Thursday, November 22, 2012

Food and Family

For Loretta and me, Thanksgiving has always been about food and family (not necessarily in that order). It's a special holiday for us—we were married on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This makes it easy to remember the approximate date of our anniversary, if not the exact date. The exact date is November 26th, which coincidentally also fell on the Saturday after Thanksgiving last year, when our nephew Mark and his bride Rhonda were also married on that date. That was a memorable Thanksgiving. Because Rhonda has two sets of parents, last year we attended two Thanksgiving dinners and acquired two more families. Lots of food, lots of ohana.

When we lived in Buffalo, Thanksgivings were always spent with Loretta's family. Before we were married, they met at her cousins' restaurant, the Taiwan. It was a huge gathering, encompassing all of the cousins and their families. (In the Chinese community, a "cousin" is anyone who comes from the same village in China. Quite a few people from Loretta's father's village had settled in the Buffalo area.)

I had the honor to be present at the last Thanksgiving at the Taiwan, before the restaurant was sold and the celebration moved to the home of one of the cousins. All of the tables in the dining room were shoved together to make one huge table, which was covered with all of the traditional American fare, plus countless Chinese dishes. After dinner, members of the older generation settled in for an evening of Mah Jongg, while the young people (which at the time included Loretta and me) went out into the parking lot to work off some calories playing touch football, then returned to the warmth of the restaurant (remember, this was Buffalo) for a game of Trivial Pursuit.

My childhood Thanksgivings weren't much different from Loretta's, except that they weren't at a Chinese restaurant and there were not nearly as many people. Also, instead of games, dinner was usually followed by naps. The Thanksgivings I remember best were the ones at the home of my grandmother and aunts. My Grandma Shorter loved to cook. Most of my memories of her are in the kitchen: peeling potatoes, rolling out dough, cutting noodles, kneading together the ingredients of a meat loaf. She made everything from scratch: mashed potatoes, gravy, dressing, pies—even the whipped cream to go on them, hand-whipped in an ancient stoneware crock. Then, one year, my mother and aunts convinced her to try a relatively new labor-saving product: whipped cream in an aerosol can.

It was a wonderful dinner, as all of my grandmother's holiday dinners were. When the main course was finished, dishes were cleared, the pies were brought in, and my grandmother prepared to serve dessert. She cut a slice of pumpkin, mincemeat (or, as was more often the case, a "sliver of each") for each person as requested, carefully laying the slices on dessert plates. She then picked up the can of whipped cream and—following the directions on the can—shook it vigorously, then pressed the nozzle.

Unfortunately, she neglected to aim the nozzle at the pie.

Some of the whipped cream hit the ceiling. Most of it hit my grandmother in the face. In some families, I suppose, such an event would be considered a disaster. In my mother's family, it was considered hilarious. No one laughed harder than my grandmother.

Loretta and I miss our East Coast families during the holidays, but, as someone once said, "Friends are the family we choose for ourselves." This year, we are looking forward to spending another Thanksgiving with members of our West Coast family: our good friends Ron and Judie and Judie's daughter Beth. As usual, there will be plenty of good food and drink, and dinner will be followed by the traditional Thanksgiving Pictionary Tournament. Ron will put on some classic rock, or maybe even some Christmas music. In short, it will be a wonderful Thanksgiving.

I wish all of you just as wonderful a Thanksgiving, spent with the ones you love.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Planes, Babies, and Paperwork

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm afraid I have some bad news..."

Not the sort of words you want to hear from your pilot, but it could have been worse. At least we were on the ground.

We had just boarded the United shuttle that was to take us to San Francisco—the first leg of a cross-country trip to Virginia for my mother's memorial service. I was not looking forward to it. I hate flying. I'm not afraid of it, mind you, I just hate it. I hate taking off my shoes to go through TSA, I hate being herded like cattle, and I especially hate the cramped, uncomfortable seats. And this plane, being a shuttle, was more cramped and uncomfortable than usual.

At least it was going to be a short flight, with a long layover in San Francisco. We were looking forward to a leisurely breakfast with a round or two of Bloody Marys. I find that, if there's anything that can take the sting out of flying, it's a little alcohol (or maybe a lot).

"Just a minor mechanical problem," announced the pilot. "The mechanic is on his way. Once he gets here, it shouldn't take long."

We hadn't been able to get seats together. Loretta was one row behind me and across the aisle, seated next to a man who was quietly reading a book. I was seated next to a young woman holding a baby named "Jude" on her lap.

"Hey Jude," I thought. "Don't let me down."

Several minutes went by. "The mechanic is here," announced the pilot. "With any luck we'll be out of here quickly, with no missed connections."

Jude began to fuss. "Sorry," said his mother, when a tiny foot connected with my stomach. "He wants to be with the boys."

"No problem," I said.

She tried to hand Jude off to her husband, who was sitting across the aisle with their other little boy. The flight attendant stopped her. "I'm afraid he has to stay in this row," she said. "This row has three oxygen masks. That one only has two."

"Hey Jude, don't make it bad."

The mother and father switched places, so that he could hold the baby. Unfortunately, he was no better at controlling the kicking than the mother had been. "Sorry," he said. "No problem," I said. Jude began to cry.

"Hey Jude, don't be afraid."

I looked around and noted that there were quite a few children on the plane, and that they were all getting restless. A woman across the aisle was telling her son to settle down and stop bouncing up and down in his seat. A father paced up and down the aisle with a baby in his arms, trying to keep it quiet. Jude's older brother, across the aisle, began to whine. Several of the adults also began to whine, once they realized they were going to miss their connections.

After being fed and changed, Jude settled down and went to sleep, his head resting against my arm. The pilot announced that the mechanic was just about done. All that was left was the paperwork.

The paperwork took another thirty minutes.

I wasn't worried. We still had time. We would make our connection, although we would not have time for Bloody Marys. (Damn paperwork!)

Finally, after we had sat at the gate for ninety minutes, the pilot started the engines—and immediately shut them down.

"I'm afraid we have another problem," he announced. "This one is going to take some time to fix, so we're going to have to ask you all to deplane."

We got off the plane and booked seats on a shuttle leaving that afternoon, connecting to a red eye out of San Francisco. We went home and returned to the airport six hours later.

The same plane was sitting at the gate.

The mechanic was still working on it, but he was just about done. All that was left was the paperwork.

An hour later we were on our way.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Veterans Day

Monday morning I will be at Quantico National Cemetery in Virginia with my brother and sister for our mother's memorial service. It is a fitting place to be on the Monday following Veterans Day—surrounded by the graves of thousands of veterans, decorated with thousands of American flags to remind us of their service.

I have tremendous respect for the brave men and women who have fought in our wars. I don't believe it's something I could have done. The Vietnam War was still going strong when my father took me to Chicago on my sixteenth birthday to register for the draft. I was terrified. I don't know what I would have done if my number had come up. Fortunately, the war—and the draft—ended before that happened.

My father served twenty-eight years in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. He was deployed to Europe at the peak of the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall was built. (I remember how much it meant to him when I took him to the Reagan Library to see the section of the wall that's displayed there.) Dad was very modest about his service and never considered himself to be a "real" veteran. I do, though—and so did the government. They gave him a military funeral with honors when he passed away earlier this year.

Both of my uncles and my father-in-law were veterans of the Second World War: my father's brother, Hollis Logue, Jr., was stationed on Bougainville Island in the Pacific; my mother's brother, Richard Shorter, served in India; Loretta's father, Young Wong, served in North Africa and Italy.

I have slightly older friends who served in the Vietnam War and much younger friends who served in Iraq.

On Monday morning, I will be thinking of my mother, of course. But I will also be thinking of them—my father, my uncles, my father-in-law, my friends, and all of the others who served and still serve. And if I could, I would say just two words to all of them—

Thank you.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Caves of Doom

"DOOMED!" wailed our ghostly guide, as he led us toward the entrance of the cave. "YOU'RE ALL DOOMED!" An hour or so later, I began to suspect that he was right.

I should have known better than to enter another cave, after what happened twenty years ago. As a child, I was obsessed with them. I suppose my obsession came from reading books like The Arabian Nights and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, where caves were used by thieves as a hiding place for treasure. I must have thought all caves held hidden treasure. Twenty years ago, when Loretta and I were vacationing in Virginia, I discovered that the only thing you're likely to find hidden in a cave is danger.

We were driving through the Shenandoah Valley when I saw the sign for Luray Caverns. After reading the brochure, my obsession took over. I had to see this cave. Here's the description from the web site:
Enormous chambers are filled with towering columns, shimmering draperies and crystal-clear pools. Also in this subterranean wonderland, "Hear Rocks Sing" as you experience the haunting sounds of the world’s largest musical instrument, The Great Stalacpipe Organ.
There were about a dozen other people on our tour, including an Asian family consisting of a mother and father, two children, and a grandmother in a wheelchair. Before I continue, it might be helpful to again quote from the Luray Caverns web site:
There is a chairlift for manual wheelchair users. However, the paved walkways on the tour are 1.25 miles in length with some areas having steep grades that may require wheelchair assistance by one or more persons. Since the need for assistance is necessary, Luray Caverns is not listed as handicapped accessible.
Granted, Luray Caverns probably didn't have a web site twenty years ago—I'm not sure anyone did—but there should have been a warning to this effect posted in the ticket office. If there wasn't, I bet anything they posted one after our tour.

Everything went smoothly for the first half of the tour—aside from the fact that our tour guide had to continually remind the Asian family that we needed to keep moving, as they wanted to stop and take pictures every few feet. We reached the deepest part of the cave, where we heard a concert by "The Great Stalacpipe Organ"—hammers striking stalactites of varying sizes to produce a tune. Then it was time to begin our ascent to the surface.

"You should probably go first," our guide suggested to the father pushing the wheelchair. "It's pretty steep, so it's best if you keep moving at a steady pace and not stop." He may have been genuinely concerned about their ability to make it to the top, but I'm pretty sure he just wanted to make sure they didn't stop to take more pictures.

Unfortunately, the father interpreted the words "keep moving at a steady pace" to mean "go as fast as you possibly can." He took off at a brisk pace, determined to prove Newton's first law: "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it." The external force was the bottom of the incline, which effectively stopped the motion of the wheelchair. The old lady, however, remained in a state of motion—until she hit the floor several seconds later.

Fortunately, she was not seriously hurt. There is a fine line between comedy and tragedy.

Last Saturday, while visiting Sequoia National Park, we took the Crystal Cave Halloween tour. The regular tour is well-lit, but this is a flashlight tour. Actors in costume and ghostly makeup appear along the way, portraying characters from the cave's history. For example, "George," the ghostly guide who met us outside the cave, was an unfortunate hiker who had perished sixty years ago from a rattlesnake bite. "DOOMED!" he said, leading us toward the entrance of the cave. "YOU'RE ALL DOOMED!"

He was nearly right. Inside the cave, one member of our group stumbled and fell to his knee, and I bruised my shoulder going through a narrow passage. But the worst part was the hike back to the parking lot. According to the web site, "The hike from the parking lot to the cave entrance is a strenuous 1/2 mile hike." That's a lie. The hike from the parking lot to the cave is downhill. It's a piece of cake. It's the hike back up that will kill you. Less than halfway up the trail, I was pretty sure I wasn't going to make it. George was right—I was doomed. Next year, an actor would be portraying my ghost on the Halloween tour.

Obviously, I did make it, and the experience taught me a lesson. I am rapidly approaching the age of that unfortunate lady in the wheelchair, twenty years ago.

If I want to live to be any older, I would do well to stay out of caves.

Ghosts of Crystal Cave