“Goodbye God, We Are Going to Bodie.”

Posted in Boyhood, History on June 13, 2011 by Thomas N. Schenden

One way to add depth to your travels is to mix in some history, and the ghost towns of the Old West are ideal destinations for motorists and armchair adventurers.

Bodie, one of California’s best preserved and most authentic ghost towns, sits on the edge of the Nevada border, just an hour north of Mammoth. This abandoned 1880s mining town was declared a California State Historic Park in 1962 and since then has been maintained in what is famously called a state of “arrested decay.” You won’t see any painting or renovating going on in Bodie. In this remote mining town the buildings are kept safe and standing, but that’s about it.

As you walk the dirt streets, it’s easy to imagine the town’s better days. Peer into the wavy glass windows of once well-cared for homes, and you’ll feel as though you are looking back in time. But this time machine does not have rose colored lenses. Wallpaper is stained and peeling. Furniture is covered in a deep, deep coat of dust. Household utensils and clothing are strewn about as though the family went out for an evening walk after dinner and never, ever came back. It’s creepy, because it’s the real deal.

In its heyday, Bodie boasted a population of over 7,000. The boom years of 1877-1880 brought miners from all over the West, and most of them were men. Mile-long Main Street was home to 65 saloons. There were opium dens and numerous brothels. Murders, shootouts, barroom brawls and stagecoach holdups were ordinary occurrences. Local lore has it that when one little girl learned that her family was moving to the mining town, she prayed, “Goodbye God! We are going to Bodie.”

Things have quieted down since. Today, only 170 buildings remain of the 2,000 buildings that once stood. While Bodie is open to visitors year round, the access road is covered in snow through most of the winter. The park is host to over 200,000 visitors every year, so, while you may not see any ghosts, chances are good that you’ll see other visitors. And that’s a good thing, because Bodie is so remote and so lonely, you’ll really appreciate the company.

The Ash Heap of History, Piled Higher

Posted in History, Uncategorized on February 16, 2011 by Thomas N. Schenden

Not to paint with too broad of a brush, but it seems that in most corners of the world the US has favored stability and it’s evil step-cousin, autocracy, over democracy. Not that stability is a higher goal, but that it serves us well immediately. Democracy is inefficient and messy and isn’t very easy to control.

There are no guarantees that there will be stronger US ties with the next government in Syria or Libya or Egypt, but I’d say that in most of these cases, the people on the street look to the US and the West for their inspiration. We may be going through tough times here in the US, but it’s comforting to know that our ideals are spreading out throughout the world and causing illegitimate regimes to fall.

And all this online technology that has brought real free information into Middle Easterners’ lives has come from free nations. Eventually the people of the those nations will have to look around and say, WTF? Why do we supply the world its oil and live in poverty while our kings live in palaces? We want to be like those people who buy our gas and make phones!

The US has a real balancing act to perform, again. It does remind one of the ’90s. . . I Recall that Bush 41 was very careful not to crow about the falling of the Eastern European and Soviet regimes, even though it would have done him very well politically. . . Obama may be treading the same path. Tricky stuff.

You know the people of the Middle East don’t want a big religious war with the West, they just want to live quiet, dignified lives. All the Al Qaeda crap that has dominated the news over the last decade is ready to take its place on the top of the historic ash heap.

A Giant Tangent, Chapter 2: The Balancing Point

Posted in Boyhood, Healthcare, Life After 50 on January 19, 2011 by Thomas N. Schenden

I checked my watch. It had only been thirty minutes since we jumped on board this northbound freight, but I could feel several hours’ travel in my bones already. The romance of hitching rides on trains was already fading, and in its place was a growing longing for a real chair.

“If you have any change in your pockets, you don’t want to sit there.”

“I’ll be fine, Jack,” I said, annoyed, as I bumped and rattled and literally flew up off the floor of the train car.

“Any false teeth?”

What’s your problem? What’s it matter if I have change or false teeth or what?

“Brother, you’re sittin’ right over the wheels, and box car wheels don’t like company — they’ll shake ya down so hard your change will be in your shoes and your teeth will be in your pockets. You’d best move over here where the ride’s smoother. And have a drink of this, it’ll settle your stomach down quick-like.”

Jack was right about the wheels, and he was right about his wine, too. We sat side by side over what had to be some kind of balancing point on the freight car floor and hardly felt a bump. As we passed his pint of port back and forth, watching the sun come up over the Tehachapis, my thoughts turned back to the week before.

It had been a bad year, and it was only February. In fact, it had been a bad couple of years, and that was about as honest as I was going to allow myself to be at the moment. I felt like I was caught in some kind of sequence that was running its course and not yet complete. There had been a divorce, a car crash, a bout with cancer, and the death of my dear old pops. When my department was informed last week that the company had been sold to an equity management firm, it wasn’t hard to imagine what was next.

Still, there was some comfort available in the news. Even if the new ownership, aptly named “Blackstake” decided to turn us all out onto the streets, I’d already experienced far worse. In fact, at 52, middle age was bearing down on me, and I felt like I was bearing up under it pretty well.

And all the while, Jack was observing me closely, another one of his endearing and annoying habits. Really, Jack was an observer of people in general, and was very skilled at summing up situations before others even noticed anything worthy of analysis.

“Brother, you’re not sober enough to be this quiet. What’s eatin’ at ya?”

Jack, you’ve probably got a better idea than I do. I don’t do analysis well, but I know when something isn’t right, and I’m feeling that now.

The loud, jostling clack of the car as it bumped over the tracks punctuated my thoughts and brought them forward at an increasing speed.

“I mean, it’s been a fucked up couple of years, hasn’t it? And all of it comes after years that I just seemed to sleep through. Really, what happened in my forties? While you were out seeing the world, I was driving a mouse in a cubicle. My big accomplishment? I’m an expert at Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint. And now, these people are poised to dump us all and do I care? I don’t know! But something about it is sickening.”

Jack pulled his Luckys out of his pocket, gave the pack a shake and held it out to me.

“Thanks Jack, but you know I don’t –

“Brother, just take the goddamn cigarette. I know your problem and it’s not new to me or you or anyone else who’s had a lungful of responsibility. But remember who you are now, you’re a giant, and pardon the pun but that’s no small thing. In three steps we’ll be halfway up this state and there’s no looking back for you. Now take a look at that.”

Jack motioned at the scenery out the large door on the right side of the car. I’d simply describe it as stunning, but Jack never let a strong impression go without a full blown soliloquy.

“That sun has been doing that same thing for millions of years, coming up over those mountains just like that, shining through those pines just like that, blazing through that morning haze just like that, and where have you been? You’ve been worrying about schedules and budgets and memos; you’ve been using up your precious life on someone else’s cares.

He had a point, at least at that particular moment, and by changing the subject he was doing it again, gently bumping me in another direction, maybe not the right direction but the direction he knew best. And I don’t even think he thought it was best for me, but it worked for him and he was loaning it to me. There was comfort in that, anyway.

“Brother, you know what I see?”

The train had been slowing for several minutes and as the rhythm slackened, the car grew quieter. We bumped along, and I took my time before answering.

“What’s that Jack?”

“I see a scroll, an untold tale that’s just unfolding across the sky like a kind of road or a path, and our names are written on it and there’s all kinds of untold adventure written on it, written ages ago. This train is destiny, man, it’s pure steel power chargin’ down the track and it knows – we don’t but it does – it knows where it’s goin’ and when it’s arrivin’. I’m real sorry about this state you’re in brother, it’s real mixed up but it’s not in front of us, it’s not on this train, and it’s not on the scroll.”

Give Me the Sweet, Dark Cold

Posted in Life After 50 on December 14, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

There was a degree of elation I allowed myself to feel, for a day or two. As I streamed in and out of traffic amid the shining, new purposeful autos I felt a part of the stream of life again. I was moving. It wasn’t hard to imagine doing this again and again and again and resolving not to complain about traffic, ever. These people around me, they are nice people. They’re busy going to and coming from, they’re involved. They matter.

My Jeep doesn’t have windows. Or doors. And at any other time in my life it would be ludicrous and even painful to drive around after dark at 65 mph in 48-degree weather, but not now. I felt the cold and if felt good. It meant that I was moving, my Jeep was taking me somewhere important and I was a part of the stream of life. Never mind the numb fingers. Heck, never mind the numb legs — all that cold was proof that I did it.

And did it I did, for four days. I enjoyed over thirty miles of brisk, bracing commute –each way — along the same, well traveled path that had conveyed me to my previous place of employ. I relished every turn. As I moved through the backcountry I realized that I didn’t even know what street I was on. It was too dark to see anything, but I felt it. Some submerged autopilot had taken over and was guiding me along dark paths that I hadn’t traveled in almost two years. If the trip was cold and windy and dark, it was also moist and mysterious and exciting. Familiar fragrances enveloped the blackness, creating olfactory signposts: freshly cut grass along the median of the highway, semi-putrid smells of brackish backwater, deep aromatic fragrances of well-soaked foliage along the lakefront, the sweet perfume of refried beans wafting out of a neighborhood of tidy suburban homes. Even without the beans, it was delicious and comforting. And black. And cold.

But the real chill came the next day, at noon, when I learned that the schedule was thinning out fast and that my services wouldn’t be required again until January or even February. And as I turned this bit of news over in my mind, methodically making the turns and stops along my backcountry path, the warm winter sun didn’t feel quite as warm. The cars around me were jockeying for position and I was in no mood to keep up with them. In fact, I felt a distinct longing for a very dark, cold, windy drive.

A Giant Tangent, Chapter 1: Bakersfield

Posted in Boyhood, History, Uncategorized on August 27, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

“I tell ’em like I write ’em, in one long continuous paper streaming across the sky, man, that’s my map, that’s what I’m doing, that’s where I’m going. You coming too?” — Jack

Jack’s not my friend, he’s an acquaintance. At least, that’s the published version. But Jack is a pretty engaging guy, and a good guy too. That’s who this story is about.

Have you ever met someone who only felt comfortable when he was hearing the sound of his own voice? I’m talking about stream-of-consciousness talking. I’m talking about all day, one-way monologues. If you were to hear Jack, you’d notice a certain rhythm to his voice, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but recognize. I’d call it nerve-wracking and downright annoying, if it wasn’t for the fact that Jack is just so dang fascinating.

One foggy evening, as we were walking, and Jack was talking, we fell onto the subject of travel. Jack boasted that he knew California like no one else. “I’m not talkin’ maps, man. . . I’m talking real knowledge – stuff that takes feet-on-the-ground research, not like what you’d see in a dusty old encyclopedia, but brought to life and speaking to you, propelling you, shining on you like the sun, man.”

I rolled my eyes. Jack was on another bender, ‘getting tangential,’ as he called it.

“Yeah, really man, I can show ya, I can show you how to be a giant in California, bigger than the redwoods. You’ll be so big, you can take one step and be standing in the parched bean fields of Bakersfield and take another step and be cool in Salinas. After you wipe that rich dark earth off your shoe, you’re in Mendocino, man, stepping over the old logging chutes that pitched that redwood booty out into the waiting ships way back when. What do you say, man, you in, you wanna be a giant?”

“What are you talking about? Gimme a clue, Jack,” I half pleaded.

What I’m talking about is an emancipation proclamation, man, I’m talking walking papers, carte blanche, an e-ticket that you can’t buy, because you’ll be a giant!”

Oh, brother!

“Oh Brother yeah! If you’re up for it we’re giants tomorrow, swear! But we have to shake on the deal first.”

Jack extended his fist and began his elaborate knuckle bumping, thumb hooking, pinky wiggle with the elbow extension and the wink. Yeah, the wink. Jack had a special wink that was his way of saying that this was an important deal, more important than anything else. So we performed the ceremony that told Jack that, in essence, I had placed myself in his custody.

“Meet me at this crossing tomorrow morning. Bring a coat and a change of clothes and a toothbrush and maybe a sliver of soap, but that’s it because that’s giant gear and if you bring anything else it won’t work. Swear?”
“Swear.” I said, with a little quiver in my voice. “What time?”

“Four-thirty, Amplitude Modulation, my friend. Oh-dark-thirty. Be there with your giant gear and I’ll show you. . .”
“Show me. . .?”

As Jack walked away, he seemed to blend into the fog and the dark, and vanish.

The next morning, as I approached our meeting place, Jack reappeared out of the fog, but now sitting on his backpack, sipping on a cup of coffee in the dark. It was one of those short plastic cups that unscrews off the red plaid thermos, which was sitting in front of him. He held his filterless cigarette with typical Jack-like affectation, between his thumb and forefinger.

“We gotta go,” he said, as he took one last drag, flicked his smoke, gulped his coffee and screwed the cup back on the thermos, all in one smooth motion. “If we’re gonna be giants today, we’d better move like it.”

Now I knew that there was only one thing happening on this corner at 4:30 in the morning, and it was just beginning to dawn on me what Jack was up to when he stopped me and turned his head sideways slightly. Jack heard something, and in the next moment he was running up the gravel covered hill, toward the railroad right of way. I had to run hard to keep up with him.

“That’s it! C’mon, lets move!”

Jack disappeared behind a pepper tree that had grown over the edge of the gravel rail bed.
“In here!” Jack whispered as he ducked down into the foliage. “Now if you do this right, and follow my every move, this is where you’ll take your last step as a little man! Got it?”

That sound that Jack had heard, it was getting louder and closer. It was the 4:47, northbound out of the Santa Fe depot, and just now slowly moving our way. I felt a pit in my stomach as I realized what was next.

Jack was wound up like a top, and unwound his explanation: “OK, brother, this is how it goes. First, you jog along beside her, just like you’ve always known her, but making sure that she’s not moving faster than you. When she’s not looking and you’re sure she’s sweet on you and you’re moving together, you grab her –

“And that next giant step puts you in the bean fields of Bakersfield, California!”

The Profit in Non-Profits

Posted in Life After 50, Uncategorized on August 25, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

Recently, I heard a remark that caught my interest and sparked a conversation. My cousin believes that one’s life can be divided into four major stages. These stages include preparation, production, service and retirement. Hearing this, I immediately thought of my own personal situation and attempted to place myself along this four-stage continuum.

UCLA basketball Coach John Wooden once said, “When you’re done learning, you’re done.” I’ll agree with that, but I still see the bulk of my education career behind me. At the other end of the spectrum is retirement, which seems equally distant. So in the middle are production and service. We all know what it is to be productive. It seems that, for many years, production is the very substance of our existence. We define ourselves by the jobs we do and make every sacrifice necessary to achieve. But, what about service?

In 2009, approximately seven million California residents volunteered their time. During that year, each one of those seven million men, women and children donated, on average, 134 hours of their time to organizations and causes important to them. I’d like to look more closely at the subject of service, the motivations for it, and how volunteerism affects the volunteer.

We often think of volunteer work as a selfless or even altruistic activity, performed in order to promote the good, improve quality of life, or solve problems. But volunteer work can also be a self-serving pursuit when used for job training, networking, socializing, or politics. And did you know that there are critics of volunteerism? Some post-modernist thinkers believe that volunteerism is just another form of the institutionalization of society that perpetuates an outdated morality of noblesse oblige.

Whatever.

A concept that is much simpler to grasp is that there are many disadvantaged people among us who need our help. There are the hungry, the homeless, the handicapped. There are alcoholics and orphans and runaways and prostitutes. Some are merely the unlucky recipients of troubling times; some are physically unable to provide for their own needs, while others have mismanaged their lives to the point of ruin. To serve this needy population, there are battered women’s shelters, group homes, halfway houses and rescue missions. There are soup kitchens, job programs, medical clinics and many, many more.

Opportunities to do volunteer work abound, and can be found in almost every corner of society. Are you interested in teaching English as a foreign language? After four weeks of training in Prague, Czech Republic, you could be on your way to a job teaching English in Asia, Africa, South America or Europe. Would you prefer to work with children? There are orphanages and foster homes in every major American city. We can’t discuss urban life without including the homeless, and there are organizations dedicated to feeding, clothing and educating these forgotten Americans. If you’re religious, you could train to become a Chaplain of a hospital where you could bring comfort to the sick or injured. Prison ministries are dedicated to building friendships behind bars with incarcerated men and women who don’t have family or friends to visit them.

I’d like to highlight four successful and well-known volunteer organizations that are doing important work.
First, there is the Union Rescue Mission. The mission is a nonprofit organization, located on skid row, Los Angeles, dedicated to serving men, women and children experiencing homelessness. Established in 1891, the URM provides a comprehensive array of emergency and long-term services to its guests, including: food, shelter, clothing, medical and dental care, recovery programs, transitional housing, legal assistance, education, counseling, and job training to needy men, women, children, and families.

Orangewood Children’s Foundation began 25 years ago with a vision to build a facility to shelter Orange County children who were the victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Today Orangewood Children’s Home is home to over 3200 children a year, with approximately 200 full time residents. The organization is dedicated to ending the cycle of child abuse by providing innovative programs focused on prevention, care, emancipation and public awareness. Orangewood offers opportunities for volunteer work, gift giving, internship and employment.

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry founded on the conviction that every man, woman and child should have a simple, decent place to live in dignity and safety. President Jimmy Carter brought this organization into the nation’s consciousness when he and his wife Rosalyn became involved 27 years ago. Volunteers offer their time to help build and rehabilitate affordable housing and also volunteer for specific job roles, such as drafter, software developer, technical writer, translator, and production assistant.

Match-Two Mentoring Outreach specializes in recruiting and screening adults who serve as mentors to youth who are incarcerated in California Youth Correctional Facilities. M2 Mentors build trust that provides a platform from which they influence the young life of someone who may never have had a true friend. Within the scope of that friendship they have the opportunity to encourage the youth and to share their faith in a way that is vital and helpful.

While each one of these organizations is unique, they are all doing valuable work for ordinary people who need a little — or even a lot — of help. In a world where value is customarily counted in dollars, these non-profit organizations seem to turn everything upside down. Profits are exchanged for personal accomplishments by persons who seem to have have run short of opportunity. Company goals are not centered around the next product release, but on meeting the needs of their communities. And where do these organizations get their raw materials and their work force? From you and me. What we’re talking about is time — our own, personal time, something that we never seem to have enough of, even when everything is going our way.

Preparation, Production, Service, Retirement. In my cousin’s scheme, service is 25% of the picture. While we’re so desperately searching for a sense of fulfillment in our professional lives, it might be useful to look under the next stepping stone of Service. While that warm, fuzzy sense of fulfillment can be as fleeting in volunteer work as it is everywhere else, it isn’t about feeling, it’s about knowing. You know when you’re doing the right thing, and there’s plenty of fulfillment in that.

I Dream in Orange

Posted in Boyhood on February 28, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

In the spring of 1965 my mom and dad transplanted our family to the outskirts of a burgeoning young city where housing developments were springing up and orange groves were falling down. Our sparkling new neighborhood stood at the edge of town on the front lines of the advancing new world. The homes were huge, hulking two-story monoliths, every one painted white, and under contract by the new homeowners to remain just so preserved for the next ten white years.

At the time, I was under the naive illusion that my house did not, itself, supplant an orange grove. That, I think, is why I was always alarmed and offended when the next grove fell to became another construction site. We were newcomers to this agrarian world – outsiders, even – living on the west side of a boulevard that delineated our new world from the the old. While my neighborhood was named Meredith Acres by the marketing group that sold my folks our home, across the street my friends lived on real acres, with real roosters and chickens and cows and horses.

But at school, all boys were equal, and I, the newcomer, was invited to spend an afternoon on the property of the legendary Guzman family. We called the place Fernando’s – my buddy’s name – as if he owned it. Fernando’s was a string of orange groves a half a mile wide and five miles deep. His dad tended the groves, and that, to me, was as good as ownership, because it entitled us to adventures that simply weren’t available to kids on my block.

Fernando’s family lived in a small clapboard home built around the turn of the century. The house was positioned at the end of the paved city road and stood as a kind of sentry, guarding from intruders the countless acres of fruit-laden trees, bee hives and meticulously assembled irrigation systems. As one approached the house, much could be understood from the dirt road. The lawn, littered with small children’s toys, indicated that a large family, maybe too large for the house, lived there happily. The days’ laundry fluttered in the breeze. Around back, chickens and roosters wandered freely, pecking at the ground. A sweet smell of Mexican food hung in the quiet stillness, mixed with the somewhat unfamiliar odor of a septic system that needed some attention.

A typical excursion at Fernando’s started slow and ended even slower. Since we were still too young for motorcycles, we traveled by sneakers, starting out along the southernmost service road that pointed directly east toward the back of the property. Bordered by eucalyptus trees planted as windbreaks, the dirt roads served only as a means to work the groves. This was an unpaved, unpopulated and positively magical place for an afternoon adventure.

When I showed up at Fernando’s, Casey and Fernie were chasing chickens around back. Well, Fernando made it look like he was chasing them, but it was little Casey who was doing all the catching. Fernando was a well-fed kid, to say the least, and at twice Casey’s size, was simply out of the running. Not that it mattered to anyone – it was just a matter of fact. Fernando seemed to be comfortable in his roll as the biggest kid in the entire 8th grade. Heck, if my mom cooked like Fernie’s, I’d be that big too.

I’ll have to admit to being surprised to see Casey and Fernando both pick up their 22s, which they had left leaning up against the side of the house. I shot a gun once at Y camp with my dad, but that was on a shooting range with adults all over the place and rules for every move. Out here in the country, even kids had guns. I marveled.

What happened next was insubstantial, but to me, otherworldly. We started out on the southern road, bordered by a chicken farm on our right and endless orange groves on our left. The palette out there was simple and tidy – light blue, cloudless sky above our heads, deep, rich brown earth under our bare feet, and surrounding us everywhere, dark green foliage punctuated by thousands – maybe millions – of bright orange fruit. The smells of the eucalyptus and citrus mixed and mingled, and even the slightly putrid odor of the chicken farm was a delight to the senses, because it meant freedom. It was a kind of abstract, personal freedom, but all the more important to a 12-year old. It was the smell of the country.

So what were the guns for, I wondered. They were for plinking — not hunting, plinking. Plinking cans. Plinking bottles. Plinking lizards. As soon as Casey took his first shot, I got it. I heard the plink, and saw immediately that in the right hands there was nothing to fear from a 22 rifle. Casey and Fernando knew their guns. They had obviously been well taught and had taken their lessons seriously. As we walked they cradled their rifles in the crooks of their forearms with the barrels pointing downward. If either of them wanted to shoot, we stopped, the shooter advanced forward a few steps and when all was in order, the shot was fired. It was as though they had both read the same gun safety book, a book unknown to me.

But of course I was reading their unwritten book as we walked, and soon it was my turn to take a crack at it. Fernando handed me his rifle in a way that told me that he took gun safety seriously, but at the same time proved his trust in me. The gun felt heavy and solid in my hands. Casey and Fernando stood behind me and coached as I took aim at a can next to a eucalyptus tree. Plink! I felt a surge of pride as I saw the can jump – I hit it on my first try! Casey and Fernando burst out in excited approval at my marksmanship. I couldn’t hide my smile, and didn’t want to.

The mystery of gun play melted away as I realized that it was no big deal to draw a bead on an unsuspecting beer can and then to take it out in one smooth action. It would be hours before we made it back to Fernando’s house, and along the way there would be orange fights, a minor skirmish with a lizard and an abortive dove hunt. Any one of those activities would have been entertainment enough to keep a kid occupied for an afternoon. I felt energized and renewed in a way that seemed to propel me ahead as we ambled down the sun-dappled dirt roads. I was far from my neat, upscale, bleach-white suburban neighborhood, but I was accepted here. I had learned to shoot and tote guns around as if it were nothing at all. Out there in the orange trees, in the kingdom of the boy, we were all equals.