Wednesday, September 23, 2015

My Father's Eulogy

I suspect if my father were with us today, witnessing these goings-on, he’d get a little vertical crease in his brow, lean in a bit, and ask, earnestly, in a stern tone of voice...

“Why all the fuss?”

Owing to my career choices and other circumstances, during the last three years, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to spend some quality time with my father. He shared with me much about his life of which I was simply unaware.

Things that helped fill in the mosaic of his life and helped a son get a much deeper and more meaningful sense, not only of his father, the human being... but of the things that transcend the generations of a family.

The good and the bad. The happy and the tragic.

In many ways, my father’s was an improbable life. 

His mother was a 19-year old Catholic farm girl from Minnesota, eager for some adventure. His father was a motorcycle-riding troublemaker eager to provide adventure.

Pop was conceived in the autumn of 1931 on a houseboat honeymoon voyage down the Mississippi River from St. Paul to New Orleans. 

When his parents got to New Orleans at Christmas, they sold the houseboat, bought a motorcycle with a sidecar and struck out across the western United States, bound for Spokane, Washington, where my father’s father’s parents lived. 

Pop’s grandfather was a doctor, and the idea was to make it to Spokane by the springtime, so they could invoke the family plan and his grandfather could deliver the baby.
They didn’t quite make it to Spokane. My father made his first appearance in Walla Walla. His early childhood years were on the move. All over the western United States.

In addition to being a troublemaker, his father was a land surveyor, who found work in massive Great Depression-era reclamation projects: Grand Coulee Dam near Spokane, Shasta Dam in northern California, military airfields near Anchorage, Alaska.

It was an itinerate existence. They lived in tents. It was great for my father, a little kid who loved the outdoors. It was like camping – all the time.

At age nine, in the winter of 1942, just weeks after Pearl Harbor, with a genuine fear of a Japanese invasion of Alaska, the wives and children of the men working on the airfields boarded a transport ship for evacuation back to Seattle.

It was to be a key moment in my father’s life. It was the end of his parents’ marriage and it would mark the last time he would ever see his father.

Back in Washington state, his mother found her own way into some trouble. Her next ten years featured a lot of alcohol and what my Pop and I would come to describe as a revolving door of husbands. So my father learned independence at a very early age. His frame of reference growing up was that if he was going to survive – he would have to make his own way.

From his limited experience and worldview at the time, he thought he could count on no one else. This childhood left him bereft of three pretty important values: Structure, trust and love. 

He would find structure in the U.S. Navy. He would find trust in his father-in-law, and I think we all know where he found love. More on that in just a minute. 

One of the last of my father’s mother’s husbands was from Plainville, Kansas and that’s what brought him to the middle of the country – as a sophomore in high school in the fall of 1948.
That’s also where Dad met my mother – and her father, Victor Ordway.

A story my father told me about his father-in-law: Pop is a senior in high school in Plainville, actually living by himself because his mother had taken off again. 

He’s dating my mom. She and some girlfriends are going to Phillipsburg for a church function on a Sunday afternoon and Pop volunteers to drive them. About 40 miles north. But before he can make the trip he has car trouble. So he walks to the church Sunday morning, waits for Mom and her family until after services, so he can break the news that there’ll be no trip to Phillipsburg.

Mom’s Dad, Victor Ordway, takes all this in, reaches into his pocket, pulls out his keys and says to my father, “Why don’t you take my car?” 

In relaying this story, Pop would tell me, at age 17, he could not get his head and heart around why this man would trust him with something so important. It was to be the first of many kindnesses shown to my father by Victor Ordway – the individual my father credits with having the single most positive influence on his life.

My father never lost his independent streak – his do-it-yourself tendencies. Those were at his core. They defined him. But along the way, he found structure, he learned how to trust and he found the true meaning of love. 

He wasn’t much for reflection, if it’s done, it’s done. Let’s move on. But in the last three years, as he was sharing some of these moments of his life with me, a couple of times, when it was just him and me, he’d reflect a bit, then ask, “Why do you think it turned out this way?” 

It may have been a rhetorical question, but since I was the only one in the room with him, I volunteered my thoughts. 

“Pop, I think God had a plan for you.”

I think when that transport ship pulled out of Anchorage in the winter of 1942, God said, OK this kid’s now fatherless and his Mom’s a basket case. 

We’ll put some obstacles in his life to overcome, some experiences to help shape him, some people who can help him learn about things like structure, trust and love. 

You see, it’s not until you recognize that you don’t know how to value things, that you really begin to develop a good value system.

Why did his mother – despite all her emotional flaws and defects – have just enough character to do everything she could with what she had... to remain connected with her son?

When Victor Ordway first sized up this lanky, bespectacled teenager from the west, interested in his teenage daughter – this kid from a broken home, living alone as a senior in high school on the wrong side of town – why did he befriend him and take him under his wing, rather than give him the stiff-arm? 

When my fathers marriage to Viki, David and my mother ended, and now he was a basket case, rudderless, adrift. Why did he meet Glenna Lee Bloom?

These things don’t just happen.

We can’t choose where we come from – but we can choose where we go.

And when we drill into those choices, it’s then that we really discover the course of our days and nights on terra firma is being guided and directed by a loving God.

We’re like a fly on a log, making its way down the river. The river twists and bends, the log is carried along by the swift current. But that fly thinks he’s steering. There were many times when my father thought he was that fly.

Those of us who loved him will miss him terribly. Our hearts are broken. James E. Matson’s gone from us, but he’s still here.

I look at my nephew, Jeremiah, and I see my father. Perseverance, hanging in, overcoming obstacles. 

I see him in my niece, Jacinda, who now inherits the mantle of leadership for the uniquely cutting-edge phenomenon that is the Matson sense of humor. 

I cast my eyes on my son, Scott, who shares my father’s intellect and curiosity. Question everything.

I see my father in my brother, David. I mean literally. Mannerisms, appearance, but also in a well-honed knack to cut through the clutter to reach the goal.

I see him in my sister, Viki, who, by any meaningful definition, is following in her father’s footsteps by helping mold and train young hearts and minds.

And finally, I see him in his bride, Glenna, who simply by showing up, living her life, by doing what comes so naturally to her, taught my father what love really means.

Glenna not only softened up my father’s rough edges, she brought him, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the mainstream of life – and made him the man he was for the last thirty years of his life.

Without Glenna, that man would not have existed. With Glenna, my father evolved into a man who transcended his difficult childhood and its aftermath and built a life on this Earth that was worthy.


The last few months, Pop was in pain and had begun to lose interest in many of the things that brought him joy earlier in his life.

Today, my father’s free of pain. Free of all the Earthly, man-made stuff that we tend to let get in our way. That’s all gone now for James E. Matson.

Life everlasting. The promise. The great reward. I don’t know how it works. I cannot begin to comprehend. I’m not supposed to know.

The mystery of faith. 

So Pop, that’s why all the fuss.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Social Norms

And the story's only mine to live and die with
The answer's only mine to come across.

          --Different Days, Jason Isbell
The Tour de Fat is one of those social creations illustrative of the 21st century. It brings like-minded enthusiasts together in sort of a costumed bicycle parade. It’s been described as a rolling carnival of creativity.

It’s exactly the kind of event that appeals to my son and his wife – third year medical residents in Denver. Surrounded by the like-minded, emotionally and demographically.

I spent Labor Day weekend with them, my first extended time there since the Bright Line.

It’s been said you succeed as a parent, if your child turned out better than you. My son’s the third consecutive generation of our family from a broken home. The marriages of his great grandparents, grandparents and parents failed.

‘Failed’ may be too strong, maybe ‘did not succeed because we all lacked the knowledge and wherewithal to understand the forces at play.’

Or maybe that’s just spin and denial.

He helped me decipher and interpret his great-grandfather’s death certificate for this book I’m writing. He’s filled them out before. I had to let that sink in. He’s already seen more death up close and personal, than I ever will in my lifetime.

Over dinner, they reflected on their days in an acronym-laden patois in which they are fluent. They help each other debrief and diagnose, infused with a steady current of mutual love and respect.

He and I went grocery shopping and I was rocketed back in time and space to similar supermarket visits when he was in college in Lawrence. Only this time more fresh salmon, fewer ramen noodles.

We go to check out and I reached instinctively for my wallet. He reached for his, pulled out his Safeway Club Card, racked up some instant additional savings and paid for his own damn groceries, thank you very much.

My son has a much deeper grasp on what I call the ways of the world than me at that age. He possesses a blended view of the physical, the human and the cognitive. He brings this to his life, his learning and his work.

I juxtapose the generations from which he sprang.

Concentric circles expanding outward. Each succeeding generation seems deeper, smarter, more aware, more imaginative and empathetic than the previous one. At a much earlier age.
My son is as comfortable with the concept and application of technology as I am with the concept and application of, say, turning on a terrestrial radio, as my father is with fetching a newspaper from the driveway.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket, punched, swiped and in an instant, we were
surrounded by the music of his favorite artist. His Jason Isbell is my Fleetwood Mac. My father’s Tennessee Ernie Ford. 

I think that’s right. I think this is the way it’s supposed to be. His Tour de Fat. My disco. My father’s sock hop.

This life he leads in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century. Rocky Mountains to the west. High Plains to the east. A mile above sea level in the Five Points neighborhood. A young physician who loves his wife, his family, his dog, Jason Isbell and the Kansas City Royals. 

He saves lives, grills salmon, fills out death certificates, climbs mountains and adheres vigilantly to the Eighth Commandment of the Tour de Fat: 

Keep the day true with thy good juju.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Judge and Jury

“You’re about as easy as a nuclear war.”
           -- Duran Duran, 1981

He wandered around the planet for 75 years. He had at least three wives, one of them my grandmother. He fathered at least four children, one of them, my father. 

Jesse Ellsworth Matson II died alone of cancer on December 8, 1981 at Valley Medical Center in Fresno, California.

With the assistance of a friend practiced in the fine art of online genealogical sleuthing, I have been able to fill in many blanks in my grandparents’ timelines as I research and write a book illustrating the effects of an alcoholism gene that wreaked havoc through generations of our family.

I’m turning up more and more actual, real truth. This is important, since alcoholics tend to be really good at avoiding it.

Within days of this photograph, the family was no more.
This photo was taken in Anchorage, weeks or even days before my grandmother packed up my 9-year old father and boarded a transport ship bound for Seattle, just a couple months after Pearl Harbor. It was to be the last time my father saw his father. 

Do the math. Jesse Ellsworth Matson II lives another 40 years. Zero contact with his son.

Does he compartmentalize his life? Wall off his emotions? Does he even feel?

From 1931 to 1956, he gets around. He voyages down the Mississippi River from St. Paul to New Orleans in a houseboat with his first bride, my grandmother (my father is conceived en route). New Orleans to Washington state on a motorcycle with a sidecar for his increasingly preggers wife.

During the Great Depression, he’s a surveyor with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers (Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, Shasta Dam in northern California, airfields near Anchorage).

He lived also in Spokane, Minneapolis, back to the Gulf Coast at Galveston, Bemidji, Minnesota, overseas working for Bechtel International Corporation in colonial British East Africa (today’s Yemen), back to the Texas Gulf Coast yet again, uranium prospecting on the Colorado Plateau near Moab, Utah. 

As of right now, I have a big hole in his life from 1956 Uranium Miner in Moab to 1981 Stiff On a Gurney in Fresno (my caps – chapter titles, maybe?) 

In writing this book, I can’t help but go back to what I deem as essential, baseline stuff. The injustice of child abandonment; what I hope is my own personal righteousness – especially as it relates to my grandparents.

Reviewing the treasure trove of material gleaned from the online sleuthing, one entry hit me hard. A job reference from a former employer:

“Biggest weakness – if this is a weakness – is his impatience with other men in his organization who do not move as fast as he does.” 

His son was the same way. And his grandson. I was fortunate to recognize this defect of character and take conscious steps away from it.

My sense is Jesse Ellsworth Matson II did not. My sense is he was not given to introspection. He doesn’t strike me as the type of person you’d want to do nice things for.

These new-found stacks of truth are also expanding the universe in terms of the breadth of the book. The more facts I learn, the more the behavior becomes plausible. Check out this letter.

Walked away from a steady gig with the Army Corps of Engineers to get rich quick, searching for uranium at the dawn of the Atomic Age in the heart of a Cold War? There’s a chapter. At least. 

Alcoholic self-obsession tends to color everything. Since I never knew him, I base my assumptions and conclusions on the evidence and then apply my own knowledge (read: experience, strength and hope.) 

Judge and jury of a man’s life. 

I hope and pray that I am worthy.

JEM II 2-26-56

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Drawing Conclusions

'Cause I've got a pocket full of dreams. 

     --Russ Morgan & his Orchestra, 1938

The woman on the far right is my grandmother, Victoria Bonita Maday. The guy in the middle, with the glasses, is my grandfather, J. Ellsworth Matson II, who went by Ell. The little boy seated on the ground is their only son, my father, J. Ellsworth Matson III. His parents called him Champ. (No clue who the others are, camp hangers-on?)

I am reasonably confident this photo was taken in 1938, near Kennett, California, where Ell was surveying land for what would become Shasta Dam, north of Redding.

One of the challenges inherent with writing a book in the ‘creative non-fiction’ genre is the due diligence required to nail down the non-fiction. My father, now 83, inherited a crapload of these photos from Victoria and he recently loaned them to me.

Maybe it’s not as much about what you can see, but what you can’t.
When the shutter fell on this photo in the redwoods of northern California, Ell was 32, Victoria, 27 and Champ was 6. Victoria and Ell were married in the Twin Cities seven years before this photo. Three years after this photo, Victoria would leave Ell and Champ would never see his father again.

Victoria would be running not only from her husband, but the truth about herself.

Married in 1931, a houseboat honeymoon down the Mississippi River, where Champ is conceived. In New Orleans, they sell the houseboat, buy a motorcycle with a sidecar and strike out for Spokane, Washington.

A young man’s dreams.

In Spokane, Ell learns a trade – land surveying – and finds work with a construction concern building FDR’s Depression-era reclamation projects. The work will take to them to the western reaches of the continent: Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, Alaska.

They lived in tents with wooden floors. At Coulee City, a few years before this photo, Champ has a memory of gathering splinters in his backside as he scooched along the floor before learning to walk.

What can you learn from a photograph? For one thing, I see where I got my hairline. Maybe it’s not as much about what you can see, but what you can’t.

This life reflected Ell’s disposition. Life was one big camping trip. Adventure. Let’s have fun.

They had plenty of tangible, beneficial nuts and bolts knowledge, like how to pilot a houseboat down the Mississippi, but utter ignorance of the alcoholism – and its insidiousness – which would impact the family for generations.

When the fall came, Ell was ill-prepared. He had no reservoir of knowledge. He had no ‘book smarts’ about his own psychological and emotional makeup.

He had no spiritual well from which to draw. It’s not that he didn’t believe in God, he just never thought about it much. As a result, he became convinced his own judgment, his own will was not only enough for him to make his way in the world, it was more than enough.

A helluva lot more than the rest of these poor bastards he encountered eking out an existence in the throes of a Great Depression. 

There was comfort and ease in what turned out to be misplaced confidence.

Freedom of the river. Freedom of the open road. Freedom of the redwood forest.

I know best. I believe in myself.

So I have the photos and I’m drawing conclusions.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Royals Then and Now

When I think of the summer of 1980, three distinct memories spring to mind.

George Brett chasing .400. 

Jimmy Carter chasing Ted Kennedy around a stage.

And me, chasing a dream to break into broadcast news.

After a year as the all night deejay at KAKE Radio in Wichita, at the tender age of 22, I was promoted to the “second shift,” and would spin the adult contemporary hits of the day. Reached the point that summer where if I heard Olivia Newton-John croon “Magic,” one more time, I thought I would surely lose my mind. 

Same with Elton John and Little Jeannie. Ditto the Commodores and Still. And how can we ever forget Teri DeSario’s smash 1980 duet with Harry Wayne Casey? (K.C. without the Sunshine Band). Yes, I’m Ready.

To throw up, thank you very much. Thirty-five years later, the earworm lingers.

Tried to sneak some genuine rock ‘n roll into the mix once. Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders Brass in Pocket. Caught hell from the “Music Director,” another deejay a few years older than me whose job it was the police the rest of us to make sure we adhered strictly to the carefully-honed adult comtemporary playlist.

When April hit, my record spinning came to an ignominious end. Matson’s dulcet tones vanished from the airwaves in favor of Denny Matthews, Fred White and the Kansas City Royals Radio Network. My job was to play local spots when the network threw it to the affiliates, and listen for Denny or Fred’s top-of-the hour station identification cue.

When Denny or Fred would say, “This is the Royals Radio Network,” I sprang into action, cleared my throat, keyed the microphone and intoned, “It’s two minutes after eight o’clock. Clear skies, 93 degrees in the Air Capital. You’re listening to Royals baseball on 12-40 K-A-K-E, Wichita.” 

As the season wore on, I took some 22-year old liberties. “’re listening to the Royals hammer the Blue Jays on 12-40 K-A-K-E, Wichita.”

“...dismantle the White Sox...” 

C’mon, I only had 10 seconds. Hadda make the most of it. 

This season reminds me so much of 1980. Now, and then, it seemed like the Royals won every night.
Royals Stadium, Kansas City. August 17, 1980
As the season wound down in September, I’d landed that first broadcast news job. Chased my journalistic dream to Hays, Kansas. Started on a Monday, reading radio news, covered a school board meeting on  Tuesday. Anchored the TV news that weekend. 

Carter chased Kennedy all over the platform at Madison Square Garden at the Democratic National Convention, hoping for an arms-raised-together money shot that would never come. That very same night in Kansas City, Brett went 2-for-4 against Baltimore, lifting his average to .389.

Five days later, he caught .400. 

Kennedy had loftier notions in mind that hot August night at the Garden, and he had no way of knowing it, but he could very easily have been talking about my love of a baseball team. In 1980 and in 2015.
The work goes on.

The cause endures. 

The hope still lives.

And the dream shall never die.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n Roll

Carry on my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are done.
       --Kansas, 1976

Shared memories with a soulmate over soup, salad and breadsticks.

In the late 70s, Duck and I were reciprocal touchstones. Through life’s ups and downs, through each others romantic pursuits – requited and unrequited, through all the uncertainties and missteps wrapped up with being 18 to 21 years old, Duck and I embodied the definition of friendship.
We had each other.
We met at Mr. D’s IGA in the Sweetbriar Shopping Center in Wichita. I sacked, carried out and stocked Smucker’s Grape Jelly on shelves. She womanned the courtesy booth, sold postage stamps and counted the money. At 19, Duck got me a second job as a lunchtime waiter in the swanky Wichita Club high atop what was then the Vickers/KSB&T Building downtown. Today it’s the Executive Centre.
We drifted apart the way young upwardly mobile professionals did in the 20th century. Moving and shaking our way to career success. We re-connected the way people do in the 21st -- Facebook. 

Everybody in our clique had nicknames. Hers preceded her to the supermarket. They called me “Michael J.” Duck wore headscarves reminiscent of Stevie Nicks. My platforms and polyester smacked of Travolta.

Five constants in our lives, cyclical and interwoven: Parties. Night clubs. Music. Mood-altering substances. Work.
A couple of bites into the salad, we’d each named people from those days no longer around. As in dead. Another friend who got knocked up, had the baby and named her Rhiannon. Wherever she is on Earth today, Rhiannon’s gotta be pushin’ 40.


Parallel trends discovered by the second breadstick. After we lost track of one another, for each of us came the subsequent slow realization that trouble may be lurking.

The 80s would be a decade of dark clouds and denial. Duck married a kid I went to high school with. He was killed in a car wreck just months after their wedding.

Michael J. and Duck. 40 years later.
Today, Duck’s a hotshot banker type and I do what I do. But that stuff’s ancillary. Neither of us lead with our career anymore. We no longer confuse professional success with personal growth. Like me, Duck keeps it pretty simple these days.

We’re on a long river, whose tributaries began in the shiny hopes, dreams and naiveté of young people. We led ourselves into temptation. Delivered ourselves to evil’s front porch.
We’ve both always believed in God. I remember some pretty cosmic conversations back in the day. Back then, the active practice – and even consideration – of faith was tamped down a layer or two beneath the self-obsession.

For each of us, faith is much closer to the surface today. We recognize the gifts, the signs. We need no longer be whacked upside the head with a 2 by 4.


Not one. 

Through all the broken hearts, the angst, the trouble, the shoulder crying, there’s no getting around one pure, undeniable fact.

We had fun. Those were, in fact, the days.

As we travel the broad highway leading inevitably to the precipice of middle age, our hard charging, emotion-infused, live-for-the-moment days of wine and roses are but fond memories. 

What changed? Maybe we grew up. 

By the time the check arrived, we’d reflected on those years not so much as drama, but as life experience. Every party, every youthful indiscretion, every circumstance adding up to understanding, wisdom even. The magic stamp of legitimacy. We survived. We’re still here.


Duck and me are confident there’s a reason. Today, we’re content not having to know what it is.