Monday, February 13, 2017

If End of Life is defined by whether or not one has ceased to have first time experiences, I'm here for the duration ... .

Yesterday I got to see myself depicted as one of the main characters in an original play performed by a company from Southern California.  It is entitled, Dare to Remember, and tells the tragic story of the 1944 Port Chicago Explosion and mutiny trials during World War II.  The play was written by David Shackleford, and was taken from various sources; Dr. Robert Allen's great book called The Port Chicago Mutiny, and (from what I can tell) perhaps some references from my blog.  But that's only a guess when I make an attempt to explain to myself how I got into their story.

About two weeks ago I received a telephone call from the playwright inviting me to attend one of the performances in the city of Pittsburgh, California, and -- since Port Chicago is one of the sites of our 4-park consortium (John Muir in Martinez, Eugene O'Neill in Danville, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond are the others) it didn't strike me as odd, but something I was mildly curious about.  I agreed to try if time allowed ... .

Then, a week later there was another call from Mr. Shackleford, this time more insistent.  "Can we offer transportation?  We'd love for you to be there."  Then he revealed that I was one of the lead characters in his play and that they'd love the chance to pay homage to me if I could attend.  This cast a new light on everything, and I agreed to attend the Sunday matinee."

That was yesterday:

The program listed me as Betty Reid Soskin in the first scene, Act One.

Suddenly there I was, a 35-ish voluptuous woman standing behind a living room bar with liquor bottles lined up beside her elbow.  She was chatting with two soldiers about (... couldn't tell because they were not miked) but it was clear that she was a "Mother Earth" character doing her best to comfort boys away from home.

At first the transformation was disturbing.  Found myself picking away at the obvious:  In 1944 at the time of the tragedy I was in my early twenties, still "wet behind the ears" and looking forward to having my first drink.  I'd been married just 3 years to Mel -- the assistant recreation direction at San Pablo Park where young servicemen would gather to share time with the locals on weekends.

Given the fact that the USO (United Service Organization) was not yet racially integrated, those of us who were not a part of the great migration to defense plants tried to host those young people in our homes -- just a part of the war effort and as an expression of patriotism.

Saturday afternoons were set aside for lemonade parties in our small living room in Berkeley where our neighbors and friends would join us to extend friendship toward our fighting forces.

It was an innocent activity with punch and cookies, records on the turntable, conversations that consisted of small talk of family and "home", mostly, for those who were homesick with few ways to express it in the macho social climate of a nation at war.

I was yet to become Betty Reid Soskin, a surname that I would acquire many years ahead.  I now know that I have little control over how I'm to be remembered.  If I'd been as defined in this play (a far older woman) I would surely have been long dead by now, yet here I sat watching one of the leads being the "Betty" of years ago.  It wouldn't be until the early Seventies that I would have become Mrs. William F Soskin.

So there I sat in the audience trying to make sense of the transformation I'd gone through in the interpreting of my history.  But there is that thing called poetic license, right?  I had to let reality go and focus purely in the now.

Before the play ended and I'd relaxed into this new reality, I found reasons to celebrate.

Here was a new generation of young artists exploring that dark history, bringing this long forgotten story to life at a time when the nation and the world are experiencing another of those cyclical periods of chaos -- something that I, alone, in that theater, was old enough to fully realize.  Only I, one of the few (probably) still living, who had lived through enough such times before now so that the pattern is recognizable.  The Democracy has survived many such periods, starting in 1776.  These troubled times happen when life has become so tense and confused --  are times when the meaning of Democracy is being re-defined.  Times that give us ordinary people (the We) the opportunity to bring significant and sometimes radical change.  This art form with these players was something to grab onto as we steady ourselves for another round of "... forming that more perfect Union."

Yes, that's me, sitting in front of the woman holding the microphone
I fell asleep hours later bathed in the scent of the dozen beautiful scarlet roses in a vase on the  nightstand beside my bed -- providing the much-needed balm of recovery after viewing the disturbing evening news.  Felt satisfied and  deeply honored -- one more time.   Allowing the fact that today had brought another  of those first time experiences to a woman of 95 years, and I knew just before drifting off that I will return a call from the producer/director, Kathy McCarthy, for a repeat performance reading of the great Eve Ensler's groundbreaking Vagina Monologues, and tell her that I will indeed be there on Sunday afternoon February 26th for the reading with the others at two o'clock for the benefit of Planned Parenthood.

It all goes together, however patchwork and unrelated it may seem ...  .

We will form that more perfect Union, eventually ... come hell or high water!