Thursday, December 17, 2015

Holiday Memories



Holiday Memories
by Gregory E. Larson

           Childhood memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas, you ask? What are the snippets from my brain? Do I have any memories to share?
          Well, in the early 60s there was always the two-hour-plus ride from Wichita to Emporia, and for a young kid, that ride seemed like an eternity. I’d stare out the window and pretend the little buildings and street lights on North Broadway were part of a model train set. The scenery changed from urban to rural as we drove toward Newton and then on through the Flint Hills where hills and valleys were plentiful. I would catch glimpses of stone bridges spanning the creeks and watch trains rolling through woods and fields. The farms looked just like my brother’s toy farm set and barn he received one Christmas.
          Memories?
          At Strong City, we passed the feed lot and held our noses, then joked that the city was named after the smell. On narrow Highway 50, we’d always get stuck behind some big truck that belched diesel smoke right towards our car. Finally, upon arrival in Emporia, we’d drive past the Farm and Home Supply and the Dairy Queen, before turning toward Grandma and Grandad Beck’s house, the classic bungalow with white clapboard siding and a big porch with railings and brick piers. Yippee! We ran circles in the front yard while Dad carried sacks of food and presents into the house.
          Memories?
          Thanksgiving was one of the two times each year to see our cousins from Minnesota. Touch football games began as rumble-tumble affairs and consisted of a handful of plays which ended up in the leaf piles in the yard. Each year the games looked more like football. We grew bigger, threw the ball farther, and blocked and tackled with a little more muscle, until the year when footballs and kids were bouncing off the cars and the houses; that’s when the dad’s decided we needed to be driven up to the college practice field.
          Memories?
          Dinners of turkey and mashed potatoes filled the plates, and there was so much food that the heat of the potatoes would melt the Jell-O salad to a runny state. There was the time when younger brother Tim fell asleep while trying to eat in the high chair at the kids table and we’d all laugh. He’d roll his eyes and smile, which made us all laugh even harder.
Old Folks Table and Kids Table         
          After-dinner activities for the kids occurred in the basement, with “spoons” being the favorite pastime. It usually ended up with a six-boy brawl, which had to be broken up by my tough-guy dad.
          Memories?
Uncle Stu had to drive his station wagon to the Standard station one year for the repairman to take a look at it. This was a big event for us boys, and we figured we’d get a bottle of pop out of the trip. Any change of venue was significant, especially when lights and decorations were plentiful, even down to the string of lights and garland around the front glass at the gas station.
          Memories?
          Every trip through Grandma’s kitchen would be an excuse to grab another sugar cookie   . . . maybe grab two or three and go outside to run around the yard without wearing a jacket. A chase down the alley brought us to the mom and pop grocery store where we’d pick out some pieces of candy and tell them to put it on the Beck’s account.
Brothers and cousins playing in Grandparents yard.
          Memories?
          Christmas brought colder weather, and we missed seeing the cousins. Grandma had purchased a small electric console organ, and she always wanted me to play Christmas music when we arrived. I’d inspect the Christmas tree ornaments and balls with star-insets and spiral pendants which glistened with the tinsel. Then I’d flip the switch to the organ and begin playing carols. Invariably, Mom would come over and ask me to turn down the volume to allow the music to co-exist with the conversations.
          Eventually we’d open presents of shirts, books, grooming kits, and other exciting stuff!?
          Memories?
          We played card games or Monopoly until it was finally time for bed. After talking until our brains wouldn’t work anymore, we’d fall asleep on feather pillows in the cold, upstairs room in the bungalow, and wake to grandma jostling and banging her pans in the kitchen cabinets. Then we’d stay tucked under the covers until the smell of bacon became too irresistible.
          Memories?
          They’re just snippets, but they’ll always be there . . . as vivid as the day it occurred. I can see the Fiesta ware on which breakfasts of eggs and pancakes were served and taste the orange juice in the tulip glasses that were originally cheese-spread jars.
          Yeah, those are my memories.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Colorful Sport - Colorful Memories



Colorful Sport — Colorful memories
memoir
Gregory E. Larson

           The peloton rushed past in a blur of color, so fast that it was difficult to focus on the jersey of a single bike rider. That was my experience when the top cycling teams in the world participated in the annual Tour of Missouri, which occurred from 2007 to 2009.  The final race day in 2009 was a criterium, or multiple lap course on a closed circuit of streets in the heart of Kansas City. I strategically positioned myself where the riders had to suffer a climb to the highest spot on the course on Wyandotte Street just south of Liberty Memorial. With the riders rushing like the wind, I snapped a photo as the peleton rounded the curve.
Pro Riders - 2009 Tour of Missouri

          At the front on the right side of the photo is Jens Voigt (now retired), a fan favorite among Europeans and Americans because of his jovial attitude and the fact that he stayed clean and didn’t use performance enhancing drugs. His signature wide-open mouth is sucking in as much oxygen as possible at the beginning of the hill climb. Jens is known for his famous saying, “Shut up, legs!” referring to the pain he feels when the race or the hill climb is at its worst.
          Dave Zabriski, in the yellow jersey, farther back on the right, is being protected by his Garmin team mates. Zabriski won the week-long tour because of his tremendous time-trialing ability.
          One might ask while looking at the photo, “Why do the riders wear such colorful clothing?” Actually, the bike jersey is a very functional shirt, fitted for the rider to lean forward, with rear pockets for stashing food, maps, and clothing. The fabric is high-tech wicking material that helps the perspiration evaporate quickly. As for the colors, most cyclists prefer to wear bright colors, so they can be seen by the traffic around them. The pro racers wear the bright team jerseys and shorts to identify them from the other riders, and to catch the eyes of television viewers. The outfits are like a miniature versions of a NASCAR paint job, and they proudly display their sponsor’s names and products.
          Over the years, I’ve participated in many organized rides. On the more difficult ones, I had to dig deep, both mentally and physically, to discover my inner self. On other rides or tours, it was for the sheer joy of spending each day outdoors, in my element, doing something I love.  When I touch the slick jersey fabric between the fingers and look at the colors, the memories of each tour or event become vivid. Here are some of my favorites to share with you — a photo of each and a brief thought or two of what it meant to ride in unusual locations from Texas to Italy.

Bike Tour of Colorado - 2000
          This week-long tour through the San Juan Mountains in began and ended in Telluride. Brothers George and Ferenc, who are friends of mine, invited me to ride with them and experience all the energy, joy, exhaustion, and pain along with 2000 riders from all fifty states. The toughest day included three mountain passes on the way from Ouray to Durango. We experienced sleet, rain, and forty degree temperature — not a good combination for riders exposed to the elements. On that day, the Colorado Highway Patrol made a decision to shut down the ride at the top of Red Mountain Pass. I had mixed feelings as I walked away from the bicycle, shivering all the way to the bus.
           The weather improved during the week, and I have many memories of great food and drink: fish and pasta, DQ Blizzards, espresso and chocolate, and giant breakfasts of eggs and pancakes. The stop in Creede, Colorado, included an underground party in a gold mine.
          At the end of the tour, I felt like a member of the family.

The Triple By Pass - 2002 
          It was my second attempt to fully complete the one-day, 120-mile ride over three mountain passes (Squaw, Loveland, and Vail Pass). The ride, which was limited to 2,000 cyclists, started in Evergreen, Colorado, just west of Denver, and ended in Avon, Colorado, ten miles west of Vail. The sunrise vistas during the early climb up Squaw Pass inspired me to relax and conserve my energy for the long day ahead. Another memory is the truck diesel smoke I inhaled while riding six miles on the shoulder of I-70, just before riding up Loveland Pass. My buddy, Jim and I rode our way up Vail Pass on the forest-floor bike trail under the I-70 viaducts. We coasted into Vail, where spotters stopped the traffic as we rode through the big roundabouts near the interstate highway. The pace slowed during the final ten miles to Avon in the late afternoon. We completed the ride after ten hours of cycling and 10,000 ft. of vertical climbing. The finish gave us bragging rights of completing one of the more difficult one-day rides in the country.

Bike Across Italy - 2005 
          For my wife, Gretta, and me, this was the first European cycling tour, and the longest. We covered about 650 kilometers over nine days (roughly 400 miles) from the Adriatic Sea on the east coast to the Tyhrennian Sea on the west. Very few miles were on level ground. The adventure was a big eye-opener for me, a quick way to experience Italian culture first-hand. The rustic, ancient cities, authentic Italian food, and the Italian-speaking people gave us unique memories each day. Coastal country, wheat fields, Apennine mountains — we saw it all.
          Each day when we finished the ride, we’d check into the hotel, shower and take a relaxing walk around the village, usually stopping at a bar for wine or beer. Gretta and I were the happiest couple in the world, sitting in the sun, sipping our drinks.  One of my favorite memories was hearing town bells ringing while we rode through the countryside. At the beginning and end of the tour we dipped our wheels in both seas to make the ride complete.

Hotter-n-Hell Hundred - 2005 
          Wichita Falls, Texas, throws a big party in August each year for a crowd of 14,000 cyclists. The prime event is a one-day, one-hundred mile (century) ride along the flood plain of the Red River. Although I completed this ride several times, my favorite memories are from the 2005 event when my friend, George, and I rode the tandem bicycle, with George as the captain on the front of the bike. It’s a fast-paced ride, even faster on a tandem due to the momentum of two riders on one bike. The 300 tandems were allowed to start behind the pro racers after the jet fly-over.
          George and I had a goal of completing the ride in five hours (an average pace of twenty miles-per-hour). It is a flat course and there’s always a group of bikes around for the initial fifty miles. There were lots of thirty-something riders clustered around us, many of them using our tandem as their draft — not bad for a couple of riders in their fifties. A few hills near the end slowed us down and we finished in five hours, fifteen minutes — after the pros, but before the vast majority of amateur riders. The finish line had a grandstand with announcers, and a nice-sized crowd had remained after the pro racers completed the route. I had my fifteen seconds of fame as we turned onto the final stretch and the announcer said, “Here comes a tandem, folks. I’d think you’d have to be pretty good friends to ride a bike together for 100 miles!” I raised both hands and waved to the crowd as George steered us across the line.

Mondo Bici 
          This outfit, consisting of the bike jersey and bib shorts was a gift from Gretta. After seeing the bright clothing in the Mondo Bici bike store in Fermignano, Italy, she decided to buy it for me to wear during the annual time-trialing competitions in Kansas City. After months of emails and ultimately wiring the money to the store in Eastern Italy, the outfit arrived just in time for the competition. This is a case where, truly, clothes make the man. The moment I wore the Mondo Bici race-team red, I felt like a champion. In 2007 I rode a Cervelo time-trial bike of matching color to a second place finish among fifty competitors in my age group (my only medal placement in eleven years).  I didn’t get first place, but I rode like the wind, and more importantly, I looked and felt invincible.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Message on a Bottle


 
Message on a Bottle
commentary
by Gregory E. Larson

           Pure. Natural. Organic. How many times do we hear these words in commercials or on labels of products we buy? It conjures up images of fresh cow’s milk from the barn, wild blackberries on the vine, or Grandpa’s golden potatoes pulled from the deep topsoil. The words themselves have subjective definitions and they’ve been overused in today’s marketing hype. Have you seen bundles of firewood labelled “organic” and stacked outside the health food stores? It seems that pure, natural, and organic have been thrown into the commercial marketing blender of fads and trends. Makes me wonder if I could bottle and label sewer water as pure, natural, and organic, and defend it as truth in advertising.
          I was drinking a complimentary bottle of water the other day — I make it a point not to spend money on bottled water unless I’m really desperate and thirsty. The thin plastic bottle crackled as I turned it in my hand to read the label. I thought, “Who buys this stuff?”
          It was Nestlé brand, Pure Life bottled water. The label included small, abstract human figures of green, yellow and blue. The printed product description informed me it was Purified water enhanced with minerals for taste. Hmm . . . pure water enhanced and sold as pure. It made me want to further scrutinize the label.
          The next dominant item on the small label was a picture of a woman with long hair and a shiny blouse with an adjacent quote, “Our 12-step Quality Process is our way of showing we care about your family.” Meet our moms: nestlepurelifepromise.com. Below the quote were her title, Production Scheduler and Music Master, and a facsimile of her hand-written signature Christina.
          I wonder what instruments she has mastered. Maybe she could walk around the factory while strumming a guitar, or play the violin to emanate a pure spirit to the workers and the water. Although, the drone of the machinery might drown out the music, but I’m sure the place is a state-of-the-art facility. I'll bet they have a sculpture garden and beds of wildflowers blooming outside the generously-sized factory windows.
          Wow. In three square inches of label, I learned that I was drinking pure water, and the company – or family – has a 12-step quality process . . . and they want me to meet their moms (one of which is a music master) on social media.
          I began to read the fine print. Source: PUBLIC WATER SUPPLY, DALLAS, TX. Whoa! Say it ain’t so. They had me in their grasp and then slapped me back to reality. The additional information explained the tap water is run through reverse osmosis or distillation, and enhanced with a balance of minerals for taste. I began to wonder what really was in the bottle of water, so I read further. Contains: Purified Water, Calcium Chloride, Sodium Bicarbonate, Magnesium Sulfate.
          I figured the sales on bottled water couldn’t amount to much, especially compared to soft drinks. Wrong. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Nestlé brands, Pure Life, and Poland Springs, bottled water have sales that now put the Nestlé bottled water in the No. 3 position for non-alcoholic beverages sold in the U.S., below Coke and Pepsi, but above Dr. Pepper. Projections are that U.S. consumption of bottled water will exceed that of soft drinks by 2017.
          The trend defies logic, in my humble opinion. I assume the product target market is people who aspire to have a lifestyle that is healthy and green (uh-oh, there’s another trendy word). So, let’s understand the basics. Dallas tap water (enhanced, of course) is bottled in containers made of petroleum-based material, shipped to all corners of the country, and the stuff just flies off the shelves at the store. Think of all the energy that is expended by the company to collect it, then add chemicals to the water, bottle it, and ship it via trucks or rail to cities hither and yon. Doesn’t sound like a green solution to me. Why not filter tap water from your kitchen and put it into some of the empty Pure Life bottles? Oops, according to their website literature, they discourage re-use of the bottles. They suggest putting them in recycle bins. Do you think they might want to sell more bottles of water? They least they could do is show us how to repurpose the bottles into hummingbird feeders.
          The next prominent item on the product label was a box titled GOOD TO TALK. Included in the box were a phone number and a website address along with one of those funny black and white squares to be scanned by someone with a smart phone. The label didn’t say what you are supposed to talk about. I wondered if a person could call them and talk about anything — use it as an electronic confessional or a catch-all hotline of sorts.
          I thought about calling the company, but Nestlé is a big global food conglomerate. There was a distinct possibility that I’d get trapped in one of those answering systems with the recorded voices. It was too nice of a day to get frustrated. I didn’t want any latent anger to surface, so I didn’t call. Besides, the odds of talking to Christina, herself, were probably pretty low.
          So, I decided to go to the website: nestlepurelifepromise.com, and clicked the Meet Our Mom tab to learn about Christina. She has a husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 9. She keeps the girls active in piano lessons, art classes, dance, and softball. Christina says it’s all about “finding and spending quality time together as a family.” I think she spends a lot of time driving a van to shuttle the kids. The Dallas – Ft. Worth area has a lot of freeways, plus, she has to drive to and from work every day at the bottling facility. Maybe the company let’s her do the production scheduling from her laptop at home.
          I briefly looked at the main Pure Life website. I didn’t want to get totally sucked into the social media regarding bottled water. There were tabs at the top: Live Well, Live Pure, Live Green. This was way too much information. There were many suggestions on how one can help the environment, you know, like using both sides of a piece of paper, giving away old clothes, and sweeping a driveway instead of washing it with water. There was a picture of a tree sapling with topsoil, cradled in the palms of someone’s hands — a subliminal suggestion, I guess, to plant a tree.
          I shut off the computer for fear of bonding to the product and to Christina’s family. If I bought a lot of Pure Life water and decided to quit drinking it, I would feel guilty that Christina might lose her job. Fortunately, I don’t buy the water, but if current trends hold true, the company’s sales will continue to soar.
          As for me, I think I’ll drink tap water, maybe a Coke, or some local beer, like Boulevard Pale Ale. They probably use good ole’ Kansas or Missouri River water. The city water plant in the West Bottoms is pretty close to the manufacturing facility on Southwest Boulevard in Kansas City, Missouri.
          Come to think of it, I’ll bet there are employees from wholesome families working for the company. They probably have some dads working there. Hey, they should have a website where I could Meet the Dads.
          For the time being, I’ll just sit on the patio, under the trees near the birds and the squirrels, next to nature. There will be no electronic devices or social media to distract me. I’ll sip my favorite beverage, and ponder other significant life questions and issues.
Beverages of choice

Monday, August 10, 2015

Streetside at Cafe Lago

          Preface: Since we’ve stayed close to home this year, Gretta and I have spent time recounting some of our favorite memories. The experiences have been so varied that we never lack for sharing stories of far-away places and memorable adventures. From sipping beer at the back room of the Cheers bar in Boston in the dead of winter, to discovering a clump of hollyhocks along an adobe wall in Taos, or detecting the smell of minestrone wafting in the air while walking a cobbled street in Italy, it’s always fun to find those places that are tucked away in the brain — to remember the circumstances, the weather, the smell of the air, and the sheer joy of travel.
Locarno - the "Riviera of Switzerland"

Streetside at Café Lago
travel memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           We start our Sunday morning stroll along the Viale Verbano in Locarno, Switzerland, with no particular destination in mind, but with the desire to relax in an outdoor café and spend a leisurely morning with some cappuccino and pastry. The surface of Lake Maggiore is steel blue and placid, with a backdrop of hazy-blue mountains in the cool, misty air. The climate in Locarno is such that palm trees and pines thrive side by side in the verdant park along the shore. Skiffs, sailboats and small yachts all seem to be asleep at the docks. Not yet awake myself, I yawn and think this is about as good as it gets on a relaxing vacation.
          Movement in the harbor and on the boulevards of the resort city is at a restful pace. Ferry boats are not yet running and the sidewalks are nearly empty. Gretta and I hold hands while we stroll through the park, past shiny red benches and beds of flowering impatiens. Opposite the shoreline park is a row of Italian restaurants mixed with hotels.

Gretta and flowers at the shoreline park in Locarno, Switzerland
          The outdoor cafés are slow to fill in the early morning, with couples scattered about drinking cappuccino and eating croissants. The smells of the buffets have made their way to the sidewalk. Pancetta, onions, potatoes, eggs, fish and a buffet of pastries await those who desire a big vacation meal. By evening these eateries will be full of the holiday crowd of Italians, Germans, French, and Swiss. Although the official language and the main fare is Italian in the Ticino region, the menus include weinerschnitzel, pomme frites and large steins of beer to cater to the many Germans and northern Swiss.
          Gretta listens to the phrases coming from all the native tongues of Europe as we walk past the cafés. Locarno has a definite cosmopolitan flair. The mixture of languages, customs, clothing styles, and modes of transportation all provide a great place to see and be seen.
Viale Verbano - Locarno, Switzerland
          The sunlight flashes intermittently on the clusters of bicycle riders as they glide beneath the branches of the large pine trees in the park. An occasional scooter or motorcycle buzzes past, as well as some fine automobiles (Porsches, Audis, Mercedes, BMW’s, and some classic Jaguars and Alfa Romeos) many of which are convertibles.
          We spy an outdoor café and bakery at the juncture of Viale Verbano, Viale Giuseppe Cattori and the shoreline. Café Lago has a classic Euro look to it, with Swiss granite planters defining the edge of the outdoor café at street side. Gretta and I find a small granite table under a colorful umbrella while the birds, which were seeking the restaurant spoils on the ground, scatter as we sit down to take in the surroundings.

Sitting streetside at Cafe' Lago
          A café waiter promptly appears and greets us, “Guten Morgen!” and provides each of us with a small menu. He assumes we are German; otherwise he would have greeted us in Italian.
          Gretta plays the game by responding, “Danke schön.”
          The waiter tells us in German to take our time in selecting from the menu, and he’ll return to get our order.
          I assume we’ll order a standard cappuccino and croissant, but Gretta surprises me. “Look!” she says, “There’s a Café Lago Cappuccino on the menu but it is more expensive. I want to try it anyway.”
          This is not the typical Gretta. Splurge is a rare word in her vocabulary. She reminds me from time to time that she is her mother’s daughter, and has a knack for bargains, coupons and inexpensive menu items.
          I’m in a holiday mood and respond, “Let’s go for it! We should each have chocolate pastry to compliment the cappuccino.” Gretta gives our order to the waiter and we sit back to relax while we wait for our treats.
          The pedestrian and vehicular traffic begins to pick up in this epicenter of the lake front. I detect a whiff of perfume as a well-dressed woman walks past with her poodle, and then crosses the street to the park. She appears to be a local resident as she greets and chats with people she meets.
          The waiter returns with a large tray full of small silver trays, baskets, glasses of seltzer water and, yes, two giant cups of cappuccino with swirls of chocolate powder on the surface, along with a floating piece of designer chocolate! In addition, we each have a large chocolate brioche and a shortbread cookie topped with powdered sugar. The cappuccino steam mixed with the chocolate smells addictive. We’re in Euro-heaven.

Cafe' Lago Cappuccino and Chocolate Brioche
          The ambience of the place puts me into a dream-like state. I imagine that Gretta and I become a part of an old European movie scene. All of a sudden, we are suave and sophisticated. I half-expect a sea-green Vespa to approach, driven by a woman in Capri pants, tight-knit top, large sunglasses and a powder-blue scarf. She’d stop the Vespa next to the granite planters, lower her sunglasses to look at me and say, “Good Morning Mister Larson.” Her arm would extend over the granite planter box to deliver an unmarked envelope full of secret information. Nonchalantly, she’d say, “Here’s something a la carte.” Her scarf would flutter as she buzzes out onto the shoreline boulevard. Although the secret envelope is a figment of my imagination, I’m sure it would contain something of great importance.
          I return to reality and look at Gretta. We smile at each other, and get lost in the moment while conversing and laughing, sipping our cappuccino and tasting the chocolate pastry. During those sidewalk café moments in the Swiss morning air, time stops. She is my Audrey Hepburn, and I, her Cary Grant. The memory of that is, and will forever be . . . priceless.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Men of Character


Uncle Charles Larson & author (1954) 
Men of Character
memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

          Preface: Every year, between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, I ponder the sacrifices of those who have served in the armed forces. It’s a time of year to look at our surroundings, breathe the summer air, and appreciate what we have.

          I’m a fortunate soul for having grown up around men of character. My role models were my dad, some uncles and friends of the family, and mentors who answered the call to serve during World War II. Did I understand the significance of their service or the harrowing situations they survived? No. I was a carefree kid from Kansas, spending time with my brothers and friends, with a limited view of the world. My siblings and I were the typical baby-boomers with a simple outlook on life: have fun and try not to get into too much trouble. In today’s American culture, where the idea of tight-knit families and neighborhoods seems a strange notion, I can look back now with real appreciation, and realize the impact of the love, nurture and guidance those men gave me. I feel truly blessed.
          Many of the men that I admired had stared death in the face during the war and they were literally glad to be alive. Somewhere in their darkest moments of battle, they held onto dreams of returning home to pursue a life of work and family. During the ’50s and ’60s they built on those dreams and made them real. The post-World War II economy was booming and folks were happy — happy the war was over and happy to be free to raise families in a great country.
          Over time, I saw different qualities in the men that I admired, including my dad. Partly by osmosis, and partly through conscious decisions, I attempted to emulate what I observed after spending time with my uncles and other men who were friends of my parents. In retrospect, I had a basketful of character traits to pick from, and what a basket it was!
          Uncle Charles (Charles “Shag” Larson, 1924 - 2014), my dad’s older brother, was a significant role model. He and my dad were very close. They grew up during the depression, in a family that struggled to stay out of poverty. They excelled in school, and both served in the war before going to college on the G.I. bill. For the first ten years of my life, our family and Charles’ family got together three or four times a year. This was not insignificant, because they lived in Albuquerque and we lived in Wichita. My dad and Uncle Charles always wanted to spend time together to fish or play golf.
          Charles was small in stature and soft-spoken. When he talked, people listened. He was a peaceful man, and happiest when sitting on a riverbank with his fishing pole propped up before him. Why did Charles and my dad want to be together? Dad was glad his brother was alive. In my adulthood, I learned of the war stories that he had kept quiet for so many years.
          Charles was an infantry soldier in the Army. During the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 he and his fellow soldiers were trapped in a concrete bunker in France. Cut off from the Allied Forces, they sat in the extreme cold for days, from one dark hour to the next with dwindling food and water. The Germans advanced and shelled the bunkers. Charles’ bunker was hit, and several men were killed instantly. In that moment, at age twenty-one, he became the ranking officer of the small band of survivors. The Germans shouted for them to open the bunker and exit. He had a split-second decision to make: Do they resist and die, or do they surrender and most probably be shot as they exit the bunker? Charles was the first to exit. Much to his surprise, the Germans didn’t shoot. Over the next two days they were marched fifty miles in the snow to the German prison camp Bad Orb. Many of the prisoners died of starvation or poor medical care during captivity. In April of 1945, when the allies liberated the camp, Charles weighed 85 lbs. and had to be carried to an ambulance. After he returned home from WWII, he signed up in the army reserves, and was sent to the Korean War, where he served as an officer.
          As a child, I always liked being with Uncle Charles. He always had a story or joke to tell, and he always looked out for me when we were fishing.
          Mr. Frazier, (Eugene “Gene” Frazier, 1922 - present), was another man I admired while growing up. The Frazier family was part of a large church class which included my parents. It was a very social group that supported each other as the families grew. There were many camping trips full of swimming, fishing, campfires, and exploring. Mr. Frazier was always prepared. His family would be first at the campsite, and as we arrived to set up our camp, he would provide assistance and encouragement, as well as plenty of fresh popcorn. I admired him for his creativity and resourcefulness, as well as his positive attitude. The evening campfires were always next to the Frazier’s campsite because Mr. Frazier had a supply of wood for the fire, and he refilled everyone’s bowl with  popcorn. My brothers and I became close friends with the Frazier kids. I still keep in touch with Val Frazier, in my longest-running friendship.
          I learned that Mr. Frazier had been a pilot in the Army Air Corps in the South Pacific during WWII. At twenty-one years old he was commander of a B-29 crew, in a bomber that had been designed and built in just a few months. Although it was designed with a pressurized cabin, the plane had a lot of quirks and flaws that required constant attention and maintenance. The pilot and the additional ten crew members had to know how to adjust and adapt the aircraft systems during their flights. The prospect of not returning had to rattle the minds of the crews each time they lifted into the air to fly low-level raids over Tokyo. Those who did survive had to cope with the knowledge that some of their fellow airmen in the other planes didn’t return from their missions.
B-29 (public domain image)
          The mentoring I received from men who served in WWII continued on through college and graduation. For my first architectural job, I was hired in Topeka, Kansas as an intern at the firm of Kiene and Bradley. Mr. Bradley, (Jack R. Bradley, Jr.), was a true professional and a born leader. When I first met him, I was shocked at the appearance of his face, which was disfigured and covered with skin grafts, but I observed a man whose focus and energy was channeled into running a high-quality design firm in downtown Topeka. Some employees told me that Mr. Bradley was a bomber crewman in WWII and had sustained his injuries and burns in a plane crash. He met client after client and brought in business to the firm as if his disabilities didn’t exist and the war had never occurred. He never talked about his war injuries and he went about each day with encouraging words and a smile on his face.
          After graduation, I was hired by a prominent architect, Sid Platt (Sidney S. “Sid” Platt, 1916-2012) in Wichita, Kansas. Sid had a commanding presence when he entered a room, standing over six feet tall, with curly hair, a Roman nose, jutting jaw and piercing blue eyes. He looked like he could have been an admiral in the navy, but he was a pilot and a Major in the Army Air Corps. During morning coffee, he shared some of his adventures in the war as a P-38 fighter pilot, flying sorties out of England and into Germany and continental Europe.

P-38 (public domain image)
          It was hard for me to picture big Sid squeezing into the small cockpit of a P-38, and I remember him telling us how cramped it was. He didn’t go into too much detail about the missions, but he said there was one time when he had to clean out his cockpit after returning to base from a dogfight and with the Germans. He had to burn his clothes and the seat cushion because he’d filled his pants during the heat of the battle.
          Sid was quite a people person, always working a room to make others feel at ease. He had a balance of creativity, honesty and work ethic. It seems as if it were yesterday . . . he'd pull into the parking garage in the morning in his tiny ’72 BMW, looking like a cramped fighter pilot. On our walk to coffee, if he saw my collar or back pocket unbuttoned, he’d stop to button it for me, then he’d poke me with his shoulder as we’d start walking and say, “Ya gotta look sharp!”
          My dad (Wallace E. “Wally” Larson, 1926-2007) entered the war in 1944, joining the Navy to become a signalman. He never saw combat, but he was assigned to a Merchant Marine ship, to receive and send orders for the captain. He told me his worst fear during the war occurred in San Francisco harbor when he received the Morse code message through the flashing beacons with orders for the captain to proceed the next day in a convoy to the South Pacific. Dad said he figured he would meet his fate somewhere along the way, because the supply ships were like floating buckets and were easy targets for the enemy. Lo, and behold, the next morning he received new information that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, and they were given orders to sit in the harbor for several days. He spent his remaining Navy days on the beaches of Hawaii, selling his cigarette rations and training for bantam-weight boxing matches to earn some additional cash.
          Dad’s middle name should have been Tough Guy. He was straight-laced but unafraid in any situation. After receiving an accounting degree in college, he went through FBI training and became a U.S. Treasury Agent. He was my A-number-one mentor for learning right from wrong. Early in our childhood he began to teach me and my siblings how to take care of ourselves and become productive members of society.
          One of the traits he passed on to me was how much he could see through simple observation. That must have been his law enforcement training. He also gave me advice on how to deal with stressful situations with influential people by telling me, “Greg, you have to remember they get up each morning and put on their pants just like you and me."
          He spent a lot of his free time taking us fishing, teaching us golf, and volunteering as our Scoutmaster. He never learned another language, but he knew Morse code backwards and forwards.

Wally Larson 1962 (author's dad)
          While I watch the Fourth of July fireworks this year, I’ll reflect on what these men did for me and for our country. I’ll remember growing up around them and understand they taught me so much without saying a word. It was their actions, these men of character, that showed me how to live.

          This link is to a video of Gene Frazier remembering the dangers of flying over Japan in the B-29 during WWII:  http://www.witnesstowar.org/combat_stories/WWII/991

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Unusual Commute



Fast Old Guys
The Unusual Commute
memoir
by Gregory E. Larson
 
           A trip on the bicycle is a sensory experience. That’s why I’ve always felt so alive while pedaling down the road. Just the memory of various smells takes me back to strawberry fields in Wisconsin, or to minestrone and pasta flavors hovering in the stone alley ways of small villages in Italy. Over the years I’ve pedaled a swath past uncounted lemonade stands, delis, pubs and grocery stores. Did you ever drink an orangina or a gassosa when you were really thirsty? Powerful stuff.
          My longtime cycling buddy, George, asked me recently (for old time’s sake) to get up early and ride with him to where he works, something we did together once a week for ten years from the suburbs to Crown Center in Kansas City. Although I’m retired, I decided to do it for the exercise (and for old time’s sake), so I set the alarm for 5:20 AM.
          The body creaked and groaned while I pulled on my bike clothes and spooned down the bowl of maple-flavored instant oatmeal. I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” but once outside, I pedaled down the street and the world came alive.
          We saw each other’s flashing headlights at our designated Park where we blended together in the pre-dawn grayness, pedaling the familiar route. That’s when the memories came flooding back.
          As we picked up speed down a hill, George reminisced. “Remember the time I hit the rabbit in the dark on this stretch?” The vision came back from years ago, of the rabbit bounding out of nowhere, right into George’s wheel and flipped into the air, just missing me as I followed behind. Anything bigger than a twig on a bike tire at thirty miles-per-hour could spell disaster. This time we both stayed upright and continued on, letting nature take its course with whatever remained of the rabbit.
          Riding through Mission Hills brought back visions of foxes wandering the creek by the country club, and raccoons peering from storm inlets in the dark of the morning.
          As we rode through the Country Club Plaza, I thought of all those early December mornings when the Christmas lights illuminated the fog. In the eerie quiet it was a magical spectacle, one which we had to ourselves as we rode the empty streets.
          Weaving around the delivery trucks, I smelled the coffee as we passed Starbucks, then began the climb out of the Plaza towards St. Luke’s Hospital. In the old days, we rode past the main entry and the chapel on Broadway, stopping at the crosswalk for the doctors and nurses in their blue and white coats, where they walked to the entry of warm air that billowed out from the building — the draft giving us just a hint of the antiseptic interior beyond the doors.
          The route now curves around the hospital — the Broadway entrance shut off from traffic years ago. North of 43rd Street, George said, “You gotta see this . . . you’re not going to believe it.” My mouth gaped open as I looked at an empty field of grass next to a parking lot on the south side of Westport.
          “This is where the St. Luke’s Fitness and Rehab Center was!”
          “Yes, they tore it down. It’s gone.”
          For years, whenever I rode past the building, I thought of the pain and torture I endured inside when I went for rehab on a pulled hamstring. My leg winced every time I looked at the building. Now there’s just a field of grass. In the back of my mind I could hear the voice of the physical therapist as she rolled the muscle-massage machine next to the cot where I lay on my side.
          “Lie on your stomach and relax. I need to work over the damaged area with this massager.” She tried several settings but nothing seemed to stimulate the hamstring. Finally she announced, “I guess I’ll have to turn it up to the Russian setting.”
          “No way! Is there really a Russian setting?
          “Yep. Here it is.” She pointed to the dial and the final position on the far right, labelled Russian.
          “Okay. Have at it.” I buried my face in the pillow and grabbed the corners of the cot with a tight grip. She flipped the switch and I screamed a silent scream at the inner-most part of my being. I screamed and screamed. The only thing worse would have been if a robust Russian lady in a white coat had put all of her body weight into the massage. The memory seemed like a figment of my imagination as I rolled past the empty field where bricks, mortar, and therapists once filled the space.
          The dumpster odors from the alleys in Westport quickly flipped my mind back to reality. As we passed Kelly’s, the smell of stale beer filled the air as sunlight shafts began to peek over the treetops. We rolled on, through the Valentine neighborhoods with stately homes built in the ’20s, the houses now looking a bit tired.
          I said “good-bye” to George as he rode to his office building at 31st and Broadway, and I turned around for the solo trip home. We had a lot of good memories from our commutes. It was a time to visit, like riding in the car and sharing graduations, illnesses and proud father moments.
          I skipped the final stretch I used to take when I rode to work at Crown Center. The cresting of hospital hill was the strongest memory of all. Every time I topped out on Wyandotte St., the Liberty Memorial loomed in the sunrise and the city skyline twinkled before me, while the theme from Rocky played in my head. It was the finale, a cue that told me I would coast the rest of the way to work, knowing that after a hot shower, I’d stop by the cafeteria for a cup of coffee and a sticky bun — my reward for fifteen miles of exercise.
          This morning, though, my reward was reliving all those past rides through the city I love, winding my way home along the familiar streets.
          Thanks George, for the memories (and for old time’s sake).
 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Douglas Dogwood




The Douglas Dogwood
non-fiction memoir
by Gregory E. Larson

           I felt the December chill in my bones as I grabbed the rough-split pieces of firewood from the stacked cord and scurried back into the house. Gone were the warm days of fall when it was a joy to linger outside on a golden, sunny afternoon. The smoke from the chimney curled into the air and spread throughout the neighborhood, the smell provided a seasonal clue that colder and darker days were to come. The oak logs fueled the crackling fire in the hearth, and my spirits lifted. I completed the task of stringing the Christmas lights on the soft, green fir tree carefully positioned to the side of the living room.

          Douglas, our fourteen-year-old Cairn terrier, was ill and uncomfortable. He had slept most of the day, but once I illuminated the Christmas lights, he appeared from the corner. Poor guy. He was weak, but I sensed he was glad to be in the warm, inviting space. Over the next hour, he found no less than five different places to curl up for a nap, including a spot directly underneath the lighted tree which was void of ornaments and presents. In his restlessness, he stopped and laid his head at my feet. It was unusual for him to seek out my attention. I stroked his head just to let him know I cared.

          In the dark before dawn, Douglas had a seizure and my wife, Gretta, and I rushed him to the animal hospital. The staff did their best, but he couldn’t be resuscitated. He had reached life’s end. We signed papers, and with tears in our eyes, drove home to a cold, dark house, which matched our mood.

          The loss for Gretta, the true master for Douglas, was greatest. She always made sure he had the right diet, and she kept schedules of his medications. Her attention and care helped the dog stay fit and happy. I remembered many mornings when I’d hear Gretta cheerfully chatting to Douglas as she went about getting his food and water, then coaxed him to be still for his numerous eye drops.

          It helped our mood to talk through the memories of him.

          “Remember the times you bounced the big red ball in the back yard, and he jumped to hit it with the end of his nose? He’d push it and chase it all around the back yard!”

          “How many times did he hunt for mice in the woodpile or trap chipmunks in the downspout and harass them until we dragged him into the house? He really loved the back yard, especially when you were cooking on the grill.”

Douglas on a mouse hunt
 
          We were overwhelmed by kind notes and cards from those who knew Douglas. Lorraine, our friend who cared for him when we traveled, came by to comfort us and reminisce. She was our dog-whisperer because she connected with Douglas at a level I couldn’t comprehend. She taught him how to fetch a ball — something even Gretta couldn’t teach him. He was always excited when we told him “your Lorraine is coming.”

          She brought a poinsettia and a sympathy card, and we drank tea and coffee while sharing anecdotes of happy times with Douglas. She gave us some money and said, “Buy a plant in the spring in his memory.”

          In March, as the temperatures warmed, I struggled with what to plant. I wanted something that was a befitting memory for our regal, happy dog — then it hit me: sweeten the pot and buy a dogwood tree. The shady area in the back yard was a perfect spot.

          The nursery was unloading the trees on a warm, sunny day and I selected a four-foot Cherokee Princess dogwood. In the late afternoon, I prepared the hole in the backyard. Then Gretta and I took turns pouring the ashes of Douglas’s remains before I lowered the small, burlap ball at a spot where Douglas used to sit and watch the children play in the park beyond. At that moment I could see the look in Gretta’s eyes that reflected the healing of our loss and the memories of all that was good in Douglas.

          As she looked at the tree, she summed up her feelings. “This is a happy tree, and Douglas was a happy dog.”

          The tree grew and flourished from the first day it was planted, adding two additional feet in less than two months and rewarding us with nine, white blossoms.

          We see the Douglas Dogwood out the kitchen window every morning, as well as the increased, spring activity at the bird feeders in the ash tree. Our excitement always rises when the first goldfinch arrives at the finch feeder (which is another Gretta project). She has taken it as her mission to be the benevolent provider to all the neighborhood birds in need. Recently, a female goldfinch began to show up each morning. It was another sign of glorious spring.

          “Gosh, she’s eating enough food for a small army!” I exclaimed. Then I realized she was preparing for nesting time. “She’s gonna be a mama goldfinch. There’s no possible way she is consuming all those calories for herself.” The brave little bird showed up every morning, undeterred by the nasty group of blue jays and grackles trying to shake and raid the seeds. She landed in a nearby maple tree, then flitted onto closer limbs and swooped down to perch on the feeder.

          Yesterday, in the cool of the early morning, a bright flash caught our eyes as the brilliant-colored male goldfinch darted through the air to perch on the feeder. Mama goldfinch was probably at home in her nest, warming and protecting the eggs.

          Beyond the finch feeder, the Douglas Dogwood grows taller and leafier by the day. We cheered one morning when a red cardinal landed in it for a brief moment, the bird’s legs deftly clinging to an angled branch.

          Hmm . . . if we see a goldfinch land in the dogwood some morning . . . well, that will be a happy moment for all of us: Gretta, Douglas and me.