DOWN MEMORY LANES (March 31, 2022)

In March, Nancy and I traveled twice to Southern California within a 10-day period. Both trips carried us into the past. Solvang was a sentimental destination for celebrating Nancy’s birthday. We had visited there on one of our first dates, more than 50 years ago. La Purisima Mission was a world apart but just down the road. Los Angeles took us back south for family and friends. We spent precious time with my younger brother, Doug, who’s just starting home-hospice care. We also paid our respects at the funeral of Bill Dahlman, high-school classmate and rediscovered friend. In the midst of healthy, happy seniority, death and dying are never far away.




            Americans often think of Ireland and Italy as the main sources of 19th Century U.S. immigration, both waves driven by famine, poverty and economic ambition. But Denmark sent a steady stream to the American Midwest, nurturing Lutheran settlements combining grain cultivation with Utopian idealism. One trio of Danish visionaries – two Lutheran ministers and a professor from Grand View College Seminary in Iowa – soon continued on to Central California, lured by milder winters and inviting open space. After a year of searching, in 1911 they purchased a 9,000-acre portion of Rancho San Carlos for $40 an acre in Santa Barbara County and set about establishing the Danish-American colony of Solvang.

            No Garden of Eden, the area proved to be mostly arid. Except directly along the banks of the Santa Ynez River, the climate would support only rain-fed winter wheat and beans. Discouraged settlers shifted their efforts to raising eggs and pork, supplemented by Danish baked goods. The settlement was pious and tightly knit. Local schools emphasized Danish religion, culture and language, as well as farming practices and artisanal skill-building. Over 30 years, its population never reached 500. Fortunes flagged after the Second World War. Then a fanciful Saturday Evening Post cover story in January 1947 put Solvang on the map: “A spotless Danish village that blooms like a rose in California’s charming Santa Ynez Valley.” Depending on your values, the resulting conversion was either entrepreneurial genius or cynical opportunism. Second-generation immigrants rushed to attach Danish-provincial facades, changed street names and donned quaint folk costumes, all for the first time. The settlement boomed as a niche tourist destination, attracting Nordic visitors and the Danish Royal Family, in addition to throngs of Americans. When Nancy and I originally visited in 1971, the town retained a modest immigrant authenticity. In the current decade, at least until COVID, “the Danish Capital of America” was attracting a million tourists a year, dividing their attention and dollars between “fourth-generation” Danish pastries, fire-pit wine-tasting, and the nearby Chumash Casino.

            We were more than a little dismayed by the Disneyish glitz. But the Bethania Lutheran Church erected in 1928, the Elverhoj local-history museum and Copenhagen House showcasing Danish design preserved glimpses of cross-cultural heritage. Like so much in California, Solvang can be saluted and scorned. Souvenir kitsch might be crass. But tip your hat to three determined dreamers who crossed 5,600 miles to an undeveloped frontier and their heirs who kept tweaking the business plan for 110 years. 

La Purisima Concepcion

            Most of California’s 21 Franciscan missions shared turbulent start-ups. La Purisima Concepcion was no exception. Founded in what is now Lompoc in 1787, it enjoyed initial prosperity before being decimated by twin calamities. Smallpox and measles epidemics killed hundreds of the Mission’s Native American converts. Then rolling earthquakes and torrential rains literally toppled and melted the adobe structures in 1812. The friars relocated their outpost four miles inland, seeking sheltering hills, superior fresh water and easier access to El Camino Real, the colonial North/South artery. Soon 4.5-foot-thick adobe walls went up to resist future seismic shocks.

            The new outpost prospered under the able stewardship of Father Mariano Payeras. Known especially for his compassionate treatment of the Indian neophytes, he was promoted to President of the entire Mission chain. But his enlightened stewardship was not to last. Following his death, La Purisima was overwhelmed by a multi-mission uprising of Chumash rebels. The outbreak was suppressed by a battalion of Spanish soldiers mustered from Monterey 200 miles to the north.

            La Purisima was deconsecrated and sold off during the Mexican secularization in 1834. The buildings fell into total ruin. The site was donated to the State of California in 1933 and restored by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, with 200 laborers working full-time for three years, reconstructing adobe bricks using original materials and techniques (plus iron re-bars!)

            Of the many Missions we’ve visited, together or separately, Nancy and I agree that La Purisima is our number-one favorite. Unlike Carmel, San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara, it’s no longer a functioning Catholic church. A bare-bones relic, its deep-shadowed rooms are sparsely furnished with historically accurate pieces. A thoughtful State Park brochure contributes context, diagrams and chronology. Today’s complex is a dusty, spare survivor.

            Nancy and I separated to each explore at our own pace. I noticed how self-contained had been this substantial but isolated outpost. At its early 19th Century peak, its occupants included 1,000 Chumash Indians, five Spanish soldiers and a pair of Franciscan friars – one spiritual/educational, the other administrative. Two contiguous structures stretched for hundreds of yards in length. Interior spaces were allocated to a church, a chapel, padres’ quarters, soldiers’ barracks, students’ dorms, weaving looms, offices and storage. An olive grove and press plus tanning vats occupied an attached walled garden. For fire safety, the blacksmith’s forge was situated at a distance. A three-mile-long aqueduct fed a reservoir used for potable water, gardens’ irrigation, clothes-washing and human bathing. (Although the tiled reservoir was handsome and inviting, only the Indians bathed; the Europeans gave it a pass.) Cattle and sheep herds swelled to 20,000 head. Pens corralled pigs, goats and chickens. Acres were devoted to edible crops and medicinal plants. The settlement produced woven wool for clothing; hides, saddles, soap and candles for trade; olive oil, livestock, corn meal and vegetables for cooking. 

            It was easy for us to visualize this settlement in full operation. Animated, resilient and self-reliant. No electricity, heating or motors. Everything hand-made. A colonial institution to be sure. Exploitative and racist. But also independent, dedicated and courageous. Early California in its boldness, warts and all.



            Brother Doug

            I’m the middle of three brothers, born five years apart. Bob, the eldest, died in 2018, after a cruel, accelerating descent into dementia. Now, to my dismay, my younger brother Doug is confronting a pair of terminal illnesses. In February, his Kaiser doctors informed him they could not recommend further treatments for his failing kidneys or metastasized prostate cancer. Doug and his wife Lu decided to begin home hospice care. Nancy and I drove to Whittier to see him.

            After we walked from our parked car in bright sunlight, the house interior seemed dark. The hospice team had cleared furniture from the living-room’s center to reduce Doug’s risk of falling. Our chat was initially a bit halting, as if the three of us were avoiding the blunt fact of his approaching demise. We talk frequently by phone, but now we were face-to-face, with each other and with Doug’s changing condition. Only recently returned home from the hospital, he summarized for us his sequence of pre-discharge treatments and consultations with specialists. He repeated that past kidney blockages had sometimes improved. More than once he mentioned that he didn’t know how long hospice care might continue. We were all coming to terms with this new stage. A devout Evangelical, Doug affirmed he is not afraid of dying, just not ready to stop living.

            To my relief, our quiet conversation steadily shifted from medical details to more relaxed sharing. Nancy and I are both deeply fond of my younger brother. An only child, she sees him as her brother too. Doug’s sense of humor is magical – quick, playful and genuine. He was a gifted dancer, attuned to rhythms, free from my own inhibitions. Now in constant pain and dulled by medications, his inner warmth started peeking through. Quietly, just being together nudged aside our clinical Q&A.

            The dynamics shifted when his wife returned from Kaiser. Lu was understandably agitated from verbal tussles with gatekeepers, negotiating unsuccessfully to resolve appointment cancellations and medication pick-ups. She handed me a large manila envelope of snapshots from Doug’s life, selected by her son. I pulled out and passed around individual photos, recapturing 70 years of memories and moments. I recognized several shots from copies in our own scrapbooks at home. The three brothers grinning in tans and swim-trunks at Balboa Island. Doug and me on my return from summer camp in the early 1950s. My brother swinging a club at Griffith Park golf course. Crossing the finish line in a road race. A suite of wedding pics.

            A few photos commemorated Doug receiving professional awards. Although he’d seldom talked about it, he’d devoted decades of service and leadership to the L.A. Department of Water & Power’s Emergency Management Division. Doug and his teams were silent heroes, saving lives and property during wildfires, floods and earthquakes. They even named a building after him at a DWP Reservoir.

            Nancy first noticed, then I did too, that Doug’s energy was flagging. He passed more and more snapshots along without studying or commenting. Lu talked more and more about her children and grandchildren. I sensed she was doing her best to get through what might for her be an awkward intrusion. I’ve witnessed other spouses and partners in critical-care or end-of-life situations trying to facilitate visits that were disrupting normal routines.

            The photo round-robin wound down. We talked through mutually convenient dates for our return visit in April. With so much still unsaid, there were tears in our eyes when I hugged my brother goodbye.


            Friend Bill

            In February of this year, sudden COVID complications cut short dear friend Bill Dahlman’s valiant struggle to recover from a pair of debilitating strokes. Bill and I had been high-school classmates at Harvard School in the 1950s. We’d reconnected in recent years and our friendship grew much closer during his protracted rehabilitation. [See the Agile Aging post of October 15, 2019 for an account of that attachment.]

            The day after Nancy and I visited Doug, we attended a celebration of Bill’s life, conducted at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. It was Saint Patrick’s Day as well as Bill’s birthday, and the ceremony was filled with Celtic references. Bill had been confirmed in this unpretentious parish church; he and Kathryne had been married there, 56 years before. More than 500 souls filled every pew, including seven of Bill’s high-school classmates.

            The service featured recollections voiced by four key figures in his life. Bob Collins had not only shared high-school football accolades but gave trusted neurological counsel to Bill and Kathryne during their stroke-rehabilitation marathon. Nat Harty was a USC pal and lifelong family friend. Will Dahlman was Bill’s grandson; Rye, Bill’s younger brother. The teen’s remarks were especially powerful. Will and Bill had bonded after the boy’s dad, Bill’s son Darren, had died in a tragic accident. The 16-year-old started speaking nervously, rushing his words. But his memories were personal, and the stories he summoned spoke of reciprocal loyalty and affection, like Grandad always showing up for his games.

            Bill’s memorial prompted two reflections. Southern California celebrates a cult of youth and hip, casual attire. Yet as our congregation stood for components of the Episcopal ritual, I looked across a near-uniform sea of white hair over dark suits and dresses. Ours was an old-folks assembly, somberly draped to pay respects. I wondered if this occasion marked a set of parallel passings – of a cherished friend, formal costumes and ceremonies, an age group, an era and a way of life. Nancy and I have lost six dear friends in the last six months.

            I was also struck by the video of snapshots from Bill’s life lovingly assembled by his brother Rye. Nancy and I were unable to attend the reception where the montage was screened. We needed to slip away after the service to reconnect with Doug one more time before leaving L.A. When I later viewed the program on-line, 80 years of Bill’s life rushed by in eight minutes. An infant, a lad, a halfback, a fraternity brother, a groom, a parent, a vacationer, a grandparent, and finally a smiling, determined stroke victim. This was a curated analogue to our manila envelope of Doug’s history. In our visual age, we seem to be archived by snapshot collages. But how much can frozen frames reanimate the pulse of a life?


            Two road trips, four destinations. A dying sibling, a deceased friend. Southern and Central California. 1812, 1910, 2022. Wide-open spaces and congested freeways. Historical relics and personal relationships. Antecedents and contemporaries. Strangers and intimates. More and more, everything seems connected. I’m intensely engaged every day. Nurturing my marriage. Tracking other loved ones. Reaching out to neighbors. Keeping up with the news. Working to help improve our retirement community’s governance. Despite, or perhaps because of, this multifaceted involvement, everything is fitting together. Tension and balance. The flow of time. The stages of life. Dreams and compromises. Successes and failures. Joys and sorrows. Fitness and frailty. The sudden finality of death. I care very much for the folks around me and the world farther afield. I’m experiencing a Buddhist acceptance of altogetherness. Growing old is a new learning curve.


Sincere thanks to Nancy Swing and Tom ONeal for their photos.


Coming April 30: DESERT BLOOMS

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