Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Grandparents United

Until my wife got into Ancestry.com and began digging into our family history on my father’s side, I never really thought about my grandparents and uncles out there. They were all far removed from my life growing up and were never a blip on my consciousness. It turns out, I had an uncle who lived in Montana most of his life and ended up in Los Angeles and died there in 1973.  For roughly thirty years, he knew he had a nephew and niece in Minnesota but never made an effort to contact my sister or me.

My grandmother (on my father’s side) came to see my sister and me once when she brought my stepsister along. I have no idea what happened to my grandfather on that side of the family. I saw my step-sister one other time when I was six. So much for that side of the family.

Unfortunately, my grandfather on my mother’s side died seven years before I was born. That’s a shame because he sounded like one hell of an interesting individual. I wrote about him and my mother in another blog entitled: Hilde and the Old Man.

My grandmother was around for a while after I was born. I’m told my mother took us up to see her a few times in St. Martin, Minnesota. Obviously that made no impression on me growing up. So I have no memory of either set of grandparents. No relatives on my fathers’ side and only the most vapid of impressions and memories of most of my uncles and aunts on my Mother’s side.

The century-old pattern of ‘sending the grandchildren a birthday card with a dollar inside’ continued with the next generation. Brian and Melanie have only a cursory knowledge of my mother and step-father, not much better with Sharon’s parents. Nothing of real depth or con-sequences. That’s unfortunate but certainly not unique.

Thank heavens, that behavior pattern on the part of grandparents has changed with my generation. Nowadays they come in every size and shape and form. They’re Catholics, Jews, Agnostics and non-believers. They’re Democrats, Republicans, Independents and some not sure where they stand politically. Their names range from the simple Nana and Papa (my personal favorite) to every creative moniker under the sun.

But the one thing that seems to unite most of them is their deep ongoing love of their grandchildren and a strong desire to be an important part of their lives. This new generation of grandparents are re-configuring and redefining their role in their grandchildren’s lives. Many Boomers had a far different, much closer bond with their own children than they had with their parents. Now they want to continue that deep connection with the grandkids. Most want to leave this next generation with memories and experiences rather than a pot of money; thank you very much.

This became abundantly clear to me during the recent COVID-19 outbreak. I heard over and over again how our friends wanted to get back home or just spend time with their grandchildren. In most instances, their own kids said: ‘Thanks but no thanks, Mom and Dad. Stay in place and when the coast is clear of viruses, you can see your grandchildren.’ To a person, we all ‘got it.’ Our grandchildren’s health and welfare circumvented any desire we might have for those little urchins wrapped in our arms. But it wasn’t always that way.

My observations over the years paint a much different picture with our own parents and grandparents. There are exceptions, of course, and a lot of our parents did step up to the plate and baby-sit, house-sit, travel with us and overall become a part of our children’s lives as they were growing up. But from talking to friends over the years, I’ve become convinced that those grand- parents were the exception rather than the norm. I grew up hearing a simple mantra:’ Children should be seen and not heard.’ In other words, those little people weren’t worth conversing with until they reached their teen’s years or even beyond.

Every situation is different but I’m sensing that what I experienced is probably more common than not. To put it in the proper perspective, our parents and grandparents grew up in a world very different from the one we knew.

For many, it began with the great depression, followed by World War 2 then Korea for some and finally a seismic wave of cultural and social changes beginning in the 1960s. But there was something more subtle, more pervasive and more rigid than the changes swirling around them. It was a cultural and social phenomenon that didn’t see little children as anything more than farm help, kitchen help, church servants and a burden on family finances until they could earn their keep. It was an attitude passed down from one generation to the next for a long time. It was what our parents and grandparents understood and quietly accepted.

For the most part, that’s changed now. The new norm is grandparents babysitting, grandparents on trips accompanied by their grandchildren, and grandparents becoming an integral of the little urchins’ lives. I’m seeing a change with my generation and I hope it gets passed down to the next one and the one after that.

Every kid deserves grandparents in their lives. Someone to teach them, spoil them and fill in where the parents can’t or don’t or won’t. What a wonderful experience for both parties.

Sharon and I are very lucky that way. I’d say our grandchildren are too.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

My House is a Very Fine House

Paul Whiteman was an American bandleader, composer, orchestral director, and violinist. As leader of one of the most popular dance bands in the United States during the 1920s and early 1930s, Paul Whiteman was often referred to as the ‘King of jazz.’ Whiteman led an unusually large ensemble and explored many styles of music, such as blending symphonic music and jazz. Unbeknownst to me, it turns out that I’ve been living in Paul’s shadow.

“Born on the eve of America’s ragtime era, Whiteman developed into an astute musician and an inspirational conductor. He adapted syncopated jazz to a large scale and presented it to a growing public. The idea was not only new but also revolutionary. The country was eager to receive it. In turn, mass entertainment developed to spread it around the world.”  *

Whiteman’s orchestra used some of the most technically skilled musicians of the era in a versatile show that included everything from pop tunes and waltzes to semi-classical works and jazz. He understood and capitalized on product placement long before Coca Cola used it on TV in the Sixties. It’s been reported that during the 1930’s, Paul Whiteman was earning a million dollars a year. That’s where our first connection began.

Whiteman’s popularity faded in the swing music era of the mid-1930s and by the 1940s he was semi-retired from music. Then in the 1950s, he experienced a revival and had a comeback with his own network television series. That’s where our connection picked up again for a second time.

About the same time that Paul Whiteman was reaching the zenith of his career, Hildegarde Noll, a semi-literate yet adventurous young woman just off the farm, had moved from St. Martin, Minnesota to the big cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. She ended up working as a maid on Summit Avenue, cleaning houses for the rich and famous of the capital cities elite. She had little money to spend after sending much her pay check back home to support her parents. Dancing was her passion and there were plenty of dance halls to satisfy her need for swing. Polka dancing and big band music became her primary sources of weekend entertainment.

Photo Credit: 'Lost Twin Cities' by Larry Millett
During this period, the Paul Whiteman orchestra played the bejeweled Saint Paul Auditorium on several occasions and it’s safe to assume that Hilde was in the audience with her posse of like-minded girlfriends to enjoy the show.

Whiteman worked with black musicians as much as was feasible during an era of racial segregation. His bands included many of the era’s most esteemed white and black musicians, and his groups handled jazz admirably as part of a larger repertoire. Paul Whiteman and Louie Armstrong both carried the titles of the kings of Jazz. Whiteman was into product endorsement way ahead of his time.

In the 1940’s, Paul’s orchestra traveled the country playing large venues like Radio City Musical Hall and the Albert Hall in London. He cut many records for Capitol Records, the most famous of which was his rendition of George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ Another famous recording was Whiteman’s repertoire of ‘Grand Canyon Suite’ by Ferde Grofe. By this time, Whiteman’s career was on a downhill slide until years later when television gave it an unexpected lift.

In the late 1950’s, as Whiteman’s career started to fade away, Hildegarde’s son was going to school in St. Paul and totally engrossed in his own musical world. Rock and Roll, DooWop, Country Western and pop music filled his ears each morning and afternoon on his paper route. Jazz and big band music was not even a foreign blip on his musical window at the time.

After a brief revival of interest in Whiteman’s music on television, the band leader gradually eased himself into semi-retirement. By the early 60’s, Paul had moved west to Las Vegas and then California on a seasonal basis. Hilde’s son graduated from high school in 1961 and a couple of years later would himself become a resident of California curtsey of his Uncle Sam.

Whiteman tried to re-energize his career in Las Vegas and Southern California. He followed a lot of other celebrities to Palm Springs.  In 1962, he built two homes in the Canyon Country Club Estates development in South Palm Springs. One was for his family and the other had his name on the deed too but never indicated who resided there. Paul kept those two homes until 1967 when he moved back to Pennsylvania and passed away later on that same year.

His first home in South Palm Springs went through a number of changes during those early years. New additions were built on both ends of the house. A swimming pool was added in the late sixties. During the ensuing years, various owners continued with current and timely changes to the structure inside and out.

The original landscaping was changed after that and new painting and outside accoutrements added later on.

Sharon and I settled escrow on Paul’s old house in 2008 and didn’t find out whom the first owner was until just recently. During closing, our realtor had hinted that he thought our home was once owned by a famous Big Band conductor. But we’d heard it all before. Realtors in that neighborhood were always hinting that the house for sale had once been own by some famous movie star or celebrity. It was just part of their collective lexicon.

It’s interesting to note that neither of the two homes Paul owned in Palm Springs is mentioned in his biography, on Wikipedia, or in the several books written about him. However, his name is on the deeds for both homes and registered with both Riverside County and the City of Palm Springs. Whether these two homes were vacation properties, a place to sequester his ‘special guests’ or a get-a-way for himself has never been established.

But who cares? Along with a myriad of other musicians, celebrities and movie stars, Paul had a presence in the Valley and especially Palm Springs. Now his old home in the desert is our new home.

Perhaps that explains the soft melodic strings I sometimes hear late at night over the 15th fairway or the tapestry of wind and stars and inky black sky that sometimes wraps itself around my head.

I imagine Paul, lounging there in his spotless tuxedo, reflecting back on the twilight of a long and illustrious lifetime of music just as Hilde’s son is savoring his own dawn of a new and exciting career in writing.

It’s just the three of us staring up at the stars - Paul and me and Hilde in the audience.

·       *‘Paul Whiteman, King of Jazz’ by Thomas A. DeLong. New Century Publishers, Inc.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

God As My Co-pilot

Growing up as a young boy, I was fascinated by World War 2. I read a ton of books on the subject matter. The first speech I gave in high school was about Kamikaze pilots. One book in particular caught my attention and lodged some impressionable images in my young brain. It was titled: ‘God is My Co-Pilot’; the diary of a fighter pilot engaged in the air war over Germany. The author spoke of his relationship with God while facing death on a daily basis.

Recently I had some similar thoughts as I was piloting a Chevy Suburban cross-country back to Minnesota. I wasn’t thinking of death as much as my relationship with God after being raised Catholic as a young man.

The Suburban was the size of a Greyhound bus (better to carry all our stuff back home) and had the electronics to suit. Since neither Sharon nor I are techno-files or familiar with the latest computer technologies the wide-screen menu board offered us little more than confusion despite all our finger-tapping from one icon to the next.

With our combined ineptness, we only managed to find Country Music, Christian Music and religious radio stations as we trekked across the country. The most consistent of those radio signals was from EWTN (the Global Catholic Radio Network). We also kept coming across stations that were part of Covenant Catholic Radio Network because it had the strongest signal as we were passing through their area.

While I normally never listen to the radio while driving; especially religious radio, I felt trapped in my cockpit and needed something to distract me. The hum of the tires was practically putting me to sleep. Fighting the fatigue, I began playing a game of cat and mouse with law enforce-ment. My brain had shifted into automatic pilot, either cresting the hills looking for smokies or hugging the curves and watching for sheriff’s deputies on the shoulders. The other half of my brain needed something to distract it from the monotony of the miles ahead.

Miles after mile, county after county, state after state, radio seemed the only answer. Lord knows (pun intended), I had the time with ‘six hours’ driving the first day,’ twelve’ the second and ‘Fifteen’ the third and final day. Now I’m not a practicing Catholic. In fact, the closest affiliation I can now claim is the fact that I’d already written the lyrics for a contemporary song about Christ entitled ‘Jump Seat Jesus.’ (an alternate title was: Shotgun Jesus’).  It was meant to be a song in a similar vein to ‘One of Us’ by Joan Osborne. While this didn’t entitle me to membership as a faithful Catholic radio listener, I did find solace in a strange kind of mental return to my youth and Catholic upbringing.

The station followed a pattern of call-ins with a psychologist dealing with listener’s questions about their emotional issues surrounding the Catholic faith. There were religious music sections and choir music. Another call-in segment dealt with questions about theology and Catholic practices and church teachings. These call-in sessions were broken up with hourly news reports from a Catholic perspective. Over the many miles and states, we alternated between Catholic Radio, Country Music and Christian Music. It was a lot to feed my brain with thought.

I was raised Catholic in the fifties and early sixties. Like many young people of my generation it was the faith of our parents and grandparents. It was tradition and history and how we were expected to be raised. For all of its foibles and shortcomings, it was as good a religion as any around. Religion began for me and then gradually lost its luster in grade school.

St. Louis Grade School was a small French (Catholic) grade school located in downtown St. Paul. It was run by nuns who wore their iron will and strong philosophy of discipline as tightly as their starched white face wraps. Catholic teachings were an integral part of their curriculum. Reflecting back, I can now see their pattern of teaching that didn’t require a lot of thought but memorization instead. Groupthink was the norm and it fit most of the students just fine, me included.

Cretin High School was run by the Christian Brothers who could match the nuns with their focus on discipline and curriculum. Religious teaching wasn’t their strongest suite but it found a place in weekly classes. Those classes required us to think a little more about God and goodness and the Catholic faith and overall presented a more present-day approach to our faith.

During that time period, the Catholic Youth Center in downtown St. Paul was supposed to be a place for Catholic youth to congregate and mix with the opposite sex. Most of the sponsored dances were lame and overly controlled by either traveling nuns and priests or parental sponsors, all intent on making sure the boys and girls didn’t mix it up too much. Father Sweeney ran the place and focused on an old fashion approach to religion and youth.’ Listen and learn’ was his motto. Questions didn’t seem to be encouraged there.

St. Thomas College offered a few mandatory religious classes but mainly during freshman year. Most of those classes were rout repeats of the same message we had hammered into our heads in high school. The saving grace for me during that period was the Neumann Center on the campus of the University of Minnesota. The Neumann Center was run by hip, savvy priests who were able to communicate with young people and earn their respect at the same time. They spoke in plain English about God and being a good person verses just being a faithful obedient Catholic. Their message resonated with me on a very visceral level.

By the time I’d returned from the service and was back at St. Thomas, the Neumann Center had evolved into Hippie Central and attracted a large swath of hippies, artists, bohemians, and other radical youth. There was popular music and singing during each mass and social gatherings afterwards. It became a wonderful home away from home for Susan and me. ‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen was our favorite song. Perhaps we should have been singing a sad lament for the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland instead.

Now as the miles piled on, many of those thoughts about the strict nuns and Christian Brothers and neighborhood priests swam though my brain. I thought back to my mother’s strict devotion to her faith and how it was never my approach to religion. I will admit those Catholic institutions gave me a good solid educational foundation for which I am very grateful. Yet even back then I felt some guilt because I could never grasp and accept their approach to Christ. I had too many questions and challenges to ever become an obedient servant of their God.

Now a lot of my generation seems to have gravitated back to the idea of faith at this stage in their lives. They’ve become practicing Catholics once again and attend mass every weekend. I expect for many of them, there is a comfort and security as their thoughts shift to the possibility of ‘life after death.’

Mine is a more simplistic approach to faith and belief and God. The questions I ask myself are pretty straightforward. Did I live a good life? Was I a good person? Did I do right by others? For me, it’s not one specific religion or label or moniker. I’d much prefer to be called a good person rather than a Catholic, Christian, Agnostic, Buddhist or Jew. In the end, I don’t think it matters one bit. If God is what others claim him (or her) to be, then I think my approach still makes the grade.

He’s still my Co-Pilot. It’s just that only he knows when this journey of ours will end and he’s not telling me just yet. I guess I’ll just continue flying along, trying to do what’s right and enjoying the scenery for as long as I can.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020


Solvang means ‘sunny fields’ in Danish. For me, it meant twelve hundred miles over six days up and down the Central California Coast. Our trio of merry travelers had done the PCH from Newport Beach all the way down to San Diego by car and train. That’s the part of California that gave us Brian Wilson, ‘Surfin Safari’ and ‘California Girls.’ This part of the state was different. It offered up miles of rocky shoreline, endangered elephant seals, and a throwback in time with rugged shorelines and ancient tales of wilderness mysteries.

This new journey up along the Pacific Coast Highway had my friends and me exploring the rugged Big Sur coastline up to Monterey; a long desired trip I hadn’t yet taken until now. California in all of its complexity in land and people cuts a broad swath of culture, attitude, and terrain.

Climate and ecology play a tremendously important role in California’s ever changing geology. Recently severe drought brought forest fires then flooding and mudslides to many parts of the state. What doesn’t affect Northern California brings something different to Southern California. The entire state is a temperate one but while Northern California has coastal fog and closeness to the Sierra Mountains, the coastal regions of Southern California have a more moderate Mediterranean climate.

Sharon and I were traveling with our dear friend, LaDonna, an old cohort of Sharon’s from her days in academia. We started in Solvang, a town of five thousand souls that has re-branded itself as a modern day European village. Its authenticity is such that it actually brought me back to my old days of wandering the back alleys and cobblestone footpaths of Copenhagen.

From there we set out to explore the Central California Coast. That region cuts a broad swath of huge agricultural operations, wineries and ranches. Poor farm workers harvesting the crops work alongside ranch owners whose operation has been a family affair for literally hundreds of years.

Santa Barbara and the whole Central California Coastal area have long harbored a reputation for astronomical real estate prices. OMG is a familiar refrain among buyers when perusing the real estate magazines.

Nondescript, average homes climb up over one another on any available hillside. If there’s an ‘ocean view’ it automatically adds hundreds of thousands of dollars to the price tag. The closer to the beach sends those prices even higher into the stratosphere. It’s a different kind of world up there even by our desert standards down in Palm Springs.

For me, the highlight of the trip was Big Sur. We began at one of breeding places for the endangered Elephant Seals. From there we entered the narrow, twisting, turning roadway that hugged rugged cliff faces on one side and sharp drops to the ocean below on the other side.

Historically, the Big Sur area was derived from that unexplored and unmapped wilderness area that lies along the coast south of Monterey. Back in the day, it was simply called el pais grande del sur, the Big South Country. Today, it refers to a 90-mile stretch of rugged and beautiful coastline between Carmel to the north and San Simeon (Hearst Castle) to the south.

In 1937, the present highway was completed after eighteen years of construction at a considerable expense even with the aid of convict labor. Electricity did not arrive in Big Sur until the early 1950’s, and it still does not extend the length of the coast or into the more remote mountainous areas. There is no cellphone service so if your car breaks down, you’re truly SOL (stuck out of luck).

In 1964-65, I was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco. I never made it down to Big Sur. Half Moon Bay was a far as I got on my motor scooter. Back in the 1930s and 40s, Henry Miller lived there on and off for years. He was part of an avant-garde art colony centered around his controversial writings and philosophy of life. Miller has a library named after him back in one of the many deep redwood canyons that slash the mountain range bordering the area.

Jack Kerouac followed Miller in the 40s and 50s. Then Allen Ginsburg, along with Wavy Gravy and the Merry Pranksters, made annual pilgrimages there to smoke dope, take LSD, and get lost inside their head.

Big Sur is the setting for my next novel if I ever get around to writing it. It’s called ‘The Trades’ and it deals with the publishing industry in San Francisco and secretive characters that inhabit the deep dark impenetrable forests of Big Sur. It’s my first shot at writing a murder mystery and so far the outline looks pretty exciting to me (he said modestly).

There’s talk from my adventurous companions about returning to the Big Sur area next year. If we do, I want to explore the craggy shoreline, the rugged cliffs above and those dark scary forests that hug the narrow roadway. It might prove to be great research for my novel and a chance to finally do my hippie mind-tripping thing once again.