Thursday, March 14, 2013

I WONDER IF HE REMEMBERS MY NAME

                                                    I WONDER IF HE REMEMBERS MY NAME

                                                                  (a short piece of fiction)

Brian Matthews. Brian Todd Matthews. I thought he was the cutest boy I’d ever seen. Of course, I was only five, and we were in Mrs. Shipman's kindergarten class at the time. But still . . . even at five, Brian towered above the other kids, while I was the shortest. I wanted to follow him around like a puppy. He acted as if he didn’t even know my name.

First grade found Brian and me in the same classroom. He sat one row over and four seats up. Brian still towered and I was still short. Funny that I can still remember that after fifty-four years. I still wanted to follow him everywhere . . . and he still acted as if he didn’t know my name.

The town Brian and I grew up in was fairly small, and except for third grade, he was in the same classroom as I was every year until junior high. Then, of course, we didn’t share teachers every period, but we still shared quite a few rooms along the way.

In the early years, I invited Brian to every party my mother allowed me to have. It wasn’t every year – we didn’t have much money – but even so there were several over those early years. Brian always came, generally sticking with the other boys and acting silly – or aloof – but he did come and I had high hopes for our romance. He still acted like he couldn’t remember my name.

About the only thing to do during the summer was hang out at the town’s swimming pool. We were lucky. Some perverse whim of fate had prevailed upon the WPA (the Works Progress Administration) to build a huge pool and community park in our town during the depression years. We had a better swimming pool than any other town in the county. I always tried to spread my towel as close to Brian’s as I could manage, which wasn’t easy. He was a human magnet – for girls and boys. With a natural-born charm, he drew people to him with seemingly no effort. He had shiny dark hair and green eyes and dimples like I’d never seen until Tom Selleck first flashed that famous dimpled smile on Magnum, P.I.

During our fourth grade year, Brian wrecked his bike and broke his leg in four places. He had to stay home one entire semester in a cast. I eagerly volunteered to take his homework to him every week, even though he lived on the other side of town. “No, that’s okay,” Miss Walters, our teacher said. “Vicki can take it. She lives just down the street from him and it won’t be any problem for her.” Vicki, of course, was everything I was not. She was tall with curly blonde hair and big blue eyes and, even in fourth grade, was already wearing a bra. I hated Vicki Reynolds.

By sixth grade, in Mrs. Brenneman's class, Brian stood a little over six feet tall and weighed probably one-seventy. I stood about four foot eight and weighed – probably one-seventy. When I was bored, I practiced writing our names in my notebook.

Brian Matthews

                                        Mrs. Brian Matthews


                                                              Mr. and Mrs. Brian Todd Matthews


I saw Brian’s notebook one day. He was drawing pictures of trucks.

I planned our wedding – Vicki Reynodls would not be invited. I pictured how our children would look and even tried to draw up plans for our house. My dad often brought home blueprints for his job, so I knew all about blueprints. With all the confidence of an eleven-year-old, I thought my house plans were wonderful. Of course, along with the beautiful house and beautiful children, we’d have dogs and cats and a pony and oh, yes, lots of money.

In junior high school, we started having dances and I waited in vain for Brian to ask me to one of them. He never did. I sat home. But Vicki Reynolds didn’t – and neither did Brian Matthews. I  hated Vicki Reynolds. It was never Brians’s fault that he chose Vicki, of course. She threw herself at him, I told myself.  She just kept pestering him until he had no choice. And nice guy that he was, he didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so he asked her even though in his heart he wanted to ask me.

Ah, such are the foolish imaginings of youth!

Finally, at the end of ninth grade, fate stepped in. I moved twelve hundred miles away. I met a whole new set of friends and eventually even started dating once in a while, but I still sat home more often than not. I heard through friends ‘back home’ that Brian became the captain of both the basketball and the football teams and that Vicki,  true to form, was the school’s head cheerleader. And, later, I heard that they were ‘an item.’ Finally came the news that broke my young heart: Brian and Vicki eloped the day after high school graduation. Now she was going to live my storybook life with my handsome prince. Not fair, not fair at all.

My good friend, Elsie, ran into them at the class’s ten-year reunion and she mentioned to Brian that although I’d been invited to attend, I hadn’t been able to come. Brian said he didn’t have a clue who she was talking about. He didn’t remember my name.

More years passed. I dated some more and some of the guys were even pretty good looking. I eventually had a few serious relationships – most ending unhappily. None of them could compare to Brian.  I began to worry that none of them ever would. After all, it’s pretty difficult for a flesh-and-blood man to life up to the storybook-Prince-who-could-do-no-wrong image that I’d mentally created for Brian Matthews.

I’d like to say that Vicki Reynolds got fat. That Brian turned into an alcoholic. That they filed for divorce and all of their children ended up as juvenile delinquents. Unfortunately, as far as I know, none of that happened. By all accounts they’re still happily married and their oldest son is now the vice-president of their local bank.

I don’t write Mrs. Brian Matthews in my notebooks any longer, but I do write. My third novel is due to be released in June. My first novel did quite well and my second made the New York Times Best Sellers list for nine straight weeks when it was released in 2011. My agents tell me that pre-orders for my latest book are already twice what my second book has sold to date. My name, my agents assure me, is on everyone’s lips. My success is assured for years to come.

I should be thrilled.

I should be over the moon.

I wonder if Brian Matthews remembers my name.



Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Is This Another Stage of Grief?

     I am told that anger is one of the steps of grief. Today I am angry. I find I have been angry, and have been growing angrier, for weeks. But not at my John Michael, never at him. I find I am angry at myself and, to some extent, angry at society in general.


     Growing up in the 50s and 60s I was, I guess, a product of the times. I distinctly remember being told, "Don't whine." "Don't misbehave in public." Not that I was encouraged to misbehave in private, of course, but the sin of misbehaving in public was exponentially greater than acting out at home. As I grew older, the social dictums changed, as well. Now it was "Smile, be polite, keep your troubles to yourself." No one, I was told, really wanted an honest, lengthy answer when they - oh, so politely - asked "How are you today?" Give them the stock answer, I was instructed, "Just fine, thank you" or "I'm doing well, thanks for asking" but never, never, go into great detail about problems. Problems, difficulties, heartaches, were private matters.

     And that is what I do now. Yes, people still call and say, "Call me anytime you feel like talking" or "Just stop by when you're feeling lonely, we'll have coffee" When I go out to social or work-related occasions, or even simply to the grocery store, friends and strangers alike, trained in the social niceties just like I was, ask "How are you today?" I know that many of my friends are sincere in their offers to lend an ear, to be there if I just picked up the phone and called. But I cannot. I consider reaching for the phone and I hear my mother's voice, soft in my ear, repeating those childhood instructions. "Keep your grief, your troubles, to yourself. We don't broadcast our problems to the world."

     And just like the good little girl I was raised to be, I take my hand away from the phone, I do not call, and when asked, I force a smile and say, "Just fine, thank you." To closer friends I might be a little more open and, allowing just a little honesty, reply, "Getting by one day at a time, thanks."

     What I really want to do, however, is have a royal, two-year-old-on-a-tear tantrum. I want to kick and scream and yell and break things. I want to cry until my eyes are swollen shut and I fall to the floor in a worn out, melted puddle. I want to tell the world i am not all right and I don't think I ever will be again. In short, I want to rail at the fates that took my beloved from me; I want revenge on the powers that destroyed my world. I want one thing - and one thing only - to have my John Michael back. It is the one thing I can never have. I want to scream my sorrow, my loneliness, my mourning, to the skies for all to hear.

     Instead, I smile and say, "I'm fine, thanks," and I weep into my pillow in the dark of night when no one can hear and society cannot judge me unfit.

     So, I am angry – at society for encouraging and preferring that someone prevaricates and obfuscates, doesn’t make waves. “I am so uncomfortable when someone misbehaves so badly in public,” I was once told. But I am more angry at myself for conforming. For hiding the most painful, the most devastating event in my life so that I don’t make people uncomfortable. I don’t want to make waves; I need to fit in, you see.

     I am in pain. I mourn. But I have been well-trained. I do it alone.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My wonderful step-son and his wife are with me for Christmas this year.  He's in the kitchen busy making a delicious breakfast and his wife is wrapping the last of the gifts they brought from Texas.  I wanted to take a few minutes on this special morning to wish one and all a very Merry Christmas.  Hopefully everyone is sharing the day with loved ones and family.
                                   Jenny Margotta


Believe

by Jenny Margotta

“Momma? When’s Santa comin?” Lissy pestered her mother. “I want a dolly that closes her eyes
 . . . and a pony . . . and a double set of jacks . . . and . . . .“ The list grew each day.

Christmas Eve arrived. The tree was decorated, the pile of wrapped presents was huge. Lissy strongly objected to going to bed that night and woke early on Christmas day. She ran into her parent’s bedroom, shouting, “Get up! I want my presents! Hurry!” Not waiting for an answer, she ran into the living room. Still in her PJs, she was so excited she could hardly sit still.

“One present at a time,” Lissy’s mother admonished.

"Aw, Mom.”

Smiling at Lissy’s brother, her father surprised everyone by saying, “Randy, you’re old enough. You hand out the presents.”

All three kids had been eyeing the unwrapped gifts Santa had left. But Lissy was puzzled. She knew the story — Santa comes in a sleigh, lands on the roof, slides down the chimney and leaves the presents. Only their chimney led straight to the coal furnace, not a fireplace. How come Santa didn’t get all burned up?

Lissy asked her dad about this puzzle. Her dad just smiled. “It’s magic. When there’s no chimney for Santa to slide down, why he just lays his finger aside of his nose, gives a nod and . . . a chimney appears. Once he leaves the presents, well, up the chimney he goes. Then he touches his nose, gives a nod, and that ol’ chimney just disappears.”

Her brother snickered, but she paid no attention. Her dad’s explanation made a lot of sense to her, so she happily went back to opening her presents.

Years passed. Gifts of dolls, roller skates and board games gave way to radios, records and clothes. More years sped by. Her parents passed away, her brother and sister moved to the East coast, and eventually the gift-giving stopped.

“It’s too hard to know what to buy, and then it costs more to mail than I spent on it,” Lissy’s sister complained.

“Here’s a check. Buy yourself something,” Randy said.

More years passed and suddenly Lissy, always the youngest, found herself the oldest in her generation. She’d never had children and long since lost touch with her nieces and nephews. Lissy tried to keep Christmas alive. She always put up a tree, decorated the house, hung lights and made mouth-watering goodies. But, inevitably, the year came when she didn’t decorate, didn’t bake treats, didn’t bother with a tree. There would be no gifts, so why put up a tree.

On Christmas Eve, Lissy ate a can of soup, then crawled into bed early. As she was drifting off she thought about all the wonderful past Christmases.Too bad the magic had to end. I wish it could have been real.

Waking early on Christmas morning, she realized she was cold. That was strange, because the average temperature in San Diego in December was almost 60 degrees.

Climbing out of bed, she slipped into a robe, then looked out the window. Snow! Impossible! A good 6 inches. In San Diego! What was going on?

Lissy headed to the kitchen for coffee and stopped in her tracks. Right in front of her living room window stood a huge Christmas tree. Its top brushed the ceiling and it sported lights and tinsel and so many ornaments that the branches bent under their weight. Looking closely, Lissy caught her breath. There, on that branch, was the glass angel her mother had given her in 1953. On another branch was a shiny silver skate key – she’d lost a key just like it when she was eleven. Lissy realized most of the ornaments were familiar. How could that be? They’d all been lost or broken or given away over the years. But here they were in all their bright glory.

Even more incredible, there were dozens of gifts. Most were wrapped in colorful paper, but several were unwrapped, too. Taped to the largest of these was a piece of wide-lined paper, just like Lissy had used in grade school.

Bending near, she read:

          Merry Christmas, Lissy. I couldn’t find your chimney, so I just laid my finger
          aside of my nose, gave a nod, and the chimney arose. I took the liberty of
          reviewing all the lists you sent me over the years and picked the best of the
          items I wasn’t able to give you before. I hope you like them.

          Christmas is magic, don’t ever forget. If you believe, I will come.

                                                                                                          Love, Santa

Thursday, November 22, 2012

I Give Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving, or as many irreverently refer to it - Turkey Day.  Like Christmas, whose origins are fast being forgotten, buried under waves of commercialism, Thanksgiving Day has much more significance than simply a day to binge on an overwhelming - but very delicious - abundance of food. 

I have been wondering just what I had to be thankful for this year.  As I so often said to my beloved husband, John Michael, before he passed away in early August, "This has been the year from Hell."  I suffered through my own nearly fatal illness, then struggled to take care of John  through his own declining health.  I am left with staggering medical costs, and as if it all weren't enough, I found out just on Tuesday that the heater core in my car is bad.  That's a $900 repair bill I can ill afford.  So, again, what can I possibly find to be thankful for?

I awoke about 2:00 a.m. yesterday morning.  As I lay in my lonely bed, tears streaming down my face, I again relived all the guilt that has wracked me in recent months.  I was convinced that I was responsible for my John's death, that I had taken the last few years of his life from him, that I, in effect, had killed him.  But as I lay there in the dark, a new thought occurred to me.  I realized what a gift he had given me - the ultimate gift one person can give another.  He gave his life for me.  What greater testament to his absolute love for me could there possibly be?

Knowing how precarious his own health was, knowing he had few reserves of strength, he still spent day after day - 14, 16, 18 hours every day - by my side in the ICU. And continued to do so for weeks until I was once again able to put my feet on the ground and stand on my own.  He poured all his energies and love, devotion and, yes, prayers, into his complete resolve that I would survive.  People told him to take care of himself first, that I did not, could not, know he was there by my side.  But he did not heed them.  Never once did he put himself first.  I was all that mattered.  And despite all the doctors' dire predictions, I did survive.  He made me survive.  He gave me back my life at the expense of his own.  No man could ever give another more.

I mourn his passing every day.  I will love and adore him until the day I, myself, die.  And I will continue to believe when that day comes we will once again be together for all eternity.  From the first time I saw his photograph on that very first email he sent me - yes, we met on the Internet - he captivated me and quickly captured my heart.  He was my life.  He continues to be my life, my inspiration, my rock. I see his hand in everything I do, hear his voice encouraging me to live, to fully appreciate what his sacrifice accomplished.

And, so, from this day forward I will strive with all my resolve to lay aside the guilt I have been carrying and will, instead, try to treasure the supreme, ultimate, final gift he gave me - his own life!

I urge everyone to stop and truly consider your blessings.  Take the time to tell family and loved ones how much they mean to you.  It can all be taken away suddenly, without warning, and the loss is something you will never recover.  Eat the turkey and ham, enjoy a midnight refrigerator raid for another piece of pie or a sandwich made of leftovers, but do not lose sight of what today should really mean.  It is a day of 'thanks giving,' so give thanks.  Do it verbally, do it physically.  Hold and touch and kiss and laugh and love.  Hold on with both hands.  Treasure those you are fortunate to have.  Love them all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Believe in the Magic

Believe in the Magic


by Jenny Margotta

“Momma? Momma? When’s Santa comin? Three-year-old Lissy started pestering her mother about Christmas and Santa well before Thanksgiving. “I want a dolly that closes her eyes . . . and I want a pony   . . . and I want a double set of jacks . . . and I want . . .“ The list went on and on, incrementally longer with each passing day.

At long last, Christmas Eve arrived. The tree had been decorated several weeks earlier and the pile of wrapped presents seemed to have grown every time Lissy looked at them. Like most kids, she strongly objected to going to bed that night and, again like most kids, she woke early on Christmas day, followed by her older brother and sister. They all ran into their parent’s bedroom, shouting, “Get up! We want our presents! Hurry, hurry!” Not waiting for an answer, the three children ran down the steps and into the living room. There they waited impatiently, still in their PJs, so excited they could hardly set still.

“One present at a time,” Lissy’s mother admonished.

This was greeted with a unanimous protest of “Aw, Mom.”

Smiling at Lissy’s older brother, her father surprised everyone by saying, “Randy, you’re old enough this year. How about I let you hand out all the presents?

“You know how we do it, Randy” Lissy’s mom reminded him. “We take turns — one person at a time so we can all watch and enjoy what we receive.”

Of course, the three little ones had already been eyeing all the unwrapped gifts Santa had left for them under the tree. This year Lissy was old enough to be puzzled by them. She knew the story just like all kids — Santa comes in a sleigh, lands on the roof, slides down the chimney and leaves the presents. Only they didn’t have a chimney. Well, they did, but it led straight to the coal furnace, not a fireplace. If Santa had come — and obviously he had, because the gifts were under the tree — then how come he didn’t get all burned up?

Stopping in the middle of unwrapping one of her gifts, Lissy asked her dad about this puzzle. Her dad just smiled and said, “It’s magic. When there’s no chimney for Santa to slide down, why he just lays his finger aside of his nose, gives a nod and . . . a chimney magically appears. Once he’s put all the presents under the tree, well, up the chimney he goes again. Then he touches his nose, gives a nod, and that ol’ chimney just disappears like it never was.”

Lissy heard her brother snickering behind her, but she paid no attention. Her dad’s explanation made a lot of sense to her, so she happily went back to the joy of finding out just what Santa and everyone else had picked for her from her long list.

Years passed. She never did get her pony, and gifts of dolls and roller skates and board games gave way to radios and records and new clothes. Then came years when they all took a special vacation rather than stay home. And finally there were years of “Can’t come, Mom, Sandy and me are going skiing” or “Sorry, Mom, David’s asked me to go to his folks for Christmas.” More years sped by and her parents passed away, her brother and sister both married and moved to the East coast and eventually the gift giving stopped altogether.

“It’s just too hard to know what to get everyone,” Lissy’s sister complained. “And once I do think of something, it costs more to mail it than I spent on the gift.”

“Here’s a check. Just buy yourself something you want.” Randy offered.

More years passed and suddenly Lissy was the only one left in her family. She had been the youngest, but now she was the only one remaining of her generation. She’d never married or had children and all her nieces and nephews had long since lost touch with her. Lissy had tried, year after year, to keep Christmas alive. She always put up a tree, decorated the house, put out lights and made pan after pan of mouth-watering goodies. But finally, inevitably, the year came when all of it was just too much for her. She didn’t decorate the outside, she didn’t bake any treats and she didn’t even bother with a tree. After all, there were no gifts to put under it, so why put one up that would just remind her that it would be empty on Christmas morning.

On Christmas Eve, Lissy heated up a bowl of canned soup, watched TV for a few hours and crawled into bed early. As she was drifting off to sleep, she thought about all the wonderful times she’d had with her family when she was small. Her last coherent thought was, Too bad the magic had to end. I wish it could have been real.

Christmas morning, Lissy woke up early. As she lay in bed, she realized she was cold. That was strange, because Lissy was never cold. After all, she lived in San Diego where the average temperature in December was in the high 50s or low 60s. It wasn't at all unusual for the temperature to reach 80 on Christmas Day. She often joked that just about the only way to tell summer from winter in San Diego was by noticing that different flowers were in bloom.

Climbing out of bed, she slipped into a robe and pulled aside the curtains. Snow! That was impossible! She was so startled by the sight that she started laughing. It looked like a good 6 inches of snow. In San Diego! What in the world was going on?

Lissy hurried down the stairs, headed for the kitchen to start the coffee, and stopped in her tracks. There, right in front of her picture window in the living room, stood a huge Christmas tree. Its top brushed the ceiling and it was decorated with lights and tinsel and so many ornaments that many of the branches bent under their weight. Looking more closely, Lissy caught her breath. There, on that branch, that was the glass angel her mother had given her in 1953. And there, on that other branch, there was a shiny silver skate key — she’d lost a key just like it when she was eleven, only hers had been all rusted and bent. Looking more closely, Lissy realized most of the ornaments were familiar. But how could that be? Most had been thrown away when the old house had been sold after her parents died. The few she’d kept for herself, she’d either broken or lost down through the years. But there they were, shining bright in all their glory.

And even more incredible, under the tree were dozens of gifts. Most were wrapped in a colorful assortment of paper and ribbons, but there were several unwrapped ones, too. And taped to the largest of the unwrapped gifts was a piece of wide-lined, beige-colored paper, just like Lissy had used when learning to print and write longhand in grade school.

Bending near, she read the following:

             Merry Christmas, Lissy. I couldn’t find your chimney, so I just laid
          my finger aside of my nose, gave a nod, and the chimney arose.
          I took the liberty of reviewing all the lists you’d sent me over the
          years and picked the best of the items I wasn’t able to give you
          before. I hope you like them.

          Christmas is magic, don’t ever forget. If you believe, I will come.

                                                                                        Love, Santa

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

I'm trying to make it back

To anyone reading my blog, you've probably wondered where I've been for the past 18 months.  It's a long and sad story which I will go into at length when I have a bit more time.  A good friend who reads my blog recently visited and asked me why I wasn't posting any more.  I explained that I'd been very, very ill and then my beloved husband, John Michael, passed away.  Grief took hold, taking precedence even over my slow recovery.  Along with grief came its favorite companion, depression.  So . . . I just couldn't make myself be productive.

But with the encouraging kick in the butt from my friend, I decided I'd start to blog again.  Unfortunately, Google and Blogspot had other ideas.  Turns out - at least I think that was the problem - that since I hadn't logged into my blog for so long, they deactivated my password.  Did you know they charge for help?  Luckily, not much.  I paid $1.00 to send them an email telling them the problem.  The return email came the next day but, unfortunately, I was busy and didn't get to it for several days.  The recovery link had a one hour time limit - so it had expired.  Paid another $1.00 yesterday and checked my email every hour or so.  The second recovery link came this morning and I promptly activated it.  Now I have access again.

Over the next few weeks I'll post the details of my illness and all I've gone through with the loss of my husband.  I'm told that it helps to write it all out, and since I'm a writer - or trying to be one - I'll do my best.

I also need to get back to the two novels I'm trying to write.  And I'm busy editing a fascinating book about illegal organ harvesting in South America, one about the Korean War and the many young marines from Barstow, California, who were killed, and, finally, a deliciously wicked book of horror short stories.  I'm also learning to use DragonSpeaking - I'll talk about that, too.

So, hopefully, there are a few of you out there who'll read my efforts.  If so, please drop me a line at jennyj821@hotmail.com and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Old Woman in Room 23 - Chapter 5

Chapter Five:

Present Day:


Nights in the nursing home are generally quiet. The stir of life is there, no one mistakes the building as being empty, but the snores and occasional calling out during a dream are muffled and tend to blend into the soft symphony of the dark hours slowly passing. A night nurse makes her way from room to room, checking on the inhabitants. For some reason, death stalks the corridors more often during these 'wee hours' than during the bustle of daylight. She enters Room 23 and reaches to check The Old Woman’s pulse just as the woman begins to spasm and jerk under the covers. The nurse quickly recognizes this as another of the small seizures The Old Woman is prone to these days. They are becoming more frequent as the Alzheimer’s gains further ground.

As quickly as it comes, the seizure stops. The nurse brushes the feather soft hair back from the papery skin on the woman’s forehead and straightens her covers. She is concerned to note the rigid hands, fingers like claws piercing the crocheted afghan that is her patient's ever-present companion. Finally, after a few moments spent gently massaging the clenched hands, believing her charge will rest quietly for the remainder of the night, the nurse slips from the room. In the dim light she fails to notice the silent tears slipping from the woman’s eyes to soak the soft white pillowcase beneath her head.

1944 - 1946:

The newspaper slips from Maisie’s nerveless fingers to lie at her feet, the pages scattering one by one as the chill spring breeze catches them. One page lands on a slowly melting snowbank, one of many left in shady areas on this early March day. The snow quickly soaks through the newsprint, making it illegible, but the words are, nevertheless, forever burned into Maisie's mind. The thick ebony border around the columns of names matches the dismal blackness in her soul. Lorenzo, her beloved Lorenzo, is on that list: the most recent list of casualties from the Pacific. Maisie doubts she’ll ever know what far away battle has claimed his life and she doesn't really care. All that matters is that he will never come back to her. She wants to sink into the snowbank near her feet and die. My life is over, she silently cries.

The following months pass in a gray fog. Maisie graduates from high school that June of 1944, the same day that the newspapers report that the allies have finally landed on the beaches of France. The war will be over by Christmas, everyone agrees. But it isn’t; it drags on.


May 8, 1945 - Victory in Europe the headlines scream, and all of America goes wild in celebration as the allies accept the unconditional surrender of the Germans.

September 2, 1945 – Victory in Japan: The War Is Over On All Fronts proclaims the radio. More celebrations are planned and families everywhere make preparations for the appearance of their loved ones, finally returning after so long from home.

Maisie stumbles though the days and months in a monochrome fog of grief. She is working in her brother-in-law’s drugstore at the soda fountain and it's all she can do to drag herself out of bed each morning, dress, and then pretend to all the customers that her world had not shattered the previous year. She can’t even share her grief with anyone; society forced the young people to keep their love affair a secret and no one would understand or accept her mourning now.

But the inexorable creeping friend of time gradually heals her grief, or at least allows it to succumb to the more powerful needs of a young, healthy woman to simply be alive. By the summer of 1946, Maisie is startled to realize she's actually humming as she dresses for work. She can laugh with the customers now, and even look forward to a dance the following Friday. Lorenzo is there in her heart, the part of her heart that truly has been irrevocably shattered, but somehow she has managed to tuck that that small portion of her heart away and life does, in fact, go on.

One hot August day, Maisie is again working at the soda fountain in her brother-in-law's drugstore. She watches as Old Man Brewer, 90 if he's a day, limps into the store and with obvious difficulty, climbs onto a stool at the counter. His toothless grin lights up his face as he settles himself and asks, “Make me a '44, will ya, Maisie?”

“Sure thing, Mr. Brewer, one '44 coming right up.” Maisie expertly digs out two generous scoops of vanilla ice cream, pours rich chocolate sauce over the top and adds a handful of salted peanuts to the bowl.

“Wonder why they call it a '44, Maisie?”

“I don't know. Because somebody added the peanuts in 1944 and just gave it that name, maybe?”

“Okay, I'll accept that. But why's it called a Sundae, then?'

“I don't know, Mr. Brewer, I never gave it much thought.”

“Well, the story goes that one Sunday in 1881, a customer asked the owner of a soda shop in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, to put chocolate sauce on top of a dish of ice cream. Supposedly it was the first time – chocolate sauce had only been used for ice cream sodas before that. Anyway, the ice cream with chocolate sauce on top quickly became very popular, but it was only sold on Sundays as a special treat.”

“But today's Tuesday, Mr. Brewer. And I sell Sundaes every day.”

“Don't interrupt, I'm gettin' to that. Supposedly, one day a little girl went into a soda shop and demanded a Sundae. When they told her no, she started cryin' and begged, “just pretend it's Sunday.” And from then on, it was available any time.”

“That's really interesting, Mr. Brewer, thanks for the history lesson.”

Her customer's only reply was a continued smacking of his lips as he made his way through the treat. I wonder how he chews the peanuts? Maisie asks herself.

After a few more minutes, the old man carefully counts out two nickels and three pennies – the nickels for the Sundae and the pennies for her tip. He slowly climbs off the stool, staggers but doesn't fall, and shuffles out of the store without another word. He is like that sometimes, off in his own world. I guess because he's so old, Maisie thinks, and promptly forgets about him.

Several minutes later, two young men in Navy uniforms walk into the drugstore. With the war over for more than a year, the sight is less common these days, but still, Maisie can't help but notice them. The little one is mousy, she decides. He is, indeed, small and brown, with a large nose, thin-lipped mouth and dark eyes that dart everywhere. Not worth a second look, she thinks. But the larger of the two is definitely worth a second look and a third and . . . He towers over Maisie, who is barely 5’2”, even in her heels. He must be 6’ at least. Dark hair that somehow Maisie knows will have just a little curl when it grows longer, rich tan skin and large baby blue eyes framed with long dark lashes. Long arms ending in big, square, capable-looking hands and long legs, too. He is slender, as are most of the men returning from the war, but Maisie has a hunch he’ll fill out into a bull of a man once he puts on 30 pounds or so.

He notices her, too, she can tell. His voice, when he speaks, is a deep baritone with just a hint of a southern drawl. “You’re right, Artie,” he says with a nudge to his companion, “the girls in this town are the prettiest in the country. And this one has to be the prettiest of all.” Catching Maisie’s eye as he speaks, he winks and smiles.

And when he smiles, well . . . Maisie hasn’t been moved by a man since Lorenzo. A twinge of disloyalty to her lost love runs through her mind, but she resolutely pushes it aside. Life, she knows, has to go on. As she looks at the man in front of her, she feels a flush creep into her cheeks.


“I’m Gerald,” the big man introduces himself, “and this is my buddy, Artie. Artie’s folks bought the old Forester place over on Main Street last year while he was overseas. We just mustered out last month in South Carolina and decided to travel this far together, then I’ll head on home, myself.”

"You're ramblin', buddy," the smaller man teases.  "Just can't help yourself around a pretty girl, can you?"

Gerald glares at his friend, then smiles, but to Maisie's eyes it looks like he isn't particularly pleased at being teased.  Just as quickly as that thought eneters her mind, it slips away and Maisie smiles at the young Navy man, resolutely putting away the memory of her lost love.

“Hello, nice to meet you,” she acknowledges. “What can I get for you two?” As she turns to make the sodas the men order, she can't help but add, “You won’t be staying in town long, then?”

The two men settle comfortably onto the counter stools to enjoy their sodas. They linger once their glasses are empty, order coffee, and then more ice cream as an obvious excuse to stay and flirt non-stop with Maisie.

She's so caught up in talking with the two Navy men that she doesn't even notice her brother-in-law as he leaves his usual place behind the prescription counter and walks up to her. “Time to close up shop for the day, Maisie,” he says. “We should have closed about 10 minutes ago, and if I know Mabel, she'll give me the devil if I'm late for dinner again. You know how she gets.”

“Sure, Keith, let me just wipe up here and I'll be ready.” To herself she adds, Where in the world did all the hours go.

Gerald and Artie offer their goodbyes, leaving extremely generous tips on the counter as they go. Nothing definite is said, but Maisie hopes they'll stop by again – especially the big one – before he leaves town.

She didn't need to worry. Events progress with the speed of a whirlwind after that first day and in less than six weeks, Maisie finds herself with a ring on her finger and a new name. Mrs. Gerald Morgan.

She had not listened when her mother asked, “Do you know anything about him?”

She refused to consider what she might be getting into when her oldest sister, Katharine, asked, “What are his people like?”

She ran out of the room, slamming the door in a fit of temper when her brother, Jeffrey, remarked, “You don’t know anything about him or Kentucky. Have you thought about how different life might be there . . . and how alone you’ll be?”

"I love him," she shouted, "and he loves me."

Defiant, Maisie refused to listen to anyone's advice or concerns. “You’re all just jealous because . . . because I finally found somebody.” All she cared about was that she was getting out of this town, starting anew in a place that did not hold any memories of a loved one she would never see again. That she was also leaving her family and everything else she had ever known did not occur to her until much, much later.

Finally, all the arguments had been aired, all the objections over-ridden, and their wedding day was set. September 15, 1946. It also happens to be Gerald's 22nd birthday. A small ceremony is performed by the local Methodist minister, though only Maisie and Gerald truly seem to rejoice.

Gerald's brother, Clive, traveled from Kentucky to be his best man and Maisie's favorite sister, Mabel, agreed to be her matron of honor. There was no money for new clothes, but Maisie's mom took apart an old, pearl gray silk dress and pieced it back together in a more modern style for Maisie to wear.

All too soon the preparations and the actual wedding are over. At long last, her trunks are packed, her goodbyes are all said, and in the morning she will board the train with her new husband for Jenkins, Kentucky, where her new life awaits.

Turning from the second story window in the hotel where they are spending the first night of their married life together, Maisie gazes at Gerald sprawled out across the bed. His arms and legs are flung wide, filling up the mattress and allowing little room for her, and his loud, discordant snores fill the room. As she snuggles onto a small slice of space along the edge of the bed, a brief flicker of uncertainty crosses her mind. Firmly she pushes it from her thoughts and closes her eyes.

“I will make a good life, a happy life for us,” she says aloud into the dark room. There is no reply.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Patient Photographer

THE PATIENT PHOTOGRAPHER

Rain batters the besieged windowpanes,
armies of water seek to conquer the snowy invader.
Greatly overwhelmed, beleaguered battalions of snow
call upon the special forces of ice and wind
to overcome the mighty power threatening
to collide head-on
in a crescendoing duel to oblivion.

Silently, the stealthy watcher waits
for the misdirection of the universe.
Only then will the Gods grant him
the favor of capturing for all time
the thrust and retreat of nature's minions
as they once again
battle to clean and renew their Earth Mother.

Canons roar.

My first attempt - and probably the last - at open verse. I think I'll leave poetry to those more adept.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Year Santa Missed Chistmas

The following story is a joint effort with my husband, John. Merry Christmas to all.

THE YEAR SANTA MISSED CHRISTMAS

by John Ferrara and Jenny Margotta


Introduction:

Very few people are aware that the Christmas of 1953 was unique in a strange way. That is the only year that Santa missed delivering toys to half the world. Theories abound: Santa lost his footing on an icy roof, his reindeer came down with a mysterious illness, even that Santa lost his way. None of these even remotely resemble the facts.

On Christmas morning of 1953, governments of half the world’s countries realized that Santa had missed them. In order to avoid complete chaos . . . and a total disruption of the belief system of their children . . . officials went into action, ordering all toy stores and department stores to open for Christmas day. Such orders were unprecedented, but the quick action of the governments gave Moms and Dads, Grandmas and Grandpas, Aunts and Uncles, time to rush out and buy gifts to cover up the fact that Santa was missing!

Now, after 50 years, government documents are no longer classified and the true story of why Santa missed Christmas can be told.

The Facts:

Santa Claus was happy . . . Christmas Eve and Christmas morning were always his happiest times. He had just completed Japan, China and the whole Pacific Rim far ahead of schedule. Skies were clear and his reindeer were making good time. Even Blitzen, who always did his job well, although not without complaints - the weather was too cold, the bright moon hurt his eyes, smoke from chimneys made him sneeze, and so on - this evening even Blitzen was running easily at a steady pace.

As they cruised along, Santa opened his thermos and poured himself a cup of hot coffee. Yum, Mrs. Claus knew exactly how to make coffee . . . black, strong and super hot. He was humming his all-time favorite song, “Jingle Bells” and thinking about all the wonderful children he was making happy.

All was right with the world. Little did he know what was in store for him. Santa's staff tried to keep current on world politics, but they failed to understand the seriousness of the Cold War and how tense things had become between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. To them, the Cold War was fought with extra gloves, earmuffs and snuggling around a roaring fire in the fireplace, complete with toasted marshmallows and hot cocoa, of course. Elves, no matter how hard they tried, just couldn’t take world politics seriously. They certainly didn't advise Santa on a strange new policy called restricted air space. Blissfully ignorant, Santa crossed the Chinese/Siberian border.

So Santa Claus with his load of toys crossed into Soviet Siberia, and not knowing he’d violated Russian air space, continued merrily along, singing and sipping his coffee. His sled, however, was quickly tagged by Russian radar. Unable to identify this object so high in the sky, Russian military authorities immediately scrambled two Mig fighters to intercept and deal with the unidentified intruder. Now everyone knows Santa’s sleigh moves quickly, but not as fast as a jet fighter. In a matter of minutes, the planes caught up with Santa and one of the pilots let loose a quick burst of machine gun fire across Santa’s bow, causing the reindeer to panic. Only Santa’s many years of flying experience kept them all from crashing.

Later, in an interview for Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, Yuri Glasnovich, one of the fighter pilots, was quoted as saying: “Was very strange sight. Flying sled pulled by many animal-shaped mechanisms, piloted by man in red uniform. I put burst of fire across his bow. Make hand signals for him to follow me to base. He did.”

Santa Claus landed at a secret military air base in Siberia where he was quickly surrounded by armed militia and taken into custody. Protesting vehemently, Santa was brought before Colonel Novotnovich, the Commander of the base. The first thing Santa Claus said, in a loud agitated voice, was “Don’t you touch my reindeer.”

Colonel Novotnovich leaned forward in his chair, not offering Santa a seat. His steady eyes showed no surprise, no reaction at all; he just stared stoically at Santa Claus, noting the black boots, red and white fur suit and strange, floppy, red hat. Colonel Novotnovich had never seen anyone like the strange man in front of him, but the Colonel was a typical Russian officer, trained never to show emotion.

By now Santa was having the hardest time holding his temper, which was a new experience for the perpetually jolly man. “What is the meaning of this?” he fumed. “Do you know who I am?”

“No, why don’t you tell me,” Colonel Novotnovich said quietly.

“I am Santa Claus.” Santa said proudly.

“Hmm-mm-m.”

“Don’t you believe me?” Santa asked incredulously.

“No, I don’t.” The Colonel replied. “I don’t know who or what you are. Tell me, what is that red uniform you are wearing? What country do you represent? Why are you spying on us?”

“Spying, SPYING?” shrieked Santa, now completely confused. “I’m not spying, I’m bringing toys to the children of the world.”

“A likely story,” sneered the Colonel. Still not offering Santa a seat, the Colonel picked up a red phone and was immediately connected. He quickly brought the person on the other end up to date on the night’s strange happenings. He ended the conversation with “Da, Comrade, Da, I will do that immediately.”

Putting the telephone down, he gestured to one of the soldiers standing by the door waiting for orders. “Get Sergeant Barinskaya in barracks G. Tell him to assemble his bomb crew to empty all the bags in the sled, then dismantle the sled. Tell him to be careful as it could be booby trapped.”

This time Santa could do nothing but sputter a few words of protest in disbelief.

Finally, the Colonel offered Santa a seat. Leaning back in his own chair, the Colonel said, “This is a wonderful ploy, but do the people in the United States think we are fools?”

“Colonel, this is no ploy, I assure you. I really am Santa Claus,” Santa responded.

The Colonel laughed sarcastically, “When I was seven years old, my parents straightened me out. There is no such thing as Santa Claus. Is myth perpetuated by Western Capitalists to sell more goods and make more money.”

“So you stopped believing, right? That's why I stopped coming. I only visit those who still believe in me.”

“Let us just sit and wait to see what my men will find,” said the Colonel.

While they waited, the ticking of the clock tracked the passing hours. Almost two hours had passed since Santa had been forced down. He was way behind schedule and was worried he'd never catch up. He still had all of Europe, Africa and Scandinavia to visit, then across to South America, then North America all the way into Canada and Alaska, and, finally, the few scattered homes in the Arctic before heading home. He worried he'd lose the darkness. Santa couldn't fly during daylight, of course. Mostly, he worried about the children. How could he disappoint them?

Finally, a knock sounded on the office door. “Enter,” barked the Colonel.

Sgt. Barinskaya hurried into the room, immediately proceeding to speak in an excited manner. “Colonel, sir, we found no explosives, but we did find these.” He placed three items on the desk: a plastic G.I. Joe doll in combat dress complete with weapons belt and rifle, a model of a Sherman tank with movable turret and guns, and a small toy Sabrejet airplane.

The Colonel eyes widened. “This is incredible. The United States has perfected the miniaturization of troops and weapons.” He gasped, “I must inform the Kremlin right away.” Picking up the red telephone, he blurted out the story of the miniature men, tanks and planes.

Finally he hung up the phone and turned to Santa Claus. “I have orders to send you to Moscow for interrogation,” he growled. “We’ll take care of your reindeer until we hear differently.” With a wave of dismissal, he ordered Santa to be taken to a transport plane already warming up for the flight to Moscow.


Epilogue.

After ten days of intense questioning, Moscow became convinced Santa Claus was just another nut. Picking up his reindeer and dismantled sled along the way, they dropped him on an ice floe in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. From there, Santa was at last able to make his way home to the loving arms of Mrs. Claus and his elated elves, who gave him a huge welcome home party to let him know how happy they were to see him home safe and sound where he belonged.

Did the Russians come to believe the strange man really was Santa Claus? No one knows, but they have never again scrambled jet fighters on Christmas Eve when they detect a strange flying object high over Siberia.

Oh, yes, one might also ask what happened to the toys in Santa’s bag? It has been said that some of the children of Russia’s highest ranking military officers were seen playing with G.I. Joe dolls, toy tanks and airplanes for many years after that fateful night.

So, that’s the true story of how Santa Claus missed half of the Christmas of 1953.


copyright 2010 John Ferrara and Jenny Margotta

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

DON'T FORGET THE LITTLE GUYS

This is a story of a little ship that doesn’t have the notoriety of the infamous aircraft carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, or Hornet. She did not earn the immortality of the battleships Arizona or Missouri, or even the fabled PT-109. This is the story of one of hundreds of now nearly forgotten ships that provided the backbone of the US Navy during World War II. This is the story of the USS Coghlan, DD-606.

The USS Coghlan, DD-606, was one of thirty Benson class destroyers built between 1938 and 1942. Coghlan, commissioned in February, 1942, was the 19th Benson Class destroyer built. She was only 341 feet long and a mere 36 feet wide at her widest point, yet carried a crew of 276 men, five-inch, 127 mm guns, six half-inch guns, ten torpedo tubes and two depth charge racks.. Among the giants of Naval ships, she was small but fast and very fierce. Coghlan is seldom mentioned in history books, other than her somewhat exciting role during the Battle of Komandorski and the fighting on and around the Aleutian islands, but the progression of the war across the vast Pacific Ocean can almost be plotted by her movements.

According to the history of the USS Coghlan found in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Coghlan arrived in Kodiak, Alaska in October of 1942, and was assigned to convoy duty and general patrol. She participated in the US Army landings on Amchatka in January of 1943 and was involved in the sinking of a Japanese merchant ship during the bombardment of Chicago Harbor in the Aleutians. In March of 1943, she was a part of the Naval force that preyed upon Japanese shipping and prevented the reinforcement of Japanese-held Attu Island and in causing the Japanese to retreat during the Battle of the Komandorski Islands. Finally, she was part of the support group that protected the US military landings on Attu in May and June of 1943.

After overhaul in San Francisco, Coghlan was then assigned to the task force supporting the raids on Baker and Tarawa Islands and the attack on Wake Island, as well as participating in the assault on the Gilberts. She was part of the carrier screens giving air coverage during the landings in the Marshalls, escorted shipping to Majuro, then moved on to Eniwetok to join the flotilla bound for the invasions of Saipan and Tinian. After further refurbishing back in Pearl Harbor, the valiant little ship sailed for the Philippines, where she provided escort protection in the battles of Leyte Gulf, Ormoc Bay, where she came under heavy kamikaze attack, and Lingayen Gulf. Coghlan saw her last battle action while participating in the battle of Okinawa, after which she carryied passengers, mail and freight between Okinawa and Japan durng the occupation of Japan. USS Coghlan was decommissioned and placed in reserve in Charleston, SC in March of 1947.

It doesn’t sound like much when five years of hard service is reduced to a mere three paragraphs, but she did, in fact, earn eight battle stars for her service during World War II. This ship and her crew fought valiantly in the Pacific from the beginning of World War II until the last day. And continued to provide valuable service even after the fighting stopped.

The men assigned to her crew came to know her intimately; the stench of diesel from her engines, the strong smells of oil and machinery below decks, mixed with the smell of chow from the galley, the ever-present cigarette smoke, too much salt water and too little fresh for bathing and laundry, all quite often overlaid with the odor of anticipation and, sometimes, fear. Her men are pretty much nameless to us now, after more than 60 years. None of them earned a Medal of Honor or became President of the United States. The History Channel hasn’t filmed a special series about her and few, if any, know her name that aren’t ardent World War II history enthusiasts or family members of her crew.

There were literally hundreds of ships who carried men to the fighting, fought valiantly on the seas both in the European war and the war in the Pacific and who, like the USS Coghlan, were discarded, destroyed, and forgotten in the aftermath of the war. But she should be remembered, if only as the representative of all the nameless ships and their brave crews. For every John F. Kennedy or USS Yorktown, for every hero or famous ship deified in the history books, the world should remember the hundreds of little ships that provided support and cover and backup. One ship or one man alone could not have won the war. A multitude of valiant ships and a generation of brave men could. And did.

Dedicated to Fireman 1st Class Sterling Gail Pifer, US Navy, deceased.
Jenny Margotta
copyright 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

FOOD, FOOD and more FOOD

I grew up in a family of eaters. Scratch that. I grew up in the middle of food. Some of my family ate anything in sight, one ate like a bird and one, well, she was the picky eater of the family. But she ate her fair share when it was something she liked! I can walk you through every notable event in my life to date using only the subject of food to mark the occasion.

There were the traditional Holidays where if “PLENTY” was the rule of thumb in most houses, “EXCESS” was the rule in ours. Thanksgiving tables at our house struggled to remain upright under the weight of a whole roasted turkey and a baked him, candied yams, mashed potatoes, dressing – soft from the turkey or crunchy from the casserole dish, succotash, green bean casserole, scalloped oysters, giblet gravy, cranberry relish, rolls and butter and, then… apple pie, pumpkin pie and mincemeat pie with hard sauce. All washed down with coffee for the adults and plenty of cold, fresh milk. All for a family of five!

Every Sunday after church the whole family sat down to dinner. It was about the only time all five of us were together since my dad worked away from home during the week. Winter Sundays there would be beef roast, ham or roast chicken, multiple veggies, breads and, of course, dessert again. My father was of the old school: no meal was complete without dessert. And, no, fruit or jello do not count as dessert.

Summer Sundays saw a little break for my Mom, as my Dad took over cooking the main meal items. He handled the backyard barbecue, weather permitting. Summer Sundays saw thick, rare sirloin steaks with grilled corn-on-the-cob and baked potatoes, complete with butter, sour cream and bacon bits, tossed salad with our choice of several dressings, all usually eaten at the picnic table in our backyard. Dessert was often strawberry or peach shortcake… homemade shortcakes and fresh whipped cream, of course. Or there would be peach cobbler, apple pie, or some other dessert made from fresh summer fruits.

Christmas baking started at Thanksgiving and often continued into late Christmas Eve. Six flavors pound cake, rum balls, chocolate fingers with rum icing, grandma’s marshmallow fudge… both chocolate and peanut butter, of course. Date bars, sea foam, poinsettia rolls, sticky buns with pecans, decorated sugar cookies, cookie press cookies and more.

Summer of 1960 – My first taste of lobster at my aunt’s apartment on Riverside Drive in New York City. I was more interested in riding the elevator up and down.

August of 1964 – My first Chinese food at the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, New York.

July of 1967 – My first taste of Mexican food at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Romeo, Colorado. “Lord,” I thought, “I have surely died and gone to heaven.”

Thanksgiving, 1971 – My first holiday as a married woman in my own home. Stuffed Cornish game hens, succotash and hot rolls. As college students, an entire turkey was well beyond our budget, but I did manage to include cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and apple pie.

Spring of 1973 – The “If this is Tuesday, it must be borscht” Tour of Europe. Bad sauerkraut and wonderful chocolate cream pastries in Berlin. Breakfasts of fried lunch meat and lumpy mashed potatoes at the hotel and hot, raised, sugared donuts made on the spot at a sidewalk kiosk in Moscow. “American” steak… smothered in nutmeg… in Belgium. Fresh, boiled-while-still-at-sea shrimp and hard rolls eaten while strolling the streets of Oslo, Norway. Some of the best pizza I’ve ever tasted… in Stockholm, Sweden.

First husband? I tackled the art of making good Mexican food. Second husband? Chinese food cooking lessons. Third husband? Oh, the wonders of delicious Italian food. Italian desserts at Ferrara’s in New York City’s Little Italy. Beef braciola in six hour sauce, homemade pesto with fettucine, cannolis oozing mascarpone cheese. Yummmmm!

Funerals? Food. Weddings? Food. Birthdays, graduations, family reunions? Food, food and more food. Name a special occasion, happy or sad, and chances are it’s marked in my life’s journal with food. Several months ago, a good friend of mine scheduled her weight loss surgery… and celebrated the “coming new her” with a pig-out party of all the foods she wouldn’t be able to eat afterwards.

LIFE equates FOOD. At least in my world. It’s a faithful companion through every step of life; it comforts when you’re sad, celebrates with you when you’re happy, provides an endless topic of conversation and, oh, yes, nourishment, too. Some people eat to live. My family motto: live to eat!

That said, a glance at the calendar reminds me that my anniversary is just around the corner. Time to pull out the cookbooks!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

LET'S GET OUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT

I am constantly fascinated, appalled, intrigued, disgusted and astonished at the antics of people, businesses and the American government. Stupidity seems to be the norm these days, with good old common sense tucked away in the dark corner of a forgotten desk drawer. It doesn't matter how high up the ladder or how far down the chain they are, people continue to disappoint me.

The latest "let's-make-mountains-out-of-molehills" antics come straight from the White House. Keep in mind that our country is currently in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands are people are jobless, home foreclosures are a daily fact of life. Businesses, towns and even states are bankrupt, or nearly so. Our children are attending over-crowded schools, often with too few books and a scarcity of learning materials. Extra-curricular fine arts and music programs have been cut to the bone, if not totally eliminated. UPI.com ranks the United States 19th out of 36 nations tracking the number of citizens who have completed high school.

Among all of this turmoil, where does the White House focus its priorities? On dress code. Yes, Dress Code. Vernon Pawlik, the 10-year old grandson of WWII Medal of Honor winner Vernon Baker, was turned away from the White House on September 25th (2010) because he was wearing shorts! He, along with his grandmother, his sister, and another Medal of Honor winner, Thomas Norris, arrived at the White House for an exclusive tour of the West Wing. The burial services for young Vernon's grandfather had been held the previous day, Friday, September 24th, at Arlington National Cemetery. To add further injury to this debacle, Thomas Norris, himself a medal of honor winner, as well as a retired FBI agent, was denied entrance to the White House because the Secret Service had not run a security clearance on him. Hello? Which of these three things DO NOT go together? Medal of Honor Winner. FBI Agent. Security threat.

According to Yahoo News!, they ". . . were turned away after a White House staffer who was to lead the tour wasn't sure the grandson's attire was appropriate. Vernon was wearing shorts and a T-shirt with a photo of his late grandfather on the front."

Never mind the fact that Michelle Obama can appear in public wearing shorts with the excuse that it was during a private, family vacation. The Obama children have also appeared in public in shorts and President Obama has often been photographed without his jacket and with shirt sleeves rolled up. Many older people argue that part of the problem with this country today is that there's no self respect any more; people today don't care what kind of public impression they make. My mother often recounted the time when she traveled from Pennsylvania to Colorado with 3 small children, all under the age of 8, while wearing a dress (bra, slip, girdle, and garter belt mandatory), hat, gloves, high heels and stockings. Hat, gloves and a dress for women and girls, or a suit and tie for men and boys, were required for all church attendances. During my high school years, girls were not allowed to wear shorts or pants to school and boys could not attend with facial hair or hair that touched their collars. But times change.

In the middle of a country being torn apart by economic, educational and health care crises, one young man should have been given the memory of a lifetime: the burial of his grandfather in Arlington National Cemetery followed by an exclusive tour of the White House. But he was turned away because a White Staffer "wasn't sure his attire was proper?"

Give me a break. That's all the staffer had to focus on? Maybe that's part of what's wrong with the country these days. Our priorities are so out of focus we've become a joke to the rest of the world. The Bureau of Labor statistics reports the National unemployment rate in September was 9.6 percent. Associated Press reports that 46.3 million Americans are without health insurance. CNNMoney.com reports home foreclosures across the country could reach 4 million in 2010. Amid all this, what does the White House choose to focus on? One little boy wearing shorts.

Should I cry, or laugh, or merely give up on this country?