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Hanging out in a cemetery can be fun

NEWS-LEDGER — DEC 10, 2014 —

I have a strange little confession to make. When I need to get away from everything and everyone for a few days, I often jump in my little truck and head down into Southern California, often ending up somewhere out in the desert, although usually near wonderfully civilized places like Palm Springs. And on the way, especially while I am in and around the Los Angeles area, I have been known to stop off at some of the more famous cemeteries down there that are the final resting places for many of the television and movie stars of my youth. Anyway, I happened to mention this to a friend of mine the other day and I could see by the expression on his face that he was a little worried about me.

“Maybe you have just reached that age where death is becoming a little more real to you,” he suggested.

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

“No, I have always liked cemeteries, even when I was young, especially historic ones. And the one we have right over the bridge in Sacramento is a great place to hang out. All kinds of interesting people are buried there, including a bunch of California governors, Civil War veterans, quite a few of the famous Crocker family, and even Alexander Hamilton’s son, who died in one of those cholera epidemics that used to be really common in this area back in the 1840s and 1850s. And if you go down to Southern California there are a bunch of Forest Lawn cemeteries that are the final resting place of lots of famous people like Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel, Ricky Nelson, Steve Allen, Charles Laughton, Michael Jackson, and the list goes on and on. Oh, and another really interesting cemetery down there is Los Angeles Cemetery. That’s where Marilyn Monroe is buried. Did you know that the bid on e-Bay for the empty crypt just above hers has now reached $4.6 million dollars?”
“Really?” said my friend, not knowing how to change the subject. “Well, I guess since most of the old movie stars lived and worked in the Los Angeles area, it’s only natural that they died and were buried there, too.”
“One of the most interesting cemeteries I ever visited was a place called Desert Memorial Park,” I continued, “which is down around Palm Springs. I stopped by there once to check out William Powell’s grave – you know, the guy who starred in all of those great old `Thin Man’ movies – and guess who I stumbled across in the process?”
“Who?” asked my friend very reluctantly.
“Frank Sinatra – Old Blue Eyes himself! And I was surprised by what an unpretentious gravesite he had, just a flat marker on the ground with his name, the dates of his birth and death, and an old song lyric of his — `The best is yet to come’ – chiseled into the stone. And did you know that he was buried with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a pack of Camel cigarettes?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“But the one grave I’ve always wanted to visit was Charlie Chaplin’s, and you know what happened to him, don’t you?”
“No, what?”
“Well, Charlie died on Christmas Day in 1977 at the age of 88, and his family buried him in a really nice cemetery in Switzerland, not far from where he had lived for many years after America wouldn’t let  him back into the country because of his politics. But a couple of months later his body was dug up and stolen from the graveyard and the thieves wanted $600,000 from his grieving wife before they would give it back.”
“Really?” asked my friend, suddenly interested in our conversation for the first time. “So what did his wife do?”
“Well, she told them that she wouldn’t pay the ransom, because Charlie would have considered the whole thing ridiculous and even humorous, so the thieves then threatened the lives of some of their eight children, all of whom Charlie had fathered after his 54th birthday, which was his age when they got married.”
“But the family did get poor Charlie’s body back, didn’t they?” asked my friend with interest.
“Yes, but only after a five or six week investigation by the local police who finally found out that a couple of out-of-work auto mechanics from Bulgaria of all places had dug up Charlie and re-buried him in an old cornfield about a mile from his home. So the authorities arrested the thieves and went out and got Charlie back and returned him to his original resting place. But this time they buried him in a very heavy cement grave to prevent any future theft attempts.”

“Wow, that’s quite a story,” said my friend. “And I guess that’s probably at the heart of why you like to visit graveyards, isn’t it? You know, the fact that every life has its own story, and you can stand there and think about the great life that someone you really admired has lived.”
“Well,” I admitted, “I usually just like to stand there and whisper to myself something like, `Even though you got to be rich and famous and I didn’t, you are gone, and I’m still here’!”

Copyright News-Ledger 2014

Holidays bring Bruce Williams to mind

NEWS-LEDGER — NOV 26, 2014 —

  Note: Someone once said that as long as we are remembered, we really never die, and the following column, which was written more than two decades ago, is reprinted below in memory of Bruce Williams, a longtime friend, and a very special West Sacramentan:

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

The Thanksgiving holiday means different things to different people. For my parents, it’s a time to get together with all their kids and grandchildren for a big turkey dinner out at my uncle’s house in Davis; for my oldest son, it means his birthday is only a few hours away; for my other two sons, it means a glorious week off from school; and for my wife and daughter, it means cheerfully sorting through a bejillion newspaper ads in search of slashed prices and potential Christmas presents.

For a number of years, though, Thanksgiving weekend has also meant that it was time for me to get off my duff and help out with the setting up of the West Sacramento Little League Christmas tree lot.

There has been a WSLL Christmas tree lot ever since I can remember. For years, it was the league’s most important fundraiser, and countless West Sacramentans have participated in going up to the snowline on Thanksgiving weekend to truck back the trees and set up the lot. Hundreds more have volunteered their time to help sell the trees, usually signing up for one or more nights during the Christmas season to watch over the lot and assist customers in locating the perfect tree for them.

Most of the people who have spent a number of years working at the WSLL Christmas tree lot will tell you that it quickly turns into a labor of love. In fact, I know of nothing which puts one into the Christmas spirit faster than an evening of assisting young boys and girls hunt for that one special tree, which, when located, so obviously belongs in their home.

During those years when I spent a number of late-November and early-December evenings at the lot, there was always one person I could count on to help me out on short notice. I would often phone him on a Friday or Saturday night and plead with him to replace someone who had plans they just couldn’t cancel.

“You don’t have to beg me, Fish,” Bruce Williams would say, using an old childhood nickname he knew I hated. “You know I love selling them Christmas trees.”

I would thank him profusely and then yell, “And stop calling me Fish!”

When Bruce arrived at the Christmas tree lot, he would always be properly outfitted for the occasion. Unlike me, who could never remember to bundle up and wear gloves, Bruce was an experienced outdoorsman and he would always stroll in decked out like he was going on a camping trip to the Himalayas. While I would jump up and down in my windbreaker and blow on my hands in an unsuccessful effort to stay warm, he would happily wander all around the lot, talking to just about everyone and anyone (Bruce always loved to `visit’) who walked through the gate, obviously enjoying himself and snug as a bug in a rug in his thick down jacket.

When the customers would finally begin to thin out, we would often stand around and talk for hours about the good old days, when growing up in West Sacramento seemed so uncomplicated. For most of the years of our youth, Bruce and I lived only a couple of blocks away from each other, he on Rockrose Road and me on Michigan Boulevard. We started high school at James Marshall together in 1961 (by the way, Bruce was voted the best looking boy in the entire school in our senior year) and we were in countless classes together. Later on we coached our sons together in Little League and our shared memories stretched all the way back to neighborhood garage dances, choosing each other on the same pickup teams in P.E., getting bad grades from the same teachers, and even dating some of the same girls.

As the nights at the Christmas tree lot would get late, Bruce and I would almost always get around to swapping war stories about Vietnam. He’d tell me about some of the hot LZ’s he had flown into and describe some of the many exotic places he had seen during his travels with the United States Air Force, and I would brag about the little First Infantry Division aero rifle platoon that had been my faraway home for that long ago year. The night would fly by and I would always leave the lot grateful that after all these many years, Bruce Williams was still my friend.

Bruce has been gone for a little over six months now, and for all those many people whose lives he touched (including my daughter and oldest son, who have long been convinced that Bruce Williams was the nicest guy in West Sacramento), this  will be their first Christmas without him. It’s not going to be easy for any of us, especially for Penny and their boys, Jason and Ryan, but in this special season of thanksgiving, how thankful I am for all my memories of Bruce, and especially for those chilly laugh-filled nights together at the West Sacramento Little League Christmas tree lot.
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Copyright News-Ledger 2014

There’s nothing like pee-wee baseball


  Note: For the past few weeks I’ve been going over to a little hidden-away baseball diamond at Southport Elementary School to watch two of my grandsons practice with their teammates for their upcoming West Sacramento Little League season. Their team, called the Raptors, is being coached by my son-in-law and oldest son, which should turn out to be a hoot in itself, and watching them work really hard to get the Raptors all squared away for Opening Day suddenly reminded of the following column, which was penned almost 20 years ago:

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

The coming of spring in the Sacramento Valley means different things to different people. To the sun worshiper, it means that endless months of depressing rain and white skin are almost over; to allergy-sufferers, it means it’s time to start sneezing and blowing your nose again; to the lover of gardening, it’s time to prepare the soil for all that glorious plant growth that is just around the corner; and to the local parent of young boys, it’s time to try and find a way out of being their Little League baseball manager or coach.

This year, however, my youngest son, Kyle, has talked me into signing up to manage his pee-wee baseball team (the Reds) in the West Sacramento Little League. His argument was simple and effective. Since I had managed his older brother’s pee-wee teams, I owed him.

“If you’re the manager, Dad,” he said with deep conviction, “I’ll get to be the pitcher!”

“But it doesn’t exactly work that way, Kyle,” I tried to explain. “Plus in pee-wees, there is no pitcher. Everyone hits off of a tee.”

“Right,” said my son, obviously starting to question just what kind of manager I was going to be if I didn’t even know that you need a pitcher to play baseball.

“Kyle,” I said, “to tell you the truth, I’m a little burned out on Little League baseball coaching. Maybe you could wait another year? You’re only six, you know.”

“But Dad,” he said with his most pathetic voice, “that’s what you said last year.” Then he looked up at me with those big brown eyes of his and a facial expression that left no doubt he was thinking those awful words which all parents fear: “You love my brothers (or sisters) more than me!”

So, once again, it was time to break out the fluff balls and undersized mitts and prepare my ears for that awful aluminum “clink” of the bat. Thankfully, by the time I had called all twelve of the Reds and told them about their first practice, I was beginning to feel some of the old fun and excitement which pee-wee baseball brings out in almost everyone who participates. And with all the phone calls completed, I sat back for a few minutes and tried to remember some of the things required of a successful pee-wee manager.

First, you have to be really good at tying double-knots. Pee-wees are, for the most part, six and seven year olds, and almost all of them will show up for every practice (and the majority of their games) with at least one shoe untied.

Second, you have to be great at finding things. Pee-wees lose their hats, their bats, their gloves, their snack-bar money, and even their parents from time to time.

Third, you have to be able to anticipate potty breaks. This can usually be done by noticing how the players on my team are standing. If they are squirming, holding their legs tightly together, and making funny faces, you need to get them over to the bathroom ASAP!

Fourth, you have to be accomplished at being able to talk some sweet, unsuspecting soul into being the team mother. She is the person who has to, among many other things, organize the team float for the Opening Day parade, get other busy mothers to work in the snack bar, and collect all the money from the candy sale. This person always ends up being a saint in my eyes.

Fifth, you have to be able to quickly establish a set of often-repeated rules, the most important being that only one pee-wee at a time (the hitter) can have a bat in his or her hands. There is simply nothing quite as frightening as watching five or six eager young pee-wees with baseball bats in their hands warming up for batting practice in the same area at the same time.

Sixth, you have to be able to cheerfully accept the fact that the attention span for a perfectly normal pee-wee is approximately 30 seconds, and  on warm, sunny afternoons with interesting-looking puffy white clouds floating above them, even that number drops dramatically.

Seventh, you have to have energetic adult base coaches with loud and distinctive voices. Pee-wees love to get on base and race around the diamond, but they’re not always sure just when to take off or what direction to go. A good base coach can get them pretty skilled at running to first base instead of third when they hit the ball, but only a great one can organize things from that point on.

And finally, and maybe most important of all, you have to be able to make all the team’s parents and grandparents truly believe that pee-wee baseball isn’t the big show, and that it’s not about winning and losing, but rather riding around in a homemade float on Opening Day, free after-the-game popcorn and snow cones from the snack bar, pizza parties with teammates, good sportsmanship, and learning to love the game.

“Dad,” said my six-year old son as he wound himself up in front of me in his new Reds baseball jersey and released his best imaginary fastball, “you know what?”

“What, Kyle?”

“The Reds are going to kick butt!”


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Copyright News-Ledger 2014


Commie-hating draftee had a plan —


A few weeks ago, I was out golfing with some of my college fraternity brothers and while waiting for our turn to tee off on the back-nine, one of them said to me, “I hear you ended up going to Vietnam. What was that like?”

“Oh,” I said, “there was good and bad in it like everything else I guess. So, you didn’t have to go?”

“No, thankfully I injured my knee playing basketball about a year before I was drafted and I didn’t pass the physical. And I can still remember how happy I was about that on the bus ride back to Sacramento.”

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

BY DARYL FISHER, News-Ledger Features Editor

As our conversation continued, I found myself thinking back to the long ago day that I took my Army physical. The year was 1968 and there were anti-war demonstrators all over the place as the bus I was in crawled up to the United States Army Induction Center in Oakland, California, where I and hundreds of other young men were scheduled to receive our Army physicals.

When I was finally allowed to get off the bus, I soon found myself among a dozen or so of the more vocal demonstrators. They were carrying assorted signs and chanting, among other things, “Hell no, we won’t go!” As I tried my best to push and shove my way into the building, the guy in front of me suddenly took a swipe at one of the demonstrators and shouted a number of unprintable epithets at her.

“Damn commie!” he concluded, spitting in her direction.

Once inside, we were quickly formed into groups and told to follow one of the painted lines on the concrete floor. My group’s line was yellow and we soon found ourselves at Station One, Processing.

“My name’s Ken,” said my new, commie-hating companion, offering his hand for me to shake. “What’s yours?”

After I told him my name he asked me where I was from.  Before I could answer, we were herded into a large room full of ancient classroom desks and told to take a seat and keep the noise down. On each of the desks was a large stack of papers and a soldier with a no-nonsense voice began explaining how we were supposed to fill them out.

Everyone except Ken, who was seated in front of me, seemed to take this task very seriously. He messed around with a few of the papers, but left the rest of them untouched.

“You better hurry up,” I finally suggested to him.

“No sweat,” he said confidently, “I won’t be getting past the general examination room, which is the next station.”

“How do you know that?” I asked with interest.
“I’ve been here before,” he explained, “and more than once, too.”

“Yeah, I’m an old pro at flunking my physical.”

I wanted to ask him how one manages to do that, but we were suddenly ordered to gather up all our paperwork and begin following the yellow line again.

Sure enough, just as Ken had said, the next station turned out to be a large, cold examination room where we were told to strip down to our shorts and form a big circle. I thought it was a little strange that everyone but Ken took off their socks and I decided to bring it to his attention.

“I don’t want to gross everyone out,” he explained matter-of-factly.

Then a single, obviously bored-to-death doctor in a white coat stepped into the room and   began strolling around the inside of the circle. On his first trip around the room, he haphazardly checked everyone’s eyes, throats and necks. Then he reversed his direction and began examining feet. One of the young men he passed yelled out, “Hey, I’m missing a toe here! Doesn’t that make me 4-F?”

“Afraid not,” said the doctor without even bothering to look up as he continued inspecting feet.

When he finally came to me and Ken, he angrily ordered Ken to remove his socks. Ken quickly complied, and I’m absolutely sure that everyone within view of those feet will never forget that sight for as long as they live.

Ken had the worst case of athlete’s foot I, and apparently the doctor, too, had ever seen!

“That’s disgusting!” exclaimed the shocked physician.

“I know, sir,” said Ken proudly.

“Young man,” shouted the doctor, “you get those socks back on those feet and immediately report to processing for a new physical date. And I don’t want to see you back here again until that mess is completely cleared up! Do you understand me?”

As Ken threw back on his socks, he happily explained to me and a couple of the other guys (to whom he was already a cult-hero) how he had actually been cultivating his athlete’s foot fungus for months. He apparently had been wearing the same pair of soggy, disease-infested gym socks to bed each and every night, often with a heating pad strapped around each foot.

“Ain’t nobody sending this dude to Vietnam,” he said with a smile as he began shaking hands with some of his fellow draftees.

“Get the hell out of here!” shouted the doctor from across the room.

“Damn it! Now I’m going to have to find a way to get past all those worthless, hippie scum-of-the-earth commie demonstrators again,” were the last words I heard Ken say.


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Copyright News-Ledger 2014