Friday, March 27, 2015

Another Trip Down Memory Lane!

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Friday March 27, 2015
Sunny 91°F/33°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
   My retirement project is underway, but I honestly don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see it through, primarily because I had no idea that three generations of us were such shutterbugs. There’s
Grandma and Grandpa Botula
my grandparents’ generation of family portraits and snapshots… folks in their youth – courting, marrying, building a family, fighting the war, shaping the peace… brother and I growing up, building careers, marrying – yada, yada, yada! Now, here I am, long retired with boxes and boxes of family photos and documents that I’d like to keep out of the landfill. As a longtime newsman who’s seen a lot of history in the making, I’m sure that these boxes contain a few more good yarns that can be passed along to future generations of Botula “begats.”

Dana at 4
Then too, there’s my upcoming shoulder joint replacement surgery. I've been told that I won’t be allowed to drive for several months, which, in itself, gives me a lot of “no place to go” time. Fortunately, I live close enough to everything I need to survive. Trader Joe’s is within walking distance. So is the Canyon Grill. I've already arranged for transportation to therapy and post op doctor visits. My family and friends have pledged to help out, so I’m okay there, but, the one-armed man here is going to have a lot of down-time on his hands. What a great opportunity to bone up on my Italian for my next trip to Rome, and go through those boxes of baby pictures and get them all archived. I even have an outlet for all of this: my website –  and my blog – So, in effect, I’ll be “self-publishing.”
Cousin Ralph, me and Mom-taking off!
  The latest tool in my kit is my new Epson photo scanner. It does prints, slides and negatives in black and white and color, and the package includes the software to make all the necessary tweaks on the photos, some of which are close to a hundred years old. As I go along, I’m reliving some pretty important times in my own life. In a way, it’s good therapy. Overall, I think I've lived a fairly happy and productive life, but there are the periodic jolts to remind me of opportunities missed or some events that I thought I had lived down. For sure, there have been triumphs and tragedies, trials and tribulations, but in the long run there are only
The Cub Scout-My son, Mike
a few things I would change.
Christmas 1979-Dana, Donna, Mike
  One thing became painfully obvious to me right at the start. Considering the fact that a great many of the photos I've been scanning are family snapshots circulated over the years by relatives and friends who were sharing family events and class pictures by mail. Very few of the pictures I’ve seen in this collection carry any kind of labeling information. A date here and there, and occasionally the names of the subject in ink or pencil on the back. Otherwise, I've had to rely on my own memory, family documents or a quick phone call to a friend or relative.
Next Generation: Jordyn and Jaydan
Considering the fact that the first generation on both sides of my own family have long since passed on, the documentation is sometimes difficult or impossible to come by. I can appreciate what a museum curator or historian faces in the process of documenting historical events.

  So while my narrative prattles on, hopefully you’ll find the accompany pictures interesting enough to keep following along.
 But, I know how easily people get bored with someone ELSE’s baby pictures or vacation photos, so I’ll keep this opening round brief.  If you follow my blog or visit my website, you may notice that I may not be posting as frequently. That has everything to do with the surgery next Tuesday, so please allow for a little recovery time. At least I’ll have something to do as I make my comeback and turn back into a two-fisted guy instead of the “one-armed man.”
©Mike Botula 2015 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

I Think Thomas Wolfe Had This Place in Mind!

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” Saturday March 21, 2015
Sunny 77°F/25°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
  To me, it stands to reason that anyone contemplating a return to their home town after a long absence will reflect on Thomas Wolfe’s line, You can’t go home again!
No Going Home Here
Forty five years after I graduated from high school, and thirty four entire years since I had even ventured back to my home town, I received an invitation to a class reunion. I opened the envelope, read it, and tossed it on my desk. What’s that, dad? My son, Mike, asked.  I showed it to him. You’re going, right? I stared at him. Of course, you’re going, dad, and you’re taking me with you. I've never seen where you and Uncle Packy grew up. With that bit of prodding, I made the reservations.
Downtown Riverhead
   To reach the town that I grew up in, Riverhead, Long Island, you’ll deplane at either JFK or La Guardia, maybe even Islip and take the Long Island Expressway east from New York City for a couple of hours until the Expressway ends. At the Expressway’s end you’ll drop onto New York State Highway 25, known to the locals as West Main Street. Go over the railroad tracks and keep going past the sign that reads, Welcome to Riverhead – Gateway to the Hamptons.  The big red brick building on the left is the Suffolk County Historical Society, right near the old Henry Perkins Hotel which is now a residence for senior citizens. But, in its day, it was Riverhead’s “happening place.” Just ahead, Roanoke Avenue veers off to the left. Peconic Avenue is a right turn, just past the Chase Bank at the corner. I remember when it used to be the Riverhead Savings Bank, and a crazy old lady named Amorette used to stand on the corner by the big clock, waving and greeting passersby and doing her part to help the cop on the corner direct traffic. (Main Street photos from Google Earth).  
Local Landmark- The Big Duck
   Except for my brother’s college graduation in 1969, I hadn’t set foot in the old hometown since high school. And now, in 2003, if it hadn’t been for my son, I may never have gone back. Back when I was growing up here, Riverhead was a bustling farming community on the edge of a famous resort area – The Hamptons. The big crops were: Long Island Potatoes, Long Island Cauliflower, and, of course, Long Island Duck. There’s still a great big concrete duck out on Flanders Road. It used to be a poultry store. Now it’s a museum and gift shop devoted to all things that go quack. And in an area where there used to be dozens of duck farms, there is only one left, out in Aquebogue where we had lived right after World War 2. The primary crops these days are wine grapes. Blight took care of the potatoes decades ago. Downtown shows its wear and tear and is obviously struggling to make a comeback from the urbanization that decimated small towns all over the country. Riverhead is still the county seat. But, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s “One Man One Vote” ruling back in the ‘60s, political power shifted west to the more populous areas closer to New York City. The Grumman aircraft factory that sprang up in the ‘50s in Calverton to the west of downtown provided thousands of high tech jobs until the Cold War ended.
  Further east, we see the newly restored Suffolk Theater on the left, and the Atlantis Aquarium on the right.
Tuthill Funeral Home
We pass the Tuthill Funeral Home on the left. Both my parents’ funerals were there. Mom died in 1961 from breast cancer. Dad died four years later. A stroke, the doctor said, but, I knew it was from a broken heart. Continuing east, we cross the Long Island Railroad tracks again. The line goes all the way out to Greenport. On the left is an old apartment house that my folks lived in when they first moved here in 1940. Further down on the left is our old house, at 810 East Main Street, the one where I spent most of my growing-up years. It’s been an office building since we sold it after dad died in 1965.
Where Packy and I Grew Up
  From here it’s an easy drive out Main Street to the junction of County Route 58, where East Main Street becomes Main Road through Aquebogue, Jamesport and on to Mattituck and Southold. It’s this stretch of highway that Thomas Wolfe had in mind when he said what he did, because the Old Aldrich Home, the eleven room mansion that we lived in when my folks first came back to Riverhead after World War 2 is now a derelict leftover from better times, abandoned lo, these many years and left to crumble as the years pass by. We pass this splendid ruin on our way down the road to the Modern Snack Bar. I am shocked by the sight of it, and a wave of sadness overwhelms me.  This is where we lived when my little brother took his first steps.
Charles "Packy" Botula - First Steps 1946
I started in the first grade at Aquebogue Elementary School, just a short walk past Downs General Store and Post Office. The house was once owned by the Aldrich family, very well known in these parts. It was built in 1873 when sailing ships still outnumbered the steam-powered craft in the waters around Long Island. In fact, the legend was that it was built by a sea captain named Aldrich who designed the home to provide a high vantage point at the top so his wife could look out to the bay nearby and catch a glimpse of her husband’s sail. In fact it was built by John Elliot Aldrich who crafted homes for the rich and famous, and was about to start construction on a summer home for railroad magnate E.H. Harriman, when he died in 1906.  So, it may be that Aldrich, the builder, crafted the mansion for a prosperous sea captain. No matter how it’s told, it’s a good story.
Mike and Packy Botula 1946

  My folks faced some tough times during that period. Post-war housing was extremely scarce. America was being challenged finding jobs and homes for all those returning veterans and their new families. Years of war-time privation left an almost uncontrollable desire to buy things. Dad would often tell the story about how the family moved five times in eleven months right after the war. During 1946 and 1947 the only places for rent were vacation rentals, summer bungalows that weren't designed for year around living. No insulation. No central heating or air conditioning. But somehow we did it. Mattituck, Jamesport, Aquebogue. In Jamesport we didn't even have a fridge. The ice man would deliver ice for the icebox twice a week and Packy and I would get our baths in an old Wheeling galvanized wash tub with water heated on the stove. We stayed in each place for a few months at a time. Then, fortune smiled and the house on East Main Street became our home until our parents died in the 1960s.  When we moved from Aquebogue right after the war the old Aldrich House was already well showing its age.
   The last time I was back in Riverhead, in 2013, the old house was looking positively deplorable. Another family had purchased the property from the Aldrich family, and now the old house is known locally as The Old Corwin House. It’s one of more than a dozen historic homes that have fallen into disrepair and sit, abandoned and forlorn across the landscape of Long Island’s North Fork. A recent grass roots effort to declare this stretch of the highway a designated historic area foundered in a deluge of bickering among the affected property owners.
 Surviving classmates from our Class of 1958 are already talking about a 60th anniversary reunion in 2018, which would be the most likely event to draw me back home. If that happens, I don’t know what the old house would look like by then. Maybe I’ll be greeted by a vacant lot. Maybe, if there’s a miracle, someone will restore it and turn it into a Bed and Breakfast. Or maybe it will just continue to rot. Supporters of the Main Road Historic District Initiative say they are determined to try again. But, for the time being, the Old Aldrich house continues to decay. I guess in this case, Thomas Wolf is right in saying, you can’t go home again. But, one of my old homes is still in view, and the sight of it for me is excruciating.

©Mike Botula 2015

Sunday, March 15, 2015

My Life: Flashing Before My Eyes!

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” March 15, 2015
Sunny 89°F/32°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
   My new Epson photo scanner arrived a couple of days ago, and after a day of folding the new device into my home office operation, I am proceeding with my memoirs. There’s nothing like wading through cartons of baby pictures and family snapshots dating back through the last hundred years to help me as I while away the otherwise idle hours of my retirement.

Mom in the 1920s
  I promised my brother back in 1965 when we were closing up the house after our father’s sudden death, that I would someday devote the time to writing our family story. Our mother had died in 1961 from breast cancer and the sudden stroke that killed dad four years later totally shattered the generational continuity that most families take for granted. My own children were not born until years later and Packy and his wife didn’t have any children. We had already moved away from our home town and on with our lives. I was living in Arizona, newly married and my brother was going to college in upstate New York. Before he died, dad had drawn up his will which directed that our family home be sold to pay any debts that remained after the long illness of our mother. A family therapist counseled me years later that the event was of the same magnitude as losing our home and parents in wartime. I couldn't help but agree.
   “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it's worth watching,” sings Gerard Way-musician, comic book writer. My family photo project is like that. But, in my case, my life is not flashing before my eyes. It’s moving in very slow motion - from my arrival in New York City in 1941 until now.  As someone who spent a substantial part of his working career as a journalist and student of history, I feel that I have been in training for this project all of my life.
Me and "Bucky" 1944
Lift the lid. Put the photo face down on the glass. Lid down. Hit the “scan” button. Repeat process. It’s an excruciating revisiting of countless “Kodak moments.”  Hell! That’s almost three quarters of a century. What’s more, my doctors who have gone over me with a whole host of high tech diagnostic tools have pronounced me in good health and tell me that there’s a lot of mileage left on this old carcass. That tells me that I at least have some more time to review my life and sort out the family photos and put them into some cohesive form that can be passed along to the next generation of family and future historians looking at life in the mid to late 20th century and the early years of the 21st. 
   A thumbnail version of our family history can be told in pretty short order. Both sets of grandparents migrated to the U.S. around 1900. Mike Percy and his Margaret from England – he’s my mother’s dad. Karel and Johana Botula came here from what is now the Czech Republic. Both started from the ground up, as
Charlie and Mary - Wedding Day 1937
coal miners. Both raised 9 children. My mother and father met around 1930 in Pennsylvania. Their home towns were just a few miles apart.  Mary Percy studied nursing. Charlie Botula majored in Business Administration at the University of Pittsburgh, and became the first one in his family to graduate from college. During the Depression and after nursing school and college, both headed for New York City, where they married in 1937 and set up housekeeping in Sunnyside, just across the East River from Manhattan in Queens. Charlie, who had been working as a loan officer was promoted to manager and transferred to the far distant hamlet of Riverhead, about 75 miles east of New York on Long Island. I joined them in January 1941, just as the Depression was grinding to a close and just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought us into World War Two.
    So, in terms of my family photo scanning project, I have spent several weeks like an archaeologist sifting through pre-historic times, for me, in my family. Like an archaeologist, I’m sorting through “ancient” artifacts in a quest to understand what life was like before I came into the world. It’s an odd feeling that arises when you are conscious of the fact that the ancient society you are studying is your own family. But, the longer I delve into this history, the more I come to know about my family. What’s even more important to me is that I better understand the elements that have shaped my own life, and have made what I have become as a human being. I’m beginning to solve some of my own life’s mysteries.
   The “War Years” have shaped our family in so many ways, that I can’t even begin to count them, much less explain to you how. The Depression shaped the families that Karel and Johana and Mike and Margaret raised to a cohesive and productive adulthood. ”Steel is made in the heat of the furnace,” my grandfather used to say. The Depression forged two strong families in my grandparents’ generation. World War II shaped my generation. Having been to Europe a number of times myself and listening to my father recount his round trip by wartime convoy across the Atlantic, I think I have a better appreciation than most, just what my grandparents’ journey from the “Old Country” to America entailed from the standpoint of a life-changing experience. They left the friends and families and even the language that they had known their entire lives for the promise of a new and better life in a strange land. For a lot of people like them, it became a promise unrewarded, but overall, they were lucky.

Dad's Job in 1944 - Normandy
   My father was commissioned in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1943 with the rank of Lieutenant and assigned as Executive Officer on the LST 920, a 328 foot, flat-bottomed Tank Landing Ship specifically designed to carry Allied troops and their equipment onto the beaches of Europe, North Africa and the South Pacific as America’s two-ocean Navy waged a global war. Unlike World War I, which was fought primarily in Europe, World War 2 was a global conflict. Two “world wars,” one fought across Europe, and the other fought across the Pacific Ocean. Having grown up in the coal and steel country of western Pennsylvania where the nearest substantial body of water was Lake Erie, one hundred miles from his home in Cokeburg, Pennsylvania, my father was packed off along with thousands of other landlubbers, given a 90 day cram course in how to become an officer and a gentleman, and sent to sea with a lot of other young men who had never seen the ocean. When that happened, Charles and Mary had to give up their home in Riverhead. He sailed off to see a huge part of a world at war. She took her little boy back upstate to live near her parents.
1920s-Aunt Hannah, Uncle Ted,
My Grandmother and Dad
As I've combed through these cartons of old family photographs, I’m impressed by just how much of my parents’ lives has been documented. In my grandparents’ day, the family would troop down regularly to the town’s photography studio for an annual family portrait. Many of which survive in my archive.  As I grew up, I can’t ever remember a family event that didn’t include somebody showing up with an old Brownie or Argus box camera. The Navy pictures were amazing, but I didn’t know until I started talking to dad’s wartime shipmates that photography was supposedly forbidden aboard a Navy ship. But the crew of the LST 920 not only carried personal cameras to the beaches of Normandy and Okinawa, but they had their own clandestine dark room on board the ship, and the tacit approval of the ship’s skipper, Harry Schultz.
   I've come across a lot of snapshots taken during the war and in the immediate period after World War II when dad had come back from the Pacific. He and my mother regrouped and went on with their lives. When he returned in December 1945, he met his new son,
Mike, Charlie, Packy, Mary Botula 1946
Charles III, who I nicknamed “Packy,” and he had a new term of endearment for his wife. Henceforth, to my dad, she would be “Skip” Botula, short for “Skipper,” Navy slang for the captain of the ship. To his dying day, she was his “Skipper,” the helmsman who kept the good ship Botula Family heading on a straight course.
   So! This is my retirement project. And, if I live to be a hundred, I doubt that I will complete it to my own satisfaction, but I’ve gotten under way, and, there will be at least something that my daughter can show her children about the family history, and they in turn can pass along to their grandkids. 
©Mike Botula 2015 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Dinner with the Kids! Who Says Grace?

“LOST MUSKET DIARY” March 4, 2015
Sunny and Breezy 71°F/22°C in Rancho Santa Margarita
I was sitting in front of my computer screen this morning, munching on my morning bagel - New York-style: Lox and cream cheese, capers, slice of onion and tomato along with fresh cut melon and strawberries, when it signaled me that Laura was calling from Rome on Skype. With a click of the mouse, my daughter in law came on the screen. We had already spoken once when she told me that my son would call me when he got home, since we hadn't talked in a few days. Well, he was in the kitchen making dinner, so she picked up the laptop and walked me down the hall to say hello. My number two child (in seniority) was chopping ingredients for the quiche. As we chatted, Mike set the laptop for a “two-shot,” and we talked while I continued to munch on my bagel and he went on with their dinner preps.
Buon Appetito! Laura and Mike
Welcome to my life in the Internet age. My son and his wife live in Rome – 6400 miles east of Rancho Santa Margarita and my number one child (in seniority) Dana, along with four of my grandchildren, will be moving to Texas later this year. Dana's first-born is in the Marines on Okinawa making sure that the only American that Kim Jong Un overwhelms is Dennis Rodman. This means that future family visits will be conducted entirely in Cyberspace, a more personal exercise than waiting for the postman to deliver that annual Christmas Letter. Mike and I have been doing this for the past few years, at first because it was merely a good way to avoid the hugely expensive rates for overseas phone calls. Now for us, it’s become a primary line of family communication. I’m pleased to report that it’s 71 degrees and sunny where I am, and he, in turn reports that it’s raining in Rome. The three of us visit for about 45 minutes. I feel just like the neighbor who drops by just as you’re trying to get dinner on the table and stands there chatting. I decided to let them enjoy their meal in private, but just before we signed off, our glasses were raised in a toast.
  This means of communicating has all sorts of possibilities. You can show the other party your cell phone snap shots and videos and bore them to tears with the videos of the little kid’s first dance recital or youth soccer match. But, there’s no hiding! You can’t call in sick and tell the boss you’ve contracted Ebola, when it’s obvious to anyone watching can tell that a ripping hangover is the real culprit. At this point you may be thinking, “This is not news! This is nothing but ‘an amazing grasp of the obvious!’” And, you’d be right. Telecommunicating in this day and age is a no-brainer for those of us who grew up in the computer age, but, there are a lot of people who still find placing a long distance phone call a challenge. My brother, for instance, who has a computer, but only checks his email every couple of weeks. Or, my cousin Richard, a retired school teacher who should know better, who doesn’t even own a computer, and brags about being a Luddite. A pox on both of them! Preaching to this choir is a challenge. Almost like advocating gay marriage in Arkansas or Alabama.
  Even the best of friends tend to drift apart and lose touch when great distances come between them. And how many very personal relationships are rent asunder by long distances? It’s one thing to maintain an old fashioned correspondence among distance family members and friends, or long distance conversing by telephone, but the missing ingredient is the “face-to-face” element, and that’s where Skype, or FaceTime, or any other variation on video chatting comes in. True, the warm breath in your ear or the slobbery kiss from your grandma may be missing, but at least you’re visiting face to face. Now, with the right software or app the kids can do their homework together. This is especially helpful if you are helping your grandson with his social studies, and he lives in another city.
  So, as our California to Italy dinner time chat wound down, I suggested to Mike and Laura that we all sit down to dinner together some evening in the near future. Now, we would have to take a 9 hour time difference into consideration, but it’s doable. I would invite Dana over to my house for the occasion. We would decide on a menu, and start getting the food ready. Then, we would fire up the laptops and get ready to sit down and enjoy the meal. Dana and I would set a place for my laptop, and, Mike and Laura would do the same in Rome. The stage would be set for an old fashioned, sit-down family meal together via Skype, in spite of the 64-hundred mile distance between us. OK! Now, who gets to say “grace?”