Archive for the ‘Childhood’ Category

Failing the Mom

July 18th, 2016

wanda1While my mother, Wanda Lee Michael Ball, died almost 12 years ago, I continue to recall my times with her. Those are almost entirely happy and grateful. She raised my sister and me solo, did a damned good job of it, and balanced fun and moral and smart by example and word.

On occasion, I do have minor regrets though. I recall particularly how I failed her by turning down one request. Sure, she denied me this or that over the the years as well. Yet, as an old guy now myself, I am increasingly aware of the stresses and pains — interpersonal, intellectual, physical, emotional — that living and aging bring. I could have taken one for the team that afternoon.

In her mid-50s, she had a devil of a year. Even typing that, I snort at Wanda’s example. She was loath to swear or even euphemize. “Damn!” was extreme language for her. When she was angry or very disappointed, her strong language was typically, “For crying out loud in a bucket!” (full emphasis on bucket). A malefactor we might call a bastard or asshole would suffer her, “What a crumbum.”

To most of us her 1979 was a year from hell. It included:

  • She had finally found happiness and fulfillment with a lover, who was chased by his ex-wife’s lawyers and courts for new spousal and child support. He got his company to transfer him to Asia and safety.
  • Her own  company got sold to a much larger pharma who handed payouts to the entire sales staff. Thus she was jobless.
  • With her payout, she had to invest it in six months or lose much of it to taxes. That meant buying a house for her and her sister across the country a decade before she wanted to consider such.
  • She got a breast cancer diagnosis. Her doc wanted to aspirate the growths, but her nurse sister convinced her to get a second opinion in her pending new town of Santa Fe. The surgeon there saw the lymph cancers as well and scheduled her for a radical mastectomy.
  • As part of the treatment at the time, her doctors immediately stopped the heavy doses of hormones she was getting for a hard menopause. As a result, her personality changed and her always modulated and logical self became short-tempered and even occasionally irrational, in other words like most other adults her age.

Beaten up and beaten down in every way, she did cope. In Santa Fe without her friends and lover, without her career, without a breast, and on an on.

In many ways, I was there and helpful. I visited, I called, I sent her goody boxes (something she had always done for her children). I was swell to her until she asked one thing that choked me.

Her surgeon liked to tell the story of when he visited her with the post-mastectomy lady and a couple  of nurses a few days after the surgery. The woman showed with a suitcase of padded bras and prostheses. The nurses were there to observe and learn.

Wanda looked at the assembled crew and asked, “What are you doing here?” The woman said she was there to help with the recovery. The surgeon said that Wanda then stated very clearly, “I’m not sick. I just had cancer,” and shooed them out. She was definitely not interested in being fitted for an artificial breast.

You should know that she never identified strongly with her mammary glands. Hers were small. Her daughter’s large. They’d joke about it being obvious whose bras were hanging to dry.

She had cancer of both breast and lymph. The prognosis after successful surgery was death within five years. She went 25.

On one of my visits not too long after the surgery, but when she had healed as much as her body was going to, she asked and I faltered. I knew they had taken a big chunk of muscle as was the style in those years of mastectomy. When the two of us were on the living room couch, she asked in her previous style whether I wanted to see and feel where the breast had been.

I did not and she seemed truly disappointed. It was a ritual offering that I failed to accept.

Yes, yes, the idea of a son touching his mothers breast, rather where the breast used to be, sounds morally and sexually wrong. It really would not have been. It was a medical, anatomical thing. It was yet another of her healing mechanisms.

I should have bucked up and gone with it…for her. I couldn’t and didn’t.

Shortly after I was rereading one of my favorite poets, Frederick Nicklaus. In The Man Who Bit The Sun, one of his poems starts:

I remember a horse in Indiana;
it came from the fields, it ran alongside
the bus. I remember its reddish hide.

But believe me, I failed the fright of its eyes.

So here it was. My mother looked me straight in the face and asked for something pretty simple. I failed. I couldn’t do it.

 

Refining Rubes…Maybe

April 20th, 2016

Odds are you don’t know farm life. Not only are few of us farmers or even from an ag background, but also time, mores, economics and politics have shifted considerably from the early 1900s. I straddle times and conditions. I have milked cows (manually and mechanically), collected eggs, scalded and plucked hens, and worked corn from seeding to weeding to harvesting to turning under.

On the other hand, I never was in a position to inherit a family farm. I grew, picked and sold vegetables but was never in effect indentured servant/slave to nasty father. I never even belonged to 4-H, while I knew many peers in WV, VA and SC who were all those.

Yet, The 4-H Harvest: Sensuality and the State in Rural America (Gabriel N. Rosenberg, U. Penn Press 2016) goes far beyond county and state fairs, farm kids with beloved pigs and cows, and FFA meetings.

One warning is that the book’s index sucks mightily. I’ve done large book indexing and am positive that the author had nothing to do with this one. Many complex and detailed citations are missing (homosexuality, venereal disease, and on and on); it lacks the ideas and uses only keywords. Boo. The other shortcoming is that Rosenberg is far more concerned with the political and economic relationships than the kids. We can infer about the social, intellectual and economic outcomes for the 4-H youth, but he tells us more about the political players individually.  A third note should be that this is an academic press property; at $55, it’s a good meal price; get it at the library.

As someone who visited relatives’ and friends’ farms, I did the work, but I never actually owned and raised cows, sheep or pigs for exhibition (and eventually slaughter). My chums who did that grew up knowing the true script for animals. They had no apparent problem assisting at the birth, naming the cow, raising her, exhibiting her, then either selling or killing and butchering her, and in the latter case eating her little one.

Fatalistic comes to mind.

The 4-H book recalls other intersections. The Y is one. As a child in several places I belonged to YMCAs. When we moved to Boston, I found myself a member in the original Y. I learned it was the Garden of Eden for Northeastern University.

That is, the nation’s first Y started to be a shield for Christian young men who had moved to the (relatively) big city from the farm to earn a living. The new institution offered wholesome residence, free from bars and prostitutes and the moral perils of rooming house life. This Y offered evening lectures to keep the young men wholesome and occupied. Those in turn led to the college and university — evening activities for the mind and soul rather than the crotch.

Likewise, the 4-H clubs were specifically to counter the immorality and amorality of rural life. In contrast to our idyllic bucolic images, country life was rife with lust, pregnancy, venereal disease, bestiality, homosexuality and.well, non-refined ways to spend an evening.

The clubs viewed, described and treated the youth involved much as they did the produce and animals (other than not eating the kids). The descriptions of the programs and contests are embarrassing in their paternalism. Then again, this was largely the range of the 20th Century, start to finish. There was rampant racism and sexism, with the asininity of stereotyping,  that continued well into the 1970s.

Oddly, the author keeps his academic distance and does not wonder specifically whether the good and bad balance on the 4-H scale.

As an aside, the book reminded me of a dinner about 1970 in Cape May, New Jersey. The hosts were the former mayor, Belford (Bucky) LeMunyon and his wife Ione. She was the aunt of the woman I kept company with in Manhattan. A guest (to my embarrassment I do not recall his name) was a retired local physician. He recalled performing seemingly unceasing Army physicals during the WWI draft in a field outside of town. There were stations of long tents and much longer lines of naked men, each wearing only a bag with personal effects. He remembered to that day one potential soldier after another with secondary or tertiary syphilis, sores and a fatal prognosis unknown to them. They were farm boys given to the amoral sexuality of rural life, young men who had no idea they were close to the insanity and death that end-stage disease brings.

The 4-H book refers to the raw and common sexuality of the farm life. We can sit at a distance and snicker at the self-righteousness of the clubs and Ys preaching about the risks to body and soul from city life, while farm kids were at least as likely to suffer…or more so.

 

 

Of fish and tools

February 21st, 2016

codeyeI finally broke down and bought a decent filleting knife. Now I’ll lug home whole fish more regularly.

As the main cook around here, I of course have a thing for knives. I believe in good ones, for example, the large carbon-steel French chef’s one I’ve used for over 40 years. I bought that with the advice of my friend Paula Delancey. She was a student at the CIA in Hyde Park NY and on the way to becoming the first woman to graduate at the head of her class there. She already knew knives. Thus it is amusing that I delayed springing for a good fillet knife, even if I would use it rarely.

Elder buddies

I remember my first fish filleting forays. Apparently some of my local fishing trips around Romney, West Virginia, were mildly amusing to family. In particular, when I would go sit on the bank of the South Branch of the Potomac with Rumsey Oates.

We were related by marriage. He was the father of the man who married my maternal grandmother’s younger sister. Discounting the by-marriage and removed qualifiers, he would have been my great-great uncle. I was a kid and he was in his mid and late seventies.

My mother said some people would try to tease him about his wee fishing buddy. He would tell them I was the best type — I had a lot of patience and didn’t talk much. We could sit by the river for hours. Sometimes we pulled in sunnies or perch. When luck was with us, it was trout and bass.

I enjoyed his quiet company too. The 60 to 70 year age difference seemed unremarkable to me. We got along.

I suppose it was my mother’s doing, along with her parents. She ran Red Cross chapters, which were filled with aged volunteers. Most of them insisted that I call them by their first name and treat them like peers. Likewise, my grandparents had mostly friends who were 50 or more years older than I, who also treated me as an well-mannered equal. I lived the school year with my mother and summers with her parents. I knew more old people than kids my age.

Scaling, gutting, filleting

Many fish aren’t that bad to prepare. Those little ones remained pretty bony though. The fat trout and small-mouth bass were much easier. The spine often lifted out with most of the bones still attached. Then slicing out a decent fillet on each side was something even a kid could do, assuming he had a decent knife.

That past revisited recently as my wife subscribed to Cape Ann fish shares, choosing the whole-fish options. Haddock and pollack were pretty easy to deal with; they were thick and my existing knives were OK. So were the two very large flounders one week. Another share though was seven very thin flounders. They were impossible to cut a real fillet from. I did accept that if I had a serious filleting knife I would have done a little better.

Now I’ve tipped over. I bought the good knife. It arrived a day after I had successfully butchered the two pollack, but I’m ready.

Fish stores and the Haymarket have a good range of whole fish. I’m armed.

 

 

Family Clipboards and Whistles

February 6th, 2016

Clipboards and lanyards with Acme Thunderer whistles were family tools for me. My true role model was Granddad, William Benjamin Michael, who worked on the B&O Railroad for 48 years until they forced him to retire. I had full train trappings, replete with cap and overalls and he let me drive a wood-burning engine around the yard. I never became a toot-toot engineer.

In a boomer lifestyle though, lifeguarding and water-safety instruction was a family biz. My mother ran Red Cross chapters in West Virginia, Virginia and New Jersey. She had been on her way to becoming a nurse when she married, was a Gray Lady in Japan when we were part of the Occupation Army there and came to her post-divorce career with many duties. Those included teaching home nursing, first aid, emergency first aid (bang, post-atomic-bomb stuff), and the range of swimming and lifeguard c0urses.

[By the bye, I took and taught those emergency first-aid courses too. I’m fine with having learned to delivery babies and less pleased with knowing how to treat radiation poisoning.]

Mom Wanda taught me to swim first in the South Branch of the Potomac by Romney, West Virginia. There were also pools, where I saw her in action —teaching, managing other instructors and generally being group mother.

As far as I recall, my sister and I never thought about it. Somehow organically, we also became lifeguards and water-safety instructors (WSIs). I also taught first aid and coached summer swim teams where I guarded. Back in the sensible days, my summer earnings from guarding, teaching and coaching paid for most of my college costs. The rest came from academic and athletic scholarships.

Thinking back, I remember Wanda with clipboards and whistles. Those became part of my life too, all and every summer. From beginner through senior life saver, my chargers were under my watch and subject to attendance checks and fill-in-the-boxes accomplishments. I would only guess how many class forms I completed, likely a thousand or two over many summers. Each form was on a clipboard, as much a part of the WSI uniform as a swimsuit.

Wanda also had a lanyard and whistle of dubious utility.

thudererWhen I became a lifeguard for summers and in college, the nasty-sounding Thunderer (pic from the Acme site [no coyotes]) became essential. Particularly when keeping a pool safe when it was rife with other teens, authority was in the whistle.

I was not the beloved laissez-faire lifeguard. No dunking on my watch. I’d throw people (almost always boys) out for running after being warned, diving when others were below, and again holding someone under water. Fortunately, I was large enough and athletic enough to pull it off. Plus, most young swimmers depended on me to pass their swimming courses.

My mother was often in a Red Cross uniform. Other times, I remember her in a bathing suit with a WSI path (I may still have one of mine), and always with the whistle and clipboard.

Those were badges of office in my family.

By the bye, none of my three sons had the slightest interest in being a team swimmer much less lifeguard or instructor.

Today in my house, I have numerous leftover clipboards. I put them to use daily though. When most of us turn on the TV, I either read a book or engage in my preferred evening activity, cryptic puzzles. My favorites are from the Financial Times.

My wife says the British puzzles are impossible and illogical, but they are my recreation and pleasure. They also work best with a clipboard.

 

 

Boo for Holiday Booze

December 24th, 2015

mymable“Oh no, Bill, not the boys!”

My grandmother, Mable Michael, had particular, peculiar, nearly miracle hearing. Let’s go with selective. She didn’t respond to all that much and seemed to lose the lower tones as so many older women do. And yet…

I recall a specific Christmas holiday in my college days in her home in the Eastern panhandle of West Virginia. Several of my friends from the area has joined me in her living room, filling the couch and chairs.

She had a clear relationship with alcohol, as in it was sinful, shameful and to be avoided. She was like a Jew who speaks of alcoholism as the shegetz disease, without the quirk of ignoring Jewish vintners or the dominance of Jews in the whiskey distilling trade.

Her hypocrisy was baser and plainer. Her husband (my beloved grandfather) might have two 3.2% beers (all that was legal in West Virginia) and he was on the road to hell. Yet, we all knew we had to bear our version of frankincense each Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas in form of Mogan Davis blackberry wine.

We never saw it. We never saw her or anyone drinking it. By the end of the vacation, somehow the bottles disappeared (and were concealed in bags or more in the trash). She arose about 5 every morning to spend time with The Upper Room devotional, her Bible, and likely a glass of the star of David.

I never saw my grandfather tipsy. Well, maybe once. He took my sister and me to the Burlington drive-in movie and tossed back a 3.2 or two. As we were leaving, he drove off with the speaker still attached to the front passenger window and the cord snapped. High or impatient? We’ll never know.

Anyway, he was no sot and no one ever likely got drunk on 3.2 beer. You’d pee yourself into fatigue first.

That particuar Christmas eve, we were in the living room. She as usual was laboring in the kitchen for her planned massive Christmas Day family feast. After all, her beloved only son would arrive with his brood of four, plus wife.

The ambient noise level was high. The TV was on, as they always were in the 1960s. Hell, they still are (why is that, writes the non-TV watcher?). Granddad came to me in the distant corner armchair. He bent down to my right ear (farthest from the kitchen and his vigilant wife) and whispered so I could barely make it out, “Would you and the boys like a little nog?”

In West Viginia terms of the time, that of course meant some store-bought sugary eggnog from a carton with a small splash of bourbon. I attended the University of Sourh Carolina, where bourbon was a sacrament and such splashes were better suited as aftershave than refreshment. Still it was a host-worthy query.

Immediately from the kitchen — how the hell could she even have the faintest sense of the query — Mable immediately bellowed, “Oh no, Bill, not the boys!”

To this day, I wonder whether she sussed the concept or exhibited some canine-level superpower. Though everyone in the living room was of legal drinking age, she’d have none of it.

Even then we laughed.

 

 

The Brassiere Jungle

December 12th, 2015

Woe was I (although I hardly knew or admitted it). Growing up, I was the token male in a mom-led with older sister household.

To my later benefit, I learned early to leave the toilet seat down. I also chose to become the best cook, with my maternal grandmother as the family star baker up to her death — another big plus come dating, single-life and marriage statuses.

Alas, there was 50s and 60s underwear.

After the questionable innovation of pantyhose — expensive, fragile necessity for working women and aggravation to lusty companions — the canopy in the bathroom was less lush. Yet I grew knowing a veritable orchard of lingerie.

In our various apartments and houses with shared bathrooms, I’d bushwack to the shower and sink. My fastidious mother and sister regularly washed multiple sets of what one neighbor, Mrs. Kidd in Danville, VA, still called unmentionables. Hanging from shower curtain tubes, towel racks and of course, the folding wooden Rid-Jid drying structure filling the tub/shower space were a Tarzan transit worthy set of vines comprising bras, girdles, stockings, garter belts, and underpants.

Certainly fighting this overgrowth to wash and shave was better than life with stinky mother and sister. Yet still…

Now as a long-term married, I remain pleased that my first and only uxorial unit does not try to make me relive my unmentionables past, the ghosts of brassieres that had been. Just today as I headed up after breakfast to brush my teeth, she hastened before me, saying she’d left a bra in the sink.

As it turned out she had in fact already rinsed it and hung it over a towel on her towel rack.

That got me thinking of how oddly proud so many are of what married types do in sight, hearing and smell of each other. Allegedly after a year of marriage, the couple are happy to defecate, pass wind (loudly and laughing), and do all manner of private business next to the spouse. Supposedly, that is intimacy.

I guess I’m too much of a prig. I don’t want her to perceive me as a flatulent, coarse, stinky animal. I think of Rose Sayer in The African Queen, when she said, “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

 

Romancing the Diseases

December 6th, 2015

Cristobal_Rojas_37aSeveral physicians have told me how they used to dread the day of the month the new Reader’s Digest appeared. When I grew up, that formulaic and wildly popular little maggy featured an article on a disease. Within two days, docs would get calls from those sure they had it. That was crazy talk, but it still required diagnosis and much reassurance.

My maternal grandmother, an otherwise bright and witty human, played at that several times a year. In her defense, she lived in a small town in the eastern mountains of West Virginia. Excitement did not seek Romney out. Adding a bit of drama to a humdrum life is understandable.

Well, my grandmother, Mable, did have a disease. Several doctors had diagnosed her with nervous asthma. That is, her wheezing and shortness of breath were as real as someone reacting to physical or airborne irritants. She refused to accept that she might do something other than squeeze her nebulizer bulb. She found one GP, as they were known in the days before FPs and PCPs, who humored her and agreed that she had no control over her condition.

Wasting Envy

Her foible was small beer compared to Romantic Era poets, opera composers, painters and novelists. Check here, here, here, and here, and relish La Miseria by Cristóbal Rojas  above.) Numerous artists sincerely desired to have and die from tuberculosis, for its effects of paleness and weakness. I fear we still see such effects in thigh gaps, anorexia, obsession with wearing size 0, and countless young women who have bodies better suited to 11-year-old boys.

Being too thin, too weak, too wan sound frightful to me, conditions you should avoid through exercise, sensible diet and being sure you have good levels of hormones chugging through your veins.

And yet, a small part of me senses the glamor my grandmother sought to liven her rise-work-eat-sleep quotidian existence. For one specific for Mable, she was big boned (I inherited my big, honking feet and too broad chest from her). She truly wanted to be slight like her sister. They shared a dad, but Mable was the eldest and Anna, from their widowed father’s second wife, the youngest. They were physically unalike and Mable envied her little sister’s build.

Years later I recalled them on my first real full-time job. I went from college to be the editor in chief of the black weekly newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. The race was important, in part because most readers and all the board members were African Americans.

So were the two everyday office staff, Ida and Jackie. They had been friends from elementary school, through college and now on the job. They were each other’s bridesmaids even. They were intimate and much of the day included personal chitchat mixed with work.

They talked a lot about each other’s bodies. They had the two stereotypical African-American women’s bodies — one short with large bust and bottom, one very slender. They each claimed regularly to want the other’s body. They would embarrass me with such talk as Ida saying her hubby, Thomas, would love to have a wife with Jackie’s sizeable breasts. While I lived with a woman, such intimate talk was not my norm.

Poetry of Illness

While not a drama queen myself (as the French might say, j’ai du sang-froid), I don’t totally lack sympathy with the disease romantics. In fact for a mild example, I recall being maybe 8 when my sister brought home one her many disease gifts. This was German measles as I remember it.

I laid n the bed febrile and covered with itching sores. I projected to various movies and Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion (a TV show my sister and I watched). There were deserts and heat and suffering and heroism. Blah, blah.

As an adult though, I am only disappointed when my body fails me at any time. I long ago accepted that only in kiddy land can doctors fix you. They are good with acute and obvious conditions. Faced with chronic or nebulous adult disorders, they fail more often than not. “Live with it” is the too frequent prognosis.

Recently though I had minor pleasure at thinking I had rare disorders. I was not aware that desire existed at all in my brain.

Straight up, I had not heard of either polymyalgia rheumatica or macular pucker. I got diagnoses or each of those in turn. Because I have a broad general knowledge and knew of neither, with each I figured I was pretty damned special.

Wrong.

Instant Claudication

For polymyalgia, I went to bed feeling fine, but woke so sore I could hardly move my arms and struggled mightily to walk 25 feet to the john. I got slightly better over the week and decided to wait it out. A couple of weeks slithered by before I called my doc.

He knows my mild disdain for his profession and was positively chipper in being able to tell me that, “Come in for a diagnosis, but I’m sure that you have polymyalgia rheumatica.”

I had never heard of it but clicked around the tubes to see that I had the symptoms. He confirmed the initial call and hooked me up immediately with a rheumatologist. Before visiting the latter, we spoke and like my internist, he was sure right away.

The good rheumatologist Bates has a lollipop face and is young enough to have a daughter the age of my grandson. He was both very compassionate and a regular pro with polymyalgia. He squashed my romantic, special image quickly by noting that old white women frequently get a mild form of it but typically Caucasian men from 55 to 70 get it hard as I did. It is kind of like sickle-cell disease for African Americans or any of that dozen or more Ashkenazim blood disorders, a curse specifically on old white people. Fair enough.

Dr. Bates said simply, “It’s not rare. If you know a bunch of white men in their 50s and 60s, you know someone who had it.” Sure enough, I have found several peers with the condition. They don’t brag about, but deal with it.

By the bye, it used to be that just had to be crippled for one to seven years and it went away. Nowadays, steroids, typically prednisone, fix it. It requires months of dosing and one to three years of tapering off. You can relapse, often worse.

Well, it’s neither romantic nor glamorous.

Eye Trouble

My recent chance at drama and uniqueness was macular pucker, a.k.a wrinkled retina. I had blurred vision in one eye and went for my regular eye exam with my self-diagnosis of cataracts. I’m that age.

My optometrist wasn’t playing. He didn’t have all the eye diagnostic gear the surgeons do, but he knew it wasn’t cataracts.

I wanted cataracts. They are a known status and the surgery is nearly 100% effective and immediate.

Instead after a couple of visits to one set of eye specialists and surgeons, and then a second opinion by one of the super doctors, I got the pucker punch. It’s built-up scar tissue from unknown origin on top the macular and retina. It has no relation to macular degeneration. There are no drug, vitamin or exercise fix. Queue the operating room. Moreover, unlike cataract surgery, going into the eyeball to clear out the cells may or may not improve the vision.

Lord, I miss the long gone days when Dr. Newman could poke my butt with penicillin and fix my swollen tonsils.

Regardless, it turns out that my ignorance of macular pucker did not make the condition unique or even that unusual. It’s not as common as polymyalgia, but it’s not rare or romantic or dramatic.

I’m not likely as many to long for the exotic and romantic diseases. Yet, I do have a sense of what that’s about.  I think medical stasis and boredom are better.

 

Unflinching POW tale worth the angst

September 5th, 2015

MCPJreadNothing like being slugged in the mouth by your dad…unless it’s always quaking in his presence because he was volatile and your any word or action might make him roar or threaten you. Nothing is good enough or right.

The relentless tone and theme of Cathy Madison’s memoir The War Came Home With Him both fascinates and exhausts. Of course, Amazon has it and it’s well worth reading, so long as you know what you’re committing to do, think and feel.

As a disclaimer, the author and I were wee childhood buddies, as in nursery/kindergarten time. Our mothers kept regular contact until their deaths. She and I reacquainted casually in the past few years. The pic above from right to left has mutual friend Jackie, my sister Pat, Cathy and I reading. We were at the Arden Apartments (see chapter 2) where her mother awaited word on Korean POW Doc Boysen.

Note too that my father also fought in both Korea and WWII France and Germany. As nearly all such soldiers who saw a lot of action, he didn’t talk about it, much less glorify war. That was for desk jockeys to do.

This memoir is a hard read, but not because of length (only 239 smallish pages) or turgidity (she’s a real journalist). Rather, she sporadically describes from her memory and mostly from her father’s written recollections horrors of several types. In fact, the book alternates its 26 short chapters. One recounts the vicissitudes of Army family life and then the literal and figurative tortures of being a POW, and the next speaks to the title in her memories.

The primary subject, Alexander Boyson, MD, known both as Doc and Pete, was beyond prickly. In Vietnam and later parlance, he had PTSD and has clearly changed personality for the worse during three years of Korean and Chinese imprisonment. As the eldest of three children and by the text the most sensitive, Cathy got the intermittent physical punishment and regular verbal abuse. Rather than responding to the martinet with disdain and hate, she seems to have gone the cowering and trepidation route, the survival mode.

As a writer, I was very impressed by the elegant interweaving of the two parallel memoirs. The time periods are not contemporary, but the interplay works superbly. Her own tales, while they can be jarring, act as breathing space for the reconstructed vignettes of the prison camps, forced marches, prisoner disorders, and deaths.

I suspect many readers will think of Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini. While the latter book and movie do not deal with war tragedy and horror, the harsh and overly precise dad character comes to mind.

I found some parallels and coincidences with Cathy’s story. Fortunately, I did not have a verbally and physically abusive home life. My parents divorced when my father returned from Korea to the rest of us in Japan  He quickly remarried and became a deadbeat dad, refusing to pay child support as he was assigned to Germany and had two sons by his second wife. Yet, my mother (who would have been 91 today) supported my sister and me as exec in a series of Red Cross chapters. That meant we moved every couple of years, as Cathy did in the military. Amusingly enough, she also spent time at Fort Sill, where my parents married, my sister and were born, my parents divorced, and my mother and grandfather had to retrieve us via a military court when my father and stepmother announced they’d ignore my mother’s full custodial rights and take us to Europe.

A current meme has been that we boomers are evil, sucking the financial blood from the American body. Yet, many or even most of us didn’t have cushy lives.

Cathy certainly didn’t. She grew up not fully protected by her mother, under the control of a neurotic, very smart surgeon dad. Here again I got the better of it with a single mom, where being from that period piece clicché broken home also meant I didn’t get beaten or shamed. Having two parents isn’t necessarily the ideal.

Even if I didn’t know Cathy, I’d recommend the memoir. I won’t delve here into the images of POWs’ bootless feet leaving blood and skin on forced marches over ice nor Doc’s sudden outbursts that were both irrational and cruel. Just be warned that some, no many, chapters carry harsh jolts.

For those who want the long view be aware that when you finish The War Came Home With Him Cathy comes to terms with a mother who smoked too much, drank too much and shielded her daughter inadequately, and with her often insecure self, and even with her understandably traumatized father. She does not deeply analyze her mother or herself, rather provides reportage and lets the reader do that.

In addition to her memories, her father’s writings, and a few interviews, she also includes some research on the aftermath of POWs and collaboration. As a whole, a war queerly called a UN police action, comes into focus through the experiences of Doc and his fellow POWs. If war is hell, prison camps were a whole deeper level.

Cathy’s memoir is a short, intense trip, well worth it.

The book is at once detailed and yet leaves out much. Her two brothers are very minor characters until the end of her parents’ lives; we don’t learn whether Doc’s abuse extended to them or to her mother and to what extent if so. We don’t know whether she turned to her mother to protect her and if so whether Cathy held her guilty for not doing so. We don’t read about her marriage, which she writes that her husband left. Was he in any real way like her father or did her relationship with Doc color and poison the union? We have to wonder whether the Doc who could record his memories and thoughts of the Korean year so fully analyzed his own treatment of his daughter and others.

In my many moves, I got to know numerous families under the command of an ex-military dad, and in a few cases a dad and a mom. I knew quite a few others who had abusive fathers who were neither POWs or even ex-military. Getting slugged in the face and beaten with belts and such was part of their lives. It wasn’t part of mine, for which I am grateful, and more so after reading Cathy’s memoir.

 

 

 

 

God’s TinkerToys

August 22nd, 2015

Five of us from Boston, Brookline and Worcester joined several thousand at Crane Beach in Ipswich today to jostle each other for glimpses of the Strandbeest. The plastic framed, wind-powered walking thingummy from Dutchman Theo Jansen was hard to get close to and difficult to see. You’ll have many more chances, some to observe the bigger, badder versions.

Rain or shine, wind or not, one or more will be at the Peabody Essex Museum from 9/19 through 1/3/16. On Friday, August 28th, they’ll be at Boston City Hall Plaza from 11AM-1PM and the Kennedy Greenway from 4:30-7PM.

If you look at the stills and vids at the Strnndbeest and museum sites, you’d expect titanic critters of major motion picture proportions. The pair of them that hit the beach today were more scaled-down traveling models…maybe 7 or so feet tall, plus some wind-catching sails.

strandsoloWhile you might expect something like Imperial AT-AT Walkers from Star Wars, these were more in the super-sized TinkerToy or Erector Set models. They are still way cool, just not either as big or animated as fantasy would have it.

Boomers, particularly boys from that era of gender-specified playthings, should feel very comfortable with Jansen’s updated models.

We concurred that real beast in the Strandbeest show at Crane’s today was the crowd. Either Saturday mornings on the North Shore are slow or the PR efforts worked. The roads to the beach crawled, the lots were full, and the beach was jammed.

strandincrowdEveryone seemed to feel entitled to an intimate experience with Strandbeest(s). The poor yellow-shirted volunteers really did try to get folk to stand back. The concepts seemed to be not to hurt the moving sculptures, to stay out of the way of the art, and to let people see the damned things.

People weren’t having any of it. There were several loud women telling off quiet men and women, saying they’d been there for over two hours and were not about to let anyone sit down in front of them. That was just rude and they knew it. So there.

As a couple of hours passed though, everyone interested kind of got a view. A few had parents or friend hoist them on their shoulders. Many wormed their way close enough to see the action. Others held out hope that the promise of the Strandbeest waddling down the beach would bring one or both of them within sight.

strandsailThe yellow shirts first walked the frames down the beach to a clear area for repeated promenades. The crew would attach, then unfurl the gauzy sails. The wind from the ocean would then propel a Standbeest a couple of hundred feet. Then the crew would walk it back to the starting point to repeat.

The large crowd never got rowdy and stayed pretty calm. Again, everyone got to see something, even if the script for Strandbeests lumbering along the beach repeatedly really didn’t happen.

These very large toys are clearly well designed and even better constructed. They stood up to hours of being lugged and led and reassembled. They did in fact walk on the beach, largely under wind power on their plastic stumps.

We decided we’ll have to visit them next week in downtown Boston. I rather doubt they can count on the ocean breeze as they did today. We’re curious to see these in various environments.

Pix note: Published under Creative Commons . You are welcome to use them. Just credit Michael Ball once.

Very close sounds in the Village

August 7th, 2015

denhert2Without question, my favorite intimate NYC music venue is the 55 Bar. My Boston drinking buds and I visit when we go to the City. While it humbly advertises itself as a Prohibition Era dive bar, it really is a wee place that features jazz in the broadest sense, one where you can sit within touching distance of the musicians.

This Wednesday, the three of us went for KJ Denhert with guest, her long-term singing bud, Vicki Genfan. They have been singing together for decades since college (one at Ithaca and the other down the hill at Cornell. They both sing and play, with KJ specializing on vocals and Vicki on guitar. Each will occasionally guest on the other’s gig. They like each other and it shows in the music.

As always, we arrived 10 minutes before showtime and trotted to the barstools next to the band and johns. The early sets at the 55 don’t have a cover, just a two-drink minimum per very long set. Out stools were literally right there.

Genfan2Pix notes: Click a pic for a larger view. These are Creative Commons, so use ’em if you want; just credit Michael Ball once. I won’t apologize for the grain and such. The light inside the 55 is Dis as befits the underworld. The bulbs are in fact red, so these are even color corrected a bit. I won’t use flash when I’m close to musicians. I have some upbringing.

Back to the 55, if you go look carefully for the 55 street number to its down-the-stairs entry. It’s, if you pardon, cheek to jowl with the famous Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher. It seats maybe 60 at deuces and quads, with another 20 or so at the bar. There are no bad seats, you are all close to the music.

KJ likes to scramble her style(s). She sometimes is urban folk, but does real jazz licks and her own blues. She performed mostly originals for us, with beyond Genfan on some, the combo’s drums, guitar and bass guitar.

She and Genfan performed together on an off. Sometimes KJ sat next to me while her friend went solo. Again, they like each other.

To Vicki, I’d never heard or seen her signature style. After the break, she came over and I asked her if there was Denhert4a name for that spanking the frets just above the guitar body. She turns her guitar into more of a percussion instrument…think piano. It’s a hell of a lot more powerful than beating the body for a thump or 20. She creates a combination of rhythm and melody with the flourishes.

She was impish though. She could have told me that she’d named the style. I found that out by clicking around to read about her. She calls it slap-tap. Good stuff.

As every other time we’d gone to the 55, the music was superb, particularly because we were a few feet from it. I guess it also helps that it is such a small room that they don’t have to blast the audio to the point of making your ears bleed. (Don’t you hate that?)

This is kind of like the Lowell Folk Festival. I have some CDs to buy. I also chatted with both of the lead singers. Is it true that memories are free?

You should go out to their sites or YouTube or Amazon and listen. You’re allowed to buy their music even if you didn’t sit next to them.

Pix note: Published under Creative Commons . You are welcome to use them. Just credit Michael Ball once.