Monday, August 05, 2019

I understand the mindset of the El Paso shooter because I once wore his shoes

As with every other Baby Boomer in the United States, I grew up in fear of the savage invaders that were intent upon raping my mother and sister.

They drilled us in school – “DROP!”

We learned to hit the floor under our desks – instantly --because we believed that the "enemy," those communist killers, wanted us dead.

Our president, our parents and other officials demanded that we comply – for the sake of our own safety and the safety of our communities.

When I turned 18, as did hundreds of thousands of my peers, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on my own assault rifle and kill those invaders before they could get to my mother and sister.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A important pledge to my family and friends

Dateline: Burbank, California, Father’s Day, 2019.

I make this pledge to my family today, June 16, 2019, following a most incredible es equally stressful year.

My is not to kill two birds with one stone, but rather, to keep two long-overdue promises — one to my wife, and another to my loyal and too-forgiving friends.

More than 20 years ago, I promised my bride that I would give her a comfortable life and a bright future. For the past year or so, I promised to my friends that I would, in the form of an autobiography — a book that would pull a string on my life as it relates to fathers.

I am pledging to her, to my friends and anyone else who cares that I will have that book written, edited and ready for distribution and sale by Labor Day of this year — and probably much sooner.

Based upon the countless number of people who tell me that they want the book, and the media professionals who assure me that it has legs (people will want to buy it), I have promised my wife that it will generate enough to help us get back on our feet, and will become a continuing support to our later years.

I hope that you can see how this book will ensure that I keep both promises.

For those who haven’t been following my life story (and why would you have?), my early childhood had its challenges — most of them at the hands and shouts and insults and abuse if my first father.

When Mom could no longer take her share of the abuse, she divorced him.

When he broke the news to my sister and me, he was thoughtful enough to assure is that he’d be OK — he told us he wasn’t our father.

He even named the two suspects.

He died a couple of years later and probably smiled in his grave as his verbal time bomb would explode and re-explode as I would grow and understand the implications.

When I was ten, he died, not long after my maternal grandfather in Iowa took his own life. He had been a great father figure to me when we’d go there for the summers.

That same year, Mom remarried, and I spent the next eight years with a stepfather whose own demons would surface. I’m sure it was his demons that brought out his violent tendencies.

Today, thanks to years of therapy I understand why I struggled in school with dyslexia, PTSD, and ADHD, as well as learning and reading disorder.

My story will also describe the most remarkable skills I developed on my own to find astoundingly pclever ways to survive in school, in spite of my inability to read well.

I promise that you’ll smile and shake your head when I confess to some of the ways I came up with to survive exams and research assignments.

Those and other perception skills I honed as a child target would provide skills I’d use as an investigative journalist (without any need for cheating).

I enlisted in the Army to escape my stepfather, and ended up in combat in Vietnam. I know know that it only exacerbated the PTSD that was already a part of me.

Over the intervening years, I tried and tried to figure out why, in spite of being an award-winning, loyal, honest employee or team member, I never fit in, I’d repeatedly be falsely accused of horrible stuff — stuff I would never do.

Jobs never lasted very long — I just never fit in, or gained the confidence of bosses.

But all this time, on my own, with nobody to blow cigar smoke and tell me I couldn’t take on projects I would suggest, I would set out on my own to discover astounding stories.

I complete some of them, but many of them still sit in boxes awaiting completion as books and documentaries.

I now wonder if, had there been the right father in my life, I might have learned how complete stuff.

By the way, I latched on to many perspective fathers in my life — you’ll be astounded when you learn about them, and what happened to them.

I promise that the true stories and adventures I have to share will enthrall you.

In the last year, DNA had solved the mystery of who my father really was — and the earth-shattering discovery — 47 years late — that I fathered a boy.

His two daughters in their 20s are my granddaughters.

Needless to say, all of these parts of my life didn’t add up to me keeping the promise I made to my bride.

I’m promising her today, that I will complete this project — and that it will be successful.

People tell me I’m a good storyteller and above-average writer.

I hope you’ll stay tuned. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"The Fire" -- a preface to Don Ray's book about his lifelong pursuit of fathers and father figures.

A fire that continues to burn in my consciousness.

 When I was six, I remember my parents' reaction to this newspaper story. For whatever reason, it had hit close to home for both of them.

It was a story about a fire that broke out in the Los Angeles home of a woman and her six children. I remember how it described how five of the children either jumped out windows or climbed down the stairs to safety.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

A fellow Vietnam veteran gave me a life-changing perspective

We both served in Vietnam, but we didn't meet until a few years ago -- the small Vietnam vet group in which Paul participates invited me and Fritz the Sassy Service Dog to join them every Wednesday evening in Burbank.

What happens in the group stays in the group, but I can tell you that Paul is a wonderful photographer who sees beyond the camera.

Following last week's meeting, he took me aside and gave me a perspective so powerful that it has changed how I see my own life and legacy.

In the group meeting, I had expressed my envy of others there who smile and laugh when they speak of their grandchildren. They spend much of their time, it seems, doing things with or doing things for the family members they created.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Triage for a man in immediate need of my help -- maybe yours as well.

I'll call him Carl -- not his real name.

I promised my new friend I wouldn't share his name or his address.

He called and left a message for me at the Villa Terraza Restaurant last Thursday evening when I was there telling stories to people -- stories about the place that had once been the Old Vienna Gardens.

When I returned his call on Friday, he started telling me his problems.

Eventually, I asked him about the reason he left me a message. It had nothing to do with the book project we're doing or the storytelling session I had promoted on several Facebook group pages.

"I saw your Facebook page," he told me, "and read that you have PTSD and ADHD, and I thought maybe you could help me."

It took him about an hour to tell me his situation. It was like no story I'd ever heard.

Most importantly, I learned that a very shy man with very serious problems had decided to trust me, a stranger, and that I might be one of the only people who could learn the whole story.

I thought he was right.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Help us learn the truth about the Spy of Shadow Hills

For more than 80 years folks in and around the San Fernando Valley have been repeating rumors about a man named Auguest Furst.
He came to California in 1936 and built The Old Vienna Gardens Restaurant on Sunland Blvd. in what's now called Shadow Hills.
Before long, rumors were flying that this Bavarian born man with a thick German accent was a spy for Germany.
August Furst died more than 35 years ago and the old restaurant has changed hands several times.
But the rumors still persist.
I heard the rumors when I was a kid in nearby Sun Valley, and I heard them again 30 years later.
That's when I decided to get to the bottom of the rumors.
I got a magazine assignment and did some research, but the magazine folded before I could write the story.
The investigative files sat on my shelf for another 30 years.
But when a wonderful friend told me in January that he and the new owner of the restaurant (I introduced them to each other) were going to open it as an Italian restaurant, I decided that now was the time to finish the investigation and write a book about it -- :The Spy of Shadow Hills -- Rumors or Reality?
The non-profit I formed a few years ago, The Endangered History Project, Inc.., will be publishing the book in March -- but we need your help raising the money to print the book.
If you would, please take a look at this Kickstarter video and then read all about the project -- and the ways you can help.
And whether you help out or not, would you please be kind enough to share this with every human being you've ever met? Or at least to your good friends?
Thanks so very much.
Please click here to see the video and read about the campaign 

Sunday, July 17, 2016


Here's you chance to see Don Ray and Fritz the Sassy Service Dog on the History Channel.
The story is about a particular suspect who I first investigated in 1978. I also talked about the story in dozens and dozens of classes and lectures over the past decades.
D.B. Cooper was that name a man used when he hijacked a plane in 1971 and then disappeared.
I'm posting it here so that my wife's friends will have an easy way to find the video.
If you click on the link below, the video will start moments before they introduce me, Don Ray.
I'm the fat guy in the yellow shirt. Fritz is the dog on the floor.
Click here to see the video

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Don Ray's Ugly Mug Shows Up on History Channel

Just in case you read this today, July 10, 2016, I'll be on History Channel's two-part series, "D.B. Cooper -- Case Closed? tonight. It starts at 9 p.m. (8 Central) and repeats at 11 p.m. (10 Central). I think you'll see my small contribution (or at least me talking about it) during the second half of the show this evening, Sunday. I don't think I'll be seen on Monday night's episode (same times), but you'll certainly see the results of my work.
If you're reading this after July 10th, I have a feeling you can watch it on the History Channel's website.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Come one come all to Don Ray's pity party

This is a whiny, pity me story 

My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Resnick, took me aside at the end of our morning class to tell me that I'd have to sit through both of that day's school-wide assembly.

The auditorium wasn't large enough to accommodate all of the student body, so they'd repeat it.

From my seat in the middle of one of the middle rows, I watched with envy as the “smart” and “special” students sat on the special bleacher on the stage awaiting their prizes.

It was the Awards Assembly, and I had dreamed of one day sitting on those bleachers and being recognized for something I had accomplished.

One by one, the smart kids accepted their awards for scholarship, sports, student government and other stuff.

Then Burbank's fire chief came on stage to announce the winners of the Fire Prevention Essay contest.

The first place winner walked proudly from her seat on the stage bleacher to accept her certificate.

Then the second place winner followed to accept hers.

When he announced the third place winner, nobody came down to receive the certificate.

He repeated the name.

Holy shit! It was my name!

I had to “pardon me” past the other students in my row in the auditorium and then walk down the aisle toward the stage.

When I got there, there was no stairway or anything I could use to get on the stage, so I hoisted myself up as if I were climbing out of the swimming pool.

People chuckled.

When the fire chief shook my hand and gave me the certificate, I didn't want to jump back down into the auditorium and struggle to get to my seat, so I just walked backstage.

Now I understood why I had to attend both assemblies.

When the first assemble ended, I waited backstage and watched the smart and special students take a short break and then return to their bleacher seats on the stage.

At least I got my picture in the local paper
Me? I just hung around backstage until I heard the fire chief call my name again.

This time, I walked from backstage, shook hands and walked backstage again with my certificate.
When the second assembly ended, Mrs. Scarf, the mean drama teacher who ran the assembly walked up to me and chewed me out.

“Young man, why did you refuse to sit in your assigned seat on the bleacher?”

I guess that Mr. Resnick wanted to ensure that my writing award would be a surprise.
Yes, I felt proud, but sad at the same time.

In the late 1980s, I had my dream job as an investigative segment producer.

It was at KCBS-TV in Hollywood.

I worked for two of the most dishonest managers I've ever encountered.

I wouldn't know it until later, but my immediate manager was having a secret relationship with the young woman who was our unit's researcher.

He did everything in his power to convince his corrupt boss that she should replace me and I should be demoted to researcher.

When the news director called me and my manager's corrupt manager to his office to tell me that I was being reassigned, I quoted from the “confidential memo” my lying boss had sent to his lying boss.

I made reference to his remarks that I had no producing experience.

To make a long story short, the news director agreed to look at my earlier work (something nobody there had looked at).

Afterward he assigned me to produce a story that would tell the truth about the ZZZZ Best Carpet Cleaning scandal.

It would be the first story that told exactly what was going on --- and how the L.A.P.D. was completely wrong in its claim that the case involved drug money.

A few months later, when my lying manager announced that he and the researcher were getting married, management realized that he had intentionally tried to do me in.

They ended his contract, broke up our investigative unit and then announced that the station had to lay off people --- and that I was the last hired and the first to go.

On my own, I submitted to the L.A. Press Club the ZZZZ Best story I'd written and produced.

I entered it in the “Best News Writing” category in their awards contest. 

I also submitted another story that I had completed on my own time after my layoff (but before I was officially released). I entered it into the “Best Investigative Reporting” category.

Long story short, both of my submissions won first place in their categories.

I was proud to accept the two awards at their big ceremony, but sad that I won them only after I had lost my dream job.

Two more wins – the same sadness. 

Today, I learned that the Azerbaijan Supreme Court ordered the release from prison of my longtime friend and colleague, Khadija Ismayalova.

She had been locked up for a year and a half of her seven-year sentence on bogus charges.

The real reason they arrested her was because she was writing stories about the corruption of that country's presidential family.

A year ago, I was in Sarajevo, Bosnia, working with a wonderful team of investigative reporters on the Khadia Project in which we were continuing Khadija's corruption investigations.

The message was, if you imprison a journalist, there will be dozens who will continue her work.

Truth be told, when the project wrapped up last year, the project leader was unhappy with something I was or wasn't doing.

I failed completely in my attempts to create a two-way dialog with him, so I left as an outsider.

I was delighted a while back to learn that the Khadija Project had won the most prestigious award for investigative reporting.

One of my life dreams would be fulfilled, while at the same time, I knew it would not be likely that I would be able to join the team when the investigative news organization hands out the award next month in New Orleans.

I had gotten over that sad, pity me feeling until today when I heard the great news about Khadija's release.

Today, I'm immersed in my own pity party because there's no appropriate place for me to shout out how proud I am.

I've been in this lonely place so many times in my life.

What's a difficult-to-get-along-with misfit to do?

There's nobody else to blame except me.

Maybe the answer is some form of the a simple phrase.

Grow up!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Signs of Spring in Sarajevo

Fritz and I have been in Sarajevo for nearly two months, but I've been too busy doing investigative journalism to post to the blog.
This is to celebrate the coming of spring in Sarajevo.
We went out this morning to capture some of the telltale signs. First, we're offering a glimpse of the winter we're leaving behind.
Fritz took to the snow right from the start. He loved to romp in it and dig down deep into it.

 Once the snow finally melted away, the trees, shrubs and flowers came back to life.

I don't know if it was because the sun started rising in the sky each day or because the temperature starting rising.

Maybe they have their own seasonal alarm clock.

 It's nice to know that the people buried in this city cemetery are still pushing up daisies after all of these years.

 We headed east toward Old Town Sarajevo. Fritz enjoyed meeting people along the way, but he was more interested in meeting creatures of his own species.

The warm sunshine was enough to lure people outside so they could just soak it up.

 Street vendors didn't do well during the winter.


 Fritz and I looked watched this old man for a long time.

Every so often people would hand him a coin or two.

It made me wonder how he made ends meet during the winter when it's not as easy to get people to take their hands out of their pockets to hand him money.

Even though the coming of spring is about renewal, it's clear that in Sarajevo, people are still struggling.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Our beloved neighborhood 'recluse' is getting treatment for serious burns

This post is the first of what will be regular updates to the condition and situation of Edward Lattner, who police and firefighters rescued Monday from his burning home in Burbank, California.
Please see the earlier post for details from yesterday. And please consider subscribing to, sharing and commenting on this blog so that you'll get automatic updates.

Ed's lifelong friend (consider him a brother), Louis Dow II, got word in Florida from Ed's neighbors as the fire trucks were arriving yesterday (Monday) morning. He says he rushed to the airport for the first flight to California, and he's been at Ed's side or looking after Ed's house since he arrived. That's Louis in the photo.

He told me and other concerned neighbors that Ed is heavily sedated at West Hills Hospital's Burn Unit with serious burns mostly on his hands, arms and head. The pain was too much for him.

"They're treating him really well," Louis said. "He''s got a great team of doctors." He says the hospital is providing him with lodging while he's looking in on Ed.

The good news, Louis said, is that Ed is going to live. However, he'll be hospitalized for a long time. Tomorrow (Wednesday) the doctors will begin skin grafts. They'll also put a scope down into his lungs and also monitor the condition of his kidneys and heart.

The bad news for Ed is that it's clear that he'll never again get to live in the house he's occupied all of his 77 years. His parents built the house in 1937. He's lived there by himself since they died.

Louis asked me to say "thanks" to all of my neighbors and friends who have offered to help. He will be packing up and removing the last of Ed's things from the hours -- neither the house nor Ed are in any condition for occupancy. The fate of the house is up in the air. There are family obstacles someone will need to address. If anybody has reason to speak witth Louis, he says I can share his contact information with them directly.

Ed has been a fixture in the neighborhoods surrounding his house on South Griffith Park. For decades, people have watched Ed walk deliberately -- in short, staccado steps with his head aiming just low enough to avoid eye contact with passersby.

I've talked with him more than a dozen times when my dogs and I pass him on the sidewalk. The conversation has never advanced beyond a reluctant-sounding "Hello."

Louis promised me he's going to provide some photos of Ed --- and he's going to keep me (and other neighbors) up to date on the quiet man's situation.

Again, it would be great if you would subscribe to this blog and receive notices when I post an update or something new.

Thanks for reading this far. Give me any suggestions you may have.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A recluse with so many friends in his time of need.

(Updates will be in a new blog postings. Click on the blog title --Don Ray''s Friends etc.-- to navigate to newer postings)
Burbank Policer Officer Brent Fekety responed to the 911 call from Ed Lattner's neighbors this morning.
His house was on fire.
The nearby engine and rescue ambulance from Fire Station 15 were across town doing a training exercise, so it would take a couple of minutes longer for Engine 11 to arrive from Third and Orange Grove.

Officer Fekety went inside the burning house at 326 S. Griffith Park Ave. (just around the corner from our house) and pulled Ed from the flames -- but his clothes were still on fire.
Firefighters arrived moments later and found Ed breathing but suffering from burns. They rushed him to Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center.
Neighbors gathered outside his house where his sofa, his melted TV and some other furniture were on the lawn --- not far from where the singed clothes they had cut off of him lay.
Everyone loves the elderly recluse --- even though he rarely spoke more than an obligatory "hello" when people would pass the slightly hunched-over, slim man in the same dark jacket when he would walk around the neighborhood.
He was always walking --- regardless of the weather.
And everyone knew where he lived. To strangers, the plain house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood seemed to be abandoned.
The lawn was always in need of water, a good mowing and edging. There were no plants outside, except a tree near the curb --- a tree that had unkempt bushes growing without maintenance.
There was no car in the driveway and nothing but some seemingly unused city trash containers in front of the detatched garage.
No signs of anyone living there.
At night, the place seemed to be completely dark --- nothing to see behind the always-drawn shades. If you stood on the sidewalk for a while at night, however, you could eventually distinguish a trace of light through the edge of a window -- a glow that looked different from the reflection of the street lights.
Neighbors say that his parents built the house back in the '30s and Ed has never lived anywhere else. His folks died quite a few years ago and Ed stayed in the house.
"He's always been a recluse," one neighbor told me.
They were trying to piece together his story. They say he has a half-brother living out of state --- far away. Word has it that he they tried to get Ed to go there, but Ed refused.
"If I go with you," a neighbor quoted him as saying, "you'll sell my house and take all my money."
As Fritz and I walked back home, I encountered the parking enforcement woman. The minute I told her that the house that burned belongs to the old man who is always out walking, she knew who I was talking about.
Everyone would see him on his daily and evening walks.
Everybody is fond of the old man in dark clothes who walks with his head down --- even though he believes he has no friends.
That can happen to recluses.

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:

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.