Tom's Corner

Discovering Today
Tom Irons

Chapter 6
California and Aerospace

        Experiencing a marital separation comes as near to experiencing a death as one can get. Both result in loss, grief, guilt, depression, and physical pain. I was no different from the large percentage of other separated, soon-to-be divorced men who had traveled this path before me, or those destined to follow.

        With my world suddenly a deflated bladder of hurt wrapped tightly around my heart, I climbed the ladder to the aft quarterdeck, approached and saluted the Junior Officer of the Deck, PO1 Giles, and for the last time in my naval career intoned the oh-so-familiar litany, “Request permission to depart the ship.” Petty Officer Giles responded in the affirmative, as I knew he would, but then added just loud enough for only me to hear, “Knock ‘m dead out there Irons.” After shaking his hand, I turned to face aft, smartly saluted the ensign, which sagged forlornly on its pole, and stepped onto the gangway. It was the last time I would be on a naval ship, and the ring of the quarterdeck bell, an honorarium bestowed on me by my good friend Giles, heralded the event. I didn’t pause on the pier to look back.

       Ahead of me lay an unknown future. Behind me lay the shambles of my marriage and family, over eight years of time and energy invested in a navy career, and all the dreams I had given birth to since the day Dad died. How I managed to cut the mooring lines that kept me fed, clothed and employed, I do not know.

       I was deeply concerned about having a viable form of employment and income. The navy made a point of assuring me that I’d never be capable of finding civilian employment; let alone making a living “…out there in the real world”. Didn’t I know unemployment was rampant? What made me think I had employable skills? How could I turn my back on the navy, which had nurtured me, cared for me, and handled all my problems? How could I even consider walking away from those eight years, eight months, and six days of accrued service?

       I wondered. I didn’t know the answer, but I felt that I’d surely find out if I just gave myself a chance.

       The degree of embarrassment over the failed marriage was sufficient enough to keep me in California. This choice provided me the safety of geographical distance; I would not, immediately, have to face family and friends with my shame. As painful as being alone, was for me I saw it as definitely the lesser of two evils. How had Dad been able to deal with his divorce and still remain near his family? I wondered. Did his family rally around him, support him in his days of need? Or, did he simply lower his head, forge on with his life, and make hard decisions alone? It would take me many years to discover that being alone, during trying times as in times of joy, is almost always a choice.

       Somehow I managed to take my fears and self-doubts in hand. I sought out a job, chose an apartment, and enrolled in a couple of night classes at the local community college. I may have been full of fear, but I also felt that I was in the process of being reborn. I vowed not to repeat the mistakes that had driven my life up to this point in time.

       December 17th, 1973 was a Monday and it was the first day of my employment at TRW, a leading company in the aerospace industry in southern California. I’d chosen TRW over IBM because TRW had no company policy on facial hair. By this time I had sported a beard for three years and liked my appearance.

       In 1970 Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. had been promoted to four-star admiral and named chief of naval operations (CNO). In an attempt to combat the growing disciplinary problems and racial disturbances occurring throughout the navy, he issued a series of operational orders to the fleet dealing with personnel matters (haircuts, liberty, uniforms, etc.). These matters traditionally were left to local commands to deny or mete out. He was popular with the junior enlisted community, but the officers did not view the “progressive navy” he fathered with glowing approval.

       We white-hats called him ‘Uncle Zumwalt’ among ourselves and we vocally appreciated him for his famous Z-grams. These were Z-NavOps; Navy directives or statements of policy changes. In November of 1970 ‘Z-70: Grooming and uniform policy’ was issued and I immediately subscribed to it, as it dealt with an enlisted man’s right to seek his commanding officer’s permission to grow a beard. The only consideration the C.O. was to give to the request was that the man seeking the ok had the ability to grow a beard that was “full and neat looking”. In other words, a scraggly beard could be denied. It took my baby face about a week, after receiving due permission, to flower out in full-blown whiskerhood.

       During my interview with IMB I was told they would require me to be clean shaven, keep my mustache ‘neat and short’, and to wear a white shirt, tie, and suit or sports jacket. This kind of control was not what I wanted after the years of navy regulations.

       IBM would have been a better choice due to a higher level of technical work, a faster path of advancement, and more pay in all likelihood. TRW allowed me a much needed freedom; freedom of choice. Besides, I liked the man who would be my prospective boss at TRW, mostly because I felt that he liked me.

       The 70’s in southern California were a time of searching for many people. Bookstores were inundated with verbiage on personal growth, self-help, and communication. Self-revealing alternative lifestyles were popular, too. The beautiful flower children and zoned out goatee-sporting hippies of the turbulent sixties were almost a thing of the past. Men were being encouraged to cry, and women were able to seek a satisfying, healthy, and active sex life. Sex between consenting adults was the norm for all. To this I could and did, subscribe. Herpes and AIDS would rear their ugly heads later, but for now, participating in free, unprotected, non-reproductive sex was considered normal, condoned, and expected.

       Soon after settling into an apartment near TRW I spent an evening in self-evaluation. I sat with pen and paper and listed all the characteristics and reasons that had attracted me to Susan. I looked at each one with a critical eye, and asked myself if it would have value in promoting a realistic and successful relationship. Next I made a list of different characteristics which I figured would lend themselves to a good match.

       The exercise taught me a lot about my shortcomings, my narrow-mindedness, and about myself regarding my choice of women. Late that night as I finished off a bottle of rose`, I made myself a promise to never again to repeat the mistakes of my younger years.

       Everywhere I looked I saw beautiful women: at work, at school, at church, and in my apartment building. It didn’t take me long to find a sweetheart. However, I made it clear I was in no position to offer any commitment. For a while all was well between us. Then I got to learn my first lesson: things never stay the same and agreements will change as time goes by. Lesson two: change will be painful if both parties are not in agreement with the change. That said it will more than likely still hurt, even when they do agree.

       After six months of work at TRW I was beginning to feel trapped. The solution seemed to be a simple one: vacation. But I didn’t kid myself. A week off work was not going to assuage my need to be on the move. After due consideration of my situation, my wants, and my needs I arrived at a simple and obvious solution; quit work, don a backpack, limber up my thumb, and hit the road.

       “Bob, I’ve decided to take a vacation.”
       “Good, you deserve one and you have a week on the books. When do you want to go?”
       “The first of July, but a week isn’t going to be enough. I was thinking I’d give you my resignation and be free to just go anywhere I wanted and stay as long as I was having fun.” I explained how I felt; trapped, bogged down, circling the drain like flotsam in the great pacific gyre. I needed some time; more time than the week of paid vacation I had accrued since I had started working the previous December. I explained my plan to hitchhike around the country with little-to-no agenda, plans, destinations, or expectations. I needed a real taste of freedom after all those years in the navy.

       Imagine my surprise when Bob heartily agreed that this was a good idea. “I wish I could join you. It sounds like a good time.”

       He refused to accept my resignation. Instead, he insisted that I take a leave of absence.

       “I’ll list you as ‘on a leave of absence’. That way, you are still covered medically and I can hold your job for a while. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, you can return to your old position.”

       It made sense. With heartfelt appreciation I accepted.

       he afternoon sun hung low on the horizon, and I figured I’d make Mother’s front door just about the time dark set in for good. Three months of being in transit had been good for me. I’d made friends while hitchhiking, riding busses, and camping in campgrounds. My travels had taken me through California, Oregon, and Washington by thumb, then east across the country by bus to Nancy’s house in Missouri. Next I went on to Nashville, Tennessee, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, up the coast through Washington, D.C., and on to Maine and New Hampshire. From Lake Winnepesaukah, (where I had visited with Fred), the big gray dog carried me to Wilmington, Ohio where I engaged my thumb once again. From there it was only eighteen short miles to Blanchester.

        It was a warm August day and I enjoyed the lush odors rising from the farms I passed. Second Creek Road is not a highly traveled byway but those who do use it tend to employ high speeds. Given what I was wearing--- jeans, tee shirt, army camo hat, and my old Kelty backpack, I didn’t see any need to bother trying to hitchhike. I just stayed just off the side of the road as the more considerate speedsters moved their roaring steeds into the far lane and sailed on by.

       Maybe it wasn’t my clothes as much as the shaggy beard and the length of my hair that made Ohioans less willing to share their cars than folks in other states. I wasn’t sure just what it was, but I found that you could wait a long time for a ride on Ohio’s highways and byways. So, I’d settled into a comfortable rhythm and stride while I let my mind slide back to a cold snowy night about nine years earlier. Claude Bentley had pulled over for a hitchhiking sailor whose lips and fingers were as blue as his dress uniform. It had taken us both a moment or two to recognize each other, but there was no hesitation when he offered the frozen sailor a brown paper bag saying, “Here have a swig of Jim. It’ll warm you up good.” That had occurred only a few miles north of where I was presently walking. We’d laughed over our good fortune, and did indeed share a few swigs of his Jim Beam bourbon as he caught me up on Doug’s doings in the Marines.

       “Doug, he’s doin’ good, you know. He was assigned to fly in those big helio copters as soon as he got to Viet Nam. Goes out everyday on one mission or another. His last letter he told about delivering a baby all by his self.”

       “I’m not surprised. He always was excited about anything medical.” Later I’d hear about those medical evacuation flights; how the injured and the dead would be thrown in the helos like cordwood as bullets flew about like angry hornets, how equipment was so short Doug would once be forced to use an ink pen sleeve to maintain an emergency airway on a wounded soldier during a hot zone medivac. I’d hear how the bullets would pass through the skin of the craft like X-rays going through onionskin paper. Over a mason jar of ‘shine he would tell me about the pilot who carried a six pack of beer on every flight to share with his crew because, “You never know when it will be your last chance to have one.”

       Claude was proud of his son, as he should have been. He liked me a bit too; that cold and snowy night he even insisted on driving me right to Mother’s front door.

       Lost in this warm memory, I was brought up short by the strident screech of rubber on asphalt. The car that had just passed me by was now skidding and slewing about on the road fifty yards past me. It was one of the more thoughtful vehicles, as it had given me a wide berth in passing. Both of us were heading toward Blanchester. I came to an immediate halt and watched warily as the driver gained control of the car and pulled it to the right side of the road. Fully aware of the hazards of walking the roads of the USA, I prepared myself for a launch into the drainage ditch just a few feet away if anything untoward raised its ugly head. Suddenly, the front passenger door flew open and a bright round face popped out looking back at me. I almost leaped for the ditch but something stayed my action. Then in a high-pitched voice tinged with a warm Kentucky twang, I heard the woman say, “You must be Mary Eva’s boy, Tom? She said she’s expecting you any day now and that you’d be hitchin’. Come on an’ hop in. We’ll give you a ride to her place.”

       And so it is I thought. Blanchester was always, and is still, a small place to be going to, or to be from.

        A few days later Doug and I made contact by phone and arranged to do our actual catching up in person. “We spend weekends on the river. I’m headed down Thursday to get a head start if you want to join me.” He had explained. “I’ll pick you up around 0800. We’ll have to get the boat and Bonnie on the way down.”

       “Who’s this Bonnie? Your girl of the moment?” I ragged.
       “Yeah, she’s ok. For now. You’ll like her.”
       “So I need to be ready no later than, what, ten hundred hours?” I mocked him and his history of tardiness.

       “That sounds about right,” he laughed. “See you tomorrow.”
       Close to 0830 the little white AMX came wheeling around the corner on Baldwin Street and pulled gracefully to a stop in front of Mother’s house. I was down the steps and at the passenger door before Doug could even make a show of getting out of the sporty vehicle. “Nice wheels,” I admired as I settled into the form-fitting bucket seat.

       “Thanks, it’s ok but I’ll probably be trading it in soon for something bigger. It gets a little squirrelly when I’m towing the boat.” His boat turned out to be a jet boat big enough to easily carry four people.

       “I can understand how this is a challenge for your car. You may have the power to pull it but you have a bad weight ratio, huh?”

       “Yeah, but I take it careful.” And I had no doubt he did. Doug has always been one of the few people I trust implicitly behind the wheel of any vehicle.

       As Doug slid the car and trailered boat up to the curb in front of an old red brick apartment building, he hopped out and said over his shoulder, “Wait here. I’ll go get her.” Then as an after thought added, “Get comfortable. It might take a while.”

       “What goes around comes around. It’s called Karma.” I laughed as he disappeared through the front doors. Then it hit me. Just exactly where did he plan to put one more person? The little convertible was already full to overflowing with the ice chest, the camping supplies, and the two of us. I wondered if Doug planned to have me ride in the trailered boat. As I sat and pondered this conundrum I watched Doug and the attractive young girl, Bonnie, approaching.

       As they drew to a halt next to the passenger door Doug said, “Tom, this is Bonnie, Bonnie this is Tom, he’s my best friend. You can ride on his lap.” With that settled he started around the car to the driver’s side. Bonnie smiled a weak hello as I nodded. Then she commenced to climb over the doorframe and onto my lap where she settled comfortably up against my chest. I was struck dumbfounded for a moment and then, realizing the situation, began to enjoy the sensations. Her perfume was light and heady, reminiscent of Wind Song, a flowery fragrance I had liked when working at Dorsey’s during high school. She was not heavy in the least and she was soft and curvy where a girl needed to be.

       Luckily, Bonnie was a small girl, Otherwise, my legs would have gone numb by the time we reached the Ohio River where the camp was located. On the drive, Doug explained how he and a few friends and family had located and leased a couple of parcels of land right on the river. Then they built a wooden dock for their boats and swimming. He didn’t know just who or how many would show this weekend but said, “There’s always enough for a party even if it’s just me and Randy.” Randy Christen was a classmate of ours. He owned a jet boat and offered Doug stiff competition on the water.

       I almost hated to reach our destination, as it would mean I had to let go of Bonnie. I’d come to enjoy her soft warm body pressing gently into mine, but fair was fair and she was Doug’s girl.

       A leisure weekend unrolled before us as we relaxed and played. Doug took great joy in watching me try to learn to water ski. He had warned me that it was a real trick to get up on the skis behind a jet boat, due to the way it accelerates. To give him his due, he did work hard at teaching me the ropes. He also got a lot of belly laughs out of my horrendous smash-ups. I drank a lot of the dirty Ohio River, had my swim suit almost ripped off my bruised and battered body, and had little left of my pride when I finally was able to make three complete loops of the skiing area before becoming too cocky and taking another header that day. “It’ll be easier tomorrow.” Doug assured me. “There’s a learning curve to it.”

       “I’ve had all the curves I need. Why can’t it be a learning straight-a-way?” I grumbled as we pulled on our respective brews that evening around the campfire.

       Friday brought more people; Randy, Claude, Linda, her husband and their young son, and a family of four who I liked a lot. We shared food, drinks, stories, and laughs as we sat around the fire. Marshmallows were located and toasted.

       Saturday was a leisure day. I did indeed reap the benefits of a learning curve in the skiing department. People took walks, read books, napped, and quietly talked the day away. Lawn chairs and loungers had appeared and there was a constant easy shifting of bodies about the campsite.

       Late afternoon found most of us sitting in the chairs or lounging on the gentle slope leading down to the water. The sun had a bite to it and most of us were following the shade as it moved across the area. When anyone spoke they did so softly, languidly.

       Suddenly Linda’s son, who had been swimming around the dock started yelling and splashing wildly. Claude let out a yell of his own, leaped from the chaise lounge and dashed down the hill toward the dock, pausing on his way only long enough to snatch up an inflated rubber raft. Clutching the raft to his chest (the very same chest that had just recently been the site of heart surgery) he launched himself into the air and yelled, “Hold on son, I’m a coming.” Immediately upon hitting the water, the raft, like a balloon released before the end has been tied, shot out of Claude’s grasp. With a look of absolute surprise on his face, Claude completely disappeared below the brown water.

       Back up among the once-relaxed campers, Doug threw a glance toward me and said, “Get the boy, I’ll get Dad.” He launched himself up from the ground, and headed toward the river. I was a half step behind and catching up fast when we hit the dock. By now the boy was too far away from the dock to be reached by simply reaching for him, or extending an oar. Doug, I saw, had simply stepped off the dock and was fishing around in the murky river water for Claude. I leveled myself into a short shallow dive that brought me up next to the scared boy. As I powered him toward the dock I heard Doug laying into Claude.

       “Jesus, Dad, you could hurt yourself pulling that damn fool stunt!”
       “I know, but the boy was in trouble and scared. I was the nearest to him. Somebody had to do something.”

       “Well, you certainly helped him, didn’t you? All he had to do was reach out and grab the dock. Besides, we were watching from up there.” Shaking his head Doug continued, “Just hold it here a minute. We’re going to need Tom’s help getting you up on the dock.”

       After we pulled and levered Claude from the water and he was dried off, we assessed him for damage. Linda and her family took him home for the night just in case. If he needed to go to the hospital we wanted him near by, not at the river. Later, Doug and I discussed the event. “Thanks for grabbing the boy. I figured you’d be right behind me.” Doug said softly.

       “Sure, no problem. You know, though, it was only natural for Pop to do what he did.”
       “Yeah, I know it. But it was still stupid.”
       “Still, it takes a brave man to jump into a river knowing he can’t swim any better than the kid he’s planning on saving.”

       Doug laughed. “Yeah, He doesn’t lack brave, just brains. Ready for another beer before supper?”

       The languid river’s expanse lay beneath the canopy of sky, and the star count seemed to double. Supper was over, and it was story-time around the fire. Couples were cuddled close wherever possible. I had been taken a bit by surprise when Melinda, the 17-year old daughter of Betty and Chuck, moved onto the lounge I had claimed after the dishes were done. We sat side-by-side enjoying our shared warmth, the jokes and stories of others, and the quiet night. “Doug said you’re from California?” Melinda asked softly.

       “Yeah, I’ve been living near Los Angeles since I was discharged from the navy last December.” I allowed.

       “My boyfriend’s in the army and they sent him to Alamogordo, New Mexico. He wants me to come out there but I don’t know. Mom and Dad said no way until I’m at least out of school. You ever been there?”

       “No. I almost got to go to White Sands but it didn’t happen.”

       Between 10:00 and 11:00 pm all the other revelers slowly drifted off, leaving Melinda and me alone to tend the fire. By now, we were stretched out on the chaise lounge together. I did not want the pleasure of this proximity to end, however; I felt it a necessity to say, “I expect we better move. We’ll be bothering the others if we stay here and talk. Are you ready for bed or do you want to find a new spot?” I asked hopefully.

       “Where can we go?”
       “How about your Dad’s boat?” It was tied snuggly up against the dock, far enough away from the sleeping campers that we would not disturb them if we talked all night.

       At first we sat side-by-side in the bottom of the boat talking softly. Congratulating myself on having had the foresight to grab my sleeping bag on the way down to the boat, I pulled it over the two of us as we huddled close together in the cool damp air coming off the river. For hours we discussed life, hopes, and dreams. I started sharing myself like I’d only done with Carol Berwanger. Melinda soon followed my lead by telling me of her dreams and aspirations. Long after midnight as our talk ran down, I reclined in the bottom of the boat and Melinda moved onto the length of my body. Arranging the bag over the two of us again I tentatively kissed her cheek and was rewarded by a sweet kiss on my lips.

       At first we sat side-by-side in the bottom of the boat talking softly. Congratulating myself on having had the foresight to grab my sleeping bag on the way down to the boat, I pulled it over the two of us as we huddled close together in the cool damp air coming off the river. For hours we discussed life, hopes, and dreams. I started sharing myself like I’d only done with Carol Berwanger. Melinda soon followed my lead by telling me of her dreams and aspirations. Long after midnight as our talk ran down, I reclined in the bottom of the boat and Melinda moved onto the length of my body. Arranging the bag over the two of us again I tentatively kissed her cheek and was rewarded by a sweet kiss on my lips.

       Groggy and a little disoriented she opened her eyes and looked around. “We’d better not stay here any longer.” I said.

       Nodding ascent she moved off of me and sat up. “What time is it?”
       I threw a quick glance at my watch and said, “ A couple of minutes of 5.”
       Looking into my eyes she said, “Thank you. I enjoyed last night.” Then she stood and arranged her clothes. I helped her step onto the dock and she headed toward her parents RV. I watched as she knocked on the locked door, saw her mother open it after a moment and look around the clearing. Seeing me standing on the dock she asked something and Melinda softly answered. Then the two of them disappeared inside and the door closed.

       Hauling my bag with me I quietly crawled through the flaps of the tent I was sharing with Doug and Bonnie. Luckily they had left space for me along one wall. It took the better part of an hour for me to bring my body temperature back up to normal. It took that same hour to sort out my feelings about the beautiful young girl I had shared a magical evening with.

       Later that morning over a much-prized cup of coffee I sought out Doug. “Melinda and I spent most of the night on her dad’s boat, and I just want you to know that nothing happened,” I told him while looking into his bleary, bearded face.

       He gazed back at me for a moment before allowing, “I know. If I didn’t think you could be trusted with her, I wouldn’t have told her mom not to worry about you. Let’s get a handle on some bacon an’ eggs, what say?”

       When the weekend moved toward a close, Doug drove me to Cincinnati where I caught a Greyhound back toward California and TRW. I’d been gone longer than planned and Bob had started the severance procedure: he had explained that he’d have to if I was gone more than three months. That did not stop him from rehiring me and giving me a boost in pay. It also gave him the ability to move me into a more demanding position.

       By the time I was back to the daily grind, Nixon had resigned in disgrace over his lies and illegal activities surrounding Watergate.


       After less than two years of working at TRW, I sat down across from Bob once more and told him that I was submitting my resignation. I had been invited to move to Tucson, Arizona to help a couple of friends built their home. Jack and Liz Prohaska were making their own adobe block, doing their own construction, and building to a design of their own creation. I had met the couple after returning from the last WestPac cruise. They were the co-directors of a school Susan had enrolled Christine in during my absence. They introduced me to the concept of ‘free’ schooling, based on A.S. Neill’s famous school, Summerhill.

       Building a home from the ground up sounded extremely attractive to me. Bob’s response was to shake his head and intone in a genuinely longing way, “I wish I could join you. I hope it’s all you’re looking for it to be. Good luck. And if you ever need a job, you know you are welcome back here.”

       Mid-June found me in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains, experiencing firsthand the high temperatures of the Sonoran desert, as I dug in the ground, hauled water, and worked side by side with Jack. We’d rise early and mix mud until afternoon, when the summer sun would drive the ambient temperatures well above one hundred painful Fahrenheit degrees. The sun was so scorching it would dry our skin like parchment in a matter of minutes, heat metal so hot it would cause second degree burns if carelessly touched, and bake the adobe blocks dry enough to let us conduct a ‘drop’ test after just two days of drying.

       The drop test consisted of grasping an adobe block with both hands, arms extended downward, while standing perfectly upright. Then, with feet spread enough to accommodate the block, we would let go of it. If it did not break or show signs of any cracks, we deemed the batch of block this one represented as ‘good’. The batch would then be stacked to dry further before laying.

       This sort of construction represents hard physical labor, the kind I’ve always enjoyed; the kind where I could measure our progress hourly. We were not without food, but our meals were simple and small. It took us no time at all to slim down to a good weight.

       Jack may have been all of five-foot four inches tall- but only if he were wearing his high-heeled, Sunday, go-to-church, cowboy boots (not that church was actually in our weekly calendar). We were 29 years old and our birthdays were just two weeks apart. We enjoyed the same jokes and shared many of the same values. Jack had a boyish quality and a ragamuffin look that endeared him to many people. Mostly he worked in leather sandals. Cut-off blue jeans and ragged tee shirts were our usual daily motif. Like me, Jack’s skin had turned brown where the sun hit him, and his light hair, worn long and shaggy, had been bleached nearly blonde by the sun before I had arrived. His small stature and open, smiling face gave him the appearance of a happy elf. His desire to be self-sufficient, and his belief that he could accomplish almost anything that he chose to pursue, certainly endeared him to me.

       We had quickly fallen into a work routine that made the labor enjoyable. The minuscule building budget required choosing a low-cost manner of construction, and the challenge of building a home from local raw materials seemed a noble choice. Thus, Jack and I labored, talked, and laughed our days away enjoying the work, the desert and the challenge of problem-solving together. Jack had a received a Bachelor's Degree from some university in anthropology, and his father was a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project, so Jack approached problems from a decidedly traditional engineering direction. My farm and stage crew experience (and probably my lack of formal education) allowed me to bring in ‘off the wall’ ideas, but maybe my desire to be artistic helped, too. For what ever reasons, Jack and I soon learned we were capable of bouncing several degrees of each back and forth until we arrived at mutually acceptable solutions.

       By the time a block was laid in a wall, the dirt it was comprised of had been dug from the ground and shoveled into Jack’s big, creaking, groaning, gas-powered cement mixer. From the mixer, it was transferred into a wheelbarrow and rolled across the worksite to a set of wooden forms. These forms were lined with thin metal sheathing to reduce the breakage from mud sticking to the wood frame. Each form produced four blocks. The wheelbarrow load of mud was dumped onto a form, and the mud carefully spread into the corners so that each block would be uniform in conformation. The time we let the form remain on a given group of block was a subjective call- related to just how ‘wet’ the mud had been when we dumped it. We were pretty good at consistency in our manufacturing, but there was an acceptable range of ‘wetness’. After the form was lifted, the blocks would be left lying in place over night. The first task each morning was to shift all block made the day before up onto one side, where they’d be left in the sun to dry until the morrow and the drop test.

                                                                       Tom at the Prohaska Brick Works 1975

       By the time any given block went into the building of a wall, it had been handled at least six-times (and some a fair amount more). Afternoon monsoons were prevalent through July, and we would not always be ready to cover the block. Or, some block might be judged to need more turning and sunning than others. The worst case, by far, was when we’d have to move entire stacks to make space for other work. These block weighed right at forty-pounds each. Needless to say, Jack and I were in great shape by the end of summer; lean, tanned, and muscular.


       Usually by one or two o’clock in the afternoon, Jack and I would stagger into the portion of the house already covered by a roof, collapse on the cool dirt floor with wet rags on our heads, and try to muster up enough energy to fix a simple lunch for ourselves.

       The half-house consisted of a kitchen, bedroom, and unplumbed bathroom. One wall of the kitchen was open to the air and somewhat protected by a construction tarp. This arrangement, although rustic, allowed Jack and Liz to live comfortably and inexpensively. After a much-needed siesta we might head into town to run errands, buy construction supplies, or find a cool, dark, beer bar where we could while away the hot afternoon hours.

       As September crept nearer, Jack and Liz asked me if I would be willing to stay at the house/homestead when they made their long-planned annual trek to northern California. I would be responsible for hauling the water, the feeding and care of the two horses and two dogs, and general custodianship of the property for four weeks. As far as I was concerned, it was a no-brainer. “Sure, I’ll be glad to do it.”

       The day they were slatted to depart was the only day the big D-9 caterpillar was available to cut in the new driveway. At $28/hour the man and machine came dear. Without setting a limit, the Prohaska budget would be erased in no time. Thus, man and machine were limited to no more than three hours of work. It was a big task to cut a drive clear from the road, around the massive outcropping of volcanic cone, up the hill, and into the yard. The length of the driveway was upwards of a thousand feet. Jack and I stood next to each other on the outcropping and talked over the roar and through the billowy clouds of diesel smoke while that operator wheeled and pivoted the cat. By the time three hours had passed there was a stretch of disturbed dirt and rock from the road clear up to the front door of the little adobe hacienda.

       While Jack paid the operator, Liz threw clothes, snacks and water bottles in their old battle-worn Volkswagen van. Then, as the big yellow cat led the way, the van, with little Jack grimly gripping the wheel and being lashed side to side like a flag in a hurricane, made its way over the rubble to Sunset Road and on to the high Sierras.

       After filling a water flask, I donned my floppy wide-brimmed straw hat, picked up my good leather gloves, a garden rake and a shovel, and started working the dirt and rock in the yard. There’s something about using hand tools that I’ve always enjoyed. I learned early in my life that a tool is only as good as the user. If one is willing to pace himself, listen to the tool, and not abuse it or expect it to do more that it was designed to do, one man working steadily can accomplish wonders.

       Over the next four weeks I accomplished those wonders. I spent many hours each day working, smoothing, contouring, and shaping that drive. Some days I’d do my work while wearing nothing but my straw hat and leather boots and gloves. I took a lot of breaks, leaning on the rake handle while watching the wheeling and screaming Redtail hawks, the clucking and cooing Gambol quail; the gopher and racer snakes. Coyotes tried to sneak past unseen, moving surreptitiously from creosote bush to jojoba bush- always keeping their eyes on me. I gloried in those days of sun, sweat, and labor.

       When I’d completed the driveway to my satisfaction, I moved on to completing the septic system. Before he left on vacation, Jack and I had completed the tank and the laying of the drain field pipe. What was left to accomplish was the back filling of the long fields and covering of the tank. I muscled load after wheelbarrow load of pea gravel and dirt over the ground to dump into the fields, building more muscles every step of the way. Finally, that part of the job was complete and now all that faced me was the moving of the tank lid. We had poured concrete into a form and added a lot of steel for additional support (both Jack and I subscribed to the idea of building ‘Hell for stout’- in our minds over-built was definitely preferred to under-built).

       The challenge to the lid was that we had poured it in the front yard. That meant moving 400-pounds of steel and concrete around the house foundation and into the backyard where the tank resided. The site of the lid pour had been debated for quite a while, and the front drive had won because there was a level spot there. I had assured Jack that we’d save energy by mixing near the form in the drive. Creating a flat spot near the tank would be a monumental task.

       “How will you move it by yourself?” he had queried me over a cool beer one evening as we sat up on the hill above his house.

       “Well, I’m not exactly sure just yet,” I admitted, “but I’ll bet I can do it.”
       It took me the better part of a day to muscle, cuss, and drag that lid around to where it needed to be- but I managed. The next morning I completed covering the tank and called the job done.

       Four weeks stretched to five and then six as I waited for their return. By now I was spending two or three evenings a week in town at a local upscale bar where I’d discovered a couple of musicians who I enjoyed. The wife sang and the husband played guitar. They mostly performed gentle songs, ballads, and easy listening pop. I’d met them at the Holiday Inn and followed them to the old Santa Rita hotel when they moved. On slow nights they’d join me at my booth, and over drinks we’d discuss desert life as compared to life in the big city. They seemed fascinated with my tales of desert critters, working naked, and the concept of ‘free schooling’. The last was a very important subject to me and one I frequently expounded on.

       The day finally came when the van came grunting up the hill and slid to a stop next to the house. Jack’s first question was, “How’d you get the grader?”

       “And what grader would that be?” I retorted.
       “The one that worked the drive.”
       “No grader,” I assured him quite smugly, “I did it all by hand. You ought to try it sometime. Its called manual labor and it’s good for what ails you.”

       It took a bit of persuasion to make him believe me. The kicker was the fact than he knew I didn’t have the kind of money it would have taken to hire a grader to do that work. I basked in his admiration and awe.

       That evening, over a six-pack of cheap beer, I entertained Jack and Liz with the story of how I’d been caught without my clothes by a family who had cruised up behind me as I worked on the drive. Their big station wagon hardly made a sound and it was more a sixth sense than actual noise that told me I was being watched. I had to have been quite a sight- wearing only what I referred to as my genuine, Columbian, coffee-bean picker’s hat, those old worn-to-rags leather boots, and a smile. Once I realized I had visitors I propped my rake against a nearby saguaro, sauntered back to where I’d left my cutoff jeans in the shade and slowly, carefully donned them. I’d learned the hard way that a brass rivet could raise a blister if it had been left in direct sunlight for even a short amount of time. Then, I returned to the car to talk with the people. They were seeking real estate, a parcel of land to buy and build on, but I noticed when they returned to Sunset Road they made a beeline back toward town. Jack laughed even harder when I mentioned that I had seen them in the neighborhood, “….only that one time.”

       Liz wasn’t quite as endeared to the idea of me being caught naked around her home, but I did see a bit of a smile a couple of times during the telling.

       As fall approached, our work shifted to laying block, pouring bond-beams, and roofing. I paid the bill for Jack and Liz’s car insurance, bought food from time to time for them, and covered the cost of a big central beam that ran across the center of the house. Never had I been so happy. I lived in a camper shell that sat next to a tin storage shed on the shoulder of a hill that looked north and east across a small valley. Further on lay the sprawling city of Tucson, backed by the Santa Catalina and Rincon mountain ranges. My bed was a camp cot set on the ground next to the camper. With my head on a pillow, I could look up and watch the stars, the night birds, and satellites.

       It was there watching the beautiful night sky that I figured out why some satellites blink and others don’t. In the TRW technical library I had discovered that east-west flight paths usually meant one was seeing a US satellite and a north-south path meant it was most likely Russian. Between watching for satellites and shooting stars (the majority of which seemed to go westward) I would drop off to sleep filled with peace and tranquility each night.

       After Christmas, even though I had bolstered my dwindling finances with a part-time job at a liquor store down in town, I was running miserably low on ready cash. It was then that Liz announced I’d stayed to the limit of my welcome. I’d given them six months of hard, free labor, numerous cash and food gifts, and bought the majority of beer for Jack and myself. It was suddenly all over. No real tangible reason was given, even in the face of my questioning. The die was cast, the decision was made, and I was history.

       At the time, I felt that Jack was as hurt by this decree as I was. In retrospect, I think Liz was jealous of the close relationship that Jack and I had. She refused to join us in revelry and felt left out as a result. But this is speculation, because I never did receive an explanation for the preemptory ejection. There was nothing I could do but leave.

       I now faced a major turning point in my life: what to do, where to go, how to earn a living? I could think of few desirable places to go yet I knew I must choose soon. After due consideration of my(limited) options, I phoned TRW and Bob.

       “Any chance you have an opening?” I asked, after we’d completed the social chit-chat. I was simultaneously holding my breath.

       “No, but I can make one if you’re applying,” came his lilting reply. “I can probably even figure out a way to offer you an increase in pay if I work at it hard enough.” Did I mention that I always felt that Bob liked me best? He did in fact ‘find a way’. By treating me as a rehire, he managed to give me a larger raise on my return than what I’d have been in line for if I had remained working those seven months for him. True to his word, he really did create a new position for me to fill. This was doubly beneficial to him: as it gave him someone to assign tasks to that other employees’ couldn’t fit into their busy workdays or did not know how to accomplish. Even better, kept me in the wings for the vacancy Bob knew was coming when an employee graduated from his present course of study and left his department. To me, it was a lifebuoy to latch onto during this sudden shift of fortune. I was humbled, thrilled, and relieved.

       By the time I’d made the physical move back to the South Bay of L.A., located, and paid for two weeks of rent on an apartment, and stocked up on some food, I had five-dollars to my name. Even I knew I’d cut things pretty close.

       During the first day back at TRW I took the time to call El Camino Community College and ask when classes started for the coming semester. I was told I still had a couple of days remaining to register. As soon as 5 o’clock rolled around, I made a beeline to the campus registrar’s office. It was a big and reassuring surprise for me to discover that I could take night classes and do well. Teachers seemed to like me and the input I offered, and I received many positive responses to my oral and written work and ‘A’s for my final grades.

       One of the surprising discoveries that I made, after a few semesters of widely varied classes, is that all things are connected by an intricate weaving of tendrils of knowledge. In studying history, anthropology, psychology, math and chemistry I could see the interconnectedness that bonds them together. I experienced this realization as a profound gift to myself. I believed it opened the door to my holding the world (my world) in a new and brighter light.

       Now my only problem was that, like A. S. Neill the head master of Summerhill, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. As semesters came and went, I naturally gravitated towards psychology classes. They seemed to validate my choice of lifestyle and my values; in short I learned to validate myself.

       It didn’t take me long to reunite with the friends I had left behind at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Long Beach. I moved smoothly back into the routine of attending the Friday evening discussion group, Saturday night’s singles party, Sunday morning church service, and the open volleyball we played all Sunday afternoon. This ‘religious’ community provided me with a large cross-section of people and a ready-made social life. It was at a singles party just a week or so after my return that I met Gayle.

       Each week a different member of the Singletarians would open their home to the group. Wine was sold by the glass and the small amount of profit these sales realized went into the club coffers, while the host and volunteers would provide snacks and finger foods. I was a member of an unofficial subgroup within the large club that always sought each other out to hang with. All of us were hovering around our 30th year, and had initially started attending these parties near the same time.

       When the front door opened and a lady came through whom I did not recognize, I asked to the group at large, “Anybody know her?”

       Gary Winter quickly explained, “I met her last week at church and told her about the party.”

       Seeing Gary in our midst the invitee made a beeline over to join us. After they had greeted each other I turned to Gary and said, “Are you going to introduce us?”

       Pausing for a heartbeat or two he finally offered up a curt, “No.” Then turning to Joe, he started discussing his work.

       Left to my own devices I looked this newcomer in the face, smiled while holding out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Tom. Since Gary refuses to fulfill his gentlemanly duties, let me introduce you to the group.”

       Wearing an attractive, lightweight, cotton dress, sensible flat-heeled shoes, and small sparkly earrings, an aura of good health emanated from this stranger. Her soft, smiling eyes came near to my level and her brown hair, which she wore in a medium length, was somewhat curly and unruly.

       Looking into my eyes she hesitantly offered her right hand and with absolute innocence said, “Hi, I’m Gay.” Immediately a number of quick, cute one-liners flashed across my mind, “Oh, damn, I’m so sorry!”, “Well, I couldn’t tell by looking!”, and “Just my luck!” but something stopped me. Whatever the something was that had quelled my voice didn’t keep the thoughts from splashing across my face, however, and Gay immediately clarified that her name was Gayle but her friends and family had always called her Gay. I mumbled something about how that could confuse some people. Then, while continuing to hold her hand, which I had captured in the handshake, I went on to name each member of our little clique as she nodded and smiled, embarrassment written across her oval face. In the ensuing weeks I learned that this embarrassment was a way of life for Gay. She appeared to be naturally shy, inhibited, and conservative. The coming years and our relationship would change some of that, but neither of us knew it at the time.

       When the introductions were complete and the small talk had slowly walked itself into a corner, I offered to fetch her a drink but she chose to accompany me to the bar that was in the kitchen. Standing close to her I was aware of how much attraction I felt towards this woman. She wasn’t afraid to look me in the eyes or stand so close that we maintained a physical contact. I found myself working hard to make her laugh because when she did laugh her face lit up like an ivory cameo in sunlight, with dimples suddenly appearing at the corners of her mouth.

       Carrying our two glasses of rose`, I steered this lovely creature into a quiet corner where we talked nonstop for the better part of an hour. Much too soon, she announced that she felt the need to circulate among the other partiers and to locate Gary and speak with him. I agreed it would be the proper thing to do but also pointed out the fact that I was enjoying our private talk far too much to actually want her to do what was proper.

       Throughout the evening I watched from a calculated distance; once I approached her and asked for a dance. As we swayed together in gentle rhythm to Freddy Fender’s Before The Next Teardrop Falls, we resumed our conversation. Mostly I asked her about her life. I found out that she was separated, starting the divorce process and that she was the mother of two young boys ages 10 and 5. She was originally from Michigan and that her parents were what I would later deem as ‘wealthy’. When the song ended and another partier stepped in for his turn with the new lady I realized I to cease my domination of her time and attention.

       10:00 P.M. found the chat group in a corner of the living room sharing the news of the week. Steve had just changed jobs again, Ruby had lost her’s, Gary was moving up north in the valley, and of course, I had just returned from the Tucson desert. In the middle of this Gayle rose and said that she had to get the babysitter home by 11:00. I immediately stood and announced, “I’ll walk you to your car.” Gayle looked over at Gary, who was embroiled in a techno-conversation with Joe. Realizing he wasn’t going to offer, she smiled her acceptance. After Gayle had offered her thanks to the host, we stepped out into the warm winter night.

       “Will I see you and the boys at church tomorrow?” I asked.
       “Yes. They seem to enjoy the Sunday school class a lot.”
       “Would they enjoy going to the beach after church? I could bring some sandwiches and cokes and we could make it a picnic.”

       “Oh they’d like the beach and I’ll be happy to make the sandwiches. I have a basket for that very thing.”

       “It’s a date.” I announced. I was thrilled at the ease with which my brilliant ploy met with her acceptance. First of all, a beach date didn’t require much money. Secondly, it would afford me a chance to meet her boys and allow us all to assess each other. I knew that if Gayle’s boys, for whatever reason chose not to like me the relationship was over before it could start.

       Basking in the possibilities of the morrow I reached to open the car door she had just unlocked. After opening the door for her, I turned and held my arms out- willing her with all my heart to accept this brash move on my part. I did not, however, move toward her. If we were going to share a tender moment it would have to be her choice. She would have to be the one who stepped forward in acceptance. And she did. We held each other for a long embrace. When we started to separate, we re-clasped each other strongly, gently; hungrily. I don’t think we kissed, but I don’t remember. What I do remember is the warmth of Gayle’s soft female body as it melded itself to my work-hardened, sun-seared male torso. I remember the clean, fresh smell of her hair and skin.

       Watching her drive away in her little Toyota sedan I was speechless, ecstatic, and already missing her gentle presence.

       Good to her word, she arrived at church the next morning with a wicker basket. Inside was enough food to feed a small African village. I kidded her over the amount of food, and she informed me that I obviously didn’t have a clue as to just how much food two small boys could consume in the course of a couple of hours.

       When we arrived at the beach, the boys went tearing off to the water’s edge. Curt, the ten-year-old, continued into the water, but Craig, almost six, had stopped short at the high-water mark and stood watching his older brother cavort above and below the small waves. As soon as Gayle and I had the blanket spread and all the paraphernalia arranged I asked if she was going in swimming. “No. I’ll watch from here. You go ahead.” So I strolled down to where Craig was wistfully watching Curt’s every move.

       “Hi, Guy. Want to go in?”
       “No.” Came the subdued reply. But I didn’t believe it for a minute.
       “You could ride on my shoulders if you want.”

       He turned his big bright eyes toward me in a look of incredulity. Before he could say anything I knelt down and said, “Come on, hop on my back then.” Scrambling around behind me he threw his little arms over my shoulders and around my neck. Quickly I showed him how to hold on without strangling me. Then wrapping my arms under his knees, I stood up and started wadding into the salty water where we joined Curt. The three of us romped and splashed our way up and down the beach for a while before Craig decided he’d had enough water and opted for building a sand castle. About that time, Gayle called us to the blanket for a sandy lunch.

       After we’d consumed the better part of the wicker basket the adults stretched out for a nap while the boys played nearby in the sand. Once my food had settled I asked if they wanted help digging a hole. An enthusiastic and resounding, “Yes!” answered that question. I went running off to the car where I dug out an army surplus collapsible shovel. The boys stood to one side as I moved sand. A large pile developed next to an ever-deepening hole. When I got it to a depth of about four feet water started seeping into the bottom and that water began eroding the sides, causing them to constantly cave in on me. The boys were dumbfounded, thrilled, and excited over the project. Gayle laughed outright.

       I put on a show for the boys, squawking and yelling every time a wall collapsed. I told funny stories, talked in a hick-country drawl, exaggerated my angst, and employed every conceivable trick I could think of to entertain and make them laugh. And laugh they did. That afternoon on the beach I was accepted into this little family of three and it began a lifelong friendship for us.

       By the time we returned to the church and Gayle’s car, transferred the blanket, basket, and beach paraphernalia (plus the boys of course) it was late afternoon. As Gayle and I stood next to her car we made plans for a date the following Saturday night. I knew it would be a long week of waiting. And I knew it would be worth waiting for.

       On my way back to my new apartment I cranked the radio up to ‘9’ and sang along with Harry Chapin and Cat’s in the Cradle, Michael Murphy and Wildfire and anything else that came across the air waves. It’s always easier to sing when you’re happy.

       Gayle and I moved into a warm, wonderful relationship in the ensuing weeks. Very soon I was spending every Friday evening until Monday morning with her and the boys. Every other weekend the boys would visit their father.

       During the week both Gayle and I had our classes to attend; she enrolled in Cal State Fullerton in a Master’s of library science course, I was taking general education classes at El Camino community college again. Weekends we saved for ourselves: movies, camping with the boys, church, plays and household chores of daily living. Life was good.

       At work, my clearance took a while to come through but ultimately it did and I was allowed access to a ‘spook’ project. This was a secret satellite surveillance operation for the CIA. My job was to provide electronic support equipment to the technicians and engineers working on the “Rhyolite” project. Chris Boyce, a 22-year-old employee brought the whole shebang into the news in 1977 when he and a friend were caught selling project information to the Russians. During his trial, information about how the CIA was involved in manipulating Australian politics and labor unions and the US was betraying Australia by failing to honor agreements to share information collected by the satellite project came out. The CIA scrambled to change the name of the project, suppress information as well as possible, and then continue with it. Chris Boyce was sentenced to 44-years in prison. The book “The Falcon and the Snowman” by Robert Lindsey would tell much of the story to the world.

       I always believed this security faux pas to be the reason for the problems I had with the U.S. mail in the years following my employment at TRW. There were numerous instances of mailed items going ‘lost’ or being unexplainably ‘detained’ in transit. I had been informed that I could not leave the country without ‘permission’ for the two years following my severance at TRW. This announcement was something that I did not receive graciously or subscribe to. My employment was done and as far as I was concerned I wasn’t ‘reporting’ to anyone or asking ‘permission’ to do anything or go anywhere.

       Thankfully and with no surprise to me, after two years had lapsed, I started receiving my mail on time just like most other Americans.

       By 1977 I was aware that simply saving money was not a pathway to wealth. Uncertain whether I could qualify for a mortgage sufficient to purchase the kind of home I would want, I asked Gayle to consider buying a house with me. After due consideration on her part she declined. The following Saturday I told her that I was going house shopping and headed out.

Gayle 1979

Gayle 1979

       Four hours later I had found the house of my dreams and made an offer on it. The house had all the essentials I had hoped for: mission style architecture, 3-bedrooms, 2-baths, fireplace, detached garage, small yard, big trees, and a good location. One month later I took possession. Immediately I ordered carpet for the front room and started cleaning wall to wall from top to bottom.

       Once it was clean and the carpet was installed, Gayle helped me move my few pieces of furniture and set up a newly purchased king-sized waterbed. She also helped glue a paper mural on the bedroom wall. It was a forest scene that spanned floor-to-ceiling and corner-to-corner.

       My next immediacy was to find a renter for the front bedroom. I had extended myself with a couple of truth-stretching financial claims in order to get accepted by the mortgage company, and needed the extra income to insure my ability to meet the monthly payments. The first person I mentioned having an available room to jumped at the chance to rent it, and she remained until I sold the place two years later.

       Over the next two years I painted much of the interior, replaced the old broken dish-washer with one discarded by Gayle’s neighbor, ripped out the half-counter between the kitchen and dining room, laid decorative old style tile in the kitchen and dining room, and enclosed the water heater. Outside I managed to get the grass to grow like no other owner had in many years (or so my neighbor told me). I grew a little garden along the south side of the house, and repaired the concrete in the drive where the neighbor’s tree had damaged it.

       In 1979 prior to the start of Spring semester at El Camino College, I met with a counselor who told me I needed to take only a couple of academic classes and a couple of phys ed classes to receive an Associates’ Degree with a major in psychology. Then he said, “Due to your Vietnam Service, you were enrolled under a veteran program and you do not need to take the phys ed requirements.” I had immediately signed up for the remaining academic classes and successfully completed them. At the close of the semester I filled out the paperwork requesting the Associates’ degree. A few weeks later the mail brought a letter telling me how I was not ‘eligible’ because I had not completed my phys ed class requirements. I saw red.

       Over the ensuing days and through numerous phone calls I was finally told that if I were to come to the campus, fill out a request for waiver, then the college might grant me an exception and give me the degree. In my estimation of this blatant stupidity, this was the equivalent of abasing myself. So, in a blind rage of impotence at what I saw as bureaucratic incompetence, I told the man, “Stuff it, just stuff the degree where it belongs.” And I hung up the phone. It was not the first time (and certainly not the last time) that I would cut off my nose to spite my face.

       More than twenty years would flow by before I would phone the college again, ask for a review of my transcripts and see if the college could find it in their heart to bestow upon me that which I felt I had earned those long years ago. Two weeks after making that call I received the degree.

       In February of 1979, I wrote to Mother and invited her to come to California for a visit. In the letter I offered to cover the cost of a ticket. To my surprise, she accepted the offer and arrived in early March.

       For the next two weeks I did my best to show her a good time. I took her to some of my favorite restaurants, and she enjoyed the strange and varied fares. In a neighborhood Korean kitchen, against my words of warning, she bit into a green onion that had been liberally covered in cayenne red pepper. With tears rolling down both cheeks she announced, “Well, that is certainly like you described it.” And then she proceeded to polish off the scalding delicacy.

       One evening we went for Mexican food and I ordered two Tecate beers. I asked the waitress to serve them ‘tall’. When the beer was brought to the table, Mother’s eyes sparkled with amazement. “I’ve never seen beer look like that.” She whispered across the table at me.

       “Try it- you’ll like it.” I responded.
       The tall-stemmed crystal glass brimming with the amber liquid sat before her and towered above the level of her head. “What’s on the rim?” she asked warily.

       “It’s salt. They rub a lime around the lip and roll it in salt. Remember, you’re in California now. We do things differently here,” I teased.

       Carefully lifting the glass and steering it to her lips, she took a hesitant sip. With a look of pleasant surprise on her face, she returned to it for a long pull. She guided the glass back onto the napkin from which it had come as her little pink tongue cautiously emerged and licked the foam away. Smacking her lips and sitting back against the booth she eyed me and announced in a happy voice, “Well, my doctor would be proud of me.”

       In surprise of my own I asked, in an incredulous voice, “Why, because you’re drinking beer?”

       “No,” she informed me while shaking her head, “He told me to get more salt in my diet.” As an after-thought she added, “For my low blood pressure.”

       A few days later, as we were driving out to Orange County to visit Gayle, Mother told me the story of her last drive from Ohio to Fred’s home in Massachusetts. Its one more example of just how mentally quick she was, and how she could respond to most situations with humor.

       Dust hanging lazy in the New York state air filtered the sun’s rays and reminded Mother that it was mid-July. She’d just finished a fine lunch of an open roast beef sandwich smothered in gravy, mashed potatoes, and peas. Iced tea was her choice of drink, and she thought it had far too much sugar in it. I can hear her strident voice to this day proclaiming, “A body doesn’t need that much sugar at a sitting.” That was the reason she’d forgone the ice cream on the slice of cherry pie. The pie proved not quite up to her standards, but she did admit that it was tasty enough.

       Choosing her steps with care (as she always did) she headed down the sidewalk toward her car. Already her mind was working on how many hours of daylight were left for her to make miles. She didn’t like to drive after night fell. Besides, she would have a harder time finding a motel with a lit ‘vacancy’ sign in its’ window.

       She settled herself behind the wheel of her 1975 Lancer and noted how warm the interior was. She didn’t mind the extra warmth. Her 63-year-old bones always appreciated a bit of extra heat.

       As she turned sedately out of the parking lot onto the street, she noted that the volume of traffic had increased since she’d stopped for lunch. The speed of the traffic, however, had not and for this she was grateful. She was used to small state and county gravel roads where tractor traffic had the right of way. All this turnpike travel was new to her. She found it exciting to be driving herself from southern Ohio to Massachusetts, but only as long as she felt in control.

       A large sign crawled by on the right shoulder: SLOW- CONSTRUCTION. Well, she thought to herself, it certainly is that. Not a workman in sight!

       The slow creep of vehicles turned into stop and go. Then became stop. Suddenly, there was a small bump and her eyes flew open. The Lancer’s nose was up against the rear bumper of the car directly ahead. She sat quietly with her embarrassment as the tallest man she had ever seen unfolded himself out of the car ahead. She watched with trepidation as he slowly stepped toward her window; carefully placing a New York State Trooper’s hat on his head. Obligingly, Mother rolled down her window- mentally preparing herself for a lecture about her traffic infraction. As the trooper bent at the waist and looked into her face he said, in a carefully modulated voice, “Would you care to explain this, ma’am?”

       Without batting an eye she replied, “Me? I thought you backed up!” Incredulity filled the officer’s face. Snatching the immaculate hat off his head he slammed it onto the ground exclaiming, “Damn, now I’ve heard everything.” Turning quickly, he snatched up the errant hat, brushed it off against his sharply creased trousers and, facing straight ahead, stomped a hasty retreat to his car and drove away as soon as the traffic allowed.

       When she told me this story she laughed and covered her mouth with one hand. Then, in a voice dripping with innocence and lit with laughter, she allowed that, “It was all I could think of to say at the moment.”

       Soon after Mother’s visit, I advertised the little house on San Francisco Avenue as “for sale by owner”. To the tune of Slip Slidin' Away by Paul Simon, I opened the door for my first possible buyer. Throughout the day the songs changed, as did the potential new owners. I’d done my homework well. I had a copy of an independent real estate appraiser’s completed appraisal to give out when someone would ask what I based my asking price on, and I had the name of an escrow office willing to complete the sale on a weekend if necessary. I also had the assurance of a psychic that I’d be “…successful in selling the house myself and that I’d get the money I’d need, to do that which I was wanting to do.”

       I tendered my third resignation to Bob, giving him three months notice. I told Jack that I’d be returning to Tucson by July or August. Jack called me and asked if I could front $500 in the buying of beveling wheels. He said we could go into business making handmade bevels. I said, “Sure, I can have the money in the mail Monday. What’s beveling?”

       July 13th, 1979 was my last day of work for TRW. I was given a goodbye lunch where I received hand tools and a leather tool belt from coworkers. I also got fairly drunk on the free drinks everyone insisted on buying me. Life was good. After all the rest of the department had returned to work, Bob and I sat in the lounge and drank coffee- discussing the twists and turns of life. He expressed his pleasure at seeing me striking off on new adventures. He also stressed the fact that I was always welcome to return and work for him anytime I needed a job.

       A week later the sale of the house closed as expected. I had received my asking price.

Long Beach, CA 1979

Tom 1979

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