One Very Lucky Dog & Doris Day

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Doris Day died yesterday and that’s why I’m writing this post.

I wasn’t a friend, or a member of her family; just like everybody else, I knew her from the movies.  I used to be a tour guide at Universal Studios, and I got to meet a lot of big movie stars there, from Lucille Ball (who hated it when the tour guides leaned on her Rolls Royce to talk with her) to Paul Newman (whose piercing blue eyes locked with mine one day at the studio commissary, and my knees have been weak ever since). I never had a chance to meet Doris Day on the Universal lot.  But one rainy night in Hollywood she was a good friend to me and a  beautiful Golden Retriever named, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

Golden Retriever

It was long ago, when I was a member of a struggling group of actors who worked all day at the tours at Universal, so we could work all night (for free) performing plays at a little theater on Hollywood Boulevard.  Seven nights a week, one block down from the Weird Museum, above a toy store and Fredericks of Hollywood Sexy Lingerie, overlooking the stars of Ann Margret, Gene Barry, and James Cagney, we practiced our craft and shared the Hollywood dream.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

We returned to our lives at 11 p.m. every night, as we gathered up our cars in the parking lot off the Blvd. We seldom went for coffee, or rarely met for a drink; none of us had any money, and all of us had tourists at the studio to herd early the next morning.  But on one of these nights, after a torrential rainfall, we arrived at the parking lot to find a mud covered and frantic Golden Retriever running around wildly without a leash.  

Through the rain-slicked and mud-caked fur we could see the golden-red beauty underneath, and luckily she was a friendly canine, jumping up on us as if she immediately recognized us as the saviors she hoped us to be.

Obviously, she was lost.

Her tags were missing and so was her collar.  But she looked well-groomed, well-fed, and eager to be with people. It was late.  After 11 p.m., at a time when Hollywood Blvd. was not a place where man or beast wanted to be – all alone and with no home in sight. 

Some of us were more eager to help the dog than others, who quickly bailed into the dark of night.  But for those of us who remained (we had dwindled down to four) those heroes of that night shalled be named:  Debra Frank, Sandy Silverthorne, and Suzanne Ulett.  All four of us knew that something had to be done and we were the ones who had to do it.  

“I can’t take her home!” “i don’t have any room!” “I have a cat who will kill me!” 

We stood there as the rain started again, trying to find a way to help this poor creature, who went from actor to actor, sniffing us out, licking us, and nudging her head against our bodies as if to say, “Do something!”

It was when I reached out to pet her, and my hand came back covered in red, that I realized that all of our excuses were futile.

“She’s bleeding!” We all gasped.

There was a gash on the top of her head, and her fur was matted with blood.

Now, there was no time to discuss reasons for not getting involved. We had to do something. The dog was injured and needed to be seen by a vet.  But none of us had any money, or credit cards, for that matter.  Where would we find a vet who wouldn’t charge us?

I don’t remember who said it first, but we all agreed it was true:

“I heard that Doris Day loves animals”

Three of us were tour guides, and we probably heard that from someone at the studio.  This was in the 1970s, before animal activism had a movement named after it.  But we all knew that Doris Day would do anything to help save animals.  

We were desperate, and this dog needed help.  Just looking down into her deep brown eyes gave us the courage to do what we needed to do: We had to find Doris Day.

Never underestimate the power of out of work actors who are also tour guides.  We knew that Doris Day’s house was on the Grayline Hollywood Tours of Movie Star Homes, and a quick look at one of those Grayline tour maps showed us her address.

We were standing outside Doris Day’s gate before we knew it.  The four of us and the damsel in distress, our wounded Golden Retriever.

Beverly Hills mansions don’t let you anywhere near the front door. There are gates.  Large iron gates.  But next to those gates are little speaker boxes and a button you can push.  I pushed it.  Although I wasn’t sure what I would say.

“Yes?” squawked the box.

What words came next poured out from all of us.

“We’re a group of actors…” “We don’t have any money!” “We found this dog and she’s hurt!” “She’s bleeding!” “She’s needs a vet!” “We don’t have any money!” “We need help for this dog!”

“What?!” asked the speaker box, incredulously.

“This dog is really hurt!” “We don’t have any money.” “Can Doris Day help her?”

We just kept talking.  Hoping for help. I can’t tell you who was at the other end of that intercom system, but I’m sure whoever it was must have thought we were crazy.  Until maybe they looked out the window and saw the four of us standing outside the gate with the most beautiful dog in the world, all covered in mud.  

And then, it started to rain.

“Just a minute…” the voice said, sounding tired and a little put out by our late night visit.

We waited for what felt like forever, as the rain pelted down on us there in Beverly Hills proper. We were certain no one would ever come back and speak to us again, and that the cops were probably on their way to arrest us.

Still, we stood and waited.  Not for us.  But for our four-legged new-found friend. 

“Take the dog to the all-night veterinarian hospital on La Cienega,” the voice told us through the speaker.  She rattled off an address and the name of a vet working there. Then, she clicked off before we could even say thank you.  

We said it anyway.

The animal hospital wasn’t very far and we hurried inside, with the words tumbling out of us.

“Doris Day sent us!” we announced to the woman behind the glass window.

“What?” she answered, sounding as confused as the woman at Doris Day’s house.

We all rattled off at the same time, pointing to the dog, pointing to the caked blood on her fur, and adamantly insisting Doris Day wanted the dog to be helped.

And just like that: the vet saw the dog.

Well, it turned out that the wound on the dog’s head was only superficial.  The vet gave her a shot and told us she’d be fine. “And the bill?” we asked him.  He smiled and said, “Doris Day is covering it.”

By now, we knew we were fated to keep this dog until we found her owner, so we agreed we’d take turns with her until she could be back home again.  I got her that first night and I named her “Mary Hartman” after a t.v. show about a woman who always found herself in so many dramas she never knew what to do.  It seemed to fit this dog.  That night, after I cleaned the mud off her with towels, I laid down on the couch to watch t.v.  The dog climbed up on the couch next to me, laid down face-to-face, and put her paws around my shoulders, in a hug.  It was her way of thanking me.

The next day we placed an ad with a pet finders organization and it didn’t take many days to find Mary Hartman’s family.  They lived in West Hollywood and they told me that one night they went out for the evening, leaving the dog at home.  Their house was robbed while they were out and Mary Hartman must have been taken by the burglars.  That’s why she had no collar and no identification.  But something must have gone wrong during the robbery because the wound on her head was from a bullet that grazed her scalp.  She was indeed one very lucky dog.

Thanks to Doris Day.

Doris Day

Getting to Know Howard

I didn’t know my mother’s father.  

It’s always been hard to call him what he was to me: grandfather.  I guess that’s because I never really knew him – Howard Joseph Graham died nine years before I was born. He was always just a memory – my mother’s memory, and she didn’t share that memory with us a lot.

I knew how he died – a fall from scaffolding while painting the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound bus station at night.  Mom had just had dinner with him, with her brother, mother, and her Uncle Jody, who was on the same job with her father.  The accident must have happened soon in their shift because it seemed as though they had just said goodbye and headed downtown from Highland Park before there was a knock at the door, and Uncle Jody was back, in tears with the news.  Why they were painting at night, I never asked, so I guess I will never know that answer – my mother took that with her when she passed away a year ago today at the age of 93.  

Mom and I had a lot of years to talk about Howard Graham, and I guess I could have asked her that question, about why he was painting at night, in the dark, but she was always a little quiet about him, teary-eyed at his mention, with a catch in her throat if she did share a little bit here and there.  I knew not to ask her too many questions, because it made her sad, and now today I’m left with no answers and so many whys.

Here is everything I know about Howard Joseph Graham:

He liked to drink San Miguel beer and smoke cigarettes. When my mother had earaches (and she had a lot of them) he would blow smoke into her ear, and the warmth would comfort her.  Other times, he could be strict, and if Mom and her brother didn’t clean the dishes properly, and Howard came home from a night out and found them not to his liking, he’d wake up his two kids and make them clean the dishes all over again, no matter how late it was. Howard was a house painter. The family was poor – my mother used to have to spray pieces of cardboard black and slip them into her shoes to cover up the holes at the bottom of her soles so she could walk to her Catholic School, even in the rain.  She grew up during the Depression and maybe that’s why Howard was out of work so much. I don’t know much more about the man except he couldn’t eat mayonnaise – it made him sick just as it does me.  He was Irish, proud of being a Graham, and that his mother was a Quinn, his grandmother a Cassidy.  His Irish roots must have meant the world to him because they did to Mom.  There was no happier day for her than St. Patrick’s when she would dress up all in green, send Irish-themed Hallmark cards to all of our family, with her signature, “Molly Malone.” Irish music played non-stop on our stereo while the scent of corned beef boiling on the stove filled our house.  Mom’s love for all-things-Irish was so strong I always wondered if Howard was from Ireland.

“Canada,” my Mom said. “He was born in Kingston, Ontario.”

More than those few facts she never told me.

There are photographs, of course, but only a few. This is the one I like the most:

Howie in 1928 Crop

He’s laying in the sand at one of the beaches near Los Angeles.  There’s something sad and brooding about him, introspective; it’s not the kind of look you might expect to see someone wearing who’s at the beach.  It makes me think he might have been creative – like me, a brooder, always thinking, and I find a commonality there in this photo of a stranger who was my grandfather.  Maybe he was a painter, not just of houses and businesses, maybe he was a real artist. My grandmother used to paint, I have some of her watercolors. She’s the woman in this other photo with Howard – Ursula Maloney Graham. Also Irish.

Howie & Plenty

Howard looks like a famous movie director, or screenwriter, with his aviator sunglasses and open vest.  But he’s still not smiling. There’s an uncertainty lurking there – about his future, maybe?  Or is he just a man lost in an alien country, not yet a citizen, an immigrant, a foreigner in a strange place he now has to call his home.

Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book, “…the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed.”  

I read this passage in Orlean’s book the other night and it made me think of Howard Joseph Graham.  I underlined it because it hit me me so hard, such a bleak interpretation of what it means to be alive.  With no memories of my grandfather, how can I be sure that he ever made his “mark on the world”? Seemingly, he was an ordinary man, and how do those of us who live ordinary lives make any mark at all? And what exactly does it mean to make “our mark?”

If we’re lucky, maybe that mark means our children. They get to live on, and they take us with them, whether they like it or not.  You can’t fight DNA – in the line of an eyebrow, or the curve of lips, the color of our eyes, the shape of our body, or whether we can tolerate mayonnaise or not.  The memories of all those who lived before us are a part of us, ingrained somewhere deep inside or revealing themselves there on our face, even if we don’t recognize it; and those from the past, whether we have memories of them or not, become the future.  The future we will never see, except in our dreams, or if we’re lucky, in the faces of our grandchildren.

I know very little about who Howard Joseph Graham was, or who he wanted to be, but I still wonder. I still have questions. I still search. I’m curious and I want to learn more.  And maybe that curiosity and wanting to find answers is what my grandfather left me.

That’s his mark on the world.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Words Aren’t Enough

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I never finished college that first time after high school.

I was in too big of a hurry to start my adventures in the world. So I quit in the middle of my sophomore year at UCLA and started my life.

Years later I returned. Married, with a career on the wane, and two kids now grown and off on their own adventures, I became the oldest coed in all my classes. Everyone thought I was the professor and they stopped being nice to me when they found out that I wasn’t.  It was hard work and I started to question what the hell I was doing there. I had been in no hurry to go back, but I wanted to get a degree. I always felt a little bit less than all those college grads I kept meeting in my life. I thought that going back and finishing something that I had started might make me feel more confident, more sure of the knowledge that I’d already accumulated along the way. I never thought I’d learn anything new. I was an old dog incapable of learning new tricks.

But I was wrong.

I took a class in 2008 and learned some things I guess they forgot to teach me as I was growing up. It was unsettling, as learning some truths can always be. Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny?  Sometimes the myths we’re taught as kids aren’t meant for adulthood.

The particular myth I was learning about there in that lecture hall in 2008 unsettled me and made me question so many other truths I had been taught along the way. We had to write a paper, and I struggled with what to write.  Sometimes words just aren’t enough – film can do it better.  So instead of writing an essay, I made this little film, “American Dreams.”

I wish I could say that ten years later this film has lost its meaning.

But it hasn’t.

In many ways it’s more meaningful now than ever before.

And it saddens me to write that.

 

Lockdown

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(The following is a true story…)

The teacher thought this was a drill, but it wasn’t.

The P.A. blared out: “Stay in the classroom, and lock the doors. This is not a drill.”

Caught in the Computer Lab with a class of thirty high school students. They have no food, no drinks, and they will stay here from 10 am to 3:30 pm. Five and a half hours of hell, and the sound of a circling helicopter above them. Streets outside are closed up, and the hallways are crawling with the swat team.

The first couple of hours the only information known is a man is on campus with a gun. Only later the details will be learned from a computer in the library—A group of boys had a confrontation across the street, and it spilled out over to the campus. To the upper level senior parking lot. One of the teenage boys is spotted with a gun, and a call to the police was made.

Ushered by a security guard through a supply room and into the stacks of the library, the teacher instructs his students, “No talking, no talking!” The class stays quiet because to hear students inside might prompt a gunman to rush the room. This is how the drill goes, and this is real now, so the rules are followed. Keep them quiet; keep them calm. Bored students empty the shelves, and use the stacks to lie down for hours of just waiting. No need for books; this is their education for the day.

Stay away from the windows and doors in case they rush into the room with bullets flying. This is what the teachers have been taught; this is what the students are told.

One student after three hours passes out after an epileptic seizure. They call the office and several members of the swat team come in, using their walkie-talkies to call for an ambulance. “I have to go with her; she’s my student.” The teacher is told to stay there, and it’s the one time during this entire siege when his eyes fill with tears, “That’s my student—I’m responsible for her.”

There are no bathrooms in the library. There are 100 students and five teachers. The boys can use a wastepaper basket, but for the girls? One of the women teachers puts on music so people won’t hear as the girls use another wastepaper basket. Other students use Ziploc bags.

Kids are seated at tables with their arms behind their heads as swat team members come in and question them. There’s a special ed student who always looks slack-jawed because he’s on meds. The police take notice of him and start to question him. They don’t like his answers, and start to take him away, “He’s special ed,” the teacher tells them. “He’s on meds.” They take him away anyway.

Three boys appear at the door immediately after the lockdown—they have been left outside in the hallway, and say they weren’t in class because their teacher let them out early. Do you let them in, or keep them outside? What decision do you make as a teacher? It’s your judgment, and yours only. Bring them into the safety of the classroom, or leave them outside to fend for themselves. Not knowing if they are innocent or not, whether leaving them outside condemns them, or brings them inside to condemn the others.

One of the girl students is pregnant and needs water. The boy who sits next to her in class is the father—The teacher didn’t even know they were dating. Not until today.

There is one bottle of water rationed among the students — kids drink from little cups, several students to a cup. This after an early morning faculty meeting about the importance of cleanliness and the swine flu pandemic.

One student asks in a hushed and timid voice, “If they rush in here, will you die for us?”

They don’t tell you how to answer something like this when you’re student teaching. But this is what it means to be a teacher now. These are the questions you somehow must answer.

This is part of the job.

Paradise Lost

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paradise_lost_wide

The houses are still ringed by Christmas lights.

And we’re two weeks into January.

It’s past Christmas – beyond the promise of the new year or the first sweet bite of King’s Cake. But we can’t let go of wanting to feel good again. To feel joy. To feel hope. To feel safe. To be in control of our lives.

Each day we awaken and say to ourselves, “Today will be a better day.” The fear is behind us, we tell each other. Now, we can get on with our lives. We share stories, while we still wipe the grit from our eyes and cough. We sweep the driveways and water down the gardens.

Still wearing our masks.

And we pray for rain.

The fire isn’t out yet, but it’s moved further away. Only the ash is still here – threatening us in unseen ways.

We come down with colds and fill the ER with our flus and bronchitis.

We flip the switches and look to the Christmas lights to make ourselves feel better.

We try not to think of the fire that threatened us, that stopped our lives and put us in this post-apocalyptic daze.

Quickly, it had started – blown alive by some monster wind.

All we could do was watch from a distance as it devoured our neighbor’s lives – all the homes and businesses – scorching the earth south of us. We shook our heads at the disbelief of the quickness of the devastation. At how fast that fire hungrily took home after home while sparing others equally there in its path. We crossed ourselves and said our prayers that it hadn’t happened above us – in our own mountains that watch over our towns.

Carpinteria. Summerland. Montecito. Santa Barbara. Goleta.

We felt we had been spared.

Until the smoke came.

The wind had changed and blown harder, pushing that fire – dancing the flames across the land as it remembered us from the scorched history of our past.

Jesusita. Gap. Coyote. Zaca Mesa. Whittier. Painted Cave.

So many flames, some with names no longer remembered. Each one we battled and fled from in terror. This one threatened to be even bigger as it turned directions and now headed our way.

We watched it move closer – speeding towards us. We hunkered down with our masks, packed up our cars, and took flight while the wind and the flames swirled around us.

The firefighters, always the heroes, stayed in our place. Fought the good fight. And when the winds took pity on us and slowed, the heroes pushed the fire away from us, from the towns laying so vulnerable there in the path to the ocean that the fire so desired.

The battle was won.

We took a deep breath and returned. Spent from running away, with pets and belongings, exhausted from calming frightened children that were crowded into cars; with our lives in suitcases and boxes, we came back to our homes. We had stayed with relatives. Moved to hotels. Bunkered down with friends. We had slept in shelters. We had gotten out. And now, coming back, we tried to reach for normal again. We celebrated the holidays with our sore throats and air purifiers humming in the background.

And we kept those Christmas lights still burning on our homes.

While the fire burned too – higher above us now – in the forest beyond the crest.

We bowed our heads and prayed for rain.

“We need rain!” “Hope it rains before the next winds!” said the Facebook posts in all of our Timelines. “Please, God, let the rains finally come and end the fire!” We cursed the drought and the winds and we knew the answer to finding normal again would be in the winter rains.

Long overdue.

And when we heard they were coming it raised us up with hope.

For a moment.

Until we heard caution in voices that were meant to calm, warning us, telling us to beware.

Fear takes a toll on you when life is full of uncertainty. And your fate is tied to the fickleness of the wind. Quickly, hope can change, and you’re not ready for it.

Within a day there were knocks on our doors again, the cell phone texts awakened us in the thick of night: “Evacuate! Evacuate!”

None of it seemed real.

A mist had started to fall on us that day – so soft and fine – sweetening the air again. All day it had misted – merely a drizzle. Nothing to fear. We welcomed it.

But the messages blared from the tv and social media: “Get out!” “Make plans to get out!”

It didn’t ring true. It didn’t seem possible. With so much beauty returning to our world – the sun was out and the air was just starting to fill with the scent of normal again. We had taken off our masks, unpacked the cars, settled down the children and the pets, and started to live the routine of our lives again. We had our world back once more – a world filled with beauty, an enchanted forest that kept us there, privileged to walk and live within it.

It’s easy to overlook Paradise sometimes. To take it for granted. With bills and work and worries filling our heads and clouding our eyes. But the fire had reminded us. We had been threatened and humbled by the threat, but now it was gone, and the rain, so gently falling, would finally put an end to that threat. We would be free to live in Paradise once again, knowing just how lucky we all were to be there.

To have survived.

So when they warned us and told us to be ready, it didn’t make sense. Our heads were still filled with that post-apocalyptic daze. It was hard to chase it away – the malaise wrapped around us, slowed us down, took away the swiftness of our feet, silenced our questioning. Our lives had been unpacked and safely tucked away. How could they tell us now to get out?

The rain was not the fire.

We couldn’t fear it. We couldn’t see it like the flames in the distance, or sniff its destruction in the air. We couldn’t taste the smoke as it choked us. We couldn’t see the danger. There was only the soft touch of a drizzle. A rain so gentle it only comforted us. The rain was here and it would save us. And save our Paradise too.

We were too tired, too spent to listen, to pack up again, to run away.

And so we stayed.

Not knowing the apocalypse we thought we had survived was only yet to come.

And our reclaimed Paradise would soon be lost.

(Our family is safe, but others have paid the ultimate price simply for living where we live.  If you’d like to help victims of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudlside here is a list of organizations who you can contact:  Disaster Relief Organizations

 

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Welcome to Californio!

It’s here and ready to be read!

I’m proud to finally be able to say: You can order a paperback of Californio through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or pre-order the e-book (available August 2nd) for Kindle or Nook.

Californio ebook cover REV

If you live in the Santa Barbara area, or you’re planning to visit Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta (August 2 – 6), Californio is the perfect book to enrich your Fiesta experience.  You can find Californio at Chaucer’s Bookstore on Upper State Street, the Book Den, and Santa Barbara Presidio’s Gift Shop.

If you have a favorite bookstore in your own town you want to support, just give them the title, Californio by Darlene Craviotto, and ask them to order you a copy.

If you’re a member of a book club and would love to use Californio as one of your books, please contact me here at my blog for special wholesale pricing, and a guide for discussing the novel and California’s First Pioneers.

Thank you to all of you who have come to this blog, read my posts, and given me the confidence and courage to always write what my heart wants me to write. I would never have written this novel if not for the feedback, the kind words, and the connection that I’ve found here at this blog. I hope you enjoy Californio because I felt while I was writing it that we were all taking this journey together.  A writer always works in solitude, but is never really alone.  Our readers are always at our side, peeking over our shoulders and guiding us along. 

Thanks for always being there.  

#2 Signature

An American Latte

Old typewriter

“Hi! Can I take your order?!”

The barista was young – with more spring in his voice than ever was in my step. I really doubted that he shaved. Or even knew how.

“I’ll have a decaf latte,” I placed my order.

And then, feeling brave.

“Double shot of vanilla,” I added. And not the sugar-free.

“And your name?” he asked, poising the black marker at the top of the paper cup.

“Darlene,” I said, and then quickly added, not willing to risk another “Darling” scribbled on my order. “D-A-R…”

“I know that name!” he said proudly. And then, finished spelling it aloud as I did, “…L…E…N…E.”

Maybe he did know how to shave.

He took my stare of amazement as a challenge and explained.

“I have a cousin named Darlene,” he told me, with a victorious smile. “She’s 65.”

65? Really?! Who dragged age into this conversation? Of course, my grey hair sneaking out the sides of my son’s old baseball cap might have been a hint or two. Do I politely nod and let the subject drop? Not willing to “date” myself? Or do I keep the ball rolling, possibly revealing my own age?

Gulp.

Aw hell, I took the plunge.

“Your cousin’s probably named after “Darlene” from the Mickey Mouse Club. A lot of us with that name were named after her. So when you see a “Darlene,” we’re usually from around that same period of time.”

“It’s such a great name!!!” he said, scrawling the name on my cup.

I smiled. It wasn’t so bad admitting my age range. I mean, I’m sure he could tell I wasn’t twenty. Even though I must admit that in my heart I am still twenty, especially when a cute young man (guy? dude?) like this takes the time to even talk to me. And when they actually look you in the eyes and smile, well, there’s no difference now at 60-something and when I was really twenty. So yeah, I looked him in the eyes and I smiled my most fetching smile.

“I really love that name of “Darlene,” he murmured, softly. “It reminds me of Old America.”

Ohhh – Kay.

I must admit this made me pause.

I wasn’t aware there was an “Old America,” but I guess there is.

And I’m it.

I’m one of the Baby Boomers who was filled with idealism, hope, and promise. There were a lot of us, and we helped stop a war and impeach a President; we spoke out against injustice, worked for diversity and equity, and stepped up, when it was our time, to do our jobs, raise our families, and run the country. We didn’t always find our way; we might have stumbled trying to do so much, but we tried. And we believed that if we worked together – all of us, Americans – we could make anything better.

Old America.

That’s what the barista called it. Called those of us who grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club and the new medium of television, long hair and the belief that love would bring us peace. And he said “Old America” with respect. He said it with longing. He said it like someone sitting on the edge of adulthood, looking back at that time of innocence when all questions were answered. When we felt safe and sure about the future, and we hoped our children and grandchildren felt the same way.  He said it like he missed that Old America.

I know what he means.

I miss it too.