Archive for April, 2011

OBLIVION

Friday, April 15th, 2011

OBLIVION

She said “I’m going to take a walk before dinner.”
“Wait.” I spoke up. “I’ll go with you. Let me change my shoes first.”

We walked along familiar streets in the neighborhood, she setting the pace and me
struggling to keep up. The sun was getting low, but it wouldn’t be dark for a while. We walked on,
and on, though I was tired and ready to return home, have that martini, dinner and turn in early. We walked on, I staring at the sidewalk so as not to trip on a rough spot, and occasionally stopping to look at the houses along the way.

And now, our route took us along a street adjacent to the railroad. Just the sight of the rails brought memories, childhood memories of walking on a rail until I fell off, naming the towns that lay ahead, and wondering what was around that next bend. Railroad tracks attract people for different reasons, and for some, it’s a way to leave their tortured life. And so, the authorities have made it an offense to set foot on the right-of-way. But I felt offensive; and the sight of the rails drew me to them. I tell her “Follow me!” and we are both on the track, skipping every-other tie, oblivious to the danger, and living in the past as we trot along.

At first, buildings butt up to the track on both sides, but soon, the scenery opens, and fields
interrupt the small villages we pass. “There,” I tell her, “is that small hotel where we once spent
the night and you played piano in the bar when the regular didn’t show up. And there are our children in that playground, on the swings. “Don’t you see them?” “Yes, yes.” She answered as we move on. Other sights delight our memory as we walk on along the track, the church where we were married, and the lake where we vacationed; there seems to be no end.

But now, it is growing dark, and it is difficult to tread smoothly. What is happening? The rails have disappeared, and we can barely see that we are now walking on a pier over a great expanse of water. We feel the damp fog encircling us, though we cannot see it. Nor can we see the deck of the pier. We move cautiously on, one step at a time, testing our footing. We stop, and I stoop to feel the pier. My hand reaches out into empty space, and I say, “We stopped just in time”.

We cling to each other as I fumble in my pocket for matches. I pull out a book and strike the match, but it has already become moist. I try several more, but to no avail. And then, as I draw the last match over the striking surface, a brilliant light illuminates the area. We look over and see a railroad, and a station. We cautiously cross over, and as we get to the track, a young boy is running away from the station, shouting “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go.” We turn and walk up to the station, a curved roof covers the track and disappears in the distance. There, on a platform at the rear of the train, people are sitting in comfortable chairs, a bright light displaying their fine clothes. They are quietly talking with each other, and occasionally, one touches a handkerchief to her eyes.

I call out to them, “Is there room for two more on the train?” They don’t answer. Perhaps they don’t hear me. We move closer, almost in their faces, and I repeat the question. Still no answer. I ask, “Do you speak English?” No answer, they don’t even look at me. Well, then, let’s go back to that building, it must be the ticket office.

We enter this gleaming white room, and a man in a white coat tells us there is room for only one more passenger. We look at each other, and, after a quiet moment, she says, “I’ll stay.” Another short wait and I answer, “I’ll send for you.” And as I turn to go she tugs at my coat to hold me, but I break loose and walk to the train. Farther on, I stop and turn. “I’ll send for you,” I call.

I reach that car with the people who wouldn’t talk to me, and I realize these are folk seeing friends off on their voyage. They are still talking among themselves, but they don’t see me. I walk on and meet the conductor. He doesn’t wear the usual railroad hat, but has a colorful shawl draped around his shoulders. He’s carrying a book, which must be his timetable. I ask him, “What time do we arrive?” He doesn’t answer, just waves me on. He stops beside a car and opens a door and motions me in. It’s a very small room, just room for a bed. I lie down. He closes the door.

It is quiet. Not a sound. No, there is a sound, that sound I call the “white noise.” I used to hear it when I would waken during the night. Absolute silence except for this light whirring noise I could hear, not really in my ears, but in my head. The white noise. I can hear it now. The train starts to move; it’s like taking off in an airplane, but it doesn’t level off. It keeps accelerating, faster and faster. I can sense the wheels going around and around, and for some silly reason; I remember having said, “Your honor, see this spot on the tire. As it revolves down and meets the pavement, it changes direction and starts upward. And at the point that it changes direction it has stopped. So, you see, your honor, I did stop!” He answers, “I’ve heard that one before. Guilty! One-hundred dollars. Pay the cashier down the hall.” “But, but, but, I protest.” as the Bailiff pushes me out of the courtroom.

We are travelling faster and faster, and I liken that rotating wheel to time. As it is coming down to meet the pavement, that represents tomorrow, when it reaches the pavement, that is the present, or now, and as it passes on and up, that is yesterday. But as we speed up, tomorrow, now, and yesterday seem to merge into one. How long is now? A day? A minute? A second? If you cut it in half, half is left, and as you keep cutting it in half, there is always half left. You decide that the only time you can measure it, is when it stops. Yes! That’s it. You remember now – Einstein,—, Huxley (what was it? A novel?), or was it Shakespeare, with his all-encompassing understanding of mankind. Yes! That’s it! That’s it! ” Time Must Have a Stop.”

As we keep accelerating, the white noise in my head rises to a fever pitch. It is now screaming higher and higher, higher and higher!

And then, just like that! —, the white noise turns to stone.

The last thing I remember is seeing the word etched on that stone:

“Oblivion”

George W. Parker
January 2011

MY DAY – YESTERDAY

Friday, April 15th, 2011

MY DAY – YESTERDAY

It was Tuesday. Tuesday is egg day, as is Saturday, but let’s stick with Tuesday. Cari also plays doubles tennis on Tuesday mornings at Washington Park at 8:30. I had dressed in casual clothes, gone out and picked up the Chronicle, which I now call the “paper”, rather than “newspaper”, prepared breakfast, and had just finished eating those delicious soft-boiled eggs. Cari has her one egg in an egg cup, a habit she picked up on a visit to England. She carefully places the egg in the cup and whacks off the top one-quarter, adds a little butter and salt and then scoops out daintily. I have my two in a heavy old-fashion glass heated in the hot water that had cooked the eggs. I hold the burning hot egg in my left hand, whack at the egg with a knife, and scoop out the contents, wondering how long my hand can stand the heat of that egg.

I had finished doing the crypto-quip, the first thing I look for in the “paper”, and was tackling the news when the phone rang. One of Cari’s partners was ill and could I substitute. I readily agreed, switched clothing, and got over to the courts, a three minute walk, and played poorly, but happily for an hour and half.

This was the Tuesday of the month when I attend a meeting at Stanford Hospital. For about four years I have been a member of an Institutional Review Board, whose duty it is to assure that all human subjects, in medical studies there, are properly advised and protected by the multitude of Federal, State, and Stanford Hospital regulations. All such boards must have a non-technical member, which is I, on Board number five. I am given easy assignments to present, which is good, for there is no limit to the new diseases and procedures that have appeared in recent years, with nomenclature I can’t pronounce, let alone understand.

During the month I receive, by e-mail, various minor changes in protocol to approve, and then the monthly luncheon meeting at the hospital. After these meetings I usually go visit my ninety five year old sister, Jean, in Palo Alto. Jean had a stroke five years ago, and has around-the-clock care by three loving Philippine women. Lately her speech is difficult to understand, and her mind takes some strange turns. Yesterday’s hospital meeting was shorter than usual, and since I had told Jean’s caretaker I would arrive around three, I had some time to kill. Why not drive around the campus?

In 1929, my mother had died of tuberculosis, and my father worked away from our home in Sacramento, so my five sisters and I moved to Palo Alto to live with an aunt and uncle. They had a three acre place at Alma Street and Palo Alto Avenue, with a big house and four cottages, renting mostly to Stanford students…

Pertinent to this story, while Jean was attending Palo Alto High School, a classmate, Delano Large, became enamored of her. Del’s mother, Jean Henry Large was sister to Lou Henry Hoover, and while Herbert Hoover was President of the United States, Del, his mother, and his sister Janet, lived in the Hoover house on the campus. The Hoovers leased land from the University and had this house built in 1920, and later, in 1945, after the death of his wife, Mr. Hoover gave the house to the University. Jean spent quite a bit of time at that house, and Del, much time at our house. Often he arrived in a cut down vehicle they called the “Bug”, which had been the favorite transportation of the Hoovers’ sons, Alan and Herbert, Jr. Then there were a few times when all my sisters and I would go swimming at the house on the campus. In 1934 we children moved back to Sacramento, and Del followed, living across the street, eating with us, and attending Sacramento Junior College with Jean. A year later Jean and Del married at the Stanford Chapel, and the Hoovers held a reception at their home on the campus, my first meeting with the Hoovers. Del later completed his education at Cal and at Stanford Business School, and eventually settled in Palo Alto as a building contractor.

I, too, enrolled at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1941, living with my sister, Jean, and Del in Palo Alto. While there, I got to know Mrs. Hoover, who was living there alone, before later joining her husband in New York. A few times, when her regular help was not available, I got better acquainted with her as I chauffeured her around Palo Alto while she shopped. In June of 1941 my younger sister, Rosemary, in Sacramento, was ill with tubercular meningitis. I went there to the hospital and gave her a blood transfusion, and returned to take my finals at Stanford. Jean and Del then went to Sacramento, while I stayed on in Palo Alto to finish the quarter. Mrs. Hoover insisted I come stay with her until my exams were over, which I did before rushing to Sacramento, where my Rosemary died a few days later. a terrible loss of my twenty year old sister.

A year later, in 1942, I was in the Marine Corps, stationed in Quantico, Virginia. Mrs. Hoover invited me to visit her and the President for lunch at their apartment in The Waldorf Astoria in New York. Mr. Hoover kept deep in conversation with his guest, a journalist, while Mrs. Hoover and I, opposite them at the table, talked of many things. I only recall Mr. Hoover asking me what I did in the Marine Corps. When I said I was an instructor in Seacoast Artillery, he said “Everybody’s an instructor. Who’s out there fighting the war?”

In January of 1944 I was on a troop train from New River, North Carolina, to San Diego. Somewhere along the way, maybe Texas, at a stop, I got a newspaper and found that Mrs. Hoover had died. I was deeply saddened; she was such a gracious, intelligent and generous woman.

So, while driving around the campus, I thought I would take a look at the Hoover House, which was now the home of the University President, John Hennessy. It took me a while to locate it, but as I stopped along the curved driveway to gaze at the front of the house, I heard a voice. I looked up, and there on the roof terrace, stood a woman who appeared to be cultivating some plants. She was a slim good-looking woman, with a tan that befitted a gardener. She asked me if I was looking for a dog. I replied “No”, that I was just reminiscing, and told her a little of my involvement with the house. She then said that she wanted to show me some photographs of some paintings in the house, which presented some historical questions I might be able to answer.

She let me in the front door and explained that she, Trish Benson, is the manager of The Lou Henry Hoover House, not just the residence of the university president, and a National Historic Landmark, but the entertainment venue of many students, their parents, and multitudes of guests from around the world. Then, a lovely, petite, brunette women appeared and introduced herself as Andrea Hennessy, wife of the University President. I knew then, why John Hennessy was appointed President, for the First Lady is a very important position at a university.

They led me into a great living room, and the three of us sat for a half-hour, they asking questions, and my not knowing when to stop talking. There aren’t many people alive now, who can talk about the early days of that house. My sister, Jean, who always had a great memory for details, and kept in touch with friends for years, has dimmed in that ability.

At last, when I felt it was time to go, they led me to the foyer, where a curved stairway led to the lower floor, and on the wall, to the left of the stairway were three large paintings of draped women; a lovely sight. They then showed me some photographs of those paintings, taken at some early date. But those photographs showed heavy dark frames around the paintings, which no longer surrounded the paintings on the wall. The question is – where are the frames? Did I remember seeing these paintings seventy years ago, and were they framed? The paintings on the wall were discovered in a storage closet when the house was being redecorated, but the frames have never been found. They discovered that the Hoovers had seen these paintings on glass windows of a chapel at Oxford University in England, and had commissioned the paintings for their home.
Alas, I remembered nothing in the past of these paintings, but I’ll remember them from now on, and will cherish our meeting.

I left, feeling a great warmth for these two women, and excited about my unplanned visit.
I went to see sister Jean, who was sitting on her patio. I told her of my visit to the Hoover House, and asked her questions about it, but she seemed not to know what I was talking about. I returned home to Burlingame, where Cari was giving a piano lesson to a lovely Asian Indian girl. I got out my sister’s memoirs and re-read her story which she wrote, about ten years ago. Here is another woman, my sister Jean, that both I and society are indebted to.

So went my day – yesterday.

George Parker
June 2010