Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Who is the Missing Boy on the Red Trike?

My father with his father, Joseph Roy Chapman, in Alabama, about 1924. The name of the dog is lost to history.

In the last ten days or so, my father has begun asking both my sister and me about a little boy on a red tricycle. "Where is he?" he asks. "Have you seen him?"

I've had several theories about this: since the onset of his brain disease, Dad has been getting boys and girls, men and women mixed up. During the year before he went into the nursing home I used to ride my bicycle over to see him at the house on Echo Drive almost every day. Was he wondering about me and was he just confused? I asked him and he said no.

Then again: over the years he lived on Echo, after my sister and I were grown, he made friends with all the neighborhood kids. He was always outside washing the car or working in the yard or unloading bricks from his car (he scrounged them everywhere and used them in patios and walkways) and kids would come over and ask him what he was doing and they would talk while he worked. He adored children and they returned the feeling.

Perhaps it was a little neighbor child he remembered. But why is he asking about him now, and who is he?

Then, I recalled that I had a red tricycle and a red cowgirl outfit I wore everywhere when I was about three years old. So, when he asked me again about the boy and the red trike, I asked him if he meant me. He looked at me as if I were the crazy one.

"You don't have a trike," he said. "And you're not a little boy."

So the mystery continued. He's been very ill lately, maybe with pneumonia, maybe his pancreatic cancer has spread, maybe his NPH disease has further fried his brain. He seems especially frail.

"Have you seen anything of the little the boy with the red tricycle?" He asked me again at breakfast. I shook my head and said I was still checking.

Then I went home and started working, again, at the Echo Drive house, with its fifty years of boxes and stuff to sort through. I wondered who that little boy was that my father was missing. The one who rode the red trike.

As I worked in the dusty house, I remembered what a neurosurgeon friend once told me about a woman who came in to see him. "She said she thought sometimes it was today and sometimes it was yesterday and sometimes it was tomorrow. 'I've been to a psychiatrist and he thinks I'm okay. Do you think I'm going crazy,' she asked?" The doctor did a brain scan and found a little scar on the lobe of her brain where we experience time perception. He removed the scar and she was herself again.

My father's brain is injured too and his time perception is now very quirky. Sometimes we are in the 1940s--sometimes, we're in even earlier days than that and we're in the Alabama of his boyhood.

And suddenly I recalled seeing an old photo of my father and I dug it out of the bottom of a pile. It is in black and white; but, I colored it in, a little, with my computer.

Is my father, the little boy he's searching for? I wonder.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

My Best Friend Forever and Former Neighbor, Alexander Haig, RIP

When Alexander Haig died recently, I was surprised to see a headline in the San Jose paper that identified him as a former "White House aide." He wasn't a "White House aide;" he was President Reagan's Secretary of State. Unfortunately, what most remember about him is that when President Reagan was shot, Haig took to the podium in the White House press room, misstated the line of presidential succession, and,in a shaky voice,told us:

"As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him."

He looked too much like Dr. Strangelove to most of us that day, and, though he served for another sixteen months as Secretary of State, his swan song was truly written that moment in the White House press room.

I, however, had none of this insight in October of 1981, when I moved to Washington D.C. to work as a reporter for the ABC-TV affiliate there. My husband and I bought a little house just across the D.C. line in Bethesda, Maryland, right near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Western.

One night, we were driving home from the Kennedy Center on Massachusetts Avenue, in our orange Ford Fiesta, when a jaunty little Mercedes zipped by in the left lane. The profile was immediately recognizable.

"Hey," sez I. "That's Alexander Haig. Let's follow him and see where he lives." I was naive, I know, but I thought one day information such as this might come in handy. Plus I was really curious to find out if he lived near us.

My husband was driving and he was a little dubious, but since we were going the same direction as Secretary Haig anyway, he agreed.

Mr. Secretary's Mercedes was followed, I should add, by the usual complement of black SUVs filled with large guys wearing heavy overcoats.

As we crossed Western Avenue, we passed the street where, to go to our home, we would have turned right. Instead, we followed the Mercedes about a block further up the road and, when Secretary Haig turned to the left, so did we in our Ford Fiesta. My husband was muttering under his breath that this was a really stupid idea, but I was not to be deterred.

Unlike our own tiny little abode with garage space for one vehicle, Mr. Secretary had a dandy town home with a big two-car garage underneath, and, as we made the turn onto his street, his car was just disappearing behind his automatically operated garage door.

That's when we noticed his street was a cul-de-sac and we were the only moving vehicle on it at present.

The large men in the black SUVs wearing those large raincoats had sneaked past us, had parked around the street in a circle-the-wagons formation, and were just reaching under their coats for something (weapons perhaps?) as we turned into the cul-de-sac.

We slumped down in our little orange car and tried to be invisible as we headed home over to the less expensive side of Mass Ave.

"That was great," said my husband. "Now our license number will be registered with the Secret Service."

But I was still in dreamland. I'd seen where the old guy lived. I'd made those security guys do a little work for their money--they were on special alert at the time, for what were then being called "Iranian Hit Squads," which, by the way, never materialized. I had enjoyed my little people-watching-brush-with-greatness-brush-with-being-shot-at-by-the-Secret-Service enormously.

After I had lived longer in Washington D.C., I became more jaded and got so I didn't even notice when a motorcade went by. I became too sophisticated to poke my husband in the ribs and urge him to follow a cabinet official.

And when that happened, I lost the sense of wonder I felt that day, at how much fun it was and how interesting it was to live and work around the people who run the world.

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Alexander Haig at Wikipedia

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Another Rally

Dad was so near death Wednesday morning, I called my sister and asked her to come. With help from friends we stayed with him all day.

He was restless and hallucinating, calling my name, calling Mom's name, trying to fix the car, trying to find a mechanic. At about 5:00 p.m. his dinner came and I washed his face with cold water, hoping I could get him to eat.

Instead, he fell into a deep sleep: no more tossing and turning, no more hallucinations and talking. Just a deep, deep sleep.

I left to pick up my sister and her husband, who flew into San Jose airport, Wednesday night.

Thursday morning we walked in to the nursing home, not sure what we would find.

Dad in bed, still sleeping?

Dad worse?

Dad dying?

He wasn't in his room.

He was dressed in his favorite blue sweater, his hair combed, his new glasses sparkling, sitting waiting for breakfast in the dining room. He waved at us a big hello.

This wasn't the final crisis, thank goodness. We've had a reprieve. I plan to sleep around the clock: so if I don't answer the phone, you'll know why.

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Update on Dad

Dad with his friend Ray Kidd, who was killed about a month before the end of the war.

Dad almost died yesterday morning. When I arrived to help him with his breakfast, he was slumped over in his wheelchair and the staff was huddled around him. His blood oxygen had dropped to 80 (you need to have a blood oxygen level above 90 percent to stay alive) and his skin was as cold as my mother's when she died.

We got him back to bed and on oxygen and covered him in warm blankets and he rallied. But he was in and out of consciousness all day and didn't eat much, though he is drinking water.

I called my sister and she flew out to help.

Dad was hallucinating a lot all day. He had me (in his mind) shopping for car parts for his Buick most of the afternoon and kept calling out for me to be sure to see the mechanic "up the street." I assured him I would.

Late in the day he was lucid for a few minutes and said: "I think I'm losing my mind. But I think I'm going to be okay if I can stop being dizzy."

Later I had to run some errands, and two loving friends stayed with him for a couple of hours. When I came back, he woke up and I asked him how he was. "Not so hot," he said. "But I'm still here."

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Is There Really a War Going On?

World War II ration books that belonged to my parents and grandparents.

I'm not sure it is a good idea to be conducting a war using paid mercenaries. For that is what America is doing today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After the Vietnam War was derailed by draft resisters--the pictures looked mighty bad on the nightly news--those wacky politicians in Washington came up with an idea they felt would allow them to approve military action, and yet would never get them into trouble with the public.

The all volunteer army was born.

What that has brought about is a nation full of people who believe it is somebody else's job to defend the nation. It puts no one under obligation to the blessings of America.

Since the attacks on our country September 11, 2001, our brothers and sisters have been dying in foreign lands for a paycheck.

All this occurred to me when I found those ration cards you see at the top of this piece, in with all the flotsam and jetsam I'm clearing out of my parents' home. During World War II, Americans skimped on sugar and butter and meat, on tires and on gasoline, so that war production could go forward and save lives and speed up the war's end. So that infantry soldiers would have the calories they needed to march into Germany and Asia.

Americans grew Victory gardens and saved string and aluminum foil in an early form of living the green life, so that, once again, things were not wasted that might be used to help our troops.

In many cases, these sacrifices were organized in Washington to help Americans at home feel they had a part to play. It was tough to see those telegrams coming into towns, day after day, that brothers and sons and fathers were wounded, missing, or killed. Yet if the rest of the country felt it too was sacrificing, even in small ways, it somehow seemed to squalize the burden.

Which leads me to say I think the Bush administration missed an enormous opportunity in 2001, when it did nothing to capitalize on the unity we felt as a nation after the attacks of 9/ll. They seemed to have no talent for psyops, or for leadership, that could take all that anger and patriotism we felt and give it some useful meaning.

Instead we sent out the volunteers. Went back to work. Kept driving our SUVs. Started corrupting free enterprise in the mortgage, banking, and investment businesses. Imported more oil than ever before for our selfish little selves.

I've had two family members serve during this wartime. The whole time they were overseas I kept asking myself: what can I do to help?

But nobody in our government answered.

Somebody up there in the nation's capitol needs to read up on her history. Americans will support even the most terrible conflicts if they believe the cause is worthy and they are included in the work needed to win.

And if you can't convince us at home to help out, maybe we hadn't ought to be letting others die for us.

We have Marines in a big battle right now in Afghanistan. I didn't talk with one person today who said they were worried about those Marines.

I don't think it ought to be this way. I don't think we'll win this way, either.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Living in Dad's Imagination

Dad giving the thumbs up to one of his nurses.

Dad was in a wonderful mood today at breakfast, a nice change from his grumpiness of the last couple of days. I didn't know at first why he was so cheerful, though that became evident as the morning progressed.

I never know quite where we are each morning, until he begins to talk to me. Sometimes, he tells me about a car accident we were in that burned up the car and how he was worried that I wouldn't get out safely. Yesterday, he told me about a house he bought that already had people living in it who didn't like the fact that he was beginning to remodel it. These, I believe, are dreams he's had that he continues to experience shortly afterward in his waking life.

Other times it becomes evident that he believes we are in, for example, the Homewood Dairy, an ice cream store where he once worked in his Alabama hometown. He'll tell me how he knows the owners so we are sure to be getting our food for free. The Homewood Dairy sounds like a lovely place--just the name has a cozy sound--and even though we are having breakfast, he always wonders when the ice cream will be coming to the table and what form it will take--sundae, soda, or cone.

Sometimes we're in Al's Barbershop, and Dad wonders why Al is serving breakfast with his haircuts. "All I want is a haircut, gosh darn it."

Today, however, was an especially happy day. Today, I gradually began to realize we were on an Army base at the end of World War II.

"The war is over," he said with a smile. "And we won!" Then he leaned forward a little conspiratorially and said: "That's why we can get away with not wearing our uniforms here."

Since Dad is deaf, and only speaks between the bites of toast and eggs I'm feeding him, the conversation is pretty one-sided. But today, that was definitely for the best, since I had a hard time anticipating where he was going with this end-of-the war scenario.

I made a happy face with my smile and mouthed to him: "I'm happy the war is over."

He nodded and said, as if apropos of my comment: "And I'm boxed."

I must explain that remark. It involves a very personal and private matter for the elderly but it does have its funny side. When my father had care at home, he often expressed a concern to the nurses that he might not make it to the bathroom in time and wet himself. Several of the nurses dealt with this by telling him they would "check his package" to make sure it was dry. His "package" stood for his adult pull-ups to which they added an extra pad.

Somehow, at the nursing home, Dad's mind transliterated the word "package" into the similar word "box" and now he frequently asks me--and just about everyone else--"Am I boxed?"

This caused great puzzlement among the nurses, until they caught on, and now they, along with me, always give him the okay sign when he asks about his "boxing."

He is very curious about this boxing thing and asks me about it frequently. "Is boxing just for the men?" he asks. I always assure him it is.

"How long does it last?" he asked me once. I held up two fingers--two hours I guessed, which seemed about right--and he let out a sigh of relief.

So this morning, when I said I was happy and he said he was boxed, I think he meant he was relaxed and felt safe. But he did add this curious detail:

"Though how they accomplished it so quickly, I don't know. They must have done it at the factory."

I started to think about a factory where men are pre-boxed and, I'm sorry, but I just couldn't keep a straight face.

I began to laugh so hard the scrambled eggs were falling off the fork. Dad smiled and seemed very pleased that I was having so much fun. I found some Kleenex, wiped away the tears and managed to get through the rest of breakfast.

We usually take a little promenade in this wheelchair after breakfast and today, when we stopped at the birdcage that contains the nursing home's resident budgie "Kiwi", he confessed to me he was a little disappointed.

"Why?" I asked him in pantomime.

"Well, I was expecting flags all over the place and a parade or something."

I gave him a salute and he saluted me in return.

"You're darned tootin'," he said.

Then, we saw a very tall, very thin, elderly man approaching us in his wheelchair, which he was well enough, unlike my Dad, to manage on his own. He was just wheeling himself out of the dining room when my father spotted him.

"Finally," said Dad. "A parade!" And he reached out and shook the somewhat startled man's hand and said "We won!"

"Not yet," said the man, perhaps referring to the wars going on in this century.

But all the stages of our lives have their compensations. My father's deafness served him well. He missed the irrelevant retort and smiled as the parade passed by.

The Colonel, giving his daughter a salute.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

More on Nagasaki

The ruins of Nagasaki, Japan, 1945.

Finding the newspaper clipping that proved my father toured the ruins of Nagasaki in 1945, shortly after the use of the atomic bomb as a weapon for just the second time in the history of the world, was important to me for several reasons.

I've been filing a claim with the Veterans Administration for compensation for his exposure to the radiation there: late in his life he has developed two forms of cancer and his doctors told me very clearly that exposure at Nagasaki could easily explain this. So I've sent the newspaper article to the VA and am hoping for the best on that.

A page from my grandmother's World War II scrapbook, featuring clippings about my father.

But more than that, I wanted this event in our family history to be recorded for all the generations to come. My father was there and saw with his own eyes how terrible it was and his words are descriptive as well as give insight to his character:

He wrote:
"Yesterday I learned first hand what President Truman meant when he said, 'As an alternative we offer you prompt and utter destruction.' We drove down to Nagasaki. That place is really a mess."

My father was recalling that this did not have to happen. The U.S. had offered Japan the alternative of surrender. They chose not to do so. Many more lives on both sides would have been lost in a bloody, terrible, lengthy invasion of the Japanese home islands. But Nagasaki was also a terrible choice.

He continues:
"The stench of the dead is still present in some places ... Anyone who had the starting of a war in his mind should see Nagasaki. I believe he would change his plans."

No one hates war like a soldier, my father once told me. And he said something similar to his mother in his last V-letter home, on Mother's Day 1945, while he was still in the thick of the Battle of Okinawa. I found this in the same scrapbook with the article about my father's Nagasaki experience, which came just a few months later:

"Let us hope this will be the last Mother's Day that mothers will have to be concerned about the whereabouts and safety of their sons ... I am looking forward to the day when I can send you a Grandmother's Day card. I hope it won't be too long until we can make that wish come true. Lots of Love, Ashley. "

Dad, home on leave, standing next to his proud father Joseph Roy Chapman, in the backyard of 1009 Palmetto in Homewood, Alabama. Shortly after this, he met my mother, married, and entered the last phase of World War II in the Pacific and then returned to the U.S. and lived happily ever after.

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Friday, February 5, 2010


I've been looking for this World War II-era article for some time. I finally found it this week in a dusty old box at my parents' home in Los Altos.

The article, which is not labeled but appears to be from the Birmingham (Alabama) News, is based on a letter my father wrote home to his parents at the end of the war. I found his word's much as I have found him: intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate. I think if you click on the piece it will be big enough for you to read too. I'll have more about all this, later. But it is a slice of our family history--and American history--that I am so pleased has not been lost.

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