Monday, October 29, 2007

Thanksgiving on the Other Side

Becky (Boo Boo) and Chery, 1961.
Richmond, California.
By "other side," I mean the other side of my family. The non-Norwegian side, to be specific.

While growing up in the Bay Area, my mother's Norwegian-American relatives lived mostly in Oregon and Minnesota--too far off to see during the holidays. Dad's family was close by, so we exchanged many visits for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Dad never minded cooking the turkey. Each year, one was provided to him for the holiday season as an employee of the Bell Packing Company in Berkeley. He loved the attention that cooking the turkey brought, being an extrovert who craved attention and interaction and didn't get enough of either. So, Thanksgivings were often held at our house. There was little to look forward to aside from the company and the meal, because in the Bay Area, you don't get brisk weather and beautiful fall colors; instead, you get rain.
While waiting for the turkey to cook, all of us snarfed up plenty of olives, and celery sticks stuffed with cream cheese, heartily seasoned with beau monde. Beau monde is little more than MSG, which I now avoid like the plague, but, who knew in those days? Just how many brain cells I lost over Thanksgiving holidays has yet to be determined.
The only other time I remember Dad being interested in cooking was when he taught my little sister to make a sandwich, all the while singing: "...a pickle in the middle with the mustard on top!"

Dad (Bill Wheeler) and his turkey.
Thanksgiving Day, 1965, El Cerrito, California.

Dad was a cannery retort operator, and Mom was a homemaker, so my upbringing was pretty modest and low key. It was exciting to have a group of people descend upon us at any time, let alone during the holidays. The variety of people on Dad's side of the family was interesting to a shy girl who led a quiet life and was hungry for more information about the world, in general. While my little sister, "Boo Boo," ricocheted off people, the dog, and table legs, I sat on the sidelines and sopped everything up like a sponge, always longing to participate more in life than I was.

Uncle Bob

Bob was the proverbial "bachelor uncle" who came to each family gathering equipped with a pocket protector, and all the latest gadgets and accompanying knowledge. Tallish and slender with dark hair and black rimmed glasses, he looked like the stereotype of the engineer that he was. Bob worked for the 3-M Company, and in his spare time he tinkered with his old Volkswagen and all the technical toys his workplace could provide. Due to the nature of his job, his holiday gifts were amazing. For me, they included my first portable tape player (no, I mean the early kind, with REELS), and a telescope just at the moment when astronomy had become my passion. Oh, every kid from an income-challenged family deserves an uncle like Bob.
Uncle Buzz and Aunt Marge

Buzz was one of those rare creatures who actually made a decent living as a musician. His real name was Elmer, but, come on... if you were part of the San Francisco Beat scene, wouldn't you be tempted to change your name?

San Francisco has always had a nonconformist reputation. In the 1950s, it served as a catalyst for social change and the avant-guard, which included the Beat generation. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined the term "Beatniks" to describe the young writers, philosophers, and poets who gravitated to the North Beach area in search of artistic freedom and intellectual expression. "Beatniks" was originally meant to be an unflattering term, but was later embraced to become sort of a badge of honor.[1]

From about 1948 on, the Purple Onion, a celebrated cellar club in the North Beach area, personified the Beat era with its jazz and folk music, and smoky ambiance. Buzz was the resident bass player at the Purple Onion for many years. The intimate, 80-person setting hosted many up and coming entertainers: Woody Allen, Phyllis Diller, the Smothers Brothers, and the Kingston Trio, to name a few.[2]

Excerpt from the Oakland Tribune, 16 July, 1958, p.35, col.6

...Tonight is the night to revel it up a little with the East Bay chapter of the Hungry i, Purple Onion and Opus I.  If you are considered avant garde in your circle--this is aimed as a direct suggestion.  Buzz Wheeler at the piano, Gene Duncan's "Jericho" and Carol Frances are all people to go home talking about.  Nightly except Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.

Buzz's main instrument was the piano, but as a highly respected bass player on the Beat scene, he was sought after by many other musicians. He performed with Charles Mingus, and was included on the 1949 recording of "Lyon's Roar" and "Pennies from Heaven" from the LP: "Baron Mingus and his Rhythm."[3]

He also played upright bass on all of the tracks on the Kingston Trio's first album (Scotch and Soda, recorded on February 5, 1958. Album: THE KINGSTON TRIO, Capitol T-996. Released June 2, 1958). Buzz was enlisted in order to give "some polish to the group's somewhat rough, 'homegrown' accompaniment." The track provided Buzz with a "showcase that decades of future bass practitioners have envied and sought to emulate."[4]
Scotch and Soda
(partial lyrics)

Scotch and soda, mud in your eye.
Baby, do I feel high,
oh, me, oh, my. Do I feel high.
Dry martini, jigger of gin.
Oh, what a spell you've got me in,
oh, my. Do I feel high.

And, if you ever watch old Woody Woodpecker cartoons, listen carefully to those jazz tracks that include a bass... that's Buzz, too!

Buzz's wife, Marge, was also in the music business. She sang, while Buzz played accompaniment on the piano, and writers, lurkers, and music lovers sat in half-lit shadows, clinking their whiskey-flavored ice cubes and stirring martinis with stemmed cherries.

When I knew Marge, her long, straight and frizzy red hair, which she always wore in a high ponytail, had faded mostly to grey. But, in earlier days, with that pretty, welcoming face and red ponytail, she must have looked striking on stage in a black turtleneck and leggings.

Her sweet, breathy voice turned raspy after years of hard smoking, but her everyday speech was lyrical in itself. Marge was relaxed and she knew how to laugh. She was also a huggy-kissy person, much to my mother's dismay, but not in an ungenuine way. It's just that Mom's rather stoic farm upbringing dictated that while it was okay to kiss one's children on the lips, the line should be drawn at in-laws.

When I was a child, I had no knowledge of Marge's artistic inclinations. It was amazing enough that her favorite color was orange and that she shopped regularly at import stores. I didn't even know where to find one.

Grandpa McKinley and Grandma Margaret

McKinley had the congenial and deliberate air of a southern gent, but he hailed from the Midwest. He was fond of wearing western ties with white shirts.  Unfortunately, that gentlemanly air hid something much darker that many family members knew nothing about until years after his death.

His wife, Margaret, was a woman who would give you the blouse off her back, but if she talked you into her big white Pontiac to let her help you run an errand, she would soon have you hiding in the back seat, under a blanket, repeating a prayer. Everything about Margaret was fast. She drove fast, talked fast, and she walked fast. As a matter of fact, she ran: in the house, and outside. Margaret always ran instead of walked, and she wore her slippers everywhere.

Margaret had three sisters who were close in age: Lillian, Florence, and Vivian. The sisters must have had a lot of fun growing up together in the urban Bay Area, when rapid growth following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake changed everyone's life for the better. One can image them sitting for a photograph on the steps of a glorious old Victorian house, posing in proper, lacy, white dresses with huge satin bows at the backs of their long tresses. Straining to hold both breath and facial expression for a minute, when given the signal they rose in a competitive, congenial whirlwind, as only sisters can do.

The Cousins

I had a cousin who was exactly the same age as me, and one who was younger. But, it was their two older sisters who provided the most entertainment.

To a 1960s pre-teen girl, the world of makeup, hair, clothes, and dating was like a different planet. Just sitting and listening to these girls talk provided plenty of input to digest until the next Thanksgiving rolled around. It was even more exciting when a Scottish cousin moved in with the family to get an American education, and joined the holiday mix. Fresh from the land of the Beatles (Edinburgh was close enough), with bright red hair and copious freckles, Jane was like heather wine, an exotic representative of the world at large.

The others complained that Jane liked to tell stories in order to get attention. I wouldn't have known the difference, because I had a hard enough time understanding her thick accent, anyway. But, I did enjoy my alone time with Jane once when she spent the night, and we giggled under the blankets with our "Black Cow" candy after being frightened by the movie, "Creature from the Black Lagoon."

Afterwards, she told me a story about her school, and how the boys and girls had physical ed class together. One day, the girls somehow all lost their uniforms and the teacher made them go to class in their underwear. I asked, "Didn't the boys mind?" She replied in all seriousness: "No, of course not!" She was 13 or 14, and I was 10, and maybe she hadn't realized I was just a tad too young to get the joke.

Uncle Ralph and Aunt Evelyn did their best to keep their charges in line, but the notion of a family having by-laws and using allowances and fines was strange to me. It was even stranger to think that a girl could get punished for something like wearing green eyeshadow. Worse than that was the idea that you could actually break a rule and live to tell about it. (Okay, so I was pretty naive.)

The people who filled the holidays of my early years are remembered and respected for the uniqueness they each brought to the family. There may never be another gathering for me quite like those of my childhood, but family interaction is important to the human spirit, especially to an impressionable young person. It is in the early years that indelible bonds and impressions are forged, and though the effects may not be realized immediately, they are long lasting.

So, go forth and make happy memories. The stress of modern life should not deter us from making human connections. Best yet, be sure to record those memories for generations to come.

A very happy and memorable Thanksgiving to you all.

1 San Francisco: In Depth: History: The 1950's: The Beats,
2 Wikipedia,

3 The Charles Mingus Catalog,

4 The Kingston Trio: The Guard Years:,Rynolds,Shane)/GuardYrsPages/.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Nordic Blue -

    Fascinating and well-written insights into your family memories.

    I found your blog (3 years after publishing) because it's the only place on the web that i could find any reliable information on your uncle Buzz Wheeler.

    I'm doing both a series of articles and I hope a book on the Kingston Trio, and Uncle Buzz did a heckuva a lot more for that first album than that single quote from a Capitol collection gives him credit for. His jazz-based playing is a lot more than "bottom" or "polish" - it's a great set of musical ideas that really, really brings the KT's arrangements to life. I'm so delighted to find out more about him - I'll feature some comments about him in my weekly blog article tomorrow night on my blog here on blogspot - it's called Comparative Video 101. Thanks!

    Jim Moran