While both of the boys had received answers to their prayer requests, there was still one prayer request unanswered. After two years of our family of five living in a two-bedroom apartment, my sister desired a space of her own. My sister, always the introvert, had claimed a tiny hallway closet as her safe space upon moving in, but as she had grown older, the space was shrinking. We had prayed for years about being able to move into a larger, three-bedroom apartment, but the opportunity never arose. As it was, we were receiving generous support to help pay for our current apartment from our missions organization, the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA), from our grandparents and even Christians that we did not even know. Many of my clothes came from the “missionary barrel” – a collection of donated clothes meant for poor or needy families – missionaries often fitting both requirements. Some clothes were the wrong size, some were tattered and the ones near the bottom had a funky smell. But they were free and even my picky self was happy to have something new – even if it was something new to me. But I digress. Dad had pondered buying lumber and subdividing part of the living room to give my sister the space that she needed, but there were other needs as well. Mom was going through a crisis of her own. Despite doing well in her studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, she was worried about an uncertain future returning to South Korea, the noisy apartment neighbors that were a constant interruption to her sleep, concerns over my sister’s needs, and the crux of all of the problems, the lack of funds to change the situation. Feeling the weight of her problems, she drove the car to a hilly park where we often played, stopped the car and wept. As she opened her Bible and reflected on the Psalms, she understood the need to trust God alone as the provider of peace, of respite, and of our family’s needs. Then and there, she had a change of mind and heart. She would trust the Lord, even in the difficult times, and even if it meant doing what she did not want to do.
The next day, her face still swollen from crying, she walked into the School of World Mission office to deliver a document and met a friend. “Did you know the Providence Homes house is now available?” her friend asked by chance. Providence Mission Homes was the ministry of a kindly woman who was concerned about missionaries and their need for low cost housing. Begun in 1972, the non-profit offered apartments and homes in several locations in Pasadena on a first-come, first-served basis. My Mom, hearing that a three-bedroom house had just come available, jumped on the chance. That night, my parents filed out the application and in less than a week, our lives were transformed by moving to the house on Lambert street.
It was truly an answer to prayer. Our apartment on North Michigan Avenue was on a cramped street with small houses and other narrow apartment complexes. Tall trees, overbearing two-story buildings and our dark brown painted apartments led to an atmosphere of overall dimness on the street. The neighborhood was noticeably devoid of young kids playing outside as well as any open spaces for them to play in. While the area was not necessarily dangerous, it was not necessarily safe either, and any item left outside, from balls to bikes, were as good as gone. In stark contrast, the Lambert house was on a wide suburban street interspaced with trees in an elegant part of town. Driving down the street to see the house for the first time, the scene reminded me of the America that I had watched overseas in the movies, but had yet to know for myself. Pulling up to the house, its generous green front lawn, large street-facing windows and bright cream colored paint seemed surreal. Walking inside, the house was everything that we could have wished for: a cozy living room with ornate furniture and a wood burning fireplace; a dining room with a large table with chairs and even a separate breakfast nook and table adjoining the kitchen. But most importantly, there was a third bedroom for my sister as a place of her own. For the first time in years, we had a backyard, with roses, trees and spaces for active boys to play. We were astonished and grateful that this space was actually ours to live in, and it did not take long for us boys to settle into playing in the backyard, my sister spending time in her own private space, and our parents becalmed in the glorious provision of the Lord.
Mom had always enjoyed having pet birds, and with the extra space in the house, our family welcomed two parakeets. I can remember taking responsibility for changing their cage – not because I wanted to do the work, but because I wanted to interact with the birds. I would rest my finger under their breasts to get them to sit on my finger and whistle to them as they pecked at my finger. Removing them from their cage, I would place them on my shoulder while attempting to clean out their cage, made difficult by them pecking on my ear or climbing up to the top of my head. Occasionally, they would fly off into tight circles around the living room, inevitably landing precariously perched on the tops of the curtains. But my most vivid memory was when our little blue parakeet lost its marbles. Mom and Dad had left us three kids at home and we were relaxing around the house. Close to lunch time, my sister called out to us boys that the bird was acting weird needed help. We three kids stood still in front of the cage and watched as Blue was violently pecking out all of his own chest feathers. We discussed the situation. Do parakeets molt? we discussed, unsure of what was going on or what to do. Now staring at the pale pink flesh of the previously blue bird, we tried to get him to stop by distracting him, but he wasn’t interested in anything we had to offer or say. In a hasty decision, my brother decided that what the bird needed most was a barrier to prevent any more feather peckage. In short time, he came back and quickly applied a large Band-Aid to the bird’s chest. Blue, without concern, responded by pecking at his feathers just below the newly applied plastic barrier. It was a few moments later that my sister asked how we were going to removing a Band-Aid from a feathered bird, to which there was no reply given. Several hours later, our parents returned to three frantic children and a bare breasted parakeet replete with a Band-Aid. Mom consulted a vet and apparently the bird’s self-mutilation was caused by boredom or too noisy of an environment. My Dad was tasked with trying to carefully remove the Band-Aid, or at least as carefully as one could. We decided to give Blue some regular exercise times outside of his cage, some new cage toys and moved him to a quieter part of the house. We would cover his cage with a blanket to give him some privacy and over time, his attitude and plumage returned to normal.
One of the nicest things about the location of the Lambert House was its proximity to North Altadena Drive, where each New Years, the Rose Parade would pass by. The Rose Parade is a series of bands, cars and floats that travel 5½ miles through the streets of Pasadena. But the Parade is best known for its elaborate floats that are decorated entirely with flowers of different colors and textures to make the float come to life. That year, we walked the three blocks down from our house to watch the parade pass by. Our viewing spot was only two blocks from the end of the parade, and the strain and relief was evident in the performances of the passerbys. The marching bands were tired, walking less in steep and less in tune. The princesses were displaying forced smiles and waves under the strain of hours of use. At the end of the parade, the floats collected in the empty fields at Victory Park for viewing by the public. Since we were so close, we walked up to take a look. Walking close to the floats, you could see in detail how each individual flower was hand placed on the float to match each specific feature desired. Since it often took days or weeks to place the flowers on the float, each flower stem had been inserted into its own test tube filled with lemon lime soda to prolong the life of the flower. The effort, time and cost of it all was truly amazing.
The other nice thing about the location of the house on Lambert was its proximity to our schools and nearby parks. My siblings were both older than I and always in different schools. My sister, with her newfound private space, retreated to her room or spent time with her friends from school. My brother was normally off on his own doing sports or hanging out with his friends. And with both of my parents busy with their studies and other obligations, I was intermittently left to my own devices when it came to entertaining myself. My biggest salvation came in the form of the blue bike I received for Christmas at the North Michigan apartments. Being in cramped two-bedroom apartment, it was difficult to keep anything secret, so on Christmas Eve, after my parents had given us kids sufficient time to settle down for the night, I laid awake to hear the sounds of crinkling wrapped Christmas presents being brought out of my parent’s room to be placed under the tree. But there were other noises too. Clanking metal, the clicking of a ratchet wrench, the distinct ping of metal spokes. So that Christmas night, visions of spinning bike wheels danced in my head. In the morning I walked out with my siblings to scout what items Santa had brought, but found no bike under, next to, or behind the tree. It wasn’t until later that morning after breakfast and most of the Christmas presents had already been opened, that my Dad handed me a note asking me to check the back porch. Walking around back, I slid open the door to revel the treasure I had envisioned. That bike became my source of transportation, recreation and freedom. While my parents had set limits on how far I could travel, in secret, I traveled far and wide. My nine-year-old self ventured 1.5 miles east to the hilly park, 1 mile west to the park next to my elementary school and 1.5 miles north to East Washington Blvd. The excitement of exploring and being out on my own was addictive. The fear of having to pedal on the streets next to traffic when the sidewalk was closed, making a wrong turn into what was clearly a bad neighborhood and the few times you had to stop at a random stranger’s house (in a good neighborhood of course) to make a phone call or to ask to use the bathroom. My biggest concern was not of the outside world, but of the consequences I would face at home if a bypassing driver recognized me and reported my whereabouts to my parents. That bike, and the ones that followed, were a symbol of a major piece of my identity – both good and bad. The good: my love for exploring new places and the world around me. The bad: my acceptance of bending the rules to do so.
Over at Jefferson Elementary School and now in third grade, I did not have many friends. But what I lacked in quantity, I made up for in quality with my one good friend, Shana. Shana and I had been in the same class together for several years and were both in the GATE program. She took an interest in me, coming over and asking me to play or talk with me. I found it confusing. It was the first time that I could remember anyone, especially a girl, wanting to spend any time with me. My parents, appreciating the idea of me having a friend, and would take me over to play at her house or would invite her to come to ours. We would ride our bikes down the quiet street in front of Lambert house. I was interested in racing or doing crazy stunts, but she enjoyed pedaling along and talking. She took great pride in her bike, with long colorful tassels streaming off of her handlebars and at one point adding a small radio. We would play pretend in our backyard or play slip and slide on hot days at her house. At school, we had been put in the school play together, she as Gretel and I as Hansel. We were also paired to do a traditional Mexican dance together, she donning a white frilly dress that would billow out as she twirled and I wearing a sombrero and fake moustache. For her birthday, I was invited along with her family on a whale watching tour. We drove for what seemed like hours, boarded a boat and went out to watch a few whales passing by the Southern California coastline. We arrived back home late that evening, tired from a long but eventful day. But as much as we had a good friendship, I was getting nervous. She wanted to be good friends, but I knew that soon I would be changing schools and a year after that, would be leaving the country. So in the infinite wisdom of an eight year old, I decided that it would be better to end the friendship rather than face the heartbreak when it was time to move on. One afternoon during recess, on the asphalt next to the handball pole, I told her that I didn’t want to be her friend any more. She followed after me asking questions, valid questions, and in response I turned around, kicked her in the leg and yelled at her “I don’t want to be around you anymore.” She ran off crying and into the arms of several friends who consoled her and that was that. I had abandoned my one good friend. I wish that I had felt the remorse I now feel back then. I wish that my logical reasoning for ending the friendship could have seen the value in keeping it, even if it was going to inevitably end. And I wish that I could have understood at a much earlier age that a good friendship is worth far more than the pain when it was time to leave, but alas, I did not.
In class, almost every child can remember the feeling of being excited when the teacher wheeled in the large cathode ray television on the black cart, but in our class, it sometimes meant something special. One of the advantages of being in Pasadena at the time was a greater connection to space exploration that most. With the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) up the road in Altadena, most people knew someone involved in working on a space program. On occasion, the television would be wheeled into class and we would watch the Shuttle takeoff, landing or an astronaut demonstrating a science experiment in weightlessness. But in addition to watching things happen on television, we would also hear the announcement of a returning Space Shuttle in our classroom. With the Vandenberg Airforce Base only 150 miles away, we could hear the sonic booms coming from the shuttle as it slowed from its re-entry. Most mornings when the shuttle returned, the teachers would inform us that “at 10:15 this morning, the shuttle will be returning and the sonic booms will occur.” Sure enough, later that day in the middle of lesson, there would be two quick successive booms. That is, until the fateful day that they came to an end. On January 28, 1986 the Challenger disaster happened – where 73 seconds after liftoff, an O-ring failure resulted in the explosion and loss of the Challenger and the seven astronauts aboard. While we did not watch the event in the classroom, we were all aware of the mission. For months in advance, the fact that the first teacher, Christa McAuliffe, would be aboard was advertised. There were competitions at schools around the country to win the chance to have your science questions answered from space and talk of her doing a whole series of science experiments for kids classrooms. Hearing about the tragedy on the news later that evening, there was a sadness at the loss of the crew and of our opportunity to watch and learn about space in our classroom. But the disaster also signaled an almost three-year pause in the Space Shuttle program, bringing an end to the almost monthly sonic booms we used to hear.
The other memories I have of school at the time revolved around the negative aspects of living in Los Angeles: smog and earthquakes. During night time, a layer of cold air would come down over the mountains that surround the Los Angeles area and trap the warm daytime air along with all of its pollution close to the ground. Each morning on the news or in the paper, there would be a smog rating for the day – from green to red. Green days meant that the air would be clear and activities would carry on as normal. By the time the rating hit red, the teachers would close up the classroom windows and recess would be cancelled. Being stuck in the classroom all day including during recess had a way of sticking with you – and changing the teacher’s attitude. To calm the craziness of kids and save their sanity, the teachers would take turns sharing the TV stand and we would get to watch cartoons instead of recess. After a stretch of three or four days, the class would erupt in excitement at the announcement of a yellow day – where we could go outside and run to our heart’s content; or at least until our lungs started to burn.
Earthquakes were another matter altogether. Mom and Dad had grown up in California so they were used to the rumble and roll of the earthquakes but it was a new experience for the rest of us. Several, I recall, came in the evening, and Mom and Dad would rouse us kids out of our beds (when I had one) to huddle us in the hallway as the thin carpet became a moving sidewalk. As we became accustomed to them, however, it became harder and harder for Mom to wake us. I would finally awake to a visibly frantic mother trying to get us moved to the hallway, with myself thinking “why bother, it’s almost over anyway” and wishing the earthquake would rock me back to sleep. One of the biggest quakes I can remember occurred while Dad was driving me to school. Called the Whittier Narrows earthquake, it was a 5.9 magnitude quake that struck on October 1st at 7:42 a.m. Dad and I knew something was amiss, but we thought it was just our old diesel engine or maybe the tires going bad. I arrived at school to find all of the students sitting out on the black asphalt playground, milling restlessly. I walked over to my class line and sat down next to my friends. Excited for the prospect of aftershocks, my friends and I scrounged sticks from the ground (or chopsticks from my lunchbox as would be), in an attempt to build a makeshift seismograph, pre-warn the class of the impending earthquake and be hailed as heroes in front of the school. But our heroic efforts were thwarted by the announcement that school was cancelled for the day. Most of the kids loaded on busses to be taken home early, but I followed my teacher back to her classroom to call my parents. While waiting for them to arrive, I helped pick up the few books and toys that had fallen to the floor, feeling sorry that my parents had to drop what they were doing to come pick me up and wondering why school had to be cancelled for such little damage.
That same morning, my brother had been on the school bus when he arrived to find teachers directing students onto the field. An aftershock followed and several of the girls fell on the ground screaming. Compared with rogue jets screaming overhead in South Korea, my brother thought the behavior an over exaggeration. Mom, meanwhile, back at the apartment, was running up and down the walkway fronting our apartment building alongside our newly-arrived Lebanese neighbor. Having escaped the Lebanese war, and no doubt left with PSTD, she thought we were being shelled and was beside herself with fear. Holding her hand and trying to comfort her, Mom was able to explain what was happening and return her to the safety of her home. Later we were rewarded with an enormous silver platter piled high with turmeric-colored rice and steaming lamb in sauce along with a video of belly dancers. But the worst earthquake I can remember struck at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989. Known as the Loma Prieta earthquake, it was centered in Northern California and stopped the San Francisco Bay Area Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, becoming the first major earthquake in the United States to be broadcast live on national television. Many people were killed and injured, especially in the Bay Area as brick facades collapsed and freeways upended. We had just sat down to an early dinner that evening as Dad was going to preach that later that night, when the dishes went flying. Dad, who had been going to preach on our mission work in Korea, quickly made notes for a sermon more relevant to the day’s events and God’s sovereign care. Later, visiting with friends closer to the epicenter, we saw the huge cracks the quake had caused in their living rooms, bathrooms and lawns and were grateful more people had not been injured. We became so familiar with earthquakes that by the time we were ready to head overseas again, we could fairly well judge the magnitude by sensing the degree of motion under our feet.
Being home in the States, we had another thing to get used to – visiting family. When in South Korea, we would receive the occasional package or the even rarer visit from our Grandparents, but now, relatives we had known only from photos or stories were a short drive away. One such trip took our family out to see our Aunt who lived in Santa Maria. On the drive out there, we passed through Santa Barbara, where Mom had attended college and where my parents first started dating. Further along, we stopped in Solvang, where my Dad had graduated from high school. Solvang was in interesting place. The downtown center was a tourist area styled after a Danish town filled with brightly colored storefronts, steeply pitched roofs and faux windmills. Having visited the real Holland windmills a few years earlier, it was surreal to find such a place just outside of Los Angeles. We wandered down the streets looking at the art and collectables for sale, the smell of freshly made waffles and treats and the boredom of several hours of hearing “don’t touch that.” That evening we went to an all you can eat restaurant serving Northern European fare; spicy red cabbage, grilled sausages, mashed potatoes, Swedish meatballs and beer. My brother, five years older than I and well into his teenage years, decided to take advantage of the all-you-can-eat buffet. I, as the younger brother, decided to follow his suit. That evening, I stuffed myself silly with as much food as I could muster and then some. And on that drive home, I paid the price. I felt nauseous and asked for the window of the car to be cracked to let in some fresh air. The next morning, still feeling off, I didn’t touch a bite of my breakfast. Later that morning, sitting on a hard wooden bench in my grandparents’ Presbyterian church, I informed Mom that I was not feeling very well. I was asked to wait a few more minutes for service to end, and after its completion, I lost my all-you-can eat dinner in the church parking lot half way back to our car. Given a few minutes to settle, we all piled in the car for the drive to our Aunt’s house in Santa Maria hearing the whistle of a slightly cracked window most of the way there.
My aunt and her family lived in a large two story house fronted by a five-foot carved wooden bear. Someone, I recall, was having a birthday party. In true Santa Maria style cooking, tri tip was sizzling on the grill and potatoes were baking in the oven. Our two families were joined by Mom and Dad’s good friends from Pasadena. He was a police officer, and since he brought his police car with him, I remember sitting in the backseat of his car and being able to briefly turn on the lights and siren. That afternoon, we had fun eating and relaxing with family, but the evening was memorable for its terror. After the sun had set, our families were watching TV downstairs. The premise of the show was that there was a magician whose main act was to be closed inside of an iron maiden and come out unharmed. But the plot twist was that in order for the magician to come out alive, another victim had to be put in a second iron maiden off screen. When the door closed on the magician, the person downstairs was killed. It was the first time that I had ever seen what I would consider to be a horror movie, and I spent various moments hiding my face under blankets or peeking sheepishly though mostly closed fingers on the couch. Afterwards I went upstairs to the room where several of us kids, including my cousins were sleeping and lay there awake for quite some time, thinking about the horrors that I had just seen and wondering how anyone could fall asleep after that. But alas, after an hour or two of listing to someone in the back-corner snore, I managed to fall asleep myself. Looking back, the show was not graphic and was probably just an episode from the Twilight Zone, but it definitely left an impression on my childhood memories.
Our time at the Lambert House was a time of rest and renewal for our family – all made possible by the generosity of people called to help support us or missionaries. Their support helped us in almost every area from food to housing and making birthdays or holidays special. But in addition to meeting our basic needs, their generosity extended into allowing us to have fun, to travel and go to summer camps – the stories of which we will visit in two weeks.
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