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.