Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Portrait of a Young Man Growing Up

My Favorite B-17

On the surface it might seem rather conceited of me writing an article about myself. Perhaps it’ll be mistaken as some self-absorbed treatise on the wonderment of youth and the trials (slash) tribulations of growing up in the 50’s in the Midwest. Like some opening act or shadowy prelude to my oft-mentioned ‘Lost Years’ during the Sixties.

Mother's Wedding Day

Our Backyard

At first glance it might seem that way but perhaps not so much after a second glance. My Mother only appears in two of these pictures; the first on her wedding day and the second with some skittish grade-schooler in her own backyard. Yet her presence can be felt in every picture…at least in my mind.

Fourth of July picnic with the cousins...  enough said.

The pictures don’t necessarily unleash a plethora of fond memories flooding my consciousness with warmth but nor do they harken back to a darker period in my life. Instead the pictures tell a simple story. It was what it was. That would be defined as growing up in a single parent household and raised by an emotionally-scarred woman who was just trying to survive under some very tough circumstances. And she did it with little to no support from other family members. Boyed by her Catholic faith and the resiliency of her rural upbringing this woman made the best of numerous life-changing events in her life.

But, of course, she came from farmer stock. Much like the woman I eventually married. Beneath that fa├žade of modesty was one tough, hard-working, and determined woman. With little more than her own mental smarts and street-learned determination she made her way through a hard and ever-changing world…with two kids under tow and no husband at her side.

I look back at these pictures of myself now and see them quite differently than I have in the past.

My Jack Kerouac look

Just Faking

Another Kerouac imitation

I used to see a scared kid unsure of himself with no father or father figure to guide him along. Now I see a kid heavily influenced by the work ethic and penny-wise attitudes of his Mother. She started working at age three by cleaning out the chicken coop. I started working in seventh grade with my first paper route.

 I used to see a teenager desperate to find love and affection and someone to be close to. Now I see an ordinary kid just like every other kid I knew who was searching for love…only I didn’t know it at the time.

I used to see kid so proud of his ROTC training and the Lieutenants bars pinned on his shoulders even if it was only in high school. Now I see a kid who got the message early on that education was everything and he HAD to pass that on to his own children and grandchildren.

I used to see a young man in his hippie beads trying to express himself with a Mother who never quite understood. Now I see that same young man in his hippie beads and understand what she was smiling about.  I think I’d be smiling right there alongside her now.

Mom & Step-Dad Erwin

I’ve never said it before, Mom, but you did good. With little help and lacking any formal education, you managed to pull off what a lot of other married women and single mothers weren’t able to do.

You built your home with your own hands; made sure your kids got a good Catholic education and raised them both to do well. You even managed to finally find the joy of love later on in life. And near and dear to your heart, you were loved by your grandchildren who still treasure their memories of you long after you left for that Novena in the sky.

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to see the whole picture when I was growing up there alongside you. It was cloudy and vapid back then…and it’s taken a long time for me to put that puzzle together.

I should have told you how very proud I was to have you as my Mother.

I’ve never said that to you before.

But I’m saying it now.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Wrangler

They were stacked eight bodies deep and lined up for ten city blocks. A hundred thousand spectators all there to watch me wrestle with a thirty-foot snowman. The parade was just an added benefit to my endeavors. At least it seemed that way to me.

 The annual Palm Spring’s Festival of Lights is a magical time of year. Usually held the first week in December, the Christmas parade attracts spectators from all over the Coachella Valley, the Inland Empire and beyond. 

This year I got to march in the parade…with a gentle giant floating above my head.

We’ve been to the parade several times and just watching the children’s faces as the floats and bands cruise by is worth the cold wait. Cold being a relative term for someone from Minnesota. 

In the Festival of Lights, every marching band, float, car, truck, other assorted vehicles and their accompanying handlers are all draped in lights. This year’s parade included everything from three colorful chickens (only in Palm Springs) to serious military vehicles.

The only objects that aren’t covered with lights were the huge floating balloons interspersed throughout the parade. The balloons were only a step below (in size) from the huge inflatables made famous in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. The Palm Springs Festival of Lights is akin to the Holi-dazzle Parade in downtown Minneapolis but without the sub-zero cold and snowbanks to climb over.

  Our neighborhood, Indian Canyon, won the balloon lottery and drew the largest balloon that would be in the parade. It was a thirty-foot (yes, 30 feet tall) inflatable balloon of a snow-person. Seriously, that’s what they called it here in preference to our many same-sex couples and gender-challenged individuals. I preferred to think of it as the all too familiar Frosty or an elaborate version of that crudely constructed pile of over-weight snowballs my sister and I used to construct in our backyard many winters ago.

 So, of course, with a balloon of that size and height and floatability (if that’s a word) there had to be a minimum of sixteen wranglers to hold, control, and prod the balloon along the parade route.  Now I’ve done some questionable things in my life but balloon wrangling hadn’t made that list.
Until now.

We were even decked out in lighted wreaths and colorful scarves.

I think our greatest fear was the wind. One strong gust and we would be destined for snow-capped mountains, broad valleys below and the Pacific Ocean. Boarding the flight would be easy; no worries about overhead baggage and extra blankets. It was the landing that worried me the most.

Fortunately the wind was held at bay and we only had to contend with kids screaming for candy, overhead power lines, the snow-person’s tendency to tug at our ropes and looking up thirty feet and still not seeing its face. Reminded me of looking up Marilyn Monroe’s dress but not as colorful.

But it was the looks of wonderment on the children’s faces that held my rapt attention. They became perfect caricatures of ‘big eyes’ as they stared up in awe at the bright white giant floating above their heads. Many would scream out ‘Frosty’ and some even burst into song.

The parade was a great success and a wonderful bonding experience with our neighbors from Indian Canyon. Now that I’ve got the hang of balloon wrangling I’ll probably volunteer again next year.

 Besides it beats standing in the crowd and wishing I had an excuse to join in.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Common Class

There were two Bentleys in the driveway and a classic convertible parked in the street.  Aside from those glamour queens, the obligatory BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus, and other sundry desert chariots were all scattered about.  I would have driven my Camry (I love that car) but the party was only a block away.

‘High season’ had begun once again in Palm Springs.

Snowbirds, seasonal visitors, and other part-timers were returning to the desert and ICNO was having a party.  ICNO, the Indian Canyon Neighborhood Organization, was hosting is annual get-acquainted party for the neighborhood.  They sponsor one party in the fall and another in the spring.  It is always hosted at someone’s house in the neighborhood and is great fodder for stealing decorating ideas, catching up on neighborhood gossip and renewing acquaintances with other seasonal players in town.

This fall, it was hosted in a newly remodeled four-level custom designed home owned by two gentlemen from the coast.

I always look forward to these parties because of the folks who attend.  A lot of them are nearby neighbors and some are active on the ICNO board as I am.  Then there’s usually an eclectic assortment of newcomers rubbing shoulders with the old regulars who have been around since Frank Sinatra stalked the golf course with a martini and close friend under both arms.

The thing I appreciate most about these parties is the lack of rarified air so typical of many West Coast gatherings.  This is not a West Hollywood party where everyone is angling to hook up or a party in the canyons where movie deals are made around the swimming pool.  It’s not like the gathering of those closed societies down valley in their cloistered gated communities.  ICNO could be like that but never has been.

What sets these neighbors apart is an almost total lack of pretentiousness.  These accomplished folks are comfortable in their own skin.  Yet despite their financial success, they are charming, engaging, and fun to talk to.  Most have fascinating backgrounds and abundant stories to share.  It’s like meeting other seasoned life travelers who just want to share their travel adventures.  No one is there to impress.  In fact, the ones who try to impress soon find themselves odd man (or woman) out.

It’s an interesting dichotomy to observe since I have several relatives who now ‘have money’ but lack the panache to pull off what these folks can.  These associates-by-marriage seem to have forgotten where they came from.  They were born rural but feel they have outgrown their roots.  They have this subtle need to either be showy or consciously put down those around them who are not as financially well-endowed.

One would think in those circumstances modesty would be the order of the day.  One hasn’t arrived because she was never on the journey.  With a jump-start from daddy, it was not affluence earned so (at least in my mind) it would seem best to be a little humble.  As for the other relative who did make it on his own, I see no reason to put down those back home with less affluence.  Both these folks seem to have forgotten the core values that are an intrinsic part of their common class roots.

Sharon's Mom's House in Wabasha

This summer, Sharon spent a great deal of time in her hometown of Wabasha, Minnesota.  She had to help sell her mother’s house, move her mother into an assisted living facility, help coordinate her mother’s estate sale and handle a laundry list of chores directly related to her mother’s care.  This entailed dealing with the locals on a daily basis.

Wabasha is a small town.  Everybody knows everybody else’s business.  They either knew Sharon or knew of her:  where she went to school, what she did afterwards, and where she is now.  There are few secrets in a small town.  Sharon was constantly on display… but it hardly mattered.  She treated everyone as she always has…with respect and common courtesy.

In many ways Palm Springs is a small town little different from Apple Valley.  While it’s true Palm Springs has as many Yoga studios as Apple Valley has daycare centers, there are enough similarities to see that both worlds run on parallel tracks.  On one level, there are different cultures, tastes, and lifestyles between the two cities.  Yet on the other end of the spectrum, there are many similarities.

The movie star Alan Ladd once had a hardware store in Palm Springs and used to make home deliveries.  Bob Hope used to stroll down Main Street to get his ice cream downtown.  A precursor to the rat pack hung out at Chi-Chi’s nightclub and burned the midnight oil at Canyon Country Club.

Canyon Country Club, the precursor to Indian Canyon, had a storied history.  Over the years, numerous movie stars and noted celebrities made their homes there.  Now it’s a curious mixture of gay couples, retired folks from the coast, Canadians and east coast transplants who do not like the Florida scene.  They’ve all come to enjoy our golf courses, spectacular mountain scenery, and the whole Palm Springs atmosphere.  Indian Canyon carries on that tradition of open hospitality and egos left at the door.  There is comfort level here among neighbors equal to that back in Apple Valley.

The ICNO party was a great success.  We renewed old acquaintances, made new friends, and planned for a very active ‘season’ back in the valley.  Sharon and I are very fortunate.  We have been able to straddle these two worlds and live comfortably in both…without losing sight of where we came from.