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       SOME OF THE BEST
2 February, 1999

Photo by Bob Gentry 2001 Stanyan Entertainment

A Thought for Today

In this time of resurrection and renewal, don't forget whose resurrection we celebrate today.

 

"Good morning Rod, My choice for Some of the Best is the column from 2 February 1999. I enjoyed the look at the 'real' Rod McKuen. From this column we got a previously unknown look into the life of Rod as he was growing up and how an occasion influenced the Rod we know today. It was a 'personal' column about an event that Rod shared with us. I hope to see more columns like this in the future. Jay Hagan." 

Thanks, Jay, I'll keep that in mind.

MY OLD FLAME 

When I was growing up I spent so little time in classrooms that I once estimated my total years of formal education amounted to about four semesters. We traveled a lot because my stepfather worked on roadgangs building and rebuilding highways just after the great depression. We went where the work was, usually living in tent cities with other workers and their families. I would drop in to the nearest school at whatever grade I should be in had I been attending classes continually, not where I belonged. I loved learning and still do so I was usually able to fake my way though what I didn't know. I was very lucky because I nearly always had great teachers. Most were willing to pull as much out of my head as they crammed into it. My evenings, Saturdays and Sundays were always spent at the sometimes not so local library, no matter how long a hike it was to get there. I wouldn't recommend this kind of learning for anyone else, but since it was forced because of all the moves we made across the west and northwest I made it work for me.

Acquiring knowledge, and trying to remember it, was the only hobby I had in those days. Besides, time at the library beat the hell out of hanging around the house and getting in the way of a drunken step dad with mayhem on his mind.

When America entered World War II, I knew it was only a matter of time till my nemesis would be drafted and leave. It never happened and the beatings at home got so bad that I became a chronic truant from the North Las Vegas school I was attending. What, go to class displaying my latest black eye and broken bones? No thanks. More than one recess bully took my bruises to mean I was an easy mark for more. Finally I started running away from home. The authorities would bring me back and I'd run away again. This kept up until I was sent away to The Nevada School of Industry, a reform school where I was the youngest 'wayward boy.' That was a learning experience ( ! ) better dealt with at another time.

With the exception of now and again being loaned out from the school as an unpaid worker, to local farms and ranches, I spent the remaining war years being rehabilitated at NSI. During the winter months a teacher from the nearby town of Elko came out to 'the school' once a week and the fifty or so inmates got instruction in reading, writing and whatever else could be squeezed into three hours. When I was finally released 
from NSI, I went back to my birth place, Oakland California, where a couple of aunts still lived. True to form I entered school where I felt I should have been, the last few months of junior high. Again I left before graduating to work in Nevada and Wyoming.

A year or so later I wound up back in California as a junior at Oakland Technical High School. I was awkward and bashful and felt ugly and out of place. If a walking template for a nerd existed, I was it. Early in the semester I developed a crush on the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was a goddess, with enormous sad eyes. We had no classes together, because it turned out she was a senior, but I saw her often, eating lunch on the grass alone or passing in the hallway on her way to some classroom I wouldn't be entering. We never spoke but our eyes always met and she would manage that faint smile. My God, it was like a Hollywood movie. Around September we did begin to speak a sentence or two to each other, but that was about it. I found out her name. It was April, just like the month of my birth. I was helplessly in love. She was of Danish decent, I might have guessed it. Certainly California, or any other state in the union, couldn't have turned out such a living angel on its own.

I began to write poems about April, though of course I never dared show them to her. Soon she would be graduating and going off to wherever seniors go and I would be left alone. Hollywood movies in those days always had happy endings. Why not mine? Well it did. The Nerd took The Goddess to her senior prom. Honest. It was the most memorable night of my life. 

You're probably wondering if this yarn is going anywhere, right? Here's a letter from last night's E-mail: 

Hi Rod, greetings from the former Nena Hansen a.k.a. "April." We went to my senior ball together in 1951. I was surfing the web and ended up at your home page. I can imagine how thrilled you were to find your poetry on the web! I get excited when I get an email from Denmark. I have been doing genealogy research on line planning a trip to Denmark in June. As far as I know to date, I don't still have relatives there, but its fun searching.

I read your interview on your web page. I too suffered from clinical depression for a couple of years and still take Prozac. I think it happens often to people raised in the 1940 and 1950s with all the family secrets. But then again, what would I know? I am very content with my life now. Great friends, family and a cute house built in 1927 near the Oakland Rose Garden. After the 1991 firestorm, in which my home burned down, I bought a 1946 Steinway grand piano. So music is a large part of my life. I am still taking lessons, and it makes me appreciate the work and practice and talent of professional musicians

I am trying to think of things to write that are funny, insightful and
interesting so that perhaps I might hear from you. After reading your interview it does not seem likely. You may have to get an "auto response," to keep up with your email. I am reading "Tuesdays with Morrie" now and he has all the wit and wisdom I can't come up with right now. "Love is the only rational act."

I have had a fascinating life, and the more I have learned to listen the more I realize everyone has. A hundred million, give or take a few billion, stories. Most of it has been better than worse, more joyous than sad and endlessly interesting. It sounds like your life has been also. With love, Nena

Dear Nena (always April to me), A long letter is on its way to you if I can ever get 48 years out of my head and onto paper. Meanwhile, love, and you know I mean it. Rod

                              
-RM First Published 2/2/99

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notable birthdays

EASTER SUNDAY

Michael Ansara o Linda Bloodworth-Thomason o Leonardo da Vinci o Claudia Cardinale o Roy Clark o Hans Conried o Henry James o Harvey Lembeck o Neville Marriner o Elizabeth Montgomery o Wallace Reid o Leo Schotter o Bessie Smith o Julie Sommars o Emma Thompson o Robert Walker, Jr.

Rod's random thoughts Thank God for memory, it is the closest we can come to perfection.

There is no fresh air without love.

Common sense sees the visible; imagination goes beyond.

REVISION

        Not content
to fly to Cedar Falls,
I'd like to track
the footprints on the moon
and carry home to you
a bouquet of space junk.

Because there is so little mystery
left in moonlight through the window
I'd like to bring you
one great armload of discarded
                          pristine stuff.

Cracked lenses off some Hasselblad,
K ration wrappers from Velveeta cheese,
and for your dressing table,
some not yet rusty wrench
that cost the government -
                        that's us -
a half a million bucks.

Surprises that no earthbound
jumble sale can boast
is what I'd like to give to you.

If my old wink is worn
                or wearing out
hang on till I come home
            from out beyond,
entreating you with rocks and bolts
from lunar landscape.

Not just Gordon Cooper's underwear
but time capsule snapshots
                     of his wife and kids
for you to tack up with those cards
I've been sending, you've collected
from the other worlds we've trucked to.

That Livingstone, Columbus
                           and Magellan team
left Frank Sinatra records
                           strewn about.
They won't play
on your Compact Disc machine
but I suspect you'll find a niche
for forty fives and thirty threes
the same as you have found a place
for this old relic, me.

                              
- from "Valentines," 1986
1975, 1986, 1999, 2001 by Stanyan Music Group & Rod McKuen. All Rights Reserved
Birthday research by Wade Alexander o Poetry from the collection of Jay Hagan o Coordinated by Melinda Smith
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