Seeing this article, about the auction of original art for the Church Mice book series brought back memories of the first Church Mice books, which I bought from an English book catalog when I was stationed in Greece with my then-preschool-aged daughter. There was a Stars and Stripes bookstore on base, and a tiny children’s bookstore in Glyphada then, but for anything else, I had to order by mail. I think I had a subscription to the Hatchard’s catalog, or some book service which specialized in providing books to English-speaking readers scattered far and wide, in localities without books in English. I bought regularly, for myself and for my daughter and we loved the Church Mice series for the very witty and lavishly detailed illustrations of the adventures of Sampson the cat and his mouse friends, who lived in a church. The illustrations were every bit as charming as Beatrix Potter’s little animal paintings. It appears that all the original paintings are to be sold at auction – the author wished to benefit a charity with the sale of his art, and his art kit, too.

When my sisters’ children were small, and I wanted to get books for them, I looked for the Church Mice series – and they weren’t available in the US, since this was before Amazon went in for UK children’s books. I had to give money and a list for the Gentleman With Whom I was Keeping Company, so that he could buy them in Britain for me, and mail them to my sister. Most of the series are available now on Amazon, albeit mostly at a hefty price. I’ve been looking at them for Wee Jamie, now, the ones that I didn’t have for my daughter. I’d love to have one of the original art pieces, but it looks like having a few more of the books is slightly more doable in these economic times.

13. August 2023 · Comments Off on Misty, Watercolor Memories · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

Misty, watercolor memories of Hawaii, have been brought back by news of the awful, catastrophic fires on Maui; memories of the Girl Scout troop that my buddy Esther T. and I moved into for our senior high school year did a camping trip there in the summer of 1971. My memory has the trip being two or three weeks in duration and hitting all four main islands by local puddle-jumper airline transport and inexpensive rental cars. There had been two senior Girl Scout troops in Sunland-Tujunga at that time – Esther and I had gone to Europe the summer before with the most enterprising troop, but because we were a year younger than the other girls, we had to fill out our last year in Scouting with the other troop which was … well, better than not being in a troop at all. Esther and I had much reason to suspect that the leadership of that second troop was in fruitless competition with our first in organizing trips to interesting destinations. That leadership was also dead keen on camping and backpacking, and not really good at it, which hardships Esther and I and the other girls endured stoically. One of our weekend expeditions put us at a campsite in the San Bernardino mountains, early in spring, before the snow had melted. The snow melted in late afternoon, soaking our bedrolls and freezing at night – I had a whole new appreciation for the hardships of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, after that experience. I was usually sick for several days after one of these excursions, but that is by the by. Hawaii for a couple of weeks wasn’t a patch on Europe for the whole summer, but it was doable from money that I saved out of my allowance, lunch money and babysitting … and anyway, Hawaii was temperate and tropical. No hazard of frostbite from camping out at Little Jimmy Spring with a thin sleeping bag and no tent. And we all had read James Michener’s Hawaii and watched Hawaii-5-0 on TV, so we had some vague idea of what to expect.

There would be four drivers of the rental cars to tour the first three islands; Hawaii, the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai, with a final stop on Oahu, and a stay at the YWCA’s hostel on Waikiki beach: Troop Leader, Troop Co-Leader, Troop Leader’s Husband and Co-Leader’s Husband, with the twenty girls parceled out among the rental cars. Esther and I did privately decide that we would do our best to ride in the rental driven by Troop Leader’s Husband; in our judgement, he was the one sane adult of the lot. And so we winged our way Hawaii – first stop, Hilo on the Big Island, which was everything that we had expected of a lush green tropical paradise; palm trees, plumeria, frangipani, ginger, jasmine, fields of pineapples, and stands of thick undergrowth tangled with passionfruit vines. Most houses that we drove past on the outskirts of Hilo on our way to where we were camping were single story cottages, with verandahs open to the sea breeze, and shallow metal hipped rooves that gleamed like tarnished old silver, nestled among lush greenery.

And oh, the beaches – every one of them spectacularly beautiful; white sugar sand and blue, blue water, like blue satin trimmed with foaming white lace as the waves broke. The only exception to this was a black sand beach, sand worked up from black volcanic lava – that beach was at Hana, on Maui, where we went the whole twisting way of the coastal road, and I was probably vilely car-sick most of the way. We went to see the volcano, of course; it was not active at the time, and frankly, looked more like an open pit made of rough black lava stone. The fern grotto on Kauai was a bit of a disappointment, though – the ferns were mostly dead and dried up.  I don’t have any particular memory of Lahaina, although we might have passed through. I have a better recollection of Kailua-Kona, an old whaling station on the Big Island – a modest several blocks along the waterfront, with an old missionary church and the remains of King  Kamehameha’s royal fishponds, where the owner of a little souvenir shop along the waterfront picked some fresh bananas from the tree by her shop and gave them to us – and they were about the best that I had ever tasted. There was an older gentleman with his family, camping near us at one of the beaches who told us what to do if we stepped on a broken bit of coral and it embedded in our foot, the tour bus driver who explained to us how the missionaries who came to Hawaii did an enormous amount of good, early on – it was their descendants who turned out to be somewhat less of an ornament to society.  There was a Navy retiree who had actually been at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked – he had been on his bicycle, on Ford Island, on his way to duty at his post when all hell broke out. I have good memories of all the people we met along the way, although honestly it is hard to imagine anyone being deliberately hostile to a group of earnest and friendly teenagers who were basically doing a modest budget trip to the Islands. I’ve since drawn on such memories in my own books, mostly for My Dear Cousin, and the short Luna City story, Radio Silence.

We had one slightly more luxurious stay at the Kaheely Mountain Camp – likely again on the Big Island, where room-sized tents were set up on masonry foundations, and there was a hot-tub under the stars, surrounded by a hedge of fragrant tropical plants. That was sheer heaven, basking in the warm water, in the twilight – but even nicer was that a member of the staff came around on a little electric golf cart of an evening to collect the dishes and pots that we had used to fix supper; they had a central dishwashing facility. We finished out the trip with three or four days at the Waikiki beach club, which was on the second story of a tall modern building overlooking Fort DeRussy, the Army’s recreation center. The beach was gorgeous – especially the sunsets, and we did the usual tourist things – a venture to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, an evening luau at the LDS-sponsored Polynesian Cultural Center, and spent some little money at the International Village Marketplace, which was within walking distance of where we were staying.

The last few days were slightly marred, when three of the girls slipped the vigilance of Troop Leader & Company and went out partying and got disgracefully drunk with some soldiers at Fort DeRussy; two of them were caught by Troop Leader in the wee hours of the morning throwing up in the bathroom of the YWCA, to be sent home early in disgrace. (The main disgrace being that one of the girls was Troop Leader’s own daughter.) I slept through the ruckus – Esther briefed me the next morning, as we stood waist-deep in the surf and out of earshot of anyone.

And that was my misty-water-colored memories of Hawaii, brought back to me by the horror of the Maui fires – you’d never think of such a thing, when Hawaii is supposed to be a soggy tropical jungle, but in point of fact, large parts of the Big Island and Maui are basically high-altitude desert, once away from the coast, and terrifically vulnerable to brush fires. But a firestorm such as blasted through Lahaina is a particularly awful disaster, akin to the mainland fires like the great Hinkley fire which obliterated whole communities without much warning, more than a century ago.

20. June 2023 · Comments Off on A Reprise Post from 2005 – The Chalk Giant · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

Granny Jessie, tiny and brutally practical, was not particularly given to fancy and fantasies. When she talked of old days and old ways, she talked of her girlhood on her fathers’ ancestral acres, a farm near Lionville, Chester County, Pennsylvania; of horse-drawn wagons, and cows and cats, and how pigs were cleverer than dogs. Of how she and her sister and brother would have to stop going down to the pig-pen early in the fall, lest they become too fond of an animal whose fate it was to be butchered for ham, and bacon, roasts and sausage and scrapple to last the winter through. Of how she played on the Lionville boys’ baseball team, since there were not enough boys, and she was a tomboy and skillful enough to play first-base, and how her grandfathers’ house was once a fall-back way-station on the Underground Railway. (It was the inn in Lionville itself was the main way-station, with a secret room and a concealed access to the woods, or so said Granny Jessie.) It was all very prosaic, very American, a breath away from the Little House books and so very familiar.

Granny Dodie’s stories, even if she did not have a spell-binding repertoire, were touched with fire and enchantment because of the very unfamiliarity of the venue… a row-house in Liverpools’ Merseyside, a few streets away from there the Beatles had come from, where Granny Dodie had grown up the youngest of a family of nine, sleeping three in a bed with her older sisters. “The one on the side is a golden bride, the one by the wall gets a golden ball, the one in the middle gets a golden fiddle, “she recited to me once. “Although all I ever got of it was the hot spot!” All her brothers were sailors or dockworkers, and her ancestors too, as far as memory went. Even her mothers’ family, surnamed Jago, and from Cornwall— even they were supposed to have grafted onto their family tree a shipwrecked Armada sailor. Granny Dodie insisted breathlessly there was proof of this in the darkly exotic good looks of one of her brothers. “He looked quite foreign, very Spanish!” she would say. We forbore to ruin the story by pointing out that according to all serious historic records, all the shipwrecked Spaniards cast up on English shores after the Armada disaster were quickly dispatched… and that there had been plenty of scope in Cornwall— with a long history of trans-channel adventure and commerce—to have acquired any number of foreign sons-in-law. She remembered Liverpool as it was in that long-ago Edwardian heyday, the time of the great trans-Atlantic steamers, and great white birds (liver-birds, which according to her gave the port it’s name) and cargo ships serving the commercial needs of a great empire, the docks all crowded and the shipways busy and prosperous.

One Christmas, she and my great-Aunt Nan discovered a picture book— John S. Goodalls’ “An Edwardian Summer”, among my daughters’ presents, and the two of them immediately began waxing nostalgic about long-ago seaside holidays; that time when ladies wore swimsuits that were more like dresses, with stockings and hats. They recollected donkey-rides along the strand, the boardwalks and pleasure-piers full of carnival rides, those simpler pleasures for a slightly less over-stimulated age. But the one old tale that Granny Dodie told, the one that stayed my memory, especially when Pip and JP and I spent the summer of 1976 discovering (or re-discovering) our roots was this one:

“There are places,” she said, ” Out in the country, they are, where there are stone stairways in the hillsides, going down to doorways… but they are just the half the size they should be. They are all perfectly set and carved… but for the size of people half the size we are. And no one knows where they lead.”

Into the land of the Little People, the Fair Folk, living in the hollow hills, of course, and the half-sized stairways lead down into their world, a world fair and terrible, filled with faerie, the old gods, giants and monsters and the old ways, a world half-hidden, but always tantalizingly, just around the corner, or down the half-sized stairway into the hidden hills, and sometimes we mundane mortals could come close enough to brush against that unseen world of possibilities.

From my journal, an entry writ during the summer of 1976, when Pip and JP and I spent three months staying in youth hostels and riding busses and BritRail… and other means of transportation:

July 9- Inglesham
Today we started off to see the Uffington White Horse, that one cut into the hillside in what— the Bronze or Iron Age, I forget which. We started off thinking we could catch a bus and get off somewhere near it, but after trying quite a few bus stops (unmarked they are at least on one side of the road) we took to hitch-hiking and the first person took us all the way there. He was an employee of an auctioneering firm, I guess & I guess he wasn’t in a hurry because he asked where we were going (Swindon & then to the White Horse) & said he would take us all the way there. It was a lovely ride, out beyond Ashbury, and the best view of the horse is from the bottom, or perhaps an aero plane. It’s very windy up here, very strong and constantly- I think it must drive the grass right back into the ground, because it was very short & curly grass. We could see for miles, across the Vale, I guess they call it. After that we walked up to Uffington Castle, an Iron Age ring-embankment, & some people were trying to fly a kite-it’s a wonder it wasn’t torn to pieces.
We sat for a while, watching fields of wheat rippling like the ocean & cloud-shadows moving very slowly and deliberately across the multicolored patchwork.
The man who brought us out advised us to walk along the Ridgeway, an ancient track along the crest of the hill, and so we did. It was lovely and oh, so lonely. Nothing but the wheat fields on either side and looking as if they went on forever.
We looked at Wayland’s Smithy, a long stone barrow in a grove of trees & when we got to Ashford, we found the Rose & Crown pub and had lunch. It was practically empty, no one but an elderly couple and their dog, a lovely black & white sheepdog, very friendly. Then we set off to walk and hitch-hike back to Highworth, but we picked the two almost deserted roads in Oxfordshire to do it, because it took nearly forever to get two rides. One got us from Ashbury to (indecipherable) and the second directly into Highworth. Both were women, very kind and chatty; I wish I knew what impulse people have which make them pick up hitch-hikers. What I do know is that the loveliest sight is that of a car slowing down and the driver saying “Where are y’heading for?”

Thirty years later I remember how charmed we were by the people who gave us rides— the auctioneers assistant who was so taken in by my reasons for seeing the White Horse that he decided he had to see it himself, and the two women— both with cars full of children— who were either totally innocent of the ways of this soon-to-become-wicked-world, or had unerring snap-judgment in deciding to slow down and pick up three apparently innocent and apparent teenagers. (I was 22 but was frequently and embarrassingly informed that I looked younger than the 16 year-old Pip, and JP was 20, but also must have looked innocent, younger and harmless.)
With their assistance, we spent a lovely day, in the sun and wind, in the uplands along the Ridgeway, examining the form of a running horse, cut into the turf on a chalk hillside, an ancient fortress, a legendary dolman tomb, and an ancient highway along the backbone of Britain… always thinking that just around the next bend would be the stairway into the hollow hills, and the giants and fair folk of old… Adventure and peril just as Grannie Dodie said it would be in the lands of our ancestors… always just around the corner.

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.)


06. March 2023 · Comments Off on Suburban Sophistication · Categories: Domestic, Memoir

(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.