Music “Friends”

 

  • Candle In The Wind
  • Tiny Dancer
  • Philadelphia Flyer

Ask anyone to name their favorite Elton John single and these three tunes will probably place high on the list. One of the least likely choices would be  “Friends” – and by that I don’t mean the TV sitcom Friends but a song from the soundtrack from an “okay” 1971 British teen romance film by the same name that interested me more for the cover art than for the music or any message in the film.

..a 1970 song that  didn’t really show up on my radar until the winter of 1988

When my family and I returned to the Kenai Peninsula my  good friend (Eu)Gene Faa was working as a deejay for KCSY, a soft-rock AM radio station based in Soldotna. He had rich baritone on-air presence with a voice devoid of the reedy quality his voice had when I first met him in the winter of 1971 when we were assigned to the same study-hall table. He was cousin of one of my better friends, so I’d been vaguely aware of his existence, but it wasn’t until I noticed him drawing  historically accurate sketches of German panzers instead of doing his  homework that I realized that there just might be  common ground between the two of us.

He wasn’t  physically striking and was unfortunately overshadowed by two most definitely-striking  step-siblings.  Red-headed, slight of build and equipped with a slight lisp he seemed to fit more into the slightly-annoying sidekick role than the buddy category, but a buddy he most definitely became as we would intermittently bump into each other over the next couple of decades as I would come and go from the Peninsula and the Lower 48. Each time we came back in contact we’d share our good news and bad news – marriage, military service, divorce, discharge, new careers and so on.

In those pre-Internet days I’d listen to the radio while I worked in the studio, and while KCSY was a bit too middle-of-the-road for me Gene would make a special effort to come up with a more diverse playlist if he knew I was listening. I’d try to liven things up by calling up with a disguised voice and requesting some Led Zeppelin or Def Leppard, songs that the programming format would never allow. Gene would give me a mercy-laugh for my all-too-transparent attempts at foreign accents, but during one such call he replied, “ I can’t play “Stairway to Heaven” for you Dave, but I’ve got some early Elton John that’s a decent  substitute.”

…then he played Friends” and I liked it right away. Simple melody with a string accompaniment that joins in about half-way through the song – always a good thing for me. Uncluttered lyrics with a message about friendship that avoids getting overly emotional. I made a comment about it the next time I ran into him at the mall, and from then on he made a point of playing it just before his show as over each noon, and when he did I knew he was waving to me – a “shout out” in contemporary terms.

Gene left the station and the Peninsula around Christmas of 1988 and other than a letter or two in the mid-Nineties  I never heard from him again – other than to find out that he’d passed away from complications from diabetes.

In his book “Thank God for The Atomic Bomb” the legendary academic and literary curmudgeon Paul Fussell made the observation that other than the very famous no one is remembered more than about seventy-five years past their death and Eugene seems to have beat that mark by about fifty years. As I’ve been writing on this piece I have failed to find any kind of record of Gene – even his relatives have little to say about him.

I don’t like that.

Eugene Faa did not exactly set the world on fire. Most of his life he struggled with the diabetes than finally took him  –  also a factor in his divorce and the primary reason he was discharged from the Alaska National Guard.  Gene didn’t command any armies, he didn’t make a fortune on Wall Street and he never held an elected office – but he was a good friend to me, and that’s why I’m writing this today. I’m hoping that publishing this post will get his name saved to enough computers and cloud storage facilities to make sure he’s remembered long past Professor Fussell’s seventy-five-year mark.

Gene was my friend.

Eugene Faa

 

2018: Pushing the Envelope

Much has been said and even more has been written about the “bulletproof” mindset of an eighteen-year old. Granted, there are variations in terminology ranging from “Hey y’all – look at this!” to the more basic “Hold my beer”, but ultimately it can all be traced back to the “It-can’t-happen-to-me” mindset that gives us fighter pilots and cage fighters.

I wish I could say age eventually corrects such dysfunctional thinking but even in my crippled state my inner paratrooper lurks, though at sixty-five living on the edge is more likely to involved hooking one too many plastic grocery bags through my fingers than flying through thunderstorm cells or diving without calculating decompression times before hand. Pushing the envelope usually involves handling actual envelopes while paying  bills rather than test pilots consulting performance charts and the limits indicted by lines on graphs (which is where the expression came from!)

In my case there is one situation when my ego has most definitely been checked at the door : when I first get up – or more precisely try to get up in the morning .  Morning is not my friend and when I first stir in the morning there is a fair amount of weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth and crying-like-a-hungry-puppy coming from the general direction of my over-sized papa-bear chair.

(I started to write “crying like a little girl” but that would be unfair as I wasn’t even close to being as stoic as a little girl would have been)

I keep telling myself that I can still win, that pushups and miles will defeat the disease-dragons I fight each day, but to be coldly honest there is a day coming when I won’t be able to ignore the pain and stand up.

A day coming when I won’t be able to take that next breath.

…but until that day arrives I will keep adding plastic bags to my grip on grocery day.

 

James Albert Smith (1933-2018)

Like so many other rites of passage, the whole idea of “talking trash” to peers didn’t occur to me until fifth grade at Woodland Park Elementary School, located in the wilds of deepest, darkest Spenard (Alaska). Central to the art of verbal dueling was developing a good defense, even if it was something as simple as “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”, when you were receiving fire, as in  “You were such an ugly baby your mom fed you with a slingshot”. I figured that the anxiety brought on by “words” would ease off as I got older but unfortunately there have always been statements that could definitely shake me up:

  1. “Surface winds on the DZ have dropped momentarily to light and variable.”
  2. I’m sure it’s just a mole.”
  3. “We have some questions about some of the deductions on your Schedule C.”
  4. “I’m going to raise my sons the same way I’ve watched you raise yours.”

That last comment was the most worrisome, and when my friend Delton spoke those words to me I slept poorly for a week, convinced that one or all of his boys would end up in an asylum or jail based on some faulty parenting technique he’d observed me practicing. I always wondered if Brother Smith’s chuckle-in-response was covering up a similar reaction when I made the same statement years ago.

That’s because no other man (including my own father) had as much influence on my growth as a parent as did James Albert Smith. He continued to laugh the idea off, maintaining that he’d never done anything that remarkable while raising his kids, but he never caught on to the fact that it wasn’t the things that he did, but the things that he didn’t do that made all the difference in the world.

He didn’t get a caribou

Growing up on the Kenai Peninsula I was surrounded by hard men – carpenters, mechanics, roustabouts and commercial fisherman who were veterans of World War 2 or the Korean conflict. A moose hunt  with them was more like combat reconnaissance patrol than a hunting trip. I couldn’t help but inwardly smirk as I watched Jim casually load up his boys on a fall morning in 1971, one rifle for the three of them and all of them in street shoes, however as I listened to them interact upon their return later that day I realized that the trip had less to do with steaks and more to do with forging bonds between a father and his sons, that he was spending more time teaching than hunting.

He couldn’t grow corn.

I witnessed Jim’s efforts at vegetable gardening over the course of three summers and it never ceased to amaze me that corn stalks always took up a  fair amount of space in his plot. It didn’t seem to matter that the growing season is too short, the soil too wet and daytime temperatures don’t stay warm enough for corn to thrive. It wasn’t until that third summer that I finally tumbled to the fact that his attempts had less to do with having fresh corn-on-the-cob for dinner and more to do with giving a little bit of Davis County ambiance to help his homesick sweetheart cope with the cold and dark  winters so far away from home.

He didn’t kick my fourth-point-of-contact

I have it on good authority that I can be somewhat of a dumb-a** at times, and I was in that mode of thinking when I once caused a great deal of distress for one of his children. At the time I was literally living on the other side of the continent and figured I was home free from any sort of parental retribution. I wasn’t prepared for the flinty stare he met me with when we finally did meet up in person two months later, a flinty stare which lasted all of twelve seconds before he broke into his trademark grin, slapped me on the shoulder and started quizzing me about “those fancy new graphic design classes you’ve been taking”.

It was truly amazing watching him in parental mode.  My own parents were firm believers in the percussive discipline school of child rearing and while my presence no doubt had a tempering effect on his conduct I was always impressed with the positive, low key manner with which he  counseled and corrected his kids…and when I told him that I was trying to adapt those traits into my own parenting style he just brushed off the statement and changed the topic of conversation to a short story he was working on.1

Despite time and distance the warmth never wavered – he was the only person I’ve ever known who had a grin that could be heard on the phone.  He was always interested in what I did, though to the very end he kept urging me to switch from design to copywriting2.  When I recently shared with him an illustration I created for The Friend his reaction was to tell me that my work was the best part of the magazine, a comment that meant more to me than all the other certificates and ribbons I’ve been awarded in my entire career.

I just hope when this life is over he’ll say the same thing about my parenting skills.

___________________________________________________________________________

Notes

  1. The plot involved father and son cobbling together a hovercraft out of the wreckage of a plane they’d crashed in.
  2. Writers ae usually paid better and are selected more often as supervisors

2018: “…the number you are calling has been disconnected or no longer in service.”

(I try to keep to a schedule with this blog: new material is posted on Tuesdays, visual art is posted on Thursdays and re-runs show up on Saturday morning…which means something like this should be published on this next Tuesday the 19th. However, given the content of todays repeat it seemed more appropriate to run this today as well.)

This last week has been a little odd.

Granted, life is always a bit different when illness is involved – and I have definitely been sick for the last couple of weeks.  Three times a year I develop an upper respiratory infection with a cough that keeps me from both working and resting until the illness has run its course. I’ve had both the flu shot AND the pneumonia shot, and I am regularly dosed with antihistamines, antibiotics, steroids and vitamins, but in the end,  I have to just ride it out and cough until I don’t cough anymore.

Another pattern played out at the same time. Other than teaching at the college, going the church or visiting the firing range I spend a lot of time alone in my studio here at the house. While there are times I’ve had buddies that would regularly stop by and visit I am kind of  in a friend-famine right now so other than my Beautiful Saxon Princess I am on my own.

The situation makes me kind of sad,  but it does motivate me to reach out to others in the same situation, so I spent a lot of time this last week trying to get in touch with old friends. Most of my answers involved voice mail but this time I found another disturbing trend – more and more calls were met with “….the number you called has been discontinued or is no longer in service”. Granted with the constant battle between cell phone providers people tend to change numbers much more often than they change their underwear, but the sad truth was a lot of those people I tried to call are dead.

Dead. Four letters that just slap you in the face.

Even the most faithful will duck and dodge the topic of death  and I confess that quite often I energetically  shove it to the corner of mind…which is why it is very odd that in the last week I’ve inadvertently tried to call:

  • Bonnie Gamage
  • John Prowse
  • Sandy McDade
  • Janice Young
  • Bernie Koebbe
  • Richard Bird
  • ….and my mom

All of these people have passed one – some a number of years ago. When I first tumbled what I was doing I assumed that  senility had set in, but then the proverbial light-bulb flashed on above my head:

Several times in my life I’ve participated in programs that have a specified time span and a population that passes through in waves. In each instance, be it military duty, educational programs or missionary service I’ve encountered the same phenomenon:

  • Starting out I hardly knew a soul.
  • When I got to the middle  I could connect a name with a face to everyone in the group
  • As the end came near I was back knowing very few people.

It’s turned out to be true of life in general: As child my circle consisted of just family and a few friends but during mid-life at the peak of my career I met and interacted with (ultimately) thousands…but as I am entering my “senior phase” I’m back to a fairly small circle.

…a circle that is getting smaller with each day. I think that trend is part of the reason the eulogies/memorials I’ve written have had so many readers: it taps on basic – almost primal – emotion.  I’ve been blessed with some marvelous experiences in life and I’ve done just about everything except get rich, preferring to count my riches in terms of friends rather than dollars. When I write these memorial pieces  I’m not just observing a passing – I’m mourning the loss of my true wealth.

 

2018: Bubble Wrap

It’s referred to as compassion overload.

Sad to say but there are times in my life when it feels like we’re so caught up in just hanging on by our fingertips – while so many dear friends are also locked in deadly combat with Life- that individual tragedies are no longer quite so upsetting. In the words of my foreman at Swanson River: “When you are up to you’re a** in alligators it is hard to remember that your original goal was to drain the swamp”

I wish I’d have ignored some of those alligators when I recently found out Janice Young had passed away.

I had called another friend to check on Jan’s phone number only to find that she had passed away almost a year ago.  I carried on with the conversation, sharing a memory or two then rang off and:

  • finished my lesson plan for the next day’s class at the college
  • checked back on the crew scheduled to remove a fallen tree
  • paid some bills on-line

… then collapsed into my chair and broke down completely.

Jan was gone.

It was the winter of 1975 when I first Jan and her family while I was serving as a missionary in Skowhegan Maine. Her husband Dale had recently retired from the Navy and friendship developed as I talked with him about his career – I was forever looking to connect with sailors that may have served with my own father during his 20 years afloat. As I would visit there were times when Jan wouldn’t move from her chair or her hands would be wrapped, actions that I first took to be unique measures to fight the legendary Down East winter temperature but later learned were therapeutic measures in her battle against the pain and limitations of advanced arthritis.

I also learned that Jan was smart. She had a highly developed insight into human behavior and consequences more commonly found in elderly people with a long lifetime of experience and knowledge to drawn upon.  More than once I found myself on the phone seeking her guidance after a “people problem” had blown up in my face.

My time in Skowhegan came to an end much too quickly but thankfully my friendship with Janice and her family stayed on. Despite too many years, too few visits and too few telephone conversations Jan and her family stayed in my life. I came to especially treasure those occasional phone calls that Janice insisted were for her benefit but were in fact my own pleas for help when once again I was drowning in a sea of human chaos and complexity.

…and now the phone calls are over.

There are too few “Jan’s” in my life now – people that maintain a measure of kindness and sanity around them.  Instead I am surrounded by bubble wrap, albeit a verbal variety of bubble wrap that emotionally insulates and does little other than clutter up my life in the same way that the tangible polyethylene version clutters up my studio after I’ve opened a package.

  • “C’mon, nothing can hurt that bad”
  • “Are you sure this isn’t a subconscious ploy to get meds?”
  • “When the going gets tough the tough get going”
  • “If you really wanted to get better you’d try to have more faith
  • “Good people don’t use pain medication

Empty useless prattle as useless as the other plastic stuff is after my grandson Jayden has popped all the bubbles. Thoughtless words that emotionally fester in my isolation just as  a splinter can fester in a finger if left unremoved.

Eliminating those toxic comments can be as difficult as disposing of or recycling the aforementioned polyethylene packing material. I am left to find relief in doing my best to not make those same kinds of thoughtless comments, but rather to have kind words for those around me who are fighting their own battles.

…just like Jan did.

CPT Ron Fernstedt’s Last Jump

Despite the common uniform relations between active and reserve components of the Army are not always the most cordial, a fact I soon learned upon assignment to 1st Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group (ABN) Utah National Guard. It was January of 1984 and had just been assigned as the battalion S-2 (Intelligence) after four years of active duty and I was finding reception by the other officers to be decidedly cool.

The ink was still damp on my orders when I had an administrative hot potato dropped in my lap, specifically a Line of Duty (LOD) investigation. Whenever a reservist is injured while on drill an LOD must be completed to verify the conditions surrounding the injury and eligibility for future medical coverage. Never an easy task, this particular LOD investigation was a particularly complex and critical situation because of the timing and circumstances of the injury in question. I also happened to be the third officer assigned to the case, the previous two begging off because of conflict of interest, hair in need of a wash or some other flimsy excuse.

It was while I was struggling with this LOD that I first met Ron Fernstedt. The solider in question was a member of his team and as far as I could tell the investigation wasn’t looking good for this soldier. Ron stormed in one day and with his face set (in the way only Ron could manage) and demanding fair treatment for his subordinate. While not nearly as forceful I replied that I was doing the best job I knew how to do and that his sergeant would get an honest and fair investigation.

The room got quiet as our eyes locked. Several thoughts came to mind:

  • My path to the nearest exit
  • Money available for an emergency room visit
  • …and if I ever lost my axe this guy’s face was hard enough to make an excellent replacement

A minute passed, Ron’s face softened an iota and he spoke:

“You’re Deitrick – the new S2 here. You just came off active duty – right?”

I replied with a witty rejoinder: “Urk – yeah”

“They’ve dumped this grenade in your lap with the pin half-pulled and you’ve probably never seen, much less completed a National Guard line-of-duty investigation before”

Again, the clever quip: “Urk!”

The change was imperceptible, but there was change nonetheless. He became just a little less confrontational and a little more helpful as he realized that I had been put in just a precarious position as his team member. He helped me through the maze of National Guard Bureau and Utah National Guard regulations that had me completely baffled and eventually the LOD investigation was resolved in a less-than-total win for his subordinate, but it was a resolution that was totally fair and according to regulation.

It was pattern that in my experience would repeat itself every time I worked with Ron. He had a larger-than-life personality and definitely played to win, but at the same time his actions were tempered with a sense of justice and expertly camouflaged compassion. He had a strong set of standards to live by but wasn’t ostentatious about the matter.

He was like my favorite uncle – he could be a little scary, but I always knew where I stood with him, that he was looking for my best interests and that we were all safe in every sense when he was on watch. He took his Last Jump to a better life earlier this week while standing on his feet –  a soldier to the last – and we will all be a little poorer because of the loss.

R.I.P. Belle

I was so stunned that it took me three attempts to hang the telephone handset on the receiver.

The message had been brief and to the point: “My family is OK now so I don’t really need you for a friend anymore”.

Just about everyone has gone through the social leper stage – that time when you are lowest social outcast stage in school, unit or other type of social unit. Hopefully it happens once, and then during the younger and more flexible years in life. This was happening to me during early middle age and it involved one of the few places you expect to be emotionally safe – at church To this day I’m not sure how I ended up the congregation’s primary pariah but I was – and my last source of help had just turned their back on me, after we had sacrificed time, money and a change to move home to Alaska to aid the people in question.

I’m not sure of the exact sequence of event after that call, but I am sure of what the eventual outcome was. As I was preparing to take a permanent solution to a temporary problem Belle intervened and stopped me.

Yes, you read that correctly. Belle – my Great Pyrenees companion (I’ve never liked “dog” or “pet” as neither really fits completely)

She barked.

She howled.

She thrashed about and raised hell which broke the hold whatever depressive, destruction auto-pilot was running my brain at the time.

She saved my life and I never forgot it. That genetic tendency to watch over and protect had made itself manifest in a most spectacular manner and for the rest of the time we spent together on this earth I always knew she was continuing to watch over me.

She’s gone now. She took a nap Tuesday afternoon and never woke up. She’s finally free from the aches and pains that had been plaguing her, no doubt running and playing through celestial meadows with Sasha, Punky and Mitzi.

A part of my heart went with her …and I wonder who will watch over me now.

belle3

2016: Cookies, Comics and Elizabeth Montgomery

Given her velvety smooth voice I could never understand why she never went into broadcasting voice-over work. That beautiful voice was one of the first things I noticed about Judy Thomas – and while growing up on a frontier gave her little opportunity for that sort of thing , when KSRM started broadcasting from (literally) across the road in 1967 it seemed like a slam-dunk use of natural talent to have Judy doing radio commercials and public announcements, but it was not to be.  Instead she spent her life taking care of her family, which often included my family as well.

Sadly, we won’t be hearing Judy’s voice say anything more – she passed away late at night on the 6th of May in what was actually a blessed relief from intense pain and discomfort. I am thankful that I was able to talk to her on the phone earlier in the week and share just a few more minutes with a grand lady that was for all intents and purposes my aunt.

Growing up on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1960s meant we formed our own ad hoc extended families . With the price of plane tickets as stratospheric as the actual mode of travel we had  little opportunity to spend time with “for real” grandparents and cousins in the Lower 48 so good friends filled in for family.  We’d spend Christmas Eve with the Hershberger’s and New Years Eve with the Stringhams.

Bill and Judy’s family? They were there all year round.

My first Thomas family memories date from right after moving to the Peninsula in 1964. Mom, Dad and older sister Robin were all involved with Tuesday night youth activities at the church so my three younger sisters and I spent those evenings with Judy and her toddlers. We never felt like we were at a baby-sitter’s when we were there – it was more like spending time with a young aunt as we read comics, watched “Bewitched” and ate cookies with a unique flavor that I have never known anyone but Judy to bake.

Later on after they moved out to Sterling the tables were slightly turned when I would babysit the Thomas kids when Bill and Judy wanted to get out for a rare date night …but in and around all this kid-surveillance were innumerable dinners, barbecues, sleep-overs, road trips and camping trips all of which served to forge ties that truly did bind. Those ties were such that whenever there was an accident, illness or other disaster the first phone calls were usually between our two families.

It wasn’t just collective assistance either. In my early twenties  I went through a shattering emotional disaster that my parents and most other adults around me dismissed rather casually…except for Judy. Our conversation about what was going on was not overly extended,  but it was long enough for her to acknowledge that was I was going through was real – and very hard to deal with. As Judy was a decade or so younger than my folks I imagine memories of her own heartbreaks were all that  much brighter, which gave her insight that older people lacked.   It was a trait that would repeat itself over the years; whenever life kicked me in the teeth Judy’s response was truly caring; where others would try to “fix” me or minimalize the emotional impact,  “Jude” would just kind of go “tsk”  then acknowledge that I “must really be hurting”, ask how I was doing, and then listen to me vent.

As I started to travel I saw her less often , but no matter how long I was gone each reunion was as warm as a backyard barbecue campfire and the “hellos” and “how are yous” spoken in that resonant purr of hers were just as thoughtful as they were decades ago when we were sitting in her trailer, eating mysterious-flavored cookies and reading comics.  I am grateful for the release she had been given from pain, but I will miss her keenly.

JudyThomas

Requiem For An Almost-Mom

For the last four or five days I have been running through a wide range of emotions – primarily those clustered at the sad/lost/frustrated point in the continuum. I’ve found myself wasting time at my desk puttering at pointless tasks like making copies, stacking papers and sorting tubes of paint while getting easily distracted….

(Paint. Hmmmmm. This could either be the beginning of a great analogy or just another a flash of attention-deficit disorder…)

As a student I was surprised to find that painting entails a lot of chemistry. Mixing colors is not always a straightforward proposition wherein blue plus red always equals purple. For one thing colors are not “pure” hues but can lean towards one side of the mix more than another. Sap Green is a very warm green that looks closer to the yellow side than the blue while Viridian is a cool green favoring blue over yellow. Creating secondary colors by mixing primaries is not always predictable and some mixtures produce completely unexpected results – for example one of the best landscape greens can be made by mixing black with yellow.

The pigments themselves have different properties. Cadmium-based colors are all slow to dry. Traditional palette colors like burnt sienna or Naples yellow are fairly opaque and can cover other colors with little effort but they don’t stain very well – it takes a lot of burnt sienna to tint white to any degree. Phthalocyanine  (phthalo / “thay-lo”) blue has opposite properties: it is translucent and has to be mixed with white in order to cover other colors but it is a powerful staining agent requiring small amounts of paint to produce deep tints with whites. It’s also one of the more archival colors, being very permanent and it retains its stability and hue longer than most other colors.

….and it’s pretty. While not the most academic or professional descriptions of artist’s colors, I have to say that both phthalo blue and its sibling pthalo green are two of the prettiest colors in the spectrum. Add magenta, orange and chartreuse and you have the retro “Trap-jaw” palette that I routinely use to torment art directors in search of more serious palettes.

Leaving home was not a smooth operation for me. While my better-prepared friends were all soaring like eagles my launch into the adult world resembled an albatross stumbling into flight. Being more interested in intramural football than my studies I was destined for the rice paddies of Viet-nam or a career in fast-food until God gave me a break and I became very smitten with a young lady I met during a rare appearance at church. The young lady was a very positive influence in my life, her influence causing me to change for the better. The only problem was her mom: with her dead-pan facial expression and piercing black-diamond gaze the lady scared the h*ll out of me.

Luckily that terror soon began to subside, starting with a church dance at Eielson Air Force. Midway through the event she walked up, said “Let’s dance” and then spent two songs talking with me about everything but her daughter. I felt ever-so-smug afterwards about the way I had mastered the situation until I woke up the next morning realizing we had in fact been talking about nothing but her daughter, albeit in a roundabout way.

It wasn’t the last time Ramola Smith worked mental judo on me. Just as those two or three drops of phthalo blue create such dramatic tint when mixed with white, a few words and a small action from her would achieve a much greater result on me than expected. Outwardly it would seem like we had just spent a few minutes watching “Cannon”, playing Spoons or designing an apartment into the basement of the new house, but invariably I’d realize later that what we had really been talking about were the challenges of the 1970’s college dorm experience, what my plans for the future were – even our respective dental issues.

To continue with the paint-analogy: she was permanent – in it for the long haul. As I would hear them talk and watch the way she and Brother Smith would interact as both sweethearts and team-mates it would “make my heart big”. It was as if “JimAndRamolaSmith” were just one word.

She was “permanent” to me as well. I was always amazed – and very grateful – that she remained so kind to me despite some of the brain-dead decisions I made and the impact they had on her eldest child. Time would pass and circumstances would change but I’d always be greeted with a hug, a kiss and a few words that were much more than just a sum of their syllables. For example shortly after returning from New England in the summer of 1976 I found myself walking through the stake center in Anchorage on some church-related errand. As I passed the family history center I was startled by flash of color quickly followed by a crushing hug and a kiss on my cheek …and when the dust settled I found that I had been the victim of a Ramola hugging-mugging. She then introduced me to the other lady in the room in very complimentary and affectionate terms before sending me off to my drive back down to the Peninsula with another hug and kiss on the cheek.

Those hugging-muggings would recur every few years as I would encounter the Smiths at social gatherings or I would drop by their house in Fairbanks when duties took me to FT Wainwright. I was always met with kindness and affection, the only difference being that she smiled more openly as time went by.  However, as years passed physical distance and circumstances started spacing the visits further and further apart until they finally stopped and I lost touch.  Were it not for Facebook the separation may have continued even longer. Though my physical disabilities have made a literal “drop-in” unlikely the Internet has made it possible to be in better contact than before.

…a situation which seems contradictory as I now sit agitated in my studio, misfiling things and throwing tubes of pthalo blue paint around. While I know that she is in a better place now, I’m not feeling very happy about it. Regardless of our faith we all have that inner Cro-Magnon that wants to howl at the separation of death. I’m grateful that I have been able to talk to the Smiths and thank them for all they did for me as a young man but I’m also angry because so many years passed by without contact – that our ever-in-planning visit out West didn’t happen before her death. I’m agitated because most people around me can’t understand why Ramola Smith’s passing is having such an impact on me.

  • “Was she your mom?” No.
  • “Was she your step-mother?” No.
  • “Was she your mother-in-law?” Almost.
  • “Was she a teacher of yours?” More than I realized.

After running out of files and paint it came to me that logical word-crunching wasn’t going to work. I’ll have to finish this out with the analogy I have been using as a framework so far.  I can’t pretend to have any insights into the life and character of an almost-mom that I hadn’t seen in thirty years. All I can do is tell you about what it was like when she was a regular presence in my life.   Art and creativity in general are a major part of my existence which makes life my biggest project of all. While there may be some question as to what kind of art my life has been there is no question that if my life were a painting Ramola Smith would be one of the hues it was painted with.

What’s more – given her nature, her permanence and ability to make positive change in me, she would be one of the primary colors, and her presence in that emotional palette has made the painting of my life all that much richer.