Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

Growing Up

In Life Essays on January 7, 2010 at 7:14 am

I found this story in a box of old pieces I’d written. It was written in 1994. George Bush senior was President, the Northridge Earthquake had just happened, and I had just read Russel Baker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Growing Up. The similarities between his time and what we were experiencing in 1994 struck me then and I wrote about them. As I read what I wrote in 1994, I once again see similarities to our current times.

Growing Up

I sat at the foot of my father’s big leather chair while he told tales of his childhood. Daddy was (and still is) a great story teller. Pulling me into his childhood adventures sprinkled with the flavor of the times.

It was 1972 and my eleven year old mind marveled at the thought of growing up without television, of wringer washers, ice boxes and the big blocks of ice that were delivered to keep food cold. I was more than a little skeptical about outhouses (especially in the cold Ohio winters) and it would be many years before I realized my father had grown up poor.

I grew up in the same small town as my father, but it could have been a different world. We lived in a brand new split-level house with a lush lawn and swing set outside, wall to wall carpeting, two bathrooms and a laundry room inside, and of course television and a side by side refrigerator from Montgomery Ward. I know my parents had rough times, but there were always piles of gifts at Christmas and birthdays, and plenty of food in the pantry.

I guess back then I thought ‘The Wonder Years’ would continue forever.

Three years ago my husband a I bought our first home, a nice little house in the Los Angeles high desert, with three bedrooms, a family room, and a yard for our children (I was pregnant with number three). The house had little extra’s like a three car garage for my husband and a walk-in closet for me, but the feature that captured both of our hearts was the double fire place that faced both the living room and family room. We spent endless hours planning how we would landscape, decorate and customize our new home to make it perfect.

Within months of moving into our new home our dreams were shattered. My husband along with several thousand other McDonnell Douglas employees received his pink slip.

Paul was more concerned for his colleagues than himself. As a heating and air conditioning technician he’d never been out of work before and was sure he wouldn’t go a week without a job. Many of his friends however, were aero-space workers, and were trained only to build airplanes. With the industry in such bad shape, it would be tough for them to find another job with adequate pay and benefits.

Paul found work, but the pay was not enough to cover our bills, and the work didn’t last long. Even his trade had been hit hard by the recession, and over the next two years he would be laid off four more times because of slow work.

During this time we came frighteningly close to losing our home. There have been many sleeplessness nights as we worried about bills, keeping clothing on our three growing sons, and even putting food on the table. On one of those nights after flipping television channels and pacing the floor, I made my nightly pilgrimage to check on my sleeping children. First I tucked the blanket around my two year old and kissed his cheek, then I checked the four year old and eleven year old. They lay sleeping peacefully, content and secure in their warm beds.

On my oldest son’s desk was a stack of old books. An older man at a rummage sale had given one to him. I picked it up. GROWING UP, by Russell Baker. Maybe it would help me sleep.

But I didn’t sleep, I started to read the book and got caught up in the story Baker told. I was fascinated by the timeliness of his tale. I knew the stories, different locations, change minor details, but the plots and the feelings were familiar.

“…..January, 1931. The stock market had collapsed fifteen months earlier, but though business was bad, Washington people who understood these things did not seem alarmed. President Hoover refused to use the scare word ‘recession’ when speaking about the slump. It was merely ‘a depression’, he said. Nothing to panic about. Good times were just around the corner.” And then…..”By the summer of 1932 President Hoover’s mere ‘depression’ had become ‘The Depression’ with a capital D.”

Recession was the scare word? We had been in a recession for years. President Bush (note, this was Bush Sr.) wouldn’t use the scare word DEPRESSION.

“It was a season of bread lines, soup kitchens, hobo jungles, bandits riding the highways,” Baker tells.

Ours is a season of massive lay offs, ‘tent cities’ in parks where the homeless exist, and car jackers the bandits of the nineties.

My husband works hard at providing for his family. He works long hours when they are available but when they are not? I’ve seen his heart ripped from his chest when one of his sons was sick and there was no medical insurance or money to take him to a doctor. We’ve gone weeks when he could give me no money or just ten or twenty-fove dollars with which to feed a family of five for a week. He calls it my magic trick to be able to put a meal on the table with next to nothing, but I know, that I can only do that for so long.

The ‘recession’ has hit so many people that I know. Middle class people with education’s, who work hard and expected to be able to provide at least as well for their families as their parents had. One of my neighbors lost a business, another friend is on the brink of losing one. Four of my neighbors have been through lay offs in the three years we’ve lived here, Two houses on the street behind us, and two on the next street over have been repossessed. One couple we know had to deed their home back to the bank because they couldn’t sell it, but had to relocate in order to keep a job. Another couple abandoned their home and moved out of state hoping to find work after he was laid off, a year later he’s still looking. Many of the friends my husband worked with at Douglas have had to change professions, and take major pay cuts in order to work. Not all of the families have survived in tact.

I read the paper and watch the news and inevitably a financial advisor or economist will tell you, “Plan now for your retirement, open a college fund for your children before the start elementary school. I would love to start three little college funds, and a retirement plan? With what? I’m worried about how I’ll pay for a broken arm if one my sons were to fall off of his bike. I worry about whether I’ll be able to put balanced meals on the table next week.

Right now, my husband is working, the Northridge Earthquake has meant that he won’t be on unemployment…..at least for awhile. But, how many more people did it put out of work? Ho many people already hit hard by the ‘recession’ lost homes or businesses?

Russell Baker’s story ended well. In addition to a successful career with The New York Times he received the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for his biography GROWING UP.

I hope my sons will be able to say the same. That someday my oldest will put his arm around me on a wintry Christmas Eve and say “Mom, do you remember the Christmas when I came into your room and you were crying because all you could give me was a used bike that Dad had scraped up $20 for? Well when I think of that Christmas, I think of the love in our home, and the safe feeling I had, and of course the wonderful cookies we baked. Oh, and Mom, all of your grandchildren have shiny new bicycles for Christmas.”


Making the Great Escape Part 2

In Life Essays on January 7, 2010 at 4:44 am

One day a girlfriend of mine invited me to a potluck lunch at her office building. I had a great time, and sat next to two of the most charming older gentlemen discussing politics and education. Being a parent, education is always on my mind. These gentlemen were so knowledgeable, and so interested in what I had to say. We talked for a couple of hours, and when the lunch was over my friend asked if I’d had a good time.

“It was great!” I told her.
“Do you know who those men were you were talking to?” She asked.
“Oh Yeah, Tom and Mike…..charming gentlemen,”
“Yes” she said with a grin. “The former senators are charming!”

And that wasn’t the only time that I met Wyoming senators in a casual setting. At one Casper Rockies baseball game, my youngest son, Joey caught a foul ball. John, a friend of ours grabbed Joey and directed him to the other side of the stands.

“See that man over there with the white hair?”
“Yes.” Joey answered, not impressed.
“Take your ball over there and have him sign it.” John instructed.
“I don’t want some stranger to sign my ball!”
“Just do it!” John insisted. He looked at me and winked.

I wasn’t sure why it was important, but I took Joey over and we asked the gentleman to sign his ball. He smiled, signed the ball, and passed it to the gentleman sitting next to him, who much to Joey’s frustration also signed the ball. Then he returned the ball to Joey and told Joey to look up at the higher seats in the stands.
“See that old guy up there?” he asked Joey, who nodded but was clearly tired of this game. “Go tell him I said to sign your ball.”

Well, it turned out that all three men were former Wyoming senators, and the first man was also a former pro ball player in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Joey had met three senators, and the next spring he would shake hands with Governor Dave Freudenthal at his D.A.R.E. graduation, experiences he probably would never have had in Los Angeles.

Now being a good California girl, when “spring” came around, I packed up my winter clothes, and filled my closet and drawers with my summer clothes…..it seemed like a good plan, I’ve been doing it all of my life, it was a little chilly still after March 21st, and into April….and May, and in June when I was dressed in my white capris, sandals, and a ‘cute’ summer top, shivering as I sat in the stands at our local minor league baseball game……and it started to snow….yes, I said it was June…..I know, I know, just think how surprised I was!!! And, this is how I learned that in Wyoming you can put away your summer clothes, but never, NEVER put away your winter clothes……..

I of course joined the PTA at the boys schools. After the first year I was asked to take a position on the County PTA Council, a position that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to hold here in Los Angeles. As a result of that position I ended up serving for two years on the Wyoming State PTA Board as the State Arts Chair. I am so grateful for this experience. As a writer, having an opportunity to share the arts and open up opportunities to school kids was an amazing experience. One of the truly wonderful aspects of this experience was coordinating the State level judging of the National PTA’s Reflections Program. The first year that I chaired, the Reflection’s Theme was ‘A Different Kind of Hero’. I found that by just picking up the phone I could speak to a variety of important people and ask them to participate in this special arts program for our school children. This was one of the many advantages of living in a state with such a small population.

My Wyoming friends often laughed at me because I was so thrilled by dirt and open space. They were amazed that a girl who drove on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles wouldn’t drive on the Interstate Highway in Wyoming…because she was afraid of hitting a deer or an antelope (in 6 years I never did leave Casper on my own!). They thought I was overdressed for every meeting, and that I was way too formal when I set up a board meeting.

The tables finally turned a little the year that the National PTA Convention was in Anaheim, California. I came as the County Council President, and our Vice President attended with me. Now we were on my home turf. When our VP left her purse in the chair next to her in the hotel lobby I shook my head and gave instructions on securing your purse at all times….including, in public restroom stalls. When we got on the escalator (I hadn’t been on an escalator in two years) I showed my pushy city side and made her walk up the escalator (it’s not a resting place, you can get to your destination twice as fast if you walk while you ride!) it was that or get run over by the throng of people coming up behind us. And, when she became impatient because we had to wait for a table at virtually every restaurant where we dined, I was able to laugh a little. In Wyoming you rarely wait for a parking spot, or a table. She almost had to force me to get back on the plane to go back to Wyoming, it was good to be home.

But, when we landed at Natrona County International Airport, and it was quieter at the airport than in my South Bay backyard, it felt pretty good to be in Wyoming. Although, I have to admit that first little trip back home was the beginning of my yearning to return to California.

Then a former neighbor from the South Bay called, and said her husband was considering applying for a job in Casper. I was thrilled, they were great friends, and we would love to have someone from home nearby. She asked some questions, I sent her some information, and a few weeks later she called and asked if her husband could come and stay at our house for a few days while he applied for the job and looked around town.

As she gave me his flight information she became a little frustrated. “Darn it, I didn’t get his gate number…. I know it should be here.” I almost burst out laughing. “Jacquie,” I said, “I don’t need a gate number, there’s only one gate. There will only be one small plane coming in with maybe 50 people on it, and I promise you, your husband will be the only tall Mexican guy getting off of the plane….we’ll find each other!” It was true of course. I drove at a leisurely pace to our International Airport, pulled right into a spot a row or two from the entrance. No charge for parking. The plane landed, Jacquie’s husband exited, grabbed his bag, we walked over to the rental car desk, he picked up a car, and we were done. I doubt if we were in the airport more than 15 minutes. The antelope barely looked up from where they were grazing at the end of the runway as we left.

One autumn day my, husband and I decided to take our boys to a pumpkin patch we’d heard about in Riverton, a town a couple of hours west of us. On the way there we passed through the small town of Shoshone, population just over 600 people. As we passed the little “street” with the saloon and the little shop that serves the most amazing “world famous Yellowstone Milkshakes”, we noticed a bunch of flatbed trailers lining the little block. It appeared to be some kind of street sale, so we got out and looked. As we were browsing, I had this eerie “Twilight Zone” feeling. Everything there was brand new….and yet, it looked like items from the 70’s. There was a rocking chair that reminded me of something one of my grandmothers owned when I was small, and a plastic kitchen clock that looked very similar to something the other grandmother had. Almost everything was avocado green, or harvest gold. The clothing styles, were dated, and was that a brand new shrink wrapped Six Million Dollar Man board game? Well as it turned out, it was an auction, and we were a little late to get in on the bidding. The items for sale were from the general store across the street. Sometime in the early or mid-70’s, or so we were told, the owner had gotten ill, and never returned to work. For about 30 years everything was just left in the store as it was….other than a fire that had done some damage….nothing had changed. It was like a little time capsule, and we were just amazed. We were too late to bid on some of the things we would have loved to purchase, but my husband did buy a beautiful leather jacket, lined with sheepskin for next to nothing. It’s original price in nineteen seventy something was $240. I tease him and call him McCloud when he wears it, because it reminds me of the jacket that Dennis Weaver wore in that 1970’s tv series.

In early 2007 we got a phone call telling us that my father in law was dying of cancer. We were only able to return to California once to see him before his funeral that November. We knew we were just a little too far from home, and that it was time to end our great adventure.

We’ve been back a year now, and it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of city life. When we signed the stack of documents that killed 2 trees (are we really environmentalists here in California) in order to close escrow on our new home, I thought about the few pages we signed to sell our home in Wyoming. When I made my appointment to register our car at the Department of Motor Vehicles, so that I would only wait for 30 or 40 minutes (hopefully) as opposed to 2-3 hours, I thought about the fact that Wyoming has no DMV. I could go to the court house, generally walk right up to a cashier and pay my registration fees then go home. This year when I waited in line for nearly 2 hours just to get fabric cut at JoAnne’s the week before Christmas, I thought about the fact that if I was in Casper, I’d have been home sewing before I even got in line to pay for that fabric.

And, yet, I have to admit, that I’m happy to be back home. I didn’t realize how much I missed authentic Mexican food, and Japanese, and Mediterranean …and…… I knew how much I missed fresh produce and being able to find a farmer’s market every day of the week. I missed the ocean, and although I loved the snow….those frigid temperatures often made me long for a Southern California winter. I definitely missed my family and friends….although now I miss the good friends I made in Wyoming. And, I missed being someplace that was familiar, that I had a history…..where I knew I belonged. I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to make “The Great Escape”, but for all it’s imperfections, there is no place like Los Angeles, and I’m so glad to be back.