May, 2011:

The Beginnings of a Writing Career

High School news


My writing career has been an adventurous one: lots of fun, great experiences and for years very little money. As I tell my editing clients—you must create through love, not desire for money. Like most creative endeavors, writing is rewarding to the heart and soul but it can take time for compensation to reach your wallet, much less the bank. Sometimes it never does.

Writing stories began with the Barracan, the Wheelus High School newspaper at Wheelus Air Force Base, adjacent to Tripoli, Libya. I was 14, it was the 50s and our high school had less than 100 students. Life in Libya was bucolic: Tripoli wasn’t very large then, palm trees, and flowering plants were everywhere, the weather was warm, and the Mediterranean Sea was welcoming. Although small, the high school was filled with typical American teenagers. Jeans, loafers, saddle shoes, and crinolines that poofed out our circle skirts were typical attire. We had proms, a teenage club, and only one radio station to play occasional rock n’ roll, certainly not as current as “American Bandstand.” Unless you were new to Wheelus, you probably didn’t even know the program existed in the States.

I recall only one story I wrote for the Barracan newspaper—the Junior-Senior prom with Ebb Tide as the theme, which was held at the Tripoli Beach Club. Ginny Stewart had a pre-prom coketail party at her family’s nearby villa, and featured a belly dancer as entertainment. The fully dressed Libyan woman wore a very modest wrap-around indoor garment, not the confining outdoor barracan, an all-encompassing white wool garment that covered women from head to toe, exposing only one eye and their feet, as can be seen in the newspaper drawing. She had pushed her indoor garment down to her hips to accentuate them and performed her exotic dance to a rhythmic drum played by a Libyan man. The woman was most likely a servant of the Stewarts and wasn’t afraid to flaunt her talents to American teenagers.

In college—William & Mary in Virginia—I wrote many stories for the Flat Hat college paper. I was pleasantly surprised at one class reunion when a displayed scrapbook had three of my stories!

When my kids were in grammar school and didn’t need my full attention, I wrote my first newspaper column: Hillrise Highlights, which covered local events and turned into a political campaign to get a nearby highway bridge widened in Agoura, California. I even participated in gathering signatures to get the County of Los Angeles or the State interested in funding the construction. Our campaign succeeded and the bridge was totally revamped.

I graduated to covering news for the Acorn, a weekly newspaper for this rapidly growing Conejo Valley suburb of LA, on the border of Ventura County. By the early 1980s I was the editor, responsible for a little bit of everything—writing and editing, headlines, photos, attendance at chamber of commerce meetings and mixers. City incorporation attempts, wildfires, water quality, and commercial/residential growth were some of the pressing issues in those days. There were also the unusual stories: my trip in a hot air balloon in a fur coat and attending a nightclub show of sexy male strippers, an early Chippendales-type show. I learned to be prepared for anything in the news business.



At my desk, contemplating, with the globe behind me.


I began this blog, WORDS ON MY MIND, on May 13, 2010. Since then I’ve written  123  blogs on all sorts of subjects, from life as an Army brat, especially in Tripoli, Libya, to adventures living in Southern California. Since I’m considered a senior citizen now and have worked/created as a writer and an editor for 33 years, there have been lots of events to write about. Over the years I’ve interviewed many fascinating people, edited over 80 books of all types, written a screenplay, Drake,  an historical novel, Melaynie’s Masquerade, and co-written a memoir with Wendy Wong, When the Phoenix Rises.

Starting a blog can be daunting, even though I’ve been writing all my life. When I was ten, I sat down in front of an old portable typewriter to write a story about a dog, a story I have long forgotten. If memory serves, my family was on vacation in Jacksonville Beach, Florida at the time. That’s my memory, at any rate, but I’ve recently learned you can’t completely trust your memory! You change it, someone else may add their two cents, which revises the story, etc. As is touted all the time, the only thing in life that’s constant is change…

My life has been one of many changes; perhaps that’s a reason I wanted to write: it was a way I could create some kind of base, a form of security. I’ve kept a diary off and on since high school and have saved the notebooks. I’m even one of those people who composes a yearly Christmas letter to friends. I work on keeping it balanced: describing highlights as well as the lowlights from the past year. Currently, I write on my computer. Who will be interested in what I’ve said once I’ve gone on to non-physical pastures? What difference does it make? Probably none, but I’ve pleased myself. Conclusion: it’s the reason I’m now blogging. I want to share my thoughts with more people.

Born in Danville, VA, I was raised an Army brat—on my way by age four to Murnau, Germany. I learned to speak Deutsche—it’s easy when you’re young. My family moved many times: after Germany came New Jersey, Ft. Leonard Wood, MO; Jacksonville Beach, FL while dad fought in Korea, the Bronx, Ft. Knox, KY; Tripoli, Libya; and Alexandria, VA. During my years in college at William and Mary, in Williamsburg, VA, my family went briefly to Carlisle, PA before landing once again in Germany (Mannheim and Frankfurt). The wanderlust was still with me when I graduated, and I ended up working as a secretary at Heidelberg Officers Club in Germany. Marriage brought me to Los Angeles and I’ve been here ever since. At last count so far, I’ve lived in about 27 different homes in my lifetime.

Los Angeles, which I love, is a microcosm of the world—we’ve got nearly 4 million people from every culture here and we come in various colors, shapes and sizes. In my apartment building, I can visit with neighbors from Romania, Israel, Turkey, El Salvador, New York City, and all over the US.   Some who have grown up here have families that have come from: the Philippines, Armenia, China and various Latin American countries.

I believe we’re all connected as humans, no matter what the country, religion or political view. Writing is communication…connection…about everything. To remember the wonderful connections, the uplifting or sad experiences, the oddities and synchronicities, I write to share my experiences.







AT&T gave its service reps six weeks of extensive training—excellent customer service was a requirement. I think our customers may have sensed we were also sympathetic and willing to listen. Tiny Tim, the singing ukulele player who had been on “Laugh In” and on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in his falsetto voice, loved to call us. One day he reached me and kept repeating, “Hello, Mrs. Operator there…hello, Mrs. Operator there.” I gave my name and asked what I could help with several times, to no avail; he finally hung up and ended up calling someone else soon after. I felt he was probably lonely (it was before his marriage to Miss Vicki) and plagued with obsessive compulsive disorder. He would call with questions about phone service and ask for callbacks at specific times because he scheduled frequent showers and tooth brushings for himself.

Before comedian Marty Ingels married singer/actress Shirley Jones, he went through a depression and found solace by talking to Ruth, one of our reps, who would definitely qualify as a compassionate  “Jewish mother” type. He sometimes called several times a day. One night he took her to a Hollywood party where she met the indomitable film and Broadway actress Hermione Gingold, who had a distinctive low voice and was admired for her wonderful performance in “Gigi” with Leslie Caron. Ruth loved to fill us in on her adventures and conversations with Marty.

Phyllis, a financially secure woman working at AT&T for fun, shattered one of my illusions when she revealed that Bob Hope wasn’t as perfect as I’d believed. She had a friend who lived in a swanky apartment building in Hollywood, and Phyllis had seen Bob Hope in the building or in the elevator several times. Apparently, he kept a special lady there. To me it was like finding out there was no Santa Claus. In some respects I was so naïve in those days!

The office atmosphere was friendly and supportive, even though section supervisors listened into our calls and gave us critiques. Many of us, including supervisors, got together to socialize during lunch or after work. There was a great bar/restaurant called Room at the Top on Sunset and Vine with a Happy Hour that served so much food, dinner wasn’t necessary.  On Halloween, the whole office dressed up with each section picking a certain costume for the entire section of six women.  My section must have been inspired by The Flintstones, considering the photo below.

I'm the Cavewoman who's third from the left.


Hollywood was a motley collection of businesses in the ‘60s, from the famous to the infamous, much like today, but a great deal of it was rundown. The well-known corner of Hollywood and Vine was not glamorous, but it did feature the somewhat upscale Broadway Department Store. Sunset Boulevard had the Palladium ballroom, home to Lawrence Welk for a number of years, and the Aquarius Theater where the musical “Hair” played for two years in the late ‘60s.  Frederick’s, a store for sexy women’s attire including underwear (before Victoria’s Secret appeared on the scene) was on Hollywood Boulevard, along with the aging Pantages Theatre, which had once been a gold-trimmed and very swanky movie theater. The Pantages has since returned to its former glory and is continually used for the road companies of Broadway productions.

My AT&T adventures ended when I got pregnant. I had worked for about four years since getting married, and my husband and I thought it was the ideal time to start a family. After I stopped taking the “pill,” it didn’t take long for Nature to take its course.

When I had to throw up in the trashcan at work, I had my first inkling that daughter Heidi was on her way. She made her appearance about two months before the decade of the momentous 1960s was over.



When the Los Angeles Times job failed to lead to something more demanding and interesting than typing for the secretarial pool, I began looking for another job.

I was hired as a service representative for AT&T, known then as “Ma Bell.” Life goes in circles. AT&T was a very powerful company in the 1950s and 60s: it was THE phone company. To insure it wouldn’t become a monopoly with too much power, it was split up. Didn’t take many years before the company regained its strength. It’s probably stronger than ever now with the word monopoly being used again.

Service Reps, as we were called, were always female then because of the nature of the job. Women are still known as the gender more talented at multi-tasking, although the current reps are also men. It was fast-paced telephone work—taking orders for new telephones, transferring service, handling complaints about bills, and collecting bills.  As we reps prepared for our Denial Prevention Calls, the DPC, we joked that we would inform the delinquent customer:  “This is the last voice you will hear on your telephone.”

Being located on Gower Street between Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards in Hollywood was one of the best parts of the job. It was a different world, especially to me, the newbie. Although the area was primarily residential with small Spanish style homes and a few apartment buildings, the famous Studio Club, essentially a dormitory where aspiring actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, and Sharon Tate had stayed while looking for movie work, was a couple of blocks away. Up the street was Columbia Studios with its giant warehouse-size buildings. Most of us spotted various stars from time to time. I saw Dean Martin ride coolly down Gower on a motorcycle, and on another day I caught sight of the Monkees singing group coming out of an exclusive boutique.

Hollywood Studio Club for Women


When we weren’t brown-bagging it, we went to lunch at places where a star might eat. I liked French food and a few friends introduced me to Le Petit Café on Vine Street. It was a tiny hideaway run by a charming, handsome Frenchman, and the food was scrumptious. One day, Jim Nabors (Gomer Pyle on the Andy Griffith Show), who was seated with his friend Carol Burnett, treated us all to a few operatic bars of a song. Years later, I was introduced to him at the Beverly Hills Country Club where I was the editor of their magazine. Nabors, a very congenial Southerner who’d suffered a bout of poor health at that time, was wearing a bright lemon-colored sports coat. I think I mentioned my first personal “concert.”

At Knight’s, a local coffee shop, I spotted the handsome Latin actor, Fernando Lamas, husband of Esther Williams, surrounded by his entourage. Feeling flush financially, a few of us had lunch once at the famous Brown Derby Hollywood (not the LA original in the shape of a derby hat). We were seated in a booth next to Cornel Wilde and the effervescent Mitzi Gaynor.

The phone company business office was on the second floor of a large two-story building. We serviced most of the residential and business phone service in Hollywood, including the Sunset Strip, homes in the Hollywood Hills, and renowned restaurants on La Cienega’s Restaurant Row. We also took care of Fairfax Avenue, home to lots of retired folks pinching their pennies. They had a reputation for calling to quibble over a few cents for the “message units” charged on their bills. We often heard, “It’s not the money, it’s the principle.” Most of the time, we just adjusted the bill, and the adjustment could be less than ten cents. We never knew who’d be on the phone when we picked up: the son of Peter Lorre (Maltese Falcon) who sounded like his father or Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., the dapper detective on TV’s “77 Sunset Strip.”

On the first floor was the public office, and the reps who worked downstairs always had amusing tales. People came in for phone service or to pay delinquent bills dressed in all sorts of outrageous outfits: men or women in trench coats, naked underneath; or women dressed in tight one-piece outfits that laced up the side, revealing bare skin from armpit to ankle. One of my friends came back from lunch one day to report she had seen an entire family (parents and two kids) walking down Hollywood Boulevard totally naked!




Los Angeles Times - built in 1935



In the mid 60s, there weren’t a wide variety of interesting and well-paid jobs for women, even if you did have a college degree. My bachelor’s degree was in English and I loved writing. I didn’t want to be a teacher but I could type. Secretarial jobs, though not always interesting, could lead up the corporate ladder to something better.

I was hired by the Los Angeles Times shortly after I arrived in California in 1965 with my husband, who was a civil engineer and worked for the LA County Sanitation Department. It was convenient for me to work at the Times. It was only two blocks from my husband’s job; we could ride to work together and save money by not needing a second car. We didn’t even consider public transportation. Southern California was the land of cars, lots of freeways, and an inefficient bus system.

Though I’d been a reporter and editorial assistant for my college newspaper, that didn’t qualify me for the same job, even at entry level, for the LA Times. Educated women could aspire to a career as a teacher, a nurse, or a secretary. A popular joke related that women went to college to get their MRS degree. I was hired for the secretarial pool to type envelopes or letters from the Dictaphone machine. We were also used as substitute receptionists or secretaries.

Los Angeles wasn’t the city of high-rise buildings it is now. City Hall, at 32 stories, was the tallest building in town. The impressive Music Center was under construction until 1967 and the fabulously modern Disney Hall designed by Frank Gehry wasn’t even a dream in those days.  My desk in the secretarial office was on the fifth floor of the LA Times building. I worked there less than six months, but 1965 was a memorable summer.

From the many windows, we could see the smoke and fires from Watts, a few miles south of us, now infamous as the Watts Riots. It was a frightening situation, especially to relatives of mine who lived in the East and just assumed everything was close-by in Los Angeles.

Several reporters for the LA Times were honored by the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the bloody and destructive Watts Riots and its aftermath. One of them, Jack Jones, just died (as reported in the May 15 paper). I’ve been an avid reader of the Times for over 40 years.

One positive highlight of my short stay there was the week I worked as a receptionist in the LA Times executive offices, occupied by the Chandlers, Norman and Buffy, the owners of the newspaper. Dorothy “Buffy” Chandler was enjoying her success as the primary fundraiser for the new Music Center that was being built nearby.

Their spacious offices, which included a bathroom and shower, were paneled in oak and the windows overlooked downtown Los Angeles.   Although impressive to work there, it was very boring–not many visitors or many phone calls. To look busy, I read all the material on the wealthy and enterprising Chandler family and all their business ventures. I used the typewriter for personal letters and even had the time to type all the addresses in my new address book. I once noticed the handsome silver-haired Norman Chandler, who was very conscious of his weight, downing the diet drink of the day—Metrecal—for lunch. Dorothy Chandler was in and out of the office. Since she had issued an edict that female employees of the Times must not wear sleeveless clothing and definitely not utter the word “OK” while on the premises, I avoided her.

Funny how the 1960s were both rebellious and repressive at the same time. Life is always full of contradictions.


Dancin’ with Wolves or Chimps, Anyone?


When I saw the news about a chimpanzee mauling a middle-aged man a few years ago—the chimp had nearly killed the man as he tore off part of his face, mouth, nose, tongue and fingers.—I couldn’t help but think of my former neighbor and animal wrangler for the movies. Jules Sylvester, who had worked on the film “Project X” starring Matthew Broderick and some chimpanzees, had once told me that chimps were really “urban guerillas,” especially when they got older. Chimpanzees may remind us of ourselves and seem so cute in the zoo and in TV ads, but they are wild animals, a fact to respect.

Wolves are also complicated creatures. “Wolves have a very closed and complicated social system,” Jules explained. The social graces are important to observe since wolves don’t like strangers. It takes a trainer a great deal of time to develop a relationship. “The ideal thing is to be a non-person, to be calm and unobtrusive. Always keep moving. Don’t indulge in the human trait of standing around staring.”

Some years ago Jules took local California wolves to Coldfoot, Alaska, in mid-winter for a Sears commercial, and was amazed at their adaptability. He had also managed wolves for the movie “Never Cry Wolf,” a wonderful story of a man living in a tent and observing the everyday lives of wolves in the wilderness during the icy winter. I had met Charlie Martin Smith, the primary human star of the film at a Malibu Shopping Center opening.

The Alaskan site for the commercial was 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The temperature, at minus 87 degrees, was too cold to run any vehicles or fly out, and the crew were stuck there over two weeks. They had to wait until it warmed up to minus 74.  It was too cold to film, and Jules remembered finding six inches of ice under his bed in their trailer camp.

“The wolves, who were born and raised in Thousand Oaks, California, were totally ecstatic. It was wonderful to watch how magnificent wolves are, how adaptable, and how insignificant we are. They could adapt from minus 87 to 100 degrees.”

Years later, Jules took wolves from Thousand Oaks to Thailand for the movie “The Phantom.” Despite the dense, hot and humid jungle, once again the wolves loved the environment.

Jules loves his business and the very long list of credits on his website prove it. “I get along with most people and that helps.  In business you sell yourself. Anybody could wrangle a cockroach, but I can do it with a lot more giggles.”





Remembering My Mother on Mother’s Day

My mama, as she would refer to herself in the Southern way, was a “pistol.” My dad called her “Pistol-packin’ mama;” the phrase is from an old country song. He was right: those were qualities an Army officer’s wife had to learn as she stood up for herself and her children (she raised three of us). As the seventh of eight children, Mama had practiced being her own person early in life.

When it’s Mother’s Day, I remember Mama and all the effort she put into making sure her kids had the best she could give. In retrospect, I can truly appreciate her creative efforts, which came right from her heart. It’s difficult to write this story without tears: Garnette Motley Williams died 37 years ago this month. She wasn’t quite 53.

She didn’t go to college, but she knew a great deal about life and how to treat people with love and consideration. She let her heart dictate and then she went for it–whatever she chose to do– with enthusiasm and energy. Besides being the best wife and mother she could manage, her primary talent was sewing.   She tried her hand and/or Singer at almost everything stitchable: slipcovers and drapes, specialized window coverings (swag and jabot, Empire style sheer curtains), men’s shirts and ties, children’s clothing and almost any fashionable garment for women. When I was younger I had a Madame Alexander doll, about six inches tall, and she made tiny outfits for it.

Her creations assured that I’d be stylish despite my dad’s parsimonious and thrifty habits. She kept the old Singer sewing machine humming; it came along with us to various Army posts, including Tripoli, Libya. During my teenage years in the Middle East, we found material, probably in an Italian shop, and set up our version of an assembly line to sew clothes for the two of us. Mom and I wore the same size and would pick out a pattern that was suitable for both, although we’d use different material. We didn’t want to look like twins!  I would cut out the pattern and sew the darts, for instance, and Mom would put in the zippers and work on anything difficult. I still remember the cotton 1950s style scoop-neck sundresses: hers had a black background with a lively print; mine was red. Those were the years of puffy crinoline underskirts, which girls had to starch and keep clean to keep their outer skirts sticking out. Mom came up with the unusual idea to use soft plastic chicken wire as an underskirt. It kept its shape longer and was easy to keep clean. As I remember, I didn’t wear it often because it was a little too unique, and I was wary that someone might discover it.

In later years, when I was in college, she made me some elegant party clothes: a spaghetti-strap basic black satin dress with a little short-sleeved jacket that I wore to a college dance, and a sexy, form-fitting wool sheath with a boat neck and long sleeves I wore to several parties. There were many more creations, but the only garment I still have is my wedding gown.

I got married in Germany in the ‘60s while my parents were stationed in Frankfurt. My mother found the ideal satin and lace material, and the perfect net for a veil, and it looked divine. It even had a small train. The gown is stored in a box, without all the fancy acid-free tissue of today. Even though I wonder what shape it’s in, it’s comforting to know I still have it. The only garment Mom didn’t make for my wedding was Dad’s suit. Interestingly enough, the wedding dress design  is somewhat similar to the one worn on April 29 by the new Princess Catherine of the United Kingdom.

Mom, Joan, Me and Dad in front of Frankfurt quarters


Years later, Mom made my cousin Penny’s wedding gown and her bridesmaids’ dresses as well. After all the work on Penny’s gown, Mom ironed it, but the iron was too hot and lifted off some of the material on the front of the dress. Mom agonized, but Penny’s sense of humor and practical sense wouldn’t let my mother fret.  “I’m glad it’s you who did it and not me! It doesn’t matter because my flowers will cover it,” Penny declared.  After the ceremony and a few glasses of champagne, Penny cared even less: it was a funny sorry to tell all her guests.

I didn’t always appreciate Mom’s talents. Regrettably, especially in college, I envied the girls whose parents gave them money for clothes in a department store. It was only later that I figured out that my mama’s talented fingers created me original attire, and they were sewn with all the love she could give. She created clothes for me that could never be bought.

Oh, my Mama Mia, I miss you so!



On July 1, 1958, the USNS General Rose left the port of Gibraltar and sailed into the Atlantic Ocean. Destination: Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City on July 8. There were approximately 160 passengers from Wheelus/Tripoli and about 15 of those were teenagers. In Turkey, I’d documented we’d picked up 22 more teens, which made a grand total of 37 of us traveling across the Atlantic. That’s quite a party!

The Aft Lounge was essentially headquarters for the large group of teenagers. We played games, listened to rock music: “Who’s Sorry Now,” “Pretty Baby,” and “Purple People-Eater,” and expended lots of energy dancing. As I wrote, we “goofed around,” and if there wasn’t enough to do, we could go to the main lounge and “pester the grown-ups.”

An 18-year-old named Bill, who was coming home with his family from Ankara, Turkey, was interested in me and I enjoyed the attention and the opportunity for a skilled dancing partner. He taught me “his special little dip,” and we spent some time star-watching out on deck.

There was a party for everyone the evening of July 4th. I noted that Bill picked me up for the dance and I wore a “red print, off-the-shoulder dress.” When the lounge proved dull, the teens persuaded the seaman in the control room to put on snappier music. “We livened things up…bopped up a storm, and did The Stroll, which the grown-ups thought was real cute,” I commented. The chaplain, who was a “marvelous” dancer and usually squired my mother, invited me to do the polka with him and we danced for ten minutes! I had discarded my fabulous Italian cork heels from Naples and was barefooted. I felt like the Belle of the Ball.

Our last night on board, July 7, featured a farewell dinner and I saved the menu. The offerings included: Fresh Halibut with lemon and butter, Grilled Beef Steak with Mushroom Sauce, or Baked Virginia Ham with Pineapple Sauce. Besides a choice of potatoes, yams, corn, rice or peas (so typical of American food then), there were salads: Hearts of Lettuce (iceberg, of course), Hard-boiled Egg with mayo, or Cottage Cheese on Lettuce Leaf. Dessert was a choice of cookies, ice cream, fruit compote, Danish pastry or a Chocolate Nut Sundae. Babies had their choice of Pablum, carrots or apricots! We were served coffee, tea, cocoa, iced tea with lemon or water to drink. I was too young and distracted with other interests to notice if there were any alcoholic beverages. To celebrate the end of the cruise, our waiter took a Polaroid.

Mom, Me, Joan, and teachers: Ed, Marilyn and Becky--our table



As we got near New York, a stinky fog rolled in and we started to pass other ships going our way.  One distinct memory was listening to a shipboard radio catching all the latest rock n’ roll tunes from a New York radio station. We hadn’t heard the current hit, “Charlie Brown,” and it was wonderful to contemplate all the Stateside surprises coming up. Libya and the other countries in the Middle East had been quite an adventure for most of us, but being back home in the USA and sailing past the Statue of Liberty was even more exciting.

I paid no attention to the world news on our souvenir Rose Report. Russia was threatening to withdraw from the UN, the Soviets were set to release nine American airmen whose plane had been forced to land in Soviet Armenia, and Cuban rebels were releasing five American civilian prisoners to be flown to Guantanamo Bay. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was on his way home to talk to President Dwight Eisenhower. Dulles had been trying to discourage France’s Premier Charles de Gaulle from insisting France become a major nuclear power. As the French like to say, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

My departing gift from my shipboard beau was a 50-cent piece to buy a banana split when I got to Northern Virginia, where my family would be living. I thought I might see Bill again since his family was also relocating there, but when my dad saw me with a guy’s arm around my shoulders as we pulled into the dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he was on alert. When Dad discovered Bill was 18,  that was the end of that!




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