Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sergeant Shults

My wife's father died recently. He was a good guy. He was also a lawyer for 40-some years. (Go figure.) Here's a part of his story:

Richard Hinch Shults was a lawyer and a gentleman, and one of America's "Greatest Generation." Born November 1, 1921, in Batavia, NY, Dick was the son of dentist Nicholas Justin Shults and Mary Francis Hinch (a master bridge instructor). He had two younger sisters, Gracia Maxwell and Peggy Stalnecker, and both eventually played unforeseen roles in his adult life. Gracia introduced him to Mary Frances ("Ro") Best, who became his wife in 1948 and then mother of their six children. And years later, when Ro died suddenly in 1971, sister Peggy provided a crucial assist...

Decades before that, Dick had graduated from Batavia H.S. (in 1939), then attended Holy Cross University--where in addition to academics he showed a mastery of bridge strategy, ping pong, tennis, and pool. Following college graduation in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, hoping to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps. Having "too many teeth" (as he put it) kept Dick from the skies; and years later he told his children that it must have been God's plan, because many of his schoolfriends who made pilot were soon killed in combat.

Dick instead joined the 970th Counter Intelligence Corps assigned to the European Theater and tasked with hunting Nazi Party members who had disappeared back into Germany's general populace. As he later wrote in a letter to one grandson, "One of the places I was stationed with the CIC was Heilbron, Germany, and my job was to search for the leaders of the German underground movement and make sure they were locked up in prison so they could not rekindle the Nazi organizations..."

As an investigator Dick definitely earned his Sergeant's stripes. Among his many spy-novelish adventures: for a time he ate lunch daily with an informant who kept the CIC apprised of which prisoner soldiers were Nazis and which regular German Army. Dick also helped uncover and quash an armed insurrection planned by Hitler Youth, and he interrogated Party members whose information was used to support the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials.

Inspired by these experiences, after his discharge in 1946 Dick attended Columbia Law School on the G.I. Bill, becoming a lawyer in 1950. He was licensed in New York State and Washington, D.C., too--where he was asked to join Clark Clifford's firm. His many assignments there included an odd one: delivering by hand a Christmas gift of personalized golf balls to President Eisenhower at the White House!

But a couple of years of politically oriented law proved to be enough. Dick moved his growing family back to Batavia in 1954, and became a partner in the small firm Kelly and Shults, with a practice focused on real estate law. Over the next many years Dick also served as a public defender (often bringing his young clients home for dinner), and later as an elected city judge. From the time in Batavia, the children recall his many meals at the "animal clubs" (Elks and Moose, that is, and he was a big tipper all his life), his fondness for coffee ice cream, and his daily routine of Air Force exercises performed in his pajamas.

After the death of Ro, father-of-six Dick reconnected, through sister Peggy, with past friend Peggy Ludwiczak, who was herself a widow with four children then living in Cherry Hill, NJ. The two families joined forces in 1972, and quickly blended well, as would be attested today by the combined ten and their own descendants: Sandra, Deborah, Richard, Margaret, Robert, Joseph, Thad, Christine, Rita, and Amy--and their 21 children and five grandchildren. (When Dick proposed, he promised that "Our life will never be dull." After several months of marriage Peg remarked, "Couldn't we have a little dullness?")

The economic recession of the Eighties prompted moves first to Pennsylvania, then to Oklahoma, and finally to Florida, where Dick passed the State Bar Exam at age 63 to support those few Ludwiczak-Shults family members still attending college.

First in Boca Raton, and then Delray Beach, sunny Florida allowed Peggy and Dick to enjoy many good years--new friends, lots of bridge, and cocktails on the patio each evening. (Dick's secret to successful martini making and consuming: add a little water to the gin.)

They were able to travel to the Caribbean several times and to Europe for their delayed honeymoon (Italy, France, and England), and later to Ireland where they visited the grave of Dick's grandparents, the Mahers. (Earlier trips with the kids--grown children later--included many summers spent on Long Island, rambles to Yosemite and Banff, the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Rockies, and grand family reunions in several East Coast cities.)

Dick took down his law shingle for good in 1997 and, finally, this year, his life shingle. He will be greatly missed by that big double family, and all his friends, and the strangers he helped along the way.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Jack: The Crack Up

A few days ago I posted my account of a recent quick trip to San Francisco, and I chose Jack Kerouac's Big Sur novel as a related visual. Taking my paperback copy down from the shelf and skimming the first few pages persuaded me that I should also reread it.

The very next day, by cosmic/karmic/Kerou(m)ac coincidence, at the CD store I came upon a new two-disc set titled One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, which offers a CD of the soundtrack music--composed and played by Jay Farrar (of the band Wilco) and Benjamin Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie)--plus a DVD of that documentary, about Jack circa 1960 and his harrowing stay in a tiny cabin close to the booming Pacific south of Monterey, which in turn led to his writing the Sur book. Wheels within wheels... (A suitable image given "Ti Jean" Jack's paean to crosscountry hitching and driving, On the Road.)

Farrar's inspired idea was to take chunks of the book and set them to guitar-based music, shaping a dozen songs which provide another window into the names-changed memoir-novel, even though only a few of them wound up in the finished film. But for any fan of Farrar (or Gibbard), the disc is as compelling as that surprising cooperative venture some years back, titled Mermaid Avenue, when Billy Bragg and Wilco teamed up to create new songs from unused lyrics by Woody Guthrie. The Kerouac songs have titles like "California Zephyr," "Breathe Our Iodine," "These Roads Don't Move," "Final Horrors," "Sea Engines," "The Void," and so on; and the titles alone suggest the sometimes lyric, more often paranoid, passages in the book--which chronicles Jack's alcoholic retreat from too much fame and success and his temporary hallucinatory collapse.

The documentary--by Kerouac Films, with Jim Sampas (a familiar surname in the saga of Jack) as Executive Producer and Curt Worden as Director--is simply brilliant. Gorgeous high-definition photography of San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula, a voiceover reader who sounds very much like Jack (maybe it is him, though one John Ventimiglia is listed as "Narrator"), on-camera interviews with writers and critics, actors and rock musicians and SF street-scene people, all of whom knew Kerouac or were influenced by his work. The result is a craftily constructed, cautionary tale of what happened to Jack and his chums during those few infamous weeks and how that story metamorphed into the novel he called Big Sur--considered his best work by some, however unlikely given the huge cultural impact of On the Road, but certainly Jack's last great book (even though followed by a good dozen posthumous, pulled-together tomes, popping up like tombstones for Ti Jean).

Among the distinguished commentators, who by the way do not sound stiff or academic at all, but boisterous and admiring and speculative and insightful instead, are poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti (owner of that primitive cabin) and Michael McClure, eccentric rockers Tom Waits and Patti Smith, actors Sam Shepard and Donal Logue, folkies Dar Williams and Jay Farrar himself, authors Aram Saroyan and S.E. Hinton, even Kerouac-haunted women Joyce Johnson and Carolyn Cassady. The film drifts and surges like the Pacific, pauses then dances on; and it all goes by in the wink of a splendid summer's eye.

Maybe best of all, I'd say that One Fast Move is eminently suitable for repeat viewing. And anyone who screens it should also play the chunks of interviews offered as extras, unused because not specifically about Big Sur, but rollicking and entertaining additions to the Kerouac story nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Left in San Francisco

When the crammed, cramped United Airlines flight landed Thursday evening at San Francisco International, the sky was dumping buckets, and our aquaplaning cab ride was essentially a surfer's dream. "Oh no," we groaned, during that 10-mile water-slide, "another getaway cursed by the whims of the weather gods..."

But the next morning was merely misty, and each day thereafter breezier and clearer--until by Sunday we were able to join the sun-cheered thousands spending the day at Golden Gate Park.

Friday had been our day to view the amazing Cartier exhibit at the Legion of Honor Museum, displaying over a hundred years of bejeweled, over-the-top tiaras and diadems; baubles, gold bangles, and sapphire beads. The exhibit was, sensibly, mostly aimed at a female audience. Sandra was happy to stroll and marvel, but I had hoped to see more samples of the firm's Deco era work--especially since my own unusual wedding ring is based on a unique commissioned man's ring Cartier made in the late Thirties, the massive original of which I saw in Venice 25 years ago. (The photo shows my smaller, less pricy, adapted version of Cartier's 24-carat gold, platinum-spike Machine Age marvel--which I've not found in any books about the jeweler.)

We dined that night at John's Grill, a San Francisco landmark offering old furniture, aged steaks, and new Jazz (a strong solo guitarist whose name I failed to register), plus a big photographic emphasis on Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, which mentions the restaurant favorably.

Day Two's weather looked promising, so I postponed hitting the Book Fair, and instead we headed out to wander the edge of bustling, celebratory Chinatown and then the "Little Italy" of North Beach, as well as the far end of the cable car lines--chomping a terrific pizza for lunch, and browsing for a couple of hours at City Lights Bookstore. No sign of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, sadly, but I was able to pick up several books and brag to the disinterested clerk that I'd visited City Lights for the first time way back in the summer of 1959, when I was a teenager pretending to be Beat.

San Francisco's many hills (I overheard one guy say there are 22 of them!) looked splendid in the wind-blown, in-and-out sunshine, and riding the cable cars was great fun. We dined at Ducca, a fine Continental bistro located right in our Market Westin Hotel.

Sunday morning dawned clear blue, and I agonized for, oh, about 30 seconds before deciding I'd rather spend the day with Sandra, exploring more of the city, than hole up indoors for the final day of the Fair. (Oh well, our home already houses hundreds of collectable books, and I'm intermittently selling them off.)

So we boarded a round-the-city, two-decker tour bus that visited the painted Victorian houses prior to depositing us at the new museums and resurrected De Young buildings at Golden Gate. Rain forest displays, the new aquarium with amazing coral reef, the classic Japanese tea garden, hundreds of bicyclers and 5K runners and a limousine-styled shuttle that carried us all around the Park and all the way out to the far-West, edge-of-the-ocean beach, were the highlights that made our last day most excellently special.

We flew back to Seattle that evening well-citied and -sated. I blew off the Book Fair, you say? Well, yes; I plead tourist madness, resurgent Beatness... and marital bliss.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

'Frisco? Not in Kansas.

We're... off to see the Wizard...

Well, no, not really. As the Plains ranchers and sodbusters used to say, "We're going to see the elephant." Sort of.

Once that would have meant a trip to St. Louis or Chicago, to the wonders of some far-off big city, but today it's Sandra and me heading for a weekend getaway in San Francisco, celebrating a birthday, an anniversary, and a-whole-nother year of marital bliss-und-blitzkrieg. (Just kidding.)

As Dorothy observed, wandering the streets of 'Frisco, "Gee, Toto, there's no place like home... here. We must be back in Oz!"

Actually, we're heading to the annual San Francisco Book Fair--as wondrous as Oz--plus what promises to be a major exhibit of Cartier treasures, and several memorable meals (one hopes), and the fogbound city to stroll and cable-car in... But I'll have to pass on the frantic clubbing, unless we find some good Jazz.

Anyway, no blogging this week. Silence is golden. (Or maybe yellow brick road-ish.)