Wednesday, August 28, 2013
One of the things I’ve been doing over the past year, when not writing a mystery novel, is a family history, which is now getting close to publication. The family in question died out a decade ago, but left behind a charitable foundation that gives millions of dollars a year to local nonprofits.
It was the administrator of that foundation who decided a family history would be a good idea and brought me in to do it. He sensed, correctly, that time was running out to talk to people who still remember the family members, and that the story might be lost if it wasn’t captured now.
Running down that story (or as much of it as possible) has been one of the most interesting and challenging things I’ve ever done. I find myself in the position of trying to bring to life, for a modern reader, a group of people I’ve never met, and of making their story interesting. The latter isn’t too hard because they accomplished quite a bit; for instance, one of the daughters was the first female district attorney in California when appointed to that position in 1947.
The finished product resembles an unfinished jigsaw puzzle that conveys a definite image, yet one with a number of pieces missing. Some of the people I wanted to interview turned me down. Some that I did talk to died after talking with me (I’m not implying a connection here), and at times I’ve felt as if I’m chasing ghosts, one step ahead of the undertaker.
One of the things that made the task difficult is that the family in question wrote down almost nothing. If they kept diaries or journals, none has survived. Correspondence is similarly sparse. The two daughters wrote letters to each other regularly when they were off to college, but the collection the Foundation has is surely only partial. With the exception of the daughter who was district attorney (and even she, not so much) they weren’t often in the newspapers.
One of the daughters did do an oral history interview with the University of California in 1977, and that was helpful, if far from complete. By and large, putting together this story has been like building a beach one grain of sand at a time.
A Date Would Have Meant So Much
There are several photo albums, one of which has handwritten captions. But on a couple of the really critical photos, there is no date and the caption information is sparse at best. One, for instance, shows a row of people standing stiffly in front of the family packing house. The caption reads: “Ma with Chinese visitors from Honolulu.”
Based on my research, I can hazard a highly educated guess as to who the visitors were, but it’s still only a guess. Without their names, I can’t be certain. And if the visitors are who I think they are, the date of the photo would have been hugely important, but it’s not in the caption nor in the processing stamp on the back of the print.
Experiences like that have led me to some philosophizing. Most of us go through our lives thinking we’re the most important person in the universe, but we don’t act like it in other respects. If we were really that important, we’d figure that people in years to come would be looking at our stuff and needing information. I’ve come to believe that everyone who has family artifacts, should pull them together and catalog them as best possible. You never know who might need the information 75 years from now.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Near the beginning of my newspaper days, I got sent on an assignment I still remember. It would probably have been some time in 1973. The town of San Juan Bautista (best known for having scenes of Hitchcock’s Vertigo shot there) was about to die, and I was sent out to do the post mortem.
That little old mission town, located a few miles off U.S. 101, had a population of just under 2,000 people at the time. The principal employer and only industrial activity was a cement plant or quarry that employed about 200, and the owners had decided it was no longer economically viable, so they shut it down.
The mayor, who may also have been the head of the Chamber of Commerce, was in all the Bay Area newspapers, lamenting the imminent death of the town, owing to the loss of its largest employer. One of the Bay Area TV stations had done a story that was picked up by the CBS Evening News. My boss decided that even though it would require paying 12 cents a mile for a 50-mile round trip, we had to have the story. My salary then was so low it didn’t even figure into the cost consideration.
The Community’s Last Gasp
Photographer Sam Vestal and I went over after lunch to get the story. The mayor was unable to meet with us until late in the afternoon, so we figured we’d do some man-in-the-street interviews and capture the community angst about the catastrophic business closing being the town’s death knell.
Actually, the town looked pretty good when we drove in a little after two o’clock. There were no boarded up buildings on the main street, and the restaurant scene looked fairly lively. I figured it was the last gasp of looking good before the inevitable collapse. Sam parked the car and we went into a store to ask the shopkeeper how long she expected to stay in business now that the plant had closed.
Instead of the tale of woe we were expecting, we got a derisive snort and a stream of unprintable language about the mayor. The shopkeeper explained that most of the people who worked in the closed facility didn’t live in town and that the burg had become such a mecca for antiques shoppers that it was thriving. She made it pretty clear that any municipal obituary would be premature.
Things Not What They Seemed
I figured I’d gotten lucky and scored my contrarian quote (or as much of it as I could use in a family newspaper) right off the bat. But when the next half-dozen people we talked to all said the same thing, it began to dawn on me. Maybe the news stories were wrong, and the town was OK. When we finally got in to see the mayor and he began hemming and hawing as I raised those points, I knew I was on to something.
We got back to the office, and I wrote a story about a town that had suffered a major business closure, but wouldn’t die because tourism had become big enough to keep it going. Forty years later, my story holds up pretty well. In fact when I tried to go on the Internet to find out about the closed business, there was nothing about it in any of the usual sources. The business whose death was supposed to take the town with it has been entirely forgotten.
But I haven’t forgotten the lesson of that experience and hope I never will. Reduced to its simplest form, it’s this: Be skeptical of the first version of the story.
Tuesday, August 13, 2013
After posting recently about our all-too-brief stay in Wilmington, North Carolina, and about losing our bottle of authentic Carolina barbecue sauce to security at Raleigh-Durham Airport, I got a comment from a friend on Facebook that said, “You must not fly very much.”
Guilty as charged. Up until June of this year, the last time Linda and I had flown commercial was December of 2010, when we went up to Seattle to see my sister at Christmas. Then in a period of seven weeks this summer, we both flew to Seattle for our nephew’s wedding and back east for our son’s basic training graduation. In between, Linda also flew to Minnesota, from whence a friend took her to the Finn Fest in Hancock, Michigan. Don’t ask.
The return trip from our son’s basic training graduation last month was somewhat eventful — not a good thing in commercial flight — and reminded me that our air transportation system operates on a hair-trigger. When the friendly skies turn surly, it becomes a daisy chain of messes.
Our itinerary for returning from the Carolinas and Virginia was to return the rental car at Raleigh-Durham Airport, catch a 4 p.m. flight to Atlanta, arriving a bit after 5, then hop a 7:45 flight to San Jose, getting us to the airport before 10 p.m. and home by 11. As the old saying goes, when men make plans, God laughs.
Arriving at Raleigh-Durham on time, we learned that severe thunderstorms had closed Hartfield-Jackson in Atlanta to all incoming and outgoing flights, a condition that lasted for nearly five hours. At one point, we boarded the plane, sat on it for an hour, then were marched off because Atlanta was still down.
Delta, our carrier, was helpful, and stationed an agent at an adjacent gate to help people with connecting flights. She gave us the bad news that our flight to San Jose would be taking off as soon as Atlanta opened, but she could rebook us at no charge on a 10:30 flight to San Francisco, arriving at 12:45 a.m. As the defense attorneys used to say in Law & Order, we took the deal.
The Longest Taxi Ride
We finally got out of Raleigh-Durham a bit before 8, which seemed to put us in good shape to make the connection. Problem is that Atlanta is one of the busiest airports in the country, and the ripple effect of a weather closure is immense. When we touched down at 9, we had to wait on the tarmac for nearly 40 minutes for a gate to open up for our plane.
And, of course, the San Francisco flight was leaving from another terminal than the one where we disembarked, so we had to take the airport subway to it, arriving just before they started boarding. The good news was that the flight wasn’t full, and I got an aisle seat.
Arriving at San Francisco International just before 1 a.m., we faced the next question: How to get to Mineta San Jose, where our car was parked. At that time of day, the only option seemed to be a taxi, so we took what I fervently hope will be the longest taxi ride of my life, arriving at San Jose’s utterly deserted long-term parking area just before 2 a.m. The fare was $150, in case you’re wondering, and that was before tip. It was nearly 3 a.m. when we got home, or 6 a.m. Eastern time, which was what our bodies were on. I’m glad I don’t have to do that for a living.
Friday, August 9, 2013
Mark Twain had a soft spot in his heart for a man who could swear well, particularly appreciating the men who worked the riverboats on the Mississippi and the miners in the American West. He wrote about them on a number of occasions, but there was one thing he never did.
He never quoted them directly.
Back in his day, he couldn’t have. The American literary prejudice against cuss words, not to mention the nature of obscenity laws and the prevailing prudery of society ensured that he couldn’t. For most of its existence, America was a country where Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses couldn’t be legally sold. I don’t agree with those who believe it was better that way; all I can think of is the large number of unwritten books that must have stirred in the minds of great authors who felt they dared not tackle a subject because, given what they would be allowed to publish, they couldn’t do it justice.
Dirty Harry’s Riposte
In the space of ten years, roughly comprising the 1960s, the taboos on sex and violence collapsed completely, and books, plays and movies were able to depict those aspects of human behavior.
Some good things came out of it. To stick roughly to that period, we can be appreciative for the new license that allowed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Dirty Harry, and Bob&Carol&Ted&Alice. From the language standpoint, Dirty Harry, with a fine screenplay by John Peter Milius, was groundbreaking. No one who ever saw it will forget Clint Eastwood’s riposte to the persistent mugger he cold-cocked as he was on his way to deliver ransom money.
Some bad things came out of it as well. One of the problems with artistic license is that it is too often used by people who shouldn’t. In books written over the past 40 or so years, I have come across plenty of explicit sex scenes that made me cringe or laugh. One book was so awful in that way that I gave Linda a dramatic reading, and after she finished laughing, she said of the author, “The poor man. I feel so sorry for his wife.”
The same is true of unimaginative use of bad language. After reading one dispiriting modern mystery, back in the 1990s, where every fourth word began with the letter “F,” I took a vow.
Keeping It Clean
When I began to write my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I made a conscious decision to steer clear of foul language and keep the sex scenes restrained and discreet. In the first instance, it was a matter of rebelling against what I was seeing as an over-use of profanity by people who didn’t know how. In the second instance, it was a matter of knowing my limitations as a writer, plus not wanting some reader laughing and saying, “I feel so sorry for his poor wife.”
That decision made a certain organic sense as well. I was trying to write in the vein of the classic mystery novel, and those were written in the days before profanity and explicit sex were permitted. I was being true to the genre, if you will. And I did include one utterance of profanity in the book, but did so feeling that it was right under the specific circumstance.
I’ll leave that to the reader to judge, but the point here is that I had the freedom to do it the way I wanted — clean or dirty. Sixty years ago, I wouldn’t have had the choice and probably would have missed it.
Tuesday, August 6, 2013
If it hadn’t been for Nick joining the Army, Linda and I would probably never have seen Wilmington, North Carolina. But he did, and we did, and we enjoyed the visit very much.
We learned in early June that when Nick graduated from Army basic training at Fort Jackson, SC, we would be able to drive him to his next posting, which turned out to be at Newport News, VA, a reasonable distance away along I-95. But we didn’t want to be doing just Interstate road food and chain motels by the highway. We were to leave Fort Jackson at noon Thursday and had until 5 p.m. Friday to get Nick to Virginia, so I did some wool-gathering to see if there might be some place we could stay along the Carolina coast Thursday night.
Wilmington’s not on the coast, though it’s half an hour from several beaches. It’s actually a port town of over 100,000 people on the Cape Fear River, and it has a historic downtown area with a river walk. Sounded good to us, so that’s where we ended up.
Too Much City, Too Little Time
We arrived late on a hot, humid afternoon (is there any other kind in the Carolinas in July?) and checked into the Best Western downtown on the river. It was a four-story hotel, with a tower that stood alone as a fifth floor. We stayed in the tower suite, which had a living area with sofa bed on the ground floor and a loft a story higher with king bed and stunning views of the river on one side and the city on the other. It cost $168 plus tax for the night.
Once we’d checked in, Nick wanted to get online and catch up with his email from the last three months (soldiers are offline for basic training). While he was doing that, Linda and I headed south toward the bridge along the river walk. We dropped into a cookware store where there was a back room devoted to Carolina barbecue sauces. We bought a bottle and asked the friendly clerk for a recommendation on a seafood restaurant.
She suggested Elijah’s, right on the river, and we made our way there. It looked good, and not wanting to do more walking in the heat than we had to, we called Nick and told him to join us.
Dinner by the River
It was a weeknight, and we were able to get a table outdoors, just a few feet from the river. The food was good, so filled up and happy we walked back to the hotel, stopping at Poodle’s tropical wear store to get a cap for Nick and a T-shirt for me. Just upriver from the hotel, the city had placed a series of stools by the railing at the water’s edge, and after we returned, I sat on one of those and just watched the water flow slowly by for about 20 minutes.
Coming back, I saw that there was a walkway from the second floor of the hotel to an observation deck built out over the river. I took Linda out there, and we had it to ourselves, watching the sunset from one of its benches and listening to a group of anglers on a nearby pier chaffing each other.
We enjoyed our all-too-short stay and wished we had another day to explore the town. Two days later, at Raleigh-Durham airport, security confiscated the barbecue sauce for being a bottle that couldn’t travel carry-on. Maybe that was God’s way of telling us we need to go back to Wilmington and put the sauce in checked luggage the next time around.
Friday, August 2, 2013
The Rotary District Governor visited our club this week, and in giving her talk recognized members of the club who had been active in Rotary District activities. I was among those named, with my work as District Membership Chair and District Speech Contest chair cited.
I had almost forgotten about the speech contest, and not without reason. Although it ended well, it was a volunteer commitment that sucked six months out of my life and my business, with a considerable part of that time wasted, as far as I was concerned. It taught me some valuable lessons about the perils of volunteerism, and was the catalyst for causing me to drop out of Rotary beyond the club level.
My godfather, a wise man with some experience in such matters, likes to say that no man can want for things to do if he’s willing to volunteer. A lot of good comes of doing so, but the take-home lesson from the speech contest was never again to volunteer for a job where I have to rely on other volunteers getting things done.
One Man’s Child; Everyone’s Orphan
Our District Speech Contest was launched by a District Governor named Richard D. King, who went on to become president or Rotary International. Rick is a powerful public speaker and heavyweight attorney, and he felt that participating in a speech contest at a young age set him on his path. I, too, am a great believer in the value of learning to stand up before a group and communicate.
Once he began the contest, his successors felt bound to continue it. But because none of them had the passion that Rick did, nobody ever did the followup work to establish procedures and systems for running it. When I took it on more than two decades later, there was nothing in writing about how to do it, but plenty of people who had done it before and were more than willing to tell me that their way was the only way.
Many of the people involved in the contest before had been educators, and they tended to approach it as a classroom experience. I chose to run the contest as an entrepreneurial competition that was judged more on overall effect than on how well a speaker did a number of small, technical points. The educators were infuriated, and dealing with them involved way too much time and aggravation.
Follow the Money
After a few years, when it was clear that the contest was going to be a regular District event, it should have been made part of the district budget. But nobody ever did that, so the contest chair was responsible (and nobody told me this beforehand) for collecting money from each of the 60 clubs in the district to pay for it. Some of them had to be repeatedly harassed before they coughed it up, which probably wasted 40-60 hours of my time.
And even though I gave everyone explicit written directions as to how to proceed, many of the Rotarian volunteers ignored them. Two months after the contest had ended, I got an email from a mother wanting to know when her child would be receiving her check for participating in the area speech contest. The person running that contest was supposed to have paid it out on the spot, and I was left apologizing profusely and seeing that it got done.
My legacy was that I persuaded the next District Governor to put the speech contest in the budget, so my predecessors haven’t had to waste the week or more that I did, chasing the money. But they still probably had to go through a lot of the other stuff. Better them than me.