Sunday, March 15, 2015

Welcome to the Highway California

Back in the old days, in the 1960s, there were just maps. There were no MapQuest, Google maps, Google Earth, GPS etc. You took it at face value that the Atlas you held in your hands was correct. If it showed a straight road in an unfamiliar state, you hoped and prayed it was correct. Before that, in the days of pioneers and explorers, men made their own maps. In 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition set out to explore a portion of North America to find a route west, hopefully one that could be traversed by water. Of course, they needed an experienced guide to show them the way and ask directions. They found that woman -- Sacagawea a Shoshone. They had no GPS, no maps, just a will to explore the unknown.

"No GPS!" You gasp. Ah, dear young reader of mine, the common citizens did not have GPS technology at their fingertips until a decade ago. I don't even think our government did in the 1960s when the following story takes place. Even with this wonderful technology, I know of people in the desert who were led to the ends of cliffs because their GPS said the road continued. It happened to some tourists from Israel about seven years ago who were visiting the canyon lands of Arizona and Utah. Someone couldn't wait to pee, so a driver stopped one of the rental vehicles part-way through their trek in the middle of the desert. As the boy began to relieve himself he said, "We're at the edge of a cliff!" Had they gone farther in the dark, their caravan would have plummeted, taking the families to their deaths.

Which brings me to my story. My daughter and I spent her recent spring break in Death Valley. (I hate the desert with a passion; still too blazing hot even in March.) Anyway, sometimes we got lost, or at least I thought we were because the maps my daughter and I were using weren't accurate. I'd just go a little farther and sure enough, we'd be where we hoped to go. At some point, I got to thinking about a family story. (Note to readers hoping to visit Death Valley, DON'T. Okay, you still want to go. Take water, about a gallon per person per day, and if a guidebook says you can travel a dirt road and that four wheel drive is not required, you still need four-wheel-drive and a high clearance vehicle, but I digress.)

About 1962, before I was born, my dad drove my mom and sisters to California in his station wagon. Almost to their destination, he and my mother studied a map. My German-born mother, no Sacagawea, said, "This road looks shorter," so my dad agreed to take it because he valued her opinion. I still don't know why; he was Scots-Irish and Cherokee and had a keen sense of direction. My mother on the other hand, bless her heart, got lost in the super-market or on her way to garage sales.

The road, possibly California State Route 130*, started out paved but then, became dirt, then rocks, then boulders. A narrow one-lane path most of the way, it was washed out in spots, and began to ascend, at first gradually. Soon it was no more than a deer-path as my dad called it, with steep drop-offs and serious grades. He had to stop several times, he was sweating so badly. Dad said his sight went all white even, for a brief few seconds. The way zigged and zagged, having several switch-backs and hair-pin turns. He feared that another car, picking up speed with the pull of gravity, might come down one of the curves as he creeped up the path. My oldest sister Jeanette recalls looking out the window, seeing how close the car was to the side of the mountain. She feared falling off the edge on the other side. Jeanette remembers that she and the three other family members in the station wagon were the only people on the road. Would anybody find them if they careened to their deaths? (Even as recently as about fifteen years ago, an elderly couple who went missing were found at the bottom of Arizona's Virgin River Gorge, months after they were last seen. They were still in their van, strapped in their seatbelts, not much more than skeletons and dried sinew.)

The journey continued as the sun got low on the horizon, but there was no place to rest, no place to turn around. Soon, night fell. According to my sister Margie, "Not a peep was heard while we traveled on that road." Finally after tense, bone jarring hours upon hours they found a real highway and proceeded on their way.

Several years later, George Pierrot had a guest, possibly Stan Midgley, on his show "George Pierrot Presents". The guest discussed the worst roads in the country and he said by far the most dangerous was the exact same one that my dad had driven! Mr. Pierrot commented, something like, "Wouldn't it be sad if some poor fool were to get lost on that trail, thinking it was a short-cut, not knowing what he was up against?"

The guest replied, "There isn't anyone that stupid. The man would be a fool! Something like that would never happen!" Well, my dad sure felt pretty low when it happened and then again when the show was broadcast.

So the moral of this story is, even with the best technology or a colorful map, use good judgment and common sense. My Papa had common sense. He was a well-read man. He was an experienced man who served in the Navy and even he was caught in a dangerous situation. Additionally, if you ever survive a similar experience, be sure to tell the story and see the humor in it as my father did, years later, because there is more to life than just survival. There is also laughter around a good campfire. Now, turn off your computer and go make history.

*Note, if I can find or verify the actual route, I will update this blog.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Responsibility, my take on "Out of the Blue" at ArtPrize

Twenty-three years ago, just before my husband and I purchased a beautiful Rottweiler puppy from a responsible breeder, I read a book penned by an expert who worked with dogs in the military. You see, I did my research. I wanted a wonderful family dog, one that would also defend my family in our Detroit-Metro area home. My husband liked Rottweilers and my best friend raised them. The author discussed each and every breed, its origins, the original work these canines did, and modern day uses for these breeds. He didn't malign Rottweilers or even German Shepherds. The only breeds he DID NOT recommend for families were the pit breeds and Dobermans. Why? Because in the case of pits and associated canines, the meticulous breeding used to refine a killing, fighting machine. For Dobies, it was the fact that they only came into being to be used for guard duty and ONLY guard duty. He went on to explain that despite a few bad apples, most other dogs made great family pets. For instance, Rotties were used to herd cattle; German Shepherds were used to guard sheep, etc. As for aggressive dogs, many can bite. The larger the canine the more likely harm and death may occur. When you put two or more of these dogs, or any dogs, in what they perceive as THEIR territory they will suddenly go into instinct mode and form a pack mentality.

Recently at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a multi-media piece called "Out of the Blue" was put on exhibit. It was a memorial to the victims of deadly dog maulings. Just the facts were posted. There were many breeds featured. Unfortunately the pitty-lovers, screamed foul and said the memorial was putting their pit-bulls in an unfair spotlight. MANY OF THESE PEOPLE DIDN'T EVEN SEE THE EXHIBIT BEFORE COMPLAINING! About thirty more people picketed the art piece, disrespecting the fact that this was a memorial to the victims of deadly dog attacks perpetrated by several breeds. They went on to say that it's irresponsible owners that should be blamed. I agree. I see way too many irresponsible owners of all breeds. They let their dogs harass children, pets, livestock. . . lawns.

The thing is, too many pit-bull owners are irresponsible. For instance the ones that use the breed as a street-cred symbol, much like other people use lap dogs in purses as a status icon in their life-styles. These are the kinds of individuals that continue to fight pit-bulls and breed the most aggressive canines. This has been going on for decades. These folks use their pits and mixes to defend illegal activities. That kind of irresponsible ownership and poor breeding has done nothing to improve the progeny of the breed and related dogs. Unfortunately I see way too many people arguing about pit-bulls, too many robotic responses on forums and on facebook. It isn't just pits. It’s a fact that any dog can attack out of fear or instinct. Any owner, including me, can be baffled by an escape artist (please, see my previous post “Dog-gonnit!" for more information) but a loose pit-bull is like a loaded cannon careening down the hillside. It is like a satellite falling to the earth. Its ancestors were bred to fight and hold on tight. My father was in awe of these dogs when he hunted boar with his cousin’s husband in Hawaii in the 1950s.

Personally, I'd rather confront one little cocker-spaniel with a bad hair day than a Cane Corso or a couple of Staffordshire Terriers. Pitbull ownership is like gun ownership. Don’t leave your guns lying around for strangers and toddlers to play with. Don’t let your hounds run loose to chase horses, rip cats in half and tear out the throats of children. In a worse-case scenario, if your loving family pet wanders around, it might get picked up by someone who fights dogs and could be used horribly to experience a short, violent life. Be responsible for the sake of your dog and the community.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Detroit -- Memories and Reality

(Liesa, Marie, Shilo and Greg)

Entrepreneur and ESPN commentator Emily Gail had it right when she coined the phrase, “Say nice things about Detroit”. I recently returned to the city of my birth and was amazed by what I saw: people walking downtown, new homes and gleaming buildings!

I’d planned to spend a weekday afternoon with my cousins enjoying the Detroit Institute of Arts. Afterwards, Greg Owen, who works for Chrysler, offered to show us around the city. I’d mainly wanted to visit Delray, where I’d been born and Palmer Woods where my grandmother had worked as a maid for the family of George W. Mason. Cousin Greg took us all around the city, from east to west, south to north and into the heart of Motown.

What I saw surprised me. Downtown was vibrant. There were people actually walking on the streets enjoying Starbucks. Many of them were dressed in nice clothes and suits, walking to and from their jobs. The new Comerica Park Stadium was busy. The Tigers had just won a game and happy fans were streaming out of the park. This gave us the opportunity to view new condominiums, many of them built in the fashion of the old brownstone-style homes that had been restored. There were actually businesses that, to me at least, appeared to be thriving. Pedestrians were smiling and many were heading to the variety of restaurants in town. I witnessed busses on the streets driving passengers to their destinations. I hadn’t seen the city so alive and cheerful since I was a little kid. Yes, I actually do remember the late 1960s, my father lifting me onto his shoulders as I watched parades pass before my tiny, wonder-filled eyes. Then we’d watch the enormous American flag as it was unfurled down the side of the beautiful Hudson’s building, the banner’s stars and stripes causing many to blink back tears. All the while I would be eyeing the balloon vendors, hoping my daddy would buy me one of those double-filled beauties with the Mickey Mouse balloon inside of the transparent one. (Yes, I do remember it, clear as the day it happened. Ask anyone who knows me well; I remember my childhood and very few details are lost to me.)

Then, there were the riots. There was crime. Coleman Young was elected as Detroit’s mayor and things were supposed to get better, but they didn’t. Contrast that with nearby Dearborn which was run tight-fisted and as some said, fascist style by Mayor Orville Hubbard; but you know what? Decades passed during that era with few gang problems and fewer shootings in Hubbard’s territory. My uncle Raymond Kohl was an auxiliary policeman in Dearborn and nobody questioned any city employee or peace officer. It was known for miles around, that the city of Dearborn ran a tight ship. Contrast that with Detroit in the 1970s. Raymond’s day job was driving a city bus for Detroit. His baritone, authoritative voice kept many young trouble-makers in line when they rode his bus. Not all drivers were as respected as Raymond. Even taxi drivers were beat pretty badly, some murdered, while trying to earn a living for their families.

Meanwhile things just got worse in Motown. Every night before Halloween, affectionately called “Devil's Night” by the locals, homes and businesses would be set on fire and burned to the ground. Many of these structures were abandoned and some were not. People were fleeing Detroit by the thousands every year, taking their businesses and taxes with them. Mayor Coleman Young called this retreat “The White Flight” but residents past and present knew it had nothing to do with race. It was the fact that Detroit police were over-worked and not allowed to do their jobs. Many times the cops themselves would be shot at. It didn’t matter if they were black, white or Hispanic; the uniform made them a target.

Once-beautiful neighborhoods were left to crumble. Incredibly sturdy well-built homes and the surrounding buildings that boasted architecture that was rivaled by few other cities were left to the crack-heads and working girls. The few families that stood their ground were threatened. Despite the fact that some individuals maintained their homes and yards, many times thugs tossed Molotov cocktails through home owners’ windows. We had friends in Delray that put out three fires in 1989. This family held out and remained steadfast until Steve died and his mother Katy was moved to a convalescent home in Allen Park.

Detroit schools were going down in quality every year. The curriculum was hard to follow despite dedicated teachers and administrators. The few students that tried to study were subject to beatings, rapes and the menacing specter of the drug culture that surrounded most neighborhoods. Communities in the Detroit Metro Area were later hit in the solar plexus when many automobile factories and steel mills closed down or moved their operations away to other states and countries. People who were already tightening their belts had to tighten them even further and what happened in Detroit did not stay in Detroit: it rippled into the Downriver region, into the Great Lakes states and affected America, stabbing at the economy, causing wounds and tears.

Yet, just like Nero watched Rome burn, Mayor Coleman Young and the city council, and later Kwame Kilpatrick and his cronies, bled the taxpayers of Detroit to death. Like a swarm of mosquitoes, they set their money sucking sights upon the people of Wayne County, viewing their taxes and community coffers as an endless source of cash. All the while, the city of Detroit and its people were still bleeding. A band-aid wasn’t even available when what was really needed was a tourniquet. City officials wanted more and more financial resources from the county and state. What could have been an easy fix at one time became the worst urban decay in the nation.

Still, the good people of Detroit and the surrounding areas were not going to give up. Individuals and private businesses began to creep back in. Sadly, the old Tiger Stadium was demolished, but the Comerica Park was built. The powers behind Detroit Tigers Baseball could have very easily decided to sell the team or build in another city, but they didn’t. Urban renewal followed, and maybe even Coleman Young’s dream of a “Renaissance” began to take root.

Later in the afternoon, my cousins and I drove to the historic old Train Depot. It‘s fenced off, but the good news is restoration’s in the works. Someday soon, trains will once again deliver passengers to Detroit. Next year’s Cubs versus Tigers game may be enjoyed after a leisurely train ride from Chicago!

Greg drove us into Little Mexico. Businesses were thriving and people were walking around. We drove by the Packard plant. We turned down an ally. That was the only time I was truly scared. A party was in full swing. People were dancing. Children were playing. Then it all stopped as the participants eyed us warily and Greg put the car into reverse. For a moment I recalled the recent beating of Steven Utash who after running-over a small child that had darted out in front of his car, was beaten nearly to death by angry young men who lived up and down that street. You see, it’s incidents like this that make people think really hard about venturing into the heart of Detroit. Many times they will choose to spend their money somewhere else.

We drove to Belle Isle and I was so happy to hear that this once picturesque island had been taken over by the state. Things looked beautiful again as we drove past the picnic areas and aquarium. We got out of the car and headed for the fountain. Water bubbled and sprayed out of the lions’ mouths and many tourists were taking photographs near the great, white statues. Memories flooded back to my mind, of sitting by my father as we posed beside the fountain taking similar pictures during family outings.

Sure as clockwork, the fountain brought another thought to my brain and I had to walk to the restroom. I actually felt safe as I used the island’s facilities. They could have used a good cleaning, but they were modern and in working order.

The tour hadn’t ended. We drove through some communities that had seen better days, maybe close to a century ago. Houses were burnt shells of the happy homes they once were. Trees grew through some structures. The few places that were still standing were boarded up. Some people milled around the porches and glared at us. I truly feared this seedy side of Detroit as anyone with common sense would.

Greg’s car drove past Fort Wayne. It was gratifying to see that there are reenactments and tours offered there occasionally, but this neglected historic site needs some attention. This is the location where Ulysses S. Grant was a young soldier in training. As a distraction from long hours spent in the classroom, near constant drilling and lessons on strategy, the young Grant raced horses up and down the streets of Detroit. This was long before there were motor cars and his horse carried him fast and far. Grant is the only President, so far in history, to have ever lived in Detroit. In fact as of this writing, his one-time Greek Revival-style home still stands, and anywhere else in these United States, it would be considered a historic monument.

Going back even further, although war had not been officially declared, some of the first shots of the War of 1812 were fired in July of that year, from a battlement that stood at one time very near Fort Wayne, in the vicinity called the "Sand Hill at Springwells". There is a street named Springwells that exists today, which Greg traversed despite its potholes, to locate my old hometown of Delray. Today this community’s most famous one-time citizen is retired Brain Surgeon and author, the respected and much loved Dr. Benjamin Carson. Delray was at one time a mostly Hungarian neighborhood.

On the way, near one of the rare businesses that's still in operation, seagulls feasted upon their dead and dying comrades. It takes a lot to kill a seagull. They are affectionately known as “sky-rats” among the people I know. Their busy beaks tore through feathers to get at the stringy, tough flesh of the deceased.

Despite roads that had long since crumbled, walled on all sides by falling abandoned bars and empty grocery stores, we managed to make our way to West End and later Bacon Street. I was amazed and delighted to see that this was one of the few places that still had occupied homes. I looked at a house and read the address. My eyes hadn’t deceived me! My Uncle Elmer’s home was still standing and obviously cared for! I wanted to stay and meet the occupants, but it was getting late and we still hadn’t had dinner, so we drove north to Indian Village. The homes there have always been cared for and as always, the lawns were neat and the streets were hugged by ancient trees, embraced by them almost like a mother’s tender touch.

Next we headed for Palmer Woods to see the home of George Walter Mason and his wife Hazel Bisbee-Mason. More than half a century ago, my grandmother Zona worked as a maid and cook in their home. (George Mason was the head of Kelvinator Corporation when in 1936 he was approached by Charles W. Nash, founder of Nash Motors. Mr. Nash was searching for someone to take the helm of his corporation. The Nash-Kelvinator Corporation which later joined forces with Hudson Motors, became the better-known American Motors Corporation in 1954.) Hazel Bisbee-Mason was so fond of Zona that when my grandmother left the service of the Mason family, Mrs. Mason offered her anything she wanted from the home. At first Zona declined, not wanting to take what she hadn’t actually earned, but Mrs. Mason insisted. Thinking very hard, Zona asked for the wood and glass tea service (a small table), which was handed down to me, and I still have today.

I told this story to my daughter and her third cousin Shilo who sat in the back of Greg’s vehicle. We neared the Palmer Woods home, close to a golf course, turning onto Hamilton and Fairway where the Mason home stands with its neighboring mansions. These regal homes look as if they belong to a different era, one of success and better days – and they did, but these houses also belong to the Detroit of the future.

National chains like Wholefoods Market are moving in. Private businesses like Motor City Candleworks and investors of all kinds are putting business back into Detroit. Recently an emergency manager was appointed. This hasn’t made everyone happy, but a sick patient needs a qualified surgeon, and so far, bankruptcy attorney Kevyn Orr and his team appear to be stitching up Detroit, a city that was bleeding out but still has a lot to give and a lot to live for; a city that, like a Phoenix, is rising from the flames.

Now we can choose to tell that patient, our city of Detroit that it will die a horrible death. On the other hand, we can be a part of the rehabilitation of our old soldier, one who is fighting to stay alive. We as Michigan citizens, past and present can think of creative ways to be a part of Detroit’s life, here and now. There is so much to see and do, places to live downtown and mass transit to get you where you need to go. Give it a try. You may also find yourself saying nice things about Detroit.

[Please Note: I wrote the bulk of this story in July. Before I posted this, my daughter suggested I read “Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff. Afterwards, I read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. I did not change my post, but I am not looking at Detroit with the same “Rose-colored” glasses that I peered through back in July. I still believe in Detroit, but realistically I believe that the old-guard politics, politicians and policies that have had a strangle-hold on Detroit and most of eastern Michigan should be replaced by the common sense ideas that Dr. Benjamin Carson writes about. I would like to thank Liam Collins, Ruth Puckett and Daryl Puckett for some of the historical research that contributed to this blog entry.] ***** Photos two, three and four, courtesy of Shilo Jaynes are of Belle Isle and two homes in Palmer Woods***** Last Photo ca 1945 Mason Home -- unknown photographer

Friday, August 8, 2014

Precious Gems, What we are, What we may Become

My dear, late mother Ann appreciated jewelry. She would peruse garage sales and flea markets for real precious stones, gems and fine metals such as gold and silver. Many times when I was out of school during the summer she would drag me along for my keen, young eyes. I would read the markings and engravings at the ends of clasps and inside rings. She bought broken items and tangled necklaces many times. Some evenings we’d sit around our kitchen table with my father, repairing and untangling the pieces. Frequently my mother would carry out her jewelry box and fix her own favorite items.

My parents would smile at each other and tell stories about some of the pieces: The time my dad bought her ring or when he brought back pearls from Japan, purchased during his stint in the Navy. I learned a great deal from these evenings, not just in relation to jewelry and gemstones, but also concerning life and the individuals we meet. During these jewelry repair evenings, my dad would tell stories. I learned that there are plain-looking rocks called geodes that have precious crystals inside. If we just crack the ugly crust we can see the sparkling insides. Some people are like that. Once we break through the outer layers, there may be a shining beauty inside that we did not expect to find! Likewise, gemstones need to be tumbled continuously with a substance called grit until a beautiful, precious stone is revealed. Many of us go through our mortal existence, getting tumbled around; the grittiness of life sometimes hurting us deeply until the day that our true beauty shines forth at the end of our trials. Growing up, I felt that I wasn’t as pretty or fashionable as the other girls. My dad explained that I was a diamond in the rough. He said that when he was a young boy, his mother told him that beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes all the way to the bone. If someone is rotten inside, no matter how you try to dress it up and paint it, their foul, repulsive core remains in there. My father said that I was good inside and beautiful on the outside, too. He said all I needed was a little polishing and that would come in time. The boys couldn’t see that yet; but the right man would, someday.

My mother was especially fond of her strands of pearls. She said there were plenty of fakes out there: glass beads and plastic that held no value past the fondness we might hold for a souvenir or the person that gave it to us. Likewise there are people who might want to make themselves look special to fool us, but inside they are fake and hollow. They just want to fool the world. They have nothing worthwhile inside themselves to offer other folks. My mother warned me even then to be wary of fraud and individuals who lie in wait to cheat. She went on to teach me about real pearls. I learned that at the center of each pearl, there is a grain of sand or some other irritant that causes the small sea animal that harbors the piece of offending matter to produce layer after layer of nacre. That minute thing becomes a pearl and is later harvested. It is considered a precious item of natural beauty. We may also have a little something that irritates us and we too can make the best out of it, creating a thing of precious splendor. We can do this by having a positive attitude in the worst of circumstances. I know when I was younger, I hadn’t yet learned this virtue.

In the early 1980s my parents and I went to a gem and jewelry show at Detroit Michigan’s Renaissance Center. We spent the weekend shopping for unique stones and things. My parents brought something else home instead. The first day of the exposition, we spoke to a young woman from Arkansas who clearly had her hands full. She was minding her table and wares all by herself and could barely manage to keep her toddler out of trouble. The lady explained that her husband was busy back in Arkansas struggling in his new-found ambitions and political career. It was only the beginning of the weekend and the woman could barely keep up with her small business and hobby, let alone tend to a baby at the same time. People were stepping over her busy little girl, giving mean looks and nearly tripping over the child. The baby had by that time found some electrical cords and was trying her best to pull them apart. My dad picked the little imp off the floor. The baby turned to stare at him and pat his face. With the mother’s blessings, I was handed the toddler and reluctantly ended up carrying her around the show. Since I was the youngest child of the youngest child in my family, I wasn’t used to babies and I couldn’t see anything positive about this experience. The baby did not have a stroller and was heavy in my arms. She was smelly and messy, too. We were shocked and amazed that this woman would let total strangers leave with her baby, but she was overwhelmed and felt we were good people and could be trusted. (Of course we were.) The woman had so much faith in my parents that in the evening she handed us a diaper bag and we got to tend the child in our own home. That Sunday afternoon, the last day of the show, we returned the baby to her mother. For a couple months after the event the woman frequently corresponded with my family, thanking us for watching the baby. I learned that helping someone in need was more important than finding a great bargain at some vendor’s table. I discovered that to be trustworthy and to serve are crucial to one’s character.

After that gem show, my father made a goldstone choker for me that I still have today. More importantly, I often wonder about that little family. At some point during our evenings, my mother taught me about gold. She explained that just because something looks like gold, it might not be. Back then in the seventies and even decades before then, many items were gold-plated. Later some pieces were labeled “gold-filled” which really means, “gold that is filled with some other material”. She said that inside all that shiny yellow metal was something worthless and cheap. On the other hand, many jewelry buyers think what they are buying is pure gold. They want that pure gold wedding band and a big, fat diamond engagement ring. What they really want is 18 Karat or even the slightly more durable and popular 14 Karat gold. These varieties have other metals – alloys --blended with gold to make rings, necklaces and bracelets stronger and wearable.

This past weekend in church, our Relief Society* President, Laura, was leading a discussion on choices and accountability. We can all make choices. We become stronger individuals when we have the opportunity to choose, but all actions have consequences, both good and bad. Laura said she knew that she was not perfect, but she was trying to be as pure as she could. She encouraged us all to try our best. I raised my hand and asked her if she was trying to be like pure gold. She smiled and said that, yes, she strives to be. I explained that she should attempt to be more like 14 Karat. Life’s experiences are like the alloys that make gold stronger; otherwise we would be too soft and of no use. Some people around us might even be 18 Karat and that is good. They have just enough of life’s lessons (or alloys) to make them strong. These individuals are the purest of the pure despite the realities of existence here on Earth. I think that as we become older we have the opportunity to learn more lessons. These opportunities make us what we are. We remain precious but we also become fit for the task of serving one another, lifting our sisters and brothers up with the inner strength that comes from enduring. I just hope that when push comes to shove, we as sisters won’t be some silver-plated or gold-filled cheapened piece of costume jewelry, harboring some poisonous heavy metal inside. Those are the kind of people that will smile in your face and stab you in the back, and as the scriptures say, from such turn away (2nd Timothy 3:5 KJV Holy Bible).

We can only do so much and be so much; striving for pureness and all the while we know that in the end Jesus will craft of us what He will. The Refiner’s fire will make us pure in the end for His needs. In the meantime, stay gold. Stay precious. * * (Founded 1842 in Nauvoo, Illinois, The Relief Society is one of the oldest organizations for women in the world and has approximately 6 million members in over 170 countries and territories.)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Day That I Will Never Forget

(NOTE: The original version of this story was written July 24, 2011, a month after the accident and has appeared in my blog before. Tuesday marks the third anniversary of this awful collision.)-----

The bruises took over a year to heal. I have permanent scars, inside and out. Even today, if I rub my skin the wrong way, putting on lotion or toweling myself off, I feel the deep pain. The nightmares don't haunt me each and every night, like they did at first, but they do visit on occasion. Just last February, I woke up screaming in my husband’s face. Sometimes n my dreams, I'm in a fire and I see things burning. I scream, but there is no sound. There should be a sickening howl of horror, but in my dreams the sounds of my cries are inaudible.

A little past one in the morning on Friday, June 24, 2011 my family boarded the Amtrak, California Zephyr in Provo, Utah . We were on the way to my niece, Valerie's, wedding in the Bay Area, and our final destination was Emeryville, California, home of Pixar Studios. I had frequent traveler points that I wanted to use. Since major surgery three weeks before, my doctor said I could travel, but to keep walking to prevent blood clots. My pregnant daughter, Kadi, had to get up frequently, as well. This seemed to be the ideal way to travel under the circumstances. I'd taken my daughters Kadi and Marie on the train cross country when they were middle school age and now I wanted my son-in-law Johnny to see how fun train travel could be. (My husband had to remain home for work that weekend.)

The train was three hours behind schedule. When it finally arrived, the four of us walked up the stairs to the upper portion of the train and settled into our seats as quietly as we could, putting our luggage overhead and just behind Kadi's and Johnny's seats. There was a little space or "bulkhead" between the stairs and where they sat. Marie and I sat across the aisle from them, covering ourselves with a quilt I'd labored to make ten tears before. Kadi covered herself and Johnny in blankets, her round, pregnant belly filled with her first child, showing under the material. She was due to have him in August.

It was late morning in the Nevada desert. We ate some snacks and went to the observation car. We talked to each other and I met some Amish families there. I was looking forward to taking my family to lunch on the dining car. I pictured us eating a delicious meal just as we were climbing in elevation, entering the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We walked back to our seats. Then, I went to the first floor with a magazine and read it for a little while.

About 11:20 am I made my way back up the steps, almost at the top, when there was a boom, then a loud metallic popping noise and an incredible jolt. I was holding onto the railing, but my body was flung back and forth. In a fraction of a second, the side of our train car opened up. I stepped to my seat by the top of the stairs afraid of what I might see. I braced myself on the back of the seat, a dead woman in the aisle at my feet. I saw my family facing forward, looking dazed. People said later, that victims were screaming, but I couldn’t hear anything at first. Maybe my heart was pounding so loud, I don’t know.

Suddenly, the engineer applied the train brakes. I was whipped forward but managed to remain standing, holding onto the seat beside me as more metal came at our seats and stopped short. Then a hot, percussive force flew around me and through me. I saw the sky through part of the missing roof just above our heads, "Dear Lord," I said, "Please, keep us safe!" I felt the hot dust and debris fly past my face as the train began to slow, screeching against the metal rails.

When we stopped, I could still hear the sound, but quickly realized it was the voices of passengers crying and moaning. When the train was completely still, I grabbed Marie's arm. She was to my left, near the side of impact and it wasn't even a half dozen feet in front of her where a gaping hole was ripped into the side of our train car. I tugged. Marie was pinned. She extricated herself and I told her to go out the exit below. Another twelve inches and she would have been pinned so tightly, perhaps she couldn't have gotten out. Maybe she would have lost her legs. I turned to my right. Kadi was screaming, "Where's Marie? Johnny? Johnny?!" I looked at my daughter and son-in- law. There was a large strip of metal over their heads, maybe five feet long and six inches in width. It was twisted and arched over their heads. Another six inches lower, they would have been decapitated. Kadi's head was covered in blood. Her face and neck were covered with the yellow, bubbly, fatty tissue from under someone's skin. I could soon tell that this was not from my daughter. I said, "Honey, we need to get out. Please, don't look at anybody or anything. Just get out, now!" She had to crawl over the seat before her, where a corpse remained partially upright. She crawled over the dead woman, then back towards me, stepping over another body in the aisle. This victim had red-blonde hair and was facedown. My next thought was Johnny. He seemed dazed. His nose was bleeding terribly. I couldn't see any teeth for all the blood in his mouth. He stepped into the aisle.

I saw a baby seat on top of the metal that had nearly ended their lives. There was no baby in it. Baby! My mind went back to my daughter's unborn child, then flashed back to the present. On the other side of the stairs behind us, an Asian woman looked at me, pleading, holding another woman on the floor. I said, "I'm sorry, I have to help my family!"

I walked my girls down the steps and out to the field, through the brush and sharp weeds. I found a little green vegetation and told them to sit. I could see fire from the train car in front of ours. Where was Johnny? I walked through the bushes and tumbleweeds, back to the train in search of my son-in-law. Again, I boarded the train. Before I got back on, Johnny had taken the pulse of the Asian woman in front of Kadi's seat. He said she stared blankly into space. She was dead. When I got back on he was helping another woman, who'd been wearing shorts. Johnny took off his shirt and was pressing it against the wounds on the woman's legs as a man held her. The skin was peeled back from her shins. I said, "Johnny, Kadi is going to need you." He wanted to help the countless wounded, but left reluctantly, no shirt, no shoes, into the hot desert.

Black smoke was entering our train car. I grabbed my mini-cooler. There was ice in there. I wanted to apply it to Johnny's and Kadi's injuries. An elderly black woman was crying, "I can't walk, I can't move!" The smoke was getting thick. I said, "Honey, you're going to have to get out of here. I don't care if you scoot off the train, you're getting out, NOW!" I took her elbow. She was wild-eyed with fear. I walked her down the steps. As soon as I saw that she was safely away from the train, I reached for the ice in my cooler. Looking down at my hands I saw the only piece of our luggage I'd grabbed. No material thing was more important than my family, so leaving the rest of my stuff wasn't a problem. However, I didn't see my cooler: there in my grasp, I saw my purse. I hadn't snatched my mini-cooler after all! I needed that ice! What could I do? There was blood on Johnny's face and on Kadi's scalp. I needed to stop their swelling and tend to their injuries.

Then I realized something vital: I had a cell phone. Making my way out to the field, scraping my legs along the branches again, I called David. "Someone bombed our train!" I told him. "The four of us are alive; we'll be okay. I'll call you and tell you more later." I finished by telling him I loved him and not to worry. Then I called my sister, Margie, telling her the same thing, adding that if we made it to the wedding, we'd be late and not to tell the bride anything other than we were having trouble in our travels. As I spoke, the wind shifted. I guided Kadi and Marie and someone that had joined them, a young teen named Marissa Knox, away from the smoke. I walked back to the train. I knew people were hurt, but I wanted rescuers to be aware that I had a pregnant daughter in the field. I saw Johnny sitting by the train, looking shell-shocked, and told him to go out to Kadi. At some point he made it out there.

I found a conductor. Another Amtrak employee handed him a white rag. The first man had a phone or walkie-talkie. He tried to dial out. It was then that I realized he was missing fingers and blood quickly soaked the cloth. I said, "My daughter is seven months pregnant. Could you help us, please?" I later found out that upon impact, this man had been flung out of the train. He regained consciousness in the sand, several yards from the track. His co-worker, Laurette Lee, was found crushed under a door. Another conductor brought out ice and water bottles. People from along the highway came to our aid. I took two large chunks of ice and some water bottles for my family. I told Johnny to put the ice up to the front of his face and I held some over Kadi's head, telling her to hold it on her wound. Marissa was frantic, crying that her grandma and auntie were dead. She was certain. I told her not to worry, they were probably alive and on the other side of the train, or walking around looking for her. The smoke shifted and we moved again. It was getting harder to find some soft place to sit. A young man named Julian took the sandals from his own feet and gave them to Johnny.

I gathered our little group together and we prayed that help would come soon, that the injured would be healed and that the Lord would gather the dead quickly into His loving arms. A woman came over from several cars away to comfort Marissa and pray with her. Hundreds of passengers were slowly making their way a half mile or so to the highway. The critically injured remained along the tracks or in the field. A white pick-up truck drove toward us, carrying firefighters. They'd arrived on the roadway, having been on a call to a nearby brush fire. Two ladies driving in the desert offered their truck for the rescue efforts since the fire trucks were too heavy for the soft sand. The firefighters strapped Kadi onto a stretcher and began to pile wounded into the pick-up, Kadi and Johnny in the bed, Marie and I in the back seat. Many others were put in with us and driven to the road.

At a point, the highway, which ran parallel with the tracks most of the way, intersected with the rails. There, at the intersection, were the mangled remains of a truck, strewn in pieces. It wasn't a bomb! A truck had broadsided our train! My mind began to think. A truck - shouldn't we have derailed, buckled like an accordion at the least? Two miracles! Many more people could have died. The seats in front of ours on the train - they were wiped out. The metal had stopped just in front of and over my family. There was nothing, NOTHING to stop it. Yet it stopped! A body landed before my feet. It could have struck me but didn't. My family and I could have died - another miracle. We stepped out of the pick-up truck. I turned to the tracks. Our train car and the one in front of ours were fully engulfed in fire, black smoke rising in the air and surrounding the metal framework, some bodies still trapped inside. Yet the field didn't catch aflame, despite the heat and the sparks. That would have finished off the survivors and rescuers; yet another miracle.

The rescuers! They were arriving: more firefighters, helicopters, ambulances, passersby with water, food and blankets. Someone had given our little group a small white blanket, and it was just the right size for us to shade Kadi and a Korean woman with a severe head injury. This lady was also on a stretcher. Marie and I held the blanket over our two most wounded travelers. I patted Johnny's shoulder. Kadi was crying and said she felt sick. A firefighter agreed with me that we should tilt Kadi a little to the side in case she vomited. I put her at a gentle angle. Moments later, Kadi and Johnny were put on separate ambulances. I didn't know where they were going, but I said somehow we'd be back in contact that evening. I didn't know how we'd manage, but I had to say something.

After they were squared away, I felt it. My abdomen was expanding. It felt like a tight water balloon. I mentioned it to a trooper and suddenly I was put on an ambulance. A man claiming to be a Navy doctor came in, poking and prodding my belly, asking me if I felt any pain. First of all I figured I must have hit my head harder than I originally thought. I was puzzled. "Navy? What?" and found out there was a navy base IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT. Who would have thought? The exam continued. I said, "I'm still numb from my hysterectomy!" He poked again and that one hurt! He said something about rigidity and put me on a Seahawk, the Navy version of a Blackhawk helicopter. Despite my objections about the helicopter ride, I was strapped in. I wouldn't let Marie out of my sight and begged them to let her come along. They put a helmet and goggles on her and we flew through the skies to Renown Hospital in Reno, Nevada. Every time we hit turbulence I thought we were all going to die. Now I was hurting and frightened.

Not too long afterward, we landed and the sun was in my eyes again, the heat scorching my face. Soon I was looking up at lights and felt air conditioning. We were in the hospital triage in the emergency room. I heard a baby's heartbeat over a monitor. The emergency room staff cut my shirt from my body. Some personnel spoke to each other and before I was taken to have a scan, one of them said that the sound was the heartbeat of my grandson. He was alive! The scans showed that I hadn’t torn my spleen and wasn’t bleeding internally. The images did indicate however, that I was badly bruised inside my abdomen. Yet I was in one piece and thankful!

Later that evening, alone, my imagination played cruel tricks on me. I thought that maybe I was just telling myself that my family was alive. Maybe they'd perished and my mind was just trying to comfort me. As soon as the neck brace came off, I was up, searching for my kids. I found Marie. They'd X-rayed her lungs and one knee. She still had black soot around her nostrils. I looked down at my hands. My nails were black with oil and ash. There was blood splattered on my pants, blood on my shoes. Marie and I were released and put up in the Renown Hotel, under the same roof as the hospital. Later that evening we visited Kadi. She had to be under 24 hour monitoring in the obstetrics ward. Johnny was staying with her, crutches by his bedside. His leg was badly damaged, but the bones were not broken, neither was his nose. The blood had been cleaned from his face. He still had his front teeth, but they'd been pushed back on impact which is why I couldn't see them behind the congealing blood. The emergency room doctor moved them back into place. It also turns out that his cheekbone was cracked.

That night, as Kadi and Johnny slept in the hospital room, Marie and I took our showers at the hotel, washing the grime and blood from our bodies. As Marie walked out of the shower, clothed in a T-shirt provided by the hospital, I saw her legs for the first time since the accident. My youngest child's limbs were so purple, they were nearly black, with deep bruises, her knees swollen and misshapen. There was very little white skin. I was horrified, but tried to keep my shock inside. I was grateful that Marie had worn jeans on the trip. The people wearing shorts had deep cuts to their shins and knees, like the woman that Johnny tried to aid when he placed his shirt over her damaged legs. Those jeans had saved my baby's legs.

The next couple days were spent talking to the National Transportation Safety Board and Amtrak. The employees at the hospital were so compassionate and good to us. The local people of Reno, so kind. I was able to reach some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who came to our aid, taking Marie and me to Walmarts for essentials, providing blessings as they laid their hands upon our heads, calling down the powers of God to comfort and heal us.(The dentist says Johnny might still lose some of his teeth, but we will faithfully believe the blessings’ words and hope for the best.)

There were so many wonderful people that I would have liked to have met under better circumstances. These were fellow passengers and other people who came to our aid. There were some who sadly didn't survive. Six people died in the train wreck. Laurette Lee, a well-liked conductor, age 68 was one of them; she'd been crushed as the engine of the rock hauler plowed into the train car in front of us. As the trailer struck our car, Marissa's auntie and grandmother also perished: Karly Anne Knox, age 18, and Francis Knox age 58. They died on impact, their bodies flung to the center of the train toward the aisle. Thirty-four year old Cheuy Ong died in front of Kadi. The woman had to be identified by DNA and dental records. The name of the last body is still unknown. Perhaps this person was going to surprise someone somewhere down the line. Maybe no one knows this passenger was coming out to see them. Maybe the friends this person said farewell to assume a choice was made to remain with the loved ones. I can only guess.

So far I can only speculate what ultimately caused Lawrence Valli to drive a semi owned by John Davis Trucking of Battle Mountain, Nevada, into an Amtrak train. Was it a medical condition? His coworkers had stopped their trucks and watched in disbelief as Valli's big rig kept going through the crossing gates despite the warning lights. Was it family problems? He left behind a little girl. Was it substance abuse? How can anyone be certain? His body, burned beyond recognition, was found inside the cab of his truck which was still imbedded into the employee dorm car, the one in front of ours. Was he distracted? Was he texting? Officials found his cell phone, a melted cinder beside his remains. They are looking into the possibility that he was using this device moments before impact. The NTSB says it might take up to a year before they complete their report.

In the meantime, we the passengers of the doomed California Zephyr, which was journeying between Chicago and Emeryville, California live with the pain, the nightmares and the grief. Our loved ones mourn and suffer with us. We know life will never be the same. Some become bitter, some have moved on with their lives. Others like me are trying to make sense of this.

I often wonder why my family and I were spared, for what purpose. We are no better or any more or less loved by our Heavenly Father. Had we died, too, we would be in a better place, but my husband David would have been a lone man, no wife, no daughters, no son-in-law, never to have met our grandson, James. This was a miracle, a whole series of miracles, from the firefighters traveling to the scene of a nearby brush fire, the local rescuers having just had a special training session for large-scale disasters in May. It was divine grace that kept us on the tracks; the Lord helped the engineer, who put on the emergency brakes, keep the California Zephyr on the rails. If we'd toppled, there would have been more dead and wounded. Additionally, the Zephyr's individual cars did not fold, one on top of the other. There was no subsequent fire. By all rights, there should have been. Everything was as dry as a tinderbox along the tracks. Last of all, as I was walking back to my seat, I witnessed the bodies and metal stop as if an unseen force were there. The side of the train, or perhaps the side of the rock hauler, made a "tent" around Kadi's and Johnny's upper bodies. That was, to me personally, the greatest miracle of all. It defied the law of physics. When something is in motion, it remains in motion until another force stops it or slows it. There was nothing to block these objects from coming at us. Yet, the force of heat kept going through me and around me. Witnesses behind us said it was a fireball. People as far back as the observation car said moments after the jolt, flames licked the train on both sides and vanished. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of this. My bruises, though fading, hurt. My arms and wrists have pain, I want to cry and cry, but I'm just unable to. My belly is numb. My doctor says I will take even longer to heal from my surgery. At night, my dreams are filled with trains, tracks, fire and screaming. Yet through it all, I thank the Lord that he spared us and will tell anyone at any time, that miracles still happen. If these divine events happened all the time they wouldn't be miracles, they'd be a common occurrence. But this, my friends, defied the laws of Nature and physics, and who better to defy them than the Celestial God who wrote those laws. I just hope He doesn't wait too long to tell us why we were spared. I want to know what my purpose is. I want to get going with whatever task He has for me to do, and when I do it, watch and listen and maybe you can join me in doing something good.

UPDATE: Barbara Bell, age 60 of the United Kingdom, was identified recently by dental records and DNA as the last victim in the train wreck. Update: Robert Breen, a Good Samaritan who had witnessed the accident, later died of complications due to injuries sustained during the rescue effort. He is considered by some to be the seventh, unofficial fatality. Update: John James Spelta, my grandson, was born exactly two months after the accident on August 24, 2011. He is just perfect and so precious! His mom is doing well and his daddy is so proud! Update: As of January 2012, I still have mini anxiety moments when I'm too far from members of my family or if I get too close to a "side-dumper" semi in traffic. I just take deep breaths and pray real hard during those instances. Update: December 2012-January 2013--The NTSB released its report. The driver was said to have been fatigued in the days leading up to the collision. He was reportedly using his cell phone while driving before the accident. Additionally, his employer, John Davis Trucking had bypassed safety features on the truck he was operating as well as several others in the fleet. (Photo of Johnny Spelta in the ambulance courtesy of passenger Jean Marie.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Full Moon

Papa and I walked from the station wagon to his Cousin Barbara's porch. The moon was rising high and fireflies danced and frolicked around us. Summer in North Carolina was humid and thick with the smells of cigarettes, beer and pine trees.

Just about everyone had retired into Barbara's house that night after a small family reunion. The relatives were quieting the young ones, singing the babies to sleep. In the distance and through the trees I heard drums and saw a bonfire. Papa casually said, "The Indians are out celebrating, too."

My eyes went wide, my heart pounded and despite the warmth still hanging in the misty mugginess, I felt a chill shake my body. "Oh, Papa, will the Indians scalp us? Will they burn down the house around us, right here?"

Papa turned, set the suitcases and blankets on the porch and took me in his arms. "Liesa, oh no. They're just having fun like everyone else! Didn't you know, you're my little Indian Princess?"

I looked at his eyes. The light from the windows reflected in my father's face and I saw calm and sincerity -- and love. "My dad was mixed-blood Cherokee. I'm part Cherokee. You're part Cherokee and you’re my little Princess."

"Really?" I questioned.

"Honest to goodness. Where did you get the idea that the neighbors were going to scalp us and burn down Barbara's house?"

"From the Cowboy and Indian movies I watch on TV."

Papa shook his head and said, "The Indians haven't been on the warpath for about fifty years. Barbara's husband Roy is Cherokee too and you know he's a good, gentle man."

Papa took my hand and led me into Barbara's home. The men were seated around the kitchen table, playing cards, drinking Colt 45 Malt Liquor and laughing. The older children were punching holes into the tops of jars filled with fireflies. My heart felt like those jars, filled with bubbling buzzing light. My father put my mind at ease and peace filled my soul. I learned a lesson that night, that we can choose to fear or choose to love, but we must choose to be informed and face life bravely. I took a jar full of those lightning bugs into the dark living room and looked out the window. I saw the full moon--and he was smiling.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


My family had dogs while I was growing up. Additionally, my husband and I had dogs for many years. My dad always trained our dogs to STAY INSIDE the fence line. I trained my dogs as well and they all stayed in the yard. No matter where we lived, if the gate was open, or the snow was piled high in drifts taller than the fences, our dogs stayed put. If we saw a problem, my husband and I would fix the fence, etc. We had collies, Rottweiler's, mutts, German Shepherds, a Dalmatian, terriers etc. Then we got Jodi, a Labrador puppy. She grew into a lovable, huge brown dog.

The neighbor's lab taught her how to dig under the fence, so we would find the trouble spots and hammer rebar into the ground. She soon learned how to jump the fence. We put her in an enclosed dog run. She chewed a hole through it in less than twelve hours. We had to let her out sometimes in the yard and she'd promptly jump the fence to find the old lady that cruised the street on her power scooter. Scooter-mamma would yell at us and we'd lock Jodi back up in the reinforced pen. Jodi would howl, dig, chew and escape again.

One Thanksgiving she got loose. It was night. We yelled for her and searched. In the darkness we heard, "Whoosh, chuckity, chuck, whoosh chuckity chuck," and of course here comes Jodi with a large garbage bag, a turkey carcass inside. She was so sad when we threw it out and yanked her to the porch. The following Christmas Jodi brought back what I thought was a deflated purple ball. I ran outside and went to get it from her. I found that my dog was gnawing on the end of it, trying to get at the Crown Royal whiskey inside! (How the heck Jodi got this prize is anyone's guess). She still hadn't broken the seal and my brother-in-law said he wished his labs (that were trained to hunt) would bring him whiskey for Christmas. I handed the bottle to him and said, "Merry Christmas, from Jodi, Eh?"

We tried walking her on the leash, but she walked us. It didn't matter the leash, collar or method, she wouldn't be reigned in and actually obeyed better off leash.

We bought her a super long chain and my dad complained that no dog of his ever got out of the yard and why couldn't we just train her? Lord knows we tried! When we had to let her out on our acre, we put her on that thirty foot line, staked to the ground, but some well-meaning person kept unhooking her because "It just isn't right to chain a dog" and of course, she would jump the chain-link fence and try to play with the lady on the power scooter. This went on and on for years.

One hot day a neighbor found Jodi and her buddy Hank swimming in her horse trough and said, "If they'd been chasing the horses and cattle, I'd be well within my rights to shoot those dogs, but they were just swimming. Next time I might shoot them both." My husband and I agreed that if it happened again, we'd hold no hard feelings if it came down to shooting our Jodi.

One day, I just got fed up and rehomed her. The people she went to live with had acres and acres of farmland and were delighted at how well behaved and smart Jodi was. I know I made the right decision. I didn't want her to get shot. I also valued my neighbors who were beyond patient in this situation.

Anyone who says they will NEVER have a dog that wanders might find that one comes to them in a furry, fun-loving and rebellious package. Its name might not be Jodi, Hank, Rover, Fido or Misha. Her name might be Karma and she will show you how to eat your words. They taste a lot like kibble.

A Sideshow Journey by Liesa Swejkoski

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