A True Case of Auld Lang Syne



In the spring of 1993 I was winding down things in Seattle before moving to Prague. One afternoon I stopped in a local tavern where I was friends with the barmaid, and the place was empty except for the two of us and one guy drooped over a beer at the far end of the counter. When she asked about my preparations his head suddenly popped up and a voice with a decidedly southern accent boomed, "Prague? I was thinking about moving to Prague, but I wound up here in Seattle!". I squinted down the counter at the stranger and asked, "So where are you from?", expecting an answer in the vicinity of Georgia, maybe Texas, but instead this fellow did a very Southern thing, and answered my question with a question. "Well, where are YOU from?". So I told him, and we played out a few more questions that included neighborhoods, high schools, and the like, before the realization set in. "Jimmy?", I ventured. He grinned and rubbed his balding head, pointing at mine and said, "Yeah, Bobby? Man, we got OLD, didn't we?". So much time had passed, in fact more than twenty years, since the last time we saw or spoke to each other that we still addressed each other by our childhood names, and not the more grownup sounding "Bob" or "Jim".

Jim and I have stayed in touch since then, in fact we enjoyed the last New Year's Eve I ever spent in the US together at the Two Bells Tavern in Seattle, WA in 1998 (yep, that's Jim with his arm around my shoulder in the photo). And Jim even visited Prague in the summer of 2003 with a couple of his friends from Portland, OR. We still exchange e-mails several times a year, and I'm going to write to him right now, after I post this. And I hope you will all take this opportunity to wish your friends and old acquaintances, long lost or otherwise, a Happy New Year!

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It's a Small World, After All

In the late 1980's I spent a year in Silicon Valley, working for a high-tech telecom products company. One of the friends I made while working there was an Iranian guy, who lived in San Francisco and commuted the short distance by car. Hossein was very cordial, and highly educated. Some weekends I would visit him in the city and we would eat dinner together at a restaurant in North Beach. Hossein's father was a diplomat when he was growing up, so he had lived in a number of European cities and had lots of stories to tell. Sometimes he would kid me, while enjoying an after dinner cigar and brandy, about marrying me off to one of his girl cousins in Tehran, since I not only had a good job, but like a good Muslim I didn't smoke or drink. One evening he told me that he was returning to Tehran to head up a government telecom research facility. We stayed in touch, but I never saw him again.

During the Christmas season in 1990, I was shopping at Nordstrom in downtown Seattle with my girlfriend and as we passed a perfume counter, she sprayed a bit of Chanel No. 5 on her wrist from a sample bottle. Before we reached the end of the counter a thickly accented saleswoman's voice tracked us from behind, "No, no , no. That's not the way we try our perfume in Europe!". I was wondering just how one could test perfume otherwise, when she began waving a tissue and spritzing perfume at it. "Aha, and just where do you come from in Europe?", I asked, thinking that her accent indicated elswhere. "Oh", she said, "well, I was born in Tehran, but I really grew up in Vienna". I had just received a holiday card from my friend Hossein and I still had it with me in my backpack. I said, "That's funny, I just got a card from a friend who was also born in Tehran and grew up in Vienna." Her jaw dropped as she stared at me and asked in a quivering voice, "Hossein?". Mind you, in some countries with large populations, saying "Hossein" is like saying "Joe". But then she added "Hossein... Serri?". I couldn't resist pulling the card out of my backpack and showing it to her. She burst into tears and said she and Hossein had been best friends growing up and that she hadn't seen him since they were both fourteen. When I knew Hossein he was already in his early forties, so we're talking about almost thirty years, here. The woman gave me her business card and I promised to pass her contact information along to Hossein.

Back at home, I couldn't resist placing a call to Tehran. I thanked Hossein for the card he sent and told him I had just run into an old friend of his, a woman he apparently grew up with in Vienna. "Naomi?", he asked, before I even had a chance to say her name. "Yes", I said, hearing what sounded like sobs on the other end. "I lost track of her so many years ago, this is like a miracle finding her again, my friend", he cried. "Yes", I said, "it's a small world".

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My Last Christmas In America

Christmas is a sad time for many of us. Not all memories are happy ones. I try to maintain a cheerful disposition throughout the season, although my whole family is now long dead and buried, except for a few girl cousins. And I have no children either, with whom to share the joy that should always be present at Christmas, especially for the little ones. This season, I'm thankful for my girlfriend, my cat, and a handful of good friends.

In 1998, I spent my last Christmas in America with my aging mother. We reminisced about my sister, my only sibling, who had recently passed away before the age of fifty after a long and painful battle with cancer. And we reminisced about my father, who died at a couple of years before my sister, killed by a careless Florida doctor who had adjusted his chemotherapy improperly with disastrous results. My father's meager life insurance had been slowly eaten away by my sister's medical bills. My mother had to pay these herself after the state of Alabama cheated my sister out of the health benefits that might have at least ensured a less painful death. As a result of the financial strain, my mother was faced with losing the tiny, central Florida retirement home we were sitting in during our holiday discussion, but she didn't let this spoil her mood.

Over our Christmas treats and coffee we talked about the fun times our small family had experienced over the years, of which there were many. And she told me things about my father I had never heard before, for instance how many years earlier he had established a substantial trust fund for the orphaned daughters of his deceased business partner. Apparently my mother was the only person who ever knew about the gift, except for the orphans. In a brief interlude to our discussion, that quietly avoided the pain and suffering my own family had felt, I flashed back through the years to the tragic loss of another family.

One Alabama morning nearly forty years ago now, the youngest daughter of my father's business partner woke to the sound of loud noises coming from their kitchen. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she discovered her father at the kitchen table, slumped over his morning newspaper, through which all six rounds of a .38 revolver had left thumb-sized holes before making a bloody, unrecognizable mess of his face. Lying dead on the floor by the table was his wife, the shooter, who had just missed herself once with a second pistol, this time a .22 caliber, leaving a small hole in the ceiling before successfully putting a final round into her own brain. This is not something any nine-year old girl should wake up to see in the family kitchen. Luckily, the other daughter, twelve at the time, was spared this gory sight, since she had been sleeping over at a friend's house. The older daughter was named after her aunt, who was the identical twin sister of her mother. In the wake of the murder-suicide, the two orphaned girls were sent to live in a small, sleepy southern Alabama town with this identical twin aunt, the spitting image their now dead mother who had just murdered their father. I still shudder just imagining what it must have been like, this real-life example of Southern Gothic horror if there ever was one.

My family's successful business was almost totally wrecked in the aftermath of this tragedy, which coincided with the disastrous economic situation in the US during the early 1970's and the Vietnam war, where my first brother-in law was just then experiencing his own, personal tragedy. My parents were children of the Great Depression, poor teenagers during World War II, members of a tough and resilient generation which went on to build a successful America that garnered the world's respect and admiration, all too quickly now becoming a fading memory.

I am the only son of these good people who are no longer with us, the last of the line. And I remember much, both good and bad.

Merry Christmas.

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Astromouse

As a young boy growing up in Alabama in the 1960's with an uncle who worked for the space program in Huntsville during the Apollo program I was bitten hard by the space bug. The first real book I ever read was a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury called "R is for Rocket". That book was of course science fiction, and it fueled my life-long passion for the genre, but I soon moved on to more practical volumes, like "1001 Questions Answered About Space". All I wanted to be was an astronaut, but an earlier childhood injury seemed to dash all hopes for fulfilling this dream, more on that later, so I decided I would have to settle for being a rocket scientist like my uncle. He used to send me engineering drawings of the Saturn V rocket with cut-away details of the command module and I had these plastered all over my bedroom wall, along with my beloved poster of Mr. Spock from Star Trek.





While the other kids in my neighborhood settled for shooting off fireworks a couple of times per year on the 4th of July and New Year's, from the age of ten I was ordering model rocket kits from Estes in Colorado and building them year-round, eventually even my own designs from parts I fashioned myself from balsa wood and cardboard tubes, painting these bright colors easy to track at altitude. So then only the engines came from Estes and sometimes from Venturi, their single competitor in this somewhat obscure hobbyist field. One such rocket I designed with slightly tilted fins for spin stabilization and fitted out with the most powerful booster engines that Estes sold at the time. After training my pet "Astromouse" in his little wheel that I pressed into service as a centrifuge, he was ready for his trip into space. Of course I knew at best the rocket might reach perhaps the low cloud cover, but the neighborhood kids were convinced that this mouse was headed for orbit and they showed up in droves for the launch. You can see a couple of these kids off in the distance from the closeup of launching pad, note the date on the left edge of the photo is December, 1968. What you can't see is the other dozen or so kids behind the camera, standing beside me and the launch control box, which included a key, a red light, and of course a red button.

The countdown and launch went off without a hitch. The rocket did in fact disappear into the cloud cover, eliciting a hushed awe from the crowd. But then the last stage fired, popping the "command module" off its final stage and the parachute deployed flawlessly, bringing Astromouse back within sight of the launch pad at the far edge of the field. He had a slight nosebleed and was a bit shaky, but otherwise none the worse for his adventure, and he lived to a ripe, mouse old age afterward. Retired, so to speak.


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Why I'm Not a Redneck

I grew up as a white boy in Alabama during the early 1960's, before the bitter end of segregation, so why am I not a redneck? Well, actually I'm 3/16 Cherokee Indian, although I don't really look like it, but growing up at that time in the white suburbs of Birmingham didn't exactly nurture my reddish roots, so I guess being significantly Cherokee is not why I'm not a redneck. I was however a very smart little kid, who read books all the time and liked to build things, but more about that another time, since it's also not why I'm not a redneck, really.

In the summer of 1965, I was nine and slot cars is what I was into. I hand-built my own lightweight frames out of piano wire and painstakingly rewound the stock electric motors, so that my little cars literally whizzed past the others. At the slot car track where I liked to race there was a misfit fellow in his mid-thirties named Red minding the counter. I say misfit, because Red was from California, which in those days and in those parts might as well have been Mars. Red had a crew cut which didn't hide his natural carrot top, hence the nickname. Red spoke beatnik and actually used words like "babes" at the end of his sentences, which didn't endear him much to the local guys. He wore cotton velour shirts and drove a Buick Wildcat convertible, both powder blue, which did endear him to certain young housewives with kids my age at the hobby center. He was always extra nice to me, my mom, and my seventeen year old sister, who he liked flirting with and making her blush, though not in any sleazy, dirty old man sort of way.

Red clearly enjoyed watching me trounce the local competition on the slot car track, which gradually attracted not only other kids my age, but older guys, older than Red even, who drove from as far away as Mobile and Huntsville to compete in Birmingham against the little kid who was me. Red would close up the place early sometimes and give me a ride home, hoping my mom would invite him in for coffee so he could chat her up and my sister, too. Red treated me like a miniature adult, which I liked, and we had conversations that I remember to this day, more than forty years later. He was quite the philosopher in his own California, beatnik way.

One thing that puzzled Red, not being a Southerner but instead being, well, a beatnik from California, was all the "unpleasantness" perpetrated by whites on blacks, which in Birmingham, Alabama during that summer of 1965 hung in the air so thick you could cut it with a knife. The behavior of the local rednecks confused him and he talked about them in a whimsical, detached sort of way, like he was describing a movie he had just seen. I explained to him that some rednecks who didn't like city folks moving to the farm country to raise horses had actually burnt our house down, so rednecks weren't just out to harm black people, but everyone they didn't like. Anyway, that summer Red engaged me in an extended, rambling dialogue about what might solve Alabama's race problems, which he claimed didn't exist in California, although maybe he'd forgotten about a county called Watts that exploded a bit later in the "race riots", and I was actually there in Watts when it happened, but that's another story.

While still living all the way out there in California, Red had learned about the inhibition reducing effects of LSD and so one of the solutions Red envisioned was a kind of LSD-induced universal love fest involving all the races in Alabama that would naturally end in just one race of "tan" people with no more big color differences. My contribution to Red's solution was to dream up a delivery system for the LSD, a Sunday morning line up for a sugar cube "vaccine" similar to the polio drive then underway for children, only this time for adults under the guise of stopping some public health menace.

Now all this was clearly heady stuff for a nine year old kid living in Birmingham, Alabama in 1965, reading H. G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe, and maybe it goes a little way towards explaining why I'm not a redneck. I don't know, you decide.

By the way, it's now 2008 and high time for all of America to stop playing footsie with race issues, don't you think? As it turns out, Barack Obama is one of those "tan" people Red and I envisioned so many years ago, although that's not why I support him for President of the United States. I would do that even if the guy was green, and I think you should, too.

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Earliest Memories

What happens when you try to remember as far back as you can? My earliest clear memory dates from when I was still in my crib and not yet able to walk. I can remember a mobile hanging above my head consisting of little fluid-filled pouches in which were suspended tiny animals. The afternoon sun would catch them just right and the little animals inside would seem to glow. I look forward to any comments you have about your earliest memories.

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...a Czech-speaking American expat living in Prague since 1993.

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