Monday, March 31, 2014

The Legend of John Wayne

A confluence of things recently reminded me of John Wayne and a story my grandfather used to tell.  Before the story, there is the confluence.

I was in front of a class recently when I made reference to John Wayne.  Not one student knew him or his work.  As a cultural touchstone, he was lost.  That bothered me a bit seeing that he was one of the most prevalent screen personas in the twentieth century.  So much for cinematic history.  By the way, Wayne would have been 107 years old this year.

The actor’s name came up again when I was reading the Sunday papers and noticed a new biography of Wayne by Scott Eyman.  I haven’t read the book yet, but I hope to soon.  John Wayne was a favorite actor in my family and I liked his westerns as well as The Green Berets (1968).  It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized he was a notorious right-winger and advocate for the war in Vietnam.  Like most of America, we all loved the character of John Wayne rather than the person known originally as Marion Morrison.  In fact, the character was inseparable from the name.  One of the criticisms of Wayne’s acting is that he always played himself in his films, which of course begs the question, who was the real John Wayne?  Many Americans believed he was simply what he appeared to be on screen.  In short, no one had a problem with Wayne playing every role as himself, and although many people in the industry doubted he was anything more than an action figure, he was quite well-read and intelligent.  Although he rarely died on film, John Wayne succumbed to cancer in 1979.

That last fact is where my grandfather’s story begins.  Edward Martin, after a long career working in the Skunk Works at Lockheed in Burbank, found himself retired and facing significant health issues.  Cancer had spread throughout his body, specifically his colon, and although he fought valiantly against the disease, he passed on Good Friday, 1980.

At one point toward the end of his illness, my grandfather was at the UCLA Medical Center here in Los Angeles.  One day, while walking the halls to keep himself mobile during treatment, he saw a man in a bathroom, using a walker, and gingerly making the rounds through the wards.  Something about the man’s walk was familiar.  My grandfather caught up to him and realized that the man wore two baseball caps:  the one facing front was a UCLA cap; the one worn backward was from USC.  Then my grandfather saw the man’s face.  Although he was pale, drawn, and in obvious pain, there was no mistaking John Wayne.

I imagine my grandfather sticking out his hand and offering a hearty, “How’s it going, Duke?”  I don’t know how the relationship started, but I know it was a highlight of my grandfather’s life to meet John Wayne in the flesh.  For a brief time, the two struck up a friendship.  When my grandfather asked about the two baseball caps, Wayne told him that UCLA was treating his cancer, but USC would always have his heart.

I have always wondered if the two men ever talked about anything else.  Did they discuss death?  Heroism?  Family?  If somehow they had survived cancer, would they have kept in touch?  Probably not.  I only know that my grandfather told the story many times, and relished his brush with celebrity.

My grandfather was eventually discharged to finish his days at home, something he requested of his doctors.  I was there the day he died, and sat with him in his final hours even though the shadow of death in the room made me almost desperately afraid.  Add to that the fact that my grandfather was incoherent, eyes wide open, mumbling and moaning.  His breath rasped in and out of his bony chest, the well-known death rattle that so many health care workers can describe firsthand.  I mowed the lawns that day and did some clean up around the yard.  My grandfather loved his property, and planted huge vegetable gardens and multiple flower beds, turning his home into a paradise.  My job was to keep it up until he could resume his work, but everyone knew those days were gone and would never come again.  Late in the afternoon, my father took me home.  My grandfather died later that night.

Our heroes are never supposed to die, but they do.  Every one.  The first John Wayne movie I ever saw was The Cowboys (1972).  In that film, Wayne must draft a bunch of kids for a cattle drive after his ranch hands abandon him to work the gold rush.  On the trail, cattle thieves ambush the green crew and kill John Wayne’s character.  Bruce Dern, the most psychotic of antagonists, shoots our hero in the back.  While watching the film, I could not believe John Wayne was dead.  My father kept saying that John Wayne never dies in his pictures, therefore, we both kept waiting for him to make a return, jump out from behind a tree or rock and take out Bruce Dern.  It did not happen.  In the end, the youngsters matured enough to save the day and exact revenge on the bad guys.

For so long, I identified with those young cowboys.  I hoped when the moment came, I would be brave and do what is necessary.  I am still trying, in every moment, across the years.

John Wayne and Edward Martin are gone now, relegated to history and the back pages of memory.  May they rest in peace.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Night

The quake rolled through a little after 9 PM and was immediately followed by a second:  5.1 and then, 3.4 on the Richter scale.  I went to my computer to look up the details.  Epicenter was in the town of Brea, about 25 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles.

In my apartment it felt like water swishing around a glass in a circular motion.  Not a sharp jolt; just a swaying dizzying sensation that, due to the second quake, felt like it went on for several minutes.  The dining room chandelier swirled overhead.  A few pops and creaks in the hardwood floors.

I walked outside into the still and quiet night.  No sirens, no commotion.  People moved down the street from their parked cars to the bar on the corner, laughing, teasing, voices filled with story.  I don’t think any of them were aware of the shifting of the earth in the night.

Back inside, I learned that the depth was only a mile, meaning that the shaking was felt over a larger area, and was particularly strong at the epicenter.  There was damage, unlike the last quake over a week ago.  And due to the sequence—a minor 3.6 shaker a little after 8 followed by the 5.1 and 3.4, scientists at Caltech were more than a little more adamant that a larger quake may follow in the next few hours, days, or even weeks.  How comforting!

Across the southland, people reported smashed dishes, fallen shelves, broken knick knacks.  Widely scattered power outages and broken water mains.  Probably more than a few jangled nerves.

It has not been an easy week.  (Is any week easy?)  Today, my wife’s school was on lockdown for the second time this month.  The first was due to possible gang retaliation at a funeral in the parish church.  The latest was the result of a parolee with a gun running from the end of a police chase.  There were several sightings of him in the side streets and alleys around the school, and the requisite army of LAPD officers swarmed the area.  Lots of yellow police tape and tense moments until the all-clear came through and the kids could go home and start their weekend.

In all of this normalcy—that’s what it is:  normal—I love coming home on Friday nights.  The fatigue actually feels good, like I’ve earned my rest.  We will spend the weekend reading, writing and catching up on household chores.  We will regroup and prepare for the challenges of next week.  Life is circular, always shifting and moving and reconfiguring itself, and we must roll with the change, the impermanence.

A police helicopter roars overhead flying northbound to some emergency.  Somewhere down the block a dog whines and barks once and then falls silent.  The crescent moon is disappearing, and the air outside is spring moist and damp, and smells of the ocean.

It is Friday night in Los Angeles, business as usual.  To the earth, the sky and my fellow inhabitants of this city of angels, rest easy, and take care.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Today’s 4.4 Quake 900 Times Weaker Than ’94 Northridge

San Andreas Fault near Los Angeles

Today’s 4.4 earthquake centered at the intersection of Mulholland Drive and the 405 freeway was 900 times weaker than the January 17, 1994 Northridge earthquake, according to the Los Angeles Times.

I guess we should be relieved.

The quake, a “light” one, according to the Southern California Earthquake Data Center, struck at 6:25 AM.  Already, YouTube clips of a number of local television anchors in various states of panic have been posted and re-posted across social media.  Bottom line, there was little damage and no reported injuries.  There have been a half dozen or more aftershocks, and of course, as every news outlet keeps insisting, this could be a prequel to a larger quake, but that only happens in five percent of seismic events.

Every day, I drive the Sepulveda pass right through the epicenter of today’s quake.  There was nothing unusual this morning, an hour after the event, and traffic was unexceptional.  The construction crews that have been camped out for a thousand years widening the 405 were still there pushing dirt around and playing in the gigantic sandbox that constitutes the clogged artery of the roadway also known as the San Diego Freeway.

The problem with today’s event is that we have not had a measurable quake in southern California in a while.  We have become complacent, lulled into our doldrums by stable ground and warm weather.  So at 6:25 we got a little reminder.

Nothing to fear but fear itself, to quote a long ago U.S. president.  For now.  Most scientists say a larger quake is coming, always on the horizon.  Is fracking making the likelihood greater?  Is there such thing as earthquake weather?  The first answer is maybe; the second is no.  But even without fracking, Los Angeles is earthquake country, and big ones happen with regularity, at least over geological time.

Earthquakes prey on the innate fear humans have of loss of control.  We have no warning of a quake.  We cannot flee to higher ground, or seek cover in a basement.  There is no earthquake season.  When Northridge hit in ’94, I thought I might move somewhere out of state to avoid future shifts in tectonics, but I found that every state has earthquakes, and although I consulted maps published by the United States Geological Survey, actual earth shaking since then has confirmed what I found on the maps.  The strongest earthquakes in the country occurred in Missouri in 1811-12 and registered 7.5 to 8.9 on the Richter scale.  They supposedly rattled plates in the White House, and the shaking was felt over one million square miles.  So it appears we cannot escape our quivering earth.

Unlike the frightened news anchors who dive under their desks on live television, we must remain cool and calm.  According to several sources, more people are killed running out of buildings during quakes than are killed sheltering in place.  So duck and cover, hold on, and wait for the shaking to stop.

And get used to it.  In Los Angeles, to paraphrase the philosopher Yogi Berra, an earthquake here is simply “déjà vu all over again.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

When The Fog Lifts

My colleague, a philosophy professor, was standing in the doorway of her office talking to a student who will be graduating in May.  “The question to ask is what do you want from your life?” she said to the young woman.  Graduation day is on the horizon.  The future’s calling.

What do you want from your life?

There are no coincidences.  Everything happens for a reason.  Kismet.  The moment when you catch the wind of change as it ruffles through the trees outside the window of your life.  That’s magic.  You know, as you stare at the stars, that there is something more.  This is not all there is.

We were eating dinner at home later that evening when my wife said something we’d both been thinking about for a long time.  It was time for a change.  Our life seemed stalled, caught in a holding pattern.  “We need to think about what the next phase of our life will be about,” she said.  “Where do we want to be in the future?”

For so long, we just tried to keep pace, we tried to stay afloat.  All through college and into the early days of our teaching careers, we just kept putting one foot in front of the other.  Just get through it.  Teach here.  Teach there.  We did not think about the future, about the after.  Time would take care of things.  Fate would dictate what we would do.

Only one day you wake up and you’re fifty and it is time to really think about what we want from our lives.  We’ve spent too many years compromising, taking whatever came next.  We survived, but now we wanted something more.

“We need to think about where we want to live,” she said.

Los Angeles has been wearing us down.  Too much traffic, too much crime.  In the morning, people wander up and down the block tearing through the trash looking for cans and recyclables.  They glare at us and mutter when we leave for work.  Late at night, drunks from the bar up the street wander around, getting in fights.  Gunshots and blood-curdling screams are not uncommon.  The neighborhood is in decline.  We cannot sleep, cannot find peace, cannot reach the still point.

So change may include moving away from L.A.  We both grew up here, have lived our entire lives within a five mile radius of where we live now.  We’ve traveled.  We’ve experienced other cities, some of which felt like they could have been home in another lifetime.  But what would it be like to leave L.A., the only home we’ve known, behind for good?

Truth is, the street where I live does not feel like home anymore.  Los Angeles is not a city that inspires loyalty.  It is not Philadelphia, or New York, or Boston.  It is a sun-blasted, jagged piece of broken glass, one good ground shift away from disaster.  Fires in the hills, sewage in the bay, a lot of phony people pissing on your leg and telling you it’s raining.  But we know better; as the song goes, it never rains in southern California, and at the end of the day, piss is always piss.

I told her about the discussion I overheard at work.  The question was meant for a 22 year old on the cusp of the rest of her life, but maybe it is a question we should all ask ourselves periodically at whatever age.  This is about stages, about chapters, about a story never finished.

Well, what would life be like in northern California, or Oregon, or New York?  Home is as much a state of mind as it is a physical place.  Even though we’ve grown up here, Los Angeles has never been complete enough to call home.  It is not like Battery Park in summer twilight, or the beach at Carmel on a crisp and windy winter’s day.

Maybe it should be painted in broader strokes.  The street where we choose to live is the street of the world.  The world is our home.  The world is part of the greater universe, therefore the universe is our home.

Maybe it should be more intimate and internal.  Wherever the two of us are, that is home.  Home is us, wherever in the universe we find ourselves at the end of the day.

We decide to raise our eyes and look to the horizon, to look beyond this moment, or even the next moment.  If life is a journey, we must never lose sight of the longer road.  Don’t confuse the street for the highway.  It will be a delicate balance to live in the present, to be in the moment while also telling ourselves that fate may have more in store for us.  The moment may be all we have, but it is not all.  We cannot live in a drop of rain without understanding that there are storm clouds and sunlight and a bigger world, and destiny means recognizing the river of rain that flows into the greater sea.  Life is large, to paraphrase Whitman; it contains multitudes of possibilities.  We are never too old to think of what might be possible if we dare to dream.

So we begin to think and plan and throw out some cosmic rays into the universe and see what comes of it.

What do you want from your life?

We want more.