In flight

In flight poem 1-3-20

Writing the poem, Jan. 3, 2019.

A year ago today Dick and I boarded a Hawaiian Airlines jet bound for Honolulu on the first leg of our vacation flight to Kauai. It’s been my custom for some years (initiated by my friend Corinne Litchfield) to bring aboard a skinny Sharpie, perfect for writing on… what is the proper term for them? Barf bags.

I just looked it up online: air sickness bags. And that made me wonder, who came up with that idea?

According to Phil Edwards, writing on, “Though there were a few passenger flights earlier, commercial aviation sputtered to life in the 1920s before taking off in the ’50s. And one of the big anxieties was getting sick on the plane.”

Several factors contributed to that problem: Gas and oil smells sometimes wafted into the passenger cabin, but according to Edwards, planes flying at about 5,000 feet (before pressurized cabins made 35,000-foot flights possible) often encountered a lot of turbulence. That sent tummies into distress, and when Gilmore T. Schjeldahl of North Dakota developed a new bag-making machine using plastic, it changed aviation in a not insignificant way. His company eventually produced a variety of polyethylene packaging materials and plastic bag liners. He died in 2002, after being awarded 16 patents, according to Wikipedia, “and may be best known for inventing the plastic-lined airsickness bag.”

(You can, like most anything, buy them today on Amazon. One version, by VNS creations, describes its bags this way: “Portable and light, the bags are ideal for car sick kids, pet messes, babies sick in plane, pregnant women, drunk passengers. Keep them within reach — whether you’re traveling by air, car, or boat — always be ready if/when you need to puke!”)


And though many airlines have done away with feeding passengers or providing blankets and pillows, the barf bag is (thank goodness) still with us. These days the ones I’ve found are plain white, plastic bags, free of airline logos.

When her mother was still alive, my friend Corinne Litchfield, when flying, used to write her mother letters on barf bags. This prompted her years later to create a now-defunct website called Paper Bag Writers, which encouraged people to submit their creative writing on barf bags. She’d photograph the best ones and put them on the website. I’m proud to say that I had a poem or two on bags on that site.

Now I cannot leave an airplane without leaving a Sharpie-poem’d bag in a pocket or with a flight attendant. I usually do two—one for the plane and one for me—but my rule is that it’s an original poem that I conceived and drafted on the plane.

I never expected one of those to find its way back to me. But the poem I wrote on Jan. 3, 2019, did.

Adrian Ruby found the scuffed, torn, poem’d barf bag in the nose cone of the plane that flew us to Hawaii last year. He works in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Safety Training Systems, which makes flight control trainers for the military. “One of the first thing we do is we cut the plane apart,” he told me last week in a phone conversation. “In the cockpit area, we found three rachets, three or four pairs of glasses. These mechanics must lose all kinda shit, and it’s like, what in the world? And that was there.”

He read the poem and noticed the date. “I’m thinkin’ this plane was flyin’ in January because she wrote this poem.”

On Oct. 25, 2019, eleven months after that flight, Adrian Ruby sent me a photo through Facebook of this bag, with a simple question: “Is this your work?”

JLH Regurgitated Airsick Bag

First draft of the poem, returned to me by Adrian Ruby, November 2019.

I responded, “It is! Wow! How and where did you find it?”

And that’s when the story began to unfold. I asked Adrian to send me the bag, which he did, and, after a couple of tries, we finally talked a couple of days before the end of the year.

“I think it would’ve been under the forward lab. I don’t know how it got from the [passenger] compartment to down low. There’s spaces in the sideboard liners that it can get in the cargo hold. Either that, or one of the guys who cut it apart found it.”

Curious to see who Jan Haag might be, Adrian decided to check Facebook. “I couldn’t even hardly read the name. I just kinda guessed. When it popped up and it said you were a writer, I thought, ‘It’s gotta be her.’

As he pulled the plane apart, Adrian told me, “I’ve seen inspection dates like 1985, ’91, so it had been in service for quite a while. By the time we get some of these aircraft, I think, ‘I’m not flyin’ on one of these.’”

Adrian is a 52-year-old woodworker, a former cabinet maker, has been working for Safety Training Systems for 13 years. One of his buddies connected him with the job. “It’s kinda interesting and it’s not the same old thing every day,” he told me. “I could be workin’ wood, the next day I could be workin’ stainless steel, aluminum.”

And one of the most interesting parts of his story is that he’s not a guy who reads much poetry.

“I can’t hardly read,” he said after I offered to send him my book of poems. “I have some kind of problem and they never really addressed it. They put me back in a remedial reading class. I can’t sound out words. I just have to work on my brain to want to learn that. I skip words a lot. It’s really tough when I try to write, too.”

I was struck by the sweet happenstance of someone who struggles with words finding a writer’s words on, of all things, a barf bag and being moved to find her and share that with her.

Adrian Ruby’s kindness touched me, I told him, because I wrote that poem 12 days before my partner collapsed at the airport on the day we were to return home, felled by a cardiac arrest, then revived, thanks to the help of people we didn’t yet know. Our lives changed irrevocably on that Hawaii trip, and Adrian Ruby turned out to be one of the people who, months later, also emerged to do us a kindness. Another stranger who was, in the words of my friend, singer-songwriter Ansty McClain, “a friend waiting to happen.”

So Dick and I are grateful to Adrian Ruby for his thoughtfulness, for his persistence in tracking down a writer who scribbled a new poem on an air sickness bag that found its way to a retired jet in Oklahoma. It means more to us than he’ll ever know.










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Happy new year!

2019-2020 hau'oli makahiki hou

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As we enter the ’20s

eRDS-JLH 2019-2020

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Israeli shepherd

It was the shepherds who stayed,
the youngest in their families
remaining with the flock night after night,
those of the lowest station, society’s outsiders,
listening to the moaning of fat-tailed sheep
under the stars, staying present in their
ordinary calling, even on the night when
an angel appeared and said unto them:

Fear not: for, behold,
I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day
in the city of David
a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

They could not see the future;
they were afraid, the story says,
when the angel shone the glory
of the Lord round about them,
but they stayed and they listened.
Then, taking in the good news, they took
their first steps toward the light of the world,
took him in and went to tell others
what they had seen.

What became of those shepherds,
always moving, seeking pastures
and quiet pools of water to quench thirst?
Did they return to the holy work of sheep,
leaders of their flock, with newfound faith?
Did they for the rest of their lives
invoke the angel’s words?

Let’s imagine them, standing in open spaces,
surrounded by their woolly congregation—
the world utterly changed and yet still the same—
shepherds leaning on their staffs,
whispering to no one in particular and everyone:

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Christmas 2019


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Jan’s Christmas poems podcast


A real one-horse open sleigh, overlooking Lake Tahoe (photo by Dick Schmidt)

As Dick’s best boyhood friend Kent Hancock famously said, “You’ve gone and done it this time.” In this case, I’ve dipped a toe into the cool pool of podcasts.

Watching my student editors on the Express record a podcast each week made me think that I should try my hand at one. So as the students wrapped up the semester, I asked our Express webmaster, Ben Irwin, if he’d help me record a podcast.

Ben, ever the helpful guy, immediately agreed. “What do you want to do for your podcast?” he asked.

“Good question,” I said. As a longtime (i.e., old) media person, I know that content is everything. “Let me think about that.”

It came to me as I was preparing my annual Christmas poem that I give to friends and family and have in recent years been posting here. I could read some of my Christmas poems, past and present, as a podcast, I thought. Try it out. See how the old vocal cords resonate over the air these days.

I remember a young student broadcaster at the Sac State radio station back in the ’70s (before that station became Sacramento’s public radio station, now Capital Public Radio) who told me, the editor-in-chief of The State Hornet newspaper at the time, that I didn’t have a voice for radio. “It’s kinda high and tinny,” he said after we recorded an interview, which, it occurs to me now, was not unlike what my student editors are doing in their weekly podcasts. In those days I occasionally went on the air to talk about what The Hornet was covering.

That comment stayed with me, obviously, longer than it should have. By that time more and more women were appearing on the radio—particularly on National Public Radio—but I was a committed print journalism gal. Still, every time I’ve been on the radio since (thanks, CPR friends and colleagues!), I wonder how I sound.

Well, one thing I learned doing this podcast is that my voice has lowered over the decades, and that I don’t sound too bad. And after years of watching students practice reading aloud, I’ve gotten better at that, too. “Slower,” I used to coach the students on the literary journal before their public readings. “You’re reading too fast.” It’s advice I still give myself before recording (and I should remember every time I lecture, too).

So, without further ado, here’s my first podcast, a collection of my Christmas poems at the end of a decade, on the brink of a new one.


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This longest night

A winter solstice poem

So much good arrives
at precisely the worst moments,
though we can’t see it
for the flames, for the seizure,
for the accident, for the illness,
for the unknown thing
that has befallen us.

The way, it turns out,
has been made. Has always
been made for us, even as we lose
our jobs, our minds, our beloveds,

as we see the hands of people
lifting the terrified child from the boat
just traveled over rough seas,
take in the haggard faces of those
seeking sanctuary

and the strangers who emerge
from the darkness bearing
their particular kind of light:
the cup of water, a morsel of food,
a warm blanket, bandages,
medicine for body and soul.

What we don’t see
when something is taken away
is the thing being born underneath,
the new bud on the hibernating
branch. Awash in grief, in pain,
in distress, we forget.

Just wait. Take a breath.
And another. And another.
You’re safe. You’re held.
So much good lies ahead
on this darkest day,
this longest night.
Tomorrow you’ll see
more light.


Thanks to Terri Wolf for the prompt that elicited this poem in my writing group the morning of the winter solstice and to the people who come to write with me all year long. Your generous spirits bring light during both difficult and joyous times.

Thanks to fine scenic photographer Joe Chan for allowing me to use his lovely photo. You can see more of his fine work here.

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The kids are all right

Jordan McGowan-SCC football coach

Coach Jordan McGowan (center) with the Panthers football team. (Photo by Sara Nevis)

People (often former journalists) frequently ask me what on earth my journalism students are going to do out in the world. “Newspapers are dying,” they say, which is true. I cited the most recent statistics for a lecture I gave in my mass media class this semester.

Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have shut down, according to an ongoing study at the University of North Carolina. (And how depressing it must be to work on that study, I didn’t say to my students.) Then I get on my journalistic soapbox and tell the students that this is a bad thing because, in the words of Brian Tucker, a former newspaper executive, “In the absence of a decent robust newspaper, politicians are going to do bad things. Nobody is going to be watching. No one is holding your feet to the fire.”

I pop back with some variation on this theme: Newspapers may be dying, but news is not. Some of the best reporting I’ve seen in my lifetime is happening right now as journalists diligently cover the current administration, climate change, fires and floods, wars, sexual misconduct—even as the major daily in my town has shrunk to a skeleton of its former self. But even as that happens, my most talented community college students—those who would’ve never had a shot at so much as an internship at the mighty Bee two to three decades ago because the paper was hiring people with much bigger credentials—are being hired, at admittedly very low wages, and are producing kick-ass journalism, as are their more experienced colleagues there.

Take, for example, my former student Jason Pierce, who plopped himself in my office Thursday before he was going out on the quad to shoot B-roll video for a Sacramento Bee story he and a reporter were working on about the City College president. Jason’s been through hell and back fighting depression, and at more than one point when he was our student, he was more or less homeless and often hungry. My co-adviser and I fed him and found him work and encouraged him as, despite his challenges, Jason shot terrific stills and video. He delivered not only as a photographer but also as a writer and editor of both the Express newspaper ( and Mainline magazine, our journalistic magazine. He’s spent this semester as a photo intern at The Bee, and through the peculiarities of circumstance has covered wildfires and major sporting events, plus the usual small assignments that every newspaper photographer shoots.

He is doing so well, in fact, that The Bee is keeping him on past his internship. It’s just a part-time job, and I wish they’d pay him better, but it’s enough that Jason can survive as he and his son live with a friend in Roseville. This is a huge win for him, and he’s worked hard for it.

Jason, a burly, red-bearded guy, beamed ear to ear as he sat in my office, this man who wants to do a documentary about the five first-line jazz bands in town he’s befriended. And I beamed back at him. Because it was so clear to me that the guy sitting in front of me is the future of journalism. He will find a way to tell stories in pictures and words (because he’s also a good writer and also had three front page writing bylines in recent months) through whatever channels he can find.

I also saw the future of journalism yesterday in a small history classroom in an old middle school in Del Paso Heights where Jordan McGowan teaches. After school is over, Jordan migrates to City College where he coaches the wide receivers of the Panthers football team. I’d never met him before, but my current student photo editor, Sara Nevis, loves to shoot football and, in fact, is shooting the 49ers tomorrow for the Stockton Record. She practically danced into my office Thursday to tell me that. She’s been covering the Panthers this season and has gotten to know Jordan, who, it turns out, started an elective journalism class at Rio Tierra Middle School this semester.

“You want to come with me?” Sara asked, knowing that I don’t teach on Fridays.

I thought of all the grading I have to do, the set up for next semester that needs doing by the end of the month. “Yes,” I said. “I’d love to.”

So we gathered up pens that I had made that say, “Sacramento City College Express: Covering the campus since 1922” with the website url. And stickers that one of my former students (thanks, Jackson!) put together at a nifty campus spot called The Makerspace where people make stuff.  Then Sara and I headed out on a drizzly Friday afternoon to show up in Jordan’s Rio Tierra classroom for their final class period of the week.


Jordan is a lanky, 30-something guy with a ‘fro that sticks straight up from his head and a beard that’s spotty in places. He’s got a 100-watt smile and was coaching his journalism students on their social media posts. “They’ve just come from a rally,” he explained. “Now they’re putting out social media about it.” He had organized the students into teams to cover the rally, and just before we got there, the teams were working together on words and images for the posts. These were not casual, slapped-together things.

Neither was the video reporting Jordan put up on the screen linked to his laptop. The students took turns reading news stories they’d written based on national and local news, a lot of them about school shootings. All with quotes and sources and even some video pulled from other news sources.

I stood there as Sara talked to the middle schoolers, almost all of them kids of color, which is, I know, what our next generation of journalists will look like. I see this in my own students, and this is a good thing. They more accurately reflect who we are nowadays. These seventh and eighth graders cared deeply about what is happening in the world, and Jordan, who mostly teaches history and knows very little about journalism, has obviously trained them well. I told him so. How has he learned how to do that?

Jordan, whom the students call Mr. Mac, blushed. “I’m a big consumer of media, and I knew I wanted them to give them experience with different media,” he said. “I’ve been watching closely to see what I should be teaching the kids.”

That’s why he and his students did a radio segment, aka podcasting, earlier in the semester, followed by their TV news section. They also put together an online paper using a Google platform (“it wasn’t the best,” Jordan told me, “but now I know how to do it better next time.”)

That’s the kicker—next time. Though Jordan’s principal is behind him, he’s not sure if the district will let him do the class again. It made me want to write to the district, urging them to let Jordan continue.

“You’ve got great news instincts,” I told him, as Jordan looked a bit embarrassed.

Sara nodded. She’s been coaching Jordan a bit about how to talk to his students about writing accurate captions, which she emphasized to the students. When it was my turn to talk, I bragged about Sara to the students and told them she was going to cover a 49ers game Saturday.

“Against who?” one kid asked.

“The Falcons,” Sara said, and I made a mental note to look up where the Falcons are from.

I looked out at the class. One girl had an Express sticker plastered across her nose. I wondered what she’d do with it after class. Others were clicking the Express pens we’d given them. Two or three kids asked most of the spontaneous questions, and I congratulated them for thinking on their feet, which is what good reporters do.

All too soon it was over. Jordan thanked us for coming. We got a round of applause, and Sara and I left after the final bell rang. We found ourselves in a hallway swarming with kids, some of whom we’d just seen in Mr. Mac’s classroom. “Thanks for coming to talk to us!” one of them sang out as she zoomed by, her bright red backpack blazing a trail for those who followed.

I tell my former journalist friends that kids like these help me have great faith in what’s coming from these future professional communicators. They won’t need newsprint; news and photos and video and podcasts will find a way into the world. That doesn’t guarantee that everyone will see them; people will always be able to opt out or seek out points of view that only agree with their own.

But look at these kids—reading their news on video, trying on newspapering and radio, tweeting the rally out to the world, interested and searching. Their mascot is a pioneer, and there they are, these young pioneers on the frontier of digital journalism, doing a respectable job of it, too. The kids are all right.

(Oh, and the Falcons are from Atlanta. I just looked it up on a trusted news website.)



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_RDS-JLH 30Anniv 2019 casa pacis

The Sea Ranch, May 2019 (photo by Sue Lester)

In the old days of newspapers, when stories were typed on half sheets of blank newsprint, to indicate that a story continued on another page, you’d type this at the bottom of the page:


And when the story was finished, you’d type what the kids now call a hashtag, and what some of us older folks think of as “the number symbol.” You might do two or three for emphasis.


But the other symbol to indicate “the end” was this:


Old-school newspapermen and typesetters, like the ones I was fortunate to know at the Roseville Press-Tribune in the 1970s, pronounced that symbol “dash 30,” though the dash was really a hyphen—two of them, actually, surrounding the number. It was an old typesetter, in fact, who taught me about the three kinds of dashes (which I teach my journalism students because, I tell them, I may be last generation of human who knew the last generation of old typesetters):

• the hyphen, the shortest one that my students call a dash
• the mid-sized n-dash (like this–), which is the width of a lowercase letter “n,” used to indicate “to” or “from” with numbers, as in 2–4 p.m. (done neatly on Macs by holding down the shift and option keys and hitting the hyphen key at the top right of the keyboard)
• and the m-dash (like this—), which is the width of a lowercase letter “m”

There was a column in a journalism magazine years ago that had, at the top of its last page the headline “-30-” for obituaries of longtime journalists. I was thinking of that earlier this year when my retired journalist/photographer collapsed and was brought back to life, grateful that I didn’t have to write -30- on what could have been his last day.

But today, we’ve been playful about the number 30 because it was three decades ago that Dickie “dropped the bomb,” as I like to say, on Dec. 7, 1989, confessing that he loved me. It was not convenient or the best timing for this man, to whom I was not married, to make this proclamation. But he did. He did, and from that, three decades of devotion have followed.

Though his family knows him as “Uncle Duck” or “The Duck,” I’m the luckiest duck in this equation. I tease him that being literally jolted back to life, he came back for me, whether he knew he was doing so or not. He has not disagreed.

So our -30- today is not the end but a celebration of three decades of an unconventional kind of love. People are still amused to learn that we do not live together (to which we attribute the longevity of the relationship, I tell them), but that we consider ourselves a longtime domestic couple with two homes. We had deep, longstanding relationships with our former spouses, both of whom we feel with us often, as our companion spirits. He has buried more of my dead cats than I care to count. I coax him outside to walk the lovely 2-mile route he created long ago through his condo complex that feels like a park. (He does walks often by himself, though, too, looking for his fellow ducks in the pond.) He takes me to Hawaii and The Sea Ranch; I drag him to the occasional poetry reading.

Like tonight. As the people in my writing groups debuted their tenth edition of our “Soul of the Narrator” chapbook tonight, there was our photographer, shooting everyone who came to the mic to read. Several people teased us about working on our anniversary, and I pointed out that I had offered Dick the night off. But after taking a friend home from the hospital, Dick arrived at the poetry center to help me set up the place (along with some other dedicated writing group folks) and to take up his traditional spot to document the evening.

None of us knows when -30- will come for our loved ones, much less for us, but tonight I got to watch and listen to 26 people read their wonderful writing as the man I love took photos of people I love. I will cherish those images, as I cherish the one who made them.

Happy 30-year-i-versary, Duck. You’re the best.

_RDS-JLH 30Anniv 2019 lefty's

Nevada City, December 2019 (photo by Sue Lester)

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The NorCal fam’bly: (front row) Johnny, Charlotte and Robyn Parrato; (from top down on stairway) Dee Hann, Darlene Haag, Jan Haag, Eric Just, Donna Just, Gerald Giel, Lauren Just Giel, Dick Schmidt, Ashley Just, Kevin Just.

Of all the California migrations in my family, the most recent ones might be the sweetest.

This is my Northern California family at the Parrattos’ new house in Lincoln on Thanksgiving day. My second cousin Robyn with her husband Johnny and daughter Charlotte (in the front row) led the 2019 migration from SoCal to NorCal. Not many months after they arrived this summer to start new jobs (Robyn as a culinary arts teacher at Rocklin High School, Johnny as field supervisor in nutrition services for Twin Rivers Unified School District), Robyn’s mother, Dee Hann, decided to move north, too.

This is a big, big deal, since Dede (as my sister Donna and I knew our first cousin when we were kids) has been a lifelong SoCal girl. She, her sister Pat and their parents, our Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob, lived down the street from us in Long Beach. Lois and Bob and the girls lived on Ostrom Avenue before our parents bought a house a few doors down. That became the first home Donna and I knew.

Our mother loves to tell the story of the summer day when, pregnant with me, she was mowing the front lawn of the Ostrom Avenue house. She was startled, then amused, to see Ellie Butler, a neighbor (and also a nurse like Mom), coming down the street wearing surgical scrubs and a mask, forceps in hand, ready to help with the baby she was sure my mother was about to deliver. Mom didn’t. I showed up later, but Ellie’d made her point that Mom might want to stop mowing for a while.

Roger Haag, Lois, Bob, Dee and Pat 1951

(From left) Roger Haag, Pat Dietz, Lois Dietz (holding Dede), Bob Dietz in Long Beach about 1951.

What I remember about Ostrom Avenue (we moved to the town of Orange, California, when I was about 3) is spending time at Auntie Lo’s house with Dede and Pat, both of them making time to play with and fuss over their little cousins. Auntie Lo loomed large in our world—not just as our father’s sister but also as one of the family musicians. A longtime piano teacher, she could play just about anything by ear. I was in high school before I learned that she could read music (she taught it, for heaven’s sake); she just preferred not to. Auntie Lo accompanied Dede, a talented marimba player, on many occasions, and Donna and I gave our first “performances” on the raised concrete platform in the den that served as our stage as we sang and Auntie Lo played piano for us.

Auntie Lo kept bottles of cold Pepsi in the fridge, liberally dispensed to thirsty nieces, took on daily walks with her funny chihuahua mix dogs in the big park (taking along bread bits for the duck-ducks in the huge pond), and loved to take us to Disneyland. She earned her Best Aunt Ever status for those reasons and because, well, she gave us Dede and Pat, Best Cousins Ever.

Dee, Robyn, Marryn, Charlotte-March 2017

Dee Hann (center) surrounded by her girls: (from left) Robyn and Charlotte Parratto and Marryn Hann Santucci (2017 at Disneyland)

Dee married, became a teacher and had two daughters, Marryn and Robyn, who grew up as SoCal kids. We saw them for some holidays and trips as we went south or they came north. But after Robyn married Johnny, who loved and had spent time in Tahoe, the seed to move north was planted.


Part of the fam: (from left) Lauren Just Giel, Jan Haag, Ashley Just, Dee Hann (with Robyn, Johnny and Gerald working in the kitchen)

That seed grew into a young plant this year when Robyn secured her job at Rocklin High, down the street from Granite Oaks Middle School where my nephew (Donna and her husband Eric’s son), Kevin Just, was once a student and now teaches music. (We feel sure that Auntie Lo is applauding her band director great-nephew from her heavenly piano studio, along with our dad, Roger, and their parents, Ann and Ed Haag—all musical folks.) When you also realize that Eric, Kevin, his wife Ashley, his sister Lauren and her husband Gerald are also teachers (as were Dee and Pat), you can see the educational expertise in my family. Even my mom had a long career as a school nurse in the same district where Eric teaches. And Donna does her share of teaching, too, as a home-health physical therapist for the Sutter Health in Roseville. (And I do a bit of that teacher thing, too.)

But the part of the story I like best is thinking about the migrations my family members have made since the late 1940s when my grandparents, Ann and Ed Haag, made a trip from their Chicago suburb to Southern California, marveling at the warm winter weather. They returned home and made plans to move west, which they did in 1948, leaving my father behind to finish his senior year of high school and live with his sister (Auntie Lo! Uncle Bob! Baby Pat!) until they all moved to Long Beach, too.


Darlene and Roger Haag, Feb. 23, 1957

My mother followed in 1953 after she finished nursing school in Chicago and worked for Hines Veterans Administration hospital in a Chicago suburb. A young, single gal, she picked up her life and drove cross country to take a job at the V.A. hospital in Long Beach. Her family knew the Haags from their days when they all lived in Clarendon Hills, Illinois, so my mother knew some California transplants. She and my dad began to date and married in 1957 and had me in 1958. That’s when my mom’s parents, the Keeleys, moved from Chicago to Southern California to be near their first grandchild. (That’s why Dee decided to move north, too—for her granddaughter. She has long done Charlotte transport and care to and from school—and now Dee and Donna live a block apart on the same street in Rocklin.)

My parents took up residence first in Long Beach and then Orange, and became the first in the family to move to Northern California in 1966. They moved because of my father’s job, but, avid boat/ski people that they were, they found a house right next to Folsom Lake to transfer boat, pets and kids. Water skiing became the family hobby. Dede came up more than a few times to slalom behind Dad’s boat, giving her her first taste of the area to which she’s just relocated. Cousin Pat moved north to the East Bay area with her husband and family in the 1980s. And now Marryn, Dee’s oldest daughter, lives in Auntie Lo’s house on Ostrom Avenue that she and her husband Jerome Santucci have renovated.


Cousin Dee prepares to dive into the feast.

Robyn told me at Thanksgiving that every month now she either goes south to see her sister and SoCal friends or they come north to her, keeping those ties strong. And we northerners have been blessed with the awesome culinary skills of the two food professionals in our group—Johnny and Robyn—w-5082crho put on quite the Thanksgiving feast, complete with two turkeys, scalloped potatoes, outstanding dressing and veggies (and Dee’s yummy Waldorf salad). I made our Grandma Haag’s signature brownies, and Robyn whipped up Grandma’s Swedish meatballs. Charlotte made sweet place cards for each of us with a question inside that sparked lively dinner table conversation. -5081cr

And Dick, as has been the tradition for some years now, set up a family portrait to show all of us together.

I like to think that our dead loved ones join us at these gatherings—among them my late husband Cliff, who loved to host Thanksgiving, and Grandma Haag, who loved it best when all the family got together. My mom’s father, our Grandpa Keeley, used to say, “Every generation improves the breed.” Looking around the table on Thanksgiving, that was clearly true, but it’s also true that this family has married up and partnered well.

My mom is now the matriarch, the last of her generation still with us, and she plans to live to be 120. If that comes to be, then she’ll perhaps see another generation join us at the table. In the meantime, we raised a toast to this year that has given us so much, looking forward, literally and figuratively, to what 2020 will bring.


Charlotte Parratto, Thanksgiving 2019

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Salesi and Dick

When the bagpiper came in, playing “Scotland the Brave,” and walked up the center aisle as the small crowd of proud family members stood, I got the first lump in my throat. Then the color guard, firefighters in their perfectly pressed, navy blue uniforms, the young man in the center carrying the American flag, strode in, flanked by two other young men carrying what looked like ceremonial silver axes, and the lump in my throat gave way to damp eyes.

We’d been invited to the badge pinning ceremony by one of the five new firefighters being formally inducted into the 35-member crew of the Sacramento County Airport Fire department. And there he was, walking in line behind the other members of Academy 19-2 (the second class of 2019), tall and proud, his shaved head gleaming even under fluorescent lights of an airport meeting room. Out of the corner of mine, I saw Dick wipe his eyes, for this was the young man who’d saved Dick’s life just ten months ago in an airport in Honolulu.

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Salesi Maumau, center, with his fellow firefighters newly inducted into the Sacramento County Airport Fire department.

We didn’t know his name for a few days, but Pamela Foster of the AED Institute tracked him down, and then we knew it for all time: Salesi Maumau. A Honolulu firefighter, but also, we later learned, a boy who grew up in Elk Grove, played football at Sacramento City College and married a lovely Yuba City girl named Eryn. The day he saved Dick, Salesi was about to board the plane to Sacramento to interview for a job with the city of Sacramento fire department. He didn’t get that job, but not many months later he interviewed and was invited to join the airport firefighters. He’s just completed an eight-week training at the airport, and he wanted us to be there, along with his family and Eryn’s.

Because we’re ohana now, too, as they say in Hawaii. And Salesi and Eryn wanted to come home because in January they’ll be first-time parents. They’re living with Salesi’s mother and stepfather in Elk Grove for the moment. We met them after the ceremony, and Eryn’s parents, too, and we beamed like proud family members as Salesi, the class speaker, stood at the podium and talked about their training.


He was well-spoken and thoughtful and gracious with his appreciation to so many people. Dick and I applauded as loudly as we could after he finished. And when Salesi and his fellow firefighters had their shiny new silver badges pinned on by their loved ones, Dick stood near the front of the room, taking photos, as he likes to do.

I sat near the back, my eyes darting from Dick to Salesi, thinking, it could have been otherwise had Salesi not stepped out of line when Dick collapsed. Had Salesi not conferred with a man we now know, Claudio Alvarado, a UCDMC nurse also in line behind us, who knelt at Dick’s side and felt for a pulse, realizing it had vanished. Had Claudio not indicated that to Salesi, who started chest compressions that he kept up for a few minutes until the AED arrived, the life-restoring machine run to Dick’s side by a breathless Hawaiian Airlines employee named Chris Ohta. Had Salesi, who is also an EMT, not positioned the pads on Dick’s torso, and stood back as Chris pushed the button that brought Dick back to life with one huge jolt of electricity.


Salesi’s stepfather pins the new badge on Salesi.

At the ceremony there were big smiles all around, before and after, but we were surprised to get hugs and handshakes from Salesi’s family members who swarmed Dick as if he were a rock star. They all know the story and of Salesi’s role in it. And afterward, when airport fire chief Dale Carnes came up to Salesi and Dick, I urged Dick to tell the chief the story. He was surprised to hear it. “He never told me that,” he said, and we looked at Salesi, one of the most modest men we’ve ever met. He grinned sheepishly, and I said to the chief, “Well, we’re happy that you know now.” And the chief shook Dick’s hand and thanked him.

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We scooted out then, noting the lovely cake in the back of the room with the Sacramento airport fire logo on it. I kissed Dick at the walkway to the parking garage as we went our separate ways. I knew he’d go home and load the images he’d just shot into the computer and start editing them. It is what he does. Salesi was one of the people who made that possible.


I got out of the airport parking garage a bit after 6 p.m. and came chugging into town in Friday night traffic. Four writers, who knew I would be late, were waiting, and we were joined by two more. This is what I love to do on Friday nights, twice a month, sit in the story loft—on this particular night, writing this story—surrounded by some of my tribe.


Salesi and his parents

But tonight we were also inducted into a new tribe, one of firefighters and two families who have embraced us. We could brag like family members about the man who certainly doesn’t see himself as one of the heroes of Dick’s story, the tall firefighter with the sweet smile who will become the father of a son in the new year.

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We hope to stay in their lives for some time, long enough to tell that little boy one day about his father, the hero, the one who was in the right place at the right time in our lives, who made all the difference.


Salesi, Dick and Eryn

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