T-Bird of Happiness and Crashboat

T-Bird Tragedy and Joy

Oh, and here comes the holiday season like a runaway Edsel, excuse me. It’s always a little surreal how suddenly it shows up. Another year? Really? Is that Jack Frost nipping at my nose or the taunting, flicked finger of the Grim Reaper? “It’s almost Christmas!” the little ones yell with unbridled glee. Yes, you tiny, careless immortals; it’s almost LAST Christmas. How’d the year pass by so quickly? Just a week or so ago we were throwing ourselves into the ocean in full-tilt escape from the brutalizing heat wave that we were sure would set the mountains on fire. Now, a couple of puny rain squalls later, the inevitable “fall” weather sweeps in as an almost reluctant little cold snap, and we Santa Barbarans respond by excitedly dragging on our pea coats and diaphanous, utterly useless Donna Karan scarves. We swoop our gossamer “winter” accessories around our room-temperature necks like NY hipsters or movie actors, turning up our collars and stamping our feet as if to shake the snow off our galoshes, we’re so giddy at the change of seasons and the prospect of candlelight and mulled wine. It’s the one time of the year you can gulp Tramp Juice from a soup-bowl sized mug without the other guests remarking about it behind their sleeves. The whole demeanor of the town changes

“Ooh, it’s a little chilly, isn’t it?”

No, not really. But let’s live it up. We get maybe 80 of these. It’s time to get about the business of Holiday Cheer. And what’s not to love? The city workers begin dutifully stringing the lights up along State Street, great arcing stars making of our downtown a glowing arbor. Suddenly the shop fronts all have paper snowflakes in their window displays, faux-Victorian carolers hunch and yell in close-harmony at every street corner, the chill evening air takes on that seasonally pleasant aroma as the town’s fireplaces gently surrender a fragrant bouquet of crackling cherrywood, and frightening soot-covered chimney sweeps flash-mob the rooftops with mad, high-stepping dance routines. Chim-Chimney, Chim Chimney, Chim-Chim-Cheroo, if you damage my ridge vent I’m likely to sue. Soon enough that strangely phallic Christmas Rocket erects itself near the Arlington Theater, they throw some lights on it and we’re off and running.

But first…ah, yes. First there is Thanksgiving to get through, the weird, uber-American ritual whose most famous visual expression remains that nightmarish Normal Rockwell painting of an aproned matriarch proffering a slain and naked bird; recumbent, belly-up, beyond embarrassment (the bird, I mean), its truncated little wing-arms relaxed at its sides, its formerly strutting legs now stiff and shortened and dressed in paper anklets. In the iconic painting, which like most of Rockwell’s stuff is meant to embody and crystallize the rubberized American Soul, the homespun Ma and Pa figures stand at the head of a table crowded with strangely leering family members in da Vinci-like attitudes of conversation, but strangely feral; all teeth and eyebrows and clasped paws. It’s an unnerving work of art. In the upper left-hand corner of the photorealist painting is a grinning boy with a slightly reptilian expression, and seated beside him a little sister figure likewise stares down the length of the table like a drowsy viper. In the lower left of the painting a man is laughing maniacally at the empty air, displaying a scary set of choppers, while a sunlit pear with a suggestion of humanoid countenance looks balefully up at him from a bed of grapes. In the lower right corner a man’s haunted eyes stare back at the viewer. Even for the diabolically exacting Rockwell, it is a strange and unsettling hymn to the Holidays, one of the most singularly dread-inducing paintings this country has ever produced. What did Rockwell call this thing? Freedom From Want. My alternate title, you ask? Horn of Plenty Heebie-Jeebies.

But Thanksgiving means well, and however cynically plasticized and oversold the “gather and be thankful” vibe is this time of year, however much it is leveraged by the Commercial Sector to brace us for the aptly named Black Friday, all doubts fly up the chimney with the cherrywood smoke when you start mingling with family and friends in closed quarters while through the windows brisk, happy breezes stir the trees and foliage in blanched autumnal sun. As hard as the numbskull forces of human avarice try, they can’t completely wreck Thanksgiving. They can’t strip away, for instance, my hard-won memories of my mom coming over on those Thanksgiving mornings.

Per the yearly ritual I would have dropped in on my mom’s apartment at Villa Santa Barbara the evening before to remind her of our Thanksgiving breakfast the next morning. She would inexpertly and comically disguise her uncertainty as to who exactly I was, and we would have our usual bemused summit for a couple hours, watch the home movies for the several-hundredth time, bat the same over-familiar questions and answers back and forth. I’d long since stopped being maddened by mom’s endlessly repeated questions, and came to be charmed by a universe that oversaw our elderly parents exasperating us with the same ninny repetitions they’d had to suffer when we were mindless little non-stop blabbermouths. Fair play.

The next morning, Thanksgiving morning, I would stop in to nab mom for the drive over to our place and explain our Thanksgiving date all over again. “Hey! What are you doing here? And who are you, again?” She would laugh nervously at her own question sometimes, but she knew in her core that I was on her side, that we shared something. “I’m your son, mom. Jeff?” “Right!” she would laugh again, making comic gestures of dismissal, still not quite believing it. But she would grasp my arm, dance me into the elevator and veritably skip from the Villa Santa Barbara lobby to my car parked on the street outside.

We would take the long way to our place, the miraculous, palm-lined, ceaselessly stunning Cabrillo Drive, the unlikely Pacific sparkling off to the left like an over-earnest special effect. At our condo, mom would be greeted like royalty, Judie and the kids rushing her at the door. Mom’s face would be simultaneously aglow and bewildered, Judie’s Dutch broodtafel likely adding to her dislocation as it featured breads and cheeses and sliced meats and hard boiled eggs. This isn’t what the Indians and Pilgrims ate, is it? I can clearly picture mom sipping delightedly at her mimosa as the rest of us blab away in conversation she only half follows, her sated half-smile turning to each of in turn as we speak, her expression a sort of uncomprehending exaltation in the moment. She didn’t know I was watching her watching us, her indefinable love and gratitude shining like an aura. She’s gone. This year will be our second Thanksgiving breakfast without her, and I’m unspeakably grateful for the sometimes harrowing 14 years we had her in town.

Sometimes after Thanksgiving breakfast we would flop onto the couch and flip through a photo album, one of the weird old ones I’d known since childhood. It had a dissolving, nautically-themed cover and stiffened pages to which the fading photos had been sloppily fastened an eon ago with now-opaque squares of yellowing scotch tape. I’d seen all these pics a hundred times or more growing up. When I was a kid I was bored silly by the album (as by everything else to do with my parents), all the black and white snapshots of laughing men in government-issue khaki, lots of pics of my mom – the beauty, the dreamer – now an 89 year-old with failing faculties and loose-fitting flesh. Of course as I grew older I became forensically interested in what the album held, particularly a photo of my dad, now long gone, as a 14 or 15 year-old. Wonder of wonders.

And here was a curling picture of Crashboat Beach, in Puerto Rico, 1956, at the foot of Ramey Air Force Base, that particular stretch of sand and surf a scene of so many storied parties and languorous afternoons during that time, my parents, Bob and Aloha, drinking and talking and laughing with Air Force chums and wives, a rough circle of lawn chairs, the men leering comically at the camera and hoisting cans of Falstaff beer, my dad there with a can in each hand, his smile-worn dimple catching the late afternoon shadowfall just so, his black curly hair already hinting at the premature gray that would soon compel comparisons to the actor Jeff Chandler. In the fading picture the seated women are wearing scarves over their hair, and Capri pants, and beautiful bug-eyed sunglasses. Just a lovely thing! Their legs are crossed, they’re all laughing with their lady heads thrown back, happy yaps aimed skyward forever. The men and women and the kids present are all turned toward the camera in a posture of hilarity (one! two! THREE!). Over the sea, in the sky behind the party, a single towering cumulonimbus cloud boils straight up into the sepia sky with frozen, explosive force, and mom has her feet up on the lawn chair and is hugging her knees. Though her face is turned away, the flesh is seen to follow the smooth cornice of her jawbone where it meets her neck, cleaves as snugly as the velour skin of a new love seat. Unlike the rest of the gang, she’s looking away from the camera and out to sea.

Aloha, Aloha

Aloha Gist maybe 1933

As I type this we’re in the sky over Minneapolis. A riveted tube the size of a supine office tower has just heaved itself into the air with the usual difficulties, my fellow passengers and I staring grimly forward as the fool machine, obeying the laws of physics but little else, shakes and rattles like a gigantic Chevy Vega. A rear-mounted engine buzzes like an enormous electric razor just outside the paper-thin fuselage. Is it supposed to sound like that? etc. It’s all but certain the enormous winged rocket will come roaringly apart 6 miles above the earth, hurling vertical stabilizers, mach trim actuators, and other expensive union-built junk across the night sky in a moonlit flume of flightless debris. The first seconds of the disaster will offer a sudden pleasing sense of extra legroom to the passengers and some will stretch and sigh with gratitude even as they begin their descent to ground, the quaint cosmetic seat belts lashing them to plummeting fabric.

Yes, you see that I am in truth a nervous flyer. This is an idiotic way to travel. Period. I do not want to Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth, in the words of that flight-celebrating pilot of yore. I like the bonds of Earth, the surlier the better. But I’m traveling with my mother and it is as it should be. We’re headed east, to Washington D.C., to move her back in with Bob, from whom she’s been separated for some 20 years, since his passing. She carried on with mixed success without him, 14 of them under my care. Following a brief denouement of spirit-breaking difficulty, she passed in late May this year. Now we’re flying to Washington D.C., where Bob has a little home at Arlington National Cemetery, to which an addition is shortly to be made. And so the two lovebirds will be, in the immortal phrasing of Peaches and Herb, reunited. It feels so good.

Regular readers of these pages may remember my mom, Aloha Wing, she with the fiery spirit, ribald sense of humor, and tendency, in her Autumn years, to answer her apartment door with one foot bare and the other shoed and socked. She’d lived a smartass life. Following a mischief-driven childhood spent on army bases, she’d met my similarly smartass dad at an Air Force USO dance during wartime, they’d hitched in 1943 and hit the ground running. On an Air Force base in North Africa in 1968, as described in the aforementioned encomium, the timing was right for her to come to the smartass rescue of a neighbor on whom the Gaddafi regime was exerting pressure, and she and her smartass bff at the time, a fellow Air Force Wife named Stephanie, had thumbed their noses at Gaddafi in a daringly stupid smuggling scheme that could’ve gone very badly for both of them. From girlhood, when Aloha wasn’t actually in trouble she was looking for a way in. When her partner in laughter, Bob, passed in 1993, Aloha lost a bit of her mojo. Friends more or less stopped visiting, the weekend bridge meetings ground to a halt, the phone stopped ringing. Still, she maintained her acerbic sense of humor and continued to view each dawning day as an opportunity to seek the humor in things, however dark they might appear at a glance. Despite her continuing determined application of this lifelong positivity, after some years alone she began to drift. In 2000 my wife and I drove to Phoenix and loaded her belongings, a lifetime of accrued stuff, into the back of a rented moving truck.

In early May this year a couple of telling incidents, harbingers of a coming loss of bearing, obliged Aloha’s independent living apartment complex to issue her an eviction notice, lest their exposure to liability and litigation, the twin Horror L’s of contemporary culture, land them in court. Her obligatory move was the day I’d dreaded for all the 14 years she’d lived in Santa Barbara, having moved here from her longtime home in Phoenix. Aloha Wing, from the time of her girlhood an inventive and energetic troublemaker, would not, I’d guessed, survive a move to a ‘facility’ of the sort the eviction now commended. And I was right. Following an incredibly stressed three weeks of trying to ‘adapt’ to her new, necessarily more restrictive surroundings, roaming the property like a caged animal and waking in the night confused and yelling for rescue, mom was knocked mercifully senseless by a stroke, and passed two days later at Serenity House. My former non-stop live wire of a mom is now traveling with my wife and I as a quantity of ash and ground bone in a 4” x 6” x 8” plastic box. Our rituals ask of us certain things that we’re not able to capably explain. This crazy transfiguration, from beautiful mother and pal to this box of legally actionable powder – it’s a miracle more wondrous than that of the consecrated wafer which, when placed on the tongue, becomes the flesh of a brutalized carpenter. If this is my mother, if this stuff in the little plastic box is my Burt Bacharach-loving, toast-annihilating, blue-eyed mom, then the universe is an ash tray. She’s gone. Wow, is she ever gone. The quietude of the mute little plastic box proves it. She has never been so utterly quiet. Ever.

The gatekeepers of our great nation’s airline security apparatus are, at least on this day at LAX, a loopy throng of youngsters in ill-fitting uniforms; kids playing dress-up. The container bearing mom’s remains must be x-ray translucent because in today’s terror-war climate even the dead may be recruited to make more dead. Despite our fretting, our careful research and determination to have everything in order lest the authorities confiscate my mother, the louche TSA twenty-somethings in their ill-fitting uniforms at LAX do not seem overly concerned with the fragility of the occasion nor with the rigors of their own protocol. Their strange, over-elaborate badges look like they were bought with Frosted Flakes boxtops. It is strange, given what we are still told is the gravity of the threat, that the gatekeepers of our airline safety are these youngsters. The guy scanning our laboriously removed belts and shoes, our laptops and jackets and briefcases, is wearing large fake diamond ear studs and a close-cropped beard whose topiary exactitude draws interested stares from the passengers/terror suspects in their socks. Suddenly the stocky young lady in uniform to my right is yelling at me with real disdain. I’ve been distracted by her colleague’s beard. “LAPTOP IN ITS OWN BIN!! SIR? SIR? SIR! LAPTOP! IN! ITS! OWN! BIN!!”

When we’ve cleared the screening process and are putting on our shoes a tall overweight kid with slipping spectacles and a nervous grin picks up my mother and summons his supervisor. The young man who arrives assures us in murmuring tones that they want the keynote of the process to be respect. Aloha is hustled away and in the background I watch a group of the TSA curious gather in an interested clot and all look at the sealed plastic box, which is then run through another scanning machine of some kind. My understanding is that they may not open a container of crematory remains, and they do not. Following some chuckling, amused attempts to get the box back into the attractive canvas carrying bag the funeral home had provided for travel, my mom is returned to me. “We want to make sure that was respectful,” the well-meaning but haphazardly trained young guy says to me, somewhat nonsensically. “Thank you,” I reply. “We really appreciate it.”

My bohemian writer of a sister had come down from upstate New York some days before with her easy laugh and entertainingly elliptical viewpoint. She has spent her adult life experiencing and writing of the crazy moments that comprise the everyday, and here come a gang of such moments as one would capture in a treasure chest if that were possible. I know she is filing it all even as she lives it. My outwardly conservative and inwardly riotous brother and his similarly disguised wife Janet live about twenty minutes from Arlington National Cemetery in a forested neighborhood of brick houses and sloping lawns jeweled with morning dew this day. The area is rife with politicos and names from the headlines, those both above and below the fold. Dick Cheney lives nearby in a mansion with an actual turret. “I’ll bet it’s got a dungeon, too,” Judie astutely remarked one afternoon as we drove by it.

This morning we gather up mom’s red marbled urn and make for the car. She’d always loved red and we dismissed the various jars of stately gray slate and buffed metal, some of them looking like Track and Field trophies, or something you would store the Dead in. We wanted something less serious, something a little more festive; a polished stone party balloon. Something a future archaeologist would easily spot in the ruins and be happy to find. We’d inscribed the beautiful red jar with the single line of a tune mom had laughingly concocted over the kitchen sink in 1968, in Florida as we awaited our trip to dad’s final Air Force assignment at Wheelus AFB outside Tripoli. That single, deliberately corny line had long since been woven into family lore, and for 14 years my mom and I had often greeted each other by singing it together – our Masonic secret handshake.

In the omnipresent tense now, we leave my brother’s house and head for Arlington, piling into the car at 8am for a 10am interment, anticipating morning traffic. There is little to none and we arrive an hour or so early, make our way through Arlington’s gauntlet of uniformed guards and make for the admin building where our friends will gather to join us before we all convene graveside. Aloha passed on May 31 and it has taken the un-oiled and only fitfully tended machinery of government until October 10 to allow us to move her back in with my dad. As you approach Arlington via the George Washington Parkway, the Potomac and heavily wooded Roosevelt Island on your left, the Washington monument suddenly looms like a special effect, and there in the middle distance you glimpse the Lincoln Memorial, the distant Jefferson Memorial, the magisterial WWII Memorial and the still more distant Capitol Building, where overpaid do-nothings make daily mockery of the collective sacrifices of their forebears.

Arlington Cemetery’s 624 acre spread was established in 1864 as the Civil War was concluding, on land belonging to the wife of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The Arlington Estate was on a hill, so the threat of frequent rains to the dead in their boxes would not be a problem, and the notion that the establishment of what was initially a repository for Civil War dead would simultaneously deny General Lee a place to live also made the site an attractive choice for the federal government of war-torn 1864. There are about 400,000 people buried there, soon to be about 400,001.

At this writing the airplane is beginning to buck and there is a change in the pitch of the engines. The laissez-faire cabbies in the cockpit have not seen fit to switch on the Fasten Seat-Belt sign, and the airplane is a squall of clicking as jittery passengers nevertheless follow their instincts and buckle up of their own slightly panicked accord. Just making note in case this laptop is found, perfectly preserved, in the wreckage.

A bespoke gentle giant named Rafael had been assigned to our family and the quietly genuine hulk of a man offered his condolences to each of us with a steady eye, grasping our forearms, and walked off to read the riot act to a colleague. As dear friends of my brother’s family had begun to arrive in the lobby of the building, the life-celebrating laughter had dialed up to about a nine. How mom would have loved this! People leaning into each other and laughing through tears, sometimes simple tears of hilarity. She’d done plenty of that in her 90 years. But the laughter had compelled an Arlington representative to stop by and admonish our group. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask your party to tone it down a little,” she’d said, to which my brother had evenly replied, “That is not going to happen.” Rafael had then disappeared and returned some minutes later. “Sir,” he says to my brother on returning, smiling mildly, “the matter has been put to rest.” Rafael then instructs all of us on the manner in which we are to proceed, as a group, to the burial site. I hand him my mom’s party urn and he ceremonially proffers it before us as we all exit the building, make for our cars and convoy behind his black, American-flagged lead vehicle.

At Arlington Memorial Cemetery spouses are buried alongside each other and share tombstones, each taking a flip side of the white marble marker. When we have all parked by Bob’s section, a young, impeccably uniformed and much-beribboned Air Force serviceman appears, walks in reverent cadence to Rafael’s car, turns 90 degrees on his heel, and retrieves mom’s urn from the back seat. I feel my heart hammering and in a sudden, unexpected, and nearly uncontainable gush of emotion I love this country and my mom with the burning fever of a Gray Flannel Establishment Square. Would that my other brother Patrick were here! How he would have been moved by this clipped and respectful and ceremonial series of gestures, he whose wild heart conceals in its innermost chambers a love of country and tradition and a nostalgia for another, more honor-bound epoch.  Love you, Pat.

We convene at the grave site under cloudy but politely withholding skies. Occasional commemorative gunfire can be heard at irregular intervals in the middle distance as other newly arrived guests take their places on the grounds and are seen off with honors.

My brother’s pastor speaks of the resurrection of the dead in casual and uplifting tones, and my nephew reads from a trembling sheet of paper of his love of his grandmother, his Tutu, with whom he shared the birthplace of Hawaii. Ryan paints in exacting, loving detail what his Tutu has meant to him, how his youthful swimming career and his regionally unbroken swimming records had been inspired by his Tutu’s late-in-life Senior Olympics epoch, during which time she blithely won 17 swimming gold medals against graying unfortunates in her age bracket. As Ryan speaks, struggling to avert a teary breakdown, my big brother, his dad, rises from his seat and joins him, placing a supporting arm across his shoulder and weeping too. What a sight. I’ll never ever forget it. Ryan soldiers on with difficulty, explaining how in her swim events Tutu never wanted to use the diving blocks in a swim event, opting to simply push off instead, and still managed to churn past the competition in the surrounding lanes despite having sauntered into a race into which her fellows had leapt with over-eager strength. Ryan’s keen observation is the perfect metaphor for mom! She conquered, like dad, quite casually and always in great humor, and always, always on her own terms. “In Hawaiian, Aloha means hello,” Ryan concludes with difficulty. “But it also means goodbye..”

It’s my turn and I stand before the assembled, give it a few seconds. I see in the corner of my eye the red party urn, my unmistakable mom; nevermore to swim or laugh or sneak into the Officers’ Club pool in the wee hours of a preteen morning, or later burn dinner to a foul-smelling crisp, or play a hand of bridge or strike a glamor pose for the camera. Where on Earth can all that largesse have gone? I count 5 and sing.

“One minute to Midnight, one minute to go – this moment must last us forever! Or will it be over? It’s all up to you!” I sing it with all my gladdened heart, my surprised brother and sister and dear Judie spontaneously joining in with broken voices from their seats, and in that screwy eternal moment I have it all. The delicious puzzled expressions in the back rows and in those standing behind them say What the hell is this? In the front row, though, my big brother and my big sister and my best pal Judie are grinning like wet-faced idiots.

Thank you for everything, Mom. Aloha.

Aloha Wing off to Wayne State circa 1940

Bob and Chipper are Lost in Time

Aloha and Bob Goodbye Party, Ramey AFB
Aloha and Bob Goodbye Party, Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico, 1958

So what happens is, I go to see Aloha now and she is pottering around the darkened lamplit room a little, where before I could always hear the tv roaring from behind her closed door; Alex Trebek politely grilling a threesome about a Terry Southern screenplay, or a bridge somewhere, or a nursery rhyme based on a gruesome 14th century pandemic (you know the one). When she answers the door now the room is quiet behind her, and her demeanor is a skeptical amusement that wonders aloud ‘Do I know you?’ with one eye squinting theatrically and the other laughing disarmingly. It’s as if she knows she is in an untenable position and helpless to address the fact coherently. She settles on a mild exasperation, and I have the sense her presentational collapse going forward will have this exasperation as its hood ornament, and not the howling fear I couldn’t bear to witness and would be, I know, incapable of ameliorating.

“Do I know you?” It’s the new greeting, but I’m sure not the last iteration of what was once “Hi, Jeff!” or “Well, come on in!” There will be a new greeting, maybe this year? Maybe next? That one will startle me, signal the ringing down of a curtain. For now my mother is still aware she ought to know my context and is mildly embarrassed not to be able to pinpoint my coordinates in her newish darkling world. But this world doesn’t seem newish to her. It is now as it’s always been.

“I would hope you know me. Your son?” Then a comic game-show flourish. “Jeff?”

“Well,” with the bemused and slightly frightened smile, not at any danger I present, but at the growing sense that I’m a deeply felt companion in another milieu and that she has lost that map somehow. She knows this loss. I see that she knows it. It’s terrible, as pacific and becalmed and even content as the elderly (hate that word) often seem to be, this walk down this corridor in the last rags of cognition is a cruel final affront before the sun really gets to setting in earnest on a life which is frankly almost all the way behind her now and which, when she can be made to recall it, is experienced in dreamlike tatters and scraps. What is this neural failure, oh, and why? All those many many many minutes, simmering down into this nonsense, reducing into mush? Really?

Let’s hurriedly move on, launch straight into a mediating schtick. When Aloha laughs, she laughs long and hard and I pride myself on that. For those seconds she is 35, maybe 40 years old. Unchanged! Her laughter is completely unchanged. The laughter doesn’t know anything but the moment, aglow and coherent. It’s 1966. Everything dreary and confused falls away. My sister is in her upstairs bedroom in Cheyenne, in our Air Force base quarters. # 98? Phone number 53608. The Mamas and the Papas are warbling ecstatically from behind 17 year-old Jill’s closed door, the sparklingly majestic descending chorus of ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’ already enchanting my curious ear and setting me up for a lifetime of adoration, of many things. My brother Bill has brought a friend home from Texas A&M and they’re goofing around in their maroon Aggies sweatshirts and military haircuts and they’re picking me up and they’re laughing and terrifying me and I clutch uselessly at their shoulders and pretend to laugh, too. Aloha is sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in capri pants, taking it all in, looking up at Bill with delight, a scotch-and-water on the carpet beside her, a Benson&Hedges lodged very organically between the first and second fingers of her right hand.

“I think you forget a lot; where you’ve been, what you’ve done, sometimes even who you are.”

“Oh, yes!” she agrees, emphatically, but without any sense of emergency. She’s relieved to hear her temporary little predicament given voice.

My dad’s handsome photograph, the wedding portrait of he and Aloha, 1942, which we paid to have fashionably computer-painted onto artist’s canvas, hangs above her tv set in the perpetual dusk of her apartment. A portrait of a ghost, and as haunting, his dimpled smile as present and as seemingly on the very perch of hilarity as it ever was in our kitchen or back patio, the last chapter of chummy grins before his own fading denouement in my converted old teen bedroom with poster tape still on the walls in browning triangles. Dad in that period would quietly watch whatever sport blurted onto the tube, and he could barely walk across a room, and none of us wanted to sit with him despite his weakened and half-hearted and constant requests for tv-watching companionship – as he had never really wanted to sit with us or engage with us, roaming pleasantly into and out of the rooms and across the lawns, and straight through my own variously-colored years in a vague plumb line, a benign and amusing and unaffected distant uncle. Why didn’t I sit with him? etc. What I wouldn’t give. etc etc

He’d been a living sparkler once, before my era – camping with my older brother and sister and wrestling with the family dog, Chipper, on the black and white lawn of the home movie my mom is always surprised to watch, and which I could wholly recreate with pencil and paper if given a few days. Chipper, lost to time when he wandered out of the Ohio motel room they’d booked for my young aunt’s cancer funeral several months before I was born. Chipper, the famous Wing Golden Era family pet, seems to break my old mother’s heart anew every time his fate comes up. She is haltingly amazed and aghast at being the only sibling yet alive, stunned twice a week by her mother’s death by car crash in a small town in Wyoming in 1961, grandpa asleep-at-the-wheel-then-suddenly-waking-but-too-late, Aloha’s own running outside into the hurricane in Puerto Rico, tipsy, the other revelers waving in syrupy panic from behind the picture window – come back in the house! Bob was waving, too. We laugh. He didn’t come out to save you mom, he just waved! Too funny. I can make that moment really very funny. Aloha receives with confused quietude and very occasional flashes of revelation and laughter news of her former life. But when she is made to recall Chipper’s languid, unhurried walk to a nearby copse of motel trees, never ever ever to be seen again – she grows very quiet, very quiet. Why did she turn her head away? How can a single moment wreak such havoc? That’s what moments are for, in part. Chipper is lost in time. A door opens on a little coal furnace of deep sorrow. Strange what captures us. 

It’s almost all of a piece now, though. Aloha loved and lived, and yet does so. But her weekends with Bob at the Officers Clubs, from Florida to Libya? Back there somewhere, if anywhere at all. Might as well not have happened at all. Really. So what’s the use? What’s the use of it? Anyone? And that guy up there on the wall in his uniform and cap, what’s that about? She looks up at the canvas studiously, as one would take in a painting in a museum, and she turns to me smiling and embarrassed.

“Who is that guy, again?”

The Various States of Aloha

Aloha and Bob 1942

 

My mother’s name is Aloha, and that’s just the beginning. She’s had an interesting and peripatetic (there, I said it) life. Her travels and her times have produced a card, a ham, a bon vivant and a wiseass. She and my dad were a matched set that way. As a preteen she would routinely climb out of her bedroom window in the wee small hours (as Sinatra would’ve described them) and roam the various Army bases she called home. No Army-issue bedroom window could hold her. Her return would usually be in the company of a base MP (Military Police) most of whom knew her by name within a few months of her family having arrived for the new assignment.

In one familiar story she creeps out of her parents’ Army quarters late one night and slinks by moonlight to the base movie theater where the scandalous Gable/Lombard film ‘No Man of her Own’ is playing. 20 minutes into the movie the MP’s familiar flashlight beam plays down the darkened aisle beside her. She looks up to see a resigned-looking white-helmeted base policeman standing beside her  “C’mon, Aloha,” he reportedly sighs. “Let’s get you home.”

Not Hawaiian

Aloha was born in Hawaii but is not Hawaiian. She was born at Schofield Barracks, the Army post that 17 years later would be laid waste by nervous Japanese pilots following the ill-advised orders that would eventually unplug their empire. Her father was an Army Colonel who had always adored Hawaii from afar and had finally secured his dream posting. In the full flush of his island fever, he and my probably less enthusiastic grandmother nearly named my mother after the last sovereign queen of Hawaii; Liliʻuokalani, which is unfortunately pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. In that case today my mother would be going by ‘Lili’, one hopes. It was a close call.

By 1942 she was a volunteer for the war effort in Florida, pushing crudely built model planes around a tabletop aerial map with a long stick, the better to differentiate, with the civil air authorities’ radioed help, the mean planes from the friendly ones in the air around the eastern seaboard. Cameras in space were still an Arthur Clarke daydream. She met my dad that year at a servicemen’s dance and the game was afoot.

Wheelus and Gadaffi

By 1969 she was an Air Force Wife. We lived on Wheelus AFB, just outside Tripoli, Libya; my father, my mother, my little brother, my big sister, and me. Quarters 4G, three blocks from the Mediterranean. We were there for all of a year and a half before Colonel Gadaffi rudely moved his belongings into the Royal Palace during one of kindly King Idris’ clueless junkets abroad. Shortly thereafter we were ordered to leave the country. Aloha managed to make a few waves in the time between our arrival at Wheelus and our gunpoint-inspired departure.

She spent much of 1969 with a similarly meddlesome gal pal, skulking around the foliage of the Base Commander’s expansive Air Force-issue home on a bluff overlooking the sea, snapping Polaroids of the Black Panthers sign that adorned his quarters’ front lawn, hoping to get him in hot water with the Air Force. They of course looked the other way despite his tacit endorsement of what was then considered a domestic U.S. terrorist group (but was in fact a strategically unconventional civil rights advocacy group whose business plan sometimes ran afoul of an entrenched, racially insensitive Establishment. Ahem). The commander, Chappie James, was already near-legendary and would soon enough be made the U.S.’s first black Four-Star General.  Some of my parents’ best friends were African-American Air Force peeps, but James wasn’t one of them. He fell out of favor with Aloha when he acceded to Libyan demands to imprison my mom’s neighbor.

Genevieve, Dan, and the Tuba Case Incident

General James, then head of NORAD, did famously finesse an orderly retreat from Wheelus AFB, an outpost of the Strategic Air Command. Chappie James foiled through negotiation what was meant by Gadaffi to be an embarrassing rout for the Americans and their base. Aloha was having none of it, though. As had many of the base’s residents, Aloha had objected to  James’ treatment of her neighbor Genevieve, to whose house arrest he had grudgingly agreed in the wake of her husband’s botched attempt to spirit a Jewish friend out of the country in a Tuba crate bound for Malta; a plot foiled on the tarmac of the Tripoli airport. Genevieve’s husband, Dan deCarlo, was my grade school principal on the base.

The newly installed Gadaffi regime—invigorated by the success of their recent coup—had been extremely displeased with his attempted rescue and in the placating atmosphere of the time our Base Commander had agreed to the new Libyan government’s terms of reprisal; orders to sequester the woman (a soft-spoken, unbowed French academic), strip her of all personal belongings, and send her out of the country to join her exiled husband in Japan following several months of housebound questioning.

Aloha and Stephanie Take the Wheel

Aloha and her mischief-making pal, when not busy trying to tattle on the Commander’s politically-charged lawn signage, contrived to smuggle Genevieve’s entire household out of Libya, incrementally, piece by piece. The success of the Aloha and Stephanie Moving Company reportedly involved some shameless flirting with the young, bashful and easily distracted Libyan guards. These stunts typify Aloha’s middle age. Still later she would become an avid scotch-and-water Bridge partner to my dad,  a gold-medal-festooned Senior Olympian in swimming, a Benson and Hedges-hoisting hostess to her dear friends and neighbors, all of whom have themselves left the stage. These various states of Aloha occupy her like the cozily concentric shells of a Russian nesting doll.

Judy Garland and Mussolini and Aloha

Aloha was very fortunate to have entered the world (Stage Left) in the midst of the sort of colorful epoch that favors the high-spirited. It was a time of intense feeling and color. Judy Garland and Mussolini were a couple of the players, for instance. It’s true that much of the intense color was ordnance blossoming brilliantly in the saddened skies over torn-up Pacific islands and ruined, smoldering European capitals. But these terrible conflagrations seize and enlarge the bruised human heart. It was, as a great Victorian artist with a poorly executed comb-over once remarked of another era, both the best and worst of times.

Aloha Lamour

Aloha is 89 now. Still possessed of her dark hair, her teeth and her attitude. She can’t pass the full length mirror in her apartment without stopping to strike a Dorothy Lamour ‘ready for my closeup’ pose; one hand on her hip, the other perched uncertainly atop her 89-year-old head. It happens without fail. Her humor is mine (antiquated and often indecipherable) and there are times we’ve had each other laughing so hard the Grim Reaper stirs, puts down his newspaper and takes notice.

I always make it a point to enter Aloha’s apartment with a wry comment at hand. When your aged, self-deprecating mom answers the door with one shoe on and one foot bare, the comic possibilities announce themselves and one would be a fool not to pounce. She happily jumps aboard, glancing down and guffawing, then breaking into helpless wheezing as I enter a soliloquy on the dignities of old age. If she could be summed up with a gesture it would be a bemused shrug. This endears her to some of her neighbors at the retirement village (fellow travelers through a wild and world-renewing fire), and others it bewilders and frightens.

There are moments I’ve thought my mother was going to laugh herself to death, times she couldn’t catch her breath as we both leaned into each other in helpless hilarity. When your physical machinery is 90 years old, raucous laughter is necessarily a more fragile operation. I expressed this concern once. We’d really got each other going, she was crying with laughter. Finally, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch her breath. She raised her hand to her chest, trying to draw air. I panicked.  “Hey! Hey! HEY!! MOM!! MOM!! MOM!!”

“What,” she coughed, waving me away.

“I thought you were going to leave us there for a minute!” I put my arm across her diminished little shoulder. She wiped her eyes and sighed through a rattling chuckle.

“Wouldn’t have been so bad,” she said.