My Heaven














M y grandparents were best friends.

They’d known each other since kindergarten, grew up together in rural Texas in the late 1800s, moved to Southern California and were married in 1908. They were the kindest people I’ve ever known.

During the summer I often slept overnight in the top floor of their enchanted two-story Spanish-style house. My bedroom had a balcony overlooking a rock-lined goldfish pond in the front patio. A small trickle of water poured continuously from a ceramic pitcher cemented among ragged rocks above the pond, dribbling into the murky green water where fat goldfish drifted lazily beneath a few lily pads.

I was in a storybook house surrounded by a magical forest – my grandparents’ orange grove. The house was full of old furniture and books, lamps and paperweights, oil paintings and figurines, dishes and silver. The furniture was thick, dark wood and the paintings were hillsides, streams and forests – places without people. There was a book of maps with Persia and Siam.

Everything in the house spoke to me of ancestors, an unbroken line of family where no one ever threw anything worthwhile away. If it was worth owning, it was worth taking care of and passing on to the next generation.

In my bedroom was an old lamp on the night table, left on while I fell asleep. The lamp’s tubular base was decorated with a painting of an angel bearing a small-winged boy away to heaven. It was originally a gas lamp purchased in about 1860 by my grandmother’s sister, converted to electricity in the 1920s when a glass bowl and lampshade were added. As I drifted off to sleep I watched the angel and imagined she was taking me to heaven.

Sometimes I was startled awake by a nightmare, but quickly soothed by the stillness and security of my grandparents’ home, by the sense of their protection embracing me.

The only sound was the tic and toc of the Regulator clock at the top of the stairs just outside my room. The clock had belonged to my grandmother’s father. It was the heartbeat of their home, of their constancy.

Most summer mornings I was awakened by the sound of rowdy crows perched near the top of ancient sycamore trees in view of the balcony. I loved being high up in the air, stepping out onto the balcony in my pajamas, looking at the large green world and endless blue sky, smelling the warming air filled with the sharp scent of citrus, brushed with the fragrance of rose and camellia, filtered through my grandmother’s orchard, lifted on the wings of butterflies and blown into my room.

I especially loved the plaintive cries of Mourning Doves, a sound I imagined I would hear when I woke up some morning in heaven. But then, I was already there.



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Believing In Santa


When I first told my children about Santa Claus, of course I knew there was no actual human being I was talking about. But I told my children he was real and would reward them for being good.

I didn’t care how they envisioned Santa, for there are so many variations of his image, all so innocent in spirit, lighthearted and loving. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care how they imagined he spent his time at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, the elves and reindeer. It didn’t matter.

We all understood that Santa was real in a different way than our friends and neighbors were real. He was real in spirit, and so we could imagine all sorts of things about Santa and even read conflicting ideas about his life and accept them all without difficulty. After all, nobody really knew for sure.

The specific details of Santa’s existence were not important. It was the underlying truth, that there are larger reasons for good behavior, reasons that could last for a year or even longer. Santa was a power for goodness in the world who would bless you for your honest heart and punish those who were cruel and deceptive.

As a grownup, I replaced the idea of Santa with knowledge. I knew that honesty, no matter how unrecognized it may be among friends and family, fills your life with joy, the kind of joy that is free from shame and guilt. I also knew that those who are dishonest and mean, no matter how long their actions may go undetected, are immediately punished for their sins because of who they become. They have lost the heart of an innocent child.

Heaven and hell are here, and those who are evil live in a hell of their own making, the hell of their own existence, no matter how long they avoid punishment from others.

In this dangerous and unpredictable world there are so many good people who are so unjustly punished by life, by disease, natural disaster, political oppression or just everyday happenstance. Earth is a place where all things are possible, both good and bad. It has something to do with free will. But if we struggle against adversity with an honest heart, we will find higher ground.

So my children grew up believing in Santa, even though they did not keep him firmly in mind throughout the year. But they grew up believing that striving to be honest and good was the right way to live. And even though some of the children they knew did not believe in Santa, they did not fight with them. Some believed, some didn’t. It didn’t matter.

Most of the children who believed in Santa needed no proof. They accepted Santa as a matter of faith, buttressed by the occasional Christmas morning miracle of the missing cookies and nearly empty glass of milk. When my children began to seriously question the existence of Santa, I took them to an old stone church and we sat in a beautiful, vine-encrusted alcove and I explained that Santa was more than just one single person.

I told them Santa was the spirit of giving that lives in all of us who find joy in bringing happiness to others. I told them every department store Santa who gave joy to little children was filled with the spirit of Santa. I told them every parent who wrapped up a special gift with a card that said, “Love to you, from Santa!” was inspired by the spirit of Santa. I told them Santa was more magic than they imagined, that instead of being just one person, Santa was the spirit of kindness and love that filled the hearts of millions, especially at Christmas, and that we should keep his spirit alive every day of the year.

I told them that as we grow up, many of us replace the idea of Santa with the idea of God.

I told them the best parts of all religions were filled with this spirit, and that this is what so many people mean by the word God, that God is a force for honesty, kindness and love in the world. I told them it does not matter how we picture God or how we define God. As long as we fill our hearts with love and charity, then we are doing the work of God here on Earth.

I told them words and pictures are what we use to help us understand the spirit of Santa, the spirit of God, but the words and pictures are not what’s important. It is the meaning behind the words and pictures, the inspiration that fills each heart.

We are all imperfect, we all make mistakes and we all have times in our lives when we are so certain about things that we become blind to our errors. To fight each other over ideas about God is like trying to prove whose idea of Santa is the real idea. To fight each other over ideas of God is to be so certain that we have become blind to our own imperfection and capacity for error.

I told them some people forget that these stories are about meanings, not details. They are intended to open our hearts and help direct the course of our lives. It’s the message that's important, and what it says to each of us.

I told them to respect the religions of all cultures, that whatever ideas of God people believe in, if these ideas open their hearts and lead them toward honesty, compassion and love, then they are on the right path – all of them.

The details are not what’s important. We all speak different languages and have different ways of describing and understanding things. It’s the essence from which all explanations come that is important. That’s what faith is for, to keep the connection strong between ourselves and God because words are not enough.

We all have to start somewhere. Some of us start with Santa. The important thing is to realize that spiritual growth is like any other kind of growth – it requires change. The lessons we learn as children are for children. The lessons we learn at the beginning of our spiritual journeys are for beginnings. To grow a larger soul, we must not get stuck. We must not stop. We must keep going.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photo: Christopher & Joshua Loar with Santa
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Eight



Carlos Vega ~ virtuoso drummer







CarlosVega is perhaps best known as the drummer who played with James Taylor for about 13 years. Among musicians, he was known as a premier recording session drummer, having played with the best session musicians on albums for many of the most popular artists.



Click on this link for his biography.

Click on this link for his drum solo video.

   Carlos was about 19 years old when I played my first gig with him. It was about 1976 and we were playing for a private party at the legendary Hollywood restaurant, Ma Maison, a favorite celebrity hangout.

   I was a guitar player and singer in a quartet called The Entertainers that was often booked at upscale locales for a very wealthy clientele. We played with a variety of drummers, including the legendary Ralph Humphrey who played with Frank Zappa and just about everybody else in the upper crust of musicians.

   When Ralph was unable to do the Ma Maison gig with us, he recommended young Carlos Vega, who was already making a name for himself by playing gigs with famous jazz players such as Freddie Hubbard.

   We were blown away by his remarkable balance between technical virtuosity and natural feeling. He was always right in the pocket, deep in the groove. I played with a variety of musicians during my fifteen years of gigs and recording sessions before changing careers, but I’d never met a young man so gifted and yet so humble about his talents. He was incredibly polite, 
the kind of young man you’d want to bring home to meet your sister.

   Carlos was a joyful soul on the brink of a great career. Sadly, he committed suicide in 1998 at age 41. I am so glad our paths crossed, and so sorry he left this world too soon. I will always think of him as the eager young musician I knew, with so many great years ahead.





~ to be continued

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Six



Ray Bradbury


Bradbury at Fowler Brothers bookstore in 1975

I was lucky to have met Ray Bradbury on several different occasions through the years, at book signings and talks.


The first time was July 16th, 1975, at Fowler Brothers bookstore in downtown Los Angeles where he was signing books. My wife and I happened to see a small notice of the event in the newspaper, but it was poorly publicized and we were just about the only ones there.



He agreed to the book signing for sentimental reasons. The bookstore was where he'd met his wife, Maggie, in 1946. She was a knowledgeable salesclerk, according to Bradbury, quoted in a Los Angeles Times story: "There are not that many bookstores left where you are going to get that kind of service or that kind of intellect." Sadly, the store closed in 1994.

He signed a few books for mesome old editions from home, and some new books which I purchased at the store. Perhaps because there was no one there except my wife and I, he took the time to write personalized messages in each book. In my copy of "Dandelion Wine" he wrote: "To Russ ~ Good wishes from the boy who became the man who made this wine.”

I asked if I could photograph him and he said yes, explaining that years ago when he'd met philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell he wished he'd taken his photo. I timidly took a few photos using my terrible Kodak 110 camera.

The last time I saw Ray Bradbury was in October 2000, at Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena. My wife and I were browsing when we heard his unmistakable, enthusiastic voice. He was looking at a display of Halloween gifts, shopping for his grandchildren. I walked over to him and said, "My goodness, it’s the father of Halloween, shopping for Halloween gifts." (He's author of the novel, “The Halloween Tree.”) It was like finding Charles Dickens shopping for Christmas gifts.

He was very friendly, seemingly glad to be recognized, and a bit frail, walking with a cane. He showed me his tie, emblazoned with small pumpkins on a black background. A young female bookstore employee was helping him reach some of the gifts, but she seemed impatient. She asked if he wanted to purchase any books and he said: "No, I've got plenty of books. You know, I've written quite a few of the books you have here on your bookshelves." She didn't know.

Have you read Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine"? It begins with an ode to the beginning of summer, seen through the eyes of youth. The copy he signed for me will always be one of my most treasured possessions. Although Ray Bradbury is known for science fiction, "Dandelion Wine" is not really a science fiction book. It's a deeply felt chronicle of his own youth, seen through the eyes of a boy who begins the summer with a revelation: He’s alive, really alive! What follows is a series of awakenings and realizations in rural Green Town, a magical small town based on Waukegan, Illinois, where Bradbury was born.

Bradbury is a writer who, like Steinbeck, sees everything through a magnifying glass; sometimes through a microscope. Like all the best writers, he teaches his readers how to see, how to think. “Dandelion Wine” taught me so many things when I was first coming of age. His stories remind me of the stories told by my own beloved grandparents, lessons from another place and time, where people are thoughtful and kind by nature. Home.


~ to be continued

~Ray Bradbury died June 5, 2012, at age 91

~ story and photo by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved




My Father Among The Chinese



The Chinese children watched the funny fat American in the ridiculous sport coat try to blow up the balloons.

He was a tourist in his late 60s, wearing a gray floppy hat. His face was a fleshy sagging caricature of itself, accented by an unkempt bushy salt-and-pepper mustache intended to disguise the steady loss of masculinity from his features.

Someone back home had told him that Chinese children love balloons. But what really caught the attention of the children was the exuberant vaudeville of this short-winded man in the funny clothing who was having a terribly difficult time inflating the balloons which were too small and thin for such an amateur. Each balloon he attempted to inflate flew from his lips into the air with the sound of a small fart, prompting laughter and applause from the children gathered around him.

My father, a man who once made deals with some of the most influential businessmen in America, had successfully transformed himself into an amusing street monkey.

Later that day he would show a group of Chinese university students how to peel an orange.








~ Story and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Complete Honesty





I was an honest man when my father-in-law began to die.

It took me the first twenty-seven years of my life to become a consistently honest man, a scrupulously honest man. I was not a habitual liar, but I grew up wanting to stay out of trouble with my parents who were not of a forgiving nature, and so I lied. During my teenage years the fabrications multiplied as I tried my best to live free of parental rules and regulations. I didn’t lie to get anything in particular, I lied to stay out of trouble.

Do you realize what time it is young man?
I ran out of gas.

I started lying for personal gain during the early years of my marriage when money was hard to come by and even harder to hold on to. I would tell any number of tall tales about automobile repairs and broken-down refrigerators to convince my wealthy yet retentive parents that their money, so painful for them to part with, was at least going to some practical use.

I need $150.
What? More money? Again? We just gave you $400 to fix your car!
The refrigerator stopped. The repair guy is here right now. I’ve got to get it fixed so the food won’t spoil.

Then, one day, the lies stopped.

I was no less impecunious, but something happened that changed my perspective. I became a father. I began to question just what kind of father I would be in the eyes of my son. I knew what kind of father I wanted to be, and so I set out to become that idealized person. I had many weaknesses to address and redress, but the first, most important task was to become a completely honest man. Honest in all things, at all times. I knew the foundation of morality, character and wisdom had to be honesty. Without honesty life is a house of cards, susceptible to the slightest breeze of truth.

I began to test myself. If a waiter forgot to charge me for some item of food, I insisted that it be added to my bill. If a cashier gave me too much change at a store, I returned it. In fact, I paid particular attention to the most trivial transactions and interactions. I had much to atone for. And I was tested. An inordinate number of people dropped money from pockets and purses whenever I was around.

Clerical errors in my favor abounded. The kind of happenstance I constantly wished for during my most poverty-stricken years now occurred with peculiar regularity. I still do not know if this was an odd coincidence, a divine test, or just the sort of thing that happens all the time, a normal state of affairs which I became acutely aware of only because of my near obsessive desire to make amends for a lifetime of ethical lapses.

You only charged me for three of these cookies, but I’ve got four.

That’s OK. We’ll catch you next time.
No, please, let me pay you for this other cookie.
Don’t worry about it. It’s OK.
I cannot leave here without paying you for this cookie.

By the time I was forty-two, my honesty was habitual. A reflex. It must also be said that no being of human dimensions can achieve perfection, but I tried. I became prideful of the opportunity to display my honesty at every turn. In my professional life as a newspaper reporter, a career begun after my first son was born, I sought out dishonesty with a missionary zeal. I would recount the lies of various miscreants, their attempts to cover up their lies, their false claims of being misunderstood and quoted “out of context,” and finally their apologies. I was instrumental in destroying their reputations and shaming their families. They were ultimately responsible for their own behavior, but I was merciless. There’s no more fierce advocate for the truth than a reformed liar.

Former school superintendent Peter Snyder, convicted last year of embezzling $2.7 million from the Valley Unified School District, was stabbed to death in a San Diego County prison yesterday. “He was a good man who made a bad mistake,” said ex-wife Theresa Snyder who divorced her husband two months after his conviction.

~~~

Does honesty have limits? Should an honest person lie to avoid hurting the feelings of friends and family? Does honesty require you to tell your mother her new outfit is forty years out of date and her hairdo makes her look like Bozo the Clown? Surely we are not required to voice every subjective opinion in order to fulfill the requirements of honesty. A reluctance to express opinions and preferences, after all, is not a masking of truth, it is a refusal to engage in momentary, subjective assessment.

You’ve changed your hair.
How do you like it?
I think it brings out the real you.

And yet when it came to my personal beliefs, I never put the slightest tarnish on the truth. My late father-in-law, a physician, was a deeply religious man. Soon after I began dating his only daughter, I felt no reluctance in telling him just how medieval I thought his particular religion was.

How can you actually believe your religion is the only true religion?

We trust in the teachings of our church.

Did it ever occur to you that your self-serving religious leaders just might be wrong?

We have no reason to doubt them.

My wife and I were subsequently married without her parents’ blessings, and only over the course of years did my relationship with the two godly souls that were her parents, soften. Most of the softening came with the birth of my first son, their first grandchild. And so were we all changed by the miracle that is a newborn child. I learned to hold my tongue while simultaneously developing a genuine interest in the weather as a topic of conversation.

I returned to college and majored in journalism, a profession which is supposed to be about the truth. My father-in-law admired my determination to finish college while working odd jobs to support my family. He had entered medical school late in life after serving in the Army and knew only too well how hard it was to attend classes, study, be an attentive father and still earn some kind of living. My second son was born three years later, between semesters, and the bond between our families grew stronger. Religion was not a subject for conversation, but in all other matters, our relations became cordial.

About five years later, Grandpa Doc, as my father-in-law became known to our sons, retired from medical practice. He was a kind man who left many brokenhearted patients behind when he moved to the small Northern California town of Paradise. Yes, it’s actually named Paradise. Moving was his wife’s idea, for she was the font of all religious discipline in the family and believed the big cities would soon fall into chaos, what with the Second Coming nearly here. The small town of Paradise was indeed a beautiful, if not remote, place to live, but it left him bereft of friends and familiar landmarks. It was a cold turkey retirement. And a few years later, his isolation grew as his mental faculties failed.

And so Grandpa Doc traveled between comprehension and confusion, never fully surrendering to confusion, always fighting his way back for a while. I watched his struggle, and it was during our last visit when he asked me The Question. He was in the hospital and we were alone together. His wife had left the small, sterile room to get a drink of water and my wife went with her. He was lying flat on his back with only a small pillow under his head, confused, but not scared. He looked at me and smiled with the same unassuming manner that had always been his way with patients, especially when broaching the subject of bad news.

How does it look? Do you think I’m going to pull through?

He was counting on my honesty, asking me to confide in him. As a physician, he was only too aware of the fiction of reassuring words from friends, family and medical professionals who have decided the patient is no longer in a sufficient state of mind to process factual information. But this was one of Grandpa Doc’s clear moments and he wanted to know the truth. He figured I was the most likely person to give it to him—straight.

And what was the truth? Could I really predict the future? Was I medically qualified to give any kind of diagnosis, much less prognosis, to this man so cruelly cast adrift by old age? Of course, we all knew that his condition was not reversible. But how could I tell this religious man there would be no miracle for him?

Torn between the obvious and the miraculous, given this grave honor of rendering some kind of truthful information to a man momentarily clear enough to want to know what was really happening, I put my hand on his shoulder, smiled, and summoned my best imitation of the offhand remark, my best imitation of his own reassuring beside manner.

You’re doing OK. You’ll pull out of this. You’ll be going home soon.

He looked into my eyes and at least for a moment, he knew the truth.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Fever




I was about 12 years old and my fever kept rising.

I suppose it was a bad case of the flu. I can’t remember precisely. It may have been mononucleosis. As my temperature rose unchecked, I slipped into a place between life and death, a hallucinatory place. There before me was an immense stone floating impossibly in the air.

After all these years I still have a precise memory of that vision. It was a message that took me many years to understand, something hard to put into words, something about faith, something about a spiritual place, an eternal place where the normal laws of physics do not apply.


A few years ago I put my vision into a poem.


There is wildness here,
Raw and raging
Beneath this exterior,
Pulsing.

There are visions here
Of soaring over lifetimes of leaf-filled trees
And rust-colored hills,
Over yellow fields,
Over oceans.

There is forgetting here
Of the small things people say,
The small things people do.

There is a last angry echo
Of the unheard voice,
The deeper self,
The truer self,
The wilder self
That wearies of all man-made things.

There is a silence here
That grows and infuses,
Like the melancholy tint
Of an old photograph,
An old photograph you walk around in,
Examining with wonder the frozen, yet flowing
Moments of a life.

There is a wildness here
That rises like an immense stone,
Floating impossibly
In the pure blue sky
Of a secret spring.


~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Castle in the Pyrenees by René Magritte
© All Rights Reserved

You Are Here



You are here.

I am here.

I am writing this for you to read. How do you like it so far? Not too interesting, eh? Well, you see, there’s a very important theory behind this rather unorthodox way of beginning a . . . of beginning a . . . of beginning this.

You see, blah, blah, blah, and et cetera ad infinitum. (Imagine a long-winded, deeply serious lecture, punctuated with those very special words that immediately give you the impression that the speaker is indeed much more learned and insightful than you, the humble reader, could ever be.)

Excuse me for a minute, I have to go get something.

[Time passes.]

Back again.

Thanks for waiting.

I had to go look for this book on various schools of literary criticism, because I was going to look up a suitable word to use as an example of the kind of word that would be used repeatedly in the abovementioned discussion on the theory of just what in the hell it is I’m doing here. But it seems I’ve brought down the wrong book. You see, I keep all my books on literary criticism packed in boxes up in my attic. I find it more relaxing that way.

Anyway, the word I was looking for was mimetic — an all-time favorite with those who would rather discuss reading than read — but I’ve got the wrong book. Please excuse me for another moment because I must take this book back to the attic, for in browsing through the index, I stumbled upon the entry: “Neo-Platonism, in Plotinus,” and it’s making me queasy. I’ll be right back.

[More time passes.]

Back again.

Sorry I took so long, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, and because I am a bit obsessive-compulsive, I nearly got sucked into cleaning my carpets, because the steam cleaner is also in the attic, near my box of books on literary theory.

I do get distracted by the ephemera of everyday life.

In fact, I’ve spent the last five years on preparations alone, laying the groundwork for some really serious and incredibly important writing. First, I had to buy a new computer, because the primordial computer I purchased shortly after the dawn of time simply would not do. Then there was the moving. I had to move to a more literary city. And you know what a time-consuming task moving can be. It was. Only last week did I finally finish decorating my den slash office. Then, there were those photo albums I’d always meant to reorganize. And so forth.

You get the idea.

So anyway, I was about to explain that this rather freeform manner in which I am writing is actually based on my experiences in graduate school, which taught me that you can invent a plausible literary theory for anything. For example, Hamlet is really a dog who is afraid to bite his master. Bad Hamlet! Bad, bad Hamlet!

It’s not that I believe that storytelling is really that passé. I love a good story, especially when it has the word “that” in it a lot. I have many ideas for stories, like the one about how Mozart is reincarnated into the 1970s as a slovenly piano player in a suburban steak house. He can play pretty well, but this time around, he attracts more flies than attention.

But the minute you (I) start writing a story like that, you’re just (I’m just) chained into this traditional structure of character and plot development and so on and so forth, until you just think (I just think), “Why bother?” Because in the end, it’s just another gimmicky story of the type that one sells to the movies (make me an offer). And where’s the fun in that?

Huh?

[Insert interjection here.]

So if one (don’t worry, I’m not going to do this anymore, after this one last time) does not engage in storytelling, then what is the point? And there (here) we have arrived at the crux of the issue (sorry, I could not resist one last parenthetical aside).

Was it not some philosopher employed by Hallmark Greeting Cards who once wrote, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”? Or is this just my way of employing the use of punctuation outside quotation marks, since the question mark in question would alter the original intention of the quoted material if placed within the close-quotation marks?

Which reminds me of a story:

Once upon a time, there was a little brown mouse with tiny black eyes who was very, very hungry. He was searching for something to eat in old Mr. Shimelplatzer’s house when he happened upon a bottle of Minoxidil. Old Mr. Shimelplatzer was trying to grow some new hair. The little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes pushed the plastic bottle off the bathroom counter falling to the floor cap flying contents oozing puddle.

The little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes scampered over to the towel rack, lowered himself paw-over-paw down the bath towel and tiptoed across the throw rug, leaping over the bathroom scale to inspect the strange-smelling pool of liquid. After the little brown mouse with the tiny black eyes licked it all up, he awakened the next morning to find himself transformed into a super-steroid, red-eyed, 23-foot monster mouse. He subsequently killed a lot of slow-moving senior citizens before being blown up with microwave radiation by the National Guard.

Excuse me for just a moment.

[A brief interlude, passes.]

I had to open the door of my den slash office for Inky, my swaybellied black cat who spends many long hours in the faded adobe-colored recliner where I once spent many long hours writing something I called poetry. Inky will not stop meowing at my door until I let her in, then she meows at me for a minute or two before settling in on the seat of the well-worn recliner, where I once spent many long hours writing something I called poetry.

Ah yes, sigh, those heady, ennui-filled days of youth. Now, I sit wearily on this adjustable office chair and type assorted letters into this computer that appear before me on this screen where they line up to become words and sentences, where they all gather together to do this funny little dance called, “Pretending To Matter.”





~ Text and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Renegade




It was not hard to be renegade in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of West Covina during the 1960s.


Emerging from the conservative ‘50s, all you had to be was a disagreeable teenager, especially in this Anglo-Saxonite community where most of the local power brokers attended Rotary Club pancake breakfasts with an alarming regularity. Come to think of it, regularity was also a big deal during this era.

My home town was very much like the place portrayed in the movie, “American Graffiti.” It was a teenage car culture, and after I turned 16, I had a driver’s license. Not long after, I had a car. My parents were upper middle class, so I did not have to actually earn the money to buy a car. And my mother was eager to be free of having to take me places, and then, pick me up and bring me home. Her life was busy enough, what with Women's Club luncheons to plan, bridge parties, country club appearances and the ongoing burden of supervising housekeepers and gardeners — all this along with a husband who actually expected her to make dinner on a regular basis. Yes, regularity was a pretty big deal during this era.

Nowadays there are lots of restrictions on young drivers, but when I got my license, I was free, turned loose on the streets without any restrictions or guidelines. Just a few hours of driver’s ed. But I was a pretty good driver. I’d had experience, what with all those times I took my parents’ cars out on the road when they were away for a weekend trip. Yes, I remember learning how every intersection was not necessarily a four-way stop as I propelled my mother’s lumbering, razor-finned Cadillac straight toward a passing car who, much to my surprise, had no stop sign. I hit the brake pedal just in time.

Then there was that lesson about road rage, what we used to call, “mad” or “angry.” I thought driving was a competition, and that the object was to beat the other drivers. After all, I wasn’t actually going anywhere. So I jammed down the gas pedal and managed to pull the great white whale in front of this other guy in an old, compact car who had tried his best not to let me into his lane. While I was waiting behind another car at a stop sign, he got out and walked up to my car, signaled for me to roll down my window, which I did, then punched me in the face.

By the time I had my own car, a dark green 1965 Ford Mustang — the fastback model — I was seasoned. I’d make my car too fast to catch, and I certainly would never roll down my window again for anybody.

In those days it seemed like most of my friends and rivals were working on their cars, customizing old Chevys, putting in big carburetors, high performance shifters, custom exhaust systems, giant racing slicks – even whole new engines. This was long before the state-mandated smog check. Nobody checked the condition of our cars when we renewed their registrations, so all modifications went undetected. I was not one of the more talented kid mechanics around, although I could gap a spark plug. I was a musician, a guitar player, and I did not like getting my fingers stained with grease. So I took the money I saved from teaching guitar lessons and working in a local pizza parlor and went to a speed shop in a neighboring city to let the experts juice up my horsepower. The first thing they did was rip out all the smog prevention equipment.

“You don’t need all this stuff,” I remember the mechanic saying. Years later, when I tried to trade the car in on a new model, the local Ford dealer would disagree. “You’ve got no smog equipment! We’re going to have to replace it all just to put the car on the lot.”

Oops!

Except for a little cash for dating and guitar strings, I’d put all my money into my car — a nice racket for the speed shop — and after a while I began racing my car on Saturdays at the nearby Irwindale Speedway along with all the other high school amateurs. But as a renegade teenager, the real thrill was street racing. It was like being a gunslinger in the Old West, just prowling around town, looking to challenge somebody to a shootout.

Yes, I had my share of speeding tickets, but I was never caught racing. Most of us weren’t. There were not that many police officers cruising around town in those days.

There was always the occasional race during the day, when I’d just happen to pull up next to another kid in a hot car after school. Who was faster? We just had to find out! But weekend nights were the real prime racing time. It was like jousting, trying to prove our nascent manhood to our girlfriends, or to somebody else’s girlfriend.

Sometimes the races were organized.

Some guy with greasy hair had a new Camaro 280z and swore he could take me. Bets were made and the next Saturday night my friends blocked off both ends of a sleepy suburban street about a half-mile long while we lined up our cars. About twenty high school kids gathered at the finish line. Camaro boy couldn’t catch me, even though his car may have been faster. I was always incredibly quick off the starting line.

That’s what won me the race set up by the speed shop at Irwindale Raceway. There was another kid, a rich kid whose father owned a shopping center, who was already out of high school, who came to the speed shop with a Mustang pretty much like mine. The speed shop mechanics figured this guy would be good competition for me. After they’d done their best to expand his horsepower, we set a date.

The early part of the afternoons at Irwindale were spent doing practice runs, called “qualifying.” You had to turn a good enough time in your particular class to compete in the early evening, before the actual professionals did their stuff for the audience who sat in bleachers on either side of the quarter-mile track.

Rick – my well-financed opponent – and I both qualified at the top of our class and were set to compete. I had the advantage of nearly a year of experience, while this was Rick’s first time at a professional raceway. He was a little nervous, especially since we had an audience of friends, girlfriends and the speed shop mechanics. It had just turned dark as we pulled up to the starting line, facing the “Christmas Tree,” a series of lights mounted on each side of a central bracket that indicate when the cars are in the right starting position. Then, once the cars are positioned, the yellow lights count down to green. If a driver started too early, a red light would signal disqualification.

We both edged our cars into starting position, our engines almost window-shatteringly loud because we’d opened up our “headers” (high performance exhaust systems) to bypass the mufflers. From experience, I knew the slight lag time of my car – from the time I hit the gas pedal to the car’s forward surge – allowed me to start a half second before the green light flashed.

We waited, then the first yellow light flashed on, moving down toward the green light. The moment Rick’s brain told him the light was green, I’d already jumped out from the starting line. He was momentarily stunned, and even though he turned a faster time, he never caught me. It wasn’t really about how fast you went, it was about who got there first. Mind over horsepower. I made it to the finish line first, won the trophy and renewed admiration from my girlfriend.

Yes, it was a moment.

Of course now as a responsible adult I am appalled at my behavior, risking accident and injury on the streets of my sleepy suburban town. Perhaps that’s why it made so much sense for all of us to go just outside of town to the Chicken Ranch.

There was a long, straight road inside the Chicken Ranch property, made for trucks to pick up eggs and chickens, I suppose. Nobody stayed with the chickens at night, especially not on Saturday nights. This particular night had not been the first time high school hot rods had raced there, but it was my first time.

There were dozens of competitors from area high schools and junior colleges, and dozens more who just came to watch. It is a solemn testament to the short-range saturation of the teenage brain that none of us had entertained a single thought about potential consequences. Rubber burned and smoked and engines spit and roared as pair after pair of racers hurtled down the improvised racetrack. After I made my run, the growing chaos of beer-swilling youth amazingly enough triggered some fledgling sense of adult apprehension in me, and so I left. As I exited the entrance to the Chicken Ranch, I was passed by a long line of police cars.

That was the last race ever held at the Chicken Ranch. It was my senior year, and before long, I’d own a more practical car, have a more practical girlfriend, and grow a little less renegade as the wild anarchy of my teenage years passed. After all, I had to prepare for the wild anarchy of my twenties.


~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

The Princess Marjorie



M y mother saved things.

She had $50 bills hidden in an envelope beneath a stack of unread magazines in the cupboard of an old nightstand.

She had a small box of Kennedy half-dollars inside a small safe, underneath stacks of envelopes bound together with rubber bands. There were $50 bills inside some of the envelopes.

There were lacquered jewelry boxes and plain cardboard boxes filled with necklaces, rings, pendants and pins in dresser drawers beneath undergarments, old mail, pill bottles, pens and a lifetime of assembled ephemera. There were some valuable heirlooms mixed without distinction among trinkets from the many countries she had visited with her late husband. Photos taken by her husband were collected in box after box of incredibly boring slides which were viewed once or twice when friends came over, then stuffed into cupboards and never seen again. Marjorie and her husband did not seem to enjoy their travels as much as they enjoyed accumulating them to be admired and envied by their friends.

My mother was 15 years old in 1929, when the stock market crashed, followed by years of economic turmoil. But her parents were wealthy and the family was protected from ruin. She was a spoiled, only child who was smart and talented. She was a top student, played the piano and the violin, and pretty enough to be pursued by legions of young men, her friendship desired by admiring young women. She was a small-town princess whose photo routinely appeared in the society pages of the local paper.

So many in her small town had fallen into poverty during the aftermath of the Great Depression. So she saved. Everything.

By the time I was a teenager, her garage had turned into a museum of the useless and obsolete. She had saved all my father’s old electric shavers, though they didn’t work very well anymore. But they had value, somehow.

She saved cookie tins, so handy for storing things, even though she had more than twenty empty tins stuffed into a cupboard beneath her dead husband’s cluttered workbench. You never know when you might need one, she thought, and if she threw them away, in just a very few days she’d suddenly have a use for them, and then it would be too late.

After her electric garage door opener had to be replaced, she would not let the repairman take away the old, greasy, rusty, 12-foot-long mechanism. There might be parts in it that would come in handy some day.

The garage was packed full of stuff like that: old corroded sprinkler heads, scrap lumber stored in the rafters, old magazines, cardboard boxes that had come with her televisions, her coffee maker, her microwave. There were cracked plastic buckets filled with tattered kitchen dish towels and rags. Boxes of old calendars, coffee cans full of nails and screws and other mysterious, hard-to-identify parts saved by her late husband.

Inside her house every drawer was packed full. Many contained unopened mail, solicitations she meant to review, stacks of envelopes bound with rubber bands. She kept every greeting card she’d ever received, every letter, all the way back to when she was a little girl.

One might guess she was a sentimental person. But sentiment was barely in evidence as she accumulated her way through life. Sentiment was, at best, a fleeting afterthought, a momentary pause in the pursuit of acquisition. She never looked at the things she saved. Much of it was packed away in places too difficult to easily access. Each card and letter she saved was a kind of honorary award, bearing testament to her worth. They were her small trophies; homage paid to the princess.

I could go on and on, describing in great detail all the unused kitchen appliances, the unread books, the cabinets full of figurines, crystal, ceramics and silver – so many things only the privileged could afford to own, things that were never taken out of their places and handled, looked at or enjoyed.

But even in this small accounting, my writing becomes a repetition of the compulsions that surrounded me as a child, the compulsions that infused my soul, against which I have fought every day of my adult life.

Inside my mother’s garage, inside her drawers, in her closets and cupboards, in her attic, in every empty space, a lifetime of accumulation gathered randomly, while on the outside, her splendid home was neatly decorated, her most expensive possessions on display, touched only by the housekeeper who kept them dust-free.

My mother married a successful salesman, too young and sheltered to realize she’d fallen in love with a sales pitch, not a man. They were far from soul mates. She was Lady Di. He was Homer Simpson. She kept her husband at arm’s length as the years passed by, in his appropriate place, untouched, on his side of the bed. After a few years, she accumulated two children. First my sister, then I were adopted – an appropriate pair to show off at the country club.

As time went by, her husband and her children proved to be quite troublesome. Instead of showering her with praise, devotion and servitude, we actually required love and affection. Since she could not put each of us in a display case, she entombed herself within a display case of her own making. She became untouchable, permanent, unchanging, unwilling to share her carefully constructed and accumulated life. Yet we were relentlessly human and asked for more than she could give, and grew to resent her.

She came to realize she’d made a mistake. Life had been perfect when she was the only child, the small-town princess, admired by all she knew. She could never become the supplicant, required to make an earnest entreaty for love. She was superior and would never admit any kind of emotional need. And so she accumulated things and pre-empted any emotional connection by treating those around her with cruel contempt.

She was known in the community as a rich and respected woman who lived in a grand house full of splendid possessions. But she was utterly impoverished in spirit, without those intangible things which are our true possessions, which are the true measure of our lives.

This was my mother, the Princess Marjorie, sovereign of a vast wilderness.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Five



Ralph Humphrey ~ virtuoso drummer

While not a familiar name among the general public, drummer Ralph Humphrey is famous among musicians. He’s known for playing with a long list of musical luminaries and just about every kind of gig and recording session imaginable. But when I played a few casuals with Ralph in 1975 and 1976, for me, his crowning glory was that he’d played with Frank Zappa, most notably as the only drummer on the 1973 Zappa album “Over-nite Sensation.”



Ralph’s playing on “Over-nite Sensation” introduced a different kind of rhythmic sophistication to Zappa’s rock and jazz hybrid tunes, creating a sound of raw power precisely executed. Every musician I knew was listening to that breakthrough album.

The first gig I played with Ralph was at The Bistro in Beverly Hills, famous for its celebrity patrons. We played for a City Of Hope dinner for luminaries honored by the medical center’s foundation. I quickly realized I was in rarified air when I saw the parking lot. It was wall-to-wall Rolls Royce automobiles.



On our first break, I peppered Ralph with questions about Zappa. I especially wanted to know if Zappa was sincere when he so often publicly stated he did not use drugs. His appearance and his wild musical mind, not to mention his bizarre lyrics, often gave people the impression that he must be high on something. But Ralph confirmed that Zappa did not use drugs. He was, in fact, an anti-drug advocate, although he did smoke cigarettes.


“I think if Frank ever really got high and took a good look at himself it would really freak him out,” Ralph said.

{The above quote is approximate, from my imperfect memory.}

I was a competent guitar player, but far from the A-list level that Humphrey belonged to. I asked Ralph how he rose to such a high level of musical proficiency. If there was some secret bit of wisdom, some path to greatness I’d overlooked, he would know about it. But Ralph said his musicianship was simply a result of a lot of study, practice and dedication. I suppose he was too modest to mention talent.

Check out his superb musicianship on the recently released "Roxy ~ The Movie," a CD and video compilation of Zappa performing over four nights in Hollywood at the Roxy in 1973. I was there—in the audience!

Click Here for "Roxy ~ The Movie" at Amazon

That evening led to another encounter with a famous celebrity--Johnny Carson. Someone said the lounge at The Bistro was a favorite spot for Johnny and Jack Lemmon who would meet there on occasion. A few hours after our gig began, we heard that Johnny was in the bar.

To get to the restroom, bar patrons had to cut across a corner of the banquet room where we were playing. In the middle of a tune, we spotted Johnny making his way to the restroom. Without dropping a beat, the piano player broke into the theme song from “The Tonight Show.” Johnny looked over, pointed at us and laughed, quickly disappearing from the room.

~ to be continued



~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Ralph Humphrey bio
© All Rights Reserved





Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Four



Gary Owens ~ celebrity voice


Radio and television personality Gary Owens was indeed famous, mostly for his funny announcer role on the popular sixties television show, “Laugh In.” But I first encountered his zany and witty humor when he was a disc jockey at KFWB in Los Angeles.

In the summer of 1961, when I was 11 years old, I won a contest two days in a row by being the first caller to his show with the correct answer. I can’t remember what the question or the contest was, but I do remember winning a Gary Owens coloring book and KFWB bumper sticker. The real prize was talking briefly with my idol. He congratulated me for winning two days in a row. Here was a man who made his living playing records and being funny. That’s what I wanted to do.

   Many years later while working as a reporter at the Daily Pilot newspaper in Newport Beach, I read afternoon news reports live from the newsroom, broadcast on a local FM radio station. At last, I was following in the footsteps of my hero, Gary Owens. I tried to make the news briefs funny, but alas, I was no Gary Owens and wisely stuck with print journalism.




O.C. Smith ~ singer


When I was a young guitar player and singer, on the road in April 1973 with a group called Changes, I met singer O.C. Smith, famous for his Grammy-winning recording of “Little Green Apples” four years earlier. We were playing six nights a week at the Baranof Hotel in Juneau, Alaska.

On a concert tour of Alaska, O.C. Smith and his band arrived in Juneau to play two weekends at the hotel. On those weekends, we played alternate sets. There wasn’t much to do during the daytime, and I spent time with his sidemen, all gifted jazz musicians, trying to learn whatever secrets they possessed. They quietly complained that Smith only used them for his rigorous road gigs. They had not played on any of his records. That taught me something about the limits of talent in the subjective world of show business.

O.C. Smith was a personable, charismatic man who was very popular with the audiences, whether he was singing or just talking. On one weekend night when all the black people in Alaska must have traveled to Juneau to hear him sing, he told the audience a joke about how black people love Cadillacs. “We get ‘em first,” he said. “We don’t keep ‘em long, but we get ‘em first!”

Despite his fame and many years of performing, including being a vocalist for the legendary Count Basie, he still got nervous before going on. I saw him grasping a young lady’s hand to steady his nerves as his band played the intro music just before he came on. But once he was on stage, he had the infectious confidence of the seasoned professional.

I’m not surprised that O.C. Smith, a singer with a warm, baritone voice and electric personality, became a preacher years later. He founded the City of Angels Church of Religious Science in 1985.

~ to be continued


~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met — Part Three



Stan Wall ~ Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher


I’d never met a professional athlete before I met Los Angeles Dodgers rookie pitcher Stan Wall, a recent regular at the hotel lounge where I sang and played guitar with a small combo near the Los Angeles airport.

   I’d also never met a Playboy model, but to meet Stan was to meet the amazing young woman who was often at his side, sitting around the semi-circular bar that fronted the elevated stage on which I performed.


   It was 1975, his first year in the majors, called up from a seven-year stint in the Dodgers' minor league system to take his shot. Stan was in the big leagues at last and was having a lot of fun on and off the field.

   He was 24, I was 25 and we were both intrigued by each other’s professions.

   We struck up a friendship, which led to:

THE COMPETITION !

   There was a freestanding video game in the lobby of the International Hotel which I often played with the bass player on breaks between sets.

   So I was experienced.

   One night after the band finished the last set, a rare night when Stan was alone, we ended up playing the video game together. These were the early days of video game technology. I cannot remember what the game was, only that it gave one the choice of playing against the computer or against another player. It was graphically crude, like the earliest Atari video games. Stan was ferociously competitive and doing pretty well for never having played this particular game. But my experience gave me an edge, and I began to dominate the competition.

   “I can’t believe you’re this good!” he said in exasperation, shortly before I defeated him. It was about 3 a.m. and we were both exhausted.

   We parted as friends, but it was a bittersweet experience. I felt a degree of pride for having beaten an accomplished athlete, and a little guilty for having shattered his confidence in a competition that was not evenly matched, given my many hours already spent mastering the intricacies of the game.

   Days later I was watching the Dodgers on television, knowing there was a chance that Stan would be called in for relief pitching. I can’t remember what team they were playing against, but I do remember that Stan took the mound during the last few innings of the game with the bases loaded. I still shudder when I think of that pitch, the solid crack of the bat hitting the ball, that grand slam home run. I also remember Vin Scully commenting to co-announcer Jerry Doggett about how great the distance was between the minors and the majors, illustrated by Stan’s disastrous outing.

   I blamed Dodger manager Walter Alston who put the young man into an incredibly difficult situation, difficult even for the most seasoned relief pitcher. But I could not help but wonder if my video game victory over Stan had somehow shaken his confidence. The night life we shared certainly didn’t help either. I felt a wave of guilt. Had I, in some small way, contributed toward his difficulties on the mound that day?

   Yet Stan continued to play for the Dodgers, pitching ten games that year with a blistering 1.69 earned run average. He pitched a total sixty-six games with 55 strikeouts during his two years with the Dodgers before injury and happenstance sent him back to the minors in 1977. That was pretty much the end of his baseball career, but he went farther in those two years than I did during a dozen years as a working musician.

   Unlike Stan, I never made it to the big leagues.



~ to be continued


~ Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

My Light




M y earliest memory is of a large white house, something like a Southern plantation house fronted by Greek columns, blindingly white, glimpsed through the windshield of the car my mother was driving. I was about one year old. She left me there, inside this large, white house. I never saw her again.

It was a place for orphaned children. After my mother realized my father would not leave his own wife and children as he had promised, the pressure to put me up for adoption was evidently too great to resist. It was 1951 in Southern California and my mother was from a proud military family. She loved me, I was later told, but the situation was unacceptable, especially to her parents. She loved me, but everyone agreed that “a boy should have a father.” It was a solution. It did not make everything all right. Nothing could do that. After all, we’d been together every day during my first sixteen months of life. She was my mother.

My insecurity was born that day. If I could lose my mother, my home and everything I’d ever known in such an instant, then what was left? Who could I trust?

I grew up seeing the world as a threat, expecting to be rejected by everyone, expecting to lose everything. I expected abandonment. My fears were fueled by the cruel and abusive parents who adopted me. This is my darkness.

I also grew up seeking the truth about my first year and a half of life, hidden from me for so long. In the process I learned there is much about our lives that is hidden by pretense and artifice – hidden by others; hidden by ourselves. And in this search, in finding the truth, in finding myself, I have found a healing love far stronger than the darkness of my troubled soul. This is my light.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved