May 5, 2014

Vacant Lots

When I was growing up it was not unusual to come home scratched up and dirty after playing in a vacant lot. There were vacant lots in every city I lived in, and they served as the meeting place for all the kids in the neighborhood. Depending on the city, they could be as small as one house or as big as a whole row of houses. Of course, the bigger, the better. If the vacant lot was a small one, it served as a town hall – we would meet there, gossip, and then argue about where to go and what to do. If the lot was a big one, it might serve as the entertainment itself, saving us a lot of time arguing.
In those days kids were smart. Before getting into a fight in the vacant lot, the meanest bully would tell his worst enemy, “Hey, stupid, watch out for that broken glass on the ground,” and they would go somewhere safer to fight it out. If some unlucky kid fell on broken glass and cut himself, we would all rush him home, and then he’d get screamed at, and usually cuffed pretty good by his mom and dad for being so stupid as to fall on broken glass, and we’d be right there watching the fireworks. But very few kids ever fell on glass. We watched out for ourselves.
But how did all that broken glass get in the vacant lot? Why, from kids throwing rocks at bottles, of course. And how did the old tires get there? Why, from dads and uncles cleaning out the garage, of course. And how did the old rusty metal get there, the washing machines, the old lawnmowers, the junk?  Well, for some people, the vacant lot served as a substitute for renting a trailer and going to the dump. Who knows how it all got there? But there was plenty of stuff to get hurt on – it was loads of fun.
One time I was exploring a vacant lot by myself. They had started to build a house there, and the foundation was already finished. There were hundreds of steel rods sticking up all over the place, and climbing around, I slipped and fell on one – got me right in the heart. Stunned, I got up, staggered home, lay down on my bed, and prepared to die. Never did that again. And never told my mom – I didn’t want to get hit.
If the vacant lot was a little bigger, the kids with bikes would scrape out a race track and race bikes around until someone fell down and hurt himself. Then everyone figured out it was a bad idea, and the racetrack reverted to its natural, weedy state, only to be re-scraped the following month. And a really big lot could serve as a baseball field, with special rules to accommodate the unique shape of the lot - any ball landing between that phone pole and that pile of tires, hit over the outfielder’s head is a triple.
In Utah there was one lot that was actually a gigantic field, with tumbleweeds and everything. Five or six of us took most of one summer digging a giant hole in that field, about fifteen feet across and five feet deep, which would ultimately get a roof, camouflaged with tumbleweeds, a secret tunnel entrance, and serve as our cave-clubhouse until the next winter’s snowfall collapsed the roof. I never worked so hard in my life digging that hole, it was a real blast.
In Berkeley there was an interesting configuration of two vacant lots, one on the downside of the hill and one immediately below on the upside of the hill on the street below. It was all weeds and too steep to play on, but there was one feature useful to kids – the shortcut. Ordinarily you’d have to walk pretty far to get down the hill to go buy candy at the store, but over time, kids had trodden a path from one street to the other through the two lots. It was not for the faint hearted. It took a good fifteen minutes to climb up the shortcut, and you hoped someone would see you make it to the top because it was a heroic deed – not everyone could do it. Going down the shortcut was more dangerous. You had to descend slowly on foot, sliding on the loose dirt. The brave kids would slide down on cardboard and fly off at the bottom. Never got that brave, myself.
In Oregon vacant lots were home to wild blackberry patches, some as big as a whole block. When word got out that berries were ripe, dozens of families hustled down to pick their fill. Besides carrying their soon-to-be-filled bowls and buckets, the old timers carried big pieces of cardboard and long boards, used to throw down and crawl into the inner sanctum of berry heaven where all the biggest ones were hiding. They didn’t talk much as they picked, concentrating on filling their own buckets.
No one ever mentioned the owners of these vacant lots. No one thought about it. It was free land, available to everyone in the neighborhood, like a little bit of wilderness. No owner ever came around to put up a fence to keep people out. There must have been an owner somewhere, but they were definitely absentee.
As the population grew, the subject of real estate rose to the surface. Nowadays people are much more knowledgeable, and freely discuss the finer points of mortgages, neighborhoods, contractors and points, having gone through the process of buying, selling, remodeling or refinancing several times.
Who knows? Yesterday’s vacant lot owner might have been a neighbor, who eventually sold the land at an enormous profit to finance his grandson’s future. And that grandson might be asking today, “Grandpa, how did you get that scar on your arm?”
“That? Oh, I got that falling on broken glass in a vacant lot when I was a kid about your age.”
“Grandpa, what’s a vacant lot?”

May 4, 2014

Sounds from the Sky

When I was growing up there were very few sounds from the sky, and when there was a sound, it was so unusual that most everyone looked up to see what it was. Usually it was a DC3 passenger plane, droning on and on, taking forever to cross the sky. Or, by comparison, an air force jet streaking across – the kids watching and waiting to see if it would break the sound barrier, as it often did, and then, KA-BOOM! The sound would rattle the windows in the house. Once in a great while a little single engine plane, buzzing like an insect. Never a helicopter. And a few times a year, the Goodyear blimp slowly hummed by on some mission, (not involving television), and everyone ran outside to see its fat silver shape (with no advertising).
Things began to change. More and more passenger planes, and soon, jet engines roared across the sky. Jets made a completely different sound, more like a roar, and crossed the sky much faster. Sometimes twin engine helicopters made a noisy appearance, maybe on a military mission. More and more little single engine private planes, owned by God knows who, usually flying so low you could read the numbers printed on the bottom of the wings. The air force jets were flying much higher than they used to and made a unique sound like they were tearing the air, and I suppose they actually were.
More and more passenger planes, some still had propellers. You could easily tell the difference between a single engine, double engine and a four engine plane just by the sound. Air traffic was becoming so common that hardly anyone looked up any more when a plane flew over. Starting to see some small, single engine helicopters with a raucous, clanky sound. Blimps still appeared, like a surprise, and still sounded the same, with a slow, deep humming.
Private jets entered the sky, owned by princes or rich executives. They made a different sound, loud and important, such a screaming and efficient-sounding engine, different from other jets. The police were beginning to use their one helicopter to monitor crime below. Helicopter engines had improved over the years and now produced an efficient-running, yet very loud, clapping sound. Of course all these different machines were flying at very different altitudes, which produced still different sounds.
Sheriffs began using helicopters for search and rescue in the mountains, and hospitals began building a heliport on site to handle incoming patients. Soon they would have their own helicopters, and they all sounded different.  Rescue helicopters have a distinctive sound similar to army choppers. Television stations, at first, used single engine planes to monitor the traffic congestion below, but later moved to their own helicopters. The largest networks had the biggest ones, generating a smooth and commanding sound as they hovered like an angel of death over accidents and catastrophes. Fire departments started using amphibious water scooping tankers for water drops on wildfires in the mountains. These twin engine beauties usually fly in pairs, low and reverberating, you can’t miss them.
Back in the 1980’s there was a fruit fly infestation in Los Angeles County, and the Agricultural Department determined the only solution was to drop Malathion poison from the air on everything and everyone below. For several weeks the squadron of five helicopters flew slowly all over the area at night and dropped their chemicals. We were reassured that the toxicity level would not hurt us, but small children were encouraged to rush indoors when they heard the helicopters approaching. Five helicopters with wild searchlights dropping poison from the sky sounded like an invasion of giant dragon flies – were we doomed?
Even more passenger planes up there, only jets now. And more helicopters. More, and still more, all moving in their own flight pattern - all making their own distinctive sounds. These days we are accustomed to these different sounds from the sky, and the amazing thing is, we can usually tell what type of aircraft is flying at what altitude, just by the sound produced. No, we are more than just accustomed to these sounds - we are sound experts.
There is a normal montage of sound that we expect to hear as background noise during the day and night. But one morning I went outside, and something was different. I was hearing a new sound from the sky. It was a far-away jet sound, very powerful, first faint, then loud, then faint. I could just barely hear it, but it was there. In ten minutes or so the whole series happened again: faint, loud, faint. Very powerful, far away. Was I hearing things? It happened again, and again in the same pattern. I called around and found the answer:  a U.S. Air Force jet fighter is constantly circling in a wide radius wherever the president of the United States happens to be. Sure enough, the president was in town that day.
“How we live in that village!”
Some day, if and when you’re able to get away from these sounds, away from the flight paths and crime, away from the fires and rescue, away from the hectic travelers, there is a silence waiting for you. You will know it when you hear it.

Tube Testers

When I was growing up radio was king. Many a hot summer day found my parents lounging in their swimwear out in the back yard in South Pasadena – happily listening to their portable radio, either Your Hit Parade or a baseball game.
          Those were the days before the Dodgers. Los Angeles did not have a major league team, but there were two Pacific Coast League teams, the Angels and the Hollywood Stars. I used to love the sound of the players names, Steve Bilko, Gene Mauch, Ed Wincineak, and I would pretend to be an announcer, playing with their names. When we moved to Berkeley, my dad took me to a San Francisco Seals game, and once we went to a Beavers game in Portland. It was lots of fun, because the crowd really loved baseball, loved to yell, to smoke, to drink, and loved to laugh out loud.
          The radio program Your Hit Parade used to play all the pop hits – Teresa Brewer was a favorite, but I was in love with Gisele MacKenzie. She made my blood boil. My mom and dad would be smiling at each other and all of life as they relaxed in wicker patio chairs and sang along to the radio, sipping a Ballantine from tall glasses. They were happy, so I was happy.
          Of course the big radio was in the house, housed in a beautiful wooden cabinet. It was THE entertainment center and worshipped as such. It played AM stations and records, and it was listened to every evening for several hours, almost always KFAC, the classical music station. After turning it on it took about a minute to warm up and then gradually produce sound.  When I asked my dad why it took so long to warm up, he was pleased. He was smart and patient and, luckily, enjoyed teaching me.
He moved the heavy cabinet out away from the wall so we could stick our heads into the darkness in back and see the inner workings. It looked like a little toy city at night, with round glass buildings, lit up inside with tiny little wires all glowing different shades of color, together with metal parts of every description, all radiating a warmth and a dusty smell. A world of vacuum tubes.
          Whenever the radio wouldn’t work he fixed it himself. It was an era of fix-it shops and repairmen, but the prevailing idea seemed to be that you could do it yourself.  The trick was to find which tube was not lighting up and then replace it. After removing the cold culprit he would pocket it, and we would walk to Thrifty’s.
Thrifty’s was the corner drug store a couple of blocks from our house. In the same building were two small businesses, a hair salon and a shoe repair shop, and upstairs were little apartments which overlooked the street. Whenever I walked by the salon, an awful smell came out the door, and I had to hold my nose. “It’s probably just a permanent,” my mom would tell me, but I had no idea what she meant. The shoe repair shop was much more interesting with the sound of machines humming, the smell of leather and shoe polish, and the loud, continuous conversation in a foreign language between the husband and wife who ran the shop. We were regular customers, and it was a fun place to go.
But Thrifty’s was even better. There was candy, toys, ice cream, and lots of other stuff, not to mention a very friendly cashier who always wore tight sweaters and lots of turquoise jewelry. She was a standout. Outside on the corner was a newsstand where Mr. Echebarne made his living selling newspapers and magazines, stored in a homemade wooden closet. Drivers could just stop at the curb and shout out, “Examiner!”, and Echebarne would hustle over the latest edition.
So my dad and I walk into Thrifty’s with a dead tube and head for an industrial looking metal display, shaped like a small pinball machine. It was all self service - you were supposed to know what to do with the tube tester. There was a gauge on top surrounded by about 50 different sized plugs for different sized vacuum tubes. Each tube was a different size, a different configuration, and each with a different function to make the radio produce sound. The customer’s job was to find out which of the display plugs fit his faulty tube. That took a little trial and error, but finding the right fit, the gauge was used to determine the remaining strength of the tube. Down below was a cabinet with thousands of different boxes of various tubes. So, just find the right tube and presto!
Back at home replacing the tube and restoring the music was an immensely satisfying experience for dad and brought forth sincere gushing admiration from mom. And after a minute to warm up…“Oh, the wayward wind, is a restless wind…” 

Pine Cones

I’ve just arrived from Berkeley, California; it’s my first day in an Oregon school, and the teacher is finding a desk for me near the back. So far, so good. Everyone turns around to look at me, but they don’t smile or say, “Hello,” and the teacher doesn’t introduce me. Okay. She hands out a test booklet from The Oregon Green Guard, (whatever that is), and we all start in on it.
Question number one: “What is your state?” An interesting question; do they mean mental or physical? Mmm . . . it must be a geography test. “California.”  After a few more leading questions I realized that I should have written, “Oregon,” but I was too far along to erase everything and start over, so I just kept going with my California answers. I actually thought it was pretty clever. Who knows, the teacher might even praise me for a good grasp of western geography, but . . .“Off with his head!” She is ridiculing me publicly for going down the wrong path, and everyone is looking at me and laughing. Welcome to Oregon, land of the pine cone people!
Oregon brought differences: we were living in an apartment, not a house – it was confining; the climate was hot in summer, snowy in winter, and light rain the rest of the time – there were new kinds of clothes to wear; neighborhoods were spread out, not compact – it took some time to get around; street and city names had an Indian origin, not Spanish – there was a new way of talking; and finally, blackberries grew wild everywhere – there were new sweets to eat.
Living nearby in a big ranch house were Bob and Patty Fleming, old friends of my mom and dad and the only people in town we knew. Once, after a big snow, the Flemings called up and invited us sledding, the four adults, their two children, Steve and Geri, and me, seven in all. Bob always drove a new car, since he worked at a Chevrolet agency. This was the plan: we would all sled down the long steep hill, and then he would hitch up the sleds to the bumper of his car, we would all pile into the car, and then he would drive us back up the hill to start again. Like a ski lift, it was a sled lift. I think Bob considered this very helpful and friendly, but in fact, his labor-saving idea clearly ruined the joy of the sport. It was overly extravagant, and the other sledders on that hill didn’t exactly appreciate his idea, nohow! It was thoughtless – and the Flemings were oblivious. This difference between our families didn’t escape me. Unfortunately, mom only had her good friend Patty to socialize with in Oregon, but the Flemings lived in a different world, a higher social echelon. They still laughed and scratched like sisters from the lodge, just like they used to when they were all poor, but the wealth difference now was an obvious gulf. Years later when he was struggling, my dad was willing to jump across that gulf and Patty became his second wife.
Visitors were welcome at our apartment. Linda (Linnis) and Gordon were studying at Reed College, and they brought their friends, the conversation always ending up at Ouspensky. One afternoon Wilf and Ruth Bennett dropped by on their vacation to California. Helen, Wendy and Jennifer, their three vivacious daughters made a lasting impression on me. I never understood who they were or how they fit in to the family, but many years later, their short visit would become the key memory that recovered the Duff family tree and introduced me to my new-found Canadian relatives, Isobel, Lesli, Morris, Mervyn and all. (Ruth’s step mother was Nana’s sister, Isabella). But overall the social life in Oregon was lacking. To compensate for this, mom took to painting little watercolors, creating traditional Ukranian Easter eggs, and practicing Japanese brush painting, which she discovered back on KQED-TV, San Francisco. I built model airplanes and discovered the joy of Lewis Carroll and baseball cards.  
There were a couple of big bullies in our huge, brick apartment complex, and I always tried to avoid them. They shouted at me from a distance that they were going to push snow down my collar. I went to my dad with this, and he suggested going along with them, even helping them by saying, “Go ahead – push more snow down,” letting them know they weren’t hurting me at all, defusing their interest in bothering me. Not too long after, the two bullies caught up with me and began shoving handfuls of snow down my back. “Go ahead – push more snow down,” says I, waiting for the assault to stop. Contrariwise, it only encouraged them to push more snow down. I went to my dad with this, “I followed your advice, but it didn’t work.”  He was nonplussed. So right there I made up my mind that next time I would come out swinging. The funny thing is – they never bothered me again.
In about a year my dad’s job had us moving again – this time back to Berkeley. I was happy. California seemed like home. Thinking back on those days so long ago, I still can’t understand why I didn’t make friends in Oregon – I’m a friendly enough person . . . but hold on a second, I just remembered . . . Aunt Ethel moved to Oregon after she retired . . . and she used to complain how long it took (ten years!) to break into the local society up there.
Well, what do you know? All this time - it wasn’t ME all along . . . it was THEM! Pine cone people! I guess my state was California after all.

Exploring Berkeley

When I was growing up we moved around often, staying in one city for a few months to a few years. The summer and fall of 1956 found us in Berkeley for five months. Just about everything was different from what I was used to in southern California – it seemed like a foreign country. I tried to adjust but never felt comfortable, always off balance, with a queasy stomach.
But the city was wonderfully charming, more like a village planted on the side of a hill, with old houses, old buildings, narrow streets, pedestrians, and wild overgrown public stairs built into the hillsides. And the university created its own pervasive ambiance of intellectual superiority. Berkeley was a friendly mix of sedate and stimulating, and everyone in town felt it, loved it, and was proud of it. But I never quite measured up to its expectations. I fell short – I was the outsider. Is that how it always feels when you move into a setting where everyone else is already settled in?
My dad’s job kept him away from home during most of the week, home on weekends. My mom felt obliged to reassure me often about his absence, “Your father loves you very much.” It sounded to me like she didn’t care much for his schedule, but what could she do? He was the breadwinner and did whatever he had to do. I guess Nana didn’t care for it, either, because she came up from South Pasadena to help out for a while.  But my mom and I had some wonderful times together in dad’s absence, exploring, shopping and dining.
My dad did not eat fish, in fact his palette was very limited, so during the week mom and I could have tuna salad, artichokes, creamed tuna on toast, fish sticks, cream of celery soup and all kinds of different foods for dinner. She loved fish, so it was a real treat to discover Spenger’s restaurant down toward the marina. Fresh fish, any kind you wanted. It was like a carnival inside there, it was so much fun; low, dark and cavernous, with all kinds of nautical paintings and accessories, like ships wheels, ropes, compasses, gauges, and such. There was a lot to look at. Mom was an adventurous eater and would order swordfish or king crab, but dad always ordered hamburger steak, which never failed to irk her, thinking he should overcome his fixed tastes since we were sitting in a specialty seafood restaurant. Their differences did not escape me as I downed the delicious jumbo shrimp.
In those days my mom loved to get out and explore, and luckily, I had to go with her. I think she enjoyed the role of teaching me, but it was more along the lines of duty, and she took her role seriously. It seemed to me that she was very aware of my character flaws and set herself to fix them. After all she was both mother and father for most of the week, so she simultaneously coddled and commanded me.
There were many new sites to see in Berkeley, Oakland and nearby cities, and we explored by car and on foot. Sometimes we would set out walking the neighborhood. The people we encountered were all friendly, and I tried to memorize the new street names as we passed. Once, we came upon a little neighborhood market where I was introduced to fresh halvah. I passed that test, it was delicious.
Or we would set out in the car and end up at antique stores, looking for a treasure among all kinds of old stuff. Or we’d end up at Hink’s department store looking for some bargain. Or we would drive a little further and explore Lake Merritt in Oakland, a huge lake right in town that was home to thousands of birds. She knew the names of many of them. I liked the coots that ran on top of the water when they took off.
One time we extended our exploration of Lake Merritt and went down to the docks, where thousands of small boats were parked, and nearby, the giant commercial ships would arrive from all over the world. The Port of Oakland has been completely renovated now and is a popular tourist destination. But in those days it was strictly a shipping center where trains rolled down the middle of the streets, ships were loaded and unloaded, and only dock workers hustled around – no tourists like us. And it was run down – had seen better days. We walked out on the old rotting wood, floating sidewalks to inspect the incredible variety of small boats, some serving as a home. Everybody we met seemed most comfortable in their watery, rolling neighborhood. Some invited us on board and showed us around. My mom was friendly and talkative with everyone, rich or poor, and people warmed to her as they quickly detected her spirit of equality.
Her openness that day alarmed me when we happened upon a little café at the intersection of a maze of narrow pier walkways. There were working men all around, and she was the only woman in sight. But she insisted we go into the café – she wanted a cup of coffee there. To me it seemed like a dangerous thing to do, and I felt powerless to defend her if it came to that. Inside was cramped and dark and full of men eating and talking. When she walked in conversation stopped, and they welcomed her graciously. She smiled and chatted and smoked and laughed her laugh. Not one man said or did anything disrespectful. They were enjoying the company of a beautiful woman, and she was enjoying the attention of men. Everything was fine. She taught me it’s okay to be friendly and talk to everyone.
We left the café and headed over to where the giant ships were docked. They were huge, about three stories high, with countries of origin printed in different languages and colored flags speaking different coded messages. Tugboats were slowly pushing the giants this way and that. The wooden docks we walked on were old, very old. Old pillars and splitting railroad ties, with gaps where you could see the ocean a few feet below. The floors were loose and broken, and they creaked as the water lapped against them, but seemed to hold up okay if you watched your step. We found ourselves standing on solid footing, looked up, and here comes a giant ship slowly heading to its berth right in front of us. Inching its way closer and closer right at us, the giant ship towers over us and is getting so close I can read the numbers painted vertically on the bow showing its depth in the water. A thousand tons of steel slowly and silently coming to a stop just a few feet in front of us. It is going to stop, isn’t it? There we stand, just watching, spellbound, when . . . CRACK! We are launched a foot in air as the bow hits that dock and breaks it like little matches. Now the ship was stopped. We landed on the floor, and tried to get our bearings. Looking at each other for any damage and, seeing none, we broke out into hysterical laughter and walked back to the car. Enough exploring for today.
I only attended the old, two-story school for a couple of months, but in that time managed to learn the times table, get in a fight with the school bully, and receive encouragement for my artistic talent. And I was beginning to make friends, beginning to fit in, when suddenly, dad’s job was taking us to a new city.
On my last day the teacher announced to the class that I would be leaving that morning. When the time came, I stood up and everyone said good-bye. I’m walking down the stairs, and then look up. There by the railing upstairs is Gwynne, a beautiful, red haired girl I had hardly ever spoken to. She’s sobbing, “Mark, I love you,” over and over. No one had ever said anything so personal to me. It stopped me in my tracks, and my heart pounded as I looked up at her. This was a thrilling surprise, but what could I do about it? My mom and dad were waiting in the car for me. The kids back in the classroom were laughing and ridiculing her for such an emotional outburst, and that made me sorry. I wanted to stay there, talk to her, find out more, but I had to go. I was nine years old, and we were moving away, driving to Portland, starting right now. Looking up at her I hoped she would understand how I felt, since I could not express it in words.
That night en route north I remember they were re-broadcasting War of the Worlds with Orsen Welles on the car radio. As I sat there in the dark back seat, my mom and dad tried to get me excited about the story, but I was lost in my own thoughts.

Saving Change

When I was growing up I always saved pennies. Maybe my Grandpa Ed was the role model. He used to save up pennies as a gift whenever I visited. What a treat to find a couple of nickels or maybe a dime mixed in the can he saved for me.

Of course in those days if you spotted a penny on the sidewalk you picked it up and were pretty happy about your good fortune. Fun little dime store toys only cost twenty-nine cents, and you could get lots of candy for a dime. Cashiers in those days never seemed to mind counting out customers’ pennies. After all it was real money. Which reminds me of a story…

When I was teaching at Pasadena High School I noticed that there were quite a few pennies and even nickels left on the ground all over campus. I couldn’t figure it out, so I asked some bright students about it. They told me that most kids believed it wasn’t worthwhile to save small change – it wasn’t valuable enough. So I made it a point to devote a little lecture to the subject of saving coins, telling them this true story as an example…

“My son goes to middle school, and he picked up all the change he could find from the ground at his school. In one semester he had saved enough money to buy a little TV for his room.”

 It wasn’t my best lecture, but it was one of the most effective. After that everyone starting scanning the ground for money and got pretty excited when they found something.

So anyway, my grandpa saved pennies for me in an empty beer can. In those days my dad was a salesman for Ballantine beer, and we always had a few empty cans around which could easily be made into useful containers by taking a can opener to one end. Now, when I say can, I mean CAN, solid steel, long before aluminum cans. It happens that Ballantine beer cans were a bright copper color, shiny inside and most pleasing to the eye. And the copper pennies inside a shiny copper can…it might as well have been a glittering treasure chest. Very pleasing!

As I grew up saving pennies became a habit. Saving the coins and choosing the right container was the fun part, but then comes that dreadful day when they need to be counted and rolled up into those dull orange paper sleeves. Bank cashiers in those days always seemed to mind counting out customers’ pennies – they had to be in rolls. But that wasn’t enough. To cash in the rolls, the bank required your name, address and phone number to be carefully printed on each little roll of fifty cents. Not to mention the smell on your hands from handling all those coins. Not very pleasing!

Still, having that extra supply of money around really came in handy. As I started to make a little more money I added nickels and dimes, and so the jar had to get bigger. Then came that magic day, sometime in middle age, when I was able to save all my leftover pocket change at the end of every day.

Of course the jar had to be bigger still to hold all that loot. But now that I had arrived at this high level of wealth I could afford to buy a really big container. I looked, and I found. At the hardware store, a twelve gallon galvanized iron bucket with sturdy handle – the kind the farmers use to milk cows. It was big.

What a sound when the first change hit that bucket with a clang. Everyone in the house knew that sound, and maybe the neighbors, too. But how much time it was taking to fill that bucket! And since it was wider at the top, it just took longer and longer to make any visible progress.

Years went by, and during those years someone invented a machine that counted your change for you – no more little paper rolls. These machines starting appearing in supermarkets, and I watched them with anticipation. I knew that one day I would be standing in front of one of those machines with my bucket. But the coins were still not to the top, and the last two inches took forever. But I was beginning to feel a gratifying sense of completion as it slowly but surely got closer and closer.

And then one summer day it was finally filled to the brim! What a great day! Proudly I reached down and grabbed the handle, ready for that trip to the market. But not yet… I could barely lift that bucket. Silly me, it had remained in the same spot all that time, and I had never tried lifting it. I brought out the bathroom scale and, with both hands and a crooked back, managed to lift the bucket up onto it. It was so heavy, and that thin steel handle wasn’t helping, either. One hundred and twelve pounds.

This was certainly a setback but not the end. Now I’m heading for my car, bent double, walking sideways like an ape, the bucket just a few inches off the ground. So far, so good. Now at the market’s parking lot, I’m looking for a space very near the door. No luck. It’s crowded, and the only parking spaces are far away. So here I go across the parking lot on one of the hottest days of summer, lugging a bucket of coins and looking pretty ridiculous. Yes, I started to get self conscious about then, wondering if the handle would hold, the handle made for milk – not metal, wondering what I would do if the coins spilled, wondering if I should turn back, wondering if I should empty half the coins into the car and make two trips, wondering how I must look.

And then I started to laugh hysterically and couldn’t stop laughing. I kept thinking about Quasimodo the hunchback, about Marley and Scrooge grasping for money, about Beethoven’s, In Search of a Lost Penny, about how my mother’s laugh would sound if she could see me, and most of all wondering if I would ever arrive at the door or get heat stroke trying. But sweaty and disheveled I finally made it inside the store and was standing in front of the machine. It took about an hour of churning and loud grinding, and then the machine gave me a coupon for $645. I waited in a long line of shoppers with my bucket and coupon, and then dealt with a cashier who seemed to resent doling out cash for customers’ pennies.

I walked out of there richer and wiser. Now I save my change in an old beer can.

Pedal Car Blessing

Back in 1960 my family was living in Sandy, Utah, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. The Higgins family next door were good friends, and they had lots of children. One Christmas Eve Mr. Higgins appeared at our door with a big problem. He had purchased a beautiful little pedal car for his youngest, but it required assembly and he just couldn’t understand the instructions provided. He knew my dad was mechanically minded and pleaded for help. In a stroke of genius, my dad graciously accepted the challenge to assemble the toy, but passed the responsibility to me, his self-centered 12 year old. 
He told me it would be easy, and I would enjoy it. I was hesitant at first, never having attempted anything so important, but soon threw myself into the project. There I was, alone on Christmas Eve in the workshop basement with my dad’s tools trying to put this toy together. The deadline aspect was terrible – I was on the spot to make someone else happy – I couldn’t fail. So I pressed on, trying to comprehend the bizarre English grammar on the instructions written somewhere on the other side of the world. My dad would come downstairs and check on me from time to time, and my mom checked in too and brought me a cookies. As the evening wore on the pedal car started to come together. In a few hours I had managed to assemble the little car, and it worked!
Something extraordinary happened to me during that evening. At first I didn’t understand, but later I did. I expanded myself by thinking of others. That feeling did not fade away – I still have it to this day. I believe my mom and dad saw the opportunity to give me a great lesson and took a chance that I would learn it. How fortunate for me! Thanks to them, now I have the Christmas Spirit all year long.
After that I wanted to send everyone presents at Christmas, but I never had money to buy anything. So my mom and dad encouraged me to create a little artwork instead and make that the gift. From then on Christmas time finds me working on some little project for friends and family.

Mary Fights City Hall

Mary Williams, second wife of L.C. Williams, Jim’s grandfather, lived many years by herself in Pasadena (N. Chester) after L.C. died. Mary was not considered a close member of the family, but she did attend holiday dinners for many years and that’s how I came to know her. She was taller than my dad with upright posture, a strong frame and a stronger voice. A happy person, her laughter came from deep down inside. She used to walk all over Pasadena on her errands, taking huge strides like an athlete. If the family conversation ever got close to the subject of fairness, Mary would launch into her story about the city charging her for trash collection and how she won.

Mary Fights City Hall

One morning the mailman came walking along,
Delivering letters and whistling a song.
A letter for Mary, it’s only a bill
From Municipal Services, over the hill.

But something is wrong. She can’t take the hint.
Something’s not fair, down in the small print.
On with her coat, and up with her purse,
She’s off to the City feeling quite terse.

Just a few miles to walk across town,
Not far for an eighty-year-old with a frown.
Waiting for hours, all the while vexed,
When finally the clerk looks up and says,“Next!”

She stands herself up to her six feet plus,
A moment of silence and then starts to fuss:
“I burn all the paper and bury the trash
so why should I give the garbage man cash?

“Food I buy fresh, never in cans,
Nothing from tin goes into my pans.
“Everything’s used, nothing’s disposed,
So why would the city be so opposed?

“I won’t pay for trash cans that never I fill,
So kindly deduct that amount from my bill.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again,
I owe what I owe and nothing else, then!”

“I’ll pay for the light and rightfully so,
For the few times I use it to read and to sew.
“I’ll pay for the gas quite willingly now,
For the heat I adore when the wind starts to blow.

“I’ll pay for the water that runs in my sink,
And makes it so easy to go get a drink.
“But I won’t pay for trash cans that never I fill,
So kindly deduct that amount from my bill.

The argument slowly dies down to a roar,
She leaves the poor clerk who shouts out the door,
“The city is firm, with standards and laws.
No exceptions are made. Why? Just because!”

Each time that bill came she’d stop all her work,
And make the trip over to chat with that clerk.
Then walking back home, “His hair’s turning gray,
I’ll bet he’d be happy if I stayed away!”

Twelve times a year, for twelve years and more,
She knocked and she knocked on that clerk’s door.
In summer and winter her coat made the trip,
Along with her shoes, her purse and her lip.

One morning the mailman came walking along,
Delivering letters and whistling a song.
The bill was delivered, the balance was due,
But something was missing. Could it be true?

The total was different, unlike the past:
Collection of trash - deducted at last!
She walked right on over to clear up all doubt.
The unhappy clerk called the manager out.

“Mary, you win! But keep quiet, I say!
We can’t make exceptions like this every day!”
A smile came upon her and lit up her face,
Like a glow of awareness, like winning a race.

Whenever she’s able she tells without fail
And makes it a point, “Let fairness prevail!”
“I burn all the paper and bury the trash
so why should I give the garbage man cash?”

Loving Parents

All parents think they are loving, don't they? And yet, the craziest ideas are floating around these days. Ideas like, “Let the little kids do whatever they want – they’re only young once.” Or, “Discipline will crush my child’s personality.” Or, “If I punish my children they won’t like me anymore.” Or,”The kids are wild, it’s so cute.” Rubbish. This is not how a loving parent thinks.
But what exactly is a loving parent? It’s not just being a friend, that’s easy.  It’s mainly being a guide, and that’s more difficult - someone who cares so much that they commit themselves to preparing their child for success. And that means teaching them how to behave.
Wild children make for a wild society, Entitled children make for an entitled society. Whatever happens “out there” starts “in here,” - inside the home. So parents have quite a responsibility, don’t they? What kind of world do we want to live in? Parents make it happen.
Here’s a true story to illustrate.

When I was growing up there were a lot of kids in my neighborhood. We all went to Marengo School. Next door lived my good friend Roby. We all played almost every day, usually cowboys, running up and down the alley behind our houses. Roby had the best toys – guns, hats, lanterns, canteens, everything. He was an only child, and so was I. We might have been a little spoiled.
His family came from Kentucky and they brought a southern, fun-loving formality with them. They also brought a standard that I didn’t see in other families. For example, their living room was reserved only for adult company - kids could not enter. There were limits.
In first grade Roby was a wild child. He was loud and laughed a lot and seemed much freer than all the other kids. In class he was wild, too, laughing and joking loudly and having the greatest time. Everyone looked for him to do something hilarious. A real headache for the teacher.
Then in second grade a new teacher came to Marengo. On the first day Roby started right in being Roby. The new teacher would have none of it and sent him to the principal. We were stunned. Nobody had ever been sent to the principal before, and this was the first time we had ever seen Roby get in trouble. The class quieted down without him, and we started to understand our new teacher – she was very strict, but at the same time very caring.
Roby was gone the whole day, and after school I couldn’t find him to walk home with. I knew he must be in big trouble. When I got home I looked over at his house, and it was very, very quiet. Needless to say he didn’t come out to play.
The next day Roby didn’t go to school, and then we all knew that he was really in trouble. We knew that his parents were doing something with him, but we didn’t know what. The teacher didn’t mention anything about him, but we were all nervous about what could have happened. What could parents do to you when you were very bad?
Next day Roby was back! We all rushed up hoping for an explanation, but he only answered calmly that he had been disrespectful and had been punished. His calmness was unnerving! When class started he raised his hand, stood up and apologized to the teacher in a most respectful and sincere way, and then sat down. And here was the new Roby - still Roby, all right, but he had just genuinely calmed down. Suddenly he had self-control, and the change in him was towering. From that day on he was a model student, as fun-loving as ever, but with definite limits. In other words, he was happy, like a happy kid should be.
Throughout school he was a role model, earning excellent grades, starring in athletics, joining clubs, popular with everyone, a friend to all, but most of all demonstrating the highest level of behavior. He graduated from college, joined his father in business, married and has 3 beautiful daughters.
Still, in my mind the question lingers, “What did his parents do?” What happened on that day long ago? Well, whatever it was, it was certainly a good thing. Probably some kind of force was used, but it didn’t crush him.  It must have been a good force - a loving, guiding force, because it strengthened him, and all the kids could see it. We all wanted to be strong like that, too, so it turned out that his parents influenced all of us for the better. If they had done nothing, how different his life, and ours, would have been.
Roby and I call each other on our birthdays, and I’ve been tempted to bring up this subject, just to find the magic formula for parenting or to satisfy my curiosity. But as I write this, I think it’s better to just leave it alone. But you have to admit - whatever they did, how fortunate he was to have loving parents like that!