You Mustn't Miss Las Vegas, Mikhail
updated 08/04/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/04/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Cedar Falls, Iowa
This is how an American family is made:
The first kid comes naturally. While Jim Swarbrick is in Vietnam, Jody Swarbrick gives birth to a son. Eight months later, at the Waterloo, Iowa airport, Jim sees Eric for the first time. It is an omen.
"I met every one of my kids at the airport," he says, 16 kids later.
After Eric, Jody has four miscarriages. They decide to adopt an American child, but the first dies before arriving, and the second has a 16-year-old father who wants a motorcycle in exchange.
Jim and Jody then decide to adopt a Vietnamese orphan. A child is promised them via airlift from Saigon, but the C-5A crashes, and the child they have never seen is dead. "I remember that morning, sitting there in tears," Jody says.
They learn of an agency in Oklahoma that arranges Korean adoptions, and a year later Tori arrives. She is 5 months old, weighs 10 lbs. and suffers from hearing loss, malnutrition and impetigo. Not until she is 4 years old does hair grow on her head. They like her a lot.
Today, Tori is 10 years old, cute and very, very opinionated. "She's a mini-Gorbachev, a dictator," says her brother Eric, 15.
Jim and Jody decide to adopt two more Korean kids. The agency tells them about sisters—Maggie, 3, and Kari, 10 months, the older child described as "a sweet, outgoing little girl who loves her sister dearly."
"Maggie was the nastiest kid I ever met in my whole life," Jody recalls. "She got off the plane and glared at me. At home, she'd grab her little sister by the ear and drag her across the room. She broke Tori's arm. Honest to God, the first American sentence out of that kid's mouth was, 'Don't tell me what to do—you're not my mother.' "
Today, Maggie giggles when reminded of her brutal past. She is 11, beautiful, patient and "one of our nicest," Jody marvels.
Jody and Jim next decide to adopt a boy, a Korean child of Eric's age. "I was complaining that all I was getting was sisters," he says. The agency warns them that orphaned boys of that age lie, cheat, steal, swear, run wild in the streets.
Off the plane come Luke, 9, and Andy, 7, two desperadoes from Seoul. They bow to their new parents.
The Swarbricks are learning that kids don't come as advertised.
Everybody is happy except Andy, who wants a brother his age. So they adopt Jason, who has mild cerebral palsy, and devise physical therapy for him: He must pick up everything on the floor with his bad hand.
Today the floors are neat, and Jason plays cello in the school orchestra.
Joey, 6, comes next, their first seriously ill child. They are told that he is retarded, which they never believe, and has cerebral palsy, which turns out to be muscular dystrophy. Joey learns to walk, attends kindergarten, hardly ever misses an episode of Kung Fu Theater. He is told of his impending death, and he makes a will, listing what he wants with him: a Bible, a picture of Jesus, a piece of bubble gum, his underwear, his shoes, his socks and his karate suit.
Joey dies at home when he is 9.
Before that occurs, Jenna joins the family. She has lived in a hospital in Seoul for seven years, one leg crippled from polio. She is 12, and her wish is to become a nurse. At the hospital, she has been told repeatedly that because of her handicap, she cannot.
Today she says, "When I came to the U.S., my parents asked me what I wanted to be. I told them a nurse and they said, 'Why not a doctor?' "
She is 17 now, just out of 10th grade, and plans to attend the University of Iowa Medical School.
The Swarbricks are not through: more twins, Zachary and Noah, one healthy and one with cerebral palsy; Channon, 3, who walks off the plane hollering at Jim and Jody not to touch his precious shoes; Tyler, a Filipino rejected by two families for behavioral problems, including throwing rocks at ducks; and four more babies—Molli, Sunni, Emili and Brock. The total now is 15 Oriental kids plus Eric, who says, "They think I'm Oriental and they're not. They think I'm the strange one."
They live in the suburbs of Waterloo in a house with four dogs, three bathrooms, one washing machine and 27 Cabbage Patch Kids. Jim earns $37,000 a year as finance manager for Friedley Lincoln-Mercury in Cedar Falls, repairs golf clubs on the side and takes Jody out to dinner once a month.
Meals at home are not to be missed when Luke, now 15, cooks his Korean specialties, but they are legendarily bad when Jenna is at the stove. "I tell her when she's a doctor, her husband will cook," Jody explains. The adults and older children take their meals in the dining room, while the younger children sit off by themselves in the kitchen. Allowing 10 kids, ages 2 to 12, to eat without supervision in most households results in casualties, not conversation, but here they chat away like members of a Princeton University eating club. One afternoon the discussion concerned small children, and a visitor contributed a very disconcerting comment.
"You know," he said, "I don't have any children."
"Too bad," said Channon, now 5, his face stricken with sympathy.
"You can make some," advised Zachary, just turned 4.
Little about Jim and Jody quite explains the extraordinary workings of this household. After Jim hurt his knee in Vietnam, he spent a lot of recuperative time feeding babies at an orphanage outside Da Nang, which might account for his love of kids. After Noah arrived Jody spent a year trying to get him to smile, which says something about her patience. She finally despaired, began crying, and that made Noah laugh.
Says Eric: "It's hard giving everyone equal attention, and they try. That's all I can ask or hope of them."
Huntington Beach, Calif.
The beach is back, along with the killer wave and the killer bod. Bumper stickers on cars read, "Life's a Beach," and in Southern California, the surfer is supreme once again.
"I've known some surfers," says Karen Ayotte, 23. "I used to go out with one. He was so dumb that when we double-dated I'd tell my friends to ignore him if he started talking. I met him in a doughnut shop, where he worked the graveyard shift so he could come to the beach and surf all day."
"I think," says her roommate, Sandy Bertagnolli, 23, "they have too much sand packed in their heads."
Hey, you don't have to read to be a surfer; you only have to ride. Here in Huntington Beach, where the major cultural attraction is a bronze statue of a surfer, the classic surfing man of the '60s has returned to prominence. "If you're a surfer, you're in," says one 18-year-old guy who isn't one. "You walk around, you see great-looking girls with ugly surfers." Another advantage of the surfing life is that it doesn't cost much to do nothing all day.
"In the winter months, five or six guys can get a four-bedroom beach house for $1,200, get money from their parents, live comfortably," says John Finney, 22, a student at the University of California-Irvine. "Things change in summer. The $1,200 house becomes a $2,400 house."
"They have to get a job."
People who live outside Southern California have an incorrect impression of beach life: They believe that the good times end at sundown. This misconception is prevalent among Easterners, because their beaches are so restrictive even the tide doesn't come in without a permit. Huntington Beach allows campfires, drinking, ball playing and roasting hot dogs on straightened coat hangers—one of the great American culinary pleasures.
Karen would like Gorbachev to visit Huntington Beach with Raisa and spread a blanket on the sand. However, he should be advised that to come here without a tan is social suicide. "Life here is about how beautiful everyone is," Karen says, "and it's like a big competition at the beach, worrying about being too white or too fat." Yet even with all these worries, she finds life here better than life in the East. That, she says with a shudder, is mostly "waiting in the snow for a school bus."
Palm Desert, Calif.
Morgan Hess owns a tuxedo, although he is hardly ever invited to parties where he needs one. "We hear about the $5,000 benefits where George Burns gets up to speak, but we can't afford to go," he says.
This is the California desert, a part of America that democracy forgot. In the valley towns of Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, La Quinta and Palm Springs—about two hours from Los Angeles—are the estates, golf courses and condos of America's moneyed nobility. This is the land of gate-guarded communities and surveillance cameras, of restrictive country clubs and private roads. Bob Hope lives here, a fact commemorated by Bob Hope Drive. Frank Sinatra lives on Frank Sinatra Drive.
"There is a big dividing line here between the haves and the have-nots," says Morgan. "I don't take anything away from the haves; most of them worked very hard for it. But occasionally the rest of us do have that twinge of jealousy."
Morgan is a partner in a two-seat beauty salon called Hair We Are. If the name Morgan Hess seems oddly familiar, it is because two of his clients are writers for Dynasty, and several years ago they gave an obscure detective that name.
Morgan came here 24 years ago and was so taken with the clean air and the stark, surrounding mountains that he decided never to live anywhere else. To an outsider, the charms are elusive: You might see Cesar Romero in the checkout line at Lucky's, and you don't want to miss the annual Indio date festival, but otherwise there isn't much to do except drink and play golf.
Just about everybody here plays, although Morgan boasts, "I've never picked up a club." He says golf is the curse of his existence, that women call desperately for last-minute appointments and then cancel because the appointments conflict with their tee-off times. Just about everybody who plays also drinks, which is understandable. "You need a drink so you can talk about your score," says Lois Brown, a Hair We Are customer.
Occasionally one of Morgan's customers will invite him to one of those formal galas that never begin until Walter Annenberg is seated, and then he takes his '70s tuxedo out of the dry-cleaner's bag. The tuxedo is chocolate brown with brown velvet lapels, and he wears it with a beige shirt festooned with brown velvet-tipped ruffles. The wealthy people never come up to him to say how nice he looks. They come up and say, "What time does your band start playing?"
Las Vegas, Nev.
Nearly 17 years ago, Debbie Lee had a dream. "It's probably stupid to still think about it," she says.
As a youngster growing up in Las Vegas, Debbie was dazzled by the bright lights. Not the spotlights of casino showrooms, but the fluorescent lights of office buildings. "I always wanted to be a secretary," she admits.
She received awards in high school for her typing and shorthand. Her secretarial career was about to begin. Then someone came along and changed everything.
"Someone told my mother about an audition at the Tropicana," she says. "She got me a leotard and high heels, and I got the job."
You only have to see Debbie Lee to realize that mother knew best. She is 5'10" and has been a showgirl at the Tropicana Hotel since 1969, except for a three-month retirement that "had me climbing the walls." By unofficial estimates, only one Las Vegas showgirl has ever put in more time, and Debbie should break that record this year. She would like it known, however, that even if she becomes America's longest-running showgirl, at age 35, she is not America's oldest showgirl.
As a member of the Tropicana's Folies Bergere, she earns about $500 a week for appearing stately, graceful and topless. The producer of the show, Larry Lee, 38, seems satisfied with her work onstage, but finds her argumentative at other times, sort of a backstage lawyer. "We've had big, big fights," says Debbie, who is married to Larry Lee.
Debbie and Larry reside in the suburbs of Las Vegas, an ordinary life, Debbie says, "although I hate to destroy anyone's illusions." The third member of the household is her daughter from a previous marriage, Jennifer Freyman, 13, who says it's wonderful having a showgirl for a mother, "because all your friends think you're pretty neat."
The family routine is set. At about 2 a.m., after they get home from work, Debbie makes dinner. After that, if Debbie thinks Larry has been picking on her friends, they fight.
"Larry doesn't understand what goes on backstage the way I do," she says.
"I'm the ogre," he groans.
"I stay out of it," says Jennifer. "I'm usually sleeping when they fight, unless they wake me up."
The invitation to Gorbachev comes from Debbie, who thinks he should meet the Tropicana showgirls and see that they're "middle-class people working hard, six days a week." Soon, Debbie may become even more of a middle-class working woman because she keeps fantasizing about the wonderful world of secretarial work.
"It's a whole different world out there," she sighs.
Way up in the Texas Panhandle, eight miles from Oklahoma, lives 14-year-old Roy Montgomery III. He's 5'2", 110 lbs., has hands as tough as hardscrabble, plays cornerback for the junior high football team and knows what it means to be a Texan. "You stand up for what you believe is right," he says.
On a Thursday not so long ago, he had to fight a fellow named Scott at his school just to see who was tougher. "Everybody thought I was foolin' around until I hauled off and hit him," Roy says. The next day, he felt obligated to fight Joe, another acquaintance, during lunch period. "He romped all over me," Roy admits. That encouraged the defeated Scott to try again, which wasn't the best idea Scott ever had. "He got his butt whipped again," Roy says.
Roy ended the week with a swollen eye, a busted knuckle and a fingernail about to fall off, all inconsequential wounds by Texas standards. "I enjoy a good fight," he says.
Gorbachev should be encouraged to visit Perryton, for no other reason than to learn the virtues of peaceful coexistence with Texans. He is also invited to tour the countryside with Roy, an extremely well-mannered young fellow when he is not irritated by his classmates and people who express a favorable opinion of Oklahoma.
Perryton is storybook Texas country. The restaurants serve chicken-fried steak with cream gravy to customers wearing Panama hats, the wheat fields are as flat as a rattler caught crossing the road, and the cattle ranches are dotted with chinaberry and cottonwood trees.
Roy wants to take Gorbachev to see the Perryton grain elevator, the biggest for a hundred miles around, where enough wheat is stored to make 200 million one-pound loaves of bread. From there, they'll stop at Perryton Feeders Inc., pausing upwind to see 100,000 cattle being fattened. Then they'll visit an archaeological site where an 11th-century house is being excavated under a private grant from the Courson Oil and Gas Co. The project archaeologist, David Hughes, says the house is situated on a "prehistoric highway" where traders ventured on foot, long before horses were introduced to North America.
Perryton, it seems, has everything but prosperity. The people here earn their wages from wheat, cattle and oil, and these days nobody's making much money at any of those. Roy's father is the manager of the grain elevator, and he says that some of the wheat has been stored for six years waiting for the Soviets to come along and buy. At the LZ Ranch, Lawrence Ellzey, 75, says he and his brother stopped running cattle "because we got tired of working for the bank, and that's the size of it."
Still, this is Texas, and hardly anybody cares to admit that life is better somewhere else. There's a needlepoint hung in the office of Harold Courson, the head of Courson Oil, that reads, "If you ain't got no oil well and you ain't got no cow and you ain't living in Texas then you ain't living no how."
The Clipper Club held its annual Mother's Day dinner at Andy's Diner this year. The meeting was called for 6 p.m., and almost everybody came on time, the men clean shaven and wearing ties, the women with corsages. The dinner started with a round of coffee, and the meeting started with the singing of Let Me Call You Sweetheart. After that, each man was called upon to say something nice about his wife, and nobody seemed to struggle. "My wife and I were married for 55 years. After that I hoped for more, but I didn't get it," said one man, a recent widower.
You could argue that members of the Clipper Club live in the past, and that might be true, because they are all of a generation that cared deeply about church, jobs, family and friends. Back in 1944, the young married couples of the Boulevard Park Presbyterian Church started a social and spiritual club that is still meeting every month, usually for potluck suppers. The members are all at least 65 now, most quite a bit older. No couple has ever been divorced, and no couple has ever dropped out, except for the few who moved away.
Alba Greenfield, 70, and her husband, Bob, 71, met in high school, started dating in 1933 and were married in 1939 when Bob was making 62½ cents an hour at the Boeing plant. They began building their first house before they were married, Bob digging out the basement with a pick and shovel. When it was finished, Alba climbed up a ladder to help paint, even though she was 7½ months pregnant.
"The club members are all Depression people who struggled," says Rev. Robert Wheatley, 60. "They had a commitment to values more personal than material, and they all helped each other. That's what I identify as the true American spirit."
Alba and Bob are both retired, if you can call it that. She works as a voluntary probation counselor, plans programs for the Clipper Club and has a weakness for organizing everything she sees. Bob builds props for his barbershop quartet, repairs bicycles for kids and has a weakness for chocolate ice cream. Together, they have done missionary work in Haiti and Ecuador, Bob doing construction and Alba teaching English.
Earlier this year, Alba got up at a Clipper Club meeting and announced that after more than 40 years of the women cooking dinners for the men, it was time the men cooked something for the women. After an awful lot of planning and some genuine desperation, the men bought take-out chicken and baked potatoes. "That was our women's lib," Alba admits.
Fort Totten, N.Dak.
On the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation, home to about 3,200 descendants of a once-great nomadic tribe, troubled teenagers living in the Tribal Group Home must be shown how to make a campsite. "It could be funny, but it isn't," says Laurel Goulding, director of the home. "The major thing we struggle with is low self-esteem."
The reservation is located close to the Canadian border, just off a state highway in such disrepair that another Indian tradition may soon have to be retaught: travel by horseback. "The Rez," as the Indians call it, was created by treaty in 1867 and seems to have changed only for the worse since then. The land is low and mostly barren, and while elk and buffalo are said to dwell there, visitors are more likely to see trash and paper blowing in the wind, stripped automobiles, houses peeling and collapsing from neglect.
"Reservation life is devastating, almost hopeless," says Cynthia Smith, 35, who wants Gorbachev to see how America's first inhabitants have endured. "The Indian people have adapted somewhat, but emotionally it didn't work." Alcoholism is as much of a problem as everyone thinks it is, but there are other woes, such as an unusually high number of teenage suicide attempts, a school dropout rate of 50 percent and an unemployment rate even higher.
Smith, the tribe's health director, is a part-time student at the University of South Dakota-Vermillion, where she is working toward a master's degree in public administration. Her professional success, by reservation standards, is extraordinary, but she has struggled to find her place in the Indian community.
She is part Sioux, part Scandinavian, and her early education was by Catholic nuns. When she was 12, her parents divorced, and she left the reservation with her father. At 18, she was married in a Presbyterian church; at 26, in a Lutheran church; at 32, in the traditional Sioux manner. Her third husband, Nathan, 31, is a full-blooded Sioux with dark skin and black hair knotted behind his head. They live in a two-bedroom bungalow that could be any small family home, except for the eagle feather dangling over the crib of their daughter, Rebecca, 7 months old.
Both Nathan and Cindy have been through dependency problems. His was marijuana; hers was alcohol. Today they are among the small percentage of Indians living in "the old way," followers of the religion of the Great Sioux Nation. Much of the knowledge has been lost, but, Nathan says, "we fast and pray for guidance and understanding." Cindy believes that along with spirituality must come an acceptance of reservation life if the Sioux are to survive: "This is what we have, and we have to make the best of it."
When Roger Cunningham, 38, a devoted husband, father and small business owner, encountered difficulties with his neighbor's Doberman pinscher, he did not telephone to discuss the problem or request assistance from the authorities.
Roger is a biker, and he took care of it in the prescribed biker manner. He borrowed a .357 magnum and shot the damned dog.
"We bikers are kind of the last of the mountain men, the last of the cowboys," he says. "After we're gone, what's left?"
Roger is a big man who rides a 1946 Harley-Davidson, wears a leather vest, boasts five tattoos and is missing his left earlobe, which was ripped off in a fight. His wife, Sandy, 29, is a backseat biker, rapping him hard on the head when he does wheelies with her riding behind him, and his son, J.R., 3, says things like, "No way, knucklehead." The stop sign at the end of his driveway is riddled with bullet holes, which Roger can explain: "Those things happen in California."
His shop, Kicked Back Motor Works, is a mama-and-pop operation where he and Sandy repair and rebuild Harleys and only Harleys. "No Jap Crap," reads his business card. The shop does not coddle customers, which is obvious from a sign over his work area. The sign reads: "If you come through this door, you will be killed."
Gorbachev will be more warmly welcomed should he accept Cunningham's invitation to "throw back a few beers with some American bikers." He will meet Jack, the family malamute, a guard dog so sweet he wouldn't bite a Honda dealer, and Sandy will barbecue in the back of the shop. She's the unofficial cook for the neighborhood bikers, and her kebobs are so ethereal a Hell's Angel would be moved to say grace before meals.
"Bikers have gotten an unfavorable image because of all those movies with Nazi helmets and Iron Crosses," Roger says, "but we're really just like hippies, doing what we want to do. It's only that we're prone to violence if pushed. We don't say, 'Wow man, bad karma.' We stand up for our rights."
He says bikers live by a code similar to the Scout law: A biker is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, kind, cheerful and brave. (Note the absence of courteous, obedient, thrifty, clean and reverent.) "We pay taxes, we give blood," says Sandy, and Roger adds, "Real bikers are patriotic—I love America because I couldn't get away with this any place else in the world."