My dad, James Whitmore, Part Sixteen

Time gets tangled here. I don’t know what came first, if it was the TV series or the strange trip down artistic deployment. I believe it was the involvement in a strange show that I helped write and performed called Square Root Blit Two.

Strange was the word of the day when I came back to America in 1970-71. The Vietnam war was still raging. I was lost. I stayed at a friend’s house in Santa Monica where a beautiful girl held me tight all night. I wanted to be with her for a long time before but it never happened. Now, I’m back from India. As mentioned in earlier columns, I was looking pretty strange. Wearing my pharon, hair out to Jupiter and absent cleanliness. Probably why she held me so tight. Pity is a strong motivator sometimes.

Early in the morning, I was back out on the street. I had to be outside. My dad told me to go back to college. If I was in college he would pay the freight. My dad believed in education. He also believed in me. I went back to Callison College in Stockton, California, and met some folk who wanted to put on an experience acted out inside an inflatable bubble. These folk had done something before. Thus the Two at the end of the Square Root Blit.

I didn’t particularly like any of these new artists’ types. Too arrogant for my taste. There was one nice fella living with a woman in a stable relationship who seemed nice. The rest were pretty much about themselves.

I had acted before and written before. We put together a play of sorts that was acted inside a huge inflatable plastic bubble kept up by a wind machine attached at the back of the plastic bubble. A front door had been attached, I think it was wood, and we put stages around the audience, which was seated in the middle of the bubble.

Theater-in-the-round is an old concept but this was audience-in-the-round. Stage hands pushed the audience inside with non-electric cattle prods where they sat on the grass. The play took place around them.

We all wore jump suits of different colors and see-through plastic vests. There was music. Sculptures. Paintings. All inside this huge plastic bubble. I started the presentation about how I couldn’t handle the human race any more that prompted a chanting of “human race” with fellow actors running around the audience. I don’t remember much else, but if memory serves it was quite successful.

Of course, it was free. Everything in those days – 1967-72 – was free, especially performance art, which is what this was. I remember the last night had to be canceled because the wind kicked up, forcing the bubble to move, collapse and making the theatrical environment unsafe. I remember one of the cast members cut their hand or something. But for a few days, this was a big deal.

The rest of the time was drunkenness, women and bullshit. I would enroll in classes and never show up. My dad paid the bills because he thought I was going to college. I was enrolling and then messing about. I was sleeping in the hallway of an old house converted to apartments.

One day, the phone rang. I was called to a hallway phone. “Hello,” I said. “Hi,” my dad replied. “How would you like to be my stand-in for a television series I’m going to do?” I think that’s how the conversation went. By this time, I was sleeping in the bedroom of one of the dormitory manager’s apartments. She’d taking pity on me, I’m sure, and decided an affair was in order. That was not going to last. Bullshit and bluster takes you only so far.

Dad suggested I could do an independent study program in Los Angeles about the making of a TV series. It was a good idea and the college supported it. Probably wanted to get rid of me. Off to Los Angeles I went to work on a television series called “Temperatures Rising.”

Part Seventeen: Stand-in on TV series. Nearly getting fired. Setting my face on fire. Fun In L.A.

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I’m getting a divorce

That’s right, I’m getting a divorce. 28 years of marriage. I fell in love with another woman.

My divorce has turned messy. Tough go.

I share this with you this morning, taking a break from my series about my dad, actor James Whitmore, twice-nominated for an Academy Award, because personal, deep, troubling life challenges put forth in the public arena minimize the power one’s flaws have over everybody. Especially my sons, who I love more than life.

There are those who scoff at the notion of personal columns such as these where you share intimate details of your life. They say they’re “self-indulgent.” Nothing more. Maybe so. I think they’re wrong.

By the way, my sons are grown – one is 28 the other is 23 – I have hurt them both. I have hurt my soon-to-be-ex-wife. They’re coming after me. Putting forth all my flaws. I do have them. You can’t change love. I love my sons. They are driven by betrayal. I do understand. Life does go on after a broken heart.

This is happening because I fell deeply in love with a girl I met for the first time when I was eighteen. Her daughter posted a birthday salutation on Facebook last October and I wished her well. Hadn’t seen her in 45 years. We started texting back and forth. We didn’t speak on the phone. We just texted. Not sensual at all. Deeply personal. Life’s journey though text. It was unexpected. Being hit by a two-by-four in the face and my world turned upside down. It’s a new dawn.

I was working a dead-end job at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Getting paid a salary. For that, I am so grateful. The benefits of the job were beyond comparison. Los Angeles County was good to me and I thank you, the people of the county of Los Angeles, for it is your tax dollars that pay for our salary. We do work for you. It was an honor.

After an abyss of nothingness, I retired. One day I was having lunch with a friend-in-need who said he would kill for my job; getting a salary for doing nothing. Of course, he was right. For him. Perhaps, I was wrong to retire. I fell in love and wanted to be next to this beautiful woman. I retired. Don’t miss the job at all.

And there was a time when my job was more important, serving former sheriff Lee Baca, who is facing his own legal challenges. I was his senior media advisor. I had a lot to do. I swear to you, lawyers rule the roost and we need to rein them in. The legal system is designed to met out billing, not justice. Justice is common sense, which nobody seems to have when it comes to disputes. Lawyers make money. Justices make money. We, the people, pay the bill. Justice goes wanting.

I just wanted to visit with you this fine morning. I wanted the small cabal of readers that do, in fact, read these words to know. You are friends. Be well.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Fourteen


Then, there’s Sean. A conundrum for sure.

He used to pound his empty formula bottle on the side of the bed in the middle of the night, screaming “Ba Ba.” My wife at the time and the mother of my children would have none of it. “Let him scream,” she would rightly say. But I got up and refreshed his bottle. I loved ‘em to death and wanted him content. It also stopped the screaming.

I was the managing editor of both the local paper and the radio station when Sean was to enter this world. We were living in the outback of South-Eastern Oregon in the high desert. I think our town, the capital of the county, had a population of 2,800. Many of the residents were on government assistance.

A mishap occurred during his birth when they administered too much of something and my poor wife at the time could not breath. She leaned over and whispered to me, “I can’t breath. Can you tell someone.” I did and immediately they began to administer to her. Problem was: baby on the way. The main doctor, who was later to be brought up on charges of illegal hunting, handed me a tool and said something like, “put this device on the top of his head and pull him out. We have to take care of your wife.” I did as instructed and brought Sean into the world, screaming from the beginning,

He also did not take to public school. In fact, his first grade teacher was holding him through lunch as some form of punishment. I telephoned the teacher one night to discuss the situation and she appeared to be drunk. Poor thing.

I knew right away this was not going to work. I looked around for a private school and found one that suited him perfectly. Again, could not afford the enrollment fees. Again, step in pop. He footed the bill for Sean to attend school until he graduated from the eighth grade, went to public middle school, didn’t like it but found a public school on a college campus designed for advanced students. He went and graduated with high marks and went to University of California at Santa Cruz. My dad footed the bill for his private school, his college and while attending UC Santa Cruz, he paid for all his expenses.

Just as a side note, my pop did that for all his grandchildren. He was the real deal. And I didn’t even know it at the time – sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t.

Thank you, pop. I love you and miss you.

Part Fifteen: Back to the streets of Teheran or Tehran, whichever you choose, and the ambassador’s daughter.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Fifteen

Now that we’ve dealt with my kids and what my dad provided for them. Let’s get to the streets of Tehran, the capitol of Iran. At the time, 1970, under the rule of the Shah.

Flying in I remember the darkness. And I mean black as coal. Then, the lights out of nowhere. There was an oasis of light surrounded by the deepest black I’d ever seen. Strange.

Tehran – or spelled Teheran in some circles – back in 1970 was a very strange city. It loved westerners, especially white people. Isn’t that bizarre? Caucasians were beloved back then. I had no money. Hadn’t bathed in weeks. My hair was a huge ball of matted grease. I had only the airplane ticket my father had paid for and given me. He wanted to ensure I could get home. Still treated like a king.

I took my last piece of opium and hoped for the best. My travel mate was a nice enough fellow. Wasn’t crazy about his dryness but he said he knew people in Tehran – that’s the spelling I’m going with – and I was tagging along for the ride. Always going for the ride, I guess.

I don’t remember too much except everybody was nice. Too nice, like we were royalty because the color of our skin. I can only imagine how our brothers in arms of dark skin were treated? Why is it that white is such a sought after color? I’m not even white – yes, I’m pure caucasian – but the color of my skin is more grey, I think, than white. Who knows? Weird though. We were treated like kings, except we had no money. Kings of the bum world in Tehran.

We went to the Iranian center for Americans. My travel mate knew somebody there, he said. He said he lived there when he was younger. His dad was some kind of diplomat. Of course, the friend wasn’t there but we were kings. Right? Treated like special people.

I went out in the street. I don’t know being on the move has always relaxed me. Found a vender selling some form of hot dog I could afford. It was good. Streets are streets.

My travel mate’s friend ultimately did show up and we had a floor to sleep on. Somehow, we were invited to an uptown party that was being held by the Canadian ambassador. My dad was a movie star and I guess that got us passes to all kinds of things.

What I remember about this party is that there was an intense Iranian who ended up out in the street who didn’t particularly like Americans. He was pissed off. The cops came. Iranian cops then didn’t mess around. Off he went.

The gathering inside was dull enough but the Ambassador’s daughter took a shine to me and I was drinking a lot of their wine. I am a drunk after all.

I was opening a bottle of wine when I realized the corkscrew was going into my hand instead of the cork in the wine bottle. It went deep into my hand. Blood started spurting out every where and the ravine in my hand was prominent. The folks at the party attended to the deep cut, bandaged it and I was fine.

We ended up back at this room we were allowed to stay in. On the floor. No money just a plane ticket that would get me back to Los Angeles. But the Ambassador’s daughter was with me on the floor. Why? I don’t know.

She made the rest of the night palatable. I was bored. Restless. Discontented. Time to move on. My travel mate wanted to stay. Fine with me. I was off. Had to stop in London where a teacher on vacation took a liking to me but I wasn’t interested. She wanted to go out. See the sights. Maybe have a tryst. I wanted to be back home. I was tired. Time to go home. I hadn’t bathed in weeks. My hair didn’t grow long, like my mother always used to say, it grew out – Bob Dylan-style, and it was huge. I hadn’t washed my hair in weeks so it was matted, strangley, and street corn rolls. It was long. My head looked huge and my hair was a sight to behold. The only thing I would wear day-in, day-out was an Indian pharon, it was called. It was like a Mexican serape. It had a hole for the head, two holes for each arm and that was it. It was like wearing a huge blanket.

My dad, a movie star, was given the royal treatment upon my arrival. Customs let him into a special area where he could greet me in a royal fashion. Things were different in 1970. He was escorted through all the madness of people shoving about and had a custom agent with him at all times.

He stood watching my plane disembark and people go through America customs. The agent was standing next to my pop. There was a good looking young man in front of me with an athletic build and blondish hair.

Agent: “So, is that your son? The good-looking young man with the blond hair?

My dad: “No. My son is the one behind him without the spear.”

Part Sixteen: Back home and Square Root Blit Two

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My dad, James Whitmore, Thirteen

I’m leaving India, the streets of Teheran and the ambassador’s daughter for a second.

I want to talk a bit about my two sons and what my dad did for them. They are Brennan and Sean. We will start with Brennan.

He was born premature. I forget how early but early enough that they placed him in a neonatal intensive care unit. He was tiny. Now some hard facts: My wife had been on a cocaine bender several months prior to pregnancy and I was a sober alcoholic, 10 years sober at the time.

He was a preemy, as they are called. He made it through the tough times and was a grand baby boy. He’s easy to love. Years ahead proved tougher.

School was impossible. I would ask him “what do you like the best about school?” His answer, “ the way home.” I was told that he had severe learning disabilities. I didn’t believe them. “Bullshit,” I thought. “They don’t know what they are talking about.”

I had him tested by the best professionals in the business. This little six-year old boy was questioned, given tests and more. He was exhausted at the end. I held him and told him I loved him more than life itself.

The phone rang one night in the kitchen of the townhouse I was renting. I picked up the phone and got my answer. I was told he had severe learning disabilities, such as Attention Deficit Disorder and other idiotic technical names. I wept. Cried like never before.

My fantasy of street life and girls and drink, music and the lost ideal caused my boy to be significantly challenged. What a spoiled brat I had been and was.

What do you do? Public schools are lagging behind this challenge. Not their fault, really. Too many students.

The professionals suggested a school that was geared for such students. one was mentioned as the best, Frostig, in Pasadena, California. That was great, I thought. I was publishing a paper in La Canada, California, close enough, I thought.

Couple of problems. Enrollment was full and the cost was incredibly steep: $30,000 a semester. I didn’t have that.

In steps pop. He offers the school a scholarship and he will pay the tuition. They accepted. Brennan went to Frostig. He played sports, he acted in plays, put on school activities and made friends. Friends he still has today. He graduated with high marks.

He applied to one college, California Lutheran University, and got accepted. He then went on to graduate from that college, again with high marks and now is working as an editor.

Please understand something: My dad paid for all of this. He paid for Frostig, $30,000 a year. He paid for CalLutheran. Forgive me, I forget the cost for CLU, but it was significant. My dad allowed my son to become the 28-year-old man he is today. That’s the real deal.

You did it, pop. I miss you and I thank you.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Twelve

I had done it. Went ahead and did exactly what I was warned not to do. I drank the water. Got terribly sick with malaria or some such ailment. I was on a houseboat on a frozen lake in Kashmir, a region in the northern part of South Asia. We had gone there on holiday. Good choice. Middle of winter. Frozen houseboat. No heat. Fun, all the way.

The temperature was well-below zero and I was in need of swift medical attention. We were going to move me to a medical facility that could combat the 104-degree fever, liquid pouring forth from every available orifice and my only company the ubiquitous three-dimensional hallucinations. Some not so friendly. Trouble was there was no nearby medical facility.

“Watch your step. You do not want to fall into the lake,” one of the attendees cautioned. “It’s frozen, and with your fever it will be instant frostbite.” I was being maneuvered onto a deck, slippery with ice and oh yes, into the lake I go, my foot crashing deep into the frozen lake.

I was taken to a small hut, nothing but small huts in this day, and they placed my frozen foot inside a burning pot-belly stove, “This will take care of the frostbite,” they assured me. The fire was raging and hot, caught my pants on fire, which didn’t seem to bother my hosts. The pain was excruciating. I was lost in the mountains of Kashmir, watching my foot burn. I looked at my foot again and wondered “what am I doing?” It was the first time I’d pondered that question. Everything had been a roller-coaster ride but the ride was slowing down. I wanted to get off.

My dad had given me a round-trip ticket so I could just go home, but I wanted to check in with Callison folk before deciding. And my leg and foot continued to burn. I managed to buy a small amount of opium which helped with the pain. When everything had turned black and the fire had turned to coals, they told me to take my foot out and I did and to the wonderment of the universe my foot had recovered without loosing any part of my foot. Another mishap avoided by the grace of god or whatever runs this thing.

Back at Callsion, housed at the Shilton Hotel in Bangalore, India, there was revolution a foot. Stoned crazed people, there were drugs everywhere in those days, had decided to shut down the school that India had graciously granted as an adjunct to the University of Bangalore. Some had made a list of demands to be presented to the head of the American and Indian side of the college. In the lobby of the Shilton Hotel, a run-down facility hanging on for dear life. It was a place to house dogs or the homeless, but alcohol makes any place livable. If the list of demands were not met, and I must say the demands were fueled by smart people imbibing way too many drugs. There minds were twisted and I liked it. By way of example, and if memory is correct, which may not, the list included longer longer meal breaks already at our discretion, more American food, more involvement in the curriculum, and more hands-on experience with the Indian people, et al. We were foolish but adamant, I burned my draft card in India as a sign of protest, Silly really because I wasn’t going to war anyway. But it rallied the troops. The fever was high.India took the only logical step and booted the program out of India, unless those that agreed to the strict guidelines set forth. Some stayed but many left. I left and off we went. We were thrown out.

Now, I must be honest I spent my days in Bangalore sitting next to an old drug dealing woman who called herself Mary in a place called Russell Market. It was an open vegetable, fruit, meat market. Flies were as present as the air we breath, especially on the meat. Flies, maggots, I think, crawling over the meat searching for Gold. Ostensibly, she was there to repair shoes. I gave her one of mine once and upon its return it was unwearable. Mary could get opium and since alcohol was in short supply, opium would have to do. Mary and I sat next to each other, day-in, day-out. So much so, she showed me where she lived. In a clay hut with a family of eight, I think. They slept on top of each other separated only by mats. The huts were on each side with a sewer of sorts running through the middle. A trickle of the feces, urine and food scraps that proved uneatable even for starving people. These people who lived here were called untouchables. I liked ‘em. A lot.

In the middle of the lines of hut, there was another hut, Sitting empty at the moment. I asked, I was told it was the bleeding hut, where women went to have their periods. The bleeding hut and this was 1970-71

They had found and empty clay hut, just like all the rest, with nothing in it but a place to build a fire, a clay stove of sorts, and offered me to live there. My girlfriend at the time, although reluctant, was game. We petitioned the college and received a flat no. This was before the school closing and us getting the boot. We did get the boot and because of a round-trip ticket my dad had paid for and given me, I was off to parts unknown; namely Tehran.

Now, that’s a place. Then there was the ambassador’s daughter. I only had one problem, no money. That my dear now-departed pop would not give me. A friend said “not to worry. I know people in Tehran that can put us up.” Yeah, right, but off again I went, a guitar and a duffle bag. Action is what I was looking for always and I was going to get it. Absolutely.

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My dad, James Whitmore, Part Eleven

What goes up has to come down, and that’s exactly what happened when I left Stockton a few years later with my tail between my legs, a drunk of the most continuous proportions, no prospects, no college credits, and no where to go but back to mommy or daddy, whichever one would have me.

But I digress. It was difficult to get in the routine of college, even Callison which was lax to say the least, but you were still required to attend classes. Read the homework assignments. do the work and show up. Act interested. I took classes with names like “Heritage of Man” – basically an English class with an emphasis on modern writers like Jack Kerouac. Taught in a loose style rooted in the belief that if students were involved they would perform better academically. A true Socratic method of teaching. Callison was a good college. I was just not ready to take advantage of all that it offered.

There were classes taught by red-haired madmen where all you did was read the massive book “Plato’s Republic” and the final was to read the entire missive out loud while drinking wine at the professor’s house. I think I passed that class.

Rock ’n’ Roll was everywhere and I had a beautiful guitar that I used more as a prop than a player. I was never a player but I was a poser. I posed with that guitar. Learned some chords. Why? Girls, of course. Don’t we men live our lives for girls. Heterosexual men anyway. Things are different today but not so much. And girls loved those playing rock ’n’ roll. Didn’t have to be a star just part of the scene.

Late 60s. San Francisco. Bay area. We formed a band of sorts, “Velveeta, the American Cheese Band.” It had several players float in and out but it was started basically by me and another because the other was trying to avoid the draft. So many were being drafted then and being shipped off to Vietnam. So many of our friends were dying in an unjust war. So, we started a band and hooked up with some people that knew how to record music and had access to a recording studio. We recorded and went off to Los Angeles armed with our demos to make our name.

All of us were from Callison College. Before all of the band madness, this music madness, this new music business madness, there was Callison. In many ways, a magical place. A magical time.

All I wanted to do was drink, make love, make music and live like a king. On my dad’s money, of course. He was paying a pretty penny for Callison and even had an account with the school that I tapped into without his knowledge on a couple of occasions. I was a real winner, let me tell you.

There was some doubt among college administrators whether I should be allowed to go to India the second year of school. Remember, Callison College’s mission was international studies and they sent the sophmore class to study in India for a year. I had performed poorly my first year. In fact, I don’t think I passed a single class. But I was allowed to go with the kids to India nevertheless. Don’t know why. Probably dad had something to do with it, as usual.

Off we went from San Francisco, with stops in Bangkok, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and Tokyo, Japan, among others. I was off and running of course. Drinking at every stop, drinking while getting to the stop and behaving in such a way that belies comprehension. In Bangkok, drunk and late at night I went looking for more, serious intoxicants in an obvious demonstration by way of the local cabbies. Always a source of amusement, especially since in 1970 the Vietnam war next door was still raging. Good Americans were losing their lives. I remember through my haze the military tanks rumbling through the streets I was rumbling through with an equal commitment for a significantly different cause. Again, lost on the streets of a town. This town happened to be in Southeast Asia.

Part Twelve: India madness. Near death. Streets of Tehran and the ambassador’s daughter.

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