Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Eyes the Color of Fog

Sharon and I were perched above a three-tiered cluster to multi-million-dollar homes in Dana Point. The last time we had visited that lookout, there was only one row of homes facing the Pacific Ocean. Now two more tiers of timber had been added to the terrace of serious wealth perched there. Rumor had it that Arnold Schwarzenegger had a home whose front was all glass and showcased his gym equipment. True or not, it made for some interesting conversations.

I’m told there was a fire sale back in 2008 during the recession. One could steal an ocean-view lot for only eight to ten million dollars; much less than their pre-recession prices of double that amount. Now those homes were packed tighter than sardines with zero lot lines and a perfectly magnificent view of their neighbor’s roofline. Welcome to the sometimes foggy always colorful coast of California where sites and senses never disappoint. Back at the overlook, one of those came inching by.

It was an old lady dressed in black and moving slowly along with her walker. She had sad eyes the color of fog yet branded a weak smile which seemed to welcome inquiries. As she sat down across from us, her eyes washed over mine several times but never stuck. She seemed lost in her own thoughts…and perhaps dreams of times past. It didn’t seem right to disturb her. Eventually the woman’s daughter came by to retrieve her and they left together. A hundred thousand stories and ‘what if’s’ slowly shuffled away.

On yet another jog out of our comfort zone, we returned to old Spanish California. Back to a time and place before the first Americans populated the land. It was one of the many mission churches that dotted the coast of California long before freeways and housing erased any vestiges of their past.

Mission San Juan Capistrano has been home to many indigenous and native peoples and now swallows for over 230 years of its storied history. The mission was initially founded in 1775 by Father Lasuen. He and his fellow padres left the mission for San Diego and it was re-founded by Father Serra on All Saint’s Day, November 1st, 1776.

The mission became the seventh of twenty-one missions to be founded in Alta California. Like the previous six missions, San Juan Capistrano was established to expand the territorial boundaries of Spain and to spread Christianity to the Native Peoples of California.

For over the next 30 years, Mission San Juan Capistrano grew in population, buildings, livestock, and prominence.  By 1806, the mission had a population of over a 1000 people, over 10,000 head of cattle, and a completed architectural gen, the Great Stone Church.

Like all great monuments to the moment, the mission began to decline over the years. By 1821, Mexico had won its independence from Spain and made Alta California a territory of Mexico. There was yet another government take over when the United States won the Mexican American War in 1848.

Fast-forward a hundred years and the Catholic Church got its mission back, wealthy donors began campaigns for restoration and a clever priest decided to capitalize on a yearly phenomenon of returning swallows to highlight the mission’s fund-raising efforts.

Long before long-limbed nymphs and their male counterparts played volleyball on a Sunday afternoon, Laguna Beach has attracted sun-worshipers and visitors as well as those seeking to expand their consciousness.

In the early 1900s Laguna Beach was a magnet for plein air painters, poets and artists interested in expanding their realm of consciousness. In the early sixties LSD was openly manufactured there. Café Frankenstein was a hangout for beat poets and artists. At night after the tourists left, Hare Krishna dancers and chanters came out in force. The air was thick with grass. There was a street scene alive with kaleidoscopic light shows and abstract works which referenced social and political issues of the time and environmental issues.

Now it’s a prime spot for watching the Southern California beach scene unfold. Beach Boy wannabes and weekend surfers ride the waves of imagination and salt air. Young women and old one’s alike wear little for the imagination and old men with too much imagination hang over the pier railing and wonder ‘what if…a long time ago…’

Further up the PCH, Crystal Cove State Park is a wildness wonderland that includes over 2,400 acres of undeveloped woodland and three and a half miles of beaches. There are forty-six old style cottages in the cove being restored to their 1930s to 1950s-era designs.

We got there just in time to watch the sun dropping its pedals along the shoreline. Sunsets at Crystal Cove rival that of Malory Pier in Key West and are just as breath-taking. It was quintessential California with all of its clichés and sublime charms combined. A soul-satisfying place to share with someone else if only for those brief moments in time.

And just like the lady with eyes of fog it was a memory basin filled with the sounds of young children tempting the surf, old women wondering where their time had gone and one inquisitive writer looking for another tale to tell.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

LaTullippe It Almost Was

I’ve never been a big fan of Genealogy or family trees. I tend to dismiss those infamous tall tales handed down through the generations about the ‘good old days.’ The past is the past and can’t be changed. Or so I thought.

Perhaps this laissez-faire attitude came from my own upbringing. Being raised in a single parent household, we never recognized the absence of my father. It was hardly an incentive for me to care about my own ancestry. We were poor (maybe lower middle class is a better moniker) but so were most of my friends. We had a place to call home and little else mattered.

So, it was with only mild interest that I watched my wife begin her search for our respective family trees through Ancestry.com. Sharon very quickly became immersed in the search and began tabulating ancestors on both sides of our family tree. Thus far she has researched more than 152 individuals. She was able to go back to the 1600s in Germany. The oldest person she’s found was Pierre Helle who was born in 1676. France, Germany and Canada seem to be the favorite countries of origin.

As she clicked along, some fascinating facts began to emerge.

For example, there has always been a ‘George’ Schumacher for at least eight generations back on Sharon’s side of the family. Her descendants came from a small village in Germany, no surprise there. One distant relative served in the Illinois Infantry Regiment, Company E, Unit 31.

My mother’s roots followed a much similar lineage. Her grandparents also came from another part of Germany. There was a grandfather who fought in the Civil War. He went in as a private and came out the same. But he did survive. Our assumption is that he probably got his farmland in Sterns County from the government for his time in the service. That seemed to happen to a lot of returning veterans. Most of my distant relatives come from Sterns County or nearby.

The real mystery begins with my father. As far back as I can remember there was never any mention of him in our home. Growing up, there were no pictures of him nor any references to him at extended family gatherings. It was as if he never existed. I was too young to understand the significance of his absence in my life.

I vaguely remembered that my father’s lineage was French Canadian. Beyond that… little else. He had been married once before. There was a lot of confusion about whether or not there had been a divorce or annulment with his first marriage. He married my mother but we’re not sure when. The reasons for their separation and subsequent divorce had been clouded by denial, mis-statements and confusion. About the time my mother decided to come clean, the fog of aging and miles traveled made any clear recollection of times past just a guessing game on her part.

I’ve written a play, Frenchy’s Eats, about this quagmire called my ancestry. It’s been a real challenge trying to tell their story and lineage in an informative yet entertaining way

Now, many years after my mother’s death, Sharon is finally making some headway on un-wrapping the mystery of my father. It’s been one long and arduous journey fraught with poor records, incorrect dates, family lies and purposeful misstatements to protect the innocent…or so they thought.

Stumbling back in time, we found out that the core of my ancestors settled in Quebec, Canada. Their descendants came from France. It’s probably too late to look for that French Chateau or three-story Paris walkup in my name.

One of my grandfathers was a ‘wagon loader.’ Laugh as you might, today he’d probably be working for UPS in logistics and making a nice income. Back in my college years, I used to load and unload trucks in the dead of winter. Now I know where those deft skills came from.

The French nuns at the little French school in downtown Saint Paul had a huge impact on my life even if I didn’t know it at the time. When the school was built back in the 1873 it was meant for the children of second and third generation French settlers.

By the time my sister and I started school there, our classes were a cosmopolitan smorgasbord of ethnic groups. There were Irish, Italian, German, and Spanish students. Almost all of them lived along the fringe of the downtown loop. Unlike all of our white counterparts where we lived in Highland Park, it made for some interesting playground banter.

It turns out there was a critical junction or fork in my ancestral road. The road split and one branch was named Lacombe and the other LaTulippe. The plot of flowers was on my grand-mother’s side. I never knew her but she must have been a wise woman to have chosen Lacombe. At least I didn’t have to defend myself in grade school from some bully mocking my name.

Another interesting fact was the evolution of the name LaComb. If you go far enough back there used to be an ‘e’ at the end of Lacombe. At another point, the ‘c’ became capitalized.

I was surprised to see on my birth certificate that my name was spelled: Dennis. When I asked my mother why it had been changed she had a simple explanation. She said that in first grade, the French nuns informed her that the proper spelling of my name was Denis. Mom knew better than to mess with the French nuns.

That’s okay; I’ve grown quite accustomed to Denis J. LaComb…and besides it’s not too flowery.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

My Obituary

How we got on the subject, I have absolutely no idea. Sharon was talking about somebody’s obituary and said it wasn’t very good. “If you don’t want someone else writing your obituary, “She said to me, “You need to write your own.”

Not surprised or shocked, I thought it was a good idea. What the hell, I know myself better than anyone else (even my wife who thinks she knows everything about me) so why not me writing it instead of a family member or relative.

With that thought lodged firmly in back of my mind, I gradually became more aware of obituaries and what they told me about the person who had just passed. I still don’t read them religiously like some folks but every once in a while, my eye will catch one and I’m hooked.

Not that long ago, I stumbled across an obituary from an old high school chum who had disappeared from my radar several years ago. I was shocked to read that he had passed away almost a year earlier. One always feels sad knowing that we never had that last chat, final good-bye or chance to reminisce about lives well lived. Yet, while reading his obituary, I was so impressed by his generous work on environment issues, charitable causes, etc. He was a modest man but very accomplished. I’m proud to say he was my friend.

There was another fellow acquaintance who passed recently. His obituary didn’t tell me anything new but reaffirmed his commitment to his church, community and family. He was an all-around nice guy.

Then there was a local business owner in my hometown. He was rich in land and purported to be the fourth richest man in the state. Over the years, through his involvement in local organizations, I got to know more and more about him. Little of it was nice. He was rich, arrogant, combative, and in a perpetual grudge against someone or something. Chaos seemed to be his breakfast of choice and he relished the battleground of public opinion on almost a daily basis.

When he passed, there was a citywide silence followed by a few smatterings of ‘something nice to say’ where there was little to draw from. He had led a life of unhappiness and held on to his crown of ‘that old curmudgeon’ all of his life. It followed him to his death. Sad, to say the least.

Then another ‘notice of passing’ caught my attention. This from a local real estate mogul who had acquired numerous properties around town. I read about his passing in the local newspaper. It wasn’t his obituary but could have been. It described his many properties and the fact that he was well known and feared for his combative stance against anyone and anything that threatened his bottom line. He would fight with city officials, county officials, state officials, and any group that (he thought) posed a threat to his financial holdings.

What’s interesting about this observation is that a person’s obituary is probably the last piece of information anyone will ever have about the just deceased. It can be good or bad, depending on who’s writing it. Most are flowery descriptions of a life well led, a perfect marriage, idealist children and grandchildren and ‘isn’t life grand’ kind of fairytale. Sometimes true, sometimes not.

The obituary of the recently passed Rosealyn Carter is a great example of someone who lived her life by her own standards of love, compassion, and caring. Her husband, Jimmy Carter, will have the same kind of ‘final thoughts.’ They lived their lives as true Christians and I say that without any religious denomination in mind. They walked the talk and their obituary’s will show that.

I have a favorite quote I picked up in Maryland from the best boss I ever had. It’s simple and complete and (for me) says it all. If there is a legacy here, it’s that I tried the best I could. I’ve been so blessed with the woman I married, the two children we raised and the five grandchildren who fill our lives with happiness. It doesn’t get much better than that.

In the end, and for all of us there will be an end, wouldn’t it be nice to have something true (and honest) said about our lives. Not the wealth accumulated or the battles won or the great achievements society wants to add to our laurels. But rather the fact that we lived our lives as truthfully and honestly as we knew how with the limited time we had here on earth. And our legacy lives on in the lives of our offspring; simple as that.

Now that would be an obituary worth reading.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

After the Howling Monkeys

I can still hear them, almost 40 years later, scrambling above us and howling at our presence down below. It’s like a musical refrain cemented in my brain; haunting yet so familiar. The jungle can do that to you. It can enlighten, threaten and even kill you in a heartbeat.

In our case, that could have come in the form of six different varieties of poisonous snakes, anyone of which could have killed us with just one small nick of their fangs. Yet on we trudged through the nearly impenetrable jungle in search of some great cinematic shots, which unfortunately, we never got.

In hindsight, the trip could have easily cost me my job. I returned without a script, a good shot list and no discernable story to tell of our venture. My interpretation of the trip wasn’t the television special my boss had hoped for. Fortunately, other distractions took his attention away from my ‘failure to deliver’ and l lived on to work another day at the television station.

This jungle venture began when I was asked to headed up a small film crew that was part of a group of photojournalists invited by the Costa Rican government to explore Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica and (hopefully) write or create television programs to promote it.

The Park is located on the Osa Peninsula in southwestern Costa Rica. National Geographic has called it “the most biologically intense place on Earth in terms of biodiversity.” My boss, the CFO, thought this would be a great opportunity for our station to produce a documentary on Costa Rica and enlisted me in that effort.

We flew into the park after arriving in San Jose, capitol of Costa Rica. Our base camp consisted of a park ranger’s station and separate bunkhouse carved out of the surrounding jungle. The bunkhouse was full so we opted to sleep in tents on the ground nearby.

Every morning after breakfast, we hiked a different route through the jungle. The rules of jungle hiking are quite simple. First, jungle terrain is seldom flat. That only happens in Tarzan movies. It’s hilly, rugged and laced with jungle vines that can send you sprawling down a slope in nothing flat. Caution is the word.

Secondly, we were told to watch out for spider monkeys. They love to pee on you as you pass underneath. Howler monkeys just yell a lot. Most frogs are poisonous so don’t touch.

The third rule is also pretty simple. Snakes will kill you if they can. Watch where you step or be prepared to die. Never step over a log or object on the ground. Never lean up against a tree. Always step on top of the log then step over to the other side. Look at the tree first before you lean against it or sit next to it.

There were many species of venomous snakes in the park. The Fer-de-Lance and Bushmaster were tops in their game. One bite…thirty minutes…hello, heaven. Even the poison dart frog could do you in.

On the first day of a long hike, I casually asked our guide if he had snake bite serum with him after he described the numerous poison snakes that abounded in Corcovado. He said no, he’d left it back at base camp, a four-hour hike away. I guess when your time comes, it comes. We all walked a little more gingerly back to camp that day. And made sure he had it with him every time we went out after that.

On almost every hike, we’d have to ford some river or inlet to the sea. Always at low tide since the currents were so strong at high tide that it was very easy to get swept out to sea no matter how strong a swimmer you might be.

When we came upon some backwater pool, in the middle of the jungle, five hours into our hike, taking off our clothes for a dip seemed surprisingly logical, rational and very appealing. I can’t remember who suggested it first. Probably the eccentric professor from out east. He always had great ideas.

The men took off their clothes first…boring. Then the two women in our group…no Brazilian trims there. Suddenly I felt very foolish hiding behind my sunglasses. It had quickly become apparent that the soothing coolness of the water, that magical pond in the middle of the steaming jungle, and the lively banter going on was more interesting than body parts seen or imagined. And after a few glances, seriously, who cares?

One time, at the end of our gallivanting in that backwater pool, came with an announcement from one of our more eccentric travelers. It seemed that he had a rubber raft in his backpack and was looking for someone to float with him down the river to the sea, approximately four miles away. Strangely enough he got no takers. We just stood there, putting on our clothes, wondering if he was really serious.

Undaunted by the silent stares he got, the eccentric one tossed his clothes bag into his backpack, gave the pack to someone else and proceeded to inflate his rubber raft. Then with his hat and flip-flops on and nothing else, he began floating away. We all looked in astonishment as his snow-white ass got smaller and smaller in the distance. Then it was gone all together.

Somehow it all seemed perfectly logical at the time. I think we just collectively shook our shoulders, agreed that the eccentric one would find that a normal thing to do (floating down an unknown river in the middle of the jungle, in the nude), and wondered if or when we’d ever see him again. I know it’s stupid, dumb and illogical but I still wonder what it would have been like if I’d taken him up on his offer.

He showed up that evening sporting his torn flip-flops and beet red ass. Then over warm beer, he regaled us with stories of the sights and sounds that greeted and then followed him down the river all the way to the sea.

About the second night back in San Jose, one of our fellow travelers (I think it was the red-butted floater) who said he’d found a quaint bar in town. They had American beer, the women there were all beautiful, and they played American rock and roll every evening. Sounded like a great opportunity to check out the local pub scene and mix it up with the locals.

I was surprised that the pub wasn’t in the commercial part of town. Instead, it was a little further out of town in what looked like a huge plantation house. There were lots of cars parked outside and loud music was coming from within.

Upon entering, we saw a huge bar, beautiful women dancing with the locals and beer taps that spelling out our favorite liquid refreshments. The women were all smiles and their clothes (or lack of) weren’t hard to look at either. We grabbed several tables to put to-gether and ordered the first of several rounds.

I was struck by the beautiful women all around me. Costa Rican women don’t show the Mayan influence that women in a number of Central and South American countries do. Their skin has a light brown or chocolate tone, beautiful dark hair and facial features that would rival even the most glamorous of Paris models.  Several came up and asked some of us for a dance. Fortunately, my introvert nature kicked in and I demurred.

Several of our group jumped at the opportunity to take their turn on the dance floor. When they finished, the girls would ask for a drink to which these guys happily obliged. Being an introvert and principally cheap didn’t hurt me that evening.

It was only when one of our group began chatting up the locals that we realized where we were. It seems there was a whorehouse upstairs and these beautiful women were really working professionals. The women were amorous with intent (relatively speaking) expensive (in their currency) and aiming to turn a quick profit (oh, that explains their charm).

In reality, our quaint happy bar was a Central American Wild West saloon. And there were gunslingers about. We suddenly became the tenderfoot tourists venturing into unfamiliar territory. And those guys in tight jeans and bulging t-shirts weren’t just a part of the scenery. We finished our drinks, smiled at the locals and got the hell out of Dodge.

Foresight isn’t my forte. Yet, even as I was trudging through the jungle, I knew this was the chance of a lifetime. I tried to soak up as much of the atmosphere as I could. That included the stifling heat, humidity, insects, poisonous snakes, sharks in the rivers, strange sounds day and night, sleeping on rocks, listening to the barking of the Howler Monkeys and drinking warm beer.

Those three weeks in Corcovado produced many wonderful experiences and great memories with some fascinating folks. I should be so lucky to hear those howling monkeys ever again.