The Woods

From age two to age 20, 1957 to 1975, I lived as the youngest of three children in our family’s 5-bedroom, 3-bathroom, Bell and Valdez-constructed home, built upon a typical ¼-acre lot in Lake Hills; a model post-war unincorporated sprawling suburb of Bellevue, which in turn was a classic post-war incorporated suburb of Seattle.  When Bellevue annexed Lake Hills in 1969, it increased the city’s population by roughly a third, up to 60,000, most of whom – it seemed – were Boeing engineers and their familial and economic support network. 

In this middle class juvenile idyll, all the houses on our block contained kids, and we roamed each other’s yards, grazed for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in our mom’s kitchens, played tag football between the concrete curbs of the 36ft-wide asphalt-paved street, and on warm and dry summer days, headed down the block to The Woods for mysterious adventures. 

My way to The Woods passed only four homes, down SE 8th and across 168th SE.  About two miles long and a half-mile wide, The Woods was a yet undeveloped part of Lake Hills.  Extending from SE 8th, it stretched eastward about three hundred feet of relatively flat-terrain second growth Douglas fir-salal forest before a precipitous drop off in a series of east-west ravines down to West Lake Sammamish Parkway.  Further to the south, Old Growth forest characteristics took hold, and a dramatic – and artificial – seasonal waterfall became a rare but exciting destination.  But those were beyond my childhood’s daily roam, which focused almost exclusively on the top of the nearby slope.

Perhaps I would tell mom or dad where I was going on those languid summer days or perhaps not.  We were free range foul then. Parents just assumed that everyone had everyone else’s back.  

Often, I would seek out one of my friends, but sometimes just solo trek down the block, across 168th, turning right down its steep half block and then left at the dead end on SE 9th. Veering left again, I’d be into The Woods. 

The Woods was an escape and a place of independence. Even a dollop of potential danger.  As my feet left the asphalt and took their first steps onto the soft soil, I was instantly transformed and away.  

What did we kids do all those days in The Woods?  There was the tree fort project we partially completed, though it sadly lacked in the complexity and scale of our Swiss Family Robinson aspirations.  There were the tunnels we dug in “the clearing” – a clearing that we kids made and expanded with our diffuse energies.  There were the first kisses.  That was cool. 

I went off to college and came back occasionally to visit the folks in their Lake Hills home.  By the mid-1970s, Dad was heavy into wellness – diet, exercise, and meditation.  He took me on his morning constitutional, down to The Woods, but this time turning right at the end of SE 9th, not left as had been my way.  We walked briskly down a well-trodden path he called his Trillium Trail to a quiet grove of fir and cedar.  This was his place for meditation, and we TMed together for 20 minutes.

He and Mom strode the Trillium Trail together for years.  

My section of The Woods was leveled and replaced with huge homes in the 1980s as Heron’s Gate, following the developer’s unwritten rule that subdivisions are always named for the nature they’ve destroyed. Trillium Trail became the northwestern trailhead to Weowna Park, with the preponderance of The Woods saved by the city of Bellevue in perpetuity as a touch of wildness in the middle of urbanity.  No, Weowna is not a fortuitous Native American transliteration, but a playfully shmushed name of civic pride. 

Dad passed in 1980. Wellness could go only so far when fighting against a scarred heart and floppy mitral valve. Mom passed in 2005 of Alzheimer’s, 20 years after moving away from Lake Hills.

Big sister Laurie and I had been acceding to mom’s wishes for years.  Spreading her ashes in special places of meaning to her and to us.  On August 1, 2017, when mom would have been 98 years old, some of her remaining ashes were driven along SE 8th, down the 168th SE hill, parked along SE 9th, walked down the Trillium Trail to the familiar grove of fir and cedar, and laid upon its sacred ground. I churned them with a nearby stick into the thick humus, merging family memories with the active decay and abundant life that is The Woods.

Neighbors and Civilization

The soft-spoken, diminutive 81-year-old Harriet was visibly nervous.  She was about to sit down in front of a cluster of 2-dozen friends and neighbors in a tiny downtown bookstore who had gathered to listen to her read stories of her youth growing up in Nazi Germany.  The designated soft chair facing the cozy audience did not appear to meet the moment.  “Would you like this stiff-backed wooden chair instead,” asked her friend.  

“Yes, I think that would work better,” Harriet gently replied with a small and gracious smile. 

In her readings, Harriet intertwined personal, family experiences, with the larger forces of Nazi history. She talked about President Hindenburg’s fateful decision to appoint Adolf Hitler as chancellor, even though he only got 37% of the vote. When Hindenburg died a few months later, she demonstrated with painful detail how ruthless and effective Hitler and the Nazis were in consolidating power. A key technique in that consolidation was the capacity to instill fear in the populace for any effort to oppose the Nazis. A key technique to instill fear was the breakdown in trust between neighbors.

Harriet told of her father discovering and then confronting a neighbor who was peering into their living room window on a cold winter’s evening. The neighbor explained, with a self-satisfied justification, that she was listening only to make sure the family radio was not tuned to the BBC.  The consequence for Harriet’s family of such a revelation could be severe. Imprisonment and even death.

In any political era, there is a seductive tendency to equate the latest autocratic outrage with an unavoidable slide into Nazi atrocities.   First the Nazis did this, then they did that, and look at what our current ruler is doing? Same darn thing. And yet… and yet… this time in America feels different.  Trump’s lawbreaking feels different. Trump’s apparent direct appreciation for Goebbels and Hitler feels different. Trump’s acolytes seem so fawning, and their yearning for a great leader so reminiscent of Hitler, that all the things that make the current and ‘30s eras so different appear to fade away.  Fears take over.  Maybe we could slide into fascism? Maybe the lies and cult of leadership risk civilization itself?

Harriet’s stories triggered a lifetime reflection of my family’s interactions with neighbors. Both my family of origin as well as the various incarnations of what came to be my home and family.

I was born in “The Projects;” a low- to moderate-income public housing complex in New York’s Arverne-Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens. My parents were just starting their careers and with three little kids, Dad’s single income source and Mom’s full-time home and child-raising duties qualified us for rent support.  Our neighbor, the Dubrows’ dad, worked two jobs which provided his family with sufficient income to exclude them from The Projects. But we didn’t “rat” on him and his family about that second job.  Or which radio station they listened to! We were compassionate neighbors.

Soon after I was born, Dad got a fancy job in Seattle, Washington and off we went. For about 18 months we lived in an apartment complex on Mercer Island while our typical suburban tract home was being constructed in Lake Hills. We moved there when I was two and lived there for the rest of my childhood.

Lake Hills was a massive post-war residential and commercial development, filled with more than 13 thousand people in the eastern side of Bellevue. Our block had 16 homes – eight on each side of the street – and just about everyone’s home had kids close to my age. I came to know the names of just about everyone on the block as did my parents and sisters.  The world of neighbors on our block felt safe. Kids would play on the street, then drop in on various homes, where a kid’s mom might have warm chocolate chip cookies and milk ready to serve. 

When I was about 10, new neighbors moved in who proved to be great community organizers.  They successfully lobbied the city to shut off our street to cars for a day, and we had a block party.

But not all neighbors were as friendly as others.  In some homes I felt uncomfortable or unwelcome. One family seemed a bit more distant – the Perrys. They lived immediately next door.

Like many dads on the block, Ed Perry worked for Boeing.  I believe he was a tradesman on the assembly line. His wife, Thelma, worked as a nurse for Group Health. In fact, at one point, she was the principal nurse for Dad’s cardiologist. The Perry’s had three boys, of similar age as my two big sisters and me. 

David, the oldest, went on to a long and storied career as a rock and roll radio DJ in Los Angeles. Wayne, the middle son, became an innovative and successful corporate lawyer, owner of mobile phone companies, part-owner of the Seattle Mariners, and most famously, president of the Boy Scouts of America (Preceded by Rex Tillerson and succeeded by Robert Gates).  Steve, the youngest, and just a couple years older than me, was a giant of a man.  At 6’10”, he played on the high school basketball team. Last I heard about him after school, he had become a police officer.

Wayne was somehow the boy I interacted with the most. He would call me “Fanny Fart-Knocker.”  This would be as close as he would get to the name Danny. Wayne seemed the toughest of the three boys, but he also had a kind of swagger and sarcasm that I found both slightly frightening and oddly appealing.  My sister Laurie tells me that she and Wayne did not get along and at one point a fight resulted in her throwing a rock through the Perry’s window. Steve never had anything to do with me, even though we were closest in age.  But David would interact with my big sisters, and it is through this connection that we gained insight into our parents’ neighborly relations. 

David was a kind of Perry political rebel. I suppose it went with the affinity for rock and roll. My sisters found out from him that his mom was a member of the right-wing John Birch Society. David told my sister Ann that his folks had suspicions that we were communists and warned him and his brothers to stay away from us.  He also said that apparently either his mom or dad contacted the FBI and that it had a wire placed on our phone.

If true, the Perry parents’ political actions against my parents were reprehensible. But they had grounds. And in that era’s terms, reasonable judgment for their suspicions.  Turns out that my mom did dabble in left-wing circles during The Great Depression. As she described it, she joined a communist book club in college because “they read the most interesting books.”  And both my parents were assuredly attracted as youth to social justice movements. Afterall, they became professional social workers.

Growing up in Lake Hills in the 1950s and 60s, we were surrounded by Boeing engineers, tradesmen, and political conservatives. Our family was an obvious aberration. Jewish. Politically liberal.  Our house echoed with the sounds of Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie.  Our bookshelves contained evidence of left-wing influences. Plenty of cause for suspicion! Though it was at least slightly ironic that Thelma Perry worked as a nurse for the closest thing at the time to socialized medicine – Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound.

Move the timeline forward 50 years. I’m speaking with my son Zac, a working journalist now living in Minneapolis. I tell him about his grandpa and grandma and how we kids were told that the FBI had them under wiretap surveillance. Zac asks, “Dad, why don’t we do a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to see what records they may have on Grandma and Grandpa?”

“I had never thought of that.  Yes, why not? Let’s do it,” I reply. And so, we did.

A month later we get a reply from the FBI. Yes indeed, there are FBI records on both my parents.  Ten pages total on my dad.  One hundred and twenty on my mom!  And the dates of the records stretch from the 1940s to the 1970s! If we want to see them, the FBI writes, it will take up to two years to process them.

My immediate response to the FBI was, “Yes, I want to see them.”  I also asked them if they could tell me the nature of the records.

“Were any of the records phone records?” I inquired, harkening back to the original motive for inquiry, which involved the Perrys and wiretapping. The FBI responded that they could not tell me at that time about the type of records. I thanked them for the quick reply and reiterated that I did want to see all the federal records on my parents as soon as they could provide them.  I also asked whether there were any records on me.  Their response a few weeks later came back.  I was in the clear.  There was no file on me at all.

The two years for the FBI to provide records on my folks were up this month, February 2020.  Zac contacted them for an update.  “It will be a year more to wait,” was the FBI’s response. Justice delayed is justice denied, of course, and one must wonder if priorities to process FOIA requests have somehow taken a nosedive in the Trump administration. 

So, we are left with mysteries to uncover.  Why was the FBI more interested in my mom than my dad? Could it have been because she was born in Russia? The records started before the Perrys and Farbers moved into Lake Hills.  Could the FBI have in fact contacted the Perrys and asked them to spy?  Or perhaps asked them after the Perrys initiated contact?  And just what was so interesting about my mom?  Could she have been more actively radical than I knew? Finally, if not the Perrys, who did notify the FBI to pry into my parents’ lives? Another neighbor?

Over the years, I have lived in many homes with dozens of neighbors.  The value of good neighborly relations and the downside of stressful relations have both played themselves out in real time. I have tended to tread gently, not wanting to offend a neighbor. The example of the Perrys has been a constant reminder of the risk that can come from a neighboring relationship gone bad.

Sometimes, striking the right balance in neighborly relations has been a challenge for me and my wife Jean. 

Jack, our male neighbor to the north, was in his 70s when we first met. He had been married to his second wife, Mary, for over a decade. Their home, built in the 1920s, was well-maintained, with an American flag proudly flying year-round.  Jack greeted me as we encountered each other for the first time in our alleyway. He invited me into his wine cellar where he made his own wine and gave me a bottle of welcome.  So far, so good.  He told me of his career in the military. He also started discussing the neighborhood, used the “N” word, and I quickly figured out that this was a man with whom it would not be wise to engage in political conversation.

I made the strategic error of mentioning the “N” word reference to my wife.  Immediately upon hearing that, she would have nothing to do with our neighbors to the north.  So much for that relationship!

I did have a brief and pleasant conversation with Mary soon thereafter. She told me about our neighbor to the south.  She called that property owner a “slum landlord.”  The renter, a father, about 60 years old, was a musician and guitar teacher.  His son was a mentally disturbed individual.  Later, I ran into the father in the alleyway, and we had a polite chat. He told me that his son had difficulties, but that if he took his meds, he wouldn’t be violent.  He also said that his son didn’t like taking his meds.

About a week later, I met the son in the alleyway.  I went over to introduce myself.  “Hello, I’m your new neighbor, Daniel,” I said in the friendliest voice I could muster.

“What’s your name, again?” he asked sternly.

“It’s Daniel.”

“I don’t like that name,” concluded my 20-year-old neighbor. “Never talk with me again!”

Much has been written about the changing mores of neighborly communication in America.  Do we know our neighbors? Do we trust them?  Will we have each other’s back in an emergency?

Harriet’s story of neighborly relations in a society built on terror was an extreme example of dysfunction and danger. Our capacity to form and retain and enhance civilization really does depend to a great extent on our skills and interest in being civil with each other.  Surely that must include an effective dedication to neighborliness.  But neighborliness is not enough.

In Harriet’s case, her father for months had been driving that neighbor to work.  He had a good job and money for gasoline, and she was needy. In a good society, kind neighborliness is rewarded.  In an evil one, a human’s need for self-preservation rewards wickedness. The fragility of civilization, rests on both the kindness of neighbors, and the good judgment of the masses, to elevate and empower wise and compassionate leadership.

Anyone got a cup of sugar?

April 2021 Postscript:  Still haven’t received data from our FOIA request.  Standing by.

Buying the Lying

On his afternoon constitutional, David spies a sign on the sidewalk in front of a modest blue bungalow with a neatly manicured yard. The sign reads “Talking rabbit for sale:  $10.” Captivated, David knocks on the entry door.

“Good morning!  I’m intrigued by the sign in your yard.  Do you really have a rabbit for sale?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the tall, wiry, bald-headed man replied in a surprisingly blasé tone.

“Are you serious?  Can the rabbit really talk?”

“Come on back and see for yourself.”

“OK… let’s do this.” David is led around the house through a wooden gate to the backyard where a chestnut brown English rabbit is munching on iceberg lettuce in a small gilded cage. The man leaves David alone with the rabbit.

“How do you do?” chimed the rabbit brightly. “So nice to meet you.  What is your name?”

“Uh… my name is David,” was the shocked response.

The two chatted amiably for a while. “When I was last in Paris,” the rabbit recalled, “I found the most delicious young carrots in a small market in the 15th Arrondissement. You simply must check it out next time you are abroad.

The conversation continued for a few minutes, before David and the rabbit bid adieu.

“So, how did your conversation go?” the man asked glumly.

“Incredible!  The rabbit talked about his journeys to Paris, Berlin… even Moscow.  Amazing!  I have just one question of you.  Why are you selling him?  He’s a miracle!”

“If you must know, I’m sick and tired of that grubby rabbit.  Paris?  Moscow?  He’s never been out of my backyard, except for the vet visit last June.   That rabbit is a damn liar!”

Unprepared: College Life

Entering Western Washington State College directly from high school, I quit after one quarter. My 2.02 GPA belied a deeper reality.  I had no idea where I was going, who I was, and what I wanted.  And my D in French was undeserved. I should have flunked.

In the long march to maturity, Western was where reality forced confrontation with self.  Just how far did I still need to travel to arrive at a tentative sense of competent adulthood?

Higginson Hall, my first residence away from home, my first painful dabbling in independence, proved a great site for bubbling failure.

I, lusting after Elvis-loving Geena around the billiards table, couldn’t act upon that yearning.  Unasked, she was likely clueless to my fantasies.

I, underaged and supremely innocent, confidently wagered with Big Rick, our dorm residence assistant, for a six-pack of beer. “I bet I can win 20 games in a row.” This 18-yo Jewish suburbanite handily beat that 22-yo African American from Seattle’s Central Area on our ping pong bet, only to find that he who has the gun, sets the rules.

And what does one need to settle down, focus, and accomplish anything in this glorious life of self-professed value?  All the stuff that I lacked at the time. Purpose. Discipline. A modicum of judgment earned from both experiences and some strange alchemy of interpretation of those experiences that produces proximations of wisdom.

Let’s call it preparation.

What I Learned from Papa

My writing class assignment was to write two pieces, about 16 lines each, that starts with the title “What I learned from…”

What I learned from Papa

Once Papa gently advised, and only upon my request for his advice, that:

I should only act on important decisions when I am centered. 

I should not proclaim in the throes of anger or hurt, but wait until I gain perspective. 

I should separate others’ statements about me from their feelings and world outlook. 

And thus:

I should not take “personally” perceived attacks, but rather find a perspective that is outside of me and them and respond accordingly.

That is what I learned from my papa.

That is not, however, what I in fact do.

For:

To not take things personally is hard. 

To not react in the moment is hard. 

To breathe and breathe again before speaking is not natural.

Is not natural, I suppose I must say, for me.

But:

After I have reacted

After I have said what I wish I hadn’t

After I have acted rashly

I then recall what I learned from my papa.

And I say, next time, next time, I’ll do better. 

And I’ll remember Papa.

What I Learned from Carolyn Dobbs

After 65 years, not much sticks. One has difficulty remembering names and faces.

Putting the two together? Forget it.

So, when someone said something to you once that you not only retain, but find yourself constantly using, it counts as a life lesson. It feels like something you’ve learned.

An urban planner by academic discipline, my The Evergreen State College professor, Carolyn Dobbs, said two things to me – 20 years apart mind you and seemingly unrelated – that I find myself going back to again and again as core wisdom and succor:

  1. “You know, Daniel, all people are bundles of insecurities.”  From which I remind myself that I need to treat others with kindness and tact.
  2. “The key to being a successful planner is that by the time a decision needs to be made, you know more about the subject than anyone in the room.”  From which I remind myself that I must do the work. That respect is earned.  And that while there are no certainties, if you make the effort, it increases the chance for the payoff.

Everything Matters

Characters:

Daniel:  A 65-year-old man

Dan: Daniel’s younger self at age 20

_____________________________________________________

Daniel: (whispering, smiling gently) Shhhh, Dan. Don’t wake up. This is a dream. 

Dan:  (groggily) Huh?

Daniel: (speaking more clearly) I am a voice from your future. Actually, I am your voice from your future.

Dan: (curious, but not afraid) What? Who are you?

Daniel: I’m Daniel. I’m you. Age 65.

Dan: But…

Daniel: (interrupting) Just go with this for a bit. Let’s see where this takes you. Where this takes us.

Dan: (emerging from the somnolent cloud, then open to what happens next) Um… ok.

Daniel: (firmly now and for the rest of the dialog) I am here, in your torpid mind, to provide you a simple message based on experience.  A message of advice, as it were.

Dan:  Ok… I’m ready.

Daniel: Great.  The message is this:  It matters. It all matters.

Dan: What matters?

Daniel: Everything.  Everything you do. Everything you think.  Every decision you make. Every decision you try to avoid. Everything.

Dan: What do you mean, “everything?”

Daniel: I mean everything.  In the next 45 years you will be frequented by what feels like big decisions. Which college you go to.   What classes you take.  Whether you want something called a career, and then what career path you pursue.

Dan: Those are huge decisions alright.

Daniel:  But there is more. Much more.  Who will you decide to date? Who will you decide to love? All those choices matter.

Dan: Well, what’s surprising about that? Those are the choices that trouble me now.  So of course, they matter.

Daniel: Yes, but everything else matters too. Even the day-to-day.  The seemingly insignificant.

Dan: The insignificant?

Daniel:  The seemingly insignificant. Yes. Every time you decide to work late to finish something on deadline. Every moment you procrastinate and knock yourself for doing so. Every flash in which you come up with a creative solution, or every crushing instant you’re dumbfounded and lost.  It might feel smaller than that still. Much smaller.  The hikes you take and the outings you forgo. The dessert you eat or skip.  The beer you drink or don’t. Hell, will it be an IPA or a stout? Everything matters.

Dan: (with a tad of incredulity) Everything?

Daniel: Every sentence you say.  Every smile or frown. Every jot and tittle.  Every whim or wisp. Everything blessed or cursed. Every blooming thing.  It all matters.

Dan: (now irritated and annoyed) Why are you saying this?  What are you doing to me? Why do you place this burden on my shoulders?  Who can live a balanced, healthy life of accomplishment, connections and joy if there are always these expectations for perfection?

Daniel: (calmly and with kindness) Dan, I think you may be missing my essential point if this feels like a burden. Everything matters is not about obligation. It is about fact. And it is about opportunity.

 It is a truth that every thought, every action you take throughout your life, affects the sum of what you become.  It is a truth that every moment is an expression of who you have become and who you are. And it is a truth that every moment is an opportunity to learn from your past and become more the person you want to be in the now.  In your next 45 years, through all the decisions, whether they seem large or small, I know that you will do a perfect job of creating what I am today.

My message for you now, is that overall, you and I and the infinite versions of ourselves in between, ended up doing just fine.

Dan: (calmed somewhat, but still skeptical) I suppose that is supposed to be inspiring. Or at least soothing.  But it’s also daunting and not in a slight way intimidating.

Daniel: Perhaps so.  But it is also your fate. I wager it feels about right too.  Because I rather know you pretty well.  And, happily enough, I say to you with a confidence borne from a reflective reality, everything ended up mattering to me. And in the end, everything will have mattered to you.

Grandpa Charles

Grandpa reached out his right arm playfully and gently commanded, “Shake my hand.” I eagerly complied, sensing something was about to happen.

“You just shook the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln,” Grandpa said with a grin earned from a multitude of identical attempts.  His old grammar school principal apparently claimed to have similarly exchanged sweat with Honest Abe.

Charles (Aurelius, Orias, Caius, Casius… I’m messing up his silly list of faux middle names but it went on for about 10 specimens and ended with Juniper) Farber was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when it was a late 19th Century poor and vibrant Jewish neighborhood. He didn’t fit in all that well.  Nearsighted and colorblind, the kids teased him unmercifully, calling the spectacle-wearing boy “Four Eyes.” He was irreligious. He wasn’t great at stickball, though he did love the “New York Baseball Giants” and their best pitcher Christy Mathewson.

Grandpa Charles was an enthusiastic, even rhapsodic, autodidact. Never got past 8th grade, yet he was a voracious reader of high lit and timely non-fiction, and a passionate and knowledgeable classical music consumer. When I listen now to a Bach fugue, Beethoven sonata, or Brahms chamber piece, I’m listening as Grandpa Charles, swinging my arms, jabbing the sky, my face dancing to the music’s demands.

“I got arrested as a Bolshevik in 1920 for not wearing a hat,” he proudly recalled, basking in his unearned subversive youth. It was only later did I read about that year’s famous Palmer Raids, named for the crusading anti-communist Attorney General who saw a red under most every bed. At the time, Grandpa was a floor trader on Wall Street.  Hardly a bastion for socialist revolutionaries.  And he was doing pretty well.  Photographing his lovely wife, dancing like Isadora Duncan. Doting on his sweet son (my dad).  The 20s, found Charles, for the most part, with dollars in his pockets, living the New York bohemian idyll.

The market crash of ’29 hit the Farbers hard.  Grandpa lost his job and most of what remained of his self-confidence shortly thereafter. Unemployed, he struggled. The marriage suffered. It was up to Grandma Ida to pull them out of a deep hole.  She went to her brother who helped set up Charles with a small bookshop.  For 36 years he owned and managed the Mayfair Book Shop on Northern Boulevard in Flushing, Queens. It was really a glorified Hallmark card store, with 2 rows of cards surrounded by walls of dusty old book classics.

I wonder if he ever sold a book.  Grandpa was a lousy businessman. I remember one incident when I was about 10.

I stood outside on the sidewalk and appeared to gawk at offerings in his shop, just to draw in customers. In fact, it was beginning to work.  “Stop that,” he called out to me. “All these people are interfering with my reading!” And there was Grandpa, sitting in the back of the store by the cash register reading a book.  Yes… that’s right. His cash register in a New York shop was in the back of the store.  When the store was finally sold, the first change by the new owners to reduce theft was to reverse the location of that register.   

Charles’ father died at age 39 and Grandpa was convinced he would as well. He was hospitalized with pneumonia at 39, but then recovered.  He proceeded to live another 45 years.

Grandpa’s stressful marriage after the Great Depression never fully returned to its sanguine youthful joys. He never left the city until his 40s when he visited Dad and Mom in Florida during WWII. He said death would be his reason to depart the bookstore and he almost pulled that off.  Hospitalized at age 79, he and Grandma sold the store, moved into an apartment near their daughter and in a complete surprise, Grandma died two days later.

But then, there was a second act.  He met a vibrant and saucy German refugee lady.  They paired up, and for the first time in his life, he traveled to Europe, and to other exotic climes.  The last four years of his life were his happiest.

My dad, the gerontology professor, would teach that we are capable of growth and change through all stages of adulthood. The way my mom put it, was “you never know what might happen next.” For them both, Grandpa Charles made the case.

The Driving Lesson

COAL: 1967 Dodge Dart Sedan Slant-6 – A School Teacher Car | Curbside  Classic
The 1967 Dodge Dart 4-Door Sedan was labeled a “compact car.” It came with automatic transmission, but required more than a automaton to get it safely inside the carport.

Mom failed the driver’s license test three times before finally passing. The DMV probably just gave up from exasperation.  Or pity.  Either way, theirs was a decision clearly against the public interest. 

She was the worst driver I’d ever seen. Couldn’t stick to a lane, never drove the posted speed limit, and maintained the horrendous habit of talking with and looking at passengers while driving.  More hazardous still, she lacked what could charitably be called “driver’s situational awareness.” Other vehicles, pedestrians, the occasional horse, would just suddenly appear as if out of thin air. “I just didn’t see them,” Mom would recall after accidents.

But all her failings came in mighty handy when it was my time to take the wheel. I’ll explain.

Dad started my on-pavement training.  He drove our 1967 Dodge Dart to a large and empty church parking lot, then allowed me to get behind the wheel for the first time and get a feel for the basics.  It was there that my initiation began, by starting the engine, shifting into drive, softly pressing down on the gas pedal and just as softly engaging the brake.  All these individual tasks were going well, so Dad felt confident enough to let me “take ‘er home.”

Shaking with nerves and exhilaration, I maneuvered the Dart into traffic and drove about a mile to our house.  So far, so good.  But as I turned the car into our driveway a bit too quickly, Dad started shouting, “Break, BREAK, BRRREEEEAAAAKKK!” 

My foot, planted firmly on the gas pedal, followed Dad’s instructions to the letter. The car sped up, crashed and BROKE the center carport support beam.

“Well, you said ‘break’,” I grimaced and let out an embarrassed giggle. Dad was not amused.

After the “break” incident, we decided that Mom’s patient tutelage would be best. Afterall, she’d be calmly oblivious to any impending disaster. 

Sekiu Sam

A Pre-Covid Trip to the Coast

Clallam Bay & Sekiu & Neah Bay | Olympic Peninsula
Sekiu, Washington on a rare sunny day

After a cozy night in our new RPod trailer, we arrive at the Breakwater Café mid-morning on a drizzly autumn day along the reliably soaked southwestern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Jean is eager for her next cup of Joe, and we are both primed for a hot breakfast.

The café’s entry hallway walls are neatly decorated with vintage black and white photos of weathered salmon-boat pilots back from the sea, rustic beefy loggers standing on their fallen prey, and proudful shots of an enormous tannery that in its prime was the biggest in the country. The scenes reflect eras of great plenty, but not a plenty that lasted. The café’s ‘60s-era builders, clearly visionaries, made room for seating of over 100. They ended up probably a tad and a half too optimistic for a site centered between Clallam Bay – a berg of 387 souls and famous for its prison and not much else – and its western bay settlement partner of Sekiu, population 27, hanging in there as a spot on the map because a few metro Seattle anglers still make the 4-hour trek west across the Sound to head out to sea with the charters, fishing for ling cod, halibut, kings and silvers. I don’t imagine the café fills now even during peak fishing season, but perhaps I’m the one who lacks vision.

Sekiu, Washington History | Sekiu, Old pictures, Historical photos
Sekiu, in those rip-roaring days

We stand by the posted sign “Please wait to be seated.”  A table of four wizened patrons to the left, a pair of geezers to the right, and three more geriatrics up ahead with deeply creased faces lazily engaged in conversation are a collective proof that the place remains a going concern even in mid-November.  Eventually, we hear from the galley a distant pleasant voice that calls out “be right with you folks.”

Soon enough, out springs Sam from the kitchen; early 40s, tattoos down her neck and arm, wearing comfortable loafers, brown slacks and a light blue sweatshirt stenciled with “The Mendocino Coast” across her chest.  “You are welcome to sit anywhere you’d like,” she invites us with a bright hospitality. “Want some coffee?”

Two minutes later she brings the coffee and a couple of menus. After ordering, a conversation ensues.

“Where are you folks from?” Sam inquires.

“We live in Olympia and are headed for Cape Flattery.”

“Oh, you’ll love it out there. Flattery’s awesome. And you ought to see the museum in Neah Bay.  I learn something every time I go there.”

“Yeah, we heard that the museum was worth it. We’ll go there too.  May I ask, where you’ve been on the Mendocino Coast?”

“Don’t know where it is,” Sam responds.  “Picked up the shirt at a garage sale.  It’s warm, and I like to stay warm when I’m working.”

“For someone who likes to stay warm, you sure picked a funny place to live and work. Sekiu is cold pretty much all the time, isn’t it?” I’m asking this with a silly grin on my face.

Sam meets my grin straight on and proceeds to launch into her life story. She grew up in Clallam Bay.  Went to school with an old Parks colleague of mine, Mike, whom I came to see as a Clallam Bay success story. The boy who escaped and made it. But not so Sam. She got kicked out of school at age 15 for fighting. She describes the details of the fight, in part by way of explanation and in part for pride’s sake. Kind of nostalgic bitterness yielding smoothly to determined laughter. No love lost between her and the school administration, that’s for sure.

Her family, soon after the incident, moved away to Marysville in Snohomish County. No fighting there, but she endured a lot of teenage taunting.  Sam hated the big city, pined to return to the Strait, and convinced her parents to do so. Not allowed back at Clallam Bay, she ended up graduating from Neah Bay High School. Almost the only non-Indian student around, school took a 30-minute drive from Sekiu, but she was home on the Strait, nonetheless. And never left again.

Five children later – the oldest now 18 – she is a devoted mom, insisting that the kids stay in school and do their homework.  She holds down this restaurant job just two minutes by pickup truck from the house and seems to have the life she wants. Turns out that Sam not only is our waitress, but also our cook, cashier and dish washer. 

Jean orders the advertised “standard breakfast” with sausages. “A side of hash browns and a couple of poached eggs,” is my request. 

Her face crinkles up a bit on the side. “You don’t do poached eggs, do you,” I take a guess. 

“Um… you are like the fourth person to order that in the last week, and like no one has ever ordered that before. Odd. We don’t have one of those poacher things and I’m not very good at making poached eggs.  I can do fried eggs.”

“That will be great. Make mine over medium,” I smile.

“Can do,” she smiles right back and off she speeds to make our Sekiu breakfast. Sam returns soon thereafter, smoothly placing the meals on the table. 

“Do you want hot sauce?” she asks. “I’ve got three kinds.”

“Bring us what you’ve got,” I reply. Jean loves hot sauce.

We chow down, compliment our cook on the quality of the meal (turns out she really has talent), pay our tab, and take off for Neah Bay.  The village’s Makah Cultural and Resource Center Museum, just as Sam suggested, is top notch. Extremely well organized, strong and clear writing, knowledgeable staff and killer artifacts.  

Makah Museum Hours & Admission - Makah Museum (Neah Bay, WA)
The whaling culture of the Makah, at the Makah Cultural and Resource Center, Neah Bay, Washington

We proceed to drive through the village and westward to Cape Flattery.  Arriving at a modest trailhead, a one-mile hike through moss-dripped spruce and hemlock leads us to that spectacular vantage at the end of our continent.  Waves crash violently against the cape’s sea stacks, sea holes and pewter-gray colored sandy beaches as I humbly scan the vast and swirling ocean. Sekiu Sam’s yearning to return home to stay makes all the sense in the world.

Cape Flattery
Cape Flattery, Washington, at the edge of the Continent

Brace For This

At 15, upon the emergence of my final permanent teeth, I started orthodontia.  Nothing unusual about the task that was before my orthodontist and me.  A rite of passage in post-war suburbia.  Yet, I managed to screw things up big time, resulting, at a critical developmental stage, in humiliating self-criticism and loathing.

For the most part, all went smoothly through the metallic installation and manipulation process.  Each fitting and tightening of the screws in my mouth resulted in temporary pain but tangible movement toward the desired end product.  We were proceeding at pace and the whole rigmarole would take roughly three years.

On the date of my last scheduled appointment, disaster struck. All the apparatus in my mouth had already been removed but for the rear brace rings wrapping the third molars in my upper arch.  But I missed the appointment. Plum forgot it.  Then, when I realized my error some days later, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone – including my parents. 

Those two braces remained in my mouth for months.  Heck, it could have been over a year.  Finally, I got a call from the orthodontist’s office. “Hello, may I speak with Dan?”

“Sure, I’m Dan.”

“Hello, this is Tina from Dr. Bernstein’s office,” came the cheerful voice. Shame now instantly burst from my subconscious.  “We don’t have a record of your last appointment.  Do you, by any chance, still have the remaining third molar appliances in your mouth.”

“Oh. Golly.  I guess I do.”  No doubt, my act was all too transparent to the appointment clerk. 

“Well, would you like to come in to get them removed?”

“Um… why yes, of course.  That would be great. Silly me. Thanks”

I did make THAT appointment, mortifying as it was.  Walked in. Sat down. 90 seconds later and it was over.

Mom and Dad never found out.