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A DQ, a diner, and a darkroom by (3 Stories)

Prompted By Family

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The Willis family, circa 1956.

All it took was a glance at this week’s Retrospect prompt of “Family” to get me thinking about my dad. More specifically, to ask what I remember when thinking about Dad. Because, in the end, a lifetime of memories must somehow be boiled down to a few indelibly defining images for easy recall.

Sometimes we don't realize the influence a parent has had in our life until later in that life.

But why these images?

I don’t have the answer to that; just the images. And they involve a Dairy Queen, a diner, and a darkroom. I think they may stand out because they show the importance of a caring act, a dream, and a kind of grand design.

A banana splat

It was a hot summer afternoon in Oklahoma, and my dad had taken me over to the local Dairy Queen for a cold treat. We were standing at one of two walk-up windows and I was watching as they made my chocolate dip cone and wondering two things: why didn’t the ice cream tumble into the jug of hot sauce when it went in Q-first, and how did they get that sauce to harden so fast?

Science was never my strong suit, though, so I decided to focus on enjoying the treat.

As Dad and I stepped from the window, a young boy at the next window had just stepped back, tripped and smashed his fully-loaded banana split into the hot pavement. His tears came instantly as he saw what was probably his week’s allowance dissolve before him in the summer sun. He was alone, and my dad helped him to him feet, patted him, and dusted him off. Then, without hesitation, Dad turned back to the window and ordered this youngster a brand new dessert treat.

I will never outlive this memory of a man, who I always felt was so emotionally reserved, being moved to spend an extra buck he probably needed, to buy an unknown kid a new banana split.

In an instant, I knew why I loved and trusted Dad so much.

A joint called John’s

Saturdays brought eating lunch out with Dad, often after a trip to Sears to inspect the new power saws. Could it be Dad and i were bonding over food? Regardless, the fact was we didn’t have many eateries in my hometown during the 1950s and early 1960s, but we did have one favorite spot. You could call it a diner, but only because it looked like one. You’d be more accurate in calling it a burger joint, and I only ever knew it as John’s cause that’s what Dad always called it.

My mom and sister might accompany us maybe one other night a week there, but this Saturday lunch date would usually belong to just Dad and me. The hamburgers were pretty good, but it was more fun just watching Dad eat up the atmosphere.

We would go in, stake out a couple stools close to where the eponymous owner would be flipping burgers on the grill, and he and Dad would start in talking. They would go on about everything from Sooner football to the new burger place called McDonald’s opening up in Oklahoma City. Neither thought the place would succeed by selling hamburgers for 15 cents each when everyone else was selling them for twice that.

A ticket to ride

It wasn’t long before I realized Dad was letting me ride along on his dream of owning his own burger place one day, and shed his angst-ridden advertising job in the process. On many nights he would come home, plop down in his easy chair and thumb through his dining services or restaurant supply trade magazines, looking for ideas on how to design his own diner one day.

He and John would talk about it as the burgers fried on the grill.

“Jim, the real key is to get customers in and out fast,” John would say. “Why do you think I have those bar stools at the counter instead of tables and chairs? Nobody wants to sit around all day on a bar stool chatting. Once they’re done eating, they get up and leave.”

Made sense to Dad, although, he would regularly disprove John’s logic, as their conversation would go on well after our plates were clean.

But I came to realize how important Dad’s dream was when he was feeling trapped in a day that was going nowhere. I learned what an escape valve those dreams can provide. My father never followed through on his vision, mostly because of the duty he felt toward providing for his family. But that never made the dream itself unimportant.

The Willis family, circa 1996.

Magic from a dark place

Dad also found solace in his hobbies, and art was a big one. He was visually talented and he moved seamlessly from sketching, to photography, to oils and pastels. In my youngest years I learned sketching from him, but it was his instruction in photography that got my attention. And that kept it for life.

I was in my early teens when Dad showed me how to take pictures, develop film, print and enlarge pictures in a darkroom he built in our garage. I was fascinated by the magic that came from that place and from simple black-and-white photography. From about age 14 forward, my Christmas wish list featured an endless list of cameras, film, chemicals, photo paper, enlargers, timers, print dryers, and so on. I would shoot pictures of everything I saw, and figured out how to make money by transferring photos of new homes onto post card stock and then selling those post cards to the buyers of the new real estate.

It becomes a calling

When I began shooting pictures for my high school newspaper, The Bomber Beam, my journalism career was officially launched. I would transition into writing but wound up using photography to help illustrate my stories. On my most important series of stories, covering the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, I used my telephoto lens to focus in on small vignettes I would not have seen without the camera.

I remember one moving memorial service, right on the rubble, just before the implosion of the building’s carcass two weeks after the bombing. There were the sad expressions of the three hard-hat workers who stared in disbelief at the bombed-out Federal Building from the remains of a neighboring building; there was the bright red rose jutting out of the Reuters photographer’s tripod, and there was the heavily scuffed and bent orange highway cone, kicked by one too many angry first-responders who had just found another body part of a victim. All these went into my stories and were the focus of my photos.

Together, these words and pictures would cause me to receive the kind of compliment any journalist prizes highly: You made me feel like I was there. And when I heard that, I thought, Maybe. But it was my dad  who showed me how to make you feel like you were there.

Reversing the image

As I’ve reflected on my dad’s influence in my life, it’s hard to imagine there were times when I discounted that influence. There was a time when I felt he and I didn’t have that much in common, and that we never bonded the way I thought other fathers and sons were doing.

I was wrong. Dad and I were more alike than I allowed myself to realize and our bonding didn’t come over  deep, long conversations, but simply by spending time together in situations like those described above.

In some ways it was like the reverse image that reveals itself when the negative image on film morphs into the positive image on the paper to which it is projected. It takes a shot of light and some chemistry to make that happen.

And those are exactly the same two things that made it happen for my dad and me.

 

 

A Christmas (Eve) Story by (3 Stories)

Prompted By That Night

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The Willis family, circa 1956.

What to make of parents that made your childhood home so comfortable and secure that you would rather hang out there than anywhere else? So comfortable that you would often take your high school dates there instead of going to parties? A home that began preparing for Christmas a month in advance, with everything leading up to that magical night of Christmas Eve?

As much as my family loved Christmas, we loved Christmas Eve more.

Critics might call this an overprotective home and chide the parents for not scheduling the kids for more social activities outside the home. Psychologists might wonder whether such a home environment could stunt the child’s growth and socialization into the world.

I really don’t care. It worked for my sister C.J. and me and, since it never reached the level of SNL skits like Bedelia inviting her best-friend mom to a teen sleepover, it hardly reached the point of blunting our path to maturity.

I would have been slow getting there anyway.

As for getting socialized into the world, I have more than made up for that as an adult criss-crossing the globe dozens of times.

Stellar Holiday

I do know for an absolute fact that C.J. and I always had the best Christmas on our block. One year, my best friend Mark was so envious, he asked if my parents could adopt him. That was something we never shared with his mom.

It wasn’t that we were rich, unless that’s what you call laying mattresses on the floor of a home without air conditioning and opening the front and back door to catch a summer night breeze. But our home was full of love, and our folks always found ways to provide a Christmas morning full of presents.

if I were honest, though, I always preferred Christmas Eve, along with its family rituals and its highly charged anticipation. It was a fun night at the Willis home.

I was probably the last kid on the block to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, and I have my folks to thank for that. Mom had me writing letters to Santa until I turned 13. I’m sure the last two years I did that, it was more to please Mom and Dad than because of actual belief in the Big Guy,. But it always paid off on Christmas morning, and who was I to question good fortune?

That Night

One Christmas Eve will always stand out in memory, as my dad nearly broke both legs in a valiant attempt to undergird my belief that Santa Claus lived. It was a night when Mom was having a particularly hard time getting C.J. and me to go to bed. Still, knowing we believed Santa wouldn’t come to a home where children were still awake, she knew she had the upper hand. So she had Dad play it out, draping him in two long belts of attached bells and sending him outside into the snow to run around the house jangling those bells. As the ringing wafted inside, I lurched into my bed, followed closely by my sister. Santa was not going to pass us by on this night!

The Willis family, circa 1996.

I can’t really say I remember hearing what happened next, or whether I remembered the incident  because Mom told the story so many times over the passing years. Either way, it turns out that my dad’s circular course around the house was interrupted on his third or fourth lap by our three large metal trash cans, hidden from his view by the dark and the snow. Or could it be that his accident was aided by too much Christmas cheer that he had to down to launch him on this late-night run in the first place? Either way, Dad collided with the cans at full speed on his way to the back door, catapulting him, the three 40-gallon steel cans, the trash, and the bells into the snowy night.

Remembering Ralphie

Although I was not a witness to all this, I do know my dad and I know that, in times of tumult, his words always sprang forth first from his deep pit of colorful emotion and not his library of measured reason. I am sure that when Mom rushed to help him out of the garbage that night, she encountered more trash talk than she wanted to hear. To approximate, try squaring the number of expletives uttered by Ralphie’s Christmas Story dad in the cellar when the coal furnace erupted into a pillar of black smoke that came billowing up through the kitchen grate.

On second thought, maybe I did  witness the great trash can collision after all, and have just chosen to bury it in my subconsciousness. I never enjoyed getting in the way of dad’s angry outbursts, short-lived though they were. I prefer to think, however, it was a testament to Mom and Dad’s parenting that — on this night of nights before Christmas — they shielded C.J. and me from this bad Santa hiccup and produced yet another magical Christmas morning.

Even though Dad seemed hobbled by a mysterious limp when passing out the presents.

 

Finding refuge amid turbulence by (3 Stories)

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I spent a few months riding the waves on this tin can.

I attended college at the University of Oklahoma from 1964-68, and I doubt there has ever been a time when so much change occurred on campuses in America in such a short period of time. Dorm counselors became resident advisors (without parental rights); single-sex dorms and lockdowns for women became co-ed dorms with no curfews; PDA (public display of affection) rules gave way to “Gentle Thursday Love-Ins” on the south oval, and mandatory ROTC was abolished.

Military service in the 1960s had its benefits for some of us baby boomers.

I welcomed all of these changes as they made the times exciting. But I decided to stay in Naval ROTC because, for one thing, the draft and foot-soldier status in Vietnam awaited otherwise after graduation. It was a good decision because, when my GPA dropped below a 2.0 midway through college, I would have been immediate draft bait but for one thing: I’d already signed that contract with the Navy.

In a way, I found refuge from the military by joining the military.

In that era of anti-military protests and anxiety among young men about going to Vietnam, I would find solace in the service. There were a lot of plusses, too. My first-ever flights were on military aircraft, and my first view of the ocean was from the deck of a WWII class destroyer, the USS Benner (DD807). I also found out why these ships are affectionately known as tin cans. In rough water, that’s what they bobbed like and that’s how they felt and sounded when their deck guns would explode in firing regimen.

It was also the first time I ever got to see Hawaii and, although it was on just a few days of R&R from sea duty, it was wonderful. So much so that the feel of Oahu stays with me to this day, five decades later, although I’ve never been back.

Over the years, my politics have moved left of center and, had I believed then as I do now, I might well have been an activist. Through it all, though, my respect for the men and women who serve in our military has remained constant. It is ironic that a young person must give up his or her personal freedom for a couple of years in order to help insure that freedom, but that’s the way it works.

And, as I discovered, the gig comes with its own positive benefits, too.

I got my first — and only — trip to Hawaii courtesy of the U.S. Navy. The memories are still intact.