Subtitled: My Brother And I
I get mail…
But first, to set the scene:
I was reminded, from the mailer that I am about to comment on, of a quote of some La Raza spokesman, or at least activist, at some rally in L.A. a while back, who said something like:
“Hurry up and die off, you old Gringos. We’re taking over now. We’re outbreeding you too much for you ever to catch us. You’ve had your day. Now it’s OUR turn.”
Well, we’ll see about that, Jose…
As to the mailing:
Coach Lou Holtz, of some national championship football team or other (as I have previously indicated in these pages, I have lived out of the States for many years, and have lost touch with a lot of this sort of thing. Used to be really into it. Football, baseball, and basketball. But to continue), has written to me, from the perspective of his very humble beginnings in this Land of Opportunity, on behalf of the Young America’s Foundation, who do good things for the youth of today, in relation to the Ronald Reagan Ranch and seminars and such held there and elsewhere, “telling the story of America, about free enterprise, and about doing what’s right”. He included a booklet on the Declaration of Independence, titled ‘They Signed for Us,’ about the men who signed that Declaration - and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause - to be distributed to the youth of our day. He mentioned: “Sadly, too many of our high school and college students know very little about the men who founded this nation,” and referred to “the most widely used history textbook in America” being one titled ‘A people’s History of the United States,’ by Howard Zinn, who “calls America’s Founders tyrants in a chapter titled, Tyranny is Tyranny”.
What??! A nation founded to get rid of tyranny? ‘I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man,’ and all that Founding Fathers’ stuff?? A budding nation whose primary Father himself refused to be anointed as a king by an adoring public, because that was the very thing that they were declaring themselves free from. What are they teaching our kids these days???, these termites, with their scheming eyes, trying to take down the last, best hope of earth, because it champions freedom, from such as their attempt to establish a Soviet-style command economy, and total Power Over…
Second grade, and learning the songs of the nation. The Star Spangled Banner, of course (although we never learned the rest of the verses by heart). America, the Beautiful. My Country, ’Tis Of Thee. Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean. (I never understood why America was called Columbia; but never mind. It sounded nice.)…
I grew up pretty much in Norman Rockwell’s America. Even to the point of delivering the Saturday Evening Post (along with Colliers and Good Housekeeping and Better Homes & Gardens) a couple of times for my brother, back when I was in the second grade. He was three years older than I, and already had the makings of an entrepreneur. But more on that later.
I say ‘pretty much’ because - well; example: This was also about the same time as I was playing out in front of the house one afternoon when my mom said it was time to come in for dinner. So far, so normal Americana. Only she called me by my brother’s name. Even as that little kid, I can remember thinking: What’s wrong with my mom? Why can’t she tell the difference between her own kids??1
It probably had something to do with the fact that she had farmed us out to an old couple - who took kids in for various periods of time for their parents - to take care of us when I was just a little tyke, while she went to secretarial school, and before she remarried, and claimed us back into her life. Thus, she didn’t know us all that well in the ‘bonding’ years.
But to the beginning. I spent the first years of my life living in small-town Idaho, first in its capital ‘city’ - Boise - as the little tyke just mentioned above, to halfway through my first year of school, and then in an even smaller town - Payette - through to the end of my second year. That latter period was with the woman who, I was told, was my ‘mother,’ whatever that term meant, precisely. She was the woman who appeared in our lives every once in awhile while we were living with the old couple. I remember once my brother and I going up to this stranger’s second-floor apartment (I just tagged along with my brother on these occasions; he seemed to know what he was doing), where she had ‘hidden’ (to a small extent) some small candy eggs around the place, for us to find. Easter. And another time, when I tagged along with my brother to this small house where this same stranger lady had some Christmas presents for us, under a small tree. No kissing. No cuddling. No touching, even. Just a couple of wrapped presents. And then back ‘home’.
If I ever asked my brother who she was to us, and if he told me, I don’t recall. But I certainly found out - that we ’belonged’ to her - when one day we were dressed up in our Sunday best and went to her wedding, and ended up moving with her and her (new) husband to the small town mentioned above, where the man was the co-owner of the Ford dealership in town.2
And where, in addition to the curious business about her not recognizing me, there was also the curious business of her bringing down to our bedroom in the basement one night a puppy, regarding which one day, upon my return home from school, she met me outside and told me that the puppy was missing, and she had heard a shot in the neighborhood, that it had probably been killed as a stray, and that was the end of that. It was only years later that I realized that we kids must not have done a very good job of house-training the puppy, and she was tired of having to do the deed. But what the heck: I was just a little kid. I had an older brother. He was the one who should have been responsible for such things…
Ah yes. My brother. A character. It took more years for me to find out just how much of a character he was. But he certainly made a good start of it very early on. There was, for example, the time when we were still living with Grandma and Grandpa Coble, and he took me along with him one late afternoon to some house, where he said that we had been invited to a birthday party, and where the lady at the door told us that we had not been invited to his schoolfriend’s birthday party, and closed the door on us. Rather abruptly. It was only later in life that I realized that we were ‘outsiders,’ for not living in a proper family situation. So: my first taste of alienation from the prevailing society.3
Why my brother did those sorts of things, I don’t know, never found out. But he was certainly a self-starter in life, from the git-go. There was the time, while we were living in Payette, that a lady came to the house one day to show our mom something that she thought that Mom should know about. It was a sign that my brother had posted on a tree downtown, outside the movie house, advertising a Big Sale at our house, of a bunch of his and my toys. Not that he had told me about it, either.
But his entrepreneurial spirit finally caught up with him one day, in a rather disfavorable, rather than somewhat ‘cute,’ way. It was when we had moved to southern California - here in Long Beach as I write this; my ‘real’ home town - and I ‘got’ that something was up when somebody had come to visit, and a conversation had been going on in the front room, and my brother came in to our bedroom, with a man and our mom, all of them solemn-faced, and took out something that he had stashed under his mattress, and gave it to the man, and they all then went silently back out to the front room. It turned out that he had stolen a hunting knife from a store downtown. I knew nothing about it; and was stunned at the information.
It was not as if he was a bad kid by nature. He just wanted things. He was always into things to make some money by. He had a paper delivery route while he was living here, for example (which I helped him with).4 But he did have a larcenous streak in him. He may well have considered it just being rambunctious. But it finally got him too far into the hot water (himself) to be able to wriggle out of.
It was some time after our mother had divorced ‘Mac,’5 and had worked long enough - first pumping gas and cleaning windshields at the local Texaco gas station, and then, meeting the right person there, as a secretary/bookkeeper for a pipe and supply company to the oil industry (Signal Hill - full of working oil derricks at the time - was just a hop, skip and a jump away from where we lived) - to be able to buy her own car. (A black Plymouth; which she was very proud of. And rightly so.)6 Unbeknownst even to me (with our bedroom right next to the garage), he - a high-school terror by then, really into the girls - had been slipping her car out at night and going for joyrides. One night he woke me up and told me that he was in trouble - that mom’s boss (whom she was the mistress of; another story) was visiting, and his car was blocking the driveway, and he couldn’t get her car back into the garage, and asked me what I thought he should do. It was very clear to me what he needed to do: he needed to confess to the situation. Which he chose to do. And it ended up with him being sent up north to live with his natural father; mom feeling unable to cope with such a handful of a teenage tear.7
Some years later - with our father unable to handle him, either - she took him back in, but only under the condition that he settle down, and make something of himself. So promises promises; and off to the local junior college he went. With a major in meteorology, I think it was. But unbeknownst to Mom, he was not going to classes, rather was perfecting a scheme to sell a bunch of records - 78s in those days; which he had collected from somewhere or other, as a possible money-splnner - to local radio stations, with a patter about them that he was developing for the announcer. When Mom somehow found out about it. And back up north he was sent.8 Finally to make something of himself, by joining the Air Force, and making training films therein. Which ended up with him trying his luck in Hollywood. And ending up pretty much the same way as our mom: flaming out. And lost his life looking for treasure - literally. Another story.
And more about her.
My mother, as I have indicated, was something of an enigma to me. There was the business of her leaving us, with me still in diapers, and heading off to chance her luck in Hollywood. She never, ever said anything about it. But it obviously figured in her mysterious vacations. After my brother had been kicked out (the first time), and it was just her and me, she would ship me off to ‘Y’ Camp for two weeks in the summer. When I asked her the first time what she did during that time, her reply was, “Well, it’s none of your business.” 9 Well; true. But it was par for the course between us. I learned never to ask her about things regarding her life - like the business about her being the mistress of her boss - and I never bothered telling her about things in my life.10
But - and speaking of the ‘Y’ - I need to give her credit where credit is due. The ‘Y,’ for one. One day - I think I was still in junior high school at the time - she told me that she had taken out a membership for me at it. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. But I found out soon enough, when I went down there for the first time (it was near downtown; we lived in near North Long Beach, a good bus ride away), and discovered that (besides a pool table) they had a basketball court. Two, in fact. I ended up spending hours and hours in those courts, practicing my set shots and layups. It was responsible in no small measure for my ending up becoming All-City, in the ’C’ team class, in my Senior year in high school (and we won our league title; with me as high scorer for the team).
The clarinet lessons that she arranged for me ended up in less spectacular fashion. Not that I knew that she had done the arranging. One day in school - I think I was in the fifth grade at the time - someone took me out of my normal class, saying that they thought I would like to learn a musical instrument (but why??) and handed me over to a lady who was in charge of the school’s small - very small - band, who asked me what instrument I might like to learn to play? Moi?? I didn’t know…the drums??? She thought I might like to learn to play the clarinet; and so it was settled, then. I did actually enjoy learning to play the thing.11 Until the day came when I was asked to play a solo in front of a large - did I mention large?? - audience.
The lessons were from a very classical music-named man, Fred Ohlendorf. I went once a week to another elementary school for the lessons, where he had some other kids playing - practicing - their instruments at the same time; a trumpet, I recall, and a girl on a flute. One day he innocently asked me if I would like to play a solo at some get-together or other. I shrugged acquiescence; and asked him if I would have to learn it by heart. He - still all low-key innocently - said that the other kids would most likely be doing so, but that I could do what best felt comfortable to me. The day before came, and I went to his house to demonstrate my skill. The piece that I had chosen, from the song book that I was taking my lessons from, was ‘La Paloma’ - The Dove. (How could I ever forget…) I used the music, but told him that I was learning it by heart. He looked at me. I was beginning to ‘get’ that that was the thing to do; so when I went home I ran through it a few more times that night before going to bed.
I must have left those run-throughs there, because the next day, when I walked into where the event was being held, which turned out to be in the large auditorium of a junior high school (which I would end up going to), my run-throughs were nowhere to be found. As I was to find out. When it came my turn, and I started to walk up onto the stage - in front of that auditorium entirely full of people - and Mr. Ohlendorf whispered to me inquiry about where my music was. I told him that I had learned it, and proceeded up the stairs, and turning to face
that large auditorium entirely full of people.
And La Paloma flew the coop.
I gave it a couple of tries. But I couldn’t remember the first notes. If I could just get the thing started…
It was no use. I mumbled something about not being able to remember it, and walked down the stairs. To have to pass Mr Ohlendorf to get to my seat, back amongst the sterling students of his.
I realized later that he had talked his way into being paid by the School Board to give lessons to kids whose parents couldn’t afford it, and this was his Big Day to prove the worth of the deal; because those weren’t just the parents of his students in the audience. Those were the taxpayers. Who were paying good money to see a young kid make a fool of himself right - smack - in front - of them.
I made up for that debacle somewhat when I ended up as first chair in the school’s orchestra in my last year there. But as if in assertion of the idea that people should only do what they feel like doing, coming from themselves, not from their parents, I blew it on the last day of school. I had ended up getting an award, from the Lions Club, as ‘the outstanding graduating nine grader,’ and was attending a luncheon in our honor, of the other kids so chosen from their junior highs, which also happened to be on the same day as our orchestra competing citywide. I thought there should be no problem to get from the luncheon to the high school where the competition was being held; but the luncheon dragged on, and on. I finally realized that I was going to have to do something about the matter (what’s with this business of the grownups around me not doing their thing?? Why am I being called on to make decisions about things???), and whispered to my Mom that I thought that I needed to be going. She bought it, and we quickly slipped away - murmuring our apologies - and I changed into my performance uniform on the way. (Me and performances…) The problem was that I didn't know what time our orchestra would be called to go on stage (yes, another stage in my life); they were just moving on and off according, apparently, to draw of numbers. My mom dropped me off outside of the auditorium, and I raced around to the stage entrance, and went in - and discovered that my orchestra had just gone on stage, and the first note of our competition piece was just about to be played.
What do I do.
I let it go.
And interestingly enough, had had a solo in that piece as well. The piece was Scheherezade, and right smack in the middle of it is a clarinet solo, of a main theme of the piece. Which I’m sure that our instructor had in mind when he had chosen that piece for the competition. Because he had tried to get me to play a solo for the citywide competitions previously that year, and I had refused, mindful of my debacle lo, those few years before. It is my assumption that he and Mr. Ohlendorf had talked about my ’case,’ because the good Mr O had come to our school a number of times over the years - obviously, fortunately, not having been fired for having such a ragged lot of students as that kid who couldn’t come up with the bird in the hand when you want one - and was still trying to have something to show for his free-lessons contract.
How could I let such an important role in the competition piece go? Because, fortunately, the kid who was second chair to me was a pushy type, who had even challenged me for first chair during the year. (Our instructor chose tasty with. For what that was worth…) And on that very solo. So I knew that he could do it.
And that was it, for me and my clarinet. Being the last day of school, I didn’t have to face the music (…) with my instructor. And being more interested in sports than orchestra, I didn’t go on into high school with it.
My mom shared with once, after the end of my musical career, that she thought that I could have been “like Artie Shaw”. Such was her ambition for me.
But, alas for her: Not my ambition for myself.12
Just to wrap up my reference to my mother being somewhat enigmatic. Which I have written off as a feature due to her not being there when we were vey small. I just don’t think that she ever got the hang of the role of being a mother. She was more of a caretaker to me. Quietly keeping an eye on me. Trying to do the right thing, as she could apprehend it - the job.
Example. I came home from elementary school one day, at the beginning of a new term, apparently looking a bit down. She asked me what was up. I told her that I wasn’t all that happy with my new class. Whether it was because of the teacher, or the outline of the lesson plan for the year, or what, I don’t recall. All I know is that the next thing I knew was that I had been assigned to another class. I figured out later that she had gone to the principal - who I discovered was a Mason; and she was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, the female arm of the ‘movement’ - and one thing led to another. As they often do.
Especially if they are arranged to.
And so here we are, with some secret-society types arranging for humanity to be taken over by Dark forces. And I won’t have anything to do with it.
Having had enough of that sort of manipulation in my life already.
P.S. Oh - hey - pssst: Jose: This gringo’s Native American blood beats your Spanish conquistador’s blood all the way to hell and back. So, there.
1 That wasn’t the only time that she mixed us up. When she died, her (third) husband sent me a shoebox full of her most personal stuff, to deal with as I chose. Amongst its contents - trinkets, mostly - was an old newspaper clipping, reporting the story of how she had traced down her two children from having been kidnapped by their father. The children, aged 6 and 3, were named - and she had mixed up our names even then.
Pitiful, in a way. As is the fact, as I cottoned on to later, that we were her insurance, for her old age, depending on how things worked out for her, in this life. A life that she certainly wasn’t going to spend in small town, backwater America. Not America, the land of Opportunity. The sky’s the limit! Go for it! is the cry from the heart, of many of its citizens.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Basically. Just that it can become perverted.
But to continue.
2 the ‘McCluer-Manson Motor Co.’, I recall from the big sign above the building. Funny how such things stick in one’s mind. It’s the same with the name of the stove in Grandma Coble’s house (that was what we called her; Grandma and Grandpa Coble. Only they weren’t actually related to us), which was the first word I ever learned to recognize and say out from having spelled out: W-e-s-t-i-ng-h-o-u-s-e.
I know that, because my brother told me so. He also told me that he taught me the alphabet, before I started first grade. Which was undoubtedly why I always felt ahead of the other kids in my class; through much of my school time. But to continue.
3 The rest of such tastes were basically to come from myself: not feeling quite in sync with the kids around me. Their interests were not my interests. They were so - young, somehow. But to continue.
4 In two ways. One was in getting up shortly after he had gone out on it in the early morning hours, and putting on our porridge to start cooking, and setting up our places for breakfast, including having the toast ready to start. The other was that he would often have me do his end-of-the-month collecting for him; making the rounds of his customers on foot. He paid me for it, and occasionally to do his actual run for him as well. We made a good team: I always had spending money, and he always wanted to borrow some of it.
5 We had moved to southern California - or Southern California, as Southern Californiers think of their area - in the summer of ’42, at the end of my second year in school. Our mom had talked Mac into moving down there because ‘there would be good-paying work in the shipyards,’ with WWII in full swing then. She knew about the area because she had moved there when I was still in diapers - my paternal grandmother told me once - to try her hand at getting into the movies. And Mac was her ticket to give it another try. But to continue.
(I know about the conversation between Mac and mom because my brother told me so, from having traced Mac down many yeas later, to say hello, and thank him for being our father for at least a little while. He was still living in the general area, with his next wife. I don’t know or recall what kind of work he had ended up in. I met him through and with my brother sometime after my brother’s first visit with him. He was quiet; always the quiet one. A nice guy. But our mother had other plans.)
6 Later in our life together she got a Buick. That was a bit ‘topline’ for her monthly income. (Part of the reason why I got a top scholarship to go to Stanford was because of her meager income.) But it was the two-holer one. That year, or time period, they had two-, three-, or four-holer models. (Holes alongside the hood. For, it turned out, no reason but styling.) But still, a Buick was a Buick. She was always very conscious of such things. I remember -
well. To continue.
7 Also because about that time he had offended her terribly when she felt he was spending too much time on the phone with one of his girlfriends and tried to take the phone away from him and hang it up and he reflexively hit out at her. Not a wise move, to the hand that feeds you, as it were.
8 Being accused of being “just like your father, with your head in the clouds”. Our father having earned the negative accolade for wanting to go to BYU (Brigham Young University; in Provo, Utah. Where I was born, shortly before all this action) when married to Mom, to better himself (and for his family, of course), while she had to work in a cafe associated with a gas station. She, who some customer at the cafe likened once to ‘What’s that Hollywood actress’s name - de Havilland, that’s it. Olivia de Havilland.’ Which was what triggered our mom to ditch small-town America - and us - and head for Hollywood.
Speaking of her looks: She told me once, for a class exercise on genealogy, that we had some American Indian blood in us. That her grandmother (or great-grandmother; I forget which) looked just like a full-blooded Indian. That we were “descended from an Indian princess”.
More likely a farmhand.
P.S. Her hair was long enough for her to sit on it. She always kept it up in a braid that she wrapped ‘round her head. When she was dying, from breast cancer, and the chemo knocked all her hair out, it was a particularly bitter pill that she had to swallow to wear a wig.
An experience a bit more bitter than the one when I tried to give her some alternative-medicine advice (which I had become well-versed in by then) about her condition (including sending her a book by a female doctor on the general subject of cancer), and her written reply to me was, “Why should I listen to you. You never went to medical school.” Ouch.
Hey Mom - I had other things to do than what you wanted me to. Had to make my own way in life.
9 I found out later (long story) that she went to some place where she had found out that some Hollywood stars hung out around the swimming pool (Doris Day was one of them, I recall), and she was hoping to be ‘spotted’ as a de Haviland look-alike. Never happened. But hey - the Land of Opportunity, and all that! You will never never know if you never never go, as they say. Or something like that.
10 I hadn’t realized that I hadn’t told her that I had been elected as Student Body President for the concluding semester of my Senior year in high school until she happened to find out about it from one of my friends one day, well into my reign.
11 My mom got me the metal kind. A few years later, one summer when we kids were up visiting with our paternal grandparents and dad (and his wife and baby daughter by her), he bought me a ‘proper’ black wooden kind, aka licorice stick. One day when I was practicing in my room back at Mom’s, she asked me, quietly, what happened to the clarinet that she had gotten for me. I told her what had happened; that it got traded in for the one that Dad got me. I was able to explain that “he wanted to do something for me” before she left the room; and nothing was ever said on the subject again.
As I say: We didn’t communicate much. She lived her life. And I lived mine.
And I will refrain telling about what happened between us when I dropped out of university, and before I moved out, to go live in New York City and begin the next chapter in my life. In my life. Some things are best left unsaid.
12 And as for being fair about her: She put me in Cub Scouts as well. Which I enjoyed. And I went on into Boy Scouts from there on my own. For a short while. Until I hit high school; when I became too busy with other things to carry on with that activity.
But it was a good experience. Speaking of Americana. And attitudes. And lasting impressions in life.
And - at the end of the day - the good life.
In many ways.
And not so much in some.