A trip back in time to Wilson High School in Long Beach, California

Graduating ClassI surprised my dad when I stopped to visit him one after early in the week.

He was sleeping lightly when I arrived, so I had to wake him up. I put my hand on his shoulder and shook it. A moment of anxiety followed. Will he recognize me when he wakes up? What if he doesn’t wake up? What does that mean? Am I prepared for the day that he doesn’t wake up?

But he responded immediately, opening his eyes, dazed at first, a hint of alarm, then focusing. After he got his bearings and recognized who I was, I fetched his glasses from the zippered fanny pack hooked to his walker, which is set against the wall beside the small closet directly in front of his bed. Slid them onto his nose, felt my way to his ears, wiggled the glasses into place. I went to the controls at the foot of his bed, found the “up” arrow, and the bed responded by raising him into more of a sitting position.

Then I gave him the surprise without telling him what it was–a photo of his high school graduating class, scanned and reprinted on 1117 inch photo paper.

The original is on an old sheet of newsprint, disintegrating with age along one edge, a few tears, faded, but still in fair condition. The scan added some contrast to counteract the fading, and new glossy paper seemed to overpower the years.

He took the photo, his hands shaking slightly. Held it close to his good eye, squinting, scanning it for several seconds.

“My graduation year,” he said slowly, each word distinct and just short of a sentence in itself.

His voice was soft and gravelly, as it sought traction while wading through the remnants of memory.

“Phyllis,” he said, a crooked finger pointing to the young woman front and center. “Phyllis”, he said, adding her last name in a voice to soft for me to hear. I was leaning over the bed, watching his fingers move across the surface of the photo, trying my best to hear his few words.

It wasn’t until later that I looked more closely at the woman in the photo and recognized that it was my Aunt Phyllis, who married my dad’s older brother, Bill.

He exclaims: “I’m in here too!”

He found himself near the top on the right, in a light colored shirt. You can click on the photo for a larger version. And I’ve circled him in this second version.

Then the pace of his words increased as he recognized several of his old school friends. Vincent. Again I had trouble hearing his last name. Real? Riley? Alan Johnson. Pete, his last name sinks into my dad’s fading voice. Somebody Redfern. Jack Gillespie.

“My goodness,” he says.

Time pauses.

“Son of a gun!”

Silence, except for the low rumble of traffic noise from Beretania Street just below his window, and beeps and whirs of the breathing apparatus keeping the man
behind the curtain alive in the next bed.

I ask if he can find Marjory Beck, another school friend who wrote to him when he left California in 1939. He responded with a letter describing his first month in Honolulu.

He pores over the picture again. “She was small,” he recalls, as his his voice at this moment. “She looked something like this”. He was pointing to a dark haired woman, shorter than those around her. But he doesn’t find Marjory. Whether she’s absent from the photo or from his recollection isn’t clear.

He drops his hands to his chest, looking into the distance.

“Absolutely great.”

Turning again to the photo, he says Alan Johnson was a close friend in school.

“All of a sudden he disappeared.”

“His brother, Hippo Johnson, was a monstrous man,” he says, voice still very soft and slow. “He died early. Don…Don…Donald Johnson.”

Vincent, he recalls, was a runner, more specifically a sprinter. My dad was also on the track team, where such differences in events was important.

He seems to be pleased by the connection to his memories of school.

“Super,” he whispers, savoring the memories. “Just super.”

Then he looks over at me, his face already reflecting the question that’s coming.

“How would you be able to find me in here,” he pauses, gesturing to the small space at the end of this room, his tucked away under the window overlooking Beretania Street, across from City Feed Store. You pass three other beds before reaching his end of the room, three other lives fading by degree.

He finishes the sentence: “How would you be able to find me in here…in one of my offices?”

When in doubt, he figures he’s back at the office. He worked until age 85, so office felt a lot like home. And if he doesn’t really know where he is, how do we so uncannily know where to find him?

I respond that Bonnie, my sister, must have tipped me off to where he was staying.

He complains, mildly. “I haven’t seen Bonnie in…weeks. She leaves notes, writes messages.”

I know Bonnie is there religiously every couple of days, although some days she arrives when he’s asleep. I try to explain this to him, reassure him about her presence. I think he understands, as he sits there in his office.

I remind him of the visit last weekend from Nick Beck, a former Waikiki Surf Club paddler who knew my dad back in the mid-1060s. I tell him that following his visit here, Nick was able to sit down at length with Wally Froiseth. Wally and my dad go way back to his earliest days in Honolulu.

“Terrific. Terrific.”

I don’t know where he is dredging up these superlatives. But clearly he’s feeling good right now.

He lays back, basking in the experience.

“Funny how people make friends and relationships, and hang on. Up until a certain point it means nothing, and then all of a sudden, boom! It’s a point of contact.”

I nodded.


8 responses to “A trip back in time to Wilson High School in Long Beach, California

  1. Ian, I so look forward to these stories with your dad. I know it must be hard to deal with it sometimes, but you are fortunate that he’s still around !

  2. You should make a collection of these stories about your dad and alzheimer’s and self-publish it if Bess Press or Mutual Publishing decline.

    I think your book would sell well in Hawaii and beyond!

  3. i drove by where your dad is staying yesterday or the day before and made a mental note… hard not to put two and two together. it would be interesting to read a review of their facility from your perspective.

  4. my boss turned 80 this year and i’ve been wondering how much longer he can keep at it. so your dad made it until 85? know anyone who worked past age 85?

  5. Beautiful! You are there, and so is your dad…thanks from those of us who have been there (but without the wonderful pix, and a Dad who was able to respond)…THANKS, Ian.

  6. Don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before but my Rotary club has sung Christmas Carols at your dad’s “office” for many years. He may have been in the audience last year for all I know. It’s a great facility and you are a great son, Ian. Your writing is such a touchstone for so many of us. Thank you.

  7. Your other commenters are spot on–these are fabulous stories. I’m wondering how many of the students in the photo went on to be the grandparents of my childhood friends. . .

    • My sister says there’s a listing somewhere in my dad’s things with the names of all those graduates. That might provide the answer to your question.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.