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February 6, 2010

Mike Tharp: Looking back on 'Teen Years'

Grow old along with me

The best is yet to be

The last of life

For which the first was made.

English poet Robert Browning could've written those words after spending a Wednesday morning in our Senior Center.

That is, if he'd sat in on Ron Loewe's writing class called "Creative Expressions: Life Stories." (Ron picked that name because he didn't want anybody wandering in, thinking "it might be a quilting class.")

It's a noncredit course offered through Merced College. And Ben Duran, president of the college, can take pride in knowing that the 20 to 24 students who show up once a week are sure getting their money's worth -- and then some.

Ron invited an editor to talk to the class this week. Luckily, the editor had enough sense to talk less and listen more.

Aside from one younger lady who mentioned skateboarding and boogie-boarding in her essay, all the writers are in their 70s and 80s.

This week's subject was "The Teen Years." Listening to their essays, a visitor time-traveled back to a simpler, kinder, gentler, neighborly era. Even though a recurring recollection involved World War II and the Great Depression, the virtues and values and ways to have fun in those years rang loud and clear during the readings.

Ron picked a letter of the alphabet. The person assigned to that letter walked up to the wooden lectern and began to read. And although the visitor had warned against using too many adjectives and adverbs -- nouns and verbs power prose -- three adjectives describe the atmosphere:

Enchanting. Elegiac. Inspirational.

Here's what they wrote about their teen years.

A: "Rainbow-dyed...clandestine conversations." Wartime rationing meant 12 pounds of butter a year for a family, sugar sold on the black market, war bond drives, Bobbie socks, re-soled shoes, Victory Gardens, Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby "On the Road," Glenn Miller, Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman. Aug. 14, 1945 -- "the war had ended."

R: Getting off the bus the first day of high school in Oakdale, "stone-faced, scared, wondering what was ahead of us." Walking two miles to and from school to save bus fare so she could buy $2 new reeds for her bassoon. A rape attempt on her at 13 -- "God help her husband," her grandmother warned. "Raging hormones and fluttering feelings" from a romance with a serviceman. He was killed in Korea in 1952, and she gave her son, from a different father, the soldier's name as a middle name.

U: Born and raised in the Philippines, "never a chance of one-on-one with boys, no touching, not even holding hands. A boy had to join the family first before actually courting the girl." No idea about "the birds and the bees" until she married at 27.

J: (One man held her manuscript as she walked to the lectern with a four-pronged cane.) Brought up on the South Side of Chicago, "I gave nicknames to all my friends," including Andrew, her boyfriend, who became her husband.

V: Hearkened back to the days when she enjoyed "hot dates, not hot flashes" and "a stiff drink, not a stiff back."

Y: During her teen years, she barely noticed "the gradual withdrawal from family into the total immersion of friends." Mentioning the monosyllabic answers her granddaughter gives her on Facebook compared to the ornate responses to her friends. "It's different now -- or maybe it isn't."

B: Quoted Will Rogers: "When you are dissatisfied and would like to go back to youth, think of algebra." Now a mom, grandmother and great-grandmother, she recalled that when she was young "parenting was tighter, there were fewer temptations, they set limits, neighbors helped -- life in the slow lane. To put shame on my parents was the last thing on my 'to-do' list."

H: Entered high school in 1940. The whole school gathered at a general assembly Dec. 8, 1941, to hear FDR's "date that will live in infamy" radio address. Moffatt Field in San Francisco wasn't far from San Mateo High. She met "a typical horny Italian sailor -- or is that redundant?"

M: "A complete stranger to the in-crowd." Wearing braces, she found friends among "fellow fringe-dwellers." As a junior USO hostess, she witnessed "the cashmere sweater crowd."

Z: Told why "I hate Billy Martin." The famed and feisty Yankee and Oakland player and manager was a sixth-grader when Z was a third-grader. Walking home from school in Billy's territory, he was shoved by the boy who never stopped scrapping as a player or manager. After walking "the Billy Martin gauntlet," Z once pitched to him in high school. Got him out on "a deep curve," but Billy homered off him late in the game. "I still hate Billy Martin."

E: After getting a driver's license at 16, "I am legal. I am free." But "there were rules to be obeyed...or else" all the way through "teenagedom."

S: "Would have missed them (the high school years) for anything. Glad I don't have to repeat them. Neither the hero nor the nerd." Like most of the other readers, she held a job from high school through college. "The transition from childhood to adulthood only seemed bumps along the way."

Q: Grew up in Merced. "You could walk after dark and not be afraid. You knew most of the people in Merced. People in the neighborhood were like family." Castle AFB opened. Dances in the lobby of the Hotel Tioga. Quit school after her junior year, got married, birthed four sons. She went back to get her diploma, but "how dumb it was to not get an education when you were young."

Ron taught shop and English in high school for 33 years in Ventura County. Moved to Atwater in 2001 and took over the class, which then had only five or six students.

The writers get one assignment a week. He gives them guideposts:

Feb. 10 -- "Admit it, you've had a few birthdays already. Which one was your favorite? Why?"

Feb. 24 -- "What decision did you make 'back then' that might have turned out different if you had known then what you know now?"

One writer escaped from Hungary just ahead of the Russians. One's from Ireland. One's from Australia. One was a fighter pilot. One had 12 children. One met a man in the class after her husband died. They've now been married four years. She told him, "I can get you to 90 -- after that, it's up to you."

At the start of each class, Ron tells about anybody who's sick or indisposed. They send cards and call one another.

In "The White Album," Joan Didion wrote, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live."

As the trains roar by 100 yards away during class, the writers wait for silence to read what they've written. A visitor gets a chance to reflect on what he's been listening to. There's a vibe, an energy, in this room that makes the belly breathe deeper, the heart beat faster.

Anybody afraid of growing old need only spend a couple of hours with these folks.

The best is yet to be.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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