Thursday, May 30, 2013

This is the Real Memorial Day

May 30th is the real Memorial Day. Last Monday was the "observed" day, accommodating our lust for three day weekends. For those you who are old enough, the original name of the commemoration was "Decoration Day." The observance has several forerunners, all initiated to honor the fallen soldiers and sailors of the American Civil War.

Though the day has evolved to be commemoration of all our fallen servicemen, it is an opportunity to reflect on that most vicious and deadly of American conflicts. The low end estimate of fatalities alone in that single war equated to 2% of the total US population in 1860. Translated to today: more than six million American dead.

As a once and future history teacher, I strive to bring the relevance of our legacy to our youth. I have used every means available to capture their attention and stimulate their questioning minds. Among the many tools I use are audio-visual techniques, including selections from Hollywood movies rather than dry documentaries. For those questions the efficacy of this method, may I recommend you rent Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

You might think that the massive scale the six million fatality figure should make a lasting impression. Recent scholarship has revised the long-held base number upwards by 20%, meaning more than seven million American fatalities.

There is a problem with trying to impress students with the staggering numbers of the fallen. Numbers alone do not tell the story without context. A man once said, "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic..." How true.* We balance the carnage by bringing the horrific tale close to home, perhaps focusing on the story of a single family placing flowers on a grave--Decoration Day.

The name change to Memorial Day began in the late 19th Century, yet I recall calendars from my childhood (the 50's and 60's) that still listed May 30th as Decoration Day. Congress acted to settle the issue in 1967, establishing uniform guidelines for the naming of holidays; the next year, they created the Monday Holiday Bill which established the current state of affairs.

Veterans Day in November is a day to remember the sacrifice of all who served, focusing on the living veterans.** Memorial Day is our chance to focus to thank those who "gave their last full measure of devotion." You may choose, as I do, to specifically recall those who sacrificed their all to save our precious union when it was most at risk. God bless their memory, and may God bless these united states.

*This poignant quote is attributed to none other than Josef Stalin.
**For more discussion on the Memorial Day/Veterans Day comparison, cut and paste the following link:

Monday, May 27, 2013

Beach Blanket Bingo

This Memorial Day (observed) is May 27th, a Monday holiday kicking off the unofficial start of summer. You can safely break out the white pants, skirts and shoes without Miss Manners having an MI. This applies most to the Atlantic Seaboard. My wife, a New Jersey girl born and bred, was wondering why Memorial Day isn't the big deal here in California that is on the East Coast. "Probably because it's beach weather most of the time in California," she ventured. And I have to agree.

Memorial Day weekend is gridlock time back east. You haven't seen traffic until you've seen the L.I.E. (Long Island Expressway) back up for miles and miles with New York City-dwellers "rushing" for the beaches, or seen the Chesapeake Bay Bridge backed up all the way to Washington,  D.C. and Baltimore, a double-pronged nightmare that lasts, well, for three days. Repeat the aforementioned scenario on the July 4th and Labor Day weekends.

In the Golden State we often have warm weather spikes even in "winter months," while along the Northern California coast we often have chilly, foggy days in July and August. Growing up in the fog bank known as South City, we accepted the fact that warm days could sneak up anytime; we kept the beach chairs, blankets and towels in the car trunk all year. January heat wave? The beach was just fifteen minutes away.

I will stipulate that the Pacific is one cold ocean, at least in California.The East Coast has their treasured Gulf Stream which means much warmer water in those few summer months. Check. I have visited South Carolina, land of long, flat beaches and shallow ocean swimming. You can wade out a hundred yards off certain beaches and still be standing, Of course, this advantage if off-set by water temperatures that rise so high in August, the Atlantic offers no refreshment. If you get hot and sweaty (as you will in less than an hour by merely breathing the thick, humid air), go home and shower. Then take an air-conditioned nap because it ain't coolin' down anytime soon.

Meanwhile, in California we have a plethora of what we call micro-climates. In South City, a neighboring family I know chose to drive a mere thirty-five minutes across the San Francisco Bay Bridge to a lovely little lake in the Oakland Hills called Lake Temescal to find warm weather and warm water swimming. As a twenty-something year-old living in the City, I often drove a whole forty-five minutes to work on my tan beside a friend's apartment pool in Silicon Valley. Plan ahead for the full hour it took to drive up north into Napa or Sonoma Wine Country and don't forget the Bain de Soleil, mon frere.  The sweet mist of Pacific fog on my sun-reddened face was always a refreshing welcome home at the end of a summer afternoon out of town.

 As a child, I watched the Beach Blanket movies and wondered, why don't Frankie and Annette ever get cold?  Then I went on vacation to Santa Monica. No longer captive of the Japanese and Alaskan Currents, the Pacific felt like a completely different ocean experience. Then my older sister started to scream and scream. Bingo! Jellyfish, right between the thighs.Now that never happened to Annette, either.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Feels Like Home to Me

The kids came home from college Monday. Not all three, the oldest is in the Washington, D.C.area, working until his post-grad program at Georgetown University begins in August. Having successfully completed their junior years at UC Berkeley and Pacific, the other two are home. It's a new place to all of us. Since I'm the "homemaker" in the family, just equate my emotions with the classic mom's in the usual scenario. I missed them so much, I could squeeze the life out of them. 

In March, we moved to our new place south of Salinas in Monterey County. It was a coming home of sorts. We lived a few miles north of Salinas for thirteen years before the four years in Bakersfield. Part of this move was a timely decision to down-size. We lost a couple of bedrooms, the gourmet kitchen, a family room, a pool, and downsized the garage and yard. Our lives are different, but there are some touch points. Would it ever be a "home" that our boys would want to come home to?

This is home now, the view from our deck in Indian Springs Ranch this morning.

It's a pretty setting, but it has only housed the two of us (my wife and I) since we moved in two months ago. We hadn't even had an overnight guest yet. Now sharing the same space with two 21 year-old boys (men?) would be an adjustment, but that's to be expected. They're only around for a week or ten days until they take off for summer internships in San Francisco and Connecticut. Precious little time. 

When I was a freshman at college, my mother sold the only home I'd ever lived in after Christmas. Coming home for Easter and then summer was unsettling, if not a complete shock. Though she'd only moved five miles, the place never felt like home to me. My former home in a familiar neighborhood was exchanged for a one bedroom apartment with a pull-out sofa for me. I scraped up two jobs for the summer, using leg power, public transportation and my bike to pull it off. I depended on my old friends to come collect me at the apartment if I wanted a social life (and you can bet I wanted-and found-a social life!). 

Now my boys have it quite different. There are bedrooms for each of them, a car at their disposal, and exciting summer plans that mean little time with us old folks in the new place in a new town. On Monday, the nervous homemaker wondered, did I make it a nice home for them? When they arrived, the belated birthday dinner was ready, the parents anxious, the boys running late. They loved the house, settle in quickly, appreciated it all. The transition was fairly seamless. On their first day here, they already met an old friend for lunch in Monterey, spent a lazy afternoon with their toes buried in the sand of Carmel Beach, their minds decidedly on vacation.

This morning I've already noted the piles of dirty laundry, the messy counter top, the shower doors that didn't get squeegeed. My oldest boy called from D.C. to discuss finances. The reality of raising kids and the routine of a full house slapped me in the face before the clock even struck eight a.m. It feels like home at last.

I took a peek at the schedule on the kitchen calendar. The first child leaves home Sunday, the second soon thereafter. The countdown to an empty nest has begun already. Sunday, please don't come so soon. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Is Multi-Tasking Dangerous, or Is It Just Me?

Dateline-San Diego-Saturday, May 18, 2013

So here I am in a San Diego condo, watching the morning news while my wife is dressing. Husbands with tenure in the institution of marriage will recognize this state of affairs. On a long weekend trip, battling for a precious few moments in the single bathroom, then dressing. Badda-bing, badda-boom! We're done. The wife, not yet ready. Not for a long while.  

Gentlemen, assume your position. That position being on the edge of the hotel bed (or my case, the condo couch), watching TV news to distract us from our real thoughts. Ladies, you don't wanna know what our real thoughts are. OK, that's misleading, you know we're only thinking, "Hurry up, already!" We're quite simple creatures, really.

Now, back to the morning news...Talking Head is interviewing Doctor So-and-So about the dangers of multi-tasking. Generally speaking, we're talking about doing several things at once. The mellow doctor from Scripps Institute thinks this is a bad idea. Do I really need to tell you that Dr. So-and-So is a male doctor? He believes that trying to do two or more things at the same time is unhealthily stressful and inefficient; we are training ourselves to do less than our best at any one task, for the sake of ticking off our to-do lists. We trumpet our juggling acumen at the expense of qualitative output.

"We're becoming, like, 'Jacks-of-all-trades' then?" said Talking Head.

"And masters of none. Exactly," said Doctor.

Well, I could've told you that! But the wife would disagree. She has been known to characterize my technical expertise with electronic devices as "challenged" while mumbling something about the inability of males to multi-task.  Au contraire, mon frere. I had this argument in business school a gazillion years ago. (Gazillion is a technical term for "I'm not tellin' cuz I don't want to admit how long ago it was." It's common parlance among MBA candidates at The George Washington University and aficionados of Saturday morning cartoons).

Way back then, we called it "polyphasic behavior." Dr. So-and-So actually used that term; he said that the terminology evolved in the Nineties (okay, you can do the math--I was in grad school in the Eighties). My Eighties-era professor, Dr. Andersen, introduced us to the concept with almost as much disdain as he held for GWU students; He was a visiting professor from Stanford, after all. Which I believe he told us four times in the first five minutes of class (not that he was condescending or anything). Back then, Dr. Andersen made the similar case about the increase in stress and the decrease in quality of our work as a society.

I could see that, Ms. Multi-Tasker. I could see that talking on your cell phone while applying make up in the rear view mirror as you're driving to work in rush hour traffic has hazardous potential. Forget about my car bumper for just a second--do you really want people at the office to think you applied your mascara with a trowel? I'm just sayin'...

My quibble with Professor Stanford University was not that one's work (or driving) suffered from a shocking lack of proper attention; I argued that for some people, polyphasic behavior was a soothing, rather than stress-inducing activity.

I presented my case study (the was business school, remember?) JV was my long-time friend and roommate. The perfect end to his work day meant grabbing some Jack-in-the-Box on the way home from the bank. He would spread the day's San Francisco Chronicle out in the floor in front of the television, then place his fast food delicacies out on the unread classifieds. He proceeded to:
  1. Eat his Jumbo Jack, fries, apple pie and wash it down with a coke,
  2. while watching the evening news with total recall, and
  3. simultaneously reading the Chronicle with sterling comprehension (I quizzed him on occasion)
"Professor Andersen," I insisted, "JV found this nightly routine relaxing--not stressful at all." Many of my fellow students chimed in to support my position, to no avail. The erst-while Stanford professor did not appreciate my argument any more than I appreciated the "B" he gave me in that class.

This morning, Dr. So-and-So of Scripps Institute finished his TV discussion by pointing out that the evolution of the terminology from "polyphasic" to "multi-task" was in itself a cultural phenomenon attempting excusing the multi-tasking trend by focusing attention on the performance rather than the time, thus sounding more productive rather than less (which, he argued, it was). Take that, dear.

Nonetheless, my wife would point to the dad who promised his wife he'd watch the kids while she was out proves the point. "No problem, Honey," he'd said. "I can check my e-mail, text my boss, clean the kitchen, pop dinner in the oven and keep an eye on the kids. Don't worry, it's called multi-tasking!" What could possibly go wrong? 


Be Careful What You Wish for

So many kids want to be famous, it is a staple of childhood dreams. "I'm gonna be President someday," etc. Then we get older and realize that the American dream is, arguably, to be rich and famous. We get through high school, graduate and for some us repeat the process through college and beyond. Making our parents proud, making our siblings and friends drool with envy, as fully formed adults, isn't that enough reward as it is? Not without lots of cash, it isn't. We need to accumulate "stuff," material things that we wear as a badge of accomplishment to impress complete strangers. "He who dies with the most toys, wins!" Sound familiar? The circle is complete, back to square one.

Yet there is a very large downside to fame: the sacrifice of one's privacy and perhaps dignity. There was a young freshman who arrived at my smallish college one year. She was the offspring of two famous Hollywood actors, long-since remarried to new spouses, they were the "Brangelina" of their day. The daughter of that union was an instant sensation the moment she arrived at our cloistered campus. I heard many stories about the hottest freshman ever to set foot in our ivy-covered halls, though I hadn't yet laid eyes upon her. Frat boys and undergrads alike were in love with the very idea of her--rich, famous, and certainly gorgeous; with genes like that, how could she not? The backlash began in Sorority Circle, catty names and ill-sourced rumors I shall not repeat. The awe-struck boys and envious co-eds had one thing in common: precious few had actually met the young lady around whom so much speculation was spun.

A week or so into the school year, I came home to my frat house from an afternoon's classes to find two freshman girls, one tall and one short, sitting on the front porch beside our house mother. We were introduced. I found them pleasant and funny, they seemed to accept my meager charms. I invited them to dinner, they were the perfect guests. It was a matter of days before I connected the dots--the tall girl was the child of the famous actors. She was totally unlike the infamy that had preceded her. We became good friends, in spite of silly campus chatter.

In time, the Hollywood child joined the family business (so to speak), and developed her own successful career in front of the camera. Her new career on the path of fame led her away from old friends. It was not so much that we were discarded, rather that we became separated by the walls built around her to hold back the tide of public scrutiny. College friendships truncated by her rise to fame, small casualties of her success. I only hope that she is happy on her side of that divide; by all accounts, she is doing well enough without us.

"Rich?" I've often said, "Well, yes, the advantages of wealth are quite apparent. But famous? No, thank you very much." I have moved a bit in my life, and lived in large cities and small communities. There are great advantages to being an anonymous observer and quiet participant in such circumstances. The all-seeing omniscient walking among the throngs of fascinating people, unfettered by the bounds of recognition, inspired by the newness of sociological discoveries. Fellow writers take note.

So we write. We write what we observe, what we percieve, what we imagine. Gleaning information, captivated by the impressions garnered through those observations, we distill ideas, weave stories, construct narratives and create. Writers are as varied as the persons they observe, but I trust it is fair to say that we desire to have have our writing appreciated. I dare say that any, if not all, appreciation that comes the way of a writer is welcome; accolades are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Perhaps the aspiring writer dreams of such great success that s/he is even published. The published work is well-received, the publicity machine is geared up and ready to go. Success, as measured by the twin demons Wealth and Fame, tantalizing, are just beyond our reach...but first, the beast must be fed: the Book Tour awaits.  

Cut and paste the link below and remember to be careful what you wish for.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mother(in-law)'s Day

Don't get all snarky on me about me about mothers-in-law. Sure they've been the staple of Borscht Belt and late night comics' routines for decades But when my relationship with my future missus reached the point of official engagement, I faced up to the reality of dealing with my very own mother-in-law. I planned on only having one, so I wanted the relationship to go well. And it worked out quite well, thank you very much.

When I first met Eleanor, we lived on opposite coasts--she in a fancy apartment with a million-dollar view of Manhattan, me the poor kid from the Left Coast. My intended and I were a little older than many betrothed couples, but we were the same age, twenty-eight. Since we were the youngest siblings of our respective broods, our parents were also on the older side. My initial impression of my future mother-in-law was quite positive: she was lovely, energetic, enthusiastic and quite attractive for her age (whatever that was). The old saw is that if a young man wants to project how his bride will age, look closely at her mother. All signs looked good.

Mothers and daughters have their own unique relationships and histories, but we sons-in-law are starting with a clean slate. I worked hard to have a good relationship with my new "mom," which she made quite easy. I moved to the Atlantic Seaboard., didn't rush the engagement, pursued my masters degree, got married in a church she approved of. We bonded. The best part of our budding relationship revolved around the kitchen. Eleanor Larsen was a marvelous cook and hostess; I loved to cook while her daughter had little interest in the domestic arts. I relished the opportunity to learn, she had a knack for teaching. Simpatico.

Shortly after my wife completed her medical residency, we became parents of first one, then two perfect baby boys. These blessed events would inadvertently spotlight my mother-in-law's two charming quirks. The first was that she didn't care to be called "grandma." My wife's older siblings had come up with their own solutions: "Grammy," "Grandma Elly," and so forth. I could tell that these compromises were somewhat less than satisfactory for her. The real issue was her sensitivity about her age; there was no getting around the off-putting sound of grand-anything to her ears. We were saved by the creativity of my oldest, who took to imitating his grandmother's  habit of  effusive praise. Eleanor was wont to remark that our new home, our new car, our town and most everything else was "lovely, lovely, lovely." Young Alexander mimicked her compliments by marching about chanting,  "Lovey, lovey, lovey..." A new and satisfactory nickname was happily adopted by one and all (for those of you who are fans of Gilligan's Island, the ironic comparison to Lovey Howell was not lost on us).

Dear Lovey's second quirk was really the annoying manifestation of her obsession with youth. Thanks to her genes and the fact that Lovey was a non-drinker,obsessive walker and overall health nut,  she looked much younger than just about every other woman her age; but then, what was her age, exactly? She not only refused to tell, any discussion of matters that could or would narrow down the number of years she'd been a resident of the planet Earth were not fit for discussion,  ever. Sure, one could approximate, based her oldest son's age and so forth, but only at the peril of the ice-cold silent treatment that could quite possibly become a permanent state of affairs. I flirted with that punishment when I openly ventured that since Lovey and my father-in-law dated in high school, one could guess that she was within a year or two of...? My wife stopped that dangerous speculation in the nick of time.

Truth was, my wife's family had been trained  over the decades to ignore the issue completely. Lovey's birthday was never celebrated. Never. There is a family legend about a surprise birthday party that my innocent and surprisingly naive father-in-law planned in honor of a milestone, perhaps her thirtieth or fortieth birthday (whispered versions vary). Upon Lovey's arrival unawares, the guests yelled, "Surprise!" and the guest of honor silently turned heel and left, never to return. The date was never again acknowledged. Instead, every year a somewhat larger fuss was made and more significant presents given on Mother's Day. So the family tradition remained to the end of her days.

Both in-laws are gone now. When we visit  their final resting place, a peaceful memorial garden at their church, one can't help but smile. Their adjacent stones are simply engraved, "John W. Larsen, 1914~1990" and "Eleanor W. Larsen." Her birth and death dates are not noted. Lovey remains ageless even in death, God bless her quirky soul.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Thirteen's Not Enough

Thirteen isn't supposed to be a lucky number, but if you're counting the years, thirteen is better than twelve. Another year's distance from the memory, more insulation wrapping the pain. 

May 9, 2000. 5:35 PM. Just another dinner hour, the evening news was playing while I made dinner for my two sons, eight and eleven. My wife was working late, the boys were busy with their homework after swim practice. The phone rang. "Davyd? It's Tim. We need to talk? I'm not kidding..."

I can't just now recall who I thought I was talking to. Another Tim? Someone named Jim? I do know that I thought it was someone I knew, but not my sister's roommate. They were just friends and co-workers, Tim rented a room in Judy's house in Fremont, about eighty minutes north. She needed his help. It was a crazy household, including Judy's twenty-two year-old  son Kenny and a revolving set of special needs foster kids made it so.

"I have some news about Judy..." he said, haltingly. 

Oh, that Tim...OK, so what's the joke? They were kinda silly that way, Judy and Tim. Calling just to share a joke, or have me settle an argument over a trivia question. But not this time. This time, a freight train was rushing down the track at me warp speed, silently. Did I know the next words were coming? Was my mind racing that quickly?

Four little words, "There's been an accident." Four simple words that can mean just a little when they're followed by "But everyone's okay," or "I don't want to worry you, but your sister just wanted me to let you know..." I wanted to hear those words, I expected to hear them, or something like them. Judy was irreverent, silly, a kidder. Her goal in life was to take care of everybody around her, to disarm with her humor, to charm them with her singing. But those weren't the next words Tim spoke, after an interminable silence. 

"There's been a terrible accident, with the car." 

What's that sound? This is...not right. "Tim? Where's Judy?"

"She's dead."  

An electric shock that began in my forehead tore through my body and knocked the wind from my lungs. The sounds I heard were crying, distant crying, halting breaths, wailing. Pain. Those were the sounds I was hearing, sounds that grew louder over the next minutes, hours and days. Ringing in my ears, emanating from my core. Sounds that echo down the years, now thirteen and counting.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Weather You Like It or Not

This is my new life, in a new place, weather you like it or not. I love the weather here in Monterey County: daily temperatures have hovered between 65 and 75 degrees just about every day. Brilliant sunshine, fresh ocean air, occasional fog in the mornings. We call that writer's weather. This is what my new neighborhood looks like.

Don't get me wrong, we LOVED our house in Haggin Oaks. We nicknamed the place "Melissa's Oasis," since my wife found her peace thereafter long days at the hospital. We hunkered down in our little slice of private bliss, shutting out the cares of the world...often cranking up the AC to the max. Full disclosure: I don't do well in hot weather. We moved to Bakersfield from Monterey County three and a half years ago. The hope was that your humble narrator, "the weather wimp," would get used to the finer aspects of 100 degree-plus weather. I don't know anyone who knows me that took that bet.

I'm a San Francisco kid, born in The City, raised in South San Francisco (aka "South City"). In this case, "south" doesn't imply warmer, it means "directly in the heaviest fog belt, down wind from Daly City, on the way to SFO." My formative years were spent cuddled in a cool blanket of fog. My mother had spent part of her childhood in Taft, part in the Ozarks of Missouri; she knew her heat, wet and dry. Since she liked her relations, I spent many hours melting into days in a variety of station wagons with four older siblings and no air conditioning, travelling to strange places with names like "Visalia," "Bakersfield" and "Joplin."

My father believed that tying a burlap bag full of water to our station wagon's grille would make those summer treks tolerable. It didn't. The only hope that keep us kids alive as we lurched toward the next motel pool were A&W Root Beer stands. I scoured  maps to determine the distance to the next orange-and-brown haven.  I knew every exit off of US 99 between Tracy and Bakersfield that led to the promise land of soothing, life-giving root beer floats.

In my twenties, I had a job that took me to New York City and a fateful rendezvous with a certain lovely redhead. We settled down in our nation's capital, where I got up close and personal with a demon called Humidity. I had one vendor there named Dan who would show up to my office with his polo shirt soaked in sweat, proclaiming "I love the heat, the hotter, the better!" At my house, it was a different story. The kids would come running inside for lunch and complain, "It's like a 'fridgerator in here, Dad!" I could always be counted on for the same reply, "Then you may go back outside, if you like."

When I moved from DC to Salinas in '97. I learned that the locals no longer call it " fog," it's "the marine layer" these days. Summer pool parties meant cranking the pool up to 85 degrees, entertaining guests between noon and three, before the marine layer rolled back in. Once you got out of the pool, the party moved indoors. Suited me just fine.

True heat waves are rare around these parts. One afternoon on a trip out of town, my cell phone rang. It was my college boy calling from home. "Hey Dad, it's probably the hottest day I've spent in California. I don't want to worry you, but I think our air conditioning is broken." After living in Monterey County for ten years, he had no idea that our only conditioner was known as "the Pacific."

This past week,  the thermometer has been inching upwards, the hottest days being Thursday and Friday. There were heat advisories on the news, just like in Bakersfield, with the usual admonitions about drinking lots of water, not letting the kids exercise outdoors too much, and please don't forget to take care of Fido, too.Temperature records were set--I believe the thermometer reached a scorching 88 degrees. Do I hear laughter down there in the San Joaquin Valley? Seems purdy hot up here, weather y'all like it or not. I guess it's all a matter of perspective.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

That Old Mrs. Adams

There have been several postings about how we are shaped by our school day experiences in permanent ways. Several of the most recent blogs have been about the impact that certain teachers have had on their lives. I echo these sentiments, with special kudos to Mrs. Riddle (1st Grade), the fabulous Miss Westbrook (4th Grade) and the incomparable Frau Scoble (10th Grade German). I cherish the continuing relationship I still have with Frau Scoble; I still struggle to call her "Barbara" when we meet. She's thrilled I have now become a teacher.

The more curious case was my Sixth Grade teacher. Our class was, back in the days of shameless tracking, the "A" class. It was embarrassingly obvious how the classes were designated, even to eleven year-olds. It's all we talked about the first few weeks of school. In their infinite wisdom, Buri-Buri Elementary simply dropped five portables on the playground and stocked them with tracked classes, A, B, C, D, F, in descending order. My heart ached for the kids at the far end of the Sixth Grade row, already labeled "losers" in the game of life.

The rarified atmosphere of the "A" class was tainted only by our new, untested teacher, Mrs. Adams. The "B" kids had the young pretty, fun Miss Jones. Adams was taciturn, middle-aged and altogether way too serious. She seemed to have a very short temper and little tolerance for boys. The girls were kinder, but that was no surprise. They gathered about her desk before the first bell like little chicks flocking about the hen; the boys huddled in the back by the coat closets, engrossed in the latest exploits of Mays, Marichal, McCovey and the San Francisco Giants.

One Monday morning I arrived to find classmates in a semi-circle on the classroom porch. Nail-etched graffiti scored the new yellow door with three or four epithets directed at Mrs. Adams. When she arrived moments later, the embarrassed class parted. Our teacher was face-to-face with the defaced door of her new classroom, now a billboard of venomous ridicule. I will never forget seeing her usual pallor flush suddenly, violently scarlet when she spied the insult. Inside the classroom, the chicks clustered about their wounded hen, while the boys retreated to their huddle eyeing one another and questioning, "Who did it?" The playground was open and used by anyone on the weekends, but who would bother with such a mean prank--other than one of Mrs. Adams' own students?

"Mr. Morris," came the chilling voice of our teacher. "Mr. Jensen is expecting you in his office." Mr. Jensen was our vice-principal, notorious for his resemblance to "Lurch" from the "Addams Family" TV show. He was the discipline guy; I had never been to his office, not even once.

"But why...?"

"Now," came the icy blast. She retreated to her desk without ever having looked at me. I collected my coat and slunk to the Office.

"Do you know why you're here?" Mr. Jensen didn't look at me either. He was rolling up his sleeves already. My eyes darted about the room, finally spotting the infamous paddle in the corner.

"Well...yes," I answered. It was painfully obvious, and about to get physically painful.

"Okay, then. Take off your coat and come around here..."

"But I didn't do it!"

Mr. Jensen lurched backwards. "What do didn't do it?"

"I saw the stuff on the door, same as everyone else. That's all. I don't know why Adams sent me here." Other than a foursome of older siblings who had very mixed reputations as students, that is. I, on the other hand, was the academic of the family. Other than precociousness that manifested itself in repeatedly correcting my teachers on their historical facts, I was never a trouble-maker.

"Your teacher recognized your handwriting," the old, smug Mr. Jensen replied.

My handwriting? It was some scratching with a penny nail, or maybe a spike. Printed, too--I never printed after I learned cursive--so how would she even know my printing? I thought quickly, "You better not touch me. My mother needs to be here." He froze. The Mom Card had been played. I'd waited years for this moment.

My mother was rarely able to stop my father's belt in time to save me, though I rarely gave him reason for a whipping. But at school, my mother was a force to be reckoned with, known and loved by all. She'd been PTA president twice and room mother for each of her five kids, several times each. When she arrived, she had only one question for me: "Did you know anything at all about this?" I was saved by the truth.

Mrs. Adams never apologized, which I couldn't understand. Everybody makes mistakes. I felt sorry for her, to have her first month with her dream class soiled that way. She turned out to be a very different kind of teacher, not great, but very interesting and I was sad to see the year end in June.

Buri-Buri School was on my way home from junior high, so I stopped in occasionally to say hi and peruse Mrs. Adams' great collection of books. She appreciated my visits, but her emotional distance remained. I tried to see her once after I started high school, but Mrs. Adams had moved on to another school in a distant town. I was disappointed, because the true culprit had finally revealed himself; I think she would have liked to have some closure.

I had bumped into an old friend named Kirk when I walking home from football practice on a day that my ride left early. We'd been classmates in Fourth and Fifth Grades, but come the Sixth, Kirk was demoted to the "C" class. We stayed friends for a couple more years after that, but lasting friendship was ultimately a casualty of our divergent paths. My old buddy was working on his motorcycle in his driveway that afternoon when our eyes met. He called me over, even offered me a beer, but it didn't seem like the time or place for my first beer. We quickly ran out things to say. We stood there awkwardly, looking across the street at the elementary school playground. You could still see the pecking order laid out from the haves to the have-nots, A to F. I was searching for the right exit line when Kirk finally spoke up. "Hey," he said, jerking his head toward the distant line of classroom portables, "Remember that old Mrs. Adams?"