Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Retirement, a Time for Being

It was after reading The Magus, by John Fowles, sometime in the late ‘60s, that I started thinking about the difference between being and becoming. In the novel, Nicholas, a young Oxford graduate, accepts a post teaching English on a Greek island. On one of his long solitary walks he runs into an older wealthy man who lives alone on his estate. They begin taking walks together and having long talks. I don’t remember much about the plot, but I do remember that on one of these walks, the older man makes the distinction to Nicholas that because he was young, he was busy becoming, while the older man was simply being.
The desire to become something comes from a place of dissatisfaction. I am dissatisfied with who I am and when I become something different, then I will be happy. People who are successful at their jobs, do the work because they love it. That’s where the satisfaction comes from. It does not come from the identification with or status from the role they play. Becoming is always focused on the future, not the present. It is self- conscious and concerned with how others view us. Adults get caught in the realm of becoming because of an underlying feeling that what they are is not enough.
Being is not future oriented but is totally in the present moment. To become a pianist, one has to spend much time in the being mode, practicing the piano. When one finally becomes an accomplished pianist, it is not the role that gives one happiness, but the act of being an instrument for the music. The pianist loses his/her personal identity in the unselfconscious act of playing music.
Young children more easily allow themselves to just “be in the world”. They also can get lost in the desire of becoming, but I assume this is normal for their developing personalities.
I’ve always liked honeybees. I like them because on one long hot summer day when I was a child, I sat in the back yard and watched the bees come and go on the flowering bushes. I had nothing to do and no one to do it with, so I surrendered to a state of being and to my delight, shared that space with the honey-bees. They went about their business deliberately and meticulously. I felt a oneness with the bees and felt joyously alive. After all these years, the sight of honeybees can instantly transport me into the still spaciousness of being.
The mode of becoming dominated my life after puberty and when I entered junior high school. I felt that I wasn’t enough and needed to work harder to become a better athlete, create a better body, become a better conversationalist and a better student etc. In my fantasies I wanted to be cool, adventurous and fearless. All this angst about becoming something different arose out of a discontented place inside me.
In the mode of becoming, we never quite get there. Even when I did succeed in an area, it still wasn’t good enough. We’re only satisfied when we are in the realm of being. When we surrender to being, it absolutely doesn’t matter how good we are at something, and we are not in the least concerned with how we appear to others. Our society is youth oriented. The young people are running around and working hard to become something. Retirement is the perfect time of life to focus on being and give up becoming. We are no longer immersed in the pressures of work and the world in general.
Where we live here in Green Valley, Arizona, there are a lot of bees and birds, and wildlife, and old people, all sharing the spaciousness of being.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thanks For the Memories

The other day I was thinking about a couple of people I never got a chance to thank, but would have liked to. One was my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Atkins, and the other was Bob Hope. I narrowly missed an opportunity to thank  Mr. Atkins when my friend Paul and I went back to Ferguson in 2002. We walked around the old neighborhood and then over to Lee Hamilton Elementary School which we both attended in the fifties. School had just let out and as soon as the kids left the building, we got a chance to go in and talk to some of the staff. When I asked about Mr. Atkins, the secretary told me he had died recently. She said he spent his whole teaching career at the school and that he had been retired for a number of years.
I don’t remember anything specific Mr. Atkins said to me, except that at a time when I was having trouble in school, he made me feel like I had great potential and could do anything I put my mind to. I was a poor student as a kid and at times, a nervous wreck. In the sixth grade my anxiety about school became so bad my parents took me out of public school and placed me in a private one. But I had no problems in Mr. Atkins’ 5th grade class. When the secretary told us about his recent death, it hit me that sometime during my life I could have at least sent him a letter or a card. He was right there at Lee Hamilton School the whole time, I’m sure helping kids feel better about themselves. I hope some of them made the effort to thank him.
I don’t think Bob Hope needed my thanks. He was arguably the most popular entertainer in the world for many years and he received numerous awards. I know there are and have been thousands of veterans like me who feel immense gratitude toward him. The love and concern he felt for the men and women fighting America’s wars was genuine and it came through in the shows he put on for the troops. He said once that his greatest honor was becoming an honorary veteran.
I recently read one of his autobiographical books called, Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me. It was about his show business career with the focus on the USO shows for military personnel. It all started in May 1941, when he was asked to take his popular radio show to March Field and perform live for the Army soldiers. He said at first he resisted the idea, but eventually was talked into it. This was before Pearl Harbor and our involvement in WWII. He realized early that these men and women were desperate for familiar sounds and sights from home and what they needed more than anything was to laugh. For that first show, he brought along Ray Milland, but soon realized the men in the audience wanted to see girls. So he started bringing along popular starlets of the time. He states in the book, “We represented everything those new recruits didn’t have: home cooking, mother, and soft roommates.”
From that very first show Hope felt he had been transported to comedy heaven. Even mediocre jokes got big laughs. After one so-so joke he comments, “The laughter was so loud I had to look down to see if my pants had fallen.” After returning to the civilian audiences,  “The memory of the generous laughter at March Field haunted me…” He was hooked.
He headlined more than sixty USO tours over a span of fifty years, taking his troop to Europe and all over the Islands of the Pacific during WWII, later to Korea during the war and then to Vietnam. He even did shows for the troops during the first Gulf war. His entourage had many close calls, but this only seemed to make him more determined to continue bringing shows to the fighting men and women. He started calling the soldiers and sailors he entertained, “my kids” even though at the time, he wasn’t much older. Americal Div. amphitheater
I got the opportunity to see the show in Chu Lai, Vietnam, Christmas of 1967. My buddies and I took a cooler full of beer and drove up Highway 1 to the Americal Division Headquarters outdoor amphitheater. We were pretty far in the back, but the acoustics were good, so we didn’t miss a thing. This 1967 Christmas tour was made into a documentary film and can be viewed on you-tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzOsLRT7d5c.
He had four women performers with him that year, Raquel Welch, Barbara McNair, Elaine Dunn and Miss World, who he introduced by saying, “I just wanted you to remember what you’re fighting for.” Also with him was Phil Crosby, one of Bing’s sons. Some of his jokes were about Bing and you could tell how highly he valued their friendship. This was the first overseas show without his lifelong friend, the comedian Jerry Colonna. The music was provided by Les Brown and his Band of Reknown. Bob characterized himself as a big chicken and made jokes about how scared he was when the firing started or the bombs fell. We all laughed uproariously at these jokes not daring to admit to our fellow soldiers that we were all just as scared much of the time.
On that tour, Hope and his troop did shows at 22 bases in 15 days. Some of Bob’s jokes were specific to each area they were in and that included Chu Lai. These were the jokes that got the biggest laughs. At the time, much of the country was against the war and it was hard for us to think about the lack of support at home. For a little while anyway, Bob Hope’s USO show countered all those feelings. They closed the show with Barbara McNair leading us all in the singing of Silent Night. I know there wasn’t a dry eye in the audience.
I consider this show to be one of the highlights of my life. Watching parts of it on you-tube now, my appreciation certainly wasn’t because it was the best entertainment I’d ever seen. The music was mostly from the previous generation. And I didn’t realize at the time that Raquel Welch doesn’t sing or dance very well. She was out performed by Elaine Dunn and Barbara McNair who were great entertainers. But Raquel was probably the biggest hit because she looked so hot in her skimpy blue and white knit mini-dress. I know that’s what I remember most from the show. The guys in the photography section of our Intelligence detachment took pictures of her from all angles, blew them up and made quite a bit of money selling them to other soldiers and sailors. Indeed, she represented what we were all fighting for.
So I wish I could have thanked Bob and Mr. Atkins, two men who made me feel cared about at two very stressful times of my life.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Truth or Consequences, a Town or a Game Show?

In the previous blog I mentioned three game shows that I used to watch in the ‘50s with my neighbor, Mrs. Howard. One of them was Truth or Consequences, hosted by Bob Barker. When Katie and I were looking for a place in the southwest in which to relocate after retirement, we spent several nights in a town of the same name, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. We flew into El Paso, spent a night in Las Cruces and then drove up highway 25. The town was known for its healing hot springs and so fleeing the cold and damp of  March on the Olympic Peninsula, it seemed like the perfect place to go.
We stayed at River Bend Hot Springs. It used to be a youth hostel and was less expensive than some of the other resort spas. It is the only resort right on the edge of the Rio Grande. We stayed in a converted mobile home that was comfortable and clean. The mineral hot springs bubbled up into stone tubs previously used as fish bait ponds, with a choice of temperatures, mild,  medium or hot. A separate tub was positioned so close to the edge of the embankment that you could spit into the river as you soaked. I, of course, would never do that. Check out the site at, http://www.riverbendhotsprings.com/
Truth of Consequences is an unusual name for a town. The locals told us that they refer to it as “T or C” for short and that indeed it was named after the game show. As Katie and I wandered around town doing our tourist thing and feeling mellow after our hot soak, we stumbled upon Ralph Edwards Park. I remembered Ralph from the TV show This is Your Life, but didn’t connect him with Truth or Consequences. I found out later that he was the originator of the show, which he hosted on the radio from 1940 until 1957 and on television from 1950 until 1954. Bob Barker took over as host in 1956.
In 1950 Ralph wanted to commemorate the shows tenth year anniversary, so a staff member suggested finding a town or city that would be willing to name itself after the show. The tenth anniversary show could then be broadcast from that town. I don’t know what the town council of the perfectly named Hot Springs, New Mexico was thinking, but they decided to do it. And this was at least 15 years before psychedelic drugs were widely used. Maybe soaking in all that mineral water made their brains soft and mushy. So on April 1, 1950 the Truth or Consequences show was broadcast from the newly named town of Truth or Consequences, Mew Mexico and from that day on, this date was christened by the town as Ralph Edwards Day. Every year for the rest of his life, Ralph returned to T or C on the first weekend of May to celebrate what is now called Fiesta.
The actual game of Truth or Consequences was pretty silly. The contestants were asked trivia questions that they could rarely answer. If they got the answer wrong, Beula the Buzzer went off and they had to pay the consequences, which was usually something zany and slightly embarrassing. For example, on one show a man read an account of a WWII airplane dogfight and the woman contestant had to make all the sound effects to accompany the reading. A middle-aged woman attempting to make airplane and gunfire sounds was kind of funny. The audience was laughing at and not with the contestant, not unlike some of the stupid shows that are on today. The show had a softer side though. At times they would reunite contestants with long lost friends or relatives. This is possibly what led to Ralph’s This is Your Life show idea.
Another unexpected find in T or C was a half sized Vietnam VeteranAt TorC Walls’ Memorial Wall. It had been a traveling wall until 2002, at which time it was purchased by the state of New Mexico with the help of local T or C businesses. Katie and I spent a little time at the Wall. It was quite emotional for me seeing all those individuals from our time and generation, most of them young, like I was, robbed of their lives by a war that should never have happened in the first place. There are guys I knew up there and I felt lucky not to be one of them, but also guilty that I’m not. They have a nice, simple website for this wall. http://www.torcveteransmemorial.com/
In researching this topic, I ran across a dark chapter in the history of T or C. Five miles outside of town is a small community called Elephant Butte. This is where the “Toy Box Killer” David Parker Ray lived. This guy was a scumbag with a capital SCUM. I quote from Wikipedia,
“David Parker Ray tortured and presumably killed his victims in a $100,000 homemade torture chamber he called his "toy box", which was equipped with what he referred to as his "friends": whips, chains, pulleys, straps, clamps, leg spreader bars, and surgical blades and saws. With these tools it is thought that he terrorized Truth or Consequences for several years with the added assistance of multiple accomplices.”
One of his victims was able to escape and testified in court against him. He was sent to prison for multiple lifetimes, but died of a heart attack shortly after  incarceration. It is estimated that he had anywhere from 14-60 victims during that several year period. He perfected a way of cutting open the body so it would sink in water and they never found any bodies as evidence. There’s no indication that the “Toy Box Killer” was a fan of the show, but his gruesome crimes in T or C give new meaning to  Ralph Edwards, standard opening line, “Hello, we’ve been waiting for you.”
I would definitely recommend going to Truth or Consequences for a visit and staying at River Bend Hot Springs. But if anyone in town asks you a difficult trivia question, turn and run like hell, the consequences could be ghastly. Mrs. Howard and I were fans of Bob Barker and I prefer the way he ended the show, “Hoping all your consequences are happy ones.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Path of Love

Mike & Cookie
When I was 3 years old my dad found a puppy wandering alone on the railroad tracks and brought her home. It was around Christmas time, so he gave her to me on Christmas Eve as a present. I named her Cookie. She was my constant companion during the day and slept at the foot of my bed every night. She was loyal and taught me about unconditional love. As a young boy I remember lying in bed at night, Cookie pressed against my leg and crying because I realized she would die before me.
Growing up I lived as though my life would always safely contain my mom, dad, sister and Cookie. We lived in the same house in Ferguson, Mo. from 1953 until 1965. From my perspective now, that doesn’t seem like a very long time. But those were my formative years and so for the rest of my life that house on Moundale Drive will always feel like my true home.
Next door were the Howards, an elderly couple who never had children. When mom started working and I was in elementary school, Mrs. Howard took care of Cookie and me if I were sick or there was no school for some reason. I loved my time with her. We developed a routine together. We watched television in the morning, three game shows in a row: The Price is Right with Bill Cullen, Truth or
with Bob Barker and Tic Tac Dough with Gene Rayburn. For lunch we often had chicken noodle or tomato soup and Braunschweiger on saltine crackers. She made her special sauce of catsup, mayonnaise and I don’t know what else, to spread on the Braunschweiger. I always raved about it. She also had special treats for Cookie. I was the child she never had and I came with a nice little dog.
Missouri has crappy weather much of the year, but as a boy it didn’t phase me. I loved being outside any time of the year, riding my bike, exploring Moline Creek or just tromping around. My friends and I went to January-Wabash Park to swim in the public pool in the summer and ice-skate on the lake in the winter. And on the fourth of July, they put on a big fireworks display. My friend, Paul, lived nearby and he was always eager to do something together. It’s not easy being a kid and I had my struggles, but in general life was good and full of love and support.
By the time I got out of the Army, everything had changed. Cookie died while I was in Vietnam. My mom didn’t tell me until I returned home. She felt I had had enough grief in the war and didn’t want to add to it. My heart had closed down in Vietnam for survival purposes. I had witnessed too much cruelty, death and suffering. I remember thinking when she told me about Cookie’s death, You think I’m going to get upset about a dog dying, after what I’ve been through. I had no feelings at the time, even though my lifelong loyal companion was gone. My parents moved to Kentucky and so whenever I visited them, it was in a strange city where I didn’t know a soul. The Howards had moved back to Decatur, Illinois. I never saw Mrs. Howard again. Sometime in the 80’s I got a letter from Mr. Howard telling me she had died. He had enclosed a photograph of her headstone. Paul was away at college and we could only see each other rarely. The life I counted on for those 12 years was gone.

But I carried the essence of my childhood with me as my life unfolded. I had internalized those values learned in the ‘50s growing up in Ferguson. I had other pets, each one unique, and each one responding to the love and loyalty that Cookie taught me. I knew how to give and receive love in a family, because I learned that from my parents and my sister. I also knew how to be a supportive loyal friend, because of my lifelong relationship with Paul. 

It took me two tries to find the right partner, but practice makes perfect. When I met Katie I knew right away that she was the one. There is nothing better than sharing your life with a person to whom you give your heart completely. 

When our son Ben was born, my heart was ripped wide open. When he died at age 28, I would have given my life in exchange for his without a moment’s hesitation.
Ben & Dad at the beach

My path is the path of love. Love is the purest and most satisfying of human emotions and sometimes it hurts like hell.