Saturday, December 7, 2013

Farewell to a Friend

I went to my friend Tony’s website to see what he has been up to lately. He’s a photographer in Philadelphia. His website appeared just as it was the last time I looked, probably 6 to 8 months ago. I looked at some photos from his latest project, the Harlistas Cubanos, Harley Davidson riders in Cuba. I reread his very concise biography where he mentions a number of the cars he had owned, but I noticed he didn’t mention the 1968 Opel GT that he nearly killed himself in. We were both in the Army at Fort Hood Texas when the accident happened. I decided I would mention this fact in the email I was about to write him. I knew his email address, but for some reason I clicked on the contact information section of the website. Instead of finding contact information, I found a eulogy. Tony had passed away December 13, 2012. I couldn’t believe he was gone and that it had been almost a year since he died. I thought we were keeping in touch. I'd had a plan that I hadn’t told him about yet. After our buddy Phil retired, Phil and I would drive to Philadelphia to see him. We’d bring our guitars and play music together just like we did in 1970 when he was convalescing in Dallas after the car accident.

Motor pool inspection of files
Tony, Phil and I were stationed in Texas together in 1968-69. Our entire unit consisted of former Intelligence personnel who were back from Vietnam, but still had more time to do in the Army. We were not dedicated soldiers by this time, most of us had a severe attitude problem concerning the war and the Army. Stateside there was no Intelligence work to be done, so they had us doing paperwork in offices or working in supply or maintenance. I worked in the motor pool, keeping the files in order. The Army really didn’t know what to do with us, we were just biding our time. They should have let us all out early, it would have saved the government a lot of money. But then I never would have met Tony.

The first time I noticed him was in the mess hall. You’ve probably heard about army food. You can eat all you want, but it’s a far cry from gourmet fare. I noticed this guy at the other end of the table pull a small cloth bag from his pocket that contained a pepper grinder. He proceeded to grind fresh pepper all over his pile of bland army food. I knew I had to get to know him.

When I met him, Tony was already an accomplished musician. In 1967 he was playing guitar and singing with some of the rising stars of our generation, on his way to a career as a folk singer/song writer. Then Uncle Sam forced him into service.

We lived on the second floor of an old army barracks, in a big open bay with rows of bunks, one wall locker and one foot locker per bunk. Phil also played guitar and in the evenings after work, he and Tony would sit on the edge of one of their bunks and play and sing. I desperately wanted in. I liked to sing, but didn’t play an instrument. They advised me to buy a guitar, so I bought a Yamaha for $110. They assured me it was a good guitar for the money. I can’t remember what kind of guitar Tony played, maybe a Gibson or a Guild. Phil had an old Martin D-28 that Tony and I coveted. Having performed professionally, Tony knew a lot of songs . He had a beautiful voice, high and sweet and could make it crack at the right moment. Phil could finger pick like Mississippi John Hurt. I had two excellent guitar teachers at my disposal and both were more than willing to guide me along.

One of the first songs Tony taught me was the Jackson Browne song “These Days”. Jackson taught it to him when they were both playing at one of the clubs in LA. Jackson didn’t come out with the song until his first album in 1972 and by then he had significantly changed it, influenced by Greg Allman. The way Tony taught it to me was the original way Jackson played it at the clubs. 

Tony was from Oklahoma City. A few times we drove up to his parents’ house, a day’s drive from Fort Hood. His parents were  always gracious and welcoming. Tony had a girlfriend from Tulsa. I met her once and she seemed nice and was pretty, but the relationship didn’t last. Late one night he returned to the barracks and I knew something was troubling him. I asked him what was wrong and he said his girlfriend had dumped him. He was distraught, but in typical Tony style, instead of telling me all about it, he invited me out onto the fire escape landing where he sang a very sad song written by a friend of his. It was about a guy who lost his girl to another man. We were both in tears by the end of the song.

Just a few months  before being released from the Army, Tony had a bad accident in his Opel GT. His leg was shattered and his jaw was broken and had to be wired shut. He couldn’t eat solid food, but sucked liquid through a straw. He lay in traction, confined to an army hospital bed. Phil and I visited him every chance we could. His hospital room became a music studio. The hospital personnel fell for Tony’s charm and against regulations, allowed us to bring our guitars to his room. Phil and I would sing and play for him and this cheered him up. When his jaw healed enough, the doctors unwired it and he could eat solid food and join us making music. I still play many of the songs we sang when we were young and anxious to get on with our lives

Not long after we were released from the Army, Phil and I visited Tony in Dallas, where his parents now lived. Tony was still recuperating form the accident . We stayed with his family for about a week playing music, eating his parents’ excellent food and laughing a lot. At the time I thought we would be getting together like this from time to time throughout our lives, but it didn’t happen. Phil and I left Dallas in my MG.  I dropped him off in Orange County and continued up the coast to the Northwest where I would remain for most of my life. I never saw Tony again.  We talked on the phone a few times and stayed in touch by email. 

Tony in Vietnam

Me in Vietnam
 When Tony and I went places together, people thought we were brothers.  We looked alike, but weren’t related in that way, so I denied it at the time. Now I realize they were right. Few people in life get into your heart and remain there.  Tony was one of those few. I’m going to miss you brother.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Fight At The Bag O Chicken(Part 2)

  I drove my parent's VW bug to school the day of the fight. When school let out, I met Rick in the parking lot and we drove over to the Bag O Chicken together. There was a sizeable group of kids already there. The high school was located right next to a major freeway and a steady stream of students was pouring over the walkway bridge that crossed the freeway from the edge of the school grounds. The Bag O Chicken restaurant was located across the street on the other side of the freeway. For years it had been a favorite lunch and after school hangout for students. The fried chicken and French fries were served in a brown paper bag that was instantly saturated with grease.           As soon as I stopped the car, Rick hopped out and walked right into the middle of the crowd, disappearing from view. I noticed a number of hoods, supporters of Chadwick. The talking suddenly died down. Everyone began backing up, opening an area in their center which defined the battleground, a familiar high school ritual. I worked my way into the inner ring where I could clearly watch the fight. I noticed Paul on the other side of the circle with some of our friends. I caught his eye and he gave me a subtle wave. The others didn’t look my way. They all assumed my friend Rick was going to be slaughtered.           From opposite ends of the circle as if choreographed, stepped Rick and Chadwick  into the open space. I expected some kind of verbal exchange, like Rick saying "I don't like the way your thugs talked to my girlfriend," and Chadwick saying "Oh yeah tough guy, what are you going to do about it?" and then maybe a little pushing and shoving, but none of that happened. Chadwick gave Rick an acknowledging almost friendly nod and said, "Let's go." Rick nodded, put up his fists, and crouched down into a fighting posture. Chadwick didn't look ready. He raised his hands only slightly, not forming them into fists, but intensely watched Rick. They both began to circle around each other.           My heart was beating fast and hard. I hadn't realized how big Chadwick was until now. Rick was six feet tall, strong and wiry, but Chadwick looked several inches taller. His rolled up shirt sleeves exposed thick forearms and bulging biceps.            Rick closed the gap between them, approaching Chadwick in a sideways walk and then lunged in throwing a fast left jab. Chadwick effortlessly bobbed his head back and away. They circled each other a few more times and then Rick threw two more left jabs followed by a right punch toward Chadwick's head. Chadwick stepped out of the way and caught Rick on the side of the face with a bone jarring punch. It looked like Rick had thrown his head against Chadwick's fist. I felt sick to my stomach and light- headed, but forced myself to keep watching. Rick staggered back, but quickly regained his composure. He approached Chadwick again in the exact same manner. The crowd murmured and I thought, Oh God, don't try that again, but instead Rick faked the left and then squatted down low punching Chadwick right in the stomach, causing him to double over gasping for air. Rick punched him again, a glancing blow off the side of his head. "All right Rick", I blurted out.           Rick backed off allowing Chadwick to straighten up. But now Chadwick began moving with a new level of intensity. He walked right over to Rick, allowing several of Rick's punches to bounce off, grabbed one of Rick's arms in mid-flight and pulled him into a headlock. He then proceeded to punch Rick's head over and over. Rick struggled to get free. This stirred the crowd up and my sick feeling, which had left momentarily, was back.  With much effort, Rick managed to wiggle free. but the side of his face was dripping blood.  He bobbed and circled and threw several more punches at Chadwick, but none of them landed with any force. Chadwick kept his composure, waiting for his opportunity and then landed another bone thumping punch to the same side of Rick's head. Rick staggered and fell, dazed and disoriented.      Chadwick stood over him, with his fists poised ready to knock Rick back down if he tried to get up.  No one would have blamed Rick for staying down. It was obvious to everyone that Chadwick out matched him. But Rick shook his head and struggled to get back on his feet. Several guys in the crowd encouraged Rick to stay down and we all braced ourselves for the final blow, but a police siren broke the suspense.            The police car pulled into the Bag O Chicken parking lot and the crowd scattered. Chadwick and his guys began walking quickly toward the footbridge and back onto the safety of school property. The air was filled with the sound of crunching gravel, screeching tires and roaring engines. In a matter of seconds there was no one around except Rick and me. Rick was still on one knee, too stunned to get up from where Chadwick had left him.           The cops remained sitting in the squad car and watched the crowd disperse. I walked over to Rick, helped him to his feet, and we slowly made our way to my VW. As I drove out of the parking lot and onto the street, in the rear view mirror I saw the cop car pull out and head back toward town. This was routine for them, but we all knew that the officers took notice of who was there and especially who was fighting.         We went to Rick's house where we could assess the damage. He had a swollen eye and a bad cut on the side of his head by his ear. I found some iodine in the bathroom medicine chest and Rick began dabbing the cut behind his ear. I was embarrassed that Rick got beat up in front of our fellow students.      "That Chadwick is one hell of a fighter." I said trying to ease Rick's emotional pain.      "Yeah, he's tough all right." "What if his guys start to harass Cathy again?" "I guess I'd just have to fight him again."      I thought, Are you totally nuts? but said, "Man, I hope that doesn't happen."  I certainly didn't want to go through that again.          Then Rick stopped dabbing his head, looked right at me and said, "Thanks, dude, for sticking by me."      "No problem." I replied and with that the whole incident made sense. I remembered when I felt like quitting wrestling because I was losing every match and my dad telling me, "Sometimes it's not about winning or losing or what other people think".        Rick threw the iodine soaked gauze into the trash can and said, "I think I'll go lie down for a while. Maybe after school tomorrow we can hang out and listen to music."      "Sounds good, I'll see you tomorrow" and I left.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Fight at the Bag O Chicken(Part 1)

In 1964 I transferred from a small private school to a huge public school in the St. Louis suburbs. McClure High School had over 3,000 students in grades ten through twelve. My childhood friend, Paul, was quite popular at the school, which helped me make friends easily. The public school had all types of students. We didn’t divide up into as many categories as the students do today, but one category of kids we called Hoods or Greasers. They hung out and supported each other similar to the gangs of today. They didn’t participate in school clubs or functions and dressed like the cast from a James Dean movie. I learned early not to mess with the Hoods because most were experienced fighters. I had never been in a fight, but my new friend Rick had.
One fall afternoon, when I was washing my parents’ car, a Studebaker Lark came screaming up the street, swerved over toward my house and came to an abrupt halt at the end of the driveway where I stood, chamois in hand.
"Hey Dude, my name's Rick. My family just moved in up the street."
The driver was thin and handsome with curly brown hair. He sat hunched over the steering wheel of the boxy little car as if daring the world to challenge him to something. He invited me to come over to his house and listen to music. I accepted and soon discovered that we were both passionate about the same music, especially the Rolling Stones.
Rick and I began riding the bus together to and from school every day. One afternoon after the final bell, I got to the bus early and was sitting waiting for Rick when I noticed a small crowd of students standing in a circle outside the classroom building. This usually meant a fight, so I got off the bus to see what was going on. In the center of the circle was one of my friends, Doug, arguing with a Greaser whom I didn’t know. The argument grew louder and the Greaser pushed Doug so hard that he stumbled backward and fell, his school books scattering on the ground. Before Doug had a chance to get up, into the circle stepped Rick. He reached down and helped Doug to his feet, then walked right up to the Greaser and said, “You want to fight somebody?”
The greaser backed up, “Hey man, this is between me and him and has nothing to do with you.”
Rick didn’t say anything more but just stood there between the Greaser and Doug. It was obvious, he wasn’t about to move out of the way. Then a big strong looking guy entered the circle. His name was Dave Chadwick and everyone knew he was the head Greaser. Chadwick put his hand on his friend’s shoulder, whispered something in his ear and they both turned around to leave. But before exiting the circle, Chadwick turned back and gave Rick an intense look. The whole thing was over in a matter of minutes. All the students dispersed and climbed into the yellow buses lined up on the roadway.When Rick slid into the seat beside me, I asked him why he got involved.
“That guy’s a jerk. He’s always asking for trouble and besides I know Doug is a friend of yours.”
We sat quietly on the bus ride home. I felt guilty.  It didn’t even occur to me to step in and defend Doug. If I would have, that Greaser would have beat the crap out of me and then finished off Doug.
My friends thought Rick was a Greaser and the Greasers thought he was one of us, but he was neither. Rick didn’t fit into any category and he didn’t seem to care what any of them thought. He was dating a girl named Cathy who was definitely from the Greaser side. She wore a lot of makeup and her skirts were slightly shorter than the rules allowed. Rumor was that Cathy used to date Chadwick and was only going out with Rick to make Chadwick jealous. I asked Rick about that and he said, “People like to talk.”
On Saturday Rick and I were at his house listening to music, he told me that Cathy had been harassed by some of Chadwick’s guys. They called her a slut and a traitor for dating Rick.
“I’m going to have to fight Chadwick,” he said.
“What are you nuts? Chadwick is the toughest guy at school.” I tried to dissuade him, but he didn’t respond. He stood up, went over the telephone and called Chadwick’s number. I heard him say, “Be sure to tell him to meet me by the Bag O Chicken tomorrow after school.”
By lunch break the next day news of the fight had spread all over school. Some of my friends made comments like "So your buddy's finally decided to commit suicide huh?" or "Which hospital are you going to take your friend to." Even kids I didn't know made negative comments to me in the hall. Paul knew Chadwick pretty well and liked him. Their lockers were right next to each other. Paul never talked badly to me about Rick. He knew he was my friend and respected that. But at lunch he told me in private. "You know Chadwick is going to annihilate Rick."
"Well don't be so sure about that." I said defensively.
Paul thought it was foolish and unnecessary for Rick to challenge him in the first place and I kind of agreed with him.
I was worried for the rest of the school day. Everyone was talking about the fight. I stopped Rick in the hall and asked him if he was still going through with it. He said he was. I tried to convince him that it wasn’t too late to pull out, but we both knew it was. I resigned myself to the inevitable. After school I’ll drive Rick over to the Bag O Chicken and hope for the best.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Passionate About Pole Vaulting

I haven’t been passionate about too many things in my life, but when I was in high school, I developed a passion for pole vaulting. I thought it was the most beautiful sport. It took both strength and finesse. In the spring of our freshman year, my friend Jim and I decided to show up after school for track practice and try out for pole vaulting. To our surprise the coach said there wasn’t anyone else interested in it, so we were shoe-ins.
Both Jim and I were “day-students” at Principia, a private Christian Science school in St. Louis. Most of the students were from other parts of the country and boarded in dormitories at the school. With few exceptions, day students were not considered as “cool” as boarders. My sister Karen was one of the exceptions. She was athletic and played on many of the girls’ sports teams. When she was a senior and I was a freshman, she was a cheerleader. I became known as “Karen’s little brother”, which to me was not a bad thing. At the time I hoped that some coolness went along with the title, but I had my doubts. I weighed 89 pounds was skinny and had big ears. Jim was big and strong, had short blond hair, and played the banjo. He and his friend Dick performed bluegrass at some of our school functions. Jim turned me on to bluegrass, especially the music of Flatt and Scrugs. He didn’t seem to care whether anyone thought he was cool or not. I admired him for that but still wanted to be cool. On one end of the track field was a sawdust pit surrounded by hay bales with an asphalt runway leading up to it. The school supplied Jim and me with aluminum poles. Mine was red and silver and Jim’s was all silver. These poles had absolutely no flexibility. That first season we spent practicing running down the runway, jabbing the pole into a wedge-shaped box and just prior to becoming airborne, hoping our arms didn’t rip out of their sockets. We pulled and wrestled our way up and over the bar, not really knowing what we were doing. We had fun learning by trial and error. We were thrilled to clear the bar set at six or seven feet. During one afternoon practice I landed on a sharp piece of wood in the pit. It poked through my tennis shoe and into my foot. The next day I noticed a red line running up the side of my leg. Instead of taking me to our doctor, my parents decided to use a Christian Science Practitioner. I was skeptical and I think my parents, being new to this religion, were as well. The practitioner was a friendly old lady. Sitting across from me in her living room, she read out loud passages from the Bible and Science and Health. She told me I couldn’t be hurt or injured because God is perfect and I was God’s perfect spiritual reflection. I wanted to tell her “but my foot hurts like hell” but didn’t. The whole time I was thinking, I wish they would have taken me to the doctor. The next morning when I woke up and looked at my leg the red line had vanished and the red inflamed puncture wound was now a barely perceptible hole in my foot. I touched it. No more pain. Maybe that little old lady knew what she was doing. I was able to return and finish out the track season. Sophomore year everything changed. The sawdust pit had been replaced with big chunks of foam rubber. An older boy named Pete helped to coach Jim and me several times a week. He pole vaulted at Principia College and was knowledgeable about the sport. He brought his own fiber glass pole and wore special shoes with spikes on the front. Pete taught us the techniques of the sport, like when running down the runway, lift your knees high and build up as much speed up as possible, hold the pole close to your side and swing your elbow back and forth in the rhythm of your steps, before planting the pole in the box, lift it straight over you head. Pete was patient and supportive and his techniques helped immensely. Coach asked Jim and me if we would purchase our own fiber glass poles and spikes. We both enthusiastically said we would. We felt like we were entering the big leagues. With Pete coaching us, we didn’t just practice vaulting over and over like the year before. We ran laps with the long distance guys and did wind sprints with the sprinters. We climbed up and down the rope in the gym without using our legs and jumped on the trampoline to practice twisting and landing on our backs. We lifted weights to strengthen our upper bodies. When we finally got our fiber glass poles, we meticulously wrapped grip tape around the area where our hands would hold. We rubbed our hands with some sort of white powder before each jump so they wouldn’t slip. Vaulting with the new poles was tricky. It was all about timing your jump with the bending of the pole. Pete told us to lay back and ride the pole, allowing it to complete its bend before flinging our bodies up into the air. Jim got the hang of it before I did. I was being flung all over the place, but soon learned to let the pole shoot me up and not out. By the end of our sophomore year, Jim was clearing 10’ 6” consistently and I was clearing 9 and sometimes 9’6”. We often placed first and second at track meets with other schools. Junior year a guy named Bruce showed up for practice with a fiber glass pole. He was tall, muscular and good looking. He said he’d never pole vaulted before, but thought it might be fun. Pete was no longer there to help us, so Jim and I tried to impart some of his knowledge to Bruce, but Bruce said he wanted to do it his own way. I was now vaulting over 10’ and in only a few weeks of practice Bruce passed me by and was vaulting 10’6”. Jim was closing in on 12’ at that time. At the track meets, Jim usually got first place, Bruce got second and sometimes I got third. Bruce thought I was a loser and one day he told me so. He dated the cutest girls in school and I was still afraid to ask a girl out. He was friends with the coolest kids and I had only one school friend, Jim, whom I think Bruce thought was a loser too. Jim could have beaten the crap out of Bruce and I secretly wanted him to, but Jim had no intention of doing this and didn’t seem to care what Bruce thought. Bruce never did vault higher than Jim who by the end of our junior year was clearing 13’. He won match after match. Bruce cleared twelve feet a few times and I made it over 11’ once. I changed schools for my senior year and started attending McClure High School, which was the local public school. I loved my new school and the friends I made there, but wasn’t allowed to participate in team sports because I was a new transfer. My pole vaulting career was over. Jim went on to improve in his senior year and Bruce dropped out. I think he lost interest or maybe he was frustrated because he could never beat Jim. Thinking back on those times, I remember how much I loved pole vaulting with my friend Jim and what an asshole Bruce was.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Content in the Basement

When I was six, my family moved to a house in Ferguson, Missouri about 20 miles north of St. Louis. It was closer to where my dad worked as a machinist at a match factory. The new house, a one story red brick rambler, was slightly larger than the previous one. My older sister Karen and I were excited, we would each have our own bedroom. House on Moundale Every house in the neighborhood had a basement, the family’s refuge from tornadoes, oppressive summer humidity and nuclear bombs, an important consideration in the 1950s. Our basement had a “fixed up” side and a “dirty side”. In the “fixed up’ side was a large recreation room, a smaller area next to the descending staircase and a bathroom with a sink and toilet. The floor was cream colored linoleum and the walls some sort of wood with deep grooves. At the far end of the rec room was a large toy box, but I don’t remember ever putting any toys in there. The smaller area next to the descending staircase was set up as an alternate TV room. In the summers dad would haul the cabinet TV from the living room down the stairs. Mom furnished the room with an old wood framed couch and matching chair with flower print overstuffed cushions. A large circular braided rug covered the floor and a coffee table sat in front of the couch. The family could escape to the cool damp basement on oppressive muggy mid-west nights to watch TV. I was allowed to decorate the walls of this room with my brightly colored State Pennants, souvenirs from our summer vacation travels. I thought my pennant collection added brightness and color to the otherwise dark room. When my parents bought a second TV, a portable one, they put it in the basement permanently. On Saturday mornings, I looked forward to getting up early and slipping downstairs to watch the morning children’s shows. I don’t remember the exact line up, but I do recall some of the shows, Howdy Doody, The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Sky King, Fury and The Andy Devine Show. Sometimes I watched a Tarzan movie starring Johnny Weissmuller. When my friend, Paul, came over to spend the night, we would often retreat to the basement, pull the cushions off the furniture and beat each other half to death with them. Laughing the whole time, we had to force ourselves to take breaks in order to insure that neither of us would pass out from exhaustion. The cushion off the chair had a piece of plywood sewn in the bottom and it became, for one of us, a secret deadly weapon. That baby could do some serious damage. The “dirty side” of the basement had the washer and dryer on one end and dad’s workbench and table saw on the other. There were certain activities restricted to the dirty side, such as any sort of shooting activity. When I was about eight, I acquired a pump action BB rifle and a Colt 45 cartridge powered pistol with an authentic western holster. It’s a wonder I never shot my eye out. I practiced my quick draw, standing, running, jumping and tumbling, attempting to shoot my plastic army figures off of dad’s workbench where I had carefully lined them up. The BBs ricocheted off the floor and walls in a matrix pattern eventually rolling into the corners of the basement or becoming embedded in the overhead floor joists and support beams. My dad was an artist in his spare time and his “art studio” for some reason was relegated to the “dirty side” of the basement as well. He didn’t seem to mind though. He set up a desk and easel and surrounded himself with his most recent paintings. He spent hours down there in the evenings after work, painting, whistling and smoking his pipe. As a young teenager I decided that maybe the girls would notice me if I built up my scrawny physique. So dad put up a chinning bar across from his art studio and I bought a set of weights. I enjoyed the activity of lifting weights in the basement listening to the local rock ‘n’ roll radio station. After several weeks of pumping iron, I felt I was making real progress. Checking myself out in the mirror, I was certain I was looking quite muscular, but I needed to be sure, so I called up the stairs to Dad who was sitting at the kitchen table, “Dad, do you have a picture of me when I was skinny?” His immediate reply was “No, but I’ll take one.” He was quite the card. When Paul and I returned to Ferguson in our 60s to see how it had changed, to my surprise the people who currently lived in the house let us come in and look around. The elderly man took us down into the basement and showed us how they had fixed it up. It didn’t look the same. There was no more “fixed up side” and “dirty side”. It was now all just a “fixed-up side” and looked like a Las Vegas lounge. The walls were covered over with cheap paneling. A pool table sat in the center of the room with an imitation tiffany lamp hanging over it. There was no trace of Dad’s art studio, the ceiling was covered with those acoustic panels and no signs of Dad’s workbench or my chinning bar. There was no TV room and no colorful pennants on the wall. We lied and told him how nice we thought it looked. True to our Midwest heritage, we didn’t want to hurt his feelings. When the basement tour was over and we began to ascend the stairs, a slight glint of light caught my eye. I stopped and looked more closely. There lodged in the wood beam of the stairwell was a copper BB. A mixed feeling of joy and sadness came over me. Somehow this BB had managed to travel all the way from the “dirty side” to the “fixed-up” side. I’m glad my mom never saw it.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Floating Hotel

The saying “the journey is the destination” is doubly true when traveling on a large cruise ship. You’re floating around in a giant luxury hotel, spending way more time on the ship doing ship stuff, than on land doing tourist stuff. On our recent one week Alaskan cruise, I figure we were on land for about 8 hours and floating around for the other 160. If you have extra money to spend, which we didn’t, you can maximize your time off the ship by taking various sea, air or land excursions. Upon returning to the ship after a day of wandering around the local town, we often overheard passengers talking about the amazing times they had flying over glaciers or kayaking in the midst of a bunch of whales. We weren’t envious though, for we were very happy with our more relaxed and simpler style of cruising.

One can participate in all sorts of activities aboard ship like arts & crafts, trivia games, computer and dance classes. There are even more activities if you pay extra such as having someone massage and beautify all your various body parts. There were wine tasting parties and art auctions (the cheap motel artwork was not my taste) and jewelry sales. In fact there was so much going I can’t tell you all of it nor can I remember much of it. My wife, sister and I participated in very little. We did arrange for my sister Karen to have her feet massaged for a birthday present. She said the experience was extremely relaxing and her feet did look happy and silky smooth.
The primary activity we participated in that didn’t cost extra money was eating. There were tons of food available at just about any time of the day. On deck number nine, the “Lido Deck”, was a food court, similar to the ones in the mall. 

Everything was prepared on ship and served cafeteria style. You could eat as much of anything as you wanted. There were so many choices, one could easily became frozen in indecision. For breakfast I got into a rut. Three days straight I ate French toast, scrambled eggs and potatoes. It tasted so good the first time, I felt I had to stick with it. On day four I discovered a guy making killer eggs Benedict and next to the salad bar, fresh croissants. I stayed with that combination for several days. My sister feared I wasn’t getting enough vegetables, so each morning she brought me a V-8 juice to add to my morning fare. In addition to the Lido Deck which served Italian, Mexican, Asian and American food with an ever present salad bar and desert/pasty counter, there was the dining room, which also served almost three meals a day. The dining room had a dress code called “smart casual”. For men it meant no jeans, shorts, tee-shirts or caps. For women, slacks or skirt with a blouse or a dress of some kind. We noticed right away this rule was not enforced. We let the staff know it was my sister’s birthday and the wait staff came to our dining table and presented her with a small cake and sang an Indonesian birthday song.  On two evenings it was dress up night in the dining room. It was like a prom for old people. The women wore formal gowns and the men suits or sport jackets and ties. I had to wear a tie everyday at my private high school, so to me dressing up is not fun. Just prior to going up to eat on the Lido on those nights dressed in our not so smart casual outfits, we sat outside the dining room and watched the dressed up people parade by. Some of them cleaned up pretty well, but far too many looked like tired old out of shape bodies draped in fancy clothes. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves though, hum-bug. Each evening offered a variety of entertainment. 

We watched a couple movies in the small theater and attended three of the shows at the main stage in the bow of the ship. These were musical variety shows with a live band, dancers and singers. For the most part, the performers were quite good. There were four lead singers, two men and two women. One of the men was short and stocky and had a great voice, the other man’s voice was weak but he looked good in all the costumes. One of the women could sing well, but the timbre of her voice was high pitched and irritating. The other woman could almost sing well. She sang all the big numbers “The Wind Beneath My Wings” and “Over the Rainbow” and other Julie Andrews type songs. She was attractive, wore beautiful gowns, but had trouble zeroing in on the big notes. It made me very squirmy in my seat and Katie tried to leave during one of her numbers, but I persuaded her to sit back down and suffer through it. At all the official functions and galas on ship, one of the ship’s staff would parade out a little old white haired lady and introduce her to the audience. I forgot her name, but we were told she had been aboard ship for over 6,000 days. That’s over 16 years. Can you imagine being on board a cruise ship for that long? I don’t know why she doesn’t weigh over 500 pounds, but she was small and thin. We wondered what her story was. There were many musical venues aboard ship, a jazz band, a rock band and classical musicians. Usually they started playing around 9 or 10, just when we were feeling like turning in for the evening, tired from all the intense wandering around and eating. Katie and I popped into the piano bar one night to have a listen. The piano man was sitting behind a grand piano surrounded by a bar where 6 or 7 people sat facing him on bar stools drinking and shouting out requests as soon as he finished a number. He was a fairly good musician in a sleazy sort of way. I couldn’t help thinking of Bill Murray’s version of a lounge singer from Saturday Night Live. We didn’t stay too long. Most of the ship’s staff were either from the Philippines or Indonesia. They were gracious, helpful and diligent workers.  They straightened and cleaned our rooms several times a day and when we returned to the room each evening, we were greeted by a cute little animal made out of towels. The passengers seemed to appreciate the staff, but I witnessed a few who were rude to them and behaved in a demanding way. The workers involved took the obnoxious behavior in stride and remained friendly. I don’t know how they did it, but I admired them for it. I wouldn’t have been able to remain nice and friendly to these entitled assholes. If you want an easy way to travel to and witness the beauty of Alaska, I would recommend a cruise. You need to start training weeks in advance though. I recommend going to all you can eat buffets to start stretching out your stomach.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Alaskan Cruise

For her 70th birthday, my sister graciously invited my wife and me to accompany her on a week long cruise to Alaska. Ten years ago for her 60th, we hiked down into the Grand Canyon and spent several nights in a rustic motel run by local Native Americans whose ancestors lived in the area for centuries. It was a memorable experience, the highlight being swimming in the aqua blue pool directly under Havasu Falls. I can’t wait to see what she will conjure up for her 80th birthday. I’m hoping that in ten years wheel chairs or walkers won’t have to be part of the adventure.

I never thought I was the cruise type of person. In fact I still don’t. I’m not interested in the on- board planned activities or purchasing items from the shops like the cheesy art work or over priced glitzy jewelry. I don’t gamble or drink much alcohol and I don’t enjoy making small talk with a bunch of people I don’t know. But I discovered that being stuck on a ship with complete room service, very friendly and efficient service people attending to my every need and delicious and varied food available at almost every hour of the day, wasn’t so bad.

I found numerous quiet places on the ship to sit and read and watch the beautiful scenery pass by and I was able to work out every day. The exercise machines In the ship’s fitness center face huge windows looking over the bow of the ship. On the promenade deck, you can walk or run around the entire perimeter of the ship. Also, there is an outside basketball court that is rarely used and perfect for practicing Tai Chi and Kung Fu.
This was my second cruise. The first one was to Mexico. I discovered then that I liked being on a ship out on the open sea. In October of 1967, I sailed on a Merchant Marine Ship with my Army unit to Vietnam. I remember gazing out over the beautiful, expansive Pacific Ocean and thinking, I would love to be doing this under different circumstances. On our cruise to Alaska, we had stops in Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and a briefly in Victoria, BC before returning to Seattle. The Inside Passage was stunningly beautiful. Prior to our first scheduled stop in Juneau, the ship sailed into Tracy Arm to view Sawyer Glacier. As we slowly wound our way through the sheer rock cliffs of the fjord, passing large chunks of crystal blue ice, hundreds of passengers, including the three of us, scurried around the ship from one side to the other and from the lower to upper decks, in an attempt to get a better view. 
We crowded around on the bow of the ship in the cold, drizzly air trying to see everything that passed by. It took hours for the ship to reach the glacier and when it did we were exhausted from standing in the cold and running around. The Captain held the ship in front of the glacier for such a long time, that looking at it became boring. The ship slowly turned around n place before heading out of Tracy Arm and back to sea. 

As we trudged back down to the cafeteria area, tired, cold and wet and ready for dinner we passed through the hot tub/pool area. In one corner was a small bar. My sister noticed that the same people that she had seen hours before starting the exhausting quest for the perfect view were still sitting there drinking. There they sat on bar stools facing out huge windows on the side of the ship. We instantly realized that sitting in one place with absolutely no physical exertion necessary, except of course getting one’s alcoholic beverage up to one’s lips, was the best possible strategy. 

The Captain skillfully maneuvered the ship through the fjords and in front of the glacier which presented a panoramic view of it all. They saw the right side of the fiord on the way in, the glacier as he turned around and the left side on the way out. Never in my life did I think I would admire people who began drinking at 10 in the morning, but there you have it. When we sailed into the Juneau harbor, three cruise ships were already docked there. These huge vessels lined up in front of the small town, completely blocked the towns people’s view of the harbor. I’m not sure what the population of Juneau is, but it probably doubled in a matter of hours when the ships sailed in. The souvenir shops that faced the docks were already teeming with tourists eagerly purchasing Alaskan jewelry, tee shirts and trinkets. The cruise industry must significantly boost the local economy, but at what cost. The quaintness and charm of these small Island towns is almost totally lost because of it. 
Of the three Alaskan towns we visited, Sitka was the most beautiful. Small islands dot the waters surrounding it and the town is configured in such a way, that the tourist shops can’t dominate the waterfront like Ketchikan and Juneau. 
The ship docked in the harbor and passengers were shuttled to shore in tenders. I expected to see more Russian architecture. It seems that the Russian Orthodox Church was the only building from that period. The Russians took possession of Alaska by force from local Native American tribes. At the time they were interested in harvesting sea otter pelts. They killed thousands and thousands of these cute little guys and traded the pelts to China for tea. After feeling the soft silky pelts I can understand why the Chinese wanted to wear them. The Chinese had a way of turning tea leaves into hard blocks which preserved it longer than in leaf form. At the time the Russian people were into drinking a lot of tea. When the political and economic atmosphere changed, the Russians unloaded Alaska to the US for a ridiculously small sum of money. Seward OK’d the purchase and at the time it was thought of as a foolish investment and referred to as “Seward’s Folly”. (To be continued, next blog)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fat Robin Farm

This blog entry was written by my grandson, Owen, who visited Katie and me while we were staying in Sequim, Wa. at the home of our friend, Sally.

I’m here at the Fat Robin Farm with my grandparents. I came from Edmonds on the Kingston ferry, and from there, my grandparents drove me to Sequim. 

I’m staying at their friend Sally’s house, which has a huge back yard, complete with a cherry tree, a few raspberry bushes, and black berry brambles, around the edges. 
Sally’s house is divided into two sections by an art studio. Sally lives on one side and we live on the other side. We keep the door of the art studio closed because Sally has three cats and I’m allergic to cat dander. My favorite of the three cats is Meow. 
She’s the boldest, so she doesn’t run away from me. She’s a grey cat with dark grey stripes. She really likes me and will come slowly after I call her. She also really likes to roll around on the grass, which makes her really dirty. Her owner, Angie, is in Seattle. Angie is Sally’s daughter, and she is going to get Meow and take her to Seattle within the next year. Meow was next to the driveway when I came here, and she let me pet her.

George is a nervous kitty. He runs away from me whenever I come within three feet of him. 
He’s dark brown with black stripes, and pretty big, not like Meow. He lies on Sally’s bed all day, but he can run really fast when he wants to. His owner is Sally. George really likes Grandpa and will come if Grandpa calls him. I first met George when I went exploring the house.

The last cat is a Tonkinese named Blue.
 Blue has a dark tail, face, ears, and a brown back, but he’s white everywhere else. Blue likes me enough, but he hides anyway and scratched me after I rubbed his tummy too long. Blue is the largest of all three cats. Blue really likes Grandpa too. I first met Blue when Grandpa called him.
Sally is super, super nice. She waves to me whenever I see her. She includes me in conversations. She lets us use her enormous wide screen TV whenever we want to. She tries to get her cats to like me. She lets me roam around her house whenever she’s awake or not home. She lets five people share her house with her all at the same time. She is AWESOME!

On my third day here, we went to Grandma and Grandpa’s friend Pamela’s house for dinner. She gave us some of the best 
Mac’n’cheese I’ve ever had. It had mushrooms, smoked mozzarella cheese, stilton cheese, possibly some other cheese that I forget, with vegetable rotini. 
Pamela is a GREAT artist, and she even did a painting of my grandma which will be part of Pamela’s one-woman show at the Sequim Museum and Art Center. She was really nice too and gave me a bunch of lemonade!

On my fourth day, Grandma’s friend Ann came over. Ann is super nice too. She goes walking with Grandma every day! 
She and Sally come over and eat with us sometimes. The Lavender Festival is going on right now, and Grandma, Sally, and Ann went to two or three farms together and ate lunch out, while Grandpa and I went out to Subway. It was fun because I got a bag of Doritos with my sandwich and then we went to Starbucks for a Cheesecake Brownie.
While we were talking to Ann shortly after she arrived, a deer came really close to the apple tree in the backyard to eat the apples.
Today, we all went to the Lavender Festival. Grandma and I made
lavender wands and I made a sachet. Both are pretty and smell strongly of lavender. I had a very good time, but I almost froze my toes off.
I’m going home tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to swinging on my swing. My brother has been at a backpacking camp, but he’ll be home when I get back. I’ve had a great time at the Fat Robin Farm.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The 21st Annual Greenwood Car Show

Advertised as “a mile and a half of classic rides,” the Greenwood Car Show is the largest one-day classic car show in the state of Washington. Hundreds of cars are lined up on both sides of Greenwood Avenue, the main street in Greenwood, a neighborhood in north central Seattle. This is the third time I’ve attended with my friends, Jim and Nick. It has become somewhat of a tradition for us, if three times makes a tradition. It’s only a ten-minute walk from my sister Karen’s house where Katie and I were staying. Nick showed up early in his Mini Cooper on the Saturday morning of the show. We walked together up to Greenwood, leaving in plenty of time to get to the show 1/2 an hour before the official start. We planned to meet Jim, who also lives close by, in front of the chiropractic office on Greenwood and 79th. We knew that we would still be looking at cars five or six hours from the time we started, so knowing that a chiropractor was nearby was not a bad thing. When we arrived Jim hadn’t arrived yet, but there were already plenty of people milling around. Nick commented that many of them resembled Jim. In fact, upon further inspection, they resembled Nick and me as well, a bunch of older white guys in t-shirts, jeans and baseball caps. The demographics did change somewhat as the day progressed, to include non-whites, younger folks, women and families. Did I mention that the guys who owned the cars also looked remarkably like us as well?
The number of restored minis seems to get bigger every year. Comparing Nick’s modern retro Mini to these older ones, is like comparing a Pit Bull to a Chihuahua
Seeing all these restored cars in one place is close to a religious experience--happiness, gratefulness and awe. And the car owners are the high priests who openly share the secrets of their cars with the masses. The three of us tended to get most excited about the cars we grew up liking. Even though many of the older cars of the 30s and 40s demonstrate superior craftsmanship and a refined elegance, it’s the cars of the 50s and 60s that really turned us on and as usual there was an abundance of them. 
My family had a 1955 Mercury, light blue with a dark blue roof. This 54 was a beauty and well restored.

Jim is probably telling this woman how good she would look behind the wheel of this Chevy Bel Air.
 Jim is an authority and connoisseur of classic cars. He has loved cars his entire life and knows subtle things about them that sometimes the owners don’t even know. For Nick and me, attending the show with Jim is like having our own personal tour guide. He misses few opportunities to question an owner about a car he’s particularly interested in and they are always happy to share their knowledge.
In the late 50s and early 60s cars had huge rear ends.
And the designers’ imaginations went wild. This Cadillac looks like it’s ready for take-off. But you’ve got to love ‘em.
The three of us agreed that this Studebaker was one of sweetest cars of the show. Studebakers were unlike any other cars of their time.
Every year we each pick our personal favorite car of the show. The cars we choose are never the older classics or even the best restoration jobs, but the ones we would most like to immediately climb into and drive away. Nick and Jim are both passionate about Thunderbirds, so I wasn’t surprised when each chose a T-Bird as their favorite.

This ‘57 T-Bird that Nick chose was actually up for sale for a measly $70,000. We didn’t have to try to convince him that he’d look good behind the wheel. But for that price, he was concerned that he couldn’t convince his wife, Suzanne.
I couldn’t get a good shot of Jim’s favorite car because of all the people getting in the way, but I did manage to get a piece of it.
Jim mentioned that back in the day, you were either a Ford guy or a Chevy guy and never the twain shall meet. For some of the formative years of my life, my dad only bought Chevys, so I was a Chevy guy. My choice of the show was this red 1962 Corvette. In the early 60s TV show, Route 66, Buzz and Todd drove around in one of these.  Damn, I’d really look good behind the wheel of this one. 

The paint job on this car was luscious. 

Nick spent an inordinate amount of time lurking around this little 195? Aston Martin DB Mark III.

On family vacations, the kids could really bounce around in the back seat of this 1952 Buick Eight, Super Woody Estate.
The three of us agreed that the cars that are restored to their original state are the ones we love most. There were many examples at this year’s show.
By mid-afternoon, the 22-block show was so over-crowded with people, it became a challenge to even get close to the cars. When we still had 4 or 5 blocks to go, we ran out of steam and decided to bail. Maybe next year we can begin training a few weeks in advance in order to complete it. but the show keeps getting bigger and we keep getting older.