On the Road to the OB

On the Road to the OB

Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey appeared on the list of required reading in my high school. One book a month. Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Mark Twain emerged as the only fun author. Other equally lofty and more disturbing classics were listed. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the inevitable adolescent eye-opener, marks my first trip into the world of an anguishing conscience. I became personally familiar with that angst as I fully fledged. My favorite was and still is Dickens’ Great Expectations. But Thornton Wilder? His book had more presence and greater standing in my hollow, blossoming thoughts.

Thornton Wilder had lived in my neck of the woods near the Jersey Shore during or after his Princeton years. No one knew exactly. His old farmhouse stood on a v-shaped wooded lot on the road to the Ocean Bay Diner. The “OB” was a popular teenage hangout for those who had cars or, in my case, those with friends who had cars.

Every time we passed it, someone would say, “that’s where Thornton Wilder lived” as if it was his ancestral home. Until I read his 1975 obituary, I thought he grew up in that house at the intersection of Ocean and Beaver Dam Roads. Driving past it once, the smartest girl I knew piped up from the back seat, “He wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey there.”

Don’t take that as gospel. I have no idea where he wrote it. And I have no idea what I thought when I read it the first time. Except this: I wanted to write like him. I admit the fact that passing by the house where he may have written it gave weight to my desire.

“Did you ever read The Bridge of San Luis Rey?” Veronica asked me last year. Her book group read it.

“Oh yeah, in high school.”

“Do you remember any of it?”

When I confessed I didn’t, she suggested I pick it up again. Months passed before the Kindle version loaded in. Settling into another one of my many pandemic iPad slouches, I finally clicked into it.

Immediately my old muse ignited anew. Here’s why I wanted to write like Thornton Wilder. The bridge in the title is a centuries old Inca rope crossing in mountainous Peru. Wilder hadn’t been to Peru when he wrote it. At age fifteen I could easily picture myself creating stories about places I’d never been, based on descriptions in the Encyclopedia Britannica or travel brochures.

Wilder concocted fables of the five people who died when the bridge collapsed. I could develop that skill. I told good stories.

Or at least good lies.

But oh, the writing. Was I capable of dreaming up sentences like “It is on this visit to the theater that further matter hangs.” ? I thought so then. And perhaps it would be so now, had I started earlier than age sixty-five!

Love Transcends Rules

<strong>Love Transcends Rules</strong>

Point Pleasant Nursing Home was a popular employer for minimum wage teenage workers.

The Jersey Shore’s borough of Point Pleasant straddles an expanded spit of land on the Atlantic Ocean between the Manasquan and Metedeconk Rivers. The 25,000 year-round residents reluctantly provide an oceanfront haven for summer visitors. Evelyn Adams, two-time winner of the New Jersey Lottery, is Point Pleasant’s most famous citizen.

An old colonial institution, Point Pleasant Nursing Home sat on the highway a mile away from the mainstreet town of shops and restaurants. Shoppers at the Brave New World Surf Shop across the road supplied a low level hum of traffic.

At my interview for the job, a clear dress code was laid out: wear a uniform, no flip flops, no make-up and no jewelry. My waitress uniforms from two previous jobs at the Asbury Park boardwalk and the Olde Mill Inn were acceptable. 

New employees trained on the night shift. On my first night I clocked in at 11:00 pm. A seasoned attendant showed me the ropes. Direct patient care, other than help feeding those who needed it, was the responsibility of the nurses. We were helpers. 

Some residents were roaming the halls though it was way past lights out. We left them alone so they wouldn’t get too agitated and scream at us, which would have cascaded into waking others. Eventually they would go to their rooms, but we had to keep an eye on them lest they fall asleep in the hallway and keel over. There’s a certain knack, instinct maybe, to knowing just the right point to steer people into bed. It might be droopy eyelids, slower walking, leaning against the walls; every patient’s body gave off a different signal. My trainer told me not to worry, that I’d pick it up fast.

When all were safely tucked into bed, we began straightening up the day room while listening for disturbances from the sleeping patients. My job was to put games like Monopoly, bingo and chess in their respective boxes and wiggle them into overstuffed cabinets. I wrote down pieces of each game that were missing so the next shift could look for them in patients’ hiding spots—pockets, drawers, purses.

A completed jigsaw puzzle of an Impressionist painting lay on its box cover under a window. I put the pieces back in the box and stuffed it into the cabinet along with art supplies, books and magazines. The maintenance crew cleaned and swept.

I was instructed to offer a simple greeting to each awakening patient before my shift ended at 7:00. One woman wandered toward the day room. I followed her. She stopped at the space where the completed jigsaw had been and looked at me panic-stricken. In a flash she grabbed my hair, shrieked I stole her art, and smacked me in the face. By the time the nurse reached us we were both screaming.

And that was the end of that job.

Twenty-five years later my mother was moved to Point Pleasant Nursing Home after assisted living facilities could no longer care for her. By that time all the people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias lived in dormitory settings on the first floor. My mother spent her time taking clothes and jewelry from others and hiding them in her closet. The nurses kept a watchful eye but said nothing. They were as relaxed with her as they were years prior when people roamed the halls until they tired out. 

Until the last, my mother did what she always loved: broke the rules.

1971, 25 Years Old and Still Alive

In June 1971, I turned 25 years old and celebrated my first six months of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.

That same month, the release of the Pentagon Papers set off a firestorm of I-told-you-so outrage by Vietnam war protesters like me. All through the 1960s Washington insiders had been leaking to the press that the White House was lying about our involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. Anti-war organizations published newsletters and held NYT-pentagon-papermarches screaming at the government to pullout of Vietnam because there was no good reason for us to be there. When my son was born in 1967 I started sending streams of letters and postcards to the President and Congress begging them to end the draft. I didn’t want my son growing up in a world where he would be forced to kill another mother’s son.

My imbalanced emotional connection to the 60% of Americans who were against the war drove me to protest, argue, march and drink myself into oblivion. In December 1970, defeated, I finally collapsed, failing to escape the world of war, within and without.

Then, in my first year of recovery, the Pentagon Papers confirmed that Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson all lied about why we were in Vietnam. We stayed simply to save face, refusing to admit defeat. Troop numbers fell from 500,000 in 1968 to 156,000 by the end of 1971, the year The Pentagon Papers were published.

And so what? The world went on. Jim Morrison died in his bathtub in Paris. I read The Exorcist, rocked out at George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh and women were allowed to run the Boston Marathon.

The Pentagon Papers’ exposure of the government’s lying treachery slow-cooked beyond my consciousness. My AA meetings in Point Pleasant, NJ, seduced me with a new recipe for living, replacing the bitter stew of the wearying world. A wise woman at my meetings gave me two pieces of advice: 1) don’t comment at meetings about outside issues and, 2) wear a bra. I did both and managed to attract a ne’er-do-well fellow AA’er, ten years older. Ed professed some kind of love, so I moved in with him.

Julius Roehrs Garden Center hired me to make terrariums in glass bowls, a new fad. It 805160-03-1was my first job as a sober adult. I spent all day in a greenhouse planting miniature sedum and echeveria while having LSD flashbacks and dancing around to tunes only I could hear. My son, Joe, had been living with his grandparents for his kindergarten year and came to live with Ed and me. Disney World Orlando had just opened, so we read up on how to camp, then packed our new tent, camp stove and sleeping bags into Ed’s Mustang and drove down I-95 to the Yogi Bear Campground.

It rained. Ed and I fought. He got drunk and disappeared.

I drove Joe home—1,000 miles back to New Jersey.

When Ed showed up a few months later, we got married.