State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
My mother’s name is Aloha. That’s just the beginning. She’s had an interestingly nomadic life; born into the Army and later married into the Air Force. Her travels and her times have produced a card, a ham, a bon vivant and a wiseass. She and my dad were a matched set that way, he the unflagging life of every party and she the beautiful sidekick more than able to hold her own. As a preteen she would routinely climb out of her bedroom window in the wee small hours (as Sinatra would’ve described them) and roam the various Army bases she called home. No Army-issue bedroom window could hold her. Her return would usually be in the company of a base MP (Military Police) most of whom knew her by name within a few months of her family having arrived for the new assignment. In one familiar story she creeps out of her parents’ Army quarters late one night and slinks by moonlight to the base movie theater where the scandalous Gable/Lombard film ‘No Man of her Own’ is playing. 20 minutes into the movie the MP’s familiar flashlight beam plays down the darkened aisle beside her. She looks up to see a resigned-looking white-helmeted base policeman standing beside her ”C’mon, Aloha,” he reportedly sighs. “Let’s get you home.”
Aloha was born in Hawaii but is not Hawaiian. She was born at Schofield Barracks, the Army post that 17 years later would be laid waste by nervous Japanese pilots following the ill-advised orders that would eventually unplug their empire. Her father was an Army Colonel who had always adored Hawaii from afar and had finally secured his dream posting. In the full flush of his island fever, he and my probably less enthusiastic grandmother nearly named my mother after the last sovereign queen of Hawaii; Liliʻuokalani, which is unfortunately pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. In that case today my mother would be going by ‘Lili’, one hopes. It was a close call.
By 1942 she was a volunteer for the war effort in Florida, pushing crudely built model planes around a tabletop aerial map with a long stick, the better to differentiate, with the civil air authorities’ radioed help, the mean planes from the friendly ones in the air around the eastern seaboard. Cameras in space were still an Arthur Clarke daydream. She met my dad that year at a servicemen’s dance and the game was afoot.
By 1969 she was an Air Force Wife. We lived on Wheelus AFB, just outside Tripoli, Libya; my father, my mother, my little brother, my big sister, and me. Quarters 4G, three blocks from the Mediterranean. We were there for all of a year and a half before Colonel Gadaffi rudely moved his belongings into the Royal Palace during one of kindly King Idris’ clueless junkets abroad. Shortly thereafter we were ordered to leave the country, and in the heated confusion that followed, many people were shown the door, so to speak, and many of these my family’s friends in Tripoli. The coup was followed by a purge. It was a particularly difficult time for people of the Jewish persuasion, as the newly minted Dictator of Libya no longer felt the need to hide his contempt under a bushel. Gadaffi’s thugs began to round up Jews with a familiar gusto. The principal of the base High School would have none of this. What he did with his umbrage played right into Aloha’s predisposition for adventure. True to form, Aloha did manage to make a few more waves in the time between our arrival at Wheelus and our gunpoint-inspired departure.
She spent much of 1969 with a similarly meddlesome gal pal, the laconic Stephanie. Inseparable, they skulked around the base making various kinds of mischief, but principally sneaking around the topiary foliage of the Base Commander’s expansive Air Force-issue home on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean. The commander, Chappie James, was already near-legendary and would soon enough be made the U.S.’s first black Four-Star General. But under the trying and diplomatically complex circumstances of the Coup, many on Wheelus AFB were displeased with what they saw as James’ capitulation to several of Gadaffi’s directives.
Aloha had particularly objected to Commander James’ treatment of her next-door neighbor Genevieve, to whose house arrest he had grudgingly agreed in the wake of her husband’s botched attempt to spirit a Jewish friend out of the country in a Tuba crate bound for Malta; a plot foiled on the tarmac of the Tripoli airport. I don’t know that in the years following I ever learned as much from an educator about the innate precious value of doing what you know is right, as I did from Principal DeCarlo. The newly arrived Gadaffi regime had been extremely displeased with this attempted rescue and in the placating atmosphere of the time our Base Commander had agreed to the new Libyan government’s terms of reprisal; orders to sequester the woman (a soft-spoken, unbowed French academic, and our next door neighbor), strip her of all personal belongings, and send her out of the country to join her exiled husband in Japan following several months of house arrest and hectoring, mostly benign questioning.
In the event, Aloha and her mischief-making pal, Stephanie, contrived to smuggle Genevieve’s entire household out of Libya, incrementally, piece by piece, in defiance of Ghadaffi’s sour intent. The success of the Aloha and Stephanie Moving Company reportedly involved some shameless flirting with the young, bashful and easily distracted Libyan guards. When Genevieve was finally allowed to join her exiled husband in Okinawa, it was found that nearly everything they owned has been sent on ahead by Aloha and Steph. This stunt typifies Aloha’s middle age. Still later she would become an avid scotch-and-water Bridge partner to my dad, a gold-medal-festooned Senior Olympian in swimming, a Benson and Hedges-hoisting hostess to her dear friends and neighbors, all of whom have, at this writing, left the stage. These various states of Aloha occupy her like the cozily concentric shells of a Russian nesting doll.
Aloha was very fortunate to have entered the world (Stage Left) in the midst of the sort of colorful epoch that favors the high-spirited. It was a time of intense feeling and color. Judy Garland and Mussolini were a couple of the players, for instance. It’s true that much of the intense color was ordnance blossoming brilliantly in the saddened skies over torn-up Pacific islands and smoldering European capitals. But these terrible conflagrations seize and enlarge the bruised human heart. It was, as a great Victorian artist with a poorly executed comb-over once remarked of another era, both the best and worst of times.
Dear iThing-obsessed Millennial – this is where you come in. We are dithering over our forks and I’m afraid it’s falling to you guys to decide our common destiny and way forward. No pressure. We would ask, though, that you lift your eyes and apprehend the world you’ve been handed. It’s not great but it’s good, and getting to ‘good’ hasn’t been easy. The eons don’t know a teenager from an octogenarian; we’re all of a piece to the Ages, so please relax into this long view. This also absolves you of looking askance at the ‘seniors’. Do not blanch, turn away, pretend not to see, or stare straight ahead like a frightened 11-year-old when passing a wrinkled, frail elder on the sidewalk. You pitiable dopes. They were young not very long ago; just yesterday. And they did Young right.
These gaseous, bent, lace-draped old fools you are embarrassed to acknowledge? The ones the waitress can barely be bothered to look at? They hurriedly screwed in the sleeper car on the night train to Boston, bitch-slapped fascism when the time was right, cavorted naked in public parks during the Summer of Love, and drove a car on the freaking moon. Never mind the walkers and canes and smell of camphor. They’re the Beautiful People who reworked a world in their own excited image, and that is a matter of record. Look them in the eye and smile when you serve them their cobbler. And note which fork they favor.
Aloha is 90 now. She is still possessed of her dark hair, her teeth and her attitude. She can’t pass the full-length mirror in her apartment without stopping to strike a Dorothy Lamour ‘ready for my close up’ pose; one hand on her hip, the other perched uncertainly atop her 90-year-old head. It happens without fail. Her humor is mine (antiquated and often indecipherable) and there are times we’ve had each other laughing so hard the Grim Reaper stirs, puts down his newspaper and takes notice.
I always make it a point to enter Aloha’s apartment with a wry comment at hand. When your aged, self-deprecating mom answers the door with one shoe on and one foot bare, the comic possibilities announce themselves and one would be a fool not to pounce. She happily jumps aboard, glancing down and guffawing, then breaks into helpless wheezing as I enter a soliloquy on the dignities of old age. If she could be summed up with a gesture it would be a bemused shrug. This endears her to some of her neighbors at the retirement village (fellow travelers through a wild and world-renewing fire), and others it scares a little.
There are moments I’ve thought my mother was going to laugh herself to death, times she couldn’t catch her breath as we both leaned into each other in helpless hilarity. When your physical machinery is 90 years old, raucous laughter is necessarily a more fragile operation. I expressed this concern once. We’d really got each other going, she was crying with laughter. Finally, she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch her breath. She raised her hand to her chest, trying to draw air. I panicked.
”Hey! Hey! HEY!! MOM!! MOM!! MOM!!”
“What,” she coughed, waving me away.
“I thought you were going to leave us there for a minute!” I put my arm across her diminished little shoulder. She wiped her eyes and sighed through a rattling chuckle.
“Wouldn’t have been so bad,” she said.