Scottsdale, Arizona is alive again. September’s scorching heat has been replaced with cooler October mornings, ideal-and-swimmable-eighty-degree afternoons, shorter days, and dazzling sunsets framed by palm trees gazing west.
Tourists are back too–in relative abundance, in posh pools, in surviving restaurants, in newly-minted hotels, on mountain bikes, on sidewalk scooters, on rolling streams of Segways.
It’s a far cry from the desolation of April 2020 when Old Town Scottsdale was first shuttered by a raging pandemic that persists eighteen months later, though many imagine it has vanished.
Grief is an insidious and universal human condition. When you love someone–and they leave or die–you need something to fill the space they’ve left behind. Grief enters to fill the void.
If you are in the midst of grieving (as I was in 2013 and 2014 after my mother passed away), it may feel as if you are wandering through a deep fog. Or you might wonder if you are chained to the floor in the middle of an empty room with water pouring in over all four walls and seeping through the floor boards.
That’s how grief can manifest itself, but for each of us the path is different. The loss lightens over the years. Still, we carry it wherever we go. It becomes an extension of us, ingrained in our identities.
In 2014 and 2015, I saved myself from drowning in grief by writing about it. My mother and grandfather helped immensely. They left behind a trail of their thoughts and experiences on paper … in the form of a mountain of letters from Helen (my resilient mother) and diaries from S.R. (my farming grandfather).
After my mother’s demise, reading her handwritten and wisdom-filled memories and her dad’s more stark observations prompted me to tell all three of our stories in one book. From Fertile Ground became my salvation. Yes, in 2015 it consumed me, but it also gave me renewed creative purpose and focus after I left my corporate job.
When I finished and published the book in 2016, I felt it was a story that would alleviate pain for grief-stricken souls. Five years later, I still feel that way. It helps me to revisit my book and my grief from time to time. Readers have taken the time to write reviews like this one online.
“From Fertile Ground” is more than just a terrific read. Johnson is generous in taking the reader into his world, his journey, his family, his emotions. In so doing, the reader obtains a soothing sense of identification of the human condition, particularly how we work through grief and loss. Johnson’s mother’s and grandfather’s letters are interspersed throughout the narrative (and connected) which adds to the reassuring sense of a collective history.
We live in a complicated world. Many of us are suffering through the side effects of loss and searching for answers. It gives me joy knowing that my book is a creative balm for many, possibly even an antidote for grief.
At any rate, as the days grow shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, I hope this personal and universal three-generation story inspires you and brightens your world … no matter who you’ve loved and lost, no matter where you live.
Our lives are an intricate tapestry of disparate threads. They weave over, around and through us. It is up to us to tie the loose ends.For those who seek and remember, we are on a lifelong quest to integrate the texture, color, and reality of our experiences.We return to our past lives to celebrate and reexamine what we have left behind and to find the greater meaning.
In August of 1976, I operated the River King Mine Train controls for the last time. I said goodbye to my rollercoaster crew mates, walked down the asphalt hill, punched the time clock, changed out of my Six Flags Over Mid-America (SFOMA) uniform, and drove my parents’ blue 1970 Chevy Belair four-door sedan from Eureka, Missouri to my childhood home in Affton. I was nineteen years old. I was ready to depart the St. Louis area to begin my sophomore year at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
It would take me forty-five years, but on the evening of September 4, 2021, I returned to Eureka. I went back to revisit my formative-and-repressed teenage years (and the scene of my first job and colleagues) and anchor them to my sixty-four-year-old existence as an openly gay writer, husband, father, son, desert rat, and heart-attack survivor.
The setting for my personal melding was the 50th reunion of SFOMA employees from the 1970s … shiny, bouncy teens and twenty-somethings who had evolved into grayer versions of themselves. In their sixties and seventies, many had gained weight and lost hair. Others had left us entirely. But those who remained had somehow managed to salvage their spark and spirit of adventure.
Tom and I flew together from Phoenix to St. Louis, but this portion of the journey was mine alone. (My husband stayed back at our hotel to read. Though he was 100 percent supportive of me going to the reunion, he had nothing to renew with a Missouri gang that would gather under a covered outdoor picnic area inside a St. Louis-area amusement park. Tom is a native Chicagoan.)
After I parked my rental car at what is now called Six Flags St. Louis in a relatively empty parking lot, I threw on my face mask, zipped up my windbreaker, and pulled up my hood. Yes, it was raining again, but the sky had begun to brighten as I fumbled for my ticket, walked through security, and entered the main gate.
If you had blindfolded and air-lifted me into the space and then removed my eye covering, I wouldn’t have known where I had landed. But I was happy to be there nonetheless. With a little help from a SFOMA map in the park, I found my way to the River King Mine Train, situated on the eastern side of the park. I headed up a steep hill that began to look familiar, past a restaurant, once called Naylor’s. In the 1970s, it served greasy fried chicken. That trail and olfactory memory led me to the entrance of the River King Mine Train.
Back in the 70s, there were two mine train tracks that were pressed into service on the busiest days. Now there is only one. I snapped a quick selfie in front of the ride sign and peeked in to see the 2021 version of the mine train crew at work and a train leaving the station. Then, I headed to the Palace Theatre to see displays of photos and memorabilia from the 1970s, when the park was sparkling new and crowded nearly every day … rain or shine.
When I paused for a quick pic of the Log Flume ride (along with the mine train, one of but a few original attractions that remain), I accidentally dropped my mask. Kevin, another reunion attendee, told me so. I swiped it off the ground and for the next ten minutes we traded stories of working in the park.
I soon discovered Kevin had also operated the mine train a year after I left … then he moved up another rung to the Screamin’ Eagle, which opened in the bi-centennial year. In 1976, it was that death-defying, stomach-dropping rollercoaster kids ran to ride as soon as the park gates opened each morning.
At six o’clock, I walked to the picnic entrance for the reunion. While I was in line, Cindy approached. Long ago, we were mine train pals for three summers; in 1974, we worked the swing shift — 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Supervisor Larry and foreman Gus (Cindy and Gus would marry a few years later) trained us at the same time to “drive” the rollercoaster and master the controls.
Cindy and I hadn’t seen each other in more than four decades–nor had we shared the up-and-down stories of our lives–but I felt the chemistry of our friendship return as we hugged. When I told her I had no clue of my sexual orientation back then, I realized why I had traveled from Phoenix to St. Louis. I needed to connect another piece of my past, less actualized, rollercoaster life in Missouri with the more even and authentic one I had created with Tom.
Cindy was on the reunion planning committee and needed to check on a few things, but we agreed to talk more once the event got started. After I filled out my name tag and an attendant handed me a 50th anniversary reunion pin, I walked through the crowd of 200 and chit-chatted.
I didn’t know or remember most of the attendees–singles and straight couples with their own stories and reasons for returning–though I could squint and recall younger versions of pretty and handsome cohorts lined up to greet guests nearly fifty years before.
A cooler breeze swept through. The rain stopped. Cindy returned. We stood in line together for a buffet dinner … beef brisket, baked beans, and potato chips. I suppose it qualified as a meal. What else should I have expected? It was amusement park food.
For the next thirty minutes, Cindy and I shared the highlights and lowlights of our past lives — the joys and tragedies that come with living and growing older. To keep the privacy of that moment, I’ll leave it at that.
On cue, the welcoming speeches from past leaders followed, along with a video collage set to music from the 70s. I felt sad more than happy as the images faded in and out. Though it reminded me of the hard-working days and fun-filled nights decades before, it also felt like I was viewing a fantasy land far away from the world we now occupy.
As the evening began to unwind, I pulled a signed copy of Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator out of my backpack and handed it to Cindy. She smiled and thanked me. I invited her to visit Tom and me in the Sonoran Desert one day. Though she’s lived in Germany and speaks several languages, Arizona is a place she has yet to visit.
Before I left, there were door prizes, more hugs, and a small stream of goodbyes. At 9 p.m. I was ready to go. I made my way in the dark back to my rental car. No more rain. The sky was clear. The air was nearly crisp for a September night in Missouri.
I retraced my steps on I-44 to the Hampton Inn in Valley Park. Tom was waiting to hear more about my rollercoaster days, the 50th reunion, and the night I returned to Eureka, Missouri to tie up a few loose ends.
As I write and reflect on this experience, I realize my return to the past playground and promise of my youth–in the middle of a pandemic–placed me outside my comfort zone.
But, with my vaccination and mask protecting me and the creative impulse guiding me, I’m glad I went back there. The bonus was reconnecting with a good friend.
In addition to my memories, I left St. Louis with this souvenir of the 50th reunion of Six Flags Over Mid-America employees of the 1970s. It was held at Six Flags St. Louis in Eureka, Missouri, on September 4, 2021.
Every time Tom and I cross the wash at Vista del Camino Park, we inhale the distinctive, earthy bite of three sycamores planted in a sea of palms and eucalyptus.
It’s a pleasant surprise to learn sycamores survive in the desert. Hybrids growing by lakes and streams are like midwestern transplants: leaner, smoother, tanner. Don’t be fooled. Their roots are one-hundred-percent sycamore.
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1971, I traveled for the first time to a much wetter region of the country with my father, mother and sister. We left St. Louis for a week to explore the Great Lakes.
Our vacation was by no means a full immersion. It was more like motel-and-diner hopping on a shoestring budget as we headed north and then east.
Dad insisted we stop on the north side of Chicago just long enough to dip our toes in frigid Lake Michigan. From there, we continued on in our Chevy Biscayne to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to board a car ferry and cross the same lake together.
In the eyes of this fourteen-year-old passenger, the ferry was faster and far more intriguing than the prospect of driving a few hundred miles on congested highways past Illinois’ and Indiana’s stained ports, steel mills, and smoke stacks.
Under a bright sky, we squinted at the lake’s choppy waters and stood on the top deck of the boat with other passengers, while below attendants squeezed vehicles into the hull for ballast. Gulls danced and dipped in the air above.
Our destination? Ludington, Michigan … a town I knew nothing about on the eastern shore. I remember Ludington as a quiet, clean community with deep beaches. We didn’t stay long. Dad wanted to drive us north to Sleepy Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where I would climb more steep midwestern piles of sand than I could imagine.
Eventually, we made our way farther north to Sioux Ste. Marie and zipped up our jackets. A cool summer breeze buffeted our hair as we watched international vessels line up and pass through the Soo Locks that connect Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
Toward the end of our weeklong Michigan adventure, we found our way south to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. I felt the sense of history there, but none of it compared with the exhilaration of the ferry ride near the start of our trip.
Fifty years later, it is the lake Dad and I crossed together–and the real and metaphorical channels we navigated as father and son–that I remember most.
Well, not really. But it feels that way for two independent writers living under one roof, who spent most of 2020 writing just to stay sane in the swirl of a global pandemic.
Yesterday Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix (an independent, artistic haven in the Valley of the Sun) contacted Tom (my film aficionado husband) and me individually with news that each of our books, published in 2021, has been accepted for consignment and placed on their shelves.
Today we drove there to capture the moment on camera. Tom’s book, CoronaCinema: A Diary of the Pandemic Year in Movie Reviews, is displayed in the film section. You can find mine, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree, on the LGBTQ shelf.
Of course, I know that most of you who follow me here don’t live in Arizona. But this is a psychological victory and important creative validation when it happens in your home community. Now there is a local book-buying option in the Valley of the Sun, if the size and scope of a global online retailer isn’t your thing.
The title of this post is a shameless ripoff of the old Beatles song, When I’m Sixty-Four. But my bastardization of the lyrics is appropriate. Today I turn sixty-four and I’m a writer who wants you to read my books. When you do, you will feed my desire to stay relevant.
Ask Tom. He’ll tell you. At this stage of life, I’m generally contented and thankful for good health, a comfortable home, and a loving husband. It is remarkable that we share the same birthday … same year too.
In 1957, our mothers never imagined their newborn sons–delivered three hundred miles and thirteen hours apart–would meet one day and marry. It certainly feels like a miracle to me.
Back to my writing. Whenever I wear my literary hat–which is frequently–I find myself questioning why my book sales have dried up like a sun-drenched Arizona river bed.
Of course, I promote my books online and do a little advertising here and there. I also market my stories on a personal basis, but when you’re an independent writer it’s easy for your books to get lost in the stacks of Amazon’s metaphorical bookshelf.
This concern I have is not quite an obsession, though it borders on it. I put a lot of thought and creativity into my writing. I want to share it with a wider circle of readers.
Perhaps my advancing age and occasional forgetfulness–did I tell you I turned sixty-four on July 6?–is what drives me to keep writing, to keep sharing my impressions and reflections of the world, to keep checking progress (or lack there of) on book sales, to keep wondering if readers will still read me.
The good news is I feel spry most days. (Of course, I wouldn’t consider using the word spry unless I were at least six decades old.) Anyway, I still have a lot to say and plenty of energy. So, on my sixty-fourth birthday, I’m going to tell you why you should buy and read my latest book, I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree.
As a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s, I observed how hard my mother worked to provide for our family and to prepare meals that we all liked … even after working long days in an office.
Frequently, Mom bought Sealtest Neopolitan ice cream and wedged it into the freezer portion of our avocado-colored refrigerator next to the Swanson’s TV dinners.
Why Neapolitan? Because she and Dad liked strawberry ice cream, while my sister and I preferred chocolate and vanilla. If you aren’t familiar with Neapolitan (I rarely see it in the supermarket these days), it included all three flavors in a carton stacked side-by-side. So, theoretically, Neopolitan offered something for everyone in our family in one container.
This ice cream recollection captures precisely the creative thrust I wanted to achieve as I wrote my Arizona-based essays. I must have been channeling my mother’s shopping sensibilities.
I wanted my book to include something for everyone … humor and sincerity, social relevance and frivolity, truth and fantasy … and to comment on the relevance of every personal and geographical chapter in my life: Missouri, North Carolina, Illinois, and Arizona.
Now that summer is upon us and the heat has arrived, I strongly encourage you to consume your favorite flavor of ice cream to cool off and to buy a paperback or Kindle version of my Neopolitan book.
In the thirty-nine essays that appear in the book, you will enjoy lapping up several flavors. For instance, there are stories about: citrus and lizards; a hummingbird and a boxer; time travel; an eavesdropping barrel cactus; a return to Tucson through the looking glass of an authentic gay life; reflections on an extended visit to that dreaded place we all lived–Coronaville; the musings of an incredible shrinking man; a wayward Viennese waiter/writer struggling to tell his heart-wrenching story; a mid-century St. Louis custodian who bonded with a famous scrub woman; alliterative observations of flickers and fedoras; the golden hours of living in the Sonoran Desert; and much more.
When you read my book (and I hope you’ll review it too), you’ll be feeding your own creativity and doing this sixty-four-year-old writer a big favor. Yes, even after writing this long-winded essay, I still need to feel needed.
Now, back to the musical portion of my post and the final verse of a pop song that feels especially personal today.
Send me a postcard, drop me a line Stating point of view Indicate precisely what you mean to say Yours sincerely, wasting away
Give me your answer, fill in a form Mine for evermore Will you still need me, will you still feed me When I’m sixty-four*
*The Beatles released When I’m Sixty-Four (lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) on their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The COVID-19 traumas that spun endlessly in 2020 and early 2021 have spawned a mountain of stories bursting with pain and uncertainty. But rays of clarity and creativity have begun to emerge as we try to make sense of the pandemic that will forever shape those of us who survived it.
I devoted part of my latest book to Coronaville–that crazy town we still live in–because I think it’s important to remember the fear and examine it, rather than sweeping it under the rug. What a shame it would be if we didn’t learn from the madness this plague has perpetrated. Here is a sampling of what I wrote one year ago this week:
Monday, June 15, 2020 began with congestion in my chest, mild nausea, and an occasional headache. I did not have a temperature, sore throat, or experience a loss of sense of smell or taste that may accompany the dreaded virus.
Nonetheless, I was worried enough to call my doctor, who prescribed a chest x-ray at a nearby diagnostic center that afternoon and a COVID-19 test the next morning at an HonorHealth urgent care facility.
Fortunately, my chest x-ray came back normal. There was no sign of pneumonia or any abnormalities. More than likely, I was dealing with a sinus condition or allergy to an air-borne culprit than the dreaded COVID-19. But still I waited. I was afraid the other shoe might drop.
On Tuesday, I imagined the desert dust from an adjacent construction site–fumes from our recent bedroom painting project or particles I had ingested from the smoke of a wildfire that raged in the hills sixty miles northeast of us–could be the problem. But I worried about the worst as Tom and I drove to Mesa for the swab test at 11 a.m.
To read the rest of the story (and all thirty-nine essays set against the warm and rugged landscape of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert) click on the link below and purchase a copy of my book in paperback or Kindle.
I’ve been feeling murky lately–grumpy too. It’s been one of those uncertain periods in life. We all have them.
Two weeks ago, the engine in our nine-year-old Sonata seized. It went kaput as Tom was returning from the gym, initiating a domino effect of frustrating phone calls and texts, AAA tows, car rentals, dealer discussions, loaner agreements, missed connections, and moving deadlines.
Fortunately, Tom is okay and our car is still under warranty … barely. (Ten years or 100,000 miles.) Our odometer read 98,500 when everything shut down. The engine was replaced and paid for by Hyundai. We picked up our rejuvenated car yesterday. It’s now running smoothly.
Despite the relatively fortunate personal and financial outcome, my patience has worn thin. My creativity is scattered. It’s as if a Sonoran wind blew in, swept my disparate ideas (literal and figurative scraps of paper on my desk) into the sky, and scorched them into a cloud of embers, precipitated by a drought-induced Arizona fire. (Yes, it’s fire season here again.)
As a result, my writing schedule is off. My temper is short. The temperature outside is rising fast in the Phoenix area (110 degrees here we come).
Oh, book sales have fallen off the map. Do people read anymore? This is one of those moments when I need to remind myself of the joy I felt in March when I was basking in the publishing afterglow (not the flames of a hillside fire) of reading passages from I Think I’ll Prune the Lemon Tree before a group of thirty-five friends and neighbors.
Through it all, I’m aware I am living in the undefined space between writing projects. If you are also a writer, you know what that feels like. It feels like crap. Why? Because writing (for us, at least) serves as a personal compass, a guiding light, an organizing principle that keeps us feeling passionate, centered, connected, relevant, and whole.
Now that I’ve had a chance to whine a little, I should also tell you that a new possible creative project has begun to surface. It may materialize this fall. At this point, I don’t want to jinx it by describing it any further.
Instead, I’m better served by resting my brain a little, praying for monsoon rains in Arizona, and focusing on a much-needed, ten-day vacation/road trip to and from Montana, which Tom and I will embark on in a few weeks.
Of course, we couldn’t go anywhere a year ago. But, because we are fully vaccinated, we’ll be able to explore and absorb the majestic scenery of Arizona, Utah, and Idaho with a clear conscience and visit friends in Bozeman, Montana.