09. March 2023 · 2 comments · Categories: Memoir

Not the whole summer, and not at a classic old-fashioned summer camp, beloved in stories of juvenile derring-do among the pines – some never-neverland in the mountains of the old north-east states, with a lake and a rivalry with the boy’s camp across the lake, a summer of crafts and campfires, spent among upper middle class peers enjoying a break from the sweltering city. No – as a teen, I had a whole week every summer at live-away camp in the upper reaches of Oak Glen; a facility owned and run by the Lutheran Church, among the apple orchards and rocky hills above Yucaipa, in San Bernardino County, up against the tall mountain range that runs along the backbone of California. I suppose that in the off-season, Camp Yolijwa served as a center for retreats and conferences among the Lutheran devout – but in the summer months, it was the camp experience for tweens and teens. I rather think the sessions were age-segregated – young teens, mid-teens, older teens, and some special sessions for … well, I’ll get to that in another post, perhaps.

Camp week began on a Sunday afternoon, after a long drive in the old Plymouth station wagon, with a week’s worth of clothes, a sleeping bag and pillow (and for me, a stack of books) packed in an old military surplus duffle bag thrown in the back, behind the passenger seat. The session ended the following Saturday mid-morning – but for me, that week was pure bliss. I looked forward to that precious week, all through the intervening year. The facilities then were relatively basic – three stepped conblock double dormitories set into the sloping hillside below the administration building, which also housed a classroom. Each dormitory consisted then of a long room fitted out with old military surplus metal bunk beds – fifteen or so, if memory serves, and a latrine and bathroom facility at the inner end. The windows at the uphill side were narrow and looked out upon nothing in particular save the lower walls of the dorm on the level above. Ten or eleven bunks were lined up with their heads against the uphill wall – but the rest were ranged along the wall with windows that looked out on the downhill side – a long meadow culminating in a grove of trees that sheltered the Lodge, and beyond that, a V of mountains that ended in a band of smog that denoted the lowlands … the little burg of Oak Glen, with Yucaipa, San Bernadino and the bigger city on the lowlands beyond. At sunset, that band turned fiery red. After the first year at Camp Yulijwa, I always took care to claim one of the upper bunks that looked out on that view. Above the mundane world, apart from it for the space of a week, removed from school and every particle of social misery, to which I was heir to, as a plump and brainy child with braces and glasses and a lack of social confidence. At Yolijwa, I could be someone else for a week; a blank slate, as it were, and among strangers. You could make yourself into something else, at camp. And I did and relished the hell out of the experience.

Oh, Camp Yolijwa, how I did love thee! The Spartan barracks of the dorms, the clear mountain air, the apple trees, the freedom to be a new person, the ephemeral comradeship of a handful of fellow campers! It was a church-based camp, of course – but I really cannot recall being particularly oppressed by this. Lutherans are generally open-minded, sometimes a bit too open-minded of late. After breakfast in the Lodge, we had brief morning devotions, when we were set free to go read the morning lesson, perhaps a bit of the Bible and meditate up them privately, wherever the spirit took us. I was in the habit of climbing into the crotch of a small tree somewhere on the grounds – this, from my habit at home, when Mom was prone to order me to do some chore or other, if she saw me reading a book in the living room. One beautiful misty morning, I saw a doe deer and her pair of spotted fauns, meandering through the trees, when I looked up from my readings. After morning vespers and meditations, we usually had some kind of religious classes; it’s in my mind that such counted for most of us against Confirmation requirements. Sometimes we went on a hike down in the canyon, to a trickle of waterfall coming down the rock face, or a field trip to a local art museum. Those classes were held in the Lodge, or sometimes in the little arena built into the slope of the hill, a stepped half-circle of simple benches. Sometime in the morning, we also had an inspection of our quarters – our dorm and bathroom were expected to be relatively spotless, swept clean, our bedding straightened, and all personal possessions put away, or at least neatly arranged.

The Lodge was a mid-century-modern construction, a vaulted ceiling, a huge stone fireplace and window-walls that looked out on the grounds, three-quarters of the way around. Half was a general meeting place, and half was the dining room, set about with the same long tables and metal folding chairs which featured in about every mid-century Lutheran parish hall ever. I don’t think that I ever ventured into the kitchen itself, which was presided over by Bert. She and her husband, Doc, were the then-permanent caretakers and whole-time staff. They lived on the grounds full-time. I don’t know if they had a small cottage somewhere, or if there was some cozy apartment attached to the Lodge. I did hear that they had a dog who had chased a bear out of the apple grove, one harsh winter. Doc and Bert were ageless – middle-aged, I recall. I don’t remember anything about Doc, particularly, but Bert was an absolutely priceless cook. The meals that emerged from the kitchen at Camp Yolijwa were amazing – the best mass-meals that I ever ate, save until the kitchen at Sondrestrom AB, Greenland. The dessert that I do remember clearly was a whole baked apple in a tender crust, with a spoonful of custard poured over. My first year there, my twenty-something aged camp-counselor was copying over Bert’s cookbook for her own use, having to reduce the quantities given for each recipe by about 90 percent. (We campers were amazingly tender of our counselor, since it had been given to us that she was married to a Marine, currently stationed at Khe Sanh. We all knew about Vietnam. We were afraid that her husband was doomed and treated her as a new or near to new-made widow.)

After lunch – recreation time. The pool was opened, and that was where just about everyone gravitated, for summertime in Southern California was hot, and the Olympic-sized pool was gloriously cool. On Thursday evenings – that was something special. We walked down some side roads, past a farmhouse in an apple grove, and climbed the fire road that wound higher and higher up the side of Pisgah Peak. We would pause for evening vespers halfway up the trail, where there was a carve-out in the mountainside, then continue up to the cleared area at the very top. It would be sunset by then – and we would spread out our sleeping bags and sleep under the stars – about as well as one could sleep on hard ground, but we were kids, and it was an adventure to sleep under the open sky on the top of a small mountain. In the morning, we would stagger down the fire road, and have breakfast in the lodge.

Oh, summer camp, the happy culmination of my year, from the seventh grade on – and then I came back several years as a camp counselor myself. I lived for that blissful week, and nothing could ever ruin it for me, not even the summer when a fellow camper tried to play the same mind games of exclusion and mean-girl scorn that I had already encountered in junior high. And I just wasn’t going to play, falling into the trap of uncertainty and self-loathing – not when I had lived for this one precious week. There was no way that this girl could ruin the week for me, so I ignored her, resolutely for the entire week – and had a marvelous time in consequence. Who was she, that someone that I neither liked or respected, could have the power to ruin my day, or my week? I had all the power! (We did sort of come to a rapprochement at the very end of camp week, when we were the last two campers waiting at the admin building for our parents to show up.) I went back to school that autumn, feeling as if I had just gotten fitted for a suit of plate armor. Nothing the middle-school mean girls could do or say could have any effect on me, after that. They had no power – or more precisely,  the power that they had was only what I had allowed them. And once I stopped caring about the actions and opinions of people that I neither liked or respected … well, I had plate armor, then. After that, school was a place that I just had to be for certain hours of the day. The people in it … eh, I could take them or leave them alone, and leave them alone mostly, was what I did for all the rest of the time I spent in public school.

Camp Yolijwa is still there, in Oak Glen, California, although now it seems to be called Luther Glen. It looks now to be much expanded, with a big new main lodge where the apple orchard used to be. The old lodge at the bottom of the hill, the swimming pool and the three plain dorm buildings appear to be where I recalled them to be, but there is a road cut through the wilderness area down below the main camp precinct, where we played ‘Capture the Flag.’ My younger brother, JP, did camp there, in canvas tents on timber floors, but he was never as fond of or as loyal to Camp Yolijwa as I was.

(I thought that I might have some pictures to go with this post … but none that I can find, other than some blurry black and white shots of the Lodge and cabin interiors from an old album. Maybe I can find some others, later.)


(An archive post from another blog, written originally a very long time ago, as internet time is considered.)

When JP and Pip and Sander and I were all growing up, the contiguous suburb of Sunland and Tujunga, untouched by the 210 Freeway was a terribly blue-collar, gloriously low-rent sort of rural suburb. It was if anything, an extension of the San Fernando Valley, and not the wealthier part of it either. It was particularly unscathed by any sort of higher cultural offerings, and the main drag of Foothill Boulevard was attended on either side by a straggle of small storefront businesses, a drive-in theater, discouraged local grocery store, a used car lot, the usual fast food burger or pizza places, a place with an enormous concrete chicken in front which advertised something called “broast” chicken, Laundromats, and a great variety of very drab little bars. There were no bookstores, unless you counted the little Christian bookstore across from the library and fire station.

The local phone book used to include the profession in each personal listing; lots of clerks, truck drivers, construction workers, mechanics, and police officers, leavened with welfare recipients, transients and others with no visible means of support. In the late 1960ies, the city fathers discovered to their great horror that the average per capita income for Sunland and Tujunga was equal to that of Watts. (The editor of the local newspaper at the time, a reactionary and repellant little toad whom my mother loathed with especial ferocity, nearly died of chagrin at that. Several years later a local resident with deep pockets and a particularly satiric bent created a parody of the newspaper, pitch perfect in every respect, down to the logo, called the “Wrecker-Ledger” and had a copy of the parody delivered to every house in town. The whole town roared with laughter, while the editor breathed fire and threatened lawsuits.)

Mom preferred going to Pasadena for serious shopping, and to the Valley for groceries and the occasional restaurant meal. The one notable big restaurant had once been very well thought of, when it was a family-run steak house on Fenwick, established in an old converted bungalow under pepper trees. Then they ripped down the old house and the pepper trees, and put up an ugly big building with banqueting rooms, and descended into a culinary hell of buffet tables laden with square pans of mystery meat in sludgy brown gravy, vats of O.D. green beans, and fruit cocktail emptied out of industrial sized cans. No, Sunland-Tujunga was not the place you thought about when you heard the words “gastronomic adventure”… but there were three little places in town which did seriously good food, although you wouldn’t think it to look at any of them at all.

Mom found the Mexican place first: Los Amigos, which used to be in a tiny sliver of storefront on Commerce, before moving to and embellishing a larger premise on Foothill with sombreros and serapes, painted plaster sculpture, fountains, painted tile and exuberantly excessive quantities of elaborate ironwork. It was owned and run by a three generations and extensions of a local family: Grandma was from Mexico City and cooked with a delicate touch; this was not the brash, greasy border Tex-Mex. We loved the chili rellanos at Los Amigos; they were a delicately eggy soufflé, folded around a cheese-stuffed chili pepper, not the battered and deep-fried version so popular everywhere else. The wait-staff and busboys were always country cousins, just up from Mexico on a green card and polishing their English before moving on.

The second gastronomic bright spot was, believe it or not, an authentic Rumanian restaurant called “Bucharesti”, a tiny place run by an energetic gentleman from Rumania who cooked and waited tables himself during the day. How he contrived to get out from behind the Iron Curtain and finish up in Tujunga, I have no idea. His specialty was authentic home-made sausage, and lovely soups; a pristine clear broth in which floated perfectly cooked slips of vegetable and meat.

I regret to say we put off even setting foot in the third place for years, even though we were very well aware of it: a tiny, ramshackle building on Foothill, next to the Jack-In-The-Box, seemingly on the verge of falling down entirely. The roof sagged ominously, the batten-boards of the exterior walls were split from age, and the paint was faded where it hadn’t flaked off entirely. It honestly looked like the sort of place where you could get ptomaine poisoning just from drinking out of the water glasses. We had lived at Hilltop House for a couple of years before we ever ventured in. A number of Mom’s friends insisted that it was the best, simply the very best Chinese restaurant around, and finally the rapturous chorus drove us to set aside our considerable misgivings and venture inside.

The inside was immaculately clean: Spartan, with worn old industrial linoleum and old dinette tables and chairs, very plain, but scoured clean. The only ornaments were the posted menu and some small mementos and pictures associated with General Chennault and the Flying Tigers over the cash register. An elderly Chinese couple ran this restaurant; they were the only ones we ever saw staffing the place. I used to see the wife on the bus from downtown, lugging two huge grocery bags full of vegetables and comestibles back from Chinatown. (This was before exotic groceries were commonly available.) I think most patrons took the generous take-out meals, and if you remembered to bring a covered jug or Thermos, you could have soup as well. It was all delicious— all Mom’s friends were correct on that— and it met the highest criteria for take-out Chinese in that it was excellent when warmed over on the next day. The old couple were quite taken with my little brother, who radiated cute and looked like Adam Rich on “8 is Enough” . They always slipped in extra almond cookies for him in our take-out order, and the portions were so generous we almost always had enough for dinner the next day. I often wondered what the Flying Tiger connection was, but they had so little English it would have been hard to get an answer.

Chinese, Rumanian and Mexican food, all within a couple of miles on Foothill Boulevard— not bad, for a blue-collar sort of town. I wish, though, that I could have gotten the recipe for Los Amigos chili rellanos… and that clear beef and vegetable soup… and those Chinese almond cookies.

My daughter has been following a thread on one of her mom’s groups, to do with the military life; a discussion on what happens when the dependent spouse doesn’t really want to move on to the next assignment with the active military member. That, we agreed, likely spells doom for the relationship, either right away or somewhere down the road. My daughter and I both knew families – well, spouses, mostly, who basically confined themselves to the base, base housing, a tight circle of adjacent friends, and simmered for months or years with resentment over being separated from family and the community which they had come from. I remember a fellow servicewoman in Greenland, who had her mother mail her cake mixes, because she was too apprehensive to go and shop for simple ingredients at the little general store on the Danish side of the base. She was afraid the staff would be laughing at her.

Stationed next in Greece, I ran into many families who were mildly terrified by the rampant anti-Americanism in the local media, and among some local nationals there; they went from their local apartments to the base, to the BX and the club and back again, and never went anywhere else or saw anything interesting, and lived for the day they could pack out and leave Greece behind. Frankly, I never encountered anything of the sort personally, and I diddy-bopped all over Athens and the Attic Peninsula, small blond daughter in tow and driving an obviously foreign car with base license plates. I came back one day from an excursion to several fabric shops in the Plaka – that is, the old town in Athens, centered around the narrow streets at the foot of the Acropolis heights and went to the BX annex to buy matching thread and notions. Another woman there admired the bag full of pretty fabrics and asked where I had bought them, since there was nothing like them in the BX. When I told her how I left my car on base and took a regular Athens city bus downtown to the Zappeion Gardens and walked to the various little shops … holy moly, from her expression of horror and revulsion, you would have thought I went hitchhiking naked down Vouliagmeni and paid for rides with blow-jobs.

Later on, when I transferred from Greece to Spain, I took all the leave that I hadn’t taken during the tour in Greece and drove my own car to Spain. The car ferry from Patras to Brindisi, up the length of Italy, over the Brenner Pass into Austria, across Germany and France and into Spain, guided mostly by the Hallweg Road guide open on the passenger seat next to me. I only ever met one other military family, during that long eccentric journey, although I did meet a handful of other adventurous Americans. Over the six years we spent in Spain, several summers worth of leave were spent in long road trips, staying in the many campgrounds in Spain, to facilitate sight-seeing on the economy plan. I know that other military families did this, but again, I never met any of them in the campgrounds.

Shortly before we departed from Spain, I took the wife of a neighbor in San Lamberto firmly in hand and frog-marched her through the little grocery store on the ground floor of the apartment building that she and her husband and children lived in. I had met her by chance that afternoon, when she lamented that she had missed calling her husband at work to tell him to bring home a packet of frozen peas from the commissary. That’s when I lost it – I told her to collect up the peseta coins and notes that she had in the apartment; I would show here where she could buy a packet of frozen peas! And other stuff: ‘This is where they have the fresh bread, daily – pan, which is white bread, and pan integral, which is whole wheat. In here is the fresh milk – it comes in bladders, but the shelf-stable stuff is in cartons. The chocolate flavor is good and my daughter will drink it, but the regular long-life milk has an off-taste that we don’t like. This is the meat counter – just point to what you like the look of and say, ‘Media, or una kilo, por favor.’ Up there are bags of little lemons – just ask for ‘una bolsa limon.’ The case of frozen stuff is over here – this is ‘guisantes’ or peas. There’s a picture of peas on the front of the package – most grocery items do have a picture on the front! This is sugar – called ‘azucar’ – and ‘harina’, which is flour, and ‘queso’ – which is cheese. Yoghurt is over here. They spell it ‘yogur’ which is enough alike that you should recognize it…”  I think she was good with shopping at the little grocery store, after that tour. I just thought it was a pity that she would so limit herself, when most things that she might want were available in the little grocery downstairs.

It purely amazed me how well one could get along with a limited vocabulary of necessary words: ‘Yes, no, please, thank you, excuse me, how much? Numbers from one to twenty Do you accept credit cards/traveler’s checks, half a kilo, please, left, right, stop here, take me to/the American base/railway station/youth hostel/museum,’ and the names for local food items or dishes. I used to know all this in about six languages, and got along very well, considering that I was an absolute dullard at languages otherwise. Needs must, though. And you need a sense of adventure, and a willingness to go out and try things. Otherwise, you’re just sitting in a room, wishing that you were somewhere else, and that’s no way to live a fulfilling life.

20. September 2022 · Comments Off on Memories of the Opera · Categories: Memoir

The local classical station was playing the overture to Lehar’s Merry Widow operetta just now, and I was reminded once again of how very, very popular that musical was, in that halcyon period before the Great War, which turned out to be World War I, the first in an ongoing series. The melodies were infectiously toe-tapping and hummable, the operetta itself, incredibly popular – everyone went to see it; essentially a blockbuster about eighty years before the concept was invented for movies. The music went around the world; it seems that nothing presented on stage was so insanely popular until at least half a century later. Musical historians estimate that it got produced around the globe in every single city with pretentions to a music industry, and got tied into advertising everything from woman’s hats, to corsets, chocolates and whatever.

And when the Girl Scout troop that I belonged to went on a grand European tour – of the student charter flight-youth-hostel-EurRail variety – in the summer of 1970, we went to the Vienna Opera and watched a stage production of the Merry Widow … from the very top balcony, because we were all teenagers and on a budget. I don’t think that there were seats for us in the nosebleed row – it may have been standing room only. The view of the stage was amazing – honestly, the leading ladies’ decolletage looked as big as a tea-tray, from a vantage point so far up in the eaves and looking almost straight down at the stage. (It was standing room also when we went to see a performance of Richard III at the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford. I still have the program for that: Patrick Stewart was in the cast. When I went to the science fiction conventions in Salt Lake City in the mid-1980s and mentioned this to someone standing in line to get an autograph from Armin Shimerman, they said that I should go to a Star Trek convention where Patrick Stewart was appearing and freak him the hell out by asking him to sign it. Eh.)

I was one of those in the group who had a somewhat imprecise grasp of German, and also a knowledge of classical music, so it was bound on me to tell the other girls in whispers exactly what was going on, plot-wise. Which was a fairly simple task, based on what I already knew, thanks to being marinated in classical music, thanks to Mom, who had KPAC on all day, every day. The music was the important element, though – I think we all left humming the main waltz theme.

We were staying in a youth hostel in Esterhazy Park, not very far from the opera house – an old Nazi air raid shelter, which is now a dungeon museum. Probably a much more suitable use for the place. I rather liked Vienna, all things considered – it reminded me most of London, with ancient churches, palaces and parks around ever corner, all dusted with the faintly shabby air of an empire long gone.

The other night, I dreamt of a guy that I hadn’t seen or talked to in decades, an extremely vivid and detailed dream. We went to the beach together on a kind of surreal road-trip, embraced affectionately, spoke frankly about our various careers after we parted … and reconciled. He apologized for his ungentlemanly abandonment, and I leaned against his shoulder, the one which he once laughingly and specifically dedicated to me to cry upon … and it was all very good, although for some reason, I was babysitting Wee Jamie through this. I woke up after one segment of the dream, and when I went back to sleep, picked up the dream where I had left off. It was all very curious. I had been deeply and stupidly in love with him, over the space of three years, and wondered the next morning if this was some kind of premonition – that he had died. We are the same age, but he smoked like a factory chimney stack from the time that I first knew him, and not to put too fine a point on it; he was overweight, and to all appearances, not maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. Also divorced at least once, possibly twice.

Yes, he is on FB, and I occasionally check in on his page, just to keep tabs, although there is not much personal on it, mostly military and veteran memes, and odd bits of this and that politically. Turns out that he has become a rabid anti-Republican and Trump-hater, which is curious for a military veteran, which would have probably necessitated a breakup eventually, even if the ferocious smoking habit hadn’t done it earlier. Back in early 1980s, when the breakup between us was still fresh and raw and agonizing; this was the song that summed it all up.