Sunday, September 29, 2013

French Twist

“French twist” evokes visions of a hairstyle, or perhaps a donut made of braided dough—preferably glazed with chocolate. I am sailing among the Greek islands under the tricolor of France aboard the ship L’Austral, Tonight, we’re cruising from the ancient port of Rhodes on its eponymous island toward the island of Patmos farther up the Aegean Sea.

Now on the far side of fifty, I readily acknowledge the compilation of my own bucket list. These lists are populated with dream destinations and activities that I hope to accomplish before crossing the proverbial River Styx. Forgive the Greek mythological reference—did I mention that I’m writing this from my cabin while I cruise the Greek islands?  Check one big one of that bucket list…

I knew that the shipboard experience might be less Greek than I had anticipated from the very start on Wednesday. Our shipboard orientation began shortly after casting off from Greece’s main port of Piraeus. “Bonjour!” announced Captain Jean-Philippe Lemaire’s with a hearty welcome. His accent was thick, but with enough concentration I could decipher his message. The social director’s impermeable French accent, however, would have challenged even Julia Child’s extensive linguistic skills. Yes, it would be a French crew on this French ship--I just wish I could understand the overhead announcements.

The theme carried over to our shipboard menu. Croissants, sauce bernaise, escargot—the menu offers certifiably French cuisine  (which thankfully, I love).  To those grumps who sneer at the very wet scrambled eggs at the breakfast buffet, I say: order an omelet and quit complaining.  At a loss for the Greek word meaning “thank you,” I acknowledged our waiter’s attentions by saying “Merci beaux coups.”

He brightened, “Monsiuer, you speak French?”

I blushed, “That’s about all of my French.” He was nonetheless quite pleased; he gives me a bit larger pour of the wine every time.

Last night, we cast off for our next port of call at 10 pm. After a sumptuous feast of stuffed guinea fowl and foie gras, we joined some friends at the outdoor bar on the top deck for farewell cocktails.  I settled down with my glass of Greek wine and scanned the panorama of Rhodes’ crenelated battlements and the commanding Palace of the Grand Masters illuminated against the dark skies of a moonless night. These stone works are the handiwork of the Medieval Knights of St. John more than 700 years ago. No, they weren’t Greek knights either; they were Frankish veterans of the Crusades.

Suddenly, five members of the crew dressed as sailors skipped onto the poolside deck below us, dancing to an unfamiliar tune. One girl followed with a ballad or two that sounded very much like the famous French chanteuse of yesteryear, Edith Piaf. As our ship slipped out of port and past the lights of Rhodes, the dancing sailors returned with their finale: a Gallic version of the Village People’s camp classic “In the Navy.” We cried “Bon voyage!” clinked our wineglasses and happily toasted our fabulous Greek vacation with a decidedly French twist.  Vive le France!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


"Education is the key to dreams: developing them and fulfilling them,” Mom said. I knew she was right. I caught the college bug from her; I can’t say why my four older siblings didn’t. I may have been the first person in my family to graduate from college, but I wasn’t the first to attend.  My mother, Dorothy, tried three times at three different colleges. In her case, three strikes took her dream out.

 Education wasn’t too important to my mother’s dad, that’s for sure--especially for a girl, and most especially for his daughter. My mom was living on a small Missouri farm when it came time for high school in the fall of 1937. Her father said there wasn’t any need for her to go to high school; she was needed to work the farm. “Schoolin’s fer boys,” he said. Luckily for my mother, her maternal grandfather thought otherwise; he paid for a hired man to take my mother’s place in the fields during the school year. Free to pursue her dreams of education, my mom became the valedictorian of her seven-person class four years later.

 My mother Dorothy earned a scholarship to Carson-Newman College in Tennessee, which she attended along with some more support from her grandpa (much to her father’s distress).   But after one year, the scholarship ran out and her grandfather died. The twin blows brought Dorothy down, but she was far from out; Mom wasn’t through. She earned some money and got some help from her widowed grandma. She started college again, this time at Southwest Missouri State Teacher’s College in Springfield, a short drive from home. 

My mom loved her new roommate, a California girl also named Dorothy. They settled confusion by calling the roommate “Dee” and my mother “Max,” short for her detested middle name, Maxine. When Dee’s parents came to visit from San Francisco, my mother buttonholed them, begging the Burdetts for stories about their California. My mother had lived in Taft, California from age one until she was eight. She always wanted to return.

Unfortunately, Dorothy’s grandma and last benefactor did not survive that school year. Her choices were to go back to the farm or strike out on her own. Dorothy chose to set her course for California, the land of her dreams. She headed to San Francisco, where she figured she had a place to live and wartime jobs were plentiful. I heard this story again from Dee’s dad (who I called “Grandpa Burdett”) years later. He told my mother, “If you’re ever in San Francisco, you can come stay with us.”  Grandpa looked at me and said, “And you know, one day I came home from work and there she was, sittin’ on her suitcase on my front porch in San Francisco…”

 Dorothy landed a job as a “Winnie the welder” in the Kaiser shipyards, building Liberty ships. She made good money and used it start college for a third time, at the University of California, Berkeley, taking night classes.

 When the war ended, the shipyards started to wind down. Workers were laid off—women first. My mother couldn’t afford those night classes anymore. Then she met my dad. Six weeks later, they were married. Five kids in nine years killed her dreams of college forever—well, almost.

 In 1973, her youngest child (yours truly) went off to college.  My divorced mother soon found a new place to live, with her old college roommate Dee, also a recent divorcee. She moved to Palo Alto and got a new job: as the executive secretary to the director of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Mom finally got back to college, but in a completely different kind of way.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dorothy Does California

My mother Dorothy, circa 1977
"Ooh, you've got to sit down and watch this movie me," my mom said. "It's called The Disappearance of Aimee. It's history, about a lady I saw when I was a little girl..."

It was 1976, I was home from college and looking for a bit more excitement than an evening watching The Hallmark Hall of Fame.

My mom, Dorothy, scowled back; she'd noted my eye-roll. "Listen, you love movies, and this one's got Faye Dunaway as Aimee Semple McPherson and Bette Davis as her manipulating mother. It's California history--with popcorn and chocolate." She waved the Jolly Time can and Ghirardelli candy bars at me.

Hmmm. Tempting. I 'm a history geek, a chocoholic and a movie nut--this movie had interesting casting, too. I checked my watch. Made-for-TV movies are usually done by ten. Plenty of time to party afterwards. I grabbed the popcorn bowl. "How'd you met this Aimee lady that I only sorta heard of?"

Dorothy Maxine Pond, was born on a farm, though she was never much of a "farm girl." That farm was in Polk County, Missouri, on the north side of the Ozarks. The nearest town was Halfway, Missouri. "Because it's half-a-da-way 'tween Bolivar and Buffalo," (as if you didn't know). Population hovered around an even 100 then, about 173 nowadays. She was born April 18, 1923. "The seventeenth anniversary of the 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco," Mom always pointed out; she wanted to people to know that she was, in an odd way, a California girl from the very start.

Word has it that my maternal grandpa Roy wasn't much in love with farming. His wife's two brothers, Van and Zan, didn't much care for the farm life,either. They'd lit out for the golden hills of "Cal-lee-for-nigh-yay" where there was word of opportunity for a better life. The brothers found success, they bragged, earning good money in the oil fields of Kern County. While my mother was still a toddler, her parents loaded up a worse-for-wear Model T and headed west to settle in tumbleweed-strewn town called Taft.

After eight years driving trucks for Standard Oil and seeing three more children into this world, my grandparents were still just scrapin' by in that parched village. The family story is that my grandparents decided to attend what they called a "tent revival" show that was all the rage in those days. The religious production featured the famous faith-healer Aimee Semple McPherson. She was widely known as "Sister Aimee," a former Pentecostal minister who now preached her brand of religion which she called "the Foursquare Gospel."

Sister Aimee had largely forsaken the tent revival circuit by the time the Pond family came to catch her worship service. The Foursquare Gospel was now to be heard in their own cathedral, the Angelus Temple, which still exists on Glendale Boulevard in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles (not far from Dodger Stadium, a more recently-built temple of sorts).

Sister Aimee may have been a native Canadian, but she a true convert to the flash and dash showmanship that epitomized America in the Roaring 20's. With the advent of the Great Depression in the early 30's, she modified her presentation a bit. Gone were the ""talking in tongues" fits, replaced by a choir of more than three hundred and even a live camel brought in to demonstrate exactly how difficult it would be to pass the dromedary through the proverbial eye of any needle. The miracles of healing through faith were made the centerpiece of her evangelical services. By the time my grandparents brought their four children to the Angelus Temple, the Sister Aimee show was the hottest live ticket in Hollywoodland, performing weekly to sold-out audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. She was a national phenomenon, rivaled only by Eleanor Roosevelt and movie stars like Mary Pickford and Clara Bow as the most famous woman in America.

As my mother told the story, the sermon-as-circus was all a bit too much for my staid Baptist grandfather. He was skeptical enough of the faith-healing demonstrations and the histrionic services, but he lost it during the offertory. In most Protestant churches , the offering is a reflective, somber time with ushers solemnly delivering felt-lined wooden or metal plates that are passed, parishioner to parishioner, so that donations may be discretely made according to one's means. Grandpa Roy had never been to a Catholic service where straw baskets are thrust down each row by the ushers to facilitate individual giving from even the most tightfisted. Sister Aimee took the process to a whole new level.

In the Angelus Temple of the Foursquare Gospel, ushers cajoled offerings from everyone by their own adaptive methodology. While the organ softly played, ushers came to each row with metal unlined offering plates at the end of long rods. All the while, Sister Aimee paraded back and forth across the stage, waving her Bible and wailing, "No coins, please! The Lord does not ne-e-e-ed to hear the evil sound of money in his house!" Translation: "You cheapskates better drop nothin' but dollar bills in that plate!"

"That was it for your grandfather," my mother told me during a commercial break from The Disappearance of Aimee. "We left. It was an affront to his faith. He said, 'California is a sinful place; I will not raise my children in this God-forsaken state!' We packed up and moved back to Missouri by the end of the month."

"But, I thought your father hated farming?" I asked.

"Yes, he was more of a mechanic, really. He hated to farm."

"So he moved his whole family almost two thousand miles, to a job he hated? Just to make a point--in 1931, during the Great Depression, in the midst of the Dust Bowl era?"

"So he always said. Now shush, the commercial's over. More popcorn?"

She was messin' with me. The old cat-and-mouse game my mom loved to play: She loved to make me puzzle out the truths in her personal history to gain insight into her past while sharpening my empathetic skills. The story was basically true, or her father believed it to be true. But logically, it couldn't be. It was a tale he spun to cover his true motivation.

"Grandpa Roy masked his questionable choice with a veneer of sanctimony, to make himself feel better, trying to impress his critics."

"Shh! Movie's on..." Mom wanted me to unravel the mystery without bashing her own father. .This called for more popcorn and a healthy bite of Ghirardelli chocolate.

I knew that my grandfather  hated California and I'd heard the "sinful California" slam attributed to him before. It was family legend, which my mother swore was true. Yet Grandpa's time-worn tale didn't make sense. Faye Dunaway's portrayal of a two-faced Aimee Semple McPherson was one of a sexy, wanton woman putting on a big act for her gullible audiences. There were many skeptics back then, along with her legions of followers. Yet Grandpa's story made him seem like he was the only one wise to that charlatan's act. But in reality, he was not the sharpest tool in the shed.

"That was good. Faye Dunaway really captured Sister Aimee's character, just the way I remember her. And I love anything with Bette Davis," Mom said as the credits rolled.

"How well do you remember Sister Aimee's carnival?" It had been forty-five years.

"I was eight, but it was so dramatic, not like any church service I'd ever seen before. She was pretty memorable, it stuck with me all these years. Don't you have to meet your friends?"

"So your father..." I continued while Mom grinned; this was the best part of the night. She knew she could keep me with her a little while longer while I searched for the key to this mystery. It was just a variation on Twenty Questions, a brain-teaser. Mental gymnastics was the sport we enjoyed the most; we played it together.

I persisted. "He had no money for a farm. You were dirt-poor. He hated farming, yet he returned to Missouri where he'd been miserable, and he made a big, sanctimonious show of it..."

"It's getting late, Dave. Your friends will wonder where you are."

"I'm close, aren't I?" She looked smug. "When you were born, the farm, near Halfway--did your father still have that farm to go back to?"

"No--and yes."

I had it. The  clue to understanding my grandfather's mind, why he embellished his tale with his imperious dismissal of Sister Aimee and all things California. "Your other grandfather, the paternal grandfather...did he die that same year?"

She nodded. I'd visited that humble farm and seen the old farmhouse. It was just down the road from my great-uncle Wilbur, my grandfather's brother. Uncle Wilbur lived on his own share of the subdivided family farm. "It was an inheritance. So your father hated to farm, but he couldn't turn down free land..."

"Well, there were taxes..."

"It seemed 'unmanly' or do something he hated, because it was for the money, so to speak. He didn't want to admit that, so he made it seem like he was successful enough in California to make free choices, choices made with higher ideals than he really possessed? Carrying on like he was a martyr..."

"Perhaps.Though that sounds a bit harsh."

My grandfather died when I was two. He was a rather stern, grim-faced guy. I knew he was hard on my mother. They never got along very well; "About as well as oil and water," she'd told me. It was a relationship much like like the one I had with my divorced dad. Yet, my mother had given me her father's name as my middle name. She curried his approval until the day he died.

I pulled on my coat. "I guess your dad  was a bit of a charlatan himself, wasn't he?" Mom didn't answer the slight to her father's memory, but she didn't refute my conclusion, either. The depths of my mother's experience were somewhat clearer now. Her sad, isolated life with an unhappy, frustrated father who spun a web of thin little lies to embellish his meager life story, a litany of misguided wrong turns and fruitless dead ends.

"Just one more thing that bothers me, Mom. You've always said you were hell-bent to get back to California, no matter what..."

"And I did. I kept the faith."

"Yes, yes you did." I gave her a hug goodbye. My mother returned to California in her twenties, enticing her two younger sisters away from Missouri, abandoning their father and that sad little farm. "But, Mom, I've seen Taft...that's like the worst part of California. What was so wonderful here that compelled you to move back, once you were old enough to break away?"

She pulled back, shook out her curls, and took a deep breath. "The Pacific Ocean. I love my walks along the beach, you know that. Once I saw the Pacific, I knew California had to be my home."

I took hold of the doorknob, then stopped and turned. "Didn't you once tell me that when you were a little girl, you almost drowned in the ocean? That's why you never learned to swim. It was your father who saved you..."

"You've always listened to my stories, honey--that's why I love you so much. Now good night!"

"So there's more to this story, then?"

"There always is," she said, beaming. "Isn't there?"

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Colorado on My Mind

Colorado has been top of mind and prominent in the news over the past week. Severe flooding has resulted in death and destruction far and wide along the northern part of the Front Range. It wasn't just remote mountain communities, even the city of Boulder has hit; images of flooded University of Colorado dormitories are almost as startling as the aerial shots of nature's wrath in small towns.

I have more than one connection to the Centennial State. Currently, my nephew Kenny (my father's namesake) and his family live in Loveland. They're out of harm's way, but his mother-in-law's place was hit pretty badly. I just spent time with my cousin Marilyn at a family reunion at her childhood home in Oregon. She currently hails from Colorado Springs, a veteran of the wildfires that plagued the area in June, but thankfully much farther south than the current flood zone. These tragedies made me wonder about the many, many other extended family I have in Colorado--"distant cousins," rendered even more distant by time and the many miles of mountains between us.

My late father was born in Denver ninety-three years ago. His father's family moved to Colorado a couple of decades earlier, hoping the mountain air would be better for their son's ill health. It was. My grandfather John grew into a healthy young man, enamored of the nascent technology of radio communication. He enlisted in the army during World War One. Thankfully, John was spared the scourge of trench warfare and the horrendous influenza epidemic that killed so many in 1918-1919. John Morris returned from his wartime service to Colorado and married his sweetheart, Gladys. She soon gave John a son (my dad Kenneth) in August of 1921. He would be their only child.

My grandparents were, by all accounts, a normal couple of young newlyweds struggling to get by in a post-war recession. They moved into a basement apartment in his parents' home in the mountain town of Boulder, now the city of so much current strife. Grandpa John could only find work in the big city of Denver, some 30 miles down a twisting, hilly road to the southeast. John commuted daily via his treasured motorcycle; he stretched his gas money by giving rides to a fellow commuter in his motorcycle's sidecar.

The morning of Friday, January 13, 1922, my grandpa John and his passenger set out at first light for Denver in a thick winter fog. Twenty-three year-old John hugged the thin painted center line of the two-lane mountain road and kept his speed moderate, due to the poor conditions. A truck coming the opposite way
was following the same plan, hugging the center line. But that truck's inside headlight was out. When John saw only one headlight coming toward him, he thought it was another motorcycle and judged himself safe--until it was too late. So the sidecar passenger reflected, having survived unscathed. Young John Morris' jugular vein was severed; my dad became fatherless at only five months of age.

Five years later, my widowed grandmother and her only child moved on to San Francisco with a sister and her two kids to start another life. My dad was raised with those two cousins in California, but they had moved out of state by the time I was born--one to Oregon and the other to Wyoming. Road trips around the West became a staple  of my youth. Many of those trips were visits to Colorado, reconnecting with my dad's grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the many, many cousins. As a boy, I marveled at the homes in Denver, all built of brick and stone according to fire-proofing ordinances. I loved the beautiful Rockies, and all the far-flung Colorado towns of the Western Slope and the Front Range that seemed to be bursting with relatives. My Colorado cousins were plentiful and, without exception, just a whole lot of fun.

Dad kept up with our Colorado cousins pretty well, but after my parents' divorce, my connections pretty much lapsed. I spent the night with one set of cousins when I was passing through, back in my college days. I got one similarly-aged cousin on the phone when I was a groomsman in a college friend's wedding, but she was going out of town when I was in. Most of those cousins' names and addresses were kept up through my father, and passed with him.

The current nephew's relocation to Colorado is a complete coincidence with my family history. The recent connection with Marilyn and the flood news have me wondering about all of my other long-lost cousins. Where are they now? Have they been affected by the floods? I need to stop just wondering, I need to re-establish my Colorado connections.


Have you lost track of distant relations you'd like to reconnect with? 

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Budapest. The name is evocative of a distant place, exotic, ephemeral, elusive. What is it? Where is it, exactly? The 2,000 year-old city of 1.7 million people is the capital of Hungary; it is, in many ways, the very heart of Europe. Five years ago, my wife and I booked a trip to Europe that began in the fairy-tale city of Prague, in the Czech Republic, before shuttling over to Germany for a riverboat cruise down the storied Danube River to beautiful Vienna. One could continue the cruise downstream to Budapest. 

"I don't know much about it," my wife said. But I did. I knew it would be the perfect finish to our romantic expedition. 

As a budding young history geek and aspiring world traveler, I discovered Budapest in the pages of National Geographic. Raised in the midst of the Cold War, I had known precious little about the primarily Slavic lands in the far shadows behind the Iron Curtain. Russians were Slavs after all. Eastern Bloc nations were darkly mysterious, as forbidding as Mordor.

Buda Castle high on Gellert Hill

The historical truth is that the majority of the Hungarian people are ethnically Magyars, neither Germanic nor Slavic.The broad, fertile valley on the southward thrust of the Danube River that is the core of the Hungarian nation is the crossroads of Central Europe.The Romans established an outpost here on the northern edge of their empire to take advantage of the river, the agriculture and to enjoy the natural springs. Romans loved their baths. The original Roman town on the hilly western shore of the Danube came to be known as "Buda" after a later Hungarian lord. The kings and lords of central Europe would rule from their castle perched high above the beautiful blue Danube.

Across the Danube on its eastern shore, Hungary falls away in wide, flat plain. In the midst of the "Dark Ages," a small fishing village across from hilly, noble Buda grew into a blue collar trading and industrial town for the common citizens. It came to be known as Pest. 

Houses of Parliament on the Pest shore of the Danube
 After revolutions in the 1840's rattled the Austrian Hapsburg lords of Hungary, a small amount of self-governance was granted to the people of Hungary. After centuries of domination by those German-speaking masters from Vienna, a parliament was created in the commoners' capital of Pest..

Buda Castle rises high above the Chain Bridge on the Danube River
After the Houses of Parliament were built, the Hapsburgs built the Chain Bridge to unite patrician Buda and plebeian Pest; they were united as one capital, Budapest, in 1873.

The city, the culture and the people of Budapest proved to be a dynamic, fascinating and rewarding conclusion to our vacation that year. Centuries of commerce, the blending of Germanic, Turkic, Magyar, Slavic and a dash of Italian influences have made Budapest a cross-cultural wonderland. The communist yoke has been broken for two decades, leaving a vibrant, evolving and expanding economy with unlimited potential and a scintillating energy. We thrilled at the evidence of capitalism sprouting from the corpse of communism, technology transforming society in a cultural evolution which blended old and new while maintaining respect for history and the integrity of their cultural traditions. We hated to leave.

Our most exciting vacations have been rewarding immersions into foreign lands where we embraced exotic cultures, and created memories for a lifetime. As my wife and I prepare for another vacation that will tick off more destinations from our bucket lists, we are tantalized by the lure of the unknown and the thrill of potentially life-changing rewards. I like to think of it as the spirit of Budapest.


Do you have any life-changing travel stories to share?
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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Almost Perfect

 "Almost Perfect" was the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle's Sporting Green this past Saturday. My entire weekend was, in fact, almost perfect. Don't go getting all negative on me and focus on the "almost" qualifier; that would peg you, dear reader, as the skeptic you just might be. It was a wise woman who once told me, "If perfection was our goal, we'd better have Plan B ready to go..." It's somewhat of the old "Is your glass half-empty, or is it half-full?" concept.

Perfection is a suspect state of achievement, it's a monologue. Tell your friends that you've found "the perfect man (or woman)," and they will smile through their supportive platitudes: "How nice, " Good for you," or even "That's fantastic! Tell me all about it.'.." You do realize what they're really thinking: "Good ahead, tell me more; I'll prick your balloon, if you'll just give me some ammo to do the job..."

"Almost perfect" is a more tantalyzing concept which creates a convivial dialogue. It's an invitation for your confidant to participate, using their own imagination for alternate scenarios that aspire to the ever-elusive concept known as perfection. Tell someone that your day was perfect, and their body language is some variation on "How nice...for you." Share a tale of how it was almost perfect, and they respond "I know what you mean..." or "that reminds me of the time..."

That particular Chronicle headline referred to a San Francisco Giants baseball game last Friday night. An unheralded pitcher with a very thin resume, Yusmeiro Petit, was on the mound for the home team. Our defending World Champion Giants have fallen far from grace this season, but thanks to an extremely high number of season ticket holders like me, they still sell out every single game.  The atmosphere is always festive. With a revolving cast of 41,000-plus San Francisco personalities, how could it not?

I was there with my lovely bride Melissa, and one of my favorite couples in the world, Barbara and Don. They are an almost perfect couple, smart, attractive, witty, charming--the epitome of grace blended with a wry sense of humor. Barbara was my German teacher more than forty years ago, Don has been been her almost-perfect husband for nearly a decade longer. I smile every moment we're together, often laughing to the point of tears many times over.

Time flies when we're together; it was the end of the fifth inning before I realized I hadn't even gotten my Crazy Crab sandwich yet --or realized that no Diamondback batter had safely reached first base, not even once. Could we be on the verge of a no-hitter or even--dare I think it--a perfect game? It was 78 degrees at nine p.m. on the shores of San Francisco Bay--so anything seemed possible.

A no-hitter in baseball is not quite as rare as it used to be. Tim Lincecum is the Giants two-time Cy Young Award-winner now in his third straight disappointing season--yet he summoned the old magic to throw his first no-hitter just this past July in San Diego. It was the Giants' fourth no-hitter in their 56 years in San Francisco. I had penciled-in plans to be at that game, too, before we settled on a Giants-Padre game in May instead. I was almost there...

A perfect game remains a very rare instance in baseball, there have only been fourteen in all of major league history. The pitcher must face only three batters each of his nine innings. Not one hit, not one walk, no errors by his supporting team members. Twenty-seven at bats, twenty-seven outs. Perfection. The other eight players behind the pitcher must also perform perfectly, which usually means a diving catch or three, perhaps an incredible throw to get a batter in the nick of time, and often the victor benefits from many close calls by the umpire. As the innings grind on, tension builds in AT&T Park, the cheering and applause reach a tremendous crescendo, amazingly greater with each out in the ninth inning as the elusive prospect of perfection nears. A smattering of the competition's fans are thinking "Oh, no...." but even those precious few among the tens of thousands of patrons feel their stomachs tighten with the realization that they are in the presence of history being made. I know; I was there.

The San Francisco Giants have only ever had one perfect game. It happened at AT&T Park, Giants vs. the Houston Astros on June 13, 2012, just last year. My wife had to work, so I brought three of my very best friends, Mike, Keith and Jesus. They are arguably the most ardent Giants fans among my acquaintances. Matt Cain, a long-time Giants stalwart sometimes called "the horse," was on the mound. Cain is a solid pitcher with tremendous potential and many nearly-great seasons at the stadium by the Bay. But on that June evening, he was simply perfect.

"Oh, how nice (for you)" is what most of my family and friends said (and thought) when I shared my good fortune. "I was almost at that game, too" was a common response, as my listeners reached to connect with my experience, which is truly the point. The joy of spectator sports is not (with no apologies to Vince Lombardi) winning, or achieving perfection. It is the shared experience of a plethora of fellow humans, friends and strangers alike, sharing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. The many become amost one. Cheering, slapping high fives with that loud jerk behind you, getting hugged by the old lady who spilled your beer in the third inning. Massive, unified human joy; it is truly almost perfect.

On a very warm night last Friday, a somewhat anonymous young pitcher named Petit filled in for an injured Matt Cain and almost made history. After eight innings of play, he had faced only twenty-four batters; the Arizona Diamondbacks had made twenty-four consecutive outs. There were scintillating strikeouts, spectacular catches, close plays and tremendous efforts by every player pursuing victory. The frustrated Diamondbacks were intense in their efforts to stave off a humiliating defeat. The entire crowd stood for the ninth inning, cheering every strike, groaning at every called ball. The twenty-fifth batter failed to reach base, as did he twenty-sixth. Then the final batter, the twenty-seventh, stepped to the plate.

It was a pinch-batter, Eric Chavez, former Oakland A, a man familiar to many of these Bay Area sports fans, a fresh hitter. We all hung on each and every pitch; cameras flashed, people chanted "Let's go, Gi-ants!" On a 1-2 pitch, Petit fired a gem--strike three! But no, the umpire called ball two. Who could blame him? To end a perfect game on a borderline called third strike? Not kosher. Petit took the ball and fired again--ball three! It was now a full count, three balls and two strikes with two men out. The next pitch could be a heart-breaking hit, or an ignoble ball four to end the streak--or perhaps, perfection. The din was now deafening, the fan to my right grabbed my arm in a panic, the stadium crowd hung in the balance between utter elation and bitter disappointment. Petit reared and fired, the batter swung and connected--and the ball trickled foul.

Barbara clutched my other arm. My wife's face was ashen, Don clapped resolutely. Feet stomped, screams, whistles and chants reached yet another crescendo; Petit fired, Chavez swung, the ball cracked off the bat and sailed toward right field, then fell precipitously; Hunter Pence, our steady right fielder dashed forward in an all-out  sprint, and dove...the crowd roared as he tumbled--the ball was in his mitt! But those of us along the third base line had seen the ball bounce into Pence's glove, it had been an almost-perfect catch, the batter was safe on first.

Petit easily retired the twenty-eighth batter and the 3-0 victory was ours, a glorious one-hitter. The fountains sprayed, the fans gave the team a standing ovation, and the sound of Tony Bennett's recorded voice warbled "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" over the loudspeakers just as it does with every other win.

My buddy Mike texted me from his Man Room: The odds of being @ two perfectos seemed just too ridiculous. So close. Who is this guy?

Strangers greeted me as we climbed the stairs, singing along with Tony Bennett, slapping high fives, "We almost had it!" "Wasn't that awesome?"

It was. it was almost perfect.


I'd love to hear your your stories about the joys of almost-perfect experiences--let me know!