Late October days are warm here; nights and early mornings cool and invigorating.
Fall is far more subtle in the Valley of the Sun than most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. October doesn’t flash across the horizon and announce its presence in burnt orange, blood red and sunflower yellow.
You need to be a non-traditionalist to observe and appreciate autumn in the Sonoran Desert. To watch the tangelo, grapefruit and lemon fruits transition slowly from green to yellow. They will be ripe for the picking by late December or early January, and we will have juicy citrus and fresh lemonade once again.
As a crew of two arrived to put the finishing touches on our bathroom remodeling project inside, outside Blanca played troubadour, curling and rolling on the sidewalk.
With her frolicking assistance–and the more obvious aid of my telephoto lens–I captured these golden images on a quiet late Wednesday morning in our Polynesian Paradise community.
To be sure, Arizona’s desert is alive with distinction in late October. Where else might feline shenanigans, the promise of citrus, blooming hibiscus, and Halloween coexist?
October is renovation month in our household. We’re remodeling our Sonoran bathroom: installing a walk-in shower to replace our clunky-and-outdated shower/tub combo; raising our ridiculously low ceiling; putting in a new toilet; upgrading the sink, vanity and mirror; laying mosaic tile to accent existing porcelain squares; wiring and connecting contemporary lighting; the works. It will be beautiful when everything is done next week.
The guy Tom and I hired to install and update everything is skilled and thorough, it’s just that the project is taking longer than expected–longer than it should in our book for a variety of reasons I won’t belabor here.
Suffice it to say, that each morning when our remodeling guy arrives we discuss the work ahead with him and what we expect to be completed that day.
This morning, I escaped the mayhem of our modest and ordinarily quiet condo for a few hours. I needed a swim away from our immediate community. (Tom and I are taking turns doing this to keep our sanity.)
Enter Frank. He’s a friend I see at Eldorado Pool (two miles from our home) on occasion. Whenever I see Frank, we have topical and lively conversations … about the state of the world, our past lives in the Midwest, the plight of our favorite sports teams, his job as a nurse in the behavioral health wing of a nearby hospital, my life as a writer. Frank has read at least one of my books.
As I changed into my swim trunks in the locker room this morning, Frank asked “What’s new with you guys?”
“We’re trying to survive our bathroom remodeling project,” I sighed.
“Rich-people problems.” He responded matter-of-factly as he fumbled with the contents of his locker.
What happened next surprised me. I laughed so hard, more loudly than I have in a long time. Why? I suppose it was some sort of release. Also, I realized in a flash that Frank gave me the reality check and perspective I needed.
People are dying of Covid. Others are struggling financially and/or dealing with the untenable and unreasonable demands of work, child-rearing, and elder care in a crazy and politically polarized society.
Through that lens, my life at sixty-four is relatively steady, simple, and manageable … notwithstanding an annoying remodeling project that would fluster you too if you were standing next to me gazing into the disarray of our condo.
Back to Frank. Let me be clear. His “rich-people problems” comment wasn’t referring to my financial status (we live comfortably, but aren’t wealthy), trivializing my concerns about the bathroom inconveniences that Tom and I are living through, forgetting the past challenges we have faced as a same-sex couple who survived a heart attack on the way west, or discounting the numerous other losses and heartaches we have endured.
The nut of this story is this: today Frank crossed my path to remind me I am a “rich” person with a “rich” life … a loving husband, two adult sons who enjoy spending time with their dad, and a “golden” (Frank’s word, not mine) life living in Scottsdale, Arizona in our retirement years.
Yep … “rich-people problems” sums it up nicely. Thank you, my friend, for being so authentic. For being so Frank.
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.
My love of major league baseball qualifies as an obsession, especially when my favorite team–the St. Louis Cardinals–appears in the playoffs.
Tonight I’ll be glued to the TV, hanging on every pitch of the National League winner-take-all wildcard game between the redbirds and the defending 2020 World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
This love of Cardinals’ baseball runs deep through my bloodline. From memories of my father and me sitting together in the Busch Stadium bleachers in St. Louis in the 1960s to similar moments with my sons Nick and Kirk a generation later, watching the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs renew their rivalry from Wrigley Field’s upper deck.
Whether the Cardinals win or lose on October 6, 2021, my husband Tom (a lifelong Cubs fan) will endure this evening with Nick and me (on pins and needles) seated next to him in our living room in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Nick is joining us for the game and a dinner Tom has offered to prepare at our condo; Kirk will be rooting for the team wearing red from his apartment in Chicago; my cousin Phyllis (also a die-hard Cardinals’ fan) will be cheering from her home in St. Charles, Missouri.
This is just another chapter in October baseball and the rich history of the St. Louis Cardinals that has included eleven World Series championships (1926, 1931, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964, 1967, 1982, 2006, and 2011.)
I’ve been fortunate enough to be alive for five of them … and even attended a game in the 1982 World Series, which I wrote about in Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.
Will tonight’s game (with gutsy-and-crafty Adam Wainwright on the mound for the Cardinals vs. the Dodgers’ phenomenal pitcher Max Scherzer) be the first step toward #12 for the Cardinals in 2021 or simply an abrupt finale to a remarkable season that included seventeen consecutive September wins (a franchise record)?
Only time–and the actions of the players on the field–will tell. No matter the outcome, I’ll do my best to enjoy the game as it evolves at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
October 7, 2021 postscript: The journalist in me requires that I report that the Dodgers defeated the Cardinals 3-1 last night. Los Angeles outfielder Chris Taylor hit a game-winning, two-run home run off of Cardinals’ relief pitcher Alex Reyes in the bottom of the ninth inning. The dramatic hit broke a 1-1 deadlock and sent Dodger fans into a frenzy.
Thus, the St. Louis Cardinals 2021 season is over. Naturally, I’m disappointed the team I love and follow isn’t advancing to the next round of the playoffs. Nonetheless, Tom and I enjoyed the evening with Nick. My older son ensured we could “stream” the game from his phone to our TV when that was in doubt just prior to game time.
If your team is still in the hunt for the 2021 World Series title, I wish you the best as you continue on your October odyssey.
I’m packing away my red St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt (with the birds balancing on the bat) until 2022. Or, in the words of my younger son Kirk who sent me this text after the game, “on to the next fun thing.”
After living through four summers, autumns, winters, and springs in Scottsdale, Arizona, I’ve decided autumn is my favorite time of year here.
Most 100-degree temperatures are vanishing from our ten-day forecast. The monsoons have packed their bags and left town with the dusty drama and wet havoc that only unexpected and unwelcome guests incite. And large flocks of snow birds have yet to fly in.
Mornings are a notch or two cooler–in the 70s–than they were in late summer. Perfect for sipping coffee outside under the eaves.
Did you know we’re frost-free? You won’t find icy substances on our pumpkins or windshields. Ever.
You won’t witness a foliage kaleidoscope here either. Or crunch through piles of leaves. Or rake. Stay away if that’s your thing.
I didn’t intend for this to be a Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce ad (though it sounds like a back-handed, bizarre one). But if you like plenty of pool days, pleasant dry mornings for hikes, warm-to-hot September and October highs, shorts, flipflops, spiky saguaros, and startling sunsets long after Labor Day is a distant memory, come to the Valley of the Sun.
All of us are required to play roles in society, especially to earn a living. We project a persona that may or may not align with who we are or what we value. We wear masks.
Of course, in a pandemic some us wear them more than others in public situations. But in my post-corporate sixties–even if I’m donning a face covering for physical protection–I prefer to spend time with people who are genuine. I don’t have the patience for games or innuendoes.
My need for authenticity has roots that wind back to my formative years. In the 1970s, as a budding-but-denying gay adolescent who had unnamed feelings for other boys and wasn’t allowed to express them, my personal development was frozen in time.
Imagine closing off one portion of your identity entirely with no light, voice or path encouraging you to explore it. None of the relationship rites of passage for straight kids–flirting, dating, parties, dances–were available to gay and lesbian kids in the 70s.
In my middle school years, I became close with Daniel. There was a lot I liked about him: his intelligence, his quirkiness, his dimples, his love of language and the arts.
On occasion, Daniel came over to my house after school. We played board games or simply talked about school and the teachers we liked. We never acted physically on the bond and attraction we shared.
I remember that Mom and Dad liked Daniel … and Daniel admired some of my parents’ most endearing qualities: my father’s exuberance and sensitivity; my mother’s kindness and sensibility.
In seventh grade, I was the spelling bee champion for Mackenzie Junior High School. I represented our school at the St. Louis-area finals. Each student was allowed to bring one friend in addition to his or her family. My choice was Daniel. I remember him sitting in the audience that day in April 1970. It felt like he belonged there, like he was a part of my family.
Not long after I lost the spelling bee, a few boys at school must have recognized something about the care and closeness Daniel and I demonstrated for each other in the halls and in the classroom. They spewed venom. They bullied us physically and verbally. It hurt me deeply and pushed me further into the darkness.
Daniel and I remained friends in eighth grade and beyond, but we spent less time with each other as a result of that trauma and feelings of vulnerability that surfaced. Our paths crossed only rarely in high school even though we both performed in plays and musicals.
Looking back, it was a survival strategy for me to pull away from Daniel, but I always regretted that we never had a chance to be authentic with one another or to talk about the elephant in the room … the experience of being chastised for being different.
That would change on a September Sunday morning in St. Louis.
In August 2021, I contacted Daniel online to tell him that I wanted to reconnect with him while I was in St. Louis for the Six Flags reunion. (We hadn’t seen each other since 1995, and then it was just a brief hello at our twentieth high school reunion.)
Daniel loved the idea. So, on Sunday, September 5, 2021–before Tom and I left Missouri to drive to the Chicago area to see our sisters and my son Kirk–we met him for coffee at a place he recommended. The three of us spent an hour together talking on the patio of a lovely cafe in the Soulard neighborhood of St. Louis.
For the first time, I was able to tell Daniel how awful I felt about the way our friendship was derailed. That led to a deeper discussion about other boys who were tormented to worse outcomes. But that wasn’t the entirety of our conversation. It was just one moment in a warm exchange with each of us … Daniel, Tom and me … sharing stories of our careers, families, and adventures. The bonus for me was watching and listening as my husband and my first boyfriend discussed their favorite films.
Before Tom and I departed, we invited Daniel to come visit us in the Phoenix area. As we left the cafe, I hugged Daniel and said goodbye. I truly believe there will be another chapter to our friendship. Maybe it will happen in Phoenix. Maybe it will happen in St. Louis.
Either way, on my Midwest journey in 2021, I was able to tie together a few more of the disparate ends of my past rollercoaster life to my more fully actualized Arizona existence, and for that I am grateful.
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.
It rained most of September 4, 2021, in eastern Missouri. Fortunately, scattered-but-heavy showers didn’t wash away our plans.
At nine a.m., Tom and I drove north thirty minutes from our room at Hampton Inn Valley Park to visit my cousin Phyllis and her family in their St. Charles, Missouri home.
After we exchanged hugs, Phyllis’ husband Tom prepared homemade blueberry-and-apple pancakes. We volleyed catch-up stories between the kitchen and family room, while their golden retriever Truman sidled up to Tom and me on the couch, placed each of his front paws in our laps, and stole our hearts.
For the next two hours eleven of us–spread across three generations–gathered around a rectangular kitchen table framed by angled windows and a lush backyard.
The two Toms, Phyllis and I represented the senior set. Amanda, Austin, Kelsey, and Bryant smiled and shared stories of their thirty-something, heavy-lifting, career-and-child-rearing years. They shepherded and cradled: three-year-old Ava, who danced around the table in her princess gown; adorable one-year-old Violet, who is learning to walk; and baby Brooks born in July with a head of hair.
It was a treat for me to spend time with them all, the entirety of my Johnson family connection that remains in the St. Louis area.
Thankfully, the reunion around Phyllis’ and Tom’s table superseded our previous encounter at an Italian restaurant in St. Louis on July 5, 2017. It was one day before I suffered a mild heart attack as Tom and I walked to Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ central west end to see my book of light-hearted Missouri stories on the shelf.
When we left St. Charles just before noon, I pointed our rental car southeast. Tom typed the address for Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery into his smartphone to find the most direct route to my parents’ graves.
Ironically, our most recent visit to the rolling hills of white marble grave markers on the banks of the Mississippi River was four years ago–the same day we last saw Phyllis and Tom. But on this occasion–September 4–we were in town on what would have been Dad’s and Mom’s seventy-third wedding anniversary.
I had hoped to stop somewhere for a small bunch of flowers to leave on their graves. That never happened. Instead, we arrived at the cemetery entrance empty handed, made two right turns and one left, drove past the chapel, traveled up a hill, and parked our rental car under a tree.
About the time we arrived, the rain paused. We walked a hundred steps or so to DD 355, where Dad and Mom are buried near a large oak tree. As Tom and I surveyed the grounds and knelt quietly, he spotted two acorns side-by-side on top of the wet grass on Mom’s side of the marker.
Before we left, I placed the acorns on top of the marker in honor of their wedding anniversary.
I suppose even in the solemn solitude of a cemetery the strength of our family ties endure and life goes on.