young daughters. I got the impression they were pre-teens but did not push him on their ages. He earned in excess of forty thousand dollars a year, and this was in the early and mid sixties. That was a lot of money in those days, not many people could boast of a salary like that. They vacationed twice a year. One vacation they would spend a few days each with their respective parents, the second vacation was just their little family. Every year they would go to a different place. His house was paid for, every other year he bought a new station wagon and in the alternating years he bought a new pick up truck. He and his family wanted for nothing. He said “I was living the American Dream. Who ever made up that term was looking at me and my family.” One day, in the middle of the morning, he was called to the manager’s office. He had no idea what he could have done that would warrant a visit to the manager’s office. When he arrived he found a state policeman there with the manager. He said he knew it was bad before any said a word. He could feel the blood drain from his body as he watched the look on the trooper’s face. The policeman said “Ray, there has been an accident.” Ray knew that his world and his life had already ended, there was just a delay getting the message to him. There was an accident alright. His wife’s car was hit by a semi that had run a red light. His wife and daughters died at the scene of the crash. Ray said he went through the formality of the funerals and later took care of all the necessary legal activities. He of course sued the trucking company and the driver personally. He collected a very good settlement from the trucking company. The driver, however, had other legal problems involving traffic violations and actually went to prison. After the accident, Ray moved into a small apartment across town from his beautiful home.
After the trials and lawsuits were settled, Ray quit his job. He could see no reason to get up every day and go to work. Everything he had worked for, everything he loved had been snatched from him in a split second. He would never love again; he could not risk the possibility another love would be stolen from him for no good reason. He sat around in his apartment for about six months, and then made a decision. He signed his home and everything in it, except for a few keepsakes, to his older brother. He told him he wanted him to have it and to always fill it with love as he and his family did. The only condition was that the house could never be sold to anyone outside the family. At first his brother said no, but Ray told him that if he wouldn’t take it, he would burn it down because no outsiders would live in that house as long as he was alive. He signed his truck over to his father. He had a pension from his job and it goes into an account his attorney had set up for him. He has never touched a penny of it. He bought a duffle bag, packed it with what he thought he needed and started hitchhiking. Los Angeles is just one of many stops on his journey to nowhere. Ray told me that the moment he saw the policeman at his work, he knew his life was over. Since that day Ray lived in a place so dark and so distant that even the sun cannot reach it. He said he just quit living and all he wants now is to die and be with his family. I asked him about suicide and he said the one thing he had not lost was his belief in God and that God will take him when he is ready, suicide was not an option. I never asked Ray what his religion was, it did not really matter, he still believed what he believed.
When we finished talking, I was nearly in tears but I held them back so as to be as strong a man as he was. Actually only time and years of joy and sorrow and my reaction to both would determine if I could ever measure up to his strength. Later that night, laying in my lumpy bed in my three dollar a night hotel room, I kept going over Ray’s words. He had it all and someone jerked the rug out from under him. I thought about how unfair life had been to this man that had worked so hard. The story of Job came to mind but that story actually had a happy ending, kinda. Ray’s story has no happy ending. He is an empty shell of a man, going through the motions of living. Things like breathing, trying to sleep and yet afraid to face the nightmares that awaited him. He ate, but why? What was the purpose? I tried to imagine the hell he had gone through and was going through and found it to be an impossible task.
Ray had a profound effect on my life. He taught me lessons that would help to shape the person I have become. He taught me about courage. Suicide would have been easy, but he did not take the easy road, he waited for the God he believed in to call him out of this life that had become only misery and sadness for him. He taught me to look beyond the outer shell of a person. I really was hoping he was a bank robber with zillions of dollars stashed. After hearing his story, I wished even more that my version could have been reality. He taught me to reach out to people. Maybe I reached out to Ray because I was nosy, but Ray needed someone to tell his story to. I am so glad I was there to listen. Over the years I have listened to many different people talk about themselves and their problems and have never minded being that shoulder that might help ease some heavy burden. For the most part listening costs nothing. The rewards of listening are immeasurable. I hope I can always remember that sometimes people just need someone, anyone to listen for a few minutes. Most importantly, Ray taught me that the highway of broken hearts is just that, men and women who have either lost or found their way. I think Ray found his way, and since I don’t really believe in coincidence, I think Ray was in Los Angeles to meet me and to help me to start seeing the world through the eyes of others, not just through my own. I didn’t get it right away but after a while it sank in and I knew Ray was just one of the people I would meet, and some I had already met, who were placed at the intersection of my path and theirs to show me the pictures of life.
Many times in workshops and training exercises participants are asked to identify and discuss the events or circumstances that have had the greatest negative and positive influences on their lives. I participated in sessions like that many times over the years and have always had trouble defining any one such positive moment because there have been so many of them. The most negative has always been easy.
To be completely honest I have to admit that from my first day in school, when I entered the hundred and some years old Franklin School, I could never have been described as an ideal student. I tried but for some reason I could never accomplish the level of scholarship that most of my classmates displayed. It may have been that I couldn’t concentrate or maybe I didn’t care. For at least the first three years of my public education I had excellent teachers who were dedicated to their profession and their students.
For those first few years I did my homework every night and studied my assignments but learning just did not click. My printing and later my handwriting was terrible. I was average in math. History and science were my favorite subjects but I even failed to score high on tests in those areas. At some point in time I think I got tired of trying so hard and having no success. I knew that my parents were disappointed in me especially since my two older sisters were honor students. I figured out that I would never be able to compete with my sisters and therefore I could never expect our parents to love me the way they did my sisters. All of this, and many other failures in my life, I attribute to one thing. Spelling.
I was never able to learn to spell. While my sisters were competing for a place in the Spelling Bee, I was struggling in my efforts to deal with all but the simplest words. My battle continued, and continues, to haunt me. I could not make sense out of the spelling jumble in which words are not spelled like they sound, spelling rules are not consistent, and the ability to figure out if “el” or “le” or if “tent” or ‘tant” were correct eluded me completely. By the time I was in my twenties I had become smart enough to have a dictionary with me at all times. When I was much older and the personal computer had taken over control of all our lives, God had pity on me and planted the seed for spellchecker software in the brain of someone who then developed that wonderful tool for people like me.
It is quite interesting that I have spent most of my life earning a living through the use of logic and analytical thinking. I have earned two undergraduate degrees and a Masters Degree. I breezed through Analytical Algebra, Calculus, Logic, Every type of business class one could dream of, Micro and Macro Economics, Econometrics, Philosophy, Accounting and classes even I can’t remember. In college and university, the lowest grade I received was a “C.” I got one “C” and was going to leave school because I felt like I had failed. I made the deans list six out of eight semesters as an undergrad and had a perfect 4.0 as a graduate student.
During my working years I served in just about every management position found in business; from front line supervisor to vice president and as an engineer and engineering supervisor. For all of those decades, through all the job functions I performed, through all the success I had in my career, through my success in academia, I could never learn to spell properly.
My late wife Sandra helped me throughout our thirty years together and I am sure she worried less about it than I did. As I said, I always kept a dictionary nearby; however, I always had her proof anything I had written. When I met Elizabeth, my current wife, I confessed to her that I was less than the world’s best speller. She thought it was funny that I was worried about it and especially that I felt it so important that I actually thought our relationship may rise or fall based on my spelling ability. By the time I met Elizabeth my failure to become a great speller had been a constant torment to my self confidence for so many decades that I may have thought the safety of the world may somehow hinge on my spelling ability. I spent most of my sixty plus years ashamed of my spelling ability that it became an obsession to keep it a secret from all but my very closest confidents; Sandra and Elizabeth. My fear of being found out was kin to someone fearing that the neighbors would find out that a family member was in prison.
One evening Elizabeth and I were talking and again my shame about being a poor speller came up. As I said, I had earned my keep for four decades by understanding and developing logical systems. My belief had always been that there is a system to everything and I just was unable to figure out the system to spelling. One time I spent several months trying to develop a mathematical algorithm that would simplify the whole spelling process. I was unsuccessful. Spelling had beaten me again. Elizabeth, like Sandra, was an excellent speller. During the course of our conversation I asked her what the secret was. How is it that she is so good at spelling and I am like a poorly trained chimp? I asked her to try to teach me the system. She gave me a strange look and uttered four words that completely threw the universe out of balance. “There is no system.”
Later after administering smelling salts and having me breath into a brown paper bag she explained that she studies a word the first time she sees it and from then on she just tries to visualize it. That was her system. The one she used to be able to spell but there is no system to spelling itself. For the first time in my adult life I was faced with a chink in what I believed was an undisputable fact; there is a system for everything. I spent my life trying to figure out the system of spelling only to find out that there is none. The only systems are those that individuals develop for themselves in order to deal with the challenge of spelling. Since then I have asked a lot of people for their secret for becoming a good speller. Not one could tell me exactly. I finally figured out there were many systems for learning to spell but no system to spelling itself. Elizabeth is the only person that has been able to explain to me the secret of learning to spell which brings me to the star of this chapter, Mr. Dick.
As I mentioned my earliest teachers were dedicated professionals that worked hard to help develop young minds. I never blamed a teacher for my poor grades. I knew that it was my problem. Even at the very young age of eight, it was easy to see that my teachers tried to help me. When I was in the fifth grade my perception changed. I was subjected to what had to be the worst teacher ever allowed into a public school system anywhere in the United States. In today’s world his actions would not only end his teaching privileges but would likely put him behind bars.
When I was in the forth grade my perfect world began to crumble. The federal government had decided to sell the Walnut Hills Housing Development. Residents had the first right to purchase their homes at a standard price, if they chose not to buy then the homes would be sold to the highest bidder that exceeded the standard price. My father decided not to buy the house we were renting and therefore we soon had to move. This was the only home I could remember. I was less then two years old when we moved into that wonderful red brick mansion. The house was a single unit and was slightly over nine hundred square feet but it was like a mansion to my parents, my two sisters, and me.
We were, at least, able to stay in Walnut Hills. My parents rented one end of a duplex. It was pretty small, just two bedrooms, but we did OK. I missed our single house but made the best of where we were. We were only four blocks from our other house so we were able to keep our friends, the only friends I had ever had. This situation did not last long however. The Forth week into the fifth grade we moved again. This time it was to another part of town. Walnut Hills was in the southeast part of town and we moved to the southwest side, or just, “the west side.”
The apartment we moved to was very large. We had a big living room, formal dining room, kitchen, breakfast nook, three bedrooms, bath room and utility hallway. We were on the third, and top, floor and had a balcony and a rear door that opened unto a massive network of fire escapes. The landing of the fire escape server as a rear balcony and was like a rear fence for the ten families that lived in the building to talk and gossip over. Located on the ground floor of our building was a grocery store, a drug store with a soda fountain, a hardware store, a paint store, and a carpet installation and furniture upholstering company. All in all, it was a pretty cool place. The bus stopped twice right on our corner, once going one way and five minutes later on the return trip. There were two more small grocery stores within a block. Oak Knoll Park, a wonderful city park, was just three blocks away and across the street from there was a small “confectionary” which was really a root beer joint where all the neighborhood kids hung out . Five blocks in the other direction was the steel mill district with all the activity of a city in itself and the blast furnaces spewing color into the air, color that to adults looked like the color of money. Near there, one of the little league parks was located and we were just two blocks from the big field where the circus set up every year. The river was just a couple hundred yards beyond that. I should have been elated but it was not my wonderful Walnut Hills and for some reason I could not quell the feeling of doom that had lodged in my young gut.
We moved in during the last part of a week and I had a few days to wait before starting classes at my new school. Unlike Franklin School, Emerson School just a relatively new and even felt and smelled new. My teacher at Franklin had taught me a little speech to recite when I reported to my new school. I very timidly entered the principles office and explained who I was and recited my little speech. He welcomed me and took me to my new classroom and introduced me to my new teacher, Mr. Dick. I once again recited my little speech and Mr. Dick made some snide comment and told me to sit down somewhere. I started to sit at the first empty desk I had spotted and he yelled “Not there, that desk is in use.” I asked him which desks were available and he took me by the back of my neck and virtually pushed me to a desk and into the seat. “This will do” he sneered. The dread that had been plaguing me for days presented itself and my dread turned to fear. I was “the new kid” and had no friends. The other kids laughed as Mr. Dick pushed me around the classroom to my new desk. It seemed that my former life was a million miles away and just a distant memory. I had only been at my new school for fifteen minutes and was ready to find a rock to hide under. I knew beyond any doubt that Mr. Dick did not like me. I had no idea why that was but I but vowed to do my best. This was, after all, a new school and a new start. I had promised myself that I was going to work harder and get better grades. I wanted my parents to be proud of me.
Before moving to the west side I had always thought of my family as being pretty normal. Within a month after our move my lovely family had become what would later be titled “dysfunctional.” My parents suddenly became alcoholics. My mother had taken a job in a tavern just a block away but at once became an absentee parent. My father, because of working the swing shift all his life, had always seemed absent from our lives. My sisters, who were four and six years older than me, enjoyed their new found freedom and had friends over just about every evening and while they were having fun I was neglecting my school work because I wanted to be part of their life. The problem was that they did not need, or want, a little brother bothering them. I was too young to fit in with their friends and had yet to make any of my own. I just got used to being alone and after a while I found that I really didn’t need anyone else in my life. I felt like I had been moved away from the only world I had ever known and then deserted so I would just have to do the best I could.
It should come as no surprise that my school work suffered. At first I tried but between the obvious distain my teacher held for me and my home life, I just gave up. I decided there was no use. Nothing I could do would ever be good enough for Mr. Dick and other than at report card time, no one at home gave a damn about anything I did or didn’t do.
Mr. Dick was a real piece of work. He had favorite students, mostly girls. The favoritism he showed and his actions toward the girls in class, in retrospect, have always made me wonder if he had ever messed with any of them in an improper way. I would not be surprised to learn that he did. I was his least favorite student and had been from the moment we first laid eyes on each other. I have never been able to figure out why he took such a dislike to me. I was an eleven year old kid, what could I have done or what did he think I might do that would elicit such a response from him? That question has bothered me all my life.
Mr. Dick was an abuser and he enjoyed abusing and humiliating students. I was his favorite target. He moved me to the front row of the classroom where I would be handier to his various forms of abuse. His favorite form of physical abuse was to grab me by the back of my neck and shake so hard that my whole body would shake. He would end by hitting the desktop with my head using various levels of intensity. This punishment was doled out often and was earned for failing to have ones homework complete, getting a bad grade on a test, misspelling words, not being able to answer questions and a variety of other shortcomings. He would humiliate me in class by talking about how dumb I was or accusing me of being retarded in front of the other students. I was scared to death of him. One day in class he was preparing to do his shake and slam exercise and I was trembling at the thought of what was coming. He told the other students that it was OK to laugh at my trembling, and then proceeded to abuse me.
I found every possible reason to miss school. I would make myself sick and once even tried to break my arm so I would not have to go to school. I told my parents how Mr. Dick treated me and they felt that either I was lying, deserved what I got, or that it probably wasn’t as bad as I thought. They never went to a parent – teacher conference after we mover to the west side. Too busy, had to work, any excuse to avoid their responsibilities.
Mr. Dick made me hate school, he made me afraid to go to school, he made me stop trying and most of all he made me feel stupid. I had enough to deal with at home; I should not have had to deal with an abusive school teacher. I detest my parents for not caring enough about their child to find out what was going on. It got to the point that I would lie, when one of them would see some mark where Mr. Dick had hurt me, and say I was hurt on the playground or was in a fight. That year I learned to hate everything and everybody. It would take a while longer for me to realize that I was on my own in this world, but I finally did and I also learned that I owed nothing to anyone. My parents deserted me and the school system deserted me, that’s all I had and they had given up on me. Once I realized that, I never looked back, I did what I wanted, when I wanted and promised myself that I would never again be afraid of anyone.
Mr. Dick had been in the navy, or so he said, and liked to tell stories about going through the Panama Canal. He talked about how hot it was and about the size and volume of insects there. I can still see him strutting around the classroom with his worn out shirts and his Kent cigarette pack showing through the pocket and how he would roll the sleeves of his long sleeve shirts up a fold or two when he was getting ready to mete out his punishment to me. After all these years I feel distain and disgust for this lame excuse for a man and especially for a school teacher. It seems to me that anyone can beat up eleven and twelve year old kids. I wonder how he would have fared had he stopped in one of the bars frequented by the steel workers and bragged about his exploits?
After I left home and had learned many ways to put fear into people and how to hurt people badly without killing them or rendering them unconscious I considered going back and paying Mr. Dick a visit. I thought it might be fun to reminisce about the good old days. I never did because I did not want to lower myself to his level and I did not want to spend the rest of my life in prison. I do continue to hope that at some point in his career, a parent or former student or even a school board official put and end to his freewheeling instances of child abuse. And make no mistake Mr. Dick was a coward and a child abuser who deserved to be behind bars.
I am still not a good speller and I still have nightmares of that goon who called himself a school teacher but I have two undergraduate degrees, a graduate degree and have accomplished more in service to my country and in my career that he could even dream of and accomplished it all without beating up any little kids. Students are trusted to the care of teachers and this half-witted bully sullied the names and reputations of teachers everywhere. That’s a shame because his kind is definitely a minority.
Mr. Dick did damage to me that has lasted my entire life. He destroyed my budding self confidence, he caused me to think of myself as not capable of learning, he caused me to fear those who should be the ones to allay fear and he taught me to hate in ways that no child should ever learn. But I showed him. I win; he loses. I do, however, still hope that anything bad that can happen did happen to Mr. Dick.