Sunday, May 29, 2016

Battleship Steering

My father’s parents lived colorful lives, filled with adventure, fueled by alcohol. For a time during World War II, my grandmother led a ‘Rosie the Riveter’ existence at the Naval Shipyards in Puget Sound. She landed the job after leaving her husband in Anchorage, Alaska with some attendant extra-marital drama.

I learned this through conversations with my father during the last three years of his life. My erstwhile inner journalist resurfaced and the research allowed me an accurate timeline of their lives. I'm writing a book about them, a creative non-fiction family memoir. Memorial Day reminded me of this excerpt. My grandmother was 31.

Monday, April 12, 1943  
Navy Yard Puget Sound
Bremerton, Washington

The first thing she noticed was the Navy frogmen, diving and resurfacing to ensure the wounded battleship was lined up correctly with the bilge and keel blocks secured to the floor of the soon-to-be dry dock. The caisson gate seals on the business end interrupted the natural flow of Puget Sound into the dock. It drained like a bathtub. A 1,030 foot long, 147 foot wide, 54 foot deep bathtub.

It momentarily took her back a dozen years. The Bonita negotiating the locks at Keokuk, Iowa on the Mississippi.

Even damaged and patched, the U.S.S. West Virginia cut an impressive jib. As the water drained, the ship’s underbelly was revealed. Victoria thought it strangely beautiful, in a mosaic of colors kind of way. Battleship gray, speckled with the pinks, oranges and browns of oxidation.

The lead men and all the shift supervisors were there. The journeymen, quarterman laborers and every one of her female colleagues, too. Victoria was friendly with all her peers, though friends with none of them. Polite to the men in charge and deferential, but only to the point where she let them know if they were interested in anything from her other than ship welding, they were barking up the wrong tree.

When it came to extra-curricular activity and ship welding, Victoria harbored a notion that they need us a helluva lot more than we need them.

She leaned on a pipe fence lining the enormous dry dock and bummed a smoke from the girl standing next to her. Cigarettes were a bit harder to come by this deep into a world war, so she made a mental note to repay this favor. 

All the women wore company-issued navy blue overalls. Victoria had two pair to which she had taken the needle and thread, cinching in the waistlines to allow for a more flattering impression of her figure. The ensemble was made complete by a matching big floppy hat with a brim, which she wore backwards when working, to accommodate her welding mask with a hinged dark tinted glass rectangular-shaped viewing window. 


On the best of days, it was a full hour and fifteen minutes from the time she arose, until she was in the shop, welding torch in hand. She had developed a routine. Walk eight blocks to the ferry port. Make efficient use of the commuting time by bringing along mending or some other portable chore, eight hours welding, more portable chores on the ferry trip back to Everett, eight more blocks of walking, then a couple of hours of mother and son domesticity.

Victoria had fixed her son a pallet in the corner of the living room and sold it by telling him it’d be like camping. Champ did not complain.

My grandmother's high school graduation photo.
As exhausted as she was, it could be worse, she figured. She could have swing shift or graveyard. As it was, she was up before dawn and home after sunset. Victoria developed a habit of enjoying a libation each night before retiring. Straight rye bourbon whiskey. Two fingers neat.

Helps me sleep. God knows I need it. 

Point #2. Check. 


Point #3 would take a little longer than they had planned. Paul Slater would stay in Anchorage at least another year. The M-K bosses had asked and he could not say no. They were careful not to be too specific with him, in terms of an end date.

Victoria’s disappointment that there’d be no reunion for Champ’s 10th birthday was countered with a tinge of pride over Paul’s loyalty to M-K and commitment to a cause greater than himself. She wished she could be more benevolent that way. 

It was exactly the same sentiment the shipyard bosses were hoping to instill, as the workers clustered around the U.S.S. West Virginia at the dry dock. The WeeVee, as its sailors called it, had just arrived from Pearl Harbor where six torpedoes and two bombs scuttled her on the Day That Will Live In Infamy (FDR’s caps). The severely-damaged battleship was salvaged from the murky depths of Pearl Harbor about three months after Victoria and Champ left Anchorage.

The West Virginia was among six battleships that survived December 7th. Five were re-outfitted and re-made battle ready, here at Bremerton.

The company’s motivational speaker that day was a Presbyterian minister from Seattle, known for his fiery, anti-Japanese sermons since the start of the war. On this day, before this congregation, he was dressed like the rest of the workers. Hard hat and overalls. He used a megaphone so everyone could hear. I guess he is sort of a cheerleader, Victoria thought. He led with a gut punch.

“More than a hundred men lost their lives on this battleship at Pearl Harbor.”

The times demanded horrifying detail and the good reverend was only too happy to oblige, describing the West Virginia’s captain, mortally wounded by metal shrapnel as the bombs and torpedoes ripped holes in his vessel. The man refused to leave the bridge and bled to death, giving his life for crew and country.

During repairs at Pearl, they found nearly 70 sailors – “your sons, your brothers” – trapped below decks in flooded compartments. Some were found lying atop steam pipes, the only space they could find air. 

“Three of your husbands – your fathers,” were found in a storeroom compartment. A calendar indicated they lived through December 23. Didn’t make for much of a merry Christmas, he lamented.

“Who did this?” He was closing the deal. “Who did this to your husbands, your brothers, your fathers, your sons?” He lowered the megaphone. A solitary Navy bugler in dress whites blew Taps.

Many of her peers were wiping away tears as they filed back into the shops. No weeping for Victoria, but she put her arm around a woman who was, leaned in close and offered some encouraging words. Victoria whispered a prayer for the souls of all the dearly departed and especially those poor guys below decks. They lived for more than two weeks after December 7. No one knew they were still alive. What a way to go, she thought.

She tied up her bandana, donned her floppy hat backwards, and pulled down her welding mask. Victoria Maday Matson ‘Slater’ fired up her welding torch and did her best to imagine she was applying the flame directly to a particularly sensitive area of each of the eight individual slant-eyed bastards who dropped those torpedoes and bombs. It was not difficult.

Some women cried. Others imagined roasting Japanese fighter pilot kintama

Monday, May 9, 2016

It's Better Here

It wasn’t exactly non-verbal communication, since the man was using his verbs. It was the way his verbs were verbalized that made the diff.
“Is it better here.... (click, click...) OR IS IT BETTER... HERE?”

Without specifically letting me know that it was better on the second option, with the tone of his voice, elevated volume and inflection, the optometrist of my childhood ostensibly left it up to me to choose through which specific lens, my eyesight was, in fact, better.
In a darkened examination room, E’s pointing in all directions on the far wall, with that behemoth of an apparatus containing myriad lenses and dials perched precariously on the bridge of my youthful nose, the man telegraphed what we both knew to be true. I needed new glasses.
After the diagnosis, he was really skilled at steering my mother to the “showroom,” where dozens of eyeglass frames were perched in individualized trays that covered all four walls, interspersed by mirrors. Move the little handle to the right, and an entirely new selection of horn rims and wire frames emerged. 

Skilled, because selling frames was an easy money revenue stream for Dr. Is it Better Here or HERE. Mom soon caught on that we could get the same or better frames, cheaper, at a shop in Twin Lakes and I learned the difference between an optometrist and an optician.
(Though I remained a little fuzzy about what, exactly, went on at the Optimist Club).

The fact that I was a kid, and the man knew enough about my vision patterns to predict that I’d need stronger lenses every couple of years made these annual optometrist appointments somewhat perfunctory. I’d been wearing specs since third grade. The only question remaining was when would I transition from 60’s horn rims to 70’s gold wireframes? The general answer: Long after all my peers and colleagues had. The specific answer: Summer between 7th and 8th grade.

Now firmly entrenched in the precipice of middle age, I have achieved (evolved to..? earned..?) the point in time on the cradle-to-grave chronology that those who render medical-related services tend to be younger than me. 

My dentist looks like his most recent worry was pinning the corsage on his Senior prom date (Do they still do that? Pin corsages on prom dates?) After the weather and Big 12 football, he and I have pretty much exhausted our common interests.

But bless our hearts, we try. 

Kid Dentist: “So, how about that D-line?” 
Me: “Ahghlrzmth, nuhrhft... gawoeyhaugtzh.

Today, I learned that the behemoth of an apparatus containing myriad lenses and dials perched precariously on the bridge of my no longer youthful nose is called a phoropter (FEAUX-ropter). I learned it, by asking my current optometrist, who carries on the time-honored peeper diagnostic tradition. 

She’s 30-something and wields the phoropter with the skill and expertise that comes with experience. She lays the “Is it better here.... (click, click)... or here?” routine on me, though without the telegraphed inferences of her predecessor of my youth.

When these ancillary medical practitioners look at me, their optics reveal someone their parents’ age. They tend to defer accordingly. Thing is, I don’t think of myself as their parents’ age. I’m still not used to it. I guess it depends on from which side of the lenses youre viewing.

So maybe it is better... HERE.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

New Normal

I can’t imagine how long it took the kid to screw up the courage. It was 1971, the first year of forced busing in Wichita. Probably as an experiment leading to an experiment, our 7th grade science teacher had given us a week to find a lab partner.

One of the kids bused to the Land of Baloney on White Bread with Miracle Whip had no friends. He was shy to begin with, so when he approached me on decision deadline day and asked if I’d be his lab partner, I felt like a schmuck. I’d already struck a Bunsen burner/beaker bond with a kid who lived down the street. 

I’m sitting in an airport in Tucson after three days observing a civic engagement conference. Over my right shoulder a woman carries on a telephone conversation in Spanish. There is an overtly friendly 20-something clerk at a nearby coffee stand, chatting up all comers, a little bright spot in the day of stressed, harried travelers.

She asks a little boy, “You have any muscles?” He shows off his 3-year old guns and walks away grinning. 

At the conference, within our name badges were meal cards. Until I sat down for dinner the first night, I gave them no thought, then I noticed the cards of my table mates. “No red meat” on my right. “Vegan” to my immediate left.

(I feel bad for 21st century event planners and caterers. The choice used to be simple: Rubber chicken or... uh... nothing).

When she’d set out candy and nuts during the holidays in Plainville, Kansas, my grandmother matter-of-factly referred to Brazil nuts by an epithet today we would consider obscenely racist. Her daughter, my mother, a generation more culturally aware, made certain my siblings and I understood that even though we love her dearly, on this point, Grandma was just flat out wrong.

I travel, live in Manhattan, spend a lot of time in Wichita, the city where I grew up and see the evolution from the days of forced busing. Firmly ensconced in the precipice of middle age, I have become more aware of social injustice and societal disparities. 

Ubiquitous dollar stores and payday loan outfits on every street corner are simply a reaction to the market. All things being equal, the free enterprise system will exploit opportunities and find its center. Politicians do the same thing. Sanders’ populism and Trump’s anger are not new phenomena.

Presidential politics and the free enterprise system are reflections of societal evolution, they are not societal evolution. All things are not close to equal. In the second decade of the 21st century in the United States, I can make choices to become more culturally aware. To move beyond my otherwise middle-of-the-country sensibilities.

The change, the adaptation, the evolution happens in individual human hearts and minds. And stomachs, too. If someone insists on being served a vegan meal, I’ll always be the red meat yang to their yin.

The action of the black kid asking the white kid to be his lab partner in 1971 was a manifestation of the hopes and dreams of the duly-elected members of the Wichita school board, who were, no doubt, anguishing over how to move beyond ‘separate but equal.’ They had no clue whether it would work, but they made a choice to change, to adapt, to try.

Gotta go, they’re calling my flight.

Friday, April 22, 2016


It was a luncheon banquet similar to dozens. Ranch or Italian dressing, then the entrĂ©e. I serve on the Board of a substance abuse prevention concern and we’re handing out awards to assorted do-gooders to reward the good they’ve done since last we gathered for the rubber chicken nosh.

In a ballroom in what Richard Ben Cramer called “that ratty Ramada overlooking the highway,” (it’s not that bad) there’s a state trooper sitting across the table. He’s wearing the familiar crisp French blue shirt with buttoned pockets, necktie, navy blue pants with a blue stripe. He’s packin’ heat and looks vaguely familiar. 

“Hey Mike, remember me?” During post-banquet pleasantry exchanging, extending his right hand. “Uh...” I respond intelligently, buying time. Glancing at his name plate and badge, the lights flicker and I rocket back a couple of decades.

Now, he’s Deputy Superintendent of the Kansas Highway Patrol. Then, he wore a suit and tie, drove an unmarked Crown Vic and would have taken a bullet for the Governor. One of a half dozen or so state troopers who comprised the Governor’s Security Detail.

Rocketed back to 1995. (CJ Online)
Young, fit, stoic and clean-cut, service on the Governor’s Security Detail differed vastly from traditional highway patrolling in the blue and grey cruisers. A constituency of two to protect and serve. Our guy and his wife became parents of a baby girl just months after taking office, adding another human life, layer of seriousness and responsibility to an already challenging task.

A command post at Cedar Crest, another just outside the Governor’s main office on the second floor of the Statehouse. A fully functional system within a system within a system. These guys answered to a Kansas Highway Patrol chain of command, while working side-by-side with the Governor’s staff.

The Superintendent of the KHP serves at the pleasure of the Governor, so we eased into the midst of a decades-old culture of cooperation and mutual respect between a pair of essential state government systems. It was clicking long before and after our eight years.

Like most Governors, our guy chafed a bit at first, but with an appreciation for their responsibilities, quickly settled into a comfortable pattern. He made it a point to always ride in the passenger’s seat, because he respected their job, cared about them as people and did not want them to be seen as, or feel like, chauffeurs.

Since our guy was ‘effective and efficient,’ he’d use the passenger seat time for paperwork or phone calls. If he was going across town, as his spokesman, I’d often hop in the back seat and use the face time to gain clarity on our line or share intel. After leaving office, our guy joked he knew he was no longer Governor, when he got in the Crown Vic and it didn’t go anywhere.

When you serve at that level, the pace and schedule is often grueling. A Governor works all day, and can have an appearance every evening. Everywhere he’d go, a trooper would accompany and another trooper would have advanced the trip to provide a lay of the land. Your time is not your own, but you’re serving the greater good. 

One lone, somber plainclothes trooper standing between our guy and harm. That’s a helluva lotta responsibility. State troopers do much good.

Those of us on the Governor’s staff would often joke about taking a bullet for the Governor (I once took a cup of hot coffee in my lap for the Governor on the jump seat of a jam-packed King Air high over Great Bend.) But around the troopers, no such joking.
Because they probably would.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Man Who Collapsed in Mass

The priest was about halfway through his benediction when he stopped mid-intonation and looked worriedly over at the east side of his congregation, where something was amiss. Vestments flowing, he made his way there quickly. A parishioner had collapsed and the faces of those nearby revealed... fear. 

Without being too obvious, given the circumstances, I strained to get a better view of the goings-on, and see my sister-in-law, a nurse, bent over the collapsed man. How’d she get there so fast? Just a couple of seconds ago she was three people down from me.

Easter Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s in Arma, Kansas started at 8 a.m. My mother-in-law wanted to be there early because it tends to fill up fast.

By the time we got there, the back three pews were full, so we peopled the next closest to the back empty pew. Ubiquitous blue, gray and silver hair. Walkers, canes and hearing aids abound. Like my mother-in-law, most of these parishioners have been coming to Mass since it was invoked in Latin.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti... 

Legion baseball, Camp 50 and Easter Mass.
There’s a duffer whose job for decades has been to place the cardboard numbers on a board, denoting the page numbers of the hymns. He needs some help from his wife. 

The organist/cantor clanks a few chords and sounds like Edith Bunker when she cuts loose on the alleluias, but bless her heart, she serves.

Here’s how small the world is:

The Man Who Collapsed in Mass is the younger brother of a man who carpooled to K-State and played American Legion baseball with my father-in-law way back in the Crawford County day.

When I knew him, the brother of the Man Who Collapsed in Mass chaired the Kansas Senate Ways & Means Committee and was one of my best sources, when I patrolled the Statehouse in search of news. Off camera, he’d confirm, deny and point me in the right direction. On camera, he would obfuscate. 

On the way home, chatting about the family, we passed through Camp 50, just a few miles east of where my father-in-law grew up and where his bride and two of his daughters still live. The family of the Man Who Collapsed in Mass helped settle Camp 50 as a mining camp when immigrants extracted the coal and zinc from below the surface of the land.

One of the things I like most about Crawford and Cherokee counties is their uniqueness. They’re arguably the only two counties in Kansas with a heritage rooted in something other than agrarian agriculture.

The Man Who Collapsed in Mass was alert and attentive as they loaded him in the ambulance. But at some point, he will die. One day, my mother-in-law, my mother, my wife and son will die. One day, I will die. Of all the... fears that tend to cloud our judgment and rule our lives, they don’t seem to get much bigger.

The Man Who Collapsed in Mass rocketed me back to reality, to Easter and the essence of Christianity. A human being died. But after he died, he came back to show his peers and colleagues that as scary as it is, death is not the end. That we need not... fear.

Jackie and I will be back with her mother next year for Easter Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s in Arma. We’ll pass through Camp 50 to and from. When we arrive at church, we’ll sit as close to the back as possible, where we’ll part with our inequities and seek to be made pure in heart.

If it works the way it’s supposed to, we’ll be a little less... fearful.