Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Fire of '74

Forty years ago (forty! yikes!), I was having a hard time sleeping the night of January 11, 1974, at our Bellows Court apartment in West St. Paul, Minnesota. Not sure what was keeping me awake, but I was getting frustrated with the whole insomnia thing, when a bright pinky-orange light flooded our bedroom window. The first thing that came to my mind, in my wide awake but maybe partly asleep state, was "Who the hell is setting up a carnival in our parking lot?" The light was cotton candy pink and bright as the sun. Carnival. Hm. Well, that's the way my mind works.

I honestly don't remember what happened next or how Charley and I got out of the apartment, into our car, and a mile or so away before the big explosion. We obviously moved pretty damn fast, so fast, in fact, that I left behind two of my essentials - contact lenses and birth control pills. But I did manage to stuff my feet into snow boots and pull on my parka before tearing out the door.

Where to go? What to do? This was out of the realm of experience for a couple of 22-year-old newlyweds from the South. We headed to a co-workers' apartment because we knew she'd be up late packing for Texas and the Super Bowl (Vikings vs. Dolphins).  Lest you need reminding, this was well before cell phones, email, and texting, so all we could do is just turn up on someone's doorstep without any notice. This acquaintance - not even a friend, really - let us crash in her spare bedroom so that we could at least be warm and dry for the rest of the night.

And that's about all I remember of the night itself. I'm not sure where we slept the next night, but I don't recall having stayed in a motel. Perhaps we found our new apartment the very next day, which is possible, since I guess nearby apartment complexes were housing the displaced residents of the destroyed ones.

Fortunately, Charley was an insurance man, so he knew to call to find out about emergency benefits and get details of our coverage, etc. We were lucky not to have lost everything. In fact, we were on the outer edges of the L-shaped complex, and the explosion and fire damage mainly demolished the center angle of the L. However, there was a lot of smoke and water/ice damage to furniture and clothing, mainly. In short, the sofa and mattress were gone, but my carefully packed away China was intact (a 22-year-old newlywed's priorities).

Four people lost their lives in the fire and explosion - three firemen and a manager of the other damaged apartment buildings. The cause was a little fuzzy at the time. We were told some guy was trying to thaw out something-or-other with a blow-torch just as the propane gas truck was pumping in the monthly gas allotment for the apartments. Bad timing.

I'm not sure of that's the real story, but the cause didn't really matter to us at the time. It was scary and confusing and frigid cold. But we were alive. A lesson learned about priorities forty years ago.

Sometimes, insomnia can save your life.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Losing a Force of Nature

Many years ago, I was pulled out of my kindergarten class to help Mrs. Miller with something. Now, Mrs. Miller was the founder and head honcho at Brainerd Baptist Kindergarten, and her family and ours were like . . . family. Anyway, this was a big deal, right?

After I ran through any of my behavior that might cause the head of the school to pull me out of playhouse time and determined I should be clear, I felt pretty special. I mean, Mrs. Miller needed my help with something. So I go out into the hall with her, and she sits down in a little chair. "Mary, I want you to pull out any gray hairs you see." Whaaaat?? Well, of course I didn't say that. I was a little kid and a grown up friend and teacher told me to do something, so, OK. I spent several minutes eyeing any gray hair in her side-part (I don't think there were very many) and yanking them out. Mission accomplished. Then I went back to my classroom.

Now, why Mrs. Miller had asked me to perform this particular honor, I'll never know. Maybe because she knew I needed to be rescued from Mrs. Jones' class or maybe because my family and hers were such good friends that she knew I could be trusted. Whatever. I was asked to do a task, and I completed it to her satisfaction. That's my earliest definable memory of this incredible woman, who'd known me since birth.

She started one of the first modern kindergartens in Chattanooga, Tennessee, pulling together creative, loving teachers (including my mother) and drawing a rather large number of 4- and 5-year-olds for her half-day school.

In her ground-breaking  kindergarten, I learned all about my five senses. I learned the song "It's a Hap-Hap-Happy Day." I learned my first cheer: "Apples, oranges, peaches, candy, Brainerd Baptist Kindergarten you're so dandy!" I learned to sit in a circle and listen to a teacher. Bottom line, I learned lots of things in kindergarten, as you do, of course. And all of this was driven - and I do mean driven - by Mrs. Miller. The school was her vision of what kindergarten for little Baby Boomers needed to be. Right time, right place, right vision.

Summer of '63 - I was 12 - she hired my sister Cindy and me to 1) help organize/cut out/assemble all the artwork projects for the upcoming kindergarten year, and 2) babysit for 2-year-old Star (you were a handful, Star). So in the midst of "Blowin' in the Wind" and Martin Luther King's March on Washington, we were camped out at the Millers cutting out circus animal patterns, chasing a 2-year-old, and eating our weight in Campbell's tomato soup (made with milk, not water). I know many of my famous organizing skills were birthed during the summer of '63.

The summer I left for college, we sold our house on South Moore Road and moved - guess where? - next door to our good friends the Millers. Now we really were like one big combined happy family. The Fraziers and the Millers. 

I'm writing this rambling little memoir because Fonza Miller Barkley died on Sunday at age 93. If I had to sum her up in one word, I'd say "Enthusiasm!!" (complete with exclamation marks). She was tall and had impeccable posture. When someone with her physical stature is enthusiastic, then - wow - that energy just fills the universe.

She was, of course, so much more than a standard happy, enthusiastic person. She really did make a huge impact on pre-school education in Chattanooga. That kindergarten she started is now a thriving pre-K through 5th grade private school. She was active in the Eastern Star and lent her talents to many other endeavors. But I knew her outside of all of that. To me, she was a force of nature.

My last memory of her was sharing brunch with her and son Glenn last spring when I was in Chattanooga for a weekend reunion. Though older and frailer (too many gray hairs to pull out now!), that famous enthusiasm was still there. We laughed and hugged tight before saying our goodbyes. I'm so glad I got to share one more tiny slice of my life with her.

Farewell, Fonza. It's a hap-hap-happy day in Heaven. There'll certainly never be a dull moment up there, dear lady. And no more gray hairs!

Sunday, January 05, 2014

My Holiday Escapes

Who needs Aspen or the Caribbean when there are center orchestra seats to be had? It's been my luck to be on the audience-end of four shows in three weeks, and I've had more fanciful escapes than any exotic location can offer. A Twitter version of my most recent theatre-going experiences might read: A lamp, a bumble, a Jeopardy-playing detective side-kick computer, and a glass magnolia.  - that's entertainment!

First up was "A Christmas Story," a musical based on the 1983 holiday film classic. I usually pooh-pooh this sort of thing, but the show, which only runs for a few weeks in the run-up to Christmas, was nominated for 3 Tonys last year and I just loved the number I saw on the awards show. The songs are wonderful, the choreography is spectacular. It was a little weird going to Madison Square Garden's theatre to see it - the basketball crowd mixed in with the theatre crowd - instead of a proper Broadway house, but the arrangement seemed to suit the audience. This one could be a holiday staple for me.

Once in Atlanta for the holidays, we had a full agenda of kid-themed activities. The Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts' "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer" was one of those events. One GrandMary, one Mom, two 3-year-old boys, and a 6-month-old baby girl - not your usual theatre audience, but Puppetry Arts knows how to handle multi-generational entertainment. Its "Rudolf" is a live version of the 1964 television movie, and boy, it is spot on. Wonderful! And another event that has the possibility of becoming a tradition for us.

Next up in New York was Playwrights Horizons' "The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence." OK. Combine Sherlock's sidekick Dr. Watson with the Jeopardy-winning computer Watson and the engineer who build Bell's first telephone and you get . . . . well, you get interesting theatre. Past and present come and go and get mixed in together as you realize the importance of being Watson, in whatever form he/it takes. Always interesting stuff at PH.

And as a blizzard was blowing into town, Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" at the Booth Theatre. Cherry Jones owned the stage as Amanda Wingfield, the chief animal in this human, very breakable menagerie. As a Southerner, I was more attuned to the accents, speech patterns, and general attitudes of the characters than the non-Southern folks around me. For the record, Ms. Jones' took on what we lovingly call a Mrs. Ashford Dunwoody accent - it was more old Atlanta than Delta-speak, but she nailed it. Celia Keenan-Bolger was absolutely marvelous as Laura. She stuck to a flat, basic accent, which was just fine. Now, Zachary Quinto, while excellent as Tom, did a sort of sing-songy, pseudo-Southern accent which got on my nerves after a while. Only someone from the South would notice, though (we get so sick of what passes for a proper Southern accent/dialect on stage and screen, btw). Nevertheless, classic play beautifully acted and produced. Very, very glad I saw it.

So you see, I really got around, theatre-wise, over the holidays. Now, it's back to work to earn a little money for 2014 escapes. Happy New Year!