Is there anything that lightens up a dark February than Leap Year? I love that magical 29th day at the end of the month that only appears every four years. To celebrate, for the month of February only, I’m offering copyediting services for half price. So if you’ve been saving up a manuscript or two, now is the time to get on my schedule. See my Editing Services page for copyediting rates.
My brother, John Walton Thompson II (b. August 6, 1954), passed away on September 14, 2016. He was 62. He would have hated that I have revealed both his middle name and the “II,” the “two-th,” after his name. He hated the Walton, for reasons obvious to anyone old enough to remember the television program and “John-boy Walton.” Our family was sworn to never reveal his middle name–an old family one foisted on my father and my brother by our Grandmother–to his friends. (Sorry bro, but if you’d wanted to keep these secrets, you should have stuck around.) It was ironic that after 9/11, “John Thompson” became a suspected terrorist name, and when John wanted to fly, he found it easier to use “J. Walton Thompson.”
A favorite story from when John was young: He started taking judo lessons. A friend of our father was a black belt, and John—who was Johnny then—was as impressed as a 7-year-old could be. After a lesson or two, John was describing—to an older, larger friend across the street–the judo throw where you grab an onrushing opponent by the shirt, fall backward, and toss your opponent over your head. The friend scoffed. John offered to show him. Our dad, who was watching all this, foresaw disaster. John’s friend charged. Not knowing it takes a lot of practice to master this maneuver, John deftly grabbed his friend, dropped and tossed him across the yard. “See? Nothing to it,” John told him.
John was well known in Laguna Beach, California, as a jeweler of extraordinary skill with a commitment to his craft. Although I’d always known John was good at what he did, I was still surprised to hear two jewelers who themselves are masters, praise John as being one of the best. John began learning his skills at our store in Costa Mesa, Five M Gems, from another fine craftsman, Jim Grahl. He quickly gained mastery and honed his abilities over 45 years at the bench. For the last 35-plus years, he worked with Dan Miller, of Dan Miller Jewelry, on Ocean Boulevard in Laguna. Hundreds of jewelry collectors treasure the work created by these two exceptional designers and craftsmen.
There was very little John could not do with gold and a torch. He once removed the tiny cogs and wheels from an antique ladies wristwatch and built a sculpture no more than one-and-a-half inch high by soldering the pieces together edge to edge. He was a very thorough and patient teacher, though not all his students were successful. He once tried to teach me how to solder. After everything was fluxed and ready to go, I put the torch to the metal. The solder refused to flow. I was so focused, I didn’t hear John saying quietly, calmly, behind me, “Get off it. Get off it,” until he finally said, more forcefully, “Get off it! It’s melting.” Oh. My last attempt at soldering.
Less well known was John’s passion as an art collector. He began collecting while still in his teens, and was completely self-taught. While he admired art from across the ages, he was most influenced in his own work by Art Deco, a style he loved.
John’s overriding passion, however, was his son, Saxon, 30, to whom he was devoted. No one who met John ever doubted his love for, and his pride in, his son, now studying for his masters in Occupational Therapy. Though I don’t think John ever envisioned himself as a father, from the beginning, he took to his responsibility toward Saxon wholeheartedly. When Saxon was born, I believe he had moisture on his lungs. The doctors snatched him from the birthing room, where John was present, to rush him to intensive care. The doctor was surprised to find John hard on his heels. “Where are you going?” he asked my brother. John pointed at Saxon. “Where he goes, I go,” John told him.
As I said, John hated his name all his life. When he met a friend during his teens named Saxon, he promised that if he ever had a son, Saxon would be his name. And so it was.
John was an eloquent story-teller, often paralyzing his audience with laughter. Friends, family and clients enjoyed his bright, quick mind and his often sharp (and often dark) sense of humor. After our mother died, John came to Oregon to help me begin to clean out her house and get things ready for an estate sale, a difficult task. He was cleaning out drawers and cupboards in the kitchen, while I was pricing things and setting them on the table. He came to me at one point holding an object in his hand. “What the hell is this?” he asked. I stared at it for a moment, clueless. Then John said drily, “Gift with purchase?” I started to laugh, then he started to laugh, the first time since our mom had had her stroke. It was the moment our healing process began.
John did not suffer fools gladly, as fools quickly discovered. But often his gruffness and acerbic wit hid a heart of marshmallow. He was not a joiner and had only a few close friends, most of whom he’d known all his life. John had the “gift of gab” and most people who met him liked him immediately. However, John was an intensely private person, whom not even his family or close friends knew really well.
John was divorced from Joanne Broe Burkhardt. He was pre-deceased by his parents, John Walton Thompson and Elaine Antoinette Thompson. He is survived by his aunt, Edna Joan Beatty, his sister (me), Sharon Elaine Thompson, his son, Saxon Rayth Thompson, and a number of cousins (Linda Gugler Walsh Lapinski, Gary Gugler, Barbara Gugler Asplin, Linda Barnard Tamasiunas, Diane Barnard Reher, Michael Clare, and Mark, Paul, and David Bugajski) and their children. His passing leaves a gaping hole in many lives. He will be missed.
It was said in Vaudeville that you should never work with children or animals.
I don’t know about the children, but I do know about the animals.
For five years, I was a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo. Mostly that meant taking fourth-grade to middle-schoolers around the enclosures and explaining that, no, that wasn’t the elephant’s fifth leg—or his trunk.
But it also meant working the small animal show called Discovery Circle. Our stars were not the exotics that take center stage in many other animal shows. Ours were usually refugees, donated to the zoo after a parent discovered that the exotic animal they’d given a child was a poor candidate for a pet.
There was Ty, a lovely barn owl that everyone thought was male until he laid an egg. Ty was a trouper. During my owl talk she was known to start working her gullet like she was trying to dislodge a bone—which she was. I’d move smoothly into telling kids that when owls ate a mouse, they ate everything but the squeak. When everything was digested, they would—and Ty was always right on cue—cough up an owl pellet of all the leftover bits. The demonstration was met predictably with a loud chorus of “Ewwww!”
There was our poor nameless rabbit, a huge lop-ear who had come to us after he’d grown out of his Easter cuteness and been manhandled by children. If you don’t think a rabbit can become mean, you’ve never had a 15-pound lop growl at you. I never took him out of the cage. Only the keepers and a few courageous docents did.
There was the sleepy, normally nocturnal ferret, who came to us probably because someone discovered his strong scent was not desirable in a house pet, not because it was illegal to own ferrets as pets in California. I never had trouble but he did bite another docent. My biter was Miss Tiggywinkle, the hedgehog. (She may also have been male for all we knew. We didn’t enquire.) During a presentation, I put my hand in front of her to keep her from waddling off the edge of the table. She repaid my kindness by nipping my finger. I expect she was disappointed to discover it was not a slug.
The most surprising troublemaker, though was an arthritic boa constrictor named, of course, Balboa. Ancient and creaking, we handled him as gently as we could transporting him curled in a canvas sack.
Balboa’s sense of humor first became obvious when I did an outreach show at a school in central LA. On those occasions, docents traveled with a driver/handler named Randy. He knew the show as well as the docents did and he would bring out the animals as we need them and return them to their cages in the back of the van while I went on with the show. Balboa did not have a cage. He rode to our schools in his sack on the console between us in the van.
At this memorable presentation, I was discoursing on Ty (no pellet that day), getting ready to move into my reptile section. Randy, knowing what was expected, returned to the van.
I heard a quiet, “Shit.”
I glanced back and saw that Randy was desperately looking around the van. The sack in his hand was empty. I ended up talking about the tortoise instead of the AWOL Balboa.
When we broke between the shows Randy opened the back of the van and we both started searching. I heard him say, “Ah,” and turned to see him pluck the boa from between the van’s side panels. Balboa went on for the second show.
The next time the boa got clever, I had gone into the zoo early before opening. We had a group of mentally disabled kids coming in, my first time with this audience. The school had asked for a private tour of the zoo and the Discovery Circle show. The docent who was supposed to work the show with me was unable to come in that day, but she assured me the show would be easy to do.
Fortunately, the docent touring the group had worked Discovery Circle before, because when we got to Balboa, he was unusually frisky. Although we usually held him with one hand behind his head and one on his body, he was squirming much more than usual. Focused on my audience, I didn’t notice what he was up to.
Until I realized he’d gotten his head through the belt loop on my jacket and was about six inches through.
Snakes, because of their backward facing scales, don’t back up, a fact I pointed out to my audience as the other docent helped me feed three feet of boa constrictor through the belt loop one inch at a time.
I couldn’t help thinking of “The Boa Constrictor,” a children’s song sung by Peter, Paul and Mary.
He was a tall, thin man in his early fifties, with long graying hair retreating from a high forehead, and an erect aristocratic bearing better suited to a baronet than to an artist and professor of art history. He gave no hint that he harbored the kind of curiosity that leads to mortality in felines.
On a visit to a Middle Eastern museum, he was intrigued by an Assyrian bas-relief in which ancient warriors swam eternally across a river, stealthily approaching, but never engaging, their enemy. Alert and determined, the soldiers carried their weapons at the ready in one hand. The other arm was draped almost casually over an inflated pig skin.
The pigskin piqued his curiosity. He had seen inflated pigskins sold in the marketplaces as storage containers. The legs and neck were securely tied off. A plug at the nether end gave access to the vessel.
Eager to see if art truly imitated life, he stopped by a local market. After a short bout of negotiation, he acquired a sturdy-looking pigskin. Tossing it into his rented Jeep, he headed out of town.
Far outside the city, along a barren, rocky river bank, he spotted a group of boys, pigskins in their arms, jumping into the swiftly moving water and rafting down to a sand spit about a quarter of a mile away. There they came ashore and ran back to their starting point.
It was as if he were seeing those long-dead Assyrian warriors, some of whom had probably been about the same age as these boys. Watching the youngsters moving easily in the water, he came to the conclusion that there was nothing to it. He stripped off his clothes, threw them into the Jeep and, in a state of nature, plunged into the water.
However, there are tricks to all trades and this was no exception.
In the days when it was commonplace to kill the bearer of unpleasant tidings, artists found it prudent to show their wealthy and powerful clients in the most flattering light. The professor remembered this as he dangled beneath the pigskin like a poorly–secured blimp gondola. He began to suspect the ancient sculptor, under the humorless eye of an Assyrian master, had been more concerned with self-preservation than with accuracy in his art.
The intrepid professor now realized that it would have been impossible for any warrior to concentrate on the coming confrontation with both arms wrapped around a slippery skin that had suddenly seemed to regain free will. The solider could only have hung on grimly, determined not to pierce the skin or himself with his weapon while, out of his line of sight as he dangled low in the water, his enemy was preparing to cut his throat.
Once the professor had mastered the technique of clinging to his craft, though, it became apparent that his position in the water was really very convenient. For the skin was not completely airtight. In order to stay afloat, it was necessary to blow it up continuously. Cheek to cheek with the aft end of his questionable craft, he found the anal plug was conveniently placed to effect re-inflation.
About this time, he was ready to give up the experiment, but the gods had already taken the decision out of his hands. Not knowing the eccentricities of the river, the professor had not stayed close to shore but had plunged unwarily into the mainstream. The current was surprisingly fast and strong. While contemplating his predicament, he had been carried swiftly past the sand spit where the boys watched in delight as he sped by.
He finally managed to bring his vessel ashore, rather abruptly, a mile or more down river. Barefoot and battered by his landing, he started limping back along the stony shore to his Jeep.
When he arrived, the boys were gone and the Jeep was not quite as he had left it. Tires, seats, steering wheel—everything was gone. Including his clothes. Fortunately, he had not discarded the pigskin.
Sunburned, bruised, and disheveled, clad only in a distinctive pigskin kilt, he had difficulty hitching a ride back to town. Finally, a military transport gave him a lift. Stoically, he bore the sidelong looks of the truck’s occupants as they made the interminable drive into the city.
The soldiers dropped him unceremoniously in front of his high-end hotel, leaving him to saunter alone into the marble tiled lobby dressed only in the shreds of his not-inconsiderable dignity and the folds of the tired pigskin.
My friend spotted an unusual coffee table at the Portland Saturday market a few months ago. It was one of those knobby burl-type affairs topped with a sheet of glass. The identity of the creamy white wood mystified her.
“Dandelion root,” responded the furniture maker when she put the question to him.
“What?” she said. “Dandelions don’t have roots that big.”
“Nope. Normally they don’t,” he replied. “But then this here is Oregon dandelion root.”
She stalked off with scarlet cheeks, certain he was putting her on.
When I first moved to Oregon, a few small dandelions poked their heads up through the bark dust in the yard of my rented duplex. No problem, I thought. I’d just pull them up.
They had other ideas.
When I finally managed to dig out a root the size of my fist, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I pointed the root out to my mother who said, “Nonsense. Dandelion roots don’t get that big.”
When one of the roots tried to drag me into the hole, though, as I was excavating around it, I decided I needed more authoritative information. I went to the neighbors.
One assured me that these were indeed the same innocuous little plants that dot the yards across the country and that curl up and die when hit with Roundup. “Those folks don’t know how luck they are,” she told me.
“Yes, they’re a little aggressive,” added the man across the street who had lost two fingers when a dandelion root lashed at him.
Essentially I discovered that when folks in Oregon talk about ’lions, they don’t mean those cute, cuddly cats in the zoo. They’re talking serious killers.
These botanical monsters resist poisons, drink herbicides for their health, and flourish in the heat of propane torches. In fact, I have heard rumors that the Oregon National Guard is working with a local agricultural company to develop an even more lethal strain of the dandelions. The grapevine has it that these will be planted along the border between Oregon and California. A rudimentary intelligence bred into the fluffy yellow heads will allow them to recognize California license plates, at which time the coiled roots will lash out of the ground, snag the vehicle, shake out the occupants, and crush the car.
I scoffed at the rumor when I first heard it, but lately I’ve wondered if some of the prototype plants may not have escaped into my neighborhood. There were some noisy dogs and obnoxious cats around when I moved in. But things are much quieter at night now, and the bark dust in the yard is disturbed less often by scratching cats.
Just yesterday I watched the kids at the bus stop in front of the house. They were unnaturally subdued. There didn’t seem to be as many of them as usual, either. The few there were huddled fearfully in the center of the street, backs together, looking outward. They seemed to be peering at the nearby yards. Especially mine.
What was that? That scratching noise outside?
Excuse me. I have to sharpen my machete and check the yard.
When asked which side of the road Brazilians drive on, one must in all honesty reply, “Both.” Drivers weave from one side of the road to the other avoiding potholes and each other in an intricate samba guaranteed to age the uninitiated. In true Brazilian style, all of this takes place at speeds as high as the condition of the road allows. It must be admitted, however, that with death appearing to be imminent those speeds always seem magnified.
Outside of the major cities, most roads have only two lanes. Road washouts may reduce that embarrassment of riches, leaving only one lane for both directions of traffic. Some washouts have been there so long that grass has grown up on the verge. At others, asphalt curbing has been built along the bitten out section of road as a concession to a sheer edge. No attempt, however, has been made to return the road to its original two-lane status.
Even major highways are only marginally better cared for and are often afflicted with terminal potholes. When our guide told us a 25-mile drive would take two hours, it sounded unbelievable. It was. It took two and a half hours. The roads had been rutted, gouged and cratered by heavy freight-hauling trucks, thrill-seeking passenger cars, and busloads of cowering tourists.
But avoiding potholes, and racing each other to be the first to cross a one-lane section of road, is not exciting enough for Brazilians. They throw enthusiastic passing into the equation just to keep vehicular matters exciting. The neatly painted lines that, in the United States, tell drivers when it is (and is not) safe to pass, are non-existent in Brazil. If they did exist, they would probably be ignored. To Brazilians, passing is a matter of individuality, personal judgement, nerves, luck and prayer.
By observation, one has to assume that passing is allowed any time, any place, on any road, of any width, in any condition (both driver and road). That includes the curving, mountainous roads in the states of Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais. To pass, a driver simply pulls out, straddles the spot where a center line should be and floors it. If a speeding Mercedes truck appears around the bend in front, the passing driver may have time to pull back onto the right (meaning correct) side of the road. If he doesn’t have time, the vehicle he is passing may move over a few inches to the right and the hurtling Mercedes may obligingly shift slightly to its side of the road allowing the passing driver (and his passengers) to live a while longer. God forbid a pothole should intervene in the path of any of the three drivers at this point.
Sometimes passing drivers do not engineer their own third lane in the center. They simply pull onto the other side of the road, gun it, and leave the rest to fate. Several times one morning our bus driver (on his side of the road which, at that moment, happened to be the right side) faced off against a passing driver coming straight at him–and us.
Our driver refused to give.
The passing driver seemed to be daring him to move over.
Our driver refused the dare.
This even became too much for the Saint Christopher on the dashboard. He crawled into the glove box. And there was no glove box.
Fortunately, for all concerned, the passing driver finally realized he was in the presence of a set of stronger nerves than he possessed. He pulled hurriedly back into line on his side of the road just as we whizzed past. Our driver seemed not to notice. Those of us in the front of the bus, however, carefully pulled our nails out of the upholstery.
Most of the bus passengers, lacking a glove box to crawl into, took the only option open to them. They moved back in the bus, the philosophy being that what one couldn’t see was less dangerous. Faulty logic, perhaps, but it did put less strain on the adrenal glands.
My trip to Brazil, in 1992, was made in the company of a group of dedicated rockhounds on the inaugural Brazil Gem Tours led by intrepid guide, Sara Mount. As any rockhound can tell you, no visit to a mine is complete without a ride over a really bad road. In Brazil, the term “really bad” can take on a whole new meaning. We discovered that Brazilian highways were feats of engineering excellence compared to the road to the Golconda Mine.
Sara explained that the road to the mine was too narrow for the bus so we would hire taxis. It sounded terribly civilized.
Sara promised us a ride of about 20 minutes on good road and about 20 minutes on not-so-good road. We never saw the good road. We got 20 minutes of not-so-good road and 20 minutes (or hours, depending on your sense of time) of sort-of road.
The single lane sort-of road was a miracle of rutted and potholed red clay. However, Sara reminded us that the rain the previous day had been a blessing because it would keep the dust down. Perhaps it was a blessing. At least the water in most of the potholes had evaporated.
On the other hand, the rain had lubricated the mica and clay road surface. Trucks carrying mica away from the Golconda often drop chunks of it on the pseudo-road where it is pounded into a powder. It turns the surface into glass. Several times we went around corners (and potholes) sideways.
Of course, in true Brazilian fashion, all this pothole dodging and slithering was done at speeds as high as the road allowed. So when the driver misjudged and hit a pothole, the car slammed its belly into the ground, driving our feet up to where our knees should have been.
The alleged road ran next to a (fortunately for us at the time) dry riverbed. Sara explained that sometimes the taxis drove in the riverbed because the road was washed out. It was hard to see how she could tell the difference.
Naturally, there were bridges. When we hit the first one, LaVerne, who doesn’t much care for driving over air, wagged her right index finger at Sara, chiding her for not warning us about the bridges. The fingers of her left hand were embedded in what was left of my right kneecap. “This is like the time we went up to that mine and ran out of road, remember, La Verne?” commented her husband Bill from the front seat. I didn’t have the heart to tell him we had run out of road when we had left the not-so-good road.
Sara had said we would be getting close to the mine when we reached a gate. We came to a gate. It was up a hillside and beyond it ruts were faintly visible in waist-high weeds.
We sighed with relief.
When the right gate appeared, we had to take possession from a flock of chickens and a herd of horses. We didn’t pause or even slow down much. The chickens scattered. The horses, slow on the uptake, finally decided it was wiser to live to fight another day and ambled off the track. We went on.
When the group reached the mine, the taxi doors exploded. Jeffrey unfolded from the backseat of one of them and advanced menacingly on our guide. “Sara….” he started, in a tone that clearly said he had more than one bone to pick with her. Kathryn claimed that her intense and prolonged conversation with God on the ride to the mine had improved her relationship with the deity significantly. The drivers were clustered around our Brazilian guide–they seemed to be engaged in serious contract renegotiation in rapid Portuguese. The rest of us were wondering how the taxis were going to turn around in the small space allowed. The thought of backing down the road was not entertained.
When it came time to head back to Governador, we found our driver, shirt off, legs protruding from under the back of his taxi. He’d torn a hole in his fuel line and was busy patching it with soap. (The soap apparently reacts with the fuel to solidify it. Travel is always so broadening.)
Hole patched, return fare renegotiated, nervous rockhounds reinserted into taxis, we headed back. Our driver we could see was waging an inner battle. Should he drive as fast as he could so he would reach town sooner–hopefully before the leak in the line opened up again–even though that meant a harder ride? Or should he drive more slowly, reduce the risk of banging another hole in the fuel line but increase the risk of running of gas before we got to town? Speed won out over prudence. We whistled down the track.
And track it was, wide enough for only one and a half cars. Fortunately there was no other traffic on the road but us. Until, that is, we hit the blind curve. Coming around it, at a speed to match our own, was a Mercedes truck. I could see the little three-pronged emblem clearly on the front grill. I thought it time to interrupt Kathryn’s conversation with God.
Our driver was the discreet not valorous type. He swerved to the right onto a grassy berm that materialized out of nowhere. The Mercedes roared on over the spot we had lately occupied. The truck driver had either not seen us or thought we were beneath noticing. I suspected it was the latter. Our driver was stoic. The only sign I saw of his nerves was when he lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his upper lip.
We didn’t even notice the bridges as we crossed them in record time, the driver straightening the wheels just in time to strike the boards designed to take them rather than the air in between them.
When we got to the gate, moving at just this side the speed of light, the chickens bolted out of our path and the gate was hurled open for us. We blazed through a cloud of feathers and the driver flashed a Brazilian thumbs up at blurred figures clinging to the fence on either side.
In our short absence, the not-so-good road had been transformed into a not-too-bad-at-all road. Our driver took it, potholes and all, in record speed.
When we pulled up in front of the hotel, Sara told us we could open our eyes. But I didn’t trust her. I waited until we back on the plane to Miami.
Advice if you’re traveling to Brazil? Don’t rent a car. Sit in the back of the bus. And don’t take a rabbit’s foot. It didn’t help the rabbit any, either.
“The world, the human world, is bound together not by protons and electrons, but by stories. Nothing has meaning in itself: all the objects in the world would be shards of bare mute blankness, spinning wildly out of orbit, if we didn’t bind them together with stories.”
Brian Morton, Starting out in the Evening
as quoted in Our Lady of the Lost and Found by Diane Schoemperlen
It was the dogwatch when the crew slunk across the poop deck, tails between their legs. Old Scratch led, lifting his leg on the mainmast as he passed. The captain contemptuously exposed a canine.
“Me and the others decided, Cap,” barked the old sea dog, pulling out a dog-eared document. “We all put our paw prints right here.”
“He made us, Cap’n,” whined Wiggles, crouching low and piddling on the poop.
“You yellow dog!” Scratch snapped at the cur. “Longer rations, Cap. And that keg o’ doggy biscuits you got buried.”
“I’ll give you a short leash, you hound!” growled the captain.
“Meet our demands, Cap,” said Scratch, “or you’ll wish you had fleas!”
“No dirty mongrel threatens me,” the captain snarled.
The lookout yelped, “Ship ahoy! Flying a cat’s paw!”
The sight of the floating cat house made the crew pant, tongues hanging from their mouths.
“To your stations, you dogs,” cried the captain. “There’ll be enough little Friskies for all! Bring her around! Hoist the Jolly Rover!”
As the skull and Milk Bones rose, the pack trotted off, Scratch dragging his tail.
The captain watched him go. “I’m gonna run that puppy through one day,” he muttered.
“America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”