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.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Stephanie, Dana and Kristin

My brother has a backyard that should be the envy of every tropical resort in Hawaii.  No further proof is needed when you see his new profile picture on Facebook.  There he is, sitting under his palapa, amid lush greenery, holding a drink that has an umbrella on it.  Perfection!  I know that he and his family enjoy their back yard immensely (and why wouldn’t they?!) but last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a baby shower there that was, by far, the best celebration I’ve attended in the “Sparrow Tropical Gardens”.  Bob’s daughter, Dana, is eight months pregnant with her first child.  For those of you regular readers, you may recall that Dana is the one that has had multiple heart surgeries.  Three, to be precise.  So this baby was not easily come by and is all the more precious for it.   Last weekend Bob’s other daughter, Stephanie, and their best friend Kristin, hosted a baby shower for Dana and turned that verdant backyard into a pink, white and gray elephant-themed wonderland that should be on Pinterest.   The theme for the baby’s room is elephants. I didn’t realize that elephants were so popular until I went shopping and discovered that they are a thing.  There are elephant diaper bins, pacifiers, wash cloths, murals and pretty much everything else imaginable.  In my opinion, the best elephant in the room last weekend was the cake, a magnificent confection of fondant and icing.  It was truly a work of art and I worried that no one would want to cut into it.  But luckily Stephanie is  a girl after my own heart, who knows that good cake always takes precedence over art, as she sliced right through it.

                The Elephant Cake

There is something about baby showers that is so positive and up-lifting.  Not that wedding showers aren’t also full of hope, but I have the say the last one I attended had a group of women off to the side taking the over/under on how long the marriage would last.  Babies, though, are their own little miracles so we are all very excited about the new baby girl that will be here in a few weeks.   I love these family events, especially because we don’t get together all that often.  Certainly not as much as we’d like.  I loved watching Stephanie prepare everything with so much detail and Dana laugh and have fun with each of her guests.  It seems like just yesterday that we were celebrating them coming into the world.  How did they get older when I didn’t?!  The whole event was spectacular, and true to form, I celebrated by eating TWO pieces of the elephant cake.  Just to be polite, of course.

I suppose every family enjoys these milestone rituals, where we all stop to take stock of where we are in the circle of life.  Which brings me to the other elephant in the room – the realization that my brothers and I are now at the top of the heap, generationally speaking.  I’ve heard people describe this as being in the family “penthouse” or at the top of the escalator.  No matter how it’s described, being the oldest generation brings with it lots of memories and a great deal more sentimentality.  So between my heightened status and all of the comments I received last week about getting rid of things, I had a revelation.  It dawned on me that I would be seeing all three of Bob’s  children over the weekend.  I thought about the family heirloom jewelry sitting in my safe deposit box, earmarked for them upon my death.  How silly!  Why wait until I’m gone to pass these things along?  So I traipsed down to the bank, pulled it all out, and then wrote each of them a letter about the provenance of each piece, the oldest dating back to 1892 and the newest to the 70’s.  So once the shower was over and it was just family and a few very close family friends, I read each of them the letter as I gave them their pieces.  Although there was not great monetary value to any of them, the sentimental factor was very high and they all appreciated knowing “the rest of the story” behind each one.  On the flight home I felt such a sense of peace – seeing their reactions to receiving these family touchstones was a highlight of my life.  Their tears and smiles made a lasting memory that I will treasure forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NO ONE WANTS OUR STUFF

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Mom’s 1962 spinning wheel lamp

Four years ago when our mother died we had the task of cleaning out her one bedroom apartment.  We were so naïve we assumed that five of us could wrap it up in an afternoon and then spend the rest of the weekend partaking in some of Sonoma’s great food and wine.   After all, she lived in a retirement home where she received all of her meals – thus no laborious kitchen utensils, pots or dishes to pack.  We figured we’d just clean out her personal effects and arrange for someone to haul away the furniture.  Piece of cake.  Two days later we had filled 55 huge black garbage bags with stuff.   Our mom, who never struck us as a pack rat, had held on to every piece of paper she received and every photo ever taken.  Her five-drawer filing cabinet was crammed with both necessary documents and complete trash, the most striking of which was a drawer half-filled with address labels listing her former address.  She kept photos of undocumented scenery, made worse by fuzzy Polaroid technology, along with old pictures of relatives who were completely unrecognizable to us.  When the last of her 1962 maple furniture was mercifully taken away by her church thrift store, we fell into an exhausted heap and vowed to go home and immediately clean out our closets.

           Dust Collectors

Apparently we are not alone in this endeavor.  According to articles in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and several other publications, Baby Boomers are now dealing with getting rid of their parents’ possessions and simultaneously trying to downsize their own households.  The problem is…no one wants our stuff.  Our parents, shaped by the Depression and war, held on to everything.  They passed on those same values to us – to be grateful for anything that comes our way.  Especially if it’s free.  My first apartment was completely furnished with my grandmother’s furniture and I was thrilled to get it.  Now, the Gen X’ers and Millennials can cheaply outfit their living spaces with furniture from IKEA, Target or Walmart and achieve the clean, uncluttered look they desire.  Collectively they are rejecting knick knacks, sterling silver tea sets, figurines and power tools.  Instead, they take a picture of the item with their iPhone and keep it in the cloud.  Digital images don’t take up the space that old mahogany breakfronts do in a lifestyle that is mobile and  transient.  As a result, one of the fastest growing businesses in America is junk-removal services.  I shudder to think how some of my friends who collect things will react when their kids finally inherit their treasured accumulation of clowns, thimbles, and Corning Wear.  I hate to tell them that it’s all going to end up on eBay.

   Lenox Tuxedo for $5

So, back to my own resolve to keep the house clutter-free.  Last year I finally threw away my childhood scrapbook, a Junior Miss trophy, and my wedding dress.  I realized these items held sentimental value to me but were totally worthless to anyone else.  I’d rather throw them away myself than make someone else do it.  My latest idea is to get rid of my china, crystal and silver.  After all, my “good stuff” requires I cook a meal commensurate with its formality.  About a year ago I dragged it all out and had a sophisticated dinner party – beef tenderloin, hasselback potatoes, green beans almandine – the whole nine yards.  Between setting up the table and cooking the dinner, I ended up practically asleep in my soup, or wine – it all became a blur.  It was a bad night.  Clearly my formal entertaining days are over.  I contacted Replacements, the huge company that buys and sells fine china, about selling my Lenox Tuxedo.  They informed me they aren’t even buying the cup and saucers anymore but would give me $5 for the dinner, salad and bread/butter plates.  Not each – $5 TOTAL!  In turn, they are selling the same 1974 version of my pattern for $110.  That’s a profit that might even make the bankers my brother wrote about last week feel a bit like, well, bank robbers.  As for the crystal, a good friend just tried to sell hers and she told me not to bother.  She contacted a company that sells fine crystal on consignment and they admitted to her that they hadn’t sold ANY crystal in months.  “Nobody wants this stuff anymore”, he explained.  She’s now decided to use it everyday, figuring that if it gets broken or chipped it really isn’t worth anything anyway.

I do worry a bit about our collective valuables being so easily discarded by future generations.  I think the stories and family histories that are connected with these items should carry some weight.  I love that I have some of my grandmother’s crystal and think of her every time I see it.  But my brothers and I are the only people who remember her so the value to the next generation is not as dear.  I don’t know where it will end up but I will take a page from the millennials and capture it in a photo before I give it away.  After all, I love looking at the photo of our mom’s precious 1962 spinning wheel lamp, thinking about how proud she was the day she brought it home.  On the other hand, I’m glad it’s now in the cloud and not in my living room.

THE LUCK O’ THE IRISH

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Are you sober yet?  If you’re like millions of Americans you celebrated St. Patrick’s Day last Friday by consuming some spirits in honor of the occasion.  Some of us are genuinely of Irish extraction but on St. Patrick’s Day everyone is Irish.  Simply donning a green hat or sporting shamrock underwear gives the wearer some implicit permission to get toilet-hugging drunk.  There actually are a lot of Americans with Irish bloodlines – 37 million to be exact.  That’s 12% of the population, ranking just behind Germany in most frequently reported ancestry.  Heck, we have eight times the number of Irish than Ireland itself!   Which is probably as good an explanation as any as to why the holiday is so much more popular here than in Ireland.  Twenty years ago my husband’s cousin from Scotland came to San Francisco on business and we met him for dinner near our workplaces.  Unfortunately, the only night he had available was St. Patrick’s Day and to further the problem, we worked right around the corner from Harrington’s Bar and Grill.   We met at a nearby restaurant that required our cousin to walk from his hotel right by Harrington’s front door.  Or as close to the front door as he could get.  There are a lot of Irish in San Francisco and they seemingly all gather at Harrington’s each year to celebrate the patron saint.  When he finally navigated his way to the restaurant he was wild-eyed and I think just the tiniest bit shell-shocked.  He stammered, “What is with you Americans and St. Patrick’s Day?”  Well, it turns out, we practically invented the holiday.

 

 

Since around the ninth or 10th century, people in Ireland have been observing the Roman Catholic feast of St. Patrick on March 17.  But the first parade held in honor of St. Patrick’s Day took place in the United States.  On March 17, 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City.  The parade, along with their native music, helped the soldiers reconnect with their Irish roots and fellow countrymen.  Over the next three decades numerous groups formed to celebrate Irish heritage, each sponsoring a parade on St. Patrick’s Day.  By the mid-1800s the groups combined forces into what is now known as the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the largest in the country and the oldest civilian-sponsored parade in the world.

 

Of course, all that marching is exhausting so finding a good pub to quench one’s thirst became part of the day’s tradition.  Some people take pride in finding good Irish pubs wherever they go, regardless of the time of year.  In fact, although I won’t mention names, someone I’m related to that also writes for this blog fashions himself a connoisseur of Irish drinking establishments.  He is the only person I know who could trek all the way to Machu Picchu and find an authentic Irish pub in which to have a Guinness.  But he is far from alone.  What is this obsession so many have with the Irish?  I’ve read more than one article claiming the Irish are the most beloved ethnic group in the world.  Of course, part of that affection is tied to the “happy drunk” reputation, but in fact it goes further than that.  The Irish are deemed to be some of the most sentimental souls on Earth.  One need only read the famous Irish poets to understand the truth of that.  The Irish are also known world-wide for their sense of humor and dry wit.  Oscar Wilde, the noted Irish writer, filled our world with his bon mots.  One of my favorites is:  “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.  People are either charming or tedious”. George Carlin was perhaps one of the funniest comedians ever with his wry observations of everyday life and Melissa McCarthy is a talented entertainer (come on, that bathroom scene in Bridesmaids is a classic!).  The Irish also have the ability to write lyrically and capture an audience, despite sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts.  One of my favorite sayings, told to me by an Irish friend who was wound-up in the middle of a fantastical yarn, is “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.  My brother and I have at times adopted that as our motto.

 

There’s also the famous saying “Luck of the Irish”, although I have discovered that the phrase started as a derisive jab at the Irish immigrants who came to America in the late 1800’s.  It originated in the gold and silver mines to describe the Irish who found their “pot of gold” and became rich and successful.  The Irish were never given full credit for their accomplishments.  Instead it was widely believed that the “Irish fools” had gained fortune only by sheer luck, as opposed to brains and hard work.  Our only full-blooded Irish ancestor, Julia Stack Billiou, came to America during this period but as you might recall from my last post, she was not lucky in any sense of the word, having been shot by her Chinese cook.  Nevertheless, her immigration gives our family claim to Irish heritage and provides cover for our love of good writing, a stout beer, and a strong Irish Coffee.  I call that lucky indeed!

 

 

 

THE FLOOZIE, THE FELON AND FAKE NEWS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Last week I was researching the history of Pulga, a small town in Northern California, for some copy I’m writing for their website.  As it happens, this town is very close to Willows, where our dad’s family settled in 1829.  Our dad was born and raised there and the land is still owned and ranched by members of our extended family.  When I wrote our family history six years ago I discovered that we had something of a colorful past – our great-great grandmother, Julia Billiou, was murdered while sitting at her dining table.  That’s not something you find on Ancestry every day.

When I was writing our history I was lucky enough to connect with a third cousin (I think twice removed but I can never keep that stuff straight) who had a treasure trove of information about Julia and her husband, Joseph Billiou, including copies of the newspaper accounts of her murder.  The local papers in Oroville and Chico reported that the Billiou’s 16 year-old Chinese cook, Hong Di, burst out of the kitchen on the night of April 7, 1887 and in a drunken rage, shot the ranch foreman, William Weaver, in the shoulder.  He then shot Julia as she rose from the table, striking her directly in the heart and killing her instantly.  Our great-grandmother, Annie, was shot at three times, but by that point Hong’s aim was a bit off and he missed her each time.  Hong ran from the ranch, hiding in the brushes near the local creek for three days until he was caught and brought to trial.  The jury found him guilty, but instead of the normal death sentence for a murder, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

It would be a vast understatement to say that the verdict did not go down well with the local townspeople.  Before the judge and jury had even left the courtroom there was shouting from the gallery calling for Hong’s lynching.  The mayor called out the posse to guard the jail that night but a raucous band of 200 vigilantes stormed the facility.  They found the cell in the basement where Hong was detained and demanded a full confession.  This confession is what was reported in the local papers – that he’d imbibed in too much whiskey and that he didn’t mean to kill Julia as she had been kind to him.  Nevertheless, the vigilantes dragged him down the street to the train turnstile and hung him.  According to the papers, there was great celebration that night over the “justice” that was carried out.  None of the vigilantes were ever arrested for their actions.

Joseph Billiou – jerk or jilted?

Fast forward to last week when I was doing research on Pulga.  I decided as long as I was studying the local area I’d Google Julia’s murder to see if there was anything I’d missed.  It turned out to be a lesson in “be careful what you wish for” because there was new information and it did not reflect well her.  A recently published book about lynching in California has a full page devoted to Julia’s murder and Hong’s hanging. The author wrote that both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Sacramento Bee published the FULL account of Hong’s confession while the local papers chose not to run the full story because it “impinged on the good character of one of the town’s most beloved citizens”.  To say the least. It turns out that a couple of months prior to the murder, while Mr. Billiou was in San Francisco on business, Hong stumbled upon Julia and Mr. Weaver in a “compromising position” up in the hay loft when Joseph was out of town.  Mr. Weaver threatened Hong with death if he told Mr. Billiou about the affair when he returned to the ranch.  Hong’s full confession also stated that his real target was Weaver and that he had great affection for Julia because she taught him to read and write English.  So in that spring of 1887 I think it’s safe to say that tensions were running a little high in the household.  Julia was cheating on her husband, the ranch foreman was fooling around with the boss’s wife, and the cook was scared of being killed at any moment.

These new revelations have me taking a second look at Julia.  Her track record for fidelity wasn’t so great to begin with.  Shortly after she arrived in Willows from Ireland she was engaged to Joseph’s brother, Michael.  When Joseph arrived in California to join Michael, Julia broke off the engagement and married Joseph.   That had to make for an awkward Thanksgiving.  Then at age 50 – which was like 100 in 1887 – she has a fling with the ranch foreman.  Maybe Joseph was a real jerk and she could only find true love with Mr. Weaver.  She took her secrets to the grave, not even leaving a photograph of herself behind, so she’ll forever remain an enigma.

All I know is that I will never again look at all those prim and proper women in my family tree in the same way.

 

MY HOBBY IS … SLEEPING?

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

I have been knitting since I was 14 years old.  It is a passion that has held me in good stead through my youthful dating years (more sweaters knit for undeserving boyfriends than I can count), marriage, divorce, singledom again, and re-marriage.  I have turned to knitting in good times and bad and the craft has not only provided me warmth and some Zen-like moments, but a whole host of friends with like-minded interests.  Only someone who also has a passion can understand the joy of immersing yourself in a hobby and learning everything you can about it.  I came to that realization a few years ago when I hosted a dinner party with people who also had a passion for something.  One guest was having a long conversation with a man about her horse show experiences when she suddenly said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.  I’m sure I’m boring you to death with this stuff.”  To which he replied, “No, I get it.  I love racing cars.  So while I don’t understand the horse show particulars, I can relate to anyone who has a passion.”  I’ve never forgotten that moment.  It was when I realized that it was less important what my hobby was than the fact that I had one, even if some people think of it as a “grandma” sport.

As I gave more thought to hobbies I decided it might be interesting to see how other people choose to spend their time – what tickles the imagination or gets people wound up.  I found the latest Harris Poll on the subject and the answer is so discouraging that I wish I could “un-know” it.  First of all, there is a wide definition of what constitutes a hobby.  For example, the number one hobby in the United States is reading.  Okay, I get that reading could be a hobby, especially if you are researching or have a particular interest in a subject matter.  But “reading” also included romance novels and magazines which, frankly, sound more like something one would do in the bathtub or while waiting for the clothes to come out of the dryer.  But at least “reading” has some virtue to it which was comforting because the second most popular hobby is “watching television”.  Wow.  Under that definition everyone who sits on a Barco lounger eating Doritos and drinking Miller Lite is taking part in their hobby.  I know people who have gotten divorced over one spouse spending too much time with their “hobby” during football season.

Gardening and fishing are also very popular, depending on the region of the country you live in, but “Computer” beat them both out.  I’d like to think that some people listed that as a pastime because they are learning about programming or graphic design.  I think the reality is that people are watching cat videos on You Tube or playing endless games of Candy Crush.  “Shopping” cracked the Top 15 in terms of hobbies but that also seems like cheating to me.  I think shopping falls into two categories:  1) things that are necessary like work clothes and groceries or 2) stuff we don’t need but buy because we’re bored/lured by a sale/haven’t hit the limit on the credit card yet.  Housework and sleeping were also on the list, which again, seem to be skirting the real definition of a hobby.  For many years my former company asked people to list their hobbies on the employment application and I can tell you that not once did anyone list “sleeping”, although we later found out the hard way that it was, in fact, their strong suit.

I’m glad that I have my knitting to sustain me.  I have a walk-in closet full of yarn and feel quite confident that in the event of a nuclear holocaust I will be able to remain in my home and entertain myself for weeks on end.  I have recently purchased a knitting machine which, despite how it sounds, is an entirely different craft and is keeping my feeble brain exercised in trying to master it.  Another reason I’m glad I knit is that I also golf.  As any golfer knows, the very act of swinging the club wreaks havoc on just about every body part.  So, as my knitter-golfer friends like to say, golfers who have no other passion are just one bad back – or rainy day – away from having nothing to do.  Maybe those guys on the PGA should learn how to knit.

WE PLAN, GOD LAUGHS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

This blog was supposed to be about Santa Fe.  I had planned a trip there last weekend to attend a birthday bash for one of my closest friends.  I planned to eat a lot, drink too much and soak in the sites.  I planned to roast her with a birthday tribute and re-connect with old friends.  Those were my plans.  But on the Tuesday prior to the event the honoree’s 45 year-old daughter died of a pulmonary embolism. Suddenly, our plans changed.  Instead of flying off for a fun, celebratory weekend in Santa Fe, we were boarding a plane to Chicago to attend funeral services.  Oh, how quickly our lives can change.

As we reach “senior status” it becomes more common to experience loss.  In the last five years both my brother and I have lost our mother and our childhood best friend.  Numerous friends have lost spouses or are supporting them through life-changing illnesses.  Somehow we expect to encounter these events as we grow older.  But losing a 45 year-old, in the prime of her life, happily married and with a 12 year-old daughter just seems so wrong.  It is wrong.   And it is a good reminder that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.

That notion was hammered home to me many years ago when a friend lost her husband to cancer at an early age.  After his diagnosis she lamented, “I think about all the hours I stayed at the office doing busy work when I could have gone home.  I wish I had those hours back.”  Her sincere regret about her prioritization had a profound affect on me.  After that I never spent more time at work than I needed to.  I resisted the “how late did you work last night?” competition that seemed to pervade every workplace.  I had seen first-hand the downside of that game.  It was a good – if painful – lesson on making sure those around us know how important they are.  It’s why, as sappy as it sounds, I never leave the house without telling my husband that I love him and I end each day by telling Dash the Wonder Dog how much I appreciate all that he does for us.  Dogs don’t live nearly as long as they should.  But then again, neither do some very good people.

My friend’s life is forever changed and those who care about their family are also struggling to make some sense of it.  I think most people when faced with these horrible events take some stock.  It’s a good reminder that we can’t take anything for granted.  All of our checklists, day planners and to-do lists can be just wishful thinking.  And it’s a wake-up call (at least for me) on how we spend time.  It’s too easy to get sucked into surfing the internet on the iPad or watching dog videos.  It’s also worth remembering that not all things – or all people – are worth our time.  We need to make each day count, spent with people and activities than enrich, rather than detract.  For me the only small way that I can think of to pay tribute to a life lost too soon is to cherish every day I’m given and live it to the fullest.

Rest in peace, dear Staci D’Ancona Levy.

 

ONCE UPON A MATTRESS

By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

 

We bought a new mattress last week.  For those of you who have not ventured into the nightmare that is mattress shopping I have one piece of advice – DON”T.  We put off buying one as long as we could but my aching back required some relief.  Thus began the “mattresses shopping experience”.  I have to admit, a lot has changed since we bought our last mattress 17 years ago.  The Mattress Manufacturers Association suggests you buy a new one every 8-10 years.  So we were a little overdue.  We did buy one of those foam mattress toppers about eight years ago which over time has developed a decidedly large hump down the middle.  It looks like we’re trying to hide an elephant.  My husband has been perfectly comfortable with this situation but I think “the hump” was getting to him too.

So on a rainy Sunday afternoon we traipsed down to our local mattress store.  I did a bit of research ahead of time – I was not going to let some slick salesman bamboozle me into buying more mattress than I needed.  I was under the naïve impression that reading Consumer Reports would protect me from being the lamb going to slaughter.  I was wrong.  The first thing I learned is that there is a very wide variety of mattresses out there – coil, hybrid, foam, pillow top, gel, water, memory foam, and latex.  If you’re interested in buying a horsehair mattress for $100,000 that’s available too.  It’s a dizzying array and then to make matters worse, once you decide on the type of mattress you then have to zero on the “firmness”.  Ah…and there’s the rub, so to speak.  What is firm to one person is soft to the next.  What is firm for one brand is medium-firm for another.  We found ourselves flopping down on mattresses like flounder on a ship’s deck.  And this is probably the place to mention that lying on a bed with your spouse, trying to replicate your actual sleeping positions while a salesman looms over you, is quite awkward.  Only to be outdone when the salesman puts you on a mattress with a moveable foundation.  There we were, lying on the mattress with him at the end of the bed wielding the remote control like a mad scientist.  Our legs and feet and shoulders were moving all over the place.  Then he started the massage feature.  I hated it.  It had all the soothing qualities of those massage beds you used to find in cheap hotels where you inserted a quarter and the mattress jumped around for five minutes.  But I must say I loved the idea of being able to sit up while reading in bed.  And the salesman, assessing our age, also noted helpfully that if one of us was ever incapacitated the mechanics of the bed would help us get out and on our feet easier.  We could choose from dual mattresses with individual controls or one big mattress.  And that’s where we ran into problems.  How would we handle Dash?

Despite my early intentions that our dog would never sleep on the bed, Dash and my husband conspired against me.  Dash now has a full-size pillow right between us at night.  I have to admit, I love hearing his breathing and he is always cuddling so now I wouldn’t think of kicking him out.  My husband has gone so far as to say he’d kick me out before the dog.  It’s always nice to know your station in life.  But…back to the mattress.  The problem with dual control is that there is a huge split down the middle of the bed – right where Dash sleeps.  The one big mattress with one control is – in my opinion – just another way to fight with your spouse.  Since everything moves at once you have to be in perfect agreement about when to stop reading so you can lower the bed.  I don’t know about your house but in ours we seldom turn off the light at the same time.  So all I could envision were endless arguments about bed raising/lowering and we have enough trouble just agreeing on the thermostat setting.

After trying out so many beds we were as confused as when we walked in.  I discovered that testing mattresses is a lot like wine tasting – after a while you have a tough time distinguishing between them.  Finally, we were, in fact, bamboozled by the salesman’s pitch and purchased the Tempurpedic mattress that can sense our body temperature, understand our pressure points, and adapt to our weight (good luck with that, buddy!).  It was twice the price of my first new car.  They will be delivering it this week and all I can say is – I hope Dash is happy.