“…on my homage list were Stocktonians Al and Mel Corren. Uncle and nephew, the two Correns found one another in wartime England after Al discovered his nephew had joined the war effort.”
Life under lockdown used to be easy and uncomplicated. You were sheltering at home. It was okay to go nowhere, linger in your pajamas and do whatever you wished to do within your four walls.
You’d wake up in the morning (it didn’t matter how late, you were locked in, sheltering in place, and you weren’t going anywhere) and ask yourself, let’s see now, what do I want to do today?
Learn how to yoga or samba?
Take up the guitar?
Read that book I always wanted to read?
Discover how to make rum-roasted upside-down cake or a truly Italian gnocchi?
Take a virtual stroll through Paris or a virtual kayak adventure into the unexplored Delta?
Binge-watch favorite films or explore new ones? I tried a time trip into a Forties film noir. The actors never stop smoking, nobody had a cell phone or computer, the plot never stopped twisting, and the detective got wise a little too late to the devious charms and emotional alibis of the femme fatale.
So much for indoor pleasures.
And then the great unlocking experiment began.
With government approval and health authority misgivings, the rules were relaxing, the restrictions loosening. The world was reopening. The public was venturing out, weary of remaining indoors and keeping physically isolated from others. We are, after all, social beings. And impatient ones.
After two months of cautious isolation, my wife and I decided to join the party.
For starters, we hosted a college granddaughter, her college graduate boyfriend and a frisky new puppy. The boyfriend, perhaps to show us what a decent fellow he was, spent an inordinate amount of time chasing, hugging and kissing the pup. Which may be why the pup kept trying to hide under my feet.
The next day, we attended a swim party at a daughter’s residence we hadn’t entered in two months. It was a small-scale family reunion. Children and grandchildren were present, as were two dogs and a talkative cat. The temperature was rising and the May sky was clear with a single small cloud that seemed incapable of motion, as if it had been hung in the sky for decorative purposes only.
Spring was done. Forecasters warned that hundred-degree days were approaching. Locked-down householders made a dash for sunblock, sunhats, six-packs and other summer paraphernalia.
It was just like old times except for pandemic gurus and scientists warning us about the danger of the virus spiking with a too-early unlocking. The virus wasn’t going away, they said. Once you left quarantine, you were taking your chances even with a mask and proper social distancing.
The authorities warned us against false optimism. The risk of infection remained a possibility. But we were tired of domestic limitations. We wanted to get out and socialize. How about a small family circle?
And so we gathered, putting aside pandemic concerns. But there were other concerns. For one thing, I was the only male in a circle of daughters, granddaughters, a female friend of the family and a wife. The conversation—devoted mainly to hairstyles, eye shadow, desirable makeup and who was looking younger than her age—were not topics to delight a male ear. But it gave me the opportunity, silent as I was, to reflect on my good fortune and on the blessings of life too often taken for granted.
Here I was, and here was my family, together again on a summery day, reposing in the surroundings of a large garden thick with pine, plum, Japanese maple, apple, orange, grapefruit and nectarine trees, their branches and leaves stirred by the day’s warm breeze. What more could a man ask?
I was grateful for all I had, yet I could not help remembering the warnings of experts who wanted longer isolation and worried that a Memorial Day unlocking was rushing things enough to boost the infection rate. They understood that the lure of cookouts, picnics, parties and potlucks could come at a price, especially among those careless enough to shed face masks, proper distance and other inhibitions.
The holiday put the issue of unlocking to the test. Some housebounds couldn’t wait to escape; others hesitated or refused to budge, declining what they viewed as an invitation to risk. It was summed up in a cartoon of the day in which two angels hovered above a quarantined head. “Live all you can,” one urged, “it’s a mistake not to.” The other, more sinister angel whispered, “Live, for I am coming.”
The conflict between socializing and sheltering raised an interesting question. Is fate in our hands or beyond our control? An ancient Greek philosopher put it this way: “Death is like an arrow that is already in flight, and your life lasts only until it reaches you.” Or longer, I might add, if you remember to duck.
Sitting in that garden, made me wonder. I was relaxing in a Saturday afternoon Eden with those I loved and trusted, but suppose one of us happy and healthy-seeming people was unknowingly infected? Should we really be sitting so closely? Ought we to ignore the mask and six-foot separation that might give us what we needed to deflect that inevitable arrow?
The legacy of the pandemic, in a word, was suspicion. You could never be sure of strangers or even your closest companions. You could never be wholly at ease even in the best of company and the most peaceful and pleasant surroundings. Danger, after all, is an unknown element that takes you by surprise. The Greek arrow can fly your way at any time, especially when you least expect it.
It was a lesson I had learned several times in my life, perhaps most vividly on a serene day along the California coast south of Carmel. At noon, I set out with a small group of happy tourists to walk a hillside trail above the Pacific. It was a clear, gentle and windless day, perfect for admiring the sea-edge of the continent. The bright, calm ocean glittered with innumerable facets of sunlight. Diving birds circled and swooped ceaselessly in search of prey.
Far below us, waves at the end of their ocean journey battered jagged rocks, sending plumes of spray high into the air. The view and the scent of the sea made some of us linger in admiration of the scene.
The trail narrowed as we continued, limited on our right by a sheer rock wall and on our left by nothing except an ankle-high wooden rail, a token border rather than a protective barrier. The little rail was all that separated us from the wave-swept rocks, hundreds of feet below. Watch your step!
Mindful of the drop, we moved slowly with one eye on the waves and the other on the path. Light-hearted explorers, we were eager to see what other impressive vistas our path would reveal.
Our buoyant mood vanished with sudden disaster.
Unknown to us, an intrepid photographer had climbed halfway up the palisade and found a perch to aim his camera seaward. None of us knew he was there, or that his unwise position posed a risk to himself and perhaps to us. I became aware of both when I heard the sound of loose rock falling.
Fearing an avalanche, I looked up as a rocky cascade came down from above. So did the photographer. Given the speed of his descent and the lack of a barrier at the edge of the narrow path, he was almost certainly falling to his death. And there was a chance he might take one of us with him.
A high-angle photo of tourists proceeding along a narrow seacoast trail hundreds of feet above a rocky inlet would have graced the photographer’s portfolio. But his gamble had failed and his life was on the line. I had a brief second to decide whether to jump aside, save myself and let the camera artist continue his plunge. Instead, I hunched and hurled myself forward to greet him with a football block.
Both our lives depended on speed and timing. Fortunately, the impact of collision caught the falling man squarely and threw him back against the rock wall, stunned by the impact. I held him upright, assured him the worst was over and that he’d be all right—except for “a minor headache.”
A woman who said she was his wife came forward to retrieve him. When he revived sufficiently to move, she took him from my hold and, with assistance from others, guided him slowly back to the starting point. That was the end of it except for a final comment from my wife.
“You could have been killed,” she said. “I can’t believe neither of them thanked you for saving him.”
“He was too dazed to talk,” I explained, “and she was too embarrassed.”
Anyhow it didn’t matter. Saving a life is its own reward. It’s something you take with you always, not as a badge of courage but as evidence of something within you that you didn’t realize you had until circumstances revealed it. In that moment, I had no thought of safety. I had a life to save.
My turn to honor those who put their own lives on the line for a greater cause arrived on Memorial Day. I observed the holiday by homaging some of our own family heroes. There was my genial, mustached Uncle Herman, who showed me the hole in his back from a wound sustained in combat at the Battle of the Bulge. I was a child at the time and thought the “bulge” to which he referred was some kind of body fat.
Herman remembered how a controversial general named Patton came to award him and other survivors a Purple Heart. Patton, he explained, was under orders from his supreme commander, General Eisenhower. Ike wanted a demonstration of respect for the wounded after Patton’s lack of tact in slapping and cursing a battle-fatigued (PTSD) infantryman had earned the Army negative press.
Patton obeyed the order from Ike. “But he wasn’t happy about doing his duty,” Herman recalled.
Also on my homage list were Stocktonians Al and Mel Corren. Uncle and nephew, the two Correns found one another in wartime England after Al discovered his nephew had joined the war effort.
“He sent me a letter asking me why the hell I didn’t write him as soon as I arrived,” said Mel Corren, 96, author of an impressive memoir (“I’ve Lived It, I’ve Loved it!”) and a former Stocktonian of the Year. Mel also found a few English bank notes tucked in the envelope of that letter from Uncle Al.
“I know your only trouble will be money,” Al explained. But there was worse trouble than lack of funds. On a night train leaving London’s Victoria Station, the two men watched as German bombers raided the city. The night sky of London lit up in flames as their train departed.
“It was astonishing, like something out of the movies,” Mel recalled. “We just stared at it. I don’t think we were scared. It never occurred to us that the bombers could target our train.”
Today, a crisply folded American flag, presented by the U.S. government to Al’s widow in 2002, sits in our house beside a photo of Master Sergeant Allen Corren. Born two months after America entered World War I, Al’s patriotic parents bought Stockton’s first Liberty Bond and gave him the middle name of Liberty. 25 years later, Al entered the military to fight for that very word. His Army overcoat hangs in my closet. His portrait hangs on my wall. It is not unusual for me to salute it as I pass. After all, Al was my father-in-law. Besides, he outranked me.
Al’s brother-in-law, Sid Cooper, had escaped the worst of the war as an Army cook behind the lines. The war caught up with him when he was cooking for an outfit in an area that became one of the hotly contested sections of the Bulge. When the Germans attacked, Sid was handed a rifle and told to put the chow on hold. This happened more than once. Which is why Sid’s post-war Army photo shows him glowering with a Combat Infantry Badge above his campaign ribbons. it wasn’t something of which he was proud. No cook enjoys being interrupted in the performance of his culinary duties.
My Memorial Day memories also extended beyond my family to salute Barney Hagen, a Lodi High School football coach of the 1930s. Hagen received the Purple Heart for injuries received in February 1942 while moving unexploded shells on a beach near Santa Barbara, following a Japanese submarine’s bombardment of the nearby Ellwood Oil Refinery. An Army sergeant, Hagen was hospitalized for 55 days after one of the shells exploded. He explained to me that he thought he might be reprimanded for the accident. Instead, much to Hagen’s surprise, he was presented with a decoration. The medal gave him the distinction of being the only American serviceman of World War Two to be decorated for a wound sustained as a result of enemy action against the continental United States.
My memories ended with Ralph Jones, a Stockton restaurateur with a charming gift of gab that delighted customers at the old State Café. He and wife Mae made an ideal team. Mae did the cooking; Ralph did the socializing. He could talk to anyone about anything, friends recalled.
Well, almost anything. There was one subject the personable Texan preferred not to talk about. Namely, his World War Two days as a waist gunner and ball turret gunner in the Eighth Air Force. He flew 35 combat missions over Europe, battling enemy fighters, fear and flack bursts. But one encounter among those 35 put him in the history book and made Jones unique among all Stockton vets.
If you will excuse me, dear reader, that incredibly comfortable recliner of mine is ordering me to report for duty. Check this column for the thrilling and little-known story of gunner Jones when our next patriotic holiday (July 4) arrives with a firecracker flourish and memories of another Stockton hero.
Howard Lachtman, retired reporter and editor, is the author of crime and detective stories, film noir studies, and a history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s visits to America. In his Delta Detective series written for Soundings, Lachtman introduces a private detective based in the Delta whose wide-ranging investigations offer a diversity of clients and a casebook of crimes.