Bill's Vignettes

This is my story. It will consist of little pictures, snippets, or vignettes, from my past. It is a legacy to my children and grandchildren and those that may come after and hopefully will also be of some interest to the casual reader who doesn't know me from Adam.

Tijuana Tourist

Posted by sundoulos2005 on May 10, 2008

San Diego is only 17 miles, if my memory serves me right, from Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. Although I had lived fairly close to Canada all the time I was in high school, I had never been out of the United States. Being on my home and so far from home was an adventure for me. I drank in everything because everything was new and different. I could not be that close and not do anything about it.

Tijuana had a reputation — a bad reputation. It was, in those days before no-fault divorce, a mecca for those seeking to dissolve their marriages. It was also a place where underage sailors could drink freely. There were other vices that held their attraction for sailors, marines, and college kids. On the positive side, Tijuana had some class, as well. It had a professional jai alai team and stadium and a bullfight ring. As much as I had wanted to, I was never able to take in a jai alai game or a bullfight.

One of the things Tijuana was noted for was its jail. Our superiors in the Navy repeatedly warned us about the evils of the Tijuana jail. They told us that if we should be locked up there, there was no telling when or if our command would be notified. It was an automatic AWOL and if incarceration lasted long enough, desertion. We were also told that the jail was dirty and fetid and that food was not provided. I never bothered to find out.

I cannot remember for sure, but I do not think we were allowed into Mexico in uniform. That was probably a command regulation. On Friday evening we would head into San Diego and don our civilian clothes and head to the Greyhound Bus station. The bus went as far as San Ysidro, a San Diego community on the Mexican border. Once disembarked from the bus, we would walk into Tijuana.

Even though we were in civilian clothes, our haircuts gave us away as military. That made us quick marks for the many street vendors and solicitors. Young boys — and I mean pre-teen — would try to pimp their sisters and their mothers. Hawkers would stand in the doorways of bars and entice you with the supposed beauty of the girls on display within. The streets were crowded and filled with sightseers, drunks, donkeys, cabs, taco vendors, and others trying to gain your attention. One always had to be alert to pickpockets, as you often were jostled about as you made your way down the street.

On one of my first visits to Tijuana I purchased a taco from a street vendor. Having grown up in New York State, I had no idea what a taco was before reporting to San Diego. I did try one there. The counter girl asked if I wanted it American or Mexican style. “Well, let’s be authentic,” I said and ordered it Mexican. That was my first encounter with hot sauce and jalapenos. The girl that sold it to me got a good laugh watching me take my first (and last) bite. Now that I was in Mexico, I could get a real taco, I thought. I was not impressed. In fact, I took one bite and spit it out. What the heck was that? I wondered. It was worse than what I had had in San Diego. That was my last venture with Mexican food for at least another ten years.

I took a lot of pictures in Tijuana. Unfortunately none have survived. One that I took was of a lawyer’s office. Even in Mexico they have every angle worked out. “Juan Gomez [a fictitious name], Attorney at Law,” the sign read, “Marriage / Divorce.” Now there’s a business. Wed them one day and they can come back the next and undo it all. Tijuana was also noted for its art work. One could buy velveteen pictures of an ugly representation of Jesus Christ, usually with his thorn-wrapped heart exposed or beautiful ones of Elvis Presley, cactus, desert scenes, and adobe houses.

One of the saddest things I remember about Tijuana, besides the debauchery, is the poverty. Passing from San Ysidro to Tijuana, one had to cross over a bridge spanning a gully or depression. There were occupied houses there that had no roofs or a wall would be missing. It was hard for me to grasp that people actually lived in those hovels.

Crossing back into the United States required retracing, on foot, the same path taken into Tijuana. I was always glad to get past the border station and even gladder to get on the bus. There, exhausted, I would collapse into a seat and sleep until our arrival in downtown San Diego.


Posted in Navy, San Diego, Tijuana, tourist | Leave a Comment »

San Diego Liberty

Posted by sundoulos2005 on April 1, 2008

I forget how many days there was to duty rotation at FLASWSCHL. I often was a supernumerary, meaning I had to be on base, was in a duty status, but did not have to stand a watch. Most days I had the ability to go into town on liberty.

My salary was insufficient for doing much. I think the monthly pay for a seaman apprentice (E-2) was $72.00 a month. I had an automatic allotment of $10.00 to pay for my life insurance. Other than that, I had to pay the launderer to clean, starch, and press my whites. We were required always to have clean and pressed uniforms. I lived in the barracks and ate in the mess hall so didn’t have the expense of room and board. There were minor expenses: shoe polish, brass polish, toiletries, etc. I didn’t have much left and it was never enough.

Even though money was always tight, I usually was able to find something enjoyable to do in my off hours.

One option that was always open was watching a movie at the Recruit Training Command Theater. The theater showed current or recent films. I can remember watching only The Robe although I went there several times. All movies commenced with a visual of the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem.

The USO provided free or reduced rate tickets for local attractions. I often went to the San Diego Zoo. Servicemen got in for $1.00 (a one-day adult admission ticket costs $34.00 today). That I could afford. The San Diego Zoo was state-of-the-art. And it was huge! Unable to afford the fare to take the tram, I walked the entire zoo. I would enjoy visiting it once again.

The Zoo is located in Balboa Park, a large inner-city park. Admission to the park was free, although some of the museums charged. The park is home to botanical gardens, pools, and rolling hills of green grass. On the far side of the park was the Balboa Naval Hospital, now Naval Medical Center, San Diego (NMCSD).

Sometimes I would head to Horton Plaza, which was surrounded by cheap-ticket movie theaters. The all seemed to show "B" movies, or worse. You could, for a dollar or less, watch three bad movies in a row.

A couple of times I walked out Rosecrans Blvd. to visit the Cabrillo National Monument and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. That is one long walk!

San Diego offered a wide variety of off-hours entertainment and while some was prohibitively expensive, by walking, using reduced-fare tickets, and generally conserving one’s money a good time was always within reach.

Posted in Balboa Naval Hospital, Balboa Park, Cabrillo National Monument, FLASWSCHL SDIEGO, liberty, Navy, San Diego, San Diego Zoo | Leave a Comment »

Culture Shock

Posted by sundoulos2005 on March 20, 2008

San Diego and southern California was, to this New Yorker on his first venture to the West Coast, different from anyplace I had ever been before. The streets were lined with palm trees, the sun beamed down with radiant heat everyday of the week for weeks on end, the boulevards were real boulevards — wide, the beaches were just like in the Frankie Avalon – Annette Funicello movies, the surf was always up, and there was so much to do and see. I was amused, too, by the large billboard which proclaimed how many days since it last rained (then numbering in the 100’s).

I liked San Diego. The people there were friendly and seldom did I have to take a bus into town from the base because the locals would stop and offer us sailors a ride. Navy regulations at the time forbade us possessing civilian clothes on the base so we rented a locker at the Seven Seas. The Seven Seas was a locker club. I had never heard of those before. I rented a locker there, I bought civilian clothes there. And when I wanted to blend in with the locals, I changed there. Blending in, however, was an impossibility. My boot camp haircut would take a year to fade away.

New York had blue laws. Blue laws regulate commercial and other activities on Sunday. Drug stores could open on Sunday, but you could only buy medical and other absolutely necessary items. Most of the stuff on the shelves was off limits. California did not have blue laws. Grocery stores, druggists, and department stores were all open on Sunday. Sunday was just another day of the week. I wasn’t used to that.

San Diego radio seemed to fall under one of two categories, both of which were foreign to me: Mexican and Hawaiian. I liked neither.

San Diego had a servicemen’s YMCA. I do not remember much about it except that as one entered through the main entrance there was, to the right, a photographer’s studio. I had a couple of portraits taken with me wearing an aviator’s jacket and a picture of the USS Skipjack (SSN 585) in the background.

Sometimes I would walk from the base into town or vice versa. I liked going by the fishing vessels. The Star of India, a steel-hulled sailing vessel, was newly arrived and I enjoyed going aboard and talking with the restorers.

I tried surfing and found the water to be much saltier than the Atlantic Ocean. I also learned the power of a wave that drives your nose into the sand at the bottom of the ocean. It didn’t take long for me to convince myself that I would never brave the surf in Hawaii.

My stay in San Diego was too short — July through October — and I have never returned. Perhaps someday.

Posted in San Diego | Leave a Comment »

Here’s a Winner!

Posted by sundoulos2005 on February 18, 2008

Yesterday I participated in my first cake decorating competition. There were four divisions: beginner, intermediate, advanced, and professional. I entered my cake in the beginner division. Judging was done by professional and long-experienced cake decorators.

The theme of the competition was “Try to Remember.” I chose to make a cake in the shape of a skimmer hat from Dwight David Eisenhower’s 1952 bid for election, an event that I remember vividly because my mother wore his campaign buttons. The brim of the hat is rolled fondant. The red, white, and blue bands are buttercream basket weave. The front of the hat is decorated in a 48-star flag color flow piece. On either side are “I Like Ike” color flow campaign buttons. The cake itself was french vanilla with vanilla buttercream icing and filling.

To my delighted surprise, the cake was awarded second place in my division.

Posted in basket weave, cake, cake decorating, cake decorating competition, color flow, fondant | Leave a Comment »

Another Cake

Posted by sundoulos2005 on December 30, 2007

Well, I’ve finished Course II and here is the cake I did for it. It was iced in white buttercream and smoothed. Over this, on the side, is a basket weave icing. Rope borders adorn both the top and bottom. To this were added a variety of flowers done in Royal Icing: roses, daffodils, daisies, violets, apple blossoms, mums, and pansies. The bird was done in colorflow icing.

I look forward to starting Course III in January. I will gain an introduction to fondant and will learn how to make more exotic-looking flowers, as well as tiered cakes.

Posted in cake, cake decorating | 1 Comment »

Ornament Cake

Posted by sundoulos2005 on December 16, 2007

A little knowledge can be dangerous — or perhaps adventurous. With barely a month of lessons (at one lesson a week) under the belt, I had a crazy idea to make a cake in the shape of a Christmas tree ornament. This would be my gift to a ladies’ party that my wife would be attending. Some hesitancy about how to proceed and a surprise flood threw my timing off and the cake was not finished in time.

I first attempted the cake by cutting a hole in the top of the cake and fitting an inverted cupcake (with the crown removed) into the hole. For some reason, without my touching it, the cupcake crumbled. I then made a second cake, reducing the oil from 1/3 cup to 1 tbs. to make it firmer, and placed the cupcake on the cake, using two toothpicks to stabilize it.

The entire cake, except for the ornament cap, was iced in white buttercream . I later added the stars in white, red, and gold.

Posted in cake, cake decorating, Christmas, Christmas tree, ornament | Leave a Comment »

A New Achievement

Posted by sundoulos2005 on November 28, 2007

About two years ago I met a woman that had brought a nicely decorated cake to a potluck dinner. I commented that I would like to learn how to decorate cakes but did not know where I could obtain such knowledge. She said, “I teach cake decorating.”

The months passed one-by-one (how else?) and, not having time and money at the same time, I put it off. The idea never left me, however, and early this month I enrolled in my first cake decorating class, taught by that same woman. The class met for two hours one night a week for four weeks and ended yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and having an excellent teacher made it a lot of fun.

The cake pictured above was my “class project,” all in butter cream icing. Yes, I made the roses. I think I made significant progress and, with practice, can become proficient. Next week I start course two, which will get me familiarized with royal icing and more flowers.

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Posted by sundoulos2005 on October 17, 2007

My first duty station after boot camp was Torpedoman “A” School at the Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare School (FLASWSCHL) in San Diego. Everything in the Navy has an acronym. Some can be pronounced. This is not one of them.

The base is probably the smallest base in California. At the time I was there it was home to three distinct units: Torpedoman “A” School, Sonarman “A” School, and a radio command. I was assigned to the radio command while waiting for school to start. Not being skilled at anything I made coffee and ran errands. During my short stay there we had a personnel inspection and I found out that my commanding officer was a Vice-Admiral. It was a small command consisting of less than 25 people. But it must have been an important command to rate such a high-ranking officer.

The base is one of the nicest bases I have been on. There were the school buildings, the radio command building, a few barracks, an enlisted men’s club (EM Club) and a brand new swimming pool. There was at least one pier which almost became two piers when a minesweeper tried to cut it in half. It did not have many of the amenities that larger bases have, but the Recruit Training Command was within walking distance and they had everything.

The base is located at the junction of North Harbor Drive and Nimitz Boulevard. The Recruit Training Command (the Marine Corps side was featured in Gomer Pyle, USMC) was nearby as was the airport. North Harbor Drive was a straight shot into downtown San Diego. On top of all this, the weather was the greatest — always sunny and warm.

Torpedoman “A” School was the primary school for future torpedomen, as the “A” indicates. There are also “B” and “C” schools for more specialized training in a variety of interests and disciplines. The first half of the school I was attending was called E&E school — Electricity and Electronics. Although transistors had been used in commercial applications for five or more years, my class was the first to be taught transistor theory. I liked this part of the school and especially the lab work, which consisted of building a superhetrodyne radio. One day near the completion of the project I picked up my radio by the chassis and, not having pulled the plug, found myself and my chair flying across the room when my fingers crossed the primary coil.

The second half of the school introduced us to the torpedoes we would be using in the fleet. Our class was taught the Mark 27, Mark 14-3A and Mod. 5, the Mark 16, and the Mark 37 Mods O and 1. All the torpedoes except the Mark 37’s were WW II vintage.The Mark 27 had four hydrophones and lead acid batteries. It would be out of service in about 18 months. The Mark 14-3A, a steam torpedo, was already obsolete, but was the basis for the Mod 5. That training would come in handy years later, when I was on the Robert E. Lee. The Mark 16 was a Navol torpedo and rather dangerous to have aboard. Many captains refused to use it. The Mark 37’s were homing torpedoes, the Mod 1 being wire-guided.

I graduated high enough to earn a promotion, but accepting it would have required an additional year’s service. I did not accept it.

While going to school we also had to stand watches. I was fortunate to often be named a supernumerary — an extra person and not needed for the watch bill. We stood watches on the gate on the weekends, barracks watches, swimming pool watch (after someone had defecated in it the night before it was to be opened to the forces), and dumpster watches. Why the Navy insisted we guard its garbage containers, I’ll never know.

Today the base is different from when I was stationed there. You can see that it is filled with structures, most of which were built after 1964. The ones I remembered are no longer there. Only the swimming pool is recognizable. Oh, well, nothing stays the same — except the memories.

Fleet ASW School, San Diego Google Earth view

Posted in FLASWSCHL SDIEGO, Navy, San Diego, school, torpedoes, torpedoman | Leave a Comment »

From Rochester to San Diego

Posted by sundoulos2005 on October 10, 2007

My leave following boot camp was over. Attired in dress blues — tunic with neckerchief and bell bottom trousers with the thirteen-button flap — I bade my family farewell and headed to the Greater Rochester International Airport. That’s a mighty big name for a mighty small airport. I flew from there to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport which, at that time, was the busiest passenger airport in the country.

I had a layover there. I do not remember how long it was, but there was sufficient time for me to find a restaurant and have a leisurely meal. As I was waiting for my meal I looked around to observe the others in the establishment. My eyes fell upon a small group: two men and a blonde-haired woman, as I recollect. One of the men I recognized as Dr. Sam Shepherd, just released from prison after serving approximately ten years for bludgeoning his wife to death. Dr. Shepherd is attributed as being the inspiration for the TV series The Fugitive. The woman was his girlfriend or his second wife (I don’t remember the details). The second man was probably his lawyer. I knew my folks would not believe my story of having seen them so I took a picture as proof. Alas, my mother appropriated it and it disappeared.

From Chicago I flew to Los Angeles where I landed at the airport with the spaceship-looking building. I had previously seen pictures of it, but I was awed at seeing it in person. Aside from the Theme Building, as that structure is officially called, the most striking thing I remember was not being able to see any skyscrapers. That, to me, was truly remarkable.

Two other things also caught my attention. Inside the terminal area there was a display of very sensual lingerie. I had never seen anything like that on display even in the lingerie departments of stores back East. It was somewhat of an eye-opener and shocking. Nowadays, no one would think anything of it, but this was 1964. The other thing was that there were penny jars placed about the airport. Copper and pennies were in short supply that year because so many people were hoarding their pennies. The jars were there to collect from passersby. I don’t know how successful they were. I know I did not contribute.

I had the good fortune while there to run into a gentleman whose son was in the service. He took it upon himself to buy me lunch and to entertain me with stories of the area. He, like I, was going to San Diego.

The flight from LA to San Diego was uneventful — until final approach. I was a bit nervous. The ride down to the grown was turbulent and a bit steep. We came in over downtown San Diego and seemed like we barely cleared the buildings. We landed without incident and taxied to the terminal where I collected my belongings and went outside into the warm southern California air. The palms, the surrounding mountains, the desert-like atmosphere all thrilled me. I fell in love with San Diego and knew I would enjoy my stay there.

Posted in Los Angeles airport, O"Hare International Airport, Sam Shepherd, San Diego, The Fugitive | Leave a Comment »

Three Ways to Catch a Skunk

Posted by sundoulos2005 on September 29, 2007

There are three ways to catch a skunk. My wife will tell you there are only two ways: the right way and the wrong way. It doesn’t matter which way you do it, my wife will not want to be anywhere in the area. If you live near a sizable metropolis you might be able to get the Humane Society or a pest control expert to do the job for you. But we lived forty miles from the nearest city — and it wasn’t much of one.

Friends of ours were visiting and staying in one of our upstairs bedrooms — the one with the chimney in the closet. Our friends had two dachshunds, which they kept with them. One night the dachshunds were having a fit and our friend Dick said he saw some kind of an animal go into the closet. A similar incident happened the following night.

After they left I determined to catch whatever it was that was roaming about. At this point we had no idea that it was a skunk because it had left no tell-tale odors. When I went upstairs to investigate I noticed a peculiar odor; it smelled like burning rubber or insulation. I looked in every room and every nook and cranny in the attic. Nothing was amiss.

As time went by, we would hear our intruder but could never catch it. I borrowed a cat trap from Dick, placed a can of tuna in it, and set it in the bedroom. That’s the first way to catch a skunk.

No more than 15 minutes passed when we heard a commotion and banging around upstairs. Our quarry had been captured. I grabbed a 30-gallon trash bag and I, along with my older son Michael, headed upstairs. In the trap was a beautiful skunk. I had never seen anything like it before (or since). It was about half the size of a full-grown striped skunk, had a tail that fanned out like a peacock’s, and a horizontally-elongated “s” marking on both sides.

“Michael,” I said, “you get in front of the skunk and distract it. I will go behind and lift the back of the crate off the ground. With its back feet elevated, it won’t be able to spray.” That is the second way to catch a skunk, and particularly effective under the right circumstances.

Michael dutifully did as I had directed him. I, on the other hand, proceeded to place myself at the business end of the animal. The skunk acted nonchalantly so I was surprised — as in “taken by surprise” — by the three stinking, rapid-fire squirts of jalapeño-hot skunk juice which found its mark in my open mouth as I raised the back end of the trap off the ground.

The skunk’s dirty work now done, I just picked the trap up and carried downstairs and outside to the front lawn.

Later, when recounting the incident to my often-away neighbor, I found out the fool-proof way of capturing a skunk. “What you should have done,” she said, “was to get a 30-gallon garbage can and put the can of tuna or cat food in it. Then place boxes around it so the skunk can climb up. He’ll drop in and won’t be able to get back out. Then all you have to do is put the lid on the can and take it outside.” That is the third way, and probably the best way, to catch a skunk.

Some lessons are harder to learn than others. This was one. Spotted skunks are much different than striped skunks, and much rarer. Spotted skunks can climb up the inside of a house while striped skunks cannot. Spotted skunks can spray when their feet are off the ground while striped skunks cannot. Their odors are different, also, although I can only pontificate on the taste of the one.

In time, the taste and the burning dissipated. The odor lingered on for several weeks . After almost ten years, with taste and odor long gone, the memories still are vivid and fresh in my mind. Now, as I think back on that encounter, I realize there is a fourth way to catch a skunk: let somebody else do it.

Posted in spotted skunk, striped skunk | 2 Comments »