Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another sneak peek at "When I'm 64"

The book is really rolling along right now, and we even got a couple of wonderful unexpected questionnaires back from Lauren Koskella Farley and Gene Bacon.

We're on track right now for 29 chapters -- an introduction, a conclusion and 27 chapters about people. I've been promised questionnaires from Dale Abrahamson, Barbara Lanzer, Carla Rieker Cloninger and Nancy Abt White that are included in that total, and I still have to touch base with Bill Thomas, Scottie Gibson about his sister Paula and Susan Morales.

Here's another first look at a chapter, about Ellen Baeshore McFarland of varsity basketball and "Eight Dates a Week" fame.

Hope you enjoy it.

"Inside I was a child that could not mend a broken wing; outside I looked for a way to teach my heart to sing."

If there was one thing Ellen Baeshore McFarland really loved in high school, it was playing basketball. She excelled on Woodson’s junior varsity team as a sophomore and was an outstanding player for the varsity as a junior.

But when the 1966-67 girls basketball team won all 12 of its games and was the first unbeaten team in school history, McFarland wasn’t there. It wasn’t that her interests had changed, and it wasn’t an injury or academic problems. It was far worse than any of that.

She had lost her No. 1 fan, and with it her enjoyment of the game.

"Sports were always a part of my life from the time I was very little," she said. "My father encouraged that in me. He would go outside with me and teach me how to play baseball and kickball, and whatever I was involved with, he was always behind me 100 percent. Having a wonderful father who loved me unconditionally set the stage for me having self-respect. Knowing my father loved me deeply made me feel solid in life no matter what transpired."

In fact, when McFarland won the award as the most outstanding player on the junior varsity as a sophomore, Charlie Baeshore was the first person she wanted to share it with.

"When my name was announced, I burst into tears," she said. "It wasn’t only for feeling honored to receive the award, and for feeling totally shocked, but also knowing that my father could share in my glory."

It made a huge difference to her. The security of her father’s love meant she wasn’t constantly looking for something to make up for a lack of love at home. She liked boys and she wanted to be popular, but she didn’t have to cross the lines she didn’t want to cross, the lines that some girls found themselves ignoring.

Her parents attended every game she played, and she could always single out her dad’s voice in the background, cheering her on. She hadn’t really played much basketball before high school, but she found that her physical skills – quickness, agility and aggressiveness – were well suited to the game.

Girls’ basketball was different then. Most players saw action only in half the court, with offensive players at one end and defenders at the other. McFarland and Gail Schultz MacLeod were guards, which meant they played only at the defensive end.

"I was good at stealing the ball," McFarland said. "I used to say I had a 'winning mentality and a winning streak.' I was always a little nervous when the game began, but then I would lose myself in the activity and the challenge. The real high for me on the court was letting go, living up to the challenge and knowing I was pleasing my father by doing my best."

She and her friends were close off the court as well. Eight of them started a sort of informal club they jokingly called "Eight Dates a Week." The Beatles song with a similar name (“Eight Days a Week”) was popular around that time, and Ellen and her friends were spoofing the fact that they weren’t being asked out all that often.

Their lack of dates probably says more about the shyness of teenage boys than anything else. A look at the pictures of the eight girls – McFarland, MacLeod, Whalen, Carol Pallesen, Marguerite Adams, Nancy Haberstroh, Deborah Donlon and Sandra Donlon -- in the Woodson 1967 yearbook would make it obvious to any observer that every one of the eight was at least pretty and at least half of them beautiful.

"Our group was very eclectic," MacLeod recalls. "It was a great and beautiful group of women who were much more comfortable hanging out together than dating. We all dated some, just not as continuously as the popular folks seemed to do."

McFarland herself probably gives part of the reason for it when she describes one of the members, Adams, as a “very pretty, outgoing, feminine girl” who actually did get asked on dates. In high schools then and now, it’s all about confidence. The extroverts who seem to have it all together may not be any better looking or more inwardly secure than the other kids, but their ability to appear so gives them almost the status of demigods.

The others take what they can get, and often what they have winds up being more lasting. More than forty years after high school, McFarland still has close friendships with some of her fellow "Eight Dates" members.

"The best part of being in the group was just our ability to share our hearts and know that we were loved and accepted as we were," she said. "A snotty air never penetrated this group, and even though we didn’t have many dates, we had among ourselves our own connection group. In recent years, whenever Cathy, Gail, Carol and I get together, we still laugh, accept, encourage and enjoy each other.

"We have all taken different directions in our lives, but the one constant is our concern for one another."

Early in her junior year, everything changed for Ellen McFarland. One Sunday morning, her father told her he wanted the family to go to church. That seemed odd to her, since they hadn’t been to church in years. She was in a bad mood that day and told him in no uncertain terms she didn’t want to go.

She went downstairs to listen to music and to dance, and a few minutes later her mother came downstairs and said something was wrong. Ellen ran upstairs and outside the house to see her father hunched over in pain and climbing into the Pallesen family car to go to the hospital.

She knew something was horribly wrong and she tried to bargain with God.

"I told God that if he let my father live, I would go to church every Sunday," she said. "But I knew in my heart he was gone."

Charlie Baeshore was 38 years old when he died of a massive heart attack, and as quickly as all that, everything had changed in his daughter’s life. She was 15, almost 16, and all the joy in everything she had enjoyed so much was gone.

"I was still part of the basketball team, but my desire to win had died with my cheering section," she said. "I lost interest in playing and didn’t want to be part of the team anymore. I don’t even remember if I finished the season my junior year."

A good father-daughter relationship is so crucial to a teenage girl. It has been said that young women tend to marry men who remind them of their fathers, and the approval they get from them has so much to do with the way they transition to adulthood.

For Ellen, the death of her dad – her "greatest fan" – just as she was coming into her own both as a person and as an athlete threw her entire life off track. She still had her female friends, but she shut down emotionally and drifted through her last two years of high school. When MacLeod and the rest of the basketball team reached the ultimate goal of an undefeated season as seniors, she was as far from being a part of it as she could possibly be.

"Playing, competing, winning had all lost their luster for me," she said. "So many things died for me when my father died. I don’t think it was as much about quitting as it was about me not wanting to be part of a bigger picture when the new picture seemed like a shadow of the former one."

MacLeod remembers her friend changing after her father’s death.

"Ellen had been really fun and energetic," she said. "She would dance for hours by herself in the basement of her house. But after her dad died during her junior year, I didn’t see her much. She didn’t continue with the activities like basketball where I saw her most."

McFarland refers to that point in her life and the decade or so that followed as "warming the bench in life," a time when she never really got much of a handle on who she wanted to be and what she wanted to do.

She went to college for one semester and dropped out. She was pregnant and married before her 19th birthday, a marriage she describes as a disaster from the beginning. She says her husband wasn’t loving and she wasn’t always kind. They had a baby, a son, but shortly after that her husband was off to Vietnam and she moved in with her mother.

Her husband wanted her to have her own place, so Ellen and her son Tim moved into a small apartment. She recalls actually enjoying that time, having her baby son to herself and spending a lot of time cooking and baking. She took modeling classes and was encouraged by the instructor to take it further, but confidence – and money issues – kept her from following that advice.

The happiness didn’t last. When her husband returned from the war, they moved with him to Massachusetts. They went north and the marriage went south; she left out of what she calls "sheer frustration," taking her son and returning to Virginia to live with her mother.

She admits now that was a mistake. The two of them weren’t particularly close, and her relatively young mother was more than happy to take charge of raising the son she had never had. Rather than fight her on it, rather than assert herself as a mother, McFarland took advantage of the situation to spend a lot of time going out.

"I was becoming something I didn’t like, but I felt powerless to do anything about it," she said. "I felt so alone and unequipped for the task before me. Having a small child and not being married is not being single, yet not being really married. It was something I hadn’t planned on."

She worked various jobs, mostly secretarial, but none of them gave her the satisfaction of accomplishing anything or working toward a career. She found herself caught in somewhat of a vicious cycle. She wasn’t making good choices in her life, causing more confusion and deeper depression, feelings that only resulted in her making more bad choices.

She kept hoping things would change, but they didn’t. She says she never considered herself attractive, and she hadn’t felt loved since her father died. Her feelings of aimlessness and unworthiness mounted through most of the ‘70s.

She started having a recurring dream, one in which she was standing in the middle of a field and watching airplanes come at her from all directions. Each time she had the dream, she was convinced that when they got close enough, they would hit her and kill her.

The fear started closing in on her in other areas. She was becoming more and more unhappy with her life, but she couldn’t see any solutions to her problem. She said at one point she actually saw a psychiatrist, only to come away feeling bad about the greater understanding she had of herself.

It all came to a head when he was 28. An old friend invited her to come to Reno, Nevada, for a visit. McFarland had the dream again before she left, and she was terrified at the thought of flying. When she got to Reno, the visit quickly turned into something of a disaster.

"She got really angry at me over something I said, and it deepened my sense of fear," McFarland said. "She had always been very compassionate, but this time she unkindly told me I was 'boy crazy,' and she was right. I wanted to leave early, but she talked me into staying."

Over the next few days, she realized that she was coming to loathe herself for the bad choices she had made in life. She felt trapped within herself, someone she didn’t like or even know.

On the flight back, she panicked. She tried to talk to people she didn’t know about her problem, getting nowhere. She finally prayed to "a God I didn’t know anymore if he existed" to help her make it through the rest of the flight.

More than 12 years after her father had died, years in which she had desperately been trying to hold her life together, everything was falling apart. Just as alcoholics or drug addicts often can’t address their problems until they sink as low as they possibly can, McFarland had reached the absolute depths of her despair.

"When I got home to my son, I grabbed him in my arms and burst into tears," she said. "I told him how much I loved him and how sorry I was that I hadn’t been a better mother to him. My mother looked on with total disdain and I knew we had to get out of her home."

That night, she had the dream again. It was a little different this time, though. The many planes that had looked so menacing merged into one plane that landed gently on peaceful farmland.

The very next day, she put her hand on a Bible and prayed. "God, if you exist, help me, because I’m going crazy."

Her situation was anything but uncommon. After the excesses of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s resulted in too many young men and women overindulging in sex, drugs or other aspects of a wild time, the movement toward religion served as a reaction to the counterculture. Whether they were hippies becoming "Jesus freaks" or suburban kids who just found themselves in too deep, it was very natural for them to ask if there wasn’t something more to life than the latest high or the most recent loveless encounter.

Some became "more Catholic than the Pope," as the saying goes. They turned into fundamentalists who in the ‘80s became part of what we now know as the Religious Right. Others just found peace and happiness.

Some found it faster than others. McFarland doesn’t recall that first prayer bringing her any great sense of satisfaction; her moment came two days later when she attended a PTA meeting at her son’s school.

"I sat in the only empty seat beside a very loving, caring woman whose face shone with joy and tranquility," she said. "She actually listened to what I had to say. I remembered my earlier prayer and I asked her if she was a Christian."

She was, and all of a sudden McFarland could literally feel everything falling into place.

"I knew then that God had sent me a human angel," she said. "Shortly thereafter, I was given the gift of inviting God into my heart – to be born again – and I knew that something marvelous had happened."

If this were a movie, we would have reached the climax. All her hurts and pains would have melted away, and she would have spent the last thirty years being happier and happier as she readied herself to climb a stairway to heaven.

Life isn’t like that, though. While she was filled with inner peace and joy at being a "child of the King," and able to push away her sorrow whenever she read the Bible and witnessed to others, McFarland still had problems in her life.

She hated her job, her relationship with her son wasn’t great and she still felt a desperate need for a relationship with someone who would really love her for who she was.

"The one issue that just wouldn’t go away was wanting to be close to someone else," she said. "Years passed and I still had a few bad relationships. I began to realize how codependent I had been and I knew I had to learn to set boundaries in my heart. I longed to be whole and I believed it would eventually happen, but there were still more trials and challenges ahead of me."

One of those challenges was another bad marriage. At age 36, McFarland married a man from her church, even though she had friends warning her that it was a bad idea and that he only wanted to marry her to strengthen his custody case from an earlier marriage.

It turned out to be true. Once her husband’s two children moved in with them, things got ugly. He picked fights with Tim, now 17, and got nasty with Ellen as well. She realized her son would be better off living with his grandmother, which hurt a lot since the two of them had been getting closer as she matured emotionally.

After three years, her second husband said he wanted a divorce.

"I felt instant relief," she said. "I knew the relationship wasn’t working, but being divorced twice really cut deeper. One mistake like that was bad enough, but two seemed inexcusable to me. Whatever self-righteousness I may have felt in my lifetime, that second divorce showed me that even Christians make bad choices for the wrong reasons."

After that, McFarland decided she needed to examine why this kept happening to her. Other people made good choices and wound up in loving relationships, so why couldn’t she? A few years later, after one more long dating relationship that didn’t work out, she figured it out.

"The men I was choosing didn’t really love me, or didn’t know how, and I was trying to make it happen," she said. "Such a simple revelation, but I finally woke up to the reality that love is a give and take, and a gift. I needed to learn that I didn’t have to do all the giving and the hard work, and that it’s not selfish to want to be on the receiving end."

There is a happy ending to the story, although perhaps not the expected one. Forty-plus years after high school, Ellen Baeshore McFarland is at peace with herself. She lives in Clearwater, Fla., and runs her own business cooking and baking, cleaning, caring for the elderly and whatever else she can think of.

Her life isn’t without problems. She is involved in a very unpleasant court battle with her son over her late mother’s estate, and the two of them have no relationship at this point. She says the problems go back to his youth.

"I may not have been the best parent, but I am an honest person," she said. "I have asked him countless times to forgive me and he has refused."

McFarland's finances are also shaky. She lost her main source of income when the economy turned down and she has been scrambling to replace it. She recognizes that she probably will never be either well-off financially or in a position to retire, that she will "probably have to work until I am underground."

"Did I plan my life?" she asked. "Probably not the way I should have, but I didn’t have someone guiding me along during the crucial years. I made wrong choices out of need, confusion and ignorance. I guess I can also throw in stubbornness."

She chooses to see many of her problems as designed to test her faith, to prove to her that the Lord is in control and watching over her and to make her submit to His will.

"It may seem to some people that I am viewing my life through rose-colored glasses, but all this is very real to me," Ellen said. "The problems, while they may be true, don’t steal from my joy or my desire to continue on to finish the course of my life through the power of God.

"I think right now I am being tested more than ever, for I am getting down to the wire, and what I hear from my Lord and Savior is, 'Now you must totally depend on Me, and I’m going to see if your faith is as real as you claim.’"

Faith like that often makes it difficult to live in this world, and McFarland believes her reward will be in heaven. At least, she says, she finally understands who she is and what she has to offer the world. Right choices have replaced wrong ones; joy and tenderness have replaced bitterness and anger.

She dotes on her six grandchildren – three boys and three girls, living with her son’s ex-wife – and just thinking about them brings delight to her heart.

"It was a long, hard road, but I can honestly say that I have a deep sense of who I am and what I have to offer," she said. "For years I felt lost and alone, emotionally confused and depleted. But since becoming a Christian and receiving the gift of eternal life, I now have the strong sense of security I lost when my earthly father died."

She certainly hasn’t forgotten Charlie Baeshore.

He was her greatest fan at a time when life stretched out ahead of her as a marvelous journey with new joys around every bend.

He was the first person to make her feel really special, truly unique.

All that disappeared when he died and it took so many years before his daughter could look at the world in anything resembling the same way.

"I sometimes still cry and get frustrated when things don’t move fast enough," she said. "But in the depths of my heart I know my Heavenly Father loves me and is leading me and cheering me on every step of the way. His Word says He has a plan for my life, but it’s His timing and His way. I eagerly await His unveiling."

He’s her No. 1 fan – now and forever.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Everyone's story is interesting in its way

Some of you have written to me or to the lovely and vivacious Dale Morgan to say that you would like to be part of "When I'm 64," but that your personal story just isn't that interesting.

All I can say is, you might be surprised.

What we need for this book isn't James Bond or even Julian Bond; what we need is archetypal stories that other people of our generation will read and say, "That's my story," or "I know someone like that."

One of our late arrivals -- but better late than ... you know -- is that of a woman from our class who lost a parent while in school and saw it derail her life and her plans. Then years later she became "born again" and it changed her life for the better.

Believe me, this is a great story.

Your story might be great too. If you're wondering, do this for me. Don't fill out the questionnaire, just send me a few paragraphs describing your life and I'll let you know whether we can go ahead with more. Odds are the answer will be yes.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

An update ... and a request for more input

I've reached the point where I'm starting to flesh out the structure of the book, and I need to mention a couple of things:

Some of you were wonderful about sending in your questionnaires months ago, and I haven't started writing your chapters yet. So please, Mike Scott, Randy Thurman, Mike Willis, Darla Garber, Mike McCuddin, Dale Morgan, Katie Dyer, Diane Dunkley, Judy Hart Byers, Bob Douthitt and Jim Hermes, don't fret. You're going to be in the book, and I will get to each of you as soon as possible.

Susan Morales, I'm going to e-mail questions to you in the next couple of days and I hope we can set up an interview time soon. Ditto for Bill Thomas, for Julie Conrad True and for Paula Gibson's brother Scotty.

Some of you have promised me questionnaires and haven't gotten around to sending them. Dale Abrahamson (and Susi Spell), Barbara Lanzer, Nancy Abt White and Stacy Delano, please, I do need all of you for the book.

There's one more category too. When I looked back at the initial reaction, Gene Bacon, Jennifer Addington and Carol Costantino all said they wanted to participate. I hope the three of you will send me questionnaires soon.

As I hope you all have seen from the drafts of chapters that I've posted here, this has the potential to be a really great book.

I hope all of you will be part of it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remember our friends ... and our dads

Today is Veterans Day, and I'm sure most of us have been thinking about our friends and classmates who served in Vietnam.

I've been immersed in the two Vietnam chapters of our book, "When I'm 64." You can see Jon Rumble's chapter, "Forever Young," on this site. The other chapter, about Mike Sullivan and the others, has the working title "The End of the Innocence."

But this is a pretty good time to think about our fathers, too. I'm sure almost all of us had dads who served in World War II. My own father, who died earlier this year at age 82, was fighting in France when he was only 18. He was one of the lucky ones; he made it back and led a pretty great life. He didn't choose the military as a career, but he worked in the Pentagon for nearly 30 years.

I'm sure more of us didn't serve than did. Most of us had college deferments, and by the time we were done, the Vietnam War was all but over.

But on this Veterans Day, I want to salute all of you in our class -- and those in your families -- who served. You've seen the picture before, but I thought this was a good day to show it again.

God bless you.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The toughest chapter for me to write

Contrary to what you might believe, I do not plan to post every chapter of "When I'm 64" on this Website before the book is published.

That, as they say, would be counterproductive.

But since I'm still hoping desperately to get a little more participation from some of you, I do plan to keep giving you tantalizing glimpses of it to whet your interest.

The following chapter has been the most difficult one in the book for me to write, and I hope you can understand why. I always included to include myself, but it was important to me to be honest. That's why I was really glad when a friend of mine who spent three years as part of our class and then moved away gave me a story of what had to be one of the three most embarrassing moments of my life.

Amazingly, I didn't even remember it.

When you laugh at me, be kind.

Here it is:

“… if I should live forever and all my dreams come true, my memories of love will be of you.”

I would never call myself an unselfish person.

It took me long enough even to be able to think of myself as a good man, to find a way to define myself as someone other than a person who still wanted to accomplish something.

But these days if you were to ask me to describe myself, to tell you what matters most to me, the answer would be easy. I am a family man, the grandfather of Madison Kastner, the father of Pauline Kastner and Virgile Borderies and the man who loves Nicole Rappaport.

In fact, the woman I will love until my final breath and beyond is the person who taught me the true meaning of love, that sometimes love hurts so much you feel you can’t breathe, that sometimes it’s the only thing in the world that matters and most of all, that love is much more important to give than to receive.

If I had known that earlier, my life might have been very different.


Let me repeat that I would never call myself unselfish. It was always about what I wanted to accomplish, the world I wanted to gain for myself. I don’t know that I ever spent one day in my four years at Woodson satisfied with who I was or what I had. I was a perfect example of that old Groucho Marx saying about not wanting to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member.

I was a smart kid who wanted desperately to be a jock, and when my 10th grade gym teacher, Fred Shepherd, saw me throwing perfect 50- and 60-yard spiral passes in class and said I should be playing football, it might have been a dream come true. But when I took the permission slip home and my parents refused to sign it, my heart was broken.

It didn’t matter to me that I was only 5-7 and 135 pounds. I was only 14, and I figured I’d grow. They figured I’d get killed, and they were a lot more willing to deal with my unhappiness. At least I’d know they cared.

I didn’t see it that way. We had moved to Virginia a year and a half earlier, when I was halfway through eighth grade. I had gone from the Dayton, Ohio, suburbs to a place where people actually cared on which side of the Mason-Dixon Line I had been born.

I didn’t make friends easily at that age. It didn’t help that I had skipped a grade in elementary school and was a year younger than most of the kids in my class. Being what Dave Barry called “puberty impaired” was hardly a plus either; when I look at my ninth grade picture, I see a kid who looked like he was 10 years old.

I had three good friends in ninth grade – Gary Oleson from my own neighborhood and Tracy Antley and Alan Singer from English class. All three of them were bright kids who were comfortable in their own skins. Alan’s family moved away early in our Woodson years, and Tracy’s father was transferred down to Quantico before our senior year.

Gary was the only one who graduated with us, and he was everything I should have been. He got wonderful grades – I think he was fourth in our class – and went to Princeton. He didn’t try to be anything he wasn’t, and he was outstanding at everything he did. I don’t think I ever told him how much I admired him for that.

Tracy was the first girl I ever really wanted for a girlfriend, and of course it eventually got in the way of our friendship. Tracy Antley-Olander, now a Seattle attorney, remembers those days.

“I met Mike in ninth grade,” she said. “He, Alan and I quickly formed a bond. We were all outsiders in that sea of suburban teenagers. I was short and looked 11 years old.”

Tracy had just moved to Virginia from California. She was smart and knew it, in an age before intelligent young women were really appreciated. More girls wanted to be cheerleaders than honor students, and plenty of them were still going to college to find husbands.

“I recall one day some jerk in English class told me encyclopedias didn’t get taken out,” Tracy said. “Alan and Mike were smart, too, and they were not offended by a smart girl. It was my first realization about the kind of guys I wanted as my friends.”

Eventually she realized I wanted more and she started avoiding me. She didn’t know about the problems I was having, or my struggles with the kind of person I was. She just knew I wasn’t happy, and she thought it was her fault.

If there’s one thing about old friends, it’s that sometimes they remember things you had managed to suppress. Tracy recalls that one day in the spring of our junior year – I think it was right around the time I lost the election for Student Government president – we had our final showdown.

“Mike cornered me in the Earth Sciences room over lunch and told me his feelings,” she said. “He even sang a few lines of a song – ‘What Kind of Fool Am I.’ I fled.”

It must have been the singing. I’ve never been able to carry a tune, and the thought that there was a time in my life when I actually tried to sing my feelings to someone – in a show tune, nonetheless – makes me cringe. My only salvation is that even after having the moment described to me, I still don’t remember it.

People who didn’t know me as well didn’t run into such embarrassing moments. I managed to fool some of them into thinking I was well adjusted.

“I remember you as a clear-eyed, bright student,” Georgeanne Fletcher said. “You let your hair grow long in the front and I remember how you shook it when you had a point to make. You were also quite funny.”


Funny? Maybe. Actually, I was what Kris Kristofferson would one day call “a walking contradiction.” I don’t think I got an “A” for the year in a single class other than band or physical education in four years, although I was a National Merit Finalist and got nearly 1,400 on my SATs. In one of the few classes I enjoyed, American History, I got B’s on my report card all four quarters and then got a perfect score on the final exam.

“I hate you,” my teacher, Janet Martin, said with a smile on her face.

She was kidding, but there was probably some truth in her words. If there’s one thing I’ve seen over the years, it’s that teachers love kids who work hard and overachieve and they aren’t all that fond of kids who don’t use their talents.

My problem was that I couldn’t allow myself to do well. I was at war with my parents, although it was a war only I was fighting. They wanted me to excel in school, so I did poorly. They wanted me to read great books and love great music, so I read trashy popular novels and listened to rock and roll.

It all sounds incredibly stupid to me now. When I look back on the wasteland of my teens and twenties, at flunking out of college three times and at a first marriage that was destined to fail before we even got engaged, I marvel at the fact that I could have been so self-destructive. It’s almost impossible for me to accept that the younger, crazier version of me stopped going to classes and skipped taking my exams in three different semesters at two different schools.

I don’t know when it was that I finally began to mature. I suppose if I were to divide my life to date into three parts, it would be somewhere near the end of the second third that I started feeling good about myself. I was working for a major newspaper covering college basketball and I was in the best shape of my life physically. When my employer went out of business, I landed a job as sports editor of a small daily newspaper in Greeley, Colorado, and for the first time in my adult life, I was living somewhere I really wanted to be.


All that was missing was somebody to love. I had been living alone for nearly eight years, and if there was one thing I still wanted in my life, it was a wife and children.

I think I was 34 the first time I dated a woman who had children. It was the first time I started to realize that maybe the quickest way to a family might not involve my sperm and someone else’s egg, and that I might not have to go through nine months of “we’re pregnant” and then a couple of years of raising an infant.

After what I had been through, I wasn’t sure that my genes should be passed along anyway. And if I couldn’t pick the father, maybe I could at least pick the mother.

There were some interesting ones, including the one in Colorado who wanted to call me “Daddy” and the one in Reno with three sons by three different fathers who had never been married.

I might actually have gotten married in Colorado – to a different woman – in 1988, but I couldn’t let go of a promise I had made to someone who no longer even mattered to me. My first wife was a California girl, and when we got engaged in 1974 I had promised her that someday we would live in the Golden State.

It made perfect sense to me. She was from California and loved it, and I had been born in California and had always been obsessed with getting back. All through high school I had dreamed of sand and surf, and every time I heard the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean singing about cars, waves and the girls who were so tanned, I knew that was where I belonged.

But when my marriage fell apart in the late ‘70s, the one thing that went almost unspoken between us was that she thought I would never accomplish any of my goals. Even though I never saw her or spoke with her after 1982, a part of me wanted to prove that I could do that. Every career move I made, from Virginia to North Carolina to South Carolina to St. Louis to Colorado, had been with California in mind.

In the fall of 1988, two weeks after I met a very special woman, I was offered a job in Reno, Nevada – the next state over from the Promised Land.

I suppose I looked at California as a fresh start, a chance to live in a place where I had never screwed up or had anything bad happen to me. Along with all the songs and the movies, the beauty of the beaches and mountains, it meant achieving a goal I had been working toward for 10 years.

I knew I couldn’t have both the woman and the job, and she made it even more difficult for me by saying I shouldn’t turn a job down for her after we had known each other only a few weeks. That, she said, would put way too much pressure on her.

So I left, and although I still miss Colorado, I spent 18 months in Reno and then got a job offer in the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles actually hadn’t been my preferred destination. I was much more enamored of the Bay Area, and I fully intended to live in San Francisco instead of in the Southland. But the job I was offered was in the L.A. suburbs and it was there in 1992 that I finally realized what the purpose of my life was going to be.

Two years earlier, in December 1990, I had been through a shattering experience. I was driving south through Los Angeles on Interstate 5 when a truck decided to occupy the same space I was using. The driver sideswiped me and sent me spinning toward another truck, and all I could do was wonder how many times I was going to be hit. By the time I hit the guardrail and stopped spinning, the passenger side of my car and been crushed almost as flat as if it had been in a compactor.

I walked away from it, although I had a dislocated pelvis and a bruise that covered half of my left leg. The CHP officer who wrote up the accident report said it was a miracle that I had survived the collision. That got me thinking. I was 41 years old and hadn’t accomplished very much; I needed to make a decision as to what I wanted the rest of my life to be.

A few months later I went home and finally made peace with my father. We sat up and talked till 4 a.m. one night and cleared the air of almost everything between us, everything that mattered at least. He expressed his long-time frustration that for all the things I had done in rebellion, I was my own worst victim. I had been sort of like the firing squad that lined up in a circle.

“You always hurt yourself more than you hurt anyone else,” he said.

I had moved to Southern California for a job covering professional sports for a suburban newspaper. In the summer I wrote about Dodger games, in the fall it was the Rams and Raiders and in the winter I covered UCLA basketball and the Clippers. It was pretty much a dream job, and it kept me busy.

I nearly got married in 1991, even though I wasn’t really in love. It would have been a mistake, and it helped me realize that even if I was getting older, I didn’t want to settle for less than real love. Linda was from Wales, with a 12-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son, and to be fair to her, I was more excited about being a dad than about being a husband.

I think she saw that, and she broke up with me by leaving a message on my answering machine. After that, I thought about moving back east to be closer to my family. My parents were retired, and two of my four siblings were living in the D.C. area. I started looking for jobs in the mid-Atlantic region, but nothing came up – and then everything changed.

I hit the gym in the summer of ’92 and worked really hard to get into shape. I was coming to terms with the fact that I might be alone for the rest of my life, and I didn’t feel all that bad about it. I’d come home from work, watch a movie or two on the cable and then fall asleep. I don’t know if I was happy or simply numb, but I’m not sure it matters. I had my routine and I was comfortable with it. I was writing a lot – four unpublished novels – and enjoying the fact that I could do it on a computer instead of just a typewriter.

Late that summer, I decided to dive into the dating pool again. I took out an ad in a singles magazine, and I met a woman I really liked. Then things got strange. In an effort to keep things from moving too quickly, she and I both decided to date some of the other people who had answered our ads.

I had two that interested me a little, a teacher in Pomona and a rocket scientist named Nicole in a town called La Canada Flintridge. The teacher was nice, but there was absolutely no chemistry between us at all. I met the scientist for lunch on a very busy Saturday – work in the afternoon and another date in the evening – and my whole world changed.

It was strange. We had almost nothing in common. She was an overachiever, and I … wasn’t. She had two doctorates, and I had gone through college on the 14-year plan. She owned a home and had two children – strangely, a 12-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son – and I lived alone in an apartment. She was from France, here on a work visa, and I was an All-American guy.

She was lovely, though, and even though I had no idea why, she seemed to like me. We went out a couple more times – we both enjoyed movies – and after our third date, she said something I had never heard before. I had told her up front that I was dating someone else at the same time, and that I liked this other woman too.

We were sitting in her car in the driveway after a wonderful date. We had gone downtown to the Wilshire district to see “Gas Food Lodging,” and at one point when we were crossing the street, she seemed so happy that she skipped. This woman was definitely growing on me.

But in the driveway, all of a sudden things got serious. “I know you’re dating someone else too,” Nicole said. “And I don’t think you’re going to choose me. But I want to keep trying, because I think you’re worth it.”

A month later, we were married and all of a sudden, I was a husband and a father.

I don’t know if anything was ever stranger – or more wonderful – than being a parent. After all, we were the generation that had gone to war with our own parents. When our folks told us to jump, we didn’t ask how high.

Instead we fought battle after battle over the most trivial of issues. Why on earth did the length of our hair ever matter so much? I tried to explain it to my own son, but he takes so much for granted that I never did. He and I have fought about one-tenth as many battles as I did with my own father, but that’s more about him being comfortable in his own skin as it is about my parenting skills.

I have been so damn lucky. I have friends who absolutely worked their asses off trying to do the right thing for their kids, only to have things turn out badly. I know I have had a good effect on both of my children, but I know that they were almost parent-proof and were going to turn out to be pretty special anyway. All I had to do was point them in the right direction.

Both kids made it through college with all sorts of honors, and Pauline is already a tenured officer in the U.S. Foreign Service. Virgile is taking a little time off after college and is training for an Ironman Triathlon next summer. A two-mile swim, a 115-mile bike race and a marathon run. Good lord, I pulled a hamstring just listening to him tell me about it.

Nicole and I are getting near an early retirement, probably sometime in the next couple of years. We’ve reached the point where we’re talking about where we might live, and Colorado is high on my list. I will always love California, but it costs so much to live here and the state has gotten so crowded.

It doesn’t really matter where we live, though, as long as we are together. I knew a long time ago that this woman and these two children had transformed my life into something more wonderful than I ever expected.

Love really has been about giving for me. My wife is bipolar, and life is often challenging. Don’t cry for me, though. Whatever I have given, I have gotten back tenfold from my beloved wife and my amazing children.

True, I never became president or cured cancer.

I never played quarterback for the Redskins or center field for the Dodgers.

I have yet to write the Great American Novel.

But in the only way that really mattered, all my dreams came true.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The sad story of a real showman

Our Vietnam saga is progressing very well.

In fact, I wound up with so much good material on Jon Rumble that I decided to split Vietnam into two chapters. The Rumble chapter will be titled "Forever Young," and the other is yet to be decided.

In a book like this, telling someone's story without their voice to be added isn't easy, but I had wonderful contributions from three classmates -- Georgeanne Fletcher, Joe Perszyk and Mike Scott -- and one man who served with Jon in Vietnam, Don Dark.

Here's Jon's story:


“…be courageous and be brave, and in my heart you’ll always stay
forever young.”

Georgeanne Fletcher says Jon Rumble was never her friend in high school.

“I didn’t know who his friends were, where he lived or anything about his family,” she said. “We never shared a class or had lunch together.”

But thanks to a request from the drama teacher, Joan Bedinger, Georgeanne got to know Jon in the spring of 1967, and more than 40 years later, she still remembers him.

“Jon had been picked for the male lead in the senior class play, ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown,’” she said. “Miss Bedinger asked me to help him learn his music. He had a good voice, but he didn’t read music and had been selected for his dramatic rather than his musical ability.”

So the two met, the serious piano player and the flamboyant young actor. At first, Georgeanne said, Rumble was quite irritating. He wanted to interpret the songs his own way, while she forced him to sing them the way they had been written.

“He wanted to direct the rehearsals, but I was having none of that,” she said. “He would stare out the window as if awaiting an admiring audience. When he saw someone he knew, he would race out in the middle of a phrase as if to impress upon me how much he was in demand.”

Eventually, it all started working. After Jon had his first rehearsals with female lead Penny Viglione, he came to appreciate what he didn’t know. Georgeanne said she learned to use his ego to her advantage.

“I started to praise his efforts, to encourage him to breathe deeper and produce a bigger sound,” she said. “Gradually his gruff manner melted and he turned a bit of his charm on me. He even startled me by calling me by my name and acknowledging my existence as a person.

“I was wary but he persisted and I actually regretted when the rehearsals ended.”

She remembers him as being so full of life. She asked her parents if they remembered Jon, and her mother said he reminded her of Paul Bunyan.

“He was a charmer,” Georgeanne said. “And with the lead in the senior musical, he was Master of the Universe.”

He was a master, but for such a short time. When he took his curtain calls that spring, Jon Mac Gillivray Rumble had less than two years to live.


There are no complete records of how many members of the Woodson Class of 1967 went to Vietnam. Some, like Mike Scott and Mike Willis, served and returned at the end of their tours to go on with their lives. Another classmate, Mike Beale, was drafted and was scheduled to go to Vietnam but died at age 18 in a training accident before he ever left the country.

Jon Rumble was one of two who went and never made it back.

Along with Mike Sullivan and Beale, Jon died before he was even old enough to vote. And as the rest of us grew older, raised children and had careers, the three of them live in our memories only as we knew them in high school.

Forever young.

Jon Rumble was nearly at the end of his tour when he was killed on December 26, 1968, by small arms fire in Quang Nam. He was one of the final casualties of 1968, the bloodiest year of the war, when 14,584 Americans died in a 12-month period that began with the Tet Offensive.

If there’s an irony in his death, it’s for all the people who fought to avoid having to go to Vietnam, Jon wasn’t even supposed to be there. In fact, he had to sign a waiver in order to be assigned there.

“Two members of the same family were not allowed to serve in country at the same time,” said Don Dark, Jon’s best friend in the Marine Corps and a ’67 graduate himself from Portales High in New Mexico. “I gave Jon hell about that, as I know his brother did.”

Jon’s older brother Jed was already serving in Saigon in the Army 101st Airborne Division, so there was no way he would have been sent there unless he insisted.

“There was no swaying his opinion,” Dark said. “He felt that he was there for a reason. I used every angle I could think of, including mentioning the fact we were being used as cannon fodder and patsies, but he was firm in his belief. I came to admire him for that very much. Jon was a warrior and a person of high principles.

“I became a better human being because of him.”


It’s funny how many lives Jon touched, even in the short time he lived. Joe Perszyk, whose family lived near the Rumbles in Mosby Woods, said Jon quickly became his best friend after his family moved from California to Virginia in the summer of ’66.

“I attribute a number of good things in my life to Jon,” Perszyk said. “He brought me out of a shell I had been in and made me look at the world and life in a whole new manner.”

Just as Georgeanne Fletcher remembers him working hard to get what he wanted, Perszyk recalls how focused his friend could become when he set his mind on achieving a goal.

“Jon used the same motivation that won him the leading role in the class play to prepare himself for the U.S. Marines,” he said. “He wanted so much to be in top shape before he went to boot camp and he worked out incessantly every day. Using free weights, doing sit-ups and push-ups and running, he was determined to be in better shape than any other recruit in his basic training group.”

He came from a military family. His father was a Navy Seabee, his grandfather had been an admiral and his older brother Jed was in the Army. Jon joined the Marines in the late summer of 1967 and came home for Christmas that year.

“It was the last time any of us saw him alive,” Perszyk said.

Jon had only been in Vietnam a short time when he volunteered for the Combined Action Program, an experimental unit designed to live and fight with local militias in villages throughout the northern areas of South Vietnam.

“The experiment was as brilliant as it was asinine,” Dark said. “The theory was that if you placed small units of seasoned combat Marines in or near hostile villages, through integration you would eventually win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. It was sort of like a highly armed Peace Corps with an attitude.

“First and foremost, we were to eliminate the Viet Cong living in said villages. Next we were to keep the VC from raiding the villages of rice, money and more importantly of new and forced volunteers. We were also to train the local militia, provide medical attention, and encourage a lifestyle of peace and harmony. In other words we were to create a utopian society in a foreign country that wouldn’t work in Bakersfield, California.”

There was one basic problem with the concept. Anyone who met the requirements of Vietnam combat duty was already jaded in his perception of the Vietnamese people, both the civilian and military. Who were the friends, who were the enemies?

“Trained to hate the enemy in a country where friend and foe were indistinguishable, the easy choice was to hate them all,” Dark said. “CAP Marines carried this baggage with them to their new assignment.”

But despite that, they did a remarkable job. Woodson classmate Mike Scott points out that they enjoyed a perfect record of never allowing a village to fall back into enemy hands. Eighty percent of the CAP Marines were wounded, 50 percent more than once. One in five of them were killed, but even so, the CAP had the highest percentage of people volunteering to return to their units in all of Vietnam.

“It was a very small and personal fight for them,” Scott said. “Jon spent his nights making sure the local Viet Cong political officer didn’t come to take the teenage sons and daughters away to be inducted in the local platoon.”

Rumble sat for hours every night in an ambush site, refusing to sleep until he was certain nothing would happen. He averaged about four hours sleep and then spent his days working with the people of the village, helping with their rice harvest and helping them build schools.

“One fact that the news never covered even once,” Scott said. “When a CAP Marine was killed in the village he was defending, the tears rolled down the faces of the villagers too. As we do, they will always hold those Marines in their hearts.”


Don Dark, who lives all these years later in Dana Point, California, has no doubt that if Jon had survived the war, the two of them would have been close friends for life.

“It is hard to describe how strong the bond that develops between people who have been in war together is,” Dark said. “In the environment of war even people that you wouldn’t give the time of day to during normal circumstances ends up being tighter than any friend that you had prior to that. So imagine how close you would be to a person that under any circumstance you would consider him to be a best friend. That was the nature of the friendship that Jon and I had.”

They patrolled together, they hung out together and they got high together while talking about how ridiculous the war was.

“We were hippies with an M-16 who shared a similar background,” Dark said. “We were both military brats and as such we were destined to be where we were. We joined the Marine Corps with the belief that it was our responsibility to do so even though we had misgivings.

“By the time we met, we both had the same view of the war. We knew that all the lives lost were in vain that, given the politics of the time, we were not there to win a war.”

Just before Christmas 1968, Dark was offered the opportunity to take some time off for R&R – rest and recreation. He had been in Vietnam for 11 months and he was given a week out of the field to have some fun in Sydney, Australia.

He almost hadn’t gone. He said that by that point, both he and Jon were short-timers and they were looking out for each other. He had less than three months left in his tour, and Jon was also down to fewer than 100 days.

“On my way back to the unit, I remembered Jon’s brother Jed was coming up to visit him for Christmas,” Dark said. “It was December 23rd, and by the time I got back, I was in pretty good spirits. I knew Jon would be jazzed to see his brother and I was happy I would be there to meet him.”

Only he wasn’t. He never saw his friend again. Jon had been transferred from Namo, a village north of Da Nang, down closer to the giant U.S. air base in Da Nang, a move Dark later learned was intended to keep him safe for his final month in country.

He found out later that Jon and Jed’s father, Captain Rumble, was being transferred to Vietnam in January 1969 and that both of his sons would be leaving the country.

“I learned many years later that Jed had come to Da Nang to tell him that and that he wanted to make sure Jon didn’t resist,” Dark said.

The very next day, Jon was killed by sniper fire in Quang Nam.

“The first thought that came to my mind was, ‘Jesus, it’s Christmas in the states, his poor mother,’” Dark said. “The next was to find out if Jed was OK and we were assured he was. I was numb for the next several hours. The truth is, I was numb for the next 38 years.”

The following day, the company’s gunnery sergeant came out to the field to see Dark. He had the wooden box in which Jon kept his personal belongings, and he said Jon had requested that it be given to Dark if something were to happen to him.

That was the point at which it really sunk in that Rumble was gone. Dark looked through the box and found mostly letters from family, friends and a girlfriend, as well as a pipe the two men had carved out of wood.

“That night I held my own funeral service for Jon,” Dark said. “I burned the box and its contents and smoked some weed with the pipe and then threw the pipe into the fire.”

He burned the box because he figured Jon wanted to insure that the letters were not sent home to his parents with the rest of his belongings. Dark decided that if something happened to him, someone going through his belongings might find Jon’s letters and his parents might still get them.

He didn’t want to take that chance.

Joe Perszyk remembers that time from a different perspective. It was December 27th when Jon’s mother called him and asked him to come over to their house. His first thought was that one of the boys, either Jon or Jed, must have been wounded.

It’s funny sometimes how our minds reject the possibility that the worst might have happened.

“When I walked into the house through the side door that led into the kitchen, Jon’s mother was in tears,” Perszyk said. “She told me Jon had been killed. The whole world stopped for me and I was hoping it was a big mistake.”

Jed had been sent home immediately, and Perszyk went with Rumble’s parents the next day to pick up their surviving son at Dulles Airport. When Jed got into the car, he told them something they hadn’t known at that point.

He had been with Jon when he was killed.

Jed Rumble had been on leave from the 101st Airborne when a firefight broke out near where he and Jon were located. They went with a couple of Vietnamese to check it out. When they came to a hut, Jed went inside while Jon went around the back to see if there was anyone there.

“After a short period of time, one of the Vietnamese men came into the hut and told Jed that the Marine had been shot,” Perszyk said. “A sniper had shot Jon in the head, through his helmet. He was dead when his brother got to him.”

He was 19 years old.

“I don’t remember when I first heard that he had been killed,” Georgeanne Fletcher said. “I had been skeptical of the war from the beginning and I wondered what he was doing over there. Did he think that war would be another great adventure? Another stage to perform on? I had been irritated with Jon in high school and I felt furious with him because he died.”

Perszyk says that isn’t the case, that Vietnam had been anything but a great adventure for his friend. Rumble had been enthusiastic when he enlisted, but in his letters it was apparent that the enthusiasm had faded badly and he was very much in doubt about what it all meant.

In fact, Joe Perszyk still has a picture of his friend, sitting cross-legged on the ground with his right hand in the air.

“He was forming a peace sign with his fingers,” he said.


It says a lot for Jon Rumble’s personal magnetism that people – both close friends and some who barely knew him – still think of him 40 years later.

The first time Georgeanne visited the Wall in Washington, D.C., she found his name and touched the letters.

Then she cried.

“Not the usual silent tears,” she said. “I sobbed. I think of Jon when I listen to the music of the Doors. He’s the image in “The End,” he’s the “actor all alone” in “Riders on the Storm.” I thought of him in “Les Miserables,” the young man killed in the revolution. ‘There are storms we cannot weather.’”

Joe Perszyk couldn’t even bring himself to visit the Wall and look for Rumble’s name until 2002.

He hasn’t been back.

“There was a group of us who hung out together that included Jon,” he said. “We remain friends to this day. The memories are still very real and the pain of Jon’s death comes back from time to time.”

Mike Scott says he believed Jon loved what he was doing and that his death meant something.

“Most of us will die quietly in our beds,” he said. “He died upstaging us all.”


A few years ago, Don Dark got an e-mail from Maggie Rumble, Jon’s younger sister. He still isn’t sure how she found him, but the letter started a correspondence between the two of them that resulted in a meeting between Dark and the Rumbles over the Thanksgiving 2006 holiday in Las Vegas.

“As the day drew closer, I became more and more apprehensive to the point that I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off,” Dark said. “I don’t know why I reacted the way I did, I guess that the guilt I felt for so many years was coming full circle and in some ways that guilt was comforting and familiar and defined my war.”

They had dinner together at the Flamingo -- Don, his wife and son, and Maggie, her mother and brother Jed, his wife and son, were there. Captain Rumble had died in a plane crash not long after Jon’s death.

“With tears running down my cheeks I raised my glass for a toast to Jon and unsurprisingly, everyone at the table had the same reaction,” Dark said.

After the dinner, Dark and Jed Rumble had a private conversation.

“Although we hadn’t met before that evening, Jed was Jon’s older brother, and since I thought of Jon as my brother, that made his brother my older brother,” Dark said. “I immediately blurted out my sense of guilt about not being there to protect him. Jed told me that there was nothing that I could have done to change the inevitable.”

Jed told Dark that his brother had told him on Christmas day that he was not going to make it home. It wasn’t the first time Dark had heard this; he and Jon discussed the same thing many times.

“I guess I didn’t take it seriously because countless times I had said the same thing and at the time truly believed it,” Dark said. “Jed told me with sincerity that I could read in his eyes, so I believe it to have been something that Jon knew all along.”

He still misses him, more than 40 years later.

“Jon was a great person,” he said. “The world is not a better place without him.”


In the end, Jon Rumble was a showman, and the last memory of him that most of the Class of ’67 has is a good one. Georgeanne Fletcher, now Georgeanne Honeycutt, still remembers the last time she saw him, on the stage picking up his diploma on June 5, 1967.

“Jon’s antics at graduation are one of the most vivid of my memories of that event,” she said. “He had boasted and made a big deal that he might not graduate. When he received his diploma, I was seated and had a full view of him as he crossed the stage. He made a grand gesture of relief.

“A few weeks earlier, it might have irritated me, but I joined the laughter and applause as he exited.”

Exit – stage right.

Forever young.