Man Walks (Without Dog) to the Museum, V. II [Charlie Cox]

by Christopher McCabe


Charlie Cox is playing his banjo in the park in front of the Page Museum.  School kids on field trips to the Page, there to see the fossils that have been dug from the park's tar pits, walk by Charlie, skip past Charlie, and some twist their arms in the air as they praise Charlie for his playing.  He nods, smiles, and later when they walk back in front of him, he asks if they want to dance, if they like to dance, and they do, so he sorts them in twos, lining them up to square dance, calling out to swing their partner and now sashay.  They follow his directions and I wonder if they are so agreeable with their teachers on the bus that took them across town.  Cynthia and Jesus, and Lawrence and Annie, and Kim and Michael, and Gerardo and Martinique are happy to oblige when he calls for them to switch partners.  Charlie picks up the beat, strums his banjo a little harder and the swinging is the best part as the kids try to launch each other over the lawn.

They don't keep Charlie company for long.  Their teacher and chaperone start calling out names--Heather, Becky, Scott, Scott, Scott, Scott (there's just one Scott, but Scott keeps dancing by himself as if he's got three partners, and they're all named Scott)--and Charlie tells them that he will be there when they come back.   He has a carpet that he stands on, it is thin, just thick enough to cushion his feet from the pebbled ground.  He wears black shoes, they are an athletic-type and would be at home walking up and down a grocery store aisle.  Then his wardrobe turns western, from his khaki pants to his gray vest to his cowboy hat; he has a mustache, white, trimmed--it's kind of dashing.  He's been coming to the park since the mid-1970s and says he makes enough playing there and at parties to support himself.  If you want him to do a private show, he's available, just call the number on the black box that has a couple of donated fives and several ones in it that he fans out for maximum exposure. 

He's looking at me as he stands on his carpet.  He's about 15 feet away and I'm sitting on a low wall under a tree.  You have a lot of work, I say.  Oh, sure, he agrees.  All day long, he adds.  It is a Thursday in January, not quite noon, and warm.  Charlie looks up, squints, and says it is a beautiful day.  Park visitors walk by.  It is t-shirt weather.  The Page is open, but not yet the county art museum.  Sirens on ambulances and fire trucks are busy going up and down Wilshire.  My ears are doing a poor job of splitting the sirens from my conversation with Charlie, so I walk from the low wall to ask him about the last piece he played.  I say that it had some Irish in it.  He laughs, says no, and holds the "o" like it's the last note in a chorus.  Did I miss something?  What's the name of it? I ask him.  "Admiral Rodney,"  he says.  He looks at my face and figures he has some explaining to do.  Admiral Rodney sailed for the British Navy in the 18th Century and an Irish deckhand wrote the song.  I sit back down.

Charlie fingers his banjo a bit and then moves the stand that holds his guitar.  He comes over to me with his banjo still strapped around his shoulder.  The banjo's neck is long; it could be three feet long.  He tells me that he likes coming to the park, and he tells me about his hero, Roy Rogers, whom he saw at a fair as a kid in Iowa City, Iowa, and they gave each other a big wave.  Charlie breaks into a big grin and waves again, like he must have done many decades ago.  It was so great, he says.  Charlie must be over 65 now and he is still thrilled by the encounter.  He always liked Roy Rogers.  He didn't care for Gene Autry, not really; he was too packaged.  As he talks I look at Charlie's hat; it is more Roy Rogers than Gene Autry; it is more Texas swing than Texas sheriff; I can't see Charlie arresting anybody, with or without the hat.  He looks over at three LAPD motorcycle cops who have parked their Kawasakis inside the park.  I wonder what they are doing here, he says.  I feel I have to answer.  They look like they are getting ready for a parade.  I don't think so, Charlie says.

Charlie strolls back to his carpet and slips his banjo off, trading it for his guitar.  He strums it, doesn't tune it, and picks it.  He yodels.  He sings.  He's back on the Irish again.  Sounds like they had made it to Louisiana and Lake Pontchartrain.  He sings of a Creole woman whose black hair fell to her shoulder.  I can picture that.  He does not have to sing more for me to know that she was beautiful.  This must be an Irish song, but it sounds like it could have come out of Appalachia.  The story is universal: the beautiful woman is going to marry another man, not the narrator who makes his own marriage proposal to her; he knows his words are futile.  She is adamant.  She will not be swayed.  She will be true to her man who is off to sea.   The narrator has lost this argument, he knows, but he will remember her.  To my left a woman walks away from her husband and mother and looks tentative as she goes towards Charlie; she puts a dollar in the black box and it gives her confidence to ask him a question.  What was the song about?  Charlie tells her that the Irish went to Louisiana a long time ago, and they settled on the shore at Lake Pontchartrain.  A man, the narrator of the song, had nowhere to go one miserable night and a kind woman took him in. He fell in love with her, but she made him say goodbye.  The park visitor thanks Charlie and is glad that she asked.  A dollar was not too much for an answer. 

Charlie walks back to me with his guitar and he tilts its body out towards me.  He says, I would never have guessed that I'd buy a cutaway with a sunburst, but I did, and he shows me the proof.  Far down the neck there is a curve in the body where he can get his fingers to the upper frets much more easily.  I went in to the guitar shop, he says, strummed this and within ten minutes I knew I had to have it.  It's Korean-made and he found it up on Sunset at a place called Johnny Guitar.  He doesn't think the store is still there.

I ask him if he grew up in Iowa City.  He says no, the family just lived there while his father was attending the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.  His father did not become a well-known writer; his name was James T. Cox, and he wrote some short stories and moved the family to Tallahassee, Florida, where he taught at the state college.  Charlie says that his father gave up on his writing to support his family as a teacher, since his mother was middle-class and didn't like the idea of his father just working on his stories and not making any money.  He did have one story that he sent to the Paris Review, which the magazine lost somewhere behind a desk.  When Charlie's dad followed up with an editor, he was told they couldn't use it since they had published a story just like it in the previous issue.  His father then sent his story around again, but it kept getting rejected.  Finally, it was accepted by a little magazine.  Before it was, Charlie's dad had killed himself.  After he says it, Charlie looks like he has given away too much family history to a stranger.  He says, still thinking of his father, I learned to never do that, and walks back to his carpet.  

Charlie is playing a penny whistle when a man with a friend and a little girl stop to listen.  The father encourages his little girl to go up and dance in front of Charlie.  She is a four-year-old and follows her father's direction.  He is a big man and has a Russian accent.  Charlie hears him and straps on his banjo again and sings a Russian folk song.  The father sings along in Russian as his little girl dances, her blond hair falling in ringlets.  Charlie asks her if she knows, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."  He plays it, and his banjo sounds bright and clear.  She does know that one and jumps a little higher.  The father is amused and has another request.  He wants to hear "You are My Sunshine."  He looks over to me and says, Yes, I like it. I like it. It is a very good song, a very good song, he says.  I agree and know it is the kind of song you sing when you have a job to do, like washing windows or raking leaves.  Charlie sings the song, and the father watches his daughter and claps his hands and sings the words along with Charlie as if it is an old Russian folk song.  The girl keeps dancing.  Her father keeps singing.  Charlie keeps playing.  He is busy.  He has a lot of work to do. 

Man Walks (Dog) to Museum, V. 1 [Preface]

by Christopher McCabe



What is Man Walks (Dog) to Museum? A good question, with an easy answer. If I walk a mile (with or without my dog Chief; we are pictured, above) in a northerly direction from my Los Angeles home, I reach the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. LACMA and several other museums on Wilshire Boulevard front an area known as the city's Miracle Mile, though no miracles have been documented along this stretch that may or may not be a mile long. Still, faith persists in this part of town. People continue to stand on corners, watch cars drive by, and wait for buses.

When I get home, I sometimes write about what I have seen and heard and smelled, things that Chief does far better than me; he is the completist in all things that I am not. Sometimes what I write (which may or may not include Chief's point of view) I will post here at Man Walks (Dog/Without Dog) to Museum, beginning with this post, Man Walks (Dog) to Museum V.1 (Preface)

You may wonder if these museums allow Chief to visit their collections. Since he is not a service dog with an all access pass, he is not welcomed. Smuggling Chief underneath a long coat is not an option, either: he is an 80 pound Labrador, handsome, and black--a real eye catcher. He is more importantly a dog committed to honesty in all actions. Though he would agree to a request from me to enter a museum under false pretenses, he would be embarrassed to do so. I try to keep such things in mind when we are together.
Instructions for the Maid
by Christopher McCabe


The refrigerator is not worth cleaning
but help yourself to anything there
or in the freezer.  There's some ice
cream and a couple of frozen dinners.

The curtains can stay open
but later in the afternoon
you'll probably want to close them
because it gets hot this side
of the house.

You can leave the dogs in the
backyard.  If you get lonely
or want a break
or if they start to cry,
go ahead, invite them in.

No ironing today.
We just leave the board up.
It's a good place to put
a week's worth of mail.

Leave the bed sheets as they
are.  No need to change them.
They look clean enough.  And
we'll just mess them later.

On the couch between the cushions
you'll find the remote.  If you 
don't like the soap operas, just stretch
out and take a nap.  There are extra
blankets in the closet.

When you wake up 
you might want something
cold. That's what my mother
often said and she was right.  
Dig around in the back of the
freezer for an ice cream bar.

Before you leave
step out to the garden.
Pick some tomatoes
for your family.

And when you go make 
sure to leave the door
unlocked.  I often
forget my keys.

FLOATING with JACQUES HENRI LARTIGUE

by Christopher McCabe

Deauville, 1919 (all photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue) 


I first saw Jacques Henri Lartigue's photographs when Janet and I were visiting Paris in August 1986.  We passed a museum showing his work, went in, and saw what some people call Lartigue's greatest work--his stereo photographs.  Janet and I looked through viewfinders at stations where doubles of each image were mounted.  Adjusting our eyes and viewfinders, the photographic landscapes and portraits merged into three-dimensional worlds. 



Zissou as a Ghost, Chatleguyon, July 1905

Lartigue (June 13, 1894--September 12, 1986), a French photographer and painter, grew up in a family of wealth.  It permitted him and his siblings to make the world a playhouse of games, and for Lartigue it was a game of photography that he mastered young.  He was 11 when he took the picture of the "ghost," above, the same age when he took his surprising photograph of Bichonnade, at the bottom of the page.  Critics wonder how a boy so young could capture a woman in mid-flight so perfectly with the earliest of camera equipment. 

Suzanne Langlen, Nice, 1915


Lartigue's world is spontaneous, many have said, and we found it vivid, as well, and the stereoscopes made it even more so.  A dirigible lumbers above a crowd, we see at the top of this post.  A tennis player charges at us, above.  And we take another look at Bichonnade, suspended above the stairs.  Over the the next years I would see Lartigue's photographs, mostly single images, in hardback books and on museum walls, and I would do my own kind of stereoscope, a double-take, going back to a page I had just turned, returning to a gallery I had just left.


Rabbit 'Looping the Loop,' Rouzat or Paris (?), 1910 


There was the rabbit rocketing in a homemade racer; the terrier soaring over a stream, launched by its master, a moustached man in a bowler hat; the car with the big fat tires speeding--was it going over 35 miles per hour?--while standing viewers appear blown away by the excitement.  Recuperating from all this activity is the man in the floating device.  We see him now at the very top of Custom Fit Freeway.  It is Zissou, the nickname for Lartigue's older brother Maurice, in his tire boat, looking at ease.  The photograph was taken at the family home at Rouzat, in 1911, and the Lartigue brothers make us wonder: shouldn't we all have our own tire-boat? It is, come to think of it, the perfect accessory to a suit and vest.



Grand Prix de l'A.C.F., Automobile Delage, 1912


When I looked at Lartigue's photographs for the first time, I did not know that he had taken many of them before he had reached his teens, or that he was limited by a cumbersome plate glass camera.  I only knew that his photographs were seductive and asked, "Why not?" and did not wait for an answer.  I had the same feeling when walking in Paris in its light rain earlier in that August day with Janet.  It didn't matter where we went; we were there, in Paris.  We saw an old museum, its gray stone walls and grand steps.  In New York these same steps might seem daunting and its walls forboding, causing hesitiation; in Paris before such a building there was nothing to decide.  We said, let's do it.  Let's go.
  

Jeanine Lhemann, Royan, September 1926


We folded our shared umbrella.  It was not about getting out of the weather, but getting into something that must be done right then and there.  That's all we knew.  We entered a great hall, then found the exhibition, in a much smaller room, and we were alone, and our optimism was encouraged, really, by that little fact that our company would not be shared with anyone else.  We didn't know what we were getting into, but why should we?  The room--a better word than gallery, in this instance--was intimate, and it was quiet, as it should be.  Then we met Lartigue, by way of his photographs.  They were set, two by two, with wood and brass supports working together to hold them in honor.


Girls at Auteuil, Paris, July 1912

He only took a picture, Lartigue said, and this appears to be true, if it made him happy.  We had been happy in the Paris rain and happier to go back into it after seeing Lartigue's men and women leaping, flying, diving, running, swimming.  The family pets had joined in too.  And there were more children.  Jumping.  Twirling.  Dancing.  We had done all of these same things once, twice, three times and more, before we stopped counting years ago.  Now it was our turn to walk back through those museum doors and out to the Paris streets, and this time we would be floating with no need for our umbrella.  We did not care if we got wet.    

Boy in Pool, date and location unknown

A Floating World
Photogaphs by Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986)
5 May - 3 October 2010
CaixaForum Barcelona
Av. de Ferrer i Guardia, 6-8
08038 Barcelona

Chorus Line, date and location unknown

More information about Jacques Henri Lartigue can be found at  Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue, and there is a video of the BBC documentary on Lartigue on Google and YouTube.


My cousin Bichonade, Paris, 1905 (caption by Lartigue)

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT A ROOT CANAL

by Christopher McCabe                                                                                                     

It was the summer after the spring and before the fall that was not yet winter when the author’s dentist referred him to an endodontist. A referral can be a good thing when it is advice on a suitable foot massage but this was not about the care of bruised heels and fallen arches. It was about a pesky nerve that was small yet believed that it was large. Nerves can become bloated with their own self-importance, but they are never large.

The dentist whose name was Ensign and known for his battles that some call implants and fillings gave the author the news of the pesky nerve while the light shone from the dental lamp onto the author’s nose from which the author took his breath. His breath came short and fast when he was told that all had become too hostile for the dentist, a good man who plays an average guitar in a folk rock band on Tuesday’s at Belle’s. Belle is no longer there but the dentist and his folk rock band are onstage every Tuesday night at nine. There is no cover. A cover is not a good thing.

But Ensign did not know this because knowing never came easy for him only news that was not wanted on a summer afternoon when Ensign said that he could not do the job that only an endodontist could do.  He knew that he could tell his hygienist to instruct his patients in proper flossing but he did not know the best way to extract a root. He knew of a man named Anderson who always found his way to the canal that held the root that the dentist knew he would never find himself.  Ensign had grown to accept this but it made him wonder if there was still time to go for that certificate from the American Board of Endodontics.

The dentist took his own long breath and told the author about Anderson and the author listened and thought of his nose and his lungs and the breath and the air that traveled faster between each. It was becoming a long unreliable journey like the train from Akron to Newark when he was in trade school and there was a girl who stayed after class like he did to prepare for the pop quiz. The author had thought she had a thing for him. It was not a crush, it was only a thing, and she did not say hello when they met but he knew that it was over when she did not say goodbye. The train is over too or it never was and the author does not remember if he ever had been on that train. Or to Akron. He is not even sure if there was a girl. Memory is overvalued the author thinks.

Something like remembrance toiled when he stood at the reception counter at Anderson’s and the woman at the front desk whose name was Shelley asked if he had his insurance card with him today and the author took it from his wallet and it was good to know that he had dual coverage. He knew it was luck that he had dual coverage and dual coverage is a good thing when you have it but not a good thing when it is gone. Many do not have dual coverage or even single coverage and this is not fair but fairness is not what the office of the endodontist is about.

The author took a seat in the waiting room and felt something that was greater than the room in which he waited but he could not name it though he knew it was true and so he looked at an old issue of a magazine with pictures of young people with good hair and chipper smiles and abs stenciled like a good topographic map. The magazine was called People then and it is called People now. Reading an old issue of People is sometimes all that we can do.

A young woman called the author to leave the waiting room and he did because she was efficient and he respected efficiency.  She directed him to the second room on the right.  The author said nothing.  The young woman asked if he wanted a magazine or to listen to some CDs.  The author looked below at the streets and all the cars were stopped at red lights.  The young lady asked her question again and the author shook his head no.

Anderson walked in and he was a young man with a formal manner that he had gained on long walks with his father through the retail streets of Beverly Hills. Anderson was a son and he would always be a son, but a son with a good eye for window shopping. He looked at the author and described the procedure.  It was a root canal, he said.  Some called it by another name.  It did not matter.  He injected the Novocain. It was a clean, true shot. There was pain and hurt. The author knew that it did not hurt a little. It hurt a lot. He called on God, Oh, God-Buddha, but he would not tell Shelley at the front desk or anyone that he had called on God-Buddha that day.

There was nothing for the author to do but rinse and try to think of fun things for the weekend until the Novocain softened his lips and helped him forget that he had ever had gums or weekend plans. He looked out to the office towers of Century City and to the hills of Bel Air and the homes of the stars who did not need maps to their homes and he remembered Conan and all the parties Conan once had and how Conan would invite Jay but Jay would not come because Jay said they were competitors. Conan would chuckle as only Conan could chuckle and said that they were friends but Jay said no, as only Jay could say no.

Then it was over as it is always over. Shelley asked if it went well but the author did not like the word well nor believe in well then nor would he believe in well ever again. He closed his eyes and put his hand to his mouth. He heard himself speak Spanish. Nunca mas, he said. It will always be nunca mas, and nunca mas it will be. Shelley said, OK and Sure and Whatever, and then straightened some papers on her desk.

Shelley gave him a complementary toothbrush and he saw that it was a good and honest toothbrush. It was a good and honest and strong toothbrush with Anderson’s name and phone and fax on it. The author checked to see if he had his parking validated and he had. It was good to walk to the elevator with a complimentary toothbrush and he put it in his shirt pocket with his validation. It felt good. He knew that he would return to the endodontist one day. There would always be time for a follow-up.

                                                                            

A GOOD PHOTOGRAPH OF THE AUTHOR

by Christopher McCabe



FĂ©lix Nadar known as Tournachon (1820-1910). Portrait of Unknown. To 1885-86. Drawing on paper after negative salted collodion glass. 24.5 x 18 cm. Acquisition from the grandaughter of the photographer in 1949. National Library of France, Department of Prints and Photography.

The man in the stained work clothes differs from the usual models of Nadar. Great force emerges from the simplicity of installation, which seems to prefigure the opening of the German photographer August Sander between the two world wars. Perhaps it is one of the employees of his studio, the stiff sleeves collodion?

 Source: http://expositions.bnf.fr/portraits/grand/004.htm



















































A sincere thank you to those requesting a current photograph of the author of Custom Fit Freeway, Christopher McCabe. He is humbled by your request. The author is depicted above in typical attire for a day of composition, without sunglasses, without hat, and without moustache. His typewriter is just out of frame.


Many have inquired: Would I recognize the author striding down the boulevard or sitting at his preferred cafe table enjoying a seasonal malt? Yes, you would, with this current photograph in hand. Being a friendly sort, the author would be pleased to share a moment with you, so bring forth a warm greeting and he promises to respond in kind.


The photograph of the author in suit and tie at the top, the cover shot for this journal, Custom Fit Freeway, was taken several years past by the author's esteemed friend and long-time collaborator Jacques Henri-Lartigue. Here we see the author lazing on the River Los Angeles in his favorite floating device. Further, note his sunglasses, hat, and moustache; all were cumbersome disguises, a practice he has since abandoned.


The photograph of the author in apron reveals the author's commitment to the worker in all of us, and it was shot by the talented balloonist and charity escort Gaspard-Felix Tournachon, known more widely to the public as Felix Nadar. The photographer captured the author in a spontaneous moment--a typical Nadar ruse!--after an intense editing session for the first volume in his planned tetralogy, Freeway South, Beach Exit: Learner's Permit.


The author feels an obligation to thank both artists for their due diligence in the dark room. He encourages all of you dear readers to plumb the greater depths of these photographic talents now on display at better galleries and museums near you. Without their contributions Custom Fit Freeway would not be possible.


Thoughtful readers will find the author relating more of his true life escapades of the mind and the universe in the days ahead. Please note: some of these compositions have a light touch, others veer towards the decidedly serious; it is for readers to conclude the tone and merits of each.  Nevertheless, he hopes readers will continue to join him as he offers his favorite trips and tales, both lost and unwise, on Custom Fit Freeway.

TIME IS A FICKLE DATE & PUNCH CLOCK

by Christopher McCabe


























As you join author Christopher McCabe at Custom Fit Freeway, pay no mind to the missing dates and times of these journal entries.  No chronology, as might be found in other blogs, is intended. Because of a dispute between the author and various  publishing and legal authorities he cannot comment further at this time.

UPDATE: Time and date order? None.  Repeat: There is none. No chronological, legal, epistemological, heretical,  or a combination of each.

THEY ALL LAUGHED, SOMETIMES

by Christopher McCabe




























There were four beds in the room. Two beds side-by-side, and across the room two more stacked as bunk beds, five and a half feet high. Between these beds ran a narrow “T,” not room enough for young brothers to pass without bumping shoulders, or a quick poke to the ribs.

On a weekday after school, our mother would tell us to go outside if we were going to fight. We did enjoy the outdoors if we were carrying a ball, but going outside to fight was an exhausting concept for us. She knew this, so the fighting stopped. Until it started again.

If it was a weekend our father would cross through the doorway to tell us to break it up or he’d break it up for us. It was not a minor threat. He had followed through on it before, most recently leaning over one of our beds to swat us. He missed. I didn’t want to get smacked this time, nor did I want to see him miss again. Both came with terror.

When my brothers were gone from the house, and my father was at work, far away in an office I had never seen, the room was mine. I’d leave it to go to the hall closet where our stereo was kept, part of an elaborate sound system the previous home owner had rigged, with speakers in several rooms wired back to a boxy amplifier and turntable. Without having to ask permission I’d pick a record and play it through the one small speaker in my bedroom, sometimes playing the same song over and over.

Maybe it was Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” or The Beatles’ “Taxman.” At 12 I had yet, unlike Miller, pushed a broom for the pleasure of staying in a cheap hotel, nor did I dream of taunting, like George Harrison, the Queen's revenue producing agent. Whereas Roger was carefree and George the serious Beatle, I was neither. I lived in that huge, confused state of the in-between.

More often my choice was one particular song from Ella Fitzgerald’s Gershwin Songbook: “They All Laughed,” and I would join Ella, and then she would step back, let me solo. As I sang I gained confidence and volume, the only voice I heard while declaring how they had laughed at Christopher Columbus and his round planet theory, at Thomas Edison for his wacky recording device, and then at Rockefeller Center—a very classy real estate project in the center of the universe, New York City. They laughed. Imagine that. What hicks!

And their biggest laugh was saved for me and my expectation that a young lady, a schoolmate, with the glorious name that I will not reveal, whose parents I think were born in France, would fall for me. It was believable that in these circumstances they would have a good laugh. I had been laughed at regularly, some good-natured, but there was the unexpected teasing, and I was never in on the fun. But who didn’t dodge such repeated darts through middle school? Or who, like me, needed to grow oblivious to the mockery because he or she spoke with a stutter?

Yet out of this world I was armed with a phalanx of Hollywood studio musicians. With the coolest string and horn sections at my side, I became the equal of a great explorer, a wily inventor, and a big money family of bankers, politicians, and real estate developers. Each and everyone a success story, and I was about to join them, another stanza in Ella's song with Nelson Riddle conducting.

The folks doing the laughing, however, still held on to the notion that I was a goof, overreaching when it came to love, too dumb to realize that my one, true desire would never pause to squint at me, the kid who had succumbed to his Catholic school's fashion edict, the white shirt and the salt and pepper cords.

Yet it was time for the laughers and the teasers to hear something far worse than any stutter. It would be the repeated chuckles and chortles and giggles, directed from me (and my gal) to them. They were the losers for having failed to believe that the young lady with the glorious name that sounded French, which was more proof that her parents were from France, or some really great place like that, had, in fact, fallen for me. My lunch recess plans were now her lunch recess plans. And vice versa. The angry young man was angry no more. I was happy. I was feeling good. On three, studio musicians, on three: a one, a two, a . . . Ha! Ha! Ha!

This was a good thing for me to learn at that age, or for any kid; it was a dream that I could have the last laugh someday; it didn’t matter what I did or where I was going. There was trouble now, but trouble would not reign forever. All of this was made believable by the easy confidence that this woman expressed with her joyful voice; her face and figure might be flawed, but so what? She could sing and laugh better than anyone. This was Ella Fitzgerald.

I just saw her in the Abbott and Costello movie “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” from 1942. In one scene she is on a tour bus with a bunch of swinging ranch hands, each dressed for a Sunday morning meeting at the Church of Big Hat, No Cattle, with the honorable cowpolks Bud Abbott and Lou Costello presiding. Up and down the bus aisle she twisted and turned, singing about a brown and yellow basket that she had lost; she pouted, she worried, she felt terrible that it was gone, but we knew she didn’t, not really. How could she? It was an Abbott and Costello movie, not Stanislavsky State U. alums doing Bertolt B. It wasn’t the blues, baby, sadness or grief; it was, at best, faux chagrin and very entertaining.

This was the kiss of anti-cool: she was not serious; she was not, and this could be damning for some listeners, like Billie Holiday. But not for Ella and me. Ella had the heart and the smile, and they could be ours too. Billie had the pain and the voice, each so perfect that both could only belong to her. For a middle school kid, perfection was something that did not seem possible, and if it was, it was something that was a long way off, like after you picked a major in college. Just good enough would be good enough for now.

That girl of French parents wasn’t perfect, and neither was I. My dream girl had crooked teeth, but I had never noticed them. Some cynical classmate had to point them out to me; she needed braces, he said, dismissively. I wasn’t all that confident that I would ever be fluent, but all that drifted away when Ella encouraged me to sing. There were better things to think about than our imperfections.

She had that great voice, but she’d tell you that she didn’t look all that hot. Nobody ever said that about Billie; she was gorgeous, so dancers, actresses and singers yearn to play her. And some eventually do. But no one ever gets cast as Ella. Not really, because she'll stand back and let you sing your own song, in your own perfect voice, as loud as you can.















"They All Laughed"

by George and Ira Gershwin

Odds were a hundred to one against me
The world thought the heights were too high to climb
But people from Missouri never incensed me
Oh, I wasn’t a bit concerned
For from history I had learned
How many, many times the worm had turned
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly

They told Marconi
Wireless was a phony
It’s the same old cry
They laughed at me wanting you
Said I was reaching for the moon
But oh, you came through
Now they’ll have to change their tune

They all said we never could be happy
They laughed at us and how!
But ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh now?

They all laughed at Rockefeller Center
Now they’re fighting to get in
They all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin
They all laughed at Fulton and his steamboat
Hershey and his chocolate bar

Ford and his Lizzie
Kept the laughers busy
That’s how people are
They laughed at me wanting you
Said it would be, "hello, goodbye."
But oh, you came through
Now they’re eating humble pie

They all said we’d never get together
Darling, let’s take a bow
For ho, ho, ho!
Who’s got the last laugh?
He, hee, hee!
Let’s at the past laugh
Ha, ha, ha!
Who’s got the last laugh now? "

Click on links for Ella Fitzgerald performances:

"A Tisket A Tasket (. . . Yellow Basket)" from Ride 'Em Cowboy:

live in '57 and '63:

"They All Laughed" (with Louis Armstrong; Ella solo version not available)

FIELD TRIP: www.letterheady.com

by Christopher McCabe





























Not to draw swords, but the author of Custom Fit Freeway would like to kindly assert that letterhead design has traveled far and wide since the days of Johannes Gutenberg.

True, Herr Gutenberg knew his Helvetica from his Verdana Bold, and when the bishop needed a redo on the Book of Genesis, Johannes remained first on the holiness call sheet.

However, art and craft in the competitive world of letterhead design continues to evolve, as the author of Custom Fit Freeway saw once again upon finding his way to Shaun Usher’s splendid http://www.letterheady.com/.  The author was determined to return with a few letterhead bon bons for his loyal subscribers, and as they can see they are presented here today.




























Mr. Usher informs us that letterheady is an adjective, describing the state of mind when one is “overcome by a strong emotion due to a letterhead design.”  Fair enough.

If, however, the piercing of a business envelope and the unfolding of  its communique leads to the discovery of the next Leonardo or Picasso of the stationery set, an unsteadiness may be induced, and accidental self-harm may follow.  At such moment we must gently put down our sharp-pronged letter openers, or risk a final edit to our lifeline, just this way of our thumb.






























But life worth living is a life full of risk and a journey to the home of letterheady, as demonstrated by these fine examples, is one that we should all take, risk be dashed.

While planning such an itinerary, Custom Fit Freeway’s author wishes to make a friendly suggestion: Why not speak to a favorite travel agent about a complementary side trip to the Gutenberg Museum?

This impressive museum is set in lovely Mainz, Germany, a big-shouldered town of great history, awe inspiring wines, and sunny citizens—all on the River Rhine!





























The museum in Mainz dedicated to Herr Gutenberg is 203 kilometers south of Dusseldorf's Benrath Palace. Via the A3, a BMW can easily gallop its length in 1 hour and 58 minutes, depending on pesky traffic.

Be sure to pause for a spa treatment, to castle hop, and devour a delectable Rhineland Sauerbraten along the way.

Until then, take a trip to www.letterheady.com and delight in nuanced color print and font size.  It is a trip that would make Johannes Gutenberg proud.


SOLDIERS, VETERANS, STUDENTS

by Christopher McCabe

 























This article appeared in a slightly different version under the title "Listening to Iraq Veterans" in i.e., Inside English, the Journal of the English Council of California Two-Year Colleges, Spring 2009. 

I encourage readers to watch http://vimeo.com/groups/hdv/videos/5065827 . Chang Wong,  pictured above and one of the student veterans that I spoke with for my article, is profiled in this important video produced by the L.A. Veterans Project. 

In addition to all of the veterans who generously spoke with me about their time at war and at home, I would like to thank my colleagues Patricia Rose and Roger Marheine of Pasadena City College, and Tom Patchell of Cuesta College for their help on this article.


SOLDIERS, VETERANS, STUDENTS


by Christopher McCabe


He directs me to the Internet.  Just search Sgt. Chang Wong on Google, he says, to learn more about his Iraq deployment and his wartime injury.

Before I went to the web, Wong gave me the date  he was wounded—May 23, 2005—and told me that his tank had run over an improvised explosive device (I.E.D.) When it detonated, he and his fellow soldiers suffered injuries; he “probably”—his modest word—suffered the most.

Among the four soldiers in Wong's unit, two suffered non-threatening shrapnel wounds while one suffered a torn shoulder ligament. Wong was in a coma for a month, his lungs filled with fluid, and he lost both his legs below the knee. He now wears prosthetics to help him walk.

"I am lucky to be alive,” he says.  Wong is 25 and a Pasadena City College (PCC) student when we talk in June 2008.

But he hadn’t told me about his medals: a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, an Army Achievement Medal, and four others. An article on the web told me that.

Wong’s reluctance to provide all the details of his wartime experience is common among many veterans.  They are polite as they speak with me, never impersonal but they understandably limit what they have to say. They have no interest in sounding like heroes; they do not tell me of their commendations unless asked;  with Wong I had to ask again when I needed clarification.

Instead, they will more readily describe the awful days of Basic Training at Fort Benning, Georgia, the 120 degree temperature in the Iraqi desert, the deep loyalty of their buddies in uniform, and their amazement at being in the land of the Old Testament. The little kids who greet them. That's heartbreaking.

But they are unsure how much more they want to say or see in an article about themselves. A few words will not explain Iraq to non-combatants; only fellow soldiers know what it is like. You had to have been there, and I have not, and neither am I a military veteran. 

As Wong’s friend Jack Kim, also a PCC student and Iraq Veteran, says, telling civilians about what happened in Iraq is nearly pointless. “The more I try,” Kim, 35, says, “the less they understand.” Wong smiles and nods in agreement.  We are sitting in a coffee shop across the street from PCC and their voices can barely be heard while espresso makers and blenders grind ingredients for  drinks, and jazz and pop music play.

At our corner table Kim fills in some details about Wong's service and injury that Wong has yet to tell me.  Kim tells me  something that Wong would never say about himself.  Kim says Wong is a hero.  Wong demurs.   As they sit and sip their drinks both men could pass as the typical community college. student.  Who they are and where they have been would only be known to their classmates and teachers if they told them.  What they had seen is something they would only tell the rarest of individuals. 

As I listen to Wong and Kim and other veterans who are attending PCC in June 2008, they say they prefer not to call attention to themselves as veterans during classroom discussions, especially if the subject touches upon military affairs.  It can only cause trouble for them, they believe. 

Louie Guan, 25, becomes irreverent when he explains that their reluctance to speak up in class has its roots in the army’s rule “to keep your mouth shut.”  He laughs and I do, too. 

Raymond Mok, 23, says more seriously that he remains quiet for fear of antagonizing an instructor who might not share his point of view. Mok is  by nature polite, kind, and incapable of provocation.  His build, rather slight, would not draw a lot of attention in a crowd.  He had been enrolled in my class once, until he received his deployment order to Iraq and had to withdraw mid-semester.  More than a year and a half  later he returned to the U.S. and PCC, and gave my class another try. 

When he shows me several pictures of his room in an Iraq barracks he apologizes for its disarray.  All was a mess, he says, because he had just returned from work.  His job working on computers didn't take him to the front lines much, but he saw and heard enough that he preferred to keep his distance from it whenever he could. 

His photos, one appears below, show bunk beds covered with so many clothes that the mattresses are nearly hidden. In one there is a TV, a microwave and a boom box.  Others show a can of Pepsi on a table, a calendar featuring a young lady, an American flag covering most of a wall, and a poster of New York City at night, the Twin Towers still standing behind a lit Brooklyn Bridge.  There is a stuffed animal on the top bunk. 

It is not much different than a college dorm room except for the shelf with the box of Cheez-Its at rest on a folded camouflage combat uniform, the dented cake box that claims it was "Freshly baked and decorated just for you!" on top of a storage container marked SPC (Army Specialist), and on the bottom bunk sticking out from under all that disheveled clothing is a rifle butt, that of an M16, its shoulder strap falling off the mattress.
    


















Looking at the photos I remember seeing Mok in my classroom, but never thinking that this was the world he would soon be in, or when he returned to my class the world where he had once been. I knew him as  the good student in the second desk from the front, who looked intently at his book and his notes and would periodically nod when someone offered  his or her interpretation of a short story or poem.  Sometimes he would join the discussion with his considerate, individual voice.

On a day when the class was at the library doing online research, I found  Mok, who was now back from Iraq and had reenrolled in my class, completing his task quickly while some of his classmates  remained disinterested, more attuned to their Facebook page or clicking from one celebrity fan site to another.

Mok did not appear to be distressed by the students lack of devotion to the morning's assignment.  He helped them when they asked questions, offering assistance even when their eyes drifted back to their screens with an urge to play another game of Internet poker. He was more patient than me.  He was a good teacher, doing what he could do, and doing it quietly.

Veterans might also remain quiet because they want to observe what others do and what others have to say.  They have been stationed in Korea and the Philippines, seen military camps in Europe and Kuwait, and spent too  much of their lives at war in Iraq.  Having been apart from school and civilian life for so long, they now wonder who their classmates or teachers might be. 

Jin Chong, 26, who served as a medic in Iraq, clearing the airways of the wounded and cleaning and suturing the bloodied, sounds a note of acceptance for those offering their opinions in class.

“It doesn’t bother me if the war or anything like it is discussed in class or what position the teacher or anyone takes,” he says deliberately. “That’s freedom of speech. I know what I know. Others know what they know.”

As they take in the verbal etiquette of class discussions for the first time in years, combat veterans tell me of  horrific memories  that feed  their fear of a worst case scenario: violence might break out again, this time in a peaceful campus setting.

So these veterans remain quiet as they scan the classroom for a safe exit, noting doors and the placement of their hinges. When they read of the latest school shooting, they might come to campus and spot the student who is wearing bright colors, and know that he or she in the sunrise t-shirt and  the lemon-colored shorts are, unknowingly, an easy target for a sniper.

They’ll sometimes smile when they recount these  things,  acknowledging how extreme this would seem to a civilian.  They’ll even laugh when they recall walking out of the college library, feeling under-dressed now that they are in street clothes, no longer in uniform, and carrying a backpack, not a gun. 

Cruz Bethurem, 26, understands these reactions, and they are unavoidable; he called it “the muscle memory” at work.   Competing with these images from the past are the responsibilities of the present, like a veteran’s ongoing military service.

Such obligations were not a significant concern for Mok when he enlisted at 17½. Because of a recruiter’s advice, he did not think that he would be deployed to Iraq; however, his unexpected deployment forced him to leave PCC and suddenly this unassuming young man was gone from my classroom. Now, back in school, ongoing training threatens Mok's ability to succeed academically. He knows, too, that he could be deployed again, at anytime.

“I am trying," he says, "to please both the army and myself. At school I have to keep a good GPA in order to transfer. I am competing with other students. But at the same time I must attend AT (Annual Training) because my unit wants everyone to experience the field and do practical exercises together.” 

Mok is describing what many veterans feel.  They are home, but they feel lost between two worlds—military and civilian.  Neither is providing the acknowledgment of service or welcome home that they expected.

Veterans admitted to me that they were depressed and showed impatience, or even a temper, upon their return. They were having trouble sleeping and focusing.  They might drink too much and isolate themselves from others, having trouble making friends.  Their aggravation would spike when they saw that their fellow citizens were not well-informed about the soldiers, nor do they seem to know much about the war. 

Too many times a veteran's alienation is compounded when  someone tells them that "'they are puppets of the government' or ask, 'Did you kill anyone?'" "Americans don’t really understand [our service in Iraq],” Bethurem says during our first conversation, which we do by phone.  I can see, however,  that he is always a step ahead of his listener, whether he delivers a sharp joke or employs irony.  Eventually he is very direct.

“They ask stupid questions," he says. "People want to hear about it, but not what is really happening there. I’m not glorifying it. There’s no theme music. No credits. Some people say they care, and they put the little gold ribbons on, but what good does that do?”

For the record, Bethurem says he “loved the service, but not the war.” It is where he made “some of the best friends in my life.”  He and other veterans usually call these friends their buddies, indicating a unique relationship, a solid brotherhood, that exists between them.

This friendship was on Kim’s mind when he took Wong to Forest Lawn cemetery on Memorial Day to visit the grave of a buddy, a Navy Seal. On his way there Kim, who was in uniform, was stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer for a license plate violation; it had fallen off the front bumper.

The highway patrolman had, Kim says, an unprofessional attitude.  He was looking for an infraction and found two, giving Kim a ticket for the missing license plate and another for altering his vehicle’s trunk, a modification that he did not know was illegal.

“It’s Memorial Day weekend, and I’m wearing my uniform,” Kim says, recalling the day.  “I told the CHP Officer that I’m visiting my buddy’s grave.  He then asks me why did I have a disability placard hanging in my car. I told him that it’s my buddy’s, Chang’s. He asks, ‘Why does he have one?’ I told him that he had lost his legs in Iraq. And then he said he had to give me a ticket for two violations. I was pretty upset.”

A moment like this is not forgotten, of course.  Patricia Rose, a colleague of mine at PCC and a mother of an Iraq veteran, said that this is the kind of thing that makes veterans feel like they are invisible.  She has heard veterans tell stories of not feeling recognized and acknowledged as she has collected their writings about their military experience for an archive at PCC. 

"Their writing," she says, "gives them an opportunity to reflect on their experiences as they struggle to return to civilian life.  Their voices will give readers, as well, some insight into what these veterans have seen, what's been required of them.

"Writing about their time at war is often the first step veterans take in describing what they have witnessed.  Talking comes later, if at all.  Chong says he did not want to talk about his war experiences, but that eventually changed, and he found, he says, writing about the war to be "great therapy."

Chong was enrolled in two of my classes at PCC, and I saw him become more comfortable, easier to smile as each semester went on.   From the start, however, I realized that he was one of the most graceful student writers--whatever the topic he was asked to address--that  I had ever had.  In recent weeks Chong has spoken to high school classes about his veteran experience, something he says he would not have considered doing when he first returned to civilian life.






Guan, pictured above, is telling his story too. Having been deployed twice, he has served more than two years in some of Iraq’s most hostile combat zones. He is a big man, well over six feet, with broad shoulders, a sturdiness that would appear to take him safely onto a football field or into the world's more terrifying battles.

However, Guan is driven to look inward to reconsider his memories of war and the nearly irresistible option of returning to Iraq.  No matter how bad it might seem to others, he sometimes believes that a return to Iraq would solve some of his biggest problems.

To be in Iraq again, he would be in a world where people understood him.  His bills would get paid.  His current security job at Sears does not pay enough to meet his rent and school tuition and fees.  With his military experience a private operation like Blackwater would pay him nearly $150,000 to provide armed security on the ground in Iraq.  Financial worries are coupled with his concerns for friends that he left behind in Iraq or who are falling behind and forgotten at home.  He does not want the same to happen to him.

Though he is torn between two worlds, there are days when he is adjusting to being at home.  Guan has been writing and getting encouragement from his family, teachers, and Manny Martinez, his counselor at the East Los Angeles Veterans Center.  He wants to tell civilians about the lives of soldiers in Iraq and as veterans at home, but more often he wants someone like his congresswoman to read his words:

"As I came home from my first deployment," Guan writes, "I felt that I left part of me in Iraq that I could never find again. I repressed my feelings and thoughts by soaking myself in alcohol. I wanted to forget about Iraq, but I knew that my days in Iraq were not over. I felt hopeless and depressed. I didn’t know who to turn to . . . .

"All that I thought about were the horrible things that happened in Iraq. I thought about Sergeant Jenkins who made the ultimate sacrifice. . . . He jumped and threw his body without any regard for his own life on a doll with an explosive device that a five year old Iraqi girl handed to one of his own soldiers. I thought about how heroic he was and what he did to save his fellow soldiers."

After Guan served part of his second 12 month deployment, he then got orders extending his assignment another six weeks, an all too common practice. This second deployment turned out to be as terrifying as his first; this time one of his buddies was killed by a sniper.

Later, when he returned home, he began to have nightmares and became addicted to alcohol. He writes, “I was angry, depressed, and isolated. I had no friends that I felt would understand me because they weren’t there in Iraq with me.” 

Talking with other veterans Guan learned that they were as equally troubled as he. One close friend told him “that he was doing horribly” and considering reenlistment. Guan’s squad leader was getting a divorce, and Guan’s roommate, who had completed a second tour like him, committed suicide. Another friend who could not readjust to life at home joined Blackwater and returned to Iraq where half of his face was so badly injured that he now speaks with a microphone attached to his throat.

Guan sees his writing as a way of providing another service to his country. He titles it a “testimony” to what he has seen.  He also calls for a stronger G.I. Bill, with sufficient funding for veterans’ education, housing, food, and health benefits.

More veterans, he says, should attend college to ease their transition back to civilian life, to keep “them from being socially isolated. . . and [help] them find employment outside the military or military contractors who offer them high salaries to return to Iraq or Afghanistan.” 

In addition, news media should have greater access to military operations and the right to report all events, from the mundane to the heroic. The press must be able to write of the dead and their flag-draped coffins. Every story needs to be told for those who can’t tell their own, he argues.

Yet as many veterans struggle, others progress. Chong will continue his studies, most likely at Charles Drew Medical School; Wong and Kim will prepare for careers in business at the University of California, Berkeley; Bethurem will also attend Berkeley on his way to teaching ESL overseas; Mok likes to work with computers and will continue to do so; and Guan will forever be a veteran’s advocate, one of their storytellers.

Some say that these new veterans are unlike those who served in Vietnam.  They are enrolling in college sooner after leaving the combat zone, and they are younger than their earlier service counterparts. By spring 2008, five years into the war, 1.6 million soldiers had been deployed, over 4,000 killed, and 30,000 wounded; nearly 20% of the veterans suffer from stress, depression or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). 

Many of these veterans will enroll in community colleges to advance their education and prepare for a new career. Even with their difficult experiences, or because of them, these veterans tend to be among the better students, and they will continue to need good teachers.

"It’s all about being a good listener,” Tom Patchell, a veteran and English instructor at Cuesta College in central Californa, says about teaching veterans.  He, himself, has written about his own and his father's military experiences.  “We need to see them for who they are," he adds.  "Be ready to listen to them and accept them and not judge them.” And then Patchell asks: “Isn’t that what we all want? Someone to listen?”