Thursday, January 26, 2017

Remembering My Uncle

My uncle, Frank George, died on January 4, 2017. He was 95 years old and had lived a full and rich life. My cousin, David, and I were privileged to speak at his memorial service. I'd like to share what I said about him.

My earliest memory of my Uncle Frank was of him teasing me. I must have been around a year old. I toddled into my grandparents’ breakfast room where Uncle Frank was eating. He handed me an olive and told me it was candy. I took a big bite. I must have made a face and started to cry because my grandfather, who arrived just in time to see my response, scolded Frank. He, of course, thought it was funny. To this day, I can’t stand olives, and Frank continued to tease me and everyone else.

Frank was a big kid who always had the best toys.

His favorites were cars. My mom told me about my Aunt Evelyn hanging out down the street at Frank’s house when they were in high school. She would return with grease on her face and clothes. Grandma’s response was predictable, after scolding her, of course. “What will the neighbors think?” I always suspected they thought Evie was crazy about Frank. They would have been right, and she remained crazy about him for another seventy-five years.

They were engaged the night of my parents’ wedding and married a year later. Frank had just turned twenty-two, and Evelyn was just short of her twentieth birthday.

This was during WWII, and Frank was in the service. After their marriage, he was stationed in Washington D.C. as a Link instructor. This blue box was the original virtual cockpit with which he trained pilots. When the war ended, they returned to California. Since housing was in short supply, they moved into my grandparents’ house.

Frank bought a gas station with a repair facility nearby. His love of all things cars continued.

My cousin, David, was born in 1945, just ahead of the Baby Boom. I came along in 1946 in the vanguard. In 1949, all three sisters contributed to the boom. Mom gave birth to my brother, Ron, in May. Aunt Muriel had David's sister Eileen in August, and the twins, Kathy and Karen, came along in December.

They were quite a challenge since they were on different feeding schedules and had different food allergies. Frank was busy with his business, and Grandma helped out, but the situation was stressful. According to my mother, they sought counseling and were told to schedule a date night once a week. They left the kids with a sitter and spent an hour or so alone together. Their date nights lasted the rest of their lives.

They loved dancing. This was the era of the jitterbug. You’ve probably seen films of guys lifting girls over their heads and tossing them through their legs. Since Frank was at least a foot taller than Evie, he was able to execute these maneuvers easily. Mom told me about Evie returning home with her chin rubbed raw from scraping against Frank’s suit.

They continued to take lessons for years and to go dancing once a week. They joined their dance group on a dancing cruise, and they had a ball. At our daughter’s wedding reception, they dominated the dance floor.

In 2011, Aunt Evie had a stroke one evening when they were out dancing. They told me the first time she was allowed out of bed, Frank took her in his arms and danced her around the room. At our fiftieth anniversary celebration in 2015, we invited them to join us for a short dance. They still put us to shame.

When I was about twelve, they hired me to stay with the twins during their Friday date nights. I always appreciated this because they provided spending money I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

The routine was always the same. They picked me up in the evening. The kids and I ate dinner. I put the kids to bed, watched 77 Sunset Strip, and spent the night. They drove me home the next morning—after breakfast. Uncle Frank sometimes cooked. His specialty was pancakes. I learned to love yogurt and fruit on my pancakes from Evie and Frank.

They had installed a great pool in their back yard, making their house a favorite place to visit. For my fifteenth birthday, they conspired with my friends and David to throw me a surprise pool party. What a terrific occasion.

After they moved to San Mateo, Larry and I visited often. Aunt Evie always found a cool new restaurant or tea room or place to visit. Sometimes she and I left the guys and Kim at home and went shopping. On one occasion, we returned and the guys told us about “fixing” the ski boat. The rope in the bow had broken and required a new eyelet. Since Kim was the only one small enough to fit in the bow, she was elected to crawl in and help secure the new eyelet. She still remembers the incident and the fiberglass cuts she got. She had a ball.

Both in Monterey Park and San Mateo, the garage and driveway were filled with cars and car parts. Frank’s non-operational Cushman motor scooter and the Metropolitan moved with them. Frank said he’d get them operational, but not until a couple of years ago was the Metropolitan finally restored. It's still in the garage. I don’t know if the Cushman ever ran. [Their son-in-law, Jay, told me he found the Cushman when he cleaned out under the house. It still doesn't run.]

In addition to the cars Frank collected over the years, he also loved cameras. He always had the latest and greatest—as well as all the accessories: lenses, filters, tripods, monopods, etc. When they lived in Monterey Park, he created a dark room where he printed his own photos.

He had one of the first movie cameras I remember seeing. He started with a sixteen millimeter, then graduated to 8 millimeter, super 8, and finally to digital. We loved it whenever he brought out the projector and showed us the old movies. He always said he’d convert them to video, but I don’t think he ever did. He later became a wedding videographer, and he did a great job.

Evelyn and Frank loved to travel, and Uncle Frank always took lots of slides. We visited often, and Frank saw us as a captive audience for his latest shots. Whenever they showed them, Evelyn complained because he took few landmarks and never included people. He took lots of bridges—without any identification of location. He also loved to stand in the center of little European villages and shoot he main street in one direction and then the other. No signs identified where he was. Aunt Evie’s kibitzing provided the most fun.

On one visit, I woke early to find Uncle Frank in the kitchen with a thermos and disposable cups. I asked what he was doing. He said each week during the winter he took a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee to the curb for the trash collectors. A small gesture, but such a thoughtful one.

For most of their marriage, Evelyn took care of Frank. Following her stroke, he became her caregiver. I don’t know why I was surprised, but I was. I think the girls were as well. Yet, he took this role seriously.

We visited them about six weeks later, and I was stunned at the amount of progress she had made. I give Uncle Frank a great deal of the credit. He watched her every move and made her do her physical therapy. He also cared for her tenderly and with patience and good humor.

When I was preparing Uncle Frank’s video, Karen sent a photo of Evie saying good night to him in the nursing home. Karen said her dad wanted to come home so he could tuck his sweetheart into bed. 

That pretty well sums up their relationship. All of us would love a relationship with the same devotion. They lived it, and we are all better off for having known them.

Here is the link to the YouTube video I created for the service: 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Year in Illinois - Part IV

Today is the fourth and final part of Larry's description of  living in Chicago, between April 1, 1969 and March 30, 1970. Please enjoy Part 4 of his walk down Memory Lane.

A Horse is a Horse
With all my overtime, and the extra pay from my second job helping our neighbor, Bob Wilson, apply wood siding to houses, plus the reduced rent of the one-bedroom Chicago apartment, Lorna and I had a little extra money.

Denise Wilson, Kim’s friend from downstairs, had a Wonder Horse, the kind mounted on springs which bounced up and down when ridden. Kim loved it. Since we were feeling a little guilty about dragging our daughter away from her grandparents, we decided she deserved a horse of her own.

In July, with money in hand, we headed for the local toy store. Here, ten or twelve models in various sizes lined one wall. Kim immediately headed for the biggest one. It was made for a four-to-six-year old child. Kim had just turned two and was small for her age. Her head barely reach the level of the foot peg of her chosen steed. Lorna tried to persuade her to pick one more her size, but to no avail.

I said to Lorna, “If she can climb on the horse all by herself, it’s the one we buy.”

Kim, having practiced on Denise’s medium-sized horse, clambered up a support rail, balanced on one of the springs, threw a leg over the saddle, and pulled herself into position. We took it home.

Later, we were very happy to have gotten the biggest one. For her birthday in August, Kim received a cowgirl outfit from her godparents. Boots, hat, fringed skirt, and shirt.

In full western gear, Kim spent hours riding. She jumped so hard the horse bounced totally off the floor and moved across the room. She literally rode through the apartment. (We sometimes worried about the noise for our neighbors downstairs, but they worked during the day and never complained.)

Kim enjoyed her horse for several years until she outgrew it. We replaced dowels, screws and other parts as they broke or wore out. Eventually, the horse was passed on to a younger neighbor friend in Arcadia.

From there, it moved on to a cousin and, for all we know, it may still be out there entertaining other children.

Kim now lives in Texas and still loves both western garb and horses.

Each year she returns during the holidays, but our cowgirl’s heart feels right at home in her adopted state.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Year in Illinois - Part III

This week I continue Larry's description of our year living in Chicago, from April 1, 1969 through March 30, 1970. I thought I had posted it as a blog long ago, but I discovered I hadn’t. So, please enjoy Part 3 of his walk down Memory Lane.

During the winter months, my neighbor, Bob Wilson raced in both enduro and motocross. Enduro was off-road cross-country race, usually around sixty-to-one hundred miles in length. The route followed a path marked with white chalk, painted arrows on trees and warning signs indicating hazards along the way. The objective was to maintain a twenty-five mph average speed between checkpoints scattered along the route. This was not an easy task, as the trail often led through wooded areas, three-foot deep river crossings, and up and down steep, rocky hills. The sport was very big in Europe at the time, where some races were as much as five-hundred miles in length and lasting over five days.

Motocross, on the other hand, was a multi-lap race over a two-to-four mile dirt closed course with many jumps, tight turns, and always a washboard straight-away with a big jump in the middle. Here, the fastest cycle won.

I had left my 60cc Yamaha back in my parents’ garage in California. When Bob found out, he persuaded me to have it shipped out so I could join him on the winter motorcycle circuit. I contacted a shipper and was told the bike needed to be crated before they would accept it.

Back in California, one of my co-workers, and a good friend, moonlighted as a carpenter. I contacted him to ask if he could crate my bike for shipment. He agreed. Several weeks later, this amazing seven-foot long, three-foot wide, and four-foot tall plywood box, reinforced with 2x4s, arrived at the apartment. It took Bob and me several hours to pry the end off and extricate the cycle. The crate was so well-constructed, we couldn’t knock it down. Finally, I put it next to the apartment, reattached the end with hinges, and it became a motorcycle garage. When we finally left Illinois, the manager took over the box and used it for a storage shed for his garden tools.

Before I could race, the motorcycle had to be modified. Fenders, lights, license plate, and any parts not absolutely necessary were removed to reduce weight. I attached a skidpan to the bottom to protect the engine and frame from boulders, fallen logs, and anything else we might encounter on the trail. Finally, I added knobby tires for traction in the dirt.

Over the next couple of months, we spent Saturdays at the races in various small towns in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. I was in the sportsman under 100cc class, Bob in the 250cc class. Sportsman meant if you fell down on the course during the race, the other riders generally went around you. The professional class didn’t offer the same courtesy. The track announcer usually instructed the spectators to “…take your kids by the hand and tie your dog to a tree,” prior to the start of the professional race.

Just getting to the events was a challenge. Bob could easily load his bike and family in his truck. My cycle went on racks attached to the rear bumper of the little Toyota. With Lorna and Kim inside and the bike on the back, the car was really loaded down. I felt like I was always driving uphill. I’m sure most oncoming traffic thought I had my high beams on when traveling after dark.

Our first couple of races came before the winter frost set in. The tracks were wet and muddy. At one motocross in Elkhorn Wisconsin, by the third lap of the ten-lap race, the mud was so deep it came up to the wheel hubs. I loved it, however, as the larger, heavier bikes bogged down and sank into the ooze, while my lighter one planed on the skidpan and floated over the mess, while the rear tire threw a rooster tail of mud high into the air behind me.

Bob and I had differing riding strategies. Bob felt the fastest way to the finish was a straight line, over rocks, logs, cliffs, people, anything. I, on the other hand, planned my path and took the easiest way whenever possible. While Bob was faster, he tended to crash a lot, and spent most weeknights fixing the damage to his bike to be ready for the next race. Aside from changing spark plugs and the occasional tune-up, I did very little work on mine.

Following the first frost, the muddy tracks dried up and became hard and fast. Here, the larger, more powerful bikes had the advantage.

Winter Blue and Gray
Winter in Chicago started early. In mid-September, we had our first snow. It stayed on the ground until the following March, along with our spirits. Unlike Southern California where we saw snow in the mountains and, if so inclined, visited for short periods to ski, sled, or just play on the chilled white slopes, this was different. Here the fluffy-white turned mushy-gray with salt, soot, and dirt. It piled up on curbs and sidewalks, coated the undersides of autos, and generally made travel slippery and uncomfortable.

One morning, I awoke to find Chicago blanketed by over a foot of new snow. Roads were impassable with four-to-five-foot drifts. The company station wagon, in which I carpooled to work, was buried. No getting out that day. Phone lines were down, so donning my snowmobile suit, motocross leather jacket, helmet, and scarf to protect my face, I headed out on my off-road motorcycle to inform the other carpool riders.

The snow had stopped all traffic. I seemed to be the only one able to move through the drifts. Abandoned cars and trucks littered the streets of my three-mile trip. As I passed each vehicle, I checked for trapped passengers. Fortunately, I didn’t find any.

The dirt bike negotiated deep snow quite well. The skidpan, like a boat hull, rode up on the drifts. The knobby rear tire dug till it found solid ground below. The bike then lurched forward; and the spinning rear wheel repeated the action. Digging and lurching, I must have looked like a kangaroo coming down the snow-covered road. In some places, the snowdrifts were so deep they covered the gas tank. Then the bike would break from the drift like a surfacing submarine.

Arriving at the apartment complex of the other carpool riders, I informed them of the situation, and, after a warm cup of hot chocolate, headed back home.

On the return trip, I stopped along a stretch of road in the forest preserve and turned off the engine.

I was surrounded in a white, absolutely soundless world. Huge, fat snowflakes drifted slowly by. Some settled like doilies on the motorcycle tank before melting from its warmth. Beyond thirty feet, nothing was visible. I couldn’t tell where the sky and land met. The only color in my world was the blue motorcycle tank and my brown leathers. All else was white. The trees along the roadway edge appeared merely as faint shadows. No sound penetrated. It was the most quiet, peaceful place this city boy had ever experienced. I sat for several minutes mesmerized by the scene. Finally, with a sigh, I restarted the engine. Its two-cycle whine broke the mood, and I headed for the warmth of home.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Year in Illinois - Part II

Several years ago, Larry wrote a description of our year living in Chicago, from April 1, 1969 through March 30, 1970. I thought I had posted it as a blog long ago, but I discovered I hadn’t. So, please enjoy Part 2 of his walk down Memory Lane.

Being native Californians, Lorna and I had become used to the occasional earthquake, but tornadoes were a new experience. Our April arrival timed with the start of the storm season. We were soon to learn our new home was located dead center in an area known as “Tornado Alley,” and our apartment complex was built on land cleared of its former houses by a tornado some six years earlier. Not a comforting thought. The Baezas had offered their first-floor apartment (which was partially below grade) as shelter during the most severe blows, and several evenings the Collins, Wilson, and Baeza families all huddled there.

The second week after our arrival, the first of several twisters touched down a few blocks away from the apartment. Lorna watched out the rear kitchen window of the Baeza’s apartment. As she put it, “The sky turned green, really. Then in the distance, the unmistakable shape of a funnel descended from black clouds above.” Fortunately, it wasn’t headed our way. It touched down harmlessly in an empty school yard a few blocks away.
The family visited us in Hickory Hills

Extra Money
Bob Wilson owned his own company installing wood and metal siding on houses. It was a one-man operation consisting of a truck, a circular saw, some scaffolding, a couple of ladders, several hammers of assorted sizes, and Bob. The siding supplier paid him about sixteen dollars a square. (A square referred to enough material to cover one-hundred square feet of surface area.) In this case, one-hundred square feet of building exterior wall for wood, and eleven dollars a square for aluminum to install the material. Since decorative siding was very popular in the Midwest, Bob had all the work he could handle. When he found out I could actually drive a nail without bending it, he persuaded me to join him on weekends for some “second story” work.

Many of the new housing tracts in the Illinois area featured a traditional Midwestern style. These two-story dwellings had first-floor walls made of brick. Decorative siding covered the wood-framed second level. For someone working alone, installing the exterior wood siding was most difficult. He needed to first climb up a ladder to measure, then down to cut a section of siding to length, back up to hammer it in place, and repeat this for each piece. Not only was it exhausting, but so much time was wasted climbing up and down ladders all day that very little siding actually got installed.

Since Bob was paid by the square foot, it also meant very little money. Two people installing made a great difference. One worker on the ladder measured and called lengths to the helper on the ground. The helper cut the wood or aluminum and passed it up to be nailed in place by the person on the ladder. No climbing up and down. When the ladder person got tired, they could change places. Two people could install four times the siding of someone working alone and hence collect four times the pay. Bob could provide me a good salary and make even more for himself.

I worked through the summer and fall on my days off from the refinery whenever Bob had “second story” work, and the extra pay went directly in the bank to add to our “saving to buy a home” nest egg. The cold Chicago winters made doing anything outside miserable, so Bob took his vacation then. From November through February, Bob practiced his other passion, motorcycle racing.

The Family Meets the Mob or “Which way to the pool?”
Spring had passed along with its associated storms and wet weather. The notorious long, hot Chicago summer was about to start. In early June, our landlord presented us with a pass to use the guest pool at the motel adjacent to our apartment complex. He said he had friends there and had made special arrangements with the owner for us to use the facilities. We took it as a great opportunity to teach Kim to swim. Armed with the pass, we headed next door. The manager behind the counter, an older gentleman, glanced at our pass and, with a wave of his hand, motioned for us to proceed to the pool. He seemed a very serious type, never smiled and never said more than one or two words.

The Olympic-sized pool was originally outdoors, but a roof and solarium-type structure had been constructed around it. Green indoor-outdoor carpeting covered the pool deck. The carpeting was always soggy and added a slightly musty smell to the entire building. The pool itself was heated year-round. Kim took to the water right away and learned to hold her breath and swim short distances underwater.

We, however, began to notice some strange events next door. The pool and motel were usually deserted. We were often the only ones enjoying this retreat. The motel seldom had any parked vehicles, and rooms appeared to be unoccupied. However, on any given evening, one or several large black vehicles, filled with well-dressed men in suits, would drive up to the entrance and a passenger would call, “Do you have any vacancies?” To which the manager always responded, “Sorry, all full up.” The car would then drive away.

Also, the name of the motel appeared only on the flashing neon sign out front. No stationery, matchbooks, napkins, ashtrays, or anything portable listed the business name or address.

It seemed strange for a business not to advertise. But we surmised maybe they just did things differently in Chicago.

In July, my parents and teenage brother, Casey, planned a trip to see us. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be convenient for them to stay next door?” So, one evening as we left the pool area, we approached the manager. He looked up from behind the large desk he always seemed to occupy.

“Hi”, Lorna began energetically. “We were wondering if you would have any rooms available for the third week in July.”

“Maybe”, he blandly replied.

“Wonderful,” I joined in, “my parents are arriving for a visit, and it would be great if they could stay so near our apartment. Do you have a price list we could see?”


He didn’t have a list, but quoted a reasonable figure for three people for one week and wrote down names and dates on a nearby note pad. So the reservations were made.

My dad later said it was the strangest motel they had ever seen. First, there were no towels when they arrived. They called the main desk and made a request, but Dad had to go down and pick up the towels themselves as “maid service had gone home.” In fact, it seemed the housekeeping was non-existent. No beds were made or rooms cleaned during their entire week-long stay. They could hear late night activity in adjoining rooms but no one was ever there in the morning. Fortunately, they spent the days and most evenings at our apartment and very little time at the motel.

When checkout time came, Dad first had to locate someone to pay. The guest receipt he received was written on a generic receipt pad obtainable at any stationery store.

Some months later, all was revealed when the Chicago Tribune reported our little hamlet of Hickory Hills to be the most corrupt city this side of Cicero. The local underworld headquarters was identified as our nearby motel. The manager named Alberto Capone (brother to the famous gangster Aphonse Capone) had been arrested on a charge of selling 35,000 amphetamine tablets. The motel was closed for a week or so, then magically reopened as if nothing had happened.

It seemed our purpose there had been to populate the pool as “normal guests” and create a family atmosphere cover. After we discovered our true role, the swim didn’t seem so pleasant and we curtailed further visits. Summer was almost over and the weather was turning cold anyway.

In late fall, we were awakened to police sirens as officers again descended on our nearby neighbor. This time was more serious, a young lady had been killed in the motel. Thereafter it remained closed.

Several articles were written about corruption in the Chicago Tribune. One in January, before our arrival, and another in January of 1970.