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.


Blacks Crossing said...

My apologies for not getting to the comment department until almost a week after you posted this stunning piece about your childhood and life with and without Father. There are so many great nuggets here that I hardly know where to start except to say that you are one heck of a writer and this is one of your best pieces to date. Something about it being personal. By far, the jewel of prose here has to be "I was frozen at the intersection of embarrassment and desire."

Isn't it a shame that so many are molded by the negativity gifted to us by our parents, and we, somehow, turn into upstanding and interesting human beings, despite it all. How you feel about monkeys these days?

Thank goodness for the judge who respected your judgement enough to let you live with your mother, and to Coach Vern Wolf who instilled the running bug. Keep running and keep writing, Esteban!

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