Friday, November 30, 2012

I Wish My Brother Steve Was Here

There's a hole in my life the exact shape of my big brother Steve.
I think as a fitting end to my month of reflection, I look back at an event that's having its 20th anniversary next week. 
This is the story of the time I nearly died... and didn't even know it. 

In December of 1992 my parents and I flew down to the Grand Cayman Islands to visit my brother Steve who was living there at the time. My brother, ten years my senior, was something of an adventurer. A boat captain, scuba instructor, underwater photographer, airplane pilot and submarine pilot, skydiver, etc. I've never met anyone more resourceful, but he could also be somewhat reckless. At least in my mother's eyes.

One day we all decided to go out into the ocean and hand feed raw chicken to wild stingrays. Now that may not sound like something the average person might consider doing on a lazy afternoon, but we were in the Caymans and Steve said it would be cool. So why not.

Now, Steve lived on the west coast of the island (Seven Mile Beach, north of George Town) and the area where the rays typically conjugated was around the north rim. He didn't own a car. Just commuted to work in his orange rubber raft with a wooden bottom and outboard motor. (Ahhhh, island life.) My parents and I had rented a car during our stay. Yet I decided to go with Steve in the raft (the long way there) while mom and dad took the car (the shortcut). 

Um, sounded like a good idea at the time. 

We had to go out to sea quite a bit to avoid a dangerous shallow reef that straddled the coastline.  Apparently jagged coral and rubber rafts don't mix. I think Steve had a good laugh at my expense. He sat in the steady stern and piloted the motor while I had to cling to the bouncing bow (the leading edge). Like a bucking bronco I road that raft for an hour or so through rough seas. With battered knees and bruised shins we finally reached our destination. It felt like an hour spent inside a spinning laundry dryer. Even without the chicken, swimming with wild hungry stingrays seemed like a pleasant alternative to another hour on "raging bull".          

The stingrays are so numerous the locals refer to this area of ocean as "Stingray City". Now I've seen recent photos of a sandbar where tourists can actually stand and interact with them, but where we went there was no sand. It was deep dark ocean. Looking straight down my pale legs were silhouetted against total blackness. The rays began to circle us by the dozen and eventually, overcome by curiosity, they would start to bump into us. As if testing us. If you held your hand out flat like a plate, and pinched the raw chicken up between your fingers they would "float" over your hand and suck it up like a vacuum. With your other hand you could gently pet them. Once they realized what we were doing, they swarmed us by the hundreds.

The little ones were the most forceful of the bunch. Constantly bumping or rubbing against us. My attention would be focused on trying to feed a large ray with one hand, petting him with the other, all the while juggling my container of chicken, my snorkel, my waterproof camera, and trying to keep an eye on the yellow nylon rope I'm supposed to be holding so I don't drift too far away. It only took a minute and I'd look up and the boat was 100 yards away and I'd have to swim against ocean current to get back. The yellow rope is your friend. Hold onto it. Gotta remember that.  

I kept feeling things brush against my legs. First thought: was that a shark?, or was that a shark? Even turning around to try to see what just touched you wasn't easy and the thing would be gone by then anyway. Eventually, with all the chicken gone, and still in the middle of the feeding frenzy, we decided to head back home while all of our fingers were still attached. I declined my brother's thoughtful offer to ride the laundry dryer back home. Instead, I took the ten minute car ride with my folks.          

This is when something happened.
An hour later, Steve didn't show up at his condo.
We waited.
Two hours later... nothing. 
Now it was dark.
My mom was getting really worried.
I don't remember him even having lights on his raft. But I'm not sure, maybe he did.

I think he finally pulled his raft up the beach at his condo 3 or 4 hours later.
He seemed tired, but stated he "took the scenic route".
Mom was happy he was home safe and nothing more was said about it. 
(Anyway it was more unusual for Steve to be early to something, than late.)
Then he said, "Do you guys wanna get up at dawn, wade out into the ocean and feed dog biscuits to giant wild sea tortoises". Of course we did. And that was also pretty cool. 

I had wondered why he was so late coming home. But eventually forgot about it.
Seventeen years later I would unexpectedly finally discover the startling reason for his late arrival. 
But only after Steve's funeral.

Two years after the "stingray buffet" my mother passed away. 

Fifteen years after that, Steve passed on. Right after his 50th birthday.

After a month or so, we began sorting my brothers belongings. I found a strange trunk. Inside were personal items (a photo album, what appeared to be old hand-written love letters, a VHS video tape, an old driver's license, etc.) But they did not belong to my brother. He apparently had been storing these items for someone else. Possibly it was someone he knew from Grand Cayman. All of the items were about twenty years old. Luckily there was a name.

I decided to try my best to locate this person. The items weren't valuable per say. But to Steve's friend, they may have some sentimental value at the very least. They certainly could not be replaced. After some searching on the Internet I located the mystery man now living on the West Coast of the United States. We spoke on the phone and I informed him of Steve's passing and got his address so I could ship him the box. 

Often at funerals people get to reminiscing about the deceased, sharing stories and everyone learns things they never knew. And probably would never have known. Well, Steve's friend was very appreciative of my actions to return his stuff, and as we talked at length he told me about how he knew my brother on the island and how Steve had mentioned his "closest call" with death.

Now "close calls" were nothing new for Steve. An airplane he was piloting had to make a crash landing in the Chesapeake Bay (he was rescued by the Coast Guard). He was captaining a large sailboat that went down in the Bermuda Triangle (rescued by a passing oil tanker). He injured his leg repelling into a volcano (who does that?) and had to be airlifted out. He was bitten by a shark while feeding it (how ungrateful). And also bitten by a moray eel. He totalled at least two cars in serious auto accidents. He dislocated his shoulder skiing. Suffered a serious concussion while water skiing. Steve had to escape guard dogs in a junk yard after being locked in by the absent-minded owner (he didn't remember Steve was still in there). And he was attacked by an entire roving pack of wild dogs on Grand Cayman. etc. etc. Yes, it seemed Death had been stalking Steve for a long time. But he had to slow down for ole Mr. Reaper to catch up.

I knew about all those stories from Steve (and others). But what the man on the other end of the phone told me was a shock. He said Steve told him years ago, that he almost died on his way home after feeding stingrays with his parents. He had hit a large wave and it flipped the raft upside down. At the time there was very little development on that part of the shoreline and he couldn't see any lights from the island. After an hour of bobbing in rough seas he didn't know which way was land. And he struggled and struggled for hours to right the raft by himself in heavy swells. Apparently it wasn't his "time" and he was finally able to get the raft flipped and even got the motor started in total darkness. He lost all supplies in the raft. Obviously he didn't spill the beans to mom and dad for fear of their reaction. But then it dawned on me why he never confided in me either. I would've most likely drowned that night. Had I chosen to ride with him. Steve was a better ocean swimmer than I was at that time. And if he barely made it. It's not likely I would have survived to blog about it today. 

What a frightening way to go. All alone out in the ocean at night.

In the end Steve died while hiking a mountain with his best friend. Doing what he loved.

I knew for a long time he wouldn't leave this astral plane from a hospital bed. 

The untold mysteries of my brother unfold slowly and in surprising ways. 
I wonder what I have yet to discover about Steve.

Or what the future will reveal about me, after I'm gone. 
Here's a sketch I made of  Steve's "ocean backyard" at the time.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hot Tears Flow for Carole

November. My personal time for reflection. For glancing over my shoulder and taking stock of where I stand. Stealing a moment to count my blessings and note my lessons learned. It's also a time for speaking from the heart and giving thanks to those who've helped shape my life. In big ways. In small ways. In many ways. All the little building blocks of my world.

Today, I'd like to offer a small tribute to Frances Lillian Mary Ridste of Fairchild, Wisconsin. Or ... more widely known to her fans as Carole Landis of the silver screen.

Through a brief but busy career with appearances in some 54 films, Carole, a moniker she legally adopted in honor of her idol Carole Lombard upon her tragic death in a plane crash, was always at the mercy of the men in charge. She wanted so much to be taken seriously as a gifted actress and be given an equal chance to perform both onscreen and onstage. She utilized her beauty to enter show business but struggled to find memorable lead roles in which to showcase her considerable abilities. Her career would ultimately rise and fall at the whims of those seeking her romantic favor. And ultimately, she played the game as long as she could.    

So here's to Carole. 
To Frances Lillian Mary Ridste.
The Pin-up.
The Actress.
The Entertainer.
The Daughter.
The Woman.
The Soul.

Her upbringing was fraught with physical and emotional difficulties. Abandoned by her biological father before her birth, Carole would endure poverty, the death of two siblings, the divorce of her parents, sexual abuse as a child, and an annulled marriage by age fifteen. She would eventually be married five times to four different men by age 26. 

Although she desperately wanted a child, she suffered from endometriosis and could not conceive. During her life she would also suffer from dysentery, malaria, pneumonia, and ultimately depression.

Seen as an escape to a better life, the alluring glamour of Hollywood consumed her at a young age and with a natural talent for singing, she finally said goodbye to her mother and boarded a bus bound for San Francisco at age sixteen with $100 in savings.

She found work as a chorus girl in musicals and eventually became a favorite of choreographer/director Busby Berkeley. At one point they were even engaged to be married, but due to unfounded rumors resurfacing her engagement was terminated by Berkeley's mother.

One Million B.C. (1940) - Not necessarily her best role, but perhaps her most famous.

More marriages came and fell apart. She entered into a relationship with film producer Darryl Zanuck and more roles began to come her way. But after her relationship ended, (surprise) her career suffered.

To help with the war effort she joined the USO in 1942. For the next couple years she traveled the globe entertaining servicemen. Landis logged over 100,000 miles on her tours to North Africa and Europe, spending more time visiting troops than any other actress.  

After the war she began a serious relationship with actor Rex Harrison, then still married to Lilli Palmer. Rex refused to divorce his wife for her. 

This lead to her dreadful day of reckoning.

Her ambitious struggle against the odds ended abruptly on the evening of July 4, 1948. Her lifeless body was discovered by Rex Harrison the following day. The tragic details are chronicled here

Much has been made of the events of that day. The elapsed time between Rex discovering her body and his eventual call to police to report it. Over two hours. 

Her family, stating her future plans, her upbeat mood during the day (she hosted a pool party for a dozen friends at her home the day she "suicided") and Harrison's suspicious behavior, claim that her death was not of her choosing. 

I've chosen not to post her famous post-mortem photo, but some blogger sites have even raised questions regarding some odd aspects of those police scene photos. 

Sources claim she left three suicide notes. One for her maid with information regarding her cat's need of medical attention. One for her mother (excerpted in the top header of this page). And another for Rex Harrison which he allegedly had his lawyer burn. Along with other letters and documents of correspondence.

For a while after these events Harrison's career cooled off, but later recovered (My Fair Lady - 1964). He eventually divorced Palmer anyway in 1957.

Perhaps in addition to her troubled upbringing, Carole Landis' inherent natural beauty and desire to be loved contributed in some way to her own turbulent relationships, her enduring unfulfillment, and ultimately, to her sad demise. By all accounts she was a kind open-hearted person. In a cut -throat business full of "actors" she was easy prey. And when she fell for a married man. It was a no-win situation for her. She didn't want to hurt Lilli Palmer, nor be a "home wrecker" in the eyes of the public. 

Carole's actress friend Lupe Velez had found herself in a similar "no-win situation" and took a lethal overdose of Seconal (sleeping pills). Carole had commented to friends at the time that she understood exactly how Lupe felt. And in the end, a few years later Landis chose the exact same method to escape her troubles. 

The world kept turning for most. But not for Carole. The final curtain came down on one of the most promising careers of 1940s Tinsel Town. She survived so much strife. But at that point, she couldn't bear one more broken heart. That's truly what killed Carole Landis.

Thankfully her legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those who remember her... 
and share her story.     

Learn more about Carole here at her "official" blog.  Or here.


And don't wait until someone is gone, to show them what they mean to you. 
Eulogies are only cold comfort for the ones left behind.