Confessions from 11,510 Feet

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For a few minutes last Sunday, I was up on the roof. No, I wasn’t cleaning the debris out of my gutters. My husband Tom and I, along with John and Sharon (two lifelong friends visiting from St. Louis), were on a two-day, Flagstaff sightseeing mission, seeking northern Arizona’s coolest and highest spots.

On a rare, seventy-degree-and-mostly-sunny afternoon, we boarded the Agassiz Chairlift (elevation 9,500 feet in the San Francisco Peaks) and rode above the tall pines another 2,000 feet to the top of the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort.

Of course, this excursion was just for summer thrills. There wasn’t any of the frozen white stuff in late July. In fact, if there had been snow, I would have been far away for two reasons:

#1 … Unlike our friends from St. Louis who learned to ski when they lived in Europe, I’m not a snow bunny. Though Tom and I are in good shape for guys in their sixties, neither of us has skied much. On a personal note, I don’t care to risk broken bones on slippery slopes. I’m not interested in more pain or tempting fate. I figure it’ll arrive soon enough without me paving the way for a new and expensive relationship with an orthopedic surgeon. Besides, I already have a cardiologist and wouldn’t want him to get jealous.

#2 … I’ve endured enough cold and snowy Chicago days and nights to last a lifetime. To be precise, thirty-seven winters back in the relative flatness of northeastern Illinois.  Think sub-zero temperatures and howling winds in December and January and repeated rounds of snow-blowing to clear your western-exposed driveway in February and you’ll have the right mental image.

In all seriousness, Tom and I enjoyed getting reacquainted with John and Sharon. It had been nearly five years since we’d seen them. And, naturally, both the chairlift ride and the mountain scenery in our home state were breathtaking.

Hmmm … now that I think about it, perhaps our Rocky Mountain experience and my choice of adjectives have more to do with the thinner air I felt pumping in and out of my lungs at a high altitude than the actual view.

Either way, you can be sure I followed the rules on this sign. I did no running on Sunday. Just some light walking and a little heavy breathing until it was time for us to board the chairlift for the return trip, descend the mountainside, and climb down from Arizona’s magnificent and majestic roof.

 

 

 

The World Was Our Oyster

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My mother, Helen F. Johnson (the F was for Ferrell), sent me more than a thousand letters during her lifetime from her home in St. Louis. After she died in January 2013, reading them gave me comfort and strength.

Each letter contained a treasure trove of information: personal anecdotes, parenting and investment advice, and countless words of love and encouragement. (They and my grandpa Ferrell’s farm-life diaries from North Carolina inspired me to write and publish my first memoir, From Fertile Ground. It’s a story about love, loss and leaving your mark on the world.)

Inside Helen’s letter dated April 1, 2002, was this photo of her with my dad, Walter Johnson. Someone captured this image in Texas seventy years ago today (July 26th, 1949) on my mother’s twenty-sixth birthday. How do I know for sure? Because Helen wrote about it in her letter. Here’s a snippet of what she told me that day.

“… Walt and me when we were young and happy and the world was our oyster. It was taken on my 26th birthday at Club Seven Oaks–off the highway about halfway between San Antonio, TX and Austin, TX. We had been married 10 months. We had 14 happy years before he had his heart attack that took all our lives through some difficult times … It helps me to look at us then and remember there were some good years. Few people live a life without difficulties–something we learn as we live and age.”

Today, on what would have been my mother’s ninety-sixth birthday, the best way I know of celebrating her life, wisdom, and passion for letter writing, is to share her story … really our story … with the world. To that end, on July 26, 27 and 28, you can download a free Kindle copy of From Fertile Ground on Amazon.  I feature many more of Helen’s letters in my book.

Never Far Away

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Every morning you appear outside my window in the fever of July.

In the blooming blanket of a Barbara Karst bougainvillea.

A red reminder of ripe melons and ready resiliency.

Of sweet magnolia miles and pink petunias past.

Of green thumbs and blue birthday hydrangeas.

Every night you fade with each Sonoran sunset.

But you are never far away in the garden.

 

By Mark Johnson, July 22, 2019

 

Remembering Man’s First Lunar Landing

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Like millions around the world, on July 20, 1969, I was glued to the Apollo 11 coverage. We strained to watch American astronauts Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin become the first humans to land on the moon. It was nothing less than moonlight madness on CBS as my sister and I sat transfixed, cross-legged and sleepy-eyed in front of our grainy, black-and-white TV console.

We were all thirsty for every nuance of Walter Cronkite’s televised play-by-play, because it was a collective glorious moment for all Americans. Looking back, it was also strange redemption for the trauma we had endured less than six years before when — with a lump in his throat — Walter (the same trusted newsman) had the most painful task of all. To deliver the unfathomable news to a nation that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. That our president with the lofty goal of landing a man on the moon would never see it realized.

When Christmas 1969 arrived, one of the presents under the tree from my mother and father was this Apollo 11/John F. Kennedy medal commemorating man’s first lunar landing. On the back it reads:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961

It may not surprise you to learn that at the time I received this gift, I was an unimpressed twelve year old. But fifty years later, it’s one of the items I treasure most from my parents. Not just for the sake of owning this beautiful and rare piece, designed by renowned sculptor Karen Worth.

But also because having the medal helps me to relive and cherish the memory of a remarkable moment in American history … when we reveled in a positive shared experience and were universally proud of our accomplishments as a nation.

Get Well Soon, Bob Gibson

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Over the weekend, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Bob Gibson is battling pancreatic cancer. The flame-throwing, right-handed, Hall of Fame pitcher–who spent his entire seventeen-year career with the St. Louis Cardinals–is eighty-three years old. He is likely to begin chemotherapy this week. (This photo of the acrobatic and intimidating delivery of the Cardinals’ ace pitcher came from the cover of one of my 1960s scorecards.)

In 2017, as a tribute to the most dominant pitcher of the 1960s, I wrote and published the following story about “Gibby” and an historic, astounding moment my dad and I witnessed. The full piece, titled The Transistor Radio and the Crack of a Bat appears in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator, a book of twenty-six true stories about my Missouri youth.

***

Many of my memories are forever embedded as sounds. Of course, there was “That’s one small step for man. One giant leap for mankind”–that profound yet tinny phrase Neil Armstrong uttered on July 20, 1969, when he became the first person to step on the surface of the moon. That sound and a few sketchy images broke through our black-and-white TV.

But two years before Armstrong’s historic moon walk, there was another sound that echoed through my childhood. This one emanated from my portable, pocket-sized transistor radio. It was July 15,1967. Bob Gibson was on the mound pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals that day at Busch Memorial Stadium. He was facing the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dad and I were sitting in the right field bleachers. I had my baseball mitt on my left hand and my transistor radio in its tattered leather case blaring away in my right …

Together Dad and I had the good fortune of watching Gibson pitch at least twenty different times in my childhood. I’ll bet he won seventeen or eighteen of those games. But on this particular hot summer day, all of us in attendance were in store for something stunning, unimaginable, and apparently catastrophic–and the transistor radio would play a big role in a shocking St. Louis moment that is forever sealed in my memory.

Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ legendary right fielder, stepped to the plate to face Gibson. I remember the crack of Clemente’s bat, booming across the field and through my transistor radio. (Harry Caray and Jack Buck–arguably the best baseball broadcast team ever–provided the color commentary on KMOX Radio.) Clemente had smacked a line drive off Gibson’s leg, just above his ankle.

In spite of the warm temperature, the fans went stone-cold silent. The Cardinals’ trainer rushed to the mound to attend to the perennial all-star pitcher. After the trainer applied a freezing agent to the area, Gibby took a few soft tosses from the mound and then waved off the trainer. He was ready to resume pitching. A collective exhale filtered through the crowd and my transistor radio.

But the relief was short lived. After walking Willie Stargell and retiring Bill Mazeroski on a pop up, Gibson swung into his pitching motion and delivered a 3-2 pitch to Donn Clendenon. That’s when he collapsed in a heap on the mound.

A palpable hush blanketed the ballpark. It echoed and hung in the smoky bleacher air as vendors–suspended in slow motion–passed peanuts, beer, and hot dogs into waiting hands. Overriding the silence, the only sounds I can recall were the concerned voices of Buck and Caray cascading through my transistor and those of countless other fans muttering around their squawk boxes throughout the ballpark. After the Cardinals’ medical team removed Gibson from the field on a stretcher, we soon learned he had suffered a compound fracture. Caray and Buck told us through our transistor radios. It was devastating news.

As you would expect, Bob Gibson was sidelined for much of the year, but a young, unproven right-handed pitcher named Nelson Briles took his place in the rotation for the remainder of the regular season. Briles led the National League that year with a .737 win-loss percentage and a 14-5 record. His performance silenced the skeptics, who insisted the Cardinals wouldn’t recover from Gibson’s debilitating mid-season injury.

Remarkably, Gibson returned to the Cardinals in time to face Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox in the 1967 World Series. According to the 20th Century Baseball Chronicle, “In the end, Gibson was clearly the difference, winning three complete games 2-1, 6-0, and 7-2 while striking out twenty-six and walking only five.” That included the deciding game 7.

Though Dad and I weren’t in the crowd to see any of the 1967 World Series games in St. Louis, we were there to hear the crack of Clemente’s bat reverberate throughout Busch Memorial Stadium. We witnessed an unlikely moment shared by two of major league baseball’s future Hall of Famers.

Ironically, four years later on August 14, 1971, Bob Gibson was on the mound against the Pirates again. This time the tables were turned. On this night, pitching at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Gibson achieved something that had escaped him previously. He recorded the only no-hitter of his illustrious career. I wasn’t in Pittsburgh that night to witness Gibson’s historic moment in person, but I listened intently from my bedroom in south suburban St. Louis. Propped up on my elbow, I heard exuberant Jack Buck exclaim, “Gibson’s thrown a no-hitter!” Best of all, I heard the man do it. I heard every pitch on my trusty transistor radio.

***

Ironic postscript: this evening–exactly fifty-two years since the Gibson-Clemente moment–the Cardinals and Pirates will renew their long-standing rivalry. It will the first of a three-game series at Busch Stadium (the Cardinals’ current home, which opened in downtown St. Louis in 2006).

In the off chance that Gibby reads this, there’s only one more thing to say. Get well soon, Bob Gibson. Just as I did in 1967, I’m rooting for your speedy recovery.

 

 

 

The Voice Inside

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Water is a precious commodity. Especially on days like this in the Sonoran Desert. It’s 111 degrees outside. Perfect for a little heat-related sci fi.

***

Your throat is parched. All of your water jugs are empty. But all is not lost. You’re less than five minutes away from a water station in a strip mall.

You step in your car and prepare to drive there. You grip the wheel. It feels as if it’s been baking in an oven. But you persevere and crank up the AC.

Five minutes later, you’ve arrived. You exit your sedan with two empty gallon jugs. One in each hand. A magnificent blue oasis is looming on the near horizon. It’s calling your name. It’s glowing and quivering like a mirage in a dusty old western.

You walk to the water station entrance. You fumble in your pocket for twenty-five cents. Still in a stupor from the pulsating heat, you slide two dimes and a nickel into the slot to fill the first jug. The water begins to bubble out of the machine into your first container. A gasping-and-grateful female voice startles you. It calls out from inside the machine. It utters two words … “Thank You.”

You don’t believe your ears. You tighten the blue cap on the first jug and place the second empty one where it had been. You slide two more dimes and another nickel into the same slot in the Glacier water machine. Again, the voice inside repeats her weary declaration … “Thank You.” 

You wonder.

“Have I entered the Twilight Zone?”

“Is this a new Stephen King novel about an automated creature dying of thirst, who can only survive and get more water when patrons visit her and deposit their coins?”

“Or perhaps the frail voice inside is simply thanking me for bottling my own water and reusing my plastic containers.”

You decide.

 

 

A Better Day, a Better View, a Better Path

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We all experience ghastly days that shake us to the core. Days when our inner monologue runs on a defiant loop: “Oh, if I can just get through this … if I can just beat the odds … maybe one day the light will return.”

At least, that’s how it felt for me on July 6, 2017 … my sixtieth birthday … when I suffered a mild heart attack in St. Louis on the way west from our old home in Illinois to our new home in Arizona.

With a little luck and a lot of perseverance, two years have passed. Last Saturday–on July 6, 2019–my husband and I traveled two hours north from sizzling Scottsdale into Sedona’s red rock country for a hike to celebrate our shared sixty-second birthday (yes … it’s sweet, surreal and serendipitous) and (serendipity squared) the second anniversary of me (actually, us) surviving heart trauma.

Given the multi-layered significance of July 6 in our lives, it was only fitting that we chart a new course for the day in this geological wonderland. So, we packed plenty of water, slathered on the sunscreen, and stepped out on the trail toward one of Sedona’s gems: Bell Rock.

On the course of our hour-long journey, we stopped frequently to marvel at the spectacular scenery in our new home state … to acknowledge just how far we’d come in twenty-four months. From a familiar-and-comfortable suburban-Chicago life … to a frightening hospital stay in the city where I was born … to our 112-degree arrival in Arizona when our air conditioning faltered … to a well-earned, grateful life of wide open spaces, majestic sunsets and creative possibilities that have since bloomed.

At one point on our final approach to Bell Rock, I snapped this photo to capture the flight and magnitude of the moment. Just like this young mountain biker who wheeled past us, we’ve rounded the corner and transcended the story of An Unobstructed View. We’ve begun a new chapter in our journey here in the Grand Canyon State. We’ve welcomed the passage of time. We’ve found the gift of reflection in Arizona’s rejuvenating red rocks.