Friday, March 26, 2010

Illustration Friday - Rescue

Picture 006
Originally uploaded by danguerra444
This is based on an old Norman Rockwell drawing, I updated the ballplayer...nothing like being rescued by your boyhood hero!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cousin Mike

Last Friday night around 7:00 the phone rang, my mom picked it up, "Hello? oh hi Norman!..." There was silence..."WHAAAAAT!!!!...OH NOOO IT CAN'T BEEE!"

"oh oh" I thought, this doesn't sound good.

"When??...what happened?..."

I got up and walked into the kitchen, my mom had a look of shock. When she hung up, she was already in tears, with her hands on her cheeks she said, "your cousin Mike died."

"WHAAAAT?" At first I just didn't believe it, there must be some mistake...not Mike. We had just seen him a month earlier, at Uncle Friney's funeral in LA, and he was as robust and full of life as ever. "How?"

"Well, he was coaching soccer and he said he didn't feel good, so he sat down on the lawn, then he just keeled over, and that was it!...must have been his heart..."

I was overcome with a kind of cold numbness, the kind that comes with a particular shock and disconnect. This couldn't be true...Mike was the last person I had expected, there are so many relatives who have gotten older, and sometimes you half-expect to get a 'call' once in awhile about them...but not Mike, he had just turned 60, he had soooo many years left. And he was always youthful in his ways, the way he related to everyone with a sense of humor and a genuine kindness. From day one, he was always a favorite of the family. During family get-togethers, "oh, Mike's coming? coool!..."

Whatever spark there is in humans that gives them a certain kind of 'goodness', Mike always had it.

I remember when I was 5 years old, Mike and his brother Art were in town for a visit, around Thanksgiving. Mike was 12 at the time, "Hey Danny! I got something for ya!" He handed me a small package, it was a balsa wood airplane, the kind you put together and attach a propeller with a rubber band. He got one for himself too. We sat down on the curb, "Here, I'll show you how to put it together..." And with a patience and understanding far beyond his 12 years, he helped me put mine together and we flew them. I will never forget that day.

When our grandfather died in 1970, Mike spoke at the funeral in Tulare, he was only 20! But even then, he gave one of the most eloquent speeches. He spoke of the Giant Forest in nearby Sequoia National Park, how our grandpa was like one of the Giant Sequoias, now fallen, but a great grove still existed among the rest of us, and how the forest carries on...we were all moved by his speech. He became the go-to guy after that. Grandma, Uncle Bob, Uncle Toody (his dad), Aunt Carmen...Mike always spoke with a gentle passion that was just right.

As we got older, all of us cousins were busy with our own lives and didn't stay in as much contact as we liked, but it was always a grand reunion when we got together. Mike drove a Chevy van in the 70's and took road trips all over in it. Sometimes he would stop in San Jose on a surprise visit, and it was always a wonderful surprise, as he filled the room with his wit and humor, and genuine good nature. It was always good to see Mike.

We played golf a few times, and always bought a 6-pack of Bud for the back 9, and laughed at how it consistently improved our golf game. Mike later became a pastor, and also a teacher and coach, which he loved. He was deeply spiritual, but never 'preached'...

After we heard the news, we settled in with the sadness and we keep shaking our heads, "I still can't believe it." I kept thinking of his Forest speech, and how so many great trees have since fallen, some only recently. And his was one of the highest, and strongest in the family, and we all basked in its shade, and in its wasn't supposed to fall this soon.

But the forest will carry on as it always does...but right now, the forest is a quiet and lonely place.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Illustration Friday - Expired

Picture 054
Originally uploaded by danguerra444
Pterodactyls had a wingspan the size of a small plane. They ruled the skies until their time had expired.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Illustration Friday - Subterranean

Picture 036
Originally uploaded by danguerra444
This is a follow-up to 'Journey to the Center of the Earth' posted earlier, following our heroes further down...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Illustration Friday - Brave

Picture 021
Originally uploaded by danguerra444
When I was drawing Max I always had the feeling I was about to get rescued from a burning ranger station.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My dog Nicky

On my tenth birthday, I was in the kitchen in our house in San Jose. It was a Saturday and there was gonna be a small party that afternoon. My dad said, "Why don't you go in the back yard, your mom wants to show you something." I thought, 'oooh, maybe a present?'...So I went out back and looked around, hmm nothing. I walked further into the back, to the lawn and suddenly I saw a little Beagle puppy running towards me. At first I thought it must be a neighbor's dog who had gotten loose. He ran up as I knelt down to pet him. His tail was wagging at full speed as he jumped up and tried to lick my face. He was the coolest little dog! Then my mom emerged from somewhere and said, "Say hello to your little brother!"
"He's your new dog!"

I was speechless! We had discussed getting a dog before, but I never actually thought it would ever happen. My dad would go on and on about the responsibility of owning a pet...the care and feeding, cleaning up after it, and endless scenarios in which pet ownership would not be a practical or desirable thing. And yet here he was! An endless and permanent smile was glued on my face as I played with him on the grass. And he seemed just as joyous. He indeed became my 'little brother' as I grew into my teens and young adulthood. Nicky was my buddy, and he was part of the family. When we finally had to put him to sleep it was devastating to all of us. I was literally numb with grief for a few days. But he'll always be with me, not just in memory but in spirit.
Because he still visits me in my dreams.

Whether it's actually 'him' is almost beside the point, because the visits are real enough in a spiritual sense. In other words, when I do dream about him, he's never a 'walk on' character in some bizarre's always just him, coming to say hello with his wagging tail and gentle and intelligent eyes...and he looks me in the eye with his doggy smile. After I wake up I always think, "that WAS had to be."

I dreamed about him last night. It doesn't happen often, maybe about five times at the most since he died. And each time I think the same thing, "Oh my God! Nicky!...are you okay?'s been so long since I've seen you or fed you!! look okay, oh must be, what 41 years old now? You look good for 41...where have you been??" And he is old, he looks old...but he still smiles and wags his tail, as if he's just happy to be here. It indeed feels like he's visiting, just to say hello. No messages from beyond, no forewarning of impending doom like in a cheesy movie...just a visit from a happy soul from...somewhere...they do say all dogs go to heaven.
This time, I woke up and Nicky was still laying on the bed! "Nicky? Is that really you?" He grinned and woofed, as if to say, "yup!" He got up and moved to the edge of the bed to jump off. "You're so old buddy, be careful!" He looked back at me and jumped off. I sat up in bed and realized I was still dreaming, because I was on my hands and knees in a forest...a redwood forest I recognized. A voice said, "Here's what he saw." Who's voice that was, I don't know. I was then looking up from about a foot off the ground, and I saw myself with my cousin Joe, we were both kids, running up the hill...I was looking through Nicky's eyes!! I saw me and Joe run past and I joined in the chase, and I didn't exactly hear...but felt Nicky's voice, if he had been capable of having a sort of 'Dick and Jane' vocabulary,
"danny! joe! run run! let's run! run danny! run joe! let's go! let's go! go go go! ball! where's the ball? throw it! throw it! I'll chase it! c'mon let's go! run run run!"
Then I slowly woke through the fog of that dissipating dream, the kind that you wish could never end, and I remembered the sheer joy of running with them. The pure undistilled joy of what a dog must feel when he's playing, and the unconditional love of a pet.
Maybe I should re-title this, "Nicky's gift."

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath

One of the things my mom and I have enjoyed doing lately is watching old vintage movies from the library. Some of the old film-noir movies, and old classics that I hadn't seen. The other day we watched "The Grapes of Wrath" made in excellent film with a very young Henry Fonda. He played Tom Joad, a man who returns home to his family's farm in Oklahoma in the 1930's, only to discover it's been deserted. He finally finds them at his uncle's farm, where they're packing up the truck, because his uncle was also in forclosure. The banks were kicking everyone out of their homes and farms in the Depression-era 30's, especially in Oklahoma, during the incredible drought, the Dust Bowl...
It all sounds hauntingly familiar nowadays...but back then, there were no job placement resources, no UI...nothing. They were on their own.

But there were handbills that said there was work in California, so they set off with all that they owned in their dilapidated truck for the promised land, where "you could just reach up and pluck an orange right outta the sky" California.

As we watched, we found that this was a very poignant story, based on the book by John Steinbeck, because it was based on all-too-true stories, and the fictional Joads' destination was right here in the Central Valley in the 30's. My mom was a young girl then, and she remembers them first hand...the 'Okies' they called them. Though 'Okie' is a somewhat derogatory term, that's what everyone called them...that's what they called themselves.

"I was so little when they were coming," my mom said, "they were everywhere. I remember riding with my dad to Visalia and we'd see them parked along the road, just camping out of their cars."

When we watched the part in the movie where the Joads finally reached the California border, "I bet that's Needles" she said. And sure enough! The sign in the movie said 'Needles, California'.
"That's where they came through mostly, to the Valley, on the old highway 40...some came up through LA, the ones who stayed on Route 66."
It began to interest me that my mom had indeed lived during this, at ground zero during a significant part of California history...enough to base a landmark book and movie about anyway.
"How many actually came?"
"Oh thousands...not all at once of course. It was like a mass migration over a few years. And I was little, so I only remember some things...but I do remember when the Okies were everywhere, and nobody knew what to do with them all."

As we watched, the Joads found a temporary camp, among other new arrivals. It was basically a squatters camp. Their trip west had been a hard one. The grandfather died on the way, so they buried him by a tree near the highway. The son-in-law Al, he ran away, leaving behind a pregnant wife, because "he didn't know it was gonna be like this..."
When they unpacked, Ma Joad started cooking stew over an open fire. Soon, a few kids from the other campsites gathered around, and just stared.
"I shouldn't been doin' this...but my family's gotta eat. Lookit them poor kids..."
Henry Fonda then shooed them away, "Go on, git outta here now...go on GIT!"
As the kids scattered, Ma said "Aww now Tom, you shouldn't oughta be mean to them kids...they's just hungry."
"Yeah well I'm hungry too, Ma. And it ain't just food."

My mom said, "Aw, I would feel so sorry for those Okie kids. Some of them came to our school, and the other kids would be so mean to them. They'd make fun of their clothes, make fun of their hair, the way they talked...I did make friends with one girl though, Helen...she was the sweetest thing. I wonder where she is now."
"You should look her up."
"Well she got married and moved away after high school, but yeah I should."

In the movie, the Joads heard there was work picking oranges in Pixley. So they loaded their truck and headed there.
"Oh Pixley! There's still big orange groves over there!"

On the road, they got a flat tire. A man stopped and gave them a leaflet, it was a Communist leaflet stating how workers were being exploited and needed to organize and abolish the corporations.
"I remember the Communists...they were a regular political party back then. The grown-ups and teachers always told us to stay away from them. One time a kid brought a Communist leaflet to school. The teacher tore it up and threw it away in front of the class!"

As the Joads made their way north, stopping to work for a few days picking oranges, moving on to pick cotton, and moving on again with their broken down truck. Tom Joad became more frustrated at their existence...understandibly.
"I remember my dad telling a story about one Okie who came to the Ford garage here in Tulare. He needed parts for his truck, but he had no money. He was a mechanic, so he offered to work in exchange for the parts. Grandpa said he was such a good mechanic they hired him!"
"Good thing he had a skill!"
"Yeah grandpa used to bring home big bags of oranges, chickens, baskets of eggs...The Okies would bring their cars in to get fixed, and that's how they paid."

The Joads finally came to a government run camp, with running water and small cottages with electricity. The camp would assign jobs and they could live there for a very small fee. The Joads felt like they were living in luxury.
"That's how Tagus Ranch was, just up the road from here. It's still there, but it's a mobile home park now."

At the end of the movie, Tom Joad had to hit the road, but Ma Joad, in a moving speech, said how the family will go on. I thought about all the real Ma Joads out there, who held the families together in the hardest of times. They were decent hard-working folks, just looking for a place to settle and earn a living...or just get an even break. It was a very good movie and wonderfully acted. What made it so poignant was that it happened right here. The Joads were fictional of course, and many families were better off, some were worse off.

"A lot of those Okies ended up in Bakersfield. Their cars would break down over the Grapevine, so they hitch-hiked into the valley. Bakersfield was as far as many of them got. That's why there's so many Okies in Bakersfield...Nathan Findley was one."

Nathan Findley came with his wife from Oklahoma in 1934. After two hard years, Nathan finally landed a job at a tractor and farm equipment plant in Bakersfield as a machinist. They had three children, Joe, Leonard, and Hazel...
Joe is my uncle.