Sunday, January 14, 2007

American Idol, Arabs And Israel And Puff The Magic Dragon

I am in the process of getting my big bad self out of my Mum's computer and into my own. Which means I am pulling files out of places and putting them somewhere else. I am not an organized computer guy. In fact, if it were not for the constrictions of the box itself, my stuff would be all over the desk and the cat would have knocked two thirds of it on the floor, and I would have swept it up with my feet by now into a pile and teetered it all on top of my monitor. Thank God for little tiny boxes.

While rummaging through files, I keep coming across some of Mum's writings- bits and pieces of things she has written over the years. Now that the she is old and tottering, it is sometimes easy to forget what an unusually beautiful woman she was, and that she had a life far before my memories, and that her life belonged to her and yet she shared it with her children by her sacrifices and love.

This photo was taken at the time of which my Mum writes. I posted the photo once before, but I had nothing to say that satisfied me, and how I felt about this photo.

Mum did.

As another season of American Idol gets underway, I will sit with Mum every time it comes on, and we will cheer for the best ones, and poopoo the others. Mum will hold her ears when notes don't agree with her. She will tell me stories about songs sung and where she was when she first learned this or that. She'll lament my lack of musicality and I'll shrug and say that I don't mind. I can sing in the hills and on rooftops where I don't bother others.

I always thought we left Jerusalem as evacuees just before the six day war. It turns out, that my father's PDL played a big role. Seems his tour ended, and we were leaving anyway. In other words, our departure coincided quite brilliantly with the start of that war.

What did Pops DO to be so damn lucky?

Here is what my Mum wrote. It made me cry.

--------Home Again 1967-------

It is time for us to leave Jerusalem. Time to return to our home country; time to pick up our ordinary lives. Leaving will be difficult, for in this land of Moses and Jesus, I have found a place that satisfies and pleases me. Still, Howard’s tour of duty will be completed soon, and the Air Force has other plans for him, so the kids and I must follow. It will be difficult to say “good-bye” to the many friends we have found in this faraway land, but there is a measure of relief mixed with my sadness. It is May of 1967, and the past few weeks have seen an increase in tension between Arab and Israeli. Several times we have heard gunfire in the Old City, that walled citadel in which the holiest places of three religions are enshrined. We were given a ‘going away party’ at Government House just last week, and I had the chance to entertain there for the last time. From three Greek women, I learned the popular Greek song, ”Athena”, and they would sing the chorus with me. Several Italian songs that Robert and Alice taught me phonetically and a few tunes in the melodic Spanish language were included, and I ended with a song in English which seemed to express many of my sentiments.

“Pros chi, dear friends its time to leave you.
The time has come for us to part.
Pros chi, Pros chi, no matter what the country or the land,
There’s always one thing we all can understand.
Pros chi, Pros chi, Adieu, Arriverderci, Adios
Shalom, Aloha, Aufvidersain, Good bye.”

We have sold many of our household goods to other UN families who will remain after we are gone, just as we bought them when we first arrived. Two crates containing well- packed copper trays and souvenirs, a Flokati rug from Greece, as well as woven floor coverings that for three years have covered the stone floors of our house are in the crates, as are three etchings done by the English topographical artist David Roberts in the 1800‘s. Our white station wagon will be left to be shipped to America at a later date.

The day of our departure arrives. *************** drive our family of five to the airport in Tel Aviv in their white UN jeeps. Inside the busy terminal, the mood is somber and tourists pack the modern building, anxious to leave this recently developed country, for tensions have continued to heighten, and the Israeli Army is being mobilized for possible war. The shooting we heard during the past week has apparently come from Mount Scopus, where, surrounded by Jordanian land, a Jewish garrison is maintained by twice monthly convoys under United Nations supervision. Even with the relief we feel at leaving this uneasy situation, it is difficult to say goodbye to these dear friends with whom we have enjoyed so many happy times. As the El Al plane lifts off the runway, my eyes are flooded with tears of sadness and loss, for these friends have become closer to me than family.

The long flight back to New York is uneventful. The three children and I will continue on to Atlanta after Howard gets off the plane in New York. He has decided that he will leave the Air Force and get a job as a civilian airline pilot, and I have been taught that if my husband is happy, I will miraculously be happy too.

I say goodbye to him when our plane lands in New York, and he will go through the procedure required of those who leave the armed forces. Our children, now eight, five and four, are remarkably well behaved as we continue the next leg of our journey, and the boys charm and amuse other passengers with the amount of food they consume. It is their first hamburger in three years, and it is devoured with gusto. Sandy, as always, helps to keep them amused and busy. When we finally arrive in Atlanta, where we have a six or seven-hour layover, it has been almost a full night since we left Tel Aviv, and my eyes are heavy with sleep. Thankfully, the three kids lie down on one of the hard benches in the terminal, and nod off to dreamland, so their weary mother is able to rest for a short while. While they are sleeping, a young GI approaches me with camera in hand. He has taken a snapshot of the four of us, and hands me the Polaroid picture, telling me that we remind him of the family he left when he was called to duty. It was a lovely gesture, and after the impersonal, detached tone that greeted us in New York, a beautiful homecoming gift.

The flight from Atlanta deposits Sandy, Steve, Scott, and me at the small airport in Jackson, where my father and mother meet us with hugs and kisses. During the drive to their small house, we stop and buy undersized, delicious hamburgers from one of the remaining Crystal Hamburger diners. It was the one taste of home that I had craved after leaving Mississippi 10 years earlier, and was intensified by three years’ absence from any American “junk food”. The next few days are spent catching up on our sleep, and readjusting to the radical difference in time zones. Now the nightly news is beginning to carry coverage of the region we have just left, and the news is not good.

The Egyptian navy blocked the Straits of Tiran, located at the end of the Gulf of Eilat while we were still in Jerusalem during May, thus preventing the passage of any Israeli vessels. Then, May 30, Jordan joined the Egyptian-Syrian military alliance and placed its army on both sides of the Jordan River, and Iraq followed suit. Now contingents are arriving from other Arab countries, including Algeria and Kuwait. The American president Lyndon Johnson proposed a plan for breaking the blockade, and the Israeli Prime Minister agreed to wait, and announced these intentions in a radio broadcast May 28. Egyptian forces have been deployed in the Sinai, and on June 4, 1967, the Israeli government gave approval to their defense Forces to undertake military offensive to eliminate the perceived or real threat to Israel’s existence.

As I watch the war unfold on American television, it is with mixed emotions. Of course I am happy that the children and I are out of that battling region, but our neighbors and friends haven’t been that fortunate, so I watch the news with trepidation. When it is announced that on the morning of June 5th mortar bombs have fallen on the city of Jerusalem and artillery has opened fire, I want to remain glued to the television in my parents’ house. But my father is missing the Soap Operas which he follows religiously since his retirement, and can’t understand my anxious desire to follow every minute of coverage, searching scenes of the battle for any familiar faces or landmarks. When an armored brigade of paratroopers is
reported to be rounding on Jerusalem from the north, my trepidation turns to outright fear.
This area to the north of Jerusalem is where we have lived for three happy years, and our friends remain there as far as I know. There is no-one I can talk with, for the children are too small to realize what is happening, and my husband, the only other person who might understand my worry and anxiety, is still in Virginia awaiting his discharge papers. I’m pretty sure that the families have all been evacuated from the danger, but Robert and Tony in their capacity as UN forces have more than likely remained in the city, perhaps in the midst of the hostilities.

We in the US are extremely surprised, when, on June ninth it is announced that the war is over, and Israeli troops now occupy the narrow streets through the Old City. When we left, only two weeks earlier, Arab shopkeepers and craftsmen still plied their trade in peace within tiny shops open directly to the street, and men wandered along narrow, crowded passageways balancing their livelihood on their heads in large trays. Some of the vendors carried their goods slung from stooped shoulders with a wide strap. Heavily laden donkeys mingled with the crush of humanity within the confining walls, adding their braying to the cacophony of voices, and their smells to the musty atmosphere.

Although I am back in my parents’ house, and my three children are with me, I am strangely dissatisfied. I miss my husband, I miss my friends, I miss my home. When Howard arrives a week later, he begins to search newspapers for ads looking for airline pilots. We find to our dismay that, at his age of 33 years, he is too old to be even considered for a position with most major airlines. A few carriers who fly internationally will accept his application, however, for they welcome experienced pilots. Our family of five can’t continue to crowd the small house of my parents for much longer, though they have welcomed us. Even after 32 years, my Dad and his headstrong daughter have difficulty getting along, and it is evident that this upsets my mother. So, after about a month, we move into a small, dark apartment in Memphis Tennessee next door to my husband’s sister. Howard’s search for a job with an airline continues, and we are both elated when he finally receives an acceptance letter from Pan American airlines. Soon he must report to San Francisco, where he will receive training in the larger airplanes flown by this international company. Once again the children and I will stay behind until this training is completed, and we settle into our two-story apartment to wait. It is during this time that I discover a book of poems written by Dorothy Parker. Her writing seems to speak to me of the experience of being a woman in that day and time. One poem describes emotions I felt vividly, but couldn’t articulate, even to myself. I memorized it almost without trying, and it has helped me through some lonely times. It is called

In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor’s knock;

Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.

Finally, Howard calls to tell me that he has rented a place for us in Daly City just south of San Francisco. It is a three-bedroom house, and the day he found it, he had a view of the Pacific Ocean from the picture window in the living room. My excitement is immeasurable. A house! The ocean! A school right across the street! Near San Francisco! It simply couldn’t get any better than that! By the time our plane touched down in that “city by the bay” our future looked as bright as the golden sun peeking through the fog enshrouded sky. Money will be tight for the first year. Airline salaries during training are notoriously small, but we have been able to save a bit during his assignment to Jerusalem. The Air Force considered that city dangerous, and he received “hazardous duty pay” for the three years we spent there. With a growing family, we had spent most of the extra money, but if we are careful and buy only necessities, we can survive for a year on what we have. Driving from the airport to our rented house, the fog seems to become heavier, and as we turn into the driveway, it obscures any view of the ocean only blocks away. The kids and I will just have to trust their father when he says it is there, for we can see only a milky white veil enveloping everything. And it is cold. We have just left a place where temperatures are in the 90’s and at times soar to over 100 degrees, but our lightweight summer clothing is far from adequate in this chilly place. Not quite the Eden I had expected! Yes, there is a school right across the street, but it is set lower than the street in this hilly terrain, and the ever-present fog nestles thickly around it. I know now that it was a year with more than the usual number of foggy days, and that by driving for 30 or 40 minutes to the east, we could have found warm, sunny places-but that summer, the whole world seemed dismally cold and murky.

We sold all our furniture before leaving Jerusalem, and now we replace only the bare necessities: beds for the three children and ourselves, a metal dinette set with chairs, and a daybed to serve as a couch. We also receive the news that our small white station wagon has been destroyed during the shelling of the city. Our wooden crates arrive by ship, and their contents provide a touch of home to the sparsely furnished place. When school starts in September that year, Sandy leaves each morning to walk to school, and almost immediately disappears into thick billows of fog, while her younger brothers need a jacket to play outside. Howard drives the short distance to the airport daily to continue his training, while I battle loneliness and boredom at home.

What do you do when there is nothing to do? How do you spend your time when there is too much time? I have never faced these questions before, as up until now there was always too much to do and too little time to do it all. But here we are, three kids and me, in a house perched on a hill overlooking the foggy Pacific Ocean, somewhat afraid that the forecasters may be right...maybe California will slide into the ocean during the next earthquake. I have experienced a hurricane, many thunderstorms, heavy snows, the awesome extremes of temperatures in the desert, but never have I felt the shaking of an earthquake, and I don’tknow what damage these tremors of the earth might do. Our house, while comfortable inside, is identical to that of all our neighbors, the only difference being the color they are painted. The music of the day is beginning to reflect a new mood in the country. Younger people, tiring of being sent into a faraway country to fight, are beginning to question whether we can ever win the war in Viet Nam, and indeed, whether our troops should even be there. Romantic ballads and rock and roll get little “airtime” on many radio stations, while protests and marches against war are becoming more frequent and much more militant. A new generation of disenfranchised young people now seek answers in clouds of Marijuana smoke or the psychedelic experience provided by LSD.

I have never thought too much about politics or policy in the past, always simply accepting that the actions of people in our government were always best, for aren’t elected officials far smarter than the average citizen? In fact, during the time in Jerusalem, I had several discussions with our friend, Robert, about my country’s involvement in Viet Nam. He felt that the United States was in danger of becoming hopelessly entangled in that embattled country, and that our troops shouldn’t be there. Now many of my fellow countrymen are coming to the same conclusion, and saying so loudly, aggressively, and sometimes violently. Many days I sit in our sparsely furnished living room, and play and sing a song, which seems appropriate to my current circumstances.

“Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes made of ticky-tacky.
Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one, a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,
And they all look just the same.”

The first Christmas back in the land of our birth is strangely foreign to me, and possibly to the children also. The past three years, we have lived near the place where Jesus was born and later hung from a cross until he died. There, families from Christian nations celebrated this occasion quietly with the traditions of their home country, and we managed each year to find a small tree to decorate with the few ornaments brought with us. Gifts were usually less than abundant and tended to be more practical than frivolous, and the day was only celebrated by the Christian minority. The Jewish people of Israel, and their Muslim counterparts in Jordan celebrated their own Holy Days, so decorations and colored lights didn’t play a major part in the celebration. That first Christmas season back in this country, with twinkling lights everywhere, stores filled with merchandise, advertisements almost unceasing on TV and radio, and the omnipresent Christmas music wherever we go is almost overwhelming to me. My eyes and ears are no longer accustomed to such abundance.

The following spring, Sunday newspapers ran an advertisement, which caught my eye. A talent agency is looking for people to participate in a variety show they are presenting at Disneyland, that magical home of Mickey Mouse and other familiar Disney characters. The entertainment will be primarily for kids, and several of the songs I have learned since our
return are suitable for children, so “why not?” Even the stark fear and nervousness which plagues me each time I stand in front of a group of people isn’t as strong as my boredom and loneliness right now. So Monday afternoon finds me driving around Ghirardelli Square near the waterfront in San Francisco looking for a place to park. I have left Scott with a neighbor for a few hours, and loaded the guitar case into our VW station wagon, and now I fight back a strong inclination to turn around at the door of the auditorium and RUN. “But what have you got to lose?” Asks my more rational self. “You’re just here on a lark, anyway, and it beats sitting at home alone, doesn’t it?” So, when the director calls my name, I step on a stage which feels to me the size of Siberia, put the guitar strap over my head, and begin to play the chords of “Puff, The Magic Dragon.” Visiting Hawaii years later accompanied by my now adult daughter, I will see the reputed birthplace of that song, and hear stories of how it came to be written by a young man during those turbulent years of the 1960’s. It is said that, in a haze of Marijuana smoke, he looked at the waves crashing upon a breakwater which juts out into Hanalei Bay, throwing mist into the air, and saw in his young, somewhat doped up mind, a huge sleeping dragon whose nostrils spouted smoke. But in 1968, I simply thought it was a cute song, and children of that time loved it.

At the end of my audition, I am greatly relieved that it is over, and the director says words that I’ve heard in many movies and television shows since. “Thank you for coming. If you have been accepted, someone will call you.” Back in our home in Daly City, I am at first thrilled when the following day, I receive a phone call by the director himself to offer me a job for the summer. Then elation turns to fear, when finally the reality of what has happened makes its way into my consciousness. I have been offered a place in a group that will perform shows at the premier amusement park in the country! The director told me on the phone that my guitar playing, as well as my singing voice, while adequate, are not outstanding, “But,” he added “There is something about the whole package which is intriguing.” As the news begins to sink in, I start to think seriously about what has transpired, and I realize that nothing has really changed. I am still married to a man who is seldom at home, and still have three children to raise. I know hardly anyone in the area, and have no babysitter to come even for one day, and certainly no one I would entrust with the care for our three growing children for an entire summer. Even if a sitter was available, there is no money to pay them, for Howard is still on the meager training pay at Pan American, and the “job” at Disneyland pays almost nothing. So next morning, with some sadness, but more relief, I call the theatre to say “Thank you, but right now I’ll have to decline the opportunity“ Soon other concerns took center stage in my life, but my desire to sing was as strong as ever.


Hammer said...

Very intriguing and touiching time capsule. You are very fortunate to have a mother so thoughtful and candid.

Anonymous said...

Okay. This might actually be the longest blog in the history of blogs. Jusss sayin'.

I'm glad you have such good stories to tell about your childhood. Mine are never as good. Maybe I'm just not as great at telling stories. Or maybe I've blocked out most parts of my childhood.

Who knows.

Lizza said...

Wow, I can understand why it moved you to tears. And I think you inherited your mother's gift for storytelling.

Karmyn R said...

What an amazing piece of history your mother wrote and kept!!! So much of her sentiments seem true today.

Thanks for a good read.

Anonymous said...

I'm crying too, I can't help it.

You have such a wonderful Mum, Scott. I know that you know it and maybe that's why...

She is a gifted teller of stories and you, my friend, follow in her footsteps.

Say hi to her from me.

slaghammer said...

I can imagine the culture shock of relocating from the Middle East to California. It’s also interesting to consider how your family’s history might have played out had she taken the job at Disney. After all of those twists and turns, I guess just being alive serves as some indication that the choices were fortunate on at least that one very important issue. As they say, the rest it gravy.

Bernita said...

I hope you honour her to the end of her days and beyond.

CSL said...

Nice tribute to your Mom, who is a very good writer. I found this particularly poignant: "and I have been taught that if my husband is happy, I will miraculously be happy too. "

Shirley said...

Such a lovely and sensitive woman. Maybe you didn't inherit her musical ability but she certainly passed on her sensitivity and writing abilities to you. How wonderful it is that fate brought you together as mother and son.

Liz said...

Your mother was quite an eloquent writer. I was sad to hear that she passed up singing at Disney.

Word Doctor said...

Great blog...your mother sounds like an incredible woman (I mean person). Hey, where's your comma after "Israel" in the title? Just bustin' your balls, SFO.

Scott from Oregon said...

To all, I say thanks on behalf of Mum for all the nice things sadi about her. Mum has always been a classic case of one both too angelic, and too tormented, to be completely settled in her skin.

I think her darker side made her one of the most empathetic people I know...

ammogirl said...

Now we know where you got your skill with words from. I wonder if she ever regretted her choice much.

Nancy Dancehall said...

Amazing...just, amazing.

I can understand now why you fought your stepmom so hard.

(Has you mom ever thought of publishing her memoirs?)