Friday, December 31, 2010

Skipper and Rick Nelson help me say farewell to a difficult year that was no 'Garden Party'

I don’t think there are any pictures left of the New Year when my old friend, Skipper, appeared as both the Baby New Year 1983 and Father Time.
Nor do I have pictures of the last meaningful night I spent with Skipper. It, too, was a New Year’s Eve, but it was the end of 1985.
Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” was playing on the radio in Skipper’s Royal York Hotel apartment/room as we packed.
The great and under-appreciated rock singer – who has been bestowed posthumous News Brothers honors largely because of my memory of that night and the 80-plus-year-old man I was helping – had just died that day in a plane crash. (In his final show, Dec. 30, in Alabama, Rick and the Stone Canyon Band ended with Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.” As he left the stage, he hollered to the crowd: “Rave on for me!” – a plenty good “final words” sentiment to earn New Brothers status.)
On that New Year’s Eve, Skipper was going to move out of his room and, eventually, into the first of many nursing homes he’d occupy until he died and donated his gnarled body to medical science.
He’d been keeping the room in the Royal York for the better part of the last two years without ever really living in it. He’d been staying with his wife, Rose or Onion or Jasmine, some such name, out in the Clarksville, Tenn., projects. I called her “Mrs. Skipper.” Nice woman.
When they married, she kept her apartment and he stayed at the old hotel. He would usually go see her on Saturday nights and stay until after Sunday dinner. That was about all the domestic bliss he could stand, I think. Her too, I imagine. I think it also had something to do with her having approval to only have a single person living in the cramped government flat.
It also was easy for him to walk to and from docs and the pharmacy at the Royal York. And besides that, the damned old flop had the aroma of busted dreams and stale testosterone … or was that rotting flesh? … from all the old guys who lived there.
Anyway, as countdown continues on this year -- and I will be glad when it’s done -- I stop to remember Skipper. Oh, the old arthritis gnarled former Merchant Marine and carny -- who claimed to have served spaghetti to Al Capone and to have witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor from his apartment terrace -- has been a part of many adventures.
There were times when the News Brothers needed an old salt to take with them to Camelot, where cops could be plied for information over drinks and then began buying drinks for us so we’d keep them company. Skipper sometimes was there with us when we got plenty of good news stories from loose-lipped lawmen.
We’d get off at maybe 1 in the morning and go get him. Call a half-hour before. Usually we’d make these arrangements a day or two in advance so he could rest up for what would be a 3 a.m. or later night. I remember he always had his black wingtips glistening for those forays into the night.
Anyway, this is supposed to be about New Year’s. Not much really to say about the Father Time/Baby New Year photos, other than that they likely provided a lot of good cheer for people in Clarksville who had come to look up to Skipper as something of a celebrity after I had the good fortune of becoming his friend and writing about him occasionally. Perhaps he felt he too had the good fortune of meeting me and my buddy, Rob “Death” Dollar. But the pleasure was mine. I loved the little guy. I still miss him all these years after that final donation to medical science, that strange fraternity where docs and insurance co-ops play dice to see who gets the most money out of Americans. Snake-eyes for me.
Back to Skipper.
Sometimes, if I was going out in pursuit of a column or just going for a ride, I’d pull my old Duster with its bad brakes to the front of the hotel and ask him to hop in. Took him to Guthrie, Ky., to meet Reuben Toliver, preacher and barbecue king. Drove out to the Mennonite bakery for donuts and apple pie.
Took him down to the river where he and my pal, Rob, and I liked to skip rocks. We called him Skipper because he had been an old salt and he was covered with tattoos of naked women and snakes. Actually, age had distorted those tattoos. They could have been pictures of all the dead presidents for all I could tell.
But I’ll tell you, if you ever bet on rock skipping – and there are few people who ever have – Skipper earned his nickname name.
Little fellow, probably 4-10, could flat-out SKIP those rocks, particularly if we took him to the shallows of the Red River, over near Port Royal. If he wasn’t wearing his teeth, he’d tease us with the Andy Griffith theme.
The wagers were usually small, a pack of menthols or a pot of coffee. Sometimes it would be eggs over-easy from Raissa’s cafĂ©, in the lower level of the Royal York.
When I made mistakes in life, and I have been known to do just that, Skipper was usually the first one to console me: “It’s too damn bad. But I knew you shouldn’t do that in the first place. Just didn’t think I was the one who should say that. We all need to make our own mistakes.”
Talk about a shoulder to cry on.
Anyway, I’ll write more about Skipper some other day if I haven’t already. But on the last meaningful day with him -- for he was going to share a room with his wife, Rosie or Pearline or whatever her name was -- at the nursing home once they cleared out a corpse or two – I took my dinner break and shuffled through the light snow from the newspaper building in downtown Clarksville to the hotel.
A life in four small boxes. He had a little black-and-white TV with tinfoil subbing for rabbit ears that he used to watch baseball and Matt Dillon and Death Valley Days reruns.
He had seven pair of socks and seven white T-shirts, for that’s what he wore most of the time. He had two pair of well-pressed trousers, including the ones he was wearing. He had sweaters he wore over the T-shirts in the winter. He had an old pea-coat Rob and I bought him at the Mustard Seed. One blue Hawaiian shirt.
He had a stack of Zane Grey westerns as well as a copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl” he liked to read out loud. He said he met Ginsberg and Kerouac at City Lights out in San Francisco when he was working out of that port. Truth? Didn’t matter. Ever. Just the love.
Skipper had a few other things, like a few News Brothers pictures, including the ones from the New Year’s paper of a couple years before. A yellow alarm-clock radio played Ricky Nelson songs while we packed and talked.
We hauled the boxes down and into the elevator and out to a car, where a kindly fellow was picking him up to run out to Opal’s place for the night. The nursing home check-in would come first of the week, contingent on the right combination of people dying.
“This will be it, Tim, son,” Skipper said, as he hugged me. “Won’t ever be the same again.”
And it wasn’t, although I admit there was the one time Rob and I borrowed Skipper from the nursing home, without permission, and took him back down to Camelot. One last ride to beat the devil.
Anyway, I think of Skipper today because he was like the grandfathers who had long since died. He was full of tales, both tall and short. He doubtless stretched the truth, if there was any to begin with. For all I know his worldy adventures of warring and whoring and praying to outrun the devil occurred in his head while he spent his whole life in the hotel. Didn’t matter to me one way or the other. I believed him. Sometimes you gotta believe in something. Or serve somebody.
But he loved the News Brothers, particularly me and Rob, because we loved him. No question about it. In fact, when I moved from Clarksville a few years later, I made one last stop.
I visited his final nursing home destination, and rolled him out into the common area, where we smoked and tears streamed.
“This is goodbye, Tim,” he said, or words similar. “Thanks for being my friend. Now you go out and have a good life.”
And it has been. Skipper is long dead. But he’s with me always, like so many of the great and warm-hearted people who have shared my life.
I am just thinking of him today because the New Year’s Eves with Skipper were some of my life’s best. They weren’t wild celebrations of parched-eye extremes and “how’d I get here?” awakenings.
I guess I’m thinking of those New Year’s Eves with Skipper to cheer me, because 2010 has been the worst year of my life.
Oh, there were more traumatic years, with the deaths of loved ones.
But from start to finish, this was a year of horror and despair. If it wasn’t for my memories of Skipper, my long-time friendship with Rob, who would listen to me rant, the kindness of my old managing editor Tony Kessler (perhaps the nicest bald distance runner and hockey dad you’ll ever meet), the loyalty of the musician (and sometimes reporter) Peter Cooper and my family, I don’t know if I could take it. Oh yeah, bless the rest of the News Brothers and a few special Facebook confidantes, for they have done me more good than they know.
There actually have been many who have expressed concern and kindness, so I don’t want to run a list of names. They know who they are. The ones who really didn’t and don’t care know who they are as well. And they have their reason.
And, thanks to this social media crap – and I am a believer and avid user – I was reacquainted with my old college running mates.
Captain Kirk, the Vietnam Navy veteran who played professional softball and hustled pool to pay his way through Iowa State, has been with me in almost daily dispatches since we “rediscovered” each other. Cappy almost got me killed when he hustled a heroin dealer one night after I had served as the set-up guy at the pool table. I think that incident occurred at the bar where mentally challenged twins – back then we called them retarded, with no ill intended – wore cowboy hats, plucked on Gibsons and sang Hank Williams songs every Tuesday night.
Carpy, the famous veterinarian who shared some college adventures, is now practicing in Southern California where he has perfected the art of running long distance races while neutering prairie dogs. He’s a good guy. Although I think of him as a good kid, as he was and I suppose still is, four years younger than me.
And Jocko, well, he’s Jocko. Killing animals, drinking beer and laughing during our phone conversations while he relaxes in the farm country of Iowa. His ex-wife, and I was their best man, died this year. I let time get in the way of saying goodbye. You can read about these people and more by going back through my blogs of this horrid year.
It’s been a year in which I felt like my old friend Muhammad Ali, in his later years. Didn’t matter which way I turned: I was getting clubbed, figuratively and literally, by luck, by the economy, by friends who really weren’t and have subsequently lost that title for good by simply not caring. (Note: You can crap on me a few times, but if you crap on my family when they need help, you are scratched from the list permanently. Dead to me). Other uppercuts and low blows came from the whims and rages of nature and by a Scion that ran a red light and left me still concussed.
And then there is the fact I’ve been underemployed and fighting for pennies in a cruel economy. There are the Bulls and the Bears. And then there is this economy, which could be described by what bears do in the woods.
So, in a random manner, let me start by saying that the first part of the year was OK. Oh, I’d lost another part-time contract job, but that wasn’t new. The economy is that way. And I’ve been fortunate enough to find other jobs, thanks to people I respect and who apparently respect me.
Then came May 1-2, 2010, the days that changed my attitude about people and nature and along the way came to despise the Corps of Engineers (“hey, if we just go home and sleep, maybe this flood won’t happen, so we don’t need to monitor the dams,” is the way it seems to have occurred.)
Anyway, my little house is far from the dams. But the weather guys said that 24 inches of rain fell in the 36 hours or so in my neighborhood. When they showed the instant maps of neighborhoods on TV, you could almost see me and my family bailing out the house.
Of course I wasn’t alone. And though the total repair and replace cost was insurmountable, we were able to get back into something of a lifestyle relatively quickly. It was a lifestyle cluttered by piles of books and CDs and albums jammed into every available space in the upstairs of the house.
You may have read it before. Here’s a brief summary of the events.
“Dad, I’ll get the records first!” said my daughter, Emily, as she sloshed through the rising water in the basement – which actually was the living room, my office, library and the music room as well as utility room and garage – and grabbed armloads.
She is my daughter, damn the Romanian passport and parliamentary adoption decree, and she wisely started out with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as she began clearing the shelves. Next came Dylan, Cash, the Dead, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Kristofferson. Hell, by the time she was done, we’d even rescued Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Met Herb once when he came to Nashville. Good guy.
That was just the vinyl. I didn’t raise stupid children. I mean, they may not always be perfect, but they know their old dad -- a very old man – loves his vinyl albums.
The CDs and then the books followed, with an assembly line rescue that began with Emily and then went to me, to Joe and to Suzanne before settling in on the main floor of our home.
I didn’t even lose many. I mean there may have been a random Los Lonely Boys or Tracy Lawrence CD that got too wet to salvage, but most recordings – I keep about everything, as evidenced by the fact I still had Tracy and Los Lonely Boys to lose when the water rose – were OK. There were a few hundred cassette tapes that got water-logged and tossed.
The books came next. A few had to be thrown out, soaking wet. But those that survived were carried upstairs and stacked around the living room, where peculiar combinations like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” rested atop a copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, the Bible and the Qu’ran or Koran…. I should probably look in the stylebook for preferred spelling.
I could continue to tell you about the flood, about how I coped with it by writing nightly blogs that included my own regular basketball adventures with The Big O while Bob Dylan and Magic Johnson watched.
Or I could talk about the huge pile of furniture and floor, carpet and drywall and appliances that had to be torn out and left in the driveway. The whole basement had to be gutted, as the water wicked up the drywall.
I could talk about the limp-handed insurance company that tried to sell me flood insurance, after collecting premiums for 20 years and declining to help at all in my family’s recovery.
And then there’s the great work of FEMA and how it has restored my “faith” in government.
Yeah, Uncle Sam: Thanks for the $400 or whatever I was allowed to pay for the lost clothes dryer. Surprised you could spare that much to help me when you are busy killing civilians in foreign lands. I think you could have spared one burst of ammo into an empty building and helped me more than that.
But I’m OK. I do understand, though, the bitterness of the real and still homeless and hopeless flood victims. Every time the Big O’s boys make an air strike on civilian populations in Pakistan, that’s several million dollars less for the good of the country itself. Oh well, at least you haven’t declared “Mission Accomplished,” Big O. And you may not like country music, but could you please help Nashville? There are rows of homes in North Nashville and Bellevue that are still unoccupied. I’m OK, though I could likely fuel many fires with the amount of paperwork I had to file in quintuplicate in order for each appropriate official to have copies on which to stamp “No.”
Ahh, but that’s enough about the flood. I’ve tried to move past it. Well, actually I was forcibly moved past it by a dozen feet or so when a car ran a red light at full speed and T-boned me as I was making a pleasant little turn on the green arrow after returning some flood recovery rental merchandise to the Home Depot on July 4.
My car was totaled and I’m still suffering from the after-effects of the bad concussion. Almost no money changed hands so far thanks to the diligence of the insurance industry.
Dizzy, bad headaches and sudden bursts of anger at the establishment are some of the symptoms. Well, those angry bursts were part of the deal before the year I hate took place. You gotta serve somebody.
I could go on, but it would bore you. Also, I’d prefer you read my blogs. For example, I could have easily lived with the physical destruction of the flood and even the wreck if it hadn’t been for the fact my cat, Pal, died.
Yes, I’d rather have the one little cat than all of the material stuff that I lost.
Oh he was old and he had cancer and he had earned the right to die. But I held onto him as he went on. The only good thing about the flood is that his litter box had been moved from the old former basement/utility roof to my bedroom during the course of repairs.
Pal didn’t have to struggle downstairs in his last few months. And he could easily get onto the bed and talk to me.
Damn, though. I wasn’t ready for him to die. I don’t want any more pets. They break your heart.
I have to admit that I was far better off than many of you out there who had to deal with the flood. At least I could get to the upstairs, where the kitchen and bathrooms and bedrooms are. And my family was safe.
I didn’t need help. I’m OK. But there are so many who did and do. I’ve been wondering when they are going to get some of the bucks from the fund-raising concerts.… I mean, how much did anybody get from shows put on by good-hearted souls Vince Gill, Keith Urban and Garth Brooks? I don’t know anybody who got any help to speak of. I’m sure there are happy stories out there. But no one has told them to me. I guess the people who could afford to pay the scalpers’ prices of $500-$1,000 for the $25 Urban and Garth shows have plenty to be happy about.
People, my family included, learned that the only aid we can rely upon lives inside our four walls. It’s a wonderful life if you have family to depend on.
But I am lucky as I face down this horrid year. I do have a loyal family and friends. And I do have my pride and my honesty and my ethics.
I am sure the next year will be better for a lot of us.
I don’t fool myself that the war will be over and that cancer will be cured.
I do not believe that the Big O and the vile bastards of Congress will go dancing hand-in-hand through the Rose Garden for the good of the American people.
I do believe, however, that the good guys will win, eventually. And, as my long time friends know, I am a good guy. I befriended both John Glenn and the Lone Ranger. John Wooden thought of me as a grandson. John R. Cash liked me enough to give me his final interview slot, except he died before he made it home from the hospital.
No, I’m not perfect. Skipper would tell you that.
But I’m pretty damned proud to have made it through this year -- and the almost six decades before -- by staying true to principles that would have held back so many korporate ass-kissers from reaching their levels of success in journalism, my profession, and elsewhere. At least I can sleep at night.
I always kidded Skipper that he reminded me of “Popeye,” you know the sailor man who ate spinach and hollered “I yam what I yam.” Me too.
So, as this year of the damned passes, I think again about that New Year’s Eve when I loaded up Skipper’s belongings in his Royal York Hotel room.
Rick Nelson’s hour of death tribute was in full force on the radio. And the deejay – it may even have been Jimmy in the Morning working a late shift -- cued up “Garden Party” with the line:
“But it's all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, you can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself….”
I smiled, unplugged the radio and helped my old friend down to the car that was going to haul him toward eternity.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

1982: Murders of children, trailer park rapes & blood-slick roads take holiday as News Brothers spread Christmas cheer and anger Big Guy

“Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”
Makes you feel like breaking out the hot chocolate and singing about that Wenceslaus fellow feasting on Stephen or whatever.
That Damn Nice holiday sentiment nearly cost me my job back in the winter of 1982. Fortunately, I was able to make The Big Guy, our publisher blink. Perhaps the dollar signs I’d help him earn blinded him temporarily, long enough for me to back out his door, put on my yellow fedora and fire up a smoke.
Hell, for all I remember, and sometimes that isn’t much, The Big Guy maybe even smiled. At the very least he jangled the change in his pockets and nodded, blankly, thinking “How in the world can I get back to Carolina and out of this institution....” He was from that state populated by basketball and Biltmore and his prize, upon retirement, was to get back to the mountains and drool.
Call me naive or innocent (few do, you know), but I was surprised by the fuming anger of The Big Guy, as I didn’t understand what was so wrong with this sentimental greeting. I even sent one of the cards to my mom, and she didn’t object. She was willing always to have a Damn Nice Christmas right up til she died. I think she hung the card on the Christmas Tree. Still she had been a journalist, so I suppose she got it.
That greeting that was broadcast around Clarksville came during the heady early days of the fraternity of nicotine-stained journalists who came together with purpose and pride and along the way became known as the News Brothers. Blue-collar journalists, telling blue-collar stories to a blue-collar (and Army-drab-collar) town.
Most people liked it when we wished them a “Damn Nice Christmas” 28 years ago.
After all, wasn’t that the last line from It’s A Wonderful Life? Jimmy Stewart looks into the camera, eyes twinkle as the bell tinkles and says: “Attaboy, Clarence: Have a Damn Nice Christmas!” Listen closer next time, as that part of the line gets drowned out by all the joyous singing.
In the weeks and months leading up to delivering the holiday greeting to The Big Guy, our publisher, I’d been helping to guide what came to be prize-winning coverage involving the deaths of two beautiful and innocent young people. Of course, we weren’t looking for recognition. We just were looking for the truth. And justice. And, when the adrenaline and nicotine wore off, perhaps some sleep.
Kathy Jane Nishiyama and Rodney Wayne Long still stir nightmares in sections of my soul scarred and raw by their monstrous murders almost three decades ago. There still are the sweats on cold nights.
Children, really. Promise extinguished. Forever frozen as “mug shots” that ran daily on the front page with eerily parallel dispatches about the mysteries, searches, chases, savagery and mourning.
The newspaper wasn’t large in staff, but the staff was large in heart. We were pretty young ourselves, though our own innocence had been washed away by years of covering trailer-trash murders and gunfights involving prostitutes, transvestites, serial killers and soldiers. Our photographer would show us some of the not-ready for prime-time shots he got of bodies and bullet holes. Even I was shocked by one of a fatal wound right below a guy’s testicles. He not only bled out, but his once-proud – to him I’m sure -- private parts were making the photographic rounds of police departments and newsrooms.
Sure there was gallows humor. When you are making $150 a week and aswirl in bodies, sometimes you just had to laugh when you saw the photograph. Sorry. But it’s true.
The Kathy Jane and Rodney stories touched us and I’ll tell you much more about them some other time.
Suffice it to say that for the most part, we worked around the clock to tell those stories, to cover the deaths and the get to know the families of the teen-age victims and the killers. Some of the finest police coverage ever by my dear friend, Rob “Death” Dollar, with the occasional assist by me and by our vigilant Baptist wordsmith, the near-legendary Frank “Wuhm” White, a successful businessman and downtown roof owner. Another story. Another night. For this is Christmas.
Long-time copy desk pal Jerry “Chuckles” Manley, a semi-portly boy with a reddish beard, edited the copy with expertise and with at least one keen eye while Virginia Slims smoke made the other eye run. His sidekick, “Flash” – a fresh-from-school news virgin – aged every time he helped copy-edit those stories and write a headline about a body found or a gleeful, boasting killer.
My boss Tony Durr – whom I still love and miss a couple of decades after he killed himself in a lonely Alaska Coast Guard barracks after washing out of journalism and a half-dozen marriages -- pranced around the newsroom, excited by the grisly coverage and his occasional assist and /or attempt at deflecting the slings and arrows of upper management .
Sure, great coverage of two murders that occurred at about the same time in the same Southern town. “Things like that aren’t supposed to happen here in Clarksville,” barked one police officer who enjoyed back-shooting dope-smugglers, pimps, throat-slicers, chicken thieves, father rapers and other everyday perpetrators and predators.
Sixteen-hour work days could be punctuated by cigarettes exploding in the newsroom. Yep, we booby-trapped the open packs on our desks with “loaded” cigarettes. There were those who never wanted to admit they smoked by buying their own. Wives would object if they openly indulged. So they bummed and as a result I loved watching them jerk around in their chairs, gasping when the smoke cleared, the frayed cigarette pursed between Lee Oswald lips.
Seems pretty juvenile, but then again, so does rubber vomit.
But this is a story about Christmas 1982 and the card. You remember the Christmas card, don’t you?
It actually seemed like a great idea, guaranteed to raise a smile, in the wake of all that had gone on in the news. And besides that, Rob and I were coming off the success of the movie we’d produced and directed, written, whatever the word might be, and even starred in ... along with “Flash” and “Chuckles” as co-stars and others who occasionally dropped in to take part. Half the town’s police force and firefighters and charitable organizations were involved to some extent. Even the mayor and the first American to circle the globe participated.
“Flapjacks: The Motion Picture” -- with its intricate plot revolving around news events, along with its slapstick and satire poking fun at journalism (we didn’t realize we were the last generation of practitioners of that profession at the time), law enforcement, pop culture and current events -- holds up to this day.
With all the pie-throwing, gun-slappping, confetti-flying, car-chasing and finger-flipping scenes, it also really is a portrait of my life at the time. I could have called it “Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine,” after the Doors album, because it came out of my head – and out of Rob’s – as we went along, coping with the disaster and death we’d been covering.
We’d meet for coffee at 7 a.m. on Saturdays with a “script” for the day’s shoot, film for a few hours, then wash the shaving cream from the tossed pies or the sideshow elephants turds off our sneakers, go to the newsroom with a couple fresh packs of smokes and put out prize-winning newspapers well into the night and next morning. I was associate editor, so the night shift, the result of our collective labors could easily be blamed on me. But I took great pride in the movie and, more so, in the great journalism the staff was committing, against all odds.
OK, you may be wondering what this all has to do with Christmas.
You see, "Flapjacks: The Motion Picture" played until dawn in an abandoned theater in the city and raised a few hundred bucks that went to a homeless agency, the fire department’s Christmas toy drive and the Police Department’s children and widows’ fund.
Even the newspaper hierarchy was pleased by the movie that came a month before Christmas ... some young staffers, after all, had done this on their own time, made headlines in Clarksville and in the corporation for raising money for charity ... and at the same time won journalism awards.
Of course, with all this holiday cheer floating around, Rob and I decided the best thing a group of guys can do is put together a Christmas card to thank our friends and to express our belief in peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind.
It in turn would reappear the following December on our planned News Brothers calendar, again a fund-raising proposition. More on that too another day, as I’m sure you are anxious to get out and shop for some children who really don’t care what you give them, as long as they get something. See the loaded cigarettes or rubber vomit section above for last-minute ideas.
When we weren’t immersed in the most heinous of murders, driven to drink (and sometimes getting a ride home) by the human carnage we’d witnessed, we got further involved in charity.
We wore our shades to give blood and to visit dying children. There even were plans under way for a News Brother Basketball Tournament, that we were going to host at one of the local high schools, again to raise money for charity.
There was nothing complex about the Christmas Card. We’d wear our News Brothers’ best – bits and pieces of the tuxedoes we’d worn in the days of the “Flapjacks” premiere.
Rob, Chuckles, Flash and I showed up in our finery. Our clerk, a pretty woman named Neesa, was good enough sport to show up to don the top half of a Santa costume and expose what were and likely still are damn nice legs.
Fresh from the photo shoot, Rob and I dashed to our favorite printer and ordered a few dozen postcard-sized copies of that picture, with the phrase “Have a Damn Nice Christmas” printed below the picture.
Delighted by the result, Rob, in his white top-hat and I in my yellow fedora immediately distributed these cards around town.
We started out in the old Royal York Hotel, a high-rise former swank joint that had degenerated into a flop for widows, widowers, lovable losers, liars and murderous drifters. Many of them were our closest friends. “I was so tough my spit would bounce,” one of my friends told me when I wished him a happy 83rd birthday. Again, another story.
We went up the elevator – it was one of those you drove yourself by pulling on a lever – and stopped at each floor, sliding a card beneath each door. “Gunsmoke” reruns blared from the TV sets in 90 percent of those rooms.
We then left a stack at the desk to be distributed in the lobby.
In the next hours, we wandered the streets of the city, handing them out, sliding them into the mail slots for county and city officials. It was sort of a Charlie Dickens scene we were creating in the cold, snowy Clarksville night.
We even saved one in case Chico the Monkey ever came back from the dead. I still have that one. Just in case. That too is another story and it actually took place later. I have told you about that tragedy before and likely will again, as Chico’s death haunts and delights me to this day.
Then, spreading Christmas cheer, we went to the newspaper complex, going from the press room to the advertising offices, to the camera room, to the job shop, sliding cards beneath doors and leaving them on desks.
The last one, and we didn’t hesitate, went beneath the office door of The Big Guy, our publisher.
“He’ll like this,” said Rob.
“Yeah,” I said. We didn’t really think he’d mind one way or another, as long as he could jangle the change in his pockets as loudly as possible.
Perhaps he was angry by the Chico coverage. Maybe it was my long interview with a drifter named W. Robert Cameron. I’d caught him while he was resting along a railroad siding, taking a breather from his mission of hitchhiking to Austria.
Maybe it was Rob’s steady stream of stories about death and destruction –”No more wreck stories” we were commanded after about the 24th traffic fatality involving a drunken soldier in six months. Not good for the Chamber image, I suppose, in hindsight. Especially at Christmastime.
“Tim, uhh, this is The Big Guy, uhhhh,” was the voice the next morning when I picked up the Flap phone, one of those blue plastic contraptions that I kept next to the Mr. Potato Head collection on my associate editor's desk. “Could you come down here and see me.”
I still didn’t know what was going on. He didn’t sound angry. Just self-important.
“Uhh, Tim, uhh, could you close the door and, uhh, sit down.” I noticed he was jangling his change harder and faster. I wondered if I should offer him a loaded cigarette.
He held up the card. “This is wrong,” he said, sounding like a sinister Walt Disney. “You do not put ‘Damn’ and ‘Christmas’ in the same sentence. You guys have gone too far. Do not give any more of these out.”
Once I explained that half the town had them, he stood up and walked across the room. He was jangling wildly. The rosewater scent of his hair spritz filled the tiny confines.
“Tim, uhh, you are a great newspaperman, uhh, but this is too much. Do you have any of them left?”
I nodded. “Sure. How many more do you want? And I can order more.”
He stood there, in silence, nodded to the door and then said “don’t do this again.”
I looked at him and smiled.
“What?” he said, in a benign bark.
“Big Guy, Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”
He shook his head. “You too,” he muttered. “You too.”
I ambled back upstairs to the newsroom, where Rob greeted me. He put on his top-hat, fired up a Kool and we went for coffee.
A dozen hours later, about five blocks from the newspaper, a house caught fire. A guy dressed like Santa Claus, apparently en route to a party, stopped.
By the time Rob and the Fire Department got there, a soot-covered Santa Claus, with a handicapped woman slung over his shoulders, walked from the fiery house.
He handed her over to the rescuers and anonymously disappeared into the night.
At first we didn't know the name of the Good Samaritan with the jiggling belly and the soot-covered white beard. Had he been the real Santa Claus? I’d like to say there were flying reindeer involved.
But after the story went viral, appearing on the front pages of newspapers all over the world, Santa stepped forward, visiting us at the newspaper office the next day.
It was Christmas Day, and we were wearing our tuxedoes, and the rescuer, David Rodriguez, was wearing his Santa suit. A high school choral teacher, he had been delivering toys to underprivileged children and came across the fire after taking a wrong turn on his Chrstmas rounds.
That wrong turn really led to what always will be something I regard as a wondrous Christmas miracle.

The follow-up, detailing Santa Rodriguez and his anonymous heroism was a great lead story on a holiday that should revolve around generosity, love and peace. As papers rolled off the press early the next morning, I carried one outside, onto Third Street, where a little snow was falling. Rob was standing out there, with our old friend, Skipper, the old carny and merchant marine who once served spaghetti to Al Capone. Rob had rousted him from his room at the old hotel. It was cold. Boy was it cold.
We shared nips of cheap brandy and wished each other a great holiday: “Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”
Skipper looked up as Tony, Jerry and Jim arrived. He handed them the bottle of cheap brandy.
Skipper, who wasn’t wearing his teeth, looked up to the sky and began singing “Silent Night” in his amazing Irish tenor.
With that beautiful voice echoing off the old buildings around us, I looked to Rob and the others and smiled. “God Bless us every one.”

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ron Santo's life centered on the promise of spring; his death sparks memories of Grandpa Champ, friends, war & shoe-store monkey

The kind third baseman’s death exposed raw pieces of my soul.
No. 10. Ron Santo. A picture in mind’s eye of vitality and happiness, a part of my youth, of my life and dreams, gone.
Perhaps it is not really a raw feeling, but simple melancholy that set in, a realization of how many years have gone and how many miles I still need to trek to find, even find out, what I’m looking for during this sometimes savage, other times honey-slathered journey.
All I can tell you is Ron Santo’s death Thursday, Dec. 2, sent me swirling in “Hey-Hey and Holy Mackerel” memories that included not just this great player and captain of the Chicago Cubs -- my life’s ball club -- but also had me thinking about the brightness of spring dreams, the renewal, when the waiting ‘til next year is done and fresh hope thrives. That’s the real truth behind baseball’s allure and life’s promise.
But in addition to Ron Santo, I also thought of my first baseball hero, my Grandpa Champ, dead 36 years. He used to take me to see the Detroit Tigers play when I would visit his house at Walnut Lake in the summers. It was always a big deal. If the Yankees were in town, that made it just right. Grandpa was a big Tigers fan, knew Ty Cobb and the early guys from the days he would finish up his shift at the Nash plant and wander to Navin Field, later Briggs Stadium, when he was a young man.
He was by all accounts a great ballplayer back in Clayville, N.Y. Only his busted-up fingers kept him from pursuing a career in baseball rather than as a thresherman and later a factory line foreman. Ran for sheriff once too.
Grandpa Champ didn’t live in the past. He had a great appreciation for the players who delighted me as an 8 or 10-year- old. Stormin’ Norman Cash, Al Kaline, Jim Bunning (yes the politician with the click-heels demeanor was a fine pitcher), Dick McCauliffe, Phil Regan, Charlie Maxwell, Dick Wertz, Bill Freehan.
And when I met many of them at Howard A. Snope’s shoe store in Grand Rapids, Mich., where I lived for awhile as a grade -school kid, they all were good fellows. Howard A. Snope (I may have his name wrong, but he was a nice, bald guy and we got our school shoes there) was a part-time pool-hustler, with a table in the lower level of his store. He may have been a yo-yo champion as well. Can’t remember. Perhaps I’ve gotten the whole thing blended in the time machine that is my cluttered and concussed mind.
Snope, or maybe it was Swope?, also had a STORE MONKEY. Can’t remember the name, but I know it wasn’t Chico, a monkey I encountered later in life. That’s a whole different story, though.
When the Tigers came into the store to sign baseball cards and help the old pool shark or yo-yo hustler sell shoes, the monkey roamed freely. Everybody’s got something to hide, they say, but me, well I just let the monkey climb my shoulders. From that point on I always wanted a monkey … at least until the sad tale of Chico getting run to the ground and much worse by the dogs years later.
Anyway, Grandpa Champ first got me interested in baseball mainly because it was the soundtrack of summers at Walnut Lake, which then was intensely rural, where deer and wildcats roamed freely. He even convinced us one night there was a bear out there. Never saw one, though. Now that is an upscale suburb of Detroit. I doubt the little four-room house he and my Uncle Les built even exists any more. In reality, that is. In my mind, it is always there, especially on days like this, when I ponder what it means that Ron Santo has died.
Not all games were on television back in those Walnut Lake summers. So when they were just on the radio, that was the entertainment. We’d sit and listen to the Tigers. Van Patrick and later Ernie Harwell described the game, in detail. My imagination, as a youngster, embellished and thrived on the mental pictures of what was said. Meanwhile, we’d generally be playing poker.
I don’t play anymore. But back then, Grandpa Champ, who went out west at age 16 to work the threshing crews beginning in British Columbia and working as the wheat harvest moved Southeast, spent a lot of time teaching me and my brother, Eric, and cousins, Marc and Jeff, the tricks of the game.
And no, this wasn’t some soft chump of a Grandpa who would let his 6 and 8- year-old grandchildren win. He played for keeps. Matchsticks? He wanted them. Plastic chips? He raked them in. Got pennies, boys?
So on the occasion we did win a hand when we were listening to the Tigers it was a real victory, doubly so if Kaline made a spectacular play in the outfield or hammered the winner across. (Santo, by the way likely fueled young minds similarly during his two decades as the radio voice of the Cubs after his multi-generational career in the infield and as a pizza salesman.)
Of course when the Tigers games were on TV – usually the televised ones were day games – Grandpa watched them. Crippled by arthritis, he’d sit in his lounge chair, his pipe or cigar going, uttering the occasional “Gawd Gawd Gawd” at his team. Really angry by a bad relay, he’d punctuate it with a “damn.” Not too loud or Grandma would say “Oh, George!” while frying up his afternoon lunch of scrambled eggs, dosed with a blanket of black pepper, and a can of kippers on the side.
So you’re asking what this has to do with Ron Santo? Well those summers and the monkey in the shoe store were a part of the reason I fell, deeply and forever, in love with the Chicago Cubs.
When I was 11, we moved to Chicago. Among the first things we did for recreation was go to Wrigley Field as a family. Grandpa would go with us when he visited Chicago.
It also was a place of my liberation. As I got old enough to take the train into the city or bum a ride with a pal, the friendly confines became a place to escape with buddies, 13 or 14 or 15…. Easily old enough to buy an Old Style in the left field bleachers.
Now, those bleachers are the place yuppies go to be seen -- or to cause the Cubs to lose their only chance at a pennant in the last several decades.
Back then, and we are talking the late mid-to-late-1960s, the bleacher bums were blue-collar souls, working stiffs who had the night shift. Daytime was the only time they played ball in the beautiful confines before the bastards who govern Korporate Amerika succumbed to the TV schedulers and insisted lights be put in at Wrigley.
I may be oversimplifying, as is my right as a human being, but basically the Cubs had to put lights in if they were going to have home games in the World Series, which had begun being played at night because of network TV revenue. Otherwise, they'd have to play World Series Games away from the field built by chewing gum's success. Gasp... even perhaps at Comiskey?
(Hey, who else remembers taking the transistor radio to class in elementary school and listening to the World Series when all baseball was played --- as it should be – beneath the sun? Listened to the astronauts take off and land also.)
Anyway, I never understood why the Cubs succumbed to that blackmail and installed lights at Wrigley. It wasn’t like they ever were going to be in a World Series, anyway.
I am one of those fans who have cheered for them for five decades. They are my team. I don’t get to see a whole lot of their games. But they are in my heart and in my soul or however that Rod Stewart song goes.
But this is supposed to be about the now-dead Ron Santo.
And the summer of 1969.
That was the year that the Cubs were destined to win the pennant, rolling through the season.
Jack Brickhouse, the announcer for WGN at the time – he later became a friend – would sing “Hey-Hey and Holy Mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way” on the radio and television after the Cubs dropped the Dodgers or the Giants. Unfortunately they didn’t beat the Mets often enough. More details on that later.
I got to know Jack a little bit because I would go up on the ramp to his press box to meet him when I was a kid. Later, I befriended “Clarksville’s Marilyn Monroe,” a large and wonderful spinster named Mary Harris, who ran the almost males-only club known as the tobacco board back when that was the king crop. Miss Mary was always there for me when I needed fresh tomatoes or a cuss-filled dose of Clarksville history.
She was an old woman by the time we met. And her cousin used to come to Clarksville, Tenn., to spend summers with her when he was growing up. His name: Jack Brickhouse.
Miss Mary cut my columns about Clarksville from the local newspaper, The Leaf-Chronicle (named for the aforementioned tobacco leaf) and sent them to Jack. He’d write me notes or even call me. “Any friend of Mary’s is a friend of mine,” he’d say.
“Hey-Hey!” I’d say, with a laugh.
Both of them are long dead. I know later-comers to the Cubs worship Harry Caray. And that’s fine. But to me, I knew Jack Brickhouse and Harry – while quite an entertainer – was no Jack Brickhouse. Course Harry’s got the bronze statue.
There were days in the 1960s’ bleachers when I would cheer my Cubs and curse at Pete Rose, who loved every second of it, even the beer showers presented by anonymous donors. Of course, the Old Style was just so much mist by the time it reached the ball field beneath the ivy.
As those as old as me know, every time someone with a blue hat and pinstripes pumped one over the fence Jack hollered “Hey-Hey!”… or “Holly Mackerel.” (Harry added “Holy Cow” to the North Side vernacular later.)
During the 1969 season, at the games’ ends, Jack’s recorded song “Hey-Hey and Holy Mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way…” pumped through the speaker system as the boys took their bows and ran to the clubhouse, beneath the left field bleachers.
Ronnie Santo, their captain, would jump up and click his heels all the way to the lockers.
Ernie Banks would laugh and cheer his teammates. If they’d played two that day, he’d say “Let’s play three.” I love Ernie Banks, too.
Fergie Jenkins, Randy Hundley, Billy Williams.
My friend, Jimmy Hart – I wonder what happened to him? – and I would finish our jobs at the park district and head down there as frequently as possible. Catch the tail end of a double header or go spend Saturday and Sunday there. We’d go in my 1965 Falcon or on the train.
Jimmy once stepped on my prized aviator’s sunglasses – they were in our cooler box – which really bothered me, as everyone knows how much I like my shades.
Yes, you could sneak a cooler into the games then. It’s not like now when all sports are controlled by the fellows with the screw the public rules and mentality of their hero, war profiteer and Korporate cheerleader Shotgun Dick.
It was a sport in which Golden Glovers made 50 grand. You could watch them smoking cigarettes in the dugout, perhaps tossing ‘em in the dirt by the on-deck circle. If they struck out, it might be worth picking the smoke up and finishing. After all they still were suffering the hangover from the night before.
Jimmy Hart broke my sunglasses on Billy Williams Day, a great occasion for a great man. It was standing room only, and Jack stopped by to chat with us during the seventh inning.
But this is supposed to be a story about Ron Santo.
You see, if Ernie Banks was the soul of the Cubs – and he earned that with his glove, his bat and his spirit – then Ron was the heart.
On either end of the infield, these were the team’s giants. Not those Giants. Lowercase giants. Uppercase HUMAN BEINGS.
Anyway, I got to know these boys, my boys of summer, a little back then. It was before the days of high security and Arab terrorists and American wackos with fertilizer and hate. There were no security guards with Tommy Guns, Tazers and Poisonous Snakes by the player’s entrance and exit outside the stadium. Perhaps a single beat cop with a checkered headband, but that’s about it. And he’d be as eager for fun as anyone else.
Get there early enough; a kid like me could talk to Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams. Ernie would pass by and say “it’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two.”
Here comes Don Kessinger or “Hello Mr. Hickman.”
Likewise Ron Santo would stop and talk to the middle-class American dreamers who still had their lives ahead of them.
Of course we know what happens in this story.
The Cubs did not win the pennant.
The Mets – you know with Tim McGraw’s pop (who I met a couple of times and liked) hollering “You Gotta Believe” – came from deep in the race and ran the Cubs into the ground in September. Damn Art Shamsky, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee….
Anyway, I was only 17. I graduated in 1969 from Deerfield High and I had gone to Iowa State by the time the horrid end to the season came. I sat and watched, when I could, the games in the dorm recreation room. Or I listened to them. I watched the Cubs swoon.
Those were the least of my real concerns, of course. I was out on my own. I was among new people, no friends came with me, living in a new place. I was worried about the draft and the war in Vietnam. I was meeting Black Muslims and Panthers. I learned that Jimmy Hart had gotten married and was quickly to become a father back in Chicago.
But when the season was over, there was no back-biting among the Cubs. Ron Santo and Ernie Banks still smiled.
They said that phrase which has been uttered every season since: “Wait ‘Til Next year.”
In the years since then, of course, baseball has remained a poetic passion for me, although the rules guys need to cut down on the length. Nine innings needn’t go four hours.
Although I like the violence of football as well, partly because at a time in my life I became very good at dishing out that violence before it began to disgust me.
And as the Cubs were swooning in 1969 I was deep in the pursuit of life, which sometimes led me into strange corners from which I’d escape as I pursued my tomorrows.
I can’t remember if that was the year I went backstage with the Vanilla Fudge. That may have been 1970. That was another big turning point for me.
That year, 1969, remains stitched on my yellowed Deerfield High School letter sweater. Was looking at it the other day thinking I need to throw it away. Haven’t yet, though probably will. Still got my letter jacket, too.
Anyway, all of these thoughts and recollections came flooding when I heard Ron Santo had died.
I thought of my Grandpa. I thought of my cousins. I remembered the monkey in the shoe store.
I thought of my old pal, Jocko. He was a Chicago White Sox fan, but he drank warm beer with me – 69 cents a six for Van Merritt out in Iowa in 1969 – and consoled me. Or at least helped me laugh about it before we headed over to Tork’s Pub to initiate what we later would christen “Rolling,” as good a team sport as any young man could want.
That’s another long story and perhaps I’ll tell it soon. But When Ron Santo’s death was reported, I thought about Jocko, who recently lost his ex-wife to cancer. I was their best man. They still loved each other. I’ve been thinking and writing about death a lot lately, it seems. And so often cancer plays a role. “Gawd” damn cancer.
My friend and marathon running buddy, Tom Carpenter, a world-renowned dog and cat doc in SoCal, reminded me that Jocko once played against Ron Santo in a charity basketball game. Jocko was virtually chased from the game for being too rough with the captain.
(Tom … or “Carpy” as I still call him … I believe is the guy who talked Bob Barker into ending broadcasts with his plea to “have your pets spayed or neutered.”)
Lucky Billy Williams didn’t use one of his bats to tee off on Jocko’s sweaty, bald skull on that day. He did like them high and inside, after all.
There were plenty of laughs, still are, as I sit here writing this.
In 1969, there still was the endless highway of life ahead for me. So I could console myself that the Cubs would be back, that I would be able to cheer them on for decades as they continued to be winners.
But the promise was short-lived. The following year, I was in the draft lottery. I pulled a high number, but some of my friends went. Some of them died. I protested and cried.
There were so many things that were going to happen by this time in my life, by that I mean by today.
I mean, don’t trust anyone over 30 turned to don’t trust anyone over 80….
I’m 59 now. I was 42 years younger back when Ron was clicking his heels.
Those years have been good, for the most part. Bad and ugly at other times.
But that’s life.
Still, when I learned that Ron Santo had died, I knew I wasn’t quite where I was figuring I’d be by this point in my life. My late friend John Lennon sang “life is what happens while you’re busy making plans” or something like that.
He was right, of course. He didn’t plan to be gunned down 30 years ago this coming Wednesday. That may be the subject of another story, another day.
But this is about the Pizza Man, Ron Santo, No. 10, the third-baseman who embodied what the Cubs were all about.
Back when he was playing, I just knew that by now my novels would be published and I’d be a natonally recognized newspaper columnist. Some of that happened earlier than reckoned. Some of it has not happened, thanks to the economy, Shotgun Dick, the times, the death of legitimate newspapers, whoever and whatever you want to blame.
But if there’s one thing Ron Santo and his pal Ernie Banks taught me, it was patience.
Wait ‘Til Next Year.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I read the news today, o boy: surveying the Fourth Estate so it can be auctioned off at a bankruptcy sale & God save the Queen

It was one of those perfect autumn days, where the sweat trickled slightly beneath my Paul McCartney conquers Nashville T-shirt and there was a skip in my step. Or was that a stumble?
Doesn’t matter. At 59, at least I’m glad I’m not drooling. Hold it, let me wipe my lip.
So, I was in a good mood, which is probably my excuse. You see I didn’t tell all the aspiring journalists that the news business, a calling for me, is dead.
Oh, I know it will continue to function in some manner and I’m glad to share my wisdom now before being relegated to “relic” status.
Well, truth-be-told, Korporate Journalism already bestowed me that honor. I wouldn’t back down from my own nicotine-stained newsroom ethics. Seems they didn’t translate well in the age of “information centers,” where back-stabbers play king of the mountain till they are heaved onto the rag pile.
On this happy day, though, I’d been talking with some aspiring journalists about the tools of the trade: how to interview, how to interact, how to get good quotes, how to spell names correctly, how to always tell the truth, how to provide the most-important information to the public.
These are not necessarily things deemed important these days, but perhaps this younger generation will find a way to incorporate these basic tools into the age when the latest news will flash on the back end of the person walking in front of you, or however it will end up working.
I suppose it’s sad, for a guy who is striving to feed his family and the like, that I am so passionate about this truth and accuracy thing. That coupled with belief that journalists are serving the public … I’m not just a relic: I’m a dinosaur.
Surely, the journalists know what is important to the readers, the American Public, citizens of what I like to call – at least during my happy days – The Greatest Nation On Earth That Still Does Not Believe Health Care and Education are Rights. Yes, there are major flaws here.
Oh, I’m a proud U.S. citizen. My grandparents came through Ellis, and disappeared with Vito and the rest into Little Italy before eventually moving to Buffalo where Grandpa Ghianni worked on the railroad, all the livelong day.
And I firmly believe in the Fourth Estate, that the news organizations present the important material, educating and enlightening the public. However, I’ve been told that the Fourth Estate was sold at auction by bean-counters, trend-spotters and the leeches that run American business, industry, the government and the War Machine. Speaking of which, one day, back when I was a student at Iowa State university, some great philosopher once told me: ”I don’t need your war machines I don’t need your ghetto scenes ….”
OK, colored lights may hypnotize, but you know when I was speaking to the young people I found them both encouraged and encouraging. They were attentive and delightful. They wanted to know the little tricks. They wanted to talk about stories. I can’t remember when I was their age. I mean, I really can’t. Perhaps it is because of that concussion from the T-boner last July 4. Perhaps it was that night backstage with Vanilla Fudge back in 1970. More likely it is age.
Anyway, the day was good and fruitful. And, as is my habit when I get home from anywhere, I first look at the local newspaper web site and then at the television station web sites, scoping out the news, trying to glean just what is important, like, for example is it time to finally build one of those tornado and bomb shelters in the garage floor?
That’s the big commercial these days on the news. Meteorologists can’t yet frighten us with the blizzards – I think my old comrades Jocko and Capt. Kirk are breaking out the sled dogs up in Iowa as I write this – but down here in Nashville, it’s still tornado season.
Oh yeah, it’s also flood season here. Always is, especially when the Corps of Engineers closes up shop and refuses to answer the phone during the height of the 500-year flood. Thanks for your diligence guys. Maybe you should go over and help North Korea with its infrastructure problems. Hey, there’s another reason to build one of those sub-garage-floor bomb and tornado shelters… Thanks Commander Sick or whatever your name is, you crazy bastard.
By the way, when you watch those tornado and bomb shelter commercials, do you wonder the same thing I wonder: These little shelters are dug into the garage floor, beneath where you park your car. Unless you always park outside, that means the first thing you have to do when North Korean artillery starts shelling the suburbs or a tornado spins down the street is unlock those garage door – warped from that aforementioned floodwater -- and back the 1985 Saab out into the driveway while two-by-fours, bricks and bicycle and body parts zip past your head?
Back to the news. There was nothing really new on the sites, so I climbed from my little Fortress of Solitude, Da Office, The Flap Cave, Champo’s HQ to the living room and turned on the television.
Time to watch Brian Williams or (name your favorite anchor here, but remember Walter Cronkite is Dead and Dan Rather is still asking Kenneth about the frequency.)
But I really don’t watch just one channel. I am a clicker fellow, beginning with the local news and running through the national and back into the local. (I have my local news favorites and they know who they are… in case they want to offer me work. )
Anyway, on both local and national news on that otherwise balmy day, I found out that a Tea Party princess was going to be competing for the championship “silver chalice” or whatever it’s called, on Dancing With the Stars. I’m not against that show, because I’ve never watched it. For all I know it is highbrow entertainment.
So this was the big news of that day, the stuff that would enlighten me. They were talking about Bristol Palin. I mean isn’t it enough that we have to put up with the constant stream of books her mom writes? Or actually, perhaps, hires people to write. (Dear Sarah: I’m apparently desperate. I think your politics are vile. But, well, how about, you know, hiring me to ghost-write the next tome, about how you are going to be president of the Greatest Country on Earth that During Your Administration Will Ban Health Care and Public Education?)
Already told my pal, The Big O, to start slipping some of the butter knives into his luggage each time he flies back to Chitown.
Course Sarah won’t miss the butter knives. She only uses them to gut polar bears and rally her following of semi-comatose old men, members of the Greatest Generation, her supporters, now known as “the Gang that Can’t Think Straight.”
Back to the news today, o boy, about a lucky man who made the grade...
Nah. That’s the wrong story.
The news outlets did mention that there were some GIs killed in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, this is happening so often now that it’s just “filler copy.” You know, these guys are dead, with photos. No mention of the hopes and dreams that died fighting to save the warlords and their poppy fields from the maniac who serves as president. My friend the Big O told me that “Karzai” means “Crazy” in the strange language they speak over there, English that is learned in England and translated in a boiler room in Bangladesh.
Speaking of England: Do you really care to have a daily update on the pending nuptials of the prince and his shack honey? I mean they seem like nice kids and they will do well. But, I don’t really care. (Prince Bill: Send me an invitation. I think you need to have me work for you and make sure the story is told without any sort of self-serving liberal slant.)
Love grandma, by the way. As John, Paul, George and Ringo once told me: “Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl but she doesn’t have a lot to say.”
She should work in the news business.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Loving brothers-in-arms look back on old times, dead friends, dying newspapers and death of Chico the Monkey... and I miss my mom

“The press stinks, too: history on the run. That’s all you’re interested in,” he said, emerging from the shadows of his Korean compact in the subterranean garage.
“Things are past that,” I responded. “These are men with switchblade mentalities who run the world as if it were Dodge City.”
I told him that I was scared of these publishers and corporations. Life is short. Was it worth the price that journalism exacted? After all, aren’t newspapers dead, simply the refuse of a proud profession in which we apparently wasted our lives?
Then we laughed. In the old days, we would have tossed lighted cigarettes on the floor for punctuation after playing out our little scene from All the President’s Men. Of course no one really smokes those little cancer sticks any more, do they? No one blows carcinogens in your face to make a point in a dark garage.
We all smoked during the first half of the 35 or so years I spent enveloped in blue smoke clouds in newsrooms, cussing and laughing, riding the adrenaline rush of bodies found on deadline.
It was the business we had chosen, the only life I’d ever wanted to lead, at least partly because my mother had been a newswoman on Chicago’s South Side during WWII and encouraged my love of words. “Got tired of all the bodies,” she said. “Asked to be moved to society pages.”
I did, of course, enter the business hoping to bring down another corrupt president, like Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford did.
But they’ve come and gone and I haven’t succeeded.
Instead, I spent the decades meeting and spending time with the homeless to the hopeless, the honky-tonk heroes and, of course, making friends with guys like Cash, Kristofferson, Tom T., Earl Scruggs, Henry Aaron and Muhammad Ali, who can’t remember that any more. Glad I can, given the still-concussed brain I’m suffering since a T-boner sent my skull crashing into the driver’s side window July 4.
Had a hard time today remembering who played wide receiver before we got Randy Moss. Oh yeah, Kenny Britt. Kenny, may you stay forever young.
Speaking of Randy Moss, it was old age that had me down in the underground garage in the bowels of Nashville.
The big secret, the reason for the meeting was that 59 years today, there was a snowstorm in Pontiac, Mich. My mom and dad trudged from their apartment to nearby St. Joseph’s hospital where I was born at 7:30 a.m.
My mom used to call me every birthday at precisely that time. It didn’t matter if I had been out on the parched-eye express, embracing life’s sweet and warm as well as raw edges. I knew that on the morning of Nov. 18, I had to get home in time to pick up that phone.
“It was 18 years ago today, right at this time,” she’d say. Or 19. Or 29. Even 39. “You were a beautiful baby. You still are my beautiful baby.”
Whatever life’s circumstances, happy and bleak, for a couple decades – say from age 18-38 -- there was a good chance I’d been out all night, either as a newsman, a sports reporter, a columnist and always a robust embracer of life. And if I hadn’t been out all night, the chances are I didn’t sleep well. “No one .. but no one… drinks more coffee than the Caffeine Kid,” one of my good friends wrote in a newspaper column about my 40-cup a day habit.
I thought about him today too. Tony Durr. My friend, my editor. A dreamer and schemer. He told me he promoted me to his “special projects editor” so I’d do the work and he could play golf with StrawBilly Fields, now a respected civic leader in Nashville. Living is easy with eyes closed and a government job, but I love StrawBilly Fields forever.
They found Tony’s body in his Coast Guard barracks in Alaska after his newspaper dreams expired and apparently, given the nearby empty prescription bottle, so had his hopes.
But I loved Tony. Still do. And today, as names and lives of my 59 sometimes good years flashed through my mind, I thought about the most important one. My mom and her birthday phone calls. The last time she called to wish me “Happy Birthday” -- to repeat the tale of the blizzard and the labor, the beautiful boy, darling boy -- was 1998. She died a few months later.
I still miss that phone call. I expected the phone to ring today. Went out to the cemetery instead. That’s what I do on my birthday. Sit by the tombstone and talk to my mom. “It was 59 years ago today that you went out in the blizzard and walked to the hospital,” I said, after installing the poinsettias in the vases on the tombstone and brushing tree leaves and bird leavings away.
Told her I couldn’t stay long. Had a lot to do today. I could hear her, in my heart, telling me to “sit down and talk to me for a few minutes” during her last, many, bedridden years.
I did, and “spoke” to her of life’s choices and heavenly voices, but then I had to depart because a group of people were gathering for a tombstone unveiling two plots downhill. I wasn’t dressed appropriately in my cardinal and yellow Iowa State Cyclones T-shirt. Yep, a T-shirt on a day like this. It was cold. Boy was it cold. But again, the shirt was specifically chosen for this day. I didn’t want to wear my “No More Mr. Nice Guy” Alice Cooper shirt today, after all. Don’t want to make any false promises.
And besides that as birthdays are times to reflect, there were good and furiously lived years spent at ISU. Just ask my friend Jocko if you ever meet him. He’d probably remember. Maybe tell you about the two giant pink bunnies who stalked the campus in their tie-dyed long johns and rabbit ears. One had long, curly hair beneath his bunny ears. The other was nearly bald. Both were quite charming and, no doubt fetching to the ladies.
Getting a little far afield here in these birthday ramblings, so let’s get back to the underground garage. Two of my good friends – at least those who remain among the living … for Harold Lynch, Richard Worden, Tony Durr and other great newsmen I loved, smoked and drank with are long dead … met me on my birthday eve aka “yesterday.”
It was Rob “Death News Brother” Dollar with whom I played out the scene from All the President’s Men. We are always doing that. I don’t know if you caught our Jack Nicholson/Dennis Hopper rap about freedom in our last “movie” – our series of films date back to the Super 8 days and I hope will be played at my casket covered with dead flowers long in the future, when I figure out where I been.
If you didn’t catch that, look back on The News Brothers page and look for the Give (In)Sanity a Chance video. Here’s the Facebook link:!/video/video.php?v=1572748353219&oid=212057599823&comments
Anyway, you probably can guess which one of us got the George Hanson (Nicholson) part and which one played Billy (Hopper) in the classic scene from Easy Rider. “What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? Freedom’s what it’s all about.” I still ask that question.
That little film was made a couple of weeks ago.
This week, on birthday eve, we weren’t meeting in the garage simply because I was turning 59 today. Nov. 18. Rob turned 54 Nov. 16. Jerry “Chuckles News Brother” Manley turned 59 Nov. 9.
Jerry was waiting for us upstairs from the garage, smiling in the downtown library lobby, after checking out a copy of a recorded book. When you get to be our age, it’s easier to listen than to read, I guess. Except you may be deaf or perhaps, in my case, really tired of listening.
There were no great truths discovered as we wandered the streets of Music City, wisecracking about windblown skirts and fat guys with guitars.
“Look at us, we’re another year older,” said Rob.
“Who’d have guessed that would ever happen?” I said.
Jerry shrugged and looked to the horizon, talking about rabbits. Nah, that was in Of Mice and Men. He actually talked about the times we’d shared, our friendship, life’s sometimes cruel direction that brought the three of us together on a cold and rainy day in Nashville.
There were times, we reckoned, that people didn’t think we’d make it this far.
After roaming along Lower Broadway, past the gangster-run bars and the souvenir joints, we found ourselves at Dunn Brothers Coffee, my new favorite downtown haunt.
There we talked about newspapers, as we all had spent our lives in that profession. Jerry still does.
And I freelance for newspapers still, among my other jobs. My days as a fulltime newspaperman ended more than three years ago, when I got a buyout just ahead of the layoffs.
So, yes, we talked about the glory days. And the gory days.
The murders of young people that changed all of our lives. We laughed at The Big Guy, our publisher long ago, who once called me to his office after I’d led the paper with the story of an escaped pet monkey. Chico, the monkey, had cops and deputies all occupied well into the night in the darkness at the edge of Clarksville.
“Deputies go bananas: Monkey at large” or some such read the headline the next day.
Rob had written the story about a Chico, the monkey. I was the editor and threw in as many primate puns as possible. Jerry, well, he was my copy desk chief and he played along too.
“Good story,” The Big Guy said when he called me into his office the Monday after that was published. “But I probably wouldn’t have done it quite that way. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that,” he said, standing up and jingling the change in his pocket.
So Rob, Jerry and I laughed about those days, about the top secrets we’d uncovered at Fort Campbell, about the adrenaline we all felt as young men chasing the good story, the fun story, wars, commission meetings, Little League championships, drunken soldier traffic fatalities and some still-unsolved murderous sex crimes.
Most of those types of stories aren’t found in newspapers these days, unless the mayor or the chamber are putting positive spins on them. Nowadays Chico could be just another missing pet.
Newspapers changed. But we haven’t. At least not much. My hair’s longer. And the weight has shifted some.
OK, so life sometimes has changed more than we would prefer. Nothing we can do about it.
Instead of grousing, we laughed as we wandered through downtown Nashville, talking about news stories past and reflecting on our fallen friends, the guys who grew up with us in the smoke-filled newsrooms. It was a “Hello sweetheart, get me rewrite!” kinda day. (That phrase screams from the framed poster in my office, two feet from where I'm writing this. It was a gift from Tony Durr 28 or 29 years ago.)
And we laughed at our own funeral plans that include Cadillac convertibles, cigarettes in holders, ashes and some of the world’s best scenery.
The smiles, as usual, lasted well after we climbed back into our cars and went back to the real world. I had a story to work on for one of my many fine employers.
Jerry had to get to the office.
Rob had a film to work on and a great-nephew to entertain.
It was a good birthday eve.
After Jerry left, Rob and i descended into the lower level of the underground garage.
We thought again about the reason we’d chosen journalism and where it has come and gone.
“Where we been?” We asked each other, with a shrug as we drove off, promising to get together soon, whenever one of us put a flag in a flower pot.
I smiled to sleep on my birthday eve.
But this morning was different.
I cleaned up the poinsettias and knocked back three or four double-mugs of coffee. The 59-year-old Caffeine Kid watched the clock and waited for 7:30 a.m.
The phone didn’t ring….

(By the way, Chico, the Monkey, was finally chased down and killed by a pack of dogs. I wrote his obituary. We ran it on the local news front, with the headline: “Chico, the Monkey, is dead.”)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jocko's loss, Uncle Moose's furious, vile cancer have me following John Hartford's plea and sending bouquets of love to comrades

Life’s laments, time passed never to be recaptured, aren’t setting so ‘Gentle on My Mind.’
I was thinking of that old John Hartford classic, perhaps the best song from a genius’ catalogue, as I talked to a wandering minstrel the other day.
We actually were talking about music and musicians, but when the minstrel mentioned his favorite artist’s farewell bow after a 21-year fight with cancer, that dreaded disease and its cost to me, in terms of memories and friends, began attacking the otherwise gentle afternoon.
I didn’t know Hartford well, although I’d met him and admired his music and his riverboat captain’s outfit. I know Glen Campbell, the guy who took that song to the top, a little bit better.
But when I spoke with the minstrel, my mind wandered, first to Hartford’s “comfortable” grave in Madison – he has a gazebo there for pickers to visit and play in his memory – that I visit when I’m in that part of town.
But really the conversation with the minstrel, who has become something of a friend, made me think of loss.
“Remember that last concert over at War Memorial. Everyone knew John was dying. He sang ‘Give Me the Flowers While I’m Living.’ I don’t know how he did it without crying. I sure did. Everyone was bawling,” said the minstrel, as storm clouds began settling in, for once, over the city.
I thought then about the flowers I wish I’d delivered to Nola, the ex-wife of my old running buddy, Jocko. And I hastily sent a mental bouquet to another old friend, Uncle Moose.
I don’t want to let cancer make me miss telling Uncle Moose how much I love him. Course, he may survive his long war. He’s always been ornery. Heck he stared down the draft board after drawing No. 4. They drafted him, prepared him for Nam. He’d have gone, too. Much more of a heartland patriot than I, despite his sometimes dabbling in Scandinavian mythology and having a beautiful sister who was a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Oh, that shouldn’t be held against him.
Anyway, he was able to convince Uncle Sam to send him home, as he was the primary breadwinner, his dad was dead and he had to go run the family farm. I think, if my often-funky and lately concussed memory serves me, Moose had aspirations beyond the farm. He wanted to study more. Oh, I’m sure he would have eventually settled on the Circle M Bar, Grill and Homestead with its motto: “You bring ‘em, we’ll cut ‘em and brand ‘em and fatten ‘em up to eat” flashing in neon into the cold Iowa nights.
Tasty eatings at that cutting time, by the way.
The need to make sure I tell Moose how much I love him – even though I thought his mutton-chops were way-too-Elvis back in the 1960s and early ‘70s – is fueled by the fact a woman I loved died and I’d let life get in the way so much that I didn’t even know she had cancer until she was gone.
Nola’s cancer is making me lament lost opportunities and make the most of the ones I have in front of me, the opportunities to be with friends, to embrace them, to forget about life’s pettiness and instead look to the now.
Problem is, too many people are running out of NOWS.
I wrote the other day about Nola and her marriage to James Edward “Jocko” Mraz, my partner in life-at-the-edges, high-speed, statues-be-damned, quarters-on-the-bar exploration. No boundaries, especially on laughter in the grocery aisle at 3 a.m. Or when making the most of the flooded Des Moines River by foolishly linking arms, I think with Nardholm and Captain Kirk, and letting the current carry us downstream. “Anybody going to Des Moines?”
Jocko is this weekend going to a memorial service in Florida for Nola, who had a horrid battle with cancer. Next weekend he’ll be at another memorial in Iowa.
I wish somehow I’d known. I’d have called her. Perhaps comforted their kids. At least I would have listened to Jocko talk about his own regrets and pain.
As it is, I can regret that for whatever reasons, and there were some, Jocko and I pretty much ceased regular contact for the past couple of decades.
But there wasn’t a day I didn’t think about him. Maybe laugh about the day Old Man Hanson took flight. Well, it was dawn really. It was one of those particularly-parched eyeballs mornings when we greeted the sun’s glow, marveled at its blur.
We also confided in each other things I would not tell anyone else.
Enough about that, though. I am fortunate that I have reconnected with that friend, that I find out he has thought of me often. That now we are together, running mates in spirit though old men in body, we need to take advantage of it before the obituary I read is his. Or, more likely the one he reads is mine.
We have missed consoling each other on the loss of my mom and his mom and dad, though I knew them and was welcomed in their home.
I missed out on the death of his grandmother, of course. But I do remember the fried chicken she made for us that second dawn we saw in Antioch, Ill., after, for the lack of other places to sleep that were peaceful, we crawled into a boat when the sun rose. I don’t know whose boat it was….
The chicken went down hard. And a nap was in order before that night -- I believe it was the Fourth of July 1974 or 75 -- began in earnest.
More about Jocko, I’m sure. And about Nola soon, I imagine. I was their best man on that less-than-sober occasion. At the reception, punch was served in the house, beer in the barn. I don’t think I ever went in the house until the next dawn.
Anyway, this brings me back to my Uncle Moose.
Steve “Uncle Moose” Mainquist is a good man. He was a big man. I haven’t seen him in almost four decades. The last time, I believe, was when I drove up to his farm in Red Oak, Iowa, during a couple of weeks of vacation I took in my first year or two in the workforce.
I spent a week in Ames, Iowa, with Jocko and Carpy, Nardholm, Captain Kirk and the boys. Then I drove on over to Red Oak. It was harvest time.
Uncle Moose, he was nicknamed that for his massive size, graduated two years before me. He didn’t engage in much of the weekend frivolity because he always went home to work on the farm. His dad was dead. He was the man of the family.
Other than the weekends when his own childhood chum, Conrad -- the skittish, bud-toting, gun-shy Vietnam grunt who jumped to his feet as if he was going to kill me one Saturday, visited -- Moose was in Red Oak.
He was tending his cattle and the corn. He was helping his mom. He was lamenting that his sister had become a follower of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
When Moose was in school, sleeping on sheets he washed at least once a year, I would sometimes hang out with him or he with me and Jocko and the rest of us who lived there seven days a week. He was a cigar-smoking guy, so we enjoyed a fine cigar together.
On the night of my first all-night finals studies, I ran out of cigars. I believe we were calling them “Ginsbergs” then for the poet we went to see and meet together. We also saw Groucho together in his last standup performance, although it seemed the old comic already was as dead as Lydia the Tattooed Lady.
Anyway, Moose had no cigars to help in my all-night study either.
So at about 3 a.m., he accompanied me downstairs to the lower floor of Storms Hall – long since demolished -- where I bought my 50-cent pack of Camel straights. I’d smoked a store-bought cigarette or two before, but had been a pipe, cigar and roll-your-own kind of guy.
That night I began a habit that lasted 30 years. I quit because of a tumor scare and because my children, fresh from Romania, both told me to stop using those “fire sticks” in the back yard.
Moose didn’t smoke the cigarettes … Jocko and I called them “snarfers” … and yet Moose is the one who is battling for his life with cancer eating away at his body if not his resolve.
After hearing about Nola’s death, one of the calls I made was to Moose. Oh, I’d been in contact, but it seemed important that I reach out that day. He said he was doing OK, that they were changing his medications. That the cancer apparently had spread.
He was weary yet cheery. He talked of his summer vacation with his kids to Washington. He talked about his promise to buy his son a decent car -- ”you remember how it is when you’re 18, don’t you, Timmy?” – I do barely -- and he bragged about his daughter at Nebraska Wesleyan.
He talked about his neighbors and how they were helping him with his chores. It’s a tough and tight-knit group out there on the Great Plains. They look after their own.
Anyway, as we talked, I traveled in my mind to the time I spent on the farm. I was helping, supposedly, with the corn harvest.
I actually was running the elevator, unloading the corn from the combine. Moose told me to be careful as he didn’t want one of my arms to be a part of the harvest.
We had pre-dawn breakfast, those marshmallow/chocolate cookies and lemonade for a snack, a huge lunch.
In the evenings we rode down into the back field to throw hay out for the cattle before hitting the pub in Red Oak and listening to Ernest Tubb and Eric Clapton on the jukebox.
The crisp clear nights allowed me to see the hills for miles and miles as we rode back to the farm.
On the day we spoke, Moose was going to go outside, after he put the phone down, and spend time with one of his cats, petting her and, I’m sure, describing his distress and his joys. Moose has a hard time talking, but he sure enjoys it.
I’m hoping to one day in the next year make it back to Iowa. I hope to visit with a feisty, battled-back Uncle Moose.
For sure he doesn’t have the shock of long, blond hair and those mutton-chop sideburns that are in my mind’s-eye. And the chemicals I’m sure have taken their toll on his body mass. But he’s still Moose to me.
Of course, when I’m there, I’ll also be making up for lost time with other friends with whom I’ve reconnected.
We’re all getting old. Captain Kirk has a stent in his heart and is taking nitroglycerin rather than the compounds he’d likely prefer.
Carpy, a distance runner by passion, also has suffered heart woes.
Nardholm, well, as far as I know he’s doing fine. Lots of acreage, a lake house. I can remember when he was just a curly-haired blond kid in gray gym shorts cuddling his now-wife in the top bunk in the room he shared with Titzy. Now, he owns two combines. That’s a big deal.
And, of course, I’ll see Jocko.
He and I grew up together. Bailed each other out. Cried with each other. And even when we were separated by the woes and misunderstandings of “growing up,” we still thought about each other.
As I wrote the other day, his wife Nola was among the most beautiful of brides. She entrusted me to get her husband to the church on time. And we did, barely.
It was our last real run as carefree boys, although we did get together a few more times before circumstances got in the way and the black dogs of depression and disappointment became a part of my life. And I’m sure a part of his.
What separated us doesn’t matter. It vanished with the first laugh Saturday night, with the inflection Jocko put on “professor” when I told him I was working part-time at a university. You see, we had a certain way of pronouncing that title way back then. Just the fact he remembered, and used that, two minutes into the call, made my stomach ache in laughter. “Champo, you mean you… you are a Pro-Cressor?” he said, incredulous and mocking happily.
It was as if there were no decades, no years, not a minute passed. Although there were too many. Perhaps a half-life has gone since we witnessed Old Man Hanson’s remarkable display of flight and gravity.
I’ve also made a point of telling my family how much I love them. And, of course, I continue detailing the story of The News Brothers, both in film and in written form.
If it hadn’t been for The News Brothers – Rob “Death” Dollar, Jerry “Chuckles” Manley and Jim “Flash” Lindgren and, later Scott “Badger” Shelton and assorted hangers-on and groupies – I don’t know if I would have survived the first real challenges of being a so-called grownup.
They were my comrades as we raged against newspaper deadlines and the night back in Clarksville.
“Death” and I are always plotting the next move, the next film, the next reunion. It was and remains a gang of misfits that perfectly fits the life I’ve led: A good and honest man who was perhaps born to run and to love.
Oh, I’m not old. Not really.
But I always got by with a little help from my friends. And I need them to know how much I continue to love them.
Now, as I write this, I reflect on how Moose’s little sister, Linda, irritated her big brother when she cast her family beliefs in Scandinavian mythology aside and became a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
I like Linda a lot, so when I see Uncle Moose, I’ll have to jump to her defense. You see, I also like an old Yogi, the one who said “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Nola's death brings memories rolling back to the guy in the power-blue tux, Jocko's best man

When I learned Nola had died, my first thought was to look for that picture of the two guys in their power-blue tuxedoes standing at the front of the church in Marion, Iowa.
Of course, the two men, boys really, weren’t the focus of that picture. The focus was the beautiful blonde, a tall, former pompon girl at Iowa State University, full of life on that day. The smiling and happy bride. Nola.
As I’m not the world’s most physical guy, I would always greet her with: Nola. N-O L-A. Nola. No-No-No- No Nola … especially if I drank champagne that tasted like cherry cola. Again, another side trek here. But it’s true. I never hear that Kinks song without changing from "Lola" to "Nola" in my head and heart.
The guy next to her in the picture was Jocko, my comrade with whom I chased many dragons and caught a few. Sometimes he didn’t go along for the most reckless of the rides, as I pushed both limits and sky, but he was always there to greet me, literally standing on his head on my returns. He was a loyal and good friend, a guy I loved. Still do. A brother-in-arms.
We’d actually arrived on the cusp of late, at the wedding ceremony.
I had been asked by the tall woman, the bride, to drive her future husband because she was afraid he might be too nervous. Jocko’s mom concurred. “Yes, ladies, I’ll drive.”
Instead, we did as we’d done for years, sped through the countryside, spinning Iowa gravel. Our tuxedo jackets were in the backseat, because we were sipping and sliding toward destiny. Everything was going to change. So we stopped for a bag of grease burgers, as I called them. We tried to make sure they didn’t drip over the fancy suits.
The bridegroom goosed his GTO or whatever the muscle car was … I can’t remember … other than it was brown with a light top and I had driven it a time or two when we were out on our night-time patrols. It drove faster than my ’65 Falcon, although that too found its share of duty as we escaped into Iowa nights.
Finally, a couple of miles from the church, Jocko pulled the car into a picnic area, one of those old roadside things with a turn-around and a picnic table, and said I’d better drive, as everyone expected the best man to be in the pilot’s seat when the groom arrived at the church.
I was the best man that day. I think it was 1974, but it could have been 1975. Perhaps 1976?
Doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago.
Ages of memories and heartache, good things, sad things … just life really … separates that that day from this one.
This morning, Oct. 7, 2010, I learned that Nola was dead. Cancer. A week ago in Montgomery, Ala., where she’d ended up after the divorce that I guess came 20 or so years into the marriage.
Even if I can’t find that picture of the boys in powder-blue, it is in my heart and my sometimes fuzzy, still-concussed brain. The beautiful blonde bride smiled, as did the bridesmaid, her sister, who herself was to get married two weeks later in a bowling alley. There is a side story there that I may tell one day.
I kept that picture among the pictures of my life in an old file cabinet next to my desk in my office before the flood of May 1-2. I didn’t look at it often, but when I did, it always made me smile. It was piled in that drawer with pictures of my grandparents, my various pets, an old drifter pal named Skipper, my mother and a “Have Gun Will Travel: Wire Paladin, San Francisco” calling card from an old Tide box when I was a kid. There was a picture of a young man with long, dark hair and a scraggly beard walking out of the Grand Canyon and sitting by a redwood in the High Sierras. Looked a lot like me.
Parts of my life long gone, people, for the most part, long gone. In the massive Nashville flood that washed away a part of my house last spring, I rescued that cabinet, but it had to be separated and carried to dry land drawer-by-drawer. Some things from lower drawers washed away. Others still are piled, awaiting their turn to be rediscovered, in the garage.
That picture may be there. But I really don’t need to look at it today.
I remember the bride and groom looked nervous. I looked a little nervous myself, even though I was reinforced by vodka and, of course, Lifesavers. As was the groom. A good best man, after all, has to take care of his charge.
The bridesmaid looked magnificent, as well. Always did.
It really was among my life’s happiest days.
The whole world was ours to unravel, to chase. I was a year or so out of college and I was still going to be Jack London or Jack Kerouac or Woody Guthrie. Kris Kristofferson. Tom T. Hall. Hemingway maybe, but I wasn’t going to blow my brains out. At least I didn’t think about it at that point in my life.
The bride and groom were going to settle down in a farmhouse on her parents’ farm in Marion, just outside Cedar Rapids.
He was going to work an inside-sales job at a local company. She was going to be a teacher. They were going to have children and live happily ever after.
In my roaming, I’d visit occasionally, if for no other reason than to chase away the pheasants and squirrels when Jocko went hunting on his property. I’d get him to laughing so hard that there was no reason to kill, a hobby he’d picked up from life on the farm.
I don’t drink any more, but back in 1969 when I first met the guy on whose right I’m standing in the picture, it was about 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday. My dorm room door was open. Actually I seldom closed it, ever. I looked down the hall to see this big guy I’d met only briefly in our first three or four weeks of freshman year. He’d been busy as a football player, so I didn’t know him that well. He looked exhausted from morning drills.
I reached into my footlocker and produced an almost full bottle of cheap gin and hollered down the hallway: “Hey, Jocko, I’m having dry martinis this morning. You want one?” With that both a nickname – I called him Jocko because he was a scholarship athlete – and a friendship was born. And we took turns pulling very dry martinis out of the bottle that morning and probably into the night.
I’d say it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
For the next four years, no party was off-limits. No excuse for laughter ignored. I was a good student. But, even back then, I believed time was running out. Of course it was, slowly. So, I got mostly A’s. Profs loved me. I never missed class. I did my homework. But then it was time to signal, with that hand-over-hand motion, that it was time to roll. Studies done. No one had been called by the draft board. Let’s roll, baby, roll.
Sometimes it lasted days, like the time Jocko and I planned and executed the Viking Fest – a debauched feast ripped from either the movie Tom Jones or the life of the Rolling Stones. We charged boys $5 a head for all they could eat and drink if they brought a girl. We charged men who came alone $10. Unaccompanied girls were admitted free. Such festivals, where we cooked turkeys and pheasant stew, drank from spiked kegs, were the way Jocko and I made pocket money.
Of course, we also were the primary beneficiaries of the frivolity, that night at “Lean Feeners Lodge” or elsewhere. After expenses, we could easily clear $200 or $300 and it beat working at Taco Tico.
We were the guys who walked into parties singing that Carly Simon song, who rode motorcycles long and hard into the night, who saw way too many sunrises through parched eyeballs. We knew every obscene word and gesture to throw into the Guess Who’s “American Woman” and the Doors' "Touch Me." He cheered me on when I first established my Joe Cocker party routine or became the notorious and still-famous-in-Ames guy known as "the Dancing Bear."
When we’d enter Tork’s Pub, now long gone, the bar would grow silent. It was like those old cowboy movies when the gunslinger comes in. We weren’t looking for trouble, though. Just laughs. I never set out to hurt anyone. I just had to laugh.
I had other sidekicks for some of the adventures because Jocko was on a football scholarship and things like practice and games got in the way. But still, when he had time, he was there, with gusto. He was a brother in arms in my helter-skelter race against depression and war.
There were others I loved as well. Captain Kirk. Carpy. Uncle Moose. Titzy, Nardholm.
Life changes things and people. After I left college, I moved South to be with family – my mother already had begun showing the symptoms of the suffocating disease that slowly and finally killed her 25 years later --and because I loved Tennessee. I talked with Jocko about every day for a few years, until we had a falling out that needn’t have happened. But we both had our reasons and, well, those phone calls stopped, with a few rare interruptions, more than 25 years ago. I’m sorry. But that’s life.
I am one who goes through life closing doors on the way. It spares heartache. It’s kind of that “Don’t Look Back” philosophy.
But it really never works. For the last decades, I’ve thought of my friend often, daily at least. I knew he’d gotten divorced … we did talk about that. I had heard that from other people and called to make sure he was OK. But I hadn’t been in touch in the years since his wife was remarried and perhaps began something of, I hope, a truly happily ever after existence.
I have both ridden the white horses and worn the black hats in my life.
But one thing that can’t be questioned is my loyalty. You hurt anyone I love and I am slow to forgive.
You ever own a piece of my heart, you are there to stay.
I really don’t know much about the lives of Jocko and Nola since their divorce. Last I heard from him, he was dating a nice Lebanese woman. I hope he’s happy.
And I hope Nola was happy too, although, from reading the obituary in the Montgomery Advertiser, she apparently died a slow and painful death.
While I hadn’t been in touch with Jocko I always looked for him and Nola on Facebook, which is where I have connected with other friends from my wild and carefree days.
One of them forwarded me an e-mail today from Jocko: “Nola lost her battle with cancer. Kids were with her when she died. Kinda sucks,” he wrote. Simple, true statement. I knew there were tears there somewhere.
I’ve tried to reach him. Sent him an e-mail. Found the obit on line. And inside I have cried, for Nola, for Jocko, for their kids. For myself, I guess, and the fact time really is running out on lives and dreams.
The years haven’t all been kind, although I am in a wonderful place now in my life, thanks to my wife and kids and my good friends in Nashville and, of course, the notorious News Brothers, especially my appropriately named friend "Death," who help me stay focused and laughing.
But there were years when I was in free-fall, when I needed that old friend who I’d let get away or who had done that to me. A few times, the black dogs barked at 3 a.m. or so and I'd dial his number. Hear his tired -- not irritated -- voice, hope to hear back sometime. Perhaps he needed me too at that time, too. But we just kinda lost contact. Except in our hearts.
No one’s to blame. I know that’s life. We all change. Years fly by.
Tork’s Pub has been torn down.
Nola’s dead.
“Kinda sucks,” Jocko wrote.
Makes me want to go up to Iowa and scare away the pheasants while my old friend totes his shotgun. Maybe we can even have a Geezers Fest and sell admission to those of our friends who are still alive and mobile.
By the way, for the sake of uncommon modesty, I had to buy powder-blue boxers to wear under that tux. Still got 'em.