Sunday, May 31, 2009

Guest Blog: John Wayne and the America I Love

Steve Latshaw
Burbank, California

Marion Michael Morrison had a birthday a week or so ago. I can’t begin to tell you how much that means to me. I can’t begin to tell you how much he means to me. You might know him by his screen name. He’s “Duke” to his friends.

To the rest of us, he’s John Wayne.

John Wayne. A name that brings up a lot of complicated emotions in people: smiles of nostalgia; an adrenalin rush; a bittersweet memory; or, even anger among those who consider themselves the enlightened, the intellectual elite, the folks that would just as soon pretend the middle of America--the heartland--didn’t exist.

Wayne as Ringo Kid in Stagecoach.

To me, in his early movies, like Stagecoach, Tall in the Saddle and the Fighting Seabees, Wayne is like the older brother I never had—always there to get me out of trouble. In later films, particularly Sands of Iwo Jima, he’s my Dad.

John Wayne as Sgt. John M. Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima.

Dad was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. He’s always reminded me of Wayne, the way he stands, the way he reacts, the way he sits with his head down, contemplating his shoes when he’s solving a problem. That sudden eye blink when he lets his guard down and shows some emotion or some appreciation for a job well done. The bit of tenderness and humor under the hero mask. Never more so than in Sands of Iwo Jima. All I have to do to revisit the Dad of my youth is to watch that movie.

I learned about being a father and a leader and a man from that movie and from that time. And from my Dad, or course, who sat on the couch next to me and watched it, and lived his life like a hero. (Of course Dad would say all this was bull; but, he was always more of a Robert Mitchum fan.)

In Wayne’s later films, he’s the tough old grandpa that--like the older brother--shows up to get you out of trouble, with a twinkle in his eye and a kick for your ass.

But that’s just what he is to me.

There was a time when John Wayne meant America to the rest of the world: East and West; good and bad. They admired us and liked us and wanted to be like us. Because they felt that way about him. These days, he’s still thought of as the symbol of America. But America has become a bad thing--to some--and so, by default, is John Wayne. The phrase “cowboy diplomacy” is spoken with bitter derision, even though our shores have been kept safe from terrorist attack since 9/11/2001. Our critics have much to say about what is wrong with America. And they’ve said the same thing about John Wayne.

They say our pride of country and heritage is naïve and ignorant of history.

They say our sense of right and wrong is intolerant, at best.

They say everything we all stand for is bankrupt and corrupt and arrogant, stupid, bloodthirsty and vicious.

They say we have no compassion for the world’s problems, only preoccupation with our own.

They say we are the great evil, the source of the world’s woes, the society that consumes the world's goods at the world's expense.

They say we delight in killing the world’s innocent. That we’re attacked by terrorists because we deserve it.

Or they say we did it ourselves. To justify our military actions overseas. Because we just can’t help but do evil in the world. (My response to this is--if we’re so compelled to do evil--why would we need an excuse?)

These are words that, traditionally, have always come from our enemies. These days, in some cases, they come from our friends. Our families. Our fellow countrymen.

Are they wrong? Well, hell, we aren’t without our blemishes. Neither was Duke. We put our foot in it from time to time and so did he. Mr. Wayne and the rest of us have taken that road to hell that’s paved with good intentions more than we’d care to admit. Maybe that’s part of being an American. We’re far from perfect but, by God, we’re trying our best to do what’s right.

In 1968, Duke Wayne directed and starred in a movie called The Green Berets. He got trashed for it back in the day. It was sloppy in places--Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, doubled badly for South Vietnam; there was some bad miniature work when a chopper crashes; and, at the end of the picture, the sun sets in the East! With a supporting cast including David Janssen (star of the TV's The Fugitive,) Patrick Wayne (the Duke's son), Jim Hutton (Timothy's father), Ed Faulkner, Bruce Cabot, Jack Soo (of TV's Barney Miller), Luke Askew, George Takei (prior to his Star Trek fame), and Chuck Roberson, the movie, as co-star Aldo Ray once said: “…smells like Batjac.” (Batjac was the name of Wayne’s production company, and I think Aldo Ray meant something else besides "jac.")

Wayne is Col. Mike Kirby in The Green Berets.

But most of the grief the picture got wasn’t because of the technical aspects, or even the script. Critics raised hell because Wayne; “praised the Vietnam War.”

Like hell. True, he tells the story like it’s a World War II picture and there ain’t a lot of shading in the cast of characters; but what Wayne is glorifying is the American fighting man. Like all good Americans, trying his damndest to do what’s best, to do what’s right.

Like John Wayne always tried to do. Take another look at that movie some forty-one years on. You’ll find some things that look a little hokey, but you'll also find some things that still hold up. Like dialogue that rings true all these years later: “Out here due process is a bullet.”

And unforgettable moments, like the ending. If you ignore that damned eastern sunset and watch the meat of the scene, you’ll cry, like I do, every time I see it. Wayne’s Colonel Mike Kirby kneels next to orphaned Vietnamese refugee Hamchunk and hands him the Green Beret worn by his adoptive American father, who died on the last mission. Here is their exchange--Wayne as Mike Kirby speaks first:

“You always knew it could happen, didn’t you?”
Hamchunk nods.
"But I didn’t want it to.”
“None of us did.”
Hamchunk turns.
“Was… was my Peter-san brave?”
Wayne kneels.
“He was very brave. Are you going to be?”
“I’ll try.”
“I know you will.”
Wayne gently places Lt. Peterson’s Green Beret on Hamchunk’s head.
“And I’m sure that your Peter-san would want you to have this.”
The boy pauses.
“What…. What will happen to me now?”
Wayne stands and puts his arm around the boy as they look off into the ocean.
“You let me worry about that, Green Beret. You’re what this is all about.”
And, as they walk into the sun, the classic theme music rises ...

“… back at home, a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
He returns, his last request
‘Put Silver Wings on my son’s chest.
Make him one of America’s best.
He’ll be a man they’ll test one day.
Have him win the Green Beret."

That’s what Wayne was glorifying. Americans have traditionally fought, lived and died to try to make the world a little better. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. It’s who John Wayne was and what he still represents. We show up. Because we give a damn.

Throughout history, sooner or later, the world remembers that part of us and smiles our way. Maybe even one day our own countrymen will remember a little bit of that pride. If they want. They don’t have to. I respect their right to hold a different opinion. So did John Wayne.

RC Note: John Wayne was born May 26, 1907 and died in 1979. Steve Latshaw is a screenwriter in Hollywood. Check out his credits on the Internet Movie Data Base.

Steve Latshaw Credits at IMDB

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

From a Remote Island in the Atlantic ...

Caps from Ascension Island Island. Since almost no one ever goes there, almost no one has one Ascension Island cap, much less a gaggle of them like this.

My father speaks about Ascension Island in a continuous loop. He was stationed there during World War II and something about his experiences on this remote, quirky volcanic island have stuck in his declining memory. He and the 38th Engineers built Wideawake Field there, where 25,000 planes ferrying men and supplies to the China, Burma, India theatre could land safely to refuel en route.

One day my Dad said to me:

"I have this hat from Ascension I got when I went back there twenty years ago. Wouldn't it be nice if somebody there sent me a few more caps like this for my grandchildren and said, 'No charge, sir. Thanks for your work?'"

I know my father doesn't remember it when he makes wishes like the one about the caps. But after he said it, I came back to my place and got on the Internet and contacted the administration of Ascension Island to see what I could do.

The island is in the British Commonwealth, though Wideawake Field is still administered by the U.S. Air Force and is a down range site for missile launches and NASA. (The tiny island is in the Commonwealth because Napoleon was exiled the second time to St. Helena, which is 700 miles away. The British didn't want him to have an island, even 700 miles away, from which he could launch another comeback.)

When I didn't get an answer to my electronic message in the first few weeks I started to gripe under my breath at the British: "Typical. They're happy to have us save their bacon, but ask them for a couple of caps and you never hear back." I shouldn't have been so hasty. And anyway, it wasn't the British administration that responded.

After about a month, I received a note from a young woman stationed on the island who works for the U.S. Air Force and who is also Chairman of the Ascension Heritage Society. On a place with a total population of 1,100, people generally wear several hats--speaking, as we were, of hats in the first place.

As we e-mailed back and forth, she asked a lot of questions about my father's service there and said she and the Heritage Society were working to learn more about the U.S. World War II sites before all of the men who were stationed on the island in 1942 had passed away. I gave her all the information I had--and heaven knows, I've heard my Dad's stories enough lately--and I gave her the name and address of the only other surviving officer I knew about.

She said she would see about the caps.

Today, they arrived in a manila envelope from Ascension, via Patrick Air Force Base in Brevard County, Florida. Since Ascension is volcanic, each one has a volcano on it with a little eruption cloud above it. And they came with a really nice note:

Dear Col. Chapman: I hope you like these hats. We, at the Ascension Heritage Society are very grateful for all that you and your men did while on the Island. We are working diligently to preserve the U.S. Army World War II sites. Very truly yours, Ms. Shari Parkhill, A.I. Heritage Society

That's twice in a week somebody has thanked my father for his service during World War II. And I won't say he was beaming, because he never really did that when he was well and he's much less able to beam now, at 89. But he was happy. And he put on one of the new caps to show it.

Ascension Island Web Site

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Monday, May 25, 2009

The Stars Shine on Kansas: In the Night Sky ... and the Kitchen

I actually went to Kansas once and I can prove it. (See photo.) I learned three things about Kansas, then, that I have remembered long since.

There really is a place called Fredonia. It is in a Marx Brothers movie: but it is also in Kansas. Near Howard.

The second thing I learned is: out there among America's farms, there is so little light pollution you can lie back at night on the cover of a storm cellar and see millions of stars. Stars are a magical thing in the lives of human beings. In many places in America you can no longer see them, but they still light up the night sky on the Kansas prairie.

It was summer when I was there, the summer one phase of my life was about to end and another to begin, though I did not know it then. The Kansas weather was mild, the nights were cloudless, and we would sit outside in the darkness and count the falling stars. We could also count the traveling stars: the satellites we humans put up there. Never have I seen anything quite so beautiful as that star-filled night sky.

I discovered the third thing, when I went into a Kansas coffee shop. The customers were mostly men, wearing caps that advertised seed and tractor companies, and they were thin and wiry, the way men are who work hard for a living. The Kansas women, waiting on the tables, were exactly the opposite. They were, as Precious Ramotswe (of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) might describe them--"traditionally sized," and that is a tradition for women who spend most of their time in kitchen, serving men.

We looked at the menu, and we ordered our lunch. And as we ordered our lunch I saw this really scrumptious-looking dessert going out to a number of the men. When our order came, I asked about the desserts, specifically the one with the whipped cream and the chocolate I had been admiring as it went from the kitchen to so many tables.

"Oh, that's our famous dessert," said the waitress, resting her order pad on the large, expansive area just under her bosom.

"Your famous dessert?"

"Yes," she said. "That's Robert Redford Cake."

"Robert Redford Cake," I said. "Why is it called that?"

"Because it is the next best thing to Robert Redford."

"Okay, I'll have some."

It arrived and it certainly was good enough to be as promised: though I must confess I have never had the opportunity to test the thesis implied in the cake's name. Since it all made for such a good time, I thought it might be fun to make it for a party.

I asked for the recipe.

The waitress went into the back and was gone quite a while. She returned with the recipe printed neatly onto a page from a notebook. When I read the ingredients, I was worried that I might have a heart attack right there, since I'd finished my order and was wiping the plate clean with my fork. You can eat just one order per lifetime, as Paula Dean might say.

So, I share the recipe with you here. It's a truly American dessert from the land with that ribbon of highway and that endless skyway: Kansas, the state with the stars that twinkle above and the star that still twinkles right there in their famous dessert.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Thank You, Sir, For Your Service."

That's Dad and me at Moffett Field, with the famous dirigible hangar in the background. He was awarded a Bronze Star in World War II and though, at 89, his memory isn't good for everything, he told me about the P-51 Mustang behind us, the "Betty Jane,", as if he had just seen her come in from a dogfight the day before.

The planes have names that evoke a time when a run over Berlin could cost a crew their lives. Or could bring them in safely, on one engine and a big sigh of relief. There was a B-24 Liberator, "The Witchcraft." A B-17 Flying Fortress, "Nine O Nine." And a P-51 Mustang, called "Betty Jane."

I took my father out to Moffett Field on San Francisco Bay to see these planes, which are touring under the aegis of the Collings Foundation's "Wings of Freedom Tour." Since my Dad was a captain with the 38th Engineers, and they built runways for these planes, I thought he might like to see some of them again. And that he did.

"That Mustang was the best fighter we had and boy when that Packard 1650 engine cranked it made a noise," he said to me as we went over together to see the "Betty Jane." I was hoping to interview some other World War II veterans for my blog, but my Dad was the only one on the scene. We're losing about a thousand veterans of World War II each day, and the ones who remain aren't all anxious for a day in the wind and the sun.

"Now that B-17 was a big old bomber," Dad said as we turned to look at the "Nine 0 Nine" sitting on the other side of the field. And then, as if he saw them every day of the week he said, "Dual .50 cals," pointing to the lethal looking machine guns poking out of the fuselage. "Those gunners," he shook his head, "They didn't have a great job. Lost a lot of them."

The "Nine O Nine" is a fully restored B-17, finished just days too late to play a role in World War II. She now belongs to the Collings Foundation and tours the United States, one of just fourteen of the Flying Fortresses still in the air.

We walked over to see an even larger monster, the B-24 Liberator, the "Witchcraft." "Can you see the twin tails?" My father asked. "That's the B-24. Kind of looks like a flying boxcar."

He was getting tired and I could see it. As I stepped away to use my cell phone I saw him sitting there under the wing of the enormous bomber, looking so fragile. For him, as for all of us in life, it was just an eye blink ago that he was young and strong. Bronzed by the sun and wearing the uniform of his country: a man in his prime. Hoping he'd make it home to his new wife. And, in another instant he was there beneath the wings that had preserved his freedom. His life is nearing its end and it has been a life he can be proud of. It makes me proud to know him.

"Did you ever know you were my hero? Everything I would like to be? I could fly higher than an eagle. You are the wind beneath my wings."

And it turns out I'm not the only one. Several people approached us and asked if Dad had been a bomber pilot. No, we said, he'd been an officer doing other aviation work, with the Corps of Engineers. The strangers, young and old, didn't seem disappointed at all.

They reached out to shake his hand.

"Thanks for your service, sir," they said. And my Dad gave them a smile.

Dad meeting the young pilots of the "Witchcraft."

Collings Foundation "Wings of Freedom Tour"

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Remembering Decoration Day

A postcard I borrowed from the collection of Russell Hughes, of Orlando, Florida. Hughes was captured during the World War II, Battle of the Bulge and served five months in a German prison camp. He and I both like this postcard because it shows a Union and a Confederate soldier wrapped together in the American flag.

It may have begun in the South, as some believe, when women, mourning their husbands and sons who died in the Civil War, set aside one day as Decoration Day, to honor the graves of their dead. There were a lot of young men to mourn.

Records of the time are not as accurate as they might be today, but it is believed that about 250,000 Northern soldiers were killed and about 350,000 Confederate soldiers died in the Civil War. That total of 600,000 had a huge impact on a nation of just 31 million people. Even today, that total is greater than the number of all who have died in all of our wars in more than two hundred years.

By 1868, Decoration Day in the South had become Remembrance Day or Memorial Day in the North. On May 5th of that year, General John A. Logan drew up an order that May 30th should be set aside for "strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion."

Many states in the South weren't too keen on that order and continued to set aside their own Decoration Days, not particularly liking General Logan's tone. Since my father is from Dixie (though his grandfather enrolled as a Union soldier in Baltimore, something the family in Birmingham didn't talk much about) I can see both sides.

It took until World War I for most of these United States to get together on marking a day, not to celebrate, but to remember and honor, all Americans who died in defense of their country.

In his 1868 orders General Logan writes: "Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic."

And yet we do, sometimes, forget. As children, my sister and I knew a boy who had never met his father, an officer killed in the last month of the last battle of World War II. What did we know of his sacrifice? A neighbor's father was bound to a wheelchair from wounds he received in that same war. We didn't understand and were thus afraid to talk with him.

In my family, we also had a young man who, as an eighteen-year-old Marine in Vietnam, suffered a devastating injury in a firefight and who died forty years later from his wounds. His life was filled with pain. He never really had much of a chance to live.

All of these young men, and now young women too, go out when their country calls. As my father did. As your father and grandfather did. As our soldiers have for generations. Casualty numbers aren't just numbers: they represent loved ones suspended in time. People we've lost. Soldiers who were young and happy and who then were gone.

I hope we'll all pause a minute on the Memorial Day ahead to remember that the day is not just about barbeques, and ESPN, and racing, and swimming parties. Of course we should do these things: we're free and secure because of the sacrifices so many have made. They are our nation's heroes.

And, as General Logan wrote more than a century ago, we should let: " ... no ravages of time testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic."

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Lost in the West with John Wayne

It was hot outside and hotter inside my so-called ritzy, second-floor flat in the quaint bungalow neighborhood of tony Los Altos. Somebody forgot to install the air conditioning. Far worse, I'd received a call on Sunday morning from my father's doctor. He reported to me that my Dad had a new disease to add to the others that are wearing him down. It wasn't a great day. As the day grew hotter and the wallpaper began to melt, I decided it was time for me to look up the Duke and disappear into John Ford Country.

The movie Rio Grande was playing at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California. Big of screen, high of ceiling, conditioned of air, the old restored movie palace was showing one of director John Ford's best. It called to me and I answered.

The movie Rio Grande was filmed near Moab, Utah, in Monument Valley and the ranches and environs that surround it. Wayne was 43 when he made this film, young enough to retain the long, lean body of a man who could still wow 'em in that fitted cavalry uniform, but old enough to have the face of a man who had lived. He was beginning to look like the sadder and wiser John Wayne. It was a darn shame the Academy waited until he filmed the hokey True Grit to give him an Oscar.

Everyone in the cast is excellent. The scenery is stupendous. The wranglers, their horses, and the stunts are almost unbelievable. And there are stunts at every scene change, new stunning scenery at every twist of the story. IMDB says two stunt men were killed in one river sequence. John Ford, who was known to chew on a large handkerchief the way Gene Wilder does in the original The Producers, probably stopped chewing for a couple of moments after that and then moved on. The studios made him shoot this film so he could go to Ireland and make The Quiet Man.

Maureen O'Hara plays Wayne's wife, as she often did in Ford films, and the two were estranged, as they almost always were in Ford films. Her beauty was at its peak and the longing Wayne and O'Hara suggest with almost invisible motions of their hands and eyes and bodies is enough to make you weep. Ford seems to understand the strange mysteries of the rituals between men and women and understands as well how these mysteries can just as easily drive men and women apart. Ford was, after all, an Irishman. (Born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna in 1894.)

Claude Jarman, Jr, who four years earlier played Jody in The Yearling, is a man grown in this movie, or almost grown. He's long-legged as a colt and slender and almost as tall as Wayne, though Wayne, even in trim, has quite a few pounds on this talented young man who plays his son.

Families clearly intrigued Ford and that's reflected in the story line. America intrigued him too. The Sons of the Pioneers, playing a cavalry choir, underscore many of the movie's tenderest moments with their renditions of the traditional American pioneer tunes that Ford uses in all his Westerns.

I don't want to give too much away. The plot isn't new. The chases and Indian fights have all been done before. But here, they have been done in a way that they were never done before and never will be again. Every scene is perfection as is the supporting cast of Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Chill Wills, Victor McLaglen, and J. Carrol Naish. Corny, predictable, touching and fun, it simply has everything in a great, great, movie.

Like a bridge over troubled waters John Wayne and John Ford gave me two trouble-free hours. They did it with magic even though both have gone to that great round up in the sky. They did it with a movie that is fast and funny, wonderful, thrilling, and sweet and is as new as a shiny new penny ... even though it was released 59 years ago.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Moss Beach Road Trip

The view from the cliffs above Moss Beach, near Seal Cove and the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve.

A year or so ago, I saw a painting by artist Diana Jaye in a Los Altos, California gallery called "Back Door, Moss Beach." It was so lovely, and the name Moss Beach sounded so sweet as it rolled off the tongue, I kept it in my mind. When I moved back to California and checked the gallery, the painting was gone: but I figured I could still find the place. Needing a little serenity, I hit the road in search of same.

I took the I-280 north and zoomed over to California Highway 92, still one of the prettiest roads over the Coast Range I know of. The Portola Expedition of the 18th century had to hike the pass on foot, holding their horses most of the way, and wrote of a nearby Indian trail: "...on a very bad road up over a high mountain...though easily climbed on the way up, had a very hard abrupt descent on the opposite side." And that's one of the nicest things about it. But then, I had the help of my Swedish car.

As you glide down the western side of the pass, you see the most beautiful sight: in the far distance, the mighty Pacific, the color of teal, and, in the valley below, the farms with their fields of flowers.

Repetto's farm on Highway 92, just outside of Half Moon Bay, California.

The maps told me Moss Beach was just a few miles north of Half Moon Bay, off California Highway 1 (the Cabrillo Highway) about 24 miles south of San Francisco. I cruised along until I saw a sign that read "Moss Beach Distillery," with an arrow pointing to the left. So, I turned left onto Cypress Avenue. I passed a big stand of cypress on the right and the road twisted left again as it wound along between the Pacific cliffs, on the one side, and the cozy cottages on the other. Probably cost a lotta millions, those cottages.

Just a little further on, the road becomes Ocean Boulevard, and in a clearing ahead I saw a large building perched above a cliff. It was the Moss Beach Distillery, which isn't a distillery at all. It is a California Point of Historical Interest and a restaurant. In the days of Prohibition, the cove below--often shrouded in mist--was a great place for the rum runners to drop off their goods for the bootleggers. Seizing the intersection of product, location, and demand, entrepreneur Frank Torres turned the shack above the cove into a speakeasy called "Frank's Place." It was, in the lingo of the Dashiell Hammett era, a "roadhouse" and Hammett, being the San Francisco denizen he was and a man with a mighty thirst, became a frequent customer of Frank's. When I arrived, it was about half way between lunch and dinner, so I did not stop to eat. But I did walk through the place and found that every single table has a stupendous view of the ocean. That's a wow.

At right above: the Moss Beach Distillery on its perch above the Pacific.

Outside, there is a patio, where fireplaces burn year 'round and where wool blankets are provided for snuggling--and are needed--most of the year. I saw just a few snugglers out on this cold, foggy, windy day and I was happy to walk back inside to the restaurant. The wind had just about blown my beach hat off.

I could see from the menu and the plates of the diners there at this in-between hour that the Moss Beach Distillery isn't one of those haute cuisine California places where tiny little portions of food are served in nouvelle style decorated with little dribbles of sauce. The place has the down-at-the-heels look of an old speakeasy, with a large, well-worn bar. Its big plates feature fresh fish and piles of "speakeasy" fries and its meals have been voted "Best on the Northern California Coast".

When my Dad was well, he would have loved this place, sitting and watching the ocean crash outside the window. And if I bring my sister here, she will spend all her time looking through her field glasses at the birds and the sea creatures below. But what really struck me was what a great place the Distillery is for a romantic dinner. One of those meals, well-oiled with adult beverages. Note to self: leave old folks for a time and follow this prescription.

Speaking of romantic: heading back on Cypress Avenue I saw the iron gates of a small hotel and decided to stop to investigate. Down a sandy road I found the Seal Cove Inn, a boutique hotel that looks like a French chateau.

The Seal Cove Inn at Half Moon Bay is actually at Moss Beach. It is so pretty that it really doesn't make any difference.

There are just ten rooms at the Seal Cove Inn, some with fireplaces, some with balconies, some opening out on the Provence-like garden. Its a ten-minute walk to the beach, a twenty-minute stroll to the tide pools of the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Breakfast is the only full meal served here, but there is an afternoon happy hour, where guests can gather downstairs around the chateau's fireplaces and have tea and California wines. The Inn is expensive--at least for my pocketbook at present--but it is absolutely gorgeous. And there is that nice, seedy Distillery right down the road.

I stopped on the way back to buy a small topiary for my front door. The prices for flowers and plants along Highway 92, between Half Moon Bay and I-280, are considerably less than they are in the Santa Clara Valley. And the weather changed as I headed back over the range. Foggy and windy at the coast: warm and sunny back in the valley. Old Gaspar de Portola spent eighteen years exploring the hills of this part of California. In 1784 he returned to Spain. Whatever was he thinking? If only he'd invested in real estate.

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Thursday, May 7, 2009


Okay, that's great, but Tai Chi and what else?

California vanity plates are starting to impact my driving: I hope I don't smash into another vehicle as I scan the horizon trying to read the cryptic vanitytexting zooming by me on the roads of Silicon Valley.

Nurses must feel underappreciated, as I've spotted at least half-a-dozen vanity plates in as many days advertising their skills. I've seen "RN QD" and if a nurse cutie doesn't strike your fancy I've also seen "GR8 RN" and "ULTRA RN" on car plates. And then, I saw "JD RN" and I wondered if that was the nurse's initials: or did she catch a terrible fever one day and marry a lawyer?

Drivers of the Toyota hybrid Prius can be especially creative on their vanity plates. I've seen "KAR POOL," "JOY HYBD," and this one I spotted at the YMCA this evening:

I'm guessing that refers to fuel consumption, but it is also possible the owner uses the vehicle for trips to Weight Watchers.

On a sporty Mercedes SLK 230 the plates read "CRZ4SUN." That driver's genetic opposite across town had plates that announced "SNO4ME." Fortunately, you can have both at the same time in California, but you have to take a spin up to Tahoe.

I had to laugh when I saw a bright blue VW Beetle with a plate that read "DE JA BLZ," and I craned my neck an hour later to catch another creative writer who had "C8S CAR" on her plate. Nice work, Kate. That plate can be moved to the Porsche you get for Christmas when you meet "MR1DRFUL."

Finally, my favorite plate of the month. A yellow and black Mini Cooper.

Looks like an OBGYN who has acquired for him/her self a cute little Mini. And then I noticed where the car was parked ...

... right in the yellow zone, adjacent to our local hospital. It appeared Dr. BMBL OB must have had an emergency delivery to make. And yet, as I drove away, I had to ask myself, would you really want to have your baby delivered by Dr. BMBL?

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I'm No Angel

Having a blast with the old folks at McDonald's. Ashley at left and Faye at "our" table. I deserved a break today, but, unfortunately this wasn't it!

When I tell most people I've returned home to keep my eye on my elderly parents, they go "Aw, that's so nice," and when they say that I usually wish I could punch them in the nose. Its even worse when they say, "You'll never be sorry." Hell, I was sorry the first day I got here.

Its not nice, actually, and its not fun and when I'm not plotting violence against the people who think it is so noble of me to have returned home to support my elderly, loony, cranky old folks, I'm often to be found wishing I could strangle the old folks themselves.

Take our outings to McDonald's. My mother has some kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder and that means we always have to sit at the same table. No one in the family questions this, as having her nervous and upset is worse than picking another table, thus, we have all become table enablers. The table she likes is about a mile from the door to the restaurant. My father's illness makes walking difficult/almost impossible/slow. So I help him from the car, go park the car, return to the restaurant and wait as he struggles across the room with his caregiver, while my mother taps her foot impatiently. Meanwhile, she has ordered exactly the same thing she always orders and FOR EVERYONE. At this point, I'm looking at the ceiling, wondering how much time they would give me for putting strychnine in the McChicken.

Dinner at their house. Now there's a treat. When I arrive, I have to hang up my coat (as if I were nine years old). Then I have to set the table (as if I were nine years old). During dinner my father is excluded from conversation because he is deaf and my mother does not bring pad and paper to the table. If he decides to join the conversation he usually picks up any topic on his mind and just starts to talk. We've all heard all his stories. So the three-way conversation at table goes something like this:

Mother: "The professors for whom I worked at Stanford told me that they really could not get along without me. They had PHDs, you know, but I was able to help them correct their grammar."

Robin: "Oh and I meant to tell you Mom, you made a dentist appointment for yourself for next week, but you haven't taken Dad to the dentist for two years. Don't you think we should take him?"

Mother: "Have you seen those roses over there on the fence? Aren't they marvelous?"

Dad: "We WON that war, I'm telling you, and beat those Japs. And I never even got a scratch. That night Ray Kidd died I heard the shrapnel whiz by my ear, but I came back okay. You were around then, weren't you? Remember when I met your mother? Oh she was beautiful and I told my father, I think I'll marry that girl and he said ... "

Mother: "It wasn't a career for me. You girls and your father were my real career, naturally, but Dr. P and Professor O would tell me, 'Faye, where would we be without you?'"

Robin: "Oh and we're out of diapers, so you need to pick some up next time you're at the drug store."

Mother: "I must remind the gardener to prepare the vegetable garden. It looks like rain to me. Isn't it lovely tonight?"

Dad: "I was on the train that day, on my way to Spokane. And I sent my family a wire and said, why don't you come out there too. I may be going to Japan and I have money in the bank and I may never get a chance to spend it. So they all came out, my father, my mother and my sister Helen. And that's how they met your mother. And my Dad really liked her and said 'Go for it, son.' So I did. And she's been the best wife a man could have."

Mother: "I'm trying to teach Ashley not to put his Kleenex on the table when he's used it."

Robin: "Mom, he has dementia."

Mother: "Oh yes and I must remember to water my ferns tonight. Look at that one. Isn't it marvelous?"

Father: "I have to go to the toilet."

With conversation this scintillating it is a blessing that the meals are, at least, mercifully short. Of course, they're short because my mother has anorexia and serves only very tiny meals. (Most of the day the caregivers and I try to outwit her by sneaking food to my Dad.) Oh yes, meal over. I rise from the table and I must clear it (as if I'm nine years old) and dry the dishes (as if I'm nine years old) before I am allowed to be excused (as if I'm nine years old). I run, screaming to the car at top speed and upon my arrival at my own (thank God) home I reach, immediately, for a) a wine bottle, and b)the phone. I telephone my sister and tell her I've decided to move to Nepal and study Tao and its HER TURN NOW!

Don't get me wrong. I love being with my Dad, in spite of everything. But if he tells me again the story of how he proposed to my mother, I plan to bean him with his walker.

So, the next time someone tells they've returned to their hometown to keep an eye on their elderly parents, please don't tell them how nice they are. Say something that would really connect, like "Wow, I bet that's really hell for you." Now, that will get you a smile.

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