You Have to Know Yourself

Laura once made psychedelic pink chic.

Lizzie, Chris, Junior, and Laura. "If God were to bless us with another one, then of course I would love the child."
  • Lizzie, Chris, Junior, and Laura. "If God were to bless us with another one, then of course I would love the child."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

“This is my Harley," says Junior with pride. He hovers over the motorized kiddie motorcycle, which sits in th eliving room of Chris and Laura's Santee home. Junior is five; his sister Lizzie is three. They both had their birthdays last month. He gives a tour of the bike, starting with the controls. “This is fast; this is slow. These lights go on. If you press these two buttons...” The familiar unmuffled growl emanates from the toy. “That’s the sound of a Harley.” He rests his hands on the plastic saddlebags. “This is Lizzie’s; this is mine. It opens, so you can put stuff in it. Lizzie puts dirt in hers; I only put toys in mine. Want to see what’s under the seat?”

“Sure.”

Junior lifts the seat to reveal a substantial square battery.

“Batteries,” I observe.

“That’s not batteries.”

“What is it?”

“It’s something that dads know.”

“When did you get that?”

“Remember from Christmas? Remember, you came over at my grandpa’s house and you joined us for presents?”

“Who do you think he is?” asks Laura, Junior’s mom.

“I don’t know, but...”

“Who did he come to Grandpa’s house with? Do you remember?”

“No.”

“Did he have a wife?”

“No.” Junior’s confusion about my Christmas presence is understandable. Explains Laura, “He met a lot of relatives he didn’t know recently. We took them for a vacation for almost four weeks, driving around the country and visiting relatives. My family is from Ohio, and then my husband has grandparents who live in New Jersey.” That’s a lot of driving with two kids five and under, but Laura says she doesn’t mind doing it. “I feel like I moved out here, away from my family. My dad and brother are there, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins. I moved away from them, so it’s my responsibility to make sure the kids get to know their families.”

Laura moved to California from Ohio because “it was January. And I was really itching, like a lot of people who grew up in the Midwest, to get out of there. I was going to college back there, but I enrolled in a travel school out here — I picked the school because San Diego was as far away as I could be from my hometown and still be in the United States.” While she was here, she met Chris, who was in the Marines at the time.

They started dating, and Chris managed to impress her with his powers of silent endurance. “He ate the most awful meal I have ever cooked; that was when I was trying to figure out how to cook. My dad had told me that you could use Italian dressing to marinate chicken breast. I didn’t have Italian in the fridge, but I had red wine vinaigrette dressing. I said, ‘It looks kind of like Italian dressing...’ But that makes really bright psychedelic pink chicken. And I made a spinach salad, and I wasn’t aware that when you put the dressing on the spinach, the spinach will start to wilt. I made it about six hours before he came over and thought I’d chill it. He had pink chicken with a droopy, really nasty, looked-like-it-came-from-a-can spinach-type thing. But he ate it; he didn’t ask for seconds, but he ate it.”

“You didn’t grow up by your mother’s side in the kitchen?”

“No. My mother is a very fine orderer at restaurants; she knows how to order very well.” Instead, Laura learned to cook on her own — “asking people, figuring things out,” getting this or that recipe from the person who makes it well. “Red potato salad from our friend George’s wife, beans from his sister...” But not cookbooks. “Cookbooks don’t really offer meals you would cook on a daily basis. They do have a Woman’s Day cookbook that I use kind of often, just in case I get hesitant about stuff. They’ve got some pretty basic recipes in there.”

Laura managed to get a job with Amtrak before the financial leash dragged her back East, and after a couple of deployment-induced delays, she and Chris were married and living in an apartment in Clairemont. The prospect of children had them house-hunting soon after, and Laura began wondering if maybe the grass hadn’t actually been greener back in Ohio. “My husband won’t go on vacation with us, because he hates how I sit there and say, ‘What? This house is only $100,000?’ Every time I go, I bring the Home Trader from back there and sit here at night and look through it. I’m saying, ‘Five acres? Are you sure we don’t want to?’”

Laura’s lust for space is attached to its attendant freedom, which in turn is attached to her thoughts for her children. “I can compare my childhood to my husband’s, since he grew up here, in Clairemont. I think his sucked. I had freedom and space. My neighbor had horses. Chris was riding his bike in traffic to get to a friend’s house. I took my kids back, and they’re at my dad’s house, and there are no fences, and it’s open, and they go out for a walk in the woods in the back someplace. It’s a good place to be raised, I think.”

They ended up in a three-bedroom ranch home in Santee. “Chris liked that it wasn’t that far from all of his family. I liked that it was away from the city, but close enough. I like that on my days off, I don’t have to leave town if I don’t want to, although when they used to have the movie theater here, it was nice. It just seemed more like home, the place I tried so hard to get away from. It was in the shopping center; they closed it a few years ago. They said for a while that they were opening one there at the Santee Trolley Square Shopping Center; Old Navy and Target and all these new stores are coming in, and then I noticed that they stopped listing the movie theater with the list of stores that would be there. Nobody I’ve talked to seems to have noticed, but that’s what was promised years ago, I’m sure of it.”

There are fences aplenty here, but there is also a fair-sized yard and a school and a park just down the block. Other than that, “The house really wasn’t anything we were looking for.” The garage had been converted to a family room — a good, usable space, but not what Chris had hoped for. As for Laura, “I wanted a square eat-in kitchen that looked out on the back yard, like the kitchens where I grew up.” What she got was a reasonably wide galley kitchen that opens onto the dining and living rooms on one end and the family room on the other. (She is able to look through the living room’s sliding-glass door into the back yard, but most of her view is obscured by the exterior decking.)

She also got one of the most remarkable fake old-timey ovens ever produced, courtesy of the Country Charm Company of Rogers, Arkansas. There it stands, just next to the door into the dining room — a ponderous, pot-bellied cast-iron stove, just like the ones used by our foremothers — except it’s wired. One of the white enamel doors on the front of the stove — the kind you might expect to open onto a separate bread oven — conceals burner controls; the one below it hides the knobs for the oven proper. Four electric burners coil on the stovetop in front of the enamel backsplash. A “stovepipe” — really a hood vent — runs up and into the wall. On top of the hood, an ersatz (and permanently fixed) food mill houses a timer that Laura has never been able to operate. Otherwise, it’s an impossibly heavy, fully functional electric oven.

At the kitchen’s other end is a wall oven, housed in brick and looking for all the world like a proper barbecue wood pit. But behind the cast-iron door, more electric. The top broiler element broke a couple of years ago, “And since then, I’ve learned to cook by adjusting the rack and using foil to reflect heat. I’ve called a thousand different repair people; they come out and they can’t fix it. They basically can’t get it out, and they have no idea where to order parts from. I’m, like, ‘But it’s an oven! It’s not really an antique!’” The lower door, where you might load the logs on a real pit, “is just where I store my pots and pans. It’s a big, huge hole; it goes way back.”

But for all its fakery, she likes the kitchen. “I like the brick,” which lines the walls. “And the old-timey stuff was stuff that we hadn’t seen before, and that made us like the house.” The kitchen is a warm space, with dark wood-laminate flooring and dark wooden cabinets accented by white porcelain knobs and white Formica counters. The window, flanked by brown-and-red floral-patterned curtains, looks out onto the side yard.

Laura is not using the ovens tonight, nor is she warming the stovetop — yet. Instead, she hauls out an electric wok and begins preparation on a pork stir-fry. “I’m the only person I know who has one of these old woks. I took it from my mom when I moved out. I love this thing, because I’ve never had a frying pan this big; whatever I was making, I could make it in there. We have stir-fry about once a week. Most of the time, we have it with chicken, but we had chicken twice in a row this past weekend. We had it one night on the grill, with the beer can up in the cavity, and then I made chicken soup with the leftovers the next day. So we’re chickened out.”

She slices pork into strips, slices green peppers, onions, and baby carrots, washes mushrooms and slices them. Everything goes into the wok with Mr. Yoshida’s Hawaiian sweet and sour sauce. “I haven’t tried that stuff before. I saw it at the grocery store — it was kind of on sale, and that’s how I try new things.”

She also starts the rice; now the stovetop is called into action. “One of my friends from work said that I was making rice wrong when they were over at my place one time and I was cooking. She said, ‘This is how you make rice. You put the rice in the bottom of the pan. You put water in. You stick your finger in the center of the rice. You put a paper towel over the top of the pan, and you turn it on just below high. When all the water has boiled, you’ll have perfect rice.’ It makes it not sticky; the towel gets all of the sticky stuff.” She stretches a paper towel over the top of a stock pot, then places the lid over the paper towel. As the water begins to boil, the steam raises the lid and begins to send starchy white sputter-bubbles down the side of the pot. “That’s how I know when it’s done, when it stops spitting out. It’s very messy, yes, but I don’t care. That’s not the only thing that’s messy in my life. I have a lot of cleaning products that can take care of that.”

“You can have this baseball,” says Junior, coming in from the back yard and holding a ball aloft.

“Thanks. I’ll hold on to it.”

“Want to come look at our back yard?”

“Sure.”

We step out through the door in the family room into the long side yard. Lizzie’s new bike is near the door, but she is still shy of me and does not come over to show it off. A small toy backhoe sits at the bottom of a fair-sized pit — maybe three feet wide and a foot deep.

“Did this digger dig this whole big hole?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a lot of digging.”

“Yep. It goes at nighttime; it digs.”

“At nighttime? When you’re asleep?”

“Yes, but not in the morning — but sometimes at night. You can hear it, because it has a motor on it.”

Junior leads me around to the back yard: fair sized, with a broad array of plastic toys strewn along the fence on one side. Baby strollers, bats, balls, a basketball hoop, trucks, bulldozers, a playhouse, a teeter=totter. Junior is eager to offer me another memento. “This is an old bat — you can have it. It’s old, but it can still work.”

“No, thanks, I’ve got a bat at home.”

He does not ride his Harley in the back yard. “I ride it in front, because we have a bunch of gopher holes” out back. “My dad tried to put the hose in the hole, and the gopher came up, and my dad chopped him with the chopper.” Other holes have been dug by Daisy, the family’s big black dog. “She was actually a present for Junior’s first birthday,” says Laura. “She was listed as a black lab at the pound, but obviously, that isn’t all of it. We think there’s some Rottweiler; she seems to have that kind of hair. I thought, ‘A puppy; that’s what boys like,’ but as it turns out, I think he’s a cat person. The dog just kind of exists in his life. Every now and then he’ll go through a phase where he asks for a cat.”

Junior is Junior because “it was the only way I could get my husband to change what he wanted to name him. He had been dead set on Walter, which is a fine name, just something I had never dreamed of. Of course, his father was named Walter, and his father had passed away a couple of months before we found out Junior was coming, so the sentiment was still really there. I tried to reason with him. He has a brother named Walter, who it should probably be reserved for — even though he probably won’t have kids. That didn’t work. I finally convinced him to go with his own name and his father’s middle name, which was Michael.”

In a few weeks, Junior will be starting kindergarten. “I talked to him about his name,” says Laura, “about if he wants to introduce himself as Chris when he meets new friends. He said, ‘That’s Daddy’s name. My name is Junior.’ I’m, like, ‘Okay, it’s your choice. I just want it in writing that you want to be called Junior.’”

Lizzie is another story. “When she came around, my husband wanted to go with the name we had thought of in case Junior was a girl — Margaret May.” (The name Margaret belonged to Chris’s mother.) But by the time Laura was pregnant again, “My mother had voiced her opinion on all the children being named after my husband’s side of the family. And somebody else in the family had used the middle name, and I only liked Margaret if it was followed by the May. Poor Lizzie — her name is Elizabeth. That was the name in the baby book with the most alternative names with it. We couldn’t agree, and we just thought, ‘We’ll let her decide when she grows up; she can call herself whatever she wants.’ But her personality is kind of a Lizzie personality — a little confident, outspoken, demanding of her own way. Even though she’s shy in front of strangers, she’s not in front of Mom and Dad.”

Chris arrives home amid delighted shrieks from the children and gives my hand a vigorous squeeze and shake. A few days ago, he was promoted to project manager with U.S. Filter, and he is counting the days until he starts at his new position. But for now, he is still liable to be turning wrenches in facilities that require ultra-pure water, and he wears a short-sleeve button-down workshirt.

“What’s the entrée for this evening?” he asks Laura.

“Stir-fry.”

“Smells good.

Mix it with some rice?”

“You may mix it if you want.”

“Sounds good. If you all will excuse me, I’m going to get out of this zoot suit and into some freedom clothes.”

Laura sets the table, a heavy thing with a laminate top and crayon marks on the underside that Chris put there as a child. She brings the wok — which is jacketed in red enamel — to the table. “I wash the dishes, which means we don’t get fancy serving ware. But that’s kind of what I like about this thing. You can just unplug it and bring it out.” The dining room is just off the kitchen in the front of the house, but it was not always a dining room, and it was not always open to the living room as it is now. This used to be the master bedroom; a row of marble tiles among the squares of wood parquet indicates where the walls once stood. The closet has become Laura’s pantry, and the door to the bathroom has been sealed (the bathroom is now accessible from the family room). Laura is glad the conversion was made; it opens up the house.

Chris returns, the children wash up for dinner, and we sit down. Junior snags his daddy’s fork and hides it behind his back along with his own, asking Dad to guess which hand holds which. From my spot next to Junior, I slip Dad’s fork out of his hand without his noticing. When Dad guesses a hand, Junior discovers the fork’s disappearance.

“One fell,” he guesses.

“Did you lose Daddy’s fork?” I ask.

“Uh-oh,” says Chris, “you’re in big trouble. I think you’re going to have to have a time out for losing my fork.” (Junior is perplexed, but it’s clear he doesn’t take this threat seriously.)

“Junior, you’re going to have to get a job to pay for that,” chimes in Mom. I slip the fork to Dad while Junior is searching under his chair. “What’s that?” Dad asks Junior, pointing to the fork. “Did you do a magic trick and make it show up? Wow, you’re magic.”

“I’m a Power Ranger!” croons Junior, pleased.

Dinner is served; the children begin avoidance tactics.

“The onion is hurting my eyes,” complains Junior.

“They don’t hurt your eyes after you cook them — nice try,” Mom answers.

Lizzie asks Dad, “Is this a pepper?” He nods. “I don’t want it.”

“It’s not a pepper,” corrects Mom.

“It’s a green fruity treat thing.”

Besides negotiations of the eat-it-if-you-want-dessert variety, dinner talk usually focuses on the kids — what happened in preschool that day, what’s coming up, etc. Then it’s playtime; then bed at 7:30. “Then we have some adult time,” says Chris, “as in, peace and quiet or have a beer or watch something on TV that’s not Cartoon Network.”

“We eat together about half the week,” explains Laura. “Some nights, Chris and I have our own type of dinner, because we like enchiladas, and Junior won’t eat anything spicy. They like fish sticks and that kind of stuff, so there are a few nights when they’ll eat and we’ll sit with them, and then we’ll eat our own thing later. Sometimes, we have TV time” — dinner in front of the TV. “They’ve each got their own Little Tykes picnic table, so there are no fighting issues going on.” The shows are “cartoons — Cartoon Network. They like to watch Hey, Arnold and sometimes — not very often — The Powerpuff Girls.

“Those are the nighttime cartoons; in the morning, they’re more mellow.” Laura has Fridays off, and so she keeps the kids home from preschool. Then, “they like to watch Arthur and Dragon Tales, the PBS cartoons. At nighttime, that’s just not going to work.”

Junior, who didn’t quite finish dinner but avowed that his belly was full, has hit the showers and changed into Batman jammies, complete with shoulder-loops for a cape. Laura looks him over and decides he did a good enough job in the shower to earn a fruit roll-up. “Ya! Ya! Ya!” he calls as he kicks his way across the living room, simultaneously punching in either direction as he does so. “You can tell by the way he’s acting that he watched Power Rangers yesterday,” says Chris. “He thinks he can beat up the world.”

Lizzie is still in the bath. “Daddy, Daddy, I want Mommy to wash my hair!”

“She does not like it when I do it,” admits Chris. “I try to be as gentle as I can, but she doesn’t like it.”

Laura puts it differently, speaking in Chris’s voice: “Lie die and take it like a man! It’s just water; you’re not going to die! Just don’t breathe!”

“It’s not like that, honey,” protests Chris.

Lizzie’s attempt to get Daddy to get Mommy is telling; something is amiss. “Mo-o-o-o-o-ommmmm-y-y-y-y!”

“What?”

“Wash me!”

Mom disappears into the bathroom.

“Bubbles!” she cries.

“Did you do that? I’m going to get Daddy to wash your hair!”

“No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!”

Daddy calls in from the dining room, “Do you want me to wash your hair, Honey?”

“Might as well,” says Laura, returning.

“She’s taking a bath in a tub full of shampoo.”

“I guess we’re out three bucks.”

“Three dollars? That shampoo had a picture of a Power Ranger on it!” Mom washes Lizzie’s hair and returns to the table. The kids squabble over a toy figure. Lizzie has to give it back to Junior, but she slips the needle in by saying the figure is pink, a thought that Junior cannot stand. When things escalate, Dad rears up. “Line up in front of me, guys.” The kids line up without a word. “Do you want to get in trouble?”

“No.”

“Are you going to play nicely?”

“Yes.” And they do.

Chris’s mom died when he was six; the family had moved to Clairemont from New Jersey only a year earlier. “My older brothers” — he is the youngest of five — “moved out. My father was a single parent; he worked the graveyard shift and pretty much slept during the day. So I pretty much raised myself. There were good sides to it: it builds independence, it builds confidence. Plus, I can see good things to instill into my kids that my misfortune [made clear]. It was pretty much all positives, except when I was going through the experience.” When it comes to fathering, he is to some extent making it up as he goes. “But I think back how my father was when it comes to discipline and stuff like that. I had some pointers going into this thing.”

Before he got into “this thing,” he joined the Marines out of high school. He chose the Marines because it seemed the biggest challenge. “I went in under utilities; it’s the only field the Marine Corps would offer that has trades.” He ended up as a “basic hygiene equipment operator,” which, aside from its implied unpleasantries, helped prepare him for his current career in filtration.

He also ended up with the 11th Marine Expeditional Unit. “We had pretty much everything the Marine Corps offers when it comes to infantry, artillery, the air wing. We were trained to the hilt. You’re just ready for combat; you go to any hot spot in the world. For me, it was Kuwait and Somalia. You just kind of sit there off the coast, and you go in and you do some operations, so you get to do the assaulting the beach, jumping out of helicopters, and all the other fun stuff. I got to do combat engineering demolitions, heavy equipment, electrical, the whole nine yards.” After his four years were up, he set out on his own, got married, and started a family. Now he is here, looking forward to leaving the blue-collar world behind, eating strawberries and ice cream with me and asking his wife for some coffee.

Laura is a conductor on the first run of the San Diego–to-Los Angeles Surfliner, which means she leaves for work around 4:30 in the morning. When reveille sounds at 5:45, it’s Chris who has to get the household moving. “I turn on all the lights, open the doors, and say, ‘Hey, guys, time to wake up.’ I jump in the shower, shave, then go in there and pull the blankets off. ‘C’mon; let’s go.’ They go up into a little ball — ‘No!’ Then we have a wrestling match.” (Lizzie, however, does help with the coffee once she’s conscious.)

“But let it be a Saturday morning,” interjects Laura, “and let somebody start their car a mile away at 5:00 a.m., and they’re, like, ‘It’s morning time!’

“And they’ll always have a hard time trying to find their socks and underwear,” continues Chris, “and they’re tired and grumpy and they’re not cooperating and you’re late for work and you’re half asleep. I’ll call my wife — ‘Where’s the socks!?’ Then getting their outfits, feeding them breakfast, making them lunch, drop one at one school and the other at the other school. I get to work and I’m all stressed out; I just did the morning duty. People can tell when it’s Friday.” Mom is home with the kids, and Dad is blissful upon arrival.

On those Fridays, Mom likes to take the kids to lunch. The kids like it, too. “Lizzie always says, when we get in the car by ourselves, ‘I’m hungry; let’s go to lunch.’ Their favorite place to go is Applebee’s,” says Laura. “They’re very kid-friendly; they’ll take the kids’ order right away and bring the kids’ food out first. You can take your time, and they’ve got fries and stuff to munch on. It makes for a smooth meal.” Sometimes, they’ll meet Laura’s mother, who moved to Imperial Beach when she and Laura’s father divorced a few years ago. “I don’t think it was specifically to be with me. I think it was a lot easier to make the transition because I was here.”

Nor was it specifically to be with the grandchildren. “My mother raised her children. She loves her grandchildren, but she’s already raised some, thank you. She’ll come by and pick one up and take him to the movies or take him to lunch for a couple of hours. She can’t take both of them, because she has a Harley and a two-seater car.”

Laura’s sister also came west. “She moved to San Marcos. I see her a lot less, because she works and she’s got a boyfriend of about four years. She’s eight years younger than I am, so she’s in a different social situation. They’re all in love; they’ve got to do everything together. My mom and my sister and I went to see that movie, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. To get her to go without her boyfriend was... We went to dinner first, and she said, ‘I have to go to the bathroom,’ ” from which she called her boyfriend on her cell phone. “They live together; it’s, like, ‘All right, enough’s enough already.’ I told her, ‘One of these days, you’ll hit the point where you realize, I have four hours out of the house; I can breathe again .’”

Saturday is family day, a mix of chores and recreation. Junior helps clean up after Daisy, the dog; both children attempt to clean their room. “There’s a park across the street,” notes Laura, “so it can be something as little as that, or going over to Chris’s sister’s — she has a pool. We’ve done some one-day camping things, gone to the beach, gone to the drivein. And if all else fails, there’s always Shrek and microwave popcorn.”

About twice a month, they have company — “Mostly close friends and family,” says Chris, who has a brother in Vista, two more in Clairemont, and a sister here in Santee. “I like to have fires in the back yard; we have a bonfire pit. We’ll play some music, and there’s lots of beer. I try to have it set up so that whenever anyone is in the mood to eat, it’s there for them. I’ll make sausages or carne asada or whatever, or I’ll tell them, ‘There’s a stack of chicken breasts by the grill. If anyone gets hungry, just come tell me.’ In most cases, it’s all you can eat and all you can drink. People just come over and gorge themselves.”

“We’re always barbecuing,” adds Laura. “The meat changes from highlife nights of steak to mostly chicken, sometimes sausages. I always have to make the rest. Last year, we got Chris a grill for Father’s Day with one of those side burners, because I got tired of having to make everything inside.”

“We make pretty good steaks,” says Chris. “We got that from her father. Mostly rib-eyes, with a really thick cut. You raise the temperature on the grill as high as you can get it, take a little salt, a little pepper, and a little garlic and knead it into the meat and put it on the grill. You just constantly flip it [until it’s] about medium. It’s still nice and juicy, and it turns out great. The knife almost falls through the steak. It’ll char slightly on the outside to hold in the moisture, but not to the point where it gets any burnt taste — hopefully. If you drank too many beers and it’s dark outside, sometimes you mess up.”

The hour of bedtime has come and gone; Chris escorts the children to their rooms. Laura and I sit on the couch/loveseat set in the living room. In the childless stillness, the space reveals its quieter aspects, among them an assortment of woven maple baskets. I count 11, but I am told there are more in storage. They are Longaberger baskets, handmade, held together with nails instead of glue, signed and dated by the basket-weaver who brought them into being. Laura collects them, or used to. They come in various shapes and sizes; with accessories — plastic liner, cloth liner to go over the plastic, double-hinged wooden lid — the price for a large one can run well over a hundred dollars.

Chris has a collection of his own — smaller, but more exotic. “We have a nice little gun collection that we’re thinking about putting up. That would be an interesting conversation piece.”

“My grandpa was like that,” comments Laura. “Remember when you first met him and you sat on...”

“I go into his house,” says Chris, taking up the story. “I sat down and said, ‘What the heck is that?’ And he says, ‘Uzi.’ The guy always had a gun on him. He was in World War II and fought against the Japanese; that probably had something to do with it. The guy was sleeping with a knife and thinking about all the people he killed or something.”

“He liked to trade them and buy them and sell them, that kind of thing,” explains Laura. “But he probably kept about 50 or 60 at the same time.”

“The only conversation piece he and I had was guns,” says Chris. “ ‘Hello, Mr. Bailey, how are you doing?’‘Uh-h-h, you want to see my shotgun?’ He was ready for combat or something like that — but a nice guy. It was a shame he passed.”

Chris is not nearly so involved, and his collection so far is limited to three firearms: a Russian SKS, a .22 sniper rifle, and a “fully automatic shotgun.” I ask about the SKS, and he shows it to me — a never-fired beauty that was stockpiled during the Cold War and sold on the cheap when the Soviet Union broke up. Besides a 30-round banana clip, it carries a fold-out bayonet. “It’s excellent for home protection,” says Chris with a smile, “because if the 30 rounds don’t kill him, the bayonet sure will.” (He believes that he scared off a burglar one night with a warning and the sound of the bolt being drawn.) “It’s a fun weapon to fire, but it’s not very accurate; anything over 300 yards you’re not going to touch.” Chris, a rifle expert four years in a row when he was with the Marines, would like to get his hands on “a gun just like the M-16. It’s not very reliable, but I kid you not, you can nail somebody in the head from 500 yards.” He takes me through a few of the mental exercises that help him sight his target — focus on something green to relax your eyes; focus on something further away than the target, then shift to the target; build a target within the target. “It works — at least, ten years ago it did.”

Ten years later, the rifle expert is happy to “mope around the house. One of the things I love to do is the yardwork — not that I enjoy the yardwork, but I like the feeling I get when the lawn is properly manicured and I’ve got the flag fixed right and the car’s washed — pop a lawn chair in front of my house, nice and peaceful, and look at the trees with a beer in my hand right underneath the American flag. I say, ‘Now, this is living.’ That’s what makes me happy. My wife, on the other hand...”

“Is counting down the days until October, when Dick’s Last Resort has all-you-can-eat crab legs. It’s close to where I work, so it’s a popular place for people to get together after work.”

“Amtrak employees are social people,” observes Chris. “Because it’s a travel thing, not many marriages work; most of her friends are single. Luckily, Laura got a steady route, so she has, more or less, a normal job.”

“I come in on the train that arrives at 12:25. When Junior starts kindergarten, he’ll be off at 1:45. So I’ll be able to pick him up from school and be home with him in the afternoon, which is a nice benefit. Not everybody can work full-time and still be home all afternoon and evening.”

Junior will start school this year; Lizzie two years after that. There will be no more children. “We’re content with two,” says Chris. “After Lizzie was born, we talked, and we both realized that two is enough for us.”

Why? “We have a three-bedroom house,” answers Laura. “We’re out of room in our vehicles. We’d have to get all-new cars.” I cannot tell if she is deadpanning.

“I wouldn’t say that,” counters Chris.

“He wanted no more than two.”

“I wouldn’t say that the size of the house or the size of the vehicles had any impact on whether I wanted more kids. It was more of, you have to know yourself — what you can provide in terms of an environment for yourself and your kids to be happy in. You have to know your level for tolerance, patience, financial burden; how much time and patience and energy you have. You have to try to just piece it together. In my own mind — and Laura made her own decision — I said, ‘Well, I’ve got this much time, I’ve got this much tolerance, I’ve got this amount of money...’ I find myself very content with two. If God were to bless us with another one, then of course I would love the child and continue to be happy. But I figure I’ve got a good balance — one boy, one girl, in an environment that we feel is the best that we can provide here in San Diego. And I do mention, it’s the best we can provide here in San Diego.”

Chris continues, “We play with the idea sometimes of selling the home, pulling out of here, and going to the Midwest, buying a 3000-square-foot home — cash. Then what bills do you have?

“The easy life,” murmurs Chris.

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