Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Exclusive: Cancer Patient and Veteran of "The Forgotten War" Gets His Wish 60 Years Later

Robert Mountz in his Navy days during Korean War
Robert "Bob" Mountz, 85, a hardy, resilient and compassionate veteran of the Korean War, which many have rightly called "The Forgotten War," is battling stage IV lung cancer and has one simple wish: to revisit the ship at the center of his wartime memories.

Mountz, who served on the USS Midway as a corpsman caring for sick and wounded sailors from 1952 to 1954, has not seen the mighty aircraft carrier since he was honorably discharged 60 years ago. But thanks to two worthy charities, Mountz will get his wish and set foot on the legendary ship in San Diego next week.

Mountz, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer last summer and started chemotherapy in July, was selected as a deserving wish recipient by Home Care Assistance, a Palo Alto-based home care company, and Wish of a Lifetime. Both companies are dedicated to celebrating the lives of older adults, including cancer patients and veterans, and giving voices and faces to an often-undervalued population.

Mountz, who's still going through chemo and lives in Hamilton, Ind., maintains an infectiously positive attitude and often talks fondly about his time on the Midway. Mountz can tell you that the ship served for an unprecedented 47 years and saw action in the Vietnam War and was the Persian Gulf flagship in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The Midway is now resting majestically in the San Diego Harbor, where it's been transformed into a popular military museum

The USS Midway on the open sea -
According to Mountz's daughter Laura Miller, visiting the longest-serving Navy aircraft carrier of the 20th century would highlight a part of his life that is very important to him. When I asked him what it will be like to see the Navy ship again, Mountz said he expects to feel “some kind of euphoria.”

Mountz, his childhood friend Wilma Underwood and his daughters Deborah Mountz and Laura Miller will be received by a special welcoming party of museum staffers on board the Midway and get a private tour of the ship, including the sick bay where as a corpsman Mountz spent most of his time. The tour will be led appropriately by a fellow former corpsman.

Mountz, who worked on his grandfather's farm tending to cattle and crops from ages 15 through 21, joined the Navy in 1950 and was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station at Waukegan, Ill., just before Christmas for boot camp.

"We didn't get any uniforms right away so we had to stand in line outside in our civilian clothes and it was 17 below zero," he recalled. "There were only two of us in a barracks that housed 240 people, as most waited to join after Christmas. So it was quite a cultural shock being home with mom and dad one day and the next sitting in a 240-man barracks with one other person that you did not know."

Robert Mountz recently on an Indiana farm
Mountz first saw the mighty Midway in September 1952 when he was assigned to the ship, which was in dry dock at Portsmouth, VA.

"At the time she was getting some refitting done and her bottom was being sand blasted and repainted," he said. "Imagine my amazement to see this huge ship out of the water. She stood 13 stories high, six decks below the water line and seven decks above. She is more than three football fields long and housed 3,000 plus personnel. She weighs 65 thousand tons and could maintain approximately 30 knots [37 mph]."

Mountz said the passageways were so intricate that the first few days he learned where he worked, slept and ate. "It was a week before I ventured topside and learned how to get from here to there," he says

At the end of his second cruise he was relieved by the F.D.R. (same-class carrier) and returned to Norfolk, VA, where he was discharged in October 1954 as a HM-3. He was honorably discharged with a Good Conduct Medal, a European Theatre Medal, and another that he has forgotten.

After discharge from the Navy he returned home to Indiana to begin civilian life. "For most of my working years I was a self-employed general contractor remodeling homes, adding room additions, and building new homes for sale," he said. "I completed my last project in September 2014 at age 85."

Mountz says he is "really excited" about boarding the Midway again after all these decades. "I look forward to getting down in the sickbay and seeing where my desk was. I’ve never been to San Diego before. I think I’ll really enjoy the area.”

As for his stage IV lung cancer, which he is still bravely fighting, Mountz takes it in stride. "I must have smoked too many Pall Mall’s on the ship," he says.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Croce's Park West in San Diego: The Coolest Place in Town

Two iconic restaurants indigenous to their respective cities -- Tavern on the Green in New York and Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar in San Diego -- recently closed their doors. But not to worry, both of these venerable eateries have been happily resurrected. Tavern on the Green has reinvented itself in the same lofty Central Park West locale at 66th Street with a shining $15 million upgrade by owner and filmmaker Jim Caiola. Croce's, too, has reopened. Well, sort of. It's not in the same spot and doesn't have exactly the same name. Croce's Restaurant & Jazz Bar, which was located in San Diego's historic Gaslamp District, is now Croce's Park West on Fifth Avenue in Bankers Hill, just west of Balboa Park. 

I'm happy to report that both restaurants are better than ever. Tavern on the Green has a more open, accessible feel now and has regained its buzz and legendary status. Croce's Park West, too, has a touch of urbane Manhattan, as you can see from the black and white pic above. But it still wisely reflects the So-Cal casual/classy vibe that defines everything for which proprietor Ingrid Croce is known.

Croce's Park West owner Ingrid Croce keeping the customers satisfied
Ingrid is a remarkable woman, and a singular pioneer of downtown San Diego's restaurant and live music scene. Her move to nearby Bankers Hill is good news for people like me who loved the old Croce's but didn't dig the raucous Gaslamp, which has been taken over by eternally annoying twentysomething hipsters.

Located a few miles away from the chaos of the Gaslamp, Croce's Park West is my new favorite destination in San Diego to eat (lunch, brunch, dinner) and hear live music with family and friends. It's near perfection. Without question the coolest place in town. 

The menu is upscale but very American. Nothing too foo-foo here, but it's all about quality. The Charbroiled Prime New York Steak, for example, is one of the best steaks I've ever consumed outside my native Iowa. It's topped with gorgonzola and served with crispy brussels sprouts, Bordeaux sauce, and Park West Fries. The yummiest fries you'll ever taste, they're topped with smoked sea salt and are served with honey roasted garlic-lemon thyme aioli, agave whole grain mustard, and sriracha ketchup. I can't pronounce it, either, but trust me it's delish'.

Ingrid instinctively knows how to run a restaurant and make every customer feel right at home. She's a warm, intelligent, perceptive woman who happens to be a foodie without being pretentious. I never thought that was possible.

Dave Scott & the New Jazz Ensemble perform at Croce's Park West
While the food and atmosphere at Ingrid's new place are nonpareil, it's the music that still reigns. Croce's Park West pays perpetual homage to the melody makers (check out the music art on the wall). It's a place where musicians love to play because they know the owner respects them. 

My wife and I recently caught a lively set in Croce's Expatriate Room by Eve Selis, the remarkable Americana singer with whom I was honored to have sung on "Settling Down," a duet I wrote the day I proposed to my wife. Eve is a dynamo, a powerful but also sensitive musical force of nature and crowd pleaser who's among the best singers San Diego has ever produced. If there was any justice she would be a superstar. But she has a very devoted following.

Every musician I've seen at Croce's Park West looks happy to be there. Tonight the place features sax' master Rickey Woodard, who's played with Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, among other legends. Ingrid loves and respects musicians because she is one. She was in a folk duo with her late husband, Jim Croce, who of course went on to become a hugely popular solo singer-songwriter who tragically died in a plane crash in 1973 at the height of his fame.

Talent runs in the family. Twenty years after Jim sadly died, I co-wrote a profile of Ingrid and Jim's son, AJ Croce, for People magazine. It was among the first national stories on AJ, a gifted jazz and pop singer-songwriter who still makes fantastic records. AJ was a baby when his famous father died. But he is proud of his musical heritage. 

Ingrid and Jim Croce
I was shocked when I heard that Ingrid was shutting the Gaslamp restaurant's doors. It was the result of a dispute with a landlord who simply had no clue how beloved Croce's is. The music of the basement club below was apparently driving Croce's customers away. And the landlord just didn't get it.

But the new place tops the old place. It's less hectic getting in and out of there, for one thing. It's in a not-so-rowdy neighborhood yet still in the heart of the city. Its proximity to the park and its urbane look give it a bit of a Tavern on the Green vibe. But it is above all else California cool, a great place to meet friends, entertain out-of-town visitors, or just chill and listen to the best live music in San Diego.

Ingrid has come so far. When she met Jim in the 1960s, she was a 16-year-old artist, gymnast and folk singer and Jim was a sophomore at Villanova. He asked her if she would sing with him, they became a duo and landed a record deal with Capitol Records. And yes, they fell deeply in love somewhere along the way.

When Ingrid learned she was going to have a baby, Jim wrote "Time in a Bottle," "You Don’t Mess Around with Jim," "Operator" and "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." All four of these songs have of course become American pop classics, along with several more of Jim's compositions such as "I Got a Name" and "I'll Have to Say I Love You in a Song." It's preposterous that Jim Croce has not yet been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

When Jim and Ingrid moved to San Diego in 1973, downtown was mostly inhabited by drug dealers and other lowlifes. But defiantly, Jim told her that they should open their own place on the corner of Fifth Avenue and F Street. Jim died just a week later. 

Ingrid, suddenly a widowed, single mom, eventually opened that restaurant and music club to honor her late husband. And the rest is San Diego history. Ingrid's success story continues. She and husband Jimmy Rock, my friend and fellow Iowa native, are in the new Croce's club most nights making sure everyone is having a good time. 

They've both worked very hard to become arguably San Diego's best known restaurateurs. And the new place continues to honor Jim Croce’s legacy. Croce's Park West is the ideal venue for good food and live music for grownups. Jazz. Soul. Pop. Country. Singer-songwriters. It's all there. And I'd keep writing about it here, but I don't have time: I'm heading down to Croce's right now with my wife for dinner and some music. See you there?