Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Am One of Miss Dawn's Little Sponges - Part 2 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

This is the second of a four posting series, “Memories from the Left Edge of America” series.

I still have very vivid memories of living in Redondo Beach, in the South Bay area of greater Los Angeles, in the mid 1950s.  Back in April 2011 I posted some recollections of running the grunion with my folks and their friends along Redondo Beach - my most viewed post to date.  “I was a young buck then, the scourge of Miss Dawn’s nursery school, and surely I was making up the whole thing . After all, I used to stand in front of the picture window in our living room watching the nighttime glow of wildfires burning in Malibu and Topanga Canyon across the bay and thinking that China was on fire. What did I know?” [ ].

During a road trip through California last fall I returned to Redondo Beach to see if I could locate some places still seared into my memory so many decades later.  Driving around I got a sense of the place I once lived, but so much that was there in the 1950s is gone now.  The old apartment complex along Palos Verdes Boulevard where we lived has been replaced by a more modern collection of condominiums.  The view of the Pacific Ocean is still there, however, but there is a great deal of newer residential housing between there and the beach where we use to run the grunion.  The old Fisherman’s Wharf extending out from the beach is not how I remember it, and the Ralphs grocery store where my mom use to shop is gone although the tall Washingtonia palms still line much of Catalina Avenue.  I wandered down to 211 Avenue I where Miss Dawn’s School was situated a block east of South Catalina Avenue just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean.  The old pink cinder block building that was my school has been replaced by small shops along this commercial strip.  To quote Thomas Wolfe: “But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”  It did matter.  Gone were the swimming pool and the playground.  You can go home again, but there are no guarantees it will be how you remember it.

To avoid hitting the evening LA rush hour traffic back toward San Diego on the final leg of my road trip, I decided to stop for a bite to eat.  A nice looking sushi place on Avenue I was closed and so I asked around for a good seafood joint.  I was quickly directed to a fairly nondescript strip mall on Palos Verdes Boulevard just a few blocks away from my nostalgic wanderings.  Gina Lee’s Bistro (at #211 . . . happen chance? ) specializes in Asian fusion dishes and the menu is heavy on seafood.  Always a plus in my book although I was sad to see there was no offering of grunion . . . that would have been almost too much to hope for.  I arrived shortly after it opened and was able to get a table without a reservation.  I was lucky because the place quickly filled up.  Obviously this is a popular place despite its simple outward appearance wedged between a jeweler and a hair salon.  The restaurant itself was a large, open room with several tables and an open kitchen.  Always a nice touch although it can make for a lot of ambient noise and this was certainly the case here once the place filled up  The dishes were a bit pricey but I was told they were worth it.  In the end I had no complaint about the food or the service.  It was a decent meal.

This meal was special not for the food or the atmosphere; it was the serendipity of my coming to this place during my journey into my past.  One of the dishes on the menu was “Evelyn Dawn’s Potato-Crusted Salmon” which was served with sauteed vegetables and a dill cream sauce.  I inquired whether the woman for whom the dish was named might possibly be identical with Miss Dawn, one of my first teachers just a few blocks and so many years away.  In fact, they are the same.  The dish was named in honor of Miss Dawn, a regular patron, after her passing several years ago.  There is also a framed photograph of her hanging in the restaurant.  Perhaps my being directed here is what Thomas Wolfe called one of those "dark miracles of chance that make new magic in a dusty world.”

Just recently I was looking through an old family album for some old “Throw Back Thursday” photos of myself to post on Facebook when I came across two photographs taken on my fifth birthday, in March 1956, when I was attending Miss Dawn’s School.  I also found a progress report dating from January 1956 and signed by Evelyn Dawn, the school’s proprietor, and my teacher Zelma Seekford.  “He cooperates well in group play and is well liked by the other children,” wrote Ms. Seekford.  “He is willing to share the toys, and other equipment, and has quickly learned to be a part of all the activities.”  High praise for I am quite sure I could be quite the rapscallion some of my later teachers described to my parents.  Perhaps Ms. Seekford recognized my impishness with her antepenultimate praise of my “outstanding creative ability.”  Unfortunately it was not always used for good.  Thinking back on that time I grew curious about whatever happened to Miss Seekford and Miss Dawn, my very first teachers who played a major role in setting me on the path to my own adventures in education.  A couple quick “Google searches” and I discovered that both of these women had long, productive lives and careers in education.

Evelyn Dawn Thomas was born in Long Beach in 1907 and was raised in Glendale.  Educated at the University of California, she used "Miss Dawn" as her professional name throughout her career in education in the Los Angeles area.  She established her first school - “Miss Dawn’s School - in Manhattan Beach, California, and in 1953 she opened a second new preschool, which also included two swimming pools, on Avenue I in Redondo Beach.  Eventually, in 1961, she realized her vision of a primary school, establishing the Rolling Hills Country Day School on the nearby Palos Verdes peninsula.  By 1968 it included kindergarten through Grade 8.  Miss Dawn believed her little charges were “like little sponges ready to soak up everything."  By the time I left the pre-school at age five I could already read and was beginning to write in cursive.  I was sad to learn that Miss Dawn passed away in 2000 at the age of 93.

Zelma Seekford was originally from west-central Ohio, where she was born in June 1912.  She attended Wittenberg University in nearby Springfield where she received her teaching certificate before moving to the Los Angeles area where her husband worked as a mortician in Santa Monica and she taught at Miss Dawn’s School in Redondo Beach.  She and her husband eventually returned to Ohio where she continued to teach elementary school until her retirement.  She passed away in 2007 at the age of 95.

My Google searches also took me to an interesting reference to the salmon dish I enjoyed at Gina Lee’s Bistro at 211 Palos Verdes Boulevard nearly a year ago.  Scott and Gina Lee, the proprietors, said of the salmon dish: “This is a crowd favorite. Lots of people remember ‘Miss Dawn’ . . . She came in the restaurant nearly daily and always had the salmon professing that the omega 3 fatty acids kept her going at top speed. We’ve had former students and teachers come in and marvel that she lives on our menu.”  So it was indeed serendipity that I happened to have dinner there during my search for an old childhood haunt.

I hope that Miss Dawn and Miss Seekford are looking down with smiles on their faces and secure in the knowledge that the short time I spent in their care paid off in the long run.  "Teachers teach because they care,” wrote the education reformer Horace Mann. “Teaching young people is what they do best. It requires long hours, patience, and care."  I am certain I benefited from my time at Miss Dawn’s School.  "The dream begins, most of the time,” say Dan Rather, “with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you on to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called truth."   I am thankful for the careful prodding of Evelyn Dawn and Zelma Seekford.

My fifth birthday, March 1956, Redondo Beach, California

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Tail o’ the Pup May Live Again - Part 1 of Memories from the Left Edge of America

Photo by Gary Leonard, Los Angeles Public Library Collection
Dad and Me at Kiddieland, 1956
This is the first of four postings of my “Memories from the Left Edge of America” series.

I just read that the family of Eddie Blake, the last owner of Tail o’ the Pup, the iconic Los Angeles hotdog stand, is selling the trademark, recipes and the newly renovated facade, with bids starting at $200,000.  A pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.  The story also refreshed some very distant memories that flooded back to me a year ago during a trip through California.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

The 17-foot wiener-in-a-bun hotdog facade was designed by the architect Milton J. Black in 1938, and the stand was opened in 1946 on North LaCienega Boulevard, in West Hollywood.  That was the boondocks back then.  During its early years the Tail o’ the Pup was located adjacent to Beverly Park and Playland (aka Kiddieland), a small amusement park on an acre of land leased from a local oil company at the corner of Beverly and LaCienega and opened around the same time.  Kiddieland had all the standard rides of the era and was a precursor to Disneyland which opened in nearby Anaheim in the summer of 1955.

Eddie Blake purchased the stand in the early 1970s from its original owners and it continued to operate at the LaCienega address until 1986.  With the closing of Beverley Park and Kiddieland in 1974, and the opening of the new Beverley Center Mall on the site in the early 1980s, Blake and his son Dennis were forced to move their stand a very short distance to North San Vincente Boulevard and small piece of land leased from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center which opened at this location in 1955 and where countless Hollywood and recording legends breathed their last.  The Tail o’ the Pup’s star-studded reopening in 1986 was emceed by Jay Leno (before his Tonight Show days).  Despite it iconic status and its popularity with the known and the unknown - it is rumored that Barbara Streisand and many other celebrities were dedicated fans and the stand has been a location in a few Hollywood films - and regardless of its designation as a cultural landmark by the City of Los Angeles,

the Tail o’ the Pup finally closed in 2005 when a developer purchased the property where the stand was last located.  Since closing, the familiar wiener and bun facade has been gathering dust in a suburban warehouse.  Dennis Blake planned to reopen once a suitable new location could be found in Westwood Village, but his vision never materialized.  Now, almost a decade later, the stand remains in mothballs and its future is as yet unknown.  Dennis passed away in late 2013 and a new owner is being sought by the Blake family with a promise to bring the Tail o’ the Pup back to life at a yet to be determined new location . . . hopefully in or around LA. 

It would be nice to see the Tail o’ the Pup come back to life somewhere close to where it once stood as a familiar and treasured landmark for six decades.  I visited Los Angeles last November and tried to locate it not knowing it had closed in 2005 (I had last eaten there in 1974 shortly before Kiddieland closed).  The area is totally unrecognizable now to anyone who knew it back in the 1950s and 1960s when it was fairly undeveloped and covered with hundreds of oil wells.  Today it is the almost boundless urban sprawl that is greater Los Angeles, the underground wells still pumping under the modern Beverly Center complex at LaCienega and Beverley Boulevard.

I have spent very little time in LA since moving away in the summer of 1956, but I still have distant and fuzzy memories of Kiddieland and the Tail o’ the Pup.  There were occasional weekend outings from our home in Redondo Beach near the Pacific Palisades.  Disneyland had recently opened but it was a bit pricey compared to Kiddieland.  The original Disney main
gate admission price was one dollar, but that just got you
inside.  Once there you had to pay an additional 10-15 cent entrance fee at each individual attraction in the park.  (Just so you know, the current daily entrance fee is $96 per person! . . . plus $17 to park.)  It was new and always crowded on the weekends.   Kiddieland was about the same distance from where we lived and without the long lines.  There were plenty of rides, cotton candy and other snacks.  There were also ponies to ride, and of course, there was Tail o’ the Pup nearby for hotdogs.   I can still taste them fifty-six years later . . . and this is why I went looking for the place on my last visit to LA only to find it and Kiddieland long gone.  I was not terribly surprised.  Nothing seems to last forever.

So imagine my pleasure to learn that Tail o’ the Pup still exists and is only looking for a new owner and a new home.  Perhaps I will once again have an opportunity to trip down memory lane on my next visit to LA.  I can smell and taste one of those dogs as I write this.  It will be well worth the wait.  

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Autumn Coming and Going and Coming Again

“These golden weakes that do lye between the thunderous heates of summer and the windy gloomes of winter.”   – Anonymous

I agree with the American naturalist and photographer Edwin Way Teale.  “Nowhere in the world is autumn more beautiful than in America.  I can never write enough good things about autumn; it is my favorite season of the year.”  Mine, too.  There is really no competition on this score.

Donald Hall, who has spent a great many of his eighty-plus years on a farm in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, has written eloquently on its seasons, describing autumn in northern New England as both “gorgeous and ominous.”  The brilliant flaring fall colors “prophesy white frozen winter” which is only a few short weeks in the future.  To put it more succinctly, “[w]e inhabit the landscape’s brightest and briefest flesh . . . the pomp is brief, abrupt, and poignant.  But Autumn is always poignant.”

I am always keeping my eyes open for that first suggestion of autumn.  I spend my summers in Maine, and come August, just three short months after the trees begin to leaf out in spring, there are always a few maples with branch tips beginning to flare red.  It seems a bit curious to be swimming in a small lake while trees bordering its shores are already exhibiting the first flashes of color bespeaking the colder temperatures and cooling waters that can’t be that far off. 

September is the month when one feels what Truman Capote called the “first ripple chills of autumn,” when the fall colors arrive in earnest in northern New England.  The first to turn are the swampmaples and popple in low wet areas.  Then come the various shades of reds, oranges and russet among the red and sugar maples, scarlet oak, and sumac; the ash trees’ deep purple; the yellows among the popple, birch and willows; and finally the more subtle tans and browns among the oak, beech, and sycamore.  With these early chills the color increases almost daily in its proportions and brilliance. The leaf peepers also arrive around mid-month; they come, they look, and they are gone again by mid-October.  They have little understanding of the full evolution of a northern New England autumn.  It’s too bad they are unable or unwilling to experience its entire range and spectrum, from the onset of color as well as its evanescence.  I honestly believe that autumn is no more colorful, nor more awe-inspiring, than it is in these northern climes.  For this reason alone I always try to postpone my annual trip south until after the autumn colors have reached their zenith. 

With the onset of the killing frosts of October the season is better disposed to the arrival of winter.  Cold rains will mute the colors, and as they fade, the leaves will quickly forsake the trees and fall to the ground much too soon.  Not all of the leaves will fall, however.  A few drained of their color will continue to flutter through the stiffening gusts of winter.  No surrender.

It is not uncommon for snow to fall by Halloween, first at the higher latitudes and elevations, but quickly enough snow is common place when November arrives.  The leaves are raked against foundations for insulation as houses and out buildings are tucked up for the winter.  The calendar may say it's still autumn, but our senses tell us something different.  Truly a touching end to the briefest and most poignant of seasons.

A couple of years ago I was able to enjoy an extended autumn season, watching as it  arrived in many diverse locales stretching from the Canadian Maritimes to Florida’s Gulf Coast.  I saw the first golden leaves of autumn in stands of birch as I crossed the Cobequid Hills in western Nova Scotia in the early days of August.  Later that month, and into the early days of September I watched the autumn hues intensify throughout the mountains of northern New Hampshire and western Maine while the woodlands around our summer cottage on Sabbathday Lake, in southern Maine, were just beginning to turn.  The autumn foliage had reached peak color there by the time I departed in the early days of October to drive home to Maryland.  But autumn’s colors were not yet over.  In fact, they had hardly begun for much of the United States.

The variety of colors and their intensities ebbed the farther south I drove through Massachusetts and into Connecticut.   There was some color here and there as I passed around New York City and ventured further south into New Jersey, but by the time I reached Delaware and Maryland, the greens of spring and summer had faded somewhat, and in some places had begun to yellow.  Autumn had not yet arrived in earnest.   A short time later I drove along the Eastern Seaboard to northern Florida and there was hardly a trace of autumn to be seen anywhere.  When I returned to Maryland in late October, however, I began to see colors turning deeper and more brilliant the farther north I drove.  Once again this year I have seen the peak colors of a New England autumn only to return to Maryland to watch as they arrive again.  What more can one ask for during his favorite season of the year?

I have been lucky enough to see autumn come and go and come again.  Stay in one place, however, and Hall’s dictum proves correct every time.  The flash and fury of autumn is far too brief.  But always poignant as I fend off those “windy gloomes of winter.”

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Trying to Remember Crabby Appleton

I recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s essay, “Hide Tide in Tucson,” in which she describes, among other things, how a hermit crab came to reside in her home in the Arizona desert.  Disappointed that her young daughter had not accompanied her on a trip to the Bahamas where she would have certainly enjoyed the varied seascapes, Kingsolver decided to do what her daughter would have done had she come . . . she collected sea shells to show her when she returned home.  Unbeknownst to her, a hermit crab stowed away in a whelk shell and announced its presence when Kingsolver arrayed the shells over her  dining room table when she returned home.  Deciding they would keep it, and unable to determine its gender let alone locate and inspect its genitalia, they named it Buster and housed it in a terrarium fitted out with clean gravel and a variety of shells from which Buster could select a new redoubt once he/she had outgrown the old one.

Reading this essay, I dredged up some memories almost forty years old, recollecting the time when SallyAnn and I shared our own Tucson apartment with a hermit crab named Crabby Appleton.  Certainly a more androgynous moniker than Buster.  Any of you who watched “Tom Terrific” cartoons on Saturday morning back in the day will understand where the name came from.  It seemed clever at the time although our hermit crab was in no way “rotten to the core.”  It was a crab, after all, and it liked to eat pieces of apple proffered to it.  In fact, it seemed to eat just about anything you put in front of it.  We could have named him/her Manfred the Wonder Crab, but that would not have made any sense would it?

We came by our hermit crab in a far more pedestrian manner than finding it on a beach in the Bahamas.  Ours came from a pet store in suburban Milwaukee where we had gone to spend the Christmas holidays in 1975 and to celebrate our first anniversary.  I can no longer recall why we decided to purchase a hermit crab or the circumstances by which the transaction was completed.  Suffice it to say that only two of us flew from Tucson to Milwaukee while three of us made the return trip (with a few days in Tulsa, Oklahoma along the way) early in the new year.  Once we were back home we purchased a small terrarium which would be Crabby’s home for the six more months we lived in Tucson.

Like Buster, Crabby was “quiet, entertaining, and willing to eat up the trash.”  He fell into his own daily routines, and like Kingsolver, SallyAnn and I moved about our own without ever wondering how our little friend might be faring in his/her strange surroundings.  Crabby was a hermit crab pure and simple; mucking about the terrarium, moving things here and there, or retreating into his/her shell for long periods of time and doing and thinking whatever hermit crabs do and think.

Not that long after we brought Crabby to Arizona to live with us we took on two more boarders . . . gerbils we named Sundance and Moonshadow . . . in our shoebox-sized apartment barely large enough to accommodate our own modest belongings let alone a terrarium and gerbil habitat.  I am not sure what we were thinking, but this is all water long under the bridge.   Unlike Crabby, the boys (I think they were males) were by their very nature more energetic and had distinct personalities, and we found ourselves more interested in their activities while Crabby sulked (I can only imagine that is what he/she was doing) in his/her glass enclosed home.  The gerbils would scamper around their cage and run the wheels for what seemed like hours on end.  Such was the Rogers household in Tucson in the spring and early summer of 1976.

Soon came the time, however, when we had to make preparations for a transcontinental move from Arizona to the environs of Washington, DC.  In the scramble to tie loose ends in Tucson, we never came to terms with the future disposition of our house mates.  Were they going to Maryland with us?  I can no longer recall whether we actually tried to find new homes for them or not.  I do remember that once the movers had left in the late afternoon to begin their eastward trek with almost all of our worldly possessions, there was a terrarium and a gerbil cage wedged into the back seat of our ‘72 Chevy Vega (remember those?) along with what we would need for our own slow journey across the country with a few stops along the way.  The sun was setting in Tucson and the temperature was still over 100F, and there was SallyAnn using her plant sprayer to keep the guys cool as we headed toward Albuquerque on the first leg of our trip.

Kingsolver never said what eventually became of Buster; the hermit crab found in the Bahamas and brought to Arizona would serve as a metaphor for her own move from her native Kentucky to Arizona.  I wish there is more I can say about the saga of Crabby Appleton; the months in Arizona and his/her new Maryland home, one perhaps closer to the ocean yet still too far to away to encourage an escape to a more familiar habitat (crabitat?).  Any recollections are now hopelessly blurred by almost four decades.  At some point soon after settling in Maryland Crabby, Sundance and Moonshadow shed this mortal coil.  Yes, distant and faded memories only now dredged up for contemplation . . . and I am not really sure why, but there you have it.  I have searched for my own metaphor to assign to a long forgotten hermit crab but I just can’t seem to dredge up anything significant.  Crabby was briefly a part of our lives and then he wasn’t.  So perhaps he/she was a metaphor for the transitory nature of existence?  Yeah, that’s the ticket.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Blessed by the Spirit of the Lake - Dispatches from Maine

We have once again been touched by the spirit of Sabbathday Lake, having been summoned back here annually for almost three decades.  There is something magical about this place.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

This year we arrived in the waning days of June.  Summer had just begun and the lake was ringed by trees in various shades of green.  Tomorrow we depart for our other home in Maryland and many of those same trees are now a rich palette of golds, reds and yellows.  Autumn has always been my favorite season and I am fortunate when I have the opportunity to enjoy it here on the shores of Sabbathday Lake.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

Sabbathday Lake and New Gloucester, Maine have become our home away from home.  The time we spend here is not a vacation in the traditional sense of the word; we are simply living here much as we live in Maryland.  We have become a part of the community here.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

It is sad to say farewell to our friends and neighbors in Maine, most of whom we will not see again until next June when we once again head to these northern climes.  We will cherish their friendship throughout the year and we will look forward to seeing them again when we return to this special place.  We are truly blessed by the spirit of the lake.

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