Thursday, February 14, 2008

Plane Ride

When I set up this blog, I decided that I would focus on a few things: the experiences I've had while researching my grandfather's career; other writing topics, including memoir writing. I've concentrated on writing about the history of pulp fiction, but there are some days when I just can't think of anything to write about, and I even get a little resentful because I really want to write about something else (i.e., me!). Then I thought today, hey, wait a minute, who's blog is this anyway? So I'm going off on another slant now, just trying different things. I really enjoyed writing the blog a few weeks ago about growing up in Livermore, and I think I'll continue with the same type of writing.


I've always wanted to encourage other people to explore their past by writing memoir. I believe it's a very important part of American literature, one that hasn't received a lot of attention until the past 20 years. But in this day and age, we all feel so disconnected, so stressed, and lost. Memoir is a way of chronicling our place in the world. It doesn't matter if it never gets published. Believe me, your kids, your grandkids, or some other ancestor a hundred years from now will be extremely glad you did (even though your kid may appear to be not the slightest bit interested in your past, and yes, I know it hurts. But they'll come around).

So if any of you out there want to try to write memoir, want to share what you've done, feel free to make this blog a jumping off point. One thing that has really helped me is to make your goals very very small. Don't try to write the book: write the page first, or even just the paragraph. Start with essays first rather than an entire tome.

Here's another snippet from living in Livermore.


On New Years Day, 1964, Mom called home to tell us that she and Hal had gotten married the evening before. New Year’s Eve. Grandpa and Mary had come out from Berkeley to babysit us, and when he heard the news that Mom had eloped, Grandpa drove off in a huff. He didn’t like being tricked, he didn’t like that he was taken advantage of, and he certainly didn’t like my mother’s new husband.

Neither did I nor my sisters, for that matter. We certainly were not prepared for them to get married. Of course, we had met him before the marriage, and had even gone over to his duplex for barbeques. Becky and I especially liked that he had a black female Belgian Malnois named Chloe. She would eventually become our dog, too, and the only thing about Hal that we would completely embrace.

Hal was very tall, six foot three. I think that his height had something to do with why I never warmed up to him. To me, seven years old in 1964, he was a giant. My mother was only five foot tall, and my father hadn't been that tall, so having this towering stranger in our living room was initially a shock.

He was also bald. Well, he still had the hair around his ears, but he just shaved all that off; he was wearing the shaved head look that seems to be cool now, forty years too soon. It was inevitable and almost immediate that he would gain the nickname Mr. Clean. Although we’d never tell him that.

Hal was an engineer, a pilot, who had been to Hawaii and had even named one of his daughters from his first marriage Kapiolani. I liked that about him, although I’d never admit it. This was an Intruder. I could sense the distrust emanating from my three sisters, and I followed their lead. He just scared the shit out of me.

When Hal and Mom came back from Nevada, Mom asked me to come and sit next to them on the couch. My mother never asked me to sit down on the couch unless something drastic was on the way. I sat down on the edge, Hal and Mom sitting next to us. I refused to look at either of them, and stared straight ahead. They were now husband and wife and Hal was moving in.

Hal is going to be your new father, Laurie.

I said nothing. I couldn’t say anything; nothing seemed to fit the moment for me. I felt lost. Answering back that I already had a father, even though he wasn't around, seemed to be a treacherous risk. I didn’t take it.
I got up from the couch and went to my room, not uttering a word. I was alone.

I never warmed up to him. I'm sorry in a lot of ways about that; if I had tried to pull my weight in the relationship, perhaps things would have been different later, perhaps better. But when you're under ten, you hang on to certain feelings very strongly. If I surrendered, accepted him into the family, that means I would have to accept the fact that my real father was gone.

One spring day, my mother had a suprise for me when I appeared for breakfast. Hal’s going to pick you up after school, my mother told me. He’s going to take you on a plane ride. He's going to pilot it himself and take me for my first plane ride.
I tried to temper my enthusiasm. After all, this was Hal. But that entire day at school, I looked at the clock. Once 3:30 hit, I was out the door.

It was still a strong afternoon sun when we arrived at the Livermore airport. The airport was just one runway at that point and a small office, without even a vending machine for a coke or a coffee. The dirt fields beyond the airstrip stretched forever, all the way to the hills in the distant. Small planes littered the lots around the airport. Hal led me over to a small single engine Piper, with one propeller. He strapped me in, then strolled over to the propeller. With a single graceful move, he threw away his cigarette and then grasped the propeller blade and with one strong tug, the blade was a blur and the engine roared.

My heart jumped as the plane bounced down the runway. I felt myself being pushed against my seat and suddenly we were in the air. I was free and weightless, and for one of the few times that year, I enjoyed myself. With the lift of the plane, the weight of the world was off my shoulders for a while.

I peered out the window after we took off, and watched our neighborhood on Olivina, my school, Marilyn Avenue School, the May Nissen pool where I would spend the entire summer, dwindle in size. All movement on the ground stopped as we soared over the bare hills, out of Livermore, past all of the suburbs, to the Altamont Hills that were still green from the winter and only occasionally inhabited by a small cattle ranch. A herd of cattle meandered slowly along a fence line, on cue for the pick up truck that would be by soon with bales of hay for dinner.

The plane engines and the propellor were too loud to try to make conversation, and I was grateful that I didn't have to talk. I looked out the windshield, straight ahead at the hills, then to the left at the freeway that sliced through them. I glanced at Hal; he smoked his Benson and Hedges cigarette; he was smiling, his eyes dancing. He was in his element.

Within minutes, we could see the small farm town of Tracy on the horizon. And then Hal banked the plane and we headed home.

Afterward, when I climbed out, I was still unsure. I was bonded with this man now, but I didn’t know what to say to him. I mumbled a reluctant thank you. It wouldn’t make up for marrying my mom, it wouldn’t replace my father. But it tempered the tension...for a while.

1 comment:

Lisamariesmom said...

Oh Laurie, I can too remember "my plane ride" with Hal. You captured the feeling exactly. The only difference was I was 18 and he offered me one of his Benson and Hedges. I thought it was a bribe! Loved this piece.
Love, Linda