I Love A Parade!

My grandmother, Vivian, grew up in a Jewish orphanage in San Francisco, sent there with her sisters by their father after the death of their mother. This, my great-grandfather assessed, was the best he could do for his girls. The women in charge would do better for them than he could. He was a struggling haberdasher nearing the end of the first decade of the 1900s.

My grandmother didn’t like to talk about her time in orphanage. The youngest of the three girls she was left behind when the other two married early to escape. She made a few intermittent stops but by the end of 1930s she was settled in Redwood City, CA, then a small town on the Peninsula, south of the big City. A place that boasted “Climate Best by Government Test”, as well as the oldest and largest Independence Day parade in the state.

I have no actual evidence that either statement is true but when you’re homegrown, you go with it. I grew up there and never missed that parade. Each year my dad took us downtown to see the marching bands, baton twirlers, mounted regiments, floats, veterans, scouts, and color guards strut proudly down Main Street and Broadway as we wriggled through the crowd for a better view. As long as my grandmother lived in Redwood City, we stopped at her place to take her with us.

She was an old-fashioned patriot. She could be moved to tears at the playing of the National Anthem. For one who saw so much pain in her early life she told me many times her saddest days occurred at the news of the murders of John and Robert Kennedy. I saw her cry with grief, outrage, and defeat when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. Heinous acts committed against patriots, men who died for their country. She considered these the darkest days of the nation because they were “inside jobs”. Americans killed by Americans.

Each time the flag would pass our outpost on parade day, my grandmother would stand, remove her hat, and put her hand over her heart. For every bar of the Star Spangled Banner she stood, posture erect, until the last note had rung through the crowd.

Not to make light, but imagine how many times at an Independence Day parade the flag would pass and the anthem play. My grandmother was a human jumping bean. Amazing reflex action for an old woman. My dad, her son, and my brothers and I all followed her lead, without question, because it was proper. With her on that day, we were all patriots, thanking the men and women everywhere throughout the years for the gift of freedom.

No doubt this daughter of eastern European emigre, born the year after the big quake of ’06, raised in an orphanage, having survived the Great Depression and two world wars, understood better than I ever will the meaning of the day. She understood the depth of courage and decency, resilience and devotion to freedom that parade represented, and all the parades throughout the USA, in cities and townships, villages and suburbs. On floats and in wagons. Fancy and not.

She didn’t live long enough to meet my son. Had she, she would have seen us walk from our house to downtown on July 4th each year. She would have witnessed him skating the parade route selling Boy Scout flags to bystanders, the fourth generation to carry out our annual tradition at the state’s largest and oldest parade

I now realize that what I have held as a family event, is a trek which renews our ties to each other and our tradition, and also to our community, city, and country. In the generational repetition the lines have blurred between personal and national history. They are intertwined.

Gen Five now adding to the fun and the tradition

The little girl from the orphanage created the family she longed for and the tethers she craved. Each time the flag passes before us in the city where (apparently) climate is best by government test, we will stand as though no other possibility exists as we will again for the National Anthem. Many, many times. We will stand for the patriots who came before, and for my grandmother.

What are your family traditions? Stories? Menus? Rituals? Just please don’t tell me your parade is larger or weather better. You know it would break my heart.

Enjoy your holiday weekend. Be safe. Please remember those who sacrificed all for all we have today.

Climate, Engineers and Dad

“Climate Best by Government Test” is what they say about the town where I was raised. At some point Redwood City had a weather station. Based on a pre-WWI study the claim was its weather was similar to the Canary Islands and tied for best in the world.

It’s pretty good weather, I’ll admit, but the sign should say, “Climate Mostly Best…”.

When weary winter morphs into spring’s mid-90s temps, it feels pretty danged hot but a welcome respite from rain and drear. The heat sets fruit on budding trees, swimming pools beckon, and students revel in the knowledge that the year’s final school bell isn’t far away. But in September and October when the kids of summer have been shoved back into their stuffy classrooms and temps again reach the century mark, climate doesn’t feel best by anyone’s test. It’s a mostly situation.

I’ll come back to the weather in a moment.

Growing up an engineer’s daughter was a mostly proposition as well. Mostly great when a hair dryer blew for the last time before blowing up, or a toaster wouldn’t toast. Especially if one’s old Karmann Ghia suddenly went kaput when heading out for school or work. Being an engineer’s daughter was a downright blessing on those occasions.

4cbdc5fbf25f9d63ead5ef8d01491593--chatty-cathy-doll-toysNot so much on Christmas morning though when at eight years old my new Chatty Cathy was requisitioned for scientific observation. How does she talk?

I don’t know, Dad, but please give her back!

Three things called to my dad’s engineering spirit – curiosity, necessity and whimsy. Chatty Cathy? Curiosity. A two-sided jack-o’-lantern affixed to a BBQ rotisserie motor, rotating fright and fierce on one side, glee and gladness on the other? Novel whimsy! Even better. Hero to neighborhood kids as well as his own. SCORE!  

 It was a long time before we had a new car. My parents waxed poetic about their brand spankin’ new 1950 Plymouth purchased soon after marriage. I found photos in Mom’s albums, Betsy the green Plymouth all shined up with young Dad standing proudly at her side. But after I was born and the two boys followed, used cars in varying conditions became the norm. The old Plymouth, no longer reliable transportation, was sold to make way for a station wagon, good for carpooling.

In 1964 Dad bought Mom the car of her fancy, the first new one since Betsy. It was ordered in a special color and she impatiently awaited its delivery. A 1965 Pontiac Le Mans coupe in “Iris Mist. ” For the unfamiliar, that’s metallic lavender. She asked for white interior. A real lady’s car, or maybe a lady of the night? Never mind…  We kids perfected a contortion act to first fold ourselves into the back seat and then stay put, fighting about whose turn it was to sit the middle with no room for legs.

This is actually a GTO, same year, same color, same body except for the air scoop

Mom’s pride. Our torture.

Why Dad chose to go rogue with engineering creativity in her car I have no idea, but he did – to the delight of his kids, the annoyance of his wife, and a red light and siren pull-over by law enforcement.

Silly Putty came in different containers, most frequently the Silly Putty egg. At holidays there was novelty packaging. For instance, a skeleton head at Halloween.

A little drilling was all it took to add small red bulbs as eyes and a bit of wiring to connect the plastic head to the brake and turn lights of Mom’s fantastic machine. The skull sat happily on the back deck behind the seat, its luminous eyes beaming, blinking, and braking the driver’s intentions.

1960s-monster-print-putty-loose_1_cbf5ddad86b916cafb46cb65ce3f572fTexas State Police weren’t impressed by Dad’s automotive innovation, but we were ecstatic.  Rear seat crowding was overlooked in order to be closer to his invention.

Did Mom alert law enforcement? A mystery. Also an effective take-down notice.

Definitely Dad whimsy.

Back to the dog days of Redwood City’s long summer turned autumn. I think of scratchy, itchy pleated wool uniform skirts that rubbed against my perspiring, sticky legs while seated at my desk. A hot September school day.

After a roasting afternoon of classes my brothers and I arrived at home (in the city with Climate Mostly Best by Government Test), to find a wooden painting ladder standing in the entry hall. Atop the ladder was the huge aluminum pot my mother and grandmother used for boiling gnocchi. Inside the pot was a block of ice sitting in water. Hanging from the ceiling above the pot was a kitchen tea towel just long enough to touch the icy slurry. The ladder was placed in front of the cold air return of our forced air furnace. The heat was off but the fan was on, sucking cool moist air from the towel into the return and out vents throughout the house. Dad swamp cooled the place with his ladder, ice, a towel and a pasta pot. A bit of whimsy. Mostly necessity.

I live a couple of towns away now, slightly cooler and nearer to the beach. There aren’t as many sweltering days but when they arrive as they did this week, they seem all the warmer because of their rarity. It’s then I remember again the ladder, the towel, the icy pasta pot, and my dad. The man who could fix anything, or violate it depending on point of view.

Climate Best by Government Test? Today there’s some dispute except by those who were raised there like Dad and me, or live there still where the original sign proudly announces your arrival to downtown.

Some would argue, mostly.

But there’s no arguing about Dad, our mostly perfect engineer, whom I miss mostly every day. I miss the usefulness and the whimsy, the imagination and innovation of his engineering mind, his dad jokes and his dad laughs. His dad engineering evaluations of purchases large and small, from can openers to cars.

I mostly miss his dad smiles, and dad smell when collecting dad hugs. There was no mostly about how he loved us, especially Mom. That he did completely.

Thinking of you today, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. I miss everything about you.

Donald Dee Hester 1928 – 2013