01 February 2014

"I Become" Part One of My Month Long Autobiographical Series - Countdown to 60

That's a very young me with my dad.


"These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long distance call,
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo

The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation

That's dying in a corner of the sky,
These are the days of miracle and wonder

And don't cry baby don't cry

Don't cry" - Paul Simon 'The Boy in the Bubble'

On the final day of this month I will turn the ripe old age of 60. That’s six decades. Three score. Three fifths of a century. It seems impossible that I should hit this milestone given that it was seemingly yesterday that I entered kindergarten. It was in fact in 1959 when Eisenhower was president and the Civil Rights battle was just heating up and The Beatles were years away from world wide fame and there were only 16 major league baseball teams. I do not feel old. Not a bit of it. Not only am I in tip top physical health  ) but I still reckon myself as a kid. There is at long last a certain maturity to me but not the slightest bit of fossilization. I have a few old fogie tendencies along the lines of “back when I was young we never...” but I have no illusions about the good old days being better. For one thing when I grew up people smoked everywhere. Sports venues, busses, movie theaters, offices and homes. No one smoked in our house but we had ashtrays about for smoking visitors and I never remember anyone forbidding smoking in their residence.  Also “back in the day” African Americans were colored or negro if not worse and the idea that one could be president was not seriously presented. All Asians were Orientals unless a man was known to be from China in which case he was a Chinaman. Gays were queers and simply not mentioned. The idea of gay marriage in the early 1960’s would have been greeted as a very silly joke indeed.
Anyway this digression serves merely to point out that I’m perfectly happy to be living in 2014 despite the fact that being here carries with it the knowledge that my time on this planet is likely well over half done. If not much more. Intellectually I know death awaits but I feel like the proverbial spring chicken.

My ambitious goal here is to countdown during this month with reminiscences from my first 60 years. While I intend to do so chronologically that may not prove feasible. I had originally planned on a post a day but for the love of god I’ve got other things to do. After all I’m not getting paid for my labors (would that I were) and I’ve got a few other responsibilities in my life -- chief of which is gainful employment in a job that keeps me very very busy (albeit quite happy). 

I hope this series -- such as it is or will be -- is in some way illuminating for anyone who might choose to read it. I flatter myself that it might and am confident that it will -- if nothing else -- help me put into perspective what I’ve done and failed to do since that day in late Winter 1954  when -- to paraphrase Shakespeare -- I shuffled onto this mortal coil.

(Please note that future editions of this chronicle will be absent a lengthy preamble and thus a much quicker read.)

I herewith begin at the beginning.

My parents were Aimo Hourula born in Nivala Finland in 1916 and Gertrude Kurki born of Finnish parents in San Francisco in 1920. They met in New York in 1945 were married in Baltimore that year and subsequently moved to Berkeley where my mother spent most of her childhood and her undergraduate university years. in 1947 they had a son Robert and my arrival was on February 28 1954. Dad was a carpenter and a damn good one. There was a building boom in the Bay Area that lasted my father’s entire career and that -- coupled with his sterling reputation -- kept him employed regularly. A family could live on one good salary back then and afford a house and two cars and plenty of food and vacations. We never wanted for anything that I can recall. Dad had
a colorful past to entertain us with. He fought in the Finno-Russian Winter War then joined the merchants marines just as World War II was getting underway. Two of his ships were strafed by German planes and a third was sunk by a Japanese submarine in the Arabian Sea with dad at the helm he’d pointed out the periscope to the first mate who scoffed saying that it wasn’t really a periscope. Later on a lifeboat dad refrained from administering an I told you so.
Mom had grown up bilingual in Finnish and English as I was to do. She excelled in school and went to Cal then to Colombia University in New York with a detour to join the WACs during the war. She was a bright chatty pretty woman who tragically was struck by mental illness in her thirties as will be detailed here later.
I was born into a happy home with lots of extended family including my mother’s parents and childless sister and one of my dad’s younger brothers his wife and brood and two of dad’s cousins and many others from the old country. There were Finns everywhere so I was to grow up quite happily in two cultures.

McCarthyism was on the wane but the fear of communism would persist well into the '60s. The space race was a few years away and it would be another decade before the cultural revolution symbolized by The Beatles and drugs and free love and long hair and protests would begin. The historic Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Broad of Education would be handed down a few months after I was born. The Montgomery Bus Boycott would soon follow and with it the remarkable period of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement. Eight months after I was born the baseball Giants -- still playing in New York -- would win the World Series and not do so again until 2010. They would come to San Francisco when I was four. Cal football was in the dying days of their last serious heyday. We're still waiting for the next. Elizabeth II was queen of England and so something things never change. Jack Kerouac had but one published novel to his name and it wasn't On the Road. Allen Ginsberg's reading of Howl was a few years away. Films still suffered from censorship unable to use profanity or depict sex or violence or many real social issues. Unions were strong and workers respected and liberal wasn't a dirty word. Finns were moving in steady numbers to the US many to the Bay Area.

My life was to be shaped by many of the events happening and in the offing. The Beatles drugs protests Cal the Giants the Beats the Hippies the modern film era. I was a healthy baby and by all accounts a happy one. I was ready to face the world always ready forever ready ready ready ready.

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