… so far from God, as the saying went – so close to the United States. Mexico was very close to us, when I was growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 1960s and early 70s. My elementary school had us study Mexican history in the 6th grade – if I remember correctly, that was part of the unified school district curriculum. We did a field trip to Olvera St., in the old part of downtown, at least three of the old Spanish missions were within a short drive from our various homes, and we weren’t allowed to forget that Los Angeles itself had Spanish origins and Mexican governance for decades before American statehood. For Southern California, Mexico was just a hop, skip, and a jump away – just as it is for South Texas.

A day trip to Tijuana when I would have been about thirteen or fourteen was my first trip to a foreign country. Dad took JP, Pip, and I with him on a trip to could get a new headliner installed in the ’52 Plymouth station wagon which was our family’s main ride. I don’t know why Tijuana, or how Dad located a workshop there that could do the work – but he did, and we spent a whole day there. I guess they could do it in Tijuana for a fraction of the cost of having it done anywhere closer to home. We drove down from Los Angeles, crossed the border, dropped off the car, and spent the hours until it was ready wandering through nearby shops catering to the tourist trade; folk art, hand-blown glass, and Mexican-style furniture. We watched some glassblowers at work, which was pretty interesting, looked at the finished glass menageries, walked by the bull ring and looked at the posters – but as it was a weekday, there was no bullfight scheduled, which was mildly disappointing. We went to a grocery store were Dad bought fresh rolls, cheese and soft drinks for lunch … and in the afternoon, we collected the station wagon and drove home.

Later, when Dad got interested in dune buggies and off-roading, he built a custom dune buggy on the chassis, transmission and engine of a VW bug – they were favored for their low profile and disinclination to roll over on steep inclines, which couldn’t be said of jeeps. Dad welded a custom body out of tube steel lengths, and sourced seats, dash, windshield, and enormous-capacity gas tanks from his favorite junkyards. The resulting junk-parts vehicle looked pretty much like something out of the Mad Max franchise. Over the Easter week holiday break, Dad would take my brothers P.J. and Sander in that dune buggy and go on an extended off-road camping trip to Baja California. They’d camp out in the desert, or on the beaches, eat beanie-weenies out of the can, forgo washing … and have a glorious time of it, all week long. (Meanwhile, Mom and Pip and I would go shopping, see a movie or go to the theater, and elegantly lunch in restaurants … and towards the end of the week, get ready for Easter; each of us had a glorious time over the Easter week break, partaking in those activities which engaged us the most. Pip and I would have been miserable, dragged on such a road trip; Dad, JP and Sander would have hated the ladies-who-lunch routine. To each, their own, and we were much happier for it.)  

What brought all this on was this horrifying story – of three surfing tourists turning up dead – murdered on their dream surfing trip to Baja. Not just the violence, robbery, murder and all – but that it all happened in a place that Dad and my brothers used to frequent, without any shred of concern about danger on visiting. Dad had no worries taking two kids through Baha, no more than any other place north of the border. He possessed a sidearm and was a good  shot with it; I do not know if he took it with him on those trips for personal projection; likely not, as that was frowned upon by Mexican authorities even then. The small towns and the open country along the length of Baha California seemed as safe as any place north of the border. Baja, Ensenada, Rosarita Beach … all those places named in the news stories are familiar. Ensenada and Rosarita just an easy day trip over the border, for the beaches, the bars and restaurants serving excellent and comparatively inexpensive local seafood cooked with Mexican flair.

But that was then, this is now – and another horrible reminder that places which once were fun and safe to visit are not safe now.


25. March 2024 · Comments Off on Easter in Spain · Categories: Memoir

This is the painting that I have put in the corner of the den – a sort of private place in my house, as most people without knowledge of world religious customs and knowing nothing about the cultural traditions of Spain would likely take one look at it and begin melting down into puddles of deeply offended goo. I bought it from the artist herself, along with two other paintings. She had a table next to mine at an NCO Wives’ Club Christmas bazaar at Zaragoza AB sometime in the late 1980s. I was selling bespoke Cabbage Patch doll clothes and making a mint; she had her lovely folk-art paintings and wasn’t selling a single one, and I felt so sorry for her – as well as loving the simple Grandma Moses-style vibe  – that I bought three of them. (One – of a street market in Spain – I gave to my brother as a wedding present, as I was skint at the time. I would have asked for it back when he and that wife divorced, but one of his subsequent girlfriends loved it, and took it with her when they broke up. Damn. But I still have two – this one, and a small one of boats drawn up on the beach.)

No, it is not a KKK march – it is, in fact, a tradition far, far older and from another country – Spain, from which the KKK boosted the whole robes, pointed headgear and masks concept wholesale and likely without attribution. My painting depicts a procession of a religious association, a confraternity – a traditional charitable organization with deeply religious overtones. The confraternities in Seville are the most well-known; most famous for their spectacular processions, carrying images of the Passion, the saints, the Virgin and Christ through the streets during Holy Week. But Zaragoza and other cities also have confraternities which would parade the streets of the city with ritual, drums and trumpets during Easter Week. One year, one of the Zaragoza confraternities paraded on the major avenue next to the San Lamberto urbanization where we lived at the time. It may have been a one-off, for I never saw or heard of them any other time, and the avenue was a major and heavily-traveled artery to Logrono, the next big town to the north. The men in their heavy, ornate robes and masks, marching in the twilight, with the religious image carried on the shoulders on a big float, and the sound of the drums echoing off the tall apartment block at the edge of San Lamberto … It was deeply spooky; I believe there were torches involved, along with the drums and possibly trumpets. Feeling nostalgic this last weekend, I called up google street view. San Lamberto seems to have changed little, although the duplex that we lived in has been added onto and expanded. But I can’t retrace the back road that was a short-cut to the base and to the commercial air terminal from San Lamberto – there is now an enormous highway interchange laid out over top of that little road. But the confraternities in Zaragoza are still active, of course – I did find some Youtube videos of the marches, with the drummers and all. Nice to know that some things don’t change at all.

You know, there have always been genres in books and authors that I just didn’t particularly care for – horror, mostly. I have a vivid imagination and a low-gross-out threshold. There are images that I just don’t want in my head, ever. Never really got into suspense, espionage, vampires, or ultra-violent adventure. But mystery, science fiction, historical fiction were all OK – perfectly my cup of tea, as long as there wasn’t explicit gore or mind-boggling graphic violence of any kind, including the sexual, or the sudden inexplicable random deaths of characters that I had gotten to be rather fond of. (Which puts GRR Martin right out. It’s not really good form to do this repeatedly and presumably with malice and an apparent need to kick your readers in the teeth. I have killed a couple of very appealing characters in two separate books, but it was planned so from the beginning and not casually or without regret over the necessity.)

There are other authors who had particularly rackety, disorganized and disreputable lives, with personal hobbies or vices not especially recommended. I could take their books or leave them alone on that basis. There are plenty of writers who apparently and for various reasons are or were eminently dislikable in their personal lives, but to each their own. I honestly didn’t care about private lives or political leanings of writers that I did enjoy reading but in all my reading life I have only personally banned one author from ever reading their books again. I went to the extent of collecting up all those books that I had by her and binning or donating them: Marion Zimmer Bradley, who wrote book after book of science fiction/adventure/fantasy set on a far distant dark world in the space-traveling future, as well some historical fiction. (A rundown of the whole child-abuse controversy is here,)

I picked up one of her books – Thendara House, if memory serves, at the Stars and Stripes bookstore at Hellenikon AB – and pretty much devoured that, and as many of the other Darkover series as I could find. I had enjoyed the heck out of the Darkover series, which I came into after serving a tour of duty in Greenland, at a forlorn, ice-bound air base thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle. After that year in Greenland, I could seriously relate to earth-accustomed service personnel sent to spend a tour on a cold, isolated planet with a red sun, four moons, and a dark sky. I had lived it, after all. So I read them all, buying by mail-order, or as they appeared at various bookstores. She wrote fearless, independent, and adventurous female protagonists, and by repute was quite the feminist among pop science fiction writers, as well as being extremely encouraging to other female writers. It was to the point where I even wrote a short story for one of her anthologies, during that period when MZB was inviting other writers to ‘romp in her Darkover playground’. Alas, by the time I submitted it, she or whoever was assembling those anthologies had second thoughts. All I got for the trouble taken was a rejection notice, accompanied by a vaguely threatening letter advising me not to violate her copyrights by publishing anything which impinged in any way, shape or form on the Darkover universe. Pity – it was a good story, too, and an interesting and kick-ass main character … I still have it someplace, that and the two follow-on sci-fi adventures that I started writing in longhand before being diverted by other concerns. Like having to earn a living, post Air Force.

When the whole sordid tale of MZB, the abuse of her children and her pedophile late husband came out – and it turned out that it all had been common knowledge in a circle of fans and intimates, it poisoned every shred of enjoyment I had taken in the books – especially in brief interludes where sexual violence came into the plot, most notably where children were involved in such violence.  My daughter confessed much later that she wished that I had forbidden her to read The Firebrand, as a young girl is raped to death after the fall of Troy. After reading about MZB’s treatment of her daughter, and the blind eye or enablement she provided her husband, I just couldn’t even look at her books on my shelf or read them without being reminded. So, into a box, and stashed under the bed. After one of the cats scratched a cozy nest for himself in the top layer, I wound up tossing the ruined books and dropping off the rest of them at Goodwill. I’ve never felt any urge to read them again. It probably was fortunate that the story I sent in for the Darkover anthology was just too late for the game.

18. December 2023 · Comments Off on Oh!! Christmas Tree!! · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

(A reprise post from … gulp… 2004)

It really takes a gift to find yourself on a soggy-wet mountainside on a Sunday afternoon in December, 1981, with a fine drizzle coagulating out of the fog in the higher altitudes, slipping and sliding on a muddy deer track with a tree saw in one hand, and leading a sniffling and wet (inside and out) toddler with the other.
Yep, it’s a gift all right, born of spontaneous optimism and an assumption based on the map on the back page of the Sacra-Tomato bloody-f#$*%^g Bee newspaper, and a promise to Mom. Said map made the %$#*ing Christmas tree farm look like it was a couple of blocks, a mere hop-skip-and-jump from the back gate of Mather AFB’s housing area, an easy jaunt on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, a lovely and traditional Christmas pastime, choosing your own tree from the place they were growing in!

I was taking leave the next day, and driving home to Hilltop House from Sacramento, and my job in the Public Affairs office. It would only be the second Christmas I had spent at home with Mom and Dad since going on active duty (and it would be the last one for ten years). And Mom had made a confession;
“I haven’t gotten the tree yet. The ones at the lot look horrible, all but dead.”
“I’ll buy one here and bring it down, “I said, spontaneously. “There was a bit in the paper this morning about a local Christmas tree farm. I can tie it to the roof rack.” My car of the moment was a VW station wagon with an immaculate interior and a very useful roof rack. If it didn’t fit into the back, like the unfinished chest or drawers I had bought for my daughters’ room, it went up on top, lashed about with bungee cords and rope. I had brought home a lot of stuff that way.
“Perfect, “said Mom. “Stick the trunk end in a bucket of water overnight, so it won’t dry out on the way down.”

We set out bravely enough, early in the afternoon, my daughter strapped into her car seat, and the map from the newspaper open on the passenger seat, where I could refer to it, easily. Past the housing area BX shopette and gas station, out the gate, a couple of turns, and there we were, tooling along a pleasant country road in the mild winter sunshine. On the map it looked as if I would stay on this road for a couple of miles, until it intersected with another road, one with a couple of wiggles in it… into hills, perhaps? It looked as if the tree farm were out in the country and fairly easy to find, not hidden in a jumble of other businesses, intersections and traffic. Soon, empty fields and meadows opened up around us… stood to reason a Christmas Tree farm would be out in the country. Maybe the next mile or two would bring me to the turn-off, the road with a couple of wiggles in it…

Fifteen minutes… twenty minutes… half an hour, still no intersection. Forty-five minutes, and it was very clear that the map was deceptive about the distances. I had gassed up in anticipation of the long drive the next day, so that was not a problem, but if I had not already told Mom I would come home bearing a fresh-cut Christmas tree, I would have turned around and gone back. An hour went by, and the road began to climb. Good heavens, we were nearly to the gentle dun-colored foothills, where the clouds had begun to pile up against distant jagged blue mountains of the Sierra Nevada. At last— an intersection ahead! I slowed down to verify against the map. Yes, the right one. Pretty soon, it began to climb, looping farther and higher into the hills, up into the cloud layer. I ran the wipers to clear away condensation, hoping that the distance along this new road was not as deceptively mapped. I had definitely not counted on two hours there and back. This had better be worth it.

There was a sign, at least… a sign, a gap in the undergrowth, a dirt road leading up into the trees, but the condensation had become a drizzle by the time I pulled into a parking lot, which was merely a couple of cars haphazardly stopped in a roughly mown field around a plain red-painted shed with a deep overhanging roof. The door was open, there were people there, but not as many as there were cars.
“Here, “said a teenaged girl at the cashbox. She handed me a tree saw, and a mimeographed sheet with sketches of the various types of trees with attention to their needles, and a list of prices— so many dollars per foot of tree. “Just cut down the one you want, bring it back here and we’ll figure the price.”
I took the saw, and stuffed the sheet in my shoulder bag, and looked around.
“Where are the trees?”
She pointed out the door, where the dirt road continued up to the top of the hill.
“Up there. They’re all over. Just find one you like.”

My daughter began to lag, halfway up the hill. I looped the tree saw over my arm, and picked her up. The ground was very wet, either sloppy mud, or slippery grass. We had at least come away from the house with coats, but my light-weight tennis shoes were soon saturated. Coming down the slope on the far side, I skidded and sat down rather heavily. Great, now I was wet and muddy to the waist, as well as my daughter. The trees were scattered, not in neat, easily accessed rows, among taller trees and long thickets of grass. It began to rain. I had to put my daughter down and let her walk, but she was not happy about that, and began to sob, quietly.

We would have to find a tree, soon… and close enough that I could drag it… and the saw… and my poor daughter back to the shed. The most convenient trees were either too large, or the more expensive varieties.
There… there was a tree, with the long graceful bunches of needles. It sat on a slope, but it was just a little taller than me. I sat my daughter down, and put my purse in her lap—
“Here, watch this, for Mummy,” and picked a place on the tree’s trunk, about four inches above the clay and clinging soil, put the saw to it and went to work. Mercifully, it only took a few vigorously-expended minutes. I slung my purse and the saw over my arms, picked up the tree and my daughter, and began the long, unhappy, sodden forced-march up over the top of the hill and down towards the sales hut. Some Christmas excursion— wet, pissed-off, on a soggy mountainside with a lopsided Christmas tree, a wet and wailing toddler, and a hour-plus drive, and a longer one in the morning… oh, Christmas tree!

I did soak the trunk of it in a bucket of water, before lashing it to the luggage rack for the drive south the next morning, though that may not have made much difference.
“It’s so fresh!” Mom said, rapturously. “It smells marvelous! Never mind about the flat place, we’ll put that against the wall, and no one will ever know… really, I wonder how long it’s been since the ones in the lot have been cut! I really wonder about that, now.”
“You probably don’t really want to know, “I said. “Merry Christmas… and you owe me $10.”
“Is that all?” Mom said.
“Oh, yeah, “I replied. “That’s all. Merry Christmas.”

16. November 2023 · Comments Off on Good Times, We Hardly Knew You · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

My daughter and I are off on a binge of watching Christmas movies, as it seems that episodes of Cadfael, starring Derek Jacobi and a cast clad in lamentably Ren-fair costumes, inspire nightmares in Wee Jamie. So to my regret, we ditched Cadfael … honestly, why is it that the top English actors are generally so ordinary, and individual in appearance? Too many American actors look like underwear models, one indistinguishable from the next, peeled out of the same mold…

Anyway, we started with Home Alone, and Home Alone 2 … although I do note that McCauley Culkin was one of those kid actors who did not ‘adult’ well as he grew. But it was sad to look back at the Home Alone franchise from a nostalgic point of view. No interminable wait to go through security at the airport, for example. And once upon a time, my children, it was possible to go straight to the gate to meet someone arriving. And Home Alone 2 was even more of a punch to the nostalgia gut – the top of the World Trade Center tower, shining and silver. The Plaza Hotel, with Donald Trump in a brief bit part, when he was just a flamboyant TV and tabloid celeb with a penchant for dating models … New York City streets without crazies punching out total strangers. No one wearing masks because they feared the Commie Crud. The first Gulf War was over and won, the Russian Iron Curtain had fallen … and oh, things weren’t perfect, by any means … but most of us didn’t fear our local cops and we trusted the professionalism of the FBI. We could be sure that our politicians and national media didn’t hate the guts of half the American population with a white-hot passion, and we were also pretty certain that kids in most public schools were learning the basics, and not being perved on by teachers and bullied by the urban thug element … well, mostly.

Life was pretty good – and we didn’t even know it.