Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The elephant outside your school.


Orlando Sentinel Photo



California’s legislature has proven again that, when it comes to the environment, it’s nothing short of progressive, but within limits. It caught the attention of the nation’s media by passing a law that will forbid supermarkets — and eventually smaller stores and pharmacies — from stuffing groceries and other items into single-use plastic bags.

The purported issue is the harm that petroleum-based bags do to the environment. The bags stubbornly refuse — for decades or even centuries — to deteriorate in landfills. That means Poochie’s poop may stay so fresh that future archeologists will know more about what dogs ate than we did back in the 21st Century.

Don’t look now, but it also forces supermarkets and their cousins to provide a paper alternative — for a fee, though, of course. If you hear them complain in public, listen for their laughter on the way to the bank.

If petroleum leeching into the environment is the issue, however, why not take simple and easy steps to reduce the amount of poisonous garbage that cars and SUVs spew into our air every weekday morning and afternoon? It’s pretty easy to recycle plastic bags, but there’s no way to recover the millions of gallons of gasoline mommies and daddies waste every day when they drive their kids to school.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Alone and happy at an indoor picnic.




Three revelations came to me this morning when I went for breakfast at Burbank’s Hometown Buffet.

The first was that it had all the makings of a picnic in just about any Los Angeles County park.

The second revelation was that it’s possible to be in a restaurant, with my back to the crowd, with screaming kids around and not have a PTSD attack of paranoia and panic.

The third revelation was more of a confirmation of a definition of “happy” that I had stumbled upon on Friday morning during a counseling session.

It would take me a while to figure out the second revelation.

The third one came to me when after I left and was driving to my office.

The first one became obvious fairly quickly — only because I was alone, I was in no hurry, and I took the time to observe things.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

A teacher's lessons --- lessons that last a lifetime

Les Bruckner, Former Burbank High Teacher
 
Jerry Bloom, Former Burbank High Student
Here's absolute, living proof that teachers can make a difference.
The wonderful folks at the Santa Clarita Sunshine Rotary Club invited me to give a short presentation today. Great people.
I had the pleasure of meeting Salvation Army Ministry Leader Jerry Bloom. He had recently moved to the area after doing the organization's work for many years in Ventura.
During my talk, I mentioned that I always hated history when I was in school, but learned to love it later.
When I was done speaking, he told me that he also hated history, but he had a teacher who made it come alive for him.
"I went to John Muir Junior High School in Burbank," he said, "and then to Burbank High."
What a wonderful coincidence, I told him. "So did I!"
"My history teacher at Burbank High changed my life," he said. "His name was Mr. Bruckner."

I smiled, nodded and told him that Mr. Bruckner had also been my government teacher.
I had a feeling I knew what he was going to say next.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Big Mike loves his job and it shows.

"Big Mike" Ledesma has immersed himself in his job and history.
There's no cell phone reception where Mike Ledesma works in the bunker-like basement of the Los Angeles County Recorder's office in Norwalk, California. Only the most determined, hard-core researchers, title searchers or investigators find their way down there. Big Mike, as people call him, is part of a close-knit mini-team that watches over the oldest of the old maps and deeds and other documents people have brought in over the past couple of centuries --- brought in to make sure there's a permanent copy on file in case something happens to the original.
Today, he perked up when I came in -- I was giving a one-on-one public records orientation tour to a talented 20-year-old kid, Jayden Fishein, who had decided that a summer break from college should still include some learning.
Before I could even introduce Jayden, Big Mike was already telling me about the cool stuff he had discovered in the cavernous collection of index books, documents, microfilm, maps and boxes. He explained to Jayden that he realized that he was surrounded by so much history that he felt compelled to do research on his own when he had the time.
Then he told us proudly about a PowerPoint presentation he had recently shown to staff members and management. It was about the history of Chavez Ravine.
"I'm a big Dodger fan," he said, "and I kept hearing people refer to Dodger Stadium as Chavez Ravine." He said he decided to learn more about that particular ravine, but he discovered that there are ravines in the area with other names. He rattled off a list of other ravines and then told us about what he had discovered about what had once occupied the ground where the the pitcher's mound is now.
When he told me that it was the site of the first Jewish cemetery in Los Angeles, I started to correct him. I knew where it was -- it was down the hill behind the old Naval Reserve Center. I've shown the obscure historical marker to many people. But Big Mike cut me off.
"They moved it," he said. "They moved it a long time ago. I'm talking about it's original location. It's where Dodger Stadium is now!"
Jayden Fishbein caught the research bug.
All I could say was, "Mike, I hope you'll share a copy of that PowerPoint presentation.

I couldn't imagine that Mike could top the story of the cemetery, but he did. He looked at Jayden and said, "Do you want to see something really interesting?"
I answered for the kid. "Of course he does!"
Big Mike pushed his chair back from the counter, bent down and came up with a smile on his face and a big cardboard box.

Abel Stearns' Cattle Brand
"Look at these," he said.
It was a box filled with pieces of old leather. Right away, I could see that each of them proudly wore a cattle brand. Some were shaped like heads of cattle, or like the ears from steers. And some of them had writing burned or etched into them. They were what cattle ranchers brought to the county office so that they could register their ranches' brands.
I couldn't wait to get my hands on them. The writing was hard to read on most of them, but then I recognized a name -- the name of the man who was once owned more cattle ranches than just about anyone in Southern California. I was the signature of Abel Stearns. Everybody who has studied Los Angeles history knows about Abel Sterns.
I was in cowhide heaven.
Then Leonard, a longer-time employee in the office plopped a microfilm cassette into a viewer and said, "I found the book they used to register the brands."
Even though I was determined to complete some other important research, I couldn't take my attention away from the cowhide brand registers.
Now I'm already trying to figure when I can get back there to see if I can match some of the brands with the images they have on microfilm.
This could keep me busy for a long time.
Can you imagine how cool it would be to work with Big Mike, Leonard and the others down there?
There's nothing like the beautiful smell of archives.
 












Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Farewell to a Vietnam veteran who showed others how to live.

An update: Some corrections to yesterday's post -- plus a wonderful response from Maureen Gerwig, Mike's widow. Her response is at the bottom.

From the tidbits I had heard about Mike Gerwig from his wife, Maureen, it's clear that they were both determined to squeeze out every ounce of adventure life had to offer. During his memorial service today at the Riverside National Cemetery, a heavily-laden Air Force C-17 transport jet circled over again and again from March Air Reserve Base, just across the freeway, as young pilots practiced touch-and-go landings.
It reminded Maureen that they had first met, some four decades ago,  while skydiving out of nearby Perris Valley Airport. It's ironic that, back then, they could have looked down and seen the very spot where she would say "goodbye" to him for the last time. When they fell out of the sky alongside each other, you see, they also fell for each other.
They would travel the world together -- and not in any conventional way. Again, they thirsted for adventure.
She told a couple of Mike's skydiving buddies today about how she and Mike had biked through the Soviet mountains, had hiked across northern England and had fallen asleep gazing at the aurora borealis during a month-long camping trip -- a trip that required a four-hour dog sled journey (not by snowmobile as I incorrectly reported) through the wilderness just to get to the secluded lake in the northern Yukons.
Mike had fought in Vietnam. Maureen helped him fight at home -- fight to get him the treatment he needed for the damage that combat and Agent Orange had done to his body and his mind.
She fought -- for him and beside him -- right up to the end.
When time had run out for Mike -- when it was clear that he wouldn't get the transplant he so needed, Maureen drove him to the V.A. facility in La Jolla, near San Diego, so he could say goodbye to his dying brother. It was Memorial Day weekend.
 When they got back to their Woodland Hills home, Mike asked Maureen to take him to the emergency hospital. He was too weak to return home. He spent his final hours in a Veterans Administration hospice at the Sepulveda facility. When Maureen got the call that he had died, she drove there expecting to find a depressing place that smelled of urine and looked like a rest-home warehouse nightmare.
But she was wrong. Instead, she entered what seemed like a paradise of love and care. They had made up Mike's bed and draped him in an American flag. They encouraged her to spend as much time as she wanted with him. Afterwards, staff members and fellow veterans conducted a bedside ceremony for Mike. They even played Taps.
Today's memorial ceremony was equally beautiful. Mike's long-time skydiving buddies, John Bull and Tom Brown came to honor him, along with Tom's daughter, Elisa. She remembered admiring the deep friendship between her father and Mike. John and Tom talked about Mike's generosity and the encouragement he would give to beginning and experienced skydivers.
The Army Honor Guard members were the picture of respect and precision. They marched in with Mike's wicker urn and the American Flag that they later would unfold, ceremoniously refold and hand to Maureen. They fired volley of three rifle shots and then stood at "present arms" while the bugler played Taps.
It turns out that I had the privilege of representing Vietnam veterans at Mike's ceremony. I was hoping there would be others there, but knowing the life of being a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, I could only figure that, like me, Mike preferred to spend his time with his wife.
Solitude and isolation easily can become a way of life for combat veterans.
I meant to go straight home when I left, but something called out to me from across the 215 freeway. It had been more than 10 years since I last visited the War Dog Memorial at the March Air Force Base Museum. I had been there when they first unveiled the statue of an alert German shepherd and his handler. I hadn't noticed before that both of them are looking out in the direction of the Riverside National Cemetery -- and they were in direct view of Mike's final resting place. They'll be watching over him the way my dog Fritz watched over me in Vietnam.

Then I realized that, in all likelihood, the dog and his handler be watching over me one day as well.

The trip to Riverside today took on even more meaning than I had anticipated. When I was driving home, I was regretting that Xiao Mei hadn't been able to come along. The day will come when she'll be coming to visit me there -- without me being able to give her directions.

Maureen Gerwig's response email:


Don,
 
Just read your blog.  Beautiful. 
 
After the funeral services I followed John Bull and Tom Brown over to the Perris skydiving complex where they were going to make a jump in honor of Mike and Elisa said she was going to make her first jump, in honor of Mike.  The place has certainly changed since I was last there in the early 1980s.  Because I didn’t want to get caught up in traffic on the way home, I did not stay for the jump.  However, I know Mike would have been overwhelmed and honored by it all. (Weather conditions prevented the others from being able to make a jump).
 
Yes, Mike’s skydiving buddies being there was such a gift to the occasion and brought the memory of Mike alive.
 
There were just a few things in the blog, though, one about falling asleep together after watching the  aurora borealis and driving in by a snow mobile.  I would never ride in a snow mobile except if maybe I was a rancher or someone who used it for work purposes. 
 
We spent the month of February living in a cabin out in the Yukon wilderness.  The cabin was owned by a dog musher, who also competed on a regular basis in the Yukon Quest.  His name was Blaine, and I can’t remember his last name, but I got his name by calling around beforehand when I was at home in Los Angeles, because I wanted to experience living in the wilderness in the middle of winter. 
 
The cabin we stayed in was Blaine’s original cabin, and he had just finished building himself a much larger new cabin just over the knoll.  We flew into Whitehorse and were driven to a place off the highway where we met Blaine and some of his dogs.  As soon as we were dropped off, Blaine had us immediately get the dogs harnessed to the two dog sleds because it was a four-hour trip to the cabin.  Blaine and I took one sled and Mike handled the other sled by himself.   As we started off, we quickly came to a sharp turn in the trail and Blaine was looking back at Mike, because he said most people don’t make that turn and wind up tipping over.   Mike took the turn in perfect form.   Mike was having the time of his life.  The temperature was minus 18, and at one point we had to stop and put booties on all the dogs to protect their feet.  
 
We stayed there for a little over three weeks living in Blaine’s old cabin, which was built half underground.   Blaine stayed over the knoll in his new, much larger cabin.  The dogs, about 18 of them, were spread out at their respective places outside.  The outdoor toilet was situated in between the two cabins.  There was no electricity, plumbing or telephone.  We were surrounded by the beautiful silence of nature. 
 
Each day Blaine would lead us out on little day trips.   For about a two-day period, Blaine made a dog sled trip and came back with more supplies.
 
The night we saw the aurora borealis, Blaine suggested we could take our sleeping bags with us and camp outside overnight.  We put on our snow shoes and traveled about a mile to an overlook with a somewhat forested area behind us where we set up our overhead tarp and sleeping bags.   Then the three of us walked over to the edge of the overlook and waited to see if the aurora borealis would show itself that night.  We were not disappointed.  For Blaine it was something he’s seen all his life; for us it was memorable.   Then we, all three of us, went and got in our sleeping bags.  That night the temperature dropped to somewhere around minus 27 degrees.  So, no, we weren’t laying there asleep in each other’s arms in the snow in the minus 27 degree temperatures.  And at no time was a snow mobile to be seen. 
 
I also have three beautiful blown-up photographs of Mike taken from that Yukon adventure. 
 
Also, we didn’t bicycle across Russia.  It was a mountain bike trek put together by REI, the outdoor store that’s based in Seattle.  They also offer outdoor adventure travel.  There nine people on the trip; it was a very eclectic group of people.  It was a month-long mountain bike trip through the Crimea during the period of Perestroika.  The trip was in late September/early October of 1990. 
 
I will share with you something Mike wrote about that trip.  It’s from something he wrote back in 2009, I think, when veterans who filed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) claims used to have to write essays, I guess you might call them, about their war experiences.
 
Mike wrote:  "In 1990, my wife and I went on a mountain bike trip with REI Adventures to the former Soviet Union.  While on this trip I encountered Soviets vets from the Soviet war in Afghanistan.  I saw how these Russian Afghan war vets were treated the same way as Vietnam vets were and how they suffered the same feelings of anxiety and feelings of insignificance as Vietnam vets.  They were also into heavy drinking and drugs to numb their feelings of being watched and judged by the Russian people.  When these Russian Afghanistan vets learned I was a Vietnam vet, there was a sense of shared experience, that sense of knowing without even having to talk about it.” 
 
I witnessed this.  It happened when we were in Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg.  One of the members of the support staff, who accompanied us throughout the trip, was walking with us.  We saw a shabby looking group of men in kind of a small courtyard squeezed between some run-down buildings.  Boris, the support guy, said, “They’re veterans from the Afghan war,” and he went over to them and told them Mike was a Vietnam vet. 
 
When these Russian Afghan war vets heard that, they rushed over and surrounded Mike.  And even though Mike didn’t speak Russian and they didn’t speak English, you could feel the intensity of emotions flowing between them.  They just swarmed around him, shaking his hand, hugging him, speaking to him in Russian.   One of them even gave Mike a Russian military belt, which I still have. 
 
I just felt I needed to go into more detail so that maybe you could correct it so it sounds closer to the real facts. 
 
Again, I so appreciated you being there yesterday.  Originally, I thought it would be me alone attending the service.  As I was driving home, I kept thinking as Mike was put to his final rest that he should be surrounded to such a loving group of friends who cared. 
 
Take good care.
 
Your friend, Maureen    
 






























Friday, June 13, 2014

If you're a poor immigrant who's been arrested --- you're screwed!

That's what I learned at lunch today from a most amazing and dedicated defense investigator.

Private investigator Martin Rosales fights for "victims" of an unfair system.
"When I go to court for a client," the licensed private investigator said, "the prosecutors treat me like I'm a wetback. So you can imagine how much worse they treat defendants who don't speak the language and don't know the system."
Martin Rosales came to the United States some four decades ago from Durango, Mexico. He managed restaurants, dabbled in real estate, among other things, before he realized his purpose in life was to help the underdog.
He would find those underdogs in courtrooms and county jails. He discovered that people from other countries -- people who don't know the language and don't know the system here -- do not get the legal representation that U.S. born citizens enjoy.

And whether he gets paid or not, he is determined to come to their rescue.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Piddling in the Wind

It's likely that the younger folks will read this and say, "What's the big deal, Old Man?" Then again, it's unlikely that the younger folks will read this at all. The older folks may split into two groups: 1) "Dang it all to heck, I feel your frustration, Don Ray," and 2) "Get over it, Don Ray. This is progress and you can't stop progress!"

This is about a dining experience with my family last night, and how I allowed my anger and angst over uncontrolled technology (and the corporate conspiracy to computerize its customers) get the best of me. I allowed it to ruin what might have been a decent meal --- and it led to a promise that I'd never set foot in that place again.

So help me gosh.

Our nearly 25-year-old son decided to treat Mother to a belated Mother's Day dinner at a Chili's Bar and Grill in Monrovia. I'll confess from the start that Chili's Bar and Grill is not a place that calls out to me --- especially on a Friday night. But this is between a son and his mother, so keep quiet, Don Ray!

No doubt, Xiao Mei and David enjoyed checking out the interesting people who also were waiting for that call that the table was ready. But me? I nudged my wife to point out the disgusting scene unfolding in front of us. A boy of about nine or ten sat with his grandmother in the waiting area. The disgusting part was that they were both absorbed, entranced and hypnotized by their individual smart phones. I grumbled as I thought about the wonderful memories the lad won't have of Grandma.

It was when we got to our table by a window (Xiao Mei likes to look out the window) that I saw the intruder gazing up at us from the tabletop. It was a computer screen, replete with colorful icons -- an icon for every customer's eye. I looked around and realized that every table sported a wireless terminal. What's worse is that someone at almost every table was interacting with the glaring intruder.

Of course, David's attention quickly jolted in the direction of the hypnotizing high-tech squatter on our table. But my reflexes were even faster than his glance. I grabbed the wireless billboard and placed it on the window sill -- facing outward. I placed it behind the giant "specials" menu so that it would block even the screen's reflection in the window.

The tabletop terminal, however, still maintained its dominance, blinding be damned. Xiao Mei joined David's protest. The computerized confederate became the topic of a dinnertime debate. But I wouldn't budge. As I was delivering a well-thought-out declaration that this would be a technology-free, family meal, David and Xiao Mei burst out in laughter and pointed out the window. Right up against the glass, two young faces were delightedly ogling the content of the outwardly facing monitor. Their parents were sitting on an outdoor bench awaiting their table. They, of course, were oblivious to the whereabouts of their kids, who had walked through the bushes to get to the magic screen. The parents, you see, were head-down in their own electronic devices.

Much of the dinner discussion revolved around my bullheaded boycott. When I asked the robotic waitress for the check, she proudly told us that we could use the little computer screen to pay the bill. I asked if we could opt for an actual bill, but my wife and son protested.

"I think it will be fun to pay at the table," Xiao Mei said. David agreed. He swiped his two gift cards through the slot on the side of the terminal. It quickly spit out a long, ad-cluttered receipt.

"It says we're eight dollars short," David said. Now I willingly put my debit card through the slot. The waitress came around behind me to help. I had to turn the screen around so she couldn't see it.

"Either you do it or I will do it," I said. "Not both of us. I can't focus on both you and the computer." She got the message. The computer screen then pissed me off even more. It suggested the tip amount. I grumbled that I didn't like that amount. The waitress said, "You can move that slide to the left or right to change the percentage."

When she finally walked away, I figured out how to move the tip to a higher range (it wasn't the server's fault, you see) and then finally rid myself of that horrible terminal. But it didn't end there. The computer now wanted us to rate the experience.

Long story short, I rated the overall experience a zero on a scale of one to ten. I rated it a zero on the questions of "Will you recommend Chili's to your friends?" and "Will you come back again?" Then I gave individual high mark to the food and the service. Finally, the computer displayed a fake keyboard and asked me why I hated them so much. I cursed as I tried to find the symbols that would replace the letters "u" and "c" and "k" -- no need to be too graphic.



When we left the restaurant, we had a really nice time. David asked me about some big stories I had worked on, and how I had fought for the truth -- even though it had cost me my job.

It would have been great to do more family talk at the dinner table.

I'm obsolete and I know it.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Incredible Tale of Lazarus, the Headless Rooster

Update: Please read the story below, but first, you can now watch a rare film about Lazarus from 1949.




By Don Ray and Neal Velgos
First written in 1984 but never before published.

Who would believe such a farfetched tale? A chicken gets its head chopped off, then comes back to life and walks around crowing for three weeks as if nothing is wrong. Stranger things have happened. That’s where the humans come in. Thousands show up to see the headless wonder. City officials pose next to it for photos. And eventually, the owner has to go to court to keep it alive.
Many folks in South-Central Los Angeles believed the story — at least those who saw it with their own eyes. They recalled that spring day in 1949 when a neighbor woman bought the beheaded chicken, and had to change her dinner plans that evening. The woman was Martha Green, and she named her headless — but definitely not lifeless — chicken Lazarus. The two of them made nationwide news that year.
Lazarus put the small community of Watts on the map, at least briefly. It was long before riots that would start  just a block way and would scar the city and its people in 1965. It the story of Lazarus played out years before Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers would be recognized as a folk art landmark.
The story began on April 2nd in a feed store in the 11800 block of San Pedro Street, where a New Hampshire Red Fry had an appointment with the chopping block. Mrs. Green paid $2 for the four-pound chicken, dropped it in her bag and covered it with vegetables and canned goods.
It didn’t make a peep until she got it home an hour later.
Mrs. Green told reporters that she had dumped it in the sink, turned on the hot water and put away the food. She turned around to pluck the bird, but what she saw made her scream and run from the house. The rooster stood on the sink — very much alive — and crowed the best it could — without its head, that is.
Mrs. Green, then close to 60 years old, was not frightened for long. She had raised and killed hundreds of chickens on the farm back in Illinois, and not one of them had ever ignored death’s call in quite this way. There had to be some explanation, and her strong religious belief supplied the answer. She spread the word that Lazarus was a sign from God.
Walter Pierce, 69, who still lived in Watts in 1984, recalled how the story spread around the neighborhood.
“Everyone around here was saying a woman’s go a chicken with its neck cut off — crowing! It was a miracle. And all miracles,” he said, “come from heaven.”
Edward S. Cooper, 77 in 1984, was an attorney who watched with interest as the episode unfolded.
“The story got out very quickly,” he said, “and people came to her home on foot, on bicycles, and what-not. And from then on, the story was picked up and Lazarus became a real thing.”

Monday, February 17, 2014

Courage and Tragedy Under Fire --- and what followed



There’s a code of silence at the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) Clinic in East L.A. Whatever veterans say inside those walls stays there. But a fellow Vietnam veteran met me for lunch today on Whittier Blvd., and he felt like talking. I listened. When he finished telling me the story of that firefight back on February 8, 1967 — and how it would come back to haunt him decades later — I cautiously asked him if I could write about him — if I could share his story.

He agreed.

His name is Edward. I’d share his last name with you — he’s OK with that — but that code of silence I mentioned gnaws on me. He turned 69 last month. He works the graveyard shift as a security officer at a railroad yard. He feels safer in the dark — safer when he’s not around a lot of people. And it gives him more time to spend with his 14-year-old daughter during the day.

Bank in 1999, however, he was working the day shift as a quality control inspector in a factory. He had successfully buried the memories of that day in Vietnam — the day a medic named Keith Campbell saved his life. He had buried the memories of watching a bullet strike his rescuer in the neck. He had buried the memories of a burst of more AK-47 bullets that instantly killed Keith Campbell.

But in 1999, Edward was playing with his kids in a park when a woman he’d never known burst into his world. Medic Keith Campbell’s sister had finally fulfilled her dream of meeting the man whose life her brother had saved, moments before the medic, himself, fell to enemy bullets.

She wanted to look into the last pair of eyes her brother had seen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Tale of Four Fathers



A Tale of Four Fathers
By Don Ray

I wrote this sometime in the 1980s or ‘90s but never published it anywhere. Some people don't know about my hobby of tracking down missing people on behalf of friends or family members. At the end, there's a link to a story the Idelle Davidson wrote about for the Los Angeles Times about my antics.

Sandy, Doreen, George and Melinda don’t know each other, but they have a few things in common. They’re all in their early-to-mid 30s, they’re all reasonably well-adjusted, people like them, and all four of them, recently, have been thinking about trying to get in touch with their long-lost fathers. For each, the decision has been difficult and painful.

Sandy and Doreen came to me because they had heard that I’m an investigative reporter who is good at using public records to track down people from years past. Neither had ever known their fathers. George and Melinda knew pretty much where to find their fathers, but both were gun shy because of their last encounters with fathers who were no longer involved in their families because of divorce.

Sandy is a 35-year-old wife and mother of two who, herself, was born out of wedlock — the byproduct of a brief, but intense, racially mixed romance. She told me she felt that her mother had resented her throughout her entire life. She says she spent half her life in white neighborhoods where people treated her as a black, and the other half in black neighborhoods where people hated her for being white. Also, over the years, she said that other family members had convinced her that her natural father wanted nothing to do with her. It was only when her own children’s questions about their missing grandfather became harder and harder to dodge that she decided to ask someone, me, to track down her father. However, she warned me, she did not want to know a thing about him unless he truly wanted to talk with her as well. She was certain, however, that he wouldn’t want that.

Doreen came to me in much the same manner. Her therapist had suggested that she might be able to come to terms with some gnawing feelings about her father if she would only look him up somehow. Doreen’s father had left her mother while she was pregnant with Doreen. Even though she had never known the man, Doreen was fighting feelings of being the victim of betrayal and neglect. She had to find him.

George had been drinking when he last spoke to his father on the phone a decade ago. He suspects that his father had been in the same condition at the time. They fired such harsh words at each other that, probably, both of them were afraid to step again into the line of fire. As more time passed, the fears and anxiety became even more intense. However, when some of George’s problems seemed to be getting more and more difficult to handle, he felt a more intense need to talk with his father. He told me he was able to track down a phone number for his father about two years ago, but he had been afraid to call. He had been carrying the number in his wallet ever since. But now, he finally got up enough courage to call.

Melinda told me that she and her father had had a classic misunderstanding five or six years ago, and her father had ended up feeling hurt. When they talked again, he overreacted so much that she became angry. They had both held onto the anger over the years — and that makes it harder for either to reach out a hand of peace. She knew that he’s in his mid 70s and that, surely, he feels that his family has abandoned him. She wanted to know where he was, but still hadn’t gotten up the courage to call him.

Within a couple of days, I had located Sandy’s father. He had married someone else and had children that he, himself, had raised. He was a successful salesman and a happy grandfather. When we finally made contact, he agreed to give Sandy a one-minute, tape-recorded message. That was all the time he would get to convince her he wants to see her.

“This is your father,” he told her, “and I’d love to get the chance to earn your friendship and respect. I’ll give you the right to yell at me, cuss me, even beat the hell out of me — once. Sandy, thank God you were able to get a hold of me. I’d give anything to see you — even if it was just once.”

When Sandy heard the tape, she called him, asked questions, yelled at him a bit and then cried. She cried tears she’d been holding back for years. Now that they’ve gotten together, there are new problems. She’s opened up a Pandora ’s Box of emotions that involves everyone in her family, and she’s now trying to sort them all out. One thing is for sure, she told me, he’s now a permanent part of her life and family. And, if any other member can’t handle it, she says, then it’s them who can leave.

“He’s not perfect,” she says, “but the man is my father.”

Doreen’s father was a bit more difficult to locate. I was able to determine that her grandfather had died a dozen or so years ago. It was in a copy of the man’s will that I learned that his son — Doreen’s father — had already died. I learned some of the details by tracking down an uncle  Doreen had never met. When I told her that her father had died 20 years earlier, possibly of alcoholism, Doreen didn’t know what to feel. She called me back, however, three days later to say that the information had had some positive effects. Aside from being able to close the book on feelings that he had neglected her, she says she broke the news to her mother. Her mother had also been in pain for two decades because her ex-husband had never called or written. In one way, it was a relief for both Doreen and her mother to know that the man had been unable to contact them — not necessarily unwilling.

George finally decided to take the risk and call his father. They were both more than a little nervous when the conversation began, but before long, the conversion took on a feeling of optimism. They planted the seeds of a new father-son relationship, and made firm plans for a Father’s Day reunion. Even though George’s sister and brother are still unwilling to take the risk, for once, George said, he is doing what was right.

For Melinda, it’s still a mystery. She says she’s going to call her father. “Probably,” she says, “within a couple of days.”

It’s for Melinda that I feel the saddest — sad because I know how long George had said the same thing — that he’d call in a couple of weeks. I feel sad as well because of the pain I felt at the age of ten when my father died. I feel sad because I spent so many years resenting a stepfather who was so willing to be my father, despite his flaws. I’m sad, as well, because he, as well, died — only months after I had accepted him as a father.

To Melinda — and to anyone else who is a phone call away from your father — now’s the time.

Investigative TV Journalist Doubles as a Finder of Lost Persons

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Things may be looking up for my friend — or so I thought.

It's a two-part story. I wrote the first part several months ago. The second part ain't so positive.

“It’s all your fault,” he told me. “If you hadn’t walked down that alley that day . . .” He was referring to an incident back about five years ago. What that had to do with getting help replacing a tree was a mystery to me. First let me tell you about the great stuff that happened today.

Today was one of those days you wish you could duplicate and relive every day. On Sunday, a friend offered to help me and my neighbor cut down and remove a tree in our front yard — a tree that had died about the same time my wife’s father died a couple of months ago. Xiao Mei told me that it would be bad feng shui to not replace it with a living memorial to her father.

My friend knew that I didn’t have any money to hire anyone to help, so he just plain insisted that I give him permission to work for free. That wouldn’t be a big deal, I guess, but knowing that he is homeless and struggling to work his way out of a deep hole, allowing him to work without being paid didn’t feel right. But he insisted, and he worked. And worked and worked and worked.

I posted on facebook a picture of him doing the heavy part of the work. Before I knew it, one of those facebook friends I’ve never met in person stepped forward and said he needed someone with my friend’s skills. He had a job available if my friend was interested. I couldn’t find my friend last night — where he camps out is not the kind of place one wants to explore at night. But today, I put the word out, and soon his friends told him to find Don Ray for a possible job.

He called me before I could even get situated in my office. He had an odd job to do for someone and he’d be right over. He talked on the phone to the facebook friend who needed a worker. They’ll meet this weekend when my friend will be helping us with a yard sale.

All of my friend's possessions are locked in a rented garage. He’s behind enough on his payments that he knew he was in danger of losing everything. I drove him to the office of the landlord and we apparently arrived just in time. They were just about to file the legal notices that would enable them to liquidate his stuff. He had no money to give them today, but on the promise that he now has a job, they granted him a very short extension.

He also needed to get a replacement drivers license so he can borrow my old truck, so we arranged for that as well. In the course of six or seven hours, my friend found himself in a place of hope. It’s as if the clouds opened up and he could see small ray of sunshine.

I joked with him the way men friends do. “My friend,,” I said, “you kept me from getting my own work done today. What a pain you are!” That’s when he said that it was my own fault. Here’s the gist of what he recounted:

 “It’s all your fault because you walked down that alley that day. I’ll never forget it. Here we were — six or seven of us — all homeless — some drinking there at the end of a dead end alley. Nobody in their right mind would come walking there. But we looked up and saw you walking toward us. Everyone stopped. Someone said, ‘Who is it?’ ‘Is he a cop?’ ‘He doesn’t look like a cop.’ ‘He doesn’t look lost.’
“Everyone kept an eye on you as you walked right up to us. Nobody else would have dared to walk right up to us. Then you smiled at everyone and said, ‘Has anyone seen Joey?’ We nudged Joey and sort of warned him that some dude was looking for him. We were all astounded when you told Joey that you were there to help him get a copy of his birth certificate. We didn’t know that you had met him in the park and offered to help him. When you left, we were all amazed that you had the nerve to walk down that nasty alley.

“That was how we met. It’s all your fault. Oh, and by the way, I just realized that four of the people who were there that day have died: Lance, Big Gene, Deb and Jerry. They’re all dead.”

It turns out that all four of his friends — two of them were my friends as well — had lost the battle of survival on the streets.

Today, I have a feeling of optimism that my friend is finally about to work his way out. With his amazing talent as a cabinet maker, carpenter, mason, painter and all-around repair guru, I know that he will have no trouble staying employed. This job offer will enable him to work toward having a roof over his head, three meals a day and a chance become productive and happy again.

It’s one of those situations where social media proved just how social it can be.

Postscript: February 14, 2014.

I made a big mistake. I forgot to remember to never forget that I am powerless over alcohol. All of the optimism I had embraced was for naught. It was the rain that derailed everything, but if it hadn't rained, it's likely he would have found another obstacle to embrace — another excuse to turn to booze to kill the pain.

You see, when the weekend arrived, so did the rains. You can't do a yard sale in the rain. He told me that he could stay sober until the next weekend. He kept his word, but the rain intervened again. He was sure he could be at my place the following Saturday.

I was up early on the third attempt. Clear skies. But my friend wasn't outside setting up his stuff. People were already gathering in the front lawn. I had to ask a neighbor to take over while I looked for my friend. I found him where many of Burbank's homeless gather in the morning. He was drunk. He didn't remember saying he'd be at the yard sale. He had fallen prey to the addiction. I knew that I'd have to wait for him to decided to dry out. The yard sale was pretty much a failure without him  — there's no one better at yard sales than my friend. And the job offer vanished in the rain as well.




I ran into him several weeks ago. He was wearing a sling. Someone had broken his left arm above the elbow. All he remembered was that the police had picked him up for public drunkenness, but he wasn't drunk, he insists. At his demand, they took him to the hospital where he hoped they could prove he wasn't intoxicated. The last thing he remembers is that the police officers escorted him out of the hospital — nobody had tested anything — and they were going to un-cuff him and release him. He woke up a couple of hours later outside the back gate of the hospital with a broken arm and fractured rib.

He was certain the police had done it. I arranged for an attorney to meet with him the next day, but during the interview, it became clear that my friend had downed a fifth of vodka and was drifting into his typical routine. His friendly, happy, cooperative attitude morphed into slurring defiance. The attorney left. No way he was going to take the case if his client was so unreliable. It was clear that there would be no way of proving what really happened. And if the police were involved (as the attorney strongly suspected, given the story my friend had told), it would be impossible to pursue any path to justice.

My friend calls me occasionally. He may or may not require surgery.

I still have no control over alcohol. My wife wants me to remove all of my friend's yard sale items that are stashed at our place.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The most beautiful romance of Catalina Ortiz

I first met Catalina Ortiz Provencio in 1990 when I interviewed her within sight of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. She was 71. I was capturing memories of people who had lived in Chavez Ravine in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s --- before the City of Los Angeles made them move from the quaint, ethnic neighborhood.
I had seen her interacting playfully with her husband, Morro, so I made it a point to ask her about her first encounter with the man she would marry. Her response was magical. Some 20 years later, I interviewed her again. She was 91 at that time. Recently, she passed away. Her family asked me to produce a short tribute to the love she had for Morro, who died several years before the second interview I had done with her. You may have seen a shorter video I made. This one weds the stories that she told --- 20 years apart.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Honor Thy Father (in-law).

Shu Zii Li was a fatherly friend. He proved his friendship by asking for help and always offering the same.

If I had delivered a eulogy at his funeral today, I would have told two stories that paint a picture of this remarkable man. Instead, I made a short video that you'll find below. It came from my heart.

When I first met Xiao Mei, she and her father were visiting her brother's family in Eagle Rock for six months. They were living in China at the time. Her brother had rented her a small, backyard apartment. I wasn't allowed to walk back there or to disturb the family that lived in the front house. So when we had a date, all I could do was sit in my car and wait for her to come out. She had no phone.

One drizzly evening, I waited longer than usual. While I sat in my car, I marveled at the little, old, Asian man on crutches who always seemed to be taking his walks along that street. When Xiao Mei finally came out, the man was walking by. I smiled at him. As he walked past, Xiao Mei told me that he was her father

I immediately chased after him (not a difficult jaunt, considering he was on crutches) and introduced myself. I was surprised that he spoke such good English. I was even more surprised when he said to me, "You quoted someone in your book, The Investigator's Handbook. You wrote, 'Virtue, though in rags, will keep me warm.'" He explored my eyes with his and then said, "Does this mean you will have a difficult time supporting my daughter?"

He had read a book that I had asked Xiao Mei to give to her brother. I'm not sure if John read it, but there's no doubt that Papa had read it.

He and I got off to a great start.

When Papa and Mama moved to the United States, he stayed in our rented house in Hesperia. Even though he was in his late 70s, he was determined to remain in contact with his friends in China and around the world. He had a desktop computer and he spent hours and hours on it. He did research and he sent email messages.

One day he asked me if I could help him make the computer work properly. He explained that, whenever he turned it on, he was flooded with advertisements he said he didn't want. I told him I'd look at it. When I turned on his computer, it was clear that male porn sites had taken control of it. The man is old. He's missing a leg. His wife is staying down in South Pasadena with his son. Who am I to judge about his internet surfing preferences. I simply focused on cleaning out the porn junk and restoring his home page. I made no comments.

Then he said something that explained it all. "Don Ray," he said, "I have a personal medical problem I have been trying to research on the internet. It's an anal problem and I'm looking for information about it." That explained everything.

"Papa," I said, "please allow me to give you a suggestion. You might have better luck if you use the word "rectum" in your searches instead of the word, "anal."

When he and Mama moved into a nice, senior apartment in L.A.'s Chinatown, he continued to spend time on the internet. It was a blessing for me because, whenever his computer was struggling with viruses or registry problems, he'd call on me to help. I was blessed to be able to spend hours and hours with him while we ran anti-virus programs and did other maintenance. We replaced a couple of hard drives along the way and we downloaded some programs that would help keep a watchful eye on his cyber world. Mama and Xiao Mei scolded Papa for calling on me so often. But Papa and I treasured the time together.

I really loved that man. Here's a short video I put together for his funeral today. I hope you'll enjoy knowing him a little bit more.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

A bonehead move turns positive in the end. And I have two new friends.

This story is waaaaay worth reading. In includes a confession and a happy ending.

Some 35 years ago, we organized a reunion of the survivors of the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928. Some 200 survivors and family members of California's worst man-made disaster met on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. One woman saw an interview of me on Channel 4 News and contacted the reporter, Diane Dimond, who put her in touch with me. Vera was excited to tell me all she knew about that horrible disaster --- a disaster that took the lives of her cousin, her cousin's husband and their little boy. Vera jumped on board and became a volunteer of sorts. She would call me just about every day and send me stuff weekly --- sometimes more often. She pointed me toward another cousin who had evidence that documented prior knowledge that the dam was in danger of giving way.

Today, I read through the many letters that Vera had sent me 35 years ago. I re-read things I had forgotten about. The more I read, the more I felt guilty for not having completed the book we were working on at the time. But that's not the confession I mentioned above. I'll get to it.

In one of her letters, Vera said that he had photos of many of the people who were key to the story of the dam --- and some of them showed these people on the dam itself. I knew that Vera had passed away many years ago, so I went in search of her son. Fortunately, Vera had given me his address back then. So I tracked down her son's address and phone number and called.

The man who answered was sort of silent when I asked for the person by name. "Why do you want him?" I explained that I had worked with the man's mother, yadda, yadda, yadda. "My father died a couple of years ago," the young man said. I hate it when that happens. But eventually, the only child became interested in the letters and materials I had that his grandmother had sent to me. I send him a 12-page story she had written for me, "Childhood Memories." And I promised to send him copies of the other letters she had sent.

I asked him about the photos his grandmother had said she had. "I have a bunch of photos my father (Vera's son) had left me." I held my breath and bit my fingernails awaiting his call with the results of his quick look-see. His photos only went back to the 1950s. This is the oldest photos he had. Somewhere in the conversation, he said that his father's sister might know more. But he didn't know how to reach her.

I searched birth records and was able to identify her. I searched marriage records and found her married name. I searched property records and phone records and found her today.

I called her.

Here's the confession --- the bonehead mistake I made. Once I knew she was Vera's daughter, I began to explain what I was up to and what I'd done so far. I told her about talking to her brother's son and how he told me that his father had died.

"What? My brother is dead?"

Holy crud! I hate it when I do this. I hate it when I automatically assume family members know everything about their own families. It had happened when I finally tracked down my step-father's oldest son by a prior marriage. I had proudly told Dave that I was the stepson of Edward C. Ripley. Dave then asked me where his father was --- he'd been looking for him for 50 years. Then I had to quell my excitement and tell him that his father had died 30 years earlier. Bummer.

But back to today's story. Vera's daughter had to hear it from me that her brother had died. I didn't prepare her. I just blurted it out. I'm such a jerk! Fortunately, Vera's daughter was very kind to me and tried her best to make ME feel better. What a great woman --- just like her mother.

The silver lining is when she told me that all of her mother's things and photos had disappeared. She had nothing. And she had no living siblings --- not even a cousin. She was without blood relatives now. Except, that is, for her brother's son. Yes, there had been a falling out between Vera's daughter and son a couple of decades ago. "He just hung up on me and we never spoke again, Vera's daughter told me.

But now, I had something positive to share with her. First, I gave her all of the information about her nephew --- a really good kid in his early 20s. Then, I was able to share with her this photograph. When I started to describe it, she told me every detail, ever though she hadn't had the picture for many, many years. I was also able to sent her the 12-page story her mother had written 35 years ago.

So two very kind people who thought they had no close relatives and probably talking on the phone right now. I'm scanning the rest of the stories and letters Vera had written to me and I'll share them with her daughter and grandson.

And maybe I'll learn my lesson.

By the way, my book is going to be awesome!

Monday, May 06, 2013

A most astounding new friend --- the man who built the Ho Chi Minh Trail

His name is Nguyen Dan. He's 89 years old and he's blind. In 1941 he fought the Japanese when they invaded Vietnam. When the Japanese surrendered, the French returned and he fought them. When the United States stuck its head into Vietnam affairs, Dan fought them as well. In 1966, he was in charge of a project that many military historians believe made what was then called North Vietnam impossible to defeat --- he was in charge of building what would come to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Despite the fact that the Laos government had signed the The International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos and promised to allow no foreign armies to use its land in the Vietnam conflict, Dan says the Laos government gave a wink and a nod to North Vietnam. Because Vietnam had helped Laos in it's fight against France, Laos agreed to look the other way and allow Dan's Engineer Regiment to build the now famous, hidden highway through the mountainous jungles of eastern Laos. Even though the U.S. dropped more bombs on that part of Laos than they had dropped on Europe in World War II, nothing could stop the North Vietnamese from sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers through Laos and Cambodia and into South Vietnam. Dan described for us how U.S. aircraft poured Agent Orange over the trail. They were soaking wet in the deadly goo. Then the rains came, he said, and washed the Agent Orange into the streams --- streams they used for bathing, cooking and even drinking. It was the Agent Orange, the doctors told him, that robbed him of his vision.
He welcomed us into his home. We met his childhood bride --- the woman who also helped him build the trail. He told us that he holds no animosity toward the United States. He believes in peace. He asked me to tell the American people that we should all live in peace. He told us that we are all residents of the earth and that we are one. He called me his brother. He shook my hand a dozen times and welcomed me in his Hanoi home whenever I wanted to visit. I hope I can visit him again. After all, he's family. We're all family.
Nguyen Dan built the Ho Chi Minh Trail.               -- Pierre Beauregard Photo


His name is Nguyen Dan (pronounced Wen Zan). He's 89 years old and he's blind. In 1941 he fought the Japanese when they invaded Vietnam. When the Japanese surrendered, the French returned and he fought them. When the United States stuck its head into Vietnam affairs, Dan fought them as well. In 1966, he was in charge of a project that many military historians believe made what was then called North Vietnam impossible to defeat --- he was in charge of building what would come to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Despite the fact that the Laos government had signed the 1962 Geneva Accords, the International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos and promised not to allow foreign armies to use its land, Dan says the Laos government gave a wink and a nod to North Vietnam. 

Because Vietnam had helped Laos in it's fight against France, Laos agreed to look the other way and allow Dan's Engineer Regiment to build the now famous, hidden highway through the mountainous jungles of eastern Laos. Even though the U.S. dropped more bombs on that part of Laos than they had dropped on Europe in World War II, nothing could stop the North Vietnamese from sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers, trucks, tanks, guns and munitions through Laos and Cambodia and into South Vietnam. Dan described for us how U.S. aircraft poured Agent Orange over the trail. They were soaking wet in the deadly goo. Then the rains came, he said, and washed the Agent Orange into the streams --- streams they used for bathing, cooking and even drinking.

It was the Agent Orange, the doctors told him, that robbed him of his vision.

He welcomed us into his home. We met his childhood bride --- the woman who also helped him build the trail. He told us that he holds no animosity toward the United States. He believes in peace. He asked me to tell the American people that we should all live in peace. He told us that we are all residents of the earth and that we are one. He called me his brother. He shook my hand a dozen times and welcomed me in his Hanoi home whenever I wanted to visit. I hope I can visit him again. After all, he's family. We're all family.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Dispatches from Vietnam and Laos -- The End of the Runway

I've been posting a lot of stuff on facebook and have neglected the people to whom I promised I would send updates and photographs. We're so busy here in Vietnam that I'm always too tired to compose posts to the blog. So I'm testing to see if I can paste the facebook postings. Will people who are not subscribers to facebook be able to go to the links? Please e t me know if it works.

This first set of posts is about the journey I've dreamed of taking --- I've dreamed of it for the past 45 years. But first, I'm giving you a link to a short film I shot of the Soc Trang Army Airfield in 1968. If you were to stop the film at about eight seconds into it, you'll see the place I would end up at all these years later.


 Here are the related facebook posts in the order that I posted them. Please let me know if I should include the people's comments after each post. I plan to send more dispatches --- each with its own theme. Feedback, please.
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1Like · ·
  • Linda Chancler As the foodie that I am, this day has surely gone on too long without a meal, please tell us about the food.
  • Linda Chancler Holding breath about what happens next, a wifi signal that gives you gps coordinates?
  • William Prather Great picture for the story. Those expressions on their faces are worth 1000 words. Odd outfit on the girl, looks like a shirt with a bib on top of it - probably a sloppy eater.
  • Susan Roberts Prolly need to smoke some ganga and chill Don Ray. Next thang ya know, that airport will appear like a mirage in the desert. Lovin' the travelogue.
  • William Prather Don, you have some strange friends. Somehow I doubt she's kidding.
  • Don Ray You're talking about Susan? I don't understand what she's talking about. I don't smoke anything. But probably everyone else knows. Hoa was wearing the traditional Vietnamese outfit. I'm not sure if it's an apron as well.
  • William Prather That picture belongs on the cover of your book
  • Dave Williamson Susan was talking about smoking pot! Not sayin I know anything about that, But the big boys in the Barracks said it was fun!
  • Don Ray Hey, we're in Laos now and I'd hate to have the authorities grab my computer and see all of this talk about illegal activities. Like, chill, man? You got my groove? Right arm!
  • Jim Comer La-os! Laaaaaaaay-os! DAYLIGHT COME AND ME WANNA GO HOME!
  • Don Ray Jim, you slipped up here a little bit. You're thinking Harry Belafante. In Laos, it's more likely to be Hairy Elephant Day.
  • Marshall Thompson Interesting trip Don! Be well over there.
  • Don Ray Thanks, Marshall!!!
  • Jim Comer Actually, I was making fun of people, most of whom speak English, who think that Laos has two syllables.
  • Don Ray Diphthong song.
  • Michael Torres Enjoying your adventure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    April 30 at 2:21pm · Unlike · 1



    1. 3Like · ·

      • Laura Rae Hulka Beautifully expressed, Don, very evocative!
      • Elaine Bro Elliott How blessed, could one man be????? To have the opportunity to re-live the loss you felt and to finally, move forward!!! This creative passion- a life long possession that has survived a horrendous war, none of will forget!! You have a unique ability to make friends, the best a man could ask for in his lifetime!!!!!!!!! I can't wait to see it all come together! Edge of my seat, Don Ray!!
      • Marshall Thompson OMG...... speechless.
      • Diane McWilliams Powerful. I am glad you found that peaceful ride back, and were able to revisit. My brother was in VietNam that year, so I am following your journey encased in my own memories as his sister. Travel well...
      • JoAnne Clark Great, So cleansing to the heart and yr mind. Keep up the good work.
      • Dave Williamson I repeat what I posted on the last one!I surely hope it helps! I'm so glad you were stubborn that time! What a shame had you missed it!
      • Perdita Brown What a powerful story!
      • Dawn RT DeBois I'm with Marshall. I'm speechless.