Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Travels With My Dad (and famous people, too)

For Catherine Skoor
Trips are boring. No one wants to hear about your trips.

Only this one wasn't boring. Not for me, anyway. I was a kid. Nothing is boring to a kid except homework and listening to adults complain about the weather. This was my first big trip, at least the first that I could, and can remember.

It was 1967. I was eleven years old, and this was the greatest adventure of my life up to that time: a long bus ride with my dad, a lazy hot summer in the State of Washington, (the end of the earth to my eleven year-old self) and at the end of it, a brief encounter with....celebrities.

It was during the vaunted "Summer of Love," when the hippies of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district were the talk of the media and everyone was listening to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that my father took me on my first road trip.

You never forget your first road trip. Especially if it pre-dates your twelfth birthday.
In the summer of 1967 my dad took me on a great adventure:
a Greyhound bus trip from San Diego, CA to Spokane, WA.

My family was split in two in the summer of 1967, both geographically and otherwise. My grandmother had just died and we had moved into her house in Chula Vista, CA. But a few months earlier my father had been transferred from the Border Patrol sector in San Ysidro to the regional office in Spokane, WA. He took the job because it meant a long-overdue promotion.

But there was a problem: my parents didn't get along, and my mother, a Chula Vista native, most decidedly did not want to move to Spokane. Since we had just occupied -- and partially remodeled -- my late grandmother's house, Mom used that as leverage to dig her heels in and refuse to move. So my father was living in Spokane by himself while the rest of us remained behind in Chula Vista. In the following year he would put his foot down and insist that the entire family join him in Spokane. But in 1967 it was stalemate. 

My dad came home for a visit that summer, and it was decided that when he returned to Spokane in a week or two, I would accompany him. It was summer vacation, after all, and I suppose the idea was for us to share what the next generation would call father-and-son "quality time." 

When I was young my family was poor. We kids didn't know that of course; kids never know that they're poor. We had enough to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over our heads and presents at birthdays and Christmases. We went to school. We had friends. How were we to know that we were poor? Small details such as lawn furniture in the living room would not be noticed until years later when we saw them in family photo albums. But my mother, who never worked outside the home except for gigs as a church organist, was trying to raise three children on the salary of a GS-11 border patrolman. We were poor.

Want proof? Well, when my dad came home from Spokane for a visit that summer, he traveled not by air, but by Greyhound bus. And when he took me back to Spokane with him, we went the same way. 

I'm so glad we did.

I was between the sixth grade at Kellogg Elementary School in Chula Vista, and the  seventh grade at Chula Vista Junior High School. As I say, I was eleven that summer and had not been out of Chula Vista since arriving there at age six. Five years is nothing to an adult, but to a child it's half a lifetime. This was my first big trip, anywhere.

We boarded the Greyhound in San Diego on a Saturday morning. By lunchtime we were at the old bus depot in downtown Los Angeles, with its wooden benches and shoe-shine stands. Downtown L.A. looked like the Land of Oz to an eleven year-old who had never been anywhere before except school camp. We had several hours' wait between buses. We had lunch and strolled around downtown L.A. in the July sunshine. I gaped at the tall buildings. "ONE WILSHIRE." One-derment.
Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, 1960s. This is how it looked
when my dad and I walked along it one summer day, waiting
for the bus that would take us further on our journey.

Then the long haul began. We got on the bus for Spokane late that afternoon and began the trek on Interstate 5 over the Grapevine and into the central valley. Dad read a book; I looked at the landscape. I kept asking him what time it was. Finally he got so tired of my asking that he took off his Timex and gave it to me. Another thrill: I'd never owned a watch before.

By sunset we were in Bakersfield, which might be the armpit of California but was terra incognita to me. A quick rest stop there and we were on the road again. Our next stop was Fresno, where we had supper in the bus station.

Now the real adventure began. It was getting dark. And I was more than 300 miles away from my mother, who always insisted upon early bedtime. Mom's rules were now suspended; I could stay awake as late as I wanted. I read my own book for awhile (believe it or not, it was Robin Moore's The Green Berets, something you might not expect an eleven year-old to be reading, but I was precocious in my reading, anyway) and then later, as Dad dozed off in his seat, I got up and went to the front of the bus, where I stood for a long time watching the white line race beneath us in the dark as we continued northward.

We crossed the state line into Oregon before dawn, had breakfast in Klamath Falls and then continued on to Eugene and Portland.

In Portland more adventure awaited. It was once again late afternoon when we arrived there, and Dad promptly discovered that the next bus to Spokane wasn't leaving for another five hours. Rather than wait around, Dad decided that we would get a hotel room, spend the night in Portland and catch the bus for Spokane the next day.

I'd never spent the night in a hotel in my life. I have forgotten which hotel was ours, but it was one of downtown Portland's older places. We had dinner in the hotel dining room, at which I was allowed to order anything I wanted. So I had shrimp louie, and Dad let me have a sip of his beer. This left us with the rest of the evening to kill. Dad proposed that we go to a movie. I lobbied for the new James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, chiefly because my mother had forbidden me to see James Bond films; all that sex, you know. Not appropriate for children. But Mom was 1,000 miles away now.

Downtown Portland, Oregon, 1960s. Dad and I stayed
overnight here, and he took me to the movies.

Dad overruled me. Not because he shared my mother's prudery, but because there was another film playing in Portland that he wanted to see: The Sand Pebbles. "I read the book," was his explanation. So off we went to the old Fox Theater in downtown Portland to see Robert Wise's epic, just released the previous year, about American gunboat sailors in 1920s China, starring Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Richard Crenna. I must confess that this film was a bit much for an eleven year-old kid of that era. The graphic scene in which Po-Han, played by the veteran Chinese-American actor Mako, gets torn apart by an angry Chinese mob so horrified me that I sank down in my seat and pulled my baseball cap over my eyes. Dad didn't notice.

We arrived in Spokane on Monday afternoon. Thus began several weeks of enchantment, more adventure...and boredom. Spokane in the summer was like nothing I'd ever seen. I was a southern California boy used to looking at dry lawns and brown mountains. Spokane, "The Lilac City," was in full summer bloom. The lush, green lawns, pine trees and deep blue sky were intoxicating to me. But my father had to go to work. I was left alone in the house all day. When we arrived at the little two-bedroom bungalow on East Courtland Street that he was renting that summer, Dad had no TV, only a Sears Silvertone table radio. He went out and rented a small black-and-white TV so I'd have something to watch in the daytime. The rent for the set was ten dollars a month. Later Dad told me that after I'd returned to California that summer, he went to return the TV and found that the place that had rented it to him had gone out of business. Ever scrupulous, Dad contacted the local Better Business Bureau, which merely shrugged and told him, "Looks like you got yourself a TV set for thirty bucks, mister." He kept the set.

One Saturday during my stay, Dad's landlord and landlady invited us to come out with them to their cabin at Twin Lakes, Idaho, near the town of Cascade in the Idaho panhandle. The state line between Washington and Idaho is only about a twenty-minute drive from Spokane. Crossing state lines was another new thing for me: just short of the state line I asked Dad to stop the pickup truck so I could walk into Idaho. I'd never walked across a state line before. How cool was that?

And it was a perfect afternoon at the lake. I have a photo from that day. We had been out on the lake riding around in our host's speedboat. In the picture my Dad is standing on the dock, arms crossed, smiling, and behind him is my eleven-year-old skinny self, in the surfing-style swim trunks known as "jams" which were fashionable that summer, sitting on the bow of the boat. I wanted to post that photo in this blog essay but it kept coming out sideways so I couldn't use it. Here instead is what Twin Lakes looks like from the air, probably not much different from the way it looked that summer day long ago:

Twin Lakes, Idaho as I remember it that summer day.
It was truly a summer idyll in many ways. Far away from Mom, I was allowed to indulge in such treats as the sugary breakfast cereals she wouldn't allow us to have. And not only that, but I did get to see You Only Live Twice. As mentioned, my mother would not allow me to see these films, which in those pre-rating code days she referred to as "nasty," meaning they had sex scenes, no matter how tame by today's standards. The fait accompli was a cinch: I simply called my dad at his office and asked if he would take me to see the new James Bond movie. He had no objection, and that evening off we went in Dad's pickup truck to the North Cedar drive-in to watch Sean Connery as 007, battling the baddies and bedding the beauties in Japan. I don't recall that it had any corrupting effect on my developing libido, either. Heck, I'd been surreptitiously reading Ian Fleming's Bond novels for nearly a year by then.

Then it came time for me to go home. It was August, and school would be starting in a few weeks. Obviously Dad wasn't going to send an eleven year-old boy on a 1,200-mile bus trip by himself, so he got me a ticket on a United Airlines flight from Spokane to Los Angeles, where I would switch to now-defunct Pacific Southwest Airlines for the final leg of the journey back to San Diego. One of his officers at the Border Patrol station was making the same trip that day, at least as far as L.A., and Dad arranged for this officer to babysit me on the trip -- we sat next to each other on the plane and played cards.

You're probably wondering when the celebrities are going to enter this tale. Well, now. The morning I left to return home, Dad took me to the Spokane airport. We had breakfast in the airport lounge. As we were having our eggs and coffee, Dad called my attention to one of the other tables. "You see that fellow sitting at that table over there? That's the movie actor Jimmy Stewart."

I looked. Nah. Couldn't be. That old, gray-haired guy? "Couldn't be him," I said. "Must be his father."

My dad laughed about this for years to come.

Because it was, in fact, Jimmy Stewart. What was he doing in Spokane? The answer turned out to be simple. It was a well-known fact about James Stewart that he had been in the Boy Scouts himself, and remained throughout his life a supporter of that organization. And it just so happened that that same summer the Boy Scouts had held their 12th World Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park in Idaho. Scouts from all over the world were there, and Jimmy Stewart came as well. He just happened to be flying back to L.A. on the same day as me...and on the same plane.

My fellow airline passenger as he appeared a few years
before we met. No wonder I thought he was his own

Of course Jimmy Stewart and I didn't sit anywhere near each other on the plane. he was in first-class and I was in coach. Hard to believe that in those days a United Airlines 727 jet would make a stop between Spokane and Los Angeles, but our flight did. The plane made a stop in Portland. I got off to go use the restroom...and I met Jimmy Stewart. Yep. He was coming out of the men's room as I was going in. He appeared to be about seven feet tall. I looked up at him as he passed and said, "Hi."

"Hi. How are you?" he replied without looking down at me.

I met Jimmy Stewart! Wow!

But the excitement was only beginning. Back on the plane, I watched out the window as a small, private plane came in for a landing and stopped. Some men began unloading from that plane what looked like band equipment. Drum and guitar cases.

Now, nobody younger than 55 is going to remember the flash-in-the-pan 1960s rock band Dino, Desi and Billy. The only reason anyone noticed them at all, and probably the only reason they ever got a recording contract (they were no Beatles, believe me, although they did have a handful of toe-tapping radio hits) was because two of the band's members were the sons of celebrity musicians themselves. Dino was Dean Martin Jr.; Desi was of course Desi Arnaz Jr. and the third member of the band was their school chum Billy Hinsche.  As I say, they had a number of hits between 1965 and 1967 including I'm A Fool and Not The Lovin' Kind. I probably wouldn't have known any of this except I had an older sister who kept the radio on all the time.

In any case, now I had four celebrities on the plane with me: James Stewart and Dino, Desi and Billy. My babysitter didn't recognize the teen idols at all; in fact when I pointed them out to him, he made a comment to the effect that they were small fry after having James Stewart aboard.
...And more fellow passengers.

There isn't much left to the story. We reached Los Angeles, and, being an eleven year-old and very much caught up in the excitement of being around these famous people, I wanted to see if I could get close to Dino, Desi and Billy in addition to James Stewart, and I pretty much got up and bolted from my seat as soon as the hatch door was open, leaving my father's officer wondering where I'd gone. He caught up with me later and assisted me to my connecting flight (with some tut-tutting for my running off like that.)

But I did not get to talk with the rock stars. I got close to Dino for a moment as he was retrieving his overhead luggage, but I didn't have the nerve to say anything to him. All I remember is that he was wearing sunglasses and I overheard him ask a question of his manager that would ONLY have been heard from a Beverly Hills kid: "Where's my cars?" Not "Where's my car?" but "Where's my cars?" Oh, well.

Back at home, I got caught up in the fear and excitement of preparing to start the seventh grade in a few weeks. Summer was just about over. But it had been a tremendous summer in its own way, bigger than any summer I'd had up until then, and with a truly socko finish. To this day I can't see a James Stewart movie without remembering our soul-encounter at the door of the Portland Airport men's room, and when a classic rock station plays any song by Dino, Desi and Billy, I'm propelled in my memory back to that August day when Dean Martin Jr. wondered out loud where his cars were.

So...How'd you spend your twelfth summer? Top that one if you can.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chasing the Train

I saw a link on one of the news websites a couple of days ago which led to a story entitled, "The End of Email?"

So email, which changed the world as dramatically within the last generation as the invention of the telephone did a century earlier, is already obsolete?

I read the first part of this article and quickly had a "not-so-fast" moment. The article was concerned specifically with email's use in the workplace. Anyone who uses email in the office (and that's just about everyone) knows the complaints about it as a business tool. You sit down in the morning and you have to plow through 150 messages in your inbox, flagging the important stuff and deleting the junk. In all of this flagging and deleting, there is always the possibility that you might toss out something important without meaning to. And then there's the familiar office complaint, "Didn't you get my email?" Someone asked you to do something or wanted information, sent you an email and it somehow got lost in the shuffle.

Not long ago the Sunday funny-papers comic strip "Fox Trot" focused on the confusion arising from the smorgasbord of wired choices now available to one and all: "Megan tweets but doesn't do Facebook. Ashley's on Twitter but doesn't email. Is there still a post office?"

I've gotten caught up in this myself lately. Some of you may have noticed that I have not posted a blog essay in this space since November. That's coming up on three months that I have not blogged.

Why? How many guesses do you want? Facebook, of course. I didn't even join Facebook until 2011, but now I find myself using it a lot more than I thought I would. If you're into shooting off your mouth like I am, FB offers instant gratification: you can get feedback in seconds. A blog posting might hang in digital limbo for days or weeks before anyone bothers looking at it. Facebook vs. blogging: it's like the difference between a cigarette and a cigar. A cigarette is puffed quickly for its nicotine value and then crushed out. A good Havana is to be sniffed, savored, carefully lit and then enjoyed slowly. I don't smoke cigarettes, but I do love a good stogie now and then.

But lately I've been puffing instead of savoring. Posting one-paragraph grumps and comments on FB rather than sitting down and developing my thoughts in a careful, considered, essaylike manner.

Shame on me.

Now, I don't have a Smartphone, and I refuse to go anywhere near Twitter. (the very word "tweet" offends my sensibilities--since when is human discourse defined on the paradigm of birds making noises in the trees?) But I, too, have seen good old-fashioned (!) email bumped to the caboose of my daily train of activity. In my case there's a good reason: when I returned from Turkey in December, I had to face the necessity of finding a job and I posted my information and resume on several of the Internet's job-search websites. Now each morning when I check my email, I find my box filled with "job leads," most of them either totally bogus, totally unsuited to my qualifications or worse, thinly-disguised advertisements for vocational training schools and colleges.

Facebook also contributes to the confusion, as every time a FB friend posts on my "wall," an email is also generated which goes into my Hotmail inbox. So my email box is filled, every day, with mostly-worthless job leads generated by bots, and Facebook comments that I've already seen.

Very seldom, these days, does a friend in a foreign land, or even right here in town, sit down and fire off a friendly email to me, a personal email. In fact I receive almost no personal email any more, and going to my Hotmail inbox each morning just to clean it out is more of a chore than anything else.

Now and then I see people dropping out of Facebook, complaining that it's taking over their lives. Will these folks go back to using email? Anyone my age can't help but notice how lightning-quick the successive communications "revolutions" of the past generation have been. Now people are opting out of FB. I remember a friend I had during the Clinton years. Her name was Tammy. She was one of the first of my "cyber-friends," years before there was any such thing as Facebook. This was in the fall of 1995, right after I got online for the first time. Tammy had a list of friends, of which I was one, with whom she communicated daily by email. We thought this was all great. But then Tammy announced one evening that she was going to shut down and stop doing all of this emailing, because it was consuming too much of her time and emotional energy. I never heard from her again.

It's the same thing some people are saying now about Facebook.

With such clear evidence of saturation and overload in the area of personal communications, I have to wonder about this new wave everybody is getting all panty-hotty about: "wearables." If you notice people opting out of Facebook because of privacy concerns or fears that it's taking over their lives, you really have to ask if anyone really needs Google glass, or a Dick Tracy-style wrist device which allows you to check your email and your phone messages the way you used to check the time.

Really, does anybody NEED to be so thoroughly, pervasively, intrusively, one might even say ominously, wired? It's bad enough that I see people wandering across the street paying no heed to the oncoming traffic because they're too deeply absorbed in texting. I came up to an intersection on my bicycle not long ago. I had the green light and could have crossed, but there was a woman sitting there waiting to make a right turn at the red light... and there she sat behind the wheel, texting her little heart out. Or maybe she was just reading email. In either case I didn't dare pass in front of her car. She might have gone ahead and made the right turn without looking up from her iPhone, and run right over me.

Society is already having problems with traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers. Some cities and states have made texting-while-driving illegal, but only for those 18 and younger. Why is distracted driving safer for a 35 year-old than for a teenager? I can't figure that one out. But in the end it probably doesn't matter very much, because the police, who seem to have no hesitation about enforcing a seatbelt law, keep insisting that laws against texting and handheld-cellphone chatter behind the wheel would be impossible to enforce. Yeah, right. If they can enforce a seatbelt law, they can enforce a cellphone law. (The police themselves are scofflaws when it comes to cellphone restrictions. Washington, D.C. has an ordinance against handheld cellphone use while driving. When I lived in D.C., I once saw a cop chattering away while driving his patrol car. I fired off a letter-to-the-editor about it, as you can imagine.)

But I have to wonder how safe this new age of "wearables" is going to be. If everyone is checking their mail, talking with their friends and watching video on their Dick Tracy wrist TVs in the middle of rush hour...Well, I don't even want to think about it.

One of the most commonplace observations we hear, looking back at the Twentieth Century with all of its genocide and mass destruction, is the one that says "our weapons outstripped our wisdom." To one who remembers the time when PC-based email was a brand-new gadget, and was involved in teaching people how to use it, today's world which appears to be running amok with getting itself "wired" in every way possible, calls for a deep breath. I'm no damn luddite; I'm not saying people shouldn't have all the cool toys they want. But even now, in the 45th anniversary year of man's first landing on the moon, some people are still asking why we bothered to go. Was that trip really necessary? I happen to think it was, if only because it had to happen sooner or later; a mountain-climber climbs a mountain because it's there. We went to the moon because it's there. But the exciting innovation of today is often the yawn, or the problem, of tomorrow.

So email, not to mention the compact disc, another great innovation of the late Twentieth Century, got itself superseded (so soon!) by ever-neater stuff. Once upon a time we all got along fine without email. Then for a few years none of us could live without it. Now, like Puff The Magic Dragon, it apparently has to "make way for other toys."  That's been the natural order of things since the Industrial Revolution put the original Luddites out of work. But I'm going to think long and hard before I even consider ponying up for an iPhone, let alone some gadget that lets me watch movies on the inside lenses of my drugstore glasses, or send a message to my friends by wiggling my nose.