The Demise of Vacant Lots


Shadows of two cats checking each other out against a cracked wall
Two strays meeting in the night.

When I first arrived in the Washington, DC area, my brother lived in the Dale City area.  It was a new housing community with mega-houses being built.  His was a five bedroom house–tiny bedrooms, a living room, and a gigantic family room.

And there were places along the roads where there were no houses.  Grasses grew tall and waved in the wind.  I’m sure mice and rabbits crept through it, nibbling on grass.

Those empty spaces soon were covered in more mega-houses.  In fact, there is very little in this area that remains empty.  A small patch of land here and there, usually because of the odd size or placement.  It always has a sign up on that says For Lease, but no one can do anything with it.

When I was growing up, we had two vacant lots in our city.  One was across the street from the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Church.  It was all dirt, and people tossed junk into it.  Fun walking through it to see what junk was there.  Either the church owned it or they bought it because they eventually flattened it out, wrapped a cyclone fence around it, and added grass for a playing field.  Still there.

The second lot was behind my house.  It was huge!  I imagine it was owned by one of the people on the opposite end of the block.  No one paid it much mind.  The grass grew tall in the spring rains, then turned yellow and dried out.

The local strays wandered through it, their tails flicking up.  The cats were all black and mangy.  Our cats hopped the fence, too, stalking through the grass.

We had a cyclone fence bordering our yard and the lot.  My father was into amateur radio then and had something like four antennas up, all tethered with guy wires.  There was a gate also that opened to a strip of land that was a tiny vacant lot.  We owned that one as part of our property.

The kids would walk back from the elementary school and cut through the vacant lot.  However, to get to where they were going, they had to hop the fence to the tiny lot, then hop the gate, then cut through our yard.  We’d sometimes look out the window and see boys–girls never did this–just strolling past our house from our backyard.

My father always chased them off.  The kids probably talks about the “mean man” who scared them away.  But with all the guy wires, he didn’t want someone to get hurt.

That lot’s now gone.  The developers filled it with condos.

I think I liked the vacant lot better.

Massive Landslide in California


When I was growing up, we would drive from Los Angeles to Morro Bay, which is a coastal town in Central California, stay a day, and then head onto San Francisco.  My grandparents lived in San Francisco at the time, but later moved to Morro Bay. Our trip took us on Highway 101, which had beautiful views of the ocean.

But it had a big problem, too.  The road cut through these huge sloping mountains.  Always brown from the dryness, and some years, black, because brush fires had burned away the grass.  Nothing to anchor down the dirt when it rained.

One year, it was pouring rain and we were headed back to Los Angeles.  A state trooper stopped us, dressed up in his yellow slicker, and told us the road was closed.  We had to turn back and wait a day for it to be cleared.

A landslide happened this week in the same general area and closed a quarter mile of the freeway. Check out the video in the link.

Would Star Trek Exist without Star Wars?


William Shatner made a comment last week that Star  Trek wouldn’t have existed without Star Wars.  It sounds wrong, simply because Star Trek aired in 1966, and Star Wars was released in 1977.  It sounds backwards.

Except it is and it isn’t.

First Came Star Trek

In the last week, I’ve run into multiple articles on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek.  One was in the Smithsonian, and another a Time Magazine special.  The tone has changed a lot over the years.

I remember when I first became a fan in the mid-seventies.  Momentum for the show was starting to build.  There were conventions popping up in Los Angeles, and a lot of people were attending them.  Needless to say, reporters got sent to find out what all the fuss was about.

And they came with a bias, which showed up in the newspaper:

  1. Star Trek is for children.
  2. Star Trek is for crazies.

Invariably they would either find a little boy in a Spock shirt and shorts and wearing pointed ears and take a photo of that.  Or they find the sloppiest, craziest-looking fan and photograph her.  And ignore anyone—everyone else—who looked normal.

It’s probably where “Trekkie” got associated with children and crazy fans, because there was always that condescending attitude from the news stories about “These Trekkies” like those people weren’t normal.

We all wanted the show come back.  But the studios hadn’t liked it in the first place.  They thought no one would like it much, and besides, it was way too expensive.  No one was going to take a risk on it again.

Along Comes Star Wars

In 1977, Star Wars came out.  It caught everyone off guard—it just took off.  People were lining up around the corner to get into the movie theaters.  They returned to the theater to watch the movie sometimes 20 times!

I saw it only once.  I wished Star Trek could come back.  Star Wars was an action adventure film, but Star Trek was about something more.

But Star Wars’ success had the affect of making science fiction something everyone could enjoy, and that they would spend money on.  It kick started the move to bring Star Trek back, with a shift to films and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

If Star Wars hadn’t been such a huge success, causing studios to get dollar signs in their eyes, I’m not sure the studios would have wanted to risk the expense of bringing Star Trek back.  And we’d have been a lot poorer for it.

We’re at 115 degrees today—the actual temperature was 100, and the humidty pushed it the rest of the way.  Ugh!

The Magic of First Experiences


We always get a day like today in Washington DC once fall sets in for a stay. The sky goes very blue, and the winds start up, scattering brown leaves all over the streets. I usually have to stop visiting any parks at this point because there are so many leaves on the ground that I can’t see tree roots or rocks that would cause my ankle to turn.

But streets are fine because they’re always nice and flat, even when it’s a hill. I’m not going to find a tree root poking up in the middle of the street.

So I picked this one street and followed it, looking at the houses and watching the squirrels dash around in search of nut prizes to bury. There was this one garden next to the sidewalk. Nothing spectacular, but it was bordered by white quartz.

It reminded me of when my family first moved into the house I grew up in, the Los Angeles suburbs. I had to be in kindergarten, so a lot of things I saw were still firsts and new experiences to me. At that point, I’d lived in an apartment, so a house was a new thing.

It was a slab house (concrete base; no basement), and stucco, which was common in Los Angeles. Painted Pepto Bismal pink, and still is. It might have been two bedrooms at one time and had an attached garage converted into a master bedroom. The master bedroom had that garage shape and a strange built in working surface that seemed more for tool tinkering than for a bedroom.

The backyard was huge. Not like the postage stamp-sized ones so small it’s hard to garden. This backyard was big enough that we could have put a swimming pool in if we’d wanted. At the time, behind the house was a gigantic vacant lot that stayed that way for quite a few years. Now it’s a bunch of condos.

Anyway, the yard consisted of a small hill in the back with a stand of paddle cactus, a century cactus, a stand of bamboo, and a whole lot of tall, yellow grass. Los Angeles is always in draught, so when it rains, the grass grows really fast, then goes yellow and dies. When I walked through, the grass would always leave little rocket ships of foxgloves in my socks, which are how it moves seeds around.

And, of course, this vast backyard, was something to be explored. So I’m on a mission into the unknown to find out what was out there, and I discovered treasure!

It was kind of a dirty yellow crystal, scattered all throughout the yard. In hindsight of experience, the crystal was probably a quartz used as part of a garden. I remember bits of concrete stuck to some of the pieces. But I’d never seen anything like it before, so it was part of the adventure of exploring and discovery.

As adults, I think we sometimes forget that there are things that still need to be discovered, even if it’s a new experience that we haven’t had that just shakes us up a little and gives us something new. There’s still room for a lot of firsts, even if it is just seeing a black squirrel for the first time or watching the leaf truck suck up leaves.

Snuffled by a Dragon and Other Summer Activities


So far, most of my summer has been marked by the high humidity of Washington, DC, and the accompanying thunderstorms. It’s like the air gets so full of humidity that it has to pour rain. We had a monster thunderstorm come through on the heels of Hurricane Bill and there was something like ten tornado warnings all around. One actually touched down in Triangle.

Summer has always represented fun and adventure for me because the weather’s so good. At least aside from the thunderstorms, but frankly, it’s not fun to go to a Civil War demonstration when the wind chill is in the single digits.

One of my first trips was to the Dulles Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. That’s an awesome place! I did a fair amount of walking because it houses planes and jets. One of the surprises was the SR-70, the Blackbird. That was a spy plane the U.S. used for a long time, but has since been retired.

But it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it.

The last time was in the 1970s, also in the summer time. My father worked at Lockheed then, and they held an organization day in Palm Springs, California. The Blackbird was on display for us to look at. I remember there was an armed guard standing in front of it, arms folded across is chest, to make sure no one else got near it.

I also remember thinking that the plane we’d heard about in the news seemed kind of small. Then I got to the Air and Space Museum, and it’s this gigantic, magnificent plane. I don’t know – maybe the one I saw was a smaller model.

After that, it was the space shuttle Columbia. I’ve seen the Endeavor in Los Angeles. There they allowed you to actually walk under it. Air and Space did not allow that. The Columbia itself was “used” – you know how film always makes spaceships like look the future is clean and perfect. I could see the impact of traveling through space had on the tiles.

Then there’s the dragon of the aforementioned title.

We had family day at work. It had the usual stuff for kids, bouncy things, water slides, pony rides, and paddle boats. Gigantor turtle (a foot long turtle) made a brief appearance, then leisurely dove back into the pond. A few of the other surfaced, but most stayed away from all these people.

We had a number of demonstrations, including dances from Mexicans and Indians, as well as a Chinese Dragon. The dragon consisted of two men wearing the dragon costume. The costume was red, probably nylon, with rows of nylon hair, and bells.

The men were pretty good. Both had to work in coordination to the music, and the back end man probably couldn’t see much.

During the dragon’s dance, it moved around the crowd, sometimes approaching the people in the audience. Some where like, “Ew! What is this?” I was laughing and enjoying the dance, so the dragon came over and snuffled up my side. The costume was a bit scratchy, but it was fun.

Desert Storm: Thanksgiving in the Persian Gulf


When I was growing up in Southern California, Thanksgiving was usually a potluck dinner at our neighbors house. He’d set up a table outside in his driveway, and everyone would show up. Yeah, it was outside. November in Los Angeles was still pretty warm out, though we would have said it was starting to get cold. While I was at Fort Lewis, the Mess Hall would have a big Thanksgiving meal. The officers and the platoon sergeants would put on their dress blues and serve the lower enlisted food. It was also usually the best meal of the year in the Mess Hall. Thanksgiving food is like putting on your best clothes.

Thanksgiving in Saudi Arabia was the same way. The holiday was on November 22, 1990, which put it just about month or so since we’d arrived. I look at it now and think that it wasn’t that long, and yet, at the time, it felt like many months had already passed us by. Maybe that was the effect of how our days were structured. Every day, we woke up, had formation, and went to work, and when we were done working, we tried to keep from being bored. There were no weekends, and if we hadn’t been keeping track of the days, the holiday could have easily passed us by.

My squad leader came by and told us that President Bush was visiting. He could send one person, and I was the one he picked. It was exciting, and not entirely because the President of the United States was coming. I’d also be getting out of the tiny world of our camp, which had become very claustrophobic. It was also difficult for me at times because I was an introvert and introverts need to be alone to recharge, and in that small world, I was never alone.

We were bussed out to the same airport that our plane landed in. It had been turned into a stage for a giant audience. Sometimes when I show up at places and all the women are wearing the same color, someone will say, “We all got the memo.” For this, we were all told to be in the same uniform, the desert camoflauge, so it was a sea of brown.

A long line filed into the audience area of thousands of soldiers. Just packed. I remember seeing a soldier’s chemical kit scattered on the ground and trampled under his feet and thinking that he was going to be in a lot of trouble. We passed a roped off area of Air Force One and black vehicles.

I don’t remember anything about the President’s speech. Evidently, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me then, either:

“Yesterday, I went up and saw the President at the Royal Saudi Air Force Base (I was the short one in the back). He gave a ten minute speech.” — My recorded notes on the visit of the President, November 23, 1990.

After that, I came back, and we were all treated to Thanksgiving food that had come in with the President. It was all the traditional food: Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes. We could eat all we wanted. The Army had even decorated the tent. I remember there was a huge table decoration in the middle of the room, set up on a table. I don’t remember what the decoration was, but I do remember the Mars bars scattered all over the base of it. I stuffed my shirt pockets full of candy bars because it would be a long time before I would see any more.

Up until I’d deployed, I kept saying to myself that he would resolve this, and now we were here and and nothing had been resolved. And the reality was that once I went back, still nothing would be resolved, and the next day would start, the same as the day before Thanksgiving. War would still wait for us.

Desert Storm: First Look at Saudi Arabia


My first experiences of seeing Saudi Arabia were from the back of a CUCV. A CUCV, which is a fancy acronym, for what’s basically a suburban truck. They didn’t have enough room for all of us, so I ended up in the back area, like when we were kids and road in the back of the station wagon. So I saw Saudi Arabia as it fell behind me.

The streets had sort of what I call a wind-swept look, like the wind blew them clean. I saw the streets look the same in Los Angeles, and it’s because the sun beats down on the asphalt so much that it fades the colors. The cars that passed us by had Arabic license plates, but the translation in numbers was in English blow the Arabic. The signs on the roads were the same way.

I supposed I expected to see a city, but all I saw was a lot of sand on either side of the road. Even the buildings were sand-colored. Most of the architecture seemed more functional than anything else; the only buildings that were elaborate were the mosques. These were quite elegant and beautiful, with tall towers. We were told that the worshipers were called to prayer five times a day from that tower. In the days before modern technology, the man would use his voice, but now it was a loudspeaker.

The most striking thing about Saudi Arabia was the lack of color. I can go outside now, since it’s fall, and see the fiery reds and blazing oranges of the trees changing. Even in Los Angeles, which is a desert, there were still the vibrant colors of the flowers in bloom and the green grass. But in Saudi Arabia, it’s sand color and sky color. Add our sand colored uniforms and our muted green uniforms and tents (same color value family), and there wasn’t much variety.

We arrived at our destination at last, which was at the Dhahran Exposition Center. It was a large white building, and it was right on the shore of the Persian Gulf. A huge beach stretched out for a long ways. Unlike the California beaches I’d grown up with, it was quite flat, which made it the perfect place to set up our tents. We were still early in the deployment process, and ours was one of the first grouping of tents that would go up here.

The water was a shock of glittering blue against all the brownness. Just gorgeous.

This was what I wrote about it on November 3, 1990:

“We’re right on the beach with its powdery sand. The ground is very hard — we were breaking metal stakes in it. The ocean is beautiful from a distance, especially with the city lights reflecting off it at night. But up close, the water is dirty, polluted. The Saudis dump their waste into it.”

At low tide, the water receded so far back that I couldn’t see it any more. But low tide revealed that the sea was a trash dump. Garbage was embedded in the mud, and everywhere, there were tires. I’d later see Saudi men dumping tires from the back of a pickup truck in the middle of the desert. It was hard seeing that because it felt like people didn’t care about where they lived, and especially when it was so beautiful when it was high tide.

The sun was also coming up, and it was starting to get hot. We didn’t have temperature gauges to tell us how how hot it was, except that it was quite hot. In researching this, I was surprised that the average temperature for this time of year was only 96 degrees, and it would start dipping down into fall. Clearly, I’d been away from Los Angeles too long!

Desert Storm: Arrival in Saudi Arabia


I guess I imagined the enemy shooting at us as our plane flew into Saudi Arabia. It’s like that in the movies, and when McLean Stevenson wanted to leave MASH, the character was killed just like that. Being a writer is not a good thing when you’re going to war. There’s too many things you can make up and scare yourself.

We landed at 10:00 at night at the Royal Saudi Air Force Base. The first thing that hit me when I got to the exit of the plane was how hot it was outside. The air crew had reported it as being eighty degrees. Being from Los Angeles, you’d think I’d been fine with this, but I’d been stationed in Washington State too long. It was hot.

The second thing to hit me was the smell. It was like there was a decaying garbage dump somewhere nearby. The night was very black, and aside from the blast of the jet engines, it was quiet out.

This was different than when you fly home or go on vacation. You know where you’re going. You know what’s happening. We got off that plane and were directed down this street-like area between buildings, and it was now what? No one told us anything. The unofficial army motto of “Hurry up and wait.”

Eventually the jet engine died, and we were left in the cloaked silence of the night. In that silence, there was a strange sense of being disconnected. Like being underwater, and your tether is cut. You don’t know where up or down is, or have any reference points. Even the unit that had accompanied us seemed to have vanished, like they weren’t even there.

The first sergeant formed us up and told us to drop all our gear. Water bottles were passed around. They didn’t have much, so we all shared. Ice cold and delicious. Once it was gone, I wished I’d had more.

Finally about eight buses arrived. These were like the tour buses I see around Washington, DC, only more luxurious. I got my first look at an Arab when the driver came out. He wore a white thobe, which is kind of a long tunic that goes all the way to the ankles. The material was probably cotton and very lightweight. I could imagine that being comfortable in the heat of the day, and very practical. He also wore a keffiyeh, which is the red and white checkered head covering you’ve probably seen in the news. I’m guessing it’s protection against the sun, just like our Boonie hats were. His shoes were simple sandals. It didn’t escape us that one of the men showed us the bottom of his sandals.

One of the strangest things I saw though was what one of the men did. The buses were not going anywhere, waiting on whatever, so he strung a hamock under the bus and took a nap. This was in front of drivers of very large trucks. You don’t put any body part under a vehicle. Bad things happen. A soldier a few years later would have a radio run over, and a general would have his BlackBerry run over. Body parts, not so good.

After a long time of waiting, we were allowed to board, and the bus was just amazing. The seats were covered with velvet, or a velvet-like material, and the windows had drapes. Generous room. There was enough space for us to spread out, one to a seat. By then I was so tired that all I could think of was sleep. Yet, as I spawled out on this comfortable seat, I was aware of every bump that bus went over, every shifting line of light, and of the snores of the female soldier in the seat in front of me. It was like I was so tired that my body couldn’t get the energy to sleep.

We drove and drove and drove. I heard voices drifting in and out, talking about that we were lost. By the time we got to wherever we were going, the lot of us were zombies. A military truck pulled up behind us, bearing the load of duffel bags. We had to haul them off and figure out which was which. The arms worked, the legs worked, the brain did not work. We sorted the duffel bags, and I was glad that my platoon had marked all these with a colored ribbon so we could tell the difference between the other platoons.

Once we identified our duffel bags — and thankfully — I had all mine, then we sacked out of the ground under this rooflike structure. The ground was saturated with motoroil, so I spread my poncho liner out over it so I wasn’t lying in it, but as I tried to sleep, that’s all I could smell. It was weird because I was in a stage of sleep where I was dozing but aware of what was going on around me.

At some point, a commotion ensued. It was the officers, with urgent voices. One of the soldiers in the other platoons had left his rifle on the bus, and now the bus was gone. The squad leader was in trouble because he hadn’t verified that everyone had their weapons. The lieutenant in charge of that platoon was going after the buses to find the missing rifle.

Then, somehow, the night ended, and the sky lightened, and our squad leaders got us up. We were still zombies. One of the other women and I gathered up shower stuff and made the migration in search of showers and latrines.

In daylight, we discovered this was at a waterfront. It was apparently a staging area to bring in soldiers who were arriving, and then move them to their final destination. Translation: No one cleaned it up. The latrines were really bad and stank. We debated if the gas masks would help (no, my squad leader assured us. They don’t help against bad smells). One of the female sergeants left a water bottle outside the latrine so we could wash up.

The showers — or actually, the male showers — were in worse condition than the latrines. The guys just skipped the latrines and went in the showers. Trash was everywhere: 2 liter water bottles, razors, abandoned washcloths, empty shampoo bottles. The women’s showers were much cleaner and in better shape. Sad to say, though, I was on a police detail (pick up trash), and we all wished we had sterilized gloves once we went through the men’s showers.

We had several cooks assigned to our company, and they set up a portable kitchen and heated up T-Rations. T-Rations are fully cooked meals in a sealed tray. Heat up water, immerse the tray until the food is hot, and then serve. We had coffee cake, which was very dry, and eggs, which were very strange. Somehow they lose a lot in the translation when they’re not fresh. Flies were racing in to get any abandoned food.

After that, more waiting, and we all took our GameBoys to pass the time. One by one, soldiers began disappearing as they were trucked out to our destination. Finally they came and got me, and now I could have my first look at Saudi Arabia!

Summer, Mirages, and Dog Periscopes in Los Angeles


When I hear flip-flops, I always think of summer, and Southern California.  As scary as it sounds, when I was growing up, we didn’t initially have air conditioning.  So it was leave open the front door, leave closed the screen door, and crank open all the windows.  Didn’t help much though.  Hot is hot in California.  Even in Virginia, with the humidity as bad as it is today, isn’t the same as August in California.

I’d walk around the asphalt playground and feel the heat rising off it around my shins and calves.  Then, the city sometimes patched cracks in the street with tar.  When the summer sun hit it, it always smelled like the tar had just been laid down a few minutes ago.  Hot enough to melt.

From the backseat of the car, I’d see the heat rising off the cars on the freeway.  It wasn’t actually visible, but it made the air waver above the cars, sort of like what steam does.  Sometimes the heat would cause mirages, too.  Mostly, I would see them on the road ahead, looking like a layer of water sitting on the surface, until we reached it.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I watched a Smithsonian special on the Titanic.  Think of it as a layer cake.  You take a slice out and you can see these layers.  The layers are the different temperatures of the layers of air.  For Titanic’s area, they layers were cold, and Los Angeles was, of course, hot.

I haven’t seen a mirage since I left Los Angeles.  I hadn’t thought about that until I watched the special.

Summer also turns everything yellow and brown in Los Angeles.  With the draught now, it’s even more so:

Dry brush at the roadside, brown and yellow
I took this back in February. I was a passenger in the car, so someone else was driving.  The fence is to keep falling rocks off the road.

 

I used to joke that my father never needed to mow the lawn.  He just let it grow tall in the backyard and then die when the summer came.   It was so tall that our min-pin Bubbles had to take a leap with each step to see where she was going.  Snoopy, who was a lot older, wiser, and often cranky, would just forge ahead in the grass, his curling tail poking up like a periscope.  He always knew exactly where he was going, even though he couldn’t see it.

Of course, that yard was great for adventuring for us kids.  When we first moved into the house, I forged through it myself, looking for treasures.  I found this piece of concrete with crystals set into it — crystals was what I called it at the time.  It was some kind of quartz in a yellowish-white.  I also found, curiously, blue beads in the exact shade that was my favorite color.  Maybe one of the reasons I like turquoise is because it was so much the opposite of the colors I grew up with!

From The Daily Prompt

Time for another Odd Trio prompt: write a post about any topic you want, in whatever form or genre, but make sure it features a slice of cake, a pair of flip-flops, and someone old and wise.

Project a Week: Week 5


When I started the week, I wanted to do a science fiction story.  I watched the lecture “How to Think Like a Science Fiction Writer,” which talks about how to write science fiction if you don’t have a science background.  That fit me perfectly.

The idea was do something with living under the sea.  When I was kid, Sea Hunt was in reruns on TV, and I loved the adventures of Mike Nelson.  Then there was Primus, which followed up from Sea Hunt, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  That aired in the 1960s, but when into reruns in Los Angeles when Star Trek fandom kicked off and all things science fiction.  It was just plain fun to have adventures in such a colorful and beautiful environment.

 

Fish and coral at the Virginia Beach Aquarium
Fish at the Virginia Beach Aquarium

 

But it’s requiring some time with the research, so I opted for a poem as a project again.  I have to build up a supply of poems if I want to submit them; most magazines seem to want 3-5 poems submitted at once.  Plus, I’m finding they’re a fun way of approaching different elements in my writing.  Scratching a different itch as it were.

Meanwhile, I’m also working on my contemporary fantasy novel (set on an alternate reality of Hawaii; are we sensing an ocean trend here?).

I got my advance copy of Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present this week.  It’s an awesome book that not only deals with the perspectives of soldiers (and there’s more than one female soldier.  Rocking!), but it has grandparents and different wars.