Wittier Word Weavers

Writers' Club of Whittier


1 Comment

Live your dream: It could Happen to You

By Mary Terzian

        10357802_993761714039738_3986780144559719337_oWhen I wrote Politically Homeless: a Five Year Odyssey across Three Continents, I addressed it to a general audience and, primarily, to educational institutions. I hoped that young adults, looking for a job at the completion of their education, would read it. My job search flung me half across the globe. Now my book has taken over the push. I did not expect three respectable organizations to extend their membership to me:

– Women of Distinction Magazine is looking forward to featuring you and your article. It will now be noted “Recipient of the 2016 Excellence Award ….”

– The Honors Department of  The International Women’s  Leadership Association (IWLA) selected Mary Terzian for her outstanding leadership skills, commitment to her profession and contributions her community.

– Continental Who’sWho has awarded a plaque to Mary Terzian as “Pinnacle Professional Member” inducted into Continental’s Who’s Who circle.

I am certainly honored to be a member of these organizations. Authors never know where their Masterpiece will land, and it is always a pleasure to find out that their book has touched deep feelings, which is essentially the purpose: to shake and wake the reader to alternative realities. Will I ever make it to the Pulitzer Prize? Doubtful, but it is alright to keep the dream alive.  Here is an excerpt from Chapter One of the book. You be the judge.

“Your place is in the kitchen,” Father thundered, his green eyes bulging from their sockets.”You don’t need more education. You had more than enough already for a girl.”

That phrase, “for a girl,” seared my soul ad infinitum, whether for higher education, going to the movies, attending cultural events or just belonging to a club. Those activities were reserved for boys. I was the extra hand at home, Stepmother’s helper, if not her replacement. I would become a spinster for life if a suitor didn’t ask for my hand soon. In the 1950’s that was the normal expectation from Armenian girls in Cairo who were lucky enough to complete high school.

“You can’t feed a husband with books! You’re a woman!” Stepmother echoed, “you’re destined to keep house!” as if I wasn’t doing it already.Housekeeping is no brainer for heaven’s sake! How long does it take to tidy up a place, or learn to fold grape leaves over seasoned ground meat to make sarma or stuffed dolma? When did a housekeeper ever win a Nobel Prize?

I looked at my parents with glassy eyes, pursed lips and a poker face, an acquired habit developed at the Immaculate Conception English High School in Cairo where I had just graduated. The Irish nuns had helped me gain self-confidence. Otherwise I would have lost my temper and hollered back at my parents, an unforgivable sin. Father accused them of “raping my mind.” He didn’t suspect that they saved my life, by diverting my suicidal thoughts towards hope and patience. Sister Mary Visitation taught us a phrase that is etched on my brain to this day: “I can and I will.”There and then I made up my mind. “I will challenge that destiny. You can’t stop me!”  Without that promise to myself I would have burst into a volcano from the anger piled up in me.

School, my only escape, was over now and I felt like a caged bird.

“I told you several times to quit reading those stupid books,” Father lamented, “You never listened to me! They’re useless when you’re hungry! Learn to sew. Start learning a trade, otherwise you’ll starve!”

Four years earlier my high school education had been threatened the same way. Had it not been for my older brother Kev’s sneaky intervention reporting to Aunt Esther about my staying at home, I would not have had the opportunity to attend secondary school at fourteen. Aunt Esther kept an eye on us. She had intervened on my behalf while Uncle Avedis, Mama’s brother, was still alive, his presence giving more weight to her authority then. It was different now.

“What’s the use of your education now, tell me! After all that money spent on you!” Father grieved. He sounded as if it were a waste.

Survival had been the preoccupation of my parents’ generation. The Armenians living in Aintab, Mother’s ancestral town, and those in Killis, Father’s birthplace, had witnessed the emaciated shadows of human beings marching through their town. They were dispatched to their death in the hot, arid Syrian deserts, their only sin being a Christian. They were mostly seniors, women and children. The able-bodied men, fourteen years old and over, had been taken care of, Ottoman style. History labeled these once industrious, then impoverished individuals “starving Armenians,” adding insult to injury. The majority perished on the road for want of a drop of water, a slice of bread, or a shelter from threat. Few survived.

Fearing the same fate of deportation and massacres of infidels could befall them, and unable to defend themselves any more, those who could escape left their town overnight, following the departure of the French Army after the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918. The French left behind not only the areas they had conquered, but also their promises of helping the population to take over their ancestral lands.

Father’s family was among the escapees. They probably endured hunger during their voluntary displacements. Although we never had a shortage of food at home, and during World War II we were reasonably rationed, his memory and fears lingered. He humbly picked up the last precious crumbs of bread from the table as if they were particles of Holy Communion. World War II had revived the apprehensions of the immigrant Armenian community that had barely found its footing.”What will happen to us now?” was the common worry.

Egypt, then a British Protectorate, had been hospitable to these impoverished remnants of a proud nation who wanted to keep their identity intact. The local Egyptian-Armenian communities had extended a helping hand to facilitate the integration of the arriving compatriots. Charitable organizations and benevolent patrons had financed the education of children whose parents could not afford tuition in Armenian schools. Father, however, was a proud man. He would never accept help from anyone. He paid for our education, Kev’s and mine, but he considered sending me to school a “waste of money”.

“Why does she need education? If she can read that’s enough! She’ll stay home and rear children.”

Mother was adamant. She was a woman ahead of her time: well-educated, insightful, and intelligent.

“Times are changing. Mary should be educated at the same level as the boys. Don’t you see the women working in the Army nowadays?”

“Berj will soon start kindergarten. I have to provide for him too. He’s a boy. He needs it more.”

“God will send his kismet just as He did when he was born. Don’t sacrifice the girl for him!”

Advertisements


10 Comments

Summer Vacations: The Best Times of Our Lives

About fifty years ago, after five years of college and coming to the end of my first year of teaching, I wanted my children to spend time with my mother and father, their paternal grandparents. If I could make it happen, my kids would get to know their grandma and grandpa and benefit greatly from being showered with their love. They would also meet and spend time with their east-coast aunts, uncles, and cousins. We lived in coastal California—my parents lived in a small, rural village in southern New Jersey where the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean converge, a popular vacation spot, 2,800 miles distant.

Along with being a teacher, I was also a journeyman mason, skilled at brick and block work and concrete placement and finishing, skills in high demand wherever construction was in progress. That year, in early June, my father told me there was lots of construction work in south Jersey. Although oceans apart, a plan for a summer-long visit with my folks was brewing. A working vacation for me, coupled with a summer-long visit to my east-coast family, was doable. My wife agreed, and plans were made. My kids would be spending the summer with grandma and grandpa. Hopefully, upon arrival at the Jersey Shore, I would find work.

On the last day of school, after signing out and turning in my keys, I headed home to finish packing the station wagon. At 10:00 PM, with the kids in sleeping bags and our luggage strapped on top, along with my surfboard and fishing rods, we headed east. To avoid the California desert heat and glare, I drove though the night while the family slept. They awoke in eastern Arizona and we later stopped for the evening in New Mexico

Although we drove long hours and through the nights, we made sure the kids had plenty of pool time at the motels. During the drive, I often lead the family in song. One favorite, while crossing the desert, was, Cool Water, by Roy Rogers and Sons of the Pioneers. Another was 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall, great for long journeys because it had a repetitive format and took hours to finish. Although a long trip, we had fun. Coast to coast, the trip took four and a half days.

Upon arrival, I found work with a contractor I had worked for in the past. The first couple of weeks were difficult. Working as a mason, my body, soft from lack of physical work, was not ready for what was about to occur. The shock to my muscles resulted in two weeks of continuous pain. In addition, my coworkers, knowing I was a teacher, found my discomfort and inability to keep pace, a rich source of amusement. By the third week, I recovered. By the fourth week, I held my own. It wasn’t long before my fellow workers had a difficult time keeping up with me. By summers end, I had lost fifteen pounds and added muscle. I returned to teaching, tanned, lean, and fit.

My parents’ single-story, three-bedroom home was not large enough for a host of visitors. Several years prior, my mother said to my father. “You know our children will be visiting in the summers. We need more rooms to accommodate them and our grandchildren.” So, Dad built a second story, adding three more bedrooms and a bath. The upstairs became the sleeping area and in-house playground for my kids and their four cousins. In preparation for their grandkids, Mom and Dad stocked up on bicycles and beach toys.

It was a great summer for my children. Along with the constant barrage of hugs and kisses from their grandparents, they had lots of unstructured, unsupervised playtime in the small rural town, much like my own childhood. Part of my plan was for them to have that experience. It wasn’t unusual for my mother to pack them a lunch and send them off on their bicycles for a day’s adventure, admonishing them to be home for dinner. All of their daytrips included the beach. Upon their return, covered with sand, they required a rinse in the outdoor shower Dad had built for that purpose.

Weekends were my vacation time, with fishing or surfing on Saturdays and beach with the family on Sunday afternoons. Sunday morning was a time of devotion. Being a small town, there was no church. Every Sunday, fire engines were removed from the firehouse and an altar and chairs were set up. Voila! A place of worship! After services, there was a rush home to change into beach attire. A five-mile caravan to the beach followed, loaded with kids, buckets, shovels, blankets, towels, and beach chairs.

We enjoyed those summer vacations for years to come, with the dash across the desert and heartland of our country into the Mid Atlantic States and arriving at the family home. We did this for six years, until my body could no longer take the physical abuse of masonry work. Those were great working vacations. My parents loved my kids. My kids loved my parents. Ever since, both of my children have often said, “Those were the best times of our lives.” I agree.

To this day, even though my parents are long gone, I make the journey every year. The difference is, now I fly. My wife and I will make the trip in late September. My sisters will be there, as will some of their children and grandchildren. We will stay in the home that Mom and Dad built.


3 Comments

Road Trips

We took two types of road trips.  The first one was when we drove as far as the Volvo wanted to take us.

As we traveled through the countryside I enjoyed the mountains  and the clouds until the left blinker stopped working, the freeway was downhill, rain was pouring and there were trucks in several lanes.  I set aside the California tour book and read the car manual.   My husband  was sure by wiggling some wires he could correct the problem.   We turned on the lights in a heavy downpour and the dashboard dimmed.   It was normal for our car to act up, it had over 260,000 miles.  We patiently drove in the right lane until we got to a rest stop.   We called our mechanic from a payphone.   This was the 90’s when coin operated payphones were everywhere.  Alberto confirmed that it was a bad fuse,  we should just replace it.    This was a modern rest stop with vending machines.   One of them was filled with car-parts, including a box of fuses.

The rain stopped.  As we continued to drive I was happy to hear the click-clack of the blinkers.   The dashboard lights were still dim and we decided to skip some of the sightseeing so we would get to the hotel before dark.  We adjusted our itenary for the whole trip just in case the headlights became moody.  DSC_0047-001

A year later we visited the gold rush towns in California.   I was reading about Mark Twain in Murhys  when the car started making strange noises.   Later the churning went away and my husband gave the Volvo an Italian tune-up.   He drove as fast as the car could go, to clean out the gunk.  This was Alberto’s advice before the trip.  The car was shaking, my eyes were glued to the rear-view mirror checking for police when John slowed down.  He had trouble holding the wheel because of the vibration.   He was sure the car was in much better shape now.

The hotels I booked would let me cancel till 6 pm that day.  I thought they invented this rule for people who dared to travel in old cars.  Half-way on the trip the engine got stuck in 2nd gear.   Being an automatic car, it wouldn’t go faster then 25m/hr.  We cancelled the rest of the lodgings.  The car shop in Jackson didn’t have the parts unless we waited three days.  We telephoned Alberto then decided to drive home, over 400 miles in second gear.  My husband explained that we might blow the engine then we would get towed to a local mechanic, hopefully this would happen near a bigger town.

Since we were driving 25 m/hr I could leisurely read the billboards and signs for auto repair shops and occasionally shouted over the engine noise “There! A Volvo dealer.”  The car was still moving so we didn’t exit the freeway.  The engine was rattling, I concentrated on my tongue so I wouldn’t bite it again.  I forgot to worry about the police giving us a ticket because we drove under the minimum speed limit.  We were three miles from home when the car shook and begun humming quietly.  It was shifting properly.  Next day Alberto checked out the car and couldn’t find anything wrong with it.

The second type of trips were when we followed a plan.  The hotels were prepaid to get discounted rates  and we looked for signs for restaurants and national park entrances.  We enjoyed picnics and panoramic views on mountain tops without worries of a moody car.  On these vacations we drove a Prius but that’s another story.


3 Comments

Be All You Can Be

FullSizeRender (29)The future is in my hands. I am the maker of my own destiny, and it is up to me to realize it. There are the doors, and I have the master key.

Summer 1986. Vietnam was far behind–its horror, its close borders, our life on hold. I had been in the US for two years, a sophomore in college averaging 18-24 quarter units, holding a part-time job, and dating and partying. I embraced life with every breath and burned with impatience to make more of myself. At 24 years old, I knew full well I had a late start. In my mind was this constant warning that time was running out, and I’d better hurry in this order of urgency: by all means get my career going—a bachelor degree, then immediately a job so that I could have that needed health insurance to fix my cavities, then locate a suitable man to start a family. Meanwhile, I should grab as much fun as I could while discovering myself and reaching the two urgent goals above.

That summer I desperately wanted to travel out of California. The summer before an appendectomy had kept me homebound before the summer quarter started. Then school. Then work. Then school again.

With no money to begin with, I had to be creative. One day, on my way to class I walked by a sign. It said, “Be All You Can Be.” I was fascinated by what I read. That was exactly what I had been wanting. Below the sign was this picture of a soldier dressed in a camo fatigue uniform. Hmm! That wasn’t in my plan, but…, it wouldn’t hurt to inquire. I pushed in the glass door to sit down across a desk from a black man in army uniform. He flashed his teeth and extended his hand, a very American gesture that I wasn’t yet comfortable with, but we shook hands nonetheless, or he shook mine. After the mutual introduction and I was to call him as Sergeant X (I can no longer recall his name), he described to me in length what the program was all about. It was called ROTC, and it trained college students for later recruitment into the US army. As of immediately, I could sign up for the summer basic training, and the US Army would give me a free medical evaluation and if I qualified, would send me all expenses paid to Fort Knox, Kentucky for a six-week stay. Afterward, I could choose to return straight home, or go on to another destination of my choice, and the ticket would be provided.

I didn’t share it with him my ulterior motive—it wouldn’t be wise to do so, but the sergeant has just described my summer travel plan. In my mind it was an excellent opportunity to travel, live among “real’ Americans, earn some money as I would be getting a stipend, and to top it off, being given six full weeks of free workout. Sergeant X could call it an army training if he wanted. For me, it was a dream vacation. I walked out of the ROTC office elated.


6 Comments

Chasing a Dream

It was the summer of 1950 in Cairo. I had just graduated high school in June, was fluent in English, but had no job prospects. It would take a year before the official Senior Oxford Certificates came through from England, so I had no way to prove my good grades. I did not know who to go to for advice. My former principal from elementary school hinted to a scholarship.

“I’m no longer interested,” I said. It was not the truth but Father did not want to hear of higher education for me. “This much is enough for a girl!” he said. “After all you’ll be a housewife!”

I had other plans. I wanted to become a writer.

On the fifteenth of August, St. Mary’s Ascension Day, friends of the family visited us with gifts, to congratulate my graduation, along with my name day. I was overwhelmed with the attention received, but I was unhappy within. I had chosen the academic branch of education hoping to attend college. Those who graduated from the commercial branch had already acquired jobs. I had nothing to look forward to except a miracle. It happened indeed. One of the guests mentioned that the neighbor across the street was looking for a teacher to help her ten-year old son learn English. I was elated.

That was the beginning of my career. In a few weeks I earned enough money to rent a typewriter and improve my typing speed. Summer weather in Cairo could easily reach 92 degrees Fahrenheit and above, with high humidity. Notwithstanding the heat, I pushed the keys hard on the typewriter, to tame my fingers’ resistance to exercise. I started sending out typed job applications on a neat, clean sheet, looking professional. The sun rays seeping through the shutters promised bright episodes in my life if I pushed my speed further every day. It was a boring exercise, devoid of intellectual content, but one that provided essential manual dexterity for secretarial jobs where I could fit in. I could do better but the lack of a degree hampered me. Nevertheless my self-esteem kept pace with my typing speed. I looked more self-confident.

A concerned relative noticed the transformation and recommended me to one of his clients for a job. I went to my interview with shivers of excitement. Would I be accepted? The gentleman who interviewed me must have used his influence to get me in for their army surplus warehouse. It was a secretarial job on the outskirts of town, paying beginners better salaries than a bank. It bought me some independence and saved me from the humiliation of asking for money from my parents for essential needs .The investment in my English education was beginning to pay dividends.

Life went on. Soon I moved on to a company closer to home, with a better salary. Then I left Cairo to work in Alexandria with the United Nations where I qualified for expatriate assignments. I was well off but unable to pursue my dream of college education. After five years of an itinerant life, due to adverse circumstances I moved to the United States, where I could pursue my goals. On June 1, 1967, seventeen years after high school graduation, I attended evening classes at Columbia University in New York. It took ten years, off and on, to complete my courses amid major changes in my life, including a move to California. With a diploma in hand I held my head two inches higher. I would no longer have to swallow excuses like “if you had a degree we would give you the promotion”. I had proven my worth.

Today, back to the keyboard as a retiree, sitting in an-air conditioned room in a comfortable chair, I enjoy the immense learning opportunities provided online at the stroke of a key. It is quite a contrast to the hot summer afternoons in Cairo, squeezed between my bed and a heavy desk, training my fingers to fly on the keyboard as if my life depended on them. It did then. Who would have thought that my tenacity during that summer would lead me from humble beginnings to world-wide adventures across three continents and through countries embroiled in political conflicts? I flew with mercenaries in Africa, attended a celestial concert with chickens on a commuter plane, and tasted a crocodile dinner with a friend in Leopoldville, Congo. Yes, it was an unusual adventure that raised eyebrows and intrigued family and acquaintances whenever I mentioned my journey into Africa.

“Politically Homeless – a Five-Year Odyssey across Three Continents,” published in June 2015 by Authorhouse.com, is the story of my itinerant life in the 1960’s, in pursuit of higher education. This volume is available in e-book and paperback formats at Amazon.com and other digital stores, or in regular bookstores.


18 Comments

Chasing Butterflies by Sherry Novak

DSC01498QuBflies2,cropDSC03603PipeBflies3,great Sherrys Saguaro Pictures 3 087cropSherrys Saguaro Pictures 431crop

Saguaro National Park campgrounds were empty when we arrived on a steamy August evening. Apparently everyone else knows to avoid summer in Arizona. My friend and I figure it’d be wise to get the tent up before dark; we don’t camp often and it’s borrowed gear. But, first, we have to take pictures of the covey of quail bobbing around the bushes and the lizards skittering with their tails up like scorpions. The fiery sun dips down silhouetting giant cacti against a shamelessly pink sky. A couple cowpokes on horseback would complete the wild west picture. Two motorhomes lumber into camp, air conditioners humming. Night falls fast.

Heat lightning and the low rumble of distant thunder add more sultry to the air. Only a sprinkle is forecast. Coyotes howl from a faraway canyon. We lay out our cots and sleeping bags, unzip all the “windows.” There isn’t a breath of breeze. I rustle out my small flashlight for a trip to the bathroom. I make my tent-mate escort me. Not two feet from the flap door something scuttles under my light — a tarantula! First I want to scream, pack up and look for a motel, on second thought we get out our cameras and take pictures. In the bathroom, thank goodness not an outhouse, I find a big, fat frog and a couple praying mantises.

Back at our nylon abode my roomie crashes out immediately. I wonder how I let myself get talked into this. What’s an insomniac to do in a dark tent? It feels so vulnerable having only a thin piece of cloth between you and the wilderness. Throughout the night the wide circle of howling coyotes grow closer and closer. Have any campers been eaten lately? Bugs chirp, twigs crackle, night birds call. At one point I hear something sniffing next to the tent. The lightning stops, the sky clears and I can see the Big Dipper through the net window. Stars blaze deep and infinite.

The next morning we decide to go peruse the welcome center and come back later to break down our tent. There’s the spectacular panoramic window view I remember. A lady ranger asks what we like to photograph as we have our big cameras hanging around our necks. Birds, bugs, butterflies, most anything we say.

“Have you seen the sulphur butterflies?” she asks. “They’re right down this path in the sugar bush.”

A desert turtle is sunning himself on the sidewalk, so lazy he doesn’t bother to move. Twenty paces and down a few stairs we enter butterfly paradise. Cream-colored sugar bush flowers and blooming cacti are aflutter. Besides sulphurs, we count at least ten varieties. We photograph for hours and decide to stay over night. Happy campers, we come back again the next day to chase butterflies. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMEuedrVb6E


Leave a comment

Rock-a-Bye Baby

I see the pair of shoes perched on top of it before I see the rock. I hear the voices amidst the leafy trees before I spot the people. Clusters of young people. One group sits in a semicircle looking up a boulder teetered on the down slope of a hillside. As we walk on I discover another crew on the move, each person carrying a large black mattress on their shoulders. Then we find them, our kids, our own three children and their group of college-aged friends.

Finally, our destination!

Even armed with three GPS, the dash mount Garmin, plus his and my smartphones with our map apps on, it has taken us a while to locate the right place, and the climbers. During the car ride, my mind was assailed by the terrible images involving bodies and boulders—bodies tumbling down; limbs crushed, twisted in odd angles, or severed from their sockets; my babies condemned forever from ever playing any musical instruments again.

They had left with their dog and a few friends in three separate cars a few hours before us. We were supposed to “chill” at home, meaning my son’s apartment, or go downtown sightseeing, or whatever. Each time a text message “ding” in, my heart jumped. This was the younger brother’s and his sister’s first outdoor climbing. But “Everything’ s cool, Mom. We’ve been practicing at the climbing gym. And we’ll be uber-careful!”

The call for help came in soon enough. “Come get Tanty. Dogs aren’t allowed here.” It was all we waited to jump into our car to join them. Our life had purpose again. We couldn’t be happier!

Garmin directed us to an address given by Google. We veered off the road to nowhere, even as Garmin clearly intoned “Your destination is to the right” then “You have arrived.” It couldn’t be, because to our right was a wood, all barricaded in. Perhaps they walked in after having jumped the fence. After all, they were looking for places to climb. A fence was one such obstacles.

“I hope we have cell connection,” I said, before punching in my son’s name. We established connection, thank Heaven, and I quickly told him there was no park at the address given by Google, unless….

“You sure there is only one Castle Rock Park in this area?” I remembered a Castle Rock park in my own home town, 400 miles away. Oh God almighty, don’t tell me we are making this mistake.

“You are perfectly fine, Mom. Just drive on for, uh…ten minutes. We are in an area a bit past the park. You’ll see.”

We climbed back into our car and drove on as instructed, this time ignoring Garmin. Then we spotted them, cars, then more cars, then people, more people, people with families and kids—but no dogs–walking along the road, past a tiny parking space already filled up. More cars waited in a line off the road.

“They aren’t here. I don’t see his car,” said my husband.

“Perhaps they drove inside,” I suggested, but already hitting the call button to our son.

“Where are you? Your car isn’t here. And the lot is full,” I said all at once, frustration mounting.

“Where are you,” he asked. I remembered the little boy who repeated after my words, “Are you my mother?” when I used to read to him from a picture book, “Are you my mother,” pointing at the words as he repeated after me.

“We are right in front of the park. Should we find a place to park or not?”

“No. Drive on down further. Look on your left for a group of cars, the second group, not the first.”

And so it went. The minutes stretched into a quarter hour. By the third U-turn, I turned on the map on all our devices, just in case.

But finally, here they are, our hillbillies and their large boulders, and tall leafy trees reaching up to the blue beyond, and the aroma of hamburgers grilled on a portable propane stove perched atop a rock. And dogs are fine here. Perhaps they just want us to be here with them. I smile at the pleasant thought.

DSC_0050

One of them is scaling a monolith that brings in mind the Obelix of my youth, while several of his peers huddling about with arms outstretched, clearly ready for any mishaps. Two black twin-sized mattresses placed end-to-end graced the jungle floor, “to cushion the fall,” explains my son, the younger one, while his older brother reads from a book, seemingly evaluating the difficulty of the climb.

“It’s a V3, you guys,” he yells out to the climbers, clearly happy.

It will take a few more books to learn what V3 means, and the history behind that V. Or you will have to do your own googling for a shortcut and get sucked down the rabbit hole right beneath that majestic boulder.

PS: No rock climbers would take a short cut.


5 Comments

Strawberry Fields Forever

DSC00877-001

June 25, 1976

I travel to Blairgowrie, Scotland with three of my high-school friends.   Although we are Yugoslav citizens we are allowed to work in Great Britain if a British citizen offers us temporary employment.  We have work visas for six weeks and we join other students in a summer camp.

July 10, 1976

The sky is gray most of the time. Finally, the sun shines for more than two hours. My bucket is half-full of strawberries.  With both hands I pull off the ripe berries while I’m careful not to squeeze them.  The bucket can’t have any leaves, stems, or straw because it would spoil the jam.

It is 10am and my fingers are swollen.  When I pinch off the green stem a tiny bit of fruit juice drips on my fingers.  Then the straw around the plant sticks to my hand.  I marvel at the perfect berries and taste another one.  Delicious, like each one I had before.  I never thought that a fruit could grow to be this sweet under a gloomy Scottish sky.

I earn 3 pence per pound of fruit.  I wonder how many buckets I will fill up today.  I’m determined to earn the most I can.  If I work hard by the end of the day I’ll have 3 or 4 British pounds, unless it rains.              Continue reading


Leave a comment

Death Tours— A Killer Passion

2Dearly Departed Cropped -- photo by Scott Michaels

(photo courtesy Scott Michaels)

When you walk into the Dearly Departed Tours on Sunset, waiting for your white tour van to pick you up, you’re waiting in a museum of sorts: there’s the pink suitcase that was in actress Jayne Mansfield’s fatal car accident; the door from the room where avant garde performer “Divine” died; and an oil painting by convicted serial killer John Wayne Gacy, to name a few. Additionally, the walls are festooned with various clippings of Hollywood deaths and murders. You can also purchase a “Got Death?” tee shirt (in black, of course). All manner of death memorabilia is here, in a space slightly bigger than a one car garage.

As a young child, Scott Michaels once heard about an old lady who lived in his Detroit neighborhood. This old lady was special….because rumor had it she hacked her husband to death. Michaels rode his bike over to the house where the dastardly deed was supposedly committed, just to have a look-see. It eventually turned out to be just that, a rumor, because the event never occurred. But this was the beginning of a young boy’s life long passion for finding out about interesting endings of local famous people.

“When I was a kid, there was a belief if you drive past a cemetery, you’re supposed to hold your breath. It’s forbidden. So therefore, it’s an attraction. “ Michaels has always had a fascination with cemeteries and death. As a kid, Michaels was bullied in school, for being overweight and gay. His love for finding out how people’s lives ended was a way for him to stand out in a different kind of way “… kind of me being ‘dangerous’,” he says. When reading biographies, he would always flip to the end of the book first, to find out how it ended—-the manner and method of how the person died. When he discovered a book on James Dean’s death, he was amazed and happily surprised there was a whole book devoted just to his death.

When he was a young man, Michaels lived in London for a few years. He was living there when Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in Paris. He wanted to go visit the site of the accident, but due to his immigration status at the time, he wasn’t allowed to leave the country. However, as soon as he was permitted, he went to at the accident location and even had his photo taken there. It was then he had an idea. “I wanted everyone who couldn’t travel to Paris to be able to see the actual site of Diana’s death.” In the days before Google Earth and other such search engines, Michaels created findadeath.com in1999. Here, you could search for the death of a famous celebrity and find photos of the death site, their end of life story and other interesting tidbits.   In 2005, he started Dearly Departed Tours in Hollywood. Here, after paying the price of admission, one could be trekked around Hollywood and the various sites of murders/suicides/deaths of the famous and not so famous.

Over the years, there have been many surprising and horrific celebrity deaths which have been highlighted on findadeath.com and the Dearly Departed tours. The general public have not even heard of the most shocking deaths which give even Michaels the creeps. These deaths included Albert Dekker, an actor from the 1940’s and ‘50s, who was found by his fiancee, naked, tied up and dead in his bathtub. The more lurid details of his death included the fact that explicit words were written on his body in red lipstick and that the Coroner determined he had died of auto-erotic asphyxiation. A case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time was the incredibly horrific killing of Hollywood screenwriter Robert Lees, who was 91 years old when he was murdered in his home. He was killed and decapitated by a homeless man, who then took Lees’ head with him when he went to the back house of the property Lees owned and killed a retired physician, Morley Engleson, who was living in that house as well.

Michaels even invented a new phrase — “death hag”. When he first started his findadeath.com website, it opened with a greeting “Hi, death hags!”. Michaels attributes his coining of this phrase to two things: one, he is a long time fan of John Waters, who reportedly coined the term “fame hag”; second, Michaels is openly gay and is obviously aware of the term “fag hag”. So it wasn’t much of a leap for him add “death hag” to the lexicon in using that term to describe himself and people like him who enjoy reading about or visiting sites of deaths, in particular, unusual ones. “Death hag was a joke….it was just something people embraced. Death hag has become a thing.” In fact, the term “death hag” has become ubiquitous and landed itself in the online Urban Dictionary.

Not everyone is a death hag though. Michaels has received numerous emails and posts, chastising him for his interest in death. In some cases, he’s received communication from family or friends of the people he’s featured either on findadeath.com or his Dearly Departed Tours. He’s gotten numerous variations of “I can’t believe you said this about my family member.” To him, it’s something interesting and informative for the public. Additionally, he believes “If you don’t want the attention, don’t be famous.” He notes it’s interesting how on the one hand, celebrities want and even need fame to be successful. But from his perspective, fame is not something you can “turn on and off.” Michaels believes there should be respect both ways: from the celebrity to understand how things that happen to them are of interest but at the same time, the death hags or public need to respect and give privacy at times. He mentioned a celebrity should be able to bury their non-celebrity family member without having to look over their shoulder for photographers documenting the event but admits “It’s a weird, blurry line.” Even Michaels’ own family has questioned his passionate death hag status. His father has said to him “Why do you have to say this stuff?” He reminds his father that this “…is what I do.”

Michaels’ tours focus on famous and sensational deaths, but behind the scenes he quietly donates money to victims groups. He doesn’t do this for accolades, as most people aren’t aware of his donations. First, he has tours of the Tate-LaBianca murders, which were perpetrated by the followers of Charles Manson. For those who know, Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant with her first child with husband, director Roman Polanski. On one horrific night, two weeks before she was scheduled to have her baby, she along with four others were murdered by Mason’s followers on his orders. As part of his giving back, Michaels donates a portion of money from the tours of that crime to a victims group. Additionally, he once met Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra, at an event. Tate was reportedly aware of his tour covering the events surrounding her sister’s death and supportive of his efforts in educating people about what happened on those two horrible days.

DearlyDepartedScottMichaelsDebraTatephoto

A photo of Scott Michaels with Debra Tate–sister of murdered Sharon Tate.

Second, Michaels hosts a “Dearly Departed” weekend, where aficionados for all things death and death related, get together to have fun, get educated and raise money. The money raised on those weekends goes to purchase a grave marker for some unfortunate soul who was placed in an unmarked grave. So far, Michaels and his annual event have purchased and placed grave markers for various performers and victims of violence. The most recent event, in 2014, raised money to place a marker on the grave of actor Jonathan Hale (he played Mr. Dithers in the Blondie movies). “I decided to host my own weekend.   The purpose is to have fun and have a raffle. I go around this particular cemetery and see who is in unmarked graves.” This is Michaels way of paying back, especially to those that Hollywood seems to have forgotten.

For the future, Michaels would love to expand his Los Angeles Dearly Departed Tours to other topics. One might be a tour delineating some non-celebrity famous deaths. He mentioned considering having a “serial killer” tour, which might highlight local notorious murders such as the Hillside Strangler or a tour specifically dealing with the murder and theories behind it, of the Black Dahlia. He also has ideas for tours in other parts of the country that have special interest for him, cities such as Chicago and Detroit. If successful, eventually he would like to start a tour in London, which has all manner of history from which to glean horrific deaths.

Suffice to say, Scott Michaels is a life long death hag. Even if he were gifted with a sudden financial windfall, he wouldn’t fold the business and go rest on his laurels— he says he would pour the money back into Dearly Departed. Although his signature white “Dearly Departed” tour buses look crisp and clean, if he had a financial downfall “I’d get nicer vehicles and make it flashier.” He has a passion and love for all things death hag and bizarre; these interests are also shared by his husband, Troy Musgrave. “He’s just as enthusiastic about the same things I like.” One day, a recent death hag outing for the couple included: seeing the “Jaws” shark being worked on; attending the Venice Beach Freak Show and finally, seeing the handprints of Anissa Jones (“Buffy” from “A Family Affair”) in concrete in front of her former house near the beach.

Michaels has produced and starred in a number of documentaries, including Dearly Departed Volume 1 (2006) and Dearly Departed Volume 2 (2014) (which take you on a tour of Los Angeles and point out various celebrity deaths). His other passion is for the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” and he even wrote a book in 2002 which documents the advent of the theater show into it’s cult movie status.

DearlyDepartedScottMichaelsRockyHorror

When asked how he’d like to be remembered when he finally becomes an entry on Findadeath, he laughs and says sarcastically, “Fondly. (laughs) It’s just karma, I’m sure I’m gonna die in some weird way.” Until then though, Scott Michaels is collecting, compiling and educating death hags about the latest celebrity death. “How famous people die and weirdo deaths together—-they’re an obsession.”

DearlyDepartedScottMichaelsRockHudson'sBedPost

Scott Michaels with one bedpost from the deathbed of Rock Hudson

(photo: Michelle Majors)

DearlyDepartedScottMichaelsJayneMansfieldLuggagge

The pink suitcase that was with Jayne Mansfield in her fatal car accident.

(photo: Michelle Majors)


3 Comments

The Tijuana Crawler

I was feeling good. Just walking down the street.

It was October. A sunny day. 2009.

I was in a foreign city, on my way home. The pot-holed streets were crowded. Noisy with the din of traffic congestion and car horns.

As always, I was in my feel-good, do-gooder mode. Passing out pennies in the Kingdom.

I had some folded bills stuffed in a pocket for quick access, and some coins in one hand.

Buying gum from street urchins, passing out pennies to beggars.

Doing my thing for the Kingdom. Feeling useful. Feeling good.

The broken narrow sidewalks were jammed with vendors. More often than not, room for only one lane of pedestrians. The air was redolent, wafting with fragrant plumes from outdoor barbeques.

Then it happened. Seems like it always does. On these trips through town, back to the border. Dodging and weaving quickly through congestion surrounding a street vendor, I look up just in time to find myself squeezing past a shriveled old derelict holding out a cup. Too late. To late to react, without causing a traffic tie-up. I ignore his barely heard request and hastily mumble the first completely inane thing that comes to mind: “No gracias … Sorry.” And move on without looking back.

Thinking, you are soooo stupid, you idiot! You can’t be for real! I don’t speak Spanish, but this guy’s begging … and I say, “No thank you?” Jesus, what’s that all about?

And sorry? Sorry for what? Sorry I didn’t see you in time? Or sorry I didn’t care enough to go back? Take the time?

And every time I miss one of these opportunities I’m reminded of Jesus’ words, “I was naked, thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink….”

Jesus? Wow. Was that another Jesus I just passed by without helping?

I hate it when this happens. But I like something about it too. It always sparks this dialogue. Is it dialogue to talk to yourself? Well I guess God was included in these dialogues, too, so it’s probably okay.

The dialogue usually goes something like this.

A few months ago I read something that made me realize I live everyday in the Kingdom of God. Jesus said when he came 2000 years ago, that he came to usher in the Kingdom of God. Here. Now. (Or then, actually.) But it opened my eyes to a beautiful thing. The awareness that each of us is living right now, this moment, in the Kingdom of God.

Growing up as a child, I’d always been reminded heaven was a beautiful place. And that Jesus was quite busy designing and building my custom home there. Like he promised. It was certainly something to invoke warm feelings.

But this new thought, that his kingdom was already among us. Or more precisely, that we are already living in it. Now that was exciting! And thought provoking.

Having never been accused of not being a romantic, I began envisioning that that being the case, then all of us Christians were actually like princes and princesses. Dressed in regal, royal finery. Deep Purples. Bright sky-blues. Swords encrusted with jewels. Riding about our Father’s kingdom on these giant, glorious steeds. And as princes in the King’s family it was our daily duty to ride about the kingdom greeting his subjects, inspecting his property and setting aright any and all things remiss. Like keeping the sheriff of Nottingham at bay.

Like passing out pennies. Loving on the poor. Okay, maybe $5 or even a rare $10 now and then. Certainly nothing, though, that would break my bank.

What a great job! Stamping out injustice. Righting wrongs. Polishing the kingdom.

So a few blocks later, Prince Enyart is right in the midst of this ongoing dialogue (with himself?) when the unthinkable happens. In retrospect, you sort of imagine this is the kind of thing God loves to do, right? Just to get your attention? Maybe knock you off your high horse? It always hurts, but in the end you (hopefully) learn something from the experiences.

Dodging around another passerby I look up and see the unimaginable coming toward me on the sidewalk. I mean like, Jesus! This is unimaginable! Bear in mind, this is not downtown LA, or anywhere in the USA. It’s a poor third (second?) world country. And not a great city, at that. But still … This?

About ten feet away I see Jesus. Wait. Let me explain.

At the time I didn’t recognize him. Would you? I mean, what does He look like anyway? And He’s certainly not female.

Before this I would have told you I’d seen everything. Walking through this, one of my favorite towns. Beautiful people, poor people, blind people, rich people, crippled people, you name it. I’d seen it all.

But today, there was a young woman crawling toward me on the filthy sidewalk. She wasn’t crawling really, because she was flat on her stomach, inch-worming and dragging herself along slowly, sort of listing on her right side. Her arms and legs looked to be crippled and curled. Amazingly both she and her clothing looked clean. In spite of the fact she’d been painfully dragging herself along on this dirty sidewalk.

No one was paying her any attention. Almost like she didn’t even exist. Thinking back now, I realize she must be a permanent fixture there. Someone they must see daily.

It happened so fast that by the time I’m past her with my folded bills and handful of change, I realize she wasn’t holding a cup or begging. Hard to do when forward motion is a full time job. My eyes are suddenly pooling, my face contorted in anguish. I ask myself what would a true prince in the kingdom of God have done?

I envision him swooping her up in his arms and swinging onto his steed. Pounding off to the castle, taking her to his Father. Certainly he would not have ignored her. Passed her by. Crawling on the sidewalk. In his father’s Kingdom. Like all the others. Like I did.

Soooo … what could I have done? What should I have done? A couple of obvious things popped into mind immediately. Nothing to do with filthy pennies.

One thing though was foremost in my mind. As hot tears streamed down my face. It was this thought: No one should ever have to crawl in the Kingdom of God. No one. Not ever. In fact, I’m certain there’s probably even some ordinance against it.

In my dreams now I’m sitting down in front of her. Pulling her up. Holding her in my arms. Whispering in her ear the good news that crawling is not allowed. You have to get up. Pointing to heaven and telling her because the King commands it.

Oh yeah. Did I ever want to go back. But I didn’t. I never even looked back. I was too afraid.

On that beautiful day of promise. October. 2009.

The day she probably would have loved to meet a prince.

Find out about that rule about crawling in her Father’s Kingdom.

I weep all the way to the border.

Some prince.

Maybe next time.

EPILOGUE

Yep, there’s actually an epilogue to this. And it’s not a happy ending, either. Not yet.

The next couple of trips down, I scouted around a few blocks in the area where I had seen my Jesus. Not sure what I’d do if I did come across Him. Honestly I think I was hoping, in fact, that I wouldn’t. And could salve my conscience knowing, Well, I tried, didn’t I?

I also made some inquiries, too. One person thought they knew who she was, and maybe even the neighborhood where she lived. Thought she had a daughter that lived with her. Even thought he knew her name.

This guy is a friend of mine. You might call him the Laguna Greeter of Tijuana. He works a pedestrian bridge over the river leading to “Tourist Alley” and the downtown shops. With his tin cup. I buy gum from him and usually bring him a bottle of water. Sit with him and chat. (He speaks passable English.)

There’s a craziness about this too. Because in over the year I’d known him, I’d never once thought about praying for him. My friend. So now I’m asking him about my crippled Jesus — and my friend has no legs. He drags himself around on a rolling dolly.

And what do you pray for a man with no legs, anyway? Strength? New legs?

This dilemma was escalating, not abating.

It’s now been years since the day I almost — but not quite — met Jesus. Crawling on a sidewalk. I’m trying to be more spontaneous. Trying not think so much about what people might think. Maybe there’s some improvement, but it’s probably not noticeable.

But there’s a little big thing in the back of my mind I have to confess I’m kinda worried about. What if there’s a sequel coming soon? What would I do if I ever come across her again. Would I do anything differently?

I know some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve been there too. And if you’re honest, you’ll admit it’s actually more about us looking foolish, than giving God a chance to get glory. And kick the sheriff of Nottingham out of His kingdom.

There’s a saying by William W. Purkey I love. It’s one we’ve all heard and wish we lived by, but don’t. It goes:

“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching, Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening, And live like it’s heaven on earth.”

I love that last part: ‘Heaven on earth.’ Wow. That’s the goal, right? That’s what you and I want to see. And help make happen.

Sometimes we all need to just play it to God. And no one else. Just forget they’re watching.

Lord, please help me remember that the next time I come across you lying in the street. Help me put my fear aside. And most of all my pride.

And help me play it just for you.

Then get out of the way.

For the glory is all yours.

Now and forever.

So be it!