“I have diabetes.”

Isaiah King, age 5, 2008

While shopping in Target the other day our five-year-old grandson, Isaiah, told his grandmother and me he needed to go to the bathroom. I took him into the men’s room and waited while he finished his business in the stall. After washing his hands we went off to find my wife.

“Nana,” Isaiah told her earnestly, “I have diabetes.”

The British have the best description of the confused look Carolann and I gave each other. We were, as they say, “at sea.”

We had no earthly idea what he was talking about.

“What do you mean?” Carolann asked.

“I had to go potty real bad,” the five-year-old explained. “I have diabetes.”

My wife and I stared at each other blankly for another moment or two until, as the Brits also say, “the penny dropped.”

“You mean you have DIARRHEA?”

Carolann said this. I was too busy trying to choke back a guffaw that was leaking out my nose as barely stifled snorts.

“Yeah. Diarrhea.”

Then, in the spirit of Art Linkletter she issued a follow-up question. “Do you know what diarrhea is?”

“Yeah. That’s when it’s all flat.”

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

In the heart of a campfire

If I was honest enough to remember the whole truth I’d probably recall some very uncomfortable or even miserable experiences while dirt camping as a kid.

 

But why would I want to do that?

Anybody who intentionally spends hundreds of dollars plus weeks in excited preparation for the opportunity to sleep on the ground, live in a perpetual cloud of dust and mosquitoes, eat food from a milk-sodden, meat-bloodied, melted-ice ice chest, and to pee and occasionally poop into an open, fly-infested pit has no grounds for complaint on any level, least of all personal convenience.

These days Carolann and I visit the great outdoors in luxurious, indoor comfort.  We have an air-conditioned 34-foot motorhome with a queen-size bed, full shower and toilet, complete kitchen and two TVs.  It’s wonderful, it really is.

But camping, it ain’t.

My dad had a big, unbelievably heavy canvas tent.  It was bigger than some honky tonks I’ve been in and smelled almost as bad.  He had to prop the thing up with a couple of huge wooden poles I think he bought from a circus fire sale.  As far as I can recall that tent performed no useful service.

If it rained, the canvas would soak through and drip on us long after the rain had ended. Then it mildewed.

If it was eighty degrees outside it was ninety-five in the tent. If it was sixty outside it was forty-five in the tent.

By the time I started taking my son Jeremy camping in the early 80s the equipment had improved dramatically.  Our tent was lightweight nylon.  It was the first of those now ubiquitous domed things supported by three long, flexible poles.  It didn’t have to be lashed to steel stakes in the ground by twelve ropes poised to grab a foot and trip you every time you walked to the outhouse.

The downside of my new nylon igloo was its height, maybe four feet tops, which was fine for a kid but forced me to mimic a horizontal pole-dancer, writhing and wriggling on my back just to get out of my sleeping bag, pull on some pants and exit on hands and knees through the little flap at the front that was secured by three or four maddening zippers.

Like my father before me, I taught my son to build a campfire the old-fashioned way:  with paper under kindling, under twigs, under sticks, all in fastidious layers beneath three logs wigwammed in the center.  It was a thing of beauty.  We would stand back in solemn appreciation of our half-hour handiwork before we lit the match.  Me, with a proud fatherly hand on my son’s shoulder; him scratching madly at dozens of festering bites on his legs and neck.

After Jeremy mastered campfire-building I introduced him to “fire-starters,” those wonderful, waxy chunks of compressed sawdust that make it possible for any idiot with a Bic to start a campfire.  Boy Scouts need not apply.  My dad would have refused to purchase them.

Dad taught me to fish, of course, just as his dad had taught him, in the fast and frigid trout streams of Wyoming.  I wasn’t very good at it and, frankly, I hated it. But that’s what fathers and sons do. It’s tradition.

My kid broke the curse. Oh, I taught him and he caught his first fish when he was five or six. But the next time I asked him if he wanted to go fishing he asked with a gentle degree of pity, “Dad, you know you can buy fish at the store, right?”

That finished the sport for me and I still owe him for it.

But I miss it all…

the laughter from nearby families, the smell and WOOSH of a white gas-powered lantern sputtering to life; the crackle and smoke of a jolly campfire properly-built of wood chunks gathered and chopped by hand.

I even miss the dirt.

In evenings such as those by the campfire, with no TVs, no smart phones or WiFi, we had no choice but to talk with each other about our daily personal lives; of fanciful, imagined wonders and deep philosophy; of past events shared and joyously remembered which made us a family, and of mutual hopes and dreams which we would then take with us, yawning and regretful of day’s end, into our sleeping bags.

Gazing through a nylon mesh at God’s stars; secure with our parents at our sides, we inhaled deeply the fresh and gloriously-smoky pine air, smiled to ourselves and closed our eyes to sleep the unburdened sleep of woodsmen.

Except for  the mosquito bites it felt good and wholesome.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

 

Boy toys

The first car I owned was a 1957 Hillman. It was brown and boxy and not at all “cool.” I looked very odd in it. I looked like a fifteen year-old kid wearing his grandpa’s shoes.

I got my first car when I was still a sophomore in high school. Actually, I wasn’t even old enough to drive legally and, trusting that the statute of limitations has now passed, I will confide here that my mother sometimes let me drive my car – illegally – to the store to pick up some milk or get her a pack of cigarettes! (Back then, in the sixties, she had to give me a note for the cigarettes or they wouldn’t have sold them to me. No way.)

I loved driving that car so much I would actually try to split one trip to the store into two or three trips. You know, buy the cigarettes so she would be happy and relaxed and then admit I had forgotten the milk so I would have to go back.

Sometimes my mom would let me drive to 7-11 to get an Icee and a package of Hostess Sno-Balls or something. She was a great mom and still is. (Nowadays I go to the store and get her the odd box of wine without her even asking or giving me a note.)

By the way, the price of gas at the time was around 25 or 30 cents a gallon. I’ll pause for a moment to let you absorb that.
From the Hillman I graduated into my dad’s 1966 Corvair Monza and after that I can’t remember all the vehicles I’ve owned in the ensuing fifty-one years. I can probably remember most of them but who cares, really? I never did much care what I was driving. To me, it was always just transportation.
And now, for some reason I am at an absolute loss to explain, as Carolann and I are talking about downsizing, reducing our stash of stuff and retiring in a nice, manageable mobile home or something – now I own three vehicles and today placed a deposit on a fourth! I’m not kidding and look, I don’t intend to sell any of them!

I will literally have more cars than I have pairs of shoes!

We now have a pickup truck to carry my camper, a 33-foot motorhome and Carolann’s van which cost more than my first house.
Gas, for all intents and purposes, is $4.00 a gallon. And that’s why today I made a refundable deposit on one of these.


Yes, I’m quite serious. It’s an electric-gas hybrid called an Aptera that will allegedly get 300 miles per gallon of gas.
But boy, am I ever going to look odd driving it.

Touchstones…

A couple of weeks ago I was at a traditional/dixieland jazz festival in Three Rivers, California, visiting my musical friend, Bob Ringwald.Bob Ringwald

If that last name rings a bell, movie and TV star Molly Ringwald is Bob’s daughter. He never mentions that in passing conversation but he’s proud of all three of his grownup kids and pleased to tell you about their families, careers and current projects if you ask.

Bob is the piano-playing leader of the very tight, very hot, Fulton Street Jazz Band based in Sacramento, which is home to both of us.

Ringwald has the happiest fingers that ever danced a keyboard. The fact that he is blind is no handicap for Bob but to those of us whose eyes work just fine but possess fingers like clay bricks, the way he can sit down at a foreign, rented piano and attack it without even appearing to search for middle-C is astonishing.

The funny thing about Bob and me is that we knew each other decades before we met.

When I was a teenager I never talked with Bob but enjoyed his jazz piano and singing at Capone’s Chicago Tea Room and Pizza Joint in Sacramento. Years later he would enjoy listening to me on the radio.

Bob’s life took him to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mine passed through L.A. and Memphis.

We both always returned to Sacramento and eventually we howdied and shook hands at the world famous Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, where Bob has played piano since the Jubilee’s beginning thirty-five years ago and where I have been a volunteer go-fer nearly as long.

I’ve never been to Bob’s home or him to mine. I can’t claim him as an intimate friend but there is a unique closeness I think we both feel in the happenstance that we made ripples in the same pond and they eventually touched.

This year I’ve been invited back to emcee the Jubilee Opening Day Parade. It’s a great honor and a very special homecoming for me but the one moment I am especially looking forward to is when Bob rolls out in front of the reviewing stand on some flatbed truck, tinkling the ivories and grinning like some old ragtime Cheshire Cat, which he surely is.

I’ll see many other longtime friends in Sacramento that day. I’ll also recognize a lot of people whose names I don’t remember but whose company I fondly recall.

But seeing Bob Ringwald again will be as special as his rendition of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag.

He’s a magical touchstone to my youth, my present and my future.

Lessons of the heart: Bob Rodness

I don’t know for sure what got me thinking about Coach Rodness. Maybe it’s just because it’s April and as you have heard, in spring every young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love — love of baseball. Well, that’s true of old men, too. At least for those of us who played the game with a feverish passion many years ago and can’t quite get it out of our hearts.

But I don’t think that is why I suddenly remembered my high school baseball coach. 

Today I told my youngest son something that sparked a synaptic link to a memory from my self-glorified past.

My son has recently had a spat with his wife. It has gone on for several days and is making both of them miserable. Having “been there, done that” (one of the greatest colloquial phrases ever adopted into American lexicon) I have grown weary of it and I told him, simply, “You love her and so do we. Make your peace with her.” It was just that simple. Dad had spoken. “Fix it,” I told him.And suddenly I realized where I had heard that calm, persuasive voice before.

Bob Rodness was a physical education and baseball coach at Highlands High School in the Sacramento suburb of North Highlands in the late 1960s. I was a skinny kid who could hit a little, couldn’t run worth a damn, but played baseball like nothing else in the world mattered because in my world at that time it was true.

 One day in P.E. class we were playing softball. Keep in mind this was the spring of 1968, right around the time Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was a time fraught with racial tension and fears that we Northern California teenagers of the moment had trouble assimilating into the limited observations and half-baked philosophies of our very young lives. From our shortsighted perspectives it seemed the world was divided into colors and you took your side, you had no choice. We knew it wasn’t as simple as that, of course, and we knew that segregation and bigotry were wrong by definition and by moral imperitive, but we were too young and inexperienced to make sense of such worldly confusions as racism, assassination and, not coincidentally, the war in Vietnam.

We who grew up in the sixties need to look upon those events as the vortex to the psychological confusions that haunt us even now.

Back to the softball game…

I was pitching, a black kid I didn’t know was the batter. For no reason whatever he began taunting me in a mean, angry way. I don’t pretend to understand the world through his eyes, not then or now, but he was mad. He yelled a lot, I said something back and the next thing I knew he was on top of me, pummeling me for no reason at all other than the fact that I was on the opposing team and I was white and skinny.

Imagine something like that happening today. We would have both been hauled into the office, for starters. Police would have been called. No doubt both of us would have been suspended or expelled. It’s entirely possible that felony charges would be filed against one or both of us and dueling lawsuits would be launched. We’d be front page news and a community would divide and take sides.Lives could have been ruined for a minor scuffle between a couple of dumb kids.

What actually happened forty years ago was Bob Rodness. He simply yelled at us, “Knock it off, you guys!”And we did.That kid went back behind the plate, I threw the ball and he hit it. I don’t remember where or how well he hit it. The story was long over by then. The game continued, the period ended, we went on to our next class and forgot about it.

Admittedly, that was a different time in a naive world entirely alien to us now. But some things stick in our psyches forever.“Knock it off, you guys.”That’s essentially what I told my son today: “This fight with your wife has gone on long enough. It’s stupid.” The end.

But here’s the Bob Rodness story I really want to tell you, not because it made any lasting moral impression on me. Though, it might have, I just don’t know yet. I just love the memory of this:

Some fifteen years or so after graduating from high school I was a volunteer tending the exit gate at a music venue during the world-famous Sacramento Jazz Jubilee. In those days volunteers were allowed, indeed encouraged, to drink and make merry as they performed their duties. I took the encouragement to heart.

Two beautiful women in their twenties approached the exit gate requesting entrance to the party. I informed them nicely that they would have to wait in line at the actual entrance gate. But gosh they were pretty, and I was nicely toasted. We got to chatting and as we did an older couple approached my gate. With one arm around each of the beautiful young ladies, a large beer in one hand and cigarette dangling from my mouth, I heard the girls exclaim in unison, “HI, DADDY!”It was Coach Rodness and his wife. And even though it had been fifteen years or more since we had seen each other he recognized me.

He sized things up quicker than I did, threw his head back and laughed the unstained laugh of the pure and pious as I whipped my arms away from his daughters, dumped my beer in the nearby trash can and stepped on my cigarette.I expected him to order me to run laps but he just kept laughing until tears were streaming down his face.And yes, I let the entire family enter through the exit.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

The ugly truth

Yesterday, Sunday, Carolann and I went to Disneyland with our oldest son, Jeremy, his wife, Emily, her mom, Gloria, and of course the grandkids, Isaiah, 5 and Tyler, 3. About five o’clock Emily’s mom took the grandkids home with her and we took Jeremy and Emily out to dinner at a fabulous Japanese restaurant. I had a wonderful day, got home late; went to bed at 9:00 instead of my usual 7:00PM.

Today I feel like I’ve been on a week-long bender.

I overslept, didn’t work well, had to fight drowsiness on my drive home, took a two hour nap — after a one hour struggle to go to sleep — and still feel like crap. Twenty years ago I stayed out very late in honky tonks four nights a week, drank heavily, got two or three hours sleep and was ready to rock and roll the next day.

Now a day at Disneyland has kicked my butt.

Say what we must about the pleasures of aging gracefully and the wisdom of experience it brings. Sometimes getting older just blows.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

Heroes to a fault

Dusty Morgan is a former deejay friend of mine from Sacramento. We’re about the same age. We lived through the wonderful fifties and sixties together in total ignorance of each other’s existence until we grew to be old and worldly — twenty something.

With his approval I’d like to share the note I got from him recently. He sends these out to friends like Anita* and me who appreciate his perspective and his voice.

—————————————

morgan musings

the kid from summer …

You might have already heard the news that one of the Dodgers storied legends passed away recently. The press release read: “Former Brooklyn Dodgers Star Johnny Podres dead at the age of 75.” Well, beyond Johnny’s contribution to Dodgers lore … I thought I’d take-up a few lines here and with a little ground level recollection.

I can’t tell you what a baseball god Johnny Podres was to a 4 foot nothing Little Leaguer when those Brooklyn Dodgers moved to L.A. As one of the original ’58ers and game winning pitcher of the Dodgers first ever World Series Championship in ’55 … John will always be a hero in the eyes this former 98 pound catcher for the Palm Springs Red Sox.

I’ll never forget the night I managed to get his autograph after a game at the L.A. Coliseum. My buddy Dennis and I were running all around the player’s enterance and grassy area; trying to chase down anyone we’d I.D.’s as an actual player. I remember spotting Johnny walking by himself; heading toward a parking lot (probably where his car was) then taking off in a dead sprint to get to him before he got to that lot. With Dennis right beside me, we managed to “plead him to a stop” (he did) and then graciously signed a couple of autographs for a breathless pair of 4 foot nothings.

One of these days, from some earlier e-mails, messages and family history recollections I sent to my cousin Claudia, I might tackle a longer Baseball Musing about those Graffiti summer nights, chasing down players for their signatures, how some of them responded (or didn’t) and what it was like for a kid who’s dreams of baseball and stardom were hatched in a small trailer park just off North Indian Avenue in the less than rich end of … The Springs.

It’s not a unique story, but one that became dream seeds for the future.

It’s a little difficult to describe how the news landed in my stomach when I heard about Johnny’s passing. Maybe I’m just over reacting. Or as my dear friend Anita Garner recently wrote in an e-mail: * “Now, maybe 75 years old doesn’t seem as far off as it did back in ’58.”

A few months ago, I saw a photo on the Net of Podres, Duke Snider, Carl Erskine and (I think) Clem Labine in the dugout at a Twins game; all decked out in their old Brooklyn uniforms as they were there to help celebrate another baseball milestone. Looking into the eyes of those grand faces, it was tough for this old Little Leaguer to realize that these were once … “The Boys Of Summer.”

Of course, as we all know, and as Sonny once said to Cher: “The Beat Goes On.”

Now, I think what I’ll do today is take a memory stroll through some of my old baseball stuff, remember back to a few of those warm summer nights … then put on my old Brooklyn Dodgers cap and wear it around the neighborhood all day. Yeah, it’s probably silly. Then again, maybe one of the kids on my street will stop and ask: “Hey, what’s the B stand for?”

morgan musings / a production of tws north america

(* With acknowledgement to Anita Garner www.theagingofaquarius.com)

———————————————

Now, my reply to his note:

Morg,

My heart is smiling as only empathy will allow. I know where you’ve been and from where you come.

I was a Giants fan in those days. I remember virtually the same story you shared but it had a different ending.

I was eight or ten. A security guard at Candlestick Park thought I was cute, I guess. Among the dozens of fans hanging around outside the fenced-enclosed Giants players’ parking lot, he allowed me and only me inside the gate. My dad stood outside beaming with excitement. I watched, befuddled, as the players passed out of the locker room. I didn’t recognize any of them out of their uniforms!

But then I saw him.

Willie Mays!

Everybody started shouting and yelling for Willie’s attention. He ignored them and walked toward the car with the personalized license plate: WHM 24. I nervously approached him. “Mr. Mays, can I have your autograph?” He didn’t hear me. I shouted again. I was only about fifteen feet away. Surely he heard me that time!?

And after shouting a third time I realized yes, he did hear me. He was ignoring me. Blowing me off.

He got in his car and drove away. Took my heart with him.

Sometimes life’s lessons hurt and are not necessarily useful.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved

I’m not your “Bro!”

The other day I was in a convenience store and the clerk called me, “Boss.” It was one of those chummy affectations like “Bro” which also annoys me. I don’t need to be called “Sir” but it seems to me that a guy who performs a small service I’m paying for, a total stranger I will likely never see again, could be a little more respectful of the relationship. I’m your customer, not your boss or your bro. It’s why I pay six dollars for a seven-pound bag of ice and why you get eight bucks an hour to sell it to me

And now that I mention it — I’m a CUSTOMER, not a “GUEST!” If I was a store guest I should get everything for free!

This is one of those old fart things, isn’t it? Don’t sugarcoat it. Tell me the truth. I’m making a big deal out of nothing, huh?

Well, it’s not nothing to me.

What it is, is a blurring of our healthy cultural relationships. It’s the same reason so many people today say “No problem,” instead of “You’re welcome.” We’re not supposed to think one of us is inferior to another, even for a moment. Ask a waiter for more butter and he’ll tell you it’s “no problem.” Whew! What a relief. I would hate to think that my asking you to do a small part of your job is a PROBLEM!

Fact of the matter is, a waiter really is inferior to his customer. That’s the way we all like it. It’s what we pay for. And when he gets off work and goes to a bar, HE’S the boss. I mean, the customer.

I know, I know…it’s an old fart thing.

Where’s my TV Guide?

Goodbye again…

Yesterday we buried my father-in-law.

His family gathered a day earlier in a great hall, as it generally does on Easter and Thanksgiving, to share food, drink and stories. Only this time, Bob wasn’t there except in a makeshift altar bearing ancient photographs, a few flowers, a guest book and a small plastic box of ashes.

At the cemetery yesterday they gathered again for a final goodbye to the first of seven siblings to pass. The other six were there, of course, as were many of their spouses, children and friends. Some spoke of their love for Bob and the family as a whole. Some remembered another funny story. Some kept it to themselves. My wife placed the box into the open grave and wept on my shoulder.

We all hugged, vowed to get together in a few weeks for Easter and went our separate ways.

A few months ago we buried my first mother-in-law. Again, we did it as families have always done, with comfort food and bittersweet memories. It’s the being together that matters.

A few years ago we said goodbye to my dad. Tears, hugs; food.

And here’s what gets me in the gut once these tragic gatherings have ended: for all our togetherness at such times I have never felt more lonely. I suppose it’s partly the idea that burying our immediate elders is inevitable and that it’s our turn next. But even more insistent is the great lingering “why?” 

What is the point of life at all if eighty-some years of living and learning is to be simply extinguished and interred or scattered to the winds or placed in a vase on the mantle? Why do we go through this exercise if it is ultimately meaningless?

Meaning, of course, is the personal pursuit. Whether your answers are found in faith or merely in the warmth of loving memory it is as unique to each of us as the paths we have taken. I find small comfort in that because the question mark remains. But here is what I have come to this morning, after days of grieving and wondering and a blessed good night’s sleep:

My father-in-law’s life was meaningful in its very occurence. He touched each of us and we, in turn, are touching those around us. Not very profound, perhaps, but unlike mere faith this is undeniably true. We are all the sum of the people we have known and loved. And they in turn, are us.

That’s not just a sympathy card platitude. It is the brilliant simplicity of an answer.

Why, indeed! I exist so that my children and theirs may have the great gift of my love and life.

Thanks, Bob, for the wonderful memories and for becoming part of our spiritual dna.

Camping in the 21st Century: Part one

Last summer our family went camping in Sequoia National Park and we had a wonderful time. So, this year we’re going again only this time we’re heading to Pfeiffer Big Sur California State Park, twenty-six miles south of Carmel. There will be about twenty of us, possibly a few more, and that means we need at least three campsites. Four would be better. I’m in charge of making the reservations.

The idea of having to reserve a camping space six months in advance of a trip is still hard for me to come to grips with. When I was a kid my dad would announce at the dinner table that we should go camping this weekend and so we did. No big deal. Even when I became an adult and started planning my own camping trips I could pack up the car with my tent, sleeping bags, Coleman stove, lanterns and whatnot and just head to the mountains or ocean with a good idea of where I wanted to go but with no reservation and no worries. That doesn’t fly in the 21st century. Not in California.

Yesterday, February 1st, was the first day campsite reservations became available for August of this year. That’s the way it works. If you want to go camping in any state park anytime at all next August you need to get a reservation within the first fifteen minutes of February. I’m not exaggerating and I couldn’t make that up, I’m not a state employee.

I was at work yesterday morning so my wife and son sat down at their respective computers with two phones each and began phoning and logging in to the California campground reservation line and website at 7:45AM. At the stroke of 8:00 all the campsites in California went up for grabs. By 8:15 all 191 campsites at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park were totally booked. No kidding. I’m guessing the Rolling Stones and Hannah Montana are going to be doing nightly concerts there.

Carolann and Jeremy managed to come up with two campsites, miraculously next to each other, but that still leaves us short of space for at least five people who want to go camping six months from next weekend. I’m going to keep attacking the website for cancellations. In July we’ll probably have to hold a lottery to see who has to stay behind to water everybody’s lawns and pick up the mail. By the time we actually make the trip I figure I will have invested two or three months in scheduling a four day campout.

Twenty or thirty years from now when my grandsons are grown and have families of their own I imagine this will be the dinner table conversation. (Of course, Americans stopped eating together as families decades ago but just for the sake of the scenario…)

TYLER: Honey, why don’t we phone Isaiah and Hannah and see if they want to take the kids camping?
MILEY: When?
TYLER: I don’t know. Soon. Next year, the year after, maybe.
MILEY: Next year? You think you can get reservations for next year?
TYLER: Yeah, you’re right. Maybe the weekend after the Fourth of July four years from now. The weekend after the Fourth is never busy.
MILEY: We have an appointment with the family counselor that Friday.

My dad got grumpier with age and I’m beginning to understand why.

© 2008 by David L. Williams, all rights reserved