(Note from MV: I wrote on Feb. 14 about the anniversary of the 1961 plane crash that killed the U.S. figure skating team on its way to the World Championships in Prague, and how that event had prompted some essays I’d written over the last decade. Sorry for the delay in posting, but here is the first.)
“If she went into a room that was dark, she’d be the light bulb.”
_ Mike Michelson on his sister, Rhode
The coastline in Wilmington, Calif., is quite different than the beautiful, languid beaches just to the north or south in greater Los Angeles. This is an industrial area, one of refineries, docks, cargo and backaches. This is business, not pleasure.
When Phineus Banning helped settled the area in the mid-1800s, he named it after his hometown in Delaware and helped develop one of the largest and busiest seaports in the world.
Nearby are his family home _ a small oasis _ and a high school named after him. A few miles east in Long Beach is McHelen Avenue, from where you can’t see the ugly, endless jungle of pipes, tanks and gigantic crates that clog the shore.
On McHelen, you’re in a neatly kept, working-class Southern California neighborhood with stucco-finished homes dating back to the ’30s and ’40s and painted a variety of colors.
The home at 21808 McHelen is tan, and you can imagine that once, there was an energetic little girl running around inside this house, getting into everything, exhausting her mother.
Or, at least I can imagine this because of what I’d been told about Rhode Lee Michelson from the people who knew her, all of whom seem to have exceptionally vivid memories of her. She would grow up to go to Banning High School, but she wouldn’t finish there. Her life would end during her senior year.