Mother Blair

by Shirley A. Blair Keller

Kenneth Dewaine Blair October 19, 1928–August 1, 1984


Kenny Blair brushed a smooth white glaze over the salmon. Thinly sliced vegetables, red and green, added bright splashes of color. Cut black olives outlined eyes, mouth, fins, gills, and tail. On his 84th birthday, George Griesbach was the oldest person in Synanon. Kenny, a master chef, was asked to make the best possible party for Dorothy’s father. Anna served the meal. I acted as Kenny’s legs since the illness progressed to being beyond the point of his being able to dash from place to place.

After dinner, we drove the seven miles home, checked for mail, and as we passed through the community living room on the way to our apartment, we discovered a party, couples dancing. We watched from one of the round dining tables that circled the dance floor. Kenny asked me to dance. How unlike him to want to dance, I thought. I gladly accepted, a little surprised. He held me close, snug, cheek-to-cheek. We danced slowly. Dance is not quite the description of his style. More like a gentle swaying to the music. I thought, He looks tired, and yet, handsome, his head shaved close, giving nature a hand, he’d joke. I liked his bald head. The gray to white moustache and goatee he kept trimmed and neat. Lately, I noticed, instead of the perfect shave, he’d leave a spot here and there. I’d have to help him finish the job because it was getting harder to keep his arms raised.

A squeeze brought my attention to his shiny blue eyes. Gently, he said, “I want you to know how much I appreciate your love and care of me.” He kissed my cheek, pulled me close to him, and whispered, “I’m sorry my health is so bad these days. I hate to have to ruin this perfect evening, but I must go home to bed. I’m very tired,” he sighed. “I just wanted to take a moment to tell you I love you.”

Joy, a rush of sensual desire, and then a blast of reality. He’ll be gone soon, I thought. I struggled to push that thought out of my mind. He’s here, now. We’re trying to enjoy this moment. The desire to go home with him, to tumble onto our waterbed, to snuggle the way we did only a short time ago overwhelmed me. But I said nothing. I walked him to the dark porch of our house. Aware of the bats flying in the warm summer night, the brightness of stars in our mountain paradise, I kissed him good night.

“Go back to the party and have fun,” he insisted. “No sense in a healthy young woman going to bed early.” I thought, He’s so adorable. I’m forty years old and he calls me a young woman. From his fifty-six years, I might seem young. But all I want to do in this moment is to crawl into bed, hold you, and never let this night pass. I smiled instead, turned, and walked away. Tears welled and washed my cheeks. He needed to believe I was going back to the party to have fun.

Two months into our marriage, in 1982, Kenny coughed on the easy walk up a small hill to our home. Making love seemed too much for him. He told me he knew what was happening. Scarred lungs from the asbestos poisoning of the factory work in his early twenties. I insisted on a doctor’s visit, and the doctor confirmed that Kenny’s lungs were continuing to scar, breathing space squeezed, and a time limit was given. He would have one year, maybe two, at the most.

I’d never been as happy. He accepted my faults and good qualities. Five extra pounds gave Kenny more to pat. I learned the power of affirmations. So why now, I asked myself. Why do I have to lose him? I tried to forget, to get lost in our life together. We reveled in the fun of camping, motorcycle rides, parties, and friends. The time with Kenny passed quickly, no matter how I tried to slow it down. Before I knew it, we were in the hospital after an episode that took his breath away.

“I want to go home, now. Tell them,” Kenny ordered. I informed the doctor. He reminded me that if Kenny left the hospital he would die within twenty-four hours.

“Yes,” I sighed. “I know.”

“But does he understand this? The oxygen machine you have at home is not adequate. One more episode, and it won’t provide enough oxygen. You live too far away to get back here in time. Only the hospital has what he needs at this stage,” the doctor pressed.

“You can try to talk him out of it, but it won’t do any good. If he stays he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’ll be hooked to a machine. He wants to die at home,” and I turned back to Kenny’s hospital room.

The next morning the ambulance delivered us home. His bedroom looked like the hospital room we had just left. Tubes, oxygen tanks, and the new hospital bed replaced our waterbed, transformed by friends in our absence.

A wonderful day was spent in a wheelchair by the side of the pool with his best friends Chuck, Bob, Gary, Leon, Stuart, Paul, and others. As I walked away, pretending this was a normal day like any other workday, I overheard Leon Levy raise his glass in a toast. I stopped in the doorway and turned. Kenny listened. His closest friends surrounded him. Leon recited his most recent creation.

Kenny Blair
Let’s give a cheer to the motorcycle man
A two wheelin’ wizard from a two fisted clan 
An Emersonian enigma; no 9 to 5 slave
He’s the King of the Free in the Home of the Brave.

God broke the mold when he made this breed 
He reigns o’er the roads with fur-saddled steed 
And things just seem to fall into place
In humble awe, of his roughneck grace.

We here at the home convened at the tap
And lie by the pool just shooting the crap
Though the food’s running low
And the sun starts to burn
We remain at our posts and await your return.

Bruce, Lauren, Vicki, Kenny & Shirley

Kenny snapped from the bathroom door, “Turn up the oxygen.” He gasped for air. The tank’s dial was set at the highest setting, just like I knew it would be. I heard a thump. I turned. He was on the floor. I ran to the buzzer, rang for our downstairs neighbor, screaming inside, but I heard no sound. Stuart and David started CPR. I knew he did not want that. We agreed and talked and decided that I wouldn’t let that happen. But now, at that moment, I wanted them to revive him. I knew it was wrong. What if people do turn into spirits after death? What if he’s watching? I searched the ceiling, halfway hoping I would see him. I knew he did not want CPR, and yet, what if he had changed his mind like I was changing mine. Confusion filled me and I took a deep breath. “Please, Stuart, David, Stop.” And then I heard a sound deep in my belly, vibrating my heart, smashing through my brain, and erupting from my mouth. “It’s not fair!” I wailed, “No.”

The Soap Dish

The phone startled me.

“Please meet Walter and me in the dining room in 30 minutes,” said Ellen Burke, the wife of one of the Board Members. It must be serious, I thought, if Walter Lewbel, the personal assistant to the Founder of Synanon, was involved. What could it be?

Kenny had died three days earlier. I had moved into a nice room, all new decor, a move I would later regret. I didn’t have the blessing of his closet to bury myself in the smells of his clothing. I wasn’t the one who packed up his stuff. Friends, all with good intentions to be helpful spirits, took the personal items that I should have packed in order to absorb this loss and to gradually move into a solitary life. Instead, an abrupt change erased all signs of Kenny and Shirley Blair, almost as if we hadn’t happened. I learned. Never would I allow that to happen to any friend I took care of in the same situation. Loss takes time to adjust to. Transitions need not be hurried. CED thought moving on fast, like ripping a bandaid off, was less hurtful. He was wrong. It didn’t work well for him as far as I could see, nor did it work for me.

Walter and Ellen waited in the small side room of the larger dining room. As I walked toward them the seriousness on their faces frightened me. My next thought, What if it’s all a mistake? Kenny never died and they’ve come to tell me? I almost burst out laughing, feeling giddy! No, Walter wouldn’t look like an uptight prune. He loved Kenny, I thought. He’d be rejoicing. I admonished myself. Silly, to hope for such foolishness. One more sign I was not in my right mind.

“Hi,” I said. Walter pointed to a chair at the table.

“Let’s sit. Something has come up,” he said. Walter moved to the head of the table, I to his right, and Ellen across from me.

“Shirley, we have to ask you a question,” said Ellen. I thought, Wow, this must be horrible. She looks awful, not usual for this porcelain-skinned, crystal blue-eyed, and blacked-haired beauty of a woman.

“What is it?” I asked.

Walter began, “As you probably know, Laurel Bergman took the laundry from your house.”

“Yes, actually it was Kenny’s last load of laundry. She was helping me so we could give his clothing away clean,” I said.

“Well,” Walter continued. “She gave the laundry to housekeeping. When Tanya went through all the pockets she found this in a tan jacket,” Walter said, and put a yellow covered soap dish in the middle of the three of us, slowly. Only exacting Walter could have placed the soap dish precisely centered. I thought Walter is really being dramatic, still puzzled about what this had to do with me. He slowly opened the container and uncovered a package of Marlboro’s. I looked up. Both Ellen and Walter were watching for my reaction. When all they got was a puzzled look he continued, “Tanya thought it was Jay’s jacket since Laurel hadn’t mentioned that the laundry was yours. She brought the soap container to Ellen and said it was from the Bergman laundry. We questioned Jay, thinking he was smoking.”

I jested, “Jay? No way!” As our resident genius in electronics and computers, Jay was the most square of squares. Imagining Jay breaking the cardinal rule of no smoking in Synanon, or any rule for that matter, was laughable. He did spend a year in jail as a young conscientious objector for his principles, open and above board, nothing hidden. No, the cigs did not belong to Jay.

Two scenes washed up in my memory. We waited in a long line to buy tickets to board the Queen Mary, Long Beach. Playing tourists, we were trying to forget a grueling day of tests at UCLA Medical Center that only confirmed what we already knew, terminal pulmonary fibrosis. Kenny had a time limit.

“I need to go to the bathroom. Hold our space in line,” said Kenny. “I’ll be right back.” He returned in a few minutes. I smelled smoke but I figured it was another man who had just walked past.

The other scene was in JC Penny’s about a month before he died. Kenny insisted I try on formal gowns. I’d owned two prom dresses in High School, but nothing this fancy, ever. And why did I need one? It was not like we went to formal balls. Synanon enjoyed costume parties, so it was possible I could wear a pretty frock. Kenny insisted that I stop being so practical and try on the dresses. “I want to see what they look like on you.” So I picked three or four. He said he’d go to the men’s room. When he returned he asked me to model the one I liked best. I did. He turned to the clerk, and ordered, “Write it up. We’ll take the dress.” I went to thank him with a kiss. I smelled cigarette smoke. No one was there to blame.

I returned to the dressing room, furious. He was dying of lung disease. Smoking? What lunacy is this? I looked at my reflection in the mirror, took a deep breath, and finally accepted the truth. He is dying. No miracle cures. The lungs are his, not mine. It’s his decision. Not one I would choose, but his, nonetheless. But what do I do now? If I said anything to those who ran Synanon, he’d probably be ousted out of housing, as I would. It wasn’t too hard to imagine him being kicked out of Synanon. Things easily got out of hand. The fact that he had a time limit on his life might be ignored. The Founder was drunk most of the time, at that point, and yet no one stood up to his ranting. I did not want Kenny, or me for that matter, to be put into Chuck’s hands. Who would be the source of sanity? Who would say, “Ken is dying. Leave him be. As long as he is discrete, leave him alone. He’ll be gone soon. What difference could a cig once in a while make in the big picture?” Truth was something I had learned to believe was always the right choice. But if I told the truth I feared Ken’s last days might not end in dignity. In those two or three minutes, I made my decision. When I returned to Ken, the dress in hand, I said nothing. I never smelled smoke on him again, so I convinced myself it could have been a mistake. A smoker could have just walked past Kenny and that’s what I smelled. That’s what I chose to believe, until this minute, staring at a soap dish in the middle of the table.

Walter fiddled with the soap container. He pulled out the Marlboro box. He opened it. Empty. I burst out laughing. Walter and Ellen looked horrified at my response. They were so serious as if the world had come to an end. I laughed harder. The world did seem to end for me, three days earlier. This scene before me seemed minuscule in comparison.

“This isn’t funny, Shirley,” snapped Ellen. “We accused Jay. Laurel had to straighten this mess out. Isn’t this Kenny’s jacket,” Ellen asked. She picked up the jacket from the chair next to her, and placed it on the table, “He must have been smoking.”

“So what Ellen?” I chuckled. “Kenny is dead. What difference does this make?” I couldn’t wrap my mind around the small thinking before me. I just was made a widow. My heart was broken. These people could not see the humor that Kenny might have been imperfect, snuck a cig once in a while, knowing he’d be dead soon, with or without a puff. I decided not to say anything to them about my suspicions. Self-protection? Maybe, but I don’t think I was rational enough then to be that smart. I was still in shock. I barely was able to find the energy to breathe each breath. But I knew I wasn’t going to feed into Ellen and Walter’s insanity. I got up from the table, still chuckling, picked up the soap container pieces, put the Marlboro box inside, closed the soap dish, put the soap dish in my pocket, shook my head, and left them sitting, quite serious, and frozen.

The soap dish is in the bottom of an old barrel Kenny refurbished that I have used as an end table ever since. I peer into the bottom of the barrel once in a while, and smile. The box of Marlboros is still inside of the soap dish, and the soap dish I keep as a reminder that being human does not mean perfection. Life is rarely defined in black and white. Gray permeates much of it.

Approaching the 15th year since Kenny’s passing I had other thoughts about my time with Kenny. I understand why some white Americans easily dismiss the need for affirmative action, while many African-Americans feel strongly that we, as a country, are not ready to disband assistance through the color barriers set up in our culture. When I entered the dining room in the Ahwahnee Inn, Yosemite Valley with Buddy, my African-American first husband, all heads turned toward us. The glorious views from the valley floor, the beautiful American Indian decor of the restaurant, and even their own personal conversations took a back seat to stare at us with a range from simple curiosity, to hostility, to hatred. An entrance to the same dining room with Kenny at my side was only noticed by the host who then led us to our table. Comments made about how hard “it,” (interracial marriage), must be, when I show Buddy’s photo, a man with whom I had much in common, so much so that we were more like brother and sister than husband and wife. But, a photo of Kenny never caused a comment like that since our skin color was the same, and yet Kenny and I had only Synanon in common. You couldn’t find two people who were more different. With Kenny, I lived like a majority of Americans, without the need for the internal pep talk I have lived with since I was ten years old.

“They’re ignorant,” was my pep talk response to a racist comment. I pictured people like Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi, and remembered what they had to go through so that I had a better life. A hostile stare and I’d think, They haven’t had the training or insight that I have been fortunate to have. Forgive their ignorance, because if you don’t, you will be damaged by hatred, revenge, and self-loathing. As my brown-skinned son, JP tried to explain to his blond wife, “When you are brown you don’t get a chance to show who you are in the eyes of some people. From your skin, they decided how to treat you.” Looking back, I realize the lack of race consciousness, in small measure, was the peace I noticed with Kenny.

I can still hear Kenny admonish me when I made mistakes in my crochet project, pulling the yarn free to redo a section. “Shirley, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Persian rugs have purposeful imperfections because ancient people knew only God is perfect.”

Kenny spent hours in his workshop. He tooled handmade leather quilts, or sheepskin motorcycle seats for his friends, or fixed shoes, or handbags. He bought a silver Honda Goldwing Aspencade Motorcycle, took it completely apart, sent the nuts, bolts, and metal trimmings to be gold plated. Back together it was no longer just a motorcycle of shiny gold and silver, but a sculpture.

On the first trip to Carmel after the bike was finished, we returned from a lunch break to find The Gray Ghost, my nickname for the motorcycle, surrounded by some thirty Japanese tourists, snapping one picture after another, flabbergasted because Honda they knew, but this luxurious artistry was something to take back to their friends and families in Japan. They treated Kenny like a rock star.

Kenny devoted most of his time adding wonderful touches to the lives of others. Thus, Betty Dederich, the wife of the founder of Synanon, nicknamed Kenny, Mother Blair. Kenny baked cheesecakes and surprised friends by leaving the cheesecake in their freezers, week after week until they were addicted to the delicious treats. Soon after he died Bob Rod sheepishly knocked on my door, “Just checking, just in case, to see, if maybe, just possibly, did I know, if Kenny put a few cheesecakes in a freezer somewhere that we might be able to find?”


Dream Poem

Kenny appears, a young man No goatee
Chin clean hair brown mustache trimmed
No bald head kept shaved daily 
Clear blue eyes sparkle in recognition He smiles
Into his arms I fly, a sigh of relief He enfolds me
Pulls me close, closer, closest
I feel his hardness
No space between
We move, slowly
It feels unbelieveably good

Startled, I awoke and searched the room, half expected, hoped he’d be there. But I was disappointed. I believed the dream of Kenny was not as I knew him, but as he was in his youth, maybe the way he looked as a paratrooper.


Ken awakened, stretched, yawned, reached, and turned on the radio. It was early, still dark out. The voice described the difficulties of war, the bravery of the soldiers, and how badly they needed more soldiers. His interest peaked. Ken’s father was definitely getting on his nerves. Every evening when his dad returned from work as a police constable, he called Ken lazy, good for nothing, and a bum. Sometimes his father was violent, after a stop at the local bar for what he called his evening nip. Ken was tired of it. An idea brewed.

A couple of nights earlier, Ken’s uncle had visited. The two men remembered their war, World War I. As they drank, the uncle said he had enlisted in the service even though he was underage. His birth certificate had been destroyed in a courthouse fire in Kansas so there was no way to prove or disprove, his age. He picked the age he wanted. Since many places burned down in those days it was common for this to happen.

Ken, tall for his age, a rough manner with a mature edge, frequently, was mistaken for a twenty-year-old, even though he was only fifteen. The war attracted him for many reasons, the most important being, to get away from his father. Thoughts of travel to foreign countries intrigued him. The war movies of women in love with soldiers inspired dreams of himself as a soldier. He dressed and left the house determined that somehow, this day, he would get into the army.

Ken strutted into the army recruiting station. He noticed men in lines in front of a long table. Three soldiers had stacks of papers in front of them, questioning the first man in line, and the answers were written down in the forms.

“Do you want to sign up young man?” Ken looked in the direction of the voice, a man shorter than Ken, uniform pressed, with gold and colorful ribbons pinned on him.

“Yes, I want to. What do I need to do?” Ken replied.

“You need a birth certificate,” the man answered, as he looked Ken over.

“That’s a problem,” Ken said. He continued, “My birth certificate was destroyed when the courthouse burned down in Kansas.”

The recruiter asked Ken how old he was and Ken told him 19. The recruiter seemed to believe him. He told Ken to go to the courthouse, get an affidavit that his parents can sign to verify his age, and that is all he would need.

Ken explained the dilemma to the clerk at the courthouse. She gave him a form. The clerk clarified, “You need your parent’s signatures.” He found a bench in the park across the street and filled out the form. He double-checked that the dates matched his chosen age. Then he returned to the clerk to make certain the form was correct.

“Yes,” she repeated, “but you still need your parent’s signature.” He thanked her, took the form, and left.

Ken believed his parents would never sign. His mom would not lie about his age. His father would yell, hit him, and call him a bum. He thought of signing it himself but was afraid his handwriting wouldn’t work. He went home, found samples of both parents’ writing, and went out again. It still wasn’t clear what he would do.

At an empty picnic table in the local park, he practiced forging his parent’s handwriting. A man edged to the table and asked if he could sit. He looked like he’d slept on the ground for days, dark hair a mess, as if it hadn’t been combed, a little tipsy like he’d already been drinking. But he was friendly, curious, and when he smiled his face softened. He asked, “What’re you doing?” Not really understanding why Ken felt it was okay to talk with this man. Normally, he reacted negatively to drunks. His dad’s example of violent and hateful behavior was definitely connected to alcohol, and Ken hated it. But this man seemed gentle. Ken explained what he was trying to do. The man laughed. “I made a living signing other people’s names,” he said. He asked if Ken would like to see how good he was? Ken handed him the scrap of paper. The man wrote a few practice tries.

“Okay, this is it,” the stranger said, as he signed Ken’s dad’s name, a perfect copy. Impressed, Ken said, “Here. Sign it on this line,” and passed the form to the man.

Before long Ken had the two signatures he needed. He thanked the man profusely, ran to the recruiting station, took his place in line, and waited his turn. Upon returning home, he packed a bag, wrote a note to his mom to let her know he joined the Army and left. He saw his mother at his uncle’s restaurant in Alameda years later, but he never saw his father again.

Ken made it through basic training and then trained with the paratroopers. Parachuting out of airplanes was exciting. Before his 16th birthday, he was on an airplane, headed toward France, part of the 101st Airborne Division that was to take Europe back from the Germans.

At the open door of the airplane, as Ken waited for the signal to jump, he thought, What if a miscalculation happened? No beach, only land below. The sergeant tapped his shoulder at the same moment. With no time to ask, he lunged out of the airplane. “One, two, three,” he counted, hoping, knowing, his chute would open. The welcome harsh force of the parachute jerked him. He felt a sharp ache in his groin as the straps snapped tight. With a sigh of relief, parachute billowing full of air above, he viewed the scene below. He thought he had overheard the sergeant say they were to land near a beach. As he floated to the ground in peaceful silence, appreciating for a few seconds what he thought a bird might feel, he noticed a forest below, a small town a short distance to the East, farmland for miles beyond, and maybe, way off in the distance toward the West, might be what looked like water, but from where he was, he was not certain. Kenny’s feet reached to touch the ground, concentrating on landing. It is not hard to break a bone if you land wrong. He quickly gathered the parachute and hid it in the bushes. He and the others scrambled and met in the forest. The sergeant confirmed, as near as he could figure, they were about 40 to 50 miles off course.

“The war begins now,” the sergeant announced. “We’re behind enemy lines. The only way to get out is to fight. No sense going back to the beach. Those soldiers are fighting their way in this direction so we might as well march forward.”

Off they went toward the town that had been spotted from the sky. At the edge of town, they looked for signs of life, for the enemy. Everything was still, too still. Ken felt fear. For the first time it crossed his mind there was a possibility of being hurt, or worse, killed. From the moment he decided to join, that thought had never crossed his mind, not once. Imagined ticker-tape-parades, a beautiful woman on each arm, oh yes. But now, here, on a street in France, as he moved from building to building, he was afraid.

The sergeant signaled from across the street for Ken to go into the building to search it. Ken walked up the stairs of the porch, rifle in hand, checked to make certain the bayonet was secured and opened the door, slowly. He didn’t see anyone or hear anything in the first room. He moved into the apartment. The furniture was thick and bulky. Windows, covered with dark draperies, excluded all light from the room. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The place smelled musty. A thick layer of dust covered the furniture. It looked like no one had lived there for a while.

He continued through the living room to a door on the right, into the dining room. Across the room, a soldier in a dark uniform, a helmet, with a rifle in hand, pushed open a swinging door, entered the room at the same time, and moved quietly toward him. Ken looked into brown eyes, round as saucers, filled with fear. The young face reflected what Ken was feeling, a scared child, about to bolt, thinking over and over, Why did I do this? I’m too young. Why did I do this?

The German soldier, probably around the same age as Ken, leaped forward and struck Ken’s jaw with the butt of his rifle. Ken’s jaw cracked, teeth shattered, and blood flowed from his mouth. Without even thinking, he stuck his bayonet into the boy in front of him. The boy cried out, “No,” and fell to the ground, dead.

Ken froze. For how long, he didn’t know. He was numb. His mind wouldn’t work. He must have been breathing but he couldn’t feel it. He was icy cold. He just stood, bayonet attached to rifle in his hands, with another person’s blood on it. Slowly a dull pain invaded his consciousness. The pain grew and grew until it shook him to move. He thought, Only minutes ago I was on a plane, laughing. Now I hurt. And I killed a boy! He left the body where it fell on the floor, and retreated from the building to find the sergeant. He’d tell the sergeant the truth. He’s too young to be here. This is not what he wanted to do. He didn’t like it. He wanted to go home. The sergeant was in the alley next to the building. Ken approached him, frantic.

“Sergeant, I’m hurt. Look, I’m bleeding,” getting louder and more hysterical, “I lied about my age. I’m only 16. I want to go home.”

The sergeant took his handgun out of the holster and held it to Ken’s face. Calmly, but fiercely, he said, “Shut up! You’re here and, here you’re going to stay. You’re going back to work soldier, or I’m going to shoot you dead right here and now. Do you understand me, mister?”

Ken believed him. He calmed down, took a deep breath, tucked his emotions deep inside, to a place so deep, they would not surface again for years and years. He retrieved his gun, walked back to the other soldiers, and continued to clear the town of Germans.

The sergeant sent a medic to help Ken stop bleeding, remove loose teeth, temporarily bandage the wounded jaw, and shoot Ken full of pain medication. For the next six weeks, Ken’s constant pain was occasionally relieved by the medic. The drugs not only took care of the pain in his jaw, but they also helped still the terror in his heart. The romance was gone.

1950’s and ’60’s

Kenny was not always the peaceful and creative person I married. After the war, he returned to the United States and moved from one Army base to another. As he told the story to me, he knew of pregnancies he caused, but he never stayed around, so he believed there could be children he deserted. His only concern was how he would find his drug connections, a habit acquired in the war. After he left the Army he returned to the Bay Area. He connected with other young men, out of work, restless, looking for trouble. When the Hell’s Angels formed, Ken joined. He loved motorcycles; the fast life, with access to drugs, and fast women. The Hells Angels became family, friends, and a way of life, in between stints in jail.

He joined the Merchant Marines, traveled throughout Asia, stopping in Shanghai for a time. There is a Chinese woman with the Blair name. A business arrangement, he called it, motivated by the hopes of being able to mail packages with drugs hidden inside when he returned to the United States. He suspected she was with child when he left.

Ken often made fun of his own stupidity when telling young people his story, hoping they might learn from his mistakes, like the time he wanted a quick amount of cash for his drug habit and robbed a small mini-market. While the cashier filled a paper bag with the money from the cash drawer, Ken held a gun trained on the poor storekeeper, grabbed a potato chip bag with the other hand, opened it with his teeth, and ate the chips. He finished the chips at the same time the storekeeper handed him the bag full of money. Ken wrinkled the potato chip bag, threw it thoughtlessly on the ground, took the moneybag, and made his get-a-way. The police used the fingerprints on the potato chip bag to arrest Ken.

How much prison time Ken served I don’t know, but he said in one of his early prison sentences he spent most of his time carving false teeth out of wood, since somehow his set disappeared, and the prison did not intend to replace them. He said they were such a beautiful set of teeth you couldn’t tell them apart from the real things, and he wore them for years.

Law enforcement finally threatened to jail Ken and throw away the keys. Probation Officer Fred Davis took a liking to Ken and convinced a judge Ken was worth one more attempt at rehabilitation. In March of 1969, Ken was delivered to Synanon, feet, and hands shackled.

I asked Ken what made him stay in Synanon when he’d been such an unsettled person his whole life. He laughed, “Stupidity, my own!” Synanon had stopped smoking, or at least, everyone was supposed to stop smoking. But some people found ways to sneak a puff once in a while. Ken was one of those people who refused to quit and figured he was smarter than everyone else so he’d get away with it easily.

One day Ken sent his best friend, Sam, to his room to retrieve a cookbook. Sam opened the door. An unmade waterbed was in the middle of the room. He walked toward the bed, spotting the book on the headboard. To his surprise a Marlboro box glared at him, magnified by the water, enlarged to about two feet wide, and three feet tall! Poor Sam, what a dilemma he found himself in. Synanon taught, “We are our brother’s keepers.” Sam decided if he was truly a good friend he must turn Ken in.

First, the ridicule of the entire community was heaped on Ken, when the story passed from mouth to mouth about the magnification of the pack of cigs, and how stupid Ken was to hide a cigarette pack under an unmade waterbed and send someone in his room to catch him! Then he was sent to a very large parking lot to paint the lines. Ken was forgotten. He painted lines for months. He’d reach one end of the lot, only to be told to start over.

One day after about the fourth or fifth month, as he was again on his knees, painting the same line for the fifth or sixth time around, it occurred to him that maybe he wasn’t so smart after all. As he painted he began to remember each year spent behind bars, the dives he’d lived in, the thousands of dollars thrown away on drugs, the people he’d hurt, children he’d deserted, and women he’d left behind, most of whom, on retrospect, he realized were very nice women and didn’t deserve this treatment. He’d been watching the opportunities in Synanon from the sidelines, calling people chumps who seemed to like it there. Now he thought, maybe he was the chump. He couldn’t make up for the damage he’d done in the past, but he could make certain he did no more harm, and maybe, through Synanon, he could learn how to do some good. “Like I said,” he finished, “stupidity kept me here.”


The folks were polite when I introduced Ken as my new husband. But I detected coolness on the part of my stepfather.

“You know, Chuck, you look familiar,” Kenny said. “I wonder if we met somewhere?”

“I do?” Pop faked surprise.

“Yes, where were you raised?” Kenny asked. “Texas,” Pop answered.

Kenny guessed where he might have seen Pop before. Pop toyed with him, one-word answers to each question. Pop went along until finally, I began to understand why Pop was cool toward Kenny.

Pop was security during peace marches in the ’60s. He watched the crowd from the perimeter, his job was to keep the peace. A long-haired, scraggly, white young man, tattooed arms, a vest with the Hell’s Angel’s emblem, jeans, and motorcycle boots, heckled some of the people nearby. Pop approached the young man and extended his hand. The young man noticed a very large, brown man, dressed in a suit, an African cloth thrown over one shoulder, an African hat to match, with a gentle smile on his face. The young man shrugged, took Pop’s hand, and very quickly wished he hadn’t. Pop squeezed, quietly suggested that he, and his friends, leave the premises. The young man knew that if he pressed the issue as his hand was being pressed, he’d have a broken hand, or worse. This man holding his hand wasn’t kidding. Kenny said he had been paid to attend, and disrupt, this rally by people he believed were FBI agents. Kenny didn’t care about the issues. He’d already been paid and was more interested to find his drug connection, so he agreed to leave, as did his friends.

The white youth had gone through a metamorphosis and taken advantage of the second chance given him at Synanon. And now, Ken, my middle-aged husband, and Pop met again, in my parent’s living room.

“How did you know it was me?” Ken asked.

“Your eyes. I remembered your eyes,” Pop answered.

Kenny looked at the floor, shook his head, and said, “I’m really sorry. I did some terrible things,” a deep sigh escaped from him.

Pop smiled and reached for Kenny’s hand. Kenny hesitated. Pop laughed, “I won’t hurt you! I did some terrible things as a young man, too. But we’re grown now. And family,” Pop nodded toward me. Kenny looked at me, smiled, then reached to shake hands, and blushed. Pop was gentle this time.


Time to find a home for Kenny’s ashes, I thought. Maybe a beach in Alameda where he was raised would be best. But it didn’t seem right. He had little good to say about the place. He liked Marin County. Point Reyes Seashore or Bodega Bay were spots that meant something to us both. I decided to mull it over a while longer.

I attended a graduation party. Kenny’s best friend opened the front door. I had not seen him since Kenny died. Bob Rodriguez and I had been relieved to be far from one another. After Kenny died, every time I saw Bob the pain of our mutual loss seemed more intense. We avoided one another after a while. But we were years down the road now, and it was a joyous reunion.

“I want to take Kenny’s ashes to the ocean,” I announced. Bob said, “What a great idea.”

“Do you have any suggestions?” I asked.

“If you go to the ocean spread his ashes where the waves actually break. For some reason that seems important,” Bob suggested.

“I will.”

Bob would not be in town. I didn’t want to do this alone. My daughter-in-law came to mind. Not only is she my son’s wife and my friend, she was Kenny’s apprentice in Food Service during the time of our marriage. She represented the many young people he mentored in Synanon, trying to, in some small measure, make up for the children he believed he had sired and deserted.

Carla arrived dressed in the warmth needed for a day on the northern coast. The bright smile and blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, warmed my heart. She is the kind of person who finds the one flower on a hillside of weeds. Time spent with her can only be wonderful. She drove us to North Salmon Creek Beach, Bodega Bay. On these shores, she and my son Richie had taken romantic horseback rides.

We hiked down the hillside, onto the sand, took off our shoes, rolled our jeans, and waded into the water. Two black scabrous volcanic pieces jutted from the sand. Waves broke onto them. A valley between the rocks marked the perfect spot. The summer fog cleared and left us blue sky with patchy spots of white wispy clouds. Cool winds blew and a hot sun warmed our faces.

“Wait until the tide goes out,” Carla enthusiastically instructed.

The cold water soaked the jeans to our knees. We watched the waves wash over the rocks, cover our feet, onto the beach behind us, back again, and out to the sea. After a couple of cycles, I opened the sealed bag of Kenny’s ashes. Pure white, very small chips of bone, not ashes like the gray ones in a fireplace, as I expected. They were more substantial, like pieces of shells, and sounded like shells when I sifted them through my fingers.

As the wave broke I ventured, “Thank you Kenny for a wonderful life together.” I scooped and filtered the ashes through my fingers. “I know you’re making the best of where ever you are. I’m trying to make the best of where I am. I’m grateful to Carla for being with me now. And I wish the best for us all.”

I poured his ashes into the valley between the two black rocks; for seconds the whiteness covered the blackness. Some of the ashes blew in the air; a fine white mist enveloped me and settled on my clothing. I brushed the ash into the seawater. The water grabbed the ashes and rushed them out to sea.

Laughter broke loose in both of us. It was freezing. We moved. We put on socks and shoes over the wet sand. We were uncomfortable, and yet, it did not matter. We stood, walked, arm in arm back to the car, and discovered a voracious hunger.


“I am trying to help my mother, and her three brothers find a missing father. We have reason to believe he might have been your husband. I am the granddaughter of Ken Blair. May we communicate with you?” said Melissa Littrell Phipps, through an unexpected email one morning. That is how I found out Kenny was the father of four children, grandfather to ten, and great-grandfather to two. A new story emerged.

Shirley Blair, Jimmy’s wife, had been given a computer as a Christmas gift. She surfed the Internet and realized she might be able to help Jimmy and his siblings find the missing father. They’d been looking, unsuccessfully, for ten years. She had the marriage certificate with Ken’s parents’ names. That led to his birth certificate, death certificate, and Synanon. I had just that week placed a piece of artwork on the website entitled “Kenny’s Ink Quilt.” A photo collage, a paragraph explaining the piece of art, as well as my e-mail address, helped her find me. She immediately reported back to the family that she’d found their father.

“Unfortunately he isn’t living, but his last wife is,” she announced, and continued, “You won’t believe what her name is. Shirley Blair,” announced Jimmy’s wife, Shirley Blair.

Kenny met Earline while stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, sometime after the war ended. How long they had a love affair isn’t quite clear, but in 1948 the first child, Ricky, was conceived. They married. Kenny relocated to Fort Bragg, Georgia, but Earline stayed close to her mother’s home. Kenny visited regularly. Over the next five years Jimmy, Pat, and Andy were born.

An elder aunt is the only person still living who actually remembers Earline and Ken as a couple. In her opinion, the children are lucky they don’t remember. He was a seedy character. Alcoholism played a big role in the trouble between Earline and Ken. The aunt did not recognize that drug addiction also played a role, at least with Kenny. After 1953, when he disappeared, the aunt was relieved. He was never heard from again. Earline died in her early forties of heart failure, damage done by both excessive cigarettes, and alcohol, according to Melissa.

Melissa and I corresponded for a few days. She was an intelligent twenty-one-year-old, working diligently to get a college education, recently married, and someone Kenny would have been very proud of. Through her, a phone date was set up with three of Kenny’s children. Pat, Jimmy, and Andy clarified what they wanted from me. Did he ever mention their existence? What was he like as a person? They had a need to fill the void, to know they mattered, even on some small, secret part in the back of Kenny’s consciousness. They had a curiosity about what part of him they had inherited, through genes, even though they did not remember him.

Because of the coincidence of our same name, a barrier was broken immediately between Shirley and me. I described Kenny’s need to appear to know all the answers. He would get answers from me, and then take total credit for the knowledge. With great glee, she told me Jimmy does the same to her!

After the Blair phone call, I contacted the only person I knew who had a similar situation, my sister Nicky. At fifteen years of age, she found out my stepfather was her blood father. She always knew she was adopted, but it hurt to find out her parents and “Uncle Chuck” had lied to her. I witnessed her process this shocking truth, and it wasn’t easy. I thought she’d be the best person to advise me in this delicate situation.

Nicky’s birth grandmother had given her a photo album of Nicky’s birth mother who died at 19-years-old. The photos showed Betty’s growth from infancy to death. Nicky said that was the beginning of integrating this new truth into her life, seeing her mother’s face, and her own likeness to her mother emerge.

I had inherited two photo albums put together by a woman named Rachel, married to Kenny for three years prior to me. At Nicky’s suggestion, I prepared to mail the photo albums to the Blair family. As I looked through the albums I discovered photos from the ’30s that might be Kenny as a child, his parents, and two other children. It occurred to me that I should call Rachel and ask her if she remembered anything about those photos. She was married to Kenny when he was healthy. He might have shared more of the past with her. That led me to call Jody, married to Kenny before Rachel.

Receptive, both women gave permission for the Blair children to contact them. They knew more than I did, which bothered me at first. How come I didn’t know Kenny had a brother named Dwain? Jimmy’s middle name, spelled with one D, I later discovered, same as brother Dwain. Kenny never took me to Alameda, like he did Rachel and Jody. Small family reunions were held at the restaurant owned by the aunt and uncle, attended by Ken’s brother and cousin, the children in the photos. Rachel recognized Earline’s name and knew of the four children. Rachel also believes there is another woman who had one child by Kenny, but she knows no detail. Is that the Chinese woman he told me about? We do not know.

I wrote a letter to Sonny Barger, who’d recently opened a motorcycle shop. I asked Sonny if he remembered a Kenneth Ddwain Blair in the early days of the Hell’s Angels.

One evening I received a call, “My name is Mrs. Barger. I’m Sonny Barger’s wife. I’m responding to your letter to Sonny. He doesn’t remember the name Ken Blair.”

Had Sonny called himself I might have tried more questions to jog his memory. But he didn’t, and when I asked his wife to talk with him, she said he just won’t. Years after Kenny’s death Ken’s probation officer told me that he had heard rumors that the way Ken kept himself out of jail before Synanon was to inform for the police. If Sonny remembered Kenny as a snitch maybe he didn’t feel it was worth getting involved. Or maybe Kenny never was a Hells Angel. If that was a lie, what else?

Kenny deserted four little children. He believed the children were better off without him. According to Jody, they talked many times about this. She, too, had left a child to be cared for by the father because of drug addiction. Jody reestablished a relationship with her child later, but obviously, Ken decided not to. It’s silly to argue about his logic at this point. The Blair children are grandparents! I can’t deny he did a good job with the Synanon children in his attempts to make up, in small measure, for his inadequacy as a parent. Many young people from Synanon remember him fondly and are grateful for his teachings.

For me, his total acceptance of me was a pivotal point, leading to a creative side I had never appreciated before. The dance happened not long before Kenny died, on a warm, summer, star-filled night when he thanked me for my love and care. Motorcycle rides, literally gliding on the top of the world, the entire Sierra range of mountains below, breathtaking to the mind, and the soul, did happen. Appreciation for each moment with Kenny lives in my heart.

At the end of his life, Kenny lived up to his nickname Mother Blair. He was a caretaker of people. Friends of Ken found hours of entertainment in his stories. I welcomed the Blair Clan into my life, with a hope that they found some comfort as they read stories about Ken, and got to know this “…two wheelin’ wizard.”

After Note:

Soon after this was written, I received a call from the other Shirley Blair. The Post Office had delivered the box I mailed. Kenny’s sons, grandchildren, and even the two youngest great-grandchildren gathered together. Out came the photo albums, the framed art, and photos. Kenny on motorcycles, Kenny in the kitchen, Kenny with the many youngsters who had apprenticed under him over the years, Kenny with the school children, Kenny in pictures with Jody, Rachel, and Shirley, the three women he’d married throughout the years he lived in Synanon, Kenny with his best friends, artists’ renditions of Kenny in various forms. All I kept was the barrel he’d made, the soap dish that held the empty Marlboro package, a drawing by Fran Carder of Kenny, and the photos of the salmon party for George. These people were his blood, and I thought it important they have whatever legacy Kenny did leave.

Shirley told me it has been a week since the box was opened. After a family gathering that happened this day, they decided to put the box away. They were in pain, most of which they couldn’t explain to one another. They won’t be keeping contact with me. Gratitude was expressed that I had gone to such trouble, and they appreciated it. They feared I would think them ingrates but they were hurt more than they realized by the desertion. Over time, Shirley thought, this would change, but for now, “I hope you understand.” Of course I do.

It is 2008. I have never heard from them again. I think of them often and hope, through the love of one another and their children and grandchildren, they find a way to forgive Kenny, for their own sakes. They did something their father and mother were incapable of doing. They made good families of their own. The siblings stay very close and take good care of one another. Their children will never feel deserted.

{Please do not copy or use any parts of this story without the permission of Shirley A. Blair Keller, excerpted from But What About the Children? ©2019. Available on Amazon.

THE DONKEY SONG by Shirley A. Blair Keller published in ©2021 is available on Amazon. A novella inspired by a true love story.

1 reply »

  1. That was a very interesting story I never knew all that about Kenny.. I remember he was a kind sweet man ..I remember him in whites with that big hat as the top Chef ..and I remember working in the kitchen with him .. I don’t ever remember him being married and I don’t recognize the names of his wives ..I entered the community 69 when I was about 18/ 19

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