Monday, June 6, 2016

When I floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee, spent a bit of time with Muhammad Ali

I have been struggling with my emotions since Muhammad Ali died Friday night.  I was fortunate in my life to spend time with The Greatest (and he truly was) during the few days before and after the Sept. 15, 1978, fight during which he won for a third time the heavyweight crown by “whuppin’’’ Leon Spinks.  The night of the fight itself was a sleepless one for me, literally. Read on, you’ll see why.  At 8 a.m. Sept. 16, 1978, I was sitting next to Ali on a loveseat in his Hilton hotel room.

Most of the press from the night before likely was sleeping it off.  Me, I was still quivering with excitement and the opportunity to spend a couple hours, virtually uninterrupted, with the once-again-crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

After that dream answered, I took the historic St. Charles streetcar back to my hotel near an above-ground graveyard.  I had already sent my copy from the fight to my assistant sports editor and pal, Larry Schmidt, back in the newsroom that looked out over Commerce Street in Clarksville.  I was going to write the story of my time with Ali, finally grab a nap and then go back to the Quarter, where a bartender two nights before had taught me how to shuck an oyster.

On that day after the fight, I went back and forth between the French Quarter and the press room set up in the Hilton.  It was the first time I interviewed a totally naked woman (she had shown all of her charms by climbing into the ring the night before) and I found out that at close-range, she was beautiful, a bit chilly and obviously “my type.” I was just a kid, remember.  I wrote a little story about her as well after she autographed a photo, carefully not covering her private zones with the signature.

I had met Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Kenny Norton, Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, Howard Cosell and a flock of Hollywood superstars over the previous few days.

Of course all of that paled in comparison to the several times I had been with Ali during that week, with our last encounter being the almost one-on-one joking and talking in the hotel suite.

I saw Ali a few more times after that.  The last time I saw him, the horror of his Parkinson’s was just beginning to slow him down.  He no longer was “the Louisville Lip,” but a middle-aged man (by boxing standards) who had taken too many punches to the head.  That’s one of the risks of the Rope-a-Dope, I suppose.

 I don’t know much else to say, other than that I’m proud I spent time with The Greatest and that memory will live on.

Of course, most of the TV news remembrances have been glorious, flashy and funny and don’t focus on the man trapped for decades inside body’s shell by Parkinson’s.

While I have written about other encounters with the former Cassius Clay, most of my Ali stories come from the time I covered the fight for The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville.

 I traded my planned and budgeted trip to the Master’s (golf's not my game) for enough money to fly me to New Orleans, feed me oysters and gumbo and beignets, that were still hot when I retrieved them on the tray that was planted, along with chickory-laced coffee, outside my room each morning.  They also left the day’s newspaper. (You remember newspapers don’t you? )
Just shy of 28 years old, I learned much on that trip, much of which will go to my grave with me.

I fell in love with New Orleans and streetcars, above-ground graveyards and voodoo queens.  Because of my time spent there with Muhammad Ali, that city has been special to me and I’ve visited often.  Even pondered moving there, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as magical as the time I was there for The Fight.

The time a tired boxer extended his hand and shook my own very softly, explaining his hands were sore from “whuppin’” Leon Spinks the night before.

Ali’s death has saddened me (that’s not hard). It also has been invigorating to watch all of the news stories, to see him in his prime, to realize that, really, he had lived his life and it was time to take the ring in the great whatever after.  My other hero, by contrast, was John Lennon, whose life ended  in healty life’s prime at 40 due to a crazed fan confused by “Catcher in the Rye.” (Weren’t we all?)

But Ali was always there, a man I respected, loved even, who had made plenty of mistakes in his life, but fessed up and bounced back until he could bounce no more. He could hardly even walk.

I don’t feel eloquent today.  And it depresses me that most of my clips of the coverage from sparring to weigh-in to the fight itself and the after-parties disappeared in the May 2010 flood that consumed my office and most of my written memories. But nothing could steal those in my head.

Because I won many honors for one piece of my coverage, a column I hope you’ll stick around to read (see it below), I still had a Xeroxed (yep, a real Xeroxed) copy of it in my short stack of favorite “resume” writings that remained dry, a few feet above the water six years ago.

I am too tired to write much more about him, and the clips on TV tell the story better anyway. Skip the Will Smith movie and watch the real thing, the clips of “The Thrilla in Manila” – featuring Ali and Joe Frazier in the most brutally beautiful of all prize fights. Or perhaps watch the guy from the George Foreman Grills commercials get “Rope-a-Doped” in Zaire during “The Rumble in the Jungle.”    

Sure, I’m a man of peace who stood proudly against war.  Sure, as my pal Kristofferson would say “Tim, you’re a walking contradiction.” But I relished in the ring exploits of Muhammad Ali.  And I’ll never forget his personal kindness to me.

Here’s a farewell to the fight and my time in New Orleans that I composed on a steamy Sunday, at a table in the French Quarter over chickory coffee before my mid-afternoon flight back to Nashville’s ancient Berry Field.

Thanks for making it this far and read on if you wish:
Ali and me ….
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, September 1978 --
“Ali … Ali  … Ali… Ali …”
There is something unbelievably exciting about being surrounded by 70,000 people exploding in unison with one magic word over and over again.

Of course that is just what happened Friday night when the main act in a four-day circus in New Orleans took place in the center ring beneath the biggest big-top of them all – the Louisiana Superdome.

Everybody was in town for the final performance of “Muhammad Ali’s Traveling Circus and Magic Show.” No matter who you talked to – bartenders, jazz musicians, cab drivers – they were all going to the Ali-Leon Spinks rematch.

The airports had been busy for days prior to the fight. Cabs were almost impossible to come by.

The jazz throbbed long and loud on Bourbon Street. The beer flowed freely.

People wandered the streets all night long. Folks from Tunisia, India, South Africa and Hollywood and, of course, the mob, had made the pilgrimage.

All of the excitement could have easily turned to violence and tragedy.

“It’s insanity,” said one of the nation’s top boxing writers of the crowd which had paid $200 per seat to witness the fights from the main floor of the Superdome Friday.

The reporter had left his cherished ringside seat to join the bulk of the working press up in the press box.

“It’s uncontrollable down there,” he said, shaking his head. “People are drinking and shoving and yelling at one another. There’s not usher one down there. No one can see!”

The first true indication that there was a little “insanity” in the air came during Thursday’s heavyweight weigh-in in the Grand Ballroom of the New Orleans Hilton. The ballroom has a seating capacity of 400. An estimated 3,500 pushed into the session which was to have been for members of the press only.

The crowd pushed its way onto the stage where the weighing was taking place.The stage nearly collapsed.

The weigh-in incident cause a rift between co-promoters Top Rank and Louisiana Sports Inc. The charges and counter-charges floating around did little alleviate the tension in the air.

While the nation was watching some pretty fine boxing on television, the press and the crowd in the Superdome were treated to many, many other fights in the crowd.

Though there was quite a bit of security, it was pretty slack. Many of us in the press were wondering just what would happen if the obvious crowd favorite, Ali, lost. It could have been incredibly tragic.

After the evening’s fight card was concluded, thousands flocked to the Hilton, where a “Championship Extravaganza” featuring Isaac Hayes as the entertainment and the fighters as scheduled special guests was to be held.

A little thing like the loss of the heavyweight championship of the world did not keep Leon “Disco” Spinks off the dance floor.  However, he was the only boxer to spend much time at the extravaganza. Ali did not attend at all.

But most of the people who flocked in the Hilton did not have tickets ($75 per person) for the extravaganza – which was in the same Grand Ballroom as the weigh-in.

People who attended the bash came out and tried to peddle their torn ticket stubs to members of the flashily-dressed throng outside the entrance to the ballroom.

Others tried to rush the gate.

Police officers wielding nightsticks came in on at least one occasion to try to help control the crowd.

“I wouldn’t go in there,” said one woman, who was working the ticket gate.

The extravaganza went on well into the night. In fact, the first member of Ali’s “family” to arrive –noted comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory – finally came to the Hilton at 3:30 a.m.

But the way the people filled the streets outside it seemed like it should be just the middle of the afternoon. The situation in the French Quarter a few blocks away was similar.

It was Mardi Gras in September. Both Friday and Saturday nights the celebrating on Bourbon Street and surrounding area was in full gear. The crowd nearly filled the entire street.

Jazz blared out of some clubs, while barkers tried to coax the celebrants into other clubs offering such specialties as “topless and bottomless tabletop dancing.”

Fans – drinks in hand – each made it from oyster bar to beer joint to Dixieland hall. Many folks danced in the streets.

Bourbon Street finally calmed down Sunday. By the time the early afternoon sun began baking the city, most of the fans and the press were finally packing up and leaving.

A little jazz played at one or two of the bars, while sleepy Ali fans did some last-minute souvenir hunting.
(Ali himself left New Orleans Sunday for his home in Chicago.)

The only thing left of the previous few nights of revelry was the overwhelming stench caused by the hot sun baking the stale beer and rotting food in the streets.

The circus was over. It was time to go home.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

All the chapel bells will ring for Jim Ed Brown ... friends remember the voice of a good fella

Note from Flapjacks: When Jim Ed Brown died the other night, I wrote a quick obituary for Reuters News Service. But in the process of gathering information, I had much more than they needed. Which was fine.  I thought someone else in Nashville may be interested in publishing this, but I was wrong. Been wrong before, so no big deal.  Well, I liked the guy. I didn’t know him as well as I know (or did know) some of the old school country musicians, but he was a kind gentleman with one helluva voice. If you are interested, his funeral is 10 a.m. Monday June 15 at The Ryman. Here is the obit no one wanted, but perhaps you may wish to read:  

 Jim Ed Brown didn’t live quite long enough to participate in his Country Music Hall of Fame induction set for this fall.

Brown, 81, a Grand Ole Opry star for more than a half-century and just elected to the Hall of Fame this year, died Thursday night at Williamson Medical Center in Franklin after a battle with lung cancer.

“He had class and style,” said his old friend (and mine) Bobby Bare Thursday night, voice cracking shortly after learning the news.

“He was not an Arkansas hillbilly. He had class and he had style and he had a great voice…. He was a real artist,” said Bare of his friend of more than 50 years.

Jim Ed Brown’s “class and style” showed through in the body of work he helped create since leaving behind his upbringing without electricity and conveniences on the family farm in Sparkman, Arkansas, where every Saturday night the Brown family would gather around a battery-powered radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM.

Bare said his earliest recollection of time spent with Brown goes back to 1963 “or somewhere in there. I remember we were doing a show somewhere down in Arkansas and I went with him to his mom’s house one morning and she cooked breakfast for us.”

Brown’s ability to mimic the voices of the stars – Hank Snow was his best – eventually got him into a talent competition at a radio station in Little Rock, Arkansas. While he didn’t win the contest, he and his sister Maxine were asked to appear again on the radio station, where their harmonies were developed and then sprung loose on their first  Top 10 Country hit, “Looking Back to See,” written by the duo.  Sister Bonnie joined to make it the trio that is being inducted into the Hall of Fame this autumn.

As The Browns, Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie had country hits with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow, “I Take the Chance” and “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” and their trademark hit, the glorious and honey-coated “The Three Bells.”

After the sisters retired Jim Ed Brown continued as a country hit-maker as a solo artist on singles like “Morning” and “Sometime Sunshine”  and his signature tune, “Pop a Top,” which later was a hit for classic country stylist Alan Jackson.  “Set ‘em up my friend….”

Brown also continued to make music as a celebrated duet partner with Helen Cornelius on a string of hits including their No. 1 country hit “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.”

An Opry royal, Jim Ed really never stopped being interested in singing, and in 2013, Bare produced a single by Brown, “In Style Again.”  “I became a brand new fan of Jim Ed’s when I was in the studio,” said Bare Thursday night. “I’d forgotten how good he sang.”

That single then was used as the title track of an album put out by Brentwood-based Plowboy Records, which is run by Shannon Pollard, grandson of longtime Brown pal Eddy Arnold, who died in 2008 at the age of 89. (I loved Eddy Arnold. And Shannon’s a helluva guy, too.)

Shannon said Jim Ed’s  relationship with his grandfather dated back to the 1950s and included a joint appearance with The Browns at Carnegie Hall.

As for recording the new album in the summer of 2014 after a long absence from the recording studio, the Opry star “really wanted to do it,” said Pollard, adding “his voice was fantastic.”

Before he became desperately ill, Brown had planned to participate with Bare and some other veteran performers on one of the stages of this week’s CMA Music Fest in Nashville. “I knew three weeks ago that he wasn’t going to make it,” said Bare, adding the show would go on, but he’d miss those wondrous tones of his pal.

The Browns’ official induction into the Hall of Fame will come in October.  However, Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern, Hall of Famer and friend Bill Anderson and Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young visited the hospital June 4 to present him with a medallion commemorating his Hall of Fame membership.

“Fame is fleeting, hit records change every week, award show winners and nominees change every year, but being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame will be forever,” Brown said.

Pollard remembered that Jim Ed was mentored by his grandfather and visited Arnold regularly when the Tennessee Plowboy was hospitalized in his final days. 

As for Jim Ed’s decision to record again, label chief Pollard said “He knew we had the label that was up and running. He wanted to put more music out, and it worked out.”

He said the memories of Brown’s friendship with his grandfather made it doubly hard for him to accept that the singer had died.  It was like saying goodbye to his grandfather all over again, he allowed, sadly.

“We’ve been preparing for this for several days,” said Pollard. “I got to say my goodbyes to him and I was very honored that I was able to do that.

“He truly was an inspiration to me throughout this whole battle he fought.  He knew he was not leaving the hospital, but he still was trying to make everybody feel good.”                 
All the chapel bells will be ringing....

Monday, January 26, 2015

Now Ernie will urge them to play two in heaven

“Let’s play two!” the kind, old gentleman said to St. Pete the other day.

 Perhaps as some folks speculate, they always play doubleheaders in heaven…. I’ll probably never find out for a variety of reasons, the least of which is poor hand-eye coordination …. I know that on that slice of Chicago green called Wrigley Field that’s all  the gentle and genteel first baseman wanted.  Doubleheaders.

“It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks would say often as he worked his bat (a slight enough guy, he did hit 512 homers), or whipped the ball around the infield as a shortstop and later a first baseman.

“Mr. Cub,” as he was known throughout baseball, died Friday night at 83 years of age.  I’m 63 now and the fact I can remember scores of games attended with Ernie at the plate or with his glove … and his smile …. Means I’m pretty old too….  More a relic of late fall than a boy of summer, for, after all …. Mr. Cub retired in 1971, almost 44 baseball seasons ago.

And I can remember like it was well, at least some hazy replica of yesterday (when all my troubles seemed so far away, etc.) when watching this almost dainty-footed ballplayer dance around the bases or throw across to Ronnie Santo at third to … most times … get some lousy Mets or Reds player out.  Rose wants to slide in head-first? Hit him in the face with your glove, Ronnie.

Wrigley Field has, of course, been deemed the trendy place to see ballgames in the last few decades. Except for the blasphemy committed when lights were installed, Wrigley’s sort of the pastoral, vine-walled diamond that time forgot and where the Cubs never really learned how to win.  For generations younger than mine, it is a great place to buy a $10 Old Style and a lukewarm hot dog and enjoy an evening without really caring who wins as long as your iPhone is charged.  These selfie-centered folks are there to be seen.

 Me, I rarely had time for the lukewarm hot dogs on those great spring and summer afternoons at Wrigley Field.  I was too busy keeping hope alive. It always was a beautiful day for a ballgame when I could stop by the players’ entrance on Waveland Avenue and get a greeting or a handshake from Ernie or from Ronnie.  Ferguson Jenkins (who spent some off-seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters). Billy Williams. Randy Hundley. Don Kessinger. Jimmy Hickman …

Remember the Twiggy Hartenstein-Don Drysdale pitchers’ duel on the front end of Billy Williams Day’s doubleheader? Perhaps the Koufax-Hendley rivalry a few years prior? Gotta love the Ghost, even if he was a denizen of Chavez Ravine.  

No need to sneak past armed security to ask for autographs, as these guys – in those wonder years of the pre-9/11 world – would stand among you and your buddies like human beings.

“Let’s play two!” we’d yell at Ernie as he arrived. Or as he left after the Cubs lost one. … Let’s play two. Get ‘em next time.

Hope. The final frontier, as far as I’m concerned.  Usually it is fruitless to hope.  But how could you not when this slender No. 14 with the seemingly oversized first-baseman’s mitt was around to spread optimism in the beautiful confines of Wrigley Field.

  It hurt when I learned that Ernie Banks had died Friday.  A lot. I mean, he was old and everything, but that single act assured one thing: The most-popular Cub of all time never would play in a World Series …. Or see his team play in one (depending on what the afterlife holds in store, of course).

Ernie almost made the World Series in 1969.  We all did. How many afternoons did Jimmy Hart and I climb into the old Falcon or take the train down to the neighborhood near Wrigleyville, park, walk a few blocks and pay $1.25 for a bleacher seat?

Left-field bleachers were not the territory of digital-technology millionaires and their arm-candy lackeys back then. It was where the guys went who loved the game but didn’t have a lot of money to spare.   

Another buck and half and you could, or at least so I was told, buy your first illegal beers at age 17. Or was that 14? No ID? No problem.  Or so I’ve been told.

It was back then that the Cubs were going to be World Series champions, almost destroying their myth.

There was no goat, Bambino’s ghost or anything to blame, but the Cubs always finished well down in the standings.  There was joy in Mudville… I mean Wrigleyville … that summer.  I’d go to the games to cheer my favorites, as in seasons past. But this was special.  Hope. Hell, they got it in the bag.  Don’t they?

Ronnie “Pizza Man” Santo -- with his heel-clicking dance to the locker room after yet one more Cubs victory – was really my all-time favorite boy of summer.   Jack Brickhouse, who like Santo and now Ernie is dead, was the announcer back in those pre-Harry Caray days.

“Hey hey and holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way,” he’d sing on WGN after each victory made it seem that the Wrigley dwellers finally were going to play well into the autumn of ‘69.  I’ve got that on 45 rpm around here someplace.

But, as the Mets proved by dismantling the Cubs’ near-insurmountable lead as the season waned, Ernie and Ronnie and the rest truly were Boys of Summer. Period. Not a single Mr. October among them.

 Disappointing, sure. But then so is life. And we learned to cope with that by being devoted fans of the North Siders.

Nowadays, of course, there also are a lot of fans who find it trendy to cheer for the more successful Chicago franchise, the South Siders, the White Sox.   For me, Comiskey Park was only a place to go if the Cubs were out of town.  Hell, I don’t even know what the name of the White Sox field is now.

I long ago lost track of my pal, Jimmy Hart, a year younger than me, but equally interested in sneaking off to the beach at Lake Michigan and puffing Swisher Sweets while sharing a pilfered-from-the-home-fridge Meister Brau.  We worked together that summer at the Park District – where I would try to get the Jeep to literally fly when I gunned it over the top of a hill.  Rat Patrol-style. If you’re old enough, you’ll understand that. If not, well, hell with it. Just read on.

A lot of our time also was spent lining the ballfields for Little League games. No Dixie Youth up there, folks.  I had not yet made the Land of Cotton my home.  It was a simple process back then.  You’d put spikes from where the corners of first were and the corners of second and third and down the foul lines to the home.  Then you’d tie string to each spike, to form a diamond.  And then use that string as your guide while rolling the little pail filled with lime around the field.

I think there are more precise methods now. But I have to admit that lining the fields was my favorite part of my park district job. That and driving the Jeep to the bakery for the daily donut run.  Two bucks an hour and all the donuts you could eat. A great way to live, partly because we went to work before 6 a.m. and got off in the early to mid-afternoon those summer days.  Those summer days…. Wrigley Field was perhaps 25 minutes away.

Catch the last few innings. There were no bastard lights at Wrigley back then.  Baseball was (is?) meant to be played in the sunshine.

That’s where Ernie would be, basking in the sun, a trickle of sweat on his brow, when he’d say “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

I know that reality set in when that summer ended… prematurely … with the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets -- led by singer Tim McGraw’s illegitimate father -- playing successfully through the autumn. The feat by gentlemanly Gil Hodges’ team helped prove that Leo “the Lip” Durocher was wrong. (Does anybody else remember how much fun it was to have “Nice Guys Finish Last” Durocher helming the Cubs while Eddie Stanky managed the Chisox?) Talk about kicked dirt and epic manager-umpire squabbles.  Screw you. Screw me blues.

 I was sad… as usual, I suppose… when the Cubs swooned.  

When that summer ended, I went off to college, to Iowa State University, where I studied hard and had a lot of fun.

Anyway, I was off on the great adventure of growing my hair and hanging out with National Guardsmen and radicals, attending Panther meetings and reading Muhammad Speaks.  Enjoying a late-night philosophic discussion with Allen Ginsberg after he performed most of “Howl” straight through, concert style at C.Y. Stevens Auditorium. Of course I had, as I pointed out, a fair amount of fun, especially at Tork’s. You had to be there when the call for quarters rang out at our table. Jocko. Titsy. Nardholm. Carpy. Dogshit. Schultzy. J-Dub. Eggman.Captain Kirk. Those were among my companions at various times over those years.   Uncle Moose usually had to go home on weekends to tend to the hogs.  Moose is dead now. I have remained in touch with Carpy. And Captain Kirk just sent me an airbrush T-shirt dedicated to a man we all know as “Flapjacks.”  Hear from Nardholm and Titsy’s wife occasionally.

Still, the days of the carefree summers when Jimmy Hart and I would go down to see Ernie Banks and Ronnie Santo play were done. Jimmy “had” to get married that fall. Back then that was what they said when a young woman and a young man made that life-changing “mistake.” Great girl. Great friend. Pretty baby.   Last time I heard from Jimmy he was a social worker in Tampa and his dad had a gas station in Winter Haven. Of course Jimmy was divorced.

So, by the time I got home the next summer, 1970, Jimmy Hart was folding diapers and I was on my own. A complete unknown. Letting my hair grow and hanging out backstage with Vanilla Fudge.  Sometimes shaving at least one side of my face.

Sure, there would be more stealthy trips to Wrigley, where pigeons always seemed to use me for target practice, before I uprooted common sense and made Nashville my forever hometown.  See me wasted on the sidewalk in my jacket and my jeans….to paraphrase my good friend Kris Kristofferson.  Or perhaps “once my future was shiny as the seats of my pants are today….” 

Still that summer of 1969, when the Cubs should have won it all, but faltered, remains among the best summers of my life. Partly it was because I could go see these ballplayers and shake their hands. Partly it was because of the optimism of seeing Billy Williams tag one to left field or Randy Hundley catching the fiery fastballs of Ferguson Jenkins.

Partly it was because it was the summer after I graduated from high school and I’d already been dumped by the girl I took to prom. I didn’t know she had a boyfriend who was away at college. So it was kind of a shock to go to her house the week after I graduated, three weeks after we saw Modern Jazz Quartet on Rush Street after the dance was ended, to see the boy friend. (Yes, that was a good thing. That cunning cheerleader became a high-profile, Bush-appointed Republican judge in Florida, so I think our ideologies would have separated us anyway.)   I mean, all I was saying was Give Peace a Chance. Still am saying that, you know.

What that previous paragraph means, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was just that it was during that summer, that wondrous time of hope, I had to come to terms that life offered a box of chocolates filled with caramel hope and red cream despair. 

The summer of 1969 was when reality began to settle in. When the optimism of Mr. Cub almost was realized.  Emphasize “ALMOST.”

It was Woodstock and ‘Easy Rider’ and an era when I was glad I was going to be a college student and wouldn’t have to join big strong men in Vietnam.  "Lay down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gonna have a whole lot of fun," Country Joe McDonald would tell me on my record machine.  The future is plastics, the fat guy told Benjamin Braddock.

I went 1A in the draft after the first “lottery.”  I felt safe, but still war threatened my quiet world of academia (as some might define my rambunctious years). Later in life when I needed something to make me feel better, I always have cheered for the Cubs and believed in hope and dreams. 

I mean it. I still do.

 Ernie Banks always said: “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

He’d also say: “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”

Hope always stands a chance as long as this great man, Number 14, brings out his bat and occupies … momentarily at least…  a portion of my mental bank of memories. 

Now he’s dead.  Hell. Let’s play two.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saluting and thanking Miss Dixie, songwriter, journalist, wife of Tom T., damn fine woman

“Tim, you are one of us. It’s OK,” she would say. Or words to that effect on the occasion when I would call or visit Fox Hollow.
It was a great compliment to be considered “one of us” by Dixie Hall, Miss Dixie, the fantastic songwriting wife of songwriting genius and soft artistic soul Tom T. Hall.

It has been awhile since I saw Miss Dixie, who was 80 when her long battle with a brain tumor ended Friday.
I knew she was ill and often wanted to call the house to, if nothing else, offer reassuring words to Tom T., a guy I love as a musician, artist and as a human being.

I was advised against that, as there was no joy out there in Fox Hollow and the man who sang of “Old dogs, children and watermelon wine” and so many greater tales was having enough trouble without having to deal with a run-out-of-the-newspaper-business journalist …
Although he has on many time asked me to join him for Old Farts Movie Days. Ralph Emery, Tom T. Hall, Bobby Bare (I think) and others go to the matinees to see movies their wives didn’t want to see.  “We like action movies,” Tom T. would tell me.

By the way, I am always flattered when Tom T. tells me I am a part of his collection of “Old Farts.” 
Kinda the equivalent of Miss Dixie’s referring to me as “one of us.”

Show people, artistic people, good people, guys who like watermelon wine, banjo pick “The Beverly Hillbillies” or dress in black…. Those were the ones she was talking about. Including an old newspaperman.
A lot of them are gone now.

So’s Miss Dixie. Probably trying to organize a bluegrass band in the after-life. Uncle Josh. Earl. Lester, Monroe … get ready, cause this lady loves to make bluegrass music. Hell, Hartford, get your fiddle prepped.... 
My first adventure with her was long, long ago. Tom T. – who I admire more than most people – had pretty much retired, as country music fans were beginning the transition from loving songs of near-literary substance to loving songs about pickup tracks, pretty butts, barbecue stains on white t-shirts and beer.

Not that Tom T. doesn’t like beer. He also likes bourbon in the glass and grass, you know.
Anyway, years ago Miss Dixie ran an animal rescue shelter down in Franklin. I can’t remember the name of it now. And it really doesn’t matter. Was it “Animal Land?” Doesn’t matter.

She was as much an advocate for the lost and discarded four-legged friends back then as say Emmylou Harris has become recently. Dixie gave up her soapbox years ago.
But back then, when there was a good newspaper in Nashville, I wrote a regular column called Real Life for the Nashville Banner.  

I was state editor for many years there, charged with overseeing the collection of news from outside Nashville as well as state government and U.S. government coverage.  After that period, I became features/entertainment editor to give that department a little more news edge.
But during all my 10 years at the old Banner, I wrote that column that appeared on the local front for many years before transitioning over to the Lifestyles front.

The premise was simple: Everybody has a story, we’re more alike than different, we share the same hopes, dreams and fears, no matter our religion, skin tone or preference when it came to life and distilled spirits (threw that one in for Tom T.)   
Basically, I’d wander around the city and the Midstate and just drop in on people, sit with them, get them to share their stories with me so I could share them with readers.

But I didn’t just drop in on Miss Dixie. Back then she was still running that animal shelter and she and her friends made jams and preserves to sell to help support the shelter. She also had an annual Christmas at Fox Hollow “open house,” where people could make contributions to tour the comfortable home on the side of a hill in Northern Williamson County, a home  dressed up in its holiday finery.
I decided a column about Miss Dixie and her animal shelter fund-raisers was something I wanted to do, so I called her house – back then you could actually call country stars at their homes without going through handlers – and asked if I could come out.

It was my first trip out there. I’ve been several times since. Most of what I remember, for after all I am an “Old Fart” and hence have the privilege of not remembering things clearly, was that when I drove up the hill to the house, Tom T. Hall – one of my wordsmith heroes – was driving a tractor, tilling the soil. Well, actually I think he was cutting the grass (he likes grass, remember?)
He had one of his dogs on his lap, presumably helping him steer. 

I finished the long uphill drive and pulled up behind the wonderful home – not an estate, but a home, a place where good people live – where they lived.
The shed where she made her jams and preserves was across the parking area from the house. In her later years, she and Tom T. used this space for their bluegrass music adventures. They both wrote fine bluegrass songs and encouraged other bluegrass performers to come there and record.  Being a bluegrass performer seldom equals being wealthy. So if bluegrass performers were out there recording, they also had a place to stay.

Courtesy of Miss Dixie and Tom T. 
Some of those musicians were/are friends I’ve made over the years and they always bragged on the generosity of Fox Hollow.

In any case, I spent most of a day with Miss Dixie back then, stopping for awhile to visit with Tom T. when he finished his tractor driving for the day and prepared to settle in for a nap.
Tom T. is known for writing some of the greatest songs in country music history.  He also is known as a guy who likes to go to bed early and get his rest so many years after experiencing the midnight, after-show bitter cold of places like Des Moines, Iowa, while he was a touring troubadour.

Apparently I made a decent impression, for years later, when I was working at a much-lesser newspaper (that still sort of exists) and in charge of entertainment coverage, I went with my entertainment writer Peter Cooper to help cover the funeral of June Carter Cash.
June, it should be noted if you don’t know already, was the daughter of Dixie’s all-time favorite woman, Mother Maybelle Carter, the guitar-slinging matriarch of country music.  As I walked into the church narthex to go inside the sanctuary and cover the funeral.  I saw Tom T. and Dixie standing against the wall.

I went over to re-introduce myself, as I’m basically nobody, but she stopped me in mid-sentence.  “Tim, you’re one of us. I know you.”
It was the same service at which I had to choose between greeting Robert Duvall (“hey, consigliere, how ya doin’?”) or Billy Joe Shaver.

Billy Joe has told me frequently in years since that I made the wrong choice by picking him, but I had to remind him that even though I spoke with him, I eventually shook hands with Duvall, who I still mentally associate with a bloody horse’s head in the bed of a Hollywood big shot. If you’re not a Godfather fan, you don’t get that. But that’s OK.
This is so much rambling here as memories flood back.  Miss Dixie and I only crossed paths a few times in the years since, but she always reminded me “you’re one of us” – which made me feel special, especially since the dues to join the rest of them was simply to be a bit artistic and have some soul.

Years later, she convinced Tom T. to take me down to the barn where he did his oil painting and he and I didn’t talk much about music. Mainly brush strokes.
Dixie also became one of those people I’d call when someone in the music business died. If she didn’t know the person well, she knew who and where I should call for information.

This is not really a portrait of “Miss Dixie,” but rather a sort of rambling lamentation, reflections of the few times I was around this generous woman (and her brilliant husband of 46 years).
The last time I guess I had a long conversation with her came in March of 2012, when Earl Scruggs died She had been a great friend of Earl’s and of his late wife, Louise. (Louise, by the way spent most of one day helping me track down Bob Dylan … “If anybody can get him, I can,” she said, when I said I wanted to get his reflections on the day that Johnny Cash died.) I loved Louise, too.

I never heard from Dylan.  But Louise kept calling me to tell me she was on the hunt.
Anyway, this isn’t a story about that day. It is a story about now, the first day after “Miss Dixie” finally succumbed to her long battle with a mortal enemy within her.

When I heard she had died, I knew that it was a precious release from pain and agony for her. But I also knew that this particular bright spot along my 40-year-long and well-rutted road as a journalist was gone.
I hadn’t bothered her or Tom T. in recent months. That was on the advice of Peter Cooper, who became one of their truly close friends.

But I thought about it, about them and about her often.
“Tim, you’re one of us,” she would say.

That simple phrase is enough to make a washed-up Old Fart feel pretty special.

Rest in Peace, Miss Dixie. You were one of us.   


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Millie gave Elvis the Blue 'woo-woos'

(I wrote an obituary for Reuters on the wonderful Millie Kirkham Tuesday. But as usual, I wrote more than they needed. Fine with me. Here is an expanded version of the story. She was an incredible woman and a long-time neighbor.)
The woman who gave Elvis Presley what she called the “woo-woo-woos” in “Blue Christmas” -- a song being played countless times this holiday season -- has been silenced.

Mildred “Millie” Kirkham, 91, died Sunday in Nashville, but she left her soaring vocal stylings on countless Nashville recordings by the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and George Jones.

Elvis’ original guitarist, Scotty Moore, said Tuesday morning that he knew Kirkham well from her sessions with Elvis and the Jordanaires.

“Anytime they needed that high voice on something, she was always there,” said Moore, who cworked countless recording sessions with Kirkham.  “She just could do that high voice that blended in with the Jordanaires.”

Moore , who was guitarist on the 1957 “Blue Christmas” session – a part of Elvis’ Christmas Album -- remembered Kirkham Tuesday as not only a fine singer, but “she was a very nice lady.”

“Everybody loved Millie,” said A-Team session guitarist and Country Music Hall of Fame member Harold Bradley Tuesday.

“I worked with her for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s impossible to count the sessions we did together. She was a wonderful singer, but she was also a wonderful person and she always was smiling and never gave anybody any problems at all. She was a sweetheart to work with.”

Bradley said her distinctive voice “put a topping on the recording.”

He also said that she didn’t mind sticking her neck out, which is what she did when coming up with the “woo-woo” harmony on ‘Blue Christmas.’

Bradley didn’t work on “Blue Christmas,” but the “woo-woo” is an example of what he called her “unique sound.”

Gail Pollock, Moore’s companion of 40 years and a Nashville music business veteran, said her good friend “Miss Mille didn’t want to be remembered for being Elvis’ ‘woo-woo singer,’” but she was resigned to the fact that she would, indeed, be remembered for that little phrase she inserted during horseplay with Elvis and everyone else in the session.

”She was just, well, alive,” said Pollock, through her tears. “She was the most independent thing you’ve ever seen, she did it her way and her way only and she did it in a way that didn’t offend anybody.”

Pollock noted that Kirkham, who sang for Elvis from 1957 until 1974, performed as recently as this year.

Kirkham’s voice is an integral part of “The Nashville Sound,” a more cosmopolitan form of country music that in large part was fashioned by Bradley, his producer brother Owen Bradley and guitarist/producer Chet Atkins. 

“Those vocals are some of the most instantly identifiable in country and pop music history, said Peter Cooper, a writer/editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

“They are an indelible part of every song she sang on. There is no Blue Christmas without the sound of Millie Kirkham,” he said. “She was also there to contribute to Ferlin Husky’s ‘Gone,’ which was a remarkably important record in helping to create what came to be known as the Nashville Sound.”


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rock 'n' roller, bluegrass wizard, folk singer, damn nice guy Mac Wiseman revisits his rural upbringing for wondrous album

(I am lucky enough to have a few friends in the music world who I sometimes call, just to chat. Many of them -- Chet, Vassar, Uncle Josh, Bobby Thompson, Eddy to name a few -- have taken their final bows and I miss them. I was fortunate enough to be asked by CMA Closeup online in August to do a story on Mac Wiseman's new album, "Songs From My Mother's Hand." I did that and was proud, as Mac is a friend and a damn nice guy. I then wrote a much-longer version, which I share here.)      

Mac Wiseman pushes past the bottles of potions to treat the maladies of age and rescues a yellowed notebook from stack of them on the table. Then, with a smile, he leans back in the generous recliner, lifts his voice and “reads” one page.
“When I was young and in my prime…..” he sings -- in pitch-perfect, room-filling tenor -- “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.”

“That’s my locale and that’s where the CD begins,” he says, explaining the song choice to demonstrate what is in many ways the most important album of a storied career that was nurtured in the Shenandoah Valley by a mom who meticulously wrote down lyrics of songs that played on the radio.  Twelve of those songs make up the heart-yanking project Songs from My Mother’s Hand.
Revisiting Depression-era Appalachian folk songs, scrawled meticulously by his mother as she listened to the radio, could be mistaken by some as the bookend on a long career.  Except Mac, 89, is already diving through his mom’s 13 journals of lyrics to see which songs will make for a sequel.  

Some call Mac Wiseman a bluegrass musician, at least in part due to the company he’s kept, from Monroe to the Osbornes. But he also was a dear friend of America’s troubled country-folk troubadour, Hank Williams.  And this isn’t a bluegrass album. It’s pure American folk music.
Besides that, old Malcolm B. Wiseman doesn’t much like to be pigeonholed as a purveyor of the music form he played a hand in creating.  “I don’t like the raucous sound of a banjo,” admits the man who stood next to Scruggs as he perfected the revolutionary three-finger picking style.

When Mac had his own outfits, that voice – HIS VOICE – was the most important instrument, high-lonesome solos guiding listeners through a landscape of guitars and fiddles.   
His career in music began when he went to work as a radio announcer in Harrisonburg, Va., about 25 miles from his hometown of Crimora, Va.

“I began to notice that the program directors were driving Fords and Chevrolets while the hillbillies were driving Cadillacs,” he says.  He made a career decision right then and there. He wanted to drive a Caddy.
That decision has paid off for listeners and for Wiseman himself, as his career has had him singing all types of music, from classic bluegrass to novelty tune “If I Had Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” and a top-10 version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” back when every boy had a coonskin cap.    

While some might call him the “last man left” from the classic era of bluegrass, his musical palette includes rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and, especially, folk songs. It’s an eclectic repertoire shaped by his upbringing in the Shenandoah Valley, thanks to the inspiration of the woman who wrote down the lyrics to songs she heard on the radio and used them to encourage her family during the dark times. “We had long nights during the Depression when we would all gather around the organ and sing,” he says.
Other times, he “performed” solo.  “We had no running water, no plumbing, no electricity, no phone. And I would leaf through my mother’s books and sing every song.”

And that’s why this newest album Songs from My Mother’s Hand, a collection of folk songs from the era before “bluegrass” became a genre of its own, may well be the most important of his career.
“It’s going to reenact an era of my life I had almost forgotten about,” he says, noting that the songs come from a time when 11-cents-a-dozen eggs were considered expensive.

“Everybody else was poor,” he recollects of those days. “But there was always love in our close family and we never missed a meal.”
While she was intent on feeding her family, his mother also wanted to instill in them the love of music that had her sitting by the family radio and jotting down song lyrics as she heard them.  What she didn’t write down on the first listen was captured on the second, third, fourth, whatever it took.

And those are the songs, captured by a mother’s love, that make up this new album.
Some of these songs he’s recorded before. Others remained as mementoes, words on yellowed paper, put there by his mom.

While these notebooks remained as important as a family Bible, the pages are hardly “kept under glass” protected.  The songs were jotted down so they could be sung not worshiped.  And though he pages through the notebooks regularly – they are literally letters from Mom and home, after all --  he really never  thought of recording a collection of them until a few months ago when producer and guitarist Thomm Jutz and co-producer and Americana songsmith Peter Cooper visited with him.
They went out to his home in what he refers to as “L.A.” – aka Lower Antioch, for the section of Nashville that holds his cozy, memorabilia packed home – and wanted to talk to Wiseman about doing a record of folk songs.

That, in itself was a good idea for this fellow whose voice, though seasoned with the grit of age, remains among the purest instruments to produce country ballads.
Those discussions were held where Mac – hobbled by child polio – is mot at home, in the easy chair planted in a living room where a Christmas tree stays year-round – “I got one strand of lights burned out on it. But I keep it up because I don’t have to bother taking it down and putting it back up every year.”   

Wrapped presents and even an Easter bunny – again never put away when that season ends – decorate the floor next to the 90-year-old table, which came from his mother’s house, that was the writing surface used by his mom when she captured these songs.  On this day, though the volume is muted, “Family Feud” is being played on the TV crowning that important piece of furniture.
He spends a lot of time in this room, a literal museum filled with instruments, posters and other souvenirs of a life well-spent in music. In addition to being an engaging live performer, Mac’s recorded 60 albums and at least 800 songs in a long and diverse life spent mostly with guitar in hand.

Among the relics are the yellowed notebooks – sort of like the lined essay books used for written exams in college – filled with the lyrics of “You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood,” “Little Rosewood Casket,” “Put My Little Shoes Away,” “East Bound Train” and “Answer to the Great Speckled Bird” and a life’s worth more.
Jutz – a German expat who has embraced his adopted home-country’s texture on his sprawling, multi-artist exploration of the Civil War, The 1861 Project  -- explains in his lightly-drawling, German accent that  while he and Cooper talked with their hero about capturing some of his favorite folk songs, Wiseman told them about the 13 yellowed notebooks filled with the scrawling from his mother’s hand.   

One of those cartoon light bulbs went off in Jutz’s head. “To me it’s really a treasure of country music. We were here and I had always wanted to do something like this.” He points to the notebooks.
“Nobody had ever asked him to do this before,” says Cooper, offering up one of the well-used song journals so a visiting journalist could page through it.  

“The timing was right. You come across something so special and you want to document it.”

He elaborates on the timing issue by noting that Wiseman, 89 and the last surviving member of the original board of directors of the Country Music Association, finally will be inducted into that hallowed hall this autumn.

“I was speechless for a little bit,” Wiseman says, remembering the call from the CMA . 
In his mind perhaps his time had passed.  Overlooked. Perhaps he wasn’t going to get into the Hall of Fame, while younger acolytes like Vince Gill and Garth Brooks – “and they are deserving,” he says, were enshrined.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” he says of the annual rite of melancholy when he’d learn his name and likeness weren’t going to be preserved on bronze in the Hall of Fame rotunda… at last not yet.
“My only consolation was these people didn’t know my track record,” he says, explaining that he took comfort in the semi-ignorance of those who didn’t know they were overlooking a folk-singing, bluegrass-playing, even rock ‘n’ rolling musical pioneer.
“I’ll hurt my hand, patting myself on the back,” he says, after rattling off a litany of great musicians with whom he has performed and venues where he has taken bows since becoming a professional artist in 1946.    

“Mac’s the longest-tenured living singer in America today,” Cooper says of that 68 years of performance.
Only Anthony Benedetto,  Tony Bennett – who began winning amateur singing contests and working as a singing waiter in the early 1940s – could challenge that claim.  And truth be told, he’d likely be proud just to be mentioned in the same sentence as Wiseman, who earned plenty of his early acclaim up north.

And that success included rock ‘n’ roll, Wiseman says, noting for a time he was appearing on Dick Clark’s (American Bandstand) shows and selling hits everywhere but in his native Southland. “In the South, they were throwing my records in the trash can. And up north, I was cutting new tracks.”
The conversation returns to the source material for this newest record, though, and why it is important to him, personally and professionally, and to anyone who has an abiding love in American music.

While he has recorded some of these songs earlier in his career, most are captured for the first time by this iconic American singer whose voice and phrasing is as unique as that much-younger singer, Willie Nelson, who is a mere 81.
Co-producers Jutz and Cooper note that while many contemporary artists take a full day to get one track, Wiseman cut all 12 tracks in a six-hour period, with the sound as live and lively as possible.

“I don’t think we played any song more than twice,” says Jutz.  “It’s perfect with its imperfections.”
The players include Musicians Hall of Famer Jimmy Capps, rising star mandolin virtuoso and beauty Sierra Hull, Grammy-winning bassist Mark Fain, multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, harp man Jelly Roll Johnson and hammered dulcimer delight Alisa Jones Wall.

 “It’s the matter of getting the right players in the studio and letting them go,” says Jutz.
And the 89-year-old singer points out that it is folk music and certainly not bluegrass, even though it is that form for which he’s best-known.  “I don’t like the raucous sound of a banjo,” he says, smiling.

He says the songs are timeless. While perhaps “old-timey” in delivery and production technique, he says the songs are as relevant today as they were when his mom began writing them in the journals.
“The reason for the longevity is it’s slice-of-life,” he says about the collection. “People don’t change. We just get a new crop.”

It’ll be difficult to find anyone in that new crop to replace the man who sings the songs his mom wrote down.
“I asked the doctor the other day whether taking Viagra would conflict with my medicines,” says Wiseman.   “It said ‘it wouldn’t do you any conflict, but what you do after it might kill you.”  

He opens up one of the yellowed notebooks and begins to sing The Stanley Brothers’ classic “Old Rattler.”      
“Rattler was a good old dog as blind as he could be,
But every night at suppertime I believe that dog could see ….”

He puts the book down and smiles toward the ceiling as he sings.…
(P.S. from writer: If you don't buy this album or -- if a Grammy voter you do not vote for it -- you are an idiot.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

White Saab loads up for trek through hazy memories with world-famous veterinarian, a damn nice guy, and old Champo

When I hugged Carpy outside my old white Saab 900S, the 30-year-old car that became part of my life since I last saw him, I wondered if this could be the last time.... I don’t know.

Hell, it had been 36 years at least since I saw Tom Carpenter, a legendary Orange County, California, veterinarian, husband, father and grandpa who also has Kareem’s and Magic’s signatures on a small square of the old parquet ball court where they played.  A Mickey Mantle-signed baseball and some old Wrigley Field seats are also a part of his sports paraphernalia collection.  “I go in there just to relax,” the kindly vet says of his sports room.

At one point I contributed to his collection of sports paraphernalia as I sent him a “Muhammad Ali: Three-Time Heavyweight Champion of the World” button from New Orleans, where I covered – as a journalist and eventual friend of Ali – the dethroning of a clumsy Leon Spinks, the pride of St. Louis.

Tom likely has lost track of that button I sent him in 1978, the day after the fight. Most of what I remember from the day I got the buttons (one resided in my house as well, at least until the 2010 flood) is that I stayed up for the better part of 48 hours to cover the fight, enjoy the post-fight celebrations and spend the morning afterward with Ali.  But that’s beside the point. One of the incidents that bound Tom and me as friends was the agony we felt when Kenny Norton beat Ali in a fight we watched in the Hanson House TV room in Larch Hall on the campus of Iowa State University. (That was before the 50-pound bust of Old Man Hanson took a flyer from the seventh-floor windows. I still wonder how in the world that could have happened to that great ISU benefactor? Amazingly, he survived the fall with a few chips and perhaps a bit more respect due to his durability.)

I’ve never seen Tom’s memorabilia collection. Probably never will. I mean if I see Tom just once every 36 years or so, I’ll likely be dead at our next get-together, which could be a downer.  Or at least it will be relatively mellow.

But that’s probably not relevant, since most folks have proven with heavy punctuation they could care less whether I live or whether I die, although I promise to do both sometime. 

Oh well, occasionally life gets in the way, but friends, true friends, never really are gone. You keep them in your heart for awhile. Or, I guess my version of forever.  Hell, 38 years ago or so, when Carpy was still in school, I drove up to Ames, Iowa, from Nashville to pick him up for Jocko’s wedding.  I was driving my mom’s ’72 Dodge Duster since the exhaust manifold of my own ’65 Falcon had exploded for about the fourth time.  And, oh yeah, there was that little carburetor problem, which meant someone had to hold their hand over the air intake in order for me to start it.

Tom and I went and tried on those silly powder-blue tuxedoes at the Ames monkey suit joint. Had to get matching boxers so our underwear wouldn’t show during the nuptials. God knows a lot of our friends, some of them possibly sober, would be looking at us closely to make fun of anything we did wrong. That would include wearing underwear that put our butts on display beneath the expensive-to-rent, cheap fabric.

Well, to summarize, Jocko, Tom and I were able to remain on our feet through the entire nuptials and into part of the night after.   What happened when I left my feet is open to debate.  But enough of that.

“Would this calm and clear late-March 2014 Nashville Saturday morning be the last time I’d see Tom?,” I wondered a week or so ago.  Didn’t really get emotional, but as I drove away – he had to get back to the vet convention, fetal-pig roast and dog-castrating seminars or whatever thousands of whacky veterinarians were doing at the Nashville Convention Center &  Mayor Karl Dean Monument to Civic Excess. 

I’d seen Tom since Jocko’s wedding, but it still had been probably 36 or more years since that last sighting when, on a late-March 2014 day, I picked him up to enjoy a breakfast at Athens in Berry Hill, my dining hall of choice as many of my friends, including cuddly and over-sized sobriety evangelists, assorted blue-tooth-wearing banjo wizards and wry life observers will profess.

Of course, many of the years that separated us came in the time before Al Gore – that chubby mama’s-boy from Carthage, Tennessee, (said in all kindness, as I loved his mom and the feeling was mutual) – discovered the internet, much like his father, the late Senator Albert Gore Sr., discovered the Dwight David Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.   

So it was a sort of prehistoric time when people conversed and also had to pick up phones or write letters, and losing touch with friends probably wasn’t uncommon, unless you were perhaps drunk and lonely and in a life crisis and reaching out for a beloved friend for counseling in the middle of the night. (A guy can lose a lot of friends that way, I should note.)

I mean, I never forgot Carpy. Thought of him often over the years as one of the nicest guys I’d ever met. A kid from Mechanicsville, New York, who was game to mix and mingle with his elders as they toiled hard for their diplomas.

 Me in my pink bunny costume. Jocko in his. We had been the rabbits in an “Alice: Through the Looking Glass” booth at the university’s spring festival. I don’t know if Tom wore one or if he was even there that night.  Holes in the brains of time.

Sometimes I smile, sitting at my desk, when I remember Captain Kirk in his leather pilot’s jacket taking a flyer through an open window and being chased out of the apartment by a gang of women’s rights activists, unhappy to see a guy flying like Superman into their braless political rally.  He landed in peace, of course. Almost went away in pieces. And many of these women were my friends.

Within minutes, Jocko stomped on the gas pedal of the muscle car, a cream-on-bronze “Goat” (GTO) or similar beast.

If their window hadn’t been wide open and their preaching against men not so loud, Captain Kirk, a Vietnam war veteran who almost killed Ho Chi Minh one night while holding off hordes of Cong with a basket filled with grenades and Whoopee cushions, may not have made that flight. Good thing there was neither glass nor screen on that window.  Even a much-decorated Naval hero of LBJ’s war, a swabbie noted for his courageous use of torpedoes and sword-fighting on the Mekong Delta, wouldn’t have risked such a dangerous entry. 

 Actually, that’s an entirely different story, about Captain Kirk and his debut as a first-round draft choice to a sport I believe I dubbed “rolling” – a sort of free-spirited approach to life that usually began with the formal 4 p.m. Friday afternoon planning conference at Tork’s and ended when the “Maverick” reruns played on black-and-white TV on Sunday afternoons while Jocko and I pounded down 10-cent greaseburgers and studied physics.

All’s fair in the rolling world. As long as no one gets hurt. In fact, we passed around a coconut with magic marker lines and logos drawn on it to make it look like an NFL football. It was the game ball, for the person who had the most outrageous rolling experiences of the weekend.

It was retired when I graduated.  Still have it though. It’s been out in my back yard for more than 20 years, weathering down to nothing. Of course, the same has happened to me. Although, when my wife allows it, I do sleep indoors.

But then again, that’s not where this story is going this time.

I wish I’d showed Tom – aka Carpy or “El Carpone” when on the rolling squad – the coconut. We didn’t have time to drop in and tour the house, but I showed him where I lived.

“It’s like an oasis in the city,” he said. “God-damned fine place. I’m happy you seem happy, Tim. Look at all the mature trees. We don’t have them back home.”

Nah, back there they have swimming pools … movie stars…. according to a song composed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.  Earl’s house, still for sale, was along the avenue on which I conducted my brief tour of the city.

Actually Tom doesn’t live in Beverly Hills. His home, as I may or may not have mentioned to this point, is Orange County, California, where he has been the personal veterinarian of choice for everyone from John Wayne (“everybody loved the Duke”) to Joey Bishop (“I asked him for an autographed picture and he said: ‘Rat Pack or just me?’ I got both. Damn nice guy.”)  It is said that when Frank Sinatra wanted to begin using Tom’s veterinary services he was put on the waiting list (and then he died). Tom does things his way. Regrets? He has a few. Actually I made a lot of the preceding paragraph up. Well, only the Sinatra part.

Tom’s accomplished very much in his career. He was celebrated as “America’s Top Vet” by the Clinton White House and was the one who taught Bob Barker the importance of spaying and neutering your pets. And it doesn’t surprise me.  All the guys on the rolling squad have done well.

Jocko, God rest his soul (well, he’s not dead, but he doesn’t take phone calls from rolling squad members – hasn’t since his ex-wife died and broke his heart), has spent 30-plus years as the best inside salesperson in Cedar Rapids and a good share of Eastern Iowa.

Captain Kirk. Well, hell, he’ll say he’s not done anything. Except he gave up alcohol and drugs for the most part – we all have you know… me, I retired from that sport 25 or so years ago at the top of my game – but Captain Kirk is one hellluva Bible thumper. And it’s cool. He also airbrushes T-shirts of Jesus for gang-bangers and two-headed women at circus sideshows and he’s obviously eaten far too many funnel cakes.  Oh, and he spends his free time and money going to Romania to help the orphans. Which is cool, in my mind, as my two children gave up their Romanian orphan status 15 and 18 years ago. 

There’s an ease when you get with old friends. If they were really good friends, the conversation just picks up where it left off. In our case, I think it was outside the house trailer where Tom lived in the green pastures at the edge of Ames while he was finishing vet school. I think they have skyscrapers in that trailer park now. If not, they should …..

A lot of things have happened, many of them bad, in the last 36 years. I’ve stood over bodies of dead kids and taken notes as well as written about escaped monkeys, war heroes, aliens and Cassius Clay. Tom has operated on the pets of movie stars as well as built what appears to be the top veterinary practice in the Western Hemisphere. He also runs marathons and curses at the maladies of age while pushing past the 26.2 mile-marker.  “I always add an extra two miles on just for fun,” he said. And he wasn’t joking.  He once did an extra 13.1 miles at the end of the Boston Marathon.

While our communication in person ended long ago, modern times, such as they are, enabled us to reconnect digitally and seemingly personally in a way that perhaps only Smokey Joe (another story) could have envisioned in a cloud of oily, black-cubed revelation decades ago…

We’d been communicating via Facebook for the last few years, so I knew what Carpy looked like: Just like Tom Carpenter with an older body encasing him.  Me, I look just the same as I did in the 1970s, though my hair is white and thinner and the curl is gone, my face is lined and drawn and punctuated by age spots, there are constant black circles beneath my eyes and my frame no longer shows the bloating of beer but instead shows age and decay.  If they cut me in half, they could count my rings and be surprised there are only 62. (“Thought the bastard was older than that,” they’d say, tsk-tsking while rolling the carcass into Hefty bags for curbside recycling.)

There’s no real reason to go into what Tom and I talked about. You wouldn’t understand.  Unless you are John Nitz. Leonard Sandholm. Captain Kirk (Terry Kirkwood). Jim Mraz (Jocko). Carpy. Champo (my college-era persona who didn’t take much morphing to become the OCD, free-loving, often depressed and crazed journalist hailed by the nether world as “Flapjacks”).   I guess Ben Sorenson, who abandoned his Chevette after driving it into a snow drift would understand.  I’ll never forget that Iowa blizzard, when Ben agreed to drive us to Tork’s for emergency supplies.  He left the road and the car disappeared – us in it – into a snowdrift. The blizzard erased any image of the car and the fact we had to crawl out the windows to escape.   “I’ll just leave it there and see if it’s still there in the spring,” said Ben.  We hitched a ride in the back of some hemp farmer's pickup. He was a kind old man who knew the Iowa State rolling team desperately needed to get to Tork's for supplies to outlast the storm. He brought us back to the dorm, too.    

Of course, you’ve – I hope – shared the experience of reconnecting with an old friend from the past and realizing they have been a part of you all through the years. Like grains through the hourglass, those were the days of our lives… Isn’t that how that dead guy with the cool voice pronounced the old soap opera?  

Tom and I are similar in so many ways. We have become devoted and stone-cold-sober family men. His kids are grown. Even has a couple of grandkids he dotes on and posts their pictures on Facebook.

Mine are making their way in life after a start that was rough, through no fault of anyone but a maniacal, cruel dictator who greeted the throngs by wearing used jockstraps on his head. I made that last part up. Ol’ Nicolae was left as dead as Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner when the Romanian people got done with him.

My kids came from orphanages in Romania, but they are as All-American as their pop. “Give Peace a Chance,” they sing when the network news comes on the television machine and Boris the Spider is ready to invade Ukraine. Hold it, that’s not Boris… it’s Vladimir Putin.

Tom and I have had many other friends in life. His are California runners and dog docs who go to the Final Four and run out at Joshua Tree and wager over golf at $1,000 a stroke (made that last one up).

My friends, for the most part, are News Brothers, some are dead and some are living.  Tony “Lying Sack of Shit” Durr and Harold “The Stranger” Lynch and Scott “Badger” Shelton among the former.  Okey “Skipper” Stepp’s also dead.  Jerry "Chuckles" Manley, Ricky G. "Dumbo" Moore, Jim "Flash" Lindgren, Frankie "Wuhm" White, David "Teach" Ross, Jim “Kentucky Fats” Monday (noted evangelist and hustler for God) and, most especially, my frequent book collaborator, Colonel Robert Stanley Dollar (“Death” News Brother) are among the living and I love them desperately. Future Nashville Mayor “StrawBilly” Fields was “whited out” – for awhile, anyway  – from that list when he failed to pay his dues by returning phone calls or e-mails from his friends who needed his help.  Probably better for his political future, as The News Brothers don’t like hacks and whores.  Come to think of it, I need to put his name back on that list. I love the big, old East Nashville “man of the people” (or man the size of many people).  He's just like so many other "friends" you only hear from when you call and they say "Damn, I've been meaning to call you.... So, you're still alive?"   

When the News Brothers get together, there is no time elapsed.

Of course, in the case of Rob and me, there really isn’t much time elapsed, as we talk in the shorthand of special friends frequently.  Soon we’ll be on our third book together, buoyed by the success of our first two and the overwhelming support of our friends.   

The shorthand of friendship is understood by so few, only the special ones who have shared life experience, who have loved us, who continue to do so.

Folks who know and celebrate our faults and our weaknesses with laughter and greet our few and meager successes with cheers.

Unfortunately, these folks are outnumbered in life by those who reply with self-righteous expletives when we just try to be ourselves, cynical warts and all, when reaching out for friendship and reassurance.

 It had been a long time since I saw Tom Carpenter, DVM, Orange County, California, a young man who long-ago admired my tie-dyed rolling jersey and later became the Duke’s veterinarian.

But as we forked into out breakfasts at Athens, it felt like any other Saturday morning in the early 1970s, when the rolling squad would regroup over breakfast before planning another day and night of serious study of the human spirit and other academic pursuits.

We were the benevolent Merry Men of Ames, Iowa, beloved at any all-night truck stop or biker bar.  We were fast on our feet and left good tips.    

When we stood by the old, white Saab at the end of our morning and reunion, I hugged Tom. He did so in return. I really didn’t want to let go, but he had pigs to castrate, or whatever the world’s top veterinarians do at these confabs.  The actual pig-castrating by the way came at the John Nitz homestead in Northwest Iowa, where a bunch of city boys were taught the cut-and-fry art by the local hog doctor 40-some years ago.

Actually Tom is more likely to be discovering the cure for feline leukemia than about anything else I can imagine. He’s that good of a fellow and vet.

Would we see each other again or is this the final chapter, the punctuation, the post script, one last roll through time with an old and steadfast friend?

Hell, Tom, if you’re out there, let’s get together again.  I just remembered the Viking Fest.

Were you there for that night when our guests – male and female -- tore into the roasted turkeys and then threw the naked bones – “Tom Jones”-style -- over their shoulders while filling glasses from an Everclear-spiked keg of Schlitz? We saved the Mad Dog 20/20 for the desert beverage?

Heck there are more tales to write. Thanks, Carpy. Your visit meant more to me than you can imagine.  

  (Note: The thing is that this is, for the most part, a true story, although time has played tricks on me.  There’s a hole in Daddy’s brain where all the memories go.)