In Search of …. the Perfect Sugar Cookie

I was 6 or 7 when I tasted the perfect cookie. And I have been trying to replicate it since. They were bought at the SunMart store on Mt. Vernon Road in Cedar Rapids, where DrugTown stood for years when SunMart closed, and where Goodwill is now located.

Business started declining at SunMart after Hy-Vee moved in up the street, and I was sorry to see it go. I got my first lesson in “rights” and “wrongs” when I was caught shoplifting, before I knew the consequences for breaking the law.

I have many fond memories of the store; my first Hostess pies and Snowballs; the flavored tabs that fizzed when you put them in water to make a concoction similar to Kool-Aid; the fresh-baked donuts that melted in your mouth; and SunMart’s amazing sugar cookies.

Fifty years later, and I still haven’t found a cookie, nor a recipe, that comes close to it. Funny how our taste buds hold a memory; as if I will know it’s the one when I finally taste it again.

I’m going to do my best to find the perfect sugar cookie this holiday baking season. And even if I can’t find the perfect sugar cookie, I hope I come close.

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In My Father’s Footsteps: The Navy Years

The following stories are excerpts from my father’s journal, his life story, which I am copying into blog form, under the title, In My Father’s Footsteps.

My father served in US Navy at the end of World War II on the USS Vella Gulf. He visited exotic places such as Hawaii, Japan, Guam, and the Philippines, and I didn’t know the extent of his adventures until I came across a box of typed pages in my mom’s storage room nearly five years ago.

My dad died in Sept. 2008, but his memory lives on through his stories. And after reading his stories about his time in the Navy, I have a deeper appreciation for those who have served in the military, and what was sacrificed so we could be free.

The atom bombs had decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan sued for peace. Later, I wondered about our choice of Nagasaki, which was something like 90-95 percent Catholic I find it hard to believe; is it possible that hatred of the Catholic church could poison a decision of such magnitude?

We anchored off the coast of Japan–was it the end of April,1945? –and everyone hit the sack.  There wasn’t anything else to do! Next morning everybody was talking about how we rode out a typhoon.

I missed it; slept right through it.

But our curiosity carried us topside to the flight deck gangway. The day was one color; dark, low-lying banks of clouds. Black seas with a little more roll than usual. And the distant land mass repeated the overall impression of foreboding.

The only apparent life ashore was several figures in flowing white attire. Later somebody told me it was a sign of mourning in Japan.

While my shipmates and I slept through the typhoon, the fury made landfall and carried the unsuspecting into eternity.

Once in a while, it seemed, the white robes appeared to pause in their dreamlike pursuits, gaze silently out to sea. To seek comfort perhaps?

Or maybe it was to pray that the salt spray cleans their loss, their sudden grief.

When we finally got clearance to enter the harbor, we did it with painful care. It reminded me of when we slowly made our way up the majestic Columbia River to Portland, Oregon right after the shakedown.

I swear there was no more than a few feet on either side of the bank. My memory’s dim, but I think power cables inched us along.

Now, entering Tokyo Bay, it seemed unreal we should be doing so, peacefully. We passed a famous Japanese battleship, the pride of the fleet, sitting on the bottom.

The USS Arizona was avenged.

Before they set us ashore for liberty in Yokohama, they told us we had to have an officer with a sidearm, peace hadn’t been signed. But at the small boat dock, all’s I saw were enlisted men and a smattering of commissioned officers and they seemed to be in charge of the dock.

So, I and a buddy took off by ourselves. The following are mainly observations; not necessarily in order. Cause I’m not sure when, only that. My first impression was dozens upon desolate dozens of flattened city blocks.

And the sickening sweet, almost suffocating smell of countless bodies beneath the bombed-out rubble. And maybe ruined sewage systems; putrid decaying flesh, alone, couldn’t smell that bad. An occasional lone plane droned high overhead, triggering Pavlovian panic and frantic stabbing toward the sound, “B-29! B-29!”

I’ll never forget boarding the little old-fashioned trolley-most of the citizens were women and old men-pretty much all dressed, it seemed to me, in the same type of uniform, same drab color. They wouldn’t take our money. Without exception, everyone bowed politely, the beautiful Japanese custom, when we came into speaking range.

What a surprise when I took my hand down the pole that ran down the length of the car, the one you hang onto. Surprise! My palm was black with sooty dust. Japanese, small in stature, didn’t aspire to those heights!

We stopped at a little shop that also had postage stamps. The only clerk in that shop, housed in a small building, was Caucasian. She gave us some yen we used for change. I bought a tiny carved elephant ornament. I don’t know human nature, but I do believe the look she gave me with my change could be interpreted:

“Hmmnh … the last of the big-time spenders! Sayonara!”

Which reminds me. At one point, two or three Japanese teenagers followed us, taunting insults. They would keep their distance, stopping when we stopped, and then stand there and jeer something in the mother tongue.

And of course, in the true spirit of the international code, the first thing they learned from the GI’s careening around in their Jeeps was to flip us the bird and then run away, hysterical.

I felt like I’d never left home!

At one point, we found ourselves atop a windswept hill in Yokohama. A small cottage was the focal; apparently the man and wife thought we were coming their way, and came out to meet us. I believe a teenage daughter held back about 12 paces. They bowed politely, of course, hoping to put them at ease and no one to interpret; we showed good intentions with generous handfuls of Camel cigarettes.

Message received, we took our leave.

One phase of the Navy not touched on: the opportunity came to move up to the ship’s photo lab with Jack Evans from Spokane. I jumped at photography; it’s fascination was just short of fanaticism. It was a good life. Cooks sent up yummy stuff like veal steak; we never cooked anything, except in butter! And another fringe benefit; I learned to process film and print pictures.

Once I got the hang of it, I blew up our family portrait (minus Molly), an 8 x 10 to something like 11 x 14. I think I ended up with enough of these to paper the bathroom!

Jack Evans also taught me how to use different types of cameras, including the K-20, a handheld aerial camera. The closest I came to a news photo. I was on the flight deck near the bridge superstructure, when this F4U came in too high … or the water may have been choppy.

The inverted gull-wing fighter, preferred by many of our Marine pilots, actually had landing gear not built for setting down smoothly on a rolling flight deck. Too static?

Just as the plane touched down, the sea suddenly rose to meet it. I squeezed the shutter of the K-20 … or maybe the speed graphic … just as the left wheel buckled, fire shooting out with the escaping fluid. I shot the camera again, ending up with a two-photo series of the accident.

I had the duty the morning of the fatal accident. Pilot misread the flight officer’s signal to elevate the flaps two degrees.  Seven degrees simply threw the doomed plane into the sea. The pilot’s body was never recovered.

The picture of the funeral service was a perfect variation of the Missing Flyer Formation. Purely by accident, of course. But the fact that our skipper was late, left an empty chair in the front row.

The expressions of grief, subdued sorrow among the remaining members of the pilot’s squadron made the empty chair the focal point of that moment of silence.

One day in San Diego, shortly before we would begin our cruise up the coast for decommissioning, I had a ball with a K-20, boxes of Kodacolor film spools at my side. I spent all day shooting planes coming in for landings and taking off. It was a good experience, keeping those beautiful birds inside the frame, coming and going.

I never got to see the results; it was something like six weeks back and forth to Eastman labs. But I can imagine they set the tone for the day.

I promised I would get back to you about almost buying the Deep Six at Waikiki. It was a piece that followed my adventures in qualifying for sea duty in boot camp at Farragut, Idaho.

My buddy and I wore swimming trunks under our uniforms, and wandered wonderingly through the breath-taking lobby of the Royal Hawaiian hotel. In 1945, this beautiful red sculpture was the top-of-the-mark of the South Pacific.

Imposing majesty describes it pretty well. We were the only two in the lobby, and our heel-clicks echoed, “intruders!” down from the high-flying ceilings. 

Maybe it was the soothing silence of the quiet A.M. that felt good. But more than likely, it was because we weren’t tossed out, persona non grata, on our Navy Blue Butts!

“I guess I’ll get my feet wet,” I said standing and brushing sand. I was being accurate.

“Go ahead, I’ll sun awhile.”

Explanation. I must tell you, dear reader, for background. Fire Control is not manning the hoses.  It is aiming and firing the big guns! The Navy seeks to determine personnel best qualified to do this, through testing.

Which of these lines is parallel? Which of these lines intersects? Which of these two lines curve away? Which of these lines is longer? Which of these lines is thinner? If you stare at line A, does Line B appear to merge or move away?

I honestly thought, all those years before my Company Commander, a Chief Petty Officer named Steve Stracchia, formerly a coach in the Chicago school system taught me the difference between a granny and a square knot, that I knew the meaning of the shortest distance! 

I didn’t; not by the wildest stretch.

I slowly walked out into the silent surf-hardly a ripple-in an, imperceptible to me, widening line. Like I had good sense.

When the water rose above my belt line, I turned and started back in a straight line. 

Oopserblub!

Who moved the bottom of the ocean?

A small voice, panic, I think, kicked-in my best Dog Paddle; I rediscovered air. Another tentative feel for the bottom; all water. Then i spotted a small Hawaiian boy–must  have been 9 or so–swimming toward me, straight out from the faraway beach.

“Hey!” I hollered. “Where’s the bottom?”

Without interrupting his strong methodical strokes, he pointed straight down. And nonchalantly pursued his Olympic swim to — I don’t know, make a monkey out of a non-swimmer we all know and love …

After that, a lifetime to compose an oath never to so much as venture levity on the subject of swimming in unsupervised oceans … specifically the Pacific!

As my account attests, I made it; 25 years later, I also made it through a drunk-up-the-bucket head-on collision. The accident was bloodier–and I vaguely remember an out-of-body experience, but the result would have been the same. 

So much for close calls. I’d like to leave swimming behind, too. But one more experience was when we were in Guam. It doesn’t involve me; just silly things a guy will do for attention.

A big Polish kid, a deck hand-and I say it with all the respect a guy that chases false echoes all over a radar screen can muster for men who do the hard work-just off the fantail in his dungarees on a dare…for 20 buck actually. But was it worth it? Getting called up before the captain, having it on your permanent record. Unless you go for a Hollywood stunt stint, how would this sound?

“Jun 15, 1945 — Seaman First Class Harvey Youngblood. Captain’s Mast. Charge: Jumped into the waters off Guam from the ship’s fantail, against all regulations and rules of common sense. For a lousy 20 dollars. Disposition: 30 days restricted duty and loss of credibility and bathing privileges.”

Signed (Captain)

Vella Gulf”

Remember back when, I was talking about our Radar gang studying shipboard units on the old World War I 4-stacker destroyer, The USS Moosehead? The only time in the Navy we rigged our canvas hammocks, and actually slept in them!

Took me back to E Avenue, of course, and the homemade hammock Mr. Hess fashioned from baling wire and barrel staves.  Except the Navy type had no hesitancy about showing you the flip side!

A week or two really isn’t enough time to get acquainted with a ship; but she had her moments. Porpoise, related to the dolphin-one step down would be my guess-swam beside us like patient sheep dogs. I think I know attitudes; in reality, I imagine attitudes. But if I could read the Porpoise that attached themselves to our outfit, they seemed to be saying, “We know you don’t think we know. We know you don’t think you need us. But apart from being refugees from Sea World, we are in our element. And we will show you the way back to San Diego. Trust us.”

I must admit, Porpoise create greater phosphorescence accidentally, than man-made fountains do on purpose! The phenomenon was awesome! And while the huge swimmers weren’t silhouette, they cut through the water like swift shadows, swirling the eerie bubbles.

Other little animals, sea lions, occasionally made infrequent appearances near the dock; the little guy with the push-broom mustache and Eddie Cantor eyes, was a real character. He’d lay there, swimming on his back, and stare at us, unflinching, like sailors were something in a zoo, and was afraid he’d miss something if he looked away.

This little guy was so covered with oil, he resembled an Alaskan disaster.

But back on board, and out to sea: The waters had gotten choppy, and destroyers, being the smallest first line fighting ships, really bob like tin cans.  So a few of us went topside after evening chow and the up-and-down and round-and-round motion is easier to take when you’ve got the open sky to take a fix on. 

Three or four of us were strung out along the railing; none of us saying a whole helluva lot. Rather, we were listening to what the sea was saying to the Lamb Stew, which we were looking to settle peacefully.

Now, I’ve got nothing against Lamb Stew, but most of my shipmates can’t say the same.  Or prefer not to. I’m afraid they want to vote with the majority, who claim they hate Lamb Stew!

They insist it’s BAAaaaad. 

I like it. I doubt I would ever get enough of it.

And now, standing here beside me was Jonathan Booker; the tall guy who looks like Nat King Cole, and our connection to M.I.T.  I said something to him, noncommittal, and his eyes told the whole story. Picture a nice guy with a Master’s degree, wearing a white sailor’s cap, squared at two fingers, of course, and you’d see the same thing I saw:

An egghead in a sailor cap. You couldn’t miss him. Eyes at half-mast and down at the mouth. I wasn’t just communicating, so I simply observed, fascinated. 

Is that a gyro, maritime folks use in navigation? I think Seaman Booker was trying to create a mathematical equation using peristalsis–his internal move-alongs–and the up-and-down pitch and roll of the heaving sea.

When the USS Moosehead reared up, Jonathan just reached over to the railing and claimed the motion with an index finger until his inner ear lined up with steady-as-she-goes.

And he was comical. Methodical. 

Jonathan slowly removed his white hat, folded it carefully and tucked it into his waist. In the same, slow, purposeful, metered motion, he removed his tie from the middy collar, and placed it carefully at his feet. It was ritual. 

Continuing in deliberate slow motion, Jonathan pulled the jumper over his head; nothing said. The mood was unhurried patience as he bent to place his blouse on the pile at his feet.

Then, leaning as far over the railing as common sense and safe procedure permitted, it came up for a vote.

Bleeaaaahh!

And man and seas were one once again.

I think they waited until we made port before Jon Booker and another fella went over the side to wash down the Lamb Stew, and anything else that came up.  By the way, through all the upheaval, my black buddy’s white T-shirt stayed spotless. For although we were landlovers, we did not know better than to spit into the wind!

In My Father’s Footsteps

Leaving a Legacy: My Father’s Story, in His Words

In My Father’s Footsteps is the title I chose for my Dad’s story in my new blog, Leaving a Legacy.

At one point, I thought about having it published through Amazon, but I wasn’t sure how I would edit it.  While he is an awesome writer, the story he wrote while recuperating from a knee replacement in 1994, is hard to follow at times. He switches channels a lot. (Now I know where I get it.)

My dad died in September 2008, the same year Cedar Rapids had the flood that heavily damaged the downtown area.

He died peacefully, sitting in his favorite chair, eyes closed, a book on his lap. Though he had been in and out of the hospital with congestive heart failure, it was a shock to the family.

As I was helping my mom clean out the storage room, I came across a box of papers title, “TPMLIFE.” As I read the first page, I realized I held my dad’s life story, which he started in 1994.

I gathered all I could find and took them upstairs to my mom, who told me my brother had the rest of the pages. I put them in order and began the laborious task of transcribing them onto the computer, with the intent that I would share them someday with the world.

That day has some, and though I know not everyone will share the same enthusiasm that has driven me to work so hard to put them online, hopefully some of his lessons learned will make you laugh, cry, and think a little bit about your own life.

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Insight

Mom and Dad, 1989

It’s been a tough few months. My mother woke up one day and said her back hurt terribly. We were hoping it would get better, but instead it got progressively worse.  

The next day when she couldn’t get out of bed, I had no choice but to call an ambulance. It turned out that she had five stress fractures in her spine, a result of osteoporosis and sitting all the time.

She spent a week in the hospital and was moved to a nearby skilled nursing facility, where she got the care she needed, but she still complained of intense pain. They took another x-ray and found that she had fractured her hip somewhere between the hospital and care center. Probably because her bones are so brittle, but I think, too, that the aides didn’t realize how fragile she is.

They sent her home a few weeks later because she really had nowhere else to go. Her case worker helped as much as she could, but the family had to decide the best option. So here we are, playing the waiting game, literally. She’s been put on the waiting list for three different care facilities. I didn’t realize there were so many older people, but I suppose it’s because people are living longer.

I always told my mom that I would stay with her until I couldn’t take care of anymore, and I’m afraid we’re there. She can’t do a lot for herself and I’m sure she will be much better off, getting the care she needs, in a care center.

It’s horrible watching your parents get old; not being able to do the things they used to, depressed because they can’t remember the things they did.  And to experience that close-up and personal, well, it’s quite an awakening. I’ve had to adjust my attitude more than a few times. My patience has been tested to the limit, and it’s all I can do to keep it all together.

But it’s not just the taking-care-of-her part, it’s all the emotions that come with it. The family unit is being tested, and with so many different personalities, everyone wanting to be heard and in control, it’s sometimes hard to tolerate. And I’m right in the middle of it all.

Some days I just want to run away.  But I won’t. I know God has put me here to take care of my mom. The things I am learning about myself and my mom are astounding, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I get to spend quality time with one of the most amazing people I know.

Our relationship has changed over the years. There was a time when I was angry with her and resentful, but that has long-since been resolved. I know it’s because of the time I have spent with her. I’ve gotten to know her not as my mom, but as a person, and I have seen a side of her most people never will.

I didn’t get a chance to tell my dad how much he meant to me before he died, but I can tell my mom. Or at least show her; I do that by being here for her.

We all think we have time – time to tell people how we feel, heal broken relationships, and do all the things we want to – until we don’t anymore. I’m just grateful I have the insight to realize that.

 

 

 

 

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A Shoebox Full of Holiday Surprises

I saw a post the other day about an international program that sends shoeboxes of gifts to little children across the globe.lily2

Operation Christmas Child, started by Samaritan’s Purse, “a nondenominational evangelical Christian organization providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world.”

The person who posted the information on Facebook is a good friend of mine through a little more research, found out the collection would take place next week, Nov. 14-21.

So, wanting to teach my grandchildren a lesson about helping others, I picked them up and we set out to buy a few toys for a little girl, who lived on the other side of the world.

I expected a barrage of questions such as, “Why do we have to buy presents for someone we don’t know?” or “Why can’t I have a present?”

Instead they asked questions about where it might go and who might receive it, and concentrated on picking out gifts that a little girl might like. We couldn’t send chocolate, or perfume, or nail polish (all the things Lily wanted), but she decided on a Barbie doll, a puzzle, some gum, colored pencils, and a notebook.

“She might like to have this, too,” she told me, holding up a little white bear.

“Do you really think she’d like something like that?” I asked, teasing her.

She laughed and handed me the little bear. “Yes, I think it’s something she could sleep with, so she doesn’t have bad dreams.”

We added a few notecards to the box, as well as Lily’s name and address, in case the little girl wanted to write her.

It will be interesting to see where the shoebox ends up. I just hope it brings as much joy to the little girl who receives it, as it did to the little girl who put it together.

 

 

 

Doubly Wonderful

My twin granddaughters turned 5 Oct. 25.  Their mother and I had taken the other kids to the trick or treat at Ushers Ferry, where Holly, 9 months pregnant, walked the yard for nearly two hours. I think she was tired of being pregnant and want to get the delivery process going. It must have worked, because she went into labor that night, and had the twins the next day by C-section, only 3 weeks earlier than her anticipated due date.gianna-and-natalie

The twins were conceived in a peculiar way, and I love telling the story, because no one I’ve talked to has ever heard of it before:

After suffering 4 miscarriages following her last baby, Holly was given an injection of steroids that doctors hoped would help prevent another miscarriage. The first ultrasound just a few weeks later determined she was carrying two babies. One of them was smaller, which led the doctor to believe the smaller one was conceived three days after the other.

Holly at 32 weeks into her pregnancy

Holly at 32 weeks into her pregnancy

After a fairly normal pregnancy, Holly gave birth to Gianna, who was born first and weighed nearly 6 pounds; Natalie weighed almost a whole pound less. But it didn’t take long for her to catch up to Gianna. By their first year, they were close to being the same size. (They are fraternal, but I still have a hard time telling them apart.)

From the beginning, their personalities were totally different; Gianna was standoffish and moody, while Natalie was quiet and cuddly. (Not a lot has changed, though Natalie has become quite an instigator-partners in crime, if you will.)

The twins spent much of the first 6 months of their lives at home. Holly and Jason were busy adjusting to being the parents of twins, and it being close to winter, it was just a great time to stay home. Period.

I visited them often, offering to help any way I could, but I could tell the constant diaper changing, feeding, and coping were getting to Holly. She had taken time off work to get the twins on a schedule, but being with them 24/7 wasn’t healthy for her, either. Isabelle was 5 and was old enough to help Holly with the little things, but she couldn’t help with the feeding or changing yet. cuties

“I don’t think I will ever get a good night’s sleep again,” Holly mused wearily, as she laid the twins down for a nap.

“You need to rest when you can, but honestly, no, you won’t ever get another good night’s sleep until after they move out. And even then, that’s questionable.”

I smiled to let her know I was being fictitious, but I wasn’t far from the truth. Once you have kids, they are yours for life.

“You’ll get through this, I told her. “Five years from now you’ll look back and wish they were babies again.”img_2316

She nodded, and heaving a big sigh, laid down on the sofa for a short nap.

They made it through the first year without too many problems, but when they started to walk, it was a whole new story.

“I always thought it would be a lot of fun having twins,” Holly told me one day while I was visiting. She was attempting a simple thing like putting on pajamas, but as we have found out, not so simple when you’re fighting two at once.

Natalie wiggled to get away, and Holly reached out and grabbed Gianna before she could get away.

Without skipping a beat, she added, “I love them so much, I can’t imagine life without them. But I also didn’t think it would be this hard.”

I remembered back to Isabelle, who was a very cranky baby, and cried so much that I cringed every time Holly asked me to watch her. (She has since passed that stage.)

“Maybe God gave you Isabelle to prepare you for the twins,” I told her with a smile. “And gave you twins to make up for the miscarriages.”

Holly laughed. “Yep, I guess you gotta be careful what you pray for,” she said, letting go of Natalie, while wrestling with Gianna to put on her sleeper.

But we both knew it was exactly what she had prayed for, and what we are very grateful for. Two beautiful little girls who have added so much love and joy to our lives.

Double the crying, double the problems, but double the love.

It all sounds good in theory

I spent the past two weeks preparing for a Halloween party for my grandchildren. It was going to be our first “real” holiday party, and I wanted it to be special.  I threw parties for my kids all the time when they were little. But this time was different. This time I had the internet to help, and I turned to Facebook and Pinterest for ideas about how I could make this the best Halloween party ever.table2

I printed off recipes and photos of all the cool things I wanted to do. I bought all the necessary ingredients and props, and I worked diligently to make sure it went off without a hitch.

But as we wanna-be perfectionists already know, it all sounds good in theory.

I imagined that everything would go as planned; the food would be perfect, the decorations, the music, and the activities would run themselves. But with 6 energetic children ranging from 5-11 years old running around, each going their own way, it was chaos.spider-cookies

After years of trying to throw the perfect party, I should have know better. And even with my party planner in hand, there were still a few mishaps. (For those who do party planning for a living, I salute you!)

The cake balls turned to mush, because I added too much frosting (and you can’t “Undo” something like that.) The spiders on the cookies didn’t get their legs piped on, because I ran out of time. And the “Pop the Pumpkin” game was scrubbed because I couldn’t get it stuck to the wall.(It was difficult to make,anyway.) And I forgot all about “Stick the Spider on the Web” game until after the party was over.popcorn

The banana ghosts and apple mouths were okay, but didn’t turn out like the picture. I scurried to get the mummy hotdogs out of the oven and get the meat eyeballs in before the guests started to arrive. Lack of time became an issue, and I found myself getting stressed out.

Next year I will take an entire day to get ready, instead of just a few hours.

So why was this party important to me? For the same reason I had a lot of parties for my kids when they were little. Kids aren’t little for very long, but these memories will last a lifetime.

I still hear from my adult children, “Remember when …?” And the smiles and laughter that follow tells me I did a good thing.

And when Lori laughed and asked me if I had ever seen the pictures of “Pinterest Fails,” I smiled, because I knew it was true. You have to be able to laugh at yourself. Otherwise, it’s no fun.

The ruined cake pops and the other mishaps didn’t matter. No one ever knew I had forgotten a few things and there was plenty to eat and everyone had a lot of fun.

I created a good memory for my grandchildren. They know I’m not perfect but love me anyway. I can’t ask for much more than that.

“Blessed are those who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused.”