Dale Says

May 18, 2021

Alice Marble: A Story for the Ages

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile, Uncategorized — Mr. D @ 5:44 pm

The next time you explore San Francisco, you might want to spend a few minutes at the tennis courts on top of Russian Hill, less than a block from Lombard Street. From there, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Alcatraz – and you can reflect on the remarkable story of a San Franciscan named Alice Marble.

“Tennis gave me the opportunity to serve my country, but it did not prepare me for what I was asked to do – be a spy!”

That’s how Alice Marble opens her autobiography, which quickly turns into a dramatic rise-and-fall-and-rise-again story. She calmly tells how she overcame vast odds (including tuberculosis) and massive loss, to become the best female tennis player in the world. It also tells how she lost everything, and then bounced back to help prosecute the people who tried to destroy her life. It really is a story for the ages!

No one would have predicted such an exciting life for a girl who grew up an ordinary tomboy in 1920s San Francisco. As a girl, Alice Marble was primarily interested in sports, especially baseball. When she was seven, her father died on Christmas Eve, leaving her mother to raise five children. Her uncle filled in by taking Marble and her brother to local minor league San Francisco Seals games. She enjoyed it so much she went whenever possible, arriving early to play catch before the game. Thinking she was a boy, one of the Seals players asked her to come on the field. Marble later wrote that “… my hero, Lefty O’Doul, asked me to shag flies for him. Joe DiMaggio, beside me in center field, yelled encouragement.”

After that, local newspapers printed stories about her, identifying her as the new “Seals mascot,” and a San Francisco Examiner sportswriter dubbed her the “Little Queen of Swat.”

When she was thirteen, her brother gave her a tennis racket and told her, “You can’t keep hanging around the ballpark, hitting balls through people’s windows and acting like a boy.” At first, Marble was devastated to lose her time with the Seals, but she learned to play tennis – and to play it well. She excelled at sports at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High School, and after school she became a champion tennis player, noted for her aggressive play on the court and pioneering a new form of women’s power tennis. She also started a new dress style for women’s tennis, being the first to wear shorts. She toured the U.S., Canada, and Europe, played in tennis tournaments, and won most of the time.

In 1934, Marble collapsed during a match at a tennis tournament in France. Doctors diagnosed her with tuberculosis and told her she would never play tennis again. She was taken to a sanatorium and confined to a bed, where she watched her muscles and her hopes wither. After nearly a year, she left the sanatorium and went to live with her tennis coach. Encouraged by her coach and by actress Carole Lombard, who became a friend and confidante, Marble made a remarkable comeback. Through excruciating rehabilitation and grueling effort she went back on the tournament schedule and, in 1939, she won tennis titles in women’s singles, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. She became the best female tennis player in the world and was named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year in 1939 and 1940. Her comeback and championships won her fame and notoriety. She designed her own line of tennis clothing for women, gave inspirational talks, conducted tennis clinics, hung out with well-known people, including Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, William du Pont, and Randolph Hearst, and was mobbed by fans and given special treatment wherever she went.

During World War II, Marble volunteered to serve in the armed forces, but she was turned down because of her tuberculosis. Instead, she was asked by President Roosevelt to co-chair a physical-fitness program for the Office of Civilian Defense. To pass security, she was interrogated by the FBI, who questioned her about an earlier relationship with a Swiss banker named Hans and delved into her lifelong photographic memory. She also served her country by conducting tennis clinics for soldiers and by performing as a singer at U.S.O. clubs. She fell in love with and married a handsome, dark-haired pilot named Joe Crowley. They exchanged love letters and spent blissful days together when he was home on leave. She became pregnant and looked forward to raising their baby.

On Christmas Eve, 1944, as the Battle of the Bulge was being fought in Europe, the doorbell at Marble’s apartment rang. A man in a uniform stood in the doorway with a telegram in his hand. Joe was dead, killed in action over Germany. Only days before his death, Alice had a miscarriage with their child after a car accident. It was too much for Alice, and she wrote that “Joe was gone, and all my dreams with him.” She fell apart.

Again, Marble’s tennis coach was there to help her find a reason to go on. After a lengthy recovery Marble was approached by the U.S Army and recruited and trained as a spy. Her mission involved renewing contact with Hans, her former lover and a flourishing Swiss banker, and obtaining Nazi financial information from him. She received training in self-defense, firearms, and using a miniature camera.

She was sent to Europe to play in a series of demonstration tennis matches in order to attract Hans. The ruse worked — he contacted her. They dated, and she wound up falling in love with him. He made her feel alive for the first time in months and she was torn by her longing to be with him and her desire to help her country. Her conscience reminded her that she was the only one who could do what had to be done, and she decided to do her duty.

She discovered where Hans kept a key to a safe containing stolen valuables and names of the Nazis who had stolen them. She feigned an illness and while Hans was out she photographed the information in the safe. Just as she was finishing, Hans came home. She suspected Hans had left the keys in his car, as he usually did, so the servants could move it into the garage, and she waited until she heard him enter the house and go upstairs to look for her. She ran out the front door, got into his car, and fled. She was afraid he would follow, or that she would be stopped by police. Instead, she was flagged down by the Army contact assigned to her, who had been watching Hans’ house.

Her relief turned to terror when she discovered her contact was a double agent. He demanded she give the photographs to him, which was not the agreed upon plan. She refused and fled. He shot her in the back, took the photographs, and turned them over to the Russians.

Badly wounded, Marble spent months recovering in a hospital. Fortunately, she recovered fully and she was able to use her photographic memory to recall some of the Nazi names and information, which she gave to U.S. agents. It was valuable intelligence that was later used to help prosecute high-ranking Nazi officers.

***

After the War, Marble resumed playing and teaching tennis. She spent the rest of her life mentoring female tennis players, including Billy Jean King, and she contributed to the desegregation of the sport by writing an editorial in support of Althea Gibson, the first African-American athlete to cross the color line of international tennis.
***

In 1964, Alice Marble was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She moved to Palm Desert, California, where she taught tennis until her death in 1990.

***

The Little Queen of Swat had never given up. She spent her life overcoming adversity and fighting for what she believed in. Hers is truly a story for the ages.

April 13, 2015

Little Round Top

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Historical Article, Profile — Dale @ 10:57 am

It had already been quite a trip! Paul and I had flown across country from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. on our way to tour Civil War battlefields. Paul is a Civil War expert and he had done this trip many times, but not recently. His Parkinson’s was getting pretty bad, and he wanted to make one more journey to view the battlefields and re-live the history that was made there.
It was not an easy trip for Paul. The Parkinson’s was causing a fair amount of uncontrolled movement, and Paul was no longer steady on his feet. He now travelled with a cane, which he called that “Stupid Cane,” and he had to take a series of medicines every four hours to kept the involuntary movement to a minimum. Walking distances was a problem, and we used wheelchairs to get through the airports.
But Paul perked up once we hit the battlefields at Gettysburg, and he related the history of each area as though reading from a textbook. I was a student travelling with the professor, and I enjoyed the lessons.
We followed the three-day battles in sequence, and Paul pointed out where each division of Union and Confederate troops was positioned, told me who commanded each brigade, and pointed out the strategy each side used in positioning and moving artillery and troops. The scenes developed for me as he related what happened and when.
When we reached the third (and last) day of fighting, he got visually agitated; this was the climax of the battle, and as it turned out, the peak of the war. We drove through the fields and he had me pause next to the monuments of his favorite brigades. I could tell we were nearing the pinnacle. We rounded a corner and he pointed out that we could now see Little Round Top, the mid-sized hill where so much of the action took place, and where the battle was decided. We drove up the hill, paused near the top, and got out. He used his arms to show me where the Union and Confederate troops were positioned, and he explained the importance of taking the hill to eliminate the deadly cannon fire that was being rained down on the Confederate troops. He paused and I thought he was finished, so I headed to the car. He wasn’t with me, so I turned back to see what had happened to him. He was walking up the hill. I chased him down and asked where he was going.
“I didn’t come all the way here to not go to the top of Little Round Top,” was his answer.
So Paul used his stupid cane, his one good knee, and a whole lot of determination to walk the path to the top of Little Round Top. I followed.
Once he reached the peak a new look came over Paul’s face. It was a mix of pain, exhaustion, and joy. This was his nirvana; this was the ground he knew so well. He showed me where the troops from Texas had charged up the hill, and where they were met by round-after-round of deadly rifle fire by the northern troops. He pointed out where bodies had been found the next day, in piles, lying where they were shot. He pointed out where the Northern Iron Brigade defending the hill had run out of ammunition and been ordered to fix bayonets and charge down the hill, into the waves of approaching Confederate troops.
He made it all come alive.
It was a while before Paul could bring himself to leave. When he did, I looked at his face. He had a look that told me he was satisfied. He had come to the spot that meant so much to the U.S., and to him. He had one more look at it, and that was what he needed.
We will all face our end sometime; some sooner than others. Paul is facing his now. I hope when my turn comes I can follow his example – do what you love, do it with passion, and do it with courage.

September 4, 2014

Barry Zito’s Last Out

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile — Dale @ 12:33 pm

It was a heart-warming, emotional moment late in the last game of a mostly-disappointing season. It was September 29, 2013 and the San Francisco Giants, who had won the World Series the previous year, were battling the San Diego Padres for third place. The Giants were behind 6-2 with two outs and no one on base in the eighth inning.

In an act of thoughtfulness, Manager Bruce Bochy brought in Barry Zito to get the final out of the inning against Zito’s friend and former Oakland A’s teammate, Mark Kotsay. This would be Barry Zito’s last game as a Giant, and it would be Mark Kotsay’s last game as a Padre.

Zito started his career with seven terrific years with the A’s, winning the 2002 American League Cy Young Award and making the All-Star team three times. He was the A’s most durable pitcher and he didn’t miss a scheduled start during his time in Oakland.

After seven years with the A’s, Zito signed a seven-year contract for $126 million with the San Francisco Giants. That put him under a magnifying glass when he arrived in San Francisco. He was applauded when he did well and criticized when he did poorly, often by the same people. Over the seven years with the Giants, Zito had a record of 63-80.

Throughout his time in San Francisco, Zito remained positive and enthusiastic and he always did his best to help win games for the Giants. No matter how good things got for Barry, he was always calm. No matter how bad things went for him, he never complained. He gladly filled any role the coaches wanted.

Barry’s teammates loved him, and so did the media, who could always get a good interview from him. The 2012 season was a highlight, when he finished 15-8 and won two big postseason games.

Off the field, Zito was known for his idiosyncrasies and offbeat personality. Early in his career, he dyed his hair blue, and received the nicknames “Planet Zito” and “Captain Quirk.” He played guitar, surfed, followed Zen, did yoga poses in the outfield, and meditated before games.

Zito is also a philanthropist. He founded the charity “Strikeouts for Troops,” which provides services to help injured US Troops and offers support to military families.

Mark Kotsay, who retired after 17 major league seasons, had been an All-American at Cal State Fullerton and played baseball for the U.S. Olympics team. He was picked by the Florida Marlins in the first round of the 1996 baseball draft, became a starter for the Marlins in 1998, and established a reputation for a strong arm in the outfield. He was traded several times during his career, and wound up playing for seven major league teams. Some of his best years were with the Oakland A’s, including 2004, when he hit .314 and led American League center fielders with 11 assists. Overall, Kotsay appeared in 1,914 games, and collected 1,784 hits.

Kotsay and Zito had been roommates in Oakland and they were friends. So it was appropriate that they should face each other in their final baseball game — friend versus friend.

Zito started Kotsay by slipping two breaking pitches past him for called strikes. Kotsay then fouled off a curveball. On the fourth pitch, Zito threw a fastball past a swinging Kotsay for strike three.

The AT&T Park crowd went crazy, which continued while Zito made his way to the dugout. His teammates refused to let him go down the dugout steps until he came out and tipped his cap to the crowd.

For his part, Kotsay didn’t mind the way his last at-bat turned out. Striking out against a friend was bearable.

“I’m happy for Barry.” he told a reporter after the game. “If I had to strike out in my final at-bat, I’m glad it was against a former teammate whom I respect and love. It’s a good way to go out.”

Zito was happy, too. He sent a text to Kotsay.

“I love you my brother,” he wrote. “I have so much respect for you. I love that it was us together out there. See you soon.”

August 20, 2014

Sam and the Bear

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile — Dale @ 3:13 pm

It was early morning and Sam McClure, a curly-headed blond teenager from Menlo Park, California was sound asleep in his tent. He had done a lot of distance running and was in good shape, but he was worn out after the day’s 20-mile trek. This was Sam’s first attempt to complete the Tahoe Rim Trail and it hadn’t been easy, but he had persevered through severe foot blisters, insect bites, and sleepless nights. The 165-mile trail, which circles the mountain ridges of the Lake Tahoe Basin is difficult for anyone, but there are special challenges for a teenager hiking it by himself.
Suddenly, Sam felt a huge “thump!” HIs tent collapsed and something hit him in the face, nearly breaking his nose. Two heavy weights pressed on his torso, knocking the wind out of him. He woke up, unable to breathe, with the tent ceiling pressed against his face. At first, he thought it was a dream, but it continued, and he shook himself awake and looked around. The moon cast a silhouette against the tent and outlined in the shadow was a bear – a bear that was trying to get in Sam’s tent! It was swiping at the tent walls, and its front paws were on Sam’s stomach.
He gathered his wits and lay perfectly still, hoping the bear would go away. But it continued to paw at his tent. Sam had no food, because he had planned to meet his mother the next morning to re-supply, so the bear wasn’t after food. It must have just been curious.
Sam remembered reading that one way to discourage bears is to play dead, so he curled into a fetal position and lay perfectly still. The bear continued to swipe at the tent, and the claws of one paw tore through the tent wall and into Sam’s sleeping bag, leaving bloody scratch marks on his back. The bear opened its jaws and tried to get a grip on Sam’s neck.
At that point, Sam realized he was in serious trouble. He was in a vulnerable position, with his back and neck exposed to the bear. He had to do something. He gathered his courage and swung at the bear, punching it in the face. He screamed at the bear: “Go away!” he shouted, “Get out!”
The bear, caught unaware, was startled. It hadn’t expected a response, and it grunted, backed away from the tent, and prowled around the perimeter of Sam’s camp.
Sam crawled out of the ruins of his tent and got his first good look at the intruder. From the color and size, he estimated it was a medium-sized black bear, around 250 pounds, possibly a teenager.
After a little shuffling near the trees, the bear made another pass at Sam, running toward him on all fours. Sam considered trying to escape, but decided against it. He knew bears are fast, excellent at tracking their prey, and able to climb trees. There was nowhere to go! So he did the only thing left to him – he shouted at the bear at the top of his lungs. “Go away!” he screamed. “Get out of here!” Over and over he shouted at the bear, as loud as he could.
The bear, startled, retreated into the trees.
Sam took inventory of his condition. He was bleeding from his nose and back, but in the dark he couldn’t tell how badly he was injured. Neither the scratches nor his nearly-broken nose were severe, but he was shocked that the bear’s claws were able to scratch him – they had to go through a rain-fly, a tent wall, a sleeping bag, and a thick shirt. His tent was torn and partially down, his sleeping bag was ripped where the bear had clawed through to get at him, and he was alone in the dark.
Sam was amazed at how quick the bear had been. He had always thought of bears as lumbering bozos, but he now knew they were more like enormous cats: quick, strong, and absolutely terrifying in close quarters. He realized that if the bear had been more than just idly curious, or if Sam hadn’t been protected by several layers, the scratches would have been huge gashes, and he could have bled out by now.
He looked at his watch. It was 4:15 a.m., which meant the sun wouldn’t be up for another hour, and he knew it wasn’t safe to hike in the dark. So, he reluctantly sat down, took out his tape recorder, switched it on, and began talking. He described the attack and said goodbye to his mother and friends – just in case. He was concerned that the bear (or its mother) might come back and finish him off.
Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, daylight broke, and Sam gathered his things and headed down the trail, toward the spot where he was to meet his mother. He walked as fast as his legs would safely carry him, covering ten miles in about two hours. He needed to put as much distance as possible between him and the bear, and he needed to do it quickly. As he saw his mother’s car come into view, he finally relaxed, for the first time in hours. He was going to make it!
His mother gave Sam a hug when he arrived at her car and asked him how his hike had gone.
“Great!” he replied, “Except I was attacked by a bear!”
“Yeah, right,” his mother said.
“No, really!” Sam told her, and he showed her his torn shirt and the scratch marks on his back.
Sam and his mother found a Park Ranger and told him about the bear. The ranger told Sam he had done everything exactly right, and that he had been lucky. He would let everyone know there was a bear in the area coming into camps, and he put out an alert.
When Sam told us this story several weeks after the attack, we were mesmerized, and we hung on every word. He was calm as he rolled the story out – until he got to the part about recording his “goodbye” message for his mother. At that point, he must have been reminded of his mortality and his love for his mother, because I heard his voice crack.
As I heard Sam’s story, I was impressed by his poise and his courage. It had been a close call, and Sam had handled it well.

Note: In July of 2008, 16-year-old Sam McClure became the youngest person to solo thru-hike the Tahoe Rim Trail (TRT), completing the 165-mile journey around Lake Tahoe in ten days.

July 17, 2014

Dry Shoes

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile — Dale @ 11:57 am

June 27, 2014

Shadowing Dashiell Hammett

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile — Dale @ 10:29 am

He looks the part, and we could tell who he was from a block away. Today was the day he was going to guide us around the parts of San Francisco where Dashiell Hammett lived, worked, and wrote. And there he was, standing on Market Street, in front of the historic Flood Building, on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Don Herron looks to be around 60. The years and the San Francisco fog have drained some of the color from him, and his hair and beard are turning gray. His face and hands have also taken on a gray tint. His attire is subdued – a well-worn tan fedora and open tan trench coat, which partially covers his black shirt, tan slacks, and brown shoes. He could easily fit in on the foggy streets of San Francisco in the 1920’s.

Don came to San Francisco from Tennessee in 1974. In 1977, he recognized the value of the tour, trademarked it, and began operating it for a living. Since then, he has led it hundreds of times, and it is now the longest-running literary tour in the nation.

In his book (The Dashiell Hammett Tour), Don figures he reached the peak of his fame when his tour turned up on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!:

Category: American Cities.

Answer: “The city in which Don Herron leads the Dashiell Hammett Tour.”

Question: “What is San Francisco?”

Don is a wealth of knowledge about Dashiell Hammett, San Francisco, and 20th-century American literature. He talks nearly non-stop throughout the four-hour tour, relating stories about San Francisco, Dashiell Hammett, and Sam Spade.

The tour begins at the Samuels clock in front of the Flood Building, on San Francisco’s Market Street.

“Hammett came to San Francisco in July 1921 to get married and stayed eight years,” Don says as the tour begins. “He went in to this building and hired in with the Pinkerton Detective Agency.”

Around the corner at John’s Grill, Don dispels a myth.

“Hammett did not write The Maltese Falcon at John’s Grill,” he states. “But he probably ate there.”

Don strides on, pointing out the Geary Theater, the Palace Hotel, the Stockton Tunnel, the Hunter-Doolin Building, and Burritt Street, where (in The Maltese Falcon) Brigid O’Shaughnessy shot Miles Archer. He shows us where Hammett slept, where he wrote, and where his characters lived and died. The final stop is 891 Post Street, Hammett’s residence while writing The Maltese Falcon.

“There,” Don says, “In the top-floor corner apartment, is where Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon.” Don has been in the apartment, and he re-read Hammett’s most famous book there.

That means a lot to Don and to us.

Today, Don lives in two distinct worlds: the high-tech, instant communication world of the 21st century, and the hard-boiled, shadowy world of Dashiell Hammett’s roaring ’20s. He seems to enjoy both. When he isn’t giving the tour or lecturing to clubs, Don manages a website and blog on Dashiell Hammett and other mystery writers. He has found something he loves, and he has figured out how to make a living doing it.

At this point, Don would probably agree with his man, Dashiell Hammett, who wrote, “I don’t know anything else, don’t enjoy anything else, don’t want to know or enjoy anything else. You can’t weigh that against any sum of money.”

June 11, 2014

Ruby Loved Her Seniors

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile — Dale @ 2:20 pm

Ruby Gim worked at the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center (Tel-Hi) for 36 years, and everyone at Tel-Hi knew and loved Ruby. She held several positions at Tel-Hi, and she worked with all ages of people, but for most of the time she ran the senior program – starting and running a variety of programs for senior citizens. The core of the program is a hot meal, which for some of the seniors is the only full meal they eat each day. For many, it’s the only time they get out of their homes. Ruby developed activities for her seniors to do while at the Center; including exercise classes, Tai Chi, line dancing, educational programs, and time in the computer lab. Ruby also put together special events for her seniors; such as a Lunar New Year luncheon, Christmas meal, and a Mother’s Day lunch.

Tel-Hi was home away from home for many of Ruby’s seniors, and they counted on Ruby for a friendly face, positive advice, and a hug. And Ruby was a great hugger! She would get down on one knee to hug the pre-school kids, and she would stand on her tip-toes to reach up and hug the teenagers, who all respected and loved Ruby. She greeted her co-workers each day with a warm hug, and she would lean down to hug and give a comforting word to her seniors. She knew and loved everyone at Tel-Hi.

“Ruby was the soul of Tel-Hi,” is how Nestor Fernandez, Tel-Hi’s Executive Director described her. “Many of the staff members considered her a mentor and even a second mother.”

Ruby got involved in many of her seniors’ lives. Whether they had health issues, financial problems, or other difficult situations Ruby was always there to listen and help — always accompanied by a hug and an encouraging word.

Each of Ruby’s seniors had a “special” relationship with her, and Ruby went out of her way for them. She took food to Bea’s apartment when Bea was sick; walking several blocks from Tel-Hi to deliver a hot meal, bread, and other supplies. When Ina was feeling blue, Ruby wrapped a white scarf around her neck to cheer her up. And Ruby gave a pink sweater to another senior to keep her warm.

No one knows for sure where Ruby got her compassion and caring. Maybe it came from taking care of her father. When her mother died, Ruby moved in with her father and took care of him until he died, many years later, at age 103. She doted on her dad; cooking for him, cleaning, and taking him for walks. When he died, she turned some of that love toward her seniors, and she treated them like family members.

Recently, Ruby developed health issues; including an irregular heartbeat and a lump in her breast. The health issues, the life she led, and the care she gave to others took a toll on her, and she became thinner and weaker. Yet she continued to give, and as she did there became less and less of her.

Everyone older than ten knows that life isn’t always fair. But someone as good and as caring as Ruby deserves a better fate than hers.

A while back, Ruby allowed her ex-husband back into her house, on a temporary basis. She loved him, but something had gone wrong between them, and he abused her. Eventually, Ruby had to file a restraining order against him. They stayed away from each other for a while, but the ex-husband had heart surgery and had nowhere to go after the surgery, so our dear Ruby took him into her house and cared for him. She wasn’t happy about it, but she did what Ruby always did — take care of those who needed help. But this time it back-fired on Ruby when the ex-husband beat her to death. There are no words to explain why such a horrible thing could happen to such a wonderful person.

Ruby was taken from us way too soon. She had more love to give and more seniors to take care of.

Now, Ruby is taking care of her seniors in heaven.

May 12, 2014

A Very Special Favor

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile — Dale @ 1:15 pm

Thirty-two years ago Bob Damir faced a dilemma when his friend, William Saroyan, died. An unusual request was included in Saroyan’s will, which Bob had been asked to fulfill. Bob wanted to do this favor for his friend, but it would be quite an imposition.

William Saroyan (or “Bill” as Bob knew him) was a popular author in the 1930’s and 1940’s; at the time one of the best-known writers in the world, on par with Hemmingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner. He wrote fiction, mostly about life in California during the Depression and World War II, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, The Time of Your Life, and an Academy Award for his screenplay for the movie, The Human Comedy.

Bob and Bill were friends for more than 40 years. Their families were from the same town in Armenia, and both families escaped the Turkish massacres, emigrated to the U.S., and settled in Fresno, California. Bill was quite a bit older than Bob, and their lives took very different courses, but luck (or maybe fate) put them together several times over the years, often purely by chance. Bob helped Bill put his will together, which included a foundation to help young writers. Bill’s will also stipulated that after his death half of his ashes should be buried in Fresno, and the other half taken to and buried in Armenia.

Soon after Bill’s death, Bob started getting requests for the ashes from Russian officials and Armenian groups, but he told them all that the Foundation would decide what to do and when to do it. In May of 1982, a year after Bill died, the Foundation asked Bob to head a delegation* to take Bill’s ashes to Armenia. Bob knew this was important to his friend, and he wanted to honor Bill’s wishes.
But Bob had a family and a thriving law practice in San Francisco, and a trip to Armenia (which was then part of the U.S.S.R.) meant he would have to leave everything he cherished and travel to the Soviet Union. He would be unable to contact his family for nearly two weeks.

To make things more difficult, relationships between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were strained. It was the height of the Cold War, and two years earlier, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow because the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Since then, relations had further deteriorated, and the U.S. instigated trade sanctions and travel restrictions against the Soviet Union. So Bob would have to travel through Canada, to Moscow, and then to Armenia. Who knew what sort of treatment he would receive when he got to Moscow?

That made the favor a very special one, and Bob had to consider it carefully. He talked it over with his wife and family, discussed it with his friends and colleagues, and decided he would go. He admired Bill and wanted to do this for him. So Bob reluctantly told his family, arranged time away from his office, and had a travel agent organize the trip. He would travel from San Francisco to Toronto, and then to Montreal. After a night in Montreal, he would fly a trans-Atlantic flight (on a Russian airline) to Moscow.

So, in late May of 1982, Bob packed a suitcase, kissed his family good-bye and headed to the airport, uncertain what awaited him.

The flight to Canada was crowded and long, but the overnight stay in Montreal was pleasant. Bob had a nice stroll and dinner, and made a last call to his family. The next morning he boarded a Russian Aeroflot plane for the flight to Moscow. It was crowded, uncomfortable, and Bob had an edgy, raw feeling during the flight. The seats were small, made even more so because Bob had Bill’s ashes (in an urn) with him, and it was nearly impossible to sleep on the plane. Most of the passengers were unfriendly Russians who spoke little or no English and the flight attendants were brusque. It was a long and awkward flight, and he was pretty dazed when he arrived at Moscow.

Bob didn’t know what to expect from the Russians. He reminded himself that they wanted this to happen, and he felt safe as long as he had the ashes. But he was tense as he made his way down the steps from the plane. The customs process was stiff and bureaucratic, and Bob could feel the distain the Russian officials had for Americans, but once through customs it was a different experience. There to greet him (along with the Red Army, reporters, and photographers) were two vans full of representatives from the Armenian Writers’ Union who warmly greeted Bob and his companions, and embraced the urn. Bob and his group were escorted to their hotel, and that night, they were treated to celebrations and toasting.

The next day, the delegation flew to Armenia, where they were greeted by enthusiastic crowds of locals. They had arrived in an ancient land that has suffered suppression and massacres, and its people take great satisfaction when their offspring are successful. Saroyan had told the world about Armenia, and Armenia’s people treated him as a hero.

From the time he arrived in Armenia, Bob was involved in nearly non-stop observances and formalities. He was taken on sightseeing tours of Armenia’s points of interest, including the ancient Garni Temple and Echmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church. At the Martyr’s Monument, he was moved to tears by thoughts of his ancestors’ ravaged land and slaughtered people. He was honored at banquets and gatherings and attended an opera, a play, and many late night parties, where speeches and toasting went on late into the night.

The highpoint took place Saturday, May 29, when the urn that contained Saroyan’s ashes was buried. It was a warm, sunny day and Gomidas Park in downtown Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) was packed. Bob estimated the crowd of people at around 5,000. The urn and an enormous photo of Bill were on display, and dozens of floral bouquets surrounded the burial site. The dignitary’s platform was filled with high-ranking government officials who made elaborate speeches, lavishing praise and admiration on “Our Beloved William.” Bob was amazed by the intensity and sincerity of it all, and he was sure his friend Bill would have been surprised by the accolades, but pleased to be so well known in the land of his ancestors.

On his last day in Armenia, Bob returned to Gomidas Park to take one last look at Saroyan’s tomb. When he got there, four days after the burial, there was a crowd of people admiring Saroyan, praising him and crying over his grave! Bob met one elderly man who had travelled over 200 miles from his mountain village to pay respects to Saroyan.

Today, when Bob thinks back to his trip to Armenia his face breaks into a smile. He has happy memories, a terrific sense of accomplishment, and a warm feeling that comes from helping a friend. And, when asked about doing that very special favor, Bob says he has no regrets.

January 6, 2014

The Rug Weaver

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile — Dale @ 12:34 pm

Madan sits on the ground in front of his house cross-legged and barefoot and works on his hand-made loom. He runs a chai tea shop and sells rugs that he and his family make on a hilltop in the country north of the town of Udiapur, India. His isn’t a real shop, just a room filled with rugs and a table for the tea. Madan works 10-12 hours a day, every day, weaving rugs. He learned to make rugs from his father, who learned it from his father. He made his own loom from logs, stones, and iron and he uses instruments of wood and iron that were made by his grandfather. He creates his own designs for his rugs, and dyes his own yarn using natural ingredients such as marigold leaves, turmeric, and indigo.

The rug Madan is working on is about two-thirds finished, so he will work on it about week or two before it is completed and he can put it with the other rugs in the room next to his loom. If he is really lucky it will sell in a month or two.
Madan looks up as we enter and smiles broadly. He seems to be a happy man. He is dressed neatly in a blue dress shirt and dark pants, and his black hair and mustache are neatly trimmed. He has a vertical orange smear above his eyebrows, which indicates he has been to Hindu temple recently. His manner is quiet and hopeful. He demonstrates how he weaves the yarn through his loom and we are fascinated by how quickly and accurately his hands move the different colors of yarn and the parts of the loom. He picks up a tool and compresses the yarn he has just added to his rug and shows how that makes the weaving so tight it is water proof – the water he pours onto the rug pools and sits on the surface.
His four brothers are rug weavers, too, and he tells us in his broken English about his family and the tradition and pride his family has in making rugs. We look at a few of his rugs and fall in love with two of them. We ask their price and hold our breath; after all, he has worked a month on each of them. He does some quick calculations in his head and gives us a price of 9,100 rupees – about $150. We agree, pay him, and he packs our rugs neatly into a small bag.

Before we go, he takes a piece of his home-made yarn and ties a bracelet around each of our wrists. Then he shakes our hands, and we feel the warmth and sincerity in his touch. He gives us a card with his name and address and asks us to send him a photo of his rugs in their new home. Then he clasps his hands, fingers pointing upward in a prayer position, bows, and wishes us namaste. We feel a warm and wonderful connection with him.

Madan is sitting there today on the ground outside his modest home, weaving a rug. He probably hasn’t thought about us again, because he has his own thoughts and his own life to live. But we have thought about him a lot. We love the rugs he made, and we still wear the bracelets he gave us. He is an artist who reached out to us and touched us, and he gave us two rugs that he spent two months of his life making. And our lives are better because we met him.

September 2, 2013

Tomas Wants to be a Weather Forecaster

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Profile — Dale @ 1:40 pm

When we book cycling tours in foreign countries, we usually pick a local tour company. That saves us a few dollars, and gives us a more “local” flavor. In Poland, we signed on with a tour company in Krakow who made hotel reservations and furnished us with bicycles, maps, and a guide.

Our guide (Tomas) was born, raised, and still lives in Krakow. He’s 38, married, and has a 10-year-old daughter who goes to elementary school in Krakow. Tomas is thinly-built and handsome, with dark, curly hair. He speaks Polish, English, German, and some Spanish and Russian. He makes a living by leading bicycle tour groups in the summer and teaching English and German the rest of the year.

Tomas has been leading bike tours since 2001. In addition to cycling with the group each day, Tomas runs marathons, and he went running each morning before he greeted us for the start of our daily rides. That’s probably why he is thinly-built.

Tomas has applied to be a weather forecaster on TV, and he had just found out that he made the cut and was part of a group of five semi-finalists for the job. He is quietly excited about it, because it would mean he could spend more time in Krakow with his family.

Tomas was very dedicated, friendly, and helpful. He was also very concerned that each of us was happy, and he became easily stressed. Everything had to be on time, and if we were running late, he would round us up and move us along.

On the tour he was very hard-working. He helped load and unload bikes, and he checked our bicycles each evening to make sure the tires were up and our gear was ready. He also went from hotel-to-hotel to make sure everything was in order and everyone was pleased.

On the tour, Tomas gave instructions and historic talks in German and English. He led the group as we cycled, but he often circled around and made sure everyone was alright. He took turns riding with each of us, and he asked about our background, our interests, and how we were doing. We felt he was genuinely concerned about us.

We learned a lot from Tomas. He told us about the history of the Tatra Mountains and the Gorale people. He told us what it was like to live in Poland when it was controlled by the Communists. He told us some of his hopes and fears growing up in a very different world than ours.

We learn something new from each country we travel to. There are so many different cultures, histories, and religions in our world, and those differences shape us into what we become. What we also realize each time we travel to a new country is that despite our many differences we have a lot in common. That’s how Tomas made us feel. We felt his great interest in us and his pride in his country. And we felt his love of his family and shared his hope for a better future for them.

Thanks, Tomas, for helping us experience your country. And thanks for helping us experience the common bonds we share.

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