About the middle of the third grade, the tropical islands of the Pacific began to take on a special meaning for me. Someone gave me a book for Christmas, a wonderful book, one I read from cover to cover during the bitter cold New York winter of 1940, not once but three whole times. What a book it was for an eight-year-old! What a contrast with that miserable winter!
I should have called this column, “Down the hatch!” Why? When you first read it you may find it hard to swallow. You may even think I’m pulling your leg. But I’m not. I swear I am not. Even though it seems impossible, this really happened. Did it ever! When it comes to things that happened during my lifetime, and were close enough to where I was living at the time for me to feel it had happened right next door, it tops the list. And yet I’ve never met anyone who has heard of it. Never! How can that be?
A couple of months ago I was posting a comment on a string on the online forum I do for the Roundup. The string was about card playing. We were talking about whether or not anyone plays cards anymore, and the word “card” triggered an old memory. Back when I was a kid a popular brand of bubble gum came in a flat package about two-and-half-by-three inches square. In each package of bubble gum came a trading card. All the cards I saved had baseball players on them, but there may have been other sports in those packages too. It was a long time ago. I don’t remember.
Some people seem to have life all planned out by the time they get out of diapers. I keep reading about them all the time: Writers who wanted to write the minute they saw their first crayon; mathematicians who were doing algebra problems while the rest of us were trying to learn the multiplication tables; musicians playing the violin while they were too young to spell do, re, mi, and fa; and kids who were playing doctor with all the neighborhood girls by the time they were 6. Well, that last group may not have been planning a career, though many of them no doubt found a lifetime hobby. On the other hand, come to think of it ...
I admit it. When it comes to certain aspects of doctors and hospitals, I have more questions than answers. Not about anything serious, you understand. I know as much as I want to know about the serious stuff. I try not to worry about it. My experience over the years has been that those who worry about their health too much often end up having good reasons for doing it. Reminds me of an old story: Charlie and the Tofu. You ever heard that one, Johnny? No? You sure? The one about the fellow who could not stand his wife after they’d been married a couple of years because he’d gotten hooked on all that great health food and she refused to have anything to do with it?
I intended this to be a single column, but it seems to have grown to three on its own. I’m amazed. It’s all about a couple of simple places Lolly and I shared, but then they’re places that are so strongly engraved in our memories we just can’t forget them. I suppose the truth is that we are remembering each other in those houses more than we are remembering the houses themselves. And the kids too, of course, not to mention some great friends and neighbors who helped give those places a special meaning for us. What, after all, makes a house something to remember? People, of course. People — and the joy they bring with them.
Last week I started to tell you about the very first home Lolly and I ever shared. We still both remember it well, even though we just celebrated our 51st wedding anniversary. I also mentioned the apartment we lived in while we were trying to find that first home. We stayed in the apartment for about five months. It was OK, I guess, but it was probably a good thing we stayed there first because I needed a little basic training in living on what was called the “local economy.”
No matter how many houses we live in, there are always a couple or three of them we just can’t forget. The reason is plain enough, I suppose. When we think of them it’s not as “the house in Karachi,” or “the house on Okinawa.” It’s “our house in Karachi,” or “our little place on Okinawa.” It’s the “our” that counts. I’ve lived in a lot of houses, but I had no idea how many until I sat down to count them. I made a rough guess and decided it was perhaps two dozen, so when I came up with a total of 39 I thought I had made a mistake. And I was right! About being wrong, I mean.
Back when I was a preteen, I met a kid named Jerry Davis, who soon became one of the best friends I ever had. Jerry and his family moved next door while I was in the eighth-grade and we did a lot of crazy things together over the next few years. I’ve never mentioned Jerry to you before because what happened to him is not something I like to think about. But today, out of love for an old friend who got less out of life than he deserved, and out of a sense of duty that impels me to tell you a story I believe everyone needs to hear, I’m going to tell you about something that should never have happened.
Last week I mentioned a day in 1966 when my brother Frank phoned me on Okinawa and asked me to “pick up a little something” for him. But when I realized the “little something” cost more than $2,000 I told Frank it was too steep for me. “Huh,” he said. “Doesn’t seem like much. How are you doing?” I always chuckle when I tell somebody what Frank said when I told him I was barely making $5,000. “Well, that’s not bad. That’s about what I make.” Trouble is, I was talking about $5,000 a year and he was talking about $5,000 a week. Needless to say, after we got done laughing, he no longer expected me to saunter out and slap down $2,000 on the things he needed.
Back in 1966 I got a phone call all the way from the States to Okinawa from Frank, my next-to-oldest brother. He needed some things made over there on the island where I was stationed, so he called me about it. It took only a few minutes to tell me what he wanted, and I knew exactly where to buy them — a set of end tables and a coffee table made there on Okinawa, ones I had seen. Made of precious woods imported from the jungles of Southeast Asia, they were carved over an inch and a half deep and beautifully hand finished. But there was a minor glitch.
Before I moved over here from Texas in 1983, I had a chat with a friend about the spot where I am typing this column — the Rim Country. He knew we were moving to Arizona and I happened to mention that some day we planned to retire “in the Rim Country.” “Oh, you’re making a terrible mistake,” he told me. “You’ll get sick of it in a rush. No one can live in a place like that.” “No one can live in the Rim Country?”
I just got another one of those “Serving You In Every Way” letters from a company I do business with. You know the letters I mean? The ones that check to see if you’ve changed anything so they can charge you more? It makes the fourth one so far this year, and its only February. I suppose there will be more of them. This one came from a company I have been doing business with since 1998. Now I know that’s only 14 years, but I’d like to think that by now they know me well enough to guess that at my age I am unlikely to change a whole lot.
Last week I wondered why we remember some unimportant things so well. I swear! I remember some things that any sane person would forget. But I forgot to mention something: There are other things I remember that seem equally unimportant, but I know why I remember them. They only seem unimportant. They really aren’t. I thought it might help if I mentioned a couple of them to you and let you sort things out. I’ve given up trying.
There isn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that if I could do the impossible — make a list of all the things I don’t remember — it would stretch from Pine to Payson. Or maybe even Pine to Tokyo. But there are some things, Johnny ... Even if I tried, I could not get rid of some of the things stuck in my head. And what gets me is the fact that most of them are totally unimportant. Why do most of the routine things that happen to us fade away, while others stick around forever? In case you think I have the answer, I don’t.
I often used to wonder why the Rim Country felt so familiar to me. Then I finally figured it out. It’s so simple that I wonder why it never occurred to me before: It’s because the Rim Country reminds me so much of the places where I grew up. All right, Johnny. I know what you’re thinking. “Huh? Here’s someone who grew up in New York City, and in a small Connecticut town back on the East Coast. And he says the Rim Country reminds him of those places? How can that be?” Easy. Kids don’t see places the same way adults do. I don’t know if they see the big picture and we miss it, or if it’s the other way around, but what we see and what the kids see are two very different things. What would you see if you went to Staten Island or New London? Buildings. Roads. Cars. Buses. People. Stores. Right? Sure you would. Kids would too. But ... There’s always a but, isn’t there, Johnny? But those things were no more my world when I was a kid than the Beeline Highway, Main Street, carloads of weekenders, and the shopping malls are Payson to the kids who live here.
As much as I hate to say it, there are people in this world who would be a lot better off in almost any job except the one they have. I’ve run into a few of those in my time, and something tells me I’m not the only one. I’ve often wondered about that, haven’t you? Just about everybody is good at something, so why do some people stay in a job that is so-o-o-o wrong for them? Why not go do something you’re good at? Could it be that some people don’t know how bad they are at what they’re doing? Is that possible? Even when it’s as obvious as a dead rat floating in the gravy boat? I mean, if you’re a brain surgeon, your hand shakes, you cut your own finger during your junior high frog dissection, and you tend to forget what it was you started out to do, I would think that sooner or later you’d realize you picked the wrong career. But not some folks I guess. Not one I knew anyway.
Last week I mentioned how I was transferred to Sheppard AFB, Texas, as a drill instructor, where I met Chance Davis, a really great friend and one of the oddest ducks on the planet. To this day I cannot remember anything that Chance ever did that he did not do perfectly. He was the finest marksman I have ever known, had a command voice that sounded like the crack of a rifle, and never took on anything without doing it to perfection. I can even remember a time when he shook me up while I was I was drawing a plan for a new building in the squadron area. It wasn’t an official plan, just a rough plan showing what we wanted. I was erasing a stray pencil line and getting ready to turn it in when Chance’s favorite remark sounded over my shoulder. “Gar-r-r-r-ett!” He said that a lot, Johnny.
I had been transferred to Sheppard AFB down in Texas to work in what the Air Force called Phase Two Basic Training, but so far all the barracks in my new squadron were sitting empty, waiting for men from Phase One. I was moving my desk across my office when I heard a voice behind me with a distinct Texas twang. “Airman Garrett?” I said yes and heard a loud, “Airman Davis reporting, sir!” Figuring my first basic trainee had arrived, I turned around, but the two stripes on the sleeve on the smiling man’s facing me told me he wasn’t a basic. “Did I getcha?” he asked. I think I said, “Huh?” “Always wanted to try that out on another DI,” he said.
Last week we talked about some things that made it easy to get along in a foreign country. What it boiled down to for most of the people I knew was just being yourself — just being an American. Unlike people from some countries, we don’t have lords and ladies, fussy rules of behavior, or the confusing customs I’ve run into. So it’s easy to just be yourself. We may be a little rough around the edges at times, but we’re honest about it, and we’re satisfied to be what we are. Which by and large helps people overseas not only to accept us, but to like us.
I can honestly that one area where I have a lot of experience is being a foreigner. The Air Force arranged that by seeing to it that during my 21 years in uniform, I was overseas for all or part of 14 of them — almost two-thirds of the time. I served from 1952 to 1973, and the book “The Ugly American” came out in 1958, followed by the 1963 film of the same name. If you think about how much time I spent overseas, you can see why I was well aware of the possibility of falling into that category, something that didn’t appeal to me. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. Oh, I suppose I goofed a couple of times. Nobody’s perfect. But by and large I managed to avoid being cast as the poster boy for either the book or the film, and I thought you might find it interesting how I missed out on that honor.
How well do you know yourself? “Really well,” you say? Are you sure? I thought the same thing for a long time — for more than 40 years, in fact. And then, one day about 30 years ago I was reading a book and suddenly, right out of the blue, I learned something about myself I had never suspected. It came as quite a shock. So much of a shock that I can remember that moment about as well as I remember anything in my life. I’ll tell you about it. I’m a reader. Been a reader all my life. Caught the reading bug back when I was just 7 or 8 years old. One day Miss Banke, a teacher in Public School 16 on Staten Island, told us we were going on a field trip. You should have heard the cheer. The classroom sounded like the Victory Theater on Saturday afternoon when the cartoons came on. “Yay-y-y-y!”
I’m sitting here remembering some of the many Christmases I have seen in my 79 years, and I don’t mind telling you it’s a worthwhile thing to do. Is there any holiday to match Christmas? I think not. As troubled as this nation is at times, we always find renewed hope in a holiday filled with good will and love, with giving and receiving, with the coming together of families, with the coming together of America as a single people in a nation founded on the belief that we are all free to practice our beliefs openly, honestly, and with reverence for the beliefs of others. I pray it will always be that way. I can’t say with any certainty why some Christmases past stand out so strongly, or why it is that I could think all day and night and not remember a thing about so many others. But for one Christmas I know the answer. And it’s an important answer, not just for me, but for you, because it stands for all that is right about our nation, our people, and our cherished beliefs.
American history books are filled with incidents which led up to the American Revolution. Who hasn’t heard of the Boston Tea Party? Who doesn’t know of the infamous Stamp Act? Who hasn’t felt outrage over the story of unarmed American civilians gunned down by British regulars in the Boston Massacre? Those tales are a part of the fabric of this nation, taught everywhere. And yet, there is an event which was far better known at the time than any of the three I just mentioned. It was an actual act of war against England, one which caused great unrest among the colonies. In fact, its influence on the colonial legislatures led to steps that ended in the Declaration of Independence. How can that be? How can an event of such great importance have somehow managed to end up on the pressroom floor instead on the pages of history?
I have an arrangement with life. Every once in a while I do a Three Stooges thing. I say, “OK! When I nod my head, hit it!” And life goes right ahead and does it. I’ve already told you about the time I bit down on a screw that had 110 volts on it. Best 4th of July fireworks ever! But I’ve managed to outdo that a few times. Like the time I T-boned a 1951 Chevy, and didn’t go back to the hospital after they released me even though my neck hurt like mad and my head felt it was going to fall off. Remember me telling you that? Yes? So do I, Johnny. My neck was broken. You would think that anyone who had earned a trick neck that way, one that had a nasty habit of getting stuck looking up or down would take good care of it. And I tried. I avoided looking up and to the right or down and to the left. It helped. Getting your head stuck looking up is very inconvenient, and spending a day or two contemplating your navel is boring.
A few weeks back I mentioned that Mom and Mary Hein were best friends. Mary Hein lived just three houses up the street on Brook Street from us on Staten Island in New York City. And I swear that no two women on this planet have ever been closer than Mom and Mary Hein. They watched over each other and cared for each other like two loving sisters.
Some years at Thanksgiving, it can sound a little trite as we once again say we have a lot to be thankful for, but I genuinely believe it, and I’m going to do my humble best to show you why. There’s a lot wrong with this world, and with our country as well. Some of it makes us very angry, so angry we get so caught up trying to fix the things that cry out for fixing that we overlook the blessings we have. That’s natural enough. If we didn’t focus on the things that need fixing, we’d never get them fixed. But once a year we really ought to do what our ancestors did in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in November 1621. We need to turn aside from our cares and thank God for the good things we have.
I’m just like you. I sometimes get so %$#@ angry with the Forest Service I could strangle somebody. But some reading I’ve been doing lately has made me think. Maybe they have something. Maybe they’re so all-fired worried about letting us in the woods because they’ve read some of the same stuff I’ve recently read. Could it be they are worried that if they don’t keep their eyes on us, you and I might go out there in the woods and eat up everything in sight?
If anyone ever asks me which moment of my 79 years was the scariest, there is no doubt in my mind — none at all — that the night of February 16, 1941, tops the list. Nothing before or since has even come close. On that night I learned something, though I didn’t understand it until years later. There can come a moment when fiction crosses the line into reality.
I count myself lucky. By the time I was 10 years old, I had learned something that some people never get a chance to learn. I didn’t learn it because I did anything special. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that I didn’t learn it at all. I suppose I absorbed it through my pores. All I know is that when I was young, something happened which gave me a respect for people — all people — that has really helped me enjoy life, and has made it easy for me to understand a few things. Things I might otherwise have not have understood at all, or only dimly.
I was driving up from Payson two months ago when I found myself at the tail end of a slow-moving convoy. And for once, I am not using a word facetiously. It was an actual convoy. Of boats. Traveling at a brisk 15 miles an hour. The Queen Elizabeth XXII and her escort vessels. Sixteen scows, two pontoons, and a jet ski. From where I was at the back of the pack I couldn’t get a look at the monster up front until we hit the four-lane, but as I passed it, I took a look. I can only describe it one way.
People who read the words of Álvar Núñez De Vera Cabeza de Vaca in his La Relación, his report to King Charles V of Spain, immediately realize they have been granted a rare glimpse into the mind of an extraordinary individual, someone able to look fate in the eye, accept what he sees without time-wasting complaints, and think his way through from where he is to where he has to be.
I left off last week at the point where Pánfilo de Narváez, who had lost an eye to a crossbow bolt, was appointed adelantado of Florida by Charles V, King of Spain. The appointment meant that he was governor of Florida — provided he could conquer it. I hereby appoint you governor of Mars, Johnny. Go get it! So, from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, near Cadiz, on June 17, 1527, sailed five ships containing de Narváez, 600 men, and 80 horses.
While attending college I ran across a book that led me to believe that Pánfilo de Narváez, one of the conquistadors, either made a lot of bad choices or was cursed with very bad luck. I found the book quite by accident in the university library, a place I really enjoyed. Having access to a large, several story high library stocked with books I hadn’t read made me feel like a kid who’d been let loose in a candy store.
I once sat on a board down in Mesa Public Schools headed by an assistant superintendent who had a genius for slicing through the arguments flying around a room and getting to the heart of the matter. One time we were just about to make a decision when someone objected that if we gave the people involved what they wanted they would want something else, something they didn’t have.
The bad news? The Forest Service screwed up. Again. The good news? Wasn’t our Forest Service. Nope. Wasn’t ours. Was the Argentinian Forest Service. So why are we worried about it?
In case you missed it last week, my answer to the question in the title of this column is, “Depends on which island.” I have spent about one-quarter of my life on one island or another, a total of 20 years on Staten Island, Iceland, Japan, Okinawa, and England, though I don’t really count Japan and England as islands. They were so big they lost the island “feel.”
If anyone ever asks me if I would like to live on an island, I’ll have to answer a question with a question, “Which one?” “Why so cautious?” you might ask. Hey, I’ve lived on an island, so I can tell you there are islands and there are islands. All they have in common is ... water. To have an island you have to have water. But beyond that, Johnny, look out. The place could be paradise or purgatory.
Last week I told you how I became interested in the 1948 presidential campaign. I was 16, so elections were not high up on my list of things I couldn’t miss. But when Senator Bob Taft of Ohio strolled into the bus station in New London where I was having a cup of coffee, sat down, shook my hand, and began to talk to me as cameras clicked and reporters ran around ... I will say, that got my attention. So I listened to some of the 1948 election campaign. On radio. They say that was the first presidential campaign ever to appear on television, but you can’t have proved it by me, Johnny. Never saw a minute of it.
It could not have been a more ordinary day. Just another quiet, sunny afternoon in New London, Connecticut in April of 1948. New London was like that. I was 16 at the time, and had been there since I was 11, but if anyone had asked me to describe the town, I suspect that “not much going on” would have been high up on the list of descriptors.
I’ll tell you honestly I am not into insults. Anybody can be nasty. Takes nothing except a big mouth and a bad attitude. Maybe that’s why I love it when somebody takes a mouth full of smart-aleck comments, chews on them for a minute, and spits them back in the face of someone who genuinely deserves it. Which brings me to one of my favorites.
A few weeks back I told you what an uplifting experience it was to be a drill instructor. And it was. But I left something out. I told you about all the serious stuff, but being a DI wasn’t all serious. In truth, it was one of the happiest and most relaxed periods of my life. In fact, there were a couple of times when I laughed so hard I almost split a gut. There were some downright crazy things that happened.
A few weeks ago we took a look at iron men, wooden ships, and multiple ways to die. But I had to leave out and I felt bad about it — the trips that made it without killing off half the passengers and crew. Were they an important — but also not so great — part of sea travel? I’ll let you judge that.
I left off last week at the point where I was having what I count as my last exciting childhood experience: The day I decided to cross a cliff face by standing on a very narrow ledge while my hands clung to another ledge just above eye level. Trouble is, I disturbed a big old black snake sunning above me, and the snake thought it might be a good idea to peer over the edge and see what kind of nut was crossing a 100-foot-high cliff. I was the nut, of course, but not for long. I let go.
Interesting, isn’t it? If someone had asked me about my most exciting moment when I was a kid I’d have answered in a second.
In June, 1752, Benjamin Franklin conducted an experiment to find out whether or not lightning was akin to electricity. His experiment was a success, in fact a resounding one. But what has not been a success is getting the media to get the story straight. It has been — let’s see — 259 years since Franklin conducted his experiment. And Franklin was careful to record what he did, writing it down so accurately and in such simple language that anyone who reads what he said about it can go out today and repeat it.
I have to admit it, I’m jealous. Some people not only lead great lives, but they also manage to depart this life with words that are long remembered. Not me. I’ll probably say, “Hey! Who turned out the da — d lights?”
something you never know where it will end. And start something I did. Back in 1954 I started the engine of a 1935 Chevy four-door sedan, and here I am, 54 years later, still thinking about the drive I took that night.
For someone who at times in his life quite literally did not have two nickels to rub together I have been to an incredible number of places. When someone mentions places as far apart as Beaumont and Bangkok, Layton and London, Portland and Paris, Tempe and Tripoli, Venice and Vacaville, or even New Bedford, New Delhi, or New London they aren’t just names to me. They are places I know, and perhaps even love. But you know what, Johnny?
Last week we left off in 1771 as Captain James Cook and his crew barely escaped death on the Great Barrier Reef stretching along the northern coast of Australia. But death by drowning when a sailing ship was driven aground on a reef or a rocky shore by “contrary” winds was just one of the many things men and women faced in the day of the square-rigged European ship. There are worse things than drowning, Johnny. Read on.