Thursday, October 23, 2008


It is either the scent of a memory, or the memory of a scent that prods me to keep poking through the charred, black rubble. The December sky was always gray, and it was so odd to be standing in what used to be our cozy, dark living room underneath that gray sky. Inside outside. The outside all burned up, some of the inside left, if singed, around the edges.

We poked among the snow-dusted rubble. Any salvageable item would be carefully plucked from the charred black, placed in a pile. The scent of the memory was heady, almost sticky. Every salvageable item we'd find would have this cloying scent, the scent of a fireplace, almost sweet. The most impressionable image burned into my five-year old mind: the melted gaping maw of the glass and plastic television.

We moved across town, where I had to start finishing Kindergarten, attending a new school.

My memories of the days and months that followed were, in a word, weepy.

In hindsight, it seems kind of silly, but still do I remember weeping. I remember my weeping mother, boxes of tissues, weeping about the house plants and the kitties and the books and her crochet work and the pictures: the life we'd had in our small yellow house. She especially mourned the house plants: the spider plants she'd lovingly nursed from shoots.

Some time between the time I completed kindergarten and started first grade, we left Alaska. It was another change: back into the red Toyota Corolla station wagon and on the road again, back to the lower 48.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Northern Lights, Down in Flames (Part II)

A couple of years later, it was time to start going to school. I attended North Star Elementary, and from the very beginning, I loved school. Those hours of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, being read to and taught by my mother, had prepared me well.

In mid-December of 1985, things were going about as well as they could for a five-year-old. After all, I was the oldest, going to school. I was a hot-shot, for a Kindergarten kid (weren't we all?). My dad was in Las Vegas, working to earn money for the holiday, but that was okay since he'd be home for Christmas in a week or so. It must have been right after Turtle magazine had arrived in the mail, because I was in the bedroom of my parents, away from my pesky siblings, to read my favorite magazine.

And then I heard my mother scream my name like I'd never heard her scream. And again. I'd never heard her say my name quite like that before.

So I peeked out the door, entered the hallway.

In a flash, I saw the smoke and my mother, her eyes wild, literally dragging my two siblings by a tangle of hair and arms.

Before I knew what had happened, she had dragged me, too, and we were outside, across the street, watching our little yellow house being lapped up by smoke and flames. Hours later, when I finally emerged from the daze, I realized that the only thing I had escaped with was my clutched Turtle magazine.

The newspaper, Anchorage Daily News printed a photo of the rubble along with a small caption reporting that firefighters had taken over 45 minutes to arrive on the scene, by which time the house was a total loss. It also noted that a woman and three children had escaped unharmed, and that two pet cats didn't make it.

Fuzzy and Punky died in the fire.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Northern Lights, Down in Flames (Part I)

By the early 1980's, my dad had several years of experience in construction and was about as well-respected as one can be in that business: he worked for a contractor, hanging sheetrock on a number of the now-famous Las Vegas resort hotel and casino properties. Since Las Vegas is all about building up to tear down and build again, he rarely had a shortage of work. After awhile, he was doing well enough to upgrade our yellow VW beetle to a brand new, shiny, red Toyota Corolla station wagon.

Perhaps it was the new car, the wanderlust, hippie nature of my parents not wanting to raise a family in Las Vegas, or something else entirely -- I was too young to ask and will never know for sure -- but after three years, they decided it was time to move on. Where? Somewhere about as climatologically different from the hot, arid Las Vegas desert as can be imagined. In the summer of 1983, we packed our bodies and a meager amount of material belongings into the station wagon and hit the road for Anchorage, Alaska.

We rented a small yellow house on Cheechako St. Our yard was blooming with dandelions, "fuzzies," we'd call them when the season would change and the yellow flowers would turn to ripe-for-the-wind seed pods. We would purse our lips together and be like the wind, blowing the seeds off the stems, watching them lazy, drift on the air.

Soon thereafter, we also got our first family pets: two cats, Fuzzy and Punky. Fuzzy was named, undoubtedly for her fur's resemblance to the "fuzzies" in the yard. She was either a poofy or a fat, gray cat with extraordinary patience for children. Punky was a sassy little calico kitten, thus named after our favorite colorful television personality, Punky Brewster.

My mom was quite talented with a crochet hook and yarn, and she would watch us from the steps while making amazing things: dolls, ornaments for our tree -- snowflakes and snowmen and Santa's twelve reindeer, angels and elves -- for the upcoming holiday. Distinct memories of summertime: Fuzzy and Punky tearing after strands of yarn that my siblings and I would run around in circles in the yard of bursting dandelions.

My dad continued to work in drywall, but Anchorage, Alaska wasn't exactly the fastest growing city in the US then, so he'd fly back to Las Vegas, periodically, for work. Three children and times were tough.

My mother stayed at home with us. Days and nights were either long or short, depending upon the season. We had black garbage bags stapled to the windows, and I don't have much memory regarding sense of time or season on the indoors. During the harsh winters when the field of dandelions turned to white, days were filled with hours of PBS -- Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers -- and learning, reading, crayons and paper, being read to. We at a lot of Ramen noodles. My first magazine subscription, Turtle magazine was had in the small yellow house. Every time a new edition came in the mail, I was thrilled. I loved staring at the words, trying to figure out how to pronounce them, what they meant.

The periodic absence of my father was especially difficult for us, financially. Because he was in construction, a drywall hanger who worked for a contractor, he received no benefits or health insurance. Sometimes, when things were tough, my mom would take us to go stand in line at what I believe was the welfare office, though I can't be sure. It's strange how sometimes distinct memories can remain -- we were bundled up and up and up, until the layers of shirts and sweaters and coats and hats and scarves and gloves were deemed satisfactory to be subjected to the elements. The four of us would venture out into the cold, foggy Alaska morning with its eerie light, walking. My mom would have invariably packed hot chocolate and graham crackers for these trips, where we'd follow the streetlights and arrival meant we could finally open that warm hot chocolate, which was like steam from heaven underneath buzzing fluorescent lights.
Part II


Friday, October 3, 2008

There's No Place Like . . .

Most people are able to look back on their life and see a particular place as "home". Some part of their existence has ingrained itself into a geographic locale. Everybody has somewhere they "go way back," and no matter what happens they can close their eyes and imagine it in their mind's eye.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is able to return home to Kansas after clicking together her ruby red slippers and wistfully saying: "There's no place like home. There's no place like home." The whirlwind may have taken her away from her familiar place, people, comforts, but it didn't destroy her idea of home; she had it in her all along. Dorothy had a pretty good idea of what she was asking for so wistfully when she clicked those heels together: Kansas was and is all she knew.

Dorothy never knew how lucky she was.

Growing up, I never knew that feeling of "home"; the tornado was metaphoric. My parents were hippies, of a generation that technically didn't and couldn't "know" any better. My dad was born and raised in Southern California. Although my grandmother did her best to raise him with the Mormon Pioneer values she'd grown up with, she was essentially a single parent as my grandfather was serving his country. My dad was the second-born, a mischievous child who grew up as a friend of the Beach Boys.

My mother was from an East coast family. As a young woman, she was a cheerleader who'd been crowned "Miss New London." But something (the 60's) happened to turn her flower child. She roamed with the wind, attended Woodstock and followed the Beatles around London.

They met in Las Vegas.

In true au nautrel hippie form, my mother gave birth to me at home, on the floor of our home in Las Vegas. There were no midwives, no doctors, just her and me. It was a Sunday morning, and my father had to leave to get white thread to "cut" my umbilical cord. As the story goes, he couldn't find white thread, and when he got back home with the only kind of thread he could find, I was already born.

The first three or so years of my life were spent in Las Vegas, during which I acquired two siblings -- brothers. I don't really have any memories of that time of my life, but there are a few pictures: in nearly all of them, my mother is with child, and we are all smiling, happy. There was one particular photo of me and my little brother, Steve, we had our arms around each other, and lets just say that not all of our house plants in the background of that photo were entirely legal.