#12 Russian Adventures

In the summer of 1987, I waited for a visa to go to Russia (then USSR) to visit a sick friend. Really. We met when she was the translator for a group of Soviet children traveling all over America performing a peace play. In a cultural exchange, American children were doing the same thing all over the USSR. Nadia was eager for American friends and spoke perfect English. I had closed my company in Pennsylvania and had time to befriend this effusive person from another planet.

As she traveled that summer I let her use my phone card to stay in touch, thinking it was the least I could do in the cause of peace. I didn’t know she would be calling China.

Some months later as I was selling my house in York, PA, I received a note through a friend that Nadia had breast cancer and wasn’t doing at all well. I had said I’d try to visit some day, but to me that meant SOME DAY. Now she was pleading for me to visit before she died. My house sold and I postponed plans to return to work in New York while I applied for a visa to make the trip. I wasn’t eager to return just yet anyway.

I borrowed the weekend house of a friend on Long Island which he seldom used. I had never taken a salary from my business, there was none to take, which comprises a chunk of my “Stupid” list. But now I had gone four years without an income. And after a six month wait, still no visa. This was 1987, The Wall was still up and travel to the Soviet Union was rare.

Finally I joined a group tour in order to get a visa. It was a long trip over three weeks including Central Asia. All I wanted to do was get to Moscow to keep a promise. The tour was made of “Citizen Diplomats” out of Ohio. What had I gotten myself into?

Days before the trip, I received a call from a woman in California who would be assisting in running the tour. She was flying into New York the night before our departure and asked if she might stay with me. She sounded pleasant and I’d be traveling with them for nearly a month. Why not?

On a hot sticky afternoon I picked her up at Kennedy Airport. There was this short scrunch faced woman with at least six suitcases the size of a bed. I couldn’t possibly get them into my car so I had some checked at the airport. Then I drove the little red and mean faced woman, who wasn’t in the least bit pleasant, to my temporary home. She called a man she had met the night before in California while she lounged by the pool. They talked several times that day and late that night. They were vowing to communicate by ESP through the 11 times zones in which we’d be traveling. I swear. She was calling from my phone and I wanted to say why not try the ESP now? I didn’t.

When I was all packed, she asked if she could put a few things in my suitcase. She brought out a tape recorder, books, at least a dozen items. I had my own tape recorder and I had been instructed about how carefully items are inspected by customs. I told her NO.

I had gifts for Nadia and her family. She sent measurements for much needed jeans for her poet/artist husband and their son, assuring me that she had converted from metric. I found a store on Long Island that specialized in extra extra large jeans for rotund farmers.

I had plenty of gifts both for my friend and for people we would meet along the way. American flag pins, pens, gum. These things were recommended. Brilliant. I was going to encourage cavities in the teeth of Russian children. I also had peanut butter and dried fruit and most importantly, toilet paper for me.

I had ordered a limo to the airport for the following morning which I shared with my house guest. I’ll skip our long trip for now, or meeting my fellow travelers and go right to our landing in then Leningrad from Luxembourg. The customs man opened my luggage and inspected everything. He saw the shocked look on my face. During the night the mean little woman from California had sneaked her things into my bag.

Everyone else had cleared customs. I was kept over an hour with at least seven inspectors examining my belongings. As they held up the tape recorder and books I said, hoping they’d understand, “That’s not mine.” I had been warned about body cavity searches and was fully prepared to say, “Gotta go,” and fly right back to Luxembourg. I also had been told that it was common to offer “gifts” to Russian customs people. No way was I going to take that chance and land in what I envisioned to be a Gulag. I had a supply of pens and pencils for Nadia’s artist husband. Should I offer them? NO! When they held up the jeans for giants they lost interest. At last I was allowed to join the group of strangers waiting on the bus. I never spoke to that mean little woman again. I sure showed her.

The mean little woman from California’s luggage was lost almost the entire trip. She wore the same awful red jumpsuit for over three weeks and not one of the truly kind “citizen diplomats” loaned her a thing. She borrowed money from everyone, probably expecting cash for the “stuff” she was carrying. Karma?

About a year later we heard that she had been banned from Russia for a couple of years, probably for black market dealings, or put another way, working the parallel economy.

About the jeans, Nadia had not in fact converted the measurements. Her husband and son could both fit into one leg.

About Nadia’s health, she had had seriously butchered surgery, but was not dying. Her illness was not the real reason I was summoned.


#11 The Air Vent Conversation Part III

In #7 The Air Vent Conversation Part II, I had abandoned my spiffy new job in New York to join the man in my life who moved to Milwaukee. This was the second time I’d changed jobs because of us. It was my fourth move because of us.

I have nothing against Milwaukee, except that it snowed so damn much that by the end of winter, which lasted into April, every intersection was so piled high with plowed snow, you couldn’t see until you got to the middle. Forty degrees below zero was not uncommon for weeks, and I don’t care about wind chill factors, anything below 20 degrees is just too bloody cold. Car engines had to be plugged into block heaters every night to keep them from cracking. On the other hand, spring was magnificent. People were nice if they didn’t hate you for being from New York. There were great restaurants and if you like beer (which I didn’t) you’d be in heaven

We lived in a hotel for a couple of months while house hunting. Tough to know what to look for when we’d never had a conversation about our future. Tough also to know how much to spend, since I had no job. We looked at solid brick colonials with nice yards. But he urged us toward a new condo complex off the freeway, with streets like Brown Deer Road and Pheasant Place. We, I should say he, bought the condo in a cul-de-sac: two stories and no yard to maintain. We, or rather he, bought a used Mustang from Bud Selig’s dealership (the then future Commissioner of Baseball) which I drove since he had a company car.

At about the time we moved into the condo, I learned of a position with a successful television station. Back then there were only four stations in a market, and I was accustomed to dozens of competing radio stations going after the same advertising dollars. This would be very different. I had to switch because we couldn’t both compete in the same radio market.

It was fall of 1976 when I started work. I had a very short haircut then, shorter than my Twiggy cut in the 60’s. When I met my new colleagues, it was not a warm welcome as they stared at my hair. What I had not been told was that I would be the first woman in sales in that market…ever. The men on the sales staff treated me as if I had a highly contagious disease that might have come from another planet. It made my work life pretty miserable. So I told the Manager that I was going to call a meeting with everyone and he was not invited. I don’t know where I got the nerve to do that. Life was miserable enough for me to do something about it. I learned at that meeting that they thought I had been hired to replace one of them, so I put it directly to my male colleagues that I simply accepted a job that was offered me and I was not there to take anyone else’s business. After that, the guys couldn’t have been better, like a batch of fun respectful brothers, something I had never experienced.

There was no Madison Avenue, so I couldn’t walk to a client’s office as I had done every day in Manhattan. I was perpetually lost driving with a map in my hand for the first six months. As a skier, driving in snow was not new to me. But one night it snowed so much, we were trapped in our complex. The men dug a tunnel big enough for me to drive the Mustang through it.

Though it wasn’t what I had planned, I was thriving in television. At one point a sales management position came open and of course I applied. That’s exactly what I was trained for in New York. Three other guys applied too. The General Sales Manager sent us all to a Psychologist for inkblot tests, long personality profiles and extensive repeated interviews. This went on for about six months. I’m not kidding. It went on so long the Psychologist and I became friends. Then the Manager hired someone from the outside. He couldn’t bring himself to place a woman in that position. To his credit he admitted it to me, but years later.

Back to home, what does an upwardly mobile couple do when there’s no life plan? There’s no mention of making a plan. They take weekend trips with friends. They buy more furniture for the larger space. And they get an expensive dog. A Soft Coated Irish Wheaten Terrier to be exact. That would fix everything, right? Molly was delightful but not trainable. With no yard, I had to hit the freeway during the day to let her out.

Okay, so the relationship didn’t have fireworks. We had humor and business in common which became less and less of a reason for being together. We did take our first trip to Europe and it was largely a disaster. He wasn’t comfortable away from American radio stations. And I wasn’t comfortable with his discomfort. By London we weren’t speaking.

When we returned we had a wedding to attend, but I couldn’t get myself out the door that afternoon. I felt miserable and realized that a wedding was a smack of a reminder that we had no plan.

A few months later he announced that he was taking a job in I think,Virginia. There was no mention between us about my joining him and I moved to the guest room. We got along better with that pressure off. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, we just didn’t belong together. We didn’t belong together for nearly three years.

So there I was in Milwaukee, far from my career roots on either coast, Seattle or New York. I was in a jam, with no car of my own, no furniture of my own, not even a room of my own (sorry Virginia Woolf) but I got the dog.

Having just turned 30, surely now I would make more adult choices.

#10 Two Days Later

I wrote in #1 The Ten Commandments: The Movie about my father dropping dead and how life changed. There were more shocks ahead.

The night he died, Alice, my mother was sedated but still hysterical. She had me sleep with her since she wouldn’t be alone. In that sleepless night I learned that it wasn’t my father who snored. Good God no wonder she always had headaches. I finally had to slip into the living room to curl up on the sectional sofa. I couldn’t sleep but didn’t go up to my room in case she woke and needed me.

The next night I slept in my own bed and was frightened awake early in the morning by my mother, fully dressed, standing over me. Was she going to smother me or make one of her pronouncements? I was confused partly because she never came upstairs. She was going to the mortuary to see my father and did I want to go? “No,” was my response. The thought of seeing my father dead was unimaginable. My brother didn’t go either.

I was also startled by what she said next while I struggled to be conscious.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve decided that I’m not going to help you, but that means you’ll never have to take care of me.”

It was short, no big words and I remember them all. But it didn’t sink in. Maybe she was still sedated and it was grief speaking.

But she did mean it. She bought a new house for cash. She sent my brother through Optometry School, gave him a family diamond for an engagement ring, paid to start his practice, bought the equipment, helped to buy his first house and his lake house, even paid for his divorce and bought herself a classic red Thunderbird. But I never received so much as a plant for a new office. I stood in lines at the Veterans Administration begging for an education. I had two jobs in Seattle while going to school. Even when I moved east I never questioned her decision to make a choice between her children. Now looking back it’s clear that my father’s death made what she had planned all along possible.

On only one occasion did I ever ask for help. I was working in radio in New York at about age 26 when two friends invited me to buy a radio station with them in Massachusetts that was up for a distress sale. This was my dream and we each only needed $10,000, but immediately. I thought my sole hope for that kind of cash was my mother. She inherited a great deal of money from her parents, which remained entirely hers. My father supported us so I never knew what their financial arrangement was.

At work one day I closed my office door, took a deep breath and called her, 3,000 miles away about a loan for my dream. She was irritable and said, “Don’t be ridiculous, I’m busy.” And she hung up. I held the receiver in my hand for a long time with tears in my eyes.Another group bought that station in Massachusetts and turned it around in a few years with a 3 million dollar profit.

Once when I was home for a visit, Alice actually said to a friend, “Elizabeth would never let me help her.” She knew I was too well trained, too passive to challenge her in front of anyone. My brother called it her “reality problem.” I called them lies.

Almost twenty years after her pronouncement at my bed, she and her husband came to see me in Pennsylvania. She also visited a family friend in the same town. After seeing my elegant historic home, she let it slip to the friend, “I may have invested in the wrong one.” She also told the friend that the reason I lived so well was that I had inherited a great deal of money. I’ve never inherited a penny in my life.

This made the “Stupendously Stupid” list and reads, “At 19, didn’t question my mother when she told me that since my father had died, she was never going to help me, therefore I’d never have to help her.” I was too numb to think of challenging her that morning or any other time.

I could have titled this Don’t Be Ridiculous, a common phrase of hers.

#9 Why Not Put on a Show in the Garage?

In 1971,Seattle was still known as a less sophisticated San Francisco. That was before Microsoft, Starbucks and too much traffic. One of my jobs while at the University of Washington was announcing ski reports on Washington, Oregon and Canadian radio stations for a ski magazine, at dawn. The company wake up service knew to call me twice because I’d fall asleep on the couch on the way to the bathroom. There was always a bit of banter with the disc jockey on the air before the report and that led to my working for one of the best radio stations in the west, KVI. It was owned by Gene Autry and years later I still got Christmas cards from Gene and Ida.

The station hired me as Continuity Director, which meant I was in charge of all commercials that went on the air. Half of them had to be typed because advertisers wanted the on-air personalities to read them live, but I could barely type a term paper. There was one commercial I messed up every time, The Pizza Peddler. I typed “Pizza Piddler” and the announcer inevitably cracked up.

That’s how casually things happened. I was exhausted working two jobs while eking out the last few credits in school. Why not work in radio? Or, why not put on a show in the garage?

Life there was good. I was “the kid” working with wonderful people. The woman who trained me was part friend, part supervisor and part maternal. She died last year and I miss her.

I got to go up in the small airplane that was used for traffic reports in the afternoons. What people didn’t know was that I was often flying the plane while the pilot was on the air. Later I took flying lessons at Boeing Field, landing right behind the new 747’s. And 90 days of the year, I could see Mt.Rainier from my office. Seattle had its first baseball franchise, so we went to games: tough out there because it wasn’t a spectator sports town. The Pilots later became the Milwaukee Brewers, a team I also saw when I lived there a few years later.

My newly formed dream was to own my own radio station in Seattle, maybe twenty years later. It was a dream, not a plan.  And in my mind that meant I needed to go to New York for experience. The Army was sending my brother to Fort Dix,N.J. I jumped at the chance to have my belongings sent with him. I announced I was moving to New York so people at the radio station wrote letters on my behalf. I was leaving without a job, or a home, and 3,000 miles toward the unknown.

I filled my zippy black and gold Opel Kadett Rallye with clothes and my little dog Sammie. She lived at my mother’s house and just when I was about to leave, Alice informed me that Sam was going with me. Whoops.

I loved to drive, though the longest distance I had done on my own was ski trips to Vancouver, B.C. It must late fall so I didn’t go too far north to avoid snow. I made tracks with little money, therefore very little sightseeing.

I had been on the road about six days when I stopped first at Fort Dix, New Jersey to see my brother and his wife. But I needed to get to Manhattan that night. Coast Guard friends of my father’s were letting me stay with them on Governor’s Island. My timing was either idiotic or accidentally brilliant. I crossed the George Washington Bridge and maneuvered the West Side Highway at rush hour. After that I was never intimidated driving in New York.

I found the ferry terminal at the bottom of Manhattan, right near the Staten Island Ferry. Sammie and I took the quick ride across and I found the gracious house of my friends. I had been there a couple of years earlier for a visit, so that had a lot to do with feeling confident about the move. They lived in a grand historic brick house on Colonel’s Row. The Island has a fort from the Revolutionary War. It’s been British and American, Army and then Coast Guard. My father’s friend was the Commanding Officer. Every morning I woke to Reveille and at sundown I heard the peace of Taps.

I had mastered New York rush hour traffic, but when I drove up to the house I had to face my next hurdle. My friends did not know about Sammie. It’s one thing to take in a friend’s daughter, but with the surprise of a dog? I didn’t want to push my welcome so the poor pup slept in my car for a few nights. But soon she was part of this generous family.

There I was with no agreement about how long I could stay with them, no job, no apartment and next to no money. I had no plan.

#8 Get Her Out of Town

It must have been Fall of 1964, time for our High School’s Senior Ball: the beginning of the end of the high school career. For a girl who rarely had a date, that’s a dreadful time. Where we lived, there were no big hotel ballrooms or limousines. We just camouflaged the gymnasium into something grand and sparkly with kings and queens and slow dances and pretty dresses and went for early breakfasts. I had gone to the Sophomore Hop, and the Junior Prom. So it was hop, prom but no ball.

Being the ever dependable member of the decorating committee without an invitation was mortifying back then. It wasn’t discussed in our house, but my father decided to get me out of town that Saturday. I referenced our strained relationship in #6 I Hope They Smell the Pee. Near the end of her life, my aunt described what it was like growing up with Dad’s explosions. One time her beloved big brother put his fist into a plaster wall.

He eventually understood and even overcame his temper, by the time I was in High School. But damage was done and I maintained a protective space. He was rightfully admired by my friends and plenty intimidated by boys. He was a coach, a member of every possible organization and always there to help with our class events. But of course no one knew what was going on at home.

He became a teacher at my high school when he retired from the Coast Guard after a few attempts at other businesses. In fact one year my brother, father and I were at the High School at the same time. As a teacher he found a stride. He was not an academy man. He had worked his way up and was self-educated. Sadly as he learned to somewhat control his temper for my sake, the trade was ulcers.

As the Senior Ball approached and my prospective dates did not, my father arranged to take me to Seattle to a University of Washington football game the same day. I invited a friend who was also not going to the dance. I really hardly knew her, but I was uncomfortable about a day alone with my father.

Off we went in his big new all electric Buick. My friend and I sat in the back seat laughing and talking only to each other, even though it was a huge car with plenty of room up front. It was only partly teenage thoughtlessness. I always kept a distance. He got us to the massive stadium, fed us, and gave us a great day. He got us safely home that night making our return as late as possible. Again we sat in the back. I’m sure he wanted more than to spare me a sad night. He wanted a chance to begin to repair us.

I never had a truly comfortable or safe moment with my father in my life. Yet in our family, he was the only one who loved me. I thanked him politely for taking us, I was a good girl. But he died just two years after our day at the game. And I never overcame my fear of him enough, in time, to tell him I understood what he was trying so dearly to overcome.

#7 The Air Vent Conversation – Part II

In the first entry #3, I had just moved in with a man, leaving all possessions behind as well as any notion of good judgment. There was no plan and no talk of ever talking about talking. My drifting into this might astonish me today, except that my “stupendously stupid” list is so long.

We worked together at the same successful radio station in New York and lived together in his Manhattan velour accented apartment. We took different cabs in the morning so we didn’t enter the office at the same time. Did we think no one knew? It wasn’t shocking to live with someone, but working together was.

We moved to the east 60’s to a nicer apartment and played house, shopping for new furniture and scouring bargains on the lower east side. Everything was in his name, another matter we never discussed. He bought me a piano to replace the one I had left behind, and gave me my first fur coat, a lovely white curly lamb. I still wasn’t making as much money and it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done.

Our life was comfortable and enviable in some ways. We had well known colleagues. We had well known neighbors. Through NBC we went to movie premiers, frequent Saturday Night Live tapings and even the Grammys. Dinner was always out at neighborhood haunts with friends. We took weekend trips from time to time or traveled to broadcast conferences. Our entire social world was in that business. And we slipped into the Manhattan way of life of Sunday brunch out in the neighborhood, while sharing sections of the Times. Though my heart was still wounded from the previous relationship and we weren’t setting off rockets, I shifted into an acceptance that this would be my life.

It became too awkward working at the same radio station and through mental telepathy it was understood that I would make a career or job change. I had originally left Seattle for New York to get more experience in radio assuming that women would have more opportunities. Not so, unless you got into sales which was the path to management and even ownership, my real dream. And radio back then was a little like the military. You moved out to move up and often worked with the same people at different stations.

Luckily I found a position as half of a firm that represented small radio stations to New York advertising agencies. There was the owner, a rather volatile guy, and there was me. It was grimy work because I did a little of everything, but I learned to sell by just doing it. Being a small fry was an advantage and I met with many of the biggest media buyers and media directors in New York. My prospects had improved

After only about nine months I was approached by a firm within Westinghouse Broadcasting. It was their own company which represented their radio properties. It was also their management training corps, good news for me. But it seemed unwise to leave a job after less than a year. I told my current employer about the offer and his angry response made my decision. I left. Now I had my own office and a support system where I was respected at a well respected company. My income more than tripled immediately.

Radio was and is a precarious business depending on ratings. The man in my life was fired, a pretty common occurrence. Soon he announced that he had taken a job in Milwaukee.

“Where?” I asked.

“Milwaukee,” he repeated as he rattled off the new call letters.

“Did you say Milwaukee?” I asked still hoping he meant New Jersey. This was a year into our living together and we still hadn’t discussed us. I had been in the new job for only two months.

Living together was hardly unusual. Both sets of parents by then had visited from the west coast. No one asked questions or offered approval or disapproval. Every day I know I felt not quite bad, or morally wrong, just not quite right. I think now that it had less to do with what society might think, but whether we belonged together.

There was a split second when I wondered if I could afford to sub-let the apartment from him and stay in Manhattan. But, movers were called, boxes packed and I announced to the president of the new company that after two wonderful months I had to resign. He couldn’t have been nicer praising my work and offering letters of introduction. But I felt horrible. Not only was I letting them down, but I had just earned my wings. I offered to stay as long as they needed so they put me up in a hotel and I continued to work with them for a month.

During that month I flew to Milwaukee for a weekend to start our house search. He picked me up at the airport and we drove around the area. With absolutely no warning I burst into tears. He drove as I sobbed the full length of the interstate.

A few weeks later I moved to Milwaukee.

#6 I Hope They Smell the Pee

We lived in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. And when I was seven I went to a friend’s big birthday party.  After the party her parents drove me home and as their station wagon pulled in front of our house my father appeared from nowhere. He must have been waiting, ready to pounce off the porch. The car door flew open and I was pulled from the back seat by my hand and suddenly dangled by my shoulder, as my father kept spanking me all the way up our walk. Twisting in the air, my father’s blows sometimes missed, further frustrating him. It was the Saturday before Mother’s Day. We were late leaving for dinner. I was a selfish child.

There was no warning about his temper. My brother was beaten once when we lived in New York, also about age seven. It too had something to do with my mother, a sort of, “If you love me you’ll beat the kids.” With that incident, as the little sister I cried and tried to throw myself between them to deflect the blows. My father was 6’3″, strong with big hands. Geez I was stupid. There’s a photo of the three of us posing on my brother’s bicycle right after the explosion. My father and brother are all smiley. I am not. I had also once seen our beautiful black Cocker Spaniel Bonnie, punted through the air. She was blind by then and had gotten in his way. You don’t forget the kick or the yelp.

But back to the dangling twisting spanking and the shock that caused me to pee. I peed my pants all the way up the walk and the front steps. When he deposited me inside the door my father ordered me in his deep and angry voice to run immediately upstairs to change my dress. I didn’t cry, I didn’t speak. I did what he said. While I frantically grabbed at a nice dress to wear I noticed the yellow floral wall paper. I don’t know why.

Off to dinner we went. However, terrified and trying to rush, I had neglected to change my thoroughly soaked underpants, the ones with a high cotton absorption value. I sat in the restaurant, angry, sulky, feeling unfairly treated, and pretty damn damp. I may have been quiet but felt righteously stubborn, thinking only to myself, “I hope they smell the pee, that’ll show them.”

I was never hit by my father again, but tragically lived in fear of that wonderful man for the rest of his all too brief life.