All Write, TV

Remnants of boy-life linger

IMG_20180806_171716Here’s a link to my most recent Front Porch television segment, in which my husband discovers the remains of a previous civilization while constructing a retaining wall in our backyard.

The spots air at the end of the Spokane Talks show, each Sunday night at 6 PM on Fox28 Spokane.

You find previous Front Porch segments here.

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Columns

Boys and Backyard Buried Treasure

Lightning McQueen has definitely seen better days.

His front wheels are missing, as are both headlights. His rear tires are packed with dirt and his big eyes on the windshield peer through a layer of dust. His red paint job has faded into orange, and his plastic body is cracked in places. Years of exposure to sun and snow will do that to a car.

My husband is building a retaining wall at the back edge of our property, and his shovel had unearthed the abandoned toy.

“Look what I found,” Derek said, cradling the car in his hands.

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Like an archeologist on a dig, he’s discovered the remains of a previous civilization. He’s been working hard to eradicate the evidence that small boys once roamed wild in our backyard, but this is something he’d missed.

When we moved into our home in 1993, both the front and back yards were a mess of weeds and clover.

Derek focused his attention on the front first, so our boys took possession of the back. That summer, my dad bought them a swing set, and we installed the first of many plastic wading pools.

Very little swinging happened on that swing set. Instead, the slide was used as a launching point for cars, toys and boys. The tandem swing made it easier for them to scale to the top of the set, the better to terrify their mother.

The boys grew. The grass came back. The swing set fell apart. And a series of bigger pools kept them occupied during the summer.

Squirt guns, bicycles, skateboards and toys littered the yard making navigation perilous for parents.

When our four boys grew bored with toys and things with wheels, they took up digging in the barren patch of ground where the previous owner had attempted to garden. Bordered by railroad ties, the spot offered ample space for industrious boys to play in the dirt.

I worried about the holes they dug with plastic shovels getting too deep, the tunnels getting too long, but Derek just said, “Boys gotta dig.”

However, even he was surprised to find they’d used a few of his two-by-fours to shore up a gaping gash in the ground.

The boys grew. They mowed the grass. They stopped playing in the dirt. And Derek built a beautiful cedar shed where the swing set once stood.

Our two oldest sons moved out and their dad built a beautiful deck, and we added a gazebo, and raised bed gardens. The retaining wall is just another step in the beautification of our kids’ former playground, and it seems Derek had stumbled upon a toy graveyard while constructing it.

“I’ve been finding a lot of green army men,” he said. “I rebury them with full honors.”

But it didn’t seem right to leave Lightning in an unmarked grave, especially since it looks like he’d been the victim of violent crime. Someone had used permanent marker to print “Help Me…” on his hood, leading us to conclude the toy had been carjacked and possibly held for ransom.

The printing looks exactly like our second son’s writing, and our youngest son, Sam, was a huge fan of the movie “Cars.” He was 6 when the first movie was released, and he went “Cars” crazy.

He had a Radiator Springs play set and the full fleet of cars from the film. But Lightning was always his favorite. In fact, if I venture into his teenage lair, I know I’ll still find at least two versions of Lightning McQueen that he’s not ready to part with.

Derek went back to work on the wall, leaving the dirt-encrusted car on the deck railing. Weeks later, it’s still there, parked facing our outdoor dining area, where Lightning can watch the boy who loved him come and go.

Last night, I swear I saw his eyes shining through their dusty coating when Sam sat down to dinner.

And then old Lightning smiled.

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War Bonds

A love that encompassed 600+ boys

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They met in eighth grade.

Fell in love while attending West Valley High School.

And eventually Betty and Brian O’Donnell’s love would grow to encompass their own children, plus more than 600 boys.

Betty vividly remembers her first encounters with Brian.

“He had so much charm!” she said.

He was also impossible to miss on the football field. He played fullback and sported the No. 1 jersey all through high school.

They graduated from West Valley in 1946, and three months later, Brian went overseas.

“I volunteered to be part of the American occupation of Japan,” he said.

Before he left he gave Betty a ring and a promise.

“He told me, ‘Don’t worry about me, because I’m coming back,’” Betty recalled.

While they were apart they wrote letters to each other every day.

“I still have all of them,” Betty said, smiling.

Brian enjoyed his time in Japan. While there, he and some friends scaled Mount Fuji. But it was the citizens who captivated him.

“I’ll always remember the people of Japan – they were the nicest people. I almost feel like in another life I was Japanese,” he said.

After 18 months, he returned to Spokane, ready to embark on his life with Betty.

“We were sitting on the davenport in her mother’s house,” he recalled. “Betty said, ‘My mother keeps asking me when we’re going to get married.’ So, I told her to set the date.”

Twenty-four days later, on Jan. 24, 1948, they married at Millwood Presbyterian Church. Betty’s mother made her gown.

The 19-year-olds settled into an apartment in Browne’s Addition. Betty worked at the Paulsen Center, and Brian attended Kinman Business University.

By the time their first child was on the way, Brian was working in the payroll department at Washington Water Power Co.. They moved to Millwood and lived in a trailer in his parent’s backyard, and that’s where they brought son, Kurt, home in September 1949.

Daughter Colleen arrived in 1951, and Brian wanted to attend college. Betty’s father encouraged them to join him in Texas and offered to help. They moved to Beaumont, Texas, and Brian enrolled at Lamar State College.

One year in Texas was enough. The couple found the racial prejudice of the area intolerable, and as soon as Brian finished his first year, they left.

Son, Rory, arrived in 1956, and the young family moved to Seattle, where Brian enrolled at the University of Washington.

“We got faculty housing and paid $85 a quarter because we had three kids and a dog,” he said. “I went to school from 8 to 12, then worked at Boeing from 3 to 11.”

Brian graduated with an education degree, and was quickly offered a job teaching seventh grade in Otis Orchards.

He served as president of the PTA and Betty was the vice president. One evening at a PTA meeting, a counselor spoke about a troubled 14-year-old boy who desperately needed a home.

Betty’s hand shot up.

“I’ll take him,” she said.

They became licensed foster parents and eventually adopted their son, Ray.

After a year at Otis Orchards, Brian transferred to East Valley High School where he taught business classes, and became the school’s first wrestling coach and eventually, its first special education teacher.

“It was love at first sight,” he said of his special ed students. “The kids were so needy. They just needed someone to love them, to help them.”

Meanwhile, Betty was finding more and more troubled boys to love. By the time daughter Heidi arrived in 1965, they regularly had up to four foster boys living with them and knew they needed more space.

They purchased 140 acres at Newman Lake that had once been the Circle KD Ranch, a kids’ summer camp.

“The original owners wanted the property to be used for children,” Brian said.

They had plenty of those. They renamed the property Shamrock Acres Boys Ranch, and it became one of the first group homes in the state.

Betty took charge, doing the cooking, cleaning, shopping and supervising for 10 to 14 teenage boys, as well her own five children.

“It didn’t seem like work,” she said.

Brian grinned. “Betty’s philosophy was everybody will eat breakfast together, and everyone will come down with a smile on their face.”

The diminutive lady didn’t bat an eye when boys twice her size rebelled. If there was a discipline issue, she’d ask the boy, “Do you want to settle this with me? Or do you want to wait till Brian comes home?”

They almost always chose to settle the issue with Betty.

Their property didn’t only house kids. A wide array of animals including llamas, emus, chickens, dogs, cats, goats, rabbits and even a wallaby made the ranch their home.

In 1979, the ranch became Shamrock Educational Alternative, a private boys home, and teenagers from across the country lived with the O’Donnells.

“Some stayed for dinner, some stayed four years,” Brian said. “If you give kids love and a family, they’ll be OK.”

They hired additional counselors and were able to take time off to travel each summer.

When their youngest child graduated from East Valley, Brian retired at age 55, after a 25-year teaching career.

“Then I worked full time for Betty,” he said, chuckling.

In 1987, he built a house across the road from the boys’ home. But his wife had one stipulation.

“I had to put the pool in first because Betty didn’t like swimming in the lake,” Brian said.

They traveled often, taking 12 cruises, including a return visit to Japan for Brian.

“We’ve felt so fortunate in every turn we’ve made,” Betty said.

In 1995, they closed the group home, but they still hear from boys who lived there.

The celebration of their 70th anniversary last month, brought back many memories of the boys who came through their doors, and they expressed gratitude that their love ample enough to include so many.

But now they enjoy the simple pleasure of time together.

“He still has lots of humor. He makes me laugh,” said Betty. “He was and is the one for me.”

When asked how others can achieve such lasting love, Brian answered succinctly.

“One day at a time,” he said, smiling. “One day at a time.”

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Columns

Smells Like Teen Spirit

The nurse in the delivery room smiled as I pressed my nose to the downy head of my newborn son.

“He smells like angel kisses,” I murmured, besotted.

I had a nonmedicated birth, so I couldn’t blame that statement on a drug-induced haze. Nope, this was a love-induced haze.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” said the nurse. “In about 13 years you’re going to walk into his room and gag. It’s gonna reek like ripe goat pen meets Old Spice.”

I stared blankly at her. It was like she was speaking Swahili.

That was many years ago, and of course, now I know that nurse had pretty much called it. However, I can’t attest to the goat pen analogy. In my experience (and I’ve had a lot of experience) the scent of a teenage male’s room is best described as sweaty gym socks meet crushed corn ships, mingled with soccer jersey left to mildew in the bottom of an athletic bag, topped with a cloying cloud of Axe body spray.

The odor could be marketed as a teen-pregnancy-prevention aid.

Baby boys should come with a disclaimer. The heady scent of Baby Magic lotion wears off long before they reach kindergarten and is initially replaced by the smell of dirt. Plain old dirt. Which isn’t bad, it’s a reminder of all their adventures.

Adventure-reminders also include; worms, gravel, sticks and clumps of mud left in pockets. Mud? You may ask. It was for the worms, of course. But that earthy aroma is better than what comes next.

Around age 12, the smell of dirt gives way Eau de Gag. It’s so unfair that by the time they really start smelling good again, they move out.

At one time I had three teenage boys living in my house. Trust me when I say there are not enough Yankee candles in the world to compensate.

Change in body odor is one thing, but the universal shift in attitude as boys transition from teens to young men – well, that’s something impossible to mask.

Eye-rolling “whatevers” often replace heart-to-heart conversations. The chattiest of teens suddenly embraces sullen silence, and sometimes the silence is shattered by angry words and accusations that fly through the home polluting the atmosphere more than gym socks and body spray ever could.

And the things we find in pockets are far more sobering than worms.

Even when you know this necessary bid for healthy separation and independence is coming – when you know this is the natural order of things – it’s still painful.

As they grow, we lovingly support their independence by giving them safe places to explore. But when they can drive and spend long hours away from our watchful eyes, they sometimes explore places we’d rather protect them from.

Now, with just one teen left at home, these pitfalls don’t dismay me and instead of clutching him more tightly, I hold him more loosely than I did his older brothers.

Because I know what comes next. If you can weather those turbulent teen years, a really nice young man may come home to visit you. And he’ll actually choose to spend time with you.

Last weekend, one of those young men came home for dinner. As I reached up and wrapped my arms around my oldest son, he pressed his whiskery cheek against my forehead.

I hugged him, and somewhere beneath the cigarette smoke and shampoo, I caught the faintest whiff of my baby boy. Time blurred, melted and stopped momentarily, as I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and held him tight.

This I know. If someday my eyesight fails, if my hearing declines, if I lose my sense of touch, I will always recognize this man I call my son. His infant scent is embedded in our mutual DNA. To me he still smells like angel kisses.

Contact Cindy Hval at dchval@juno.com. She is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories From the Greatest Generation.” You can listen to her podcast “Life, Love and Raising Sons” at SpokaneTalksOnline.com. Her previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/ columnists. Follow her on Twitter at @CindyHval.

War Bonds

Because author podcasts about potatoes are HUGELY popular

My two younger sons joined me for another episode of Life, Love and Raising Sons (Not Necessarily in That Order).

We covered what’s new (Sam got his first job and Zach’s moving to Nashville), but mainly we talked potatoes. Specifically, why was there a potato in the silverware drawer and whose responsibility is it to remove it?

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The Great Potato  Debate

As if that’s not fascinating enough, we also played “Finish This Sentence,” and discovered what Zach would do if he was a girl and what I would do if I was man.

Tune in here.

You can also listen via iTunes or Stitcher. Just look for Spokane Talks Online and Life, Love and Raising Sons.

We don’t always talk potatoes. Sometimes we cover corn 😉