Displaced by a Fire

It could have been worse. Much worse.

Instead, my remarkable recovery from abdominal surgery – repair of a distended hernia – and an occupational therapy professor’s oversight probably saved my life.

Let’s review the past 15 days. On April 21, I underwent the uncertainty of surgery, the expectation of an invasive operation, with surgeon John M. Roberts in charge. The threat of complications was on the table, requiring overnight medical observation in Kaiser Permanente’s Sunnyside Medical Center.

The preparation was easy, though – full of promise. No awful goop to drink in advance. The only requirement: nothing to eat or drink for eight hours preceding my date with a scalpel at 5:30 am. Once I was cleared to go upstairs and an IV administered in a surgical pre-op room, I felt reassured, especially after my surgeon arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of vim and vigor.

I looked around at my surroundings. I counted at least 30 pre-op rooms like mine, all in use simultaneously, turning this section of Sunnyside into a virtual factory. Welcome to Advanced Medical Care in a Time of Covid-19.

Anesthesia was applied so precipitously that I never got a chance to count down from 100. And four hours later, I was awakened by the anesthesia team with great news. The mesh that now held my hernia’s unsightly distension was inserted laparoscopically during a marathon procedure. Because surgery was mostly non-invasive, recovery promised to be a snap.

And it was. I received a modest supply of oxycodone from the hospital’s pharmacy (after responding to four separate text notices the prescribed pain pills were ready for pickup). I took two of the tablets at six-hour intervals in the hospital, and one pill a day later. Otherwise, I avoided them completely, having been pre-warned about its constipating side effect. Furthermore, I don’t like the blurry aftereffect when the pills kick in.

Once Kaiser released me, I was on the mend. Two days later, I walked briskly for a half-mile under the care of my cousin Margaret and her cairn (a breed of dog) around a tony Tigard, Oregon neighborhood. I was recovering rapidly. No sweat!

Three days later, John White, former occupational therapy professor at Pacific University, transported me 50 miles to my Longview, Wash. townhouse. The good professor brought a sleeping bag on which to stay overnight, along with his trademark guitar, and we enjoyed a smashing good time watching the 2012 Oscar-nominated movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” The next morning, after White fried up two eggs, a sizable portion of hash browns (and spicy pork sausage for me), we journeyed to Lake Sacajawea to traipse along the park’s tree-lined gravel paths.

Professor John White at Lake Sacajawea..

Three hours later and two miles under my belt, with my body feeling fit as a Southern fiddle, White pronounced me in perfect condition and we drove back from the park. Upon entering my townhouse, I walked into a smoke-filled maze, looking around to find the cause of the smoke, and discovered the outside southeast corner of my apartment was smoldering.

My next-door neighbor, Ned Rauth, immediately appeared, admitting culpability by using a hand-held blowtorch to kill weeds adjacent to my apartment. Hmmm, stupid is as stupid does, but why did he ensconce himself inside his apartment to watch TV and fail to extinguish the fire?

He tried using a garden hose, but why was it still smoldering, emitting toxic smoke throughout my apartment? Why did he leave the scene of the fire? Had he called the fire department? Or was he just avoiding the aftermath of what he had done?

No matter; I called the fire department. Within 10 minutes, an engine company showed up to put out the smoldering mess, stabilizing my living quarters and the contents therein.

The fire is extinguished, but the carpet inside shows how close disaster struck.

What if Professor White had not accompanied me? What would have happened if my rehabilitation proved to be troublesome, and I went to sleep inside my apartment instead of walking around the park?

The fire department determined my hard-wired smoke detector wasn’t working. Knowing that smoke inhalation is the No. 1 killer from a house fire, I readily admit I am lucky!

But let’s imagine I waited a day to return home. Yes, I would have survived, but all my personal records, data, pictures and memorabilia would have gone up in smoke. So much for the book!

As far as recovery is concerned, ServPro is on hand to clean my clothes, possessions – as well as everything my late wife, Alice, used to appoint and decorate our dwelling. Most everything of sentimental value looks to be recoverable.

Industrial-strength fans have been in force since April 27, constantly scrubbing the air inside, but at night it’s cold inside (upper 40s to low 50s) since all the windows must remain open. I’ve learned to close off one room – my office – and put on the heat to temporarily avoid the outside chill. Looking ahead, only some of my three-year-old plush carpet may require replacement, especially the living room, but I suspect (hopefully) my furniture and electronics will remain undisturbed.

Until the recovery is complete, I spend nights inside a Quality Inn room, and may stay there as long as four more weeks.

So am I complaining? Nah!

A wheelbarrow holds the damaged pieces of my townhouse.

That’s all the belly-aching I can withstand. I could feel sorry for myself, but what would that accomplish? No sir. It’s back to work on Chapter 10, “Square Grouper,” because that’s the next integral part of my true-life love story, She Danced on Bandstand.

Up and at ’em!

Alice Begins Star Journey

Once Alice snaked her right arm around my neck in Doylestown’s Marketplace, I was hooked.

“Oh, here you are, dear,” she cooed loudly. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

The two “honeys” on the other side of the bar I had been impressing with tales of derring-do emitted muted harrumphs, paid their tab hurriedly and left the building quicker than Elvis. “This guy is married,” they must have thought. “What a cad.” I bet they muttered more explicit language under their breath.

Alice grinned bigger than a jack o’ lantern; she had me all to herself.

The woman towering over my bar seat measured a full 6’3″. And I was struck by her boldness. All my life, I supported women becoming emancipated; finally at age 67, I met one. It was put up or shut up time; otherwise, I was a fraud.

Alice was pleased as I described our route through Colorado and beyond.

That’s how I met Alice McCormick on September 24, 2010. One year later, on September 24, we committed to one another utilizing a guide for gay and lesbian couples to demonstrate support for same-sex couples. Our commitment became a solemn promise, because an Apache prayer recited by Danawa Buchanan, self-appointed chief of the Allegheny Cherokee, made it so. The ceremony was guided by David DiPasquale, an interfaith minister with the township’s Pebble Hill Church.

Alice had a rough life, but SHE DANCED ON BANDSTAND. That’s all I needed to know. It didn’t matter she danced in the back row in ABC affiliate’s Philadelphia studio. Because of her Amazon-like height, whenever she bopped in rhythm with other girls, the TV studio and number of dancers appeared greater than the cramped physical space allowed.

Saying I would be the last man she ever loved, we moved to Oregon (the “left” Coast, we were told) in September 2014, a harrowing journey described elsewhere on this website. Six months afterward, Alice endured a stroke. Unlike the 90 percent of men who leave after their partners suffer a stroke, I stuck around. By comparison, 90 percent of women don’t leave a male partner. Loving is the meaning of the game; it means being around when a stroke survivor needs a friend the most.

Due to our new life in Oregon, later into Washington, Alice quickly became an inspiration for student nurses, administrators, stroke survivors and related care partners. At the Aphasia Network’s spring and summer camps on Garibaldi’s spectacular peninsula, I witnessed how Alice bonded with stroke survivors barely able to speak, encouraging all in a foreign unspoken language.

I fell deeply in love with Alice witnessing how she made friends with anyone who needed her ear. Those who no longer can rely on enunciated speech will substitute sounds, make gestures and point to turn a conversation into two-way communication. Alice knew this intuitively! Even better, she managed me (something men need to curb brutish behavior). I learned to appear brilliant by not saying a word. What a woman!

My time on Earth with Alice was cut short on March 27, 2020, after she suffered her ultimate coronary end. She never became stricken with Covid, an ailment she insisted we shun like the plague, so yes we managed to stay safe.

But now she was gone, and I faced the heartbreaking task of having her precious body cremated. With the help and encouragement of my first cousin, Margaret Johnston, we arranged it. The grief was seismic for Margaret, too. Alice instantly related to Margaret like a true sister.

So how did I manage without Alice? The pandemic was tough enough, but as a former Miami TV/radio/audio-video writer, I found more than enough distractions to get me through. But two questions continued to nag on me, “How should I dispose of Alice’s ashes? And when?”

The Northhead lighthouse, northern end of Long Beach peninsula, similar to lighthouse at Cape Disappointment. Photograph by Rick Schafer.

Alice was attracted to lighthouses, especially the one at Cape May, NJ. During our first visit to Long Beach, Washington, I watched her pulse quicken as we scaled the steep driveway leading to the Cape Disappointment lighthouse. The structure’s revolving lamp possessed majestic candlepower to guide ships entering or exiting the vast Columbia River’s manifest destiny.

It made sense to scatter Alice’s ashes on the Pacific Ocean’s beach north of the lighthouse, ending the continent-ending journey we undertook to escape the hard life she experienced growing up in Philly.

And when? Our commitment ceremony firmly established one year – precisely – as our timeline.

I realized my mission of remembrance seemed foolhardy. After all, the month of March was notorious for serious storms moving parallel to the coastline; nevertheless, I kept moving ahead. There was a slim chance the weather would be benign, since Alice, Margaret and I once enjoyed a 72-degree St. Patrick’s Day on Long Beach. That day, we made faces at one another marveling about Long Beach’s unusual warmth while folks inland were under clouds and cooler. But this time the odds were significantly not in my favor.

Somehow Alice must have prepared our way. Gale warnings were hoisted for Sunday, March 28. But on the day before Saturday, March 27th, the anniversary of Alice’s passing and our precious remembrance, weather conditions on the beach turned serene. Oh sure, it was cool – 50 degrees air temperature, water temperature to match – but the usual gusty wind off the water calmed down to a reasonable 10 miles an hour in advance of an onrushing winter storm.

(l-r) Kailey Cox, Kyna Seale, Jordan Horner and Taylor Luty.

Six of Alice’s fans from the Aphasia Network had driven out to the Coast to be welcomed for an introductory dinner by my First Cousin Margaret and her friend, Bruce Douglas.

From the moment John White arrived, Kailey Cox warmed up by practicing guitar with a distinguished picker of melodies. Photograph by Kyna Seale

Later, Douglas built a traditionally correct, crackling bonfire – for an after-dinner observance at which we related tales of Alice’s inspiration that mesmerized each of our hearts while she walked this planet.

As we huddled close to the warmth of the talkative fire, John White, a dedicated professor of occupational therapy and semi-professional troubadour, performed songs chosen for the occasion. Two numbers  – Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and John Lennon’s “Imagine”  – stood out as I sang along. In Doylestown, Alice had gifted me the sheet music for both songs so I could play them on her basement’s player piano.

While darkness shifted into a protective embrace around our retinue, a full moon glowed above our heads peering down through a thin, steady layer of clouds. No glare; moonlight was glowing blue across the sand! And Alice would love this extra touch; March 27th was Passover!

The good professor performed Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” a song that speech therapist Jordan Horner inspired Alice to join her in a sing-along, facilitating her recovery at RIO (Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon). White capped off the songlist with Willie Nelson’s song of forbearance, “One Day at a Time:”

“I live one day at a time,
I dream one dream at a time,
Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow’s blind,
I live one day at a time.”

With my voice straining to reach the high notes, thus came the moment to gather the bag with Alice’s ashes, with the purpose of casting them across the waves.

The creeping darkness honored us with anonymity as we padded across the soft sand. Photograph by Kyna Seale

Astonishingly enough, the onshore wind settled down even more, as our sacred gathering padded across the firm, pleasantly cool, beach sand for almost half a mile before our party made its way to the water’s edge at low tide. I looked up to the reassuring full moon, noticing how its blue reflection outlined the incoming waves, on guard for “sneaker waves” known to sweep unsuspecting visitors out to sea.

As my guests kept watch, I didn’t have to walk far into the water until I was up to my knees. I opened wide the heavy cellophane bag, turning it upside down, and saw Alice’s remains sweep slightly toward shore, until the breeze succumbed into a dead calm. Then her ashes dropped vertically to surround my legs. This wind was unpredictable!

Suddenly, I became thunderstruck by the culmination of a sacred mission; how did I manage this feat so deliberately without pausing? Without any doubt?

Everyone gave me a pat of congratulations as I emerged from the water, but I barely felt their happy hands. I was oblivious to White, who sang softly while walking the full distance playing his guitar. I focused my attention to the four forces of nature that gathered together this special night: water, air, earth and fire. What could have been more perfect for Alice’s remembrance than the environment Creator set?

As another chill encouraged our party to head off quickly toward the bonfire, leaving me straggling behind, something amazing happened.

While staring at the ground to ensure safe passage, I felt a warm breeze from shore envelop me, an answer from the seabreeze, another reassuring shift from one to the other, until suddenly I felt thrust into a mist-shrouded vortex that seemed to circle into the heavens above. What a bizarre occurrence!

I sloughed it off as nothing to remember.

(l-r) John White waving arms, Mason Loika, Bruce Douglas and Margaret Johnston. Photograph by Kyna Seale

Three days later, though, while at a doctor’s appointment, the attending nurse kept me later than usual.

Why? Because my heart was racing so fast she feared for my safety.

I had to tell her why. I realized the mist-shrouded vortex reaching heaven-bound three days ago was Alice’s embrace from a parallel universe, as she welcomed her Star Journey. Tears flooded my face, and I heard Alice’s voice call out, “Thank you.”

Her cry of appreciation infused the awareness that I had fulfilled her ultimate dream: moving the two of us to the West Coast into an area eminently inhabitable. What glories I was gifted! To love a woman like Alice? A woman who could love me, and moved heaven and Earth, not just for me but for members of Portland’s Aphasia Network as well?

The more I know, the more I realize what I don’t know. But one thing is for sure.

I will sing praises to Alice McCormick forevermore, because on March 27th, 2021, I experienced an unabashed encounter with eternity. It was a lovely remembrance.

Justice Is Served

A new comment relating to Alice McCormick’s and my predicament after moving West in 2014 is now on this website, goodbye-luther-bates.

As longtime friends learned back then, Alice and I were scammed by her former neighbor, Lu Bates. Everything we owned was back in Doylestown, being held by Bates in violation of his promise via a prepaid contract to ship everything to our new address. The photo above shows some of the boxes, including all my press clippings from Miami and Doylestown. Needless to say, I was bereft and inconsolable.

My cousin, Margaret Johnston, remembers our predicament. If it were not for some clothes she donated, we would have been completely ruined. And who was our eventual white knight? Bucks County Consumer Affairs Protection, eventually leading us to Bates’ probation officer.

photo of man
Luther Bates

The comment I received yesterday (Friday) is from Bates’ first wife. She learned he is doing four years’ time at Pennsylvania’s Camp Hill prison for other dastardly deeds. I have confirmed his imprisonment; therefore, I am releasing all letters received in response to the May 2015 post about the friendly neighbor who lived across the street. What we didn’t know: He already had lost his conscience.

Alice would be pleased.

Joan Baez to Receive Kennedy Center Honor

I grew up with a gourmet taste in music, having once played Mozart for Louis Armstrong. I attended many fine concerts, including Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Bette Midler Folk music appealed aplenty, because it pointed out hypocrisies to fundamental American ideals.

At first, I didn’t think of activism when I first heard the voice of Joan Baez on her debut album 60 years ago. Instead, I was thunderstruck and immediately thought of Maria Callas. Had Ms. Callas revised her repertoire?

No, the voice I heard was different, but oh so pure. It struck me like perfection. That is how Joan Baez entered my consciousness via Vanguard Records.

Over many, many years, I adored Ms. Baez from afar, admiring her short-term relationship to Bob Dylan, while reading and re-reading her inspired words to husband David Harris, “I even think I see the birth of a real revolution, if our weapon remains the power of love … and if we keep doing it one day at a time.”

There is a song with that title – and a record album to go with it – called “One Day at a Time.” I cannot sing it without my voice breaking with emotion. That’s the power she interprets into Willie Nelson’s song.

Ms. Baez now is scheduled to receive the ultimate tribute, in my opinion, an artist can receive: Kennedy Center Honoree. Other honorees for the newest cast of characters are choreographer Debbie Allen, Garth Brooks, country artist Garth Brooks, classical violinist Midori and comedy legend Dick Van Dyke. The event is currently scheduled sometime for the third week of May 2021, and for nationwide CBS broadcast June 6.

Think of the changes the pandemic has brought upon us: wearing masks almost constantly, self quarantining (in my case, without Alice) and all the associated fear. Now think of the good things: cleaner air, fewer automobiles, more people working from home and growing libraries of great entertainment including, best of all, an end to U.S. Presidents boycotting the Kennedy Center Honors.

Ms. Baez deserves to be seen and heard all across this country. Perhaps then some enterprising musical entrepreneur will at long last give her rendition (with Jeffrey Shurtleff) of “(I Live) One Day at a Time” the exposure it deserves. “Seven Bridges Road” ain’t too shabby, either.

Bravo, Ms. Baez!

Happy Valentine’s Day

Maybe you heard about the snowstorm we experienced two days ago. Down in Portland, precipitation fell as ice, up to a full inch! Fortunately for southwest Washington, we received more than six inches of snow and no ice as temperatures remained below freezing.

That much snow is rare in the Pacific Northwest valleys tucked in between the Cascades and the Coast Range. When any frozen precipitation occurs, the whole area virtually shuts down. That’s because Oregon and Washington have few snowplows and a fraction of the salt elsewhere in the country. Portland would rather use de-icer, accounting for stranded vehicles attempting to traverse hilly areas and increasingly vocal complaints from East Coasters.

So our snow was the most reported in over nine years. Tonight, the weather forecast suggests as temperatures begin to fall, we may get some ice, but nowhere what Portland received. In the week ahead, temperatures should rise and stay in the mid-40s with rain, allowing streets to fully recover in short order. Nevertheless, I felt obliged to shovel a path from my townhouse’s garage to access a navigable street a few feet away.

As I was midway in clearing a paved area where I could freely back out, a little girl, whom I will identify as Penelope, with resplendent red hair and an ear-to-ear smile asked if she could help. I noted she did not ask if I NEEDED help, she asked if she COULD.

Big difference.

I directed Penelope’s efforts, and 20 minutes later told her we were finished, she prepared to run off, yelling “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

No snow melted then, but my heart did. I gave her a five-spot, and told Penelope to share it with her brother.

Although taller than me, Alice happily rested her head on my bony shoulder.

This was my first Valentine’s Day without Alice supervising me, but I know she would be proud.

I think you will, too. From the Rose City (Portland) where my wife and I first moved, then discovering a modest Washington town 60 miles away where residents happily grow up with small-town values, Happy Valentine’s Day!

A Change in Plans to Celebrate Alice’s Life

I apologize, but plans to celebrate at the Coast one year after Alice’s passing have changed.

It’s true I will be at the Adrift Hotel in Long Beach, WA on March 27 to scatter some of Alice’s ashes, as tradition dictates, but I will be more mournful on that day. After 10 months of isolation, my heart says that to hold the kind of celebration Alice deserves, it should occur after the pandemic is under control. It should occur when physical touch is no longer frowned upon. And it should occur in Garibaldi where the sound of the ocean will take Alice on her spirit journey.

I know my eyes will fill with tears when I revisit the myriads of people whom Alice inspired, and that’s the way I want to remember her. Alice will look down and witness the warmth of every hug offered on such an occasion. It’s true what Kailey Cox said, “Alice was amazing.”

Kailey’s intuitive words will stay with me until the end of time. It’s also a comfort to remember how momentous Alice’s love was to me – an itinerant writer and Quaker – who couldn’t help but love her back. Alice showed me something Quakers have yet to figure out. You don’t wage peace; you wage love, and peace will result.

After a panic attack yesterday, I learned I was reacting to the time delineator called March 27 that traditionally means more to our planet than it does to Alice. I shall honor this insight, and plan accordingly.

Thank you for honoring my vision.

Alice McCormick 3/6/44 – 3/27/20

How a Christmas photo Session went Awry

See the Christmas photo above? There’s a story behind it, and you may interpret “behind” literally.

A week before Christmas, 2012 in Alice’s Doylestown, Pennsylvania home, she and I put together a holiday photo session with Josh and Millie, our two cats. I set my camera on a tripod in front of the living room’s distinguished six-foot-tall, trimmed Christmas tree. Alice’s pride of her handiwork in front of the room’s magnificent fireplace was plain to see.

Next, I set the self-timer. While Alice held Josh, I grabbed hold of Millie, but as the shutter went off, Millie was not facing forward.

The sound of the shutter frightened Josh whose claws caused Alice to let go, so I was left holding Millie while Alice went into the kitchen to pour some milk into a bowl.

Millie immediately chased after Josh, so I decided to re-position the camera so Alice and I could sit on the floor and allow the cats to find our floor-friendly location more animal-friendly.

Alice managed to get comfortable, but as I hurried to get into position, the shutter started clicking away. As you can see, I was over 60 and no longer adept in moving quickly.

By the time the camera’s shutter clicked again, something untoward happened: I farted — involuntarily and loudly, resulting in the photo at the top of this post.

Alice couldn’t contain herself, and as she laughed unabashedly at the implausible situation, so did I. I could never be indifferent to Alice’s infectious laugh, and neither could anyone we met.

It helps my state of mind to celebrate Alice this time of year, and now you know why our expressions look why they do.

Immediately after the photo was taken, we realized how well the camera captured our spontaneous joy, so we ordered copies of the infamous photo and placed them inside Christmas cards to all our friends.

Now you know the full story of a photo session gone awry, but it’s one of my favorite memories. Merry Christmas!

The End of Musical Innocence

Forty years ago, I lived in Miami, Florida, a resort city where I grew up, although born in Manhattan. Being a Miami Dolphins fan had become part and parcel of a true Miamian, although the team was experiencing a so-so year. Nevertheless, the usual mild December weather, savvy tourism officials and our usually competitive gridiron team attracted ABC Sports to reschedule the Dolphins’ intra-divisional rivalry with the New England Patriots onto Monday Night Football.

Those were the days of local pro-football TV blackouts if games didn’t sell out 72 hours before kick-off, so fans like me who couldn’t afford to squeeze into the Orange Bowl were relegated to listening to the radio broadcast on station WIOD-AM.

On December 8, 1980, through the third quarter, the game had been lackluster, each team only managing to put up 6 points on the scoreboard. I lay restless on the bed, my imagination only stirred by the vivid play-by-play narration from Rick Weaver as Hank Goldberg added color commentary. As the quarter ended, the usual two minutes of commercials filled the warm night air.

Before the perfunctory station ID could be heard, though, a stern voice announced, “We interrupt this program for a news bulletin.” About 10 seconds of “dead air” followed, until the sound of a microphone moved across a table and an out-of-breath announcer uttered, “John Lennon has been shot in New York City in front of the building he loved, the Dakota, by Central Park.” He paused only a moment to clear the emotion from his voice to add, “We have confirmed that he was shot dead, killed by an unknown assailant. We now return you to our regularly scheduled program.”

I was stunned. Apparently, so were approximately 80,000 “Dol-fans” packed inside the Orange Bowl who, like me, were listening on transistor radios. It became impossible to tell the audio feed of the game’s broadcast had returned, because all one could hear was silence. The usual buzz of the shocked crowd disappeared, and it was heart-breaking. Simon and Garfunkel had it right; “Hello darkness, my old friend.”

“The Sounds of Silence” were deafening.

Tony Auth’s editorial cartoon

Two days later, I contacted the clerk’s office of the City of Miami Commission to get myself on the next meeting’s agenda. In my grief, because I heard a move was afoot in New York to reserve a section of Central Park called “Strawberry Fields” as a remembrance for Lennon, I hoped to do the same locally. A lot of “snowbirds” from New York migrated to our city during the winter. The park downtown had been officially named Bicentennial Park in 1976, and because of the newly established “New World” theme being sought for the area, I wanted to rename the park, “John Lennon New World Park.”

I contacted Miami’s top deejay, Rick Shaw, and asked him to join me at the commission meeting to stir the community into action. I also contacted Tony Auth, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, because his stunning depiction of the “scales of justice” vividly showed how one bullet outweighed the litany of music Lennon created. Auth generously blew up his cartoon and mailed it to me, which a local artist supply shop then framed.

Rick Shaw and I were virtually ignored. We sat through two hours of interminable commission procedural nonsense, our pleas ignored until our cause was referred to an obscure committee, who refused to hear the petition. Miami is not known for its progressive ideology, and the idea of a memorial to a radical “leftist” was summarily buried along with his memory.

Mason Loika, limo driver.

When I left Miami in 2003, I found a new home base in the outskirts of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where I began to make a name for myself as a photojournalist for the Bucks County Herald. I was only paid a pittance for my work, some of it making the front page, so I kept the wolves from the door by working as a limousine driver.

Bucks County is regarded as a playground for bored Manhattanites, boasting residents best described as well-heeled who commute to the Big Apple, only 80 road miles away. That’s how I became a regular driver for a prominent public relations partner on Madison Avenue firm who owned an apartment at 1 W. 72nd Street, better known as the Dakota building, where Lennon was assassinated.

Although I drove the six-passenger limo shown above on “nights on the town,” I regularly negotiated the Hudson River’s crossings in a Lincoln Towncar, my heart leaping into the throat each time I pulled into the building’s secure alcove, avoiding the stare of camera-toting tourists looking to impose upon the building’s apartment owners.

One night while awaiting my passengers to arrive, a well-dressed, dark-haired woman with exotic features spoke to me:

“Hello there,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”

I looked around; my passengers had yet to arrive. “No, I don’t think so,” I stammered.

She answered her own question, saying, “I’m Lauren Bacall.”

My mouth dropped open. Lauren Bacall? Out of the blue? Humphrey Bogart’s heart-throb?

Before I had a chance to find my voice, my passengers arrived, and I was summarily engaged to load their bags for my humble position as a chauffeur in Bucks County. As I carefully backed out of the Dakota’s alcove, I looked around at the cameras clicking as tourists were drawn into the macabre circus-like sidewalk where Lennon was killed.

What a coincidence, though. I never bragged about my attempt to honor John Lennon back in Miami. I doubt my passengers would have cared; they lived in a world far different than me. But I will never forget the hallowed ground on which I walked, because John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s artistic expressions made a difference in this war-weary world in which we live. And their activism caused me to recognize my Quaker identity.

All they were saying – 40 years ago – was, “Give Peace a Chance.”

A Socially Distant Family Thanksgiving

Last week my niece, Kessa, reminded me what family means by saying 13 simple words, “I love my dad – he’s the best I could have ever hoped for.”

Her unconditional love toward Chris revealed the same bond I felt toward my mother, Thelma. Mom wrote a remembrance about how she married a talented New York City big-band musician and started a family in South Florida on my website, called “Virgil’s Story.” How she single-handedly kept the family in one piece testifies to her ingenuity, persistence, warrior spirit and maternal love.

In 1969, brother Chris Loika Englert married a girl who lived two houses away – not quite the girl next door, but pretty damn close. I found his hand-written marriage invitation earlier this November, which was sent to my Los Angeles address as a birthday card. “I’m getting married April 4 (Friday). If you can, come on down and see another person led to his doom. If you have any doubts as to who – it’s MaryLou.”

Nine years later, I enthusiastically followed my brother’s lead. Instead of a neighbor, I married “a nice Jewish girl,” who carried the seed from at least 30 nights’ passionate lovemaking in a North Bay Harbor Island condominium above Biscayne Bay. When presented with the moral responsibility I faced, my expectant wife-to-be’s family proposed an instant marriage before a Justice of the Peace in Golden Beach, a quaint town north of North Miami Beach.

I didn’t reject the idea of responsibility; after our matter-of-fact ceremony, I soon awaited a doctor’s confirmation of her pregnancy and planned a celebration immediately thereafter. That’s when I encountered the ultimate betrayal. My wife underwent an on-demand abortion in the city’s ghetto side of town accompanied only by her mother.

While I sat at the foot of the stairs for two-and-a-half hours outside our Miami Shores apartment building, trying my best to keep a bottle of celebratory champagne chilled, I waited, and waited, and waited some more. Then in confusion, I went upstairs where a phone call from my bride’s mother an hour later revealed the awful truth.

That was the terrible price I paid when my newly discovered three-member family, who descended from Egypt, expected me to completely reject my mother’s influence. After I couldn’t awake from an expectant parent’s ultimate nightmare, I filed for divorce in two weeks, and the court approved our annulment nine months later.

Last week in the Covid-19 world of 2020, I spent the day after Thanksgiving with my cousin, Margaret, surrounded by socially distant well-wishers from our Johnston clan, and I was served ceremonial turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, rolls and two heaping portions of love.

While reflecting on my mother’s Southern roots, I wondered why it wasn’t acceptable to become attached to both families. Was it our two religions? I later married for a second time – a marriage that lasted 22 years – whereupon Wife #1 phoned one night seeking to have an affair while I was relatively happy. Was she serious? Did she expect a repeat performance?

What nerve! How awful! How painful!

This year, Thanksgiving 2020 was filled with lots of needless curiosity about my preschool years, which came to an abrupt end, thanks to my niece’s unabashed expression of a daughter’s love for her father. Somehow, I began reflecting on the innocence lost from my first passionate marriage and the child I never knew. Perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but I miss having a son’s and/or daughter’s affection.

Who knew tragedy could co-exist with a horn of plenty adorning a holiday table? What a dichotomy.

I Cry for My Country

I am supposed to be knee-deep in my memoir, but the last two weeks were too much. Through the miracle of television, the same medium my grandmother and I watched the 1956 Democratic and Republican conventions together, I fell prey to the frenzy of America’s 2020 election.

If I would have been old enough to vote 64 years ago, “I liked Ike.” He would have protected us.

As I grew older, my mother told me about David Rhys. He was a distant Welsh ancestor to our Johnston family, who after immigrating to America, changed the spelling of his surname to Reese. That was noteworthy because in 1775, David Reese signed the Declaration of Independence in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, one year before the USA declared its version. No wonder I was able to validate for myself that I was a Quaker – and a patriot.

I cry for my country.

The last time I felt so much hope for America – 1963 –  JFK was assassinated. I was on my way to a history class at the University of Florida when a fellow student asked me if I knew what just happened. I gave him a querulous look, so he replied, “Jack Kennedy just was shot.”

“That can’t happen,” I reasoned, but my disbelief was shattered when I saw a fellow classmate break down in tears. I cried too when Walter Cronkite’s voice broke while reading the hurriedly scripted report that Kennedy succumbed to his injuries.

I cry for my country.

What I thought was a worthwhile way to live became a nightmare again – and again – and again. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave birth to a dream, but his physical being was terminated in 1968. Next was Robert Kennedy, and I was shell-shocked.

Football was no escape for me. While listening to a radio broadcast of the Miami Dolphins-New England Patriots game in 1980, a breathless announcer told America that John Lennon had been summarily executed. Why? For preaching peace?

I cry for my country.

Political Celebration
An interesting photo showing Biden with an aura about his head.

Joe Biden was elected president in a bitterly contested election and is due to govern on January 20. I’ve seen this celebration before. Already, the current occupant calls the contest “corrupt” and is asking Republicans to destroy the outcome. As a first offensive he filed numerous lawsuits, particularly in Pennsylvania.

I want to believe again, I want to stand up and praise the U-S-of-A, and rail against terrorism because of 9/11, but what does America stand for? Is it our territory or a transitory idea? To watch a so-called president attack the nation’s most fundamental function – a fair election in the birthplace of our country – makes my Quaker blood boil.

#45 sets the stage for a fundamental evil that pervades this “land of the free.” He is guilty of treason, an enabler for future terrorist attacks on everything I hold near and dear. How can he continue to spout his poison? Is this free speech?

I cry for my country.

Postscript: On January 6, 2021, my worst fears came true, as the news media chronicled a failed attack on our Democracy and its Capitol.

How it was planned, who was involved, need to be uncovered, examined and dealt with in such a way as to hasten our late emergence into the 2000 Millennium. Few of us will survive in a new Civil War where mass destruction is possible.