December, 2011:

BLIND DATES — AN ADVENTURE

New Year’s Eve is fast approaching, and in past years I might have worried about a date or a party, especially in the years right after my divorce. Exploring the dating scene was fascinating, even in the days it was done through personal ads in newspapers. Los Angeles had a thriving paper devoted to personal ads: The Singles Register. Meeting men through old-fashioned letter writing was a great way to begin. The same lies were exchanged then as they are nowadays online.

A sucker for imaginative writing, I learned a few lessons about truth or fiction when I answered an ad from a man who called himself handsome and a talented writer of energy and spirit. He claimed that trumpets would blare and cymbals would crash when he met the right woman. When we talked, he told me he lived in Redondo Beach and had a view of the Pacific Ocean. He owned some unusual decorations, like a six-foot hand-carved Polynesian alligator, but his prized possessions were a line drawing by Picasso and a Spanish bullfighter’s cape.

When I met him, I discovered he was much older than I’d thought (he hadn’t admitted his age). He had difficulty walking, was hunchbacked and had prostrate problems. He told me he wasn’t expecting Dolly Parton, and I took that as a compliment–I was in shorts and a low-cut blouse. His beach apartment balcony had an ocean view if you leaned over and squinted through the buildings in front of his. The treasured wooden alligator made walking difficult, but it was one of the few mementoes that had survived five marriages and lots of alimony.

Turned out he was a child psychiatrist, a rival of the famous Dr. Benjamin Spock of Baby and Child Care fame. My date had written five books and claimed he’d coined the term “parenting.” I did find a couple of his books in my local library afterward.

He bought lunch after showing me all his treasures, but it was a litany of his complaints about all his former wives. He was looking for someone to take care of him and listen to all his misery. I wondered why I’d spent so much time listening to him. Was I too polite or just not savvy enough yet?

The most daring experience I had was flying to New Orleans to meet an Israeli biochemistry professor at Tulane University. He had read my ad and didn’t care that we were geographically challenged. We had had several interesting conversations and after he’d seen my photo, he was convinced I was the one a psychic had said was perfect for him. He made good money, evidently, and wanted to fly me to New Orleans for a weekend. I felt he sounded trustworthy and I’d never been to the “Big Easy.” One of my girlfriends thought I was out of my mind, but agreed to keep an eye on my kids.

The professor was fairly recently divorced and had come to the States to forget his troubles with his former wife, who had custody of their children and had remained in Israel. He was polite for the most part and did show me around New Orleans, but after he’d shared all his anguish with me, he soon realized he’d made a mistake and wasn’t ready for any kind of relationship. I left a day early.

It seems my psychic reading of a few years before was coming true. She had told me that I would not leave any stone unturned in life. I hadn’t found the right stone yet, apparently.

MAMA ON MY MIND

On Christmas Day, thoughts of family come to mind more readily than anything else. Gift buying and giving, cooking and celebrating—none of it matters as much as the people who surround you. Even if they don’t surround you physically any longer. My mother’s been gone 37 years, but I’ll never forget my memories. And ever since my daughter Heidi created a collage of photos of Mom and me, I can turn my head ever so slightly from my computer and see my gorgeous, loving Mother.

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.

Mama with Baby "Viki"

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, 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.

I was remembering the last Christmas we (my kids and husband, my sister and brother and my dad) spent together: San Antonio, Texas, in 1972, and I searched for some old letters. Mom used her typing skills all her life to write letters to her large family. Since most of this extended family, which started out with eight siblings, lived in the East, she could send one letter and it would be passed on. I discovered the letter she wrote her relatives after my little family had gone home to Los Angeles. She had talked to quite a few of them around New Year’s before sending a letter.

She typed, as part of a two-page letter, “It was sure great that you all thought enough of me to call me long distance…I still get excited when talking long distance. Dad has trained me: no longer than three minutes.” (My parents never could reconcile that a phone could be a good expense and three minutes was too short.)

My mother was struggling with the beginnings of kidney disease, but none of us realized she’d succumb to it two years later. I’d forgotten that during our stay, my husband had flu, my eight-month-old son was teething, and I eventually got the flu a few days before we left. Somehow we all managed, thanks to Mom’s help and enthusiasm.

Mom had a few comments about Christmas Day, which was “exciting for all. Heidi was opening so many presents, including her own…Heidi is a darling little girl but a bit of a brat for attention and, of course, has gotten too much from her mother. She is very smart and so cute but tries to have her own way too much. Very much like Viki was as a child of three. Hansi, now eight months, is just a beautiful boy with big blue eyes and the best nature even though he was sick nearly the whole time. To make a long story short, the week passed quickly, and it seemed it was always time to eat again. Hard for me to manage nine mouths to feed after only cooking for two for over a year.”

My mother never complained to us, and she didn’t tell me she got sick after we left and was in bed for several days. Later in her letter, she typed, “Well, all is over and it’s a sad time ahead until I get used to being alone again. I miss them all so much but don’t believe I can take them all home at one time again. I still wonder how Mama Jake (her mother) could stand all the noise and confusion of all of us home and our friends too. She had the patience of Job.”

Mama Jake wasn’t the only one who had the patience of Job! A toast to you, my dear Mama!

 

 

 

CHRISTMASES I REMEMBER

As Christmas season and gift giving makes its merry way into the lives of those who celebrate it, I think about years past and what stood out about those days. To me, the holidays are sentimental. It reminds me of my parents, my siblings, my relatives and all the friends I’ve known over the years. As each year passes, there are more friends and relatives who are departing Mother Earth and this special time becomes more bittersweet.

I believe my childhood as an Army brat, traveling around the world, probably inspired me to keep in touch with as many old friends and relatives as I possibly could. I saw that my parents did it (my mother signed the cards and wrote the accompanying notes) and I enjoyed reading all the Christmas mail they got in return. I’ve been doing the same for several decades and continue to enjoy everyone’s news, even though I’ve graduated to modern technology and use Email.

There are a few occasions I remember with a special fondness. My earliest Christmas memory is a postwar celebration in Murnau, Germany in the 1940s. My mother was newly married. Instead of the train I remember asking for, I received a set of painted wooden doll furniture embellished with colorful Bavarian décor. I still have the foot high chest of drawers; it’s in excellent shape considering the years.

Germany figures in another Christmas, my last one in college. As an Army dependent, I had a free trip to my parents’ home in Mannheim, but it was space available from Maguire Air Force Base in New Jersey. A large group of students and military personnel waited about five days for a seat. An older Master Sergeant became my protector and took me to see the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn movie “Charade.”  Once in Germany, I felt like a debutante with all the social activities and attention from eligible Army lieutenants. Winging homeward to the US on New Year’s Eve, a few of us college coeds were invited by flirtatious Air Force pilots into the cockpit to see the Midnight Sun over Northern Canada.

I recall my daughter Heidi’s second year Christmas and the Fisher-Price dollhouse Santa brought. She was old enough to appreciate it, and I can still see it because it’s on film. I was about six months pregnant with her brother at the time.

I can’t forget the memory of the last family Christmas I spent with my parents, sister and brother. My little family—husband and two youngsters–drove  from LA to San Antonio, Texas, in a spacious Plymouth; the backseat was large enough for a crib mattress, an idea I’d gotten from a TV show. I bought a harness for both kids (three years old and eight months) and strapped them to the seat belts, so they could sleep and also crawl around. It might not be considered safe now, but nothing bad happened.

That Christmas my mother’s kidney disease was just beginning to get worse, my brother was still in college and my sister was going to junior college in Utah. Two years later my mother had left the world for good.

A few years later my sister joined us for a California taste of winter. My mother-in-law rented a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains, which gave us a whole new perspective on the holidays. We bought a tree on the way there, a bargain since it was Christmas Eve, and then had to lug everything up countless steps to this aerie on the hill with a view of a small lake below. We did our decorating the old-fashioned way by stringing popcorn. Before we left a few days later, my kids tried out sledding for the first time.

Dealing with my new divorce in the 1980s felt daunting, but my sister’s small family and my still single brother were supportive by joining me and my kids in Los Angeles for Christmas. Four small children and four adults filled my house with laughter, and my sister brought along the ingredients to make a lovely little gingerbread house.

Adults: Me, Darb, Tup and the kids: David, Hansi, Heidi and Heather

 

May you all have holiday memories to cherish, and if you need more, go out and make them!

 

 

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE SOCIAL KIND

I love chance encounters with interesting people of all types; they don’t have to be famous or notorious. Because I enjoy it so much, I’m sure I probably draw it to myself.

Airplanes are an ideal place to meet people. Recent airplane seatmates and I had some very entertaining conversations. On the flight to Dallas for Thanksgiving, the man next to me was raised in Puerto Rico, had worked all over the US, and now worked as a technical engineer of some sort for a Burbank company that made airplane brakes (ours worked!). He and I had no trouble bonding over Stephen Sondheim songs from West Side Story—“I Want to Be in America,” for example. Soon he was telling about his childhood in Puerto Rico, how the females in his family firmly ran the household, even with grown sons, and the foods he liked. We laughed a lot.

On the return flight, my neighbor turned out to be an LA sportscaster on the local ABC-TV station. He was returning from a family visit in time to cover the yearly classic USC-UCLA football game. If I’d been a sports fan, I’d have known his name. We talked about how life had changed because of the Internet, and how we could use it to further our careers. It didn’t hurt that he had a great smile and was very attractive.

Last week I joined a friend for inexpensive Chinese food at Bamboo on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. Next door was a ritzier French place, Cafe Bizou. Afterward, while waiting for the valet (shared by the two restaurants) to get my car, I spotted actress/singer Della Reese a couple of feet away: she had eaten French food. Although I was a fan, she looked like she wanted to be left alone. I decided I wouldn’t bother her until a group of women came over to ask if they could compliment her on her talents. She smiled and enjoyed the attention. When they left, I told her I was a fan, and as a writer I also appreciated positive reactions. When she asked me about my creations, I gave her a business card. Was she being polite or did she keep it?

Della Reese

Lunchtime can be an ideal time to spot the rich and famous and perhaps spark a conversation. I was with a friend at a place called Gaucho Grill a few years back when she spotted her lawyer. When we looked at the table right behind us, the lawyer was with TV and Broadway star Kelsey Grammar. At that time I was writing a weekly column for the Daily News newspaper and was always looking for new interview possibilities. Besides, Kelsey had met my son at a restaurant not long before and invited him and a few other young men back to his home. I introduced myself, mentioned my son, and Kelsey couldn’t have been more gracious and down to earth. Before I had a chance to schedule the interview with him, my life changed and I ended my column.

One of my favorite places to start a conversation is the unique grocery store that started in Southern California—Trader Joe’s. They hire sociable, highly  individual people who may have tattoos or wear crazy hats; perhaps that’s just part of the SoCal lifestyle. I wonder if they take a friendliness test before they’re hired! The atmosphere must affect the customers because they’re usually quite affable as well.

When I was much younger, I remember being a little embarrassed by my mother, who was a friendly Southerner who loved to talk to everyone. Now I find I have been doing the same thing for years. From mothers or fathers of babies to clerks or fellow customers, I’m not afraid of making a joke or coming up with a witty comment and these days I can sometimes embarrass my own daughter!

 

SAYING FAREWELL TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI

I wonder how much American high school traditions have changed over the years. The years zoom by, faster and faster, though it seems like only yesterday. Most of my generation have grandchildren, but our hearts remain young as we explore the old memories.

As I promised in my last blog, I’m posting a photo of the fellows who masqueraded as French Can-Can dancers for the Wheelus High School’s Hernando’s Hideaway dance in 1958. A lot of work went into their costumes and makeup. The skillful makeup shows up even in this old black and white photo. Billy Butcher and Willy Maguire are recognizable in the photo and I think the guy on the right is Jimmy Badley. It’s anybody’s guess who wrote “ME” on the top right of the photo; I can’t claim ownership but thanks to the photographer. The others who performed were: Doug McGinty, Buddy Thomas and Mike Davis. Needless to say, this motley bunch stole the show.

Can-Can Dancers

The Barracan school newspaper kept us current, and I was lucky enough to write stories for it. We were being so serious in those days but it is laughable and wonderfully silly now. In April Tom Henderson, who was student council president, explained the new demerit system. Since military brats tend to be naughty, demerits needed to be instituted. “All anyone has to do is act like an adult and a normal human being,” said the paper. It sounds imperious to me now. Austin Powers had it right years later in the movie when he proclaimed, “Oh, behave!”

Student Wendell Harrison added a bit of sarcasm about the new system, “Good for the goodies.”

Cindy Rammel, however, steered “clear of people who do not act their own age” and wasn’t afraid to express her opinion in the paper when she was interviewed for the April Spotlight feature. Her ambitions were to have fun and get rid of her freckles—she was a redhead.

Dave Maine was also interviewed. He liked “cars, sports, Barbara (his girlfriend) and a good steak.” His dislikes: insincere people, asparagus, and people who didn’t keep their shoes shined. I wonder what he thinks now.

In May 1958, the Barracan was six pages long. My high school journalism career was beginning to flourish. I wrote the main story on the front page with the headline, Ebb Tide is Theme of Junior-Senior Prom. I went to the dance with Tom Henderson, so I had first-hand experience. Tom and I danced a lively polka at one point and one of my sandal heels slipped off—or I kicked it off—to narrowly miss the school principal sitting at a table on the outside patio overlooking the Mediterranean.

Before the prom, Ginny Stewart gave a coke-tail party at her home in the Georgimpopoli area, which was very close to the Tripoli Beach Club, host venue for the prom. Ginny had some unique entertainment—a Libyan woman did a belly dance (fully-clothed, of course) while a man played a drum.

In May there was a Bermuda shorts day, although some students opted for pedal pushers and slacks. The fine for wearing other clothing was 15 cents, money that would go for special awards given at the end of the school year.

Life was changing at Wheelus High School; the 1958 graduating class had 25 graduates. In 1956 there were only 4 grads.

Senior George Park wrote a fitting poem for the graduates and it was published in the Barracan:

The Future’s Yours

The world is in your hands

So let the time not slip away

As deserts do with drifting sands

And do your best each livelong day

Toward attaining goals your hopes portray.

 

 

 

HIGH SCHOOL HIJINKS AT WHEELUS AFB – 1958

I left Tripoli, Libya, the summer of 1958, the end of my sophomore year in high school. My dad received orders assigning him to duty at the Pentagon in Northern Virginia; he would work in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a prestigious position for him.

The last months at Wheelus High School were packed with activities and I went through the old Barracan newspapers to note a few highlights. Since we didn’t have a cafeteria at the high school, it was decided by the “powers that be” to make us eat at the Airmen’s Club in February. Apparently, one of the main reasons was to keep girls away from meeting airmen during lunchtime. Going out with GIs was a social “no-no” and Joe McDonald wrote an editorial about it in the paper. Too many girls, not enough boys, it seems.

By March the Airmen’s Club was closed for student lunches and we were all ordered to bring sack lunches – enforced nutrition by a school dietician! Apparently we were mostly disorderly at the Airmen’s Club and now had to eat in the school courtyard. To make sure our naughty behavior didn’t spill over to the elementary school, there would be a wall erected!

When students were asked what was the first thing they’d do when they got back to the States, Eddie Goldsworthy declared he’d find a patch of grass and look at it for an hour. Marla Bush was going to eat a hot corned beef sandwich, and Karen Gamel was going to eat a good banana.

A bunch of us were spotted at the Elvis Presley “Jailhouse Rock” movie on base. Steve Gaynor was seen with three girls—Karen, Kathy and Arnell. This according to Quidnunc, the gossip column.

Errol Cochrane’s Platter Chatter listed Perry Como’s “Catch a Falling Star” as the number one record, Danny and the Juniors had the number 10 hit – “At the Hop.” We heard these songs often at the Teen Club on base.

In the spring the sophomores sponsored a dance—Hernando’s Hideaway (inspired by the content and music from the Broadway play and subsequent movie “Pajama Game”) with entertainment. A few of us girls decided we’d do a chorus line dance to “Steam Heat,” a dance routine featured in the movie.  My parents had the record and I remember practicing our routine in my Tripoli living room. Our very amateur group included: Betty Hubbard, Sherri Anderson, Karen Gamel, Wilnetta Edwards, and me.  We started our dance in front of a fairly large audience at the evening activity. Moments into the dance the record skipped and we had to pull ourselves together and start again. I think the photo below of Wilnetta, me and Betty displays our self-confidence. We were probably too young to worry about it.

The boys did a can-can in drag after our dance and stole the show, but I’ll save that story for another time.

 

AMERICAN FOOTBALL LIBYAN STYLE–IN THE SAND

WHEELUS HIGH SCHOOL

 

Except for the setting—palm trees, lots of sand, distinctive Arabic architecture throughout Tripoli, one might imagine Wheelus High School was stateside. We had sports teams, a school newspaper, a yearbook, and all sorts of clubs.

For such a small school, 170 students from 7th to 12th grade in 1956, which included only four seniors, we had grand aspirations! As the yearbook Oea said, there had only been three years of “actual sports.” Though the playing fields were generally sand, high school boys ended up competing against Wheelus AFB squadrons (many airmen were probably not much older than the high school teams) to play football, basketball, cross-country and even soccer.

Although I didn’t pay attention to sports for the most part, I am now amazed we had a soccer team. The whole world appears to love soccer, but Americans were very slow to come to the game, and this was the 1950s! The team was coached by teacher and “permanent” coach, Mr. Lambertson. There was a soccer clinic at the Liceo High School in Tripoli, where the student body was probably mostly Italian. They were certainly the soccer experts compared to us.

The Wheelus Uaddans  basketball team was in a league with Libyan and Italian high schools, but got defeated in 1957 by Liceo and Magistrale. We used the name Uaddan, which is  a native Libyan ram with gigantic horns, for our sports teams.

A Uaddan

A Lettermen’s Club for Wheelus athletes was started by Mr. Pansino. The Barracan newspaper reported the club raised money by selling hot dogs at the Ghibli Bowl game.  I do remember “ghiblis” – the sandstorms that roared in off the desert. We have them in California too, but we call them a Santa Ana. I was delighted when Ralph Fiennes mentioned ghiblis in the movie, “The English Patient.”

When a high school has sports teams, they’ve got to have cheerleaders. Wheelus never suffered in that regard. Then as well as now, our chief cheerleader, in my eyes, will always be the spirited Kathie de Russy, who has never let former students down. From her “headquarters” in Denver, she keeps all Wheelus alumni all over the States and beyond in touch via Email.  She actually was a cheerleader and her photo appears in the 1958 yearbook.

On the subject of sports, one of the highlights of 1957 was the Texas style rodeo, a cooperative effort between Americans and Libyans. The experimental farm, Sidi Misari, provided the Brahma bulls and some of the other animals.  One of my high school classmates, Claudia Sobczak, was appointed Queen of the Rodeo, which was set up on the grounds of the Libyan Riding School, whose members would perform with their Arabian steeds. Besides the usual riding and roping, this rodeo would feature a camel-riding event.

All of Tripoli was invited with poorer Libyans treated to special ticket prices. The grandstands were filled with an international audience, most of whom had never seen a rodeo. Libyan Police putting their horses through their paces opened the day, followed by Arab sheiks in traditional headdress proudly parading their Arabian horses. After all the traditional events came the much-touted highlight—riding a camel—which turned into an amusing anticlimax.  The camel’s cinch belt was not tight enough to inspire him, for this normally cantankerous beast refused to oblige with enthusiastic bucking, and the rider easily mastered him.

SCHOOLDAYS IN TRIPOLI – 1950s

I’m a keeper of personal history; it’s a good resource for my writing and makes me realize what an adventure my life has been.

Being raised as an Army brat, another way of saying “gypsy” or perpetual traveler, has given me a different view on life. I think most people can relate to each other’s lives, whether we grew up in the U.S. or the Middle East.

I saved a few high school newspapers from Wheelus Air Force Base  in Tripoli, Libya. The Barracan was named for the durable white outer garment Libyans wore in the 1950s. In those days, women were totally covered except for one eye and their feet, as the front page drawing shows.

 

In reading these well-worn “antique” copies of newsprint, I find wonderful tidbits of how we teenagers were experiencing life in the days of bobby socks, circle skirts, loafers and saddle shoes. I don’t know how many students there were in the high school, but there were over 1,000 students from first grade to twelfth in 1956.

Some students related to the 1956 U.S. Presidential election. Student Jimmy Smith wanted to vote for Adlai Stevenson because the Republican Party had “pretty well messed up the government.” That remark is timeless for either political party! Student Janice Harkey, on the other hand, liked Ike (Eisenhower for those who don’t remember) because she wanted the Republicans to stay in office (they did).

Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s vice president, showed up in Tripoli in 1957 for a goodwill tour, and a couple of Wheelus students skipped school to cover the news. He shook hands with them and smiled when they related they were playing hooky. On the day Nixon was leaving from Wheelus, a friend and I got up early to see him off. I was close enough to shake hands and was thrilled.

We weren’t concerned about being “politically correct” in those days, and besides, military schools were fully integrated. Nevertheless, there was a “slave” sale to raise money. Seniors sold themselves for small chores and the effort raised $12.95 for their treasury. That amount of money went a lot further in the 1950s.

Rock ‘n Roll music was popular but not predominant yet, according to the weekly “Platter Chatter” (when there were 45 and 78 rpm records for sale).  In December 1956, Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” was the number one favorite for the third month in a row. Hugo Winterhalter’s instrumental, “Canadian Sunset” was in 7th place and Bing Crosby’s “True Love” was in 8th.

We were attending school in a city that bordered the Mediterranean and was surrounded by the Sahara desert, but there were some students who would have preferred a white Christmas in December. No snow could be provided, even the fake kind, but I fondly remember the Nativity Scene at Wheelus  with its real camels and a real donkey.

 

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