UP IN SMOKE

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

The Western United States has just undergone one of the most vicious and destructive wildfire seasons on record.  In Idaho, Montana, California, Oregon and Washington over 2 million acres burned this fall.  That’s bigger than the entire state of Delaware.  Worse, nine firefighters lost their lives and over 500 homes were burned to the ground.  There are many reasons being proffered for this increase in activity – lightning, hotter than normal temperatures, and the ever-present idiots who left campfires burning or, worse yet, intentionally set the forest ablaze.  I can personally attest to the smokey conditions that have caused so many problems since we had the misfortune to be vacationing in three of the wildfire areas this summer.

We arrived in the Central Coast in July just as the Alamo fire in Santa Maria broke out, growing to 29,000 acres and spewing black smoke and ash our way.  The following week the Whittier fire broke out near Santa Barbara, destroying an additional 18,000 acres and consuming a Scout camp.  The fires and smoke, coupled with our already disastrous TurnKey Vacation Rentals condo made for a rather  inauspicious beginning to our summer travels.  But we weren’t done yet.  In August during our two week stay in Mammoth Lakes, Yosemite endured several fires that consumed 14,000 acres of brush.  Each day we would stick our heads out the front door to determine if the wind was blowing the smoke our way.  We lucked out about half the time.

But wait…there’s more!  In September, as we prepared for our annual trip to Sun Valley, Idaho, a spate of new fires broke out.  I checked the EPA Air Quality website only to discover that the entire state of Idaho was either red or maroon – unhealthy for everyone.  Our good friends who were scheduled to visit us cancelled their trip due to respiratory issues.  We wavered a bit but ultimately journeyed up and luckily, the air began to clear the day we arrived and has been increasingly better.  Of course, the reason it’s gotten better is that it’s SNOWING.  In September.  Go figure.

So it seems our summer that was planned to contain plenty of hikes and golf games has been replaced by reading novels and hearing  more than we ever wanted to know about air particles.  But our minor discomfort is trivial compared to the small business owners in these remote mountain towns that rely on tourists to make their bottom line.  Both in Mammoth and Sun Valley we’ve talked to many of them who complain about the Forest Service policy of letting fires burn out if they aren’t endangering structures or humans.  This is a rather new policy that has been increasingly implemented over the past decade.  The argument goes that before the European settlement of America, forest fires consumed  20-30 million acres each year (for comparison, we’re on track for 5 million this year).   The Forest Service only began actively fighting every fire in the 1930’s.  But now they have adopted the new policy, citing that the burning of the forest is Mother Nature’s way of cleaning out and allowing new growth to thrive.  The policy has the added benefit of not endangering firefighter’s lives.  But those arguments don’t take in to account the smokey air nearby inhabitants are forced to breathe or the many forest animals who die or the diminished tourist visits that fuel the engine of small town economies.

Soon we’ll be heading back home but as a coda to our stay in Sun Valley, word around town is that Aspen Company is looking to buy Sun Valley Resort, just as they have swallowed up Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley and so many others.  If true, it would signal the end of the last large family-run ski resort in the West.  The quaint and historic Sun Valley we know and love just might be going…up in smoke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INFLECTION POINTS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Inflection points –  events that not only change the course of  history but our collective psyche as well.  For many of us the first such event was the Kennedy assassination.  Prior to November 22, 1963, we were a nation energized by a young President with fresh ideas and plans – plans that were to be carried out by those “born of a new generation”.  When JFK was cut down it was shocking and unnerving.   And, one could argue, changed who we are.  There is a much-quoted conversation that took place after the assassination between journalist Mary McGrory and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor.  She lamented, “We’ll never laugh again.” He replied: “Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.” Many hopes and dreams died that day, as well as our collective feeling of security and our way of life.  As some sociologists have noted, November 22, 1963 was the end of the Fifties.

The assassination changed us in ways we could not have predicted at the time.  After that, Americans increasingly distrusted the Federal government (particularly after publication of the Warren Report) and yet, ironically, it also precipitated the largest expansion of government into our everyday lives.  We became embroiled in a war that many argue Kennedy would not have supported and our culture was flush with sex, drugs and a whole lot of anger.  Of course, there were good changes as well – civil rights and the women’s movement to name two – but certainly the innocence of the prior decade was gone forever.  It also marked the rise of television over newspapers.  Everyone was glued to black and white screens, watching events unfold for three days.  And why not?  It was compelling and the only way to stay abreast of changing events.  For me, I remember watching Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted down that fateful corridor in the Dallas police station when Jack Ruby shot him.  The experience of seeing someone killed in real time was jarring and disturbing.  Millions of people experienced that same shock.  Coupled with the assassination, how could we not be affected going forward?

The next time I saw anyone murdered was sixteen years ago today – September 11, 2001.  I flipped on CNBC that morning while getting ready for work.  The first plane had already hit Tower One and the hosts were speculating that it was a freak accident.  They mused about whether it would have an affect on the stock market since so many trading firms were in that building.  Then the unimaginable happened – the second plane hit.  I watched it in horror; this time it wasn’t one person I saw killed, but thousands.  Thanks to the 24 hour news cycle we were all witness to  explosions and fire and falling bodies over and over again for weeks.  I’m not sure we yet fully understand the toll that it took on us. Surely our national mindset was altered after watching all of the carnage and grief.  A grief that I believe is still evident after all these years.

To this day many of us tear up when recalling the image of the Twin Towers collapsing.  It remains hard to think about the people who perished that day – people who left home for work on a bright, blue-sky Tuesday morning and never returned.  The very notion of that was – is – frightening and causes us, once again, to question how secure we really are.  The fear of an imminent terror attack began impacting our everyday lives that day.  Suddenly we had to remove our shoes at the airport and limit the amount of shampoo we carry on a plane.   Socially, it brought on a lot of change too.  For the first few months after 9/11 it seemed we were able to put our differences aside, but that fraternity soon dissipated and has now devolved to a point where divisiveness rules the day .   In many ways, it has been the 60’s all over again with an extra dose of anger thrown in.

Which brings me to the unintended consequences of 9/11.  At some level we live with fear on a daily basis – fear that it could happen again to us or someone we love.  We  witness repeated terrorist attacks carried out all over the world that target ordinary people doing ordinary things.  I believe that the discord in our society is, in part, a manifestation of that fear.  I hope at some point we can recapture the unity we had in the aftermath of 9/11 and once again pull together.  Hurricane Harvey, as devastating and heart-breaking as it’s been, has shown me that people really can come together when fellow citizens are in need.  Sandra Bullock put it best when she Tweeted:  “There are no politics in 8 feet of water.  There are human beings in 8 feet of water.”  Amen.  Maybe this is a new beginning.  A new inflection point that causes us to remember that more often than not, most of the time we’re all just human beings in 8 feet of water.

THE END OF AN ERA IN MAMMOTH

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

                        Horseshoe Lake

We just spent two glorious weeks in Mammoth Lakes, California.  Glorious because a) the house we were in was recently refurbished, which was a welcome relief from our TurnKey Nipomo nightmare, and b) Mammoth is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Just ask the Europeans – who were everywhere we went.  We thought we had outsmarted the crowds by going when school was back in session but we forgot about August being the “holiday” month for Europeans.  We met some delightful people from England, Germany and Holland but the downside was every restaurant, hiking trail and lakeside was packed with people shouting in a cacophony of languages.  Still, it is one of our favorite places to visit.  My husband has been going there since 1960, when the mountain only had five ski lifts and we’ve been going there together for 30 years.  The majesty of the steep mountains and peaceful lakes never fails to make us gape in awe at the gorgeous scenery.

 

                      Kittredge Sports

Over the years Mammoth has retained a small town feel.  Some might think it too rustic.  Mammoth is known for outdoors activities – fishing, mountain biking and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.  Unlike many other mountain resorts in the West, it has had problems attracting and retaining high-end businesses.  For many years the local outlet mall was home to a Polo and Coach store, but both of those establishments have now closed and their spaces remain vacant.  The only new store this year was a sporting goods place that had the audacity (or bad luck) to open up directly across the street from Kittredge’s – an outdoorsman’s paradise that has been in business for 44 years.  We’ll see how long they last.  The largest employer by far is Mammoth Resorts, which runs all activities on the mountain and in the Mammoth Village complex.  The rest of the town’s population is made up of small business owners and those who are employed by them.  So one does not go to Mammoth to “see and be seen” or to rub elbows with the rich and famous.  Frankly, one of my favorite aspects about the town is that I only have to bring a pair of jeans and a casual shirt and I’m dressed to go anywhere.  In other words, it’s been a great place for slobs like me.  But all that is about to change.

On August 4th a deal was completed for the sale of Mammoth Mountain to the Aspen Company.   In addition to Mammoth, Aspen will now own Big Bear, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, as well as some smaller ski resorts in the Sierras.  They have big plans for Mammoth, although exactly what changes they’ll make have not been spelled out.  We were curious as to how the local population felt about the acquisition so we engaged in some conversations with people who have been around Mammoth a long time.  The opinions could not be more diverse.  For those who work for Mammoth Resorts – whether on the mountain, the Village stores and hotels or the golf course, they look forward to the infusion of money from Aspen.  They cited broken toilets, outdated facilities and general equipment that needs to be replaced.  Of course, they acknowledge that all of this “fixing” is going to come at a price and that price is going to be paid by the consumer. But hotel rooms and lift tickets are not the only thing that will be going up.  Since the announcement last spring that the deal was being struck, the housing market has gone berserk.  Normally one can find a plethora of deals on second homes that owners want to unload.  No more.  It’s a seller’s market in a big way.

Which brings me to the other side of the coin – the average person who wants to work and raise a family in Mammoth Lakes.  Rents have skyrocketed, forcing many people to find housing elsewhere.  One guy who manages the pet store said he felt fortunate to sign a three year lease, even if it was for a lot of money.  Many workers now are living in their cars.  Mammoth has pledged to build more affordable housing, but the sheer geographic limitations make that a remote prospect. We found many people worried about the effect of Aspen marketing to the “rich and famous”, driving out the very people who have made Mammoth such a relaxed and low-key place to visit.  It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

                  Schat’s Cakes

I’m hoping that some of our favorite “haunts” will not be affected.  Burger’s Restaurant offers the best burger anywhere – it’s always our first dinner when we arrive in town.  The Stove is a wonderful place for breakfast – assuming you can get in, as the lines are always long.  It’s the type of place that serves your water in a jelly glass and has wooden benches for seating.   And then there is Schat’s Bakery.  I don’t know how long they’ve been in business but I first salivated at their goodies 30 years ago.  They are renowned for their Basque Sheepherder’s bread and the fresh turkey sandwiches they make, carving an average of 19 large turkeys every day.  But somehow I’ve always been more attracted to their desserts.   To enter their pastry area is to enter Heaven itself.  The photo I’ve included is only one of six display cases.  I can gain weight just standing in line.

I don’t know how Mammoth is going to change in the coming years but I’ll say this: if they do anything that results in the closure of Schat’s they are going to have a lot of ‘splaining to do.

THE MENTAL RENTAL

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

The view – its only redeeming feature

Here I am again…I hope you enjoyed Bob’s travel logs as much as I did.  While he was enjoying the midnight sun in Iceland and playing the Old Course in Scotland, I had planned to spend a month in Nipomo, a small community on the Central Coast of California where we have spent time over the past seven summers.  We have always rented through VRBO and have had wonderful relationships with the homeowners.  It was a good deal – they provide us with a nice house and we treat it as if it were our own.  A win-win for everyone.  But the Wall Street Journal ran an article this past winter cautioning against renting directly with homeowners.  They cited all manner of problems, from “phantom” houses where people would arrive at the given address to find no house at all, to owners who weren’t responsive to plumbing emergencies or insect infestations.  Instead, they advised, go through one of the professional rental agencies where you were assured 24/7 care and responsiveness.  So, since the house we normally rent had been sold, we rented a three bedroom condominium at Blacklake Golf Course through TurnKey Vacation Rentals.  We rented the unit for the month of July and eagerly anticipated getting the heck out of the Arizona heat and over to some cool, coastal fog.

                  Cups from 1985

We have been to Nipomo so many times that we had seen the outside of these condominiums countless times.  Our unit was adjacent to the fairway of the ninth hole and has a beautiful, expansive view overlooking much of the golf course.  Unfortunately, that is it’s only virtue.  As we entered the unit it all looked okay – dated, but comfortable.  Kind of like me.  It was only as we began to settle in the following day that we noticed how grungy the place really was.  Clearly the unit had been “glamour shot” on the TurnKey website.  The coffee pot was grungy and the coffee cups weren’t any better, as you can see from the photo.  The pots and pans were filthy and scratched, the potato peeler didn’t peel, and worst of all, the “pry open” wine opener had pried one too many bottles.  It took both of us 10 minutes to open a bottle.  I was getting so desperate I considred cracking the neck on the edge of the table and guzzling wine straight from the bottle.

     The sink that died 20 years ago

As bad as all that was, the sink was straight out of a horror movie.  In all of my rental apartments, as a starving student or poor working girl who could only afford bologna sandwiches on white bread for dinner, I have never had a sink this disgusting.  I tried to recall when we last had a tetanus shot.  So…what to do?  We decided to suck it up.  We drove to the local Ace Hardware to buy a coffee maker, pots, pans and coffee cups.  As for the sink, I scrubbed it within an inch of it’s life.  But cleaning it was futile…its life had been snuffed out long ago.  We made do and ate out.  A lot.  Four days after arrival the Wi-Fi broke down.  A representative from TurnKey came to fix it later that day and acknowledged that the unit was a bit “dated” and had the good grace to look embarrassed.  She said someone from TurnKey corporate offices would be in touch with us on Monday to discuss compensation to make up for the condition of the unit.

Of course, Monday came and went with no phone call.  On Tuesday I went to the mailbox as I was expecting a package and found a letter addressed to “Occupant” from the City of Nipomo.  The letter was pink.  I don’t know much about utility company billing but I’m pretty sure that pink is not a color you want to see.  I opened it, hoping that the city was simply notifying us of upcoming road work or utility repairs.  Nope.  The owner was delinquent in her payments so they were going to shut the water off within the next week if they didn’t receive their money.  So, again, I called TurnKey.  They were shocked, SHOCKED!, to learn of this.  It was going to be taken up with management and someone would get back to me.  Long story short, I finally heard from someone who said they would refund us $100 for our troubles and “not to worry” about the water bill.  Sure…these owners hadn’t replaced a coffee cup in 35 years but I was supposed to sleep soundly knowing they would pay their delinquent water bill.  Two days later I called again, raised hell, and they offered us another $300.

They specialized in LOUD

So now we had $400 to offset our “inconveniences”.  But we weren’t done yet. Every Wednesday evening they have band concerts on the lawn outside our condo.  Not real bands.  More like garage bands comprised of Baby Boomers who, “back in the day”, dreamed of becoming the next Beatles.  Now, they are just off-tune and loud.  But “loud” was redefined the following Saturday night when a wedding reception took place outside our window.  It featured a live mariachi band and a DJ who played heavy metal.  The windows (which of course were vintage 1985) had all the soundproofing capabilities of Saran Wrap.  For FIVE  hours the windows shook and the music blared.  Surely this is how we torture ISIS prisoners.  Needless to say, we were miserable.  We tried to put the best spin on it but our normally pleasing personalities were getting a bit testy.  Finally we realized that it was better to forfeit two weeks of rent and go home than to stay and be unhappy.  That is when, after 30 years of marriage, you know you’ve married the right person.  So we packed up and got out of there.   I called TurnKey to let them know we were leaving early.  The person had no knowledge of our previous calls.  Over the course of two weeks I spoke with seven different TurnKey “customer experience” people and – at their request – sent them photos of the unit.  Most never bothered to look at the email exchanges or the pictures of the unit.  To say the right hand didn’t know what the left was doing was an understatement.  The best example is when a manager called – at last, someone with some decision-making responsibility! – only to have him tell me he was from Florida and was calling about the water problem in the master bedroom.  Nope.  Not even close.

We ended up spending the remainder of the month in Scottsdale, where the weather was blessedly under 100 degrees.  Of course, the monsoons arrived which made my hair frizz and my thighs stick together.  But it was still better than looking at that sink.

COOLIN’ IT IN COLORADO

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

      Dash and Dad in the happy place

Each summer we take a week to visit the kids up in Colorado – it is always so good to see them and it gives us some respite from the heat.  This year we were especially grateful for the timing of the trip when we saw that the temps in Scottsdale were going to hit 113.  How smart are we?  Turns out, not very.  The heat wave that Arizona experienced was evident throughout the west.  The temperature in Cherry Hills Village was 93 on two days of our visit and when you add in the affect of the altitude, we felt like we were back home.  Except that the company was better.  Also, the mornings are really beautiful there  – cool and crisp.  Our favorite spot is our daughter’s backyard where, accompanied by Dash the Wonder Dog, we sat each morning with a cup of coffee to experience our happy place.  We mentioned something about moving in for the summer.  I’m not sure they heard us.

 

One of the many peaks in the park

Colorado is truly a beautiful state.  Just ask all of the Californians that are moving there.  Still, by LA standards the traffic is still bearable and with the Rocky Mountains always in view somehow being stuck in traffic isn’t quite as annoying.  This year our daughter thought it would be fun to explore Colorado Springs and the Garden of the Gods.  Garden of the Gods Park is a National Natural Landmark, with dramatic views and 300′ towering sandstone rock formations set against a backdrop of snow-capped Pikes Peak.  The name of the park came about in 1859 from a collaboration between two surveyors, M.S. Beach and Rufus Cable, who started out from Denver to establish a new town. While exploring nearby locations, they came across the beautiful sandstone formations. Beach suggested that it would be a “capital place for a beer garden” when the country grew more populated. Cable, however, was a bit more poetic (and dare I say perhaps less of an alcoholic).  His response was, “Beer Garden! Why it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.” The park is truly spectacular, with terracotta peaks and jagged mountains throughout.  There are numerous hiking trails, ranging from easy to “you’ve got to be out of your mind”.  We chose to drive around the park because it was too hot for Dash to walk.  That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.  There is a wonderful visitors center that provides guided tours, interactive displays and, thankfully, restrooms.  The Garden of the Gods was truly one of the most beautiful places we’ve seen – only a few minutes off of a major interstate and yet we felt that we were a million miles away.  It is definitely worth the trip if you are ever in the area.

      The lake at The Broadmoor

Our final destination in Colorado Springs was the famous Broadmoor Hotel.  The hotel is one of the grand classics of the country.  We looked up room rates a few weeks ago on the chance that we might want to stay there on our way up to Denver.  At a cool $470 per night for the least expensive room we decided we’d just drive right on through.  The grounds, as you might expect, are beautifully landscaped and meticulously maintained.  There is a massive lake in the back, nestled between the two major buildings of the resort. We ate outdoors at their Natural Epicurean restaurant where we enjoyed fabulous food in a tree-lined patio.  Of course we had to check out their three golf courses as long as we were in the neighborhood.  As you might imagine, they are groomed to perfection.  The Broadmoor will be host to the 2018 Senior U. S. Open.  I told my husband he needs to work on his game so he can qualify.  Best of all, The Broadmoor is dog friendly.  Dash the Wonder Dog made himself right at home, greeting guests as they entered the lobby, checking for any errant food droppings at the restaurant, and making a friend at the Broadmoor’s pet shop (right).  He found his new acquaintance to be a bit cold, but the owner of the shop gave him treats so all was not lost.

A chilly reception

After an hour of so of walking around the hotel grounds we finally concluded that we would have to leave The Broadmoor for another time.  But we will definitely be back.  As soon as we rob a bank.

 

IN THE DOG HOUSE

By Dash the Wonder Dog

Me…in my customary position

Well, as you read in Uncle Bob’s post last week, my mom has gone and done it now.  Her reckless behavior has resulted in the both of us being thrown in the hoosegow.  Not just any hoosegow – a Turkish hoosegow.  Although her intentions were good, she never should have used that photo without authorization.  Sometimes I think she isn’t functioning with all her marbles, like when she forgets to feed me on time.  All I know is that one moment I was relaxing in the lap of luxury on my leopard bed and the next thing I knew I was in a land far away, mingling with people (and dogs) who are far beneath my station in life.  Do they not know I’m a Cavalier KING Charles?  My mom keeps sobbing, something about “Midnight Express” and that her manicure is being shredded.  She wants me to dig our way out of here.  Seriously?  Sister, you got us into this mess so you can just suck it up about your ruined gel polish and get to work.  In the mean time, I will try to describe our conditions in this primitive place.

Bad Eddie – Don’t mess with him

I must say that the people you meet in a Turkish prison are very solicitous.  Really – they solicit everything.  We have been asked if we’d care for cigarettes, chocolate bars or a brick of hashish.  My mom jumped at the chocolate bar but I’m still holding out for a good antler bone.  They seem to be in short supply.  Unfortunately for me, several other detainees have brought their dogs along with them.  Just like humans, there is a pecking order among us canines.  At the top of the heap is Bad Eddie (photo right).  I don’t know what he’s in for because I’m too scared to ask, but my guess is that he bit off the leg of a sultan.  He rules this place with an iron paw and steals the meager rations from newcomers like me.  I have tried my best to bat my big brown eyes at him but I think I gave him the wrong impression.  Apparently I am not the first to learn that batting one’s eyes can result in becoming someone’s bitch, which is ridiculous because everyone knows I’m a male dog.   Bad Eddie struts around the courtyard with his “posse” of Rottweilers and Poodles, acting like they don’t have to obey the rules.  I have tried to instruct them as to proper etiquette, showing off my credentials as a Canine Good Citizen from PetSmart but I don’t think they’re impressed.  One of them actually lifted his leg on me which just isn’t done in polite society.  I think PetSmart could make a killing in this place.

Mom’s lunch…and dinner.

Mom doesn’t seem to be adapting to our new circumstances.  She keeps complaining about flies, rusty water and the sixteen other women sharing our 4×4 cell.  I remind her that every minute that she spends complaining is another minute that she is not digging!  Besides, in my personal opinion, I think the food here is doing her some good.  I don’t like to be critical but those five pounds she packed on at Christmas are still hanging around her hips.  Another few weeks in this place and I think she will be back in fighting shape.  As for me, I’m doing my best to supervise her, keep Bad Eddie at bay and bribe the guards for some organic bison/mango treats.  Hopefully by our next post all will be returned to normal – me lying on my leopard bed and mom resuming her manicure schedule.  Sheesh!  I hope she’s learned her lesson.  I don’t think I can face Bad Eddie again.

 

THROUGH MY FATHER’S EYES

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

The “muscle man” at Tahoe

This Sunday is Father’s Day, a day where dads the world over are supposed to put their feet up, crack open a cold beer, and be catered to by their spouse and offspring.  For those of us whose fathers have gone to their great reward, it’s a day that can be bittersweet.  For our family that is especially true as we think about how much our dad would have rejoiced in the addition of Addison last week.  I’ve thought a lot about my dad these past few days while reading articles by authors extolling the virtues of following their dad’s words of wisdom – “be thrifty, finish college, don’t hit your sister”.  Okay, I made that last one up.  I thought about things my dad said to me that were lasting – life lessons, if you will.  Sadly, the only lesson he sat down to teach me was how to order the money in my wallet.  I remember the day, as I stuffed bills into my purse in a slap-dash manner, he took me aside and told me that I should always order the bills in sequence, by increasing denomination.  So the one’s went first, then the five’s, etc.  Actually, I don’t think we got past the five’s because I was 17 and had no money.  To this day, when I put bills in my wallet, I always think about my dad and the lesson he taught me that day.

But lest you think that was the only lesson I learned from my dad, believe me, he taught me more about living a good life than I can possibly relate.  He just did it by his actions, rather than words.  He was incredibly kind, hysterically funny and a joy to be around.  I met a rather new friend of his once and she commented about how great dad was, to which I replied, “Yep, everybody likes my dad”.  She gave me a startled look and said, “Oh, no.  Everybody LOVES your dad”.  But why?  A few examples come to mind, examples that have stuck with me all of my life.   I recall a time during my first year in college I had a friend whose parents were transferred across country.  She was lonely and missed their comforting presence.  One day when she came to visit she and I escaped to my room to catch up.  When we emerged an hour later Pop was walking in the front door with her car keys.  He handed the keys over to her and gave her a big hug.  After she left I asked him what he was doing with her car and he told me he’d taken it down to the local service station, filled it with gas, and had the mechanic top off her oil.  “Why?”, I questioned.  “Because”, he said, “I know that if it were you in that situation I’d like someone to be looking after you”.  In that moment he taught me to put myself in someone else’s shoes – it can make for a kinder world.

Wearing one of Bob’s hats…and entertaining the crowd

Pop also lived his life with the utmost optimism.  He greeted every new acquaintance as if they were a long-lost friend.  Partly his demeanor came from being a small businessman in a small town, where word would travel quickly had he been rude or difficult.  But his happy persona was just natural – in any crowded room people always wanted to be around him because he always had a funny story and anecdote to relate.  My brothers loved this aspect of his personality, especially as everyone got older and my dad, well into his ’70’s and ’80’s, would continue to attract new friends, especially women.  When my brothers were with him in a bar neither of them could pick up a chair, let alone a date, but Pop always had beautiful women gathered around him.  He would laugh and joke with them, as my brothers tried to nudge their way in.  They soon nicknamed dad “The Chick Magnet”, but really he was the People Magnet.  He showed me that if you greet people in an open and friendly way, you will never want for friends.

A happy man with his favorite drink

I also learned a lot about giving back from him.  I cannot remember a time that he did not volunteer in the community.  For over forty years he served as a volunteer firefighter in Novato.  He was so revered that when he died the current fire chief drove a big hook and ladder up to his funeral.  He was involved in the school board, water district and the Rotary club, just to list a few.  When he retired and moved to Sonoma he decided that he wanted to help kids so he volunteered as a reader at the local grammar school.  Every Friday he took his classroom a big plate of treats (obviously well before the current allergy phobias).  He loved his “job” and they loved him.  One day he came home beaming because a 6-year-old girl had handed him the following note: Mr. Sparrow, When I grow up will you marry me?.   He taught me that sometimes the best reward you can get in life is giving to others.

I miss my dad, not only on Father’s Day, but every day.  We kids were so blessed to have him as a dad, to have grown up with someone so inherently funny and supportive of us in every way.  While I don’t have many “pearls of wisdom” to remember, I have plenty of actions to emulate.  So on Father’s Day, and every other, I do my best to live life through my father’s eyes.

 

 

THEY WERE SOLDIERS ONCE, AND YOUNG (2017)

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This is my annual Memorial Day piece, written in remembrance of the boys from my high school who died in the Vietnam war.  This year I have updated it with new details learned after last year’s post, including a surprising addition.  After I first published this in 2014,  I  heard from many people who related similar stories about  the loss suffered in their home towns –  or worse – their families.  So this weekend, as you commemorate the holiday, please take a moment to remember all of the brave young men and women we’ve lost in conflict. 

Five boys from my high school were killed in the Vietnam War. For a small town like Novato, that was an enormous number. We were such a close-knit community that even if we didn’t know one of them personally, we knew a sibling or friend.  So on my trip to Washington D.C. last month I scheduled time to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to see their names on “The Wall”.   To refresh my memory I pulled out my high school year books and found them all – smiling for a formal portrait or posing for a team picture. Each image reflected a boy, fresh-faced and full of hope, his life stretching out before him. I looked at those young faces and found it hard to believe that their lives ended so shortly after the bucolic days captured in the photos.  None of them reached the age of 22.  While we, their classmates, lived long enough to enjoy the internet, smart phones and streaming movies, most of them didn’t live long enough to see a color television.   I reflected on the stories I’ve read of WWII vets who speak so reverently of the “boys who didn’t come home”.   As I perused the yearbooks I finally understood their sentiment.  It is only when looking back through a 50 year lens that one can appreciate just how young these soldiers were and how many of life’s milestones they missed.  So on this Memorial Day, I’d like to pay tribute to “The Boys From Novato”.

 

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson joined the Army in the fall of 1965, in what would have been his Senior year in high school.  I remember him as a quiet guy, but very nice.  Before he enlisted he asked his high school sweetheart to marry him – it would give them both something to hang on to while he was gone.  His entry into the service occurred just as the war was escalating.  He was sent to Vietnam in March of 1966 and three weeks later he was killed by enemy gunfire during “Operation Abilene” in Phuoc Tuy Province.  As his former classmates excitedly anticipated prom and graduation, Robert had already made the ultimate sacrifice.  In the 1966 yearbook, where his senior portrait would have been, his mother placed this photo of him along with a tribute.  He was the first Vietnam casualty from Novato.

 

 

Mike Tandy

Mike Tandy

Mike Tandy graduated from NHS in 1965.  His sisters, Sue and Sarah, also attended NHS.  Mike was very smart and participated in the first swim team our high school fielded.   He was an Eagle Scout and according to his friend Neil Cuzner, “he was highly intelligent, a great guy and an excellent scout. He was in the Senior Patrol and a young leader of our troop. He lead by example”.  After graduation Mike joined the Marine reserves and was called up in January, 1966.  He was sent to Vietnam shortly after that.  On September 8th he was on patrol in Quang Nam with another soldier when his footfall detonated a landmine.  He was killed instantly.  He had celebrated his 19th birthday just five days prior.  His classmates had moved on – either to college or working – but the Tandy family was left to grieve the loss of their son and brother.  In 2005 Sarah posted to the virtual Vietnam Wall: “Thanks to all of you who come here and remember Mike.  All of our lives were changed and I thank you for not forgetting.”

 

Allan Nelson

Allan Nelson

Allan Nelson played football at College of Marin with my brother, Bob. Allan’s sister, Joanne, was in Bob’s class and his brother, Steve, was in mine.  So we were well aware when Allan was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in July, 1966 at the age of 20.  Five months later, on December 1, we were devastated to learn he had been killed by gunfire during a battle in Binh Dinh Province.  I still remember the day Steve came to school after Allan’s death; red-faced with tears streaming down his cheeks.  He had always been such a happy guy but was now changed in ways that were hard for 16 year-old kids to understand.  As I look back now, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to go home from school each day and face parents who were shattered by grief.   Joanne posted the following on a memorial page and perhaps sums it up the best: “Allan was my brother, not just a brother,  he was my best friend. All I know is December 1, 1966 was the saddest time for me and my family. My family loved each other so much, but when Al was killed the joy died in my family. Allan had his whole life planned. He had just turned 21 on Oct. 20th.  When we were young, he couldn’t wait to be 21. I am so sorry for all the families that lost a son and a brother. It will be 33 years in Dec. The everyday sad feelings of loss are gone but on special days it still hurts.”

 

Jim Gribbin

Jim Gribbin

Jim Gribbin graduated from NHS in 1966.  I knew him pretty well – he was on the football team and very active in school clubs.  His brother, Dennis, and I were in school plays together and my mom and his mom, Molly, were friends.  Jim was well-liked by everyone who knew him.  He joined the Army Reserves and when called up, became part of the Special Forces where he rose to the rank of Captain.   He served two tours of duty in an elite MIKE unit. In March 1970 his unit was on a night defensive mission in Kontum Province when they were ambushed by enemy troops.   Jim sacrificed his own safety by running into open territory – twice – to aid and retrieve wounded soldiers under his command.  He was shot both times and taken to a rear medical facility where he died from his wounds.   Ironically, for this affable Irishman, he succumbed on St. Patrick’s Day.  He was awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for Valor.  Jim’s dad was a veteran of WWII who died in 2011. He requested to be placed in the same grave with Jim, with his name and vitals carved on the back of Jim’s headstone. One can only imagine the grief that he carried all those years.  Hopefully he is at peace now that they are forever reunited.

 

Ed Bethards

Wayne Bethards

Wayne Bethards  was in my graduating class, but I didn’t know him well.  His family moved to Novato just before the start of our senior year. His mother, Betty Bethards, was the author of the international best-seller, “The Dream Book”.   Again, Neil Cuzner has provided a bit more insight: “Wayne was a good person. He had a great love of baseball and had actually started a small league while over in Nam. He was sharing his love of baseball with the Vietnamese children.” Cuzner went on to say that Wayne was a religious person and did not want to kill anyone; he struggled greatly with his deployment.   He was drafted into the Army and was sent to Vietnam in October of 1970.  In January, 1971, he was killed while on patrol by the accidental detonation of a mechanical device in Quang Tin Province.  He was the last boy from Novato High School to die in the war.

 

Jerry Sims

Update 2017:  In April, 2017, I heard from a former schoolmate, Dennis Welsh, about Jerry Sims, a boy who died in the conflict whose hometown was listed as Novato.  I found in my research that sometimes the  Novato “hometown” designation were for those affiliated with Hamilton Air Force Base, not graduates of Novato High School.  Since there were no records of Jerry at NHS I assumed Jerry was from Hamilton, but that was not the case.  Dennis told me that Jerry moved to Novato from Texas in the Spring of 1966 to live with his sister.  He tried out for the football team during spring training and made the squad.  But despite that automatic inclusion into a social group, he nevertheless was unhappy living in California and being the “new kid” going into his Senior year.  Dennis said that he never saw him again after football tryouts and didn’t learn of his fate until he spotted Jerry’s name on “The Wall”.  The fact is that Jerry left Novato and joined the Army in June, 1966 and was sent to Vietnam in November.  On February 13, 1968 he and several others in his unit were killed by small arms fire in Gia Dinh province.  Jerry was 19 years old.  His former platoon leader said this on his memorial page:  “I was Jerry’s platoon leader on the day he died.  He didn’t have to be there, since he had a job elsewhere in Vietnam, but he requested a transfer.  He had already spent a year with the Wolfhounds, but for reasons all his own, he wanted to come back to this unit. He died doing his job as a squad leader in my platoon.” It would seem Jerry finally found his home – and some peace – with his Army brethren.

 

A Kingston Trio memento

A Kingston Trio memento

I found all of the boys from Novato on “The Wall”,  each name etched in granite.  I thought about all of their families and the sorrow they endured.  It was overwhelming to realize that same sorrow had been replicated 58,286 times.  Each of the names on that black, shiny surface represent a family forever destroyed.  As I walked along the pathway I looked at all of the mementos that were left as tributes to the fallen – notes, flowers and flags mostly.  But then I spotted something different – a tribute from Jim Dart to his brother, Larry.  It was a Kingston Trio album (pictured left), along with a note about the good times they shared learning the guitar and singing songs together. I was overcome with emotion reading Jim’s note.   My brother, Bob, owned that same album.  He and his best friend, Don, often entertained our family playing their guitars and singing songs from that record.  Bob was a Naval officer in Japan during the Vietnam war and was safely returned to us.  I wept as I stood looking at the album, realizing that but for the grace of God – and military orders – how easily it could have been Bob’s name on that wall and me leaving a Kingston Trio album in his memory.  I can’t imagine what our family would have been like without him.  I ached for Sue and Sarah and Joanne and Steve and all the other siblings who never got to see gray hair on their brother’s head; their family gatherings forever marred by a gaping hole where their brother should have been. When I stooped down to take the photo I noticed that several other visitors had stopped to look at it too.   As I glanced at those who were of a certain age I could see my own feelings reflected in their eyes.  We know how much of life these boys missed.  We mourn their loss – and ours.

 

THE AGE OF RAISIN

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Each decade in life brings new discoveries, experiences and, let’s face it, challenges.  As a teenager absolutely everything is life-altering and of utmost importance.  Parents are so unreasonable and if Johnny doesn’t ask Mary to prom she will just die.  In my case I wondered which college would overlook my mediocre grades and focus on my sparkling personality.  And it seems everything – and everyone – is embarrassing.  Unfortunately I had a truly embarrassing incident when I got a ride home from a boy whose affections I coveted.  I had just finished gymnastics practice so  I jumped in his car and sat – speechless – clutching my bundle of street clothes, waiting for him to ask me out.  He didn’t.  And to further my humiliation, when I got home I discovered that my garter belt was missing (yes, I lived before pantyhose were mass produced).  I panicked, sifting through my pile of clothes time and time again but to no avail.  The belt was missing and the only place it could be was in the car of my “crush”.  My  horror only increased as I imagined him driving down the main drag, my garter belt flowing in the breeze atop his antenna, signifying some sort of trophy.  The next day I walked warily through the school parking lot but mercifully his antenna was unadorned.  I never did find out what happened to it but my guess is that I dropped it somewhere between the gym and the parking lot, prompting the janitor to wonder what exactly had been going on in the senior quad.  At the time I was certain that my life was ruined.  Such is the angst of the teenage years.

College and early adulthood bring their own set of challenges to most of us, from drinking too much to careless career moves.  I remember quitting a job once because I was working for one of the all-time jerks.  My friends were appalled that I could have such reckless disregard for my next rent payment.  But with the confidence of youth, and a robust job market, I went out and found a better job.  As a bonus, the jerk was fired a few months later for embezzlement.  But it’s middle age when the glow of youth begins to fade and one realizes that things aren’t working exactly as they used to .  Infallible memories begin to falter, your chin begins to look like Jabba the Hutt, and everything becomes a blur … literally.  I maintain that poor eyesight is the greatest health hazard in America.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve misread the instructions on medicine bottles and directions on maps.  I have 11 pair of “cheaters” strewn about the house but when I’m out in public I can never lay my hands on a pair from the depths of my purse.  The grocery store is the worst since I do try to read the nutrition labels.  I invariably can’t find my glasses so I end thrusting my jar of Hersey’s Fudge sauce in a young person’s face to read the label for me.  I buy it anyway.  I swear sometimes I think that millennials are designing packaging with the smallest font possible so they can amuse themselves watching us Senior Citizens move our arms back and forth trying to bring the type into focus.

Now in the third phase of life a new “fun” experience is upon me and millions like me: arthritis.  That creaking I hear is no longer the floor but the joints in my back and knees.  After confirming the diagnosis in my spine, the doctor said, “Well, you know at your age, everyone gets this”.  Don’t you just love hearing that?  In any event, after a few years of trying to find some relief a friend suggested that I try gin-soaked raisins.  I thought she was kidding but what the heck, I’ll try anything that a) might help and, b) contains alcohol. So I did a little research and sure enough, there are whole websites devoted to the subject.   Dr. Oz even did a segment on its benefits.  The theory is the combination marries the anti-inflammatory properties of the gin’s juniper berries with the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of golden raisins.  Yes, before you run to the pantry for your regular old raisins, apparently only the golden variety contains the right chemicals.  On my next trip to the grocery store I bought the ingredients and made up a batch.  It takes about a week for the raisins to completely absorb the gin.  Then, per instructions, I eat 8-10 a day.  Of course, there is the matter of “eating” gin first thing in the morning.  You may get some odd looks at the PTA meeting and, I’m not sure, but it seems my dentist was looking askance at me when I had my teeth cleaned last week.   But it’s been about two months since I started this regimen and my back and knees are pain-free.  Who knows?  Maybe my next discovery will be that zucchini and rum fix blurry vision!

I’ll keep you posted on my progress.  In the mean time, I’m going to buy some more cheaters for my purse.

HAPPY LABOR DAY!

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

No, I’m not confused.  I know it’s not the first Monday in September.  Today is May Day.  A day that marks the unofficial beginning of Spring and, I believe, the time when weeds start outnumbering plants.  But in modern times May Day has taken on a completely different meaning and is now more closely associated with the rights of workers.  As with most things these days, my naïve memory focuses more on the former than the latter, with recollections of romping around the May Pole when I was in elementary school.  Actually, in Novato, California in the 1950’s we didn’t really have a May Pole.  I’m not even sure we had a Pole.  But each May 1 our rather imaginative teachers would festoon the tetherball post with crepe paper streamers and balloons and we thought it was magical.  We learned to dance around it, weaving under and over each other’s streamers, until we had completely smothered the post with our efforts.  Then we were supposed to reverse ourselves and unwind the streamers but instead it always ended up in a snarled mess.  Somehow through the years, at least in the U.S., we don’t celebrate the traditional way anymore.  Instead, over the past several days I’ve been reading about the “May Day” demonstrations planned for today so I got to wondering how we went from sweetness and light to tear gas.  In our continuing effort to shine some light on these burning questions today’s post is all about that journey.

As with so many of our holidays, May Day began as a pagan festival to celebrate the beginning of summer.  Yes, summer!  Spring started in February so by May everyone was ready to slap on some sunscreen and begin the summer festivities.  As Europe became increasingly Christian, the pagan holiday was dropped but May 1 was still celebrated.  Depending on the country, celebrations included either religious overtones (Catholics devoted the day to the Virgin Mary) or more secular observances, such as the Maypole dance, singing, and…CAKE!  I knew I liked this holiday.  Up until the late Twentieth Century it was also common to celebrate with May Baskets, which would be filled with flowers and perhaps some sweets and left on a neighbors doorstep.  In some cultures,  mostly in Britain, they also crowned a May Queen or the Queen of the May.  I can recall my mother asking me, “Who do you think you are…Queen of the May?” on more than one occasion so I assume the “queen” received very special treatment and probably didn’t have to dry the dishes after dinner. The crowing of the May Queen continues today in most British towns, with young girls donning flower garlands and leading the local May Day parade.  I’m guessing that gives her first spot in the cake line too which would be an added perk to the title.

But now on to the other May Day – commonly known in most parts of the world as International Workers Day.  The two days became intertwined in the late 1880’s.  On May Day 1886,  200,000 U. S. workmen engineered a nationwide strike for an eight-hour day.  The strike in Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned violent when police rushed into the peaceful crowd and a bomb was thrown at them.  Seven policemen died and four of the protesting workers were shot by police.  It was subsequently known as the “Haymarket Affair”.  In 1889 the International Socialist Conference declared that  each May 1 would be observed as a day to honor labor in  remembrance of the workers lost in the Haymarket Affair.  Thus, in many parts of the world today is International Workers Day, or Labor Day, a day of worker solidarity and protest.  Over the past century there have been many protests around the world and in the U.S., most notably in Seattle, which has apparently become famous for coffee and rioting.

No doubt there will be many demonstrations today and hopefully they will all be peaceful.  As for me, I’m going to do my best Queen of the May impression and eat some cake.