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A professional writer's private thoughts

Archive for August, 2013

Hilton Hawaiian Village memories

We lived in Penthouse 5 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments from June to December 1989. My father was assigned to the Honolulu office of General Telephone and Electric for a special project – as a civil engineer, he planned the undergrounding of phone lines for the state of Hawaii. As a lifelong surfer, he was thrilled to bring us to Hawaii for what could have been permanent residency. As kids who loved to boogie board and play at the beach, we were thrilled to be there.

Life at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments was a trip. From our balcony we could see a free fireworks show every Friday night, as well as the elaborate preparations for the weekly luau, which included the fire eating performances of Siva Afi – at least, I thought that was his name. Googling it now I realize that is actually the name of the traditional Samoan fire knife dance he was performing. Whatever moniker he really went by, my little brother and I were quite impressed with his fire swallowing skills.

We took long walks down Waikiki, swam laps in the apartment pool every day, shopped at the Ala Moana Mall, and on the weekends would tour different parts of the island. I became obsessed with Dole Whips. I also was thoroughly convinced that pineapples grew underground, like potatoes, because despite passing row upon row of pineapple plants as we drove past the Dole fields coming back from the North Shore, I never saw a single pineapple above ground awaiting harvest.

Thanks to an expense account from my dad’s company, we ate out a lot. This six months of my life is probably why as an adult I’m a bit of a profligate foodie. My brother and I would “rate” each restaurant using a Sanrio sticker book we’d gotten at the Japanese grocery store in the Ala Moana Mall. That place had the best bakery – and amazing apple fritters – that I have ever had.

Little things about living at the Hilton stand out: being Charo’s neighbor, we’d see her in the elevator. She had a permanent show there at the time. There was an elderly man named George in our building who liked to ask my brother and I, every time he saw us, “Do you know why they called it Hawaii 5-0?” We’d always say no. He’d gleefully answer himself: “Because Hawaii was the 50th state!” One day we finally got to ride the paddle boats out into the lagoon in our front yard. We were dismayed to find you couldn’t de-board on the little island in the center. There were a few other kids in our building. We played baseball with them on the lawn next to the lagoon, they’d never played before.

It was a strange place to live, with the constant comings and goings of tourists and a permanent party right outside at the resort, and probably wouldn’t have been right for us long term. But for our temporary paradise vacation, it was an amazing spot to call home. Here we are standing in front of the lagoon – in our front yard!

Penthouse at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Apartments

Goodbye is the hardest aloha of all

Two of my favorite people are due to leave Santa Barbara next week. They’ll be back, in fits and starts, but their time living here has come to an end. If the skies seem a little less blue starting next Tuesday, it might be because the Hammedillos have left the area.

Chris and Danielle – you have no idea how much we will all miss you. Me especially. Your good-natured, laid back, fun loving, kind and generous natures have been so appreciated. I’ve never had friends who fed me as many delicious meals as you have, or were so generous with their open door policy. Miso soup and quesadillas are going to be decidedly less delicious from here on out. There won’t be any more line dancing without you, Danielle, or Korean soap operas either. And Chris, I know I’m doomed to try less interesting beer from this point forward.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not that you both happen to be from my favorite state, the Land of Enchantment.  I’m jealous that you get to go back there, but happy for your families that they will be able to see you more now. And I’ll come visit, you can be sure of that.

I’m sad that we didn’t meet sooner, but so glad we got to have this year of hanging out together. I can’t finish this post without a thank you to Kelly, because without her I would never have known you. Be well and brilliant, and I know we’ll see you further on down the road.

Love, your friend and sister, Leah


Hurled Bones: The Tom McCord Story

As a very young kid, Tom McCord was the very first person I ever knew who was “different.” He was my dad’s very good friend.

Tom didn’t drive a car, so when he came over to our house to spend time with us, we’d go pick him up at his parents in Santa Ynez Oaks. He was the only grown-up I knew who lived with his parents, which made him seem lucky in my eyes. He didn’t walk quite right, one of his legs seemed to drag behind the other. He didn’t talk quite right, either, so I had to listen closely to be able to understand him. But other than that, he was the coolest person ever. He’d get down on his arms and knees, let me jump on his back and give me a pony ride around the couch. He taught me about toe-jam. He called me Lea-bongea-banana-nana-fo-fea. And I could tell from the way my parents treated him and laughed and smiled more when he was around that he was a very good friend.

I’m not sure how old I was when I could understand why Tom wasn’t like everybody else. I’m sure I asked my mom at some point. There had been an accident, she explained, and he had fallen from a high cliff in Northern California. For a long time, he did not wake up. My dad went to visit him in his hospital room, while he lay lifeless in a coma for many months. But Tom didn’t die. I’ve always been convinced that the overwhelming positivity that imbues his soul is the reason he was able to wake up.

My dad, William Etling, has written some amazing things about Tom that summarize the kind of person he is. A few excerpts:

“Tom was my best friend at Santa Ynez High, class of 1971. He was a good student, surfed, was on the wrestling and football teams, was funny, good looking, and well liked by all. Upon graduation he headed off to Humboldt State, where one terrible night in 1973 a fall from a beachside bluff left him in a coma. He was 19 years old.

Through it all, this gregarious, kind, open-hearted guy, who always had a bevy of friends from all walks of life, honed his stellar sense of humor and a fearless, ebullient charm that melts the heart.

When I visited him at his home in Socorro, New Mexico, we went out for breakfast, and he greeted everyone he met. If they weren’t friends before that moment, they were after. Making his way down the street with the swinging gait his injuries left him, he had a trail of smiling people in his wake.”

People generally don’t react well to those who are different than the rest of us. Whether it’s a physical or mental handicap, an accident, disease or injury that has changed someone’s body or mind or spirit, treating that person equally and openly doesn’t come naturally to some. I like to think that knowing Tom so early in my life helped me be kinder to those who are other-abled.

Tom has lived independently in Socorro, New Mexico for many years. He has a job at the library there, and somewhere along the way one of his coworkers, librarian Kathryn Albrecht, realized what some of us already knew. Tom had a gift for language. He knows more words than anyone I’ve ever met. And his ability to put them together, poignantly, as poetry, is divine.

Before there were computers, Tom would write my dad amazing letters. He saved them all. They were wondrous tales of words intertwined with emotion and big, brilliant statements about the universe. Some of his poems are like that. Others are smaller, sweeter, sneakier. Albrecht’s collation of the poems Tom left on her desk at the library is now a book, “Riding on Hurled Bones.” Speaking as someone who doesn’t care much for poetry, it’s a remarkable piece of writing. You should buy it, and read it, but more importantly, perhaps, you should meet Tom McCord.

There will be two book signings in Solvang and Los Olivos next Friday and Saturday, Aug. 9 and 10. I’ll be at the Saturday event, and I’d encourage you to come to either one. As Dad writes: “The greatest gift of all we take for granted. It’s lost in the day-to-day round of petty annoyances. Just being here, alive, drawing breath, and looking on in wonder at the mystery and majesty of it all, is the ultimate miracle. A few special people, like Tom, risen from the dead, hold that truth in their hearts. If only we all did.”

Tom, thank you for everything you have opened my eyes to in this life. Toe jam first, followed by a lot of really big life lessons that I’ll forever cherish, because I knew you.

The Riding on Hurled Bones Tour 2013 comes to Los Olivos August 10 from 6-8 pm, with music, wine, and the inimitable Thomas Joseph McCord, signing his new book. 2920 B Grand Avenue, Los Olivos, CA 93441.

Tom and Kathryn

Tom and Kathryn

My parents on their wedding day. Tom on the left, my aunt Donna on the right.

My parents on their wedding day. Tom on the left, my aunt Donna on the right.