Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Donut Deli


It was only two weeks until Christmas. I’d been driving a cab for over a
year and was sick of the hustle. I needed a change. I was tired of staring at the rain on the
windshield as I sat for hours waiting by the cabstands. I was tired of the fares that didn't pan out. I was tired of the whores, pimps, small time drug pushers and I was especially tired of the sad middle-aged businessmen who slipped me something extra to keep quiet about their comings and goings.
My interview at the Donut Deli lasted only fifteen minutes. The elderly couple who owned the place led me into the back of the restaurant. The man explained, “We serve donuts and coffee in the morning, soup and sandwiches for the lunch crowd.” The job opening was for a relief baker on the night shift, but besides baking the donuts, I would have to serve people sandwiches if they came in at night. The bars closed at 2 AM and the owner said a significant part of their revenue came from hungry people stumbling out of the taverns. “We lock the front door at 3 AM.”
The couple took turns questioning me about my former work experience. The man was pleased I was a veteran. After completing the verbal portion of the interview to their satisfaction, they watched me from across the stainless steel table as I fumbled around with sliced meat, pickles, tomatoes and lettuce, attempting to put it all together as a hoagie sandwich. I finally wrestled all the ingredients into a bun and held it up for inspection. The man had a horrified look on his face. The woman turned and said to him in a quiet voice "Give him a little time, I think he'll do all right."
The Donut Deli was a small brick building right on Main Street, with a parking lot behind. A big green awning hung out over the sidewalk shading the front window. Three small tables with two chairs each and two booths were in the space in front of the counter which housed the doughnut display case. Behind the counter was the doughnut making area. There was a stainless steel cabinet with the fryer on top and doughnut rising shelves below. Along side was a large butcher block work space for rolling and cutting the dough. The cash register was at the far end of the counter and behind it, a large freezer that held 15 flavors of ice cream.
When I arrived that evening, George was already setting things up for the night's work. Country music was blaring from a radio perched on top of the ice cream freezer. George was a short balding man with a powerful chest and bowed legs. He had thick dark eyebrows and bushy sideburns, but was clean shaven. He said he had one week to train me before taking his vacation. I would be on my own for the next week and after he returned, work the two nights a week he was off.
He didn't waste any time in idle chit chat, but thrust an apron into my chest and motioned for me to follow him to the back. He grabbed a cake of yeast from a big silver refrigerator, unwrapped it and plopped it into a giant silver bowl. He placed the bowl in the sink, pushing the spout over to the side and turned on the hot water. Passing his finger repeatedly through the water stream, he made slight adjustments to the cold water knob. Finally he motioned for me to pass my finger through the water just like he was doing. "When it has a little bite to it, it's ready." I felt the hot water bite my finger and gave him a nod. The yeast was fickle and needed the temperature to be just right.
That night we went through the whole process of making doughnuts. It was a lot more complicated than I'd imagined. George wasn't one to explain things, but always made sure he had my full attention when showing me critical parts of the process. When he saw that I’d gotten the essence of what he was showing me, his eyes lit up in delight. His enthusiasm helped me feel motivated and challenged to learn the process. He had me poke the dough after the first rising to check the elasticity and we carefully examined the clarity of the oil in the fryer. After dropping the cake doughnut batter into the hot oil, I watched him twirl the chopsticks like a rock ‘n’ roll drummer before gently turning each doughnut over. He asked me to count the number of twirls; after six the doughnuts were ready to flip. We rolled out the dough for the raised doughnuts to a precise thickness and repeatedly pressed the doughnut cutter into the dough in neat rows paying close attention to the spacing between. I watched as he deftly pulled out the doughnut holes and pieces around the edges. He tossed these to the side of the butcher block to be used later for cinnamon rolls. At one point he turned to me with a hand full of doughnut holes and began juggling them. He laughed and then tossed them into the pile of dough scraps. This short chunky man was light on his feet and graceful to watch. He seemed to enjoy himself and appeared to be playing rather than working.
At the end of the shift, when all the freshly made doughnuts were lined
up on their trays and sitting in the display cases, George pulled out one glazed doughnut and held it up in front of my face. I thought he was offering it to me to eat, but instead he asked me to carefully observe it. “The fruits of our evening’s labor are best revealed by the glazed doughnut,” he stated. He then pointed out some important things to look for: the brown color on both sides was not too light and not too dark, the light colored ring on the outside edge was the same width all the way around, the doughnut was plump and not saggy, the glaze was clear and even with no runs or globs. As I watched and listened, I had to admit, this was truly a superb doughnut. George then pulled out a maple bar and held it up. I thought he was going to describe the subtleties of this particular doughnut as well, but instead he said, “These are my favorite,” took a big bite, turned on his heels and disappeared into the back to start cleaning up.
George wasn't like anyone I'd met before. He didn't seem to care what
others thought of him. He did care about people and was a good listener, but was happy to let them be without feeling the need to exert his opinion or advice. I felt fortunate that he made an exception with me and imparted a little of his wisdom. Sometimes I would complain to him about all the assholes I had run into while driving a cab. He told me not to be so quick to judge others; “They just might have something to teach you about yourself.”
Once when I was busy baking, I overheard George talking with one of the customers. This man and George had obviously talked many times before. At one point the man loudly exclaimed, "What do you know about it George? You've barely been out of Seattle. All you know how to do is make doughnuts." To my surprise George didn’t react, saying nothing back. I knew that George had been all over the world. He was an Airborne Ranger and fought in the Korean War and after that he spent over ten years in the Merchant Marines. I asked him about this conversation later. “George, when that guy accused you of never having been anywhere or done anything, why didn’t you set him straight?” He replied, "People will believe what they want to believe until they want to believe something different."
I had trouble understanding this at the time. I always felt a need to assert my opinion and didn’t miss a chance to let people know what I’d done and where I’d been. But I knew George was a wise man and had voluntarily dropped out of society to a certain extent. I had another question for him. "So George, what is it that you believe?"
Without hesitation, he answered. "I believe in making good doughnuts."
Even though it’s been over 30 years since I worked with George in the doughnut shop, when I’m feeling down or defensive or without direction, I find myself thinking about him and some of the things he told me. I’ve boiled his philosophy down to one statement, “Let people believe what they want to believe and go out there and make good doughnuts.”

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Night Funnyboy Got His Name

In 1964 between my junior and senior years in high school, I transferred from a small private school to a public school that was over 10 times bigger. Most of the students at the private school were from out-of-state and boarded there. I was a day student or “day-pup” and not very popular. My childhood friend, Paul, had a lot of friends at the public school and when I switched schools many of his friends became mine. Suddenly I felt popular, had a lot of freedom and couldn’t have been happier.
I was happy not having to wear a coat and tie to school anymore. My new group of friends had their own dress code. It consisted of Levis jeans, sport shirts, preferably Gant, and Bass Weejun penny loafers. We wore our hair long on top, without hair grease and brushed across our foreheads. Look at any early Beach Boys album and that’s pretty much how we the looked. We weren’t jocks and we weren’t greasers, I guess in today’s language, we were preppies.
Cruising around in cars is what we did on summer nights. We were all over 16, most of us had access to one of our parents’ cars and a few had cars of their own. One warm Missouri summer night, four of us went cruising along the Missouri river. We had already driven the hamburger circuit and not much was going on. To escape the humid night, we sought relief on the dark, cool river road. With the windows cranked down and the radio turned up, we talked, laughed and sang along.
My friend, Glen, a big likeable guy from my previous school, came along. Glen did not neatly fit into any of the clique categories. He was a year older and wore his hair military short. He said it was cooler in the summer, which I suppose it was. He owned several vehicles and spent much of his time tinkering with them. One was a maroon colored '56 Ford. He had jacked up the rear end, put on oversized tires and did something important to the gear ratio, which I could never remember, but it made the car very fast. It had a 3-speed transmission on the floor and when he fired it up, it pulsated like an out of balance washing machine. If that wasn’t enough, he also owned 3 motorcycles--a 650cc BSA lightening, a single cylinder Triumph 500 (a thumper) and a 250 Honda Scrambler. I don’t know why he went cruising with us that night, but he did and he seemed to be enjoying himself.
I was driving my parents Chevelle Malibu that night. I noticed, in the rear view mirror, headlights coming up fast behind us. A car drew closer and closer until finally it was riding on our tail. The high beams began flashing annoyingly, so I slowed down to allow the car to pass, but instead of passing, it slowed and rode along side of us. The car was a 4-door Dodge Polara. I could see five guys, three in back and two in front. The guy riding shotgun yelled something at us and then the big Dodge took off. As the taillights grew dim up ahead, we heard laughter trailing behind. We couldn’t figure out what the guy had yelled, but assumed it was a derogatory remark. Glen remained quiet during our agitated discussion.
We soon returned to singing and talking, but as we rounded a bend, there the Dodge was stopped in the middle of the road. I had to slam on the brakes to keep from smashing into the backend. It sped away and again we heard laughter. Another agitated discussion sprung up. Glen had hit his head on the back of my seat and mumbled, “Son of a bitch”. I drove on cautiously. This annoying trick wasn’t going to happen twice. We spotted the Dodge up ahead pulled over to the side of the road. I remember thinking, “Oh shit, there are 5 of them and only 4 of us. As we debated whether or not to pull over, Glen interjected, “Go ahead, pull over.”
Before we had time to formulate a plan, Glen said, “Let me out,“ and then, “You guys wait here.” So we did. Through my car's rear window, we watched as Glen walked straight over to the driver’s side of the Dodge and slammed his hand down on the hood and to the driver said, “OK funny-boy, out of the car!” He stood there waiting for a response. The three of us were craning our necks, taking in the whole scene. But nothing happened, so Glen said in a softer tone, “Come on, which one of you clowns wants to dance?” We fully expected the doors to fly open, our cue to get out as well, but their doors remained closed. Finally we saw the driver’s window roll up followed by the other three windows, then we heard the roar of the engine and the sound of tires spinning in loose gravel. The Dodge sped off leaving Glen standing alone in the dark still night.
The moon was up, and through the trees its soft light danced on the river. We watched as Glen ambled back to the Chevelle. He may as well have been James Dean or Marlon Brando in his blue jeans, chalk white tee shirt and black leather motorcycle jacket. He had a funny way of walking with a slight bounce and his right shoulder jacked up. He climbed back into the car. “I don’t think they’ll bother us anymore.”
On the way home we recounted the incident, especially the part where Glen called the guy "funny-boy". That was the first and last time Glen ever went cruising with us, but from then on we referred to him as Funny-boy.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dealing With 100 Degree Weather

These last few days the high temperatures have been over 100 degrees and the lows in the mid 60s. 65 degrees is quite pleasant, and a few times I’ve actually been awake at 4 a.m. to enjoy it. We’ve been bracing for this hot weather for months, unsure of how we would handle it. 100 degrees seems to be the demarcation line between “life is good here because the weather is so beautiful”, and “you just have to learn to tolerate it”. I’m not sure I can tell the difference between 98 and 102 degrees. They’re both damned hot.
We didn’t hit 100 degrees this year until May 28th and then not again until June 5th. Evidently that’s later than usual. People here in Green Valley like to say that we have cooler temperatures than in Tucson. So when Tucson is 104, we are sometimes 101, “Whoopee!” I looked up some other weather forecasts to help me feel better. For example, Cairo was 105, New Delhi was 111 and, get this one, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia was 114 with the low of only 91 degrees. That one made me feel a little better.
The weather that most excites me right now is in Mexico. Throughout Mexico the highs are in the low 70’s with cloudy conditions and a chance of rain. This means for us the monsoon season is approaching. It officially started on June 15th , but we haven’t seen one drop yet. But soon violent storms will come to us from the south. Katie and I experienced one of these summer storms last July when we were visiting from the Northwest. We got caught in a deluge driving from Sierra Vista to Tucson. It rained so hard all the cars had to pull over and wait it out. The lightning crashed all around us, hitting the ground close by. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Coming from the Midwest, violent storms are familiar to me. The difference here in the desert is that roaring flash floods are everywhere soon after the skies open. The ground is too hard and dry to soak up any water and so it starts flowing right away. Every year people get hurt and some die, carried away by the raging water in a road dip, creek, river or arroyo.
But the monsoon rains aren’t here yet and so we continue to live mostly in air conditioning. The heat actually feels good when you first go outside after being inside for a while. Katie says this phenomenon lasts about 30 seconds, I think it’s a little longer, but once you get hot, it’s hard to feel comfortable again without going back into the air conditioning. A friend of ours was visiting last spring and asked one of our neighbors how it felt living in the summer heat. This neighbor is generally a very gracious man, but on this particular day he was quite abrupt and told her, “turn your oven on to over 100 degrees and stick your head in there for a while.” She got the idea. I don’t think she actually tried it though.
Green Valley is full of wild animals--lots of birds, lizards, snakes, coyotes, bobcats, and javelinas. I’ve been watching what the animals do in the heat. Actually they’re hard to find in the heat of the day, with the exception of the small birds that don’t seem to be affected much by the heat, we can hear them chattering in the trees and bushes. Yesterday I noticed several rabbits lying under a bush. They had all dug small trenches in the dirt in order to lie in them. The rabbits are always on the alert around here because they are lunch for so many of the other animals. So here was a little squad of rabbits in their shallow foxholes with only their eyes and ears sticking up above ground. It must be too hot for the lizards and snakes, they’ve disappeared in this 100+ weather.
Our cat, Felis, spends much of the day sleeping on his back with his stomach up in the air, a position that we’ve discovered works well for people too. If we do have to go out in mid-day to run errands, when we return we unfailingly crank up the air conditioning, grab a book, and then imitate our cat for a few hours.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On a Greek Island

When my friend Paul and I backpacked through Europe in 1970, we bought Eurail passes that allowed us unlimited train travel around the continent. We started our trip in London, where we spent several days. We were eager to see as much as possible so we railed and rambled through France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Italy, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. At some point we figured we only had the funds and the time to go north to Scandinavia or south to Greece, but not both; we chose Greece.
Greece was a place I’d dreamed about going to when I was in the Army. I was learning to play the guitar and bought a Leonard Cohen guitar song book. The introduction included a bit about Leonard’s life on the Island of Hydra with his girlfriend, Marianne. I had his first two albums and loved his dark poetic music. On the back of one of the albums was a picture of Marianne sitting at a desk with nothing on but a towel. The room looked very stark and very Greek. I read and reread this introduction. I liked magining myself living on one of the islands with a babe like Marianne, writing songs and fiction, and in the evenings strolling down to the local village where we would talk, laugh and drink with locals and ex-pats. I think I may have melded this fantasy with my Hemingway fantasy from The Sun Also Rises. In my version the relationship works out better than it did for Leonard. I know what happens because I learned the song So Long Marianne. Leonard went on to fame and fortune. I never found out what happened to Marianne. Maybe she’s still in Greece.
Paul and I were knocking around Rome, taking in sites like the Vatican and the Coliseum, when we made the decision to go to Greece. The best way to get there was by ferry from Brendisi, which was on the opposite side of the peninsula almost at the very heel of the Italian boot. So we hopped a train to Naples, which we decided was the poorest and dirtiest European city we’d seen so far, and then took another train across and down the coast of the Adriatic Sea to Brendisi. The ferry was large and the crossing took a long time. We slept huddled on the deck surrounded by Greek families returning home. During the day these locals shared food from big baskets. Paul and I hadn’t brought any food and were envious. But as evening descended, the water became choppy and the boat began to roll from side to side. These same folks, who had gorged themselves earlier, were now hanging their heads over the side of the ship, offering up their bounty to appease Poseidon, or huddled in a corner moaning and looking miserable. Paul and I sat hungry and happily unaffected by the sea god’s wrath.
After the waves settled down, we watched with amazement, disgust and horror as waiter after waiter dumped huge crates full of garbage--bottles, cans, paper, cardboard and whatever--over the side of the ship into the pristine, indigo blue water.
On the Greek mainland, we crammed into a beat up old bus that took us to Athens. We conversed with some of the locals. At one point I asked a question about the current government and everyone became silent. We got the message through their silent stares that talking about the government in public was off limits. When we arrived and got out of the bus Paul realized he didn’t have his wallet which contained all of his money. As we mentally retraced our steps and fretted over this loss, a young Greek man about our age came running up and handed him the wallet. He had found it under the seat in the bus. All the money was still there, and he refused to accept Paul’s grateful monetary offering.
We stayed just one day and night in Athens. By now we had had our fill of big cities and big tourist attractions. We did visit the Acropolis, but by the second day we were on another ferry heading for the Island of Mykonos.
As we approached it, the island looked dry and barren from our vantage point out at sea, but as we entered the small harbor, the chalk white buildings accented with bright blue doors and window sashes looked like a jewel rising out of the ink blue water. Men with Greek fishermen’s hats helped everyone ashore. Old women dressed in black waited to greet the passengers. We didn’t know what that was all about, so we tromped off in search of a hotel. We soon discovered there were no hotels on the island and that we could easily get lost in the maze of small alleyways. It dawned on us that the ladies in black were homeowners looking for renters. Carefully retracing our steps, we returned to the ferry dock. There was no one around, so we waited. Before long, in anticipation of the next ferry, the gaggle of small round ladies in black returned. This time we allowed one of them to take charge of us and followed her back into the maze of white buildings. We found out later that the town was built in this maze-like fashion to confuse pirates. It worked on tourists as well.
Our hostess led us up a set of outdoor stairs to our room. It was small, sparse and adequate. Across the hall was the WC (toilet). Using very few English words and a bunch of hand gestures, she made it clear that we were not to put any toilet paper in the toilet. I really did pay attention to her and we both understood what she was trying to convey, so it must have been habit or a moment of non-attention, but before I realized what I’d done, I flushed and watched as the paper began backing up the system. “Oh shit!” I waited and watched thinking maybe just this once the paper would smoothly go down, but it didn’t and I knew I had to face the music. Our landlady’s naturally stern look became even sterner when I told her. I followed her back up the stairs as she sighed and loudly mumbled with each labored step. I could easily imagine what she was mumbling about. She didn’t allow me to get involved in the intricate process that followed even though I offered, but as I recall, she made Paul and me stand and watch. I never made that mistake again.
We found an outdoor café down by the harbor. We loved the food in Greece—meat cut off large horizontal roasting spits, fish straight from the sea, vegetable chunks smothered in olive oil and fresh baked pita bread. At this particular café there was always a white pelican sitting in the courtyard. Years later, I think it was the ‘90s, I happened to catch a travel show about the Greek Islands which featured a segment on this very same café. The host showed and described an old pelican that had been there for over 20 years. I wondered if it was the same one.
One evening we shared a table with a couple who looked to be in their late 30’s or early 40s, Mr. F. and Joan. Mr. F. had a conservative haircut and wore lawyerly tortoise shell glasses. Joan was attractive, a little overweight and had a great smile and laugh. We liked them right away. They were both very talkative. We noticed they were drinking small glasses filled with what looked like plain water. Mr. F. informed us that it was ouzo, a Greek aperitif that is supposed to help with digestion. He offered to buy us a round and we accepted. It was strong and tasted licorice. We bought the next round for etiquette’s sake and by the time we got our food, we were all a little bit schnockered.
We discovered that Joan and Mr. F. both taught at a high school somewhere in the Midwest. Neither of them was married, but they had secretly planned this getaway without any of their colleagues or students knowing anything about it. We thought it was very romantic and they really seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Paul and I had planned to take a bus out to some of the beaches the next day and asked if they’d like to join us. Joan had plans to go shopping, but Mr. F. said he would like to go along.
The bus dropped us on a hill above the first beach. We were told that if we wanted the best beaches with the fewest people, we had to walk from this one to coves further down the coast. So that’s what we did. We hiked across rocky fields, through olive orchards and grape vineyards, hopped over numerous stone walls and finally descended on a beach that was totally vacant. We decided to push on to the next beach for adventures’ sake. To our surprise there were quite a few people on this beach. As we drew closer, we noticed none of them had any bathing suits on. We stopped at the edge of the beach not sure how to proceed. After a long moment of indecision, Mr. F. whipped off his tortoise shell glasses and exclaimed “Oh what the heck!” Slipping out of his trunks, he made a mad dash for the sea. You had to love his spirit. We followed his lead and had a lot of fun splashing around in the surf. Only when we were ready to leave did we notice that we had left our swim trunks at the edge of the beach on the other side of several groups of naked people. I vividly remember this long self- conscious walk across the beach. As we passed the first group of young people, one of the women greeted us and tried to start up a conversation. There were several attractive young women in the group and I was having trouble keeping my eyes from wandering. We had just emerged from the cold water and I was painfully aware of my current shriveled state, which was just about eye level to the seated freedom lovers. Mr. F. however chatted away seemingly oblivious to the fact that we were all naked.
Our time in Greece was definitely one of the highlights of our 3 month European adventure. When we began to feel the urge to move on, we bought tickets on an ancient coal-powered train that took us up the coast to our next destination, Yugoslavia.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Arizona's Cowboy History: Myth or Reality

You can’t go anywhere in Arizona without seeing evidence of its cowboy and Indian heritage. I’m finding there is Arizona history and then there is Arizona legend. The information I see about Native Americans at the various historical places and tourist sites is an example of Arizona history, which tends to draw on anthropological data and historical evidence. When I read it, I feel like I’m learning accurate history. When I visit tourist sites concerning the cowboys, however, I read the information and then have doubts as to whether what is being said actually happened or if it falls more into the category of myth or legend.
For example, the Amerind Foundation Museum, in Cochise County about an hour east of Tucson, between Benson and Wilcox, is chock-full of ancient artifacts from archeological digs and has information about local Indian tribes as well as tribes throughout the US. The information seems scholarly and I assume accurate. http://www.amerind.org/. However, thirty miles to the south is the town of Tombstone. http://www.tombstone.org/. This is the Mecca of cowboy “history”. Just looking at the above two internet sites will give you a picture of what I’m talking about. The information you get blasted with in the latter is all about the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday and the Gunfight at the OK Corral along with all sorts of fictional hype.
We’ve visited Tombstone several times. In the historic buildings and bars are pictures of Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, the Earp brothers, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid and the Clantons and McLaurys. These were real people who lived in the area back in the late 1800’s. But then around town there are also pictures of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and other movie stars who seem to get equal billing. Throughout the day you might see men walking around the town dressed up like cowboys. Every one of them looks like a gunslinger. I’ve looked at actual pictures of old west towns including Tombstone during that era and what I see are men without guns standing in front of work projects, alongside horse and buggies or on wooden walkways in front of buildings like mercantile stores or cigar shops. The only time I’ve ever seen pictures of men with guns are individual posed shots, just like the dress-up photos you can pose for today at tourist sites. I assume that most of the time these townspeople went about their business, shopping for goods and supplies, sending a telegram or doing their banking. But the daily life of a shopkeeper or telegraph operator or bank teller is not what legends and movies are made of. My only conclusion is that the myth is more compelling than the actual history. Maybe we really don’t want to know the truth about this relatively short period in U.S. history.
The Gunfight at the OK Corral, which I’m told didn’t actually take place at the actual corral, only lasted for 28 seconds and ended with three wounded and three dead. This is the single most noteworthy historical event for which Tombstone is famous. Probably every American knows something about this incident. Now think about modern day America and what you see on the nightly news. If you live in a big city does 3 killed and 3 wounded seem like a monumental event that will go down in the annals of history? We lived in Rochester, New York for a year and there were more murders involving gun play in a two-week period. There are no heroes or legends coming out of Rochester as far as I know.
Every culture has its legends and myths. England has King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Japan has the Samurai Warriors, India has the Ramayana with Hanuman the Monkey Warrior, China has the Monks of the Shaolin Temple and the US has the cowboys and the Wild West.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the cowboy myth. Many of my childhood heroes were cowboys. These men willingly stood up for what was right even though doing so put them in grave danger. They all followed an internal code of ethics, something we seem to be in short supply of in the modern world. But the men I’m thinking of are Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and James Arness, not actual historical figures. Of course the real world is more complicated than the “cowboy world”. In today’s modern society rarely are there good guys or bad guys, but just a bunch of people from a variety of backgrounds caught in complicated situations. No wonder the cowboy world is so appealing.
Our cowboy myth has been evolving over the years. John Wayne, the good guy, was always fighting with the Indians who were the bad guys. Kevin Costner would never be in a movie like that. Actually they don’t put out many cowboy movies anymore. Even though in modern times the cowboy legend isn’t as popular, the essence of the myth is alive and well and usually takes place in outer space. When the drama does take place on earth, the bad guys of today are no longer the Indians, cattle rustlers or outlaws, but more likely to be capitalists, government officials , drug dealers or terrorists.
Since I now live in the heart of cowboy country, I wanted to check out for myself whether there was any truth to all these cowboy stories. I went to the Pima County library in Tucson and started reading newspaper articles from that era. I was surprised at what I found. I read articles in the Arizona Weekly Star from the 1880’s. In almost every issue there was a report on a stage coach hold up, a jail break, cattle rustling or cowboys shooting up a town after imbibing too much liquor. From 1881-1886 the Sheriff of Pima County, which at that time included the towns of Tucson, Benson, Willcox, Tombstone and Bisbee, was a man named Bob Paul. He was 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 245 pounds. In article after article Sheriff Paul headed out to chase after some bandits, sometimes with and sometimes without posses. He was often gone for days and the articles would speculate about what might be going on. When he finally returned and the incidents were recounted, very often the affair had ended in a shootout with the outlaws. Sheriff Paul either brought the outlaws back into town for trial, or killed them in the shootout. It was fascinating reading, but now I’m more confused than ever. I was ready to pass judgment on the cowboy era as just being a product of our collective imagination promoted by the public media. But it appears there actually was a wild west and men like the fictional Matt Dillon lived after all. I don’t understand why there aren’t any movies about Sheriff Bob Paul. Maybe his name is too ordinary.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Trudging Through Europe

In the summer of 1970 after I was discharged from the Army and my friend Paul graduated from college, we took a 3 month break from our lives and backpacked through Europe. I had missed the whole ‘60s phenomenon having been on a 3-year all expense paid assignment for Uncle Sam on US Army bases and in South East Asia. I felt I had missed the biggest party and the best music of my generation. Paul had been at the University of Wisconsin, noted for its huge protest rallies with active radical anti- government and anti-military sentiment. Paul was in ROTC during his four years there. Walking across campus in his uniform on the way to an ROTC meeting was a supreme challenge. He said he had to pick his route carefully, dodging around buildings trying to avoid the many radical students.
But that summer, we were both free of our uniforms, growing our hair long and determined to make up for lost time. We found that we were not the only adventurers in Europe that summer. The continent was crawling with young long hairs from all parts of the globe, milling around in the historic cities, hitchhiking along the roadways and camping in parks and on the pristine Mediterranean beaches.
We bought backpacks for the trip. Paul found a canvas one at an Army Navy surplus store. Mine was nylon with an external aluminum frame. Both packs got progressively heavier as we went along. We filled them with presents for our families and items that we just could not pass up. For example in Italy we discovered a new kind of sneaker made in Germany. They were called Adidas and were sort of like a tennis shoe, but more streamlined and with better arch support. They came in a variety of colors and had three stripes on the side. We
were excited about showing people at home these new shoes and
wondered if they would ever catch on in America.
This was two years before Nike started the running shoe craze for everyday wear. We appreciated how these shoes felt as we trudged around with those heavy packs.
The Spanish trains were slow. We were working our way toward Portugal along the Spanish Riviera, but it felt like it was taking forever. In Valencia, a beautiful seaside town, I bought a flamenco guitar and a soft case with a handle. I was a fairly new guitar player and only knew a few songs, but I had visions of serenading some babes down on the beach. Well, that never happened, but I did became a one handed pack animal from then on.
When we got into Barcelona it was late at night and we found there were no rooms to rent because there was some kind of festival going on. We spent the night unsuccessfully attempting to get comfortable on wooden park benches with no pillows or blankets. Vowing never again to be caught out unprepared, we kept our eyes open for light sleeping bags or blankets.
Greece had the best and cheapest stuff of all. We bought jewelry for our moms, dresses for our sisters and some ornate vases that were intricately carved and must have weighed about 5 pounds each. Into the packs the stuff went. I wanted a shoulder bag and found an endless variety in the tourist shops. I bought a yellow one with a Greek design across the middle and a white rope cord. I saw a lot of guys with shoulder bags. I thought I looked hip with it slung over my shoulder. Paul later told me I looked “twinkie”. We each bought puzzle rings that required a fair amount of practice to put back together after they fell apart with regular frequency.
From Greece we took the Orient Express up along the coast of Yugoslavia. We stayed at a youth hostel in Belgrade. There were pictures of Tito everywhere we went. We had no idea who the guy was but agreed he was very popular. The people in Yugoslavia, still under Communist rule at the time, were extremely nice and very curious about anything to do with the western world. At the hostel however, we thought we had been treated poorly, I don’t remember what the issue was, but we felt justified stealing a couple wool blankets they had supplied us for the night. In the early morning we slipped out with our stolen blankets cleverly concealed. Once clear of the place, we readjusted our loads draping the blankets over the top of our packs like saddle blankets on a cowboy’s horse.
We wanted to go up into the mountains of Austria and felt we needed hiking boots. The pair I bought was big, made of hard leather and very heavy. Paul envied my sturdy rock climbing boots, but actually his lighter boots were the smarter purchase. We went on a few hikes in the mountains of Austria and Switzerland then had to carry the boots around with us everywhere else. We tied the laces together, readjusted the blankets and slung the boots over the top.
The purchase we were most looking forward to was Swiss watches. First, we went to a Rolex distributor. For about $300 we could have bought gold watches that would sell for thousands of dollars today, but we decided to go for the less expensive Bulovas. They had just come out with the tuning fork design that kept perfect time and ran off a battery. I opted for a slightly less expensive self-winding watch with an attractive blue face. Paul bought the more high tech battery powered watch, a present for his dad. He was so worried about customs, that he smeared chocolate all over it on the airplane and wore it concealed on one wrist, while his own watch was on the other.
After returning home Paul took the watch to the local jeweler to find out the real value of this most cherished purchase bought from an authentic Swiss dealer. The jeweler carefully looked at it and then motioned for Paul to come over and look in one of his display cases. There it was, the exact same watch and for less money. My self-winding watch never kept time very well and then petered out all together. I still have it in one of my desk drawers along with the broken puzzle ring and some broken Greek jewelry my mom dutifully wore several times just to be appreciative. She was that kind of mom. The Greek dress was too small for my sister and quickly got discarded. My blanket was eaten by moths, amazingly Paul still has his, but our boots got moldy and had to be thrown out. The guitar is long gone and of course the Adidas have been replaced numerous times by Tigers which predated Nikes, Pumas, Reeboks and Sauconys.
Both Paul and I consider that summer trip one of the highlights of our lives. I’m relatively sure that by the time the summer was over, we could have confidently signed on with a Himalayan expedition as sherpas. Man those packs were heavy!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Vacation In La La Land

One of the compelling reasons to relocate after retirement is the new places that are easily accessible within a day’s travel by car. Last week Katie and I drove to the southern California to spend a few days by the ocean and drink in the moist cool air. After living in the desert for six months now, it was a refreshing break. We were in awe of the plant life that thrives there. Plants we are used to seeing as houseplants in small pots are outdoors and as big as trees. Around every corner we were greeted by sweet flowery smells, to me very exotic and to Katie reminders of home in Hawaii. And the food is so good. Any type of ethnic cuisine that California adopts seems to get better. California Mexican and Asian are our favorites. Where else would you find avocado in sushi?
We both have always been attracted to California. For me it started with the Beach Boys and the lure of the surfing lifestyle back in the ‘60s. But that was a young man’s dream. I think I could probably still surf at 62, but I definitely would have to slowly work up to it. My high schooler’s dream also had a lot to do with all the cute girls in bikinis. Well, they are still there on the beach, even though officially I didn’t notice. And I’m sure some of them would feel a tinge of sadness when they hauled ‘that old guy” off the beach on a stretcher after a major wipeout. This was definitely not how I envisioned my California lifestyle.
Being nomadic people by nature, we always size up an area when we first arrive, “How would it feel to live here?” This phenomenon starts out in an excited and romantic way, but as time goes on and the reality of a place makes itself better known, often the dream fizzles out. For me it fizzled out quickly. Katie fell under the California spell, easily seduced by the ocean and it’s cool moist air, the sunny mild weather, the colors and smells that remind her of home, the many Asian faces and of course all the good food.
The California dream soured for me with each passing vacation day. For starters, when we walked around the neighborhoods, we stopped and looked at the information sheets on some of the houses that were for sale. This shocked me back into the real world. Who can buy all these multi-million dollar homes? Certainly not retired counselors and social workers.
I’m an avid car watcher and California is a great place to see cars that I’ve only seen in magazines. In Arizona if I spot an expensive, well designed and crafted car, the driver invariably is an old person. I always conclude, finally in old age this person can afford the car they’ve always wanted. In California, however, the drivers of these fantasy cars are more likely than not, young people. Everywhere we went we found ourselves surrounded by young people and so many of them were fit and good looking. They were hopping in and out of their BMWs and Porsches, cell phones in hand and on their way to who knows where. I wanted to stop some of them and ask, “How can you afford to live here and drive this expensive car?” And by the way “What’s it like to drive that Porsche 911?” Of course I would never mention that their car costs more than our condo. And if they’d allow me a follow-up question, “How come you’re not at work?” Traveling around in these areas of great wealth, it’s easy for me to feel like Gomer Pyle goes to California. “Golly, would you look at that!” So the whole California dream morphed into “I feel like I don’t fit in here but man is it beautiful.” A puzzling thought occurred to me while we were there. It’s obvious that lots of people who live in California have lots of money, so how can the state be bankrupt?
I started writing this article at a coffee house right on the historic Pacific Coast Highway. This place was packed. Their lattes were great as well as the almond croissant that we split. I perused the flyers on the bulletin board next to the checkout counter while waiting on our order. Unlike the bulletin boards in Port Angeles where we used to live which advertised handyman services, cheap cord wood and bible study classes, there was an abundance of yoga and fitness teachers, psychic healers, self proclaimed gurus and meditation classes. And at the local bookstore, the section on druids, witchcraft and channeling was larger than the literature section.
The highlight of the trip for me was visiting the Self Realization Fellowship Ashram that Paramahansa Yogananda established in 1938. The complex of beautiful white stucco buildings with red tile roofs surrounded by walkways through lush tropical gardens sits on a 17 acre property perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific ocean. Just being on the property was enlightening. After wandering around for a while, we went to the information desk and were told by the receptionist that if we would like a tour of Yogananda’s private living quarters, we could join the retreat students at 2 p.m., so we did.
I read Autobiography of a Yogi when I was in college in the early seventies. I was very moved by the book and first learned about meditation from reading it. Also for about a year, Katie and I attended an SRF meditation group. The tour was led by a small elderly woman in monk’s robes who spoke softly with a heavy European accent. The home was modest in size with a living room, dining room, small study and one bedroom. She allowed each of us time to stand and gaze into Yogananda’s study where he wrote the book and several others and into his small bedroom where a pair of his shoes were still lying by the bed. Standing there gazing at the personal quarters of this great Saint brought up a tide of emotions and tears to our eyes. After the tour we walked over to the temple and meditated for a short while. The “vibes” were good so it was easy to settle into a peaceful state.
Southern California really is what heaven must be like. It’s too bad it’s already been discovered by a zillion people.