Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A 70-year romance that's still sizzling

A project that's finally ready for me to share.

Gloria and Snicks came into my life in April of 2002 when Neal Velgos and I were exploring the former right-of-way of the Pacific Electric streetcar line that ran from Burbank and Glendale to the Subway Terminal Building at 4th and Hill streets in downtown L.A. They were enjoying the afternoon shadows in front of their small, hillside home in the Silverlake/Edendale neighborhood. They threw a warm greeting our way as we paced up their street. Before we passed the next house, we realized that this was a couple we should spend a few minutes with. Before long, it was clear that theirs was a story that we needed to preserve.

In early 2013, Gloria will turn 90. Snicks will be 93. They met in 1942 and got married before his Army division shipped out to Europe. This is the story of how they came together at a time the world seemed to be falling apart. It ends when Snicks and his best friend finally returned to the two sisters they had married before they went to war. This, by the way, is what The Endangered History Project was meant to create. If it moves you, please share it, or even consider participating in the next project. And we always love it when you subscribe to this blog.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An unnecessary (and humbling) adventure

I was feeling guilty for keeping my treasured RX7 in the office parking lot I share with my office neighbor. So I took the unregistered Mazda home and parked in on the street.

That was dumb!

I came home one night and there was more room to park in front of the house than there had been when I left. Oh! They towed my car. When the nightmare was over, I felt compelled to confess and reflect. Someone I shared it with suggested I send it to the Car Talk program on National Public Radio. It ended up on Car Talk's blog.

Hey, being infamous is almost as good as being famous.


 To see it, click on this link:  

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Yes, I'm an angry, old white man.

I confess! I’m an angry, old, white man.

I’m not alone — there are a lot of us out there and there’s no shortage of reasons why old, white men might feel angry. Mostly, we get angry when things change. We tend not to like change. However, many of the changes are long overdue and we should welcome them.
Some of my friends asked me to write about this stuff, so I’ll start with my own inventory.
I’m angry that young people are using technology to isolate themselves from the immediate world around them. I’m talking about iPhones and earplugs and the way text messages divert their eyes and earplugs drown out the chance to communicate with them in person.
I’m happy, however, that, all day long, they’re writing and telling stories. I’d guess that they’re texting more words per day than us old, white guys wrote in a month when we were their age. The same goes for reading. Even though they’re not looking us in the eye, they’re reading and writing and learning how to tell stories.
Unfortunately, many old, white men are angry that some people fall in love with people of the same gender — and that they’re allowed to get away with it.
I’m thrilled that I got over my homophobia a long time ago and realized that love is love and that anyone else’s love is not my business.
I’m angry that words and phrases that were never necessary in day-to-day conversations are invading every conversation. If you didn’t notice them, just listen to how many times people needlessly use “right?” and “go ahead” in their speech. “I got to school late today, right? And the teacher — my 10th-grader teacher, right? She’s all, ‘Go ahead and take your seat.’ So I sit down, right? And she’s all, ‘Go ahead and open your books to Chapter 12,” right?”
Go ahead and listen for a day or two, right? The clerk will tell you to go ahead and put your pin number in. Go ahead and take a seat. Go ahead and step back. What? Right?
Just omit "go ahead" from just about any such command and it still work. "Take a seat. Step back. Punch in your pin number."
I’m happy, however, that “right?” has somewhat replaced “you know?” and “Nome sane?” Know what I’m saying?
I’m even happier that people are more careful about using racial slurs. I’d be happier if they were changing their vocabulary for the right reasons. Many old, white men have cleaned up their rhetoric, but they complain about “politically correct.” Hint. When you bitch about “politically correct,” you’re probably a racist.
I’m angry that, in the last 30 years (ever since ATMs came along), people feel that they must stand two paces behind the next person in any line. OK, so I’ll stand back so you won’t think I’m stealing your pin number or hearing you ask for your Viagra prescription, but why stand back two paces when you're in line at McDonald’s? God forbid I hear you order your burger with "secret sauce." And, damn it, people are even doing it in the drive-thrus. If it’s the rule on foot, does it have to be the rule in the car? I’m angry when cars are backed up on the street because some idiot won’t come within ten feet of the car in front of him. AAAARGH!
I’m angry at parents driving their fat, lazy kids four blocks to school — and then they race down our alley because they don’t want to wait in line to make a left turn. Walking is good. Kids get exercise, they talk to each other. It saves gas. It makes it easier for parents to get to work on time. What? The streets aren't safe for your kids? B.S.! They're more likely that their teachers will molest them than the people of your neighborhood.
I’m happy, however, that people aren’t driving under the influence as much and that the majority of people have reclaimed fresh air space by making it illegal to smoke in public places.
I’m angry, however, that the laws are not even more strict — and that more kids are smoking and nobody can do anything about it. I’m angry because I’ve seen what happens to smokers when they get older. My mother was 40 pounds when she died of emphysema. Her second husband suffered from lung cancer. Her father killed himself because of his emphysema --- an he smoked until the day he shot himself.
Many old, white men are whining and bawling and bitching because their neighborhoods are no longer bastions of whites and Christians. They miss “the good old days” when they were able to insulate themselves from seeing the poverty and hatred that was going on in neighborhoods in which the poor or the people of color were forced to live. Out of sight, out of mind.
I’m happy that my friends and neighbors are Asian and Latinos, brown and black --- from Colombia and Mexico and Armenia and Egypt. I’m happy that I came to love all forms of Latin music and that I taught myself how to speak passable Spanish. I’m ecstatic that I met and fell in love with and married a wonderful woman from China.
I’m angry that so many old, white men have never traveled outside the United States and, as a result, have never seen how people outside the U.S. have to live.
I’m happy that I did my homework and learned that our “good old days” seemed that much better back then because we were exploiting the poor people in many parts of the world. We exploited them so that we could have their resources, their fruit, their sugar, their oil, their gold, their diamonds and their labor for far less than it was worth.
I’m angry that our corporations and our leaders were able to invade, intimidate, bribe, occupy or overthrow the governments of countries when it was in “the U.S. interest.” U.S. interests have killed millions of people outside the U.S. U.S. interests have helped to keep brutal dictators in power and have prevented the poor from owning or farming their lands so that they could feed their own families.
I’m happy that I have been able to travel to more than 30 countries (mostly third-world countries or developing democracies) and have been able to see with my own eyes the truths that are rarely spoken within our country.
I’m angry that old, white men are so damned afraid of things that are not a threat to them, and that they are so quick to blame immigrants, Democrats, scientists, foreigners, the needy and people of different religions. I’m angry that it’s so easy for them to believe uneducated assholes and liars such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and just about everybody on Fox Television. I’m angry that these scared, angry, old, white men can be so brainwashed that they glue their eyes shut and stuff their ears with putty if any other voices or ideas come near them.
Don’t get me wrong. I won’t budge on certain items. Never!
I refuse to talk to a computer at the other end of the telephone. If it isn’t a real person in real time, I won’t participate.
I refuse to purchase anything at an automated machine at a grocery store or hardware store. I’ll set down anything I intended to buy if I can’t look a clerk in the eye and say, “Hello!”
I’ll never use one of those GPS units to tell me where to go. I prefer to use a map (online is OK) to learn where I’m going and know that I’ll never be lost or at the mercy of a machine.
I refuse to ever own a luxury car or a gas-guzzling, fat SUV. I'm not impressed. I have no reason to try to impress you.
I’m happy that I have a cell phone, but I don’t have a smart phone. Mine is smart enough to make calls and allow me to answer them. Texting? No thanks! I can still speak. And besides, nothing pisses me off more than sharing my valuable time with someone and then realize that they’re texting or Internet searching while we’re talking. Nope. Not me. I respect one-on-one humanity
I’m angry that so many of my old, white men friends have taken the bait and now have smart phones. At the very least, they can feel young as they do the same rude and disgusting stuff the young people are doing.
I’m going to give a talk to young journalists next week and I’ve decided that I will refuse to continue sharing the great stuff I share if any of them are even touching their mobile phones or other electronic devices. They don’t realize that I can teach them more journalism — real journalism — in three hours than they’ll get in six months of school. Damn it, I’m worth paying attention to (even if I end sentences in prepositions).
Mostly, I’m angry at the old, white men — and many of the old, white women who married the old, white men — who can pretend that they’re not racists when they oppose absolutely anything President Obama does, says or stands for. I’m angry that they didn’t call for the impeachment of other presidents who suffered setbacks on their watches. I’m angry that stupid, angry, old, white men are so frightened that they’re willing to set their own logic aside.
I’m happy that I see the light. I’m happy that Barack Obama is my president and not Mitt Romney or any Republican I’ve seen since Dwight Eisenhower.
I’m not happy with everything the president is doing, however. I’m angry that he hasn’t stood up to Wall Street. I’m angry that he doesn’t call every Republican representative into the Oval Office and kick their butts the way President Lyndon Johnson did.
I’m angry with him for not bringing more sunshine into the processes of government.
But he’s hundreds of miles ahead of anybody else right now.
I’m happy that my friends have asked me to write about this stuff. I hope my angry, old, white men friends will wake the hell up and take an inventory of their own worlds.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

If you're a cop or a fed, don't read this!

I don’t usually associate with criminals unless I’m writing about them. I’m breaking with my policy this time. I’m not only associating with an admitted criminal — I’ve become a co-conspirator.

Her crime is feeding pigeons. The crime scenes vary. She makes it a point to juggle the illegal feeding times so that authorities cannot easily stake out the crime scenes. I won’t use her first name. Just let me say that her last name is not Dickinson or Post. And Simon and Garfunkel were not singing about her when they performed “For ______, Wherever I may Find Her.
She called me today because of a chance encounter at one of her crimes scenes when, in fact, she was committing the crime.

I notice these things, so I very carefully worked my way into her confidence. She’s a remarkably normal-looking immigrant from an unnamed country that was once part of a larger group of countries that was once our main enemy during the Cold War. She’s from a country that once had a nasty nuclear generator accident. But I’m not going to disclose anymore.

Here’s the thing: she’s looking for an accomplice who’s not afraid to risk life and liberty to ensure that her pigeons get their daily meals.

“They are there at the same time every day,” she told me. “They are waiting for me, but because I don’t have a car right now, I can’t always get there.”

She offered this bit of conspiracy: “I’d be happy to pay someone to come and feed my friends. I’ll buy the food and I’ll stash it behind nearby trees.”

Monday, July 30, 2012

Did Coder and his father survive when the dam collapsed?

It was nearly 85 years ago that the 185-foot St. Francis Dam collapsed and sent as many as 450 people to their watery graves. It was the worst disaster in Southern California's history. Only the San Francisco earthquake killed more people in California.

35 years ago, my journalism professor and I set out to write a book, "Without Warning; Diary of a Disaster," in which many of those who survived the disaster could tell their first-person stories.

It was in 1977 that Bill Thomas and I sent "An Open Letter to Coder" to the largest 100 newspapers in the United States. We had hoped that we might be able to solve one of the disaster's most intriguing mysteries. We wanted to know if the dam keeper, Tony Harnischfeger and his son, Coder, actually survived that night back in 1928. And if we couldn't find proof, at least we could spread the word that we were organizing a memorial reunion of the survivors of the disaster on the 50th anniversary of its collapse.

No, we didn't find Coder, but we succeeded in reaching dozens of survivors and their families. 50 years to the day following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, more than 200 survivors and their family members gathered for a luncheon in what's now Santa Clarita, about 10 miles downstream from where the dam once stood.

Bill and went to the homes of many of the survivors we had found and we interviewed them about their experiences. We sent sample chapters of the book to a boatload of publishers, but none of them were interested in "more disaster stories." You see, there had been a series of disaster movies in recent years --- "Towering Inferno," "Earthquake," "The Poseidon Adventure," etc. --- and they were afraid the market had been glutted.

Then, over the next three decades, both Bill and I focused our energies on our careers. And in the meantime, most all of the people whose stories we had promised to tell had passed away. Now, however, The Endangered History Project, Inc., is gearing up to finally publish the long-awaited book. Bill is clear off on the Right Coast, so he has giving me the green light to complete the book. I'm not doing it alone, however. Many of my friends and family members participated back in 1978 and some of them are eager to pitch in to complete the project. So please consider this an open invitation to be a part of this historic book project. We can use your help. E-mail me if you want to be part of the team.

Our target date to have the book available is March 12, 2013. That will be the 85th anniversary of the disaster.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Don Ray is a sniffling, sobbing sentimental --- but jumping for joy today!

Officer Joe Wilson was first my nemesis, later my hero and, for decades now, an obsession. Today, a dream came true for me. Today I was able to connect with Joe Wilson’s family. Now I’m typing as quickly as I can on a salty, sticky keyboard.

In 1961, Burbank Police Officer Joe Wilson died at the corner of Buena Vista Street and Thornton Avenue in Burbank. He was on duty on his motorcycle. Someone plowed into him and killed him. His life and his death would change my world forever.

Two years before the accident, Officer Joe Wilson began stalking me. OK, he wasn’t stalking, he was looking out for me and hundreds of other 10-year-olds who he felt were at risk. We were bicycle riders without a clue. We were tragedies waiting to happen, he believed.

So with the support of the Burbank Police Department, he waged a campaign to ticket as many of us as he could. We didn’t have to pay fines, we had to show up at the police department on Saturday mornings and face Officer Joe Wilson. We had to learn traffic laws and bicycle safety. Let me cut to the chase here — I’m sure he saved my life and the lives of others. We became safe, law-abiding drivers.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Wishing I could love Father's Day

Some Father’s Day questions for my father(s)

Think of it this way, when you read what I’m sharing on this Father’s Day, you may think it’s a downer. But I’ll bet it will make you appreciate your own father even more.

Questions I wish I had asked my father:

Even if you believed that you weren’t my father — that your brother was — how could you be so cruel to tell me such a thing when I was only seven? 

If I hadn’t looked up just in time those two times when I was playing with my toy truck while you were digging in the planter, would you have crushed me with the shovel as you were poised to do?

OK, I was only nine the last time I saw you — before the accident that would put you in a coma and eventually kill you, but why can’t I remember just one kind word or one bit of encouragement, or remember you ever touching me with something other than your belt?

Why did you get so angry with me at Gilmore Field when I was unable to pick out which player the batter was? You kept shouting that he was the guy standing in the box. I looked and looked, but there were no boxes lying on the ground — much less someone standing in one.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

His life cut short at 101

He was 101 years old -- but not too old to inspire people of all ages.

It's a story that could have spread the word and maybe saved a life or two.

His friends say that Otto W. Jensen had the energy of a 20-year-old, the disposition Santa Claus and the kindness of a saint. When he was 99, his friends videotaped him sprinting across Olive Avenue to get from the senior center to his home and photography studio across the street.

It was in that exact spot that a 91-year-old woman's car hit him in the dimming dusk.

It's just a half block from where we live, so when the police helicopter was orbiting about us and the emergency vehicles were converging, I grabbed my video camera and, in true journalist spirit, scurried over and recorded the scene.

I didn't know anything about the victim until I called the Burbank Police watch commander later that night. He could only confirm that the pedestrian had died and that he was a 101-year-old man.