Saturday, May 28, 2011

sudden storm

Very tragic news this week as a category 5 Tornado smashed into the town of Joplin, Missouri, cutting a swath of destruction through the center of town and even hitting the local hospital. The tragedy has claimed 139 lives so far, making it the deadliest single tornado recorded and surpassing the prior record from 1953, an event which preceeded my own birth but nonetheless had an enormous impact on my childhood.

My hometown of Flint, Michigan was hit by a category 5 tornado in June of 1953. It descended on a muggy Midwestern summer night with almost no warning and mowed through hundreds of homes while it meandered eastward at a rate of approximately 30 mph. The storm left an entire neighborhood in ruins and cost 116 persons their lives. Sadly, almost half of the victims were children. The tragedy is recalled as the Beecher Tornado.

Both of my parents were young adults at that time, and the disaster had a lasting effect on them. My brother was born five years later in 1958 and myself in 1960. While the Beecher Tornado had long since passed, we were keenly aware of what had happened. My mother told stories of the rescue efforts and recounted stories of those who survived and those who did not. I vividly recall her telling the story of the woman who outran the tornado in her 1949 Buick, with the speedometer reading 100mph as the wind repeatedly lifted the back wheels off the ground. Her six children cowered in the back seat in fear but the car made it to safety.

When my brother and I were older, she showed us home movies my uncle Bill had taken the day following the storm. It was virtually impossible for my five year old consciousness to discern what the piles of rubble in the movies had once been. We were raised with a very healthy respect for the destructive potential of nature, a respect that I believe we shared with every schoolchild in the city of Flint.

Mother was particularly nervous on humid summer nights, the kind that hung in the air and produced the thunderstorms which hatch tornadoes. While she never tried to cause needless alarm, she kept a keen eye on the skies as she watched us playing in the lush Michigan grass. It was universally understood in our neighborhood that a weather siren meant the immediate cessation of playtime and a dash for shelter. Many a summer evening was spent listening to the rain in the basement, waiting for the all clear signal to be broadcast over the little blue transistor radio.

It was not until adulthood that I actually looked at a map of the destruction and discovered what Mother had always known- the Tornado touched to earth almost exactly two miles north of the bedroom I shared with my brother. She was keenly aware of that fact every time a humid summer night occurred, it was a line on her brow. However, she somehow never imparted that knowledge unto us.

Of course, storm warnings matured rapidly after the tragic events of 1953, and the truth is that we were dramatically safer at all times than only a few short years before. But this terrible sudden storm in Joplin reminds us that the need to be vigilant does not dissipate with time, and natural disasters do not fall out of fashion.

The passage of time has not diminished the memories of the citizens of Flint, nor has it lessened the tragedy of the loss of a hundred and sixteen lives when the winds dashed the houses against the Michigan clay. We will remember always.

Monday, May 23, 2011


I'm worried about the Heirloom. Although its trunk looks thick and healthy, the buds seem to wilt too easily in the sun. The Chrysler Imperial alongside seems indestructible in comparison, and the neighboring Antique has exploded in bountiful pink blossoms, but the darn Heirloom gives me daily fits.

It is an essentially optimistic statement to tend the rose garden in a rented house, an act made all the more transient when the property is for sale. The daily watering and tending is juxtaposed with nice lady realtors in Lexus SUV's showing the property to prospective new owners. Whoever they turn out to be, I can't help but hope that they have a fondness for roses.

I guess I'm surprised that I've seen then this far along already. I cut them severely back to twigs in February, and wondered if I'd even see then start to grow back. But roses want to grow, and given the most rudimentary care, will bounce back. The new shoots started to appear within two weeks. I had buds for Easter, and a multicolored cascade of roses for Mother's Day.

I wonder aloud who will care for them when I move on. I'm only here for what seems like a momentary respite, and in that short time, these living things have grown dependent on me for basic care. Perhaps I depend on them as well for a reminder that I can still make an impact, albeit a tiny one, in this spinning green orb.

It's not lost on me that caring for the roses is allegorical, that in tending flowers in a transient rose garden I am somehow symbolizing so many people whose world has spun out of control and who are trying to reclaim even the tiniest parts of it again. I can't undo the damage caused by unchallenged greed on Wall Street, and I can't find jobs for all who need them, but I can make flowers grow in the garden and talk to them and tend them for whomever comes along next. I'm not saying we can heal society with such singularly insignificant gestures, but perhaps we can begin to heal ourselves.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

kate and patsy

They were much more like sisters than mother and daughter. For starters, they were only twenty one years apart. Also, they didn't act like mother and daughter per se- they were lifelong best friends, and all but inseparable. And neither of them exactly acted like a grown up all that often.

In over a year of writing, I can't believe I hadn't written about Kate. My brave and pragmatic Missouri born Grandmother. The one who married too hastily, and focused her energy on the children she loved. She played the hand she was dealt with laughter and courage. She all but lived with us during my childhood, while always maintaining an apartment to ensure her independence.

They both loved to surprise the other. Like the time in 1979 when we moved to a new house and Patsy didn't tell Kate. She knew we were planning to move, of course, and was rather dreading the whole thing. So when we had the opportunity to move up the actual date, we conveniently forgot to mention it. I picked her at her apartment and drove her to our house, stopping off at the new house to check on something. And there we were, all moved in and set up. She just about fainted. Score one for Patsy and I.

Then there was Kate's birthday that year. Mom had taken her for her birthday weekend to the brand new Hyatt Regency hotel in Flint. They had a formal dinner on Friday night, and were enjoying a casual luncheon in the atrium on Saturday when the Gorilla appeared with the birthday balloon bouquet. Fortunately, there just happened to be a photographer there to record the presentation for history. Score one more for Patsy, with another assist to yours truly. I still have the picture.

And that led to the Big Party. Of course, Kate wanted to return the favor. She and I talked the family into a big surprise birthday party for Patsy. We had made plans that bordered on military precision involving refreshments, decorations, and even staging the guests down the block at a rendezvous point to preserve the element of surprise. Kind of a challenge doing a surprise party for Mother in her own home, you see.

We sneaked supplies and decorations into the house for weeks. All went well until the afternoon of the party, when Mom was unexpectedly home. I fidgeted, looking out the window at my poor Volkswagen so full of booze that it hunkered down on its axles.

"Not to worry", said Kate. She put all the butter down the garbage disposal, then began making chocolate chip cookies. "Patsy, we're out of butter" she called out in angst. Mom couldn't believe that the butter she had just purchased was already gone, but somewhat reluctantly agreed to go get some more. That have us the crucial time we needed to unload the car and set up the basement decorations.

Three hours later, I went out for a walk and met approximately 40 guests at the cul de sac. We all walked to the front door, lit the candles on the cake that happened to be in my hands, and rang the bell. Mom answered the door in absolute shock. The party proceeded downstairs where everything had been prepared in secret- food, a punch bowl, a fully set up bar- in short, a gigantic party, totally under the radar. We got her good that time. A big one for Kate and myself as raconteurs. It was a fabulous time.

This is my fourth Mother's Day now without either of them, and it doesn't seem to get any easier, just more remote. The only thing that makes it bearable is the thought they are together. And wherever they are, there's laughter and mischief. That's what happens with pranskters like those two around.

Happy Mother's Day Kate and Patsy, my darling girls. I'm so grateful for all the crazy and wonderful times we had together. I love you both so much.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

back to the broiler

The last time I visited, the place lay in ruins. An illegal demolition attempt had been halted just in the nick of time before the buildin was totally lost. I was there the next day and surveyed the ruins of Johnie's Broiler, nee Harvey's, a much loved landmark in the City of Downey, CA. On that day, local mulled around and stared at the debris. Many fought back tears. The Broiler was a proud architectural landmark, a place that had become part of the fabric of the community. Nearly everybody had a connection to the Broiler and a story about it. Countless couples had been on dates there and raised their families in the shadow of the red Broiler sign, and there it lay in ruin.

And then something amazing happened. People didn't give up. The Friends of Johnie's and the Los Angeles Conservancy and other conservation groups worked with the city of Downey to find a way to restore the Broiler instead of allowing demolition. Rallies and fundraisers were held. The pressure was kept up until good news was announced- Jim Louder of Bob's agreed to lease the property and the City participated with development funds. The unanticipated result is that the Broiler rose from the ashes.

I was there on Sunday taking pictures, and was so captivated by the flavor of the resurrected Broiler that I went back Sunday night to capture the signage. It looks great, it feels like the old Broiler again and it was packed with people. It's not a perfect restoration but rather a very sensitive adaptive re-use. The look is great and the functionality is actually improved. Wow, this story actually has a happy ending. Many thanks to all who took part- the City of Downey, the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Friends of Johnie's, and the Coalition to Save & Rebuild Harvey's Broiler. It's a bitchin' place!

More photos of the demolition here

And of the restored Broiler here