The Friendly Neighbor continued to muse about deaths of people close to him.

[He has worked for the Boy Scouts of America all of his working life. On an earlier occasion I asked him how he had come to work for the Scouts.

At that time he said, “My father worked for the Scouts. He was half Lakota Sioux, so my sister and I are one quarter Indian. I don’t look much look like an Indian, but my sister (whom I have not met) looks exactly as you would expect an Indian woman to look, with long straight black hair and facial features typical of Indian people.

“My father was a very well-respected and much-beloved man. Over a hundred people came to his funeral because he was so admired.

“While he was still alive, he had insisted that I get a full college education, so I would always have something to fall back on. I majored in agricultural research, and if I had not gone to work for the Boy Scouts that is what I would have gone into, but my education was very useful for me in the work I did for the Scouts.”]

He continued, “After my father died, my sister and I told our mother that we would understand if she married again, and would support her. But she told us she could never love someone else as she loved our father, so she never married again. [His mother, whom I have met, died a couple of months ago.]

“After she died, I visualized them meeting again in Heaven. It give me a lot of comfort.”

About that time, we arrived home. I found the two stories quite moving, and they provided me with a lot of insight into him.





On most Wednesday mornings I volunteer with a group of church members who cut and split wood to donate to elderly people and to people in temporary financial distress to use for heat. My closest neighbors in the woods where we live on a large island (on our five acre lots “close” means they live about a quarter mile away from us), members of this Protestant church, invited me to participate in their “wood ministry.” 

I usually ride to and from the splitting with him. After each morning of sawing and splitting and hauling and delivering, the volunteers, all male, all church members, and all retired, gather at their church for coffee and snacks. At 65 years of age, I am the “baby” of the group. I am the only member of the volunteers who is not a member of the church.

Last Wednesday, the Friendly Neighbor (as I dub him in my blog) and I walked out to his pickup truck to head home. It was a sunny summer day. He commented on how attractive the few scattered clouds looked against the blue sky. As he is an interesting person of many talents and experiences, I asked, “Did you ever consider being a pilot and flying among those clouds?”

He replied, “Indeed I did. I passed all the physical exams and qualified for the training. However, my father died and I felt a responsibility to take care of my mother. Though it turned out that I could have gone on to fly. It took a while, but after my father died my mother found a job and was able to take care of herself.”

At first I thought he was talking about flying as an avocation, but then he said, “One of my best friends, a person a couple of years older than I and a person I really looked up to, was the first American pilot shot down in the Vietnam War.”

I then realized he had planned to be a pilot for the Air Force in order to fight in Vietnam.

He continued, speaking of his friend, “He was a very talented and capable person. He had been accepted into medical school. However, he really thought of himself as a person who had been given a lot, and he felt an obligation to give back. He felt he would be helping people live free, and not be prisoners under Communist control.”

He then continued, “He was not the only close friend I lost in Vietnam. Another one of my friends was shot and killed as he was getting off a ship to go ashore in Vietnam for the first time.

“In terms of my pilot friend, who had always been listed as missing in action, a few years ago, I just happened to read a local [Puget Sound] newspaper which carried an article about how his body had finally been recovered, long after the war was over. It was just a coincidence to see that article in a local newspaper [as he was not from Puget Sound], but I was very glad I had.

“The loss of those two close friends really brought the war home to me.” [A few days after he told me the story, I was able to find on the web the story about how the pilot’s body was recovered

 I listened quietly and respectfully. There was really nothing more for me to say.

[The rest of his story will be provided in my next post.]




My father served in the military during World War II as a sergeant in India. The United States feared that Japan would invade India. As Japan invaded other places than India, my father was not exposed to combat.

He once said to me, “I learned that there is the right way to do something; the wrong way to do something; and the Army way to do something. God help you if you are in the United States Army and do it some other way than the Army way.”

My youngest brother enlisted in the United States Navy, serving as a weatherman. He did not serve at a time where he would have been in danger of being exposed to combat. After he left the Navy, he did nothing in regard to the weather. A couple of years ago, he left home in the middle of the night and wandered the streets until picked up by the police. He was subsequently diagnosed as bi-polar. Perhaps he was under the weather.

During the Vietnam War, I was called up for the draft. I passed the physical exam. I passed the mental exam. [Why?] The birth of my daughter made me eligible for a deferment. I took the deferment but resisted the urge to name my daughter “Deferment.”

I don’t feel guilty for not serving in Vietnam For one thing, I would have been the wost soldier in the history of the United States military. However, I don’t feel great about it either when I think about the thousands of Americans who were drafted and who enlisted, many of whom were killed, many of whom were injured, and many of whom had their lives disrupted and damaged.

The only other relative I know of who served in the military was my mother’s stepfather, Alex, whom I remember as a dour, taciturn man who owned and drove an old school bus instead of a automobile as his personal vehicle when he and my grandmother retired to California after selling their farm in Indiana.

My mother said that Alex had served in the Russian army during World War I, where he spent most of his time as a soldier trying to stay as far away from combat as he could.

I always thought of him as a sort of Ukrainian Corporal Švejk, the leading character in the Catch-22 of the First World War, The Good Soldier Švejk.

Information about the novel.

New translation.

Background about new translation.



When I was a child, it was clear to me that

A) My father was a very intelligent (perhaps brilliant) man.

B) He was unable to get and keep (until late in life) a decent job.

C) My parents’ marriage had been a very bad idea.

One thought that has occurred to me only recently is that my father got my mother pregnant before they were married and that they had to get married. No hint of this was ever spoken to me by any of my relatives, but it might account for their ridiculous and pathetic joining together as a couple.

As I was growing up, I had the impression that my father had started attending the University of Chicago as a young man, but had dropped out about a year before he was to graduate because

D) He got married.

E) I was born.

F) He joined the United States Army (during World War II) and was assigned to serve in India.

I can’t remember if they ever specifically told me that sequence of events. I remember some college textbooks around published in the 1930s around our house. I remember my father talking about finishing his degree by distance learning. A lack of a degree (or so I understood) was one of the main reasons he never seemed to be able to get or keep a decent job (until the very last years of his life).

Quite a while after my father died, my extended family had a couple of family reunions on the East Coast of the United States (paid for by my “Chinese” millionaire cousin, Joanna Nichols).

At the first reunion, my father’s three sisters, Diana, Naomi, and Henriette sat around reminiscing about their childhood in Chicago in the 1930s and answering questions from the rest of us (the younger relatives).

I asked about my father dropping out of the University of Chicago.

My three aunts looked astonished. “Michael never attended the University of Chicago,” my aunt Naomi said in a definite manner. “He might have taken a class or two at the community college in Chicago, but that would have been the most college education he ever had.”

I was astonished. I looked at my mother in puzzlement. At that time, my mother was aging and failing fast but she was still coherent (though none of us realized that she was in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s Disease). However, whether she was very weary that evening or chose to act as she was too tired to follow the conversation out of embarrassment, she acted as if she didn’t understand what we were talking about.

So I don’t know. Did my parents intentionally create a myth (mainly aimed at me, as the oldest of their five children) about my father dropping out of college when no such circumstances were in fact true? I will never know, I guess.




Finally, a picture of Sylvie, the world’s most extroverted and affectionate cat. Sylvie never met a lap that she did not want to sit on.
Even though she is half the size of a typical feline, don’t let her small size mislead you. She is also a fierce and frightening guard cat. If a burglar broke into the mommies’ house, Sylvie would immediately walk up to him and start purring fiercely, no doubt sending the intruder fleeing in terror.



I did communicate with Mark a year or two after he was laid off from our job. His wife (a dancer and a ballet teacher, like my aunt Naomi who just died) had divorced him. Mark had left the Seattle area and was teaching at a community college in Yakima (eastern Washington state). I’ve since lost all contact with him.

Now that’s what I call a strange family.

For that matter, when Random Granddaughter, who has two co-mommies and two co-daddies, and five grandmas and four grandpas, gets a little older, I will tell her, “Anne Elise, you have a perfectly normal family, and you never forget it.”



The Friendly Neighbors left town to go on a scenic train ride to the Rockies. My wife wants to go on a scenic train ride across Canada, something we may do one of these days if we live long enough.

I put the neighbors’ trash out for them and went wood splitting without them. I told the other splitters, “The Friendly Neighbor told me to watch you carefully so you work productively and safely, but I know you will do whatever you want and pay no attention to me, so you will have to deal with him when he returns next week.” They did fine. Mostly.

Although they have a volunteer team leader, they mostly work in polite, happy anarchy, each person doing the job he is best suited for and without needing to be told what to do by the non-bossy team leader. They are all older than I am. It is no surprise to me that they are more skillful in using tools such as chainsaws and splitters, or that they know more about the different kinds of wood or how to place the “rounds” of wood under the splitter blade so they split most quickly and efficiently. Although they are unpaid and give the wood away instead of selling it, they work with furious efficiency that would do a lumber company proud.

However, as they are older and even though they are more knowledgeable than I am, and even though they are all stronger than I am, they all have older bodies that are breaking down. Joints are wearing down; knees, hips, and shoulders need to be replaced; one or another of the participants will miss a few sessions because of an operation or to recover from a strain or sprain.

As we worked yesterday, each person worked at a job without being told what to do. However, each person kept working at it too long and made himself sore with repetition at the same job, and moaned about it at quitting time. Each person should have changed tasks in the middle of the session, but everyone was too polite to ask someone to switch with them.

Next week I will diffidently suggest to everyone that they take turns at different jobs so they do not make their joints and and muscles more sore than they need to be. Or maybe, I will suggest it to the Friendly Neighbor and he can suggest it to them. There are times when polite people are a little too polite and considerate.



After we got to the church for coffee and cookies, we talked about marriage. After everyone else had left, J, one of the volunteers, told me about a friend of his. “I went to all three of his weddings,” he said.”My friend is a very free spirit, very humorous and spontaneous. He married a woman for his second marriage who was very rigid and predictable. Neither would change a bit to suit the other; so it was no surprise to me that the marriage did not last very long.”

The church secretary, a very pleasant woman probably in her seventies, came out to refill the coffee container and to put out more cookies. She listened to this story and quietly said, “I have been married for 50 years. My husband never listens to me and never wants input from me.” She spoke in a restrained, discreet way, conveying patient resignation and she displayed little or no rancor as she spoke.

“I have often been this close to leaving him,” she said, holding up two fingers to show a short distance between them. “However, as the minister said in one of his sermons recently, ‘marriage is a commitment.’ It is part of my faith and my values to honor that commitment.”

She then said, “I better get back to work. I don’t usually spend this much time out here talking.” She quietly returned to her office.

J looked at me. “That is a very sad story,” he said. I did not ask him how many times he had been married or for how long.

When I got home I kissed my wife and told her I loved her. There is a time to be a sentimental old fool. Also, we got through the entire day without fighting. We have good days and bad days. I think this is true of every married couple. We should probably take that train ride sooner rather than later.

I affectionately refer to my daughter’s partner (birth mother of the delightful Random Granddaughter) as her out of law partner because the two co-moms have chosen not to try to form a “gay marriage” or even a civil union, though they have taken careful steps to put their family on a solid legal basis. (For example, my daughter has changed her last name to her partner’s name and has legally adopted RG. Although dad [sperm donor] remains involved in RG’s life, he has given up his legal rights to claim “dadship.”)

Mark’s brother in law was legal in law but apparently a creep in the family, legal or not.

Unfortunately, Mark’s genetic younger brother was a brother-in-law but also an outlaw, as I shall relate in story #3.

I don’t know how much the mental illness of their mother contributed to the situation, but Mark’s brother grew up to be a career criminal. He already had two “strikes” (arrests and convictions for serious crimes in the state of Washington) at the time the story takes place, meaning that another conviction would have lead to life in prison.

One day Mark received a phone call from his criminal brother’s cell phone. His brother told him that he had been in an auto accident and he needed Mark to come to the location of the accident immediately. The call made no sense to Mark, but he followed instructions.

He found his brother’s car off the road, rolled over in a ditch. He brother was trapped inside and badly injured. Mark didn’t understand why his brother hadn’t called 911 on his cell phone, but the brother gasped out that he needed Mark to remove a gun hidden in the car and dispose of it before he called an AID unit. Mark followed the instructions and took the gun out of the car, called Rescue, and left the scene and disposed of the gun before the AID car, ambulance, and most crucial (to his brother) police arrived.

After being rescued, Mark’s brother wasn’t arrested for being a felon in possession of a gun (which would have been the third strike on his criminal record and led to a life sentence) but he was now a paraplegic. So he wasn’t a prisoner for life, in the legal system but now he’s a prisoner for life in the medical system.

The Eyes Have It

May 12, 2009

I interrupt the current series with an emergency alert public service announcement.

On Mother’s Day, I attended an all day symposium on the work of Ernest Becker.  (Everyone there was much smarter than I am.) One of the main topics was Internet addiction. Log off immediately.

My wife dropped me off and spent the day with Mama (Random Daughter) and Random Granddaughter. In the evening to celebrate all the mothers: Mrs. Random, Random Daughter (co-Mom/Mama), Out-of-law partner (co-mom/birth mom/Mommy), Random Granddaughter (a very good mom to her doll), and Sylvie the world’s most extroverted cat (who would be a wonderful mom if she hadn’t been fixed).

I learned that RG (child genius) now knows how to play chess. I played one game with her. She indeed knows all the moves (well, she is a little shaky on castling, but she knows how to move a knight which is no easy move to grasp as it sidles sideways and forward) and she knows that a pawn gets promoted if it reaches the final row. RG will probably be promoted to high school after kindergarten.

My father was a very fine chess player (probably Master level if he had stuck with it after being a child prodigy), but of course, RG has no genetic link to my family, unless genetics is even stranger than I thought. Well, we do live in modern times where a black person became president. What is that all about. Weren’t black people slaves just yesterday?

RG knows the moves (which she learned in preschool), but doesn’t have much idea of strategy yet. However, that will come by the age of 6, and by 7 she will have me in checkmate.

However, Random Daughter just called to let us know that RG has just come down with “pink eye” (also known as conjunctivitis). I think I spelled it correctly. Whatever kills me I want the label on my tombstone to be correct. This disease is highly infectios and can be viral or bacterial. With our luck, RG, child genius, will be viral in one eye and bacterial in the other eye.

“At least she doesn’t have swine flue,” I said (always the optomist).

After reading this post, wash your hands before bringing your hands near your face. You thought I was kidding when I told you to  log off immediately. They also said that online communication is a way of shouting to the world, I EXIST! NOTICE ME! RESPOND TO ME!

Story #2 is about his wife’s family. About the time he was laid off, his wife’s parents became unable to care for themselves. One parent had Alzheimer’s Disease and the other had Parkinson’s and they both had to be institutionalized (initially against their will) for their own protection.

Mark’s family owned a large, run-down house on the beach. Mark started working on the house to sell it. It had potential to bring in a lot of money once it was fixed up. Mark started working on the house to fix it up to sell it. His intent was to pay himself a reasonable salary for the time he spent working on it from the sale, but the bulk of the money would go for his in-laws’ institutional care. Mark indicated that he was not trying to keep a lot of money from the sale and I believed him.

Mark’s brother-in-law (wife’s brother) is a carpenter who works on remodeling houses and he offered to help out. At first, Mark thought this would be a wonderful stroke of good luck, but as he worked with the brother-in-law, he discovered that the brother –in-law was the kind of remodeler who works on your house and does a sloppy, terrible job that leaves you angry for years. He did hit-or-miss careless work, he drank on the job, and he came and went as he pleased. It was also clear that he expected to make a wind-fall profit from the sale of the house, regardless of his parents’ needs.

So Mark was fighting two battles at the same time, trying to get the job done as his money ran out, and trying to get the job done in spite of the incompetent and predatory “help” of the brother-in-law.