I took up the hobby of cake decorating as a replacement for my first hobby, making fireworks. When I was a boy, my Uncle George and Aunt Dorothy, whom we affectionately called Dodo, and their son Garry, would get together with my parents, my brother Dean, and me on the 4th of July. Uncle George and my father would each buy a box, about the size of an apple box, full of fireworks, and we'd shoot them off in the street infront of our house in the evening. Dean and I would get up early on the 5th and walk through our neighborhood looking for fireworks that had failed to go off the night before. We collected everything that looked promising, brought them home, and tried our luck with them. It was an awful lot of fun.
A friend gave me the formula for black powder when I was in 7th grade and it wasn't long after that that I learned how to make other mixtures that would burn with various colors or do special things when they burned. I made the family fireworks for most of my highschool years and into college. I knew how to treat the chemicals with care and reduce the chances of serious accidents, though I had a couple of minor ones. Eventually I became too comfortable with the chemicals and would catch myself doing careless things. So, rather than blow my hand off, or worse, I decided to give up my favorite hobby. I gave my chemicals to my high school and started looking for a safer hobby.
It wasn't long after that that my girlfriend Sara and I went to visit Sara's sister Sue and her husband and children on their farm near Petaluma for the weedend. It happened to be Sara's nephew's birthday that weekend, and Sue baked a birthday cake for him. After it was baked, Sara and I watched as Sue made up some decorator's icing and decorated the cake with roses that she made on a rose nail and fancy borders around the top edge and the bottom. She wrote "Happy Birthday" on it and added a variety of other nice touches. It was beautiful. I thought to myself, "Now there's a nice safe hobby that would let a person be creative."
When I got home, I told my mother that I was interested in learning to decorate cakes. She found that the park and recreation department in the adjoining town, Hayward, was giving a class. Sara and I both signed up. The class was taught by a wonderful cake decorator and teacher named Mary Wise. One thing I remember from that class, besides how to decorate cakes, is how tired of eating cake my family became. We had to bring a cake to each class, one a week for 8 to 12 classes.
The other thing I remember was my great embarrassment in the last class. Mrs. Wise told us during the class before, that we would have a contest for our last class. We could each decorate a cake any way we chose and bring it to the last class. Then we would vote for our favorite. I thought and thought for some design that might be novel and pretty. Finally I decided to decorate the cake like a sun dial. The vertical piece that casts the shadow, the glomon, was made from a piece of thin cardboard covered with dark icing. I put Roman numerals on the top and vines crawling around the sides, trying to make it look like it was taken from some ancient garden. Sara made a very pretty light colored cake with pussy willows and flamingos decorating it. When it came time to vote, I looked the cakes over. I didn't vote for my own, of course, and for the same reason I didn't vote for Sara's. I felt that voting for Sara's was very much the equivalent of voting for my own. Then Mrs. Wise read off the votes. My cake won, but to my surprise and dismay, Sara's cake got no votes at all. How I wished then that I had voted for Sara's cake. It's a lesson I've never forgotten. As with so many things, my intentions were good but a lack of thought made the situation come out bad.
It was probably a couple years later that I made my first wedding cake. My best friend Steve had met and dated a girl named Lynn. Her sister Rene was engaged to be married, but no date had been set for the wedding. One day Rene learned that the minister who had married her parents would be visiting the Bay Area in a little more than a week. She thought that it would be wonderful to have him marry her also. He agreed to perform the ceremony. That left Rene with the problem of completely organizing a wedding in a very short time. Among the many problems was getting a wedding cake. She couldn't get one on such short notice. When she learned that I decorated cakes she asked if I would do it. I warned her that I'd never done a wedding cake before. She said that was okay.
I had a magazine-like book, published by Wilton, the cake decorating people. It gave me some ideas for the cake. One idea that I saw and particularly liked was that of separating the tiers with small, stemmed glasses turned upside down with an icing rose bud under each one. I was able to find some glasses in two different sizes. I bought four of the larger size to separate the bottom and middle tiers and four of the smaller to separate the middle and top tiers. There was a cake decorating shop in Hayward where I found several choices of bride and broom figures for the top of the cake.
Having decorated many birthday cakes by this time, I knew that it would take several days to decorate a wedding cake. I worked in Lynn's apartment so I could get opinions on how the cake should look. During that time Lynn gave a bridal shower for Rene in the apartment. I packed all the decorating equipment and the three tiers of the cake into a bedroom and proceeded to work there during the first part of the shower. At some point Lynn, or her roommate Jan, mentioned to one of the guests that the wedding cake was being decorated in the bedroom. Then everyone wanted to see it, and I was invited to join the party and share in the refreshments.
The wedding was in the evening. That afternoon we took the tiers from Lynn's apartment to Rene's, where the reception was to be. Each tier was essentially done by that time, but they weren't assembled yet. One of us carried each tier, and the groom drove, very slowly. I took along some icing and decorating equipment for finishing touches.
I also brought along some thin cardboard and scissors. I had discovered that if I tried to place the second tier on top of the bottom tier that the weight of the second tier would cause the glass rims to sink into the cake. Cardboard disks, covered with icing, would prevent that problem without showing. I'd tried it out and it seemed to work.
I didn't know how wedding cakes were made stable with all the superstructure inside them, but I did know that my cake was lacking something, and I didn't trust it to not fall down during the wedding, so I didn't intend to put it together until afterward. The plan was for me to go to the wedding, rush out afterward and drive the 30 miles or so to Rene's apartment as fast as I could, assemble the cake before anyone arrived, and have it ready when the bride, groom, and guests walked in.
The wedding was beautiful, as all weddings are. I made it out of the church pretty fast. While pictures were being taken I was driving down the freeway. I let myself into Rene's apartment with Rene's key and set the middle tier in place. Everything looked good. Then I got the third tier in place, but as I started to let go the middle and top tiers started to lean a bit. I took the top tier off. Then I took the middle tier off too. The cardboard circles weren't big enough on the top of the bottom tier. I made bigger ones and replaced the little ones, smoothing the icing over and replacing the icing rose bud under each glass as fast as I could. Time was running short. I got the middle tier in place. I put the top tier in place. As I took my hands slowly away it tipped slightly and then stopped. I hesitated with my hands ready to catch it, and then the doorbell rang. I hesitated a moment. It wasn't moving, so I went to get the door.
It was the bride and groom. I let them in and as I did, I heard a sound from the dinette where the cake was. I rushed back and there was the top tier on the carpet. Despite the feeling of disaster inside me, I looked to see just how much damage had been done. The top tier was lost, obviously, but the figures of the bride and groom had been thrown free and the small amount of icing on their base was easily washed off. Quite amazingly, only the decorative border on the top edge of the second tier had been hit as the top tier fell. No more than two inches of it were damaged. They were toward the back of the cake and were quickly repaired. I placed the bride and groom figures in the middle of the middle tier, now the top tier. That was the new design of the wedding cake.
Then I got down, under the table, and scooped the bulk of the cake and icing off the carpet where it had gone over the edge. The guests began to arrive. I took several damp towels and tried to get the icing out of the carpet. I'm sure my sense of time was somewhat distorted by the situation I was in, but it seemed that I worked on the carpet for half an hour. Finally, as I was finishing, still under the table and pretty much out of sight, a few of the last guests arrived. As they came in I overheard one saying to another, "Well, I heard that the wedding cake fell on the floor, but it looks all right to me." I felt better.