A good writer can summon the right mix of words and creativity to bring any story or situation to life.
I think I’ve always believed that statement. But, in the past, I’ve been more comfortable telling true stories, derived from the vault of my memories. Less comfortable creating a set of characters and possibilities from scratch.
Recently, a voice inside has been telling me to try my hand at fiction. I decided to humor that voice. I registered for an in-person, six-week creative writing course in Scottsdale. It began in mid-September.
Twelve of us writers from all walks of life sit around an oblong table every Wednesday afternoon. Our instructor shares her experience and tools. She’s a writer, screenwriter, and editor.
She guides us through various writing prompts in the moment. We take turns reading our work to each other. Then, we disburse to craft something original for the following Wednesday.
One of our assignments was to create a detailed character inventory. To essentially build a character from the ground up–complete with personal history, physical traits, likes, dislikes, baggage, strengths, and weaknesses. The whole enchilada.
The idea might sound intimidating. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it was a lot of fun. Now, I’m beginning to write a story that features this character. Remarkably, I can envision this person in the world, though they exist purely in my imagination.
I don’t know where this exercise will lead ultimately, but I’m open to the raw uncertainty. For the first time in about a year, I feel a surge in creative energy to explore and try new things.
Time, trial and error will tell me whether I truly have a flair for fiction. When I’m ready to disclose more, I’ll share it here.
Sunday’s touch of soreness in my right arm–from Saturday’s latest Covid booster–didn’t deter me from capturing 5,266 steps along the Crosscut Canal and this blue-sky, north-facing view of Camelback Mountain from the bridge.
It was the calm I needed and inhaled to organize my thoughts. Away from the world but planted firmly on it. Serenaded by a few distant Sky Harbor departures, slow stream of bikes buzzing by, and family of Gambel’s quail rushing down the embankment for Sunday brunch.
It was laundry day. So, this morning, Tom and I grabbed our pouch of wooden clothespins and walked five hundred steps or so to the landing behind our condo clubhouse.
For the next five minutes–shielding our eyes from the penetrating sun–we stood on the concrete there, hanging our just-washed, delicate shorts and shirts on the community clothesline to dry in the desert breeze.
Call me old fashioned. But I don’t mind doing this. In fact, I enjoy it. Especially as fall approaches and the air begins to cool.
More important, the plastic-coated clothesline connects my present life to my past. It represents the resiliency I’ve watched, absorbed, and carried forward.
It reminds me of the family members I’ve lost, but still love, and the survival instincts they instilled in me sixty years ago. What follows are excerpts from my book, Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator.
It was my second week of kindergarten, and I was just beginning to adjust to a new routine. On a warm and breezy mid-September afternoon in 1962–September 13 to be exact–I left my Mesnier School classroom and stepped aboard my regular bus for the trip home.
Within ten minutes, the driver arrived at the top of South Yorkshire Drive. She opened the door and several of us scampered down the stairs. I waved goodbye to a few remaining classmates still on board.
The driver closed the louvered door and pushed ahead. I meandered home. It was no more than a five-minute walk up our block and our driveway. Then, in an instant, a breathtaking late summer day transformed into an early fall for our family.
I saw my mother standing just beyond the backyard gate. She was wearing a sundress, lost in thought, uncoiling clean, damp towels and sheets from a laundry basket. Happy, our beagle-mixed hound, was out of reach too. He was sniffing the ground and frolicking miles away, it seemed, along the back fence.
“Your father’s had a heart attack.” Mom recited her words slowly and deliberately, like a woman treading deep water searching for a longer breath.
I didn’t comprehend what she had to say. But it couldn’t be good news, I thought as she plucked wooden clothespins from a pouch. She was working to keep her ragged emotions and the flapping sheets in check, preparing to clip wet linens to parallel plastic-encased clotheslines that stretched east and west across our yard.
Soon we walked into the house with our empty white-lattice basket, and I learned more. Dad had become ill on day two of his new job as a porter at McDonnell-Douglas. He was helping a coworker lift an airplane nosecone. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain in his chest. He was rushed to Deaconess Hospital on Oakland Avenue near Forest Park. That’s where he would recuperate for the next month …
Each time we visited Dad, he was bedridden. I couldn’t comprehend what could keep my father lying in one location for so long–unable to toss horseshoes, fly kites, or drive us to parades or ballgames. But Dad insisted he would rebound.
Like the popular song from Bye Bye Birdie that played on the transistor radio near his bedside, Dad told me, “Son, I’ve Got a Lot of Living to Do.”
The next decade was difficult for our family. Watching Dad drift away physically and emotionally, filled me with anxiety. He never recovered fully, though the man who fought in World War II and the Battle of the Bulge soldiered on until his death in 1993.
Meanwhile, my mother kept our family afloat financially. She went back to work in March 1963 and did her best to balance life at home and in the office. When she died in 2013, she left behind a legacy of wisdom that I cherish and share.
Watching my parents toil produced a silver lining. Seeing them tread deep water for all those years gave me something I never imagined: the will to face my own personal challenges, standing tall as a proud gay man, and surviving my own heart attack on my sixtieth birthday.
Of course, it all began in the suburbs of St. Louis in September 1962. That sagging clothesline swayed. But it never snapped.
And, here in the Sonoran Desert in 2022, another clothesline sways 1,400 miles west.
Few films adeptly tackle the subject of aging. (Sure, it isn’t sexy or glamourous. But, if we’re lucky, it’s something we all must learn to navigate and accept.) Harry and Tonto is the exception.
Released in 1974, the movie–directed by Paul Mazursky–tells the story of a seventy-plus, stubborn-yet-vulnerable, retired teacher and his trusty cat Tonto. They are forced to leave their Upper West Side New York City apartment after their building is condemned.
Their odyssey leads them from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles (with a few fascinating side adventures) in search of a new home.
This is much more than a road trip movie with a stellar supporting cast: Ellen Burstyn, Larry Hagman, Chief Dan George, Melanie Mayron, Geraldine Fitzgerald, and others.
It explores the complicated relationships and conflicts that come with family, as well as the sometimes surprisingly rich and meaningful connections we form with strangers across the generations, who cross our paths without warning.
If you read my blog regularly, it shouldn’t surprise you that I love a story about an old man and a cat. (After all, I’ve come to discover the clever ways felines weave in and out of our desert community on any given day.)
It’s really the tenderness of this film, not just the cat, that cement this as one of Tom’s and my favorites in spite of its dated references to 1970s pop culture. Over the years, we’ve screened it six or eight times. We watched it again over the Labor Day weekend.
For instance, there’s a scene where Harry is required to confirm the identity of a long-time friend–a man with no family–who has passed unexpectedly.
Harry arrives to view the body and ensure his pal gets a proper burial. The stark sadness of the situation and the real emotions that surface touch me every time I see it.
As you may have guessed, Tonto’s co-starring appearance–and the tight bond between man and cat–is a symbolic device in the story that gives it depth. The animal is a sounding board/alter ego for lonely Harry, whose wife (Annie) has died years before we meet them.
Because of the cat’s existence and place in his life, Harry finds a way to safely articulate his fears and dreams … and, as viewers, we get a front-row seat to their narrative, homelessness dilemma, and a cast of colorful characters who lead them to unexpected places and realizations.
In 2022, it’s rare to find a contemporary film with both the heart and art of Harry and Tonto. But that doesn’t deter us from digging into our personal archives to find this gem.
Rest assured. There are no spoilers here regarding the outcome. Just gratitude for Mazursky and crew who–nearly fifty years ago–crafted a film that skillfully explores the unvarnished truth about aging.
Best of all, it’s a creative and emotionally honest tale about the adventures of a man and his cat.
The calendar says September, but August-like heat abounds across the American west.
Thanks to a dome of high pressure, triple-digit Septemperatures in the Pacific Northwest, California, the Intermountain West, and (of course) here in Arizona are expected through the Labor Day weekend.
In the desert, we know how to navigate the heat. Carry a water bottle everywhere. Slather on sunscreen. Wear a hat. Exercise early. Do your chores in the morning. Stay inside during the heat of the afternoon. Reemerge at sundown to catch another dazzling sunset.
But there are troubling resource ramifications for this region that lie beneath the stark beauty, beyond late-summer-heat inconveniences.
Lake Powell, our country’s second largest reservoir–it straddles the Utah and Arizona border–now stands at its lowest level since 1967.
According to a recent article on scitechdaily.com by Michael Carlowicz of the NASA Earth Observatory, on August 6, 2022, the water elevation of Lake Powell’s surface at Glen Canyon Dam was 3,535.38 feet. That’s 98 feet lower than August 2017 … and only twenty-six percent of its capacity.
In August, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it will reduce the amount of water apportioned to states in the region.
Arizona will receive 21 percent less water from the Colorado River system in 2023. That is certain to hit farmers in the Grand Canyon State particularly hard.
Fortunately, water conservation efforts are trickling down across our state and communities like Scottsdale have begun to more aggressively manage the use of water. Plus, a wet monsoon season in our state has alleviated the drought in the short term.
But, with burgeoning population growth and climate uncertainties in this region, what will the future hold for the Colorado River basin and 40 million people–Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Diego–who rely on it for electric power and water?
The elementary and middle schools in Arizona were back in session this week.
Compared to my 1960s’ experience as a crew-cut kid of the St. Louis suburbs, it feels awfully early to return to the classroom. In those days, the first day of school arrived right after Labor Day.
Maybe I was atypical, but I was ready for school to start. I craved the structure and creative possibilities. Learning new things, reconnecting with classmates, and meeting my teacher propelled me into an annual, educational orbit.
I give my parents credit for promoting the importance and fun aspects of school. They made sure I slept enough every night and ate some sort of breakfast every morning (even when I resisted), before I caught the bus at the corner of South Yorkshire Drive and Laclede Station Road.
They also did their part to prompt me about homework assignments, attend parent-teacher conferences, and encourage good grades.
The rest was up to me.
As I write this, it all sounds rather innocent, systematic, and idyllic. It was far from perfect, but definitely safer and less complicated. There were fewer distractions. Fewer problems. Fewer troublemakers. Fewer threats.
In that era, it felt like teachers, parents, community leaders, and kids were rowing in the same direction in the same boat.
Of course, there were conflicts, but generally I observed adults behaving with a modicum of mutual respect.
Certainly, that isn’t the case in 2022 in the United States of America.
I’m not giving up. I know there are excellent parents and teachers out there–guiding the adults of tomorrow, working to shield them from harm.
However, our educational institutions have frayed under societal pressures. Too often, we forget that our impressionable children and grandchildren are watching. We forget that they need guide rails, consistency, advocates, nurturing, and discipline to grow.
As we send our youngsters off to school again, we must teach them the truth–that science, math, history, literature, and the arts really do matter.
We must distinguish facts from lies. We must open their minds to the possibilities of life, so that they will develop the critical thinking skills they will need to function effectively in this ever-complicated world.
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.