Saturday, February 20, 2010

This afternoon I'm being interviewed at the Oakland Museum for an oral history series being produced this spring on past housing discrimination as experienced by African Americans ... .

So it's back to plain clothes and out of my "Oracle of Port Chicago" role (a growing feeling these days) and back into my own persona and therefore the little black suit that is supposed to guarantee anonymity, though I'm not sure that does the job anymore.

I'm now regularly stopped on the streets by perfect strangers who want to tell me that I've popped up on their televisions screens, and all that goes with that. I suppose that it's a function of aging, but I really do lose sight of what all this public exposure means and of how one begins to be pulled off one's base by outside expectations. Were I younger, I'm fairly certain that the human wish to please would play a powerful role in altering my self-image by creating an inflated ego. But it's too late for those pressures to have much effect at this point since I'm so strongly self-defined after so many years of testing by trial and error and tripping over the cow pies in the road of life!

I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that it's all very flattering, but it also has a comic edge to it that helps me to remain focused. The entire idea of an 88 year-old park ranger sounds preposterous, doesn't it? Except, that I truly believe that my life experience, my continuing ability to provide the services required of my position; and my day-to-day productivity makes its own statement. That statement being that age may be totally irrelevant in determining the ability of the human animal to contribute to society even in these advanced years. If the belated media attention supports that, then it may be deserved -- not only for me but for my generation of extraordinary ordinary people.

The downside may be that I've lived long enough to be able to view my wrinkles in HD-TV; and what a jarring spectacle that is!

Photo: Top - working with the Careth Bomar Reid/E.F. Joseph photo collection at her home. Bottom- taken at the Mardi Gras celebration at Nevin Park in the Iron Triangle of Richmond, California. It's that time of year -- enjoy!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Today's interview went well, I think. Since I've learned not to watch the finished product ... the work has become easier... .

Those two hours will be edited down to 3 minutes for tomorrow's evening news on KPIX, Channel Five out of San Francisco.

Today's interview at Port Chicago with Ann Notarangelo was comfortable. She is a fine interviewer. When I'm telling the stories to someone who has never heard them, they are freshened for me. When anticipating a new assignment at this site, it feels as if I can never provide the words that address the magnitude of what happened here. Who on earth could? And for me, personally, it's as if all of the life has been talked out of the few words of my ordinary experience of entertaining those few young sailors whom I couldn't identify had I met them on the street the very next day -- had they lived -- words that have grown dull from overuse. But then it changes ... when I see eyes light up with interest ... and the words come alive again.

Each time I'm at the memorial site and re-positioned in that deceptively tranquil setting, I can feel the presence of the unseen, and the stories flow and -- it's almost as though we've brought the life with us to this monument ... to those lost in that unspeakable tragedy...


Guiding the bus tours at the Rosie the Riveter scattered sites in Richmond (maybe 25 miles south), the experience is quite different. There's a feeling of awe and reverence here that's missing in the place where the narrative tells of the round-the-clock frenetic laboring force that morphed into continuing decades of social change and adjustments that re-shaped the nation in so many ways.

There's a feeling at Port Chicago that on July 17, 1944, Earth stopped orbiting the sun for an instant ... that the unspeakable occurred and that the horror remains suspended in the air here -- that thing that one can still sense in the stillness ... and, for me, something forever unresolved ... .

Ann asked a question that remained with me on the drive home. I can't even recall her exact words, but it started a line of thought that still clings ... I've not worked it through enough to try to express it -- at least not yet -- but it was an insight that for some reason feels terribly important; a breakthrough of some sort.

I wonder if it had anything to do with great blue herons -- another lingering fragment of a thought that slipped into mind for some reason ... ?

Maybe one day I will watch this one.

Monday, February 15, 2010


A few days ago, my son, Bob, stopped by on his way home from a trip north and found me feeling a little down. I was just arriving home from a full workday when he turned up. I was tired, and quietly kvetching about how much public attention I was attracting so late in life, and of how little confidence I was feeling in what my life may be like in another year. He laughed -- and reminded me about his grandmother and my remarkable mother, Lottie Allen Charbonnet, who held her place on the planet from 1894-1995 -- and with such gusto -- until the last few years of that life.

When my father died in his mid-nineties, we sent her off to Hawaii with my niece, Victoria, for her first time off the continent and onto (for her) "foreign" soil. She'd spent untold years care-taking and some recognition of her sacrifices was due.

Mother, at 95, still wore 3 inch heels and took public transportation to downtown Oakland for her weekly ritual of Saturday afternoon window-shopping. She lived an active social life, though limited to a degree by my Dad's late-in-life blindness. She'd never learned to drive but didn't appear to feel the loss. She took classes making awful jewelry (it was her sister, Vivian, who made the awful ceramics) at the senior center, and enjoyed times with her friends immensely.

Victoria tells the story of their evening at one of Oahu's grand hotels; a memory that popped into mind last night just before falling asleep:

They were to join other tourists at a traditional Luau but when they reached the beautiful outdoor theater site, the line was extremely long. Victoria tells of motioning Mom to a chair near the entrance then walking to the desk where she informed the host that she was with her 95 year-old grandmother and that -- considering her advanced age -- it would be really helpful if they would give some consideration to her years, and ... then she walked the long line back to Mom.

"Now Gram, they're going to move us up to the front of the line, but you need to walk very slow-ly, you hear?" And she did, dutifully. However, a bit later in the evening (as this photo shows), there was Mom up on the stage with the dancers taking hula lessons and tearing the place up with her as yet undiscovered talent as a member of the chorus line!

...and as far as I can tell, her grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, ran her household and saw to the spring planting of her garden in St. James Parish, Louisiana, until her death in 1948 at the age of 102 ... and she'd spent her first 19 years enslaved (freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865).

Guess I'll see y'all next spring!

(Thanks for the reminder, Bob.)

... and maybe I can still get those tango lessons in, if José is still around and willing.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Strange and disturbing thoughts at awakening this morning ... .

There are hints that I may have arrived at one of those transition places; a place for slowing down and peering tentatively around corners ... .

Maybe the pace of life is simply too fast right now ... too fast for what isn't clear.

It started when it occurred to me that I may be cramming more life into my days than my days can hold without an implosion.

Maybe it was the fact that I'm living so much "in the moment" that I rarely look ahead even a few months lest some once-in-a-lifetime experience be overlooked, and I wake one morning only half-alive ... what a frightening thought.

Maybe it comes from knowing that the great honor being bestowed by the California College of the Arts at next spring's Commencement fixes a future time that I'm not used to having to think about. At this age projecting more than a year ahead is a luxury I can ill afford. I'm only now realizing the extent to which I'm able to accept each day as a gift because each day is an end in itself -- dependent upon no other (an attitude I seem to have aged into at some point). I really do go to bed each night feeling relatively fulfilled -- and maybe because I'm living so much in "overtime," that if I don't wake up tomorrow morning, I still have won the game.

Reading back over the past few posts I became aware that were anyone to ask if there's anything that I've not done during my lifetime and that I regret having missed (except for those tango lessons), I'd have a very difficult time finding an answer. On the other hand, I have no sense of living at a frenetic pace or seeking experiences just to satisfy some crushing personal need. To the contrary, I tend to live life in a constant state of surprise; as one grand improvisation!

Maybe those brief paragraphs I read from Bruce Frankel's book forced a look at my life from a third set of eyes. It was a strange experience; not at all like reading back my own words, but from some other perspective; an unfamiliar picture of myself -- not "through the glass darkly," but from a new lens; a view previously unexplored. Makes me wonder just how much distortion is present in my self-image ... .

Besides all that, by next year's Commencement I might not remember how to tie my own shoes, or, just where in the world I left my car keys -- or my car?

Photo: One of Dorian's wall sculptures created with Mardi Gras beads. It's quite lovely as you can see, and may illustrate an example of her mother's orderly confusion.