Sunday, September 16, 2018

Only Son

From Salinas to Oakland and San Leandro and on to Phoenix the life of an only child in a single mother household wasn’t all bad. While Rachel Helen Immel moved us every year or so and that will keep a kid off balance she always found the best that the place had to offer. She was an erudite and cultured women who played the piano, loved ballet and art films and enjoyed good food. She had a regal bearing and wore clothes with panache. She was every inch the lady. She was an ardent feminist though she probably didn’t know the term. She was asexual as far as I know and may have been a “man hater” if my father’s younger sisters are to be believed. According to my father’s favorite baby sister, Ruth West, who died at 101 a couple of years ago, he confided to her shortly after he married my mother that “it just isn’t going to work” because they were at odds about sex. He apparently was into it and she was repulsed. But they copulated at least once thankfully. I appreciate your service. Certainly, their paths in life painted a picture of divergent sexual appetites. He had three marriages and a parade of curvy babes and she was devoutly solo. She never had a date and the only man in the house was the plumber. In the years between age four and nineteen I never saw her with a man nor do I know of a single relationship with one.

That didn’t seem odd to me. It was all I had ever known. That she would be involved with a man never occurred to me.

She had two sisters, Fern a textbook spinster, and Imogene, the saucy divorced one who smoked cigarettes and did, reputedly, have a life outside of work. All were elementary school teachers, mom of the first and second grade persuasion.

Fern, the much older sister, was built like a barrel and seemed to be from an entirely different generation than Rachel and Imogene, called Imo. She lived with us for a time in our first apartment in San Leandro and commuted to her school in Niles, California. Niles was southeast of Hayward some fifteen miles away from our apartment. Back then it was in the sticks but now is a suburb of sprawling Fremont. Imo taught in Palm Springs and Santa Maria and had to perspicacity to live outside of the hermetically sealed mother and child bubble my mother created wherever we lived. I was her life until I wasn’t.

Steve at six?

My mother gave me things and experiences in lieu of actual parenting. We never had the birds and bees conversation so I was left to learn through trial and error. When I joined Cub Scouts and there was a fishing merit badge to be had, she bought me a complete fly fishing rig; rod, reel, straw creel, assorted flies and a vest with all the little pockets from a sporting goods store in Hayward. We went fishing precisely once. It was at Strawberry Lake in the Sierra National Forest just west of the John Muir Wilderness. It’s a mystery to me how she found the place. Then there was skiing. The same thing. The full kit though a rented one in this case. I remember the long pointed wooden boards and the leather bindings. Off we went to Frisco Peak by bus in a snowstorm; a real Sierra snow with 20 foot drifts. The snow rose to the eaves of the lodge and that's where I headed. Twenty-five years later our son Garrett performed the same trick at Killington in Vermont. And Peggy wigged out then just as my mother had in 1950.

From wherever we lived in the East Bay we made our way to San Francisco as often as possible. Even when we lived in Arizona we traveled to the “The City” a couple of times. The magic of San Francisco was etched in my brain at an early and impressionable age. As early as 1947 we took Southern Pacific’s Starlight Express from Salinas to Fisherman’s Wharf. We sat in the dining car eating Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches on toast and sipping hot tea. A little later when we moved to the Bay Area we took the train to San Francisco to partake of breakfast at Manning’s, lunch of Welsh Rarebit and creamed spinach at the bar in Townsend’s and high tea at the City of Paris department store. Famed columnist Herb Cain called Townsend’s, “the little old ladies historic hangout.” And so it was.

We watched Alec Guinness in 1951s Lavender Hill Mob at a little art house. We went to the 1950 premier of Winchester 73 with Jimmy Stewart, and the 1951 premiere of Bob Hope’s Lemon Drop Kid where they gave out boxes on lemon drops. This was always in San Francisco I should note. Oakland was beneath us. We saw Shirley MacLaine and Francis Lederer in Princess and the Show Girl at the Curran Theatre on Geary Street near Union Square. The 1,600 seat Curran housed some the biggest productions in theatre history and was home to the San Francisco Civic Light Opera when we saw the young Shirley. It closed for a time but reopened in January 2017. It will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2022.
The Curran Theatre, circa 1950
During the Christmas season San Francisco is magical as all great cities are. To me San Francisco is the one real city on the left coast. There are New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco in the pantheon of America’s great cities. The others are pretenders. We always stayed at The Cartwright off Union Square. It was affordable and right in the center of things. From the Cartwright we could walk to all our favorite haunts. Every San Francisco Christmas included midnight mass at Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the corner of California and Grant, the entrance to Chinatown.

Saint Mary's Cathedral
My sartorial needs were not neglected either. On one of those Christmas trips from Arizona I stepped into the Ivy League, buttoned down era; the one with the waspy Princeton haircut. At a small haberdashery on the north side of Market Street I was fitted with my first soft shouldered three button sport coat, a nifty corduroy number, chinos with the buckle in the back and a light blue Gant button down. It was quite the step up from the big shouldered film noir suits I had favored till then. It foretold some seventy years of appreciation for stylish threads and too little closet space.  

And lest you think my adventures were limited to the tweedy environs of San Francisco, it was a 1951 trip to the silver mining town of Alamos, Mexico that led to our move from northern California to Arizona. My mother had seen a piece in Sunset Magazine about a quaint, undiscovered Spanish Colonial village in the Mexican state of Sonora near the western end of Copper Canyon. The Nicky Hilton article extolled the charms of the remote pueblo. It was so alluring that we found ourselves in Alamos by way of Ciudad Obregon and Navajoa and all of that by public transport one of which was a rickety Aeronaves DC3. In Alamos I cobbled together some rudimentary Spanish as kids will do and soon was leading tourists through the village for a few pesos. The highlight of my itinerary was the hacienda of the Mexican jumping bean king. You can’t make this stuff up. I still feel the busy beans jumping in my nine-year old palm.

Our hotel on the plaza had a drive-in courtyard. Our room was upstairs facing the courtyard and fountain. Drinking water was “treated” by resting it in earthenware “ollas” suspended from the second story portal. Many an evening was spent at the “Cine” on the north side of the plaza watching John Wayne and Esther Williams movies dubbed into Spanish.

On the way back to California from Alamos we stopped in Tucson. We sat in the lobby of the long-gone Santa Rita Hotel and absorbed the cowboyness of the place. The lobby was redolent of leather and straw hats. They say our olfactory memories are particularly vivid and the smell of leather still takes me back to that moment. Real ranchers moseyed through on their way to the Mountain Oyster Club upstairs. Women strictly prohibited. In the southeast corner of the hotel was a western wear store, probably Porter’s, where we continued our theme of indulging little Stevie's every whim. I donned my very first pair of cowboy boots, kangaroo no less. The hook was set. We'd be off to Arizona before the following school year.

It didn’t end well between my mother and me as has been reported in these pages. The last words I heard were, "From now on I don't have a son." It was my 21st birthday.

But the women gave me a taste of taste and a yearning for adventure. I'll give her that.

Much to her credit and not withstanding my enmity toward her, my mother exposed me to culture, cuisine and travel that created a life view beyond the neighborhoods in which we lived. From our Oakland apartment near Mills College we took the bus to hear Helen Keller speak at the University of California, Governor Earl Warren, too. I watched twin All-America running backs Johnny Olszewski and Jackie Jensen light up the gridiron for Cal’s Golden Bears. The game was preceded by lunch at Larry Blakes and my first Caesar Salad. In Phoenix we took the bus downtown to see Eleanor Roosevelt speak at Phoenix Union High School. So, the breadth of what my mother showed me was considerable.

In response to my ego bruising tale last week, a California friend wrote, “There are very few 70+ people who still hold grudges against their parents.….” And further, “I realized only recently it was an adolescent mindset to blame parents for unhappiness along the way…..” A valid point to be sure. However, I don’t see calling out specific thoughtless and hurtful acts as blaming them for unhappiness along the way, meaning presumably, later in life. I blame them for what they did when they did it. Always will. And as to very few seventy year olds holding grudges against their parents, I wouldn't bet on it.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Thanks, Dad.

I have no memory of living in a household with a mother and a father though a photograph from 1943 shows that I did.

Glenn, Rachel and Stephen Immel in Urbana, Ohio

Glenn Immel was a Navy officer preparing to ship out to the South Pacific where he would be Executive Officer on a LSM, Landing Ship Mine, which was heading for Guadalcanal. I don’t whether he saw combat or not. My guess is not but I wasn’t close enough to the man to know much of anything about him.

My first memory of him was on board his ship just before he embarked from Treasure Island to the South Pacific. My mother and I had ostensibly moved to California to be near him though I think the marriage was already in a death spiral. I was scratched by the ship’s mascot, an unhappy spider monkey named Spanky, that was tethered to a pole. I cried like a baby. 

Lieutenant Immel, young Steve and Spanky

Recollections of my father are few from the end of the war to 1952. I remember sitting in his lap while he drove his black Buick during visits to our apartments in Salinas, Oakland and San Leandro.  He always drove Buicks. I remember the sandpapery stubble of his five o’clock shadow. I don’t know when Glenn Richard and Rachel Helen divorced but they never lived together after the war. He moved to LA to practice law and we moved from school district to school district in Oakland and San Leandro. It makes me wonder why we moved every one or two years till I entered eighth grade?

The summer before my eleventh birthday I stayed my father in Los Angeles. It would be the longest period I'd ever spend with him. He had a non-descript apartment behind the Ambassador Hotel and was an associate at the Sampson and Dryden Law Firm. During my stay we went to a beach party at Dryden’s house in Palos Verdes Estates and I saw wealth for the first time. High living makes a good first impression.

When he didn’t make partner, it seems to me, his hopes for a soaring legal career even a judgeship, died. He became a one-man ambulance chaser who cobbled together a living through a sputtering personal injury practice and by teaching Business Law at Woodbury College on Wilshire Boulevard and the UCLA Extension. At least he could walk to Woodbury from his apartment on South Kenmore.

I was a latch key kid that summer and had the run of an extended neighborhood from the apartment to my dad’s second wife’s family home on Hoover and further south to the USC campus and Exposition Park.

I joined the Boy’s Club of which I remember little except for learning how to twirl a lasso. That entailed going to the local hardware store and choosing the perfect rope. I tied it as we were taught and practiced for hours till I mastered the elusive skill. Finally, I could do all the standard rope tricks like stepping in and out of the loop as I spun it around me. The club took field trips. One was to the giant Helms Bakery on Venice Boulevard in Culver City. The sweet yeasty aroma fills my olfactory memory bank to this day. Another was to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro from which you could watch the freighters entering and leaving the Port of Los Angeles.

Not all of the experiences were organized affairs. I had my first two crushes in the summer of 1952, one on Mary Jo Renwick and the other on my dad’s wife to be. Denise, also  divorced, was considerably younger than my father, I’m guessing late twenties. She was a saucy number given to sundresses and cleavage. She was also a flirt, even with almost eleven-year-olds. I was big for my size. There was a big swing in Denise’s backyard. She swung higher and higher till her billowing skirt blew up. I was transfixed by the view. She said something like, “What are you looking at Steve? Haven’t you seen a girl’s panties before?” I didn’t answer. I was frozen at the intersection of embarrassment and desire.

I ran with a group of kids from the neighborhood. They were street smart bunch who taught me to make zipguns out of metal tubing, scrap lumber, a couple of screws, a flat head nail and elastic. I sold clothes hangers to laundries for pocket change like the other guys. I don’t know if I needed the money or did it to belong.

Dad and Denise tried to use Mary Jo as leverage to convince me to stay in LA instead of going back to Phoenix with my mother in late August. I remember as clear as yesterday Denise telling me how much I’d miss Mary Jo. What would I do without Mary Jo? I was eleven for Christ sake. I returned to Phoenix to start the sixth grade.

Later that year, 1952, Glenn attempted to get full custody. That entailed a soul scorching trial in Salinas, a trial in which he painted a picture of a mama’s boy in desperate need of a father’s strong hand. The court proceedings were ugly. Despite my father’s contention that I’d flourish under his muscular stewardship it was rare in those days for the father to get custody. Ultimately, the judge took me into chambers and asked, “Who do you want to live with?” I answered, “I think you mean with whom do you wish to live? And if that's the question the answer is my mom.” And that was that.

We lived in half of a duplex on East Virginia Street a couple of blocks from North Phoenix High School. In the fifties school yards were open to the neighborhood like a giant community center. I ran on the school’s cinder track every afternoon and watched talented kids sprint, leap and throw. The school had a tremendous track and field program, so I was surrounded by exceptional athletes, often national record holders. Coach Vern Wolf became head coach at USC through an extended period of dominance. I contracted the running fever which has persisted for 66 years.

My mom encouraged me to write a thank you letter to the caring judge in Salinas. Along with my heartfelt appreciation I wanted him know he’d made the right decision and that I wasn’t a total wimp. I boasted that I’d run a 440 in about 75 seconds which probably decent for my age. Sad that I felt the need to defend my manhood. Thanks, Dad.         

I didn't see or speak to him again until I was an adult and he was as clueless as I remembered.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Member of the Wedding

I couldn’t have asked for a more photogenic couple to photograph for my first wedding shoot last Sunday. Kara Babb and Eero Vartiainen were statuesque, beautiful and very much at home with the camera. I thank them for the opportunity. Both are impressive and successful. Kara boasts a Master's in Chinese and Eero from Finland speaks four languages. At nearly 6’ and 6’5”, respectively, they made a 5’10” old guy feel little and decrepit.  And that smooth unlined skin, don’t get me started.

And speaking of old, let me put it this way. During the anniversary dance the DJ started reducing the married couples five years at a crack. "Okay, if you've been married five years more you can stay on the floor." "If you've been married ten years or more...." and so on. He stopped at forty years and I said, "Hold on a minute, pal. We can beat a piddling 40 years." The only couples left on the floor were the photographers and their spouses who had logged 46 years and 51 years of wedded bliss. But who's counting? Congratulations to Daryl and Fred Black who celebrated their 46th that very night and to Peggy and me who crawled to the 51 year mark last March.

And what is the secret to a long marriage? asked the Tony the DJ.

I took the mic and answered "Low expectations" and "Separate Vacations." I get to use those lines a lot.