Dad’s Yosegaki Hinomaru

Armand Charest in 2000

Armand Charest in 2000

My dad, Armand Gabriel Charest, was a US Army veteran of World War II. I knew this growing up as he would talk a lot about his Army adventures. We even attended a reunion of his 41st Division in 1971. He always expressed pride in being a soldier and pride in his role during WWII. But there were things about his army service I didn’t know until he wrote his memoirs in 2002. 

Then there were some things about his Army service I didn’t know until after he passed, which left questions for which I’ll probably never have answers.

From my Dad’s memoirs, I know he was drafted in late 1943 after fully expecting to not be. He had poor vision (a family trait all us children inherited) that he thought would disqualify him from military service. He was working as a trained Tool and Gage maker in one of the many factories that powered the New England economy of that era, deemed critical national defense work that also should have exempted him from active duty. Despite his poor eyesight and his critical trade, he was thoroughly surprised to be drafted into the Army. 

Dad's Army Photo

Armand’s Army Photo

His Army training was supercharged by being selected as a company machine gunner, meaning he got to carry the rather heavy machine gun in addition to his regular kit. Being a machine gunner also meant he was at the front of actions later in his Army tour of duty, when his company faced Japanese Banzai charges on Pacific Islands. He ended his Army career as part of the US occupation forces in Japan after they surrendered, and his Division was assigned to pacify the cities of Kure and Hiroshima. 

Although Dad would talk about being in Hiroshima, he never spoke about what he saw there. He owned a copy of John Hershey’s book “Hiroshima,” which I read as a young teen. As a member of the baby-boomer generation, I grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation which tended to peak my curiosity about Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) all the more. During my teen years, I tried many times to engage Dad in what he saw in Hiroshima, but the most I ever got out of him was once telling me that as he rode into the city, buildings on the outskirts were leaning away from the blast area. As they got closer, buildings were leaning more, and then closer still they were all knocked down. 

Dad retired from his career in tool and die making in 1984, went back to school and earned a BA in English literature. He spent his remaining years tutoring English as a Second Language (ESL) students and writing. He had dreams of becoming a published fiction writer, but the closest he ever came was selling his two-part story of visiting Albania to a travel magazine. The magazine did publish part-one but went belly up before they published part two. 

Dad starting writing his memoirs about 1999 and asked me to edit them. Given the way Dad had critiqued my writings back in my school days, I approached my duties as his editor with great enthusiasm. The first draft of his memoirs was pretty sparse, and I remember kicking them back to him with a comment to the effect “You’re over 70 years old. You grew up in the Great Depression, survived WWII, raised four children, and this is all you can say?” Dad grumbled some, but the next draft greatly expanded his life’s story. 

Dad’s second draft did include a brief description of interactions with the Japanese civilians during the occupation winter of 1945-1946. But he still didn’t include anything about his time in Hiroshima. This lack of narrative was in direct contrast to his description of the battle of Biak Island and his time spent in the Philippines. 

This time, my editing was a bit more gentle, but I had a long talk with Dad about including details of his time in Hiroshima. I pointed out that he had a unique perspective on nuclear war, one that the current generation of war theorists and strategists lacked. I explained how people needed to read a first-hand account of what a nuclear blast really did to a city and it’s people. Finally, Dad agreed with me and promised to write more.

His next and final draft added two short paragraphs, a total of nine sentences, about being in Hiroshima. 

One of the things I also knew about dad’s Army service was that he had brought home a “war trophy,” a Japanese army-issue rifle (minus the firing pin). Over the years he would periodically display it in the house for a while, then put it away, but he never explained how he acquired it. When we moved from Long Island, New York, to a rural Hudson Valley, New York town in the summer of 1972, his rifle came with us. He left it behind when he and Mom divorced in March 1974, and my younger brother Howard took custody of it. Howard proudly displayed it in his bedroom until he left for college. Mom kept this rifle for several more years until Dad reclaimed it and gave it to a friend who collected antique firearms, much to our (Howard and mine) dismay. Dad never spoke of it again.

After my parent’s divorce, Dad remarried and moved to Los Angeles, California with his new family. He divorced again and – briefly – remarried and divorced a third time. After his third try, he remained single and moved to a senior citizen center in 1992. It was from this place Dad tutored and wrote his stories. Dad suffered a stroke in August of 2002 which left him partially paralyzed. He passed on the evening of  February 3, 2004, at the age of 79, and was buried with full military honors in Riverside National Cemetery, California, as befitting his veteran status.  Dad had made me the executor of his estate and so I inherited a large collection of his unpublished stories. 

When he passed, I thought Dad’s stories passed with him. But there was one more still to come.

The Discovery

After my parent’s divorce, Mom stayed in the Hudson Valley, New York region, in the house her uncle built in the early 1950s. Mom had inherited this house from her aunt, and by 2014 it had been in the family for over 60 years. Mom loved her home and didn’t ever want to leave, but she wasn’t getting any younger and none of us children lived near her anymore. In July 2014, she had a bad fall which landed her in the Hospital.

The doctors gave Mom an ultimatum; move in with her family or move into a nursing home. My sister Melinda, living in eastern Tennessee, urged Mom to move in with her and Mom reluctantly agreed, on the condition that we also moved all her belongings to Tennessee. We knew we’d have to clear the house anyway so we could sell it, as no one in the family was going to move back to New York. So our family started the process of clearing out a house that had been continuously lived in for over 60 years.  

Over the next several months Melinda, her extended family, and I alternated trips up to Mom’s house to clear it out and make it ready to sell. 

One of the several heavy pieces of furniture Mom owned was a “cedar chest,” a large wooden chest Mom had owned since before she had married Dad. She used her cedar chest to store her special mementos.  None of us children were allowed to open it while growing up, and I doubt Mom opened it even once every several years. In early August, while in the process of helping move Mom’s belongings down to Tennessee, I opened her cedar chest for maybe the second time in my life and discovered something new about Dad’s military service.

While rummaging through treasures such as Mom’s high school yearbook (yes, really), dolls, and treasured keepsakes of her four children (including a few childhood trinkets of mine), I found what appeared to be an old WWII-era Japanese flag covered with Japanese writing. I immediately knew it had to have belonged to Dad, and knew it had important significance, but I had no idea how he acquired it or what the significance was.

Dad's Yosegaki Hinomaru

Dad’s Yosegaki Hinomaru

I asked Mom, and she didn’t remember anything about it, other than to say “your dad must have left it there.” Before I left the house that weekend I took photos of the flag with the intent to research what it might represent. 

I asked my cousin, and an Aunt and Uncle, if Dad had ever said anything about it. My cousin thought he had seen it once but knew nothing other than Dad had brought it home with him from the war. Knowing about dad’s time served in Japan, I guessed that this flag was related to his Japanese tour. 

I found an e-mail address for the Hiroshima Peace Museum, located in Hiroshima, Japan, of “gakugei@pcf.city.hiroshima.jp.” On August 31, 2014, I sent an e-mail which included a photo of the flag. A representative of the museum promptly responded: 

 

Dear Ron Charest,

Thank you for your email dated August 31, 2014, concerning the Japanese flag that belonged to your father.

Probably the original owner received this flag with hand-written messages when he was drafted into the military during World War II.  We are not quite sure, but we guess this flag was given to Mr. [redacted] by the people of Uzuto Village, Mitsugi County, Hiroshima Prefecture.

For your information, I will share the URL of an organization that helps these flags returned to their families in Japan.

OBON 2015
http://obon2015.com/english/

I hope this information helps, and if you need further assistance, please feel free to contact us.
Sincerely,
Kahori Wada


Kahori Wada 
Curatorial Division
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
1-2 Nakajima-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-0811 Japan
Tel: +81-82-241-4004, Fax: +81-82-542-7941
Email: wada.k@pcf.city.hiroshima.jp

So, armed with this information, I checked out the OBON 2015 website and promptly discovered that Dad’s flag was called a “Yosegaki Hinomaru;” a flag carried by many Japanese soldiers during the war, signed by their family and loved ones for good luck and a speedy return. At some point during the war, American soldiers started collecting these flags from dead Japanese soldiers as war trophies.

This information helped explain the flag’s significance but didn’t explain how the apparent Japanese soldier appeared to have come from Hiroshima Prefecture. There still seemed to be a Hiroshima link to Dad. I next contacted OBON 2015, again including a photo of the flag, and again promptly received a reply. 

Dear Ron Charest,

Thank you for contacting OBON 2015.

OBON 2015 is an independent, non-profit, humanitarian movement intent on returning personal items back to their families. There is no charge for our service.

Since we are sure you have many questions about OBON 2015 and about our search process, please let us know whether you prefer to communicate by email or telephone. We prefer a conversation so we can fully answer all your questions and explain our process. If you give us a phone number and convenient time, we will gladly give you a call.

Otherwise, we can explain as much as possible by email.

As soon as you let us know we can begin to move forward.

Thank you for your compassion; these items are extremely meaningful to their families in Japan.

Sincerely,
Rex & Keiko Ziak
OBON 2015

Now, more intrigued than before, I arranged a phone call with Rex and Keiko Ziak. We had our phone call on September 2, 2014, just a mere two days after my first contact with the Hiroshima Peace Museum. 

The Return

On the evening of September 2, I had a most interesting phone call with Rex & Keiko, founders of OBON 2015. The call started out with Rex and Keiko introducing themselves and their OBON 2015 project. Rex is former military and his wife Keiko is native Japanese, now living in Astoria, Oregon.

Some years earlier, they had started a project of repatriating Japanese Yosegaki Hinomaru’s back to the families of the owners. Rex explained that his group had never worked with the Hiroshima Peace Museum, and was pleasantly flattered they knew of OBON 2015. The date of “2015” signified when they hoped all Yosegaki Hinomarus would be returned to families of the owners. 

Rex explained that Yosegaki Hinomarus were flags given to Japanese soldiers before they went off to war. The flags were signed by family members, friends, and neighbors for good luck. The soldiers would carry these flags tucked in their clothing during their entire tours of duty. At some point during the war, American soldiers (and soldiers from allied nations) discovered these flags and began collecting them from the bodies of slain Japanese soldiers as war trophies. These collected flags were now scattered all across America and former allied countries, held by aging war veterans or the veteran’s families. 

Rex explained the significance of returning these flags; most Japanese soldiers who died in combat were buried (or not) in mass graves on the battlefield where they fell. Their graves were unmarked and families back home only knew their loved one was dead (as opposed to American soldiers, where the US Government made great efforts to return the bodies home). Japan had been culturally isolated for several hundred years, and for most families, losing a loved one in foreign combat may have been the first time in generations the family had no way to properly honor their dead. The Yosegaki Hinomaru, if returned, was all that these families would ever have as a remembrance. 

Rex acknowledged that Japanese actions during the war were savage and many allied soldiers who fought the Japanese held bitter memories. But, the war had long ended, Japan was now an ally, and Rex felt it was important to honor the individuals who fought in the war. 

Rex then explained the process they used to repatriate Yosegaki Hinomarus. Once OBON 2015 received a Yosegaki Hinomaru they would study the writing on it. Japanese writing styles varied among prefectures (particularly back in the 1930s and 1940s), so Japanese scholars were often able to identify a region by the writing style. Once they had identified the location, they would work through contacts local to that Prefecture to identify surviving family using the names on the Yosegaki Hinomaru. Rex explained they had a fairly high success rate in repatriating the Yosegaki Hinomarus. Occasionally, a Yosegaki Hinomaru was too badly damaged to read, or the prefecture/names just could not be identified, but those were rare exceptions. 

Rex and Keiko explained that, based on the photo I had sent, my Dad’s Yosegaki Hinomaru was in exceptionally good condition and even had addresses written on it. Rex explained that if I chose to return it, finding the family of the owner should be relatively simple. At this point, I explained what I knew of the Yosegaki Hinomaru, which was a pretty short explanation. 

Rex explained that returning the flag was entirely my decision and he would not try to push me. However, should I decide to return the Yosegaki Hinomaru, OBON 2015 would not/could not return it. Upon receipt, OBON 2015 would research the Yosegaki Hinomaru to locate surviving families of the owner. At my request, they would keep me informed of their search results. Once a surviving Japanese family member was located, they would be contacted via a Japanese priest and asked about their preferences for return. The Yosegaki Hinomaru would then be sent to the family in accordance with their wishes. If the family wished to share information on the original owner of Yosegaki Hinomaru, OBON 2015 would relay that information back to the person who provided the Yosegaki Hinomaru. 

Our conversation lasted about one hour. I was deeply impressed with Rex and his project. I was also feeling a bit awed at the small piece of history I had just fallen into.  We ended our conversation with my promise to discuss this with the rest of my family, and come to a decision on whether we would return the Yosegaki Hinomaru.

Over the next several days I contacted my sister Melinda, and brothers Howard and Jeff, letting them know what I had found. As executor of Dad’s estate, I knew I had the legal authority to dispose of Dad’s belongings, but I wanted this to be a family decision. In truth, I had already made my personal decision. As a Navy veteran, I knew that if the Yosegaki Hinomaru had been mine, I would have wanted it returned to my family. It was that simple; I was one veteran wanting to honor another veteran of a past war who believed he was fighting for an honorable cause by defending his country. A belief based on being fed lies by his Government, not all that different than the lies pushed to other soldiers of other Governments over past hundreds of years including our own.

But I was also feeling disappointed in Dad. I thought about what this discovery meant; that Dad would have rummaged through the body of a dead soldier looking for war trophies. While I could accept soldiers becoming desensitized to death on a battlefield, the thought of Dad doing that disturbed me. 

Melinda and Jeff were completely supportive of returning the Yosegaki Hinomaru. Howard was not. His feelings revolved around the history of how the Japanese treated allied POWs, and how they treated the citizens of conquered nations. Howard was also upset because Dad had given away his Japanese rifle to someone outside the family, and Howard felt we should keep this item as a memento of Dad’s WWII service. But in the end, I felt Howard acquiesced in returning it.

Returning the Yosegaki Hinomaru was complicated by the fact that, after finding it and taking photos, I replaced it back in Mom’s cedar chest where I found it. By the time we had all agreed to send the Yosegaki Hinomaru to OBON 2015, Mom’s cedar chest was packed away and in transit somewhere between New York and Tennessee. I wasn’t able to reclaim the Yosegaki Hinomaru, package it, and send on to OBON 2015 until the end of October 2014.

As part of mailing the Yosegaki Hinomaru to OBON 2015, I filled out their legal release form. In this form I indicated, in the event the family of the owner was located, I wanted as much information as possible on who the individual was and how/where/when the owner died. 

A New Mystery

As promised, Rex Ziak stayed in touch with me over the next several months. On January 6, 2015, I received an e-mail explaining their success at locating a family member of the owner. The e-mail read

Hello Mr. Charest,

We have news about the flag you sent to us.

Our scholars in Japan have worked extremely hard and were fortunate to have been able to connect the dots very quickly. They have found the family that belongs to your flag.

One of our associates in Japan has had a phone conversation with a neighbor living in that neighborhood who led them to the correct family, which happens to be an elder brother of the deceased soldier. Our associate had a direct conversation with that elder brother’s wife, who is in very good health and strength.

They very much want this item returned to them!

The information we received from the neighbor and wife has filled in more details. Apparently, this man (the younger brother) did, in fact, survive the war and returned home. However, apparently soon after returning he died in the streets. The elder brother was in Siberia during the war….and was probably held there as part of the Russian forced labor policy.

This neighbor, looking at pictures of the flag, identified many names of people he knew, and in addition to that, he noticed the signature of the Father of this soldier.

We will give you more information as this unfolds but wanted you to know what has happened in the past couple hours.

Sincerely,

Rex & Keiko Ziak
OBON 2015
P.O. Box 282
Astoria, Oregon 97103
(360) 484-3491

I acknowledged their e-mail, and several days later received a follow-up:

Dear Ron Charest,

Your father’s flag is on its way to the soldier’s older brother’s house.
They requested to receive the flag directly to their home.

Older brother came back from Siberia and couldn’t remember anything about the detail of his younger brother. As we mentioned earlier, the younger brother (owner of the flag) had survived the war…returned home…and died in the streets.

When the flag is returned they will question elderly neighbors to see if anyone recalls more details about the young man or the circumstances of his death.

Anyway, finally, your father’s flag found the home where it belongs.

Thank you so much for you and your family’s generous heart.

Sincerely,

Rex & Keiko Ziak

So that was it. A few weeks later Rex again contacted me and offered me the opportunity to write a brief narrative of Dad’s Yosegaki Hinomaru for OBON 2015’s monthly newsletter, which I happily accepted. I never received any follow-up about what neighbors of the Yosegaki Hinomaru owner might have remembered, which disappointed me but didn’t overly surprise me.

I still receive monthly newsletters from OBON 2015, and occasionally view their website. I’ve made a mental note that if I ever find myself in the vicinity of Astoria, Oregon, I need to try and meet Rex and Keiko Ziak. They are doing some extraordinary work for no personal financial gain, and I respect their efforts.

But I’m left simultaneously with mixed feelings of disappointment, relief, loss, and awe. I’ve also learned something about a small bit of post-WWII history which reinforced my personal insight into war.

I learned that Russia held Japanese POWs long after Japan surrendered. Russia stayed out of the war with Japan until the atomic bombs were dropped, then grabbed as much as they could immediately afterward. This included capturing Japanese soldiers surrendering in China, who were then used as forced laborers within Russia for many years. This, apparently, was how the older brother of the Yosegaki Hinomaru’s owner came to spend years of quality time in Siberia. 

When a war ends people don’t go back to living happily ever after while the film credits roll and the audience streams out of the theater. After the war, the lives of survivors are forever changed and things never go back to “the way they were before.” The people who suffer the most are the people with the least ability to control the direction of their nation.

Knowing that the owner of this Yosegaki Hinomaru survived and returned home from combat just deepens the mystery of how Dad acquired it. I feel a sense of disappointment that I didn’t learn the full answer, but I also feel relief knowing that Dad didn’t take it from a dead Japanese soldier. 

So I’m left with questions; How did Dad acquire this man’s Yosegaki Hinomaru? Why didn’t Dad ever tell us about it or tell us how he acquired it? Was acquiring this Yosegaki Hinomaru related to acquiring his Japanese rifle? More importantly; what did Dad experience in Japan, and specifically in Hiroshima, that he would never talk about? 

I want to think Dad befriended this man, the owner of the Yosegaki Hinomaru, during Dad’s time in Japan. I want to think Dad provided some personal assistance to this man and his family, and the man gave Dad his Yosegaki Hinomaru, and perhaps the rifle, as a token of thanks from one soldier to another. Or, Dad may have simply traded some rations in exchange for the Yosegaki Hinomaru and rifle. I’ll never know for sure. 

My sense of loss came from giving up a tangible piece of our family history, of letting go a tangible memento of Dad’s army service.  While I felt a sense of loss in giving back the Yosegaki Hinomaru, I’m not sorry I did. It was not something we should have kept. I have to wonder if Dad’s spirit rests a bit easier knowing this item was returned. 

But I am left with a feeling of awe that I had a chance to be a small part of WWII history. 

Epilogue

My sister Melinda continued sorting through Mom’s lifetime accumulation of belongings long after Mom moved in with her. In November 2017 Melinda sent me something else found in Mom’s cedar chest. Melinda discovered a souvenir pillow case printed with “US Army Camp Fannin, Texas”. This pillowcase also has several printed images of cool Army stuff and a saccharin-sweet poem to “Mother.” 

Souvenir Army Pillowcase

Souvenir Army Pillowcase

I’ve validated that Camp Fannin was a US Army Infantry Replacement Training Center near the present-day town of  Tyler, Texas. It opened in 1943 and operated for only four years. I know that Dad went to basic training in Texas in 1943, so I’m very certain this was a small gift Dad gave to his Mom after basic training before he was shipped overseas. Dad’s Mom, our Meme, died in 1957 and the family (Dad’s six sisters and two brothers) most likely would have returned it to Dad when his family sorted out her possessions. 

So, in the end, our family ended up with a small memento of Dad’s army service. This kitschy souvenir is something we can keep. 

 




A Forty-Year High School Reunion

Pine Bush High School - File Photo

Pine Bush High School – File Photo

I had the distinct experience of attending my forty-year high school class reunion several weeks ago. It was the first reunion I’ve been to, and it brought up a flood of memories and feelings I haven’t dealt with since graduation.

 

I grew up in Farmingdale, Long Island, New York, attending schools in the Farmingdale school district from Kindergarten until end of my high school sophomore year. In 1972 we moved from Farmingdale to the “upstate” Hudson Valley region of New York. I graduated from Pine Bush High School in June of 1974.

Farmingdale was a bedroom community of New York City; an comfortable suburban environment with a stable post-baby boomer population. Farmingdale High School was a progressive school and my graduating class numbered about 1000 people. The town itself was a compact tight-knit community and most everyplace I needed to go was within walking or bicycling distance.

I was painfully shy during my teens and didn’t make friends easily, but I began to establish myself during my sophomore year. That year I gained athletic recognition as a potentially great long-distance runner, started to get comfortable with girlfriends, and gained a direction for my future education. A group of teachers developed a very progressive advanced learning program and I was accepted as a charter student member. I attained the rank of Star Scout in my local Boy Scout Troop. I was earning my own money through a successful newspaper route. Life was getting better for this very shy teenager and I was establishing a place in my community.

Then we moved.

Pine Bush was a small, rural, conservative community experiencing sudden growing pains due to the influx of “city people” migrating out of New York City. The school I enrolled in during the summer of 1972, Pine Bush High, was only one year old and had been built in response to rapid population growth. My new graduating class was about 220 people, the largest class Pine Bush had ever seen. Part of my class had been going to school together since kindergarten with the rest having arrived over the previous few years.

There was tension between the long-time students and us “newcomer city folks,” adding to my difficulty in making friends. The courses I had pursued in Farmingdale weren’t offered in Pine Bush, forcing me to change majors to what was available instead of what I was interested in. I joined the local Boy Scout troop, and discovered that an urban scout was not entirely welcomed in a rural troop. I landed an after-school job working at a summer camp near our house, but none of the other camp workers were from my school so my job didn’t help me make friends. Without a car, there were very few places I could get to which made it even more difficult for me to socialize or get involved in local activities.

I muddled through my junior year. I managed to get a junior prom date, helpfully arranged by our class “matchmakers” once they learned I wanted to attend.  I did establish myself in athletics by earning my Cross Country varsity letter, then another varsity letter for Track and Field that spring. But being a varsity runner didn’t much help my social life in a school where football was a religion. My courses mostly didn’t interest me and my grades plummeted.

My senior year got a little better. The girl I had taken to the junior prom organized a small “social club” and invited me to join as part of a group of about six regular members, which became the extent of my senior year social life. Then I hurt myself running at the end of the Cross Country season. Although I earned my second Cross Country varsity letter, I sat out the Track and Field season which ended my athletics involvement.  I lost interest in the Boy Scouts and gradually stopped attending events.

Although I was making decent money (for that time) I recognized that working at a summer camp offered a limited future, and there weren’t a lot of other career opportunities in the area. By now my grades were uniformly “barely passing,” and going on to college wasn’t even discussed. I felt isolated from the community around me and saw no future there.

Several months before the end of my senior year I enlisted in the US Navy, and five days after high school graduation I left Pine Bush for basic training. I never looked back.  The years since graduation have been a nomadic life of periodic moves and frequent job changes. I most recently moved to northern Virginia, which is the closest I’ve lived to New York since I left.

I kept in touch with the people in my high school social club for a few years, but gradually lost contact with all but one couple who moved to Wyoming. I was vaguely aware of previous class reunions, with the big events being the tenth, twentieth, and thirtieth reunions, but I never tried to attend. I could make excuses about living a long ways away and being busy with work, but the truth is I wasn’t interested in attending reunions. I didn’t feel like I left anything in Pine Bush to go back for.

Somehow, through the magic of Facebook, the lady organizing the fortieth reunion located me about eighteen months ago and I linked into my graduating class Facebook page. I started reading the posts, and gradually decided it was time for me to go back and meet up with old classmates. About four months before the event I made reservations to attend. Winnie wasn’t interested in going with me on reason that she wouldn’t know anyone there.

The reunion was a well-organized two-evening event that combined the graduating classes of 1973 and 1974. It was being held in the newer part of Middletown, the closest big city to Pine Bush. Friday night September 12 was planned as an informal “meet and greet” in the party room of a club next to the hotels us out-of-towners were staying at. Saturday night September 13 was a formal dinner with live band at the nicest country club in the area. Out of the combined 400 people in the two graduating classes, there were about 60 people who made reservations for each night’s events.

I was on the road by early Friday morning September 12, made the seven-hour drive to Middletown, and checked into my hotel. That evening I walked over to the meet and greet. As is my norm, I arrived at the event a few minutes early and was one of the first people in the room.

I was actually quite nervous knowing I was going to be around people I hadn’t seen or spoken to in forty years. I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t know if anyone would even remember me. I don’t mingle well in large groups anyway and I was prepared to leave early if the party got too lonely.

The lady who led the reunion planning committee was at the door as official greeter representing the class of 1974. With her was the older sister of the girl I had taken to the Junior Prom so many years ago, representing the class of 1973. Neither lady recognized me but they remembered my name. In truth, I didn’t recognize either of them and wouldn’t have known them if I’d passed them on the street.

We chatted for a few minutes then more people started showing up so I moved on, hanging around a mostly empty room. More people showed up and wandered around the room, meeting and chatting with each other. The organizers had helpfully made up name tags that included our high school yearbook photo which really helped in identifying classmates. I wasn’t the only one who looked very different compared to the old high school photo.

I found a few people who I remembered and who sort-of remembered me, but they didn’t seem overly excited about meeting me. Most of the people quickly formed into small groups and started holding lively conversations. It seemed that a lot of these people had never left the area and generally kept in contact with each other over the years. Some people I talked with had moved away for some period of time but then moved back. Then there were the few people like me who had left the area after graduation and never returned other than to visit. People had traveled from as far away as Alaska to attend this reunion.

Dinner on the buffet line was served and people helped themselves so I did the same. With a little food in me I went out to the main club area and got a beer, came back in and continued to hang around the room. I met a few more people whom I remembered, which got me a few more words of conversation before they moved on. Finally I wandered out to the bar and found a space to stand while nursing my beer.

I finished one beer and started another, and decided that I’d probably leave after I finished. About then a man came up to me and said “Ron Charest?” “Yes…” And the man introduced himself as one of my former cross country/track teammates whom I did remember by name. We struck up a nice conversation and the party started to get better.

We chatted for a while reminiscing and catching up on the past forty years. My friend had settled in Syracuse, New York, after earning a degree in music and was now making a living as a professional musician and teacher, which I thought was really cool. After a while another man joined us whom I recognized right away as one of the guys from my senior year social club. He had come up from Florida where he now lived and worked as an architect.

We had a nice chat catching up on forty years of living. Once in a while someone else would wander over to our group, get introduced, chat a bit, and then wander off. But the three of us talked for a long while. We reminisced about other former classmates and in some cases were able to exchange notes on where they were now and what they were doing.  I talked a little about my running experiences in the navy, including bragging on typically being the fastest runner during the annual physical fitness tests.

My former teammate talked about how much he admired my running skills and that he considered me one of the team’s best athletes, which honestly surprised me. Long-distance running was the only sport I’ve ever excelled in, but back in my school days I didn’t think anyone actually noticed or even cared.

We talked and had a few more beers, and then I started to feel the combination of long drive and drinking more beers than I was used to. About 10:00 I had to excuse myself as needing to get some sleep. I chatted with a few more people on the way out and walked back across the street to my hotel and bed.

Saturday I hung around Middletown while waiting for the second evening’s reunion activities to start. It was a rainy, dreary day and I didn’t feel like going very far from the hotel. Middletown has changed a lot since I lived there; in my opinion not for the better.

The clubhouse for the second evening’s reunion activities was located a couple of miles from the hotels. The reunion organizers had arranged bus transportation from the hotels to the club but neglected to publish when and where the pickups would be. Several people posted questions on our Facebook page during the day, and by late afternoon we had it figured it out. At the appointed time I was dressed and ready.

The bus transportation was, appropriately enough, a yellow school bus. It had actually been about forty years since I last rode in a school bus and discovered the seats were as uncomfortable as I remembered them. Fortunately it was a short ride.

The clubhouse was a nice venue for our party. The evening’s activities included a live band and open beer/wine bar along with a really nice buffet dinner. Most of the people I had met the previous evening were again in attendance along with a few new faces.

Regrettably, I had much the same experience as I had the previous evening of not knowing most of the people present. I did sit with my friend from our long-ago social club and his “significant other,” so I had some nice conversation during dinner. I met up again with the former teammate I’d been talking to the previous evening, and met a few other former teammates as well. I also had some nice conversations with a former classmate who had recently taken up photography. Once she found out I was a serious amateur photographer we spent some time talking about cameras and comparing the images we carried on our Smartphones.

After dinner, the band played some excellent dance music but I had no one to dance with. So I mostly hung out on the club patio with a few other former classmates who were also there by themselves and took liberal advantage of the open bar.

Finally, the evening was over. I exchanged e-mail contact info with the few people I had talked with, and piled on the school bus back to the hotel. The bar in my hotel was still open so I bought beers for my former teammate and I, and we reminisced a while longer about our cross-country days and post high school lives. We finished our beers and I excused myself on grounds that I would be driving back early in the morning. We exchanged contact information and I promised to look him up on his band’s Facebook page.

Sunday morning I checked out of the hotel and made the seven hour drive home. As I drove I was thinking that my former classmates in Farmingdale High School would also be celebrating their forty-year reunion.

There’s been a song running through my head these past several weeks that was popular in 1972 titled “Garden Party,” by singer/songwriter Ricky Nelson (1). The lyrics are:

I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party they all knew my name
But no one recognized me I didn’t look the same
 
But it’s all right now
I learned my lesson well
You see you can’t please ev’ryone so
You got to please yourself
 
People came for miles around everyone was there
Yoko brought her walrus there was magic in the air
And over in the corner much to my surprise
Mr. Hughes hid in Dylan’s shoes wearing his disguise
I played them all the old songs I thought that’s why they came
No one heard the music we didn’t look the same
I said hello to Mary Lou she belongs to me
When I sang a song about a honky-tonk it was time to leave
 
Someone opened up a closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Goode
Playing guitar like a ring an’ a bell and lookin’ like he should
If you gotta play at garden parties I wish you a lot a’ luck
But if memories were all I sang I’d rather drive a truck

I don’t care to be driving trucks and I don’t want to live in my memories.  I’m glad I went to this reunion, but I don’t expect to attend any more in the future. It was nice to again see some of the people I graduated with, and I feel happy that my former classmates had done well for themselves. But, I could feel there was nothing for me to go back to. The people I met displayed a sense of community which I wasn’t part of.

I still consider myself a “Native New Yorker,” but I don’t belong there anymore. After the many moves I’ve made, I don’t feel that I’m part of the community I presently live in. While I don’t regret my chosen life for the sights I’ve seen and the things I’ve done; I miss not having a sense of place. I miss that I’ve never been able to establish myself in any one place and become part of a community.

I often wonder what direction life would have taken me if I had stayed in Farmingdale through my high school graduation.

Lyrics Copyright: Matragun Music Inc.

 




Days of Hurricane Ivan

Hurricane Ivan on 13 Sept 2004

Hurricane Ivan on 13 Sept 2004

I’ve written extensively about the life-changing event that was Hurricane Katrina. However, I haven’t written about another hurricane which had almost as much of an impact. That would be Ivan, which made landfall on the US Gulf Coast early on the morning of September 16, 2004, one year prior to Katrina. Although my home and the community of Gautier, Mississippi, was not directly impacted Ivan had deeply personal consequences.

As the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Ivan’s landfall approaches I’ve decided it’s time to share my story.

The ever wonderful Wikipedia describes Hurricane Ivan as:

“[…]a large, long-lived, Cape Verde-type hurricane that caused widespread damage in the Caribbean and United States. […] Ivan formed in early September, had reached Category 5 strength on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, and became the 10th most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. At its peak in the Gulf of Mexico, Ivan was the size of the state of Texas. It also spawned 119 tornadoes across the eastern United States.

[…] After peaking in strength, the hurricane moved north-northwest across the Gulf of Mexico to strike Pensacola, Florida as a strong Category 3 storm, causing significant damage. Ivan dropped heavy rains on the Southeastern United States as it progressed northeast and east through the eastern United States, becoming an extratropical cyclone. […] Ivan caused an estimated US$18 billion (2004 USD, $22.5 billion 2014 USD) in damages to the United States, making it the fifth costliest hurricane ever to strike the country.[…]”

Yes, all that is true. My version of events is a bit more personal.

At the time Hurricane Ivan roared through I had been living in Gautier for 11 years. My first wife and I purchased a house in Gautier in October 1993 and I finished out my navy career living aboard my ship in Hawaii. I finally returned back to Gautier in February 1996 retired from the Navy, and planned on making Gautier my permanent home. When we settled on the Gulf Coast I knew we were living in an area prone to hurricanes but I wasn’t very worried. I’d already lived 12 years in earthquake-prone Southern California, then three years living within sight of volcano Vesuvius in southern Italy. I considered that hurricanes would be just another part of the adventure of living.

My first introduction to hurricanes was Georges, which made a direct impact on my part of the Mississippi Gulf Coast on September 28, 1998. The hurricane caused the water of the bayou behind my house to rise within two feet of the floor and put four large pine trees on the roof. Along with other more minor damages.

That experience was a primer on life with hurricanes. I cleaned up the mess from Hurricane Georges and moved on.

By September 2004 I was still living in Gautier, working at a local shipyard, divorced and remarried, but my new wife Weifang (aka: “Winnie”) was still in China awaiting her US visa. We had been married the previous October but her visa application was seemingly lost in the dysfunctional black hole of the US Customs and Immigration Service. My social life revolved around getting on-line twice each day to chat with her. I had already purchased airline tickets for a trip back to China to be together on our first anniversary, just a few weeks away, and I was still trying to save travel money and accrue enough vacation time for the trip.

After Hurricane Georges I had adopted the Gulf Coast practice of monitoring the weather during hurricane season (June 1 through November 30) for hurricane alerts. About September 5, 2004, I became aware of the new tropical storm named Ivan forming out in the Atlantic and heading west. Over the next several days I and my co-workers paid increasing amounts of attention to the storm as it wrecked first Grenada then Jamaica, and headed for the Gulf of Mexico.

Knowing that whenever a storm approached the Gulf Cost supplies sold out quickly, on Sunday September 12 I made a run to my local big box home improvement center for plywood. I didn’t board up the 13 large windows in my house for Hurricane Georges and discovered my error when one of the windows almost blew in. However, cutting enough 4’x8′ sheets of plywood to cover 13 windows of four different sizes wasn’t something I did just for fun.  I managed to beat the rush and got enough plywood to cover all my windows. That afternoon I started cutting.

By Sunday evening I was nowhere near finished.  Monday morning Ivan entered the Gulf of Mexico through the Yucatan Channel so I burned up a day’s vacation to cut more plywood while monitoring the weather news. The news was getting worse and at one point that day the storm was rated a category five with a projected path going right over the top of my house, with predicted landfall sometime late Wednesday. I decided that I’d evacuate. By Monday night all my windows were covered and I gassed up my truck, once again ahead of the hurricane rush.

I was back at work Tuesday, September 14. By now the shipyard, as well as the entire Gulf Coast, was making hurricane preparations. My co-workers and I spent the day finishing up tasks and covering up our work areas. The shipyard closed for the storm at 2:00PM, with re-opening to be announced some time after Thursday, September 16. From what I experienced during Hurricane Georges I didn’t expect the shipyard to reopen until the following Monday at earliest. By now the track had drifted a bit to the east of us, heading over Mobile, Alabama, but no one in my area was taking chances.

Evacuating had its own set of problems, with the first problem being where to evacuate too. Evacuation orders had been going out since Sunday and most hotels north of the Coast were already booked up. I made arrangements with my nephew Terry in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to stay with him and his family. It was an eight hour drive north but it seemed like the best option. A side benefit was that I’d have a chance to spend time with family, something I didn’t get to do very often.

By late Tuesday night my house was as ready for the storm as it was going to be. I’d picked small things off the floor and covered over the furniture (to protect against leaks in the event the roof blew off). My venerable 1988 Isuzu Pickup truck was packed with my most irreplaceable belongings; computer, camera equipment and collection of photo negatives, important documents, and a small suitcase of clothing for the weekend. I also had my cellphone, which was somewhat of a novelty as I didn’t use it much.  Landfall was now predicted for late Wednesday night/early Thursday morning and people on the Coast were already leaving.

I didn’t bother with bringing any blankets or food as my truck was already pretty packed. Besides, it was only an eight hour drive and I would be staying with family. What could go wrong?

I had been chatting with Winnie for several days about the approaching storm and she was aware of my plans to evacuate. Tuesday evening I told her I’d send her an e-mail from Terry’s house to let her know I was OK. I also gave her my brother Howard’s e-mail as point of contact, just in case. I called my mom in New York, Howard in Los Angeles, and my cousin Grace living in the next town over from Gautier. I also informed my next-door neighbor Beth (an older lady who was widowed a couple of years prior, and had adopted me as family after my divorce) of my planned whereabouts.

Wednesday morning I was up at 6:00AM, showered and had breakfast, and out the door by 7:00AM joining thousands of other people evacuating the coast. My planned route was east through Mobile, Alabama, on I-10 then north on I-65 through Montgomery, Alabama, and into Tennessee. As the storm track was to our east most people in my area were heading west, and I could see the west-bound lanes of I-10 were already getting jammed. There was almost no one heading east and I cranked up the speed. It was a beautiful morning even though I could already sense the “calm before the storm” stillness, and just knew I had made the correct decision to evacuate. I was also anticipating spending the weekend with Terry and family.

I made it through Mobile unimpeded by traffic and connected to I-65. A little ways north of Mobile the Alabama state Government had opened up the I-65 south-bound lanes for north-bound traffic in anticipation of evacuations. A state trooper diverted me across the median onto the north-bound lanes, and I experienced the thrill of legally driving the wrong direction on an interstate highway. As I drove I could see state troopers stationed along the on-ramps diverting all traffic north. I was ahead of the evacuation rush and traffic was still light. The further north I drove, the more “normal” the air felt and I knew I was putting distance between me and the storm.

As I headed north on the normally southbound lanes of an almost empty highway, on a beautiful morning, looking forward to spending a few days with family, I felt great. I actually reached my right hand across and patted myself on the left shoulder in congratulation of getting my hurricane preps “right” and evacuating ahead of the crowds.

At that very instant my truck’s engine died.

After a moment of confusion I killed the ignition and drifted off to the left side of the highway, which was the outside shoulder, just past an on-ramp and stopped. There were no warning lights or other indications on my dash, so I got out and checked under the hood. The only indication of trouble was the empty radiator overflow reservoir. I decided to let the engine cool down a bit before checking the radiator. Otherwise, I couldn’t see anything wrong.

A few minutes later I saw a state trooper, who had been guarding the on-ramp, drive down to check on me. He approached and asked if I was OK. I explained that my engine just quit on me but I couldn’t see anything wrong. He looked under the hood, poked around, and asked if I could start it up. I tried, the engine caught, and the trooper motioned me to drive off the shoulder. He led me to a gas station/convenience store at top of the ramp and I made it just before the engine quit again.

The trooper suggested I check my radiator water. I wrapped a towel around my hand and carefully loosened the cap, expecting a cloud of steam and boiling water. Nothing happened. I removed the cap and saw – no water inside the radiator. I knew that wasn’t good. I went into the still-open convenience store and bought two gallons of drinking water. With the help of the trooper I filled my radiator, started up the engine, and we watched the newly added water pour out of a ruptured hose hidden under the intake manifold. I knew I was in trouble.

By now it was about 10:00AM. I used my cellphone to call AAA road service and explained my situation. The dispatcher promised to get a tow truck out to me as quickly as possible, but advised that with all highways diverted north it would be difficult. I gave my location as Exit 77, and read off a sign pointing to the town of Brewton in one direction and the town of Repton in the other direction along state highway 41.

While I waited I took stock of my surroundings. My trip odometer showed I was 116 miles from home, which put me about 370 miles from Terry’s house. Highway 41 was a two-lane blacktop that crossed over I-65 east towards Brewton and disappeared into forests. On my side of the Interstate highway 41 quickly disappeared into forests towards the direction of Repton. The only visible man-made structures other than roads was the gas station/convenience store I was parked at.

About an hour later I called AAA back. This time I connected with a different dispatcher who checked my record and explained they were still trying to find a tow service. I called back after another hour and a different dispatcher explained they could not find any tow service to get me. By now the gas station was getting ready to close, I-65 was packed with cars heading north, and I could feel the air changing from the approaching storm. I began to wonder if I was going to ride out a hurricane sitting in a dead truck, parked in the middle of nowhere, with no food or water.

About this time the state trooper, still guarding the on-ramp, called out to me asking about my tow. I explained that I had been talking with AAA but they couldn’t get anyone out. He said “I’ll get someone out here” and picked up his radio mike. A minute later he called back out “there’ll be someone here in a few minutes.”

Sure enough, about 30 minutes later a flatbed tow truck drove up highway 41 from the direction of Brewton across the interstate overpass. The trooper motioned him over to me. The driver, an older man with craggy face and grey hair,  hopped out and without barely saying a word to me pulled my truck up on his flatbed and motioned me to get in. We drove off towards Brewton.

It was apparent that the driver wasn’t happy about being ordered out by the state troopers. As we drove he told me the fee would be $100 for a “storm tow.” I would have paid twice that much just to not spend the night in my truck, but still showed a bit of rebellion and told him he was going to have to take a credit card. He grumbled under his breath, but there wasn’t much else he could do.

He lightened up after that and we made some small talk during the 20 minute drive. I didn’t see much besides forests until we came closer to Brewton. In Brewton we drove through the center of town and pulled up to an auto repair shop. The driver must have called ahead as there were still people at the shop, which surprised me. By now it was almost 1:00PM and the town, directly in the projected path of the storm, was closing up.

The shop owner, an older silver-haired man, met me at the tow truck and asked what happened. Once my truck was off the flatbed his mechanics rolled it into the shop. The owner promised to try and get my truck fixed and get me back on the road that afternoon.

While I waited on repairs I called Terry to let him know what happened. He expressed suitable concern and offered to pick me up. I thanked him and explained that with all highways diverted north there was no way for him to get to me.

About 4:00PM the owner came over and told me the hose and cooling fluid had been replaced and they were ready to test. The owner warned me that the engine had gotten pretty hot, being run without water, and there was a good chance the aluminum head had warped. The mechanics and I stood around the front of my truck looking at the engine while the owner started it. The engine fired right up, and we silently observed water leaking out between the engine block and head; indicating that in fact the aluminum head was badly warped and I wasn’t going to be driving the truck anywhere, anytime soon.

All I could think to say to the people who were gathered together was “thanks for trying.”

By now we could feel effects of the approaching storm. The wind was picking up and all the stores I could see were already closed. The auto mechanics were obviously ready to get home and tend to their own families. The owner told me he’d keep my truck inside his shop, a concrete building which was about as safe a place during a hurricane as I was going to find. I grabbed my suitcase of clothing; the owner closed his shop and drove me a few blocks away to the town’s Red Cross shelter. He wished me luck as I hopped out.

The designated Red Cross shelter was the gymnasium of the Brewton High School, right across the street from the town’s library. The buildings were arranged with ample green space and parking lots. There were some lovely large hardwood trees set around the area and the buildings looked fairly new and substantial.

I’d never been inside a Red Cross shelter, but knew that people were expected to bring their own food and bedding. I had neither.

The shelter was already pretty crowded. I checked in with the female Red Cross volunteer at the door and explained my situation of no food or bedding. The lady was sympathetic but could do nothing to help other than point me to an empty spot on the gymnasium floor. That spot happened to be next to a family of five and close to where a rather attractive blond lady, by herself, had made camp.

The family members introduced themselves (husband John, wife Mary, and three children of varying young ages) and we got to talking. At some point the blonde came over, introduced herself as Brenda, and joined our conversation. John and Mary lived in the area and had decided to evacuate here as the nearest shelter. Brenda explained that she lived down in Orange Beach, on the Florida panhandle about two hours driving time south. Her area was under mandatory evacuation orders and she had been turned away from every shelter between Orange Beach and here, for one reason or another (overcrowded shelters, wasn’t local to the the area, etc). I described how I arrived here and explained my total lack of food and bedding.

A few of the local townspeople overheard me telling my story and suddenly I had some donated snacks for a dinner (I hadn’t eaten since breakfast). John and Mary also shared a sandwich from their cooler, loaned me an extra blanket and arranged two of their large suitcases side by side for me to use as a bed. They all had mattress pads with them so I gratefully accepted the makeshift bed. They also gave me a flashlight, explaining they had purchased several at a dollar store on the way to the shelter.

So now I had a blanket and bed, a flashlight, food, friendly people around me and a safe location for riding out a hurricane. I was in pretty good shape compared to just a few hours earlier.

Hurricane Ivan At Peak Intensity

Hurricane Ivan At Peak Intensity

Outside, we could hear the storm winds and rain increasing in intensity. A couple of times I went over to a window set into an emergency exit door and looked outside, but all I could see was solid sheets of rain and stuff blowing around. At 10:00PM the lights in the gym were turned off and we all quieted down and tried to sleep.

I woke up about 1:00AM when a corner of the gym’s roof blew off. People sleeping in that section moved away and used their towels to soak up rain water leaking onto the floor. The sounds from outside were actually frightening. The wind was howling like nothing I’d ever heard before, worse than Hurricane Georges. There were constant crashes and thumps, and the rain hitting the roof sounded like a waterfall. John and Mary’s children were getting spooked and I did what I could to help keep them calm.

About 3:00AM the storm noise died down enough that I was able to fall back asleep. I woke up at 6:00AM, got up and looked out the window. From what little I could see damages were bad. The library across the street was missing a big chunk of its roof. Every tree in the town square showed some amount of damage, and there was heavy debris strewn across the parking lot areas. The storm had moved away, the winds were dying down and the rains had stopped.

Other people started stirring awake around me and a few came over to share my window. It was a foregone conclusion that the power was out and it didn’t take too long for the gym to start getting stuffy without ventilation and air conditioning. Going to the toilet was an adventure as there were no lights in the windowless rest rooms, and no running water. I quickly learned how to “go” while holding the flashlight John and Mary had given me. With the number of people occupying the gym I knew it wouldn’t take long for the bathrooms to get really nasty.

Once John and Mary’s family were all awake they had breakfast, and again shared their food with me. I had a boiled egg and a small pastry along with some drinking water. Coffee was not on the menu, and as a heavy coffee drinker I quickly started feeling caffeine-withdrawal headaches.

The morning wore on as the shelter residents listened to battery-powered radios and shared battle damage reports. People started wandering outside for fresh air and sight-seeing, despite the best efforts of the Red Cross workers to keep everyone locked into the stuffy power-less gym packed with people and no working plumbing. As best we could tell the Florida coast was hit hard. We heard reports that Orange Beach, among many other Florida panhandle communities, was mostly destroyed and a section of I-10 across one of the Florida bays had collapsed. Brenda took the news about Orange Beach hard.

About noon I was fed up with being stuck at the shelter. I was standing outside getting some fresh air when a man in a crew cab pickup drove into the parking lot. He called out that he was looking for people to help clear downed trees and I immediately volunteered. We got several more people, enough to fill the truck, and drove off.

As we drove through town I was able to observe the extent of damages. I didn’t see a single tree or building that didn’t have some damage, if not completely trashed. There was a swath of leveled and heavily damaged buildings and trees right through the center of the older downtown area seemingly caused by a small tornado. Power lines were down everywhere; together with heavy littering of roof shingles, tree branches, broken glass, sheet metal, and just about anything imaginable that could be blown around (along with things I had never imagined could be blown around) driving was pretty hazardous. Power was out across the entire town and the lack of traffic lights just added to driving challenges.

We stayed out about four hours, moving around doing what we could to help. The driver had a large chainsaw so he would cut up branches as necessary and the rest of us would haul them out of the way. My inner photographer was cursing that I’d left my camera gear in my truck in the repair shop, even though carrying a camera around in that environment would not have been a really good idea. It was hot and extremely humid that day with the ground soaked and standing water everywhere, and we all were soon sweating profusely. Once we’d done what we could we returned to the Red Cross shelter.

By now it was late afternoon and the local authorities were opening the roads. The Red Cross workers at our shelter announced that people who had somewhere to go were allowed to leave, and people started leaving. John and Mary started packed up their belongings and left. We exchanged contact information and I promised to let them know when I made it back home. Brenda was still there; she had heard that Orange Beach officials were not allowing anyone back into the area so she had nowhere to go back to. I had no way to leave, and started thinking hard about what I was going to do next.

Hurricane Ivan 2004 Track

Hurricane Ivan 2004 Track

Besides power being out, there was no cellphone service so I had no way of calling anyone for help. I didn’t even try to locate the owner of the repair shop as I expected he was busy with his own issues. Brenda and I commiserated with each other and discussed ideas for at least trying to get out of the shelter. I had seen a small motel across from the repair shop where I’d been towed, so I suggested taking a walk over to see if there were any rooms available. We walked over and discovered we shouldn’t have bothered. The motel was completely sold out. The lobby itself looked like a refugee camp, packed with people sitting around looking like they were in shock.

We walked around a few more blocks and went back to the shelter. By now it was getting late and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Brenda hadn’t thought to bring more than one day’s worth of food with her and she hadn’t eaten all day. Back at the shelter we learned that several local businesses had donated food and someone had volunteered to prepare a hot meal for the shelter residents using portable gas stoves. The Red Cross staff announced they needed help to set up the school cafeteria so Brenda and I volunteered.

We set up the tables, got people herded into the cafeteria, helped serve meals, and then we were finally able to eat. The food was a bowl of spicy soup thick with unidentifiable bits of vegetable and mystery meat, but to this day I can remember how delicious it tasted. It was the most substantial meal I’d had in two days. The cook also served hot coffee so I was finally able to knock down my caffeine headache.

As I was finishing my meal a Red Cross staffer called out asking if anyone knew anything about electricity. It seemed a local business had donated an emergency generator through the Red Cross for the shelter’s use but it wasn’t setup. The generator was out in back of the school so I left Brenda and went out to look, along with a few other people who claimed electrical know-how.

It was a hefty generator and had we been able to get it working it would have easily provided enough power for lighting and some ventilation inside the school. However, there were no adapter cables provided to hookup to the schools power panel. Even if I’d been able to make one (I had my Swiss army knife and lots of downed power lines for material) the building’s power panel was padlocked and there was no fuel. We gave up, uttering some uncomplimentary words about the Red Cross.

It was dark by now and really stuffy inside the gym, so Brenda and I sat outside for a few hours talking. I told her a little about where I lived, my wife still back in China, my problems trying to get a visa for her, and about my divorce.

Brenda shared that she owned a mobile home, was just getting past cancer treatments, and was newly divorced. She was a few years younger than me (I was 48 at the time), and had thought she was too young to need annual breast cancer checkups. By the time she noticed a lump and got checked her cancer was pretty far advanced. She ended up receiving almost a year of radiation and chemotherapy and removal of one breast, and doctors had just declared her “in remission.” She hadn’t been able to work while receiving treatments and had just landed a job at an accounting office in Orange Beach. Her first day was supposed to be the following Monday, and now she was wondering if she still had a job waiting for her. With her divorce, she literally had no family in the area she could stay with. I suggested that her mobile home might be destroyed and she started crying.

We finally went back inside. I laid down on the bare wood floor (I lost the suitcase “bed” and blanket I’d had the previous night when John and Mary left) and got some sleep using my extra clothing for a pillow. There was a lot of available floor space now as the only people still in the shelter were those whom, like Brenda and me, were unable to return home.

Friday morning I woke up stiff, sore, sweaty, and hungry. I needed a shower worse that I could ever remember, had a caffeine headache within a few minutes of waking up, still could not get any cellphone service, didn’t know if I was getting any breakfast, and still had no idea how I was going to get out of the Red Cross shelter and back home.

Brenda woke up a bit after I did, in not much better shape than me. She at least had some blankets to cushion her from the wood floor, but had similar needs to me of a shower, coffee, and food. She had a working vehicle but nowhere to go and no idea how long before she would be allowed to get back to her mobile home, assuming it was still there.

I managed to take a minimal sponge bath and brushed my teeth in the increasingly filthy men’s bathroom that at least now had running water, but still no lights and going on two days of no one cleaning. Most of the toilet paper was gone and I didn’t have any of my own. I did change into clean clothes but that didn’t help my mood, all things considered.

About 8:00AM the Red Cross staff served some breakfast of orange juice, coffee, and stale pastries. Once again Brenda and I volunteered to help setup and serve then had our breakfast. Coffee helped clear my head and when I was finished eating and cleaning up I approached the Red Cross woman in charge of the shelter. I explained my situation and she promised to put me in contact with someone from the auto shop. Sure enough, about an hour later she approached me with a young man who introduced himself as the son of the auto shop owner. He asked me if I was the person who had been towed in Wednesday afternoon and I acknowledged I was.

The man explained that the shop had suffered some roof damage but was otherwise OK, so my truck should be fine. I asked about getting my truck towed back to Gautier, knowing that AAA would cover the first 100 miles. The man shook his head and told me “there’s no one in this town who’ll tow your truck.” He did offer to open up the shop so I could get my personal belongings still in my truck.

Brenda was with us during this discussion. I’d had a glimmer of an idea earlier that morning and now made her an offer; that she drive me home and stay at my place until Orange Beach was reopened. She thought for a very short moment and agreed.

I grabbed my suitcase from the shelter while Brenda packed up her belongings, loaded them into her large van, and we followed the man over to the auto shop. Sure enough the concrete auto shop had weathered the storm reasonably well compared to other Brewton buildings and my truck was undamaged. I pulled out my personal belongings and loaded them into Brenda’s van. The man gave me the shop’s contact information and suggested I wait at least a week before calling, as he expected it would take that long to get power and phone service restored.

Brenda and I drove off on highway 41 west towards I-65. As we left the town we viewed trees and power lines down all along the highway. Houses had missing roofs and collapsed porches, and yards were covered with debris.

Things started looking better once we were on I-65 heading south. Cellphone service came back and I was able to make calls while Brenda drove. I first called Terry to let him know I was OK and heading for home. Then I called my cousin Grace who promptly scolded me for not calling her sooner. My cellphone battery was dying so I made a final quick call to mom to let her know I was fine. Mom promised to let the rest of the family know.

Storm damages decreased the further west we drove. We hit I-10 and by the time we were in Pascagoula (the town just to the east of Gautier) there were essentially no indications a storm ever blew through. We passed the shipyard where I worked and I saw it was already back to normal operations, meaning I had just lost another day of vacation time for not being there.

We finally arrived back at my house about 4:00PM. My house, with its plywood window covers, looked forlorn and abandoned compared to the rest of the neighborhood. It was at this point I accepted that evacuating was probably the worst possible decision I could have made.

I opened up the house and helped Brenda bring in her luggage. As we were unloading her van my neighbor Beth came over loaded with questions. I briefly explained what had happened, explained that we really needed baths and food, and promised to fill in all the details the next day. Beth had “the look” in her eyes as I helped Brenda inside my house.

Next item on my To-Do list was to let Winnie know I was OK. I had promised to call her from Terry’s house Wednesday night, but without cellphone service or Internet access I’d had no way of contacting her. With either a 12 or 13 hour time zone difference (depending upon daylight savings) our normal routine was an on-line chat at 6:00AM and 6:00PM each day with Friday nights and Saturday mornings being our big “date nights.” By the time I helped Brenda get settled in the guest bedroom and scrounged some sandwiches for us it was just about 6:00PM and morning in China.

I set-up my computer, turned it on, and brought up the webcam chat service. Sure enough, Winnie was on-line waiting for me. Winnie had heard about our storm through Chinese news and had been worried about me. She told me that when I didn’t contact her she e-mailed Howard asking about me. Howard had replied truthfully, but not helpfully, that my truck had broken down going to Terry’s house and no one knew where I was.

I quickly explained what had happened and how I got back home. We chatted for a few more minutes and then I excused myself, explaining that I really needed a shower and sleep. I promised to chat the next morning at our regular time.

Brenda was already in her room and presumably asleep. I took a much needed shower and crawled into my bed for the best sleep I’d had in three days.

I woke up about 5:30AM the next morning feeling much refreshed. I washed up, put on coffee, and got on-line to chat with my wife. Winnie came on line right at 6:00AM and I filled her in on everything that had happened the last three days. I told her about Brenda and her home town, that she had driven me home, and that I was letting her stay with me until she was able to go home herself.

We had been chatting about one hour when Brenda came out. I offered her some coffee and invited her to “meet my wife.” Brenda sat down at the computer and introduced herself. Then Winnie made me proud. Her first words to Brenda were; “thank you for helping my husband. Are you hungry? Tell my husband to make you some food.” They chatted a few more minutes and I agreed with Winnie that Brenda and I needed food. I told Winnie I’d chat at our regular evening time and disconnected.

I made a big breakfast for us and we talked for a while, then I needed to put the house back in order. Brenda got herself dressed and used my computer and phone for personal business while I took down the plywood window covers, uncovered my furniture, and got the house back together.

I was low on food as I hadn’t done my regular grocery shopping the previous weekend. So after I finished with the house Brenda drove me to the local grocery store. She offered to share on groceries but I wouldn’t let her, explaining I would have needed to shop anyway. We actually got into a bit of fun role-playing of grocery shopping like a “normal married couple.”

Back home after shopping Beth and another neighbor Tom wandered over. The four of us spent the afternoon sitting around the picnic table on my back porch talking. Brenda shared about herself what she’d already told me at the Red Cross shelter. Beth and Tom confirmed that Ivan was nothing for Gautier. All Gautier had experienced was a lot of wind and rain, about like a typical Mississippi mid-summer thunderstorm. The town hadn’t even lost power. I caught some good-natured teasing about running from safety into danger and how they’d do the opposite from me in the next hurricane.

Later some other friends dropped by to check up on me. They had also evacuated for the storm, staying at a motel in Montgomery and returned the previous evening, but they didn’t have my level of adventures. I introduced Brenda and we talked some more. By now Brenda had mentally accepted that her home might be gone and she was thinking out loud about what she should do. She admitted that without her home and job she had no ties to Orange Beach. My friends, to their great credit, offered to help her out should she chose to resettle in the Gautier area.

At 6:00PM I got back online again with Winnie and we chatted for a few minutes as I told her about my day. Then I excused myself explaining that I needed to make dinner. I had planned out a big dinner with a nice bottle of wine as celebration of surviving Hurricane Ivan and the Red Cross shelter. Brenda helped set the table while I cooked. We ate out on my back porch again enjoying the night air.  It was a beautiful Mississippi evening and neither one of us wanted to go back inside, so after we finished eating we stayed outside drinking wine and talking.

Our talk became a catharsis of our souls. Being in a safe place after surviving a cataclysmic storm was a microcosm of both our recent lives. That night was a time and place for sharing deeply personal stories.

Brenda told me the details of her cancer and breakup with her ex-husband. She had married shortly after high-school and had a son now in his late teens. Her ex-husband was a heavy drinker and occasionally abusive, but he did have a decent job with good family medical insurance coverage.

Just over one year earlier she and her husband separated and they both wanted a divorce. Her son was staying with her husband by that time and neither wanted anything to do with her. She had moved into a mobile home and found a job, but her job didn’t offer health insurance. Then she found out she had cancer and everything changed.

The doctors told her that her cancer was far-advanced and she would need to have one breast removed at a minimum, along with radiation and extensive chemotherapy. Even with all that, their prognosis for her recovery was grim.

The only way she could cover her medical bills was by staying married so her husband’s medical insurance would cover her. She knew that no health insurance company would take her as a new policyholder while she had active cancer. Without the insurance she couldn’t receive the urgent extensive medical care to have even a chance at surviving her cancer.

When her husband found out she had cancer he pushed for an immediate divorce, even knowing that she needed his medical coverage to survive. Brenda had to fight the divorce while fighting her cancer.

During the nearly year-long therapy she was mostly alone in her mobile home. She had her one breast removed, received radiation therapy and then extensive chemotherapy. Neither her husband nor son would help get her to medical appointments so she relied upon friends. She had to quit work due to the amount of time her therapy and post-chemo sickness was taking up. She survived on public assistance and needed more help from friends to manage the government bureaucracy.

Her doctors finally declared her cancer in remission and Brenda became well enough to start getting on with her life. She finalized her divorce and just a week prior had landed a good job with an Orange Beach accounting office. The job offered health insurance which was a very big deal.

She had thought that she was getting back on her feet again, but now was wondering if the belongings packed in her late-model van sitting in my driveway represented everything she still owned.

She hadn’t been with a man since before her cancer was discovered and was looking forward to getting back out into the singles scene again. She shared her worries about finding a man who would still consider her attractive now that she was so “disfigured” with a missing breast.

I talked about my first marriage and my ex-wife, and about my divorce. I talked a lot about my courtship with Winnie, worries over our new marriage with hopes for our future, and frustrations over obtaining her visa.

We shared some very intimate stories and we talked a long time. Finally, we realized it was late and we were out of wine. We picked up the supper dishes, moved back inside the house, and Brenda helped me clean up the kitchen.

I knew we could go a lot further that night than just talk, but I wouldn’t. I thought of Winnie earlier that day on video chat, telling me that I should make Brenda some food. My wife was half a planet away and yet the first thing she did was offer hospitality to an attractive woman sharing her husband’s house. It might sound quaint, but I cherished Winnie’s trust and knew I would be facing her on-line in just a few hours.

So I said “good night” to Brenda, went to my room, and slept.

I crawled out of bed about 5:30AM groggy from a hangover and too little sleep, ready to get back on-line with Winnie. We chatted for a couple of hours before Brenda came out. Once again I offered Brenda coffee and a chance to chat with Winnie. The two ladies chatted for a while, discussing my cooking and grocery shopping skills and generally getting along great.

We finally ended the video chat and I made breakfast. Neither Brenda nor I said anything about the previous evening. We just talked about our plans for the day and what we would do next; her getting back to her home and me getting a car. We spent the rest of Sunday puttering around the house like two long-time roommates. That evening I made another big dinner for us after chatting with Winnie at my usual time. This time, the conversation between Brenda and I was subdued and more restrained than the previous evening. We both retired early.

Monday morning Brenda drove me to work. During the day I had the chance to tell my co-workers about my hurricane adventures and caught a lot of flak over “running into a storm,” not all of it good-natured. I confirmed that I did indeed get docked one day’s vacation for Friday, and my supervisor was not sympathetic to the fact I had no way of getting back to work. He did agree to put me in for enough unpaid leave of absence to cover my planned China trip as he understood my marriage situation.

On top of everything else I’d gone through for the previous three days, losing a day’s vacation for not being able to get back to work on time felt like adding insult to injury.

Brenda picked me up at quitting time and on the way home told me Orange Beach was reopened, so she would be leaving the next day. I had already talked with my neighbor Tom about driving me to work, so my future commuting wasn’t going to be a problem. Tom and Beth came over that afternoon and when they learned Brenda would be leaving in the morning made their goodbyes and wished her luck, with Beth giving Brenda a warm hug. I offered Brenda some cash and groceries that evening but she refused, which I expected.

Brenda left Tuesday morning at the same time I was leaving for work. We gave each other a big hug goodbye and I wished her luck. Then she was gone.

I returned home that night and found a voice mail from Brenda. She had left a message telling me her mobile home was untouched by any storm damage. Her entire neighborhood had been spared, and she would be starting her new job the next day. Her voice was pure happiness. I’m not a religious person, but at that moment I gave a prayer of thanks for her that her life would get better.

That evening I called my shelter friends John and Mary and let them know I made it home OK. I also let them know about Brenda, that her home was undamaged, and they sent their own prayers of thanks for both of us.

The rest of that week passed in a blur. I was resigned to not getting my truck back for a while and knew I needed a new set of wheels. I’d already been thinking about buying a new vehicle, knowing my 16 year old Isuzu pickup with 230,000 miles on it needed to be replaced. But for financial reasons I’d wanted to wait until Winnie was with me. Now I didn’t have any choice. I located a new 2004 model Isuzu Rodeo at a good price with a dealer in Orlando, Florida, through E-Bay Auto sales. By Friday I’d made all financial arrangements and picked up a one-way rental car to drive down to Orlando, about  six hours drive from Gautier. Early Saturday morning I was on the road to Orlando.

My drive took me past Brewton as all east-west traffic was detoured north around the section of I-10 that had collapsed during Ivan. I saw that the roads around Brewton were mostly cleared and many houses had blue tarp covers, but it appeared power was still out in many areas. By early afternoon I pulled into the Orlando dealership, did the paperwork for my new 2004 Rodeo, dropped off my rental car at the airport and was heading home. I spent the night in Daytona Beach and next morning took a long “scenic” drive back to Gautier, arriving early in the evening.

A couple of days after buying my Rodeo I was finally able to make contact with the Brewton auto shop. When I did, the owner explained that power had just been restored and they were now working on my truck. I explained that I would be out of the country for two weeks starting October 8, and if they couldn’t finish my truck by then they would have to hold it until I returned. The owner promised me it would be finished in time, and once again he made good on his word. I received a call the afternoon of October 7 that my truck was ready. I explained that we would probably not be there until about 7:00PM and the owner assured me he’d wait for us.

I had already made arrangements for Tom to drive me to Brewton, and he picked me up as soon as I told him my truck was ready. We arrived at the shop about 7:00PM and the owner was waiting for us as promised. The engine head of my truck had been heavily machined and rebuilt to repair the damage caused by overheating. The owner charged me a very fair price for the amount of work his shop had done, but it was still an expensive repair. This was yet another bill that took away from my China trip money.

We settled up and then talked for a few minutes. The owner’s home had been damaged during the storm with a large tree limb crashing into his porch roof, but otherwise he and his family came through OK. He asked me if the Red Cross people had taken care of me during the storm. I caught myself suddenly choking up, with tears in my eyes, as I told him how generous the people at the shelter had been in offering me food and doing what they could to make me comfortable. I thanked him, and his town, for being so kind. The owner just said “that’s what we are supposed to do.” We made our goodbyes and left with Tom leading us home. We had a late dinner at a truck stop and arrived home after a nearly 300 mile round trip.

The next evening after work, Friday October 8, I was on a plane heading to China. I was exhausted from the previous weeks, but the storm was over and I was going to be with my wife.

Epilogue

I had Brenda’s contact information and e-mailed her occasionally for several months. She only ever replied with polite responses so I eventually stopped. But I’ve thought of her often these past ten years. I remember her as a woman who had just come through horrors that I can barely grasp, yet still carried herself with pride and dignity. I’ve wished deeply for her that her cancer has remained in remission and she has been able to regain the semblance of a normal and happy life. I’ve hoped she met a good man who loves her.

During the national insanity of late 2009 and early 2010 that passed for a debate over the “Obamacare” Affordable Care Act (ACA), I kept remembering Brenda’s cancer story. I know us as a nation should do better, and I believe the ACA is a small step in the right direction.

During my entire military career I had made monthly payroll contributions to the Red Cross through the Combined Federal Campaign. I’d heard unflattering stories about the Red Cross over the years but never any personal experiences, so I had a neutral opinion of the organization. Experiencing first-hand the Red Cross management of an emergency shelter was unsettling.

I witnessed that the Red Cross spent essentially nothing to manage the shelter I stayed at. The use of the school as a storm shelter was free to the Red Cross, all the staff were volunteers, and the pittance of food that was served while I was there was all donated by local businesses. The generator was donated by a local business and the Red Cross as an organization didn’t provide a qualified electrician to connect it or fuel to run it.

I began to question what the Red Cross actually did with the money they collected.

After surviving Katrina the following year, experiencing how little the Red Cross did for us after receiving over one billion dollars in Hurricane Katrina donations, my opinion was set. I will never again donate even one penny to the American Red Cross.

Evacuating from Hurricane Ivan proved to be a painful decision that provided no good result. My evacuation experiences was the basis for my decision the following year to not evacuate for Katrina. I honestly did not believe officials who were screaming about the seriousness of the approaching storm, as they were saying the same things I had heard for Ivan and even Georges. I also had my new Rodeo in the shop for some bodywork and my old truck was our only transportation. The truck never ran right after the previous year’s engine repair and I wasn’t about to trust it again on a long evacuation trip.

So we rode out Katrina at a Gautier home with friends, which proved once again to be the wrong thing to do. At the peak of that hurricane there was four feet of flood water inside the house with my wife on an air mattress raft struggling to not drown. After Katrina I knew I could never again face the decision of whether to evacuate from a hurricane. In September 2006 Winnie and I moved from our Mississippi home to northern Virginia.

In April 2006 Winnie and I took a break from Hurricane Katrina recovery and made a trip up to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, to visit family. On the way home I made an impromptu detour through Brewton. I saw that in the 19 months since Ivan the town had mostly rebuilt. There was an occasional crumpled building and blue tarp-covered roof, but otherwise it was difficult to notice any remaining storm damage. The town had recovered and moved on.

I have not forgotten that when I was in a desperate situation, the people of Brewton graciously offered me shelter and hospitality when they themselves were endangered. I owe them a debt that can never be repaid for their kindness during those awful days of Hurricane Ivan.




A Visit to a Chinese Doctor

This is a story about medicine, and healing, and doctors, and healthcare.

For most of my life I’ve been skeptical of doctors, recognizing that they’re only human and prone to making mistakes just like the rest of us mortals. At the same time I’ve also been even more skeptical of “alternative” (non-American medical Association approved) medical treatments and practices. I’ve also learned a lot about home remedies from my wife, a native Chinese lady who came to America for the first time in 2005.

In the Before Computer (BC) era, I learned how to use a Physician’s Desk Reference (PDR) to check any medication I was prescribed before taking it; side effects, interactions with other medicines, and what I should expect for healing from whatever it was the doctor prescribed the medicine for. My practice of checking medicines became even easier with Mr Yahoo and Mr Google. The Internet also allowed me the opportunity to check out claims on alternative medicines, from which I learned a lot about alternative therapies, both positive and negative.

My experience with alternative medicines took a quantum leap between November 2006 to April 2007 when I had an experience with a licensed Chinese “Herbologist”; a doctor who is trained in traditional Chinese herbal medicines. This story is about my experience with this doctor, his examination routines, prescriptions, and the surprising positive impact on my health as an apparent result of his herbal medications.

I’ve thought long and hard about publishing this story, because to be accurate means sharing rather personal medical information. But given the level and tenor of “debate” over the past several years about healthcare in the United States I’ve decided my story needs to be told. So I’ll start with some personal background that is relevant to my health and this story.

Background

My health has normally been good, even now as I’m well on the downhill side of 50.  Although I’ve worn corrective lenses for extreme nearsightedness since the age of eight (until cataract surgery in early 2012), I was blessed with reasonably good genes.  I was taught to eat healthy while growing up and actually enjoy exercise in the form of running, bicycling, walks, and physical labor.  I do have a history of heavy coffee drinking (I switched to drinking tea in 2009) and excessive alcohol consumption, a vice I’ve alternatively battled against or indulged in guilt-free.  I’ve also been diagnosed with high cholesterol starting in my early 30’s when I was still on active duty with the U.S. Navy.

My first wife and I settled on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in early 1996.  We divorced in November 2001 and as part of my post-divorce recovery process I started heavy drinking on a regular basis.  I remarried in October 2003 but my new wife Weifang (“Winnie”) remained in China until we could get her visa. I essentially continued to live a bachelor’s life while waiting 20 months for visa to come through and join me in the US.  Winnie finally arrived in July 2005.

During the time between my divorce and Winnie arriving in the US, I was dealing with a lot of stress.  I was living alone and maintaining a large house, struggling with my finances and an unstable job situation, then fighting to get my wife’s visa issued.   I dealt with my stresses by more heavy drinking.

My average number of drinks for most of 2002 through early 2005 gradually increased to about 5 – 6 drinks per night, mostly in the form of red wine and rum (straight shots over ice so I wasn’t affected by the sugar from drink mixers).  With the heavy drinking I needed lots of coffee to keep me going during the day.  I gradually stopped any pretense of exercise and I was plagued with chronic diarrhea which I do believe was stress-related.

I had no children with my first wife; she was not interested in children so there was never any reason to seek medical help.  Winnie very much did want children, and part of the extreme stress I was dealing with during the 20 month wait for her visa was knowing that I was getting well past the age where starting a family would be possible.  More stress, more drinking.

Six weeks after Winnie arrived in the US, hurricane Katrina added a new dimension of excitement to our lives. We came through reasonably well all things considered; only three feet of flood water but at least the house was still intact.

Over the next several months of hurricane recovery efforts I suffered two serious cases of respiratory illness.  The first was from black mold inside our house as we struggled to get all the rotting drywall out.  I suspect the second case, just a few weeks after recovering from my first, was due to a combination of breathing the outside air (heavily contaminated with airborne mold and fungus), and breathing excessive gypsum-board dust inside our house while hanging new wall board.  I also developed a case of “Tennis Elbow” in my right arm so severe that at times it was too painful for me to even shake hands. I did cut back my drinking during this time to an average 3 – 4 drinks per night.

Our home rebuilding work lasted until August 2006. Starting in January 2006 Winnie landed a job working at a local Chinese Buffet style restaurant.  As part of the deal with her boss she brought home a take-out box for my supper an average of five nights each week.  The food was decent but heavy on greasy vegetables, fried meats, soy sauce, and oriental seasonings.  I suspect the MSG used was not excessive in comparison to other buffets in our area, but probably more than was healthy for a regular diet.  As Winnie was getting home about 9:30 PM each night, I was eating supper just before going to bed late.  I was getting up at 5:30 AM each morning for my job which meant averaging perhaps 6 – 6.5 hours sleep each night with no weekend “catch-up” time.

So, from September 2005 until August of 2006 I was routinely performing extreme physical labor while breathing mold and fungus-laden dust, having an average 3 – 4 drinks per day, eating greasy MSG-rich food late each evening, not sleeping enough, and don’t even talk about formal exercise.  Oh, and I was still dealing with excessive stress and still suffering bouts of chronic diarrhea.

Between the hurricane recovery and settling into a new marriage with a wife newly arrived in the US, Winnie and I were trying to start a family.  We started consulting an OB/GYN for Winnie, and one item her doctor wanted was for me to have a fertility test.  About the same time, my regular doctor decided it was time for my annual physical with complete blood work.  So about August 15, 2006 I was poked, prodded, tested and inspected in the finest practices of modern American medicine.

Baseline Examination

For the purposes of this article I will refer to the results of this August 15, 2006 lab work as my “Baseline” medical results.   The results can be summarized as follows:

  1. I was diagnosed with significant fertility issues.
  2. Blood work showed evidence of significant liver and kidney problems.
  3. My blood cholesterol was 242 and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) was at 139.7.

Overall, the medical tests indicated that I was in fairly poor health, developing some serious long-term health issues, and would have great difficulty conceiving a child.  I did not tell Winnie the results of my exam other than a brief discussion about my fertility issues.

I received the usual warnings from my doctors about poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive drinking, yada, yada, and yada.  Then in September 2006 Winnie and I moved from Mississippi to Northern Virginia.

The Chinese Herbologist

By early November 2006 we had mostly settled into our apartment ready to resume a semblance of normal life.  We had hooked up with a new family physician that reviewed the results of my August lab work and gave me the usual warnings about poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive drinking, yada, yada, yada.  He also confirmed the diagnosis of my physicians in Mississippi about liver and kidney problems and fertility issues.

One Saturday morning in mid-November Winnie and I decided to make our first touristy visit to Washington D.C.  We ended up wandering around the Chinatown region and Winnie quickly found a nice Chinese “General Store.”  A large part of this store was dedicated to a herb shop staffed by a D.C. licensed “Herb Pharmacist.”  The pharmacist could not speak any English, so my wife engaged him in a rather animated Chinese-language conversation that she occasionally interrupted to explain to me what was being discussed.

During the conversation my wife asked the pharmacist about prescribing me herbs for my fertility issues.  He explained he could not give anything without a prescription from a licensed Herbologist, of which there were several he dealt with in the local area.  The Herbologist located closest to the store was about eight blocks away and took some appointments on Saturdays.  The shopkeepers provided us an address and phone number.  Winnie insisted on walking down and finding the office, “just to look.”

The doctor’s office turned out to be a Victorian-style brick townhouse in a semi-decent neighborhood.  At about 2:00PM on a Saturday, Winnie knocked on the door, had a brief and very animated Chinese-language chat with the young woman answering, and got us an on-the-spot walk-in appointment.

The doctor was the father of the young woman answering the door, Dr, Zhung of Zhung’s Clinic.  Over the course of the next several visits I learned a lot about him.  Dr Zhung was then in his late 40’s.  He had studied in the Fungung province of China and later immigrated to America.  He was a licensed acupuncturist in the states of Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.  He was also a licensed Herbologist in Washington D.C. (I do not know if Virginia or Maryland recognize herbology licenses).  He explained that as part of his medical training in Fungung he had learned the uses of over 1200 different herbs, but only had access to about 800 here in the U.S.  He explained that in China there were over 2000 different herbs available.

His offices were on the main floor of his turn-of-the-century townhouse.  He operated two examining rooms, each one containing a massage-table style bed that was used for his acupuncture procedures. The only other furniture was a desk and three chairs in each room, a sink and wall-mounted cabinets, portable medical equipment including a stethoscope and blood-pressure tester, and a telephone/fax machine.

His English was marginal, so Winnie did most of the talking our first visit.  What I surmise is that she explained we were trying to start a family and so far not particularly successful (please make crass jokes and then move on thank you).  The doctor asked her some questions, and then in his halting English, with the assistance of Winnie and her limited English, he asked me some questions.  After our discussions he started his examination.

With me sitting at the left side of his desk, the doctor in front, he took my left arm and turned it palm facing him, outside edge of my wrist resting gently on a small cushion on the desk. He placed his thumb on my inside wrist, fingers on the back as if he was taking my pulse.  He sat there for several minutes, eyes looking into space in concentration.  After several minutes the repeated with my right wrist.  He took my left wrist again, briefly, peered into my eyes and asked me to stick out my tongue. He used a stethoscope and blood-pressure tester on me, then his examination was finished.

In his halting English, he explained that my liver was very “weak,” as were my kidneys.  He asked me about my drinking.  By then, I had already cut back my drinking to 2 – 3 glasses of wine or beers per day, but was honest in telling him my history.  He nodded and suggested that I should not have more than one or two glasses of red wine or rice wine each night as that was “good for my blood.”  He then asked my permission to prescribe an herbal treatment, and after looking at Winnie I agreed.  The doctor explained that he would work on making my liver and kidneys stronger for this first time.

He performed the same examinations on Winnie, and had another Chinese-language discussion with her.  Then he pulled out a small notepad with his letterhead and wrote out herbal prescriptions in Mandarin for both of us.  He faxed it over to the Chinese shop and gave us the originals.

Our examination was then completed.  We had spent about 45 minutes total for two exams, for which we were charged $40.00 apiece.  The doctor explained that any follow-up appointments would only be $20.00 apiece. We left the doctor’s office and walked back to the Chinese shop to pick-up our prescriptions.

Chinese Herbal Prescriptions

Our initial prescriptions were for a one week supply.  As Winnie and I watched, the pharmacist placed seven sheets of brown paper each about 12 inches square across his counter.  He would look at the doctor’s prescription mumbling to himself, then pull a plastic storage jar off his back shelves or pull out a wooden drawer from his pharmacy cabinet.  He would place the contents into a scale, and when he apparently had the correct amount would divide the material equally across all the paper squares.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese Herbal Pharmacy

The materials ranged from a white mineral-looking substance to tree bark, plant roots, and what looked to be dried insects. Then there were things I didn’t recognize at all.  On this first visit there were perhaps a dozen different items placed in each of our prescriptions.  I couldn’t help but think the contents of each paper looked like a bizarre salad.  When the pharmacist was finished, he poured the contents of each paper into a small brown bag, did a lock fold on each bag, then placed each of our prescriptions into a different plastic grocery bag.

At the cash register, the shop owner weighted each grocery bag and charged us based on the weight.  For this first set of two one-week prescriptions, we were charged a total of $120.00 cash.  The pharmacist and the shop owner gave Winnie long detailed instructions on how to prepare the prescriptions and provided a printed set of instructions.  After buying a few other items from the shop we went home.

That night Winnie prepared my first dose of Chinese medicine.  She poured the contents of one of the small paper bags into one of our smaller stainless-steel pot.  She covered the contents with water, brought it to a boil and allowed the mix to simmer for about 30 minutes.  The mix gave off an indescribable order.

After simmering for 30 minutes she turned off the stove and opened the pot to reveal a liquid that simmered with colors ranging from “puke brown” to “tar-oil black.” Winnie poured the still-warm liquid into a soup bowl, and instructed me to drink the contents while it was still hot “so it wouldn’t taste so bad.”

I still can’t imagine how bad it might have tasted when cold, but drinking this first batch of herbal medicine warm made me gag and nearly vomit.  I choked it down while Winnie prepared the batch for herself in a different pot, so she could save our batches for a second dosage.  A few hours later we went to bed, me feeling a bit dizzy and light-headed.

The next morning she got up with me and prepared the same batch used the previous night.  This time around, the mix tasted stronger and even nastier that the first.  The taste in my mouth afterwards was too strong to be neutralized by my morning coffee.

We repeated this process for the next six days.  Winnie prepared a batch of medicine for me each night using a fresh bag, and reused it the next morning for a second dosage. By the end of the week, I did begin to feel different.  I apparently began to get used to the taste as after the second night, I no longer had the urge to vomit when I drank the liquid.  We finished the prescriptions by the Sunday following our first visit.  After a brief discussion Winnie made an appointment for me for a return visit to the Chinese doctor on the next Saturday for both of us, which thankfully meant a one-week gap in taking the herbal prescription.

The next appointment was similar to my previous.  The doctor asked us, mostly Winnie, about our reactions to the herbal prescriptions and then conducted another pulse-checking exam on both of us.  He again asked my permission to prescribe an herbal potion and I again agreed.  This time, he suggested a two week supply as it was difficult for us to get to D.C.

He also explained that he would be adding an ingredient to my prescription to “make my sex stronger.”  As before, he faxed over our prescriptions and after our appointment Winnie and I walked to the Chinese shop.  Again, I watched as the pharmacist set out the salads of white minerals, tree bark, dried insects, plant roots, and indescribable items that would have been violently thrown away had I unknowingly encountered them lying around the house.

This time, he added a separate bag of shredded Ginseng root to my prescription.  The instructions to Winnie were to prepare the shredded Ginseng as a “tea” separate from my main potions.  So for the next two weeks; twice each day I drank the noxious oily black potion, followed by a dose of refreshing (not) Ginseng tea.

Chinese Herbal Medicine

Chinese Herbal Medicine

A week following the completion of this regiment I returned, alone, to the Chinese doctor.  Winnie had just started a job and was working that day so she made an appointment for me only.  This appointment was a little difficult without Winnie to help interpret, but I knew the doctor and routine well enough that we managed.

The doctor explained that my liver and kidneys were “getting stronger,” and wanted to help my “sex” more.  He once again prescribed a two week regiment for me.  Once again, for a 30 minute Saturday afternoon doctor’s office visit, I paid $20.00 flat.

This time, my two-week prescription included not only the standard salad mix and the shredded Ginseng, each day’s supply also included a matchbox-sized box containing a block of substance that looked like amber rock.  The one shopkeeper who could speak English explained I needed to take the substance separate from the rest of the medicine, one block each day in several doses.  This time, between the two-week supply of salad mix, shredded Ginseng, and matchbox-sized blocks of “rock,” I paid about $130.00.

I learned that the “rock” was actually prepared deer antler.  The Chinese consider deer antler an aphrodisiac, one that apparently is readily obtainable and relatively inexpensive.  All I will say about this is that it appeared to actually work as an aphrodisiac, without any of the negative side effects we’ve all learned about by watching Viagra commercials.  (Note to Advertisers: Over the age of 50 an erection lasting longer than four hours is not a problem.  Really.)

Back at home, Winnie read the instructions, and explained that the deer antler needed to be mixed with meat so it wouldn’t “hurt my stomach.”  To prepare the antler required crushing it into small pieces so we could divide it into at least two daily doses.  After unsuccessfully beating it with a meat crusher on the counter-top, I used a 16 oz claw hammer with the block of antler lying on the floor wrapped in a plastic grocery bag.  We were on the top floor of our apartment building with a linoleum-covered wooden kitchen floor, and beating the antler with a hammer still wasn’t wildly successful in breaking it up.  So then I took it outside on the sidewalk, still wrapped in a plastic bag, and used my hammer again with several neighbors idly watching.  This time, I managed to break the small block of antler into enough pieces that we could divide it into portions.

Winnie prepared the antler by boiling it with ground beef.  After boiling for a while, the antler melted first into a liquid that I could just barely taste over the flavor of the beef.  I had to eat it while warm as once the mix cooled off the antler would congeal again and be nearly inedible.  It wasn’t a “bad” taste.  It had a flat taste that was so bland it seemed to suck out flavor from the meat.

Winnie and I worked through the two week supply of salad, Ginseng, and deer antler.  I began to notice a positive difference in how I felt, but preparing everything was a lot of work for Winnie and me. By the time we finished the two week supply, it was nearing Christmas and I didn’t have the opportunity to return until well into January.

I made several more return visits to the doctor during the latter part of January, 2007, and well into March.  Sometimes Winnie was with me, sometimes I was alone.  By the end of February Winnie and I had purchased a house and were busy moving in, so we agreed not to make any more doctor visits.  Winnie wasn’t convinced that her prescriptions did her any good, and to be honest I think she was tired of all the work involved in preparing my various mixes.  I was honestly tired of drinking the stuff, and really tired of trying to break up the deer antler into portion-sized pieces every few days.

Comparison Medical Exam

While I was visiting with the Chinese doctor, I was also going through a series of exams by our “regular” family doctor practicing in our town.  I never told him we were seeing a Chinese Herbologist in D.C.  In March, our family doctor decided that he really wanted me to have a full set of lab work performed.  Winnie and I were also beginning to consult with another OB/GYN, and this doctor wanted me to have another fertility exam.  Once again, the needs of two doctors coincided and in mid-April, 2007, I was poked, prodded, tested and inspected in the finest practices of modern American medicine.

I will hereby refer to these tests as my comparison medical exam, as I use them to show the difference with my baseline tests of the previous summer.  The results of my comparison tests are summarized as:

  1. My fertility issues had improved by over five times from the baseline.
  2. No indication of liver or kidney problems.
  3. My blood cholesterol was down to 238 but my LDL cholesterol had climbed to 151.

What I found most interesting was the reactions of both our family doctor and Winnie’s OB/GYN at the differences between my baseline and comparison test results.  “Astonishment” would be one description.

To be fair, there were some life-style changes between the time of my baseline and comparison tests.  For one, I had cut back on my drinking to about 2 – 3 drinks per night or less.  I was eating a better diet containing fresh vegetables and fruit with much less grease and MSG than the last six months in Mississippi.  Our living environment was much healthier, and my stress factors had dramatically decreased even though I still had occasional bouts of diarrhea.  I still was only getting about 6 hours sleep each night, but was getting some “makeup” sleep on weekends.  I was also getting some exercise from walking between home, the commuter bus stop, and work each day, a total of about two miles. While not much, it was the first regular outdoor exercise I had routinely engaged in for several years.

I don’t know that my life-style changes can fully explain the dramatic differences in my lab work between August 2006 and April 2007.  Nor can I prove that any of the positive differences between my baseline and comparison lab test can be completely explained by the herbal prescriptions provided by Dr Zhung.  I do know the following;

  1. Dr Zhung was able to correctly diagnose my liver and kidney problems on my first visit without having any access to my previous lab results, and without the use of any medical laboratory equipment.
  2. Over a period of time that included some lifestyle changes and a regiment of herbal medications specifically prescribed to counteract diagnosed liver, kidney, and fertility problems, all three areas showed positive improvements as measured by standard American medical tests.
  3. My LDL Cholesterol had significantly increased, but this was something I neither consulted with Dr Zhung about nor expected to have addressed by herbal medications.
  4. The differences in test results caused expressions of astonishment from two different doctors, neither of whom knew that I was consulting with a Chinese Herbologist.
  5. The prescriptions Dr Zhung prescribed for Winnie did not appear to have any effects.  However, we have no before or after lab tests to either confirm or deny any effects to her.

The following year, April, 2008, my doctor had me perform another fertility test.  My results of this test were essentially consistent with those of April 2007. One factor had improved 1.4x higher than the previous year.

Despite all this medical work, we were never able to have children. I consulted with Dr Zhung several times after April 2007, then stopped completely after more discussions with Winnie.  She wasn’t convinced that the results were worth the effort.

Postscript

In June 2011 Winnie and I traveled to China on a three week vacation trip. By the end of the second week, while we were staying with Winnie’s older sister’s family I came down with a serious flu-like cold, probably the worst I’ve had in over 20 years. After a couple of days it was obvious that I wasn’t getting better on my own, so Winnie’s brother-in-law took me and Winnie down to the local clinic. Once at the clinic, Winnie’s brother-in-law went off and came back a few minutes later to usher us into the office of the head doctor. Coincidentally, Winnie’s brother-in-law grew up with the head doctor and was best of friends, which may explain our quick appointment.

The doctor, with translation assistance from Winnie, had me stand up and stick out my tongue. He peered into my mouth using a small flashlight, looked in each of my ears, and felt my forehead for temperature. He backed away from me shaking his head “tsking,” then wrote out a prescription and handed it to my brother-in-law.  We marched over to the pharmacy, waited in line a few minutes, and received three small envelopes each containing a small number of pills. Total time at the clinic for a medical exam and receiving medication was less than one hour. There was no charge for the doctor’s exam. I don’t know the exact cost for the medication, but it wasn’t enough to be a concern for either Winnie or her brother-in-law.

We went back home and between Winnie and her sister (who is a middle-school English teacher) they explained the schedule for taking the three medications.  There were six pills in one envelope, with three pills in another and four pills in the third, and written instructions on each envelope.

I took my first batch, and actually started feeling a little better in a few hours. I continued the regiment over the next two days until all the pills were gone, and by the time the pills were gone I was feeling almost back to normal. I was very tired still, and slept a lot the rest of our last week in China, but the cold was gone.

I contrast this medical regiment to what I would have expected here in the US. Here, I am sure my doctor would have given me a whopping dose of some antibiotic to knock out the cold that would have taken many days to have an effect.  Without my TriCare medical coverage the costs for a doctor’s office visit would be $120, and the medication probably over $100.

Final Thoughts

I’m not going to claim that Chinese medicine is across-the-board superior to what we have here in the US. I am going to state that Chinese medicine has a different approach than what we practice in the US. It obviously works and is a lot less expensive than “regular” US medical care. With all the healthcare debate over the past few years here in the US, and given the overall sorry state of health in this country, we might just want to pay attention to what a culture with over 2000 years of recorded medical research is doing and try to learn something.




The Hammer

On Loosing A Hammer and Standing Up to People

Chapter 1

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a hammer that I lost over 35 years ago.  Rather, I’ve been thinking about losing that hammer and how I lost it.  It involves my maternal grandfather, a school play, and a high school teacher whom I still consider to be one of the most inept teachers I suffered through during my entire public school career.

My grandfather (whom we referred to by the German title of “Opa”) was born in 1901 in Holland and grew up on a farm there, spending his time taking care of the vegetable garden and cows and fishing in the canals whenever he could.  He was part of the generation that was too young to fight in the war to end all wars, now referred to as the first world war.  When he was old enough he joined the Dutch Merchant Marines and spent some amount of time alternating between sailing the seven seas and working at a German shipyard.  At some point in the early 1920’s his ship pulled into New York harbor and my grandfather decided to stay in America.

He made his living in New York as a house painter and general handyman, first as a single man and then for his new wife and my mother.  My grandfather and grandmother bought a house in South Ozone Park, Queens, several months after my mother was born in 1926, and managed to hang onto it during the Great Depression.  They converted the second floor of their house into a rental apartment to help pay the mortgage.  My grandfather continued to work as a house painter and general handyman all those years my mom was growing up, and went fishing out on the bays around Long Island every chance he could.

When my parents first married they lived in the upstairs apartment of my grandparents house.  I was born there, and lived there until I was three years old.  Around 1959 we moved “way out on the island” to a house in Farmingdale.  My family, which ultimately included my sister and two younger brothers, lived in that house for the next thirteen years.  During those years, my parents would take us to visit my grandparents as often as they could.

I remember my maternal grandfather as a carpenter, house painter, and general all-around handyman who loved to go fishing.  He was one of my heroes.  He seemed to enjoy us kids hanging around his garage workshop watching him build stuff.  His shop had a wonderful smell of oil paint and fresh cut wood, with mysterious little spaces we could climb around in and explore.  He always took the time to show me what he was doing, and made things for me.

One of his favorite small projects was making wooden whistles out of large dowels.  Another was making garden ornament mushrooms from pieces of birch branches (with the bark on) and carved wooden tops, brightly painted red with white spots.  Anytime one of us kids would dream up some small request, my grandfather would build it for us.  He built a dollhouse for my sister, big enough for us to play inside.  He built a display case for me to hold my growing collection of sea shells and rocks.  He built lovely wooden ocean liner models that I could sail in the bathtub.  One year he built a wooden viking-boat yard toy with wheels.  My sister and I spent hours sitting in it and pushing each other around the yard.

My grandfather didn’t have fancy power equipment.  His tools included an old hatchet, battered hand saws, a couple of hammers, and lots of different kinds of paints and paint brushes.   I think he may have had a power saw and drill, but most of the time he just used a hand brace to drill holes.  He could build literally anything with just his few basic tools and scraps of lumber.  He’d paint his creation in gay colors with a few quick flips of a paint brush and then we’d have a new toy cooler than anything from any store.

Besides building stuff, he’d occasionally take me fishing.  He’d pick up me and either my sister or next-in-line brother early in the morning and go way out on Long Island to somewhere around East Moriches bay.  Once there, he’d pull a small outboard motor from the trunk of his car, pop it on the back of a small wooden rental boat, and we’d head out into the sound for a day of fishing.  We’d always catch something; flounder, eels, puffer fish, or an occasional sea robin.  Those were great days when I was fishing with my grandfather.

Opa With A Calf, Burlingham, New York, 1975

Opa With A Calf, Burlingham, New York, 1975

In 1970 my parents inherited a house and land in the Hudson Valley area of New York state.  In 1972 we moved there and I finished out my final two years of School at Pine Bush High.  My grandfather, now a widower, moved with us.  The property we inherited had a small hay barn about a hundred feet back of the house that my grandfather bought from us and converted it into a very comfortable cottage for himself.  He made a vegetable garden in back of his cottage, and over the next several years acquired a couple of cows along with lots of chickens, ducks, pigeon, several sheep and a ram, and finally a cute little piglet that grew into a 1000 pound hog.  The hog became lots of excellent meat for the freezer.

I joined the Navy and left home in 1974.  During the next several years I visited my family as often as I could, but it wasn’t nearly as often as I wished.  I always spent time with my grandfather on my visits, talking about the places I’d traveled to while in the Navy and tell him about the things I was doing.  I know he enjoyed hearing my stories, and would share some of his own from back in the days when he used to go to sea.  I sent him small gifts now and again that he proudly displayed in his living room along with a photo of me in my navy uniform.

My grandfather passed suddenly and unexpectedly in 1979 while I was on a cruise around South America.  I didn’t even find out that he passed until after his funeral, and I didn’t have a chance to visit his grave site until several months later.  It took years for me to get over his loss.

But this isn’t what I really wanted to write about.  I really want to write about a hammer my grandfather gave me.

Chapter 2

The schools I attended in Farmingdale were pretty good schools, all things considering.  Farmingdale was a fast growing town in those days, one of the post World War II suburban developments springing up from Long Island’s potato and sod farms.  We had one of the better state community colleges, Farmingdale Agriculture College.  Many people commuted into New York City, the rest mostly worked in solid middle-class semi-skilled jobs around the local area.  All-in-all, I remember Farmingdale as a rather progressive community for it’s time, a newly formed bedroom community of New York City.

I attended tenth grade at Farmingdale High School, part of a graduating class of nearly 1000 students which was typical for the school.  The school had an open campus policy with teachers who were mostly excellent and cared about the students.  I got into several extracurricular and sports activities that I really enjoyed and started making good friends.  Near the end of the year I was accepted into an experimental educational program that could be considered an early model for today’s “magnet” schools.  Then, that summer we moved to Pine Bush.

Socially, Pine Bush was about as far removed from Farmingdale as one could get.  Most people in the area worked in agriculture, agriculture-related jobs, or general services that any community needed.  Some spent five hours a day commuting down into New York City (“The City”).  Over the previous few years a lot of people had migrated out of the New York metropolitan area into Pine Bush, and the town had seen a lot of fast growth. “Native” Pine Bush residents mostly looked down on “The City” and “city folks.”

The high school class I enrolled in was the largest that school system had ever seen; about 256 students.  About one third of the members of my class had grown up in that school system, the rest were transplants like myself, my sister and brothers.  Many of the “native” students at best tolerated us new-comers; others actively ignored us.

I was very shy and timid back then and didn’t make friends easily.  I was just coming into my own during tenth grade in Farmingdale, and in this new environment I retreated back into extreme shyness.  When I wasn’t in school or at my weekend job, I tended to stay close to home helping around the house. By early in my senior year I did gain a small circle of friends, but I was still pretty isolated from the school and community.

The things I remember the community being most interested in was farming, football, and hunting.  Track and Field, one of the two sports I participated in, was fairly high on the town’s list of interests mostly because the team had a several year’s string of unbroken victories at the time I enrolled.  Academics were pretty far down the list of things the community seemed to care about. My teachers were mostly uninvolved with students (especially new comers) and mostly mediocre compared to my teachers in Farmingdale.  At the bottom of my list of teachers was Mr. MB, my Pine Bush High history teacher.

Mr. MB “taught” social studies for eleventh and twelfth grades.  His classes consisted of Mr. MB sitting behind his desk all period long, each and every class I attended for my final two years of public high school, talking about everything except social studies.  Hunting stories were a big part of his repertoire.  He would often spend class sessions having a student tell about their background and what their parents did for a living.  On occasion, he’d come close to actually teaching us social studies by telling us what we’d learn in his class.  Someday.  Whenever he decided to actually teach the subject.  Alas, the day never came when he actually taught us the stuff that he occasionally claimed he’d teach us.

The only social studies I learned those two years came from reading the textbook I was issued at the start of each year, on my own.

In addition to his complete lack of interest in teaching us anything related to high school social studies, Mr. MB was arrogant and insufferable, acted superior to the rest of us folks, and seemingly considered himself one of the great people of the town by virtue of having a college degree.  I considered him a jerk and the most inept teacher I suffered through in my final two years of high school.

But this story is about a hammer.

Chapter 3

Sometime in my junior year of high school, my grandfather let me have one of his hammers.  I don’t remember how I acquired it; whether he loaned it to me and I just kept it, or if he specifically gave it to me to keep.  Over the years I was growing up, this was the hammer I watched him use to build all those wonderful things in his garage workshop.

The hammer was a wooden handled claw model, probably about 16 ounces.  It was liberally splattered with multi-colored splotches of old paint.  The head was black from age and use.  On one side of the hammer head my grandfather had filed a large letter “W,” the first initial of his last name.  The hammer had been used for so many years the face was rounded down to where it almost looked like the back of a ball-peen.  It was a venerable and very cool old hammer, and it was my grandfather’s.

During the two years I was finishing high school, my family was doing a lot of repairs to the house and property and I was pressed into constant service as the home handyman.  I also helped my grandfather as much as I could in converting the old barn into his cottage.  In short, I gave that hammer a lot of use.

Then, near the end of my senior year in high school, I volunteered to be part of the stage crew and a bit actor for our senior play.  The play was Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water,” and I landed an acting role with an on-stage presence of about five minutes and three lines.  My larger role was helping to build the stage sets.

The sets consisted of about a dozen 1×2 wooden frames covered with painted canvas and several plywood structures.  Of the six or so people on the stage crew, I was the only one who knew anything about building stuff.  We had to provide our own tools, so on the first night of construction I brought my grandfather’s hammer to school.  We use one of the larger classrooms close to the back door of our school auditorium as our shop.

Over the next several evenings I helped build the frames, took them apart when we discovered that they were too wide for the canvas, and put them back together again.  Then I helped build the plywood props.  I remember one particular prop that needed a nail in a particularly hard-to-get-at inside corner.  The other members of the stage crew looked blankly at the prop claiming that there was no way to get a nail in there.  I grabbed my hammer and drove the nail in with three quick blows.  The other crew members just looked at me and said “wow.”

I kept the hammer in the classroom we were working in during the construction.  We worked on props right up until opening night of the play, probably typical for such events.  Then, over the weekend run with everything going on, I forgot about my hammer and left it in the classroom.

It was a few weeks later when I needed the hammer at home one evening, and in horror remembered where I’d left it.  The next school day I went straight to the classroom where we’d built the props.  Mr. MB was the homeroom teacher in charge of that classroom and was standing at the door monitoring his students coming in.  I went up to him and stammeringly explained that I had left a hammer in the classroom a couple of weeks earlier.  I asked if he knew whether it was still there.

Mr. MB looked down at me, and in the most condescending way possible said “there’s just an old worn-out hammer in the desk drawer.  I don’t think you want that.”  Embarrassed, I stammered something and walked away.  I made no further attempts to reclaim my hammer, and I never told my grandfather I’d lost it.

School ended a few weeks later, and I left home to join the Navy.  I’ve never gone back to Pine Bush other than when I visited with my family.

Chapter 4

For some reason, these past few months Ive been thinking about that incident with Mr. MB and my hammer.  Im not sure why.  Realistically, it shouldnt be a big deal anymore.  Theres no reason to think Id still have it if I had reclaimed it.  I would have left that hammer at home when I joined the navy, and one of my younger brothers would probably have lost it or someone would have walked off with it.  Even if Id kept it, with multiple moves and getting my workshop flooded twice while living in Mississippi theres no reason to think it wouldnt have been lost anyway.  But maybe not.

Over the years since I’ve owned several nice hammers. My current favorite is an excellent Estwing forged steel claw hammer with a leather wrapped handle.  It’s the kind of hammer that, if I had a son, I’d pass on to him as an heirloom.  But the hammer I had from my grandfather was also an heirloom.  I lost it because I couldn’t stand up for myself to a teacher who should have known better.

My grandfather didn’t own much when he passed, and I have very few things to remember him by; a set of his wrenches, a few things I had given him as gifts that my mother gave back to me after he passed, and a few photos.  The important thing I do have from him is a love for woodworking, tools, and fishing.

I’m not much of a fisherman, but now that I have a boat and some free time I’m trying to relearn.  However, fish do not fear me.  I have become a reasonably decent handyman over the years, but I’m nowhere close to my grandfather.  I like to think that some of the projects I’ve accomplished would please my grandfather, if he should see them.

I just wish I had stood up to that condescending, arrogant, inept teacher all those years ago and replied “Yes, I do want that old worn-out hammer.”




Musing About Telephones

Rotary Telephone 1972 Vintage

Rotary Telephone 1972 Vintage

Winnie and I added some new technology to our house this past week. We gained the first landline house telephone we’ve had since moving to Virginia. While this doesn’t sound like that much of an event, it’s gotten me to thinking about the changes in phone technology I’ve seen over the years.

Way back in the 1960’s, growing up on Long Island, our telephone was the basic black box that hung on the kitchen wall. People basically had two choices of phone; a black box hanging on the wall, or a black box that sat on the table. Some people went fancy and had a gold and white or gold and black “Princess Phone” which was actually a replica of an older style phone that had been replaced by the black boxes.

All these phones had a rotary dial that you operated by sticking your finger in a hole and pushing to the phone number in sequence. If you were in a hurry, you would push to the number then use your finger to force the dial back to the start point, saving perhaps 1/2 second per number. The practice of pushing the phone dial back to the start was somehow considered “improper.”

I actually still remember my first phone number; CH9-6647, pronounced “chapel 9, 6647.” The Long Island area used (and I think still does) an alpha-numeric phone number system I’ve never seen anywhere else in the US. I had never heard of area codes; I believe everyone on ‘The Island’ at that time was on the same area code.

In the early 1970’s I started to see “decorator phones” come out. Mickey Mouse phones were way cool, and another replica style phone seemed popular – a wooden box that imitated the really old turn-of-the-century phones that everyone threw away when they upgraded to non-replica Princess Phones. But in our house, we stayed with the black-box rotary dial phone hanging on the kitchen wall.

Almost no one actually owned their own telephones back then. They were almost always leased from Ma Bell (the single national telephone company). All houses came standard with one phone jack on the wall in the kitchen. Wealthy people could add additional phone jacks and lease additional phones which were considered a great luxury. Third-party companies started selling non-Ma Bell phones in the late 1960’s, but these were considered somewhat controversial. Ma Bell claimed that using anything but their own proprietary phones would damage their phone lines and subject the owner to horrendous repair bills, etc, etc, etc.

When we moved upstate New York, Mom made a radical change in our phone technology; she ordered a white-box rotary dial telephone for the kitchen wall. This radical new “colored phone” cost more than a black-box.

The radical white phone balanced out our great leap back in phone service. Since we were now officially in “the country,” we could only afford a party line. Meaning, we shared one phone line with several neighbors. Whenever the phone rang we had to count the rings to see if the call was for us. Only one person on our party line at a time could use their phone. Picking up the phone allowed us to listen in on neighbor’s conversations. Picking up and hanging up caused a click on the line which indicated someone else wanted to use the phone. This was really annoying during my long teenage phone calls to friends, when neighbors were so inconsiderate as to actually expect to use the phone after I was only on for an hour or so. Not to mention, I had to make my phone calls from the kitchen where Mom always seemed to be around fussing.

Once I was in the Navy living in barracks or aboard ship my communications revolved around public pay phones. I purchased my first telephone calling card, a SPRINT Card, at a swap meet in 1976. The telephone calling card was an exotic innovation that allowed me to call direct from any payphone without first filling the phone with coins. By this time, Mom’s home telephone service had advanced to where she once again had a private phone line.

I made my first international telephone call about November of 1979. I called Mom from a public telephone in Rodman, Panama, after I learned by mail that my grandfather had died. To make this call required first calling the international telephone operator, providing the number I was calling to, the number I was calling from, and who was paying the charges. Then I waited by the phone chasing away anyone who dared try to use it for almost one hour. Finally, the operator called back and placed the call. It was expensive.

An AT&T Push Button Phone

An AT&T Push Button Phone

Once I got my first home in San Diego in 1981 I leased an off-white counter-top version touch-tone phone that I hooked up in the kitchen. A leased colored phone still cost more then black. By now people could purchase their phones without harassment from Ma Bell but for me it was just cheaper to lease one. My roommate then bought a new-fangled wireless phone for a second phone in the house. Using his wireless, I could actually walk around the house while talking without tripping over the (non-existent) wire. This wireless phone operated in the UHF band and had a very limited range of merely a few feet from the base station.

Our home had phone jacks in the kitchen, living room and each bedroom; something that I found quite amusing. I mean, just how many telephones did one house actually need?

In early 1984, AT&T was broken up into multiple regional phone companies. As fall-out from this breakup the phone companies decided to get out of the phone-leasing business. I had the option of either buying the phone I had been leasing for several years or turn it back in. I bought the phone, and it served me well for the rest of the time I lived in San Diego.

Over these years, rotary dial phones pretty much became extinct and everything standardized on push-button phones. Decorator phone options exploded after the phone companies were broken up, and the features became dizzying. All those new features also left me amused. All I ever expected of a telephone was to be able to “reach out and touch someone.”

I did expand my telephone technology equipment with a telephone answering machine after my first wedding in 1986. The answering machine was the size of a portable cassette player and used a full-sized cassette tape that plugged into a wall phone jack. Before I owned an answering machine, people just had to take their chances on contacting me.

When we left San Diego for Italy, we knew the phone I had purchased from Ma Bell wouldn’t work in Italy so we gave it to my mother-in-law for her apartment. While living in Italy, we didn’t own a telephone due to the difficulty in dealing with the Italian phone system (and not speaking Italian). Many American expats didn’t have a phone then and we all seemed to do quite well without one. I made the first of many direct-dial international telephone calls while living in Italy using an AT&T calling card and public phones. Dialing direct across the Atlantic was a powerful experience.

Once back in America, in late 1993, after we moved into our new house in Mississippi we purchased a white wall-hanging phone for the kitchen. This one had quite elaborate technology including a mini-cassette tape recording system with a digital messaging feature and speaker phone option. Shortly afterwards, we purchased a telephone/fax/copier/answering machine unit; serious hi-tech. It used special thermo-sensitive paper to make copies and printed receive, faxes and weighted about twenty pounds. We put this new-fangled hi-tech device in an extra bedroom next to another hi-tech gadget; my first home computer.

I briefly toyed with a computer dialup service called Prodigy, something that allowed me to use my computer to connect to games, electronic message boards, and e-mail service at a dazzling speed of 28.8 MB. But when I left Mississippi in June 1994 to live aboard my ship in Hawaii I canceled it. I didn’t actually have much use for this service anyway as I didn’t know anyone who used e-mail.

In late 1995 in Hawaii on the final stretch of my navy career, I purchased my very first cell phone. Cell phones had been out and getting popular for a while by now, but had been banned from Navy ships. Senior officers fretted about their crews actually being able to communicate off-ship without official oversight. The difficulty of getting any shipboard work accomplished with only four outside telephones on a ship of 350+ crew members finally caused navy officers to make a light-years jump in thinking, and the restrictions on owning cell phones was removed in early 1995.

A few months later, the electronic technicians I supervised made me proud. By now, almost every person in my division of 19 people owned a cell phone. One evening several of my ace techs got together and identified the exact frequency the cell phones operated on. They determined that the cell phone frequency matched the bandwidth of one of the ship’s high-gain antennas mounted on the very top of the main mast. From there, they figured out how to connect a cell phone to that antenna. The successful result was that we could then use a cell phone hooked to that antenna to “call home” from over 100 miles out at sea. The ship’s officers never found us out.

By the time I retired and returned to Mississippi in February 1996, my wife had purchased a wireless phone made by Cobra, the same company I knew of from back in my CB radio days. This phone had a range of about 100 feet, a big improvement over the wireless phone my roommate had back in San Diego. My wife had also purchased a phone for our bedroom, so now we had three telephones and the telephone/fax/answering machine unit in our house.

Four different telephones in one house, plus a cell phone, felt like an embarrassment of riches. Our fax machine was so useful I quickly wondered how we had ever lived without one. Between telephones we could carry around with us and an answering machine, people could always find some way of contacting us.

It was March 1996 when we hooked up my home computer to a service commonly referred to as the “Internet.” I could now let my fingers do the walking on my computer keyboard and send out e-mails as other people actually received them. Dial-up was the only Internet connection service available to us so our single phone line received rather heavy usage.

In early 2000 my first wife decided we really needed another wireless telephone – four telephones and a cell phone just weren’t enough. The phone she selected was a 1.2GHZ wireless phone with an advertised range of several hundred feet. This was a true marvel and allowed much greater freedom in where one could be while making and receiving phone calls. In fact, my first wife quickly learned that she could use it when visiting the man next door, while letting me think she was actually at our house whenever I called from work.

As part of our divorce settlement, I kept all five telephones and she kept the cell phone.

In early 2002 the telephone/fax/answering machine gave out. It was too old to get parts so I threw it away and replaced it with a 2.4GHZ wireless phone. This one was a combination answering machine, caller ID, speaker phone unit with a longer range and clearer signal than even the second wireless phone my ex- had purchased. I added this new phone to my desktop collection of electronic hardware. Without a dedicated fax machine, I now sent and received faxes used my computer using special software, scanner, and printer.

I also was able to migrate from dial-up to high-speed cable Internet access shortly after my divorce. This was great for those people who often had to spend hours attempting to call me while my phone line was tied up with Internet usage. I migrated to cable Internet just in time to start correspondence with my then-future wife, Winnie. DSL was not yet available to our neighborhood, and I never bothered to pick up new cell phone service. I felt having six phones in the house along with fax and e-mail was more than enough communications.

I remember Winnie being very amused when she learned I had only gained high-speed internet access a few months before we first met, and still didn’t have DSL. All the Internet access available in her city of Nanning, China, was DSL or better. Winnie and everyone she knew had cell phones.

After hurricane Katrina only the kitchen phone survived and only because it was hanging on the wall high enough to stay dry. Not having phones didn’t much matter as our telephone line wasn’t operational again for more than six weeks after the storm. Our cable TV internet connection wasn’t restored for a month, which also didn’t matter too much as we had no working computer or TV. As we needed something to communicate with we went out and purchased a prepaid cell phone (Tracfone). That worked quite well as our only communications for several weeks.

We re-acquired new communications technology over the next year, and by the time we moved to Virginia we had four telephones and the prepaid cell phone. Somehow, three of our telephones got lost in the move. When we moved into our Virginia apartment we decided to go with only cell phones “for the time being.” In October 2006 we dumped the Tracfone and went to personal cell phones. That’s all we’ve used until this week.

Now, we’re back up to having an in-house landline telephone again along with our cell phones. The telephone service is a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone that uses the Internet for connectivity, not the standard telephone line. Our service offers unlimited local and long distance calls to five countries; China, Canada, Italy, Germany and Singapore. It also allows anyone in China to call us for the price of a local Chinese call; they simply dial up a local China access number which hooks into the VOIP service.

The VOIP equipment itself is a box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It has one plug for an Internet connection and a plug for a telephone. The drawback is that a telephone must plug directly into the VOIP box, which is rather limiting. I mean, who can live with only one telephone in the house? To get around this severe limitation, we went out and purchased a 5.8GHZ telephone system with four matching handsets. We plug the base unit into the VOIP box, and then put the other three phones with their charger cradles anywhere in the house we want.

Now that we have a landline we can again use fax service from our computer. But, who needs fax when you can just as easily scan and send any document you need via e-mail? Since we’re using the cable and wireless phones, all the wired telephone jacks in our house (at least one in every room, two each in the living room and den) will now go unused, victims to advancing technology. Perhaps someday we’ll find some other use for all that extra wire?

So there you have it – The great advance in telephone technology in less than one lifetime. The next great advance would be for the telephone to automatically broadcast our new phone number to anyone and everyone who needs it…

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the Category “Family Stories.”  It was moved to the Feature Story section under Ron Charest’s byline October 13, 2014, as part of rebuilding archival content to be compatible with WordPress. Illustrations were also added at that time. 




The Cars

My-beautiful-pictureA Story About The Vehicles I Have Owned

For better or worse, it seems that the vehicles I’ve owned over the years seem to match the phase of my life. From the time I earned to drive at age 18, I’ve now owned twelve four-wheeled vehicles of one type or another.

I learned to drive several months after I was in the navy. I was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Waukegan, Illinois, starting in September 1974. Shortly after arriving I contacted a private driving school and started taking weekly driving lessons. The car I learned on was a silver-gray Toyota Corona hatchback automatic. It was a nice little car to learn on.

I passed my road test in early December 1974, just in time to go home for Christmas with a brand-new driver’s license.

I didn’t do much driving for the next several years. Between moving around from place to place at whim of the Navy, and earning base E-4 salary which at the time was about $200 per month, owning a car wasn’t an option. I was finally assigned to my first submarine in November 1975, which gave me a bit more money and a lot less time to spend it. Finally in the spring of 1977 I was in a position to actually buy my first set of wheels. Since then, I’ve never been without a vehicle.

Although I learned to drive on an automatic, I later learned to drive stick which turned out to be a useful skill considering that five of the 12 vehicles I’ve owned have been stick. It was a (very patient) friend who taught me to drive stick on his brand new 1976 Special Edition Pontiac Trans Am, black with gold firebird decal and pin striping. For the people reading this and old enough to remember the 1970’s, this would be the same car featured in the Burt Reynolds’ classic movie “Smoky and the Bandit.”

I’ve managed to find photos of all my past and current vehicles that I’ve written about in this story. I’ve written a history about each one and what I was doing at the time, and included the specs on each vehicle.

Driver Ed Certificate
My Drivers Ed Certificate. I do not understand the reason for the date of August 29, 1974 other than it may have been the start date of my driving class. I was actually awarded my first driver’s license in early December, 1974, just in time to go home for the Christmas holidays.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes

Note: This story, unlike others I have written, has become a living document. I add to it as the vehicles I own change or gain more “history.”

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck

Cheesecake Shot of Myself, My Guinea Pig (Fred) and Truck, 1987

Synopsis:

My first vehicle, perfectly suited for a single male in his late teens and early 20’s. A unique custom mini-van conversion, I kept this truck for 11 years. I made two coast-to-coast trips plus several other long cross country drives, and several moves. Although this was sold under the Chevy nameplate, it was actually an Isuzu, and the start of my love affair with the Isuzu brand.

Read The History (2,123 words)

 

1977 Chevy Luv Series Six
Purchased: – New in October 1977, San Diego, California, about 108 miles- Traded-in for 1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab, August 1988, San Diego, California, about 110,000 miles
Standard Features:  – Black/Chrome trim
– 1.6 Liter 4 cylinder Engine
– 4-speed manual transmission
– Standard bed
– Rear chrome step bumper
– Opening Vent Windows
Custom Options:  – Mini-Van conversion with red interior carpeting.
– Fiberglas Camper shell with porthole windows
– Chromed Wheels with oversize raised-white letter tires
– Custom seats, black vinyl/red cloth
– Custom black/gold-button accent interior upholstery
– Custom built-in upright ice chest with mirror front.
– Chromed Custom Wide Mirrors, right side mirror electric adjustable
– Standard bumper-mount Trailer Hitch and trailer wiring
– AM/FM Cassette Stereo with dual speakers in rear bed area, under-dash mounted headphone jack
– Column-mounted tachometer
– Citizens Band (CB) Radio w/antenna and remote under-dash speaker
– Custom red overhead light in rear bed section
Major Repairs  Overhauled engine at about 94,000 miles.
– Installed Jacobs Electronic Ignition
– Rewired fuse block with new fuse panel and upgraded headlamp fuse
– Installed electric thermostat-controlled fan
– Installed heavier-power alternator
– Added second oil pan drain plug
Comments:  – Stolen Early December 1985, from condo parking lot, San Diego, California
– Recovered December 27, 1985, by police in Waukegan, Illinois. Subsequently driven back to San Diego
– Isuzu import sold under the Chevrolet brand and distributorship’s.
External Reference:  Wikipedia Entry For Cheverolet Luv Series

The photo above was taken at my house in South Bay San Diego, summer of 1987. That would be me in the cheesecake pose, playing with my pet Guinea Pig “Fred.”

 

Photo Collection
Chevy Luv with Cousin Mike Fenton, spring 1980 This photo was taken in the early spring of 1980, at my Aunt and Uncle’s place in Baldwin, Long Island. The person with me is my cousin Mike Fenton.
Chevy Luv with Chuck Schmitt This picture was taken in late spring, 1980, at Mom’s house in Burlingham, NewYork. The person in the photo is my best buddy Chuck Schmitt. (Chuck gave me my intro lessons to auto mechanics)

 

Chevy Luv Factory Brochure
1977 Chevy Luv Advertisment Cover page for a 1977 Chevy Luv advertising brochure. Looking through this brings back some pleasant memories…
1977 Chevy Luv Advertisement Page 2 I still love the lines of the exterior styling. Even in it’s time, this truck had a quirky, to me almost an “art deco” look, that set it apart from every other small truck in it’s class.
1977 Chevy Luv Advertisement Page 3

My particular truck did not have the Mikado package; there were enough options even without the factory upgrade package.

Along with the exterior, I really loved the dashboard styling. This brochure doesn’t really show it well, but the padded dash featured a “sideways hourglass” look, with the instrument panel symmetrical with the glove box, and the radio as the “waist.” Without the A/C option there was a shelf where the A/C interior unit would have mounted, which provided plenty of map storage. I also mounted a fire extinguisher under this shelf for long distance driving safety.

1977 Chevy Luv Advertisement Page 4 For some reason, this brochure does not include the Black color scheme. The instrument panel lighting was light green (a feature carried through in the 1988 SpaceCab) which I also enjoyed. To me the green lighting looks “professional” and easy on the eyes.

Index

1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes


1979 MG Midget 1500, in Torrence California

1979 MG Midget 1500

Synopsis:

This was the second car I owned. I purchased it while in my late 20’s as my hot “Southern California” singles machine. I owned it two years concurrently with my 1977 Luv. This car was the most enjoyable car to drive I’ve ever had – when it ran. This car also taught me what “high maintenance” really meant.

Read the History (1,253 Words)

 

1979 MG Midget 1500
Purchased: – From Private Party, May 1984, San Diego, California, about 32,000 miles
– Sold to Private party in July 1986, San Diego, California, about 56,000 miles
Standard Features: – 1493 cc 4 cylinder engine
– Zenith-Stromberg Carburetor
– Red w/ Gold Pinstripe
– Beige/Black Interior with Custom decorated fabric seats
– 5 speed manual transmission
Custom Options: – Convertable Soft Top
– Split Tonneau Cover
– Chrome Trunk Luggage Rack
– Wire Wheel Covers
– Am/FM cassette Stereo
– Under-dash mounted digital clock
– Custom seat upholstery
Major Repairs: – Overhauled Carburetor
– Replaced Starter Motor
– Replaced Alternator
– Replaced all 4 brake slave cylinders, master cylinder
– Replaced front disc brake pads, rotors
– Replaced stock distributor with Allison Electronic Ignition System
– Replaced mechanical fuel pump with trunk-mounted electric fuel pump
– Replaced fan belt
– Replaced all four Pirelli Steel-belted radial tires
– Replaced horn button along with turn-signal stick
– Replaced Clutch, crankshaft, front and rear main seals
Comments: High maintenance vehicle, but a serious kick to drive whenever it worked
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for MG Midgets

 

Photo Collection
1979 MG Midget and Proud Owner 1979 MG Midget and Proud Owner. This was one of a series of photos taken near my sister’s house in Torrence, California, in the summer of 1984.
Mom and the MG Yes, this is Mom with my MG. She did not enjoy riding in this car with the top down.
Auto Trader Ad The ad I placed to offloadsell my beloved MG. I’ve heard it said for boats that the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat, and the day they sell it. This would be true for my MG.

 

1979 MG Midget Factory Brochure
979 MG Advertising Brochure Cover Cover page for a Factory 1979 MG Advertising Brochure.
1979 MG Advertising Brochure Foldout

Foldout photo of the car. The large front and rear bumpers were required to meet DOT standards in the American market. The bumpers were filled with some type of fluid that allowed them to compress and distort, then comeback to normal after the pressure was released.This picture does not show the wire hubcap option my car had.

For all the mechanical problems, the MGs are pretty little cars. I personally believe that the red with gold pinstriping color scheme was the best-looking model.

I did have an MG ballcap, but not a T-Shirt.

1979 MG Advertising Brochure Page 4 People who have owned an MG will immediately understand the association with windsurfing. Adding sails to an MG would greatly increase the odds of getting home without a tow.
1979 MG Advertising Brochure Page 5 This picture makes the interior look a whole lot larger than it really was. The horn button was on the end of the turn-signal arm, not on the steering wheel itself. Hitting the horn too hard (like when someone just cut me off) would break the horn button, requiring replacement of the entire signal arm switch assembly. I learned this.
1979 MG Advertising Brochure Page 6

A display of the options and major features. The shifter had a very short throw that made for quick shifting and easy handling. The split tonneau cover was actually a slick idea. Sometimes I would keep the passenger side cover on while driving, which would provide some wind-protected space for books and papers.

The roof could be put up in a matter of moments, which was handy whenever I spotted approaching rainstorms.

The trunk (called a “boot” by the British) mounted luggage rack was a nice feature. I used the luggage rack for several trips, including my cross-country drive to Wyoming.

1979 MG Advertising Brochure Page 7

More windsurfing association. Notice that this brochure does not have any pictures of the MG in actual or even simulated motion.

 

Index

1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes

1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback

Synopsis:

This was a good, practical family car. It didn’t run especially well and it didn’t look especially nice, but it was reliable. I owned it for over three years spanning the time from when I lived in San Diego to when I lived in Naples, Italy.

Read the History (1,052 words)

 

1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
Purchased: – From Auto Dealer summer of 1986, San Diego, California
– Sold to Private Party, 1990, Naples, Italy
Features: – 1.6 Liter Four Cylinder Engine
– Brown Exterior Four Door Hatchback
– Brown Interior
– Air Conditioning
– Automatic Three Speed transmission
– AM/FM Radio
Custom Options: – After market Cruise Control
– Added “third eye” brake light
Comments: Okay Car, economical to operate, but nothing particularly outstanding about it.
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for Chevrolet Chevettes

The photo above was taken at my house in South Bay San Diego in the summer of 1987. I still had the Chevy Luv at the time.

1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure
Brochure for 1980 Chevrolet Chevette Cover page for a factory 1980 Chevrolet Chevette brochure.
1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure Pg 2-3 Most pages in this brochure are two page spreads.
1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure Pgs 4 - 5 There was a lot of usable cargo room, but limited by the low overhead.
1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure Pgs 6 - 7 Decent enough style for the time, comparable to what other US car manufacturers were putting out. I though the foreign car manufacturers had nicer designs.
1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure Pgs 8 - 9 The interior was actually pretty comfortable for a small car.
1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure Pgs 10 - 11 The dashboard was simple and functional.
1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure Pgs 12 - 13 I do believe this was the first year that cars staring using extensive electronic controls. Our Chevette had HEI ignition and an electronically controlled carburetor.
1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure Pgs 14 - 15 Having an automatic transmission was a nice touch. Most foreign car makers were producing manual transmissions in their economy cars as standard with automatic transmissions a pricey upgrade. This car was the least expensive car we found with an automatic.
1980 Chevrolet Chevette Brochure Back Cover Nice touch with the “Build Your Own” meme.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes


1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck

Synopsis:

1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab PickupOf all the vehicles I’ve owned, this 1988 Isuzu Pickup was my favorite. I bought it new right off the dealer showroom floor. I ultimately owned it for 16 years, loosing it to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I owned it for the years spanning my life in San Diego, Italy, and Mississippi, navy and post-navy life, and two marriages. On the day it was ruined it had over 230,000 actual miles and still looked sharp.

Read the History (3,318 Words)

 

1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
Purchased: – New from dealer, 1988, San Diego, California, about 84 miles
– Totaled by flooding during Hurricane Katrina, August 29 2005, Gautier, Mississippi, about 230,000 actual miles
Features: – Black w/ Chrome Hardware
– Gray and White Interior, grey fabric seats
– Isuzu Spacecab Silver and Red Decals
– 2.6 Liter 4 cylinder Electronic fuel injection Engine
– Power Steering
– 4 way disk brakes
– Cab and a half, rear half seats in cab
– Automatic transmission w/ selectable Overdrive
– Air Conditioning
– Sun Roof w/Cover
– Tilt Steering Wheel
– Pop-out side cab windows, tinted glass
– Rear Sliding Cab Window
– Operating Vent Windows
– Standard Bed
– AM/FM Cassette Stereo, later upgraded to AM/FM CD Stereo
– Chromed Steel Wheels w/ Aluminum inserts
Custom Options: – Tonneau Cover w/ Stretcher Bars and bed-mounted frame
– “Rhino Lining” bed lining
– Rear Chrome Step Bumper
– Class Three Towing Hitch w/ Trailer Wiring
Comments: Will probably always be my favorite vehicle
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for Isuzu TF Series Pickups

 

Photo Collection 
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup One of a series of photo taken with my truck parked in the driveway at home in Gautier, Mississippi, the spring of 2003. By this time the truck was 14 years old and still ran as good as she looked. It would not be until later that year when I started developing mechanical problems, nearing 200,000 actual miles.
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup I also had great luck with the quality of the tonneau cover. By this time, the cover was ten years old and just beginning to fray and tear. Not bad considering the number of times it was stretched out full of water after a Mississippi rainstorm.
My beautiful picture This was the last photo taken of my beautiful truck, November 2004, side by side with my newly purchased 2004 Rodeo. At 16 years old the truck still looked great.

 

1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure 
Brochure Cover for the 1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure cover page of the 1988 Isuzu Pickup series. This includes photos and descriptions of the entire line of pickups Isuzu produced this model year. I do believe 1988 was at or close to the high point for the Isuzu pickup line in America.
Inside Cover 1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure Isn’t this a pretty shot? The standard Isuzu pickup, but with the same exterior color scheme my truck had.
Inside Cover Foldout The photo above would be the top-line pickup version sold that year. This was the full LS “SpaceCab” model but with four-wheel drive that my truck did not include.
1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure Description This really was a tough, well built machine. After years of working on my old LUV pickup, I could easily recognize the continuation of body and chassis engineering.
1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure Engineering Details No four-wheel drive on my truck, but the engine offered plenty of power for everything I ever did with her.
1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure The operating side vent windows, sunroof, and the standard wide-view mirrors actually looked good.The side vent windows were a touch I really enjoyed. I don’t know why vehices don’t include this nice feature anymore.
1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure I do believe it was the only 1988 truck that offered four-way disk breaking, and the direct fuel injected engine was also rare in small pickups for that year.
1988 Isuzu Pickup LS Interior I loved the interior. I was disappointed that the really cool dashboard style of the old LUV series pickups was not continued, but this was still a nice layout. Having the control buttons right up next to the instrumentation was pretty innovative. The dashboard tray was wonderful!
1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure Interior The standard truck interior. Still nice for a small pickup. This year’s model did include front airbags.The upholstery was as well-made as the rest of the truck. After 16 years the dash had never cracked, and the seat fabric looked nearly like new.I always thought the tilt steering wheel was an odd feature for a truck, but very useful when there were two very different sized people driving it.
1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure Features and Options The truck line was loaded. Note how many different options could be selected for the different body styles.I think this may have been the last year that chrome bumpers and trim was available on any Isuzu truck.
1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure Features and Options Aluminum wheels were just beginning to come out during this era. In 1988 many tire shops would not touch aluminum (mag) rims as they had not yet invested in the special equipment required to work with aluminum. Using the older tools meant for steel could easily crack aluminum rims. Isuzu’s design of a steel rim with aluminum center pressed in meant it was easy to find a suitable tire shop, years before all shops were aluminum-rim capable.There was a plastic center cap covering the grease hubs and lug bolts pressed into the aluminum wheels. The caps on my wheels lasted for 14 years, before three disappeared in a matter of a few weeks while parked at the shipyard I worked at.
1988 Isuzu Pickup Brochure Back Cover Final view of the beautiful 1988 Isuzu pickups line, saving the best for last – the black with chrome LS model.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes


1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan

Synopsis:

1976 Alfa Romeo AlfettaA true “exotic” car, even more so than my former MG Midget. This was a pure Italian spec sedan built with the heart of a racecar. I purchased this car as cheap temporary transportation after arriving in Naples, Italy. I made some engine repairs which gave me a great appreciation for Italian engineering. As I didn’t need it after my first several months in Italy I sold it, and actually got more for it than I paid. A great little car.

Read the History (819 Words)

 

1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
Purchased: – From private party, 1989, Naples, Italy
– Sold to private party 1990, Naples, Italy
Features: – White w/ white interior
– 5 speed manual transmission
– DeDion Rear Axel Suspension
– 1.6 liter 4 cylinder engine
– Front engine w/ rear transmission, high speed drive shaft
– Front Vent Windows
– 4 way disk brakes
– Dual Overhead Cams
– Dual Sidedraft Carbs
Major Repairs: – Replaced the water pump
– Rebuilt the brake master cylinder
Comments: A fun car to drive! The best handling of any car I’ve owned.
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for Alfa Romeo Alfettas

 

Photo Collection
Alfa Romeo Alfetta A second shot of my exotic Italian-built family race car. Photos were taken in front of our “Parco” (Duplex Home) in Castelvolturno, Italy.

 

1976 Alfa Romeo Factory Advertising Brochure
Alfa Romeo Alfetta Sales Brochure Cover Cover page for an authentic 1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta sedan and GT models. This would be for the American import versions, so there would be some changes made to accommodate US DOT standards. Overall, I believe the major components described in this brochure are the same as my Italian spec car.
Alfa Roemo Sales Brochure, Second page Page two of the 1976 Alfa Romeo sales brochure. The actual brochure I scanned from is a fold-out single page, but it was too large for this web format. I found the description of the DeDion suspension especially interesting.
Alfa Romeo Alfetta Sales Brochure Page 3 Page three of the 1976 Alfa Romeo Sales Brochure. This offers details on the engine and interior features.
Alfa Romeo Alfetta Sales Brochure Back Cover Back cover of the 1976 Alfa Romeo sales brochure. This includes a list of standard features, options, and a brief history of the Alfa Romeo Company.
Magazine Ad for the 1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta A full page magazine ad for the Alfa Romeo Alfetta. I liked driving smart.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes


1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan

Synopsis:

Mercedes Benz 200DA basic German-built tank I owned during two years of my three year assignment in Naples, Italy. This was a solid German spec diesel sedan that my first wife and I used to explore Italy for the two years we owned it. It has been my only diesel-powered car. It was roomy, comfortable, and economical even by European standards. I have fond memories of this car for the association with exploring the beautiful Italian country-side.

Read the History (1,394 Words)

 

1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
Purchased: – From private party, 1990, Naples, Italy
– Sold to private party, 1993, Naples, Italy
Features: – From private party, 1990, Naples, Italy
– Sold to private party, 1993, Naples, Italy
– Taxi-cab Yellow with Green interior
– 2.0 Liter 4 cylinder Diesel, later upgraded to 2.4 liter diesel
– 4 speed manual transmission
– Manual Choke, later upgraded to automatic with the larger engine
– German lighting standard including split parking/snow lights
– Fog Lights
– AM/FM Stereo
– Mercedes Hood Ornament
Major Repairs: Originally equipped with a 200D engine. The engine failed within one year of purchase, and was replaced by a local dealer with a 240D engine. The larger engine provided slightly faster acceleration and more power.
Comments: No power steering, built like a tank.
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for Mercedes-Benz 240 D Series

The photo above was taken in the mountains just outside of Naples,Italy, in the winter of 1991/1992, on the road leading to the Monastery of Monte Vergine.

Photo Collection
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D For all the photos I took during the three years I explored Italy (and other parts of Europe) I have very few with our Mercedes included. This would have been taken sometime in spring of 1992 on the Sorrento Pennisula, one of my favorite local weekend drives.

1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan Factory Brochure
1978 Mercedes 200D Brochure Cover Cover of the 1978 Mercedes 200D Sedan Factory Brochure. This is actually an insert into the entire brochure package. Mercedes produced a rather lengthy and wordy description of all their Mercedes models for this year, together with brochure packets for each model. In the interests of keeping this relevant, I only posted scans of the 200D model.
1978 Mercedes 200D Brochure The car was large and very roomy inside, but no “frills”.
1978 Mercedes 200D Brochure Final page includes the technical data for this model. Simple and straightforward, pretty much like the car itself.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes

1991 Volvo 240 Sedan

Synopsis:

1991 Volvo 240This was my first wife’s pick and a car she dreamed about for several years before we purchased it. It was another roomy, comfortable sedan and good family car. I have to admit, I just never really cared for it. It went with my ex- as part of our divorce settlement, and was subsequently ruined by Hurricane Katrina.

Read the History (894 Words)

 

1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
Purchased: – From regional dealer, 1996, Atlanta, Georgia, about 80,000 miles
– Went with first wife in divorce property settlement, October 2001.
– Totaled by salt-water flooding during Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2005, Gautier, Mississippi
Features: – 4 cylinder 2.4 Liter engine
– Silver-Grey with white/maroon leather interior
– Automatic Transmission
– Air Conditioning
– Power Steering
– Power Windows
– Heated Front Seats
– Moon Roof with Windspoiler
– Cruise Control
– AM/FM Cassette Stereo
– Front Airbags
Comments Comfortable driving car, heated seats were very nice in the wintertime.
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for Volvo 200 Series

The photo above is the only remaining photo I have of this car. I cannot place the date or location of the photo.

1991 Volvo 240 Sedan Factory Brochure
1991 Volvo Factory Brochure Cover page for the 1991 Volvo Factory brochure. This covered all models produced by Volvo in this model year.
1991 Volvo Factory Brochure
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan Brochure
1991 Volvo Factory Brochure Specifications and options available for the model year.
1991 Volvo Factory Brochure Gratuitous large foldout of all Volvo models for 1991.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes


2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV

Synopsis:

2004 Rodeo LSI purchased this SUV brand new via the Internet service of E-Bay Motors. It was intended to be a replacement for my aging Isuzu LS SpaceCab. As with my previous two Isuzus, this vehicle was a real joy to own. It was the most comfortable vehicle I’ve ever had, looked great, handled well, and was extremely practical. I ended up owning this vehicle for eleven years, and it became the last Isuzu I owned. This Rodeo spanned the years I lived in Mississippi and northern Virginia, and was the tow vehicle for both my first and second boat.

Read the History (3,349 Words)

 

2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
Purchased: – New from dealer via Internet sales, October 2004, Orlando, Florida, with 14 miles on the odometer when purchased
– Sold to private party through a Craig’s List ad, December 2015, with 116,840 miles on the odometer
Standard Features: – 3.5 Liter six cylinder direct electronic fuel injection engine
– Metal flakes Maroon finish with tan interior, fabric seats
– 2 wheel drive
– Automatic Four-speed transmission
– Air Conditioning
– Power Steering
– Electronic ABS Front-wheel Disk Braking with rear drum brakes
– Class III hitch, trailer wiring, and towing package
– Alloy Wheels
– AM/FM Stereo w/ 6 CD Changer
– Cruise Control
– Power Windows
– Tilt Steering Wheel
– Power Door Locks, Remote Operator
– 3-way Power operated driver seat
– Four-way mud flaps
– 2 trip odometers
– Front airbags
– Fold-down Rear Seat for slide-in cargo space
Custom Options: – Factory standard fog/driving lights
– Roof luggage rack
– Class III towing hitch with heavy-duty wiring harness.
Major Repairs Fairly constant electrical problems with sensors and control switches. Replaced the Alternator twice. Extensive body work resulting from three significant accidents and several minor incidents
Comments: A sharp looking SUV, extremely comfortable driving, and a lot of power.
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for Isuzu Rodeo

 

Photo Collection
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS One of a series of photos taken at the dealership in Orlando, Florida before driving back to Mississippi. At the time these photos were taken, the Rodeo had 8 miles on the odometer.
2004 Isuzu Rodeo Side view of Rodeo, taken at the Orlando dealership when the Rodeo still had only 14 miles on it.
2004 Isuzu Rodeo, rear interior shot Rear interior shot showing cargo area with rear seat up.
My beautiful picture Photo taken in November 2004, side by side with my venerable 1988 Isuzu LS Pickup parked in my driveway in Gautier, Mississippi.
My beautiful picture Another photo side by side with my 1988 Isuzu LS Pickup. Looking closely you can see the difference in the aluminum wheels between the two models.
Leaving Mississippi with Boat Leaving Mississippi on our house hunting trip, September, 2006. I pulled my boat all the way to the Washington, D.C. area cruising just under 60 MPH, with no problems. I discovered that the cruise control was really handy when I needed to take it slow.
Arriving in Virgina, October 2006 Arriving at our apartment in northern Virginia, October. 2006. The trailer was loaded down with books, tools, and other heavy belongings I didn’t want to pay the movers for. Once again, our Rodeo made the trip with no problems.
2004 Rodeo Sale List The sales list with all options listed for my Rodeo. A bit weather beaten as this was one of the documents soaked by hurricane Katrina.

 

 2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
 Cover page for the 2004 Isuzu Rodeo SUV  Front cover of the Isuzu 2004 SUV lineup of the four different SUV models available that year.
 Foldout picture of the Isuzu 2004 Rodeo SUV  Foldout of the 2004 Rodeo SUV. I still believe Isuzu has consistently offered the nicest designs for the vehicles in their lineups.
 Isuzu 2004 Rodeo Brochure This was the first six cylinder vehicle I owned, and really liked the extra power. Lower fuel economy was the trade-off for the extra power, I rarely commuted long distances with her.
 Isuzu 2004 Rodeo Brochure Interior shot. Once again, Isuzu came through with a very comfortable interior. The dashboard is sleek and highly functional with the instrumentation I like. The rear fold-down seats create lots of interior cargo space, almost as much as my old LS SpaceCab Pickup (limited by the overhead space). Some nice touches are the tie-downs in the rear cargo space and a storage box on the side of one rear wheel well.
 Isuzu 2004 Rodeo SUV Brochure Spec sheet listing all the various options offered in the model year.
Isuzu 2004 Rodeo SUV Brochure Additional specs showing the color and exterior options. My Rodeo didn’t come with towing package, fog lights, or roof rack crossbars, but I added these after purchase.
Isuzu 2004 Rodeo SUV Brochure Final shots of the four SUV models Isuzu offered in 2004.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes


2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback

Synopsis:

2000 VW New BeetleWe purchased this as a second car that I briefly used for my commutes while Winnie got to drive the Rodeo. It was a cute little car that was surprisingly roomy and very maneuverable. With a five speed manual transmission it got great mileage, but a stick shift in stop-and-go traffic proved irritating. Once Winnie learned to drive a stick, this became her car as it proved too impractical for car pooling, which was my normal commuting mode at the time.

Read the History (874 Words)

 

2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
Purchased: – From private party, September 2007, Woodbridge, Virginia, about 96,000 miles
– Traded in for 2009 Nissan Versa
Features: – Silver with black interior
– 2.0 Liter 4 cylinder Engine
– 5 speed manual transmission
– Front Wheel Drive
– Power Door Locks, Remote operator
– Air Conditioning
– AM/FM Cassette w/ 6 CD Changer
– Front airbags
– Fold down rear seat for extra rear cargo space
– Headlamps are always on in a “Running Light” mode
– Has cute dash-mounted flower vase. Winnie thoughtfully added yellow silk sunflowers as her custom option.
Major Repairs: – Had the brakes rebuilt right after purchasing the car.
– Replaced the water pump, which included replacement of the timing belt.
– Replaced the sensor for the driver’s seat airbag.
Comments: A fun car to drive and had a lot more interior space that it would have seemed. It felt good to drive a stick shift again.
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for Volkswagan New Beetle

Second shot of the Beetle the day I brought her home. I didn’t get to own an original Beetle back in the 1970’s and early 80’s, although I did get to drive them on occasion. This little car has a lot of the charm of the original models but with some much needed creature comforts included. Like Air Conditioning and a decent stereo.

Photo Collection
2000 VW New Beetle Photo of this fun little car right after bringing her home.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes

2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback

Synopsis:First Day Home for the 2009 Nissan Versa

We traded in the 2000 VW New Beetle for Winnie’s choice of new car. This was a car she had been looking at for several years, even before we left Mississippi. She wanted an economical and practical small car for her commuting. However, after the first year’s ownership Winnie insisted that I use it for commuting as it got better mileage than the Rodeo, and Winnie went back to commuting in the Rodeo.  This car met an untimely and sad end in a collision that totaled the car, but both Winnie and I walked away without a scratch.

Read the History (1223 Words)

2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
Purchased: – September 2009 from a local Nissan Dealer, about 26 miles on the odometer
– Totaled in a front end collision, March 2013
Features: – Cherry Red Hatchback with Black Interior
– 1.8L 4 cylinder Engine
– Four Speed Automatic Transmission
– Air Conditioning
– AM/FM Single CD Player
– Dual Electric Mirrors
– Cruise Control with Steering Wheel-mounted Controls
– Advanced Air Bag System
– ABS Braking
– Rear Window Washer and Wiper
– 60/40 Fold Down Split Rear Seats for Greater Cargo Capacity
Major Repairs: Nothing except routine maintenance. This was a rock solid reliable little car
Comments: A practical and reliable car that was also sharp-looking.
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for the North American Nissan Versa

 

Photo Gallery
Winnie Showing Off Her New Car Winnie dressed for the occasion and showing off her new car, on the first day home.
Second Shot of the Proud Owner Second shot of the proud new owner showing off her first car.

 

2009 Nissan Versa Factory Brochure
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure This factory brochure is a first-class publication, with some really beautiful photographs.
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Foldout The first of several foldout photographs in this brochure
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Foldout Two page spread of this car in motion. although it did get good mileage, class-wise it was rated as the lowest mileage of all compacts in it’s class.
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Foldout Interior shot of the dash and steering wheel. This car had an attractive and practical dashboard layout.
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Foldout Nissan seemed to like showing their car in motion.
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Showing some of the body and engineering features. I can attest to the effectiveness of the air bag system.
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Showing the three models and main options for each model.
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Spec sheet for all options and features of the three models.
Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Showing the various color options. Nissan seems to do a great job of producing eye-catching colors.
Back Page of 2009 Nissan Versa Brochure Back page of the factory brochure showing all Nissan models sold in the North American market in 2009.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes


2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Four Door Sedan

2013 Nissan Versa

We purchased this car as a replacement for the 2009 Nissan Versa. This car was again Winnie’s choice, and quickly proved to be just as good a commuting car as the previous Nissan Versa. This was also the first car that Winnie added personalized license plates, choosing a number combination that was considered “auspicious.”

Read the History (432 Words) 

2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan
Purchased: – August 2013 from a local Nissan Dealer, 1732 miles on the odometer
Features: – Blue Four Door Sedan with Black Interior
– 1.6L 4 cylinder Engine
– Four Speed Automatic Transmission
– Air Conditioning
– AM/FM Single CD Player
– Bluetooth Hands-Free Phone System
– Dual Electric Mirrors
– Cruise Control with Steering Wheel-mounted Controls
– Advanced Air Bag System
– ABS Braking
– Rear Window Washer and Wiper
– 60/40 Fold Down Split Rear Seats for Greater Cargo Capacity
– Remote Trunk Release
Major Repairs: Nothing except routine maintenance. This was a rock solid reliable little car
Comments: A practical and reliable car that was also sharp-looking.
External Reference: Wikipedia Entry for the North American Nissan Versa

 

2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Factory Brochure Front Cover Front cover of the 2013 Nissan Versa Sedan factory brochure. This was another lovely brochure.
2013 Nissan Versa Factory Brochure  First foldout. This is a rather large brochure (number of pages) with good infomration and images on each page.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Second foldout of the car in motion.
 2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Closeup of the headlamps. Our particular model did not include fog lights, but I found it interesting that fog lamps came standard on the high-end model.
 2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  The navigation package was standard on the high-end model, not the model we had. Winnie did augment her car with her own GPS once she started doing long commutes.
 2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Nice instrument panel layout and gages.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan factory Brochure  Lots of trunk space for a small car.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Decent mileage, but actually not the best for it’s class.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Roomy interior, and the driver’s seat armrest was a nice feature.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Another photo of the car in motion.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Lots of customization options available.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Now getting into the spec sheets and options.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  Lots of options for this car.
 2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
 2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure Interior colors
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure Exterior colors. Nissan does manage to design sharp looking body colors that manage to not be garish like other Asian car manufacturers.
 2013 Nissan Versa Sedan Factory Brochure  And the back page.

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2015 Jeep Cherokee “Latitude”
Final Thoughts and Table of Changes

2015 Jeep Cherokee Latitude

We purchased this to replace the 2004 Isuzu Rodeo during a “Black Friday” (day after Thanksgiving) car sale. This vehicle was my choice after almost a year of researching affordable options to replace the Rodeo. I wanted a minimum 3.2 LT engine for the towing power, and I really wanted a Four-Wheel or All-Wheel drive package as well. This sweet software-controlled vehicle nicely fit the bill. It was loaded with electronics and I joke about the Jeep being smarter than me. With any luck, this vehicle will get me well into retirement when I’ll have lots of time to enjoy my outdoor Jeep-needing activities.

Read the History (424 Words)

Jeep Cherokee 3.2 LT Latitude
 Purchased  November 2015 from a local dealer, 459 miles on the odometer.
 Features
  • White with tan cloth upholstery, black leather dash and steering wheel, black carpets
  • Auto Stop/Start
  • Backup camera and “Park Sense” warning system
  • Blind Spot Warning System
  • LCD touch-screen display for AM/FM/SIRUS radio, media, climate controls
  • LCD Instrument console with Vehicle Information System
  • UConnect 8.4AN/RA4 touch screen radio with 9-1-1 emergency assistance, roadside assistance, and support for apps
  • Blue Tooth option for cellphone calls, text messages, and media hookup
  • Media options include One SD Card input, One Audio Input, Two USB ports, Two 12VDC Power Ports
  • 3.2L Pentastar V6 engine, rated 22 City / 31 Highway mileage
  • 4 wheel drive with four drive train settings (Selec-Terrain traction control system)
  • 9 speed automatic transaxle transmission
  • Cruise Control
  • Power Windows and power tailgate lift
  • Power Sunroof
  • Power Controlled and Heated Side Mirrors
  • Fog lights as standard equipment
  • Auto-dimming Rear View Mirror
  • Power Door Locks
  • Remote Start and Remote Rear Tailgate Operator
  • Center storage console
  • Front and side airbags, rear collision protection in head rests
  • Power driver seat
  • Three Programmable Garage door opener controls
  • Electric Parking Brake
  • Alloy wheels
 Custom Options
  •  Class III Tow Hitch and Wiring Harness, Dealer Installed
  • Thule AeroBlade 7501/7502 Roof Rack Bars
Comments One very sharp looking Jeep, and the heaviest vehicle I’d owned
External Reference https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeep_Cherokee_(KL)

Index

1977 Chevrolet LUV (Isuzu Luv Series Six) Pickup Truck
1979 MG Midget 1500
1980 Chevrolet Chevette 4 door Hatchback
1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck
1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.6 Four Door Sedan
1978 Mercedes Benz 200D 4 Door Sedan
1991 Volvo 240 Sedan
2004 Isuzu Rodeo LS SUV
2000 Volkswagen New Beetle GL 2 Door Hatchback
2009 Nissan Versa 1.8S Hatchback
2013 Nissan Versa 1.6SV Sedan 

Final Thoughts and Table of Changes

Final Thought and History of Updates

I’m sure I’ll be owning additional cars in the future. There’s no way of knowing what they will be, how they will be powered, or how long I’ll own any given vehicle. But as long as I’m healthy enough to drive, I’ll have a set of wheels!

Updated: February 8, 2009 – Added scans of factory brochures for the 1977 Chevy Luv and 1979 MG Midget.
Updated: February 23, 2009 – Added scans of factory brochures for the 1988 Isuzu LS SpaceCab Pickup Truck.
Updated: January 20, 2014 – General editing as part of reloading into a new website.
Updated: February 16, 2014 – Added scans of factory brochures for the 1980 Chevrolet Chevette.
Updated: February 17, 2014 – Added scan of the magazine ad for the 1976 Alfa Romeo Alfetta.
Updated: March 13, 2014 – Added brochure scans for the 1978 Mercedes and 1991 Volvo, added chapter on the 2009 Nissan Versa, added first page index.
Updated: March 22, 2014 – Added chapter on the 2013 Nissan Versa including all brochure scans.
Updated: March 14, 2015 – Added additional photos of the 1988 Isuzu LS Pickup and 2004 Isuzu Rodeo
Updated: August 4, 2015 – Added additional history on the 2004 Rodeo, added cross-links between the histories of each car.
Updated: December 2015 – Added new entry on the 2015 Jeep Cherokee, updated the history of the 2004 Rodeo.  Added the index directory to each page for better cross-referencing.

Publications: The write-up and history of my 1979 MG Midget was picked up and re-published by  editor Karl Eirik Haug for the car magazine “Carl’s Cars” published in Norway in February 2010 . 




My Encounter with Robert Garwood, Part II

This is Part II of A Two Part Series

This picks up from where “My Encounter with Robert Garwood Part I,” left off.

Chapter 8

In early June I had my chance for an intervention. My new job was a normal Monday to Friday schedule, but then one week I was scheduled to come into work on a special Saturday project. Although Marilou had been working every weekend for the past few months, the day after I told her of my Saturday schedule she announced she would have that Saturday off.

That Saturday morning, before leaving I told Marilou I’d be coming home at my normal workday time. I called her at my 11:00 lunch break, our normal routine, and mentioned that I’d be coming home about 5:00 PM. In reality, my work was finished at 2:30 and I left without calling ahead (until then, for our 14 years of marriage I always called first when coming home early).

Marilou was not in the house when I arrived home. Lights were off; breakfast dishes were still on the table, the bed unmade. It was apparent the house had been empty most of the day, but Marilou’s car was in the garage. Our wireless telephone that could receive calls from inside Robert’s house was missing from its charger cradle. All of Robert’s vehicles were in his driveway.

I walked down to Robert’s pier; it was deserted. Then I quietly walked to Robert’s back patio and looked into the open sliding glass door. I could see all through the kitchen, living room, and den. The house lights were off, no one visible, the house was silent. From the direction of the bedrooms I could hear “sleeping noises.”

I stood at the back door for a few minutes, thinking about what I should do. After a struggle I decided not to enter Robert’s house. Instead, I went back home and called our house phone from the cell phone. Our house phone rang a few times, and then the answering machine message kicked in. I left a message saying I would be home a bit earlier than 5:00 and hung up. I watched Robert’s back door from our Kitchen window.

Moments later, Marilou walked out of Robert’s house via his back door wearing only a house dress, with sleep in her eyes. The look on her face when she walked into our house through our back door and saw me standing in the kitchen was “priceless.”

What was said next will never be published. I will say that during several minutes of “talking,” I gave her the ultimatum: “Him or me.” Then our phone rang. Marilou answered it, listened a moment, said “He was here in the house waiting for me. I’m coming over.” She hung up and walked out the back door over to Robert’s house. I left and spent the night at a motel.

All I will write about the next two weeks between Marilou and myself is that it was a living hell. After nearly 15 years together, I had never seen Marilou exhibit such bizarre mood swings and out-of-control behavior. She maintained a solid front of denial that anything was going on between her and Robert. Her denials and explanations for what I had witnessed that Saturday afternoon were ingenious in their creativity. I would never have expected her to come up with those explanations on her own. In 15 years, I had never known her to so brazenly lie to anybody the way she continually lied to me during these two weeks.

Robert went back into hiding again. At least, he was not seen around his house in the evenings and weekends when I was home. I now believe that Marilou was contacting Robert each evening after leaving work and before returning home. I believe Robert was advising her on how to cover up their affair and play me out.

During this time I also contacted Tom McKenny on basis that he was both a minister, and Robert’s close friend. On my initial contact, he remembered me and willingly invited me to come by his house to talk. I went over on a Saturday afternoon when Marilou was at work, two weeks after discovery of the affair.

Tom and I had a long talk about everything that had happened starting in February. I could see he was deeply shocked with Robert’s behavior, but he made no attempt to take sides or in any way defend Robert. I explained that despite everything that had happened, I was still willing to try and work things out with Marilou and give us a chance in our marriage. Tom did offer to speak with Marilou in his role as minister.

That night Marilou agreed to talk with him. Up to this point, Marilou had refused to speak with even the Catholic priest at the church we had attended for over ten years. Although a devout catholic who rarely ever missed Sunday services, she was now defiantly avoiding all contact with her church.

We went back to Tom’s house the next afternoon in separate cars. Marilou previously insisted she would only talk if I was not present, so I introduced them, left and returned home. Marilou returned home several hours later and refused to say what was discussed, only that she was “not impressed” with Tom. I later learned from Tom that Marilou had talked with him for only a short while after I left, not the several hours she was actually gone. I now suspect she visited with Robert before returning home.

The next day, Monday, Robert reappeared home for the first time since my discovery of the affair. He arrived with several – large – male visitors, apparently planning on a long-term visit. To me, it looked an awful lot like he had brought along bodyguards. Marilou appeared to not notice he was back.

The next day, Tuesday, after more than two weeks of Marilou’ denials, lies and constant arguing, I finally had enough. When I returned home from work that evening I pulled out all the suitcases in the house and dumped them in the middle of the living room. It was my intention of confronting her with the “Or Else” ultimatum when she returned home from her job. I also made a phone call next door to Robert. As I expected, he would not answer the phone even though it was apparent he and his many – large – male visitors were there. I left a rather nasty message involving the use of bad words on his answering machine. In my message I warned him to stay away from Marilou and I called him a coward in several different ways for hiding from me.

Marilou returned home from work almost one hour later than normal that night, about 11:00 PM. She walked through the door and immediately started reprimanding me for calling and harassing Robert, but stopped talking when she saw the suitcases. I told her she had a decision to make – Robert or me. She looked at the suitcases, and announced “I’m Leaving.”

She grabbed a few personal items, walked out of our house and went next door. As she walked out I told her she would have the next day to remove her belongings, but Robert was not allowed in my house. I could hear her as she went next door calling out, in front of Robert’s guests, “Bob, I need a place to stay tonight.”

Her personal belongings were gone when I returned home the next day. Some of the items taken were pieces of furniture too large and heavy for her to move by herself, so I knew Robert or his guests had helped her. I could see that Robert’s house next door was empty again and one of his vehicles was missing. I later learned that Marilou had called into work that day, quitting her job with the explanation that she had to go back to the Philippines immediately for an indefinite period of time to care for her mom.

Once again, Robert had gone into hiding and this time he had taken Marilou with him.

Chapter 9

It quickly became common knowledge around the neighborhood what had happened between Marilou, Robert, and I. Two evenings after Marilou left, I was visiting with my neighbor Beth getting drunk and talking things out with her. Then, Beth told me about the conversation she had with Valerie earlier that day.

During her conversation with Valerie, Valerie had casually asked Beth “So what do you think about the abuse?” Upon further discussion, Beth learned that Robert had told Valerie, during the daytime of the previous two weeks he had “disappeared,” that Marilou would soon be leaving me. Valerie claimed Robert had told her I had routinely beaten and sexually abused Marilou for the all the years we were married. Valerie explained that Robert was taking Marilou into hiding, giving Marilou a chance to start her life over. Valerie claimed I had been described by Robert as a “monster.”

I was stunned. Beth explained she had flat told Valerie any stories of my abusing Marilou were simply not true. Beth also suggested I confront Valerie. I was still sober enough to act rationally so I immediately went over to Cris and Valerie’s house. I knocked on the door and Valerie answered, half hidden behind the door. She told me to go away but Cris, standing behind her, told me they were eating dinner and offered to come over and talk with me shortly.

An hour later Cris came by and we talked while sitting at my kitchen table. I started by asking him if he knew what was going on with me. He answered, cautiously, that he knew “infidelity was involved.” I then asked if he knew anything about Robert claiming I was abusing Marilou, as the reason for her leaving me. Cris looked puzzled and said “no.” I explained the conversation between Valerie and Beth earlier that day. Cris told me he would not believe any stories like that about me, but would ask Valerie what was going on and get back to me.

About 30 minutes later Cris returned. He looked angry and shook. He told me he and Valerie had talked, and Valerie had admitted to being told by Robert about my alleged abuse of Marilou. Cris would not tell me exactly what Valerie had claimed, on the grounds that Cris would be “concerned for Robert’s safety” if I knew what had been said about me. The only thing Cris would detail was a vague reference to “Coke Bottles.”

I was now angry. Cris and I talked for a few more minutes. He said he knew nothing of the conversations between Valerie and Robert before now. I could see in his eyes his sudden suspicion of Valerie, wondering what else had been going on between her and Robert. As Cris made to leave, he gave me a hug and wished me strength. Under the circumstances, I still consider his simple gesture one of the kindest I have ever experienced.

Tom McKenny, previously advised that Marilou had left and was in hiding with Robert, happened to call shortly afterwards. I told him of the story. He attempted to discount it as “probably exaggerated.” I was too upset to press the issue.

Several days later Marilou called me for the first time since she left. She refused to divulge where she was staying. During our talk I advised her that Robert had told Valerie she left because I was physically and sexually abusing her. She immediately and belligerently defended Robert. Marilou claimed that Robert had already told her Valerie had made passes at him that he turned down, so Valerie was probably jealous and attempting to make trouble. During this discussion Marilou demanded a divorce and I hung up.

Over the next several days, Marilou contacted me several more times. Each time it was to demand a divorce. She refused to even tell me where she was. I knew she was somewhere in the area close by, as neighbors told me they had seen her with Robert around his house several times during the day since she left me.

Tom had told me, during our first talk several weeks earlier, that Robert was planning a solo summer cross-country RV trip to visit with his family and spend some time back in Seattle. He mentioned it on basis that with Robert out of the picture, Marilou and I would have the chance to reconcile. But on Wednesday June 20 I returned home to a message from Marilou waiting on my answering machine. She told me she was leaving the area for several months and would sign divorce papers when she returned. I looked out the window and saw that Robert’s RV, formerly parked in Cris and Valerie’s driveway, was now gone. Beth later confirmed that she had seen Robert and Marilou drive off in the RV earlier that day.

That night, I started to make phone calls to our family informing them of Marilou’s affair, and that she had now left me. The family members who had met Robert were double shocked at her choice of man. During one of my calls an in-law made what I consider a most insightful comment. After I described what had happened between Marilou and Robert, my in-law observed “Marilou is a deeply moral person. For him to get her into his bed, he must have walked her through the fires of hell.”

Chapter 10

I was still in frequent contact with Tom McKenny. I knew he was conflicted by what was happening, feeling pulled by his friendship and ten year’s worth of defending Robert from his Vietnam -related charges. I also suspected that he wasn’t entirely impressed with my reluctance to divorce Marilou, as much as he lauded me for my “forgiving nature.” Tom was also bothered by my accusation that Robert had spread vicious rumors about me in an attempt to justify leaving with Marilou.

One evening about two weeks after Marilou left the area with Robert; Tom came by on a pre-arranged visit. I brought him over to Cris and Valerie’s house, introduced him, then went back home leaving Tom there. Tom came back about 30 minutes later. His face was pale, and it was apparent he was in shock. I poured him a cup of coffee and we sat at my kitchen table. Finally, he collected himself and confessed that Valerie had relayed Robert’s stories about me.

Tom wouldn’t repeat the stories, on grounds he would be concerned by what I might do to Robert if I knew what was said. Tom did mention, as Cris did several weeks earlier, vague references to “coke bottles.” Tom did relay that Robert had told Valerie he (Robert) was taking Marilou away because she had asked his help to get her away from a monster – me. Tom described Robert as making himself out to be a selfless hero for helping a woman being battered and abused by an abusive husband.

Tom went on to state he did not believe any of it, but also admitted that if he had not met me before hearing those stories, he might very well have believed them simply because he believed in Robert. From Tom’s tone, expression, and words, I knew he had just lost a close friend, and all I could say was how sorry I was for him.

This was also the most information I’d yet received on the lies Robert had attempted to spread about me. I now knew that had it not been for Beth, those lies could very easily have gotten around the neighborhood and made it impossible for me to continue living in my house regardless of what happened to my marriage.

Several days later after Valerie’s talk with Tom, Cris and Valerie moved out of the area on Cris’s military transfer orders. Also, shortly after Tom’s visit, Marilou and I established a limited means of communications using Robert’s cell phone. I could never contact her directly – all incoming calls were picked up on Robert’s voice mail, but Marilou would normally call me back within a few hours of my contact. Through these contacts, I learned she was visiting with Robert’s family members in different parts of the Midwest, and she and Robert were slowly working their way to Seattle.

Meanwhile, I was having frequent talks with Tom McKinney. When it became apparent that Robert had deliberately spread vile lies about me I announced I was considering legal actions for “defamation of Character” and anything else I could throw at Robert. Tom nearly panicked and requested I not take this step. He was worried about the impact a lawsuit would have on the many business and legal projects he and Robert were jointly involved with. I remember being less than concerned with projects possibility benefiting Robert, and let Tom know this in no uncertain terms.

After several more discussions Tom announced he would notify various people personally, including Oliver Stone and Senator Bob Smith, as to what was transpiring. Tom’s statement was “It would be better to hear this from a friend than a stranger.” He actually thanked me for pushing him into notifying people. So, my marriage woes became the topic of discussion with a Hollywood movie director and a United States Senator.

On Friday, July 13, Marilou called and announced she would be coming home “to talk” within the next several days. She flew back on July 24, two days after arriving at Robert’s house in Seattle. I made her reservations and paid for her airfare home – not Robert.

Her flight arrived nearly midnight in New Orleans airport where I met her, and we didn’t arrive at the house until 3:00 AM. It was a tense two hour drive back from New Orleans. Our arrival home became very confrontational. While she was gone I had sold our bedroom furniture, bought all new furniture and bedding to my tastes, and redecorated the room. Marilou took great offense to all this and announced she had no intention of sleeping in our room.

Although she spent the nights in our house she slept on the couch. Over the next few days she pretended to slowly move her belongings back into our house that had been previously transferred to Robert’s house the day after she first left. I made frequent attempts to open a dialog with her and talk about us, and our marriage. But she was completely closed, sometimes even to the point of denying anything had been going on with Robert prior to the night I threw her out. Our “talks” normally ended with an argument.

After ten days, late one night during yet another argument she abruptly walked out and went to Robert’s house. The next day she started moving more of her belongings next door and announced she would be living in Robert’s house permanently. Marilou again demanded I file for divorce, and now I acquiesced. As our property settlement, I agreed to file for irreconcilable differences in exchange for her accepting my financial offer. I considered my offer fair, under the circumstances, but it was a lot less than she expected and a take-it-or-leave-it deal; Take what I offered or go fight for more and make her adultery public. She accepted my settlement. I found a lawyer who agreed to take the case and scheduled a date for me to sign the papers two weeks out. Marilou announced she was going back to Seattle as soon as the divorce papers were signed and filed.

Chapter 11

While we waited for divorce papers, Marilou spent her days taking care of Robert’s house and supervising contractors on yard work and household projects. It was obvious that she had access to Robert’s funds since she had no job and almost no money of her own. We had near daily contact as Marilou was also busy moving her belongings out of our house. I also know that Marilou was in constant contact with Robert, presumably back at his former residence near Seattle.

With our daily contact, I gained a good sense of her mental state. Marilou did not act like a woman who had found her true love and soul mate. She acted schizophrenic. Her moods swung from ecstatic over our impending divorce and her chance to get back to Robert, to fits of remorse and guilt over our pending divorce bordering on sheer hysteria.

She often talked as though she was being forced into divorcing me as the only way to “make things right.” She once mentioned that she didn’t know if she would be getting married to Robert as she “never asked him” to marry her. She also stated many times she didn’t mind being his mistress; this coming from a person raised a strict Catholic in a country that has been described as practicing a “primitive Christianity.” I frequently had the thought, listening to her that some alien creature had taken over the body of the woman I knew for nearly 15 years. It was as if her entire personality was disintegrating.

I was watching a person go through a complete emotional collapse.

One thing I knew I had to do was force Marilou and Valerie to talk to each other about Robert’s abuse stories. It was as much for Valerie’s sake as it was for Marilou. I knew, from the little I’d received concerning Robert’s stories about me, that neither woman would ever be right until they knew the truth.

All I knew of Cris and Valerie’s whereabouts was that Valerie and the children were at her Mom’s house in northern Mississippi, while Cris was in a navy training school for his next assignment. It took some time, but I tracked down Valerie’s mom’s phone number. On a Saturday morning, I made a call to Valerie’s mom and received an answering machine recording. I left my message, explaining I needed for her to talk with Marilou.

Cris called me back within the hour. He congratulated me on my ability to locate them, stating he was “very impressed.” I told Cris that Marilou had returned home, and I needed for her and Valerie to talk so the truth would come out. I also explained I was thinking of filing a lawsuit against Robert, and if so might consider calling Valerie as a witness. Cris promised to talk with Valerie and have her call me.

Valerie called a few hours later. Her immediate words were that she was not willing to get involved between Marilou, Robert and me. I replied that by relaying stories about me from Robert to Beth, she already had become involved. I gave her a promise that if she willingly talked to Marilou about what happened between her and Robert, I would not call her as a witness if I decided to pursue a lawsuit.

She made me promise, several more times, not to call her as a witness if she spoke with Marilou. I promised each time, finally giving her my word as a former Senior Chief Petty Officer, the strongest promise that I could give. Valerie finally agreed. I told her Marilou was next door at Robert’s house; Valerie replied she already had the phone number and would call there directly.

I waited about 30 minutes, charged up. I attempted to call Robert’s number several time but received only a busy signal. Finally, I walked over and knocked on the back door. Marilou answered, looking as if she had seen a ghost. Her face was pale white, and she appeared in shock. She admitted she had just spoken to Valerie, and flat stated that she had told Valerie “everything that Robert said” about me was false. Then she asked me to leave.

I called back to Valerie and her mom answered. Her mom said Valerie was “outside” and not taking any calls. I just asked her to thank Valerie for me, for speaking with Marilou. I hung up and never called her or Cris again.

The next morning Marilou walked over while I was sitting on my back porch. She looked like she had been awake all night. We talked for a while, the first honest and open talk we had since she returned home. During our talk I asked what Valerie had said to her. Marilou refused to tell me, explaining she didn’t want to be responsible for what I might do to Robert.

My appointment with the divorce lawyer was scheduled for later that week. The day before the appointment, after a two week wait, the lawyer’s receptionist called telling me the appointment needed to be rescheduled as the lawyer would be in court all week. When I told Marilou I needed to reschedule, she went berserk screaming at me that I was trying to “keep us together.” The next day I returned home from work and Marilou came over announcing that she had found a lawyer and was filing the papers herself.

Chapter 12

The papers were done within a few days and the clock on our cooling off period began. Two days later after the filing Marilou closed up Robert’s house and flew back to Seattle. Robert paid for the flight.

I spoke with Tom McKenny on a regular basis over the next several weeks and he provided me with some interesting information. One item he told me about was a letter he received from Robert while Marilou was here in Gautier. Tom claimed that the letter appeared to be written while Robert was drunk. In the letter, Robert stated he was sorry he’d ever gotten involved with “the Charest’s.”

Our divorce was scheduled to be finalized at the end of October. Marilou knew she needed to be back in time to sign the final papers so I pretty much knew when to expect her. I assumed she would be coming back with Robert, triumphantly riding into town in his RV to finish the divorce and marry him. By the beginning of October, I realized I didn’t care, and was looking forward to being single again and moving on with my life. I even started dating again.

But less than two weeks before the divorce would become final Marilou called – the first time I had heard from her since she flew back to Seattle. She told me she would be flying back on her own, three days before the waiting period expired. She politely asked if I could pick her up at the Gulfport airport when she returned. I thought a few moments, and then agreed. I was intrigued, as if I was involved in a science experiment, as to what the game was now.

Marilou attempted to call me twice more before her arrival, and I was out of the house both times. Each time, she left a polite message on the answering machine complete with heavy sighs. Her tone was completely different than anything I had heard during her brief mid-summer visit. I was now sure that her relationship with Robert had soured during the past weeks.

Marilou arrived at the airport on time and showed real emotion when she saw me. She offered to buy me dinner on the way home as a thank you for picking her up. When we arrived in Gautier she asked if I would invite her into our house, and I agreed. Marilou came in, looked around, then spontaneously broke down and cried so hysterically she nearly collapsed. We moved to the kitchen table while she cried. When Marilou calmed herself I asked if she wanted to talk, she said “not now.” So I led her to the door, said “good night,” and moved her out.

I had given her a key to the house so she could remove her remaining belongings. The next afternoon, returning from work, I found Marilou in my kitchen preparing dinner for us. We ate and then talked. Marilou was still evasive on what had gone down between her and Robert. But her infatuation with Robert had clearly worn off. She finally asked if we could have a second chance to try and “fix” our marriage. I had expected this question and was ready for it. I had already decided that I really needed to know if our marriage was finished, that if asked I would agree to give Marilou and I one more chance.

So when Marilou asked, I agreed. I did demand that Marilou never contact Robert in any way. She made a vague non-promise on this, and then repeated her demand that I never ask anything about her and Robert. She claimed to not know when Robert was planning on returning back to Gautier.

We spoke for a few more minutes, and then she went back next door. The next day when I returned home from work I discovered Marilou had already moved almost all her belongings back into our house. This was almost everything she had previously taken next door to Robert’s house over a period of many days. Marilou also contacted her lawyer that day and put the divorce proceedings on hold. Her lawyer explained that as the waiting period was already past, all Marilou needed was a judge’s signature and our divorce would be final.

Marilou flew out to the Philippines on a Friday evening, October 27, barely two weeks later, to bring her mom home. Marilou planned on being gone only one week, a quick trip. Seeing her leave was actually a relief as the previous two weeks had been mostly tense.

The day before Marilou was due to arrive back with her mom, Robert returned home driving his RV. My heart sunk when I saw the RV. I knew that with Robert next door Marilou and I had no chance to reconcile even if Marilou really was sincere. But now I was also pretty sure Marilou had played me and that she had known all along when Robert would arrive home.

Marilou and her mom returned on schedule. Over the next several days I attempted to talk even though Marilou spent most of her time caring for her mom. But during this same time period, I knew Marilou was either sneaking over to Robert’s house during the day, or Robert was sneaking over to our house. I knew this because I could see the marks on the paths between our backyards. The evenings and weekends became more and more tense. By the end of the first week, I was dreading even going home. It became obvious that our marriage was finished. I knew I could never again trust her, and after several days realized I didn’t care.

Finally, it was over. Marilou announced on the evening of Tuesday, November 13 that she wanted to complete the divorce. I agreed, with relief. The next day, I signed the papers; Marilou contacted her lawyer and finalized the divorce Thursday November 15, 2001. The next day, Friday, she and her mom were out of the house for good.

During those three days Marilou claimed to be apartment hunting. I asked Marilou how she was planning on paying for the lease or even qualifying for an apartment without a job. She just shrugged and told me it was her problem. But I also witnessed Robert moving furniture out of his house Thursday evening which provided a pretty good idea who was going to be paying. He disappeared from the neighborhood the same day that Marilou and her mom left the house for good.

Marilou and Robert were married in a civil ceremony five days after our divorce became final. I now believe that after her mom was home, Marilou just played for time living with me while she negotiated a marriage with Robert.

Chapter 13

My involvement with Robert didn’t end then. Before Marilou left she asked me to promise I would not harass Robert. My reply was that if he absolutely avoided me, and she was still with him, I would not bother Robert. But I also informed her that if I ever learned Robert was attempting to smear me or attempt a second character assignation, I would not limit myself in retaliating. Marilou knew me well enough to know; I was not bluffing. But for the next several years Robert would continue to torment me via proxies.

While Marilou was living in my house with her mom until she could negotiate a marriage with Robert, Robert filed a police report and insurance claims for “stolen” property. He claimed that during the months he was gone thieves had broken into his home, vandalized it and stolen tools, lawn equipment, and one of his boats.

After Marilou had flown back to Seattle Tom and his son Jeff showed up one afternoon at Robert’s house with a truck. Jeff was head doctor for a missionary hospital he operated in Honduras, and didn’t get back to the U.S. very often. It turned out that one of the three boats Robert “owned,” the one that I considered a wreck, actually belonged to Jeff. They were there to reclaim Jeff’s boat.

Jeff explained he had let Robert borrow it long-term the year before with the understanding that Robert would restore it in exchange for its use. Robert never worked on it and now the boat was in worse condition then when Jeff first loaned it to Robert. However, the trailer the boat was on belonged to Robert. Tom and Jeff, with my assistance, hitched the boat and trailer up to their truck (after fixing a flat tire on Robert’s boat trailer) brought it back to Tom’s house, took the boat off the trailer and returned Robert’s trailer.

It was this boat that Robert listed in his police theft and vandalism report.

Tom McKenny contacted me about two weeks after our divorce was final and Marilou gone, to inform me about the theft report Robert had filed. According to Tom, detectives had come by his home to talk with him about the theft; Robert had fingered Tom as the most likely culprit. Tom explained to the detectives that he had in fact taken the boat, but it belonged to his son Jeff. The police showed Tom a copy of the boat title and registration in Robert’s name. Tom explained this didn’t make sense, as there never was any bill of sale to support a property transfer.

Tom subsequently contacted the State boat registration office and had a copy of the bill-of-sale faxed to him that had supported the titling and registration. It had Jeff’s signature on it, but the signature was not Jeff’s handwriting. By all appearances, Robert had forged a bill-of-sale and then titled the boat in his name, never expecting Jeff to someday reclaim the boat.

I visited Tom a few weeks later, and Tom was most anxious to tell me the outcome of the investigation. He showed me a copy of a document signed by Robert, provided to Tom by the Gautier police, attesting that Robert willingly dropped all charges of property theft “on penalty of charges being filed against him.” Marilou’s signature was on the document as witness. Tom explained just how deeply offended he felt by Robert turning against him in this way and attempting to destroy Tom’s reputation.

As a result of this incident, on top of everything else that had happened with Robert over the previous months, Tom later stepped down as one of the trustees of Robert’s legal defense fund. The fund was ultimately closed with all money they had collected going to a charity of the trustee’s choice. This action effectively ended any chance Robert would ever have to gain a new trial on his court-martial.

I still had limited contact with Marilou as I was making monthly payments on our property settlement, as agreed to under terms of our divorce. In the early spring, I learned that Marilou and Robert had purchased a house a house larger than either mine or Robert’s former house next door. It was located on a bayou opening directly on the Mississippi Sound in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Gautier. Robert’s house next door remained empty over the winter and spring, but he continued to store his boats and van there.

I also received occasional information on Marilou and Robert’s doing though Marilou’s cousin. Even after the divorce, I stayed close to Marilou’s family. One of her cousins with two children lived in the next town over. While I made a point of never asking about Marilou, her cousin would frequently volunteer information.

Tom learned from me that Robert and Marilou had bought a new house. Tom knew via his contacts that Robert was still not working, and I knew Marilou would never hold a job while she was caring for her mom. Tom and I frequently wondered together where Robert was getting his money from. At this point, Robert was still maintaining an empty house in Seattle and first one empty house in Gautier while paying rent for an apartment, then two houses in Gautier, all while supporting three people.

My visits with Tom were both social and for providing technical assistance. Tom was now working on a new book and needed periodic help with computer issues. I always made myself available to help him even on extreme short notice. I felt it was the least I could do as thank you for all the help he had given me the past year.

Chapter 14

During the summer, people periodically appeared to cut the grass at Robert’s house next door, but otherwise there was no activity there. Marilou was occasionally spotted coming and going, but she never spoke with any of her former neighbors, nor came by to talk with me.

In the early fall people moved into Robert’s house next door. Even though people were living there, Robert continued to keep his boats and other property stored there. These renters kept to themselves, had an unlisted phone number and at first would not even reveal their last names.

I quickly learned these people were Robert’s relatives, moved from Louisiana and leasing the house long term. Knowing they were Robert’s relatives, I suspected they had already received a long story about me in Robert and Marilou’s version of the truth. I also anticipated trouble. It didn’t take long for trouble to start.

Within weeks of their moving in we had our first confrontation. Arriving home from work one afternoon, I caught several of their kids (there were at least three children living there with frequent extended visitors) in my yard, cutting down trees, building a “pier” on the edge of my bayou shoreline using lumber that had blown in during a previous hurricane, and generally making a mess. I confronted them and their immediate vocal defense was “Bob said this was okay, he told us this is his property and his wood.” I ordered them off and filed a police report.

The parents refused to talk to me in person about the incident, not even allowing me on their front lawn. They rejected delivery of a certified letter, and Marilou ignored my written complaint to her. Then the family started mocking me openly and to my other neighbors. So I showed some teeth. I legally obtained their unlisted phone number and full names then made a late-evening phone call. We had a brief – very brief – chat before my neighbor hung up in shock. Piercing their anonymity shield had its desired effect and they stopped mocking me.

Meanwhile, stories the kids were spreading around the neighborhood drifted back to me. According to this family, Marilou and Robert never had an affair and only even became close long after Marilou was divorced. There were also intriguing stories that the divorce was for “irreconcilable differences,” somehow supposed to prove Marilou and Robert never had an affair while Marilou was still married to me.

On several occasions during that first year I needed to call the police due to gang fights and wild late-evening parties at the neighbor’s house. Then mysterious things began to happen to me. The Freon line on my heat pump’s outside unit, near our common property line, was cut. Water started appearing in my boat’s fuel tanks. That following summer while boating I had to be towed in twice by passing fisherman due to engine malfunctions. I had my boat in two different repair shops trying to figure out what was wrong. The second time, the very competent and very expensive mechanic who worked on my boat explained he discovered “several gallons” of water in each of my 12 gallon fuel tanks. So now I knew what was happening.

After a bit of thought, I wrote a nice letter to Marilou informing her there were some serious vandalism problems in her old neighborhood. I briefly described what was happening and explained that if I could catch the vandals I would be pressing charges, as damages already exceeded the $1000 limit than in Mississippi made vandalism a felony. But I also explained I was telling her so she could better protect her property next door. I wrote that it would be a shame if anything happened to the nice boats and other property her husband stored there.

Late in the afternoon of day the letter was delivered I observed Robert’s truck parked next door for several hours. It was the first time I’d seen his truck there since he moved away with Marilou. Although I had to call the police on several more occasions for fights and wild parties next door, I had no more problems with vandalism.

One interesting observation I made in filing my many police reports was the police’s attitude towards Robert. They were well aware of him and his background, and seemed to be not particularly pleased he was living in our community. They also exhibited frustration dealing with Robert’s cousins renting out Robert’s house.

After a period of post-divorce recovery, I decided to try a second shot at marriage. My avenue for romance was experimenting with the then newly-developing system of Internet match-making. During the summer of 2003 I met, via the Internet, a wonderful young woman and we quickly became close – emotionally. Physically, she was living in southeastern China which presented some logistics issues in developing our relationship. But we overcame them, and in October 2004 I flew out to China and we married. I returned home after a whirl-wind two week marriage and honeymoon trip, and filed for her visa. Just before my new marriage, I scraped together enough money to pay off Marilou’s property settlement, so I could start my new married life completely free and clear from her.

My new wife’s visa process became a nightmare, ultimately taking 20 months. During this period I slowly became friends with the youngest kid living next door, Josh, at that time just turning 15. By now there was a great deal of hard feelings on my part towards his family, but I could also see Josh was basically decent. Josh volunteered to help me with repairs on my boat several times when he saw me outside working on it, and I repaid him by taking him out fishing. Through him, I slowly got to know his parents, Robert’s cousins, on a non-confrontational basis.

Nearly one year after my second marriage, with my new bride still in China waiting for her visa, I was out in my driveway one Saturday afternoon washing my truck when Josh’s mom, Angela, came by. She asked if we could talk and I invited her up.

We talked for a long while. She admitted that until she and her family became Robert’s tenants, they didn’t really know what Robert was all about. Now, she admitted to being truly disgusted with him. She also admitted that Robert had told her a lot of stories about me that she now knew were untrue. She admitted that the stories Robert had told about me led to the early incidents of her kids vandalizing my property. Angela admitted that stories Robert had told them directly led to the “pier building” incident.

She also told me that Robert was now attempting to spread rumors about me concerning my new wife. Robert was telling people I had had “an Internet marriage, and was now having a lot of problems getting a visa.” The implication Angela had from these stories was that I was involved in a fraudulent marriage scheme.

From that day on, there were no more problems between Angela’s family and me. I relayed the information to Tom McKenny that Robert was once again attempting to spread rumors about me. Tom was already aware of the problems with my wife’s visa and promised to be alert if he heard any rumors about me that Robert was spreading. I had my hands full with my new wife’s visa, and maintaining a long-distance relationship, so I had no energy left to even consider retaliation against Robert for his latest round of rumor mongering against me.

Chapter 15

My new wife finally gained her visa and arrived in the U.S. July 15, 2005. Six weeks later hurricane Katrina blew though and wiped out the gulf coast.

Along with most of the gulf coast, the storm flooded out our entire sub-division. It was bad, but our homes were all at least still standing. Robert and Marilou’s new home did not do as well. They had bought a large, two-story house on a sheltered salt-water bayou directly off the Mississippi Sound. Their home, as well as almost every other home in their area, was nearly leveled by wind and storm surge damage. After the storm Robert, Marilou, and Lourdes were all living together in Robert’s RV.

Nearly immediately after the storm, Robert attempted to evict Angela and her family so himself, Marilou, and Lourdes could move in. Robert first attempted to file an eviction notice against them but Angela just laughed it off. Eviction notices immediately after Katrina was un-enforceable by order of the state Attorney General’s office.

Then Robert began harassment against Angela’s family in attempts to force them out. Angela and Josh told me that Robert was calling Angela’s family back in Louisiana making wild claims against them. According to Angela, Robert was claiming they were destroying his house, ripping great huge holes in the sheetrock walls, tearing out cabinets, and generally making the house unlivable. The pathetic part was that these statements were mostly true. Angela and her family were spending their own money, as agreed upon with Robert, to repair flood damage to his house. Ripping out cabinets and sheetrock to remove soggy insulation and dry out the structural framing was the initial step in flood recovery.

I also learned from Angela that Robert had only minimal flood insurance on his house on the Mississippi sound, and none on the house Angela’s family was in.

After several weeks of increasingly vicious harassment from Robert, Angela and family had enough. A day after the police were called in to quell a confrontation that nearly became a fistfight between Angela’s husband and Robert, in their driveway, Angela announced they were moving out. They bought a large travel trailer, located it in a friend’s driveway the next town over, and moved. I am very proud to state that Angela’s family and I parted as good friends.

Within days, Robert and Marilou moved in next door. During the time Robert was harassing his cousins, Marilou had taken her mom back to the Philippines.

About one week after Robert and Marilou moved back in, I had the pleasure of going to the Pascagoula DMV to register a utility trailer I had just purchased. The DMV offices had been wiped out during Katrina and temporary offices were now setup in the Pascagoula fairgrounds. Literally thousands of cars had been lost during the storm, and now thousands of people were buying replacement vehicles. The cumulative and completely predictable result was that the DMV line for registering new vehicles (including trailers) was several hours long. On the plus side, there was lots of folding chairs set-up for people to sit on while they waited.

So during the several hours I waited to register a 5×8 utility trailer, I struck up multiple conversations with the people sitting around me. One man in particular proved very talkative. He explained that his house was on the Mississippi sound, but was the only one undamaged in his entire neighborhood. He explained that his house was sitting at a high enough elevation that the storm surge only came halfway up his driveway and suffered some wind damages, but no water.

He talked about his neighbors and one couple in particular who lived directly across the street from him, right on the Mississippi sound. As he talked I began to suspect who these neighbors were. Finally I asked if the names of those neighbors were “Bob and Marilou Garwood.” In surprise, he said yes. The conversation became very interesting from that point on.

I told him who I was, and he was stunned to learn that both Robert and Marilou had previously been married. He had visited with them several times each week ever since they moved there (over three years), and they never once mentioned prior marriages. He didn’t even know they had only been married four years – from the way they talked, he assumed they have been married a very long time.

He talked about the damages to Robert and Marilou’s house. Marilou had owned a Baldwin piano ever since she had come to the US that was one of her most cherished possessions. This man told me it had literally floated out of the house down the street during the peak storm. He also told me a large cache of guns had been discovered after the storm, washed into the vacant lot near their house. No one claimed ownership and the Gautier police, along with ATF agents, had eventually hauled the guns off. This man explained that Robert had later told him the guns belonged to one of their other neighbors who was a CIA agent and former Special Forces agent during the Vietnam War. Robert claimed some involvement with this unspecified neighbor going back to his days in Vietnam.

This man also started talking about Robert’s tenants, Angela and her family. This man related how Robert had treated the husband so generously after the man was paroled from jail on felony charges, and received nothing but trouble in return. Hearing this, I was truly shocked. The man went on to relate that Robert had told him about endless amounts of problems he’d suffered over the years they rented from him, and that after the storm they destroyed what was left of his house before Robert was finally able to evict them.

I had some time to tell my version of the truth, before he was finally served by the DMV staff. I suspect he chose not to believe any of what I told him, other than perhaps believe I was Marilou’s former husband. I suspect I know where the guns came from that this man reported seeing washed into a vacant lot near Robert’s house – and they weren’t from some mysterious former CIA-employed neighbor.

Over the next months that Marilou and Robert lived next door, we managed to mostly avoid each other. My new wife did have the chance to watch Marilou working around the yard on several occasions. Marilou and I occasionally passed in local stores but we had nothing to say to each other. When Robert and I passed, he studiously avoided eye-contact with me. He also mananged to maintain a “safe” distance from me, despite how I moved around him. But living next door was one more stressor, on top of everything else I had to deal with after Katrina.

In October, 2006, my new wife and I moved to northern Virginia. God willing, my encounter with Robert Garwood has ended

Epilogue

Tom McKenny completely lost his Mississippi home during Hurricane Katrina. He had a beautiful small house on the edge of a bayou near the Mississippi Sound built on pilings almost 13 feet above normal sea level. However, the storm surge there during Katrina were about 18 feet and his home was washed completely off the pilings, broken up and drifted into many pieces over the nearby area. The last time I saw Tom, he and his daughter’s family were raking the grass around the foundation of his former home looking for anything they could salvage. Tom did at least have a chance to meet my new wife on that occasion.

I am aware of Tom’s controversial reputation among the Vietnam Veterans POW/MIA community. I flatly state that Tom was my lifeline during one of the toughest periods of my life. Tom supported me against a man whom Tom put his entire reputation on the line to defend for nearly ten years. It is my opinion that Tom is an honest and deeply religious man who wants to believe in the best side of people. Although Tom may still believe Robert’s stories about what happened in Vietnam, he ultimately severed all direct contact with Robert due to Tom’s strong moral convictions that what Robert did to me, and to my marriage with Marilou, was wrong.

Even though Cris and Valerie had moved on Cris’s military orders shortly after Marilou left, they kept their house next to Robert’s as rental property. When they left Cris was headed to his last duty assignment before retiring, and I knew that at one time they had planned on retiring in their Gautier house. However, after Cris retired they moved to Alabama and purchased a new house. I suspect that fallout from knowing Robert Garwood was a prime reason for their choice of retirement location. Their house was also flooded during Katrina, and when my wife and I moved the house was still vacant and unrepaired.

I often wonder what the relationship was between Robert and Valerie, and what part Valerie and Cris’s son had in keeping Robert from destroying their marriage the way Robert destroyed mine.

To this day, I still don’t know exactly what Robert said to Valerie about me. I still consider it my great good fortune that Beth was such an honest woman and tipped me off in time to contain Garwood’s attempted character assassination. Whatever stories Robert made up about me, they were obviously terrible enough that, had they gotten out into the general community, I would have been forced to move far away. I do believe forcing me to move away was part of Robert’s intention in making up those stories. I also believe he wanted to once again present himself as a selfless hero and give himself yet another chance to claim he was being unjustly harassed, this time by a deranged abusive husband.

During the period of time Marilou was riding around the U.S. in Robert’s RV, before our divorce, Tom had briefed writer and alleged journalist Monika Jensen-Stevenson on the sordid affair. During the short time Marilou was back in Gautier, before filing for divorce and going back to Seattle, she mentioned she had spoken by cell phone with Monika while riding around in the RV. Marilou also claimed that Monika had spoken with Robert several times during the RV trip.

Tom had told me that Monika was writing another book about Robert and himself at the time Marilou left. According to Tom, Monika’s next book would describe Robert as a misunderstood hero and victim of massive government cover-ups over POWs left behind in Vietnam. Even though Tom passed my contact information to Monika, with my full permission, she never made an attempt to contact me. Considering the level of controversy generated over her book “Spite House: The Last Secret of the War in Vietnam,” to the point of being successfully sued over it, one would think she’d want all available facts about her writing subject. The book she was allegedly working on at the time does not seem to have been published, so maybe she did something right after all.

However, I remain completely unimpressed with her journalism abilities.

The last I heard, Robert and Marilou are still married. I don’t know what type of relationship they have, and I honestly don’t care. But I do continue to feel some sympathy for Marilou. I fully believe, even to this day, that Robert worked very hard to get Marilou into his bed and encouraged her to lie to me about their affair long after she would have on her own. While any affair takes “Two to Tango,” I put the blame for the affair 80% on Robert’s shoulders. I truly believe he coldly used Marilou’s personal insecurities and stresses over the problems in our married life to get her into his bed.

I still often think about what I might have done different to keep her away from Robert, but I honestly don’t know. Given that Robert was determined to get any woman he wanted into his bed, the only real defense would have been for Marilou to recognize what he was, decide she wouldn’t be part of his harem, and kept away from him the way our neighbor Beth did. I truly believe that when Marilou started the affair Robert only wanted free sex, and Marilou never planned to end our marriage for him. I believe Robert marked me as so gullible and naive that I would never notice him and Marilou carrying on. I also believe that Robert actually started putting moves on Marilou from their very first meeting, the day Robert first moved into our neighborhood, a mere two weeks after his beloved wife Cathi died.

I quote the great French film actor, director, screenwriter and playwright Sacha Guitry: “When a man steals your wife, there is no better revenge than to let him keep her.” I think I did better than just extract that level of revenge.

Besides no new books being published about Robert Garwood, no movie about Robert Garwood ever rolled out of Oliver Stones’ film factory. Whether my push into publicizing Roberts’s actions with Marilou had anything to do with it, I don’t know. I’d like to think it did. I know I had an impact on terminating any chance Robert Garwood ever had to gain a new trial or even a pardon through the efforts of Tom McKenny. For this, I feel a large amount of satisfaction. From what I can tell, based on monitoring Vietnam Veteran Newsgroups and other information sources, “The ledgend of Robert Garwood” has now mostly faded away into obscurity.

Just one final observation about Robert Garwood’s claims of being imprisoned and brutally treated for long years at the hands of the Vietnamese:

One evening, during the time Robert was a welcomed dinner guest at my house and before I learned of his true past, Robert gave an interesting monologue after finishing a large meal and several shots of rum. This particular evening was the only time he ever drank with me. After his drinks, Robert started talking about the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese people. His tone of voice was different than during his previous monologues, more somber and with more emotion. He spoke about how the Vietnamese were merely defending themselves against what they perceived to be outside invaders and were attempting to defend their country, culture, and their way of life. He spoke about atrocities committed against the Vietnamese by first the French, and then our military. He finished his monologue with an impassioned statement that we, the U.S., never had any business going into Vietnam in the first place.

I distinctly remembered this particular evening’s monologue because it seemed so out of character for him, after the many times he’d regaled us with his roles in Special Forces and the Marines. And I’ve thought about that night’s monologue whenever I read the claims that Robert was held prisoner for many long years, brutally treated at the hands of the Vietnamese people.

There is a large Vietnam community located in the town of Biloxi, Mississippi. Many of the people living there were reportedly resettled by the US government as refugees after South Vietnam collapsed, and every Vietnamese who could fled to the US. From what I learned during the time Robert was a frequent dinner guest my house, and from what Tom knew through his own sources, Robert is fluent with the Vietnamese language and was very tight with this Vietnamese community.

That’s proof of nothing, but I can’t help thinking that if Robert was really held as a POW under brutal circumstances all those long years in Vietnam, he would not be so quick or willing to ingrate himself into any Vietnamese community.

I’m Just Saying…

I know there are still people who continue to believe Robert is living proof that our government left soldiers and airmen behind, alive, in the jungles of Vietnam. It is for those people that I wrote this very personal and still very painful story. Based upon my personal experiences with Robert Garwood, It is my belief that he did in fact fully earn and deserved his court martial convictions. I also state that if there are in fact U.S. soldiers and airmen still held against their will in Vietnam as unreleased POWs, the proof will not be found with Robert Garwood or by anything he says.

Update, October 18, 2007: I received some interesting feedback from one of my readers concerning Robert Garwood. This woman claims to have known Robert in Okinawa, before he was sent to Vietnam. Her account is linked here.

I will publish additional feedback as I receive it, with express permission of the author. If a reader does have a personal account of Robert Garwood, please contact me

Ron Charest
ETCS (SS), USN, Ret




My Encounter with Robert Garwood, Part I

Part I of a Two Part Series

This narrative is about my personal experience with Robert (Bobby) Russell Garwood, PFC, USMC, DD. This story, as painful as it has been for me, is written for and dedicated to the many people who served our nation in the Vietnam war. There are many people still today who believe our nation abandoned our servicemen and women after the hostilities between North Vietnam and the US officially ended. For those people who still believe, who still search for loved ones who never returned home, I hope one day they find the answers they deserve.

Prelude

These are the known facts about Robert:

In the summer of 1965, 19 year old Marine PFC Robert Russell Garwood served as a staff driver for the G-2 Intelligence section of the Third Marine Division in Da Nang, South Vietnam.

On September 28, with just 10 more days to complete his tour in Vietnam, Robert Garwood left the base and subsequently fell into the hands of the Viet Cong. During the remainder of the time US Forces were actively involved in South Vietnam, Robert was spotted by U.S. Prisoners Of War (POW) in various camps. Robert Garwood was not among the POWs sent back to the US when POWs were repatriated after hostilities between the US and North Vietnam was concluded.

On 9 February 1979 the U.S. State department was informed that on 1 February, Mr. Ossi Rahkonen, a Finnish national who worked for the World Bank headquarters in Washington, had been passed a note in the Thang Loi (Victory) Hotel in Hanoi by PFC Robert Russell Garwood, USMC.

PFC Garwood subsequently returned to the United States and subsequently tried by military court martial under articles of the UCMJ. ON 5 February 1981 PFC Garwood was found guilty on five specifications:

  1. That he served as an interpreter for the enemy.
  2. That he was camp “mole” and informed on his fellow American POWs to the VC and NVA;
  3. That he interrogated US POWs about military topics, including planning for any escapes;
  4. That he helped indoctrinate POWs and suggested that they “cross over” to the enemy as he had done
  5. That he had served as a guard for the enemy over his fellow US POWs.

He was ordered reduced to Private (E1), given a dishonorable discharge from the USMC, and forced to forfeit all back pay and allowances of almost $150,000.

On 3 June 1985 the Court of Military Appeals upheld Garwood’s court-martial conviction for offenses committed from 1965 – 1969. On 2 December 1985 the Supreme Court announced that it had declined to take the case of United States v. Robert R. Garwood. Case closed. (1)

What Robert actually did during the years he was in Vietnam has been the subject of extreme controversy ever since his return. There is more controversy surrounding events he has been involved in since returning to the U.S. But what is not controversial is what happened during my personal encounter with him.

In October, 1999, Robert Garwood and his wife Cathi purchased the house next door to mine in the small town of Gautier, Mississippi. Without knowing anything about him other than he was a new neighbor and recent widower, I welcomed him and treated him as a friend. Within two years, Robert would destroy my marriage, attempt to smear me with the most vile lies I’ve ever been a victim of, and generally turn my life upside down.

(1) References:

Chapter 1

In October of 1999 my wife, Marilou, and I had been together 14 years and married for 13.

Marilou was raised in a suburb of Manila, Republic of the Philippines, in a very conservative Catholic household. She earned a nursing degree in one of the better Manila colleges, and was board certified Public Health Nurse at the time she left the Philippines. We met shortly after she immigrated to San Diego and married 20 months later. Being raised in traditional Philippines custom, she had limited experience with dating prior to our courtship.

Due to needs of the navy we were separated several times during our first ten years of marriage. We had purchased our Gautier, Mississippi, house in November 1993 near the end of my 22-year navy career. I spent the next two years as a geographical bachelor living aboard my ship home ported in Hawaii while Marilou tended the home fires in Gautier. I retired, returned to Gautier, and by October 1999 was still learning how to be a civilian.

We had a nice house on a one acre partially wooded lot backing onto a freshwater bayou, at the end of a street cul-de-sac. We were in a peaceful neighborhood in a quiet Mississippi Gulf Coast town. This was exactly what Marilou and I wanted for our post-navy life. We had had some rocky years since I retired as I learned to be a civilian, and attempted to build a career in an area where jobs for my skills were scarce. But I never had any reason to think our marriage was in irreparable trouble.

The house next door to our right also backed onto the bayou. There was a lot of brush along our respective property line following a drainage ditch, which provided privacy between the houses. There was a path through the brush and over the ditch connecting the two properties that made it easy to walk between the back yards, should someone choose to. With the brush and short road frontage, our backyards were completely private from street view and other neighbors.

The owners had had built the next-door house and had been living there since 1974 as one of the first people in our sub-division. In the summer of 1999 the husband developed a serious gambling habit, resulting in running up so much debt they were forced to sell. The house was sold and they started moving out in late October, 1999. By early January the house was vacant.

I saw Robert Garwood for the first time with his wife Cathi in late January of 2000 as the new owners of that house next door. Robert and Cathi inspected the house and property, took some video, and left without talking to any neighbors.

I next met Robert, now a widow, on a Friday afternoon in late April. The house had been vacant for over three months and there was intense neighborhood speculation about the new owners. This particular Friday morning a moving truck appeared at the house along with a large RV and small armada of vehicles. While I was in the backyard performing my normal off-Friday yard chores (my work schedule was alternating Fridays off) Marilou wandered out front to watch the movers.

I came out front in the early afternoon and Marilou introduced me to Robert. She had been apparently talking with him for some time while he supervised movers. Robert and I chatted for a few moments before he rushed off. After he left, Marilou started telling me about him, wide-eyed and in hushed whispers. She told me his wife had just passed away of cancer, unexpected. She also said that Robert was a famous Hollywood movie producer coming here to retire and perhaps make movies in Gautier. She told me Robert claimed to know a lot of big-time producers and actors back in Hollywood.

She was almost breathless and her face was flushed; I had never seen her act like that after meeting someone. I also thought I had heard the name “Robert Garwood” before. But I passed off the thought of name recognition as possibly confusing him with someone I’d briefly known over the years.

I saw Robert again a few days later. This time we had a long conversation while standing out in front of our houses. After a brief mournful monologue about the way his late wife had died, he started talking about himself. I clearly remember various claims he made during this conversation including:

  • He was close friends with then-Senator Bob Smith (R-NH). Robert claimed I would one day get to meet him when the Senator came for a visit.
  • He was close friends with actor Ralph Macchio and his wife. Robert claimed I would one day get to meet them when they came for a visit.
  • He was close personal friends with the movie actor Kirk Douglas and family. Once again, I would one day meet them when they came for a visit.
  • He was a leading member of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Group (even though he didn’t own a motorcycle). He explained I would have the chance to meet them all when they had rallies on his property. I distinctly remember being not excited about major motorcycle rallies being held next door.
  • He was a former Vietnam veteran. He made vague claims about being with Special Forces doing vague mysterious things in Vietnam during and long after the war ended. I distinctly remember the knowing, sly look he gave me when he cryptically said “not everybody left Vietnam after the war ended.”
  • He had many close friends among Vietnam Veterans groups and the MIA/POW movement. He talked about these groups a though he was a leading figure. He claimed I would have frequent chances to meet other veterans. He explained that as a navy veteran myself, although not a Vietnam combat veteran, I would be most welcomed among his many veteran friends.

I remember being intrigued by his claims, but also thought they sounded way too much like bullshit.

My normal personality is to always give a person the benefit of doubt when first meeting them, and let their subsequent actions be the judge. With Robert, on this first meeting, I was already suspicious of him. But I kept my thoughts to myself. In talking with Marilou that evening, I jokingly told her that with a wealthy Hollywood movie producer as next-door neighbor, our lives were about to change.

I could not possibly have known just how horribly correct I was.

Chapter 2

Over the next several weeks he spent a lot of time hanging around us, particularly Marilou, and hanging with the neighbors on his other side, Cris and Valerie. Cris was still active-duty navy assigned to a ship home ported in Pascagoula, and Valerie was a stay-at-home-mom caring for their little boy. Around Marilou and Valerie, Robert routinely relayed long mournful monologues about his late wife. Around me, and when Cris was with us, Robert would offer a brief monologue about his wife then move on to stories about Vietnam, the MIA/POW movement, and his time in Hollywood.

He also had continuous complaints about the former owners of his house. He claimed they had cheated him by taking more plants and yard fixtures than they were supposed to under terms of their sale. Robert claimed he and Cathi had gone out of their way to be nice to them by letting them stay in the house several months after the sale, and the former owners returned kindness by stealing from him. Robert also claimed he had purchased the house well below market value by going directly through the Casino which held the gambling debts, and there had been some mysterious legal issues while dealing with the Casino.

In befitting his status as recent widower, Marilou and Valerie alternated bringing him home-cooked meals. Robert started making frequent requests for assistance around his house, particularly to Marilou. I didn’t immediately object as I considered that helping him was part of being a good neighbor.

In late April, about the same time Robert moved in, Marilou’s mom Lourdes had moved in with us from San Diego. Lourdes was not in good health and we quickly became her mom’s near-full time care giver. Helping out Robert added to Marilou’s already considerable stress of providing for her mom’s care, working full time at a retail department store, and managing our house.

Robert’s house had an especially nice pier into the bayou behind our homes. The previous owners kept to themselves and never allowed anyone onto their property. Robert, as soon as he moved in, gave us an open invite to use the pier for fishing and hanging out. This quickly became the place for Marilou and me to hang out and visit with Robert.

Robert had also met my other next-door neighbor, Beth, shortly after moving in. Beth was an older woman (older than me) who had become a widow just over a year earlier. Initially, she would hang with Marilou and Valerie out in the street talking with Robert. Then, after an afternoon chat out on Robert’s pier, she abruptly refused to have anything more to do with him. Robert later made frequent claims Beth had made a pass at him, and he turned her down.

It was nearly a year before Beth told me that Robert had made a crude and straight-up pass at her that she flat rejected while they were out on his pier that afternoon.

Robert left Gautier in mid-June, heading back to his former house in Seattle, Washington in his RV. He had explained that he would be spending several months in Seattle and in Hollywood, California on business. Before he left he initiated a massive remodeling project.

He claimed that as a bachelor he needed to make the house comfortable for himself, not a “monument” to his deceased wife. His remodeling included replacing a large wood deck in the back of his house with poured concrete and brick, building a very large brick two car garage and workshop with an enlarged concrete driveway and RV parking pad, all new kitchen cabinetry, replacing all the carpeting with ceramic tile and repainting the house’s interior.

Before he left he asked Marilou and I to watch over the contractors, and he made arrangements to call us as needed to handle some of the details. He explained he would be talking with the contractors frequently to be sure they were doing the work correctly and on schedule. He also asked Cris and Valerie to closely monitor his contractors. Cris once told me Robert actually had Cris routinely handle payment transactions with the contractors. I thought this was a lot to be asking from people he had just met.

Robert returned sometime around late August. His remodeling project was far from complete and in total chaos.

Immediately upon return, Robert made charges of being cheated by his contractors over materials he paid for but never received, and complained of paying for work that never was completed. Garwood claimed he had given his bank account number and direct withdrawal authorization to the head contractor, who subsequently drained his account way in excess of the work contracted for. This made no sense to me as he had authorized our neighbor Cris to handle his contractor finances.

In Robert’s defense, it was apparent to me that most of the work that was done was substandard. But my sympathy was limited as I lived with the guiding principle; “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.” Having just survived a major remodeling project of our own the year prior, I felt Robert had been extremely foolish running a project of his magnitude from half-way across the U.S.

Robert also claimed to be missing workshop equipment and accused various contractors of being the thieves. Robert claimed that after he filed police reports, the subsequent police investigations revealed that the contractor had no contractor’s license, numerous complaints with the Better Business Bureau, and prior legal actions pending from arrest warrants issued in Alabama.

Over the next several months Marilou and I heard a constant stream of complaints and charges against the various contractors he had hired. It seemed as if everyone he hired went out of their way to rip him off with outrageous prices on shoddy workmanship, and when Robert refused to pay them, they spitefully filed workman’s liens against him. Meanwhile, Robert hired some general handymen and had them working under his direct supervision finishing his many home improvement projects.

Robert didn’t have a job and I frequently wondered where his money came from. He had told us he and Cathi paid cash for his house but still owned a house back in Seattle. He had dumped a lot of money into remodeling his house over the summer. He now had anywhere from three to four people working for him daily, for several months. He also explained that his Class “A” RV was fully paid for.

Chapter 3

After he returned from his summertime trip Robert became a constant visitor at our house. When he wasn’t at our house, Marilou was at his, with me often joining her. We began to routinely invite him over for dinner and evening socializing. During our visits, Robert regaled us with endless monologues. When he wasn’t complaining about his former contractors, his various storylines included veiled, mysterious references about his time in Vietnam.

I listened to monologues which described him variously working with the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, Marine Reconnaissance and the Green Berets. He described even more mysterious references to military work he’d done in-country long after the Vietnam War ended.

He made fairly consistent claims of being a former Marine, but he never admitted to his rank when he left the Corps or how much time he actually spent on active duty. When I asked him when he retired, Robert made some vague answers of “a long time ago” and changed the subject.

To listen to him talk, I could easily have thought he honorably retired from active military duty after 20 years as a senior non-com or junior officer. Despite the many stories he told about Vietnam, he never once talked about being a POW. He also talked at length about working in Hollywood after he left the military.

Robert told many stories about working with Kirk Douglas and the Douglas family. He continually dropped names of other actors, actresses, directors and producers he claimed to have worked with, met, or were close friends with. He talked about movie productions he claimed to have worked on. It wasn’t too long before he started slyly telling Marilou and me that he could introduce us to “the right people” and get us good jobs in Hollywood “if we were interested.”

Robert routinely complained about the family of his late wife Cathi, describing them as evil people who expected to gain more inheritance than she left to them. Robert claimed they were filing lawsuits and legally harassing him over the inheritance, and were doing everything possible to make his life miserable instead of honoring the wishes of his deceased wife.

Robert also started complaining about a Vietnamese lady living in Biloxi who was harassing him and attempting to force Robert to marry her. Robert claimed he had befriended this woman because she was lonely; she misunderstood his intentions and “somehow” developed the idea they would marry. In Robert’s stable of canned monologues, her attempts to harass him into marriage just became one more somewhat amusing (to me) story line.

The more time I spent around Robert and heard his canned complaints and monologues, the less impressed I became with him. His stories seemed to contradict each other. For example; based on his various accounts, Robert was simultaneously working for the CIA, Army Special Forces and Marine Reconnaissance in Vietnam while simultaneously working in Hollywood for the Douglas Family. Significant details of his stories changed with each retelling. Robert always seemed to be victimized one way or another as a result of selflessly assisting someone. All his stories began to sound the same and they all sounded phony.

Another annoyance was his not paying attention to the time while talking in monologue for hours on end. Several times Robert droned on until 3:00 AM on a weeknight when I had to be at work by 7:00 AM in the morning. As much as I always try to be a good host, I finally started running him out of our house on my schedule, not his.

We were not the only family Robert socialized with. His other neighbor Valerie was also constantly over at his house during the day with her son. Between Marilou and Valerie the two ladies were almost in competition over who would spend the most time with him. At first I was bemused, as I had never seen Marilou act this way for anybody. But then she was spending so much time next door I began to feel annoyed.

Marilou was spending so much time at Robert’s it was difficult for me to even call her at our house during the day. Marilou “solved” that problem by purchasing a wireless telephone with a range that could pick up our calls all the way down to Robert’s pier, or from inside his house. At Marilou’s suggestion, we also purchased a cell phone she could keep in her car, for her given reason that she would have some security on her drives home from work late at night.

Looking back on this period of time, it seemed as though Robert had taken over our lives. Somehow, whatever he needed at any given moment became the goals and responsibility of everyone around him. More than once, I found myself dropping whatever plans I had made to help him out with some sudden crisis, or stopped whatever I was doing just to listen to his endless monologues about Vietnam, Hollywood, or the latest person who was cheating him.

I observed Cris and Valerie, especially Valerie, doing similar things for Robert. I began to hear from Beth that Valerie was spending at least as much time with Robert as Marilou was. Perhaps even more time, as Marilou was working as retail sales associate and Valerie was always home during the day with her son. Robert apparently became a hero to Valerie and a “bigger-than-life” figure to their little boy.

For me, Robert went from being a welcomed guest to an annoyance. Had it not been for Marilou I would have stopped socializing with him. Unfortunately, Marilou was still impressed with him and kept inviting him over. Despite my annoyance I decided not to speak out. I still never suspected anything was going on other than Marilou spending all her free time socializing with a neighbor. After the years of navy life we had, and the years of trust we had built up, I didn’t feel any reason to be suspicious of her.

I also knew that Marilou would need to figure out for herself that Robert was not what he claimed to be. I fully expected that she was capable of seeing for herself the same things I had seen in Robert. That thought proved to be so very wrong.

Chapter 4

I had briefly seen Robert’s large arsenal of rifles and firearms while he was moving in and getting settled down, but didn’t think too much about it. This was Mississippi, after all. However, one day in early fall agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) paid Robert a “visit” and thoroughly searched his house, but didn’t find the guns. Later, Robert claimed that his in-laws had made wild charges against him which led to the visit.

In addition to Robert’s RV, he had a large Ford Pickup Truck, a 3/4 ton Van, and a small white Honda compact car that had once been Cathi’s car. Even with his large driveway there was no room to park all these vehicles. Cris and Valerie had an RV parking pad they didn’t use, built by a former owner of their house, and they allowed Robert to park his RV on their property. After the ATF visit, Robert mentioned he was storing his guns in the RV and so the ATF never found them.

During the fall the local police also made periodic visits to Robert’s house. In fact, the local police were at Robert’s house more in several weeks than I had previously seen in our entire neighborhood for the past several years. When I asked Robert about the visits, he vaguely claimed concerned fights with the former contractors or Robert’s in-laws. He frequently claimed that the Gautier Police were harassing him for reasons Robert never could seem to define.

In early October I met two people who Robert frequently talked about; Mark Smith (Major, USA, Ret) and Tom McKenny (Colonel, USMC, Ret). They were visiting with Robert one evening when I happened to stop by. It was apparent from the introductions that that Robert had told them a lot about us and how much we had helped him. I distinctly remember Mark saying to me “Thank you for everything you’ve done for our brother.” Tom McKenny seconded those thanks, and I learned that he lived in a nearby town.

I felt proud that evening. I have a deep belief that former military people need to take care of each other. Receiving Mark and Tom’s thanks that evening almost made up for the many nights I had sat up until 3:00 AM entertaining Robert.

It wasn’t until late October that I learned Robert’s true past. One day after I returned home from work Marilou met me at the door and announced breathlessly “He’s someone famous.” While at Robert’s house that day she had spotted a book about him that was sent for his autograph. Intrigued, I got on the Internet and did a search on his name. Dozens of references popped up.

I spent that evening briefly reading about Robert’s time in Vietnam, the court martial, claims and counter-claims about who was telling the truth and who was lying. I learned about the relationship between himself and Tom McKenny. After reading through some especially vicious newsgroup posts, I decided I would not judge him on what or may not have happened 30 years prior. But now I also knew that he had been lying to us during his endless monologues about the time spent in Vietnam and Robert’s military career.

I advised Marilou to not let on that we knew about his true past. My stated reason was to let Robert make a fresh start for himself here, and not judge him by his past. My real, unspoken, reason was to learn just what other stories Robert would spin. I no longer trusted him, and all things being equal would have avoided him. Regrettably, Marilou now considered him “bigger than life” and if anything spent more time around Robert than before.

Ironically, my research also proved that Robert had in fact spent time working in Hollywood, and did work for the Douglas family for several years. This gave Marilou an excuse to at least believe Robert’s Hollywood stories and his connections with producers, directors, actors and actresses.

I later discovered that Cris and Valerie had known of Robert’s past almost from their first meeting. Cris had also come to the decision to let Robert make a new life for himself, and not judge based on what may have happened in the past. None of our other neighbors knew anything about Robert, other than what they saw of him while hanging around the neighborhood.

In late November Lourdes had the opportunity to travel back to the Philippines and visit her family. She was too frail to travel by herself so family friends who were traveling agreed to escort her there and back. Lourdes was scheduled to return in mid-January with her travel companions, but after several weeks visit decided to stay longer. So now we needed to find some way to help Lourdes return home early in the spring.

One evening shortly after Lourdes left, visiting at our house, Robert asked me about the local “Asian” massage parlors in front of Marilou. At that time there were two “Asian” massage parlors operating in our area, both commonly known to be fronts for prostitution. Robert had to know this before asking me. I felt annoyed and wondered why he thought I had any personal knowledge of those places – I didn’t – and why he would even consider asking me such a question in front of Marilou. I now suspect he was now starting to hit on Marilou and drive a subtle wedge between Marilou and me.

By mid-December, he was routinely flirting with Marilou in front of me. He was also frequently telling her how easy it would be for her to land a great job in Hollywood, with clear implication he could make that happen. I let things roll as I still trusted Marilou, believing she would not let herself be taken in by Robert. But I also noticed that over time she was increasingly vocal in defending Robert against any criticism I made of him, and I began to feel stirrings of concern about her.

Shortly before the Christmas holidays, Robert made a trip back to Hollywood to meet with director Oliver Stone. Robert explained that Oliver Stone was going to make a movie about the Vietnam War and was interested in making Robert a technical consultant. When he returned Robert excitedly announced that Oliver Stone was “definitely” going to make the movie. He informed us that Oliver Stone had hired him during the meeting as technical consultant for the film. Robert explained that parts of the movie were to be made in the Philippines during the coming spring, and hinted there might be a potential job for Marilou during the filming phase.

Marilou and I had a quiet Christmas holidays together. Christmas day we celebrated with long-time friends; Robert was not at dinner with us even though Marilou had invited him. New Year’s Eve 2000 was celebrated at home, and at midnight Marilou and I slow-danced to Kenny G’s “Auld Lang Syne: The Millennium Mix,” welcoming in the new year.

It would be the last time Marilou and I ever danced together.

Chapter 5

My job had been rocky for many months due to serious personality conflicts between myself and a better-connected co-worker. After the holidays our conflict took a turn for the worse and I could foresee job hunting in my near future. The issue of jobs was now being frequently discussed during evening conversations between Robert, Marilou and I. What I remember is that for all Robert’s talk about getting Marilou a job in Hollywood, he never once made me any offers of referrals or job leads with Hollywood-based companies. But, I would not have believed him if he had.

By now, I was convinced that Robert’s claims of Hollywood greatness were as much crap as his stories of Vietnam. I occasionally gave my opinions to Marilou, and every time she became strongly defensive of Robert. So then I kept my opinions to myself, with the thought that at some point Marilou would have to see the truth. However, this created a conflict that became a wedge between us.

Lourdes was still in the Philippines and waiting for someone to help her get back home. Marilou and I began to make tentative plans to travel to the Philippines for two weeks, visit with her family, and bring Lourdes back with us. Although we had been married 14 years I never had the chance to meet her family back in the Philippines. But with my job looking increasingly unstable we didn’t know how we were going to be financially able to make the trip. The issue of getting Lourdes home became another stress on top of everything else we were dealing with in our marriage.

One evening in late January Robert asked me to follow him out to an auto repair shop 30 miles from our house, to give him a ride home after leaving his car there for servicing. After we left the shop Robert invited me to dinner – the first time he’d ever offered to treat for anything. During dinner, he talked a lot about Marilou and her potential for a career in Hollywood. He told me about his upcoming project working for director Oliver Stone, which he claimed would be filmed mostly in the Philippines.

The point of the dinner and conversation became clear when he asked me if I would have a problem with Marilou working for him on this project. Robert explained this would be an ideal chance for Marilou to get out to the Philippines all expenses paid for several months. Robert also claimed that, as Marilou was so smart and industrious; the project could lead to her getting other Hollywood jobs. He was vague as to what position she would actually have with the project. Robert claimed that on any major movie production, there was so much money floating around leading individuals (which on this project would include him) could hire personal assistants without specifying the duties in advance.

I agreed with him that it would be great for Marilou to get a new career, and it would be great if she could be back in her native country for a while. I already believed him to be a complete fraud but I still played along. Even though I had no expectation that Robert could actually get Marilou the job he claimed he could, I wanted to see what his game was. I now suspect Robert was testing me to determine just how gullible I was.

Later that night, back at home, I told Marilou what transpired during dinner. I did not tell her I believed Robert to be a fraud, but presented what he told me as though Robert could actually deliver what he offered. It was my belief that this was the only way for Marilou to recognize Robert was just spinning out fantasies, and get her to recognize what I already knew.

I also told Marilou that I trusted her on a job that would take her out of the country and away from me for a long period of time. From the sudden strange look she gave me, I knew something was very wrong.

We invited Robert over for movies and popcorn one Saturday evening in early February. After the movie, as he was getting ready to leave, he “remembered” he didn’t have a flashlight with him and it was pretty dark outside. We loaned him one of our flashlights; he went over to his house, got one of his, and came back to the house to return ours.

Marilou met him by the door while I was in our bedroom getting ready for bed. When she came into our bedroom her face was flushed and she had an expression I’d never before seen on her. I now believe she and Robert had a rather serious good-night kiss at our front door.

Chapter 6

My job situation continued to deteriorate. In late February the conflicts with my co-worker came to a head and I was put into a situation I could not live with. Early Friday morning, February 23, 2001, I walked into my supervisor’s office and handed in my letter of resignation. I cleared out my desk and by 9:00 AM I returned home unemployed. When I came into the house I discovered Robert sitting in our kitchen talking with Marilou. I announced my new status among the unemployed and we talked for a while about possible job options.

One subject I discussed was in joining the merchant marine. I had already been job hunting and among other options had been talking with merchant marine recruiters. I had learned about the Merchant Marine’s two to four week sea-shore rotation schedules and the pay scales that were better than any other career prospect open to me in our area. During this discussion Marilou expressed support of my joining the merchant marines, on the grounds that going to sea was something I loved. It came time for her to get ready for work on the afternoon shift, so we said goodbye and Robert and I walked out into my backyard. On my way out I grabbed the long-range wireless telephone (the one Marilou had purchased several months earlier) just in case a job prospect called.

Robert and I walked around the backyard talking about my reasons for quitting, and my prospects for new job. It was a beautiful day and all the windows in both our houses were open for the fresh air. After a few minutes Robert excused himself and went into his house. A moment later I heard a phone ring. Thinking it was our phone ringing, and thinking Marilou had already left for work, I answered up on the wireless telephone I was carrying.

The first words I heard was Marilou’s whispered “I Love you.” Then I heard Robert answering back with some inane comment. I stood there for a moment, uncomprehending. Their romantic banter continued. Then I did understand, and with understanding felt as if I’d stuck my finger in an electrical outlet. I was totally paralyzed, waves of shock running up and down my body holding me as immobile as stone while Robert and Marilou continued to banter with each other.

I heard Robert say “It’s going to be hard for a while, with Ron home all the time these next weeks. Hopefully he’ll get another job soon.” And then “You know, if Ron goes back to sea and is gone two weeks at a time we can have a lot of fun.” I heard Marilou agreeing with him and whispering some more romantic nothings. I finally recovered enough from my paralysis to disconnect the phone.

I stood in the yard trying to come to terms with what I had just heard. Robert nonchalantly walked back out of his house a few minutes later just as Marilou called me in the house. Marilou and I had a few words as I attempted to act as though nothing was wrong, then Marilou left for work. I went back outside, chatted a few moments with Robert, trying to clear my head, attempting to pretend nothing was wrong, and then Robert left.

Robert went into hiding – I didn’t see him again for about one week.

I spent the rest of the day thinking hard, trying to decide what to do. It was obvious now that Robert and Marilou were having an affair, but I simply did not know how to deal with it. I finally decided that I owed Marilou a chance to work things out. She nonchalantly returned home much later than normal that evening. I confronted her with overhearing their morning conversation, and Marilou immediately protested that it meant nothing other than “just talk.” Marilou denied anything was going on between her and Robert other than a lot of talk.

It’s now apparent to me that she had returned home late because she had been talking with him via cell phone after she left work.

We talked a long time, but Marilou continued her denials of any affair. Marilou did confess that Robert had recently given her some jewelry as a gift. She even showed two pieces to me; they were expensive 18 carat gold with inset gems. I asked her to give it back and she promised she would. I never asked her about the jewelry again, and I honestly do not know what ever happened to it.

I ended our talk by telling Marilou that Robert was no longer welcomed in our house, and demanded that she avoid him. The one honest thing Marilou said to me that long night was that she did not understand Robert’s “draw.” She admitted she could not understand why he attracted her so much.

Robert reappeared a week later, out and about in his yard as before. When I was close to his property line he’d drift over and attempt to chat with me as if nothing had ever happened. I didn’t invite him over to my house ever again. Within days, Marilou was back visiting with him at every opportunity. When I pushed the issue, Marilou became indignant. She insisted they were only friends and she had the right to socialize with whomever she wanted to.

Chapter 7

Over the next several weeks I was busy job hunting. My schedule was sporadic with job interviews, researching job openings, and using my free time to catch up on household chores. On a regular basis, I’d return home from job-hunting and discover Marilou and Robert out on his back patio talking.

In addition to his many vehicles, Robert had three center-console boats in about the 16 to 24 foot range, each on its own trailer, parked under a large shed in his backyard. The largest boat, a Boston Whaler and Robert’s professed favorite, looked in pretty good condition but the smallest boat was a wreck. Robert explained that a friend had given the small boat to him to fix up.

As the weather became warmer Robert started to get his mid-sized boat ready for the season, with Marilou’s help. She ended up spending nearly three straight days at Robert’s house working with him him. As much as I wanted to avoid Robert, I became drawn into the project simply because I had to go there to have any chance of talking with Marilou.

After several days work, the boat was ready and Robert decided to take it out on the Pascagoula River for an evening run. He “casually” invited Marilou and me to go with him and I knew something had been planned. Although they both acted like this was a spur of the moment idea, he and Marilou both dressed up before we took the boat to the nearby launch. I had on a pair of dirty coveralls I’d been wearing while working in the yard that day. Marilou wanted me to change; I refused on reason that we were only “taking the boat out for a spin.”

Once out on the river, Robert “spontaneously” suggested we pull into a riverside marina with a nice pier-side bar and restaurant offering live entertainment, which happened to be one of the nicest such places in Gautier. It was the type of place that he and Marilou were dressed for, not me.

As we pulled up to the pier at the marina I went forward to handle the mooring lines. I was standing on the bow as we made our approach and somehow sensed “something” was going to happen. I tightened my grip on the line, already secured to the boat’s cleats, as we drifted slowly up to the pier. Sure enough, just as we came close to the pier and I was ready to step across Robert threw the boat into a full power backing. I saved myself from being thrown overboard only because of my tight grip on the lines. The power backing was totally unnecessary for boat handling, and if I had not had a tight grip on the lines I would have been dumped into the water.

I continue to believe Robert deliberately attempted to dump me overboard that evening.

At the marina we ordered some food and drinks. With the perspective of many dinners we had previously hosted for him, the several days Marilou and I had spent helping him prep the boat, and that I had been out of work for several weeks, Robert let us pay for everything.

Easter Sunday came about a week after this boating event. Marilou and I always celebrated Easter with family friends at their home, and this year Marilou insisted they invite Robert as well. Her reason was she didn’t want him to “be lonely” at Easter. Despite all the friends he claimed to have around the coast, it seemed no one else wanted to invite him for Easter dinner.

True to form, Robert went to our friend’s house empty-handed even though I made a point of letting him know potluck was expected. During dinner Robert talked endlessly about his experiences in Vietnam, Hollywood and still complained about his former contractors. No stories new to me, but Robert’s monologues dominated the conversation throughout the afternoon.

After weeks of unemployment I finally landed a job at a near-by shipyard starting shortly after Easter. This put me back on a 7:30 to 4:30 Monday to Friday work schedule. Right after I started my new job, Marilou’s work schedule suddenly changed to where she was working three weekday afternoon/nights and both days on weekends.

At various times during that spring we were visited by Marilou’s aunt from San Diego (younger sister to Lourdes), Marilou’s cousin from New Jersey, My mom, and my dad. Every visitor except my Dad met Robert. I never said anything to anybody about Marilou and Robert’s affair. Besides not having the proof I needed, I still had honest hopes of saving our marriage. I knew that the more Marilou’s affair became public knowledge the more it would be difficult to reconcile. I also knew that making accusations now, before I had solid proof, would blow back against me. I had to wait until I could either prove the affair, or until I could find a way to reconcile with Marilou.

Of all our visitors that spring, my mom was the only one who later told me not to trust Robert and was the only one who expressed concern to me about Marilou spending so much time around him. Leave it to a “mother’s instincts” to notice things.

One discussion I thought particularly interesting was between Robert and Marilou’s New Jersey cousin. Marilou and her cousin met him on his back patio, with me in earshot, and Robert treated them to a one-hour monologue about himself. This time, he talked mysteriously about his work in Hollywood, dealing with the Hollywood mafia, and his connections with the CIA. Afterward, I asked Marylou’s cousin, in private, her impressions of Robert. Her reply was that, based on his talk, she felt he was deeply involved with the mafia and various criminal groups. She also believed, based on his monologue, Robert was a big-time Hollywood executive.

After several weeks in my new job it was obvious that Marilou and Robert were having a torrid affair. Robert pretended nothing was going on, and was actually pretty good about pretending. Marilou was also pretending but was not very good at it, and I could see her becoming more distant from me each passing day. I decided I needed to force things out in the open.

Due to limitations of the web software this site is built on, this story has been broken into two parts. You may follow the conclusion of this narrative in Part II.

Ron Charest
ETCS (SS), USN, Ret.




The Long Wait

After Our Wedding, the Long Wait for Winnie’s Visa

This continues the saga of our (Winnie and mine) Internet Romance and Marriage. Falling in love and marrying via Internet proved a lot easier than getting her visa to join me in America.

By the time I left China after our wedding I was about as exhausted, physically and emotionally, as I’d been in many years. The jet lag of a 13 hours time change, the different climate, food, all the constant traveling, never knowing what was going on (due to my lack of language skills), and getting married besides just did me in.

I had stopped over in Los Angeles on the return home to visit family . During my stopover a local brush fire caused cancellation of all flights out, so I returned home a day late, Monday evening, exhausted and developing a major cold. I had to go to work the next morning, tired and sick though I was. I also had to put together Winnie’s visa application.

I had researched what documents I would need from our marriage and from Winnie before my trip started. While we were together I’d made sure I had Winnie fill out her portion of the papers, gotten two different sets of photos, and gathered international-format birth certificates and marriage documents. Winnie had already filed for her Chinese passport before our marriage – I didn’t want to take any chances on her passport application causing delays.

As much as I had prepared before leaving, it still took about ten days to get everything together. As careful as I’d been in getting Winnie to fill out documents, I missed one field in one form where she was required to write her name and address in her native script. There was no way I could figure out how to write in Chinese but a co-worker, a native of Hong Kong, was able to help me out.

I finally got the two-inch stack of documents and application forms collected, added the filing fee check, stuffed everything into a large envelop and mailed it all off to the USCIS, formerly known as the INS until the Department of Homeland Security was created. This package was the first step in the visa process, colloquially known as the “I-130,” the applications that ultimately gain Winnie permanent US residency by virtue of being my wife. At the time I filed it, the last day of October, 2003, the USCIS was advertising a 180 day wait. I already knew this was a lie; people I’d been talking to who were familiar with the process already warned it would take more than one year.

To shorten the family separation time, the next step was filing for an “I-129” temporary visa. This visa, which is also called either a K-1 or K-3, was created during the Clinton administration to allow family member to come to the US and wait while the actual visa was be processed. At the time I filed, the USCIS was advertising 90 to 120 days wait which I suspected was also a lie, but deeply hoped would be so quick.

Part of the I-129 process was proof of having already filed for the I-130. Proof was the “I-797” receipts the USCIS provided for every application filed. I received the I-797 two weeks after filing the I-130 and quickly sent out the two inch stack of documents and applications (all the same docs needed for the I-130 with a few extras added in) with another check to cover the fees. I received my I-797 for this filing two weeks later, just before Thanksgiving. Then, all we could do was wait. Winnie would have to stay in China until at least the I-129 was approved.

Chapter 2 – Waiting

I remained sick and exhausted until well after Thanksgiving. But I still got on the Internet at least once each day to chat with my new wife. When I recovered we were able to spend time chatting until we were back to our previous routine – once or twice each day and hours-long chats on Saturday mornings. We also frequently had hours-long chats on Friday nights (my time) and again on Saturday nights (my time). We called them our “weekend dates.” I didn’t need to be anywhere else anyway – I was a married man, again.

This routine continued for the next several months. At Christmas time I went to visit Mom in New York and was out of contact with Winnie for about ten days. Winnie did surprise me by calling several times while I was at Mom’s house, and Mom had a chance to talk with her new daughter-in-Law.

For the 14 months we were courting Winnie never asked me for any financial support. I offered several times after we were engaged but she always turned me down. Her self-sufficient nature was one of the many things I admired about her and greatly helped me trust her long before we met in person. But now, we were married.

Winnie had been going to English-language classes several times each week before we married besides working full time. Between her classes and the time we spent on-line, her English (at least written and reading skills) were rapidly improving. After Christmas she asked me if I would support her so she could quit work and go to classes “full-time,” which meant two classes each weekday and one on Saturdays. We discussed how much money she would need, and I agreed.

So Winnie became a full-time student, and I learned how to move money overseas.

Dad passed away in February without ever having a chance to meet his new Daughter-in-Law. I flew out to Los Angeles to help arrange the funeral while Winnie assured me she was observing the proper (Buddhist) rites on our behalf. Once again, we were mostly out of touch for several days.

I heard nothing from the USCIS and by May 2004 I started to become concerned. By USCIS rules, I could not contact them for at least six months after filing the I-129 (actually, I could contact them whenever I wanted to. But they would simply refuse to answer any inquires on applications less than six months old). I really didn’t care about the I-130, I already knew that would be several years coming. I just wanted to get Winnie to the US.

So, six months and one day after filing the I-129, I called the USCIS “Hot line” to find out what was happening. With the first call I made I knew something was seriously wrong. On the first call, the “helpful” USCIS agent explained she had no record of my application, even though I had the I-797 receipt in my hand.

She helpfully explained I was welcome to submit a formal inquiry, which would only take about three months for an answer. I initiated it, and then hung up. I was calling from work; it was early morning, so I stormed into my supervisor’s office and announced I was taking the rest of the day off. I drove over to the New Orleans USCIS office foolishly thinking a personal visit would solve everything.

It was just as well I decided not to wait. I never received a response to my formal inquiry.

In New Orleans, the agents graciously allowed me to talk with them but offered no information or help. One agent did take my name and phone number and promised me she’d investigate and call as soon as she knew something. When I didn’t hear anything by the following week, I went back to the New Orleans office. Once again, lots of promises, but no answers. I actually went back for a third visit the following week. On the third visit, the agents helpfully told me I was wasting my time visiting.

Chapter 3 – Looking For Help

It was now June, and I knew I needed an advocate to help find out what had gone wrong. First, I located an immigration lawyer in nearby Mobile, Alabama. The lawyer gave me an hour of free consultation, then promised to look into the problem and later discuss fees for whatever legal services would be needed. He never called me back and never returned my follow-up calls.

So I turned to my elected representatives, starting with Congressman Gene Taylor’s office. His immigrations staffer was very gracious, taking down all needed information, then promised she’d check and get back to me.

Two weeks later I called back. The staffer explained she didn’t have an answer yet, but would call me when she did. I called two weeks later again, and this time she never returned my call. So I escalated my concern to Mississippi’s senior Senator and local hometown-boy-made-good, Senator Trent Lott.

His office didn’t call me back even on the first time I left a message.

By now I was beginning to feel desperate. It was going on August. I was getting no assistance anywhere and Winnie was getting nervous. She’d already seen a few friends who were married after her receive their USCIS letter, the next step of the immigration process. I did my best to reassure her and let her know I was getting help finding out what had gone wrong. But it was getting harder to convince her.

My worse fear at this point was that she would start to think I was playing games with her and had no intention of bringing her to America. In reality, all she had was my word that the papers had been filed. It was at this point, when I was feeling my lowest, that a co-worked made a comment that had to be the most callous thing any person has ever said to me.

I was now working in a four-person office with three co-workers. One day, I was venting to one co-worker about my latest frustrations with the visa. I was getting no help from the USICS, I had no status on the application, had been ignored by a lawyer and two of my elected officials who I asked for help, and my wife was getting scared she’d never be coming to her husband in America.

With all this, another co-worker in the room, a good ole’ boy originally from Arkansas, turned to me and said “[The visa process] keeps people from flying airplanes into our buildings.” Neither of my other two co-workers said a word in my defense. All I could do was leave the room until I could calm myself enough to face the little twit again.

I could never bring myself to be friendly with that co-worker again, and I never trusted either of the others for not standing up for me. Never.

I finally thought about contacting the third federal official in Mississippi, our Junior Senator Thad Cochran. He didn’t have much of a presence on the coast, probably due to Senator Trent Lott living in our town, and no one locally ever really spoke about him. But he was a senator and my last chance at gaining official help, so in late August I contacted his office.

A few days after my first call, I was contacted by Senator Cochran’s immigrations staffer, a Mr Jeremy Litton. He took my information, agreed that I’d been waiting too long, and promised to find out what he could. When he hung up, I couldn’t help but feel it was another empty promise.

Meanwhile, Winnie was getting spooked about the wait. She told me her friends were telling her I was “playing games,” but she still believed me and not them. Our daily IM chats were becoming strained, with most of the discussion around what would happen if she couldn’t get a visa. I knew she had a lot more on the line than I did; her whole life was now focused on leaving her home country to be with her husband.

It was also coming up on our one year wedding anniversary that I once thought we’d be celebrating in the US. We finally decided that since she wouldn’t be here, I’d go there. I started planning my second China trip to coincide with our first wedding anniversary. After considerable negotiations, we settled on October 8 to October 22 for my anniversary visit.

Mr Litton of Senator Cochran’s office did call me back several days after his initial contact with an update – no news but he wanted me to know he was going to continue working. It was at this point I finally felt that Winnie and I had an advocate.

Chapter 4 – Hurricane Ivine

It was still hurricane season on the beautiful Mississippi Gulf Coast. We’d already had three named storms hit the US but all in places other than Mississippi. On September 10 our luck seemed to change for the worse. Hurricane Ivan had been bouncing around the Caribbean, entered the Gulf of Mexico, and was making a beeline for us. On September 11 Ivan was a category 5 storm with a projected track headed for the mouth of the Pascagoula River; in essence, straight for my front door. I decided I needed to leave.

I made hurricane preps and on Monday night, September 13, I let Winnie know what was happening. Wednesday morning, September 15, I left the house and evacuated north to my nephew Terry in Murfresburo, Tennessee, about 8 hours drive. I had let Winnie know were I was going and told her I’d contact her again as soon as I arrived at Terry’s house. I never made it.

About 125 miles from home, directly north of Mobile, Alabama, my venerable old pickup truck broke down. After a four hours wait I was towed into the small town of Brewton, Alabama. Mechanics there worked for three hours trying to get me back on road while the storm approached landfall, and by five o’clock they determined I needed major repairs. I was able to call Terry to let him know what happened, then went off to the local Red Cross shelter to ride out the storm.

The storm struck that night and devastated Alabama, including the town I was staying it. The Mississippi portion of the Gulf Coast was completely unaffected. Next morning Brewton had no power, no phones, ALL the roads were blocked with downed trees, roofs of building were missing, and I was in a Red Cross shelter with my broken truck sitting in a repair shop.

I struck up an acquaintance with a woman sharing the Red Cross shelter, Brenda, who lived right on the Alabama coast directly where the storm had made landfall. When the damage reports started coming in she realized there was an excellent chance the storm had made her homeless. Her town was not even allowing anyone to return until they had a better damage assessment.

We got to talking and struck up a deal. The next afternoon, Friday, I pulled my belongings out of my poor truck still in the shop (one of the few buildings in town undamaged) and headed back to Gautier with Brenda in her van. We had agreed Brenda would drive us back to my place and spend a few days until she could get to her house and see what happened.

We returned to my unscathed house late Friday afternoon, September 17. Once we had gotten close to Mobile I was able to let my family know where I was. But with the time difference I had to wait until the evening to contact Winnie.

Meanwhile, when I hadn’t contact Winnie Wednesday night she became worried. She e-mailed my brother in Los Angeles several times, who could only tell her that he in fact did not know where I was. Then she unsuccessfully attempted to call Terry’s house. When she couldn’t get through to Terry she contacted our friend in Shanghai, with whom we had visited with during our honeymoon trip, to ask for help. Our friend couldn’t contact Terry by phone either.

Friday evening I was finally able to contact Winnie. I was so weary I could only tell her I was safe, the truck was broken, and I would tell her more the next morning. I pointed Brenda to the guest room, helped her get settled, and slept.

Chapter 5 – A Second Trip To China

Saturday morning I woke up as usual, made coffee and got on line with Winnie. I explained what had happened, where my truck was, and who had brought me home. I also told her what had possibly happened to Brenda’s home, and that she would be staying here until she could figure out what to do next. While we were chatting, Brenda came out and I invited her to chat with Winnie.

The first thing Winnie typed to this woman she’d never met, sharing a house with her husband halfway around the world, was “Are you hungry? Tell my husband to make you something nice to eat.” I have rarely in my life ever felt as proud of anyone as I did then of Winnie.

Brenda did head home on Monday morning and discovered her house had been miraculously spared, even though most of her town was leveled. Life went back to “normal” in the Charest household.

I knew I couldn’t rely on my 15 year-old truck ever again, but decided it would still be handy for an around town “beater”. So I paid for a major engine repair on the truck still in the repair shop up in Brewton. Winnie helped me select a car via the Internet during our chats, an SUV listed in Orlando, Florida. On Saturday, September 30, I drove a rental car one-way to Orlando, picked up my new SUV and returned to Gautier the next day.

I was spending a LOT of money I needed for my China trip.

I was also short on paid vacation time. I had used some of my two weeks annual vacation running to New Orleans trying to get answers from the USCIS, and had used more time dealing with hurricane Ivan. I no longer had enough leave time for two full weeks vacation. My supervisors went to bat for me and got three days unpaid leave of absence approved, enough to get me two weeks vacation.

The Tuesday before heading out to China the repair shop in Brewton informed me my truck was finally repaired. A neighbor drove me up to Brewton after work and followed me home; We arrived back in Gautier about 12:00 Midnight.

On Friday afternoon, October 8, I drove my new SUV to New Orleans and flew west on the first leg of my anniversary trip to China. I was already exhausted, nearly broke, and had taken three days unpaid leave of absence from work to cover my shortfall in vacation time. But I was going to see my wife.

I made connections in Los Angeles as the previous year, but this time flew Southern China Airlines into Guangzhou instead of Hong Kong. The flight arrangements had just happened to work out that way (I chose based on lowest fares), but was perfect. Guangzhou was where the US Consulate was located and one of my planned destinations on this trip. I made connections to Nanning, and somehow once again flew to Nanning earlier than originally scheduled. I arrived two hours earlier than Winnie was expecting me.

This time, there was no translator who could help me with a phone call. By dint of lots of hand signs I was able to get a person to show me where the public phones were and found where to buy the phone cards I needed to make the call with. It took about an hour. I called Winnie, and she promised to head on over to get me. She arrived, as before, about one hour later.

She looked as beautiful as the year prior. We sat in the taxi on the way back chatting and just looking at each other. This time, mostly due to my limited funds, and because we were in fact married, we had arranged to say in Winnie’s apartment while we were in Nanning. She had a roommate, but the roommate thankfully was not home when we arrived at the apartment. Winnie and I had some catching up to do.

Chapter 6 – An Anniversary Celebration

We spent the next several days touring Nanning City and visiting with Winnie’s parents, now living nearby. We also had our wedding photos taken at a wonderful photo studio which was a lot of fun.  On Thursday Morning we packed our bags, met Winnie’s parents at the train station and headed down to the town of Luchuen where most of Winnie’s family lived. Winnie’s sister and brother-in-law met us at the train station late that evening when we finally arrived and got us to a hotel.
Wedding Portrait

Friday noon we left the hotel together with a van-load of Winnie’s family and headed down to the village of Bijing, the town Winnie was born in and grew up. It is a very small farming village several miles off any paved roads. The occasion was the semi-annual pilgrimage Chinese people make to visit the gravesides of their ancestors, a big festive affair, set for Saturday.

For two days I had the incredible experience of being family in a southern Chinese farming village. We stayed in the house Winnie grew up in and explored Bijing. I met several dozen of Winnie’s extended family, some I had met the previous year and many others I met for the first time.

Being part of this experience was one of the most intense travel experiences I’d ever had, one that I could still spend hours talking about.

Saturday evening we headed back to Luchuen with Winnie’s sister and brother-in-law and spent the night at their apartment. Winnie’s parents went straight back to Nanning City. Our plan was to catch the Sunday evening train to Guangzhou, arriving Monday morning, to visit the US Consulate.

We knew that the next step of Winnie’s visa, after the USCIS had processed it, would be for the application to be passed to the US State Department. Our State department would in turn forward the package to our Chinese embassy and in due time contact Winnie for an interview and ultimately issue a visa. So from the moment I decided to make this second trip to China, part of my planning involved visiting the consulate to see if by any chance the visa paperwork was there. I actually had fantasies of locating the application package, getting Winnie’s interview walked through, and triumphantly returning back to the US together with my lovely bride.

Yes, really.

The US’s Chinese embassy is located in China’s capital city of Beijing and operates several consulates along the eastern seaboard. (Even though Hong Kong officially re-joined mainland China in 1996, in 2004 the Hong Kong location still had the status of an Embassy.) For reasons beyond what any thinking human being can explain, several years earlier the US State Department had chosen to consolidate the processing of ALL family visas (like the one we were applying for) for a nation of 1.2 billion people into the single Guangzhou consulate.

Sunday afternoon we had a nice family dinner in the apartment of Winnie’s sister and then sat around talking and watching CCTV1. We missed the early evening train so Winnie’s brother-in-law volunteered to stay awake while we caught a few hours sleep.  He woke us up in time to catch the 3:00 AM train. On the train, we caught a few hours sleep in a common sleeper car and around 10:00 the train pulled into the Guangzhou station. Between jet lag catching up on me, the weekend events, and short night I was so tired I could barely walk.

A local entrepreneur latched onto us as we left the train station and suggested a hotel she knew of close by. We walked there and Winnie spent about 20 minutes in heated negotiations with the proprietor before getting a price she could live with. We dumped our bags in our room and caught a cab for the consulate.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to experience.

Chapter 7 – A Visit To The Guangzhou Consulate

Most consulates in Guangzhou were located on a small island off the main city interspersed with buildings housing international agencies and organizations. All consulates here except ours were large stately buildings surrounded by high stone walls with sleepy guards posted at their gates. A beautiful city park was behind this boulevard with fine restaurants scattered around. At the far end of this beautiful boulevard was the US consulate.

Our consulate sat across a street intersecting the main boulevard with the cross street blocked to traffic at both ends by military police cars and barricades. There were more barricades on our side of the street along with armed military police and a roped off entry line with metal detectors. A sign prominently displayed read “Host Nationals not allowed entry into the Consulate without written appointment letter.” There was no place on the sidewalk for my wife, and the wives of other American’s going into the consulate, to wait except on the sidewalk. No chairs or restroom facilities were provided by the consulate.

I worked my way through the roped line, stated my business to armed guards and showed two forms of picture ID.  I walked through the metal detectors and across the vacant barricaded street closely watched from both sides by armed guards. On the other side of No-Man’s land I walked through another roped corridor, again stated my business to armed guards and again showed two forms of photo ID.  Then I was told I could not bring my small camera bag into the consulate.

I left my bag there and made my way inside to a lobby full of people both US and Chinese. There was no one available for me to ask assistance. I did see a row of glassed windows along one wall which I later learned were the interview booths. There was a large prominent sign announcing “Information requests on individual visa cases will not be answered here.” Since there were no signs stating where I could ask questions I made my way through the lobby and up the stairs to the second floor. There was another glassed security booth on top of the stairwell with a guard who demanded to know my business there. I explained I was trying to find someone to ask concerning a visa issue. The guard snapped at me and ordered me to leave.

I went back downstairs, still so tired I could barely walk and now seriously angry. There was a Chinese woman inside a glassed booth labeled “Receipts,” and I sort of walked close enough for her to ask me if I needed help. I explained I was just trying to find some answers on my wife’s visa. The woman’s eyes flicked around, she furtively passed me a slip of paper and said “Thursday at 1:00.” I asked her what would happen then, but she just looked at me blankly.

I collected my camera bag and walked out. My total time spent inside the consulate, a visit for which I had traveled halfway around the world, was 15 minutes.

I located Winnie and we left. We found an American-style steakhouse a few blocks away and had a nice American-style dinner. Winnie had her first taste of baked potato. After we ate we wandered back to the consulate and happened to find a local Chinese woman who operated a “Visa Assistance Center” near the consulate. This woman explained that every Thursday at 1:00 the consulate had a lecture concerning visa issues, and that would be my only chance to find out anything. So we thanked her for providing more assistance than anyone inside our consulate had, went back to our hotel and I finally got some sleep.

As we had two days to wait we headed out to Shenzhen next morning for some touring. Thursday we were back in Guangzhou at the Consulate for their seminar. Once again, my wife had to wait outside on the sidewalk with several other Chinese citizens while I worked my way into the barricaded fortress referred to as the US Consulate.

The seminar was held in the first floor lobby. Right about 1:00 a chubby, baby-faced middle-aged man came out and introduced himself as the person giving the seminar. He started by explaining just how proud he was that for the past year, the Consulate staff was providing free information to American citizens on how the spousal visa process worked. He continued by explaining that questions involving individual cases could not be asked, only general questions involving the visa process. One participant asked where they might gain information on personal cases. The answer given was to call the consulate answer line; I had called this “answer line” several times during the past week without anybody ever answering.

The baby-faced staffer then told us, several times, how proud he was that the current wait time for a K-3 visa was then averaging only about one year. He explained that when the consulate received the visa packages from the US, a notice was sent out to the recipient with application paperwork. At this point, I raised my hand and was acknowledged.

I asked if it was possible for a package to arrive at the consulate and be missed. The staffer stated “no,” then asked how long I’d been waiting for the consulate letter. I answered “almost one year.” The staffer stated “that’s too long,” then abruptly went back to his seminar.

I’d beaten the odds, overcame nearly insurmountable obstacles, and achieved a goal. I’d gotten a US government official to answer a direct question from an American citizen on a visa-related question. I walked out of the consulate, found Winnie among the crowd of people sitting on the sidewalk, and left.

For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed to be an American.

Chapter 8 – Help Arrives

We spent the rest of the day touring Guangzhou. It was sometime that afternoon that I crossed a mental divide. The reality that Winnie might not receive her visa, or might not receive it for upwards of another year, was beginning to sink in. Sometime that afternoon I promised myself I would move to China if Winnie’s visa was not at least located by mid-summer.

The next morning Winnie escorted me to the airport and we said our goodbyes. I only had about $100 remaining after I bought her return train ticket to Nanning, which I left with her. We parted not knowing when we’d be together again.

Back home and the following week I contacted Mr Litton. He explained that one part of the problem was resolved. It seems that until now, there were only two people in the Department of Homeland Security to answer all congressional inquires. Mr Litton stated “You Senator was not happy.” I didn’t think I needed to ask for details.

The following week Mr Litton called again and hinted that I might have to refile my application package. I acknowledged that I’d been thinking that, but also explained I had very limited original documents, as I filed all originals with my application, instead of copies as permitted, so there would not be any delays caused by the USCIS coming back asking for originals. I explained if I needed to refile all originals, it would take several weeks to obtain some of these documents.

He called back the following Thursday and explained I’d need to refile. He instructed me to put together a package of copies of what I originally filed, and send them all directly to him. He would in turn submit them to the USCIS. I asked about how long I should expect to wait for an answer afterwards, and he stated “a matter of Days.”

I had my new package put together and mailed via overnight delivery the following Monday, November 1, the day prior to elections. I received an answer back from his office Thursday, November 4 acknowledging receipt. The postmark showed he worked my package during election day, something that deeply impressed me even though Senator Cochran was not running for re-election. So I waited some more.

On Wednesday, November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, I returned home and found a letter from the USCIS. My heart beating, I opened it and read the I-797 receipt stating that my I-129 application had been forwarded on to the Los Angeles USCIS office for processing, to “speed up the processing time,” due to “excessive backlog at the New Orleans office.” Well, I thought, that’s that. At least it was being handled. I spent Thanksgiving weekend knowing the application was at least going somewhere, but also vaguely frustrated this was the best that Mr Litton could do.

Monday morning, back at work, I received a call from Mr Litton. He explained he had attempted to contact me the previous Wednesday but no one answered the phone (I didn’t have voice mail on my office telephone, and none of my three co-workers could be bothered to answer my phone for me when I was away from my desk, even knowing what I was going through). He explained that my application had been approved by the USCIS, had been forwarded onto the State Department for further processing, and I should expect to receive a letter any day acknowledging this from the USCIS.

With the letter I had just received the previous Wednesday I felt totally confused, and I know my response showed it. I caught myself, and deeply thanked him for his assistance. When I went home that night I re-read the letter received the previous Wednesday. Sure enough, the application that a Senator’s office had spent six weeks looking for, and was told was irredeemably lost, had in fact surfaced in Los Angeles even while my re-submission was being processed in New Orleans.

My first action that night was to let Winnie know, during our evening chat, that her application was approved. My second action was to write a heartfelt thank you letter to Mr Litton, with the I-797 that I received from my original “lost” application enclosed. I thought he should know just how screwed up the USCIS actually was. My third action was to write a second letter of thanks directly to Senator Cochran’s Washington D.C. office, letting the Senator know just how helpful Mr Litton had been.

I’m not sure, but I do think the Senator personally read my letter, as I received a nice response several weeks later with what looked like his actual signature. It was the very least I could do for Mr Litton.

Chapter 9 – Waiting For The Interview

Now that we knew the application process had been restarted, Winnie settled down and we went back to talking about our plans for the future. In January she did receive notice from the Guangzhou Consulate informing her of receipt of the application, and what documents she needed to provide the consulate for further processing.

It took her about one week to gather up everything, which included a trip back to her hometown to gain a police report certifying she’d never been arrested. She mailed it all off and once again, we waited.

We knew the next step was for the consulate to submit the application to the FBI back in the US for a criminal background check. I’d been following different Internet News Groups by this time, and knew that the FBI check could take anywhere from four weeks to never, depending on whether or not the application was lost. If all went well, which to this point nothing had, we expected Winnie to gain her interview appointment letter about May, with her interview scheduled for sometime in June.

Meanwhile, my finances were slowly sinking. I was continuing to support Winnie full time in school and her allowance each month was the first item in my budget. She occasionally needed additional money, such as when she put together her consulate application, and whatever she needed came before anything I spent on myself including the mortgage. I now had a car loan to pay off, was still paying the credit cards bills on my second China trip, was still trying to finish paying off the bills left me by my first wife, as well as handle my normal expenses.

My budget was getting tight, but I didn’t let Winnie know this. I knew once she received her consulate appointment, there would be some significant fees and travel expenses involved, including her medical exam. Once she had her visa she’d need a plane ticket to the US. We were planning my my going to meet her in Los Angeles and fly back to Mississippi together.

I wasn’t sure where I’d get the money. A second job was not an option – it would prevent me from chatting with Winnie. So I ran up credit card charges, dipped into savings, and just hoped things would work out.

My income taxes were also a mess.  I delayed filing joint returns for 2003 and 2004 for no other reason thanI needed additional proof of marriage for the USCIS.  I knew  my taxes would be closely scrutinized when Winnie finally had her interview and needed to file a joint return with Winnie.  But I needed her social security number, which I couldn’t get until she was in the US. I was told by my tax preparer that there was no alternative to having her social security number on the tax papers, and needed to wait until she arrived.  Until March, when I received notice letters from the IRS about my two years worth of unpaid taxes – one more stress to deal with.

I ultimately learned, through several hours of phone conversations on the helpful IRS hotline, about the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).  I learned this could be substituded for a social security number to allow me to file taxes with Winnie’s name, and was able to gain this number for Winnie with her still in China.  One more paperwork drill to go through, but getting two years taxes filed was one less set of stresses.

By now I was emotionally exhausted. The more than one year’s wait, reassuring Winnie I was really trying to gain her visa, and being rebuffed from people I was asking for help was wearing me down. On top of the callousness from my co-workers, rumors were getting back to me that the visa delay was due to me doing “something illegal.”

I had no support group to go to for help other than distant family members and a very few local friends. I had become involved with a divorce recovery support group, sponsored by a local methodist Church, shortly after my divorce two years earlier. Once it was public knowledge I was getting remarried I was asked to leave the group as their charter rules did not permit married people from participating. So I was on my own.

Adding to my emotional exhaustion was knowing there was so little I could actually do to help Winnie. I knew she was living very simple and had put her entire life on “hold” awaiting her move to a strange new country. I was also physically exhausted by this time simply because I was not getting much sleep. Winnie and I had been chatting twice daily for months now, which required me to get up very early each morning so we could chat before I left for work and go to bed very late so we could chat again at night. It was exhausting, but this was what we both wanted, and what I needed to do as the least bit of support I could give her.

Chapter 10 – Preparing For An Interview

About late May I e-mailed the Consulate, using their info request form, for an estimate of appointment date. From the various Internet groups I had gotten hooked into, I knew the average wait time was about four months. I also had hear that the Guangzhou consulate was preparing to relocate to larger facilities around August as an attempt to speed up the visa process. We expected that once the consulate started their move no visa’s would be issued for several months at least. I was very nervous about being caught up in yet another limbo.

On a Monday morning, about one week after I sent my e-mail, I received a response. The consulate reply was that we should expect an appointment “sometime in August.” This would put our wait out to at least six months and possibly catch us up in the Consulate move limbo.

I read and re-read the e-mail as I mentally started to cry. I was chatting with Winnie at the time, but I couldn’t tell her what I just read. I excused myself telling her I needed to go to work early. The minute I arrived at work, I called and left a message for Mr Litton.

He returned my call several hours later. We exchanged greetings, and I explained I needed to ask for the Senator’s help again. I explained the e-mail, and Mr Litton agreed that he thought the wait should only be about four months. He explained that issues related to the state department were handled by another staffer, and he would ask her to call me. Several hours later, this woman, whose name I do not remember, called me. I explained my problem, and she promised to contact the consulate in my behalf and find out what was going on.

To this day, I do not know if her inquiry had any impact, but exactly one week later Winnie received her appointment letter, announcing her interview was scheduled for July 1, 2005.

I called Senator Cochran’s office to let the woman know, and to give my most sincere thanks. I also discovered that I had become something of a celebrity figure within the office – the person I spoke with said “everyone here is very happy for you.”

After 18 long months of waiting, there was barely enough time to do everything required for the interview. Winnie needed additional documents and photographs, some of which I had to provide, and also needed to go to Guangzhou for a medical exam. The medical exam had to be conducted within several days of the interview, so after a bit of discussion Winnie decided to go to Guangzhou, get her exam, and then stay there for the Interview. Which meant about ten days in a hotel and travel money.

I scrambled to get the money and documents she’d need. Winnie meanwhile was getting together all the papers she had to provide, and of course was getting all kinds of advice from her friends in Nanning. We were both on edge, as we knew the odds of her actually getting a visa on her first interview were against her. We both had heard from different sources that most of the interviewers would find some reason, any reason, to reject an applicant on the first interview which then required weeks of additional waiting. I didn’t know what I’d do if we had to wait much longer. Months earlier I had considered flying to Guangzhou to be with her, but upon researching learned I would not be allowed to be in the interview anyway.

Finally the day came for Winnie to leave for Guangzhou. We knew communications would be limited once she was there, but she promised to keep in touch as best she could. She did promise to call me as soon as her interview appointment was over to let me know the results.

Chapter 11 – The Visa Interview

The next week was nerve-racking. Winnie did e-mail me on occasion from a local cyber cafe. From her e-mails I knew her medical exam went well and she was meeting a lot of women also waiting for their interviews. She was staying at a hotel only ten minutes walk from the consulate, in a local hotel used by many women waiting for interviews. Several women she was meeting were going back for their second, third, or even fourth interviews. I was more emotionally charged than I had ever remembered.

One of the things she did during that week was organize all of our pictures taken together, and pictures of my family that I and my Mom had sent to her, into a small scrapbook. She also added labels with our names against each picture.

Winnie’s appointment was for 8:00 AM but with the time zone difference it would be 9:00 PM in Mississippi on a Thursday night. A cousin Grace, living in a neighboring town, offered to come over with her kids and wait with me the night of Winnie’s interview. I gratefully accepted.

The night of Winnie’s interview was one of the most tense nights since my divorce. I expected to hear from her by 11:00 PM my time, allowing two hours for her to go through the interview line. Grace, her kids and I all had dinner, then the kids did their usual things with my computer and TV while Grace and I went out on the porch to talk. By 11:00 PM I was doing shots of rum to “relax.” By midnight I was pretty “relaxed,” worried sick that we hadn’t heard anything yet, and Grace had to get the kids back home for school the next day. I promised to call her the next day. Grace and her kids left, I had a few more shots of rum and finally laid down about 1:30 AM fully dressed, next to a telephone.

Meanwhile, over in Guangzhou, Winnie was having a long day.

She left her hotel early armed with a 12 inch thick stack of documents, CDs, and her scrapbook all organized and stuffed into clear plastic bags; Security restrictions at the US consulate only permitted see-though bags. Winnie was at the consulate in line at 7:00. She was allowed into the consulate at 8:00 AM, and waited until 9:40 to pay her USD$100.00 non-refundable visa fee. They gave her a number (#64) and told her to wait. She sat until 10:35 when she was fingerprinted.

The consulate officer told her to go to lunch and come back at 1:00. Winnie later told me that during the morning session they were only interviewing “older women” and those women with children. She had lunch and was back at 1:00. She waited until 2:16 to be finally called. I don’t know what window she had, but it was a man and seemed to be one of the decent officers. Her interview was in English, but the Visa Officer (VO) was decent enough to speak slow with her. The VO went through all her paperwork and asked her:

* How did we meet?
* When did we meet?
* What did I do for an occupation?
* When was the date of my divorce?
* When was the date of her divorce?

Then the VO inspected my income tax records. He asked Winnie how many times I had been to China, then asked to see our pictures together. Winnie presented her scrapbook and our professional wedding album, went through the pictures with the VO and explained who each of the people in my family were. When she finished the VO complimented her on her nice scrapbook.

At nearly 4:00 AM my time the phone rang, and as “relaxed” as I’d been earlier I came fully alert. It was Winnie. Although I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying, it was apparent she’d beaten the odds and had been approved for her visa on her very first interview. The interview we had waited 19 months for had lasted about 15 minutes. I went back to sleep.

Winnie told me later that she was one of the very few women that day who had been awarded their visa.

Chapter 12 – Coming To America

Winnie received her visa stamp the next day, and we set July 15 for her date to fly to the US. I contacted Howard and Pam out in Los Angeles with the news. I explained as newlyweds, we really needed a hotel room once Winnie arrived… Howard and Pam agreed, and promised to make arrangements for a hotel near where they lived. I made my travel arrangements while back in China, Winnie closed out her apartment, said goodbye to her family, and made her own travel arrangements.

On Thursday July 14, I flew out to Los Angeles once again. Jeff had also traveled down from Oakland for the occasion. Winnie’s flight would be coming in about 7:00PM on the 15th, so that day we all just hung around Howard and Pam’s house. About 5:30 Pam, Jeff, and I went over to the airport while Howard stayed home to finish grading school papers, promising to meet us at a restaurant for dinner later on.

We arrived at the airport more than one hour early based on the schedule, only to learn the flight had been delayed an hour. So we waited. I was so charged up I could not sit for more than a few seconds, so ended up constantly walking around the airport. Pam joked that “walking around wouldn’t get Winnie here any quicker.” To which I replied “You don’t know that.”

Finally, the flight arrived, and I waited another eternity for the passengers to disembark. As close as I was watching the line of people coming out, Winnie slipped by and I finally spotted her in the waiting area, luggage stacked on a cart, looking around anxiously. I called out her name and was with her in a moment. Hugging her on American soil almost made the long wait worthwhile.

First Dinner for Winnie in America
We had a nice visit in Los Angeles, including a wonderful wedding reception hosted by Howard and Pam on Saturday and a Sunday trip to San Diego. We flew out late Monday afternoon heading back to Mississippi via New Orleans. We arrived back at our home in Gautier about 1:00 AM on July 19.

The long wait was over.

This story is dedicated to all the many couples waiting, or who will wait, for a broken, dysfunctional buracracy to allow them to live together sharing thier lives as married couples should. I also send them wishes that their marriages will be long and fulfilling, with much health, happiness, and prosperity.

Ron Charest